Tudor Times…a historical choice

One of my favourite types of novels when I was (much) younger was historical novels. Jean Plaidy and the crew were the best, not noted for their precise accuracy on facts but enjoyable atmospheric reads. I used to particularly like the dynasties which went through lots of generations; indeed it was the Norman series that got me through A level history. At least I was able to sort out the early Williams and Henrys.

I have commented on other historical novels in this blog. I was a bit disappointed in Phillippa Gregory’s The White Queen, but have hopes of The Red Queen which is coming to the top of my reading pile. I really enjoyed The Captive Queen by  Alison Weir and have written about it on this blog.

My latest find is more along the lines of Plaidy than Weir, in that it is a really good read but perhaps a little more imaginative with the facts. In my campaign to report on easily available books I found this new paperback, The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper.

It is not great literature, but an interesting version of the life of a real person which goes some way to explaining what happened at various stages of the lives of famous Tudors and those around them.

The Queen’s Governess is Kat Ashley, faithful carer of Elizabeth I. She is depicted in this novel as a spy for Cromwell, known and trusted by Anne Boleyn and totally dedicated to the interests of the young Elizabeth, even when arrested in the Thomas Seymour scandal and later during the reign of Mary. These facts are reasonably well known, at least to anyone who has frittered away many hours on Tudor novels. This book’s great interest is in the why of her life, her need to get away from humble roots, her infatuations and the great love of her life. This is not a long novel, and is surprisingly easy to read. There are no wordy historical digressions, no complicated family set ups or vast events, just understandable love, loyalty and human interest. There are some details in the Author’s notes which give more suggestions for reading related books. This is not a great book of academic weight, but an enjoyable, atmospheric life story. It is a relatively quick read, which keeps moving. I have not tracked down other books by this American author as yet, but would be interested to do so.

A book that Husband bought me in the National Portrait Gallery where we particularly liked the Tudor section ( I think he admired the portrait of Anne Boleyn) has just coincidentally come to the top of the pile. Elizabeth’s Woman by Tracy Borman is a factual book about the women of Elizabeth’s Court.

This book is easily available and appears to have a chapter called “The Governess”. So if you read Harper’s book and want to know the facts, this may be the book to read. Of course, you could always try the other way round…

Reading for pleasure…or prescribed?

I mentioned in my last post one of the issues with reading books, beyond the format you choose. Do we read for our own pleasure, as we feel interested in a novel or indeed non fiction book, or do we read because we feel we have to, for a book group or other reasons? I know that we often discover books when we are handed a book list, some of which we come to enjoy. And one of the benefits of going to a library is the possibility of trying out a new author or even type of book without risking any money. Of course, if you get hooked on a author or series you may end up spending a lot of money…

One of my favourite bookblogs, http://www.dovegreyreader.co.uk/ had a post yesterday about reading “on a whim”; putting aside the lists and instead reading a book that just seems interesting or enjoyable at the time. Sometimes I just get fed up of the books that I ought to read, and pick up something less challenging  or just more fun.

Which is probably why I picked up The Winter Ground by Catriona McPherson, being another Dandy Gilver mystery. For those of you who may be baffled , Dandy Gilver is an upper class bored wife and mother in the 1920s who likes to investigate mysteries, often involving murder in Scotland. I really enjoyed the last one that I read, The Burry Man’s Day, and thought that I would pick up this one in the library despite the fact that it is set around Christmas in the frozen north. (though it is rather chilly here, for August, not to mention the rain, hail, thunderstorms….)


This novel is set in a circus, and given that we had a circus skills workshop in the big tent in our garden (thanks, Northumberland libraries!) the other week, I thought that this would be a good read. It wasn’t on a list, and it isn’t particularly educational. It is a little difficult to follow, as the action is set in a  fading circus. The Spanish Influenza epidemic has damaged the local families and it is in some ways a sad book, but the central mystery is more tricky to work out than first appears.  I got very confused about the various names and nicknames, acts and equipment in the circus described, and while I’m sure she had done a lot of research, I think that some of the narrative got lost. I think that part of the problem was that some of the characters went by several names, including Russian abbreviations. While I found the other two in the series fairly straightforward, if not easy to solve, this one was unnecessarily complicated. Also some of the background is sad, even given the national sense of loss in the 1920s. I would definitely pick up another book in this series to read, not because I have to, but because these are well researched and atmospheric books with interesting mysteries a the centre of the book. Good holiday reads, even if the weather is anything but summer time.

Two series of books – both with their funny moments

You may have noticed from this blog that I am quite fond of reading series of books. I suppose there is a form of security in reading about familiar characters, often in familiar contexts. Anyone who knows the smallest thing about the Harry Potter series will soon realise that Hogwarts School is a character in its own right, and that the setting is part of the charm of the books. I suppose it rather goes to the main point of why we read what we read. Do we read the Austens, Wodehouses, Heyers (my particular vices) because they feel comfortable, safe and we know what to expect? Or are we happier to read new things, new authors in search of new ideas, characters and situations?

Which is a long winded way of saying that I have re read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Book 1)

What can anyone say about this book. The readers did grow up with this series; this book is a basically simple tale for children, with goodies and baddies, clearly drawn characters, carefully explained events. It does start the whole ball rolling, sets off lots of trails, and establishes the series brilliantly. I am half way through The Chamber of Secrets.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2)

I’m not sure that it is such a good book as the first, and it hasn’t got the relative sophistication of the later books. It does move the story on, and does have the wonderful Gilderoy Lockhart. Perhaps I could have spent the time reading a new book, but one of the joys of reading this series is spotting things that you missed in the rush to discover what happened, especially as the films either stuck closely to the books, or were forced to leave out large chunks.  At least we have many copies of these books…

The other series is nowhere near as well known, but a lot more adult. I have written about Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew Series before, and now I have read the latest to go paperback, number sixteen.

The Killer of Pilgrims is quite simply, brilliant. It is firmly set in Cambridge, features bitterly held grudges, clever tricks, the hapless Mathew being chased by a romantically inclined female and many murders. The beginning emphasises the importance in the fourteenth century of pilgrims badges to show that someone has made a challenging journey. This book also describes campball games, huge, dangerous ball games featuring large teams set on getting the ball at whatever the cost, including physical damage. A quick check on a certain online encyclopedia reveals just how dangerous a game this was, played between neighbouring parishes or similar groups, and having few if any rules. This novel makes particular use of two games to increase the levels of physical danger and tension between different groups. There is also a fearsome matriarch, a woman who “oozes” towards Matthew, as well as the college going through the usual food shortages and leaky buildings. This is just such a good episode in the series. I think that it probably stands alone as a novel,  as a medieval murder mystery, but if it is the first you read in the series, you will want to find the others.  I haven’t re read these books, partly because they are quite big, but I have kept them all, if only so I can go back and see how the series develops. Has anyone else got favourite series of books?

Gods Behaving Badly – Controversial?

One of my two book groups has chosen to read Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips which has caused a bit of controversy. One lady said she didn’t like it at all, whereas one said she was keen to get home to finish it quickly, she was enjoying it so much. And that’s before the meeting to discuss it!

Gods Behaving Badly

I first encountered this book when I bought the hardback for Daughter in a fit of generosity a few years ago. She really enjoyed it. I had a quick look at the time but didn’t get round to reading it.

I think that this a curious little book. It is very funny in some ways, with some slight digs at modern society, religion and life in general. It is also a book about death and one version of what the afterlife is like, so not a book I would have chosen. It is a bit anti Christian of necessity, but gently and thoughtfully so, as Christian faith is not really possible in a world powered by the Greek gods.

The book depicts a modern world, full of mobile phones, the London Underground, dodgy tv programmes and the general  reality of everyday life. In  large house in London live a family that have seen much better times, the original, powerful Greek gods. Apollo, indeed, keeps the sun going, between his other interests. It is probably the detail of Apollo’s sexual obsessions that caused some of the controversy. Not much is left to the imagination at some parts of the book, but it is real love that forms the central drive of the action. Alice and Neil are shy of declaring their real feelings for each other until events force some literally earth shattering decisions. You do not need a classics degree to follow this novel, but some of the jokes and comments work better if you know, for example, why pomegranates are important to Persephone. In many ways this is a light book, quick and easy to read with interesting characters and an easily understood story. It is also a book which I think is trying to say something about modern life and faith. I particularly liked Eros’ attempts to become a Christian with his interest in the life of a local church. This is a problem when you are a minor deity and your close relatives cause all nature to work. It is a very readable book, easily manageable in a short time even if all around you are demanding attention.  I liked it, and looked for more by this author but cannot find any other novels listed. Maybe this is such a one off it would be difficult to follow. I think the nearest author would be  Douglas Adams, but his books do not try to place mythical characters in such a real life setting. It is a surreal book, with some sad characters and events, and sometimes it felt as if it had been written in a hurry. It is a little basic, and it is a shame if some of its content put some people off a good novel. Copies seem to be available, so why not see what you think.

Just a quick post…from a soggy festival

Just a quick note about a book which I managed to read while minding a marquee in the pouring rain. The Festival has now finished, in a day of heavy rain and too few visitors. Oh, and thunder and lightning. Still, I did finish some books which I’ll mention here.

Today’s book is Sand in my Shoes by Joan Rice.

Sand In My Shoes: Coming of Age in the Second World War: A WAAF's Diary

It’s a jolly book in many ways, suitable to while away a (literally) rainy afternoon, but not in any way great literature.It is a diary of the war time progress of a WAAF officer. It starts in civilian life, follows her training as a photographic surveillance interpreter, and her journey on board a ship as part of a convoy. It is in the form of a diary, which is repetitive, with gaps and a frustrating lack of detail. She describes many flirtations with pilots and other officers, but does not really reveal her thoughts and feelings in anything like enough detail. It almost seems to be written in note form. I could almost wish that someone had used the material to write a proper account, or a novel, which would give the account balance. Instead I learnt more about scrounging furniture than what it was really like to experience that time as a young woman.

I enjoy reading diaries as much as anyone (probably) but this was not a brilliant example. I’m looking forward to reading a friend’s book far more: Bedpans and Bobby Socks by Barbara Fox and Gwenda Gofton.

It does seem that this account of a journey across America is much better written. I look forward to enjoying this book – hopefully in the dry…


Murder Mystery Solved! (Before I read the last bit…)

After all the excitement of my 100th post and my very first guest reviewer,(thanks MHH!) it’s back to my weird selection of books. Easy to get hold of, but a strange selection of history (fiction and non fiction) general fiction (some of it literary) and a fair bit of murder (only fictional, don’t panic) and anything else which takes my fancy…

My latest murder is one of a series. I may have mentioned the books of Catriona  McPherson before, but her second book in the Dandy Gilver Murder Mystery series has kept me occupied in the Festival which is in full swing hereabouts. So between being nice to people eager to discover local history and the details of the production of the King James Bible (400 years old this year) I’ve been solving a murder.

The mystery to be found in The Burry Man’s Day is not the toughest I’ve ever read of in a historical murder novel.


I think that this mystery is informative about the period just after the First World War, when social barriers had been challenged and women had won many more rights, even if customs in small Scottish towns lagged behind. McPherson lives in Scotland and may be more culturally aware than some other writers of historical mystery novels, despite their often impeccable research. I think that she has got the sense of life in a community just right, with the lively children, dubious drinkers, strict housewives and funeral practices. The headmaster and wife of the school are so well described that they would be in the running for the Mrs Proudie Prize (Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles)

  Cue extra picture of Alan Rickman in the Barchester Chronicles with the fearsome Mrs Proudie, role model for Clergy Spouses everywhere.

Back to McPherson. The unexpected death of a well known local character in a very public setting sets off the hunt for a possible murderer, motive and method. The extra thing about this series of novels is the genuinely funny style. The hostess of the fete is called Buttercup by the leading character, much to her new husband’s bemusement. The same hostess has lived in America, from which she has acquired habits from the famous speakeasy’s need to hide alcohol quickly as well as suspicions of gangsters. This book is far more confident than its predecessor After the Armistice Ball. Dandy now enjoys detecting and is confident in her partner, which allows her to have a more realistic crisis of conscience at the significant moment. Despite its humour, this book makes some serious points about the damage done by the War.

Unusually for me, I worked out roughly what must have caused the events in the book quite early on. Despite my record of reading many murder mysteries, I often struggle to beat the detective to murderer, motive and method. This may be because the novel does not obey the rules concerning letting the reader having all the information in good time, or maybe because I’m just not good at puzzles. This book is so good that even if you crack the mystery early on, the process, the scenery and the characters are worth following. I have also enjoyed greatly Elizabeth Peters, Carola Dunn and Laurie King  who write good historical murder mysteries, but I think that McPherson has a slight edge on style and humour. Well worth a read.