The White Queen /The Lady of the Rivers – Gregory’s Girls!

Many keen fans of the historical drama were counting down the hours last Sunday waiting for the BBC’s version of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. Well, I certainly was! I had just been at a talk about the Lindisfarne Gospels  (quite an obsession round here at the moment – blame the church festival) and there was a bit of concern that the speaker would get back to Durham in time. 

Well, it was fairly faithful to the book:

Which, having read most of Gregory’s books as they have come out I read a few years ago. I remember it being a bit difficult to follow; as Ms Gregory said at her talk in Alnwick in 2010, everyone being called Mary or Elizabeth or Margaret doesn’t help. Also, I think I know about the Tudors, but the various battles, sides and would be Kings and Queens of the Wars of the Roses (or Cousins’ War) is a little baffling. It is undoubtedly a fascinating period in British history, and the women probably did play an enormous part in motivating, enabling and caring for the men who were actually doing the fighting. I was particularly touched during  the novel at the fate of Elizabeth’s family, not just her famous sons who disappeared in the Tower, but also her other children and brothers. What comes over from the novel is a strong woman who does so much to protect and provide for her family. I believe I enjoyed the novel because of Gregory’s skill at depicting a woman in difficult or impossible circumstances, who loves greatly if ultimately tragically.

As for the tv production, well, it was very pretty, with pretty people in a family setting. So many children around in such sunny times it reminded me more of the Sound of Music…The King going off to battle seemed no worse than him popping off for his daily commute, and the mild peril of whether he would choose to remember his marriage to Elizabeth was a little worrying. The whole thing seemed to have been filmed in a sunny bit of France rather than anywhere in an ordinary British summer. In many ways it only improved when they got to court, when there was some promising skirmishing between Jacquetta and Cecily. The floors, the clothes and the interiors all looked so clean! I was so keen to see a non- Tudor drama that I will watch the next episode and indeed the whole series if possible, but let’s hope for a little more drama and a little less prettiness.

The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousins' War, #3)

I have read this week the very interesting The Lady of the Rivers, the third book in the series of Gregory’s novels on the Wars period. It actually goes back into the life of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta, who was an influential force as England descended into war. It is a book full of her trials and tribulations during a life full of supporting Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, and worrying about her gifts of foreseeing the future. I really felt that this was a love story, complete with many children. The characters felt real, the battles muddy, the deaths tragic. Despite the complexity of the power struggles, I felt that I had managed to understand the  narrative and get a sense of the reality of the people’s plight. Given the strength of the performance of Janet McTeer in the first episode, it seems a shame that I think that this book is not due to be dramatised. I think that this is a better book than the White Queen, but I may be alone in that…









Life of Pi – Yann Mantel’s memorable book

Life at the Vicarage proceeds towards the summer Festival apace. This year is the Lindisfarne Gospels as they come up as far as Durham and we have all become experts on the subject. I’m not sure if I will be dressing like an Anglo Saxon but I will be having a go at the calligraphy. I will probably be sat reading at least one book in the Marquee in the garden… for more details have a look at the church website at  which has many photos and other information about what goes on hereabouts.

Our two Bookworms meetings have been looking at Life of Pi by Yann Martel.   It was generally well received, with some interesting questions  being raised.

We were very impressed by the idea of Pi being interested in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, and the way that the flat mentioned in the first section still has the symbols of all three faiths. We had the predictable discussion about the two stories of what followed the sinking of the ship, and what each version had to say to the reader. I think we generally preferred the tiger version!

This book was an ideal bookgroup choice, as many had read it, and I read it during a day. (Mind you we did have a powercut!) While there were bits that were disturbing, essentially we found it at easy book to read, though with a fascinating narrative and some really interesting descriptions. My geography is so bad that I was unsure about where all this took place and if one or two features could be true. It is such a detailed, warmly written book that some of us really wondered if it could have happened.

This is a book of many elements, including the questions that a teenager would ask, the way he thinks and reacts given his knowledge of animals  and their behaviour. The tiger is seen as beautiful, though threatening, an intelligent being but still a wild animal. I found it a bit difficult to envisage the way the boat and raft worked, and very few of us had seen the film. Maybe I’ll get the dvd and find out how they have filmed it!

Blood and Beauty – Sarah Dunant’s book of the Borgias

This new book is an absorbing, convincing read. I know nothing about the geography and politics of medieval Italy, or even modern Italy, yet this is a book whereby such previous knowledge  is unnecessary. It is a brilliant read!

The book follows the progress, trials and tribulations of the Borgia family who lived and effectively ruled Italy in the late 1400s and early 1500s. It is a family business which is built on an impossibility; the Pope, known as Alexander, has children who he not only acknowledges but who become his power base. Cesare, the eldest, is a man of physical power and supreme strategy. He begins as a Cardinal until  the revenues and rewards of the post are insufficient for his plans, and he fulfills his promise as a military leader. He is a cruel, clever man, impatient with weakness and failure, prepared to do anything to keep his father and family in power. Lucrezia is the  much loved sister and daughter who has the wit and insight to attempt to make the best of her position as marriageable woman to cement or break political alliances. She has opportunities to love, but the man who loves her most is also the most deadly. Her survival is vital, her happiness is conditional on the greater advantage of her family. Alexander, the Pope with more love for his family, grandeur and politics than his Church, is a constant,  powerful presence in the novel whose emotions are enormous, but of consequence for so many.

Sarah Dunant, who has taken part in Radio 3 Free Thinking events at the Sage that I have attended, has achieved so much in this book. It never drags, the research seems sound (not that I’m an expert!) and the sheer narrative is terrifically engaging. The situations seem modern, the cruelty to various characters real, the characters vivid in their reality. It is a story of bad people doing some bad things in part, but it is also a story of emotional intensity in heightened circumstances.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book, and it distracted me for a couple of days from real life. The ending, as has been pointed out by others, is not complete and there is a strong hint of a sequel. It cannot come quickly enough for me, though it will necessitate cancelling all engagements for a few days…

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel – Finished at last!!!

Well, after about 3 years, I finally finished it. The prize winning Wolf Hall has taken me three attempts and at least 3 years to finish. I think that might be in real time for most of the book…

I have said it about other books, but this time I really mean it. This is a BIG book.

I actually ordered it before it came out, I was so confident I would enjoy it. So that is one reason it has taken me so long to read it, an early hardback edition takes some lugging around. I even visited Hampton Court during my marathon reading, and was sorely tempted to buy a paperback edition as I had left my copy at home. At least one bookgroup turned down the opportunity to read it as it was too heavy for some of the older members to hold (in pre paperback days at least). I think it is also a bit on the long side for a monthly book group, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?

This is an amazing, beautifully written book. Some of the scenes in it remain with me. Possibly this is a reason why you cannot read it fast; it’s like a rich chocolate cake which needs eating slowly as it is basically so complex and detailed. Admittedly, it does suffer a little from being set in a time when everyone was called Henry, Thomas, Mary or Anne. Add to this the notorious problem in this volume of Thomas Cromwell, the chief protagonist, operative and character, being referred to as “he” and many a page and paragraph needs to be read twice. The big events that this book covers, such as the ending of Henry’s marriage and the beginning of the stripping of the monasteries, do need a lot of careful thought. The downfall of Wolsey is seen as a gradual event, whereby he was stripped of his property and wealth so that Thomas and his closest companions are forced to adapt and struggle to provide for his household.

This is a book that makes the big characters of Tudor history human. Thomas makes an amazing ascent from bullied child to brilliant strategist. Wolsey is a jovial but powerful worker for King, church but mostly himself. I liked the character of Mary Boleyn, flirtatious but vulnerable, but I did get a little exasperated  with Thomas. Maybe it is because he is such an honest picture of a whole person (Oliver C’s “warts and all?) that Mantel paints him as a brilliant man, the supreme fixer of the realm, as well as someone whose priorities are a bit dubious.

This  book is populated with engaging characters, humourous asides and what seems like immense research. I did Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” at A level; I recognised so many of Thomas More’s lines that I slowed down reading the end of the novel just to see if they were direct quotes.

This is an immense novel. I did enjoy it, in the same way as I enjoyed A Suitable Boy, such a long read that the characters linger in the mind. I also got Bringing up the Bodies on the day it was published. I hope that it doesn’t take me years to read that…