The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory – the story of both Boleyn sisters and their relationships

The Other Boleyn Girl

A dated historical novel? Those readers who have read the more recent ‘Cousin’s War’ series or indeed her most recent bestseller ‘Tidelands’  may wonder why I am reviewing a much older book, but the simple answer is that it is a wonderful historical novel originally published in 2001. Written from the point of view of Mary Boleyn/Carey, a young woman who becomes the mistress of Henry VIII, mother to a least one child by him, and most famously predecessor of her sister Anne. This is an historical fiction. In some sources she was a famous mistress to others while in the court of the French king, in others she was part of a family who had other dubious ‘contact’ with Henry. In this book, despite her early marriage, she is still essentially innocent and surprised that the handsome, powerful king has looked in her direction.She is flattered and confused; her family, the Howards, push her towards where they see most political advantage. The power and influence of a woman’s family is one of the main themes of this book, another is the efforts made by Anne to ensnare the king into marriage for various motives. Whatever the truth of the various women’s experiences, this is a book which tries to explain how a woman could become a queen and yet go on to be executed in the most public way. It tells of  loyalty to a tragic queen who was rejected, and the family influence on a woman who must strive to preserve what what becomes important to her. It has romance and danger, details of life at the times through the clothes and the settings, and the behaviour of an ambitious woman and a changeable king. There is so much to enjoy in this book, as well as challenge and learn about the lives of women in a different era with some familiar difficulties. 


The book opens with Mary witnessing the execution of Duke of Buckinghamshire, hoping that at the last minute there will be a reprieve. This chilling glimpse of the future shows that the stakes are indeed high for individuals who were are some point favoured by the king. This is a young Henry, attractive, powerful and majestic, yet also open to being manipulated by those around him. As Mary unintentionally attracts his interest, she is encouraged by her ambitious family to submit to his attentions. Anne, attractive in a completely different way, becomes involved with a nobleman, but when thwarted becomes vengeful. As Mary begins to realise how she is betraying Katherine, Henry’s first queen, and when she gives birth to children, she knows she is no longer the chief object of the king’s interest. It is Anne who becomes the focus of all the attention, and she lives up to her reputation for being difficult. 


Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Henry VIII is the famous second marriage which did not produce the much wanted male heir, but instead produced one of England’s greatest monarchs. Anne’s controversial end can obscure the background story of her family, and the essential purpose of this novel is to give a voice and identity to her sister Mary. While not all the narrative is true, this novel provides an enjoyable and solid read which exposes the position of women in a society which has some overlaps with our own, and reveals a fascinating portrait of both Boleyn girls.  

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson – a Furrowed Middlebrow reprint of a cheerful book from wartime

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Dorothy Stevenson wrote many good books in the middle of the twentieth century, and this is one of the most approachable and delightful. While on the surface it is about a young woman who travels to a small Scottish village to escape the drudgery of working for impossible relatives and the bombing of London in the Second World War, it is actually a sincere look at relationships. Stevenson wrote many books in the mid twentieth century, some featuring a number of characters on a series basis. This book is a one off, but still achieves a certain lightness and insight. It combines excellent characterisations of individuals with an accurate portrayal of complex relationships in both the civilian village and the army base.  The book’s heroine, Frances Field, is a well written character as her innocent view of a new environment and the complications of new people allow the reader to explore alongside Francis in her new life. The range of characters is enormous, from the flirtatious colonel’s daughter, the small boy with a big vocabulary, and the secretive lord of the manor. The setting of the small village, seashore and countryside is wonderful, as well as the glimpses of the stricken south of England. The war in the background means that there is threat and change beneath the surface of the narrative; it is significant that this book was originally published in 1942. I am so pleased that the good people of Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press have given me the opportunity to read and review this most enjoyable book. 


The book begins with the twenty five year old Frances coming to terms with her lot as unpaid housekeeper for her selfish and demanding aunt following the death of both of her parents some years before. Her only hope is Dr.Digby, who recommends that she must have a holiday, and she accordingly heads north to a small fishing village, Cairn. She is unsure how to even get accommodation, but manages to reawaken a hotel. This is really helpful when she encounters three army wives keen to find housing near their husbands, Elise, Tommy and Tillie. Through them and their husbands she meets many more people from the army base, including the intriguing Guy.  Frances witnesses much and begins to understand the underlying stories of those on the base and in the village. For a small community there is plenty going on, and Frances has several adventures. While there is a war in the background, this is not a novel of blitz and bombing, but of the way the upheaval and movement of people changes lives. 


The general sense of this book is cheerful and hopeful, despite the timing. Much is going on amidst the seashore, hotel and small house, Sea View. This book has an exciting climax, though much of its power comes from the careful build up of characters through the novel. While Frances is seen as an innocent, she begins to see that her new life is very different from her previous invisibility in London, and she becomes involved in the lives of others. Stevenson’s eye for detail picks out the small, significant elements of the surroundings which will have some importance later. She also has a telling way with dialogue which is not only amusing but reveals much about character. I recommend this book to all fans of mid twentieth century literature for its plot, characters and setting, and overall air of optimism from a dark place.


This is only one of the many wonderful reprints of hard to get books from the mid twentieth century written by women. Available in paperback and ebook, they are generally great reads which have slipped from lists unjustly.  Some more wartime books have been recently been made available, and I recommend them (as you will see if you look at some of “their” authors I have reviewed). Why not take a look at their website, where you will find the full Dean Street range ?

Nexus by Alison Morton – a Roma Nova novella featuring Aurelia, diplomat, soldier and survivor

Nexus by Alison Morton


A thriller, set in an alternative Europe, featuring a ex-military officer determined to protect her family and friends, Nexus is a short but vivid episode in the Roma Nova series by Alison Morton. A standalone novella, this is a brilliant book which maintains a fast pace while keeping in touch with other Roma Nova stories. Aurelia Mitela has served her time in Special Forces, and can disarm a gunman with or without the help of her bodyguards. Her determination to help an old friend and desperate father is second only to her passion to protect her daughter and partner. From the flat lands of Cambridgeshire to the streets of Roma and beyond, this novel never pauses in its revelations of international crime and petty grudges. A terrifically physical book, this again contains a certain vulnerability on Aurelia’s part when not playing by the rules, but is also punctuated by her leaps of intuition when a threat is perceived. Morton’s creation of a state run by women from earliest times gives a sharp focus on the responsibilities that can be assumed when traditional expectations are overturned. While cleverly steeped in a world where Roman gods and army ranks are still common terms, the main characters are set in a 1970s Europe where London still stands but has the legation from a Roman state within its environs. As modern technology begins to emerge even if referred to by different names, this book is cleverly constructed and executed. It is an adventure that I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 


The book opens with a conversation between Aurelia and her friend Harry Carter. He is consulting her because his troubled son Tom has disappeared once more. As a widower, Harry has tried to bring up his son with every material advantage and ambition, but apart from a brief interlude when Aurela’s companion Miklos managed to gain the young man’s confidence with horses, Tom has seemed angry with his life. Aurelia is soon involved in her own offspring’s problems, as her daughter Marina is being bullied by another schoolchild. Her position is difficult as her military training and experience is unsettling in diplomatic circles, but it is not long before she must remember every survival skill she has ever learnt.


This book is an excellent episode in the Roma Nova series, fitting in between other novels and consistent in the massively able Aurelia from whose point of view this book is told. She is not a superhero, but a survivor in nearly impossible circumstances. This particular book offers an alternative view of Britain which has endured a different history; I was particularly drawn by the description of the Cambridge ara and “Oldmarket” instead of “Newmarket” and other little hints of the nature of a different European history. The importance of family, of love, is still central to this thriller- adventure, and I was instantly drawn back into the world of Aurelia and her state responsibilities. I recommend this book which is part of a series which has made room for fierce female protagonists, and it is as carefully and engagingly written  as its predecessors and no doubt successors, of which I hope there will be many!  


Having finished my dissertation, we had a great evening with some of the other students on the course, when much food was eaten and a little drink taken (not that much – several drivers present!). Here’s hoping all of our marks reflect the efforts we have put in!

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott – a significant book and the secrets of women #TheSecretsWeKept


This is the story of an undeclared state of war, and the female victims of the secrets and lies that were produced. It is the story of a book which changes lives even during the writing of it; it has the potential to change much more. Risk, excitement and the heady power of love are sharply contrasted with the fear and disturbance that a life of secrets can result in. This is the story of typists at the Agency in Washington, America, educated women who type the secrets that men create, discuss and sometimes act on. On the edge of news, adventure, they maintain their silence but also speculate. It is the story of a woman, Olga,  beloved of a man who is at once famous as a writer but also regarded as a threat. She is the muse but also the keeper of potentially explosive secrets. The story of Irina, vulnerable yet chosen to make a difference. Sally, the traffic stopping beauty with her own secrets. Secrets and the power of books to make a difference dominate this intense novel when various women are given a voice. Its intensity is increased by the vivid descriptions of clothes and settings which reflect the enormous research undertaken by the author. This is a book which stands alone in terms of subject matter, and the singular idea of using the novel Doctor Zhivago as a basis for much of the story. I was so glad to have the opportunity to read and review this book.


The book opens with a description of the lives of the typists, educated young women who have to seize their chances to compare notes on the men who run the department. Then viewpoint then changes to the words of Olga, seen as the “Muse”, the mistress of Boris Pasternak. She faces a time of great challenge because of her relationship, and the importance of a novel which is becoming significant in the last days of Stalin’s rule. She lives in a society of surveillance, and even when the pressure eases in some ways she knows the danger she still lives with. Meanwhile, Irina lives a difficult life with her mother, without a father who was a victim of the persecution that Olga would recognise. Her inner conflicts become more complex as she tackles a lifestyle and a job that throws her expectations completely out of kilter. As the chorus of typists analyse, wonder and reach conclusions, the tension increases and the stakes of a novel’s impact rises. 


This tense novel combines the nature of a thriller, a stylish plot and a literary read to great effect. The clever switches in viewpoint are so well done that an accurate picture is obtained of the secrets and motivations of many of the women. It is a complex plot well balanced and paced; the overall impression is of controlled revelation and explanation. A sophisticated read, this is a book which raises the stakes for significant historical fiction from a female point of view. The secrets that have been kept are important, and this excellent novel makes the reader appreciate the times of threat and realignment.   




The Last Landlady – An English Memoir by Laura Thompson. The grandmother and the pub


This is an English Memoir, as it states in the subtitle. No where else could a character like Violet, the last landlady of the book, exist, nowhere else could the pub exist, and nowhere else could Thompson view her youthful memories of “public houses” in such a way. This is the story, though not told in a straight narrative, rather a collection of impressions, of a woman, only truly alive on the stage of her pub, and it is also the story of a now lost institution. The pub as described in this well written memoir cannot really exist in England, or indeed Britain of the twenty first century. That may well be seen as a good thing; the smoking ban has stopped the fug of dangerous fumes from the patrons, the drink drive ban has prevented many, fortunately, testing how far they can push an alcohol tolerance. Many of the pub regulars will probably live longer as a result. Also potential pub goers have changed; they want a drink, but not necessarily of the traditional beer or spirits as before, they want food which is often the main reason for going into the building. This book recalls the atmosphere, the air of a stage which is controlled by the personality of a redoubtable woman, the feeling of being part of a quasi-religious community. The sounds, smells, the tastes of a pub in the middle of the twentieth century is vibrantly reproduced in this book which recalls a beloved grandmother through the perspective of her pub. It also gives a warm portrait of the growth and development of ale houses, taverns, inns and public houses in Britain, not only in numbers but in the reaction to them in the literature of the streets, in the novels of Patrick Hamilton and Graham Greene which aimed to describe the true nature of pub goers. This is an unusual book, warm and regretful of past glories, but also realistic in terms of how life has moved on. I am grateful for the opportunity to read and review this well written book.


The book is divided into three sections; a memoir of a grandmother, one of the first women to get a full licence of a public house in her own right, a section dealing with the differences and developments of inns, taverns and public houses through the centuries with especial concentration on the twentieth century, and an explanation of the decline of the British pub as they are closed and changed beyond recognition. Thompson is a realist; she understands that her grandmother was unique and without her and those who understood the pub trade things would change. She also understands that society has changed, with competition for people’s time and money, with changing demands for family venues with good food. She is saddened by it, and the growth of the chains which offer fixed prices for standard menus. 


This is an honest book which looks at an institution which is in the background of so many novels, television programmes and indeed people’s lives. While the “Village Pub” is a necessary construct of fictional British life, this book documents lovingly the reality of how it has changed, with the loss of characters like Violet. It is in some ways a family history, in other ways a social history, but it undoubtedly provides a moving testament to a lost institution. 

Trial by Battle by David Piper – a Wartime Classic from the Imperial War Museum


This reprinted book from 1959, part of the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series, is a vivid novel of India and Malaya in the Second World War. It also depicts some characters who deserve to be memorable: the young and thoughtful Alan Mart, and the older, melodramatic Sam Holl. Caught up in fighting which breaks all the rules of warfare, their actions and reactions in an impossible situation enlarges on their personalities as shown in their preparation for battle. This is a book which contains memories and fears, but also dated attitudes to race. Observations on the build up to battle and the alternating fear and bravery of the actual fighting show that this was a situation that the author had first hand experience of, which he has fictionalised so skilfully. Alan Mart is a character who is naive, easily confused and full of contradictions, offered opportunities and conflicted about his role and responsibilities. Acting – Captain Sam Holl is a significant character, with a tendency to alarming behaviour when drunk, a determined leader, and an effective teacher of skills such as horse riding. He will prove to be emblematic of hope and determination in the most extreme of circumstances, as well as frankly behaving badly. This is an important book which reveals much about the youth of those who fought in this war and the way that expectations were overturned. Despite tragic events, the colour, sound, taste and other sensations make this such a vivid book. It feels a privilege to have had the opportunity to read and review this book.


The book opens with Alan’s introduction to Sam Holl, following his arrival from Cadet College. Holl proves to be a huge and powerful man in every sense, revealing a firm grip and that he has been banned from drinking alcohol. Alan is given a quick picture of life in this particular section of the Indian Army, where tennis parties still take place and women are still present. Alan is confronted by the limitations of the accommodation, and comes into contact with his orderly, a youthful looking Indian boy. He feels guilty that he has a personal servant and there is a lot of description of this subservient young man. As Alan produces a letter from his girlfriend, Lettice, he is mentally returned to Cambridge and his former existence as a student there. He continues to think of her throughout the novel, and the sensations of taste and sight which he associates with his first love. He is introduced to the risky business of horse riding by the determined Holl, and is sent on a training course to use an innovative radio system. As he meets new people he is amazed at the strange realities of the army as an organisation, a feeling of frustration with the sense of misinformation and confusion inflicted on so many people. 


This is the reality of war as seen at first hand. There is confusing detail in this book of the skirmishes and small battles of jungle warever, but that is the nature of an accurate portrait. The Introduction gives details of the author’s actual war experience and his postwar achievements, drawing attention to the fact that many people did not survive to enjoy such an opportunity. This book is a tremendous achievement and deserves much attention.   


The Singing Masons – An Inspector Knollis Mystery by Francis Vivian – bee-keeping and murder!

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Bee – keeping is a complicated art. So is the detection of murder in 1950, during the last days of the Golden Age of crime writing. This elegantly written book combines information about bee – keeping in detail through the experience and explanation of Old Samuel Heatherington with the intuitive and detailed detection by Detective Inspector Gordon Knollis. Francis Vivian’s novel is at once a book of its time and a mystery which manages to be a detective story that has all the elements; a limited number of suspects, a satisfying mystery and vivid characters, each with their own motives and backstories. Set in a village which is the scene of wedding plans, a young couple’s dashed hopes and a thoroughly nasty young man, this is a steady murder mystery without gore and dramatic action, but which requires thought and careful deduction from the clues and suggestions carefully given in the narrative. While gossip and reputations become a necessary background for the careful compilation of a list of suspects, this is a time before instant communication and complicated forensic science when Shakespearean quotes are generally recognised and give a tile to this satisfying novel. One of ten books by Francis Vivian reprinted by Dean Street Press recently, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intriguing book. 


The book begins with a swarm of bees on the move, setting the tone of a novel where the reader is greatly informed as to why bees move en masse and what to do if they are seen. Old Heatherington sets off in pursuit, pausing to enlist the help of a boy who in time will be sent to phone for Phil and Georgie Maynard. As he follows the swarm into a garden with a convenient hive, Heatherington reflects on the sad losses of the young couple, when their own attempts to earn money from hives was foiled by a fire.When they arrive he is pondering the unlikely sight of a bee hive sitting in the garden of a recently deceased lady who had angrily rejected his offer of such a thing from him, insulting him with the memorable phrase “So don’t keep on at me, you – you beekeeper!”. The house and garden represent a mystery, as the nephew that was meant to benefit from the woman’s will is missing. Georgie herself is a niece who was not meant to benefit from the contrary will, as she and her husband were expected to learn independence from such deprivation. When the swarm is removed from the hive, the site of the mysterious box is debated. Why is it in this garden, in a damp spot? Do the two paving slabs placed there give a clue to a well? It is only when they are moved that the body is found, the police summoned, and eventually Knolis and his new colleague, Inspector Osiah Wilson, are set on course in this “unusual” murder. Glamour photography, a detailed knowledge of bees and the dangers they can pose, together with careful alibi investigation will take the reader along on a mystery which satisfies on many levels.


This is the first  of Vivian’s novel I have read, but I would be interested to read more by this spirited and careful writer, and therefore am very pleased that he has been chosen to have so many of his novels reprinted by the excellent Dean Street Press.