History in an Hour: Henry VIII’s Wives & 1066 – Book Reviews

History in an Hour: Henry VIII’s Wivcs by Julie Wheeler
History in an Hour: 1066 by Kaye Jones
Published by HarperCollins UK

History in an Hour is a series of short ebooks and audiobooks. I would call them novellas, except there’s that thing where they are nonfiction. Each title is 40 pages or so and they serve as a quick overview to the subject at hand. Obviously scholars of the given topic are going to think they left things out (cue the guy leaving reviews at online book sites that they left out X obscure fact), but they are not meant to be the be all and end all of any topic. Also, they are slightly UK-centric, so if you’re looking at big topics like a World War, etc., you might find a bit of selection bias.

I bought a few of these when they were on sale awhile back and have been occasionally reading them between longer works. I started with Henry VIII’s Wives, as I know a fair amount about them, having read widely in fiction and nonfiction on the topic. Wheeler certainly hit all the salient points. Henry VIII’s Wives would make a wonderful crash course for someone who wanted to brush up on the basics before reading something more in depth set in the time period.

For my second History in an Hour book, I decided to go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and read 1066. I do know that 1066 is the date the William the Conqueror and the Normans conquered England, and I could probably have muttered something to you about the Battle of Hastings, but I had no idea about the why or the how. To be completely honest, I’m still a bit confused, primarily because 1066 was a much more complicated year than I knew. It makes sense now that internal strife allowed for the external conquest, but it hadn’t ever occurred to me before.  1066 does include a timeline of pertinent events in the back, which was a helpful review after having read it, although it might have helped me more had it been in the front to prime my brain for all that it was about to receive (and so I could have referred back to it more easily).

Based on these two titles, it seems that History in an Hour is at its very best as a refresher course for the basics and perhaps also as an initial foray into a topic about which you know nothing. I will definitely read more of these titles.

Source: Personal

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The Black Count by Tom Reiss – Book Review

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
Published by Crown Books, an imprint of Random House

Alexandre Dumas is the author of some of the best-known works in Western literature. What little boy doesn’t have some concept of the three musketeers? Heck, The Three Musketeers has lent its name to a candy bar, and The Counte of Monte Cristo inspired the popular tv show Revenge (which I love). Dumas did not, however, create these stories from whole cloth. Instead, his novels were at least partially based on the exploits of his beloved father Alex Dumas, a man of African decent who went from slave in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) to general in the French army during the revolution.

The novelist tried to make light of the racist insults, but they must have stung. The greatest sin of all, however, was that his father, General Alex Dumas, was forgotten. The son never managed to discover the full truth about his father, or to restore his place in the history books. But he avenged his father in another way, by creating fictional worlds where no wrongdoer goes unpunished and the good people are watched over and protected by fearless, almost superhuman heroes – heroes, that is, a lot like Alex Dumas. -p. 14-15

In The Black Count, Reiss gives a full picture of Alex’s life within the context of Alexandre’s adoration of his father and the socio-political changes undergoing France. As might be expected, Reiss has much to say about race and slavery in France and its colonial possessions. Alex Dumas had the rare opportunity to arrive in France at the height of freedom for persons of color in the years leading up to the French Revolution.

With the Revolution in 1789, the dream of equality in France suddenly seemed almost limitless. Dumas was not the only black or mixed-race Frenchman to rise up.. -p. 10-11

Revolutionary France was even more egalitarian, as is evidenced by the fact that Dumas managed to rise to the rank of general; his son would be less lucky as France would become again more hostile towards people of color under Napoleon’s reign.

In addition to shedding light on race relations in 18th century France, The Black Count is also the best account of the French Revolution I have ever read. Not only are the events of the Revolution laid out clearly and concisely, Reiss also addresses the root causes, including some I’ve never heard before. I now have a better understanding of the French Revolution, as well as Napoleon’s ascendancy than I ever have before. Best of all, Reiss kept The Black Count interesting, even when getting into the nitty gritty of battle campaigns against powers hostile to Revolutionary France.

If you have even the vaguest interest in Alexandre Dumas, the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, or the history of slavery and race relations, The Black Count is a must-read. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Edelweiss.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir – Book Review

The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

Accused of incest, adultery, witchcraft, and plotting the death of her husband the king, Anne Boleyn was the first royal woman to be put to death for crimes of this nature. What really caused her downfall, though? Was Henry VIII simply tired of her, had she become a harridan who he no longer wished to deal with? Was she actually guilty of adultery and incest? Or perhaps Anne was an innocent victim in Henry’s all-consuming quest for a legitimate male heir? In The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn, historian Alison Weir examines the evidence against Anne and those around her, and comes to a conclusion not often promoted in popular Tudor historical fiction.

Weir tells the story of Anne’s fall from beginning to end, all the way to its impact on her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Along the way she explores the evidence and counter evidence both for Anne’s alleged guilt, and for the plethora of theories that have built up around her accusal, conviction, and execution. Weir writes clearly, and ostensibly without much bias. She seems to know the Tudor period inside and out, and her arguments are convincing, based as they are on documents and Tudor-era norms.

Although packed with facts, theories, and evidence, The Lady in the Tower never becomes dull or dry. Anne’s story is a fascinating and dramatic one, and Weir lets that come through, without the drama prejudicing her arguments. This is a very well-written and informative history that has undoubtedly influenced the way I view Anne’s trial and fall. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Library.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – Book Review

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. –p. 11

One of the hardest countries to get a look inside is North Korea. Closed off since the Korean War, North Korea initially seemed to be doing better, financially than its cousin to the South. Pyongyan, the one city where visitors occasionally came, was filled with only those inhabitants who would make a good impression on outsiders, but even outside of the capital city most North Koreans believed for many years that their lives were as good or better than those of most of the world’s inhabitants. All this began to change with the famine in the 1990s, however. As people began to starve to death, they took increased risks and increasingly subverted the state that had held them captive for so long. Crossing illegally into China to work or trade for food gave many North Koreans a glimpse of what life was like in the rest of the world. It was only at this time that defections began in earnest.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick chronicles the lives of a variety of North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea. All came from different family situations in the stratified North Korean society, and all initially had varying degrees of dedication to the state, but all initially believed the propaganda they were fed. How could they not, after all? None of the outside world penetrates North Korea enough to show anything different. Plus, any resistance would mean repercussions not only on the protester his or herself, but on all other known relatives.

Demick interweaves her subject’s stories in such a way that is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Alternating stories could have made Nothing to Envy choppy, but it is done skillfully with good transitions, so that instead it serves to keep the reader’s interest and keep any of the subjects from fading into the background.

For a general overview of the day-to-day lives so North Koreans, plus fantastic background to the situation, beginning with the end of WWII, I cannot recommend Nothing to Envy highly enough.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Library.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Winter King by Thomas Penn – Audiobook Review

Winter King by Thomas Penn, narrated by Simon Vance
Published in audio by Blackstone Audio, published in print by Simon & Schuster

Synopsis:

In 1501, the War of the Roses came to an end when Henry Tudor, soon to be Henry VII, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry VII was now King of England. It was assumed he would rule through the right of his wife, Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece, but instead Henry surprised everyone by claiming to rule in his own right. When he began dating his reign to the day before the Battle of Bosworth, he suddenly gained the ability to decry – and punish – as treasonous anyone who served Richard to the end.

The Tudors are perhaps the most famous and popular dynasty in English history. Certainly, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Henry VII’s son and granddaughter, are outsized personalities who unsurprisingly draw attention to the family, but Henry VII made both to of their reigns possible. Henry VII is frequently overshadowed by both Henry VIII, and by his Yorkist predecessors, the golden Edward IV and the much-maligned Richard III. However, he is the man who is able to set such a prominent dynasty of the Tudors on the throne through, doing so by controlling England with an iron fist; from executing those who were a possible threat to his dynasty, to his shrewd negotiations over the fate of Catherine of Aragorn after the death of her husband, Henry’s oldest son Arthur.

Thoughts on the story:

In Winter King, Penn lays out the history and significance of Henry’s rule with great clarity and insight. For the first time, for example, I understood the significance of and reasons for Henry VIII’s execution of Dudley and Empson upon his ascension – a fact that is much mentioned but rarely expounded upon, beyond the fact that they were perhaps the most hated men in the kingdom. In fact, all devotees of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I’s rules would do well to read this engaging history of the founder of their dynasty, as much done by Henry VII set the stage for actions they took during their own reigns.

Thoughts on the audio production:

In The Winter King, we see Simon Vance at his best. He narrates at a good speed to keep the history moving, without going so quickly that it is difficult to keep up with the myriad of people, events, and significances. His voice is at once soothing and engaging, drawing the reader into the world of 16th century England.

Overall:

This is a fascinating and very well narrated account of Henry VII’s reign. Readers new to Tudor politics may want to stick to print, so they can go back and forth and remind themselves of who is doing what, but Vance’s narration is a superb way to experience Winter King for those with even a passing familiarity of the time. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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