A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir – Book Review

A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

In less than a century, England saw two rulers who would be recorded in the popular history as usurpers: Richard III and Lady Jane Grey. When Jane Grey is overthrown by Queen Mary Tudor after ruling for only nine days, her younger sister Katherine Grey feels that her life has been torn asunder. Not only is she no longer the sister of the Queen and instead the sister and daughter of traitors, but her marriage to her beloved husband is annulled by his father, who no longer sees their match advantageous. Kate Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had a happy early life, but after the death of her uncle, King Edward IV, suspicion begins to invade her life as her father’s actions in regards to the kingdom and his nephews seem increasing suspect. As relatives to unsuccessful claimants to the Crown, Katherine and Kate have many parallel experiences and a shared obsession with the fate of Edward IV’s sons, the boys who would become known as the Princes in the Tower.

I have had mixed reactions to Alison Weir’s fiction, but really enjoy her nonfiction, so when I heard she had a new novel coming out I was excited check it out. I was not terribly sure about the idea of dual historical time periods going between the reign of Richard III and the reigns of the three Tudor women; it seemed likely not to flow well, or to be too contrived. As I began reading Kate and Katherine’s stories, though, I realized just how many similarities there were in the broad strokes of their stories, with the ascension and dethroning of their family members with pretensions to the throne. This was even more true as both women underwent these experiences when they were quite young and thus had to deal with the way that these events influenced their matrimonial prospects.

Early on it seems that Kate and Katherine’s shared interest in the Princes in the Tower was going to be unsatisfying and a bit of a loose thread, but a little over halfway through A Dangerous Inheritance the pieces begin to come together and this commonality between the women weaves their narratives together even more coherently than their shared status as the kin of traitors. Ultimately A Dangerous Inheritance is a captivating pair of stories with incredibly appealing and sympathetic main characters and I can definitely recommend it.

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Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
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Her Highness, the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham – Book Review

Her Highness, the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

Although he marries six times, Henry VIII has only three children who were at least arguably born in wedlock, one each by each of his first three wives. The eldest two, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, are both considered illegitimate at different times according to Henry’s whims and the laws of the land. Only his son Edward, by his third wife Jane Seymour, truly has a clear path to the throne. Unfortunately, Henry dies while Edward was still in his minority, leaving the young king to be ruled by prominent men of the kingdom, including his uncles on his mother’s side. The result is a period of upheaval, as various men succumb to the seduction of power and vastly overstep their boundaries. In the midst of this, Edward is growing increasingly radical in his Protestantism, and when he begins to get sick, he is determined that his eldest sister, the staunchly Catholic Mary, will not succeed him. As both of his sisters have been considered illegitimate at one point or another, disinheriting both of them seems the easiest and wisest course. Henry’s will ensured that if his children died without issue, the crown would go to children of his youngest sister, Mary. Luckily, Edward has an equally Protestant cousin in that branch of the family: the lady Jane Grey.

Jane Grey and Edward VI are perhaps the least written about Tudor rulers, so I am always drawn to books about them, as authors are less likely to be simply rehashing the same old thing. In this case, the only other book I’ve read about Jane Grey is Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor, which I read shortly before I started blogging and so haven’t reviewed. The Jane of Weir’s story is meek and mild, but also very against taking precedence over her cousin Mary, who she believes is the rightful queen after Edward’s death, despite her Catholicism. Higginbotham’s Jane, on the other hand, thinks very highly of herself, her own intelligence, and her religion. Frankly, she’s a bit of a brat and you sense she would be an unmitigated disaster as queen.

Thankfully, with a Jane like this, Higginbotham does not tell her story from Jane’s own point of view, which might well be insufferable. Instead, we see the events from Edward’s ascension to Mary’s through the eyes of her mother Frances Grey and her future mother-in-law Jane Dudley. In addition to saving us from some of Jane’s high opinion of herself, these women are better placed to let the reader experience more of the drama of Edward’s reign and death first hand, which makes for a more interesting and informative book than we might have had from Jane’s eyes alone.

Her Highness, the Traitor is perhaps the strongest of Higginbotham’s books thus far. It is well-edited and the story flows smoothly and quickly. It also may have the broadest appeal because, although Jane Grey and Edward VI are scarce topics as far as the Tudors go, they are still Tudors and thus more familiar to many readers than some of Higginbotham’s other subjects. Recommended.

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Source: Publisher.
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The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny – Book Review

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny
Published by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette

From the publisher:

Dr. Gabriella Mondini, a strong-willed, young Venetian woman, has followed her father in the path of medicine. She possesses a singleminded passion for the art of physick, even though, in 1590, the male-dominated establishment is reluctant to accept a woman doctor. So when her father disappears on a mysterious journey, Gabriella’s own status in the Venetian medical society is threatened. Her father has left clues–beautiful, thoughtful, sometimes torrid, and often enigmatic letters from his travels as he researches his vast encyclopedia, The Book of Diseases.

After ten years of missing his kindness, insight, and guidance, Gabriella decides to set off on a quest to find him–a daunting journey that will take her through great university cities, centers of medicine, and remote villages across Europe. Despite setbacks, wary strangers, and the menaces of the road, the young doctor bravely follows the clues to her lost father, all while taking notes on maladies and treating the ill to supplement her own work.

The Book of Madness and Cures gets off to a strong start. Gabriella is an intriguing character, being a fairly independent woman, and a doctor in a time when women were categorically not doctors. In fact, it isn’t truly her father’s disappearance that sends her off into the great unknown – although she certainly misses him – but the fact that she is told that due to his prolonged absence she will no longer be allowed to practice medicine on her own. Without her practice, there is nothing keeping Gabriella in Venice, and she begins following the path of her father’s letters. Oddly, however, she seems to follow them largely in the order the letters were received, rather than either a route that made geographic sense, or one that hit later locations first. This was frustrating as a reader, because it seemed inconsistent with her logical and intelligent character, although it served the purpose of prolonging her journey for the sake of story.

Like Gabriella’s journey through Europe and North Africa, The Book of Madness and Cures eventually turns to meandering. It did not seem that she ultimately learned anything about herself or the world on her long and often arduous journey. Because of this, The Book of Madness and Cures seems to lose its purpose part way through the book. Gabriella’s journalings on diseases are certainly interesting, but they fail to really come to anything significant and thus feel like just one more piece of the book that doesn’t really come together.

Although it starts strong, The Book of Madness and Cures fails to live up to its full potential. It is interesting, but not captivating.

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Source: Publisher.
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Sister Queens by Julia Fox – Audiobook Review

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox, narrated by Rosalyn Landor
Published in audio by Random House Audio, published in print by Ballantine Books, both imprints of Random House

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

The history books have cast Katherine of Aragon, the first queen of King Henry VIII of England, as the ultimate symbol of the Betrayed Woman, cruelly tossed aside in favor of her husband’s seductive mistress, Anne Boleyn. Katherine’s sister, Juana of Castile, wife of Philip of Burgundy and mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is portrayed as “Juana the Mad,” whose erratic behavior included keeping her beloved late husband’s coffin beside her for years. But historian Julia Fox, whose previous work painted an unprecedented portrait of Jane Boleyn, Anne’s sister, offers deeper insight in this first dual biography of Katherine and Juana, the daughters of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, whose family ties remained strong despite their separation. Looking through the lens of their Spanish origins, Fox reveals these queens as flesh-and-blood women—equipped with character, intelligence, and conviction—who are worthy historical figures in their own right.

Thoughts on the story:

Fox recounts the stories of Katherine and Juana in a clear and straightforward manner, making Sister Queens both fascinating and easy to understand. One thing I particularly appreciated was her nuanced view of Katherine of Aragon. Katherine is generally portrayed as a saint in historical fiction, a woman completely beyond reproach who would never let a falsehood cross her lips for fear of offending her God. Fox disputes this stereotype, while still acknowledging the importance of religion in Katherine’s life, and the religious implications of her fight to save her marriage and her adopted country from Henry’s break with the church and Anne Boleyn’s Protestant leanings. Juana’s story is also put forth in an interesting manner, but as less that Fox recounted shocked or surprised me I was slightly less captivated by it. Fox is not afraid to admit where the historical record is lacking enough that nothing can be said with certainty – was Juana mad? did Katherine and Arthur consummate  their marriage? – and reevaluates such questions throughout the narrative as events continue to unfold, encouraging readers to consider the entirety of the evidence, rather than simply the propaganda put forth throughout the centuries. Fox keeps the sisters’ stories moving forward, while still engaging in a good amount of historical depth, it is really very well done.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Rosalyn Landor fit this history very well, with her elegant and poised narration. For more, please see my AudioFile Magazine review.

Overall:

A fascinating history, and a well-produced audiobook. Either way you win, I think.

Buy this book from:
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Audible

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: AudioFile Magazine.
* 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 Confessions of Catherine De Medici by C.W. Gortner – Book Review

The Confessions of Catherine De Medici by C.W. Gortner

Catherine de Medici’s early life was rocky. She was orphaned mere weeks after her birth, then at 8 was forcibly placed in a hostile convent when Medici power was overthrown in Florence. Finally, at 11, she was able to go live with her uncle, Pope Clement VII. Rome having recently been sacked by the troops of King Charles of Spain, Clement saw Catherine as an opportunity to cement an alliance with France by wedding her to Henry, second son of King Francois.

Unfortunately, Catherine and Henry didn’t exactly have a fairy tale marriage, since he was far more interested in his nursemaid-turned-mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Catherine’s early denigration at Henry’s neglectful hands require her to become politically savvy and crafty, a trait that will serve her well when she has to advise her son the King – or will it.

I’ve loved C.W. Gortner’s writing since his debut novel, “The Last Queen.” One of my favorite things about him is that he does not simply write the same story that is already dominating the shelves, but chooses amazingly strong and misunderstood women in history, women whose stories are still fresh to the reader. Catherine de Medici is no exception. A patron of Nostradamus, Catherine’s mythology includes a woman who practices dark magic and planned the massacre of France’s Huguenots in the St. Bartolomew’s Day Massacre.

Gortner’s Catherine knows what it is to be persecuted for who you are from the days when the Medicis were overthrown in Florence, and accordingly she actually has a good deal of sympathy for the plight of the Huguenots and advocates a measure of religious tolerance. When conflict between the Catholics and Protestants begins to threaten her familys reign, however, she is forced to take action.

A good half of “Confessions of Catherine de Medici” focused on the conflict between the Catholics and Huguenots, leading up to and following the St. Bartolomew’s Day Massacre. This could have perhaps been overkill, but Gortner made it work very well. I never felt that I’d been reading the same thing over and over, but he kept the story moving forward, even though it was progressing through one main source of conflict.

I highly recommend “The Confessions of Catherine de Medici,” and I can only hope that Gortner is hard at work on another book!

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This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
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