The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot – Book Review

The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot
Published by NAL Trade, an imprint of Penguin

As girls, Eleanor and Marguerite are nearly inseparable, although much of their togetherness includes competition – particularly on Eleanor’s part as she attempts to keep up with her lovely and mild older sister. Unfortunately for Eleanor and Marguerite, fate does not allow for them to be together forever; as the daughters of the Duke of Provence and members of the de Savoy family on their mother’s side, the sisters are fated to make grand marriages. In fact, Marguerite will be the Queen of France and Eleanor Queen of England. Although equal in status, the sisters’ marriages are vastly unequal. Louis IX, King of France is a vastly superior king as compared to England’s Henry III, but Henry cares deeply for Eleanor, while Louis all but ignores Marguerite. Although separated by the English Channel and antagonistic countries, the sisters do have one another’s hearts and letters to guide them through the perils of queenship.

Marguerite, Eleanor, and their two younger sisters have fascinating stories, all four actually became queens. Sanchia of Provence became Queen of Germany and Beatrice Queen of Sicily. Perinot has chosen to focus on the first half of Marguerite and Eleanor’s reigns as queens of France and England, however, before their sisters ascended to their thrones as well. The Sister Queens is a solid work of historical fiction. Both Eleanor and Marguerite are well-developed characters, which is impressive, since they share narration of the book. Even more impressive is the way Perinot causes the reader to favor and commiserate with first one sister and then the other as they take turns relating their stories, it is easy to see both sides of the personal and political issues at stake.

The settings could perhaps have been explored in greater detail, but to fully describe the political situations of both countries would have seriously inflated the page count and possibly bogged down the story Perinot is telling. In addition, while the letters between the women sometimes seemed slightly over-expository, they did serve to get much of the exposition out of the way so that the majority of the story could be focused on the characters and not on the intervening events.

All in all, a satisfying read about a time period and family about which comparatively little is written. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Author.
* 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 Maid by Kimberly Cutter – Book Review

The Maid by Kimberly Cutter
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Joan of Arc is one of the best known of the Catholic saints, and perhaps the most famous of medieval women. As a young woman, she heard what she believed was the voice of God, calling out to her, telling her to lead an army against the English and restore the Dauphin Charles to his rightful place as the King of France. In The Maid, Kimberly Cutter addresses not only who Joan – here called Jehanne – was, but what it might have been like for her to have been the figurehead of the French army, so convinced that she was the only one who could drive out the English conquerors.

Cutter walks a fine line with The Maid, between attempting to bring Jehanne to life and also attempting to stay as true as possible to the verifiable events of her life. This means that, at times, The Maid reads a bit more like historical nonfiction than historical fiction, but this is by no means a mark against it. Although the reader is not always privy to Jehanne’s deepest emotions, Cutter excels at showing Jehanne’s state of mind, particularly her increasing volatility as her time as a leader of battle dragged on and she knew the end was approaching, such as this scene when her order forbidding prostitutes in camp is disobeyed:

Jehanne smiled, then raised her sword over her head and hit the woman with the flat of it so hard that the sword broke in half. The woman fell to the ground. Everyone around the campfire stood frozen, eyes wide as coins. Jehanne stared back at them. “I said no whores in camp.” -p. 235

Jehanne is a character who continually struggles with her believed calling, and with how she might even begin to complete the tasks set to her. Her emotional distress and quick temper may raise the question for many readers whether she was truly hearing the voice of God or whether she was mentally ill, but Cutter will not easily let us dismiss her as merely schizophrenic, as many have, dwelling as well on her verified fulfilled prophecies, such as her the outcomes of battles she did not witness and her own wounding by an arrow, as well as her miraculous survival of a seventy-some foot fall without so much as a sprained ankle.

This continual questioning and the lack of easy answers are perhaps  the best thing about The Maid, but even without them this is a compelling story of a girl who takes on a responsibility never dreamed of by the other woman of her age and steadfastly performs what she sees as her duty, despite her own fears and misgivings. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* 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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Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey – Book Review

Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

Marie Antoinette is likely the best known, or at least most notorious, of all French queens. She is often reviled as an out-of-touch aristocrat who would flippantly tell her starving subjects to simply eat cake; she absolutely did not say this, by the way, Rousseau recorded them as being spoken by a ‘great princess’ when she was the nine-year-old Maria Antonia, Archduchess of Austria.

Many novels about Marie Antoinette begin at the moment she leaves Austria for France, some even include that tragic moment where she is forced to leave her little dog Mops is taken from her because he is not French. Becoming Marie Antoinette, is, however, the first historical novel I have come across that gives readers a good picture of her life as Maria Antonia of Austria. Seeing Maria in her native land in the time immediately leading up to her travel to France is extremely instructive for those who wish to understand her later actions as Dauphine of France. In fact, Grey is able to give much more attention to questions of motivation and politics than many historical novels due to her structuring of Marie Antoinette’s story in a trilogy. Many readers bemoan the prevalence of series and trilogies, the fact that little seems to stand alone these days, but in this case, it enhances the story being told.

That is not to say that Becoming Marie Antoinette is a perfect historical read. At times our heroine’s voice is somewhat overly modern, particularly towards the beginning of the book. Before long, however, the voice either evens out, the story becomes so engaging that modernity doesn’t matter, or some combination of the two. The chapter headers remain somewhat modern, for example Chapter 8 is titled “The Really Hard Work Begins,” but that isn’t terribly intrusive. Aside from these minor issues, however, Grey seems to have really done her homework with Becoming Marie Antoinette, and presents to her readers an engaging and historically faithful novel.

Overall, a fabulous treatment of Marie Antoinette. I recommend it and personally cannot wait for the sequel.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* 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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For the King by Catherine Delors – giveaway

Just in time for Bastille Day, Catherine Delors’ story of post-Revolutionary France, For the King is coming to paperback. As you may remember from last summer, I loved For the King, so I am thrilled to be able to offer two copies for giveaway to readers with US addresses, courtesy of Penguin.

If you want to know more about the history behind For the King, please check out the guest post that Catherine Delors wrote about the revolutionary group depicted in her book: “The Chouans and the Downfall of Napoleon.”

To enter, please fill out the form below by Sunday, July 10th at 11:59pm Central.

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Trespass by Rose Tremain – Audiobook Review

Trespass by Rose Tremain, narrated by Juliet Stevenson
Published in audio by AudioGo, published in print by W. W. Norton & Co

Synopsis:

We know the ways that our pasts, flaws, and foibles change the courses of our own lives, but perhaps we think little about the ways in which they can influence, and even devastate the lives of others, even when our paths cross only tangentially. Such is the case when two pairs of siblings, both with painful and damaging pasts happen to have their lives intersect in the south of France. Veronica and her lover, Kitty, have been living in Cévennes for years, but their simple domestic life of painting and gardening is disrupted when Veronica’s brother Anthony, who is having financial troubles in England, comes down to stay. When he decides he would like to relocate to France, tensions get even higher. Equally fraught is the relationship between Audrun and Aramon, natives of France. Their childhood was, shall we say, less than ideal after the death of their mother, and their interactions grow even more tense after Aramon declares his intention to sell their family home. With Anthony looking to buy and Aramon to sell, it is only to be expected that their paths should cross, but the results of that crossing are decidedly atypical.

Thoughts on the story:

Although not exactly a mystery, Tremain tells a suspenseful yet character-driven story in “Trespass.” We know from the opening scene that something terrible has happened, although what exactly that is will only slowly become apparent over the course of the book. It is a complex tale, but not overly so. The pacing, plotting, and prose were all extremely well handled, but the real highlight of the book was the character development. Not a single one of the characters in “Trespass” was a particularly likable human being. They were selfish, self-involved, rude, snobby, and occasionally abusive. In such a psychological, character-driven novel such as this, that can be quite a problem. However, they were so realistically and tragically flawed, that their petty incivilities failed to be a turn-off. Instead, the reader is drawn into their story to find out exactly what bad thing happened, and why.

Thoughts on the audio production:

At the beginning of “Trespass,” I had a bit of a hard time keeping all of the characters straight in audio, because Tremain included a number of relatively short scenes with each of them. I must say, I really wasn’t sure what was going on – actually, I’m not sure I would have been with print, either – but it didn’t matter one bit, because of Juliet Stevenson’s amazing narration. For more, see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Overall:

Fascinating and suspenseful, “Trespass” is a masterful psychological novel, although not one for those easily offended by sex and dysfunction.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: 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: 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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