Thomas Cromwell #1: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Read: 9 April, 2017

I’ve tried and failed to read so much historical fiction because the writing quality often just isn’t there. Ever genre has its standards, and it seems that historical fiction got its from the “bodice ripper” romance tradition – very overwrought phrasing, terrible dialogue, intrusive narration, and all-round poor sentence construction. It’s why I’ve always liked the idea of historical fiction, but so rarely actually read it.

Mantel makes it clear that historical fiction can be well written, even excellently written. All the “he, Cromwell” repetition aside, this is an extremely well crafted novel about Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s court.

There’s some time hopping at the beginning, which is something of a pet peeve of mine. Not to mention that the beginning – when the reader is already disoriented and trying to work out who everyone is supposed to be – is the absolute worst time to fuddle with chronology like that! There are other ways to keep readers engaged through backstory!

But the time hopping seemed to fizzle out about a third of the way through, and the rest of the narrative was fairly straightforward.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Henry VIII’s court, apart from the broad strokes outline and Moore’s Utopia, and this was a fantastic primer. That world feels far more familiar and real to me now, and I appreciate that.

A common praise in reviews of this book is that Mantel does an excellent job of getting into Cromwell’s head, and that is absolutely true. He feels like a complex, real, living person. His pains – particularly the loss of so much of his family to the ‘sweating sickness’ – are viscerally conveyed, as are his drives and his joys.

This is an excellent – if rather long – book that breathes life into the history it is based on.

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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

The Saxon Stories #6: Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Read: 2 October, 2016

My stash of audiobooks was running dangerously low, forcing me to grab something straight from my library branch’s shelf. Since my local branch is fairly small, their collection – a mere handful of shelves – is similarly sized, so finding something that looked both interesting and that I hadn’t already read can be a little challenging.

But they did have Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell. I’ve heard good things about Cornwell – that he writes solid historical military fiction – but never quite good enough for me to actually dive into the rather lengthy time investment of one of his books. But there he was, in a pinch, so I gave him a go.

I was rewarded with a very solid novel. Uhtred’s desperate fight to save a kingdom from its inexperienced king is both compelling and entertaining. The characters all feel real, and a number of episodes are quite funny (particularly those involving the priest who had secretly married Edward).

It would have been easy for the character names to become a problem – there are so many important characters, many of whom barely appear in person, and every second character’s name seems to start with Aethel-. Surprisingly, I didn’t find this to be much of a problem. I was reading the book casually, listening to it as I fall asleep in the evenings, but still the narrative managed to differentiate between all the important characters enough for me to follow along without too much trouble. It was certainly quite a bit easier than reading Game of Thrones, which I had to do with the relevant Wiki pages open and before me.

One of the reasons I had hesitated so long before trying to read Cornwell is that I hate battle/fight scenes in books. I find them utterly boring, and usually skim them to get back to the interesting stuff. Here, however, the action scenes actually work! They don’t feel rushed, and there’s enough character in how each player acts that the scenes feel like they actually add something to the broader narrative (beyond simply their resolution).

This is the sixth book in a series, but I had no trouble picking up what was going on. Uhtred does mention past events, but without the context of the previous books, it just read as character history. The story works perfectly on its own.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very solid book. It’s an interesting story told with good writing. I look forward to picking up more books by the author.

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The Once And Future King #1: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

Read: 17 May, 2016

This really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. My dad had given me an old paperback copy of The Once And Future King when I was a child interested in Arthurian legends, but he made it sound like a very serious, stuff tome – a perception that wasn’t corrected by the fact that this thing is an absolute brick. It ended up sitting on my shelf for nearly two decades before I finally decided that I’d give it a read through audiobook (my preferred vehicle for fantasy novels suffering from gigantism).

It turned out to be very different from what I had assumed. For one thing, it’s clearly aimed at children (specifically boys – there are almost no female characters in the whole book, and the two I can think of are a) Maid Marianne, and b) the witch, Madam Mim).

The story is episodic, each usually involving some adventure Merlyn sends the young Arthur (often accompanied by his foster-brother Kay) on. These mix and match different stories, including Robin Hood! Most of these adventures include some kind of lesson: A discussion on the nature of time, an introduction to embryology and evolution, etc.

The book is still quite a brick, and I think it would have been difficult to get through if I had tried to just read it to myself. It did work well as an audiobook, though, and I think that it would have worked fairly well as a bedtime story – with each adventure read aloud and treated as self-contained.

I found the novel to be quite funny, particularly the episodes with King Pellinore. The audiobook reader was clearly having a lot of fun with those episodes, what?

Overall, I found the book a bit dated, and it’s hard to see it competing for children’s bedtime attention given the options that are available now. But it was still a fairly enjoyable read, a good story with some food for thought and amusing humour. I may give it a try on my kid when he’s a little older.

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Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner

Full disclosure: I started following Warner’s blog a few years ago and corresponded a few times via e-mail regarding some questions I had. We’ve since become Facebook friends and I quite like her as a person. 

Read: 16 April, 2015

Warner’s excitement about Edward II is infectious. I found her blog through my general interest in medieval Europe, and soon found my new favourite monarch. So I was understandably excited for this book to come out. (Then, of course, had to wait eons because Amazon apparently didn’t get enough books to cover the pre-orders.)

The writing style is, unfortunately, a little info-dumpy. I found it difficult to really get engrossed in the narrative when it felt more like reading someone’s notes than the final product. This is a very common problem in non-fiction, though, and is overshadowed by the book’s strengths.

Notably, how well Warner is able to make Edward II (and Isabella, for that matter) seem like a real person – complex and sometimes idiosyncratic, a whole person. In particular, it was wonderful to see such a nuanced look at Edward’s relationship with his wife, Isabella.

It was a shame that so much time was devoted to debunking the common myths surrounding Edward’s reign, but it had to be done. I was glad, also, that Warner didn’t take the easy route of simply dismissing them out of hand, instead taking the time to explain the arguments and present the evidence.

I really enjoyed the numerous lists in the book – how much Edward’s household spent on cloth for a wedding, how much fish was consumed during a stay in a particular place, etc. I know it’s not for everyone, but it helped me visualize what these events might have looked like, it made them tangible and relatable; especially since Warner took pains to translate the lists into modern terms (how much would that amount of money have really meant at the time?).

I definitely found it a worthwhile read, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the politics of medieval England, and particularly in the life of the first English monarch to be deposed.

EDIT: I’ve heard rumours that Warner may be working on a biography of Isabella next, so I’m really excited for that!

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Hild by Nicola Griffith

Read: 7 March, 2015

We know precious little about the real Hild, a woman who lived in 7th century England. Within the frame of sparse information, Griffith weaves a tale of a young woman who navigates from being the homeless daughter of a murdered king, to king’s seer, a commander of armies, and weaver of political intrigue.

Years ago, when I read Dune, I was completely blown away. Previously, most of what I had read was assigned reading – classics with literary and historical merit. But Dune captured me. What I loved about it was the many moving parts – the members of the household and the surrounding nobles, each with their own goals and motivations, and the lone protagonist stuck in the middle trying to find the pattern, take hold of the weave, and re-stitch it to his own will. It’s a magnificent theme, and one that I’ve always loved seeing done well. And Griffith does it well. Very well.

Hild begins in a very precarious social position, and we see her (via her mother, at first) rise and find safety for herself and her loved ones through cunning and information. The details of her rise, and of her struggle to maintain safety in an environment where kings can rise and fall in the blink of an eye, was extremely well handled. I felt like I could really see her learning, working things out, and tailoring her advice to the personalities of the recipients.

Often, when a character is shown to be especially cunning, this is either done by making everyone else in the story too oblivious to see the obvious, or it’s done by having the character make impossible logical leaps. Here, however, we see Hild paying attention, we see her building a spy network, we see how she comes to make those logical leaps that she does make (and, perhaps just as importantly, we see her be wrong sometimes).

Another aspect of this book that I loved is how much time was spent on both the Big Political Stuff and on domestic business. We see Hild organizing alliances between kings, and we see her checking sheep to estimate the price of the resulting wool. This really spoke to me, because history tends to be taught as The Important Things Great Men (and these few token women) Do, and neglects to show us all the things women and people of lower social standing were doing in the background to make those Great Things work.

Not only that, but the women who organized alliances and gave advice behind the scenes rarely get any credit. Hild, as a seer, speaks more openly, but we see how her mother and the queen are able to nudge others as well. In other words, the history here felt complete, and it was lovely.

All this is mostly to say that this book was right up my alley. All of my alleys. Griffith did an excellent job controlling the narrative so that the rather lengthy character list never felt overwhelming, and the pacing was perfect.

If I had to complain about anything, it would be that the ending felt a little rushed. (SPOILERS: And while I understood Breguswith and Aethelburh’s motivation in orchestrating it, I didn’t grasp was Edwin was thinking. I feel like we should have seen Hild spend a little more time working that out, though I do see how that would have interfered with the pacing of the climax.)

I highly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in intrigue and the domestic world of 7th century England. If you have trouble keeping track of lots of characters (particularly since they have unfamiliar names, several of the characters having quite similar spellings), it may be useful to keep notes.

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A Feast of Ice & Fire by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel & Sariann Lehrer

I love cooking, particularly hearty, flavourful foods. I love A Song of Ice and Fire. I also love Medieval Europe (touristing only, there is no way I’d like to live then). I think it’s rather obvious that A Feast of Ice & Fire is right up my alley. All three of my alleys, in fact.

The book takes us to the different locations of ASOIAF: the Wall, the North, the South, King’s Landing, Dorne, and across the Narrow Sea. For each location, there are several dishes mentioned in the books (all include a breakfast) with recipes. Even better, many of the dishes are presented with two recipes – one drawn from medieval sources (using the term “medieval” loosely, as they actually span the period from the Roman Empire to the Elizabethan period, and some of them are not European in origin), and one modern variation.

Some of the ingredients can be hard to find, but the book includes a list of substitutions.

The best part is that all of the recipes are fairly simple, most having only a handful of steps. It would actually be feasible to put on a multi-course Game of Thrones dinnerparty without running yourself ragged.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable cookbook, for regular use as well as for it’s novelty gimmick. It would make a great gift for a reasonably experienced cook who likes experimentation and trying new things.

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The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Read: 6 March, 2014

Mists of Avalon retells the story of King Arthur and his knights, but from the perspectives of the women in the story – Guinevere (called Gwenhwyfar), Mogana le Fey (called Morgaine), and others.

I loved how complex the characters were, and how seamless their transition as they grow older and change their opinions. I loved the religious discussions and the tug-o-war between old and new. I loved getting to hear all the familiar King Arthur stories, but from the perspectives of characters who had always seemed to be on the outside.

It was a long book, and it took a long time to read, but it was well-worth it. I found it exciting and interesting and wonderful and so totally “up my alley.”

I highly recommend this book for its complex and nuanced look at life, religion, gender, sexuality, and so much else.

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Wenceslas by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Christian Birmingham

The story of Wenceslas is fairly normal Christmas fair – a king (who has light shining out of his cloak and footprints) leaves the comforts of his castle in the middle of a terribly cold night to bring food to one of his peasants.

From a lessons standpoint, the message is fine for a picture book. Never mind that, as king, he runs a country where the hunger and poverty of his peasants exists in the first place, or that the comfort he provides is only to one family of peasants and not to the thousands of others who will simply suffer while the nobles enjoy their party. It’s also something of a monarchist message, practically deifying the king by no virtue other than basic human decency (backed with the money and power to act on it).

But still, it’s a Christmas story and we don’t expect too much depth from these things – certainly not in a picture book. And the artwork makes whatever flaws in the story entirely worthwhile. Christian Birmingham’s images are stunning – so gorgeous that there were several I’d love to just hang on my wall. He uses the contrasts between warm colours (representing the Wenceslas’s quasi-divinity, warmth, fire, happiness, safety) and cold (representing, obviously, the cold) to give his images great depth and resonance.

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A Book Dragon by Donn Kushner

Read: 30 September, 2012

Dragons must have a treasure to guard, or so says Nonesuch’s grandmother. But when Nonesuch finds himself alone and getting smaller, he embraces his new size and finds a new sort of treasure.

Over the course of the novel, Nonesuch travels through a number of time periods, stopping for longer stays in a Medieval monastery, and then again in the modern era. On the way, he passes through the War of the Roses, the Black Plague, the Fire of London, the dawn of the Age of Reason, and World War II (through the perspective of a Jewish character who left Germany for America).

As I was reading, I found myself thinking of how useful this book would be to help contextualize and introduce a number of different historical periods. This would be especially useful for homeschoolers to help provide a “path” through a lesson, for example.

I also found it useful in that it was relatively short and simply, but introduced more complex concepts and vocabulary. For that reason, I’d say it’s a great resource for young readers who are just getting into novel-length works.

Unfortunately, not a whole lot happens in the novel, and I have to wonder if it will keep a child’s attention. Most of the story involves Nonesuch exploring some new environment, complete with pages of description. Although it’s possible that if it’s incorporated into a lesson plan, this deficiency might be compensated for by the extra-libris activities.

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