Tuesday, 21 May 2019

NO MORE TIME TO DANCE by Gemma Lawrence @TudorTweep

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads




How I discovered this book: I didn't so much discover it as wait for it to come out and make haste to Amazon as soon as I saw (on Twitter) that it was available!  I've read and reviewed almost all this author's books.

In a Nutshell:  Part II of a two book series about the life of Catherine Howard.

Loved it, loved it.  This second book takes us from the beginning of Catherine's marriage to Henry VIII, to her death, and in this book, as in the previous one, Gemma Lawrence shows us a different Catherine from the one so often portrayed; a young woman ill-educated, but not without intelligence and understanding of people.  A woman who knew what she must do to survive, until those who resented her position whispered the words that would bring about her downfall.

At the end of the book, Ms Lawrence's notes give her educated opinion about many of the fictions and assumptions told down the years, about this fifth wife of Henry.  For instance, Catherine never actually said that she would rather die as the wife of Thomas Culpepper than live as the wife of the King, as she was facing her death, and it is unlikely that she had the raging physical affair with Culpepper as portrayed, for instance, in Showtime's The Tudors.  We actually have very little factual knowledge about her.


Lawrence's Catherine talks much about the lot of women in that period in which she lived, and about the men who abused her (Manox and Dereham): Their greatest power is our silence.  An echo through time, of all women too scared to speak out about abuse, both mental and physical.  This aspect, though, is not rammed down the reader's throat; the book is just a cracking good read, in which I was totally engrossed all the way through.  The historical detail paints perfect pictures, both of the way in which the people lived, and England itself (I loved reading about the Progress, the buildings, the countryside).  

There was so much I loved about this book: the portrayal and understanding of Henry's motivations, fears and self-delusion, the fact that Catherine never refers to him as 'Henry' but always as 'the King' or 'my husband', and the sense of suspense when she doesn't know that she is far from safe is real page-turning stuff.

Excellent two book series.  Highly recommended.




Wednesday, 15 May 2019

MONKEY TEMPLE by Peter Gelfan @GelfanP #RBRT

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Friends, wives and lovers and the complex dynamics of the relationships between them. Jules, a freelance editor, is jolted out of sliding unresistingly into old age by best buddy Ralston, and memories of the 1960s and 1970s.  Told in Jules' first person POV.

An unusual and entertaining book, mostly based around a short period during the twilight years of protagonist Jules, his wife, Ritz, and their mixed bunch of ageing hippie friends from the old days—mostly the complicated and high-maintenance Ralston, who is determined not to see Jules go gently into that good, comfortable retirement.  Mostly, it's about Jules' relationship with Ralston.

Deciding that the time has come to leave New York, he and Ralston go on a road trip to look for a house for Jules and Ritz.  When they find a possibility, Ralston has plans for it other than simply being his friends' last home.

Interspersed with present events are Jules's memories of their past, chaotic life; the travelling, the experiences and the sex, drugs and rock and roll of the 1960s and 70s.  For this reason I'd say it would be appreciated mostly by the over fifty-fives, those who have experienced the backpacking type of travelling or are familiar with, shall we say, a more erratic lifestyle; I think some of the references might go over the heads of anyone who ticks none of those boxes.  Maybe it's a book about old hippies for old hippies.

Much of the narrative and dialogue is centred around the subject of the characters' ageing processes, rubbish that is talked about 'alternative' philosophies, and also Jules's observations about the writing world.  I found myself smiling a lot, and highlighting passages I agreed with or enjoyed.  Alas, I forgot to highlight many, but here are a few.

(about Jules's client, who is writing novel based on her life)
'Problem is," I said, 'her life's not a story.'
...'Everyone's life is a story.'
'No it isn't.  Things happen, but that doesn't make it a story.'

'You can learn something by studying its opposite.  Like, who the hell knows how to be happy?  So instead, think about what makes you unhappy, and avoid it.'

'Doesn't it ever occur to you that ... when you don't like someone, it's because there's something very wrong with them?'
'Of course...and then I try to distinguish the subjective from the objective'.
'What a bunch of pseudo-intellectual bullshit. Nothing's objective...it's just a cop-out'

'The truth hit me.  The journey to transcend ego is an ego trip' 

Yes, I enjoyed this book, and would definitely recommend.  My only criticisms are practical ones; at £6.13/$7.97 for the Kindle version it's priced a bit high for the market, and the rather dull cover doesn't do the book justice, or give any indication that this is a dryly amusing, entertaining and poignant story about artists, writers and other colourful people who have spent their lives living and thinking outside the box.  I'd have chosen a sunset streaked road with a back view of Jules and Ralston driving over the horizon, corny though that may be—or a few of them sitting on the dilapidated porch of the Monkey Temple.



Friday, 10 May 2019

AN EMPTY VESSEL (BY VAUGHAN MASON) by JJ Marsh #RBRT

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: a book within a book, about a woman in prison, condemned to death.

My understanding is that this long novella is a book mentioned in a novel by JJ Marsh, a work written by one of her characters, Vaughan Mason.  Though not clear on the blurb, this is what Rosie told me she thought it was, when I chose the book to review.

An Empty Vessel is most interesting story that depicts the thoughts of Nancy Maidstone, a woman accused of murder 1958, the day before her execution, and her life from childhood up until that point.  Other chapters are from the point of view of her lawyers and others involved in the plot.

JJ Marsh has a highly readable and compelling writing style and has created characters that jump off the page, with excellent dialogue, both spoken and inner, from the thoughtful Doctor Waterhouse and his socially self-aware wife, to Nancy's self-serving brother, Frank, to the women she worked with at the supermarket that led to the abrupt downturn in her life, to Nancy herself, for whom my sympathy increased the more I read. Every character story is a tale within itself, rather than just a part of the whole, and I was completely engrossed in each one.

The story gives a colourful picture of ordinary life in the 1950s, with all its social prejudices, accepted behaviour and sometimes almost charming innocence about the world.  Running through all the scenarios is the question of whether or not Nancy is guilty, and if so, why she would have committed such a crime, but there is so much more to enjoy than simply an amassing of clues. 

An entertaining, heartbreaking and unusual story - I loved it.



Tuesday, 7 May 2019

DESPERATE PASSAGE by Ethan Rarick

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: it was recommended in the acknowledgements in The Hunger by Alma Katsu, as one of the books she had used for her research.

In a Nutshell: Non-fiction - account of the Donner Party's fatal crossing of American by wagon train, in 1846/7.

I was gripped by this book all the way through.  It tells the story of a party of pioneers travelling from Illinois to California in 1846, to start a new life.  But they made 3 fatal mistakes: they set off too late, they travelled too slowly, and, instead of taking the traditional route up into Oregon and down into California, they took a short cut, the 'Hastings Cut-Off', little knowing that Lansford Hastings, who was trying to lure more Americans into Mexico-owned California, had never actually tested the route himself.  Somewhere between a third and a half of the pioneers perished en route.

The account is fascinating on so many levels: Rarick gives a great insight into the characters of the travellers, and I actually found it easier to follow the large cast in this non-fiction account than in the novel.  I like that he dispelled many of the myths about the relationship between the travellers and the native Americans; for the most part, the latter were helpful, and friendly.  

The already difficult journey becomes tragic in the extreme once the party realises that they have hit the mountains at the onset of winter; a large section of the book is concerned with this part of the journey, with all its horrors; starvation, divisions in the group, failed attempts to cross the high peaks, many deaths, and cannibalism. Rarick has given all viewpoints, taken from those who survived it, the rescuers, and the accounts in the newspapers afterwards.  The last part of the book is spent discussing what was true, what was exaggerated, and the downright lies that were conjured up for the purpose of selling books and newspapers.  Also, he tells what happened to the survivors after their ordeal was over.  

Most tragic of all is the thought that within some of the survivors' lifetimes, new technology would have made their crossing so much easier, saving many lives. 

A terrific book that I recommend most highly.


Wednesday, 1 May 2019

THE HUNGER by Alma Katsu

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I've read a few reviews of it on book blogs, via Twitter.

In a Nutshell: Fiction taken from fact - pioneers crossing America heading for California, in 1846, slowly realise that a great danger is walking alongside....

I didn't realise until I read the author's notes at the back that this is based on a true story; I wish I had known.

The atmosphere in this book is a such a winner, and the naïveté of the families who set out to travel through uncharted territory, from Illinois to California, is quite pitiful; they fancy they are setting out a great adventure, little understanding the size of America, the range of temperatures and terrains, the dangers they might face when trying to transport their families and entire homes through completely wild lands.

Main characters feature: Stanton, a lone traveller with a troubled past; Bryant, a man fascinated with the Native American culture; Tamsen, a dissatisfied trophy wife; Reed, a pompous former shop owner; Elitha, a young woman who hears voices, the sinister Keseberg, whose back story is flesh-crawlingly gruesome, and there are points of view from various others, too....

...in fact, there are so many characters that I sometimes forgot who was who, but the main ones were well-drawn enough for them to stand out, and I realised after a while that it wasn't absolutely essential to remember everything about a character, just because he or she had a name.

The party have started out too late in the season, and face many problems on the way, as, against advice, they take a route that is supposed to shave many miles off the journey, which becomes increasingly arduous ... and, waiting in the wings, is another danger.

I did enjoy this book, a lot, though I thought it could have done without the supernatural aspect, which didn't really work for me, and seemed superfluous, turning the book into a genre it needn't have been; the darkness of man himself was enough to add all the terror the story required.  However, this side of it is not too over-played, and I enjoyed it enough to buy a book suggested in the notes at the back - an account of the actual story, which Katsu used in her research: Desperate Passage by Ethan Rarick.

I felt that some of the individual stories could have been rounded off more (I was left not knowing exactly who had died and who hadn't, or maybe I just couldn't remember, because the dramatis personae was so extensive), but on the whole the ending was satisfactory - I do most certainly recommend, and look forward to reading the book mentioned above.

(note 7/5/19: Nearly finished Desperate Passage, which I highly recommend.  Had I read it first, though, I don't think I would have enjoyed The Hunger as much as I did; I would have been too irritated by the way Katsu changed the story and characters, and gave so little story space to what was actually the longest and most horrifying part of the journey.  To read The Hunger just as fiction, is probably better.)



Wednesday, 17 April 2019

JANE THE QUENE by Janet Wertman @JanetWertman

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads




How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: the story of Jane Seymour, 3rd wife of Henry VIII.  Book 1 of 2 book series, The Seymour Saga.

A light piece of historical fiction that, on the whole, I liked.  I was tentative at first, being very much 'Team Boleyn' as far as the six wives are concerned, but I was pleased to note that Jane Seymour was not portrayed as the meek angel of many a historical novel or TV drama, but every bit as calculating as her predecessor in her mission to capture the heart of Henry VIII; she was used as a tool by her ambitious family in exactly the same way.

The book is written in alternative third person POVs: that of Jane herself, and Thomas Cromwell.  I liked that the author showed the downfall of Anne Boleyn to be a fiction carefully constructed by Cromwell, who knew that Henry needed to get rid of her so he could marry another who might give him a son, but that he could not afford to have another abandoned ex-wife who refused to disappear.  Thus, a story had to be concocted to justify the murder of Anne.  I also liked the explanation of the dissolution of the monasteries; it is clear, concise, and makes for a good understanding of the whys, hows and consequences.  Janet Wertman writes factual detail in a fashion that is both easy to read and entertaining; thus, this book would be an excellent choice for someone who doesn't know much about the era; for instance, she even explains what a monarch's yearly Progress is.  Now and again I was a little too aware of the research being translated into the narration, but on the whole it was executed well.

The author is American and, alas, I did come across some American English in dialogue, along with historical inconsistency and modern phraseology.  Examples: 
  • 'Snuck' - the British English past tense of the verb 'sneak' is 'sneaked'.
  • 'Snicker' - British English is 'snigger'.
  • 'Gift' used as a verb and 'caring' used as a general adjective to describe someone - these have only crept into British English in more recent years.
  • A reference to mashed potatoes - potatoes were not introduced into this country until some fifty years later, by Sir Walter Raleigh.
  • The phrase 'in for a penny, in for a pound' - the first recorded use of this phrase was in a play, in the late 17th century.
  • 'teenagers' - not in use until the latter half of the 20th century.
  • Henry said, 'You center me, Jane'.  So American and 21st century that it might as well have 'Gee' at the beginning and 'lol' at the end!
I also thought that, now and again, the dialogue between Kings, courtiers and Jane was too familiar, and doubted that Cromwell would have introduced the idea of Anne Boleyn's treason to the King while both were in the presence of Jane Seymour.  I'm aware that writing historical fiction that takes place outside one's own country must be an incredibly hard thing to do, and I always feel sorry for authors whose editors have let them down.  Google alone is a wonderful and easy-to-use tool.

Despite these 'dodgy' areas, though, I did enjoy reading it.  The writing flows, Ms Wertman tells a story in a compelling fashion, and I believed in the characters; these three factors alone are much of what this writing thing is about, after all.  With assistance from a more experienced editor (possibly an English one?), I imagine her work would get better and better.  To sum up, I would say this is light fiction for the newer reader of the genre; perhaps lovers of programmes like Showtime's The Tudors series, or who enjoy an introduction to the period, rather than the serious history addict - avid readers of this genre are notoriously picky!

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

MURDER UNDONE by Robin Storey

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Woman murders husband.  Gets chance to go back in time and make different decisions.  Involves drugs, sex, criminal underworld.

This book starts well, with main character Eva poisoning her cheating husband.  Fast forward twenty years: she's married again, and living with the fall-out.  Except she can't deal with it; she drinks too much, and goes into bars to pick up men for casual sex.  Then she is offered a chance to go back in time, still retaining her memories of her 'real' life, and not murder Cheating Charlie after all....

I found this author's style pretty readable; I'd suddenly realise I'd galloped through 10 pages or so, without thinking about stopping to make notes, which is a good sign.  I was moderately drawn in when I first started to read, but as soon as Eva got a chance to go back in time, I thought, ah—now I'm interested!

The story continued to zip along in a readable fashion, but I did have some problems with it.  Eva's character seemed more like a vehicle for the plot that the other way round; I never believed in her.  One minute she is the pampered, submissive wife of a millionaire businessman, the next she is daredevil sleuth, able to talk her way into any private location, and mixing with the criminal underworld without turning a hair, to the extent of having sex with them for information (and enjoying it despite the guy having had a knife to her throat, but I'm not even going to go there; the cocaine she'd taken, alone, would make her paranoid and agitated in this situation).

I was dubious about some dialogue (the way one of the female characters talks about sex would make Samantha from Sex and the City cringe) and unconvinced by some events; for instance, before she goes back in time, Eva is around 60 years old, but gets hit on/approached for casual sex every time she enters a bar to have a drink.  However glamorous and well-kept a woman of that age may be, I found this a little unlikely.

One other point is something the author might want to consider for future work of this genre.  Later in the book, Eva is caught driving under the influence of cocaine.  There was a detailed chapter about her court appearance, ending with the news report about it on TV.  Why not just cut the whole court thing, and start the chapter with the news report, ending with a paragraph or two about how she felt, watching it broadcast to the world?  That would have given all the information the reader needed, and let them get on with the more juicy stuff, like infidelity, deteriorating marriage and underworld dealings ...

... because it is a rip-roaring tale, and not badly put together at all, generally. 
The basic idea is great, though I didn't feel enough use was made of the fact that she was living her life over again; I expected more references to the past, and perhaps the steering of other events, too.  It's a bit like a watered-down Jackie Collins (that's a compliment, by the way!), but, alas, I need to be convinced by and become totally involved with the characters in order to really enjoy a book, and Eva never came alive to me.

To sum up: the author has much of the skill and writing style for this genre, but it still needs a bit of fine tuning!