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Elizabeth Fremantle – Sisters Of Treason

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Heads held high as others fall.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Pages: 450
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-075-38232-48
First Published: 22nd May 2014
Date Reviewed: 1st March 2015
Rating: 4/5

When Lady Jane Grey is killed the future becomes uncertain for her mother and sisters. Regulars at court and related to Queen Mary, no one knows whether or not they will be safe and as time goes on and this doesn’t change, it’s up to the family to try and find a solution.

Sisters Of Treason is the second novel by Fremantle, which looks at the trials (sometimes literal) of the Greys that remained. It also looks at the little known life of minature artist, Levina Teerlinc, filling in the gaps in the history.

It has to be said that this is no Queen’s Gambit, however this is not entirely down to the author. Whereas previously Fremantle chose to write about a queen with plenty of history behind her, this time her subjects are somewhat obscure and did not lead as eventful a life as Katherine Parr. This, then, presents a conundrum: the book is not particularly riveting, but then Fremantle has followed what is known of the history.

Essentially this book was always going to be limited in scope; yet this limitation itself is worth discussing. Katherine and Mary were rarely away from court and, in Mary’s case especially (at least here in this book), they are not particularly fond of court. This means that whereas we are often told – by teachers, television, evidence – that court was a blustering, busy, exciting place, this novel shows us that actually in many ways it was boring. We all know it was stifling, rife with jealousies and full of backstabbing, but ‘boring’ is rarely a word used.

This is to say that Fremantle effectively shows the reader how dull Katherine and Mary’s lives were. Not dull as in to say unworthy of study, but dull because they had to remain at court when they may not have wanted to. There is the threat of death ever lingering in the background, but as a conflict it is not very strong – it could be said that this is a character-driven story when generally factually-based historical novels straddle both plot and character, tending towards plot as their backbone. It could thus be said that this would have made better non-fiction.

Fremantle makes as much as she can of the known history, and chooses to incorporate less reliable evidence only when it suits her plot. As an example we have Mary, who has a crooked back, scoliosis perhaps. It is interesting to look at this example in light of the recent discovery of Richard III’s body. It was constantly debated whether or not Richard had scoliosis, whether or not we should trust the words of those historical figures who may simply have hated him, and in discovering his body it was found that those people were speaking the truth. All this to say that, given Richard III, if Mary was reported to be crook-backed then it’s very possible she was and thus despite the general lack of evidence in the pictures we have of her, Fremantle’s decision to incorporate a disability into her fictionised Mary’s life is something to savour. Fremantle makes a point of studying the culture in terms of disability, which is aided by her extra focus on Levina Teerlinc.

Teerlinc, a rarity in medieval history – a female artist – is little known, and so Fremantle’s dealing of her is largely similar to the character of Dot from Queen’s Gambit. Through Teerlinc Fremantle explores not only the Tudor working woman but the world beyond the court and the politics in the wider world that merit a totally difference handling when discussed inside the privy chamber.

It should be noted that the dispositions of queens Mary and Elizabeth are not favourable, which in the case of the latter may surprise you. However it is perfectly reasonable considering the viewpoints used – Katherine and Mary were not going to like Bloody Mary and if Elizabeth held them prisoner, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t have considered her especially wonderful, either.

Sisters Of Treason looks at the life of those who might have wished for something that would have rendered them even less well-known. Whether you will like it or not really depends on how open you are to the idea of sitting sewing beside the window whilst the world passes you by. It is likely to interest those with a prior interest in the sisters; as for others it is hard to say. The book is certainly well written and full of factual information you won’t forget in a hurry. Indeed the only written element that is cause for thought is the French of Frances Brandon, of which there is a lot.

Sisters Of Treason focuses on hope when everything else is lost. It’s packed with history and is an excellent example of good research and writing. It is respectful of the historical figures it uses, but it should be noted that it is steeped in anxiety and sadness and that the conflict is less apparent then is generally expected.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Suzannah Lipscomb – A Visitor’s Companion To Tudor England

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History and the roofs under which it occurred.

Publisher: Ebury Press (Random House)
Pages: 281
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-091-94484-1
First Published: 15th March 2012
Date Reviewed: 12th November 2014
Rating: 4/5

In a work that is a combination of reference book and good old straightforward non-fiction, Lipscomb focuses on 50 different locations with a background either exclusively Tudor or worthy of a visit by those interested in the popular history.

There are two ways to read A Visitor’s Companion To Tudor England. Lipscomb herself introduces it as a guide for the general reader, bereft of footnotes and too much information so that it’s accessible to all. This makes the first way of reading that of the previously uninformed. The second way is obviously one that is more natural to myself and quite likely many who read this review – as yet another book that will enable you to spend even more time on something you already enjoy learning about.

Lipscomb’s introduction sets out all you might have wanted to know about the selection of these houses, castles, tombs, and ruins, which is important to read because no matter your prior knowledge you’ll likely say ‘but what about such and such a place?’. Lipscomb tells us why some prominent places did not make the cut, why less well-known places did, and whether or not you agree with her choices you get to see all the planning involved.

However the book does not entirely live up to its promise and this is because of the criteria. The specific criteria listed in the introduction means that some places are of only minor interest overall (perhaps more interest if you’ve had time to visit all the major places before) and this is compounded by the fact that the approach to the chapters vary. Some focus on describing what you will see, others leave that out in favour of writing about the occupants, and there will be times you’ll likely wish another slice of the history had been focused on instead of the one chosen, the abode of a person of more interest written of instead. This means that the book as a ‘handbook’ is less useful unless you’re using it as a quick reference when deciding where to go on your next day trip.

There is a lot of well-known history included, but also a lot of lesser-known facts. In this way both those with prior knowledge and those without are catered for – for every fact you may know, there is a new one, and for the new learner it’s fair to say this gets you up to speed. Whilst there are no footnotes (another decision discussed in the introduction) Lipscomb includes various views from primary sources as well as her own and those from her peers; much as in her work for television, views are discussed before thoughts are given as to her own, so you also get a good taste for the study of history here, too.

What doesn’t work so well are the suppositions. There are many ‘probablys’ in this book, and this is of course more problematic given the lack of footnotes, as there are ‘probablys’ without reasoning behind them. This may work for new learners but means that you won’t learn as many facts as you might think. The cross-references to other chapters are a few too many and there is a lot of repetition – though this is to aid the reader who wants only to dip in to one or two chapters. There are also sections about Tudor life included in chapters that aren’t related to the subject at hand wherein you might wish more had been written about the location.

A Visitor’s Companion To Tudor England is good, but (necessarily) brief. It sports enough to please all readers but is most likely to satisfy the new reader. The inclusions of lesser-known places, however, make it a worthwhile quick read for all.

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Kamal Ben Hameda – Under The Tripoli Sky

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Time passes. Separately.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 96
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67016-8
First Published: 2012 in French; 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 2nd September 2014
Rating: 4/5

Original language: French
Original title: La Compagnie des Tripolitaines (The Company of Tripolitans)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Hadachinou, a child in 1960s Tripoli, Libya, tells the reader about his mother and neighbours, citing with a child’s frankness the differences in gender, religion, and race.

It would be fair to say that Under The Tripoli Sky is a society-driven book. Neither character nor plot driven, even though there is time spent on Hadachinou’s development, the novella is very much a vignette rather than a ‘proper’ narrative, more ripe for study and deep thought than average enjoyment.

Hadachinou spends his days with his mother (as much as she will let him), observing her friendships and the relations and lives of others. It should be noted that although he is frank, the narrative is written in a way that suggests hindsight and so there is a maturity to his discussions of slavery and freedom as though he has since grown up. Hadachinou the majority of his time observing, meaning that time is spent solely on the issues and cultural dynamics.

There are many cultures at play, though you could place them into three categories: the original Muslim culture of Tripoli, the cultures of the Jews, Christians, and American forces discussed, and the new hybrid that arrived with the European and American people who have settled there. Most of the attention is on the Muslim culture and the way it differs from the new hybrid, and this illustrated by the family dynamics. The women gather together to discuss their dreams, their wishes, and much is said of those who don’t align with the accepted values. The woman who killed her abusive husband; the woman who has had many men. Hadachinou, who neither condemns nor agrees, tells us about the beatings and unhappiness some of the women suffer, meaning that we hear three ‘sides’ – the women’s, the women’s from Hadachinou’s observations, and the men’s, also from Hadachinou. In this case, given the focus of the book, life from the men’s perspective is not needed. The book looks at the future through a lens of equality, tradition balanced by the new.

As for race, Tripoli is multi-cultural. Hadachinou talks of those who have assimilated themselves (somewhat) into the community, people who have been slaves or whose ancestors were slaves, those of African origin. In race, the book is interesting, introducing the differences between the native Tripolitans and the story of a white Jewish woman whose community left her alone due to her relations and later pregnancy with a black American man. The Tripolitans may still regard others as different, but there is more of an emphasis on similarity. In this way the different ways cultures mix and stay apart are explored.

The writing style is very literary; the wording is superb. Kudos must be given to the translator, Adriana Hunter, but it’s not hard to see where the original text is behind the English. The book is about culture and difference, and those must come first, but of great importance is the text itself. At times it’s so lovely that you may find yourself having to read over a passage again as you end up focusing on the words rather than the message.

Under The Tripoli Sky is simple and the issues are dealt with in a nice, obvious, way, thanks to Hameda’s use of a child. Indeed Hadachinou at times sounds older than his treatment may suggest, but that does not matter so much as what is said. It’s a short read, with a lot to say, and potentially plenty to use for the reader up for a bit of research.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Hanne Ørstavik – The Blue Room

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Don’t move – not because you can’t, but because you fear doing so.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 164
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67015-1
First Published: 1999 in Norwegian; 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 8th June 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Like Sant som jeg er Virkelig (As True as I Really Am)
Translated by: Deborah Dawkin

Johanne can’t leave her room. She’s woken up on the day she’s set to fly to America with Ivar and her door is jammed, or locked. She could call to someone from the window, or she could wait for her mother to return to the apartment. Whilst trapped she ruminates over recent events, on her relationship, and on her mother. Has Unni locked her in? If she has, Johanne can understand why.

The Blue Room, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, is a short, little-action story of fear, manipulation, and what you as the reader will recognise as decisions that have the potential to lead to regret. It is often confusing because of the sudden changes in time and place, but this matches Johanne’s mind and the way we flit from subject to subject when there is nothing to do but think.

At the heart of the story is the manipulation and control you see (or think you can see), the mother exerting over her daughter, and the way Johanne’s relationship with her parents has made her, Johanne, prefer routine and the safety of home over anything that little bit different. Even if the fun in difference is to her liking. This isn’t to say that Johanne gives up straight away each time, because sometimes she doesn’t – note that ‘sometimes’ – but when it really, really matters, when it’s the equivalent of reaching the last rung on the ladder, she ultimately gives in. Gives in, not gives up.

What’s interesting about Unni’s (the mother) control is that you are never quite sure whether she is manipulative or whether it’s the case that Johanne is holding herself back. This is one of the best elements of the book because Ørstavik keeps the whole truth from you by way of the first-person narration. Maybe it’s the effect of many unreliable narrators in the past – perhaps if this is your very first first-person book you’ll see through the clever storytelling and structure – but the conditioning that you have, your experience of unreliable narrators means that Ørstavik can play games with you. Is Johanne thinking too much? Obviously she is in some respects – her innocent relaying of Ivar’s response to the things she says shows she thinks too much sometimes – but when it comes to Unni, you’ll think you have it worked out only to be thrown back into confusion.

For a time. There comes a point when the answer is undeniable, and yet even then perhaps there is something ‘off’. As you go about trying to work it all out, trying to work out whether Johanne is locked in or whether she hasn’t tried enough or isn’t bothered enough about leaving, you are effectively introduced to the mistrust that can accompany a victim’s account of their troubles.

In Johanne’s memories, and once you’re back to the present for good, and the dialogue between the two, Unni says some strange, some bad things. She suggests, in a passive-aggressive manner that Johanne is deaf to, that Johanne dump a nice boyfriend. Or does she see something in Ivar that Johanne has missed? It is obvious that The Barns, the housing development the family will build (‘with what money?’ is an assuming but obvious question here) sometime in the distant future, is both a lie to keep Johanne at home and a reason for Johanne to want to forgo any attempt to better her life. Why have a boyfriend and live independently when you’ll be able to live with your mother in a nice house with your brother (who’s no longer there), setting up your business there and thus never needing to leave?

It’s worth noting that some things Unni remarks upon would be simply laughed at or ignored by most people. This is a prime point to the debate over Johanne’s decisions (she thinks up some peculiar ideas that seem not to be influenced by anything). We wonder – we mistrust again.

Whether or not Unni is to blame (in a big way – we could never rule her influence out completely) for the following, Johanne has a fear of difference, of the unknown. It’s worth considering that if Unni has locked the door, then this is Johanne’s strongest effort to leave so far. If Unni’s locked her in, she must feel as if Johanne is slipping from her grasp. It’s the same with Johanne’s self-worth. There is a punishment and reward system at work, both solely resting with Johanne, and at the behest of Unni.

There are the erotic, perverted, thoughts. The blurb of the book speaks of our erotic fantasies being influenced by our parents and as you read on you see how Johanne’s arousal from horrible ideas has happened. Johanne doesn’t want to be in those situations, she apologises to God and worries about it all the time (Johanne’s faith in God itself is seemingly her choice but possibly furthered by those she knows).

It sounds like Johanne’s brother doesn’t see his mother any more, or at the most he’s got away from the family and is in America. If we consider this and Johanne’s chance to spend time in that country, then perhaps Ørstavik is using the ideals about America, the land and the freedom. There is nothing wrong with Oslo – unless your name is Johanne. And if your name is Johanne then every reader will be rooting for you no matter what they think about you.

Is Johanne held back? Is she too like her mother? Will she just repeat the cycle and not break it?

Johanne has a chance to get away, even if she misses this opportunity, even if she loses Ivar. She needs you to support her, and the best way you can do that is to read The Blue Room.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Noelle Adams – Married For Christmas

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Charlie asks a question: Is it out of line, so to speak, to post reviews of books set during a holiday on another day? (I read this last week, hence the review now.)

To have and to hold, in convenience.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 141
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-492-76514-1
First Published: 30th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 24th May 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Jessica is going to propose to her childhood friend, Daniel. She loves him, and although he doesn’t love her that’s neither here nor there – this marriage will not be about love. Jessica wants a family but has never met the right man, and Daniel needs a wife if he’s to be selected as the next pastor of his home town’s church. Jessica’s adamant that love is not important, and Daniel says he can never love another as he loved his deceased wife. So the set-up is perfect… surely.

Married For Christmas is a short tale about the first month of marriage between two friends who both see an advantage in getting married. The characters are Christian but there are a few detailed sex scenes so, as the author points out, this isn’t a book for those looking to read a ‘fade to black’ and/or typical Christian romance.

The book begins well, and at first the characters are good – well developed, and showing much potential. Many readers have said it would’ve been nice to have read a few chapters from Daniel’s point of view and this reviewer would agree. Daniel is a solid, very good, character throughout, whereas Jessica changes somewhat, and not in a ‘regular’ way, but in that way that suggests the author really wanted to write about someone else. You have to be wary of Jessica, in this sense, and know that she will quite possibly get on your nerves.

Jessica’s thoughts about her past are consumed by the idea that men don’t like her, no one has been in love with her, and that she was never going to find anyone. However, as becomes apparent, there have been men who liked her. And, whilst it’s perfectly okay that Jessica has limited her pool of available men by discounting anyone who doesn’t share her religion, it does make the constant refrain unbelievable, even when considering insecurities and quietness. Men who liked her but were turned down because they weren’t Presbyterian nevertheless count as men who liked her. With her limits and the limited-by-design scope of her social life, the ‘no one likes me’ track doesn’t work.

The book could do with an overhaul. Missing words, poor grammar, and strange statements mar what would otherwise be fairly good writing.

What’s good is Daniel. Daniel remains a good guy throughout the book despite Jessica’s belief to the contrary. The change he undergoes is well-written and even if it’s predictable, it brings forth the sweet romantic element that was sorely needed. The sex scenes are written well and there are a fair number of them. They are detailed and verge towards erotic fiction at times, however this is somewhat influenced by the mixing of genres and they are less graphic when considered away from that context.

Married For Christmas is cute, but being upset about the marriage you planned working out as planned doesn’t invite empathy, especially when the marriage is only 4 weeks old. Similarly, the annoyance at the help offered (understandable somewhat out of the context of a close community, not understandable in it) doesn’t ring true given the amount of thought Jessica would’ve given to being a pastor’s wife. Strictly alright.

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