Book Review: “Pursuing a Masterpiece: A Novel” by Sandra Vasoli

63226327._SY475_What if you found information about a mysterious portrait that would radically change how we view history forever? Who would you tell? When Zara Rossi entered the Ancient Manuscripts Room at the Papal Archives in Rome, she never imagined how a single letter would change her life and the Tudor community. Each piece of the puzzle unlocks a new story from the past and allows Zara to explore the remarkable tale of this masterpiece. Follow the clues with Zara Rossi to solve this mystery from the past in Sandra Vasoli’s latest book, “Pursuing a Masterpiece: A Novel.”

Thank you, Sandra Vasoli and GreyLondon Press, for sending me a copy of this novel. I am always looking for a new way to incorporate Tudor history into a story, so when I heard the description of this particular book, I was captivated.

Zara Rossi begins her adventure into the past by going to the Ancient Manuscripts Room and the Papal Archives, which is an immense honor as you have to be invited even to have a chance to go into the Archives. She is looking for personal letters of Pope Clement VII to find his reaction to Henry VIII’s split from Rome. Instead, she found a letter from the Grand Master of the Order of St. John, Villiers de L’lsle-Adam, about a double portrait of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

As Zara uncovers the tale with each clue in the modern age, Vasoli introduces her audience to a colorful cast of characters that span centuries. Starting in the 16th century, we are introduced to Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, his advisors, Hans Holbein the Younger, and the Court Astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer. We also become acquainted with the Order of St. John and rebellious Catholics horrified by this painting. But, we do not stay in the 16th century for long as Vasoli transports her readers to the middle of an 18th-century swashbuckling pirate adventure in the Caribbean that ends up in France with a murder, a trip on the Titanic with a fashion designer for the rich and famous, and an encounter with scoundrels from World War II at Hever Castle.

Vasoli created a complex yet spectacular story of pursuing the truth that will rock the academic world with vibrant characters and compelling cases. Zara is a main character that I could personally relate to, and while I was reading, I was hoping she would find her way to not only the truth about the painting but for her to be happy with her family and friends. Her desire to uncover the truth, no matter the cost, is genuinely admirable. I wanted to know if Zara would ever find the truth, but at the same time, I did not want the story to end.

Vasoli created a masterpiece by not only creating a thought-provoking fictitious double portrait of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn but a novel that is unlike anything I have read. It’s a love letter to the past and those who pursue the truth behind even the smallest fragment left by our ancestors. If you want a thrilling Tudor-based historical fiction novel, “Pursuing a Masterpiece: A Novel” by Sandra Vasoli is a must-read.

Book Review: “Queens of the Age of Chivalry: England’s Medieval Queens” by Alison Weir

cover263156-mediumWhen we think of the title “medieval queen,” a few things come to mind. They were seen as mere trophy wives who were only suitable for making alliances and giving birth to children. It may be a cruel assessment for a modern audience, but that was the reality of the medieval world. However, the late Plantagenet queens decided to step outside the socially acceptable path for their lives and forged a new one. In Alison Weir’s latest nonfiction book, “Queens of the Age of Chivalry: England’s Medieval Queens,” she explores the lives of five Plantagenet queens who had to adapt quickly to the ever-changing world of late medieval England.

Thank you, Ballantine Books and Net Galley, for sending me a copy of this book. I have read and enjoyed the previous books in England’s Medieval Queens series, and I wanted to see which queens would be included in this book.

The years covered in this book are 1299-1399, a time of turmoil, change, and the plague. During that time, five queens forever left their marks on England: Marguerite of France, Isabella of France, Philippa of Hainault, Anne of Bohemia, and Isabella of Valois. Their royal husbands were Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, and Richard II. Since these queens were foreign brides, it was a balancing act between what their home country expected of them and what England expected their new queen to do, which was, in most cases, to give birth to heirs and to stay out of politics.

We begin with Marguerite of France, who was the second wife of Edward I and the step-mother of Edward II; her most extraordinary claim to fame was to try and prevent her son from ever seeing Piers Gaveston, which sadly did not last long. Isabella of France had to deal with Edward II’s favoritism to not only Piers Gaveston but to Hugh Despenser the Younger. This led her to join Roger Mortimer and rebel against her husband. This decision would create a black cloud around her reputation for centuries.

As part of the rebellion, Edward III married Philippa of Hainault, who was the closest of these five queens to be the ideal medieval queen. She gave Edward III many heirs that would help define future generations. Richard II’s first wife, Anne of Bohemia, was the essence of sophistication, but her death sent him reeling, forcing him to take a child bride named Isabella of Valois.

Being a queen in the late medieval period was not easy, especially with the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasants’ Revolt, and internal struggles were constantly in play, but the five queens mentioned in this book were able to navigate this tumultuous time to create their legacies. Weir once again weaves fun facts and compelling tales of each queen to give her readers her perspective on their true legacies. If you have enjoyed the previous books in “England’s Medieval Queens” series, I would highly recommend you read “Queens of the Age of Chivalry: England’s Medieval Queens” by Alison Weir.

Book Review: “Power, Treason, and Plot in Tudor England: Margaret Clitherow, an Elizabethan Saint” by Tony Morgan

60530456 (1)The Tudor dynasty was a time of significant political change, but it was also a time of tremendous religious change. Each Tudor monarch had a different view on the divide between Catholics and Protestants. Although we have an idea of what it might have been like during the reign of Mary I, the way Elizabeth I tackled the issue of religion during her reign. One story of how Catholics were treated in the so-called “Golden Age” of Elizabethan England is the story of Margaret Clitherow. She helped hide a couple of Catholic priests and ended up suffering for her actions by being crushed to death. Tony Morgan tells her story and how she became a Catholic martyr in his book, “Power, Treason, and Plot in Tudor England: Margaret Clitherow, an Elizabethan Saint.”

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Casemate, for sending me a copy of this book. I have heard the name Margaret Clitherow mentioned a few times in books about Elizabeth I, but I found out about her tragic tale.

With each monarch came dramatic changes, and by the time Elizabeth was on the throne, Protestants were safe, and Catholics were on the run. Morgan breaks each chapter into sections: how England was changing, how York was dealing with the changes, and how the changes in York affected Margaret Clitherow and her family. It is a great way to give the audience an understanding of why these changes involved a family of business owners like the Middletons and her husband, John Clitherow, a butcher. Margaret was raised to be a Protestant, but in her heart, she would always be a Catholic recusant.

Margaret Clitherow was no stranger to prison, as she had landed behind bars several times before her last case. In it, she was convicted of hiding a couple of Catholic priests, which was against the act of 1585 known as the “Act Against Jesuits, Seminary Priests and Such Other Like Disobedient Persons.” When brought to court, Margaret refused to plead either guilty or not guilty, creating a dilemma; the court ultimately decided she was guilty and sentenced her to death by being crushed by large rocks. What we know of the trial and execution is due to the book by Father John Mush called “A True Report of the Life and Martyrdom of Mrs. Margaret Clitherow.”

I found some parts of the book a tad dry, but that was because it dealt with religious politics and new laws. When it came to the actual story of Margaret Clitherow and her family drama, Morgan did an excellent job of introducing his audience to a new figure who fought for what she believed was right until the bitter end. If you want a book that teaches you about the Catholic resistance during the Elizabethan era and wants to know about Margaret Clitherow, “Power, Treason, and Plot in Tudor England: Margaret Clitherow, an Elizabethan Saint” by Tony Morgan should be on your list of books to read.

Book Review: “Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Kings and Princes” by Julia A. Hickey

61816116When we think about royal relationships from the past, we do not associate them with love; it is more about cementing power. Princes and kings knew how much was at stake, so they tended to have wives for politics and produce legitimate heirs that would inherit their kingdoms. For matters of love and lust, kings and princes would have mistresses, either of noble birth or lower, on the side. These women have been deemed whores and homewreckers but is that a fair assessment of their legacies? Julia A. Hickey takes a closer look at these misunderstood mistresses in her latest book, “Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Kings and Princes.”

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley, for sending me a copy of this book. When I saw this title, it intrigued me, and I was hoping to learn something new.

Hickey covers several hundred years in this book, starting around the year 1000 and ending in 1485. We begin with Queen Emma, Aelfgifu, and the confusion of whether Aelfgifu should be considered a mistress. With these Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings of England, we see many relatively hidden mistresses of William I and Henry I (who had quite a few). We then move to the Plantagenets with Henry II, King John, Edward II, Edward III, and Edward IV. Hickey also pays attention to other affairs in different countries, such as King David of Scotland and the Tour de Neste Affair.

Some of these mistresses would be familiar to readers, such as Isabella of Angouleme, Fair Rosamund, Piers Gaveston, Alice Perrers, Katherine Swynford, Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer, Jane Shore, Eleanor Talbot, and Elizabeth Woodville. Many were new to me, including Princess Nest of Wales, whose abduction started a war, Edith Forne Sigulfson, and Elizabeth Wayte. She even included Eleanor of Aquitaine as one of the mistresses mentioned in this book, which I’m afraid I have to disagree with, as most of this stems from the black legend that has tainted her legacy.

I found the information provided in this book rather intriguing, but my one concern about this book was how it was structured. I wish Hickey had sections marked for each king she mentioned in this book so we could distinguish which mistress was associated with which king or prince.

Overall, I found this book enjoyable and informative. It was a bit repetitive, and there were some arguments that I disagreed with. Still, the fact that Hickey could combine nearly 500 years’ worth of history about relatively hidden royal mistresses is quite admirable. Suppose you want a solid introduction to medieval England’s world of royal mistresses. In that case, I recommend you read “Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Kings and Princes” by Julia A. Hickey.

Book Review: “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell

62237869A 16-year-old duchess, who lived a sheltered life, died in a remote villa after only being married to her husband, Alfonso Duke of Ferrera, for a mere year. Many suspect that she died of a fever, but there are rumors that her husband had her poisoned. Not much is known about Lucrezia de Medici, Duchess of Ferrara, except her marriage portrait and a brief mention of her in Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess.” Did she die of a fever, or was there a more sinister plot behind her demise? The mystery around her life and unexpected death have not been discussed much until now in Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, “The Marriage Portrait.”

The last book I read by Maggie O’Farrell, “Hamnet,” was such an emotional ride for me, so when I heard that she would dive back into the 16th century with her latest novel, I was excited. I will admit that I had never heard the story of Lucrezia de Medici, so I was curious to see how O’Farrell would tell her tale.

We begin in the villa with Alfonso and Lucrezia, where Lucrezia feels uneasy and fearful for her life, but to understand why we must go back in time. We then jump to the past and Lucrezia’s childhood as the daughter of Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his wife Eleanor of Toledo. Lucrezia’s youth should be filled with balls and glamor, but she is different than her siblings and is treated as almost an outcast in her own family. Her only solace is her maid Sofia, who acts more like her mother, and her love of the arts.

As a daughter of nobility, Lucrezia knows that she will have to marry a noble one day, but it comes sooner than expected when her eldest sister dies, and she is betrothed to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. Her marriage to Alfonso begins smoothly; Alfonso is loving and caring, allowing Lucrezia to pursue her passions and have the freedom she desires. He even allows for a portrait painted in her honor to show the world how regal his bride is and how much he loves her. However, as time passes, Alfonso’s more erratic side shows its ugly head, and Lucrezia sees how dangerous her husband can be to those who displease him.

I will admit that it took me a while to get used to how this particular book was structured, as O’Farrell jumps from the present to the past in every other chapter and presents Lucrezia’s story in a very artistic way. I am unsure if Lucrezia was an outcast in her family, but I believe she could have been an artist and viewed the world differently than her family. As for Lucrezia’s relationship with her husband Alfonso, I think it is plausible that he had a more erratic side to him, especially when it came to those who displeased him. Still, I am not sure that he was responsible for her death.

This novel was thought-provoking and engaging with an unlikely protagonist in Lucrezia de Medici. Even though you know she will die at the end, you will root for Lucrezia and hope that she can find even the slightest thread of happiness in her short life. I found this an utterly gripping novel, and I hope O’Farrell will write more stories set in 16th-century Italy. If you want a thrilling book about a young noblewoman living during the Italian Renaissance, “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell should be at the top of your to-be-read list.

Book Review: “The Godmother’s Secret” by Elizabeth St. John

62232439When one says “the Princes in the Tower,” a few images pop into our mind. Two young boys were killed in the Tower by their evil uncle, who would become King Richard III. At least, that is the image that the Tudors wanted the world to see, and for centuries, that story has often been told. However, as research has expanded into who Richard III was, the tale of these two boys and their ultimate fate has become even murkier with new suspects and the question of whether the boys were murdered. Elizabeth St. John decided to take on the mystery of the Princes of the Tower with her twist to the tale in her latest novel, “The Godmother’s Secret.”

Thank you, Elizabeth St. John, for sending me a copy of your latest novel. I have found the mystery of the Princes of the Tower fascinating, and when I heard that this novel had a different angle to their tale, I knew I wanted to read it.

We begin our journey by introducing Lady Elysabeth Scrope, the wife of John Scrope and the half-sister to Margaret Beaufort, going into the sanctuary with Elizabeth Woodville. She is there to act as the godmother for Elizabeth Woodville’s first son, the future King Edward V, at the request of King Henry VI. Elysabeth is reluctant to help the Yorkist cause, as she was raised as a Lancastrian, but her husband is loyal to the Yorkists. She promises to keep Edward safe from harm, which would prove more challenging with the death of King Edward IV in 1483.

This should be a happy time for Elysabeth, John, and the new King Edward V, but a sermon and a coup caused everything to come crashing down. Edward and his brother Richard are removed to the Tower of London while their uncle becomes King Richard III. Along the way, Margaret Beaufort schemes to get her beloved son, Henry Tudor, to become the next king of England. Torn between her blood family and her family built by loyalty, Elysabeth must navigate the ever-changing political field of 1483-1485 to protect the princes, no matter the cost.

I thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to Lady Elysabeth Scrope and John Scrope and seeing the events unfold while they weathered the political storm the best they could. St. John has created a believable and compelling story about what might have happened to these two boys whose disappearance has captured our imaginations for centuries. She attempts to answer some age-old questions, like what might have happened to the boys, did Richard III have them killed, and did Margaret Beaufort have something to do with the princes’ disappearance? Suppose you want an engaging novel that gives a different perspective about what might have happened to the Princes in the Tower. In that case, I highly recommend you read “The Godmother’s Secret” by Elizabeth St. John.

Book Review: “House of Tudor: A Grisly History” by Mickey Mayhew

59607093._SY475_The glitzy, glamorous life of the Tudors portrayed in popular TV shows and novels mask the truth of this infamous dynasty. It is more bloody than what has been described. It is filled with grotesque executions, deadly diseases, bloody battles, and bloody battles. What happened to Richard III’s remains? What was Tudor torture like for those unfortunate victims? What were other devious tales at play in 16th-century Europe? Mickey Mayhew has worked hard to answer these questions by combining 45 of the most gruesome stories from this dynasty into one book, “The House of Tudor: A Grisly History.”

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Casemate Group, for sending me a copy of this book. I am always looking for a new book about the Tudors, so when I heard about this one, I decided that the perfect time to read it would be in October.

Mayhew begins the grotesque journey into the Tudor dynasty by exploring what happened to the previous king before Henry VII, Richard III, and his remains. We then jump into the reign of King Henry VIII with the tale of Catherine of Aragon and the head of King James IV of Scotland. It is then that Mayhew dives into the tumultuous reign of the big man, his unfortunate wives, and his ministers who got caught in the middle of all that tantalizing Tudor drama.

After the death of King Henry VIII, the political drama got more intense, as did the political and religious motivated executions. From the minute reign of Lady Jane Grey to the “bloody” albeit misnamed reign of Mary I to the colorful reign of Elizabeth I. Sprinkled in the chapters of these English queens were chapters dedicated to Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine de Medici, and the courts of Scotland and France, which were equally brutal as their English counterparts. We have plots plenty with the Babington, Ridolfi, and the smaller-scale Parry plot. Naturally, with schemes came rebellions and political assassinations that dominated 16-century Europe, especially in Tudor England, and numerous deadly diseases.

Mayhew categorized each chapter in chronological order with rather witty titles, which I appreciate in more academic writing. He does not shy away from the gory details, which adds another element to stories that are familiar to those who are Tudor fans. If you want something spooky to read in October or know more about the darker side of Tudor history, I recommend reading “House of Tudor: A Grisly History” by Mickey Mayhew.

Book Review: “Essex Dogs” by Dan Jones

60841074The year is 1346, and numerous English ships have landed on the shores of France. King Edward III, his son Edward of Woodstock, and his lords launched the first stage of what would be known as the Hundred Years’ War. Amongst the English royalty, nobility, and regular soldiers, are companies of men who came of their own accord for money and glory. One company of men consists of ten men known as the Essex Dogs, led by Loveday FitzTalbot. They are not like the other groups. They do not fight for money or glory; they fight for each other. In the horrors of war in a foreign land, can the Essex Dogs keep their promise and stay alive? Dan Jones introduces the world to these ten men and the early stage of the Hundred Years’ War in his first historical fiction novel, “Essex Dogs.”

I have read nonfiction books by Dan Jones for years now, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the amount of detail he puts into each book. When Dan Jones announced that he would dive into the world of historical fiction, I was fascinated to see how well he could handle the transition from historical nonfiction to fiction. I was pleasantly surprised by how this amazingly gripping novel.

This story, from the landing in France to the Battle of Crecy, is told through the eyes of Essex Dogs, a rag-tag group of men from England, Scotland, and Wales. Each man has a past that they are trying to run away from, but their loyalty to each other unites them to finish their forty days of service to King Edward III. Some Essex Dogs include the pint-size fighter Pismire, the strong Scotsman, and the loyal Millstone. We also have crazy priest Father, the young and naive archer Romford, and their fearless leader, who will do anything to keep his group together, Loveday FitzTalbot.

I love the colorful interactions that the Essex Dogs had between one another and with the actual people who were involved in the campaign to Crecy. Each soldier’s struggles, from injuries and drug use to strategies and the punishments for not following royal commands, were written brilliantly. However, one area in which Jones excelled was portraying the brutality of war. The battles and skrimmages Jones included were so believable that I had to collect my breath after each battle before I went back to ensure the Essex Dogs were okay. Even the fights between companies were thrilling and will stay with me for a long time ( I am looking at you, chapter 12).

I honestly did not know what to expect when I ordered this book back in February, but it was a masterpiece. I can’t believe it took Dan Jones this long to write historical fiction, but I cannot wait for the next book in this trilogy. It is easily one of my favorite historical fiction novels of this year. If you want an electrifying novel with a compelling cast of characters set at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, “Essex Dogs” by Dan Jones is a must-read.

Book Review: “The Final Year of Anne Boleyn” by Natalie Grueninger

61817724The world of someone close to a king, especially someone close to King Henry VIII, was full of hazards and great triumphs. All the glist and glamor of the Tudor court could not save them from the rage of the King. This could apply to anyone who fell during the reign of this infamous King, but none more so than his second wife and queen, Anne Boleyn. Much has been written about Anne Boleyn and her dramatic fall from grace, specifically the final month of her life, but what was she doing in her last year alive? Natalie Grueninger hopes to answer this question in her latest book, “The Final Year of Anne Boleyn.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I am always learning new facts about influential Tudors, like Anne Boleyn, so when I heard about this book, I knew it would be on my to-be-read pile.

We begin our journey to Anne’s demise with the court’s changes in 1535. There is still tons of support for Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and her daughter Mary, even with the new Act of Respecting the Oath to the Succession, which proclaimed Princess Elizabeth as King Henry VIII’s heir, not Mary. Anne interacts with ambassadors from foreign lands, like Charles de Solier from France and Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador.

My favorite part of this book is how much care Grueinger took in telling the story of Anne Boleyn’s final progress with Henry VIII. I have never read an account of this progress in the details Grueinger provided, including where she stayed and who served her at different royal houses. We also see how she dealt with the divide between Catholics and Protestants and how she relaxed in her downtime.

Grueninger examines Anne’s fall from grace and how it took place, starting with Henry’s dramatic fall from his horse and Anne’s tragic miscarriage of a son that would have secured her place on the throne. Here, we see the death of Katherine of Aragon and the rise of Jane Seymour. Emotions are running high, and rumors are flying all over Europe, so Grueninger takes the time to bust a few of these myths. Finally, we look at the show trials and the executions that sealed the fate of Anne Boleyn and the men associated with her.

Natalie Grueninger’s passion for telling the true story of Anne Boleyn is evident on every page of this book with the amount of research she poured into this subject. This book presents Anne Boleyn in a new sympathetic light, which any Tudor fan would appreciate. If you want a beautiful nonfiction book that examines the tragic fall of Anne Boleyn, I highly recommend you read “The Final Year of Anne Boleyn” by Natalie Grueninger.

Book Review: “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France” by Leonie Frieda

255134When we think about women rulers in the 16th century, some names, like Queen Mary I, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots, come to mind. However, another woman should be included in this list as her life helped keep the Valois dynasty alive and well in France, even though she was Italian by birth. Her name has been tainted with dark legends of poisoning, deadly incidents, and the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This notorious queen was Catherine de Medici, and Leonie Frieda has chosen to shed some light on the myths and mysteries surrounding this misunderstood woman in her biography, “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France.”

Catherine de Medici’s life was rough as her parents, Lorenzo II de Medici Duke of Urbino and Madeleine de La Tour d’ Auvergne, died shortly after she was born. A wealthy young heiress who was now an orphan, Catherine’s marriage was vital for the success of her family. The union meant for the young woman was with Henry II of France, the son of Francis I. Catherine fell deeply in love with Henry II. Still, another person in this marriage was Henry II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers. It took a while for Catherine and Henry to have the heirs necessary for their union to prove successful, but they did have ten children, including three sons that would become King of France; Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III.

When her beloved husband, King Henry II, died in a jousting accident, a lance in the eye, Catherine had to step up and protect her family, no matter what. Her first son to be King was Francis II, alongside his Scottish bride, Mary Queen of Scots, but he died after only a year on the throne from a severe earache. Catherine had to act as regent for her third son, King Charles IX, as he was too young to rule independently. Unfortunately, his reign was mired by several wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants. One of the most tumultuous events of his reign occurred in August 1572, known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which left a massive black mark on the legacy of Catherine de Medici for her supposed role in the disaster. After the death of Charles IX, Catherine had to once again act as regent as her fourth and favorite son, Henry III, had to make the journey back to France after being named King of Poland. Catherine de Medici died in 1589, and her favorite son Henry III died a few months later, ending the Valois dynasty and making way for the Bourbon dynasty in France.

In my opinion, I found this book a tad dry in areas, especially concerning the eight wars of religion in France. As someone who doesn’t read much about 16th-century France and its politics, this book was a bit of a challenge for me, and I felt that in some places, Catherine de Medici was more of a side character than the principal character in her biography. I also felt that Frieda focused on the black myth of Catherine de Medici and her supposed evil deeds instead of trying to debunk them.

Overall, I think this was a decent biography. Frieda does have a passion for her subject, and it shows from the political quagmire that she tries to navigate to the fun facts about Catherine and her family. If you know the story of Catherine de Medici and 16th-century France, you might find this book fascinating, but it might be challenging for novices in this area of research. If you want to know more about Catherine de Medici, “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France” by Leonie Frieda could be the book for you.