Book Review: “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

43890641._SY475_The Black Death has ravished England and Europe for centuries. Although the plague in the 16th century was not as devastating as in previous centuries, it still was a horrific disease that killed thousands. For example, in Warwickshire, England, a family understood how unforgiving death could be and how it can tear down even the strongest of familial bonds. The family of the playwright William Shakespeare must navigate the sudden loss of their beloved son while they keep their family together. “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell is the story of the death of one child and how his death affected so many people.

When it comes to this book, it was one of those titles that I had heard so many good things about it, but I waited for a while until I bought it for myself. I wanted to understand why it was such a beloved novel.

It should be noted that O’Farrell does write in the present tense, which is somewhat unusual for a historical fiction novel. Since I do not read many books written in the present tense, it took me a few pages to feel comfortable with the narrative. We witness Hamnet rushing all over town to find his family as his twin sister Edith lays sick in bed, fearing that she is ill with the plague. We then switch to a different scene where we see the mother named Agnes, who is deemed eccentric and unusual, fall in love with a penniless Latin tutor who is the son of a glover. These two storylines seem separate, but when you realize how they connect, it shows how strong the love between Agnes and her husband was and how she fiercely loved her children.

In the end, it was not Judith who died but Hamnet. His death shifts the entire tone of this book, and we see the whole family grieve in different ways. Grief is painful for everyone, but Agnes’s grief is debilitating. Often, O’Farrell would have a scene in this novel or a line to make me want to cry. Hamnet’s death and the aftermath have been one of the most emotional rollercoasters I have read all year.

This novel was spectacular in the way it was written. Although the present tense did throw me for a loop at first, the story and its emotional weight were nothing short of impressive. It may have been about the Shakespeare family during the late Tudor dynasty, but it can translate to any family dealing with a pandemic, past or present. It is a novel that transcends time that anyone who loves historical fiction will devour. If you want an elegantly written book with a poignant storyline, “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell should be on your to-be-read pile.

Book Review: “Life in Medieval Europe: Fact and Fiction” by Daniele Cybulskie

43972589Have you ever read a book, either historical fiction or nonfiction, about medieval Europe and wondered if what the author was writing about was true? What about historical movies or dramas? You know that they probably have the facts about the important people and events correct, or at least you hope, but you wonder about the small details. What did they eat? How did they keep themselves clean and healthy? How did religion and the criminal justice system work in medieval Europe? What was medieval warfare like? These questions and more are explored in Daniele Cybulskie’s enchanting book, “Life in Medieval Europe: Fact and Fiction”.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I have spoken with Daniele Cybulskie on social media in the past about quite a few medieval topics, including when she spoke at the Tudor Summit, so when I heard about this book, I wanted to read it.

Cybulskie’s book is divided into chapters that explore numerous topics about average medieval life. As a reader, one would think that this book would begin with the birth and childhood of those who lived during this time. However, Cybulskie chooses to begin with how medieval people kept themselves and their cities clean. It may seem a bit strange compared to other books about medieval life, but the way she structures this book works in Cybulskie’s favor. Although this book is informative, it feels like you are having a casual conversation with the author about these topics.

By dividing the chapters into topic-based chapters, Cybulskie can explore numerous questions that fit into each topic. From cleanliness to religious life, warfare to pastimes, love to death, she can give her readers an experience that covers the thousand years of history that make up the medieval time period. Along the way, she includes little boxes that contain fun little factoids to provide even more trivia.

What is great about Cybulskie is that as a medievalist, she understands that there was a lot of diversity in the medieval world. It was not just fit European Christians. There were also Jews, Muslims, people with disabilities, rich and poor, and those who generally did not fit well into society. By including every type of person who lived in the medieval world, we can get a better understanding of how vast and colorful it truly was. Cybulskie also includes a simplistic overview of events like the Black Death and the crusades to show the dramatic and damaging effects that they had on medieval society as a whole.

To say that this book was fun to read would be an understatement. Cybulskie’s knowledge radiates in every page of this short book. I honestly did not want to stop reading this book, I wanted to learn more. It was educational and entertaining all at the same time. Simply a wonderful resource for novice medievalists and writers of historical fiction and nonfiction alike. If you want to learn the truth about different aspects of medieval life, I highly suggest you include, “Life in Medieval Europe: Fact and Fiction” by Daniele Cybulskie, to your book collection.

Book Review: “Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation” by Kathryn Warner

43661739In medieval England, the queens were almost as famous, or infamous, as their husbands. In most cases, they came from royal backgrounds and their sons would become kings. That, however, was the case for Philippa of Hainault, the wife of King Edward III. She tends to be forgotten when it comes to discussing her famous husband, her infamous mother-in-law Isabella of France, and her sons whose children would go on to shape English history forever. That is until now. Kathryn Warner has decided to discover the truth about this rather remarkable woman in her latest biography, “Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation”.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this informative biography. It looked rather intriguing and this was the first time that I have read a book by Kathryn Warner. This was an absolute joy to read.

Warner begins by explaining Philippa of Hainault’s immediate family. As a queen, she had a rather unusual upbringing since she was the daughter of Willem, Count of Hainault and Holland and his wife Jeanne de Valois (whose brothers and sisters would be kings and queens throughout Europe). Philippa’s husband was Edward III, whose parents were King Edward II and Isabella of France (who did not get along at all, especially over the issue of Hugh Despenser). Philippa and Edward III came from rather different backgrounds, but they were married so that Philippa’s father could help Isabella of France with her invasion of England, which resulted in the abdication of her husband and her son becoming the new King of England. An unusual reason to get married, but it actually worked rather well.

Isabella of France and her partner in crime, Roger Mortimer, were hoping that Edward III was going to be like a puppet king, but they were wrong. Edward III did things his own way, wife his beloved wife Philippa by his side. While Edward III was taking care of domestic and foreign issues, Philippa was raising their large family. Their sons and daughters included Edward of Woodstock “The Black Prince”, Isabella of Woodstock, Lionel of Antwerp, John of Gaunt, Edmund of Langley, and Thomas of Woodstock. Although they did have a large family, none of their children would become King or Queen of England; it would be Edward of Woodstock’s son, Edward and Philippa’s grandson, Richard of Bordeaux who would become King Richard II. It was the descendants of Edward and Philippa’s sons and daughters that would go and shape the conflict that would be known as the Wars of the Roses.

Another lasting legacy of Edward III was the beginning of a conflict between England and France that would be known as the Hundred Years’ War. It started when Edward III declared war on Philippa’s maternal uncle King Philip VI of France. Talk about family drama. But family drama was nothing new for Philippa since she was connected to many kings, queens, emperors, and empresses throughout Europe through marriage and there were times where her husband would get into disagreements with her extended family. That was the nature of medieval Europe, but it never affected her relationship with Edward III. Around this time, the Black Death was beginning to leave its mark on Europe, hitting many families including Edward III and Philippa of Hainault’s children.

Kathryn Warner brought Philippa of Hainault into the spotlight that she deserved with a delightful plethora of details combined with an eloquent writing style. Warner does repeat facts in her book, but as someone who is a novice in studying this time period, it was rather useful for me to have her repeat these facts. I enjoyed this book immensely and it really helped me understand her story and the legacy that her family left behind for England and for Europe. If you want a great book about Philippa of Hainault and her family, I highly recommend you read, “Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation” by Kathryn Warner.