Wednesday, 25 February 2009

CREDO - by Melvyn Bragg

My last book read for the challenge and it was a struggle. Skipped quite a lot of pages, maybe because I was not in the right frame of mind at the time.
The story was very heavy on the religious theme which I felt could have been softened a bit.
Maybe down the track I could try again.

Briefly the story is part historical and family saga. A young Irish princess, Bega, defies your father, as she does not want to marry her chosen husband. Her actions and choices set off a chain of events.

I had bought this book many years ago and was looking forward to reading it, mainly as it covers early Irish history etc. Oh well, there is always another time.

Monday, 9 February 2009

End of Challenge

Hi everyone
Well the challenge has now 'officially' finished. Congratulations to all of you who completed your set reading / watching.
You can still post here until the end of the month if you're still reading - I'll stop the postings on the 31st.
Hope you all had fun - I did - and I've some great recommendations from you all too.
With very best wishes - happy reading
Lynda ;0)

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The Fool's Tale by Nicole Galland

The year 1198. All of Wales is in turmoil.

King Maelgwyn ap Cadwallon, known to his people as Noble, is struggling to protect his small kingdom from treacherous Welsh princes and Roger Mortimer, an ambitious English baron who murdered Noble's father years earlier. Desperate to secure a peace treaty, the king grimly agrees to a political marriage with Isabel Mortimer, Roger's niece.

Isabel, not yet twenty, is confounded by the intimacy and informality of the Welsh court which to her foreign eyes looks barbaric and backward. As determined and wilful as she is naive, she eventually earns the respect and affection of her husband and his subjects - with the notable exception of Gwirion, the king's oldest and oddesst friend, who has a particular, private reason to hate Mortimers.

Gwirion's rascally tricks and diversion are expected - and relished - by all at Cymaron Castle. But a disastrous prank played during the royal wedding ignites a volatile competition between queen and confidant for the king's affection, with unexpected consequences.

As Mortimer makes it apparent that he has no intention of honouring the peace treaty, the bond between Noble and Isabel grows strained. And when Gwirion and Isabel's mutual animosity is abruptly transformed, Noble finds himself as threatened by those he loves best as by the enemies who menace his crown.

A masterful debut novel by a gifted storyteller, The Fool's Tale combines vivid historical fiction, compelling political intrigue, and passionate romance to create an intimate drama of three individuals bound - and undone - by love and loyalty.

A brief look at my archives will tell you a few things. One is that I love Historical Fiction. Doesn't really matter what the setting is, although British history is one of my favourites. Ever since reading Sharon Kay Penman's excellent Welsh trilogy, the idea of reading more about Welsh history has been very attractive to me. I also am partial to a good Historical romance, so this book should have worked for me on a number of levels.

Did you notice I said should? Unfortunately it didn't work for me at all. At over half way through I have given up, and have my first DNF for the year. Given that I have only had one book that I couldn't finish reading since I began blogging over 3 years ago, you would be right in thinking that this is something that I don't normally do, but I just couldn't go on!

The first thing that didn't work for me was the fact that this is supposedly Welsh history, but then a quick look at the author's note reveals that King Maelgwyn ap Cadwallon really died the year before this book was set, Isabel Mortimer and her brother never existed, which means that all the dramatic points that I read (war councils and battles) cannot have happened. Oh, and that "Gwirion is not only fictional, but historically improbably, as the Welsh court had no known position corresponding to the concept of a European fool or jester." Yes, the laws and rituals described were based on historical fact, so it's not completely without basis but there's not much there.

The second thing that didn't work for me is the characters. Noble, who very much does not live up to his name, Gwirion and Isabel are all unlikeable.In the first half of the book, what we had is a King who had wed in a strategic alliance, but who continued to bed anyone that he wanted to, whenever he wanted to, with little consideration for his wife. Gwirion's pranks were not only not funny, they were downright dangerous, and when Noble pranks back it is almost to the point of killing the man who is supposed to be his best friend. Isabel is cool and distant, and when she does lose the heir that is so needed, it is in such a way that is just not likely to occur.

At the point where I have given up, Gwirion, who has hated Isabel vehemently since she has arrived, has just seen her with her hair down, and suddenly there is a strong attraction between them. Because I always take a peak at the end of the book, I have a fair idea of what happenes next and I know how it ends, and again, just don't see how it is likely that that could possibly happen when you have a king and queen involved. By the way, there are only a couple of times over the years where reading the ending of a book did really, really spoil for the reader, and this is one of those times.

The author is a screenwriter, and I don't know if part of the idea was to try and sex up historical fiction, and to make the plot as dramatic as possible, but it didn't work for me. I have in the past borrowed other books by this author and never managed to read them. I am still interested in reading The Fourth Crusade for example, but it will be a while before I will be ready to give her another go.

Rating: DNF

The Yorkist Age - Paul Murray Kendall

My last review for this challenge is about a non fiction book and so naturally different from my other reviews.

Paul Murray Kendall's The Yorkist Age is a very interesting book about the daily life during the Wars of The Roses - that is in fact its subtitle. I may not be the ideal book to read in one sitting but being filled with interesting historical facts, many of them quite fun, it is the ideal book to have at hand whenever you want to know more about this period. It's a valuable research tool but it's also something to savour now and then.

The prologue is an introduction to the period and the main body of work is divided in three parts focusing on The Mayor (the municipality and its government), Other Important People (the different levels of society from the King to the merchants and pirates) and the Household (from estate management to marriage and the place of women and children in society. It ends with an epilogue devoted to the Wars of the Roses.

Highly recommended to those who want to know more about the Yorkist Age.

Thank you for a great challenge!! :-)

Shields of Pride by Elizabeth Chadwick

The year is 1173. King Henry's efforts to crush his rebellious sons ignite bloody border skirmishes throughout the land. Yet it is a time of triumph for mercenary Josceline de Gael, bastard son of the king's most trusted ally. Victorious on the battlefield, de Gael suffers sweet defeat when his heart is conquered by the lovely Linnet de Montsorrel. But their love will find its greatest challenge as the torments of jealousy, suspicion, pride - and an enemy from beyond the grave - threaten all they hold dear.

Josceline de Gael is the bastard son of William de Rocher, the Ironheart. His father's wife and half-brothers never forgave him the circunstances of his birth and he finally leaves home for several years.While returning to his father's house, he meets the unpleasant and jealous Gilles Montsorrel and his wife Linnet. After the accidental death of Gilles, Joscelin is chosen to protect his wife and son. But even if Linnet and Gilles start slowly trusting each other and eventually marry, some hidden secrets could change their relationship forever…

I have to confess that my favorite character is Joscelin. He is truly a wonderful, honest and strong man. There's some shades of gray here and there which makes him even more charismatic and the way he treats Linnet and her son is truly heartwarming.

Linnet is more difficult to like but her flaws only make her more human. A battered wife, used and abused at her husband's hands, she doesn't trust men. Her secret creates some difficult moments with Joscelin but it's impossible to blame her for her past actions. I couldn't help feeling frustrated by her situation as a rich widow and mother of an heir. Just free from a monster and immediately forced to marry, unable to choose her husband or even take any decision for her future.

Shields of Pride is one of the earliest works of Elizabeth Chadwick and even if not her best, it's still a magnificent weaved story. I've read some of the author's other books like Shadows and Strongholds, The Love Knot or The Champion and every one of them is a delight, even the Hunt trilogy (it's what I call The Wild Hunt, The Running Vixen and The Leopard Unleashed) which is slightly different from her more recent works (they tend more towards the historical romance). For those who are really into this historical period, do not miss Elizabeth Chadwick's books!

Grade: 4/5

The Marsh King's Daughter - Elizabeth Chadwick

THREATENS THE SOCIAL ORDER. Unwanted and unloved, rebellious Miriel Weaver is
forced to a convent by her violent stepfather. Her plan to escape from the harsh
life of a novice nun crystallises with the arrival of recuperating soldier of
fortune Nicholas de Caen. Miriel sees in his pride and self-sufficiency a
kindred spirit and, once he is well enough to leave, a way out. The two part in
Nottingham on bad terms which are to blight both their lives. When they meet
again by chance, they agree to call a truce -- but the truce becomes first
friendship and then a dangerous passion. Almost too late, Nicholas and Miriel
realise that the chain of events triggered by their first meeting could now
ensure they never know the pleasure of living ...

It seems with every new Elizabeth Chadwick book I read I become more of a fangirl of her work. Like in previous books what really draws me in are the characters she creates and their complexity. How they become real to us.

Unlike other books this story does not deal with the nobility. It deals with the common people, traders and particularly weavers, and I really enjoyed knowing something about that trade.

Elizabeth Chadwick beautifully combines history and fiction. In this case she starts out with a real event - the disappearence of the royal treasure during King John's reign - and she plays around with what might have happened to it. This however is not the main subject of the book but more of a pretext to start the action.

Miriel is a young girl, who has been confined to a convent by her family, when she meets Nicholas de Caen. He is brought to the convent after being found unconscious on the road and when he eventually leaves Miriel decides to follow.

Their fate will be closely connected to King John's lost treasure and if as young people they showed great promise when they meet again they are strong and ready to deal with the feelings that had been brewing since their first meeting. Things are not easy though as life has made them walk different paths and will lead them to difficult decisions. Nicholas and Miriel's story makes for a compelling read and I simply could not stop till I reached the last page.

Grade: 5/5

Friday, 6 February 2009

Women in Early Medieval Europe 400 - 1100 by Lisa M Bitel

This was my third book read for the Medieval Challenge, and the second of the non-fiction books I have read about this time period. Actually, the other non-fiction book I read discussed the true medieval time period, 1040-ish to the 1500's, and this book obviously covered an earlier time period, 400 to 1100. But as they focused on different topics, there would not have been much overlap anyway.
I have to say that I loved this book. I have not read a history book that I enjoyed so much in a long time. Women in Early Medieval Europe could easily be used as a textbook for a class on either early medieval history or women's studies. It is an extensively researched and well notated book that focuses solely on women, and their impact on the history of this time period, as well as the time period's impact on them. Bitel does an excellent job of finding the stories about women from the little that is said about them. She points out that the histories written during this time period are by men, and women are only discussed if they are somehow connected to the male main characters, as mothers or wives. The only women that merit real attention are those that either break the rules set for them by society, or who are especially pious and noble, and therefore used by the historians as examples of what women should or should not be.
In addition to the histories written during these time periods, Bitel examines records of laws and accounts, often finding evidence of women when it is not explicitly stated. And of course we know that women existed, because people continued to procreate and extend their reach over the land. Bitel discusses the reasons for why women were included or left out of records to great extent. This is a fascinating book both on the level of women's history and early european history.
Women in Early Medieval Europe is part of the Cambridge Medieval Textbook series. For anyone interested in good non-fiction about this time period, I would recommend checking out any books in this series.