Philippa Gregory’s new novel shows women navigating dangerous political waters

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

‘I love my father because I know that he will never die. Neither will I. We are chosen by God and we walk in His ways, and we never swerve from them. We don’t have to earn our place in heaven by bribing God with acts or Masses. We don’t have to eat bread and pretend it is flesh, drink wine and call it blood. We know that is folly for the ignorant and a trap for papist fools. This knowledge is our pride and glory.’

This is the true story of the three Grey sisters: Jane, Queen of England for nine days; Katherine, whose lineage makes her a threat to the rightful succession; and Mary, a dwarf disregarded by the court but all too aware of her position as a possible heir to the throne.

I’m a huge fan of Philippa Gregory, particularly her Tudor novels, and she has claimed that this one will be her final story in a popular series spanning 11 books.

Gregory has once again proven why she is the queen of historical fiction. Her characters are women navigating dangerous political waters, aware that even taking the precaution of closing all the windows and doors isn’t enough to ensure they won’t be overheard by spies. Even an innocent remark can lead to a charge of treason, and the monarch is able to hold men and women in the Tower at their leisure without charging them of any crime.

The Grey sisters are each very different. We have pious Jane, an innocent but devout girl at the heart of a treasonous plot to sit her on the throne of England; wilful and light-hearted Katherine, who marries for love against the Queen’s wishes; and Mary, little in stature but possessing more dignity than anyone else at court. Around these three characters Gregory crafts an intriguing story of family and treachery, jealousy and passion.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is its exploration of the ‘last Tudor’ referenced in the title: Queen Elizabeth I. When most people think of Elizabeth they imagine her as queen in a time of glory and momentous change, when Shakespeare was writing, the New World was just discovered, and the monarch presided over a court full of the brightest minds of their generation. Gregory’s novel shows an altogether different side of Elizabeth, painting her, through the eyes of the Grey sisters, as vain, vindictive and needlessly cruel.

The main problem in this book is that the narrators spend such an awful lot of their time locked behind bars, unable to even make contact with anyone outside. As such we hear of the important political events taking place in England from characters who aren’t actually witnessing them first hand.

The other aspect of this book I had trouble with is the fact that there is next to no character development. We are introduced to each of the Grey sisters at the start of the novel, and they remain the same until the very end. I prefer my characters to change over the course of a story, watching them develop and grow, and that is something the reader definitely doesn’t get from this book.

Despite its flaws, Gregory has once again succeeded in what she does best: taking real women from history and giving them a voice. She has stuck to her traditional formula and as such her fans will find much to love here. I’ll be keen to see what she comes up with once she frees herself from facts and comes up with her own original characters.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Natasha Pulley’s second novel is a charming book full of magic and wonder

Although I hadn’t been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn’t artillery. I sat up in bed to look out of the window, half-balanced on my elbows, but there was nothing except a spray of slate shards and moss on the little gravel path three floors below. There had been a storm in the night, huge, one of those that takes days and days to form and gives everyone a headache, and the rain must have finally worked loose some old roof tiles.’

1859. Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year Pulley released her debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, to outstanding reviews. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, so my expectations were high for The Bedlam Stacks. Fortunately, Pulley has written her second novel in the same vein as her first and is clearly on to a winning formula.

Pulley seamlessly blends historical fiction and fantasy, whilst hopping through various other genres including thriller, steampunk and sci-fi. The plot takes the reader on an adventure into the fantastical wilds of Peru, where lamps are made of golden pollen, statues move freely, and no one crosses the salt line separating the town from the forest for fear of disappearing.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book were the characters. They seem so real and empathetic that you can easily imagine them stepping off the page and reaching out to shake your hand. The intimate, delicately written moments between characters are so awkward and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Merrick is a highly empathetic character, a man with an edge who is searching for a new purpose in life. In Peru he meets Raphael, a young priest, and their growing friendship is a delight to watch unfold.

As with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, there is much more to this book than first appears. An adventure it may be, but it is also a heartfelt exploration of time, identity and friendship. The fantasy elements sit easily alongside meditations on duty and the contrasts between different cultures. Science and fantasy walk side by side, intertwining in wondrous ways and creating a beautiful tapestry of a story.

It does take a while to get started so it requires a fair bit of patience to muddle through the short sentences and long-winded descriptions in the opening chapters, but Pulley soon hits her stride and plunges you into an immersive, fantastical world.

Pulley writes with flair and imagination, juggling a complicated plot with apparent ease. If you’re looking for escapism, look no further. This is a charming book, full of magic and wonder, and I urge you to pick up a copy.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

First fantasy novel from historical fiction author Conn Iggulden

Darien by C.F. Iggulden

No one wanted to be cast out, to have to go to the city for work. There were no good endings there, everyone knew that. When young girls ran off to Darien, their parents even held a simple funeral, knowing it was much the same. Perhaps to warn the other girls, too.

The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king. It will summon strangers to the city – Elias Post, a hunter; Tellius, an old swordsman; Arthur, a boy who cannot speak; Daw Threefold, a chancer and gambler; Vic Deeds, who feels no guilt; and Nancy, whose talent might be the undoing of them all.

Darien is the first fantasy novel from historical fiction powerhouse Conn Iggulden. I only discovered Iggulden this year and am halfway through his Wars of the Roses series, which I absolutely love. When I heard he was crossing over into fantasy I was beyond excited to see what he would come up with. Though Darien isn’t without its flaws, there is lots here for fantasy fans to enjoy.

The world Iggulden has created is interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, but I wish he had gone into more detail. The political system of 12 ruling families wasn’t really explained and the magic system was interesting but also could have benefited from more detail. 350 pages isn’t really enough for an epic fantasy novel and it seems Iggulden made the choice to sacrifice world-building in order to spend more time fleshing out his characters.

Which explains why the characters are the strongest part of this book. They each have their own motives and have interesting backgrounds, and keep the reader emotionally engaged in the outcome of the story. The only place where Iggulden falls down is with Nancy, who comes across as the archetypal Strong Female Character and is subjected to a forced and unnecessary romance.

Iggulden is a master at pacing and the final conflict displays his skill at writing battle scenes while never losing sight of his characters’ human nature. It is a tense, exciting finale and one that will have you eagerly anticipating the next in the series.

Darien is not the perfect fantasy novel, but it was a good opening to a series, leaving enough questions unanswered to make you want to come back for more. I just hope Iggulden fleshes out his fantasy world a little more with the sequel.

Many thanks to Penguin for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Matt Haig’s new novel is sure to leave a smile on your face

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

‘I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’

Tom Hazard may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabeth England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

Matt Haig had a tough act to follow after the phenomenal success of last year’s part-biography, part-self-help-book Reasons to Stay Alive. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, and one I have dipped in and out of repeatedly since buying it. So I was prepared to love How to Stop Time. Although it had its flaws, Haig has continued his winning formula of crafting believable, hopeful stories that leave the reader with a smile on their face.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first. The premise is interesting but it’s been done before and Haig stumbles further into cliché by having his protagonist, Tom, meet various real life people along the way; he is hired by Shakespeare and sails the seas with Captain Cook, among others.

One of the things I love about Haig’s writing is the hope. His books are full of darkness but among all the shadows there are wonderful moments of hope and joy. There is hope in How to Stop Time, but it takes a while to get there and it becomes quite taxing to follow a character who spends so much time mourning the past.

However, there was a lot I enjoyed about this novel. There are moments of piercing insight that make you pause and put down the book as you contemplate their genius. Haig has always found a way to interpret the messy, confusing business of being human with language that is simple yet astoundingly perceptive. He understands people, and creates his characters in an honest and believable way.

With Tom having been alive for such a long time, he finds he is losing himself in the grand scheme of things, feeling smaller and smaller against the backdrop of the ever-rolling wheel of history. This book charts his journey to accepting that there is nothing he can do about the progression of time; he can only try to make the most of it, and lose himself in the pleasure of a moment.

Tom is also a member of the Albatross Society (so named because albatrosses were believed to live for a long time). The Society is formed of people like Tom and its purpose is to prevent ordinary humans, or ‘mayflies’, from finding out that there are people who can live to be 800-years-old. The Society added a much-needed thriller element to the story, with the increasing threat of the Society’s founder, Hendrich, hanging over Tom as the story hurries along to an exciting and tense ending.

Although it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen at the end of the book, it still leaves you with a feeling of lightness, a desire to go out and live life and make the most of it all. Despite its flaws, it is life-affirming stuff and guaranteed to leave a spring in your step.

Many thanks to Canongate for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Dark Peter Pan retelling has edges sharp enough to cut

Lost Boy by Christina Henry

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

Peter brings Jamie to his island because there are no rules and no grownups to make them mind. He brings boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper then a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Peter promised they would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

I picked up Lost Boy in Waterstones without ever having heard of it or its author before. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, but I haven’t been this excited to write about a book in a long while. This Peter Pan prequel turned out to be one of those unexpected reads that comes out of nowhere and completely knocks your socks off.

This is a brilliant novel. Fairy tale retellings are 10 a penny but this one is different; it has edges sharp enough to cut and will keep you up way past your bedtime. Henry creates incredible suspense – even though everyone already knows the story – so that you’re never sure what is just around the corner, or waiting on the next turn of the page.

Our narrator is Jamie, a boy who has been living on Peter Pan’s island for as long as he can remember. During all those years of never growing up, Jamie has looked up to Peter, has loved him with all his heart and trusted him always. But things are changing on the island, and Jamie starts to see Peter in a new light.

The Peter Pan of this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. He cares only for fun and games, for adventures and laughter, but what matters to him most is that the other boys all adore him. The moment one of them starts to doubt him is the moment they no longer matter to him, and there are plenty of ways on the island for a careless boy to disappear.

Lost Boy is strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its group of boys trapped on an island, the captivating claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense that something very, very bad is just seconds away from happening.

In Henry’s hands the sugar-sweet Disney-fied version of Peter Pan becomes a terrifying portrait of a ‘mad child’ whose idea of fun is killing pirates and watching boys fight to the death. The other boys are little more than toys that he picks up and puts down as he wishes, but he is so charming and brave that they can’t help but love him. Only Jamie understands Peter’s true cruel, manipulative nature, but even he isn’t immune to Peter’s influence.

I would highly recommend this book. Even if you’re not usually a fantasy fan, the characters and gripping storytelling will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it leads you to its thrilling, inexorable end.

New book releases July 2017

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard has a secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

This is easily one of my most anticipated books of 2017. I’m hoping Haig’s new offering is as full of hope and truth as his previous books.

Release date: 6th July

 

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Frank has a gift for finding his customers the music they need to hear. When he meets Ilsa, a mysterious woman engaged to another man, he falls in love. 12 years later Ilsa returns to find Frank. The shop has gone; no one knows where he is. All that remains is a series of clues, each one related to music.

Joyce is the author of the brilliant, heart-wrenching novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I can’t wait to read more of her charming, uplifting prose.

Release date: 13th July

 

Blackwing by Ed McDonald

The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy.

This is the first in a new epic fantasy series that has already received praise declaring it to be one of the best fantasy debuts of the year.

Release date: 27th July

 

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

It’s been a year since Billie Flanagan went on a hike and vanished from the trail. Her body was never found. Her husband and her teenage daughter, Olive, have been coping as best they can, but then Olive starts having strange visions of her mother that suggest she may not be dead after all.

This is a psychological thriller that has been compared to Big Little Lies, and it has already been called ‘clever and compelling’.

Release date: 11th July

 

The Goddesses by Swan Huntley

When Nancy and her family arrive in Hawaii, they are desperate for a fresh start. Nancy resolves to make a happy life for herself. She starts taking a yoga class and there she meets Ana, the charismatic teacher. As Nancy grows closer and closer to Ana, she knows she will do anything Ana asks of her.

This sounds like the kind of gripping psychological thriller that would make a perfect beach read.

Release date: 25th July

 

Darien by C.F. Iggulden

The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. 12 families keep order with soldiers and artefacts, spies and memories, clinging to a peace that shifts and crumbles. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king.

From historical novelist Conn Iggulden – author of the Wars of the Roses series – this is the first in an epic new fantasy series that sounds perfect for fans of Game of Thrones.

Release date: 13th July

 

Final Girls by Riley Sager

They were the victims of separate massacres. Grouped together by the press and dubbed the Final Girls, they are treated like something out of a slasher movie. When something terrible happens to Lisa, Quincy and Sam finally meet. Each one influences the other. Each one has dark secrets. And each one will never be the same.

I love the idea behind this book and can only hope that the writing and the plot live up to the promise in the blurb.

Release date: 13th July

 

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy

Every seven years something disappears in the remote town of Sterling: people’s reflections, the stars in the sky, the ability to dream. Aila realises that her mother may be to blame, but some secrets want to stay hidden.

This sounds like a very unusual debut novel, and has been described as ‘thick with mystery, buried secrets, and magic’.

Release date: 27th July

 

This Is How It Happened by Paula Stokes

After waking up from a coma, Genevieve can’t remember the car crash that killed her boyfriend Dallas, a YouTuber turned teen music idol. In the media everyone assumes the driver, Brad, is guilty. As she slowly pieces together the night of the accident, Genevieve starts to wonder if she was really the one at fault.

This sounds like it could be a very interesting novel, exploring themes about the way the internet is always watching and judging our actions.

Release date: 11th July

 

Where the Light Falls by Allison Pataki

Three years after the storming of the Bastille, the streets of Paris are roiling with revolution. Jean-Luc, an idealistic young lawyer, moves his family to Paris in the hope of joining the cause. Andre has evaded execution by joining the new French army. Sophie, an aristocratic widow, embarks on a fight for independence from her vindictive uncle.

With cameos from legendary figures including Robespierre, Louis XVI and Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, this sounds like an epic tale that will sweep readers off their feet.

Release date: 11th July

A feminist historical novel set in Victorian Edinburgh

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

‘If you had seen us taking tea, you would have assumed we were serious-minded but perfectly normal young ladies – New Women, perhaps, of the kind that had sprung up in the past decade, who fancied themselves equal to men in terms of intellect, but nothing that a good dose of marriage and motherhood wouldn’t cure.

1892. Sarah Gilchrist has fled from London to Edinburgh in disgrace and is determined to become a doctor. As part of the University of Edinburgh’s first intake of female medical students, Sarah comes up against resistance from lecturers, her male contemporaries, and her fellow woman. When one of her patients turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into Edinburgh’s dangerous underworld.

I was really looking forward to reading this book. It promised a dark plot, set in 19th century Edinburgh, with a female protagonist determined to become a doctor despite her family and society insisting that such a thing shouldn’t be allowed. In some ways, it delivered exactly what I was looking for. In others, however, it failed to impress.

I really enjoyed the feminist aspects of this novel. It offers an interesting perspective on the so-called ‘fallen woman’ and has plenty to say about the way marriage confines women and the dull lives they have in store once they find a husband. I particularly enjoyed the way Welsh presented the relationships between female characters, the way men and society conspire to turn them against each other.

I also enjoyed the way 19th century Edinburgh was brought to life on the page, with all its filth and poverty contrasted with the drawing rooms of the rich. We move from townhouses and the university to brothels and opium dens, with an interesting and varied cast of characters.

However, this novel did have its faults, foremost being the fact that Welsh didn’t seem to trust her readers to understand the rules of the Victorian society her characters inhabit. So she repeats how unfair life is to women over and over again, until I became completely exasperated by it. There is just no subtlety to it.

I have no idea how Sarah managed to get into the University of Edinburgh because she makes some terrible decisions that suggest she is in fact rather foolish. Gifted at medicine she may be, but in her everyday life her actions will have readers hanging their heads in despair. Shall I follow this suspected murderer down a dark alleyway? Should I deliberately seek to be alone with this suspected murderer when he has already threatened me? Of course! Why wouldn’t I?

The writing was average, with good atmosphere at times, and Welsh clearly wrote this novel with the intention of beginning a series featuring aspiring doctor Sarah Gilchrist. I can’t be sure whether I’ll be picking up the next instalment – it will depend on how good the plot sounds – but if you enjoy Victorian crime novels you’re sure to enjoy this one.

Many thanks to Tinder Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review