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.

New book releases for August 2017

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

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 I read Pulley’s debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and it was one of my favourite books of 2016. I’ve already read The Bedlam Stacks, and can confirm that it is just as magical and surprising as her debut. (Full review coming soon)

Release date: 1st August

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

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.

There is no writer who can match Gregory for historical fiction and her books set in Tudor England are often her best. She tells stories with intelligence and verve, focusing her books on real women navigating the dangerous waters of court politics.

Release date: 8th August

How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb

Don’t cry, love sport, play rough, drink beer, don’t talk about feelings. But Robert Webb has started to wonder if any of those rules are actually any use? To anyone? Looking back over his life, Webb considers the absurd expectations boys and men have thrust upon them.

The only autobiography I’ve ever read is Roald Dahl’s, so Webb’s book will be a departure from my usual reading material. However, I do love his sense of humour and it’s been a while since I read a book that has the potential to make me laugh out loud.

Release date: 29th August

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

Since the death of Ragnvald’s father in battle, he has worked hard to protect his sister, Svanhild, and planned to inherit his family’s land when he comes of age. But when the captain of his ship tries to kill him, he must confront his stepfather’s betrayal and find a way to protect his birthright.

This saga of Viking-era Norway sounds exciting and different, and has already been described as ‘vivid and gripping’. Steeped in legend and myth, it promises to be a swashbuckling historical epic.

Release date: 1st August

Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne

Samantha and Naomi meet during a white-hot summer on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra. They find a young Arab man, Faoud, washed up on shore, a casualty of the crisis raging across the Aegean. But when their plan to help the stranger goes wrong, all must face the consequences.

This sounds like the perfect holiday read. It has been compared to The Great Gatsby by the New York Times Book Review; a bold claim, and only time will tell if it’s justified.

Release date: 10th August

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker SV

Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives

Stella Krakus, a curator at Manhattan’s renowned Central Museum of Art, is having the roughest week ever, including the fact a beloved colleague, Paul, has gone missing. The appearance of a strange map sends Stella on an all-consuming research mission where she discovers the secret Paul’s been keeping.

This book has received a wealth of praise already, having been called ‘magical’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘mesmerising’, and Ives’ credentials as a poet promise beautiful writing.

Release date: 3rd August

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

When a young anthropologist uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a 300-year-old mechanical doll, she is thrown into a hidden world. With her career and her life at stake, June will embark on an around-the-world adventure and discover breath-taking secrets of the past.

I do enjoy an alternative history novel, but it’s hard finding ones that are written well. Promising artificial intelligence, steampunk and a thrilling adventure, let’s hope this one lives up to expectations.

Release date: 1st August

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

A wealthy woman strangled six hours after she’s arranged her own funereal. A private detective uncovering secrets but hiding his own. A reluctant author drawn into a story he can’t control. What do they have in common?

This novel marks the start of a new detective series set in London by global bestseller Anthony Horowitz, promising buried secrets and a bloody trail of clues.

Release date: 24th August

The Scandal by Fredrik Backman

The town of Beartown, Sweden, is on the verge of a revival. Change is in the air and a new future just around the corner. Until the day it is all put in jeopardy by a single brutal act. It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who’ll risk the future to see justice done.

Backman is already a bestselling author and has had his books published in more than 35 countries. His newest offering promises to be a tense, empathetic story of friendship and loyalty.

Release date: 10th August

Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

Josie Buhrman has spent the last 10 years trying to escape the tragic events of her past. Now, she has a new life in New York with her boyfriend, Caleb. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past.

It’s been a while since I read a really gripping psychological thriller, so I’m hoping this debut novel will offer just that.

Release date: 10th August

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 novel explores how female criminals are judged by the media

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

‘When tragedy strikes, there’s a tendency to assume that someone is different. Special. That there’s something about them that makes them the kind of person bad things happen to. Because the alternative – that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time – is unthinkable.’

New York, 1965. One morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. It’s every mother’s worst nightmare. But Ruth Malone is not like other mothers. Noting Ruth’s perfect make-up and provocative clothing, the empty bottles of alcohol and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions. But is Ruth really capable of murder?

I was really intrigued by this book, having heard some great things about it. But, overall, the execution failed to live up to the promise of the idea.

The pace of the book was the main element that threw me off. We learn early on that Ruth is in prison, so throughout the investigation and trial there is no suspense about what is going to happen. I didn’t realise that this is partly a police procedural novel (a genre I am not particularly fond of) and that at least half the chapters are focused on a journalist named Pete who is investigating the story of the missing children, and in the process becomes obsessed with Ruth.

The writing is good, but lacks the flashes of brilliance that would have elevated this book to a truly great read. Some of the themes are really interesting and I found Ruth a sympathetic and well-written character. She cares deeply for her children but she becomes easily exasperated by them. Her life hasn’t turned out anything like she thought it would and her disappointment is, in the eyes of the media, enough to mark her out as a bad person – and possibly a murderer.

Even set in the 1960s, this book bears poignant relevance to our world today. Ruth might not be talked about and judged on social media, but in the claustrophobic working class environment where she lives, there’s always someone peeking through a net curtain and gossiping about the woman who comes home late.

If the focus had been entirely on Ruth, I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. Unfortunately, much of the story is focused on journalist Pete Wonicke. He is an entirely unmemorable character who quickly becomes exasperating with his unrealistic actions. I wanted to know more about Ruth, and I wanted Flint to delve further into the themes she just begins to pick at, especially the way female criminals are judged by the media.

I was also extremely disappointed by the ending. It seemed completely unconvincing and came out of the blue, and after that I was glad to put the book down.

This book definitely disappointed me, but fans of crime fiction will still find things to enjoy here. Just don’t expect it to blow your socks off.