Daughters of Rome


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All of a sudden, I have shifted from England and France to the ancient Rome. This actually started with “reappearance” of Cleopatra in my life, but the books I read about her were not in English. Searching for some other book on the Roman topic, I found the new author – Kate Quinn. I liked her “Mistress of Rome” but her “Daughters of Rome” entirely carried me away!


The events take place during the very interesting period- the year of four Emperors. Galba was replaced by Otho, then came the short reign of Vitellius, and finally Vespasian took the throne. Four patrician girls (Cornelii) are introduced to the reader from the very beginning. They grew up very different women – a perfect wife Cornelia Prima, a wise and history-loving Marcella, Lollia in love with the life, but forever changing husbands. The fourth is Diana who dreamt of driving the chariot and spent all the time in horse stables.

Kate Quinn was able to intertwine the facts and the novel’s idea beautifully that the reader does not even want to question her version. All four women changed during that difficult year. But the most stunning change was the change of Marcella’s fate. From the unwanted wife she turned into the prince’s spouse, she stopped writing history for the sake of creating it. However we will encounter Marcella only briefly in the next novel because her participance in history was cut short by her new husband. It is quite difficult to describe the novel when reading it seems the only logical way! “Daughters of Rome” created the ancient Roman atmosphere and made me feel as if the events were my own experience. This novel is really great, and definitely worth reading!


One thousand white women


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The book I am going to review today is strictly NOT the historical fiction. I came across it in my native language (Russian), but the incorrect description disappointed me so I took efforts to find the original version. The book is “One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd” by Jim Fergus.


This book cannot be called historical fiction because the events it describes never happened. The program “White brides for Indians ” was never launched. The author makes us believe it is by describing the story of the woman who enrolled the program to escape the lunatic asylim. As well as a small number of other women, she was one of the first and last brides. When the gold was found at Black Hills, there was no mention about this program any more, it was completely canceled. The fate of the woman was also sealed when she denied Jules Seminole and he told the Army that the Little Wolf’s village was the place for the hostile Indians. During the raid, May was killed, but her diaries were kept in the Cheyennes tribe for many years.

I have a controversial impression about the book because it is not the history, the characters seem very modern to me, the logic of some people is very weird (why permit May to bear two children by Harry Ames before putting her to the lunatic asylim?) I also find the women’s experience with Cheyennes too positive. However, this novel possesses its own kind of charm, especially where it comes to Indians. Reading this book, I got interested into the Indian wars and other Wild West topics and will be happy to read more books about those.


The bad queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette


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When I was in a bad mood myself, I picked the only unread paper book by Carolyn Meyer at the moment, and it was “The bad queen“, a story of Marie-Antoinette. I was never particularly fond of this person because she meant things not close or precious for me – fashion, gambling, luxury which I either outgrew or never had sympathy with. Surprisingly, Carolyn Meyer’s book changed my impression of the person and I felt compassion towards poor Marie-Antoinette and her family, especially at the end.


Carolyn Meyer gave a suitable title to her “Young Royal” novel- The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette. The title expresses people’s opinion of her as queen, but also explains the important role the strict rules played in Marie-Antoinette’s life. From the childhood years, she had to obey her mother who wanted her to be the wife of the French dauphine. She had to fit all the complicated standards, be beautiful, witty and composed. But though it was virtually easy to deal with the beauty, it was not so simple to change the girl’s character. Marie-Antonia (her original name) was not after reading or politics, she liked music, theatre, parties, delicious food and stylish clothes. But when she departed from Austria, she found herself at the court where etiquette was even more important than back home! The stifling atmosphere,  inconvenient clothes, a lot of unnecessary rituals (and nobody to give an actual help!) and the inevitable court gossip drove the young woman crazy. Her husband was not the ruler the country needed, and he was not man enough to get Marie-Antoinette with child which was the reason of her mother’s constant scolding. Life was hard for the young queen in many respects, and she sought refuge in expensive activities disapproved by her enemies and the common people.

Toward the end of the book, I could not help, like and even respect Marie-Antoinette because she remained loyal to her husband declining her lover as a man (a true sacrifice for the woman in love!), cut her expenses to the short, devoted herself to her family and endured everything with dignity. The strict, but reasonable rules of her mother changed first to even more rigid etiquette of the court, but in the end gave way to the legacy which Marie-Antoinette passed to her only surviving daughter, Marie-Therese – to stay alive, to keep the record of the events and remember about her (deceased) father, mother and brother. It is vital for the Revolution to destroy the symbols of the past, but people have their weaknesses and they are terribly vulnerable. I cried over the poor humble king, the desperate Marie-Antoinette and the unfortunate Louis-Charles. The book stirred my interest in the royal family and the French Revolution, and I will surely find other books or films about this period. I love all the books by Carolyn Meyer, but this one deeply touched me, because it was a tragedy of the woman trapped into the golden cage and forced to obey the rules she did not understand. This is also an appealing story because things like that (strict mother and the obedient and then revolting daughter) happen every day and have an unpleasant end. As well as the story of Marie-Antoinette.

The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots


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It was quite natural for me, after reading the books by Margared George and Carolly Erickson, to turn back to Carolyn Meyer. Her book about Mary Stuart “The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots” is a part of “Young Royals” series, but it covers more of Mary’s life than other books by the same author (which usually show how the person grew adult and gained power). This book is longer than those I read about the Tudor women, and does not describe last Mary’s years only (her imprisonment in England), but covers her reign in Scotland as well as the early years.


As this was my second reading of this novel, I was able to notice some subtle details which passed my attention before. The story of Mary Stuart is her confession. But is not  devoid of emotions, and even on the point of execution, she wants to prove her right. As a pious woman, Mary complains of “wildness” in her which led her to disaster (her passion to Henry Stuart and trust in James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell). At the same time, she wants to show she was nothing but a toy in men’s games.

Reading such series as “Young Royals”, one must be aware they are intended for kids and teenagers as well as for grown-up people so there should be less “spicy” details than in the historical novels we are used to. However, we should note as well, that Carolyn Meyer is studying the history thoroughly before writing her books, not to mislead young readers and make them believe into myths. I could but regret that there was not much romance in Mary’s love stories, especially with Bothwell. But Carolyn Meyer raised one more important issue the other authors failed to manage – how it feels to be a queen since the early days to the death. It should be definitely quite another feel than being the daughter of the lord, or even the king (like Elizabeth the First) with no quaranteed right to the crown. She also showed it brilliantly how power spoiled people and how both Henry Stuart and James Hepburn changed when they married the queen. One is also sure to make the conclusion that emotions have nothing to do with the way of power, which was so difficult for poor Mary Stuart! Though she is far from being an innocent lamb, Mary Stuart drawn by Carolyn Meyer is still likable and any woman can understand her.

The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots


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I love the books by Carolly Erickson as well as the tragic figure of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, beheaded by her relative Elizabeth, the English Queen. My interest in Mary was awakened by the book of Margaret George “Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles” which I read in Russian. However, when I saw the new version of the same story called “The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots” I could not resist!


The fact if Mary Stuart ordered to kill her husband, Henry Darnley, and if she loved James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell is to be discussed. As far as I understood, her love to the Earl of Bothwell is not questioned. Margaret George showed passion of two strong people who were destined to fight and win, but failed this time, one of them died a miserable death in the Scandinavian prison and the other beheaded after the long period of confinement. Carolly Erickson went further. She weaved a poetic story of the true love which even had a fruit – a beautiful daughter kept secret, while Mary’s beloved “Jamie”, safe and sound, witnessed her death. This is a real adventure story of the brave queen and the daring sailor who managed to fool Elizabeth, make their way to Rome and even almost find the contents of Amy Dudley’s casket confirming her death by hands of Elizabeth’s servants. Alas, the politics is way too serious to be left to chance, and all people who may become the center of rebel, persons of power were heavily guarded so it is hardly possible the described adventures could really take place.

The book is interesting in a way, but its description is a bit misleading. The reader may find out only by the reviews that there is something wrong with history; judging by the description it is just another biography of Mary Stuart not containing any “revolutionary” details. This is rather the romantic adventure based on the figure of Mary Stuart, but it is definitely not about her, because kings and queens were not so free in their desires and actions as the imaginary heroes. Still I do not regret I read this book, and I was interested which way the story would go next. It is a pity that there was no chance for happy end – it would be perfectly logical by that extent of freedom the characters had. Would recommend it to those who is prepared to the “free treatment” of the historical facts.

The Tudor Conspiracy


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Up to now, I have already read four books by Christopher Gortner in Russian, prior to reading this one in English. And while I am not a fan of his “queen” series though I appreciate his efforts and style, I am definitely a lover of his Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles. Reading the second book, “The Tudor Conspiracy”, in English, I also had a chance to compare the style of the translation and the original (the first book already has a Russian version).

The first book (The Tudor Secret) plunged the reader, together with the young squire Brendan Prescott, into the deadly whirlpool of the Tudor court. Starting as an unexperienced youngster, Brendan finally emerged a young man aware of his noble origin and sure of the political cause he would support. However, the reign of the frail Edward V ended, Jane Grey failed to become a real queen with real power and support. Mary Tudor, later called “Bloody Mary”, ascended the throne. Her bend to Catholic faith and the inclination to marry a Spanish prince could not but trouble the country lords, and her sister Elizabeth once again found herself in danger. Brendan, hoping to lead a simple life with Kate Stafford, was sent to the court by Cecil, to do what he could to wave the danger off Elizabeth.

The Tudor Conspiracy” proves to be a darker book than “The Tudor Secret“. If the first one’s mood was more adventurous than sordid, this one clearly shows what a piece of hell the court is, and which mess Brendan’s life became when he agreed to be mixed in the politics. From the very start at the court, Brendan risks his life and avoids every kind of danger. Sometimes the reader wonders why, because by common sense he should have been long killed or arrested. Suspence grows, and only in the very end when Brendan unravels all the threads of the court plots, and does all he can to save his beloved princess, he finds the reason why some things were easy for him. The answer lies in his past and as he found out who his mother was, in the first book, he now finds his father. The present events are also the time to lose – Brendan loses his little friend, his love to Kate turns to the loss of faith and disillusion. He is banished from Mary Tudor’s court, and has a deadly enemy – Sybilla Darrier. Robert Dudley is his second, may be, even more dangerous, foe. Brendan says farewell to his dreams of simple life and realizes his own dark side.The future hardly holds anything good in stock for him, but the politics will change again, and there would be place for the skilled spy.

The novels of C. W. Gortner may be called a darker version of the books by Alexander Dumas – he develops some bold guesses and ideas into books. The adventures of Brendan Prescott are rather troubling, and frankly speaking, I did not like the second book at first. But I could not but admire how the writer explained everything in the end, and tied the torn threads together. Definitely worth reading and discussing!

Maureen Lee “Mother of Pearl”


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I would like to change the point of view a bit, and share with you my impressions about the book devoted to modern events rather than “the old times”. The book I would tell about is “Mother of Pearl” by Maureen Lee. I saw it at the same hotel where I found Bernard Knight’s novels, and I was lucky to read it during my vacation.

This is not exactly a historical book, rather a family saga. Still it deals with the more recent history – the Second World War and the impact it had both on the Great Britain policy and the lives of its citizens.

The book is devoted to several generations of Patterson and Curran families, the Pattersons being rich Protestants and the Currans poor Catholics. Their fates grew entwined when Amy Curran met Barney Patterson, and they instantly fell in love with each other. Both Amy and Barney were born charmers, beautiful, extroverted, easy-going and popular. Though Barney’s family, especially his mother, would never approve him marrying a Catholic, they were secretly married as soon as Amy was 18. Their love was a miracle until the war started. The events which occurred while Barney was kept as a war prisoner by Germans, changed him forever. Therefore, when Barney was found dead stabbed in the stomach, it was evident to everybody that he drove his wife crazy so she killed him.

The dirty affair has been nearly forgotten by those not participating in Amy’s or Barney’s lives, but twenty years after Amy is freed from prison to find her daughter Pearl a grown-up woman, a teacher. Some mysteries are better not to be solved, but it seems crucial to the reader to find out what really happened on that terrible night when Barney died.

The novel “Mother of Pearl” is written in the perfect British English, and gives a good account of family life, relationships and people’s characters. I do not know how exact the war details are, but the story is neatly and earnestly written so I would definitely recommend it to any reader. It also contains some details about Liverpool, the home of “the Beatles”.

A place beyond courage


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When I read the books about William Marshal, especially “The Greatest Knight” by Elizabeth Chadwick, I imagined William’s father as a cruel person, without much feeling to his son. Probably the author was of the same opinion while writing these novels, but she might have changed her mind later when looking into the story of John FitzGilbert. The book “A Place beyond courage” is devoted to him entirely. The book depicts his “best years” – no childhood and no death, just adulthood.

John FitzGilbert is known now as William Marshal’s father and the man who said the famous phrase “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!“. The phrase intended for King Stephen who held his son William as a hostage. William was threatened death if his father did not yield. And John indeed did not! However, King Stephen was a medieval gentleman who tried to be soft to women and children. Therefore, William almost grew up at King Stephen’s court and made the name “Marshal” famous becoming the best knight, crusader, politician, land owner, the head of the large and wealthy household, the father of many sons, and finally the regent over all the England.

From the start of the book, we see John FitzGilbert as a smart, ambitious, strong, but cautious person who knows how to deal with people (and women!) He is also a sensuous lover and a handsome man. As a marshal, he also took care of finances. Unfortunately, soon after the death of the king Henry, the country splits in the endless struggle of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. John FitzGilbert, first at the King’s side, soon discovers he has too many enemies at the court. He has to face the unsavoury choice – to back the Empress Matilda who is not supported by many due to her sex, but whose son Henry seems promising as a future King. John’s life turns to war since he often has to attack or more often, to defend what he gained and kept for the future King Henry II. His handsome face grew disfigured by the terrible fire at Wherwell Abbey when he covered the Empress’ retreat; he lost an eye there.

Still the book is not all war and politics – much attention is given to the women. While still young, John marries Aline Pipard as she is a heiress and needs protection and a good husband. However, this marriage proves unsuccessful as Aline lacks strength of both body and soul. She would prefer to be a nun, or have a tender husband who keeps peace around her. And fortunately when the his fate is crossed with one of Patrick of Salisbury, he is offered the hand of Patrick’s sister, Sybilla. Sybilla is another kind of woman than Aline. She is courageous, sensuous, practical, and she is the right match for John. However even their feelings are tested when William, their beloved son, is taken as a hostage.

I liked this book a lot due to the following reasons:

– King Stephen and the Empress Matilda are not so famous as Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons, but the period of their wars is no less interesting.

– The story shows various characters, John himself being not so perfect as his son William.

– I wondered what the man could feel when he said his famous “hammer and anvils” speech knowing his son’s life was at risk, what was the family’s reaction, etc. This is very interesting in the view of psychology.

Finally, this book is written in Elizabeth Chadwick’s good style and is in no way boring. Great book to read and explore the medieval history as well as the fates of people!

The Poisoned Chalice


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The Poisoned Chalice by Bernard Knight is the second novel about England of XII century and the crowner John’s investigations in medieval Exeter.

The second book seemed to me more lively than the first one, and perhaps I will read more of them, after all… In the second book, crowner John has to handle several crimes – shipwreck and the secret burial of drowned (or killed?) people, the rape of the young rich girl and the murder of the young noble woman ready to be married. The girl, Christina Rifford, is raped in the center of the city, after the visit to the silversmith’s shop; the woman, Adele de Courcy died of the loss of blood due to abortion, and her body was carried to the poor part of the town where it was hard to find and identify it. It meant that an immoral and cruel person was among citizens, he could even be the part of the middle-class or higher society!

The sheriff, as always, was inclined to find the suspect among “low people” who had little to protect them from the authorities, but it was again not so simple for John. Unlike the sheriff, John knew life at large and sometimes felt more at home with his assistants – Gwyn of Polruan and “the crooked clerk” Thomas de Peyne, and his lover, an innkeeper Nesta, than with his haughty wife and her ambitious brother. Thus, he wanted to be fair in evaluating the events and to find out the reasons for every man involved to commit the crimes. Subsequent events (fights in which the silversmith was attacked, his poisoning and at last, death) proved that the reasons were really complicated. The true criminal escaped in the end, but as they say, God in heaven is not to be deceived – he managed to avoid the justice, but was unable to survive the severe storm at the sea.

The story is quite complicated this time, and as I would say it is more of the detective than the historical novel, though it is quite good for the detective and the medieval background gives it a fresh side.

The Sanctuary Seeker


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While I was reading the books by Elizabeth Chadwick about the XII century, I have remembered the books read earlier – they were about the same period, but with other aspects highlighted – town/country life and internal politics rather than state affairs, the court and wars. Last year when I was on vacation in the hotel in Egypt, I borrowed two books in their library (and am going to return them this year, lol). They were “historical detectives” by Bernard Knight about the crowner John de Wolfe. The first of the books is called The Sanctuary Seeker.

I will touch the plot briefly as quite a time passed since I read this book, and I am not into rereading it. The plot was typical for the detective. A man found dead, and the investigation is carried out. Later on, another man is murdered, and as this turns out, the murders are interconnected. The local authorities want to get the case resolved as fast as possible, and they do not hesitate to blame an innocent man and pass him through the painful and unnecessary ordeal. However, the crowner John does not believe that the simple way is the correct one, he is determined to find a true murderer, and he succeeds in the end. The murderer takes refuge in the sanctuary so his punishment is exile. Noone warrants though that he is safely out of England if someone wants to revenge on him…

While the plot is typical for the detective, the background is not. Bernard Knight goes in great detail to describe the medieval household, situation in the cities (John de Wolfe, his scandalous wife and her brother, the Sheriff, all live in Exeter) and the country. There are many things I did not know about like medieval ordeals (putting the suspects to physical damage to prove they are guilty, noone managed to avoid the damage), amercements and murdrum fines (if a Norman was murdered on the territory and no victim was produced, the villagers had to pay the amount set by the crowner). All in all, the novel was interesting, but left the impression that the medieval life was hard and cruel one, especially for low-born people having no protection.