The Break by Marian Keyes

Never having read a Marian Keyes book before I was uncertain what to expect. However, a glowing review about The Break from a friend (who’s also a huge fan of Keye’s work) made me keen to start. Well, what a glorious, heart-wrenching, warm, funny and fundamentally human novel this is. I found it so hard to tear myself away from and then felt bereft when I’d finished.

Ostensibly the story of the happily married Amy and Hugh who experience a relationship crisis when Hugh decides that though he loves Amy, he wants a “break”, it’s also a great deal more than that. Striding into middle age and all its cosy familiarity, for some people, this stage of life can also breed contempt – mostly for the self. Wondering if we’ve reached our potential or if this is indeed “it” for whatever more time we’re granted, it’s easy to understand why middle age can sometimes be the autumn of so many people’s discontent.

Thus it is with Hugh. A decent, good man (and Amy’s second husband), he nonetheless feels the need to take a hiatus from what he’s become and may yet be becoming. Shocked, horrified and in disbelief by what Hugh intends and unable to prevent him (even if she really wanted to), Amy struggles with the cliché her marriage is turning into. Trying to understand Hugh while feeling a mixture of grief, anger, loathing and every other emotion there is, as well as trying to balance her professional life with the wreck of her personal and the unwelcome return of her narcissistic her ex-husband and his claims, Amy undergoes her own sort of crisis. Juggling her wonderfully messy family and their demands, catastrophes and triumphs, and the chaos that ensues in Hugh’s departure’s wake, Amy’s enforced break almost becomes a breakdown.

The characters are so real, their emotions raw, complex and simple. You ache for them all – Hugh, Amy, the children they share, the mad grandmother and curmudgeonly father and the rainbow of brothers and sisters Amy possesses as well as her business partners. Slowly, Amy realises that if Hugh is on a break, then it means she is as well – with all the liberties and restrictions, difficulties and pleasures, painful memories and daring hopes that entails.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh, cry, think deeply and look afresh at your own life and choices, that features witty, authentic and flawed people and mad Irish humour, then don’t go past this sensitively explored, thoroughly entertaining and downright marvellous book.

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The Vatican Princess by C.W. Gortner

imgres-1When it comes to representations of powerful women in history, those responsible for recording the events in their era have a great deal of explaining to do. So often the women, if they’re mentioned at all, bear the burden of guilt – for war, death, the downfall of dynasties etc. – as they’re continuously depicted as promiscuous (think Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard), murderous (Catherine De Medici), treacherous, mad and/or bad. What’s worse in some ways is when they’re completely elided from history, as if they never existed. Even Samuel Pepys, the greatest diarist in history, barely rates his wife, Elizabeth, a mention, except when he notes an argument or something trivial. Kudos, then, to C.W. Gortner who, like Philippa Gregory and other writers, in The Vatican Princess, seeks to reclaim the life of Lucrezia Borgia. In retelling at least seven years of her life, he offers readers an alternate way of perceiving major events of the period and the woman at the centre of them.

Best remembered by popular history as the illegitimate daughter of a pope who indulged in incest with both her father and at least one of her brothers (depending which accounts of her and that period you read), as well as using poison to despatch her enemies, Gortner uses primary and secondary sources to reconstruct Lucrezia’s life and offer a different version.

In this novel, far from being an arch seductress and powerbroker, Lucrezia, though no innocent, is a pawn in deadly political and sexual games, ones that limit her choices and freedoms. Proud of her familial heritage and the Borgia blood that flows in her veins, nothing prepares young Lucrezia for the constant threat that hangs over her and the terrible sacrifices she must make for the sake of her family. But it’s when she comes to understand that the enemies her brothers and father – and those in league with them – fear most are actually within the family and not without, that she learns her fate is not a matter of free will but the strategic determination of the manipulative men she most loves.

Written from Lucrezia’s point of view and using historical sources to guide him, Gortner has done a terrific job of recreating a volatile and corrupt period as well as salvaging Lucrezia’s voice and offering an alternative to the “facts” about her that circulate.

A great read for lovers of history, Italian culture, women’s roles and Renaissance Europe.

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The Walsingham Woman by Jan Westcott

23506263The Walsingham Woman by Jan Westcott tells the story of Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary and spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham’s daughter, the beautiful Frances from childhood to the eve of her third marriage.

As the daughter of Walsingham, Frances was born with beauty and brains and into relative privilege. Given a sound education, she never wanted for much. Nonetheless, like all women of that period, any status she accrued came through the men she was associated with – from her father to her husbands. After being rescued from a romantic near-disaster by the rakish Irishman, Rickard de Burgh, Frances is married while still in her teens to the darling of the queen and court, Sir Philip Sidney. Frances’ star is on the rise.

But death follows in triumph’s wake and Frances and her fledgling family are forced to not only bury two people dear to them, but also work out how to pay the massive debts that have been accrued in these people’s names. Understanding her beauty is her greatest resource, Frances sets out to catch the man considered the greatest matrimonial prize in the kingdom using her considerable nous to do so. Only, this man has also caught the eye and heart of the queen, and no-one, not even Mister Secretaries beautiful daughter, dare come between the queen and her chosen courtiers… or does she? After all, what has she got to lose?

Weaving fact and fiction, Westcott does a very good job of portraying the limited choices even someone like Frances Walsingham had as a woman n Elizabethan times. While she rose up the social ladder, it was through the advocacy, wealth and power of the men to whom she was beholden for patronage and more. Though she may have manipulated events, Frances was also at the mercy of the men who regarded her as both promise and threat.

The beginning of the novel is not as strong as the latter half as it tends to jump around. Though I am very familiar with the period and major characters, I managed to become lost in some of the gaps. This sense of disorientation and absences dissipated as the pace picks up in the second half, making the novel hard to put down.

Westcott captures the times really well – from the gender politics, to the threat of war and religious dissent to internal strife and struggles as the once formidable queen ages and her young allies eye her throne with more desire than they do her Majesty’s person.

All the major characters of the period are there, from Elizabeth through to Robert Cecil, the young gallants that surrounded the Earl of Essex (for better and worse), and some of the other important and strong women – all whom were banned from court by the queen. Frances is an engaging character, loyal, manipulative and very much, in many ways, her father’s daughter as, chameleon–like she plays her part in order to guarantee the outcome.

A good read for history buffs and those who enjoy the repatriation of women’s voices and action from our past.

 

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Book Review: The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

Having read many of Alison Weir’s non-fiction books and thoroughly enjoying her fictive spin on the early years of Elizabeth Ist, I was looking forward to reading The Marriage GaThe Marriage Gameme, which covers the years Elizabeth was upon the English throne.

Taking as its main focus Elizabeth’s Privy Council’s and, indeed, the entire Parliament and country’s obsession with her need to get married and produce an heir, and the queen’s attempts to fob them off through procrastination, broken promises, assurances and games as it’s premise, the novel also highlights the steamy and stormy relationship between Elizabeth and her favourite courtier, Robert Dudley.

It’s clear that Weir knows her history. As her wonderful non-fiction books attest (The Life of Elizabeth I and The Princes in the Tower are my favourites), she uses her formidable understanding of Elizabethan politics and times to infuse the novel with veritas, even using direct speech from reports and letters of the times and known events to add grist to her marriage mill. The reader is drawn into Elizabeth’s world, its male-dominated court and the religious and global politics that threaten and sustain its power. A constant balancing act is required (by the author, reader and the characters) which means the queen and her council must be both vigilant and yet warm towards the various international diplomats that populate the court – offering salves to wounded pride, playing various proposals and dignitaries off against each other and trying to second guess intentions.

Mercurial and demanding, Elizabeth is the heart and soul of this story, as indeed she was of the times (they’re not recalled as the Elizabethan period for no reason). Yet, it’s hard to like this vain queen or the men who surround her. Self-interest is paramount and weasel words are currency.

We know from history that Elizabeth was a difficult and selfish woman who would readily strike those who displeased her, send people to the tower for marrying without permission (even those without royal blood) and who saw most other women as potential competition and so banned them from court. She struggled with ageing (in that, she was very like many modern women, which reveals struggling with growing older isn’t necessarily a contemporary preoccupation) and was concerned not be redundant. Encouraging flattery, she also doled it out and was a flirt par excellence, even as an older woman – these are all facts.

While the queen’s relationship with Dudley, who she later made the Earl of Leicester, is also well documented, in this novel, Weir delves into the emotional and physical bonds that both connect the pair and drive them apart. From the first days of Elizabeth’s rule to Dudley’s death, she fictively explores their tempestuous and imbalanced relationship.

Yet, for all the veracity of this book and the fine writing, the weaving of fact and fiction, the hardest thing for the reader is the undeniable reality that the lead character, good Queen Bess, is an outright bitch. She is not sympathetic or kind, but narcissistic, wilful, a bully, and manipulative. She uses people for her own ends, is masterful with words and wields them as weapons to wound and control and contrive outcomes she desires. Though this may have been politic and Elizabeth’s only means of asserting authority and influence, it works better in non-fiction than fiction where what’s being told is essentially both a love story and an anti-love story. Likewise, Dudley is a dud who obeys his monarch at the expense of dignity, self-respect and, in the end, his family. History is kinder to these pair than this book, that’s for certes!

So, while I enjoyed Weir’s version – and for me the second half of the book was better than the first – I prefer the way history books recall Elizabeth – as a potent political force, faults and all – than this particular piece of (romantic?) fiction.

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Book Review: Nicholas Cooke by Stephanie Cowell

 

Nicholas Cooke (Nicholas Cooke #1)

Never before have I so thoroughly enjoyed a book where I loathed the protagonist so much! It’s testimony to Cowell’s skills as a writer that despite her volatile, selfish, doubt-wracked hero, Nicholas Cooke, the man who is at various times an actor, soldier, physician and priest, dominating every scene and annoying the bejesus out of me, the story of his journey  – from abandoned young son of a criminal father and prostitute mother  – through his various occupations and callings, is gripping.

It’s not Cooke who kept me glued to the page, but Cowell’s excellent evocation of the period and the characters who populated Elizabethan London, England and even abroad. We encounter Kit Marlowe, Will Shakespeare, and other luminaries of the theatre, sciences and arts – but in Cowell’s hands they are humanised and revealed with flaws, foibles and insecurities, much like Cooke. Over the thirty year span of the novel, we see the changes wrought through Elizabeth’s reign, the constant fear of invasion, new discoveries, the way the arts were first suspiciously regarded and then flourished, how new science and knowledge changed forever the way man and the heavens were regarded and how literacy improved and self-education was not out of the question causing men (and women) to question their status and place in the universe and even their God.

The vibrancy, squalor, disease, passion and fervour are all brought to life as Cooke moves from one occupation to another, breaking hearts and having his broken in the process, learning what he can and can’t abide and selfishly pursuing a goal that is both spiritual and grounded.

I almost put this book down, so detestable at times was Cooke (he is also incredibly vulnerable and Cowell reaches deep to give readers’ access to his emotions and mental state – and while this does offer explanations for his choices, it also made me want to shake him – hard), but I am so glad I didn’t. In the end, while I never really liked Cooke (have I mentioned that?), I did come to understand him and found his story believable and refreshing. He is an anti-hero of the Elizabethan era whose weaknesses are better remembered than his strengths and yet his awareness of these is what makes him so real and ultimately memorable.

 

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