When Robin, Lord Locksley, arrives home from four years on Crusade, his family is astonished. His fiancée has become engaged to someone else, his mother has re-married a sheriff, and his estates have become entrusted to his young nephew, who has become the ward of the Viponts, one of the most dangerous families in Nottingham. They believed he was dead. Alive, he has to fight to regain what should be his by right. In doing so, he realizes that the Vipont family has been mistreating many of the lowborn families he grew up with; taxes are extremely high and the Viponts are closely allied to the Count of Mortmain, or John, King Richard I’s younger brother, who rules the country while his elder sibling is imprisoned in Germany. Justice is subverted and new laws are created to benefit the lords, not those who suffer under their leadership. Robin is convinced that something needs to be done, and as a lord without any of the benefits of lordship, perhaps he’s the one to do it.
The Arrow of Sherwood is written by a trained historian and it really shows in the best possible ways in this book. There are details which make it clear that this isn’t a tale of modern people in fancy old dresses or a gritty hack-and-slash which shows that the Middle Ages must have been brutal; instead, it’s somewhere in the middle, with scenes at court and scenes of battle and thievery. Johnson recaptures what sort of person Robin Hood might have actually been and the book’s realism, in my eyes, is a huge selling point and definitely set it apart. It’s also a bonus that this isn’t a book about the Tudors or the Plantagenets; it’s a realistic re-imagining of a legend and for that I couldn’t help but appreciate it hugely.
The book is well-written and takes us through Robin’s journey, which is fraught with twists and turns as he struggles with the almost insurmountable authority of the Vipont family. The book gives a really good idea of how much local families were stuck with each other; there are only so many people who have authority within a given region and if one person is higher up, that’s it for everyone else. Justice was a red hot iron pushed into your hand; if it was infected, you were guilty, and if it wasn’t, you were innocent.
The only issue I had with it was actually understanding the feasibility of the set-up behind Robin’s rescued prisoners. Towards the middle of the book we essentially have an entire “hundred” of people in a forest, masked as a leper colony, but one that no one ever finds except a couple of peasants and Marian and Elaine. In addition, Robin is juggling double identities and really doesn’t seem to lie very well. I had a difficult time believing he’d be able to keep the secrets with which he is entrusted and I didn’t understand why none of the Viponts ever think to follow Robin on his travels like some of the more minor characters do. The set-up seemed too convenient, although perhaps this is again just my modern brain not actually understanding the scale of a forest.
Definitely recommended for those who enjoy fiction set in the Middle Ages and, even though Robin Hood is a well-known legend, for something a bit different than the masses out there.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Young Tamsin Lodge, heiress, is sent from the arms of her loving stepmother into the tumultuous world of the Tudor court as a teenager. She quickly realizes that her best option to progress in life is not to mourn for what she’s lost, but to seize the opportunity to gain the influence of powerful people. Her guardian places her as a lady of honor to Princess Mary, who Tamsin grows to love, but as the dynamics of power at court shift, Tamsin has to choose her loyalties carefully and decide what’s best for herself, her family, and her kingdom.
The King’s Damsel is a book that should appeal immensely to fans of historical fiction. It’s a richly written, intriguing story of a fictional girl trying to make her way best through a very hostile Tudor court. She’s hampered by her own ignorance, due to her upbringing, but she’s earnest and she tries hard to make a difference. She encounters a huge number of genuine historical figures and indeed has some basis in historical fact. Unfortunately, it was not a book that I personally enjoyed very much, due to three reasons.
The first, which is most certainly not the book’s fault, is that I still haven’t recovered any sort of desire to read fiction about the Tudor court. I overdid this years ago and it seems the desire to actually read these books has not come back. There are a few works of historical fiction which have risen above this, but I didn’t find this to be one of them.
The second is the fact that the back cover gives away practically all of the story, which I’ve actually omitted from my own summary above. I really dislike when this happens; a crucial plot point in the last third of the book really shouldn’t be on the back cover. I’m guessing someone, somewhere thought the book wouldn’t be as appealing to potential readers without this detail, but I spent most of the first 2/3 of the book waiting for that to happen.
The third reason is that I didn’t really get on board with the romance, which seemed too cursory and unrealistic given the actual status of the people involved. I wasn’t really convinced by it, and it didn’t help much that the book skipped years with mostly not much happening. I understand that maybe much didn’t happen, but it didn’t help power the book along at all, and it was a little hard to imagine how a romance happened if the key figures only saw each other once a year. A year is a long time.
The book is only 300 or so pages long and took me 5 days to read, which for me kind of demonstrates how disinterested I was in it. A lot of that probably isn’t the book’s fault – looking elsewhere, it’s had pretty good reviews. It is likely that this book, and this series, might suit someone who is still keen on Tudor historical fiction. But that someone isn’t me.
I received this book for free for review.
February did not hold much excitement over here – in fact, I felt like I was away from home a lot, given that we kicked off the month with a weekend visit to family and the month consisted of not one but two trips for work. Small ones, but time away from home nonetheless. I’m taking this weekend as an opportunity to relax, at least a bit, and recharge, although there is some work that I need to catch up on (isn’t there always?).
In reading terms, February started off slow, as I read two non-fiction books simultaneously. Things warmed up pretty soon, though, and in the middle of the month I rocketed through The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, reading two in a day and the third one in a day shortly afterwards. I can already tell you those were the standout books of the month.
As for the rest:
- Spilt Milk, Amanda Hodgkinson
- The King’s Damsel, Kate Emerson
- Cinder, Marissa Meyer
- Scarlet, Marissa Meyer
- Book of a Thousand Days, Shannon Hale
- The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
- Queen Jezebel, Jean Plaidy
- Blood Kin, M.J. Scott
- Gabriel’s Ghost, Linnea Sinclair
- Cress, Marissa Meyer
- Montaillou, Emmanuel La Roy Ladurie
- Germania, Simon Winder
I managed to continue holding to my reading goals, although just barely; Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is both by an author of color and set partly in India. Both of my non-fiction choices were set outside of the UK and US, and so was Queen Jezebel, which was set in France. I know Europe isn’t actually very far outside of my comfort zone, but it’s an improvement. I didn’t succeed in writing review this month, though. In fact, I hardly blogged at all.
Favorite of the Month
Book of a Thousand Days should probably be in here too. I just devoured these books; they were the perfect reading experience for a month when I truly felt down in the dumps and stressed for a number of reasons. Really loved them and would highly recommend them.
Ahead for March
Primarily I’m hoping everything calms down a little. I’m also hoping to plan that holiday I mentioned. I need something to look forward to until the current malaise subsides! The increased light in the mornings and evenings is getting me there, bit by bit.
I’m also hoping to read:
- Empress by Shan Sa (actually for real this month – it’s next on the pile!)
- One Night in Winter, Simon Sebag Montefiore
- A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin
- The Iron Kingdom, Christopher Clark
What’s on your schedule for March?
King Edward III of England is a pretty fascinating guy – especially if, like me, you have a deep and abiding interest in the Middle Ages. This surprisingly successful king, although that’s quite a simplified interpretation, managed to overthrow the rule of his mother and her lover as a teenager, laid claim to France, which started the Hundred Years’ War, and founded the Company of the Garter, a chivalric order which still survives unlike so many of its contemporaries. He was also the father of Edward the Black Prince (a name which is too awesome not to use, even though he was not called this during his lifetime), one of the most intriguing historical figures in England for me. In this work of history, Richard Barber not only looks at Edward and his reign, but those who surrounded him, inspired him, and succeeded him.
Of course, I loved it. I’d been looking forward to this book ever since I heard about it, particularly because I was already familiar with the historian who wrote it. It was right on par with my expectations. I appreciated so much the approach that Barber took – this isn’t a biography of Edward. It’s a complete view of everything happening around Edward, putting him firmly in the context of the period. This, for me, far more than historical fiction these days, gives me a feel for the period. It’s about the battles and tournaments, the personalities that filled the court, the literature that these people read and which inspired and taught them about their world. It’s really difficult to separate Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, his queen, from the obsession that the Victorians had with the Middle Ages, but Barber does his best and pulls out as much history away from that as he can manage.
Among this is the surprising discovery of how little we actually know about the founding of the Order of the Garter, or its history in the early days. Chivalric orders sprang up in this period in a number of countries, and Barber looks at each of these and tries to find out where Edward got the idea from, who might have been in that order, and why – ultimately, drawing the conclusion that it sprang in some form from the battle of Crecy, which we learn about in as much detail as we can manage. Barber goes so far as to research the layout of the battle and the tactics that might have been used by the English to gain the spectacular victories that they did, which was really fascinating and something I hadn’t read about before. There are a lot of primary sources here and Barber doesn’t hesitate to quote directly, with often large portions of pages taken up with excerpts giving us a huge amount of insight.
In addition, the book isn’t particularly dry, although as with every bit of history I’m obsessed with, your opinion on this may vary. I’d think it would be perfectly readable and enjoyable for someone who might be looking to move on from historical fiction to something based more on primary sources and fact. I loved it, and if you are interested in tournaments, battles, and the high middle ages, this book is definitely for you.
1. Discovering why everyone I know is obsessed with Sherlock. I have managed, amazingly, to find a show that my husband and I both like, mostly because I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. This is a brilliant show – alternately funny and clever and suspenseful. We’ve got one episode left of series 2 and then it’s on to series 3. We’ve also been watching the old Star Trek movies for the first time, for me, and it’s kind of nice, as though I’m catching up on some of the history of science fiction.
2. Exercising (half-heartedly). We have been going out to eat more often last month and this month, mainly because we can without worrying for the first time in our married lives. I’m sure it will get old – in the meantime I’m working to try and get rid of calories by moving around more than usual, and enjoying the good fortune while it lasts.
3. Dreaming of this year’s holidays. I’m considering what seems like tons of options, although I’m trying to do it at a fairly low cost. I initially wanted Russia for our five year anniversary, coming up this autumn, but I also want to go properly and we’re trying to save money, so that’s probably out this year. I’ve been thinking of returning to Andalusia and going to Cordoba and Seville, or going to Sicily, or going to Greece, or Germany … there are too many choices even just within Europe and, while I want to get to them all, I also want to do so much of the world justice.
4. Trying to find some sort of motivation to get into something outside of my job – my life has gone much too far down the path of work, sleep, eat, occasionally read a book, repeat. I feel as though I never have any time, but the time I do have I tend to spend wondering what to do and deciding on which of my too many hobbies to actually invest time in. This is an ongoing problem, as I’ve alternately tried writing, crocheting and knitting, and gaming, with nothing really holding my interest. Winter blues, I hope – I’ve been seriously looking forward to spring and the prospect of weekends out and camping and historical sites.
5. Gaming, a little, as above. I’ve long had problems playing first person games, mainly due to what I think is some form of motion sickness, especially when I’m playing up close on my PC. But there are so many amazing games and I don’t like that I’m restricted based on that, so I’ve decided to work on acclimatizing myself by playing them in short bursts. Currently working on Bioshock in half hour segments, and playing Castlevania on my PC whenever I feel like gaming otherwise.
6. Reading plenty but, sadly, not blogging. I’ve been having plenty of blogging ideas and don’t really want to stop, but the barrier for actually posting them seems to rise the longer I spent not posting. I’ve read plenty of interesting things, and sometimes even fall back into the old habit of thinking what I’ll write as I’m reading, but then I don’t actually write whatever it is. Work in progress, just like number 4.
How’s February treating you?
I do realize that we’re a third into February, but I wanted a chance to sum up January anyway. I’ve learned that when I’m away from home on the weekend, blogging doesn’t really happen, so here we are on the following weekend looking back.
As the start to 2014, January wasn’t great. Another family member landed in the hospital for serious reasons and most of the goals I had for the year got derailed already – primarily the ones involving doing things that weren’t reading. I’ve had a lot on at work and in general I have not been getting on as well as I’d hoped. The weather in this part of the world certainly hasn’t helped. While my family and friends at home in the US have been buried in snowfall after snowfall, it’s merely been grey and rainy in the UK, almost every day its seems. As a result it doesn’t feel much like winter – a season that’s going to go away eventually – but instead an endless trudge of cold, wet, and dark.
Fortunately at this point, the above-mentioned family member is out of the hospital (by far the most significant), there are signs of the sun rising earlier and earlier, and I’ve buried my sorrows by acquiring a slightly ridiculous number of new books, so there’s hope yet.
- Edward III and the Triumph of England, Richard Barber
- The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard P. Feynman
- Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman
That’s 12 books, which is pretty high for me. The eagle-eyed amongst you will also note that most of my long-awaited reads actually got read. The only exception was Empress, which will probably be read this month, as it’s in the middle of the immediate reads pile.
I also hit all of my reading goals for at least the first month. We Need New Names is set in Zimbabwe and by an author of color (these don’t have to coincide but they happened to this month), I acquired Demon Angel and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay pre-2013, and I read 3 non-fiction books.
Favorites of the month
I couldn’t choose between the three fiction books, so have all of them. I loved all four of these books.
All those other goals
As I mentioned above, I haven’t been doing terrifically well with my other goals. Exercise and cooking have both been sporadic, but I’m taking the fact that I’m doing them sometimes as a small victory.
How was your January?
I really enjoyed 22 Britannia Road, so I was particularly pleased when Spilt Milk arrived on my doorstep. In this historical novel, sisters Rose, Vivian, and Nellie vow to be spinsters forever. Rose has raised the much younger Vivian and Nellie since the death of their parents when both girls were small. When she passes away in 1913, much too early, the girls are lost without her, with no notion of how to care for themselves. As a result, one of them manages to make a mistake that drives a wedge in their relationship forever, even after they’ve seemingly reconciled. Years later, Nellie’s daughter Birdie returns to her mother’s town, looking for elements of her own past. Will she uncover the secrets that Nellie and Vivian left behind and expose the potentially disastrous mistakes of their youth?
Ignorance never does anyone any favours, and the sisters in Spilt Milk, along with their sole offspring, suffer from this very lapse. Because no one ever really tells them about what’s in the world, and their education is limited, with all of the girls instead mistakenly assuming they’ll remain spinsters all their lives, they aren’t sure how to handle themselves when things don’t go to plan. And so they make mistakes – and they’re not the first women to do so. In the early twentieth century, innocence seems to go hand-in-hand with ignorance. Rose makes the mistake of never telling Vivian and Nellie about men, instead trying to get them both to stay with her. When a man shows up, of course, they both act in a way that may have been prevented, if only they’d known.
The entire book spools out from the consequences of that ignorance and misunderstanding. It’s no surprise that, when Nellie then goes out into the world, what she learns helps her make a more successful life for herself, avoiding her sister’s mistakes and any particularly damaging ones of her own. As time goes on, the specter of the secret diminishes, because standards are quickly changing, through both World Wars as the sisters age. What was once a disaster becomes something just slightly scandalous and by the end of the book no big deal.
I quite liked this book; it put an interesting perspective on the relationships between sisters, mothers, and daughters. The complex relationships between Vivian and Nellie, then Nellie and Birdie, are often truly moving. I wasn’t sure what I wanted each of the women to discover, but I knew I wanted to experience it through the eyes of each of the women. Practical but still loving Nellie was my favorite of them, I think – she is the one who goes out into the world, and she is the one who has the bravery eventually to seize more of her life, rather than letting it happen to her. But my heart broke for all of the women at various times as they change and grow and the results of their choices impact every aspect of their lives.
Spilt Milk would be a great read for a fan of women’s fiction who is tempted to try out something historical. Highly recommended.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Continuing with my new determination to write at least a little bit about all the books I’ve been reading …
Deadshifted, Cassie Alexander
This is the fourth book in the Edie Spence series. I’ve not reviewed any of these books previously on the blog, but this is a series I’ve been enjoying. Edie is a smart nurse who was thrust into the world of paranormal healthcare to save her brother. By this fourth book, she’s met her current boyfriend after a particular failure and she’s left the hospital where the first couple of books take place. She’s on vacation – a well-deserved cruise with Asher, her boyfriend. But things are never really simple for Edie, and they run into someone that Asher used to know in his previous life as an active, not-quite-conscientious shapeshifter. Although I’ve missed the familiar setting of the hospital, this book really threw Edie in the deep end (literally). She’s had to deal with so much and, although the summary of the already-pre-ordered fifth book spoiled the ending somewhat, I was still shocked. Definitely continuing with these.
We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
I wanted to do a full review of this one, but given how seldom I actually get myself to write full reviews, I thought it was better to get my thoughts down as soon as I could. This book was amazing – it forced me to think about so many issues outside my normal day-to-day existence and reminded me forcefully that there is a reason I want to expand my reading horizons. Darling grows up in Robert Mugabe-era Zimbabwe, now desperately poor and starving in a shantytown called Paradise, though previously her family was moderately prosperous. Though her life in Zimbabwe is a challenging one, to say the least, and she and her friends dream of escape, when she actually does manage to leave her home country she has to confront a huge range of new experiences. One of the most striking parts for me was when Darling can’t understand why her employer’s daughter is depressed and has anorexia. She – as someone who has spent much of her childhood starving – simply can’t understand why a pretty, thin white girl would actively starve herself. Their worlds are too different. And some of the passages about leaving home and trying to decide who you are without your home were unbelievably striking. So worth reading.
Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman
When Piper graduates from college, she still hasn’t decided what she wants to do with her life. And she craves adventure. So, as she describes in this memoir, she gets involved with the older Nora, a sophisticated woman who clearly has a large amount of cash to throw around, and finds herself involved with the drug trade. She wises up after a short period of time and runs back into the arms of her family, landing a good job, a loving boyfriend, and a life she thinks is secure. But it isn’t, and ten years after her crime, Piper finds herself in Danbury, a women’s prison.
Her journey through the prison system was fascinating reading, although I suspect it was easier for her than the other women in a number of ways. She freely acknowledges that her shorter tenure and her frequent visitors were huge factors in helping her cope, but that doesn’t change the essential fact of prison. By far the most shocking part was towards the end, when Piper enters the program meant to prepare inmates for the real world again. Instead of useful advice, like how to rent an apartment or find a job with a criminal offense against your name, the inmates are advised on topics like what to wear; they weren’t even advised on how to use the internet when some of them had never encountered it or a computer in their lives. It’s fairly obvious why some of them simply fall back into the drug trade, which is disastrous. I learned a lot I didn’t know and am glad I read this – I’ve never seen the TV show, so can’t comment on how it compares there.
The Iron Witch, Karen Mahoney
This book demonstrated, quite vividly, that some YA just isn’t for me. In this particular book, Donna is a teenager who was scarred during her youth in an attack which also cost her her parents. Her father was killed defending her and her mother has been mentally unstable ever since, sometimes unable to recognize Donna. She’s raised by her aunt, but has spent her entire life being considered a freak due to the iron scars that twine their way up her arms. Now the wood elves who ruined her life so thoroughly when she was a child have returned, and only she, her best friend Navin, and the mysterious half-fey Xan have a shot at saving themselves.
My attitude towards this book was decidedly “meh”. It’s even complete with a love triangle. I actually kept expecting Xan – the mysteriously sexy object of Donna’s insta-love, as opposed to her nice guy best friend – to turn out to be evil, simply because it all seemed ridiculous to me, but instead all the gooey eyes and instant connection were actually sincere. I was disappointed, similar to how I felt about Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Won’t be reading the rest of the books.
I purchased all of these books.
On a cold winter day in 1910, Ursula is born. Again. And again. And again. Every time Ursula dies, she is born again, and given the chance to live her life anew. But Ursula has no way of knowing this, only a vague recollection of events that have previously happened and a dread of what she did or didn’t do in previous lives. As she lives her life over and over, experiencing the lead-up to World War II and a whole range of different outcomes to her life, we start to wonder: can Ursula change history?
I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge fan of so-called “quiet” books and though some of the events in this one are more explosive, this is at its heart a book about chances. The smallest actions of Ursula’s change the entire trajectory of her life. As we go back to that February day in 1910, we start to see the entire picture of what was happening that day, for instance; while some readers might get bored by the fact that we go through that day each and every time Ursula dies, I loved how it let Kate Atkinson build up the entire scene, through all the supporting characters, and finally leave us with something still to think about at the end of the book.
It also has the advantage of being set in a fascinating period of British history, spanning both World Wars over the course of its length. While it’s tethered to the world we know, the reincarnation aspect allows Atkinson to explore what might have happened if – and this is at the heart of the book. What happens when Ursula stands up for herself is completely different to what happens when Ursula is simply unable to do that. One of the most heartbreaking episodes in the book, when Ursula’s life turns out to be devastating, is through something that is not her fault in the slightest but completely destroys her self-worth and confidence. And, of course, she blames herself, and the guilt and blame imposed by that sole event change the course of her life. It’s also one of the most problematic, because she manages to subvert and avoid that very event next time, but as ordinary women without her sense of foreboding, we can’t hope for the same.
I also loved the World War II sections; I think many readers will agree that there’s just something about the London blitz which, horrifying as it was, is almost guaranteed fascinating reading. In Ursula’s situation there are simply so many different outcomes and the book’s structure allows Atkinson to explore each and every one. Regardless if Ursula dies or Ursula lives, anything could happen to anyone she loves. It’s not a wonderful situation, but it made for wonderful reading, and Atkinson pulls off the reincarnation trick over and over.
When I purchased this book, I read it almost immediately; I’d heard a lot of hype and I simply wanted to read it for myself. After doing so, I’m pleased that it lived up to all of that and more. I’d happily recommend – and will be recommending – this book, and I’ll certainly be going straight for the rest of the Kate Atkinson on my TBR pile.
Because my birthday and Christmas are so close together, I’ve always had a glorious few weeks where my to be read pile explodes and I find myself possessing books I’ve craved all year long. Most people I know well enough to exchange gifts with understand that pretty much all I want is books, so I’m lucky enough to receive books as gifts; this year I also … um … bought myself several as a birthday present. Kind of a celebration on lifting the TBR ban.
On top of this wonderful yearly addition to the physical TBR pile, Amazon also tend to put Kindle ebooks on sale around the New Year. This naturally means that I jump on the opportunity to possess wishlisted books at the ridiculously small price of 99p or £1.99; since Christmas I’ve acquired over 20 ebooks.
First, though, the physical books:
I’m particularly excited about Dangerous Women, although I think it will take me a while to read as it’s much too big to take with me on the train. But I’m actually looking forward to all these books, including the out-of-print Dreamsnake, one of the few remaining Hugo and Nebula award winners written by a woman that I haven’t read yet (the other one is Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold which I have somewhere). The Raven Boys comes as a recommendation from Ana and Jodie. I think I also read about Biting the Sun on a blog but can’t actually remember where.
Then, there were the ebooks. I can’t take a picture of these, but I can list them:
- The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing
- The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
- The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
- The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
- First Grave on the Right, Charley Davidson
- Cinder, Marissa Meyer
- Heart of Steel, Meljean Brook
- The Countess Conspiracy, Courtney Milan
- Across the Universe, Beth Revis
- The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan
- One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
- Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
- We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
- Harvest, Jim Crace
- Life after Life, Kate Atkinson
- The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
- Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, Max Hastings
- Instructions for a Heatwave, Maggie O’Farrell
- Goddess with a Blade, Lauren Dane
I’ve actually read three of these already - We Need New Names (fulfilling one of my monthly goals) and Life after Life, both of which I loved. The third was A Countess Conspiracy and above I’ve linked to my mini review post in which I discuss it.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, the pace of book acquisition has slowed down since then – otherwise I think I’d never catch up! Which of these do you think I should read next?