Anne Boleyn : A King’s Obsession

CoverHistory tells us why she died. This captivating novel shows her as she lived.

Alison Weir has an impressive body of work as a historical writer – both non-fiction and fiction – but I was amazed that she was willing to start a huge new series entitled ‘Six Tudor Queens’.

So far she has published Katharine of Aragon: The True Queen and has followed this up with the queen I am most fascinated by – Anne Boleyn.  True, Alison has written extensively on the Tudor period and possibly having previously written The Six Wives of Henry VIII had all the groundwork and research under her belt for such a massive endeavour …

Cover

My fascination for the 2nd consort of Henry VIII began as a child when I used to visit Hever Castle, the family home of the Boleyn family. Privately owned, but open to the public, there were huge grounds for kids to run themselves into exhaustion, Italian gardens, and an impressive lake. More importantly there was a small-scale castle with drawbridge over the moat that housed giant koi carp. Inside the castle there was abundant family history with an Armoury and severe looking family portraits – an ideal way to absorb an episode of English Tudor history!

There has been much information amassed about Henry’s reign and numerous mentions of Hever, but I knew very little about the formative years of Anne which is where this book – although fictional – is truly amazing.  The early relationship that Anne had with her brothers and sister; the education received at the Courts of Burgundy and France, including an early introduction to feminist writers, were the details required to make Anne a much more sympathetic character than previously portrayed.

Through the narrative we begin to understand Anne’s motivations for her behaviour at the English Court, especially concerning her indifference to the increasingly besotted Henry VIII. Political and religious alliances through marriage was something the Monarch had to consider in case it weakened present and future Tudor rule and Anne’s romantic union with Henry Percy was quickly thwarted. Anne’s outrage at this ‘slight’ made her behaviour especially cool when dealing with the King – he was not used to this in women and it had the effect of increasing his romantic ardour.

Anne was quick to realise the power this infatuation gave her. She walked the precarious path to marriage and a Crown, quickly followed by a rapid descent once Henry VIII grew bored with her. Anne, for all her feminist intellect and political astuteness did not make the connection that she was still only female in a male-dominated society — and therefore her only requirement as Queen was to provide England with a male heir. That, coupled with her misguided belief that she was ‘equal’ to Henry, proved to be her undoing.

The personal panic I felt whilst reading this – a young woman who had seriously miscalculated her ability to keep her husband enthralled, and the lengths that Henry was prepared to go to ensure a son would succeed to the English Throne again illustrates the power of the writing.

The fact that Alison Weir takes us ‘along for the ride’ is positive testament to her ability as a writer.  The reader cannot know with certainty what went on, but there is enough fact in this fictional tale to make it totally believable.

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession
by Alison Weir
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781472227621

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Stella Duffy at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

Stella Duffy: writer, playwright, actor, improviser, founder and co-director of Fun Palaces, and general multi-tasker extraordinaire. How, asks interviewer Liz Grant, does she have the energy?

I like working, and I know I’m really lucky to be able to do it — my parents both left school at 14, had very hard working lives, the only time off my dad had was when he was shot down in World War II and became a POW — so when artists talk about how it’s such hard work, and they have to suffer, it makes me want to punch them. What’s hard work is raising seven children like my mother, or being a brilliant man with no opportunities like my dad. I work really hard at my job, but it’s not hard work. I know I’m fortunate to be able to do it.

Liz Grant and Stella Duffy. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. The Piano. Monday 15 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-15-IMG_0166

Family

Duffy’s family history is fascinating — like all families it is complex and messy. While researching she discovered a great-grandmother who had given birth in Holloway prison. The reason for her spell inside? Manslaughter; “I didn’t realise the baby was so ill,” she said in court, “and neither did my (12-year old) daughter.” She worked from 9pm-6am every night (“charring” is the occupation given, scare quotes intentional), providing for her children so that she could be home to get them ready for school, only to lose a child and be imprisoned while pregnant with the next. It’s a far cry from Downton Abbey, that’s for sure, and can be seen in the hard working lives of the families in Duffy’s London Lies Beneath.

“There’s no place like home”

Probably the most interesting for me was the talk of home/not home, how once you move away from the place you grew up you effectively lose it — always missing home, but when you visit it has changed without you. This really resonated as someone who grew up in a small town but now lives in a city, with family across New Zealand as well as far away in Europe, who has lived overseas and now feels the tug of home/not-home wherever I am.

Christchurch in particular has that double-layered effect, walking down streets that have changed beyond measure in only a few years. In cities such as London and Rome the juxtaposition of past and present is even more noticeable, everything built on and around and between the layers of its own history. Duffy loves being swallowed up by such a vast, full and vibrant city, being “a small fish in a very big pond”, keeping the taniwha in the Thames fed with Kiwi accents and secrets:

Cover of London Lies BeneathYou know what they say about the taniwha, don’t you, girl?

She shook her head.

He smiled as he said, It’s homesick, of course, but the Thames is too busy and it can’t get by the ships for fear of being seen and lauded and brought ashore for our pleasure again. It doesn’t like to be looked at, not directly. And it’s bigger, much bigger now, grown full on the secrets we tell to the water. That taniwha lives off our whispers, eating up the fears and tears we tell over the side of a bridge. It’s grown fat on what we hide from in the dark, beneath the bedclothes. There’s no getting away from it either, it will follow you along the Effra or the Neckinger as easy as it rides the tide from Tilbury to Teddington.

— London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy

Ngaio Marsh

When I first read about Money in the Morgue I was under the impression that Duffy was simply finishing an already mostly-completed manuscript, but no: Dame Ngaio Marsh only left three sketchy chapters with some rough notes and no ideas of whodunnit, where it was done or how. Helpful!

Duffy talked a little about how to recreate the tone of Marsh’s writing without the less desirable -isms that permeate 30s era novels (how to make it seem as if it were written in that time but not of that time, if you see what I mean). The answer? Steal a few of Marsh’s writing tics. “Alleyn rubbed his nose.” “His ascetic monk’s face.” “His long, elegant fingers.” Perhaps we’ll see some of New Zealand’s “primordial landscape”, too. All jokes aside, Duffy is careful to avoid any sense of pastiche or mockery in her writing, being an avid admirer of Marsh’s work.

I look forward to reading Money in the Morgue when it’s published in May 2018, and in the meantime reading Duffy’s recent thriller, The Hidden Room. If you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting of London Lies Beneath, Duffy recommends Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves. If you’re new to Ngaio Marsh’s writing then she recommends starting with Died in the Wool, a country house mystery set on a high country sheep station in New Zealand.

Cover of The Hidden RoomCover of Round About a Pound a WeekCover of Died in the Wool

Buses, Byzantium and fangirling Stella Duffy

image_proxyMany years ago I used to bus up and down the Walworth Road and round the Elephant and Castle, south of the Thames in London, either on the 68 or the 468 (if memory serves me right Janet Frame used to take one of those buses, or one very similar).

While I’d spend quite a lot of that time reading I also used to enjoy looking out of the window at the variety of people and places. I always enjoyed the Mixed Blessings Bakery, Rimworld the hat shop, and the halal noodle bar. On a more serious note, there was also a memorial to victims of the Blitz on the side of the Cuming Museum. As with any city it was a true palimpsest, with many layers of history side by side and intermingled.

Imagine my nostalgia when the pages of a book took me on that same journey, but decades earlier. A book which has a dedication which talks of a taniwha in the Thames. I just loved Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath, so rich and evocative of the melting pot of the city in 1912.

This sense of place and history and connections is one of many reasons I am so excited that Stella is coming to the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season on 15th May to talk about her latest books, including London Lies Beneath, and her task of finishing Ngaio Marsh‘s unfinished Money in the Morgue.

Stella Duffy, photo by
Stella Duffy, photo by Gino Spiro

Stella writes and campaigns in many areas, such as the arts, breast cancer, women’s and LGBT issues, and has worked in the theatre and written a number of novels and short stories. More recently she has become a co-director of Fun Palaces – a weekend each year where a variety of venues and locations enable arts and science for all, with a belief that community belongs at the core of all culture. They are a brilliant idea and Central Library Peterborough has had the opportunity to host a Fun Palace for the last couple of years.

I have also only just realised that Stella has written fiction about the Empress Theodora – I do love a bit of Byzantium!

I can’t wait for 15th May and hope to see you there.

The Pearl Thief

Cover of Code Name VerityElizabeth Wein has been one of my must-read authors since reading the beautiful punch in the gut that is Code Name Verity a few years ago. I’ve since tracked down the rest of her bibliography and can honestly say there isn’t a book she’s written that I haven’t loved.

This probably doesn’t make sense to you if you’re not a re-reader, but there are certain books that worm their way into your heart and you need to read them again in order to spend more time with your favourite characters. Books that make you grin foolishly or tear up on the bus. Books that make you thrust a copy into your friends’ hands and say: ‘Read this! It made me have feelings and I need you to read it so that we can have feelings together!’

Elizabeth Wein frequently provokes such outbursts from me. (Sorry, friends.) So I was very excited to read her latest novel The Pearl Thief. Technically it’s a prequel to Code Name Verity but it works well as a standalone.

Cover of The Pearl ThiefJulie arrives at her recently deceased grandfather’s estate in Scotland in 1938, having come home early from boarding school. No one’s around so she wanders down to the river in her brother’s kilt and an old jersey, enjoying the summer afternoon. She falls asleep tickling the trout… and then wakes up in hospital with a giant bump on her head and no memory of what happened.

This is only one of the mysteries she has to solve, as missing scholars, dead bodies and stolen river pearls start to pile up, along with a lot of unfounded local suspicion toward the Scottish Traveller community. Which is awkward as Julie is getting to be quite good friends with two Traveller siblings, Euan and Ellen. Will they figure out the real culprit before the Travellers are framed for the crime?

So many of my favourite things contained in one book: mystery, archaeology, librarians, and Julie running around the moors dressed as Davie Balfour from Kidnapped!, kissing the local girls. Sound like you? Reserve a copy of The Pearl Thief now and beat the rush! And if you also have feelings about Elizabeth Wein’s books and need to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The Pearl Thief
by Elizabeth Wein
Published by Disney-Hyperion
ISBN: 9781484717165

ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover of Rose Under FireCover of Black Dove, White RavenCover of A Coalition of LionsCover of The Sunbird

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

y648This doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like, but I can honestly say that I loved this book! I’ve only ever really thought of Jackie French in terms of children’s and young adult fiction so was pleasantly surprised to see her grown up offering – If Blood Should Stain the Wattle.

Now it is probably the Australian in me, but I especially loved how Jackie uses famous Australian poetry and folklore that brought a ‘familiar’ spark to the story for me.

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle is full of wonderful, well established characters that have appeared in Jackie French’s earlier ‘Matilda’ series. I haven’t read any of these books yet but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this one; instead it made me want to experience them all.

There are fabulous strong female characters who are making their mark in Gibber’s Creek, finding love and setting their sights on conquering the world. Okay, maybe just Australia. Then we have the odd spiritual moment where they converse with ghosts and even manage to peek through time itself. But this is the seventies so the story wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a hippy commune on the edge of Gibber’s Creek and a ‘cult leader’ who is receiving messages from aliens. Did I mention that this is also the story of the Whitlam government coming to power?

Stop, come back! Don’t be put off by the inclusion of politicians and their shenanigans within the pages. Jackie French has cleverly woven the information into short excerpts from newspaper reports, and by having characters Jed Kelly and Matilda campaigning to support a Labor government. No boring political twaddle in sight; instead we get to experience first hand what it was like when the Whitlam Government came to power in early 1970s Australia and the subsequent historic dismissal of Gough Whitlam by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
This book really does have something for everyone and it won’t disappoint.

The Matilda series began as a trilogy, became a quartet. It was meant to be a history of our nation told from one country town, and the viewpoints of those who had no political voice in 1892, when the series begins: women, indigenous people, Chinese, Afghans.
But, by book four, I realised that history didn’t stop just because I was born, and that the series will continue as long as I live.” (Jackie French)

The quartet Jackie French is referring to is now a sextet – and who knows how many more there may be. So if you want to start at the very beginning the titles in order are:

  1. A Waltz for Matilda
  2. The Girl From Snowy River
  3. The Road to Gundagai
  4. To Love a Sunburnt Country
  5. The Ghost by the Billabong
  6. If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

Cover of A waltz for MatildaCover of the girl from Snowy Riverimage_proxy[3]Cover of To love a sunburnt countryCover of The ghost by the billabongCover of If Blood should stain the wattle

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
by Jackie French
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781460753118

Dragon Springs Road – Janie Chang

Cover of Dragon Springs RoadDragon Springs Road by Janie Chang has as many layers as a Chinese puzzle. This beautifully painted tale is a saga containing a mystery, with elements of romance, fantasy, fairy tale and Chinese spiritualism. The story is set against the dramatic backdrop of the 1911 Chinese Revolution; the last reign of the Xing Dynasty.

Jialing is a young hun xue (mixed breed) girl abandoned by her mother. The other word used to describe her isn’t very nice. Jialing’s mother was Chinese, her father British. Her plight highlights the status of women and those of mixed race in a changing society. Women at this time were regarded as property, with little options for independence.

Grandmother Yang, the Matriarch of a well respected family, takes Jialing in as a Bond Servant. She is property of the family until she can buy her freedom. Unfortunately for Jialing, her options as an adult are limited. Although educated, discrimination against her Eurasian appearance makes her almost unemployable.

When a family finds itself in financial difficulty, even wives can be sold; or as servants, or worse, into brothels. Jialing can only hope to be a mistress or a prostitute, unless she is lucky. Aided and protected by a Fox Spirit, Jialing attempts to find a home, friendship, her mother, independence and love.

Janie Chang is also the author of Three Souls.

This is the perfect book to read during Lunar New Year!

Dragon Springs Road
by Janie Chang
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780062388957

Lunar New Year events

All about China

Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars

In the hunt for Iolanthe Green, Anna Treadway takes you through a simpler time in many ways, with a notable absence of all the technology and urgency that dominates our existence today. This is what I found quite charming about the book – stepping into a time where you seemed to survive on tea and toast, your entire wardrobe could fit in one bag, you walked to get from A to B and you felt wicked if you stayed on the bus beyond the stop that you had paid up to.

I definitely had preconceptions before reading Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars – as we all do when we read the blurb on a book. I was expecting a really gripping mystery that would take me behind the scenes of the theatre district – so that I could literally peek behind the curtain of a world that I’ve never seen. This didn’t quite transpire, but I wasn’t disappointed because instead I was taken on a tour of 1960s Soho. But even this was secondary to witnessing some of the less pleasant aspects of life and relationships in this time.

Miranda Emmerson does a great job of highlighting the multitude of social issues that reigned during the mid 1960s. The story winds its way through racism, social hierarchy, police brutality, unplanned pregnancies – a time with some very big restrictions on personal freedom as abortions and gay relationships would both still be illegal for a couple of years. My overactive sense of fairness left me continuing to hope that the characters Anna and Aloysius would stand up and rebel against their treatment and segregation – and in small ways they did – but ultimately they were somewhat resigned to their place in the world. Ahh the frustration!!

Now this kind of book isn’t normally my cup of tea as I prefer to escape from the ugliness of our world when I read – or at least know the characters will have a win somewhere in the mix; but I still found it quietly entertaining and feeling very grateful for the rights that I was born in to!

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Miss Treadway and the field of stars
by Miranda Emmerson
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008170578

According to Helen: Best reads of 2016

These are my top 10 books of 2016 – a mix of poetry, novels, and non-fiction that I loved and still wish I hadn’t finished (grumble grumble).

Cover of Book of longingBook of Longing

I have always been a big fan of Leonard Cohen‘s incredible music and was in no way disappointed by his poetry. This anthology is every bit as beautiful, poignant, and playful as his lyrics. I definitely recommend seeing out 2016 by reading this reflective and enlightening collection, and remembering this sadly missed genius.

North and South

To my eternal shame, I only read the book of ‘North and South’ for the first time this year, despite having watched the wondrous BBC series at least 50 times (and yes I am unashamed). I enjoyed every minute of this book and not only because I could envisage the dashing Richard Armitage throughout the novel (not wholly) but because of its fascinating story, real characters, and gripping narrative. A must read for anyone who loves classics – or even just an outstanding novel.

Cover of Nightingale WoodNightingale Wood

‘Nightingale Wood’ is a fun and fabulous Cinderella story set in the 1930s. It is a truly magical read that will make everything you read after seem vastly inferior (trust me, I still wish I hadn’t finished it, *sigh*).

The Fit

I enjoyed every minute of this hillarious, tragic, and poignant novel. Hensher handles some heartbreaking themes with perception and humanity.  ‘The Fit’ well earned its place in my best books of 2016.

Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman

This collection of short stories detailing the exploits of A J Raffles, a cricketer by day and society thief by night, is incredibly fun – and incredibly good. Lovers of Sherlock Holmes will enjoy these stories which are set in the same era as Holmes and told with the same flair. This is a new author to get addicted to.

Eugene Onegin

I just loved Pushkin’s beautiful novel in verse. Onegin’s dreamy prose, fabulous heroine, and exquisitely sad story made this not just a best read of 2016 for me, but one of my best reads ever.

Cover of Public Library and other storiesPublic Library and Other Stories

This weird and wonderful book was definitely a highlight of this year. While a very fitting subject for me to be reading about it was also a moving, wacky and constantly gripping read.

Shadowed Journey

Did I have a huge soft spot for this book because it was written by a distant ancestor of mine? Yes. But did I genuinely love this book with its adorably bad romantic story, and its wonderful evocation of New Zealand during the 1950s? A big yes. Oh and have I reserved more titles by this author? You bet, yes.

Cover of Oscar's booksOscar’s Books

This wonderfully warm and engaging biography must be the ultimate work on Oscar Wilde. Wright manages to get right into the mind of this incredible genius with an endearing obsessiveness, intelligence, and warmth.

Phantom Terror

Written with flair, honesty, and scintillating detail, Zamoyski’s latest work looks at Europe during the paranoid and anxious post revolution period. While reminiscent of one of Zamoyski’s earlier works (‘Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries 1776-1871’) ‘Phantom Terror’ is still a must read for any lover of grippingly written history. Zamoyski is a master historian who consistently manages to bring the past to life with a new and important perspective.

Want more reading recommendations for the best of the year? Check out our bumper Best Reads of 2016 post.

Helen
Linwood Library

Back in time and half a world away

Armchair travel is always a big hit over the Summer holidays, so we’ve put together a travel list with a bit of a twist… Come, throw yourself backwards in time and half a world away.

Our new booklist, International Historical Fiction, has heaps of recommendations from all over the world, and from many different time periods.

My personal favourite is Eowyn Ivey’s new one To the Bright Edge of the World – Alaskan wilderness, science and exploration bordering on the world of magic and myth. Sophie, young and newlywed in the 1880s, is fascinated with the science of photography and a bit of a weird outcast among the other women, while her husband Allan is leading an expedition across the unexplored (by white people, at least) wilderness of Alaska. I could use lots of words like ‘frontier’ and ‘isolation’ and ‘fascinating detail’ and ‘gosh white explorers are awful when it comes to the native people.’

Cover of 'to the bright edge of the world'  Cover of 'Homegoing' cover of 'Barkskins'

If you like stories with huge scope that traverse through multiple countries and confront harsh historical realities, have a look at Homegoing, a story of half-sisters with two remarkably different destinies. One young woman, Effia, is given in marriage to a high ranking British official, while her half-sister, Esi, is held in the dungeons below as a slave. The ramifications of the distance between them and the unhealed scars of slavery run through this novel for seven generations.

Similar in scope is Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins. Both Homegoing and Barkskins begin in the 18th century, but Barkskins opens in New France. At over 700 pages it should keep you going all holidays, and take you through the two intertwining families through the generations.

Or if you want to load up on an entire epic series, let Conn Iggulden’s five book Conqueror series take you back to the time of Ghengis Khan on the Mongolian Plains, or head east, to David Kirk’s Sword of Honour if you want to meet some samurai out for revenge.

Cover of 'Conqueror' Cover of 'Sword of honour' Cover of 'Snow flower and the secret fan' Cover of 'Under the Udala Trees' 

For something perhaps a little gentler, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a beautiful story of a deep and powerful friendship between two women in 19th century China. Something a little bit more modern? Under the Udala Trees is set in the 1960s and 1970s in Nigera, a dangerous place to be if you’re a woman in love with another woman. A debut novel of gender equality and the right to love in a country recovering from civil war.

Recommended booklists from Christchurch City Libraries:

Staff pickles logo Or check out our Staff Pickles personalised lists, some choice lists with a historical or international flavour are:

  • Historical Fiction of the Masses – no drawing-room gossip or swooning in these novels! A list by Dan.
  • Translated Reads – a glimpse of a life and a world originally told in another language. A list by Roberta.
  • The World Wars: fiction and fantasy – stories of the brightest and darkest of humanities nature during two horrific time periods. A list by Alison.
  • Behaving Badly in the 1800s – mostly young adult fiction, these are books about people busting out and breaking rules. Another list by Alison.
  • Dead Dames – books written by dead women. A list by Alina.
  • Microhistories – discover the unusual and often surprising history of things like sugar, human waste, bananas, milk, coal, plants and that most mysterious of the cutlery family, the fork. Another list by Alina.

Cool stuff from the Selectors: Children’s and adult fiction

CoverWild animals of the North by Dieter Braun
A children’s book about the animals who live across the 3 regions of North America, Europe and Asia. This book has been getting a lot of good reviews. The illustrations are stars. They are bright, stunning and show the animals as full of life and personality. This is the first in a series that will cover the animals of the world.

The Guardian has great examples of the illustrations.

CoverAnother animal book, this time from the always superb husband and wife team of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. (They have produced 16 books together): Flying Frogs and Walking Fish : Leaping Lemurs, Tumbling Toads, Jet-propelled Jellyfish, and More Surprising Ways That Animals Move. 46 creatures in the typical paper collages against crisp white background style, showing  how they might march, stroll, tiptoe or perhaps glide soar or coast.

Fiction

On the fiction front there are promising titles such Days Without End by the Irish writer Sebastian Barry, which is a kind of literary western along the lines of that terrific novel The Sisters Brothers. Barry’s earlier novel  The Secret Scripture has been filmed (with Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave and Eric Bana) and is expected to bring more publicity to this very talented writer.

Other titles coming up from first rate novelists include Michael Chabon Moonglow, Alice Hoffman Faithful,  Alan Moore Jerusalem,  Ron Rash The Risen,  Zadie Smith Swing Time Stephenie Meyer The Chemist.

So … something for everyone

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