Spy for the Queen of Scots – Theresa Breslin

I love a bit of historical fiction (see post on Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly) As the title suggests the book is about the life of Mary Queen of Scots through the eyes of her lady in waiting Ginette – known to all as Jenny. After a brief prologue where we realise that Mary is about to be executed we go back in time to France where the young Mary is to be married to the king of France, Francis. They have a playful relationship which is overshadowed by the King’s mother Catherine de Medici. Jenny accidentally finds herself overhearing a conversation between Catherine and one of her courtiers and decides that she is in a good position to spy on the household to keep Mary safe. There is some romance with another courtier and Jenny, and as Mary is widowed and then travels to Scotland to take up her birth right we follow her.

I liked the feel of this book. It was interesting, factual and made the story of Mary really come alive. Mary’s relationship with Darnley, her second husband and then with the Earl of Bothwell who she went on the marry as well, was really interesting. What it’s easy to forget is that during all this Mary was really young. She was married three times, was crowned and gave birth all before she was 25. She then gives up the throne and goes to live in exile in England before Elizabeth realises she is too much of a threat (and she does keep organising plots so…) and has her executed. This is not a spoiler, it’s just history! The thing that the author does well is weave a fictional plot around the historical facts and makes it all seem much more interesting. If anything it just reminds us how lucky we are to be living in the 21st century and not in the age where men gave their daughters away at 6 months to the most available suitor.

Breslin also really accentuates the monarchies perception at the time that they were chosen by God and that the crown was their birth right. Mary is portrayed as really regal and loved by the Scottish people and makes as much effort as possible to look after them, like they are her children. In all the stuff written about Henry VIII he has the same kind of mentality; he was chosen by God to lead and no one can change that. Mary is portrayed as a little bit of a schemer but who, essentially wants to continue her family’s right to the crown because she feels it is her duty. She also makes bad life choices by marrying Darnley and Bothwell but, what can you do? If you love history, read this. It really makes it come alive.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10386434/Reign-series-one-episode-one-review.html

 

The Door that Led to Where – Sally Gardner

the door that led to where

I enjoyed this book so much I read it in one day! Then I recommended it to my daughter and she did too! it ticks lots of boxes; time travel, mystery, dangerous villain, romance etc. and it has a great main character. Meet AJ Flynn; just finished his GCSEs and not very hopeful about his future. His mum is a cleaner at a law firm in Clerkenwell and she manages to secure him an interview for a job, this is where the fun begins. He goes to the interview and everyone seems to know who he is, even more strangely there is a connection to his dad who disappeared before AJ was born. AJ has always assumed that he had run off and left him and his mum but it soon becomes clear that there is more to it then that.
To his surprise he is offered the job and given some money to buy himself a suit. He is then given a load of mundane tasks to do, one of which is to clean out the old store cupboard. There he finds an old key with a label on it with his name and date of birth. He meets a mysterious stranger who tells him what the key is for and he ends up in 1830! It’s a crazy ride; AJ is juggling 1830 problems with modern day worries in the form of his evil stepdad and trying to look after his mum and his friends who seem to be making life twice as hard! The main baddie is pretty good too. there is also a good scam going on where people are bringing in antiques through the door and selling them for profit in the present day; the trial that is taking place through the story is linked to this.
I really enjoyed the jumping between two worlds thing; the characters in 1830 seem more real than the modern day ones and you end up wishing that you could live there too. although it probably wasn’t as nice as Gardner tries to make you think! I have read several of her books before and really enjoyed the historical content of them. She really manages to capture what the time must have been like to live in. This one in particular has a lot of detail about clothing and social etiquette – it feels well researched. If you enjoy this book you will also enjoy The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade – these are about the French Revolution and are every bit as good!

Revolution – Jennifer Donnelly

Meet Andi Alpers in modern day America. Her parents are divorcing and her beloved brother, Truman has just died. She is angry and grief stricken and not really coping with life. She is about to be expelled from her school when her father suggests that she accompany him on a business trip to Paris. Seeing that she has no other option, she goes.

Then, meet Alexandrine Paradis in revolutionary France. A turbulent and dangerous time for anyone, but when you are friends with a prince then even more so.

Andi finds Alexandrine’s diaries in a violin case and gets swept up in the past. She soon learns that the past can sometimes be all too present when she sets out to discover the truth about what happened to Alexandrine.

This book is so well written I was disappointed to finish it. The narration jumps between the two main characters and both are engaging and interesting. Andi is difficult to like at first but once you delve in to her past a bit and see why then you warm to her. Alexandrine is ambitious and living in a dangerous time, which she finds out to her cost. Paris has an amazing system of catacombs underneath it where all the bones of the cemeteries were placed when they needed to make space for housing during the 18th century. A really interesting book about this is Pure by Andrew Miller (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10116927-pure?ac=1).

It’s somewhere I would like to go and have a look at one day (bit creepy I know!) so a book about what it’s like is awesome! I love anything about the French Revolution, it was a scary time in French history and a  this book is a really interesting take on it. Donnelly writes so well and with such description that sometimes you feel like you could almost be there with them.

I found the historical narration more interesting then the modern day one but that’s just my inner history geek coming out! Try it though, you might like it.

Further reading includes The Red Necklace The Silver Blade by Sally Gardner or for ambitious readers A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens or A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel.

http://www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/homepage-catacombs-official-website

A Gathering Light – Jennifer Donnelly

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore Hotel, where guest Grace Brown entrusts her with the task of burning a secret bundle of letters. But when Grace’s drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder. The book is based on the real murder of Grace Brown by her lover Chester Gillette. Some of the characters are fictional but the main players are real.


This is the debut novel by Jennifer Donnelly and was written in 2003. She has since gone on to write some amazing novels, not least of which is Revolution (see review). This one is outstanding. The book is set in 1906, a time in America where anything was possible. People like Mattie went to work at places like the Glenmore and succeeded. Earned money, met new people, changed their lives – the class system in America was not as stringent as it was in Britain. So when she meets Grace Brown she is fascinated, and a little overwhelmed.

The opens with the staff watching as the lake is dragged for a body. When she is brought in Mattie assumes that she isn’t dead, just faint. The description in this book is amazing. The cold foreboding of the lake, the dripping of the dress as the body is brought in, the naivety of Mattie – it’s so clever. The present is juxtaposed with stories of Mattie’s upbringing. There are lots of mouths to feed and not much money to go round, but Mattie is obviously trying to better herself and her siblings. She gives them all a word of the day and is trying to teach them all to read. She spends all their grocery money on a notebook because it looks so pretty and she wants to write in it. It is a constant throughout the novel that she worries for them and their future.

The book is part mystery novel, part thriller and part social commentary. Life was tough, there is no doubt; but not if you had money. The difference between the staff who eek out a living at the Glenmore and the guests is obvious. Mattie holds the key to mystery and it becomes obvious that Grace Brown gave her the letters because she assumed she couldn’t read, so there would be no danger of her discovering the truth. Grace in turn is not as wealthy as her lover, not a great catch, and this is ultimately the reason that she has to go.

A really well written and clever book. Donnelly is so good at describing the world that she creates, it makes you feel as though you can reach out and touch it. You empathise with Mattie, but also with Grace and her predicament. Well worth a read if you want to immerse yourself in something on a rainy day.