Skea’s sequel – “A House Divided” is even better than “Turn of the Tide”

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Margaret Skea’s brilliant second novel in the Munro family series.

I’ll tell the truth, shall I?  I have been a bit annoyed with some of the historical fiction I’ve read recently.  It is my fault for choosing too many books with the storyline “girl goes to court, meets [insert royal figure], chaos ensues.” This storyline seems prevalent in the Tudor/Elizabethan novels I’ve read. The cure for my malaise? Reading Scottish historical fiction.

Margaret Skea has just this month published the sequel – “A House Divided”  – to her first novel; “Turn of the Tide,” which I savored over several weeks and just finished this weekend.  I loved the first book (see review here) and this one was, I thought, even better. That makes some sense – an author learns a lot between book one and book two.  Skea has skillfully woven a gripping story set again primarily in Ayrshire about the Cunninghame-Montgomerie feud in a restless time period when superstition and witch trials were on the rise. She has done her research – knows the landscape, the history of the feud, and has given it all perfect context with the Munro’s story.

“A House Divided” continues the story of the Munro family, forced into hiding from Glencairn’s heir, the great arch-villain of the series, William Cunninghame.  In the sequel, William Cunninghame has taken possession of the Munro home at Broomelaw and is rebuilding the tower and surrounding holdings for himself. Adam Munro is in France, fighting with the Scots Garde for the French Henri IV.  Kate Munro has taken the surname Grant, and is living with her children at Braidstane – a Montgomerie stronghold.

There’s great dramatic tension from the get-go.  Kate makes a living as a “wise woman” – a cross between a herbalist and midwife.  It is a dangerous occupation in late 16th Century Scotland, where witchcraft trials have become commonplace.  The trouble begins when Kate is called to help Margaret Maxwell, the wife of a Cunninghame supporter.  It is an understatement to say that this good deed does not go unpunished, and leaves Kate and her family increasingly vulnerable to discovery.  Kate is further put at risk when her reputation spreads and she is asked to attend to Queen Anne, the wife of James VI.   Like any good healer she goes where and when she must – even with a high chance of seeing Maxwell and William Cunninghame there.

Court?! Yes, there were a few trips to Court – the Court of James VI to be exact – but the characters in the novel are not conduits who get involved in the affairs of the Court, rather the opposite – which of course saves it from my perturbation with the “girl goes to Court” theme.

I loved this book – the way the tension rose and dipped and then rose higher, dipped in brief resolution and rose again – finally to a great crescendo.  I suspected early on what was coming but that in no way diminished the grip the novel had on me.  I can’t spoil it for you. I was on tenterhooks.  I suppose I will never be sure what a novelist will do to their characters since Eddard Stark died, so I could not be sure of the ending.  I was all-in for the journey – and you will be too.

For lovers of Scotland, Scottish history, and historical fiction more broadly, this is a great read. It left me wondering what the Munro’s will do next.  That’s a good sign – ready for no. 3!

Saint defeated by Tudor despot in Philippa Gregory’s “King’s Curse”

Great novel, 6th in the Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War series.

The King’s Curse, the 6th novel in Philippa Gregory’s Cousin’s War series. Very well done. Recommended.

You can tell Philippa Gregory enjoyed writing Margaret of Warwick’s story in The King’s Curse – her 6th novel in the Cousin’s War series.  The novel is one of her best, bringing to life one of the great Plantagenet women — one lucky, or canny, enough to survive the Tudor period into old age.  And Margaret is a survivor, adept at hiding her true feelings of grief at the loss of family and fortune and shielding her remaining Plantagenet family.  She was adept at managing courtly intrigue — and keeping secrets.  Secrets like the truth about the marriage of Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon, and  the truth about the curse cast by her cousin Elizabeth — a curse that affects the Tudor succession.

Margaret of Warwick was the daughter of Isabelle Neville (one of the Earl of Warwick (aka Kingmaker’s daughters) George, Duke of Clarence — the brother of Edward IV and Richard III.   Even listing Margaret’s famous kin should give you an idea of the tragedies she experienced:  her grandfather the Earl of Warwick was beheaded by Edward IV, her father was drowned in a barrel of Malmsey; and her uncle Richard III was slain on Bosworth field by a victorious Henry VII who eventually executed her brother Edward of Warwick, several cousins, and her eldest son.  The book has several telling family trees that show the Plantagenet’s at the start of Henry VII’s reign and those surviving at the end of Henry VIII.Screenshot 2014-09-25 19.20.42

This was definitely one of my favorite novels in the Cousins’s War.  The first-person narration brings into Margaret’s thoughts, fears and hopes, triumphs and tragedies.  Through Margaret, you understand what it was like to be a Plantagenet in the aftermath of the Tudor victory, on the losing end the War of the Roses and at the mercy of Henry VII and Henry VIII.   Margaret herself was favored by Henry VII — enough that she and her husband attended Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon at Ludlow.  But her fortunes — and those of her family—fall afterwards while Henry VII reigns.  Margaret thinks and hopes that Henry VIII — the son of her good friend and cousin Elizabeth of York — will be a good, merciful King in the style of the Plantagenets.  Her fortune rises again as she waits upon Queen Katherine,  eventually becoming governess to Princess Mary, is named a Countess in her own right and becomes one of the richest people in England.  But Henry is not the King she hoped for and as any student of history knows, so many of those close to Henry VIII found themselves in the Tower awaiting execution.  Margaret’s execution is one of the low points of Henry’s reign, still shocking ~450 years later.

Henry VIII character arc is one of the novels strengths, for me.  I loved the way Gregory portrayed his descent from the good-looking, most-favored ruler in Christendom to the obese, distrusting, vengeful tyrant he became.  His failures as a monarch lead Margaret to  act on the hope for a new rule — Princess Mary — and in that lies her doom.  Gregory does an excellent job of showing the impact of the Dissolution of the Monasteries on the people of England, who lost their long-held traditions as Reformation swept the nobility.

I appreciated that this novel was consistent with others — “The Constant Princess” “The Boleyn Inheritance” and the others in the series in terms of character histories.

Here are links to my reviews of other Gregory novels — I did not review all of them, but read them all and think for the most part they were well done (“The Red Queen” being my least favorite and “The White Princess” one of my favorites).

Of Scotland, Selkies, and Survival: The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

I enjoyed this novel very much.  It’s Elisabeth Gifford’s first and she is a fine storyteller.  This one will sweep away the cobwebs and give you a look into the Scottish Island of Harris – wild, incredibly beautiful and high up on my bucket list.

If I could live anywhere, I’d live in a house with the sea at my door (maybe back just a little to allow for global warming). I’m never happier than when I’m by the sea or in the sea – no matter how cold the water. Yesterday, I even put ocean waves on my Spotify while I was working – because I live in the middle of America where there’s not much surf to be found.  If I could, I would live in Elisabeth Gifford’s Sea House on Harris in the Hebridean Islands.

I wonder if Gifford found an old run-down house on an island and used it as the catalyst for The Sea House? For me, it was a story about family, loss, and the struggle to survive.  Set both in 1976 and in 1860 it is really two stories, knit together by Selkie legends and a beautiful house.  What’s a Selkie? It’s the Scottish word for a mythical creature that resembles a seal in the water but assumes human form on land. (For a great movie on the similar subject, see “The Secret of Roan Inish”)

In 1976 Ruth and her husband Michael are renovating the dilapidated Sea House on Harris.  For Ruth, the house and the island are a return to her mother’s birthplace, something of a homecoming to a home she never had.  While working on the house they find a body of baby with what looks like a fin, buried under the floorboards.  A Selkie child?  The dead infant haunts Ruth and adds to the dis-ease that Ruth experiences on the cusp of becoming a mother.  She carries a child, but she also carries the weight of a rootless existence as an orphan raised in the urban welfare system, the pain of the loss of her mother, and the abandonment by her unknown father.  Ruth clings to family lore that she is descended from the Selkies.  This belief leads her to learn more about the home’s previous inhabitants.  She finds story of Alexander Ferguson and Moira, his servant in his journals, church papers and historical accounts.

In 1860 Moira works in the Sea House – then the manse for the island’s Reverend Alexander Ferguson, who has saved her life after the loss of her family in the Clearances.  [Highland Clearances of the 19th century destroyed communities throughout the Highlands and Islands as the human populations were evicted and replaced with sheep farms.]  Moira is quietly devoted to the Reverend in a way that reminded me of a Dickens novel.  Alexander is a bit of a scientist – he is fascinated by the possibility of a missing race of people – Selkies – from whom he believes he is descended.  As much as Moira loves the Reverend from afar, she hates Lord Marstone – whose clearance of land led to the loss of her family.  She plots revenge on Marstone even as his daughter gets uncomfortably friendly with the Alexander.   And the baby?  I can’t spoil it for you.  But it is good.

How the author got her inspiration for the story, and more about Selkies

Fiction books set in the Hebrides 

Goodreads list of books about Selkies

Find out more about the Scottish Islands

“Turn of the Tide” charts shifting currents of clan loyalties

Turn of The Tide by Margaret Skea, Capercaillie Books

Turn of The Tide by Margaret Skea, Capercaillie Books

It is hard to know where to begin, there were so many things I liked about “Turn of the Tide,”Margaret Skea’s debut novel about the feud between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghams set in 17th Century Scotland.   I have had this one in the queue for a wee while and was grateful for the US Labor Day weekend for uninterrupted hours of reading pleasure.Set in Ayrshire, the novel opens with main character, Munro setting plans in motion for a massacre of key members of the Montgomery clan.  He’s a loyal, albeit reluctant, member of the Cunningham clan who would rather be at home with his wife, bairns and farm.  He carries out this mission for the Earl of Glencairn with a seed of misgiving about continuing the 100-year-old feud that grows throughout the novel.

Retribution is swift for may of those involved in the massacre, but Munro has a handy alibi and escapes harm.  Still, his wife is horrified and his conscience nags him. A friendly encounter with a Montgomery makes him question further the blind loyalty to the Cunningham clan and its leader, the Earl of Glencairn.  Glencairn himself may have some reasonable qualities, but William, his son and heir is a dangerous man.

Auch, I’ll no spoil it for ye!   I will say that Munro’s conscience is the tide that turns, and the reasons behind it make for a captivating read.

I love that the novel shone a light on this feud, which ran for centuries in Ayrshire.  King James VI and his court do feature in the novel, but they are far from the main story.  It was a refreshing departure to find a 16th-17th century novel with a griping tale where royalty is on the fringe and not center stage.  That said, one of the issues in the feud was which clan leader took precedence at court.

This is an emotionally gripping story about a man caught between duty and conscience at a time in history when a man’s livelihood depended upon his loyalty to family and clan –theoretically those would be aligned.  While Skea could have chosen one incident to make Munro’s loyalties change, I’m glad she did not.  It would have had impact, but missed the nuances, the questioning and the soul-searching Munro went through.  And then of course, there was also impact (I willnae spoil it).

Skea clearly knows Ayrshire well, and writes with beautiful detail about the landscape, whether it is describing the miserable rain that can chill you to the bone, or the aconite flowers in a valley.   The dialect adds richness to the characters and is judiciously used.  Helpfully, there’s a glossary in the book so you can look up words like “wabbit” (no, not rabbit).

The Feud of Glencairn and Eglinton

Clan Cunningham (US)

Clan Montgomery (Electric Scotland)

Marie MacPherson’s debut novel makes John Knox likable

FirstblastThe First Blast of the Trumpet” is the first of three novels about the life and times of Scottish Reformation preacher John Knox, brilliantly told by Marie MacPherson. The novel begins in pre-Reformation Scotland under James IV, a period of relative stability in the country in which three young girls, including Elisabeth Hepburn, the daughter of the Earl of Bothwell, are coming of age. Elisabeth’s hopes for marriage to David Lindsay are thwarted when she is commanded by her family to enter a convent. It soon becomes clear that Elisabeth is the thread that ties together a diverse cast of characters, from John Knox and Marie of Guise to Cardinal David Beaton and Mary, Queen of Scots. Elisabeth’s family and friends become divided over the need to curtail some of the excesses of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

The author deftly tackles a very complicated, emotionally charged subject and brings it to life with historical and emotional accuracy. John Knox is not, to my mind, a particularly sympathetic figure in Scotland’s history, and yet in the young Knox Marie MacPherson creates a very likeable, though flawed character. I quite liked Knox and felt keenly his struggle to keep faith with his past but follow his calling. I also enjoyed the characterizations of Elisabeth, Davie Lindsay and George Wishart; their troubles tugged at the heartstrings. There is fantastic Scots dialect throughout the book, which as a Scot I enjoyed, but others may wish to have had a glossary in the back of the book.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review August 2013.  

Rich characters, great plot – Gregory’s “The White Princess” is riveting

One of Gregory's best!

One of Gregory’s best!

So good it trumps my all-time Gregory favorite, The Other Boleyn Girl!  The White Princess is Philippa Gregory’s latest novel in Cousins’ War series. Unquestionably her best book yet.  It is fantastic—full of flawed characters you love to hate, quietly heroic characters you’ll alternately cheer and mourn for, and plot twists that will keep you reading well into the night.  You won’t want to put it down.  I read it over two days and was disappointed to reach the end because I was so invested in the characters and immersed in the storyline.  I’ve said it in my other reviews of Gregory’s novels, and I’ll say it again, she excels in the “what if” that lies between the facts of historical record.  It may not always make for an 100% historically accurate novel, but damn! it does make for some juicy plots.The White Princess is, of course, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV.   Elizabeth of York is often portrayed as a quiet, motherly figure who lived harmoniously with Henry VII.  Gregory gives us another, deeper and richly satisfying portrayal of a young woman at the epicenter of upheaval in English history whose marital life was anything but comfortable.

This is her story, told from her point of view. Elizabeth’s world is full of conflicts and complications.  On the one hand, Henry VII gains the throne, restores her legitimacy and offers marriage.  On the other hand, he’s killed her Uncle, lover and King Richard III, treats her as no better than a tavern whore as the spoils of war and whatever legitimacy she recovers comes behind his all-seeing, all-plotting mother Margaret Beaufort.   The novel opens with Elizabeth mourning Richard in her heart, but outwardly appearing happy and content with the new regime.  This is a tough act to carry out and Elizabeth of York displays the rigid self-control that carries her through the novel, even on the day Edward of Warwick and her brother Richard are executed.   At times, her self-control fails her and sparks fly between her and Henry VII behind the bedchamber door, which shows how raw and real her emotions truly are.   (I though about the late Diana, Princess of Wales as I wrote this.  She was another princess who always looked happy and glamorous to the public but in private had a tempestuous marriage and life.)

Margaret Beaufort is a fabulous villain, a religious fanatic obsessed with carrying out her interpretation of God’s Will.  But she is well-matched in plotting by Elizabeth’s mother, the former White Queen Elizabeth Woodville, who hope a new son of York will rise to challenge Henry and supports several plots to overthrown the Tudor regime.  I loved this Elizabeth Woodville even more than I did in Gregory’s novel about her – The White Queen.  Admittedly I read it a long time ago now, but I feel like this Elizabeth is even Machiavellian.

Henry VII was not a wildly popular king and there were several challenge to his throne from the York camp, the most significant of which was from someone claiming to be Richard, Duke of York.  Gregory poignantly portrays the conflicting emotions Elizabeth would have felt, hoping her brother was alive, wanting to support York – but having to support her husband’s cause because her children are Tudors.  To tell you more would be to spoil it.  Gregory has now spent years with the Plantagenets and it shows in up in tight plots, and characters so vivid, so real and convincing that I carried them with me after I reached the end of the book.

Loved, loved this book.  Am now eagerly awaiting “The White Queen” TV series, which begins airing in the US on 10 August (Starz).

Here my reviews of other novels in the series:

“The Kingmaker’s Daughter” — Best So Far in Gregory’s Cousins War Series

Best in the Cousin's War Series!

Best in the Cousin’s War Series!

Philippa Gregory‘s latest novel, “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” is her best since “The Other Boleyn Girl.”  It is Gregory at her finest, excelling at coloring between the lines of history and bringing a lesser-known character to life. “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” is every bit as good and juicy a read as “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which I consider to be her finest work.

This was the first novel I’d read with Anne Neville as the main character, although she appears as a secondary character in many historical fiction novels about the War of the Roses.  As a background figure Anne—daughter of the powerful “Kingmaker,” Richard, Earl of Warwick and wife of Richard III—is often portrayed as a kindly but quiet, and sickly figure.

Gregory does not necessarily seek to change person Anne presented to the world, but she gives Anne an internal dialogue and spirit that reveals a character with fierce, determination.   The novel is written in the first person, which Gregory has used for throughout the Cousins’ War series. Perhaps it captivated me because Anne seems outwardly calm and inscrutable but we hear her inner thoughts and feelings that are so much at odds with her public persona.  I loved it.  I loved the suspicion and fear, and power politicking and strength that Anne had. It would never have come across so strongly in another point of view.

The novel tells the story of Anne and her older sister Isabel who grow from contented pawns of their father into significant players in their own right  War of the Roses.

Warwick was called the Kingmaker because he marshaled the resources to catapult Edward of York to the throne, snatching it out from under Henry VI.  But Warwick expected that in return he would unique power in England.  Edward VI had his own ideas.

Edward VI’s hasty, surprise marriage to Elizabeth Woodville wrecked havoc with Warwick’s ambitions for his family, and for England.  Elizabeth Woodville large extended family received favors – favors that Warwick believes should have been bestowed elsewhere. “If you crown a gannet, then she will gobble up everything,” observes young Anne Neville.

Warwick and his supporters feel they have been slighted and begin a destabilizing plot to overthrow Edward VI and bring back Henry VI, the “sleeping king.”  Key components of the plot are the marriages of Anne and Isabel to the Lancaster and York heirs – Edward of Lancaster and George, Duke of Clarence.  One way or the other, the Kingmaker is determined to get one of his daughters on the throne.

Anne and her sister Isabel are every inch Kingmaker’s Daughters. They each believe in their own manifest destiny to be the Queen of England, fulfilling their father’s dreams of glory for his family.  For a while after Warwick rebellion fails and he is executed, the girls believe the cause is lost.  Isabel and her husband struggle to regain favor with Edward, while Anne – a widow of the Lancaster heir – remains in disgrace until Richard, Duke of York claims her as his bride.  It is as his bride that Anne begins to shape her own destiny – quietly, behind the scenes.

Anne was not, in places, particularly sympathetic, but she was a real, emotionally solid character.   Isabel Neville, too, was well drawn but ultimately less likeable.

This was a thoroughly engrossing story, and one of Gregory’s best.  Her next novel in the series “The White Princess” is due out in a month, in which the story of Elizabeth of York – the wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII – is told.  I can’t wait.