Book Review: Castles, Customs and Kings from the EHFA

Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors

Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors

First, fantastic book. Now that I have that out of the way, I can get more analytical.

Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors is a compilation of hundreds of articles that spring from the extensive research that different authors have done for their novels. Ever wondered about bathing habits in medieval times, or how Tudor kitchens actually worked, or how flush toilets came to be?  It’s in there, and more.

The book’s structure makes it an easy read. It is divided into nine sections, ranging from Roman Britain and the Early Medieval Period through the Twentieth Century – plus a special bonus section for Historical Tidbits Across the Ages (for topics, like the royal coat of arms or Christmas, that span multiple time periods). This allows you to skip around a bit – which I confess to doing. I started with the intention of reading it straight through, but given that I have a strong preference for the Tudor era I ended up skipping ahead a bit and then circling back. I also confess to skipping some of the essays – not every reader will love every author or every title – but that is part of the genius of the format. Since each essay is only about 2-3 pages long, you don’t feel like you are losing much if an article here and there doesn’t quite pique your interest (plus it happened fewer times than I would have expected).

Still, its most enduring legacy is the fact that it assembles so much information – this makes it a critical resource for all writers of historical fiction set in England. I am currently writing a novel (Jane the Quene, about Henry VIII’s third wife, scheduled for release in 2015), and I loved the opportunity to read more detail about the tiny elements that I’ve been researching on my own. For example, I used the essay entitled The Elizabethan Gardening Craze to make sure that  a scene I had written involving a garden was accurate (while the essay focused on the second half of the sixteenth century, it discussed some of the background and helped contextualize much of what I knew). So helpful and reassuring!

In all, a wonderful book. I am looking forward to the sequel!

Book Review: Je Anne Boleyn, by Sandra Vasoli

Je Anne Boleyn Signature - Origin of the Book's Name

Je Anne Boleyn Signature – Origin of the Book’s Name

Je Anne Boleyn is a beautifully written, first-person account of Henry VIII’s courtship of Anne Boleyn. The book begins at their first real exchange, and ends at their marriage.

I read it both as a Tudor fan and as someone who seeks to write about them. As a Tudor fan, I loved the details the author included. Vasoli did an immense amount of research – she even visited the Vatican to inspect Henry’s actual love letters – and it really showed. As a Tudor author, I appreciated things like Vasoli’s choice of Lady Margaret Wyatt as a companion to Anne, someone that Anne could talk to and get out of her own head. Few others in Anne’s life could have fulfilled this role as well.

Bottom line: I loved the book.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I would. I have had Anne Boleyn’s voice inside my head since I was eight years old, and I tend to dislike accounts in the first person narrative for that reason. But I have to say, Vasoli’s skill made first-person the right choice: it got us deeper into the story, more intimately than third person would have.

[Spoiler alert: I’m about to get a little specific about certain choices the author made, stop reading now if you prefer to be swept along by the tale….]

Vasoli was also able to overcome my tendency to dismiss accounts that in any way go against my long-seated beliefs: she managed to not only keep me hooked but even open my mind. Specifically, I have always believed that Anne did not cede her virginity to Henry until they were in Calais – even after her ennoblement as Marquess of Pembroke.  But Vasoli created a compelling alternative and made me see how Anne could have given into the temptation right before they left for Calais, then agreed to live as husband and wife with him in Calais and beyond.

Most important, Vasoli is the first author I’ve read who made Calais as magical as it deserved to be. No one else has ever come close. Of course, this required that she gloss over the insult of Francois suggesting that his mistress greet Anne, since his wife and his sister had refused or were “unavailable.”  But Vasoli was right to do so.  As readers, we would not have been able to suspend our indignation enough to appreciate the grand scale of Anne’s triumph.

My one complaint? That the sequel was not immediately at hand – I cannot wait to immerse myself in the next installment of this compelling story!

A Self-Centered Book Review: Robin Maxwell’s The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

A Self-Centered Book Review of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.

Cover – The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn


I well remember when this book came out in May 1998. I was 35 and my husband and I had just moved from New York to Los Angeles to transform our lives. I had given up my partnership at a law firm and planned to stay home with our then-two children, aged four and three, until they were in school full time.  I intended to use that time to finish the book I had been working on for ten years, the story of Anne Boleyn.

I had structured it as a diary that Anne, just before her execution, gives to Lady Bryan to hold for Elizabeth until she becomes queen. Anne’s story becomes a counterpoint to what goes on in Elizabeth’s life as she slowly reads the diary. It was brilliant, if I do say so myself. I even had a title I loved – or rather two that I was trying to choose to between: The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Anna Regina Anglia.  I had finished the first draft and was deep into the editing process, when one day I found myself with a factual question I needed to check out. I switched over to the internet, searched for whatever it was…and found a reference to a book that had just been published.

Can you guess?

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, by Robin Maxwell.  A secret diary kept by Anne Boleyn up until the date of her execution and given to Lady Sommerville to hold for Elizabeth until she becomes queen. The cover even featured the portrait of Anne framed by the words Anna Bolina Anglia Regina. To make things worse, Robin Maxwell was a first-time author who had moved from New Jersey to California to transform her life.  The book I had planned, the life I had planned… someone else’s now. The experience sent me into a tailspin from which I didn’t recover for weeks. Until I resolved to continue with my book but change its focus: I would use Jane Seymour, not Elizabeth, to punctuate Anne’s story.

Once that decision was made, I ordered Maxwell’s book and devoured it within hours of its arrival. She did a very different job than I would have.  Her prose was more purple, and she played too loose with facts, both small (she had Anne’s dog Purquoy die in 1536 not 1534) and large (she had Elizabeth sleep with Dudley). But she included the kinds of details (a carved jewelry box in which Elizabeth kept small treasures) that transported me, and made for a fine read. I gave it four stars on Goodreads.

(FYI, in the fifteen years since this episode, I realized that I needed to tell Jane’s story, not a shadow of Anne’s. My book, Jane the Quene, is all Jane (though Thomas Cromwell is a second point-of-view character to round things out a bit!) and it is a much better book than my old attempt had been. Things work out in life if you’re open to them.)