Thursday, January 26, 2012

Back in time

There are few books I enjoy more than a great historical fiction.  When done well, the combination of fact and fiction blends into a period piece that manages to educate as it entertains.  And the same can be true of non-fiction books written about history--I tend to prefer to read something with a strong narrative, so that I'm carried along by story and not simply assaulted by facts.  Here are a few of the most recent titles I've come across that fit one bill or the other--perfectly!

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak.  Catherine the Great is becoming a very popular figure in both fiction and non-fiction these days.  There's the recent biography, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, which was released to lots of critical praise.  And now Stachniak's novel, which allows for an imaginative, entertaining retelling of the Russian empress's improbable rise to power, as seen through the eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.  Rich in period detail, this is a compelling read about royalty we are not as familiar with in fiction. 

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, by Alison Weir.  Weir is a best-selling author and British historian; in my opinion, few do justice to British royalty and history as well as Weir.  This latest non-fiction title, the first full-scale biography of this royal mistress (made a household name by Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl) is extensively researched, giving readers a picture of how Mary was treated by her ambitious family and the likely relationship she would have had with her power-hungry sister, Ann.  Weir explores Mary's reputation at both the French and English courts, her relationship with Henry VIII, and her later marriage to a cousin of Henry's.  If you're in love with English history, as I am, you absolutely cannot miss this.

 And taking a step still further back in time, Lionheart, by Sharon Kay Penman.  The four surviving children of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine were called "The Devil's Brood", though for obvious reasons never to their faces.  With such extraordinary parents, great things were expected of them.  Upon the death of the eldest brother, it was the second brother, Richard, also known as the Lionheart, came to the throne and almost immediately left for the Holy Land on what would later be known as the Third Crusade.  And in his absence, the conniving youngest brother, John, sought to steal the throne for himself.  A tale of loyalty and betrayal that is fresh again with Penman's flair.  Well done, and a great read.

I'll be back next week to share where I am with my reading challenges and what I've been reading.  Hope you'll join me!

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