Posted in Book Reviews

Cartes Postale from Greece – Book Oxygen Review

Cartes Postale from Greece

Victoria Hislop

Published by Headline Review 22 September 2016

429pp, hardback, £19.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book


This is Victoria Hislop’s sixth work of fiction, and rather than a novel it is a series of short stories and vignettes framed within two narratives. Filled with photographs of Greece, it’s a charming book designed as the ideal read for busy people or those on holiday.  The comforting, conversational style means it easy to put the book down for a while and then pick up the threads of the stories again.

It opens with Ellie, a newcomer to London who is feeling lonely and isolated, wondering where the bright lights and beautiful people are hiding. One day a postcard arrives from Greece, signed ‘A’. Ellie assumes that the postcard is meant for a previous occupant of her rented basement flat, but the postcards keep arriving and Ellie begins to look forward to them. The collage she makes of them brightens her miserable home and she is dejected when, after six months, they suddenly stop. Although Ellie is the first frame for the short stories, Hislop does not dismiss her with a thumbnail sketch. Ellie is given a backstory, and her feelings of isolation are authentic. The postcards from the mysterious ‘A’ fill a clearly outlined emotional void and Ellie’s sudden decision to see Greece for herself does not feel forced.

Just as Ellie is leaving for the airport a notebook arrives and she stuffs it into her bags. She soon discovers that ‘A’ has written it, recording his journeys through Greece and his feelings about the woman to  whom he had addressed the postcards, who seems to have left him. So begins the second frame, as ‘A’ travels through Greece and relays the stories, myths and gossip that he hears. The stories range from funny to touching and scary, and each is a short, self-contained tale. Hislop manages to convey the rhythms of Greeks speaking English without lapsing into parody, which is a relief. The character of the country comes through strongly as do the events that shaped it, such as the Turkish occupation and the atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The current financial crisis is well covered, as are the blood feuds of ancient and modern times.

‘A’ spills his anguish into the notebook as he tries to heal his heartbreak. Slowly he begins to put things into perspective, taking a more philosophical view of the break-up of his relationship. Greece, a beautiful and diverse landscape, works its magic and brings him a measure of peace.

The many photos scattered throughout the book show Greece in its various guises. At times if feels as if there are perhaps too many images. It is said that radio has the best pictures and that often applies to books too. The book’s ending is rather too neat and tidy but it will appeal to romantics. ‘A’s story may be sad but the book closes on a positive note for him and Ellie.

Posted in Book Reviews

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen – Herald Review

Six Tudor Queens

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

Alison Weir

Headline Review, £18.99

Divorced, beheaded, died/divorced, beheaded, survived, goes the familiar aide-mémoire to help schoolchildren remember the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII. It is not wholly accurate because Henry had his marriages to Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves annulled, and Anne survived longer than Henry’s final wife, Katherine Parr. It does, however, highlight the continuing fascination with Henry and the six very different women he married. Alison Weir, historian and award-winning author, has set herself the task of writing a novel about each of Henry’s Queens, starting with the tragic figure of Katherine of Aragon.
Katherine is often portrayed as a sad, embittered older woman, who refused to accept the reality of how far Henry Tudor would go to have a son and heir. In Weir’s hands she is transformed into a pretty young princess and, as the daughter of the powerful King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, highly desirable for a political marriage. She speaks little English when she arrives in England, where the food, customs and even the dresses are so different from her homeland. She marries Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir to Henry VII, but Arthur is a sickly young man and dies not long after they are wed. There has long been speculation as to whether Katherine and Arthur consummated their marriage, and Weir gives her own opinion in a sensitively written bedroom scene.

Katherine was an habitual letter writer, detailing not only the facts of her life in England but her feelings too. Weir has drawn upon these letters to breathe life into Katherine as a young woman, living in limbo after the death of Prince Arthur. She is optimistic, even though a disagreement over her dowry between her father and father-in-law means she and her retinue live a hand-to-mouth existence. Her clothes are shabby and food is scarce and she is forced to sell personal items to keep up appearances. Nonetheless, Katherine is very aware of her position as a princess of Spain and Weir portrays her as intelligent, loyal, and occasionally a little naive.
While waiting for her future to be decided, Katherine becomes a pawn in the royal marriage game. She finds herself in and out of favour at the English court, and even considered as a wife to the recently widowed Henry VII. For seven years Katherine had to box clever, obeying her father while not offending her English hosts, and Weir presents her as a thoughtful and wise young woman. She even served as her father’s ambassador in England, which gave her a little more prestige at court than as the almost forgotten widow of Prince Arthur. Katherine was probably the first female ambassador in Europe and performed her duties with aplomb. Weir manages to untangle the complex web of 16th-century politics, shown through Katherine’s duties as ambassador, and her astute reading of the games being played. This adds greatly to the heft of the character, demonstrating what a competent woman she was becoming.

Katherine married Henry VIII in 1509, when she was 23 years old and he is almost 18. It seems like a love match, Henry showering her with presents, poems and songs. However, Weir foreshadows Henry’s later behaviour, hinting at the storms that are to come. Once Katherine marries Henry, the details of her life are more familiar than those of her early years in England. She endures six pregnancies with only a healthy daughter, Mary, to show for her efforts. From being so trusted by Henry that he makes her regent while he is in France on a military campaign, she is pushed to the side-lines as Henry becomes infatuated with Anne Boleyn, one of her attending ladies.
Weir’s research is extensive and it adds greatly to the sense of period and place. At times the it does slow down the narrative, with blocks of information about how the Tudors lived reading more like a text book than a novel. For the most part, however, it is a fascinating look at a much maligned woman who was one of the most popular queens in English history. Weir has thus rescued Katherine of Aragon from being a bit player in the tumultuous years of Tudor England.