What’s Ashley Reading?: The Feather Thief

The Feather Thief by Kirk W. Johnson

First line: By the time Edwin Rist stepped off the train onto the platform at Tring, forty miles north of London, it was already quite late.

Summary: In 2009, a young American student broke into the Tring Museum and stole hundreds of bird skins and feathers. The museum was known for housing thousands of specimens gathered by scientists in the nineteenth century. Why did he decide to steal birds? Well, he was a part of an exclusive group of artists, he was a fly-tier. For nearly two years the young man had gotten away with the crime.

While fly-fishing in New Mexico, Kirk Johnson heard about this wild heist. He became intrigued by the case and how the culprit was caught and prosecuted. Kirk had to know the answers. He began asking questions of other fly-tiers. He tried to interview witnesses, friends and even the thief. As he got answers he kept coming back to one question. What happened to the missing skins?

My Thoughts: Dawn and her book club, The Bemused Bibliophiles, read this book several years ago. She recommended it to me and even encouraged me to buy it for my father as a Christmas gift, which I did. He loved it and passed it along to my uncle who is a fly-tier and an avid fly fisher.

Finally this year I decided it was time to pick this up myself. I found it absolutely fascinating. I finished the book in 2 days. I had no idea the level of passion that fly-tiers had for the different feathers that are used in tying. People pay loads of money for feathers but many do not even use the flies for fishing. It just blew me away learning all this!

I liked that the book took me through the history of how the birds came to the museum, about the man who discovered them and why these species have become so rare. It is terribly sad to learn how humans have hunted these birds to extinction in the name of fashion and art. I did have to do a lot of Googling to see what these birds looked like. I would highly recommend doing this while reading Johnson’s book. The different species are stunning. I would have loved to see these birds in real life.

Even for someone who hates fishing (aka me) I found this book to be interesting. It is a very quick read with lots of information and shocking facts.

FYI: Perfect for that fisherman in your family or anyone who loves a good true crime.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The King’s Painter

The King’s Painter by Franny Moyle

First line: When Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, more than two hundred years after Holbein’s death, he understood a biographer to be ‘A writer of lives; a relator not of the history of nations, but of the actions of particular persons.’

Summary: Hans Holbein was the court painter to Henry VIII of England.  But even though he achieved stardom at the English court he started as the son of painter in Augsburg, Germany.  He learned his trade from his father and worked his way up the social ladder with introductions for well-known clients until he reached the height of his career.  Using his talent, he brought the world the best known portraits of the Tudor court including the king himself, his courtiers and several of his wives. 

My Thoughts: I have loved Holbein’s work ever since I became interested in the Tudor period.  His art is beyond his time.  He brings life to his subjects making them almost appear in 3D.  Many of his works survive and there are probably some still to be discovered.  The few that I have seen are outstanding in their detail.

I really enjoyed this look into Holbein’s life.  Before reading this I basically knew his name and his works.  I learned a lot about the time period in which he lived, his rise through friendships with Erasmus and Thomas More, and the lives of painters in the sixteenth century.  I always assumed that someone who worked for the court was well off but many painters struggled to make enough for their families.  There are many rules surrounding the painters’ world including inclusions in guilds and requirements of marriage.  I found this to be a great insight into another world inside the one I already knew from my years of reading Tudor history.

Moyle’s biography can be fairly dense with information but I found it easy to read.  She follows a linear storytelling while she explains the culture and religious tensions of the time and how they affected the young painter. 

The book includes color prints of some of his father’s works (Hans Holbein the Elder), early religious works (Hans Holbein the younger), and his portraits from the royal courts. 

FYI: For fans of art history or the Tudor period.

What’s Ashley Reading?: When Women Ruled the World

When Women Ruled the World by Maureen Quilligan

First line: In 1558, when John Knox, the radical Scottish religious reformer, published his misogynist tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, he called attention to what was strangely true in the middle of the sixteenth century in Europe: a remarkable number of women had ascended to supreme governmental power.

Summary: During the sixteenth century four women ruled over some of the most powerful countries in the world; Mary I and Elizabeth I in England, Mary Queen of Scots and Catherine de Medici in France. In this book the author looks how they interacted and changed the countries they ruled over.

My Thoughts: I love the history of the sixteenth century. I have read much on Elizabeth I but a lot less on the other three women. It was interesting to hear how they communicated, worked together and supported each other. Even though the ends of the two Marys was tragic they made their marks on history. I really want to know more about Catherine de Medici. She is someone who seems to be misrepresented in many historical fiction and movies.

FYI: Good introduction to each woman and how they came to be in their positions.

*Can be found in audio format on Hoopla or in book through Interlibrary Loan.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Night She Disappeared

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

First line: The baby is starting to grumble.

Summary: 2017: Tallulah Murray, a nineteen year old mother, goes out with her boyfriend to the neighborhood pub for dinner. The next morning her mother, Kim, finds that neither one of them have come home. Kim knows that Tallulah would never abandon her baby son. As she talks with Tallulah’s friends she find out that they were last seen at a party at Dark Place, a manor house outside the small village.

2018: Sophie Beck has just moved into a little cottage on the grounds of a private boarding school. Her partner is the new head teacher while Sophie is a mystery novelist. As Sophie explores her new home she finds a sign in their garden with the words, “DIG HERE”, written on it. As she digs she uncovers a missing link in the mystery of the disappearance of Tallulah Murray.

My Thoughts: I enjoyed this book from the beginning until the end. Normally the time jumps can be confusing but since each time had a different narrator that made it easier to follow. The end was excellent. I was on the edge of my seat, trying to finish it as fast as I could. And of course, that’s when my dog decided he needed to go outside!

I liked the characters of Tallulah and her mother Kim. Sophie felt like more of a filler character to help solve the mystery. She was the like her characters in her book which the comparison is drawn in the books as well. Her part felt more cozy. But I think Jewell did a great job of bringing Kim’s pain and Tallulah’s struggles out. They were relatable and I could sympathize with them as their lives changed through the story. After Jewell’s last book I was hoping that this one would be much more entertaining. Thank goodness it was!

FYI: Audio book was read by Joanne Froggat (Anna Bates from Downton Abbey).

Terese’s Thoughts: I Couldn’t Love You More

I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud

First Line: I met you at a dance in Ilford.

Summary: No surprise given the title, this is a love story. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, it’s a story about love. The book follows the lives of three women, Aoife, Rosaleen, and Kate. Their stories span decades and take us from Ireland to England, back and forth in time and place. We see how their lives are linked and how the choices they make have consequences inherited by the next generation. Pages are devoted to showing the daily, tender scenes of mother-daughter bonds. But we also see how these women make seemingly small decisions to keep the peace with their husbands and lose their daughters as a result, suffering in silence. Or in another case, how women unwittingly lose their daughters, pushed by impossible situations and lacking options. Although it can be a tearful read, there is enough redemption in the final pages that you don’t feel you or the characters suffered in vain.

My thoughts: I’ve read a lot of reviews that describe this book as quiet and tender, which it is. Although a lot happens, it is not dramatic. Freud does such a good job of writing it the way real life feels—how we don’t know we’re making a decision that will change the course of our lives and the lives of the ones we love; we’re just doing what seems best in the moment. I like books that feel true to life such as this one, and I was also attracted to it because of its setting in Ireland. There’s just something about that place. My mother was raised in a large, Irish-Catholic family and experienced something similar to one of the women in this book. It isn’t something we speak about, so it was a way for me to try and understand what led her to make the choices she did and imagine how she felt.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Katharine Parr, the Sixth Wife

Katharine Parr, the Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

First line: Katharine was five when death cast its black shadow over her life.

Summary: Katharine Parr, the sixth and final wife of King Henry VIII of England, grew up as a simple country gentry but she made several advantageous marriages. However, each husband died early leaving her a widow and childless. Then when she meets the handsome brother to the late queen, Jane Seymour, she believes she has found the love of her life.

But fate has different plans. Katharine catches the eye of the King of England. With the hopes of swaying the king towards the new faith, Katharine accepts his proposal. With her marriage comes the enmity of the Catholic faction at court. Bishop Gardiner and his men are determined to bring down Henry’s new queen.

My Thoughts: I liked this book. I liked how we got a look into Katharine’s early life. Many of the books about her center around her time as queen and afterwards but very little on her first two marriages. I enjoyed learning a little more about her time before the throne and how she became a strong proponent of the new religion, Protestantism.

Katharine is one of my least favorite queens. Her story is not very exciting and centers around religion a lot. She did much for the reformists in the court and even became the first woman to publish a book under her own name in English. It is quite an achievement. Alison Weir did a great job giving all the queens in her series a new life and bringing more of their stories to readers. I will be anticipating her next collection of books.

FYI: This is book six in the Six Tudor Queens series.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Queens of the Crusades

Queens of the Crusades by Alison Weir

First line: On Sunday, 19 December 1154, Henry II, the first Plantagenet King of England, was crowned in Westminster Abbey, along with his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, amidst great splendor and rejoicing.

Summary: In the second installment of Alison Weir’s histories of the queens of England is Queens of the Crusades. It covers Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre, Isabella of Angouleme, Alienor of Provence and Eleanor of Castile spanning their lives over several centuries. These women lived in an age when they were expected to be humble and pious. But the queens of this time held power over their lands and income that drew the ire of their male subjects giving several of them tarnished reputations that Weir tries to dissolve.

My Thoughts: I enjoyed learning about these remarkable women. I love Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is one of my favorite queens of England. She lived for such a long time and was queen of France and England as well as duchess of Aquitaine. I was very excited to learn more about her daughter-in-law, Berengaria. She is glossed over so much in fiction since she was queen for such a short time and did not do much to gain prominence in England.

I like that Weir takes into account how often names are reused for different people that she tries to vary the spellings in order to keep them straight for the reader. I knew nothing about the queens after Eleanor. The amount of wealth these women had and spent is astounding. I love to see what the conversions are because it is so shocking.

Having visited England several times I have been to some of the places listed such as Westminster Abbey. I knew many of the tombs there but now I will need to find the ones for these medieval queens on my next visit.

FYI: Second installment of a four part series. Part one was Queens of the Conquest.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Lady in Waiting

Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner

First line: One morning at the beginning of 2019, when I was in my London flat, the telephone rang.

Summary: Lady Anne Glenconner, lady in waiting to Princess Margaret, led a spectacular life. She lived through the Second World War, carried the train of Queen Elizabeth at her coronation and married to an eccentric aristocrat. In her memoir she takes us behind the scenes of important events in the British monarchy and her life. She has many ups and downs but stays strong through them all.

My Thoughts: After watching The Crown I have become fascinated by Princess Margaret. I knew very little about her but came to love her wild side and the way she stirred up the monarchy. When I saw Lady Glenconner’s book on Netgalley I immediately had to request it.

The writing is very simple. It is almost like having a conversation with the woman herself. It flows so easily and is a lot of fun to read. You can feel her emotions as you read along. I loved hearing her memories about life with the royal princesses. I was shocked as she discussed her marriage. Her husband sounds like a very difficult man to be around but that she stuck it out shows her devotion and will to commit to her promises.

I loved looking for pictures as I was reading. And I found the pictures at the end delightful. It was nice to put faces to the names. Mustique looks like paradise. I have never visited the Caribbean but this definitely makes me want to take a trip.

The one thing I was missing was more insights into the lives of the Queen and Margaret. They appear and play important parts in her story but I expected more from reading the blurb.

FYI: If you love The Crown then this is a good follow up read.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Five

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

First line: There are two versions of the events of 1887. One is very well known, but the other is not.

Summary: Everyone has heard the story of Jack the Ripper. He haunted the streets of Whitechapel preying on women. His victims known as the canonical five are Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane. His story has been researched and turned over hundreds of times but very little is actually known about the women whose lives he took. Here are their stories.

My Thoughts: I have recommended this book to anyone and everyone! I was completely engrossed in it. It is thoroughly researched and well written. It reads like fiction and is easy to get caught up in these women’s lives. I found myself hoping for better outcomes as I read even though I knew how each of their stories was a going to end.

Rubenhold brings these women and the times that they lived to the forefront. Everyone thinks that they know the victims. They were prostitutes right? Wrong. Some were but not all five. Each has a story to tell. I could not believe the detail put into their narratives. Using housing records, census, interviews and newspaper reports we get fuller picture of their lives.

Sometimes we romanticize the Victorian time period but it was anything but ideal. People were barely able to care for their families. Housing was not always safe or healthy. Disease, alcoholism and poverty were prevalent. How people survived is astounding.

If you love history, true crime or biographies than this is perfect for you. It is full of information that will keep you reading until the very end.

FYI: There is very little mentioned about Jack the Ripper. This book focuses on the women only and the time that they lived.

What’s Ashley Reading?: I Found You

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

First line: Alice Lake lives in a house by the sea.

Summary: When Alice notices a man sitting on the beach behind her house in the rain she wonders what he could be doing there but decides not to get involved. Several hours later he is still sitting there. When she takes out a coat to the man she starts to talk to him and learns that he has lost his memory. With no idea who he is or how he ended up on the beach, Alice invites him to stay in her guest house for the night.

Lily Monrose has been married for three weeks. Her husband loves her very much but one night he does not come home. The police look into who he is and where he might have gone. As they search they discover that her husband, Carl Monrose does not exist. Lily is determined to find her husband and get some answers.

My Thoughts: I enjoy everything I have read by Lisa Jewell. Her books have a fun mystery with twists and turns. The story always moves along quickly with intriguing characters and situations. However, I was a little disappointed in this one. I enjoyed the story but it was really predictable. I kept hoping that the ending would have an OMG moment like her newest books have had but it did not. It wrapped up nicely and everyone ended up “happy”.

I did enjoy the characters and the events of the book. I really liked the flashbacks to 1993. It was dark and disturbing. It was the typical Lisa Jewell. Maybe I need to stick to her newer books rather than trying some of her older ones. But if you like a good story than this is one.

FYI: We have an audio version available on Hoopla.