The Mistress's Daughter by A. M. Homes

Title: The Mistress’s Daughter
Author: A. M. Homes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Library (audio book)
Rating: Liked it (3 out of 5)

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When A. M. Homes was 31, her biological mother – who had given her up for adoption at birth and whom she knew barely anything about – contacted her. Homes had always known she was adopted and always felt out of place in her adoptive family. This was a chance to learn more about who she was and where she came from.

Through her birth mother she found out the name of and got in touch with her birth father, developing complicated relationships with both. Homes admits that as a child she would imagine her birth parents as being perfect (her adoptive parents were anything but); once she gets to know her birth parents she realises this is nowhere near the truth.

The truth is her mother was a teenager desperate to escape an unhappy home life who fell in love with her older, married, boss. He promised to leave his wife but never did and abandoned her once she got pregnant. Giving up her daughter impacted the mother’s entire life yet seemingly had no impact on her father.

How Homes feels about both “The Mother” and “The Father” as she calls them changes as she gets to know them – and know and understand herself. Her feelings towards her adoptive family also change as a result. This really is a journey of discovery as Homes deals with the shock of the initial contact, the lack of control over how this contact develops (it’s a bit like letting the Genie out of the bottle), and the hopes and fears the ongoing contact raises.

I found the journey fascinating; painful at times, joyful at others. It was also often funny. Although this was a memoir it was written in the same way Homes writes her fiction – humorous but with an edge. At times I laughed out loud at the absurdity of her birth parents behaviour, especially her meetings with her father. The narrator helped get the humour across. I have no idea what A. M. Homes sounds like but the voice fitted my image of her. A downside of this being an audiobook was that there were no chapters listed so I had no idea where I was in the book other than Part 1 or Part 2.

Part 1 focused on Homes’ relationship with her parents and I loved it. Part 2 takes place seven years after her last contact with them and sees Homes revisiting her wider family history. I liked rather than loved this part. At times, there were too many names to keep track of and this means it dragged a bit. It was also much drier. I would have been happier with just Part 1 to be honest. If I had though, those final questions about what it all meant to Homes wouldn’t have been answered. And they did feel like they needed to be answered – she could just have maybe done this a little quicker for my taste.

Emma

The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

Title: The Woman Who Would Be King
Author: Kara Cooney
Genre: Non-fiction, Biography, History
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 3 out of 5

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When Hatshepsut’s husband, King Thutmose II died early in his reign, they had not produced a male heir to continue the dynasty. Thutmose did, however, have a son by a lesser wife and at the age of two, it was this little boy who came to the throne as Thutmose III. Too young to reign in his own right, Hatshepsut, as wife of the previous King and daughter of the one before that (Thutmose I) became Regent, ruling in his name.

In ancient Egypt, a wife or mother of a young king acting as Regent until he reached a suitable age to rule wasn’t unknown or that unusual. What made Hatshepsut different though was that, rather than relinquishing power when Thutmose III came of age, she gradually built up her own power and position, eventually being crowned co-king.  Not only that, she ruled successfully and peacefully for 22 years, unheard of for a woman ruler not only in Egypt but anywhere else in the world at the time.

Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir

Title: Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore
Author: Alison Weir
Genre: History, Biography
Format: Audiobook (length 13 hours, 11 minutes)
Published: 2011 (audiobook released Sept 2012)
Source: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5

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Of all the periods in English history, the time of the Tudors is the one that fascinates me most. The people, the politics, the intrigue. Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve read about Henry VIII, his wives and his children. Other than in passing in these books, I’ve never read anything about Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, mistress of Henry VIII and, quite possibly, mother of at least one of his illegitimate children. Coming across this biography in my local library, written by one of my favourite authors, seemed like a good opportunity to fix that. This was also a bit of an experiment for me as it was an audiobook, not something I normally choose but – with lots of long drives ahead of me in my new job – I thought it may be a good way to fill in the hours on the road.

The format itself had plus and minuses for me. On the plus side, I enjoyed listening in the car (whereas normally I would just be aimlessly flicking between stations most times) and it made being stuck in traffic much more tolerable. The narration was really clear and had a good pace so I was able to maintain my focus (which I’d been worried about as I do tend to wander when I listen to plays on Radio 4). However, as this was a biography with lots of dates, names and places, there were times when I wished I could go back to more easily to remind myself or check something. By the end, I had learnt to not worry about it too much and just go with the flow but it did take a while.

The book was really interesting, especially because I knew so little about Mary so as a subject it felt new and fresh. It dispelled a lot of myths about Mary and helped me form a much fuller picture of her and her place in history in my mind. It turns out, pretty much everything I thought I knew about Mary wasn’t true and I feel much more sympathetic towards her. My ending up with a more realistic picture of Mary would probably make Alison Weir happy one of her stated intentions was to help readers separate fact from fiction (including The Other Boleyn Girl books and films and The Tudors TV show, which were very popular whilst she was researching and writing this book).

One of the reasons that there are so many myths is that so little is actually known and, over the years, Mary has been subject to some very bad PR, being painted as a woman of “easy virtue” and not too bright. Alison Weir does a good job of building on what little is known to develop a pretty solid picture of Mary; as she does, she explains what she feels is credible evidence and why, and why she has made the assumptions she has. These include reaching the conclusion that not only did Mary have an affair with Henry, she did give birth to his daughter. Rather than being dim-witted or of loose morals, the Mary Weir describes is one who had very little control over her life until her later years, when she took the incredibly brave step for the time of marrying for love, saying “I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened”.

The main problem is this lack of solid facts about Mary, so Weir has to make a lot of assumptions, either from the little information that is available or from the lives of others, including her husband, her father, her sister or Henry’s other mistresses. It means as a reader you really are still not much clearer on the real Mary, unless you chose to see her as Alison Weir does (it’s what I chose to do). In a way, this makes Mary even more intriguing and it’s a pity there won’t likely be the opportunity to ever learn more.

Definitely a good read for history buffs or those, like me, who find the Tudor period fascinating. Is that you?

Emma x