Thursday, March 24, 2011

Books of a Lifetime by Elizabeth K. Mahon

I was born a voracious reader. While other kids loved to play sports, I was happiest sitting under a tree with a book in my hand. The first book that I remember reading was Laura Ingalls Wilder's LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS. I had already worked my way through both of the first grade readers by the end of the first semester as well and Sister Mary Sharon was about to rip off her veil in despair. Fortunately she handed me LITTLE HOUSE.  I was entranced from the moment I saw the Garth Williams illustration on the front cover. Laura was six just like me, a little girl who lived a life so different from my own in this place I had never heard of called Wisconsin. I even made maple syrup candy just like Laura and Mary did in the book. I followed the Ingalls family as they moved from Wisconsin to Plum Creek to South Dakota, I cried when Mary lost her sight, winced as Laura struggled with her first teaching job. The courtship of Laura and Almanzo Wilder was my first romance. I felt so possessive of Laura that I couldn't bear to watch the TV series because they changed so much.

I think I was attracted to John Jake's THE BASTARD, the first book in the Kent Family Chronicles, because of the hot guy on the cover. I still can't believe that my parents didn't blink an eye when I walked up to the cash register with it. Phillipe Charboneau is the illegitimate son of an English nobleman. He travels all the way from France to claim his inheritance and is denied. To escape being murdered by his half-brother, he travels to London and then Boston, where he changes his name to Philip Kent. Along the way he meets the usual suspects, Benjamin Franklin, Sam Adams, has affairs, and participates in the Boston Tea Party. And that's just the first book! I devoured every single book in this series but the first two, THE BASTARD and THE REBEL hold a special place because they're set during the American Revolution, an under represented era in historical fiction as far as I'm concerned.

I devoured Susan Howatch's contemporary gothic novels (The Devil on Lammas Night is a particular favorite of mine) but when I read her first family saga PENMARRIC,  I was in 7th Heaven.  Mark Castallack sees his longed-for inheritance Penmarric, a gothic mansion on the bleak cliffs of Cornwall, and the mysterious, mesmerising Janna, he knows that he will make them his and nothing will stand in his way. Yet when Mark realizes his dreams, Penmarric only brings a legacy of conflict, jealousy, infidelity and betrayal. The novel spans the Victorian era to the Second World War.  Howatch based her characters Mark Castallack, and his bride Janna on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. This is the English cover for the reissue, isn't it gorgeous? Her next book CASHELMARA, set in 19th century Ireland is the story of an Anglo-English family which reinterprets the story of Edward II, Isabella and Piers Gaveston. I can still remember sitting in Algebra class during high school, with my book bag on my desk, trying surreptitiously to read a few pages.

Of course I read Anya Seton.  I loved all her books, but a particular favorite will always be THE MISTLETOE AND THE SWORD. My friend Jenny found it on a trip to England and loaned it to me. This was the book that introduced me to Boudica, Druids and Stonehenge. The novel is set in Britain circa A.D. 60. Quintus Tullius is a standard bearer with the Ninth Roman Legion, who have come to Britain as part of the empire’s efforts to pacify the rebellious tribes. But he is haunted by his quest for the bones of his grandfather, who died seventeen years before in “the place of the golden tree and the stony circle.”  Quintus ends up falling in love with Regan, the beautiful foster daughter of Boudica. I loved this book so much that I never gave it back to Jenny! The book wasn't available in the States so when I went to London I bought a copy at Foyles to give to her.

It was also my friend Jenny who introduced me to T.H. Whites THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, starting my obsession with the Arthurian legend that continues to this day.  Well actually it had started with the movie version of the musical CAMELOT, but this was the first Arthurian novel I had ever read. Lancelot in White's imagination was not the hot French guy that you normally see in depictions of the legend, he was actually quite ugly but Guinevere loved him anyway. Marion Zimmer Bradley's THE MISTS OF AVALON, and Rosalind Miles Guinevere and Tristan and Isolde trilogy are books that are on my keeper shelf.

I can't forget the late great Eleanor Hibbert who wrote as Philippa Carr, Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy.  I was tempted to include MY ENEMY THE QUEEN which is about the rivalry between Elizabeth I and her cousin Lettice Knollys (why hasn't this ever been made into a TV movie? Sienna Miller would be awesome as Lettice) but Philippa Carr's THE LION TRIUMPHANT, the second in her Daughters of England series is one of my favorites as well.  Picture it: Elizabethan England, a beautiful fiery-tempered heroine called Cat. meets the arrogant, lusty Captain Jake Penlyon. It is hate at first sight, Cat is already in love with her childhood friend Carey but they are forbidden to marry. Jake is beyond determined to marry her and blackmails her into agreeing to a betrothal. Of course she is kidnapped by a band of Spanish pirates. Cat is certain she has seen the last of Jake Pennlyon, but she is not one to give up. Not ever!!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon is a professional actress and amateur history geek. Her blog Scandalous Women ( was named one of the 50 Top History Blogs by Zen College Life. A native New Yorker, she still calls Manhattan home. Her book Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women was released March 1.


  1. It's a little bit scary how many of these books that I also loved as a child. Little House in the Big Woods is the first book I really remember reading and loving as well. I read the series obsessively as a child.

    I loved John Jakes' Kent Family Chronicles when I was in high school, although my Mom was not amused when I brought home The Bastard.

    I discovered Anya Seton in high school and loved her novels. I also enjoyed Victoria Holt, but have not read all of her Phillipa Carr or Jean Plaidy novels yet.

    I need to check out the books on this list that I haven't read!

  2. Elizabeth, like Laura, we seem to have very similar tastes.
    The Little House books marked my first steps into reading. Mum spread them throughout my childhood, so that when I read each one I was the same age as Laura in that book. And now my own daughter is reading them.
    John Jakes' Kent family novels were another favourite and so was Victoria Holt. I really enjoyed her daughters of England series as Philippa Carr.
    Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton are on my TBR pile at the moment. I'm sure to enjoy them too!

  3. I am enjoying your book but a suggestion for the 2d edition (and any future, similar books), provide maps; e.g., in the Eleanor chapter you write she inherited 1/4 of modern France--what 1/4?
    Still, a great book!