Saturday, January 12, 2019

Reviews: Bodies of Art Mysteries by Ritter Ames

Enter the world of the shady art transactions and the recovery of lost, looted, stolen or misappropriated treasures. Agents work with some of the world’s finest art historians and provenance researchers to investigate the history of an object to support, or refute a claim. The work involves the repatriation of artwork and antiquities on behalf of governments and private citizens, and can take the agent across continents, whilst recovered works can total in the millions of dollars. Often, recovery agencies may find themselves in (sometimes, deadly) competition .....

Counterfeit Conspiracies
Laurel Beacham, premier art recovery specialist with a penchant for lycra, narrates our story:
As the foundation's leading art recover expert my life was pretty much a series of different hotel rooms every week. Tonight's event was one of a series of smaller jobs directing me to the person who held an art object I needed to return to the person or institution that had true ownership.
Counterfeit Conspiracies (Bodies of Art, #1)After a successful mission, Laurel trades her "catwoman" outfit for something a little more classier; however, this next mission finds Laurel in less than ideal circumstances when her efforts to recover a priceless icon go pear-shaped. 
There was no mistaking him. Propped on the john was the man from the photo who I was supposed to meet. Half of his handlebar moustache was jaggedly slashed and discarded on the floor, while blood from a gash at his throat spilled down his round belly and onto the cushioned turquoise seat.
And then there is the permeating question of Jack Hawkes, a shadowy figure that keeps popping up:
I tried to figure which camp he fit into, but got nada. With so many players in the art game, it was hard to keep everyone straight, both above and below ground. But a new American would have stayed in my memory, especially a tall male one with a deep Southern accent. Was it simple egoism, or did he work for someone plotting against me? My money lay on the latter. 
This is a fast paced game of cat and mouse, with plenty of plot twists and red herrings to keep the reader suitably intrigued. Think James Bond crossed with Lara Croft.

Marked Masters
28226631Laurel, now head of the London branch of the Beacham Foundation, and Jack Hawkes return for another adventure, involving yet another art theft:
If I couldn't bring back the painting, perhaps this book could be used as an alternate method to stop the blackmail. 
This starts where book one finishes and sets up book three nicely. Who is who, and what are their true motives, will keep you guessing till the end. 

Abstract Aliases
Abstract clues lead to new questions. New leads turn to “dead” ends. A heist plot ties to forgeries. Adversaries resurface twisting an already complicated case. And art recovery expert Laurel Beacham must not only outwit criminals, but keep her wits around Jack Hawkes’s cheeky ego.

Fatal Forgeries
When art recovery expert Laurel Beacham’s personal and professional worlds collide, she learns no good theft goes unpunished. Incomplete intel and a missing source compel her to make a huge mistake, and she’s left with a divided team. Every retrieved masterpiece has a price—and the cost of forgeries can be deadly. This time Laurel could lose not only her best lead, but also her most trusted ally. 

Bronzed Betrayals
A masterpiece swapped for a forgery, a murder victim left behind, and a relentless game of hide and seek keeps Laurel Beacham and Jack Hawkes on the run. They are racing to find answers despite roadblocks at every turn. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Review: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth Series by LJM owen

Canberra author LJM Owen says that after an itinerant childhood, 
She attended university in Canberra, then went on to work in several public service departments before landing a job as a librarian with the National Library of Australia. It was in the map room at the library Owen imagined the Dr Elizabeth Pimms character.

Owen discusses her books and her heroine, Dr Elizabeth Pimms in the Canberra Times:
The hero of Owen's Intermillennial Sleuth novels is Dr Elizabeth Pimms, a skilled archaeologist, knowledgeable Egyptologist and reluctant librarian at Canberra's fictional Mahony Griffin Library. Elizabeth's best friend describes her as curious, intellectual, tenacious and secretive.

From the age of four Elizabeth dedicated herself to the discovery of lost civilisations and ancient treasures. Young and a touch naïve, Elizabeth is aided in her investigations by the machinations of her phrenic library - and a growing sense that something is awry in the world.

Asked to reference the Dr Pimms series, Owen suggests it is a hybrid of Bones, the US TV crime procedural based on Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan novels, and the rural potboiler Midsomer Murders

"My PhD involved comparing the genetics of past human populations through the examination of dental remains. This expertise fed directly into my first novel, Olmec Obituary. The forensic science in all three Dr Pimms novels is based on firsthand experience or significant research."

Brief synopsis of the series so far:
Part one of the planned nine-book series is Olmec Obituary ...... is set in Canberra where Dr Elizabeth Pimms works while she unpicks the cause of mysterious deaths in ancient civilisations, and more contemporary crimes. The second book, Mayan Mendacity, sees Dr Pimms exploring the ancient world of Mayan politics, scribes and female rulers. Part three, Egyptian Enigma sees Dr Pimms on the hunt for the identity of a cache of mummies hidden in a Golden Tomb. There are female pharaohs, ancient grave robbers, modern cannibals, loads of skeletons, cats and cups of tea, she says.

So to my thoughts on each of the books in turn.

The Olmec Obituary
Olmec Obituary (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, #1)This is where it all begins - Elizabeth is forced to return home from an archaeological dig in Egypt due to a family crisis - and to say she's not happy about that would be an understatement. Here is where we get more of a sense of the character of Elizabeth - indulged, spoilt, emotional, petulant, sulky. Forced to take a job in a library (courtesy of family connections) does not help - she really wants to be out in the field. Then ... a chance to return to archaeology when the skeletal remains form a newly discovered Olmec burial are brought to Canberra. 

I liked the narrative between modern day Elizabeth and the Olmec Kingdom. I admit to knowing next to nothing about Olmec Civilization - and for readers like myself, here is a brief synopsis:
The mysterious Olmec civilization, located in ancient Mexico, prospered in Pre-Classical (Formative) Mesoamerica from c. 1200 BCE to c. 400 BCE and is generally considered the forerunner of all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures including the Maya and Aztecs. 

But one thing really stood out for me - I found it curious that Elizabeth, a self confessed Egyptologist, should be requested to work on Mesoamerican remains. I guess I naively assumed that most archaeologists would have a specialty field - and thus someone with more than a passing interest (and more qualified) would have been brought in. Anyway, Elizabeth soon comes into conflict with those around her.

Mayan Mendacity
Mayan Mendacity (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth #2)The sub-setting for this mystery is the Mayan Empire during what is called the "classical period" 250-950 CE. This period was the height of the Maya civilization in which they perfected mathematics, astronomy, architecture and the visual arts and also refined and perfected the calendar. In Mayan belief, however, one did not die and go to a `heaven’ or a `hell’ but, rather, embarked on a journey toward Tamoanchan. This journey began in the dark and treacherous underworld of Xibalba and if one could navigate through Xibalba, then one could then find the way to ascend through the nine levels of the underworld, and the thirteen levels of the higher world, to paradise. The only ways in which a soul could by-pass Xibalba and travel instantly to Tamoanchan were through death in childbirth, as a sacrificial victim, in warfare, on the ball court, or by suicide.

Elizabeth is approached to do some research on the newly discovered skeletal remains from a newly discovered Mayan site in Guatemala by her boyfriend Luke, whom she has seen (in person) for nearly two years. Hang on a minute - what's he doing in Guatemala when he was supposed to be in Mexico, and why is he interviewing for jobs in America and not here closer to home? But that's not the only mystery that will confront Elizabeth - long hidden family secrets are about to be revealed (publicly).

I still find Elizabeth annoying with her constant need for approval and validation for everything she does; other than that, I am enjoying the mysteries.

Egyptian Enigma
On holiday in Cairo with New York chum Henry, Elizabeth is robbed of the journal she has been keeping of their visit - what possible value could it be to anyone?

Egyptian Enigma (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, #3)Then we head back to Egypt of the 19th Dynasty, during the reign of Seti II and his Queen Twosret (Tausret), whose story is of one woman's struggle too hold the throne of Egypt. Her short reign ended in a civil war, which is documented in the Elephantine stela of her successor Setnakhte, founder of the Twentieth dynasty. It is not known if she was overthrown by Setnakhte or whether she died peacefully in her own reign. Joyce Tyldesley's "Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt" notes "A mummy found in KV35 and known as Unknown Woman D has been identified by some scholars as possibly belonging to Twosret, but there is no other evidence for this other than the correct Nineteenth Dynasty period of mummification."

This then would appear to be the back drop of Egyptian Enigma, the curious remains of an Egyptian Prince of the Golden Tomb, which finds Elizabeth and her group of friends doing their own investigations in an attempt to solve the mystery, whilst preparing her papers on her Olmec and Mayan investigations.

Mongolian Mayhem is believed to be the next book in the series - I would be very interested to see how the next six books pan out, and if Elizabeth manages to grow up!

Review: In the Shadow of the Enemy by Tanya Bayard

In the Shadow of the Enemy (Christine De Pizan Mystery #2)
Book 2 in the Christine de Pizan mysteries - following directly on from "In the Presence of Evil".

"... Brother Michel will record what everyone believes .."

This series, set in France in the 1390s during the reign of mad King Charles VI, features recently widowed Christine de Pizan who is employed as a scribe for the French Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria. The French Court in this period was a hot-bed of political and sexual intrigue, with the various factions fighting for control of both the government and the King (think Wars of the Roses).   For those unfamiliar with the period, Christine de Pizan was actually a court writer during the reign of Charles VI, and was indeed patronised by both the Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, and the king's brother, Louis, Duke of Orleans. 

Christine's father Thomas worked as a physician, court astrologer and councillor of the Republic of Venice. Thomas de Pizan accepted an appointment to the court of Charles V of France as the king's astrologer and moved to Paris (1368). Christine de Pizan married the notary and royal secretary Etienne du Castel (c.1379). Pizan's husband died of the plague (1389), her father had died the year before. Pizan was left to support her mother and her children. When she tried to collect money from her husband's estate, she faced complicated lawsuits regarding the recovery of salary due her husband. In order to support herself and her family Christine turned to writing - hence her duties for the French court. 

The Shadow of the Enemy directly follows on from In The Presence of Evil - in fact, for the characters, the events are imprinted on their memories so much so this forms one of the main plots. Christine is asked by Queen Isabeau to investigate the incident that would become known as the Bal des Ardents ("Ball of the Burning Men") as she feels that the threat to Charles is to be found closer than she would like. 

This famous incident in French history occurred on 29th January 1393.  A masked ball had been organized by the Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, to celebrate the wedding of one of her ladies-in-waiting at the Hôtel Saint-Pol. At the suggestion of Huguet de Guisay, the king and four other lords dressed up as wild men and danced about. They were dressed "in costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, so that they appeared shaggy & hairy from head to foot". At the suggestion of one Yvain de Foix, the king commanded that the torch-bearers were to stand at the side of the room. Nonetheless, the king's brother Louis I, Duke of Orléans, who had arrived late, approached with a lighted torch in order to discover the identity of the masqueraders, and he set one of them on fire. There was panic as the fire spread. The Duchess of Berry threw the train of her gown over the king. Several knights who tried to put out the flames were severely burned. Four of the wild men perished: Charles de Poitiers, son of the Count of Valentinois; Huguet de Guisay; Yvain de Foix; and the Count of Joigny. Another – Jean, son of the Lord of Nantouillet – saved himself by jumping into a dishwater tub. 

Add to this another subplot based upon previous events in both French history and in Charles' life - the battle of the Golden Spurs - and its horrific aftermath. The Battle of the Golden Spurs (also known as the Battle of Courtrai), was fought between the Kingdom of France and the County of Flanders at Courtrai (Kortrijk ) on 11th July 1302. The Flemish were in rebellion against the French and massacred the French of the city of Bruges. The King of France at the time, Philip IV, organised an enormous army to march against the Flemish and seek retribution. The result was a rout of the French nobles, who suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Flemish. The battle soon became known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs after the 500 pairs of spurs that were captured in the battle and offered at the nearby Church of Our Lady. After the Battle of Roosebeke (27th November 1382), the spurs were taken back by the French and Courtai (Kortrijk) was viciously sacked by Charles VI in retaliation. As this event is featured at the start of the novel, we are left wondering how it will be linked to Christine.

Image result for the book of moral and practical advice for a young wifeThroughout In The Shadow of the Enemy we get more of a feel for Christine's work as a writer at the royal court which is really just starting for the purposes of the novel. Christine wrote a number of books of advice to princesses, princes and knights remained in print until the 16th century. And our story is littered with references to this. In fact, this may be a homage to The Good Wife's Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book. Written in the late 14th C by an anonymous French writer, the book is addressed to a fifteen-year-old bride, narrated in the voice of her husband, a wealthy, aging Parisian. The book was designed to teach this young wife the moral attributes, duties, and conduct befitting a woman of her station in society, in the almost certain event of her widowhood and subsequent remarriage. The work also provides a rich assembly of practical materials for the wife's use and for her household, including treatises on gardening and shopping, tips on choosing servants, directions on the medical care of horses and the training of hawks, plus menus for elaborate feasts, and more than 380 recipes. I like how author Tanya Bayard as attributed this to Christine and leaves us wondering how this book is linked to Christine's search for Martin de Bois, the missing husband of Klara, a young bride taken in by Christine's mother. 

Christine, who grew up at the Court but is now not of the court, uses her skills and connections as well as relying on others outside of the court, to solve the mysteries at hand. I like the characters of both Marion (the prostitute) and Alips (the Queen's dwarf) and the roles assigned to both, and how the characters, including Henri Le Picart, are a little more developed. This is a much more rounded story - we get a definite feel for the political machinations of the time when not only the king's uncles, but his wife and his  brother are all vying for power and control, and those in positions of power struggle to retain what they consider theirs by right. It is not until we near the end that we get just the merest hint of the shadow in question that is being cast across the king and court, and yet we are never quite sure who is involved.

An enjoyable read - and I love the fact that this series is set at the French Court rather than the English. Another historical mystery solved with a new twist added ... can't wait for the next in the series.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Review: Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo

Dancing the Death Drill by [Khumalo, Fred]
France 1958 - mild-mannered waiter Jean-Jacques Henri kills two people in full view of other patrons. He doesn't run but stays to await his fate. Journalist Thierry Bousquet thinks there is more to the story, especially when he tracks down the artist Jerry Moloto - who claims there may be extenuating circumstances to consider. What is revealed is that Jean-Jacques Henri is really, one Pitso Motaung, a South African, with a story to tell.

Author Fred Khumalo recounts our fictional character's life as a youth of mixed-race growing up in South African at the turn of the century. His father is off fighting against the British in the Anglo-Boer War, whilst his mother, the granddaughter of a local chieftain, died when he was but a child of 10, leaving him to literally fend for himself. Only when aged 16yo, and more to escape the conflicting cultural aspects of his childhood, did Pitso join the war effort when he enlisted in the 5th Battalion (South African Native Labour Corps) in Cape Town. 

Khumalo writes:
The First World War broke out in 1914. By 1916 it had reached a stalemate. The Allies were desperate for more manpower. Thus the Imperial government sent out a clarion call to its subjects in all colonies, which included the Union of South Africa, still a colony and its citizens subjects of King George V.
When the call reached South African shores, many black men stood up and said they were ready to serve. But white South Africans suddenly complained that arming blacks to fight against whites would set a bad precedent. There was a growing fear that this would break down what was then called the “colour bar”. The recruitment of people of colour (which also included Indians) would embolden the black man to demand true equality with the white man in South Africa once the war was over, a thought too ghastly to contemplate.
It was then agreed that the blacks would not be armed. They would be part of a labour contingent supplying services such as: wood-collecting, water-carrying, laundry, the loading and cleaning of mechanical transport, camp sanitation and cleaning. Thus was the South African Native Labour Contingent born.  (Source: New African Magazine)

This is then was the world of Pitso Motaung - and how he found himself aboard the SS Mendi.  Khumalo continues: 
The men on the ship came from a wide range of social backgrounds – some of them were peasants, yet others were traditional chiefs, men of the cloth, and educated men, graduates of the famous Lovedale College, which, in later life, would produce the likes of Nelson Mandela and other illustrious African leaders. 

Tragedy of the SS Mendi: 
On 16 February 1917, after its last night in Cape Town, the SS Mendi sailed towards the port of Le Havre, in France via Plymouth, England. Onboard were 33 crew members and a contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), composed of 805 black soldiers, 5 white officers, and 17 petty officers. They were heading to France to contribute to the Allies World War I efforts. In the early morning of 21 February 1917, while crossing the English Channel, the SS Mendi was hit by a merchant vessel, the Darro, south of Isle of Wight. The SS Mendi sank in only 20 minutes. The Darro was sailing at full speed in dense fog without any light signals. Six-hundred-and-sixteen people died. Among them, 607 black soldiers. Only some of the bodies were found, those that were recovered were buried where they were found.  The larger ship initially did not stop to help the SS Mendi and its beleaguered, drowning passengers and crew. They would ultimately be rescued by their escort, the British destroyer H.M.S. Brisk, which provided protection from German U-boats and mines.

So now to the title of the book: dancing the death drill. This phrase how now entered the annals of legend. Khumalo continues:
According to oral accounts from the survivors, as the ship was sinking, their chaplain Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha ordered the men, many of whom were frightened to jump overboard, to stand in formation as they had been taught on joining the army. He raised his arms aloft and cried out in a loud voice:
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…. Swazis, Pondos, Basotho, so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal. Our voices are left with our bodies.”
And so the men stamped their feet on the floor as they twisted and gyrated in a macabre Death Dance as it was Christened by oral historians. 
In a moment of defiance, maybe of death itself, these men were said to have marched as one, showing their willingness to die as warriors, proud of their African heritage. 

Back to our story. Pitso Motaung is one of the few survivors to be rescued, taken to France and deployed to the native labour camp. There is an inquest.  On August 8, 1917, a British court found Darro’s master, Henry W Stump, guilty of having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals. Stump must have heaved a huge sigh of relief when his licence was suspended for a only year.  History has since recorded that Stump did receive a report that he had collided with the ship which was transporting native troops aboard, and that it was sinking, but he chose sail full steam ahead.

In our story, whilst the captain of the SS Darro is held to account, another escapes justice ..... What happens next is Pitso flees after a violent altercation, and ultimately finds refuge in Paris (1918), marries, fathers a son, get a job as a waiter, meets the artist Jerry Moloto, and ultimately - and fatefully - encounters two enemies from his past.

As for the actual survivors of the disaster, for the most part, they were treated ingloriously. In the months before the Mendi left port, South Africa’s black leaders had actively supported the government’s recruitment campaign; many had signed up for the labor contingent themselves, hoping that their participation would help them argue for equal rights once the war was over. Instead, when they returned, their work was barely acknowledged, much less rewarded. Not one member of the contingent, not even survivors of the Mendi, got so much as a ribbon or a medal. They weren’t paid pensions, nor did they receive promised grants of land or cattle. 

While the Mendi was not the only labour corps transport to be lost at sea, in the total of South Africa's war dead of 9 500, the disaster was the second worst single loss after the attrition of Delville Wood six months earlier.

There is no evidence from survivors' accounts of the death drill, or of Dyobha's speech. In fact one eye-witness, boilermaker Jacob Malti said:
“As it sank it made a great hollow and many men were not far from it,” he later wrote. “By the time the water covered that empty space, many had gone down with it.” 
And yet Dyobha's speech has become central to understanding the indelible meaning of the tragedy – the fraternal bond, the willing sacrifice, the claim to history.

The Mythos
One of Karl Marx’s most repeated quotes is that history repeats itself “the first time as a tragedy, the second time as farce”. Like history, the interpretation of history also gets repeated, first as myth – and then in service of the political agenda of those in power.  According to Albert Grundlingh, professor in history at Stellenbosch University, in his book, War and Society: Participation and Remembrance – South African black and coloured troops in the First World War, 1914-1918:
“Until the 1980s, the sinking of the SS Mendi was commemorated regularly,” said Grundlingh in an interview with the Mail & Guardian. “But then black participation in the war was regarded with suspicion. Those black people who had participated were seen as sellouts. However, in the 1990s the ANC rediscovered the Mendi with a vengeance. And it became a symbol of heroism for the ANC. 
Grundlingh also emphatically states that mythologising is a common occurrence in all wars and in all countries. (Source Mail & Guardian)

This is a fascinating lost episode of history, thankfully not told from a European point of view. Whilst the book itself is not solely about the tragedy of the SS Mendi, it is used as part of the backstory of the main character of Pitso Motaung. However, having said that, it could quite easily have been so. If you condensed the first fourteen chapters, what you would have would make for a plausible historical mystery. 

On a final note, for me, this story has somewhat eerily similar overtones to that of the RMS Titanic - a ship in distress, a captain who did nothing, a lack of lifeboats, a tragic loss of life.

read more here 

Review: The Queen's Prophet by Dawn Patitucci

Set in the reign of King Philip IV of Spain, this is a tale of the Spanish Court as seen through the eyes of one of the Queen's entourage - her dwarf, Maribarbola. 

Dwarves were a common sight at the royal court in the 17th Century - Philip IV of Spain was reputed to have over 100 - they were considered rare attractions, bought and sold, owned and traded, or simply delivered as gifts throughout Europe. More often than not, their role was mostly for the entertainment and companionship of royal children. These unfortunates, sometimes crippled and weak-minded but sometimes wise, often served as court jesters, where they had to endure the rude remarks and practical jokes of the courtiers, their feelings as human beings were generally ignored. They were decked with finery, adorned with jewellery and gold, and shown off at ceremonies of state, or on festive occasions, revealing the voyeurism with which the royal rulers made these people the objects of their shameless whimsy, caprice and power. They were often depicted in painting with their royal patron, their small stature and / or deformity reinforcing the idea of perfection and superiority of the ruling dynasty. 

They were maintained by the King according to a tradition extending back well into the Middle Ages. The tradition was motivated by charity, but many 'fools' came to be appreciated for their wit, arousing great affection and sometimes achieving great fame. Because they were not taken seriously, they were licenced to parody or flout the etiquette with which courtiers and royalty had to conform, which seems to have been especially appreciated at the rigid court of Philip IV.

And it is from a portrait by the artist Velazquez of the Spanish Infanta Margaret Theresa entitled Las Meninas, featuring two of the court's dwarves, that author Dawn Patitucci has taken as inspiration for her story. Pictured, just to the right are the dwarves Maribarbola (Maria Barbara or Maria Barbola) and Nicholas (Nicolasico) Pertusato.

The story follows the early years of Maria Barbola in private service (1626 - 1654), and then upon the death of her mistress, Mari (as she will henceforth be known), embarks on a new course. She meets up with Udo the magician in a marketplace and travels with him to France under the guise of a seer. Dwarves were often thought to have the power of second sight and were often employed as seers or prophets. As mentioned above, their feelings were often ignored, as Mari soon finds out when Udo sells her to the agent of the Queen of Spain, Mariana of Austria (1634 - 1696), and she finds herself amidst the turbulence of the Spanish royal court (1651).

Here Patitucci deftly weaves her tale. The Spanish court was, at this time, a hot-bed of political intrigue and rivalry, and religious ferver (the Inquisition was still a significant force but its influence would start to wane). Philip IV had a system of employing favourites - "validos" - which created an undercurrent of one-up-manship among the many nobles jockeying for position. Mari's rival (or nemesis), the dwarf Nicholas, was attached to the court of the King, and appears to be pre-eminent among Philip's many dwarves. The marriage between uncle and niece (Philip and Mariana) was not an entirely happy one, with the ever present question of the production of a living male heir - only two of her five children would survive, a daughter, Margaret Theresa, and later, a son - Charles "the bewitched" (c. 1661). As Mariana found herself often excluded from power and her husband, she often relied on those around her to provide both comfort and information.  This is the role of Mari - confidant and spy.

Following the death of Philip (1665), Mariana found herself as regent for her three year old son, Charles (Carlos). It was a troubling time: Mariana continued to follow the custom of relying on favourites, which only magnified the petty jealousies and rivalries of the nobility, resulting in internal feuding between those who would rule in Charles' name. We must remember, Charles himself was hardly in the best of health; he suffered a number of physical disabilities, which were attributed to sorcery, though they had long been thought to be as a result of the constant in-breeding of the Habsburgs. Even once he achieved his majority (1675) and due to his illnesses, Mariana continued to rule as regent in his name and a bitter power struggle ensued for control of both the King and the government. She saw her only surviving daughter married (1666) to her uncle, Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor - a prestigious marriage to be sure, but one that would have unforeseen consequences.

External factors also contributed to tension at court. Decades of war with France drained the Spanish coffers - in fact the country had been declared bankrupt a numbers of times, and Spain's position of supremacy within a European context was being questioned (especially with the loss of Portugal). However, an unpopular and uneasy peace with France, a war for control in the Spanish Netherlands, an ailing economy, saw a palace coup being lead by Don Juan, Philip IV's illegitimate son, and power wrested from the hands of the Queen Regent. Don Juan's regency was short-lived - he died the following year (many whispered poison). Mariana resumed her regency; however the arrival of a newcomer in the form of Charles II's bride, Marie Louise of Orleans saw her influence diminish (1679) - though briefly as Marie Louise herself succumbed (again poison is whispered). It is only through the use of German auxillieries that Mariana manages to retain control, long enough for Charles to marry a second time (1690).

And where was Mari in all of this - at the heart of it all - providing a different perspective to these events as they unfolded. And we are instantly drawn to her as the heroine - we are empathetic and feel strongly the slights she herself must have felt. As events played out across the pages, I was sorely tempted to research how things ended before I had finished - but I held off - the story kept me captivated - who would prevail? Mari or Nicholas? What I appreciated were the author's notes at the end that gave an insight into events of the day, very useful for those for whom this period is not their forte.

Mariana died in 1696 - she did not live to see her only son die young (1700) - a death which sparked off what is known today as the Spanish Wars of Succession - a battle for the Spanish throne between the Spanish Habsburgs (heirs of Philip IV by his second wife led by Charles' sister Margaret Theresa) and their relatives, the French Bourbons (heirs of Philip IV by his first wife and led by Charles' half-sister, Maria Theresa).  This war would ultimately see Charles' grand-nephew (and chosen heir), Philip of Anjou succeed as Philip V of Spain.  On a side note, it would be Philip V who, when he reorganised the court offices, would abolish the role of fools and dwarves.

What happened to Mari following the death of the Queen Regent Mariana - it was said she returned to her native Austria where she died (quite possibly that same year).

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Review: The Falcon Confession by John V. Norris

The Falcon Confession
What he saw shocked him to the core. Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, the Subregulus of England, the commander of the royal army, and the man who rescued Aidan from certain death, shook like a Devil-possessed child. His chest raised and lowered in disjointed breathes and his blue eyes searched everywhere and nowhere at once.

If you are reading or have read this book it is due to the fact you have an interest in the history leading up to and including the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Events here are taking place in the years before - Harold is not yet King but a powerful earl, the Normans are still on the other side of the Channel, plotting and planning.

So simply, the story of the invasion is told in alternating narrative: Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother to Duke William, and who comes across as truly odious; Aidan, a novice at Bosham (co-incidently the principal residence of Harold); Edith Swanneck, Harold's hand-fast wife and mother of a number of his offspring; and lastly, that of Harold himself, a man tormented, whose narrative is in the form of recollection or confession, as is dictated to Aidan in the presence of Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester.

And it is this shocking confession that is at the heart of the story - the Falcon Confession - what secret is slowly being revealed by Harold and what ruin will it bring. It is for Aidan and Edith to protect and at costs, not allow it to fall into the clutches of Bishop Odo..

The various alternating narratives given an overall picture of what was happening in both Normandy and England at the times from both the Norman and Anglo-Saxon perspectives. One character that was notable due to his absence was King Edward the Confessor - a man surely at the heart of the succession crisis that lead to the Conquest.

It is a complex and fascinating period of history, and this fictional tome will add another dimension.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Adventure on the High Seas

Whilst looking for something totally unrelated, I happened upon a familiar series of naval related fiction - the Hornblower series. Naval fiction is not something that I am overly familiar with - though I will preface this by saying that I did enjoy the Hornblower TV series (with Ioan Gruffudd) and had seen Master and Commander (with Russell Crowe).

Which, quite naturally, got me thinking - how many other series were out there? So here is a brief selection for you to begin your own high seas adventures!

Horatio Honblower by CS Forester
Horatio Hornblower is a fictional Napoleonic War-era Royal Navy officer who is the protagonist of a series of novels by C. S. Forester. He was later the subject of films, radio and television programs, and C. Northcote Parkinson elaborated a definitive biography. 

The original Hornblower tales began with the 1937 novel The Happy Return (U.S. title Beat to Quarters) with the appearance of a junior Royal Navy captain on independent duty on a secret mission to Central America. Later stories filled out his earlier years, starting with an unpromising beginning as a seasick midshipman. As the Napoleonic Wars progress, he gains promotion steadily as a result of his skill and daring, despite his initial poverty and lack of influential friends. After surviving many adventures in a wide variety of locales, he rises to the pinnacle of his profession, promoted to Admiral of the Fleet. (source: Wikipedia)

Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian
Master and Commander is a nautical historical novel by the English author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1969 in the US and 1970 in UK. The book proved to be the start of the 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series, set largely in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, that O'Brian continued working on up until his death in 2000.

Master & Commander cover.jpgThe novel is set at the turn of the 19th century. It follows the young Jack Aubrey who has just been promoted to the rank of Master and Commander, and Stephen Maturin, a destitute physician and naturalist whom Aubrey appoints as his naval surgeon. They sail in HM Sloop of War Sophie with first lieutenant James Dillon, a wealthy and aristocratic Irishman. The naval action in the Mediterranean is closely based on the real-life exploits of Lord Cochrane, including a battle modelled after Cochrane's spectacular victory in the brig HMS Speedy over the vastly-superior Spanish frigate El Gamo. The novel puts the reader into the times in every aspect, from the ways of the Royal Navy on sailing ships to the state of science and medicine and social status. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Bolitho Books by Douglas Reeman
The Bolitho novels are a series of nautical war novels written by Douglas Reeman (using the pseudonym Alexander Kent). They focus on the military careers of Richard Bolitho and later, his nephew Adam Bolitho in the Royal Navy, from the time of the American Revolution past the Napoleonic Era. (Source: Wikipedia)

see also: Fiction DB for full list of titles and also Books Series In Order

Matthew Quinton Journals by JD Davies
The series of nine novels centre on the adventures of Captain Matthew Quinton, one of the young "gentlemen captains" promoted by King Charles II of England despite their almost complete lack of experience of the sea. 

Matthew Quinton Journals (9 Book Series) by  J. D. DaviesWe open the series in 1662 - Quinton, having sunk the first ship he was given to command, is surprised when the King gives him captaincy of H.M.S. Jupiter with orders to stamp out a Scottish rebellion. In a country of divided loyalties, Charles II needs someone he can trust, and – with an elder brother deep in the King’s confidence – Matthew is one of the few eligible candidates not serving in the Mediterranean.

But now Quinton must face an unruly crew, suspicions of murder, stirrings of conspiracy and the angry seas. Will treason be found in Scotland… or is it lurking closer to home?

The final book - Ensign Royal - ias a rip-roaring historical novella, set four years before Gentleman Captain. Matthew Quinton, eighteen years old and an ensign in the Royalist Army in exile, is sent by his older brother the Earl of Ravensden into the heart of Oliver Cromwell’s England. Surrounded by enemies, he soon becomes tangled in a dark web of conspiracy…

Fighting Sail Series by Alaric Bond
The ‘Fighting Sail’ Series gives an insight into the world of the seamen and naval officers who fought during the Revolutionary War, a chance to experience an exciting period of history, to view the men and the ships, and sample the extremes of life at sea. (Source: Alaric Bond's website)

The Fighting Sail Series (10 Book Series) by  Alaric Bond
His "Fighting Sail" series of novels, set during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, differ slightly from the standard formula of the "hero who becomes an admiral". Instead they chart the course of several characters, from both lower deck and commissioned ranks, and give a dramatic and authentic insight into life aboard a man of war during the age of sail.

Bliven Putnam Naval Series by James Haley
A Bliven Putnam Naval Adventure (2 Book Series) by  James L. HaleyAdventure series featuring young midshipman Bliven Putnam (great-nephew of Revolutionary War hero Israel Putnam) as he begins his naval service aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. The second installment chronicles the build up to the biggest military conflict between the United States and Britain after the Revolution—the War of 1812. Whilst the third sees Captain Bliven Putnam taking on pirates in the Philippines and diplomatic relations in Hawaii.

Revolution at Sea Saga by James Nelson
The Revolution at Sea Saga, sometimes known as the Isaac Biddlecomb Series, is a series of five novels written by James L. Nelson, published from 1997 to 2001. The Revolution at Sea saga focuses on Isaac Biddlecomb and Ezra Rumstick, former smugglers for Isaac's surrogate father (and later father in law) William Stanton. Over the course of the series, Biddlecomb and Rumstick become increasingly involved with the naval aspect of the American Revolution (specifically 1775 - 1777), which brings them into contact with historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. (Source: Wikipedia)

Nathan Peake Series by Seth Hunter
A prisoner or a Philadelphia dandy, a wild beast, a gypsy, a seafarer, a pied piper, a sorcerer and a magician...

Peake was the son of a retired English admiral and an active American revolutionary, steering a wild tack between the two whilst doing his best, often in difficult circumstances, to serve Mad King George, his often devious Prime Minister William Pitt - and the officers and men of the King's Navy. But he was also an American agent in Europe, one of a select group of secret agents answering directly to General Washington and known, on that account, as 'Washington's Boys' . Series is set during the wars with Revolutionary France (specifically 1793 - 1798). 

Alan Lewrie Naval Adventures by Dewey Lambdin
Dewey Lambdin's 25 book historical fiction series follows the naval adventures of Alan Lewrie. Starting in 1780 as a young midshipman in The King's Coat, 17yo Lewrie rises in the ranks (and though on somewhat dubious grounds, to a baronetcy) and sees some of the greatest naval battles of the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. In the worthy tradition of Hornblower, Aubrey, and Maturin, his exploits echo with the sounds of crowded ports and the crash of naval warfare. An officer and a rogue, Alan Lewrie is the ultimate man of adventure. 

Lord Ramage by Dudley Pope 
Nicholas, Lord Ramage is a fictional character, the protagonist of a series of 18 sea novels written by Dudley Pope. Ramage was an officer in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. He is a contemporary of Horatio Hornblower, but unlike the latter, who never fought in a large fleet battle, Ramage participated in both the Battle of Cape St. Vincent and the Battle of Trafalgar. Most of the novels are based on real events in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

see more @ Nicholas Ramage and Goodreads

Adventures of Charles Hayden by S Thomas Russell
These books are historical fiction about HMS Themis, a Royal Navy frigate under the command of Lieutenant Charles Hayden, at the time of the French Revolution.

Born to an English father and a French mother, Lieutenant Charles Saunders Hayden's career is damned by his mixed heritage. Assigned to the HMS Themis, an aging frigate under the command of a captain reviled by his crew for both his brutality towards his men and his cowardice in battle, Hayden is torn between honor and duty, as the British navy engages the French in a centuries-old struggle for power.

Kydd Sea Adventures by Julian Stockwin
A Kydd Sea Adventure (4 Book Series) by  Julian StockwinThis series of 22 novels about the Royal Navy tells the story of young Thomas Paine Kydd, a young wig-maker from Guildford, who is pressed into service on a British battleship, the Duke William, in 1793. Set during the Napoleonic era, the action takes Kydd far and wide, from the shore of the fledgling Americas, to the battle of Trafalgar, and throughout the Mediterranean and to the Dutch East Indies. These are the stories of one man's journey from press-gang to Admiral during the Great Age of Fighting Sail.

The Shocking Secrets of The Suitcase Baby

From Hachette Australia - Tanya Bretherton on her book The Suitcase Baby:
SYDNEY, 1923: a suitcase washed up on a harbourside beach reveals its grisly contents - and from there, an extraordinary story unfolds.

During the process of researching The Suitcase Baby I began to realise that although the term ‘true crime’ may not have existed in the 1920s, public delight in criminality and the macabre has existed for a very long time. Stories which provide an overly detailed account of very gruesome criminal events filled the pages of 1920s newspapers, but also news reports going back into the nineteenth century as well. Newspaper editors have always devoted a huge amount of copy to the reporting of criminal events and the moral and legal implications arising from them. Murder and mayhem certainly sells newspapers today, but the same could also be said two hundred years ago. 

The research I undertook for The Suitcase Baby was fascinating because it became about so much more than just one woman’s story. Sarah took risks and she challenged social norms surrounding marriage and family but she paid a huge price for it, and so did her children. Unfortunately, many women at the time also found themselves in similarly terrible, and ultimately tragic predicaments.

read more @ Hachette Australia

Inspector George Gently Books by Alan Hunter

Gently Does It (Inspector George Gently Series Book 1) by [Hunter, Alan]Another set of books which inspired a TV series are Alan Hunter's Inspector George Gently series, starring Martin Shaw (of TV series The Professionals fame) as the main character.

A full list of titles (nearly 50 of them) can be found on Hunter's wikipedia page. As Hunter himself prefaces:
"This is a detective story, but NOT a whodunit. Its aim is to give a picture of a police investigator slowly building up his knowledge of a crime to a point, not where he knows who did it - both you and he know that at a fairly early stage - but to a point where he can bring a charge which will convince the jury."

From the 2007 BBC Press Release for the TV Series:
Britain, 1964: a time when the line between the police and criminals has become increasingly blurred; when the proliferation of drugs is about to change the face of policing forever; when Britain's youth stand on the brink of a social and sexual revolution. Inspector George Gently is one of the few good men at Scotland Yard, his sense of public duty an increasingly rare commodity in a police force where corruption is rife and unchecked. In Northumberland, George takes on the headstrong young Detective Sergeant Bacchus.
Writer and Executive Producer – Peter Flannery on adapting the series:
About four years ago I was rummaging in a dusty old bookshop when my hand fell on a paperback book called Gently Through The Mill by Alan Hunter.  Looking through it, I realised it was one of a substantial series of books featuring George Gently of Scotland Yard – the character and the writer being completely unknown to me. I bought the book for a couple of pounds and took it home.
This was not a completely random decision, nor was it inspired by any lifelong devotion to the detective fiction genre, which has always rather eluded me. But I had decided some while earlier to be on the lookout for a series of novels that could provide the basis for potential television adaptation.
To my surprise I found I enjoyed the novel, Gently seemed attractively old-fashioned, not just in his methods and his mindset, but in his values. I found there were dozens more in the series and that they were available for option. I started reading them avidly.
Image result for inspector george gently 2017
Martin Shaw on playing George Gently:
George is an old-time copper. He fought with General Montgomery in the Second World War; he's a very tough, seasoned fighter. He knows about hardship and has seen tough times, and that's a bonus.  I think he carries a lot of baggage around, what with the grief of the murder of his wife as well. He faces the seemingly impossible task of trying to change a corrupt police force – a one-man mission.