Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Review: The Celtic Dagger

I was recently honoured in receiving a copy of "The Celtic Dagger" by Jill Paterson through a Goodreads giveaway.  And am glad I entered!  My copy arrived two days before Christmas, and not only was it signed, but there was a lovely hand-written card from Jill!

The Celtic Dagger is Jill's debut work - though you would never guess.  The dagger in question is one of three artifacts linked to a murder.  In the course of investigations, family secrets are unravelled, workplace relationships are put under the microscope, and we are taken on a spellbinding journey to the very end when all is packaged up for us.

The story is set in the academic world of a noted Sydney University and its Antiquities Department.  We travel between states in Australia as clues are tantalising placed in our paths.  I enjoyed being able to read of places that I am familiar with - being home turf.

There will be no spoilers here - you will have to read all for yourself.  Suffice to say that I read this book in one sitting - I literaly could not put it down in my quest to discover all.  I am so looking forward to Jill's next book!

About the Author
Jill Paterson grew up in Adelaide, South Australia before spending 11 years in Ontario, Canada. After returning to Australia, she settled in Canberra where she now lives with her husband, John.

After doing an Arts degree at the Australian National University, she worked at the Australian National University's School of Law before spending the next 10 years with the Business Council of Australia and the University of New South Wales, ADFA Campus in the School of Electrical Engineering.
You can find Jill @ Goodreads or through her website.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Stephanie Dray and The Uncelebrated Life of Cleopatra Selene

Women of History is proud to welcome author Stephanie Dray who will give us a taste of her amazing new novel: The Uncelebrated Life of Cleopatra Selene.

Cleopatra’s daughter was born at the cusp of a religious awakening and came of age in a dangerous political world. When her parents lost their war with Rome and committed suicide, Selene, her twin Alexander Helios and their younger brother Ptolemy Philadelphus were all that remained of the Ptolemaic dynasty, so they were taken prisoner by the Romans.

Though she was only ten years old, Selene was marched as a chained prisoner through the streets of Rome. Prisoners were normally strangled or killed after a triumphal march, but Selene was an exception. The little orphaned princess and her brothers were spared by the emperor, then taken into the home of his sister to be indoctrinated with Roman values.

Such a policy of hostage-taking was fairly common in ancient times, so we might have expected Selene to fully embrace the Roman way in order to survive. Indeed, like her more famous mother, she forged important alliances with the Romans and charmed her way into power. It may even be argued that she did so more successfully; she certainly did so with less bloodshed. Though Selene came to Rome as a chained prisoner, she so impressed Augustus that he married her to Juba II of Mauretania, making her the most powerful client queen in the empire.

But Selene’s importance may have to do more with her religious influence than with her statecraft. Today, we take for granted the concept of personal spirituality or a relationship with god. In much of the ancient world, however, religion was a covenant between the state and the divine realm. Insofar as personal or household gods existed for the Romans, worship was more orthopraxy than orthodoxy. That is to say, the emphasis was more on correct ritual than on faith or intimate prayer. For the Romans especially, religion was more a matter for men than women.

All of this started to change with the rise of henotheistic mystery cults, and as a forerunner of Christianity, the Isiac religion was one of the few in the ancient world to concern itself with social justice. In challenging temporal authority, the spread of Isis worship nurtured a nascent concept of personal spirituality without  which our world might be very different today. And were it not for the influence of Cleopatra Selene—who fostered the Isiac faith in Mauretania while it was being suppressed in Rome—such a transition may never have taken hold.

Though she never returned to her mother’s Egypt, Selene would rule a mostly peaceful nation for at least twenty years, spreading the influence of Hellenism and Isis worship to Northwest Africa. She appears to have had complete autonomous powers of coinage, and often minted monies with depictions of her mother or her goddess.

The most remarkable thing we know about Selene, however, is the name of her son. At that time period, any child she had should have been named after its father’s line. But Selene clearly considered herself the true ruler of Mauretania and her own family line to be superior because she named her son Ptolemy and he would rule after her.

Indeed, some scholars have suggested that upon the ascension of Ptolemy to the throne, coins were issued to honor his mother, perhaps reminding the people of their popular queen and legitimizing his rule.

About Stephanie:
Stephanie Dray is the author of a forthcoming trilogy of historical fiction novels set in the Augustan Age, starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.  

You can follow Stephanie's Blog Tour

Stephanie is currently sponsoring the Cleopatra Literary Contest for Young Women, the deadline for which is March 1, 2011, but join her newsletter now for updates and a chance to win a free copy of Lily of the Nile and additional prizes.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: The Countesses of Castello

The Countesses of Castello by Milena Agus is a simple and yet intriguing tale of three sisters - the countesses of the title - and their search for that which will make them complete. The setting of the novel, the Countesses' palazzo, reminded me of the opening scenes of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" in which we take a panoramic view of the residents and yet we do not delve too deeply into their lives. The focus of the novel is on the three sisters - Noemi, Maddalena, and the Countess Ricotta.

I was honored to have received this book through a Goodreads giveaway and am glad I entered. I highly recommend both the book and the author, Milena Agus.

Other Works by Milena include:
* The House in Via Manno
* Madame Agnese
* La Contessa di Ricotta

About the Author:
Milena Agus was born in Genoa to Sardinian parents, and now lives in Cagliari where she teaches Italian and history at a secondary school. The House in Via Manno (published in Italy as Mal di pietre), her second novel, won three Italian literary awards, and has been a bestseller in Italy, France, and Germany. In December 2008, Milena Agus was awarded the prestigous Zerilli-Marimò Prize in New York. A film adaptation of the novel is in production.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Lancashire Witches

I was very grateful to receive a copy of Mary Sharratt's "Daughters of the Witching Hill" recently.  I had only heard mention of one the the characters in Mary's book - only briefly - and was not aware of the full story.  So this was a delightful read.

The book opens with one Bess Southerns - Old Demdike - telling her story of how she became a "cunning woman" and goes on to detail her life in the Pendle Forest.  She tells of her first meeting with her "familiar" and how local folk consulted her for cures and blessings.  Little by little her family and close friends are drawn into her circle - some share in her gifts - others fear them.

The second part of the story is told by Alizon Device, Bess' granddaughter.  Here there is more about Alizon, her brother James - a "simple" lad with an agenda of his own - and her half-sister Jennet.  Without giving too much away, the family eventually implodes and when the local magistrate finally catches up with then, none of their cunning can save them from their ultimate fate.

"Daughters of the Witching Hill" is set in the latter years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the early years of the reign of King James I (or VI of Scotland).  The dominant religion of the time is that of the Reformers or Protestants.  The Catholics are considered heretics and any attempt the maintain the "old religion" is dealt with quite harshly.  It is into the cross-current of religious dogma that Bess and her family are caught.  Many still remember and practice the "old religion" and disguise it in local folk remedies.  Times are harsh for the folk of Pendle Forest and any misfortune is seized upon as the work of those of "ill-repute".

But ultimately, like it's Salem counterpart, the small community is torn apart by the political aspirations of one, the greed of others, by revenge of another, and through spite and misunderstanding.

Although Mary herself admits to some slight modification in the names of her characters (to save unnecessary confusion), the story is quite true.

In addition to Mary's wonderful book, I would also recommend an older and slightly different version of events in "The Lancashire Witches" by William Harrision Ainsworth, Esq (Pub: 1849).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Review: Tuscan Countess

Tuscan Countess: The Life and Extraordinary Times of Matilda of Canossa Tuscan Countess: The Life and Extraordinary Times of Matilda of Canossa by Michele K. Spike

The book charts author Michele Spike's journey to discover the real Matilda of Canossa. It merges her modern journey through Tuscany with historical notes on the cities she visits, all the while taking the reader back to Matilda and the events that shaped not only her life, but the course of history.

Written in a similar style to Joann Fletcher's "The Search for Nefertiti" and Mary Taylor Simeti's "Travels with a Medieval Queen".

The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa
Matilda of Canossa

Further Reading
Matilda Countess of Tuscany by Mary E. Huddy
Matilda of Canossa, An Historical Drama in Five Acts by Benjamin Gott
Matilda of Canossa by Leone Tondelli
Matilda of Tuscany, la gran donna d'italia by Nora Duff
The Book of Love by Kathleen McGowan

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Jane Whorwood - The King's Smuggler

From the Press Release:
THE KING'S SMUGGLER: JANE WHORWOOD, SECRET AGENT OF CHARLES I by author John Fox (Pub: The History Press 8th February 2010).

It is the first biography of Jane Whorwood. She spied for the King and smuggled a huge amount of gold in order to raise funds for the army and the royalist cause in England's Civil War.

Most biographies about the Civil War relate to the men's stories and the women's escapades tend to get missed out!

Jane Whorwood was one of King Charles' closest confidantes - when he was imprisoned she set up correspondence networks, consulted the national astrologer, raised and moved money, and organised escape attempts, ending up in the hub of a naval mutiny.

So, who is this woman you are asking. I did too when first asked to review a copy of John's biography. Not only did I know nothing of her role in the English Civil War of the 1640s but I had not heard of her either. Upon a visit to my local library, I checked out various books on the English Civil War - and there was no mention of Jane at all.

John's book was an eye-opener on a woman who contributed much, lost it all, and was never recognised at all for her role. Flora MacDonald achieved world-wide fame for her support of Bonnie Prince Charles - but Jane was a "non-entity" or rather "non entry" on the pages of history.

Jane (or Joan, Jeanne, or Jean as she was variously known), was a member of a prominent Scottish family at the Courts of Kings James I & VI and Charles I of England. Her family (of which the branches of her family tree were numerous and fruitful) attained positions at both courts, and in particular that of Charles I.

And so the first third of the book deals with background information - vital to the story. It covers Jane's early years and her family rise through the ranks of the nobility culminating in the her step-father's appointment as "Black Rod". Next we deal with Jane's marriage and that of her sisters. We find Jane settling into the socially expected domesticity of her status.

The disputes between Charles I and his Parliament become the focus of the daily lives of the English peoples, especially the nobility. We find, like the American Civil War, families on opposing sides - in this instance - having "crossed the bridge".

The Parliament - which did not have the powers of Parliament as we know it today - were fearful of Charles' view of an "absolute monarchy" and in the "Divine Rights of Kings" - that is, the King is subject to God alone. The Courts of Kings James I and Charles I saw the introduction of Scottish magnates into the English dominated court. Conflict was inevitable of courtiers jostled for position and favouritism. With financial and religious difficulties, Parliament attempted to force the King to acceed to their demands. War was effectively declared.
One Mistress Whorwood in Oxfordshire, was wont to bring in intelligence to the late king, as well as to Oxford as to the Isle of Wight. She was sent several times of messages. Thomas Coke, interrogated in the Tower, May 1651

It was not only intelligence that Jane sent to the King, but money with which to sustain his army. Her activities were barely known - even after the event - as she used a system of codes to disguise both herself and the King. Her position and that of her family, gave her ready access to information - it was not as if she had to don a disguise to infiltrate royal circles. She was already there - on the spot.

Jane's service in the King's name ended with his execution and the abolition of the monarchy in England (30 January 1649). Jane herself was imprisoned for her loyalty to the late Charles I; her family lire crumbled around her with the return of her abusive husband; and she was in fact disinherited. Divorce and scandal ensued - and her family (more importantly her sisters) deserted her in her time of need.

But Jane survived - the monarchy was restored under King Charles II.
Consistent with the previous thirty years, Jane never cited her service to the Crown, as if governed by an unspoken etiquette.

She spent her final years petitioning for that which was due to her - fighting till the very end.
Few co-conspirators from Wartime were alive to notice Jane’s death. Poverty and isolation reduced her to childlike pleading with a king who either did not know, or preferred to forget that his father had once importuned her in a similar isolation. In the summer of her death the great and the good – the second Earl of Clarendon and Archbishop Sancroft – began to enquire about Jane’s and others’ role in Charles I’s final years. By then, Dugdale’s sources and memory were suspect or failing, most witnesses were dead, Jane was stilled and no one asked again for many years.

Jane was a woman of extraordinary courage and conviction - she stood by her monarch when others fell away - and she paid the price. I cannot but commend this book on a most remarkable woman. Hopefully one who will no longer be a footnote on the pages of history.

About the Author - John Fox:
John is an Oxford university trained historian and has spent 6 years working on the project. of Jane Whorwood John has also written "Forgotten Divisions" (1994) on WWI in Bonn and Manchester, (‘a publishing rarity’, Geoffrey Moorhouse), and "Macnamara’s Irish Colony" (USA, 2000) on British designs to annexe California in 1846 (‘fascinating evidence, superb cast’, Prof. Roy Foster). Besides the new "Jane Whorwood" entry in ODNB, he has written several local histories for his home community near Oxford.