Sunday, December 23, 2012

Review: Tree of Pearls

The title of the book "Tree of Pearls" by Jurji Zaydan is said to be based upon the first Muslim Queen of Egypt - Shagrat al-Durr, concubine to Al-Salih and mother of his son, who came to rule Egypt at the time of the Crusades under Louis IX.  She was said to have gained power with the aid of her favourite, 'Izz al-Din Aybak the Turk - who was also her confidant and lover.

However, the book is actually set in the latter years of her life - the Sultan is dead, news has just reached Tree of Pearls that her son has been killed by rebelling Mamluks.  Tree of Pearls is acclaimed Queen but her reign is short-lived as a rival plots her downfall - and so the story revolves around two new female characters - Sallafa (the rival) and Shwaykar (the handmaiden of Tree of Pearls).

It is around this same time that a new player enters the field - Rukn al-din Baybars - and the story moves to the court of the Caliphs of Baghdad as Baybars pursues his stolen love from the clutches of a jealous rival.  

And this really is the last we hear of Tree of Pearls until the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols when we learn the fate and future of all the main characters.

It is part historical fiction part historical narrative.

Useful Links:

Friday, December 21, 2012

Xmas Arrivals

Just in time for Xmas - new arrivals in the Library:

Christopher Marlowe by Park Honan
Capetian France 987 - 1328 by Elizabeth Hallam
Family Power in Southern Italy by Patricia Skinner
The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily by Gordon S Brown
Thorfinn the Mighty by George M Brunsden
Galla Placidia by Hagith Sivan
The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev

All have been on my wishlist for some time - and the last one - Galla Placidia - arrived today.

Happy Reading to all!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: James Wilde – The Legend of Hereward

Hereward yields to William the Conqueror
With his first novel "The Time of the Wolf: A Novel of Medieval England" (also titled as "Hereward"), author James Wilde has presented us with a new take on the legend that is Hereward the Wake.  Hereward has been represented in the past as something of an ideal anti-hero along the lines of Robin Hood – he is the saviour of the Anglo-Saxons from the terrors of the Norman invaders. His use of violence is but a means to an end and is – on par - most acceptable according to the constructs of the time.

James’ Hereward takes on a darker persona (think modern-day Batman) where the legend is given a more human face and not one many may find themselves comfortable with.  He is a man who in the heat of battle is more akin to a Viking Berserker than family friendly superhero. 

Essentially the first book is set in the immediate years leading up to the Norman invasion 1060s – England is beset still from Viking raiders and the Anglo-Saxon Earls are jockeying for power around the aged Edward the Confessor.  The House of Godwin is in the ascendant but is not without its rivals. And it is into this scenario we find Hereward the outlaw – a man who is no longer under the protection of the community.  

In the Common Law of England, a "Writ of Outlawry" made the pronouncement Caput gerat lupinum ("Let his be a wolf's head," /  "May he bear a wolfish head") with respect to its subject ..  and equating that person with a wolf in the eyes of the law: Not only was the subject deprived of all legal rights of the law being outside of the "law", but others could kill him on sight as if he were a wolf or other wild animal.” (source: Wikipedia) - and hence the title is rather apt.

Hereward  travels to and is welcomed at the court of Tostig Godwinsson, Earl of Northumbria and brother of Harold Godwinsson, the most powerful man in England.  But in a turn of events, both are forced to flee to Flanders where Hereward becomes a mercenary.  He returns to England after the Battle of Hastings and so we are lead onto Book Two.

A crash course in pre-Conquest England politics is a must for those for whom this period in history is not their forte - for this is a period of violence, political scheming, personal ambitions and deadly rivalries.  It is also a time when the Church is attempting to flex its political arm by trying to curb the violence of the era (see Peace and Truce of God).

Synopsis - The Time of the Wolf: A Novel of Medieval England:
To some a brilliant warrior, to others a devil in human form, Hereward is as adept in the art of slaughter as the enemies that gather to claim England's throne. But in his country's hour of greatest need, he has been declared an outlaw. To stay alive - and a freeman - he must carve a bloody swathe from the frozen hills of Northumbria to Flanders' fields and the fenlands of East Anglia. The tale of a man whose deeds will become the stuff of legend, this is also the story of two mis-matched allies: Hereward the man of war, and Alric, a monk and a man of peace. One will risk everything to save the land he loves, the other to save his friend's soul... 

Synopsis - Hereward: The Devil's Army:
The battle of Hastings has been lost. Harold Godwinsson is dead. The iron fist of William the Bastard has begun to squeeze the life out of England. But there is one who stands in the way of the invader's savagery. He is called Hereward. He is a warrior and master tactician and as adept at slaughter as the imposter who sits upon the throne. And he is England's last hope.

Further Reading:
Hereward the Last English Gentleman - Peter Rex
Hereward the Last of the English - Charles Kingsley
Hereward the Wake - trans Michael Swanton 
Hereward the Wake - Scared Texts

Some Links:
Article from the Independent in 2005 in which David Keys writes of the new evidence on the ancestry of Hereward - and it is this theory that Wilde adopts for his Hereward.
One of history's "greatest Englishmen" wasn't really English at all. Hereward the Wake, the guerrilla leader who fought William the Conqueror for five years from 1066, was, according to new research, a high-ranking Dane.

The research by the historian Peter Rex sheds a fascinating light on the political circumstances of the time. Ever since the late ninth-century Viking raids, parts of eastern England had often come under Danish control - and for some of the 11th century the whole of England became part of a vast Danish empire, which also included Norway, southern Sweden.

England became the subject of a geopolitical tug-of-war between the Scandinavians and the Normans. The half-Norman English king Edward the Confessor was intensely pro-Norman, while his half-Danish successor Harold was supported by the Anglo-Danish community.

In 1066 the country was invaded by both the Scandinavians and the Normans, both of whom were determined to seize permanent control of England.

As an ethnic Dane, Hereward was intensely anti-Norman, probably even more so than many Anglo-Saxons.

He was able to enlist military support from Denmark itself, the new research reveals, and in 1069 the Danish royal family and the Danish church sent a small army across the North Sea to assist Hereward.

As a result of his long guerrilla campaign and by avoiding the attentions of the William's soldiers he earned the popular title "the Wake", meaning "the watchful".

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Old Book Reviews

Below are links to some older book reviews that I had posted over at Women of History:

Please feel to comment ......

I will also add some links to reviews by others that I think may interest you - again they cover a wide range of topics.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: Mary of Magdala

"You stand alone, Mary of Magdala. You were beloved of the Lord and your honour is your own, not to be shared with anyone else."

Daughter of Jerusalem by Joan Wolf tells of the story of a woman who would become one of the most infamous women of history - Mary Magdalene.  Whilst the title might be considered a little misleading by some, Wolf enlightens us by revealing that Mary spent a considerable amount of time in this most holy of cities, especially at the time of the Jewish Passover.

Part I - Young Mary leaves her home in Judea to live with her Aunt Leah in Magdala. Her childhood has not been easy, but her cousin Daniel is the shining light in her new life - that and her love of the Scriptures as recited by him. Aged 14yo Mary is of marriageable age - Daniel and Mary are betrothed before the family depart for Passover in Jerusalem. Mary visits her father and half-siblings (Lazarus & Martha) in Bethany before returning to Galilee and bad news - her betrothal to Daniel is not going ahead - Lord Benjamin (brother-in-law of her Aunt Leah and head of the household) has other plans.  Young Mary is to marry the elderly (and wealthy) Aaron bar David and move to Sepphoris - she will have to do what all women have do - make the best of it.

Part II - Daniel has left to join the Essenes at Qumran.  Mary, resigned to a life married to a rich old man, meets an important influence in her life - one Julia Tiberia, widow of the former Roman Governor of Sepphoris.  Mary enters Roman society which assists her husband's business prospects.  Julia has taken Mary under her wing - she can now read and write in Latin - and she now knows that when her wealthy husband dies, she will inherit his wealth - and gain her freedom.  Enter one Marcus Novius Claudius - Legatus.  Mary's husband wants her to engage in a sexual relationship with Marcus - one which everyone else assumes is ongoing - in the hopes of gaining a child and thus an heir.  Mary is shocked by her husband's decision to use her so.  

Mary is branded a whore by her own people - the Zealots/Essenes have all but cast her out of Jewish society.  Mary and Marcus are in love - but she is also pregnant and this cannot go unobserved by her husband.  Aaron is dead - an accident - though Marcus' words are ringing in Mary's ears.  Mary flees Marcus to escape the thought of his involvement in her husband's death.  In doing so, she stumbles and miscarries.  Marcus departs - there is no marriage between them now - Mary plans to leave Sepphorus for Bethany.

Part III - Mary spends a year with her siblings in Bethany before deciding to live on her on in Capernaum.  Mary's re-entry into Jewish life is not easy - the Pharasee Ezra bar Matthias is her enemy and denigrates her at every opportunity, and her independence has marked her out as being different.  

It is also in this final part that the story of Jesus of Nazareth comes to dominate and we are slowly being introduced to those who feature strongly in the story of Jesus - Simon Peter the Fisherman and John the Baptiser.  An old friend from Mary's past is now Governor of Caprenaum - Fulvius Petrus - and he tells of John's arrest by Herod Antipas  

Jesus of Nazareth arrives in Capernaum.  Jesus is gathering his disciples - Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and the brothers James and John are the first.  We meet the rest of the disciples when Jesus returns to Capernaum - Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, another James, Thaddeus, Simon and the Zealot Judas.  John the Baptist has been executed and Jesus' fame as a miracle worker, healer and teacher is spreading.  

Mary is joined by one Mary of Nazareth - mother of Jesus - and her sons, James and Joses.  Mary gathers about her a group of women who will aid Jesus and his disciples - financially. they are Susanna, Mary, Clopas, Ruth, Salome, Rebecca and Joanna.  

In Jerusalem Mary is reunited with Daniel - it has been 10 years since their parting - much has changed and Daniel is not the young man she first fell in love with.  Many miracles follow including Lazarus being raised from the dead.  

Jesus has been arrested in the garden of Gethsemane - Lazarus has escaped to Capernaum whilst Mary remains behind in Jerusalem.  Jesus has been condemned by Pilate and will be executed by crucifixion on Golgotha.  We follow the traditional story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  Mary leaves for Sepphorus to preach the word of Jesus.

Thus Wolf provides us with the clues as to Mary's status as a fallen women possessed by seven evils and why she is deemed a whore and harlot by her own people. She also portrays Mary as the half-sister of Martha and Lazarus.  We also gain an insight into Mary's role in Jesus' early ministry. There are many other versions of Mary's early life - this could be one of the most plausible (see below for others).  

Some other books on Mary Magdalene:
Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George
"Margaret George convincingly captures this renowned woman's voice as she moves from girlhood to womanhood, becomes part of the circle of disciples, and comes to grips with the divine."

Mary Magdalene by Diana Wallis Taylor
"Long maligned as a prostitute or a woman of questionable reputation, Mary Magdalene's murky story seems lost to the sands of time."

Mary Magdalene: a Biography by Bruce D Chilton
"After two thousand years of flawed history, here at last is a magnificent new biography of Mary Magdalene that draws her out of the shadows of history and restores her to her rightful place of importance in Christianity."

Mary Magdalene: A Woman Who Loved
" looks behind the scenes at a woman who is seduced into committing adultery and used to test Jesus, and brings them all together beneath the cross of Jesus Christ."

Poisoned Honey: A Story of Mary Magdalene
".. one of the most misunderstood and controversial Biblical figures is the story of a young girl’s path through manipulation and possession, madness and healing, to a man who will change the world forever."

Unholy Grail - The Story of Judas Iscariot & Mary Magdalene 
"Beginning with the stories of Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene, the Unholy Grail story culminates in their contemporary heir, who becomes the Anti-Christ of the Apocalypse." - I have read this one but cannot quite reconcile myself with this role designated to Mary - Book II may enlighten.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

New Arrivals To The Library

Over the past few months, I have been adding to my already overcrowded bookcases.  So here are the latest new arrivals to my own personal library:

  • The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 - 751 by Ian Wood
  • Warwick the Kingmaker by Michael Hicks
  • Edward IV by Michael Hicks
  • King Stephen by Edmund King
  • The Varangians of Byzantium by Benedict Benedikz
  • The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson
  • Eleanor de Montfort by Louise Wilkinson
  • A New History of the Picts by Stuart McHardy
  • The Last King of Wales by Michael Davies
  • The Valois by RJ Knecht
  • The Italian Crusades by Norman Housely
  • Strongholds of the Picts by Angus Konstam
  • The Despotate of Epiros 1267 - 1479 by Donald M Nicol
  • Samurai Women 1184 - 1877 by Stephen Turnbull
  • Matilda by Tracey Borman
  • The Hanged Man by Robert Bartlett
  • The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191-1374  by Peter Edbury
  • The Godwins by Frank Barlow
  • Conquest by Jack Ludlow (finishes of my de Hauteville trilogy)
  • The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford
  • Melisende of Jerusalem by Margaret Tranovich
  • The Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman

Already working on my Christmas book list!   And this does not include the large number of e-books that I have added for this last month.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Freud's Sister by Goce Smilevski

“The goal of all life is death” – and death was to feature so predominantly in the lives of Freud and his family in the years to come.

We begin the story with the last year or so that Freud spent in Vienna prior to his escape from the Nazi’s.  He took a select group with him – his in-laws, his doctor, his housekeeper, and his dog – leaving behind his four elderly sisters to their own fate.  On 29th June 1942, the four sister are forced to leave their apartment for the death camps – the first stop being Terezin. After being moved to another camp, the sisters reach their ultimate fate – the gas chambers.

We then return to Adolfina who recounts her life to us with recollections of her early childhood illnesses, her fragile relationship with her mother, and her growing distant relationship with her once close brother, Sigmund.  Through her painting, we are introduced to key people in Adolfina’s early adulthood: Bertha and Sarah Auerbach, Klara and Gustav Klimt, and Ranier Richter. 

Following the death of Sarah, Klara Klimt retreats into her own world after spending her time promoting womens' rights and looking to the welfare of women and children.  Klara is admitted to the Nest and psychiatric clinic. 

Adolfina reconnects with Ranier Richter from her childhood and a relationship develops.  Her brother and sisters have married and she moves in with Ranier.  Following the death of his mother, Ranier submits to his lifelong depression and commits suicide – Adolfina discovers that she is pregnant – Sigmund helps her to arrange for a abortion.   After a family gathering to celebrate their mother’s birthday, Adolfina, aged 34yo leaves her home to join Klara at the Nest in Vienna.

We are told lots of tales about the inmates of the Nest and Dr Goethe; of her brother's leanings towards all things Germanic and his work.  Rather unnecessary in my mind - and this only bogs down the reader with a history lesson and psychiatry and psychoanalysis of the early 19th and 20th Century.

Seven years later, Adolfina and Klara leave the Nest – a year of the conclusion of the Great War (World War I), Gustav Klimt is dead and his sister Klara returns to the Nest – Adolfina takes over the care of Gustav’s many sons, previously under the care of Klara.  That same year saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the formation of Austria. 

In the suceeding three years, tragedy upon tragedy befalls Freud and his family – death, illness and suicide.  Sigmund himself is not immune and is developing as yet un-diagnosed cancer.  Adolfina is left to care for her dying mother (1930) – and her lifelong friend Klara Klmit escapes from the Nest – albeit briefly.

February 1933 - Germany has a new leader – one Adolf Hitler.  All the sisters are reunited in Vienna.   And it is here we catch up with the fate of the elderly quartet as Sigmund leaves for London when Austria is taken over.  The sisters are moved from camp to camp, and finally to their deaths.  Why did Sigmund not save his sisters from their fate will remain forever unknown.


Goce Smilevski website: "Goce Smilevski was born in 1975 in Skopje, Macedonia. He was educated at Charles University in Prague, Central European University in Budapest, and Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. He is author of several novels and theater plays. His novel Freud's Sister won the European Union Prize for Literature and is being published in more than thirty languages."

Article in the Jewish Daily Forward: Sigmund Freud's Sister Complex
Wikipedia: Freud's Family
Jewish Virtual Library - Terezin (Teresienstadt)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review: Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony

The year is 1636 – the smuggling of Flemish lace into France is rampant.  Lace is now a form of currency – it also has the power to elevate or destroy.

Lace - Point d'Angleterre or Brussels Lace - became so popular (at one point 150000 women were employed in the industry) that laws were enacted to prevent other nations stealing away the lace-makers of Flanders and Brussells.  Its was also a perilous industry for a young woman who usually entered into this field as a young child, and often by age of 30, left a blind and crippled woman who resembled an aged hag.  However, France, during the reign of Louis XIII, introduced sumptuary laws which banned the wearing and ultimately the importing of foreign-made lace.  Many strange measures were taken to secure this article - and many devious methods were devised for its transportation across international borders.

See: History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser
Our story starts with two sisters – Katharina, who is a lacemaker at the Flemish abbey of Lendelmolen; the other, Heilwich, who is a housekeeper of sorts to a nearby priest.  Both stories are presented in the first person narrative.

As intricate as the pattern of the lace, the other voices are added to the story - Denis, a border guard whose job it is to seek out the smugglers; a dog used for smuggling; Lisette, a young girl who has fallen under the spell of lace; Alexandre, a young man with no future of his own who seeks redemption and honour; and a wily, scheming count who hopes to use this precious gift as a bribe to secure his own financial future.  

As one by one the characters meet and their stories merge, we are drawn along on the journey – will the prized lace be secured in time to prevent the dishonor of one – or will our young hero fail in his task. The reader will be held spellbound until the final chapters reveal all – and the pattern is complete.

I read this in one sitting – it is not an overly long book, nor are the chapters drawn out.  All is concise and the stories easy to follow.

France in the 17th century is not my particular forte - however, I found this to be a most enjoyable read.  Highly recommended for all who love a good story.

About The Author:
Iris Anthony is a pseudonym. The writer behind the name is an award winning author of 10 novels.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Shooting Victoria

"Shooting Victoria" by Paul Thomas Murphy documents in detail the seven assassination attempts made upon Queen Victoria, many during the years 1842 to 1850.
"There was Edward Oxford, a bartender who dreamed of becoming an admiral, who was simply shocked when his attempt to shoot the pregnant Queen and Prince consort made him a madman in the world’s eyes. There was hunchbacked John Bean, who dreamed of historical notoriety in a publicized treason trial, and William Hamilton, forever scarred by the ravages of the Irish Potato Famine. Roderick MacLean enabled Victoria to successfully strike insanity pleas from Britain’s legal process. Most threatening of all were the “dynamitards” who targeted her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee—who signaled the advent of modern terrorism with their publicly focused attack." (Source: Amazon)
None of her attackers were given the death penalty, and only one a life sentence (the one who attacked her twice). Three of the attackers (including the crazy man that chased her) went to a mental asylum, though one of them was released after 7 years and allowed to leave the country. Two of the attackers were transported to Australia for 7 years, one received only an 18-month sentence, and one was caned 20 times and given a 1 year prison sentence. Victoria wasn’t thrilled about all of the light sentences. At the Queen’s insistence, the laws were changed so that defendants could be found both “insane” AND “guilty”. 

Many years ago I discovered a dust-covered novel of a fictional account of an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria - "Chase Royal" by Donald Seaman.  Murphy's book brought this novel back to my mind - another must read for those who love their Victoriana.

The Testament of Mary

From the Telegraph:

Colm Tóibín’s contentious life of the mother of Jesus is the latest novel, following Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, to reimagine history from the perspective of a famous figure. Allan Massie reflects on how novelists forge the past into fiction.

We know very little about Mary, the mother of Jesus. A dozen or so sentences in the Gospels; that’s all. Of course, we know what she has become, what the Churches and artists have made of her. We have all seen countless Madonnas and Child; it is one of the most familiar and moving images of Christian art. We are also familiar with the Pietà, the grieving mother holding the broken body of her crucified son. But Mary herself, the woman behind these images? What was she like? What did she feel? Did she believe that her son, Jesus, was divine, God’s son as well as hers?
The question is one from which, for obvious reasons, the Churches have preferred to turn away. It is also one for which there can be no sure answer. History does not supply us with the evidence. Faith may take its place, but faith may be questioned. Now the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, cradle Catholic and lapsed Catholic, has written a novella, The Testament of Mary, her story in her own, imagined words. It is done sensitively and intelligently, though there will be some who think it should not have been done at all. I suppose that it would have been banned in the Republic if written in the years before scandal undermined the authority of the Church.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: David Blixt - Star Cross'd

Master of Verona

Being already familiar with the story of Cangrande della Scala, I was keen to read this version of his life.  So far, my interest has been maintained and I have not been at all disappointed with David's re-creation of this fascinating and turbulent period in Italian history.

For those familiar with Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", here is the chance to read an interpretation of the "history" behind the play, and meet the real-life characters who inspired the Bard to put pen to paper.

But do not be deterred into thinking this is just a medieval romance - for where would a great story be without a cast of truly interesting characters; intrigue and drama; battles a-plenty; and life, love and death.

A must read - a looking forward for the next instalment in the "Star Cross'd" series.

Voice of the Falconer
From Goodreads: "In the tradition of Dorothy Dunnett and Bernard Cornwell, David Blixt’s latest volume in his historical epic of early Renaissance Italy picks up eight years after the end of The Master of Verona. Having been placed in charge of ‘Cesco – the bastard child reputed to be the only male progeny of Francesco (‘Cangrande’) della Scala – the political & economic leader of Verona – Pietro Alaghieri has been raising the child in exile in Ravenna."

Fortune's Fool
From Goodreads: "Italy, 1326. While the brilliant and wily Cesco is schooled in his new duties at the hand of a hard master, Pietro Alaghieri travels to Avignon, current seat of the Papacy, to fight his excommunication and plead for Cesco's legitimacy. He doesn't know an old foe has been waiting to ruin Pietro's life and seize control of Verona for himself. "

For more information on the author, visit David Blixt's blog - Master of Verona and website - David Blixt

Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: Pleasures of Men

Have just finished reading "The Pleasures of Men" by Kate Williams.

Set in the 1840s during the reign of Queen Victoria, a young girl with a troubled past comes to live with her uncle in London at a time when a "Ripper" style killer is striking fear in the hearts of men and women alike.

Catherine's life is certainly troubled and the author Kate Williams tempts us with glimpses into Catherine's past as she, Catherine, narrates the present.  Interspersed are the stories of a number of other women whose lives have touched Catherine's own - and whose fate rests in the hands of the mysterious stalker.

Kate brings to life the often tragic conditions of Victorian London, and allows us a glimpse into the lives of some of this city's inhabitants - from serving folk to those of the upper echelons.  This was no pleasurable palace for a young woman, or young girl - life was cheap and hard, and often expendable.

It is a rather curious read - one step forward, two steps back - but we are gradually reaching the point of no return.  What secrets does Catherine's uncle possess - and how will these secrets affect Catherine.  Must read on to the point when all is revealed - and like the threads of a young ladies' corset, all loose ends are tied together when the fate of Catherine becomes known.

It may not be to everyone's taste - the mix of different narratives - and the "flashbacks" - but it is necessary in order to gain a better insight into the main characters and their motives.  Persevere.

I must confess to looking forward to reading more of Kate's work.

About Kate Williams:
"Kate studied her BA at Somerville College, Oxford where she was a College Scholar and received the Violet Vaughan Morgan University Scholarship. She then took her MA at Queen Mary, University of London and her DPhil at Oxford, where she received a graduate prize. She also took an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. She now teaches at Royal Holloway."

See Kate's full profile at Goodreads.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: Treason In Tudor Times

Author James Forrester has presented us with  an unlikely hero in the guise of the elderly Herald, Sir William Harley, known throughout to all as Clarenceux. The setting is Tudor England at the height of the "succession" question where Catholics were putting forth one Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, as the successor to both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The whole country is on tenter-hooks as treason and traitors are discovered and removed from all levels of Tudor society.

In this first instalment, Willam or Clarenceux, finds himself in possession of a "chronicle" written by an old friend, yet delivered in the dead of night.  Not only is he now the custodian of this rather unique book, but also of the secret entrusted to him by its author, Henry Machyn.  And so we are taken on a quest to discover and decypher the secret before the authorities (in the form of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster) take hold of William and "persuade" him to reveal all to them.

The action is non-stop as William goes in search of those known as the Knights of the Round Table - and hopefully discover the secret that could see his own life hang in the balance.

Sacred Treason is but the first instalment - two more adventures follow in The Roots of Betrayal and The Final Sacrament.

Author James Forrester is a historian by profession, publishing medieval and early modern non-fiction under his first and last names, Ian Mortimer (his full name being Ian James Forrester Mortimer).

Review: Crispin Guest - Medieval Mike Hammer

Jeri Westerson has given readers a new anti-hero in the person of Crispin Guest.  Our hero has all the faults and foibles of a 1940s gumshoe, though the setting is 14th Century London rather than San Francisco or New York.

So, who is Crispin Guest?  He is a former knight, now detective, living and working on the mean streets of medieval London.  In this latest edition in the chronicles of Crispin, "Blood Lance", our hero and his trusty side-kick Jack Tucker, are on a quest to find the legendary Spear of Longinus.

From Jeri's website:
"The series begins with VEIL OF LIES where Crispin is hired by a jealous husband and falls into murder and international intrigue. The second is SERPENT IN THE THORNS, a medieval thriller wherein Crispin must stop an assassin before he kills the king of England, and the third is THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, where a sinister killer stalks the streets and alleys of London. The latest, TROUBLED BONES, is a retelling of the Canterbury Tales…with murder."

Readers of this new genre "medieval noir" will have no trouble adopting Crispin as their own and gladly fall in behind as he traverses the seemy side of London in the quest for truth and justice.  If you haven't already, one humbly suggests you don't fall too far behind - who knows what dangers lurk in the shadows.

As for "Blood Lance", I loved it - my only regret is not having read the previous four instalments prior to this chapter in the adventures of Jeri's hero, Crispen.  I would love to see these books turned into a series along the lines of Cadfael.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Red Chamber

"An epic reimagining of the Chinese literary classic, Dream of the Red ChamberTHE RED CHAMBER tells the story of three women in an aristocratic household in 18th-century Beijing.   Daiyu is an impoverished orphan adopted into the household who falls in love with Baoyu, the brilliant, unpredictable heir to the family fortunes.  Despite his love for her, the family betroths Baoyu to his cousin Baochai, who hides her own desires under a dutiful exterior.  Meanwhile, the young matron Xifeng struggles to protect the family from financial ruin, even as her husband spurns her for her inability to bear a child.  Linking the three women’s fate is the jade, a mysterious stone found in Bayou’s mouth at birth, which seems to foretell a strange and extraordinary destiny for him and the entire family."

The Story behind The Red Chamber By Pauline Chen
Although born of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States, as a child I spoke only rudimentary Chinese; my parents were of a generation who believed that teaching children a foreign language would inhibit their ability to learn English. Instead I grew up reading Austen, the Brontes, Tolstoy, and Dickens. At Harvard I studied the Classics, with a special interest in Latin poetry. I came upon Chinese literature later, and quite by accident. A Taiwanese friend showed me an eleventh-century Chinese poem. As she translated it, line by crystalline line, a door opened into an undreamed world of new literary forms, philosophy, and aesthetics.

Fascinated, I began the long journey of learning classical Chinese. It was in graduate school in East Asian Studies that I discovered the canonical Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. The story of brilliant and talented women whose lives were constricted by lack of physical freedom and opportunity (aristocratic Chinese women were confined to Women’s Quarters, where men were allowed only limited access), the novel resonated with my own family’s history: my two grandmothers were both illiterate, and my mother had struggled to gain access to the education her brothers received. More than twenty-five hundred pages long, the book was structured far more loosely than a western novel, linking hundreds of characters and meandering through years of mealtimes and naps, parties and chats. And yet, tracing with exquisite care the inner worlds of characters from princesses to maids, and unearthing the depths of feeling and disparities in power beneath the most everyday interactions, Dream of the Red Chamber more closely mirrored my experience of life than any work I had previously read.

Teaching the novel to undergraduates at Oberlin College, I came to realize how the vast majority of American readers, even if they had known of the book, would be discouraged from reading it by its length and unfamiliarity. I began to write a version for western readers, translating Dream of the Red Chamber not merely into another language but into another form, that of a contemporary western novel. Moreover, Cao’s original ending had been lost, and the final third of the novel as it now exists had been written by another hand after his death. Haunted by a sense of incompletion, I needed to finish the story for myself.

My first drafts succeeded only in being abridgements. I had to allow myself greater freedom to depart from the original plot to distill what I found most compelling about the work: an elegiac awareness of the illusory and evanescent nature of human life; also the excruciating conflict between female friendship and romantic love that occurs when women intimates become rivals for the same man. To these two central themes, I added a question that gripped me as a modern reader and writer: in a culture where women’s opportunities and movements were ruthlessly restricted, in what ways could they shape their own destinies? 

About the Author
Pauline Chen started her career as a lawyer, but was sidetracked by her love of literature. After completing a Ph.D. at Princeton, she moved to Ohio in 1996 to teach Chinese language, film, and literature at Oberlin College. When her son was born in 2000, she quit her job to stay home, writing every morning before the rest of the family awoke. Her first book, Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, was a novel for children about a Taiwanese-American family in Ohio. THE RED CHAMBER is her first novel for adults.  

For more information on "Dream of the Red Chamber" see also:
Dream of the Red Chamber
Review at A Scribble of Writers

Most Beautiful Princess - Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna

Christina Croft talks about "Most Beautiful Princess – A Novel Based on the life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia".

In the early hours of the morning 18th July 1918, two carts left the small Siberian town of Alapaevsk and followed the Sinyachikhenskaya road to a disused mine. There, soldiers alighting from the carts, ordered eight blindfolded prisoners - six men and two women - to walk forwards and, striking their heads with rifle butts, forced them one after another into the waterlogged shaft. Having hurled hand grenades after them into the pit, the soldiers assumed their task was complete and were about to leave when to their amazement the sound of singing echoed from beneath the ground. From a ledge nineteen metres below a woman was singing the Russian Orthodox hymn: ‘Lord Save Your People.’

Some weeks later as the First World War drew to its bloody conclusion across Europe, battles still raged for control of revolutionary Russia. With the arrival of the White Army in Alapaevsk, the bodies were recovered from the mine: five grand dukes, a companion, and two middle-aged nuns. By the side of the incorrupt body of one of the nuns lay an unexploded grenade, on her breast an icon of Christ.

How did a fairy-tale princess, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V, and sister-in-law of two Russian Tsars come to so terrible an end? ‘Ravishingly beautiful’, ‘saintly’, ‘enigmatic’, revered as a saint by the poor of Moscow, what drove the Lutheran daughter of Princess Alice to turn her into the Russian Imperial Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, then ‘Matushka’ mother of the poor, and finally Holy Imperial Martyr Saint Elizabeth? Why did the gentle Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, described by one her admirers as ‘the most beautiful creature of God I have ever seen’, die of infected wounds and starvation in a mineshaft in Siberia?

These were some of the questions which prompted me to write: Most Beautiful Princess – A novel based on the life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (link: ), whose life was so remarkable that it amazes me that so few people have even heard of her.

At the age of nineteen, ‘Ella’ married Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, a younger brother of Tsar Alexander III. From the moment she arrived in Russia, she became the object of both adulation and gossip, as rumours of her unhappy marriage and the alleged cruelty of her husband swept across Europe, even to the ears of her doting grandmother, Queen Victoria. Highly-strung, domineering and obsessed with order, Serge’s strong reactionary views had made him many enemies in Russia, and Ella’s absolute submission to his whims led to speculation that he treated her as little more than a glamorous ornament. The fact that the couple remained childless suggested that the marriage remained unconsummated, and increasingly salacious stories spread through Russia and beyond. For twenty years Ella endured the slanders and, following her conversion to Orthodoxy, found comfort in the practice of her religion, her devotion to charitable causes, and her overriding determination to bring to bring about the marriage of her younger sister, Alix, to the future Tsar Nicholas II. Despite immense opposition from both families – and especially from Queen Victoria - Ella ardently believed that this marriage was meant to be and promised Nicholas that she ‘move heaven and earth’ to bring Alix to Russia. For six years she argued and cajoled and when at last the engagement was announced, she could take pleasure in the knowledge that she had virtually single-handedly engineered the match...which, sadly, was to lead to such tragedy in 1918.
In 1905, in the wake of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, discontent spread through Russia bringing the country to the verge of a revolution, which would claim the life of Ella’s husband, by then the Governor General of Moscow. One afternoon as Ella was working on a Red Cross project in the Kremlin, she heard the sound of an explosion outside and knew at once that something had happened to Serge. Running out into the snow she discovered her husband literally blown to pieces and, though the guards tried to hold her back, she gathered the remnants of his body in her own hands and had what was left of him taken to a nearby monastery. After spending the night in prayer, she visited the prison where his assassin was being held captive, to assure him of her forgiveness and to find out what had driven him to commit such a crime. From then on, Ella’s life changed dramatically. After twenty years of stagnation in a glittering palace, she gave away literally all she possessed – her palaces, furs, cars, even her wedding ring – and, purchasing a piece of land in the poorest district of Moscow, built a hospital, orphanage and convent where she trained as nurse and personally treated the most abject of patients. Wandering at night through the slums and backstreets, she gathered the orphans and child prostitutes and provided them with a home. Her schemes for the improvement of housing for students and young workers and her tireless efforts on behalf of the poor soon led the Muscovites to revere her as a saint. Wherever she went crowds gathered to ask for her blessing and to kiss the hem of her garment as she passed, but, while she won the hearts of the poor, the rich could only gaze askance in horror. To the aristocracy her way of life was a scandal, demeaning to the Imperial Family; and further divisions arose between Ella and her sister, Alix, due to Ella’s opposition to the Tsarina’s guide and friend, Rasputin.The First World War brought further heartache for Ella and Alix. Though both worked indefatigably for the Russian wounded, they could not hide their German origins and were accused of spying for the enemy. Spat at or even stoned in the street, Ella continued her work with the poor, while desperately pleading with Alix to part with Rasputin whose constant presence was bringing the dynasty to disaster. Alix refused to listen to the warnings and in one bitter scene, told Ella to leave the palace. They would never meet again.
In the early months of the Revolution, the Communists were so impressed by Ella’s care for the poor that she was allowed to continue her work unimpeded but the Bolsheviks seized power in 1918, the days of the Romanovs were numbered. Ella’s cousin and former suitor, Kaiser Wilhelm pleaded with her to escape to Germany before it was too late, but she refused to abandon her orphans. At Easter 1918, she was arrested and taken to Siberia where, the day after the massacre of the Tsar and his family, she was murdered.

Several weeks after her death, when the bodies were recovered from the mine, Ella’s alone remained incorrupt. Even a year later when the coffins were transported to China, Ella’s body remained intact. In 1921 her elder sister, Victoria (grandmother of the present Duke of Edinburgh), had her body taken to the Orthodox Church on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem from where many miracles have been reported. Sixty years later, she was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church and her statue now stands above the West Door of Westminster Abbey with those of other 20th century martyrs.

‘Most Beautiful Princess’ - based on my earlier biography of Ella, which was short listed for the Biographers’ Club Award in 2004 – is available in paperback and in Kindle, Nook and Apple format.

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