Monday, November 27, 2017

Review: The Mediterranean World

The Mediterranean World: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Napoleon
The Mediterranean World: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Napoleon by Monique O'Connell

In The Mediterranean World, Monique O’Connell and Eric R Dursteler examine the history of this contested region from the medieval to the early modern era, beginning with the fall of Rome around 500 CE and closing with Napoleon’s attempted conquest of Egypt in 1798.

Twelve chapters dealing with different aspects in the history of this volatile region. The emphasis is on themes rather than a chronological history, and is designed for the lay-historian rather than the academic.

My personal favourite sections were on the medieval period - specifically "Medieval Frontier Societies". This is a period that is of interest to me, so a welcome addition to my own personal library.

see also: review @ Me, You & Books

Review: The Wicked Boy

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale
The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child MurdererTrue crime set in the east end of London in 1895 - featuring a case of matricide where the accused is a child. A 13yo boy and his brother go on a spending spree after the murder of their mother. The crime is discovered; the boys are brought to trial; one testifies against the other; and one ends up in Broadmoor Asylum.

What I was hoping for was a concise documentation of the crime, the trial, the outcome, a "where are they now", an appendix with relevant documentation. What I got was a lengthy tome, overly heavy on the historic, social, geographical details; filled with lengthy explanations, unnecessary narrative and interjection; medical and psychological theories; and extensive use of newspaper articles, archives, court documents.

I have no issue with the writing - the case was certainly intriguing and no doubt a cause celebre of the day. What I have issue with is the amount of information the reader is required to absorb, when half could have easily have been discarded without altering the gist of the storytelling. Sometimes less is more - certainly in this case it should have been.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: The Mitford Murders

The Mitford Murders (Mitford Murders #1)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read about the Mitford sisters in both Laura Thompson's "Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters" and Mary Lovell's "The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family", I was naturally quite intrigued as to how one of the Mitford girls was going to feature in a murder mystery.

Louisa Cannon is a young woman looking to escape a harsh life in London in 1920. A chance meeting of an old friend leads to an introduction to the young Nancy Mitford, and for Louisa, the possibility of creating a new life when informed of a newly vacant position within the Mitford household.

It seems that as Louisa is escaping the clutches of her evil uncle, a woman, Florence Nightingale Shore, is attacked a left for dead aboard a train. The two stories, told independently, begin to merge as the investigation onto Florence's death takes place, and by coincide, Louisa and Nancy Mitford slowly become involved.

The story build slowly, characters cross our paths as the investigation progresses, and we are treated to an insight in the lives not only of the gentry in the early post-war years but also those who returned from the fighting. The empathy and identification with Louisa developed as the story progressed.

I enjoyed the fact that this was a fictionalised account of the very real murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, with the author offering a resolution of sorts. I particularly liked the occasional interspersion of letters written by Florence from the front which gave a little background to current events.

I'll be very interested to see how the Mitfords are introduced into the next in the series - obviously as this is #1 there follows that there will be a second book.

Will most likely also track down "The Nightingale Shore Murder" by Rosemary Cook.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Heartline by Brendan David Carson

A little bit of gratuitous book plugging for a facebook friend, Brendan David Carson:

One doctor's first few years - in the emergency department, in psychiatry, in the prisons and on the public methadone programme. Unexpected births, sicknesses, deaths - and two or maybe three resurrections. What board games they play in the hereafter, the health department protocol for vampire hunting, when not to call the psychiatrist and why not to buy a used car from an Emergency doctor. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy for psychiatric illness, the death of Supergirl - and what it feels like to be responsible for somebody's death. 

This is my record of a few years in which my life changed a lot, working as a wide-eyed junior doctor in emergency departments, in psychiatric wards, and on the state's largest methadone programme. Names and dates and identifying characteristics have been changed, but everything I've written here is true. 

Visit Amazon to check out Brendan's book in paperback and kindle formats.

Condor trilogy: the "Lord of the Rings" of Chinese literature

Louis Cha's acclaimed trilogy to be translated into EnglishFrom Quartzy:
The world imagined by Chinese writer Jin Yong is one which celebrates loyalty, courage, and the triumph of the individual over a corrupt and authoritarian state—carried out by no less than heroes who fly through trees and deliver deadly blows to their enemies with a single finger.

Now his Condor Trilogy (1957),arguably the most celebrated of the 93-year-old writer’s works, is finally getting translated into English.

This trilogy was is set in 1205 in the Southern Song Dynasty of China, at a time when the Han Chinese population faced continuous attacks from the northern Jurchen Jin dynasty, as well as from Genghis Khan’s Mongols.

read more here @ Quartzy and @ China Daily
see more here @ youtube
read online here @ archive dot org

Three Chevrons Red by Paul R Davis

Three Chevrons Red: The Clares: a Marcher Dynasty in Wales, England and Ireland by Paul R Davis is a comprehensive study of the Clare family, a Marcher dynasty, owning lands in Wales, England and Ireland and becoming involved in the politics and wars of the Welsh border. From their origins in Normandy, they amassed great wealth and privileges becoming one of the richest and most powerful families in the Middle Ages.

Anne Davies reviews "Three Chevrons Red" for the Clare Ancient House Museum

read more about the de Clare family here

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Foreboding builds from the get-go of "The Good People," Hannah Kent's haunting historical novel about a rural Irish community gripped by sudden death and suspicion.
It's 1825, and the people in the hills near Killarney strike an uneasy balance between the sacred and the superstitious: rosary beads in one pocket and cold embers to ward off evil spirits in the other. When Martin Leahy drops dead at the crossroads where suicides are buried, neighbors are set on edge. The fact that his daughter died not long before and left a strange grandchild behind fans the fear of otherworldly interference.

Although "The Good People" is fiction, it faithfully represents the hold of ancient Celtic myths on generations of Irish. It also lays bare some hard truths about human nature and leaves you thinking about belief, suspicion and what happens to a community when fear takes hold.

read more here @ Pueblo Chieftain

Diary Lost in Translation

Raja Todar Mal's diary, considered one of the rarest among the 5 crore documents stored at the Bihar State Archives, rests unread because no current generation scholar can translate it.

"This diary of Todar Mal is actually on land records and settlement of Bhagalpur during the Mughal times. It was found lying in the record room of Bhagalpur and was transferred to us. It is in old Urdu and Persian and we have been unable to get it translated as we don't have any scholar of these languages with us," said archives director Vijay Kumar.

Vijay revealed that he had contacted a few scholars "to get the diary translated. They agreed to do so, but did not turn up. I showed it to a Muslim scholar in Patna City and he said that the diary was invaluable as it contained the names of localities of Bhagalpur over 400 years ago and information about landholdings".

read more here @ Telegraph India

Why are children’s authors eccentric?

Image resultAs new parents and anyone who’s ever gone rummaging through their old childhood libraries quickly realises, much of the best literature for kids is bonkers. It all makes divine sense when you’re four or five or 10, but return as an adult to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Cat in the Hat, and what’s striking is that so much sublime whimsy and exuberant creativity could have been conjured up by our fellow grownups.

Then again, there’s a theory that children’s authors – the best of them, at any rate – never really grow up. Lewis Carroll famously – notoriously from today’s perspective – preferred playing games with children to adult conversation. Kenneth Grahame amassed a vast collection of toys – in his 20s. And Dodie Smith, a fascinating writer best known today for her children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, used to say she never felt quite grown up. (At under five feet tall and with a high-pitched, perpetually girlish voice, she perhaps had more excuse than most.)

read more here @ BBC - Culture
  • Kay Thompson, Eloise
  • Theodor Geisel, aka Dr Seuss,
  • EB White, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web
  • Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
  • Margaret Wise Brown, The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon
  • Dodie Smith, The Hundred & One Dalmatians

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: The Sun King Conspiracy

Paris, 1661. Cardinal Mazarin, who has been the prime minister of the country for twenty years, has only a few weeks to live. Between Mazarin's closest confidant Colbert and Finance Minister Fouquet, a fierce battle ensues over his successor. With the help of the beautiful Louise de la Vallière, for whom the King is also aflame, Gabriel tries to reveal the secret that has been guarded for centuries. The fate of France and the Sun King depends on it.

What we have in "The Sun King Conspiracy" by Yves Jego and Denis Lépée, is a novel of mystery and intrigue set in the court of Louis XIV in 1661 (which was one of the original titles of the book - also published as The Sun King Rises).  There is the usual cast of characters: Moliere, Mazarin, Fouquet, the Mancini Sisters, Colbert, d'Artagnan, who cross the stage as the story unfolds.

A secret society will stop at nothing to obtain a secret document held by the dying Cardinal Jules Mazarin, and to this end they employ one Gabriel de Pontbriand, an actor in Moliere's troupe, to retrieve the document. But now, Gabriel has become a target as those who employed him now seek to recover this mysterious document. Gabriel finds himself under the protection of Nicholas Fouquet, little realising Fouquet is not what he appears. A meeting with his father, and the secret is partly revealed (hence another alternate title of this book - The Fifth Gospel).

It helped that I was somewhat familiar with this period in history, so the cast was not unknown. The pace was certainly maintained and my interest did not wain, despite the length of the novel. The fact that both authors are politicians may have enhanced the heightened elements of political courtly intrigue that feature so prominently at the French court at this time - a veritable hornets nest.  

Will there be a sequel ..... the reader was certainly left with questions unanswered so I hope so.

See review @ Euro Crime

Review: Books by Fabrice Bourland

Fabrice Bourland, a French writer,  has produced a series of entertaining and yet mystifying novels featuring Canadian detective Andrew Singleton and his American friend, James Trelawney.  The first in the series sees the duo confront, literally and figuratively, to the great figures of the literary pantheon of the end of the nineteenth century and between the two world wars.

The Baker Street Phantom (Singleton & Trelawney Case # 1)  by 
When they set up their detective agency in 1932, Andrew Singleton and James Trelawney could hardly have expected that their first client would be the widow of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, nor that she would commission them to investigate an apparent haunting at the house that had only recently been allocated the number 221 Baker Street.

The world of 19th century spiritualism collides with the modern world of the early 20th century. Here two men undertake a journey to investigate the appearance of a ghost at the abode of a famous fictional detective, and encounter more than they bargain for when murder, mysticism and make-believe take centre stage.

Having read the first installment of the pairing of Singleton and Trelawney - "The Baker Street Phantom" - I eagerly embarked on this second journey and was not left disappointed.

The Crystal Palace Devil (Singleton & Trelawney #3)
November 1936, and for nearly a week, Alice Gray's fiancé, Frederic Beckford, an entomologist at the British Museum, has disappeared without a trace. The only clue is a snippet about an accident in the middle of the night between a taxi and a wildcat, whose reading, it seems, greatly troubled Beckford. 

The Fire Serpent (Singleton & Trelawney #4)
While the streets of London unfurl all their finery for the coronation of George VI, Singleton and Trelawney find themselves in the footsteps of a mysteriously missing mummy.

Hollywood Monsters (Singleton & Trelawney #5)
December 1938 - the holidays are not going as planned, and our detectives come face to face, in the middle of the night, with a creature looking straight out of a scary movie.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Review: Weycombe

Weycombe by G.M. Malliet
Lost a star due to the excruciating slow build up to what was a rather surprising outcome. 

"what the villain always knows, ultimately, is not why, but why not?"

A tale of murder, lust, revenge, love, money and one woman's desire. Very cleverly written if not slightly over indulgent in the finer detail, this first person narrative is the story of a bored Stepford-Wives style housewife from a small gated English community who finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

Unfortunately the story is rather long in the telling before finally picking up the pace and delivering a twist in which all is revealed in the final pages.

Very clever reference to observations made by Agatha Christie's Miss Marple: "one does see so much evil in a village ..."- and very applicable in "Weycombe" by GM Malliet.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Horse-Riding Librarians: Bookmobiles of the Great Depression

The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.

When materials became too worn to circulate, librarians made them into new books. They pasted stories and pictures from the worn books into binders, turning them into new reading material. Recipes, also pasted into binders and circulated throughout the mountains, proved so popular that Kentuckians started scrapbooks of quilt patterns, too.

In 1936, packhorse librarians served 50,000 families, and, by 1937, 155 public schools. Children loved the program; many mountain schools didn’t have libraries, and since they were so far from public libraries, most students had never checked out a book. ”‘Bring me a book to read,’ is the cry of every child as he runs to meet the librarian with whom he has become acquainted,” wrote one Pack Horse Library supervisor. “Not a certain book, but any kind of book. The child has read none of them.” 

read more here @ The Smithsonian

The Queen's Hand

Review of Janna Bianchini's "The Queen’s Hand; Power and Authority in the Reign of Berenguela of Castile" by Elena Woodacre.
Berenguela of Castile (1180–1246) is a figure who is often overshadowed by her famous relatives, including her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine, her sister Blanche of Castile and her son Fernando III of Castile and León. However, there is no doubt that during her lifetime, she exercised considerable political power as a part of the ‘plural monarchy’ in both Castile and León in a range of roles.
The book moves chronologically through Berenguela’s life and political career and is divided into chapters which focus on particular periods of her life: as heiress, as queen consort of Léon, after the annulment of her marriage, during the regency for her brother Enrique, as queen of Castile with her son, Berenguela’s role in the Leonese succession crisis of 1230 and finally her years of co-rule in both Castile and León with her son, Fernando III.

read complete review here @ Reviews in History

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Review: Hook's Tale

I love it when the villain gets to tell their side of the story .... and in this instance, it is the tale of Captain James Cook - of Captain Hook as he became known, as re-imagined by John Leonard Pielmeier.

Yes, this is the story one that famous piratical character that has terrified children worldwide - Captain Hook! Here, the story is told through the eyes of young James Cook, who following misfortune, finds himself pressed into service with the Royal Navy. A treasure maps leads the mutinous crew to Neverland where ".. the rules - the laws of astronomy and geography and physics - even Time - all broken.."

Suffered to perish for abandoning his post and allowing the enemy (pirates) to attack, young James is rescued by none other than one Peter Pan. From this point on, James meets the characters of the traditional story - the crocodile, Tiger-Lily, Tinkerbell, the Darling family. The story behind James' loss of this hand, his revenge, and the tales of the lost boys is revealed.

It is a charming story of Pan's nemesis Captain Hook as told by Hook himself, or rather James Cook. It is quite captivating in its narration, keeping the story peppered with elements of JM Barrie's original work.

read reviews here:
Simon & Schuster: A rollicking debut novel from award-winning playwright and screenwriter John Pielmeier reimagines the childhood of the much maligned Captain Hook: his quest for buried treasure, his friendship with Peter Pan, and the story behind the swashbuckling world of Neverland.

Kirkus Review: The author's thorough, affectionate knowledge of both the original book and the historical period grounds this fantasy in rich detail.

Review: Prague Nights

" ... most things in life are learned too late, and wisdom, if it comes at all, comes tardily ...."

This sums up the situation of Christian Stern, a young illegitimate son of the Prince-Bishop of Regensburg, who on his first day in Prague, stumbles upon the corpse of the mistress of Emperor Rudolf II. And so begins a bizarre series of events as Christian is arrested, accused, released, favoured, engaged, and ultimately played.

Benjamin Black's Prague Nights is narrated in the first person by Christian, and we know from comments that he is reflecting upon past events and how they have led to his current predicament - which from the overall tone, is not happily ever-after.

Christian is an innocent at the court of Rudolf II, and whilst gaining the Emperor's favour, he is immediately at odds with the two most powerful men in the Kingdom - the Royal Chamberlain, Philipp Lang, and the Lord Steward, Felix Werzel. Thrown into this hotbed of vice, conspiracies, intrigues, plots (religious, political, fraternal) and magic, Christian stumbles about attempting (if that is the right word) to solve a murder - a murder no-one is in any great hurry to solve. 

"... everyone did everything ... in so much stealth and secrecy that they seemed to live their lives engaged in a vast, compulsory and endless conspiracy ..."

His rise at court is swift - and the phrase the further the rise, the longer the fall is most apt. One wonders how one so new to the city and so apparently naive could have gained so much so quickly ..... is he being played by the parties concerned, and if so by whom; is he being misdirected from his mission by the lusty former imperial mistress, and if so, why .... "is there anyone who is not owned by someone .." Christian laments.

It is a captivating story that keeps the reader hooked .... Christian is definitely not a player in any sense of the word, but one who is being played ..... the "wolf on a string" .... though at times one wonders who is actually pulling the strings as there are so many protagonists to chose from! In fact Christian himself should have the last word .... "there are matters afoot at court too densely tangled for me to penetrate them.."

Read reviews here:
@ Kirkus Review: "Patient readers in no hurry will savor Black’s dark, vivid mural of Prague at the turn of the 16th century."
@ There's Always Time For Crime: "I’d say there were winks as well as nods to his devoted readers, but that the story is blighted by cliché piled upon ossuary."
@ The New York Times Book Review: "The ornate style of Christian’s narrative suits both this rich historical period and the courtly language of Prague, this “city of masks and make-believe.”

Review: The Last Viking Trilogy

"... we're too like to leave our bones to English crows ..."

At nearly 700 pages, The Last Viking trilogy by Poul Anderson may be a little long for one reading for some - in this I would suggest taking on each volume individually. Broken down, the trilogy consists of: The Golden Horn (c. 1028 - c.1040), The Road of the Sea Horse (c.1046 - c.1060), and The Sign of the Raven (c.1060 - c.1066).

This is one of those times when fact far outstrips fiction - the larger than life Harald Hardrada looms front and centre - and its not hard to see why. This man lived a life that was both harsh, bloodthirsty, yet fantastical. His adventures are the stuff of legends ... and yet, he is, or was, real; his adventures did take place.

What Poul Anderson has done is encapsulated the essence of Harald and make him more accessible. Anderson's trilogy is set out very similar to the Norse sagas, and each chapter begins with a preposition... "of", "when" and "how". The chapters are short with not clear timeline (again, very similar to the Sagas), yet the story is easy to read. A little knowledge or interest is sufficient as the foreward of each book provides enough historical information, that each of the following books could be read as stoned-alone.

As I mentioned, Harald is the hero and a worthy one - his larger than life adventures need no embellishment. Anderson's story builds up the the climax of the final battle, before giving a nice historical wrap up of events as they occurred afterwards.

Further reading:
King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla
Read Online:

Review: Blackstone

I've read a couple of novels set in the time of Queen Victoria of England, but this one is set during her infancy, when she was a young princess and heir to the throne rather than firmly seated upon it.

Blackstone by Richard Falkirk (aka Derek Lambert), is set in a time when the "Peelers" under Sir Robert Peel (metropolitan police force) was in the ascendancy and the Bow Street Runners (who were not restricted to one city, and were at times hired to solve crime - and thus susceptible to corruption), were on their last legs. Edmund Blackstone, one of the Bow Street Runners, who by his own admissions "is a bit of a crook" (and thus earns our empathy immediately), is assigned as a bodyguard to the young princess when a kidnapping plot is revealed. 

Blackstone enters the royal household, which in itself is den of plots and conspiracies, before journeying back into the underbelly of London. Following an attempt on Blackstone, he is removed from his position and the young princess faces much danger. Along the way we constantly encounter the mysterious Henry Challoner who is either "a bit of a tool" (according to my own indecipherable handwriting) or is but a tool - I think both may be apt.

The story was well written and the action rolls along, building to the inevitable climax, where the end is revealed ..... to an extent.

Obviously since first reading this I now realise that this was just the one in a series of five. I do hope the other four (Blackstone on Broadway, Blackstone Underground, Blackstone's Fancy, and Beau Blackstone) will also be republished quite soon as I think this will be a series that will be successful.

(Side note: I like Goodreads member David's suggestion of a series starring Russel Crowe - or possibly Sean Bean or even Iain Glen)