Sunday, February 25, 2018

Showdown in the Levant by Nicholas Morton

Oxford Professor and Author Christopher Tyerman reviews ‘The Field of Blood’ by Nicholas Morton

Nine hundred years ago, on June 28, 1119, near the northwestern Syrian town of Sarmada, an army led by European settlers was annihilated by a superior force of Turks led by Ilghazi, ruler of Aleppo. The scale of the massacre gave the battle its name in Frankish memory; the ager sanguinis, the Field of Blood.

Yet according to Nicholas Morton’s book “The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East,” the clash may claim a double significance, at least in historical memory.

See also review @ The National

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review - The King of Fools by Frederic Dard

The King of Fools (Pushkin Vertigo)
".. what was better? to be a murderer or a gullible fool?.."

A mix-up of of cars and an encounter with an Englishwoman, Marjorie, sends Jean-Marie Valaise's mundane world into a tail-spin. After a brief liaison, she returns home - he writes to her, he goes to her - is she there or not? A jealous husband, a dead body, an arrest.   "... every mystery is an illusion..."  Can Jean-Marie find his way out of the nightmare that follows.

Yet another outstanding tale from Dard.

Review - Down For The Count by Martin Holmen

Down for the Count (Harry Kvist, #2)
Despite a lack of geographical knowledge, this is a thriller of some consequence.

Set in 1930s Stockholm, an excon returns home to discover an old woman murdered and her son not only blamed but institutionalised. None of which makes any sense to Harry Kvist.

So Harry, in need of legitimate employment, goes to work for the local undertaker all the while trying to solve the murder, open a cigar shop, and await the impending release of his lover from prison.

The story ebbs and flows - shadow-boxing - ducking and weaving as the boxer does, as Harry does. And this old boxer doesn't know the meaning of going down with the count.

The story reveals itself at the end - you certainly never guess where its leading you - this is storytelling par excellence.

Whilst this is the second in a series, you can certainly read it as a stand-alone.

Also in the series:

Review - The King's Company by Jessamy Taylor

King's Company
Written in the style of a "boys' own adventure", this tale in set in the years of the Anarchy - the wars fought between King Stephen and Empress Maud for the ultimate prize - the English Crown.

Into this chaos, we find young William d'Amory - a lad weened on tales of knights and wars, who one day hope to be one of the greatest knights in England. But he has a long way to go. Into his sheltered world rides Philip de Colleville, on a mission of his own. Philip is welcomed by William's family - but all to soon this private idyll is disrupted as William is unwittingly drawn into Philip's secret.

This book hits its target audience (young adults) well and is not over complicated by a dense plot line. Its does take a little while to pick up but moves along nicely when it does. Is there the barest hint of more adventures to come ....

Review - Prague Noir by Pavel Mandys

Prague Noir
" ... dark, provocative, well-crafted tales from the disenfranchised .."

Sums it up succinctly. In an age when the professional private detective did not come into existence until the 1990s, where there was no organised crime, and the secret police ruled with terror and fear, comes a diverse range of tales from all aspects of Czech history.

It is said that "... the best noirs end tragically or at least ambiguously .." and many of these tales fit that mold.

Not once was my attention diverted from the stories at hand, and I was captivated by the style of writing - there was no sense of repetition in the story telling - each was unique.

A great addition to a growing collection of international noir.

see my reviews for:

Review - She Be Damned by MJ Tjia

She Be Damned (The Heloise Chancey Mysteries)
London 1863 - prostitutes are being murdered and disemboweled.

From humble beginnings to the comfortable life of a courtesan, Heloise Chancy dabbles in the world of private investigation. And when she is called upon to step back into her old world to investigate a series of brutal murders and the disappearance of a missing girl, Heloise must use her charm and wit to solve the mystery.

The story rattles along briskly from its confronting opening scenes to its climatic conclusion as the reader is drawn into Heloise's world. No sooner is one part of the mystery is solved than yet one more remains unresolved.

The seething underbelly of Victorian London comes alive as Heloise walks the dimly lit streets and alleyways to seek answers, often putting herself in harms way, but managing to achieve more than past investigations, despite the obvious chauvinistic attitudes of those seeking her assistance - "What on earth do you think a little dollymop like her can achieve?"

The story is peppered with intriguing characters from the mysterious maidservant Amah Li Leen, brothel keeper Madame Silvestre, the mysterious Mr Priestly, and local street urchin.  The novel gives a strange foreboding of what was yet to come for the street-walkers of Victorian London.

It will be interesting to read the follow up to see how the characters are further developed and in what capacity Heloise will next be employed to investigate.

read more here

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review: Anne Bonney by Phillip Thomas Tucker

Anne Bonny the Infamous Female Pirate
Phillip Thomas Tucker's "Anne Bonny the Infamous Female Pirate" is one of the more even-handed portrayals of Anne - her life, her times, her piratical activities, her end - that I have read in a long time.

We are given a real sense of the times despite a lack of documentation - afterall, many of those involved in piracy operated under aliases and in secrecy, and did not leave a written account, and very few survived to tell their tales. Even Anne did not leave an account of her life, preferring to retire into obscurity.

Anne was first portrayed "as a psychological female maniac cursed with a homicidal temper and unstoppable rage .." in Captain Johnson's book on pirates published a few years after she was captured and imprisoned (c.1724).

But what led Anne to a life of piracy is the question. From the scandal of her parent's relationship and her early childhood in Ireland, to her arrival in Charles Town where her father sought a new life (c.1708), Anne's refusal to bend and submit, saw her embark on an ill-fated marriage to Jim Bonny. When life Charles Town became too stifling, the couple fled to the Caribbean (c.1718) where a life of piracy - for Jim at least - seemed the easiest way to make a living.

It would be her meeting of Calico Jack Rackman (1719) that would see Anne embark on her "career" as a pirate - all for her love of a man. In the end, it would be the courageous actions of two women, who led the final hopeless last stand before their capture (1720).

What is implied from Anne's trial, which drew much publicity, was that both she and Mary Read "... had been sentenced to death to pay for the crimes and sins of all those successful pirates who had come before her ...". She was 22.

As a glimpse into the world of piracy that is far from either whimsical or fantastical, then this conveys the harsh realities of piracy which saw over 400 pirates hanged in a ten year period. Tucker's aim was " .. to present a corrective view ..." of Anne's story, which I felt he achieved.

read more:
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  • A General History of the Pyrates by Daniel Dafoe
  • A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Charles Johnson
  • Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates Across the Ages by Jo Stanley
  • The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read by Tamara J. Eastman and Constance Bond
  • Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920 by Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling
  • The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard
  • Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly
and for something a little more tongue in cheek, one of my all time favourites - "The Pyrates" by George MacDonald Fraser.

Prince Felix Yusupov - The Man Who Killed Rasputin

So, just recently I cam across this new title: Prince Felix Yusupov: The Man Who Murdered Rasputin by Christopher Dobson

This powerful biography tells the compelling story of Prince Felix Yusupov — the man who murdered Rasputin.
The murder of the Tsarina’s ‘Mad Monk’ sent shock waves through pre-revolutionary Russia. Many foretold it would mean the end of the monarchy — and they might have been right. 
Prince Felix Yusupov: The Man Who Murdered Rasputin by [Dobson, Christopher]But the murderers and their leader, the notorious Prince Yusupov, saw Rasputin’s hold over Nicholas II and his wife as an evil influence that was destroying Russia, whose armies were being slaughtered in the First World War.
Yusupov was one of the richest men in Russia. He was also handsome, amusing and vain, boasting of the smallest waist of any man in Europe. 
Though married to the Tsar’s niece, Irina, he was homosexual and often paraded in women’s clothes — as such he even excited the attention of King Edward VII at the Théâtre des Capucines.
During the revolution he was rescued at the eleventh hour with other members of the Imperial Family and went to Paris where he settled. His flamboyant lifestyle, his business adventures, court cases and struggles to raise money on the Yusupov jewels, as well as his friendships with the great of the time, including the Windsors, make exciting reading.
Based on personal interviews and meticulous research, this enthralling biography captures the flavour of a bizarre, eventful and extraordinary life.

read more about Prince Felix Yusupov:
The History Reader
Penguin Books
The Daily Telegraph

Review - Killing Rasputin by Magarita Nelipa

KILLING RASPUTIN: The Murder That Ended The Russian Empire
KILLING RASPUTIN: The Murder That Ended The Russian Empire by Margarita Nelipa - This work is based upon the report of Vladimir Rudnev, investigator into Rasputin's influence over the Tsar (28.03.1919), revised and updated again since its publication in 2010.

Its divided into three parts: (1) biographic information about Rasputin and his life; (2) the cold case review of the murder; and (3) connecting the murder with the downfall of the Russian Empire.

"It has happened! .... Because of an empty and shortsighted obstinacy of one women - the final catastrophe happened."

This is a well researched, heavily detailed tome with a huge cast of characters (imperial, political, noble). Nelipa's use of records obtained from Russian sources gives insights into how this man was viewed by the Russian royal family and the Russian nobility. She explores the many differing sources to provide explanations behind the mythology of both the man and the murder.

It would probably have made for easier reading had I had the actual book in my hand so that I could have easily references those involved (I was reading an online copy). Personally, I preferred part 2 - the cold case analysis.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review - The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
The first thing that struck me was the very clever writing and story telling. Typically, when you are telling a story its either first or third person narrative, and usually the story focuses on one character or from that character's point of view. In this instance, we not only have the first person narrative of one character, we have the additional narratives of multiple characters - yet all are, at various time, one and the same! And that is where this book stands out in both its writing and in the telling of the story.

Narrator Aiden Bishop awakens to find himself in the body of one of the guests at a private party. Sounds a bit like an episode of "Quantum Leap" - however, in this story, the scene is played out over and over until the mystery of the death of Evelyn Hardcastle is solved (a bit like "Groundhog Day" where a wrong must be put right for the universe to get back to normal), with Aiden waking each day in the body of yet another party guest, edging ever closer to the day when he must reveal what he knows or is condemned to repeat it all again in an eternal time loop.

It is through Aiden's eyes, when inhabiting the body of his hosts, that the story and clues to this mystery (a murder that is not a murder) are eventually put before us as each "host" sees the scenes being played out differently. But its not that simple afterall, "... how lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home ...". And Aiden is certainly led on a merry chase by allies and foes alike, while unseen hands manipulate the guests like a proverbial puppeteer but to what end and purpose.

What was intriguing is that we never really get a sense of time (ie: when is this story set), or how long the protagonists have dwelt in this time loop. What we do know is that an answer will release them, and as the tale progresses, " ... it is no longer simply about finding the right answer, its about holding onto it long enough to deliver it ...".

It may take a chapter or two to get in the swing of things, but persevere - the answers to this story are not as obvious as you may think, and just when you think all is resolved, you realise you have 100 or so more pages to go!

Agatha Christie by Laura Thompson

It has been one hundred years since Agatha Christie wrote her first novel and created the formidable Hercule Poirot. A brilliant and award winning biographer, Laura Thompson now turns her sharp eye to Agatha Christie. Arguably the greatest crime writer in the world, Christie's books still sell over four million copies each year—more than thirty years after her death—and it shows no signs of slowing.

But who was the woman behind these mystifying, yet eternally pleasing, puzzlers? Thompson reveals the Edwardian world in which Christie grew up, explores her relationships, including those with her two husbands and daughter, and investigates the many mysteries still surrounding Christie's life, most notably, her eleven-day disappearance in 1926.

Agatha Christie is as mysterious as the stories she penned, and writing about her is a detection job in itself. With unprecedented access to all of Christie's letters, papers, and notebooks, as well as fresh and insightful interviews with her grandson, daughter, son-in-law and their living relations, Thompson is able to unravel not only the detailed workings of Christie's detective fiction, but the truth behind this mysterious woman.

Gerald of Wales - A New Perspective

Gerald of Wales is known by many names - Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerallt Gymro, Gerald de Barri - and now his importance has been brought to life in the first multi-authored book on one of the world’s most famous medieval writers.

The essays in this impressive volume reassess Gerald of Wales’s importance as a writer and critic, bringing together a variety of voices and approaches, and shedding a rare light on his lesser-studied works.

Of particular interest to university students and scholars of Medieval Latin and British history, this book draws Gerald of Wales from the medieval era into the 21st Century.

The Sex Toy Shops That Switched On a Feminist Revolution

The New York Times reviews of:

BUZZ - The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy  by Hallie Lieberman 
VIBRATOR NATION - How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure  by Lynn Comella 

The authors of “Vibrator Nation” and “Buzz” each put in time observing how sex toys are sold, so have firsthand insight into the industry. Whose take will hold more appeal depends on the reader’s interests,

In “Buzz,” Hallie Lieberman offers a broader view, taking us back some 30,000 years, when our ancestors carved penises out of siltstone; moving on to the ancient Greeks’ creative use of olive oil; the buzzy medical devices of the 19th century (disappointingly, doctors’ notorious in-office use of vibrators as treatment for female “hysteria” is urban legend); and the impact of early-20th-century obscenity laws — incredibly, sex toys remain illegal in Alabama — before digging deeply into more contemporary influences.

Vibrator Nation” focuses more narrowly on women-owned vendors, wrestling with how their activist mission bumped up against the demands and constraints of the marketplace. Those early entrepreneurs, Comella writes, believed nothing less than that “women who had orgasms could change the world.” As with other utopian feminist visions, however, this one quickly splintered. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Donner Party, and gruesome details, re-examined in book

Wild West historian Michael Wallis goes into a gruesome piece of that territory’s history with “The Best Land Under Heaven,” subtitled “The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny.”

More than 80 settlers were in the group when the snow blocked travel. More than 30 died in the Sierras before four rescue operations could get to them.
“What made the Donner Party so distinctive was that this group of people had originally set out to civilize what they saw as a barbaric land. The acts of survival cannibalism refigured their story with a cruel twist — the civilizers themselves became savages.”

Cracking the Egyptian Code

Thomas Young (1773-1829) — physicist, physiologist, physician and polyglot, among several other things — became hooked on the scripts and languages of ancient Egypt in 1814, the year he began to decipher the Rosetta Stone. He continued to study the hieroglyphic and demotic scripts with variable intensity for the rest of his life, literally until his dying day. 

From 1814 until the publication of his important Encyclopaedia Britannica article (‘Egypt’ in 1819), Young had had the field of hieroglyphic decipherment largely to himself. Champollion, though actively interested in the Rosetta Stone from 1808, did not tackle its decipherment in earnest until 1821. He quickly overtook Young and became the founder of Egyptology as a science.

Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion by Andrew Robinson is the first biography of Champollion in English, this book shows how he cracked the code of hieroglyphics. It brings to life the rivalry between Champollion and the English scientist Thomas Young, who claimed credit for launching the decipherment.

read more here 

Why You Should Surround Yourself With More Books Than You'll Ever Have Time to Read

Jessica Stillman from tells us why: "an overstuffed bookcase (or e-reader) says good things about your mind."

But life is busy and intentions are one thing, actions another. Soon you find your shelves (or e-reader) overflowing with titles you intend to read one day, or books you flipped through once but then abandoned. Is this a disaster for your project to become a smarter, wiser person?

If you never actually get around to reading any books, then yes. You might want to read up on tricks to squeeze more reading into your hectic life and why it pays to commit a few hours every week to learning. But if it's simply that your book reading in no way keeps pace with your book buying, I have good news for you (and for me, I definitely fall into this category): your overstuffed library isn't a sign of failure or ignorance, it's a badge of honor.

read more here @ Inc com

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Review: Finding the Dragon Lady by Monique Demery

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame NhuFinding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery is an interesting story of the First Lady of Vietnam, Tran Le Xuan or Madame Nhu.

This is a fascinating story of political and personal survival in Vietnam during both the French and American occupations. Madam Nhu's story is a times, more fiction than fact - she is often portrayed as the iconic super-villainess of her time (the oriental Lucrezia Borgia or Lady Macbeth), at the heart of events but not necessarily to blame for them.

Author Monique Demery spent ten years searching for the elusive Madame Nhu, who drip-fed the story of of life to her, always with the promise of revealing more.

A women at the centre of one of the world's most notorious political crisis, she remained ever an enigma, despite the author's access to Madam Nhu is her latter years. Even in her own time, this woman was both fascinating, polarising, reckless, self-aggrandising, but never boring. Her story is at times both confusing and contradictory, and although Demery tries for redemption, we never really get to know the real woman.

read more here:
@ Time

John Creasey - King of Crime

The King Of The Crime Writers: The Biography of John CreaseyThe King Of The Crime Writers: The Biography of John Creasey by Nigel Cawthorne

John Creasy was not quite as famous as Agatha Christie yet his output dwarfed hers. Aged 21yo when his first book was published (though it was the tenth he had written), Creasy wrote over 600 books and numerous television series, and was published under 28 pseudonyms.

His life is told in a series of flashbacks, anecdotes and personal memoirs.

A Kind of Prisoner (Department Z Series)
A Kind of Prisoner by John Creasey

John Creasey was a prolific writer of crime and mystery novels, many of which have made it to our TV screens.

In this outing, we enter the world of British espionage, more specifically Department Z, the elite detective agency. The plot is a simple one - Department Z is being sabotaged with a view to their final destruction. Under siege from enemies both within and without, and with one of their own "a kind of prisoner", can Department Z root out the source of the impending doom before it is too late.

This is my kind of book - I love the crime / mystery / thriller style from the 1930s to the 1970s, so for me, this was an enjoyable read. Creasey himself was rather an enigma, and I suggest tracking down The King Of The Crime Writers: The Biography of John Creasey by Nigel Cawthorne to get an idea of the man and his literary output.

Read more here:

Review: Constantine the Great by John Firth

Constantine the Great
This is not your standard biography of Constantine the Great. It is in fact the story of the reigns of four men of different characters and religious persuasions at the height of the religious persecutions and manias in the Roman world in the 4th Century.

For those with an interest into how why the world was stale and how Christianity was adopted by Constantine and became the "state" religion, then this is for you. It is an academic religious history that is wholly readable for both amateur and scholar alike. The reigns of the Roman Emperors at the height of the drama are put into context with the subject matter at hand - which those looking for a straight up biography of Constantine may fine a little dry.

What I found fascinating was that Firth also debunks some of the mythology surrounding Constantine, including the famous "donation", and we discover " ... a man easily swayed by a strong-minded woman ...." - his wife Fausta, his mother Helena, and half-sister Constantia. And here I was hooked! My fascination with historical women kicked into overdrive - I especially love this description of the women: ".... these great ladies move in shadowy outline across the stage; we can scarcely distinguish their features or form, but we think we can see their handiwork, most unmistakably in the appalling tragedies which we now have to narrate ..." (referring to the death of Crispus and Fausta c326AD). One wonders how Constantine ever managed to be called "the Great".

Christianity began its life as an heretical school of thought and belief. So just how, out of all this schism and strife, did Christianity manage to triumph. Firth gives us a hint with his statement that Christianity triumphed because " ... the world had grown stale ..."

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Review - Crusade & Jihad by William Polk

Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War Between the Muslim World and the Global North (The Henry L. Stimson Lectures Series)
Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War Between the Muslim World and the Global North by William R. Polk is strictly academic in both tone and content - so set aside quite some time to absorb the information to hand and be prepared to be in for the long haul.

Polk's book begins, quite naturally, with the advent of Islam, it development, its spread and its metamorphosis into its current, sometimes militaristic, form we see today. As Islam came into contact and conflict with the imperialistic powers of the West, Polk shows how this heavily impacted Muslim culture and society, and how hostility fermented over the ages. Polk doesn't confined himself to just the European field, but takes on a global view.

"A sobering, scrupulous, and frank account of imperialism, colonialism, insurgency, and terrorism ..."

Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh

The blurb for Steve Cavanagh's "Thirteen" came up in my feed today and sounded interesting.

The book blurb:

'To your knowledge, is there anything that would preclude you from serving on this jury?'

Murder wasn't the hard part. It was just the start of the game.
Joshua Kane has been preparing for this moment his whole life. He's done it before. But this is the big one.
This is the murder trial of the century. And Kane has killed to get the best seat in the house.
But there's someone on his tail. Someone who suspects that the killer isn't the man on trial.
Kane knows time is running out - he just needs to get to the conviction without being discovered.
For the only way to guarantee a guilty verdict is to get a seat on the jury.
So, I read a little excerpt of the book online - and what little I read had me hooked! The narrative is sharp and unencumbered; the characters well drawn; the story line and plot engaging.Though number four in Cavanagh's "Eddie Flynn" series, this, I feel, can be read as a stand alone.  

The premise is simple: Hollywood bad boy on trial for murder, whilst, unbeknownst to all, a murdered sits among the members of the jury - to what intent...

Check out Steve's website HERE.