Monday, April 30, 2018

Review: The Lost Tudor Princess by Alison Weir

The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas
Why do I keep giving Weir chance after chance. Yet another 500 plus pages of history lessons replacing much lacking fact. Another case of quantity over quality.

Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, mother of Darnley and mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots - yes, a lost Tudor princess; yes, a woman whose life deserves the spotlight; yes, another case where fact is more interesting than fiction. A woman whose life reveals to us very little - and yet - 500 plus pages!

I have said this over and over - I would rather 100 pages of what is known rather than 500 pages of boring, rehashed history, personal opinion, and filling in the gaps with dates and documents. As I stated in my review of Weir's "Elizabeth of York" - "I am trying very hard to fathom the amount of actual information there is on Elizabeth that was worthy of 600 odd pages - quite frankly it required barely a quarter in my opinion. The larger the book ... overcompensating for a distinct lack of anything else.". The same can be said, I am sorry to say, of this tome on Margaret Douglas.

Review: Gunpowder Girls by Tanya Anderson

Gunpowder Girls: The True Stories of Three Civil War Tragedies
The US Civil War is not my forte - so apart from a couple of books, this, for me was a good and unique introduction into both Union & Confederate women.

Author Tanya Anderson was looking to focus on the role of women in the Civil War but was looking for a point of difference - In "Gunpowder Girls" she has achieved that in exploring briefly the role of women and young girls working in the arsenals - making the gun cartridges. But again, the author further narrows her purview to focus on three separate tragedies, all within a two years time frame, all of which had heavy losses of life, mainly women and young girls.

Covering three tragedies - at the Allegheny Arsenal, the Confederate States Laboratory and the Washington Arsenal, Anderson gives us a glimpse into the dangerous working conditions of these often poor, single immigrant women, and how a freak accident or ill-thought out action can have tragic consequences.

The clincher for me was that despite the investigations that followed, and other accidents (both before and after), nothing was really done to improve the working conditions and protect this vulnerable group. Even more alarming was that the families of these women received no form of compensation, except that which was often raised by their own communities or work colleagues.

This was well written and researched, with a good selection of location maps and images, and descriptions to give life to the times and working conditions of those who working in the arsenals.

Review: The Plantagents by Dan Jones

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England
Accessible, readable, enthusiastic, factually orientated whilst avoiding the cliched myths.

Eight generations of Plantagenets are covered off from 1120 - beginning with the loss of Henry I's heir in the "white ship" disaster - to 1399, finishing up with the death of Richard II.

A firm base camp from which to embark on a reading journey.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Remembering Étienne Gilson

There are certain intellectual figures, much celebrated in their time, whose subsequent disappearance from collective memory gives a sense of our changing society.

This is the case for Étienne Gilson (1884-1978), an eminent philosopher and historian of the Middle Ages, elected to the Collège de France in 1932 and to the Académie française in 1947. Today he is all but forgotten in French cultural history, along with much collective memory of Catholic history.

In his remarkable biography, Florian Michel, lecturer at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, discusses some of the political intricacies in Gilson’s thinking.

Every Library Has a Story to Tell

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders
Libraries, writes Stuart Kells, a historian of the book trade, are “human places … full of stories.” Kells’s new book, The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, offers a history that begins before the written word and follows the development of book collections through the digital age. At times, he takes a lofty view. “What exactly are libraries for?” he asks, after touching on the Library of Alexandria, medieval monasteries, erotic collections, the Vatican’s closed stacks, private collections, and university libraries, along with writers’ libraries, library fauna, and other curiosities. He takes a few stabs the answer. “Libraries are an attempt to impose order in a world of chaos,” he writes. “They are places of redemption.”

Historical-romance novelist stickler for details, authenticity

Regan WalkerWhen Regan Walker decided to try her hand as a novelist, she set her sights on historical romance. Her decision paid off as not only does she have a passion for writing historical romance, but her talent has been recognized with book awards.

“I do hundreds of hours of research,” Walker said. “Some people might not like that part of it, but for me, I enjoy it.” She is quick to point out that discipline comes into play when she is researching.

“I use discipline to make sure I don’t go down every rabbit trail that was available, or I’d never get to writing the book,” she said. “So, there are times when I’m bent on an interesting thing, and I have to cut it off."

Walker writes in specific time periods including the Medieval 11th century in England and Scotland (post-Norman Conquest), the late 18th century in the Georgian era, and early 19th century during the Regency when Prince George ruled England in place of his father.

See website - Regan Walker

Medieval Bodies: Life, death and art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell

From Church Times:
This is an ambitiously interdisciplinary study, combining medicine, history of art, and with a seasoning of theology. It is extravagantly illustrated in colour. The result is a readable and often successful attempt to impose an orderly framework on this account of a vast range of matters.

The book begins with a long general chapter on medieval bodies, sketching the realities of medieval life in terms which expect no prior knowledge, and touching rather lightly on religion, philosophy, and medical science. The sources of medical help for the sick are covered, from the academic study emerging in the new universities, to a variety of practical and charlatan assistance.

The book works its way, chapter by chapter, from the head to the senses, and to skin, bone, heart, blood, hands, stomach, genitals, and feet, with a con­cluding chapter on “future bodies”.

Review: The Man On The Middle Floor by Elizabeth S Moore

The Man on the Middle Floor
This is one of those books that will not appeal to everyone's reading tastes, and may be a little polarising. Having said that, I am glad I pursued it to it's conclusion.

In a three-flat building live three different people: an ex-cop, an young man, a doctor - all living their own lives, all with their own secrets and struggles, barely intersecting. That is until the neatly ordered world of Asperger sufferer Nick, comes crashing down around him by the intrusion of a random act. Only then does the story take off, as long hidden secrets bubble to the surface, and drive the story along.

This isn't a standard crime mystery but it is thought provoking, as our main narrator, Nick, is not your usual character. This story is more character driven then plot driven - we know what has happened but equally we want to know what - in the past - could have lead to these events. It is a compelling, unsettling read, and yet you can't help but find yourself drawn to Nick's vulnerability. I appreciate that the story didn't just stop with the crime being discovered - that there was follow up, resolution if you will.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The last Muslim King in Spain

9781781256862.jpgBased on original research, and drawing attention to the connections between the medieval Moorish king Boabdil, and current social and political concerns in Europe today, Elizabeth Drayson presents the first full account in any language of the Moorish sultan of Granada, and head of the Nasrid dynasty - The Moor’s Last Stand: The life of Boabdil, Muslim King of Granada.

The academic’s research has also uncovered a potential mystery regarding the final resting place of the last Muslim king in Spain. Long thought to have died in Algeria in 1494, experts are now hoping to exhume and DNA test what they believe to be the remains of the sultan beneath a derelict mausoleum in Fez, Morocco.

According to her, Boabdil’s heroism, long repudiated by most historical commentators, is evident in his ability to recognise the futility of further resistance, and the choice he made in rejecting the further suffering, starvation and slaughter of his people. Instead, he bargained for the best terms of surrender possible, rejecting martyrdom and willingly sacrificing his reputation for the greater good.

read more here at University of Cambridge

Monday, April 2, 2018

HNN: Chris Wickham’s “Medieval Europe”

Daniel Lazare reviews Chris Wickham's Medieval Europe for History News Network:

Medieval EuropeHow times change. Thirty years ago, Chris Wickham was a rising young medieval historian calling for “a new Marxist theory of the complexities of socio-economic change” in the pages of the New Left Review. Now, judging from his latest work, Medieval Europe, he has given up not only on Marxism, but on any theory or mode of analysis whatsoever.
 All suffer, he believes, from the sin of teleology, the notion that history is imbued with a logic, goal, or purpose. Historians who study the Middle Ages because they see in them the seeds of modernity are thus guilty of viewing the past through the lens of the present rather than accepting it on its own terms.
Contrary to Wickham, history is not just one damned thing after another, but a science packed with meaning no less than events.

Review: The Birdman's Wife by Melissa Ashley

The Birdman's Wife
In just 12 years of marriage, Elizabeth Gould travelled the globe, painted hundreds of birds and raised six children. All this in the 1800's! She died in childbirth (1841 aged 37yo) and her work was published under her husband's name in John Gould's "Birds of Australia."

In the "Birdman's Wife", Melissa Ashley introduces us to Elizabeth Gould - wife, mother, artist, footnote. We meet Elizabeth in 1828, when she first encounters John Gould at the Zoological Society in London. Elizabeth spent some ten years collaborating with John, including some two years in Australia (1838), classifying and illustrating native birdlife.

Image result for gould's birds of australiaHowever, this was not as glamorous as it sounds - with the public's fascination with the exotic, many artists embarked on journeys to parts known and unknown, all in the name of science. And it was no easy task to represent nature in it's own environment - these creatures were often caught, killed, stuffed and posed so that they could be diligently documented.

Ashley thoroughly immersed herself in her research (which formed the basis of her PhD), and this shows in the meticulous details, which at times makes for rather laborious reading.

Apart from mentions in various books on illustrators and artists, the only definitive biography on Elizabeth was "The Story of Elizabeth Gould" published by Alec Chisholm in 1944. Very little was known about her until 1938 when a collection of her letters written from Australia was discovered. These letters were the basis for Chisholm's book, and now Ashley's fictionalised account. Elizabeth's letters are housed in the Mitchell Library (part of the State Library of New South Wales, Australia), and reveal Elizabeth to be a charming, cultured, and musically and artistically talented woman whose contributions were overshadowed by the fame of her husband, John Gould. 

further reading:
@ The Guardian - Pecking Order: How John Gould Dined Out On The Birds Of Australia
@ University of Kansas - Elizabeth Gould
@ Australian Museum - Elizabeth Gould
@ Compulsive Reader - Review of The Birdman's Wife
@ Glasgow University Library - Birds of Australia
@ Smithsonian Libraries - Elizabeth Gould

Review: The Brewer of Preston by Andrea Camilleri

The Brewer of Preston
This was an added extra when I picked up a few of Camilleri's "Inspector Montalbano" books from the local library.

The setting Vigata in the 1870s, and the proposed production of a play - the Brewer of Preston - at the local theatre by the Prefect of Vigata - an event which the townsfolk intend will never happen. 

What was unexpected was how this writing style differs so much from the "Inspector Montalbano" novels. The chapters, which introduce us to an eclectic and eccentric cast of characters, are presented in no particular order - in fact we are told to read them in whatever order we like! As we slowly read, we pick up little hints as to how each scene and the characters will eventually relate, and the circumstances that bring them all together begins to unfold.

" ... how many things in Sicily happened by mistake ..."

The writing is at times sardonic, comedic, tragic, farcical, absurd. Loaded with clever, and often satirical, writing, Camilleri reveals tempestuous political scheming and double crossing, murder, infidelity, police corruption, anarchy, organised crime - and above, the Sicilian style of justice.

One is left wondering ... is the opera being acted out on the stage or in the real lives of the novel's characters...

Review: The Woman on the Orient Express by Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The Woman on the Orient Express
Different to what I was expecting - reviews are mixed. 

Three stories intertwine on a journey on the Orient Express with Agatha Christie front and centre. Apart from a little to-ing and fro-ing at the start to get characters sorted, it quite readable. I don't mind a little artistic licence when it comes to plausibly filling in the gaps or maybe adding a little twist.

Our story starts much later in Agatha's life as a visit from a young man recalls images of a story not long forgotten but left untold.  We are then taken back to 1928, and divorce from her husband Archie becomes a catalyst for Agatha's journey to Baghdad.  Travelling under the assumed name of Mary Miller, Agatha encounters two women (Nancy Nelson and Katherine Keeling), both with secrets of their own, and both also heading to Baghdad.

Ashford creatively uses known facts to weave a intricate story of Agatha's journey to the Middle East - she did in fact travel to Istanbul on the Orient Express in 1928.  She also did meet Katherine Woolley (nee Keeling) at a dig at Ur.  We get a sense too of where some of Agatha's later stories based in Mesopotamia originate.  However, her meeting with her future second husband, Max Mallowan was not until two years later. 

All in all, this is a captivating and vivid spin on the beginning of a new chapter in Agatha's life - it is not a typical Agatha Christie style mystery, but a good historical fiction story.  Some liberties are taken - this is fiction afterall!

Review: The Harrowing by James Aitcheson

The Harrowing
" Five strangers. Five secrets. No refuge. No turning back."

Aitcheson vividly recreates the events of this dark chapter in England's history and has shown a very personal side to the political events following the Norman Conquest. In this instance, events styled as "the Harrying of the North" whereby in order to subjugate to the north of England (1069-1070) and defeat the rebels, William the Conqueror laid waste to the north with the result being widespread famine, looting, slaughter, and a terrible loss of life.

In the style of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", five very different people, escaping the both their own pasts and the onslaught of the Normans, find solace in their own company and in the telling of their own stories (told over a period of five days). All the while, they are fighting for survival - can our narrators (priest, lady, servant, warrior, minstrel) outrun their own fates and reach safety.

Review: Act of Treason by Frank Dickens

Act of Treason
"... in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act ..." - George Orwell

Elizabethan England, post-Spanish Armada (1588>), saw the conflicts with Spain and in Ireland dragging on, the tax burden grew heavier, and the economy was affected by poor harvests and the cost of war; as prices rose, the standard of living fell. During this time, repression of Catholics intensified, and Elizabeth authorised commissions (1591) to interrogate and monitor Catholic householders. In order to maintain the illusion of peace and prosperity, Elizabeth increasingly relied on internal spies and propaganda; for her subjects, political ties and religion were often so impossible to separate that to remain loyal to one religion was considered tantamount to treason by the other.

It is 1598 - Elizabeth I sits on the throne of England. George Bullen, a professional scribe is employed to take down the story of the mysterious young man, Gareth Simmons, a former soldier in the service of the Duke of Norfolk. He has a story to relate - one that will shake the very foundations of the monarchy. It is a story that many will kill for in order to keep it from being revealed. Simmons has a price on his head, and so will those who aid him, including George Bullen.  To reveal this story is tantamount to high treason - " ... to maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing ... bodily harm to be done to the Queen ..." (Act of 1571).

This is a gripping tale of intrigue and paranoia at the court of Elizabeth I as narrated both by George Bullen and Gareth Simmons (whose story, quite naturally, is told in flashbacks). I love a good conspiracy - especially those set in an historical context.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: The Stronghold by Albrecht Behmel

The people of Switzerland were not always free and happy as they are to-day. Many years ago a proud tyrant, whose name was Gessler, ruled over them, and made their lot a bitter one indeed.

One day this tyrant set up a tall pole in the public square, and put his own cap on the top of it; and then he gave orders that every man who came into the town should bow down before it. But there was one man, named William Tell, who would not do this. He stood up straight with folded arms, and laughed at the swinging cap. He would not bow down to Gessler himself.

When Gessler heard of this, he was very angry. He was afraid that other men would disobey, and that soon the whole country would rebel against him. So he made up his mind to punish the bold man.

William Tell's home was among the mountains, and he was a famous hunter. No one in all the land could shoot with bow and arrow so well as he. Gessler knew this, and so he thought of a cruel plan to make the hunter's own skill bring him to grief. He ordered that Tell's little boy should be made to stand up in the public square with an apple on his head; and then he bade Tell shoot the apple with one of his arrows.  Tell begged the tyrant not to have him make this test of his skill. What if the boy should move? What if the bowman's hand should tremble? What if the arrow should not carry true?

"Will you make me kill my boy?" he said.  "Say no more," said Gessler. "You must hit the apple with your one arrow. If you fail, my soldiers shall kill the boy before your eyes."

Then, without another word, Tell fitted the arrow to his bow. He took aim, and let it fly. The boy stood firm and still. He was not afraid, for he had all faith in his father's skill.  The arrow whistled through the air. It struck the apple fairly in the center, and carried it away. The people who saw it shouted with joy.

As Tell was turning away from the place, an arrow which he had hidden under his coat dropped to the ground.  "Fellow!" cried Gessler, "what mean you with this second arrow?"   "Tyrant!" was Tell's proud answer, "this arrow was for your heart if I had hurt my child."   And there is an old story, that, not long after this, Tell did shoot the tyrant with one of his arrows; and thus he set his country free.

Image result for the stronghold albrecht behmel
This then is the story as we know it, and from this framework Behmal takes this old tale and constructs his own.  In this instance, the people are in revolt against taxation and unfair legislation.  When Thell's son fires a crossbow arrow after a spot of skylarking, the Imperial Counsellor, Guessler, accuses him of high treason - Thell undergoes a trial by ordeal - forced to shoot an apple from atop his son's head.  He is banished for a year, his daughter taken by Guessler, his son left to fend for himself.  Thell is at the centre of an uprising, exiled for ten years, returns and with the aid of mercenaries the castle of Altdorf is taken.  In the final scenes, the rebels face off against the imperial army of Duke Leopold of Austria - showdown is at the Morgarten Pass.

Set in the very early years of the 14th century, this is a fast paced, action packed story about the beginnings of the Swiss Confederacy - you know how it ends, but then again, with Behmel's spin, you do and you don't.  For those seeking something different in the historical fiction genre, this may be for you.

Side Note: Did Tell actually exist or was he actually based upon a Danish legend set in the times of King Harald Bluetooth.  Tell's legend appears in the White Book of Sarnen, over 100 years after the supposed event related in the tale have taken place (c.1470).

Review: The Doctor of Broad Street by Katherine Tansley

The Doctor of Broad Street: a Victorian tale of murder and mystery
Based upon the true events - the cholera outbreak in Soho, London , 1854. This plausible and well told story takes place of the course of the outbreak (approximately three weeks).

The Broad Street cholera outbreak was a severe outbreak of cholera that occurred in 1854 near Broad Street in the Soho district of London. This outbreak, which killed 616 people, is best known for the physician John Snow's study of its causes and his hypothesis that contaminated water from the public water pump on Broad Street, not air, was the source of cholera. This discovery came to influence public health and the construction of improved sanitation facilities beginning in the mid-19th century. 

Our fictional narrator, Dr Frank Roberts, during the course of an investigation into a vicious attack on a young girl, discovers the city in the throes of a cholera outbreak. He enlists the aid of the real Dr John Snow, as the source of the outbreak is being narrowed down to one particular area.  In the midst of this dual investigation (the crime and the epidemic), we get a vivid insight into the living conditions of the local people and the battles with local bureaucracy (Parish Board of Guardians) and even local medical experts of the day (with their competing schools of thought) when Snow attempts to have the source of contamination removed.

For further reading on this subject:

Review: Of Relics & Romance by Evan Ostryzniuk

Of Relics and Romance: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Truce of Leulinghem (English Free Company #3)
The prequel to "Of Faith & Fidelity" and "Of Fathers & Sons", this is the beginning of the tale of Geoffrey Hotspur (also titled Geoffrey Hotspur and the Truce of Leulingheim).

We begin in France, June 1389, where 15yo Geoffrey is a page and ward of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as well as Keeper of the Relic (the finger of St Bernard of Clairvaux). It is the time of troubles - the Hundred Years' War is raging throughout France; England was on the brink of financial ruin as a result, and Charles of France was a mad as a hatter. After years of failed negotiations, somehow a new concord was achieved and Leulingheum was the site of the epic meeting.

Into this tense mix of political maneuvering, scuttlebutt, bitter rivalries and petty jealousies, John of Gaunt tasks Geoffrey to seek out a spy within his own household whilst he sits upon a tribunal to decide the veracity of his relic.

The Truce of Leulinghem did take place, on 18th July 1389 - Richard II of England and Charles V of France agreed to launch a joint crusade against the Turks, Richard married Charles' daughter and agreed to leave French soil (except Calais) - and the truce held, until Henry of Bolingbroke seized the throne in 1399.

It was an interesting and easy read (I would be half-tempted to pigeon-hole this as young adult fiction) and look forward to the next installments in Geoffrey's quest to become a knight and go on crusade.

read more here 

Review: The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici
The story of Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Florence (r.1532 - 1537).

Having read much about the de Medici, I was instinctively drawn to this tome about one of the more obtuse characters and another case of where fact far outstrips fiction.

Born on the wrong side of the blanket, Alessandro emerged on the tempestuous political scene of Renaissance Florence at the same time as another incorragable character - his kinsman and bitter rival, Ippolito.

Florentine politics was dominated by family, money and the Church - these were the main avenues of power, and the de Medici had all three in spades. And it was against this backdrop that bitter and bloody family rivalries were played out along side the scheming intrigues of the city's oligarchs, who strove to keep power out of the hands of the de Medici.

The de Medici, however, were favoured by the Church - first, Giovanni de Medici (Pope Leo XI) and then the equally illegitimate Guilio de Medici sat upon the papal throne as Pope Clement VII (whose son he was reputed to have been).  Like most nepotistic popes, Clement was able to obtain a Cardinal's hat for Ippolito (much to his chagrin for he also wanted to rule Florence), and a politically advantageous marriage for Alessandro (to the illegitimate daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V).  What we have now is a powerful ruler, whose illegitimacy in no way proved to be a political barrier.

Image resultFrom extensive research, Fletcher successfully debunks many of the myths surrounding this enigmatic man. We find that Alessandro, far from being a fool, a cruel tyrant, a murderer (as his was often portrayed), was scholarly, engrossing, charming, and a patron of the arts. We also find that the colour of his skin was in no way an issue during his own lifetime for his friend and foes alike - that came much later. His life was indeed full of feuds, assassinations (including his own at the hands of yet another de Medici cousin), duplicity, jealousy and betrayal - that was merely business as usual, and was no different from other parts of Renaissance Europe.

Fletcher provides a sympathetic work of a forgotten and much maligned prince. The writing is dramatic, yet entertaining, suspenseful, and accessible. A worthy addition to anyone's personal library.