Sunday, July 28, 2019

Review: The Cardinal's Man by MG Sinclair

35077553. sy475 Synopsis: With enemies advancing on all sides and Cardinal Richelieu health failing, France is at breaking point. Yet salvation may arrive in the most unlikely form...

Born into poverty and with terrible deformities, Sebastian Morra is a dwarf with the wit of Tyrion Lannister and three foot, four inches of brazen pluck. Through a mixture of brains and luck, he has travelled far from his village to become a jester at the royal court. And with a talent for making enemies, he is soon drawn into the twilight world of Cardinal Richelieu, where he discovers he might just be the only man with the talents to save France from her deadliest foes.

Another novel inspired by one of Velasquez's paintings of the dwarfs at the Spanish royal court. In this instance, the main character is Don Sebastian de Morra, whose story is set in both the royal court of Louis XIII of France then the Spanish Court during the reign of King Philip IV.  Who could ask for a better backdrop into which a distinctive character is inserted, and is central - yet despite his wit, Sebastian is still out of his depth in a court full of plots and intrigue. 

Sinclair is upfront when he claims there is very little to go on by way biographical information on Sebastian de Morra and so has provided him with a most likely personal history from son of peasants in Camoches to his education by local priest, and appointment as a clerk to the Viscount Turenne in Paris. This harsh early life will eventually teach Sebastian the skills he will come to need when he is taken on by the King's Chamberlain, Alain Bouchard, and gains entry into the royal court of King Louis XII of France.

The French Court during the 1620 - 1640s was dominated by the powerful Cardinal Richelieu, who played a major role in determining France's political direction. Under Louis and Richelieu, the French Crown successfully intervened in the Thirty Years' War against the (Spanish) Habsburgs, managed to keep the French nobility in line, and retracted the political and military privileges previously granted to the Huguenots. In addition, Louis had the port of Le Havre modernised, built a powerful navy, and made territorial advances in North Africa, Asia, the Americas.

This novel offers an alternate view of the French Court and Cardinal Richelieu through the eyes of another, as what most people know of / remember about Cardinal Richelieu comes from his portrayal by Dumas in his books on the Three Muskateers. It makes a nice change to see his vulnerability.

Towards the end of his life, Richelieu alienated many people, including Pope Urban VIII. Richelieu was displeased by the Pope's refusal to name him the papal legate in France; although the conflict was largely healed when the Pope granted a cardinalate to Jules Mazarin, one of Richelieu's foremost political allies (and his political successor). 

As he neared death, Richelieu faced a plot that threatened to remove him from power. The Cardinal had introduced a young man named Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis de Cinq-Mars to Louis XIII's court. The Cardinal had been a friend of Cinq-Mars' father. More importantly, Richelieu hoped that Cinq-Mars would become Louis' favourite, so that he could indirectly exercise greater influence over the monarch's decisions. Cinq-Mars had become the royal favourite, but, contrary to Cardinal Richelieu's belief, he was not easy to control. The young Marquis realized that Richelieu would not permit him to gain political power and thus found himself mixed up in the Comte de Soissons' failed conspiracy against Richelieu, but his part in it was not yet discovered. Cinq-Mars then schemed with leading nobles, including the King's brother, Gaston, the Duc d'Orléans, to raise a rebellion; and then signed his name on a secret agreement with the King of Spain, who promised to aid the rebels. Richelieu's spy service discovered the plot, and the Cardinal received a copy of the treaty. Cinq-Mars was promptly arrested and executed; although Louis approved the use of capital punishment, he grew more distant from Richelieu as a result. It is as part of the Cardinal's spy network that author Sinclair has inserted the character of de Morra.

The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra
But de Morra was a man of two royal courts, and in 1643 - 1644 he finds himself at the court of Philip IV of Spain - we know this only based on his portrait by Diego Velasquez,said painted in 1644. It has been speculated that de Morra was acquired by King Phillip IV from his younger brother Cardinal Infante Fernando, possibly on the latter's death in 1641 certainly not sooner if de Morra was still in Richelieu's pay up until that cardinal's death in 1643. He was then given over to Prince Baltasar Carlos until the prince's death sometime after, aged only 16yo (1646). 

Following the death of his son, Philip IV fell into a period of melancholy; he slowly replaced his former fallen favourite with another; and was found to be in  thrall to the religious mystic, Sister María de Ágreda with whom he was in constant correspondance. When Philip died (1665), he left a four year old son Charles as his heir under the regency of the boy's mother. A political power struggle for control of the young king ensued between the queen regent and the king's illegitimate half brother. Charles' own death (1700) would spark off the Spanish War of Succession.

Where was de Morra amid all of this political turmoil? Some have him dying three years after Prince Carlos, (October 1649) following three years of service at the Spanish court. Or quite possibly later - we will never truly know.

Sinclair's novel was is quite easy to read; the main characters are well known; the cast is not overly large. Sinclair has provided us the reader with a well researched and well told tale, that is not quite a traditional novel and not quite a biography but rather a blend of both; and told from the point of view of Sebastian.

see also my review of The Queen's Prophet by Dawn Patitucci

further reading:

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Review: Blues In The Dark by Raymond Benson

Blues in the DarkSynposis: Karissa Glover is a movie producer who moves into a decrepit but functional old mansion in the West Adams Heights area of Los Angeles, where black celebrities of yesteryear—Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, and others—once resided. The former owner was a white actress, Blair Kendrick, who often starred as the "bad girl"—a femme fatale—in films noir of the 1940s. However, Blair’s career was cut short when she was tragically killed by the mob after allegedly witnessing the slaying of a corrupt studio head in 1949.
As Karissa and her producing partner decide to develop a modern film noir about Blair Kendrick, malevolent forces from the past attempt to stop them—first with intimidation, and then with the thread of murder.

Is this because Karissa has learned that Blair was involved in a then-taboo interracial relationship with jazz musician Hank Marley? What really happened on the night that death struck in a dimly lit studio mogul’s office? The consequences of Blair and Hank’s doomed love affair still resonate in the present day as Karissa attempts to unravel Blair’s secrets.

I love reading about the darker side of Hollywood - who doesn't love reading about a salacious scandal, a mysterious death (or two), blackmail, the infamous "casting couch", the "fixers" who kept the stars' secrets from becoming front page news, and studio bosses who ruled them all.

"Blues In The Dark" covers all of the above, through alternating and interweaving narrative from the present and the past, when a modern-day film maker decides to make a film on a long dead movie start, and in the process uncovers secrets many would kill to ensure remain well hidden.

We all know there's a mystery and a film, but how we get there is slowly teased out chapter by chapter, the tension constantly building as both stories unfold before us and little clues click into place. When the stories do merge, what is revealed is a cycle of destruction and sadness.

I was nearly tempted to categorise this as a cosy mystery - but cosy noir is more apt.

Review: Slugger by Martin Holmen

43243483. sy475 Synopsis:  It's summer in Stockholm, and the city is sweltering in the grip of a rare heatwave while fascists and communists beat each other bloody in the streets. Harry Kvist has had enough. It's time for him to leave. But first he has some business to take care of. His old friend and ex-lover, Reverend Gabrielsson, has been murdered, and the police are more interested in anti-Semitic rumours than finding the truth.

Kvist investigates the only way he knows how, with his fists, uncovering a Nazi terrorist plot and a cabal of corrupt cops. Before long he finds himself caught in the middle of a turf war between two of the city's most brutal gangs. Can he fight his way out of one last corner and find a way to freedom, or has Kvist finally taken a punch too many?

I will sum this up with a quote from the book and the character of Harry Kvist: " ... how in hell is one lonely man supposed to take on a whole conspiracy of gangsters, coppers and fuck knows what else ..."

Holmen certainly knows how to write gritty noir that is visceral, violent, memorable. The character of Harry Kvist (always refers to himself in the third person) is never forgotten, long after the final page has been turned.

Harry is an enigma, a contradiction, and yet - I don't want to say cliched - but he is your typical big old gorilla goon. However, underneath, this ex-con, ex-boxed, battle-scarred thug, a man not without friends or enemies, is a softee. He looks after his friends - and seek to settle things the old fashioned way - a man of few words but brutal action - "... hatred burns in my veins like petrol ..".

This is Harry's final job, told over the course of a number of days. Following the brutal murder of an old friend, Harry finds himself caught up in something much bigger than himself, a pawn in the hands or rival gangs and the police, who seek to use him to their own ends, often at odds with one another - and never in Harry's interests.

There will be no spoiler here - suffice to say ".. the last stretch is always walked alone .."

see also my review of "Down For the Count"

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review: Murder in St Paul's by Richard Dale

Murder in St Paul'sI, like many, others enjoy when an author takes on a long forgotten event or mystery, dusts it off, puts a new spin on it, or attempts to provide a credible alternate theory.

In this instance it is the mysterious death - or murder - of Richard Hunne - a medieval death in custody if you will, that was written off a suicide then heresy once the manner of Hunne's death became known. Whilst familiar with the Tudor period, I am not so much a student of Reformation history - so this episode was one I quite possibly passed over. 

In short, Richard Hunne was an English merchant tailor in the City of London during the early years of the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547). After a dispute with his priest over his infant son's funeral, Hunne sought to use the English common law courts to challenge the church's authority. In response, church officials arrested him for trial in an ecclesiastical court on the capital charge of heresy. In December 1514, while awaiting trial, Hunne was found dead in his cell, and murder by church officials was suspected. His death caused widespread anger against the clergy, and months of political and religious turmoil followed. (source: wikipedia).

It is into this tumultuous period that "Hunne’s widow, Anne, takes centre stage in this narrative as she attempts to solve and avenge the death of her husband. "

I am not sure what I was expecting to be honest, as Hunne's wife is equally elusive as the facts surrounding Hunne's death. So I went in search of Anne - and found very little that I could use to corroborate or support the idea that she took on the Establishment in such a way as portrayed herein. I know the author, Richard Dale, prefaces the story by letting us know that he made that character of Anne stronger than she may have actually been - we will never really know how close to the truth this may be - and this fascinates me - how close the fictional and the actual historical figure are to being the same (and rather maddening when one cannot assess the truth of it all).

I guess, for a plausible scenario to be put forth or light to be shed on a heinous act, someone must investigate - and who better to champion a dead man than his wife. However, I am not sure, in this instance, given the political and religious situation in England in the early 16th century, that Anne makes for a credible investigator; and this is where the story just fell flat for me.

In the end "... one kind of persecution is replaced with another ..."

further reading:
Murder of Richard Hunne London in the Early Reign of King Henry VIII by M. Clement Hall
> you can actually read the chronology leading up to the death of Hunne (though not a great deal beyond that)

Richard Hunne - A Tale of Old London by George Sargent
> read online here at the Lollard Society

History Today - Death at St Pauls
> online article here

Richard Hunne and the English Reformation by Bill Cooper
> synposis here at amazon

Richard Hunne by WR Cooper
> published online for the William Tyndale Society - Reformation Journal

Monday, July 22, 2019

Review: Blood on the Stone by Jack Lynch

Blood On The Stone

" .. politics is a world in which nothing is quite as it seems .."

In England, in 1681, the shine is beginning to wear off the reign of Charles II. There are plots against the king; treasonable rumblings; kidnappings; religious dissent; spies and secret clubs; and finally murder. And it is against the backdrop of Parliament's sitting in Oxford that this story is set.

To give perspective: at the time this story is set, Charles II had no legitimate offspring to follow him - his heir as his brother James, who was a Catholic. In 1673, Parliament passed a Test Act to prevent Catholics from holding office, by which the successor to the throne, James, Duke of York, had to resign; and five years later, another Test Act was introduced debarring Catholics from sitting in Parliament. The following year (1679), the first Exclusion Parliament met: the Commons drafted a Bill to exclude the Duke of York from the succession (and threatened to block supply to achieve their ends); this was defeated in the House of Lords the following year. 

Thus we come to the time of our story - 1681 and the third Exclusion Parliament which met at Oxford for barely a week; it would be the last time Parliament met outside Westminster. For Charles, summoning Parliament to meet in Oxford, a Royalist stronghold which had been Charles I's capital during the Civil War, was designed to deprive the Whig opposition of the grassroots support from the London masses. The Whigs - not yet a political party - opposed "popery" and absolute monarchism and supported a constitutional monarchy. In the end, Parliament was dismissed when Charles II determined to rule without Parliament and obtained his much needed funds from the French.

Our story also introduces us to the secretive "Green Ribbons", a political group that was hostile to the court. They usually met in taverns and coffee-houses, and wore a strip of green ribbon as a means of identification and recognition, especially amid the many street brawls and riots. This group was particularly active in London.

Blood on the Stone is told over the course of a week; it rumbles on slowly before the pace quickens towards the end. For me, it was an easy read - I enjoyed the characters and their alternating narratives; the gradual unraveling of events kept me interested to the point that I read on; and the historical note at the end (always a favourite part for me - especially when dealing with events a little left of centre) was much appreciated. This put both the events and characters into real historical perspective.

All in all - a fairly decent start to a possible series .....

further reading:

Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660-1685 by Matthew Jenkinson
Radical Whigs and Conspiratorial Politics in Late Stuart England by Melinda S. Zook

Royal Misses: Lost and Found

From Hindustan Times

It’s widely agreed that the French queen, Marie Antoinette, died early because she had too many frocks at a time of social unrest . History places her the way she was: her contribution to France was in lace and ruffles. In India, on the other hand, many women who made significant history, have just been projected as domestic goddesses; their exercise of political power considered overreach, or been simply sidelined.

Nur Jahan,Mughal harem,Mughal princesses
Authors, policy influencers, patrons of artists, wedding planners, in other words, alliance makers, city builders among Timurid women have, for instance, been lumped under ‘Mughal women’ in our textbooks after ‘Mughal art and architecture’ have got their due. That is, 214 years of varied achievements by women, overwritten by blocks of marble.

Women writers have recently been looking at the past with new glasses. They are examining the role women have played in the power structures of the day and are questioning the grand narrative of empire building as being the only story worth telling. In non-fiction, Ruby Lal’s Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, Ira Mukhoty’s The Daughters of the Sun, Archana Garodia Gupta’s The Women Who Ruled India: Leaders, Warriors, Icons, Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir, Deepa Agarwal and Tahmina Aziz Ayub’s book, The Begum, on Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first First Lady who was born Indian, all fall in this category..

In fiction, two upcoming titles, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s Mahal, and Amita Kanekar’s Pride of Lions, have prominent women figures with the Mughal era as backdrop. The latter is a thrilling story of an unlikely revolt. A group of peasants led by women fight the might of Aurangzeb’s rule. Who would not want to be drawn into that world?

read more here @ Hindustan Times

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England - Tom Lambert

Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England explores English legal culture and practice across the Anglo-Saxon period, beginning with the essentially pre-Christian laws enshrined in writing by King AEthelberht of Kent in c. 600 and working forward to the Norman Conquest of 1066. It attempts to escape the traditional retrospective assumptions of legal history, focused on the late twelfth-century Common Law, and to establish a new interpretative framework for the subject, more sensitive to contemporary cultural assumptions and practical realities.

The focus of the volume is on the maintenance of order: what constituted good order; what forms of wrongdoing were threatening to it; what roles kings, lords, communities, and individuals were expected to play in maintaining it; and how that worked in practice. Its core argument is that the Anglo-Saxons had a coherent, stable, and enduring legal order that lacks modern analogies: it was neither state-like nor stateless, and needs to be understood on its own terms rather than as a variant or hybrid of these models. 

Tom Lambert elucidates a distinctively early medieval understanding of the tension between the interests of individuals and communities, and a vision of how that tension ought to be managed that, strikingly, treats strongly libertarian and communitarian features as complementary. Potentially violent, honour-focused feuding was an integral aspect of legitimate legal practice throughout the period, but so too was fearsome punishment for forms of wrongdoing judged socially threatening. 

Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England charts the development of kings' involvement in law, in terms both of their authority to legislate and their ability to influence local practice, presenting a picture of increasingly ambitious and effective royal legal innovation that relied more on the cooperation of local communal assemblies than kings' sparse and patchy network of administrative officials.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Review: Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C Wright

I am really in two minds with this read. On the one hand, I liked the fact that it was a study of the Bayeux Tapestry via the marginalia (the images in the top and bottom borders); on the other hand, it left me quite baffled.

Whilst I have read a lot on the tapestry and the period in question, most of what I had read covered off the main, central component - the part that everyone is familiar with - and the various interpretations (ie: Norman POV, English / Anglo Saxon POV). I had not really considered the margins as telling another story - hence my curiosity when this tome was available.

However, the more I read of this book, the more confused I became. I am not a student of symbolism, allegories, fables, and their interpretations, so I really was at a loss to see what the author was seeing. Where I saw colourful critters, the author saw secret messages and conspiracy - and I do love a good conspiracy! I felt like I was in a Dan Brown novel and any moment now, Brown's protagonist, Robert Langdon, was going to be drawing lines to the Holy Grail. So for the theory to make sense, one needs to know what the symbolism means from the very get-go. And the multitude of underlying tones leaves all of this open to diverse speculation and interpretation, and in my case, confusion.

Having said that, one question the author posed regarding the tapestry really did intrigue me - what would it have meant at the time? And more to the point, to whom? Who was the intended audience at a time when the vast majority of the population was illiterate. This in itself leads to speculation as to who crafted this embroidery (ie: made it) , who commissioned the piece (ie: suggested it be made and quite possibly set the tone), where is the missing piece, why was it removed, and what image did it contain to warrant its removal. These questions in themselves demand further investigation - and some of the answers put forward by the author do pique one's imagination.  This would be something I would happily traverse a rabbit hole for.

If your interest is deeply focused on this subject, then this book will definitely be of interest.

Journal of My Life During The French Revolution

Journal of My Life During The French Revolution by [Elliott, Grace Dalrymple]Grace Dalrymple Elliott, a young Scotswoman, courtesan and socialite, living in Paris was there to witness it all.  Born in 1754, Grace Dalrymple Elliott became one of the most sought after women in Europe.  Educated in a French convent, her barrister father Hew Dalrymple later introduced her to Edinburgh society where she received numerous marriage proposals.

Grace, however, fearless, beautiful and wild, was to reject tradition.  Unhappily married and then divorced, she went on to have affairs with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Orleans, later known as Philippe Egalité.   She lived a scandalous and remarkable life, maintaining dangerous alliances and surviving treachery and betrayal. 

Entertaining her relationship with the Duke of Orleans, Grace had unprecedented access to the highest ranks of court life, which she vividly recounts.  After her arrival in Paris she was forced to escape violent Revolutionists and the Mob to stay in Meudon, where she was at the mercy of domestic spies and harboured a wanted man.  Unable to flee to England, she was then imprisoned in an infamous institution and became gravely ill.  Surrounded by death and the fear of royalists, Grace only narrowly escaped the guillotine herself, and was finally released to tell her story when the revolutionary leader Robespierre died. 

Her memoir, an eyewitness account of the Revolution, recounts a time of turbulent politics, dark days and lethal enemies during an infamous time in history, which she witnessed while living in Paris.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Review: Forgotten Royal Women by Erin Lawless

Forgotten Royal Women: The King and I
For me - nothing new. I have read extensively on this subject matter and have come across all those mentioned - so an hour later I was finished.

However - for someone just dipping their toe, this will make the perfect starting point. The women featured are not the "big ticket names" one would readily associate with this topic - which makes a refreshing change. The stories are your typical vignettes and aren't mean to be anything more, which enabled author Erin Lawless to cover quite a number of women associated with the thrones of England, Scotland and Wales - no Ireland ..... maybe that's in the next edition.

Overall, the content was spot on; the style was easy and not overly bogged down with facts and figures, which can sometimes be off-putting for someone just starting out; and most of the major career / life high (and low) points were covered.

As I said, recommended as a starting point. And as to no bibliography - well, just what do you include or exclude. Go out in search of these women and their counterparts - explore all available resources and don't be limited to one authors' sources!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Andrea Camilleri, beloved creator of Inspector Montalbano, dies aged 93

From The Guardian

One of Italy’s most popular authors, Camilleri wrote 23 novels starring his Sicilian detective, selling more than 30m copies around the world.  Camilleri, who was born in Sicily in 1925, was taken to hospital in Rome in June after going into cardiac arrest.

The author had written a handful of historical novels when, in 1994 at the age of almost 70, he wrote The Shape of Water, the first book starring his now famous Sicilian detective. Set in the fictional town of Vigata, Camilleri was originally going to call his central detective The Commissioner, but decided to pay tribute to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the Spanish author of novels about the investigator Pepe Carvalho.

The Montalbano series now runs to more than two dozen books, and has been translated into 32 languages, with more than 30m copies sold. The Potter’s Field, translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli, won Camilleri the International Dagger, the highest foreign honour of the British Crime Writers Association. The Italian television adaptation, screened on BBC Four and in 65 other countries, has brought tourists by the busload to Sicily. The town on which Vigata is based, Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle, is so proud of its connection that it officially changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in 2003.

Camilleri published the 30th Montalbano novel, Il cuoco dell’Alcyon, in 2018. The final novel in the series was written 13 years ago, but has been kept in his publisher’s Palermo offices for safekeeping. “When I get fed up with him or am not able to write any more, I’ll tell the publisher: publish that book. Sherlock Holmes was recovered … but it will not be possible to recover Montalbano. In that last book, he’s really finished,” he said in 2012.

read more here @ The Guardian

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century by George Molyneaux

Cover for 

The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century

The central argument of The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century is that the English kingdom which existed at the time of the Norman Conquest was defined by the geographical parameters of a set of administrative reforms implemented in the mid- to late tenth century, and not by a vision of English unity going back to Alfred the Great (871-899).

In the first half of the tenth century, successive members of the Cerdicing dynasty established a loose domination over the other great potentates in Britain. They were celebrated as kings of the whole island, but even in their Wessex heartlands they probably had few means to regulate routinely the conduct of the general populace. 

Detailed analysis of coins, shires, hundreds, and wapentakes suggests that it was only around the time of Edgar (957/9-975) that the Cerdicing kings developed the relatively standardised administrative apparatus of the so-called 'Anglo-Saxon state'. This substantially increased their ability to impinge upon the lives of ordinary people living between the Channel and the Tees, and served to mark that area off from the rest of the island. The resultant cleft undermined the idea of a pan-British realm, and demarcated the early English kingdom as a distinct and coherent political unit.

In this volume, George Molyneaux places the formation of the English kingdom in a European perspective, and challenges the notion that its development was exceptional: the Cerdicings were only one of several ruling dynasties around the fringes of the former Carolingian Empire for which the late ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries were a time of territorial expansion and consolidation.

Wrexford & Sloane Mysteries by Andrea Penrose

Murder on Black Swan Lane

In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose a cold-hearted killer . . .

Murder on Black Swan Lane (A Wrexford & Sloane Mystery Book 1) by [Penrose, Andrea]The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.

An artist in her own right, Charlotte Sloane has secretly slipped into the persona of her late husband, using his nom de plume A.J. Quill. When Wrexford discovers her true identity, she fears it will be her undoing. But he has a proposal—use her sources to unveil the clergyman’s clandestine involvement in questionable scientific practices, and unmask the real murderer. Soon Lord Wrexford and the mysterious Mrs. Sloane plunge into a dangerous shadow world hidden among London’s intellectual enclaves to trap a cunning adversary—before they fall victim to the next experiment in villainy . . .

Murder at Half Moon Gate
A wealthy lord who happens to be a brilliant scientist . . . an enigmatic young widow who secretly pens satirical cartoons . . . a violent killing disguised as a robbery . . . Nothing is as it seems in Regency London, especially when the Earl of Wrexford and Charlotte Sloane join forces to solve a shocking murder.

Murder at Half Moon Gate (A Wrexford & Sloane Mystery Book 2) by [Penrose, Andrea]When Lord Wrexford discovers the body of a gifted inventor in a dark London alley, he promptly alerts the watchman and lets the authorities handle the matter. But Wrexford soon finds himself drawn into the murder investigation when the inventor’s widow begs for his assistance, claiming the crime was not a random robbery. It seems her husband’s designs for a revolutionary steam-powered engine went missing the night of his death. The plans could be worth a fortune . . . and very dangerous in the wrong hands.

Joining Wrexford in his investigation is Charlotte Sloane, who uses the pseudonym A. J. Quill to publish her scathing political cartoons. Her extensive network of informants is critical for her work, but she doesn’t mind tapping that same web of spies to track down an elusive killer. Each suspect—from ambitious assistants to rich investors, and even the inventor’s widow—is entwined in a maze of secrets and lies that leads Wrexford and Sloane down London’s most perilous stews and darkest alleyways.

With danger lurking at every turn, the potent combination of Wrexford’s analytical mind and Sloane’s exacting intuition begins to unravel the twisted motivations behind the inventor’s death. But they are up against a cunning and deadly foe—a killer ready to strike again before they can recover the inventor’s priceless designs . . .

Murder at Kensington Palace
Wrexford and Sloane must unravel secrets within secrets—including a few that entangle their own hearts—when they reunite to solve a string of shocking murders that have horrified Regency London . . .

Murder at Kensington Palace (A Wrexford & Sloane Mystery Book 3) by [Penrose, Andrea]Though Charlotte Sloane’s secret identity as the controversial satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill is safe with the Earl of Wrexford, she’s ill prepared for the rippling effects sharing the truth about her background has cast over their relationship. She thought a bit of space might improve the situation. But when her cousin is murdered and his twin brother is accused of the gruesome crime, Charlotte immediately turns to Wrexford for help in proving the young man’s innocence. Though she finds the brooding scientist just as enigmatic and intense as ever, their partnership is now marked by an unfamiliar tension that seems to complicate every encounter. 

Despite this newfound complexity, Wrexford and Charlotte are determined to track down the real killer. Their investigation leads them on a dangerous chase through Mayfair’s glittering ballrooms and opulent drawing rooms, where gossip and rumors swirl to confuse the facts. Was her cousin murdered over a romantic rivalry . . . or staggering gambling debts? Or could the motive be far darker and involve the clandestine scientific society that claimed both brothers as members? The more Charlotte and Wrexford try to unknot the truth, the more tangled it becomes. But they must solve the case soon, before the killer’s madness seizes another victim . . .

Author - Christopher Nicole

Author Christopher Nicole has a plethora of titles out encompassing various stages in history (210 books if you can believe it). If you look for him on Amazon, there are eleven pages worth of books to select from. However, here are a few that caught my eye, mainly due to my interest in history and notable women in history:

The Lion Queen
Image result for lion queen christopher nicoleWho: Queen Tamar / Tamara / Thamar of Georgia (Queen of Georgia from 1184 to 1213, presiding over the apex of the Georgian Golden Age. A member of the Bagrationi dynasty, her position as the first woman to rule Georgia in her own right was emphasized by the title mepe, afforded to Tamar in the medieval Georgian sources)

Synopsis: Today Georgia is a small country existing in the shadow of Russia, but only 900 years ago the Georgians controlled an empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean to the Caspian. This was the work of Queen Tamara, who, inheriting the throne at the age of twenty-five as King of the Georgians – there was no word for queen in the Georgian language – led her armies sword in hand. Accurately depicting a savage age, when life was cheap virtue non-existent, this is not for the faint-hearted, but it is also the tale of a remarkable relationship, and an undying love.

Lord of the Golden Fan
Who: Will Adams (an English navigator who, in 1600, was the first of his nation to reach Japan during a five-ship expedition for the Dutch East India Company. As a key advisor to the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu, he has been recognised as one of the most influential foreigners in Japan during this period)

Synopsis: Leaving Elizabethan Kent in search of adventure, Will Adams took a voyage through Indonesia. Sailing as pilot of five small trading ships on a twenty-one months' voyage to the fabled Spice Islands of Java and Sumatra, Will survived disaster to reach seventeenth-century Japan. Not only was he the first Englishman to set foot in Japan, but he also became the lifelong protégé and friend of the reigning Shogun, Iyeyasu.  By his prowess and wise counsel, Will also opened the way to Japan's first contacts with the learning and culture of the West. 

Image result for book cover ottoman christopher nicoleWho: Sir John Hawkwood (not to be confused with the enigmatic English soldier and condottiero - mercenary - of the same name who was prominent in England, France and Italy a half century earlier)

Synopsis: English master-gunner John Hawkwood uproots his family from their native land and journeys to this fabled city. With the city under threat by the Ottoman Turks, the Byzantine emperor is in desperate need of men like Hawkwood and the knowledge of cannon and gunpowder he brings.  For a time, the Hawkwoods enjoy status and privilege in return for John’s superior abilities as an artillerist. 

But all good things must come to an end. When tragedy strikes, even the close relationship John shares with the emperor cannot absolve the family of their sins, and with little more than the clothes on their backs, the Hawkwoods flee Constantinople. 

Captured by the savage Turks, John Hawkwood swiftly changes his allegiance, and once more applies his considerable skills…this time serving the conquerors in their victorious surge across eastern Europe and Mediterranean shores.  No man lives forever, but the Hawkwood line never dies. 

Over a span of nearly one hundred and fifty years, the Hawkwoods must employ every ounce of political cunning they possess to survive the swirling intrigues and bloody massacres that dominate the world in which they live.  Beyond the gleaming wealth and the veneer of power lie grim spectres of betrayal and sudden death, the threat of ravishment and torture lurking behind the gilded pillars of their palaces and harems.  And when the time comes to choose between Ottoman and Hawkwood, no one can say what the future might bring…

Queen of Destiny
Who: Adelaide of Burgundy (Holy Roman Empress by marriage to Otto the Great; she was regent of the Holy Roman Empire as the guardian of her grandson in 991-995)

Synopsis: Adelaide, Queen of Burgundy and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, was one of the most beautiful and courageous women in history. She is renowned as the most prominent European woman of the 10th century and Christopher Nicole brings you the amazing story of her life, her struggles and her conquests.

Queen of Lions
Who: Margaret of Anjou (Queen of England by marriage to King Henry VI from 1445 to 1461 and again from 1470 to 1471 - this was the period in history known as The Wars of the Roses).

Synopsis: When the beautiful Margaret of Anjou marries King Henry VI of England, she is a virgin who longs for love, power, wealth, and a son.  After arriving in England she learns that her deeply religious and delicate husband is unwilling to satisfy her desires and there seems to be no hope of producing an heir.  He is not the powerful man she had imagined and she is shocked to learn he does not hunt, is not properly trained in the art of battle and has no interest in entertaining guests. Though her husband cannot quench her desires, there are others at court who can … 

Under her banner of the dangerous, passionate red rose, Margaret draws men to her, to fight and die for her, never losing her fierce ambition, never satisfied with less than all.  And as the Wars of the Roses looms, she rides among her troops, rallying her ‘lions’ to the glorious cause.

Queen of the Night
Who: Joanna I, Queen of Naples (countess of Provence and queen of Naples (1343–82) she defended her claim as well as that of the house of Anjou to the throne of Naples, only to lose it to Charles of Durazzo (Charles III of Naples). Beautiful and intelligent, she was also a patron of the poets and scholars of her time)

Image result for queen of the night christopher nicoleSynopsis: The year is 1338,11yo Richilde’s family is brutally murdered by pirates whilst her life is spared, she is subjected to unimaginable terror. The young English girl is sold, educated and groomed for the purposes of becoming a playmate and servant to the Duchess of Calabria, Joanna, the heir to the throne of Naples.  

Joanna is betrothed to Prince Andrew of Hungary, younger brother to the future King but unbeknown to both girls, Joanna’s foster mother, Donna, begins to hatch a manipulative plan.  In a bid to capture the kingdom for herself, Donna conspires against Joanna and aware of her desires, exposes the future queen to passions that would live on forever…

Stripping Joanna’s innocence under the pretence of educating her, Donna initiates a stream of sadistic events which will lead to the young Queen’s downfall.  In their struggle for survival, both Joanna and Richilde endure countless attempts on their lives … but, amidst it all, their strength to survive rallies on … as does their friendship …

Eleanor of Aquitaine and The Queen of Love
Who: Eleanor of Aquitaine (Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England, mother of Kings of England)

Sysnopsis: Book one deals with Eleanor's earlier life as a young woman and her first marriage to Louis VII of France, whilst the second deals with her marriage to Henry II and the remainder of her tumultuous life.

Dawn of a legend and Twilight of a Goddess
Who: Jane Digby, Lady Ellenborough (an English aristocrat, famed for her remarkable love life and lifestyle. She had four husbands and many lovers, and died in Damascus, Syria, as the wife of Arab Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab, who was 20 years her junior.)

Synopsis Book 1: Jane Elizabeth Digby was born into one of the wealthiest families in nineteenth century England. By the age of seventeen, she became known as Aurora, the Light of Dawn, such was her beauty, and received the attentions of many a rich bachelor.  Her eventual marriage to Lord Ellenborough promised much but proved something of a disappointment when he turned out to be a prude in the bedroom. And so, Jane began to seek her pleasure elsewhere, conducting a string of scandalous affairs that would send shock waves through society.

Synopsis Book 2: It is 1835, and Jane Elizabeth Digby finds herself living in Bavaria having remarried the Baron von Venningen following an affair. But this is a marriage of convenience, for she has become the principal mistress of the German King. However, Jane, now approaching thirty, is becoming bored with her situation, and when she meets a glamorous Greek Count, she abandons everything to elope with him.

This is the beginning of a tumultuous career of love and adventure. Armed with her pistols, natural grace and wit, not to mention a body that turns heads, she jumps from one steamy affair to another, travelling from Athens into the bandit-ridden mountains of Albania, and the deserts of Syria, where, after a lifelong quest for love, she will become a living legend.

Queen of Glory
Image result for book covers christopher nicoleWho: Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi (Queen of the princely state of Jhansi in North India, she was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and became a symbol of resistance to the British Raj for Indian nationalists.)

Synopsis: As the Indian Mutiny takes hold, one woman will establish her place in history for ever . . . ""India"," 1857." Aged just twenty-one, Lakshmi Bai, otherwise known as Manu, the widowed and recently deposed Rani of Jhansi, finds herself embroiled in the developing Indian Mutiny. Torn between leading Jhansi into battle or following the advice of her close friend and confidante, Emma Hammond, a tragic succession of events is triggered as the Mutiny comes to a head and Manu faces her destiny: one which will see her crowned as India s queen of glory. 

Full bibliography here @ Wikipedia

Diarmaid MacCulloch: ‘I got very irritated with Henry VIII’

From The Guardian

Thomas Cromwell
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s vast and exhaustive Thomas Cromwell: A Life, published in 2018, was described by Hilary Mantel – no slouch when it comes to the book’s subject – as “the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”. Delving deeply into Cromwell’s private papers, MacCulloch argues for Cromwell’s central position in the supercharged power-politics of Henry VIII’s court.

MacCulloch studied under the great Tudor historian Sir Geoffrey Elton. He has written extensively on ecclesiastical history, and was ordained a deacon in the 1980s. He declined ordination to the priesthood because of the church’s attitude to homosexuality, but remains “a candid friend of Christianity”. He is now professor of the history of the church at Oxford University.

read interview here @ The Guardian

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Review: Fortune's Wheel by Carolyn Hughes

During the Medieval period the plague went by several names, the most common being "the Pestilence" and "The Great Mortality". Theories about the cause of the disease were numerous, ranging from a punishment from God to planetary alignment to evil stares. Not surprisingly, many people believed that the horrors of the Black Death signalled the Apocalypse, or end of time. 

The speed with which the disease could kill was terrifying to inhabitants of the medieval world. The Italian author Boccaccio claimed that the plague victims "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors".

In England, the summer of 1348 was abnormally wet. Grain lay rotting in the fields due to the nearly constant rains. With the harvest so adversely affected, it seemed certain that there would be food shortages. However, there was worse to follow - It isn't clear exactly when or where the Black Death reached England. Some reports say the disease may have appeared as early as late June or as late as August. However, it was from this simple beginning, the disease spread throughout England with lightning speed and fatal consequences. 

Related imageThe effect was at its worst in cities, where overcrowding and primitive sanitation aided in its rapid spread. By November the plague reached London, and up to 30,000 of the city's population of 70,000 inhabitants succumbed. Over the next 2 years, the disease killed between 30-40% of the entire population. Given that the pre-plague population of England was in the range of 5-6 million people, fatalities may have reached as high as 2 million dead. 

One of the worst aspects of the disease to the medieval Christian mind is that people died without last rites and without having a chance to confess their sins. Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who died of the plague because so many perished without the benefit of clergy. People were allowed to confess their sins to one another, or "even to a woman"

The death rate was exceptionally high in isolated populations like prisons and monasteries. It has been estimated that up to two-thirds of the clergy of England died within a single year. Peasants fled their fields. Livestock were left to fend for themselves, and crops left to rot. The monk Henry of Knighton declared, "Many villages and hamlets have now become quite desolate. No one is left in the houses, for the people are dead that once inhabited them." 

It is impossible to overstate the horrific effects of the Black Death on England. With the population so low, there were not enough workers to work the land. As a result, wages and prices rose. The Ordinances of Labourers (1349) tried to legislate a return to pre-plague wage levels, but the overwhelming shortage of labourers meant that wages continued to rise. Landowners offered extras such as food, drink, and extra benefits to lure labourers. The standard of living for labourers rose accordingly. 

The nature of the economy changed to meet the changing social conditions. Land that had once been farmed was now given over to pasture, which was much less labour-intensive. This helped boost the cloth and woollen industry. With the fall in population, most landowners were not getting the rental income they needed, and were forced to lease their land. 

Peasants benefited through increased employment options and higher wages. Society became more mobile, as peasants moved to accept work where they could command a good wage. In some cases, market towns disappeared or suffered a decline despite the economic boom in rural areas. 

The short-term economic prosperity did not last; the underlying feudal structure of society had not changed, and by the mid-15th century standards of living had fallen again. Yet for most levels of English society, the Black Death represented a massive upheaval, one which changed the face of English society in a profound way. 

This then is the backdrop of Carolyn Hughes' "Fortune's Wheel", the first in a series set in a fictional town of Meonbridge in Hampshire in 1349. Widow Alice atte Wode, finds herself trapped in a plague-village; there is growing conflict between the lord of the manor and his tenants; murder has reared its ugly head; and there is still the un-answered question of Alice's missing daughter. Here, it is the women who tell this multi-layered story - Alice, Lady Margaret, and freewoman Eleanor - and it is a story of the people - those with the most to lose and now the most to gain. 

The second in the series is "A Woman's Lot" followed by "De Bohun's Legacy", with a fourth on the way; and I look forward to reading them all.  "Fortune's Wheel" is a fine debut - something a bit different for those wishing to expand their historical fiction.

Review: The Woman Who Fought An Empire by Gregory J Wallance

Though she lived only to twenty-seven, Sarah Aaronsohn led a remarkable life. The Woman Who Fought an Empire tells the improbable but true odyssey of a bold young woman--the daughter of Romanian-born Jewish settlers in Palestine--who became the daring leader of a Middle East spy ring. 

Following the outbreak of World War I, Sarah learned that her brother Aaron had formed Nili, an anti-Turkish spy ring, to aid the British in their war against the Ottomans. Sarah, who had witnessed the atrocities of the Armenian genocide by the Turks, believed that only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire could save the Palestinian Jews from a similar fate. Sarah joined Nili, eventually rising to become the organization's leader. Operating behind enemy lines, she and her spies furnished vital information to British intelligence in Cairo about the Turkish military forces until she was caught and tortured by the Turks in the fall of 1917. To protect her secrets, Sarah got hold of a gun and shot herself. 

What we know about both military and espionage events in the Middle East during WWI I strongly suspect comes mainly from the stories of the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia and what became known as the Great Arab Revolt. This chapter in the history of Palestine I think has been largely overlooked in general, though no doubt is more familiar to purists - and I include myself in the former, which was why I was drawn to this book in the first place.

It is easy to turn the spotlight onto Sarah as " ... the concept that a spy ring might be led by a woman was still beyond the Turks' thinking ..". Indeed if we compare to the later exploits in France during WWII, though active members, most of the spy rings / resistance cells were managed / led by men. And her death itself, both tragic and heroic, certainly draws one to her like a moth to the flame - it was alleged that one Turkish officer said “She is worth a hundred men.”.

Wallance's use of letters from Sarah, her family, friends and inner circle to punctuate her story is important in giving the reader access to these lives and also into the thoughts of those who were on the spot. As eye-witness accounts, they are an invaluable component not only of Sarah's story but of that of the Nili spy ring itself. I can only thank the author for providing a much needed list of the main characters upfront and not as an appendix. So much easier to get a grasp of who was who and how they were related to each other as the story progresses.

Equally important in the storytelling is events post-WWI - and the local Jewish populations' thoughts on this period. I was quietly surprised that even up to the creation of the State of Israel in the 1940s, there was still no official recognition and that the spies themselves were regarded as "reckless and irresponsible by much of the Jewish community of Palestine". Even Srodes in his book writes that the achivements of Nili had been whitewashed out of history by those ".. who did not want to share credit with her .." for the events leading to the foundation of the Jewish State, and that with the deaths of those involved, "the family’s legacy was easily manipulated". Rehabiliation of the spy ring only came about in the late 1960s - 1970s (during the wars between the Yasser Arafat's PLO and Israel) when Israel was at its nadir and the need for the mythical leader of the Jewish resistance was at its strongest.

Meticulously researched, Wallance brings to life the events of the time, the lives of Sarah and her family, the exploits of the Nili spies, and, of course, of Sarah herself. In doing so, Wallance reveals to us the reader, the real human element. Sarah saw horrible things being done but instead of quietly looking the other way and keeping her head down, she stepped forward and made a difference.

Sarah, in one of her final letters, writes: " .. I have a large role in the work here, and if we have to endanger ourselves, my dear one, I think not of it. The work is dear and holy to me ...."

further reading
Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn by James Srodes
A Spy for Freedom: The Story of Sarah Aaronsohn by Ida Cowen and Irene Gunther
Return of the Spies - Yemima Hovov

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Review: The Violent Abuse of Women by Geoffrey Pimm

The Violent Abuse of Women in 17th and 18th Century Britain
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are the gateway between the medieval world and the modern, centuries when the western societies moved from an age governed principally by religion and superstition to an age directed principally by reason and understanding. Although the worlds of science and philosophy took giant strides away from the medieval view of the world, attitudes to women did not change from those that had pertained for centuries. 

These new and unprecedented liberties thus gained by women were perceived as a threat by the leaders of society, and thus arose an unlikely masculine alliance against the new feminine assertions, across all sections of society from Puritan preachers to court judges, from husbands to court rakes.

This reaction often found expression in the violent and brutal treatment of women who were seen to have stepped out of line, whether legally, socially or domestically. Often beaten and abused at home by husbands exercising their legal right, they were whipped, branded, exiled and burnt alive by the courts, from which their sex had no recourse to protection, justice or restitution. Many of the most brutal forms of punishment were reserved exclusively for women, and even where the same, they were more savagely applied than would be the case for similar crimes committed by men.

What Pimm's book has done is catalogue the judicial use of violence as a form of punishment for crimes - or even perceived crimes - by women over the period of the 17th and 18th centuries, with a focus on Britain (and its satellite colonies).

This isn't a faint-hearted read as the violence depicted is often brutal, and may seem to today's reader, disproportionate to the crimes for which is was being administered as a form of judicial punishment. This is even more obvious when comparing the punishments metered out towards males for the same crimes (reference treason and coining).

Women were still considered to be subjected to the rule of the men in their lives - fathers, male relatives, husbands, employers. The were often the subject of violence at the hands of those who were said to have their own interests - and safety - at heart (see chapters on domestic violence, sexual abuse, abduction and clandestine marriage). Any form of countenance was viewed as rebellion against the social order and was therefore to be dealt with in as harsh as possible way in order to set an example to those women who may also consider "stepping out of line" and showing some form of independence of thought and spirit.

Pimm's book is divided into many categories - some of which overlap - which deal with not only the types of punishments used, but the types of crimes these were applied to. These chapters are often peppered with a snippets from social and legal papers and journals, in addition to contemporary writers (including Pepys, Swift and Johnson) - all of whom seem to think that their actions towards women were justified and beyond reproach. 

Pepys writes in his diary for February 1621 " ... our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut and pleases us mightily ..." and, later in December 1664, after attending the home of friend wrote " ... I found occasion of sending him abroad, and then alone [with the man's wife] ... overcoming her resistance I did what I wanted to my contentment ..." after which he went home for his supper!

From a modern mind, I was startled by such callous and objectifying attitudes, even more so when realising that this was considered "normal". Even more disturbing was that many punishments were carried out in public with some observers gaining sexual gratification from such public displays of a woman's nakedness being exposed, especially to the whip, which lead to punishments being metered out in private - "..... it is a shameful indecency for a woman to expose her naked body to the sight of men and boys, as if it were designed rather to feat the eyes of the beholders that to correct vice ..." - really as if this were her choice!

Like today, the onus of proof of crime was often charged upon the female victim, who whether vindicated or not, was still the victim of judicial violence - usually the lash or the wipe as women were still blamed or were held accountable for being the cause of violence against them - "the sins of Eve" - that women were responsible for leading men astray; and as men were their betters, the punishment should be all the more harsh.

This is a fascinating read for the student of both social and legal history, though I won't whitewash the fact that our modern day sensibilities (such as they are) will not only be offended but challenged. Having said that, one wonders if we have advanced as far as we think - or would like to think - that we have with regards to attitudes towards women. Not the least bit thought provoking.

suggested further reading: