GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD by Michael Chabon

17 02 2018

Two “gentlemen of the road”, vagrant warrior/mercenaries with their trusty swords and horses – almost knights errant, almost Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, but equals in most ways, and both essentially con-men. They have to be in order to survive.

One – Amram – is a gigantic African who, it transpires, set out years ago in quest of his daughter, taken by raiders. He never found her, and is no longer really looking. But he cannot go home without her.

The other, Zelikman, is a Jew – a Jew with a sword.The author seems to find this paradoxical, I am not sure why.

Perhaps it is the self-image of the New York Jew – the wise-cracking cowardly comedian at one extreme, the awe-inspiring pacifism of The Last of the Just at the other. But in fact, since Abraham fought Chedorlaomer and his allies more than three millennia ago, and Joshua and David among many other generals and kings conquered the land of Canaan and much of the surrounding area, and centuries later they fought back against the all-conquering Assyrians and Babylonians and were deported from their land to Babylon (where, finally, they sat down and wept), and centuries later again Jewish freedom-fighters like Judas Maccabeus and Simon bar-Kochba caused the Seleucid and Roman Empires so much trouble that the whole might of the empire had to be sent against them not once but repeatedly and finally the city of Jerusalem razed to the ground and the inhabitants of Israel and Judah – again! – deported en masse, and this time dispersed to the four corners of the earth.

This is not a passive people.

Then, for many, many years, they had no homeland, they were no longer a “nation” as such, but a religion, a culture, an ethnic minority (“race”) that kept themselves separate here, there and everywhere.

Our second hero, Zelikman, then, comes of one such community in France. Everywhere he travels he is thought of as and referred to as a Frank;  but back home in France, to the Franks he is a foreigner. He is also a physician, the last in a long line of physicians, and the first, it seems, who has not stayed at home and practised as one.

Then they rescue and, having rescued, take on the burden of helping, a fugitive prince, the rest of whose family have all been murdered in a bloody coup d’état. How could Zelikman say “No” when he learnt that this was the heir to the Jewish Kingdom – yes, Jewish Kingdom! – of the Khazars. All right, Amram is at first reluctant to get involved in “politics”, but for some strange reason he finds himself growing very fond of the efeminate and infuriating young prince.

Something very different, then, from the usual medieval whodunit or romance, and very strongly recommended.

 

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TO THE TOWER BORN by Robin Maxwell

11 02 2018

England, 1483

Bessie’s mother was bristling with indignation, but there was, underneath it, all-encompassing fear. News of Lord Hastings’s horrific execution for plotting the protector’s downfall had unnerved her. Clearly Richard of Gloucester was capable of anything. And now he had come to Westminster Sanctuary demanding an audience.

‘What can I do but see him?’ she said to Bessie as she checked her image in the looking glass. ‘If I do not, he will break the sanctuary of the church, breach the walls, and come in by force.’

But Bessie had heard the other side of her mother’s logic. Afraid of the Duke of Gloucester as she was, she trusted him in one important respect. She believed that Richard would do anything to place his brother’s son on the English throne. And was that not what she herself wanted above all?

Bessie had begged her mother to allow her to be present at the audience, and appraising her eldest daughter quickly and finding the eighteen-year-old as much of an ally as she was likely to find, the queen had agreed.

‘Let him come in,’ announced the queen dowager.

And in he came.

I first read this book several years ago and have just re-read it, and have been wondering how it is that Richard III gets so much attention and so many books written about him considering that he was king for less than two years.

Shakespeare depicted him as an evil hunchback who murdered his way to the throne, another MacBeth, but worse; and this is the image most people have of him. However, more recently many books have appeared, both fiction and non-fiction, defending Richard, and it is obviously true that Richard was the victim of Tudor propaganda to the effect that he usurped the throne, done in order to draw attention away from Henry Tudor’s usurpation.

Still, it must have been obvious to most people at the time that while Henry Tudor had seized by force of arms a throne to which he had no claim whatsoever, Richard may not have been a usurper at all if his nephews, the two young princes, were genuinely illegitimate (and it seems that they were) and the crown was thrust upon him by the Church and what passed for a government. Richard had had no intention of seizing the throne: he it was who proclaimed Edward King Edward V and arranged for his coronation.

Then the princes disappeared.

And nothing has been heard of them since (unless you believe the claims of poor Perkin Warbeck). The much-vaunted bones discovered in the Tower were just some among many, and even Sir Thomas More, who pointed the way to the site of the boys’ captivity, said the boys had been taken from the Tower before their death.

A mystery indeed.

Robin Maxwell presents a new solution – which I cannot of course give away. Enough to say that her Richard is neither the tragic hero of Daughter of Time, We Speak No Treason, The Midnight King, The Medievalist, etc, nor the villain of Shakespeare and conservative historians. He is weak and vacillating, a tool in the hands of treacherous men like Buckingham and Margaret Beaufort’s husband Lord Stanley. I like this. To me it rings true.

I also like very much the depiction of the friendship between Princess Bessie (Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s eldest child, who at the age of eighteen was possibly the most eligible princess in the world, then suddenly finds herself declared illegitimate, a nobody) and Nell Caxton, independent and highly educated only child of  the man who introduced the printing-press to Britain and printed the first books in English. The story is told through the eyes of those two wonderful girls, Bessie and Nell, and it will be very hard ever to see that episode again through any other eyes.

 





The MADELEINE TOCHE series by Soren Petrek

31 01 2018

Cold, Lonely Courage

Madeleine Toche grew up in a village in Provence where little usually happened apart from the changing of the seasons and people coming to eat at Chez Toche, the family restaurant. In her case, though, something quite out of the ordinary happened: the Germans invaded France, her brother was killed and she herself was raped by an SS officer. Later, after days of careful planning with her father, she killed the rapist and escaped to England where she joined the SOE, the Special Operations Executive (the original “Special Ops”, also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army”), where she was trained as an assassin.

Back in France, we follow her war as she kills and kills again and again, always picking the worst of the worst, Gestapo torturers and murderers, while at the same time spiriting Jewish children to safety.

By the end of the war she is known far and wide as L’Ange de la Mort, the Angel of Death.

This is a very exciting book, certainly one of the best and most memorable WWII novels I have ever read – and I have read dozens! Not one to miss if you are a WWII buff.

Then comes Angels Don’t Die, an apt title and another great story. Madeleine is now about fifty years old and living in small-town America (in Patience, Missouri) with a British husband, another SOE agent from the war. There, she runs a French restaurant and thinks of her wartime life as a thing of the past, almost a dream now.

That is until her godson, Tracy, is kidnapped by the PLO  while on a training mission with the Mossad in Israel.

The Angel of Death, it seems, was not dead but sleeping.

Another well-researched and deeply-felt story that had me for one up through the wee small hours again, Kindle clutched tightly in my hand.

Patience County War brings the trilogy to a close. Another thirty years have passed by. Now in her eighties, Madeleine can no longer play the lead, so don’t expect to see much of her. The protagonist this time is Sam, Sheriff of Patience County and younger brother of the Tracy she rescued in the previous story.

When Sam clashes with a Mexican gang who have the audacity to cook and push meth (methamphetamine) in his county, they send an assassin to eliminate the gringo. It is the assassin who dies, and the ensuing battle soon escalates into a full-scale war.

The story has its exciting moments, some very exciting, but much of it is slow and its setting is not one of the worlds I always love being transported to (like WWII France and the Israel/Palestine conflict). That said, if you enjoyed the other two books then you really should round them off with this sunset, passing-on-the-baton-to-the-next-generation tale.





COLD SIGHT by Leslie A. Kelly

30 01 2018

Aidan McConnell is a psychic living in retirement – in hiding, we might say – after making a mistake and subsequently being blamed for a child’s death. Blamed not only by others, but by himself.

Lexie Nolan is a reporter with the local small-town newspaper. She, too, is in disgrace, after claiming that a series of missing teenage girls were not runaways and quite separate incidents, but all victims of kidnapping and possibly murder at the hands of local people important enough to be able to cover the whole thing up. This of course led to accusations of jumping to conclusions and threats of libel suits, and brought her paper into disrepute. Now she is hanging onto her job by the skin of her teeth.

But when another teenage girl goes missing and Lexie is expected to report it as simply another runaway kid from a “garbage family”, she has had enough. She knows of Aidan McConnell, of course, knows his story, and while not believing in “all that psychic nonsense” knows that he has a record of successfully locating victims such as this girl. Only she prefers to call it intuition, having a hunch.

At first he is not remotely interested, but when they do finally get their act together …

The corrupt mayor, judge, police chief and bank manager are vividly portrayed and totally convincing. A small-town version of the Washington DC swamp. Perfect.





SHEPHERDS by J. Drew Brumbaugh

12 01 2018

This is a story about what are, in effect, mermaids and mermen. However, it is not fantasy – at least not fairy-tale fantasy, though perhaps you might class it as that SF sub-genre Speculative Fantasy, rather than as hardcore Science Fiction.

In one sense, it is a little of both – as I suppose are all the best SF novels.

In a not-too-distant future, when over-fishing has depleted the seas of wild fish, shoals of millions of farmed tuna are minded out in the open ocean by genetically engineered humans and tame dolphins. Like shepherds and their sheepdogs, the humans directing operations and the dolphins keeping the shoal all together and moving in the right direction. As a situation this clearly has its good side, but one of its downsides is that traditional fishermen, who had been barely making a living before, are now unable to compete. Some turn to piracy, or to drug-trafficking, working for the big cartels. Others, like our hero Toivo, struggle on as fishermen.

Toivo, it should be pointed out, is not a shepherd. What enables him to keep going is his ability to communicate directly with dolphins. He literally “speaks dolphinese”, which he learnt as a small child spending all his time with dolphins that his father, a marine zoologist, was studying. Now his dolphin friends help him with his fishing.

So there he is on his fishing-boat somewhere out in the south Pacific. And not far away on a submersible raft, their home, live three shepherds. Two of them are a couple; the third, Olga, whom some would descrinbe as beautiful, others as a freak, feels left out. Lonely. And that she has nothing whatsoever to look forward to. She cannot live on land, and now her kind, mutants, the product of genetic engineering, have been declared illegal by the UN.

On a third vessel, a large ship, a fishing-boat skipper turned drug-runner who hates “swimmer freaks” sails towards them.  Enough. I don’t wish to spoil it.

I love the whole notion of mermaids and sea-people so naturally I thrilled to this story. But there is something else that makes this book stand out from the rest. The dolphins are not only intelligent but philosphically and spiritually more advanced than most of us humans – partly, of course, because they are completely unmaterialistic. There is even the suggestion that their ancestors, millions of years ago, were land-dwellers and the first civilisation on Earth, but then took the conscious decision to return to the sea. Toivo’s close friend, the dolphin Poika, believes that humans have at last begun to tire of their materialistic and self-destructive civilisation and are now ready to return to the sea. That people like Olga represent the future of our species.

Don’t miss this if you enjoy thrillers with an unusual setting and some passages which make you think. And go on thinking after you have closed the book.





UNDER A BLACK SKY by Inger Wolf

6 01 2018

Inger Wolf’s Under a Black Sky is a fairly standard police procedural but with an unusual and dramatic setting and an even more unusual protagonist that I for one definitely want to see more of.

It is apparently part of a series written in Danish and featuring the Danish Detective Daniel Trokics, but he is not the protagonist I mean. No, what makes this one special for me is, as I say, the setting, in Alaska – quite different from cosy little Denmark – and the other detective, the one in charge of this case, a woman named Angie Johnson.

Trokics has been sent to Anchorage to observe (and assist?) because the victims in the multiple murder were a Danish family, and a Danish child, eleven-year-old Marie, is missing, presumably kidnapped, because her body was not there with those of the rest of the family. The scenes where we see things from Marie’s viewpoint are moving and well-written, but I found Trokics boring and cold and I don’t see how any reader, male or female, could ever identify with him. Me, I was there with Angie from the very first moment and was still with her in the hospital room in Alaska when Trokics had left her and returned to Denmark.

So, what I would like to see, dear Inger, is a series of books featuring Angie Johnson. She is definitely the most interesting and sympathetic police detective I have come across in years of reading murder mysteries – with the possible exception of Miss Smilla (Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen, in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), who, curiously, is another Danish creation and of very similar mixed parentage.

I thought I had reviewed that wonderful story in this site but find now that I haven’t. I will post a review of it as soon as I can – but don’t wait! If you haven’t read it, read it. Both these books are highly recommended.





THE MEDIEVALIST by Anne-Marie Lacey

27 12 2017

I have been a committed Richard III supporter ever since I read, many years ago, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. (Truth is the daughter of time.) For those of you who haven’t come across that classic of the murder mystery genre, Tey’s Inspector Grant is confined to bed for a long period after being wounded and he passes his time by attempting to solve a very cold crime – the murder of the princes in the Tower. To his surprise, he realises he has no choice but to acquit King Richard of the murders.

The Medievalist is, in a sense, a similar investigation of the same crime, but it is also a love story, and has that in common with two more wonderful novels featuring Richard III, namely We Speak No Treason and The Court of the Midnight King. In both of these stories the heroine is in love with Richard, and in the second there is also an element of time travel (click on the titles to see my full reviews on this site of these two excellent books). In The Medievalist, however, time travel underlies the whole story.

Jayne Lyons is an American student working on her PhD in history who, for no particular reason (other than a family legend that they are descended from King Richard) is convinced that Shakespeare got the whole thing wrong and Richard was neither a villain nor a hunchback. At the newly opened site of Richard’s grave in a car park in Leicester she finds a silver boar pendant, and when she holds it is transported back to the 15th century and the camp of Richard and his army, where – naturally. given the way she is dressed – she is taken for a camp-following whore and accused of stealing the silver boar.

Her adventures during the coming months, leading up to the Battle of Bosworth, make the book an all-night read, and the author’s version of what really happened to the two little princes is at least as likely as any other theory I have come across.

Well researched (by an obviously devoted student of the period and the person) and well written. Highly recommended.