GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD by Michael Chabon

8 07 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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THE FOREST OF SOULS by Carla Banks

30 06 2018

Helen Kovacs and Faith Lange are old school and university friends who, after graduating from Oxford, went their separate ways. Helen, despite her First, married and settled into life as a mother and housewife, while Faith pursued the academic career that has led to her being appointed Senior Research Assistant at the Centre for European Studies at the University of Manchester.

Briefly, their lives come together again when Helen tires of being a housewife, completes her PhD, and is accepted at Manchester for post-doctoral research. And leaves her husband.

Then Helen is murdered.

From the beginning, Faith  is sure that this was not some random, possibly sex-related, killing, and she gradually becomes obsessed with the notion that the killer was in fact Helen’s jealous and violent husband, Daniel.

Jake Denbigh, however, while agreeing that it was not some random killing, has a different theory. He believes Helen was murdered because someone did not want her to pursue her research into the atrocities committed in and outside the city of Minsk during WW2. Denbigh,  a writer and journalist who has himself been carrying out research in the same field,  is very interested in Faith’s own grandfather, who arrived in the UK as a refugee in 1943 and whose home, though he has always been very secretive about it, was in Minsk.

An exciting read and a mind-numbing reconstruction of the war years in Poland and Belarus. Eastern Poland and Belarus were occupied first by the Russians (when Hitler and Stalin divided Poland between them), then by the Germans after Hitler (greedy for more of Eastern Europe and after having lost the Battle of Britain and the Battle of El Alamein) declared war on Russia. The Nazis were seen by many at that time, in Belarus anyway, as liberators. But not for long, once the atrocities began.

It is those atrocities – the massacre and the mass graves under the trees in the Kurapaty Forest; and the Maly Trostenets death camp – and the further atrocities committed by the Communists when the Nazis were pushed back out of Minsk and the rest of Belarus and the Russians rolled back in, that forms the heart of this unforgettable book. 





TO THE TOWER BORN by Robin Maxwell

6 05 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 all over again 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 as 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.





PARDONABLE LIES by Jacqueline Winspear

30 04 2018

London and France, 1930

The dating of this book, 1930, is deceptive, for it is very much a post-WW1 novel, and a very good one. It catches the spirit of that time, when all had lost someone and many still suffered, those so wounded mentally or physically as to be unable to take any part in post-war life, those who did go on with that life despite the mental and physical traumas. It was a horrible period.

The heroine herself, Maisie Dobbs, was a nurse at Verdun, an experience from which she has never fully recovered, psychologically. She also lost her fiancé, who is still “alive” in a home somewhere, a vegetable … So when she is asked to find out whether a Flying Corps officer, officially declared dead twelve years ago after his plane crashed in France, is really dead, she accepts the task – especially as a thirteen-year-old girl whose own father was killed in the war and who is now accused of murdering her “uncle” and pimp, needs a good lawyer. Maisie’s client, the father of the missing airman, happens to be one of the best barristers in the country, and he agrees reluctantly to defend the girl if Maisie agrees to investigate the death of his son.

A rich friend of Maisie’s asks her, while she’s about it, to see if she can find out anything more about her two beloved elder brothers, both killed in action.

All this, of course, involves returning to France and the scenes of her nightmares.

It is all very moving, very real, and very well written. And Maisie herself is a young lady you will definitely identify with, if you are anything like me.

There is apparently a whole series of books featuring Maisie Dobbs out there and I’m going to be on the look-out for them from now on as I browse the shelves (and cardboard boxes) of my favourite second-hand bookshops.





MORIARTY MEETS HIS MATCH by Anna Castle

25 04 2018

No time for a full review here – and no need for one. We all know and love Sherlock Holmes. We all abominate Professor James Moriarty, the “criminal mastermind” whom Holmes describes as “the Napoleon of crime”, the man responsible for Holmes’ death on the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem – though Conan Doyle had later to resurrect him by public demand (like James Bond in You Only Live Twice).

Now imagine James Moriarty as the hero, a handsome and gentlemanly professor of mathematics whose astute mind is perceived by the beady-eyed Holmes (he of the “nose like an axe”) as a challenge: Holmes is determined to cast Moriarty in the role of criminal, and does so, though without much success, it must be said, at least in this first book of the series.

And then there is Angelina, Mrs Gould, a woman far more memorable than any female character in the authentic Holmes stories – a Victorian Bond-girl with a mutiplicity of talents and a totally unVictorian code of behaviour and outlook on life.

I loved it. So, I am sure, will you.

 





THE LAST COMPANION by by Patrick McCormack

23 04 2018

Set in both Arthurian and post-Arthurian Britain, this novel is a little confusing at first, but stick with it.

Once you grasp that the hermit Budoc, protagonist of the post-Arthurian story, is one with the knight mab Petroc, hero of the Arthurian story (“mab” being the ancient British form of the Scottish “mac”, son of) and that Budoc is the last of those once known as the Companions of Arthur, it all comes clear. Though it is not until the end of the book that we learn who exactly Budoc / map Petroc was.

Budoc the hermit lives on a hill above a fishing village on the south coast of Cornwall, in ancient Dumnonia. Life is peaceful, for him and for the villagers. But then, suddenly, trouble comes out of the blue, and troubles do not come singly. A band of Scotti (Irishmen) arrive in the village in search of a sacred chalice which, or so they have been told, the local hermit has in his possession. They proceed to massacre the inhabitants of the village. The three-page description of the massacre is detailed and horrifying, but also, because we see it through the eyes of a village girl, very moving. Then a boat full of Saxons anchors off the beach. They are looking for somewhere to settle and know nothing of the massacre or the presence there of the Irish warriors. The hermit, and the local girl, who survived the slaughter, hide in the forest.

Meanwhile, back in Arthur’s time, the big question is whether, following his overwhelming victory against the Saxons at the Battle of Badon, Arthur will be content to remain the Magister Militum, Commander of the Armies of Britain, or will declare himself Emperor. It transpires that to do so legitimately, he must travel north to Iardomnan (the Hebrides) and pass a test and receive a chalice from the priest of the Attecotti, the first-comers And mab Petroc, our hero, has fallen in love with a mysterious female bard who sets out with them on the long journey on horseback to the north coast of Dumnonia and by ship up through the Irish Sea to the Western Isles of Scotland.

Don’t miss McCormack’s ten-page appendix on the historical background to the novel. The story is full of myth and magic, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, for so was Britain at the time, but it is not fantasy in any sense; it is realistic and historically accurate all the author has done in effect is to give the name Arthur to the Commander of the British forces at Badon and go from there.





DEAD GORGEOUS by Elizabeth Flynn

17 04 2018

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

I didn’t know this book was the second in a series until I’d finished it and at the end came across a blurb for Game, Set and Murder, the first book. So there you are. It stands alone. It needs no prequel and it ends neatly with no cliff-hanger. I like that.

To tell the truth, the title (Dead Gorgeous) grabbed me because I do love a good vampire and/or zombie story, but the word “Dead” in the title here signifies what it used to signify before the vampire and zombie craze, and it is actually one of a new series of police procedurals featuring D.I. Angela (Angie) Costello. About whom, it has to be said, there is nothing particularly special or memorable. She is married to a retired policeman and has a grown-up step-daughter who returns home to live early in the story. A bit like Mr Wilkinson the clergyman.

What I most enjoyed about the book was the setting, the London fashion scene. The author is clearly at home there but I was moving into a new world, and that for me is the acid test of a novel and a novelist.

The eponymous victim is indeed “dead gorgeous” (though still alive) when the story opens. But though she looks like an angel, her character is far from angelic, and when she is murdered there is, as her flat-mate Sandra remarks, going to be no shortage of suspects.

The plot is original, the setting interesting, the characterisation good, the writing professional and the editing competent. I enjoyed it, and if you are into UK police procedurals, then you will, too. However, Angie Costello herself  is, as I say, depressingly ordinary – reality personified – and that is just what I don’t want when I pick up a book. (See the previous post!)