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.


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.

A DEADLY BREW by Susanna Gregory

13 04 2018

Cambridge, winter, 1353

‘And what happened after you brought your ill-gotten gains back here?’ the monk asked, looking from one to the other with eyebrows raised in disapprobation.

‘Brother Armel was carrying one of the bottles. When we arrived …’

Xavier faltered, gazing down at his feet, and the red-haired student took up the story. ‘Brother Armel opened his bottle, took a great swig and …’

‘And what?’ prompted Michael.

As one, the novice Franciscans looked to where Armel lay on the floor. Xavier gave a sudden sob, loud in the otherwise silent room.

‘He staggered for a moment,’ continued the red-haired student unsteadily. ‘Then he grabbed at his throat and fell to the floor. We thought he was playing the fool, so we ignored him at first. Then we tried to rouse him, but it did no good.’ He swallowed hard. ‘Brother Henry said he would fetch Father Yvo, but Xavier said we needed the Proctors because Armel had been …’

‘Poisoned,’ finished Xavier in a whisper, as the red-haired student failed to utter the dreaded word. One or two of the novices crossed themselves and all eyes were, once again, fixed on the prone figure on the floor …

A petty thief breaks into spmeone’s cellar and steals a case of fine French wine – twelve bottles of claret that he proceeds to sell to students and apprentices. Then the deaths begin, because somehow the bottles contain a deadly poison.

But one of those who dies is the scholar James Grene, unsuccessful candidate for the post of Master of the College of Valence Marie, who drinks the poisoned wine during the feast celebrating the inauguration of his rival, Thomas Brigham. Why? Was this pure chance, or had he been given that wine purposely?

Meanwhile, smuggling is on the increase. The Fens, which stretch from Cambridge to the sea, are a flat wasteland of pools and streams and marshes and bogs that have always been a haven for smugglers, but now it seems a new and greedier gang is operating in the area. Was the poisoned wine brought in by them?

Matthew Bartholomew, who teaches medicine at Michaelhouse, and Brother Michael, the Benedictine monk who is Senior Proctor of the university, do not know where to turn. Then they are summoned to nearby Ely, the cathedral city of the fens, by the bishop, and have no choice but to go, though several people warn them that the message might not be genuine and they might be walking into a trap.

The fact that they do not listen is typical of Matthew and Michael. They are both, especially the “hero” of the series, Matthew, unbelievably obtuse and slow in the uptake. It struck me repeatedly while I was reading this story that it is like having two Watsons and no Holmes. A typical example of Matthew in action is when Julianna warns them that she has overheard a plot to murder them both that night. This is at the Convent of Denny, where they have taken refuge. Neither of them pays any attention to her, depite that fact that they have been ambushed on the road to Ely and escaped by the skin of their teeth and that somebody obviously wants to kill them. During the night, Matthew wakes to find Michael’s bed empty. He foolishly suspects that Michael is meeting Julianna in the orchard. He goes there and finds Michael talking to an elderly nun called Dame Pelagia, who, it turns out, is Michael’s grandmother. While they are out there, the part of the convent where they have been sleeping goes up in flames. Do they thank Julianna and apologise for not believing her? On the contrary. And when Matthew, Michael, Julianna and Pelagia flee from the convent and are attacked again on the road and Julianna saves Matthew’s life by hitting his assailant on the head with a stone, does he thank her? No, he seems to thinks she should be charged with murder! His attitude to everyone and everything, even his friend – yes, friend – Mathilde, the prostitute – is amazing in its combination of naiveté and arrogance.

These are wonderful books if you want to feel at home in 14th-century Cambridge, see life as it happens in the colleges and the town from day to day. But do not expect any clever investigations from the least talented and most reluctant sleuth in detective fiction.

LIVE BAIT by Jim Hawkey

2 04 2018

Again, it was the vomit-making stench that alerted me.

I peered in through the gate. A vegetable garden and a yard, and beyond, the back door of a two-storey house. It was lying on the ground in the yard.

It may be shamming, but I was faster.

I went in, crept closer, poised to fly at the slightest movement. Nothing. Just black blood – blood was the wrong word – black ichor seeping from its chest.

It knew I was there, though.

Knew I was just a girl, a whore and harmless. Prey, not a predator.

Then it spoke. ‘Tell the other I’ve got his scent.’ An unvoiced rasp, but quite comprehensible. It moved and I jumped back, but it was only shifting slightly, onto its side. Perhaps it could speak easier, breathe easier, like that. ‘I’ll tear him apart.’

Did they breathe? I needed to know much, much more about the Undead.

‘You are dying. Again.’

‘I heal. By tomorrow I will be healed.’

I had no doubt that what it claimed was true.

‘Are you Harold Turner, Jocelyn’s husband?’ I asked, trying to occupy his mind while I searched the yard, tried the door. It was open.

It laughed. I think.

‘No?’ I said from the door. The way it was lying now, it could not see what I was doing.

‘I’m Alfwin. Alfwin Host-thief.’

Host-thief? ‘You stole the Host from a church?’ Even I was shocked. ‘When? While you were still alive?’

‘For that they killed me. That and other things. But I have overcome their death.’

‘Their death?’ I went in and left him talking to himself. The kitchen was as Jocelyn must have left it. I picked up a cleaver and walked back out.

‘ … they had my body. I didn’t need it. I knew this one awaited me.’

‘Why do you seek out priests?’

‘They’ve always been my enemy.’

Well, we had something in common.

‘I stole the Host for the witches.’

‘The witches were your friends?’

There might be something else we shared.

‘They told me how to – ‘

I brought the cleaver down on the side of its neck with all my strength.

It sprang to its feet.

I fled. A hundred yards up the alley, I realised it was not following me. I walked slowly back. Stopped at the gate and peeped in. It was still on its feet, but its head was hanging sideways, resting on its shoulder. Then as I watched, the head slid forward dangling over its chest. It fell to its knees, then flat on its face with a thud that shook the ground.

Only it wasn’t flat on its face exactly, it was flat on its head.

I waited a few moments. There was no sign of life – or undeath – at all.

A pitch-fork caught my eye. I went and picked it up, hefted it. Yes, that would do nicely.

I went back to the thing and thrust both prongs deep into its buttock.

No reaction. And when I pulled it out, just more black ichor following the prongs slowly up out of each hole.

I dug the prongs into its side and turned it over.

It was dead. Or at least, this body was.

I threw down the pitch-fork, retrieved the cleaver from where I had dropped it when I fled, and proceeded to hack away at what was left of its neck until the head came free.

But what to do with it? One thing I knew, I must not leave it near the rest of the body.

Time to go. Time I was back at the Shag!

But the head …?

The Abbey. I would throw it over the gate and run! Leave it there for that gate-keeper or the prior to find. On hallowed ground!

I didn’t get a chance to write a review of Live Bait after I read it the first time, so, as it is a long book with a large cast of characters and a lot happening, I re-read it before putting pen to paper (literally – I always prefer to write everything out longhand first.) I remembered thinking the first time that this was the best description of life in a medieval brothel I had ever come across. In fact it is a realistic and vivid description of life in a brothel at any time, ancient or in modern, in any less than civilised setting– and I do know the brothels of Delhi and Bangkok, the former well, the latter less so.

There are two brothels involved in this story, the Green Unicorn in Southwark, and the Shag which once stood outside the old Roman wall of Colchester in Essex. (By the way, a shag is a kind of cormorant! – there is a painting of one of these birds on the sign outside apparently.) I suspect that the one in Southwark will play a greater part in the next story as the present story unfolds during the years 1379 and 1380, and 1381 is the year of the great Peasants’ Revolt when the peasants marched out of Kent and Essex and stormed London. Most of this book is set in Essex, but it is not the looming rebellion that concerns us here, it is the all-too-visible revenants, night-walkers and wraiths which Mariana faces in Colchester and out on the Essex Marshes, not to metion the invisible cloud of Undeparted Dead that surrounds us at all times,

The book opens with Mariana paying a disastrous visit to the Savoy Palace in London, home of the Lord Regent, John of Gaunt, where she has an appointment with Gaunt’s sister, Princess Isabella. That chapter has been posted HERE on the “A Tudor Writing Circle” site, and it was noticing this that prompted me to get this review posted. Please do visit that site to get another taste of this story.

Soon after that catastrophic visit, Mariana is recruited by ex-Queen Blanche of France to the Arcane Net, a network of spies and secret agents set up by the late Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV to keep track of all practitioners of the Dark Arts, indeed of all arcane activities. It is as Blanche’s agent that she is sent to Colchester to trap and kill (re-kill) one or both of the undead serial killers operating in the area: the first is a revenant, a corpse up out of the grave tearing priests and monks apart, and the other a wraith tearing the throats out of “green-eyed sluts” (“like you” Blanche tells Mariana).

Mariana soon comes to realise (a) that it is not her cover as a local prostitute which is in danger of being blown, but her identity as Lady Marian MacElpin, her real self – everyone believes that she really is and always has been a prostitute – and (b) that she is there not so much to entrap and decapitate the Undead as to be the live bait in a plot of which she knows little or nothing.

Don’t miss this story! But I have to say that it is not a stand-alone. You really do need to have read Mariana de la Mar 1 (Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists) first, and perhaps also the prequel to the series, Mermaid out of Water (which I haven’t reviewed here yet, but will soon, I promise).

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.