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.





The alphabet book tag A-Z

9 01 2018

I took this very nice idea from mrsrobinsonslibrary.wordpress.com – please visit her there to see her A-Z.

Now for mine …

A – Author you’ve read most books from: Paul Doherty, without question. I’ve read one or two of his books set in ancient Egypt and I like and recommend his books set in the Rome of Constantine the Great and Helen – see for example my review of Murder Imperial and The Song of the Gladiator – but it is his medieval mysteries I am addicted to. They consist, apart from one or two stand-alones, of three series, each its own little world within a world and quite unforgettable: The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan; the Hugh Corbett Medieval Mysteries; and the Canterbury Tales of Murder and Mystery.  The links are to my reviews of one of the books from each series.

B – Best sequel ever: for me, this has to be The Lord of the Rings, originally conceived and written as a sequel to The Hobbit. It won my vote for Book of the Century in the year 1999.

C – Currently reading: I’ve just started on Shepherds by J. Drew Brumbaugh. I’ll review it when I’ve finished it. (The review is now posted HERE.)

D – Drink of choice: While reading? A cuppa – a nice cup of tea, English style.

E – E-reader or physical book? I’m growing accustomed to my Kindle Reader, and it is much lighter (less strain on the wrists!) than the hardcover editions I love. Cheap paperbacks I’m not fussed about and I rarely buy new ones now, though I do buy secondhand ones when I come across something I fancy by chance somewhere.

F – Fictional character you would probably have dated in High School: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. I loved him when I was a child and I love him still now.

G – Glad you gave this book a chance: there have been many, but a good example would be Dune: House Atreides, and all the rest of the books written by Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson and set in the Dune Universe. People were sneering about that first one, but I gave it a chance and have since read all their Dune books.

H – Hidden Gem: Dorothy Nimmo’s The Wigbox is a little-known gem. Click on the image for more information here on this site:

I – Important moment in your reading life: Coming across Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael quite by chance (I think it was One Corpse Too Many) triggered my lifelong love of the Medieval Mystery.

J – Juvenile favourite. Mine is probably Kim (see “F” above) but there are many others I love, from Hans Anderson’s The Snow Queen and Kingsley’s The Water Babies to the Harry Potter series and the His Dark Materials trilogy.

K – Kind of book you won’t read: books by illiterate “authors”, either unedited or “edited” by illiterate “editors”.

L – Longest book you’ve read: A Glastonbury Romance by John Cooper Powys. I have read all 1, 120 pages twice but still haven’t got round to writing a proper review!

M – Major book hangover because of: Lin Anderson’s Easy Kill. Read my review of it here and you will see why it moved and upset me.

N – Number of bookshelves you own: Six bookcases, and books everywhere. (But my Kindle is definitely easing the pressure!)

O – One book you’ve read multiple times: The Bhagavad Gita.

P – Preferred place to read: The beach in summer or when I’m travelling. Otherwise anywhere warm and cosy.

Q – Quotes that inspire you: Here are a few I like

ALICE BORCHARDT

I have often thought if one could impart the doings of mankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon. (The Silver Wolf)

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Chastity – the most unnatural of all the sexual perversions. (Eyeless in Gaza)

EMILY DICKINSON

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face …

LAURENCE DURRELL

I find art easy. I find life difficult.

WILLIAM GOLDING

We did everything adults would do. What went wrong? (Lord of the Flies)

R – Reading regrets: My TBR list grows longer and longer while the reading time left to me in this life grows shorter by the day.

S – A series you’ve started and need to finish: Shakespeare’s plays! There are still several I have neither read nor seen.

T – Three of your all-time favourite books:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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U – Unapologetic fangirl:

The James Bond novels – and the early, Sean Connery, films.

V – A Villain permanently etched on your brain:

Charles Dickins’ Fagin – in the book and as portrayed by Ron Moody:

W – Worst book habit: Writing notes and comments in books.

X – X marks the spot: pick the 27th book from the left on the top left shelf:

Balthazar – the second volume in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, another series I love and have read right through three times – and plan to read again!

 

Y – Your latest purchase: I take this to mean of a physical book, so Yeats’s Ghosts, the Secret Life of W. B. Yeats, by Brenda Maddox (a hardcover, secondhand, but like new). I will let you all know what I make of it!

Z – zzzz-snatcher: The Cold Heart trilogy by Lynda la Plante – three books (Cold HeartCold BloodCold Shoulder), three nights up all night!





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.





FREE Today (a reblog)

27 12 2017

Hi all, This is a very brief blog post. It is really to bring to your attention, that three of my titles are free today to download. Here are the links! Thank you! Freedom of the Monsoon: When India’s freedom was challenged…was when Pooja’s freedom and life tumbled around her. Drama. A gripping history of […]

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KING’S GOLD by Michael Jecks

21 12 2017

England, 1326

Father Luke was kneeling at his little altar when he heard the rumble and clink of men and a cart in the lane outside. He was quick to finish his prayers and stride to the door.  […]

Outside he found two men-at-arms on horseback, seven reluctant-looking peasants on foot, and a cart with a strongbox on it.

‘Father, I’ve heard you have a secure storeroom?’ one of the riders asked. He was a swarthy fellow with a bushy red and brown beard, and brown eyes in a square face.

‘Yes, of course,’ Father Luke said. Churches were the best places for men to store valuable items. They would trust a priest not rob them, and even if a church were to be broken into, it was rare for thieves to get into a strongroom within. Until recently, even the King himself had stored his crown jewels and gold in the church at Westminster Abbey.

The man introduced himself as Hob of Gloucester. ‘”We have a box to deposit with you, for my lord, Sir Hugh le Despenser. He cannot fetch it, and we cannot carry it with us, since it’s too heavy. Will you keep it for him?’

Over the years, I have read nearly all the Knights Templar Mysteries. There are thirty-one of them now, of which this is Number 29. And, of course, there will be developments and changes, not only in the on-going soap-opera that forms the background to these stories (the personal lives of Simon Puttock and Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, their families and their households) but also in the style of the stories themselves.

It has to be said that the change here has been pretty extreme, compared with any other series of murder mysteries I can think of, whether medieval, Victorian, modern or whatever. To take just one example (out of hundreds), in the latest Brother Athelstan novel by Paul Doherty, Athelstan and Sir John Cranston are still solving gruesome and baffling murders just as they were when the series started so many years ago. And just as Simon and Baldwin were when this series started (see for example my review of The Tolls of Death). But the last few of these books have become an on-going historical saga (see for example my review of The Bishop Must Die).

Michael Jecks is not pretending otherwise. An “Author’s Note” in this book begins:  “In trying to write a book about the gaoling of Sir Edward of Caernarfon, lately King Edward II of England, I have been forced to study a large number of documents to make sense of the crazy politics of that era.

And that is what this book is about.

If you have read only one or some or most of the earlier books in this series and are expecting more of the same, a straightforward medieval murder mystery featuring Simon Puttock and Baldwin de Furnshill, you will be disappointed. Bailiff Simon, the original and only sleuth in the first book, does not even make an appearance in this latest book until page 183.

If, on the other hand, you have read the last few books, from The Templar, the Queen and her Lover on, and are caught up in this very realistic and detailed account of the traumatic events that shook England in the 1320s, King’s Gold will be the next instalment that you have been waiting for.

Me, I’ve been waiting for a return to the real thing, authentic murder mysteries featuring our two less-than-super but always-brave heroes in which the rumours of goings-on in high places are kept firmly in the background. And apparently that is what Michael Jecks does return to Number 30 (City of Fiends), then in Number 31 (Templar’s Acre) he takes us right back to a time before Sir Baldwin had even met Simon, in 1291, when the Order of Knights Templar still existed and Baldwin, a Templar himself, was present at the catastrophic Battle of Acre. I must read these two books.