The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis


ArmeniaThis is the first historical novel I’ve come across which tackles the issue of the Armenian Genocide, the hundredth anniversary of which was commemorated earlier this year.  It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it covers a very important subject.

Up to 1.5 million people were killed in the atrocities against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.  Only 29 countries officially recognise what happened as genocide.  Many regional parliaments and assemblies do too, and only Turkey and Azerbaijan officially deny that what happened was genocide, but most national governments are reluctant to commit themselves, perhaps due largely to the fear, given the situation in the Middle East, of the possible consequences of upsetting Turkey.

France has taken the lead in trying to persuade Turkey to change its position; other countries, notably the Republic of Cyprus and Uruguay, have also done much to ensure that what happened is recognised; and the Pope spoke out about the subject in April … as a result of which, Turkey recalled its envoy to the Vatican.  Rather bizarrely, most of the coverage of the centenary commemorations in the English language media seemed to centre on the visit of Kim and Khloe Kardashian to the memorial complex in Armenia.  I am not a fan of the Kardashians, but they did speak very movingly about the genocide and their sadness that it isn’t properly recognised.

No-one who was actively involved can be alive now, and no blame can be attached to modern-day Turkey and its people … but the subject remains extremely sensitive in Turkey, and, especially given the present situation in Syria and Iraq, most governments dare not risk confrontation with the Turkish authorities.  So it’s very unlikely that there will be widescale recognition any time soon that what took place was genocide.  But it was.

Moving on to the book, it was one of these which flip between different time periods and different sets of characters: we had the British granddaughter of a woman who’d survived the Armenian Genocide finding a series of letters written by her grandmother, shortly after the grandmother’s death in the mid-1980s, and part of the book was narrated by the granddaughter, part by the grandmother via her letters, and part by the grandmother’s brother, who, unbeknownst to her, had also survived and was living in Cyprus.

Much of the stuff set in the 1980s wasn’t particularly good, quite honestly.  It was just all too easy for everyone to find their long-lost relations, via a series of highly improbably coincidences and a few phone calls.  And no-one seemed the slightest bit upset to discover that a lifetime of lies had been told about someone’s paternity.  One aspect of which was however shown very well was the pressure put on some of the younger generation to stick to the old ways and remain within, and, in particular, to marry within, the Armenian community, even if that wasn’t going to make them happy.  That’s something which is common to many minority communities, and I’ve known families torn apart by it.  Happily, in this case, the Armenian grandfather eventually accepted that his granddaughter should marry for love, regardless of ethnicity or religion or anything else.  Another was the long-term psychological effects on those who’ve been through such a trauma, and how depression and anxiety can strike them even decades later.

The parts of the book which covered the events of 1915 and the years immediately following it were much better – and very. very sad.  We saw men killed, women and children deported, women abducted and raped, deportees being massacred, and deaths from disease and from the sheer difficulties of making such long journeys in a harsh climate and without food and water.  Then we saw the survivors being scattered across the globe: Cyprus, Britain, the USA and Lebanon all featured in this book, and, of course, the Armenian diaspora covers a myriad of other countries too.

The book didn’t actually mention the issue of recognition of the genocide, even though that’s usually the first thing people talk about when the subject’s mentioned.  Maybe the author didn’t want to seem to be too political: it’s an extremely sensitive subject.  But she’s done a good job of telling the story in the form of a novel, and I hope that a lot of people will read this book.  It’s a story which deserves to be read.



The Leopard Unleashed by Elizabeth Chadwick


Word PressThis is one of Elizabeth Chadwick’s earlier books, and it’s quite thin – both physically and otherwise 🙂 – compared with her later books, but it’s still quite interesting and entertaining. It’s set in the late 1130s and early 1140s, during the period of the Anarchy, when Stephen and Matilda were battling for the throne; and most of it’s set in England, partly at Stephen’s court, partly on the battlefield, and partly at the main character Renard and his wife Elene’s estates on the Anglo-Welsh border. The focus is largely on the fictional characters and their lives, although real historical characters feature prominently as well.

The part that got me thinking, though, was the early section of the book, which showed Renard, before he was summoned home due to his father’s ill-health, as a soldier in the Crusader Principality of Antioch, then ruled by Raymond of Poitiers (perhaps best known as the half-uncle and alleged lover of Eleanor of Aquitaine, although Renard’s time there was a decade or so before Eleanor’s visit). The part of the world covered by the principality is now partly in Syria and partly in Turkey, border area which didn’t rank very highly in terms of global attention when this book was first published, in 1992, but is now, sadly, somewhere which we hear about every day. The city of Antioch itself is now the Turkish city of Antakya, a popular holiday destination … just 25 miles or so from the Syrian border and currently struggling to cope with a huge influx of refugees.

The chapters about Renard in Antioch were mostly about his relationship with an exotic dancer, not about the complex history and demographics of the area; but then the book wasn’t supposed to be about the Middle East: it just got me thinking about what a messy, complex history the area has. The war between Stephen and Matilda, the Anarchy, the time “when Christ and his saints slept”, was settled in the end, but it lasted the best part of 20 years. All right, 12th century warfare can hardly be compared with 21st century warfare, but civil wars do tend to drag on and on. Let’s hope that something can be sorted out in Syria before long … and what was supposed to be a review of a decent if not brilliant book about medieval England has now got very depressing and completely off the point, so I’ll shut up now!  End of review!




The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman



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There’s always something very exotic-seeming about the Caribbean, and this book, based partly on a true story, focuses on the fascinating and little-known subject of the Sephardi Jewish community of the Danish West Indies, now the US Virgin Islands, through the lives of the family of the artist Camille Pissarro … originally Jacob Pizzarro.

Just to wander off the point, I’d always assumed that Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was born in the British West Indies, as he held British citizenship. However, as I now know, he was actually born in the Danish West Indies, but at a time when they were under British occupation due to issues arising from the Napoleonic Wars. It seems that up to half, maybe even more, of the European settlers in the West Indies were, as Benjamin was, Sephardi Jewish, and amongst them were the family of Pissarro’s mother Rachel, the main character in this book.

Rachel’s second marriage, to Pissarro’s father, Frederic, was controversial – it’s not entirely clear why but it seems likely that, as shown in this book, it was because he was her first husband’s nephew, and this particular community didn’t approve of marriage to a relative – and, for a time, the Pizzarros were shunned by their neighbours. It was that story and the character of Rachel, who rejected the norms of her society, which attracted Alice Hoffman’s attention, but she’s fleshed it out and made a glorious novel. Much of it is purely fictional, involving servants and secret illegitimate children and a whole web of complex relationships, but all of that works very well alongside the story of the Pizzarros..

The characters, both historical and fictional, are very well-drawn, but perhaps the real star of the book is the island of St Thomas itself. The last few chapters are set in Paris, but most of the novel is set in early to mid-nineteenth century St Thomas, and the descriptions of the island, with its lush scenery and wildlife and mixed population of different racial, religious and linguistic groups, its stories and its symbolism, draw you in and fascinate you. This isn’t an epic, but it’s a very well-written book, with an unusual setting, and I would highly recommend it.




Agnes Sorel: Mistress of Beauty by Princess Michael of Kent


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Princess Michael of Kent can write very well, but I’ve found that her novels aren’t as good as her non-fiction books; and this particular novel, the second in the “Anjou” trilogy, was weaker than the previous one. Some of it was interesting, but it was written in a rather simplistic style – a bit reminiscent of Jean Plaidy, but Jean Plaidy did it a lot better! – and in the present tense, and I sometimes felt as if I was reading a Peter and Jane book :-).   Also, I was rather bemused when she referred to John of Gaunt as a former King of England! You’d think that a member of the Royal Family, even one by marriage, would manage not to make a mistake like that!

Agnes Sorel, mistress of Charles VII of France, was the first of the “official” royal mistresses at the French court … and also a direct ancestress of Princess Michael, who, as an understandable result, seems to be rather biased towards her, and kept talking about her beauty and elegance and so on. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be elegant about wandering around in a dress with your bust hanging out of it (there’s an interesting picture on Wikipedia!), though! Maybe it was the overly simplistic style of writing or maybe it’s just that not enough is known of Agnes Sorel’s life to make a good story, but I didn’t feel that I got to know the character all that well. I think it probably was the style of writing, because a fair amount does seem to be known about her life, and about her death by alleged poisoning, and a good author of historical fiction will flesh out the facts and explain what they’ve done in an afterword.

On a more positive note, it was interesting to see various other characters at times of their lives which aren’t the best-known times of their lives, if that makes sense. I’m being Terribly English here and looking at French history from an English viewpoint, but I would generally think of Charles VII as the Dauphin in the time of Joan of Arc, of his son, the future Louis XI, as the Universal Spider making the Treaty of Picquigny with Edward IV, and, of course, of Margaret of Anjou (a lady who rather unfairly gets a very bad press in England) as the leader of the Lancastrian cause whilst Henry VI was out of it due to his severe mental health problems. So it made a change to “see” them all at the French court in the 1440s.

I’ve read the first two books in this trilogy, so I shall at some point read the third, which has recently been published, but it’s a shame that Princess Michael’s excellent style of writing non-fiction hasn’t come across into her novels.  Could do better!

Tony Robinson’s Wild West – Discovery Channel


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This is a three part series, and the second and third episodes are going to cover all the exciting-sounding stuff that we associate with the “Wild West” – Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, cowboys shouting “Yee-haw”, and so on. This first episode concentrated on the tragedy of the West – the decimation of the Native American tribes driven out by white settlers, and the destruction of their Great Plains culture.

I feel like an old biddy these days, but I actually am too young for some things, and one of them is remembering the golden age of cowboy films. I don’t remember playing “cowboys and Indians” as a kid, either: that was something Mum and Dad’s generation did rather than mine. However, I did, from quite an early age, read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. Little House on the Prairie itself, the second book in the series, tells us about the Ingalls family’s time in what’s now part of Kansas but was then part of Osage territory. Pa Ingalls becomes quite friendly with a French-speaking Osage chief, and Laura is quite interested in the Osages – especially the babies – but Ma Ingalls famously says that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Different times, different views, but, even so, it’s shocking and frightening to think of views being held like that by anyone, especially a very upright, morally-upstanding woman.

The Little House books aren’t directly relevant to this programme, but Tony Robinson read part of a newspaper article about the Battle of Wounded Knee, written by L Frank Baum, later to become the author of The Wizard of Oz but then a journalist in Dakota Territory, saying much the same thing. I gather that some people are now saying that he meant the opposite of what he said, but that’s not how it comes across.

The Ingalls family and their neighbours had to leave the Indian Territory, but, of course, the far more common story is that of Native American tribes being pushed further and further west, and the frontier eventually disappearing as the whole area became part of the United States. I probably haven’t got this quote quite right, but there’s a scene in the musical Oklahoma! in which someone (Curly?) says something along the lines of “They’re going to make a state out of this land, and they’re going to call it Oklahoma”. When Oklahoma became a state, the last “Indian Territory” disappeared. The musical doesn’t mention that, incidentally.

I’ve now got well away from what Tony Robinson was actually talking about in his programme, which didn’t involve either Laura Ingalls Wilder or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oops! What he was talking about was, as I said earlier, the decimation of the Native American tribes driven out by white settlers, and the destruction of their Great Plains culture, in the Great Plains region in the years following the American Civil War. Incidentally, I wasn’t very impressed that he talked about the Civil War starting after seven states seceded, complete with a map showing the first seven states to secede. Yes, in the initial wave of secession, seven states did leave the Union, but what about the four – Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee – which left in the second wave of secession a couple of months later? Come on, Discovery Channel – this is very basic stuff!

Just to wander off the point again, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books when I was a little kid, but it was when I read Heaven and Hell, the third book in the superb North and South series by John Jakes, when I was 12, that I really began to learn about Little Bighorn, about Wounded Knee, and about the destruction of the Native American culture of the Plains. Then Dances With Wolves, which came out three years later, drew a lot of attention to the subject. Yes, I know the film has its critics, but anything which addresses this particular area of American history is controversial.

How did Tony Robinson go about addressing it? I thought he did very well. He referred to “Indians” rather than “Native Americans” or “Amerindians”, which actually sounded quite strange in this day and age, but then a lot of what he was talking about was the popular idea of the Wild West, and that idea is about “cowboys and Indians”. He was very sympathetic towards the Native American tribes, and I think he could actually have made the point that there were atrocities committed by Native American groups against white settlers too; but I think that most viewers would agree with his point of view. What happened in the West, the way the Native American tribes were treated, was very wrong. And tragic. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy.

All countries and cultures have things in their pasts, and in some cases in their presents, which were wrong, so I’m not having a go at the United States, but it’s important to acknowledge these and to try to come to terms with them. The issue of what was done to indigenous peoples seems to have been addressed far more comprehensively in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand and in parts of Latin America than it has in the United States. Perhaps it’s been overshadowed by the issue of relations between black and white people in the US. Having said which, just in this past week there’s been a lot of talk about the use of Native American symbols by American sports teams.

It’s a difficult subject to write about, and it must be an even more difficult subject to present a TV programme about. I think Tony Robinson did a very good job: he spoke about Native American culture and history with the respect it deserves, and he interviewed a number of Native American people who are working today to preserve what remains and to keep alive the memory of what’s gone.

Next time, he’ll be talking about all the “Yee-haw” stuff, and I’m looking forward to that, but he did the right thing to start by reminding us of what went before, and was lost and destroyed to make way for what came afterwards.