The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich


This is the sequel to The Midwife of Venice. Our midwife pal Hannah is now working at the harem of Sultan Murad III, which is dominated by his mother, the Venetian-born Valide Sultan.  Meanwhile, her husband Isaac runs a silk business.  It includes a fascinating cast of characters – Hannah Levi, the Valide Sultan, a number of other real historical figures from the court of Murad III, a Venetian woman passing herself off as Isaac’s sister-in-law, and a girl from the Caucasian/Mountain Jewish community, but the actual plot is just too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

Historical notes!   You used to hear a bit about the Mountain Jews back in the mid-1990s, during the Chechen Wars, but you don’t any more.  Their ancestors moved from Persia to the Caucasus – mainly what’s now Azerbaijan, especially a city called Gyrmyzy Gasaba in Azeri and Krasnaya Sloboda in Russian, although the character here comes from a rural area, but also Chechnya, Dagestan, and all round there – in the 5th century AD.  What was the name of that football team which you used to hear a lot about at one time? Anzhi Makhachkala, that’s it!  In Dagestan.  Sorry, the Mountain Jews have got nothing to do with football, but apparently quite a few of them lived in Makhachkala at one time.  And I’ve now got off the point.

Back to 16th century Constantinople.  No-one’s 100% sure of the Valide Sultan’s origins, but the theory put forward in 1900, that she was Venetian-born Cecilia Venier-Baffo, is widely believed and is followed in this book..

The book starts with Leah, a young girl from a remote Mountain Jewish community, being taken prisoner and carried off to the Sultan’s harem.  At the same time, Isaac’s brother has been murdered in Venice by his mistress, a woman called Francesca.  Francesca, passing herself off as Isaac’s brother’s late wife Grazia, travels to Constantinople to demand that Isaac repay the money which his brother had lent him from Grazia’s dowry.  She also plans to kidnap Matteo, Hannah and Isaac’s adopted son, on the orders of a man who wears a false nose as a disguise (as you do) and has connections with Matteo’s birth family.

Hannah is asked to verify Leah’s virginity.  Leah had had a fiance in the Caucasus, and they hadn’t waited for the wedding, but Hannah lies in order to protect Leah from being sold as a slave.  Hannah and Leah then drug the Sultan so that he thinks he’s consummated his relationship with Leah, even though he hasn’t.  The Valide Sultan wants to break the hold that the Sultan’s wife Safiye has on him, as Safiye has only given him one son so he needs to get it together with some of the other woman in the harem, so she’s pleased with Leah.  However, it then transpires that Leah is expecting a baby by her fiance, which obviously can’t be the Sultan’s as the dates won’t match.  Hannah and two other women smuggle Leah out of the harem, and pretend that she’s chucked herself out of the window.  Everyone apparently buys this, although it later turns out that the Valide Sultan hasn’t been fooled.

Meanwhile, a rabbi informs Hannah, Isaac and Cesca-masquerading-as-Grazia that, under the Boaz-Ruth law in the Bible, Isaac is obliged to marry his brother’s widow.  His marriage to Hannah is to be decreed invalid as they have no natural children.  However, if he can raise the money to pay the loan, Grazia can declare that this marriage is invalid and he can then go back to being married to Hannah.  I did say that it was far-fetched!

Leah dies in childbirth.  Hannah takes the baby.  The Valide Sultan reveals that she knew about Leah’s escape, and gives Hannah a load of money for helping to break Safiye’s hold on the Sultan.  Hannah and Isaac use this money to pay off the fake Grazia, who is then exposed anyway.  And it then turns out that Hannah is finally expecting a baby of her own.

The depictions of Constantinople, Venice and the Mountain Jewish communities are absolutely fascinating, but the storyline is just beyond bonkers!   But it’s certainly never boring.



Terry’s Best Term by Evelyn Smith



This is a gentle school story from the 1920s, in which not much actually happens … but, somehow, it doesn’t need to happen.   None of the pupils turn out to be the long-lost daughters of dukes, no-one gets caught in a blizzard, and no-one even scores a dramatic last minute winner in a lacrosse match.  In fact, there aren’t any sports events.  Or concerts.  And there aren’t really many lessons.

The main point of the story is that Terry (Teresa) wants to make friends with Julia, the new girl who’s moved in next door and who also attends the same school as her.  Terry’s family live in the Square House and Julia’s family live in the Round House, which sounds like something out of Play School, but never mind.  There’s a fruit sale, and there are a few incidents with Julia’s horse.  And Terry, Julia and Julia’s brother all save up to buy a car together.  As you do.  The two girls are as interested in the mechanics as the boy is, and no-one finds that odd – which is quite impressive, considering that it was deemed a huge big deal in the mid-1980s when Kylie Minogue played a female car mechanic in Neighbours!  Oh, and, at the end, there are some burglaries, but the police rapidly apprehend the burglar, and all his victims are immediately reunited with their stuff.

It sounds boring, but somehow it isn’t.  It’s just nice and gentle.


The Island of Lost Horses by Stacy Gregg


  If I’d read this book, combining a modern-day pony story with the Great Expulsion of 1492, when I was about 10, I would have loved it.  Reading it for a Facebook group reading challenge now isn’t quite the same, but that’s hardly the book’s fault.  There are a few silly errors, such as using “ancestor” instead of “descendant”, and my historian’s brain wants to nitpick about the use of “Spain” rather than “Castile” (I know, it’s a pony story for children, not a history textbook), but it’s generally pretty good, as a children’s book.

Twelve-year-old Beatriz’s parents have divorced, and she’s moved from Florida to Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas with her mother, who’s an expert on, er, jellyfish.  The pony element of the story comes from the Abaco Barb horses, a now extinct breed of Spanish descent which used to live on the island.  No-one’s quite sure how they got there – the most likely explanation is that they were taken there by 19th century Cuban forestry workers, but other suggestions are that they were taken there by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, or came from Spanish ships wrecked on the coast of the island.

The story in this book – and, OK, it’s pretty fanciful, but never mind! – is that Felipa Molina, the young daughter of a converso and a Spanish noblewoman, serving as a lady-in-waiting to Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter Juana, was forced to flee when her mother died and the Inquisition took her father, and managed to get on board one of Columbus’s ships, with her horse, and ended up on this island in the Bahamas.  She later married one of the sailors and left the island, but left her horse behind, and that’s where the Great Abaco horses came from.  Beatriz finds her diary, and also finds a Great Abaco horse (there were a few left in 2014, when the book was published, but sadly they’ve become extinct since then), and there’s a mystical link between them all which is some sort of combination of West Indian obeah spiritualism and Native American belief in Medicine Hat horses.

OK, OK, it’s not going to win any prizes for realism, but it’s a good story!  I’m not quite sure how people might react to the phonetic spelling of the English used by the elderly West Indian lady with whom Beatriz becomes friendly – “de” “chile”, etc – or the lady’s use of words such as “piccaninny” – but the author’s tried to bring a number of different cultures together, and it’s certainly a change from the traditional pony books written back in the day … although the Patricia Leitch Jinny books certainly had their mystical elements.   I don’t normally like dual timeline stories, but I like the idea of combining a pony book with a historical story, and, as I’ve said, I would have loved this when I was the age of the intended audience.






Malory Towers sequels by Pamela Cox


I’ve now read all six of these, having read the first one a while back.   They’re readable, but I’m not overly impressed.  I’m not sure that Malory Towers particularly lends itself to sequels, because its “world” just isn’t big enough.  We only know the basics about the girls’ home lives, and the action all takes place on or near the school premises.  There aren’t even any school trips.  Pamela Cox does try to address that issue by placing Bill and Clarissa’s riding school close to Malory Towers and showing the girls spending time there, but it hardly compares to the Chalet School girls’ walks in the mountains or even the Kingscote Guide walks.

The books are about Felicity Rivers and her friends, although Daphne Hope also features in the later ones.   There are midnight feasts, “treeks” being played on Mam’zelle Dupont and various sagas about nasty new girls and mysteries over who’s responsible for things disappearing, plus plenty of tennis and lacrosse matches, but where Malory Towers scores is its realism in showing that people are actually having to work and pass exams, and there’s none of that in these books.  Incidentally, has anyone ever understood the form system at Malory Towers?  It should be either I, II, III etc or Upper III, Lower IV, Upper IV etc, and it seems to be a weird hybrid!

Some of the storyline are OK, but some of them are plain silly.  Gwendoline Lacey returns, to teach deportment and other finishing school type stuff.  Excuse me?   Malory Towers wasn’t into that sort of thing.  Girls were there to have fun and learn to be strong, reliable women etc, but they were also there to work and pass exams, not to learn to be debutantes.   Even worse, Jo Jones returns, using her middle name and her mother’s maiden name, and none of her old classmates recognise her because she’s lost weight and is wearing glasses!    There’s also a story about a long-lost grandma, which is more Angela Brazil than Enid Blyton.  And a teacher who is spying on the girls, and blackmails someone who was expelled from a school at which she taught previously into telling her what’s going on.  Why would a teacher want to spy on pupils?   It’s hardly as if they’re concealing state secrets!

I sound as if I’m being very critical.  I don’t mean to be: it’s just that Malory Towers is a bit of a cultural icon, and it’s strange reading these books which aren’t quite Blyton’s Malory Towers.  They’re not a bad read, but they’re not super-wonderful either.



Val Forrest in the Fifth by Evelyn Smith


This school story from the 1920s is a bit different in that it turns out that the baddie is neither another girl at the school nor some weirdo who’s been hanging around, but Val’s guardian.  Val and her widowed mother have lost their money in a banking collapse, and, for some odd reason, this has prompted the mother to go and stay with friends in Montreal, leaving Val with an old schoolfriend of hers.

Val starts at a nearby school, and nothing out of the ordinary actually happens at the school – there are no princesses, no spies and no thieves!   Just a few complications over who’s friends with whom.  However, things keep going wrong for Val.  She’s made to give up a good part in the school play, accused of starting a fire, and put in an awkward position with people who seem to have been given the wrong impression of her.  She’s also got no money.

It turns out that the person with whom she’s living has been stealing the money sent for her keep, and making life difficult for her with everyone else, as well as sacking the maid with whom Val had got friendly.  This is supposedly because she was jealous of Val’s mum when they were at school.  It’s not a very convincing storyline, but it’s quite a readable book, Val herself is an extremely likeable character and it’s a good depiction of school life.  Not bad!

Seeking Eden by Ann Turnbull



This is the sequel to No Shame No Fear  and Forged in the Fire, the final book in the trilogy.  This one takes a different turn, as Will and Susanna and their children emigrate to the newly-established city of Philadelphia, seeking a Quaker Eden, and is narrated by their son Josiah.

Josiah gets what he thinks is a good job, as an apprentice to a merchant from Skipton, falls in love with the merchant’s daughter Katherine and she with him, and thinks he can see a promising future for himself … until they sail to Barbados and he realises that the merchant is involved in the slave trade.  Over the years, people have sought to associate slavery with particular religious groups, in an attempt to discredit them, but the fact is that members of many different religions were involved.  Quakers are probably the one group whom you’d think weren’t; but, in fact, some of them were.  And the way in which the story’s tackled is interesting, and not what you would expect of a 21st century book.

This is a young adult story, and not overly realistic – Josiah and Katherine are horrified when they find that Antony and Patience, two slaves who are lovers and expecting a baby, are to be sold separately when their owner returns to England.  They try to help them to escape, and fail, but, ultimately, Katherine’s dad arranges for the couple to be married, for the baby to stay with Patience, and for Antony to be able to stay with them sometimes.  OK, it *did* happen, but I’m not sure that a book written for adults would have gone with a happy ending.  And Katherine’s dad forgave Josiah and Katherine for helping them to escape, and agreed to give Josiah his job back and let him court Katherine.

It was quite strange, because the author was trying to present a balanced view of things, and doing that is very controversial now.  Some owners were kind.  Many slaves were able to get married, and, even if they didn’t live in the same place, spend time with their spouse.  But it’s difficult to show that, because it suggests some sort of positivity.  The book does show Antony being badly beaten, and makes it clear that their lives are insecure and that he, Patience and their baby could be parted at any time, but there is this happy ending.

And this is the first time that I’ve ever read a book showing Quakers as slaveowners or slave traders – and the author says that she herself was shocked when she found out that it did happen.  Philadelphia wasn’t the Eden that it was meant to be.  And I suppose that’s the whole point of the book – the very difficult paradox of the New World, which was seen as a land of liberty but also being a land of slavery.  That’s something which no-one is able to come to terms with.  And it’s difficult to write about it in a way which isn’t wholly condemnatory: the book never suggests that Katherine’s dad is a bad man, and shows some of the Quaker slaveowners as being decent people, but says that they accept slave trading and slaveholding because it’s the norm there.  That’s very difficult to do, and it’s an interesting choice.  I’m not saying that it’s right, wrong or indifferent, just that it’s an unusual choice in a 21st century book.

This book really wasn’t what I was expecting.  There was a lot to think about.




The Ballet Twins by Jean Estoril


 I said that I wasn’t going to read anything else by Jean Estoril/Mabel Esther Allan because of her sarky remarks about women from Lancashire being fat … but I just felt like reading a ballet book.  This reads as if it ought to be the first in a series, but she seems to have lost interest in the Darke twins after reading this book, and written her Wood Street series instead.  That’s a shame, because it wasn’t bad.  Girls’ own authors tend to love to write about twins, so it’s really rather surprising that there aren’t more books about twins at ballet schools or theatre schools!

They aren’t identical twins – it’s not that tropey!  In fact, the whole point of the book is that they’re very different in both looks and personality.  The book’s written in the first person, from the viewpoint of Dorrie (Doria), who’s far more thoughtful and less confident than her non-identical twin Debbie (Deborah).  Both girls, aged 13, win scholarships to a ballet school in London, and move there from their home in Birkenhead, living with an auntie and attending the school every day.

There are some things which seem to have been pretty much copied out of the author’s Drina books, such as Debbie’s photo appearing in a newspaper; and not an awful lot actually happens.  There are no big dramas.  Dorrie runs off when she mistakenly thinks she’s failed to get a part in the end-of-term ballet, but she comes back safely, in a taxi rather being carried by a hero or picked up by the police, and, although she’s hurt her ankle slightly, she hasn’t been run over by a car like Lydia Robinson of the Gemma books, rescued from a Scottish mountain on New Year’s Eve like Jane Foster of the Wells books (lucky Jane) or had to ride a horse through the fog like Veronica Weston of the Wells books.

It was just a nice, easy read.  It wasn’t very likely that the twins would both win scholarships, but, OK, it was necessary for plot purposes!   And everything else was interesting enough but never unrealistic.   I was just surprised to find out that there weren’t any sequels, because it felt as if we were being set up for a whole series about the girls’ careers.   Oh well!