The Courtesan and the Samurai by Lesley Downer


  This is the last book in the Shogun Quartet, and it’s a bit different from the other three in that it’s about ordinary and fictitious people, rather than being sert in the Shogun’s palace.   When the civil war of 1868-9 breaks out, young samurai woman Hana, with her parents and parents-in-law dead and her husband away in the army, seeks help in Edo/Tokyo but is forced into becoming a courtesan.  She then meets Yozo, a samurai warrior.

The owners of the house where Hana works intend to sell her to an evil man, and Yozo rescues her.  It also turns out that Yozo knew Hana’s horrible husband.  It’s all a bit unlikely, but it’s still an interesting story because of what it tells us about Japanese culture at the time.   I’ve enjoyed reading these four books, and feel that I’ve learnt a lot from them.


The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer


In mid-18th century London, Robin is trying to avoid exposure as a participant in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion by pretending to be a woman, whilst his sister Prudence is pretending to be a man.  Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t it have been better to have kept a low profile in some quiet part of the countryside, rather than prancing about in London High Society, pretending to be a member of the opposite gender?!

Rather unconvincingly, only one person twigs what’s going on.

Meanwhile, their dad is claiming to be the long lost heir to a viscountcy, but not even they know whether he’s telling the truth or not.   It eventually transpires that he *is*, and both siblings make happy marriages with suitable partners.  And their involvement in the ’45 seems to be forgotten.  Strangely, we never learn exactly what Robin did during the ’45, nor why he was supporting the Jacobites.  But a gold star to the author for not romancitising the Jacobites as so many authors do.  Yes, the escape to Skye makes a good story, and yes, you can tie yourself in knots over social contracts and de facto/de jure and all the rest of it; but a Stuart restoration would have been a disaster, and probably wouldn’t have lasted very long.   They’d have wanted to rule like the French monarchs did, and look what happened to them.

There are various swordfights along the way, and two attempted forced elopements, and a lot of dances and card games.  It’s entertaining enough, but the plot is just bonkers.  Why didn’t they just lie low somewhere, instead of going around London in disguise?!  Bonkers!


The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer


This is another of Lesley Downer’s Shogun quartet, this one set in Japan in the 1860s.  The protagonist, Sachi, is a fictional character who becomes the concubine of the young penultimate shogun shortly before his untimely death (by poison?).  Many of the characters are real people, including the shogun himself, and his wife Princess Kazu, daughter of the emperor.  The book shows how the city of Edo (Tokyo) was overrun by southern forces during the civil war which formed part of the Meiji Restoration, and how the thousands of women who lived in the palace there were turned out.

Sachi’s own life story is rather unlikely – the princess picks her up whilst travelling through her village, and it subsequently turns out that she’s actually the illegitimate daughter of a previous shogun’s concubine and her illicit lover.  However, the book’s very entertaining, and very informative about the lives of women both at the shogun’s court and in the Japanese countryside at the time.

Two books of the quartet down, two to go!

The King and I – Palace Theatre, Manchester


This was fabulous fun.  It’s always a bit strange seeing a stage version of a musical which has been made into an iconic film – everyone thinks of Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner as Anna and King Mongkut, but that doesn’t mean that other people can’t also give brilliant performances in the roles, and they did.  Excellent supporting cast too.

Shall We Dance is my favourite part.  I’ve always wanted to wear a dress like the one Anna wears in that scene, but I’d never get into it.  All the songs were well done, though.  And it’s a great story.  All right, we all know that Anna Leonowens embroidered both her own history and the extent of her influence over King Mongkut, and that the subplot involving Tuptim and Lu Tha is probably entirely fictitious, but it was still very brave of Anna and her young son to go to a place with such a different culture, and where they didn’t know anyone, and actually right into the heart of power.

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening!

The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan


I still think of D’Artagnan as Dogtanian, but I think most people who were kids in the ’80s have that problem!   Anyway, this film, which is a) part 1 of 2 and b) in French with English subtitles, is satisfyingly full of swashbuckling swordplay and horseriding, although it could have used a few lighter moments.   It was entertaining watching on a miserably wet Bank Holiday morning.

Dashing young D’Artagnan makes his way from Gascony to Paris to try to join the Musketeers, and makea friends with The Three Musketeer pals, Porthos, Athos and Aramis.  He also falls in love with Constance, the Queen’s confidante.  There’s then a lot of plotting and fighting as Cardinal Richelieu and Milady de Winter try to bring down Queen Anne, who’s having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham, and Athos, whose brother is the leader of the Huguenots.

The plot against Queen Anne is foiled, Athos is pardoned, D’Artagnan becomes a Musketeer and it looks as if all’s going to end well … but then Constance is kidnapped and D’Artagnan is knocked unconscious, setting the scene for the start of the second instalment.

It’s all a bit mad, but, as I said, it’s very entertaining … even if it does annoyingly flip between “Your Majesty” and “Your Highness” at random, and refer to the Holy Roman Empire as just “the Holy Empire”.  Still prefer Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, though!

Across a Bridge of Dreams by Lesley Downer


  I hope everyone enjoyed the Coronation, and that the King and Queen are now relaxing and taking it easy!  Japan was represented by the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, and this book is the story of the romance between Taka, the daughter of a leading southern Japanese samurai and a geisha, and Nobu, a member of one of the northern Japanese clans which at the time had fallen into poverty.   It’s set just after the civil war of the 1870s, and shows the tensions between the traditional Japan and the attempts at modernisation/westernisation, and also the regional and political conflicts of the time.

Despite the complex setting, it’s quite simply written and very easy to read, even for people not familiar with either the culture or the history.  It all comes across very well, and I’ve got three more of Lesley Downer’s books – they, along with this one, form the Shogun Quartet – and am looking forward to reading them.

Karitas Untitled by Kristin Marja Baldursdottir


Karitas, the eponymous heroine of this novel, was born in Danish-ruled Iceland during the Great War.   She showed promise as an artist, and was able to study art in Copenhagen, but then life and the need to pay the bills got in the way of her talent.

The book showed, realistically if rather sadly, how, instead of pursuing a career in art, she became one of large numbers of girls responsible for laying out and salting fish, and then one of large numbers of women whose husbands were away with the fishing fleet for much of the year.

It wasn’t a very cheerful book, but it gave a good insight into the lives of many Icelandic women during the twentieth century.    Quite interesting.

28 Days by David Safier


It’s currently the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which lasted from 19th April to 16th May 1943, and this is a “young adult” novel about Mira, a (fictional) young woman who sneaks out of the Ghetto to smuggle food into it, then joins the resistance movement, then takes part in the Uprising.

It’s not quite what I was expecting: I thought that the whole book was going to be about the Uprising itself, but a lot of it was set in the months leading up to it, and then we didn’t see the aftermath because Mira, perhaps rather improbably, escaped.

However, the fact that it started in 1942 meant that we saw the mass deportations to Treblinka, and the conditions under which those who remained in the Ghetto were living.  There was an ongoing sub-plot about Mira and her sister making up stories set in a fictional universe, which I could actually have done without; but overall it was a very interesting book, by an author who lost two grandparents in the Holocaust.

Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn


  This book’s set in Japan in the decade leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  I don’t pretend to be an expert in Japanese history, but the Meiji Restoration saw a group of young samurai and court nobles overthrow the government of the Shogun and restore the practical rule of the Emperor, leading to major changes in Japanese society.  The impetus was the fear of colonisation by Western powers due to internal divisions and general disorder.

Most of the book’s written in the first person by a character called Tsuru, daughter of a doctor, who wants to become a doctor herself, and for a time dresses up as a man so that she can be accepted as a doctor and treat, amongst others, those injured in war.   The historical events and Japanese culture in general aren’t likely to be particularly familiar to most people reading in English, but the book does make it all quite accessible, even the parts of it narrated by real historical figures rather than by Tsuru.   I feel that I learned quite a lot from it, whilst at the same time finding it much easier to read than I’d expected.

Most of the author’s books seem to be children’s books, written under her real name, Gillian Rubinstein, and some of her other adult books are fantasy which isn’t really my thing, but I’d certainly read any more historical novels by her if I came across them.  This one was very interesting.

Joan by Katherine J Chen


I’m not quite sure what I think about this book.  It’s “reimagined” Joan of Arc as a tough, tomboyish, secular figure, who doesn’t have any religious visions and is brought to the attention of the Dauphin because she’s such a strong fighter.  Some reviewers, notably the late Hilary Mantel, have praised the author for “recreating” Joan as a “woman for our time”, but surely you can’t just go around “recreating” historical figures to suit your own times.   Joan was someone who claimed to have religious visions.  That might not sit very easily with today’s secular world, but she didn’t live in today’s world: she lived 600 years ago.

The quality of writing’s pretty good, apart from being set in the present tense – that seems to be becoming more and more common, and it’s very annoying – and the book’s historically accurate in terms of political and military events.   The story is that Joan is exceptionally tall, well-built and strong, is very tough from an early age as she has to defend herself against her violent father, and is very skilled with both a bow and arrow and a sword.  She becomes imbued with a hatred of the English and Burgundians after her sister is raped by soldiers and later commits suicide.  Then she’s, as I said, brought to the attention of the Dauphin because of her skill as a fighter.  The famous scene in which she recognises the Dauphin without being told isn’t there at all: she’s just told who he is!

And there are no religious visions.  Instead, the French leaders spread propaganda linking her with various prophecies, and the idea that she’s a holy woman spreads like wildfire, and she becomes a cult figure.   But there’s a sense that she’s being used, and it’s made clear to her that, if the French start losing battles, she’ll be pushed aside and they’ll find someone else and present them as a holy figure instead.   Joan isn’t bothered by that: she feels that she’s a strong leader.   She participates in a number of battles, before being captured, and then the book rather strangely ends before she’s tried and burnt at the stake.

It’s not a bad book, but this isn’t Joan.  As the author points out, she’s known to have been injured in battle, so she obviously was a soldier of sorts.  And, whilst the book doesn’t mention it, one of the charges on which she was tried was wearing men’s clothes.   But she’s described as having been quite petite, not big and tough.  And she claimed to have been guided by religious visions, and asked to be taken to the Dauphin because of them.  What happens in this book just isn’t what happened.   People reinterpret historical figures because they don’t agree with the traditional interpretations of them, which is fine, but changing the actual history of a historical figure to suit yourself and your times isn’t fine.  Hmm.