The King of Warsaw – All 4

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This is something different.  It’s in Polish with English subtitles, so requires a lot of concentration, but it’s interesting.  It’s a crime drama set in Warsaw in 1937, and the protagonist is Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and member of an organised crime gang, whose aim is to become head of the gang – and therefore be the “King of Warsaw”.   It’s set against a background of clashes, some violent, some just psychological, between right-wing groups and left-wing groups, Catholics and Jews, and secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews.   Meanwhile, a young lad from the ultra-Orthodox community aims to join a gang after the murder of his father.   And Jakub’s wife wants to emigrate to what was then British Mandate Palestine, but Jakub feels that Warsaw is his city and can’t bear the thought of leaving it.

The first episode was really just setting the scene, but it looks promising.  Warsaw was such a mixture of cultures and factions at the time.  And it’s the same issue as with Peaky Blinders – members of a community which is marginalised, but not isolated and set apart by religion, may well be drawn to organised crime.  And at what point do you feel that you’re actually a stranger in your own city, as well as being a stranger from the Establishment?   Without going too far into the unpleasant scenes before the Cup Final, feeling estranged from the Establishment usually leads to a stronger sense of regional identity, and that seems to be what’s happened with Jakub Szapiro – but his wife can see that they’d be safer away from Warsaw, rather than trying to rule it.

A promising start.

The Stone Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the final book in Carol McGrath’s trilogy about unpopular medieval queens of England; and it’s about Isabella of France, who’s probably better-known than either Eleanor of Provence or Eleanor of Castile.  The title relates to a fictional character who’s the daughter of a stonemason, but it’s an odd choice.  It rather makes the reader imagine Isabella singing alongside Ian Brown, maybe about how her glorious marriage to the English heir turned out to be fools’ gold, or about telling Roger Mortimer that she wanna be adored …er, right, let’s leave it there, because “This Is The One” and “Waterfall” are both used as football songs at Old Trafford, and that’s all a bit painful at the moment and I’m just hoping that Erik ten Hag’s tenure will see The Resurrection.

OK, OK, Isabella of France.  You know the story.  The She-Wolf of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer, overthrow her gay husband, Edward II, and get someone to murder him by shoving a red hot poker up … well, you know that bit of the story without my having to spell it out.  Then they’re overthrown in turn, when her son, Edward III, takes control.  And there’s that thing about the Scottish bloke in the cave with the spider.  However, most of what we think we know about those times is what was written years later.  What actually happened?  Well, we know the basics, that Edward became unpopular because of the defeat at Bannockburn and the influence of his favourites, and that he was deposed by Isabella and Mortimer, but we don’t really know the detail.

Carol McGrath’s done a very good job of creating a novel from what did happen and what may have happened.  My one real issue with it is that it’s too short.  There’s a huge amount of English political history in the book, plus a certain amount of social history, plus some nice little titbits about fashions, the growing popularity of knitting and life at court, plus some of the history of France at the time – she doesn’t go into the dissolution of the Templars et al, but she does include the history of the Capetians, as they were Isabella’s family – and that, alongside the development of the characters and their relationships with each other, is a lot to fit into a novel of fewer than 400 pages.  But saying that you wish a book had been longer is surely a great compliment to it.

Incidentally, we don’t see Robert the Bruce, with or without his spider.  I just mentioned that story because I like it!

There’s a fairly recent theory that Edward II escaped to Italy.  We don’t actually know.  It’s not talked about very much.  The Princes in the Tower seem to have cornered the market as far as royal mysteries and conspiracy theories go.  But there is a theory.   On top of that, the term “She-Wolf” wasn’t used about Isabella until Elizabethan times, and it really isn’t clear from the sources from the time whether Isabella and Mortimer were lovers, nor whether Edward and Piers Gaveston were lovers, nor whether Edward and the younger Hugh Despenser were lovers. There’s also the fact that, whilst Edward was probably bisexual, people in the Middle Ages didn’t really identify as straight, gay, bisexual or anything else related to sexuality.  As for Bannockburn (and this book doesn’t actually show Robert the Bruce, with or without a spider), yes, it was a disaster, but Edward II’s reputation’s also suffered from being his sandwiched in between Edward I and Edward III, whose reigns both saw huge military success.  Pretty hard to compete with those two.

This book is generally very, very good.  Yes, it’s sympathetic towards Isabella, and it makes the point (perhaps a little too often) that she was a strong, independent woman,  but it’s not overly biased against Edward.  Someone once said that Charles I was “a very silly man”.  So was Edward II.  He allowed himself to be overly influenced by Gaveston and the Despensers, and, because of that, he became alienated from his wife, from other members of his family, and from the nobility in general.   He was a weak man, with very little common sense and that’s what this book shows.   Isabella is shown not as a “she-wolf” but as an intelligent woman who wasn’t willing to be dominated by men … which, unfortunately, is how some men would define a “she-wolf”.  Does any strong, independent woman risk being labelled a “She-Wolf”?  Maybe not a She-Wolf, but female politicians are inevitably labelled “bossy” and “domineering”.  Isabella’s certainly not shown as being callous and calculating, and I think that that’s fair enough.

There are also various sub-plots.  One involves Agnes, the fictional character mentioned above, and her future husband Gregory.  The main plot only covers the period from 1311 to 1330: Agnes and Gregory, in 1352, tell the reader what happens after that.  Another is the story of the Tour de Nesle affair, which saw her two sisters-in-law and their alleged lovers executed.  And another is the story of the de Clare sisters, who all played prominent roles at Edward II’s court.  And then there’s the romance between the future Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.

Overall, it’s a fascinating book.  The history’s spot on, insofar as it can be – I won’t give away which versions of events Carol McGrath chooses for her book – ,the characters come across well, and there’s a lot going on.  As I said, my one and only real criticism of it is that it needed to be a bit longer.

 

The Player’s Boy and The Players and the Rebels by Antonia Forest

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These two books, set in the final decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, feature Nicholas Marlow, an ancestor of the Marlow family of the Kingscote books, as a young man running away from home and joining a group of theatrical players.  The final chapter shows him going away to sea, which if I recall correctly is mentioned in one of the Kingscote books, but the rest of the story shows him as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – a friend of William Shakespeare, an acquaintance of Walter Raleigh, and an associate of the Earls of Essex and Southampton.

This, of course, is the period of Essex’s Rebellion.  I’m afraid that I’ll always associate it primarily with Essex barging in on Elizabeth before she’d put her make up on, but obviously the fact that he did actually plan to seize control of London and force the Queen to dismiss Cecil was rather more serious than that.  Well, probably.  I hate to be seen with no make up on.   There’s so much focus on the events of the late 1580s, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and, of course, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, one of the defining moments in English history, that the period from 1588 to 1603 tends to be rather neglected, so it was an interesting idea to set the books at this time.   And it’s rather convenient that Christopher Marlowe’s surname was very close to that of the Marlows, and that Essex’s steward shared the surname of Merrick with the Marlow’s neighbours.

There genuinely was a link between the theatre and the rebellion, and that’s what we see in these books.  The Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron, and a performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men of Shakespeare’s Richard II, showing an anointed monarch being deposed, did cause a fair amount of controversy.

The GGBP editions of these two books have a number of forewords, one of which was written by the late Joy Wotton.  I was fortunate enough to know Joy via Facebook, and to meet her at the Harrogate Book Fair a few years ago.  She was a lovely person, and it was quite poignant for me to read her words.  Hilary Clare’s foreword points out that Antonia Forest got some of the historical details, notably the relations between different social classes, wrong, but that she got the actual course of events spot on.   What we don’t know is where Shakespeare actually was during the 1590s.  I go with the idea that he was at Hoghton Tower – OK, OK, spot the Lancastrian! – but we don’t know, and he may well have been with a group of players.

I can’t say that these are the greatest historical novels that I’ve ever read, and I doubt if I’d have read them had it not been for the Marlow connection, but they’re not bad at all, especially bearing in mind that they were meant for children/young adults; and, as I’ve said, this period of Elizabeth I’s reign tends to be neglected.   Nicholas came across very well, and the lives of real people and fictional people were interwoven pretty much seamlessly.   They also give a fascinating picture of theatrical life at a crucial time in the development of English theatre.  I rather enjoyed them!

Beatrix: The Queen Who Gave Up The Crown – Channel 5

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This is a very promising move from Channel 5.  We’ve had some excellent programmes on the recent history of the British Royal Family, but, whilst I understand that it was difficult to film new material during lockdown, there really is only so much you can say about the Abdication, the Margaret-Townsend affair and the War of the Waleses.  Some programmes about the Continental royal families would be extremely welcome.  The title of the programme was rather silly, because it made it sound as if Beatrix did something like Edward VIII did, rather than abdicating at the age of 75 after a 33-year reign, but the actual substance of the programme was very interesting.

The Netherlands is a fascinating country, because historically it’s very puritanical but also very liberal, and very tolerant but with strong extremist elements on several different sides, and we saw how Beatrix – and it was lovely to see her looking so well at the memorial service for Prince Philip – had to steer her way through that.  She met with protests on her wedding day, because she was marrying a German, and protests on the day of her investiture, because of concerns over the Dutch Royal Family’s wealth, and she also had to deal with her husband’s long battle with depression and the death of one of her sons.   She was initially seen as being very aloof, but later as being very warm – the ongoing conflict between a royal family retaining its mystique whilst at the same time being seen as relevant and accessible.  And she’s been a lot more outspoken about politics than most royals have been.

I do love the way that orange is the Dutch national colour,and that that’s because of the House of Orange-Nassau (er, even if Orange itself is actually in France).   I suppose that green’s the colour of the Republic of Ireland, but there isn’t a national colour of England or the UK, and it’d be nice if there was.  But never mind!

All in all, this was very good, and I’m hoping that we might see some more programmes about the Continental royals.   There’s certainly plenty of material to go at.

 

 

Gentleman Jack (series 2) – BBC 1

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Hooray!   Finally, we’re back to having some decent “period drama” to watch on a Sunday evening.  Other than sport, Sunday evening TV has been dire for weeks.  So welcome back, Anne Lister and Ann Walker, and Shibden Hall.

This must be an extremely demanding role for Suranne Jones, because Anne Lister is in practically every scene.  And she spends half those scenes striding about very energetically, in between corresponding with her ex, dealing with her business affairs, managing her household, catching up with her relatives, dealing with Ann’s relatives and actually spending some time with Ann!

Even when she’s taking time out from all of that, she’s addressing the viewer.  That’s a reminder that this is an adaptation of Anne Lister’s diaries – and another result of that is that some of the other characters sometimes seem a bit caricatured, because we’re seeing them through Anne’s eyes, not in a more balanced, rounded way.  Having said that, a lot of Dickensian characters and even some of Austen’s characters are deliberately caricatured, so it’s something that doesn’t seem out of place in a drama set in the 19th century.

It would have been nice to see more about Ann Walker, though.  Anne Lister seemed to be very comfortable in her own skin, even if other people weren’t always very comfortable with her personality and behaviour, but Ann Walker suffered badly from depression and anxiety.   It’s thought that that was partly because, unlike Anne Lister, she found it a struggle to reconcile her faith and her sexuality, and that’s something which it might have been interesting for the series to explore, especially with all the talk at the moment about the upset caused by conversion therapy.

However, it’s just great to have a decent period drama in the Sunday 9pm slot again, at last, and particularly great that it’s a northern drama – OK, it’s Yorkshire and not Lancashire or the Lakes 🙂 , but Rievaulx Abbey looked mighty fine in the scenes set there, and it’s always good to see the hard-working, world-leading 19th century industrial north on screen – and that it’s female-led.   And there’ve even been stories of people saying that the first series helped them to accept themselves.  No-one’s even making a huge big deal of the fact that this is a series about a same sex relationship: the comments mainly seem to be about Anne’s constant striding (she really does do a lot of striding!) and the locations used for filming.

It’s not exactly relaxing watching, because Anne is on the go practically all the time!   Even the Rievaulx Abbey sketching party scene was a bit hectic, because Anne was striding about whilst the others were sketching!   But I wasn’t bored for a single moment, and nothing about it was unconvincing either.  A really good hour’s TV.  Welcome back, Gentleman Jack!

The Crimean Circle by David Kushner

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This, as the title suggests, is set during the Crimean War.   It isn’t by a British author, and so it’s not the usual fare: there is nary a mention of Florence Nightingale, our characters watch the Charge of the Light Brigade and wonder what on earth’s going on (although, it has to be said, most of the British Army did as well, and they’re involved in the defence of Sebastopol, not in besieging it (I can’t get used to “Sevastopil”, sorry).

Crimea (I’m a British historian, OK, I can’t get used to “Krym”) is obviously much in the news at the moment.  People in the UK will, until 2014, have known it largely from the war of the 1850s.  It was a war in which Britain should never have got involved, but which was strangely popular here, and made a big impact on our culture – Florence Nightingale’s work, obviously, the Cardwell Army Reforms and the Tennyson poem, but also the use of the words “balaclava” and “cardigan”, and all those little urban roads with names like Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace.

None of that has got anything to do with this book: I’m just being Anglocentric.  Ahem.  The book is by an American author and is subtitled “A Russian Jewish Tale of the Crimean War”, which is certainly a different take on it.   Incidentally, our hero, Iosif Hirschcovich Cymerman/Zimmerman comes from Kremenets, in what’s now Ukraine, and would probably have been thought of then as Russian Poland, but, to be fair, most people would say “Russian” to mean “the Russian Empire”.

The point of the book is to highlight the issue of the forcible conscription into the Russian army of quotas from minority religious and ethnic groups, rather like the devshirme system in the Ottoman Empire.   This applied to Jews, Karaites, Old Believers, Roma people, various indigenous peoples and, after the 1830 Uprising, Catholic Poles.  With most groups, boys were conscripted at 18.  With Jews and Karaites, boys were conscripted at 12 in theory, and sometimes from as young as 8, and sent to cantonist schools.  It’s not something which is ever spoken about very much.  I think that the memory of the devshirme system still lingers in Greece, over 200 years after independence, but no-one talks about forcible conscription amongst minorities in the Russian Army.  There’s one vague reference to it early on in Maisie Mosco’s Almonds and Raisins, in which we’re told that Abraham Sandberg’s brother (who is never mentioned again) fell victim to it, but I can’t think of any other novel which even mentions it, and not even academic books say much about it.

So it’s an interesting and neglected topic: I just wish that a) the author had checked a few basic facts more carefully and b) the story had been a bit more realistic.  It’s a self-published novel, so it possibly wasn’t edited by a third party, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really silly errors which it contains.  And it’s not exactly very likely that our guy would have saved the Tsarevich’s life, been given a fortune by a count whose life he’d also saved, and then been invited to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, is it?!

We’re told that Kremenets had been under Russian rule since 1756.  Oh, come on.  The Polish partitions took place in 1772, 1793 (the correct date for Volhynia … and I’m talking about the historic province, so it’s OK for me to say “Volhynia” rather than “Volyn”!) and 1795.  The significance of 1756 was the Diplomatic Revolution and the start of the Seven Years’ War.  You can check that sort of thing on Google or Wikipedia in a matter of seconds.  There was also a reference to Job’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt.  I do not claim to be an expert on the Bible, but Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt is surely fairly basic general knowledge.  And referring to Ekaterinburg as Sverdlovsk, the name it was only given 70 years after the book was set, really was very poor.

Oh, and I also wish that the author had used the normal system of transliterating from Yiddish, rather than that awful alternative system which I don’t think anyone outside American academia can follow – khay instead of che etc.  Even Google can’t follow it.  I tried Googling a sample word using the normal transliteration and the alternative version, and Google didn’t recognise the latter.  So there!!  There were some issues with the quality of English, as well.  Maybe that was just with the Kindle version, but other errors were with the actual text – such as “two centuries ago” rather than “two millennia ago” (placing Judah the Maccabee in the 17th century!).

All right, all right, enough moaning.  What about the actual story?  I seem to have had a lot more to say about the historical background and the historical errors than I have about the story itself.   There was a bit about Cymerman’s early life, but the rest of was about his life in the army, first in Kyiv and then en route to and at the scenes of the fighting.  A number of other people also played a significant role in the book, including a brutal Ukrainian sergeant, a Jew who’d converted to Orthodoxy but said that he was only pretending to make life in the army easier for himself, and a lot of young lads who’d been taken from an orphanage in order to fill the quota from their area.  Oh, and a dog.  The dog had quite a big role.

TBH, I didn’t find the actual book that interesting.  I appreciate that the point was to show how awful life is, but there’s really only so much you can read about digging latrines and burying bodies, which was what they spent most of their time doing.  And there was a lot about weapons and battle tactics, which I know that a lot of people enjoy reading about, and which will probably really appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell and Edward Marston, but which just wasn’t for me.

Books about the Romanovs are for me though, so I was quite chuffed when our pal Iosif rand his mates saved the Tsarevich’s life at Balaclava – the Tsarevich having apparently decided to make a surprise appearance at the battle, as you do.  But it wasn’t exactly very realistic, and I’d thought that the book was trying to give a realistic portrayal of these young men’s lives.  Also, the author showed the Tsarevich’s friends referring to him as “Alex”.  Excuse me?   I’m not sure that even his close friends would have used a diminutive of his name, but, if they had, it would have been “Sasha”.  Have you ever met a Russian known as “Alex”?!

Having saved the Tsarevich’s life, Iosif just happened to meet up with Tolstoy.  And then we learned – there was a bit of a dual timeline, with one of Iosif’s descendants meeting up with a British aristocrat and telling her his family history, and it transpiring that her ancestor had given Iosif his watch after the Charge of the Light Brigade – that Iosif ended up living in Missouri, had a run in with Quantrill’s Raiders, and turned down an invitation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s show.

Sadly more realistically, Iosif’s fiancee Sima was raped by a soldier – and one of supposedly their own side, a Russian soldier.  As has happened in so many wars of the past and as is happening in Ukraine now, men rape women as some sort of particularly sick way of making war.  It’s quite rightly considered a war crime now, but that’s only happened quite recently.

Continuing with the story, Iosif was imprisoned for attacking Sima’s rapist, but he was later released, and he and Sima were married, and joined some of his comrades in a grand reception given by Alexander, now the Tsar, in St Petersburg, and received large sums of money both from the Tsar and from the family of a count whose life Iosif had also saved.   And there’s a sequel, which presumably covers the move to America.

The author is apparently a prize-winning journalist who’s also written non-fiction books.  I think this was his first foray into fiction, so maybe allowances should be made for that!   Full marks for the choice of topic, very average marks for the actual book!

 

Varina by Charles Frazier

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Hmm.  This was an interesting idea for a book, but it didn’t quite work for me.  As the title suggested, it was about Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis and therefore First Lady of the Confederacy.  She was a very interesting person – not the Southern belle you might expect, but someone who was very well-educated, partly in Philadelphia of all places, not a strong supporter of either slavery or secession, not particularly keen on hostessing and not at all convinced that her husband was the right person to be president of the Confederacy.

I was expecting the book to be set largely during the war years, and it wasn’t.  That was my fault, not the author’s: there was no reason why the book should have focused on those years, rather than on aspects of Varina’s life before and after the war.   So, OK, I can’t really moan about that.  But I can moan about the way it jumped about.  One minute, Varina was in her late 70s, living in New York.  The next, she was a teenage girl in Mississippi.  Then she was in her late 30s, on the run after the Confederacy surrendered.  Then she was in her 20s, living in Washington.  It just jumped about all over the place, and that really made it very difficult to get into the story.

That was really rather a shame, because her life story was very interesting.  And intertwined with it was the fascinating story of Jimmie Limber, a young free mixed race boy, who was  taken in by the Davises during the war after Varina saw him being mistreated by his guardian.  Sadly, he became separated from them whilst they were captured.  It’s not clear whether or not they ever met again, but this book imagined him and Varina being reunited years later.  That could have worked very well.

So it could have been a very good book.  But all the jumping about and failure to get into any one particular time in Varina’s life didn’t really work for me.  I wasn’t expecting Gone With The Wind or North and South – and I’m afraid that my idea of Varina was largely drawn from the negative opinion held of her by Ashton Main Huntoon in the North and South books, which, given what a nasty character Ashton is, was silly of me:-) – but I was at least expecting a coherent narrative!

Hmm …

 

The Island by Ana Maria Matute

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I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed this – it was the sort of thing that would have appeared on a school recommended reading list or as a GCSE set text, so that you could have deep and meaningful discussions about it – but it was interesting.  It fulfilled a Facebook group reading challenge by virtue of featuring two cousins being educated at home, and it’s set in Mallorca so seemed appropriate reading as I waited for the Indian Wells and Miami tennis tournaments to start.  Also, it seemed appropriate to post a review of a book by a female author in International Women’s Day.

It’s the mid-1930s.  Matia has been expelled from her convent boarding school, somewhere in Spain … I don’t think it says where, but for some reason I assumed it was Barcelona.  Her mother has died, and her father, for reasons which are never really explained – is he a communist sympathiser afraid of attack by Franco’s supporters? – has abandoned her.  So she’s sent to stay with her ferocious grandmother, timid aunt and unpleasant male cousin in Mallorca.  When war breaks out, she’s stuck there.

There’s a whole load of allegorical stuff going on with rival gangs of teenage boys symbolising the Nationalists and the Republicans, although there’s very little actual history – we don’t hear much about the Spanish Civil War itself, and nothing about the involvement of Italy in the war in Mallorca.  There’s more allegorical stuff with local gangsters picking on a Jewish family, with talk about the historical persecution of the Xuetas (Mallorquin Jews, and the book annoyingly uses “Chuetas”, the Castilian spelling, rather than “Xuetas”) symbolising the Nationalist persecution of the Republicans … the book having been written when Franco was in power, and the author therefore being limited as to what she could say.

The general idea is that Matia and the other teenagers, including a Jewish boy with whom she’s become friendly, lose their psychological innocence as they see the cruelty of the other adults.  Matia’s very interested in fairy stories and keeps talking about Hans and Gerda, and she also still has a sort of teddy bear to whom she’s very attached, and she gradually grows away from all these things as she matures.

As I said, it was interesting more than entertaining, and definitely the sort of thing you’d find on a school reading list for the purposes of deep and meaningful discussion!   It was something different, anyway.

 

Vikings: Valhalla – Netflix

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We’ve moved forward in time from the semi-mythical world of Ragnar Lothbrok to the very real world of the 11th century AD, with such familiar figures as Aethelred the Unready, Edmund Ironside, Harald Hardrada and Canute the Dane.  Leif Erikson and his sister Freydis, who actually belong to a slightly earlier period, have also been brought in, with Freydis, Emma of Normandy and a fictional character called Jarl Haakon providing the girl power we got from Lagertha and her female rivals in the original Vikings drama.

It’s not exactly historically accurate, especially as regards Leif and Freydis, but it’s much more closely based on historical events than the original drama was, largely because we know so much more about this period.  And, just to be terribly Anglocentric, it’s a reminder of how important the Viking influence on England was.  Yes, we all know about York once being called Jorvik, Deansgate in central Manchester being so-called because of the Norse word “gata” (although the “Deans” bit is probably from the lost River Dene, not from “Danes”) and how the Lakeland word “fell” comes from the Norwegian word “fjell”, and the word “bairn” for children also comes from the Scandinavian languages, and so on and so forth, but it’s still an area that tends to be neglected.

From an entertainment viewpoint, it’s great – there’s lots of blood and guts, lots of bedroom action, lots of feuding, lots of feasting,and lots of Viking longships.  But no, no-one is wearing horned helmets!    I don’t know where the idea of Vikings wearing horned helmets came from.    Anyway, I’m really enjoying this. I was going to say that I hope we get a second series, but I think this one’s going to end at Stamford Bridge (the battle in Yorkshire just before the Battle of Hastings, not the one recently put up for sale by Roman Abramovich ), so I’m not sure where there’ll be to go after that.  Enjoying this so far, though!

The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich

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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.