The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

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Well, on the plus side, it was high time that someone wrote a novel about the “Montenegrin princesses”, Stana (Anastasia) and Militsa, daughters of the King of Montenegro, wives of Russian Grand Dukes, and instrumental in introducing the Tsarina Alexandra to “Monsieur Philippe” and then to Rasputin.  On the minus side, most of this particular novel is nonsense, and that’s made worse by the fact that the author claims in an afterword that it’s largely based on fact.  As a work of fiction, it’s quite entertaining.  As a work which claims to be a relatively accurate piece of historical fiction, it’s a disgrace!   According to Ms Edwards-Jones, Nicholas and Alexandra had a fifth daughter, who was taken away and adopted; Alexandra and Militsa were having some sort of affair; and Militsa was the one who shot Rasputin.  I’ve never heard such rubbish.

She also seems to have a rather vivid and possibly rather warped imagination – some of the stuff about Rasputin’s carry-ons is admittedly probably true, but the idea that the Tsar and Tsarina indulged in public naked capers and that Stana and Militsa tried to create spells with miscarried foetuses is distasteful, to say the least.   And this silly idea that the Khlysty (a religious sect) indulged in all manner of orgies was made up back in Peter the Great’s time in order to discredit them.  Over the years, a lot of unpleasant stories have been made up about different religious groups.  It’s hardly very responsible of authors to propagate them.  And some of it was just plain bonkers.  Monsieur Philippe had a magic hat which made him invisible when he wore it?!  I thought this was meant to be a historical novel, not a children’s fantasy book.

Philippa Gregory’s claims about Woodville witchcraft are bad enough, but at least the Woodvilles, having died over half a millennium ago, aren’t likely to be hurt by them.  Stana and Militsa both died within living memory.  I really do dislike this trend of making up all sorts of rubbish about people who are either still alive or who may still have immediate relatives and friends living.   The book contains some ridiculous errors, as well.  There was no change of dynasty in Montenegro following an assassination.  That was in Serbia.  Wrong country!   Montenegro is not primarily Roman Catholic: it is primarily Montenegrin Orthodox.  And why do so many people make a mess of Russian names?

This was my book for the Facebook group reading challenge, which was to read a book about witches, but I freely admit that I wanted to read it because it was about Imperial Russia, and already had it on my TBR pile when the “challenge” about witches was posted.   I also have to admit that I’ve rather enjoyed ripping it to shreds, just because it annoyed me so much!

But what a shame.  These two women are not particularly well-known, but they should be, because they did play an important role at the court of “Nicky and Alix”, and it was partly through their influence that Alix – poor woman, desperate to produce a son and heir, and then, when he arrived, desperate to keep him safe because of his haemophilia – became involved with Rasputin.  That certainly played a part in the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and the communist takeover of Russia has had a huge influence, to put it very mildly, on world events ever since.  This could have been an excellent and very important book … but, as it was, I’m not really sure what the author was playing at with it.

 

The Mapmaker by Frank G Slaughter

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This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book set in Portugal, which was a bit problematic, as there isn’t a lot of English language historical fiction set in Portugal and I’ve read pretty much all of it!  However, I did find this.  It turned out that only part of it was set in Portugal, and, in this disastrous tennis season, I kept getting distracted into reading up on medieval Mallorcan mapmakers, but never mind.

This book’s an interesting mixture of the work of real life cartographers under the auspices of the Portuguese prince now known as Henry the Navigator, some quite detailed information about navigational techniques of the time; things probably believed to be true when the novel was written (in the 1950s) but now doubted, notably the existence of a school of navigation at Sagres; stories and theories about the Americas being discovered by the Venetians long before Columbus; legends which the characters believe but the reader isn’t meant to (all the Prester John stuff); and Boys’ Own adventure stuff.   That sounds rather strange, but I did really enjoy it!

Our hero is the Venetian cartographer and navigator Andrea Bianco, who was a real person and is best known for his 1436 atlas showing “the island of Antillia”, which some people believe to be mythical but others believe to be the coast of Florida – although, in this book, the native inhabitants refer to it as “Acuba”, so possibly the reader’s meant to think that it’s Cuba.  There are various theories about Venetian sailors having reached the Americas in the early 15th century, and we just don’t know whether or not they’re true.

In this book, Andrea’s working for Henry the Navigator, alongside various Mallorcan Jews or conversos who were amongst the leading cartographers of the time, and he holds the secret of measuring latitude.  He’d been captured by Turks and held as a slave, during which time he not only learnt how to measure latitude but travelled to China and Japan.  However, at the start of the book, he escapes during a storm and is fortuitously rescued by a wealthy Portuguese man and his beautiful daughter, Leonor.  It transpires that his dastardly half-brother was plotting against him and was the reason he was captured.  The said dastardly half-brother then makes it impossible for him to stay in Venice, so off he goes to Portugal, where he soon gets in with Henry, and joins a voyage to the coast of Africa.  We get some distressing scenes of slaves being bought from African slave traders and brought to Portugal, with the Church preaching that this is all to the good and it’ll save their souls: however, Andrea stands out against this, and any slaves assigned to him are immediately set free.  He also makes it clear that the Turks and Arabs are far more advanced in their knowledge of navigation than any Europeans are, and that the ancient Phoenicians were too.

Off they go on another voyage, to the Canary Islands, but things go wrong and they end up in the Sargasso Sea.   We do know that Portuguese ships at this time did reach the Sargasso Sea, but, here, our ship ends up in “Antillia”.   There are various adventures, in which our hero saves the life of the beautiful Leonor, who for some inexplicable reason has come along on the voyage, and eventually, thanks largely, of course, to Andrea, they make it back to Portugal.  At this point, the dastardly half-brother reappears and tries to kill him, but Andrea manages to escape – of course.  The dastardly one gets his come-uppance, and Andrea walks off into the sunset with the beautiful Leonor.

So it’s a bit daft in parts, but the information about navigational techniques is genuinely interesting.  The idea that the Portuguese reached the Americas before Columbus but Henry hushed it up to avoid distracting attention from his plans in Africa, which is how things are explained here, is highly unlikely; but could the Venetians have got there first?  Well, you never know!  And this is a Boys’ Own book for adults, rather than books by, say, G A Henty, which are clearly aimed at children, so it was something different!

 

The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey by Marcia Fine (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  This month’s Facebook reading challenge was to read a book about refugees.  There are many excellent novels about refugees.  Sadly, this is not one of them.  The fact that it got the most important date in Sephardi history wrong on the very first page was not a great start, and set the tone for the rest of the book.  Furthermore, the error was with the Hebrew date, but the characters were annoyed about being forced to use the Gregorian calendar – and, given that this was in a chapter set in 1492 and the Gregorian calendar didn’t exist until 1582, I was rather annoyed too.  But that was pretty mild compared to what happened later on, when the author seemed to get the early 16th, late 16th and mid 17th centuries all ingloriously tangled up together.

I was left with the impression that the author had heard various different stories about Sephardi history and just bunged them all in together.  It was as if, say, someone had written a book about civil wars in England and claimed that Oliver Cromwell had murdered the Princes in the Tower and then recognised Henry FitzEmpress as the heir.   What a mess!   And then people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter will read this and take it as being historically accurate, which really does irritate me.

It’s a dual timeline book.  These are very popular now.  I have no idea why.  The modern timeline involved someone who lost her job because she had a bad leg after being bitten by a horrible dog (I do sympathise over anything involving horrible dogs), went off on a three month research trip with a researcher she’d only just met, and married him.  As you do.  I wasn’t really interested in that, more in the storyline about the refugees.  However, it turned out that the refugees were actually the invention of the said researcher, who was writing a novel, which confused the issue even more.

Our two refugees, teenage aunt and illegitimate baby niece, were living in Granada, which seemed unlikely as it had only just been reconquered, and were forced to leave due to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, which was unconvincing as they were actually conversos.  And why hadn’t the niece’s mother married the father?   There seemed no reason.  However, off they went to Portugal, with their parents/grandparents.  This bit was actually quite well-written, and reasonably historically accurate, with some rather good descriptions of the forced conversions which followed when the Portuguese authorities changed their policies, and the seizure and deportation to Sao Tome of children of Jewish families.

But then it just got silly.  The parents/grandparents having died (one murder, one suicide), our two girls took ship for Brazil, where they found work on a plantation.  No, no, no!   Yes, there was significant Sephardi migration to plantations in Brazil, but not until the 1630s, when part of Brazil came under Dutch rule.  Not at the beginning of the 16th century!   Yes, a very tiny number of Sephardi refugees left for Brazil at that time, but hardly any.  If you were escaping from the Portuguese authorities, you’d hardly go to a Portuguese settlement, would you?  And there wouldn’t even have been any plantations that early.

Then the auntie eloped with a slave.  Well, that’s very likely to have happened, isn’t it?!  And, again, it was too early for slavery on plantations …. especially as it was too early for plantations, full stop.  And the niece was shipped over to Amsterdam as a mail order bride.  Where she lived happily ever after in one of Europe’s most tolerant cities – and found her long-lost mother, who’d become a nun in Castile but was transferred to Amsterdam.

Oh dear.  People moved from (what’s now) the Netherlands to Brazil, not the other way round.  And not until over 100 years later.  And Amsterdam becoming a centre where religious minorities could live in peace didn’t happen until much later on in the 16th century, after the United Provinces had declared independence from the Habsburgs.

The whole thing was just a mess.   It was like when little kids think that anyone over 30 must have lived through the Second World War, because they’ve got a concept of “the olden days” but not that “the olden days” weren’t just one amorphous mass.

Amazon informs the purchaser that “the author has carefully researched the historical events”.  I beg to differ!

Break The Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli

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This was published in February 2020 but set during the Tokyo Olympics.  Now, I usually only read books which are, as my blog name suggests, “set in the past” (this one was for a Facebook group reading challenge).  Setting a book only a few months into the future wouldn’t normally be much of an issue, but, of course, in this case it was – and the author couldn’t possibly have known what lay around the corner, any more than the rest of us could.  These are the Olympics which we should have had.  For a start, they’re in 2020.  And the events take place in front of capacity crowds, with the athletes’ loved ones there to share the moments with them, with medals being hung around the winners’ necks by VIPs and with team-mates hugging each other in celebration or consolation.

Reading all that was rather strange.  However, it shouldn’t detract from the actual plot, which was about a team of young female American gymnasts getting ready to head for the Olympics, only for it to emerge that their male coach had been abusing two of them and that he’d been abusing other girls, too frightened to speak out, over a period of many years.  Obviously everyone will be aware that this is based on real events within US gymnastics, with over 350 young women affected.

It’s a challenging topic for a book for a teenagers, but the author’s handled it very well.  The protagonist, Audrey, is not one of those affected, but learns that she was almost certainly going to be the abuser’s next target.  So we’re slightly removed from what’s happened, and there are no actual scenes of abuse being perpetrated, but no words are minced and it’s made very clear what’s gone on.

Tied in with this is another main plotline, that, at just 16, our girl Audrey (funny how names come back into fashion – no-one under 50 was called Audrey when I was a kid) is being forced to retire due to a chronic back injury.  And, because it is a book for teenagers, there’s a romance, and there’s a lot of emphasis on the girls in the team falling out but then being reunited and pulling together.

It’s really very good.

It is a difficult subject, though.   BBC 1 showed a three part series earlier this year about child abuse in British football in the 1970s and 1980s.  It struck very close to home, with local lads like Paul Stewart and David White talking about what had happened to them.  How many other sports have been affected by this?   A review into safeguarding in professional tennis has just been introduced.  And, of course, it’s not just sport.  Over the last few years, there’s been one child abuse scandal after another.  It’s horrific, and it was brave of the author to cover this subject in her book.

We start off with the trials.  Then it’s announced that one of the qualifiers has failed a drugs test.  Everyone’s stunned.  And then it turns out that the coach had been abusing her, she’d told him that she was going to the authorities, and he’d tampered with her test results in an attempt to discredit her.  And the other coaches went along with the faked test results.  Later, it turns out that he’d been abusing another member of the team too.  And others come forward.

At the Olympics, the shock of it all, and the fact that the team’s initially divided over whom they believe, means that, despite being favourites, they fail to win a medal in the team event.  But Audrey pulls them all together, and they succeed in the individual events.  And all the other competitors, and everyone in the crowd, shows that they believe the girls who’ve come forward, and that they support them.   It’s a bit too “tidy”, but, OK, it is a novel.

I’m not an expert in gymnastics, but the author goes into a lot of detail and it does all seem to be pretty accurate.  And so is everything she says about top level sport in general – the physical and emotional pain involved, as well as the great rewards.  Audrey will be retiring at just 16.  She will probably have issues with her back for the rest of her life.  And there are questions over whether or not the injury could have been prevented had the coaches cared a bit more.  And, after all those years of work, one mistake, or one bit of bad luck, and dreams could be shattered.  I watch a lot of sport.  I’ve seen so many ups and downs.  I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the athletes themselves.

Random point.  How long have leotards been referred to as “leos”?!  Or is this an American thing?  And, just to add to the confusion, Audrey’s boyfriend is called Leo!

One more thing.  The book tries really hard to be diverse.  Audrey is half-Korean.  Of the other three girls in the main team, one is white, one is black and one is Hispanic.  Kudos to the author for doing that, but … it gets a bit much when, say, we’re introduced to their new coach and immediately told that she’s “a white woman”, etc.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to show that you’re including characters of different ethnicities, except in cases where it’s clear from their names, without actually saying so, but it felt a bit clunky sometimes.

This is a very 21st century “young adult” novel.  Incidentally, don’t think the term “young adult” even existed when I was in the age group for which the book’s aimed.   And, as I’ve said, it’s really very good.

 

 

 

 

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  Hands up – I thought I’d hate this, but I actually quite liked it.  I don’t mean that I had anything against either the author or the book, but this is a genre which I normally avoid like the plague – “dystopian novels”.  However this month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a “young adult dystopian novel”, so that’s what I did.

I don’t really get the appeal of dystopian novels, I have no idea why anyone over the age of about 8 is now referred to as a “young adult”, and I thought that Ryan was a boys’; name and was rather bemused to discover that Ryan Graudin was a woman, but never mind.  Anyway, if I was going to put myself through reading a dystopian novel, I was going to find one which was at least vaguely historical; and that’s how I came to this one – which is set in an alternative universe in which the Nazis have won the Second World War, taken over the whole of Europe and Africa, and divvied Asia up between themselves and the Japanese, whilst the US has stayed out of it.  The American author has completely and utterly ignored the existence of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom were playing an important role in the fight against the Axis powers, and pretty much ignored Central and South America too: that really annoyed me.

Our heroine, Yael – and I’m afraid that I was nearly at the end of the book before it finally dawned on me that the name had been chosen because of the Jael and Sisera Bible story – escaped from a concentration camp as a child, and now, in 1956, is part of the Resistance movement and plans to assassinate Hitler.  OK, I was with it this far.

As a result of being the victim of experiments carried out by a Dr Geyer, who is presumably based on Mengele, she can “skinshift” to make herself look like anyone else who’s nearby or whose photo she’s seen (it’s originally explained that she can “shift” into their face, although presumably she can also shift into their height, weight, voice etc). Right.  This was getting rather … er, well, not my kind of thing.

And, as Hitler rarely goes out in public, the only way she can get close to him is to kidnap a young female motorbike champion, “skinshift” into her identity – fooling everyone, including the said rider’s brother and ex-boyfriend (which seems pretty unlikely, although I suppose I bought the Blake/Krystle/Rita storyline in Dynasty back in the day!) – , and win a prestigious Berlin to Tokyo motorbike race which for some reason goes via North Africa (it’s not quite clear how come she’s suddenly become an expert biker), which will mean that she gets to dance with Hitler at the champions’ ball, and can then shoot him.

No, me neither.  “Skinshifting”?  Hitler at a motorbike champions’ ball?   Incidentally, I absolutely hate motorbikes.  Horrible noisy things.  But it was actually rather entertaining.  However, that wasn’t so much the dystopian stuff as the descriptions of the places through which the race went, and the rather inventive attempts of the competitors to nobble each other – everything from drugging water bottles to shoving people off boats, to transmitting tranquillisers by kissing.  Oh, and they all got kidnapped by the remnants of the Red Army at one point.  On a more serious note, we heard about Yael’s memories of the concentration camp and the loss of her mother (her father was never mentioned, for some reason) and friends.

At the end, she did actually get to dance with Hitler, and shot him.  You’d think that, at a ball attended by both Hitler and Emperor Hirohito, there’d have been some sort of security checks to ensure that no-one was carrying guns, knives or anything else, but apparently not.  Only it wasn’t Hitler – it was a skinshifting doppelganger.  But, because people thought Hitler had been killed, uprisings started everywhere.

I did actually get quite into it, which surprised me.  The “skinshifting” was a step too far, though, especially as surely there was no way that she could have fooled the brother and ex-boyfriend of the person she was impersonating – who, incidentally, was totally forgotten about, having been kidnapped and locked up but with no mention of how she was to manage for food and drink and so on!    I shall be sticking to normal historical novels in future, but, hey, each to their own, and if people enjoy reading dystopian novels then good luck to them!

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  Hmm.  This book, for a Facebook group reading challenge, came highly recommended, and I really liked the idea of it, but I just didn’t quite get on with it.

Miss Pettigrew is a strait-laced, rather dowdy, down on her luck 40-year-old spinster governess in 1930s London (the book was written when it was set).  An employment agency muddles up two addresses and sends her to work for a glamorous nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse, who’s got several boyfriends, one of whom has just stayed the night, does drugs, and is generally everything that Miss Pettigrew isn’t.   The book’s set across a 24 hour period which sees Miss Pettigrew swept up into Miss LaFosse’s world, given a makeover, go dancing, be kissed by a man, and advise Miss LaFosse and her friends on their love lives.

I should have loved this, but somehow I didn’t.  I think it was some of the attitudes in it.

I am really, really not one of these annoying people who shriek and have hysterics about how practically every book ever written contains remarks which would probably not be considered acceptable now.  One would not realistically expect Ma and Pa Ingalls to be critical of white settlers taking over Native American land, the O’Haras and their fellow plantation owners to be advocates of black civil rights, or Julian Kirrin to be best chums with a working-class lad (whom I doubt would want to be friends with him anyway).   But anti-Semitic remarks on page 6 of a book don’t make for the best of starts.  The word “othering” was being used a lot over the Anne Boleyn programme: well, Miss Pettigrew was definitely guilty of “othering”.  One of her comments, in particular, sounded just like something Jeremy Corbyn would say.   Not to mention the references to oily Dagos … although, somehow, similar remarks don’t bother me in The Thorn Birds, because they’re in the context of tensions between different groups in a small town.

Miss Pettigrew’s a fair reflection of her time and background, and, as I’ve said, I’m really not the sort of person who expects people in different times not to hold views typical of their time and background.  But I just found it rather off-putting, and that’s probably why I didn’t get on with the book.  But I should have enjoyed it, because it was a cracking idea.  Oh well.  Some books work for you, some books don’t!