The Colour by Rose Tremain

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I read this for a Facebook group reading challenge.  It sounded interesting, but unfortunately I didn’t really get it.  I think it was meant to be very symbolic and allegorical, but I could have done with a bit more actually happening.  Also, there were several minor characters whose stories weren’t tied in with the main plot very well, making it seem disjointed.

In 1864, a recently-married couple called Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England to New Zealand.  Theirs is clearly a marriage of convenience rather than love.  Harriet has obviously only married him because her best alternative was becoming a governess.  He’s married her because he doesn’t want a love match, for reasons which are explained later on.   Joseph goes off to join the Gold Rush, leaving Harriet to look after his elderly mother.  He then starts paying a young man for “services rendered”.  Harriet goes to look for him, to tell him that her mother’s died, and gets involved with a Chinese gardener with a foot fetish.  As you do.  There are also some neighbours with a sick child, and a Maori woman who used to be the child’s nanny, but the stories aren’t tied together in a coherent way.

I think the idea was that looking for gold was an allegory for lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many places, but the book somehow felt unsatisfactory.   It’s had good reviews and was nominated for a prize, so maybe it’s just me; but, as I’ve said, I didn’t really get it.   The idea was to read a book set in New Zealand.  I’m sure that there are lots of great books set in New Zealand, but this isn’t one of them!

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

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What a peculiar book. I’m not entirely sure what I made of it.  It centred on the deadly serious subject of a (fictitious) young woman from Special Operations Executive being held and tortured by the Nazis, and yet it was written in the style of Bridget Jones meets Adrian Mole meets Allo Allo 🤔.

Two young women, best friends, were on an RAF plane which crashed over Occupied France.  The pilot was Maggie Brodatt, a working-class Jewish girl from Stockport.  That seemed like quite an unlikely background, and the surname Brodatt doesn’t even exist; but I suppose it was possible.  Also on board was Julia Beaufort-Stuart, a member of Special Operations Executive, an upper-class, Swiss-boarding-school-educated girl from a castle which sounded like a cross between Glamis and Balmoral.

Maggie managed to find British contacts there, and was disguised as the visiting cousin of a local French family, but Julia fell into the hands of the Nazis, and was tortured, and witnessed other prisoners being guillotined.

It sounded like a very deep and serious book, but it was written in a very light and flippant way.   Most of it was told in the first person, the majority by Julia, some by Maggie.  Some of it sounded a bit Allo Allo-ish, but the style was generally more reminiscent of Bridget Jones, with the repeated use of “dead” for “very” adding in a strong sense of Adrian Mole.   Also, a lot of the place names mentioned had been changed but only slightly, which was just odd – Oakway for Ringway, Reddyke for Reddish, Ladywell for Ladybower and Ilsmere Port for Ellesmere Port.

It kept me interested all the way through, but I just can’t make my mind up what I thought of the use of such a light style of writing for something as horrific as what happened to Julia, and for the entire picture of the extremely important work being done by both young women.  It was certainly something different!   As I said, it kept me interested, but it was just … strange!

 

 

The Queen’s Lady by Joanna Hickson

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This is the sequel to The Lady of the Ravens, telling the story of Joan Guildford, nee Vaux, later Poyntz, who was a lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York and (probably) Catherine of Aragon, and Lady Governess to both of Henry VII’s surviving daughters.  It runs from 1502 until 1520; and it was a joy to read a book set in the later years of Henry VII’s reign and the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, a period which generally gets overlooked because of the dramas of the mid-1480s before it and the late 1520s after it.

There are a few annoying little historical inaccuracies.  Margaret Beaufort did not have the title of Queen Mother.  The future Charles V was Catherine’s nephew, not her cousin.  Catherine had an English grandmother on one side and an English great-grandmother on the other side, not two English grandmothers.  Just minor things, but they annoyed me.  It doesn’t take much to annoy me 🙂 .   But the actual events are described accurately – insofar as we know them.  There are some gaps in time during the book, meaning that Flodden Field isn’t mentioned, which was a bit odd; but I suppose it didn’t directly affect Joan.   But she was at court throughout much of the period, and also accompanied Princess Margaret to Scotland and Princess Mary to France, as well as being present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, so there’s plenty of high politics going on.

The book’s told in the first person by Joan, and we hear all about her life, including the death of her first husband and her remarriage to a much younger man, as well as about the lives of the Tudors.  There are also a number of presumably fictitious minor characters, who add to the picture of life at the time, notably Joan’s maids and their husbands, and two Moorish girls who were in Catherine’s household.

Apart the minor inaccuracies, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I would imagine that there’ll be a third book in the series, because Joan was one of the witnesses at the infamous trial concerning Catherine’s marriage to Arthur.   I shall be looking out for it, all being well – and thank you to Amazon for making this one available on a 99p Kindle deal.

The Rebel Daughter by Miranda Malins

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This is a prequel/companion novel to The Puritan Princess , told in a first person narrative by Bridget Cromwell, the eldest daughter of Oliver Cromwell and wife of Henry Ireton (and, following Ireton’s death, of Charles Fleetwood).  It’s told in the present tense, which I do find annoying – it makes me feel as if I’m back in the Infants, reading a Peter & Jane or Janet & John book – but it’s a fascinating story of weighty events combined with the domestic lives of the Cromwell women.

Civil War novels are generally about Cavaliers versus Roundheads, but this one focuses on the in-fighting between the Roundheads – Presbyterians versus Independents (which really ceased to be an issue in England, if not in Scotland and Northern Ireland, after the Restoration, but which was crucial in the late 1640s), the Putney Debates, and the role of the Levellers.  However, there’s no mention of the Diggers, which is a shame.  I find it interesting that the leader of the Diggers was from Wigan!  I also find it interesting that here are pop groups named after the Diggers, the Levellers and the New Model Army, but that’s beside the point.

The book finishes, apart from a brief epilogue, in 1652, so we don’t get the famous “In the name of God, go” speech, but there are numerous references to the frustration of the press and the public with politicians on all sides.  Some things don’t change very much over the years.  It’s particularly interesting to see two very controversial subjects, the execution of Charles I and the atrocities committed by Cromwell’s troops in Ireland, led by Henry Ireton, from Bridget’s viewpoint.

Puritans don’t get a very good press in England.  What do we know about Puritans?  They banned Christmas (with specific reference to mince pies) and they stopped people from playing football on Sundays.  Boo, hiss.  They went round people’s houses looking for old men who wouldn’t say their prayers, and taking them by the left leg and throwing them down the stairs.  There’s that brilliant episode of Blackadder in which Lord and Lady Whiteadder come to visit, and criticise absolutely everything that Edmund does.

Puritans who went to America, however, are seen in a rather romantic light.  That’s actually quite odd, given the way they treated Quakers and Baptists, and the Salem Witch Trials; but it’s that idea of wanting to found a New World, a New Jerusalem.  That in itself is problematic, given that Puritanism in in Dutch form was a major contributor towards apartheid, the idea of a chosen people who could help themselves to someone else’s land, but the romantic idea lingers.  And, having just typed “A New Jerusalem”, I’m now going to be earwormed by Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” all day.   I love the fact that she wrote that song as a hymn to New York.  Much as I love Hubert Parry’s musical setting of “Jerusalem”, I take great exception to William Blake suggesting that a town/city with “dark satanic mills” is the antithesis of a New Jerusalem.  Gah.  Sorry, that’s totally beside the point, LOL.

I very much doubt that the Pilgrim Fathers ever so much as mentioned a New Jerusalem, a City on a Hill and all the rest of it, but we tend to think that they did.  And there does seem to have been some sense amongst Puritans in England in the mid to late 1640s of a chance to build a new world – we had the Levellers and the Diggers, as already mentioned, and the Fifth Monarchists.  The book very much presents Bridget as an idealist, someone who genuinely believed in the idea of a godly Commonwealth, and who was devastated when her father eventually accepted a role not that far removed from that of king.

The character does come across very well, but there are some frustrating anachronisms.  “Liz” and “Olly” would not have been used as nicknames for Elizabeth and Oliver in the 17th century: “Bess” and “Noll” were the usual short forms of the names.  And people would not have been talking about women’s rights.  Even the title of the book’s odd, because Bridget doesn’t rebel.   Her interpretation of events is put across well, though – although people might take exception to it.  We see her justifying the execution of Charles I as supposedly being the only way to bring an end to the conflict (except that it didn’t).  And, whilst being horrified by what happened in Ireland, saying that it was in line with what happened to besieged towns during the Thirty Years’ War – which is true enough, but may not go down very well with Irish readers.

For the Civil War from a female viewpoint, my number one recommendation is Pamela Belle’s Wintercombe, but that’s about a woman living in a country house in Somerset, whereas this one’s about a woman at the centre of the big events at the time, so they’re not really comparable.   This one isn’t the best Civil War book I’ve ever come across, but it’s certainly well worth a read: the history’s accurate, and, in particular, it’s an interesting and unusual take on the period.  I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for any more books in this series.

The Queen’s Fortune by Allison Pataki

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This is a novel about Desiree Clary, one-time fiancee of Napoleon, before he threw her over for Josephine, and later the first Bernadotte queen of Sweden.  The story’s told, in the first person, by Desiree, but it’s dominated by Napoleon and Josephine … which is a shame, really, because there are hundreds of novels about them but no others (AFAIK) about Desiree.  Maybe Napoleon had a big personality that he will inevitably dominate any novel in which he appears.

It’s quite a light book, but there’s plenty of historical information in it, and no glaring inaccuracies.  And it’s an interesting portrayal of Napoleon.  I’m not sure whether this was what the author intended, but it comes across as a story which is common in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, if not the late 18th and early 19th – lad from an ordinary background suddenly becomes a celeb, moves to the bright lights of the big city, starts hanging around with the in crowd and being featured all over the gossip columns of the papers, becomes somewhat alienated from most of his family and old mates, throws over his faithful sweetheart in favour of an experienced, glamorous, sophisticated socialite … and it all ends in tears.  And I suppose that that actually is what happened.  It’s just that it involved a war which dragged in most of Europe and some countries beyond, and the temporary or permanent placing of numerous relatives and friends of Napoleon on a large number of thrones.

General Bernadotte, by contrast, comes across as someone far more scrupulous, steady and loyal.  And true to the principles of the Revolution, before a) it turned into the nightmare of the Terror and b) it was overturned by Napoleon.  It’s rather ironic that it was Napoleon, the ordinary boy, who overturned most of the changes which had enabled him to come to power, and made himself an Emperor.

With, initially, Josephine as his Empress.  I’m not overly keen on the portrayal of her in this book.  She comes across as a high-class tart.  The author herself does seem to acknowledge that that’s unfair,  and keeps reminding us that Josephine was an outsider from Martinique and then suffered horribly during the Revolution, and about all the awful pressure on her to produce an heir; but she still shows her as a high-class tart.   And the book makes an interesting point about Napoleon restricting the rights of women.  However much you may dislike the man, he deserves credit for promoting the rights of religious minorities, and for having relatively liberal views towards homosexuality; but he definitely didn’t do much for the position of women.

To get back to Desiree, she and her sister Julie, born in Marseille to a wealthy family which had sought ennoblement, met Napoleon and his brother Joseph whilst attempting to get their brother released from prison.  Soon afterwards, Julie and Joseph married, and Desiree and Napoleon became engaged.   But then Napoleon met Josephine, and Desiree was history – although they did continue to play a part in each other’s lives, because of the family relationship.  Desiree eventually married General Bernadotte, who became Marshal of France, Governor of the Hanseatic cities and Governor of Hanover, before being elected heir to the throne of Sweden in 1810.   Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden had been overthrown in 1809, and his uncle proclaimed Charles XIII, but Charles was in ill health and had no heir.  In 1818, Bernadotte became King Charles XIV John of Sweden, and Desiree became Queen Desideria.  And their descendants sit on the throne of Sweden to this day.

However, Napoleon and Josephine manage to dominate the story even once the Bernadottes are in Sweden.  Or, rather, once General Bernadotte’s in Sweden, because Desiree continued to spend much of her time in France.  We do hear, interestingly, about how they were both torn psychologically between France and Sweden – but much of that’s about Napoleon.  And then their son marries Josephine’s granddaughter, and Desiree reflects on how her life is still dominated by Josephine.

It’s a bit light and fluffy sometimes, but generally it’s a very enjoyable book.  I just wish that the book about Desiree had actually been a bit more about Desiree!

 

 

The Memory Keeper of Kyiv by Erin Litteken

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This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it’s the first time I’ve ever come across a novel about the Holodomor (or Holodymyr), the man-made famine which killed millions of people in Ukraine in the 1930s, and it does get across the message of the horrors which people endured at that time.   There’s a film called Mr Jones, which I watched a while back, but that shows the events from the viewpoint of a British journalist: this book tells it from the viewpoint of a (fictional) Ukrainian girl who lived through it.   It uses a dual time narrative, which I’m personally not keen on, and the writing and descriptions are fairly basic, with a bit too much dialogue; but it does tell an important story.  There’s also quite a lot of general information about Ukrainian culture in it.  Especially about food.

I should imagine that we’re going to see quite a few historical novels set in Ukraine, over the next year or so.  I hope that they’re not going to turn Ukrainian history into a tragedy narrative, because it isn’t, and it can actually be very problematic – Khmelnytsy, Petliura, Bandera -; but the Holodomor was a tragedy, made even more so by the fact that it was largely due to Soviet ineptitude and repression, that some areas were deliberately starved by the Stalinist authorities, and that what happened was largely covered up until Gorbachev’s time.

It was part of a wider famine across several parts of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev, although he was only a baby whilst it was happening, has spoken about the loss of relatives and neighbours, including two aunts and an uncle, to starvation, and he declassified the documents from the time.   However, it was particularly bad in Ukraine.   No-one’s sure how many died, with estimates ranging from 2.5 million to 10 million, but we’re certainly talking millions of people.  Some people and some countries consider it to have been genocide, and there’s certainly a strong argument in favour of that view.

So how did this happen, in Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe?  Well, bad weather was certainly a factor, and it’s possible that rodents, insects and plant blight may all have played a part in it too, but it was basically due to Soviet ineptitude.  They tried to force collectivisation on the agricultural workers, insisted that some of the land be turned over to producing cotton rather than grain, failed to account for the need to produce fodder for animals as well as food for humans, imposed quotas which couldn’t be met, and allocated higher food rations to urban workers at the expense of rural workers.   People were shot for trying to escape from the areas with no food and prosecuted for trying to glean bits of food from the fields, offers of foreign aid were refused, and a lot of grain was wasted due to inefficient transportation and storage.

On top of everything else, Walter Duranty of the New York Times saw fit to report that stories of starvation in the Soviet Union had been wildly exaggerated, and that things under communism were all hunky dory.  And then the Soviets covered up what had really happened.  Gareth Jones, the “Mr Jones” of the aforementioned film, who had tried to tell the world what was going on, was murdered by Soviet agents.

There’s a school of thought which holds that the Stalinist authorities actually did it on purpose – that it was a way to try to suppress Ukrainian nationalism, at a time when Russification was being used to try to bring about uniformity, and when there was severe repression aimed specifically at Ukraine.  The poor agricultural policies led to resistance, and, as a result, whole villages in Ukraine were blacklisted, and banned from receiving any food at all, and the grain which they produced was requisitioned and distributed elsewhere.   Was it genocide?   I don’t personally think that the shortage of grain was deliberately engineered: the Soviets needed Ukrainian agriculture, and they needed the food to supply urban workers.   It was ineptitude.  Communism only works in a small scale setting: central planning and quota-setting for somewhere as large as the Soviet Union was never going to work.   But does the deliberate withholding of food from people, and the commandeering of such supplies as they produced for themselves, constitute genocide?   Well, there’s certainly a cogent argument that it does.

OK, history essay over!   This is a novel, not an academic work.  We’ve got an elderly lady in America in 2004, having flashbacks to her youth in Ukraine, and a rather irrelevant sub-plot about a romance between her widowed granddaughter and a handsome neighbour.   I could have done without the sections set in 2004, but, as I’ve said, dual timelines seem to be all the rage these days.  The interesting parts are set in Ukraine in the 1930s, with the elderly lady as a young woman.  It’s written in American English, which is obviously fair enough for an American author, but which may read strangely to readers from other Anglophone countries.  The style of writing isn’t wonderful, and there’s a bit too much dialogue and not enough description; but it is the author’s first ever book.

There’s a tendency in a lot of cultures to look back to some mythical golden idyll before something happened.  Think William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” pre the Industrial Revolution, the introduction to the Gone With The Wind film, about the antebellum South, or the idea that it was grand to be an Englishman in 1910, before the First World War.  I think that this book does fall into that trap.  Life in rural Ukraine before Stalinism was not a bed of roses: the grandparents of our protagonist, Katya, were probably born into serfdom, and then came the First World War, followed by the 1917-1921 war.  But, certainly, things were a lot better than they were during the horrors of 1932-33.

Without giving the whole story, we see Katya, the protagonist, as a happy young girl, and then her life and those around her turning into horror as the Stalinist secret police (always described as “activists”, for some reason) take over, try to enforce collectivisation, and take all their food supplies.  (The title’s a misnomer: we don’t even see Kyiv in the book, and the scenes in Ukraine are based around a village near the town of Bila Tservka, around 50 miles from Kyiv.)  Most of her family and many of her neighbours are either shot dead, are deported to Siberia, or die of starvation, and Katya herself is raped.  When the winter of 1932-33 is over, she and her brother-in-law Kolya go to look for the other viillagers, and find house after house containing frozen bodies.  Gorbachev’s spoken of how half the people in his village died during that winter.

A visiting cousin talks of cannibalism, and there are many accounts of that having really happened. In one chapter, Katya and Kolya go to the nearest town, and see piles of bodies along the roadside: again, there are many accounts of how people died in fields or along the sides of roads. They eat worms, grass, anything they can find, and even flush out rabbits’ burrows to take the animals’ grain supplies: all these things really happened during the Holodomor.

The book very much takes the view that Stalin was deliberately starving people: one character actuallly says that Stalin wants them all dead.   Katya and Kolya see vast amounts of food piled up in storage facilities, often rotting, dead horses being covered in carbolic acid to prevent people from eating them, and people being prosecuted for taking any food or grain from the fields.   People were denied the food on the grounds that their farm or village hadn’t met the quotas imposed by the authorities.  The afterword talks about how foraging in the woods or fishing in streams was illegal, as all the land and water was deemed to belong to the state, and how large amounts of food were exported to other countries during this time.

We do see someone who’d been with the secret police seeing the error of his ways, but too late.  And we see a 10-year-old boy informing on his own parents, because of the brainwashing that took place in the communist youth organisations.

The book makes clear that collectivisation caused considerable demotivation, and that that was yet another factor leading to the drop in agricultural production.  We hear how the the characters want to be working for themselves, not feeling that they’re just small cogs in a big and impersonal state wheel.  All sounds rather Thatcherite, doesn’t it?  Communism doesn’t work, except on a very small scale in Israeli kibbutzim.  And it inevitably brings about totalitarianism, which in turn brings about repression.

In the book, Katya’s diary from 1932-3 is turned into a book by her granddaughter, because the story needs telling.  Well, yes, it does.  Why is this story so little known?   Many people had left Ukraine for Canada, the US and elsewhere in the 1920s, but presumably those back home weren’t able to write and tell them. There were reports in the foreign press, and some offers of foreign aid, but Walter Duranty’s reports would have been widely read in the West, and … well, what are we doing at the moment to help the Uighur and Rohingya peoples?   Not much.

The author’s explanation is that the rest of the world didn’t want to antagonise Stalin as they needed his support against Hitler, but that wasn’t until later in the decade and into the 1940s, so I’m not entirely getting that idea.   She also says that people who were able to leave famine-stricken parts of Ukraine after the Second World War were so afraid of the Soviet authorities that they wouldn’t speak out even once they were settled in other countries, and explains that her Ukrainian great-grandmother was terrified of the police and even of unsolicited phone calls.

One moan, and this was probably a typo – a female character’s patronymic is given as Mykolayovych, rather than Mykolayevna.  Also, I found it odd that the Yiddish word “blintze” was used rather than the Ukrainian word “nalynsky”, but the author mentions in the afterword that her great-grandmother said “blintze”, so maybe she came from a village with a mixed population.

OK, end of essay.  I get a bit carried away when I’m writing about Eastern European history.   As I’ve said, this isn’t a particularly well-written book, and I’m not a fan of dual time narratives, but, especially if you can get it on the cheap Kindle deal offer, this is well worth reading, because this story does need to be far more widely known.

 

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!

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!

 

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!