The Courtesan and the Samurai by Lesley Downer


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

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


The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer


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

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

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

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


The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer



This one’s the first in The Shogun Quartet: I somehow seem to have got them all out of order!  It tells the story of Okatsu, a real historical figure, a girl from a relatively obscure samurai background who becomes the wife of the shogun, at a time when Japan’s struggling to cope with increased contact with Western powers.

There’s a fictitious subplot about her having a childhood romance with a man who becomes prominent in politics, but the main interest is in the powerplay in the Women’s Palace.  We learn that Okatsu’s mother-in-law had many of her son’s half-siblings killed at birth – she sounds like a villain from a Greek or Roman play, but she was also a real person, and this was fewer than 200 years ago!

Like so many women in history, Okatsu is a young girl used as a pawn by men, and her story’s quite sad; but it’s an interesting read.  Three books of the quartet read, one to go!

The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer


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

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

Two books of the quartet down, two to go!

The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan


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

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

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

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

Across a Bridge of Dreams by Lesley Downer


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

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

Karitas Untitled by Kristin Marja Baldursdottir


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

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

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

28 Days by David Safier


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

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

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

The Flight of Anja by Tamara Goranson



This is the sequel to The Voyage of Freydis, but it’s entirely fictitious.  The character of Anja Freydisdottir is invented, and the book shows co-operation and even intermarriage between the Norse settlers in Vinland and the indigenous Beothuk people, whereas the Sagas only mention conflict.

There are three parts to the story.  The first is in Greenland, where Anja mistakenly believes that she’s the daughter of Freydis’s estranged husband and a Beothuk woman.  She then joins an expedition to Vinland to escape an unwanted betrothal, and we get an adventure story as she’s shipwrecked, attacked by a bear, and goes on a dangerous trek with a Norse settler called Bjorn.

Then she joins the Beothuk and meets her father, and we hear a lot about Beothuk ways, insofar as they’re known, before leaving with Bjorn.

It’s entirely made up, but it’s an interesting suggestion about what life *could* have been like in Newfoundland a millennium ago, and the story keeps the reader’s attention.  The third book in the trilogy is out later this year, and I hope to read it.

Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn


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

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

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