Saturday, April 14, 2018

The last Muslim King in Spain

9781781256862.jpgBased on original research, and drawing attention to the connections between the medieval Moorish king Boabdil, and current social and political concerns in Europe today, Elizabeth Drayson presents the first full account in any language of the Moorish sultan of Granada, and head of the Nasrid dynasty - The Moor’s Last Stand: The life of Boabdil, Muslim King of Granada.

The academic’s research has also uncovered a potential mystery regarding the final resting place of the last Muslim king in Spain. Long thought to have died in Algeria in 1494, experts are now hoping to exhume and DNA test what they believe to be the remains of the sultan beneath a derelict mausoleum in Fez, Morocco.

According to her, Boabdil’s heroism, long repudiated by most historical commentators, is evident in his ability to recognise the futility of further resistance, and the choice he made in rejecting the further suffering, starvation and slaughter of his people. Instead, he bargained for the best terms of surrender possible, rejecting martyrdom and willingly sacrificing his reputation for the greater good.

read more here at University of Cambridge

Monday, April 2, 2018

HNN: Chris Wickham’s “Medieval Europe”

Daniel Lazare reviews Chris Wickham's Medieval Europe for History News Network:
How times change. Thirty years ago, Chris Wickham was a rising young medieval historian calling for “a new Marxist theory of the complexities of socio-economic change” in the pages of the New Left Review. Now, judging from his latest work, Medieval Europe, he has given up not only on Marxism, but on any theory or mode of analysis whatsoever.
All suffer, he believes, from the sin of teleology, the notion that history is imbued with a logic, goal, or purpose. Historians who study the Middle Ages because they see in them the seeds of modernity are thus guilty of viewing the past through the lens of the present rather than accepting it on its own terms.
Contrary to Wickham, history is not just one damned thing after another, but a science packed with meaning no less than events.

Review: The Birdman's Wife by Melissa Ashley

The Birdman's Wife
In just 12 years of marriage, Elizabeth Gould travelled the globe, painted hundreds of birds and raised six children. All this in the 1800's! She died in childbirth (1841 aged 37yo) and her work was published under her husband's name in John Gould's "Birds of Australia."

In the "Birdman's Wife", Melissa Ashley introduces us to Elizabeth Gould - wife, mother, artist, footnote. We meet Elizabeth in 1828, when she first encounters John Gould at the Zoological Society in London. Elizabeth spent some ten years collaborating with John, including some two years in Australia (1838), classifying and illustrating native birdlife.

Image result for gould's birds of australiaHowever, this was not as glamorous as it sounds - with the public's fascination with the exotic, many artists embarked on journeys to parts known and unknown, all in the name of science. And it was no easy task to represent nature in it's own environment - these creatures were often caught, killed, stuffed and posed so that they could be diligently documented.

Ashley thoroughly immersed herself in her research (which formed the basis of her PhD), and this shows in the meticulous details, which at times makes for rather laborious reading.

Apart from mentions in various books on illustrators and artists, the only definitive biography on Elizabeth was "The Story of Elizabeth Gould" published by Alec Chisholm in 1944. Very little was known about her until 1938 when a collection of her letters written from Australia was discovered. These letters were the basis for Chisholm's book, and now Ashley's fictionalised account. Elizabeth's letters are housed in the Mitchell Library (part of the State Library of New South Wales, Australia), and reveal Elizabeth to be a charming, cultured, and musically and artistically talented woman whose contributions were overshadowed by the fame of her husband, John Gould. 

further reading:
@ The Guardian - Pecking Order: How John Gould Dined Out On The Birds Of Australia
@ University of Kansas - Elizabeth Gould
@ Australian Museum - Elizabeth Gould
@ Compulsive Reader - Review of The Birdman's Wife
@ Glasgow University Library - Birds of Australia
@ Smithsonian Libraries - Elizabeth Gould

Review: The Brewer of Preston by Andrea Camilleri

The Brewer of Preston
This was an added extra when I picked up a few of Camilleri's "Inspector Montalbano" books from the local library.

The setting Vigata in the 1870s, and the proposed production of a play - the Brewer of Preston - at the local theatre by the Prefect of Vigata - an event which the townsfolk intend will never happen. 

What was unexpected was how this writing style differs so much from the "Inspector Montalbano" novels. The chapters, which introduce us to an eclectic and eccentric cast of characters, are presented in no particular order - in fact we are told to read them in whatever order we like! As we slowly read, we pick up little hints as to how each scene and the characters will eventually relate, and the circumstances that bring them all together begins to unfold.

" ... how many things in Sicily happened by mistake ..."

The writing is at times sardonic, comedic, tragic, farcical, absurd. Loaded with clever, and often satirical, writing, Camilleri reveals tempestuous political scheming and double crossing, murder, infidelity, police corruption, anarchy, organised crime - and above, the Sicilian style of justice.

One is left wondering ... is the opera being acted out on the stage or in the real lives of the novel's characters...

Review: The Woman on the Orient Express by Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The Woman on the Orient Express
Different to what I was expecting - reviews are mixed. 

Three stories intertwine on a journey on the Orient Express with Agatha Christie front and centre. Apart from a little to-ing and fro-ing at the start to get characters sorted, it quite readable. I don't mind a little artistic licence when it comes to plausibly filling in the gaps or maybe adding a little twist.

Our story starts much later in Agatha's life as a visit from a young man recalls images of a story not long forgotten but left untold.  We are then taken back to 1928, and divorce from her husband Archie becomes a catalyst for Agatha's journey to Baghdad.  Travelling under the assumed name of Mary Miller, Agatha encounters two women (Nancy Nelson and Katherine Keeling), both with secrets of their own, and both also heading to Baghdad.

Ashford creatively uses known facts to weave a intricate story of Agatha's journey to the Middle East - she did in fact travel to Istanbul on the Orient Express in 1928.  She also did meet Katherine Woolley (nee Keeling) at a dig at Ur.  We get a sense too of where some of Agatha's later stories based in Mesopotamia originate.  However, her meeting with her future second husband, Max Mallowan was not until two years later. 

All in all, this is a captivating and vivid spin on the beginning of a new chapter in Agatha's life - it is not a typical Agatha Christie style mystery, but a good historical fiction story.  Some liberties are taken - this is fiction afterall!

Review: The Harrowing by James Aitcheson

The Harrowing
" Five strangers. Five secrets. No refuge. No turning back."

Aitcheson vividly recreates the events of this dark chapter in England's history and has shown a very personal side to the political events following the Norman Conquest. In this instance, events styled as "the Harrying of the North" whereby in order to subjugate to the north of England (1069-1070) and defeat the rebels, William the Conqueror laid waste to the north with the result being widespread famine, looting, slaughter, and a terrible loss of life.

In the style of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", five very different people, escaping the both their own pasts and the onslaught of the Normans, find solace in their own company and in the telling of their own stories (told over a period of five days). All the while, they are fighting for survival - can our narrators (priest, lady, servant, warrior, minstrel) outrun their own fates and reach safety.

Review: Act of Treason by Frank Dickens

Act of Treason
"... in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act ..." - George Orwell

Elizabethan England, post-Spanish Armada (1588>), saw the conflicts with Spain and in Ireland dragging on, the tax burden grew heavier, and the economy was affected by poor harvests and the cost of war; as prices rose, the standard of living fell. During this time, repression of Catholics intensified, and Elizabeth authorised commissions (1591) to interrogate and monitor Catholic householders. In order to maintain the illusion of peace and prosperity, Elizabeth increasingly relied on internal spies and propaganda; for her subjects, political ties and religion were often so impossible to separate that to remain loyal to one religion was considered tantamount to treason by the other.

It is 1598 - Elizabeth I sits on the throne of England. George Bullen, a professional scribe is employed to take down the story of the mysterious young man, Gareth Simmons, a former soldier in the service of the Duke of Norfolk. He has a story to relate - one that will shake the very foundations of the monarchy. It is a story that many will kill for in order to keep it from being revealed. Simmons has a price on his head, and so will those who aid him, including George Bullen.  To reveal this story is tantamount to high treason - " ... to maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing ... bodily harm to be done to the Queen ..." (Act of 1571).

This is a gripping tale of intrigue and paranoia at the court of Elizabeth I as narrated both by George Bullen and Gareth Simmons (whose story, quite naturally, is told in flashbacks). I love a good conspiracy - especially those set in an historical context.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: The Stronghold by Albrecht Behmel

The people of Switzerland were not always free and happy as they are to-day. Many years ago a proud tyrant, whose name was Gessler, ruled over them, and made their lot a bitter one indeed.

One day this tyrant set up a tall pole in the public square, and put his own cap on the top of it; and then he gave orders that every man who came into the town should bow down before it. But there was one man, named William Tell, who would not do this. He stood up straight with folded arms, and laughed at the swinging cap. He would not bow down to Gessler himself.

When Gessler heard of this, he was very angry. He was afraid that other men would disobey, and that soon the whole country would rebel against him. So he made up his mind to punish the bold man.

William Tell's home was among the mountains, and he was a famous hunter. No one in all the land could shoot with bow and arrow so well as he. Gessler knew this, and so he thought of a cruel plan to make the hunter's own skill bring him to grief. He ordered that Tell's little boy should be made to stand up in the public square with an apple on his head; and then he bade Tell shoot the apple with one of his arrows.  Tell begged the tyrant not to have him make this test of his skill. What if the boy should move? What if the bowman's hand should tremble? What if the arrow should not carry true?

"Will you make me kill my boy?" he said.  "Say no more," said Gessler. "You must hit the apple with your one arrow. If you fail, my soldiers shall kill the boy before your eyes."

Then, without another word, Tell fitted the arrow to his bow. He took aim, and let it fly. The boy stood firm and still. He was not afraid, for he had all faith in his father's skill.  The arrow whistled through the air. It struck the apple fairly in the center, and carried it away. The people who saw it shouted with joy.

As Tell was turning away from the place, an arrow which he had hidden under his coat dropped to the ground.  "Fellow!" cried Gessler, "what mean you with this second arrow?"   "Tyrant!" was Tell's proud answer, "this arrow was for your heart if I had hurt my child."   And there is an old story, that, not long after this, Tell did shoot the tyrant with one of his arrows; and thus he set his country free.

Image result for the stronghold albrecht behmel
This then is the story as we know it, and from this framework Behmal takes this old tale and constructs his own.  In this instance, the people are in revolt against taxation and unfair legislation.  When Thell's son fires a crossbow arrow after a spot of skylarking, the Imperial Counsellor, Guessler, accuses him of high treason - Thell undergoes a trial by ordeal - forced to shoot an apple from atop his son's head.  He is banished for a year, his daughter taken by Guessler, his son left to fend for himself.  Thell is at the centre of an uprising, exiled for ten years, returns and with the aid of mercenaries the castle of Altdorf is taken.  In the final scenes, the rebels face off against the imperial army of Duke Leopold of Austria - showdown is at the Morgarten Pass.

Set in the very early years of the 14th century, this is a fast paced, action packed story about the beginnings of the Swiss Confederacy - you know how it ends, but then again, with Behmel's spin, you do and you don't.  For those seeking something different in the historical fiction genre, this may be for you.

Side Note: Did Tell actually exist or was he actually based upon a Danish legend set in the times of King Harald Bluetooth.  Tell's legend appears in the White Book of Sarnen, over 100 years after the supposed event related in the tale have taken place (c.1470).

Review: The Doctor of Broad Street by Katherine Tansley

The Doctor of Broad Street: a Victorian tale of murder and mystery
Based upon the true events - the cholera outbreak in Soho, London , 1854. This plausible and well told story takes place of the course of the outbreak (approximately three weeks).

The Broad Street cholera outbreak was a severe outbreak of cholera that occurred in 1854 near Broad Street in the Soho district of London. This outbreak, which killed 616 people, is best known for the physician John Snow's study of its causes and his hypothesis that contaminated water from the public water pump on Broad Street, not air, was the source of cholera. This discovery came to influence public health and the construction of improved sanitation facilities beginning in the mid-19th century. 

Our fictional narrator, Dr Frank Roberts, during the course of an investigation into a vicious attack on a young girl, discovers the city in the throes of a cholera outbreak. He enlists the aid of the real Dr John Snow, as the source of the outbreak is being narrowed down to one particular area.  In the midst of this dual investigation (the crime and the epidemic), we get a vivid insight into the living conditions of the local people and the battles with local bureaucracy (Parish Board of Guardians) and even local medical experts of the day (with their competing schools of thought) when Snow attempts to have the source of contamination removed.

For further reading on this subject: