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Joanna Hickson, author of The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride - novels dealing with the life of Catherine Valois, ancestress of the Tudors - continues to follow the early days of the Tudor dynasty with First of the Tudors, a novel featuring Catherine's second son, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke.

In First of the Tudors, we see the early years of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of a semi-outsider. Half-brother to Henry VI, son of a former queen of England and commoner and a Welshman, ennobled by his royal brother's wish but holding lands in rebellious Wales, Jasper is a Lancastrian by blood, and during the early years of the wars, fiercely loyal to his brother Henry.

Though it was Catherine's oldest son Edmund, Earl of Richmond, who would marry Margaret Beaufort and father the first Tudor monarch, it was Jasper's lifelong devotion to Margaret that ensured the survival of the young Henry VII and his ultimate rise to the throne. After Edmund's death - an early victim of the political and military maneuvering that preceded the civil war between Lancaster and York - Jasper took charge of Margaret, a pregnant widow only 13 years old. As Margaret was under the age of majority, Jasper was awarded guardianship of the infant Henry, and served as the young boy's protector and advisor for most of his life, despite a long separation during his nephew's youth, when his guardianship was granted elsewhere during the first portion of Edward IV's reign. Though Margaret maintained contact with Henry, and sought to advance his claim once he became, in essence, the last Lancastrian heir, her fate as a wealthy heiress under royal wardship meant that she was a valuable marriage prize, and was never in a position to raise her son herself.

Jasper's initial period of guardianship lasted for five years, from Henry's birth to the beginning of Edward IV's reign in 1461, when he was forced to flee the country, and the young Henry Tudor's guardianship granted to one of Edward's supporters.

Jasper spent the early years of the York reign either in exile, separated from both Margaret and the young Henry, or fighting against the Yorkists whenever he managed to secure financial backing from his royal French cousins. The novel follows his story up to the brief restoration of Henry VI to the throne in 1470.

Interspersed with his story is the fictional story of Sian - Jane in English - a Welsh woman who is Henry's governess for most of his early life, and also Jasper's lover and mother of two illegitimate daughters. (There is some indication - but little actual proof - that Jasper fathered one or more illegitimate children; their mother is usually identified as Myfanwy ferch Dafydd. Myfanwy who appear in the novel, but as the lover of Jasper's father Owen and mother of his youngest child Daffyd - who was real enough, but the name of his actual mother is unknown.)

The intimate details of Jasper's imagined family life, and Jane'e efforts to keep the Tudor children - young Daffyd and her own two daughters - safe through the turmoil of the civil war and the York reign help to flesh out and humanise the events in the young Henry Tudor's life during the period of Jasper's exile. Jane is loyal, brave, loving, resourceful and devoted to a man she can never marry, and is as much the protagonist of this tale as Jasper is.

One assumes a sequel is in the works, which will cover the resumption of power by the Yorks, the long years of exile in Brittany and France for both Jasper and the young Henry, now the last living male Lancashire heir, though with a tentative claim to the throne at best, and the accession of Henry VII to the throne. I'm looking forward to its publication.

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The Tudor dynasty fascinates me. Perhaps mostly because it culminated in one of England's most remarkable monarchs, Elizabeth I. Perhaps because of its role in history, as the beginning of England's emergence as one of the great powers of Europe in its own right. Perhaps because of the great religious turmoil surrounding the Anglicisation of the English church. And perhaps because of its beginnings in illicit love affairs - one between a widowed Valois princess and a minor Welsh lord, the other between a son of a king and the widow of a simple knight. I'm certainly not alone; the great figures of the Tudor era - Henry VIII, his two most notable wives, the faithful Katherine of Aragon and the enigmatic Anne Boleyn, and his daughters, Queens Mary and Elizabeth - are probably among the most written-about figures of English history.

And so, no matter how many interpretations, fact or fiction, I encounter of these towering figures, it seems I'm always ready for 'just one more.'

Having recently read Alison Weir's novel of Anne Boleyn, it seemed only proper that I read the first in her series about the queens of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen. Weir's research and scholarship gives the novel a richness of detail, and I think in this novel she succeeds in giving us a fully humanised portrait of her subject, something that I found lacking in her book about Anne Boleyn. Katherine's journey from naive princess to a queen who has seen too many betrayals, her love for Henry and growing sorrow over her failure to bear a male heir, her steadfast insistence on the legitimacy of her marriage and her one living child, the loneliness, isolation, and pain of separation from her daughter as the divorce proceedings advanced - all these are written with a ring of emotional truth.

Weir writes in an Author's Note: "I have tried in these pages to evoke the sights, textures, sounds, and smells of an age, a lost world of splendor and brutality, and a court in which love, or the game of it, held sway, but dynastic pressures overrode any romantic considerations. It was a world dominated by faith and by momentous religious change—and a world in which there were few saints. This was Katherine’s world, and we can only understand her properly within its context."

In my view, she has succeeded in her goal.

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Alison Weir's latest novel in her series about the wives of Henry VII, Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession, is Weir's interpretation of the story of Anne Boleyn, the woman who triggered the creation of the Church of England through her relationship with King Henry.

There have been many different interpretations of Anne's life and character, from villainous harlot to innocent and loving victim of Henry's overwhelming desire to have a male heir. Weir takes an interesting path between the extremes, giving us an intelligent and ambitious Anne who may not have loved Henry, but consented to her pursuit of her for reasons more charitable than greed and power-madness, an Anne who did not betray the King in deed, but who may well have allowed the game of courtly love to go too far with a man, or men, for whom she felt greater emotional affinity than she did for her husband. Weir's Anne is an early church reformer, who pressed Henry to break with the Church of Rome, not just to facilitate their marriage, but to give Henry the power to correct abuses of the people by church and clergy.

Weir says about her interpretation of Anne: "In writing this novel from Anne’s point of view, I have tried to reconcile conflicting views of her, and to portray her as a flawed but very human heroine, a woman of great ambition, idealism, and courage who found herself in an increasingly frightening situation."

Weir is, as one would expect, painstaking in her research and she fills her novel with explicit detail, paying close attention to where Anne was, at various points in her life, and the people she was likely to have encountered and how they interacted. From that perspective, the book succeeds in giving us a fairly full picture of Anne's comings and goings, and her known and possible dealings with family, friends, and with members of the courts of three countries - Burgundy, France and England.

Unfortunately, I found this portrayal of Anne somewhat flat, as if, despite Weir's telling of the story from Anne's perspective, we are seeing more of the outward than the inner woman - a license the writer of history cannot take, but the writer of fiction must.

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Joanna Hickson is very good at creating romance from the bare bones of history. She did it to good effect in her duology featuring Catherine de Valois, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride. She attempts this again in Red Rose, White Rose, a novel based on the life of Cicely Neville, Duchess if York and mother of both Edward IV and Richard III.

The novel deals well with the political issues of the times, the growing antipathy between reigning Lancaster and ambitious York, and the various historical nobles whose actions led to the continuation of the Wars of the Roses that resulted in the reign of the two Yorkist kings and the ultimate triumph of the Tudor line.

It also shows, through the viewpoint of Cicely and the relationships of her sisters, friends and daughters, many of the harsh realities of the lives of the noble women of the times. Often the wives and daughters of the great lords were little more than pawns, their marriages serving as ways of solidifying political alliances, their bodies useful only as the producers of heirs.

However, it is in the realm of personal relationships, that I feel Hickson goes somewhat astray. Hickson invents a story of an abduction and seduction by an estranged kinsman when Cicely was young and not yet married that turned into love unrequited for many years after that. I feel that the relationship between Cicely and her husband Richard of York was complex enough without inventing secret lifelong adulterous desires.

The novel has as one of the two viewpoint characters (Cicely herself being the other) a supposed bastard half-brother, Cuthbert of Middleham. I liked the invented character, and Hickson effectively uses him to allow us to see further than even a politically active woman like Cicely Neville could reasonably take us - into the councils of men, and into battle. But the naming of this character was to my mind inappropriate and potentially confusing. It's certainly true that Cicely's father, having had 20 legitimate children, could easily have had more than a few illegitimate children, and might have brought one into his house to be raised alongside his half-siblings - but Cicely did have an older, legitimate brother named Cuthbert (who died young) so why not call the invented brother something else?

Red Rose, White Rose carries Cicely's story through to the moment when, her husband dead in battle, her eldest son Edward is offered the crown - though not before he has managed to defeat the Lancastrian forces and capture Henry VI. There is a postscript which notes that Cicely outlived all but two of her children, both daughters.

Aside from the quibbles I have with certain invented elements (which Hickson actually addresses in her Afterward), I found the novel both enjoyable and an interesting look at the events surrounding the York rebellion and Edward IV's rise to the throne.

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I have enjoyed reading Robin Maxwell's historical novels, even though I don't always agree with her characterisations of certain persons, or her choices in terms of their actions. The Queen's Bastard is another such book - well-researched and written, fun to read, but not featuring "my" Queen Elizabeth.

Maxwell's premise is that Elizabeth not only consummated her relationship with Robert Dudley, but that early in her reign, she conceived and secretly bore him a son. As difficult as such a thing would have been to hide in the Tudor Court, Maxwell does manage to effectively present a just-barely-possible scenario. The complete disappearance of the child from history is explained by a secret plot-within-a-plot by Kat Ashley and William Cecil to replace the live baby with a dead one, convincing both Elizabeth and Dudley that their son did not survive birth.

The novel is structured such that we alternate between reading sections of a kind of autobiography written by the adult child of Elizabeth - interesting for their look at the life of a child raised as the younger son of a minor country gentleman who follows the path of many younger sons and runs away to become a soldier - and sections from Elizabeth's perspective detailing key points in her reign, with particular focus on the public events that shaped what is known about her relationship with Dudley.

It must be noted that Maxwell has based her novel on a real incident. Not long before the launch of the Spanish Armada, an Englishman giving his name as Arthur Dudley was arrested and interrogated by the Spanish before being placed in prison and disappearing from historical record. He claimed to be the bastard son of Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, and the story he gave to his interrogators formed the basis of Maxwell's story. Most historians have dismissed Arthur Dudley as either a pretender or an English spy telling a wild tale in an attempt to save his life.

Certainly, when cast as fiction, it is intriguing but not quite credible, to my mind. But once one suspends one's disbelief, it makes - in Maxwell's hands at least - a fine and enjoyable novel.

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Karen Harper's historical novel, The Last Boleyn, focuses on the life of Mary Boleyn - or Bullen, as the family was known before their later rise in power. Drawing on what is known and theorised about the older sister of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, Harper creates a highly sympathetic character who, after a lifetime of being manipulated and used by her own family and by the powerful men she is brought into contact with, finally escapes the life others have made for her, and finds happiness with her own choices.

Harper portrays the young Mary as the pawn of an ambitious father and siblings. It begins with a position as attendant to Queen Claude of France, wife of the libidinous Francois du roi, King of France, and the machinations of her father, English ambassador to France, to bring her to Francois' attention as his mistress. Then, at the famous Cloth of Gold, Thomas Boleyn brings Mary to the attention of Henry VIII, who later takes her as his mistress once her father brings her home from France. She is married to Henry Carey, a nobleman from a family that chose the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses, who takes her to wife knowing she is desired by the King, in the hope that she will be able to influence the king to restore his family's lost estates and revenues.

After the king tires of her and Anne comes to court, the family discards Mary except when they see a use for her in the latest plan to elevate the family fortunes further through her younger sister.

How Mary finally breaks away from her family and the politics of the court to become the last survivor of the family of ambitious Thomas Boleyn is a moving story, well handled by Harper.

My only quibble was that Harper chose to use the names by which some characters are historically known long before they came to be known as such. For instance, Jane Parker, who would eventually become wife of George Boleyn, and later be known as Lady Rochford, is incorrectly called Jane Rochford from the beginning. Annoying, but if one can set such annoying details aside, it is an interesting read.

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And I'm back to my fascination with the Tudors. This time it's Robin Maxwell's novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.

Maxwell begins the novel early in the reign of Elizabeth I, and presents us with a vibrant young woman, so in love with Robert Dudley that she risks her reputation and position to take him as her lover. When an aged lady in waiting to Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn appears with a diary Anne had secretly kept and given to her companion just before her death, this sets up a doubled narrative tracing the progress of Anne's relationship with Henry, and Elizabeth's with Dudley.

It has been suggested by some that Elizabeth's reluctance to marry was in part driven by a deep mistrust of men founded in the relationships of Henry with Anne - which Elizabeth would know about but probably not remember clearly - and with the young Catherine Howard, who was executed when Elizabeth was a young girl. In The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth comes to distrust men after reading her mother's account of her relationship with Henry, which in turn influences her own response when Dudley's wife is found dead.

A quick read that presents the well-known stories of two Tudor women and the men in their lives in a new and captivating way.

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Being violently sick with a vicious cold, I decided to to binge-watch some British historical dramas, which led to a rewatch of The White Queen, an account of the Cousins' War based on Philippa Gregory's novels, which sort of nudged me into re-reading an old favourite, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Which then started me off looking for other books - fictional or not - that dealt with the question of Richard III's claiming of his brother's throne and the fate of the young heirs, the Princes in the Tower.

I'm particularly fond of Tey's book partly because of the framing narrative she uses to explore the historical evidence pertinent to the matter of the deaths of the young Yorkist heirs in the tower - police detective with a broken leg going crazy from boredom takes on a historical mystery - and partly because her interpretation of the evidence cited supports my own totally unresearched belief that Richard III did not do the vile deed, or order it done. (By unresearched, I mean that I've read a number of books arguing the case this way or that but never sat down to look at all the existing evidence one way or the other and make an unbiased assessment for myself.)

Tey's theory settles on Henry Tudor, the victorious conqueror of Bosworth, as the author of the crime. Tey finds no credible evidence that Richard III had any need of killing the princes. They had been declared bastards once evidence of a pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, made prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was made public. Henry, on the other hand, needed the York children to be legitimate so that his marriage to Elizabeth of York would strengthen his claim to the throne, but he could not claim the throne if the princes lived. Tey argues that the princes were not killed but simply kept closely in the Tower until Henry took power and had them killed.

It's a very enjoyable - and quick - read, and much to be recommended to anyone interested in the mystery of the princes in the Tower, though
I must say that I'm not convinced of the whole of her argument. I find the reasons for holding Richard III convincing, but doubt that the princes could have remained alive in the Tower for the two years of Richard's reign without some indication of their presence. Guards talk. Records have to account for food, clothes, linens. And so on.

Robin Maxwell's To the Tower Born is another enjoyable novel that presents a theory about the fate of the young princes. Maxwell chooses a minor, and mostly unknown, character - Nell Caxton, daughter of printer William Caxton, who was the recipient of royal patronage. Maxwell imagines a close friendship between Nell and the young Princess Elizabeth, which allows her to be present for many of the crucial events surrounding the death of Edward IV, the power struggle between Richard and the Woodville clan, and the time during which the princes are known to have been in the tower. Maxwell suggests that the culprit was the ambitious Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor's mother, with the aid of The Duke of Buckingham, her nephew and the Constable of England - and hence the master of the Tower.

This theory fits the timeline better, as it has the princes disappearing from the Tower early in Richard's reign - though, in order to give the story a happy ending, Maxwell has the young princes rescued from Margaret and sent abroad to live as ordinary men, lost to history.

Maxwell's novel is also interesting reading for its sympathetic portrayal of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, the older half-brother of the princes, and for its account of the impact of Caxton's press on English society.

While I started reading Vanora Bennett's Figures in Silk because of the Ricardian aspect of the plot, I actually found that part of the narrative rather thin compared to the rich and detailed story of life in the London silk trade which is the primary focus of the novel. Bennett's protagonist Isabel Claver is a young widow who becomes an apprentice to her successful mother-in-law Alice Claver, one of the foremost silk merchants in London. She learns the trade well and, in partnership with Claver and an Italian silk merchant, embarks on a crown-supported endeavour to bring the secrets of the Italian silk weavers to England.

Isabel's access to the court - and to royal patronage and significant commissions - is due to two things. First, her sister is Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV. Second, an accidental meeting with an intense young man in a church where both have gone to seek consolation turns ultimately into a secret royal liaison when Isabel discovers that the young man is Richard of Gloucester.

I have to admit that I didn't really buy Bennett's characterisation of Richard III, or the love affair between him and Isabel. Even Richard's contemporary enemies acknowledged that he seemed not only much attached to his wife, Anne Neville, at least up to the point where he became King, but also unusually faithful to her. The infrequent and furtive meetings between the two give us no sense of who Richard is as a man, and thus we have no background for the things that Richard does once his brother is dead.

Bennett presents Richard as laving been loyal to Edward until his death, but then forming an almost immediate plan to seize the throne from his nephew. She does not, however, go so far as to make him the murderer of the young princes. Rather, she has them spirited out of London at his design by the knight Tyrell - who in real life was later executed as the princes' killer - and raised in secret.

Because Isabel learns of most of the major events of the coup through rumour and the accounts of others, the story of Richard and the princes has no strong dramatic impact - we are caught up more in her confusion and growing shame at having taken as a lover a man who she comes to see as capable of disloyalty and cruelty.

While the greater political matters of the time are given a less than satisfactory treatment, it is as an account of life among the merchant class of London, and of the spirit and determination of a young woman to succeed in her craft despite many personal and professional setbacks that Bennett finds her voice and makes the book worth reading.

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I was somewhat disappointed with Sherry Jones' historical novel Four Sisters, All Queens. Perhaps because of the focus on the personal lives, ambitions, and interactions of the four Savoyard sisters - Marguerite, Eleonore, Sanchia and Beatrice of Provence - the intense political and military turmoil of their time, which in some ways reshaped the borders and balance of power in Europe, was dealt with rather sketchily.

As the queens of France, England, Germany and Sicily, these four women were at the centre of conflicts of diplomacy and arms from Wales to Outremer, and while women did not always have direct access to information or knowledge, a historical novel with subjects so close to so much important history should be able to paint the background of their times, the intrigues and issues in their courts, the policies of their husbands and the effects of the major events in and between their countries in sufficient detail to give the characters and their action depth, and the reader a solid understanding of the times. Unfortunately, Four Sisters, All Queens does not achieve this.

Further, I found the private lives of the four sisters rather melodramatically handled at times, and their characters at times too modern - particularly Marguerite. It's not easy to recreate a historical character who is unequivocally of her time - but getting it right can be the difference between a rich and fulfilling journey to the past, and a generic costume drama. And the writing was at times awkward and somewhat confusing.

Nonetheless, I did read it through to the end, and there were some parts of it that were quite enjoyable - Eleonore's early years with Henry III of England, Marguerite's courage and leadership in Damietta while on crusade, for example. But after two misses, I don't think I will be reading any more from Jones, when there are other, superior historical novelists to choose from.

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The novella White Heart, by Sherry Jones, is intended as a prequel to her novel Four Sisters, All Queens. Its focus is Blanche of Castile, grand-daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, daughter of Alfonso VIII, king of Castile, and Eleanor of England, wife of Louis VIII of France, mother and regent of Louis IX - and a significant character in the novel, as one of the sisters is her son's wife.

Unfortunately, the novella did not impress me. Covering the period just after the death of her husband, with occasional flashbacks and forelookings, the non-linearity of the narrative was somewhat distracting, even confusing at times, and got in the way of my forming a clear sense of the character. Which is a pity, because that is, apparently, the reason it was written - to give insight into the motivations of the character for her actions in the novel. I was not impressed with the author's writing style either, but on the off-chance that this was actually a collection of bits of writing that had to be dropped from the main work, and thus wasn't polished and edited as much as a final piece would have been, I'm still going to try the novel, as the concept intrigues me.

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Jack the Ripper was not the only serial killer roaming the streets of London in 1888. Between 1887 and 1889, at least three women were killed and dismembered, and parts of their bodies disposed of in the Thames, although in one case, the torso and other parts were discovered on the grounds of the construction site for the new Scotland Yard building. The identity of the Thames Torso killer has never been determined, and there is some question as to whether the three murders he is agreed to have committed are the full extent of his crimes, as similar cases, also unsolved, had occurred in 1873-4 and 1884.

In Mayhem, Sarah Pinbourough infuses the facts of the Thames Torso Murders with a markedly supernatural story of possession by an ancient spirit of evil. The novel is centred on police surgeon Thomas Bond, who was an early practitioner of the science of forensic profiling, having produced a profile of the Ripper. Bond did play a historical role in the investigation of both the Ripper and the Thames Torso killer, performing autopsies on both Mary Jane Kelly and the second of the Torso killer's victims, Elizabeth Jackson. The novel gives him a much greater role, however, in the detection and final resolution of the murders.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pinborough's genre-bending historical crime horror novel on all counts.

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I was very much impressed by Ellen Klages' Green Glass Sea, and therefore had to immediately acquire and read the sequel, White Sands, Red Menace.

As the title suggests, the novel is set just after WWII, and places protagonists Dewey and Suze, now young teens, in the midst of the space race and the growth of the Communist scare in the US. Dewey, now part of the Gordon family, has moved with them to Alamagordo, where Suze's father is part of the rocket development program, working with American and German scientists who bring with them the tainted research gained from slave labour at facilities like Peenemunde.

There is no work at White Sands for Suze's mother, however, and she is devoting much of her time to the nascent anti-war, anti-bomb movement that arose following the horrors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The girls have embarked on a joint project in the attic that they call the Wall - a combination of engineering and art that brings them both together. At the same time, exploring their skills individually brings them both new friends and experiences.

The novel bristles with tensions - within the Gordon family, in their day to day relationships, and in the world at large - but at the same time, the narrative focuses on making bonds and working through difficulties.

Again, Klages places the personal stories of two teens in the process of self-discovery and identity formation in a complex web of social issues. The difference is that the girls are now older - no longer just observers, they must make their own decisions on how they will respond to perceived injustices.

The book captures the feel of the times - from the excitement of progress and the allure of the 'amazing atomic age' to craving for a kind of stability where 'everyone knows their place' in response to the turmoil of war, to the growth of the subtle paranoia that would characterise the Cold War era of the 50s.

A most enjoyable book, with two very engaging characters. I wish Klages had written more books showing Dewey and Suze growing into young women - I find myself wondering what they would have become.

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Ellen Klages' YA historical novel Green Glass Sea is a wonderful read. Set during World War II, it is the story of ten-year-old Dewey Kerrigan, whose mathematician father has been recruited to work on the top-secret program to develop a nuclear bomb.

Dewey's mother left the family when Dewy was a baby, and she has grown up being shuffled between her father and her maternal grandmother - but now that her father is settled for the time bring in Los Alamos and her grandmother has been incapacitated with a stroke, Dewey rejoins her father and tries to make a life with him in the closed community of scientists, engineers, technicians, military personnel and their families that make up the core of the Manhattan Project.

It's not easy for Dewey to fit in. She's short, needs glasses, and wears a shoe with a lift because one leg is shorter than the other due to a childhood injury. And she isn't all that interested in typical "girl" things - she's a born scientist and engineer, and spends her free time tinkering with gears, radio parts, and other useful things she finds at the Los Alamos dump.

Still, Dewey is happy to be with her father - until he's called away on business and she has to stay with the Gordons and their daughter Suze. Suze - tall and solidly built, with a creative mind and an artist's independent spirit - doesn't fit in either, but she wants to. She misses her home in Berkeley, and she resents the time her parents spend working on the project, something that affects her more than most other kids because both her parents are scientists. And she resents having to live with "screwy Dewey."

In Green Glass Sea, Klages portrays the reality of life at the heart of the war effort, where secrecy is paramount and building "the gadget" that it is hoped will win the war is on everyone's mind.

By telling the story through the uncritical eyes of a child, Klages is also able to explore issues of class, gender and race in the late 1940s, amidst the fervour of war. From the social distinctions on base reflected in who is housed where, to war propaganda that is focused on Hitler when referring to the European theatre, but on "Japs" as a group when dealing with the Asian theatre, to the peer pressure on Suze and Dewey to be "normal girls," Green Glass Sea is an unflinching look at wartime society in the U.S.

But it is in the characters Dewey and Suze that the book gives the young audience it is intended for its greatest gift. As they come to know and feel comfortable in the things that distinguish them from the other girls, and develop a friendship that empowers them both, they become role models for every girl who is drawn to a different set of interests and goals from those society sets out for her.

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Peter Termayne is, as I understand, best known for his series of historical mysteries featuring Irish nun Sister Fidelma, which I have recently begun reading. However, he has written mysteries set in other eras, including the more-or-less modern one, and some of his shorter offerings are collected in Ensuing Evil and Others: Fourteen Historical Mysteries.

It's quite an interesting range, from a murder mystery set in the castle of the historical MacBeth and his lady Gruoch, to a modern locked-room mystery set in an airplane in flight. In between we visit the theatre district of Shakespeare's England, the well-known occupants of 221B Baker Street, a battleship during the Napoleonic Wars, the London of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and India under the British Raj, plus a bonus Sister Fidelma story. An enjoyable read.

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When I was young, I read all of the books written by Rosemary Sutcliff that I could find, but that was a very long time ago, and I do not remember if this novel, Dawn Wind, was among them.

It is one of her young adult novels, and thus not a particularly challenging read, but it is still a solid historical novel, with a personable young hero and an interesting time to tell a story in.

Roman Britain is almost gone, yielding to the incursions of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Owain, a young British boy orphaned in battle, finds a young British girl, Regina, the survivor of a sacked Romano-British city. Together they try to escape to Gaul, but the girl falls ill, and to buy her a place in a household where she will be cared for, sells the only thing he has (other than his father's ring, which he buries rather than give it into Saxon hands) - his freedom.

Sutcliff's account of Owain's life as a thrall among the Saxons gives light to the events and customs of the period, as he witnesses the rise to power of Aethelbert of Kent and the arrival of Augustine of Hippo in Britain. And there's a happy ending, too.

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Whispers of the Dead is another enjoyable collection of pieces by Peter Tremayne concerning the deductive skills of seventh century Irish religieuse and legal advocate, Sister Fidelma. These short stories are drawn from all periods of of Fidelma's career, and include a story in which she impresses her teacher while still in her early years of study with the perceptiveness, her logical reasoning and her passion for truth. Written later in Tremayne's career, the narratives flow more smoothly and the tics are less pronounced. And the mysteries are fun. And the look at life in the seventh century - and all the issues which divided the Roman and Celtic churches - is something I'm liking quite a bit. I continue to be a fan.

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Ever since I finished reading all the Dame Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer (and the Player Joliffe mysteries too), and having read most of Ellis Peters' Cadfael mysteries, I've been a at bit of a loss for historical mysteries with clerical detectives. That gap in my reading life has for the time being been filled with a new series.

I have just encountered (for the first time) the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne (one of Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis' pseudonyms). Hemlock at Vespers: Fifteen Sister Fidelma Mysteries is a good introduction to the series, consisting as it does of short stories set throughout the earlier years of the seventh century Irish religieuse's crime-solving career.

What makes these stories so much fun is the background - the Irish church is still in full flower and outside cultural influences have not yet swept away a society in which women had a legal, social and economic status that would not be seen again in Western civilisation until the early 20th century.

Sister Fidelma is a dalaigh (her culture's version of a lawyer) one who is authorised to conduct investigations as well as argue legal cases before a Brehon judge. She holds one of the highest rankings possible in the Irish legal system, that of anruth, which gives her a social status equivalent to that of a minor king. While she is clearly Christian - although firmly on the Irish side of the religious divide, including preferring Pelagian to Augustinian philosophy - it is also suggested on several occasions that this is more a matter of following social expectations than a religious vocation. As Tremayne writes, before the arrival of Christianity, members of the professions - doctors, lawyers, educators and so on - were usually Druids. Once the Church supplanted the Druidic orders, those in the professions tended to join the Church instead. This was, of course, much more palatable in this eta, when celibacy was optional and the Irish Church operated religious houses where married clerics could live together and raise their children.

The stories themselves are interesting glimpses into another time and culture, as well as being decent mysteries. Tremayne's skill as a writer develops as one reads through in chronological order, although his phrasing remains vaguely stilted throughout, perhaps as an intentional choice to convey the nuances of what was a highly status-conscious society. He also has a few "tics" that show up mostly in describing Sister Fidelma, notably the ubiquitous references to her "rebellious" red hair.

But Fidelma herself is sufficiently fascinating a character, and the setting of the stories is so interesting, that I did not have much difficulty in ignoring the tics and just enjoying the stories.

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Gillian Bradshaw's Island of Ghosts is a complex and entertaining tale, set in Roman Britain during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The narrative thread of the novel is played out against the story of the Sarmatian auxiliary forces taken into the Roman army and posted to Britain after the Empire's victory over the their people. Little is known of the fate of the Sarmatians - a nomadic people, known as formidable mounted fighters, who had migrated from Central Asia into Eastern Europe - once they arrived in Britain, but Bradshaw has taken what is known about them, and about the much better documented history of the Roman occupation of Britain, and created a story of romance and political intrigue.

Bradshaw paints a picture of colonial Britain that puts considerable emphasis on the diversity of cultures, and the issues of cultural clashes beyween them - the imperial military culture of the conquering Romans, the unassimilated Sarmatian warriors, the varied British tribes and their different histories with the Empire, the Christian underground, the hidden remnants of the druidic order - as well as on the different political factions within these groups.

Navigating these complexities is Ariantes, the commander of one of the first three Sarmatian dragons (a unit of 500 soldiers) to arrive in Britain. Weary of wars fought for glory, emotionally devastated by the death of his wife and children during the wars with Rome, determined to take care of his men and honour his vow to serve the Empire, Ariantes is caught between Romans who distrust the "barbarians" they assume the Sarmatians to be, Britons who hope for freedom and a return to the old ways, and his fellow Sarmatians who are unwilling to make the changes necessary to live in the new land they have come to.

A well-researched and thoroughly engaging historical novel.

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I thoroughly enjoyed India Edghill's Queenmaker: A Novel of King David's Queen, the story of Michal, daughter of King Saul and wife of King David. Basing her interpretation on a few Biblical references, Edghill fleshes out the character of Michal (and the other women in David's life, including Bathsheba and Abishag) in a highly believable fashion.

Equally interesting is her portrayal of David, from the young shepherd, harper and hero beloved - and feared - by Saul, to the ruthless warrior who united Israel, defeated its enemies and secured the fortress city of Jerusalem as its capitol, to the corrupt leader who killed both allies and rivals to get what he wanted, to the grief-stricken father who saw his sons conspire against him and each other for his power and his crown.

Edghill has written several other historical novels set in the kingdom of Israel featuring women mentioned in the Old Testament, and though normally this is not one of my favourite historical periods to read about, I'll be looking forward to reading them.

Anya Seton

Aug. 19th, 2015 10:21 pm
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Anya Seton's historical novels were best-sellers in their time, narratives featuring, for the most part, resilient and determined women, their stories told in elegant prose, their lives and times well researched. Two of her books, Katherine (about Katherine de Roet, mistress and third wife of John of Gaunt, ancestress to the Tudor line) and Green Darkness (a complex tale of forbidden love and reincarnation set in two times) are among my favourites.

The Mistletoe and the Sword is one of Seton's lesser-known, and lesser-regarded novels. Intended for a young adult audience, it is a shorter and simper tale than most of her books. Set in Roman Britain during the time of the Iceni Rebellion, the protagonist is a young Roman soldier who falls in love with a British girl who is of the family of the Arch-Druid of Britain - assuming there ever really was such a thing. (Seton's research is solid on the Roman aspects of her subject, but she wrote during that period of time when the state of research into Celtic society tended toward romanticism.)

A light and pleasant tale, with a nice balance of action and romance, reminding us of a time when both young men and young women might be expected to read and enjoy the same books.


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