Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Saxon's Bane by Geoffrey Gudgion

Saxon's Bane
Fergus Sheppard’s world changes forever the day his car crashes near the remote village of Allingley. Traumatised by his near-death experience, he returns to thank the villagers who rescued him, and stays to work at the local stables as he recovers from his injuries. He will discover a gentler pace of life, fall in love ¬ and be targeted for human sacrifice.

Clare Harvey’s life will never be the same either. The young archaeologist’s dream find ¬ the peat-preserved body of a Saxon warrior ¬ is giving her nightmares. She can tell that the warrior had been ritually murdered, and that the partial skeleton lying nearby is that of a young woman. And their tragic story is unfolding in her head every time she goes to sleep.

Fergus discovers that his crash is uncannily linked to the excavation, and that the smiling and beautiful countryside harbours some very dark secrets. As the pagan festival of Beltane approaches, and Clare’s investigation reveals the full horror of a Dark Age war crime, Fergus and Clare seem destined to share the Saxon couple’s bloody fate.

This is one of those stories when the reality of the main characters collide with something all-together unreal.

At the time Fergus is involved in a car accident outside of a small English village, archaeologist Clare is making a discovery of her lifetime. Fergus' return to the village is some sort of catharsis whilst visions of a past life of the Saxon warrior unearthed from the bog plague the dreams of Clare. As Beltane approaches, are Clare and Fergus doomed to relive the fate of the Dark Age couple?

The story immediately reminded me of "The Wicker Man" and "Children of the Corn". It is rich, evocative and descriptive, gripping and harrowing, as Gudgion weaves a tale shrouded in ancient folklore, superstition, dark fantasy and horror. The village of Allingley itself, with its diverse characters, conceals a deep, long hidden animosity - the menace of impending doom hovers in the air like a pall.

The story slowly builds, you are drawn deeper and deeper, until it reaches its apogee and the true horror is revealed.

Further Reading:
The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism by EG Stanley
Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past by EG Stanley
Anglo-Saxon Paganism by David Wilson
Bog Bodies Uncovered by Miranda Aldhouse-Green
Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination by Karin Sanders

Review: Rebels at the Bar by Jill Norgren

Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America's First Women Lawyers
Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America's First Women Lawyers 

Jill Norgren recounts the life stories of a small group of nineteenth century women who were among the first female attorneys in the United States. Beginning in the late 1860s, these determined rebels pursued the radical ambition of entering the then all-male profession of law. They were motivated by a love of learning. They believed in fair play and equal opportunity. They desired recognition as professionals and the ability to earn a good living. 

Through a biographical approach, Norgren presents the common struggles of eight women first to train and to qualify as attorneys, then to practice their hard-won professional privilege. Their story is one of nerve, frustration, and courage. This first generation practiced civil and criminal law, solo and in partnership. The women wrote extensively and lobbied on the major issues of the day, but the professional opportunities open to them had limits. They never had the opportunity to wear the black robes of a judge. They were refused entry into the lucrative practices of corporate and railroad law. Although male lawyers filled legislatures and the Foreign Service, presidents refused to appoint these early women lawyers to diplomatic offices and the public refused to elect them to legislatures.

The struggle of women to practice law in the US from the 1860s onwards told through the eyes of eight women. These trailblazers of the early days of the 1860s to 1880s, were from different walks of life (that was both white and Christian).

The only criticism is that the stories become slightly repetitive - it would possibly have made for a better single story with the eight women featured as examples.

Further reading:
First 100 Years: Women in Law Timeline
US Supreme Court: History of Oral Advocacy

Review: Sinners & the Sea by Rebecca Kanner

The young heroine in Sinners and the Sea is destined for greatness. Known only as “wife” in the Bible and cursed with a birthmark that many think is the brand of a demon, this unnamed woman lives anew through Rebecca Kanner. The author gives this virtuous woman the perfect voice to make one of the Old Testament’s stories come alive like never before. 

Noah was not alone. He had a wife. He had a family. We know the names of Noah's forebears (he himself was the son of Lamech, son of Methuselah) and his offspring (Shem, Ham, Japeth) - all are mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 5:28-32). What we don't know is the name of Noah's wife.

Many have speculated what her name may be - possibly Naameh, daughter of Lamech (son of Methushael) by Zillah; she was given the name of Emzrar in the Book of Jubilees (c. 2nd century BC); whilst the fourth century bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius, gave her the name of Barthenos.

Her story is one of faith, courage and endurance. She patiently remained supportive and faithful to Noah so that he could achieve his goals; and her endurance through the terrible times of pre-and post-flood, is a testament to her strength of character, her fidelity, and her leadership.

In Sinners & the Sea by Rebecca Kanner creates a backstory for the wife of Noah; she is marked and nameless but not voiceless as this is her story as she tells it. After being scorned and treated like a pariah, an aged (ie: 500year old) Noah arrives to take her as his wife, and they journey back to Sorum, a city that is a hotbed of vice and sin, into which she gives birth to three sons. And here her faith and vision is surely tested as Noah attempts to steer the people away from their depravity and wicked ways, as his own sons are gradually drawn from the path of righteousness.

And when the Lord saw what evil man had wrought, he called unto Noah to build an Ark, from which to save himself, his family, and two of each animal before he sent a deluge to earth to "exterminate from under heaven all flesh that has breath of life in it" (Genesis 6:17). Now she will need all of her strength and courage during the building of the Ark, for in such a wicked city, one can only imagine the taunts and abuse hurled their way.

We all know the rest of the story - the collection of two of every animal, the torrents of rain for forty days and forty nights, the endless floating within what surely was a claustrophobic (tomb-like) atmosphere for nigh on a year, before landing amid desolation to start anew.

Kanner's story is not sugar-coated it - the family of Noah is as flawed as any family and we often find ourselves wondering if they are really worth saving? The world they live in is harsh and unrelenting, it is full of superstition, immorality, violence, betrayal. It is into this world that Kanner posits her characters.

This is surely a powerful debut, and a masterful and emotive retelling of a known story - proper Old Testament fire and brimstone stuff. 

Review: Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries

Artifact (Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery, #1)

When historian Jaya Jones receives a mysterious package containing a jewel-encrusted artifact from India, she discovers the secrets of a lost Indian treasure may be hidden in a Scottish legend from the days of the British Raj. But she’s not the only one on the trail.

From San Francisco to the Highlands of Scotland, Jaya must evade a shadowy stalker as she follows hints from the hastily scrawled note to a remote archaeological dig. Helping her decipher the cryptic clues are her magician best friend, a devastatingly handsome art historian with something to hide, and a charming archaeologist running for his life. When a member of the dig’s crew is murdered, Jaya must figure out which of the scholars vying for her affections might be the love of her life—and which one is a killer.

I actually finally started this one today and finished it in two sittings. I love a good adventure story with more suspects than you could point a stick at - and this did not let me down. A bit slow in parts, the story finally picks ups speed in the last 10 chapters when all the pieces of the puzzle slowly come together. Cannot wait to read the rest of the series.

The Hindi Houdini
In “The Hindi Houdini,” magician Sanjay Rai, aka The Hindi Houdini, solves a locked room mystery at the Napa Valley winery theater where he performs.

Nice little read featuring Sanjay, Jaya's best friend.

Pirate Vishnu 
A century-old treasure map of San Francisco's Barbary Coast. Sacred riches from India. Two murders, one hundred years apart. And a love triangle... Historian Jaya Jones has her work cut out for her.

Could Jaya's beloved uncle really be crook. Mysterious letters and a map lead Jaya to San Francisco and India in search of the truth, all the while the reader is firmly walking with Jaya. Nice use of the flash back story telling style.

Historian Jaya Jones finds herself on the wrong side of the law during an art heist at the Louvre. To redeem herself, she follows clues from an illuminated manuscript that lead from the cobblestone streets of Paris to the quicksand-surrounded fortress of Mont Saint-Michel. With the help of enigmatic Lane Peters and a 90-year-old stage magician, Jaya delves into France's colonial past in India to clear her name and catch a killer.

A journey to Paris is not what it seems as Jaya finds herself in the middle of an audacious crime - as a hostage. Jaya and Lane are soon investigating, and the story is far from straight forward, with plot twists to keep you entertained.

Michelangelo's Ghost 
Michelangelo's Ghost by Gigi PandianCan treasure-hunting historian Jaya Jones unmask a killer ghost? 

A lost work of art linking India to the Italian Renaissance. A killer hiding behind a centuries-old ghost story. And a hidden treasure in Italy’s macabre sculpture garden known as the Park of Monsters… 

Filled with the unexpected twists, vivid historical details, and cross-cultural connections Pandian is known for, Michelangelo’s Ghost is the most fast-paced and spellbinding Jaya Jones novel to date

Once more we are treated to a rich mix of fiction loosely based on fact, as Jaya Jones goes in search of the mysterious link between Mughal India and Renaissance Italy.

Atmospheric, entertaining, another enjoyable outing from Gigi Pandian. 

The Ninja's Illusion 
35485536A fabled illusion performed by a stage magician who claims to possess real supernatural powers. A treasure from the colonial era in India when international supremacies vied for power. A phantom trading ship lost over 200 years ago. And a ninja whose murderous intentions in present-day Japan connect the deeds of a long-dead trader who was much more than he seemed… 

Jaya Jones travels to Japan to solve an historical mystery at the heart of her visit, whilst at the same time support her best friend Sanjay, who is there to perform an exciting trick of illusion. Enter a murderous ninja, a controversial magician, sabotage, ancient folklore and once again mystery and history coalesce into an entertaining read.

The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn
An unsolved murder from the 1930s. 
A ghost story to explain the impossible crime. 
A dead man in the haunted library. 
And no way for the authorities to reach the survivors until the snowstorm clears…

The perfect lock-room mystery - the setting - a haunted library - what avid reader wouldn't find this story appealling!

Review: Raven Saga by Giles Kristian

Preceeding all the hooplah of the series, "Vikings", was this trilogy by Giles Kristian. The story of a young man, taken as plunder when Norsemen attack his village, to metamorphysis into the warrior Raven. This is a period of history that holds great interest to me - I love the Viking Sagas, the journey of King Harald, of Egil, of Leif, and not to mention the heroic women. The historical re-creation of a time when the coastlines of what is now Ireland, Scotland and England, were subjected to the raiding of the Norse and the emergence of some larger than life characters is fascinating. And this is primary what drew me to book one, and the two subsequent tomes.

Book One - Raven - Blood Eye:
For two years Osric has lived a simple life, apprentice to the mute old carpenter who took him in when others would have him cast out. But when Norsemen from across the sea burn his village they also destroy his new life, and Osric finds himself a prisoner of these warriors. 

Immersed in the Norsemen's world and driven by their lust for adventure, Osric proves a natural warrior and forges a blood bond with Sigurd, who renames him Raven. When the Fellowship faces annihilation from Ealdorman Ealdred of Wessex, Raven chooses a bloody and dangerous path, accepting the mission of raiding deep into hostile lands to steal a holy book from Coenwolf, King of Mercia. There he will find much more than the Holy Gospels of St Jerome. And he will find betrayal at the hands of cruel men, some of whom he regarded as friends...

So, what did I think? I don't mind the first person narrative as we are immediately drawn to the character of Osric / Raven. The promises a tale of adventure, of battles, of plunder, of brotherhood, of betrayal - standard go-to plotline - young man captured, finds fidelity among the warriors, enter one bad guy hell bent on destroying the Fellowship, hero finds love and betrayal. But I found it a little flat - maybe it was just not the right time when I initially read this tale (2012), but looking back at my notes, I don't think so. Others have raved that Kristian is surely the heir-apparent to Bernard Cornwall - this really has no bearing on my review as I am not such a fan of Cornwall.

Book Two - Raven - Sons of Thunder:
Raven and his Wolfpack of Norsemen have been double crossed. The traitor Ealdred seeks to sell a holy book to the Emperor Charlemagne which will ensure riches beyond his wildest dreams. Greed drives him forward, but a band of fearsome warriors is in pursuit across the sea to Charlemagne's Frankish empire -- with the bloodiest of revenge on their minds.

Slaughter is certain as the Fellowship trap Ealdred and his men at the mouth of the river Sicauna in Frankia. Sigurd the Lucky challenges Ealdred's bodyguard Mauger in an ancient duel called the holmgang, and only one will walk away with his life. 

The continuing saga of the Viking Raven and his band of warrior brothers with the Fellowship on the trail of the evil Ealdred and pursue him to the lands of Charlemagne. This builds on book one, and I was pleased to say that the action and adventure picks up, and my reading interest was suitably maintained. The characters are finally developing, and the descriptive narrative of the journey is engaging. A much stronger outing with this book as Kristian has managed to capture the times (the good, the bad, the ugly) well. 

Book Three - Raven - Odin's Wolves:
Plunging through the living hell of Pope Leo’s shattered, perverted Rome, the dragon-faced ships of Sigurd the Lucky are manned by a strange and fearsome crew: among the Norsemen is Raven, a young man of uncertain parentage ...robbed of the woman he loves, destined to play a cunning role in the boldest of attacks. For the Vikings are on their way to glimmering Constantinople to put a deposed emperor back on his rightful throne—and claim the most magnificent prize of all. 

Travelling through Rome, the Fellowship is on its way to Constantinople. And here again I found the story a little bland, until the last when the action finally kicks in. I found the journey wasn't as fluid as in book two.

On another note, it is rather strange that after reading this series I found out that these stories fall in the latter stages in the life of Sigurd Haraldarson, and that there is a set of books dealing with his earlier story. I am pleased, in a strange way to hear this, as I felt more empathy with Sigurd than Raven. I might even revisit the Raven series after tackling Sigurd.

For more on Sigurd see:
  • God of Vengeance
  • Winters Fire
  • Wings of the Storm

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Women Surgeons of World War I

Focusing on four women surgeons who made their way to war. Agnes Bennett and Lilian Cooper worked for the Scottish Women's Hospitals near the Serbian front. Conditions were incredibly harsh but both women acquitted themselves well. They returned to successful careers in New Zealand and Australia respectively.

Lilian Cooper was also our first female FRACS. Feminist Phoebe Chapple went to France in 1917 and while attached to the Queen Mary's Auxiliary Army Corps, was one of a handful of women to win the Military Medal. Vera Scantlebury was 28 when she arrived at the Endell St Military Hospital in London. Her diaries (held by the University of Melbourne Archives) record the evolution of a young and inexperienced doctor to a competent surgeon. Vera Scantlebury (Brown) was later fĂȘted for her pioneering work in infant welfare.

The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman

The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman
Meredith Wadman’s masterful account recovers not only the science of this urgent race, but also the political roadblocks that nearly stopped the scientists. She describes the terrible dilemmas of pregnant women exposed to German measles and recounts testing on infants, prisoners, orphans, and the intellectually disabled, which was common in the era. These events take place at the dawn of the battle over using human fetal tissue in research, during the arrival of big commerce in campus labs, and as huge changes take place in the laws and practices governing who “owns” research cells and the profits made from biological inventions. It is also the story of yet one more unrecognized woman whose cells have been used to save countless lives.

From Star2:
The book weaves its way around the morally ambiguous and morally repugnant history of vaccines, from their commercialisation – something that was quite unusual at the time, and which brought Hayflick a lot of flak, ultimately derailing his career – to the horrific testing and experimentation carried out on people without their knowledge.

Despite writing an entire book on the subject, Wadman suggests that rather than revile the actions of the scientists of the past, we should take the opportunity to look at what is being done at the moment.

The Sun and Two Seas by Vikramajit Ram

Image resultThis magical tale woven around historical events during the construction of Kalinga’s Konark sun temple in the mid-13th century, is Vikramajit Ram’s fourth book. 

At first, readers might believe this is a revenge tale but the real turn in the action occurs when the lovers in the story are separated. Their love story will take you by surprise and warm your heart. It will then crush it, quite like your very first love did, in a sudden and cold manner.

Despite weaving a fine tangle of plots and characters, the story progresses neatly. By the end, it is hard to settle upon one character as the protagonist for all the characters are temptingly meaty. But if one had to choose a protagonist, it would be the story. The best kind of books manage that.

The Women Who Flew for Hitler by Clare Mulley

From Historia Magazine:

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented, courageous and strikingly attractive women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. With the war, both became pioneering test pilots and both were awarded the Iron Cross for service to the Third Reich. But they could not have been more different and neither woman had a good word to say for the other.

Acclaimed biographer Clare Mulley gets under the skin of these two distinctive and unconventional women, giving a full – and as yet largely unknown – account of their contrasting yet strangely parallel lives, against a changing backdrop of the 1936 Olympics, the Eastern Front, the Berlin Air Club, and Hitler’s bunker.