Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England

Author/historian Ian Mortimer has come up with a winner here.  The concept of this book is imaginative and simple, if the past is another country and they do things differently there, then surely you would need a guidebook. He has a refreshingly humanist approach to history and even when discussing such oddities as medieval medicine (a candle of mutton fat combined with sea holly seeds to stave off toothache for example) he refuses to patronise the ideas of the time.  This book is a treasure trove of wonderfully humourous anecdotes and sympathetic explanation and understanding.  The chapters are divided thematically so you can dip into them at your leisure (perfect for busy but history-loving Mums everywhere).

Elizabeth's Women

This is a non-fiction take on the life of the Virgin Queen from an unusual vantage point — that of the women who influenced her and by whom she was surrounded most of her life.  Bringing these women back into prominence (some of whom were interesting, challenging women in their own right) gives a much needed balance to the usual picture of Elizabeth 1 surrounded by male favourites.

The author has an easy writing style but falls a bit on the historical accuracy stakes, taking for gospel such old chestnuts as Anne Boleyn's sixth finger and stating that George Boleyn was the father of the bishop of Lichfield when he in fact had no acknowleged legitimate offspring. Howlers aside it's worth a read for its interesting angle on Elizabeth's life.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

History Mysteries: The best of the bunch

There is a huge market out there for historical crime novels and some of them are worth more of your time than others.  They are a great way to pick up bits and pieces of historical knowledge without plunging into potentially dense and dry academic histories.  I'm going to give pride of place to my favourite historical mystery writer Lindsey Davis and her Roman series based around the irrepressible rogue Marcus Didius Falco.

Lindsey Davis' Falco series has all the best qualities an historical mystery sequence should have.
They are incredibly well researched but she wears her learning lightly and never falls into the historical novelist's trap of providing lots of meaningless background details that do little to set the scene or advance the plot but do show just how much the author knows about the subject.   In Falco she has created a well-rounded character full of humour and intelligence with just a touch of cynicism.  His girlfriend/wife Helena Justina is bright, feisty and adept at surviving in a man's world.  Their partnership gives the books an authenticity and domesticity that puts them well above many other mystery series.

The plots can centre around ordinary life such as in The Body in the Bathhouse  where Helena and Falco have the builders in, or well-known historical events and places that add a touch of the exotic e.g See Delphi and Die.  Enjoy your time in ancient Rome.

I must also give praise for C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake mystery series. These books with their claustrophobic portrayal of Tudor society during the paranoid reign of Henry VIII are fascinating as well as disturbing with their modern parallels.