HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me” by Matthew Lewis

King Richard III remains one of the most controversial figures in British history. Matthew Lewis’s new biography aims to become a definitive account by exploring what is known of his childhood and the impacts it had on his personality and view of the world. He would be cast into insecurity and exile only to become a royal prince before his tenth birthday.

As Richard spends his teenage years under the watchful gaze of his older brother, Edward IV, he is eventually placed in the household of their cousin, the Earl of Warwick, remembered as the Kingmaker; but as the relationship between a king and his most influential magnate breaks down, Richard is compelled to make a choice when the House of York fractures. After another period in exile, Richard returns to become the most powerful nobleman in England. The work he involves himself in during the years that follow demonstrates a drive and commitment but also a dangerous naïveté. 

When crisis hits in 1483, it is to Richard that his older brother turns on his death-bed. The events of 1483 remain contentious and hotly debated, but by understanding the Richard who began that year, it will become clearer what drove some of his actions and decisions. Returning to primary sources and considering the evidence available, this new life undoes the myths and presents a real man living in tumultuous times.

cover and blurb via Amberley Publishing

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I have to be honest, I am very much Ricardian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Richard III get vilified by Shakespeare (well, by 21st century actors, anyway) and barely contain my rage.  I don’t think Richard is perfect, a completely impeachable hero (no one is), but I also don’t think him a child-killing villain. There are few like Richard, a man who had suffered a great deal in a short time before his fateful battle at Bosworth. And it takes an author as fine as Lewis to dig into the details of Richard’s life. Most books either love or hate Richard, whereas this writer doesn’t go down either road, and instead gives us an insight into the mind of a man who became king, lost his own family, and then was overthrown by a man with a flimsy claim. Richard was a king, now a legend, but he was also just a man, and here is a book where we finally get to meet Richard. I moved books around on my Richard shelves to make room for this biography before it even came out.

While many books write about 1483 onwards, so much happened in Richard’s life leading up to the crown. The first half of the book digs deep into Richard, those in his life, the battles he fought, his ideals in life and religion, all as he grew into the king people focus on now. Much happened to Richard in his short life – overcoming a spinal deformity would have shaped his thoughts. He grew up around powerful people, like the Nevilles, who would do anything for power. Richard was prepared to lay down his life for his brother Edward, and yet his brother George betrayed them both, harm which would cause a wound that could never truly heal. Edward was king on the back of Richard’s hard work, and Richard ran the north in England and kept an eye on Scotland for his sovereign, all before the age of thirty.

But when King Edward died in April 1483, all the moments in Richard’s life which shaped him would come in play. The next three months have been debated since the moment they happened, but this book gives a reader a more detailed insight into why Richard acted as he did, thought as he did. It seems Richard was neither a murderous villain desperate for power, or an innocent caught up in a disaster. The illegitimacy of the Princes in the Tower is well discussed too, whether Richard was fooled, or did he simply miss important details, or was he the master? I can’t tell you, because spoilers, but the murky situation and Richard’s handling is a reflection of many events long before the mess with the Princes. Another important detail in the events of 1483 is the death of Hastings, a particular favourite subject of mine. Again, in the interest of spoilers (as in the excellent research on Lewis’ part) I won’t share all that is written, but the whole situation felt fresh to me, a tough feat after 500 years and a whole lot of writing on the subject.

Richard’s life went from a powerful ruler in the north after years of fighting, to having brother George executed, to his brother Edward dead before his time, to being thrust onto the throne, to his nephews disappeared, to his precious wife and son dead from illness, to betrayal by men he trusted… how much can one man take in only a few years? By the time Richard faced Henry Tudor at Bosworth, Richard’s life was circling the drain, yet he remained confident of victory. This book talks of Richard in a positive way, without soundly like it is gushing with adoration; rather, it shows the whole life of an extraordinary man. England could have had a fine king, had Richard been given the chance.

This book is worthy of five stars. Matthew Lewis wrote The Survival of the Princes in the Tower not to long ago, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Loyalty Binds Me is an excellent addition to any library. Imagine saying you like Richard III but don’t have Lewis in your collection?

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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

cover and blurb viz amazon

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I have spent a long time with my head in academic history books, so to read something that reads more like a story was a welcome relief. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book hard to get here in NZ, so when a copy generously floated my way, I grabbed it with both hands. The first thing I thought was – do we still use the word ‘heroine?’ Should it not just be ‘heroes?’ But then people may purchase and then get their egos crushed by finding out all the heroes are women. That only made me like this book more.

The book is great, separated into chapters about women from all over Europe. The book writes about the women of England and France, but also from Spain (yay!) and even as far east as Kiev. There are Warrior Heroines, Literary Heroines, Religious Heroines and Scandalous Heroines. You can read them in order, or however you like depending on your mood. I enjoyed how The Pawns weren’t simply bartering gifts, but smart women in their own right, and the Medieval Mistresses were more fleshed out (excuse the pun) than the simply fallen women ideal.

You won’t be confused between your Eleanors, your Matildas or your Isabels, and while you will read about well-known heroines, they are also great forgotten women given fresh air. The women are not viewed as heroines through 21st century eyes, rather they are simply celebrated for their strength in the time period while on their own crusades. They are heroines for all centuries. Putting together such a thorough assembly of women must have taken considerable time and energy, so treat yourself to the author’s hard work and gain further insight to the women that came before us. Heroines have far more skills and techniques than any hero.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Anarchist Detective’ by Jason Webster

the-anarchist-detective

Sent on leave after his last, brutal, case, Max Cámara returns to his home town in La Mancha, famous for producing the finest saffron in the world.  

There, the past keeps pulling at him. The town is exhuming a mass grave from the Civil War, but why is his grandfather behaving so strangely? His old friend Yago is investigating a particularly nasty murder which sets off memories Max has been trying to bury for years. And then there are Yago’s whisperings about a saffron mafia…  

Max finds himself plunged into the thick of a complex and intensely personal case that will put him in severe danger and have him questioning his past – and his future in the police.

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Max Cámara, the cynical, persistent, pragmatic, intelligent, likeable Spanish detective is back and better than ever. Valencia’s most dogged detective is on leave, and in self-imposed exile in Madrid, to cook, read and have sex with the lovely Alicia. But is that enough for a man like Max?

Max is pulled back to his hometown of Albacete, a place he has sought to run from his entire life. The author expertly describes the mood of this provincial Spanish area; the stark landscape that surrounds the barely-enjoyable place is evident throughout. It’s dirty, it’s stuck in the past, it’s a place where any man would want to leave his memories behind.

The character of Hilario, Max’s grandfather, once again steals the show with this witty lines, stubborn attitudes and bold behaviour. Hilario is a link to the past that Max cannot escape, and as more details of the man’s past, and the past of his relatives, come to life in Hilario’s unremarkable apartment, the reader can learn more about Max than ever before. With the last two novels, Or the Bull Kills You, and A Death in Valencia, hints of Max’s life have delighted and teased, but now so much of Max’s troubled past bursts from the page, serving to illuminate the character and make him even more complex and yet more relatable.

Pressing issues in today’s Spain dominate the storyline; when a young girl is murdered, Max finds himself on the trail of murderers and also corrupt leaders, their hands yellow with the stain of saffron smuggling. Max juggles this modern-day issue, along with ghosts of the past; the local cemetery is digging up Civil War and Franco victims, and the two events are more interlinked than Max could imagine. The conversation surrounding the idealisms of pre-war Spain are explained in such a way that those with little knowledge can easily understand, along with the fear imposed on the population in the post-war 1940’s. Sentimentality is spared as the facts are told through the eyes of a person who has had to deal with the reality of living in such times.

Webster brings the book and its themes to life through comfortable and believable relationships between the characters. Max and Hilario’s family connection is convincing and authentic, and his relationship with journalist Alicia is refreshingly realistic. Any person who has suffered a difficult childhood and wished to leave their early life behind can feel Max’s desire to run and never look back.

The whole novel, dominated by the stuffy atmosphere of Albacete, holds Max in a kind of purgatory in which he needs to escape. Is the future back in Valencia? Perhaps Madrid? Max may be able fight crime and lay ghosts to rest, but can he stop himself from sabotaging his own future?

The book reaches a satisfying and poignant end, and leaves plenty of scope for yet another Cámara installment. The scenes in the hospital can feel very close to home. Readers may never put saffron in their cooking again without thinking twice. Even Max is looking at his paella sideways…

The Anarchist Detective is the best Max Cámara yet. Webster’s talent with this character strengthens with every installment. Spain’s past and present weave together to produce an eloquent and emotional novel that can be read in a single sitting.

The Anarchist Detective – 5 stars! Superb must-read

Available in hardback and on Kindle – The Anarchist Detective by Jason Webster