STONEHENGE by Bernard Cornwell

stonehengeBernard Cornwell writes a lot of historical fiction.  I have read most of his Saxon Chronicles series, which I really enjoyed.  If you want to see what I had to say about those books, just type his name in the search box on this blog and you will get a list of his books which I read.

One of the things I like about his books is that at the end, he gives a brief historical perspective and explanation of the historical period in which the novel is set.

This novel is about….. Stonehenge.  It is set in 2000 BC, at the start of the bronze age.  It follows one young man and his family.  We meet him when he is six years old, and he and his brother come upon an injured outlyer, a person from a tribe far away whom their tribe considers enemies.  The man crawls into the ruins of some old temple, and the older brother, a mean SOB, kills him in cold blood.  Among his belongings, they find a huge cache of gold, stolen from his home tribe.

The boys’ father is head of their tribe, and takes the gold to a neighboring tribe with whom they have only a very tenuous peace, offers them the gold in exchange for a solid peace pact, which is accepted.

The story goes on to follow the boy Saban as he grows into an adult, which is pretty dicey, because the older brother tries first to kill Saban because Saban saw him steal the gold,  and then after they come of age, manages to sell Saban into slavery.  You know, the normal sibling rivalry stuff.

And we also have another brother, born club footed, who instead of being sacrificed to the gods as was the usual custom, (nice multitasking there, getting rid of the people who cannot contribute to the society and would only be a drain on it, and having a live sacrifice for the gods at the same time.  Nice use of resources.)  is simply turned out of the village to survive on his own, because his father was the chief.  But he is clever, survives, and also sees the older brother stealing the gold treasure.   He goes to the sorceress of the neighboring village and she teaches him the arts, and also pretty much fixes his club foot.  Orthopedic surgery was a bit more primitive in those days, and she fixed it by slamming a mallet on it.  Ouch.  You know, the old ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ technique of bone surgery.  Yeah.  Well.   He goes on to become a scary and competent dark sorcerer and he wants to build a new temple to the sun god, claiming that it will bring peace to the land, there will be no more war, no more hunger, yada yada.  Sounds like every politician you ever heard, right?

So while Saban is living with the outlyers far from his native village, having been released from bondage, his sorcerer brother comes to him for help in building the temple.  That’s when all the quarrying operations begin, and there is a lot of speculation by our author as to how this operation was conducted.  Very interesting, and could well be just how it was managed.

The basis of the story is the building of what we now call Stonehenge, overlayered with a lot of saving of people from being burned to death in sacrifices, or having their heads lopped off in sacrifices, and descriptions of battles,  and the rest of daily life among the unwashed.  And I say unwshed because I found it interesting that the author portrays these folks who lived like 4,000 years ago, as having farming skills, as knowing how babies were created, because there was a lot of lineage stuff going on, as having certain healing arts, but they never washed, because there is frequent mention of how dirty everyone was.  Also, hardly anyone ever died in childbirth, and hardly any babies died with the frequency they seemed to in say, the medieval period.  Every character of note who got pregnant had an uneventful pregnancy, had the baby, both mother and baby doing fine, thanks, and no mention of women having 15 pregnancies with only say 3 surviving children, or how many women died in childbirth.  Oh well.  Written by a man from a man’s point of view, which was the raping and sexing and battles point of view.

Be all that as it may, I really enjoyed the book, both the story and the incidental details.  He is an excellent writer, does a boatload of research for his fictions, so it all has an uncanny feel of reality about it.



BUTTER IN THE WELL by Linda K. Hubalek

butter-in-the-wellThis is a fictionalized account of a young Swedish immigrant couple who settled in Kansas in 1867.  The end.

Nah, just messin’ with ya.   That’s not the end,  although it IS a fictionalized account of a young Swedish immigrant couple who settled in Kansas in 1867, but I will tell you a bit more about it.  It is a beautifully researched account of Maja Kajsa Svensson and her husband Carl and their little daughter.  Eventually, her siblings and parents joined them.

Gee, those were the days!  Other than the hardships of living first in the wagon until they were able to build their sod house  and then living for a couple of years and no conveniences at all so to speak of, … OK, nevermind.   But all you needed to do to steal the land from the Native Americans already living there was to file with the government and you would get 80 acres.

It is so hard to imagine living like this.  I get all kerplunchet if I have to live more than two blocks from a convenience store,  and that is saying nothing about my state of mind if there is no pizza delivery nearby.

This was just such a delightful book, and makes history come alive.  I am pretty sure I learned all this stuff back in the Darkish Ages when I was in school, but this book helps make it all so real.

The title comes from when they finally had a well, and what you did was you kept your butter and cream and milk in jugs which you lowered into the well to keep them cold.   One day Maja hauled up on the rope to get the butter as she was making a large dinner for a number of people, and the rope broke, the jug slammed against the side of the well and broke into a bazillion pieces and the butter fell irretrievably into the depths of the water.

And I thought I had it tough when the ice maker in my refrig stopped making ice.

This is now a series of four books, I believe, and definitely rivals Little House on the Prairie for true endearment.

Good night, John.  Good night, Pa.


DEATH OF KINGS by Bernard Cornwell

death-of-kingsThe sixth in the Saxon Stories, historical novels all about Saxon Britain back in the years before dirt was invented.  Actually in the 900s.  This one takes place in the late 900s.

Our boy Lord Uhtred, of the Bebbanburg Uhtreds,  way up in Northumberland, is still in the south of England, fighting the Danes.  Also fighting some of the treacherous Saxons who all want to be king.  Well, heck, who doesn’t want to be king?

He now has a son, Uhtred, who wants to be clergy, much to his father’s dismay, who would prefer the kid be a sword-wielding warrior like himself, and a couple of other kids.  He has a wife, and a mistress here and there, and let’s face it, morals are not his strong point, but loyalty to dying King Alfred is.   Alfred finally succumbs to a lifetime of illnesses at age 50, his son Edward becomes king if he can mange to stave off those who would themselves become king, can rid themselves of those murderous Danes, and unite the squabbling neighbors who all want to take over the territory.  OK, now I see why we don’t all want to become king.  A lot of work, plus there is the immanent death factor, never too far from one’s door.

King Alfred grants Uhtred an estate consisting of some huge parcel, including villages and churches, right before he dies, so now Uhtred is not broke and begging money for the war campaigns.  He will be able to feed his men, supply horses and payment and thus ensure their loyalty to him.

The clergy really do meddle a lot in the affairs of kings, something which Uhtred doesn’t understand, being a pagan.  When told they would be heading to Sain Rumwold’s monastery, he asks

Who was Rumwold?  Father Willibald said, ‘He was a very pious child, lord.’  ‘A child?’  ‘A baby,’ he said, sighing as he saw where the conversation was leading, ‘a mere three days old when he died.’

‘A three-day-old baby is a saint?’

Willibald flapped his hands. ?Miracles happen, lord, he said, ‘they really do.  They say little Rumwold sang God’s praises whenever he suckled.’

‘I feel much the same when I get hold of a tit,’ I said, ‘so does that make me a saint?’

Uhtred visits a sorceress to try to learn the fate of the land.  Naturally,  as opposed to things warlike, Uhtred is simple when it comes to the supernatural.  He gets drugged and almost killed, and told lies by the ancient woman.

The battles go on, the bloody descriptions continue, slashing, stabbing and battle-axing being the order of the day.  You know, same old, same old.

The real difficult of this book is the names.  They are Saxon and all sound and seem alike:  Aethelwulf, Aethelstan, Aethelbert, Aetherelbald, Aethelred, Aethelrod, Aethelflaed, Aethelgifu, Aethelweard, and Edward.   One of them is a woman.  Guess which one.  Not telling you.

Two more books left in the series.  I have to let my sword dry off before I continue.  One can take only so much blood and gore. If you are interested in my observations of the previous books in the series, just put Bernard Cornwell into the search box and it will give you a list of four of the previous.  I missed the one just prior to this book.


Daughter of timeJosephine Tey was one of two pseudonyms used by Elizabeth Mackintosh, a Scottish author best known for her mystery novels which feature Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard, and her play, Richard of Bordeaux.

This is not a mystery novel exactly, even though it does feature Inspector Grant.   He is laid up in hospital in this 1951 novel, with nuttin’ to do.  A friend brings him a collection of portraits for his amusement, and he is quite taken with that of Richard III.    I thought this might be an interesting read for me, seeing as how His Majesty has gotten so much press lately, what with being buried under a parking lot, and all that followed from that.

Inspector Grant, while giving the king’s portrait a really good look, can’t decide whether he looks like a judge or a murderer, and remembers that the king was accused of murdering or having someone else do the deed, of his two young nephews, supposedly because they were in his way to succession to the throne.

Grant gets interested in this and wonders how the story came to be and was it in fact true.  It seems to be based entirely on Sir. Thomas More’s account, which upon some savvy detective work, turned out to be based on the account by John Morton, Henry VII’s Archibishop of Canterbury.  Yeah, THAT John Morton.  Morton hated Richard.  It is on this account that Shakespeare fashioned his  character in his play, Richard III.

A young man who is doing research on another time of history is sent to Grant to help him out and becomes his happily willing research assistant.

As the research goes on and gets deeper and deeper, it becomes clear that all this history that everyone believes is all hogwash and not what happened at all.   It is Tey’s way of examining how history is constructed, and how certain version of events come to be widely accepted as the truth, despite a lack of evidence.

Here’s a quote about Mary Stuart:

Her tragedy was that she was born a Queen with the outlook of a suburban housewife.

And at the very end of the book, the researcher finds out that unknown to him (and Grant), historians have known for yonks that the story about Richard was a bunch of hooey, but that the correct version had not yet made its way into the history books.

So we have this whole book used as a vehicle to talk about the history of Richard III.  Yawn.

The title of the book comes from a quote by Sir Francis Bacon:

Truth is the Daughter of Time, not of Authority

Richard III

Richard III



SHADOWS OF THE DAMNED by Kathrin Brückmann

shado9wsBird, triangle, snake, jar, ankh, eye.  Oh, darn, I forgot.  It’s ankh before jar, except after snake.

Oh, hi there.,  Just writing my blog entry on Shadows of the Damned,  the second in the In Maat’s Service series, mysteries starring two young doctors set in ancient Egypt, the Middle Period, I think.  How would I know.  All those sand dunes look alike.  You can refresh your memory about the previous book, Apprenticed to Anubus here.   In fact, go read that blog entry now, because it has a lot of information in it which will be helpful in talking about Shadows of the Damned.  I’ll wait.

Although Shadows is a stand alone, it actually would be really helpful to have read Apprenticed first, because there are  a fair amount of unexplained references back to events and activities in that book.  In this volume, Dr. Hori and his BFF Dr. Nakhtmin become involved in another situation in the institution, the weryt, where the embalming is done, all with secrets and mysteries.  As you will know from the first book, the insides of the dead bodies are removed and placed in sealed jars.  Not the brains, though.  Egyptians believed the seat of the soul and all activities was in the heart, and the brain was nothing, so they just sucked that part out and tossed it.  But the heart, being the core and seat of the soul was placed in a jar until the embalmed body was ready for it to be replaced.  I think I have this right.   Well, to the horror of the officials of the weryt, a second heart was found in a jar along with the proper heart, so the jar contained two hearts.  This means there was a body around somewhere.  So what happened?  The person cannot gather its ka and ba together to go to the Afterworld without it.  This is a huge big deal for the ancient Egyptians.   Since Hori already knows the secrets of the weryt, his services are requested to do some detecting to find out what happened, where was the body, and how that body came to be without its heart.

Meanwhile,  Nakhtmin becomes involved with his father-in-law, who is the Second Prophet of the Temple of Amun, and since the First Prophet is elderly and about to pass on to the Beautiful West, will become the head dude of the Temple.  But another of the top four has been bitten by a cobra and died, meaning they also have to appoint another prophet in his place.

And more meanwhiles, Nakhtmin’s wife is pregnant, as is the wife of the Pharaoh.  The two young doctors also have the responsibility of caring for the wives in the Pharaoh’s harem.  But it seems that nefarious doings regarding ambition and power within the Temple are afoot, and there are mysteries to be solved there, as well.

Along come the painful and horrible deaths of some of the candidates for the prophet positions, which looks very much like poisoning, but which turns out to be the effects of a powerful curse.   A secret rite of Osiris must be conducted to rid the area of the evil Shadows, and banish them forever in order to keep the effects of the curse from spreading.

So the various threads become interwoven and at the end of the book we find we have learned so much more about the life and mores of this time in this land than we ever would have bothered with in school, because it is all disguised as a great story!  We learn that medicine and supernatural forces play an equal part in the physical well-being of the citizens of the time, and part of the doctor’s bag of diagnoses must be a full knowledge of curses, cures, and demons.  There are potions, and then there are potions, if you will.

I really love these books.  The writing is good, and we can thank the translator, Edith Parzefall for the English version.   The tale has such an authentic feel, steeped in what is known about the ancient Egyptian civilization.   It is not just some modern story dressed up in historical garb.  It is an historical story.


GILGAMESH THE KING by Robert Silverberg

gilgameshI wanted to read this because I wanted to know more about him, and I thought a fictionalized account of his life would be more interesting than just hieing myself off to Wikipedia.

[OK, I lied.  I download this book because I got confused between the Sumerian Gilgamesh and the Hindu god Ganesh, which is the one I was actually interested in.  Well, come on, there are enough similarities in the names, with the G and the esh, right?]

So the whole fictionalized life thing is really about Gilgamesh, who was a king of legend in ancient Mesopotamia, and the story comes to us from  an Akkadian poem that is considered the first great work of literature.   Gilgamesh is generally seen by scholars as an historical figure, since inscriptions have been found which confirm the existence of other figures associated with him in the epic. If Gilgamesh existed, he probably was a king who reigned sometime between 2800 and 2500 BC.  The Sumerian King List claims that Gilgamesh ruled the city of Uruk, one of the prominant cities of Sumer,  for 126 years. According to the Tummal Inscription Gilgamesh and his son Urlugal rebuilt the sanctuary of the goddess Ninlil in Tummal, a sacred quarter in her city of Nippur.

Gilgamesh is part god, — actually two parts god, and one part human.  He feels the gods enter him, and speak to him.  If you took my advice and read THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND by Julian Jaynes, like I told you to, you would have a wonderful alternate take on the somewhat supernatural aspects of Gilgamesh’s life and beliefs.  2500 BC would of course be in the period that Jaynes claims the mind was still unevolved and operated in two separated spheres, giving human awareness a kind of schizoid experience, with the person hearing voices as voices of the gods.

This epic tale is operatic quality, what with the kings and the wars and the battles.  Hey, you don’t get to annex other lands simply by asking politely.  Takes blood, guts, (preferably the enemy’s), and a fair amount of machination, intrigue and well, let’s call a spade a shovel here, murder.

Gilgamesh’s father, the king Lugalbanda,  dies when Gilgamesh was 6 years old.  He watches as the personal servants and retinue of his father follow  the body down into the burial pit, to be entombed along with him.  He is pretty sure after seeing this that he never wants to die. I know, right?  When he is just a preteen, he flees into exile to the city Kish where he grows into manhood and becomes a powerful warrior.  It turns out that the king of Kish and the goddess in charge of his own city, Uruk, conspired to have him return to his city and become the king there.  The priestess of the goddess Inanna is a real bitch, and wishes to manipulate Gilgamesh.

He does many good works, but is lonely.  A wild man is discovered in the hillsides, and is cleaned up and taught civilization and becomes the friend of Gilgamesh.  They go on adventures together to find and destroy demons.  Ahhh, what a life!  He friend dies of a wasting disease, due to the machinations of the Inanna priestess, and Gilgamesh, distraught with grief, becomes terribly afraid of dying, and so sets off alone on a journey to find how to avoid death.  In true quest fashion, he has many adventures, meets up with people who can help him and learns a valuable lesson.

Part of his quest involves an old legend of a terrible flood, a man who was told by the gods to build a large vessel and put the seeds of all life on it to survive the flood.  In return for this service, he was granted eternal life by the gods.

Gilgemesh finally learns that his city Uruk is about to be taken over by a rival, and so hurries home to save the city.

This is all told in the form of Gilgmamesh as an old man writing his memoirs, and is basically , in addition to being a thrilling tale of action and adventure, is about politics, the treachery of man and gods,  and the necessity of accepting death as part of life, because when the gods gave man life, they also gave man death, and kept the eternal life for themselves.

It is interesting to note that the flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh was appeared at least a thousand years before the tale told in the bible. As a matter of fact, many ancient civilizations have a flood narrative.










Now about the revered Hindu god Ganesh.  He comes a lot later, more near the tenth century.  He is the god with the head of an elephant.  I know, right?   It is said that the goddess Parvati, wishing to bathe, created a boy, Ganesh,  and assigned him the task of guarding the entrance to her bathroom. When her husband Shiva returned from one his interminable battles, he was denied access by Ganesh and killed the boy in a fit of petulant rage, striking his head off with his sword. Parvati was understandably upset and so to soothe her, Shiva sent out his warriors to fetch the head of the first dead creature they found, —  of course, that would be MY first thought of what to do.  Well, the first dead creature they came upon happened to be that of an elephant. The head was attached to the body of the boy and he was brought back to life. The elephant’s head symbolizes unmatched wisdom and the gaining of knowledge through reflection and listening. And because of his role as his mother’s doorkeeper, he is often placed facing doorways to keep out the unworthy.

There are a number of other fascinating stories about Ganesh, who is the Lord of Good Fortune who provides prosperity, fortune and success. He is the Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles of both material and spiritual kinds. Interestingly, he also places obstacles in the path of those who need to be checked.  Another story about him is how he came to have a broken tusk.  One popular version is that he broke it off himself in order to write down the Mahabharata, one of the world’s longest epic poems, as it was dictated to him by the sage Vyasa. In the process of writing, Ganesh’s pen failed and so he snapped off his tusk as a replacement in order that the transcription not be interrupted. The broken tusk therefore symbolizes sacrifice and Ganesh’s role as patron of the arts and of letters.

ganeshOK, so now do you see why I got confused?


consciousnessAn OK read, probably more because of the fact I just didn’t seem to be in the mood for it, than for any other reason.  Or maybe because it reminded me of a film with Robin Wright Penn and Sean Penn, Loved,  in which she mopes around being beautifully moody and which I disliked intensely.

This book is set in Stuttgart, Germany, right after World War II, when the Marshall Plan was put into effect and food and consumer shortages were endemic.  The Germans, naturally, did what they could to feed themselves, and one of the things they did was create a large black market.

This is the story of a young woman whose brother was involved in the black market, piloting planes bringing in clandestine goods, and she became involved as well after she learns to fly, which all led to her killing a man.

She is taken to prison and is interrogated by an American officer who has been having an affair with her promiscuous mother.  The dilemma is whether to save her own skin by ratting out the others.

I don’t know exactly what about it all annoyed me so much, but it was one of those books I struggled through, mainly because I had read almost 60% of it waiting for it not to annoy me, and figured I should at least finish it.

One thing I did like, though, is the title.  Did you know that the phrase ‘time of useful consciousness’ refers to the amount of time an individual is able to perform flying duties efficiently in an environment of inadequate oxygen supply?  It is the period of time from the interruption of the oxygen supply or exposure to an oxygen-poor environment to the time when useful function is lost, and the individual is no longer capable of taking proper corrective and protective action.  If you read the book  you will see how this applies.

The other thing I liked was the look at daily life in Germany immediately after the war.  I was born during the war, and am used to thinking of the German people as ‘the enemy’, but I lose sight of the fact that the average German citizen was just trying to live their everyday lives, same as us.

Stuttgart, 1945

Stuttgart, 1945