Friday, 29 April 2016

Review of APRIL AND MAY by Richard Blake

by Beth Elliott
Robert Hale, London, 2010, 224pp (hb)
ISBN: 978 0 7090 9042 7
When I was a boy, the local library refused to give adult tickets to anyone under the age of twelve. My grandmother came to the rescue by lending me hers. In exchange for being able to borrow all the moderately wicked stuff I could lay hands on, I only had to keep her fed with romantic fiction. Being a conscientious boy, I made sure to read everything before borrowing it for her. This gave me a taste for romantic fiction – especially historical romantic fiction – that has never entirely left me.
Therefore, I enjoyed the first chapter of Beth Elliott’s April and May. We are at a ball in London in 1799. Rose Graham is young and silly and in love with dashing Tom Hawkesleigh. He, of course, has designs on her that are not wholly honourable. He takes her into a quiet room and makes an advance she is more than inclined to welcome.
Sadly –
“How dare you conduct yourselves in such a disgusting manner?”
Her sister-in-law Augusta has caught them just in time. Tom is ejected in disgrace. Rose is told she will never see him again:
“After such a disgrace, that is impossible. You cannot be trusted, and he is only a younger son.”
Not a bad opening, and I expected the next chapter to move to Bath, with a foppish Lord or two and a villainous rake. Instead, however, we move straight to 1804, and are in Constantinople. Tom is a senior intelligence officer at the Embassy there. He is deep in negotiations with Kerim Pasha, who wants British help to modernise the Ottoman armed forces. Everything must take place in secret. Though some kind of modernisation is essential if the Empire is not to be pulled apart, the forces of conservatism are strong in Constantinople. Worse, the French still have ambitions in the Near East, and will do anything to stop an agreement with Britain.
Into this comes Rose – now Rose Charteris, but a widow. She had been in Egypt with some relatives, trying to make sense of the hieroglyphs. A bandit raid has left her in urgent need of help. Kerim Pasha takes one look at her, and is very eager to help. Tom is jealous and protective, but uncertain of his own continuing feelings.
From here, we move back to London, where the cast reassembles for what becomes a tight thriller – high politics, deception, attempted abduction, attempted murder. If you want to know more, I suggest you should find out for yourself.
What did I enjoy about this novel? I have mentioned the plot already. But there is also a talent for describing places. My imagination has been filled for over a decade now with Constantinople, and I go to Turkey every year. In the relevant chapters of this book, I could smell the City and feel the warm bath of its climate. London is unexpectedly dark and mysterious. The sub-plot about the Egyptian hieroglyphs is convincing. This is primarily a romantic novel, and, if that is what you like, you will find everything you want. At the same time, it has touches of Patrick O’Brien and a steely quality that should make it of general interest.
My only complaint is that I am not aware of a sequel. The politics alone make the story worth continuing – perhaps a trip to Egypt and a chase by French agents beside the pyramids. Also, if sketchily drawn, some of the characters are worth developing – Lady Westacote, for example. If I found Max a little dull, he would make a good murder victim in the ruins of Ephesus. Even horrid Augusta has potential. She could be abducted in Cairo by Bedouins, and go native in someone’s harem.
And so, my overall judgement is – give us more. A writer’s fictional world is like a child. If you go to the trouble of creating one – and doing it as well as Beth Elliott has done – you are only at the beginning of your duty. The closing kiss should not be the end of this story.
Richard Blake’s new novel Crown of Empire was published in London in April 2016.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

IN ALL HONOUR at Regency Reads

In All Honour by Beth Elliott

In All Honour
Sarah Davenport meets Gregory Thatcham when she visits her old schoolmate, Lizzie. Greg’s older brother has been killed in an “accident,” and he’s resigned his commission from the Horseguards. Both Sarah and Greg have learned of enormous debts owing to the sinister Lord Ramsdale. When they meet in Bath, their suspicions about Ramsdale are confirmed, but there may be no way to hold him accountable.

 Regency Romance by Beth Elliott; originally published by Robert Hale [UK]

This edition has been revised.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Ottoman mansions, tulip fever and caiques

                       Related image    
                                   Tulips in TopKapi Palace Garden

The reign of Sultan Ahmet III [1703-1730] was a peaceful period, and the Sultan and his Grand Vizir sent ambassadors to many European countries, with orders to take note of any useful inventions, fortresses, factories and works of civilisation that could be adapted for use in Turkey. One result of this was to introduce baroque architecture to Istanbul. 

Baroque Fountain of Ahmet III at entrance to Top Kapi Palace, Istanbul [built 1728]

The Ambassador to France sent back sketches of the Chateau de Fontainebleau. Based on these plans, the Sultan had a new summer palace built at Kagithane on the Golden Horn. All along the Bosphorus, nobles set about building grandiose residences surrounded by gardens, where the dominant flower was the tulip. For more on the Turkish passion for tulips see heretulips

The reign of Ahmet III is known as the Tulip Period. Ahmet set up an annual tulip festival, which was held around the first full moon in April. 
The famous traveller, Evliya Çelebi, who visited the tulip gardens at Kagithane says:
Those who come here at tulip time go into ecstasies. 


Aynalikavak Kasri

This little kasir, or pavilion, is all that remains of a once enormous royal palace set in a vast park. The grounds were used to cultivate many varieties of trees and flowers. There are tulips there in season even now. 

All the huge wooden palaces have disappeared, through age, decay, and especially fire. Some have been replaced by stone buildings. The Ciragan palace was rebuilt several times and is currently a luxury hotel. The version in this picture is from about 1840.

The old Ciragan palace,

In the early 19th century, this enormous palace is where the Sultan took his court for the summer. If it was necessary to travel into the main city, caiques were the favoured means of transport. The number of rowers depended on rank and wealth. The Sultan could have 20 pairs of rowers, making his boat super fast. And he had a silk covered kiosk to travel in. 
When the court went on a visit from one palace to another, the spectacle of a flotilla of these boats gliding along in procession was breath-taking, according to the French Ambassador.

Pictures of some of these lost palaces can be seen in the paintings of the late 18th century artist Antoine-Ignace Melling and in the sketches of Julia Pardoe's 'The Beauties of the Bosphorus', 1840.