Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Castles, Customs and Kings - A Review by Karen Andreas

Castles, Customs and Kings
Reviewed by Karen Andreas

If you are an avid fan of British history, then this book is a true treasure for your library. In this collection, you will find fascinating and illuminating pieces on the big events and, just as importantly, the smaller moments and details of past lives, places and events. Originally conceived as the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog in 2011, the entries were brilliantly incorporated into book format, opening windows to the past for those hungry for information. Kudos to Debra Brown and M.M. Bennetts for their artful editing work on this collection. 

Divided into nine sections,  Castles, Customs and Kings is a veritable feast for your brain. Reading this book is akin to having a conversation with informed friends, albeit one-sided talks.  Many entries are incomplete stories; they are, rather, portraits of moments, of individuals or of places in time.  

A personal observation from your reviewer: In the United States, British history tends to be presented in broad brush strokes and features leading men and women, the stars on the stage of history.  Missing are the subtleties, the divine confections, the observations that constitute the nuances of history, the supporting casts, the oddities, the depth. This book offers not only rare information for your readers in the colonies, but also great inspiration to pursue a myriad of topics beyond the usual fare.  

Even more, and even better, the authors reveal their own inspirations, their own perspectives and give generous insight into their own writing process. Some have fallen in love with the geography in their stories: wonderful descriptions of churches, abbeys and the land are contained in this book. Loyalty and love are revealed. Torture, punishment and death are not shirked. Want to know about hygiene, medicine, clothing, the language of fans? This is your book. Foodies among you will not be disappointed, either.  

There are a few very minor quibbles, none of which impact the quality of the read.  There is quite a bit of self-promotion here; this is, after all, a compendium of blog entries by authors.  The “what if” entries set up the premises beautifully but neglect to fulfill the promise of answering the question, instead directing the reader to the authors’ books.  However, as with other entries, these conjectures will spur you to further research.  

The authors’ biographies are very interesting; however, the placement of this section at the front of the book is curious. It should have been at the back of the book, after the reader has had a chance to be intrigued about these learned people. The inclusion of an author index so you could track down all the articles by any one author would have been helpful. 

These are only petty complaints. This is a terrific book.  

With more than 190 entries in 546 pages, there literally is something for everyone in this book.  From the Roman conquest to the 20th century, the reader is in for a rare treat.

What follows are but samples of articles in each section, to give you a taste for the range of topics.  

In Roman Britain and Early Medieval Period (55 B.C. – A.D. 1000), Teresa Thomas Bohannon’s “Ancient Roman London as Destroyed by Boadicea, Britain’s Warrior Queen” plunges the reader into a vivid description of the day the Warrior Queen came to call. Roseanne E. Lurtz’s contribution, “Anno Domini and the Venerable Bede,” explains the evolution of the calendar system we use today.  The dizzying back and forth of rulers is chronicled by Debra Brown, who marches through the House of Wessex until William arrives.  

The Late Medieval Period (1001-1485) starts, as it must, with William as Roseanne E. Lortz offers an unvarnished look into the character of “William Before He Was the Conqueror.”  In “Two Men, One Crown: Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy,” Paula Lofting sets out the final days of King Edward and sets the stage for the Invasion. In “What If Edward Bruce Had Succeeded in Ireland?” Arthur Russell sets the stage in fascinating detail, opening the door on an historical event unknown to many readers.  Alas, he does not finish the “What If” part of the blog entry, leaving the reader to either check out his book, or, even better yet, delve further into other sources.

Foodies will not be disappointed.  Several entries provide menus and recipes for the medieval table. “Food for Thought: Medieval Feasts” (Barbara Gaskell Denvil) and “Dinner as It Might Have Been at Kenilworth 760 Years Ago” (Katherine Ashe) will blow your preconceived notions about table manners and diets in this age.

From the Tudor Period (1485-1603), “Little Ease: Torture and the Tudors” (Nancy Bilyeau) looks beyond the usual bodice-ripper detail of mass market Tudor history to reveal the nature of forcing confessions and presumed guilt.  Your back will ache.  “The Elizabethan Gardening Craze” (M.M. Bennetts) soothes one’s sensibilities after such vivid entries on this era.

Quakers, witches, first actresses, executions, medicine and Lloyd's of London are but parts of the Stuart Period (1603-1714).  The delightful “The History of Gingerbread” by Gillian Bagwell includes recipes.  “So You Say You Want an Execution” (Sam Thomas) may make you rethink that sentiment.  “Desperate Measures in 17th Century Medicine” (Deborah Swift) will make you grateful to be living in this century.

The rise and fall of a fascinating survivor is chronicled by Lauren Gilbert in “Grace Dalrymple Elliott: A Very High Flyer Indeed!” (Early Georgian Era 1715-1800).  Linda Collison’s “Britain’s Cross-dressing Women,” “The Wig Business Was Big Business in 18th Century France (Lucinda Brant) and, also by Ms. Brant, “Gorgeous Georgian Metrosexuals, or How to Strut Your Metrosexual Stuff in Georgian England” offer playful insight into yet another aspect of Georgian history. Let us not overlook Mike Rendell’s “Feeling a Little Flushed, Dear? (The Invention of the Flush Toilet)."  We are grateful.

“11 May 1812: The Death of a Statesman” by M.M. Bennetts (Late Georgian and Regency Era 1800 – 1837) is an exciting and detailed account of the assassination of Prime Minister Sir Spence Perceval.  Ms. Bennetts also describes the reality of “London in the Early 19th Century.”  Want to learn how Americans preserved Regency Dance and what those dance moves are? David William Welkin’s delightful “The Hole in the Wall: Regency Dancing” offers unexpected insight to this pastime. Debra Brown presents a slice of several lives in her “Regency Era Classified Ads” with some tongue in cheek commentary and an ad of her own.

Moving on to the Victorian Era (1837-1901), Gary Inbinder starts the section with an overview of “The Victorian Technological Revolution: Transportation” followed by “Sir Goldsworthy Gurney and His Steam Carriage,"putting into context the leaps ahead in technology at the turn of the last, last century.  “The Harlot Who Was Dickens’ Muse, or Even Greater Expectations” by Katherine Ashe is a look at the adventures and the outrageous life of Madame Jumel who, though she inspired the character of Miss Havisham, was much, much more. “The Humble Envelope” by Mike Rendell reveals the origins of this mainstay of our everyday lives, one we take for granted.  Richard Denning pens a chilling account of two pivotal battles in “Battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879.”

The twentieth century brings Maggi Andersen’s account of “The Lost Houses of England,” these edifices of national significance lost to inheritance laws, taxes and time, war and fire.  In “Downton Abbey and the Fight for Irish Freedom,” Tim Vicary muses on the quality of life of Lady Sybil upon her marriage to the Irish chauffeur.  Vincent Parrillo chronicles British immigration in “Ellis Island and British Immigrants to the USA.”

The concluding section is "Historical Tidbits Across the Ages." It opens with Debra Brown decoding “The Royal Coat of Arms.”  M.M. Bennetts offers an affectionate look at “An Englishman and His Dog….”  Lauren Gilbert reveals the long relationship (16th century to the 20th) between “Faversham, Kent” and gunpowder.  Karen Wasylowski concludes the discussion of the calendar in “September in British History,” the opening section of which reveals what happened in 1752 when Britain lost 11 days, and goes on to share such traditions as “Calling the Mare,” Michaelmas and other notable, annual September events.  While Twelfth Night is still celebrated in the United Kingdom, its origins and meaning have become obscure in the States (where it once was part of the holiday tradition).  Thanks to a mention in “Shakespeare in Love,” inquiring minds in the colonies are grateful to be enlightened.  Katherine Ashe concludes the book with her overview of “800 Years of Christmas in England.” 

If you truly love history, I say, “Buy this book!”

There is also a chance of a FREE giveaway if you comment on the blog or our Facebook page. A paperback copy in the US and elsewhere an e-copy.


  1. An absolutely great review. I have this book and it's a real cornucopia of historical nuggets.

  2. Karen, thank you so much--and to all who keep this Review blog going so beautifully. Louise, thanks for your comment.

    We are really pleased with the success of this book. Fifty-five authors contributed posts, and they are so interesting! We are at work, now, on Volume II, and it promises to be just as good.

    Again, thank you.

  3. Sounds Fabulous this book is on my wish list
    Great review Paula


    1. Hi Libby, I'd love to take the credit but it was Karen Andreas' magical fingers that did the review.

    2. Opps Sorry Karen I must have had a very long senior moment. So a thousand apologies. would love to win this book too It was a fab review!


  4. I've heard a lot about this book - but this review has made me very eager indeed to get hold of a copy. An excellent summary of the treats on offer!

  5. This looks a excellent read!

  6. Fabulous review. Sounds like a great read. It has been on my wish list since its release.

  7. I know this was a very long review so thanks to you all for sticking with it to the end. This book was such a treat to read, from beginning to end and I cannot emphasize enough how enriching an experience it was.
    Karen Andreas

    1. Thank you so much for this fabulous post Karen

  8. Thank you for the great review..I have been looking at this book for quite some time now...

  9. This book sounds great - I'd love to read it sooner rather than later!