My Commonplace Book: November 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary



“Barbarians,” she murmured in tones of disbelief. “Barbarians.” Perhaps if she said the word often enough she could defuse the threat. “But in that case…we’re finished. We’re all dead.” It was just as Lord Nariakira had warned. These were not gentle Hollanders. These were other beings, those nameless hordes who’d rampaged across China. Barbarians like those didn’t come in peace. They threatened their lives, their world, everything they knew.

Things were spinning around her. The world was turning upside down. But she couldn’t help feeling curious as well. She wished she could catch a glimpse of these exotic creatures with her own eyes.

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer (2016)


“And then do ye wait and see more; there’ll be plenty of opportunity. Time enough to cry when you know ’tis a crying matter; and ’tis bad to meet troubles half-way.”

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy (1887)


My family were not readers, but Xavier Mountstuart’s writings had inspired and transported me. I had devoured The Courage of the Bruce and The Black Prince, then graduated to the Indian writings: The Lion of the Punjab, of course, and the tales of bandits and rebels in the foothills of Nepal. I had read of white forts and marble palaces and maharajas’ emeralds; of zenanas and nautch girls in the Deccan; of the sieges and jangals. I had even read a short tract about Hindooism, vegetarianism and republicanism, which had left me a little confused. Mountstuart seemed to me the very acme of Byronic manhood. It was not simply that he was a poet and writer of genius, but that he had lived his writings.

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter (2014)



“Now, what mean you by that?”

“Just that I am a common highwayman, Miss Betty.”

She stared at him for a moment, and then resumed her work.

“You look it.”

John cast a startled glance down his slim person.

“Is that so, madam? And I rather flattered myself I did not!”

The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer (1921)


“No, I don’t care for novels,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve never really understood them, if I’m honest.”

“In what way?” I asked, confused by how the concept of the novel could be a difficult one to understand. There were some writers, of course, who told their stories in the most convoluted way possible — many of whom seemed to send their unsolicited manuscripts to the Whisby Press, for instance — but there were others, such as Jack London, who offered their readers such a respite from the miserable horror of existence that their books were like gifts from the gods.

The Absolutist by John Boyne (2011)



Frances struck an attitude, sitting upright with head poised high and left hand outstretched as though she grasped an invisible weapon. “Of course, when I am really posing for Roettier, the engraver, I shall wear a helmet and hold a trident and I shall have flowing, Grecian robes. It was altogether the King’s idea, but James of York thought it should be called Britannia. To represent the nation’s might.”

Lady on the Coin by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1963)


“My thoughts are my own,” I answered: “and though you keep my person prisoner, these are beyond your control.”

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott (1824)


“Not to my knowledge, sir,” said the Viscount.

“I’m glad to hear it! But if you had agreed to the marriage I planned for you a son of yours might have been sitting on my knee at this moment!”

“I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but I find myself quite unable to believe that any grandchild attempting — at this moment — to sit on your knee would have met with anything but a severe rebuff.”

Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer (1970)



She has a soft spot for little Peter; he had asked why he needed to learn to read when he first arrived.

“Because without reading you only have half a life,” she’d said, watching his puzzled face. “Reading will open doors for you to new worlds.” He had looked at her in wonder then.

“Like the men who sail to the Americas?”

“Yes, something like that.”

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle (2016)


Favourite books this month: The Woodlanders and The Strangler Vine

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer

the-shoguns-queen Japan, as I discussed in my recent Historical Musings post, is a country whose history I know very little about. Lesley Downer has written several books about Japan, including a quartet of novels set in the 19th century; I remember reading about one of the others on The Idle Woman’s blog a few months ago, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Downer’s latest book, The Shogun’s Queen. This is the final book in the quartet to be published, but it’s the first chronologically so even though I haven’t read the other three I didn’t expect to be at any disadvantage.

After a brief prologue, the novel opens in 1853 with Japan on the cusp of change. Until now, the country has been largely insulated from the outside world and apart from some limited contact with Dutch traders, Japanese ports have been closed to the west. The sight of barbarian ships approaching, then, causes panic, fear and confusion. What do the barbarians (westerners) want and what will they do if Japan refuses to agree to their demands?

It’s during this turbulent period that our heroine, Okatsu, is adopted by the ambitious Lord Nariakira of Satsuma and taken into his household, where she is renamed Atsu. Adoption, in Japan at this time, is a way of raising a woman’s rank and improving her marriage prospects, so a few years later Nariakira arranges for Atsu to be adopted again, this time by his brother-in-law Prince Konoe. His ultimate aim is to marry Atsu to Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa Shogun, and in 1856 this aim is achieved. Nariakira hopes Atsu can use her position as Iesada’s wife to influence the Shogun’s choice of a successor – but as Atsu gets to know her new husband she discovers how difficult that task will be.

The approach of western ships means Japan is facing a new set of threats, dangers and opportunities, so strong leadership is desperately needed. I’m not going to say too much about the character of Iesada, but as soon as he appears on the page it is obvious that he can’t possibly be that strong leader. Poor Atsu; although she does begin to feel affection and even love, of a sort, for the Shogun, it is not a normal or happy marriage and it would be difficult not to have sympathy for her. Iesada’s mother is a cruel, manipulative woman who resents having to relinquish any of her control over her son, and this makes it almost impossible for Atsu to carry out the instructions she has been given by Nariakira.

As if Atsu’s situation wasn’t already bad enough, she has been forced to separate from the man she truly loves, Kaneshige, and doesn’t expect to see him again, knowing that once she enters Edo Castle as the Shogun’s wife she will never be allowed to leave. As I’ve said, I knew nothing about this period of Japanese history before I started reading, and I was fascinated by the descriptions of Atsu’s life, both before her marriage, when she lived in the Satsuma domain, and later, in the confines of the Women’s Palace in Edo (the former name for Tokyo). It was also fascinating to read about the ‘barbarians’ – Americans and Europeans – and how they and their culture appeared when seen through Japanese eyes.

I would have no hesitation in recommending The Shogun’s Queen to readers who, like myself, are looking for an accessible introduction to the history of 19th century Japan. A lack of familiarity with the period is not a problem as Lesley Downer makes everything easy to follow and understand; the book also includes a map, a list of characters and a detailed afterword in which the author provides more information on the historical background and gives us an idea of which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are largely fictional (such as the relationship between Atsu and Kaneshige). First and foremost, though, this is a gripping and entertaining story with characters to love and characters to hate. I enjoyed it and will be exploring Lesley Downer’s other books, as well as continuing to look out for more novels set in Japan.

I received a copy of The Shogun’s Queen from the publisher for review.