Mastodon The Writing Desk: January 2019

31 January 2019

Book Review: The Tudor Cookbook: From Gilded Peacock to Calves' Feet Pie Paperback, by Terry Breverton

Available for pre-order from Amazon US 

Terry Breverton has clearly enjoyed bringing together over two hundred and fifty recipes from surviving records of the Tudor period. 

He suggests this is a splendid starting point for the adventurous cook - although some are a little alarming by modern standards, such as the secret of how to make a pie from which live birds emerge to delight the diners. (The origin of the nursery rhyme, four and twenty blackbirds.)

This little book is packed with fascinating details of authentic Tudor food. I was intrigued to learn how wide-ranging and exotic many of the ingredients were, showing the extent of medieval global trade. 

There is a useful list of references at the end, although I would have also liked to see an index. I will keep this on my bookshelf as a useful reference book, rather than as a source of recipes.

Tony Riches
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About the Author

Terry Breverton was born in Birmingham in 1946 to Welsh parents, and brought up in Wales before attending universities in England. He worked in over twenty countries before moving to acadaemia, lecturing in Milan, Bologna and Wales before escaping into full-time writing. A Fellow of the Institutes of Consulting and of Marketing, he has given the prestigious Bemis Lecture in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and has spoken twice at the National Festival of Wales in America and Canada. He has been awarded the Welsh Books Council's 'Book of the Month' five times. You can find Terry on Facebook

(A review copy of this book was kindly provided by Amberley Publishing)

29 January 2019

Book Launch Guest Post: Inspiration For Writing We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, by Susana Aikin

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Set in London and Russia at the turn of the century, Susana Aikin’s debut introduces a vibrant young woman determined to defy convention and shape an extraordinary future.

Like other well-bred young women in Edwardian England, Lily Throop is expected to think of little beyond marriage and motherhood. Passionate about the stage, Lily has very different ambitions. To her father’s dismay, she secures an apprenticeship at London’s famous Imperial Theatre. Soon, her talent and beauty bring coveted roles and devoted admirers. Yet to most of society, the line between actress and harlot is whisper-thin. With her reputation threatened by her mentor’s vicious betrayal, Lily flees to St. Petersburg with an acting troupe
—leaving her first love behind.

If there was one mysterious, spellbinding female member in our family tree to look up to when I was growing up, it was our great grand aunt, Gertrude Throop Cable. The mention of her name in family gatherings always created tension. But whenever my four sisters and I, who lived in Madrid, Spain, got together with our four paternal cousins, who lived in Manchester, it was only a matter of time before speculation about Lily’s adventurous life would begin to bubble up. 

Gertrude in theatrical dancing costume
The men in the family were not thrilled with Gertrude’s story. My father and his brothers shifted uncomfortably in their chairs when the topic was brought up. ‘She was no lady’, was their unwavering verdict. They were conservative, and having a ‘bad girl’ in the family disquieted them. Although, it had originally been one of my uncles, a passionate genealogist, who had spent years collecting photographs, letters, official certificates and older family members’ testimonies, trying to assemble the puzzle of Gertrude’s story.

Gertrude Throop Cable

And the legend that emerged from his research went something like this: in 1898, Gertrude, then only seventeen, one of the beautiful and talented daughters of our strict Mancunian family, left the house against her father’s will to become an actress. She worked at the Imperial Theatre in London for a year or two before she joined a traveling theatre company that ended up in St. Petersburg, Russia. There she met a handsome Russian aristocrat, Sergei Nikolayevich Latvin, fell in love with him and followed him all the way east to Vladivostok, where they settled and had a baby daughter out of wedlock, Olga.
Olga, 1 year old
The story got blurry at this point. For some reason, she and Sergei were separated, and Gertrude was forced to return to St. Petersburg with baby Olga. She arrived in a very bad state of health, and was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis, after which the Russian sanitary authorities demanded she leave the country immediately. Gertrude then left her child Olga behind with Sergei’s mother, and traveled all the way back to England where she died very soon after her arrival. Her sisters kept her letters, her jewels, and the amazing fur coat she brought with her which had been a gift from her beloved. She died in 1906 at the age of 24, and the death certificate declared her to be spinster and theatrical dancer, and to die of pulmonary phthisis. 

After that, all trace of baby Olga was lost to our family.
Back of picture sent from St. Petersburg, Russia, 1904.

Gertrude’s tragic death and her disappeared child were sources of a lot of speculation in our family conversations, especially the fate of baby Olga. What had happened to the little girl? Did she perish afterwards in the Russian Revolution? But Gertrude’s charisma outshone all else—to have an ancestress who had defied all conventions to pursue an artistic career bestowed a very particular badge on the women of the clan.

Years later, after I left my family and my homeland and moved to New York to become a filmmaker and a writer, I thought many times about Gertrude and her solo flight across Russia at the end of the 19th century. Plowing through the hardship of growing into an artist in a difficult, competitive world dominated –still today- by men, is a hard predicament for any woman at any time and place in history.

Only recently did it occur to me, one idle Sunday evening, to google Gertrude’s name, and when she popped up immediately under’s website, I knew I was in for a trip down the rabbit hole. The first surprise was to find her photograph uploaded onto another family tree: the descendants of her daughter Olga listed her as their grandmother. I learned instantly that Olga had survived and lived an interesting, rich life, had married into a wealthy Ukrainian family and migrated eventually to the US in the 1950s.

The picture her family had uploaded onto the site was very similar to the photo my mother kept on top of her writing desk in the living room. In both images, Gertrude is richly dressed in a long elegant coat with a fur stole that reaches below her knees, and a large, elaborate hat dressed with something resembling ostrich plumes, or some other exotic bird’s feather. Both photographs were taken in Saint Petersburg in 1900.

I immediately got in touch with her grandchildren, who were very generous in providing information to fill in the gaps of her story. The most important piece I obtained was the copy of a short life memoir written by Olga herself, in which besides narrating her own life, she recounts everything she knew about her mother. This is how it starts:

I was born in Vladivostok, Maritime Province of the Russian Far East, on January 6, 1903. My father was Sergei Nikolayevich Latkin, Commissioner of the Customs for the Far East. My mother was Gertrude Throop-Cable.

During the Russo-Japanese war in 1904 my mother took me to St. Petersburg, while my father remained as a war correspondent there. The Trans-Siberian railroad had not been built, or completed at that time. We had to cross the Lake Baikal on sleighs, it was winter and my mother contracted a cold, which due to her weak lungs developed into tuberculosis... I do not remember her, since I was only 1 1/2 years old… From what I was told and the photography I have, she was a beautiful woman. Artists always asked my father to have her sit for a painting.

The moment I started reading this document, I thought about writing a novel.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Susana Aikin

"Aikin's novel is expertly plotted and rife with historical details in both its English and Russian settings, making for a rich story of the prejudices women faced at the turn of the 20th century and how the class disparity in Russia ignited the flame of revolution."~ PUBLISHERS WEEKLY 
"Beginning and ending with letters written to her family, this novel has the feel of a serial drama. Readers of Pam Jenoff and Eva Stachniak will appreciate the strong-willed and artistically driven female character who finds her own way through difficult times."~ LIBRARY JOURNAL
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About the Author

Born in Spain of an English father and a Spanish mother, Susana Aikin is a writer and a filmmaker who has lived in New York City since 1982. She was educated in England and Spain; studied law at the University of Madrid, and later Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. In 1986 she started her own independent film production company, Starfish Productions, producing and directing documentary films that won her multiple awards, including an American Film Institute grant, a Rockefeller Fellowship and an Emmy Award in 1997. She started writing fiction full time in 2010. She has two sons, and now lives between Brooklyn and the mountains north of Madrid. Find out more at Susana's website and find her on Twitter @Susana_Aikin 

26 January 2019

Stories of the Tudors Podcast: Catherine of Aragon

When Henry VIII married Catherine, she was an auburn-haired beauty in her twenties with a passion she had inherited from her parents, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the joint-rulers of Spain.

This daughter of conquistadors showed the same steel and King Henry was to learn, to his cost, that he had not met a tougher opponent on or off the battlefield when he tried to divorce her.

You can listen to all the stories of the Tudors podcasts here:

25 January 2019

Anne of Brittany? Raised to rule, she knew how to lead: Guest Post by Rozsa Gaston, Author of Sense of Touch

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

“A romance and an interesting novel about a little-known French queen. It is a story with a strong sense of place and well-drawn characters, a story of heartache and forbidden love, of women in the 15th century French court, who fought with passion and determination for what they wanted. A striking story.” —Historical Novel Society

A 2017 RONE Book Award finalist for medieval historical romance

A 2018 TopShelf Indie Book Awards finalist for women's issues

About six years ago I picked up Mildred Allen Butler’s 1967 book on Anne of Brittany, mainly because I was struck by the image of Anne as a young girl on the cover. I liked how sure of herself she looked.

Her story was beyond belief. She came to power in 1488 at age eleven as ruler of Brittany then became queen of France at age fourteen. This, despite losing every one of her immediate family members by age twelve.

Where did this young woman, barely past childhood, get the strength to go on? How did she get all those older male advisors to back off so she could rule? I had to learn more. When I discovered there is almost nothing out there written about her, I knew I had to write Anne of Brittany’s story myself.

Anne of Brittany by French author Anca Visdei, 2013
The young duchess of Brittany holds an ermine, symbol of the dukes of Brittany. Small and fierce, the ermine stands up to much larger predators, much as Anne stood up to France’s 
encroachment upon Brittany.

The French distrusted Anne of Brittany because she was a foreign queen. As a result, they left her largely out of their history books and what they put in was mostly negative; they found her indomitable, intransigent and rigid. My own reading of her character traits are that she was not to be crossed, determined, and devout—qualities which made her a strong ruler and a trusted companion to both her husbands.

In a time of great cultural and social turmoil, as the feudal age receded and Italy’s Renaissance drifted across the Alps to France, Anne provided an anchor of stability to both her husbands and subjects, at the same time offering generous patronage to new Renaissance artists and artisans.

Ultimately the French felt she prioritized Breton interests over French ones. Indeed, she did. As successor to Brittany’s ducal throne, it was Anne’s ancestral mandate to maintain Brittany’s independence from France. She was true to this mandate until the day she died. Her motto? “Non mudera—I will not change.” 

Brittany did not become part of France until eighteen years after her death in 1514. I’m sure Anne of Brittany rolled over in her grave on Aug. 13, 1532, the day Brittany was absorbed into the kingdom of France. 

Statue of Anne of  Brittany at entrance to the 

Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany
Nantes, France, courtesy of Nantes Art Blog, Wikimedia Commons

The people of Brittany revere the memory of Anne of Brittany to this day, especially in the more traditional areas known as Lower Brittany or Basse-Bretagne (Brittany’s western regions).

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Colored areas are where the Breton dialect was mostly used before 1914. Grey area is where French was largely spoken before 1914. 
Courtesy of Wikipedia

I wish to bring Anne of Brittany’s story to readers of today because she makes a tremendous role model for women. She was crippled. One hipbone was placed higher than the other, causing her to tiptoe on one foot. She had specially-made shoes built for her with a platform heel on one to help her walk without a limp. From the age of four she was trained to conceal her limp, which she did magnificently, perfecting a glide that noblewomen of her court emulated.

She lost 14 out of 16 of her children. The only woman in history to be twice crowned queen of France, she was beloved by both of her husbands: Charles VIII, King of France, and Louis XII, King of France. This, despite the fact that she never produced a male heir and she insisted on having her own way most of the time.

Anne of Brittany overcame huge, almost non-stop disappointments and heartache throughout her life to become the head of one of Europe’s most powerful royal courts. She was an able administrator of her duchy and a fierce proponent of educating young noblewomen she invited to her court. Despite being distrusted by the French, they highly admired her. The more I discover about her the more I admire her too.

Close up of Anne of Brittany as Prudence at her parents’ tomb
By Michel Colomb, Cathedral of Peter and Paul, Nantes
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


As Anne of Brittany passed, Nicole craned her neck to see her grieving sovereign. She had barely seen her since the day of the king's accident. Petite and erect, Anne slowly walked the length of the courtyard from her chambers to the chapel, where the memorial service would be held. Behind her, the tall form of Louis d'Orléans matched her pace, his eyes riveted on Anne ahead. From what she could see, the future king of France, with his longish aristocratic nose and soulful blue-gray eyes, wasn't bad-looking.
    “Where is the wife of the duke of Orléans?” Nicole asked her father beside her.
    “That hunchback? They live apart. I'm sure Louis wants her out of the way,” Michel St. Sylvain said, looking over Nicole's head at his brother on her other side.
     “Especially now,” her uncle agreed.
     “Why especially now?” Nicole asked, curious.
     “Worry about your own future, not the queen's, ma petite,” her uncle dismissed her.
     “Not the queen anymore, is right. But not for long, if she plays her cards right,” Michel St. Sylvain joked.
      “Papa, she is mourning, not thinking of playing cards! How can you say that?” Nicole cried, indignant. 
      “Daughter, do you think Anne of Brittany is so beside herself that she hasn't considered her own future?” He shook his head, looking at her affectionately. “Think again, dear one. The woman who brought you to court is no ninny. She will not relinquish the crown of France easily.”
      “Not if there is a way to keep it on her head," Benoit St. Sylvain commented, eyeing Louis XII behind Anne, his eyes glued to the tiny female figure he followed. “Who is that man behind Louis?” He pointed toward the procession.
      Michel St. Sylvain strained his neck to see who his brother spoke of. “You mean behind the new king,” he corrected him.
      “Yes, the one wearing the crest of Orléans.”
      “That's Gerard d' Orléans,” Nicole's father replied. “Louis's cousin, I believe.”
      “You mean the cousin of the new king, as you pointed out.” Benoit St. Sylvain specified, looking meaningfully at his brother.
      “Yes. That would be him.” Michel St. Sylvain returned his brother's look with one of his own.
      “Is he not the one whose wife died in childbirth last year?” Benoit continued.
      Nicole's father shrugged. “He may be. I heard talk of it. Why?”
      Benoit's voice became lower, “He has not yet remarried, I believe.”
       “No?” Nicole's father lowered his voice to match his brother's. “Is he betrothed then?”
       “Let's find out,” Benoit breathed back. Both men glanced down at Nicole at the same instant.
       “What are you thinking, Uncle Benoit?” Nicole asked, alarmed.
       “Shhh, ma chère. We think of your future, of what is best for you.”
       “You think of what is best for our family, not what is best for me,” Nicole railed.
       Her father's eyes sparked with anger then became icy. “My daughter, what argument do you make? What is best for your family is what is best for you.”
       “Papa, I am not a horse to be paired off with the most highly-bred stallion,” she objected.
       “No. You are my daughter, to be paired off with a husband who is most closely allied with your sovereign.” Michel St. Sylvain's tone was clipped, as if laying down the law.
        But which law was itthe one of the old regime or the one of the new? Nicole wondered. Everything seemed to be changing around her. The only thing that didn't change was that Michel St. Sylvain would always be her father, and her duty would always be to obey him. 
        “But the man you chose for me is closely allied to the king,” Nicole began then paused. "I mean the dead king.”
       “Precisely,” her father agreed.
       “Precisely,” her uncle echoed. He shot his brother another significant glance and as Nicole took it in, a sudden breeze gusted past, lifting the black silk cape she wore over her shoulders. Change was in the air.

For further reading, discover Anne of Brittany in the Anne of Brittany Series.
The gripping tale of a larger than life queen

“Comparable to Philippa Gregory’s Plantagenet and Tudor Novels.”
Publishers Weekly on Anne and Charles

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About the Author

Rozsa Gaston writes playful books on serious matters, including the struggles women face to get what they want out of life. She studied European history at Yale, and received her Master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. She worked at Institutional Investor, then as a hedge funds marketer. Entirely unsuited to the world of finance, she was happy to give it up to become a full-time novelist. Gaston lives in Bronxville, New York with her family and is currently working on Anne and Louis: Middle Years, Book Three of the Anne of Brittany Series. If you read and enjoy Sense of Touch, please post a review at to help others find this book. One sentence is enough to let readers know what you thought. Drop Rozsa Gaston a line on Facebook to let her know you posted a review and receive as thanks an eBook edition of any other of Gaston’s books: Anne and Charles, Anne and Louis, The Least Foolish Woman in France, Paris Adieu, or Black is Not a Color. Visit her at or at
Facebook:  Instagram: rozsagastonauthor  and on Twitter: @RozsaGaston

Next month’s guest post on Anne and Charles, Book One of the Anne of Brittany Series.