Thursday, 23 September 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Under a Gravid Sky - Angela MacRae Shanks


"The north-eastern Highlands, 1747. In the weeks following Culloden, a victorious Hanoverian army rampages through the glens, committing atrocities, intent on crushing the rebellious Highland clans. In occupied Strathavon, persecuted families struggle under repressive new laws and rent rises. Five-year-old Rowena loses her mother, while Duncan witnesses the brutal events that make him an orphan.
A sensitive child told she must harden herself, Rowena turns to Morna, the green woman, who takes her on a journey of discovery into the magic of the natural world, passing on her healing skills. But as she blossoms into a woman, Rowena catches the eye of Hugh McBeath, a ruthless exciseman sent to extinguish the scourge of whisky smuggling from the Duke of Gordon’s lands. Beguiled, McBeath believes her a witch. Nevertheless, he must have her for his wife.
Smuggling illicit whisky has long been a tradition in Strathavon; the fiery spirit brings coin for paying rents. Now smuggling is deemed a traitorous act that helped fund the Jacobite Rising. Duncan is the best smuggler the glen has ever seen, but having hidden while his family burned, how can he ever be worthy of tender-hearted Rowena?"

It seems that the author is a native of the land she writes about, and it shows. The descriptions of this corner of Scotland are vividly portrayed, and she is adept at describing the working lives of the poorer folk who lived there in the 18th century and of the trials they faced just to stay alive. This is a beautifully produced book, with a gorgeous cover, and there is just enough dialect in the speech to give a real flavour of time and place, without it ever being confusing. And, on that note, the history and politics are dropped in very lightly - just enough so that we know what's going on, but never too much that we get an 'info dump'.

I'd have liked to see a slightly faster-paced narrative, particularly in the opening chapters which might have benefited from the children growing up by a few years, and I also wonder whether McBeath didn't need a little more back story, which could have developed his character and made us understand why he behaves so villainously. There were also a couple of plot points which didn't ring quite true for me. A good, experienced no-nonsense technical editor would bring out the talent that this author clearly possesses by helping to tighten the plot and resolve the pacing issues - to turn a good book into a brilliant one. Good editors cost money, but a really good editor is a worthwhile investment.

This is a prequel to The Blood and the Barley, and it's clear from the author's notes that more in the series are planned. Ms MacRae Shanks has created a world where she can explore the lives of her characters at length, and which she can return to time and again, and I'm sure her story-telling will grow stronger as the series expands.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Lucy Townshend
 e-version reviewed

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Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Some Rise by Sin by Siôn Scott-Wilson


"1829 is a tough year to be a body snatcher. Burke and Hare have just been convicted of killing people to sell their bodies, to widespread outrage—but despite the bad press, doctors still need fresh corpses for medical research.
Sammy and Facey are a couple of so-called ‘resurrection men’, making a living among society's fringe-dwellers by hoisting the newly departed from the churchyards of London whilst masquerading as late-night bakers. Operating on tip-offs and rumours in the capital’s drinking dens and fighting pits, the pair find themselves in receipt of some valuable intelligence: an unusual cadaver has popped up on the market, that of a hermaphrodite. For any medic worth his salt it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—a medical curiosity and rara avis—and famous anatomist Joshua Brookes commissions the two men to obtain the body, at any cost. But some corpses hold secrets, and before long the enterprise becomes a deadlier and more complex undertaking than either man could ever have imagined."

To pick up this book and start reading is, I think, as close as you'd ever come to knowing what it would be like to suddenly find yourself in early 19th-century London. Sammy is an eloquent narrator but he speaks the language of the streets, and since he is our guide, we quickly get used to the particular speech eccentricities that these characters have.

There is so much delicious detail, from scenes inside the drinking houses, to the greasy feel of trousers. The sights and sounds of a pulsing London are vividly captured and the city is a character in its own right, playing a huge part in the story.

Sammy and Facey walk many miles, and you get the sense that London pavements were just as hard then as they are today. There is poignancy, with the two little brothers, both called John, who rely on each other and the 'ne'er-do-wells' of their acquaintance, and Rosamund's habit of always smiling behind her hand, so conscious is she of her chipped teeth.

I applaud the author's logistical skills, in corralling so many major and minor characters, all of whom burst onto the pages and make themselves known in a few brief sentences, giving us their back story, their idiosyncrasies, and often providing light humour. I especially liked the minor character who'd had a full set of the finest ebony teeth made, but wondered plaintively whether ebony should in fact splinter so easily and taste of boot polish...

The plot is a lot more intricate than the blurb suggests, and the hermaphrodite's body is not the only one that gets Sammy and Facey into trouble. Again, I have nothing but admiration for the way the author keeps track of the plot. It's easy to read, but must have been one heck of a challenge to write!

Scott-Wilson cleverly avoids making overt statements about wealth / poverty / inequality, and there are no stereotypes here. There are good and bad people on both sides of the socio-economic divide, but one thing is made clear, though again, subtly done: literacy is empowering.

Sammy is an astute young man, able accurately to assess the people who come in and out of his life, but he's equally good at showing us his own character, with all its faults and strengths. Again, hats off to the author for this achievement, something which is quite difficult to pull off when writing in the first person.

My only negative criticism is for the cover: the image is good but the title font and placing could have been better, and what a shame that the author's name is not more prominent - it can barely been seen, especially at thumb-nail size.

I'm not sure I've read a book quite like this one. It's different, it's quirky, beautifully imagined and executed, and stylised without ever becoming pretentious. 

Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed

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Tuesday, 21 September 2021

The Steel Rose: By Nancy Northcott

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU

Fictional Drama/ historical fantasy
14oos / Richard III / Napoleonic / multi

The Boar King's Honor Trilogy Book 2

Very exciting and crafted with skill.

This is a fast-paced and exciting story that fits in a number of genres – historical fiction, historical fantasy, magical fantasy, Regency, time-travel and romance. Lovers of all those genres will enjoy it, for it’s much more than any single category. Even though it’s the middle book in a trilogy, it works very well as a standalone novel. I was unaware of its ‘middle child’ status until the very end and it didn't matter.

Widowed Amelia, with very advanced magical Gifts, is seeking to lift a curse set on her family in the time of Richard III. The stakes rise – Napoleon escapes from Elba, aided by French wizards. His grand plan is to conquer England. Amelia is in grave danger from a rogue English wizard who wants to either control or neutralise her powers. He’s also a traitor to his country – aiding the French for his own nefarious purposes. Enter Julian, close friend of her now-deceased brother Adam. Julian's help is needed (he's a powerful, influential and highly Gifted wizard.) The two form an alliance. They’re assisted by Amelia’s long-deceased grandparents who, very conveniently, pop in and out of current time, reporting what’s going on in other places and training the young couple with more advanced Gifts. 

The story has a tight and well-constructed plot. Within its fantasy boundaries, the many twists and turns are believable, the characters are well-developed, and the history is well researched.

On a personal note, I delighted in the ‘About the History’ end notes, when Northcott credited Josephine Tey’s book ‘Daughter of Time’ as the trigger for her interest in the controversy over Richard III. It had the same impact on me – to be aware that accounts of historical events are written by the victor and might not be true.

I thoroughly recommend this book and look forward to the third in the trilogy.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©  Robyn Pearce
 e-version reviewed

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