17 July 2018

The Blood and the Barley by Angela Macrae Shanks

The Blood and the Barley by Angela Macrae Shanks
Shortlisted for Book of the Month

AMAZON UK £3.99 £10.00
AMAZON US $5.31 $12.99 
AMAZON CA $5.12 $16.82

The Strathavon Saga #1

Fictional Saga

It is the late eighteenth century in the North-Eastern Highlands of Scotland. The Jacobite cause is lost, but local government officials still seek to crush the least hint of rebellion by local crofters, and in the process stamp out illicit whisky-making. In Strathavon, as in most glens of the region, crofters risk losing their homes and even their lives by converting barley into whisky and transporting it on ponies down to the Lowlands because it is their only means of finding the rent to remain on their native land. In the Highlands, land and kinship mean everything.

This is the background to the life of Morven MacRae, the feisty daughter of a notorious smuggler. Morven is an apprentice healer. Her teacher and friend is Rowena Forbes, who the local exciseman is convinced is a witch. The man, McBeath, known locally as the Black Gauger for his appalling ways, believes he is possessed by her, but he is also obsessed by her in other ways: he desperately wants her as a woman, and that means as his wife. This involves eliminating her husband and threatening to have her turned out of the glen if she refuses him. Which she does, for McBeath is corrupt in mind and body. Fortunately, Rowena has a young kinsman, Jamie Innes, who comes to her aid.

Jamie’s family were evicted from Strathavon when he was small boy by the Black Gauger. Jamie is tall and strong, and just about everything a young hero should be except for the fact that he is a little too na├»ve and credulous. But that can be attributed to his youth and lack of real-life experience, and we hope he will ‘grow’ during the course of the story. Naturally, when Jamie appears in the glen and immediately saves Morven’s life we can sense where the story will end. But it’s not that simple for either of them: their fate is tied to what is happening to Rowena Forbes. This in turn leads to numerous misunderstandings and unforeseen complications.

But this is far more than a boy meets girl story. It is also a portrayal of what kinship, loyalty and land means to Highlanders and the author’s description of the Highlands is so evocative one can almost feel the texture of the heather. Macrae conjures a mystical land of crags and burns, where belief in the old ways still hold and are made plausible by its isolation from what Wordsworth described as the ‘getting and spending’ of everyday life. Macrae also uses the local dialect in dialogue so well I didn’t bother to check the meaning of words in her glossary: it all made sense to me in context. What mars the story, however, is the persistent ‘head-hopping’. In trying to create the community of the area, from the humble crofters to the land-owning duke, the author gives us necessary backstory and explains kinship links but goes a little too far in providing the reader with every character’s mood and motivation. The crofters walk off the page as real people, but their jostling motivations cause unnecessary confusion and often slow the action, especially when we get multiple points of view on a single page.

In this respect, Macrae could trust her readers a little more. For example, the type of reader who enjoys this sort of novel will recognise and relate to Sarah, Rowena’s adolescent daughter, whose identity crisis brought on by jealousy of her mother’s young friend, Morven, is exacerbated by the loss of her father and the arrival of a very handsome cousin. Showing us what Sarah does would have been sufficient, thus avoiding confusion as to who says what and why in scenes where she is eavesdropping on her mother, and where we already have two points of view from the people conversing in secret. Similarly, Morven’s parents, who are beautifully portrayed with the tensions of their marital bond and struggle to provide for their family, also intervene with their private hopes, fears and anxieties in key scenes relating to Morven and Jamie. Constantly shifting point of view and giving us multiple inner-dialogues slows the action in crucial moments, and to my mind, hindered the exciting, and otherwise satisfying end. This is a first novel and this is definitely an author to watch – I suggest a stricter technical editor, however, for her future novels.

Nevertheless, this is a well-told tale, and I’d love it to become a saga along Poldark lines. Morven has the makings of an excellent Demelza. The community of the glen, their whisky stills and smuggling born out of necessity make for a convincing backdrop and I look forward to reading more about Strathavon. I recommend The Blood and the Barley to anyone who enjoys family sagas.

© J.G. Harlond

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16 July 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Tapestry of Death by Howard of Warwick


The Chronicles of Brother Hermitage Book 3

Humour / Mystery
1066 era

This is my first encounter with the work of Howard of Warwick. It won’t be my last. This book is outright humorous. I am reluctant to express an opinion on the humour, because I know from personal experience that nothing turns a reader off a humorous book faster than being told how funny it is. Humour is a strange, individual quality. We have to discover it ourselves. Let me just say that the humour is very British, and I felt compelled to read snippets to my wife as I read the book.

The book is set in 1067, just after the battle of Hastings, and concerns pornographic tapestries. The Normans have arrived and are routinely oppressing the local Saxons. The plot is interesting and well-constructed and contains several surprises. The two main characters are a monk, called Brother Hermitage, who is the king’s Investigator, and Wat the Weaver. I think the weaver is the sidekick, although he seems to play a much more active role than the monk in this book. The overall effect is like a cross between Ellis Peters and Tom Sharpe. This is the third in a series of eleven that feature this monk.

I would have been happier if the book had been better edited; punctuation is not Howard’s strong suit, so a re-edit would be advised as the lack of editing took the edge off it, somewhat.

The cover is splendid, and in keeping with the rest of the series and the tone of the work.

 Recommended, despite the editing errors.

© JJ Toner

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14 July 2018


From Helen: Usually, the Mid-Month Extra is posted on the 15th of each month, but as I am away at a conference this weekend I thought I would post it a day early as it is a very interesting article.

The Mid-Month Extra with Richard Tearle

On the 1st  January, 2017, Helen (Hollick) launched this site, Discovering Diamonds. The aim was to present reviews of books of historical fiction by, primarily, new and largely independent authors.  It was very much a case of a step in the dark, a leap of faith and holding your nose whilst jumping off the top diving board. In at the deep end definitely, for to engage upon such a journey, one must have the backing and interest of authors. Not to mention a pile of books, fresh and eager to be opened, read and appraised.

These months on and there can be little doubt that this venture has proved a resounding success with readers and authors alike. So: here are a few interesting little facts.

Statistic no 1: As of the 30th April 2018, 228 different authors have been featured.

Keep in mind a couple of things here: reviews aren't published at weekends, there have been variations on mid-week  'extras' (articles on some aspect of writing), tributes to renowned authors (including Helen herself, but she'll 'edit' this bit, I'm sure! [Helen: tempted to delete, but I’ll leave it in!] ), Book and Covers of the Month awards, the fact that she took a well deserved holiday during August, and no reviews were published during December, making way for the wonderful and exclusive short story feature Diamond Tales. Yet even that can be tempered with the fact that some authors have had more than one book reviewed, that projected reviews take us well into June and that there are still books awaiting allocation to reviewers. Not to mention that, inevitably, some books submitted have not satisfied the necessarily minimum standards to receive a review. Excluded has been the 1066 Turned Upside Down anthology (because Helen is one of the authors) , but included has been a book co-written by a husband and wife team.

That's pretty impressive.

Statistic No 2: of those 228 authors, 168 are women (73.6 %) and 60 are men (26.3%).

Once again, this doesn't take into account the actual number of books, but just a quick glance at the 'Books by Author' section would show that the statistics would favour the ladies even more.

I looked at the most popular eras covered, again using the number of different authors rather than the number of books and have ignored those written in black as these have yet to have their reviews published.

Statistic No 3: 1400s. 10 books – 8 by women, 2 by men.(80%/20% - even I can work that one out without a calculator).

Statistic No 4: 1500s: 16 books, 12 by women, 4 by men (75%/25%)
Statistic No 5: 1600s: 23 books, 18 by women, 5 by men (78.2%/21 .7%)
Statistic No 6: 1700s (including regency): 26 books, 21 by women, 5 by men (80.7%/19.2%)
Statistic no 7:1800s (including American Civil War):51books, 42 by women, 9 by men (82.3%/17.7%)
Statistic No 8:1900s (excluding WWI & WWII): 28 books, 20 by women, 8 by men (71.4%/28.5%)
Statistic No 9: World War I: 13 books, 8 by women, 5 by men (61.5%/38.4%)
Statistic No 10: World War II: 29 books, 21 by women, 8 by men (72.4%/27.5%)

And finally, to hammer home the point:

Statistic No 11: 1300s: 7 books, 7 by women, 0 by men (100%/0%)

There are a few other periods and the outcome would, by glancing at them only, be very similar to the overall picture. And if I have miscounted somewhere (and that is sure to have happened), then one or two errors either way will not have any significant impact on the findings. Clearly, then, Historical Fiction is most definitely a woman's domain. You, authors yourselves, may have opinions on why this should be – and we would love to hear them; I will make no comment here other than to stress that Historical Fiction is only one genre (and a blanket one at that) and wonder whether men 'dominate' in other genres – horror, crime, fantasy etc – as much as women do here.

What drew you to write Historical Novels as opposed to some other genre? Are you surprised by the findings? Do you think a sample of just under 300 books is sufficient enough to justify the claims? Oh, I know many of you have written books that can be also be classified in other categories, or embrace more than one (Timeslip, for example), but they must have contained a high degree of the past to have been reviewed here.

So: any thoughts or comments?

© Richard Tearle