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

1700s
Fictional Saga
Scotland

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


AMAZON UK £2.99
AMAZON US $4.05
AMAZON CA $3.16

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

LIES, DAMN LIES AND … HELLO! THAT LOOKS INTERESTING...

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

13 July 2018

A Discovering Diamonds Review of That Deplorable Boy by Jasper Barry



AMAZON UK £3.99
AMAZON US $5.58  
AMAZON CA $7.30

Romance - LGBT / Fictional saga
late 19th Century
Paris

Following on from the first volume, The Second Footman, of this trilogy Max Fabien has now been secretary and lover of his master, Armand, marquis de Miremont, for a year. Their affair, discreet, yet intense is nevertheless stretched at times: Armand, the much older man, is overcome with jealousies swiftly followed by regrets and apologies; Max is young, astonishingly handsome and prone to attract the attentions of  people his own age of either sex.

When Armand's estranged wife, Aline and their younger daughter, Juliette, descend upon Armand's chateau, the place becomes chaotic as Aline insists on taking over: their daughter is about to come of age and only the best will do for her. This is where we really find out just how weak a man Armand is as Aline walks all over him and Juliette twirls him around her little finger. Max looks on stoically, but his downfall looks imminent when he spurns Juliette's unwanted advances – despite her recent engagement.

There is a lot to be commended in this book: the narrative is impeccable and always in keeping with the era; the characters are so well written that you want to strangle Aline almost from her initial entrance, Juliette is little better and you switch your feelings towards Armand from sympathy to disdain and back again. Throughout all this, Max remains the perfect gentleman, yet he has his own demons to deal with. You also tend to feel sorry for him as events conspire against him; yet, at the same time, you question his motives, his ambitions and his love for Armand.

It is a story of the trials of love, suspicions and jealousies, breaking up and making up, liars and thieves, charlatans and wastrels.

The pace picks up a lot at about the halfway stage, though in my view it was somewhat pedestrian prior to that, over filled with Armand's doubts, jealousies and accusations and Max's repudiations and reassurances. There are a few references to the back story until quite close to the end when Max makes a discovery and this rather leads the reader away from the main story. As with any series, I think it would be beneficial to read the books in order. At over 400 pages, I found it a little long and that may put potential readers off as the 'entertainment' and the action doesn't really start until Aline and Juliette arrive on the scene.

The cover well depicts the enigmatic Max, although the yellow font is a little hard to read, especially at thumbnail size.

© Richard Tearle


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12 July 2018

The Prussian Dispatch by David Neilson



AMAZON UK £0.99
AMAZON US $1.34  
AMAZON CA $1.29

Sophie Rathenau’s Vienna Mysteries Volume 1 

Mystery
1800s
Vienna

A very enjoyable mystery story in the historically fascinating setting of Vienna in 1772. Dealing with a client who will only reveal a minimum of information, Sophie Graephin von Rathenau, private investigator, has her hands full finding a missing, secret document. The content of said document and its historical consequences becomes gradually clearer as her quest takes her through brothels and International diplomatic circles.

Sophie is a feisty and resourceful investigator whose dire personal circumstances are only one part of her drive to find the truth. Tension is built up nicely, the characters and the story are very engaging. Historical facts and details are not overdone but add nicely to the flair and intensity of the novel. A protagonist I look forward to reading more of, which, given the open nature of the ending, we surely will do.

Definitely recommended.

© Christoph Fischer


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11 July 2018

A Turning Wind by J G Harlond

Shortlisted for Book of the Month


AMAZON UK £3.93
AMAZON US$5.32  
AMAZON CA $7.02

Fictional Saga / Nautical
1600s
Various 

I had met Ludovico de Portovenere (Ludo from now on) before in the first volume The Chosen Man of Ms Harlond's trilogy.  This sequel follows on a little while after Ludo's mission to destroy the Dutch economy with tulips. For various reasons (recapped in this latest story), a lot of people want Ludo out of the way, and others want him to carry out their dirty work for them. Thus Ludo is running messages between royalty in England and Spain, whilst evading and colluding with his enemies and still inventing new trade schemes to make himself rich. For Ludo, amongst other things, is 'an honest trader'; a merchant.

A case of mistaken identity leads Ludo into this adventure full of dangers and political intrigue taking him from Goa, to Spain, to England and many other places. And with him most of the time is his friend Marcus, the aspiring merchant, and Alina, the beautiful if self-promoting Spanish noble-born woman who is now a trusted lady’s maid to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England.

I like Ludo very much. No: I love him. As a fictional character he is vibrant and full of life throughout. For me, he appears to have walked straight out of a Franz Hals painting. Yes, he is an honest trader with an eye for the main chance, but there is more than a touch of the pirate about him. He has a wife now, yet he yearns for Alina – herself a wife and mother. But his one true love is the sea and his ship the Tulip – a positive result of his previous adventure and also a bone of contention between him and his enemies. In this volume we learn a lot more about the man – his past, his hopes and his dreams.

As with all series, it is always advantageous to start at the beginning to receive the best experience, though this episode is none-the-less a thoroughly good read as a stand alone book. The author has an impressive knowledge of not only the politics of the time but also of trade and trade goods.

As before, some interesting little cameos: I loved that Diego Valezquez is cited as brilliant with faces but not so good with horses!

The conclusion leaves some loose ends, but the author assures us that these will be tied-up in the final book of the series. I just hope that we do not have to wait too long for it!

A propos of nothing, two sentences in particular left me wondering whether the author has a wicked and subtle sense of humour or whether I have an irreverent one… Marcus adopting an assumed name had me singing Tainted Love and she managed to work Snakes and Ladders and Ludo into the same sentence. Clever.

An excellent book and very highly recommended

© Richard Tearle



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10 July 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of On Common Ground by Rebecca Bryn



AMAZON UK £1.99
AMAZON US $2.68
AMAZON CA $3.49

Fictional Drama
1800s
Australia

Given the novel’s exotic locales, the squalor of English convicts sent to the Australian Colonies is even more poignant. In the eyes of her straight-laced antagonists, Ella, the main protagonist, commits even worse crimes than her original accusation of a small theft. To the empathetic reader, her drastic and seemingly misguided actions were simply to ensure the survival – no matter how dire – of herself and her small children.

Her one unrelenting drive, however, is her burning unfulfilled love for Jem. He, too, was sent to an Australian labor camp. Despite their desperate search for each other the vast continent seems to keep them apart forever. When Ella marries another convict freeing them both from the camps, her new husband leads her and the children into the wilderness of the Blue Mountains. Following his dream of gold and riches, they must endure untold hardships. Interspersed throughout the novel are lyrical descriptions of the grandeur this untamed wilderness offers. They stand in heartbreaking contrast to the squalor of the family’s subsistence. However, in my opinion, the three main parallel fates could have been given their own chapters, as their past and future actions would then become more relevant to the reader.

On Common Ground, the third in a series, has excellent research about that sorry era of Colonialism (a map would have made those torturous travels even more real). The mention of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian wolf-tiger, the Thylacine, sent me to look it up. I had no idea such a ferocious beast had existed on that forlorn island. Learned something new. I liked that.

In conclusion, I personally found it difficult to become as immersed as I should have done in the lives of the protagonists, and their ongoing determination to escape their sorry fates, but for readers who are interested in this period of colonization of Australia this could be an interesting read.

© Inge H. Borg


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9 July 2018

Odin's Child by Bruce MacBain



AMAZON UK £11.47
AMAZON US $15.55  
AMAZON CA $9.99

Fictional Saga
11th Century
Iceland and Scandinavia

Book One in Odd Tangle-hair's Saga begins in Iceland in the year 1029. Odd Thorvaldson  – affectionately known as Tangle-Hair - and his family are shunned by the other Icelandic families because Odd's father refuses to embrace the new Christian faith. A feud breaks out with Hrut  Ivarsson, one of the most powerful men on the island and, following a death, Odd and his brother Gunnar are outlawed and given two weeks to leave, never to return. In the meantime, their enemy organises a raid on the family and all but Odd are killed. He escapes to his uncle's home where he meets an old seaman, Stig, and, together with a small crew and Odd's cousin Kalf, steals Hrut's ship laden with goods for selling

Their voyage takes them to Lapland, Norway and the Varangian Sea, encountering dangers, war and capture by a particularly North European tribe. Not to mention a king or two.

Odd, as a character, is quite complex; he comes over as a boastful youth, a competent fighter and yet an accomplished skald. He makes many mistakes, suffers from a temporary madness and has a habit of alienating those who mean the most to him.

From the start, the action is relentless, sometimes brutal, but this is tempered by the sheer atmosphere of the settings which the author captures magnificently whether on land or at sea.

There were a very few minor typographical errors, but not enough to be distracting. The author has also included a few of his own illustrations.

Highly Recommended. Mr MacBain is a talented writer and I very much look forward to reading more of Odd Tangle-Hair.

© Richard Tearle



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7 July 2018

It is the Weekend...

No reviews over the weekend 
but .....


Discovering reader preferences, habits and attitudes
  Have you taken part in
the 2018 Reader Survey

Readers and writers – a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought to interpret those stories, deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. 


A story is incomplete without both reader and writer.

What then do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? How do readers share their book experiences?

The 2018 READER SURVEY 
is designed to solicit input on these topics and others. 

Please take the survey and share this link 

Robust participation across age groups, genders, and countries will make this year’s survey – the 4th – even more significant. Those who take the survey will be able to sign up to receive a summary report.

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6 July 2018

The Distant Hills by Judith Thomson


AMAZON UK £3.99
AMAZON US $14.18
AMAZON CA $7.00

Fictional Saga
1689
France and England

In this, the fourth in the series of the adventures of Philip Devall and his brother-in-law Giles Fairfax, Philip is the centre of attention – something that he likes very much. Trusted servant of King William III, he is also a personal friend of wily old Louis XIV – the Sun King. But someone wants Philip dead and a man in such an invidious and dangerous position has many enemies – perhaps within one of the two royal houses …

Philip is a bit of a cavalier, in more than one sense of the word; he is a dandy, dashing and handsome with more than an eye for the ladies in his chequered past, though he is now devoted to his wife Theresa and their daughter, Maudie. Brave and strong, quick thinking and possessed of a ready wit, he is more than aware of his assets and you cannot help but like him. Indeed, his wife and servants are devoted to him.

Giles, on the other hand, is far more complex. Once he had been a slave trader; following a disastrous defeat during Monmouth's rebellion, he bears an ugly scar of which he is more than self-conscious. Yet his cynicism and reluctance to become involved in Philip's schemes is the perfect foil devil-may-care attitude to life.

I very much enjoyed this story; the action is non-stop, some notable cameos (as there were in the previous book in the series), magnificent descriptions of  Louis' fabulous Palace of Versaille and some new secrets about Philip are revealed together with an ending that promises further volumes in the series. Nice cover, too.

As with all such series, this can be read as a stand-alone although it is always best to read the other volumes to understand the back-story.

Well recommended!

© Richard Tearle

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5 July 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Blood of Princes by Derek Birks

AMAZON UK £3.99 £11.99
AMAZON US $5.68 
AMAZON CA $6.84

Fictional Saga / Military 
1400s / Richard III 

This is a book for those who love epic rambles through a well-known historical epoch—in this case, the sketchy ascent to the throne of Richard III over the (presumed) murdered bodies of his two young nephews. This being a classic example of the reader knowing more than the characters, Derek Birks’ challenge is to fill the gaps — and there are plenty in the sad history of the Plantagenets - with a compelling fictional narrative.

Spanning a 10-week period from shortly after the untimely death of Edward IV to just after the contrived coronation of the dead king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Birks tells his story through the adventures of his fictional protagonist, Sir John Elder, and his intrepid family and personal retinue. Loyal to the as-yet uncrowned young king, Edward V, and outlawed for his allegiance, Elder romps across the English countryside and through the squalid streets of London with his band of men-at-arms, intensely loyal to him from their days campaigning as mercenaries on the Continent. Although the ending is well known to us from Shakespeare—the young king and his brother murdered in the Tower—we also know that Henry Tudor waits in the wings. We haven’t heard the last of the Elder clan.

This volume will appeal to those readers who enjoy a big read within one of their favorite historical periods; I found the 526 pages a very big lift for a less Plantagenet-infatuated reader like myself. Cutting a hundred pages would have improved the pace as it is a little slow going in places, not always helped by the enormous number of characters, which make events hard to follow at times - some of these characters could have been cut without impact on the story. The in-the-nick-of-time escapes from all manner of danger was slightly contrived, but this would hardly be the first work of  fiction to over-utilize that particular plot device. And I appreciated that the author exacted at least an ounce or two of flesh from his important characters as the toll for each such escape.

There’s a grand book lurking inside The Blood of Princes, which would have come to the fore  with a more ruthless developmental edit, a detailed line edit and another proofread, as  I spotted several missed errors.  (Note to authors: putting a list of characters upfront isn’t much help in e-book format. It’s too clunky to flip back and forth on a Kindle.)

Nevertheless, the book showed a lot of historical story craft which will please readers who enjoy this period, and some of the characters - particularly the Elder women - were downright delightful.

© Jeffrey K. Walker
 

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