30 September 2018

Cover and Book of the Month - September


designer Cathy Helms of www.avalongraphics.org
with fellow designer Tamian Wood of www.beyonddesigninternational.com
will select the Cover of the Month
with all winners going forward for Cover of the Year in December 2018
(and honourable mentions going forward for Honourable Mention Runner-up)
Note: where UK and US covers differ only one version will be selected

* * *
Novels Reviewed During SEPTEMBER
(selected at the end of the month)
WINNER

Read our review HERE 
Publisher: Quercus (designer unknown)
HONOURABLE MENTION RUNNERS UP

Read our review HERE
read our review HERE
Read our review HERE
Read our review HERE
The Pawns of Sion cover design had to be disqualified from the award due to it being designed by Tamian Wood of Beyond Design International (one of our cover design of the month judges)


                 From our SEPTEMBER  REVIEWS


Two runners-up because I couldn't decide which one to choose: who could not like an Elizabeth Chadwick, especially when the narrative is about one of the heroes of the past - William Marshal? 

Runner up: Read our review HERE
And despite it being a well-known fact among my readers and friends that I loathe Duke William of Normandy (I refuse to give him his other well-known title) and have reservations about reading novels about him The Harrowing was an engrossing read. I cried through several scenes, probably because this particular period of history really hits home to me, and James Aitcheson has a very skilful talent for turning fiction into vivid reality.

Runner Up:  Read our review HERE 
but my selected Book of the Month is...
Winner: read our review HERE
I wouldn't advise reading this one if you are planning to attend any social dinner parties - and you'll be taking extra care with what you eat and drink (especially mushrooms!) after reading this novel, for it is about a professional poisoner. It is one of those novels where you know you should utterly despise the lead character - but you find yourself rooting for her, even applauding her (deadly) skill!  The novel is about ghastly methods of murder - but it is delicious fun!

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For last month's selections see main menu bar

29 September 2018

The weekend 29th September

No reviews over the weekend but...




... did you miss



where you will find all sorts of interesting things
 to amuse, entertain and inform!


28 September 2018

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

A #DDRevs Diamond Read
Cover US and Canada
Cover UK
AMAZON UK

Historical fiction
1st Century
Rome

Margaret George has done it again - she’s delivered another vivid, dramatic historical novel that sweeps readers along on a journey of exhilaration and betrayal. This time, her focus is on ancient Rome, beginning around the year 40 AD, and the early life of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, later called Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. The novel opens with an early memory of Lucius, when his uncle, the infamous Emperor Caligula, tries to drown him in the sea and allows a sympathetic sailor to rescue him. From then on, Lucius’s life is one set of traumas, upheavals, and betrayals to the next as he struggles to find his place in a dangerous political world he doesn’t yet understand. When he does eventually and unexpectedly rise to power as the youngest man ever to become the Emperor of Rome, he must learn to trust himself and figure out the intricacies of Roman politics while still coming into his own as a man.

As usual, George has done impeccable research in this novel. Every detail, every event, is minutely depicted. I felt as though I could close my eyes and then open them again upon ancient Rome. Nero himself is a sympathetic figure, sensitive, well rounded, thoughtful, peaceful, not at all the man driven by the madness that most of us are familiar with from the works of Tacitus. George is a (possibly diabolical) genius at crafting Nero. Throughout the book, especially as he got older, I found myself wondering if this was the real man, or if this was how he saw himself and he was so out of touch that he didn’t notice everyone else just placating him. It was absolutely brilliant writing. It took me a minute to make up my mind that no, he wasn’t actually unhinged as history would have us believe. As the Author’s Note very logically explains, unpopular leaders do not get memorials made for them, are not beloved by the commoners during their lifetimes, are not honored and missed by those common people after their deaths. His real error was not seeing how his actions were rubbing the nobles the wrong way. He wasn’t playing by the rules they were used to or approved of. He wanted to do things in a new way. 

I think honestly that a lot of his behavior could have been explained by his youth. Nero was at the time the youngest person to become Emperor, and what teen doesn’t want to set the world on fire in some way? Add power and prestige to that and I can easily see how he could ruffle feathers and not see the danger until too late. But mad? No. Nero was vilified, a victim of history like Richard III was.

Some of my favorite scenes or people in the book:

       Locusta. I have always been interested in herbal medicines and poisons (yeah, I know, morbid). Seeing a strong woman use them and never get caught is terrific.
   Acte. A freed slave who Nero wants to marry but she isn’t about to fall for that nonsense. She loves him as best she can and they both have to deal with the repercussions of that.
       Boudicca. I’ve always been fascinated by her and thought it was really interesting to see her from the perspective of her male enemies. I’ve only ever read books about her from her own first person perspective and so it was a new experience to read from the other side.
       The scene when Nero realized his own mother was heading up a conspiracy to kill him. That was powerful and wrenching. I’m really close to my mother, and my mother is actually not a sociopath. Huzzah! So I can’t really imagine what it must have felt like for Nero to realize that the one person who is supposed to love you unconditionally and always support you no matter what is not only NOT doing that but is actively trying to kill you. What a horrifically surreal experience.
       The scene when Nero and Acte are looking at the villa he is building for them. I liked the visual of them deciding what to put in where as it was built, much like any couple would do when having a home built today. It felt so domestic and normal. It really made them both feel far more accessible than they might have otherwise. I loved it.

Literally my only quibbles, and they are super minor, are that the parts with Boudicca were short (just because I am fascinated by Boudicca and was hoping for a little more with her), and that I had to wait until book two to read the rest of Nero’s story. Technically, of course, I didn’t have to wait, I know how history records Nero’s story. But I wanted to see what Margaret George does with it. I was surprised to see that she wrote a two-part book, since I think she hasn’t done that before. However, I now have an advanced reading copy of the second book in my hot little hands, so I’ll be reading and reviewing that one very soon. I can’t wait!

© Kristen McQuinn



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27 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Fylgia by Birgitta Hjalmarson


AMAZON US   

Family Drama
20th Century
Sweden

"Hidden in the forest of Sweden, a country church gleams in the sun. The First World War rages on the continent. Anna, in the front pew, refuses to accept the age-old beliefs the village hands her. Sixty years later, she gives refuge to a young niece, whose marriage is falling apart. Fredrik, Anna's lover, is long since dead. She still blames him for the death of their child, yet she misses his scent that would linger on her skin, like the moon that shone on the snow and colored it blue. Every day she visits the child’s grave, an old woman in a beret and tweed jacket. Time after time her thoughts return to the past, when she had to go on living, even though all seemed lost."

Within just a few short pages, I was drawn fully into this world. Birgitta Hjalmarson writes evocatively of what to me is a foreign land: Sweden. I settled back, immersed in rich detail of unfamiliar landscapes, and a world where life was very different. I said to myself, 'This is a proper story'. Rich description, focus on tiny details, and pithy summations of the characters make it hard for the reader to believe that this is not actually a memoir, so totally does the author inhabit the world of which she writes. The switching from past to present to more recent past is done skilfully and at no time was I confused about where we were on the timeline.

In the Swedish village of Hamm, they do things very differently and Anna, always one to think and question, begins to challenge these 'old' ways. I had to break off from reading this book when I was about fifty pages in, and the characters and setting 'stayed' with me until I could pick the book up again.

By now, there were hints of the tragedy that was to unfold. And I ran into a bit of a problem. I was on the lookout. What did Fredrik do which was so terrible? Was the dead woman something to do with him? We are led to believe so. And this is where the rich detail and the huge cast of characters began to get a bit 'sickly'. I'd gorged on the sumptuous descriptive detail and now I wanted the story to settle down, yet still the camera was set to macro, showing everything in close up, and more and more people were introduced. I couldn't ignore any of them, because I kept feeling that somewhere among them lay the clues to the tragic events which the reader knows will happen. The presaging of doom was distracting. When the truth is finally revealed, it was not what I'd been expecting. No spoilers here, but I'd have preferred to have had less signposting early on. That way I could have read and enjoyed the book, noting all the description, getting to know the vast array of characters and still have been surprised by the denouement.

That said, I would re-read this book. Knowing how things turn out would not spoil a second reading, and I'd go back and reacquaint myself with all the people from Hamm, and beyond, who populate this story. If you want a book which will take you to another time and place, this is one I'd recommend.

© Annie Whitehead

(The version reviewed was a mobi file and there was a  slight formatting issue when some personal letters were indented, and two typos may have been mistranslations: ‘stories’ instead of ‘storeys’ and ‘peaked’ instead of ‘piqued’.)



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26 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Torch Betrayal by Glenn Dyer


AMAZON US   

Thriller /mystery
WWII

This debut novel was quite well written, and backed by some serious research; Glenn Dyer does a creditable job of building a plot around a ‘maguffin’: a vital piece of paper that goes missing from a US photographic laboratory in London. If this item gets into the hands of the Nazis, the second front will be adversely affected or might have to be cancelled, and WWII will go in a whole new direction. The outcome of the War could be affected.

Mr Dyer’s writing style is strong, and the witticisms sprinkled throughout the text tell us he had fun writing the book. But he has a fondness for mentioning smells. It’s like a writer’s tic... A good editor should have picked this up. Had this been restricted to the main character it would not have noticed or if the resolution of the story had depended on his olfactory skill, but several characters were possessed of this super-sense and it had nothing to do with the plot. His editor could also have tightened the plot here and there – so a good technical editor is suggested for this obviously talented author - the extra investment would be worthwhile.

Overall, however, a good, lively debut novel, most certainly in the top quartile of WWII spy stories. I look forward to the next one. I know that it will be even better.

© JJ Toner




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25 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Judging Noa by Michal Strutin


AMAZON US   

Biblical / Family Drama
The Wilderness (Out of Egypt)
BC

As Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, we follow the life of Noa and her four sisters as they begin that historic journey in search of the Promised Land. Noa isn't the eldest, but she is the cleverest. When their father is killed for, allegedly, working on the Sabbath, Noa quickly realises that lands promised to him and his family would be forfeit as there is no male heir (though there would have been two brothers, they were both slaughtered by the cruel Pharaoh).  Despite opposition, Noa is determined to take the case to the various councils to fight for her rights.

All of the major events and obstacles to the Israelite's forty year flight are included: the crossing of the Red Sea, the Commandments issued to Moses and The Golden Calf. The author’s atmospheric writing carries us along on this journey, not just of the horde of people but also the life journey of Noa and her sisters as they grow to womanhood, are found husbands and have children of their own, It is an epic undertaking and, in this, the author succeeds in conveying the difficulties of such a massive undertaking: the feuds, loves, small but significant incidents that shapes her characters. It is also a book about the centuries-old struggle for women's rights and Noa's frustrations are well portrayed.

A map of the journey at the beginning would have been most useful. For the narrative itself, however, I feel the author has been badly let down by the editor(s): one or two typos are acceptable and one or two incorrect spacings between paragraphs also. But there were numerous occasions of words being run into each other – in one case, three words had no spaces between them. The simplest of spell checks would have highlighted these errors. Capitalising the first three words of each chapter is perfectly okay (though I don't personally like it) but not for every new section within each chapter. I'm also afraid to say that the cover did not particularly attract me, although the depiction of Noa did set me up for a mental image of her throughout. The design, however, did not give that feel of professionalism.

And that is the overall problem here: a potentially very good book marred by an unprofessional editorial approach. Alas for this reason I can only suggest a 3 star Amazon rating, which is a shame because the story itself should have merited at least 4 stars. I do strongly suggest a re-edit and reprint with a more eye-catching cover. The investment would be well worth it as there were some lovely passages which were a delight to read: “the wind stroked back the waves” (of the Red Sea) as an example.

Recommended for those who have an interest in Biblical history.

© Richard Tearle




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24 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Queen of the Darkest Hour by Kim Rendfeld


AMAZON US   

Biographical Fiction
8th century
France

The story opens with the marriage of King Charles of Francia (later known as Charlemagne) and Fastrada, his fourth and much younger wife and sets out not only the relationship of characters to each other in a comprehensible way but also their attitudes to one another. So we learn that Fastrada is anxious about living up to Charles’ late queen. Pepin is jealous of his younger brother Karl, who is destined to be king after their father, but also fearful of the young Fastrada and the children she is likely to give Charles. He works toward diminishing her status but he can go only so far because he is but a boy of fourteen, only two years younger than his stepmother. However, as the story progresses, Pepin matures and his envy and ambition only grow.

It is unfortunate that stories revolving around queens, with a few exceptions, have them sitting in their palaces receiving news of action taking place elsewhere. Charles was involved in a lot of wars during this period, so the author loses the opportunity to involve the reader in the excitement because the action is dealt with in a sentence or two from a messenger or in a letter. This is also true of Fastrada.
Having said that, with Pepin around life in the palace wasn’t entirely dull. Pepin is one of the antagonists, but he is not an entirely evil character, which gives him dimensions. It is not difficult to sympathise with him because who wouldn’t be angry after being overlooked in favour of a younger brother just because of a physical deformity?

I often find reading an e-book with the list of characters at the front is frustrating. However, in this case and in spite of the unusual names, the author was so adept at identifying her characters in the narrative that beyond the first few pages I never had occasion to refer to that list.

This is an unfamiliar period of history to me and I enjoyed my first foray into it.

© Susan Appleyard



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22 September 2018

The Weekend 22nd September

No reviews over the weekend but...


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21 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Pit of Vipers by Millie Thom



AMAZON US   
(Sons of Kings Book 2)

Fictional Saga
Anglo Saxon 9th Century
England

In Pit of Vipers, the second book in the Sons of Kings trilogy, the lives of Alfred of Wessex and Eadwulf of Mercia continue to unfold against the ever increasing threat of Danish raids. Now back in his homeland, Eadwulf sets out on his determined quest for revenge, whilst Alfred’s leadership skills develop at the courts of his successive brothers. Before long, those skills will be put to the test . . . The Danish invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 865 is merciless and relentless. Every year more Norse ships come to join their comrades in a quest to plunder for wealth and gain domination over the people. The Wessex king is now Aethelred, Alfred’s last surviving brother, and Alfred becomes his trusted second-in-command. Whilst the Danes take kingdom after kingdom, the brothers wait with bated breath for them to set their sights on Wessex. By 869 their worst fear is realised.
In the meantime, Eadwulf pursues the objects of his revenge.”

As with most trilogies, it is best to start at the beginning, although I admit I have not (yet) read Book One but plunged straight in at this second part of the saga.

We have the young Alfred, the brother of the King, hordes of rampaging Vikings and Eadwulf, who was a slave to the Danish Vikings but is now a free man. Alfred is a young man, desperate to learn how to lead and rule, Eadwulf, living in Mercia with his wife and family, is determined to seek revenge for wrongs done to him in the past, and the Vikings do what Vikings do best where looting, fighting and pillaging is concerned.

I liked the way that Ms Thom has blended real characters from the past with her made-up ones – the blend is seamless so the reader, unless familiar with this period, does not know who is real or who is invented, which is excellent for a historical novel. The author also knows her subject for she has written a fascinating narrative that encapsulates the way of life in this turbulent period of the ninth century, a period dominated by the conflict of Christian against heathen, of hardship, battles, triumphs and tragedy.

But this is where the ‘but’ comes in: I did feel there was a little too much history, especially during the first part of the book which did read a tad slow, but to be fair this might be because I did not know the characters or background story, perhaps had I been more familiar with book one I would have been immersed right from the beginning. That said, for readers who enjoy delving into the facts that create the background to fiction, exploring the narrative of writers like Ms Thom is probably one of the best ways of discovering history.

No spoilers but book three will be looked-forward to by Ms Thom’s readers who have become engrossed with these intriguing characters who are striving to survive the upheaval of the Viking invasion of England. Meanwhile, I'm going back to Book One...

© Ellen Hill




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20 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee



Family drama
19th/20th century
Japan

Pachinko is a multigenerational saga about a family of Koreans in the early 20th century who have to move to Japan because Korea is occupied, the economy is tanking, and the best way to make a living is to emigrate to the land of their occupiers.

Initially, Sunja, the beloved daughter of two older parents (older in that they were early 20s when she was born in the early 20th century), gets pregnant out of wedlock. Her lover, she discovers after it’s too late, already has a wife in Japan. Sunja, who has her pride, has zero intention of being his mistress and sends him on his way. One of the boarders at her parents’ boardinghouse, a preacher with tuberculosis and who is traveling to his new church, offers to marry her and raise her child as his own. She accepts and goes with him to make a new life in Japan.  Together, they raise their sons in Japan and the story follows four generations of their family, navigating through wars, cultural upheaval, and constantly being viewed as outsiders. Throughout, they are haunted by shadows of their past that they cannot outrun, for better or worse.

It’s been a really interesting read, though I am discovering that I’m apparently not generally a fan of multigenerational narratives. Not in a single book, anyway. This started out strong and then got rushed near the end, as though there are too many stories, too many characters, and too much to say to give attention to any one of them. I think doing multigenerational sagas over several books is a better way to go.

That said, this was an excellent read, especially the first half, and I learned a ton about Korean culture that I had no idea about before. I didn’t know so many Koreans had moved to Japan, nor that Japan had occupied Korea. My education failed me! The way some of the people felt like they had to “pass” as Japanese just to be allowed to live in peace and make a life for themselves was so sad.

Overall, I had my quibbles with it, but I thoroughly enjoyed Pachinko and would recommend it as an excellent and eye-opening read.

© Kristen McQuinn



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19 September 2018

Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver

A #DDRevs Diamond Read


Mystery
WWII
London and Virginia

John Copenhaver’s debut novel gives readers a gorgeous, critical look at the LGBTQ community in post-WWII society, revolving around a murder. In Royal Oak, VA, three friends - Jay Greenwood, Bunny Prescott, and Ceola Bliss - spend the summer of 1945 trying to solve the apparent murder of a young woman whom Jay had photographed. As they investigate, it becomes clear that there are multiple layers of deceit involving Jay, the woman in the photo, and Ceola’s brother, who had gone missing in action in the Pacific theater two years earlier. As events unfold, Jay’s wartime traumas surface, causing distress and confusion to all around him, including Ceola. She also struggles to understand and incorporate what she learns about the beloved brother she thought she knew, fighting against social and parental pressure and judging those against what she feels is right. Finally, Bunny sets into motion a chain of reactions that will have decades-long ramifications for them all.

Dodging and Burning has some truly lovely writing, filled with deep imagery and complex, living characters. The society is richly depicted, from the salt of the earth working poor to the upper middle class people of the town to the gay and lesbian people in the DC underground. The novel mirrors social mores of the time regarding the way the LGBTQ community was portrayed, so that made for some really intense and upsetting scenes in some places. People were, and still are, awful to each other. There is a lot of excellent, much-needed social commentary woven throughout. One character speaks for the LGBTQ community when he says, “If you’re afraid for long enough, you grow numb to it” (289). That really struck me on a number of levels, because I can’t imagine living my whole life being afraid - literally mortally afraid - every moment of the day, and yet that is how it as for many people. Another character later on summed up much of mainstream society when he said, “You’ve been blind from the beginning. When you look at Cee or me or anyone, all you see is what you want” (312). So true, for so many people even today. The final few pages were an absolute gutpunch, one which was vital. This is a book that must be read and discussed with as many people as possible.

Very highly recommended.

© Kristen McQuinn



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