5 July 2020

Guest Spot Elizabeth St John

The Lydiard Chronicles

by Elizabeth St John

Writing about my ancestors has been a remarkable journey. Holding their documents, sitting with their portraits, and reading their words of hope, dreams and sorrows is an emotional process. And, knowing what lies ahead as they share their thoughts can be harrowing. But, as a writer, realizing that these people lived and loved much the same way as we do today can also give me great joy as I tell their stories. It is an honor to bring them alive for today’s readers and remind us that we all have the same dreams and desires, even with centuries between us.

The Lydiard Chronicles, my historical fiction series, is named after Lydiard Park, the St.John ancestral home in Wiltshire. Full of portraits and memorials of my family, Lydiard House and adjacent Church of St. Mary's is a writer’s dream. Elizabethan monuments, Jacobean portraits and medieval wall paintings all provide a rich tapestry of images, calling across the ages for their stories to be told.

Lydiard Park
The characters in The Lydiard Chronicles are all real people, and their stories are drawn from a memoir from the 1660s. By fate—or maybe design—I came upon the 400-year-old notebooks in Nottingham Castle. Written by my ancestress, her vivid account brought my seventeenth-century family to life, and I was determined to honor the truth of her words in my novels.

From the Tower of London, where Lucy St.John lived as the Keeper’s wife, to the battlefields of the English Civil War where brother fought brother; as eyewitnesses to the execution of the King Charles I and allies of the new Republic under Oliver Cromwell; and as Royalist spies and supporters of the restoration of the monarchy, the story of the St.John family weaves through time and place as they observe—and sometimes change—the course of history.

Elizabeth St. John tells this dramatic true story of love and betrayal through the eyes of her ancestor Lucy and her family’s surviving diaries, letters and court papers. Raised in England, Elizabeth St.John spends her time between California, England, and the past. A best-selling author, historian and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story...

Follow on Twitter @ElizStJohn

London, 1609. When Lucy St.John, a beautiful highborn orphan at the court of King James, is seduced by the Earl of Suffolk, she never imagines the powerful enemy she creates in his beloved sister, the Countess of Somerset. Or that her own sister Barbara would betray her and force Lucy to leave the court in disgrace. Spirited, educated, and skilled in medicine and precious remedies, Lucy fights her way back into society, and through an unexpected love match, becomes mistress of the Tower of London. Living inside the walls of the infamous prison, she defies plague, political intrigues and tragic executions to tend to aristocratic prisoners and criminals alike.
Now married into the immensely powerful Villiers family, Barbara unites with the king’s favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, to raise the fortunes of Lucy and her family to dizzying heights. But with great wealth comes treachery, leaving Lucy to fight for her survival—and her honor—in a world of deceit and debauchery.

London, 1630. Widowed and penniless, Lucy St.John is fighting for her family’s survival and makes a terrible choice to secure a future for her children. Worse still, her daughter Luce rejects the royal court and wealthy marriage arranged by her aristocratic family and falls in love with a charismatic Parliamentarian. As England tumbles toward bloody civil war, Luce’s beloved brother Allen embraces the Royalist cause and chooses to fight for the king as a cavalier. Lucy is helpless to prevent her family being torn apart, and as war flares across England, Allen and Luce are swept up in bloody battles and brutal sieges as they fight for their opposing causes.
Along with thousands of others uprooted by the turmoil, Lucy, Allen, and Luce face a devastating challenge. Will war unite or divide them? And will they find love and a home to return to—if they survive the horror of civil war. In the dawn of England’s great rebellion, love is the final battleground.

London, 1649. Horrified eyewitnesses to King Charles's bloody execution, Royalists Nan Wilmot and Frances Apsley plot to return the king's exiled son to England's throne, while their radical cousin Luce, the wife of king-killer John Hutchinson, rejoices in the new republic's triumph. Nan exploits her high-ranking position as Countess of Rochester to manipulate England's great divide, flouting Cromwell and establishing a Royalist spy network; while Frances and her husband Allen join the destitute prince in Paris's Louvre Palace to support his restoration.
As the women work from the shadows to topple Cromwell's regime, their husbands fight openly for the throne on England's bloody battlefields. But will the return of the king be a victory, or destroy them all? Separated by loyalty and bound by love, Luce, Nan and Frances hold the fate of England—and their family—in their hands.

Click HERE to find Elizabeth  on Discovering Diamonds

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3 July 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Apothecary by Joan Fallon

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11th century
Bk 1 The City of Dreams

“When the ruler of Malaga dies in strange circumstances, only Umar has the courage to suggest it was murder. He decides to investigate the caliph's death even though it may result in his own. But when Umar is arrested, he knows that time is running out. His family and friends bring all their resources into play to try to find out who is behind the assassination and secure his release before he is executed. In the first novel in a new historical series set in Moorish Spain, Joan Fallon sets the action in the busy medieval port of Malaga. Following on from the successful al-Andalus series, we meet up again with the younger members of the family who had escaped from the besieged city of Cordoba.”

As holidays abroad, at the moment (May 2020)  are non-existent because of Covid-19, and possibly, will remain so for some while, the next best thing is to travel virtually via a good book that takes you to a different country – in the case of historical fiction, to a different time as well.  Joan Fallon’s The Apothecary suits nicely and ticks all the boxes, particularly if, like me, you read it while relaxing in your sun-lounger in the garden during a series of very hot days!

This novel will take you to the south coast of Spain, when the dynasty of Omayyad, and the Golden Age, has ended after two hundred and seventy-five years. We meet Makoud and his family, who arrive in Málaga hoping to start a new life, one that starts out well. Makoud is an apothecary, and starts his own shop, but then rumours start about the unexpected death of the caliph – rumours of murder by poison. Did Makoud inadvertently sell such a poison? His eldest son, Umar, takes it upon himself to delve deeper into the circumstances of the caliph’s death – but the lies and intrigue that come hand-in-hand with murder soon starts to catch him up. 

Umar himself is a beautifully created character, as are all the characters – I was eager to keep reading to find out not just ‘what happened next’, but to be there with these characters, to discover what happened to them, personally as they very quickly became my fictional friends. Ms Fallon’s research is impeccable, with the language and atmosphere of the place and period as excellently achieved as her well-paced plot.

This is the first of a new series for Ms Fallon. I look forward to the next...

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anne Holt

 e-version reviewed

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1 July 2020

Women Of Power In Anglo Saxon England by Annie Whitehead

Non-Fiction - shortlisted for Book of the Month

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non-fiction Anglo Saxon England
 7th Century - 11th Century

If you think that the women of the Dark Ages simply sat back with their embroidery and took little notice of what their husbands or sons, brothers, uncles or cousins were doing, then think again! Women of those times were hugely influential and Annie Whitehead proves it time and again in this excellent account of life and role of women in those turbulent eras of English history.

For the most part, each section is dealt with chronologically, which is most helpful. The author has very much kept the reader in mind in making this an easier read than one might think, given all those awkward Anglo-Saxon names and very convoluted family relationships. Family trees are equally useful and thankfully these are included as well.

The women themselves range from wicked to saintly, pushy mothers and wives and even a 'Warrior Queen' – though whether Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, actually wielded a sword is obviously debatable. Also debatable is the reliability of sources and Ms Whitehead examines the discrepancies, omissions, insertions and sometimes tall tales with a level-headed and unbiased neutrality, offering her own interpretations but always with solid research as her back-up. What comes through very clearly is that many of these women would have been of little worth had it not been for their bloodlines. Yet there were many of 'low birth' who rose to power.

Several black and white plates show the main locations of power – castles and abbeys – as well as a splendid line drawing. Especially pleasing was an appendix of the women who were canonised together with the deeds they were credited with for achieving their sainthoods.

All in all, this is an essential work for those interested, professionally or not, in this period. Highly recommended as an essential for any reader or writer's bookshelf who interested in Anglo Saxon English history.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds

© Richard Tearle
 e-version ARC reviewed

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29 June 2020

Book and Cover of the Month - June

designer Cathy Helms of www.avalongraphics.org
with fellow designer Tamian Wood of www.beyonddesigninternational.com
select their chosen Cover of the Month
with all winners going forward for 
Cover of the Year in December 2020
(honourable mentions for the Honourable Mention Runner-up)

June 2020

Read our Review
Cover by The Cover Collection

Honourable Mention

Read our Review

This is a personal choice made by  me, Helen Hollick,
(founder of Discovering Diamonds)
from books I have shortlisted for my personal reading 

My criteria for a 'winner' is:
* Did I thoroughly enjoy the story?
* Would I read it again?
* Is it a 'keeper'

My chosen Runner-Up 
 June 2020
I very much enjoyed this one - and I would have made it my Book of the Month but it's a little awkward as I am most definitely biased...
that's my house on the cover!
even so -
a super read!

read our review
so my Book of the Month Winner
is, coincidentally, the same as our Cover of the Month!

read our review
* * * * * * 

Book and Cover of the Year
will be announced on 31st December 2020

28 June 2020

Guest Spot Philip K Allan

I was a born in Watford in the United Kingdom. I still live in Hertfordshire with my wife, my two teenage daughters, two cats and a chicken. For most of my working life I was a senior manager in the motor industry, but my real passion was always for history and literature.  I wrote my first book while I was on a career break between car manufacturers, really just to see if I could. When I went back to work, I sent my manuscript out to a number of literary agents, fully expecting it to be rejected. But it wasn’t, and in 2016 my family and I took the decision to give up the certainties of a well-paid job so that I could write full time. Four years and seven published works later we are a little bit poorer, but very much happier.

My books are set in the 18th century Royal Navy. I could have set them in any one of a number of periods or places, but that was the genre that interested me most. I grew up enjoying the books of C.S. Forester and in particular Patrick O’Brian. They awoke in me a life-long passion for the age of sail. I went on to study the 18th century navy as part of my history degree at London University. When I left, I remained a member of the Society for Nautical Research and also a keen sailor. The 18th century is a period with unrivalled potential for a writer, stretching from the age of piracy, via the voyages of Cook to the battles and campaigns of Nelson.

The period also works well from a creative point of view. On the one hand there is the strange, claustrophobic wooden world of the period’s ships; and on the other hand there is the boundless freedom to move them around the globe, wherever the narrative takes them.

The seven books I have published so far form a series that follow the adventures of a group of characters, both officers and sailors. They all serve with my main protagonist, an officer called Alexander Clay. In my first book, The Captain’s Nephew, he is a lieutenant, while by the end of my latest novel, In Northern Seas, he is a senior post captain helping Nelson win his victory at Copenhagen. Each book can be read as a standalone work, as it contains its own complete story; or the series can be read in order to appreciate the progression of the characters.

I try and use period language and authentic nautical detail to draw the reader into a different world, although I aim to pitch this at a level where a reader with no knowledge of either will still enjoy my work. I test this on my first reader, my wife, who has little interest in the sea. If she enjoys what I’ve created, great. If not, I go away and rewrite it. What many readers tell me they enjoy most in my books is the cast of fully-formed lower deck characters, as well as the officers. The sailors all have their own back histories, adventures and plot lines. Think Downton Abbey on a ship, with the lower deck as the below stairs’ servants.

If you want to find out more about me or my books, the links below may be helpful

Click HERE to find  Philip on Discovering Diamonds

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and you would like to participate in our 
 Guest Spot
click HERE for details

26 June 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The War in Our Hearts by Eva Seyler

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Fictional Drama

Set primarily in the trenches of WWI, The War in Our Hearts tells a story of courage and redemption, of innocence destroyed and the healing power of love. Captain Jamie Graham, stranded by a broken vehicle, takes shelter in a barn – only to find a terrified, violated young girl. She is alone, and he – gentleman and officer – cannot leave her to fend for herself. 

In the hurt and bewildered Aveline, Jamie – Lord Inverlochy – sees an echo and reflection of himself. Heir to his estate by the random order of his birth minutes before his twin, from childhood he is not what his tyrannical father believes he should be. Sensitive, musical, he is beaten and abused and finally sent away to school. Music and religious faith become his bulwarks.

Intertwined with the horrors of life in the trenches – lice and mud and the incessant thunder of the guns – are interludes of Jamie’s past, charting his own difficult journey to adulthood and to love. The brief period of peace he finds between the death of his father and the beginning of the war speaks to what his life might have been.

The author parallels the larger war and the attack on Aveline effectively: Jamie’s actions may have little effect on the outcome of WWI, but her rescue gives meaning to the chaos and destruction he finds himself part of. This part of the story, Jamie’s experiences at the front, were the most compelling and strongly written, the characters dimensioned and real, whereas some of Jamie’s past story lacked, for me, the same immediacy and depth.

The solace and strength Jamie finds in music is well-portrayed, something he would have had in common with many officers and men at the front. The depiction of his troubled, doubting soul and the courage and resilience of Aveline are the centrepieces of this debut novel, and I look forward to reading more of Eva Seyler’s work. 

Warning: contains rape, physical and psychological abuse; suicide, warfare.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©Marian L Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

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29th June - announcing our
book and cover selections of the month

24 June 2020

A Cherry Blossom in Winter by Ron Singerton

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#Book 1 of a series
first published 2017

Fictional Saga
Late19th/early20th century
Russia / Japan

Revolution is simmering below the surface in Russia. Workers are striking and getting shot for peaceful protests. Dissatisfaction with the Tsar’s government is building. The background of the story is the Russo-Japanese War. The scenes of sea battle paint a horrifyingly vivid picture of the carnage and horror during the engagement at Tsushima. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that this war was a factor in the coming revolution.

Young Alexei Brusilov makes an enemy of Boris Sukolov by besting him in a fencing competition at the Naval Academy. This is the beginning of a bitter enmity on Boris’s part which only deepens with further encounters. When Alexei’s father is offered a post in Japan, Alexei reluctantly goes with him to get away from the vengeful Boris. In Japan, he meets beautiful Kimi-San. For both, it’s love at first sight, although she is promised to another man. Kimi is a woman of her time, so their relationship is very much hands-off in the beginning. It is a forbidden but tender romance, conducted for the most part through letters and at distance.

At the start of the story, Alexei is an unsophisticated seventeen-year-old. His growth is not always heroic but terribly human. We see him exiled in Siberia, sunk in despairing dissolution, and again on a ship succumbing to despair as shells explode and body parts fly around him. And we see him rise above these awful tests. 

The secondary characters are all very believable and help move the sub-plots along. Olga with her secrets. Sergei who longs for revolution. Count Yevgeny who beats his wife but is dominated by his mistress. Even Boris is not entirely evil, being redeemed by his love for the wild Svetlana. 

The author provides some delectable tidbits of social mores. In Russia, at least in noble circles, it was accepted that husbands take mistresses and wives take lovers. Often cuckolds were friends with their cuckolders. A high level of discretion was required, but any hint of jealousy was unacceptable. In Japan we learn something of Japanese culture, particularly as it relates to interactions between a man and a woman.

Really strong writing and so many elements to the book that I have no hesitation in recommending it. I look forward to continuing the story in the second book. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Susan Appleyard
 e-version reviewed

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22 June 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Potential for Love by Catherine Kullman

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Fictional Saga / Regency Romance

Thomas Ferraunt, newly returned to his family home at the end of hostilities in Europe, faces the decision of whether to continue in the army. The son of a country Rector, he brings news to the Malvin family that their son, Arthur, fallen at Waterloo, was properly laid to rest. Lady Malvin is very grateful, having feared that his was just another anonymous battlefield burial, and encourages Thomas to visit again. He and Arabella Malvin form a friendship based on long familiarity, but their different social standing precludes anything more.

When his financial circumstances prove to be rather better than he had imagined, Thomas decides to sell out, and to look for a home of his own. Increasingly drawn to Arabella, as she seems to be to him, he begins to nurture hope of marriage. He follows the family to London, where she is embarking upon her fourth season, and amongst the diversions of town, they begin to understand each other well enough.

However, another man has designs upon her, based upon his own coldly analytical criteria. When his presumption is publicly called into question, he remains determined to marry her, but an element of revenge darkens the game. Thomas's circumstances change once more, and Arabella is no longer sure that she will be comfortable as his wife. While she remains confused, the enemy stalks her, and sets his trap.

The Potential for Love is a traditional Regency romance, with all the usual elements of London and the Season, and a few darker ones beside.  Ms Kullman has clearly done her research comprehensively, and the reader is in safe hands with regard to setting and style. 

There is a large cast of interconnected named characters with a hint of interesting histories between them, none of which are explained in this novel, which suggests that this must be one of a series. It would perhaps help to have read the author's Duchess of Gracechurch series in order to work out who's who. At the least, a cast list or family tree would be useful for readers who come straight in at this particular book.

This is one for those who like a slow comfortable read with a sense of threat lurking behind the curtains of Almack's. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Lorraine Swoboda
 e-version reviewed

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21 June 2020

Guest Spot - Annie Whitehead

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me tell you a story...

Once upon a time, before the Normans came to England, the land was full of elves, and dragons, and people who cast magic spells from their castles, but who also lived in mud huts and wore shabby brown clothes. They used a lot of bad four-letter words and their culture was so poor that they were said to live in the Dark Ages…

Well, all the best fairy stories begin with ‘once upon a time’ and usually they are not true.

In fact, Anglo-Saxon England was no more mythical and magical than any other era, they had access to high-quality dyes which produced fabrics with incredibly bright hues, (the richest even wore silk) and their weapon and jewellery-making skills were so accomplished that we’re not even quite sure how they did it without power tools (think Sutton Hoo or Staffordshire Hoard).

As for those four-letter words? The bad ones aren’t from that period. They didn’t live in castles, but nor did they live in mud huts. And some of the finest illuminated manuscripts come from that period. Women weren’t viewed as chattels and had many rights - to marry whom they chose, to hold land in their own name - which diminished with the arrival of the Normans.

They had among their number some wonderful characters - Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Lady Godiva, Edmund Ironside, Harold Godwineson…

I was lucky enough, when I was a history undergraduate, to have the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams as my tutor and found myself taking more and more ‘Dark Ages’ and Medieval modules over the three years. The stories of these fascinating characters stayed with me.  And when I began writing I wanted to spread the word about these people and to show them inhabiting a world not of monsters and magic spirits, but of culture, politics, war, and yes, a little bit of romance.

My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and she came to rule a kingdom in all but name, successfully holding back the Vikings. I’ve explored her life for fiction and nonfiction and I still consider her somewhat of a paradox. She ruled a country - almost unheard of during this period - but barely got a mention in the sources. Was her story, as some think, deliberately suppressed, or did they not think it especially significant that she was a woman? In the novel, it is her strength of character, and not her gender, that makes her special, and I think that’s not far from the truth.

Another Anglo-Saxon who fascinated me was Ælfhere of Mercia, who got a really bad press in the chronicles for attacking monasteries. I wrote about him for one of my finals papers, and the truth is not that simple. My second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, charts his story and it is, in fact, one of a man who was instrumental in steadying a monarchy rocked by scandal and murder. Yes, he clashed with the Church, but there was a reason for that…

Penda, a seventh-century king of Mercia, was also misrepresented by the chroniclers. He had the temerity to be a pagan at a time when England was converting to Christianity, and to have a few run-ins with the Northumbrian kings, who not only had converted, but had the Venerable Bede to write about them in glowing terms. Again, sitting in lectures and learning about this man, I felt that he was not given a fair hearing, so my novel, Cometh the Hour, attempts to put his side of the story.

There’s so much that hasn’t been said about this period, and the Mercians in particular, that I was thrilled to be given a contract to write the history of that erstwhile kingdom. There were so many larger-than-life characters, and so many of them female, that I realised there was another book crying out to be written. I looked up every reference I could find to named Anglo-Saxon women, and put their stories into my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. All the women you’d expect are in there - Æthelflæd, Lady Godiva, Queen Emma, St Hild - and many that you wouldn’t, including a queen who razed a town to the ground, a queen who tricked a king into giving her land, and a ‘slave’ who ended up as queen of a foreign land…

So, no fairies, but plenty of tales!

Annie's new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is out now.

Her history of Mercia is available for pre-order in paperback

And you can find all her books HERE

Find her on Facebook, Twitter, on her Website and on her Blog, too.

Click HERE to find Annie  on Discovering Diamonds

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19 June 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow by Kenneth Harmon

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fictional drama

"When bombardier Micah Lund dies on a mission over Hiroshima, his spirit remains trapped in the land of his enemies. Dazed, he follows Kiyomi Oshiro, a war widow struggling to care for her young daughter, Ai. Food is scarce, work at the factory is brutal, and her in-laws treat her like a servant. Watching Kiyomi and Ai together, Micah reconsiders his intolerance for the people he’d called the enemy. As his concern for the mother and daughter grows, so does his guilt for his part in their suffering.Micah finds a new reality when Kiyomi and Ai dream—one which allows him to interact with them. While his feelings for Kiyomi deepen, imminent destruction looms. Hiroshima is about to be bombed, and Micah must warn Kiyomi and her daughter. In a place where dreams are real, Micah races against time to save the ones he loves the most. In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow is a tale about love in its most extraordinary forms—forgiveness, sacrifice, and perseverance against impossible odds."

There is much to be admired about this book. There is a strong opening, and from the start it is clear that the author has a knack of describing scenes with vivid clarity. It was unsettlingly easy to imagine what it was like in the B29 bomber in the furious moments of emergency before Micah had to eject.

Pre-atomic-bomb Hiroshima is depicted in stunning detail. I really felt as if I could see, hear and smell it. I took delight in small detail: people riding bicycles on wheel rims because the tyres had worn out; a shuttered house lets no sunshine in and 'darkness filled the corners'. You find yourself nodding, knowing exactly what it is like to come in from the brightness of day to such a room. The descriptions of the countryside surrounding Hiroshima were sumptuous and if the author hasn't actually visited this location, I'd be amazed.

The portrayal of Kiyomi is sensitively done, especially as we have a man writing from a woman's perspective. She is written as a three-dimensional character and her story serves to show how poorly women fared after one 'mistake' - in her case having a child out of wedlock. Micah is appalled by much of what he witnesses about Japanese culture but I did question his assumption that all would change after the war. Surely the US never intended to occupy Japan and change its culture and society?

Micah learns an abject lesson about prejudice as, in fact, does Kiyomi. I did feel at times though that the message was a bit unsubtle and I also wondered if Micah would have been led to question these prejudices had he not been in love with Kiyomi but just been observing the ordinary folk of Hiroshima.

I had no problem suspending disbelief and accepting the notion of the spirit world although there were some inconsistencies. For example, it is made clear that there is a universal language there, but towards the end Micah is teased for sounding more and more Japanese. There is also a lot about the spirit world which is rather convenient.

This is a brave attempt at making profound statements about the horrors of war. Unfortunately the setting and premise meant that I had guessed the ending way before it came, although does that matter when the story is interesting and enjoyable?

I received an advance copy and would hope that the typos - mainly missing or incorrectly-placed commas and apostrophes - will be rectified before publication.

There are also some strange choices of past participles, none 'wrong' but used here incorrectly: bore (bored), awakened (woke/awoke) raised (rose) shined (shone) which made my gaze 'stick' to the page and this, coupled with the almost exclusive use of the simple past tense, was jarring. 'We worried the priest drove you away' provides less richness than 'we were worried [that] the priest had driven you away.' 

Oddly, the description of the immediate effect of the bombing is not nearly as gruesome and upsetting as it could have been. On balance, I think that the restraint is probably a good thing.
An interesting read.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©Lucy Townshend 
 e-version reviewed

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