21 January 2020

Fortune's Child by James Conroyd Martin Reviewed by: Richard Tearle

shortlisted for Book of the Month

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"This a very cleverly composed book ... Right from the start the reader is gripped by the style of writing."

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Biographical Fiction
6th century
Constantinople / Byzantine Empire

"From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.
Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated."

A man is unexpectedly taken from the prison cell he has occupied for five years. Wondering his fate – freedom or death?  he is taken to the palace of Empress Theodora, the woman who had been his friend and confidante for many years. She was also the woman who imprisoned him.

Stephen is the man in question and the task he is given is to chronicle the life of the empress, the reason being twofold: he knows more about her than almost anyone and a rival scribe is believed to be planning a biography that will be far from complimentary to Theodora.

This a very cleverly composed book. Stephen's tough and brutal life is told at the same time as Theodora's own rather dubious past. Right from the start the reader is gripped by the style of writing; Stephen's portions are written in the present tense as he recalls and relives his life from the time his parents sold him into slavery while Theodora's story is told in true biographical style. Descriptions of Constantinople and other places in the Byzantine Empire are convincing and the secondary characters are treated well by the author.

Stephen, obviously, is fictional, but Theodora was not. Her amazing life actually happened – from 'actress' to empress – and the author's research and clear admiration for her shine through. Theodora was a strong woman who achieved even more than the heights of her youthful ambitions. Yet she never comes over as overbearing or mercenary. She tells her story to Stephen with neither embellishment nor apology.

The cover is the painting La Emperatriz Theodora by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant which inspired this telling of Theodora's fascinating story.

Very highly recommended

© Richard Tearle







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20 January 2020

New York Orphan by Rosemary J. Kind reviewed b J.J. Toner

Shortlisted for Book Of The Month


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"If Dickens was writing today, he would have a worthy competitor in Rosemary Kind"

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 (Tales of Flynn and Reilly Book 1)

Fictional Saga
1800s
Ireland/USA

"From fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, to losing his parents on the ship to New York, seven-year-old Daniel Flynn knows about adversity. As Daniel sings the songs of home to earn pennies for food, pick-pocket Thomas Reilly becomes his ally and friend, until he too is cast out onto the street.
A destitute refugee in a foreign land, Daniel, together with Thomas and his sister Molly, are swept up by the Orphan Train Movement to find better lives with families across America. For Daniel will the dream prove elusive?"

The tale is of Daniel, an orphan, who flees the Great Irish Famine, arriving in New York, penniless and alone. His only asset, his singing voice, earns him a few coins and a friend – another orphan with light fingers. And so the saga starts. The book chronicles the lives of three youngsters, taking us on a heartrending journey, via the Orphan Trains, through brutal slavery to a tense court scene and a hard-fought happy ending.

The villain is as cruel and hard-hearted as any you might encounter, the womenfolk downtrodden but defiant. The inclusion of snippets from Irish folk songs is a clever device, and I couldn’t fault the quality of the dialogue, both Irish and American. There is much in this book to admire and enjoy and to remind the reader of the work of Charles Dickens, and Oliver Twist in particular. If Dickens was writing today, he would write like this and he would have a worthy competitor in Rosemary Kind. 

© J.J. Toner

e-version reviewed



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18 January 2020

It is the weekend...

No reviews at the weekend


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17 January 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Necessary Sins by Elizabeth Bell reviewed by Anne Holt

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"Ms Bell has tackled what could be a difficult subject with integrity and convincing research"


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 (Lazare Family Saga Book 1)


Fictional Saga

1700s / 1800s
USA

"In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with doubt, his family's secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner's wife. Joseph Lazare and his two sisters grow up believing their black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother—until the summer they learn she was an African slave. While his sisters make very different choices, Joseph struggles to transcend the flesh by becoming a celibate priest. Then young Father Joseph meets Tessa Conley, a devout Irish immigrant who shares his passions for music and botany. Joseph must conceal his true feelings as Tessa marries another man—a plantation owner who treats her like property. Acting on their love for each other will ruin Joseph and Tessa in this world and damn them in the next. Or will it?"


Joseph Lazare is devout to his Christian Faith, but also bears the burden of a complex, guilty conscience. He sacrifices much for his religion, putting his belief before the object of his desire - Tessa.


Tessa is intelligent, warm-hearted and pretty. She also finds herself committed to a difficult marriage. Between them lies passion but tempered by challenges caused by the restrictions of belief in sin, but at least Joseph has a supportive family, even though they, at times, must tolerate his religious obsessions. 


Rather than a fast-paced drama, the novel is more about human nature set against the unquestioning belief of religion and what we now consider as blatant racism, ideals that were typical of  the past. The author has very well achieved the antipathy of the period towards black slaves. 


Throughout the narrative the author uses quotations from various sources, which fitted well with the story but I must confess as a non-religious Brit I did feel somewhat preached-to at times. I also felt the weight of Joseph's ongoing personal doubts and trials were occasionally depressing; his obsessions with his belief in his unworthiness and sin was a little too relentless for my taste. It is a long book, covering a long period (1789-1843) and there were areas where I felt the dialogue was a little mis-matched and some scenes were 'told' not 'shown', but for all that, Ms Bell has tackled what could be a difficult subject with integrity and convincing research into the real events of Carolina in the late 1700s.


Possibly a read more suited to the American market though?


© Anne Holt
e-version reviewed


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16 January 2020

A Sister's Courage by Molly Green Reviewed by: Mary Chapple

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"I pounced on this book when I realised it was up for selection on Discovering Diamonds. I knew I was in for a treat - and what a treat it was!"

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fictional drama / romance
WWII
England

"In the midst of war, she knew her place was not at home… The most ambitious of three sisters, Lorraine ‘Raine’ Linfoot always dreamed of becoming a pilot. As a spirited seventeen-year-old, she persuades her hero Doug Williams to teach her to fly. When war breaks out in 1939, Raine is determined to put her skills to good use. She enlists in the Air Transport Auxiliary, becoming one of a handful of brave female pilots flying fighter planes to the men on the front line. Raine embraces the challenges of the job, despite its perils. But when Doug is reported missing after his Spitfire is shot down, she realises the war could tear apart not only her country, but also her heart…"

I pounced on this book when I realised it was up for selection on Discovering Diamonds. I knew I was in for a treat - and what a treat it was!

Lorraine - Raine - had an ambition to become a pilot. Naturally (this was the 1939) her French mother disapproved the ambition, deeming it inappropriate for a young lady. But with the onset of war, women were taking on many 'inappropriate' jobs, and with the support of her father Raine joins the ATA. Romance follows, and heartbreak - exciting scenes, dangerous scenes - scenes where you just have to read on to find out what happens... (even if it is the early hours!)

Ms Green has a talent for writing believable and likeable characters - it is a typical romance set in a war-time era, not an action-packed in-depth detail adventure, so may not appeal to every reader, but for those of us who like a human story about relationships, it is a must!


© Mary Chapple






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15 January 2020

Written in their Stars by Elizabeth St John Reviewed by Cryssa Bazos

shortlisted for Book of the Month



"Historical fiction at it’s finest. Elizabeth St. John’s writing is flawless, and she captures the essence of 17th century England in all its highs and lows."

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Lydiard Chronicles #3

biographical fiction / fictional saga
1600s
London

"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.
A true story based on surviving memoirs of Elizabeth St.John's family."

Historical fiction as it’s finest. Elizabeth St. John’s writing is flawless, and she captures the essence of 17th century England in all its highs and lows.

In the latest instalment to the Lydiard Chronicles, Elizabeth St. John faithfully captures the dark years of the Interregnum, when exiled Royalists are plotting to restore the monarchy while Parliament’s victory is tarnished by Cromwell’s ambition. The St. John family of Lydiard once again find themselves in the center of political events and struggle to balance their convictions against their loyalties to their family. The story is told through the experiences of three women bound by kinship...

Luce Hutchinson, the rebel, is a staunch advocate of Parliament’s ideologies and encouraged her husband to sign King Charles’s death warrant. Not only does this put her at odds with her brother, who is an equally staunch supporter of the monarchy, but over time, Cromwell’s ambition and paranoia threatens her principled husband. 

Frances Apsley, the courtier, follows her husband to the exiled court in France and has to maneuver the machinations of an impoverished court while keeping her family together. Frances was one of my favourite characters from By Love Divided, so it was wonderful to see her grit and resilience in this story. 

And finally, the star of the story, Nan Wilmot, the spymistress. Nan is the wife of Henry Wilmot, daring cavalier and close friend of the exiled King. While her husband works abroad to support the king’s restoration, Nan is left behind to navigate precarious waters, keeping her estates from seizure while acting as a conduit of information between England and the exiled court in France. The rare moments that Nan has with her husband Henry are tender and incredibly touching. 

Elizabeth St. John breathes life to these real-life people and impresses on us how grim this period of English history was. I loved reading about the spy network and the techniques used to encrypt letters, and the raw descriptions of the exiled court are unparalleled. I could see and smell the squalor and desperation.

A well-researched and elegantly written biographical historical novel. Highly recommended.

© Cryssa Bazos
e-version reviewed





14 January 2020

Kit's Hill by Jean Stubbs Reviewed by: Mary Chapple

Shortlisted for Book of the Month



"What Poldark did for Cornish tin-mining, Kit's  Hill does for Lancashire farming."

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fictional saga
1760s
England / Lancashire 
#Book One of the Howarth Saga

"As a genteel woman with an education but no dowry, Dorcas Wilde has resigned herself to a life as the companion of her spinster aunt. However, when she receives a proposal from Ned Howarth — a kind yeoman farmer — she puts aside her prejudices and agrees to become his wife. The couple’s family and friends all disapprove of the match. And as the mistress of Ned’s farm, Kit’s Hill, Dorcas feels isolated and unwelcome. But as she learns more about the land and the household, she begins to find ways to put her shrewdness and education to good use… Can Dorcas find her place at Kit’s Hill? Will she and Ned find true happiness together? Or will they come to regret their hasty marriage?"

The late 1700s were not a good time to be a woman: if you had a good marriage you were lucky, if you survived childbirth you were lucky, if you decided to take an almost stranger as a husband because the alternative was being an unpaid skivvy to a crotchety old bat - and despite the odds and the disapprovals - soon realised that you had made the right choice, then you were very lucky indeed. I also thought myself very lucky to  read this excellent novel!

Apart from learning a lot about Lancashire farming in the mid-Georgian era, and about those early days of the Industrial Revolution, I enjoyed the novel because I immediately warmed to the characters (even the grumpy old Aunt) and eagerly read on to see what happened next - to discover whether Dorcas  had made the right decision when she accepted Ned's proposal.

This is not a romance in the sense of heaving bosoms and semi-naked men with six-pack abs,  the girl meets boy, falls in love despite difficulties, the love at first sight Mills and Boon story with (all too often) poor historical accuracy. Nor is it a fast-paced page-turner.But it is a delightful amble through the seasons and the last decades of the eighteenth century. From laundry day to market day, from sowing the turnips to harvesting the hay, we share the daily life of people who lived and worked, loved and survived the harshness of the time - and the Pennines. What Poldark did for Cornish tin-mining, Kit's  Hill does for Lancashire farming.

Perhaps in places it was a little 'author's voice', for you could hear the author's added 'asides' rather than seeing and hearing everything from the characters' points of view, but that is the nature of the story, and apart from a couple of 'spoilers' that were slipped in (which is a shame), I'm not bothered about that. The last chapters were a little disappointing. These suddenly skipped about a decade in order to round up what happened and I wish the author had not done so for it felt somewhat rushed. Far better to have kept Kit's Hill for Mr and Mrs Ned Howarth and incorporated these chapters in a completely separate novel. There is a Book Two (The Ironmaster), which I assume continues the lives of the Howarths into the era of the Industrial Revolution; maybe a trilogy would have been more suitable?

Having said that, the characters were brilliantly brought to life, the detail of everyday life intriguing, the authentic flavour of the dialogue absorbing and nicely done, enough to give a feel of a Lancashire accent without over-egging the pudding..

A most enjoyable read.

© Mary Chapple
e-version reviewed


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13 January 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of A Shadowed Livery and A Pretty Folly by Charlie Garratt reviewed by Helen Hollick

(Two books reviewed)



"Inspector Given is a very likeable chap, and it was his personal background and the setting of looming war which kept me turning the pages."

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murder mystery
1938
England

A Shadowed Livery

"Warwickshire, England, 1938. While Hitler and Chamberlain are preparing to sign the Munich agreement, the murderer of a Jewish shopkeeper is being hanged in Birmingham. After witnessing the execution, Inspector James Given, who brought the killer to justice, is surprised to find he has been taken off the investigation to pursue something completely different. Grovestock House, owned by the wealthy Barleigh family has witnessed a triple death. With the terrible events neatly written off as a murder and a double suicide, Given is supposed to tidy up a few loose ends with the help of local constable, John Sawyer. But Given is sure there is more to the case than meets the eye. What dark secrets were the Barleigh family hiding? Could there be another killer involved? And how will Given react when he is forced to confront the ghosts of his past…?"

A Pretty Folly

"England, March 1939. Murmurs of war are rippling through Europe, and violence against Jewish people is on the rise. Inspector James Given is busy trying to stop attacks on Jewish businesses in Coventry.But then a murder case lands in his lap. A young girl’s body is found in the crypt of a prestigious school. Part-mummified, it is hard to discover how long she’s lain there. But why wasn’t she reported missing? Has no one been looking for her? And could more lives be at risk?"

Both these books, which I assume will broaden out into an ongoing series (and I hope they do, as they are an enjoyable read), are narrated first person by our typical archetype detective, James Given. At least he seems to be the usual expected detective of many a mystery novel, but there is more to Inspector Given than first meets the eye. (No spoilers. I will say no more.)


The murder, or murders plural for the first novel, A Shadowed Livery, are fairly straightforward for the reader. Book two, A Pretty Folly, I found I enjoyed slightly more, as I preferred the sub-characters who were not quite as snobbish as the first lot - and the author had got more into his talented (and most promising)  stride.


The murder mystery side to the novels is very typical of the Agatha Christie-type genre, and while well written and very well researched for the period, with nice little details that set you firmly in the 1930s,  these are not action thriller novels, but a steady unravelling of 'whodunnit' - although for both books I guessed the culprit before the end. As with most novels of this Christie-like genre, the policemen themselves, Given included, were fairly predictable regarding the roles of 
bad cop, good cop, clever cop,  naive cop. 

So outside of a good read, not necessarily anything remarkable regarding the murder mystery itself, there is a but (and it is a big but) ... the sub-plot of Jewish culture and the hostility of antisemitism were brilliantly handled and lifted the novels to make them a thoroughly enjoyable read. 
For most novels and TV dramas of this genre it is the solving of the murder that takes centre stage, while the sub-plot of the detective's personal life adds the human interest. For these books I felt it was the other way round. The background and sub-plots were the most absorbing, with solving the murders, while necessary, were of secondary interest. 

Inspector Given is a very likeable chap, and it was his personal background and the setting of looming war which kept me turning the pages. It is the start of the persecution of those of a Jewish faith, the rise of fascism and Hitler's Nazis. The characters are hoping that Chamberlain would accomplish peace, few people in England were aware of what was happening in Germany, Austria and further afield, but we, as readers, do know what horrors are around the corner. It is that knowing which brings an edge to these books, and an overwhelming compassion for the characters who are hurtling towards the abyss of World War II and the  grimness of Nazi suppression and the concentration camps. I wanted to reach out and scoop Given and his family out of 1938 and set them down again in a safer era. 


I look forward to further books because I genuinely want to know what happens next to the Inspector and his very likeable family and friends. 


Brava Mr Garratt

© Helen Hollick







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11 January 2020

It's the Weekend

No reviews at the weekend


Why not browse back through 
last week's reviews
in case you missed a good read?

 follow the < previous  links)

or 


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10 January 2020

A Discovering Diamonds review of A Place in the World by Amy Maroney reviewed by Annie Whitehead


"In each of the volumes, Mira has a different enemy, even if she doesn't always know it. I thought this was a masterful touch."


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Fictional saga

16th century / 21st century Europe

"1505: Pregnant and reunited with the love of her life, artist Mira survives a harrowing journey to the city of her dreams. But Bayonne is nothing like she imagined. Navigating a dangerous world ruled by merchants and bishops, she struggles to reignite her painting career. When an old enemy rises from the shadows, Mira’s life is thrown into chaos all over again—and she is faced with a shattering decision.
2016: Scholar Zari seizes the chance to return to Europe as a consultant for an art dealer. Overwhelmed by her job, she has little time to hunt for clues about Mira. But when art experts embrace a theory that Mira’s paintings are the work of a famous man, Zari must act. Racing against time, she travels to a windswept corner of Spain. What she discovers there solves the puzzle of Mira forever—and unlocks the secrets of Zari’s own past."

I've read Books 1 and 2 in this series (I believe there is also a prequel) and I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, for 'journey' is the theme here. Mira's story involves a great deal of physical travel, and so does Zari's as she seeks to unlock the secrets of the past. Both go on an emotional journey, too. 

The main thing to enjoy about Ms Moroney's tale is the exquisite world-building. The 15th/16th-century setting is vividly described, with sights and sounds leaping off the page. The characters truly inhabit their world, and it's clear that the past has been well-researched. But the experts are experts too, and in the modern part of the story the art historians, academics and technicians are portrayed skilfully. I have no idea what goes on in the art world, but this was utterly convincing. So we have believable, authentic historical characters, realistic modern characters and then the piece de resistance - the links between the two worlds. There are plenty of 'aha' moments when we've seen something happen in Mira's world which Zari then discovers, 500 years later. And we, the reader, feel ever so slightly smug because we were sort of in on the secret. The plotting alone must have been an exhausting undertaking but it certainly paid off because the loose strands are gradually pulled together and the pacing is superb. In each of the volumes, Mira has a different enemy, even if she doesn't always know it. I thought this was a masterful touch. Danger has lurked throughout the whole series, but in each book it comes, or seems to come, from a different place.

I would recommend though that these books be read in order. While the background is explained in Books 2 and 3, I feel the reader really needs to meet the characters from the beginning fully to appreciate the whys and wherefores of the tale. It is hard to say more without spoilers, but I'd say that after reading Book 2 especially, you will want to read on. And after finishing A Place in the World I did wonder whether there was room for another volume, as for me the only slight downside was that I didn't feel that all the loose threads had been quite tied up. 

I attended a lecture recently during which the speaker, a passionate archaeologist, said that at times in her life she had wanted to explore the past so much 'it hurt'. As an historian myself, I understand this. In this story, Zari feels the same way and because the author is so clever in immersing us in Mira's world I felt even more for Zari. There is a sadness, almost a nostalgia, which runs through the tale and particularly in this book, of a sense of wanting to touch the past, and the echoes that history makes. Ms Maroney captures all this brilliantly.


© Annie Whitehead
e-version reviewed






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9 January 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Price of Compassion by A.B. Michaels Reviewed by: J.G. Harlond


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"a very powerful plot and background to a compelling read."

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Crime / Medical 
1900s
San Francisco

An English barrister, Jonathan Perris, is engaged by wealthy Miss Katherine Firestone to represent a doctor accused of murder. The barrister takes a shine to Miss Firestone, but she is far more interested in the doctor he is to defend in court. And here begins the inter-personal complications and subtleties at the heart of this fascinating novel.

The doctor, Tom Justice, has been accused of unlawful killing by a person unknown after a mysterious, secret event that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. Unlike just about anyone facing such an accusation, Dr Justice tells Perris that he is unsure whether he is innocent or not. Did he take a man’s life? He says he ‘might as well have because the result was the same’. The deceased was Tom Justice’s cousin, Eli.

After this cryptic remark, and because the doctor will not discuss what actually happened, it becomes the attorney’s job to find everyone connected to the incident and thereby try to decide whether the accused is guilty or innocent. But almost everyone who was present at the mysterious event has either died of natural causes, taken their own life, or disappeared. Unlike many crime stories that begin with an accusation of homicide we do not learn the exact details – the ‘who dunnit/why dunnit’ – until the trial at the end of the story. It is a page-turning strategy, but the plot device here enables readers to learn Dr Justice’s life story so they can decide what sort of person he is before the trial commences.

Chapters about Tom Justice’s humble farming family background and his special relationship with his grandmother, who was a local healer, demonstrate his early life, and his difficult relationship with Cousin Eli. We see how as a medical student Justice sacrifices his personal happiness with a lovely young woman because he knows he will not be able to support her for years to come. The girl marries Cousin Eli instead. Dr Justice graduates Medical School and is offered a prestigious position: he is on track to become a gifted surgeon, but he gives up a potentially glittering future to work in a run-down clinic in San Francisco’s China Town, where bubonic plague is endemic. While a tad slow in places for me, Michaels nevertheless brings setting and characters to life through excellent description and tight dialogue.

How could this good, honourable man come to be accused of murder? To explain would be a massive spoiler; suffice it to say that while success, good-looks and a kind heart are a potent recipe for attracting friends and lovers, they can also engender deep envy and animosity. Add to this the historic mismanagement of an entire city, where corruption is also endemic, and you have a very powerful plot and background to a compelling read.

This is the fourth book in A.B. Michaels’ Golden Age San Francisco series, where she writes fictional characters into real events. It works perfectly well as a stand-alone, and will be of particular interest to anyone wanting to know about past medical practices and theories. I have not read any of Ms Michaels’ previous books but I will be doing so now. Well-written, multi-layered crime fiction – a very worthwhile read for long winter evenings or summer vacations.

© J.G. Harlond





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8 January 2020

A Discovering Diamonds review of 1888: The Dead and the Desperate by A.E. Wasserman reviewed by John Darling


"The story is an interesting combination of a who-dunnit and a drawing-room drama"

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Fictional Saga

1800s
London


This is the fourth story in a series about a fictitious British aristocrat named Lord Langsford. A widower now for three years, Langsford has drifted into deep regret and remorse over his wife’s death and his own lack of purpose. The story opens with Langsford endeavouring to find peace on his country estate, well away from the temptations and meaningless entertainments of London in the ‘Season’. His sojourn is short-lived. Three gambling friends soon arrive to drag him back to the card tables and balls. Once back in London, Langsford finds himself involved in a murder enquiry into the shocking death of his friend Edwin Percy. It is a frightening situation because Langsford fears he might be the murderer and there is a tenacious Scotland Yard detective inspector investigating the case.

Having not read any of this series before I was somewhat surprised by the opening largely because the title suggests the novel is going to be a gallop across the Wild West with a six-gun and this is clearly very English historical crime. The cover of course, which I didn’t notice on my Kindle, places it firmly in central London. The story, in fact, is an interesting combination of a who-dunnit and a Henry James/Edith Wharton drawing-room drama, examining as it does, Lord Langsford’s aristocratic lifestyle and world view in contrast to the behaviour and expectations of a family of social climbing New Yorkers.

The Americans are in England to trade their daughters and niece; the exchange being hard-earned dollars for a title. The late Lord Percy, in dire economic straits, had acquired the niece, Grace Westfield, in just such a transaction. Grace combines the unusual attributes of being both sensible and sensitive, but she is not pleased about being confined to mourning and unable to finish the Season, a situation that leads her to live under Lord Langsford’s roof, first at his country estate, then in London. I found this part of the story rather a stretch; I doubt very much a young, unattached woman would have been allowed to share a home with a man not her husband in this period, but it is fundamental to the plot, and the plot is compelling. Wasserman’s knowledge of London during the 1880s is otherwise sound, especially relating to the detective, Abberline, and the Metropolitan Police force of the time.

I should perhaps mention the way in which a common language divides the English speakers and readers in this story. On a personal level (as a British English reader), I did find some of the Americanisms used in both narrative and dialogue (of the Londoners) unfortunate, especially the frequent references to ‘the help’ when describing the strict, self-governing, well-respected staff of a London town house or ancestral country estate. I also found the constant use of the verb ‘passed’ and ‘passing’ as a euphemism for ‘dead’ or ‘death’ irritating. Some of the names caused me some minor confusion, too: there is a Miss Westfield and a Lord Westchester and two Edwins (one being a shopkeeper). Langsford’s landau drivers are called Pelham and Cavesson, though, which was a nice touch.

These details do not detract from the story itself, however. Attractive young American women on the arms of eligible English aristocrats, a dockside opium den, a valuable Bruges tapestry, and a tenacious policeman travelling the length and breadth of England by train to catch his murderer, combined with the inner thoughts of two likeable people caught up in an appalling scandal, make for a satisfying read. Recommended for winter evenings by the fire.


© John Darling
e-version reviewed





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7 January 2020

The Last of the Romans by Derek Birks Reviewed by: Alison Morton

shortlisted for Book of the Month


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"The pace is strong, the enemies clever and allies uncertain. "

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Military
5th century / Roman
Europe

"Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus has served the Roman Empire with distinction. His bucellarii, a small band of irregular soldiers, have helped to bring a fragile peace to the beleaguered empire in the west. But, with the empire now at peace, his master, Flavius Aetius, decides to chain up his dogs of war. Ambrosius and his men are left to idle away their days in a rural backwater, but Ambrosius’ boredom is brutally swept aside when old rivals seize the opportunity to destroy him. Pursued as a traitor by the imperial guard, Ambrosius takes his loyal band, along with other dissident soldiers and a Saxon girl, Inga, into the mountains. Since nowhere is safe, Ambrosius travels north, across the crumbling ruins of the empire, to his estranged family in Gaul. But there too, he finds nothing but conflict, for his home town is now besieged by a small army of rebellious Franks. Freedom and peace seem a world away. Whatever course the soldier takes, Ambrosius and his bucellarii will need to muster all their strength and skill to survive. At the twilight of the empire, they may be the Last of the Romans…"

Readers gripped by Roman novels by Conn Iggulden, Ben Kane or S J A Turney will find much of the same thrill in Derek Birks’ The Last of the Romans. 

Ambrosius, the tantalisingly possible model for King Arthur, or at least his ancestor, is a favourite speculative idea. But this war leader Ambrosius, portrayed at the dusk of the Roman Empire, is real in Birks’ novel; tough, uncompromising, persistent, yet under all that ferocity, caring and loyal. Yet he isn’t always rewarded for such qualities; this is not an age of soft interpersonal skills.

Ambrosius, his lieutenant, Marcellus, and freed slave Inga are vividly drawn. Inga is especially well portrayed, but then Birks has always been one of those male writers who can write courageous yet sympathetic women characters. Above all, they are people of their age of chaos, breakdown and instability, but they never fall into stereotypes in this author’s hands.

Researching the fifth century is a deep challenge – sparse and poorly written sources, unreliable narrators and far fewer artefacts from archaeology – yet the author gives us an intelligent interpretation of the period. The pace is strong, the enemies clever and allies uncertain.

The prose and style are very well-crafted. You may find yourself awake at 2 a.m. with this book...

© Alison Morton

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6 January 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Antonius Son of Rome by Brook Allen reviewed by Susan Appleyard

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"Lots of historical detail here, but it is a work of fiction. Recommended for those who enjoy ancient Rome."


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Military

1st century B.C.
Rome and Judea

Marcus Antonius (better known as Mark Anthony) is the son of Antonius Creticus, who was given a mandate to clear the Mediterranean of pirates. Not only did he fail but he plundered the provinces he was meant to protect and made an alliance with the pirates to conquer Crete. Further disgrace falls on the family when Marcus’s beloved step-father is involved in the Catalina conspiracy and executed. Marcus is a boy of eleven years when he learns of his father’s disgrace and vows to restore the family honour by making a name for himself as a soldier. He is aided by a cousin, no less than Julius Caesar, who undertakes to help him with his military training.

As happens often today, so then. He falls in with a bad crowd and embraces vice – drinking, gambling and consorting with prostitutes. As a result he gets heavily into debt and into the clutches of a particularly nasty moneylender whom he can’t hope to repay. A thug hired by the moneylender murders Marcus’s young and pregnant wife and Marcus plunges into guilt-ridden grief.

At first, I didn’t find the character of Marcus particularly engaging. His response to the crises of loss is dissipation – the very thing that caused the death of his wife. What started as adolescent curiosity becomes an anodyne to which he resorts in times of trauma. Only when he is given a commission in the army of Aulus Gabinius, who is off to govern Syria, does he emerge as someone we might admire and come to like.

Since little is known of Marcus’s life before he meets Cleopatra, this book shines a light on the years that shape the man he is to become: loyal and brave, if impulsive. Lots of historical detail here, but it is a work of fiction, and I have to admit that the fictional murder of a member of the august Antonii clan by a moneylender just didn’t work for me. However, the story is well-told – a good foundation for the author to build on in future books.

Recommended for those who enjoy reading about ancient Rome, particularly the final years of the Republic.

© Susan Appleyard
e-version reviewed



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