29 February 2020

Book and Cover of the Month - for books reviewed during February



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)



WINNER 
February 2020

designer unknown - mainstream
read our review
Honourable Mentions

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cover design by Melody Simmons
read our review
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mainstream designer unknown
read our review
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designer unknown
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-Ups 
for February 2020

read our review
 Not a fast-paced action 'who-dun-it' , but  sophisticated measured read with some wonderful descriptive writing

read our review
I can't resist a Melissa Addey - again wonderful descriptive writing

and my Book of the Month

Read our review
It might seem odd to select a novel that made me cry. This one did because it is based on real life - so many died, so horribly. I truly think that this book should be compulsory reading in all schools - no, for everyone - so that we never, never, forget what happened to the Jewish people during WWII

* * * * * * 


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

28 February 2020

The Crystal Cave By Mary Stewart Reviewed by Paula Lofting

Good Read Revisited





Historical Fantasy / Arthurian
5th Century
Roman Britain
Merlin Saga #1

I first read this book when I was in my teens. I was totally enamoured with it then and having gone back to it over forty years later, I remember why. As each word walked onto the page, it bought back to me the memories of enjoyment and inspiration I had when I first read it.
 
Stewart’s rendition has more to do with making her narrative fit plausibly into a legendary framework than history and though in a historical setting that one will recognise, it is not an historical novel as such. Encompassing elements of legend, fantasy, and what was known of the Arthurian period, it is a hybrid novel so if you are expecting something more along the lines of Mallory, or something rather more historically accurate, then you will be disappointed.

There are no knights shining in their armour and there are no turreted castles, nor is there a glowing Holy Grail. What you do get is an explanation of some of the magical parts of the Merlin legend that makes sense of these fantastical tales and normalises them into a believable plot. Stewart herself makes no claim to scholarship in this era. She places her Merlin in the era that he would most likely have lived had he existed: the post-Roman period in Britannia. She utilises legend from the various versions of the Arthurian tales, mainly following Geoffrey on Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and although wallowing in fantasy, we have to conclude that it gives a delightful framework with which Stewart has been able to work in her narrative. 

Of Ambrosius, we know that he existed as Ambrosius Aurelianus and is first referred to in 'De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae', written in the sixth century by the Celtic monk, Gildas, who informs us that Ambrosius led the Celtic resistance against the invading hordes of Anglo-Saxons and heartened his countrymen by his own courage. I loved the connection Ambrosius has to Merlin in The Crystal Cave and it is interesting to note that Nennius, a monk of Bangor, compiler of the Historia Brittonum, in the early ninth century, refers to two different men named Ambrosius, one being an orphan who displays prophetic powers for Vortigern, and another Ambrosius, a rival whom Vortigern dreaded. A later passage refers to him as "the great king of all the kings of the British nation." Here is where Stewart must have got her idea to give the young Merlin (in Welsh, Myrddin) an association with Ambrosius, or Emrys Wledig being the Welsh form of a post Roman warlord.  To say any more on the subject would be to give away an important aspect of the storyline, so I won’t.

The fact that this story stood the test of time and still gave me the same satisfaction all these years on, for me was the book’s strength. Not many books have been able to give me the same pleasure with such a time warp. Stewart’s ability to create powerful prose and characters, the main being  Merlin of course, whom we learn about through his first person narrative. Stewart’s beautiful words have always been an inspiration to me and back in the day, when I was an embryonic writer, she helped to sew the seed of inspiration with this wonderful series of which The Crystal Cave is the first.
‘… and before me now were the lights of a town and the warmth of its houses reaching out to meet me. It was the silent time between the thin birdsong of a March day and the hunting of the owls.’

 There is so much more I could say about this book, but I must end here and make my recommendation that this book is indeed a Discovered Diamond.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Paula Lofting

(personal note from Helen: the cover depicted is for the 2012 Hodder & Stoughton e-version - have to say, I think it's awful. The original paperback is better, but that's just my opinion!)


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27 February 2020

Deadly Kin by Lucinda Brant Reviewed by: Anna Belfrage


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"Engaging and elegantly constructed, Deadly Kin is a book it is difficult to put down"

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Mystery / thriller
18th century
England

For anyone looking for a total immersion in the 18th century, Lucinda Brant’s novels are a great place to start. Ms Brant lives and breathes her period, her novels populated by men in pastel colours, in frock coats and lavishly embroidered waistcoats, while her leading ladies recline on elegantly upholstered furniture dressed in silk while sipping coffee from a saucer or tea from a cup. All of this luxury is elegantly contrasted with the darker aspects of her stories, whether it be torture and coup d’états or, as in this her latest, the consequences of the Black Act and the restrictive inheritance laws that governed England’s landed classes.

Deadly Kin has at its centre Alec Halsey and his wife, Selina. This is the fourth book about Alec, and over the previous books (all of them most warmly recommended) we have seen Alec develop from a bitter if successful man, a man who drowns his unhappiness in work and welcoming female arms, to a man recently elevated to the peerage and with a wife he dearly loves.

As an Alec fan, let me tell you I am utterly thrilled by his good fortune, although his having become an earl and thereby inherited a huge pile of a house in Kent is not necessarily something to congratulate him on. You see, with house and title come a lot of obligations—and the growing sensation that there is a very, very nasty family secret hidden among the ancient stones of the family home.

Mind you, there are several secrets floating about, starting with who was Alec’s real father. He was not raised on the Halsey estate; instead he was torn out of his mother’s arm after only one day and carried away from what should have been his inheritance by his uncle. There are murmurs about adultery, whispers that the countess who birthed Alec was carrying on an affair with a servant. But is it true? Alec has his suspicions and the whys behind this makes for a heart-wrenching story that Ms Brant reveals bit by bit.

When a young boy is found murdered on Halsey ground, when an illegal poaching business is revealed, when Alec realises that everyone—including his uncle, the man who raised him and protected him—is in cahoots to keep him in the dark about…something…his keen mind goes into overdrive and slowly he starts putting the pieces together. The completed puzzle is not pretty—at all.

Other than Alec and his heavily pregnant Selina, Deadly Kin presents us with a fascinating cast of characters. There is Alec’s unhinged (hmm) maternal aunt—and what a delicious harpy she is!—there is Alec’s OCD afflicted valet/secretary, there is Plantagenet Halsey (Alec’s uncle) Alec’s godmother who happens to be a Duchess and Selina’s delightfully depicted idiot of a brother. And that is only upstairs: downstairs teems with disgruntled stewards, a plethora of young people named Fisher and a bevy of servants.

Engaging and elegantly constructed, Deadly Kin is a book it is difficult to put down. My only gripe is Ms Brant’s propensity for head-hopping which at times I find quite distracting and utterly unnecessary for a writer of Ms Brant’s acumen. Despite this, I must congratulate Ms Brant on yet another marvellous read and hope the wait for the next book in the Alec Halsey series will not be as long as the wait for this instalment was!

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Anna Belfrage








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26 February 2020

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier Reviewed by: Jeffrey Manton

A Good Read Revisited 
(published 2013)

US cover
"Simply written, the history lightly but effectively woven, this is a writer so sure of her craft. "

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Goodreads   - Not Found

Fictional Drama / Slavery
1850s
Ohio / Dorset

"As she watched, the darkness unfolded itself, stood and took the shape of a young black woman, barefoot, in a yellow dress. Now Honor must actually do something, though she did not yet know what.
Honor Bright is a sheltered Quaker who has rarely ventured out of 1850s Dorset when she impulsively emigrates to America. Opposed to the slavery that defines and divides the country, she finds her principles tested to the limit when a runaway slave appears at the farm of her new family. In this tough, unsentimental place, where whisky bottles sit alongside quilts, Honor befriends two spirited women who will teach her how to turn ideas into action."

The Last Runaway is historical fiction set in pioneer Ohio in the 1850s and is coming of age story about a woman helping runaways from slavery.

Honor is a sheltered Quaker young woman with a strong faith but ostensibly gentle character. She is thrown into life with strangers after her sister dies and the only way out for a woman is to marry. This is a tough, unforgiving land where her principles are tested by harsh in-laws and despite all the obstacles against her, she must help slaves on the run.

Simply written, the history lightly but effectively woven, this is a writer so sure of her craft. An absorbing, moving tale with a raft of compelling characters - this races along and engages you with Honor, heart and soul. And you learn a different tale to the usual 'Old South' with an insight into the Quakers, the slave catchers in the North, the way the law supported slavery, and life in pioneer America.

Riveting, satisfying and thought-provoking - what a novel should be.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
 © Jeffrey Manton





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25 February 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Right Trusty and Well Beloved by Various Authors Reviewed by: Helen Hollick


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Authors:
Rebecca Batley, Terri Beckett, Susan Grant-Mackie, Kim Harding, 
Wendy Johnson, Joanne R. Larner, Kit Mareska, Alex Marchant (also editor), Maire Martello, Liz Orwin, Elizabeth Ottoson, Nicola Slade, 
Richard Tearle, Kathryn Wharton, Brian Wainwright, Jennifer C. Wilson, 
Foreword by Philippa Langley MBE


"An excellent and entertaining series of short stories  and poems by a variety of authors giving a variety of opinions and a swathe of emotions about Richard III"

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short stories / poems / Richard III / alternative
1400s
England 

Sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK)
"I want you to tell my real story… Use any talent you have to show me in my true light, not painted black with Tudor propaganda. My new army must be wordsmiths, not soldiers; artists, not knights; musicians, not warriors. We will lay siege to the towers of Tudor lies and bring them crashing down…"

This is an excellent and entertaining series of short stories  and poems by a variety of authors giving a variety of opinions and a swathe of emotions about Richard III, hero to these writers, but perhaps seen as villain to some readers - it depends on how you feel about him, but maybe this little anthology will help to change your mind about history's (unfortunate) blackening of his name.

One story is only a few pages long, another is an exploration of alternative history. Some stories are exciting, some amusing, some tragic and will make you cry. All were well written, but as with any anthology some, inevitably, had an edge over others. Some authors I am familiar with (a few we have reviewed here on Discovering Diamonds), some authors were interesting enough to warrant looking for what else they have written.  It is a short book, 160 pages, ideal for a journey or to while away a few, otherwise tedious, moments. I read much of my copy while waiting at our local hospital for an appointment. I was so absorbed I almost missed my name being called.

I feel I must, however, be a little biased and mention The Corners Of My Mind by our own senior reviewer, Richard Tearle. I was privileged to read an early draft: the raw emotion in the story made me cry. Tears trickled again when I read it a second time in the published edition. Bravo Richard - and all the authors, come to that.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Helen Hollick
 e-version reviewed




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24 February 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of In Northern Seas by Philip K Allan Reviewed by: Richard Tearle

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"There is a way to write a series such as this and Mr Allen has mastered that art."


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Nautical / Napoleonic Wars

1800s
The Baltic

This is, I think, the third book of this series that I have read and I have enjoyed every one of them - I believe there are seven in total, I will need to catch up!

Alexander Clay is the Captain of the frigate Griffin and, having been honourably acquitted of a court martial is assigned to convey an English MP to Copenhagen on a mission to try and persuade Denmark to leave a disastrous (for England) trade deal with Russia, Prussia and Sweden. But the MP, Nicholas Vansittart, is a little more than the humble diplomat he claims to be.  And it soon becomes clear that his valet has a few secrets of his own.

The voyage does, of course, not go smoothly. They are rebuffed at Copenhagen and have to sail to St Petersburg to negotiate with the weak and unpopular Tsar Paul.

In all this, captain and crew encounter ice-bound seas, a French privateer, Russian conspirators and even a blossoming love affair. All this culminates in the impressively detailed Battle of Copenhagen in which Admiral Nelson famously remarked that he 'saw no such signal'.

There is a way to write a series such as this and Mr Allen has mastered that art. To those who have read previous volumes, the characters are as familiar as old friends; those who are new will soon warm to them. The villains of the piece are easily spotted and justice is usually meted out. Another aspect is the ability to mix fact and fiction (Vansittart, for example, was a real person). Thorough research is imperative and here the author's is impeccable. Descriptions of the various voyages in different weather and conditions are excellent and characterisations fully believable.

I do have to say, however, that I found a dozen or so typos and the spacing between sections in a chapter was inconsistent - this latter should have been corrected by the publisher at the formatting stage. Neither of these, however, marred the overall impression and enjoyment of the story. 

Fans of the great nautical writers -  Forester, O'Brien and Kent -  will relate to and revel in a new hero of the Napoleonic wars at sea.


Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Richard Tearle
 e-version reviewed


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22 February 2020

The Weekend

No reviews posted at the weekend



But start here for our previous reviews:
  Click Here to browse back




we are currently accepting new submissions

we would especially like to promote 
indie authors 
and childrens' historical fiction

email Helen author@helenhollick.net  )
for further information

Kindle, Paper White, Book, Device
(we prefer e-files - mobi preferably
 but do accept properly formatted PDF files)





21 February 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Shadow Of Athena by Elena Douglas Reviewed by: Richard Tearle

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"Shadow of Athena takes us back to Ancient Greece where the lives of men, women and children were ruled by the gods ... with the blind belief in the powers of those gods coming through very clearly and  well written."


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fictional drama / romance
pre-300 BC
Greece

Based on an ancient legend and a true practice, Shadow of Athena takes us back to Ancient Greece where the lives of men, women and children were ruled by the gods – or at least, by those who served them - with the blind belief in the powers of those gods coming through very clearly and  well written.

The city of Lokris is cursed by Athena and is obliged to send two maidens each year to serve the goddess at her temple in Troy. They are to serve for one year before being discharged, but they may not marry or have children for the rest of their lives.

Marpessa is one of the two girls chosen to the dismay of her mother and the annoyance of her father, a vintner, who has promised her hand to a rich and cruel merchant. A slave, Arion, is to travel with them as protection and with a promise of freedom when he returns. A series of events throws them together and, of course, they fall in love. But Arion is determined to fulfil his oath to Marpessa's mother and bring her home safe.  The two are innocents and naïve, duped many times as they try to make their way back. Dangers face them on the journey and if or when they do return to Lokris, what fate awaits them there?

There were a couple of quibbles: one was because of formatting and the other confused me. Dealing with the first: every thought by any character is italicised to the point where there is at least one instance on almost every page. Few of these actually needed to be in italics, particularly when certain thoughts or incidents would have been emphasised by italics ... the impact was therefore lost. 


The second is that the author's pen name is on the front cover and spine, yet her real name, in the US style of publishing,  is printed at the top of every left-hand page. This reviewer wonders what is the point of a pen name if it is not consistently used overall. Was this deliberate or an error missed during editing? Perhaps this was an ARC copy (paperback edition reviewed) and has been rectified before the final print run?* The arrangement is somewhat confusing - it would not hinder the e-version however, as the use of an author's name and book title heading each page is not included - so I'd recommend the e-book for preference.

Putting these two issues aside, this is a neat, if sometimes predictable, tale - but there is nothing wrong with predictable! The writing is solid without being spectacular (there is nothing wrong with that either!) and the author traces the journey of the couple's maturity from vague recognition to true love very well indeed.


All in all, an enjoyable read.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Richard Tearle
paperback edition reviewed

* The publisher has been notified - we believe the error has been rectified


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20 February 2020

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore, reviewed by Nicky Galliers


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Amazon UK  (not yet available)
Amazon US  ( available to pre-order
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LGBT / Romance

18th century
London Europe
ADULT CONTENT

This review must come with a gentle warning that the novel contains descriptions of male love and some explicit language.


Benjamin and Edgar live in London in the mid to late eighteenth century with their parents, a Welshman who owns a passenger line operating between London and New York, and their dedicated but mysterious mother. She's mysterious in that they know nothing about her and this only seems to bother Benjamin. Their mother is the architect of their isolated education as she trains them to be Good Englishmen but in keeping them from the world, even requiring two twenty-somethings to request if they may go to bed, sending them out into the world on the Grand Tour (they are not poor) was never going to end well. Filled with knowledge about the world but never having really lived in it, their expectations will be challenged.

Paris brings the expected pleasures and then some unexpected revelations about the mother that Edgar views as little short of saintly, shake the foundations of their world and a rebuttal that hurts sends them onwards, to Aosta in Italy, a place you never linger, and there Benjamin meets Horace Lavelle, an exotic, gilded young man, who dazzles Benjamin with his beauty and unconventional outlook on the world. Acerbic, cutting, but also charming and seductive, Benjamin doesn't stand a chance. Edgar takes immediately against his brother's new friend and Benjamin has to make a choice that will alter everything they have ever known or been led to believe about the world.

A Grand Tour indeed, Neil Blackmore takes us through Europe with delightful detail and precise description that conjures a past world and paints an exotic backdrop to a passionate and ultimately tragic love story. Even London is explored, the Good parts and the Bad, a London that few would recognise if dropped in the middle of it.

However, the reader is left with the knowledge that, despite all the revelations, all the sacrifices and deep and meaningful conversations, Benjamin is entirely deceived by Horace. The love is one sided and Benjamin never quite sees that - he almost gets there, and always draws back, maybe because it is too painful for him to consider. He is blinded by the beauty of his friend, and fails to recognise, or, at least, acknowledge, the mercenary nature of Horace. Horace's refusal to tell Benjamin he loves him is quite telling and  is entirely due to Benjamin's parents' wealth and not any great feeling for the man himself - he has proved that he will say and do anything for money. In that, the end of the novel is quite sad, that Benjamin is constantly craving something that never was, beyond his own mind. It is his feelings of love he misses, not Horace's, not his emotional love, in any case.

Interesting, certainly, a glorious peek into a bygone world, although the ending was perhaps rather rushed and a tad obvious and maybe a little unfinished - but then life doesn't always tie off its loose ends.

A charming novel, beautifully written, and the sexual content is more delicate than it could have been, rendering it rather sensual.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds

©Nicky Galliers

 e-version reviewed






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19 February 2020

The Cold Palace by Melissa Addey reviewed by Annie Whitehead

shortlisted for Book of the Month
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"Ms Addey is adept at painting the scenery, placing her characters precisely in their time frame and place in the world, and then describing their actions so that we don't so much read about them as see them up close. Her world-building is superb."


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Biographical Fiction

18th Century
China
Forbidden City Series #4

18th century China. In a devastating breach of etiquette, the Empress of China cuts off her hair and is exiled by a furious Emperor to ‘the cold palace’. Historians still do not know what caused her to take this step.


Ula Nara is a happy sixteen-year-old, in love and betrothed. But before she can be married, she must attend the Imperial Daughters’ Draft. When she is chosen as a bride to the heir to the throne, her beloved vows to become a monk, while Ula Nara must face a lifetime of regret. Determined to make her pain worth something, she aims for the pinnacle of success: to become Empress. But perhaps being an Empress is not worth as much as she thought and happiness may lie in the simpler things.


Regular readers of Discovering Diamonds' reviews will know that I have read a lot of Melissa Addey's books and enjoyed every one of them. This is no exception. Yet reading this book with a review in mind put me in a bit of a quandary, which I'll explain shortly. But first, to the book. As usual, Ms Addey is adept at painting the scenery, placing her characters precisely in their time frame and place in the world, and then describing their actions so that we don't so much read about them as see them up close. Her world-building is superb.

I've 'met' Ula Nara before, and in earlier books she is presented as the enemy, a bitter woman who takes any opportunity to 'dish the dirt' on her rivals, often for no apparent reason. Here, she tells her own story. The environment is strange: women are chosen to become the emperors' wives and concubines and live a sort of cloistered life. They make friends and forge alliances where they can, and intimacy is found in unusual circumstances. Bereft, forced to leave her life and love behind and enter the Forbidden City, Ula Nara finds that comfort and closeness can take many forms. Whether Ms Addey is writing about a lesbian affair, or that between an imperial consort and a eunuch, she ensures that the scenes are delicate; full of love, tenderness and - oddly - despair, in equal measure.

And now to my quandary: at one moment in The Cold Palace, Ula Nara witnesses an intimate moment between Lady Niuhuru (the emperor's primary consort) and a Jesuit priest. This becomes important later on and answers a question I'd had after reading The Garden of Perfect Brightness. (In fact, it was a real 'a-ha!' moment for me.) We also see Ula Nara interacting with the main characters from The Consorts, and at this point I made a note that really readers should read these two books first before approaching The Cold Palace. But, towards the end of the book, the woman known as the Fragrant Concubine makes an appearance, having a radical effect on Ula Nara's life and I realised that, although I haven't read The Fragrant Concubine, it made no difference to my enjoyment and understanding of The Cold Palace. So, should I recommend that readers start somewhere else rather than here? I solved my quandary by deciding that no, because while The Cold Palace can be viewed as a companion piece to the other other novels in the series, it doesn't really matter where you start; such is the quality of Ms Addey's writing, and skill with inter-weaving story-lines, that each book can be read as a standalone whilst knowledge of any other books in the series provides deeper insight.

In other words, if you know what's happened in the other books, you'll have those 'a-ha' moments but if you don't, it really won't detract from the main narrative.

Ula Nara is a deeply unhappy albeit self-aware woman and at first I found it harder to sympathise with her than with some other women featured in the series. Yes, she's bitter about being forced to leave her betrothed, but the other women are in similar situations and they react differently, less viciously indeed. But herein lies the strength of the Forbidden City series, for even though these women live their lives behind high walls, sequestered, we are shown that, human nature being what it is, people react differently to the same set of circumstances. By the end of the book I was almost cheering for Ula Nara and the closing pages left me with a little tear in my eye.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 
© Annie Whitehead

 e-version reviewed

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18 February 2020

Sword of Shadows by Jeri Westerson Reviewed by Kristen McQuinn


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"I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip"


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Mystery / Arthurian
14th century
London / Cornwall

We are nearing the end of the adventures of Crispin Guest, disgraced lord and knight, self-created Tracker of London. In this tale, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired by Cornish treasure hunter Carantok Teague to assist him in finding a long lost sword. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur that Teague seeks. Crispin is, of course, skeptical, but takes the job as he needs money, as always. Teague leads them to Tintagel, the fabled birthplace of King Arthur, to seek the sword. While there, two men in the castle guard are murdered, and Crispin is sidetracked from the search for the sword to investigate the deaths. Along the way, he encounters Kat Pyke, his one-time lover, as well as a host of young women jilted by one of the murdered men, and a hidden village in the forest full of Druids. Exactly what Crispin needs to have an interesting time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip to me. The murder investigation element of the story takes a fairly normal course, and certainly not all is as it first appears. The Arthurian element was fun because who hasn’t thought about that sword in the stone or of where its final resting place might really be? I did feel that the Arthurian sections were not as well fleshed out as the rest, but that just adds to the mystery a bit. And the surprise at the end was a delight.


Jack is grown now and Crispin is letting him take the lead on a variety of tasks that he wouldn’t have before. It is good to see Jack grow from a mischievous young boy to an honorable, dependable man. If she wanted to, Westerson could easily continue her medieval noir novels with Jack as the protagonist and new Tracker, with Crispin making cameo appearances. I think she has no such plans, but it is still fun to consider, as well as the final story in the series. I know how *I* hope Crispin’s tale ends, but we shall have to wait and see what Ms Westerson thinks about it!

Strongly recommended!

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds

© Kristen McQuinn

 e-version reviewed

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17 February 2020

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick Reviewed by: Helen Hollick

Shortlisted for Book of the Month


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"It is the minute detail that Ms Chadwick so excels in that brings the story and her characters to life"

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Biographical fiction / romance
1100s
Ireland, England, Wales

"Aoife MacMurchada is just 14 years old when her father Diarmit, King of Leinster, is brutally deposed, and her family is forced to flee Southern Ireland into English exile. Diarmit seeks help from King Henry II, an alliance that leads him to the charismatic Richard de Clare, lord of Striguil, a man dissatisfied with his lot and open to new horizons. Diarmit promises Richard wealth, lands, and Aoife's hand in marriage in return for his aid, but Aoife, has her own thoughts on the matter. She may be a prize, but she is not a pawn and she will play the game to her own advantage. From the royal halls of scheming kings, to staunch Welsh border fortresses and across storm-tossed seas to the wild green kingdoms of Ireland, The Irish Princess is a sumptuous, journey of ambition and desire, love and loss, heartbreak and survival."


Yes, the names of the characters are difficult for non-Irish speakers to get their tongues and heads around; yes Aoife MacMurchada is a princess few people outside (even inside!) Ireland have heard of  - but yes, this is an absorbing and brilliantly written novel. Although few readers of historical fiction would expect anything less of Ms. Chadwick.


It is the minute detail that Ms Chadwick so excels in that brings the story and her characters to life, and not just the detail of the meticulous research that goes to form the framework of the history itself. The little human things like a little girl contemplating whether to wet the bed and put up with the result or braving the cold outside to use the chamber pot, her hiding beneath her father's chair and falling asleep in the folds of his long cloak. The grief at the loss of a loved kindred, the patting of a foal, the gazing into the fog - a fog which echoes the inability to see what lies ahead when a new king comes to the throne. Especially when that king happens to be the volatile Henry fitzEmpress - Henry II.

I suppose I have to say something critical (with difficulty for there is little to criticise.) There are scenes of violence that could be a little disturbing to some readers - these were violent times, after all. No spoilers, but hostages were taken for a reason in the twelfth-century political and military turbulence, and unfortunately these hostages often suffered the consequences. Some scenes are also slightly sexually explicit - but for both these comments I stress this is an adult book about adults doing adult things and written for adults to read.

Maybe the book is more 'romance' than some of Ms Chadwick's other novels? (The Eleanor of Aquitaine Trilogy and the William Marshal series for instance). Was Aoife a little too spoiled as a child, a bit precocious perhaps? But then you could say that about the majority of heroines (and heroes). As in the fashion of most biographical historical fiction of this nature the time-span jumps quite a bit; one chapter depicts one particular week or day, then the next shows a glimpse of the next event of note, hopping from one season or year to another for a snippet of  the lives of these people who once lived, loved, fought and died. But these were complex times and complex characters, and historical novels of this kind are not meant to be linear stories of the day-by-day minutiae of life.

Ms Chadwick skilfully shows us these glimpses, not as a blow-by-blow (somewhat tedious) memoir, but as if we were time-travellers popping back every so often to watch, quietly and secretly from the shadows, the events of the past.

I loved it.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Helen Hollick

 e-version reviewed

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