Monday, 14 June 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Raided Heart by Jennifer Wilson

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU

Fictional Drama / Romance

"Northumberland, 1470s. Ambitious reiver Will Hetherington wants to prove himself a competent man in the company of Robert Mathers, head of the village. Headstrong Meg Mathers, Robert’s younger sister, wants to remain at her beloved home, caring for her family, the land and the village of Long Ridge where she’s grown up. When an accident throws Meg and Will together, attraction builds, and both begin to realise they might just have met their match. But life on the 15th century border is never that simple, and Meg finds herself betrothed to the weakling son of tyrannical neighbour, Alexander Gray. When tragedy strikes, can Meg and Will find their way back to each other, and can Will finally take his own personal revenge on Gray?"

In the 15th-century Borders, young Will Hetherington, an outsider taken into the Mather family’s village, is eager to prove himself both loyal, and a competent, valuable reiver.  Raiding across the line dividing Scotland from England for cattle is a dangerous business, and men must be excellent riders, quick thinkers – but also obey orders. When Will’s mare accidentally injures Meg Mathers, the youngest daughter of the family, Will is ordered to give her all the assistance she needs during her recovery. He’s not happy about this, but he can’t afford to disobey.

The Borders is not an easy land, neither politically nor geographically. Windswept, rocky moorland, treacherous bog, thin soil – all make agriculture difficult. Cross-border theft and destruction; families manoeuvring for position and authority; the unique justice system of the March Wardens and laws specific to retribution for raids led to a way of life very different than other parts of England. Jennifer Wilson has positioned her romance between Will and Meg against this setting.

The role of and expectations for Meg are clear: she is to help run the house and village until a suitable marriage is arranged. She is an asset to be bargained with, to help create or solidify alliances among the reiver families. Will has been accepted by the Mathers after raiders destroyed his own home, following his sister, who has married into the village, but he has no status to allow him to be considered as a husband for Meg.

The story is told in clear, competent prose and with dialogue that flows naturally. We watch the romance growing between Meg and Will against a background of the tasks of house and village and the concerns of the Mathers to balance the opposing factions and the law. But Meg’s responsibilities to her family must take precedence over her own wishes, regardless of what her heart tells her. There are plenty of twists and turns, reversals and barriers in The Raided Heart, enough to keep the reader wondering how – or if – this love story will reach the desired conclusion.

The social and legal structure of Northumberland in the 15th century are described well; what I found lacking in the book was a sense of place. Other than town names and the description of a bastle, the fortified house common to the reiver families, there is little to ground the reader in the distinctive landscape of Northumbria. Yet it is a landscape that helped create the reiver way of life, and must have been both an immense challenge to navigate and a refuge for those who knew it well. 

That comment aside, this is a novel recommended for fans of romance embedded in a larger historical story.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

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Sunday, 13 June 2021

SundayGuest Spot - Nancy Jardine

Continuing our Sunday Series
of taking a look at some fabulous authors!

Hello Nancy, welcome to our Discovering Diamonds Guest Spot. Along with my readers and visitors I love to hear from authors who write wonderful stories. There’s nothing better than curling up with a good book,  box of chocs and glass of wine to hand!

Q. Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself...
A. My life as a fiction author officially started when I hung up my dominie cloak for the last time in 2011 (ex-primary teacher). I’ve been traditionally published by a couple of small independent publishers since 2012; hybrid when I made my first foray into self-publishing in 2015; and since late 2018, all of my 9 titles are self-published with Ocelot Press, a co-operative of authors.  

Q. Where do you live?
A. In a historic village in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, which was first granted Royal Burgh status in the late 12th century. Archaeology spanning thousands of years is all around me, which is really excellent since I’m continually obsessed by archaeological discoveries, which I use to inform my historical fiction set in Late 1st Century Roman Britain. I’m extremely favoured in that my daughter and family live in a house that was built for them next door, on what was originally my vegetable garden/ ‘mini-orchard’. I get to see my young grandkids regularly, and thankfully don’t have nearly as much garden ground to tend. 

Q. If you had a choice to live anywhere – where would it be?
A. I’ve no desire to live anywhere else, though I could definitely do with the local rain goddess having more days off! 

Q. Modern house, old cottage, castle or something else?
A. My granite house is a hotchpotch of old and slightly-less old and has a unique village history. 1820s built, it has adjacent granite outbuildings which include a 2-horse stable (now the wood shed). It was owned by a series of village doctors from the late Victorian era, and in 1900 a granite surgery extension was added on at that time.  Later on, a waiting room for patients was built on to the surgery room in the 1960s, a ‘health and safety’ requirement back then. Patients no longer entered by the house front door to wait in the large hall, till called through to the surgery by the doctor. 
These details were given to me by a doctor who grew up in the house in the 1950s and 1960s. He said his father (the incumbent doctor) did ‘tonsillectomies’ and ‘other surgical work’ on their long kitchen table. 

Q. Cat,  dog or budgie?
A. Never had a pet, though not because I dislike animals. 

Q. Are you a ‘dining room for dinner’, or a ‘tray on your lap in front of the TV’ person?
A. Dining room when we have guests: all other times we eat at the kitchen table. I’m pleased to say that the table currently in my kitchen is also long, but not the same one that was used for surgeries! 

Q. TV preferences – documentary, drama, comedy, soap or thriller?
A. Lunchtime and 10 o’clock news, and other politics programmes. I use I-Player nowadays and do catch-up on TV historical series’. Via Amazon Prime I’ve recently enjoyed some Russian produced ones (subtitled), though they can be a bit ponderous  - Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace come to mind, but since I loved reading them, that’s fine by me. 

Q. What was your first published novel about?
A. Monogamy Twist - a contemporary romantic comedy mystery.
In late 2011, I was embroiled in personal ancestral research and simultaneously following a Dickens series on TV. I decided Charles Dickens wouldn’t mind me borrowing his theme of a weird inheritance to use as the basis for a humorous contemporary novel. The mystery of Greywood Hall was born – a slightly ‘tired’ old mansion on the fringes of  the Yorkshire Dales. Lots of ancestral secrets must be uncovered when it’s left in an extremely quirky bequest to my handsome hero, Luke Salieri. The Wild Rose Press published the first edition in 2012, the title of Monogamy Twist being eventually agreed as a compromise with my editor of the time. [To be honest, I can’t remember now what my working title was!]

Q. What was your last novel about?
A. My last novel, Beathan The Brigante, is Book 5 of my Celtic Fervour Series and is the story of young warrior Beathan of Garrigill. [At the end of Book 3 of the series, not quite13 years old, Beathan is captured by the Ancient Romans after a pitched battle in north-eastern Caledonia – Ancient Romans against the Caledonian tribes of the north.] Beathan the Brigante relates the couple of years that Beathan is held as a hostage and depicts his highly-unusual relationship with the Ancient Roman General Agricola, who drags Beathan all the way to Rome. During his captivity, Beathan exists to gain freedom and vengeance over his captors and Vindolanda Roman Fort (Hadrian’s Wall area) is the scene of some justified revenge, before he re-unites with his clan in Caledonia. Torrin, a female Brigante warrior, is a great help to Beathan and just might be a little more than that… (I’m adding a winky smile here 😉 ) 

Q. Do you write in one genre or several?
A. Several. 
My 5-book Celtic Fervour Series is historical fiction, with varying degrees of romance, set in late 1st century Roman Britain/ Roman Caledonia. 
My time-travel historical novel - The Taexali Game -  is set in AD 210 when the Ancient Roman Emperor Severus invades ‘Aberdeenshire’. There’s archaeological evidence that points to Severan troops being in my home area around this time. (Intended to be enjoyed from early teens, I’m delighted that adult readers  have given it a definite thumbs up! 
Topaz Eyes is a complex romantic suspense mystery/thriller. Monogamy Twist is a light-hearted romantic comedy mystery. Both of these have dominating ancestral/historical themes.
Take Me Now is a fun romantic romp I call my ‘corporate sabotage’ mystery (That title was also a compromise with my Wild Rose Press editor in 2012, my working title suggestion being ‘Taking Me There’). 

Q. Have you ever considered exploring a totally different genre?
A.  Not presently! My WIP is planned as a 3-book family saga beginning in 1850s Scotland, but will follow one main character through different generations to probably the 1920s, or early 1930s. In that way, it differs from my Celtic Fervour Series, which features different clan members. 

Q. If you could, which two of your characters would you like to invite to spend an afternoon with you?
A. Oh, difficult question! 
1. General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola (Books 4 & 5 Celtic Fervour Series). He is a genuine historical figure, though little is known about his personal life. We only know what his son-in-law – the Ancient Roman writer Cornelius Tacitus – writes about him. Agricola could tell me so….much…real history.
2. Aela Cameron from Take Me Now – a feisty, adaptable young lass from Vancouver, Canada. She flies Nairn Malcolm, a grumpy temporarily debilitated hero, all over the world in his jet and his floatplane. She’s not fazed by the madman bent on wreaking havoc on Nairn.  

Q. Where would you go / what would you do?
I’d take General Agricola across the road from my garden and have him describe what the site was like back in AD 84, when 10,000 of his Ancient Roman troops were encamped there for a short time (Deer’s Den Roman Camp at Kintore). He’d tell me where the Battle of Mons Graupius (as described by Cornelius Tacitus) was fought against Calgacus and the Caledonians. I’d give him an enormous hug if he confirmed that Bennachie (9 miles from my house) was the battle site – because that’s where I’ve depicted the battle in After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks (Book 3 Celtic Fervour Series) 
Aela would fly me up the west coast of Scotland in Nairn’s floatplane, taking in all of the Hebridean islands. The idea for Take Me Now was prompted by an extended-family birthday trip in a seaplane from Glasgow to Oban, on the west coast. It was incredible to fly at such a low altitude, the illusion being that I could almost touch the grass beneath the plane, compared to flying in a normal commercial jet. Being Canadian, Aela might not know the history of the areas flown over, but I’d be delighted to tell her all I’ve learned over the years of visiting them! 

Q. How do you prefer to travel? Plane, boat, car?
A. I like all forms of travel.
A local balloon flight was a tad nerve-wracking at lift-off (very noisy and wobbly) but was fabulous after that. Seeing the patchwork of fields below, the details of local Aberdeenshire castles so clear, and the tree tops so close when descending was incredible! 
I’m a good sailor and can cope with bad weather. In Aug. 2017, we had force 9 and 10 gales for more than two days on a cruise to Greenland, which was quite an experience! Very few passengers were staggering about, so my husband and I found we had the bars to ourselves. A cruise in early April 2020, to the Iberian Peninsula, was sadly cancelled due to Covid 19. 
Long-haul flights are okay, since I’m only 5 ft 2 and leg room isn’t an issue. I read a novel, or watch a film, and am generally surprised to find we’re approaching the landing phase. 

Q. You are out for a walk. You see a chap sitting on a wall, looking right fed up – but there’s something odd about him... What? And what  do you do?
A. If I had to pass by to continue where I was going, I’d ask if he was okay – because that’s what normally happens in my area, people doing the ‘hello thing’ with complete strangers in the street, or countryside. Though, I’d ask at a distance if I felt in any way unnerved by him – even before Covid 19 has made that the ‘new norm’. 

We have a long-running Radio programme here in the UK called Desert Island Discs on which celebrities talk about their life and select eight of their favourite discs... so changing that slightly...

Q. If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what eight books would you want to find left in an abandoned hut? (There’s already a Bible, the Quran, and the complete works of Shakespeare)

Big fat books! And… I’d be greedy. 
1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
2. War and Peace.
3. Gone with the Wind.
4. The Outlander Series books.
5. Ulysses by James Joyce (Because I’d maybe understand it better now than I did as a student aged19, and would hopefully now appreciate the classical references) 
6. A Guide to living off the land! 
7. An omnibus of Charles Dickens books.
8. The complete works of Robert Burns. (I’d enjoy the poems and would have the words to sing many of the songs that I learned as a child, but now forget the lyrics to them.)

Q. What sort of island would you prefer, and why? (e.g. Desert Island... Hebridian Island...)
A. A warm one, anywhere. Survival on a Scottish Island would be so much tougher. 

Q. And you would be allowed one luxury item – what would you want it to be? (a boat or something to escape on isn’t allowed.)
A. soap or shampoo (I love my daily shower)

Connect with Nancy Jardine:

Amazon Author page 

Click HERE (and scroll down to 'J') to find our  reviews of Nancy's books  on Discovering Diamonds

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Friday, 11 June 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Bright Helm by Christine Hancock

Fictional Saga
10th Century / Anglo Saxon

The Byrhtnoth Chronicles: Book 4

"Separated by anger and unanswered questions, Byrhtnoth and Saewynn are brought together by a tragic death. Re-united, they set out on an epic voyage to discover the final truth about his father. The journey takes them far to the north, to Orkney, swathed in the mists of treachery, and to Dublin’s slave markets where Byrhtnoth faces a fateful decision. How far will he go, to save those he cares for?"

Anyone interested in Anglo-Saxon history will be familiar with Byrhtnoth, his name being famous for his death at the Battle of Maldon in AD 991. (Another of our English heroes who are highly regarded for losing a battle, rather than winning it – the Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harold Godwinson, being another.)

This is the fourth in Ms Hancock’s saga about the life of Byrhtnoth, an intriguing fictional account of a man whom, were it not for his death, we would probably know nothing at all about beyond, perhaps, his name. She has woven the few facts into a lengthy story, using as much research as is available to create something which at least feels ‘real’.

This is a novel – a series – about a journey through life, with all its excitements and thrills, dangers and disappointments. The characters and events are credible, although not knowing over-much of Anglo-Saxon history I cannot say how well the research or accuracy has been done.

Maybe a little slow to start? But then I have not read the previous three books, so I did feel slightly disorientated and found myself looking up a few things on Google and Wikipedia. I suggest, therefore, if you enjoy novels of this period, perhaps it would be best to start at Book One? 
Recommended for readers interested in this particular period of English history.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Jack Holt

 e-version reviewed

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Wednesday, 9 June 2021

It Happened On Fifth Street- a tale of forgotten heroes by Robyn R. Pearce

shortlisted for Book Of The Month

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU

Timeslip / Fictional drama / Young Adult
Contemporary / 1800s
New Zealand / USA

Freedom Series Book

1837. America. A hidden letter. Family secrets. And Alf – determined to uncover them. 2015. New Zealand. A forgotten tin trunk. An old coin. And Abigail – searching through ancient documents. Suddenly, Abi is hurled back in time. She comes to, sprawled on the floor of a strange room. A boy in old-fashioned clothes is looking at her in shock. He’s holding a letter – one she’s just read. They pool their knowledge. What is the Committee of Vigilance? What is Joseph doing at night, down by the Ohio River? Could it be something to do with slavery, the vile trade his father rants about? But nothing adds up. It takes ages, but at last – a breakthrough. They crack the secret and Alf demands to be included. He’s sworn to silence, for lives and livelihoods are in grave danger. And then, things go bad. Very bad. It Happened on Fifth Street: a tale of forgotten heroes is a coming-of-age historical novel and the first in the Freedom Series”. 

1800s slavery in what would become the United States is an emotive subject. If handled badly, or deliberately ‘Hollywood-esque’ stereotypical, a novel can be at best an uninteresting read, at worst, bordering on racism. It Happened On Fifth Street, however, is neither. It’s a super novel with a delicate subject matter sensitively handled. Equally, the timeslip element is well done, in a believable manner. 

Although the protagonist is a teenager, adult readers will enjoy this story as much as any young adult. The historical detail is skilfully interwoven into the fictional, the characters are interesting and the read itself engrossing and entertaining – while making you think. We have action, suspense, adventure, danger and throughout that ‘page turner’ need to find out what happens next.

The author takes us into a different world, where attitudes towards slaves, slavery and prejudice are very different to our own today, and helps the modern reader to make sense of these pre- Civil War attitudes. Suitable for boys as well as girls (and don’t we all welcome a novel which will attract young male readers!) and probably a cliché, but this is the sort of novel which should be compulsory reading in all schools, worldwide. 

Very enjoyable. I look forward to the next in the series.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Helen Hollick
 e-version reviewed

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Monday, 7 June 2021

Maud's Circus by Michelle Rene

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU

Biographical fiction

"In a time when women were restricted in every aspect, Maud Wagner became the first female tattoo artist in North America. Maud ran away to join the circus when she was a teenager. By 1904, she was working as a contortionist at the World’s Fair when she met the famous tattoo artist, Gus Wagner. She struck a deal with him: she’d give him a date if he gave her a tattoo—and a lesson in how to create them. Along with her husband and daughter, for more than fifty years, Maud travelled the country tattooing the masses. Throughout this fictionalized biopic, we see Maud and her family manage their way through life inside the safety of their beloved circus. Each life Maud touches leaves its mark, quite literally."

From the first page we’re drawn into Maud’s ghastly home life. We rejoice as she escapes to the circus while still a young girl, and we journey with her through the years as she travels throughout the country, expanding her skills to make an excellent living as an itinerant performer in a very precarious industry.

We experience her heartbreaks and joys, meeting many memorable true-life characters along the way. 

The author’s research was excellent: I learnt a lot about the art of tattooing and the story was very well developed. The pace is maintained throughout, the writing is tight, and I enjoyed the characters.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 
© Robyn Pearce
 e-version reviewed

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Sunday, 6 June 2021

Sunday Guest Spot - JeffreyWalker

Continuing our Sunday Series
of taking a look at some fabulous authors!

Hello Jeffrey, welcome to our Discovering Diamonds Guest Spot. Along with my readers and visitors I love to hear from authors who write wonderful stories. There’s nothing better than curling up with a good book,  box of chocs and glass of wine to hand!

Q. Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself...
A. I was born and raised in what's now a stereotypical Midwest USA dying industrial town—but back then was the Glass Container Capital of the World. A lot of beer bottles. I mean a LOT of beer bottles. I escaped at 18 for university and never returned. This included a one-year stint at St Andrew's in Scotland, where I met my wife of 38 years.

Q. Where do you live?
A. We live in the Commonwealth (don't you dare say State) of Virginia, two miles from Jamestown Island, the first English settlement that didn't die in North America. We're near Williamsburg, which is rather like Colonial Disneyworld. We also just purchased a vacation beach house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, (A locale your Captain Acorne would know well Helen.)

Q. If you had a choice to live anywhere – where would it be?
A. Can I pick seasonal residences? In my dream life, I'd rotate between Spring in the Virginia Tidewater, summer in the Western Isles of Scotland, autumn in Paris, and winter in Costa Rica. 

Q. Modern house, old cottage, castle or something else?
A.  A thoroughly renovated old cottage with modern loos and central heat.

Q. Cat,  dog or budgie?
A. Dog. No cats. I can't abide a pet smarter than me who wished to kill me in my sleep.  And I'm a Yank, so please explain this "budgie" concept?

Q. Are you a ‘dining room for dinner’, or a ‘tray on your lap in front of the TV’ person?
A. Dining room. I loathe eating with a television on. That's a longstanding rule in chez Walker.

Q. TV preferences – documentary, drama, comedy, soap or thriller?
A. Yes.

Q. What was your first published novel about?
A. Newfoundlander pals who head off to war in 1914 and a Dublin nurse whose paths cross on the first day of the Somme.

Q. What was your last novel about?
A. The family of that self-same Irish nurse, set mostly in the pub her mother runs during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War.

Q. Do you write in one genre or several?
A.  So far, I've published three historical novels. I have three WIPs—one non-fiction, one mystery/thriller, and one lit fic. Writing being my, I don't know, eighth career, I've never held a job for long either.

Q. Have you ever considered exploring a totally different genre?
A. I suppose with a couple hundred 1,500-word blog posts on Very Random Topics, I'm a de facto essayist now, too. Some say I'm also a humorist—others not so much.

Q. If you could, which two of your characters would you like to invite to spend an afternoon with you?
A. First, Sergeant-Major Pilmore, the Englishman sent to straighten out my Newfoundlanders in None of Us the Same. He's surprisingly well educated and wonderfully profane. Second, I've had an incurable character crush on my Irish nurse, Deirdre Brannigan, since Book One. My wife would need to chaperone, most decidedly.  (BTW, I actually interviewed six of my characters in my blog the weeks before the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. Here's the link: )

Q. Where would you go / what would you do? 
A. To The Gallant Fusilier, the pub in No Hero's Welcome, with Sgt-Maj Pilmore, after sincerely apologizing for offing him at Gallipoli. It was most painful for me, too. With Deirdre, I'd go sailing with her aboard her husband's cod schooner, the Ricky Todd, on a rumrunning voyage from St. John's down to "the Boston States."
Q. How do you prefer to travel? Plane, boat, car?
A. When I'm in Europe, by train. In the States, by air—because our trains are shite.

Q. You are out for a walk. You see a chap sitting on a wall, looking right fed up – but there’s something odd about him... What? And what  do you do?
A. Is he a very large egg? No? Then I'd sit next to him. Walls are a fine place for a good think. Maybe ask him back to the pub for a pint and a chin about what's irking him.

We have a long-running Radio programme here in the UK called Desert Island Discs on which celebrities talk about their life and select eight of their favourite discs... so changing that slightly...

Q. If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what eight books would you want to find left in an abandoned hut? (There’s already a Bible, the Quran, and the complete works of Shakespeare)

1. Pride and Prejudice
2. A Passage to India
3. For Whom the Bell Tolls
4. Main Street (Sinclair Lewis)
5. Trinity (Leon Uris)
6. The Confessions of St Augustine
7. David Copperfield
8. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England

Q. What sort of island would you prefer, and why? (e.g. Desert Island... Hebridian Island...)
A. Anywhere in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Q. And you would be allowed one luxury item – what would you want it to be? (a boat or something to escape on isn’t allowed.)
A. A downy quilt — it's the bloody Hebrides.

Jeffrey's website:

Click HERE (and scroll down to 'W') to find our  reviews of Jeffrey's books  on Discovering Diamonds

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Friday, 4 June 2021

The Edge of Hell by S K Keogh

shortlisted for book of the month

US Civil War

"Thirteen thousand Union soldiers will lose their lives at Andersonville prison. James Keenan is determined Nate Calhoun will not be one of them. James and Nate have nothing more in common than their rural hometown. In Burr Oak, class distinction and petty jealousies pit the two young men against each other. Their combative relationship carries over into the ranks of the Eleventh Michigan Infantry, where Nate struggles to live up to the reputation left behind by his brother, and James contends with an abusive sergeant, Robert Langdon. Once a preacher in Burr Oak, Langdon seeks retribution for James’s part in his fall from grace. The bloody battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga wipe away past differences and forge a deep bond between James and Nate. As Sherman’s armies march inexorably toward Atlanta, Nate’s capture puts that bond to the test. Determined to rescue his friend from notorious Andersonville prison, James risks desertion to embark on a dangerous journey through the wilderness of war-torn Georgia, pursued by Langdon, bent on revenge.The Edge of Hell tells the story of the rank and file from small-town America—farmers and shop-owners who made up the nucleus of the Federal army and, through extraordinary valor, preserved the Union."

I never fail to appreciate that being a Discovering Diamonds reviewer means that I find myself reading books which I wouldn't ordinarily have picked up, and this is a case in point. This is a war story (not my preferred genre), with battles described in detail. For page after page, chapter after chapter, we spend time with the men of the Eleventh Michigan and there is no let up, apart from one evening where the boys attend a dance and Langdon shows his true colours in a particularly nasty way.

In some ways, the time spent out on the campaign with the soldiers makes for claustrophobia, but then you begin to realise that you're there with these men and boys, living every moment, and you see how the bonds between them are formed and, in some cases, broken. And these are not just lines of soldiers; we really get to know them as individuals.

The opening chapters are benign, set in Burr Oak, where war seems far away, and with the characters of Nate and James being introduced. It is immediately clear that these two, in normal circumstances, will never be friends. Then we go to war, it gets extremely intense, and I feared that the story might be heading into a sort of 'Boy's Own Adventure Story' territory. I was wrong. The fighting, the deprivation, the real-life horror of the war: these are all shown starkly and I fully expected that. What I did not expect was how much I would care.

I won't give away any spoilers but not all of the young men make it to the end of the story, and those death scenes, not all on the battlefield, were incredibly moving and poignant. 

We really see how these young soldiers, antagonistic at first, learn to  respect, and then care for each other. Feelings of duty, of responsibility, and guilt are raw, and well-described.

I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to focus the story purely on the battles and the awful scenes in Andersonville without switching from time to time to scenes set back in Burr Oak, but no, it absolutely had to be depicted this way. The soldiers couldn't get home, so why should we? Sticking with them for scene after scene we understand how much they come to matter to each other; they literally depend on one another to live. 

On a side note, it was interesting to see how these Unionist soldiers reacted when they came 'up close and personal' with slaves, and how they also had some lessons to learn. 

Was this book my preferred genre? No.
Was it well written and well plotted? Yes.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed

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Wednesday, 2 June 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of From the Ashes by Melissa Addey

79/80 CE

Set in Rome in 79/80 CE at the time of the construction of the Flavian amphitheatre that we now call the Colosseum, this novel tells of the lives and struggles of the backstage team who are to organise the first hundred days of events. As with modern music festivals, coronations, or Olympic games today, ancient Roman games didn’t just happen. Ex-centurion Marcus, who managed the amphitheatre in Pompeii, is contracted to create and run the opening ceremony and first few months of events in the biggest amphitheatre in the empire – Rome. Not an easy task, especially as he is grieving for his young family crushed in Pompeii under the Vesuvius eruption. Althea, a Greek slave woman, serves as his scribe and becomes his right-hand woman, friend and more.

The research in general is very good; descriptions of streets, buildings, clothes, food, transport, religion and superstition are comprehensive and well done, sometimes almost touching on the info-dump, but the writing is clear and fluent enough to bring us back from that precipice. The attitude to gladiators, Christians, animals and criminals is mostly realistic but surprisingly un-gory. Perhaps this is tempered for a modern readership?

The author resisted the urge to describe the disaster at Pompeii as it happened but made it more horrific as news trickled through to Rome and then as the two main characters visited in the aftermath. Althea turns through her mind what it must have been like. These were strong and very moving scenes.

The characters are well-defined and vivid and the developing relationships – collegiate and romantic – are warm and emotional. From the Ashes is, of course, fiction not history, but the interaction between Althea and her former master, Lucius, and between her and Marcus are more 21st century than 1st century. Rome was an extremely class conscious society and the difference between free citizen and enslaved human property was a gaping chasm. All slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood. They could be sold at a whim and whipped or flogged for the tiniest infraction or misplaced word, whatever their place in the slave hierarchy. Althea questioning her social-climbing first master, Lucius, seemed unrealistic and somewhat jarring when placed into an accurate historical context.

Marcus, however friendly and pragmatic, was a former centurion, a rank earned from years of personal discipline and hard battle in brutal circumstances. As a Roman man of that experience from a land-holding family, it is unimaginable that he would allow a slave to address him familiarly, even in private. Nor would he express his feelings so overtly. As the relationship develops and Althea is freed, and they both work in the raffish atmosphere of the backstage Colosseum, their more informal relationship does becomes more plausible. 

Although surprise is expressed that Althea is still a virgin at around twenty years of age, this is, however, not enough to deflect this reader’s doubts. By Marcus, Althea is on her third master. Sleeping with your slave and/or lending her, or him, to your friends for the same was so normal as to not be worth mentioning. If female slaves reached thirteen or fourteen years old intact, it was remarkable. I am aware, though, that many readers are over-sensitive to this modern-day uncomfortable fact of history, which is, perhaps why the author circumnavigated the issue. 

While I very much enjoyed the story, the concept, and the vivid writing, this could have been a deeper, more believable story if the author had truly entered the Roman mindset. However, stepping around this inconsistency: as fiction this is a clever concept and a well-developed story; a welcome change from battles, emperors, riots, revolution, assassinations and army heroes. Few of us, even standing in the bright sunshine and atmosphere in the ruins of the Colosseum today, consider the sheer organisational skills and numbers of people behind the events. Sometimes, texts leave frustratingly large holes about the nitty-gritty of day to day life in Ancient Rome.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Alison Morton
 e-version reviewed

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Monday, 31 May 2021

Cover and Book of the Month - May

designer Cathy Helms of
with fellow designer Tamian Wood of
select their chosen Cover of the Month
with all winners going forward for 
Cover of the Year in December 2021


(unknown designer)

(designed by Deranged Doctor Design)


(unknown designer)

read our review
this cover was designed by and is therefore
not included in the cover of the month
A separate annual 'award' is given for these covers 
at the end of the year

Book of the Month

thoroughly engrossing
read our review
I didn't think this would be quite 'for me' but I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Critique Corner

would you like your cover to have a free professional critique?
Find out how here

Welcome to our Discovering Diamonds feature, Critique Corner, where our cover design experts volunteer kind, expert, and constructive critiques to help our readers make the most of their cover designs. Since Discovering Diamonds began in 2017, Cathy Helms of and Tamian Wood of have been co-judging the monthly cover design competition for the site. And since their selected designs have been so well received, they would like to share with all the #DDRev's fans and followers, some pearls of wisdom from their combined 40 years in the cover design business - so, over to Cathy and Tamian...

This month we have a cover submitted by Jen Black - Silver Season Affair

Thanks for sharing your cover! We appreciate your participation.

Tamian's response:

The lovely manor house and clothing of the female figure definitely put us right in the historical fiction genre, for sure. But I'd have to say, this one could use a bit of polish.

My first giveaway that this might be a DIY cover is the all white all centered, all the same size text. Choosing a colour from the image, say a light beige from what looks like (maybe) Cotswold stone (?), would help bring up the sophistication factor. 

And while the font is definitely readable and sufficiently contrasty, it's just the teensiest bit... generic and lackluster. I think this might have been a bit more successful with a font like Desire. Since the sub title hints that there might be some hanky panky goin' on, a slightly more romantic font might not go amis. 

If I were designing this, I'd bring the image of the house down a bit  and add more sky to allow more room for the title to be split on to at least two, possibly three lines. It would have the added bonus of cropping out the tree stump in the foreground. (Some good photoshop skills could get rid of that too) Unless it is a feature in the story, it's just distracting.

I would probably choose a less bold version of the font for the sub title. It's not fighting for attention with a busy background, so a more delicate font would feel less clunky. Also, I'm not sure the quotation marks are necessary. I might also choose a different font altogether for the author name. But KUDOS for being bold and letting it take up some space.

The character does definitely catch the eye, but is most surely a cut and paste that is not blended well into the scene. When I zoom in, I can see the building through her chin and hat. And the lighting doesn't match. Clearly the building light source is a fairly strong light from the upper right. On the girl, at least her face, the lighting is from the lower right. But the thing that strikes me most is how, curiously, her face is a bright orange, while her arm seems more of a normal skin tone. Just evening out that discrepancy would go a long way to improving this cover.

Cathy? What say you?

Cathy’s Response:

Overall, this cover design immediately sells the reader that this is a historical fiction novel. Both the title and the quote on the cover hint at a potential historical romance novel as well.

The background image of the estate is a good solid photo that also works overall – but my eye keeps going to the tree stump in the foreground. On one hand, I wonder if the tree stump ties into the story somehow, does it? But if on the other hand, it does not, then I think it simply needs to be edited out as it is a distraction. We have three elements in this design: the manor house, the lady and the tree stump. I would recommend narrowing that down to just the lady and the house. Those two elements are more than enough to sell this cover.

What I would suggest is blending in a more dramatic sky over the manor house and bringing the house image down to the horizontal center of the cover. The lady could be much larger and shifted over to the left side of the layout. And with a little more detailed design work on her, she can better blend into the layout. I see some issues with the edges of her dress, hat and gloved hands not being clipped out of her original background quite cleanly enough. And I suspect there are a few smudges of white left over from her original background that are floating over the dark grass to her right. And her skin tone needs to be balanced – her face is almost orange while her exposed arm is quite pale in color. We have a very bright sunny day on the manor house yet our lady seems to be in more diffused lighting. I would balance that out so the entire design is equally sunlit.

The typography, with a little editing and font choices, could have better impact as well.  If the manor house is shifted down a bit, then I would stack the title and increase the point size of the letters to fill the top portion of the cover. White is commonly used by non-designers for their text – so to help give this cover a more professional feel, I would use one of the colors out of the bricks of the house or a blush color, or a dark color. The author’s name would be better balanced centered across the bottom, but the font is fine – perhaps not in italics though. The quote – if this is simply the sub-title for the book, I’d recommend not using the quotations at all. And I would place it closer to the title, not in italics, but perhaps all caps.

I hacked up the background enough so that I could play around with the typography placement to better demonstrate what I am suggesting:

I hope that helps. The cover has good elements in it, so with a little extra design work, it could have more impact – especially at thumbnail size.

Thank you again for submitting your cover, Jen!

Discovering Diamonds will be reviewing this title on 9th August