Sunday, 31 January 2021

Sunday Guest Spot - Katherine Ashe

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

Hello Katherine, 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 on these long, cold winter evenings, than curling up with a good book in front of a cosy fire, box of chocs and glass of wine to hand. (Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case it’s still the wine, but a platter of cheese, crackers and grapes to hand, while stretched out in a deckchair in the garden on a warm, sunny, evening...)

Q. Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself...
A. I did a number of things before I turned to writing seriously at age 33. I started out as a painter, then wrote art books for hire. Idealistically thinking to promote peace through trade with China, in the early 1970s I had a business selling quick frozen bull sperm to the Inner Mongolian Grasslands Institute. It was tidily set up to fly cryogenic canisters by Aeroflot to Ulan Bator, when the Texas Cattle Breeders Association stepped in and sold Santa Gertrudis sperm, not as right for Mongolia as my Agway, computer selected North Dakota bulls could produce; but that’s business for you. I also had a fine art limited print publishing company, Contemporary Artists, Inc., satisfying my entrepreneurial instincts before I became devoted to 13th century research and the guiding hand of Dr. Madeleine Cosman, founder of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the City University of New York. I’m married to retired New York theatre critic Peter Wynne. No children; bringing up children would have been difficult with his 4:00 AM deadline.  

Q. Where do you live?
A. We live in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania. A region called Starrucca, “wedding of the waters” in Lenape Indian; the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers nearly meet, separated only by the massif on which I’m perching as I write. All very rural. We’re up about 2,000 feet, in our own forest of 65 acres with a 25 foot high waterfall in the garden. (In the picture, the size of the falls is a bit vague, not so when you’re standing next to it and the earth is shaking.)

Q. If you had a choice to live anywhere – where would it be?
A. Right where I am. I’m embarrassed to say it’s actually improving here with global warming. We used to have a snow pack four feet deep every winter; now it’s just a few picturesque inches with cottony puffs in the trees. But we get enough rain to keep plants happy. 

Q. Modern house, old cottage, castle or something else?
A.  Something else. Our property started out as a mill with an over-shot wheel fed off the top of the waterfall. Of the old buildings, the only thing left is what must have been a little stable for a horse and wagon. It now is our south bedroom. The porch that a hunter added onto the stable, when he converted it to a hunting shack, is now Peter’s studio. Some time in the 1960s “Doc” Wiley, the printing shop boss at the New York Daily News, bought the property and built a cottage some 20 feet away from the hunter’s shack. Wiley had a hopeful notion of putting a swimming pool between the two buildings. But, digging down just a few inches, he found a massive boulder in the way. So he roofed the space, added a large stone fireplace and front door on one side and an expanse of glass on the other, overlooking the stream. We’ve rebuilt the house twice so now it’s sturdy; but what designation fits it? The house is called Fernwood – for the ferns that carpet the woods. With the steep gables we’ve added during our renovation major renovations, the neighbours are referring to it as “the Kincaid house” for the sentimental pictures that artist painted.

Q. Cat,  dog or budgie? 
A. Five cats, four dogs (two Japanese Chins, a Yorkiepoo and a long haired Chihuahua, all rescues except the Yorkiepoo.) Oh yes, and a tank of Platys that reproduce prodigiously. We used to have horses, sheep, chickens, geese, goats, peacocks, ducks… Actually at the moment I’m writing a book titled The Animals of Fernwood Cottage, telling of our funny adventures with our assorted creatures.  


Q. Are you a ‘dining room for dinner’, or a ‘tray on your lap in front of the TV’ person?
A. I’m sitting in the dining room right now. The room serves us for meals, and also for a handy place to plug in the computer.

Q. TV preferences – documentary, drama, comedy, soap or thriller?
A. We don’t have TV reception here. I do have a TV that I use for videos. I just finished watching (for the umpteenth time) “Cold Comfort Farm.”

Q. What was your first published novel about?
A. Montfort, in four volumes, about Simon de Montfort who founded England’s Parliament in 1258. Since that took 35 years to research and write, publishing was a long time coming.

Q. What was your last novel about?
A. My last book publication was “An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe,” It started as a one-man play commissioned by the New York City Parks Dept/ Historic House Trust for the Poe Cottage. Now it’s in book form. Most of my last 40 years that were not devoted to Montfort have been spent writing historical plays, and radio, TV and film scripts. I had a Public Radio production company, The Jefferson Radio Theater that did historical mini-series. 

Q. Do you write in one genre or several?
A. As above, several. . 

Q. Have you ever considered exploring a totally different genre?
A. I’ve tried poetry. I was commissioned to write a play for The Celebration of Labor 2000. It had to be about the Pennsylvania mine strike of 1902. There was a documentary film premiering a day after my play, so I had t make the live stage piece as different from the film experience as possible. The result, “Johnny!” is very theatrical, and entirely written in verse (performed like normal speech but with a peculiar, almost unconscious force to it for the audience, apparently.) The play was to be called “Strike!” but our Senator nixed that as too offensive to business interests. The eponymous “Johnny” was the young president of the United Mine Workers. I won this commission, knowing nothing about mining. I described an ending with the whole, large cast lined up across the stage and stepping forward one at a time to describe one labour abuse from the early 19th century to children making Nike trainers in Indonesia. This won the commission – then I had to learn about mining. But research is research, easier for the early 20th century than for the 13th. 

Q. If you could, which two of your characters would you like to invite to spend an afternoon with you?
A. Well, Simon, certainly. And Aaron Burr who figures in my radio play, “The Richest Woman in the Western World.”

Q. Where would you go / what would you do?
I’d love to go back to Cannes. Probably not during the Palm D’Or Festival, but in September when the beach is less crowded. Do you know the film “Mr. Bean’s Holiday”? Have a look at the closing sequence. I yearn to be on that beach, La Croisette, singing “La Mer.”

Q. How do you prefer to travel? Plane, boat, car?
A. Plane, if I’m going far enough. While some of my neighbour have air fields, it would not be impossible to take a plane to the grocery store in Honesdale.

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. In the past I would have stopped to see if I could help. But, at present, with high tension, political violence and disease only a moment away, I’d hurry home and lock the door. Especially if he had a gun. The concatenation of dangers, here and now, make for misfortune in many ways. 

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?

1. Dorothy Dunnett’s entire Lymond series (if that can count as one.)
2. Revolt in the Desert by T.E. Lawrence (yes that Lawrence, as in “of Arabia.”)
3. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, to help me sleep
4. Robert Colton’s Pompeii series 
5. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
6. The Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris
7. The Whale by Mark Beauregard
8. and G.B. Stern’s The Ugly Dachshund, just for fun.

Q. What sort of island would you prefer, and why? (e.g. Desert Island... Hebridian Island...)
A. England because, of all the islands in the world, it is by far the most interesting.

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 lovely old cottage (with modern electricity and plumbing) in a beautiful valley

See Our Full 

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Critique Corner - January

Welcome to our new Discovering Diamonds feature, Critique Corner, where, once a month, our cover design experts volunteer kind, expert, and constructive critiques to help our readers make the most of their cover designs. Since this site of 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...

Initially, we thought to make this a conversation between the two of us about the covers that were submitted for critique. But after independently critiquing the first cover, we had to laugh at how closely our comments matched, (Without peeking! We swear!) So, we decided, you the reader, would better benefit by knowing all that each of us picked up on (And that we BOTH noticed)

So, without further ado:

Tamian: - Ok Cathy, let's get this party started! Our first submission is from James Glover, author of The Picolata Road. Thanks for volunteering, James!

Tamian: - My initial thought is that this is a striking image with a warm colour story, and very readable fonts with great contrast, and it is clean and uncluttered. Being a Floridian, the silhouette of [what I think is] the battlement of the Castillo de San Marcos fort in St Augustine, I get what this shape is. However, I'm not sure it would communicate anything to non-Floridians. It's possible the shape could be mistaken for... some kind of astronomical observatory(?)

But my biggest issue is, this cover doesn't say "Historical Fiction." The fonts are very modern, and I don't really understand the reason behind using a different serif font for the final word. It feels a little unnecessary. Typically using a different font is relegated to the smaller linking words like "The", "And" "of" "of the" and so on. Also, the white line above the author name, to me, is unnecessary. Your author name could be a good bit larger too. Like I always say, don't be shy!  

I might have chosen a serif font that looked older, maybe dented/grunged up a bit, like Dominican with a texture applied or a gradient. Something to give it interest. Like this:

Cathy, what are your thoughts?

Cathy: – Thanks Tamian! And thank you to James for submitting your cover design. Without peeking at your review, Tamian, here's my take on the mechanics of the design: 

The image has some nice, rich colors in it and I am glad to see some of that bold burnt orange color used for part of the title. As a former Floridian (from the age of 6 until my late 30’s), I immediately thought of the old Spanish Fort at St. Augustine when I looked at a larger version of this cover, I see the palm trees down the right side of the tower as well. However, I also spot a power pole to the right of those palms which should have been edited out – those did not exist in the time of this novel. Just a little detail to watch when designing for period novels – every element within the cover layout needs to be period appropriate.

While the use of the photo of the fortress at St. Augustine helps to place the novel geographically – most potential readers are likely not familiar with it. However, since Florida has so few vintage structures dating back to and before the time of the American Civil War, it works well enough to help represent a place for this novel. To better help with representing the geography, I would suggest the addition of a vintage map of the top half of Florida blended/ghosted over that beautiful sky.

The title fonts are clean and work well enough. However, the font used for ‘The Picolata’ are modern and typically seen on crime/mystery novel covers. The font used for ‘Road’ is better suited for historical fiction. I would like to see a Civil War Era or Restoration Era font style used for the title here to better support the historical aspect of this novel. That is also true of the solid, plain break line used between the title and the author’s name. It is unnecessary, a distraction, and if a break is to be used, it should be a decorative vintage break (again genre/period appropriate).

The sub-title or strap line at the top is difficult to read – I’d suggest a couple of points larger in size and a bold version of that font.

An additional thought - Texas Rangers were quite well known in the Old West – perhaps add a metal star somewhere – work the element into the title to give the overall design an extra level of depth.

Overall, not a bad design – it is missing the overall feel of a historical novel and could use a bit more depth – so again, I would suggest going beyond simply placing type over a photo. Enhance the sun – add more beams of light streaming out from behind the stone tower for example.

Tamian: - Great Idea Cathy! I love the idea of the map superimposed over the sky. That would bring some real texture and interest and history to this cover. 

Cathy: – And it is almost spooky how close our comments about the overall design are for this cover! I also like the alternate font choice you gave the author, Tamian. Much more appropriate for this title.

Helen (Founder Discovering Diamonds): as a reader (and an author), the cover image does not convey anything historical at all, apart, perhaps, that this could be a novel set in Spain (the building looks slightly Spanish? The Alhambra perhaps?) The text at the top is too small to read, especially at thumbnail size - so without looking at the book description I have no idea of what the book is about. Given the 'three second rule' (you have three seconds - maximum -  to hook a potential reader's interest) this probably means I would not have clicked on the cover to investigate further. Tamian's redesigned version drew my attention more than the original - although it still did not convey what the story is about. 

(Discovering Diamonds reviewed this novel on 1st February 2021)

We do hope that our readers might pick up on a few tidbits of good design points while reading our commentary. And again, we thank our volunteer authors for willingly submitting their book covers for a free and no-strings-attached constructive critique of their designs. 

Until next time, be safe and be well!

Friday, 29 January 2021

Cover and Book of the Month - January

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
(honourable mentions for the Runner-up)


Two Runner Up Designs

Read our Review

Book of the Month
a personal choice made by Helen Hollick

Read our Review

several good books to read this month, 
but Sons of Rome, I particularly enjoyed

Annie Whitehead's To Be A Queen (see below) would have been my choice, but as she is a personal friend I did not feel that I could select it.

Covers designed by our judges are exempt from
the monthly choices - but they are shown below
and an Annual 'Winner' will be chosen in
December 2021

Read our Review

                      will be announced on December 31st 2021

to view books selected for 2020

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

To Be A Queen by Annie Whitehead

shortlisted for Book of the Month~ Good Read Revisited
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU

Fictional Biography
9th /19th Century
Anglo-Saxon England

"One family, two kingdoms, one common enemy ...This is the true story of Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, daughter of Alfred the Great. She was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Born into the royal house of Wessex at the height of the Viking wars, she is sent to her aunt in Mercia as a foster-child, only to return home when the Vikings overrun Mercia. In Wessex, she witnesses another Viking attack and this compounds her fear of the enemy. She falls in love with a Mercian lord but is heartbroken to be given as bride to the ruler of Mercia to seal the alliance between the two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. She must learn to subjugate her feelings for her first love, overcome her indifference to her husband and win the hearts of the Mercians who despise her as a foreigner and twice make an attempt on her life. When her husband falls ill and is incapacitated, she has to learn to rule and lead an army in his stead. Eventually she must fight to save her adopted Mercia from the Vikings and, ultimately, her own brother." 

When I was asked to review this wonderful novel for Discovering Diamonds I had no hesitation in saying ‘yes’. I had read it a good while ago when it was first published, but I was, this time around, awed by the new, stunning, cover (designed by Avalon Graphics) and was every bit as delighted with the pleasure of reading the text again. If anything, second time around was even better.

We have all (if you are interested in England’s history) heard of Alfred the Great – but what of his children, particularly, his daughter who became The Lady of Mercia? Set between AD 874 and AD 918, the research about the period, and of Æthelflæd's life, is impeccable, all the characters are believable and the writing, beautiful. Ms Whitehead handles the politics, the personal feelings, the warfare, all with equal skill. 

It is, I admit, difficult to get the mind (and tongue) around some of the unfamiliar Anglo-Saxon names, but I handled it by mentally giving the characters nicknames (helped by the fact that Æthelflæd herself was known as Teasel.) The narrative, however, is so evocative you can easily skim over the little stumbles of pronunciation. 

What is so enthralling about this novel is the dexterity of the author's ability to blend the facts (the few known) with the imagined or plain ‘made-up’. This is how historical fiction should be written, how history should be told – as well-crafted, superb storytelling. Brava Ms Whitehead! A Diamond read indeed.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anne Holt

You will find several items of interest on the sidebar

Monday, 25 January 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Luminous by Samantha Wilcoxson


"Catherine Donohue's life was set on a an unexpected course when she accepted a job at Radium Dial. The pay was great, and her co-workers became her best friends. But a secret was lurking in the greenish-grey paint that magically made things glow in the dark. When Catherine and her friends started becoming sick, this shy Catholic girl stood up to the might of the radium industry, the legal and medical communities, and townspeople who told her to be quiet. Would she be too late? Catherine's quest for social justice in the era between World Wars is emotive and inspiring."

I had not heard of this story until this novel came to my attention. After I'd finished reading it, I looked up Catherine Donohue and the other 'radium girls' and the fact that one is able to see astonishing and deeply upsetting images really brings it home that this is a true story. I can imagine the author of the novel wondering why it hadn't been told in fiction form before now, when it is a story crying out to be told, and Ms Wilcoxson is to be commended for correcting that omission. 

It must have been a difficult problem though: just how to fictionalise it? And where this book succeeds is in conveying the bitter contrast between the normal life Catherine had and the living hell that it became. When I read it, I had no idea of the outcome and because of that, whilst there is a sense of foreboding (we all know not to put radium in our mouths so reading those early sections one felt like shouting out the danger), the depth of the damage done was shocking. All the way through the later chapters I had a sense of anger and sadness at the life lost, the life Catherine could have, should have, had. 

The early chapters show vividly the kind of life lived by young people in the prohibition era and I especially loved the little scene outside the pharmacy in which one of Catherine's friends managed to procure a little illicit alcohol. The sense of carefree lives, full of hope and expectation, and of shy romantic encounters were all beautifully done, which only added to the poignancy of the later chapters.

The physical deterioration is portrayed unflinchingly but, as it comes from Catherine's point of view it is not a grim spectacle, because we are not merely gawping, we are discovering what it must have felt like to suffer these horrific symptoms. Catherine has to remind herself, and the reader, that she was still a very young woman.

It is clear that the author has researched every tiny detail of this tragic episode of history, not only with the court papers but even detailing the occasion when the court hearing had to move location to accommodate the physical limitations of the victim. 

The use of quotations, either from the victims, the deniers, or the court judgements, at the beginning of each chapter was a good device, serving as a potent reminder that this was real, that it happened, and what a scandal it was. 

The entire novel is told from Catherine's point of view and I might have preferred to read parts of it from someone else's, and would have welcomed a little more characterisation of the other girls, to get a better sense of their different personalities as well as the challenges they faced. It's clear that there was a lot of local opposition initially to the legal action from those whose incomes depended on the radium company and perhaps a little more detail of that might have added another layer to the story.

Overall though, a brave and accomplished piece of fiction. I can't say it's an enjoyable read, because of the subject matter, but it is a book that should be read and one which achieves its aim of deeply humanising the story.

[A note on the review copy we received: We're not sure whether the version reviewed was a pre-publish ARC edition or not. In the review copy there were a number of typos and homophones (which of course spell-checker will not pick up. Cautionary tale!) but the author has been informed and has taken steps to ensure any errors are amended.]

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Lucy Townshend

 e-version reviewed

<previous   next >

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Saturday, 23 January 2021

A personal tribute to Sharon Kay Penman

by Helen Hollick (founder, Discovering Diamonds)

Sharon Kay Penman
 August 13, 1945 - January 22, 2021

The world of historical fiction is mourning the sad passing of one of our greatest writers, Sharon Kay Penman. To many readers she brought the world of the Welsh princes and the Plantagenets to life, and was forefront in casting a more sympathetic view of the life of Richard III.

I will not, here, repeat the facts of her life or career, which can be found on Wikipedia, ( instead, I would like to post a personal tribute to a kind, and generous lady, whom I had the privilege of knowing as a very dear friend and mentor.

I cannot remember the exact date, but it must have been between 1986 and  early 1987 that I came across Here Be Dragons in our public library. I was searching for something inspiring to read, having hit (another) writer’s block with my own attempt at writing a novel about King Arthur. I noticed a hefty tome on the shelf with a sword on its spine ... Arthurian? I read the back cover blurb: “Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king's beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales – and Llewelyn – Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.(taken from the 2012 edition). So, Medieval, not Arthurian. I’d heard of King John, but not Llewelyn. It looked an interesting read.

Which is possibly the understatement of a lifetime.

I loved that novel so much I wrote to the author, via the publisher (no internet back then!)  to say thank you for writing it, and how it had inspired me to keep going with my own writing. A few weeks later I received a handwritten letter from Sharon (sadly, I no longer have it). In it she thanked me for writing, asked if I’d be able to meet her for coffee as she would be in London again soon, and said, “If you can make a four page letter as interesting as the one you sent me, I cannot wait to read your book.”

I have never forgotten those words.

We duly met and ‘coffee’ turned into an entire afternoon of historical and animal related chat as if we had known each other forever, ending with Sharon asking me to send her the first couple of chapters of my attempt at a novel – although with the caveat that it might take her a while to get back to me as she was deep into writing her next book. (Falls The Shadow.)

Her eventual response was to highlight where I was going right – and wrong. For one scene she said, "Oh, I wish I'd written a scene like that!". She made suggestions, encouraged me, in fact, over the next few months nagged me to keep going. Eventually, I managed to finish it and Sharon urged me to send the manuscript to her agent. Who read it, liked it, but told me I had enough to make a trilogy, so advised me to go away, do some serious re-writing, and then get back to her.

Sharon and I wrote to each other regularly, talking about our pets (I’ll never forget her delightful JZ), our research ‘adventures’ and such. Whenever she was in London we met for coffee, lunch, to visit Covent Garden,  the Museum of London... Both of us found it such a delight to ‘talk shop’ about writing and history.

In early 1993 my novel – now the first two parts of The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy – was with ‘our’ UK agent. In the first week of April the agent telephoned me to say that another publisher wanted to take on Sharon’s books, but this would not be happening as she was contracted elsewhere – however, the agent offered them ‘Sharon’s protégé’. 

Two weeks later,  I signed a contract with William Heinemann.

I have many happy and delightful memories of being with Sharon – trudging up the stairs together to our agent’s top-floor eerie, lunches full of laughter (and history), a delightful day at a Medieval Fair (I think somewhere in Hertfordshire) where she bought a pop-up book about knights for my daughter, who must have been about seven or eight.

We continued discussing our writing plans in our letters. I had the great pleasure of ‘meeting’ her Queen’s Man Justin de Quincy, while he was still an embryonic character. When I had difficulty writing scenes about Duke William of Normandy, she suggested that I, ‘Think of something good about him.’ Her main, often emphasised advice: ‘Always make back up copies. And back ups of the backups. Even bury a copy somewhere.’ This was because she’d had her original (and only) copy of The Sunne In Splendour stolen from her car. She was devastated. (Wikipedia, I notice, says she could not write again for five years, I recall her telling me it was longer than that.)

The highlight of our friendship, for me, was spending three days in North Wales with Sharon, who took me on a personal tour of her favourite sights. We trudged up the hill to visit Dolwyddelan Castle, we stood together to watch the torrent of magnificent water that is Rhaeadr Ewynnol, (Swallow Falls), followed by a very nice lunch in a nearby pub. We visited Beddgelert and discussed the legend – and our dogs – during a very pleasant riverside walk. Leaning against the walls of Criccieth Castle  we laughed about when Joanna burnt Llewelyn’s bed. A totally made-up event, but probably one of Sharon’s most memorable scenes.

Criccieth Castle

Sitting with Sharon for breakfast on the hotel’s patio on a gloriously sunny morning overlooking the Welsh landscape, will always remain a treasured moment.

I am mentioning all this because I know that Sharon, since those early years of her own successful writing, has helped many, many aspiring authors to become successful writers, willingly giving up her time to befriend and encourage. I’m not sure if I was the first she helped, (if not, I was certainly among the first) but if it was not for Sharon’s enormous kindness, generosity and encouragement, I’m not sure that I would have had the courage, or impetus, to finish that first novel of mine, let alone send it to an agent or become a relatively successful author.

We did not correspond so much these last few years – lack of time and busy  commitments for both of us – but Sharon was one of the two authors (the other being Elizabeth Chadwick,) who wholeheartedly supported my decision to go Indie back in 2006. Nor did we have an opportunity to chat at a Denver conference in 2015 – I wish now that I had made the time.

It is because of Sharon that I am a published author. It is because of Sharon’s generosity that I, in turn, do all I can to encourage and promote good indie authors. It is my way of saying thank you to her.

Thank you Sharon, for your help, your enthusiasm, your eager support, and your wonderful novels.

We will all miss you.

Dolwyddelan Castle

See also: 

Annie Whiteheads 'Thank you' to Sharon Penman posted September 2017

* * * 

The Sunne in Splendour,  US 1982, UK 1983

Welsh Princes Trilogy

Here Be Dragons US 1985, UK 1986

Falls the Shadow  US 1988, UK 1988

The Reckoning US/UK 1991

Plantagenet Series

When Christ and His Saints Slept US: 1995, UK:1994

Time and Chance 2002

Devil's Brood 2009

Lionheart 2011

A King's Ransom 2014

The Land Beyond The Sea  2020

Justin de Quincy Mysteries

The Queen's Man 1996

Cruel as the Grave 1998

Dragon's Lair, 2003

Prince of Darkness  2005

My enormous thanks to author Liz Harris who was supposed to have had today as our featured Guest Spot, but kindly agreed to postpone her slot.

You are more than welcome to leave a comment below.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Summer Warrior by Regan Walker

shortlisted for Book of the Month

Fictional drama
12th century

"Somerled’s parentage was noble, of the Kings of Dublin, the royal house of Argyll and the great Ard Ri, the High Kings of Ireland. But when the Norse invaded Argyll and the Isles, his family’s fortunes fell with those of his people. All hope seemed lost when he rose from the mists of Morvern to rally the Gaels, the Scots and the Irish. Sweeping across Argyll and the Isles like a fast-moving storm, brilliant in strategy and fearless in battle, Somerled began retaking his ancestral lands, driving away the invaders and freeing the people from the Norse stranglehold. In doing so, he would win the title Somerle Mor, Somerled the Mighty, Lord of Argyll, Kintyre and Lorne and, eventually, Lord of the Isles. This is the unforgettable story of his path to victory that forged the Kingdom of the Isles and won him the heart of a Norse king’s daughter."

Somerled is a historical character who is relatively unknown in popular literature, but one who had a significant and lasting influence on the politics and history of Scotland. In Summer Warrior, Regan Walker gives us a portrayal of a young man driven by vision and ambition, but also an empire-builder with a human face.

In the early 12th century, Somerled, son of GilleBride, an Irish Gaelic leader with royal connections, rose to the leadership of the territories of Argyll, Lorne and Kintyre, historically the territories of the Dalriada. The entire area of what is today northern Scotland and Ireland was (and had been) contested and divided among Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian rule for many years, creating a Norse-Gaelic cultural and genealogical continuum. The historical Somerled and his family made marital alliances among many of the ruling houses of the time: Somerled himself married, in 1140, Ragnhild, daughter of Olaf Godredsson, King of Man and the Isles.

It is this period of Somerled’s life, his rise to the Lordship of Kintyre, Argyll and Lorne and his courtship and marriage to Raghnild, that is central to Summer Warrior. Walker weaves the history of the times and the many historical characters involved into the story seamlessly, informing the reader (and sometimes reminding them) of the events and personalities, but not overwhelming them with information. Lots of action and plenty of politics keep the narrative moving forward, while the romance lightens the mood and creates opportunities for Somerled to be seen in a different light.

The alliance between Somerled and Olaf Godredsson cemented by the marriage to Olaf’s daughter would have likely been a pragmatic agreement; such was the role of a king’s daughter. Walker doesn’t gloss over this: Raghnild is aware she is a political prize. But there is no reason to not believe she found Somerled attractive, and he her, and that their marriage was more than a political alliance.

I was also pleased to see that Somerled and others are presented as literate and multi-lingual, an aspect of the early medieval elite that is sometimes ignored. Contact between this far northern world and the rest of Europe (and beyond) brought not only changes in worship and ideas, but changes in material culture through trade.

Eminently readable, Summer Warrior – the title is a translation of the Norse ‘Sumarliði’, likely Somerled’s true name,  is both entertaining and informative; a book to be enjoyed.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian Thorpe 
 e-version reviewed

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Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Sea of Wolves by Philip K Allan

shortlisted for Book Of The Month

Nautical Adventure
Atlantic Ocean / Bletchley Park

"1941 and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Across the stormy North Atlantic battle rages between wolfpacks of U-boats and escort ships fighting to protect the Allies’ vital convoys. Meanwhile teams of codebreakers at Bletchley Park struggle to penetrate the German Navy’s Top-Secret Dolphin code, and unlock the flow of vital intelligence that will swing the battle in the Allies favour. Sea of Wolves plots the lives of three people caught up in the centre of the battle. Vera Baldwin, a young crossword-enthusiast, lifted from her quiet suburban life and thrown into the middle of the greatest codebreaking effort the world has seen. Otto Stuckmann, the rookie commander of U70, a German naval veteran struggling with the ceaseless demands being placed on him. Leonard Cole, the newly appointed first lieutenant of HMS Protea and a man with unfinished business to resolve. Each is unknown to the others as their fates spiral around each other, touching and twisting towards a final encounter that will change their lives forever."

As an ex-mariner, I very often shy away from reading any fiction set on ships. However, one of my favourite novels of wartime naval action was The Cruel Sea. In fact, I first read it before I even made my maiden voyage. And while I was always Merchant Navy, I had enough relatives with sea time on the Grey Funnel line to know a bit about life afloat in the times of this story. 

Submarines are another thing entirely. Having visited one, I can appreciate the sense of claustrophobia in normal life, even before you are being depth-charged and forced to dive deep underwater to try and survive.

I digress. Sea of Wolves is a fascinating story, a tale of three parts, based on events that actually took place. While initially, the stories appear to be connected only by the thread of war, as the tale develops, we begin to see them join in more detail, as the battle for supremacy in the North Atlantic swings one way, then the other. The great skill in writing this sort of story lies in using the facts as a basis for the fiction, and in blurring the line between the two. So that, in the end, you cannot be certain which bits did happen and which might not have. 

And this book does it perfectly.

We have the war seen through the eyes of an officer on a Corvette, a German submariner and a female code-breaker from Bletchley Park, with each one’s actions having repercussions in the worlds of the others. Some foreseen, others only realised after the events that they sparked.

The action moves smoothly between each of the stories in a way that made sense, as one person’s actions affects the other players in the greater scheme of things. It would have been easy to exclude the work of the shore-based codebreakers and just concentrate on the battle between surface ship and submarine; the story greatly benefits from showing how the people behind the scenes can have just as much effect on a battle as a well-aimed torpedo or depth charge.

Life on a small submarine is expertly portrayed, with tension, a sense of imprisonment, urgency and the unrelenting presence of the threat of imminent demise well told. Life on the floating cork that a Corvette became in bad weather is also perfectly described. Not forgetting the atmosphere on shore, the pressure to break a code and save lives, yet still have some sort of existence, even find a little romance, is pitched well. These people might not be in the thick of the action, but they are no less subject to the pressures of war.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel immensely, it gave me an entertaining and very immersive picture of the lives that these brave people, on both sides, led. And the fiction fitted the facts; what was told became what might well have happened.

Coming back to the reason why I read so little naval fiction... there can be a tendency for authors to get the basic technical details of ships wrong. I’m glad to say that I didn’t find that problem here. Not everything might have been true, but it certainly sounded true.

I will definitely be investigating more of this author’s work.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© RichardDee
 e-version reviewed

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Monday, 18 January 2021

Of Kings and Griffins by Judith Starkston

shortlisted for Book of the Month

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU

Historical Fantasy / Fictional Saga
1270s BCE
Hittolia (fantasy version of ancient Anatolia)

In this third instalment of Starkston’s delightful Tesha series based on ancient Hittite culture, Of Kings and Griffins picks up a few months after the events of her second book, Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha, our protagonist, is now Queen of Alpara and has given her husband, Hattu, a baby daughter, Arinnel. Hattu’s brother, the Great King, has died, leaving as heir his untested teenaged son, Urhi, who plots against Hattu’s aid. At the same time, Tesha’s blind sister, Daniti, is called by the griffin king, Bothar, to help him overcome a deadly danger in a way she is uniquely suited for.

This novel opens around a year after the events of Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha and Hattu are at the funeral of his brother, the Great King Muwatti, and Tesha, seeing that Hattu’s young nephew, Urhi, will be a problem for them, uses her magic to influence him to bend to Hattu’s will. Except Tesha, still being very young, wasn’t so subtle and got caught, thus undermining any authority Hattu might have had over Urhi. At odds with each other and his nephew, Hattu and Tesha return to Alpara to regroup. 

At the same time, Hattu’s best friend and military commander, Marik, is dealing with a mysterious illness that is striking down his troops. The court physician believes the illness to be caused by a curse from a powerful sorcerer, and that the ultimate goal is to kill Marik or Daniti next. To stop the magickal illness from killing all his troops, Marik goes on a dangerous spying mission to learn what he can and, with luck, kill the sorcerer responsible for the curse.

There are many layers to this novel, all delicately entwined and teased out over the course of the narrative. The politics involved are interesting and often very subtle. I liked the interplay between Tesha and both Urhi and the Egaryan ambassador, Ahmose. Seeing how Tesha learned to work with and, in some cases, manipulate, these men was fun to read. She has grown as a priestess, a queen, and a woman since we first met her and she’s becoming a very well rounded character. 

I always liked Daniti, so it was great to see her have such a prominent role in this novel. She has begun to manifest magic as well, not as strong as Tesha’s, but she is able to communicate telepathically a little bit over distances. She uses this skill to talk to her niece Arinnel. This ability, as well as her blindness, makes her valuable to the griffin king Bolthar, who brings her to the hidden realm of the griffins to help protect his young cubs. Daniti is certainly kinder than I would be. Bolthar needs her help and yet he is arrogant and disdainful of her practically every step of the way. It would be really hard to want to help someone who treats you like that, but Daniti has a loving heart and throws herself into the project despite Bolthar’s attitude. 

I also liked that Marik played a large role here, even more so than Hattu. Marik was all over the place in this story, from undercover spy searching for a sorcerer to leading military campaigns. It seemed like everywhere you turned, there was Marik, in the best way possible. 

I remain utterly delighted with this series. I read a lot of fantasy, both pure  and historical. A series that is based on historical context is almost always going to appeal to me. To have a historical fantasy series that is based on ancient Hittite culture is entirely unique. Starkston’s knowledge of the Hittites and the political events of the time period is deep. She supports her characters’ decisions and drives the plot based on her thorough research and understanding of the culture. I have read all three books that are now in the series and can honestly say they are just getting better and better. Also, these books could probably all be read as standalone stories, though you are missing out if you don’t read them in order. Including the author’s notes! Learning the real historical events and people that the Tesha series is based on adds so much depth and meaning to the story. 
Very enthusiastically recommended! 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©  Kristen McQuinn

 e-version reviewed

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