Friday, 30 July 2021

Cover and Book of the Month - July

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)

Runner Up Cover

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She Writes Press -designer unknown


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designed by

Book of the Month

 I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed both novels that were selected for our Cover of the Month, but I have gone for something different to read for my Book of the Month selection. More Vikings, yes, but this one was a page-turning adventure that really took you to early Russia and into the life of a teenage boy. Loved it!

Read our Review

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Dragon Lady by Autumn Bardot

Fictional Drama

Xianggu has an inauspicious start in life, with a mother who loves her and a father who doesn't. Sold to a slaver at the turn of the nineteenth century, Xianggu finds herself sold on to a madam who runs a large brothel on a boat. Not to the taste of Madam Xu, Xianggu is consigned to the kitchen as a servant, fetching and carrying food, tea and other things to the high status prostitutes and Madam Xu herself. She soon realises that the way out of her servitude is to learn how Madam Xu conducts business and so she shadows her to learn the trade, for it is a trade, and trade equals money and money equals freedom.

A pirate raid on her harbour and the boat leads Xianggu to a new life, and one of a different kind of freedom. Attracting the attention of the leader of the raiding party, Xianggu finds herself first a protector, then a husband and a new trade - piracy.

It is rare that I will read a novel based on a different culture to my own, beyond Christendom, but I did enjoy this novel. It is easy to forget that while Napoleon and Wellington were fighting over Europe, the rest of the world was going about its own business. And as this is based on a true story, it opens up a view of the world as a whole.

Autumn Bardot is a pen name and I haven't managed to find out more about her, what brought her to wanting to write about China having also written about the real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. The two don't really marry beyond both having a basis in fact. One has to admire her for finding a story that it is unlikely many in western Europe will know anything of - Chinese and Vietnamese pirates. 

And the novel is written well. OK, a quick basic proof to remove the duplications in such as speech marks wouldn't have gone amiss, but the foundation of the writing is sound. The description is vivid and very eastern in feel; one never senses that this is a world that the author isn't immersed in. There are western terms used, most likely to translate the Chinese or Vietnamese which sound a little jarring but unlikely have an alternative that works. 'Boss' and 'squad' sound very modern but I doubt there is another translation. And some names are translated from the Chinese to make them accessible such as Bright Pearl whereas others, like Mei, are left in their native Chinese (Mei means beautiful).

If you like Bruce Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Monkey, Mulan or any other southeast Asian fiction, you'll love the authenticity of this novel. 

It is rather 'adult' descriptive in places, Xianggu is a prostitute, after all, but it is worth giving it a chance.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 
© Louise Adam
 e-version reviewed

You will find several items of interest on the sidebar

Monday, 26 July 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Landscape of a Marriage, by Gail Ward Olmsted

Fictional  Biography

"A marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose. A shared vision transforms the American landscape forever. New York, 1858: Mary, a young widow with three children, agrees to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted, who is acting on his late brother's deathbed plea to 'not let Mary suffer.' But she craves more than a marriage of convenience and sets out to win her husband's love. Beginning with Central Park in New York City, Mary joins Fred on his quest to create a 'beating green heart' in the center of every urban space. Over the next 40 years, Fred is inspired to create dozens of city parks, private estates and public spaces with Mary at his side. Based upon real people and true events, this is the story of Mary's journey and personal growth and the challenges inherent in loving a brilliant and ambitious man."

Landscape of A Marriage is a life of the 19th-century American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted seen through the eyes of his wife Mary. While the projects of his life form a framework for the story, they are not the focus. Instead, we see Frederick as husband and father, and both his weaknesses and his strengths.

Mary had been previously married to Frederick’s brother John, who died of tuberculosis. The marriage was perhaps one of convenience at its beginning, a duty on Frederick’s part, a safety net for Mary and her three children. The author, through Mary’s eyes, shows us a partnership growing from affection into love, although Frederick was far from an easy man, focused on work and frequently away from home for extended periods.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, and fitting the time and conventions of the period, there is a restraint to them, as if Mary is writing to a friend but still with the reticence and decorum expected of a middle-class woman.  Problems are mentioned, but usually made light of, and almost every vignette ends with a solution. Only in grief do we glimpse the woman behind this façade.

The author evokes time and place well, and she weaves Frederick’s projects and Mary’s life together effectively. Mary was brought up to believe ‘she was made of sterner stuff’; weakness or reaching for help is beneath her, and this colours what she chooses to reveal. Her reserve in recounting episodes in her marriage leaves much for the reader to ponder and consider. We are left with an impression of a strong, practical woman who has made the best of what life offers her, choosing to highlight her blessings and downplay – but not ignore – the difficulties.  

Like an old photo album, she shows us a life filtered through a lens, memories captured in light and shadow, chosen and arranged for posterity. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L. Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

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Sunday, 25 July 2021

Guest Spot - Lucienne Boyce

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

Hello Lucienne, 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. Hello and thank you for inviting me onto the Guest Spot. I was born and brought up in Wolverhampton – the birthplace of Slade – but I live in Bristol now. Bristol is a lovely place to be as it feeds my twin loves of history and place. I always get pleasure from walking the streets and imagining the people who were here before me. It was that way of looking at place which inspired me to write a book about the Bristol suffragettes, which was originally planned as a leaflet with a suffrage walk in it.

I’ve been researching the suffrage movement ever since, and my interest in women’s history has led to my involvement with the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network – see I’m a member of the steering committee. Our aim is to promote the study of women’s and gender history, and membership is open to everyone. (There are other regional groups and a national group – see if you’re interested in finding out if there’s anything in your area.)

My other great interest is the Georgian era. In 2007 I completed an MA in English Literature with the Open University specialising in eighteenth-century literature. Since then I’ve published four novels and a novella set in the period. I’m not really interested in the tea cups, frocks and drawing room images of the period, but in the so-called “ordinary” people who history has often tended to overlook. 

Q. If you had a choice to live anywhere – where would it be?
A. Anglesey. 

Q. Modern house, old cottage, castle or something else?
A.  I’ve seen one or two cottages I like in and around Beaumaris. 

Q. Cat,  dog or budgie?
A. Budgie. We always had a budgie when I was growing up and regardless of the bird’s colour or sex it was always called Joey. 

Q. Are you a ‘dining room for dinner’, or a ‘tray on your lap in front of the TV’ person?
A. Dining room. 

Q. TV preferences – documentary, drama, comedy, soap or thriller?
A. I love watching the detectives. Favourites include Poirot, The Murdoch Mysteries, Midsomer Murders, Lewis, Endeavour and Shetland. I binged on Silent Witness during and after the spring lockdown. I’m also partial to fantasy and science fiction – Dr Who of course. I loved The Witcher, and am currently watching Battlestar Galactica for the third time.  

I like listening to radio drama too. At the moment I am enjoying the Charles Paris Mysteries with the wonderful Bill Nighy, Daunt and Dervish and – for comedy – Cabin Pressure.

Q. What was your first published novel about?
A. To The Fair Land, set in the 1780s, is the story of struggling young author Ben Dearlove who sets out to find the anonymous author of a best-selling novel about a voyage to the fabled Great Southern Continent. It soon becomes clear that Ben is involved in something more dangerous than the search for a reclusive author. Before he can discover the shocking truth, Ben has to get out of prison, catch a thief, and bring a murderer to justice. 

Q. What was your last novel about?
A. Death Makes No Distinction is the third full-length Dan Foster Mystery. Bow Street Runner Dan has just started investigating the murder of an unknown beggar woman who had been beaten and left to die in a Holborn outhouse. He is ordered to drop the case to concentrate on finding the killer of a bluestocking who was formerly a lover of the Prince of Wales. Her jewellery is missing – and so are her memoirs, which threaten to expose the indiscretions of the great and the good. But Dan, adamant that a poor, nameless woman deserves justice as much as a wealthy courtesan, refuses to drop his first investigation. His enquiries take him into both the richest and foulest places in London. Things get personal when the people he loves are targeted by a shadowy and merciless adversary. 

But I have also republished To The Fair Land with a splenid new cover:

Q. Do you write in one genre or several?
I write historical fiction and non fiction, and biography. 
My historical fiction to date is set in the eighteenth century, and includes the Dan Foster Mystery Series: Bloodie Bones, The Butcher’s Block and Death Makes No Distinction. There’s also a prequel novella, The Fatal Coin. Dan is a Principal Officer of Bow Street – more popularly known as the Bow Street Runners. 

My non-fiction work centres around the history of the women’s suffrage campaign. I’ve written The Bristol Suffragettes, a history of the militant suffrage campaign in Bristol and the west country. I’ve also published a collection of short essays, many of which are based on my blog, The Road to Representation: Essays on the Women’s Suffrage Campaign, and contributed chapters to other publications, as well as giving talks, walks, and interviews about suffrage history.

I’m currently working on a biography of suffrage campaigner Millicent Price (née Browne), and her husband Charles, who was a conscientious objector during the First World War. 

Q. Have you ever considered exploring a totally different genre?
A.  I love reading fantasy and I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy novel. 

Q. If you could, which two of your characters would you like to invite to spend an afternoon with you?
A. Dan Foster and the Citoyen. The Citoyen is a French spy Dan meets in The Butcher’s Block. Despite being on opposite sides, and although Dan never learns the Frenchman’s name, the two strike up a friendship of sorts. I think Dan has always hoped their paths would cross again one day. Who knows, perhaps they will? [Helen: yes please Lucienne!]

Q. Where would you go / what would you do?
Well, not for a drink as Dan doesn’t drink. He’s an amateur pugilist and prefers to focus his energies on keeping himself in good condition – he’s usually at the gymnasium at 5 or 6 am every day. That’s not an outing I’d join him on, nor do I think I’d really fancy going to a boxing match, especially eighteenth-century bare-knuckle style. I don’t think it would be the Citoyen’s style either. So I think they’d both enjoy spending time in a good coffee house. Their mutual regard for one another would overcome the fact that they both have secrets to keep.

Q. How do you prefer to travel? Plane, boat, car?
A. I don’t drive and so I love travelling by car so I can watch the scenery go by and control the music. 

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. Depends what sort of oddity. If it’s the waving-a-knife-about sort of oddity I’d turn back, if it’s the groaning-in-pain sort I’d ask what was wrong, and if it’s mime or street theatre I’d run a mile. 

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)

I’d want books I could read again and again (no knowing how long I’d be on that island) so I would choose:-

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. 
2. The Lord of the Rings (the three volume paperback edition). 
3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
4. Here Are Lovers by Hilda Vaughan. 
5. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.
6. The Well at the World’s End by William Morris.
7. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (am I allowed to cheat and have the whole Farseer Trilogy?). [Helen - oh go on then!]
8. Evelina by Frances Burney.

Q. What sort of island would you prefer, and why? (e.g. Desert Island... Hebridian Island...)
A.  Anglesey, of course! Though I admit it’s hard to be deserted there…so let’s call it Ynys Môn and imagine it’s more remote. 

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. Assuming there’s no internet, I’d have a typewriter with a bottomless supply of ribbons and paper. If that’s out of the question, then the same miraculously endless supply of pencils and paper. If that’s out of the question, then a manual on how to make your own paper and pens with whatever’s to hand...and failing all that I’d just sit and make up stories out loud. [Helen: you can have the typewriter and  all that goes with it]

Twitter: @LucienneWrite

Read our review
Amazon UK
Amazon US

All novels are available in paperback, on Kindle, Nookbooks, Kobo and AppleBooks. For information and buying links see:-

The Dan Foster Mysteries:-

The Fatal Coin: A Dan Foster Mystery (novella) is available in ebook only (Kindle, Kobo, Nookbooks, AppleBooks)

The Bristol Suffragettes: Available in paperback

The Road to Representation: Essays on the Women’s Suffrage Campaign is available in paperbook and Kindle ebook, or as free ebook to newsletter subscribers (in epub, mobi or pdf)

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

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Friday, 23 July 2021

A Discovering Diamonds Review of A Comfortable Alliance by Catherine Kullman


Helena Swift can't see herself marrying anyone after she lost her fiancé at the Battle of Waterloo. Too recently engaged to have told anyone about it, Richard's family still held her close and were fond of her but she didn't have the wider sympathy - or status - of being a grieving betrothed. Once back in England, she lives quietly with her mother in the dower house.

William, earl of Rastleigh, has to marry but can't face the cattle market that is the marriage mart of the fashionable in London. He isn't particularly inclined to get tangled with a love affair, but he needs an heir, more so as his designated heir is a bit of a pointless fop who appears to be after the inheritance before it is his. Brought up in a cold household with just his grandfather after his father died and his mother was forced to give him up on her re-marriage and subsequent removal to her new home in Ireland, love isn't something Will has ever needed.

A chance encounter with Helena while visiting family friends changes Will's mind. During a whirlwind romance, Helena agrees to marry, mostly because they can both see the advantages of each other - for Will, Helena is sensible, pretty, and educated; for Helena, Will is not after her money and offers respectability and she likes him well enough. 

However, as time goes on they find themselves craving the love they didn't think they needed, and from each other.

Ms Kullman has written a perfectly pleasant Regency Romance which will be pleasing to fans of the genre. If you are looking for something deeper with a will-they-won't-they plot, however, this might not be for you. All the correct ingredients are there for the straightforward romance genre - handsome earl, pretty, suitable girl, and of course they are going to fall in love. As an example of the genre, it is very well researched with some delightful details, but maybe there is too much modern thinking applied to people of a different era?

But it is nicely written, and Regency fans will enjoy it.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Louise Adam
 e-version reviewed

<previous   next >

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Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Abduction Of The Scots Queen by Jen Black

shortlisted for Book of the Month

The Scots Queen Trilogy #1

A daring attempt to abduct the infant Queen of Scots - full of adventure and intrigue

This compelling story involving the intrigues of Marie de Guise’s regency in Scotland focuses on two very different people, who for surprisingly similar reasons are willing to abduct the infant Mary Queen of Scots from her cradle in Stirling Castle.

Lady Margaret Douglas is of noble birth, the daughter of Margaret Tudor and niece of Henry VIII; Matho Spirston is a humble hired man trying to make something of his life and find enough money to wed the girl of his choice. What Matho and Meg Douglas have in common is their lack of security and their determination to improve their prospects – and the difficulties and dangers this all leads to.

Meg is beautiful, outwardly strong but inwardly insecure. Displaced as the Earl of Angus’s heir by the birth of a half-brother, Meg is in urgent need of a place at the Scottish court and/or a husband to save her from spinsterhood, which in those days meant penury despite aristocratic birth. To achieve this, she is willing to take huge risks, but her inability to foresee drastic, potentially negative consequences leads her into a life-threatening situation. Meg is a likeable, feisty anti-heroine whose personal needs take precedence no matter what. 

Matho Spirston is a low-born Englishman who goes where life takes him, in this case to Stirling Castle with the son of Sir Thomas Wharton to steal the baby Queen Mary, that she may live under Henry VIII’s tutelage and marry the young Prince Edward, thus uniting the crowns of England and Scotland – and bringing peace to war-torn lands.

As the story unfolds with unpredictable diversions, author Jen Black expertly weaves in the complex court politics and clan loyalties surrounding the Dowager’s Queen’s regency. To achieve this without confusing the reader is no mean feat: Ms Black knows her epoch inside out and handles historical content with a light, deft hand, feeding essential details into dialogue and different characters’ motives. Add to this, her portrait of Meg Douglas’ attractive but entirely self-centred possible suitor, Lord Lennox, and her father, the larger than life, bombastic Earl of Angus, plus the innocent but wise servant girl Phoebe, who has stolen Matho’s heart, and you have a fascinating cast of real and fictional characters.

This first story in Jen Black’s The Scottish Queen Trilogy moves at a fast pace, each chapter bringing a surprising twist as events do not go to plan for either protagonist. The setting of Stirling Castle, high on a rock where if it is not snowing or raining the battlements are shrouded in a chill mist, is so well described I felt I was there. 

Abduction is historical fiction at its best, a thumping good read involving the lives of nobles and commoners who lived long ago.

Highly recommended. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© J.G. Harlond
 e-version PDF ARC reviewed

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Monday, 19 July 2021

Whispers of the Runes by Christina Courtenay

Shortlisted for Book of the Month
ninth century / Viking

"When jewellery designer Sara Mattsson is propelled back to the ninth century, after cutting herself on a Viking knife she uncovers at an archaeological dig, she is quick to accept what has happened to her. For this is not the first Sara has heard of time travel. Although acutely aware of the danger she faces when she loses the knife - and with it her way to return to her own time - this is also the opportunity of a lifetime. What better way to add authenticity to the Viking and Anglo-Saxon motifs used in her designs As luck has it, the first person Sara encounters is Rurik Eskilsson, a fellow silversmith, who is also no stranger to the concept of time travel. Agreeing that Sara can accompany him to Jorvik, they embark on a journey even more perilous than one through time. But Fate has brought these two kindred spirits together across the ages for a reason..."

Having read all the previous ‘Runes’ stories, I was very pleased to see this new timeslip adventure from Christina Courtenay. You know you are going to get a well-written and well-researched story but Courtenay’s particular talent is to entice you into her world and capture you.  

Whether living in a Viking age house with the smells of Jorvik around you, swaying across the North Sea in a low-hulled ship or fighting the Saxons in bloody battle, you are there and vividly so. 

The timeslip is handled well and I particularly enjoyed Rurik’s encounter with modern technology. How would we handle such a time jump either backwards or forwards?

The romance develops tantalisingly between two main characters who have suffered deep emotional hurts and are reluctant, no, completely dead set against a new relationship. But as we know from previous books, this will change! 

The writing is clear and sensitive without being sentimental, but you can’t doubt the warmth of the good relationships and the bitterness of the bad ones. This is an absorbing way to spend your precious reading hours. 
Highly recommended.   

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©  Alison Morton
 e-version reviewed

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Sunday, 18 July 2021

The Sunday Guest Spot - Patricia Bracewell

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

Hello Patricia, 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 am a wife, a mother, a reader and a writer. I grew up in California, and I enjoy travel, gardening & tennis. I have raised two strapping sons and penned three novels. I hate to cook.

Q. Where do you live?
A. My home is in the charming neighborhood of Rockridge in Oakland, California.

Q. If you had a choice to live anywhere – where would it be?
A. Somewhere in England’s Lake District.

Q. Modern house, old cottage, castle or something else?
A.  My maiden name was Leavens, & there’s a lovely manor called Levens Hall in Kendal that I wouldn’t mind claiming.

Q. Cat, dog or budgie?
A. Cat, although no pets just now.

Q. Are you a ‘dining room for dinner’, or a ‘tray on your lap in front of the TV’ person?
A. Back garden in summer; dining room in winter.

Q. TV preferences – documentary, drama, comedy, soap or thriller?
A. All. My tastes are eclectic.

Q. What was your first published novel about?
A. Emma of Normandy, the twice crowned queen of England, from 1002 to 1005.

Q. What was your last novel about?
A. Emma of Normandy, from 1012 to 1017.

Q. Do you write in one genre or several?
A. Just the one, so far!

Q. Have you ever considered exploring a totally different genre?
A.  Medieval fantasy. 

Q. If you could, which two of your characters would you like to invite to spend an afternoon with you?
A. Queen Emma and her rival Elgiva.

Q. Where would you go / what would you do?
A. I would take them into San Francisco, to the famous bar at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill with its view over the city. We would sip cocktails and talk about our sons.

Q. How do you prefer to travel? Plane, boat, car?
A. Car. I like to see things up close.

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. He is clearly a man out of his own time, dressed as he is in Renaissance garb. I recognize a young Will Shakespeare, so I sit down beside him and ask what’s wrong. “I’ve written a play called Edmund Ironside,” he says despondently. “My first. Everyone hates it.” I nod sagely because I’ve read the play, which dramatizes the same events as my newest novel. His play is awful, but a writer has to start somewhere. I place my hand on his knee and whisper, “Let that one go and start again. Whatever you do, don’t give up. You’ll get better. Trust me.”

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. Lord of the Rings, Tolkien
2. Persuasion, Austen
3. The Poems of Robert Frost
4. War & Peace, Tolstoy 
5. Game of Kings, Dunnett
6. Wild, Strayed
7. Robinson Crusoe, Defoe
8. Lord of the Flies, Golding (I’m sensing a pattern toward the end, here.)

Q. What sort of island would you prefer, and why? (e.g. Desert Island... Hebridian Island...)
A. Corfu! I want to hang out with the Durrells.

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 chef to prepare all my meals.

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

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Friday, 16 July 2021

A Diamond for Her, by Mark W Sasse

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU

fictional drama /Baseball

"He loved her enough to build her a baseball stadium. With a tip of the cap to the works of W.P. Kinsella, A Diamond for Her is a historical and magical story of love between two people—Raymond & Rochelle—and two grand institutions—America & baseball. In 1920, railroad man Raymond Blythe had a series of disturbing dreams—giant creatures with Greek names playing baseball. Determined to discover their meaning, he sets off on a bizarre quest to find a connection between Iowa, Theodore Roosevelt, baseball, and his deceased father. While searching for answers at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, he meets a young librarian named Rochelle Christy. This meeting sets him on another quest—to win her hand in marriage even if it means he has to establish his own baseball league in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. Baseball magic was born in these mountains proving time and again that anything can happen inside the diamond. A Diamond for Her chronicles the fictitious history of the Winasook Iron Horses, the founding members of the Allegheny Independent League from 1921-1955. Through extensive interviews and archival research, semi-retired doctor Charles "Shoeshine" Henry chronicles the historical record of the Blythes and their remarkable team the Winasook Iron Horses and in doing so, gives a sweeping view of American history through the steady eye of America’s pastime."

I grew up in Canada, but in that little piece of Ontario that dips down into the US, with the Great Lakes and the Detroit River dividing us from our southern neighbour. Except here, it was also our northern neighbour – Detroit was north of us. I spent a good many hot and muggy summer evening swatting mosquitoes and watching baseball, either at our local park or on the television. I’ve even been to Tiger Stadium to watch the pros play. 
And so there is part of me that is nostalgic about baseball, about those long-lost summer evenings, the ‘boys of summer’ in their uniforms, the padded umpire, the dust clouds when someone slid into base. The crack of the wooden bat sending a ball over the head of the outfielder for a home run. The moans and arguments from the grandstand when a runner was declared out. The eyes turned to the gathering thunderheads: would the storm stay away until the game was done?

Baseball was probably never as innocent as nostalgia makes it – or as Mark Sasse writes about it in A Diamond for Her, but in this history of a fictional baseball team, the Winasook Iron Horses, he captures all the wonder and pure pleasure of the game. With a purposeful nod to W.P. Kinsella and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and a storytelling voice that owes not a little to Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor, A Diamond for Her kept me both captivated and amused – just like those long ago games.  

The book is not a novel per se; instead, it’s a series of interconnected episodes in the life of the Iron Horses founder, the fictional Raymond Blythe and his wife Rochelle, and the fortunes of the team. Framed around real life people and real history, and ‘written’ as researched and footnoted articles by the Blythe’s doctor, Charles ‘Shoeshine’ Henry, the reader meets Theodore Roosevelt, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson (and the Greek gods of baseball), and has a grandstand-eye view of the major events in US history. 

Thoroughly recommended for anyone who can appreciate a well-told tall tale about a team that existed only in imagination and the heart, but that captures the soul of small-town baseball beautifully.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©  Marian L Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

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Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Among the Beautiful Beasts by Lori McMullen

shortlisted for Book of the Month

Amazon US
Amazon CA (not found)
Amazon AU (not found)

Fictional Biography
Florida / Paris

"Set in the early 1900s, Among the Beautiful Beasts is the untold story of the early life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, known in her later years as a tireless activist for the Florida Everglades. After a childhood spent in New England estranged from her father and bewildered by her mother, who fades into madness, Marjory marries a swindler thirty years her senior. The marriage nearly destroys her, but Marjory finds the courage to move to Miami, where she is reunited with her father and begins a new life as a journalist in that bustling, booming frontier town. Buoyed by a growing sense of independence and an affair with a rival journalist, Marjory embraces a life lived at the intersection of the untamed Everglades and the rapacious urban development that threatens it. When the demands of a man once again begin to swallow Marjory's own desires and dreams, she sees herself in the vulnerable, inimitable Everglades and is forced to decide whether to commit to a life of subjugation or leap into the wild unknown."

I have to confess that I had not heard of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and, as there is nothing in the file I was sent to indicate otherwise, I assumed that this novel was entirely a work of fiction. That fact will have a bearing on some of my thoughts about the book.

The novel begins with Marjory as a very small child, and straight away I was struck by how beautifully Ms McMullen writes. She has Marjory talking of evening strolls with her mother, where they 'walked past the school, past my bedtime.' Marjory's words one night become 'sluggish with yawns'. She speaks very much like a child in these chapters, telling us how she had to wear glasses to 'stop my left eye from watching my nose'. Reading aloud with her father, when she still can't see or read very well, she tells us that when it came to her turn, the story 'revealed itself almost in hiccups.'

Particularly well-crafted was the scene where Marjory's maiden aunt is buttoning up the child's dress when her niece asks an innocent question about the aunt's life. Marjory tells us that 'those buttons must have been really stubborn' because suddenly the aunt is tugging on them. Here we see what the child does not: she has touched a raw nerve with the aunt who feels her life has been wasted.

Marjory's mother is mentally ill and we are told that she is sent away to be fixed by strangers who 'glued her together but could only guess what the original should look like.'

I found this section of the book incredibly moving, and when, as Marjory goes off to college and her grandmother metaphorically takes the blanket of responsibility from her shoulders, I actually cried for this poor young woman.

There is an astuteness in the portrayal of Marjory's journey to adulthood, and when she returns from college she talks of how the house has changed, but also not changed, while she's been away. Of course we understand that it is she who has changed, but at the time, Marjory cannot see it.

The middle section of the book, which deals with Marjory's marriage, somehow jarred with the earlier part and didn't ring quite true (see my comment above - I had no idea that this was a true story and, actually, in terms of her husbands' duplicity, it seems to have been played down. It really is a remarkable story and the plot device used to move the story on, which I noted as being 'very clever', was also true). The storyline felt a little implausible and now I understand why, but I also lost any sense of historical setting in this portion. With talk of phones, and wearing heels, a hat, and carrying a purse, it could have been anytime in the 20th or 21st century. I wonder now if the author was also struggling to make an astounding episode ring true.

Of course, any young woman born in the late 19th century will have lived through WWI. Here, deep emotion is described in succinct phrases. Marjory speaks of the 'purgatory of farewell' - that long moment of goodbye while you are trying to recall every detail of the last meeting - and asks 'was there ever a lonelier sound than the silence that followed a waning train blast?' In this, as in so many other parts of the book, the author really gets inside Marjory's head and heart.

In Paris at the latter stages of the war, Marjory has a reunion and finds herself chattering too much. Haven't we all done that? She mimics someone they both knew and then tells us about the 'echo of her preposterous accent' hanging around. The embarrassment is keenly shown, and felt by the reader. We are also reminded that those who experienced such times could not simply leave it behind with the armistice: 'War was most senseless at the moment it ended.' 

It's clear that the author has studied creative writing,  but luckily her lyrical style always stops short of being cloyingly descriptive or overly 'show-offy'. She has a pithy way of describing characters. One, the botanist Fairchild,  exists in 'a constant state of rearranging'  - in other words he's a fidget. I loved these tight summings-up of characters, but would have preferred Marjory's best friend Carolyn to have been a more rounded figure; we didn't seem to see her tics and foibles in quite the same way.  

There were some odd continuity errors, specifically with names. A young woman, Frances, often became Francis, switching several times between the two and sometimes even on the same page. Joe Cotten also at some point became Joe Cotton. Since I read this a few months before publication, I'm assuming that we were sent an ARC and these small proofreading issues will by now have been ironed out.

I must reiterate that I read this as if it were complete fiction, and thus needed to think about the overall shape of the book and the themes. On that basis, does it work as a novel? Yes, because the very separate threads of Marjory's life come together and show how the needs of others threatened to suffocate her, but I also got the sense that her life seems to have served as a metaphor for what was happening, not just in the US but to the wider world. Technology, development, emancipation: all of these affect the people in the book, including Grandmother Florence who wants so much to vote, just once, before she dies.

Ms McMullen has taken a true life story and turned it into a very readable novel. She imbues Marjory with many qualities, all of them likeable. The only thing that was perhaps missing was that, whilst Marjory mentions often that she is a writer of fiction, we don't see her success in that field. I looked her up after I'd read the book and was staggered by how many of the details of her life the author has managed to slot into the novel, seamlessly. I suspect though that at least one major character is completely fictional, and it would have been enlightening to have some author's notes at the end, firstly to explain to those like me who had not heard of Marjory, and secondly to point out which aspects of her life had been fictionalised. 

It would seem that this is Ms McMullen's first book. As a work of fiction, it is sublime. As a retelling of a true story, it is wonderful. As a debut novel, it's a triumph.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed

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