Monday, 28 February 2022

Lady, In Waiting by Karen Heenan

Reviewer's Choice

1500s / Tudor
England

"She serves the queen. Her husband serves the court. 
How can they be so far apart?
Margaery Preston is newly married to a man she barely knows. Proposing to Robin Lewis may have been impulsive, but she wants their marriage to work - she just doesn't know how to be married, and it seems her husband hasn't a clue, either.
Treated like a child by everyone from her husband to the queen, lost in the unfamiliar world of the Elizabethan court, Margaery will have to learn quickly or lose any chance at the life she wants.
Can a marriage for all the wrong reasons make it to happily ever after?"

We were introduced to Margaery at the end of Ms Heenan’s second novel, A Wider World, and it’s been a pleasure to read this new book, told from her point of view.

Margaery is young, lively, and hopeful. The comma in the title is telling though, for this is a story of waiting; not only for married life to begin, but her own life too. (The small but significant triumph when she meets Lord Cecil and arranges her own adventure was satisfying to read.)

Whenever I read a book from this author, I find myself marvelling at her effective economy of words when describing characters’ actions. In a huff, Margaery goes to the parlour to ‘ignore her embroidery’. Her husband, coming to bed late, keeps his breath deliberately shallow and haven't we all done that so as not to disturb someone we believe to be asleep? ‘Robin’s head emerged from the open neck of a fresh shirt’ and instantly we have an image of a man getting dressed. Margaery is intoxicated by the attentions of a man at court, but when he takes things too far and tries to seduce her, she notices the smell of the roses in the garden and knows that aroma will always trigger reminders of this man. 

Ms Heenan is also adept at getting her characters from one scene to another; her writing is tight and efficient without losing any imagery. When Margaery and Will travel through a vicious storm the writing remains tight but, crucially, the depiction of the weather and how it affects the pair of them is vivid. 

In another scene, Will ‘arrows’ through the room, and it tells us all we need to know about the urgency of the situation. Will, incidentally, is a skilfully drawn character who shows how people sometimes act badly for the best intentions and how love inspires devotion and jealousy in equal measure.

Once again, much of the story takes place in the Tudor court but the focus is not on the usual people. This is very much the story of Margaery, Robin, and their friends and how the machinations of court life affects them. We hear a little of what the royals are doing, but only when it’s necessary for the story. What comes across, in the portrayal of Robin’s long absences, his exhaustion and his dedication to his job, is the nature of Lord Cecil’s work: the long hours, the ‘busyness’, and the intrigue.

Those who’ve read the other two books in the series will be delighted to know that some old friends appear, and that Ned Pickering is still in Robin’s life and is as much of an overwhelming presence as ever. The beauty of Ms Heenan’s books is that every character is three-dimensional and wonderfully realised. Each character has their own speech patterns, their own way of moving, and to read this book is like watching it all being acted out in front of you.

You can read this book as a standalone, but I urge you to read the other two, and indulge in a rich and involving sojourn in Tudor England. 


Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed

Friday, 25 February 2022

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, by Matthew Gabriele and David M Perry




Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU
Goodreads not found

non-fiction
early Medieval 'Dark Ages'


Historical fiction writers ask a lot of ‘what if?’ questions: it’s the starting point for most of our books, at least in their creation. Over the decades I’ve been writing and reading, a rather striking number of the ‘what if’ scenarios have been backed up by new data, or new interpretations of information, perhaps nowhere as noticeable as in books set in what used to be called 'the dark ages'. 

I read The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe both out of pure interest and as research for my own ‘empire at the edge of history’ novels. Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry are both medievalists, and their new book is an accessible, easily-read survey of selected times and places between the decline of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance. But the focus is not on the wars and beliefs that divided people, but the commonalities and compromises that blended and merged into communities that often took the best from the varied traditions and pasts to create something new. 

Whereas historians sometimes ignore individual histories in favour of larger trends and political change, Gabriele and Perry frequently use what is known about a person, or a group of people, to illustrate the exchange of ideas and knowledge over routes of trade and pilgrimage (whether travelled in peace or in aggression) that fueled the growth of political structures, philosophies, theologies and cultures. Focusing away from the concept of medieval Europe as a male-dominated bastion of ‘purity’, as has been all too frequently proclaimed, the authors show us the influence of women and people of all ethnicities and religions in the shaping of politics and belief.

For me as a novelist, the human story against the background of history is always my focus, and in The Bright Ages there are many human stories to tantalize a writer. Some I knew well; some I knew a little about; some were new to me. And where my interest has been piqued, each chapter also has suggestions for further reading, which is going to be dangerous for both my bookshelves and my bank account! 

The Bright Ages is a survey, not a detailed study, and at just over 250 pages it necessarily has left out more stories than it has told. But for a novelist looking for ideas – or for someone reading for pleasure and to learn – it’s an excellent starting point. And if  nothing else, the imagery of the first and last chapters will remain in my mind for a very long time. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L. Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

Wednesday, 23 February 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Red Panda Warrior, Jade Mountain, by Malina Douglas


Amazon UK
Amazon US
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Amazon AU
Goodreads

Young Adult 
China
Tang Dynesty

"Xiu has never left her village and can barely make dumplings, yet she finds herself in a secret training academy on the slopes of the Jade Mountain. Put through rigorous training, Xiu must become a warrior, but her movements are clumsy and she. is plagued by self-doubts. While Xiu flounders, Qiao seems to do everything with effortless grace. Xiu grows jealous until she is propelled to act in a way she will later regret. As the girls around her develop talents, Xiu searches for hers. Though she is not sure how, the red panda holds the key to developing her skills as a warrior. As an army amasses to invade the Imperial city of Chang'An, Xiu and her elite corps of women warriors must ride into battle. Xiu must overcome her jealousy, face her fears and discover her unique strengths, or her enemy will bring the mighty Tang Dynasty to ruin"

Red Panda Warrior, Jade Mountain is a tale of female empowerment, of chances offered and taken to walk an untraditional path in a very traditional world. Set in the early years of the Tang dynasty, its protagonist Xiu is given to a much older man; in marriage, she thinks, but his motives are different, and honourable. She is to become a warrior, to fulfil a prophecy.

Short, and written in a spare style (but with brief but beautifully drawn descriptions) that suits the story, this is a book I would give to young readers from ten up, depending on the strength of their reading skills. There is an undercurrent of the fantastic, and a focus on friendship, learning to find your strengths, and the role of determination and discipline in overcoming obstacles. As well, the book introduces some facets of early-medieval Chinese history, including the role of women.  

At 80 pages, the book’s price on Amazon might deter some, and the cover looks perhaps a little more adult than what I felt would catch the attention of its potential audience. It would be a pity if these discouraged readers. 


Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L. Thorpe
 e-version reviewed

Sunday, 20 February 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The White Rajah by Tom Williams



Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU
Goodreads

Fictional Drama
19th century
Malaysia (Borneo)

" 1839. James Brooke arrives in Borneo and finds himself plunged into the middle of a civil war. When his support sees the Sultan’s forces victorious he is given his own kingdom as a reward. Brooke is determined to show how the Britain of Queen Victoria can bring civilisation to the natives. But soon pirates are exploiting the divisions in the country and, when the old rulers stage a coup, Brooke is forced to flee into the jungle. Faced with the destruction of all he has worked for, he is driven to desperate measures to reclaim his country. But is he bringing civilisation to Borneo or will his ruthless annihilation of the pirates just bring a new level of brutality to the people he meant to save? The White Rajah is about a man fighting for his life who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke's battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery."


In his early thirties, James Brooke has retired from the East India Company’s army and is looking for adventure and opportunities in the East. The Dutch rule trade in the China Sea, but Brooke sees a chance to open trade with Borneo for the British. The Sultan is at war with rebels, and persuades Brooke to lead an army against them. There follows – I can’t call it a battle. It is almost a siege, with the Sultan’s force refusing to engage if there is a risk of death to any of the men. (This was a time when there were still head hunters in Borneo and possibly cannibals.) It made for hilarious reading as Brooke struggled to maintain his sanity. Back he went to the Sultan with the intention of quitting. To persuade him to stay, the Sultan offers him the lordship of Sarawak and later makes him Rajah.

That is just the beginning of James Brooke’ adventures. He has tribal issues to deal with and pirates who create carnage in peaceful villages.

In this action-packed book, the reader will discover a little-known culture. Love interest is provided by the narrator, who is Brooke’s lover and assistant, John Williamson (fictitious). He cringes at cruelty in war and acts the part of Brooke’s conscience.

I noticed that the author described Brooke as ‘tall’ and in the same paragraph ‘of medium height’. As critiques go, it is a minuscule one – the kind of mistake it is so easy to make. All in all, a splendid book, not terribly gruesome, well-researched and well-written. I enjoyed it.


Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Susan Appleyard
 e-version reviewed

Thursday, 17 February 2022

A Suit Of Swords by M J Logue



short read / fictional drama
1626 / 17th century
Amsterdam

"Amsterdam, Christmas 1626. It has been a year of wonders for Puritan's brat Holofernes Babbitt. Run away to the Low Countries at eighteen to take up a career as a mercenary in the Imperial Army, so far Hollie's luck has held. At least, he's still alive. Homeless, friendless, and broke till the spring campaigning starts again, it looks as if it may be a bleak Christmas for Hollie. But miracles happen, at midwinter..."

This was the second short read novelette / long short story that I read over Christmas 2021 - and reviewed here this month. And this one, even though it was only twenty-nine pages long, I absolutely loved! (Mind you I have developed a bit of a soft spot for Hollie Babbitt, so perhaps I am a little biased?)

Ms Logue takes us back to the pre-English Civil War era, and to the days when our eventually fearless Master Babbitt is still a wet-behind-the-ears lad wallowing in the  unreciprocated state of first love - oh, and he's hungry, cold, homeless and broke as well. Poor lad.

'[The maid] Lynten, sprawling in the ashes with her cap askew and her tray spilled, and the laces of her bodices cut through, all her linen showing and a thin line of blood where a man's knife-point had scored through her shift and torn her poor flesh beneath, trying to cover her plump bare breasts with inadequate hands -
"Hey," Hollie said mildly, "that's not nice. Don't do it."

And the man with the knife turned, thinking to give the gawky Englishman a second smile, and all his mates jeered and clapped, standing clear so that the hearth was as bare as an arena. '

Before reading Ms Logue's Uncivil War series I've always considered myself to be a firm Royalist supporter. She has converted me, although I'm still against cutting king's heads off, dislike Oliver Cromwell, and have no time for all that no dancing or singing etc Puritan preaching nonsense. But then Hollie doesn't either. He's a soldier, as simple as that. (Although not quite that simple, but that side of the saga is not entered into in this little story.)

My only slight negative: I would like better quality covers, with consistent graphics, fonts, layout etc - better overall branding for the series.  Whilst very pretty the cover for this title tells the reader nothing about the story. (And it is quite low quality, giving a blurred effect.) I do truly believe that such a superb series deserves stunning covers.

What I personally like and admire about M J Logue is her ability to transport you right into the story with such apparent ease. You are there, watching from the sidelines, observing every move, hearing every sound, smelling every whiff be it from the mouth-watering aroma of cooking food to things more - well, unpleasant. When poor Hollie's nose was dripping, 
I even found myself reaching for a handkerchief to offer it to him. I booed when that knife was pulled - cheered later when... ah, but that would be revealing a spoiler.

Read the story. It'll cost you nothing as it is free on Kindle.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Helen Hollick
 e-version reviewed

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Blood and Dust, by J.C. Paulson





Fictional Drama
19th Century
Canada

"James Sinclair is on the run, hunted like an animal. An innocent encounter with a young woman leads to horrific allegations by a powerful man. Before he can take a breath, a friend smuggles him out of 1880s Toronto via the remnants of the Underground Railroad and out into the wilderness. James has never been on the back of a horse before. But now, he's riding hard for the Canadian west, fighting raiders, meeting hobos, befriending M├ętis traders and beautiful women. He must find a new home. He wants to find love. But the long reach of a wealthy industrialist could not just scuttle all his plans; it could also end his life."

In the 1880s, the Canadian prairies were still in the early stages of organized European settlement. Canada itself had been a country for fewer than 20 years, and Sir John A. Macdonald’s (Canada’s first prime minister) promise of a railroad running from coast to coast was still in the construction phase. The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 permitted settlers to acquire one-quarter of a square mile of land and offered more to successful homesteaders. Advertising both in Eastern Canada  and in Europe suggested the Prairies were blessed with easily farmed, rich land, attracting settlers from many places, including the ‘crowded’ cities of Eastern Canada. While not the ‘wild west’ of legend in the United States, life in the western territories was not without conflict. Land was often central to the disputes, whether it was disagreement over settlement rights between homesteaders and speculators, or the larger issue of indigenous land rights. 

It is against this historical background that J.C. Paulson’s historical adventure /romance unfolds. Following the protagonist, James Sinclair, as he flees Toronto after an accusation of a crime he didn’t commit, the story touches upon many of the political and social issues of the times: Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad; the power and corruption of some wealthy industrialists; the dangers of life without access to medical care. These are lightly explored, for the most part, adjuncts to the plot and the development of James’s character, not a serious investigation.

Blood and Dust isn’t quite a serious historical book. That’s not to say it’s a comedy, but a lightly-drawn hero’s journey, in which James, on his way to find a place to call home, is called upon to learn skills and take tasks upon himself that are completely outside his experience.  He has a lot of adventures along the way in his journey to maturity and love, and some of these adventures needed significant suspension of disbelief  – but taken in the spirit of the story, I was willing to accept them.  (Maybe a few facts should have been checked though - you can't gallop a horse for several hours, for instance.)

The book doesn’t shy away from darker realities: people die violently; the major conflict centres on sexual assault – still, overall Blood and Dust is an optimistic coming-of-age story where the physical journey and the historical places, events and people that James meets feed and shape his internal development. It is an entertaining book, beautifully paced, full of tense situations and with a satisfying ending. It is in many ways a classic Western story – if it were a movie, John Ford would have directed it – but with a distinctly Canadian feel. 

Recommended

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Marian L Thorpe
 e-version reviewed



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Monday, 14 February 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Caledonia by Sherry V. Ostroff


Amazon UK
Amazon US
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Amazon AU
Goodreads

Timeslip
17th century  / 21st Century
Edinburgh / Philadelphia

In another in the ever-lengthening queue of parallel-timeline historical novels, author Sherry Ostroff takes up the challenge of finding something new and interesting to write in this crowded sub-genre. And she does so within the even more heavily trafficked sub-sub-genre of Scottish parallel-timeline stories by taking up one of the more obscure yet intriguing bits of Scotland's past, the ill-fated and short-lived Darien scheme. This attempt by the Scots to colonize on their own account upon the Isthmus of Panama was dubbed the New Caledonia colony. More ominously, the scheme hoovered up and then squandered all the available financial capital of the Kingdom of Scotland, contributing to the Scottish Parliament voting itself into oblivion by consenting less than a decade later to the Act of Union in 1707.

Ms Ostroff's Caledonia is an often page-turning parallel romp through late 17th-century Edinburgh and early 21st-century Philadelphia, spinning the interwoven tales of Anna Isaac and her great-times-many-granddaughter, Hanna Duncan. There's a connection to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center that provides both the catalyst and the finances for Hanna's voyage of historical and personal discovery, mirroring the much more fraught personal journey of Anna, the teenaged daughter of a wealthy Jewish moneylender. Her astute father refuses to invest in the Darien enterprise, deeming it a fool's errand destined for ruin. Anna's story is triggered by the more familiar fleeing of an arranged marriage. In this case, she is aided by a handsome son of the clan chieftain her father had refused to bankroll in the Darien scheme. Anna hardly knows the young man but is enthralled for all that, a tale as old as time.

The author is a gifted narrator and storyteller, crafting interesting and sympathetic main characters in whom readers will find themselves invested emotionally and cheering to succeed. The dialogue is solid and threads the needle of the often difficult trade-off between dialect and reader comprehension. The scenes of Anna's long and disease-plagued voyage to the Darien colony are among the author's best, drawn with a deft hand and immersing the reader in the squalor, filth, and stench of Age of Sail trans-oceanic voyages. Likewise, her depiction of life in the closes and wynds of "Auld Reeky" a generation before the intellectual explosion of the Scottish Enlightenment, are equally vivid.

Yet there are issues with Caledonia that weaken it. The book requires a final professional proofreading to purge more than a few spelling and punctuation errors. The author's research is threadbare in places, the scenes set at the modern-day University of St Andrews an example. But all in all, this author's first work of fiction demonstrates solid storytelling and a fine ear for dialogue that holds much promise for the future. 

Ms Ostroff touches all the bases for this sub-genre. There are the requisite parallel love stories, along with the necessary quota of closely-run brushes with danger. Caledonia is therefore a good choice for readers who enjoy fiction set in Scotland or can't get enough parallel timeline stories with strong women in the lead.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Jeffrey K. Walker
 e-version reviewed


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Sunday, 13 February 2022

The Mid-Month Extra: Should Book Review Sites Have A Duty Of Care?

by Helen Hollick, founder of Discovering Diamonds

Here at Discovering Diamonds we maintain that a ‘good book is a good book’ no matter who it is published by – a traditional mainstream publishing house, a small independent company or totally DIY self-published.

We define a ‘good book’ as one that is correctly presented, an enjoyable read, has a well-designed cover and is, overall, ‘value for money’. Most mainstream traditionally published books are correctly presented, (although I note typos creeping in and, sadly an ‘enjoyable read’ is not always the case.)

Most indie- or self-published novels are correctly presented, possibly even more so than mainstream because indie writers have a need to prove we are as good as (even better than?) the Big Boys.

By ‘correctly presented’ I mean professionally formatted with

  • the text fully justified (not left justified with a ragged right-hand margin)
  • no unsightly ‘widow’ lines hanging by themselves on an otherwise blank page
  • no blank pages in the middle of chapters
  • no double-spaced lines between paragraphs
  • indentations for new paragraphs missing
  • a standard font – not Comic Sans, for instance. (Unless it is a children’s or comic-type book)
  • a well-designed, professional standard cover

And obviously, well-written and properly/professionally edited.

You would expect professional publishing houses (small independent or mainstream) to understand and adhere to the above list, although I have known small publishers to mess up. (I won’t mention names, but my own books have suffered from this incompetence in the past – which is why I am now fully committed to being DIY self-published. Errors are my errors, and are up to me to ignore or put right.)

A few, barely noticed typographical errors, I think, can be overlooked – they do, most annoyingly, tend to creep in, But littered all over the page, and typo after typo is a different matter – it soon becomes fairly obvious that the text has not been edited; in some cases it makes you wonder if the author has even bothered to read through the final draft.

To be honest, if a book is well presented, is well-written, has an engrossing plot, believable characters and can grab the reader’s full attention from line one, then the occasional missed typo is not going to be noticed.

Our team of enthusiastic and dedicated reviewers here at Discovering Diamonds look for all the above in the novels submitted to us for review. We post reviews of books that we have personally enjoyed reading, with the best now being awarded ‘Reviewer’s Choice’ and the best of the best (in the reviewer’s opinion) being longlisted for our new Richard Tearle Discovering Diamonds Award. (I will add the caveat that what one reader likes another might not – but it would be a boring old world if we all liked/disliked the same things!)

Often, especially where a debut author is concerned, our reviews will include some constructive criticism, usually along the lines of something like: ‘a really good read, but we suggest another edit to pick up those missed typos.’

We have had books submitted that had to be rejected because of various presentation reasons, but when this happens if the novel would otherwise have been a good read, we privately email the authors, outline the problem and suggest a re-edit and/or re-format and a reprint. The appreciation we get in return is immense – and rewarding. I am incredibly proud that quite a few authors have taken our advice and ended up with re-submitting not just  a ‘good’ book but a very good book. (In fact, I’d go as far as saying in several cases, brilliant books!) Of course publishing houses of old (before the end of the '90s) used to do this - recognise potential very good writers, snap them up and nurture that debut attempt into full blossom. Alas, not now. The slush pile remains a slush pile with good authors undiscovered.

However, Discovering Diamonds does not post reviews for books that we reject. Rejects may be for a variety of reasons: too many errors, the novel is too slow overall, not as well-written as it could have been, far too much ‘tell not show’. Not edited, poor plot, characters that appear then disappear never to be involved again, poor continuity ... well you get my drift. So, we only post reviews for novels that reach a four- or five-star status. Only twice have we posted a three-star uncomplimentary, but honest, review. Neither book had been submitted to us, but privately read so were personal views. Both were published by top publishing houses and written by best-selling authors who, frankly, should have written better books.

Even so, we do not, nor will not, ever post a review that trashes a book or the author. What purpose does it serve to rip a book apart in public – particularly if this is a debut novel? If a book is not well written, why waste space (and time!) reviewing it?

I was appalled, therefore, to recently come across a usually respected review site that had posted a review that read more like a spiteful tirade written by an Amazon troll. If I, or I suspect many an author, had read such a review I think I would give up writing and crawl into a corner to cry.

Yes, maybe this debut novel was not as good as it could have been (Discovering Diamonds has not had a copy submitted to review it, nor have I read it yet,) but do public, respected review sites that claim to be supportive of all authors, be they traditional or indie, not have a duty of care towards writers? Especially debut writers who might, with constructive guidance, be on the cusp of a promising career - or who, on receipt of a vile review, may never write another novel again? It has happened.

Is it really acceptable for any review site to openly trash a book in a bullying, derogatory, and disrespectful manner? No, I do not think it is acceptable.

This particular review was nasty. When words such as ‘tedious’, ‘floundering’, ‘tired’ and ‘who cares’ riddle a review, then it is not a review but an insult to the author, to readers  and to the site which - I think in this instance very erroneously - published it.

Yes, authors come to accept derogatory remarks on platforms such as Amazon and Goodreads, but most of these are posted by known trolls or by people who clearly have a grudge. Discovering Diamonds values the time, effort and financial cost that authors, especially indie authors, put into their work. We respect this dedication and would never stoop to insulting or humiliating such authors by ridiculing them in public.

If a book is not good, for any reason, then don't review it. 

 © Helen Hollick

 feel free to leave your comments/thoughts below:

 

 

Friday, 11 February 2022

White Seed – The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by Paul Clayton


Fictional drama
16th Century
America

The settlement of Roanoke Island in 1585 was intended to be the first permanent English foothold in the New World. The land of plenty would feed the people who would be glad to work hard and prosper. It would be supplied regularly by ship from England, and more settlers would come to join the lucky first band. They would live in harmony with the native inhabitants, bartering trinkets for corn, and converting their grateful neighbours to Christianity. It was a dream of Raleigh's, to give his country an advantage in the northern part of what we know as America while Spain held the more southerly part.

The dream was, as such things are, perfect on paper. It took no account of the tempers or types of the would-be settlers. They all had their own reasons for going, some probably more worthy than others, but from the moment of landing, tensions began to appear.
 
It must be remembered that this is a work of fiction, based on what little is known about the people involved and what happened there until Governor White left in 1587, the last eyewitness to life at Roanoke. By the time he returned in 1590 nothing remained of the settlement or the more than one hundred men, women and children of all degrees who had made it their home. Clayton takes a handful of them, builds stories around them, and gives them voice. They live, they love, they give birth, they sicken and die, all in a very short span of time.  Among them are wealthy Devon men, there for gold alone; the Governor of the new colony, who is an artist and mapmaker; a young Irishwoman fleeing an unfair accusation; and two young 'savage' men who had been taken to England a few years before, and who are there to act as translators. There are also young families to populate this new extension of the Queen's realm.

Voice is also given to the different tribes who were affected by the intrusion into their lands by the strange people who came from the sea. They are pictured in all their variety, from the peaceful to the more aggressive, from those who believed in harmony, and those for whom the first betrayal was the spark for a war of attrition.

The novel moves back and forth between Roanoke and England to detail concurrent events at opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in particular the growing threat of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent blocking of the vital  revictualling ships. There's no glimmer of hope in what rapidly becomes an essay in futility and dashed hopes. At its simplest, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The characters grow as their experiences require of them, while the aura of threat – from starvation, disease, and enemies within and without the palisades– hangs over the whole. If the reader knows the true story (as far as it can be known) of Roanoke, perhaps some aspects are explained. Even in the fictionalised version, hope dies hard as their abandonment becomes more daily obvious, as it must have done. 

The end of Roanoke as Clayton writes it is an invention made for the people as he has created them, but it has to remain faithful to certain facts. That apart, this is a well-written, well-researched novel of a desperate and short-lived experiment which was overtaken by events beyond its control. 

Right at the end, in the Afterword: the author says, referring to a search in 1607, '...try as they might, Smith and the Jamestown settlers could find no trace of the English people left behind at Roanoke. And so they disappeared, living on only as legend or as a page or two in the history books - until now.' This implies, however tongue in cheek, that what's been told in these pages is true, which it isn't: it's a blend of what little is known to be fact up to 1587, and is fiction for all the rest. The novel is a possible scenario with a possible outcome for the characters as the author creates them.

It's also a book where everything for the characters is hard going, a struggle, a fight for survival which is ultimately lost, and that will not appeal to many readers. On the other hand, there are as many who will know the story of Roanoke and will enjoy this look into the pretty accurate historical setting which forms the backdrop to the events as portrayed. Clearly Clayton knows his history, from both the English and the Native sides. 

As for Roanoke itself, the real mystery is probably destined to remain unsolved.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Lorraine Swoboda
 e-version reviewed

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of A True and Faithful Relation by M.J. Logue



Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon CA
Amazon AU
Goodreads

fictional drama / fictional saga
17th century
England 

“In this relation of the events of October, 1664 - the month in which the Russells married, if you cast your mind back to the events of An Abiding Fire - we return once more to the sleepy world of Restoration Essex. It's still a brave new world to one Thankful For His Deliverance Russell, sometime Ironside, occasional intriguer, civil servant, and now - to his astonishment - official husband-to-be of the lovely Thomazine. In a month's time, they will be man and wife, and even the forces of darkness cannot come between them. But how come his very common-sensible Thomazine suddenly thinks the forces of darkness would have any interest at all in the marriage of a retired soldier and an Essex goodwife? And more to the point, how come his old friend Lucifer Pettitt is encouraging this superstitious nonsense? A true, faithful, and rather silly relation of mistaken identity involving demons, loot, hellhounds, bad poetry, and highwaymen. Possibly some swearing, in both English and French. And maybe one or two last-minute lessons in compromise, and the nature of enduring love, for both of them.”

One of the things I like about M J Logue’s novels, be they about the English Civil War (with  that rascal Holofernes Babbitt) or after the war with (equally as much of a rascal) Thankful Russell, all the characters are so believably real. To the extent that I get very disappointed when I can’t find them mentioned in any non-fiction books about Charles I or II or Oliver Cromwell and co. It is a habit of prolific readers of historical fiction to assume that charismatic characters were once real-life people; for authors to be able to endorse that assumption, apparently effortlessly, is a sign of excellent writing. And M J Logue is an excellent writer.  

Another thing I like is how Ms Logue has skilfully continued her saga of these two main characters by seamlessly dove-tailing her 17th-century War Years stories to the events of the post-war and post-Cromwell years. Aided, in the latter case, by a third main character, Hollie’s daughter, Thomazine.

It was such a pleasure to discover another tale about these wonderful characters. A True and Faithful Relation is a short tale that slots in between the other stories already published. For 99p (less than a cup of coffee) it is an amusing quick read entertainment about family, love, pre-marriage nerves, misunderstandings and an intriguing element of the supernatural by way of a monster of a dog. 

My only (very slight) quibble about this episode of the Russell/Babbitt life is that if you haven’t read any of the other tales this one might be a little confusing – so start at the beginning with The Red Horse... In my opinion, you'll not regret it. However, I do hope the author doesn't mind me saying, but these super stories are being let down by poor quality covers.

The advantage of these short tales is that they are inexpensive (even free in a couple of instances) easy reads, but w
hat I would welcome, for the ease of convenience regarding which story comes where, is for Ms Logue to collect them together in chronological order as one anthology, and to include a reference of where the main stories sit in the scheme of things. That would be a collection to enjoy several times over.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Helen Hollick
 e-version reviewed



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Monday, 7 February 2022

The Only Living Lady Parachutist by Catherine Clarke

Reviewer's Choice


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Fictional Drama / Fictional Biography
19th century 
Australia and New Zealand

"To test her courage, daredevil Lillian risks her life for fame and fortune by parachuting from a hot air balloon throughout Australia and New Zealand. But in the competitive 1890s era of charlatans, showmen, and theatrical hucksters, is she brave enough to confront the truth about her past? A story of courage and ambition, and the consequences of secrets and lies."

I think the main thing I liked about this book was its unusual subject matter. Ms Clarke has based her story on real historical people, done diligent research, and brought those people back to life in the pages of her novel.

I enjoyed the brief moments where we were taken to Lillian's present day life, and it soon became clear that as she reminisced to her grandchildren she was fabricating some aspect of her story. This was a good hook to keep the reader guessing.

I'm not sure that Lillian and her sister Ruby were entirely sympathetic characters and at some points I actively disliked them, but then I remembered that sisters are wont to behave in exactly such ways towards each other and are supremely able also to forgive one another, and so the family dynamics of this story rang very true.

The characters who come and go - some honourable, some not so much - are beautifully drawn, and the life of the showmen and women who lived for their performances and often hand to mouth, was well described.

Strongest, in my view, were the scenes where Lillian found herself falling in love. The tender first touches, the hesitant approaches, were heart-warming to the extent that one could sense the shallow breathing of a nervous young person realising their heart's desire.

The reveal, when it came, was a shock, and I'm still puzzling over whether it really worked. At first I was confused, and had to stop for a moment to work it out, but I can see why it had to be done that way. When the penny dropped, I realised how cleverly the story had actually been woven through another story.

One aspect of this book which I really wish to draw attention to is the superb level of copy-editing and proofreading. This is an excellently presented book and Ms Clarke's 'team' have served her well in this regard.

The author is a natural story-teller (as is her protagonist!) and I highly recommend this well-written and very quirky novel.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
 e-version reviewed