21 July 2017

The du Lac Chronicles by Mary Anne Yard

Amazon UK £2.99 £9.99
Amazon US $3.81 £14.99
Amazon CA $20.19

Romance / Arthurian / Fictional Saga
c. 500AD

The Du Lac Chronicles, by Mary Anne Yard, is set in a post-Roman, post-Arthurian Britain, in which waves of Saxon invaders are well on the way towards overrunning the remaining British regions. Arthur is dead, along with most of his followers, and the remaining few are scattered, lurking in separate pockets to avoid discovery. It is time for a new generation to see what sort of land they can fashion. This is the first in a series of novels and shorter pieces of writing, but it reaches a clear and logical end as a work in itself. The book, and the series as a whole, blends historical insight together with the poetry and legend surrounding Arthur and his followers.

The story circles around the children of Launcelot, and the ambivalent legacy he has left them. Their lands in Cornwall have just been lost to the Saxons of Wessex, and the survival of their line is in doubt. Alliances are uncertain and shifting, and old loyalties cannot necessarily be relied upon. The new Saxon invaders are eager to enforce their rule on the existing leaders, but are themselves split by rivalry. The book opens with the formation of an unexpected alliance, blending mutual support, political astuteness, and genuine affection. This central love affair is threatened by ally and enemy alike, and its progress from cautious overture through consummation to commitment drives the plot.

I would have liked a map to help orient myself in the presumed Arthurian locations. As a Brit, it is easy to place the various Saxon kingdoms. Of course, the exact geography of key regions and castles in the tales of Arthur remains obscure. However, Mary Anne has obviously made some suppositions in order to plan out the journeys of her characters, and it would have been helpful to see this laid out visually as well as in a brief author's note at the end.

Personally I am more swayed now by arguments for Arthurian settings in the north of England than the south, whereas this book is solidly southern in perspective. However, the choices here are well laid out and consistent. Along with that, the diversity of language and culture of the age is compellingly presented, with all its opportunities for both cross-fertilisation and misunderstanding.

All in all a vivid and readable imagining of this stage of British history, with a blend of remembered grandeur and the cruel oppression of invasion. Now that I have discovered it, this is a series that I shall continue to dip into.

© Richard Abbott
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20 July 2017

A Discovering Diamonds review of: The Survivor & Other Tales of Old San Francisco by Steve Bartholomew

Amazon UK £3.42 £6.20
Amazon US $4.39 $7.98
Amazon CA $10.54

Short stories / family drama
American Old West

This 141-page selection of short stories about the Old San Francisco (first called Yerba Buena) is an easy read.

In a conversational style, Bartholomew’s main character tells the reader interesting aspects about the growing pains and tragedies of this great American city. His often self-effacing accounts about his own success and life in the emerging West are interlaced with dry wit and a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor.

It makes for a pleasant read and whether or not there are a few liberties with the facts is irrelevant. Each of these entertaining short stories can stand alone, but the recurring characters of Hiram Courtenay and his wife Lisbeth provide continuity, and I grew quite fond of the intrepid pair as they endured fires, loss and social upheaval around them. Indeed Hiram, although a successful businessman, can be found reaching out to those less fortunate, providing them not only with counsel but a helping hand. He owns warehouses along the docks and sees first-hand those huddled and befuddled immigrants being disgorged from the bowels of arriving clipper ships. He and his wife are quick to ask them to their home and to provide a meal.

I came away with several observations:

1) Grateful I didn’t live then and there.

2) Some of my “aha-moments” were spoiled by every story ending in “The End.” If I were the author, I would take those out, especially since the formatting plasters this unnecessary statement up against the last line. Centered and down-spaced asterisks (* * *) are less intrusive leaving the reader to enjoy “what-if” or “wow” moments without the abruptness of “The End” tearing him or her out of any lingering feeling about what they had just read.

3) The cover could be improved by larger lettering, and the thumb-print might be resized to fit in with the author’s other titles.

4) In the title, the words “other tales,” I feel, should be capitalized. Further, these days an author’s name customarily is no longer preceded with “by.”

These are just my nitpicks. However, I feel they would shift these delightful short stories into a more professional realm.

Definitely worth a read for those interested in life in the Old West, and San Francisco in particular.

© Inge H. Borg
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19 July 2017

Until the Curtain Falls by David Ebsworth

Amazon UK £3.49 £10.99
Amazon US $4.52 $13.99
Amazon CA $20.70

Adventure / Fictional Saga
Spanish Civil War

Jack Telford, an English journalist, is in a spot of bother. Franco's soldiers want him, the Russians want him and even the British want him. And all because he killed a colleague and, instead of sticking to the story that he has made up he decides to go on the run and with one aim in mind – to assassinate General Franco.

Of course we know that this idea is doomed to failure, but what follows takes us through the reality of the Spanish Civil War – the lies and the truths, the duplicity of politicians, the patriotism of the nationals, the cruelty of the new regime as well as the deprivation of the people and the horrors of prison camps.

I discovered, by chance, that this book is a sequel to an earlier volume entitled The Assassin's Mark and that did help to explain some confusion at the beginning because I was wondering just why Jack Telford pursued his particular path of action. Having said that, the back story is explained and I see no reason why this cannot be read as a standalone, although I would recommend reading the first story before the sequel.

Because David Ebsworth has an excellent way of telling a tale: his descriptions of both people and locations make you feel as if you know them, his prose often comprises of short sharp  sentences, sometimes just one word sentences even, that add to the tension or the thoughts of the character or, where this occurs, the urgency within the dialogue. The creation of his characters – the fictional ones – have great depth and believability and are easy to warm to – or to fear.

Once into the story, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it through to the dramatic conclusion. Highly recommended as a well crafted, top class novel about a rarely written episode of world history.

© Richard Tearle

* * * 

When I read   The Assassin's Mark, I didn't think the excellent finale with its unexpected twist could be continued with a second book. Well, David Ebsworth has proved me wrong. There are more loose ends to tie up than I had thought of, and new plot ideas, as well as a lot more to tell about the Spanish Civil War. I love it when sequels don't repeat a formula but dare to take different directions.

While book one took place in a very brief period of time in 1938, this novel takes its time, literally, and captures a wider spectrum of historical events and politics. Hero Telford finds himself in a hot spot following the finale in Book One and needs to get out of it soon.

This takes us on a journey through war torn Spain from 1938 until the end of the war. He tries to escape to safety through a minefield of dangers and enemies, travelling across the country and on the way giving us insights into the situation in various locations, all of which provide yet another perspective on the war: areas occupied, besieged and captured, scenes of destruction and violence.

New characters bring further perspectives on the war while the suspense and drama provide a gripping and engaging storyline. This is truly excellent, as a sequel, as a stand alone and as a portrait of the war.

Historically astute and well researched: highly recommended.

© Christoph Fischer

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18 July 2017

After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks by Nancy Jardine

Amazon UK £1.99 £7.99
Amazon US $2.49 $3.67

Fictional Saga / Military / Romance
1st Century Roman Britain

#3 in the Celts and Romans series

After King Venutius’ defeat, Brennus of Garrigill – known as Bran – maintains a spy network monitoring Roman activity in Brigantia. Relative peace reigns till AD 78 when Roman Governor Agricola marches his legions to the far north. Brennus is always one step ahead of the Roman Army as he seeks the Caledon Celt who will lead all tribes in battle against Rome.
Ineda of Marske treks northwards with her master, Tribune Valerius, who is responsible for supplying Agricola’s northern campaigns. At Inchtuthil Roman Fort Ineda flees seeking fellow Brigantes congregating on the foothills of Beinn na Ciche.
Will the battle against the Romans bring Ineda and Brennus together again?”

Starting wherebook two left off, this exciting adventure continues – it is a stand-alone, but I urge you to start at the beginning with The Beltane Choice because the read is well worth it.

The story follows the paths of Bran and Ineda as they pursue their vow of revenge against Rome.

Ineda is now a slave to a Roman Tribune, while Bran joins his brother, Lorcan, hoping to find a leader strong enough to rebel against the Roman victors. This is a thoroughly exciting and enjoyably absorbing read, wonderfully researched and elegantly written giving a vividly compelling view of life as it may have been after Rome had swept into Britannia and taken everything for their own gain – except they never managed to conquer the hearts and minds of the Celtic people they conquered.

The story is about the might of military Rome, the political events and upheavals, but primarily it is the story of ordinary people surviving through extraordinary times, of the struggles of dealing with conquest and oppression – of making it through from dawn till dusk day after day, week after week. It is a story of survival and determination and hope. Of enduring brutality and absorbing kindness. To say more will reveal spoilers, but the entire series is set firmly among the very best of early Romano British novels.

© Helen Hollick

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17 July 2017

After Whorl, Bran Reborn by Nancy Jardine

Amazon UK £1.99 £5.99
Amazon US $2.49 $10.89
Amazon CA $14.57

Fictional Saga / Military / Romance
1st Century Roman Britain

Book #2 in the Celts and Romans series

I suppose all of us have seen those rather devastating pictures of the German tanks mowing down the Polish cavalry at the beginning of the Second World War. Superior technology and superior discipline met passion and courage and left a trail of carnage behind. In Ms Jardine’s book, it is the Brigantes – a British tribe – that represent the Polish cavalry, facing up to what must have been the most impressive military force of their time, the Roman Legions.

When the legionaries clash with the brave British warriors, they, just like those German tanks, cut a swathe through the proud Brigantian fighters, leaving very many dead and just as many badly wounded. One of the wounded is Brennus, a young man who figures on the fringes of Ms Jardine’s previous novel, The Beltane Choice (which, BTW, I can most warmly recommend).

Brennus returns to life permanently damaged and disfigured. The former champion of his tribe is reduced to a man who has little purpose in life – apart from wanting to make the Romans pay. To mark his new inferior status, Brennus renames himself Bran, a man with no past and little interest in his future. Fortunately for Bran – and the reader – some of his grim outlook on life is affected by the young female firebrand Ineda, a Brigante just like him, as devoted to making the Romans pay as he is.

Where Bran is introspection and bitterness, Ineda is passion and hope, an unquenchable force who refuses to believe the Romans can’t be beaten. Bran is somewhat more sanguine – and besides, what use is he in a battle? – but Ineda’s enthusiasm is very contagious, and Bran starts to see that he can fill a purpose in the ongoing fighting between his people and the hated invaders, despite being crippled.

Ms Jardine also gives us a budding romance between the damaged Bran, who, in his own opinion, has little to offer Ineda – and the inexperienced Ineda, too young to understand Bran’s reticence. She is hurt, he is hurt, and things don’t at all develop as they should, causing as much frustration for Bran as for Ineda. But when, at last, things start to improve, calamity strikes – again.

So as to balance her story, Ms Jardine has also given voice to one of the Roman oppressors. Tribune Valerius has his own baggage, his own issues, and while he is not necessarily a compassionate man, neither is he cruel or heartless. Valerius is a nice addition, in my opinion, highlighting just how complicated the politics of the day were.

The historical background is obviously well-researched, brought to vivid life in descriptions of everything from clothes to utensils and beliefs. Add to this the fact that Ms Jardine is an accomplished writer and you have a delightful and most satisfying read!

© Anna Belfrage

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15 July 2017

On the Blog Today

July 2017

by Nicky Galliers

Photograph © Karolina Webb
Barbara Erskine
A historian by training, Barbara Erskine is the author of many bestselling novels that demonstrate her interest in both history and the supernatural, plus three collections of short stories. Her books have appeared in at least twenty-six languages. Her first novel, Lady of Hay, has sold over two million copies worldwide. She lives with her family in an ancient manor house near Colchester and in a cottage near Hay-on-Wye.

14 July 2017

The Boy Who Wanted Wings by James Conroyd Martin

Amazon UK £2.35 £23.05
Amazon US $2.99 $26.80
Amazon CA $33.52

17th Century

This is a very well researched and authentic-feeling novel set in 17th century Europe. A unique perspective comes via the hero, Aleksy, being of Tartar descent but having been raised with a Polish family. As the Turks lay siege to Vienna (culminating in the battle of September 11 1683) he finds his military and amorous wings. 

The author impressed me with the detailed depiction of warfare, military operations and equipment, class, culture and societal norms. While such details can be distracting in other novels, here they were spot on and served their purpose well. I learned a lot about the era, about Poland, the Tartars and the siege of Vienna.

The characters with their unique situations, individual ambitions and the obstacles they need to overcome provide a solid base for the plot: Love at first sight, lovers against the obstacles, political turmoil and war - it sounds like a stereotype but all feels real and comes together perfectly in a gripping, educational and enjoyable novel. 

© Christoph Fischer

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13 July 2017

The Thief's Daughter by Victoria Cornwall

 AmazonUK £0.99 £7.99
Amazon US $1.26
Amazon CA n/a

Romance / Adventure / Family Drama
18th Century

They meet at a hanging.
Jenna Cartwright is the daughter of a thief and Jack Penhale is a thief taker, a man who seeks out those who break the law and sees them brought to justice.

The Cornish setting alone draws the reader into this absorbing novel that is about the different aspects of love and the injustices against those who were poor in the eighteenth century. The author has created the heroine, Jenna, though a fictional character, as very much a ‘real’ person who is striving to survive through the dark times and events that she encounters. The hardships of the time, and the struggles of the people are also very real – eighteenth century Cornwall was no easy life for those who were not wealthy, but this is, essentially, a romance between two superbly portrayed, delightful characters, and from the outset I found myself rooting for Jenna and Jack to win through and reach a happy ending together.

Elegantly written, filled with derring-do, excitement, adventure, danger and betrayal, this debut novel bowls along from start to finish, magnificently incorporating smugglers, nice ‘goodies’, nasty ‘baddies’, and stunningly described scenery.

Readers who enjoy Poldark – whether the new TV drama series, the original series, or Winston Graham’s books, and Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish-set tales (Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn…) should enjoy this novel. I look forward to encountering more of Ms Cornwall’s talent as a gifted writer.

© Helen Hollick
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12 July 2017

Golden Dragon by V.E. Ulett

Amazon UK £3.84 £9.99
Amazon US $4.89 $9.99
Amazon CA  $13.48

Alternate history / steampunk

Early 19th century

Golden Dragon, by V.E. Ulett, is an alternate history story, set in what in our world would be the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Familiar characters like Sir Edward Pellew jostle alongside a steampunk setting where a handful of ships can leave the ocean's surface and set out in flight. It's a curiously compelling vision - the technical advances are handled with a light touch rather than overwhelming the story, and the end result is close enough to this world that one can easily imagine that the events are in fact real. The author has previously written naval stories set in broadly the same era, but without the steampunk additions.

The book is focused predominantly on the characters. The plot moves along at a fair pace, and there are never serious doubts about the outcome. What draws the reader in is the interplay between the small group of protagonists, in particular the central couple. A wide variety of culture and background is stirred into the mix, from both posh and not-so-posh England via the Islamic world, across to the Far East. These are appropriately loaded with opportunities for both synergy and misunderstanding: for me this was a continual source of pleasure.

Technically the book has been well produced. I would have preferred a bit more depth to the story, and felt that there was easily enough imaginative core here to warrant more exploration of the material. For example, the central crisis was over surprisingly quickly, and the story seemed to flit too rapidly from build-up to end-game. In this particular case, perhaps the section could only have been extended by including a level of cruelty and brutality which the author wished to avoid. In the book generally, however, I would have appreciated a bit more development and complexity, and I am sure that this could have been done without losing any pace.

But Golden Dragon is an enjoyable book, with an absorbing vision of an alternate technology that seems credible, and characters with whom one can readily identify. The novel ends with a half-promise of more stories to come, even though this particular investigation is neatly closed off. I for one would be very happy to read more about this world.

© Richard Abbott

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11 July 2017

Traitor's Knot by Cryssa Bazos

two reviews submitted:
Amazon UK £2.99 £9.99
Amazon US $3.83 $11.99

Adventure : Family Drama ; Romance
17th Century 
Any novel set in the 17th century has a tendency to grab my attention, and while I am anything but a fan of Charles I and his disastrous approach to the religious and political conflicts that ultimately led to the English Civil War, there is always something very attractive about heroes who stick to their convictions, no matter what. One such hero is James Hart, a man who fought for the king during the war and who now, in 1650, is making his living as an ostler at an inn.
However, James Hart has a lucrative if illegal side-line, taking great pleasure in dressing up as a highwayman and robbing whatever rich Parliamentarian worthies come his way. On one such occasion, the party he holds up includes a young woman, Elizabeth Seton. She is on her way to join her aunt, fleeing the silent opprobrium of her neighbours in Weymouth where she is more or less universally shunned due to the fact that her father died for the king.
Ms Bazos does an excellent job of developing her two protagonists – and especially their growing feelings for each other. Initially, Elizabeth does her best to deny what she feels for James, but our hero is nothing if not persistent, and soon enough it is them against the world – a world in which a certain Constable Hammond looms uncomfortably large.
It is evident in everything just how well Ms Bazos knows her period. Clothes, food, one herbal remedy after the other, jostle for space with the political drama of the time. The very young new king Charles II (well, he’s plain Charles Stuart to the Parliamentarian rulers of England) lands in Scotland, and soon enough he has mustered an army, determined to march south and reclaim the kingdom his father lost. Ms Bazos is a more than capable guide through all this upheaval, all the way down to Worcester and the battle that officially ended the English Civil War.
It is also evident that Ms Bazos has her heart firmly with the royalists. At times, her depictions of the Parliamentarians are a bit too black and white, with Puritans portrayed as emotionless monsters. Fortunately, she balances this by adding a handful or so of decent Parliamentarians, even if two of these have now thrown their lot with the new king.
Ms Bazos delivers a fluid prose. Her characters come to life as does the setting, and frankly, what more can one want from a historical novel? All in all, Traitor’s Knot is an entertaining read, and I look forward to hearing more from this author.

© Anna Belfrage

# review 2

Ms Bazos's debut has received quite some attention, and rightly so. It is accomplished and well-written, and there is, it appears, more to come, which will please her growing readership.

The novel is set in the aftermath of the fall of Charles I, concentrating on the Royalists who lost everything after Naseby, their loved-ones in the battle, their standing in their communities, their livelihoods. It is set in a world that has changed suddenly and everyone is coming to terms with it, the winners as well as the losers.

James fought at Naseby for the king and now lives with fellow sympathisers in Warwick. To Warwick comes the orphaned Elizabeth from Dorset, escaping her sister's grasping Parliamentarian husband only to be thrown into the sphere of the equally grasping and even more evangelical Parliamentarian Lieutenant Hammond. James and Elizabeth inevitably meet and fall in love, but their lives cannot be settled under the rule of Parliament while the king in waiting, Charles Stuart, bides his time in Scotland.

In some respects this novel unfolds as you would expect - boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy and girl are separated. What is less expected in a rather predictable (of course it is, handsome man meets beautiful girl, I mean, what else would happen?) love story, is the gradual build up of the evil Hammond. An enthusiastic army officer descends into religious zealotry and then into madness. And it is this character who lifts this novel into something more than the run-of the-mill romance. He sends shivers down your spine, then, just when you think you have the measure of the writer, she surprises you.

The other single element that lifts this into something more than usual is a small cameo towards the end where Ms Bazos pulls off a wonderful twist perfectly. Beautifully weighted, it works like a dream. To say more would serve only to spoil the story, so read it for yourself.

A very good debut, I look forward to more from this author.

© Nicky Galliers

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10 July 2017

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Orange Autumn by Judith Thomson

Amazon UK £3.99

Late 17th Century
England, France, Holland and Egypt

Giles Fairfield is the main protagonist in this story about the invasion of William of Orange. A man who fought for Monmouth in the rebellion against James II, Giles was wounded but escaped from the field of Sedgemoor only to find a price on his head. He flees to France and then to Egypt where he becomes a slave trader.

Meanwhile, his brother-in-law, Philip Earl of Southwick, plots once again to place William on the throne and sends his servant to find Giles, intending him to be the bearer of an important document that will convince William to invade and Giles finds himself embroiled in the intrigue he so much wanted to avoid.

A well paced novel, with some interesting cameos from Samuel Pepys and Judge Jeffreys amongst others. I thought the plot had one or two 'holes' and there was a little over-use of exclamation marks, but overall well written, and the passages of when Giles was a slave trader were quite impressive.

Recommended for those who have an interest in this era of English history which, I feel is under-subscribed: Ms Thomson has made a good start in filling that gap.

© Richard Tearle

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8 July 2017

Second Weekend in July

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