Sunday, 21 August 2016

REVIEW: The Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt

The Cunning Woman's CupThe Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought 'The Cunning Woman's Cup' some time ago when I realised it was set on the border of Scotland, in the tiny village of Duddo in Northumberland. The standing stones on the cover are ancient and are mentioned briefly in my own writing about the area, and I used to live near there too, so I was intrigued by the setting.

At first I thought the novel would be historical fiction about a cunning woman (or witch) from long ago, and there are elements of this in the book. But the main story is set in modern day and I have to admit this put me off reading it for a while, thinking it would not be "my kind of thing". How wrong I was. I loved this book.

However, whilst the interlinking story of the woman from Roman times with the lives of the present-day characters is well done and clever, it is not the highlight of the novel for me.

The real joy of this story are the characters. Hewitt has created a thoroughly engaging cast of people who seem totally real. I was enthralled by their tragedies and conflicts - some great, some minor - but all told with a total conviction and a poignant sensitivity.

'The Cunning Woman's Cup' is nothing like the books I usually read. There is no real action, no battles and derring do, and the main characters are elderly women, but I could not put it down as Hewitt paints a vivid picture of the passing of an era in British rural life. Many themes are investigated, from grief, love, the pressures of modern life and consumerism, to the erosion of beliefs and respect for the old ways of village existence.

This is a wonderful read. An aching tale of loss, friendship, the permanence of the past and how life is best spent surrounded by loved ones.

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REVIEW: Oswiu: King of Kings by Edoardo Albert

Oswiu: King of Kings (The Northumbrian Thrones #3)Oswiu: King of Kings by Edoardo Albert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 'Oswiu: King of Kings', Edoardo Albert brings to vivid life the battle for the land and souls of the British people in the seventh century. Albert tells an epic tale of kings and queens, omens and shieldwalls, where the future of a people was decided as much through the guile of its priests as the strength of its warlords.

Edoardo Albert deftly weaves the threads of a memorable cast of characters into the weft and warp of a vibrant tapestry of war, mystery and intrigue. Yet the true strength of 'Oswiu: King of Kings', is in the depiction of the effects of conflict on the men and women of the Dark Ages, as Albert reminds us there is much more to conquest than the ringing clash of swords.

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Saturday, 20 August 2016

REVIEW: The Scribe's Daughter by Stephanie Churchill

The Scribe's DaughterThe Scribe's Daughter by Stephanie Churchill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With The Scribe's Daughter, Stephanie Churchill gives us the foundations for a compelling fantasy series, with a sassy, engaging heroine.

The book is written in first person, from the perspective of young Kassia, who becomes embroiled in all manner of political intrigues, fights and flights from pursuits, as the novel progresses. There is a lot of action with Kassia's backstory slowly revealed as the plot unfolds. The world that Churchill has built is believable and interesting, though I have to admit, I don't really understand the creation of a different world where nothing is substantially different from a pseudo-medieval Europe. If there is no magic or dragons or something else that doesn't exist on Earth, why not set it in the real world at some interesting point in history? This felt at times like historical fiction masquerading as fantasy, or perhaps vice versa. Having said that, the setting did not detract from the story or my enjoyment of the book, and Churchill has created a rich world, with a real sense of realism.

The plot trips along at a fair old pace, with Kassia being confronted with one obstacle after another. Churchill's writing is excellent, with many an elegant turn of phrase. The writing seemed to get more assured and the characters stronger in definition as the book progressed, but speaking from my own experience of writing, I think that is often the case with debut novels.

The Scribe's Daughter is a great debut from a very talented new author. The story is fast-paced and exciting, with enough twists and turns to keep readers entertained, but Stephanie Churchill's outstanding achievement is her protagonist, Kassia, a heroine with a uniquely sarcastic and lively voice who you will root for and feel like you know after the first few pages of the novel.

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Wednesday, 17 August 2016

What Cynthia A. Graham learnt while researching for Beulah's House of Prayer

Next in the "What I Learnt..." series is Cynthia A. Graham. She is the winner of several writing awards, including a Gold IPPY and a Midwest Book Award for Beneath Still Waters. Cynthia is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the St. Louis Writers’ Guild, the Missouri Writers’ Guild, and Sisters in Crime. Her latest book, Beulah’s House of Prayer, is her first foray in the land of magical realism.


What Cynthia Graham learnt while researching for Beulah's House of Prayer


The past has always been fascinating to me because I never felt like it was some distant, forgotten time. It surrounds me, influences me, it contains the building blocks of who I am and where I’ve come from, it is everywhere. My family has always been a family of story. My dad was a master storyteller, relaying to me tales of his own childhood and those of his ancestors. Stories of covered wagons, twisters, music, and chopping cotton filled my thoughts and dreams.

 I grew up reading the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and when I matured devoured every novel by Jane Austen and any sister with the surname Bronte. While the stories they wrote were contemporary for their time, I was struck with the fact that our basic human needs and desires have not changed over the decades or centuries.  These authors helped me to fall in love with the mannerisms and the hardships of the past.

The Great Depression has always intrigued me, perhaps because I have known people who actually lived through it and have seen firsthand how it changed them. Their experiences colored their lives and the way they looked at the world forever. I suppose I wrote Beulah’s House of Prayer because so much of the American mystique regarding the Depression is defined by John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. But not everyone who lived through this time was a Joad -- an Okie traveling from home to try their hand in another place. In fact, the majority of Oklahomans stayed behind and these were the people who fired my imagination. I wanted to learn about them, why they stayed and what they suffered.


The Oklahoma Panhandle, where I set Beulah’s House of Prayer, was particularly devastated by the “Dust Bowl” days. It is easier to see the big picture when it comes to dust storms -- those eerie black and white photos of enormous clouds swallowing up houses -- than it is to understand the everyday nuisance and the absolute misery these storms created.  It is nearly impossible to comprehend how difficult it was to keep the dust out of a house. It had to be carried outside with a shovel after every storm. Towels and washcloths were wetted and placed in window sills to keep the dust from seeping in. Spiders, centipedes, and other insects sought shelter inside of homes and people would often wake to find them in bed.

It was also impossible to keep the dust off of and out of bodies. It is strange to think that something so seemingly benign could be deadly, but inhaled it caused dust pneumonia, an often lethal disease. To try and combat this, the Red Cross distributed Vaseline to citizens, instructing them to rub it in their nostrils to try and keep the lungs clear. But the dust was stealthy; it crept through masks, nestled in shirt pockets, and filled ears. It was impossible to escape.

Every day living was tedious and difficult. The storms were powerful enough to cause car batteries to short out leaving motorists stranded and they created the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire. Even a doorknob could deliver a considerable shock if the storm packed enough energy. Day after dust-filled day blotted the sun and eventually killed livestock and choked creeks and rivers.

But, above all, I believe these dust storms wore away at the fortitude of those living through them. They were soul killing. The mental and emotional toll caused by the constant monotony of storms, cleaning up, and hunger was staggering.  While some died from the dust outright, in the form of pneumonia or exposure, there was a hidden death toll in alcoholism and suicide. Those who didn’t succumb lived on prairie chickens and jackrabbits but they survived. And the heroism in this simple act of survival, in enduring one of the worst natural disasters in recent history, was what I sought to honor with Beulah’s House of Prayer.

==============

Keep up to date with Cynthia online: 

www.cynthiaagraham.com

@cynthiaa_graham

Buy Cynthia's books:

Beulah’s House of Prayer

Beneath Still Waters

Behind Every Door

Monday, 1 August 2016

THE CROSS AND THE CURSE is OUT NOW!

Book Two of the Bernicia Chronicles is published today by Aria / Head of Zeus.


Get it from all good online retailers, including:

And many more.

Please spread the word, and if you enjoy it, take a moment to leave a review - it really helps!

Monday, 18 July 2016

What Anna Belfrage learnt while researching her latest series

Next up in the "What I Learnt..." series is Anna Belfrage. She is a prolific writer, who since 2013 has published ten novels and won many awards. She is a great writer, who manages to make everything she writes entertaining, so I am extremely pleased to welcome her to my blog.



What Anna Belfrage learnt while researching her latest series


As long as I can remember, I’ve had a thing about the Middle Ages. My first writing efforts were all set in this time period, most of them featuring a very brave and determined girl who dresses up as a page and saves Richard the Lionheart from repeated assassination attempts.

Some years down the line and I met my other half, who happened to come with an absolutely fascinating family history set in the 17th century. Yes, I was seduced (both by the man and the story). Yes, I turned my back on my first historical love and spent many, many happy years digging through the complexities of the 17th century before publishing an entire series set in this time frame.

But, as they say, one never forgets that first love, and through various convoluted means I was drawn back to the heady environment of the Plantagenets and their kingdom. Thing is, something had warped, and instead of digging into the familiar territory of Richard, baby brother John, impressive mama Eleanor and wonderfully contradictory daddy Henry II, I jumped forward a century or so. I had discovered the tumultuous reign of Edward II.

I knew a bit about Edward beforehand – and especially about that enigmatic gentleman, Roger Mortimer, who was to play such a pivotal role in Edward II's life. Why? Because I had a talented history teacher back in the good old days, and Mr Wilmshurst had three passions: The Maya empire, the reign and enforced abdication of Edward II, and perfectly coloured maps. You wanted an A from Mr Wilmshurst, and you’d best ensure every single map was delivered with beautifully outlined borders and blended colours.

Edward II and Roger Mortimer are two very different men – or so they are remembered. Where Edward II was the disappointing successor to an impressive and powerful king – Edward I was a hard act to follow – young Mortimer rose rapidly through the baronial ranks, applauded for his competence, his courage, his strategical skills, all qualities Edward II supposedly lacked. Well, maybe not courage, because Edward II demonstrated repeatedly that he could be very brave when so required.



What both Edward and Roger have in common is that people tend to approach them with a predetermined view of who they were. Edward is often dismissed as a homosexual fop, while Mortimer is the sadistic bastard who rammed a red-hot poker up the fop’s arse. Hmm. I’d say very, very few historians – if any – believe Edward was killed in such a ghastly way.

If we start with Edward, my recent years of researching this unhappy king, paints a complex picture. Undoubtedly intelligent, Edward was also vain, fickle, vindictive, and far too dependent on his selected favourites. He was also the father of four legitimate children and at least one illegitimate child, which would indicate he was fully capable of heterosexual relationships.

Whether or not Edward preferred male companions in bed, we don’t really know – we just think we know. His overt affection for men like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser could be construed as going beyond friendship. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. After all, in the medieval period it was not unusual for men to share a bed with no other intentions but to sleep.

We do know that for many years Edward lived in a relatively harmonious marriage with his beautiful and much younger wife, Isabella Capet. We do know that at some point in the early 1320s, his hitherto working marriage came under considerable strain when he deprived his wife of her dower lands. Some think he may have done this for one of two reasons: Isabella was French, and England and France were at war over Gascony, or, Isabella was suspected of being in cahoots with Mortimer, who was determined to oust Hugh Despenser once and for all from Edward’s life – an ambition Isabella eagerly applauded.

For those who do not share my passion for all things medieval, a very quick and dirty summary of events is that Hugh Despenser rose to be Edward II's royal chancellor and enriched himself as he went, appropriating land belonging to others, blackmailing widows and orphans into paying him substantial amounts for them to have access to their inheritance, and in general being a somewhat unsavoury character. Despenser and Mortimer were hereditary enemies – Mortimer’s grandfather had killed Despenser’s – so when Despenser’s star rose, Mortimer’s fortunes fell, to the point that he felt obliged to rebel, which ended with an extended stay in the Tower before Mortimer fled for France.

In conclusion, what we really know about Edward II is that he was an inept king who looked the other way when his favourite Hugh Despenser rode roughshod over the law to increase his wealth. We know his marriage collapsed in 1325 – in the sense that once Isabella left for France (she was sent to negotiate a treaty with her brother) she never came back to resume her position as Edward II’s loyal and devoted wife.  We know he hated and feared Mortimer and the barons who sided with Mortimer in his attempts to curb Despenser’s power. We know that when Mortimer and Isabella returned to England in 1326, Edward fled west with Despenser but was captured. Despenser was executed, Edward incarcerated. He was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, and reputedly he died in September of 1327. Some say he was murdered. Some say he sickened and died. Some say he didn’t die. Well, obviously he did die at some point, but maybe not in September of 1327 at Berkeley Castle.



So what of Roger Mortimer? What do we know of him? Born the heir to a Marcher baron, he contracted a fantastic marriage with Joan de Geneville which made him very, very rich. The couple had chemistry, resulting in at least a dozen children, the oldest born when Roger was fifteen or sixteen. He was a loyal servant to the crown, both in Ireland and in attempting to establish some sort of truce between Edward II and his fiery cousin Thomas of Lancaster. Life was pretty good for Roger well into 1318 – which was when Despenser began rising to true prominence thereby thwarting Mortimer’s ambitions. Edward no longer viewed Mortimer favourably, and in 1321 things exploded into rebellion. By 1322, Mortimer was in custody and labelled the King’s Greatest Traitor. I guess Despenser laughed his head off – for a while, until Mortimer escaped the Tower.

As an aside, because Mortimer was arrested and attainted – twice (once in 1322, once in 1330) – detailed records of what he owned survive. Out of the murky rolls steps forth the image of a man who enjoyed his luxuries, who preferred to sleep on (red) silk sheets, who had a predilection for decorating his fabrics with whimsical butterflies, who was serious about his fighting apparel, owning an impressive collection of armour, horses, weapons. A man of refined tastes, who read books and played chess, flew falcons and rode to the hounds. In truth, Roger was something of a bon vivant – and rich enough to indulge himself. Something he had in common with his king, I suspect.

When Mortimer escaped the Tower and fled to France he was warmly welcomed by Charles of France, Isabella’s brother and Edward’s brother-in-law. Why would a king support a rebel? Well, Roger was known as a great general, a proven leader of men, and such men were always useful. Did Charles suspect Edward wasn’t treating his baby sister as he should? No idea – nor do I think it would have affected Charles’ behaviour. Royal consorts were expected to deal with things, not whinge.

Whatever the case, in 1325 Isabella also showed up in France as her husband’s ambassador. Edward had demanded Mortimer be expelled from the French court before Isabella arrived, and initially Charles complied. But by December of 1325, Mortimer was back, and he and Isabella embarked on a love affair. We think. We don’t know, even if a lot of things point in that direction – like the fact that they seem to have spent a lot of time together – joined at the hip, almost. Some say Isabella and Mortimer were an item already back in 1322-3, that she helped him flee the Tower. Very doubtful – but it makes for a great story.

What we do know is that in 1326 Isabella invaded England – with Mortimer at her side. It is an equally undisputed fact that for the coming four years he was more or less always at her side, co-regent for Edward III. Were they lovers throughout this period? Did they share moments of pleasure in between ruling the country and restoring law and order? No idea – but I like to think so.

As stated above, in 1327 Edward II supposedly died. Some say at Mortimer’s hand – accusations of murder were made at Mortimer’s trial in 1330, but once again, we don’t know. But had he done it, I dare say he’d have resorted to subtler means than a red-hot poker. What we do know is that Mortimer died in November of 1330 – hanged by his neck after having been drawn through the streets of London. Did he deserve to die? Probably – but more for his usurpation of power than a purported (and unproven) murder. Was Isabella heartbroken? No idea – but she was also punished for her role in attempting to control the young hawk that was Edward III. In difference to Mortimer, Isabella did not hang. She was simply retired from the centre of things – for good.

In summary, after all my reading, all my researching, both Mortimer and Edward II remain shadowy creatures, the facts we know offering little more than an outline. What they thought and felt, how they grieved and celebrated, remains something of a dark hole. To paraphrase a popular TV series, all that reading and it can be summed up as “You know nothing, Anna Belfrage”. Thing is, this is not a bad thing for a historical novelist. In fact, it is absolutely perfect, allowing me to create my own images of these two flawed men and presenting them to the world. Is it a true and fair representation? Probably not. But I hope it is plausible – and engaging!

**************************

Anna Belfrage is the author of the acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga, winner of multiple awards, including the HNS Indie Award 2015. Her new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015. The next book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out and Anna urges you to “enter a world of political intrigue, follow Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer as they invade England, watch my protagonists Adam de Guirande and his wife Kit navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.”

If you want to know more about Anna, drop by her webpage or her blog.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Guest post: Making Sense of the Past by Martin Lee

It is my pleasure to welcome historical novelist Martin Lee to my blog.

Martin Lee has spent most of his adult life writing in one form or another. As a University researcher in history, he wrote pages of notes on reams of obscure topics. As a social worker with Vietnamese refugees, he wrote memoranda. And, as the creative director of an advertising agency, he has written print and press ads, TV commercials, short films and innumerable backs of cornflakes packets and hotel websites.

Now he's written a guest post for my blog!

MAKING SENSE OF THE PAST



This is the first line of L P Hartley’s great novel, ‘The Go-Between’, made into a wonderful film by Joseph Losey in 1971.

It strikes me that, as writers of historical fiction, one of our jobs is to bring this ‘foreign country’ to life, and make the things they do ‘differently’ comprehensible to modern readers.

Personally, I write historical crime fiction and there’s a whole host of things I can’t do in my books on Shanghai in the 1920s and Pepys’ Restoration that more modern authors are allowed.

For example, I can’t simply call up DNA evidence to prove the presence of a criminal at a scene. In Death in Shanghai, I do have a pathologist, Dr Fang, who performs medical examinations but his guiding book was written during the twelfth century in China. It’s called ‘The Righting of Wrongs’ and was the world’s first book for medical examiners.


I also can’t pick up a mobile phone to call somebody. Everything takes far more time, and a copper looking for help has to blow his whistle or look for the nearest police box (and no, he won’t find Dr Who there!)

I can’t even use luminol to detect blood at a crime scene. You know, the stuff the CSI guys spray prodigiously on walls in the dark. The chemical wasn’t discovered until 1927 and its use at crime scenes not introduced until 1939.

So the historical crime writer has to create an old world to modern readers weaned on the fast fix of one hour TV programmes. A world where an investigator uses his mind to solve problems rather than science. Where poison, knives or a revolver are used as weapons rather than an AK47. And where human motivation for a crime is far more important than the scientific detail of the crime itself.


The latest book I have written, The Irish Inheritance, had a whole different set of problems.

How can a modern day investigator reveal the truth of the past?

And in this case, how can she discover who is the father of a young boy when he is listed as being killed in the Great War, eight years before the boy was born?

In this novel, there is no crime to be solved, but there is a story to be uncovered, a truth to be found. Here, the skills of genealogical and historical research come in. Parish registers, lists of war dead, interviews with veterans, meetings with relatives, old books and old pictures, all can be brought to life to reveal the truth.

Like all historical writing, it’s a foreign country waiting to be discovered. And it’s different there.

Our job is to make it comprehensible and believable, so that readers immerse themselves in the period.

Whether it’s the wars of Anglo-Saxon England. A murder in Art- Deco Shanghai. The theft of a diary in Restoration England. Or finding the real father of a young boy.

It’s one of the beauties of writing historical novels. There are thousands of foreign countries to be discovered in the past.

And our job is to make them our own country.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When he’s not writing, Martin Lee splits his time between the UK and Asia, taking pleasure in playing with his daughter, researching his family history, practicing downhill ironing, single-handedly solving the problem of the French wine lake and wishing he were George Clooney.

He can be found at www.writermjlee.com, on twitter @writermjlee and Facebook as, you guessed it, writermjlee.

All his books can be found on Amazon. His latest release, a genealogical mystery called The Irish Inheritance, is launched on June 15th.

Buy it here: myBook.to/irishinheritance