Thursday, February 28, 2013

Q&A With Author Julie K. Rose

I'm super excited to welcome Julie K. Rose, author of the fabulous novel Oleanna, to the blog today for a Q&A session.   If you haven't already done so, make sure to check out my review for the novel by clicking here -- my review post includes an opportunity for one lucky commenter to win a copy of the book! 

Q:  Your latest novel, Oleanna, is unique in that is it set in early 20th century Norway, a time and place uncommon in historical fiction.  What inspired your selection of setting?

A:  Oleanna was inspired by the lives of my great-grandfather John and his sisters Elisabeth and Oleanna. It's not a retelling of their lives, but an imagining of what their lives were like, left behind on the farm in rural, rugged western Norway. Three of my four grandparents were Norwegian, so stories about the country and its traditions were part of my life growing up, but I wanted to know more. The time period was driven by two factors: the early 20th century was when John emigrated to the United States, and 1905 is the year that Norway finally regained independence after hundreds of years. The themes of separation and indepdence—at the macro and micro levels—dovetailed nicely.

Q: How did you go about researching Oleanna?  What was the most fascinating or surprising thing you learned? 

A: I was lucky enough to have visited Norway on vacation in 2004, so I had a good first-hand sense of the landscape (and inspiration!) when I started writing the book in 2006. And of course, I read a lot; Kathleen Stokker's book on folk medicine was particularly helpful, as was a fantastic article on women's suffrage movements around the world by Sylvia Paletschek and Bianka Pietrow-Ennker. I was also able to read early 20th century Baedeker guides to Norway online, thanks to Project Gutenberg, which was amazingly helpful.

I think the most surprising thing was learning how long Norway had not been independent. One thinks of Harald Fairhair and St. Olaf and the vikings, and forgets that Norway came under Danish rule (via marriage) in 1380, and then Swedish (via treaty) in 1814. Politically, and psychologically, the split from Sweden in 1905 was a big deal—the end of over 500 years of rule by their neighbors.

Q: Have you always wanted to be a writer?  

A. I have not. Or, at least consciously, I have not. I didn't start writing fiction until about 10 years ago, in my early 30s, prompted by a trip to Burgundy (which resulted in The Pilgrim Glass). I couldn't imagine not writing now; I suppose it felt like coming home.

Q: Are there any authors from whom you draw inspiration? 

A. Oh yes, for sure.  I came late to J.R.R. Tolkien (again, about 10 years ago) and his writing has been very inspirational for me, both in terms of subject matter (quest/journey/authenticity) and his keen attention to landscape and environment; he feels, to me, like the fiction-writing brother of Olmsted or Muir, both of whom inspire me as well. I could give you a whole list of authors, I guess, who inspire me. I know it will seem too earnest, but I'm so fascinated by, and in awe of, the creative process that anyone who creates is an inspiration.

Q:   Within the historical fiction genre there are certain era (e.g. Tudor England) and historical figures (e.g., Anne Boleyn) that receive a lot of attention.  As an author of unique historical fiction, what lesser known historical periods, people, places or events would you like to see receive more attention?  

A: While I do enjoy reading about actual historical personages, I would like to see more fiction about regular people and their stories, life far away from the courts, for example. I want to hear the stories of daily life, which can be just as important and dramatic (and teach us as much) as the larger political stories.

I'd love to see more historical fiction about the Middle East. Ann Chamberlin's The Woman at the Well was wonderful—set in Syria just after Mohammed's arrival. It gave me such a wonderful sense of life in that time and place, and I learned so much.  I'd also love to see more historical fiction set in North Africa (Lisa Yarde and Stephanie Dray have some wonderful stories set there) and in sub-Saharan Africa. I'd also love to see more stories set in Scandinavia, both pre- and post-Viking.

Q: Having written both a novel of contemporary fiction and one of historical fiction, are there any other genres you would like to try your hand at?    

A:  I wrote a number of short stories in the speculative fiction genre when I first started writing, and that was a lot of fun, and I've written some sci-fi that will probably never see the light of day. Right now I'm quite happy in my historical fiction groove, though I'm most definitely open to whatever the muse presents next.

Q:  I understand you are currently at work on your next novel.  Can you give us an idea of what it will be about?

A: I'm working on two at the moment; one is still being drafted, and is set in California. The other is being edited as we speak, and it's called DIDO'S CROWN (at least for now!). Here's the blurb: "Mary Wilson can't remember her childhood; but in her past lies the key to a mystery the Nazis are desperate to solve—and her friends are desperate to keep hidden." It's set in 1935 in Tunisia, France, and England, and is (as of right now) a kind of love letter to Indiana Jones and The Thin Man, with equal measures of adventure and angst. I can't seem to write a story that doesn't somehow investigate themes of death, grief, guilt, memory, and choice.

Q:  Given you are not only a writer of historical fiction, but also a reader of the genre, what are some of your favourite novels? 

A:  I loved Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz: so haunting and lyrical, and the writing is exceptional.  I really enjoyed Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, and The Soldier of Raetia by Heather Domin. I'm a huge Patrick O'Brian fan, so pretty much the entirety of his Aubrey/Maturin series makes it into my favorites list. Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara was fantastic, as was Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

Q:  If you were stranded on a deserted island with only five books, what five books would these be? 

A:  Without doubt, the Lord of the Rings trilogy (I'm cheating and considering this one book!) and Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian (I'm not cheating and including the entire Aubreyiad!). Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (trans. Daniel Ladinsky) to keep me company and inspired. Probably one of the Harry Potter books, either The Prizoner of Azkaban or The Deathly Hallows, and perhaps a meaty non-fiction, like Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography (which inspired me to write my first piece of serious fiction) or something by Huston Smith.

About Julie:

Julie K. Rose is an author of unique historic and contemporary fiction. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, current co-chair of the HNS Northern California chapter, and former reviewer for the Historical Novels Review. She earned a B.A. in Humanities (SJSU) and an M.A. in English (University of Virginia), and lives in the Bay Area with her husband. She loves reading, following the San Francisco Giants, watching episodes of Doctor Who, and enjoying the amazing natural beauty of Northern California.

Oleanna, short-listed for finalists in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition, is her second novel.  The Pilgrim Glass, a finalist in the 2005 Faulkner-Wisdom and semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, was published in 2010.

Set during the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, this richly detailed novel of love and loss was inspired by the life of the author's great-great-aunts.

Check out Julie's website at 


My thanks to Julie for stopping by and for her great responses to my questions!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Book Talk: Do You Re-Read Books?

It's time for Book Talk, a Confessions of an Avid Reader weekly feature that offers a forum in which to discuss book-related issues and topics.  This week's topic: Re-Reading.

I don't know about any of you, but I'm not much of a re-reader.   There are just too many books out there waiting for me to read for the first time for me to spend time re-reading old favourites.  There are a few exceptions to this rule, however.  I've re-read the entire Harry Potter series multiple times, and have re-read Jane Austen's Persuasion, Emma and Northanger Abbey more than once (I'll be re-reading Pride & Prejudice for the first time this year).   I've also re-read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and Kristen Britain's Green Rider series, and will likely do so again prior to the release of the next books in both series.  My favourite genre is historical fiction, yet the only work within the genre I've re-read is Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  But that's it.  These are the only books/series I have ever re-read.   There are a few books on my shelf I would like to re-read - The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman comes immediately to mind - but I just never seem to do so. 

Do you re-read books?  If so, what books do you re-read and why do you re-read them?  Do you have any favourites that you revisit time and again? 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Book Review and International Giveaway: Oleanna by Julie K. Rose


Set during the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, this richly detailed novel of love and loss was inspired by the life of the author's great-great-aunts.

Oleanna and her sister Elisabeth are the last of their family working their farm deep in the western fjordland. A new century has begun, and the world outside is changing, but in the Sunnfjord their world is as small and secluded as the verdant banks of a high mountain lake.

The arrival of Anders, a cotter living just across the farm's border, unsettles Oleanna's peaceful but isolated existence. Sharing a common bond of loneliness and grief, Anders stirs within her the wildness and wanderlust she has worked so hard to tame. When she is confronted with another crippling loss, Oleanna must decide once and for all how to face her past, claim her future, and find her place in a wide new world.

My Review

4 Stars

Julie K. Rose's Oleanna is a beautifully written story of loneliness, guilt and hope.  Set at the turn of the 20th century in a small Norwegian fjordland village, the novel focuses on Oleanna, a young woman trying to carve out a life for herself, her sister and her nephew on their remote family farm after the departure of their brother for America.  The world around them is quickly changing, but life on the farm remains fixed and Oleanna, battling ghosts and tradition, sees little point in creating a new life for herself.  As Oleanna becomes increasingly drawn to Anders, a cotter living in a small cottage neighbouring her family's farm, she begins to question what she wants from life and whether or not she has the courage necessary to change her path.

One of this novel's greatest strengths is Rose's lovely prose, which is particularly striking when describing the setting.   Indeed, it is not difficult to envision the sheer beauty and peacefulness of the fjordland as one reads this novel.  Rose's prose not only captures the beauty of the fjordlands, but also its loneliness and isolation by highlighting life on a small farm seemingly cut off from the wider world.  While the pace of this novel is slow, it helps the reader to savour the story and is appropriate given the setting. 

Another strength of this novel is Rose's creation of a strong, sympathetic female lead.  Burdened by guilt over the loss of her mother and a beloved sister, Oleanna tries to do what is best for her family and her farm, even if it means setting aside her own dreams.  Through Oleanna, and to a lesser extent Anders, Rose is able to convey the power the dead can sometimes have over the living, as well as illustrate just how difficult guilt can be to overcome. 

Not being familiar with the 1905 separation of Norway from Sweden, I was intrigued by the snippets of the story that provided a small glimpse into this seminal event in Norway's history.  As an inhabitant of a village in which the separation would have little impact, Oleanna's reaction to it is particularly interesting.  While I do wish more of this history had been incorporated into the novel, it doesn't suffer from its omission. 

Oleanna is recommended to all readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in reading about a time and place not generally featured in the genre. 

Note: I was provided with a copy of this novel by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.

About the Author

Julie K. Rose is an author of unique historic and contemporary fiction. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, current co-chair of the HNS Northern California chapter, and former reviewer for the Historical Novels Review. She earned a B.A. in Humanities (SJSU) and an M.A. in English (University of Virginia), and lives in the Bay Area with her husband. She loves reading, following the San Francisco Giants, watching episodes of Doctor Who, and enjoying the amazing natural beauty of Northern California.

Oleanna, short-listed for finalists in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition, is her second novel.  The Pilgrim Glass, a finalist in the 2005 Faulkner-Wisdom and semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, was published in 2010.

Set during the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, this richly detailed novel of love and loss was inspired by the life of the author's great-great-aunts.

Check out Julie's website at


I'm pleased to host a giveaway for Oleanna, with one copy available to be won courtesy of the author.

Contest details are as follows:

- The contest is open internationally and will run until midnight (EST) on March 5, 2013.
- While entrants aren't required to follow this blog, new followers are always appreciated :-)
- To enter, simply leave a comment below with your email address.

Good luck!

Be sure to come back and visit on Thursday when I'll feature a Q&A session with Julie! 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mailbox Monday

It's time for Mailbox Monday, a weekly meme created for bloggers to share the books that arrived in their home over the previous week.  Mailbox Monday is a travelling meme and is being hosted in the month of February by Audra of Unabridged Chick.

 Received for Review

Bristol House by Beverly Swerling

In modern-day London, architectural historian and recovering alcoholic Annie Kendall hopes to turn her life around and restart her career by locating several long-missing pieces of ancient Judaica. Geoff Harris, an investigative reporter, is soon drawn into her quest, both by romantic interest and suspicions about the head of the Shalom Foundation, the organization sponsoring her work. He’s also a dead ringer for the ghost of a monk Annie believes she has seen at the flat she is subletting in Bristol House.

In 1535, Tudor London is a very different city, one in which monks are being executed by Henry VIII and Jews are banished. In this treacherous environment of religious persecution, Dom Justin, a Carthusian monk, and a goldsmith known as the Jew of Holborn must navigate a shadowy world of intrigue involving Thomas Cromwell, Jewish treasure, and sexual secrets. Their struggles shed light on the mysteries Annie and Geoff aim to puzzle out—at their own peril.

This riveting dual-period narrative seamlessly blends a haunting supernatural thriller with vivid historical fiction. Beverly Swerling, widely acclaimed for her City of Dreams series, delivers a bewitching and epic story of a historian and a monk, half a millennium apart, whose destinies are on a collision course.

The India Fan by Victoria Holt

Blackmail. Arson. Murder. Obsession.

Beautiful as its peacock feathers may be, the priceless fan hidden deep within the Framling mansion has a legacy of death and destruction. And Drusilla Delany has no idea she's been marked by its curse...

But the fan's dark past might prove less of a danger than Fabian Framling himself. Dark, brooding, and dominating, will he be the one to save her from the fan's cruel fate...or cause her demise?

Seduction by M.J. Rose

In 1843, novelist Victor Hugo’s beloved nineteen-year-old daughter drowned. Ten years later, Hugo began participating in hundreds of séances to reestablish contact with her. In the process, he claimed to have communed with the likes of Plato, Galileo, Shakespeare, Dante, Jesus—and even the Devil himself. Hugo’s transcriptions of these conversations have all been published. Or so it was believed.

Recovering from her own losses, mythologist Jac L’Etoile arrives on the Isle of Jersey—where Hugo conducted the séances—hoping to uncover a secret about the island’s Celtic roots. But the man who’s invited her there, a troubled soul named Theo Gaspard, has hopes she’ll help him discover something quite different—Hugo’s lost conversations with someone called the Shadow of the Sepulcher.

What follows is an intricately plotted and atmospheric tale of suspense with a spellbinding ghost story at its heart, by one of America’s most gifted and imaginative novelists.

Rocamora by Donald Michael Platt

Poet, swordsman, and master of disguise, Vicente de Rocamora, the epitome of a young renaissance man in 17th century Spain, questions the goals of the Inquisition and the brutal means used by King Philip IV and the Roman Church to achieve them. Spain vows to eliminate the heretical influences attributed to Jews, Moors, and others who would taint the limpieza de sangre, purity of Spanish blood.

At the insistence of his family, the handsome and charismatic Vicente enters the Dominican Order and is soon thrust into the scheming political hierarchy that rules Spain.

As confessor to the king’s sister, the Infanta Doña María, and assistant to Philip’s chief minister, Olivares, Vicente ascends through the ranks and before long finds himself poised to attain not only the ambitious dreams of the Rocamora family but also—if named Spain’s Inquisitor General—to bring about an end to the atrocities committed in the name of the blood purity laws.

First, the resourceful young man must survive assassination attempts from a growing list of ruthless foes in both Church and court, solve a centuries-old riddle to quell rumors of his own impurity of blood, and above all, suppress his love for the seemingly unattainable Doña María.


Treading Water by Anne DeGrace

In the novel TREADING WATER, the voices of the residents of Bear Creek surface. Gus Sanders, a young trapper, arrives to seek his fortune on 1904 but loses his heart, and then his life; Jake Schroeder must choose between his desire to join up and his Mennonite pacifist roots; Isobel Grey, suffragette, leaves the movement in Winnipeg and brings her politics with her; Dutch war bride Aliesje Milner, six months pregnant, waits at the train station for a husband whose face she can no longer remember; and young Paul Doyle’s summer job demolishing houses to make way for the new hydroelectric dam teaches him more than he bargained for. The indomitable personality of Ursula Hartmann, first child born in Bear Creek and among the last to leave, threads through the novel as they trace a community from its innocent beginnings until the day the waters rise.

Among Others by Jo Walton

Startling, unusual, and yet irresistibly readable, Among Others is at once the compelling story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood, a brilliant diary of first encounters with the great novels of modern fantasy and SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.

Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled--and her twin sister dead.

Fleeing to her father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England–a place all but devoid of true magic. There, outcast and alone, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off… 

That's it for me.  What did you get in your mailbox this week?

Suddenly Sunday

It's time for Suddenly Sunday, a weekly meme hosted by Svea at Muse in the Fog that gives bloggers the opportunity to share their blogging events from the past week.  

In addition to my regular meme posts, I posted a couple of reviews this past week (click on the book title to read my review):

- Thwarted Queen by Cynthia Haggard

- Mistress to the Crown by Isolde Martyn

My Book Talk discussion focused on negative reviews, and I received some great feedback from other bloggers.  You can join in the discussion by clicking here

Next week is looking to be a busy one on the blog.  In addition to the my meme posts, including Book Talk, I'll also be posting my review and hosting a giveaway for Julie K. Rose's wonderful novel Oleanna, and will follow this up with an author interview.   In addition, my review of Juliet Dark's The Water Witch will be posted by the end of the week. 

Reading-wise I'm sort of all over the place.  I had to put aside Susanna Kearsley's The Firebird in order to tackle some review books and, unfortunately, have not yet had the chance to get back to it.   Given it's one of the books I'm most looking forward to reading this year, I want to make sure I do the book justice by focusing my attention solely on it.  For this reason I'm not sure I'll get back to it for another month or two.    I started The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn yesterday and think it's fabulous!  I'm also reading A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz, but I'm not sure what I think about it so far.  Steampunk novels can be hit or miss for me.  

What are you reading right now?  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Review: Mistress to the Crown by Isolde Martyn


The day Lord Hastings came into her husband’s store, Elizabeth saw the opportunity she had waited twelve years for — a way to separate herself once and for all from her dull, impotent husband, William Shore. The handsome stranger presented not only the chance to partake in the dance of desire, but legal counsel to annul her 12-year marriage.

She did not, however, foresee her introduction to the King of England, nor her future at his side…and in his bed. From this unlikely alliance, Elizabeth is granted severance from Shore, and finds herself flourishing in the radiance of the King’s admiration. But she soon finds that her new position comes at a terrible price — her family has shunned her, the people of London have labelled her a harlot and the Queen’s family want her to burn in Hell.

So long as King Edward and Lord Hastings stay close, Elizabeth is safe. However, her beloved Ned falls ill and Lord Hastings falls out of favour.

Can Elizabeth's wiles keep her out of trouble? Or will they lead her to further trouble...and the hangman's noose?

Harlequin Enterprises Australia | February 1, 2013

My Review

3.5 Stars

Mistress to the Crown introduces readers to Elizabeth Lambard, who is best known to history as Jane Shore, mistress of English King Edward IV.   The novel follows Elizabeth's life from the time of her marriage to merchant William Shore as teenager, to the start of her second marriage shortly after the death of King Edward. 

Told from Elizabeth's perspective, the novel paints a vivid and plausible portrait of a woman about whom very little is known.  Elizabeth is characterized as intelligent, resourceful and independent, and it is easy for the reader to feel sympathy for her.  While Elizabeth is a strong, well-developed character, I think the development of the novel's other principal characters, such as Will Hastings and King Edward, suffer somewhat from the author's use of first person narrative, which prevents the reader from understanding the motivations and behaviours of any character but Elizabeth.  The use of first person narrative also prevents the author from going into great depth with respect to some of the political events that took place during Edward's reign.  While this is understandable considering Elizabeth would likely not have been privy to the inner workings of Edward's court, readers do miss out on some historical context.  Nevertheless, I do think Martyn does a satisfactory job in evoking a sense of time and place.   The only real issue I had with this novel was the sex scenes, which I felt overdone and more in line with would be found in a romance novel than in a work of historical fiction - thankfully there weren't as many of them as I would have expected given the novel is about a King's mistress!

Overall, Mistress to the Crown is a well-written novel that should appeal to readers interested in late medieval England, as well as those who enjoy novels with strong female protagonists. 

Note: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Talk: Negative Reviews

It's time for Book Talk, a Confessions of an Avid Reader weekly feature that offers a forum in which to discuss book-related issues and topics.  This week's topic: Negative Reviews.

Given that I wrote a less than glowing review for a book this week, the topic of negative reviews is a timely one.  I believe that reviewers should be honest in assessing a book's merits or lack thereof.   Nevertheless, I have a hard time posting reviews where the majority of what I have to say is negative.  I know some book bloggers chose only to post reviews of books they've enjoyed.    No author wants to be on the receiving end of a negative review, yet as a reader it is lower starred reviews that I find the most useful.  The reason for this is that a well-written 2 or 3 star review that clearly articulates why the reviewer gave the rating he or she did help me to determine whether or not I should read a book, especially those that I'm unfamiliar with.  

How do you feel about negative reviews?  Do you write them?  As a reader, do you find them more useful than positive reviews? 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Thwarted Queen by Cynthia Haggard


THWARTED QUEEN is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.

 Cecylee is the apple of her mother’s eye. The seventh daughter, she is the only one left unmarried by 1424, the year she turns nine. In her father’s eyes, however, she is merely a valuable pawn in the game of marriage. The Earl of Westmorland plans to marry his youngest daughter to 13-year-old Richard, Duke of York, who is close to the throne. He wants this splendid match to take place so badly, he locks his daughter up.

The event that fuels the narrative is Cecylee’s encounter with Blaybourne, a handsome archer, when she is twenty-six years old. This love affair produces a child (the “One Seed” of Book II), who becomes King Edward IV. But how does a public figure like Cecylee, whose position depends upon the goodwill of her husband, carry off such an affair? The duke could have locked her up, or disposed of this illegitimate son.

But Richard does neither, keeping her firmly by his side as he tries to make his voice heard in the tumultuous years that encompass the end of the Hundred Years War - during which England loses all of her possessions in France - and the opening phase of the Wars of the Roses. He inherits the political mantle of his mentor Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, and becomes the people’s champion. The rambunctious Londoners are unhappy that their country has become mired in misrule due to the ineptitude of a King prone to fits of madness. Nor are they better pleased by the attempts of the King’s French wife to maneuver herself into power, especially as she was responsible for England’s losses in France. But can Richard and Cecylee prevail? Everywhere, their enemies lurk in the shadows.

This book is filled with many voices, not least those of the Londoners, who forged their political destiny by engaging in public debate with the powerful aristocrats of the time. By their courageous acts, these fifteenth-century Londoners set the stage for American Democracy.

Createspace | October 29, 2012 | 498 pages

My Review

2 Stars

The period encompassing the Wars of the Roses and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III is one of my favourite historical eras.  Given my Yorkist sympathies, I particularly enjoy books that feature the York's as central characters and/or that portray them sympathetically.  In light of this, Cynthia Haggard's Thwarthed Queen, which focuses on the life of House of York matriarch Cecylee Neville, should have been a winner for me.  Unfortunately, it wasn't.  

Judging from other reviews, my impressions of this novel are quite different from those of other readers.  Knowing that writing and publishing a novel requires a lot of heart and effort, I do not enjoy writing negative reviews.  Nevertheless, when it comes to historical fiction there are certain criteria that must be met in order for me to enjoy a novel.  Unfortunately, Thwarted Queen did not meet most of my criteria.  First and foremost I expect quality writing, engaging characters, and a well-developed, plausible plot.  While I don't consider Haggard's writing poor, it does lack the sophistication I have come to expect in good historical fiction.  This is especially true of the novel's dialogue, which doesn't come across as authentic.  In addition, the dialogue oftentimes has characters telling each other things they would already be aware of.  Although billed as a story “told by Cecily ‘Cecylee’ Neville, the Thwarted Queen” the section of the novel dealing with the Wars of the Roses is, in fact, told in third person.  The author notes that this was done to ensure that key events of the Wars of the Roses in which Cecylee would have had no part are conveyed to the reader.  Yet the three other sections of the book, which are each told from Cecylee’s perspective, have Cecylee and other characters clearly articulating important information second and third hand.

The novel's primary characters, all of whom come from the pages of history and with whom I'm already familiar, have little depth.  Cecylee comes across in the early parts of the novel as silly and immature.  Later in the book I found her to be too naïve for someone who is the daughter and wife of English nobles.  For example, she continually expresses surprise at the damage done by her revelation, in a room full of people, that Edward IV is illegitimate.  Really?  The man is the king of England.  How could she not know that there would be serious ramifications from her disclosure?   The antagonists of the novel, Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville, are one-dimensional villains, and I grew seriously tired of Haggard’s overuse of ‘Bitch of Anjou’ to refer to Margaret and ‘the Serpent’ to refer to Elizabeth.  The cast of characters is extensive, especially in the first two sections, with many characters appearing only briefly and adding absolutely nothing to the story. 

The plot, which covers a large stretch of time, does moves along at a relatively steady pace, but for a book ostensibly about Cecylee Neville I found that, other than her affair with Blaybourne, it actually showcases very little of her life.   While Cecylee states on more than one occasion that she worked her whole life for the benefit of her sons, with a couple of exceptions, the reader isn’t shown what she did for any of them.  As a result, this is the first novel I’ve read featuring Cecylee where I didn’t feel as if I knew her any better upon finishing than I did on the first page. 

Another element I look for in historical fiction is prose and detail that offers the reader a strong sense of time and place.   In my opinion, Thwarted Queen doesn’t successfully create either.  The Wars of the Roses and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III is a fascinating and complex period of English history, but this novel doesn’t do its complexity justice.  While it is obvious a great deal of research went into the writing of this novel, much of the key historical information found within its pages is dumped into the text rather than seamlessly woven into the narrative.  In addition, the historical information conveyed in the book doesn’t adequately capture and link the contextual and background information necessary to an understanding of the origins of the Wars of the Roses.  

Overall, I think this novel suffers from the author overreaching in that she simply includes too many characters to successfully develop any of them, too much history without proper context, and covers too many years and events in too few chapters to do them justice (the formatting of this novel causes a misleadingly high page count).  A more focused narrative that examines only a few aspects of Cecylee’s life or that focuses solely on the Wars of the Roses might have allowed the author to avoid some of the weaknesses I’ve identified.  This would also address my final complaint, which is that the narrative fails to clearly convey the novel’s true focus.  Is the book supposed to be about Cecylee’s life, or is it supposed to be about the Wars of the Roses?  The synopsis indicates the book will be about Cecylee, yet the book’s overly long sub-title—A Saga About the Yorks, Lancasters and Nevilles, whose family feud started the Wars of the Roses.  Told by Cecily “Cecylee” Neville (1415-1495), the Thwarted Queen—points to a book focused on the Wars of the Roses.

I would like to end this review on a positive note.  While rumours about Edward IV's paternity arose after his death, there is no hard evidence that he was the son of anyone other than Richard, Duke of York.  Nevertheless, given doubt has been raised, I think Edward's paternity is an interesting topic for historical novelists to explore.  Even though I didn't enjoy Thwarted Queen, I do have to give Haggard credit for making Edward IV's possible illegitimacy one of the foundations of her novel since it puts a new spin on an already familiar period in history.  In addition, while not part of the novel itself, the Author's Note included at the end of the book is excellent.   In it Haggard clearly identifies where she took liberties, why she pursued certain avenues (e.g. Edward's illegitimacy), and the historical sources she used as research.  Many readers might not care, but I always appreciate when an author takes the time to explain their rationale for going in certain directions in their novels, and where and why they have deviated from history.   

Although I wouldn't recommend this novel, recognizing that other readers have had a more positive experience with the book I suggest checking out other reviews before deciding whether or not this book is for you.   

Note: I received a copy of this novel in exchange for my participation in the book's virtual book tour.

Check out the tour schedule and read other reviews by clicking here.

About the Author

Born and raised in Surrey, England, CYNTHIA SALLY HAGGARD has lived in the United States for twenty-nine years. She has had four careers: violinist, cognitive scientist, medical writer and novelist. Why does she write historical novels? Because she has been reading them with great enjoyment since she was a child. Because she has a great imagination and a love of history that won't go away. And because she has an annoying tendency to remember trivial details of the past and to treat long-dead people as if they were more real than those around her.

Cynthia's biggest influence was her grandmother, Stephanie Treffry, who had a natural story-telling ability. As a widow in 1970s Britain, Grandma Stephanie didn't drive a car, so would spend time waiting for buses. Her stories were about various encounters she had at those bus-stops. Nothing extraordinary, except that she made them so funny, everyone was in fits of laughter. A born entertainer, Cynthia tries to emulate her when she writes her novels.

In case you were wondering, she is related to H. Rider Haggard, the author of SHE and KING SOLOMONS'S MINES. (H. Rider Haggard was a younger brother of her great-grandfather.) Cynthia Sally Haggard is a member of the Historical Novel Society.  You can visit her website at

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mailbox Monday

It's time for Mailbox Monday, a weekly meme created for bloggers to share the books that arrived in their home over the previous week.  Mailbox Monday is a travelling meme and is being hosted in the month of February by Audra of Unabridged Chick

Since it's been a few weeks since my last Mailbox Monday post this one contains more books than usual :-)

 Received for Review:

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin’s body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin’s healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to her son, the headstrong prince Alyosha, who suffers from hemophilia. Soon after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and the Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha find solace in each other’s company. To escape the confinement of the palace, and to distract the prince from the pain she cannot heal, Masha tells him stories—some embellished and others entirely imagined—about Nikolay and Alexandra’s courtship, Rasputin’s exploits, and their wild and wonderful country, now on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand. 

The Roots of Betrayal by James Forrester

In this brilliant new Elizabethan thriller from the highly acclaimed author of Sacred Treason, Catholic herald William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, is the custodian of a highly dangerous document. When it is stolen, Clarenceux enters a nightmare of suspicion, deception, and conspiracy. As England teeters on the brink of a bloody conflict, Clarenceux knows the fate of his country and countless lives will be determined by his actions. The roots of betrayal are deep and shocking, and Clarenceux's journey towards the truth entails not just the discovery of clues and signs, but also of himself. 


 The Waste Land by Simon Acland

The Waste Land chronicles the adventures of Hugh de Verdon, monk turned knight, during the extraordinary historical events of the First rusade.  He journeys from the great Benedictine monastery of Cluny to Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem.  He encounters the Assassins, endures a personal epiphany and discovers the “truth” behind the Holy Grail.

Hugh de Verdon’s tale is retold by a group of desperate Oxford professors, based on his autobiographical manuscript, discovered in their college library.  Their humorous – and murderous – story also provides a commentary on the eleventh-century events and shows that they are perhaps not all they seem.


Like Chaff in the Wind by Anna Belfrage

Matthew Graham committed the mistake of his life when he cut off his brother's nose. In revenge, Luke Graham has Matthew abducted and transported to the colony of Virginia to be sold as indentured labour. Matthew arrives in Virginia in May 1661 and any hope he had of finding someone willing to listen to his story of unlawful abduction is quickly extinguished. If anything, Matthew's insistence that he is an innocent man leads him to being singled out for the heaviest tasks. Insufficient food, gruelling days and the humid heat combine to wear him down. With a sinking feeling, he realises no one has ever survived their seven years of service on the plantation Suffolk Rose. Fortunately for Matthew, he has a remarkable wife. Alex  Graham has no intention of letting her husband suffer and die. So she sets off from Scotland on a perilous journey to bring her husband home. Alex is plagued by nightmares in which Matthew is reduced to a wheezing wreck by his tormentors. Sailing to Virginia, she prays for a miracle to carry her swiftly to his side. But fate has other plans, and what should have been a two month crossing turns into a year long adventure - from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Will Alex find Matthew in time? Will she be able to pay the price of setting him free? Like Chaff in the Wind continues on from The Rip in the Veil, taking Alex and Matthew's love story to a new continent.

Flesh by Khanh Ha

The setting is Tonkin (northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century. A boy, Tai, witnesses the beheading of his father, a notorious bandit, and sets out to recover his head and then to find the man who betrayed his father to the authorities. On this quest, Tai's entire world will shift. FLESH takes the reader into dark and delightful places in the human condition, places where allies are not always your friends, true love hurts, and your worst enemy may bring you the most comfort. In that emotionally harrowing world, Tai must learn to deal with new responsibilities in his life while at the same time acknowledging his bond, and his resemblance, to a man he barely knew-his father. Through this story of revenge is woven another story, one of love, but love purchased with the blood of murders Tai commits. A coming-of-age story, but also a love story, the sensuality of the author's writing style belies the sometimes brutal world he depicts.

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

“You are now a member of the Guild. There is no return.” Two hundred years after he was about to die on a Napoleonic battlefield, Nick Falcott, soldier and aristocrat, wakes up in a hospital bed in modern London. The Guild, an entity that controls time travel, showers him with life's advantages. But Nick yearns for home and for one brown-eyed girl, lost now down the centuries. Then the Guild asks him to break its own rule. It needs Nick to go back to 1815 to fight the Guild’s enemies and to find something called the Talisman.

In 1815, Julia Percy mourns the death of her beloved grandfather, an earl who could play with time. On his deathbed he whispers in her ear: “Pretend!” Pretend what? When Nick returns home as if from the dead, older than he should be and battle scarred, Julia begins to suspect that her very life depends upon the secrets Grandfather never told her. Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance.

The Fatal Crown by Ellen Jones

Against the seething political intrigues of twelfth-century Europe, two royal heirs will surrender to passion as they vie for the most glittering, treacherous prize of all: the English throne

At nine, Maud, an English princess, was sent to Germany to become the bride of the Holy Roman Emperor—a political alliance with a man her father’s age. At twenty-five, the widowed Maud must marry once again, this time to fourteen-year-old Geoffrey Plantagenet. But it is with Stephen of Blois, Maud’s fiercest rival for the British throne, that the headstrong princess discovers the true meaning of desire. Stephen, a descendant of William the Conqueror, believes absolutely in his God-given right to rule. Torn between his illicit passion for Maud and his own towering ambition, he knows he must choose. Stephen’s decision will wrench him from the arms of the woman he loves, ignite civil war, and lead to a shattering act of betrayal that, decades later, will come full circle and change the course of English history.  

Received as a Gift from the Author

A Rip in the Veil by Anna Belfrage

On a muggy August day in 2002 Alex Lind disappears without a trace. On an equally stifling August day in 1658, Matthew Graham finds her on an empty Scottish moor. Life will never be the same for Alex - or for Matthew. When Alexandra Lind is unexpectedly thrown several centuries backwards in time, she lands at the feet of Matthew Graham - an escaped convict making his way home to Scotland. Matthew doesn't quite know what to make of this concussed and injured woman who has seemingly fallen from the skies - what is she, a witch? Alex gawks at this tall, gaunt man with hazel eyes, dressed in what (to her) mostly looks like rags. At first she thinks he might be some sort of hermit, an oddball, but she quickly realises the she is the odd one out. Catapulted from a life of modern comfort, Alex grapples with this new existence, further complicated by the dawning realization that someone from her time has followed her here - and not exactly to extend a helping hand. Potential compensation for this brutal shift in fate comes in the shape of Matthew - a man she should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him. He quickly proves himself a willing and most capable protector, but he comes with baggage of his own, and on occasion it seems his past will see him killed. Alex finds her new situation desperately exciting, but also longs for the structure of the life she used to have. Can Alex get home? And does she want to?

In addition, I also purchased the following books using the remainder of my Christmas gift cards:

- Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

- A Future Arrived by Phillip Rock

- Netherwood by Jane Sanderson

- The Truth of All Things by Kieran Shields

- The Prisoner of Paradise by Romesh Gunesekera 

- River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

- The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

- Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

- The Fate of Mercy Alban by Wendy Webb

- Prodigy by Marie Lu
That's it for me.  What did you get in your mailbox? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell


In 1002, fifteen­-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door.  Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son.

Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.

Based on real events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Shadow on the Crown introduces readers to a fascinating, overlooked period of history and an unforgettable heroine whose quest to find her place in the world will resonate with modern readers.

Viking Adult | February 7, 2013 | 432 pages

My Review

4 Stars

Set in the early 11th century, Shadow on the Crown, the first book in a planned trilogy from debut novelist Patricia Bracewell, follows the early life and reign of Emma of Normandy, wife and queen to two English kings, as well as the mother of two more. 

Although Emma is the novel's principal character, and it is from her perspective the story is most often told, the narrative also features the perspectives of Emma's husband, English King Athelred, Athelred's son Athalstan, and Elgiva, daughter of the King's most powerful aldorman.  By alternating between these various perspectives Bracewell enables the reader to gain a wider appreciation for the politics and personalities of the English court.  While not particularly vibrant, Emma is nevertheless a well-drawn character, one for whom it is easy to feel sympathy given her loveless marriage and the fact she must navigate through a court that, by virtue of her Norman birth, is suspicious of her loyalties.   While I liked Emma, it is King Athelred who proves the most fascinating character in this novel.  Haunted by the murder of his elder brother, Athelred trusts no one, not even his wife or sons.  Despite the increasing severity and number of Viking raids, Athelred remains unwilling to listen to any council but his own and, as a result, puts his kingdom at risk.  

As clearly evident in this novel, the 11th century was not a particularly good time to be a woman.  Athelred holds little respect for Emma, even though she is his crowned Queen consort, and his dismissal of his young daughters shows what little regard he has for the female sex.  Elgiva, the other key female character in the novel, often suffers brutal treatment at the hands of her father and brothers.  Despite attempts to exert their influence and insert themselves into the halls of power, both Emma and Elgiva are continually held back by the men in their lives.  While Bracewell does a good job conveying certain societal conventions of the age, the novel suffers somewhat given that it doesn't contain a great deal of historical detail.  As a result, the book doesn't always give the reader, especially those already familiar with this era, a particularly strong sense of time.  While the book doesn't go into great depth when it comes to the political maneuverings of Athelred's court, it nevertheless provides a solid introduction for readers unfamiliar with this period of history.  

Well-written and engaging, Shadow on the Crown is recommended to historical fiction readers interested in pre-Conquest English history. 

Note: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book Talk: Bookish Pet Peeves

It's time for Book Talk, a Confessions of an Avid Reader weekly feature that offers a forum in which to discuss book-related issues and topics.  This week's topic: Bookish Pet Peeves.

I don't know about any of you, but when it comes to books and reading I have quite a few pet peeves.  While many of my pet peeves are minor, causing nothing more than an eye roll, the presence of others can ruin a book for me.   So, without further ado, here are some of my biggest bookish pet peeves:

Weepy Heroines.  I don't mind some crying in novels, especially if the subject matter is such that staying dry-eyed would be unusual, but a heroine who cries or who is on the verge of tears on seemingly every other page irks me to no end.  The result is usually me giving a book a low rating. 

Love Triangles.  I love a good love story, but I'm growing tired of reading novels that feature a woman trying to decide between two men.   It's usually pretty obvious which choice the woman will make, but, unless he's characterized as a jerk (a la Daniel Cleaver from Bridget Jones' Diary) I often find myself rooting for the rejected party -- who is usually portrayed as somewhat boring and nowhere near as attractive or charismatic as the man who, in the end, wins the heart of the heroine.  

Historical Characters with Modern Day Sensibilities.  It drives me nuts when a character in a work of historical fiction is portrayed in such as way that they could be plucked right out of their novel and easily placed in one set in the modern-era.   Even if a character defied the conventions of the age in which they lived, they would still, for the most part, have an outlook on life that would in many respects be considered old-fashioned by today's standards.  As such, historical characters should not be given modern-day sensibilities. 

Terms of Endearment.  Okay, this one probably bugs only me, but it drives me batty when male characters continually use terms of endearment such as 'sweetheart' and 'honey' when talking to their significant other.  I can't explain why this bugs me, it just does.

Unexplainable Book Titles.   Do you ever finish a book and wonder where on earth the title comes from?  This has happened to me on a few occasions.   Wolf Hall, a novel I absolutely love, is one such book.  Even after reading Hilary Mantel's explanation for the title I still don't think it fits the novel. 

Now that I've shared some of my bookish pet peeves, I'm eager to hear some of yours.   Share them below.    

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Suddenly Sunday

Happy Sunday once again.  I hope everyone had a fabulous weekend!  For those of you recovering from the recent blizzard that hit the northern East Coast, I hope you were able to get lots of reading done and are managing to successfully dig out. 

It's time for Suddenly Sunday, a weekly meme hosted by Svea at Muse in the Fog that gives bloggers the opportunity to share their blogging events from the past week. 

This past week was a busy one here at Confessions of an Avid Reader.   I hosted two guest posts (Click on the title to view and comment on the posts):

- Liberty, Equality and Me by author B.N. Peacock; and
- Portrait of a King by author Anne Easter Smith.

I also posted my review for B.N. Peacock's A Tainted Dawn, as well as the first post for my new weekly Book Talk feature.   The topic was How Do You Determine What to Rate A Book, and if you if haven't already done so I'd love to hear your thoughts.   Thanks to those of you who have already shared your thoughts. 

Next week I'll post my usual meme posts, as well as my reviews of both Isolde Martyn's Mistress to the Crown and Patricia Bracewell's Shadow on the Crown

Happy Reading!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Potrait of a King: Guest Post by Anne Easter Smith

Thanks for hosting me today!

So now we know! It was Richard III under the car park in Leicester, and the exciting announcement on February 4th made me cry. Now all of us who are Richard fans will have somewhere to go and pay our respects. It appears Leicester has won out in the re-interment battle between there and York Minster. A ceremony is being planned for early 2014, I understand.

Many of you may have seen pictures or videos already of the amazing and wonderful reconstruction of Richard’s face from his skull found in Leicester. I can’t tell you how powerful that was for me to see! You must agree with me, this is not the face of a murderous, evil tyrant. Sure, we have several portraits of him, but none of them is actually from his time. They are copies--estimated to have been done anytime during the 50 years following his death in 1485.

So if we have reproductions of actual paintings to look at, why was the facial reconstruction such a delightful surprise? Because we know the portraits were altered to fit the descriptions the Tudor historians had written about King Richard.

John Rous, who was writing during Richard’s time but quickly latched on to Henry VII’s coattails wrote that Richard had been in his mother’s womb for two years and emerged with a mouth full of teeth and a headful of long hair. Really! And they bought it? Well, if they bought that, then of course they would buy all the other nasty slanders slung at Richard. That he had a withered arm, that he murdered people and that he poisoned his wife in order to marry his niece. Jezum! What a load of codswallop (as we say in England).

There are several portraits of Richard that would have been done during his two-year reign when he was 30-32 [see portrait on left]. If you go to this link  you can hear an expert talk about how x-rays revealed the portrait in the Royal Collection was tampered with to create a haggard, older and bad-tempered face, added inches to the right shoulder, and turned the fingers into claws. Now the 16th century public had a portrait they could believe depicted the tyrant usurper Richard III!

However, if you look at the one belonging to the Societies of Antiquities in London [on the right], you will notice there is no discrepancy in the shoulder heights, his hands are elegant, and he looks more like a man of 30.

Of them all, I’ll take the reconstruction! Nicolas von Poppelau, a German visitor at Richard’s court in 1484, wrote in his journal that Richard was: “...three fingers taller than myself...also much more lean; he had delicate arms and legs, also a great heart...” No mention of a hunchback! And Archibald Whitelaw, a Scottish Archdeacon, wrote: “Now I look for the first time upon your face, it is the contenance worthy of the highest power and kingliness, illuminated by moral and heroic virtue...never before has nature dared to encase in a smaller body such spirit and strength.”

The experts decided that even though Richard’s skeleton straightened measured 5 ft. 8 in., his scoliosis would have caused him to appear smaller. Scoliosis is quite common--in fact Usain Bolt has it--and Richard must have made up for his lack of inches with muscle and strength to have been able to wield those huge battle-axes and handle a destrier at the same time.

If a picture tells a thousand words--even if it’s computer-generated--then I’d say Richard was not evil-looking, but pretty handsome!

About Anne Easter Smith

Anne Easter Smith is an award-winning historical novelist whose research and writing concentrates on England in the 15th century. Meticulous historical research, rich period detail, and compelling female protagonists combine to provide the reader with a sweeping portrait of England in the time of the Wars of the Roses. Her critically acclaimed first book, A Rose for the Crown, debuted in 2006, and her third, The King’s Grace, was the recipient of a Romantic Times Review Best Biography award in 2009. A Queen by Right has been nominated by Romantic TImes Review for the Best Historical Fiction award, 2011.

Royal Mistress/Richard III Virtual Book Tour February 7 - 22

From the author of A Rose for the Crown and Daughter of York comes another engrossing historical novel of the York family in the Wars of the Roses, telling the fascinating story of the rise and fall of the final and favorite mistress of Edward IV.

Jane Lambert, the quick-witted and alluring daughter of a silk merchant, is twenty-two and still unmarried. When Jane’s father finally finds her a match, she’s married off to the dull, older silk merchant William Shore—but her heart belongs to another. Marriage doesn’t stop Jane Shore from flirtation, however, and when the king’s chamberlain and friend, Will Hastings, comes to her husband’s shop, Will knows his King will find her irresistible.

Edward IV has everything: power, majestic bearing, superior military leadership, a sensual nature, and charisma. And with Jane as his mistress, he also finds true happiness. But when his hedonistic tendencies get in the way of being the strong leader England needs, his life, as well as that of Jane Shore and Will Hastings, hang in the balance.

This dramatic tale has been an inspiration to poets and playwrights for 500 years, and told through the unique perspective of a woman plucked from obscurity and thrust into a life of notoriety, Royal Mistress is sure to enthrall today’s historical fiction lovers as well.

Publication Date:  May 7, 2013 | Touchstone | 512p

You can check out the tour schedule by clicking here.

Follow the tour on Twitter: #RoyalMistressVirtualTour

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Talk: How Do You Determine What to Rate a Book?

I've been giving a lot of thought to book ratings lately, particularly 5 star ratings.  As some of you may have noticed from my reviews, I don't often award 5 stars to the books I read.  For example, I read 91 books last year but only rated 4 of them 5 stars.  While I read many excellent novels last year, all of which I rated 4 or 4.5 stars, I reserve 5 star ratings only for those books that I consider to be truly special, such as those with characters or story lines that I've become more than a little emotionally invested in, or that I just can't stop thinking about.  Simply enjoying a novel isn't enough to garner 5 stars from me, a book has to leave me feeling satisfied that nothing could be done to improve upon it. 

Historical fiction is my favourite genre, as well as being the one I read most often in.  As a result, it also tends to be the genre in which my standards and expectations are highest.  While any book I rate highly, regardless of genre, must be well-written, have well-developed characters and an engaging plot, I generally won't give a work of historical fiction 4 stars or above unless it also satisfies the following two criteria:

(1) The novel must evoke a strong sense of both time and place (I love attention to historical detail); and
(2) The novel must be, to the greatest extent possible, historically accurate.  I don't mind the odd liberty taken for the sake of a story, but major liberties turn me off. 

That's not to say I don't enjoy novels that don't fulfill all of my criteria for great historical fiction, because I do, it's just that my rating of them might be lower (3 to 3.5 stars).  When it comes to the fantasy genre, another favourite of mine, I look for novels that enable me to get completely lost in another world, a world that is so well-built that I have a hard time believing it's not real.  

Recognizing that everyone has different tastes, and that what makes a book a great read for me won't necessarily be the same for other readers, I'd love to know what you consider when determining what  rating to give a book?  What elements must a book have in order for you to rate it 5 stars? 


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Liberty, Equality and Me: A Guest Post by B.N. Peacock

It’s so easy to take things for granted. The right to vote, ho hum. A government accountable to its citizens, likewise, I’m sure. And of course, we’re all as good as anyone else. These are cozy clichés that have been around for two centuries or so in the United States, yawn.

Not so during the late eighteenth century, the time period in which A Tainted Dawn is set. Such concepts were, well, revolutionary. The American Revolution, which espoused these ideals, set the passion for freedom afire in other hearts in other lands. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — Now, instead rights for the few, liberty and equality were declared to belong to all.

Yet how would these “truths” be interpreted by people of different national and socio-economic backgrounds? Not only that, how would they deal with it?  Instead of creating a new worldview, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, from which these words are quoted, merely summarized existing English and French political sentiments. In England, the Whig party had been the champion of freedom, ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Stuart dynasty was expelled. 

Edward Deveare, fictional grandson of a fictional Whig aristocrat, personifies the English upper class. Insofar as he’s concerned, he’s apolitical. Yet, there’s no denying he’s a product of his Whig background. Humane by nature, he still doesn’t consider “the people,” meaning anyone not of his social class or naval rank, as an equal.  When he defends a common sailor and accidently refers to him as a “man,” he regrets his blunder. Yet it’s circumstances and pride, not personal conviction, which make him unable and unwilling to recant. By calling the sailor a “man,” he’s raising him to his own level. In terms of the ongoing upheaval in France, this aligns Edward with the radical Charles James Fox part of the party rather than the more conservative Edmund Burke.

Then, there’s Louis Saulnier, a fictional French law student. Unlike Edward, he’s an ardent proponent of liberty and equality. As one who wishes the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of a French Republic from the outset of the revolution, Louis truly is a radical. Ironically, he has no particular reason to hate the ancien régime. His father is a prosperous court tailor, whose source of wealth is the aristocracy he clothes.  Louis likes the comfy life that trade brings, but being an ideologue, despises its source. He considers those with opinions similar to his own as his true equals, those belonging to social classes below him his theoretical brothers, and those above him  his enemies. For Louis, the distribution of inalienable rights and truths naturally follow his definition of equality. Whether spreading the gospel of his particular type of revolution in Paris or the Caribbean, Louis never, ever questions his beliefs. He is right, and the world is, if not wrong, decidedly misled.

At the bottom of the socio-economic heap is Jemmy Sweetman. Son of a sometime employed carpenter, he’s truly a common man. The enclosure laws which were then spreading throughout England not only have reshaped his Surrey countryside, but he and his family’s lives. They are driven to London and its poverty, where he meets Edward and Louis. From Louis, Jemmy first hears the incomprehensible word, “Oppressors,” referring to Edward and his class. Initially, Jemmy doesn’t understand. As he serves with Edward aboard ship, he continues to see him as a benefactor.  However, when Jemmy deserts, his feelings about Edward change. From American sailors he hears volumes about liberty and equality. Even then, Jemmy doesn’t connect them to himself. His concern is to save his father from an unknown threat. Only when his mission fails and Jemmy’s father is wrongfully convicted and hanged for murder--with aid from Edward’s family and family friends-- does Jemmy piece together what he thinks Louis and the Americans were trying to say. The nobility are not his betters. He is just as good as they are. Seeing no place for him and his younger sister in England, Jemmy swears he will immigrate to the United States, where they can be free.

Although my characters are mostly fictional, the ideals and the dilemmas they present are not. The Whig party was torn between supporting the freedoms they claimed those espoused by the American and French Revolutions. As events in France became bloodier, English Whigs divided along radical and conservative lines. Likewise, in 1789 few in France wanted to overthrow the monarchy. Two years later, it was a different story. As for the United States, it applauded its former ally’s espousal of liberty and equality, while continuing to grapple with their meaning at home. And that is precisely what my characters do, both in this book and the ones to come.   

About the Author

B. N. Peacock’s love of history started in childhood, hearing stories of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire from her immigrant grandparents.  They related accounts handed down from their grandparents about battlefields so drenched in blood that grass cut there afterwards oozed red liquid. Such tales entranced her. These references probably dated to the time of the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder she was drawn to this time period. 
In addition to history, she showed an equally early proclivity for writing, winning an honorable mention in a national READ magazine contest for short stories. The story was about history, of course, namely the battle of Bunker Hill as seen from the perspective of a British war correspondent.

The passion for writing and history continued throughout high school and undergraduate studies. She was active in her high school newspaper, eventually becoming its editor-in-chief. After graduation, she majored in Classical Studies (Greek and Latin) at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. In her junior year, life took one of those peculiar turns which sidetrack one.  A year abroad studying at Queen Mary College, University of London in England led to the discovery of another passion, travel. She returned and finished her degree at F&M, but now was lured from her previous interests in history and writing.

Her work continues on Book Two in The Great War series, tentatively to be called Army of Citizens, with new trips planned to England, France and Belgium.