Monday, July 25, 2011

In a Treacherous Court by Michelle Diener

With its beautiful cover, In a Treacherous Court by Michelle Diener is a romantic suspense novel that will appeal to readers of several genres. First and foremost, it is a historical mystery with elements of romance between the heroine Susanna, an artist and illuminator, and the bold hero, Parker, who is a trusted member of the Tudor King Henry VIII. The two meet when Parker attends a ship that has just entered port to take possession of weapons ordered by the king. Susanna is on that same ship where she became embroiled in an intrigue surrounding a murder. A murder attempt is made on her life and because she is under the protection of the king, Parker is duty bound to protect her.

The novel moves along at a very fast pace. Heavy in dialogue and light in narrative and historical detail, it is a fast read with a very intricate plot. It will definitely keep you turning the pages if you love a good mystery. Because the plot is complex and there are numerous characters, I would have benefitted from more introspection from the main characters to support all the twists and turns that take place. Sometimes things happened to quickly for me to fully understand what had happened and I had to thumb pages backwards to re-read.

As an avid reader of historical fiction, especially women’s historical fiction, I found Susanna sometimes to be a bit too modern for a woman who lived in the Tudor era. However, it was the blossoming romance between Parker and Susanna which kept me reading. Both were based upon actual historical figures - Susanna Horenbout, a Flemish artist was commissioned by the king and John Parker, the King's Keeper of the Palace of Westminster and Yeoman of the Crossbows.

The story carried good tension throughout, although the middle slowed down a bit. But the ending was very suspenseful and satisfying. All in all, a great first effort by a new author.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Fabulous Voyage Across The Ocean Sea by Jay Prasad

The Fabulous Voyage across the Ocean Sea is the story of three young men who cannot escape their heritage. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Sephardim, in the period of the mass persecution and expulsion of the conversos from Spain in the late 15th century. 

It is 1486, when Miguel de Avila’s father summons him from his home in Barcelona back to his birthplace in Toledo. Miguel, a gem dealer, and his father have been estranged since the father’s affair with Miguel’s betrothed. The Spanish monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon have sponsored the nationwide persecution of the Spanish descendants of Jews, whose property the Crown confiscates, before Dominican friars preside at auto-da-fe rituals. The victims have two choices: to profess their devotion to the Christian faith and die by strangulation, or to continue their supposed adherence to the Jewish religion and suffer death at the burning stake.

The conversos are damned either way, something that Miguel’s experiences drive home. He witnesses one of the executions in the company of his father’s housekeeper, who takes a lustful interest in him. Later, when her guilt overwhelms her, the woman accuses Miguel and his family of being secret Jews. He and his father escape trial. Miguel undertakes his father’s last command, to find his illegitimate brother, Luis, sired on Miguel’s former betrothed. The precariousness of life as a converso makes the prospect of Christopher Columbus’ plans for a voyage to the East, via a western route, interesting to Miguel. He meets with Columbus and his brother, promising to finance a journey. He questions whether Columbus has truly found the route he promised, as the natives whom the sailors encounter are entirely unlike what they expected.

In 1493, Luis de Avila enters the court of the Catholic monarchs, as Isabella’s secretary. Christopher Columbus and his co-captain have returned to Spain at odds with him. While Luis experience some disappointment that his brother Miguel is not among the sailors who have returned from the Indies, he remains painfully aware from his childhood experiences of the instability of life for the Sephardim. Luis is eager for an opportunity to discover his brother’s fate, as Columbus plans his next voyage. His responsibilities take him back to Spain, and a new wife and son. He also finds Miguel’s own illegitimate son, Aurelio, living in an orphanage. The interference of his in-laws puts Luis’ life in danger and he flees, leaving Aurelio to fend for himself.

Aurelio de Avila is a bright boy, with a seemingly bright future ahead of him. He trains as a lawyer at the prestigious Salamanca University. One of his first tasks requires him to review the petition of Christopher Columbus for revenue he has not received from his voyages. In doing so, Aurelio learns of Columbus’s possible origins and the final fate of the man who rescued him from the orphanage. Can Aurelio escape the troubles that arise from his family’s history?

Author Jay Prasad has written a tragic and compelling story of Jewish life in 15th century Spain. The triumphs and tragedies of each of the three protagonists are vivid. The author’s portrayal of Spain during the period is fascinating and full of rich detail.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Last Letter by Kathleen Shoop

This is one of those rare books I couldn't wait to get back to each time I had to take a break from reading. The Last Letter intertwines one year in the prairie with the slow revelation of the truth 17 years later as a daughter discovers letters that her dying mother has kept hidden. Jeanie Arthur is a proud woman who has been forced to abandon a successful and comfortable life in Des Moines in 1887 to start over in the Dakotas. Unfortunately, her husband Frank is more of a dreamer than a doer and Jeanie's frustrations mount as he repeatedly fails to be the reliable foundation that she so much needs in an unforgiving environment. The tragedies that afflict this family are palpable and time and again Jeanie's intuition reveals what her logic defies.

The characters are vividly drawn, each in their own way. Even as Jeanie struggles with the circumstances that befall them, it's easy to understand the conflict she feels: wanting to keep her family together despite Frank's shortcomings. In the midst of this turmoil, Jeanie does whatever is necessary to protect her children - and that becomes the very thing that unravels her daughter Katherine's love for her.

The Last Letter is about far more than pioneers hewing a life out of a savage land; it is about weighing mores against the yearnings of the heart, about enduring against relentless tragedy, and about pride vs. truth. This is one of the most compelling historicals I've read in quite some time. I won't soon forget it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sword of Neamha by Stephen England

In Stephen England’s the Sword of Neamha, Cadwalador of the Aeudi tribe sets out from northern Gaul with his beleaguered people, fleeing from certain annihilation by other tribes. Life takes him on an unexpected adventure. He makes fateful choices that determine his destiny and ensure the fate of his people.

Cadwalador is a young man in the service of a Gallic chieftain, who is heir to the leader of the Aeudi. The tribe is under siege and flees their shores, intent on conquering the land of Erain (Ireland), with stops along the way on the island of tin (the future Britain). Cadwalador’s chieftain inspires others to flow his banner, with two fatal weaknesses: his love of strong drink and his ruthless ambitions. He is a dangerous man, made even more so when he is drunk. He earns the enmity of one of the mercenaries in his service, Cavarillos, after an ill-advised attack on a village sees scores of Aeudi die needlessly. Cadwalador counted Cavarillos among his friends, but the two have a bitter parting when the young man chooses his chieftain’s life over helping his friend. It is a decision that will shape Cadwalador’s life. He pays a heavy price for his loyalty and, in the end, loses more than he expected. He also helps forge a powerful legend across the land, but with ruthless enemies closing in on all sides, it’s not always certain that legend will be enough to win the day.  

Several elements stood out in this story. Despite the foreign and often un-pronounceable Celtic names, there were familiar themes. There is the flush of first victory and first love, as well as bitter treachery and defeat, enough to entertain historical fans who like gritty action. The scenes are visceral. There’s blood and guts everywhere. The action never stops, even in what should be quiet family moments for Cadwalador. Of all the things I admired about Mr. England’s style, it was the way in which he creates sympathy for his characters, especially those who at the outset don’t seem to deserve it. Even his villains have justifiable reasons for their murderous nature. The Sword of Neamha is a fascinating read for anyone who like historical fiction set in the Celtic or early Britannic period, or those who enjoy epic battle scenes and action that propels the characters through upheaval and triumph.        
Available at Smashwords, B&N and Lulu. Also,  

Monday, July 11, 2011

Green Skies by Andrew Oberg and Eric Uhlich

This is the story of Bjorn Thorsson and it is a grim tale and a sad one.

For the sake of their community's continued survival, Bjorn and his friends, Thorfinn and Oskar capture a live polar bear to trade with the Norwegian King for wood and iron ore. The middleman in this trade is the Bishop of Greenland, who doesn't consider the needs of his people, but only the beauty of his church. He accepts stained glass windows in trade instead. The community slides into cold starvation from the long, fuel-less winter. The story lies in how Bjorn meets his future.

I've read many comics over the years and while there have been some that wowed me on a higher critical scale (higher production values, tighter writing, etc.), I can't recall the last comic that brought me to tears.  Marvel, D.C., Dark Horse, eat your hearts out. You missed this one. Green Skies has some redundancies and pacing issues and the ending isn't entirely clear, but there's beauty and pathos here in spades and it's well worth your while. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Award Winning Historical Fiction - The Swords of Faith by Richard Warren Field


Bronze Medal, 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards
Finalist, USA Book News Award for Best Books of 2010/Historical Fiction Category
Finalist, International Book Awards, Best Books of 2011/Historical Fiction Category

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing The Swords of Faith by Richard Warren Field. When I read it, I was fully enchanted by the book. Well, actually, "blown away" would be a better way to describe my feelings for it. Its phenomenal success since writing my review is proof that it really is as good or better than I said it was. 

Since then, I'm so pleased to let you know it's won numerous awards. I'm especially proud of the book and even more so because I had the pleasure of working with the author, Richard Warren Field, when he was writing the book and posting chapters to our on-line critique group called Historical Fiction Writers Critique Group.

I'm so pleased to host the author here today as part of his blog tour and bring this book back to the forefront of my attention. Richard has kindly offered to speak about the benefits and pitfalls of critique groups.  

A warm welcome, Richard! 

Richard Warren Field

I want to thank Mirella Patzer for having me back, about a year after I first appeared here for an interview, right after my novel The Swords of Faith was released. I am pleased to return with a bronze medal from the 
Independent Publishers Book Awards, and full of gratitude for Mirella’s early support. My publisher, Strider Nolan Media, quoted her review on the cover!  (“Meticulously researched…  Field’s passion for this period in history is clearly evident on every page.”) By the way—a plug for my publisher—StriderNolan Media also won an Independent Publishers Book Award in 2009. (Well, they know how to pickem.)

But maybe the most important support I received from knowing you was through your critique group. That’s what I’d like to talk about today.

I recently attended the Historical Novel Society North American conference in San Diego. I met writers at different levels, some just getting started, grateful to find a place where the writers all love history, and are relentlessly knowledgeable in many different areas. The newer writers want feedback. What is the best place to get it? Sure, there were some editors and agents who offered their time to critique a page or two for various writers. But that isn’t nearly enough to guide a whole novel, and the information was given in a high-pressure environment. There are books to help with craft, but they don’t offer direct feedback. There are classes, but they may not fit the budget of a writer just starting out, or offer help over the entire novel-creation period, or help specific to the project. The best way to get continuous feedback (short of hiring a professional editor—very expensive) is through critique groups.

Like other writers, I started out with a local critique group. The people in this group were wonderful, nice, fun-to-talk-to, intelligent—and had absolutely no clue about the nuances of writing a novel set in the past. They helped me gain an idea of what a general reader might say about my book, but a “general reader” was not likely to be my target market. As most of you know, the internet provides an answer to this problem—on-line critique groups. I found a good one hosted by Mirella Patzer. I enjoyed passing this along to a few writers at the conference who seemed unaware of on-line critique groups, and expressed frustrations with local groups or having no source for quality feedback.

There is an art to critique groups. It is important to be a good critique recipient, and a good critique giver. I’ll start with my ideas on being a good critique recipient. Take in all the comments, give every one of them serious consideration, then keep what will improve your work and discard the rest. People come to your work with different tastes and perspectives. (Groups can have members with malicious personalities and/or questionable agendas, but I never found that in Mirella’s group for my own work, and that type of person does not usually last long in any on-line critique group. Critiques will come from well-meaning fellow writers.) 

A good group will give you multiple perspectives. Some critiquers will make specific editing suggestions. Others will analyze story elements. Still others will address historical accuracy. There is no need to get angry or defensive if you think a comment is not helpful, or flat wrong. There is no need to send that impulsive angry e-mail, objecting to a critique, or writing to argue about a comment. The critique giver is likely to say “Okay, then don’t use the suggestion.” You hold all the power. You decide what you keep and what you discard.

I also have ideas on being a good critique giver. I offered critiques from what I believe were my strengths. (Mirella’s group had at least three critiquers for each chapter, so I figured whatever was not my strength 
would be covered by others.) I am not an editor type. I rarely commented on precise wordings unless something was utterly jarring to me, or unless there was an obvious misprint. I love looking at story and character, at the big picture of conflict and what will lock readers in so they can’t stop turning pages. 

I offered many comments about this, and received comments back thanking me for confirming the author had achieved his or her desired effect, or comments that some unintended effect had been achieved. The writer was then free to decide if this meant a change was needed, or if my comment was, well, just me! I always tried to be constructive. If I found a particular project just didn’t connect with me at all (this was rare), I stopped doing that writer’s chapters. Even if I had concerns with the writer’s chapter, I made sure I found what was good, and told the writer about it. As a writer/critique recipient, I always wanted to know what was working, not just what was not working. So I tried to offer the same to others.

While in Mirella’s group, I received great advice on everything from historical detail to precise wordings of prose and dialogue. I know this process helped me finish my best effort for The Swords of Faith. The critique group writers help with the gatekeeper (agents/editors) rules, those rules that if “violated,” will result in an immediate rejection letter. Yes, established writers violate these rules all the time. (Conn Iggulden "head-hops” constantly, but he sells thousands of books.) Learning these rules is essential for writers approaching gatekeepers for the first time. Critique groups are a great way to get hands-on, specific comments about offering a professional presentation.

Thanks again, Mirella, for having me back. Thanks for all you do to encourage writers in this genre!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman

Back Cover:
Spanning three generations and half the world, Wildflower Hill is a sweeping, romantic, and compelling story of two women who share a legacy of secrets, heartbreak, courage, and love. Emma, a prima ballerina in London, is at a crossroads after an injured knee ruins her career. Forced to rest and take stock of her life, she finds that she’s mistaken fame and achievement for love and fulfillment. Returning home to Australia, she learns of her grandmother Beattie’s death and a strange inheritance: a sheep station in isolated rural Australia. Certain she has been saddled with an irritating burden, Emma prepares to leave for Wildflower Hill to sell the estate. Beattie also found herself at a crossroads as a young woman, but she was pregnant and unwed. She eventually found success—but only after following an unconventional path that was often dangerous and heartbreaking. Beattie knew the lessons she learned in life would be important to Emma one day, and she wanted to make sure Emma’s heart remained open to love, no matter what life brought. She knew the magic of the Australian wilderness would show Emma the way. Wildflower Hill is a compelling, atmospheric, and romantic novel about taking risks, starting again, and believing in yourself. It’s about finding out what you really want and discovering that the answer might be not at all what you’d expect.

I'm always eager to read historical family saga novels and this novel certainly did not disappoint. Wildflower Hill was an all-encompassing, romantic story is about two women who not only share a legacy, but who are inextricably linked through secrets and similarities. Page by page, the tale unfolds, spanning three generations and two countries half a world apart - England and a secluded Tasmanian sheep farm.

The story is told through the point of view of two women – Beattie in third person narrative in the early 1900’s, and her thirty-one year old granddaughter, Emma, in first person narrative during modern time. As both women journey through life, their passions, secrets, and dreadful losses are revealed. Separately, they learn the true meaning and value of life. The two voices and character introspections are distinct and aid in separating the eras from each other. I very much enjoyed the contrast and it helped solidify the difference between the two major characters.

Wildflower Hill is women’s fiction at its finest, a journey of discovery, a family saga, beautifully written, whose main characters the reader can easily engage with. The author’s lovely prose makes this family saga an easy, enjoyable read and one I most wholeheartedly recommend.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Duke and the Pirate Queen

The Duke & the Pirate Queen
The Duke and the Pirate Queen is a fun roll in the hay, the ocean, the sex-fiend infested island and numerous other unlikely locations.

I have to admit, I won this book from Goodreads and thought there would be more exotic setting and characterizations. I'd have to say those things are not the book's strong points. There was more eroticism than I'd expected and erotic romance is not my normal read. At times I wanted the story to move forward without the interruption of one more sex scene.

However, if you lust after a steamy adventure and voyeurism on the high seas, this book is a must read. Leave a comment and one lucky winner will receive a free copy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Gentleman Never Tells by Amelia Grey

Beautiful, clever and courageous Lady Gabrielle discovers her fiancĂ© in the arms of her younger sister and although she isn’t in love with him, she is envious of their obvious attraction. Instead of confronting either of them, however, Gabrielle takes her dog on an early morning walk in the park, spots a handsome stranger and – kisses him.

This impulse ends in disaster when her father and prospective father-in-law find them and set about attacking the unfortunate Viscount Brentwood, whose only crime was to accept, and enjoy a kiss from a beautiful woman.  Gabrielle’s father insists she now marry Lord Brentwood, a situation Gabrielle is determined extricate herself from, despite the fact Brentwood seems perfectly happy with the arrangement.

Gabrielle is a well drawn character with a mind of her own, although she says from the beginning that being a Duke’s daughter meant her choice of marriage partner was never hers, then contradicts herself by saying she will not marry a man of her father’s choice. Brentwood’s physical perfection is beautifully described, so Gabrielle was doomed from the start and stood no chance of rejecting him with any sincerity.

Brentwood’s twin half-brothers are the result of an affair their mother had with another influential member of society which Brentwood worsens by threatening their father not to reveal the boys’ parentage. This, despite the fact they are adults and their natural father has shown no interest in them up to this point, much less revealing an affair with their mother. This action too seems out of period as I doubt such indiscretions, even if known, would ever be brought up in polite conversation.

There is a confusing section concerning dogs stolen by a ghost, which made little sense although the real culprit is eventually revealed. I felt this story hung together by a tenuous, oft repeated thread. i.e. Brentwood’s determination to marry Gabrielle and her equally strong insistence she doesn’t want to by the employment of strange antics to discourage him that never work.  The author keeps this theme going for 351 pages, which for me, got tedious after the first hundred or so.

Amelia Grey writes very eloquently, and her sense of romance is well defined. Her main characters experience deep sensual attraction for each other from the start so the reader is left in no doubt that there will be a happy ending for them both.

The setting for the novel is less clear: Gabrielle’s father – a Duke who is addressed as ‘Duke’ throughout the book when the correct form should be ‘your grace’, ‘my lord’ or even ‘sir’. He is described as an advisor to ‘the Prince’, whom I assume is the Prince Regent but this is not explained.

The narrative is also peppered with modern Americanisms, such as ‘I’m through’, ’Okay’, and ‘what sort of stunt is that?’ which jarred with me and didn’t help convey a sense of period. However, being an historical fiction author myself this may be because I am particularly sensitive to such things, many readers and fans of Ms Grey may not even notice them.