19 April 2018

Queen’s Courier by Jen Black

AMAZON UK £1.20 £8.99
AMAZON US $1.66 $14.53

Fictional saga
1500s Tudor

Jen Black’s novels are a delight to read, not merely because of the enjoyment of ‘romance’ but because she is adept at diversifying from one period to another with apparent ease. This one is set in that troubling Tudor era where England and Scotland do not see eye-to-eye. Here, the future Mary Queen of Scots has her life mapped out by her mother, Mary of Guise and the English monarch, Henry VIII. But not all maps are reliable or pre-ordained, nor do the map-makers necessarily agree with each others’ marks on the charts they hope to produce.

The Queen’s Courier is a sequel to Abduction of the Scots Queen, where Matho Spirston had kidnapped Mary, an infant, and given her into the care of Margaret Douglas - Meg - the daughter of the Earl of Angus and Henry VIII’s sister, with Meg then being blamed for the deed. But it is not necessary to read this first novel (although I would recommend it!)  

Matthew, Earl of Lennox, champions Meg but he is greedy for power, and as the niece to the English King, Meg herself  is obliged to retain her virginity and follow the King’s permission for marriage. As for the future Mary Queen of Scots, Henry wants her as wife to his son, Edward. Her mother has different plans.

The author, in addition to being able to write delightful novels, is skilled at taking the reader right into the feel of time and place, by painting visual pictures within her narrative. Her research is well done, as is her depiction of the unsettled politics of the period, with all the upheaval of war, intrigue, scandal, plot after counter-plot and the dangers of being an appointed spy where messages had to be taken in utmost secrecy between Scotland, London and France.

Jen Black’s characters are believable, the diplomacy, the scheming, the hopes, dreams, nightmares and dangers all zip along at a good page-turning pace. The only regret I had is knowing the eventual fate of Mary Queen of Scots!

© Ellen Hill

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18 April 2018

A Discovering Diamonds Review of Whippoorwill by R L Bartram

AMAZON UK £3.99 £7.84   

Family drama
1800s / American Civil war

Cecile ('Ceci') Prejean is a fourteen year old tomboy, much to the annoyance of her plantation owner father. He assigns his Creole slave Hecubah to teach her the ways of a lady. This she achieves and a ball is held for Ceci's eighteenth birthday, where she meets – or, rather, re-meets – handsome Trent Sinclaire, a graduate from West Point. The inevitable happens and just a few weeks before their wedding, civil war breaks out and Trent is recalled to take his place as Lieutenant in the Union army.

When Ceci's widower father and her sister are killed accidentally in New Orleans, she is approached by Henry Doucet, spy-master to the Confederate army. Ceci and three other girls are trained and given the names of birds as their call signs: Ceci's is Whippoorwill.

This fast-paced story deals well with the use of female spies by both sides and Ceci's transformation from tomboy to efficient spy is interesting. For me, Hecubah is the outstanding character – world weary, wise and funny.

The cover cleverly shows Ceci both in 'Southern Belle' and Southern spy mode with an additional image of her and Trent. I found, however, that my imagination was stretched somewhat with Hecubah's sudden and dramatic reappearance into the story, and there were one or two minor niggles for this Brit reader, particularly with the use of American South-type dialogue, but nevertheless this will be of interest to the many fans of the American Civil War and romance of the ‘Gone With the Wind’ era genre.

© Richard Tearle

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17 April 2018

The Light in the Labyrinth by Wendy J Dunn

 Amazon UK £3.67, £12.99
Amazon US $5.08
Amazon CA $6.01 $21.95

Family drama
1500s / Tudor

That winter of 1535, fourteen-year-old Katherine Carey idolises her father, hates her step-father and desperately wants to leave home and join her aunt at court. Her mother is Mary Boleyn, the aunt in question Anne Boleyn, approaching what will be the last six months of her life. The court belongs to Henry Tudor. Thanks to her step-father, Katherine finally joins her aunt and immediately discovers that court is not the happy place she expected it to be.

Secrets and plots abound. One of them concerns Katherine directly, and turns her life on its head; others centre on bringing down the Boleyn Queen. This book is directed at Young Adult readers, a fact I did not appreciate until I had finished it and read some reviews. Though Katherine did seem young in the first few pages, her perception of her aunt’s sufferings, the need to keep secrets and keep herself safe from harm all seem to belong to someone much older than fourteen. Her awareness that she has met the man she will love forever also seems far removed from the usual fourteen-year-old crushes of today. Her character is well portrayed, as is that of her aunt, but other characters are given less attention. Distinguishing one lady-in-waiting from another was difficult and Henry himself comes across as a figurehead.

The writing is smoothly executed, and the pace is adequate, though a tad slow in places. I enjoyed the book of poems conceit and have read of something similar in reference to Lady Margaret Douglas, who was some six years older than Katherine. Whether the writings match Katherine’s inner thoughts I leave to each reader to decide. In many ways she reaches adulthood in those fateful six months and certainly comes to terms with her step-father, which was rather sweet.

Katherine’s loyalty to her aunt means the ending was not an anti-climax - though of course we all know how the Boleyn Queen’s life had to end. The book is a good read for any age and I would recommend it to those who enjoy the period.

© Jen Black

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16 April 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Rubies of the Viper by Martha Marks

 AMAZON UK £3.85 / £11.91
AMAZON US $4.99  / $15.95
AMAZON CA $6.51 / $28.73

Mystery / Fictional Saga
1st Century
Ancient Rome

Theodosia Varro had been living in the slums of Rome when her fortune changed. Upon the murder of her brother, Gaius, she became the sole heir to her father’s vast fortune. She moves back home to her childhood villa north of Rome, determined to make a new life of wealth and ease for herself. Marriage is nowhere near the top of her list of things to do, though as one of the most eligible young women in the Empire, Theodosia suddenly finds herself courted by many suitors. The prime candidates for her affections are Otho, an ambitious politician and Gaius’s best friend, and Titus, the son of her father’s best friend Vespasian.

Otho tries to help the innocent and somewhat naive Theodosia understand that her slaves may not have her best interests at heart, that they may in fact have killed her brother. Titus is barely out of his boyhood, just starting out on his military career, more a friend than a lover at this point. Theodosia is torn as to which man she wants to marry more, and soon she has to discover for herself whom among her servants she can trust: her steward Alexander, her childhood friend Stefan, her maid Lucilla? Is Otho correct that they are conspiring to kill her, as he’s convinced they killed Gaius? Or is something darker at work in the alleys of ancient Rome?

This novel was a fast read, full of twists and dark plots and some heavy topics. I was quickly drawn into Theodosia’s world and her struggle to navigate the treacherous waters that were Rome, so dangerous for a single woman. The characters are complex and have deep motivations for their actions. As I learned more about her brother and his actions, the happier I got that someone did him in. He was a despicable human being. The question grew, though, of whether one of Theodosia’s servants had done the job and was now putting her in danger, or if someone else was to blame. The tension mounts nicely throughout the book, and I felt genuine concern for her when one person reveals the true depth of their vileness.

There were a couple things I think were anachronistic. There were many references to the glass windows at Theodosia’s villa, for example. I am a medievalist, not a Roman historian, but I believe even the very richest Romans had a hard time affording glass windows. Glass windows were in use at the time this novel was set, but mostly in bathhouses, and it was very thick, coarse glass. So I suppose it isn’t entirely impossible that Theodosia’s villa had glass windows, but it still seems a little out of place. I also had to give a bit of a side-eye to the way Theodosia treated her servants. She was quite progressive, I think, for her time. Granted, her attitude was explained by her unusual childhood and living conditions after her father’s death, but it was still perhaps a bit of a stretch. None of these minor quibbles prevented me from thoroughly enjoying the book,  however.

This was a great read with many enjoyable characters (or deplorable characters, as appropriate) and a good deal of vivid historical detail. I am eager to read the sequel, The Viper Amulet.

© Kristen McQuinn

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15 April 2018

The April Mid-Month extra with Barbara Gaskell Denvil

WHY DO WE WRITE? by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

Why does anyone want to write books?

There’s no clear answer, and probably every single author has a slightly different motive. But mine are common enough, I expect, and will sound familiar to most.

The first and simple answer is – I write because I have to. Characters, stories, plots and situations shout at me from dreams, thoughts, and imagination. My head is never free of ideas for writing.

Second answer – because I love it. But there are times when I am so heartily depressed by it, I wonder why I haven’t ever given up. Rejections and failures certainly are the major snag, but there are also times during the writing when the book seems to fade away, I lose confidence and I am convinced I’m writing rubbish. And it’s damned hard work. Hard work has never frightened me (writing is certainly better than scrubbing floors) but it can be mentally exhausting.

Now what about the more interesting reasons? Well, escapism is my main reason for reading, and writing is an even more satisfying form of escapism. After all, everyday life can be very dull. Working out the bills and making shopping lists – cornflakes or porridge – wow – how exciting is that? Washing the dishes, phoning up to complain about your internet connection, wondering if you are actually the same person as that ragged old wrinkled woman staring back at you from the mirror. If you don’t want to escape that for a little while, then you’re a masochist. Sometimes we are criticised for escapism, as if this is a form of refusing to face real life. But if you’re trapped in a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp, then escape is plain common sense and you’d be called a hero.

Yes, reading is a beautiful form of escapism. You can read a book in a week – or even a day. But few authors can WRITE a book in less than three months. It usually takes me six. Escapism of the highest value and more fulfilling than the type you can’t control. I disappear into the worlds I create, and my characters become real to me. They communicate with me, awake and sleeping. I certainly grow to love them.

Writing is also wildly cathartic. I’m no Stephen King or J.R.R. Tolkien, more’s the pity! But I do often put disturbing scenarios and highly unpleasant killers into my books. This, I assure you, is not because I wallow in murder or horror. It is for the exact opposite reason. Writing about something takes away the fear of it, and stops unwanted thoughts creeping into my dreams. The world can be abhorrent, but the vile things some people do, and the bitter misery we encounter can all be a little diminished by taking these disgusting events by the scruff of their necks, and writing about them.

Some years ago a monstrous serial killer and his even more pitiless wife were arrested in Gloucester, a part of England very near where I was born and grew up. This was Fred and Rosemary West, and in horror and disgust I listened to the news broadcasts of what they had done, including the torture and murder of some of their own children. I was in tears for days. One of their poor daughters, later killed, had me weeping in agony even in my dreams. How does a killer’s mind work? How can someone commit such crimes? What is the motivation behind sadism?

The book I have just finished (IF WHEN) is not yet published, but will be on Amazon as soon as it is edited and finds its cover. Here I search the meaning behind such vile wickedness, contrasted with the love of two mature and delightful people. I found it upsetting at times, but intensely cathartic.

I’m not saying everyone should read such things. I’m just saying it honestly helps me to write about them. The shadows seem to creep away.

So I’m an author. Big deal. What else! Well, I am a highly enthusiastic time-traveller. Now there’s another whole glorious reason for being an author. It’s a form of escapism again of course, but it brings it’s own satisfaction, for research can be as fulfilling as the book you eventually write once you know the accuracy of your setting.

Please be patient with authors. We all have our failures, but we all work very hard to succeed.

© Barbara Gaskell Denvil

Barbara Gaskell Denvil is a multi-award winning author of historical fiction, mystery, suspense and fantasy. Some of her books combine all of these and others only a few.
Having been born into a literary family where book shelves filled every room, she grew up assuming that writing would be her career. She began writing when she was extremely young and then went to work in the British Museum Library, with ancient folios and manuscripts. This cemented her love of both literature and history. Moving on to work in traditional publishing, scripting, reviewing, editing and publishing many articles and short stories.
Her books now alternate between fantasy and historical fiction, drama, mystery, adventure and romance, with a passion for medieval settings and historical accuracy.
Miss Gaskell Denvil's work has been traditionally published by Simon & Schuster, but she now favours self-publishing as it gives the huge satisfaction of individual control. And personal choice of genre and artistic inspiration.

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14 April 2018

It is the weekend....

No reviews over the weekend 
but did you miss...

Hooray for Hollywood 

by Richard Tearle

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13 April 2018

Captain Swing and the Blacksmith by Beatrice Parvin

Shortlisted for book of the month

AMAZON UK £8.99 
 AMAZON US $10.37 
AMAZON CA $11.81

family drama

Set in Wiltshire during the 1840s, this debut novel truly brings home the hardship of the people who had to endure poverty which was increased by the Enclosures Act and landowners who reaped the profits while those struggling to survive were forced into the choice of the workhouse or death.

Sue Tindall lives in Amesbury with her drunk of a father. She is a seventeen-year-old laundry presser, who is a first-hand witness to the Swing Riots that took place ten years before. The traumatic memories of the desperate labourers who tried  to increase their pitiful wages still linger with her and her community. Her father is persuaded to produce some threatening notes to be signed by ‘Captain Swing’ and Sue has to sell buttons to earn extra income, but her life begins to improve when she finds a pair of pearl buttons, and the attention of apprentice blacksmith, Jack Straker also seem to promote the possibility of a better future. But Jack abandons Sue for another, and pregnant, Sue leaves Amesbury – and against all odds, has to fight to survive.

Engrossing, beautifully written, absorbing and in places, heartbreaking,  Captain Swing and the Blacksmith is a fabulous first novel, but in addition to this delightful (if haunting) story, the book is accompanied by  a CD which compliments the narrative in the  folksongs of the period. Both are a Diamond of a bargain!

© Helen Hollick

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12 April 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Flashman in the Peninsula by Robert Brightwell

AMAZON UK £3.53 £7.99
AMAZON US $4.93 $13.95 

1800s / Napoleonic Wars
England / Portugal / Spain

I should begin this review by saying I have never read any of the original MacDonald Fraser Flashman stories, but I have visited a number of ‘Peninsula’ battle grounds and I’m reasonably familiar with the Spanish history side of the Napoleonic war. I also like a loveable rogue, so I was more than happy to read this novel. And to start with I was not disappointed. The story commences in London, where Thomas Flashman ingratiates himself with somebody’s mistress by helping her to create a scandal. The scandal involves gentlemen in very high places and ‘Flashy’ needs to extricate himself p.d.q. He accepts an Army post and gets himself sent to Lisbon to join Wellington’s troops.

The great thing about this Flashman is not that he is a rogue, or even a reluctant hero, it’s that he has a knack of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. For example, early in the story he saves a man’s life, not because he was brave but because his horse’s reins got caught up in a tree and he couldn’t get away from the enemy himself. At the end of the story – not wishing to give away to many spoilers – he is physically launched into a pitched battle with superior French troops by a group of Irish soldiers, who had noticed him trying to sneak off feigning a wonky leg. Flashman then becomes a genuine hero by slaying a Goliath and saving the day. The battle scenes are excellent: easy to imagine; the blood and tragedy of it all understated but no less real for that.

In all, I was enjoying this romp through history, despite the very pro-British, gung-ho depiction of events, until the middle of the story and Flashman’s involvement with three different women. Brightwell, the author speaking as ‘editor’, makes a joke of British troops ‘liberating’ nuns from convents – one doesn’t need to be told why. And this is Flashman’s attitude to women in general. Obviously the story is set in an epoch and situation where modern attitudes to women did not prevail, but even so, we now see Flashman as a real cad.

The incidents involving a noblewoman (supposedly his cousin), her maid, and the Spanish folk-heroine the Maid of Zaragoza are regrettable. They spoil the story. Humour is elicited from a combination of barrack-room boasting and plain old (male) wishful thinking: the women are dismissed quite literally as sex objects. As I say, very different social mores operated at the time – and Brightwell should have taken this into consideration. I cannot believe that any ladies’ maid of the period would have risked losing her reputation or her place through pregnancy, or have gone against her Catholic upbringing quite so fast as the eager Consuela. Flashman’s treatment of Agustina de Aragon, the Maid of Zaragoza, is excused in the editor’s end notes, but the scene where Flashman ‘takes' her in the cathedral during a holy procession quite frankly besmirches her name. It went too far. It was not funny. Nor was Flashman’s behaviour to his cousin’s husband simply because he is ‘a dwarf’. Yes there were freak shows at the time, they are mentioned in the novel, but modern readers hopefully no longer interpret contemporary attitudes in quite the same way.

A couple of other points that rather lessen the quality of the story-telling, which is otherwise compelling and amusing, is the approach to proofreading and somewhat random inclusion of ‘editor’s notes’. Some sections of the book have very poor punctuation; others are word and comma perfect. Some chapters are followed by what usually goes at the back of a historical novel, many are not.

There is one other point I’d like to raise, and I’ve seen this in other war stories. When a survivor takes stock of an aftermath, how can he know there were (precisely) ‘six hundred and twenty-six’ men injured? When a soldier stands looking out at the enemy, how does he know there are eighty men at the front of each column, or an army of 69,000 mustered on the plain below? Thomas Flashman is relating his adventures in Portugal and Spain as in a memoir, meaning he had access to data later, but it does sound odd when numbers are wielded in the anticipation of battle, or an exhausted warrior lifts his head to find he’s thankfully still alive among precisely six hundred and twenty-six other men.

All in all, however, this is an entertaining story. Brightwell’s premise is that historical fact can be stranger than fiction, which many know to be true, especially historical fiction authors. If you are looking for a bit of easy history wrapped up in an early nineteenth-century wartime romp, then this might be a good book for a chilly weekend. But it’s definitely one for the chaps.

© J.G. Harlond

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11 April 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Strange Times by Joan Szechtman

Richard III in the Twenty First Century, Book 3

AMAZON UK £2.32 £8.42
AMAZON US $3.25 $10.95 

Fantasy/ Fictional Saga/ Novella
21st Century

This is the third book in a three book series.  I had previously read Book One (but not Book Two). In Book One, Richard III was saved from death at Bosworth by being lifted into the Twenty-first century by means of a time machine). Book 3 focuses on Richard's attempt (with the help of his new friends and family) to save his best friend Francis Lovell from death by doing the same.

This book is a very fast entertaining read and I had a difficult time closing my Kindle. Because of the short length, however, most of the writing is focused on action and events rather than the character's interactions with each other and adjustment to twenty-first century life. 

Although clearly based in fantasy, Szechtman manages to create a believable and engrossing story. 

© Susan Adler

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10 April 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Yanks are Starving by Glen Craney

A Novel of the Bonus Army

AMAZON UK £5.99 £13.99
AMAZON US $ 8.39 $13.99

Biographical Fiction

The Yanks are Starving is a novel set during World War I and its aftermath. It follows the lives of various soldiers, generals (Patton and McArthur), politicians, a journalist (Floyd Gibbons) as well as several fictional characters, during World War I and the Great Depression. The "Bonus Army" describes the efforts of World War I veterans to obtain their post war bonuses and the opposition these veterans faced from their former generals as well as the US government.

As this book was outside my usual historical area, I spent considerable time looking up the characters and events. The narrative is incredibly well researched and gives a thorough background on the events and characters of that era through the use of original sources and even some photographs.

The author tells the story from the points of view of several different characters, which works very well and ultimately, culminates in the confrontation of these characters.

The Yanks are Starving combines the best of fiction and history.

© Susan Adler

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9 April 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Shadows in the Shining City by John D Cressler

AMAZON UK £5.27 £16.25
AMAZON US $7.46 £18.95  

#2 of a series

Fictional Saga / Romance
976 AD

'The Golden Age of Moorish Spain was during the 10th century, a time when the benevolent Syrian Arab Caliphs ruled Iberia from Córdoba, the site of the iconic Great Mosque and home to the Royal Library, one of the largest collections of ancient books ever assembled. 10th century Córdoba was the richest, most populous, and most cultured city in the western world. Under the tolerant Muslim Caliphs, the pinnacle of convivencia was attained, that unique period of Spanish history when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative harmony and peace. Multicultural Córdoba was an enlightened city that treasured its books, celebrated art and literature, advanced science and medicine, and its myriad accomplishments were envied by both the west and the east alike.'

In this, his second novel in the Anthems of al-Andalus series, Cressler has chosen one of the most interesting periods in the history of the Moors, the Golden Age of Moorish Spain and he transports the reader into an exotic world of wealth, culture and conspiracy.

It is the year 976 AD and the caliph al-Hakim has unexpectedly died and left his kingdom to an eleven-year old boy, leaving a power gap that is quickly filled by one of the most ruthless men in medieval history, Abi Amir. Years of peace and stability are under threat. Once a lowly clerk, Abi Amir, through a mixture of good fortune and cunning, soon becomes the most powerful man in the land as he gradually removes all those who threaten his ambitions. He allies himself to the Queen Mother and uses her to manipulate the young caliph so that he can rule in his place.

Into this political background of betrayal and intrigue, Cressler has woven a tender love story where Abi Amir’s daughter falls in love with a freed slave, defying her father’s wishes to marry her to one of his North African allies.

Although this is a period where little written history remains, Cressler has used his fertile imagination to create an exciting, well paced story of love, betrayal and ruthlessness, while staying within the bounds of historical fact.

© Joan Fallon

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7 April 2018

It's the weekend...

No reviews over the weekend 
but did you miss...


 by Alison Morton

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