Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2015- The Year of Historical Anniversaries......

So it nearly the new year- and for the history buffs amongst us, there's a lot to get exited about. 

15th June 1215- Magna Carta 
June is the biggie- marking the 800th anniversary of the 'signing' of the Magna Carta- considered by many to be the foundation of British Democracy, with many attendant notions of liberty, freedom and rule of law. 

On this side of the Atlantic, the events include a special exhibition in Salisbury Cathedral of the four surviving original manuscripts of the Great Charter, and the publication of a whole host of History Books on the Magna Carta, King John, and many other related subjects. 

In the fiction genre, there are a couple of titles of note. One is Dina Sleiman's upcoming  release Dauntless, the first book in her YA Medieval Valiant Hearts Series. Dauntless is set in 1216, the year after Magna Carta and at the very end of King John's reign, and has a lot in common with the Robin Hood stories....of whom King John is the perpetual villain.

"Though once a baron's daughter, Lady Merry Ellison is willing to go to any lengths to protect the orphaned children of her former village. Dubbed "The Ghosts of Farthingale Forest," her band of followers soon become enemies of the throne when they hijack ill-gotten gold meant for the king.

Timothy Grey, ninth child of the Baron of Greyham, longs to perform some feat so legendary that he will rise from obscurity and earn a title of his own. When the Ghosts of Farthingale Forest are spotted in Wyndeshire, where he serves as assistant to the local earl, he might have found his chance. But when he comes face-to-face with the leader of the thieves, will he choose fame or love?"

There is also an older title, dating that is from 2012, which I read last January- Swords of Heaven- The True Story of the Magna Carta by C.D.Baker.
This novel tells of the events of last years of the reign of Henry II, through that of his sons Richard and John, culminating in the Magna Carta and its aftermath, from the perspective of Isabel de Clare, wife of Sir William Marshall.
Marshall was in himself a fascinating figure, sometimes hailed as the Greatest knight in English history, who rose from relative obscurity to become Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England.

" Baker's meticulously researched novel reveals the nearly forgotten story of the unsung heroes of the Magna Carta...Sir William Marshal and Isabel de Clare. Complete with a colorful collection of memorable characters, this story-based-in-fact invites the reader to experience everyday life, love, and the dram of warfare in medieval England. Filled with action, suspense, romance and intrigue, 'Swords of Heaven' brings to life the breath-taking events that rescued liberty from the grasp of tyrants."


25th October 2015- Battle of Agincourt
For us Medieval buffs , six months later in October  also marks the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, that Great English victory of the Hundred Years War that probably made the reputation of Henry V, and is the seminal event of his conquest of France. In the secular fiction market, there's no shortage of novels related to Agincourt, but when it comes to Christian Fiction, there's a distinctive dearth.

Could it be because some Americans seem to prefer to take the side of France, and Joan of Arc is better known and celebrated by them? Maybe I'm putting the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons, but Agincourt is an event that still inspires and creates controversy.
The romantic in me is rather attracted to the idea of the longbows in the hands of he common Englishman  being a match for a heavily armoured knight, and allowing them to achieve victory despite likely having being vastly outnumbered.
William Shakespeare was to immortalize the Battle nearly 200 years later in his play Henry V - though by this time the victory was already legendary. As a huge fan of the play, and something of a sympathizer of Henry the man, the anniversary is wont to stir feelings of patriotism- For England and St George!




18th June 1815- Battle of Waterloo
400 years later was another battle which ended in a famous victory for Britain and her allies and which the Regency Buffs may be familiar- I am of course referring to the battle of Waterloo, marking the final end of the Napoleonic Wars

Given the popularity of the Regency sub-genre, there are probably many novels that mention or even feature the great battle- though I cannot think of any specific titles, the more seasoned Regency fans likely can.
I'm not aware of any specific planned commemorations, but there may well be something.


The Armenian Genocide 
Moving away from England and to a more tragic event without attendant celebrations of victories for freedom or Great Men. No doubt most are aware of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War this year. It was during this conflict that the notorious Armenian Genocide took place- and event which has to this day never been acknowledged by the Turkish government as has been overshadowed by the wider events of the War and of the later Holocaust.
It is reckoned that some 1.5 Armenians, mostly Christians were killed or expelled from their ancestral homelands.
According to tradition, the Armenians are one of the oldest Christian communities on earth, and Armenia the first Christian country.
Before the Ottoman Empire, the lands which are now Turkey were part of the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire, and the Armenians could be considered a survival from the Greek Christian past- the spiritual leader of the community even held the title of the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople.

Some members of the community settled in Syria, and their descendants are not caught in the Middle of the conflict there. Perhaps then, 2015 is also an appropriate year to be mindful of the plight of the ancient Christian Communities of the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq and other regions, who are facing persecution and threatened with extermination today. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Spilintered Oak: A Short Story of the First Crusade by Rosanne E. Lortz

 ★★
Madison Street Publishers, July 1st 2014 
 Kindle Edition, 21 Pages  

A Tale of Danger, Duplicity, Cunning, and Conviction

"Archbishop Rothard would like nothing more than to find out which of his three clerks is spying for the Holy Roman Emperor, but when a crowd of Crusaders come clamoring to kill the Jews of Mainz, he must set his own plans aside and make the difficult decision of which side to take...."
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There are good books, and there are great books- but in my conservatism, there are not many books I would label as 'must read'. This is one of them- it can in all honesty be compared the The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a tale of humanity and compassion in the midst of hatred and brutality- it is, simply, a story that needs to be told

The atrocities perpetrated against the Jews in parts of Europe and the Middle East during the Crusades are deservedly notorious and widely publicized- almost every book and documentary about the period will likely mention something about them
Yet what is not so well known is that a number of prominent clerics not only disapproved of these massacres, but actively sought to protect the Jewish populations resident in the cities over which they held authority- and that such actions were not in line with the official policy of the church. Not all medieval people were rabid, homicidal, anti-Semites, despite what the popular media might make out
The Splintered Oak tells the story of one such a man- Rothard, Archbishop of Mainz- a scholar and man of peace, (a city in Germany) whose attempt to save the Jews who come to him for aid end in the failure of his courage, the greater strength of the foe and ultimate despair. Yet he ultimately learns that "sometimes, in order to live a life worth saving, one has to die". 

A poignant, tragic, yet necessary tale which at only 21 pages can be read in less than an hour.   Recommended for all.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Centurion's Daughter by Justin Swanton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
348 Pages, August 1st 2011, Arx Publishing 

Her Frankish mother dead, 17-year-old Aemilia arrives at Soissons in Roman Gaul in search of her Roman father whom she has never met. She knows only that his name is Tarunculus and that he is a former centurion. 
She finds an old man fixed on the past, attempting in vain to kindle a spark of patriotism in his dispirited countrymen. Soon, Aemilia is caught up in her father's schemes to save the Empire and the intrigues of the Roman nobility in Soissons. 

In the war between Franks and Romans to decide the fate of the last imperial province, Providence will lead her down a path she could never have imagined. Written and illustrated by master storyteller Justin Swanton, Centurion's Daughter is a thoughtful and compelling journey to a little-known period of history when an empire fell and the foundations of Christendom were laid.

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Interesting book covering the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, or more specifically, the fall of Roman France (what was left of it) to the Franks, the people who gave their name to the country that was to be established in place of the ancient Roman province that have been called Gaul.
The story is told from the perspective of a girl who is caught between both worlds, the daughter of a Roman Centurion, and raised in the villa of a Roman Aristocrat, Æmilia is however, half Frankish, and her knowledge of the Frankish language makes her useful as a translator- but also causes her to be subject to suspicion and discontent.

In one sense, it is the story of a young Lady struggling to survive in a society that clings to the old ways that seem doomed to die out, but to nonetheless hold onto and protect all she holds dear; her father, her faith, her love of books and learning.
Yet she could only fight for so long, and eventually must learn to accept the new order. One part coming of age story, perhaps in another sense, but also a sold work of historical fiction in its own right, with plenty of realistic details, and is obviously well researched.

Had I not heard in a documentary recently that the Romans built apartment blocks, I might have thought the references to these an anachronism- but it is not so. There’s even a element of Romance, and the characters face realistic challenges and moral dilemmas. Is it better for Æmilia to protect and defend the culture she knows and lives, at all costs, or be prepared to embrace the rule of the Franks? Is it better to remain loyal to her potentially treacherous employer, and risk the consequences, or reveal all, which could also prove detrimental? How can she please a father determined to do all he can to fight in what may ultimately be a hopeless cause, and whose loyalty to Rome verges on fanaticism?

My only real historical complaints were some terms and phrases which seemed rather modern. Also, the prayers to Mary may be an issue to non-Catholic readers- though I tend to accept these as a reflection of the time, and some rather odd manifestations of her faith every now and again. However, for those seeking a solid historical novel, which is not the usual Romance and perhaps requires a little more attention, it may be a good choice. I would certainly read more by this author, who is working on another book. A King Arthur story might be good.....

I was given a copy of this book by the author for review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

New Release- The Princess Spy- Melanie Dickerson

★★

Zondervan Fiction, November 4th 2014
304 Pages,  

Margaretha has always been a romantic, and hopes her newest suitor, Lord Claybrook, is destined to be her one true love. But then an injured man is brought to Hagenheim Castle, claiming to be an English lord who was attacked by Claybrook and left for dead. And only Margaretha---one of the few who speaks his language---understands the wild story. Margaretha finds herself unable to pass Colin's message along to her father, the duke, and convinces herself 'Lord Colin' is just an addled stranger. 

Then Colin retrieves an heirloom she lost in a well, and asks her to spy on Claybrook as repayment. Margaretha knows she could never be a spy---not only is she unable to keep anything secret, she's sure Colin is completely wrong about her potential betrothed. Though when Margaretha overhears Claybrook one day, she discovers her romantic notions may have been clouding her judgment about not only Colin but Claybrook as well. It is up to her to save her father and Hagenheim itself from Claybrook's wicked plot.
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The latest of Melanie Dickerson’s ‘Hagenhiem’ stories, as I call them, draws together the two settings with the protagonist as the grandson of Ranulf and Annabel from The Merchant’s Daughter. In some ways, I liked this better than the previous books, particularly at the start with the storyline of the stranger who didn’t speak the language, and the mystery behind Claybrook and the young girl lacking in confidence with her social hangups about talking too much and her believed inability to keep a secret. Some readers may really relate to this.
Perhaps also, I took a certain pleasure in the hero being English (like me) and the novel not vilifying all English people as some tend to- despite one or two cultural stereotypes. I don’t think England is anymore rainy or foggy than Germany, for instance, as Colin says, the North Sea which separates the two countries is not an ‘ocean’. 
Aside from this, the device of spying and the sinister plot against Hagenhiem worked well as a backdrop for the story and the actions of the characters. 

It could perhaps be said that Marguerite was well-drawn than some of the other heroines, or Gisela in particular, for whom the praise as being strong and courageous did not always seem deserved. Marguerite seemed more able to think, plan, and act independently, and get out of difficult situations- or at least attempt to do so. Colin was as usual fantastically good looking, strong and virtuous- but there was a certain neediness about him (at least initially) which could be endearing and make him seem more realistic and less perfect.
His relationship and attraction to Marguerite seemed more genuine and less fluffy than before- although the fluffiness did remain, expressed with a certain preoccupation with kissing and physical beauty towards the end. One can understand how the circumstances could draw the characters together – but do they need to keep on dwelling on how beautiful one another were?

My historical gripes were few, and perhaps a little pedantic. Colin saying he was not trained for war when all noblemen’s sons would have been- the style of armour the characters wore seeming decidedly old-fashioned- by a century or more, and the idea that subjects of the King of England could go to a foreign country and commit criminal acts against the subjects of a ruler he was allied with without him even seeming to notice and assuming they could just get away with it. That and Marguerite wanting to have the chance to get to know her potential suitors as if this was something out of the ordinary- when it was actually the normal expectation for courting couples of high social circles at the time.
Also, perhaps one of the drawbacks to the story being centred on the same fairly small geographical region and family is that the some elements of the stories can seem repetitive, with lots of wanderings through forests and being chased by baddies in them that seem to have dominated the last three books. 

Overall The Princess Spy was a good story with a sound Christian message about hope, forgiveness, and doing the best in difficult circumstances, and an interesting spin on the Frog Prince fairy tale. There seemed to be less Americanisms in the language of the characters than in previous stories, and I think Mrs Dickerson’s writing style is developing. It would certainly appeal to Young Adults and grownups with only a few reservations. I look forward to Melanie Dickerson’s next book, and the first in a new series The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest due out in May. 

Grateful thanks to Booklookbloggers for providing me with a free ebook for review purposes. I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are my own.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Captive Maiden- Melanie Dickerson

 Zondervan, November 23rd 2013 
302 Pages

Happily Ever After...Or Happily Nevermore?

Gisela's childhood was filled with laughter and visits from nobles such as the duke and his young son. But since her father's death, each day has been filled with nothing but servitude to her stepmother. 

So when Gisela meets the duke's son, Valten--the boy she has daydreamed about for years--and learns he is throwing a ball, she vows to attend, even if it's only for a taste of a life she'll never have. To her surprise, she catches Valten's eye. Though he is rough around the edges, Gisela finds Valten has completely captured her heart. 
But other forces are bent on keeping the two from falling further in love, putting Gisela in more danger than she ever imagined.
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I decided to read this before Mrs Dickerson’s latest book The Princess Spy to ‘catch up’- although her titles are really standalone books and you don’t need to know what happened in one to follow the other. As what it is advertised to be a Young Adult Fairy Tale romance it generally delivers well- though it must be admitted that some parts seemed corny or else the characters and decisions just seemed silly to the point of being almost painful for the audience, simply because they fell for ploys that were so glaringly obvious.

As with the others the setting is Medieval, this time the second decade of the 15th century (1400s), yet another reviewer remarked that the setting did not seem as authentic as it did in the others. In some ways, I’m inclined to agree, but not for the same reasons. The mention of ‘coachmen’ was the main ones that seemed out of place- more at home on the seventeenth or eighteenth century that the fifteenth. Now carriages did exist in the Middle Ages- but they were really little more than covered wagons and quite cumbersome affairs- not like the smaller, lighter and faster ‘coaches’ of later centuries, which is what the description of them in this novel made them sound like.

Then there were the jousting scenes- which others have criticized for various reasons- such as them being themed around a Queen of Love and Beauty. That was not an issue for me, I suppose as someone who has been adaptations of Ivanhoe which these passages were inspired by.
My main gripe, as an Englishwoman who has seen ‘real’ jousting and tournaments a number of times, was the mention of combatants’ helmets flying off.
I have never seen such a thing happening at a joust- it would seem to defeat the protective purpose of helmets if they came off with one blow. From what I have seen they were quite securely fastened- and jousters of the 15th century usually wore padded doublets under their armour for extra protection- so the notion of stabbing naked skin under joins in the armour did not entirely ring true either.

The problems aside, and without wanting to sound too critical The Captive Maiden was a good story, which clearly echoed the Cinderella fairy tale, and sometimes resembled Ever After with Drew Barrymore and Anjelica Huston- but without the fake accents. It was good to see Valten, eldest son of Rose and Wilhelm, finally coming into his own, confronting some of his demons, and finding happiness, as well as some important messages about overcoming pride and bitterness. Gisela was a typical heroine- though I felt she did not always live up to what Valten said about her being brave.

There were, inevitably, kissing scenes, but the characters didn’t seem quite so consumed or obsessed with it as they do in some stories, so it was perhaps a little less ‘fluffy’ on the romance side than other such novels. There was enough romance, excitement and intrigue to keep even an adult wanting to read to the end. I did like the way that issues surrounding Medieval marriage laws and customs were dealt with towards the end (albeit in in the manner or a rather sudden realization), rather than the author just falling into the trap of assuming forced marriage was normal or acceptable.

Overall, this was a sweet inspirational story, with a few issues, but generally worth the read. I would recommend for younger reads above the ages of 11 or so, with adult discretion.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Historical Sunday - Like a horse and carriage...

Carriages and coaches in the Middle Ages seem to have become a common trope in movies and TV shows. I don't know if other readers have noticed a proliferation of them in the BBC Robin Hood series (in fact in many versions of Robin Hood), in First Knight, Young Ivanhoe and many other productions the wealthy always seem to have a carriage handy- which is almost invariably attacked by some miscreant, or even a target for the hero if he wants to apprehend some enemy. 

Yet, according to a recent discussion I had with author Dina Sleiman the very existence of such vehicles in the Medieval Era is a source of debate amongst historians.
In such cases, it can perhaps be wise to allow whatever evidence as does exist to speak for itself- and perhaps surprisingly- there is visual evidence that attests to the existence of simple carriages- from manuscript illustrations- a wonderful medium that can testify to aspects of Medieval life that may have been passed over in written material. So here are a few examples I found:

1. 15th century
2.

The word carriage might conjure up images of the coaches and hackneys of the 18th century, or of Austen and Dickens novels- maybe even the fairytale like Coronation Coach of HRH Queen Elizabeth II- yet Medieval carriages, as the images seems to show, appear to have been little more than glorified wagons. Covered wagons, decked out with cushions perhaps, but in style and design little different from their rather less romantic cousins.
According to one source, carriages were known from the 12th century, but were not widely used until the 14th and 15th- and were not called 'carriages'1. Another historian suggested that because of the cost of making them and using them, they were few and far between.2 

3. Fifteenth Century

I'm not sure about my readers, but it doesn't look as though these carriages were the cosy, enclosed affairs of later centuries which accorded those who rode in them a good deal of privacy- except perhaps the one above which seems to have been fitted with something that looks like curtains. 

Other images show five or so horses harnessed to carriages, suggesting perhaps that they were heavy and cumbersome vehicles, requiring more pull-power than the usual cart or wagon. One almost feels sorry for the unfortunate beasts.
 Another interesting feature that all the images seem to have in common is the apparent lack of a coachman- or at least the type of coachman we would be used to seeing guiding the horses from from a sear or platform.
Instead these carriages seem to have been steered and directed by the fellows sitting on horses in front of them. 
 
So the images above suggest that something akin to carriages did indeed exist in the Middle Ages, but there were very different from the carriages and coaches of the popular imagination, improved perhaps by the developments of later centuries. 
So if Marion or any other High Born Medieval Lady did ride in a carriage it might not have been very much different to wagons driven by the pioneers who colonized the American West in the nineteenth century, like the one shown in the fourth image, below.

4. Early 15th Century, France
The irony is that wagons like theirs may seem anachronistic to modern readers, but are actually far less so than the coach Jane Eyre occupied for days in Charlotte Bronte's classic. 
Personally, I don't believe it would have been a very bright idea to travel through a bandit-infested forest in a covered wagon like those above, yet has anyone noticed that in Robin Hood movies the sheriff or any number of other wealthy nobles seem to do just that.....
 
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References 
1. Keri Peardon, 'Today's History Lesson bought to you by Nora Roberts (or not): When a Cariiage is not a Car', Keri M. Peardon Presents- Vampires, Ladies and Potpourri, accessed 2nd November 2014, http://keripeardon.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/todays-history-lesson-brought-to-you-by-nora-roberts-or-not/

2. Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (London, 2008) p133-4
 
Image References  
 
1.http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=IFN-8100143&E=JPEG&Deb=76&Fin=76&Param=C
2. http://rkgregory.cmswiki.wikispaces.net/Middle+Ages. Manuscript: De casibus (BNF Fr. 226)
3.http://keripeardon.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/todays-history-lesson-brought-to-you-by-nora-roberts-or-not/
 
4.https://www.flickr.com/photos/myladyswardrobe/galleries/72157629128003723#photo_5606990299/ From manuscript Harley 4431, British Library.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Daring Heart of David Livingstone by Jay Milbrandt

★★
Kindle Edition, 262 Pages, 
Thomas Nelson, September 23rd 2014 


The captivating, untold story of the great explorer, David Livingstone: his abiding faith and his heroic efforts to end the African slave trade
 
Saint? Missionary? Scientist? Explorer?
The titles given to David Livingstone since his death are varied enough to seem dubious—and with good reason. In view of the confessions in his own journals, saint is out of the question. Even missionary is tenuous,considering he made only one convert. And despite his fame as a scientist and explorer, Livingstone left his most indelible mark on Africa in an arena few have previously examined: slavery.

His impact on abolishing what he called “this awful slave-trade” has been shockingly overlooked as the centerpiece of his African mission.
Until now.

The Daring Heart of David Livingstone tells his story from the beginning of his time in Africa to the publicity stunt that saved millions after his death.
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For those, like me, entirely unfamiliar with the life and career of David Livingstone, this book proved a useful account of his historical legacy and importance. This said, it is not, in the strictest sense, a full or complete biography- the focus and overall argument is clear from the outset. It proposes that his main goal was to destroy the central African slave trade- thus those looking for a conventional biography laying bare the great man’s personal life may want to look elsewhere.

There are many personal insights and accounts of his adventures (or more often misadventures) in Africa, and relationship with the people and fellows. Sometimes, a less than flattering picture emerges. Livingstone was passionate about his convictions, certainly, but also comes across as obsessive and obstinate to a fault- and at times, unwilling to admit responsibility for mistakes, an aspect which provides a useful and better-rounded view of the man.

It would be easy, in hindsight, to consider Livingstone to have been a failure, but as the full picture presents a different story. Perhaps the overarching argument that the abolition of slavery was the principal goal all along has some shortcomings, but this was the main way in which he ultimately, proved successful.

My only real complaints mostly regard small details. The author made the common error of conflating England and Britain throughout, and the writing seemed a little repetitive and patchy in places. The bibliography demonstrates the level of research and dedication that has gone into the work, which is commendable for an author from outside the historical discipline.

I received a copy of this book free from Thomas Nelson via Booklookbloggers in exchange for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

New Release- A Lady at Willowgrove Hall- Sarah E. Ladd

★★
 A Lady at Willowgrove Hall- Whispers on the Moors #3 
Thomas Nelson, October 7th 2014
352 Pages 

Her secret cloaks her in isolation and loneliness. His secret traps him in a life that is not his own.

Cecily Faire carries the shame of her past wherever she treads, knowing one slip of the tongue could expose her disgrace. But soon after becoming a lady's companion at Willowgrove Hall, Cecily finds herself face-to-face with a man well-acquainted with the past she's desperately hidden for years.

Nathaniel Stanton has a secret of his own one that has haunted him for years and tied him to his father's position as steward of Willowgrove Hall. To protect his family, Nathaniel dares not breath a word of the truth. But as long as the shadow looms over him, he'll never be free to find his own way in the world. He'll never be free to fall in love.

When the secrets swirling within Willowgrove Hall come to light, Cecily and Nathaniel must confront a painful choice: Will they continue running from the past . . . or will they stand together and fight for a future without the suffocating weight of secrets long suffered?"
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A Lady at Willowgrove Hall concludes new author Sarah Ladd’s Whispers on the Moors series, Regency Romances set in a fictional county in the North of England. The last two I heard as audiobooks, so this was my first proper read. There is little real connection with the characters or events with the first two books in the series, which might seem daring for the last novel in a trilogy, or for fans wishing to ‘hear more’ of the characters from the last books, but it seemed to work well enough.

The story is based around Cecily Faire, a hurting young lady harbouring a secret that she fears could ruin her, securing a position as a companion to the elderly owner of Willowgrove Hall. When she arrives she discovers a face from her past, and Nathanial Stanton, the steward who harbours a secret of his own. The setting is common for Regency Era stories, and though the secrets of the main characters are known to the audience from the outset, their impact on the character’s lives and those around them works well as the central part of the plot.
Although ostensibly ‘Christian’ fiction, there is little real religious content, or at least less that the first book. However, there are important messages about forgiveness, honesty, and the destructive influence of bitterness and resentment on people’s lives. So it could be classified as clean romance with the Christian flavour, perhaps.

The writing style was generally good, with some beautifully descriptive passages of gardens and the landscape.
My only complaints were that the story did seem rather slow and lagging in places, and some inconsistency in the use of language. In some places, for instance, the characters used Americanisms that seemed rather out of place in an early nineteenth century British setting- but in other places the correct British idioms or terms were used. Also, there seemed to be some confusion of the name of the fictional county of Wiltonshire and the main town within in- which was also called the same.
 I feel it bears mention that whilst English counties may be named after the principal town or city within them, that town does not have the same name as the county, and they never have names ending in 'Shire'.

 The Romance was sweet, though some passages were a little clichéd, but generally it’s a good, light read if you want a cosy, easy to follow, edifying story.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review, I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

Monday, October 13, 2014

New Release- The Abbot's Agreement- Mel Starr

★★
Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon # 7 
Lion Fiction/Kregel 258 Pages, August/November 2014

"My life would have been more tranquil in the days after Martinmas had I not seen the crows. Whatever it was that the crows had found lay in the dappled shadow of the bare limbs of the oak, so I was nearly upon the thing before I recognized what the crows were feasting upon. The corpse wore black..."

 Master Hugh is making his way towards Oxford when he discovers the young Benedictine - a fresh body, barefoot - not half a mile from the nearby abbey. The abbey's novice master confirms the boy's identity: John, one of three novices. But he had gone missing four days previously, and his corpse is fresh. There has been plague in the area, but this was not the cause of death: the lad has been stabbed in the back. To Hugh's sinking heart, the abbot has a commission for him ...
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It’s been eighteen months or so since I read my last Hugh de Singleton novel, and I have to admit, despite some of the (entirely legitimate) comments made by other reviewers, this was one of my personal favourites.
Provided expectations are not placed too high, its generally quite good- of course there is no high drama, political intrigue, and little in the way of real action or tension, but this is not something the series generally contains.
Those expecting such things (or a series to the level of another Cadfael) may be disappointed. The Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton are a more slow-paced with the occasional foray into Medieval Medicine and surgery which I for one appreciate as someone personally fascinated with the subject.

I personally enjoyed the descriptions of life in and the working of a medieval Benedictine monastery, some of the other descriptions of social life, the impact of the Black Death and the exploration of some of the religious beliefs and ideas of the period. The story did perhaps drag a little in places, and Hugh is certainly not the sharpest tool in the barn, but generally the story was compelling enough that I wanted to read on. There is something endearing about Dear Hugh, despite his occasional failings a sleuth, and even Arthur, his burly bodyguard.

My only major gripe in terms of the plot-line was a serious contradiction given about the evidence of the night the murder was committed. Without meaning to give too much away it was early on stated that there was no moon on that night- and later that there was a full moon and a cloudless sky allowing persons to see clearly. This is not presented as an error, or seemingly even remembered, and for mystery buffs, might be considered a heinous fax pas- and perhaps the solution was a little obvious. Yet for all that, those seeking a ‘light’ mystery with sound historical content, or a clean read with a Christian flavour may be satisfied.

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

Friday, September 26, 2014

One of my favourite Medieval Series

Here's one for all the Medieval buffs or writers out there- a 1997 BBC series based on the Walter Scott novel Ivanhoe. Probably one of most credible depiction of Prince John I have seen as well- in other words one that does not present him as a blithering idiot.....though the plot of burning people for witchcraft in the 12th century seems decidedly inaccurate I think the fault was with the novel itself. 

This is episode 2.....


Monday, September 22, 2014

New Release- The Unexpected Earl- Philippa Jane Keyworth

★★
Paperback, 324 Pages
September 24th 2014, Madison Street Publishing
"Six years after being jilted without a word of explanation, Julia Rotherham finds Lucius Wolversley standing before her once again--unexpected, unannounced, unwelcome.
With her heart still hurting and, more importantly, her pride, Julia must chaperone her younger sister, fend off fortune hunters, orchestrate a fake engagement, and halt an elopement--all whilst keeping the man who jilted her at arm's length.
But what Julia doesn't know is that this time, the Earl has no intention of disappearing, and this time, he has more than an explanation to offer...."

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Three years ago, I didn’t read regencies- at all. Since then I’ve read a few- and learned that not all Christian Regencies are equal. The Unexpected Earl ranks among the better- with faint shades of the literary great. The Lady (and spinster bordering on the old at the other side of 20- at least  by 19th century standards) who unexpectedly comes face to face with the former beau who jilted her is almost reminiscent of Persuasion, and hostility tension between the protagonists of Pride and Prejudice. A Regency that harks back to these is stepping in the right direction.

A cast of memorable and well written characters also helps- and this book has them. Julia is strong but not in the militant way that some historical heroines are who seek to rebel against society in the name of ‘freedom’. Perhaps her most endearing trait was her (sometimes biting) wit, and propensity for impulsiveness. The former extends to the writing style, with some great lines such as “Two other gentlemen, with a similar predilection for foppishness, sidled up to join with Windlesham in synchronized sneering” Wolversley, the male protagonist is a suitably brooding dark horse, though not lacking in his fair share of charm.

With such novels as this there does seem to be a danger of the storyline becoming repetitive or clichéd, and romance too fluffy and mushy to be palatable. This was generally not the case here. Aside from a couple of scenes towards the end in which the characters were rather pre-occupied with kissing or emotional attraction, the plot was mostly tight and credible. Indeed, like with her previous book, Julia could not stand Wolversley at first, In fact, she spent most of the first half of the story trying to ward him off whilst protecting her sister. Nor did she just wake up one day realising she still loved him. The process was gradual and difficult, the characters having to deal with their resentment, pride and other issues.

Mrs Keyworth is the only British author of Regencies in this genre that I know of – which has some major advantages in my opinion. One is that her work is free of the Americanisms in the character’s speech that blight so many regencies. Indeed, the American Publisher also deserves some commendation for preserving the British terms and idioms, rather than changing them.
My only major complaint (and the main reason for the lower rating) was that I felt there was little in the book that was explicitly Christian- aside from a few reference to Julia praying. She seemed to lie more often than prayed (indeed lies and deception are often central to moving the story along) and her faith did not always seem to be something that was very important or that she took seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect characters in Christian fiction to be perfect, and there may have been some deeper messages that passed me by- but I just expected more. Some sort of redemption, repentance, or some sort of change in the characters. The morally dubious and licentious characters seemed to stay that way- with the slightly dubious implication that the ‘goodies’ consorted with prostitutes and women of ill-repute as much as the villain- though Wolverseley did not. Also, the swearing may be an issue for some.
Overall, I would recommend The Unexpected Earl for Regency fans, but I’m not sure it really fits comfortably into the ‘Christian’ Genre. Perhaps it should be simply ranked as ‘clean’.

I received and Advance electronic version of this book direct from the publisher in return for a review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Historical Saturday #2- Its Only Words......

Alright, I know I haven't done one of these posts for months- so much for my plan for a weekly feature, and initially, this post may have little to do with history, but bear with me...
It's Only words.....or words outside their place, and why

The English language is a wonderfully versatile animal, always changing and evolving. To borrow from a movie "the English have a language that is rich and beautiful, and blessed with infinite variety- why should we not use it all?" Those who have studied other languages like Greek will know this well- with one word in Greek having many English equivalents.
New words are added every year to the dictionary- but some are sadly lost- when was the last time you heard someone say 'festooned' or 'forsooth' outside a Shakespeare play?
I like words too- I actually took English Language to age 18, and almost wish I'd studied it  alongside Medieval History at University. Perhaps it's because of an assignment of years ago that I have a certain interest in etymology - or the history of words, its certainly though it that I got to know of a wonderful resource for language Geeks- the Online Etymological Dictionary .
Since I began reading Kindle books I've also made use of the New Oxford American Dictionary, which comes free with Kindle- both come in handy for an activity I occasionally indulge in- I must confess it- word checking.
I do, when reading historical fiction or fantasy use these resources to look up words that do not seem right for the time period- just to be sure. Alright, so a few linguistic errors here and there are forgivable, but there are two faux pas that really get on my nerves.
1- Anachronistic Terms and Phrases 
Now don't get me wrong- I don't expect authors who write books set in Medieval England to have characters speaking Chaucer's English- or Middle English as its known- or Shakespearean English, but I also find language that it 'too jarringly modern' distracting, and having the potential to damage the credibility of the historical setting and of the characters within it.
So here are a list of a few words I've encountered in books over the years, and their origins- which will hopefully demonstrate why its wise to avoid them.
'Okay'- 19th Century- America
This one was from a Medieval Fantasy novel. Yes, I know Fantasy is in a sense freer than Historical Fiction- but having Medieval people saying 'Okay', is a major faux pas- because using this word makes it hard to take them seriously as - Medieval People. Why? because the origins of this word lie firmly in the 19th century. See the dictionary entry for more information.
Admittedly one fan of the novels in question did try to argue that this word was used by the  Native Americans- and 'bought back' by the Spanish- but she provided no proof, and I frankly don't buy it at all.
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'Bucko'- 19th Century- Nautical Slang
This little treasure was used repeatedly by a Scottish character in a novel set at the time of the 3rd Crusade (the one with Richard the Lionheart) in the late 12th century- so definitely wrong. In all honesty, it was the first time I'd ever encountered the word, which I assumed was used because it sounded 'British' alongside 'bloke' and 'bl**dy'. It seems to be a term that is more commonly used in Ireland- but does not belong in the mouth of a 12th century Brit- for the origin is 19th century Nautical slang-the same century that gave us 'bloke'.
So words that are considered stereotypically British today, do not work in every period. See the entry here.
 
'Cute'- 19th Century- American
'Ah' you might say 'but cute is an old word'. Yes, the word from which it is derived is old- but the sense of meaning good looking or attractive dates from the 19th century and 'cutie'  from the 20th. So having a Medieval person ask if a person is 'cute' is not right..... See the entry here.
'Prankster'- 20th Century- American
Those seeking a term for a person who enjoys playing tricks on others in a novel set in the Middle Ages may wish to opt for something different- and this one sounds modern anyway. Though the word 'Prank' is older, the original meaning was different. See the entry for details.  
2 - Americanisms/ Stereotypes in Britain
I've read my fair share of Regencies in the last few years, and I have to say, they can be a persistent
offenders- but I fear this seems to be a common drawback of books set in Britain penned by American authors, who are not, perhaps, entirely familiar with the British version of our shared language. Here are some common mistakes:

Someplace- Instead of the more commonly used British Equivalent- which is Somewhere 

Pants- In Britain this means underwear- the garment Americans would call 'pants' are here called Trousers. So it would have been  rather embarrassing for a 19th century English Lady to pass remark upon a Gentleman's 'pants'.

Go-  When used in conjunction with another verb, such as 'go tell', 'go see', or 'go find'. In Britain, it is more common to put an 'and' in between the two verbs- so we would tend to say 'go and find' or 'go and tell'.

Write - English ladies don't 'write' a person- they 'write to' them. Rather!

Ye - This archaic form of 'you', harking back to Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons not of Shakespeare), is one that readers may notice being used by lower class British characters in various parts of the country.
I encountered one novel in which it was used by a man in Dover, about the nearest part of the country to France. Yet today, this term is mainly only used in the West Country (Devon/Cornwall) and Scotland and Ireland.

I don't know if it was more commonly used 200 years ago, or is one of those fictional tropes- rather like the way that almost everyone who isn't an aristocrat has either a Scottish or a Cockney accent in Hollywood movies.

England and Britain - Alright, this may be the most important one. Britain is not repeat not a synonym for England- Britain is a land mass that consists of hundreds of separate Islands and three distinct countries- England, Scotland and Wales (see the map to the right) England is one of these countries. Wales and Scotland are not part of England- nor are they in England- but all are part of Greater Britain.
Yet a Scottish character in a novel set in 18th century America is as much British as his English neighbour- though only the English person is usually referred to as British in such books.
Now, having American characters conflate England and Britain is understandable and forgivable- but for Brits to do this as if they did not know the difference is a heinous error in my view. Its as bad as calling a Canadian an American....or saying Wales is your favourite part of England.

The above are only a few example, and perhaps I may be accused of needless pedantry, but I believe that a grasp of language, or linguistic nuances and differences may be of more importance to historical fiction than is generally thought.
 Maybe readers will disagree, or would like to contribute further examples, or simply express an opinion. Feel free to do so....
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