Book Review – Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead – non-fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of witchcraft and regicide. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.

Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.

Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.

From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.”

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is an ambitious project, on a scale that few may truly appreciate as it covers over 600 years of Early English history. That’s even before factoring in just how fragmented the surviving sources are, and how complicated they can be and how many languages are involved. Or the fact that the majority of such sources were written by men, and not just men, but men in holy orders. As someone who has written about some of these fabulous women, I know just how difficult and complicated a task it is, and just how far you have to go in order to tease out the smallest details.

It is for this reason, that the book can feel a little unwieldy in places. I think that people new to the subject matter and to the time period might well struggle with the first section of the book on Pioneers in Northumbria. In an effort to include every woman, of whom so little is known that sometimes it is just a name, it can feel a little bit like a long list of women who you might not be able to fully grasp their importance in the events of the period. There might also be some frustration that the women could only be powerful because of who they married, gave birth to, or were born to. This, however, can’t be avoided. It is the nature of the sources.

And I must urge people to continue reading as the author soon lands on more solid ground (because there is more information available and the women feel more fully formed.) The chapters on Mercia and Wessex are a much easier read, and by the time we reach the chapters on Serial Monogamy and Dowager Queens, the women feel ‘real.’ Again, this is because of an increase in the source material, and potentially, because readers will know more about the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The author manages to cover an extraordinary number of women over the long centuries of the Early English period, and if there are moments where I might have included different information, or rejected some of the Saints Lives and Anglo-Norman historians from the narrative, this is a personal choice, based on my own research methodology which does seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

I confess, the book would have benefitted from a chronology for each chapter, and perhaps a slightly different format (I read an ebook so this might display differently in the paperback), but overall, I am in awe of the author’s ability to hold the narrative together and to produce something that I hope will encourage people to further research these wonderful characters who should be just as well known as their male counterparts.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Women of Power is released today, 30th May, and is available from the publisher as well as on other sites, although it is showing as a preorder.

 

Book Review – Camelot by Giles Kristian – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb:

‘Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been these past ten years. But in a small, isolated monastery in the west of England, a young boy is suddenly plucked from his simple existence by the ageing warrior, Gawain. It seems he must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot. For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive.’

I’ve just reread the review I wrote for Lancelot nearly two years ago, and even I’m blushing about how effusive I was about it!

Camelot begins in much the same way. The lead character is a young man, about to take his vows to become a monk on the tor at Glastonbury when his world completely changes. The depiction of life on the tor is wonderfully evoked, and even if the author could have just written ‘bird’ ‘tree’ and ‘flower’ I’m sure many will appreciate the attention to detail. (I’ve never been ‘at one’ with nature).

The story starts quite slowly, drawing you back into the world of post-Roman/pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain with deft skill and then the story truly begins to take shape, secrets are revealed, and the ties to the previous book begin to be revealed.

I truly don’t want to give too much of the story away, but the ‘quest’, for that is what it becomes, takes readers from Cornwall to Anglesey and then further, the fear of what is to come in the future a palpable threat and even though we all know what’s going to happen, in the end (outside the scope of the book) I couldn’t help but hope that it would all be very, very different. The characters demand it from the reader.

And the end, is once more, where I have some small complaints about the story. It’s not that it doesn’t do what I want it to do, it’s just that the ending seems wrong for the story, but then, perhaps, it was always going to because that is the legend of Arthur.

But before that ending, the legends of Arthur and his knights are beautifully evoked, and I think a particular strength is the depiction of King Constantine, a bit part character, but immensely powerful and the very embodiment of a land falling to chaos all around him, and yet not prepared to give way and accept what seems to be the inevitable.

This book, once more, has its flaws, some scenes seem unnecessary, and others are skipped over too quickly, but it feels so true to the legends. There’s so much that’s only half-seen, hinted at but never actually known.

A welcome return to Giles Kristian’s ‘world’ first created in Lancelot, and, I think the author notes at the end of the novel explain a great deal. Now, give me the story of Arthur and his knights at the height of their prowess (please!).

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Camelot is available from 14th May 2020 from here:

Book Review – The Ruthless by Peter Newman – fantasy – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

Return to a world of crystal armour, savage wilderness, and corrupt dynasties in book two of The Deathless series from Gemmell award-winning author Peter Newman.

THE REBEL
For years, Vasin Sapphire has been waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Now, as other Deathless families come under constant assault from the monsters that roam the Wild, that time has come.

THE RUTHLESS
In the floating castle of Rochant Sapphire, loyal subjects await the ceremony to return their ruler to his rightful place. But the child raised to give up his body to Lord Rochant is no ordinary servant. Strange and savage, he will stop at nothing to escape his gilded prison.

AND THE RETURNED…
Far below, another child yearns to see the human world. Raised by a creature of the Wild, he knows their secrets better than any other. As he enters into the struggle between the Deathless houses, he may be the key to protecting their power or destroying it completely.

THE WILD HAS BEGUN TO RISE.

The Ruthless by Peter Newman is a fantastic ‘Part 2’ of what will be a trilogy, charting The Deathless. The action picks up exactly where it left off, although sixteen years have passed, allowing the babies of the book to be all grown up and therefore more involved in what’s happening.

The likeable characters of Book 1 are there, Sa-at, Pari, Vasin, Chandi as well as a few that we didn’t like so much. The world created by Newman continues to be vivid and downright ‘weird’ and there were a few times when I felt a little ‘itchy’ so good were the descriptions of The Wild! All of the characters are set on paths that will see them coming into contact at one point or another, and the end is entirely satisfying, leaving me with many questions still to be answered, and a fear that something really BAD is going to happen in the concluding book of the trilogy. I read this book in just over 24 hours. It’s entirely absorbing, wonderful ‘weird’ and incredibly rewarding. Newman uses words to great effect and I just ‘got’ exactly what he was trying to portray. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Thank you to Netgalley for the review copy. I will be ‘singing’ about this series whenever I get the opportunity

The Ruthless is available from 30th April 2020 in paperback. I highly recommend it!

Book Review – The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence – fantasy

Here’s the blurb;

“Only when it’s darkest can you see the stars.

East of the Black Rock, out on the ice, lies a hole down which broken children are thrown

On the vastness of the ice there is no room for individuals. No one survives alone.
To resist the cold, to endure the months of night when even the air itself begins to freeze, requires a special breed. Variation is dangerous, difference is fatal. And Yaz is different.

Torn from her family, from the boy she thought she would spend her life with, Yaz has to carve a new path for herself in a world whose existence she never suspected. A world full of danger.

Beneath the ice, Yaz will learn that Abeth is older and stranger than she had ever imagined.
She will learn that her weaknesses are another kind of strength. And she will learn to challenge the cruel arithmetic of survival that has always governed her people.

Only when it’s darkest can you see the stars.”

The Girl and the Stars is set on the same world as The Book of the Ancestor, and I’m aware that there are many more stories that need to be told to fully understand Abeth. Not that new readers can’t pick up from here. There is no need to have read The Books of the Ancestors.

I’ve heard a great deal about The Girl and the Stars on twitter and I was looking forward to reading it. The story starts strongly and Yaz is an enjoyable character to read about. The set up of the story is intriguing and not at all where I expected it to go. Foolishly, I thought I knew where Lawrence was going with this new trilogy. There are many fascinating elements and I was really enjoying exploring the landscape of ‘the stars,’

Lawrence titillates with fragments of what’s actually happening and what’s happened in the past (he’s a bit good at this) but I found I wanted to know more about that, and less about Yaz and her group of friends. And by the time I was a decent distance into the book, I was beginning to suffer from the same sensory deprivation as the characters. This probably isn’t a good thing. My enjoyment of the story did drop away – the relentless pacing couldn’t quite make up for my lessening enjoyment, and while the ending is bloody stunning, I can’t help but think it could have been reached at least a hundred pages earlier!

I’m still very much looking forward to reading all the books in this new trilogy, but hopefully, they won’t share the same setting!

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

The Girl and the Stars is available in ebook now and hardback from next week. You can snap up a copy from here:

Book Review – Camelot by Giles Kristian – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb:

‘Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been these past ten years. But in a small, isolated monastery in the west of England, a young boy is suddenly plucked from his simple existence by the ageing warrior, Gawain. It seems he must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot. For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive.’

I’ve just reread the review I wrote for Lancelot nearly two years ago, and even I’m blushing about how effusive I was about it!

Camelot begins in much the same way. The lead character is a young man, about to take his vows to become a monk on the tor at Glastonbury when his world completely changes. The depiction of life on the tor is wonderfully evoked, and even if the author could have just written ‘bird’ ‘tree’ and ‘flower’ I’m sure many will appreciate the attention to detail. (I’ve never been ‘at one’ with nature).

The story starts quite slowly, drawing you back into the world of post-Roman/pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain with deft skill and then the story truly begins to take shape, secrets are revealed, and the ties to the previous book begin to be revealed.

I truly don’t want to give too much of the story away, but the ‘quest’, for that is what it becomes, takes readers from Cornwall to Anglesey and then further, the fear of what is to come in the future a palpable threat and even though we all know what’s going to happen, in the end (outside the scope of the book) I couldn’t help but hope that it would all be very, very different. The characters demand it from the reader.

And the end, is once more, where I have some small complaints about the story. It’s not that it doesn’t do what I want it to do, it’s just that the ending seems wrong for the story, but then, perhaps, it was always going to because that is the legend of Arthur.

But before that ending, the legends of Arthur and his knights are beautifully evoked, and I think a particular strength is the depiction of King Constantine, a bit part character, but immensely powerful and the very embodiment of a land falling to chaos all around him, and yet not prepared to give way and accept what seems to be the inevitable.

This book, once more, has its flaws, some scenes seem unnecessary, and others are skipped over too quickly, but it feels so true to the legends. There’s so much that’s only half-seen, hinted at but never actually known.

A welcome return to Giles Kristian’s ‘world’ first created in Lancelot, and, I think the author notes at the end of the novel explain a great deal. Now, give me the story of Arthur and his knights at the height of their prowess (please!).

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Camelot is available from 14th May 2020 from here: (the preorder is currently only £2.99 for kindle – wowsers – so I’m posting this before release date for everyone to take advantage of the offer)

Book Review – Murder at the Mena House by Erica Ruth Neubauer – historical murder mystery

Here’s the blurb:

Well-heeled travelers from around the world flock to the Mena House Hotel—an exotic gem in the heart of Cairo where cocktails flow, adventure dispels the aftershocks of World War I, and deadly dangers wait in the shadows . . .
 
Egypt, 1926. Fiercely independent American Jane Wunderly has made up her mind: she won’t be swept off her feet on a trip abroad. Despite her Aunt Millie’s best efforts at meddling with her love life, the young widow would rather gaze at the Great Pyramids of Giza than into the eyes of a dashing stranger. Yet Jane’s plans to remain cool and indifferent become ancient history in the company of Mr. Redvers, a roguish banker she can’t quite figure out . . .

While the Mena House has its share of charming guests, Anna Stainton isn’t one of them. The beautiful socialite makes it clear that she won’t share the spotlight with anyone—especially Jane. But Jane soon becomes the center of attention when she’s the one standing over her unintentional rival’s dead body.

Now, with her innocence at stake in a foreign country, Jane must determine who can be trusted, and who had motive to commit a brutal murder. Between Aunt Millie’s unusual new acquaintances, a smarmy playboy with an off-putting smile, and the enigmatic Mr. Redvers, someone has too many secrets. Can Jane excavate the horrible truth before her future falls to ruin in Cairo . . . and the body count rises like the desert heat?

I do love a 1920’s murder mystery, and Murder at the Mena House is set in Egypt no less. It has a very Agatha Christie vibe about it, although our main character is far from as fastidious as Poirot and benefits from an intriguing back story.

The mystery unravels quickly and well, and there are more than enough suspects to keep the reader guessing as to what’s really happening.

An enjoyable read and I look forward to reading the next book in the series.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Murder at the Mena House is available now from here:

 

Book Review – The Body in the Garden by Katharine Schellman – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“London 1815. Though newly-widowed Lily Adler is returning to a society that frowns on independent women, she is determined to create a meaningful life for herself even without a husband. She’s no stranger to the glittering world of London’s upper crust. At a ball thrown by her oldest friend, Lady Walter, she expects the scandal, gossip, and secrets. What she doesn’t expect is the dead body in Lady Walter’s garden.

Lily overheard the man just minutes before he was shot: young, desperate, and attempting blackmail. But she’s willing to leave the matter to the local constables–until Lord Walter bribes the investigating magistrate to drop the case. Stunned and confused, Lily realizes she’s the only one with the key to catching the killer.

Aided by a roguish navy captain and a mysterious heiress from the West Indies, Lily sets out to discover whether her friend’s husband is mixed up in blackmail and murder. The unlikely team tries to conceal their investigation behind the whirl of London’s social season, but the dead man knew secrets about people with power. Secrets that they would kill to keep hidden. Now, Lily will have to uncover the truth, before she becomes the murderer’s next target.”

The Body in the Garden is a fun and interesting read. While firmly grounded in the society of the day, it doesn’t labour points, as some authors might do, but rather absorbs everything as part of the space the characters are occupying.

I’m currently watching the TV adaptation of Sanditon and The Body in the Garden easily feels as though it follows many of the conventions well known from a Jane Austen book. If there is too much emphasis on the purchase of gloves and hats, then that was only what well-bred ladies would have been worried about!

The mystery is well put together, and there are any number of potential suspects along the way, which makes the story move along at a fine old pace, and not without some peril for the main character.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. I hope there are more mysteries for Lady Adler, and her ‘roguish’ captain to solve.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy, and good luck with the release.

The Body in the Guard is released on 7th April and is available from here:

The Last King – Now available from Netgalley

The Last King is the start of a new series, set in ninth-century Mercia.

It’s set for release on 23rd April 2020, and for those who are Netgalley members, you can download it now.

https://www.netgalley.com/widget/228544/redeem/ff3f936927ee67350b8a608047fa1ccce3c285d584d0df01563d5999093a0245

For those who might have to wait just a little bit longer, here’s the blurb and a cover image.

They sent three hundred warriors to kill one man. It was never going to be enough.

Mercia lies broken but not beaten, her alliance with Wessex in tatters.

Coelwulf, a fierce and bloody warrior, hears whispers that Mercia has been betrayed from his home in the west. He fears no man, especially not the Vikings sent to hunt him down.

To discover the truth of the rumours he hears, Coelwulf must travel to the heart of Mercia, and what he finds there will determine the fate of Mercia, as well as his own.

The Last King is available for preorder now.

The Last King

Book Review – Commodus by Simon Turney – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“Welcome to a fracturing Roman empire in the second century AD: ravaged by plague and with wars rumbling on along all frontiers. One man tries to hold everything together but, beset by personal tragedy from a young age, who is holding him together?
You’ve heard the stories: the crazy emperor who thought he was Hercules and fought in the Colosseum as a gladiator. But is ‘crazy’ too easy a label? Could there have been a method behind the perceived madness?”

Commodus by Simon Turney is my sort of historical fiction – people who actually lived – with their lives told in an intriguing and interesting way, bolted around known ‘facts’ and not a little imagination to bring the character alive! This is the first book I’ve read by Simon Turney but it won’t be the last.

The story is a well-told tale of a Roman Emperor who, I must assume, has a bit of a bad reputation. This is a sympathetic account of his rule, and I doubt I’ll be the only person who finishes the novel and considers just what it is about him that’s quite so bad (apart from his delight in killing exotic animals that would garner a great of bad press in our day and age) – in that respect, the author does an excellent job of rehabilitating a bit of a dodgy character.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended. I read it in a day!

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a review copy.

Commodus is now available in paperback, and is available from here, as well as from other retailers!

 

 

Book Review – A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“Her actions could make history – but at what price?

1399: Constance of York, Lady Despenser, proves herself more than a mere observer in the devious intrigues of her magnificently dysfunctional family, The House of York.

Surrounded by power-hungry men, including her aggressively self-centred husband Thomas and ruthless siblings Edward and Richard, Constance places herself at the heart of two treasonous plots against King Henry IV.  Will it be possible for this Plantagenet family to safeguard its own political power by restoring either King Richard II to the throne, or the precarious Mortimer claimant?

Although the execution of these conspiracies will place them all in jeopardy, Constance is not deterred, even when the cost of her ambition threatens to overwhelm her.  Even when it endangers her new-found happiness.

With treason, tragedy, heartbreak and betrayal, this is the story of a woman ahead of her time, fighting for herself and what she believes to be right in a world of men.”

A Tapestry of Treason is a stunning novel. The character of Lady Constance is a revelation – she is perhaps the most complicated of Anne O’Brien’s historical ‘women’ to date, and the book delightfully fluctuates between the conspiracies and treasons that she’s involved in, even though she is, but a woman in a man’s world. How she survived the king’s wrath on so many occasions is a bit of a miracle.

In the end, I was completely hooked on the novel, and just read the last 40% or so in one sitting, in heightened anxiety from each high to each new low. Lady Constance certainly wins the heart of the reader, even if she herself would never admit to even having a heart.

I believe this is the best of Anne O’Brien’s books to date.

Thank you to the Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy. I would certainly have read it anyway – and I’m just delighted I got to read it so far in advance of being released.

A Tapestry of Treason is now available in paperback, and is available here.