‘The Reading’ End of Year Review

I’ve read many, many books this year. Some have been fab, some not so fab, and some have just filled a little niche that needed filling. I’ve also written, read and re-read a fair few of my own books this year. But I’m not going to include those in this.

When I look back, I see I’ve read many historical fiction books this year – the majority just historical fiction, but also a few that were historical who-dun-its. I’m a fan of Marple and Poirot, so this does make sense to me.

In fact, 24 of the 71 books I’ve read this year (thank you for keeping track Goodreads), have been historical (and a further 6 of those have been my own historical fiction books, so yes, historical fiction accounts for a great deal of my reading.)

Of those, here are my five favourites of the year. I’m not going to put them in any order, because I enjoyed them all for different reasons.

Anne O’Brien’s A Tapestry of Treason was one of the first books I read this year, and it was a wonderful read. Commodus by Simon Turney was another of the stand out books, as was The Last of the Romans by Derek Birks (which I’ve just discovered I didn’t review on my blog, so there’s a link to Goodreads), Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell and Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy. I was lucky enough to get review copies of many of these books, although I took a chance on The Last of the Romans through Kindle Unlimited and was really pleased I did.

I also read some historical fiction that really didn’t appeal to me, in the end. I prefer historical fiction to be about ‘real’ people (I know their stories will be fictionalized) and told in an engaging and interesting way.

As to the historical mysteries I read, I’m going to highlight Silent Water by PK Adams, a fellow indie author, who takes the reader to Tudor Era Poland. It was fascinating.

As to those novels I read which took a historical era as their background, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman – a sort of fantasy/historical mash-up that concluded the trilogy in a completely satisfactory way.  And The Body in the Garden by Katharine Schellman which isn’t released until next year, but which is an enjoyable who-dun-it. I’ll review it closer to the time.

I also read quite a bit of sci-fi this year, and here the standout book must be Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. I didn’t realise it was aimed at a Young Adult audience. I devoured it, even though I’ve tried Brandon Sanderon before and really didn’t enjoy his story (ducks for cover). I’m really looking forward to finding the time to read Book 2.

I’ve not read as much fantasy as normal this year. But, what I did read was well worth it. Here, I’m going to wax lyrical about Peter Newman. His series, The Deathless, inhabits such a weird and wonderful world that it completely absorbs me. If you’ve not read the first two books in the trilogy, then you’re in for a real treat. The Ruthless was released earlier this year, and I know the third part is due out next year. I’m keen to read it.

I also read all of Mark Lawrence’s four releases this year – Holy Sister concluded the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, and he also released The Impossible Times trilogy, through Amazon Publishing. These are probably still fantasy but in a 1980’s setting (unless they’re sci-fi). I enjoyed them all, but confess, the D and D setting of The Impossible Times trilogy was a bit trying at times. Still, the 1980s was perfectly encapsulated – like an episode of Stranger Things.

I’m also going to mention the John Gwynne book I read this year – A Time of Blood. Foolishly, it wasn’t the first in a series, but goodness me, it was gripping, and I’ve now got the first book to read!

I’ve also listened to my first audiobook, and while I found it great to walk to, I confess, I’m not sure audio is for me. If I’m writing myself I have music on, and because I normally walk to get away from writing, I don’t find listening to stories to be restful. But I do have a fully stocked Audible library so that might change.

While I’ve managed to read a great many books this year, I’ve now found my enthusiasm for ‘new’ waning a little and I’ve sought refuge in a few classic PERN novels, and for 2020, I plan on indulging in the Deverry books by Katharine Kerr in anticipation of the new book coming out in 2020. The books have all been released with fantastic new covers, and I might just have to treat myself to them all over again.

I’ve also not read as many non-fiction books this year as I might normally do. But I think that will change in 2020. I’ve got a great deal of research to do for future projects. Of those non-fiction books I have read, they’ve all been something I was interested in any way, and I’m going to mention Warrior and The Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown. Both were very readable and well written.

I would like to thank Netgalley and also some very brave authors who’ve allowed me access to Advanced copies of their books throughout the year. It makes for much more varied reading!

 

‘My Writing’ End of Year Review 2019

Well, it’s been a busy year but I want to start by thanking all of my readers for continuing to read the books I write, for writing reviews and for interacting with me over on Twitter and via email. I really couldn’t do it without you!

And so to this year.

Well, it’s been a year of two halves. The beginning of 2019 saw me experimenting with a couple of fantasy books, The Innkeeper being released under a slightly different name, and the other secret project under an entirely new name.

I was also really slow to release anything new in the historical fiction genre. There was a good reason for this – I was crossing the timeline of two earlier books and I wanted to make sure the transition was smoother than I knew it was. So, the first two Earls of Mercia books have been comprehensively edited, fiddled with and generally made as good as I can make them without a complete rewrite. The Earl of Mercia’s Father and The Danish King’s Enemy are available in paperback. It’s to be hoped that these new editions will be available in ebook soon as well.

I needed to do this to continue the story of Lady Elfrida, first told in The First Queen of England trilogy, and continuing in The King’s Mother books. When I first wrote about Leofwine and Leofric, I had no idea that I would find myself writing about King Æthelred’s mother. It was fascinating to write the story of the late tenth century and early eleventh century from a different viewpoint. The Queen Dowager and Once A Queen were the first of my ‘new’ releases for the year.

I then turned my attention to a few of the fantastic women I’d discovered while writing about Lady Elfrida. Lady Eadgifu caught my attention because her life spans almost the entire period between The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter and the beginning of Lady Elfrida’s story. Kingmaker charts many of the events of tenth-century England, but The King’s Daughters took me to both East and West Frankia in the middle of the tenth century. It was a fascinating, if frustrating, experience.

I’ve also taken the opportunity to refresh another tenth-century project Brunanburh.

For NaNoWriMo, I’ve worked on another fantasy project which I hope to release early in 2020 and I’ve ended the year with a return to the world of the Earls of Mercia. Viking King was released on 24th December.

It’s been a busy and fascinating year, and I’m looking forward to 2020 and all the new journeys I’m going to be able to take.

If you want to keep up to date with news of releases and projects, then you can sign up to my email list here.

Book Review – The Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

AD 838. Deep in the forests of Wessex, Dunston’s solitary existence is shattered when he stumbles on a mutilated corpse.

Accused of the murder, Dunston must clear his name and keep the dead man’s daughter alive in the face of savage pursuers desperate to prevent a terrible secret from being revealed.

Rushing headlong through Wessex, Dunston will need to use all the skills of survival garnered from a lifetime in the wilderness. And if he has any hope of victory against the implacable enemies on their trail, he must confront his long-buried past – becoming the man he once was and embracing traits he had promised he would never return to. The Wolf of Wessex must hunt again; honour and duty demand it.

I was lucky enough to get an EARC of Wolf of Wessex from the author.

I’ve read all the previous books by Matthew Harffy set in seventh-century Bernicia, and many will know that I have a few complaints about his grumpy main character. Wolf of Wessex is a breath of fresh air, set two centuries later and with a new main character who doesn’t infuriate me with his grumpiness and general ill-temper all the time.

I’d give Wolf of Wessex a full 5/5, without even having to think about it. The story presses on at a good pace,  there are lots of short, sharp chapters, and a good mystery as well.  The attention to detail with regards to the forest landscape was really good as Dunston is forced to leave his home while still utilising the skills his solitary lifestyle has taught him.

The writing truly flows, the descriptions feel natural, and the pacing is fab. It’s a page-turner that I highly recommend.

Wolf of Wessex is released on 14th November, and is available from here:

Book Review – Bright Blade: The Byrhtnoth Chronicles: Book 3 by Christine Hancock – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

Byrhtnoth thinks only of killing the man who stole his sword and wounded his wife. But the blade of revenge can strike both ways.
Erik Bloodaxe has broken his oath and claimed the throne of York. In his anger, King Eadred sends his army to ravage Northumbria.
Sent north with the ships, Byrhtnoth suffers storms at sea and fire on land. After an encounter with an old enemy, he is left broken, in mind and body.
Can Byrhtnoth survive until help arrives?
Will he ever fight again?

Bright Blade is the third book about Byrhtnoth (who would, in time, become Ealdorman Byrhtnoth in tenth-century England). I’ve read the previous 2 books and enjoyed them, and I think the cover for book 3 is really striking. With book 3, I felt ‘hooked’ from the beginning and the storyline flowed really well. I enjoyed the ending (no spoilers here), as it built cleverly to an unexpected climax.

This series is set in the tenth century (along with the more recent Uhtred books by Bernard Cornwell, as well as my own books in The Tenth Century series, and the later Chronicles of the English, The First Queen of England books, and even The Earls of Mercia begins in the tenth century) and as such, it’s really enjoyable to see a different perspective to my own, and also to encounter a character, Byrhtnoth, who is so important in The First Queen of England books.

I think all the ‘cool kids’ are writing about the tenth century, and I’m really looking forward to reading the final book in the series when it’s available.

Bright Blade is available now on Amazon.

 

 

 

Book Review – Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a man of his word.

An oath bound him to King Alfred. An oath bound him to Æthelflaed. And now an oath will wrench him away from the ancestral home he fought so hard to regain. For Uhtred has sworn that on King Edward’s death, he will kill two men. And now Edward is dying.

A violent attack drives Uhtred south with a small band of warriors, and headlong into the battle for kingship. Plunged into a world of shifting alliances and uncertain loyalties, he will need all his strength and guile to overcome the fiercest warrior of them all.

As two opposing Kings gather their armies, fate drags Uhtred to London, and a struggle for control that must leave one King victorious, and one dead. But fate – as Uhtred has learned to his cost – is inexorable. Wyrd bið ful ãræd. And Uhtred’s destiny is to stand at the heart of the shield wall once again…”

I sometimes feel that this series of books has long since run its course, but Sword of Kings, Book 12, had me intrigued just from reading the blurb.

Lord Uhtred has firmly moved into a time period I know, study and write about, and while sometimes it’s hard to read the way another person treats ‘your’ characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the starkly different interpretation of events surrounding King Edward’s death, because, quite simply, there is no ‘right or wrong’ when writing about this period. It’s a very much anything goes scenario, and into this, Lord Uhtred, bored and old, having finally captured Bebbanburg, is allowed to take centre stage.

Uhtred is older, but not wiser, and once more, if it wasn’t for the intervention of others, he would certainly not make it to the end of Book 12, hale and hearty.

Uhtred has as many enemies as normal, and his loyalties are split, but the will is strong to enact some revenge when he realises his ships are being attacked by an old enemy he ‘s made an oath to kill. Heading South, with the news that King Edward is either dying or dead, while plague pushes its way ever northwards, there’s a great deal of time spent on board ship. There’s a battle on a ship, and then another battle, and then there’s tides, rivers, currents, different boats, oars, sails and many other ship related activities. (It does get a little repetitive). There’s the Farne Islands, Kentish coasts, London, rivers in Mercia, London once more and then a bridge as well as a wall.

The action is pretty full-on but somewhat repetitive. Uhtred makes any number of bad decisions, and then the quest for revenge drives him on, even though it probably shouldn’t.

In effect, Uhtred turns the tide of ‘history’ once more, and not necessarily to his favour.

The old rivalries between paganism and Christianity continue, as does Uhtred’s unease with the plans the new king has for Northumbria, and for him. It’s these scenes that I find most tedious. I would like a little more nuance to Uhtred, but it seems his character will never develop more than it has. BC tries to make Uhtred appear as more than just a thug by adding a few women to the cast, as well as a host of orphans, and having his relationships with them testify that he isn’t ‘a ‘bad man’ just a righteous one who must abide by his oaths.’ Essentially, if Uhtred likes you, then that’s good, but if not, then you’re in trouble.

There are many elements to the story that I would change – the insistence on Anglo-Saxon place names being one of them, the ship ‘lingo’ another one – but hey, it’s Uhtred. You know what you’re getting from the start, and you won’t be disappointed, although you might feel a bit seasick!

Here’s to the next book.

Sword of Kings was released on 3rd October, and is available from here:

Book Review – The Mitford Scandal by Jessica Fellowes – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

The newly married and most beautiful of the Mitford sisters, Diana, hot-steps around Europe with her husband and fortune heir Bryan Guinness, accompanied by maid Louisa Cannon, as well as some of the most famous and glamorous luminaries of the era. But murder soon follows, and with it, a darkness grows in Diana’s heart . . .

This wonderful new book in the bestselling The Mitford Murders series sees the Mitford sisters at a time of scandalous affairs, political upheaval and murder.

The Mitford Scandal is not at all what it is sold as – it is not a 1920’s whodunit – but rather a tedious excursion through late 1920’s Europe where I turned every page just waiting for something to happen, only for each ‘event’ to be the ending of a chapter, rather than a beginning.

The writing style is odd in the extreme, some events told in explicit detail, others glossed over as though not important, and the years, yes years, covered in this novel, are done so in choppy chapters that seem to add little or nothing to the story.

I think the author struggles to reconcile the life her ‘main’ character, the lady’s maid, Louisa has, with the events that are being narrated. It just doesn’t work, not at all, and the odd few chapters told from the viewpoint of Guy are equally as jarring.

Hugely disappointing as I am a fan of a good 1920’s murder-mystery, but this is not one, only morbid curiosity kept me reading until the end (it is not a long book), which is as poorly constructed as the rest of the novel.

Apologies. I really don’t like to leave negative reviews, but my thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for my review copy.

I have looked at reading previous books in this series of books (this is book 3), and I know they have a great of deal of hype around them. I think this probably added to my disappointment – sometimes hype is not a good thing for a series of books to have!! Apologies again. (The cover is lovely!)

The Mitford Scandal is released on 26th September and is available from here;

Book Review – Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon England by Edoardo Albert and Paul Gething – historical non-fiction/fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Warrior tells the story of forgotten man, a man whose bones were found in an Anglo-Saxon graveyard at Bamburgh castle in Northumberland. It is the story of a violent time when Britain was defining itself in waves of religious fervour, scattered tribal expansion and terrible bloodshed; it is the story of the fighting class, men apart, defined in life and death by their experiences on the killing field; it is an intricate and riveting narrative of survival and adaptation set in the stunning political and physical landscapes of medieval England. Warrior is a classic of British history, a landmark of popular archaeology, and a must-read for anyone interested in the story of where we’ve come from.”

Warrior is an extremely well-written book. But it is not at all what I thought it would be. It is not so much the story of the warrior whose skeleton was discovered in the Bowl Hole at Bamburgh, as the story of the archaeological digs that have taken place at Bamburgh Castle, and the personalities involved, the ‘history’ (bizarre as it sounds) of the development of archaeology as a science throughout the twentieth century and a snapshot of events that occurred in Northumberland from about AD599-635, mixed in with the history of the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, which were taking place at the same time. (On another note, I have been on the beach at Bamburgh when a random storm has blown in – on this occasion hail on a summer’s day. It does happen).

As such, this short book attempts to accomplish a great deal, in only very few words, and for those new to the time period, or with a passing interest in all things archaeological, or for those fans of Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred and the TV series, The Last Kingdom with its ‘hero’s’ focus on Bebbanburg, this will be a real treat.

The story takes the reader from Kent to Iona and many, many places in between. The research and attention to details can’t be faulted, and neither can the fact that the author admits that much of his story will be ‘made up’ and probably inaccurate, and yet, the ‘fiction’ of the warrior’s story is maintained, along with the desire to make the archaeology ‘fit the ‘facts” of the ‘history’ and it is here that the book falters for anyone who has more than a passing interest in the period, and who will understand all the speech marks in that last sentence.

But, for those new to the study of Anglo-Saxon England, this book will provide an excellent starting point, placing the skeleton in a ‘possible’ historical setting.

(I am hoping that the site report for the dig at Bamburgh will be/is available and this might quench my thirst to know more details about the actual finds rather than the potential historical context in which it might have taken place.).

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

Warrior is available from 19th September 2019 from here. If you are interested in reading more about the time period then try Pagan Warrior, and the two follow-up books which tell the story of King Penda, King Edwin, and Oswald ending in AD955.