‘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!

 

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 – 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 – Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown by J F Andrews – historical non-fiction

Here’s the blurb;

When William the Conqueror died in 1087 he left the throne of England to William Rufus … his second son. The result was an immediate war as Rufus’s elder brother Robert fought to gain the crown he saw as rightfully his; this conflict marked the start of 400 years of bloody disputes as the English monarchy’s line of hereditary succession was bent, twisted and finally broken when the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, fell at Bosworth in 1485. The Anglo-Norman and Plantagenet dynasties were renowned for their internecine strife, and in Lost Heirs we will unearth the hidden stories of fratricidal brothers, usurping cousins and murderous uncles; the many kings – and the occasional queen – who should have been but never were. History is written by the winners, but every game of thrones has its losers too, and their fascinating stories bring richness and depth to what is a colourful period of history. King John would not have gained the crown had he not murdered his young nephew, who was in line to become England’s first King Arthur; Henry V would never have been at Agincourt had his father not seized the throne by usurping and killing his cousin; and as the rival houses of York and Lancaster fought bloodily over the crown during the Wars of the Roses, life suddenly became very dangerous indeed for a young boy named Edmund.

Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown is an engaging study of exactly that. Taking the reader from the years after the Norman Conquest until the beginning of the Tudor era, there is much to learn about those who should have been king or queen had happenstance been a little different.

The author has an engaging writing style, and if, every so often, the opinions offered are purely based on the author’s personal preference, it can be overlooked, as most historians will always have a personal favourite or enemy from the time period that they study, and the author does make it clear when offering a personal opinion.

It is a very readable book, and I particularly enjoyed reading about Lady Constance at the beginning of the 1400s (as I’ve just read a fiction book about her). Neither does the author shy away from such difficult topics as the murder of the lost heirs, and is as even-handed when recounting the lives of the Black Prince, as those who suffered at the hands of over-mighty uncles.

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

Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown is released on 2nd October, and is available from here; and also from here:

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Lost-Heirs-of-the-Medieval-Crown-Hardback/p/16791

(I am struggling to get a cover image so please click one of the links as it is really quite fab!)

 

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.

 

Book Review – The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Her father’s only daughter.
Her country’s only hope.
Ireland, 1152

The King of Lenister, awaiting news of his newborn child, is disappointed to hear he has a daughter. Diarmait MacMurchada wanted another strapping son to shoulder a spear, wield a sword, and protect his kingdom. But the moment Diarmait holds tiny Aoife in his arms, he realised she would be his most precious treasure.

1166

Forced into exile Aoife and her family find themselves at the mercy of Henry II. Aoife – aware of her beauty but not its power – intrigues and beguiles Henry in equal measure. He agrees to help her father, an alliance that leads the MacMurchadas to the charistmatic Richard de Clare, a man dissatisfied with his lot and open to new horizons.

Diarmit promises Richard Aoife’s hand in marriage in return for his aid in Ireland, but Aoife has her own thoughts on the matter. She may be a prize, but she is not a pawn, and she will play the men at their own game. For herself, for her family, and for her country.

From the royal halls of scheming kings, to staunch Welsh border fortresses and the wild green kingdoms of Ireland, The Irish Princess is a sumptuous, journey of ambition and desire, love and loss, heartbreak and survival.”

The Irish Princess is a welcome return to the world of William the Marshall and Queen Alienor. Yes, they might not appear in the book for any great length of time, if at all, but the reader knows that they are ‘off’ in the background, living their own lives, while young Aoife is trying to do the same. (I am a huge fan of the William Marshall books – in many ways, he was one of the inspirations for Ealdorman Leofwine in the Earls of Mercia books that I write.)

The setting of Ireland for much of the book provides a new arena for readers of Elizabeth Chadwick, and it’s enjoyable. Events in Ireland can be complicated, and the author makes the reader aware of what’s happening without providing too much detail so that it never becomes too complicated.

Aoife is an intriguing character – fiercely proud of her heritage, she is also determined to hold onto her birthright, whatever it takes, and if I would have liked to know more about Aoife, and her Irish family by the end of the novel, then that is a good thing. I don’t know if this is a standalone novel, or if it will have a sequel, and if it doesn’t, I imagine many of my questions could be answered by forcing myself to reread The Scarlet Lion (if I must! – I can’t imagine it’ll be any form of hardship).

A thoroughly enjoyable read – it took me only three days to complete the book – and recommended for all fans of Elizabeth Chadwick, and those with an interest in the Empire of Henry II.

On a personal note – I do enjoy it when an author has the freedom to play around with some of their characters a little bit. This book is very much a prequel to The Scarlet Lion and I’m pleased that both the author and the publisher pursued this idea.

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

The Irish Princess is released on 12th September 2019 and is available from here:

It’s release day – Kingmaker – England: The Tenth Century

Kingmaker is available now in both paperback and ebook format from Amazon.

Here’s a little sneak peek from the first chapter.

“The first sight of my husband is when I stand beside him, as we exchange vows, and Archbishop Plegmund officiates over our wedding.

Luckily, a wimple covers me, so my husband can’t see the horror on my face, although no doubt he imagines it.

He’s old. Old enough to be my father, if not my grandfather, and I am young, only just seventeen.

Neither am I his first wife, nor even his second. And neither is his second wife dead, but merely put aside, as a new, younger bride is found for him.

I swallow my revulsion.

My father would not have approved of this arrangement, but then, he’s been dead almost since my birth, and I’ve no memory of him, only the hope that he might not have sanctioned my mother’s ambitions.

Indeed, not only is my husband old but he also has children older than I. And not just one or two, but many of them, ten in total. I would have sooner married one of them, even the odious Ælfweard. He’s a boy as old as I, and yet definitely a boy, whereas I’m classed as a woman and fit to be wed to someone so much older.

Ælfweard watches me now, a twisted look of desire on his face, as I glance at the king’s many children, lined up at the front of the church. I swallow again, turning my attention back to archbishop Plegmund, listening to the words, waiting for the moment when the wedding mass begins, and I can lower my chin and allow the tears I’m holding back to fall down my cheeks.

Damn my ambitious family, and damn my mother. I blame her for my current predicament.

If my mother expects me to ensure she’s well rewarded for what she sees as the honour of marrying the king of the Anglo-Saxons, then she’s very mistaken. If it were possible, I would never see her again.

Abruptly, I feel the hands of the archbishop on my shoulders and focus on the king before me. The hollows of his eyes remind me of sand around a stone on the shore, sunken and only likely to sink deeper. But for all that, there’s some kindness, and also, and this turns my stomach, a lustful look. Whatever his sympathy is for, it’s not that I’m to be bedded by him when the wedding feast is done.

At the archbishop’s instigation, I kneel on the cushion before me, head bowed, tears continual. I do not want to be here. I do not want to be the king’s wife, and yet, I must be all the same.

I should have more rights, more say in this matter, but Edward is the king, and my family is ridiculously ambitious. They wish to have the ear of the king and to always be high in his favour, and I’m the means of securing that.

In their eyes, I’m little more than a part of the game that will ensure they achieve all that they want. The ambition of my widowed mother and her brothers disgusts me.

I am wed to the king for as the only heir of ealdorman Sigehelm, I claim more land in the ancient kingdom of Kent than even the king. And the king is a man desperate for ever more land, and even more control.”

And if you’ve not yet read The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter, the first book in my Tenth Century series, it is currently 99p/99c in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and the equivalent on the Amazon.DE, FR and IT sites.