Monday, 31 December 2012

Book of the Year 2012

Each of the books awarded the Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield in the last calender year are automatically short-listed for my "Book of the Year" Award.

I have been impressed and entranced by each of the six books on this years shortlist.  Originality, beautifully crafted words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters, imaginatively created plots, brave themes and exciting tales of hard-fought battles have kept me up late at night as I repeated the age-old readers mantra "Just one more chapter, just one more chapter".

Selecting one book to sit at the top table with me, has been a difficult choice to make.  Each one is superb, each one worthy of being crowned the best of the bunch - however, as Christopher Lambert says in Highlander, "There can be only one."

The Sir Read-A-Lot Book of the Year for 2012 is...........

The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann

What set this book apart for me, was the painstaking amalgamation of true fact with fiction coupled with a truly inspired production by Two Roads Publishing.  Karen Engelmann has written a bold story with deeply flawed characters who find themselves having to act unselfishly in order to keep the world they inhabit from crumbling around them.  Her publishers have taken inspiration from a time when books were not just a commodity, but something to be held and treasured.  From the blue and silver gilt filigree on the cover, to the heavy, vellum like pages this whole package screams quality at you from the moment it catches your eye.  It is truly breathtaking.  Congratulations, Karen!

May I take this opportunity to thank everyone for your support and wish you all a happy, healthy, prosperous New Year.

Monday, 24 December 2012

A Christmas Message

This year has been one of the most fulfilling I have ever had.  I started this blog in May 2012 with no real expectations, apart from wanting to share my love of historical fiction with the world.

I honestly thought my reviews would get lost in the ether, as there are many hundreds of book bloggers and reviewers all vying for their own little corner of cyberspace, but with nearly 12,000 unique page views in 7 months and very big TBR pile, it seems I am here to stay!

Talented, independent authors have sat side by side with those you see represented by major publishers and every book I have published a review on has been, in one way or another, a joy to read.

But without you , those of you that read my posts, who enter my giveaways and share my blog links via social media, I would be a lone voice in a cacophony of shouts.  So this post is for you - to the readers who take time to read my opinions, to my fellow bloggers who help me by promoting my reviews, to the authors who trust me to pass a verdict on their labours and provide free copies of their books to offer as prizes and to those behind the scenes who have given me support, guidance, encouragement and (on occasions) a kick up the backside.

Thank you everyone, from the bottom of my heart.  Merry Christmas & may 2013 bring you everything you hope and dream of.

Fondest Regards,


Saturday, 22 December 2012

Christmas Giveaway Winner

The winner of my Bumper Christmas Giveaway is (drum roll........)

Deborah Swift

Thank you to everyone who entered and shared the news of my competition.  I'd also like to thank the authors of the six books who donated a copy and enabled me to run this superb giveaway.  Congratulations once again to Deborah!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Review - The Half Hanged Man by David Pilling

Publisher:                     Self/Independent
Year:                           2012
Price in sterling:            £6.42 (Pb) / £3.09 (E-book)
Paberback & E-Book
327 pages
ISBN:                          1480281956

Jean Froissard, a famous French chronicler, has been attacked by some men in a dark alley.  He seeks a dingy tavern in which to compose himself.  Most of his money, his clothes, boots and other valuable items have been stolen, but he has to his relief, been left with his quills and parchment.  It is 1395 and he has come to England to discover tales about bravery and chivalry in order to complete his life’s work.

A rugged looking man approaches the table at which Froissard has taken, and asks to sit down.  The fierce looking man is obviously down on his luck, but Froissard agrees once the stranger discloses he recognises the Frenchman and that he has a tale to tell. As the stranger reveals his identity, Froissard quickly dismisses the man’s claim that he is the notorious soldier of fortune, Sir Thomas Page; known as The Wolf of Burgundy to many, but infamously known to all as The Half Hanged Man. Page is a mercenary, part of the Free Companies who waged war in Western France during what was to become known as The Hundred Years War.

Froissard challenges the stranger to recant his tale, promising him wealth and further notoriety should he be telling the truth.  And so, with no further inducement required, The Half Hanged Man recants his brutal, violent and tragic story.


Balancing a tale steeped in violence whilst making your central character have a semblance of humanity is a difficult task.  The life of Sir Thomas Page was violent from the moment he was born, yet David Pilling manages to give this sociopathic character a sense of redemption.  He makes no excuse for the life he chose to lead, it was fight or die.  As he grew, trained and fought Page realised the role of a soldier was something he could do well.  Just as a Smith turns a lump of iron and steel into a balanced, ornate instrument of death, Page develops from a lowly sentry into a fearsome battle-hardened warrior.  

David Pilling’s historical research is impeccable and the style of writing harks back to the late 19th Century when characters like Flashman and Quartermain were all the rage.  This book will thoroughly entertain you and have you smiling, laughing, shaking your head with disbelief and willing the Half Hanged Man to get through his escapades in order to jump back into another.  I absolutely devoured this book in two nights, not wanting to put it down. I  am awarding The Half Hanged Man, not only 5 Crosses! The Half Hanged Man is bestowed with THE GOLDEN HAMMER & ANVIL SHIELD AWARD because David Pilling has written a book that grips you from beginning to end.

X X X X X 

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Highest Honour - Peer Acknowledgment

I try not to write personal posts on this blog but something happened today that I wanted to share with you all.

Today I received an email from one of the authors whose book I awarded the Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield.  I will not give the name of the person concerned, but they told me that they had just bought the other four books listed on the Roll of Honour because of the reviews I had written.

That email made me realise, once again, why I started my blog and why by promoting books of the highest standard, whether they be from mainstream or independent publishers, is so important.  Each of the books on the GHA Roll of Honour is beautifully written, unique in its approach, crafted with care and as you read it you can feel the passion and hours and days and weeks of painstaking effort it took to complete. They are so exquisite that when you have read the last sentence, you feel sad it has ended.  But it hasn't really ended because the story stays with you.  You see the spine on your bookshelf and are instantly reminded of the characters and their triumphs and disasters which are indelibly printed on the pages you turned with anticipation.

This email did make me happy - but not for myself.  It made me happy for the other four authors whose books rank alongside the one written by my correspondent.  They have been shown the greatest accolade, the best endorsement.  Someone purchased their books after I had been given the great honour of reading them and they were so good I had to share them with the world; that is the best award of all.

You can find the books I have chosen to receive The Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield here.

Win all GHA Shield winners in my Christmas Giveaway here.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Crowning Glory - An Interview with Nancy Bliyeau

*This interview was published in July 2012, as part of my review of Nancy's debut novel The Crown, which can be read here.

On July 5th, The Annual Crime Writer's Awards are announced and Nancy Bilyeau's debut novel, "The Crown" has been nominated for the prestigious Ellis Peters Award.  Sir Read-A-Lot caught up with her during a quiet moment and she very kindly agreed to be taken to my very own "Tower" to be interrogated!

You have had an eclectic career as writer, from Rolling Stone magazine to Tudor England is quite a jump.  Have you always wanted to write historical fiction?  

I inhaled historical fiction ever since was a teenager but never thought I would write it myself, to be honest. I worked on my college newspaper and got my first job as an editor after graduating. I needed to support myself, so I worked steadily in journalism for about 20 years. But when I had children, that seems to have triggered some longing I had to write fiction. So even though I had NO time to write a novel, I became obsessed with doing it anyway. That’s why it took me five years to research and write The Crown. Even though the research was hard, and I had to take a lot of classes and join a few workshops to get the writing right, I still felt pretty comfortable with my choice to write a historical story because I’d been reading these novels my whole life. That’s why when aspiring novelists want to jump around in genres in hopes of finding something marketable, I advise them: Write a story you would sincerely want to read yourself, because your genuine interest and passion for it will fuel you through the difficult stretches.

Tell us about your debut novel, “The Crown”?

It’s the story of a Dominican novice, Joanna Stafford, in a priory in Dartford who learns that her cousin, her closest friend from childhood, has been found guilty of treason in the rebellion against the king and must burn at the stake of Smithfield. Joanna decides to break the rules of enclosure and stand by her cousin’s side. That decision puts her on a very dangerous path and she comes into the grip of some of the most powerful men of the kingdom. They force her to help them in a conspiracy to find a mystical object that Bishop Stephen Gardiner believes could halt the Protestant Reformation.

Your research is truly spectacular and you draw the reader into Joanna Stafford’s emotional torment right from the off, how easy was it for you weave fiction around the historical facts?

I love creating my own characters and weaving suspenseful plots and coming up with twists and reversals. But I also love reading about people who lived in the 16th century and finding those little-known facts that shed new light on their character. So it was a pleasure to pull “real” people into my fictional story.

How did you research the novel?  Had you visited any of the places that you have included in the story? 

I read a great many biographies and nonfiction studies of events in the 16th century and books about monastic life. I read the letters and papers from the reign of Henry VIII. I read about the reign of King Athelstan.  I have been to Dartford and walked the perimeter of the ruins of the real priory. And I’ve been to the Tower of London and Smithfield.

Being nominated for the CWA Eliis Peters Award is testament to the work you put in to writing “The Crown”, how did you feel when you found out you had been nominated?

I know it’s a cliché but I could not believe it. I just kept staring at the computer screen, at the email from my editor at Orion Books. Then I was ecstatic, not least because I am a tremendous fan of Ellis Peters. This is the first time I’ve been nominated for any fiction I’ve written.

I understand the continuing story of Joanna Stafford is being told in your next story.  What can you tell us about it?

In The Chalice, Joanna is a nun without a nunnery and she’s a nonviolent person in a very violent time. She gets caught up in a new conspiracy, this one is international and more dangerous and high-stakes than the mission of The Crown. It’s a darker book, with the main characters of The Crown going forward and a lot of new ones too. And in The Chalice Joanna Stafford does come face to face with Thomas Cromwell!

Fun Question – which three characters, real or fictional, would you have as dinner guests?

Elizabeth I, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Fun Question – if you could be a fly on the wall at a specific event in history, which one would you choose?

I have to admit to being obsessed with the mystery of the death of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley. I would like to be hiding in the shadows of her house that day and see if she fell down the staircase all by herself!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Giveaway Winner & Coming Up......

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

The winner of my recent giveaway to win a copy of "Spartacus The Gladiator" by Ben Kane is:

Ross Anderson

Congratulations Ross, I have sent your details to Ben who will be forwarding your prize in the near future.

Christmas Giveaway

Coming later this week will be the biggest and best giveaway I think any reviewer/blogger is offering this year.  Keep your email boxes/alerts on because once it is launched you will not want to miss out!

Also I have another superb review coming - phew! It's all go in my Court of Historical Fiction!  Have a great week.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Review - Mistress of the Sea by Jenny Barden

Publisher:          Ebury Press
Date:                2012
Price:                £9.59 hb
Pages:              416
ISBN:              9780091949211

Plymouth, England - 1570.

Will Doolan is a caulker and adventurer who has travelled to the Americas with the infamous Sir Francis Drake.  There they raid and pillage the Spanish galleons that transport gold and silver back to Spain.  But Will is deeply troubled and rents an attic room from a merchant, Nicholas Cooksley, from where he plot his return to the lands where he lost his honour.  But Will has fallen for the beautiful Lady Ellyn, Mr Cooksley's daughter and so his conscience is troubled even further as he knows if he goes with Drake then his chance of winning Ellyn's hand will disappear.

Will convinces Cooksley to part-subsidise Drake's adventure, but shockingly the gout-riddled, wheezing merchant insists on making the voyage with them.  Ellyn is horrified when she learns of her father's intentions, and when Will dares to show her his true feelings, she is desperate not to lose the two most important men in her life.  Ellyn makes a rash decision that endangers everything she holds dear and threatens the life of not only those she loves, but the fleet of ships and even the famous adventurer himself.


Mistress of the Sea is a real, old fashioned swash-buckler of a novel that will appeal to all readers.  Its is a story that harks back to the very start of the Golden Age of Discovery and the author has weaved a marvellous work of fiction around a very well-known historical figure and his “antics”.

Sir Francis Drake was both hero and villain to England and Jenny Barden creates characters that explore the most pertinent questions about his intentions as well as crafting a story that is strong and set apart from Drake’s own.  It is, essentially, a love story.  But not only about the love between hero & heroine but the love of family, the love of humanity and, ultimately, the realisation and acceptance of the price each of us must pay to find happiness.

This is a rip-roaring story where heroes are crafted in the spirit of Errol Flynn & the heroine could be Olivia de Haviland.  Jenny Barden writes scenes that you picture in your mind just like the films of yore where dashing heroes fight with dark, brooding enemies in order to win the heart of the maiden in distress.  All in all this is a very good debut novel by an author who has a talent for creating exciting, vibrant stories.
I give MISTRESS OF THE SEA 5 Crosses!

(EDITED 02/12/2012:  Originally I gave Mistress of the sea 4 crosses, but on reflection felt the quality of the writing, the imaginative storyline and the overall standard of the book deserved a higher mark. )