Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Pre-Release Review! Rome:The Art of War by M.C. Scott

AD 69 - a pivotal year in the Roman Empire and forever known as "The Year of the Four Emperors".  The Empire is in danger of collapse and Vespasian, the legendary General, is in the province of Judea but fully aware of the fragile situation at home.  After receiving word from the infamous spy Pantera, that the encumbent Emperor, Vitellus, is weak and despised,  he grudgingly accepts the will of his closest advisors and declares himself "Imperator" - Emperor.

Pantera is sent back to Rome immediately and, in conjunction with those closest to Vespasian, a clandestine operation is set in motion that will undermine Vitellus feeble grip on the throne and elevate their chosen man to power and glory.

Spies, double agents, beautiful women with deadly talents and battle hardened soldiers, senators, slaves and freedmen all have their part to play.  Pantera uses every ounce of his knowledge and skills to secure an army and an empire for the man he serves, but there are others with less guile who are hunting him relentlessly.  He must survive on his wits and ensure the safety of Vespasian's family is never compromised.  This is his biggest challenge, will he win the day?


Manda Scott has written a superlative account of how Vespasian might have come to power and her knowledge of the period is clearly of the highest academic standard.  I enjoy fiction set in the Roman period, yet I have to say this book is one of the best I have read in the genre.  It is filled with colour, emotion and prose of the highest standard - it may be a weighty tome, but not a phrase or sentence is wasted.  The tense story line unfolds with a gentle, teasing pace that immerses you completely into Pantera's scheme, almost making you a part of it.

The unusual premise of having multiple persons telling the story provides a narrative that is filled with passion and fear.  Each character has an important part to play in Pantera's grand scheme and stands to lose everything they hold dear - including their life - should they fail.  You are privy to every emotion they have as they follow his instructions and carry out tasks that brings Vespasian closer to the Senate.

This epic novel is not released until 28th March, but it has been a privilege to read it and review it prior to launch. I award "Rome: The Art of War" 5 Crosses and bestow Manda Scott with The Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield for writing a book that is breathtaking in its content and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.

To celebrate the release of Rome: the Art of War, read my exclusive interview with Manda Scott!
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Roman Empress - An interview with Manda Scott

Manda Scott is the best selling author set in the Ancient Roman Empire.  Her latest novel "Rome: The Art of War" is released in the UK on 28th March.  I have had the pleasure of previewing the novel (my review can be read here) but Manda has also given me an exclusive interview in which she gives an insight into how the world of Pantera, the spymaster, was created.

Manda, welcome to Sir Read-A-Lot...... 
Q: The Art of War is billed as a Roman-era spy thriller.  What can you tell us about spies and spying in the ancient world? 

A: How long have you got? (!).   The first written reference we have comes from China, in the Art of War treatise by Sun Tzu from which I took the title, and the part titles.  Sun Tzu wrote his treatise on the Art of War in the late ‘Spring and Autumn period’ of Chinese imperial history (around 500BC), and he devoted part of the thirteenth book (of 13) to spies. 

Central to his argument (essentially he thought good intelligence made armies more effective and save lives) he created five categories of spies:
1)     Local Spies – basic informants
2)     Internal Spies or Moles
3)     Double Agents – agents of the enemy
4)     Doomed Spies (also, sacrificed spies)
5)     Surviving Spies – the heroic agents who risk their lives for information: most of our books revolve around these.
Nobody has ever said it better.  To put it in context, Rose Mary Sheldon, Professor of History at the Virginia Military Institute says, ‘Espionage is practiced occasionally by spies, and all the time by neighbours, relatives and colleagues.’  We all want information, it’s what we do with it that counts.
In the ancient world, the limiting factor was distance and the time it took to travel.  Walking was slow, riding was a bit faster.  Xerxes had set up a ‘Pony Express’ messenger service where a series of men waited at waystations and took messages on one from the other in a relay.  The Romans went one better and posted way stations with horses, but the same man rode from beginning to end, which meant that he could carry additional information on top of what was written down.  The very best of these could go 200 miles in one day – Tiberius is supposed to have done that when he went to the side of the dying Germanicus – but it wasn’t common.  The only fast method of sending information was carrier pigeon but even using codes, these could only transmit very basic information or orders. 

The second question is how to protect your information.  Modern codes and ciphers are fantastically complex; they have to be so because computers can break any but the most complicated codes and have done so ever since the pioneering work of the Colossus and Enigma machines at Bletchley Park.   

In the ancient world, codes and ciphers could be simpler.  Julius Caesar wrote an entire book on the subject which sadly doesn’t remain, but we know he used simple letter substitution ciphers (A-> B, B-> C etc. etc.) and he may well have used more complicated variants on that theme.  Other men used belts that could be wound around dowels of particular diameter and only then read linearly. One ruler went so far as to shave the head of a slave and have his message tattooed on his scalp, then let the slave’s hair grow back! I hope it wasn't urgent!

So we know that they used different ways to distribute information, and that they had codes and ciphers to keep that information secret.  We know also that they used divination and oracles, although I suspect that, like a lot of the disinformation around the Colossus ciphers and their breaking after WWII, the ‘entrails’ simply revealed to a commander what his agents had already told him.

The whole history of the Year of the Four Emperors, in which the Art of War is set, is redolent of secret deals done behind the scenes, and these must have been aided and abetted by agents of one side or the other – individuals who could gather secret information from the other side, and use it, spies who could disseminate false information, the double cross, the triple cross, and were fleet enough of mind and foot to take advantage on good luck when it came their way. 
Q: The first two novels of the ROME series saw Pantera, the spy who ‘came in from the cold’ to server Rome again as their central character.  Then in The Eagle of the Twelfth, we had a new man, Demalion of Macedon, as the main character, and it was told from his first person perspective.  Where do we go with Art of War?

A: We go back to Pantera being the central character – this is very much a spy novel again, where Eagle of the Twelfth was more my answer to Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ and needed to have a different angle.  Art of War is all about Pantera, setting him at the centre of the action in the second half of the Year of the Four Emperors, between July, when Vespasian’s troops hail him Imperator , to Saturnalia (17th – 21st December) , when they march into Rome. That said, this is a departure because none of it is told from Pantera’s viewpoint; it’s all first person reports from other people, told to Hypatia, to discover the ‘truth’ about what went on. So each of them is describing his or her interactions with Pantera, which keeps him central, but we can only infer what he’s thinking and feeling from the views of others –and obviously everyone has his or her own agenda, so they might not be entirely reliable. The idea that history is a collection of differing people’s ideas of what might and might not have happened is fascinating to me – it seems to me that fiction explores what we might call the ‘shadow gaps’ between each person’s different account.
Q: How did you go about the research for this and was there anything that stood out?
A:  I was lucky in that this Year is one of the few that everyone in Rome thought was important.  Other events may have happened on the margins – the Boudican Revolt, the Parthian war – but in AD69, the legions marched on Rome itself, so the men who wrote the histories – and they were all men – took it seriously.  So along with Tacitus and Suetonius, we have Plutarch, Josephus and Cassius Dio, plus coins minted by all four men who made themselves emperor, plus the occasional marble monument, or bronze plaque. So we have some idea of what people were really thinking, particularly since some of our sources say they were taking their data from eye witness accounts by men who actually fought in the field.  
So I read all of those, and then the various interpretations of them – because of course, they don’t all say the same thing, so there’s plenty of room for deciding one or other is being economical with the truth.  Then on top of that, I found some fascinating texts on life in first century Rome.  One was a reprinting of a contemporary – that is, Roman contemporary – book on the interpretation of dreams which was just utterly inspiring and another was ‘Invisible Romans’ by Robert Knapp which I would recommend to anyone who wants to know what the ordinary people, the slaves and freedwomen, the bakers, weavers, hairdressers, ironmongers, smiths… did and thought and said in this era.
What was really interesting, and what always, for me, brings a time alive, is trying to imagine exactly how things were done.  So for instance, there’s a line in Tacitus which says that when Vitellius got back to the palace in Rome after having defeated Otho (Otho killed himself to prevent further bloodshed and so rose almost to sainthood in Rome), he found a document signed by 120 men of the Praetorian Guard saying they’d helped in the murders of Galba and Piso in January of that year (Galba was the first of the four men on the throne in AD 69, having taken it after Nero’s death the previous June.  Piso was the unfortunate youth he named his heir).  Vitellius promptly sacked the entirety of the Praetorian Guard and installed new men – and then he ordered the new men to kill the 120 whose names were on that list. But these were Praetorian Guards.  They weren’t a pushover.  And they knew what was coming.  Working out how it must have been for the men on either side of that was fascinating – and it gave me three of the key characters in the book: Geminus and Juvens, the friends who draw a name each from the lottery, and Trabo, one of the two men they are sent to kill (the other is Pantera, but they have to take him alive).

The women were another fascinating angle.  We know that Vitellius’ mother was particularly sharp, and that she killed herself when his downfall seemed obvious.  We know also, of Caenis, whose story is worth a book in its own right.  She was the former slave girl, now freed, who had been secretary to Antonia the Younger, daughter of Mark Antony, and in her own right, a powerful woman.  Vespasian had fallen in love with her (Caenis) when he was newly a senator and, although he had been forced to marry elsewhere because it was illegal for senators to marry freedwomen, he came back to her when his wife died, and they lived as man and wife until her death in AD 74.  What little we know of her suggests she was an intelligent and highly competent woman and it was a pleasure to make her acquaintance in the book. 

And then there was Jocasta, who had an off-stage role in The Coming of the King and who became central to The Art of War.  Giving her space to be the SpyMaster she has become was immensely rewarding. These people always surprise me; which is 90% of the fun of writing (the other 10% is knowing I’m not still in veterinary medicine. I loved it, but I’d had enough and I have far more freedom as a writer.  If I am working a 70 hour week, it’s because I choose to, not because someone else has told me to.)
Q: Where next? Do we have more of Pantera? Or something different?
A: Something different, at least for now.   I’m heading to the 15th Century and Jeanne d’Arc.  As Sherlock Holmes said, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” So – there is no way on earth that a peasant’s daughter (or even a burgher’s daughter) from a village was able to pick up a lance, don full armour, get on a warhorse and ride it into battle.  None.  Add to that, the fact that a contemporary orthopaedic surgeon has found a set of bones contemporary to Louis XI (the son of the man that ‘Jeanne’ put on the throne) belonging to a woman who, in his estimation, ‘was trained to ride a warhorse in full armour from an early age’ and you have the beginnings of a far more plausible story – particularly if you look at it from the point of view of the present day, and the impact such a truth might have on contemporary French politics.  So this is a dual thread novel, with part set in the France of the woman who called herself Jeanne and part is in France of 2014, at the next set of elections. After a decade of writing in the first century, it’s magical and wonderful and glorious (and rather scary) to be writing in the fifteenth, but every single paper, or article, or book I read makes me more certain that the theory is right (it’s not my theory, so I can say that, it was put forward by the surgeon who examined the bones – just before he was thrown out of France!). So that will be next. I’m mid-way through it now.

Q: What else do you do when you’re not writing?
A: I spend half my life on Twitter and Facebook – these days being a writer is as much about building brand as it is about writing – but in between, I train myself and my working cocker for agility competition – not that there’s much of that around when we have this much snow – and I climb rocks, again, when the weather is good.  I’m thinking of trying out Cani-X, which is cross-country with a dog – that looks a lot of fun.  And I might get back into battle re-enactment; it’s a while since I picked up a sword!
Thank you Manda for a wonderful insight into your world of writing.  You can find Manda on Twitter @hare_wood & click here for her Facebook page (Manda Scott Author)

Friday, 22 March 2013

By Any Other Name - An Interview with Julie K. Rose

Julie K.Rose is the author of the semi-biographical novel "Oleanna", a book I recently reviewed and awarded it 4 Crosses (you can find my review here).

Taking time out from her amazingly busy life, she has been interrogated by my castle Inquisitor and been kind enough to provide an insight into how "Oleanna" was conceived and the sheer amount of commitment she has to employ in order to write.  I have to say, I was very impressed!  Anyone who thinks being is a writer should try and keep up with Julie's schedule for a few weeks and then re-consider!

Also, Julie has been kind enough to provide a copy of "Oleanna" as a giveaway prize!  All you need to do is to go to my "Giveaway Page" and leave a comment to enter. Ladies & Gentlemen......may I present Julie K. Rose.......

1 – How were you inspired to write about an ancestor?
I had been struggling with another book that just wasn't going anywhere, when an image came to me of a woman standing on a mountaintop, her long blond hair being whipped by the wind into her face: it was my great-grandfather's sister Oleanna.

Oleanna was inspired by the lives of John and his sisters Elisabeth and Oleanna. It's not a retelling of their lives, but an imagining of what their lives were like, left behind on the farm in rural, rugged western Norway. Three of my four grandparents were Norwegian, so stories about the country and its traditions were part of my life growing up, but I wanted to know more.

2 – What research materials were you left with?  Did you have family members to ask questions of or was it a case of piecing together anecdotal evidence?
Because the story is inspired by my ancestors, and not a re-creation, I really only needed the basics—when they were born, where they lived, when they immigrated. As you might imagine, I'm a bit of a genealogy geek, so I had a lot of that information to hand anyway. My mom and grandmother had told me some stories about the family, but by the time I started writing the book, they had both died, so I couldn't ask them questions, which in fact freed me to write the story the way it needed to be told, I think. In terms of Norwegian history, I'm lucky enough to have a number of art pieces inherited from Norway, including weavings made by Elisabeth and Oleanna, to which I was able to refer. I also visited Norway in 2004 so I got a good sense of the landscape, and of course I did a great deal of research (both old school in the library and online).

3 – Can you tell me about your life as a writer?  How long have you been writing? 
I've been writing for about 11 years now; I started in my early 30s. Because I have a pretty demanding full-time job, I have to consciously carve out time to write (and promote) my books. I generally get up at 4:30 a.m. and drink my coffee, do email and some promotional activities while I'm waking up, and by 5:30 I'm writing. By 7:00 I'm off to work out and start my work day, so I have to be really focused during my writing time; I'm not always successful! I'll spend time on the weekend as well, when I have more time and brain space to dedicate to it. The early mornings are worth it, however; writing fiction feels like coming home. Now if I could only find someone to pay me to read and write full time…

4 – Do you have any favourite authors?  What are your favourite books?
I like and admire so many authors, we could be here all day listing them. I'd say, though, that my favorites are Patrick O'Brian and JRR Tolkien—the Aubrey/Maturin series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are my favorite books. For sentimental reasons, I'd say M.M. Kaye's Trade Winds is a favorite, because it was one of the books that got me really hooked on historical fiction, especially fiction set in unusual locations (in this case, Zanzibar)—and because she was so kind when she replied to my fan letter when I was a teenager.

5 – What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I know it's an old saw, but you have to write what interests you, and write from your heart. Publishing is truly such a crap shoot that your book may never see the light of day, or if it does, it may not find any readers. The process of writing has to mean something to you, and the content must be compelling—especially because you have to live with it for so long (from idea to drafting to editing to publishing to promotion, it can be many, many years).

6 – Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I do! I'm working on a manuscript called DIDO'S CROWN, set in Tunisia, France, and England, primarily in 1935. It's a kind of literary historic thriller, and a bit of a love letter to Indiana Jones (some of my favorite movies growing up). I'm also working on a novel set in California at the turn of the century, but that one's quite embryonic, so I don't think I'll say more than that! I'm also still working on the next draft of the screenplay adaptation of my first novel, The Pilgrim Glass.

7 – Fun Question......which event in history would you most like to be a fly on the wall?
Wow, this is really, really tough. I wish I could get in the TARDIS and travel with the Doctor to any point in time, any time I'd like. If I had to choose, though…I guess it might be the moment someone decided writing something down would be a great way to remember and communicate. Or perhaps the moment that the first printing press actually worked, and the piece of paper, still ink-wet, was lifted and admired in hushed awe (or maybe with raucous whoops?).

8 - Fun Question – Which three historical people would you invite for dinner?
I love this question; my answer changes every few months, so right now I would say John Muir, Thomas Jefferson, and Hildegard von Bingen. I admire them all so much in different ways, and they're all complicated in their own ways. Having lived in California for almost 30 years, Muir is one of my heroes, the patron saint of nature and wild places. I went to grad school at the university Jefferson established in 1819 (University of Virginia), so it's kind of a requirement to choose him. J Seriously though, I've always admired the scope of his interests and curiosity. And Hildegard has always been fascinating to me, both her spirituality and her strength. I would love to sit back and watch them interact with each other.

Thank you so much for such great questions!

Don't forget to visit my Giveaway Page and enter my competition to win your very own copy of "Oleanna"!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The fate of Tudor Nuns - a Guest Post by Nancy Bilyeau

It is with great pleasure I present the keys to my Castle, once again, to Nancy Bilyeau.  In her recently published second novel, "The Chalice" (which I've reviewed here), ex-nun Joanna Stafford attempts to find her place in the world after the dissolution of Dartford Priory.  But what was it like for the nuns of Tudor England in the face of such adversity?  Nancy pulls back the curtain of time and take us back 500 years to a time when the Catholic faith was in real danger of being decimated and when followers of the faith were in fear for their lives.

Nancy also provides an exclusive excerpt from "The Chalice" for you to read!  Over to you, Nancy!


In my recently published second novel, The Chalice, I continue to write about the life of a young Dominican novice in the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. My first book, The Crown, was set, in part, in the Dartford priory that was the only house for Dominican sisters in England. The Chalice takes up the story after the priory has been “surrendered” to Henry VIII, who ordered it demolished and a royal manor house built atop the rubble.

What happens to a woman who entered a religious life because of a calling but is forced from her sheltered home because of a fast-moving Reformation imposed from above? This question is hard to answer from the historical record.  Roughly 1,800 nuns, 1,600 friars and 5,000 monks were expelled from their religious orders in the 1530s. Henry VIII had launched commissioners to investigate the monasteries for corruption and decay. Not surprisingly, all were found wanting. “Reform” was not the point—extinction was.  Those who protested or refused to submit to the royal will were severely punished, with imprisonment or execution.

More than 1 million pounds was transferred to the royal treasury in the Dissolution. The king vowed that this wealth would be used to found or enhance religious, charitable and education establishments. Historians now say that no more than 15 percent of the secured wealth was used for these purposes. Some of the money was poured into the king’s building plans, such as the Palace of Nonsuch. Much of the rest paid for Henry VIII’s invasion of France in 1544.

The abbeys themselves were either demolished and stripped of their value down to the lead or awarded to courtiers loyal to the king. Many of the nuns, friars, and monks were given fixed small pensions, but they proved inadequate to the inflation and coinage debasement that ravaged England in the 1540s and 1550s. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote to Charles V: “It is a lamentable thing to see a legion of monks and nuns, who have been chased from their monasteries, wandering miserably hither and thither, seeking means to live.”

In The Chalice, I base my depiction of life after the destruction of Dartford Priory on historical research. A group of former nuns did live together in community near their former priory. Others sought shelter from the families they’d parted from years ago. And perhaps others, as with my Joanna Stafford, struggled to maintain some independence.

Here is an excerpt from The Chalice that addresses life after the Dissolution:

 When I stepped out the door, I plunged into the heart of town. I lived on the High Street, in one of the two-story timber-framed buildings that faced the church.
From behind our priory walls, Dartford had seemed a good neighbor—a friendly, well-ordered place. Three hours on horseback from London, the town was known for its safe travelers’ inns, its proud shops, and, of course, its five-hundred-year-old church. There was another Dartford, though. One that was not so well ordered. The shambles was closer to the church than usually thought desirable in a town this size. The stench of it, the butchered animals and dead fish, were a constant unpleasantness. I wondered why the town fathers did not have such a malodorous site moved.
The shambles was a reminder that beneath the pleasing surface of Dartford lurked ugliness. It was a reminder that I too often ignored.
That very morning, heedless, I leaped across the puddles in the street to reach the pride of the town: Holy Trinity Church. Its square Norman tower, with five-foot-thick walls, could be seen for miles.
I’d made it across the street when I heard my friends’ voices behind me.
“Sister Joanna, a good morning to you.”
Brother Edmund and Sister Winifred bore such a strong resemblance to each other: slender, with ash-blond hair and large brown eyes. As I waited for them to reach me in the doorway, I scrutinized Brother Edmund’s sensitive features, more out of habit than necessity. For years he had struggled with a secret dependence on a certain tincture, made from an exotic red flower of India. At the priory he’d confessed it to me and vowed never to weaken again. Ever since, I’d studied his eyes for the telltale sign of the potion: a preternatural calm, a blank drowsiness. When the priory was dissolved, Brother Edmund continued his work as an apothecary and healer. The priory had had two infirmaries, one inside its walls and the other, for the benefit of the town, outside it. Brother Edmund kept the town’s open, supplying it himself, and practiced his skills on any who desired it. I worried that his proximity to the tinctures of his trade would weaken his resolve. But today, as every day for almost a year, his eyes were clear.
When they reached me, I realized it was Sister Winifred who deserved my concern more than her older brother. Her skin was ashen; her cheekbones stood out in her face. I knew the marshy air of Dartford wreaked havoc on her, especially after a sopping night.
“Are you well, Sister?” I asked as the three of us entered the church.
“Oh, yes,” she said quickly.
Our footsteps echoed as we walked across the church, which was alive with light. Brilliant candles flickered everywhere: at the grand high altar, at the chapel of Saint Thomas Becket, and on the floor clustered around the brass memorials, honoring the dead gentry of Dartford.
Wewere the only people visible on the floor of the church. Yet we were not alone. A hundred feet up, high above the vestry, through three vertical slits, a candle gleamed. And a malevolent dark form moved between those carved slits.
Father William Mote, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church, was watching us from his private room.
Brother Edmund glanced up; he, too, took note of the priest’s surveillance. He put his arm around Sister Winifred, patting her on the shoulder as he guided her to our destination at the southeastern corner of the church: the altar of Saint Mary the Virgin.
I do not know exactly how it happened, that we, the refugees of Dartford Priory, were shunted off this way. No one ever said we were unwelcome at Holy Trinity. It was all done as if it was for our benefit: “Your Dominican Order reveres the Virgin—wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a chapel devoted to Her?” And we would hear Mass exclusively from doddering Father Anthony rather than Father William,. The final insult was the timing: to prevent any “confusion,” we attended separate Mass.
I made a tally of all the good that our priory had done for generations—not just as landlord and employer but also as sponsor of the almshouse and the infirmary. And what of our role as teachers? The priory was the only place where girls of good local families could learn reading and writing. Nothing took its place. And yet now we were treated like inferior animals to be culled from the herd. I dipped my fingers in the stoup of holy water at the side of the chapel entrance. But before I followed Sister Winifred inside, I whirled around to glare at Father William’s high spying place. You should be ashamed, I thought.
Brother Edmund shook his head. Just as I stood watch over him for signs of his weakness, he did his best to help me master mine—my temper.
I took my place before the statue of the serene Virgin. It was of some comfort that we took Mass in such a chapel. A colorful wall mural of Saint George slaying the dragon dominated the room.
There was a stirring behind me. The others were arriving, the six nuns of Dartford who still lived in community. They were the vestiges of the priory, attempting to live out the ideals of our order. When King Henry and Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell dissolved the priory, most of the sisters returned to their families. Our prioress departed for the home of a brother, and none of us heard from her again. But Sister Rachel, one of the senior nuns, had years earlier been bequeathed a large house a mile from the center of town, and five others joined her there, pooling their pensions. Arthur’s rambunctiousness made my joining the sisters in their community impossible, and so I, like Brother Edmund and Sister Winifred, leased lodgings from Holy Trinity Church.
Morning Mass was when we could all be together again. At the priory, we had chanted the Psalms at least four hours a day—the liturgy was the core of our commitment to God. To be reduced to a single observance was difficult, but without daily Mass we’d be plunged into confusion.
Sister Eleanor strode forward, water dripping from her clothes. Yes, the hem of her kirtle was drenched from the mile’s walk in the rain, but she’d never complain. She’d been appointed circatrixof Dartford by the prioress—the enforcer of rules. From what I could tell, she considered herself the leader now, though Sister Rachel—ten years older and the actual owner of the house—also had firm ideas of how they should conduct themselves.
We all stood in the same exact place every day, re-creating the hierarchy of our lost world. Sister Winifred and I, the two ex-novices of Dartford, were in front. The tense Sister Eleanor stood behind us. Next were the two nuns who also held office while at Dartford: Sister Rachel, the reliquarian, and Sister Agatha, the novice mistress. Then came the final three. Brother Edmund stood across the aisle, alone, continuing the strict division of man and woman.
I struggled to hide my impatience as we waited for our assigned priest. The only sounds were the sizzle of an altar candle or one of Sister Agatha’s loud sighs. I turned around; her eyes met mine with a little nod. Of all the sisters, I missed her the most, my warm-natured, gossipy novice mistress.
Finally we heard the shuffling feet of Father Anthony.
“Salve,” he said in his creaky voice.
A moment after he’d begun Mass, I looked over at Brother Edmund. This was not correct. My friend, who was as proficient in Latin as I, cleared his throat.
“Father, forgive me, but it is not the beginning of Lent.”
The priest blinked rapidly, his mouth working. “What day is it?”
“It is the second of October, Father.”
“What year?”
Brother Edmund said gently, “The Year of Our Lord fifteen hundred and thirty-eight.”
Father Anthony thought a moment and then launched into an appropriate Mass.
How far we had fallen. I ached to remember: Sitting in my novice stall, singing and chanting, the lavender incense so heady it made me swoon. Or plucking cherries from a tree in our orchard.Or leafing through the precious books of the library. This morning, I could feel the same longing from the others, pulsing in the very air. Yet what was to be done? The monastic life was extinguished in England.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Review: Oleanna by Julie K. Rose

Set in Norway, at the beginning of the 20th century, Oleanna is a woman who desires more than she has.  She lives on a farm, in the hills, near a lake and has seen her brother emigrate to America in search of a better life and now her remaining brother is set to follow him.

The other member of the family is her sister, Elisabeth who holds a great deal of resentment for her siblings desire and ability to leave their home and coupled with the backdrop of a family tragedy, it appears their lives - as women - will be forever empty and unfulfilled.

The arrival of Anders, a cottar, begins to provide Oleanna with optimism however another shattering tragedy threatens to tear the family apart once more and deny her any chance of a happy future.


The first few pages of this novel demonstrate how a skilled writer can not only paint a picture with words, but elicit the other senses too.  As Julie Rose begins to describe the setting of "Oleanna", you can smell the pine fresh air, taste the clear mountain air and the heady home-brewed akvitt.  I found myself sat next to Oleanna herself, looking out across the lake and marveling at the beauty of the Norwegian landscape.

I have to say, though, that I found the pace a little slow but I think that is an issue for me to come to terms with rather than it being any fault of the author.  I think "Oleanna" would appeal to a female reader more than a male, but the emotional theme of the story and the total frustration felt by the main protagonist is acutely obvious whatever your gender.  

Julie Rose is a talented writer who deserves a wider audience.  Oleanna is based in part on a distant relative and her character is crafted with care and intelligence.  There is a great deal of deep thinking and emotional turmoil weaved through the main plot and the story will stay with with you long after you have finished the book.  I would urge my male followers to read "Oleanna", even if they would initially dismiss it as a novel aimed at the female market, because the writing is exceptional and proves that independent writers are equally as good, if not better, than those in mainstream publishing.

I give "Oleanna" 4 crosses!!

Read my exclusive interview with Julie Rose here

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