Friday, 21 September 2012

Review - An Honourable Estate by Elizabeth Ashworth

Publisher:            Self
Year:                    2012
Price :                  £5.82 PB / £1.96 Kindle (Amazon UK)
337 Pages
ISBN:                   9781477546055

England, 1315.
The farmers and villeins of Northern England are starving to death.  After a year of bad weather, a bitterly cold winter and a soaking wet summer has decimated crops leaving them destitute.  Lord William & Lady Mabel  Bradshaigh are sympathetic to the dire position their tenants are in and do all they can to ease their plight.  Bradshaigh’s overlord, The Earl of Lancaster,  is not so kind and demands his full levy of tax and tribute each quarter, regardless of the suffering it causes.  William is persuaded to join forces with some of his fellow lords to overthrow Lancaster but the insurrection is short-lived and William is forced to go into hiding.

His lands are forfeited for a year and a day and Mabel is forced to endure the brutal Sir Peter Lymesey, a favoured knight of the Earl.  His uncouth personality is barely tolerable, but when he viciously attacks his young,  half-starved squire for stealing an unwanted chunk of bread Mabel makes a stand. 
As the year progresses, Mabel is made to believe her husband is dead and encouraged to marry the Sherriff appointed to oversee her estate, Sir Edmund Neville .  Her position is dire, her grief all consuming and the responsibility to protect her staff and tenants is a heavy cross to bear.  She must draw on all her strength to survive and secure her daughter’s future.


Elizabeth Ashworth certainly knows her history.  A proud Lancastrian, she has written some non-fiction history books focusing on her native County and this novel is extensively and impressively researched.  The legend of Mab’s Cross is the inspiration for this tale and she weaves a plausible story around the skeleton of facts.  The result is a story full of political intrigue and moral questions where, on occasions, there is no right answer - merely a choice that is less wrong than the unthinkable alternative.

The author has created a beautiful story where you are drawn into the desolate world of Lady Mabel.  Her husband can be likened to Robin Hood, driven away from his home and family after standing up to a bullying villain but the focus is on how Mabel copes with the turmoil of her life and how the people around her pull at her emotions, causing her to doubt herself.  Elizabeth Ashworth gives her characters life; there is real emotion in her words that build a connection with the past and you can clearly imagine the futile existence of the peasants. 

An Honourable Estate is the story of one woman’s convictions and her desire to live by her morals, to read about such a determined woman in a very immoral, unjust world is compelling. 

Sir Read-A-Lot gives "An Honourable Estate" 4 Crosses!


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Views From The West Side - An Interview with Darlene Williams

 Darlene Williams is a historical fiction blogger and writer from Canada's West Coast.  Her passion for the genre is undeniable and recently she finished in 1st Place in an online vote by Underground Book Blogs in their 2012 "Battle of the Book Review Blogs".  She is a passionate advocate of independently published novels and is challenging readers perceptions by showcasing indie writers who are serious about their craft.  Welcome to my Court of Historical Fiction, Darlene!

Firstly, Stuart, I want to thank you for inviting me to be a guest on your blog.  I’m doubly excited to be here.  One, because this is my first interview ever!  Second, because I highly respect you and your opinions.  During the development of our virtual friendship I have come to rely on your advice when I am in need and realized we have much in common when it comes to assessment of historical fiction.  (Awww stop it, you are making me blush!) I so look forward to our cup of tea when I travel to England, my dream trip.

1.       How did you discover historical fiction and what makes it so fascinating for you?

My mother used to come home from the library loaded with books when I was a child.  She chose my books, which in the beginning were Nancy Drew mysteries and the like.
Then, one day, she brought home “Little Women”.  A departure from the usual, I wasn’t too sure about it.  That is, until I began reading.  The March girls became alive and I grew attached to them as if I knew them personally.  I loved reading about how they lived; the typical lifestyle details of a world so different from mine intrigued me.

When my beloved Beth passed away, I cried.  I didn’t cry just once, I reread the scene numerous times and fresh tears flowed anew each time.  It was the first time I read a novel in which one of the characters died.  It so touched my heart I spent the better part of Grade 4 insisting I be known as Beth, a derivative of my middle name.

After Little Women, I didn’t read a contemporary novel for many years.  In fact, as an adult, I have probably read less than a dozen contemporary novels.  Historical fiction is complete escapism into worlds I will never experience, except through the pages of a novel.  Whatever my troubles, I know I will be soothed by slipping into another era, where the angst of today does not exist.
What is especially intriguing is how authors treat an event in history.  For example, Anne Boleyn.  I have read many, many Tudor novels and each author has imbued Anne with unique qualities and character flaws.  Will we ever know the true nature of Anne?  Not likely, but it is interesting how each author has their own take on her.  Some have portrayed her as a selfish, grasping woman, while others have painted her as an innocent victim of Henry’s every-changing lusts.  I, too, have my opinion, which has not been written (or at least read by me).  However, we are inundated with Anne Boleyn novels so it will remain in my mind.

2.       Your blog is a favourite of mine and you provide a great platform for anyone who is interested in discovering historical fiction.  What made you decide to begin publishing reviews on the Web?

Thank so much for the compliment, Stuart.  I have been striving in the last months to make my reviews more than just my appraisal of a historical fiction novel.  A historical fiction novel often prompts me to research the subject matter, to further understand the events of the novel, educate myself about the political lay of the land and to judge whether the author was presenting a novel based on commonly accepted historical facts or deviating with an alternative version.  I have been including some of my research in my reviews so readers have a fuller understanding of the novel as well.

I was a legal assistant for 20 years and attending school at night to become a claims adjuster.  Unfortunately, health issues forced me to retire from both my job and educational endeavours.  I was only 40. It was a devastating blow.  I could either pull the covers over my head and give up or build myself a new life.  I chose the latter.  I took a creative writing course and earned a diploma.  For a number of years I wrote flash and short fiction.  I was fortunate enough to have some of my work published.  I also facilitated a writers’ group.

Eventually, I decided to open up shop as a professional freelance writer.  I built up a clientele, focussed on niches to become an “expert” and wrote mostly web content in the education, legal and medical fields.  I also ghost wrote two books about cats (which I am not fond of) and dogs (which I own and adore).  However, health issues once again shut that career door.  I had been writing in one fashion or another for a solid 7 years.  I have two great passions in my life:  writing and singing.  I cannot exist without either and have quality of life.  So, I began writing historical fiction reviews.  I felt qualified by my almost 40 years (dating myself!) reading historical fiction and my knowledge base of history, especially British.

I am not a fan of “bodice-rippers” or fluff.  I want my historical fiction to be intelligent, thought-provoking and an intricate relating of a historical event.  The author’s in-depth research must be evident.  When I’m excited about a historical fiction novel, I share with my mother, who also reads historical fiction.  So, why not share with everyone?  Thus began Darlene Williams HF Reviews.

3.       What boxes does a HF novel have to tick in order to be worthy of a review on your blog?

 What I expect from an excellent historical fiction novel is:
·         Intelligent, tight writing.
·         Excellent pacing from the beginning to the end, without sags in the middle (a common problem) or elsewhere.
·         Please illuminate me without educating me through long explanatory passages.  Teach me through the characters’ words and actions.
·         Fleshed-out characters who feel so real a person can fall in love with them, want to be friends, mourn them or despise them.   I need to feel they fully exist in their world.
·         Appropriate euphemisms of the day.
·         A plausible premise if you’re presenting an alternative to commonly accepted historical facts.
·         Life doesn’t always have a happy ending.  Historical fiction novels don’t always need a happy ending.  Tie up all the loose strands, but don’t feel they have to be bound up in a bow.  Sometimes, life ends in knots.  Stay true to your story, whether it culminates in a bow or knot.

I am a self-admitted tough reviewer.  I have high expectations but, when a novel merits praise, I will wax poetic.  Although I rarely award 5 stars (I think I’ve only awarded 3 this year), which means a novel is outstanding or exceptional beyond compare, I frequently award 4 stars, which, in my books, is an excellent novel well worth the read.

4.       You are also an author; can you tell me about your current work in progress?

I have several projects on the go right now.  My feature novel is Princess Charlotte Augusta, the granddaughter of “mad” King George III and daughter of King George IV (also known as the Prince Regent or Prinny).  I chose Charlotte as she has been largely ignored by historical authors and, although, her life was short, it was so full of promise.

Before, Charlotte is written, I have plans for either 1 or 2 short novellas about her parents.  I have not yet decided whether to incorporate the two or give each their own viewpoint.  It might be interesting to have both viewpoints in one novella, seeing as they never saw eye-to-eye on anything during their marriage.  Once I have completed more research, I will decide.

My final project is actually non-fiction.  I have started a guidebook for the novice freelance copywriter.  It’s a steep learning curve and there are many pitfalls.  I hope to help reduce the immense amount of time spent in locating credible income sources and avoid falling prey to disreputable employers.  The research was conducted via personal experience!

5.       What advice would you give to someone who wishes to write a HF novel?

You’ve probably heard it before, but I’m going to say it again.  Read, read, read.  Extensive reading in the genre is necessary to understand what it takes to write a good historical fiction novel.  Consume everything your favourite authors write.  That said, you must find your own voice.  There is only one Margaret George, Sharon Kay Penman, Edward Rutherford.  The objective is not to intimate.  Aspire to write at the same level.  Set the bar high and endeavour to clear it.  This might not happen on the first attempt.  Keep at it until you achieve your goal.

A writer is much the same as an athlete in training; you don’t run a marathon on the first day.  You train for a solid year before you attempt your marathon.  Get your feet wet.  Write a few novellas.  Learn from them before you write a full-length novel.  Novellas are great training tools with the bonus of hopefully gaining readership prior to release of your novel.

Research your era in-depth.  Immerse yourself in that time.  A novel that barely skims the surface of the historical era rapidly pales.  Historical accuracy is paramount.  Please don’t write a pre-Christianity novel and include Christian euphemisms.

Do not quote verbatim from sources and add footnotes.  Heavy emphasis is on the word “fiction” in these cases.  You can explain in your author’s notes what is factual or not.  Author’s notes are eagerly anticipated by many readers.

Write your novel from a unique slant or angle.  If it’s been done before, readers might not give it a chance.  Controversy can be good, as long as you can solidly back it up

For goodness sake, pay for a professional edit.  The “I can’t afford it” excuse doesn’t wash.  If you spent year(s) on your novel, skimp on whatever you need to pay for the edit to complete your investment in your story.  One novel with substandard writing loses you readership forever.

6.       Fun Question – which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party?
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I and Samuel Pepys.    I admire strong women in eras when women were considered the lesser and treated accordingly.  It would be fascinating to listen to Eleanor, who, while she did rule during Henry’s absences, ultimately desired the throne for her son, Richard, to achieve glory through her children, converse with Elizabeth who went to great lengths and against considerable odds to rule England in her own right.  It would be outright delightful to listen to them recount their escapades.  I imagine gaiety as wines glasses are refilled.  Samuel Pepys is the counterfoil.  His horrified expressions as he contemplated these women who did not “remain in their place” would be comic. He who dallied with women, but was consumed with jealous when he thought his wife might be tarrying with another man.  He who firmly believed his wife should not rise above herself.  Eleanor and Elizabeth would make short work of him.

7.       Fun Question – which event in history would you like to have been a fly on the wall at?

This is a thread I have been involved in lately on Goodreads – what mystery would you like solved?  My discussion has been whether Catherine of Aragon and Arthur consummated their marriage.  That single night had an incredible effect on England.    However, I wouldn’t exactly want to be a fly on the wall – I believe that’s called voyeurism.

I’d much rather not be a fly but smack in the middle of the Fields of Gold, dressed in the most bejewelled, gorgeous gown.  Although there are many descriptions of the sumptuousness of that event, I believe it would have to be seen to be fully appreciated.

I can certainly agree with many of Darlene's views on how reviewers have a responsibility to the genre as a whole to promote quality and identify books that deserve exposure.  Take a look at Darlene's blog, I am sure you will want to be a regular follower once you see how much work she puts into giving readers of historical fiction unbiased, articulate and honest reviews of books she feels are deserving of promotion.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Review - The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann


Author's Name:     Karen Engelmann
Publisher:              Two Roads (Hodder & Stoughton)
Year:                    2012
Price in Sterling:    £10.44 HB / £9.99 Kindle
# Pages:                412
ISBN:                   9781444742695

Emil Larsson is a Secretary of Sweden's Customs & Excise who is hanging onto his position by his fingertips.  He lives the life of a professional gambler, using his evenings at the card table to bring him an income.  His superior is not impressed by Emil's lifestyle and pressures him into securing a betrothal, even going so far as to giving him a deadline in which to secure a wife or face losing his position.

It is at the exclusive gaming house run by the enigmatic Mrs Sparrow that Emil's life changes forever.  Mrs Sparrow is susceptible to visions and uses a deck of cards to create an Octavo, a visual representation of eight people who will each play a role in the outcome of the vision.  The beneficiary of her vision needs to identify and interact with each of the eight people in order to bring about success or avert disaster.  The spectre of revolution looms over Sweden's ally, France and Gustav is not only pushing reforms through at home, he is working hard to rescue the French Monarchy. 

A mysterious noblewoman, known as The Uzanne, believes Gustav to be weak and begins to manipulate those in high office to precipitate a coup and seize the crown for Gustav's brother Duke Karl.  Using her social skills and persuasive womanly ways, she grooms the young women of local well-to-do families in seductive arts and the language of the fan in order to bring about the outcome she desires.  Emil's Octavo is combined with one that Mrs Sparrow drew for herself and together they realise their fates are entwined with that of the Swedish monarchy itself.


Karen Englemann has created a work of art with this wonderfully written story.  The author is extremely good at describing the minute detail of the costumes worn by her characters and the places they inhabit.  An integral element of the plot is how women wield power over their rivals and the men whose ambitions they wish to help or hinder, by using the ultimate fashion accessory of 18th Century Europe - the fan.  After reading this book, you will never see it as a simple device to cool you on a hot day but as a weapon as deadly as any sword.

I would, however, like to give any buyer a warning - do not purchase an electronic version.  No matter where you live, I urge you to pay the extra delivery charge and I guarantee you will not be disappointed.  From the moment you pick it up, you will fondly remember the pleasure that a beautifully crafted book can give.  The cover is cream with vivid detail engraved in silver blue and the pages are heavy and vellum-like.  The exquisite prose is complimented by beautiful illustrations of the cards used in the Octavo and the first line of each chapter is lightly written in script behind the type.
 I award "The Stockholm Octavo" 5 Crosses and bestow Karen Englemann with the Golden Hammer and Anvil Shield for producing a perfect book and for reminding me, once again, why real books can never be replaced.



Sunday, 9 September 2012

Award Announcement - The Golden Hammer and Anvil Shield

The Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield

Today is a special day in the ongoing development of Sir Read-A-Lot.  Recently, I have been approached by Hodder & Stoughton and HarperCollins who have asked me to publish pre-release reviews of titles they are about to launch and I have secured some extremely high profile guests who have kindly given me interviews and supplied books for a giveaway.

Reading a good book is one of my great passions and that was one of the main reasons I began blogging.  I am always surprised when I open the pages of a book and firmly believe getting lost in the world created by an author is the best way to relax, to escape from the pressures of life and enjoy something really special.  As you may know, I am very selective about which books I choose to showcase on my blog.  I do, unfortunately, reject more than I accept but I do not apologize for that.  My aim is, and always has been, to promote the very best historical fiction novels and to share these wonderful stories with the world.  

Taking inspiration from a quotation by John FitzGilbert, the father of "The Greatest Knight" William Marshal I am pleased to announce the golden Hammer & Anvil shield!  Each recipient will have their name on my Roll of Honour, a new page that will be permanently on my blog, and receive a jpeg Award to place on their website.

The award is open to books published by any author, whether they are represented by traditional publishing house, use an assisted publishing company or who have done the whole thing themselves.  I will be presenting the award at my discretion, to books that I have reviewed and achieve my highest rating of 5 crosses.  

However, a 5 cross rating will not mean you instantly qualify for the Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield.  It will only be given to books that are truly special; whose stories are impeccably crafted, where authors have taken care to ensure their manuscript is properly edited and prepared to a professional standard and where the story evokes thought and emotion long after the final sentence has been read.  This award is all encompassing and includes e-versions and traditional hardback and paperback works.

The first recipients of the Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield are:

  1. To The Fair Land by Lucienne Boyce
  2. At Road’s End by Zoe Saadia
  3. The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
  4. The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams by Bill Page.
To me, this award recognises excellence in a time when the increase of print on demand and instant electronic publication has driven down the standard of writing.  Too many sub-standard books have swamped the market and I hope the inception of this Award goes some way to redress the balance.  I want to show that there are still wonderful books being published and highlight them in the manner they deserve.

Congratulations to the first four winners!  

Friday, 7 September 2012

Review & Book Launch - "To The Fair Land" by Lucienne Boyce


Author’s name:     Lucienne Boyce
Publisher:             Silverwood Books
Year:                   2012
Price in sterling:    £10.00
330 pages
ISBN:                 9781781320174

Set in 1789, a young man is living in London in an attempt to fulfil his dream as a writer.  Ben Dearlove is surviving on the generosity of his father but has only a few months left of the two year period they agreed and if he does not become published and self-sufficient in that time, he must return to Bristol and join the family Apothecary business.  One night he is watching a play, based on the story of an explorer who finds an undiscovered land, at a Covent Garden theatre when a flustered young woman sits next to him.  She begins to make outbursts towards the stage and Ben hears her talking of “Miranda”.  The Covent Garden audience do not take too kindly to her heckling and they nearly cause a riot trying to stop her from spoiling their evening’s entertainment.  Ben manages to rescue her and accompanies her home, to ensure she is safe.  The following day he returns to her lodgings to check on her, but she has disappeared and her rooms have been burgled.  A few weeks later a mysterious novel called “To The Fair Land” telling the story of the voyage of a ship called “Miranda” falls into his hands and he realises that, rather than it being a work of fiction, it could actually be true account of a voyage.

Ben tries to discover the identity of the author and becomes intent on proving the novel is a factual account of a real event.  As he make progress in his quest, things come to light that people want to keep secret and a deadly confrontation makes his situation perilous.  Who is the mysterious woman?  Why have so many men died to keep the secret of The Fair Land?  Ben has to avoid the agents of The Admiralty and the prospect of imprisonment to uncover the truth and bring a murderer to justice.

At first I found the story to be lacking pace, but it was soon apparent that  Lucienne Boyce writes in a style that makes you want to savour every word and the soak up the atmosphere created by her descriptions of the characters and their surroundings.  As the story unfolds, you realise that the gentle pace is compelling and each new facet of the story creeps up on you, gripping your imagination.

Her research is flawless and she writes in a style that could have you thinking it was written nearer the time in which the novel is set, rather than 200 years later.  Her characters are well formed, their human qualities and failings are revealed in rich detail and once their motivations are revealed, you will realise your initial preconceptions were completely wrong.  The “big secret” will, I am sure, be a shock to many.  It is a subject matter that is anathema to people at large – both in present day and in the past – but Lucienne writes it sensitively without losing any of the emotion such a controversial topic will evoke.

“To The Fair Land” is a truly breathtaking book that will surprise you..  The standard of the book, from start to finish, is superior to any book I have read so far this year.  The collaboration of Lucienne Boyce and Silverwood Books clearly demonstrates that independent publishing can compete with mainstream and, in this case, surpass the expected standard by a country mile.

I give “To The Fair Land” 5 Crosses and proudly confer "The Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield Award" to Lucienne for writing a story that is original and exquisitely created . 
  X X X X X


The British Summer finally came out to herald the launch of Bristol writer Lucienne Boyce's debut novel.  The picturesque venue of Goldney Hall's Orangery gave the event a classy yet reserved debut and everyone who received an invitation thoroughly enjoyed the party.  Lucienne Boyce made each and everyone of her guests feel extremely welcome and the presence of her publishing partner Helen Hart of Silverwood Books helped sales along nicely. 

At the mid-point of the evening, Lucienne began to read a passage from her novel, only to be interrupted by a mobile phone.  Looking to her husband Gerard, she made the usual comment about people turning their mobiles off only to have Gerard confirm the ringing phone was actually hers!  Light relief made Lucienne relax and the passage was recited with humour and grace.

Lucienne said, "To see so many friendly faces come to help me celebrate the launch of my book is remarkable.  I am lost for words."

All in all it was an enjoyable evening, perfectly complimenting the depth and finesse of Lucienne's debut novel.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Competition Winner & Coming Up This Week

Hi everyone,

I had a superb number of entries for my Elizabeth Chadwick giveaway and I would like to thank everyone for entering and for sharing it all around the world using social media.  I have to say, the prize was so good I wish I could have entered but, in the words of Sean Connery in Highlander, there can be only one. I am pleased to announce that CYNTHIA ROBERTSON is the winner!!  Congratulations Cynthia, I will be in touch shortly to get your details and the book you wish to receive from Elizabeth Chadwick's published works.

This week is going to be really exciting; not only am I attending my first ever book launch as a "journalist" but I have a terrific review of a superb novel and I also have a major announcement which will, I am sure, interest you all.  The big reveal is happening on Friday 7th September so I am afraid you will have to wait until then to find out all the details.

I hope you all have a wonderful week & once again, congratulations to Cynthia!