Book Review: How to Survive in Medieval England by Toni Mount

2022-2-13: Added note: One of our two winners has not responded and it has now been a week since the drawing. Unless I hear from the second winner this evening, I will be doing another drawing in the morning. Comment for your chance to win in the event of a new draw. Congratulations to Roslyn, our first winner, who has responded! Per the publisher, Roslyn’s copy should be en route!

How to Survive in Medieval England
by Toni Mount

This useful guide is a vital accessory when you next visit the Middle Ages. How will you manage without your mobile phone, internet or social media? When transport means walking or, for the better off, horse-back, how will you know where you are or where to go? Where will you live and what should you eat?

 What if you fall ill or are mugged in the street?

 All these questions and many more are answered in this new self-help guide: How to Survive in Medieval England comes with top-tips to make your visit to the Middle Ages much more fun; have a go at preparing medieval dishes and learn some new words to set the mood for your adventure.

 PLUS unique interviews with the celebrities of the day, from a successful business woman and a condemned felon, to a royal cook and a very controversial King Richard III.

 Have an exciting visit to medieval England but be sure to keep this book to hand.

 *********

Comment below for the chance to win a free copy of Toni Mount’s

How to Survive in Medieval England

(More info at bottom!)

At last! Not only someone who takes my ideas about time travel seriously, but also an author who creates an entire book about the experience! OK, well, the writing of How to Survive in Medieval England had nothing to do with me, but I was pretty excited to learn about it nonetheless. From author, history speaker and teacher Toni Mount, this handbook is a fantastic resource not only for those interested in the journey and requiring sound advice, but also re-enactors, history buffs and those who want to know more about ordinary people of the Middle Ages. The volume being a great candidate for dividing up by categories, this is exactly what Mount does: there are ten illustrated chapters with the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of medieval life, from warnings regarding the utmost necessity of work, to health and medicine, awareness of religious beliefs, food, clothing and more. The author also considers the perspectives of her readers: some will want to assimilate, and so need to know what is and isn’t done, while others are strictly observers and just don’t want to be set ablaze for sorcery. Whatever your reason for passage through time, this is a book to keep close by even after your return, given its sheer repeat readability and delightfully laid out subject matter.

Mount’s presentation is smooth and alluring, in large part thanks to her often wry and humorous approach. This is the sort of topic that not only can get away with, but almost seems to need, the author’s presence. Many other books that set out to talk about ordinary life in the Middle Ages maintain a disassociation from their authors, and that hurts the experience because the topic becomes dry, even boring. In this case, however, the author provides a conversational quality that includes readers, and her style is casual and accessible.

Having said that, there is much more that keeps us attached to the book, including the sidebars with informational bits and bobs and interviews with natives to the age, some “superstar” famous and some less so. No matter which class of people, Mount has to ensure a respectful distance—not just physical—from this era’s inhabitants for, as you will see for yourself once you obtain a copy of How to Survive in Medieval England, their personalities are not only significantly more formal, but also a bit standoffish; some of today might even say rude. These portions are perhaps the most magical because, as observers to her conversations with those in the know, we get to watch what is almost two simultaneous discussions: one in which she plays her role expertly, and another in which you recognize the wink wink sort of nuance, as if the author is saying, “Yes, we don’t talk this way amongst ourselves but, you know, this is how they do it, so just listen and learn.” We can almost see her suppressed smile as she converses with those we meet and gain insight into how they operate.

It is clever on the author’s part that the sidebars mentioned above—which appear as Did You Know? and Top Tips—also often maintain the style of interpersonal communication we sense in the interviews. Consider this Top Tip:

Each Did You Know? not only provides the edification we all seem to crave about medieval times, but also with fascinating angles not often covered in other texts. These truly are the everyday, whether ordinary or weird. The author also dispels some myths we have been taught, all while making this such an accessible and smooth read for us that it is easy to forget the massive amount of research that went into preparing this volume.

As the book progresses, Mount’s instructions and information also bring us to awareness of the changes taking place within medieval England, that even amongst themselves there were differences between peoples and the eras in which they lived. After all, 1154-1485, the time range covered and a period of over three hundred years, leaves quite a bit of room to move about! She also shows us that in many ways we aren’t as different as we often seem to believe. The Middle Ages had thieves and con men; people kept records of what decedents left and to whom; and, as referenced above, knowledgeable medicine. Like us, they did not know all there is to know about the human body, but they worked diligently to understand and make discoveries, and without their trail breaking, we might not know what we do nowadays. We often tend to think we are better and smarter than those of the Middle Ages, and it can cut when we find out we aren’t. There are parallels, even up to this very day, of Roger Bacon’s advice about gathering information:

I have always said that learning about our ancestors (whether they come from this particular region or elsewhere) enables us to learn about ourselves, and Mount brings us through a fascinating array of medieval circumstances that, perhaps oddly, perhaps not, resonate with us as people. We see a picture of fifteenth-century bra and briefs, for example, found in Austria’s Lengberg Castle, and can’t help but wonder about the woman who once wore them. Would she be embarrassed that we have her undergarments on display? Or would she be, if even only a little, pleased they were discovered so us people of the future could know her times were “civilized”? That in their day they had items and ideas as modern as could be achieved at the time? That they had nice things too.

Also through word etymology, poetry and ways people found to have fun, Mount guides us through medieval England in a manner unlike any book on the topic I have ever read before. Packed to bursting with fascinating facts and stories of the lives of those who paved the way for ours, we see strangers, certainly, and also ourselves, but above all we recognize the humanity in those we don’t know but want to. Because people of all ages have been curious, I daresay there would be some, I hope, who wish to meet us as well.

In this way, Mount brings people together, dispelling myths and providing background for some of the “absurd” beliefs or actions of the Middle Ages. People generally had reasons for what they did and, once we understand what they were, a lot of the weeds are whacked away, even if we also are aware that beliefs evolved over time, paving the way for our own. I admire that the author achieves this without making fun of medieval people, but also without sacrificing who we are to better appreciate the lives they lived.

About the Author

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

How to Survive in Medieval England, along with her many other books, is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find Toni Mount at Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Two readers will win a FREE COPY of Toni Mount’s How to Survive in Medieval England ~ to join the fun, simply comment below and you’re automatically in the drawing! No purchase necessary and please remember to leave contact information in the event you are the winner! Paperback copies for US and UK based winners, e-copies elsewhere. Drawing will be held Friday, February 4, 2022.

 
A courtesy copy of How to Survive in Medieval England was provided
for the blogger in order to provide an honest review.
 
Congratulations to Roslyn, who has responded to my message; your copy of How to Survive in Medieval England is en route! I hope you enjoy the book and find it helpful if you re-consider your stance on making the trip to the Middle Ages! 
 

(2022-2-13 @ 16:06 AST) I have not heard from our second winner, so if I receive no word in the next 12-15 hours, I’ll be doing a new drawing. In the event of no word, contest will be considered open and I will choose another winner. Comment for your chance to win! If you have already commented, you need not do so again to be in the drawing, though you are free to!

(2022-2-14 @ 10:30) I am so happy to announce that our second winner has contacted me and her book shall be on its way shortly. This concludes our business and the contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winners, and many big thanks for everyone’s participation, including and especially that of Toni Mount, who wrote this fabulous book, and Pen and Sword History, for your sponsorship. 

Happy Valentine Day, All!!!

Some Chatty and Newsy Stuff – Including a Contest!

Be sure to see below for info about how you 
can win one of two $10 Amazon gift cards!

Added note for 2021-2-15 ~ I am very excited to announce that two winners have been drawn for the contest: Joanne Larner and Stephanie Hopkins. Congratulations to both ladies and many thanks for entering the contest and sharing! Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day and hope you enjoy your gift cards!!!

It’s snowing! This means it’s extra lovely, which always chippers up my mood a bit, even if it was already a good one. However, I’m a bit late today with the blog and there’s loads going on, so for now I’m just going to pass on some chatty, newsy stuff and do hope you’ll be excited about it. 🙂

First and foremost: I guess we’re now in 2020 2.0, because people are being extra silly with others’ information, so I’m going to return to my previous way of touching base with authors and they me regarding book reviews. If you are interested in a review, please send an email, telling me a bit about your book, at:

scully_dcATyahooDOTcom

Do note, however, that I will be giving priority to authors I have worked with before. This doesn’t mean that if we’re new to each other then it’s a no go. I set these boundaries because I have a family and work, so I have limited time. By all means, though, do feel free to shoot me your requests.

I also do interviews, feature books and love guest posts and giveaways, so if any of that (or some other idea) strikes your fancy, do touch base and we can chat about that too.

Please see my updated book review policies here. Any questions, feel free to shoot me an email.

Next, what are you reading? Still got any Christmas- or Hanukkah-present books you’re devouring? What about 2021? What are your reading goals for the new year? Do you like to try to read a certain number of books? Any challenges on the horizon, such as trying a new genre, or reading a series? Read about presidents? Books that have become movies? Tell me about it all in the comments!

I’m currently reading the Richard III book you see in the sidebar, and have a list of books that I aim to read in this already ridiculous year. That list can be found here. I’ve also got Richard Abbott’s The Liminal Zone nearly finished and will be writing a review, so keep your eyes peeled. If you have any awesome book suggestions, let me know below!

And finally, I’ve got a contest! I’ve been wanting to do this for so long and I’m really excited to get it rolling at last. Part of how I set this up is because I’d like to know more about my readers, which blogs here at Second Sleep you’ve liked best, what is your favorite food or TV show, gifts you were excited to give or receive, best vacation spot, topics you’d like to read about, stuff you think is super weird or food you couldn’t believe you actually ate—anything! Well, anything appropriate, of course. 🙂 Plus I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with me as we all experience ups and downs, changes, periods in which we aren’t sure what we’re doing or where we’re going. This past year has had lots of that especially, but the truth is that stuff  happens to people every day yet they still take the time to come here, which I really appreciate.

Here’s how the contest will work:

  • Comment below about any topic (ok, you all know that I mean no illegal or inappropriate stuff!) AND share at least once in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram OR Goodreads. These are the places I have a presence – and you can do all but only one share location is required. Once I “like” it, you’ll know I’ve seen it, so if I don’t like it, you may want to make sure I’ve seen that you did it by following or tagging me.
  • Each comment and share gets an entry, so just by doing the initial comment and share mentioned above, you’ll get two entries. Each one more of either also will get an entry. Example, if you do the regular share and comment mentioned above you’ve got two. Do three comments you get three more. Share, say, five times and you’ve got five more.
  • If someone tells me on any platform that they knew about the contest from you, you’ll get five entries for that referral alone. Their comment(s) and share(s) will of course earn entries for them.
  • Drawing will be for two Amazon gift cards of $10 (US) each—yes, two winners! Entries can come from anywhere in the world.
  • Drawing will occur February 14, 2021. I’ll aim to contact the two winners straight away and would love to send the gifts as soon as possible, so please ensure you leave me a way to reach you.

My social media links:
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Goodreads

I’d really love to do this again, and am thinking about counting interactions on any blog entries at Before the Second Sleep after today’s, which would count for entries into the next contest, so like, comment, follow and share away!

And most of all, thank you!!! 🙂

Book Review Rollout – Companion Post

I’ve been doing book reviews since about 2013, and I love it. I came into contact with some very wonderful people, and the stories and topics I’ve interacted with have truly enriched my life. As a writer myself, it has also meant a great deal that a few authors have shared advice and information with me. And, of course, there are the wonderful tales. I’ve said more than once that I believe our very DNA is coded to us wanting to be told stories, and humans throughout history have indeed sought out and provided.

To be quite honest, I think books and the wonderful stories people tell are a big part of what makes life worth living.

Continue reading “Book Review Rollout – Companion Post”

Book Review Rollout (with Updates)

Additional note 2021-1-9: Circumstances have warranted a change to how authors set up book reviews. Please see Book Review Guidelines tab for additional information. 

Be sure to check out the companion post to this Book Review Rollout here.

And so here we are – 2020. It’s a long way off from 2012, when I first started this blog, and I’ve come into contact with some really fabulous people. Most of the time this site has been going I’ve done book reviews, and at one point I stopped, picking up again with other ideas and topics I wanted to talk about or delve into. To be honest, I still want to do this, but it’s kind of hard to stay away from the stories. This, of course, has happened before, and I periodically opened up to accept a few review requests. When I started contemplating things again this time, I decided to shake it up a bit. Some aspects will stay the same, though, because the goal is to make it easier for all involved.

One of my current reads

To start with: As a child and teen I was enamored of The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeThe Crystal Cave and anything by Lewis Carroll. These days I still read the aforementioned and am open to reviewing memoir, ghost stories, historical fiction, some/various non-fiction, young adult, time travel and lots of indie books within these genres. My favorite historical eras are pre- and post-1066, the Wars of the Roses (in particular, the second half of the fifteenth century), American Revolution and WWII. I have somewhat new sort-of interest in the American Civil War and possibly events related to Edward, the Black Prince (another subject I’m currently exploring).

So here’s how I’m opening up the works ~

Once you read through you should have a better idea if  pursuing a review from Before the Second Sleep it a suitable fit for you.  ~ While I used to ask that authors shoot me an email to see if I’ll do a review, I decided to just do away with that. Since I have a lot more on my plate than I used to (at least it feels that way—it could be that some things were just replaced with others), I’ve given myself permission to respond with very brief emails or not at all. If you receive a brief email from me, please do not take it personally; it is sheer necessity. The “not at all” category used to be something like authors sending me e-copies of their books without asking if I would review them. 

To be honest, these authors were on to something, even though I’d always said, “Don’t email me your books; I’ll delete them.” But they had a good idea because lots of stories looked quite intriguing and I thought, “Actually, this could be pretty efficient.” So I sort of took this idea like a piece of clay, rolled it around a bit and created my own shape to it. Out of this and past experiences, I developed these guidelines:

 

  • If you are interested in a review, just go ahead and send me your book. Please note the following caveats:

    • I only accept hard copies. Extended electronic reading gives me a headache and I’m done with it, so paperback or hardback are fine. I will provide my address below.

    • I do not guarantee I will review your book once I read it. Unless I become inundated, I will, however, start every book I receive. If I finish (which I will try to do within 90 days; be aware it may sometimes go over) and decide to write a review, I will let you know, so please be sure to provide your email address.  
  • I work really hard on my reviews and aim to make them quality pieces that provide honesty while honoring the work. Because these entries really are joint efforts—you write the book and I do a review—I don’t want either party to get any short stick. Please remember that reviewers spent their (unpaid) time to give authors free advertising, so a little promotion of those very reviews, a win-win situation, does not go unnoticed. No one is expected to wed themselves forever to the blog; I just hope to avoid one-sidedness. For my part, I’ll be posting my reviews to Amazon, Goodreads and linking on Twitter and Facebook (maybe one or two more), these last two possibly more than once. If you have book signings (once we live in normal again), launches, etc., feel free to let me know so I can contribute what I can to these types of events. 
  • Generally I don’t see the point in taking the time to write a bad review, one in which there is really nothing redeemable about the book. However, if I make note within the review of something I didn’t love, please remember this is just my opinion. Others may very well disagree with me, and that’s all right. Broadcasting why I’m wrong or that “the reviewer probably doesn’t know this but…” is in bad taste and makes an author look bad. Neither one of us wants that. 
  • Authors/publicists are responsible for providing any direct links, actual images, author bio, promotional dates, etc. they would like to include in the review blog entry. Images not your own are required to have permission to use; without this I will not include them. 
  • I work full time and am currently engaged with a few of my own projects. I am carving out very specific time to spend on reading books for the blog, but I’m just one person with a family who takes priority. Please see next two bullets for more on this and related.
  • I am very aware authors are proud of their work, sometimes anxious and are trying to promote and market their books. I truly admire people with stories who get them out there, and I’ll do what I can for some authors as well, including and especially indie. However, there are appropriate ways in which to conduct promotion, and haranguing book bloggers/reviewers is not part of that. Here is a great post about this topic. In my opinion it’s one of the better discussions out there because it also covers reviewer responsibility, which I do my level best to live up to. 
  • If you wish to send an email to let me know your book is on its way, that’s a great idea – this enables me to easily contact you for info when moving forward (plus I prefer to be able to let you know when the book arrives). Email is the method I use for communicating re: book reviews and provides greater assurance I will not miss any messaging; my email is provided below. Please do not contact me on social media re: doing book reviews (the exception is to ask for a link to this page). 
  • If you would like to do a giveaway, guest post, etc., by all means please let me know via email; I’d love to host it. Authors outside the United States can, at least in my experience, order from Amazon.com (as opposed to Amazon UK, etc.) to send books Stateside, rather than having them ship overseas. 
  • Please check back here periodically, as there may be updates or additions to the policies.  

Be sure to have a peek at my sidebar every so often as it changes to reflect my rotation of reads. I also keep a widget full of blogs I follow – which needs a thorough dusting, to be honest – so check it out when you swing by to see if I’ve cleaned up or added more. For new posts, go ahead and click that button! (Upper right on main page or tab at bottom right.) You’ll get a notification—just one, so you won’t be inundated—to let you know when there’s something new for you to check out.

You can contact me at scully_dc AT yahoo DOT com

Please be aware that sending me your book 
indicates acknowledgement of this policies page 

Be sure to check out the companion post to this Book Review Rollout here.

Glad to have you here and I hope each one of you is finding something marvelous in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Updated 2021-1-9

Click image to see 2016’s “Month of Mary Stewart”

Recharging and Taking Stock

A recent alternative bookshelf experiment bathed by the winter sun (see closeup image at bottom)

Well, some of you have noticed I’ve not posted a review—or  anything else—for quite a while (I got a few emails, bless your hearts), and the truth is I was burned out. I know, very starkly stated, but there you have it. Though I never posted as often as some others, or blogged for as many years as them, what I have been doing was quite enough. If I do say so myself, I strive to make my reviews of a higher caliber because I like to look at details, compare/contrast, analyze and delve a little more deeply. Plus, I’ve been writing reviews since about 2012, maybe 2013, and I’m ready for a turning point.

I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities in doing this, and I want to take this moment to thank all the authors who have submitted books for review: your wonderful tales have reached into my reader’s heart, taken me to new worlds, brought me into contact with people from the past or those roaming amongst your imaginations (sometimes a bit of both), and provided me with massive amounts of information about our own history. For me this is absolutely priceless.

Some of the books I’ve reviewed atop the uppermost shelf of one of two identical – we call them the twins.

That sounds a bit like a departure, doesn’t it?

Well, in a way it is. As I say, I’m a bit frazzled, and I don’t want to end anything on a negative note, so I’m going to chill out for a bit, take a much-needed slowdown so nothing ever comes to that. I’m looking forward to browsing the library stacks and actually reading most of what I bring home.

And in a way it isn’t: I’ll still do some reviews, but for the time being, just playing things by ear as to what I’ll be checking out and when. I also will be focusing on some other ideas I’ve been wanting to pursue, such as writing about food. I’m by no means a foodie, but I do love to cook (baking is another story) and learn about ingredients’ relationships to each other. In fact, I just learned a baking secret (to me at least) that I’ll tell you about next time in an entry I’ve already started to write.

The climbing pink roses and shape of this vase, together with its green framing the floral, really caught my attention. It didn’t exactly match the color scheme I had fallen into, but I liked the idea of an “imperfection” in the room, something that stood alone.

And you know what? I so can’t keep away from books, so you know I’ll be exploring some written works about that universal love we partake in at least once a day. Unfortunately, not everyone can say “once a day,” so I’ll be looking at that angle as well, as I’d like it too, to take me somewhere.

I’ve got some décor news, a few new photos to show, a couple more hobbies I’m trying to develop and have been immersing myself again in my very first love of the written word: poetry. In fact, I’ve finally reached out to a few people who agreed to act as beta readers to my own collection of poems, many of which were written when I was still in school. I’ve gotten some fantastic feedback, which has really psyched me up even more. A very dear social media friend persuaded me to try my hand at making a few sketches for the collection, and it’s not been so easy, but I’m trying to get on with those. One of the above-mentioned developing hobbies is something that has helped me figure out how to proceed—more to come!

I adore looking at décor and the many ideas people have for creating their spaces. The moment I saw this image in Alison Wormleighton’s Victoria: Decorating with a Personal Touch, I knew I wanted to re-create this wonderful corner (Hearst Books, 2004, click image).

I’ve also got a collection of short stories to finish writing; lots of historical nonfiction to read on various topics of fascination; my fifteen-year-old son has re-discovered the Beatles in a yuuuuuge way; full-on winter is coming and I’ve been cooking up a storm and freezing lots of it. And, of course, I’m still plugging on with the editing (more details here). My only wish for change there is that I could do it as my sole source of income. As with any pursuit worth its salt, it is rewarding: I meet (or “meet”) great people and, perhaps most important, learn from them. Sometimes they think they’re the only ones gaining new info, but that’s never true, thankfully. I have an auntie who always says, “The day I know everything I might as well just stay home.”

So who knows what the next five years may bring? I really enjoy blogging, so whatever is yet to come, I hope I’ll be still be sharing it with you wonderful people as well as reading yours, finding out more about what’s going on in your universe.

See you soon!

 

Closeup of top image. The plant, I was told, is impossible to kill, and that has proven to be very correct. My kind of plant! The books with the gold on their spines, by the way, are fairy tales, the truer versions of which I have taken to reading lately. The slim, green volume beneath the wartime cookery guide is a collection of poems by Christina Rossetti. Willa Cather is my all-time favorite author since elementary school, and O. Henry, master of the short story, initially wowed me way back then with “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf.”

Reading 2017: The Importance of Covers (Book Blogger Group Chat)

I am so pleased to present this joint interview blog, Readers Voice: The Importance of Covers, which appeared early this year on Discovering Diamonds, author Helen Hollick’s brilliant blog highlighting the best of historical fiction in the form of reviews and other features. I was so pleased to join with three other bloggers as we chatted with Anna Belfrage, author of the wonderful Graham Saga series, to talk about covers and why they matter to readers. I’ve included the responses from Jo, David and Jenny, and highly encourage you to check out their blogs as well as books they’ve dipped into or treasured.

In some instances my own answers vary slightly from what appears at the original blog (linked above); owing to considerations of space, some snipping had been required for Anna’s posting. Feel free to spin through other entries too, both here and at Discovering Diamonds, as well as by Jenny, David and Jo – and as always, have fun!

Author Anna Belfrage has brought together four book-bloggers for a discussion about covers. 

Are covers important? Yes or no? 

Anna: I’d say they are – but let us not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, I’d like my guests to introduce themselves. Jo, why don’t you go first?

It’s difficult to overstate my love for this novel and its cover

Jo: Hello everyone, I’m Jo, a prolific reader and also an active book blogger at Jaffareadstoo – a blog I share with my ginger tom, Jaffa. I live in Lancashire in northwest England, and I am happily retired after a thirty year nursing career. To fill the void after I finished work I started blogging and chatting about books to anyone who would listen. I’ve also reviewed books for magazines and online websites. My passion is historical fiction and whilst I prefer medieval history, I do also love a good time slip novel that keeps one foot firmly in the present whilst visiting the past.

The one book that has made the most impression was Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It’s the only book EVER that, as I finished the last sentence in the book, I turned immediately to the beginning and read all 863 pages again.
 
David: Hi, I’m David from David’s Book Blurg. I live up north near Newcastle in the UK with my wife and twin girls. I’m a lover of history but favourite period so far would have to be 1066. I particularly enjoyed 1066: What Fates Impose by Glynn Holloway.
 

Jenny: I’m Jennifer Quinlan, but everybody calls me Jenny Q! I am a native of Virginia—a ninth-generation Virginian, actually. My family has lived in the same county since the 1680s! I studied history and English at Virginia Tech, and I am the owner of Historical Editorial. I provide copyediting and developmental editing services, and I design book covers. I also have a book review blog, my first love, Let Them Read Books.

I will read a novel from any historical period if the subject catches my fancy, though I am partial to British, French, and American history. I can’t possibly name a favorite read, but some of the timeless books on my historical fiction shelf of honor are Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy and The Sunne in Splendour, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, and Forever Amber. (AB: Ah, yes: Forever Amber – one of my first hist fit loves.) 

Lisl: Ehem. (clears throat) Well. I’m Lisl and come from the Great Land, known to most people Outside as Alaska. (“Outside” simply means any place not Alaska.) I keep a blog called Before the Second Sleep, in which I write book reviews and other tidbits that strike my fancy. Back in September I had a series called “Month of Mary Stewart” to celebrate 100 years since the birth of this wonderful author. My mother recommended Stewart’s The Crystal Cave to me and solidified the affection I already had for Merlin. Other than this author’s Merlin Trilogy, I love to read time travel, historical fiction—mostly in Arthurian, 1066, Wars of the Roses and American history—and a few other genres.

AB: Wow, what a lovely and varied group of people you are! And, dear readers, I recommend you pop over to the various sites – these are four very different reviewers with a common passion for good books!

Now, before we get started, what can I offer you to drink? Coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate with whipped cream?

Jo: Hot chocolate with whipped cream wins every time!

David: Earl Grey for me.  (A man of good taste.)

Jenny: Coffee please, and lots of it! Two creams, one sugar.

Lisl: Anna Belfrage, are you offering me chocolate? 😉 (AB: What can I say, Lisl? I live in hope ….) I would love a cup of tea, thank you!

AB: Right, with the practicalities sorted let me start by asking you how important you think the cover is. Will it sell the book to you? Or is it more a case of some covers putting you off even looking inside?

I can absolutely see why this image grabbed Jenny’s attention

Jo: A well-designed cover suggests that time and care has gone into the story. The cover sells the book to me and I have bought books just on the basis of the cover; equally I have been turned off by poorly designed covers, or covers which bear no resemblance to the story. I have given up on a book if I have found the cover unappealing.

David: When buying a book the cover is the most important thing to me. I need a cover that catches my eye otherwise I might not even look at the back of the book to see what the story is about. I wish I could take the time to browse more but there’s so much choice out there that an author needs to stand out and the cover is the first thing you see.
 
Jenny: It’s both for me. I am drawn to gorgeous book covers like a kid in a candy store, so it’s more likely that a cover is going to draw me to the book rather than put me off. I tend to just skip right by books with unattractive covers. I would like to say that the importance of your cover is second only to the quality of your content, but there are many books with subpar content and outstanding covers that are selling a lot of books, so if your goal is to be a bestseller, then your cover is probably the most important part of your package.
 

Lisl: Oh, in some instances a cover can indeed be the pull to the whole story. It has happened not a few times that I see a cover image or design from afar and from that alone must check to see what’s inside.

AB: Consensus seems to be covers DO matter. Do you have any favourite covers?   

Lisl: First I want to toss in here that I love old editions’ book covers, both size and pictures. Some are quite alluring and bring me in, while others are dated, though often still captivating! Two in particular that stand out for me are from Stewart’s above mentioned Merlin Trilogy. The first shows Merlin in his early years, which perhaps caught my attention at the time because he was a child, like me. I had been somewhat accustomed to hearing mostly about adults in my mother’s stories. On the second book in the series was a depiction of Arthur, whose attractiveness, strength and boldness—all seen in this image—appealed to me. The two covers possessed a sort of mystical feel with the night sky, troops on the move, discovery and magical growth, all set within an ancient time, one that I felt I was being beckoned to join. They both stand in stark contrast to that of The Crystal Cave’s first UK cover, which shows a bunch of crystal clumped together. A geologist might appreciate it, but I think even students of literature would find it a staid and simplistic choice, also lacking in the human touch.

David: Oh yes, Nursing Fox by Jim Ditchfield and Legionary by Gordon Doherty! Both very different but pleasing and eye catching.
 
Jenny: I couldn’t name a favorite cover, but here are four historical novels that had not been on my radar that I recently bought or checked out from the library for no other reason than that I found the cover irresistible.
 

Jo: My favourite cover is Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. I bought the book purely for the cover and had no clue what the book was about and hadn’t heard of the, then, debut author. I just knew that I had to have a hardback copy of it to keep. 

One of David’s favorites 

AB: What must a cover have for it to grab your attention?
 
Jenny: I’m very drawn to women (and men) in period clothing. A gorgeous dress with a dreamy background gets me every time. I’m also drawn to evocative setting images combined with an attention-grabbing title/font combination.

Jo: Good graphics, nothing too fuzzy. Easy to read font that stands out. A design that ‘grabs’ my attention. I like simple designs using negative space rather than filling the whole of the cover with too much information. For me less is more. I want to feel an emotional connection to the story and to pick up on the mood of the book from the picture on the cover.

Lisl: Well, it needn’t have people, as my last comment may have implied—but the design should inspire some sort of sensation, even if it is simple admiration for the colors, bends, direction, etc. Ideally it would give me some sort of hint regarding the where and what for, but apart from that should at least have some element that reaches out to make a connection, even if it is a time period, for example, I don’t often read, or design that implants some curiosity into the moment.

David: For me the cover has to set the tone of the book. With Legionary by Gordon Doherty you can tell straightaway the period and that you’ll see a lot of battles being fought. Nursing Fox, however, has a much more contemplative cover, again setting the period but also has a human touch to it which fits perfectly with the tale. It’s clear we might see some war but you know mainly it’s going to be through the eyes of the nurse.
 
AB: What will immediately put you off a cover?
 
David: I hate to say it but cover with pictures of real people on them. I’m all for portraits depicting individuals; I’m just not a big fan of photos of real people being used. I like an artist’s touch rather than the Photoshop look.
 
Jo: A title in a font that is difficult to read. Garish colours. If the cover is too vague and confusing so that I can’t decipher what the book is about. If the cover looks ‘cheap’ or poorly presented.
 

Jenny: Too many elements crammed in. Text that’s hard to read. Black-and-white or sepia photos with a simple title slapped on them.

Lisl: Generally speaking, solid colors and no drawing or design. There is a very popular series whose covers are a variety of different solids. If I ever saw these books in the shops before I heard of them, I never noticed and likely wouldn’t have investigated what they are about. It was only word of mouth that brought me to them. It isn’t that I loathe this sort of cover, just that there’s a nothingness to them that produces usually the very same in terms of response … nothing.


AB: Now, one perennial cover is the “headless woman in a period gown” cover. What are your thoughts about it? 

Jenny: Works for me! So often when a woman’s face is on the cover, it doesn’t match my vision of the character in my head. Her manner of dress and her body language is much more alluring for me.

I totally agree with Jo – a stunning draw into the story!

Lisl: To be honest, I really enjoy taking in the different gowns—colors, styles, era designs and so on. Bodies without heads, though, well, it’s a bit weird, to be honest. That said, they do create a bit of curiosity re: what the rest of the woman might have looked like: does she seem confident in her carriage? (This you can see in the eyes.) Does she give off a strong vibe or one that shows she can be bent to another’s will?—and all kinds of questions, really. The lack of answers to these in terms of an illustration or image to give some clues matches the historical reality that, with some exception, women’s lives simply were not recorded to the extent men’s were. The humanity we often want to see is missing in the records, but it also extends the mystery of distance in time, lending it to the story.

Audiences tend to want to see into characters’ souls, and you can’t do that with a headless body, but there are other ways to captures reader attention, and one great cover image I thought was Anne Easter Smith’s Queen by Right, which depicts Cecily Neville with gloved left hand holding a goshawk and in the other, a basket of white roses. While I don’t know all that much about falconry, the image piqued my attention and bestowed upon Cecily greater individuality, strength in particular. The roses go along with the theme, of course, all adding significantly more meaning to the cover than many others, whose great dresses, unfortunately, don’t take us beyond beautiful fashion.

Jo: I’ve grown to accept this as it seems that a lot of historical fiction features the “headless woman” or a woman in period costume gazing wistfully into the distance. It’s immediately recognisable as a historical ‘brand’ and as such, survives and to be honest, I’ve become accustomed to it now.
 
David: I like it I’m honest. It sets the tone and lets the reader know the type of book it will be before reading, a female lead, some romance, delicate period drama perhaps. I like to know what I’m getting and this type of cover wouldn’t put me off.
 
Another of these perennial favourites is the “bare-chested, wild-haired man in a kilt” covers. Thoughts? 
 

David: Not for me really… I’m not a fan of bare chested men 😊  I’m aware that books appeal to different readers so these covers do have their place but just not on my book shelf.

Jenny: I do love a man in a kilt, but I am not such a fan of the bare-chested cover. It really doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not reading the book for the man’s abs. But I’ll take a man in breeches, vest, and coat any day!

Jo: If the book is about a “bare-chested, wild-haired man in a kilt” … then yes, why not. I’m sure this type of cover sells this particular genre and if it’s what readers enjoy then that’s ok with me.

Lisl:
I tend not to take them seriously, really.

AB: Which historical fiction covers do you think work particularly well? Why?

Jo: All three covers are different and yet they all appeal to me both for their simplicity and attention to detail: The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick, The First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson, The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne.

David: Oo, apart from the two previously mentioned I think others which get it spot on would have to be Wolf’s Head by Steven A. McKay, The Bowes Inheritance by Pam Lecky and I’m by no means biased when I say In the Shadow of the Storm by Anna Belfrage (AB: Thrilled! But I can’t very well include a pic of my own cover). I think each of these set the scene for the story nicely and speak to me as a reader before picking the book up.
 

Jenny: For me, historical fiction covers absolutely need to impart the essence of a time gone by, and the good news is there are many ways to do this using a combination of character representation, settings or objects, or even a historical-looking font. (AB: As Jenny designs covers, she preferred not to name specific covers.)

Lisl: Apart from the Stewart covers already mentioned, there are a few that come to mind straight away. I loved Annie Whitehead’s cover for To Be A Queen so much I wrote a cover crush entry about it.  A mood of longing and loss is woven into the image, and even the title speaks of the distance—in time or space—between ourselves (or the characters) and what has been lost, or can never be.

I always thought the first edition for Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf was as beautiful as its successor turned out to be. A ghostly rider moves amongst swirling colors that race past him, obscuring a completely clear view, as if we are given glimpses through an indistinct tapestry, the hues of which bend and blur events. The wolf referenced in the title, and who represents the warrior’s forebears, is seen above. I especially loved a particular effect of the image: one may have to take it in more than once to fully realize what it depicts, as it is not portrayed starkly, but rather as if one is seeing it—and events—through time.

I’m also a total sucker for medieval art, and I love it on book covers. Martha Kennedy uses one to grace her novel Savior, and the effect is one of growing with the cover from the first phase, before reading the book, but still admiring the image. Taken from a medieval illuminated manuscript, this one depicts knights on their coursers in the heat of war. Brought to bear on the passages set at the Battle of La Forbie, a new understanding of how these men lived and died alters what one sees in the image, a lovely cooperation between storytelling and cover art.

AB: As a final question, is there any particular period you would want to see more books about? 

David: I’d like some more books set in the Wild West. It’s not a period I’m particularly familiar with but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved cowboys.

Jenny: No more Tudors please! I’d like to see more fiction set during the American and French revolutions and the War of 1812, maybe some more Irish medieval.

Jo: 11th, 12th or 13th centuries.

Lisl: I’d love to read more about the Barbary Wars.

(AB: And for those who, like me, don’t go “aha!” when hearing Barbary Wars, here’s a link.)

I am rather encouraged by Jo’s periods given my own writing preferences 🙂 And I agree: no more Tudors! How about some Stuarts instead? Thank you so much for joining me here today – and I must say that the covers you’ve mentioned are very varied – which just goes to show that what appeals to one reader may not appeal to another. Duh!

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Many thanks to Anna Belfrage and my wonderful co-bloggers for such a great time!

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Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

Upcoming:

New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): Title TBA

New Genre Library (Science fiction): Title TBA

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

And a couple of other fun entries to round out the year!

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What’s in a Book?

 

crystal cave
This is the cover of the copy I had as a teenager. Together with the image on The Hollow Hills, Merlin and his time sang out for me.

As you have likely figured, I love books. Since childhood I have reveled in the feel of a book in my hands and been drawn by the stories within. The Crystal Cave was one such force. Having grown up hearing my mother tell tales from King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, I thought I’d had enough, at least at that point, and stowed the trilogy she’d purchased (anyway) on the shelf in my night table. When dusting one day the book did what you hear about in films: it called to me. I tried to clean around it but the world within was relentless, beckoning, pulling, whispering my fate. I remember still being crouched on the floor next to my bed as I reached the fourth of fifth chapter.

For my money, this is what a book should do–get a hold on you and resist letting go. One author remarked that one of the greatest compliments he can get is when someone says they lost sleep reading his work. Dinner burns; you hang onto the strap in the Metro with one hand, open book in the other; errands fall by the wayside; or you keep thinking about what happened last and when a free moment comes once more, you head for that book. There are a lot of ways to feel the pull and I know many of you share the sentiment when I say it is a wonderfully delicious sensation.

Hollow Hills
The cover I knew way back when. It was as if I recognized the place I was from, and longed to return.

Later, in university, I was so fortunate to enter the classroom of an amazing professor whose classroom style, wealth of information and sheer love of literature–you could feel it in the air and settling on your being–was so infectious that she practically had followers. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I was delighted to discover I was not the only one who had found one day that something was different about our love of reading. It had reached a whole new level. Perhaps we understood about the key she had just handed us, that she was teaching us how to unlock the door to yet more worlds. There’s no way to teach anybody everything there is to know about literature in four years, and I do admit to having been a bit burnt out toward the end, but what I learned about it, what else I can see and gather from what is present in any story–and not–made it all the more rich and rewarding. Many others know more than I do, and so the learning process continues, and will, until I am no more. She gave that to me, to us.

It’s a great honor for me to be able to perform even a fraction of what this gifted professor did. Reading is so important in life, the earlier the better, for practical as well as “leisurely” reasons, and if I am able to open up this world to anyone, even lead them to a fantabulous story they remember for life, I consider that a great success. It reminds me of a poem a friend once gifted me inside a greeting:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.–Ralph Waldo Emerson

So it starts with practicality: great recommendations toward books worthy of the time, money and energy readers invest in them. I only review works that meet this criteria.

That said, what exactly does it take to meet this criteria? Any given reviewer, myself or anyone else, has his or her own tastes, some of which may overlap with others’. Ultimately it comes down to the question Would you tell others they should read this? with a breakdown to the following points:

  • The blurb describes a plot that captures my attention and develops within the book in a well-written, logical and authentic style. It is researched well.
  • The work maintains a reasonable balance between being reader- and writer-friendly. That is to say it doesn’t spoon feed me information or isn’t dumbed down, but also doesn’t rely on referential material the author is withholding or unreasonably expecting me to know already.
  • Characters are developed and meaningful; I grow to care for and remember them long after the book is finished.
  • The language is lovely—the words needn’t be posh or expensive, but they are more than mere vehicles for the transit of information. Instead they touch me in a way that draws me in and makes me think. I also appreciate words that flow like water off my tongue as I read them aloud.
  • I become so invested with the book I don’t want to put it down.
  • Economy: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” As short as Hemingway’s six-word short story is, it tells a tale that even can be interpreted in more ways than one, and that impresses me. It’s a somewhat extreme example of how someone can say a lot with very few words, but it gets the point across rather well, no? I very much admire authors who can do this.
  • Literary techniques are utilized so seamlessly the links they create seem part of the natural landscape

While this is not an exhaustive listing, it covers the major areas where I look for quality. Of course, some books touch each of us on different levels, which is one reason I enjoy reading reviews as well as writing them. This enables me to get a glimpse through the eyes of another onto the world we share, the same books we may experience. Some books find their way to a special spot in my reader’s heart, such as The Crystal Cave and the rest of The Merlin Trilogy. No matter how often I read them, I am transported and the world outside pauses as I join this one, as happened to me first during that long-ago teenage day.

thelastenchantment02.png
By the time I reached this volume in the series, I was losing that feeling of knowing there was still so much more ahead to read. It triggered a quest in me: to find and read every book about Merlin and King Arthur I could find. My mother watched knowingly, willingly chauffeuring me from library to library, bookstore to bookstore. 

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Storm

In the Shadow of the Storm (Book I in The King’s Greatest Enemy series)

by Anna Belfrage

Prior to reading In the Shadow of the Storm I had devoured Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga series in its entirety—more than once. I think I may have read the first, A Rip in the Veil, perhaps four or five times. They just never grow old. Her writing is fluid, the characters likable and events dramatic and keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your seat thrilling.

shadowHowever, I wondered. Belfrage herself had said she didn’t think this new series would be my cup of tea and indeed I don’t know 1321 England, where the novel is set, all that well. It wasn’t difficult for me to take the plunge, however, because my previous experience with her work is of being immersed in reader-friendly writing. That is to say she doesn’t withhold information, expecting you to know every reference or nuance in order to enjoy the book. Nor does she spoon feed readers information as if we were not to be trusted handling history.

The story opens as Kit de Courcy is abducted with intent of dropping her in place of her half—and legitimate—sister, Katherine de Monmouth, who is scheduled to marry Adam de Guirande, vassal to Roger, Baron Mortimer. Forced into “replacing” her runaway sister, whose appearance she mirrors, Kit goes through with the wedding, followed by constant tension tempered by Mabel, Katherine’s servant, whose own history with the family is long.

In this time of Edward II, who allows his favorites to unduly and dangerously influence him, despite their own personal ambitions, awaiting fate has a chilling feel. Hugh Despenser the Younger scatters his own supporters amongst the king’s officers, is an unyielding gatekeeper and demands bribes before he will allow baronial access to Edward, a set of circumstances that lends him the opportunity to force relinquishment and confiscation of lands and lordships, rapidly accumulating his own real estate kingdom.

Baron Mortimer, whose family holds a long-standing feud with that of Despenser—owing to the battlefield death of the latter’s grandfather committed by the former’s—watches in horror as Despenser’s power grows and frightening fate comes closer to reality. The Marcher barons initially succeed in having Despenser exiled, though the king protects his favorite, even seizing Welsh lands with the intent to grant them to Despenser. His alliance with Despenser and refusal to stop the violation of his own barons’ privileges put all involved on a clear path to war.

Belfrage succinctly opens up and lays this all out with a narrative that is accessible, polished and enticing. History is never dull with this author, and even an era unknown opens wide, beckoning for readers to step within as she guides us, not only fearlessly on her part, but also while putting us at ease. Once you get rolling, you won’t want to put this book down.

Owing fealty to Mortimer, de Guirande is required to follow his lord, even while he fears he has overreached. After all, this is a time when some officials outright refuse to be in Edward’s presence if Despenser is with him, for fear of being murdered. These concerns overlap his domestic anxieties, what with the rumors concerning his new wife and the baron, his brother reminding him at every turn and Katherine’s bizarre behavior. Slowly, however, the pair begin truly to grow as a couple and their bond sets Katherine—Kit—on a path closer to war as well.

It occurred to me that some readers may balk at what they see as a stereotypical forced marriage of the demure woman to a boisterous and aggressive man, whom she later falls in love with, fights others for and so on. However, it also remains viable that we seem so familiar with these alliances because, unlike weddings followed by years of drudgery and dull existence, even if those were far more common, the former received much more press. To begin with, these pairs were historically more likely to be literate, therefore capable of expressing themselves and recording their experiences. Moreover, even amongst our ancestors, stories of women acting outside the standards of behavior, provided they advanced only to certain spots outside, were far more entertaining than long narratives about women who duly washed dishes for the lengths of their lives. And, of course, our female kin were more likely to enjoy stories in which their sisters, at least to some extent, won what so many wanted: the happiness of having secured a spot in which a woman mattered beyond her ability to reproduce.

So while Adam and Kit falling for one another might not come as a surprise, what happens within all that is to Belfrage’s credit. Her characters are multi dimensional and their lives do not play out according to script. They are complex people with a variety of perspectives on the complicated affairs in their country, which they are required to respond to not only to inform their lives but also to protect them.

Kit having to work through her abduction—it being perpetrated by a woman is the first step in Belfrage’s defiance of the bad caricature of Vedic-like wife stealing—and deal with how to move forward in light of her own experience, principles, fears and, let’s face it, reality of politics, affect her relationships with Adam and Mabel as they weave through each interaction. There are no easy outs, and the author remains true to historical reality by remaining within its confines.

Ever since Adam rode away, Kit seemed to spend her days in endless vigil. Not that she stood on the curtain wall all the time—Lady Joan would not have allowed it—but her mind was always with him, wondering if he was cold, if he was well and alive. Outwardly she maintained a rigid calm, submerging herself in her sewing to allow her thoughts to wander, unimpaired, to him.

 “In God’s hands,” Mabel sighed. “Best you pray, my lady.”

 So Kit did, becoming a recurring visitor to the little chapel.

 “I did not expect such a devout sister-in-law,” William said with a little smile, when yet again he came upon her on her knees at the alter.

 “I did not expect to live through the fear of losing my man in warfare,” she retorted.

 “You didn’t?” He sounded surprised. “Men of noble birth have always ridden to war with depressing regularity.”

The author moves forward, taking Kit and the others beyond this, geographically as well as within the plot line. We see Kit settle in to who she is, gaining self confidence and growing close to her husband. It is classic Belfrage in the sense that her writing is so wonderfully sinuous, graceful or gritty when called for and one with our reading selves. However, Adam and Kit are their own people within a whole new story, and the events of their lives and perilous, changing times are brought to life with a force that informs and entertains with a staying power as strong as their will to claim their lives for themselves.

Inspired in large part by Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor, Belfrage not only delves into a period in history unfamiliar to many (including myself), but also does so with aplomb and expertise. Having woven a fictional story within historical events, both containing links back and forth to other political allies and enemies, kin and neighbor, events and consequences, it is one clearly articulated and recounted by a professional. Belfrage’s storytelling, so assured and captivating, is one of the reasons why humans innately love to hear a tale told.

The King’s Greatest Enemy continues in Days of Sun and Glory , most definitely a continuation I shall not like to miss, nor should you.

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From Anna Belfrage’s website

annaI was always going to be a writer – well in between being an Arctic explorer, a crusader or Richard Lionheart’s favourite page (no double entendre intended – I was far too innocent at the time). Anyway, not for me the world of nine to five, of mortgages and salary checks. Oh no; I was going to be a free spirit, an impoverished but happy writer, slaving away in a garret room.

Life happened. (It does, doesn’t it?) I found myself the bemused holder of a degree in Business Admin, and a couple of years later I was juggling a challenging career, four kids, a husband (or was he juggling me?) a jungle of a garden, a dog, a house …. Not much time for writing there, let me tell you. At most, I stole a moment here or there.

Fortunately, kids grow up. My stolen moments became hours, became days, weeks, months …. It is an obsession, this writing thing. It is a joy and a miracle, a constant itch and an inroad to new people, new places, new times.

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Follow and learn more about Anna Belfrage and her work at her websiteTwitter and Facebook. Also stay tuned for an upcoming interview wit Belfrage and more book reviews of her fantabulous stories!

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A copy of In the Shadow of the Storm was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Images courtesy Anna Belfrage.

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Author Interview: Carol Edgerley (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner)

Stay tuned for my reviews of Claire and the upcoming Susanna: The Early Years, books II and III in The Merencourt Saga.

Today I am honored to welcome Carol Edgerley, author of the B.R.A.G. Medallionmarg-winning Marguerite, the story of her French great grandmother’s adventurous life and times. Born to privilege, Marguerite de Merencourt defies her parents’ ambition and chooses her own path. Her travels take her to British India where she learns and begins to pay the price for the independence she claims.

Edgerley follows the saga up with Claire, which focuses on Marguerite’s firstborn daughter, and currently is working on a third book, Susanna. While all these women are strong characters determined to find success, they are very much their own people and the directions their lives take are as varied and unpredictable as anything fictional tales might serve up.

Interestingly, when reading Claire, by which time I had already read and reviewed its predecessor, I broke periodically, tablet at my side, to engage in chat with Miss Edgerley. She was first to “see” my reactions to what I had been reading and we discussed families, ambition, children—all kinds of topics. It was a great experience and, unplanned as it was, provided a real opportunity for both of us to unpack some of our thoughts, ideas, responses to life events, coming from different perspectives as they do, and contemplate it all in a thoughtful fashion. It was amazing to experience alongside my reading, and I shall treasure the memory always.

claireI, too, enjoyed the unexpected dialogue about Claire with you, Lisl!  It’s not every day that I have the opportunity of “seeing” somebody’s reaction to a book I have written. I was also impressed that you did not immediately condemn Claire for being a double-dyed bitch: she was a complex character, had a difficult childhood, was sometimes stupidly impulsive, but capable of deep love and loyalty. Claire was so like her mother in temperament…but without her innate courage.

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Carol Edgerley! It’s so wonderful to get to chat to you again! How have you been doing these days? Hopefully the sun has been shining strongly in your neck of the woods.

So this is probably a question you frequently get: You were meant—on orders of your mother, who was not pleased with your math scores—to be learning from an auntie handpicked to tutor you. Instead the pair of you got into conversations about her family. As you write in your foreword, once you asked, she was off and running. So it took no cajoling or persuasion to get her going? Did she try to tell a little but then get back to math? Did you have to ask a few times? Or did she pretty much abandon that project? (giggles) Did your math grades improve at all? 

My great-aunt Christina was a real sweetie as well as being a mathematician and teacher. Faced with the (undoubtedly) sulky face of her niece, maybe it wasn’t altogether surprising she was easily distracted from the onerous task in hand? Did my grades improve? Er…no. I can add, subtract, multiply and divide and still know my multiplication tables!

How long after hearing these details and stories did you begin to write down the bits and pieces? Before you began to seriously work on the first book, had you any idea you would become a writer?

I never did write anything down. The story seemed to be branded on my mind, occasionally trotted out in conversation when appropriate (discussing one’s unusual relatives for instance). I was a dedicated teacher with no thought of becoming a writer.

Marguerite was a formidable woman who overcame a lot. She escaped an arranged marriage, but alienated her family. What if she had gone ahead with the marriage? Do you think her strong will could have seen her through it to be as ambitious and productive as she proved to be apart from it?

From my own standpoint, I think Marguerite would have carried the mantle of Countess magnificently, despite her young age! Her strong will might well have clashed with her older and possibly more conventional husband’s family, but I am sure Marguerite would have brushed all that aside. And she would always have had the support of her father and grandparents.

Are there any other books, authors or styles that influenced how you wrote Marguerite’s story?

Not for Marguerite. I wrote about her in longhand from the heart (subsequently investigating the mysteries of a computer, Mac Word and email) and later transcribed the manuscript to a computer, editing chunks with lots of swear words as I went. I don’t think I ever thought about style per se…I merely liked the way Rosamund Pilcher wrote her books for instance. Also Judith Kranz’s writing appealed to me.

Have you met Marguerite de Merencourt? If so, what was your impression of her? Did she give any clues as to her impression of you?

I believe Marguerite saw me as an infant, and apparently declared me to be on the scrawny side and needed feeding up! I would have loved to meet her when she was a girl…so much fun in spite the constraints of a difficult youth.

horserace
Sadly, no pictures of Marguerite are now known to exist; she was not very keen to be photographed. From childhood Minette, as she was affectionately called, drew great comfort from and loved horses dearly. Above: Calcutta Racecourse

What traits do you think you inherited from your great grandmother? My guess would be the animal lover in you. (I must show you that magazine spread about the donkey sanctuary in Ireland, by the way!) What else?

Yes, a love of animals of course, especially horses. I suppose I also inherited a core of steel that has enabled me to cope with life’s difficulties…if not always correctly! Other than that, I have dark curly hair like she had…and I regard France as the country where I have roots….

What is your favorite part of writing?

I love relating amusing incidents, also vignettes that are exciting or adventurous. I hated writing about the negative aspects of my girls…but that’s how it was after all.

Do you have other ideas banging around for future projects?

There is still the second half of Susanna’s life (volume 2) to come, after which there is the fascinating story of Olivia…all supposing I can pin her down to garner all the pertinent points of her life and factual events!!  Not an easy task as Olivia is a great traveller….

Do you have an all-time favorite book (or series)?

I adore all David Starkey’s historical books as well as Simon Schama’s. Alison Weir is also a favourite author of mine. At the opposite end of the scale I enjoy Mary Higgins Clark’s novels, also Martina Cole and Lynda le Plante’s thrillers.

Apart from your relatives and ancestors, are there any historical figures you would like to spend a day with if you had the chance? Or an historical event you would want to witness?

I would have loved to be around during Edward VIII’s scandalously salacious affair with Wallis Simpson! The woman actually referred to Queen Elizabeth as “Cookie”! As for spending the day, I guarantee there would be no boredom on a visit to the Tower of London and Hampton Court with David Starkey or Simon Schama!  My two heroes of all time!

Here are a few different kind of questions I thought might be fun…

Could you go a week without the Internet?

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I’d wake up early for that pool!

I have gone five weeks without telephone or Internet, thanks to the local telephone guys’ incompetent messing up the line with “works”! GRRR!  It was like being “Confined to Barracks”!

 Are you an early or late riser?

Early. With children and animals…no chance of snoring till midday! After which it became habitual…and even if the opportunity presents itself, I simply can’t!

 What jokes make you really laugh out loud?

Silly caricatures or videos of animal antics that I post on my Facebook timeline, and the occasional bit of smut…provided it’s funny!

garden oneDo you buy flowers often?

Yes, I do…in winter!  I love my garden that is a mass of flowers from May onward…nothing arranged, just a profusion of colour and scents. In winter I buy bunches from the local supermarket!

What was your latest discovery?

An unwelcome one!  With increasing age I find I can no longer play with my weight…put on a kilo or two…lose them just as easily. Strong genes in the family condemn me to taking care of what I put in my mouth all the time!  Being a vegetarian doesn’t help much…but I believe I have finally found my personal answer to a reasonable weight and good health to boot!

What would you like to mention—book related or not—that we haven’t yet talked about?

garden twoI dread what the future holds regarding the overwhelming migrant problem Europe is facing.  All those who rant about “lack of humanity” and that all should be accepted into whatever country they wish…cannot have thought about clash of culture, school places, medical availability and housing, not to mention a lack of desire to integrate with the country’s own population.

Ability and willingness to integrate is so crucial, especially as concerns the country’s heritage. That’s why it’s so important that writers such as yourself record the lives of those who came before, and I am so grateful for this. Not just for the amazing reads, although there is that. From our ancestors we have also learned a great deal about our past and how to be better people. However, everyone must engage in this type of self reflection and bring the best to wherever they go.

Carol, thanks so much for taking the time to sit with me for a few and being such a great sport! I always enjoy our chats and am looking forward to more in the future. And as for that chat when reading Susanna–you’ve got it!

Me too, Lisl!  Keep smiling and in regular contact!  xxx

You bet!!!

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Carol Edgerley tells us in her own words a bit about her amazing life…

Born in Calcutta, Carol spent most of her early childhood in France and then Jersey in the Channel Islands. Educated first at a French convent, she then attended Jersey College for Girls and later went to Heathfield, a girls’ boarding school in Ascot.

carol edgerleyThroughout her long life (and three marriages) Carol has travelled extensively, visiting the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, living several years in France, India and Hong Kong.

A qualified teacher, Carol ran a successful tutorial in Hong Kong for many years, teaching children French and English towards eventual O-Level examinations. She is delighted to still keep in touch with a number of ex-pupils.

Upon retirement to France, Carol was able to carry out a burning desire to write the story of her French great grandmother’s astonishing life, told to her by a great aunt when she was twelve years of age. In the delightful surroundings of her home in the Dordogne at that time, she wrote the story of Marguerite in long hand, initially for the benefit of her three children.

Years went by, and sweating blood and tears, Carol battled the mysteries of a computer, Mac Word and email…finally Facebook and Twitter. Encouraged by friends and her three children, she re-invented herself as a writer and typed out the manuscript of Marguerite on her new Mac computer, editing furiously as she went. The exercise, however, took decidedly longer than she had imagined!

Unwilling to pursue a (generally) disappointing path to literary agents and publishers, being dismally aware her work might end up unread, and thrown on a “slush pile,” Carol ventured into the world of self publishing. It was one of her life’s greatest emotional moments to hold a print copy of Marguerite in her hands for the first time!

Delighted by readers’ response to the book, Carol went on to write Claire, the story of Marguerite’s wilful elder daughter, who led an amazing if somewhat tragic life. Now there is Susanna: The Early Years (Volume 1), soon to be published, this being the story of one of Claire’s granddaughters. This particular book shines a light on bullying in its worst form, an unpleasantness that unfortunately persists to this day.

Susanna: A Tale of Passion and Betrayal (Volume 2) will follow in due course.

Carol still lives in France, now in a comfortable old farmhouse set in the centre of its own twenty-eight acres of pastureland in the Vendée. Sitting at her desk in the veranda, she is invariably surrounded by six much-loved adopted dogs of all shapes and sizes.

Breakfast time!

Her two well-travelled horses now gone to heaven, she keeps five gorgeous, Baudet de Poitou donkeys. Adding to the animal family, there are two small bunnies living in their “château” and very large cage, a sweet barn cat, and an elderly cockatiel that can colourfully swear…when in the mood!

During summer months, Carol receives visitors at her bed & breakfast, helping to finance her large animal family and maintain her home.

You can follow Carol Edgerley and learn more about her work at her Facebook page for Marguerite as well as her own timelinewebsite and Twitter. And remember to pick up Susanna, latest addition in The Merencourt Saga.

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All images courtesy Carol Edgerley.

Book Review: Shaman’s Blues

Shaman’s Blues (Book II in the Mae Martin Mysteries series)

by Amber Foxx

A B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree

shamanSecond in Amber Foxx’s Mae Martin Mysteries series, Shaman’s Blues gives us a sneak peak into a dire moment in Jamie Ellerbee’s life, then re-opens with Mae Martin as she prepares to leave her Virginia practice where, until now, she offered energy healing and psychic services. A year since discovering her psychic ability, Mae is now in the midst of a divorce and about to embark on a journey to New Mexico, where she will attend university and re-unite with her father, who came out and separated from his family when Mae was a teenager.

Before leaving, her soon-to-be-former supervisor, Deborah, gifts a CD of healing music to Mae, with an “ulterior motive,” as Deborah playfully calls it. The musician, Jangerrai, seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, or at least from Santa Fe and all known Internet, and Mae is tasked with finding him.

It doesn’t take Mae long to encounter a variety of personalities: her father and his peevish partner, Niall; Kenny, her new neighbor; even Muffie Blanchette, owner of a local restaurant that caters to what Neill refers to as “spiritual tourism.” Dada Café, called after an art style later linked to theater, utilizes customers in a similar way as the stage movement, with the philosophy that the “audience is as much a part of the show as the actors.”

Muffie, who typically circulates, advising patrons on colors, food intake and the state of their auras, disappears following an encounter with pragmatic Mae, who is then informed by the manger, Roseanne, of Muffie’s stated intent to ascend. She thinks Muffie is a whackjob, and shows the psychic Muffie’s website:

Sri Rama Kriya teaches us how to choose our time and leave our bodies without pain or death, how to channel our spirits directly to the upper realms of energy and light. When you study Ascended Bliss, you are freed from the cycle of karma and rebirth, and from your body.

At this point Roseanne enlists Mae to find Muffie, steering her two searches together and leading the healer toward a path inhabited by a series of quirky characters of many temperaments. Foxx even sets the story in a place with a cautionary moniker: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, pertinent not only for being an unusual designation, but also the city’s acquisition of it whereby the inhabitants became part of the television show it gets its name from.

As I was getting started, I’d wondered if the book would read like a New Age novel, but Foxx keeps it diverse, with doubt even from Mae re: the veracity of some individuals’ beliefs, and includes the added bonus of treating vulnerable characters with dignity. Shaman’s Blues is also a smooth read with an intriguing landscape to match the sense of place infused within:

Openness to the odd fit with the character of the land: vast empty spaces of juniper-stubbled pink-beige dirt, dramatic wind-carved cliffs, narrow hoodoo towers, broad mesas, blood red arroyos, black volcanic teeth jutting from brown earth. Anything seemed possible here.

 Fortunately, Mae is open to these possibilities, and as she encounters answers new questions arise, leading her to be a detective of sorts in the life’s mysteries referred to in the series’ tagline, “Every life hides a secret.” What secrets are these two people hiding? As she makes considerable strides in her searches while also trying to live her life, Mae begins to recognize the realities of hiding behind created identities, to become someone more fascinating as well as more ordinary, to hide from others and from one’s own self.

As Mae locates Jangerrai and begins to unravel some of the mystery behind a semi exchange of roles involving the two missing persons, she becomes familiar with the world of the shaman, part of his world whereby an individual in aboriginal Australian society is chosen by the spirits to learn to utilize the elements and act as a go-between for the human and spiritual dimensions. It is a heady realm to be investigating and the skittish singer only slowly and reluctantly reveals to Mae the events that brought him to the place he now inhabits.

The journey is one that Foxx maps out with expertise and finesse, playing knowingly to reader expectations and drawing back at just the right moments. We feel Mae’s frustrations, sometimes groan at her enduring patience, and always eagerly read on to see what she is coming to know, whether it be more recounting of events or details that link her closer to understanding the past. It is a topographic exploration of the psyche to learn the lay of the land, and she must walk it to determine the features and their limitations, as well as which direction to move from there.

Few of us have the gifts Mae is given, but we have in common with her our own limitations, such as with a likeable but needy person who holds on too much, too long.

It was going to be a long, long night. Mae hoped she could get through it still liking him. He had the potential to either entertain her or get on her nerves, and it was a fifty-fifty which way things would go.

The author also tosses in the familiar in a new way—  “Whoop – missed the street – chuck a yewy”—and humor we can relate to—“a van that looked old enough to vote”— to create a balance of the fresh and familiar. In so doing, she also tells us a story with a potentially heavy framework, but in a manner that keeps us from having to perform the heavy lifting.

As she begins to wind down, Foxx also gives us a thrilling few moments, within the plot as well as where it all will take those involved, including readers. I personally was pleased to see that certain events do and do not transpire, and how the author takes us back to Mae’s beginnings while also showing the resultant links amongst various players. These are sure to spur readers to seek out number one in the series and learn the events in Mae’s own life, her marriage, the discovery of her gifts, everything that leads her to the moment she herself now inhabits, where we as readers first came together.

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AmberAmber Foxx has worked professionally in theater, dance, fitness, and academia. Her training and academic studies in various fields of complementary and alternative medicine, including energy healing, bring authenticity to her work. She has researched psi phenomena through the scientific literature and by talking with seers and healers. A college professor and yoga teacher, she divides her time between the Southeast and the Southwest, living in Truth or Consequences during her New Mexico months.

The fifth book in the Mae Martin Series, set in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and the Mescalero Apache reservation, is well underway and should be out later in 2016.

You can learn more about and follow Amber Foxx at her website. Shaman’s Blues and other books are available for purchase at a variety of outlets and can be accessed here.

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A copy of Shaman’s Blues was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Images courtesy Amber Foxx.