Where Were You When…? – Remembering 1066

Nearly 1,000 years have passed ….

In October 2016 I began a series of posts in memory of 1066, arguably the most important year in the history of England. Interestingly enough, while I enjoyed history, this era was not always my favored, as it once seemed so complicated and intimidating; my memories of studying it in school were filled with details I didn’t really understand, or there were so many layered on top of each other they seemed to crush me.

Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf persuaded me out of my comfort zone, the Wars of the Roses period, and when I began to see the era as populated by people rather than a series of dates (as I was able for the fifteenth century), plus the greater significance of exactly what had happened–what I only partially appreciated during my school years–I was hooked.

A couple of years after, I read Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen, which was poetry in prose and simply unforgettable. Whitehead’s examination of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, indeed the Lady herself, impressed upon me our great heritage of language, literature, spirituality and yearning for freedom–plus the willingness to fight for it. While I certainly admire other historical figures and groups, the Anglo-Saxons have to greater effect shown me the importance of remembering, thus this series for them and the freedom they fought to keep for us. Unfortunately, they did lose the most important battle and the end of their era arrived, but their legacy lives on.

*********

Today, five years since this series, we once again mark another anniversary of Hastings, so soon after Stamford and the great hope that Harold Godwinson would drive the invading Normans from English shores. Alas, it was not to be, and the years that followed birthed more stories and writings than most modern people have ever heard of, though it’s always a good time to look into our past: where we came from, who influenced us and, indeed, the invaders. Below are just a few pieces/works for or about this dramatic period that changed the course of history, and you can also find articles about Harold Godwinson and other 1066-related topics at Murray and Blue.

hastings
By image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons (Click image)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Sons of the Wolf (Updated) (October 14, 2016)  Marks the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: 1066: What Fates Impose (October 14, 2016) Marks the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: 1066: What Fates Impose (October 25, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: Sons of the Wolf (November 5, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Blog: “Senlac Ridge” (Ian David Churchward) (November 12, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: The Wolf Banner (November 20, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Blog: “One Crown, Four Claimants” (G.K. Holloway) (November 25, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Poet Post: “Prayer to Woden” (Rob Bayliss) (November 26, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: The Wolf Banner (December 11, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Marching Toward 1066 (Annie Whitehead) (December 19, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Excerpt: 1066: What Fates Impose (December 25, 2016)

950 Intermission: Recording History in Film (December 31, 2016)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Bastard of Normandy v. the Golden Warrior (Paula Lofting) (January 16, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Book Review: Alvar the Kingmaker (January 23, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: Between Two Worlds (Annie Whitehead) (January 28, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss) (February 9, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview: Paula Lofting (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner) (April 1, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: The Price of Love and Loyalty (Annie Whitehead) (May 13, 2017)

950: 1066 Remembered, Interview (Glynn Holloway) (September 25, 2017) Anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, September 25, 1066

950: 1066 Remembered, Secrets Through a Tapestry of Time (October 14, 2017) Final installment, marking the Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066

#iHeartAngloSaxons

Another series that may be of interest,

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen

Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (Blog that led to the series) (July 22, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Book Review: To Be A Queen (September 13, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Interview with Author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (September 20, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Guest Post: Invitation to the Past (September 27, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Excerpt: To Be A Queen (October 4, 2016)

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Cover Crush: To Be A Queen (October 11, 2016)

#iHeartAngloSaxons

Winter is Coming: Cleaning and Contemplating

Musings on winter prep, memories from smell

and Cecily Neville on a trip into the mountains

Though we’ve had a spot of termination dust recently, winter otherwise isn’t really making itself known to us yet, at least not in a big way. At the same time, it’s pretty safe to say summer is a thing of the past, and to that end I’ve been engaging in a few activities to psych myself up for the long months ahead.

CLEANING IS NOT REALLY ANYONE’S FAVORITE, but for me it does have a bit of a soothing calm, if I do it methodically and without rush. I always do this first because even a small corner of chores from this angle sort of revs me up for more, and I get into the groove of moving outward from there, making sure the pieces fit together nicely. Once I start baking and cooking for the freezer, for example, I want to be adding my prepped goods to a space clean and ready to receive it. The same goes for the rest of the kitchen and, indeed, my home, which I will aim to shed of clutter and excess. Sometimes it can be tricky to decide what is stuff as opposed to valued pieces –and by valued I mean that they “bring me joy,” as Marie Kondo might say. Not too long ago I whisked everything off the tops of furniture in my living room (bookshelves, armoire, son’s desk hutch), power dusted and replaced only some of it. I should add that I wipe with a wet cloth, then dry. A duster, in my opinion, just moves dust around, and we have a lot of it here.

With the exception of books and perhaps some records, not a lot to be added to the living room – instead I did some removal and switching around. To this area I moved two of the six lamps Turtle gifted to me last Christmas, where previously they had all been bunched together in one corner, hung at varying heights. Below, the stripping of library markings from my book sale acquisitions continues. You can see my growing collection of Karen Maitland, Michael Jecks and Alys Clare works. I love beautifully colored and shaped jars, and the card, from Hastings, still brings me joy.

I won’t really be adding things to the rest of the house the way I do the kitchen, but some items are sure to come in. Books, for example, are a given, perhaps also a few new records. I have my eyes on a pine cone project I might do, and new sheets and towels are likely this winter, perhaps even a new comforter. (This last one I keep trying to justify.) The storage area in my laundry room, though I dislike cleaning it out, at least does surprise me most of the time, in that even when I don’t get rid of much, when I put it all back, looks better than it did before. It’s not unknown for me to go in there a few times in the days after just to look at it.

I WON’T START COOKING AND FREEZING lots of food just yet, especially if I’m trying to use up what remains. Still, the fall is a wonderful time to re-visit some of the medieval recipes I’ve played with in the past, such as a Medieval Sallat. Our “monsoon” season is now upon us and I love the sensation of working the salad in the kitchen with the door or window open to hear the pitter patter of rain against the roof. I enjoy the little bit of chill, a nice contrast to the Lumbard mustard I prepare. My son loves my pumpkin bread, so I’ll make a few loaves of these as well, and the smell is simply heavenly. I’ve always heard smell is the sense most associated with memory, and indeed the wafting pumpkin sensation always brings me back to the day when he, just a tiny guy of nearly three, was nowhere to be found one Saturday morning when we’d first moved into our house. I could still smell the spices in the air from the previous night’s baking, which he’d helped me with, himself wrapping the loaves in foil and leaving them on the counter to cool off.


Turnips, quartered | Parsnips, sliced | Beets, quartered

St. John’s bread (carob) | Almonds | Filberts

Cabbage, shredded | Large prunes | Figs

Dates | Golden raisins | Dried apple rounds

Dried, honeyed pineapple, cut in small wedges

Lumbard or sharp mustard | Brown sugar

Ingredients for Medieval Salad, with simple instructions on p. 185 of

Fabulous Feasts by Madeleine Pelner Cosman


I didn’t get the panicky feel people talk about when discussing missing children; perhaps I could sense his presence, but just couldn’t place it. I looked in every single room of the house, but only came upon him when I started looking into crannies, so to speak. Eventually I located him beneath our large kitchen table, loaf of bread in hand and ripping off chunks of it to stuff into his little mouth. His tiny face turned up to me and I laughed at the scene, crying out, “Oh honey, I’m sorry, you must  be so hungry!” It was instinctive but it also served to show him he wasn’t in trouble. He crawled out and up into my lap, curled into me as I sat at the table, and continued to eat some more of his “breakfast.” We sat there a good long while after he finished, cuddled up and quietly enjoying each other’s company on that November morning.

WHEN MY HOME IS ORGANIZED AND ORDERLY, my stress level is reduced and, indeed, I can even concentrate more effectively. One result is that when I leave and come back, I can more fully enjoy the tail end of whatever activity I’ve just returned from, which to me signals the real closing portion of it, as opposed to just leaving the place I’d been to. In the case of a recent jaunt, this will actually carry on into another endeavor at home—not, strictly speaking, a winter preparation or chore, and in fact a new pursuit, the seeds of which began with repeated mention of Annie Garthwaite’s debut novel, Cecily. Still, is bears the marks of one, given the prep and indoor nature of the rest of it.

So what is it? Well, after having seen all these mentions of Garthwaite’s novel, and it being about the mother of Richard III, I simply had to look into it and ended up ordering the work for my own Richard collection. I loved the vibrant colors of the cover and began to watch my mail notifications with a bit more enthusiasm. It was perfect timing to learn more about Cecily Neville, a strong, capable woman, the mother of kings who navigated them and herself through years of war and peace, both of which required action plans in the fifteenth century. With winter coming on and more reading time ahead, I gave a peek at the author’s website, which included the recipe for a “classic cocktail that celebrates Cecily’s complexity and strength of character.” It was perhaps the color that drew me in most—the color! So vibrant, like the volume’s own cover and, indeed, Cecily’s character. Of course, a bit of vibrancy in winter is a great little tool to have in one’s arsenal, non?

SO I DECIDED TO DO IT, though the hibiscus the Negroni recipe mentions wasn’t available here, and a friend and I decided to substitute fireweed petals—a nice little Alaskan twist (and seen above, sprinkled across the table). Personally, I think Cecily would enthusiastically approve of making something your own, even toss a Good on you! at the notion of embracing one’s own environment and acknowledging its part in what makes you, you. As it happened, the plans my friend and I made seemed constantly thwarted, re-scheduling becoming an annoyingly constant recourse. Then, a Wednesday arrived in which we were finally able to go up in elevation (the fireweed was rather picked out down in the city and surrounding area), and we did. When I met up with her, I also had great news: my copy of Cecily had arrived that very day! Serendipitous, she called it.

More serendipity occurred: On our way, we missed the exit we needed off the highway, so we simply took the next one, near to which is a back road that links the two. Slow is required, not only as it is a smaller road, but also since troops frequently use it. We didn’t run into the Army that day, but were happily surprised to come upon a black bear crossing the road. We both grabbed our phones, but somehow it just didn’t work. As for me, I was a bit excited and flustered, so the presence of mind to zoom in wasn’t there, and we had to carry on. “Perhaps we’ll see him on our way out,” Vita remarked. Mmmmm. Perhaps, I remember thinking, though I doubt it.

As it happened, we did! I couldn’t believe our luck when, as we ambled past the last of the greenery marking the road toward and away from the mountain, I spotted he who by that time I had named Randy. He had a small brown marking on his snout and he just struck me as…Randy. Even Randall if one was to be on formal acquaintance. This time we were prepared and managed to get lots of video. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to edit it—it’s a bit long—but I do have a still from it and will add the actual video once I have it all prepped. I love how the still came out—Randy looks sort of like a model, posed in transition with his foot dangling gracefully as he peers back at us, sitting not far away. Eventually he came closer, and I was surprised at how much noise he made walking through the grass. Vita aimed both phones, something I learned a few minutes later was actually rather difficult to do, while I had my finger at the ready, prepared to close the window if Randy got too close. But all was peaceful and eventually Randy himself ambled across the road and into the forest on the other side.

What would Cecily make of this? Since time travel is almost always on my mind, I contemplate what it might be like to have hosted her on our little jaunt, show her a little piece of our homeland. By Cecily’s time, bears were extinct on the British Isles, but I like to think she would not cower at the unknown quantity. I think she would be curious and enthralled. Perhaps she would even take the view, as we often do, that if we respect their boundaries and take care around them, they are not really the ones to fear. The army she would encounter on these roads would be what we call friendly, though her own experiences with armies might give her pause. Still, I feel she wouldn’t back down from the opportunity we set out for that day, and would have been an enthusiastic participant, especially once she learned about our plans and winter prep. I don’t yet know much about Cecily, but one trait I have always believed she possessed is curiosity.  

A marvelous attribute, curious is a delightful manner in which to approach life, perhaps especially winter, really with so many things to discover, even if much of it comes by way of performing the ordinary tasks of the season that, to many, can often be written off as sheer drudgery or tedious in character. Though I typically enjoy winter, it can be this way for me too at times. I hope to make this year different by more often finding the Cecily in me—not because I will be doing anything of great consequence to or for the world, but perhaps at least for mine. Finding things meaningful to life is one manner in which to build up ways to make a difference to others. The pieces fit together nicely, you might say.

And so in this manner I make my way toward winter, cleaning and contemplating, peering backward and looking to the future. It’s a little surreal to be fussing over ordinary tasks while the world seems to be turning upside down, and perhaps Cecily would be able to relate to this as well. But time marches on, and winter is coming. Summer is a thing of the past and the time to adapt is at hand.

Slideshow images: Cecily, fireweed petals and Negroni ingredients; Anchorage in the distance; Randy peering at us during a break from bulking up; fireweed petals soaking in boiling water; a sprig of mint leaf for good measure, just because it made a nice image; roughly half the bottle of gin poured into a glass jar with boiled fireweed petals added. They now will infuse for a few days.

Above: Portion of the Chugach Range.

All images courtesy Lisl Madeleine. Permission required to reproduce; while permission typically will be given, it must be acquired in writing. See Book Review Policies for email address.

Book Release Update: Our Anthology Has Been Released!

The Road Not Travelled: Alternative Tales of the Wars of the Roses

for Richard Tearle

Silver groat of King Richard III (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Back in April, I dropped an update about an anthology I had written a short story for and preparing for a July release. There was a lot of back and forth re: corrections and I too received some returns from our editor, Joanne Larner, whose attention to detail truly saved me from making some very silly mistakes.

At the time I also didn’t know who would be writing our foreword. While this may be “old news” for some now, as my update comes a bit late, I’m still pleased as punched to report that we have had an early release with a foreword by Matthew Lewis, Chairman of the Richard III Society. He penned a really fantabulous bit, including some background for those unfamiliar with the whole Wars of the Roses shebang.

And now guess what!? I can’t believe I was able to contain it for this long, but a few days ago I received my box of author copies! The box was super heavy, though I didn’t notice it until I tried to shift it up the stairs. “How in the world did you carry this thing?” I queried my son, who just shrugged. Ah well, boys, you know, it’s just a box to them! He rolled his eyes when he looked into the box, supremely uninterested in the Wars of the Roses as he is. My eyebrow went up just a tad, though, because for someone who says he doesn’t really care all that much, he sure does know a lot about Richard III! And I still have a wonderful little drawing of Richard he made when he was younger.

So, I haven’t finished reading the entire book yet – it’s a little over 350 pages! Not just some flash-in-the-pan, thin volume you read in one day and forget about by the next. It’s got some heft to it, and that’s not only attributable to its physical weight. What I have read so far is very thoughtful and considered, and this just renews what I’d already felt about being in the company of this group of authors: extremely privileged and humbled. What great company to be in – thankfully they would have me! And that would include the late Richard Tearle, to whom the volume is dedicated. I did not know Richard very well myself, only becoming acquainted with him a few years back when he very kindly gave me permission to use some of his photos here at the blog. He was always very friendly with me and made transfer of info and photos back and forth practically effortless. Sadly, Richard was no longer with us to see publication, but I have hope that he can see us from his place now, as pleased as we are. I believe he can hear me when I say, “Well done, Richard! Your story shines.”

My own yarn, “Episodes in the Life of King Richard III,” is the penultimate tale, the final one being a wrap-up of a three-part story that serves as a foundation to the book. I think I may just skip mine when I get to it – I’m a little scared to look at it! That final one, though, I’ve ready it about thirty times already, and I adore it. This is really very thrilling and I hope you all will have a look at our volume, which I also am happy to add again benefits the Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). King Richard himself, noted even by his enemies to be a skilled and courageous warrior, suffered from scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine that can reduce lung function owing to the extra space the curve takes up in the chest. According to the Mayo Clinic, while some cases of scoliosis might be caused by cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, the cause of most cases is unknown.

The Road Not Travelled: Alternative Tales of the Wars of the Roses is available in Kindle and paperback, at Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon Australia and Amazon India. (There may be others I am unaware of.) Please consider leaving a review, which are akin to gold for indie authors! It need not be long, fancy, intellectual, academic or any of those other things lots of people think book reviews must be. It can be if you like, but really even just a few words saying what you liked about the book, what might make it better, etc. Even something as short as “It’s a fabulous book!” works! My fellow authors and I will be most grateful.

Speaking of authors, here is a list of those whose stories appear in The Road Not Travelled*, in chronological order of story:

Maria Grazia Leotta

Jennifer Bradley

Alex Marchant

C.J. Lock

Toni Mount

Brian Wainwright

J.P. Reedman

Roslyn Ramona Brown

Joanne R. Larner

Sandra Heath Wilson

Bernadette Lyons

Susan Lamb

Terri Beckett

Kit Mareska

Kathy Kingsbury

Joanna Kingswood Iddison

Michéle Schindler

Clare Anderson

Richard Tearle

Jennifer C. Wilson

Lisl Madeleine

*several authors have contributed more than one story

…with amazing cover art by the talented Riika Nikko

About the Blogger

Lisl Madeleine’s first career goal in life (at age six) was to become a spy. She fell in love with Merlin, however, and espionage took a back seat. For better or worse, she is intrigued by ghosts and loves rain. She is currently at work on an expanded version of her short story, “Episodes in the Life of King Richard III,” as well as historical fiction set in the final months of King Harold II’s reign and another a couple of generations following Hastings. She writes poetry and enjoys reading Rumi, Keats, Tagore and Rosetti, amongst others, and insists that poetry is meant to be read aloud.

Added Note: This post has been updated to include an

escapee paragraph with links and note about reviews. Thank you!

Stepping Back into Saxon England: Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?

I am so pleased to have been asked to host a stop within the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour from authors Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick. Anglo-Saxon England is a fascinating place to explore, and there is never a shortage of amazing figures, events – even understandings –  to discover and wonder about.

Today Annie Whitehead focuses on Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, a mysterious individual who seemingly comes from nowhere to occupy a powerful position and secure his place in history.

Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?
by Annie Whitehead

My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, whose life was extraordinary. Only one other woman in Anglo-Saxon times ruled a kingdom, and she was ousted after a year at best. So to have led a country in times of war for nearly twenty years, Æthelflæd must have been an incredible woman.

Statue of Æthelflæd, erected in 1913 to commemorate her fortification of Tamworth. She is shown with her nephew, Æthelstan.

Her husband, though, was equally interesting. And the fascinating thing is that although he was a crucial ally for Alfred the Great, no one knows for sure where he came from or how he came to be in a position of such great power. Between them this couple fired my imagination.

So who was Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians? Certainly he was someone very different from the man portrayed in The Last Kingdom. For a start, he wasn’t a king. So where did he come from, and how did he get to be ruler of a kingdom?

Tracking down pre-Conquest people isn’t easy, and we rely heavily on the charter witness lists. If an authentic record exists of a certain land grant, then we can look at the witness lists to see who was there at that particular meeting. And since the names go in strict pecking order, it’s possible to see folks – men, usually – rising up through the ranks over the years until they reach the top slot. So it should be easy enough to check Æthelred of Mercia’s progress up to the point where he became Lord of all Mercia, right? Actually, no. He simply cannot be identified on any charters.

It’s thought that he might have been associated with the Hwicce, a people whose territory sat mainly in modern-day Gloucestershire. We first hear about them from an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the record for 628, when the king of Mercia fought the West Saxons and it’s assumed that at this point the area around Cirencester, that of the Hwicce, came under Mercian control. Whether it had hitherto been independent, or whether it just swapped one overlord for another, is hard to tell. But the Hwicce had their own kings and we know that the royal line continued into the 780s. 

It’s not certain where the name itself came from, although there might be links to the landscape around the valley between the Cotswold and Malvern Hills, and a ninth-century charter refers to woodland in the west of the region called Wychwood Forest (Huiccedwudu). They were described by one chronicler as ‘the people who live beyond the River Severn towards the west.’

So we know where they were, but can we ascertain who they were? Bede tells us that they had their own bishopric, so even if they were subordinate to, or dependent on the support of, the Mercians, they clearly had their own territory, their own diocese and their own royal house.  

We know the names of several of their kings and one, Osric, ruled in the 670s but, while in a charter relating to him he is called rex, he is acting with the consent of the king of Mercia, so already there is a sign of subjugation. Osric is associated with the founding of Gloucester Cathedral, although in those days the foundation would have been an abbey. In the eighth century, a leader of the Hwicce attested a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia only as a subregulus. Although Æthelbald referred to the ‘not ignoble royal stock of the Hwiccian people’ it is clear that by his reign (716–757) the rulers of the Hwicce were no longer kings, but subkings of Mercia. 

Their status further diminished to that of nobleman, and in the very beginning of the ninth century we hear of an ealdorman of the Hwicce, Æthelmund, who was killed attacking the people of Wiltshire at Kempsford in 802. Æthelmund was described by King Ecgfrith of Mercia merely as a faithful princeps.

The name did not die out though. 

A charter of King Edgar’s dated 969 demonstrates an awareness of the distinction between Mercia proper and the territory of the Hwicce, and between 994 and 998 King Æthelred the ‘Unready’ had only five ealdormen witnessing his charters, and one was Leofwine of the Hwicce, although it’s likely that given the small number of ealdormen at this time, Leofwine was responsible for the whole of Mercia.

Let us go back, though, to the incident in 802 when Æthelmund ‘rode from the province of the Hwiccians across the border at Kempsford.’ He was met by an ealdorman of Wiltshire and a ‘great battle’ ensued. Why were two ealdormen fighting? Well, it coincided with the death of the king of Wessex, and may offer a glimpse of the kind of turmoil which could occur around a succession, with loyal armed men ready to defend the status quo, or perhaps even to take advantage of the uncertainty.

In Wessex, ealdormen were appointed by the king, and not necessarily given titles over their local area. In Mercia, which grew up out of a federation of various tribes such as the Hwicce, the political set up was different and it seems that the ealdormen were the chiefs, or members of the erstwhile royal families of these smaller subkingdoms. Looking over the Mercian regnal lists, we can see that sons hardly ever succeeded fathers, and if they did, they often didn’t survive for very long.

And by the height of the Viking raids, when Wessex badly needed allies, Mercia had pretty much run out of kings. Alfred’s sister was married to a Mercian king, but he had fled when the Vikings overran part of Mercia and his rival and successor had a short reign. So, seemingly out of nowhere, a man named Æthelred, with no previous record of government and no royal links, is suddenly the man to go to for an alliance and, oh, he’s deemed worthy of marrying Alfred’s firstborn daughter, too. 

Historian Barbara Yorke has suggested that he was, in fact, descended from that ealdorman who rode out at Kempsford in 802. If so, it’s likely that he was therefore one of those ‘tribal’ leaders who formed part of the witan as ealdormen. It doesn’t explain his absence from the records up to this point though, nor how he came to be leader of a kingdom. But he must have been a man of exceptional qualities to have been elected. He’s mentioned by name in the records as part of the campaign against the Vikings, fighting alongside Alfred and Alfred’s son Edward. 

Æthelred is a figure not soon forgotten.

For these reasons, I suspect that he was a lot older than his wife. He had proven himself militarily and must have had a track record for the Mercians to have elected him as leader. Some think he was Alfred’s puppet, but I think not.

In my novel, I gave him boundless energy, with a mantra of ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, but also moments of self-doubt. He was a clever strategist, giving (if we believe the Irish annals) his wife clear and detailed instructions about how to oust the Vikings from Chester, and happy to work in concert with her at a time when women, though they perhaps had more freedoms than their later medieval counterparts, still were not considered strong enough to rule. 

Deerhurst is a tiny place in the heart of the Hwicce homelands, and there is a church, St Mary’s, which retains much of its Anglo-Saxon architecture. It’s still in use, so has seen well over a thousand years of continuous worship. I set a couple of scenes there, knowing that it would have been a spiritual centre for Æthelred and when I visited, I got a real sense of the past, sitting quietly on my own knowing that there was every likelihood that my characters had actually been in the same building. If Æthelred really was associated with the Hwicce then he’d have rightly been fond of this lovely church. Whoever he was, wherever he came from, I think he was a canny military leader, and a good husband. A perfect partner for the Lady of the Mercians.

About Annie Whitehead

Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month

As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.

Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.

Connect with Annie at ~
Amazon
Casting Light Upon the Shadow
Twitter
Annie Whitehead 
Facebook 

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom

“Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past. Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands…”  …but there is now!
Available in paperback from 15th October or pre-order now!

Follow the tour:
joint venture with 
Annie Whitehead
and
Helen Hollick

1st October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Helen Hollick
Lady Godiva – Who Was She, and Did She Really?
Let Us Talk Of Many Things

2nd October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Nicola Cornick
Why Do We Do It?
Word Wenches

3rd October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Lisl Zlitni
Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?
Before the Second Sleep

4th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Tony Riches
Undoing The Facts For The Benefit Of Fiction?
The Writing Desk

5th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Pam Lecky
Murder in Saxon England
Pam Lecky

6th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Derek Birks
King Arthur? From Roman Britain To Saxon England
Dodging Arrows

7th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson
Æthelflæd’s Daughter 
Samantha Wilcoxson

8th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Cryssa Bazos
An Anthology Of Authors
Cryssa Bazos

9th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Elizabeth St John 
Anglo-Saxon Family Connections
Elizabeth St. John

10th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Judith Arnopp
Alditha: Wife. Widow. Mother.
Judith Arnopp

11th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Brook Allen
Roman Remains – Did the Saxons Use Them?
Brook’s Scroll

12th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Amy Maroney
Emma Of Normandy, Queen Of Anglo-Saxon England – Twice
Amy Maroney

13th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Simon Turney
Penda: Fictional and Historical ‘Hero’ 
Books & More

14th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Annie Whitehead
The Battle Begins…
Reads Writes Reviews

15th October: A joint post hosted by both of us
Annie – Casting Light Upon The Shadow
and 
Helen – Let Us Talk Of Many Things

We hope you will enjoy
Stepping Back Into Saxon England’ with us!

All images courtesy Annie Whitehead

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”

Guest Post: “Playing God” – Taking Liberties with the Lives and Personalities of Historical Figures

 

Poster copy

BITTERSWEET TAPESTRY 

BY KEVIN O’CONNELL

Publication Date: November 1, 2019
Gortcullinane Press
eBook & Paperback

Series: The Derrynane Saga, Book Three
Genre: Historical Fiction

AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

A dramatic decade has passed since sixteen-year-old Eileen O’Connell first departed her family’s sanctuary at remote Derrynane on the Kerry coast to become the wife of one of the wealthiest men in Ireland and the mistress of John O’Connor’s Ballyhar – only to have her elderly husband die within months of the marriage.

Unhappily returned to Derrynane, within a year, under the auspices of their uncle, a general in the armies of Maria Theresa, Eileen and her sister, Abigail, departed for Vienna and a life neither could have ever imagined – one at the dizzying heights of the Hapsburg empire and court, where Abigail ultimately became principal lady-in-waiting to the Empress herself, whilst Eileen, for nine momentous years, served as governess to the Empress’s youngest daughter – during which time Maria Antonia, whom Eileen still calls “my wee little archduchess,” has become Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France, though she continues to refer to her beloved governess as “Mama.”

As Bittersweet Tapestry opens, it is the High Summer of 1770. Having escorted the future Queen of France from Vienna to her new life, Eileen and her husband, Captain Arthur O’Leary of the Hungarian Hussars, along with their little boy and Eileen’s treasured friend (and former servant) Anna Pfeffer are establishing themselves in Ireland.

Their ties to Catholic Europe remain close and strong; in addition to Abigail and her O’Sullivan family and General O’Connell, his wife and young daughter in Vienna, their brother Daniel is an officer in the Irish Brigade of the armies of Louis XV, whilst their youngest brother, Hugh, is studying at École Militaire in Paris, his path to a commission in the Dillons’ Regiment of the Brigade. His gentle Austrian friendship with Maria Antonia having inevitably waned, Hugh’s relationship with the strikingly-beautiful young widowed Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy is blossoming.

Though happily ensconced at Rathleigh House, the O’Leary family estate in County Cork, being prominent amongst those families which are the remnants of the old Gaelic order in the area, Eileen and Art find that the dark cloud of the Protestant Ascendancy hovers heavily, at times threateningly, over them.

Bittersweet Tapestry is a tale of stark contrasts – between Hugh’s life of increasing prominence amidst the glitter and intrigue of the French court and Art and Eileen’s in English-occupied Ireland – especially as the latter progresses into a dark, violent and bloody tale . . . ultimately involving an epic tragedy, which along with the events leading up to it and those occurring in its dramatic wake, will permanently impact the O’Learys, the O’Connells – and their far-flung circle of family and friends in Ireland and across Europe.

With his uniquely-descriptive prose, Kevin O’Connell again deftly weaves threads of historical fact and fancy to create a colourful fabric affording unique insights into the courts of eighteenth-century Catholic Europe as well as English-ruled Ireland. As the classic story unfolds amongst the O’Learys, the O’Connells, their friends and enemies, the tumultuously-dangerous worlds in which they dwell will continue to gradually – but inexorably – become even more so.

Bittersweet Tapestry joins O’Connell’s well-received Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home as The Derrynane Saga continues – an enthralling epic, presenting a sweeping chronicle, set against the larger drama of Europe in the early stages of significant – and, in the case of France – violent change.

Today here at Before the Second Sleep, author Kevin O’Connell talks about the merging of imagination and history in the historical fiction genre and some of his personal experience – the ups as well as the downs – of doing. See below for more stops on Bittersweet Tapestry‘s blog tour!

02_Bittersweet-Tapestry

“Playing God” – Taking Liberties with the Lives and Personalities of Historical Figures

Few if any other literary genres give an author the latitude that historical fiction does in allowing her or him to stray beyond the boundaries of fact well into the realm of fancy.

What is fascinating – especially in this age of instant information which permits us to seek and obtain “facts” with a few keystrokes – is that it is rather easy to believe that we “know” history: Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Washington crossed the Delaware, Joan of Arc heard voices and, at least for a time, led the French armies, the Bastille fell on 14 July.

But what is perhaps equally fascinating is that in many, if not most, instances we actually know very little beyond major events, beyond those happenings that were recorded as they occurred – or at least shortly thereafter. The reality is that so much more happened – or, at least in the mind of the historical fiction writer – may have happened. It is in this mystical sphere, where fact and fiction might be said to somehow intersect, where a good historical fiction author has the freedom to visualise, to roam far afield from recorded history to the locale of “perhaps” or “maybe,” most definitely to the area of “but this certainly could have happened….” Therein lies the magic – and the fun!

The “rules” are few, but rather clear: When “creating history” what one writes of as occurring must be plausible – wholly-believable by even the most knowledgeable reader.

Thus, actual events must stay true to history – unless, of course, one is writing parallel or alternate versions of history.  And even there, one must be careful.  “What if” can be interesting – it can also be wearisome, if not done properly.  Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel,  Man in the High Castle (currently a television series),  comes to mind as alternate history extraordinarily well done.

Staying “true to history” can be a challenge – especially when one is feeling, shall we say, clever or especially creative. An example from my own work: Those familiar with the earlier books of the Derrynane Saga will know that Eileen O’Connell and her young charge in Vienna had developed a close, virtually maternal, relationship such that the future Marie Antoinette would address her governess as “Mama.”

As the time of preparation for the young archduchess’s departure for Paris approaches, I had Eileen begin to discuss – in  rather significant, even graphic, detail –  the intimate particulars of married life with the barely fourteen-year-old, soon-to-be-wed Antoine, who reacted with wide eyes, much giggling and a not insignificant degree of interest. In my mind I had entitled the episode, “The Birds and the Bees – Done Well!”

Hubris – pure hubris – and awful . . . as I learnt when that part of the manuscript was quickly returned by my awesome editor, who reminded me of things I was well aware, but had dismissed in the name of “being creative”: that Antoinette and Louise Auguste’s marriage would remain unconsummated for some seven years for the very simple reason that both of them were basically ignorant of the mechanics of sex. Indeed, it was not until the young Queen’s older brother, the  Emperor Joseph, actually journeyed from Vienna to see what could possibly be wrong with the marriage that the situation finally began to normalise. Had my imaginative little scene made it into the book it would definitely not have been a positive addition. Thus, one must be very careful and mindful of the “realities” even whilst writing fiction!

Now, in terms of people, in writing of the Imperial Habsburgs thus far in Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home,  I did not stray very far from reality in presenting the Emperor Francis Stephen, Maria Theresa’s beloved albeit charmingly lecherous consort, nor their haughty next-to-youngest daughter, the Archduchess Maria Carolina, who became Queen of Naples and as prodigious a baby-producer as her mother.

I have, however, taken certain freedoms with the Archduchess Maria Antonia – Eileen’s beloved “wee little archduchess,” who was becoming Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France as Two Journeys Home progressed towards its close. In Derrynane, she was the pretty, pliant little girl of the history books. As she grew into late childhood and adolescence, she developed a gentle, at times wispy, personality – with moments of spark, such as when she expressed in no uncertain terms to the Countess von Graffenreit that she was going to France only as a matter of duty.

I have spoken of writing the Empress Maria Theresa as a “kinder, gentler” version of her real self, noting that I believed it was her interaction with my characters which perhaps made her less daunting than history would have us believe she was. These private moments with Eileen – as governess to her youngest daughter, and perhaps even more so with Abigail, who as Beyond Derrynane was ending, had risen to the post of Maria Theresa’s principal lady-in-waiting, the closest servant to the then-most powerful woman in the world – were gentle and laced with humour. Abigail’s gentle humour, her subtle-comedic personality definitely softened her mistress and their interactions almost from Abby’s arrival. In their relationship, there was little evidence of the prudish monarch, who sponsored “morality squads” to ferret out those courtiers she viewed as being sensualists, libertines. And, indeed, as the years passed, Maria Theresa laughed more and judged much less harshly – I believe because of Abby, and, to a lesser extent, of Eileen.

From these experiences, I concluded that the genre of historical fiction  permits its practitioners to depict not only actual historical events in a fictional manner but also events – and people – which could have happened . . . and who could have lived. Taking dramatic advantage of this latitude, I believe and hope that I have stayed within these bounds – and will continue to do so.

It was not, however, until the Princess Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy was introduced in the closing sections of Two Journeys Home that I took the liberty, for the first time, of straying rather deeply into historical fancy – well far-afield beyond the known or recorded facts.

So it has been in connection with the planned re-appearance and development (in Bittersweet Tapestry) of Hugh O’Connell’s “Louise” that I am experiencing the creation of a significantly different temperament, indeed, personality and, in most ways an entirely dissimilar life for a relatively well-known historical character, and feel that the same can be rather daunting.

I must admit that, as with many of the twists and turns throughout the writing of the Saga to date none of this was at all well-planned, but rather developed as the story progressed and began to take shape or, as has been said of my work, that my “characters have pulled me along”!

As it was since their meeting in the closing pages of Two Journeys Home, Marie Thérèse Louise and Hugh continued – some days rather annoyingly –  coyly circling each other in my imagination, I continued to research the princess, in effect getting to know her better. This was achieved not only by reading, as well as studying literally dozens of portraits of her, but also – as the result of a beautifully-scheduled trip – by visiting her homes in Paris, both the Hôtel de Toulouse (the headquarters of the Bank of France), as well as a “country residence” she acquired in then largely-rural Passy in the mid 1780’s (now the Embassy of Turkey). I developed a sense that she perhaps might have been a more complex, indeed certainly a more interesting person than history has shown her to be.

Several of her portraits depict (at least to me) a very pretty young woman with a gentle, perhaps even playful sense of humour, one who laughs and makes others do so as well. She is, at least at this stage of her life, to a degree both shy and guileless, most likely a result of her sheltered life in Savoy and despite her singular position in the French monarchy. As she appears in Bittersweet Tapestry her life is undergoing rapid, totally-unforeseen changes – it and she are clearly both works in progress.

Lamballe is my greatest challenge to date because – at least to those even casually knowledgeable about the Ancien Regime and the horrors of the French Revolution – she is a familiar character.

At court, history tells us, she had a prudish, pedantic reputation (though it was also rumoured that she was for a time the Duc of Orleans’ lover) – as an aside, Orleans was the regicide who cast his vote in favour of the execution of  his cousin Louis XIV. Later known by his self-bestowed sobriquet Philippe Égalité, neither his name change nor his opportunistic striving proved sufficient to prevent his own execution on the guillotine.

It appears she was viewed by most as – at best – odd, strange . . . perhaps in more modern-day parlance she was a weirdo, most definitely not in the mainstream of the French royal family and aristocracy.

As people most likely sensed from reading  Two Journeys and will definitely experience in Tapestry, Hugh O’Connell’s Louise is quirky – but not in these ways. She is an interesting mix of hauteur and wide-eyed guilelessness – a Princess of the Blood with a sense of wonder, of whimsy.

As she continues to develop, she will – at times – be gently comedic in the way of Abby O’Connell. I believe this is but one of many reasons for Hugh’s attraction to her – she is an obviously bright, perhaps in some ways brilliant, most definitely beautiful young woman who can be funny, sometimes when she doesn’t mean to be. She is loving, she is kind, but she can – as is apparent from several scenes in Tapestry – also be a wee bit of a bitch!

As it has been alluded to, Louise and Hugh O’Connell will play prominent roles in the fourth volume of the Derrynane Saga. I believe that the liberties I have taken thus far – and shall continue to take in the fourth volume – with regard to the personality and life of the Princess de Lamballe, will make for a more compelling story going forward and, as the French Revolution descends into violence and terror, a much more dramatic and significantly more emotional conclusion to the Saga itself.

About the AuthorKevin O'Connell copy

Kevin O’Connell is a native of New York City and a descendant of a young officer of what had—from 1690 to 1792—been the Irish Brigade of the French army, believed to have arrived in French Canada following the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793. At least one grandson subsequently returned to Ireland and Mr. O’Connell’s own grandparents came to New York in the early twentieth century. He holds both Irish and American citizenship.

He is a graduate of Providence College and Georgetown University Law Center.

For much of his four-decades-long legal career, O’Connell has practiced international business transactional law, primarily involving direct-investment matters, throughout Asia (principally China), Europe, and the Middle East.

The father of five children and grandfather of ten, he and his wife, Laurette, live with their golden retriever, Katie, near Annapolis, Maryland.

WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | GOODREADS

Blog Tour Schedule

Friday, November 1
Review at Gwendalyn’s Books

Sunday, November 3
Review at Carole’s Ramblings

Monday, November 4
Review at Locks, Hooks and Books

Wednesday, November 6
Interview at The Writing Desk
Feature at Chicks, Rogues, and Scandals

Friday, November 8
Feature at Maiden of the Pages

Monday, November 11
Interview at Passages to the Past

Wednesday, November 13
Review & Guest Post at The Book Junkie Reads

Friday, November 15
Guest Post at Before the Second Sleep

Sunday, November 17
Review at A Darn Good Read

Monday, November 18
Review at Books and Zebras

Tuesday, November 19
Feature at What Is That Book About

Wednesday, November 20
Review at Al-Alhambra Book Reviews

Friday, November 22
Feature at Historical Fiction with Spirit

Monday, November 25
Review at Hooked on Books

Tuesday, November 26
Review at Red Headed Book Lady
Review & Guest Post at Nursebookie

Wednesday, November 27
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews

Friday, November 29
Review at Broken Teepee
Excerpt at Coffee and Ink

Book Review: The Retreat to Avalon (Book I in The Arthurian Age)

Having grown up with a large portion of my attention almost continuously tuned to the era within which The Retreat to Avalon is set, the title naturally piqued my interest. I adored all the same figures millions of others did and could never get enough. It also happens that I am a great lover of “regular people,” often craving glimpses into the lives of those who lived in an amazing time but who were, perhaps, not unlike many of us. Author Sean Poage opens his projected trilogy, The Arthurian Age, with a chronicle giving us the best of both, bestowing upon us, especially those of us with a thirst for the ordinary, a glimpse of the Gawain we’d always longed for but never quite attained.

avalonThis author guides us away from lofty tales of virtue and beheadings, steering readers toward the more gritty world of crumbling Roman holdings and those willing to fight for its survival. Rome sees Poage’s Arthur as their last, best hope, and as the High King makes his way to war in Gaul, so too does Gawain, who until then had been living in the shadow of warriors, seeking a path for himself in a time of peace. A fairly sizable chunk of the novel’s first portion sketches out Gawain and his existence at home, depicting his struggles, small victories, relationships and dreams as we learn the who’s who of Gawain’s world and how it operates. Readers really get to know the ways of this era, not because Poage tells us, but through a narrative that truly sets us within, amongst the characters.

The Retreat to Avalon’s prologue sets up the story—and brilliantly so. Rather than a small bit of informative detail, the author allows characters to draw the curtain, but not merely with expository dialogue, though this is not a bad technique when done well, which Poage does. We recognize decades of history in the exchange between a pair of officials, who do sneak some backstory into their conversation, though they also reveal fears, dreams, and that which devastates one but is a symbol of future prosperity to the other. I did wonder about the extensive knowledge and economic projections Sidonius passes to Anthemius, specifically why the latter lacks such understanding. As a poet and diplomat, the Gallic Sidonius may have been better placed to draw such conclusions, than the at-times mistrusted Greek, whose military career tended toward the administrative. This speaks well of Poage’s research and which historical figures he chooses to fill certain roles.

This dexterity is brought to bear on the novel as a whole, and as the story progresses, we see a Gawain influenced both by the pre-Galfridian and Vulgate cycle of Arthurian legends. While there could be said to flow an element of the spiritual through the novel, Poage does not use it to paint Gawain as unworthy of any given “quest” he undertakes. He is human; he experiences errors in judgement and could have done differently at times. Still, he is brave, courteous, loyal to his oaths—just as we remember him—and devoted to his wife, Rhian. His parentage gives a nod to the Welsh tradition, as does the name of his brother, though his sibling is reminiscent of the character from either telling.

So too do we find elements that match our memories of these characters as the author moves us away from the realm of the magical to tell a story as it might have historically occurred. Even Merlin—who appears rarely—hints at the ordinary nature of his gifts. Jokes play the role one might expect them to in wartime, and when coming across them, I found myself actually chuckling aloud in the appreciation of a break from the hostilities. Some comedy is more sophisticated than at other points, but they all fit right into their passages, contextually as well as materially. Plus, they do their job.

            “A letter!” Gareth, looking obnoxiously awestruck, took back the jug and had a long pull. “You need to stop spending so much time with your letters, and your books and your lords and your…” He trailed off for a moment, struggling to continue the thought. “And whatever, and spend time with the lads. The goodwill you earned for the wine back at Cadubrega won’t last forever. In fact,” Gareth’s voice lowered conspiratorially, “I’ve been hearing many people call you the southern end of a northbound horse.” He nodded seriously, wobbling slightly. 

            “Who said that?” Gawain was more puzzled than angry.

            “Well, just me,” Gareth shrugged. “But I say it a lot, so it seems like many people.”

It is in moments such as this that one feels closer to the characters, and in the laughter comes a feeling of pleasure that we got to know them. Gawain’s story has been laid out and now we follow its trail, with rich passages of detail unburdened by excessive description. It is more as if we are within the scene, taking it all in ourselves; it is not merely a case of the narrator feeding us individual or stilted descriptions of what surrounds us—and there is a lot. This may account for the rather lengthy chapters, which ordinarily can wear me down a bit, though in this case I felt almost buoyed as I experienced each chapter, the scenes of which transition from one to the next so smoothly it can be difficult to stop reading. This includes the battle scenes, which, like the others, are written in a reader-friendly style that treats its audience as intelligent participants without overburdening them with less-than-commonly-known period or linguistic detail. The battle scenes, it should be stated, are some of the best in the book.

The only quibble I have with this author’s writing style is his wont to use action beats and speech tags interchangeably (e.g. “No, stay mounted,” Gawain waved), which can be slightly jarring for the expectation of words that aren’t there. However, he just about makes up for that with his pleasantly even use of “said” and other tags, such as “quipped,” “interrupted” or “groaned.” I’ve seen a lot of advice in recent years about sticking to mostly “he said/she said,” therefore many authors do. Poage, however, takes the matter into his own hands and succeeds by sprinkling all types around.

I would definitely be remiss if I left out one of the best parts of reading anticipation, something many people frown upon, but almost all people do: judge the cover. At a little over 400 pages, the heft is just the right amount to cheer one at the thought of sitting down with it, and its attractive images, inside and out, lend themselves to a perusal, a flipping through and contemplation of what we are soon to encounter as we take up the book. Each chapter head is illustrated with a simple, though not simplistic, drawing, the style of which reaches out to the ends of the page in actual scale but also breadth of imagination. I found myself, with each, wanting to continue scanning with my eyes, for the image to continue along far after it actually does.

This is not so different to how I feel about the book as a whole—it ends when it should, but I’m very pleased to know The Retreat to Avalon is just the first in a trilogy, and there is more to come. Anyone who knows even the basic layout of the Arthurian legends will find this version gripping for a number of reasons, amongst them the ordinary and extraordinary people whose lives contributed to this age as they filled and fought within it on their terms. Sean Poage brings to life for us the stories of people we so often want to read about, but whose voices, for various reasons, are in the margins, like the rest of the pictures we so long to see.

About the Author

SeanPoageHistorical fiction author Sean Poage has had an exciting and varied life as a laborer, soldier, police officer, investigator, computer geek and author. Travelling the world to see history up close is his passion. These days he works in the tech world, writes when he can and spends the rest of the time with his family, which usually means chores and home improvement projects, with occasional time for a motorcycle ride, scuba dive, or a hike in the beautiful Maine outdoors.

About the illustrations, the author adds: “The chapter illustrations were done by Luka Cakic, a very talented artist in Montenegro. When most people imagine King Arthur, they picture the later medieval romance versions, with plate armor and stone castles. It can be difficult to visualize an era we know little about, so I wanted to provide some pictures that might help anchor the reader in the time, and give a mental image to moments from the chapters. Luka worked with me through the process and did a fantastic job merging his style with my goals.” Check out our author’s interview with his illustrator here.

Have a gander through the rest of Sean Poage’s website, seanpoage.com. This June will be the one-year anniversary of The Retreat to Avalon‘s release, so there will be a giveaway contest! Visitors who comment on any of his blog posts will be in on the chance to win a signed copy of the book.

Look for The Strife of Camlann, Book II in The Arthurian Age series – coming soon! The Retreat to Avalon is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. You can also find the author at Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and BookBub.

About the Reviewer

Lisl has loved Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy since childhood and has lost count of how many times she’s read the books. She also adores poetry and, once she overcomes the fear of baring her soul, will be ready to publish her own first collection. She is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Alaska Women Speak. She is currently working on a book of short stories, a tale set in 1066 and several essays, and it is her dream to write a ghost story on par with the best of the spooky Victorian writers.

Book Review: Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir

Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir
by James Boschert

James Boschert possesses a genius for utilizing great yarns to draw readers into historical and other events and circumstances we previously knew little to nothing about. In this most recent Boschert read, Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir, the author sets his titular character’s adventures within and shortly following the 1799 battle between Revolutionary France and the Ottoman Empire, along with their British allies.

Napoleon has designs on Egypt that stretch all the way to Constantinople and India, even after his catastrophic loss at the Siege of Acre not long before. Commodore Sir Sidney Smith lands his ships at Abukir, on Egypt’s northern coast, with the goal of further demoralizing and defeating French troops, though he underestimates their resolve as well as the Turkish commander’s leadership style, and the battle is every bit as dramatic and horrific as the novel’s cover image hints.

Midshipman Duncan Graham himself, though introduced early on, takes on a greater role only later in the story when the Scot finds himself trapped behind enemy lines. Having reflected on the events that led him not only to this moment, but also this era in his life and lack of money to buy his way to advancement, his path forward is tested sorely as he and a British spy attempt to make their way back to the sea and their squadron.

The point at which Graham finds himself in dire straits marks a turning, whereby Boschert transitions us from backstory and development to the meat of the tale. It takes on a somewhat lighter tone, which is brilliant given the battle we’d just witnessed, one with a grim outcome and lasting visual reminders. He balances Graham’s fears and abilities deftly, and does something similar with his circumstances, which are certainly frightful, but also at times comical.

Boschert has previously established his dexterity with word choice, and in Midshipman Grahamhe utilizes it to forge the continuity of the balance he addresses. For instance, his omnipotent storyteller doesn’t choose sides, commenting frankly on the skills and shortcomings of French, British and Turks alike. Moving into greater nuance, the author also pairs deadly settings with simply lovely descriptive passages, at times signaling the necessity but also fruitlessness of war. We happen upon a “velvety silence” within a city in which the rats are so bold that they take the time to “amble,” rather than, say, scurry, even in the presence of man and canine.

At other moments the natural surroundings personified even act as his enemy, such as when Graham continually blunders into “low bushes, which tried to trip him up or raked his face with their spiteful thorns.” The tall ruins of a cityscape “jutted up over the other buildings looking like rotten teeth.” Boschert has demonstrated the prowess of his word choice before, and we see these are more than merely pleasant-sounding or clever word combinations: they perform a function within his story that do more than set the stage as Graham walks amongst what they represent, how they grow him and the trajectory in which history moves.

To that end Boschert engages in a bit of historical foreshadowing as well, at least in terms familiar to us. A literal bloodbath, following the Battle of Abukir, prompts a British major to cry, “The water is like a sea of poppies all around; I have never seen the like!” When the same officer continues to express his dismay as he sips on wine, Boschert illustrates to us the dual capacity of forgetfulness as well as mental self-preservation.

While this particular battle is unfamiliar to many, especially those not especially schooled in the Napoleonic wars, Boschert remains true to his standard by skillfully engaging us in a narrative, and even when we think we know the outcome, the lead to that moment is the story. Moreover, with him creating a fictional character, rather than simply re-telling the story from a historical figure’s point of view, apart from escaping the multitude of such narrations, sets up the ability to embed commentary on Georgian society and the mores of the time, including character representation of countries within the British union and the changes each were undergoing.

We would add that the novel requires an additional proofreading to benefit its presentation, though as a tale it still is able to convey a marvelous sense of adventure, growth, compassion, daring and drive. Boschert writes that, “We may not be done with this young scamp as yet,” and given Duncan’s affability, enterprise and eagerness to cultivate who and what he is, we certainly hope we aren’t done, as we part ways with his character in a manner that speaks perhaps the most to the potential of what he has before him and the empire of which he is a part.

Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799, by Louis-François Lejeune (1775-1848) (Collections du Château de Versailles) via Wikimedia Commons

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The author supplied a free copy of

Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir

to facilitate an honest review. 

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Book Review: Britannia’s Gamble

Britannia’s Gamble
The Dawlish Chronicles: March 1884—February 1885
by Antoine Vanner

A Discovered Diamond Review and Book of the Month

Following my previous read of Britannia’s Spartan, Nicholas Darwish returns in Antoine Vanner’s Britannia’s Gamble, sixth in his series chronicling the life and adventures of the Victorian era Royal Navy officer. This time we see him recruited for a mission placing him within grasp of a savage Islamist revolt across the Sudan, his key objective being to reach and rescue General Charles Gordon, who maintains a weakening defensive position within the lone holdout, the city of Khartoum. Plagued by one catastrophe after another, time runs short as Dawlish contemplates and questions his own motives and role in the operation, and their position becomes ever more desperate.

My “discovery” of Antoine Vanner’s novels came quite by chance in that I’d won a copy of Britannia’s Spartan in a contest, and it set me happily back onto the course of nautical adventures. I found Dawlish to be a likeable character who poses authentic questions of ethics and morality to himself and, while he has high expectations of others, is no less demanding of his own conduct. In the pages of Gamble, too, he is courageous, though not without fear.

The felucca edged across, the oars still, now only the current carrying it forward in absolute silence. Dawlish crouched like Shand and the Sussexes in cramped discomfort. He tugged at the lanyard of his holstered pistol—an action that was by now an unconscious habit—and pushed the safety catch forward on his Winchester. The same fear was on him now as he had first experienced as a mud-plastered boy in a ditch in China and he prayed that, as then, it would not master him. Each man around him would be feeling no less. Courage was conquest of fear, not its absence.

 One of the best elements of Vanner’s tales is that they take readers to locales many of us don’t know much about, or recognize in a broader view or modern context. As we progress through the story, the author utilizes documented historical figures or actions—such as Gordon or the Siege of Khartoum—within his plot, its population increasing with fictional characters whose roles are so smoothly matched with history we sometimes think we might look them up to discern who is real and not. All the while their experiences tell us even more of the place at this time: its geography, conditions, influence, challenges, allies and workable military strategy.

I also thoroughly enjoy the manner in which Vanner truly takes readers on board his vessels, immersing us in the naval and shipboard terminology without drowning our senses—a perfect combination of trusting readers without making unreasonable demands on their previous knowledge. Feeling a part of the crew, readers rejoice in their victories and feel their hearts sink when things go wrong.

In Britannia’s Gamble, there are plenty of things that can go south, and they do. Vanner’s expertise in storytelling is such that we follow his narrative and sometimes recognize on oncoming crisis, pulling in our breath along with his characters, in whose journey and mission we have invested. Maps are sprinkled through the novel, so we get a sense and better idea of where the group is as they travel overland or upriver, with even more suspense at such moments as when we know we are close to Khartoum, or dangerous passages, when that internal uh oh occurs.

Another great characteristic of the author’s presentation is that he makes plenty of room for readers to bond with characters apart from Dawlish. He most definitely maintains the spotlight, but true to his character, he gladly gives due recognition. A talented and accomplished naval officer, Dawlish also cares about the dignity of humanity, and this stirs childhood and professional memories as well as gnaws at his ideas of the future, particularly following one incident that will undoubtedly alter the course of his life, and even the nature of his concern for others.

Dawlish himself contemplates his own perspectives by way of his journal, an activity that sets up the possibility that the chronicles are drawn from the diaries as the captain looks back upon his life. We see his immediate musings, which of course reflect upon the kind of person he is. “Night fell, not darkness absolute, but the same vast unfeeling dome of stars that had mocked the pettiness of their aspirations ever since Kurgel.” He often thinks of his wife, Florence, back home, perhaps dreading her response to something he’s done, or feels delight in her presence in his life. The variety and breadth of his meditations even develop the character of the absent Florence, additionally bringing to the novel a female influence other than that of the standard lovable prostitute or sought-after heiress.

These and other angles are what tend to make Dawlish himself more fully developed than many other nautical or historical fiction characters, and Vanner placing him in the various locales, following plotlines drawn from history with plenty of his own life events depicted within, are surely what bring us back time and again. Of course, so far I’ve only read two of The Dawlish Chronicles, but the officer hasn’t seen the last of me, nor I of him.

A smooth and addicting read, Britannia’s Gamble is fully capable as a standalone or installment in a series one simply cannot get enough of. Realistic action scenes—in which victory is not always assured—and a well-developed plot combine with the strength of the author’s imagination and impressive research to bring a story of great quality and years of re-visitation and the seeking of Dawlish in other volumes in which we will follow him time and again around the world.

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Learn more about and follow Antoine Vanner and his work at his fascinating website, The Dawlish Chronicles, including more about Britannia’s Amazon, also a Discovered Diamond, with Florence Dawlish as protagonist and narrated from a female point of view. Additionally, subscribers to Vanner’s mailing list at intervals receive free short stories that fill in some gaps in Darwish’s life not covered in the novels.

The author provided the blogger with a copy of
Britannia’s Gamble in order to facilitate an honest review.

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This review previously appeared at The Review

 

Book Review: The Freedman (Tales From a Revolution: North-Carolina) (Brand Spanking New Release)

The Freedman (Tales from a Revolution: North-Carolina)
by Lars D.H. Hedbor

Release Date: May 31, 2018

Mark your calendars! Book signing with Lars Hedbor:
June 9, 2018 at Jan’s Paperbacks!

Author Lars D.H. Hedbor has asked himself countless times, “What made the American colonists turn their backs on their king and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?” Naturally there is no single answer, though he probes history in his series, Tales From a Revolution, searching for the ones that are perhaps most identifiable, common, relatable, recognizable—answers that come from the lives of ordinary people and not just as historically and intellectually written out in the annals of our time as a colony and a nation.

Tales From a Revolution moves through and settles within various regions during an assortment of periods, observing individuals and families as their lives play out within the ebb and flow of fortunes, history, and revolution. In his latest installment, The Freedman, Hedbor takes us to North Carolina, where the slave Calabar is suddenly granted liberty after years of toiling on his late master’s indigo plantation. The man’s son and heir, indifferent to this particular product, turns Calabar off his land, and the formerly bonded man unexpectedly faces the question of what to do with his own freedom.

Grieving at the sudden separation from his wife and baby girl and plunged into a society that struggles within its own bonds, Calabar endeavors to find a balance within the surprising variety of responses to his appearance amongst the townspeople—and his to them. As he repels enemies close to home and a new one appears when revolution draws nearer, the freedman takes steps and makes decisions to determine his own life and the paths he will walk. While his hopes and fears are both recognizable and foreign to those around him, Calabar’s choices will play into the rise or fall of a nation in the making.

With The Freedman, Hedbor not only continues his pattern of producing a quality tale, but also demonstrates his wide imagination with the plots and people he brings to life. Calabar is not the first character to appear outside the bounds of ordinary colonist, but does strike a unique note in the author writing from the point of view of a former slave. It is a daring choice, and Hedbor gives us a win: Calabar is unfamiliar with the ways of the larger society he has until now regarded as a free one, and his intelligence is not naturally paired to its patterns. However, his determination and willingness to admit to himself he doesn’t know something, aid him in making his way, and he begins to understand on a deeper level how alike and different he and the others are, often in ways they do not. Through Calabar’s eyes, we perform a study of our hearts and his, further bringing to bear on our understanding of our own history the questions Hedbor initially asked himself about our ancestors.

This chapter in the Tales is perhaps one of the most subtle Hedbor has yet produced. Woven through the narrative as deeply as Calabar’s indigo on material are passages that often speak to more in the larger picture.

The captain’s face registered a moment of surprise, and then he turned his full attention to Calabar. Under the man’s piercing gaze, Calabar felt as though he were laid bare in both body and soul, the captain’s eyes a physical force as they roved over his face and limbs. He felt acutely self-conscious of the contrast between the rough clothing he still wore while they awaited the tailor’s work, and the hat perched on his head like a shield against the judgement of the world.

 In this, one of Calabar’s transitional moments between his old life and new, we see more than the freeman’s assessment of a former slave: it is a microcosm of the colony itself as it determines its path and the people’s own preparation for it. In this manner the colony is silent partner to Calabar’s more open statement of who he is becoming as both take stock of themselves, both still imprisoned by the measurement of others, both echoing the words once spoken by Calabar’s Affey: “Our hearts are still our own.”

It is nothing short of magnificent that Hedbor writes these characters, with their fantastically diverse backgrounds, as convincingly as he does. It should be noted that the author also distinguishes Calabar’s speech in two ways: one to portray a good faith representation of the English he would have spoken, having begun to speak it at about age ten. Within that, he distinguishes the freedman’s speech between insider and outsider listeners, and the aim is precise, for we “hear” Calabar with the likely accent without it making a negative statement about his intelligence.

While perhaps also one of Hedbor’s most sentimental novels in content, The Freedman avoids falling into the maudlin in practice. It can be both difficult and harrowing to engage in introspection, to recognize how others see us, even if some of those judgements view ways not entirely of our making. The story’s plot in itself conveys that realization, while the author’s dialogue, narrative, imagery and representations carry it out, with a raw sort of beauty whose naked utility leads us all the way to present day. As we look back upon the lovely picked up along the way, sprouting from the hearts of those with hopes and fears, those we know and that we don’t, we begin to recognize why they did it, what they knew of their hearts and ours, despite the differences of circumstance and centuries.

Highly recommended for anyone familiar or not with Hedbor’s previous work, The Freedman is a more than worthy successor with much more to say each time we revisit.

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To see information on each book, click here.

You may also wish to have a peek at my previous reviews for
Tales From a Revolution—

The Prize (Tales From a Revolution: Vermont)

The Light (Tales From a Revolution: New-Jersey)

The Smoke (Tales From a Revolution: New York)

The Break (Tales From a Revolution: Nova-Scotia) 

The Wind (Tales From a Revolution: West-Florida)

The Darkness (Tales From a Revolution: Maine)

The Path (Tales From a Revolution: Rhode-Island)

Get your free e-copy of The Declaration!

About the author ….

What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.

My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.

I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and was a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.

I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.

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You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook. The Freedman may be purchased in paperback* (signed copies available upon request), at Kindle, Nook, iBooks, or Kobo.(Paperbacks also available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble links.)

*soon to be added

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Author photo courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor

The blogger received an advance reader copy of
The Freedman to facilitate an honest review

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