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CAROL MCGRATH (England)

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Erosion
Erosion
Price: 1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Fast-paced Physcological Thriller, 8 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Erosion (Kindle Edition)
When a wealthy, family man, mundanely called Harry, sets off on a fishing trip in the Highlands and does not return to his East Anglia family home his wife Alice is thrown into a series of events that take the reader breathlessly from incident to incident. Her already confused teenage daughter, Polly becomes dislocated and for the duration of the novel it feels as if one is entering a distorted world such as is often discovered in a Barbara Vine novel. We know within the first few chapters both the incident that sets the crime in motion and that identities are changed, that there will be further secrets to be revealed and we also ironically know that Harry is murdered and who the perpetrator is. The page turning quality of the novel is driven by Hemmings' cleverly drawn characters and by a slow reveal of other secrets. Nothing and no one is as they seem at first glance. When relative Mary comes to comfort Alice it is apparent that Mary has knowledge of Harry's past. Drifter Ian's appearance in the cosy East Anglia village sets in motion dire consequences with outcomes that have devastating effects on Harry's protected middle class family. As the novel proceeds the past reaches into the present and a reader will discover that everyone is concealing secrets.

I thought the police operation and the journalist interest in Harry's disappearance extremely well researched and absorbed into the novel. I thought the phycology of Ian's character superb. Alice was convincing and the other village characters very well depicted thus giving a reader a sense of 'ordinary' juxtaposition with the extraordinary. I thought Polly was utterly askew as a teenage girl can be but equally she is clearly meant to be strange, definitely 'other'. She is possibly the most interesting characterisation in this story and I was gripped by her. I appreciated the way that her younger brother is portrayed as a little boy living in this odd world in an unusual family, behind security gates and yet, he is an ordinary child who attends the local school. Both he and Polly as rich kids feel alienated at the school. All this lends depth to the story. I would have liked more about Mary as for me she seemed to get off the authorial hook too lightly. Yet it is a novel with ideas and concepts- erosion eating away at the heart of people- mentally , morally and physically.

The story is beautifully written and the use of imagery startling in its unique turns of phrase, at times hypnotic, and at other times allowing some of these characters an inner life that is as impressionistic as thought processes often are. There are no clichés here. Hemmings uses imagery very cleverly to help us see the world through her characters' personal telescopes.

The scene setting is superb, a mix of East Anglia, the Highlands, Derbyshire and I love to read books where the ordinary is mixed with the extraordinary. As I was a fly on the wall I felt I was constantly tweeking the lace curtains into this world. The tension sustains itself. The world of the novel has its own peculiar logic. It is a delicious mix of Barbara Vine and Michael Frayne, as if they were in collusion with Hemmings- as if together they had intruded into such as the Archers' peaceful country life.

Importantly everyone has secrets. I look forward to Hemmings' next book and hope it is to be another literary thriller.


Solomon's Bride
Solomon's Bride
by Rebecca Hazell
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.02

5.0 out of 5 stars Sophia's Story continues, 28 May 2014
This review is from: Solomon's Bride (Paperback)
The second novel in Rebecca Hazell's trilogy The Tiger and the Dove, set in the thirteenth century, fulfils its promise of great characterisation and a wonderful historical adventure. Helped by Arab merchant trader, Selim, Sophia has escaped her Mongol captors along with her handmaiden Anna. This time there is a third important female character, Maryam, significant too symbolically since she is a Jewess living in a Muslim world. All three women are beautifully developed rounded characters with their own narratives.

The story opens evocatively with the words 'One morning I woke to the muezzin's call and began to steel myself for another long day of questioning.' Instantly the reader is drawn to the excitement of a distant world and an exciting journey. Initially Sophia educates us about this world enclosed within an Iranian palace. We learn that there are internal conflicts within the Islamic world. Sophia introduces the reader to the world of women within the harem and to a society of educators who exist within this society. As before she is a steely character determined to learn and to cherish her independence in a patriarchal world. Her ultimate goal to reach Constantinople is threatened by many thrilling advances and delays.

She has to escape the beautiful palace if she is to accomplish her goal to find her Rus uncle. All the time she is regarded as an infidel even when she is offered kindness. She is challenged over and over and meets these challenges with integrity and intelligence. The novel is fat with page turning events and a beautiful, yet very sad, yet realistic love story. Sophia's physical journey becomes her emotional story. Yet love is not without its dangers, obstacles and delays. This love is integrated into the story of French knights, the concept of chivalry and the world of crusades. It remains for me to say that I look forward with huge anticipation to the concluding novel in this exotic and fabulous trilogy. As Sophia matures so , too, does this story.


Wasteland (The Lost King Book 2)
Wasteland (The Lost King Book 2)
Price: 1.92

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking story of Resistance, 21 April 2014
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel which is such a brilliant mix of story and history. Edgar Atheling, the prince of Alfred's bloodline attempts to reclaim the throne of England after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. First off the characters are as alive as if they were sharing a feast with me. I would not care to be on the other side of their shield walls. Edgar is carefully drawn as a warrior hero with humanity. He is believable. The story's narrative hurtles from fast paced scene to fast paced scene all excellently portrayed leaving a reader breathless and looking for more. Other characters can be found in Domesday as dispossessed tenants of Alan of Brittany. Having researched this territory myself I recognise villages and their lords. Alan Rufus, cousin to William of Normandy is portrayed as ruthless. He became a Tenant in chief in the North after the harrying that continued through 1071. Martin Blake's vignette, a scene that includes Alan Rufus and King William is superb in the way tension throughout it is preserved. As for the Danish princes, they too are ruthless, looking for the best opportunity out of a dysfunctional time when the north of England becomes embroiled in rebellion. I loved the depictions of outlaws in this story as we meet characters who help and betray the young prince.

I felt too as I read that Martin Lake's use of landscape as it would have been in the 11th C was terrific. I felt I was there on the Roman roads, in the destroyed villages, walking with Edgar and his companions through the ruined streets of early medieval York. This novel is an accomplishment beautifully and accurately told. I found it unputdownable and now I shall have to read its forerunner, Resistance.


The Grip of God: Book One of The Tiger And The Dove
The Grip of God: Book One of The Tiger And The Dove
Price: 1.88

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A page turning and accomplished epic story, 14 April 2014
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Set in the 13thC as the Mongols sweep across the Russian Steppe and beyond The Grip of God , first in an epic trilogy, is one of the most interesting historical novels I have read in 2014. Princess Sophia is placed in danger when the invaders threaten Kiev, the greatest Rus stronghold and cultural Mecca as The Golden Age fades. Her merchant prince father sends her to safety in Constantinople but when her party is attacked by Mongol raiders she is spared because of a prophecy. She becomes a slave and Concubine to Argamon the teenage warrior son of a leader. She will bring good fortune according to legend, a Princess with golden red hair. But this is no fairy tale. She is thrust into a violent world always on the move and as a consequence she and the reader is hurtled breathlessly through events and episodes of exceptional physical and emotional danger.

Sophia's character is very well developed as the story progresses and she matures and importantly survives. She is older than her twelve years as the story opens and she must grow up even more quickly if she is to negotiate the rules of this very unique , different and violent culture where clan ties are everything. It is a rich culture and fascinating to discover. Above all Sophia must survive and at times it does seem that it is impossible. As with all good novels there are enemies and helpmates. All of the secondary characters are exquisitely portrayed. The reader will meet and like Dorje, the captive Buddhist priest and Sophia's mentor, Selim the Arab trader and spy and the lovely Lady Quin'ling , Argamon's mother who is herself in great danger from a rival. The novel is laced with jealousy, conflict, humanity and wisdom. I particularly appreciated aspects of the alien culture Sophia must come to understand. For example the Mongols tolerated other religions as long as there were no infringements on their own. They used translators and were expert at diplomacy. I also found myself liking Sophia more and more throughout the three year period of her incarceration, caring for her through her mistakes and her courage.

I left this novel with a deeper understanding of a rich and unusual culture. Importantly I came to recognise how they were so successful. At a time when Rus princes were squabbling in internecine power struggles Rebecca Hazell shows her readers how totally united the Mongol invaders were. She deftly integrates this history and it's contrasting cultures into a fabulously engaging page turning novel. No spoilers. Sophia still has far to go and I for one shall be following the rest of her journey. One point I shall make which is that a glossary to explain unusual vocabulary would be helpful for a reader. Otherwise this novel is very well realised.


Rustication: A Novel
Rustication: A Novel
by Charles Palliser
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing Clever Stuff, 29 Jan 2014
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This review is from: Rustication: A Novel (Paperback)
I did enjoy this novel though at times I felt its contrivance showed. On the really up side, I felt I had entered the world of peculiar Victorian will makers and the legal twists and turns of, say, Bleak House, poisoned letters, gossip and the narrow minded world of Cranford. Excellent. This world fascinates me. I believe this all of course is deliberate as the author is a master of pastiche. The young hero returns home to find himself in great danger and there is not a little deception about. But no spoilers. The reader just wants to know will he survive all the tribulations thrown his way and importantly what really is going on in this strange house set on the marshlands. Pallister is a master of style. The novel is gothic and a social drama too. I loved the writing in this book and its structure. However, at times I felt it a little baggy for my taste and I really wanted it to move a little more quickly. None the less, it is a very good read by an extremely interesting writer.


Hammond Historical World Atlas
Hammond Historical World Atlas
by Hammond World Atlas Corporation
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Great for lovers of Historical Fact and Fiction, 29 Jan 2014
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Maps are intriguing. I am enjoying this immensely and it has fast become a valuable asset to my research library.


The Spice Merchant's Wife
The Spice Merchant's Wife
by Charlotte Betts
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.41

5.0 out of 5 stars A Thoroughly Good Read, 29 Jan 2014
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‘London August 1066’, and, ‘The summer had been swelteringly hot with barely any rain to wash away the dust and stench and I was not alone in wishing it to end.’ Not only is this a well-pitched first sentence, perfect in its simplicity but it draws the reader into this particular time and into this busy, commercial city alongside its protagonist Katherine whose story we follow closely as she faces trauma, extreme danger and falls in love. It is followed with ‘The city was hot and dry as a tinderbox and all anyone could do was to find a shady place to sit very still.’ Excellent first paragraph and I am there, hooked.
Katherine’s husband is a wealthy spice-merchant, their marriage arranged, her inheritance plundered by a greedy aunt. Although clearly unsuited, the couple are determined to make the best of things. As the story opens Katherine is looking forward to Robert’s return from a long voyage and to moving out of her in-laws home into one of their own. However, the fire sweeps through the city and puts an end to her hopes and aspirations. Everything, including their warehouse that is ‘stacked to the gunnels’, is lost. The family are utterly down on their fortunes. Debts cannot be paid, prison threatens, and, as London begins to recover, work is hard to find and the city is lawless. The narrative moves with as many twists and turns as the dark London lanes that is its landscape. Enter a rogue builder and the narrative’s thriller element follows. The plot turns on Katherine’s attempts to expose Mr Hackett the builder who is out to ruthlessly deceive and make his fortune out of Christopher Wren’s new plans for the city.
Will Katherine survive as this man determines to destroy her future? She does have a potential saviour, of course, in Gabrielle Harte, the perfume maker. Along with his wife, Jane, he befriends Katherine in a relationship that, as the story evolves, becomes a little reminiscent of Jane Eyre. The characters are all very well drawn, the in laws, husband Robert, Gabrielle and the hideous, evil Hackett who could even be one of Dickens’ meanest 19th C constructions and Jane who becomes Katherine’s close friend which presents yet another dilemma.
The narrative is written in first person past tense which brought me particularly close to Katherine. I stood in her shoes, saw others through her eyes and travelled London’s streets smelling and seeing as she did. The sights and sounds are there lurking about Fish Hill, Thames Street, Mincing Lane, Lombard Street and the wharves. There are link boys lighting the dim thoroughfares, swaying coaches, smells such as rotting fish, mud and rubbish and a dreadful cellar with a suspicious stink. I was especially party to Katherine’s emotions and wanted her not to make mistakes as she navigated this landscape. Most of all I wanted her to find happiness and, since Ms Betts presents her readers with a deal of jeopardy threatening this possible outcome, the novel is extremely engaging.


A Divided Inheritance
A Divided Inheritance
Price: 3.59

5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Novel, 16 Jan 2014
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Divided Inheritance is a fabulous read. Deborah Swift's other two novels set in the seventeenth century, The Lady's Slipper and The Gilded Lily, are thoroughly enjoyable books, well-plotted with depth of characterisation. A Divided Inheritance is, without doubt, the most sophisticated work of the three novels and a brilliant achievement. An excellent historical novel owns two elements: the total immersion of a reader into a previous historical era and engaging characterisation. With A Divided Inheritance, Deborah Swift succeeds on both counts.
The story is set during the early years of the reign of James 1st , opening in London to a background of trade and religious tension following the late Elizabethan period and The Gunpowder Plot. Elspet Leviston hopes to inherit her father's London lace business but is thwarted by the arrival of a lost cousin. As a consequence her inheritance will be divided. Zachary Deane has a disreputable background, yet despite his shadowy past, her father draws him into their pleasant London home and his business. To Elspet's chagrin he sends this mysterious cousin on a grand tour to look for new markets and to knock off his rough edges.

Elspet is a devout English Catholic, intrepid, and not deterred by obstacles, she takes on a terrifying sea and land journey into Spain, a country in the grip of Inquisition, in search of Zachary after her father's sudden demise. The journey to Seville sets in motion intriguing events as the two protagonists become locked in a battle of wills, involved in a school for training swordsmen and in the expulsion of a persecuted people, the Morisco population of Andulusia, one often composed of baptised Christians . The expulsion is a very moving aspect of this novel's plot, superb in its depiction and integration into the novel's overall narrative drive, also providing the story's sub plot.

At the heart of the novel is character. Even minor characters are extraordinarily well developed and, of course, the protagonists are particularly rich depictions. Elspet is plucky and determined but she is also a prim Jacobean lady who early in the book faces several disappointments. She is a heroine rooted in her time yet propelled by circumstances into situations which permit her ultimate self-discovery. Vividly portrayed she leaps off the page in her farthingales, laced bodices, her desire to visit every Spanish church on the route across this arid, dangerous country, her ability to stay her post under a relentless sun, whilst waiting for the difficult retrograde, Zachary, each day, as he learns skills of the sword. She is indomitable and will confront him. Zachary Deane is a man of the sword, an ultimately likeable ne'er do well. Can he meet the challenge the story's terrible events present and gain redemption? As for all the personalities in between- they successfully respectively aid or hinder the story's development. All of them provide a convincing and engaging gallery of characters whose destinies we care about.

This novel must be praised for Deborah Swift's attention to research and her translation of this into brilliant characterisation, scintillating dialogue and a thrilling narrative. Her research, though impeccable and thorough, never shows. The scenes set in a Spanish sword school and amongst the Morisco community are vibrant. I was there participating in Elspet's and Zachary's story lives, fighting with sword, trudging Seville's narrow streets, watching their romances develop and the threats to their survival. A Divided Inheritance is a terrific historical novel; one which on reaching the last page I was reluctant to put down. I hope it provides other readers with an equally delectable sense of enjoyment. It comes highly recommended.


The Lost Duchess
The Lost Duchess
by Jenny Barden
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.55

5.0 out of 5 stars Roanake and a Fabulous Adventure, 16 Jan 2014
This review is from: The Lost Duchess (Hardcover)
The Elizabethan Age is a comparatively settled period in England's history, one of glory, expansionism, the opening years of Empire, exploration and discovery. This all came with a price. Every historical moment of brightness also contains its darkness. Jenny Barden's new novel, The Lost Duchess, published in hardback and as an e book this November contains such themes, glorious events of exploration and colonisation and the price paid by many individuals, men, women and children struggling to colonise the New World's relatively unchartered shores.

It is a novel rooted in England's seafaring history, set during the adventurous exploits of Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins and which specifically concerns the lost colony of Roanoke. The question that Ms Barden explores throughout her second novel is- what happened to this colony? How and why did the colonists disappear, leaving difficult to decipher signs, carved into trees close to their deserted and destroyed fort? They vanished before help and provisions could arrive at a time when this help was delayed because England in the following years was threatened by a Spanish Armada. When help did come it arrived too late, after the driest drought-filled years of weather colonists could possibly experience, and the threat of a once friendly indigenous people, who had turned against them.

The Lost Duchess is a meticulously researched historical novel and this reader found herself avidly reading the paratexts that open each chapter, and which are in part quotations extracted from contemporary documents. They frame the story's narrative, authenticate it and enhance it. The story's narrative thrust is gripping. Its plot's ingredients include adventure at sea, settlement, political shenanigans, betrayal, conflict and romance. Queen Elizabeth herself encourages settlement of the American Eastern seaboard hoping to find natural wealth and to allow Drake's ships safe harbours when threatened by the Spanish or when Drake or Hawkins indulged in a spot of privateering. As a consequence, the narrative contains a sense of constant danger. The sacrifice was that Queen Elizabeth's policy along with political ruthlessness put colonists at great risk without sufficient protection. This is open to question, but Ms Barden ultimately offers her readers a convincing theory as to why the colonists were put down at Roanoke rather than safer Chesapeake which was to be their original destination.

In this novel, an assorted group of settlers, many of whom really existed, set sail for the New World on a ship commanded by Simon Ferdinando. Was he a Spanish sympathiser determined to destroy them? These colonists include the fictional Emme, one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, who is determined to escape a scandal which threatens to destroy her future at court. Emme has the task of gathering information and reporting back to Elizabethan spy-master, Walsingham and to Elizabeth herself. Emme must return to England but despite horrific conditions, the threat of famine and conflict with the indigenous population she certainly has other ideas. Kit Doonan is a man with a history, a character who appears in Ms Barden's first novel Mistress of the Sea but who by the time this book opens is a ship's boson. The Duchess, Emme, and Kit Doonan are attracted to each other, though Kit harbours a secret. This along with Emme's previous encounter at court conspires to prove that the course of true love is never easy. After all, Emme has previously been compromised and will not give her heart away too easily. Both protagonists are successfully portrayed and are engaging characters. Emme is courageous and proactive. Kit is human to a fault, yet honourable and extremely sharp. It is a fact that taken out of normal surroundings an author can permit a hero and heroine to face challenges and encounter extreme difficulties which they must overcome if they are to survive. Emme is presented with many challenging situations both physical and emotional. All the characters in this novel are fully realised but importantly the anti-hero ,Simon Ferdinando, presents surprises. As a result we discover the true villainy involved in the sad narrative of Roanoke's destiny.

Finally, the indigenous people of America's south-eastern seaboard are portrayed as convincingly as James Fennimore Cooper once wrote them. After reading this novel I undertook my own research about Roanoke and found out that two Native Americans had indeed come to the Elizabethan court. One betrayed the colonists and was determined to destroy them. Why this happened is shockingly and accurately suggested in Barden's fiction. The final chapters of The Lost Duchess are un-put-down-able and beautifully composed.

The Lost Duchess is an excellent read, informative and imaginative, beautifully written and brimming with characters whose destiny we care about. I not only enjoyed a thoroughly researched work of historical fiction and an engaging, well-written tale, but understood yet again that whilst power can be manipulative, human nature can rise above it even in the face of desperation and adversary. Highly Recommended.


Bitter Greens
Bitter Greens
Price: 4.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, 19 Dec 2013
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This review is from: Bitter Greens (Kindle Edition)
I adored this novel. If I had read it pre PhD thesis on romance and realism in historical fiction I would have referred to it. Beautiful writing, and the sub plot is a terrific re telling of the Rapunzil fairy tale. This novel is exquisite ranging from Italy in the early sixteenth century to the decadent French court of the seventeenth century. I enjoyed it so much on kindle that I have bought the hard copy and intend to re read it. It is the stuff of fabulous story telling and a refreshing take on the historical novel. Moving and superbly crafted.


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