Friday, 26 June 2015

Darius Reviews: The Shining City

The Shining City (Book One in The al-Andalus Trilogy) by Joan Fallon
Review by Darius Stransky

See below to find how you could win a FREE COPY of 
The Shining City
Drawing July 8, 2015
This drawing has been held and a winner announced at Facebook.
Please see new reviews for more chances!

We have a giveaway with every review!

Let me start by saying what I think historical fiction should bring to the reader:

In historical fiction, setting is the most important literary element. As the author is writing about a particular time in history, the information about the time period must be accurate, authentic, or both. To create accurate and authentic settings in their books, authors must research the time period thoroughly.
The success – or not - of a good story stands or falls within the first one thousand words, where the reader is either hooked and continues reading or (all too often) finds him/her self unable to empathise with the character/setting/voice of the protagonists. Joan Fallon passed this first hurdle with ease and aplomb as we meet Omar (son of Qasim).

Córdoba 987 AD

The old man sat in the shade of the mosque wall. It was still early but already the heat was building with its usual summer ferocity. He loosened his robe slightly and fanned himself with the napkin he had in his hand. Omar was not a rich man but neither was he poor. His djubba was made of the finest white cotton, with long narrow sleeves and over that he wore his djellaba, a hooded cloak of the same material. It was light, cool and comfortable. He was of the generation for whom appearances mattered. Even his cap, crocheted in a green and white design, sat elegantly on his long, white hair.  His beard was trimmed and shaped; once it would have been touched with henna but now it was as white as his hair.

By the simple stratagem of questioning from younger boys we are plunged into the mysterious world of the harem in a long-forgotten city (now in ruins) during the middle of the tenth century.

‘Is it true that you are more than a hundred?’ Ahmad asked.
‘No, it’s not true, although I certainly feel like it some days. Now what is it you want to know?’
‘Have you ever been inside the Khalifa’s harem?’ Musa blurted out.
‘The Khalifa’s harem?’
‘Yes, what’s it like?’ they both chorused.
‘Well ...’
The waiter arrived and set the freshly brewed mint tea on the table.
‘Maybe something sweet for the boys to eat,’ Omar said, looking at the waiter.
Omar turned back to his eager audience.
‘So, what were you saying?’
‘The harem.’
‘Oh yes.’

The setting is southern Spain when the Moors ruled with diligence and style. This is immediately and sharply contrasted with the basic villages of Saxony and the brutal treatment of those peoples as we are introduced to Isolde. Ah the lovely Isolde! A heroine formed from basic clay that undergoes such a change as only dreams are made of. We know – through excellent wordplay – that this girl will break hearts as easily as Fatima (Quasim’s wife) breaks an egg when preparing a family meal, and what a dish Isolde turns out to be!

Thus we see Fallon’s tenth century world through the eyes of a young Omar, and Omar only has eyes for Isolde.

Here is the nub of the plot for we know - even in our modern lives - that the course of young love is never smooth. Add to that a ‘forbidden’ love and there you have the nemesis of this excellent plot. The settings are outstanding and the novel shows the extraordinary amount of research that Fallon undertook. If you enjoy detail - lots of detail - then this is the book for you.

All books need a sub-plot and in The Shining City such a stratagem is there for you as Qasim has a secret which … I’ll leave you, dear reader, to delve into that interesting thread.

Life is full of consequences isn’t it? At the outset we meet a family, and the consequences for this family are fraught with danger and intrigue. I think you will enjoy the journey. Yet consider this - the vibrant ‘shining city’ of the title once blossomed and grew before reaching its nadir and falling into ruin. Such an event often happens in the lives of men and women as we charter a path through our brief sojourn on the earth. Love blossoms and we think it will last for ever but events conspire and we are left with only sadness and memories of what might have been. Yet we make our mark and a shadow of our life lives on just like the outlines of a once great city, The Shining City.

Author Joan Fallon has so graciously offered a FREE COPY of The Shining City for one lucky winner. 
(Paperback or choice of e-book.)

To get your name in the drawing, simply comment below OR at this review's associated Facebook thread, located here

About the author

Joan Fallon began her career as a writer after moving to Spain at the start of the new millennium. Her first book was a social history inspired by the women in her new home, but since then Ms. Fallon has gone on to write various novels, many of them with a connection to Spain. 

You can find out more about the author and her books by going to her websiteThe Shining City is also available at Amazon and Amazon UK


Darius Stransky is the author of The King's Jew, a historical fiction novel set in thirteenth century England and Europe. He wrote for many years for national UK Media groups and is now a full-time novelist. You can find more at his blog and Facebook page.

Note: This post has been updated to change the date of the drawing to July 8.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Lisl Reviews: March to Destruction

March to Destruction by Art McGrath
Review by Lisl

Please see below to find how you can win a FREE COPY of 
March to Destruction
Drawing July 7, 2015
The drawing has been held and a winner announced at Facebook.
Please see new reviews for more chances!
We have a giveaway with every review!

In addressing how he came to write about an American serving in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, author Art McGrath references his quest to discover how such a circumstance might come to be. “It was discovery through writing, and while it may sound like a cliché, it was as if Pierre Burns was standing over my shoulder telling his story. He wanted to be discovered.”

In March to Destruction, superb sequel to McGrath’s The Emperor's American, the author indeed employs the Method philosophy to tell Burns’s story—in fact, so effectively that readers would be forgiven for believing this to be the memoir of a real historical figure. Since the series’ opening novel, Burns’s—excuse me; McGrath’s—narrative has tightened as he further employs an economy perhaps reflective of the manner in which a soldier’s self awareness might utilize minimum movement to ultimately provide maximum advancement.

Narrated by Burns, an American of French-Scots decent who had been raised to abhor the English and sought his opportunity to fight and kill them, the tale continues his deployment with the Grande Armée. This time, however, Burns moves east into Bavaria, geographically farther from his first campaign in The Emperor’s American, but still against the same foe, who bankrolls foreign armies to create havoc on the Continent. He comes under direction of the ruthless spymaster General Savary, whose summary execution of the Duc d’Enghien the previous year had triggered Russian determination to curb Napoleon’s power, and now contributes to the slightly tense interactions between them.

When the pair first meet up we sense a competition of sorts, initiated by Savary, who affably concedes a touché before they move on. The tension remains, however, and when they climb into a bell tower for lookout duty, it comes somewhat more out into the open. Savary addresses the incident that provoked the outrage of numerous European houses, to the bewilderment of Burns, whose emotional recall leads to his answer and readers’ sensation of the caution closing the scene:

“I suppose you’re thinking, Burns,” Savary said without taking his spyglass from his eyes, “if only we hadn’t had the Duc d’Enghien executed last year you wouldn’t be stuck in Central Europe looking for an Austrian army but would still be on the coast preparing to invade England, perhaps even be in England by now.”

Ney crossing the bridge at Elchingen
October 15, 1805
I stopped scanning the horizon to look at the general; it seemed such an odd question out of nowhere.

“Maybe I should have done more […,” Savary suggested…]

I had heard both sides of that point argued in the officers’ mess and taverns in the camp near Boulogne, but I didn’t feel entirely adequate discussing the matter with someone so intimately involved with the affair and with the [e]mperor. However, Savary pressed the point.

“What would you have done, Burns?”

The question stunned me. “I think, mon Général, such matters are far above my purview as a lieutenant.”

[…] I watched a falcon dive at the roof of a house below, trying to catch a dove roosting there. The prey escaped.

McGrath moves his passage forward and simultaneously back to the approaching Austrian army and the French troops’ own onward progression. He continues to demonstrate the manner in which March to Destruction utilizes dramatic expression familiar to audiences of the stage and screen.

Throughout the book, Burns speaks of what Stanislavsky in his Moscow theater would have referred to as the American’s “super objective”: he is motivated by his deep and abiding desire to fight and kill English, taking him farther into the heart of Europe and advancing the novel’s plot. As they move on, so too the narrative carries forward, not unlike the rivers Inn and Rhine, which also make cameos, contributing to the sensation of the plot flowing amid the countryside they march through, transitioning smoothly from one circumstance to the next.

This is often achieved by McGrath’s employment of props as metaphor, contributing to the unfolding of the plot or digging at the psychology of the moment, adding layers to events that also unfold as readers advance in the story. Following an English attempt on Burns’s life and the would-be assassins’ capture, Napoleon seizes their gold, rewarding it to our lieutenant and resuming the afore-mentioned friction.

Savary caught up to me […] “I’ll need the coins as evidence.”

I raised an eyebrow, my sardonic expression not well hidden.

“It’s evidence, Burns.”
I handed one to Savary.

“I’ll need all of them, Burns.”

That’s all the evidence you need, mon Général. They’re all the same as that one. The [e]mperor returned them to me.”

Savary stared at me, dark eyes studying me. “It’s blood money, Burns.”

I shrugged. “What of it? It’s my blood[.]”

While there is no mention in this installment of the emperor’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, we periodically come across snippets of narrative reminiscent of the style one might find in a letter, or a conversational tone bringing readers closer to the character: “I loaded my pistols and made the rounds of the loopholes manned by the soldiers in my company, checking on each man. For a moment I almost said my men, but they really weren’t.”

Burns’s reasoned humility, periodic complaint of those who wish him ill and anguish over an unattainable love interest all remain evident in enough doses to show his decency as well as how he, too, is subject to human nature. His poor choices tend to keep him anchored, and he knows it, as well as the reality that it isn’t always genius on his part that events turn in the favor of this man’s army: “Behind every good officer, especially a junior officer, is a good NCO [non-commissioned officer], as I came to realize quickly after I joined the army.”

McGrath winds it all together with confidence, as if he is seeing everything Pierre describes over his shoulder, and the battle scenes in particular are cohesive, with thrilling precision of language that is authentic and possessed of authority, without the need to rely on military jargon. Even the longer skirmishing keeps readers on alert as they make connections, bridge transitions, and follow an internal conflict that will cause them to stay awake far, far too late into the night.

For readers who enjoyed The Emperor’s American, this is a half a year in the life of Pierre Burns that will exceed expectations based on the brilliant first part of his story: McGrath’s storytelling prowess has grown, as has Pierre himself. He continues to use dialogue to show events as they occur, and more frequently connections to indicate political nuances as well as explanation, such as his reading of a newspaper article on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Knowing this is not the last to be heard from the Baltimorean will buoy them with anticipation for those tales yet to be told. 

For an audience not yet acquainted with Burns: do yourself a favor—not because you have to, for March to Destruction can indeed be read as a stand-alone. However, characters who grow with their audience and who readers can relate to, and have appeal beyond the strictures of genre have a staying power that eclipses individual struggle, such as those to achieve, belong and accept. Depriving oneself of earlier Pierre Burns is to miss out on a character whose name in coming years is sure to stand out in literature of war.


Author Art McGrath has so generously provided a FREE COPY of March to Destruction to gift one lucky winner: in the United States, paperback, elsewhere Kindle copy. 

For your chance, simply comment below OR at this review's associated Facebook thread, located here

Art McGrath lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he is a journalist as well as re-enactor and member of the Brigade Napoleon and the 3me regiment infanterie de ligne--the French 3rd Infantry regiment of the Line. March to Destruction is second in a series following the adventures of Pierre Burns through the Napoleonic Wars to the climatic Battle of Waterloo. Learn more about Art McGrath and the book at his author page and at Facebook. 


Lisl can also be found at before the second sleep. She is a contributor to Naming the Goddesshas published poetry in Alaska Women Speak, and is currently at work on a book of short stories, poetry and other projects.    

Note: This post has been updated to change the date of drawing to July 7 and to include an additional author link.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Book of the Month Award: Summer Vacay!

The Review’s Book of the Month Award: Summer Hiatus

Having just about reached the year’s midway mark, we at The Review have been anticipating this point with a great deal of thought and contemplation. We began 2015 with a new initiative, our Book of the Month Award (BOMA), and have had tremendous success. Moving forward we want this to continue and bring even greater attention to deserving authors. Toward this endeavor, staff have decided that the award process shall go into summer hiatus and resume in autumn. 

The Review admins have engaged in conversations over the months, pounding out ideas for how to achieve more as well as streamline the process and sharpen edges to bring the BOMA to tips of tongues and become more competitive—by its wider exposure and with many more indie authors reaching out for the win.

Of course, maintaining this dialogue can be challenging. As an international blog, The Review is run by writers and authors who rarely come face to face and often are required to juggle duties, decisions and time zones in other than real time—that is to say, via messaging only. It can become tedious, to say the least, or slow down the process, but our professional group of admins have done a remarkable job of staying on top of a variety of processes not only to keep everything running smoothly, but also to achieve this while maintaining deadlines and limitations on wait periods for authors and reviewers.

Some readers may already be aware that this method of operation is soon to get a bit of a boost in that Paula and Louise, who live in England, in a few short days will travel to meet with Lisl in the Great Land—Alaska. They will be able to get with each other and discuss all of the above and much more, and waiting time for a response will not exceed the length of time it takes to swallow a mouthful of tea!

The Three Heads, as they are affectionately known, plan to take full advantage of the time together to see about mapping out these and other goals for The Review, and the possibility that the summer hiatus may become a permanent seasonal break, to read more books to choose from, re-assess the process and progress and brainstorm ideas for improvement and expansion.

Of course, they will aim as well to do a little whale watching and gold panning in the Land of the Midnight Sun!

As we approach the The Review’s second anniversary we look forward, as always, to supporting indie authors and books you will want to spend your time with—and doing this while also supporting the growth of ourselves and others.

We’ll see you there!

Mount Susitna, Sleeping Lady
Lisl writes about her here

Friday, 19 June 2015

Magna Carta Week: The Magna Carta Memorial: Past and Present

The Magna Carta Memorial

Runnymede, Surrey

by Emma Powell
Photographs by and courtesy Jayne and Adrian Smith

The 15 June 1215 is rightly regarded as one of the most notable days in the history of the world. Those who were at Runnymede that day could not know the consequences that were to flow from their proceedings. The granting of Magna Carta marked the road to individual freedom, to Parliamentary democracy and to the supremacy of the law. The principles of Magna Carta, developed over the centuries by the Common Law, are the heritage now, not only of those who live in these Islands, but in countless millions of all races and creeds throughout the world.

--The Magna Carta Trust

Jayne Smith (right) at Magna Carta Memorial
© 2015 Adrian Smith
Runnymede. It is quite disconcerting to learn that nothing marked this historic spot, where constitutional freedom was born, until this memorial was built by the American Bar Association (in recognition of statutes of liberty that were transferred to the American colonies and thus their later basis of law and democracy) and opened in 1957. The memorial and site is today managed by the National Trust and is open to everyone, all year round.

John F. Kennedy Memorial
© 2015 Adrian Smith 
Steps leading to JFK Memorial
© 2015 Adrian Smith

The area of Runnymede has much history going back way before 1215. Of course, there’s no forgetting its proximity to Windsor Castle where King John was staying during that world-changing event in 1215, from the Roman river crossing at nearby Staines-upon-Thames (modern-day Staines Bridge, once part of an important route out of Roman London to Bath), to adjoining Egham Manor, to which Runnymede once belonged. Egham, my birthplace, is now a small, bustling town within a commuter belt but geographically lies next to Runnymede meadows, along the ancient track we know as the A30. Originally Echga’s Ham(let), this ancient settlement became part of the extensive lands belonging to Chertsey Abbey at its founding in 666 A.D. Many Roman finds have been discovered over the years along with Saxon and medieval discoveries. 

View of the river from JFK Memorial
© 2015 Adrian Smith 

Another claim to fame for Egham is the fact it was the inspiration for the famous best-selling 1960 book Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss!  Also known as American author Theodor Seuss Geisel who was briefly stationed in Egham during WWII, he found Egham not to his liking, despite being reminded how green and lush the area was. He is known to have said he did not like a green Egham and cited this as his inspiration for the afore-mentioned book. 

That other, more illustrious tome known as the Domesday Book notes the place as Egeham in 1086 and this is how, in 1215, King John and his barons would have known it. I like to think they may have procured provisions from here! Today, a sculpture of King John and Baron Fitzwalter stand in the town to commemorate the Magna Carta.

Also here were regular meetings of the Witan, Anglo-Saxon council meetings. The name itself, Runnymede, is possibly derived from runieg, meaning meeting place and mede, meaning meadow.  The water meadows have a long history of good-quality hay production, as well as further extending as low marshy land that went as far as what is now Virginia Water and even today, remain a flood plain.

View of Magna Carta Island 
© 2015 Adrian Smith 
From the memorial looking across to the opposite side of the River Thames, is Magna Carta Island.  Some sources say this is also a plausible site where King John signed the Great Charter (so named due to its length, not so much the detail!) but others seem to think it was an area where the barons could retire to. The Thames has possibly changed course occasionally since 1215, so it maybe this site was originally part of Runnymede meadows. Henry III is known to have met Louis, the future Louis VIII  of France here in 1217, and nearby are the ancient ruins of a Benedictine priory and a 2,500-year-old yew tree, both of which would have been witness to the illustrious gathering for the Magna Carta. 

So from the 13 June 2015, this area will be thronged with regattas, memorials, parties and remembrance. And rightly so.

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter – but the King of England may not enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.  

--William Pitt the Elder defining Magna Carta (via Daniel Hannan 12.6.15)

American Bar Association Memorial to Magna Carta information board © 2015 Adrian Smith  

The History of Magna Carta information board
© 2015 Adrian Smith 

Emma Powell has been reviewing for us since The Review's debut. She has since joined the admins team and you can find more of Emma's scribblings on her blog here.

Jayne Smith is an admin with The Review since its inception, and a great lover of history and cats. She maintains and manages several related Facebook groups. Jayne and her husband Adrian made a special trip to Runnymede specifically to make the photographs for this entry, for which we are very grateful. Hats off to you, Smiths!