Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Triumph of a Tsar by Tamar Anolic

Today Renny de Groot reviews the alternative history novel, Triumph of a Tsar by Tamar Anolic.
We have a wonderful giveaway of paperback copy of the book as prize. 
To enter, simply leave a comment below or on our facebook page. Good luck!

Triumph of a Tsar is a work of alternate historical fiction in which the Russian Revolution of 1917 is averted, and the hemophiliac Alexei, son of Tsar Nicholas II, comes to the throne. In August, 1920, sixteen-year-old Alexei is enjoying his birthday celebrations when Nicholas dies suddenly. Overnight, Alexei becomes tsar of an empire that covers one-sixth of the world’s landmass.
Thank you to the author Tamar Anolic for a complimentary copy of this novel.
It’s been a while since I read a story of Russia, although those I have read stay with me in a way so many books don’t. The detailed psychological and philosophical explorations one can expect tend to set Russian novels in a category of their own.

With this novel, Triumph of a Tsar, the author takes us on a journey in the traditional style of the great Russian novelists. The sweeping portrayal of Russian aristocracy woven with true historic events evokes a strong sense of place and time to the point where we forget that this is alternative historical fiction. Anolic has created a world peopled by characters that are believable in their behaviours and actions. The protagonist, Alexei is thrust into a role before he is ready, and yet he steps up to assume the mantle of responsibility in a way that we can see and feel. Despite those who would see him fail, he learns and grows. We, the reader, find ourselves concerned about his concerns; his health, his enemies, his family and most of all the survival of his country.

As in any good book, we need to feel connected to the story and characters, and Tamar Anolic has successfully given us that connection as we consider Alexei taking great risks while he attempts to do what he feels is right amid contradictory priorities and advice. Who amongst us has not gone against the guidance of others to forge our own path?

The author uses dialogue to great effect in moving the story forward. We hear from the characters themselves how they are coping with the unfolding dramatic events. As WWII threatens Russia, Alexei calls his family together:
“During a pause in the food service, after the borscht and pickled fish had been cleared, Alexei called the table to order. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “I know you’re all busy with the war effort, and I want to thank you all for everything you’ve done. Having the imperial family visibly involved has made a large difference, both in morale, and in our fighting strength.”
He took a deep breath. “I’ve asked you all here on something of a more personal note. The Germans have already invaded Russia’s frontiers, and they’ve set their eyes upon both of our capitals- first Moscow, and now St. Petersburg. I fear that as members of the Imperial family, we will become the Germans’ targets- not only our persons but our palaces as well.”
“You think the Germans would bomb our palaces?” Ioann asked. “They’re our homes!”
 “That’s precisely the point,” Alexei said. “Besides, our palaces are huge buildings that make for easy targets for the Luftwaffe.”
This is a well researched piece of writing. The story flows and while it offers an alternative to what really happened, it still provides enough history to leave the reader satisfied.

Congratulations to Tamar Anolic on creating a fascinating book. I give it four stars and recommend it to anyone who is interested in something a little bit different.

Triumph of a Tsar by Tamar Anolic is available from Amazon in the UK

About the Author
“Triumph of a Tsar” is Tamar’s second novel. She has a history of writing about the Romanovs. Her first book, the nonfiction biography entitled “The Russian Riddle,” was the first biography of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. In addition, one of her short stories focuses on Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich and his sons: “Rumors of War,” published in The Copperfield Review in May, 2017. Tamar’s first novel, “The Last Battle,” was published in 2017.
Links: website; Amazon US

About the reviewer:
Renny deGroot is a first generation Canadian of Dutch parents. Her debut novel, Family Business, was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.  Her second novel, After Paris, has also been well received, with the current interest in all things WW1.  Renny has a BA in English Literature from Trent University.
Renny lives in rural Ontario with her elderly Chocolate lab, Great Pyrenees and young Golden Retriever.
You can find Renny's books on Amazon in Canada and the US.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Road to Newgate by Kate Braithwaite

Today Elizabeth St John  reviews  The Road to Newgate by Kate Braithwaite. And there's a giveaway! The author has kindly offered a paperback copy of this wonderful book as a prize. To be in with a chance of winning, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page. 
Good luck!

Titus Oates, an unknown preacher, creates panic with wild stories of a Catholic uprising against Charles II. The murder of a prominent Protestant magistrate appears to confirm that the Popish Plot is real.

Only Nathaniel Thompson, writer and Licenser of the Presses, instinctively doubts Oates’s revelations. Even his young wife, Anne, is not so sure. And neither know that their friend William Smith has personal history with Titus Oates.

When Nathaniel takes a public stand, questioning the plot and Oates’s integrity, the consequences threaten them all.

The Road to Newgate is overflowing with raucous Londoners and a cacophony of sounds, sights and smells that steals away our breath and drops us into the cesspool of 17th century city life. And in the extraordinarily talented hands of Kate Braithwaite, we travel eagerly along the road, joining the jostling crowd and immersing ourselves in the story unfolding before us.

Meticulously researched and beautifully written, the cadence and rhythm of The Road to Newgate introduces us to extracts from historical accounts woven with language and scenes from Ms. Braithwaite’s vivid imagination. And, when these mingle to form an unforgettable backdrop to the engaging plot, the effect is memorable. The shouts of the crowd in a bear-baiting pit (such detail—down to the gates for the dogs to enter) give way to the most sinister sound of all: that of chains on a stone floor in Newgate prison. In her end note, Ms. Braithwaite takes great care to explain which is fiction and which are true characters and accounts. Such is her skill, that as readers we put complete trust in her decisions as to which blend of each makes great historical fiction.

Told alternately by Nat and Anne, a young married couple and the protagonists of the novel, we see London through the eyes of a Licenser of printed materials and his independent-minded printer wife. Early in the story their own relationship is challenged, and when Titus Oates, the villain of the piece arrives on the scene, the tension is mirrored in encounters with him, and is ratcheted to almost unbearable levels. When the true extent of the Popish Plot is revealed, we stand hopeless to help Nat and Anne. And through triumph and tragedy, gain and loss, we walk side-by-side with them as if they were friends just a letter’s reach away.

With fascinating accounts of Westminster trials and Old Bailey hearings, Newgate visitations and Bartholomew Fair outings, The Road to Newgate is an unforgettable journey through late 17th Century London culture. The bitter lessons of crowd-thinking, charismatic perjurers and a climate of fear echo through the centuries, and make us realize that little has changed in human nature between them and us. And that’s the heart of Ms. Braithwaite’s beautifully crafted novel—a study in all the complexities of humanity, against a dazzling backdrop of a fearful age.

An excellent historical fiction novel that will stay with me for a long time. Five stars.

About the author:
Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first novel, Charlatan, was longlisted for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Award. The Road to Newgate was released by Crooked Cat in 2018. Kate lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. 
To buy the book.
Social Media Links: Facebook; Twitter; Website.

About the reviewer: 
Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story...

Elizabeth's Historical Fiction series "The Lydiard Chronicles" follows the fortunes of the 17th Century St.John family through royal favor and civil war. Her latest novel, By Love Divided, continues the story of Lucy St.John, The Lady of the Tower. This powerfully emotional novel tells of England's great divide, and the heart-wrenching choices one family faces.

Links: Amazon; Facebook; Twitter; Website.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The Lesson

Today Elizabeth St John reviews The Lesson, a book of poetry by Bobbie Coelho. And there's a giveaway! The author has kindly offered 2 copies as a prize. To be in with a chance of winning, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page. 

Good luck!

I have always been interested in poetry, so when I was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2002 I turned to poetry to make sense of what was happening.
Following on from Finding the Light and Reflecting the Light, I feel I still have something to say. In this collection I've touched on a mixture of themes, some shocking, others light-hearted, and all personal to me. For example, one poem is based on the tragic events of Aberfan in 1966, while another was inspired by my sister’s wedding anniversary.
I hope you find something within The Lesson that resonates with you too.

Bobby Coehlo’s Anthology, The Lesson, is an exquisite collection of prose and poetry that speaks of the passage of time and all the ways we measure and capture memories and moments. Within each beautifully wrought piece of writing runs a common theme; time is insubstantial, life is fleeting, and that to be conscious of the precious moments – a wedding day, a granddaughter’s daisy chain – is to capture the essence of life itself.
Although no one likes to be reminded of inevitability of death, Ms Coehlo does so in a simple, direct and sometimes funny way, and her captivating choice of subjects evokes memories of love and loss shared by all. At the same, she is not afraid to confront death full on, and some of her more wrenching poems – a tribute to the Aberfan disaster, a musing on the battlefields of Ypres, cut to the quick.
Poetry is an opportunity to share memories, feelings and philosophies across multiple points of view, and in my opinion, Ms Coehlo’s work is an important reminder that all of us are on the same road to a common ending. She just expresses it better than most. Aptly named “The Lesson”, this anthology is one to be kept close at hand to read over and over. A memorable collection.

About the author: Bobbie Coelho was born near Norwich and now lives in Hampshire with her husband   She has two stepsons and two granddaughters. She has always enjoyed poetry, but after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2002, she was particularly compelled to write as a way of putting things into perspective. Bobbie ahs written two other anthologies: Finding the Light and Reflecting the Light: she is a is a great fan of Forces Poetry (, and has had work published in two of their anthologies, Voices of the Poppies and Poems of the Poppies.

“My wish is that when people read this book, it will make them think a little more and reflect on their journey and realise how luck we are to have the sun on our backs.
Links: Website; Amazon.

About the reviewer: Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story...

Elizabeth's Historical Fiction series "The Lydiard Chronicles" follows the fortunes of the 17th Century St.John family through royal favor and civil war. Her latest novel, By Love Divided, continues the story of Lucy St.John, The Lady of the Tower. This powerfully emotional novel tells of England's great divide, and the heart-wrenching choices one family faces.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

King Billy and the Royal Road

Today James Holdstock reviews the children's book King Billy and the Royal Road by RC Ajuonuma. And there's a giveaway! The author has kindly offered paperback copy as a prize. To be in with a chance of winning, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page. 
Good luck!

Billy lives like a prince with his mum, eating all the feasts and treats a boy could want. He doesn’t know much about people and places because she never lets him out. 
One day, he wakes up peckish and sneaks off for a snack. But what begins as a trip to town becomes a search for a new friend and the start of a magical journey…

King Billy and the Royal Road is a children's book written entirely in rhyme by RC Ajuonuma and illustrated by Beverley Young.

The whole book is one long poem and appeared to be a very dream like journey for Billy.

A Trumpet blew loud,
Like a call from a cloud,
And Billy awoke with a start.

The book describes everything in rhyme and starts with Billy waking up, although reading on, it is surreal and imaginative enough to be a dream.

The themes of the book seemed very deep. To me (an adult) it read as a moral tale that explored emotions such as fear, loss, and childhood.

There is a constant theme of Billy's hunger and his quest to satisfy it. Along the way he is encouraged but also tricked! I felt at first that Billy was a little arrogant but quickly that turned to naive and I almost then felt sorry for Billy as one does watching a child learn life lessons. They are hard but must be learnt. The book juxtaposes light frolicking language and playful characters with a deep sombre overtone.

I felt some of the book was about making choices and that they can be tough and also affect outcomes, for good and bad.

There were a couple of times I had to re-read some of the sections to keep up with the wonderful language. A child reader would possibly have to be relatively advanced but could really get a lot out of this book and it's approach. I thinks it's a great example of poetry with the subject matter appealing to adolescents.

You are guided through the whole book with lovely pictures by Beverley Young that almost act as way markers and do give some light relief from what might be a rewarding but intense reading experience for kids.

In a world where rhymes are often reserved for nursery, it's nice to see an older children's book that plays so much with expressive language. 

About the author: RC Ajuonuma enjoys dreaming up stories and writing them down. He also likes theatre and
football, but not necessarily in that order. He lives in London with his family.
Social Media: Website; Twitter; Facebook; Instagram - rcajuonuma; Good Reads.

About the reviewerJames Holdstock is a People Performance Analyst in London. However, he loves nothing more than pretending to be a medieval knight whether it be visiting castles, playing roleplay games or dressing up! He has always had a passion for history especially medieval England. His aim in writing 'To Murder a King', apart from being very enjoyable, was to inspire younger readers to learn about history and get them reading historical fiction since it's a great way to absorb facts and immerse yourself in our glorious past.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018


Coronation photo by Emil Raberding., Creative Commons
I first met Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, in the pages of Susan Appleyard's biographical novel, In a Gilded Cage, when the novel was among the semi-final entries in the M.m. Bennetts Award competition in 2016. The three board members on the panel of readers had committed to read each of the more than forty entries, an ambitious project  which did not allow time for a critical analysis of each and every book. There were few biographical historical novels in the running  The three that come to mind in addition to Gilded Cage are Janet Wertman's Jane the Quene, Grace Tiffany's Gunpowder Percy, and Mark Beauregard's, The Whale ~A Love Story.  I am a historical novelist writing in Tudor and Stuart Britain, so I was well within my comfort zone reading the novels featuring Jane Seymour and Thomas Percy.  Nor was I a stranger to Melville and his association with Nathaniel Hawthorne. whose masterworks I read in high school.  Of the  protagonists involved, I was the least familiar with Elisabeth of Austria, best known to late nineteenth century history buffs as Sisi, whom I vaguely recollected as the subject of a series of  German language films starring a very youthful Romy Schneider, which were re-released  about ten years ago with subtitles I found tedious and put aside. Until I encountered Susan Appleyard's fine book, while I remembered Sisi as a legendary beauty, I  was totally unaware of the role she played in shaping late Nineteenth Century European history.  Thanks to Ms. Appleyard's gift for breathing life into her characters, I feel as if I know Sisi well.

The complete story of Empress Elisabeth is much longer than the portion featured in Susan Appleyard's novel, and in retrospect, I suspect I know the reason:  I experienced a single event in my own professional life when I said to myself  'if my life were to end here and now,  I would die knowing I had achieved the goal I sought.'  Likewise, if there was a single moment in Sisi's life when she might have shared the sentiment, it was when she stood beside her sometimes autocratic but loving husband Emperor Franz Josef, with her intimate friend and confidante Count Gyula Andrassy nearby, and was proclaimed Queen of Hungary, the country she so deeply loved. The ceremony culminated in a diplomatic bloodless coup joining Austria and Hungary in a union increasing Hungary's status in the Empire, and it had been engineered by the Empress and Andrassy.  In a brave display of artistic sensitivity,  Ms. Appleyard chooses to end her novel there.  The rest of it, the sadness, the tragedy of Mayerling, the scandals, deaths and the assassination, can be found in Wikipedia and in the videos and movies. No honest telling of Elisabeth of Austria's life story would be a happy one, but Gilded Cage ends on a triumphant note, and in that sense, it is unique.

Hungarian Coronation with Andrassiy doffing his cap, from news clipping


There are limitations in dealing with biographical novels that makes them difficult to review.  Spoilers are unavoidable.  We all know Anne Boleyn died on Tower Green, likely hoping for a reprieve that did not come.  Whoever may have fired the fatal shot, JFK did not survive the bullet.  It is easier to deal with relatively obscure historical characters who lived long ago, because little in the way of a written record survives.  Such is not the case in dealing with a character like Elizabeth Tudor, who was sovereign of an especially literate society for the day, and a mistress of the written word. For her, obscurity was not an option. The same is true when it comes to Elisabeth, Empress of Bavaria and Queen of Hungary.  She was thought to be the most beautiful woman in the world at a time when photography was in vogue.  She considered chronological age an enemy and did not sit for any portrait after she reached thirty, but she could not evade the cameras. She leaves galleries of visual imagery but she also leaves a catalog of faults.  What I find outstanding in Gilded Cage is the means whereby the author achieves a balance between what is speculative and what is known. It is, for example, one thing to describe a woman famous for her 18-inch waist and quite another to recreate what it felt like to be laced into the double corsets required to achieve it.  Likewise, there is much to be told in the widely circulated public family portrait of the Habsburgs, shown below,  but much more poignantly in Appleyard's accounts of Sisi rushing to her children's nursery to be turned away because she had not acquired her mother-in-law's permission to visit.
Franz Josef at the left, Sisi seated with her children, Sophia center foreground,
the Emperor' father Archduke Franz Karl in the stove-pipe hat. 


In the firsts pages of Susan Appleyard's novel, the reader is presented with a familiar theme, one worthy of a Disney classic: the most powerful and handsome sovereign in Christendom is about to stage a ball to which the eligible royal beauties of Europe  and their families will be invited. The Habsburg Emperor of Austria is shopping for a bride, and the Bavarian princesses of the house of Wittelsbach are in the running: And thus, the story begins.

Helene (Nene) and Elisabeth (Sisi)
Their mother Princess Ludovica, is one of nine daughters of the King of Bavaria, and although she had made a less than stellar marriage than her other sisters, she is very interested in the welfare of her daughters.  Much of the family finances will be diverted to dressing them for their trip to the Austrian summer palace to attend the ball.  To add to the tension, her older sister Sophie, mother of the Emperor, is coming to their relatively modest home for a visit, no doubt to make certain her less exalted relatives are suitably attired and disciplined, so as not to be an embarrassment.  She is delighted with the older sister, known in to the family as Nene, and in her mind's eye, she has  placed the mythical glass slipper on Nene's foot, but she finds the younger sister Sisi's lack of refinement appalling.  Sisi is a hoyden.

Young Franz Josef, Wikimedia Commons
While Aunt Sophie is making her presence felt at her sister's home, her son the Emperor Franz Josef and his younger brother make a surprise visit to his Bavarian cousins. At this point, a reader does not need to know Austro-Hungarian history to guess what happens next.

All of the ingredients of a Cinderella story are in Appleyard's novel.  While there is no evil step-mother, there is indeed a mean-spirited  mother-in-law, and the prince is sufficiently regal and utterly handsome, but a divine right monarch out of touch with the times.  He is also under his mother's thumb.

The major conflict in the novelization of Sisi's life is the well-documented tension between Sisi and her mother-in-law, her maternal aunt Archduchess Sophie, which the author  conveys to her readers in well-constructed scenes.  The narrative is never overwhelming.  For example, Franz Josef makes his feelings for Sisi obvious by giving her a nosegay of white flowers symbolic of a declaration of betrothal. However, his courtly gesture is unknown to his fifteen year old Bavarian cousin, who has to be told by her companions what the gesture means.  The novel is filled with similar scenes.

Since Sisi was not the Archduchess's choice of wife for her doted-upon son, the Archduchess was  delighted when Sisi herself asked to delay a formal betrothal until she was sixteen. Thereafter, Sophie's fault finding of her niece became relentless, but not in Franz Josef's presence. There is little his mother can do to change his mind without overplaying her hand. Nevertheless, the battle lines are drawn. And because Archduchess Sophie was no fool, her enemy was never Franz Josef, but the not-yet-sixteen year old prospective bride with neither the training nor the desire to become a Habsburg Empress, nor the expertise to deal with a venomous prospective mother-in-law. The Archduchess took advantage of her son's fiancee's youth and naivete, and criticized her mercilessly, but when Franz Josef's infatuation did not fade, the wedding proceeded as planned.  As appropriate to the groom's station, it was held in Vienna, on April  24th , 1854, in the presence of the Viennese court and a thousand assorted guests. As soon as the vows were spoken, Elisabeth's Bavarian waiting-ladies were sent home.  The ensuing struggle is the major theme of the first half of the novel, and leaves no clear winner.

Wikimedia Commons

While Franz Joseph was deeply in love with his wife, he was also cowed by his formidable mother. He had been under this mother's tutelage and control since birth.  One thinks of Catherine d' Medici's gift for exerting power over her sons.

Kaiserin of Austria 1862, a young Sisi
The theme of the first half of the book focuses on the disaster that ensues when Sisi  moves to Vienna and finds she truly is a pretty bird in a gilded cage.  A telling scene in the novel occurs at a meeting in which she and Archduchess Sophie were present with the men, but at which Sisi was expected to remain silent while Sophie presided on behalf of her son. When Sisi cleared her throat and suggested a less bellicose approach to relations with their Hungarian satellite nation,  the others gasped and, Sophie stomped out of the room.  On such occasions, Franz was indulgent of his pretty wife but almost always sided with his mother.  One topic upon which he and his mother always agreed was the need to take a firm hand with the Hungarians. Thus, the Hungarian dilemma becomes central to the plot and moves the novel into its second  phase, when Sisi, although miserable, learns to assert herself in subtle ways in which her beauty is her weapon.

Sisi, 1855

From research accompanying my initial reading during the MmBA Competition more  than  a year ago, the story related in the pages of A Gilded Cage is substantially accurate and artfully told.  The dialog presented is believeable and appropriate to the era.  Sisi had not been groomed to the life of an Austrian empress. Even as she matured, she was never acclimated to the adulation of the crowds she drew.  She ceased having marital relations with her husband, who was still in love with her, and she often fled to the satellite nation of Hungary, where she enjoyed a better climate, both weather-wise and in terms of her personal popularity.  She was always in better health when she was away from her mother-in-law and Austria. She loved Hungary and its people reciprocated.  There are shallow aspects to her character, especially centering on her obsession with the circumference of her waist (never more than 18 inches except when pregnant), control of her weight at less than 1000 lbs, and the length and grooming of her hair. In spite of the commotion her appearances created, she was afraid of crowds. From Ms. Appleyard's accounts, one might surmise she preferred the company of horses.

Gyula Andrassy, Public Domain art
A notable feature of the novel is the depth of the author's treatment of lesser characters, for example in a vignette in which Sisi's attendant Ida, who was a supporter of the Hungarian cause and was about to be dismissed, could not be made a lady in waiting to the Empress because she lacked the pedigree. But Sisi, who by that time was beginning to wield some degree of power over her circumstances, made her an adviser instead, which made her immune to arbitrary dismissal.  Appleyard also cleverly introduces Sisi to the character of Gyula Andrassy through Ida's recounting of his heroism and his charm. Thus, the stage is set for their meeting, which does not occur until the last portion of the novel.

While they play a small part in the story, Sisi's parents are well drawn characters,  as are her siblings. Much of the history of the times is told in thumnail sketches featuring Sisi's siblings and her Habsburg  inlaws.  The novel has a large cast of minor characters, but features Sophie as the antagonist, and the Count as Sisi's elusive romantic interest.


The second half of Appleyard's  arresting novel focuses on the manner in which a woman of no special intellectual gifts or training drew a kingdom of forward looking rebellious but pragmatic Hungarians into accepting a limited monarchy rather than resorting to another failed rebellion, and at the same time, seduced her quasi-estranged  autocratic husband into going along with the plan.  Her weapon was her beauty and the fact Franz Josef never stopped loving her. But beauty also  was her curse.  A young woman heralded as one of the most beautiful woman in the world is bound to have enemies, and she was not a good fit at the formal Viennese court.

 In documenting how she deals with conflict, Appleyard is sympathetic to Sisi, but she does not paint her free of flaws.  Nor does she make the Empress of Austria into a super hero,  a model wife and mother, or  a warrior queen, although she has some characteristics of each. To the author's credit, she does not attempt to resolve the issues that make Sisi enigmatic.  The extent to which her physical ailments are psychologically based, and more important, the nature of her relationship with the Hungarian patriot and statesman Gyula Andrassy remain unresolved.  In the final scene between them just before her coronation, he asks permission to kiss her hand, and the manner in which he strips away her glove is an sensual as any scene I have read.  The ensuing kiss lingers too long to be proprietous and is as close as the author brings them to open acknowledgment of a love affair, as they go their separate ways, never together and never apart, bound by their affection for one another and their hope for Hungary.
Andrassy, as Austrian foreign minister, with von Bismark the Berlin Conference of 1878
In Susan Appleyard's novel, the political changes affecting late Nineteenth Century Europe are always in the background and dominate the last third of the book.  The political climate of the final pages elevates the novel from the crowded shelf of many fine books about tragic queens, and places it among novels of political historical value.  For all of his  charm and Hungarian panache, Andrassy, as the author presents him, is the personification of change. He became a major statesman in the last years of the 19th Century, and made policies that endured until the end of WWI.

Thus, In a Gilded Cage is not just Sisi's story, but an account of the early stages of the fall of the Hapsburg empire,  reflected not only in the life of the Empress, but in the lives of her siblings and her cousins --minor characters in the novel, but major players on the world stage. Through a series of artfully presented  family vignettes, the reader becomes  acutely aware that Sisi and Franz Josef's world is crumbling.  From Mexico to the Baltic, the Habsburg sun is setting. In persuading her husband to adopt a dualist Austro-Hungarian government that avoided bloodshed, Sisi bought the Habsburgs a little more time in the sun. I doubt I would feel the impact of the last days of the  Austro-Hungarian Empire as strongly if I were reading a  traditional history.


As I read In a Gilded Cage the first time, and even more so as I review it now, I cannot help equating Sisi with Diana, two young women of good looks and impressive pedigree who nevertheless were thrust onto the world stage in roles they were  never meant to play, and who, all things considered, managed to capture the hearts of the common folk in a way no one could have predicted.  And while  a happy life may have eluded both Elisabeth of Austria and Diana, Princess of Wales, neither faded into obscurity, and each brought a bit of luster and legitimacy back into the faltering concept of monarchy.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history framed as art.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Britannia's Gamble by Antoine Vanner - A Review by Lisl

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

A Discovered Diamond Review and Book of the Month

The author has so kindly donated a copy of Britannia's Gamble for one lucky winner of our contest! Simply comment below or here and your name will be part of our drawing! Drawing will be June 8, 2018 with winner announced the same evening. 

 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 only 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 an 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 ohhh 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 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 protagonists, 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.

Photo courtesy Antoine Vanner
About the Author

Antoine Vanner has been writing on and off for many years but as his business career took off he had to cut back. The impulse to get going again - seriously so - came just before retirement from full-time work when he attended a lecture and book-signing session by the late naval-novelist Douglas Reeman at a local bookshop. In a calm, dignified and erudite way Reeman conveyed not only vast knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject but the importance of a methodical approach to writing. He provided the inspiration for taking the task really seriously and since then Antoine has adopted the Latin motto "Nulla dies sine lines - not a day without a line." So thank you, Douglas Reeman!

Antoine's adventurous career in international business gave him the opportunity to live and work in eight countries as well as shorter assignments in a dozen more. He is bilingual in English and Dutch, adequate in Spanish, abysmal in German and has smatterings in two other languages so rusty as to be not worth mentioning. He currently lives in Britain with his wife, dog and two horses.

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 Lisl with a copy of Britannia's Gamble in order to facilitate an honest review. 


About the reviewer

At age six, Lisl announced she would become a spy; shortly thereafter she added poetry to her list of goals. She wrote poetry through high school and beyond; by this time spying had lost a bit of its appeal, though she utilized stealthy methods to observe people and activity around her.

Nowadays, she is an editor and writer and can be found at her blog, Before the Second Sleep, as well as her website, Great Land Services. She writes on a variety of topics and is currently working on a collection of short stories, work of historical fiction and a series of essays, as well as illustrations for a volume of poetry. Her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and Alaska Women Speak, and she is a contributor to Naming the Goddess

She adores Indian food, vanilla candles and hot tea (no milk). 

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Little Mouse by CW Lovatt - a review by Diana Milne

The Little Mouse by C W Lovatt

"From the creator of the best selling Charlie Smithers Collection comes an endearing tale of enchantment and forest creatures with a powerful message. This charming story, with appeal to both young and old, shows that even the smallest of us is able to change the world and that nothing is impossible with trust, friendship and love."

In a beguiling departure from his usual genre, C W Lovatt introduces us to Kit, the smallest and youngest mouse in the Enchanted Forest, and takes us on a journey of delight and discovery following the mouse and his companions as they travel to find food after The Great Fire.

From the very first pages The Little Mouse has a magic and charm that is rarely found and can only be likened to such well known classics as The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, delighting readers for almost a hundred years, and one of my favourite books, Prince Caspian by CS Lewis. I can well see this book being read a hundred years from now. It deserves to be.

Although most of the characters are forest creatures, they have individual and very well developed personalities that the reader can relate to and get to know and love. Gort the badger is typical of his species, by appearing grumpy and bad tempered. Kit the mouse persuades him that being happy is a better option:

The badger’s brow wrinkled doubtfully.

“Happy? Me?” and then, “All the time?”

“Yes, all the time.”


Gort pondered this imponderable for a moment, and then stretched his lips up from his snout in a dreadful smile.

“Howsh thish?” he asked through his fangs. Tod took a nervous step backwards, but the little mouse said, “That will do nicely, thank you..."

The scope and range in the book showcases the author's prestigious talent and versatility and this tale, which will appeal to all ages, carries not just one, but several important and poignant messages. Without being 'preachy,' the book lets the reader carry away a positive and life affirming precept.

With his clever use of words, words that often can express several meanings, Lovatt ensures that we have a tale that can be read on many different levels, making it suitable for the very young to the very old, all of whom will be bewitched by the charm and enchantment of being allowed to be into a magical land for a little while. The author also introduces a character, Smithers - the valet and Major Domo of the King - who can only be a relative of his famous Charlie Smithers, with a similar life outlook, work ethic and attention to detail to the well known man.

Each idea, each stage of the journey of the forest friends, is perfectly thought out and every detail meticulously but not tediously noted, the author having thought through the situation from the perspective of the creature, or human, in question, which adds greatly to the depth and richness of the narrative. We meet Kit here, his friend, Orso the bear, is in mortal danger, having been wounded deeply by a spear:

"It was he who had brought Orso to this place, and he thought that the bear’s death would be a burden too heavy to endure. The spear had gone deep – he had seen the blow struck – had watched, horrified, as the shaft had sunk into his friend’s body, and had seen the blood…

Then, caught in mid-sentence, the transformation began.

The blood…

The blood as it coursed through his body, gifting life – coursing… surging…weaker now…dwindling….but, still Life. As though his mind had become separated from his body, he rose and followed the passage of the deep wound into the bear’s body. At length, he came to the great heart, and a sound like a leaking bellows. There was a cut, a very little cut, in the wall of the artery.

It was then that the voice of the wizened old mouse appeared in his mind.

'Healing….healing….yessss….yessss…' "

Other than Kit and Orso, we meet Amos the porcupine, Lulu the skunk, Gort the badger, Rowena and her son Chaser, the deer and fawn, Bumper the hare and Tod the fox, plus the King, Queen and Princess, Smithers, various princes and guards and Farmer Brown and family and their unfortunate dog Brutus, all of whom help to create a glorious tapestry of a story.

The book is enhanced (if that is possible) with beautiful illustrations created by the talented Angel-Rose, who brings to life the pictures that Lovatt's words form in one's brain. The pictures are meticulously detailed and show unforgettable moments of the story in beautiful colour that will live in the reader's minds.

There are so many beautiful moments and little phrases or sentences to make the reader delight in the written word. This brought little tears to my eyes, it seems so very beautiful and so very, very profound: 'Why, Lord?' the little mouse asked through little tears, 'Why has this happened?'

The timing the author employs throughout the story is exceptional. Whether it is used for a dramatic moment, or for humour or to startle the reading audience, Lovatt never misses a beat and the reader reacts as if on cue, with the smile or the cry, yet the book is never predictable. I could not have foretold the incredible way the story unfolds near to the end of the tale. The a scene is described from a different point of view to the expected one and it had a major impact on not only the characters of the story, but on me! an impact that will not lessen with time but will remain clear in my mind.

It is a beautiful enchanted fantasy, with so much meaning and so much depth. I really enjoyed it and it made me smile and cry and believe in magic and totally took me out of myself for a while.

Another triumph for CW Lovatt. He has a totally unique and absolutely massive talent.

The book is available to pre-order, and will arrive on your Kindle on May 25th. Click here to preorder

About CW Lovatt

CW Lovatt is the award winning author of the best selling Charlie Smithers Collection, the short story anthology, “And Then It Rained,” and the critically acclaimed “Josiah Stubb: The Siege of Louisbourg.” 
Interim,” is the second book of the Josiah Stubb trilogy and the third part is getting close to completion.

You may read CW Lovatt's blog here at Story River

I was privileged to interview C W Lovatt in 'Diana Talks To...' 

To read the interview please click Diana talks to CW Lovatt

The author hard at work with the help of his research assistant, Sindy, who told him everything she knew about little mice!
The picture is shared with the permission of absolutely no one. I blatantly stole it from the author's Facebook page 

About Angel-Rose, who created the inspirational illustrations.

I am Angel-Rose Smith, 25 from the UK. I spend the majority of my time drawing, painting or crafting. I enjoy baking and reading - or being a classic dork and playing video games!

Fun fact, I failed art at school 😂

Ⓒ Diana Milne February 2018 revised May 2018

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Today I welcome C. W. Lovatt to *Diana Talks... *

Today I welcome C. W. Lovatt to *Diana Talks... *

On 25th May,  C W Lovatt is releasing a new book, The Little Mouse, a complete change from his usual genre, with illustrations by Angel Rose. Two days before, on Wednesday 23rd May, the Review is hosting my in depth review of this charming and life affirming book. I won't give any spoilers now, but watch the Review Blog for the post on Wednesday.


The Hi Chuck. It is a real pleasure to talk to you here. Not only do I consider you a friend, I consider you an exceptionally talented writer. I am delighted to have the opportunity to see  a little of what goes on inside that formidably intelligent brain of yours ...

Are you sitting comfortably.


Well, never mind... (sigh) ... wriggle around a bit then and let's just get on with the talk ...

First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!

My own question, eh? Hmm, that is different! Let’s see, I’m going to go with ‘what’s it like being a writer?’

Well, it’s not as glamorous as I thought it would be, but remember I’ve dreamed of becoming a writer almost as soon as I learned how to read. As a consequence, there’s been plenty of time for that dream to grow to surpass all reason. For instance, I was going to own a tropical island and live in a house that opened up like a clam shell – you know, glamorous stuff like that. It’s laughable now, even risible, but that dream stood me in good stead over the years, through some really bleak times. When others (ie sane people) had nothing at all, I would always have that dream to sustain me. So when that long awaited first royalty cheque arrived and that dream vanished with an almost audible ‘pop,’ I couldn’t really begrudge its leaving, because it had already served me so well.

If your latest book, “Interim,” the second book of the Josiah Stubb trilogy, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?

I had to get some help with this one as I’m not as up on film actors as I used to be. A friend suggested Tom Hardy, so let’s go with him to play Josiah Stubb.

What made you choose this genre?

Historical Fiction appeals to me, so I figured that, if I’m going to sit down and write something as lengthy as a novel – to dedicate so much of myself, pouring my heart and guts out onto the page - it had better be about something that I’m interested in.

How do you get ideas for plots and characters?

Plots and characters are what make writing such a joy. Plots are usually the product of a ‘eureka’ moment I often have when something triggers the kernel of an idea. As far as characters go, I’ve never written any with a preconceived idea in mind, just as I’ve never had a preconceived idea about meeting a person. We introduce ourselves as would anyone else, and get to know one another over the course of time.

If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!)  you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?

I began my career writing short stories, with some success, winning awards and so on. During that time there can’t have been too many genres that I didn’t explore. In that light, I’m not afraid of other genres, in fact we’re old friends, and many examples can be found in in an eclectic anthology I’m very proud of entitled “And Then It Rained.”  (Note from Diana: If "And Then It Rained" is not my favourite book of all time, it certainly is there in the top three. Heck! What am I saying?? Thinking of the title story again and others that I love with a passion bordering on insanity for a story, yep, it has just been promoted to definitely my favourite book of all time!)

Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.

I would have to say that it was compelling. Why, I’ve no idea, it’s just something that I’ve come to accept over time. I wrote my first novel, longhand, back in my mid to late twenties, and you have to be serious to tackle a project like that.

Marmite? Love it or hate it?'s an acquired taste...

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??

I suppose my greatest ritual is to try to clear my desk before starting a new project. I need to keep distractions to a minimum, so that finding that ‘centre’ is more achievable. After that, it’s pretty much whatever works. I’ve written with the music on and with it off, in my office, in front of the television, out on my deck at night, or in the morning (summer and winter,) and out under the giant cottonwoods in my yard. Each novel has had its own routine, and I’m rather curious what it will be for my next one. Really, I’m a bit like a cat before taking a nap, turning and turning, before finally finding the place where I’m most comfortable.
(Note from Diana: Hmm. Clear? Desk? Clear desk?  Nope. I don't understand those words put together in that format!)

I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?

That’s a very good question and I’m glad you asked it! Next question, please…
((Laughing. Loudly!!))

Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

I always wanted to be the next Neil Young.
(Note from Diana: Well, you can't. End of.)

Coffee or tea? Red or white?

Ooo, herbal tea, please (don’t judge,) and red.

How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?

I don’t have a plan, and that includes not having a plan to not having a plan. Sometimes I’ll write at least a partial outline, and sometimes I won’t write one at all. It depends on the project and (I’m coming to suspect) the phase of the moon.  😂

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

Trust YOU to ask this one! Okay then, let’s see: so far Times New Roman is working for me, but you never know what the future holds. What I can tell you is that I’m not a fan of Helvetica.
(Everyone hates Helvetica! Printers hated Helvetica. It was the 'new big thing and everyone wanted it', but it was expensive and hard to get hold of.)

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

The note that Lord Raglan scribbled to Lord Lucan, that caused the The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?

Oh those characters! When haven’t they shocked me? But the thing to remember about writing is that it’s not about you, it’s about the story – always the story – and the thing to remember about the story is that it’s the characters who are telling it, the writer is merely the chronicler. So in answer to your question I pretty much give them their head, and try to keep up.

How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?

Writing Historical Fiction requires extensive research…that is if you don’t want to look like an absolute fool. Nothing drives me around the bend more than to read such a work and find that it is riddled with inaccuracies. Further, I feel strongly that a work of Historical Fiction should be seen as an alternate reference book – something that takes those dry old textbooks, that we’ve all had to endure in school, and makes them interesting by weaving a tale through the facts.

As for research trips, I often travel to where the story is taking place, but not always. For the first book of the Josiah Stubb trilogy I went to see the fortress of Louisbourg for myself, and then on to St. John’s Newfoundland. For the second and third books, I travelled to Quebec City, and then drove the length of the Gaspé Peninsula. In 2015 I flew down to Australia and drove across the Nullarbor Plain while researching for “Adventures Downunder” – the latest in the Charlie Smithers Collection.

Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?

Good lord no! If they spoil the plot, then it’s the plot that’s at fault. Create another one, by all means, but if you value your credibility, don’t alter the facts by one iota.

Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?

See above. Blasphemy!

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

I certainly hope so; it’s my business to do just that.

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
Loiyan, my first leading lady, I loved her desperately.

(Note from Diana: We, the readers, could tell the depth of feeling with which this wonderful woman was written. It shone throughout the pages of not just the first book, but the second and third. I will never forget her plaintive cry of Charleeeee.)

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
Anything, as long as it’s well written.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?

A good stiff tot of something distilled. The action gets a bit intense at times.

Last but not least... favourite author?

My idol, George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman books.

Thank you, Chuck. That was a wonderful talk. 

You can read C W Lovatt's blog and find out more about him at Story River

He lives in Canada, where it is cold, and is the self-appointed Writer-In-Residence of Carroll, Manitoba, (population +/- 20).

This tree was upright before being leaned on by our author! Vandal!!
 C. W. (Chuck) Lovatt, is the author of the

Charlie Smithers Collection;

And then it Rained and currently the first two parts in the on going Josiah Stubb series, the second one of which, the excellent

Josiah Stubb: Interim,

was released to great excitement on 14th April last year by Wild Wolf Publishing.

© Diana Milne January 2017 © C W Lovatt April 2017