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.