Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Lisl Reviews: The Retreat to Avalon: The Arthurian Age, Book I by Sean Poage

Today Lisl reviews Sean Poage's The Retreat to Avalon: The Arthurian Age, Book I. Very generously, the author has donated a copy for one lucky reader, who will get to choose ebook or hardcopy. Simply comment at bottom or on the thread for our Facebook page, here

Good luck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

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

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

While you're waiting for June, don't forget to comment here as well, for your chance to win a free copy of The Retreat to Avalon - winner's choice of ebook or hardcopy! Alternatively, readers could comment on our FB page, here

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

About the Reviewer

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

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

For the Crown by Susan Appleyard

Today Jen Black reviews For the Crown: Pride and Honour in the Wars of the Roses by Susan Appleyard. The author has very kindly offered an e-book as a giveaway.  To be in with a chance of winning this wonderful prize, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Good luck!

For those who like their romance medieval and with humour. Robbie, Bastard of Ovedale, is a warden of the East March of Scotland. Chasing Scottish raiders across the border is his life’s work and his love. On one such jaunt, he goes after a youth who has wounded his friend, only to discover that the youth is a girl, Mary Margaret Douglas. His mortification is complete when she renders him immobile by the application of pressure to a sensitive spot. Once he has regained control of the situation, he realises that his best option is to keep the red-haired virago with him until he can ransom her back to her family. The problem is her brothers don’t want her. That’s just one of the problems. Another is that Robbie is beginning to like her, but worst of all is the question of what to do with her now. 

Robbie is summoned to war. He has to take the Scottish lass with him, but she is disruptive because she inspires the men to lust, including the despicable Lord Clifton who wants her for himself – at least for a week or two – and will stop at nothing, including murder, to get what he wants. Robbie’s father and his overlord, the Earl of Northumberland, want him to get rid of her, but it’s too late for that. Although he doesn’t know it, Robbie is falling in love.

For the Crown: Pride and Honour in the Wars of the Roses by Susan Appleyard is a novel set amidst the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses and the landscape of the Marches between Northumberland and Scotland. The narrative is rich in detail and atmosphere.

"Robbie shot a glance at broad, homely Jonas. "They think they're safe."
"Easy pickings,"  Joans said. "Let's get on with it."
They snaked backwards on elbows and knees until they could no longer see, or be seen by, the Scots, and returned to where the rest of the men were waiting, far enough back that their horses' whickering wouldn't expose their presence.
It had been an unusually wet summer and autumn, resulting in roads being washed oout, bridges and mills destroyed by swollen rivers, and streams bursting their banks. Wagons became bogged down; horses nad men slogged through the gluey mud. A prudent traveller tested the depth of a pool that lay across the road before wading into it. In low lying land, teh upper half of farmsteads could be seen in the midst of what appeared to be a lake. Pastures and fields were under sheets of water, so the crops rotted, ad vegetable patches were ruined. Even the harvest of fruit and berries had been poor. It was a disaster England had not experienced in a hundred years and compounded her miseries.
To make matters worse, it promised to be a bitter winter. The journey so far had been accompanied by howling winds and frigid temperatures. The night before, there had been a little snow, just enough to leave a thin layer on the ground, but Robbie could see more snow in the clouds billowing in from the east.
They set off to find a path down the glen that wouldn't risk the legs of their mounts and emerged beside the river sometime  later. Making no further move to keep quiet, they spurred their horses over the uneven ground and bore down on the Scots, screaming like demons and waving their weapons in the air."
The story opens in 1460 on the Scottish side of the border with England as the English under the leadership of Robbie Ovedale ambush a party of Scots. He suffers at the hands of a young man who turns out to be a young Scots woman named Mary Douglas. Thinking to ransom her back to her family he takes her captive, but once home, discovers the rather inconvenient truth that her brothers do not wish to have her returned.
Propinquity ensures a romance between these two young people but it is a very slow and steady thing, developing gradually through the novel.

The author, I feel, has enriched the story with the detailed history and politics of the time, over which she has a sure grasp, and more than one battle is described in generous detail.
I confess I chose this novel because of the Northumberland setting, but regretfully found little of the county beyond a few place names. There are some typographical errors, none of which spoil the story.

The writing is very good, and many will enjoy the leisurely tale. I give it 4 stars!

About the author: Susan Appleyard was born in England, which is where she learned to love English history, and now lives in Canada in the summer with my three children and six grandchildren. In winter she and her husband flee the cold for Mexico. Writing will always be her first love followed by, in no particular order, painting, swimming, dancing, and tequila sunrises on the beach. 


About the Reviewer: Jen Black an ex-academic library manager who lives in the Tyne valley, north east England, with my husband and 6 year-old Dalmatian. She came to writing late, and stay fit (sort of) roaming about Northumberland with her dog. It is a wonderful county for history lovers (and dog walkers!). Everyone knows about the Roman Wall, Vindolanda and all their wonderful Roman finds, but it is equally amazing for castles, bastles, fortified farms and the occasional peel tower. Jen has walked and ridden over a good deal of it. The wall is barely five miles away from her home and she has met people of all nationalities walking there. Jen take lots of pics when out and pops them on her blog. When she write she's not out to enlighten, but to entertain and she's always going to have a happy ending. She may have a few tragedies and deaths along the way, but the ending will always be upbeat.
Jen doesn’t play music as she never notices when it stops, so can’t be listening, can she?
and on Twitter: @JENBLACKNCL

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Claire Lyons reviews The Gybford Affair by Jen Black

Today Claire Lyons reviews The Gybford Affair by Jen Black. The author has very kindly offered an e-book as a giveaway.  To be in with a chance of winning this wonderful prize, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Good luck!

The quiet life of Frances, Lady Rathmere, is disrupted forever the day Jack, 4th Marquess of Streatham, arrives from London and almost rides her down. At the same time a stranger arrives in the locality, makes a play for her young cousin and scandalous letters accusing Frances of an illicit liaison appear in the national press. Is Jack their author? Frances is convinced he is, and has no idea the trouble those letters are going to bring in their wake.

How liberating for a young woman to become a widow in the Regency era – no more need to marry, a certain financial independence and still welcome in Society. That is unless you have the sort of fortune that would make you a target for a despicable forced and violent marriage…
The Gybford Affair has a number of storylines, but the situation of a young widow is at its core. I thoroughly enjoyed this fast paced and exciting historical romance.  There was a good balance of drama and everyday life to give a real flavour of the period. There are plenty of characters to add moments of humour and see variety of opinions on issues of the day.
Although I felt quite confident who the main romance would be between, there is great tension as to ‘how’ these two will ever get together, and in an unusual twist marriage in itself is not the end or even the start of their story. I felt a great sense of transformation, especially of the male lead, during the book, there is a darkness that slowly lifts and it’s a very positive and happy tale despite moments of great sadness and grief. It was interesting to see the different ways the difficult topic of maternal care were discussed and experienced. It is still fascinating to me how the situation of women has changed over time, and I’m always intrigued to read about women in history and the lives they led. Although this story is focused on the wealthy in Society, their money does not prevent great some of the toughest of life’s hurdles and these are dealt with sensitively.
Of course there is a rogue who brings deceit, fear and drama to the story, and he has been created with care and subtlety. His character creates some of the more tense situations in the book and you can’t always be sure how they will end. I enjoyed the changes in pace and tension as the different threads of the story weaved together.

This book would suit those who enjoy historical romance, it’s a great romp and would be fun to read while travelling as it’s very engaging.

About the Author: I’m an ex-academic library manager who lives in the Tyne valley, north east England, with my husband and 6 year-old Dalmatian. I came to writing late, and stay fit (sort of) roaming about Northumberland with my dog. It is a wonderful county for history lovers (and dog walkers!). Everyone knows about the Roman Wall, Vindolanda and all their wonderful Roman finds, but it is equally amazing for castles, bastles, fortified farms and the occasional peel tower. I’ve walked and ridden over a good deal of it. The wall is barely five miles away from my home and we have met people of all nationalities walking there. I take lots of pics when I’m out and pop them on my blog. When I write I’m not out to enlighten, but to entertain and I think I’m always going to have a happy ending. I may have a few tragedies and deaths along the way, but the ending will always be upbeat.
I don’t play music as I never notice when it stops, so I can’t be listening, can I?
and on Twitter: @JENBLACKNCL

About the Reviewer

Claire has run Mrs Average Evaluates for five years now, and still writes a regular book review in a local magazine. Her passion is to share great writing and encourage wide reading for learning, pleasure and escapism. She also runs her own business, has four young children and a dog to keep her busy. You are most welcome to join her friendly FB Group, and she’s always on the lookout for Guest Posts on the website.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Beaufort Bride by Judith Arnopp

Today, in our first review of the year, Paula Lofting reviews The Beaufort Bride by Judith Arnopp. And as our New Year Giveaway, the author has very kindly offered a paperback copy as a giveaway - but if the winner already has The Beaufort Bride book, they can choose another of Judith's books as their prize.  To be in with a chance of winning this wonderful prize, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Good luck!

As King Henry VI slips into insanity and the realm of England teeters on the brink of civil war, a child is married to the mad king’s brother. Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, takes his child bride into Wales where she discovers a land of strife and strangers. At Caldicot Castle and Lamphey Palace Margaret must put aside childhood, acquire the dignity of a Countess and, despite her tender years, produce Richmond with a son and heir.While Edmund battles to restore the king’s peace, Margaret quietly supports his quest; but it is a quest fraught with danger.As the friction between York and Lancaster intensifies 14-year-old Margaret, now widowed, turns for protection to her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor. At his stronghold in Pembroke, two months after her husband’s death, Margaret gives birth to a son whom she names Henry, after her cousin the king. Margaret is small of stature but her tiny frame conceals a fierce and loyal heart and a determination that will not falter until her son’s destiny as the king of England is secured.The Beaufort Bride traces Margaret’s early years from her nursery days at Bletsoe Castle to the birth of her only son in 1457 at Pembroke Castle. Her story continues in Book Two: The Beaufort Woman.
This is the story of a young girl who must become a child bride, who after losing her husband gives birth to England’s future king.

Margaret Beaufort becomes one of England’s most maligned noble women in history. Blamed by some as the instigator of the disappearance of the missing princes, Richard and Edward; branded as a scheming harridan whose desire for power provokes the war that caused death of Richard III, Margaret leads a remarkable life that will eventually free her from obscurity to become one of England’s leading ladies.

It is hardly possible to imagine at the start of this engaging story, that this little child bride, who nearly dies in childbirth, will become one of the most notorious women in history. Her part in the tale of the Wars of the Roses has often been portrayed negatively, as if the entire Yorkist downfall was indeed her fault, with some interested 21st century parties even proclaiming that she should have been strangled at birth. Yes, I have indeed heard this said. Ms Arnopp’s interpretation sets the story straight and provides us with a more appropriate and likely presentation of Margaret’s life in three books, with this review solely concentrating on the first of them.

Told in the first person, and in the present tense to add immediacy to the narrative, we meet a normal girl in a world that was normal to her. Born into a noble family, with royal blood, Margaret’s bloodline came from the loins of John of Gaunt and his paramour whom he eventually married, Kathryn Swynford. Her line was considered illegitimate but eventually they were legitimised by royal decree allowing them to stand in the queue for the throne.

As this is a story that the author has chosen to write solely from Margaret’s point of view, we see events of the years unfold as the child bride would have experienced it. Arnopp does a good job of getting into the character’s psyche and we feel, breathe and think with her throughout the story. She does not make Margaret a perfect human, nor is she an evil witch, as some have referred to her. But the reader is sympathetic to her cause, who would not be when such things happen to one so young. Her other characters of course are moulded by how the young Margaret perceives them. Edmund, her first husband, the man who takes her childhood away, is not portrayed as a brutish paedophile, but pragmatically tells her that he must forgo the usual custom of not bedding her until she was considered old enough, because he needs an heir. He also needed her lands an wealth, which is why one cannot say, “Why didn’t he just go and marry someone older?”. Margaret was only 12 when given to him in marriage and this was perfectly acceptable in this era, however custom was usually more sympathetic to the child bride by dictating that she should not be brought to the marital bed until considered old enough. Apparently, that Edmund Tudor did bed her and swiftly got her with child, was even considered unseemly by his contemporaries.

Arnopp’s Tudor was kind to her, giving her all the comforts she might require and it is not long before the girl comes to love him, and then the most devastating thing that could ever happen to a woman takes place. Edmund is killed and the young girl, barely into her teens now, is devastated that she has to give birth without her child’s father being able to see him. These tender scenes are written with such emotion that as the reader, we cannot imagine what that must be like to have to live with, as today women experiencing such heart-breaking tragedies but mostly supported both professionally and by friends and family. Poor Margaret, in her day there was no perinatal mental health teams or university trained midwifery to ease her transition from married lady to widow and mother. She was expected to carry on and would even need to be thinking about a new marriage soon (she was after all a very wealthy girl). Soon she would also have the one thing that she could cling to help her through all this wrenched away from her, also.  It is a testament to Arnopp’s skills as an author that she is able to transfer such feeling and emotion to her readers through Margaret’s words.

Judith’s prose is very well constructed and flows beautifully and with feeling. Alas as with all books written in the first person, it is difficult to get glimpses of how Margaret herself may have been perceived by those around her. Neither are we able to see what was going on in the political backdrop of Margaret’s world, however we are tantalised by odd snippets that are filled by characters such as the adorable man at arms, Ned, whom Margaret becomes very fond of and who is able to drop in and let Margaret know what is happening is at court and on the fields of battle.

The 15th Century world that we step into is very well drawn, and we learn through Margaret’s skills with herbs and potions and lotions, how injuries, ills and diseases were dealt with in this world. The author dripfeeds us with descriptions of what it was like to be a lady looking after a household in these harsh times which does not halt or obstruct the flow of the story which makes for a superb read.
The book finishes with Margaret still very young, and it is heartening to know that her story is not yet over, and we can read the Beaufort Woman and The King’s Mother which follows on from The Beaufort Bride to learn more about the life of this amazing lady. I heartily recommend this book.

About the author: 

When Judith Arnopp began to write professionally there was no question as to which genre to choose. A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds an honours degree in English and Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Judith writes both fiction and non-fiction, working full-time from her home overlooking Cardigan Bay in Wales where she crafts novels based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life, prostitutes to queens.
Her novels include: The Beaufort Chronicles: the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series); A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York;  Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr; The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn; The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII; and based in the medieval/Anglo Saxon era, The Song of Heledd; The Forest Dwellers, and Peaceweaver. Her latest book, Sisters of Arden, is told from the perspective of a novitiate nun during the dissolution of the monasteries.
Her non-fiction articles feature in various historical anthologies and magazines.
For more information:

About the Reviewer: Paula Lofting has always wanted to write since she was a little girl coming home from school to sit at the table with her notebook. A prolific reader, she loved nothing better than to spend weekends with a book in her hand. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, C.S.Lewis, inspired an interest in history. It became her lifelong wish to one day write and publish a book, but not being able to type, and having no funds for a typewriter to learn on, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold. With the advent of PC's and a need to retrain and use a computer, this old ambition was stirred and she decided to rekindle her love of writing at the grand old age of 42. At this point, she had reached a turning point in her life and studied nursing, and also decided to write the book she had been promising herself she would one day write. Her d├ębut novel, 'Sons of the Wolf' was first published with the assistance of Silverwood Books in 2012. More recently she has republished it with her new publishing company Longship Publsihing. in kindle. It is a story set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and the first in the Sons of the Wolf series. She has always admired the works of Sharon Penman and Bernard Cornwell, and Mary Stewart, amongst many others. History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing.
Links: Amazon; blog.