BOOK SPOTLIGHT & REVIEW : DISCERNING GRACE by Emma Lombard

The White Sails Series, Book I

London 1826. Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton with his salivary incontinence and dead-mouse stink. Discovering she is a pawn in an arrangement between slobbery Silverton and her calculating father, Grace is devastated when Silverton reveals his true callous nature.

Refusing this fate, Grace resolves to stow away. Heading to the docks, disguised as a lad to ease her escape, she encounters smooth-talking naval recruiter, Gilly, who lures her aboard HMS Discerning with promises of freedom and exploration in South America.

When Grace’s big mouth lands her bare-bottomed over a cannon for insubordination, her identity is exposed. The captain wants her back in London but his orders, to chart the icy archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, forbid it. Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam gallantly offers to take Grace off the fretting captain’s hands by placing her under his protection.

Grace must now win over the crew she betrayed with her secret, while managing her feelings towards her taciturn protector, whose obstinate chivalry stifles her new-found independence.

An excerpt from the novel, followed by my review.

London, 13 May 1826

A deep-throated rumble of laughter drew Grace’s eyes across the crowded drawing room, and over to Uncle Farfar. Heading over to him, she admired the double row of gold buttons on his blue naval coat glinting in the luminescence of the gilt chandelier above. The crystal beads cast a sprinkling of starlight around the room. Grace thought the evening had a distinctly tropical aura with wide-fronded palms and vines spilling from all corners in a waterfall of greenery. Grace also thought Mothers’ décor was fanciful and faux.

Uncle Farfar beckoned a young man, the single epaulette on his right shoulder announcing that he was a lieutenant in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. “Ah, Fitzwilliam. Just in time,” beamed Uncle Farfar, his face flushed with pleasure. Uncle Farfar was actually Admiral Arthur Jameson Baxter, highly decorated for his successful engagement in Admiral Nelson’s campaign at the Battle of Trafalgar. He had lovingly endured the childhood nickname Grace had bestowed upon him when she was eighteen months old, and unable to pronounce his name, Uncle Arthur. He had not escaped the deep weathering of a man who had spent his life at sea, and though his face was much rounder these days, Grace thought he still had a kindness in his eyes.

Centring himself between Grace and the new arrival, Uncle Farfar said, “Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam, may I introduce you to Miss Grace Baxter, my niece and the delight of my life.”

Grace smiled politely, admiring the shades of gold shimmering across Fitzwilliam’s smoothed-back hair, caught tidily in a black silk ribbon at his graceful nape.

“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Baxter,” said Fitzwilliam, formally kissing her hand.

“Lieutenant.” Grace took her hand back, fingers curling, and Fitzwilliam clasped his own behind his back.

Uncle Farfar’s sharp eyes flicked across the room, and his cordiality shrivelled. “God save us, see who approaches? Lord Silverton.”

To Grace, Lord Silverton appeared closer to a hundred years old, despite him only being in his early fifties. He was also a childless widower of renowned wealth and lineage. His bulging midriff announced no shortage of good food. He had been a mysterious figure on the outskirts of Grace’s life since she could remember, but no number of years had lessened her discomfort around him.

“Your servant, madam,” drawled Silverton, bowing stiffly.

Grace dipped her head in greeting, lowering her gaze from Silverton’s beady eyes to the neatly tied cravat at the base of his bulbous, waggling chin. How could any respectable lady willingly draw herself to the attention of this crusty, timeworn creature?

“Your gown is simply delightful, Miss Baxter,” said Silverton. “Reminds me of the gossamer wings of a dragonfly.” Silverton’s obtrusive stare seemed to blacken Uncle Farfar’s mood further.

Oblivious, Silverton droned on, “Fascinating creatures! Dragonfly rituals of courtship may seem romantic to those inclined to observe the world through rose-coloured spectacles, but the amazing show of flips and spirals is usually the female trying to escape the boorish behaviour of the males.”

“I cannot possibly imagine how that feels,” Grace muttered, peering impassively around the crowded room. Fitzwilliam’s quick dry cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh, and Grace studied him from the corner of her eye. His face betrayed nothing.

Just then the butler rang the bell. Silverton’s beady eyes fixed on Grace. “Would you care to dine with me this evening, Miss Baxter?”

Uncle Farfar cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind Silverton, I’d appreciate my niece’s company this evening.” Uncle Farfar drew Grace away before Silverton could say anything more, and ushered her into the dining room. Fitzwilliam followed two steps behind with his allotted dinner companion, Miss Pettigrew. Her petite hand curled in his elbow, and her coifed black hair barely met his shoulder. Grace had made her acquaintance only once before, and realised with a sinking heart that she was in for an evening of little to no conversation with the demure creature, should she sit beside her. The stretched table was laid with the snowiest of linen, and set with such precision that even the King of England would have been pressed to find fault.

Uncle Farfar waved at the empty chairs. “Would you care to sit between Lieutenant Fitzwilliam and I, Grace dear? You might need to give me a kick under the table if we bore you with too much naval chatter.”

Grace sank into her chair. “Nonsense, Uncle. I do so enjoy your tales.”

Fitzwilliam waited for Miss Pettigrew to be seated as she gave him a simpering smile. A wave of relief washed over Grace at not being stuck with Silverton for the evening. Uncle Farfar clearly had the same thoughts, and he chuckled, “At least you’re squirrelled with us, away from that pompous windbag.”

Grace peered down the long table, her eyes narrowing as she caught Silverton’s beady eyes, grey as a wolf’s pelt, roaming freely across her décolletage. She scratched absentmindedly at the fine lace edging around the low neck of her lavender gown, aware that her unladylike fidgeting would likely irk Father at some point in the evening. But it could not be helped. Lace was wretchedly itchy.

Fitzwilliam pulled in his chair, and nodded at Captain Steven Fincham sitting stiffly opposite him like a squat Napoleonic figure. Dark circles beneath Fincham’s bleary, bloodshot eyes gave Grace the impression that he was in poor health, was suffering from the crapulous effects of intoxication, or both.

With the soup course over, Grace eyed the line of footmen entering with platters laden with succulent roast lamb. The thin slices looked perfectly browned on the outside with just a peek of pink inside. Her stomach grumbled at the rich buttery scent of the potatoes being served onto her plate. She intended to enjoy every mouthful. At the sound of cutlery pinging on glass, Grace turned her attention to her father, Lord Flint, who rose with his wine glass raised.

“As you know, my dear wife’s partiality to dinner parties ensures they happen with alarming regularity.” A polite smattering of laughter rippled around the table. “But tonight, we have two guests who deserve our well wishes.” Father inclined his bewigged head at Captain Fincham. “Captain Fincham and Lieutenant Fitzwilliam will soon be leaving England’s fair shores in an effort to expand our great nation’s knowledge of the world.” His crystal cut glass glimmered in the candlelight. “To a safe and prosperous journey, gentlemen.”

“To a safe and prosperous journey,” echoed the diners.

Uncle Farfar’s grey head peered around Grace at Fitzwilliam. “Where are you off to this time, Lieutenant?”

Relieved to be released from Fincham’s melancholy, and Miss Pettigrew’s muteness, Grace widened her eyes, equally interested to hear his answer.

“Plymouth first, to pick up the rest of the ship’s company and fresh supplies, before we sail to Tierra del Fuego,” said Fitzwilliam.

“Damned notorious waters off the Horn of South America, eh?” declared Uncle Farfar.

“That’s right,” interrupted Fincham, his unsteady hand lowering his empty glass to the table. “We’re sailing out tomorrow on the Discerning. To chart the coasts between Montevideo and Chiloé Island.”

“Ah, yes, the hydrographic survey! I recall hearing of it around the Admiralty.” Uncle Farfar’s eyes blazed. “The Royal Navy has been around those parts for years, but they’ve few charts to show for it. About time someone had a crack at it.” He inclined his head at Fitzwilliam. “Sounds just the kind of adventure a young man like you would relish.”

“Indeed, sir.” Fitzwilliam agreed.

Grace tucked a chocolate corkscrew of hair, that had rebelliously come undone, behind her ear. “What a pity you shan’t be here for the ball next week, Lieutenant. Mother will no doubt outdo herself again.” Fitzwilliam was about to reply when Lady Flint’s tinkling laughter drew his attention down the other end of the table. Despite numerous suitors declaring that Grace’s natural beauty stemmed from her mother, Grace thought Lady Flint’s shrewd eyes and downturned mouth erased all prettiness. She glanced back at the handsome naval officer beside her.

“You’ll have to pardon me, Miss Baxter,” Fitzwilliam said ruefully. “I find society balls to be little more than an exercise in attaching one unwitting party to another, usually for monetary gain.”

“Hear, hear!” Fincham banged the table, jangling the silverware. Miss Pettigrew squeaked with fright. Fincham blustered, “The oceans of the world are far less dangerous to navigate as far as I’m concerned.”

Grace laughed. “I quite agree, Captain Fincham. Father had me all but married off to Colonel Dunne until he found out he’s as poor as a church mouse and about to be shipped off to India.” She turned to Fitzwilliam, one brow arching as she whispered from the corner of her mouth, “Dull as a butter knife too.”

Clearly amused by her honesty, Fitzwilliam’s shoulders jiggled with silent laughter, and he smirked. Grace had never understood how Father threw her at suitors who were highly suitable on paper but wholly unsuitable in person.


Now you’ve read the excerpt, here’s my review:

A young woman discovers she’s been promised to a disgusting old lecher, and so, she runs away. Not the first time this scenario has started a story, but the young woman in question doesn’t usually end up as a cabin boy on a survey vessel! 

But that’s exactly where Grace Baxter’s flight takes her, and the twists and turns of her story (or should I say the ebb and swell, as we’re aboard ship?) as she adapts to life on board, learns the skills of seamanship, and fights for acceptance among the other men make for entertaining reading. We meet an array of characters against whom Grace must pit her wits – and her fists – to take her place as one of the crew, creating an ensemble cast, each of whom adds in their own way to the story.

Emma Lombard’s debut novel is full of detail that helps the reader envision the confined world of the Discerning, the ship on which she’s taken refuge. It’s clearly well researched: the daily tasks of the crew; the fear when Grace must learn to climb rigging; the food served, and the stench of the sleeping quarters all serve to create a believable backdrop to Grace’s tale.

Many conflicts and reversals, big and small, keep the reader’s attention, without feeling forced or added simply to have yet another problem to be solved. Discerning Grace is a romance, too; can you put a determined young woman and an honourable lieutenant together on a ship without one?   Discerning Grace is an admirable debut novel, and a beguiling blend of historical fiction and women’s fiction.

AUTHOR BIO

Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace is the first book in The White Sails Series.

Connect with Emma: WebsiteTwitterFacebookInstagramGoodreads

Legacy of the Brightwash, by Krystle Matar: A Release Day Review

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world.

The choices we make are complex, and our reasons for making them sometimes understood, sometimes not. We are influenced by our upbringing, our society and its place in it; by an immediate situation. Sometimes no choice is right, or safe, or even moral: like Odysseus, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, deciding which choice leads to the least grief.

Tashué Blackwood, the protagonist of Legacy of the Brightwash, is a man who has had to make such a choice. In a complex world of power and subservience, Tashué walks carefully, following the law and staying safe, even through the imprisonment of his son for refusing to give in to the laws of the Authority and register his Talent; even through seeing his son’s mother taken to a breeding program to give more children with Talent to the Authority.

But all men have a breaking point. For Tashué, it is the discovery of a mutilated child’s body on the banks of the Brightwash, a child with an unfamiliar tattoo on its neck. Torn by offered power and influence; by a woman whose love is forbidden to him; by his love for his son and by his own conscience, Tashué is a man fighting not only a corrupt society, but his own past.

Krystle Matar’s debut novel has both outstanding world-building and character development. There is nothing superficial or stereotypical about either her world or the people in it. While clear parallels can be drawn between Matar’s fictional world and our own, it stands as a unique creation. We are shown pieces of its structure, but like a partially completed jigsaw puzzle the outline is there, and some parts are more complete than others, but it’s not a finished picture – just like most of us don’t have a thorough picture of our own histories, either personal or of the world in which we live. Instead we have hints, echoes, memories, allowing the reader to slowly build a concept of what has shaped both the world and its inhabitants.

It’s an immersive world: Matar uses all our senses to evoke luxury, horror, pain, exhaustion, love. Characters’ thoughts are shown to us, their fears and obsessions, their momentary joys, their disgust and doubts. That Tashué is a tormented man is made abundantly clear. Matar is a skilled writer: words and sentences and paragraphs flow, show, sometimes overwhelm the reader with sensation and emotion.

The magic – Talent – is nearly irrelevant to the book, except as a metaphor for difference, for something that can be used to separate one group of people from another, to control and degrade – and sometimes because of that constant debasement, explode. The truth behind the mutilated child is both horrifying and a logical extension of the arrogance and privilege of the ruling class who see only themselves as truly human.

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world. Its ending raises more questions than it answers: mysteries have been solved, but Tashué is far from being free of conflict – nor is he likely to be. Truly a magnificent first novel. I look forward to its sequel.

Featured image: Image by Brigitte is always pleased to get a coffee from Pixabay 

Marco Polo & Kublai Khan: Two Views

Hands down, these were the most authentic Mongols we’ve seen on screen from the US.

In my monthly newsletter, News from the Empire, I’ve started a new section on historical dramas and books that complement them. I’ll be reposting those to my blog occasionally. This is the first.

I watch a lot of historical dramas, although ‘historical’ should often be taken with a grain of salt. (Or a bag of salt, in some cases.) Right now we’re watching Marco Polo on Netflix, and I’m finding it – regardless of its poor reviews – both entertaining and beautiful. Partly this is because I was in Mongolia in 2019, and while the show is filmed in Kazakhstan, the terrain is nearly identical, the horses actually look like the thousands of Mongolian steppe horses we saw, and I slept in a ger (yurt) camp for 5 nights. (We were in the Altai mountains, looking for – and finding – a snow leopard.) So it’s very familiar in terms of landscape, which is always my anchor. 

Some companion reading from the Mongol viewpoint can be found in Bryn Hammond’s books. A good place to start would be with Against Walls, described by the Asian Review of Books as ‘Total and instant immersion… thoroughly compelling and powerful.’ 

Here is what Bryn answered when I asked her what she thought of Marco Polo:

I think John Fusco’s Marco Polo on Netflix had an odd reception. It seemed to me audiences weren’t ready for these Mongols. I watched in frustration as reviewers who had little exposure to Mongol history suspected historical license and didn’t see the truths the series told. Scholars of the Mongols didn’t necessarily like it either, because of its fictional strategies.

It got a few big things right. It presented real Mongol culture. It acknowledged the freedoms and political agency of Mongol women. It did justice to the cosmopolitan court of Khubilai Khan. Hands down, these were the most authentic Mongols we’ve seen on screen from the US.

Khubilai – performed with human substance by Benedict Wong – perhaps should have been the titular character. As seen in the series, he staffed a poly-ethnic government, in resistance to pressures to become fully Confucian. He was a conscious innovator in the old world of China. For example, he introduced a universal script, Phagspa. It didn’t outlive its sponsor, but nevertheless was a great experiment in change. Imagine if the script to write all languages, functional and effective as it was, had been more easily accepted, instead of rejected by conservatives.

There are different ways to understand ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction. I have my own creed by which to write my novels, in that I treat my origin text, the Secret History of the Mongols, as sacred, nothing to be changed or omitted if it’s in there. But the Secret History is as much a work of art as of history-writing. So, I try to be true to Mongol artistry, as well as Mongol self-portrayal. Is that the same as ‘history’? Yes and no. History’s a slippery animal.

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The Moon Hunters, by Anya Pavelle

An atypical post-apocalyptic story.

The Moon Hunters: A Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction Adventure by [Anya Pavelle]

The Moon Hunters is an atypical post-apocalyptic story; instead of a devastated, destroyed world, much of the narrative occurs on a lush tropical island. Members of a group led by a charismatic man escape an early 21st century pandemic by travelling to a remote, privately owned island. Out of touch with the rest of the world, sub-societies within the group evolve in several different directions. But one man’s belief in his own divine enlightenment – and his power over others – challenges the lives of everyone, but most of all the protagonist Leilani.

The reaction of individuals or small groups to years of isolation is not an uncommon theme in books: Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies – but the evolution of a isolated society is usually the realm of science fiction stories based on lost colony ships. That The Moon Hunters is set on our world was a refreshing change.

What does a group withdrawing from the 21st century world take with them? The eclectic choice (Leilani is a librarian/scribe, and so has access to the books and written documents brought) is, I think, key to Pavelle’s world-building. The society has developed cultural traditions that appear drawn from a wide range of cultures, as it would be if their libraries – and members of the group – reflected a varied cultural heritage. Add to that the materials and foods available on a island in the tropics, and the rituals and hierarchies that have emerged in one of the towns on the island are reasonable developments.

World-building is The Moon Hunters greatest strength: detailed, precise description of the environment, of clothes and buildings, of the sounds and sights of the island – and of the off-island settings. Immersive and imaginative, the reader is subsumed into the world. But for all the lushness and beauty of the physical world, the political one – in Leilani’s village, at least – is harsh and unforgiving. How she navigates and eventually breaks free of its restrictions and expectations is a large part – but not all – of the story – and there is a romance, too.

Recommended for readers looking for a post-apocalyptic story less dark and disturbing than many.

Hollow Road, by Dan Fitzgerald

As with all good speculative fiction, Fitzgerald has asked some hard questions about our society

I’m pleased to be participating in the Storytellers on Tour blog tour for Hollow Road, Book I of The Maer Cycle by Dan Fitzgerald.

Legends describe the Maer as savage man-beasts haunting the mountains, their bodies and faces covered with hair. Creatures of unimaginable strength, cunning, and cruelty. Bedtime stories to keep children indoors at night. Soldiers’ tales to frighten new recruits.

It is said the Maer once ruled the Silver Hills, but they have long since passed into oblivion.

This is the story of their return.

Carl, Sinnie and Finn, three companions since childhood, are tasked with bringing a friend’s body home for burial. Along the way, they find there is more to the stories than they ever imagined, and the mountains hold threats even darker than the Maer. What they discover on their journey will change the way they see the world forever.

Travel down Hollow Road to find out which legends are true, and which have been twisted.

Three friends on a journey together: what a classic start to a fantasy story! Two men: an apprentice mage and a soldier; one woman, a skilled archer. They’ve been hired (and well paid) to take the dead body of a friend back home for burial. Too well paid, in truth. Why?

Danger lies on the road home; danger that comes from legend and story: the Maer, a humanoid people reputed to be cruel, fierce fighters. But as Finn, Sinnie and Carl discover, the perceived danger from the Maer is mostly that: a perception, the result of fear and lack of communication. The Maer are as human as they are, although their appearance is different, and their culture perhaps more advanced than the three companions’ own.

Hollow Road is the first book of a trilogy. It serves as a wonderful introduction to Fitzgerald’s world, introducing the societies, the conflicts, and the main characters deftly. The three main characters are distinct personalities: conflicted Carl, who’d wanted to be a mage but had no skill; Sinnie, a woman who knows she can’t settle to the village life of her mother; Finn, the young adept who quickly will outstrip his mentors. Each has a role to play in the tentative alliance with the Maer, and each have things to learn from them.

The scale of Hollow Road appealed to me. The world is small (so far); the action takes place in a limited geography, devoid of huge armies, fortresses to storm, or vast distances to travel. Sufficient small details build the world without weighing down the story, building a believable iron-age society with some magic, but not so much that it dominates. Finn’s body magic assists the trio in their goals, but only in a way equivalent to Carl’s prowess with a sword and Sinnie’s skilled archery.

I had two small niggles with the story, neither major. One is the pacing of fighting scenes, where I felt tension could have been increased by a change in the rhythm of the narrative; the other is in some of the language in dialogue. Fitzgerald’s characters speak naturally, often using modern words in an iron-age setting, and while for the most part I didn’t find this jarring, one or two words did jump out at me as inappropriate.

As with all good speculative fiction, Fitzgerald has asked some hard questions about our society; about how we judge and fear people by their outward appearance. His characters – and readers – see that once true dialogue begins, commonalities outweigh differences. But while individuals learn this, and accept the Maer as human, will the Realm, the larger government which is only hinted at in this first book? Hollow Road ends with questions that should make the reader impatient for the next book in the trilogy, The Archive, due out December 4th. It certainly made me frustrated that I couldn’t keep reading the story immediately!  Strongly recommended for readers who like character-based fantasy with a solid plot.

Win a signed paperback copy (US only) of Hollow Road!

September 13, 2020 at 12:00am EDT to September 20, 2020 at 11:59pm EDT

Hollow Road by Dan Fitzgerald. Adult Fantasy, 243 pages, published: September 17, 2020 by Shadow Spark Publishing.

Book Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54801285-hollow-road

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FDPR332

Author Information

Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music.

Find out more about Dan and his books at www.danfitzwrites.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram, with the handle danfitzwrites in both places.

Author Links

Website: http://www.danfitzwrites.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DanFitzWrites

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/danfitzwrites/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/danfitzwrites

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow, by Jennifer Wineberg

A modern Victorian novel.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow is set in Victorian times, and it has the feel of a Victorian novel, a mix of Dickens and Trollope and a touch of Wilkie Collins. Not quite a roman à clef, nonetheless the life and passions of its central character, the Canon, reflect and mirror in spirit some of the life of the polymath and social reformer John Ruskin.

John Ruskin

For a modern novel, the pacing is slow and the story, like a stream in summer, slowly meanders among characters and settings, but if you relax and drift along, the view is enjoyable. A debut novel based to some extent on some unexplained history in the author’s family, it examines the all-to-frequent occurrence in Victorian (and later) society – who fathered the child of a servant? It looks at the manners and expectations of Victorian society, and the gulf between the strict propriety of the Church and the upper classes, and humane behavior; it examines guilt and redemption.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow won’t appeal to everyone. It’s very much an allegory: several characters have no identity beyond their titles: the Canon, the Magistrate; others are stock figures. But they were in Dickens, too, many times. Sometimes the reasons for the Canon’s behaviour are unclear, as that meandering stream divides and one stream goes underground for a while here and there, but it always re-emerges.  I enjoyed where its currents took me.

Amazon.com

Photo credits:

Featured Image: Wallington Hall, Northumbria: Glen Bowman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Portrait of John Ruskin by W.& D. Downey, Photographers, London. Public Domain.

(By one of those strange 6 degrees of separation coincidences, the photographer William Downey was the grandfather (or maybe great uncle) of a friend of my father’s here in Canada.)

Songbird: A Novel of the Tudor Court

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world.

A review with a guest blog from the author, Karen Heenan.

I absorbed my father’s love for Tudor history almost by osmosis, and it’s never left me, although the better-known aspects of Henry VIII’s six wives and his rift with the Roman Catholic Church were never the parts that interested me the most. Social history and the lives of people who were not courtiers or nobles, but still affected by the massive changes that Henry brought to England during his reign, are my area.

Karen Heenan’s Songbird caught my attention as soon as I heard about it, pre-publication. I knew about Henry’s love for music: he was reputed to be a skilled musician himself. I knew, vaguely, that he had court singers and minstrels, and with a little thought I would have related the name William Cornysh with Henry’s court, and I might have even known he had something to do with music.

This tale of Bess, a young girl sold to the King for her pure, lovely voice, and of her training to be part of the troupe of singers who entertained Henry and his court plunges the reader into the lives of a group of young men and women of the back corridors and rooms of the palaces. Like all royal servants, they had little control over their lives; they were subject to royal demands and whimsies: sing now; travel now; perform now, as they moved in and out of favour.

It would be easy to see them as pawns, unimportant, but Heenan crafts a rich and satisfying story around three lives, the girl Bess, the boy Tom, and the outsider Robin. The names expected in a Tudor court story are there, of course: Henry himself, Queen Katherine, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey. But they are the minor characters.  Through Bess’s eyes, we see events unfolding that are familiar to any student of Tudor history, but we also see the intimate details of her own.

Heenan writes with confidence and style, vividly drawing the reader into the Tudor court. Each character in her story is fully real, even the enigmatic Robin, and as they mature over the course of the book, their personalities develop. They become much more complex, but in ways that seem fully consistent with the children the reader first meets.

Court intrigues and politics; the fear of almost-random death from disease or accident; the divisions of class and the restrictions of religion: all these form the background to a bittersweet love story that unfolds over the course of the story. Each colours Bess’s view of life. her expectations, and her determination to grasp as much control of her life as is possible for a young woman in her position.

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world both familiar and new. I didn’t: I rationed myself, to enjoy it longer. I await its planned sequel with impatience.

William Cornysh and the Alchemy of Fiction

by Karen Heenan

Songbird was inspired by a throwaway fact in a biography of Henry VIII: the music-obsessed King once purchased a child from his mother to sing in the chapel choir. That was all it took to send me down the rabbit hole of history.

Then, of course, it occurred to me that meant I would be writing a book about music. I knew next to nothing about Tudor-era music, its structure, or its instruments. Thankfully, my main character, Bess, was a singer, so I could start there and learn as I wrote.

I quickly encountered the King’s Music, the name used for the royal company of minstrels who entertained at court, both publicly and in private, and placed Bess among them.

On researching the Music, and the topic of Tudor music generally, it was impossible to miss William Cornysh, who, in addition to being a significant composer of music both religious and secular, was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and also managed many of the musical and dramatic entertainments at court.

Those few facts were enough to start building the man, and then, with the strange alchemy that is fiction, when I learned more about him, those new facts fit the character I had created. Cornysh was talented, hard-working, and seemingly underappreciated, having only been rewarded with a grant of property shortly before his death in 1523. He was also a father figure to the choristers, many of whom were quite young. When the court was in London, the children often spent nights at Cornysh’s house with him and his wife, Jane, giving them a taste of normal life.

Much of my research for Songbird was done in the dark days of the pre-internet era, which on one hand meant I stumbled across interesting facts that I didn’t know I needed, but on the other meant I didn’t always find what I needed, except by the same happy accident.

As an example, the story had moved on from Bess’s early days with the Music, and Cornysh was mentioned only rarely. Then, while reading an online article totally unrelated to him, I saw a mention of his sudden death.

What to do? He wasn’t a major character at that point, and leaving him alive wouldn’t be egregious because history would not be changed in service to the story, but my sense of accuracy meant I could not suffer a man to live who had actually died.

Back I went to give him his end, and the story was actually stronger for his loss.

Songbird is available on Amazon

Trillium: an author interview with M.L. Holton

Trillium, a multi-generational saga set in Ontario’s fruit-growing Niagara Peninsula.

I recently reviewed M.L. Holton’s novel Trillium, a multi-generational saga set in Ontario’s fruit-growing Niagara Peninsula. I live less than an hour north of this area, and local history has always been an interest of mine. I thoroughly enjoyed the book (my full review is here), so I asked the author to talk a little bit more about the work.

Tell us about what inspired Trillium.

I had been thinking for awhile about how I wanted to focus on a rural environment rather than an urban one as per my last two novels, Economic Sex and The Gilded Beaver by Anonymous.

Small farming communities are tightly-bound social networks of multi-generational cross-breeding. They are, in the main, supportive and stable. In North America, they are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as the young move to the cities for better employment opportunities and generational farmers, with miniscule profit-margins, sell-out to larger agri-business concerns. The migration is undercutting the bedrock of our uniquely Canadian society.

I also wanted to explore and expand on the on-going controversy between ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’. How do we become who we are?

Trillium spans a period of 250 years, from early settlement on the Niagara Peninsula to the early 2000. This timeframe gave me a much larger canvas to work.

❖ How has your life influenced your writing, specifically in this book?

There’s no question that I have pulled on my life experiences to craft this work.

I grew up on the fringe of a farming community in Halton County. We raised sheep and fowl on a small scale. As a child, I watched and learned from my enterprising father, (born and raised in the area), as he constantly interacted with the landscape and livestock on our property. Nature was omnipresent – dictating birth, life and death. Working outside with my brothers and my father was always fun and pleasurable. Wind in our hair, dirt up our fingernails. This quasi-bucolic country lifestyle was very far removed from the social lifestyle that my mother managed to create for our family. She was involved with various local charities, sport associations and social clubs ‘in the city’. That activity widened our community circle and life experiences. My father’s family business was involved with the early development of a yarn company in Hamilton during the 19th century. But, by the mid 1980s, this century-old family firm experienced an acute downturn as a result of cheaper South American and Asian imports. We all had to adjust.

As example, I was removed from a distanced private school of 600 students and started attending a nearby public high school of 3000 students. Rather than getting picked up by a bus, I walked to school. To a wide-eyed teen, the differences between the two learning institutions were acute. Coordinated school uniforms were replaced by the media-driven trends of ‘fashion’. Individual ‘popularity’ was valued more than team work or basic ‘competence’.

These kinds of juxtapositions caught my eye and ear and became a kind of foundation about my evolving observations about the ‘otherness’ of people. I seemed a perpetual ‘outsider’, and did not fully integrate into any group ‘clique’ after the transition.

I believe this ‘outsider’ status has served me well, long term.  It gives me not only an individualistic perception of ‘what’s going on’ but it provides a critical emotional distance to ‘assess’. I have always thought of myself as a ‘witness’ more than a participant. It is a good vantage point and strong starting point for any writer: distanced observation.

❖The cover is your own art work! Tell us about it.

I wanted a cover image that amplified the central idea of natural growth in the story. In this instance, the focus was on a regional grape vine. Initially, I started with a stark photo image but it was too hard. I then tried a stylized graphic but it was too ephemeral. I finally settled on a close-up detail from an oil painting I had done some years ago ~ of a man’s hand holding a grape cluster. To my mind, the image is perfect. It is a human hand connected to the growing land.

❖What do you hope readers will take from Trillium?

My intent was to write an entertaining as well as enlightening book about the evolving rural area around the southern end of Lake Ontario, in Canada.  

In order to do that, I crafted the bedlam and chaos of a ‘good story’, filled with emotional arcs and empathy etc,, but interwove the story around fascinating pieces of local history from the Greater Hamilton and Niagara area. The medley of colourful characters is also influenced by larger global events, like the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s and the two World Wars of the twentieth century. I wanted to make this fictional story ‘believable’ to the contemporary reader. As far as I know, no-one in the vicinity has attempted a similarly ambitious ‘grassroots’ construct.

I think my voice is rather unique in the telling. But, ultimately, readers must determine if that is true or not.

What is odd or quirky or engaging about your story or characters?


There’s plenty of quirk in this work, primarily because each character has an early failing or foible that manifests later. These insights drive the story forward so that there are ‘aha’ moments when a later incident clicks into place. It’s basic ‘cause & effect’ that amplifies the intimate causality of human interactions.

Character names were chosen to reflect the ethnic origins of their families and to help readers keep the large cast of characters clear in their minds. As example, Gregorio is clearly not part of the O’Sullivan clan …

One outstanding quirk was the development of the simpleton savant Anna. Illiterate and sheltered from the world by her protective Italian family, Anna, untethered from normal social conventions, has an uncanny knack with plants. She can grow anything. Her simplistic yet attuned capability irreversibly alters the course of her family’s evolution. To say more may ruin the story for some, so I’ll stop there except to say, readers do seem to resonate with her. She’s a peach, so to speak.

To whom would you recommend this book to? Are there any trigger warnings or age restrictions?

I would recommend this story to anyone who loves rambling family sagas, epic storytelling, and historical fiction that rides the vicissitudes of human logic and emotions. There’s a lot going on in this story: good, bad, ugly and even, at times, indifference as the narrative voice pulls back to ‘observe’.

As each generation matures into adulthood, Trillium could be seen as an adult ‘coming-of-age’ tale. As for warnings, there are three sex scenes that are rather graphic. Their violence is an integral part of the story, so that’s that.

Would Trillium translate well to the screen? If so, who should make it or star in it?

Ideally, I think this would make an engaging Canadian series ~ a timely cross between the British drama, ‘Peaky Blinders’ and the well-scripted American family drama, ‘Bloodline’, set in Florida.

Trillium would, of course, have to be 100% Canadian. Why? Because Canada is still very young on the world stage. We are in desperate need of these in-depth local stories to explain the unique evolution of our own particular civil society. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be swamped by better told English-speaking stories from elsewhere.

My dream team would be a co-production between Anglo-Canadian, Irish and Italian producers (to achieve maximum market share), with a well-rounded cast from each ethnic origin. The director, showrunners and crew would be Canadian. It could all be shot on location around the southern end of Lake Ontario – from hovels to mansions.

I have done a preliminary casting, just for fun. In the end though, that’s a pipedream for a writer. If the title was optioned by an established production company, all those casting and location decisions would be their responsibility. Yes, I am the originator of this story, but a team of seasoned scriptwriters would have to flush it out to make it truly noteworthy as well as globally marketable. The story is all there, for the right team.

What genre is Trillium? Is this your preferred genre to write in? What do you read?


I call this a hybrid historical fiction. As I explained above, I wrote a ‘good story’ around many current and timely issues.

In the past, I have written poetry, social history, journalism, and two other long-form fictional works. I love the nuances of languages and the endless possibilities that they offer to an open imagination.

My reading, as a human on the planet, has always been ferocious.


Tell us about your writing process.

For this title, I followed a strict regimen. From February to October of 2018, I did nothing but write, edit, re-craft and finalize the work. Literally, 10am to 6pm, 5 days a week. I took weekends off to recharge and took hourly lunches during the writing week to refresh myself.

It may interest your readers to know that I wrote a detailed outline for Trillium almost a decade ago. That outline smouldered in my writing box until I found the key to access the story. The key was ‘technology’.

Technology has transformed our lives over a very short period of time. I wanted to ‘document’ that evolution and could do that quite clearly within a historical context.

I stopped this story before the internet became ubiquitous.

LINKS – CA Amazon – https://amzn.to/2q0iEeL

US Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/Trillium-Margaret-Lindsay-Holton/dp/0992127289

Antonius, Son of Rome, by Brook Allen: A Review

Say ‘ancient Rome’ and you have my attention immediately.

Say ‘ancient Rome’ and you have my attention immediately. So I had to read Brook Allen’s debut novel, and I also invited her to contribute a guest post to this blog. So, here’s my review, and her piece, and some of her photos, too!

My Review

Marc Antony is a familiar historical figure. Whether it’s from Shakespeare, film, video games or history class, his basic story as Julius Caesar’s right-hand man, Cleopatra’s lover, and a key figure in the transformation of Rome from a republic to an imperial state is known to many. But how did he become this man? What drove him?

Brook Allen’s Antonius, Son of Rome, the first book in a planned trilogy about Marc Antony’s life. Beginning when Marcus is in early adolescence, the story intertwines known information with imaginative situations. Impeccably researched and richly described, Allen brings the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic to life. Her characterization of the young Antonius gives insight into and motivation for later actions.

Last year, in research for my own books, I took a course on the fall of the Roman republic. I rather wish I hadn’t bothered: reading Allen’s series will be a far more entertaining way of reminding myself of the history!  But even though the personalities and actions of this period are fresh in my mind, I wasn’t the least bit bored by Son of Rome. Creating suspense when the outcome is known is a difficult task, and one well-managed in this novel. When an author can vitalize known history and familiar characters as well as Allen has in this book, I know I’m onto a writer I’m going to want to follow.

Highly recommended for readers interested in the period, or who would like to know more about this tumultuous, influential time in the history of Rome and its empire. I am very much looking forward to the rest of the trilogy!

Antonius: Son of Rome is available from Amazon.

Just Like Us

I’ll never forget the first time I visited Pompeii.


I entered through the Marina Gate and as I walked slowly toward the Forum, it was as though I was going back into time with each and every step. And the place still possesses its very human story through its various buildings—some of which still stand complete—and it’s wall frescoes and plaster-cast molds of victims. The site is a world treasure. Though people and animals tragically died here, it’s a veritable time-capsule of information on just how ancient Romans lived and died. And perhaps the most surprising thing that a visitor takes with them upon leaving is the thought that, “They were just like us!”


In Rome itself, apartment buildings called insulae (islands) were often up

Insulae at Ostia Antica: A typical insula (apartment building).

to seven or even eight stories high. Plutarch, an ancient biographer who liked to tell the stories of famous Greeks and Romans, told about Marcus Licinius Crassus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar. Crassus became rich through vast purchases of properties in Rome—specifically insulae. Since Rome had no fire brigade at the time, Crassus trained a band of his own slaves to be firemen. If there was a fire in an insula, which occurred regularly, due to people trying to cook in their apartments, Crassus would show up with his firemen. He’d offer to buy the insula for a ridiculously low price and the poor, panicked owner would either have to sell his enflamed property or watch it burn, as Crassus would only order his firemen into action if he sealed a deal.


And—hey! McDonald’s anyone? Common plebians typically ate their meals at fast food stalls, located on the streets and sometimes even built into insulae. Americans might think they invented fast-food, but these tiny eateries would serve up steaming veggies and meats onto husks of bread for a filling meal two-thousand years ago. It was only the upper middle classes and families of noble descent who could really afford to recline in their painted triclinia, served by slaves.

Ancient fast food restaurant: 
This little taverna is in Pompeii. It’s very typical of the sorts of fast food establishments that existed in the ancient world.


Lastly, I have to mention the Roman passion for games. Now their tastes were different than ours—bloody beast and gladiator shows were the norm. But this enormous public park easily lends to our imaginations what mighty structure once stood there. The Circus Maximus was the place to go for gladiator shows, public executions of criminals, and the favorite Roman pastime—chariot racing!

Circus Maximus Painting: As it may have been.


The Circus Maximus is HUGE and worth a visit. Visitors can still walk where the original track was laid out and see where the spina—the “spine” of the complex—once was. By Julius Caesar’s day, this enormous arena seated over one-hundred-fifty THOUSAND people! As the Republic morphed into Empire, several Emperors renovated and improved the mighty Circus Maximus, and other hippodromes similar to it were added in notable cities throughout the Roman Empire.


I am of the opinion that there’s NOTHING boring about history. People who poo-poo the study of other cultures from the past simply haven’t gotten INTO the spirits of the people who once lived so long ago. Tourists who visit Pompeii and experience the many similarities between ancient Roman culture and ours are right. In many regards, they were “just like us.”

Brook Allen (Click on Brook’s name to go to her blog, full of more information about Rome and its inhabitants.)

Beauregard and the Beast, by Evie Drae

An ideal summer read, a few hours of delightful escapism, and iwritten with a deft hand.

Evie’s thoughts on writing the story:

I’ve had the idea of writing a series of fairy tale re-imaginings with LGBTQ+ characters for longer than I can remember. However, because the concept felt so daunting, it wasn’t one I’d put a lot of focus or thought into. That is until I submitted another manuscript to a Romance Writers of America contest and received a full request from Sue Brown-Moore, the acquisitions editor for Dreamspinner Press’s category romance line, Dreamspun Desires. She enjoyed my voice, but the manuscript I’d given her didn’t fit with the angst-free guidelines of her line.

After chatting with her—and darn near falling in love, because she’s a wonderful human—I decided to take a crack at writing the first in my fairy tale re-imaginings series with the Dreamspun Desires guidelines in mind. Around this time, I was offered representation by Eva Scalzo from Speilburg Literary. I signed with her, and we were off and running almost immediately with a proposal to Sue for a Beauty and the Beast retelling starring Adam Littrell, a grumpy MMA fighter nicknamed “The Beast,” and his sweet personal assistant Beauregard Wilkins.

I had an absolute blast writing Adam and Bo’s story. Once I got the green light from Sue, I dove in and wrote all 55K of the manuscript in less than six weeks. A few rounds of editing with my agent later and Beauregard and the Beast found itself in Sue’s hands. Much to my delight, she offered a contract less than a week later.

Truly, my experience in writing these characters was a magical one. I had to fight some of my most basic creative instincts to avoid the angst that so typically becomes an integral part of my plots. Every time my characters tried to steer me toward a plot bunny that would undoubtedly gum up the fluffy romance works, I’d pop back to the outline I’d created during the proposal stage and crack the whip until they fell back into line. It wasn’t easy, but it was a labor of love and taught me a great deal about the art of writing and about myself as a writer.

I have several more stories already pinging around my brain to continue the series, including a Little Mermaid retelling with an Olympic swimmer I’m hoping to publish during the 2020 Olympics! 

My review:

Adam is the Beast, a mixed-martial-arts champion who has never let anyone close to him: his career’s always come first. But he isn’t a youngster any more, and his ring persona has very little to do with who he really is.

One thing Adam truly is, however, is disorganized, which is why he needs a personal assistant. Enter Beauregard, a bookish guy with a sister in college to support. He’s also almost irresistibly cute. The attraction between them is immediate, but inappropriate: Adam is Bo’s employer. How long will they be able to keep the relationship professional?

In this updated version of Beauty and the Beast, written as a male/male romance, Evie Drae has given us a sweet, sexy story. It’s an ideal summer read, a few hours of delightful escapism, and it’s written with a deft hand. I laughed out loud several times (to the consternation of my cat). The sex scenes are detailed, so if you prefer love-making in a book to be more veiled, be aware. There are stumbling blocks in the road to love, as there must be any romance, but without spoilers I’ll say the ending does not disappoint.

5 stars for this charming story.

Where to find Beauregard and the Beast:

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2IGmc0N

Kobo: https://bit.ly/2UCn8oo

Google Play: https://bit.ly/2Vv1Q0Q

Barnes & Noble: https://bit.ly/2DxeW3s

Dreamspinner Press: https://bit.ly/2VnRb7L

Goodreads: https://bit.ly/2Ro3VH6