Book Review – The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction. Highly recommended.

Here’s the blurb;

The inspirational story of the Pastons, a family who rose from obscurity to the very heart of Court politics and intrigue during the Wars of the Roses.

England, 1444. Three women challenge the course of history…

King Henry VI’s grip on the crown hangs by a thread as the Wars of the Roses starts to tear England apart. And from the ashes of war, the House of Paston begins its rise to power.

Led by three visionary women, the Pastons are a family from humble peasant beginnings who rely upon cunning, raw ambition, and good fortune in order to survive.

Their ability to plot and scheme sees them overcome imprisonment, violence and betrayal, to eventually secure for their family a castle and a place at the heart of the Yorkist Court. But success breeds jealousy and brings them dangerous enemies…

An inspirational story of courage and resilience, The Royal Game charts the rise of three remarkable women from obscurity to the very heart of Court politics and intrigue.

Anne O’Brien is one of my favourite authors. Every year, I wait with high anticipation to read her newest book and to see which ‘new’ unknown woman of history she’s brought to life for her readers.

With The Royal Game, Anne O’Brien has chosen not a powerful royal/noblewoman but instead three women who hunger to be considered as such. The majority of the story is told from the viewpoint of Margaret Paston, wife to John Paston, as property disputes amongst their landed estates escalate and are resolved only to escalate once more. This might sound a bit boring, but believe me, it’s not. I was shocked, genuinely shocked, by the level of violence that could be brought to bear against rival claimants and the state of lawlessness in East Anglia at the time is flabbergasting. It acts as a perfect way of showing just what the uncertainty of the Wars of the Roses brought about for those lower ‘noble’ families with the ebb and flow of prestige and royal denouncement as in the background, great battles are won and lost, and rival kings fall and rise.

Margaret is a wonderfully independently minded woman, and yet constrained by her position in life, and her sex so she can only do so much when trouble strikes, but she will do it to her upmost.

Alongside Margaret, we meet her sister in law, Eliza, who struggles to find a husband and emerge from beneath her mother’s less than motherly love. She manages to do just that only to find herself facing a life as beset with lawsuits as her brother and sister by marriage.

Our third Paston woman is Anne Haute, a cousin to Elizabeth Woodville. Her voice is that of a noblewoman without the dowry needed to hook herself a wonderful marriage, but who can tout her family connections to gain one.

This book is a stunning read – and more, an easy read – despite the vast number of Johns in it (I’ll leave that for you to discover because wow – that’s a weird thing to have done). I had to force myself to slow down and stop reading because I didn’t want it to be over. Now I have to wait for next year to read the second part of the story.

I highly recommend this book. If you know about the Wars of the Roses, all the better, but if you don’t, it will not lessen your enjoyment of the story of the three Paston women and their troublesome, and litigious family at a time of intense political unrest.

Thank you to Netgalley and the Publisher for my review copy. I loved it:)

The Royal Game is released in ebook, hardback and audio today, 16th September 2021.

Connect with Anne via her website or Twitter.

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Where Your Treasure Is by M C Bunn

Today, I’m delighted to welcome M C Bunn to the blog. She’s going to share the secrets of her research with us all.

I’m a story teller first and foremost, not a historian or a trained researcher. While I have a love for history, my college major and master’s degrees are in English. It was a great excuse to read the sorts of books I love. Recently I attended the Historical Novel Society’s North American conference. The conversation rooms on various historical eras and related topics were some of the event’s most exciting offerings because of the participants’ passion for their subjects and their wealth of knowledge. I’d love to contact some of them for more information, especially as I work on my next book, which is set at the end of the Edwardian period and during World War I. 

For advice about how to investigate a historical detail, I turn to knowledgeable friends for help, and librarians are goldmines for resource suggestions. I also do a lot of digging through bibliographies and end notes, and rely on contemporary texts. If they’re nonfiction, as opposed to literary, they’re mostly digital. Annotated books and older dictionaries are quite helpful. I try to avoid slang. It’s interesting how many expressions we use that Victorians didn’t, and vice versa.

My late father’s Clarkson N. Potter Annotated Sherlock Holmes and its notes never fail to lift my spirits when I think about the pitfalls awaiting writers. While Conan Doyle’s plots and dialogue are amazing, he made up London streets and includes all sorts of details in his stories that don’t hold up under the scholar’s close scrutiny. The Potter edition is full of references to research articles by other famous authors and fans that prove how some sort of chemical or cigar ash Holmes describes couldn’t have been used in such and such a way. But those intricacies aren’t the point of what Conan Doyle was doing. At least Dorothy L. Sayers won’t be looking over my shoulder. She minutely read Conan Doyle’s work! In the later drafts of Treasure, I tried to avoid glaring errors and anachronisms, but perhaps the ones that remain will amuse some reader or inspire another writer’s research. 

I didn’t set out to write Where Your Treasure Is. It wasn’t inspired by researching the late-Victorian era, though that’s a time period that has exerted its fascination over me since childhood. Writing the story felt—not exactly like automatic writing, but there was definitely an element of feeling propelled along. There was no outline or notes. It was only after I’d written the entire plot from beginning to end that I added more historical details and checked those that had emerged organically. 

I’d spent some time in London and Norfolk, and studied old and new maps of Treasure’s settings. What surprised me were details that, during the checking process, I thought I’d made up but hadn’t. I attribute some of that to the passage of time and forgetfulness. When you’ve read about a time period for as long as I have, you internalize a great deal. As for other details, I’ve no explanation. 

For instance, Mena House was a name that wouldn’t leave me alone when I wrote about the heroine’s uncle traveling to Egypt. I looked it up and was surprised to find the hotel is famous though it wasn’t mentioned in any of the reading I’d recently completed on Egypt. I ordered several 19th century travel guides to confirm a few more details about the hotel’s history and its golf course. Another eerie instance was the way I imagined the façade of the character George’s Norfolk home, Hereford Hall. In my early twenties I stayed with a family in Norfolk, but we fell out of touch. Several years after I wrote Treasure’s first draft, I learned that one of my host’s sisters had died. Her obituary includes a picture taken in front of a structure that looks almost identical to George’s house. I’d never seen that picture before or visited the place. Believe me or not, but that’s the truth. 

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me today. Good luck with your new book.

Here’s the blurb;

Feisty, independent heiress Winifred de la Coeur has never wanted to live according to someone else’s rules—but even she didn’t plan on falling in love with a bank robber.

Winifred is a wealthy, nontraditional beauty who bridles against the strict rules and conventions of Victorian London society. When she gets caught up in the chaos of a bungled bank robbery, she is thrust unwillingly into an encounter with Court Furor, a reluctant getaway driver and prizefighter.  In the bitter cold of a bleak London winter, sparks fly.

Winifred and Court are two misfits in their own circumscribed worlds—the fashionable beau monde with its rigorously upheld rules, and the gritty demimonde, where survival often means life-or-death choices.

Despite their conflicting backgrounds, they fall desperately in love while acknowledging the impossibility of remaining together. Returning to their own worlds, they try to make peace with their lives until a moment of unrestrained honesty and defiance threatens to topple the deceptions that they have carefully constructed to protect each other.

A story of the overlapping entanglements of Victorian London’s social classes, the strength of family bonds and true friendship, and the power of love to heal a broken spirit.

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Meet the author

M. C. Bunn grew up in a house full of books, history, and music. “Daddy was a master storyteller. The past was another world, but one that seemed familiar because of him. He read aloud at the table, classics or whatever historical subject interested him. His idea of bedtime stories were passages from Dickens, Twain, and Stevenson. Mama told me I could write whatever I wanted. She put a dictionary in my hands and let me use her typewriter, or watch I, Claudius and Shoulder to Shoulder when they first aired on Masterpiece Theatre. She was the realist. He was the romantic. They were a great team.”

Where Your Treasure Is, a novel set in late-Victorian London and Norfolk, came together after the sudden death of the author’s father. “I’d been teaching high school English for over a decade and had spent the summer cleaning my parents’ house and their offices. It was August, time for classes to begin. The characters emerged out of nowhere, sort of like they knew I needed them. They took over.” 

She had worked on a novella as part of her master’s degree in English years before but set it aside, along with many other stories. “I was also writing songs for the band I’m in and had done a libretto for a sacred piece. All of that was completely different from Where Your Treasure Is. Before her health declined, my mother heard Treasure’s first draft and encouraged me to return to prose. The novel is a nod to all the wonderful books my father read to us, the old movies we stayed up to watch, a thank you to my parents, especially Mama for reminding me that nothing is wasted. Dreams don’t have to die. Neither does love.”  

When M. C. Bunn is not writing, she’s researching or reading. Her idea of a well-appointed room includes multiple bookshelves, a full pot of coffee, and a place to lie down with a big, old book. To further feed her soul, she and her husband take long walks with their dog, Emeril in North Carolina’s woods, or she makes music with friends. 

“I try to remember to look up at the sky and take some time each day to be thankful.” 

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the Where Your Treasure Is blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club

Welcome to today’s stop on The Wisdom of the Flock by Steve M Gnatz blog tour

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Steve M Gnatz to the blog with a post about the research he undertook for his new book, The Wisdom of the Flock.

My research process was truly a “labour of love”. It began in 2005 when I read an article about the interaction between Franklin and Mesmer in the late 1700’s. Specifically, the article mentioned Franklin being asked to head the French commission investigating Mesmerism – a quasi-medical process that we would now probably identify as hypnotism. That was fascinating to me because I knew nothing about how Franklin might approach such an endeavour. I knew that Franklin was an inventor (lightening rod, bifocal glasses, etc.) but I had never really thought of him as a scientist. He was, of course, and a good one.  Franklin, and the other French scientists involved, applied what we would now call the scientific method to his investigation of Mesmerism – some have even called his experiments the first “blinded study” partly because they used a real blindfold on their subjects.

However, I next learned that Franklin had invented a musical instrument called a glass armonica for a beautiful young musician (Marianne Davies) in England prior to his time in France. 

A Glass Armonica

Of particular interest to me was that I learned that Doctor Franz Mesmer was subsequently using a copy of Marianne’s glass armonica in France in his seances. That got me thinking that perhaps there was some sort of a love triangle going on. This is where the fiction enters into historical fiction. There are copious books that one can read about Ben Franklin, and a few about Mesmer, but none about Marianne Davies – so I was free to make up her character more than the others.

The Wisdom of the Flock: Franklin and Mesmer in Paris is based on real people and events. If there is a specific date given in the book, the event happened on that date – perhaps not exactly as described – but it happened. I just filled in the blanks in the historical record.

Whatever the resources studied, my foremost objective as a historical fiction author is to try to bring the characters to life. The readers will have to decide if I am successful or not. However, I find that the easiest way to do this is by telling the story through conversations between the characters. Since we rarely know from the historical record what was actually said – especially in the 1700’s, well before the advent of audio recording equipment – this gives me some freedom and also allows me to flesh out my characters “personalities”. I envision and portray Ben Franklin as a virile, confident, occasionally pedantic, hedonistic socialite in Paris at the age of 70 plus. That image has gotten me into a little trouble with some critics who have found it hard to believe that he was not the corpulent, gouty, elder statesman they imagine – but I believe that the historical record bears me out on this. One need only read DuPont’s inscription to the 1779 painting by Duplessis (included here* and as a frontispiece in the book) as evidence. Or consider that he really did propose marriage to a French woman (and a major character in the book) Madame Helvetius near the end of his time in France.

I believe that the filter of time tends to oversimplify historical figures. I wrote about this on my own blog back in January and you can find that post here: https://stevegnatz.com/2021/01/why-do-we-stereotype-historical-characters/

We come to think of historical figures as good or bad, triumphant or tragic, famous or infamous – not the complex people that they most likely were. My book attempts to breathe a little life into these people who lived nearly 300 years ago.

Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?

I included a bibliography at the end of The Wisdom of the Flock and would refer the interested reader to that resource as it represents my “go to” list for writing this book. It includes many published books but also journal articles and even a PhD dissertation. Because Franklin’s letters are all digitized and available for viewing on the web, it was easy to get access to his main form of communication – letter writing. 

The internet is a wonderful tool for researching a historical fiction novel. Just remember not to believe everything that you read!

As I’m sure is a fairly common practice for historical fiction writers, I create a spreadsheet as a resource with a timeline of important historical dates and events across the top and the characters names down the side. I can then make notes at the intersection of the two. For example, when were Marianne, Franklin, and Mesmer all known to be in Paris so that they could interact? When did Mesmer leave Paris, and did Marianne go with him?

I will also specifically recommend the books on Benjamin Franklin by Claude-Anne Lopez for anyone that really wants to get a feeling of what he was like. I believe that she developed a better understanding of his personality than anyone of our time. Unfortunately, Ms. Lopez passed away in 2012 and I never got to meet her. In her lifetime, she not only translated all of Franklin’s papers from French to English, but also wrote several key books that helped me understand Franklin as a man. I thank her for that.

In addition to reading any books that I could find on my main characters, I also found that books on “ancillary” characters were helpful. There are many famous characters portrayed in The Wisdom of the Flock – Marie Antoinette was the queen of France at the time, Pierre Beaumarchais (playwright), John Paul Jones (navy captain), even Casanova was circulating around. Books on these historical figures helped me flesh out their characters and hopefully avoid stereotyping them.

Getting to know as much as I can about the historical characters is fun and helps me form my own opinions about who they were. While we can, of course, never really know them, historical fiction allows the writer and the reader to almost feel that they do.

Thank you so much for sharing. It sounds like you really enjoyed the research process of writing the book (yay), and I wish you luck with it.

Book Trailer:

Here’s the blurb:

A WORLD OF ENLIGHTENMENT, REVOLUTION, AND INTRIGUE  

1776: Benjamin Franklin sails to Paris, carrying a copy of the Declaration of Independence, freshly signed. His charge: gain the support of France for the unfolding American Revolution. Yet Paris is a city of distractions. Ben’s lover, Marianne Davies, will soon arrive, and he yearns to rekindle his affair with the beautiful musician. 

Dr. Franz Mesmer has plans for Marianne too. He has taken Parisian nobility by storm with his discovery of magnétisme animale, a mysterious force claimed to heal the sick. Marianne’s ability to channel Mesmer’s phenomena is key to his success.

A skeptical King Louis XVI appoints Ben to head a commission investigating the astonishing magnétisme animale. By nature, Ben requires proof. Can he scientifically prove that it does not exist? Mesmer will stop at nothing to protect his profitable claim. 

The Wisdom of The Flock explores the conflict between science and mysticism in a time rife with revolution, love, spies, and passion.

Trigger Warnings:

Mild sexual content

Available on Kindle Unlimited.

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Meet the Author

Steve Gnatz is a writer, physician, bicyclist, photographer, traveler, and aspiring ukulele player. The son of a history professor and a nurse, it seems that both medicine and history are in his blood. Writing historical fiction came naturally. An undergraduate degree in biology was complemented by a minor in classics. After completing medical school, he embarked on an academic medical career specializing in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. There was little time for writing during those years, other than research papers and a technical primer on electromyography. Now retired from the practice of medicine, he devotes himself to the craft of fiction. The history of science is of particular interest, but also the dynamics of human relationships. People want to be good scientists, but sometimes human nature gets in the way. That makes for interesting stories. When not writing or traveling, he enjoys restoring Italian racing bicycles at home in Chicago with his wife and daughters.

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Wisdom of the Flock blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club

Book Review: The Last Shield, England: The First Viking Age (The Ninth Century Book 6) by MJ Porter

Genre: Historical fictionPublisher: M J PublishingPub date: 26 August 2021Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 Summoned back to Worcester by Bishop Wærferth, Coelwulf discovers that an old enemy has resurfaced on the border with the Welsh, but this time, an enemy demanding help. Aware he can’t leave Mercia, Coelwulf must split his force, determined that his old enemy is […]

Book Review: The Last Shield, England: The First Viking Age (The Ninth Century Book 6) by MJ Porter

Welcome to today’s stop on the Wall of Stone by Heather Robinson blog tour

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Heather Robinson to the blog with a post about her book, Wall of Stone and the historical research she undertook to write it.

The internet features widely in my initial research and I always start by scouring it to create a timeline of major events leading up to the start of the period I am writing in. For Wall of Stone I went back to the first invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar in 54BC despite it being 175 years earlier as it’s useful to have a grasp of the political influences that lead to the chosen period. Even a one line spoken reference to an historic event by a character can add a wonderful authenticity to a story I think. 

From the timeline, I’ll expand my notes around the main time focus of the book, in this case the year AD121 and see if I can find any mention of meteorological or geological events: a solar eclipse, volcanic eruption, flood, drought, plague…anything dramatic that can’t be ignored. If something particular is thrown up in the initial searches, more detailed research is undertaken across many different web pages and a specialised book purchased if necessary.

The same process is applied to any real historical characters that must be included for the story to work. Emperor Hadrian doesn’t feature anywhere near as much in Wall of Stone as my fictional characters, but my notes contain far more information on him, and far more than made it in to the book too, as I needed to learn about his life to understand the man. I always give a backstory to my fictional characters that doesn’t necessarily make it in to the book, but that’s all made up so doesn’t involve any research.

Once a framework of sorts is in place, I like to get writing and return to research as I go. For me, this is important as there is always more to learn and if I didn’t get writing I would continue researching forever! The research could overwhelm me too, it can be daunting, so I just get on with weaving the fiction around the framework of facts so far acquired, keeping in mind the end result is to produce an entertaining story and not give an historical lecture. My aim is to keep the facts accurate but hide them seamlessly within the fiction.

Not wishing to continually disrupt my writing flow, I will often highlight my working manuscript in red capital letters RESEARCH with a note of the topic, such as native flora, Roman gods, Brigante customs, and return to sort the facts out later. One such note was ‘RESEARCH –  how does a decayed head look after a year or so’!! Well, I needed to describe it and had no idea. My internet search history might raise some eyebrows!

Conversely, I turn to research to solve problems that occur in my plot, or to kick-start the story when the plot stalls. It’s a way of gleaning snippets of information to add to the framework. It can throw up some wonderful ideas. 

As well as the internet, another resource I could not do without is my trusty Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain. I have travelled from Northumberland to Wiltshire through the lands of the native tribes: Iceni, Trinovantes and Atrebates to name three, discovering forts, potteries, lead mines, salt mines, temple sites, aqueducts and villas. I love a good OS map at the best of times, this ancient one is just gold dust to me.

It’s packed with information and gives me a wonderful perspective on the land in Roman times, a cross between a picture, a text book and a place name translator all in one resource. I highly recommend it.

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It sounds fascinating (maps are an amazing resource). Good luck with the book.

Here’s the blurb:

In AD121 the Twentieth Legion of Rome stands at the northern frontier of Britannia. Forgotten, neglected and dour in spirit, they must still do their duty for an Empire whose meaning is becoming lost to them.

As the lives of the local Teviot family intertwine with the legion, relationships of love and bitter anguish unfurl. Will the invading army push north? Will the disputing native tribes unite in an uprising? Can Marcus be with Jolinda?

When peace is fragile, friendships count for everything…

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This book is available on #KindleUnlimited.

Meet the Author

Heather Robinson is a novelist and short story award winner from Wiltshire, UK.  Her academic background includes a Bachelor of Science degree with most of her working life spent as an Administration Manager locally.  She is also a qualified and experienced radio presenter, hosting a weekly show for Warminster Community Radio.  Proud parents of two boys, Heather and her husband Graham share a passion for live music, hiking and motorcycling. 

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the Wall of Stone blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club