A Fiction Reading Year in Review – 2020

I know I won’t have been the only one to have struggled to find books engaging throughout 2020but there are two trends that have mainly characterised my reading throughout the year. I’ve either found myself in Early England (before 1066), or in the loving embrace of cosy 1920s murder mysteries. I don’t think it’s possible to get further apart.

But there are some books that have fallen outside of those two trends, and two of these books, have been my standout books of the year.

Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival was a true treat.

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy from Netgalley so didn’t have to wait until the summer to enjoy it.

Here’s the blurb:

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

England, 1459: Cecily, Duchess of York, is embroiled in a plot to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne. But when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Cecily can only watch as her lands are torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Queen Marguerite. From the towers of her prison in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit – one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King of England.

This is a story of heartbreak, ambition and treachery, of one woman’s quest to claim the throne during the violence and tragedy of the Wars of the Roses.”

I loved this book, and more than that, O’Brien’s choice to tell her story almost exclusively through letters inspired me when I was struggling to write Lady Estrid, and gave me a means to tell a complex family story. But, even without that, I highly recommend this book. Anne O’Brien tells engaging and captivating stories of England’s forgotten women, and that is just the sort of book that appeals to me.

It’s available now in ebook, audiobook and hardback, and when I wrote this, the ebook was only 99p, an absolute steal.

Next up on my list of excellent reads is Camelot by Giles Kristian.

Here’s the blurb:

Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been these past ten years. But in a small, isolated monastery in the west of England, a young boy is suddenly plucked from his simple existence by the ageing warrior, Gawain. It seems he must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot. For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive 

Camelot had a wonderful feel to it, and while, I wasn’t quite as enamoured of it as I was Lancelot, the sort-of prequel, I still can’t recommend it enough. The way Kristian evoked the Arthurian legend was amazing. No matter how much I ‘knew’ what was going to happen, I still wanted the characters to triumph, and that, was a little piece of genius.

Camelot is available now in hardback, ebook and audio book.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I really didn’t read a lot of fantasy this year, which is strange for me. When I did read, I found solace in some tried and tested favourites, Mark Lawrence’s The Girl and the Stars, Katharine Kerr’s return to Deverry with the wonderful Sword of Fire and Terry Pratchett – I’ve been trying to listen to some audiobooks, and although I’m still not sure I like it, I have found the Terry Pratchett audiobooks to be great entertainment, especially as I’ve read all the books in the past. I have the last book in Peter Newman’s Deathless Trilogy to read as well, but I’ve been saving it up because it’s going to be a real treat.

(I’ve just noticed that Mark Lawrence wrote a review for Sword of Fire on the cover. How funny. But, I’ve been a fan of Katharine Kerr for well over twenty years – maybe that’s why I like Mark Lawrence as he clearly is as well.)

But to return to historical fiction, I have stepped, just once or twice, further back in time than the Early English period to the Romans and the Greeks.

Sons of Rome by Turney and Doherty was a fantastic read, each author taking the part of one of two characters, interchanging their lives in a format that worked so well. I have book 2 to read now and I’m excited about that. And also The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden was a stellar read, and I’m still quite cross about the ending! He better put that right if there’s a sequel. I’m also going to give an honourable mention to Derek Birk’s Britannia World’s End. I really, really loved the first book. The second book was not quite as stellar but was still a welcome return to the characters from Book 1.

I’ve also taken on some beta reading projects this year, and have been really impressed by the quality of fiction that people are writing. I’ve been taken to Australia and New Zealand at the time of the gold rush, to Ancient Egypt, to Tudor England, 17th century Paris, 19th century Italy and now I find myself in 19th Century America. I hope these books are released and then I can share my reviews. I read books listed on Netgalley and also on The History Quill. If you love getting your mitts on books before they’re released, I highly recommend both of them, and The History Quill especially if you’re after fresh new voices in historical fiction.

But finally, I will mention the books I’ve read from the Early English period. I’ve not read as widely as I might have liked, but it can be hard to read what you’re writing about at the same time. I’ve spent some time with Matthew Harffy’s creations with Fortress of Fury and A Time For Swords. I’ve also returned to the world of Christine Hancock’s Bright Helm and I can assure that she has a new book, hopefully next year, which readers are going to really, really enjoy – a slight diversion from Byrhtnoth but still very much mentioning him. I’ve been lucky to read a really early copy of it, and I love it already. Bring it on!

I have the last Uhtred book to read, War Lord, but I’ve been saving it up for the holidays.

But, the thing that has really got me through the year has been a vast selection of murder mystery books. The majority have been set in the 1920s in the UK, but I have just discovered E M Powell’s Stanton and Barling mysteries set in the 1100s. These are so entertaining, if quite gory, and what I enjoy most about them, is I’ve never yet guessed who actually committed the murders! The same could be said for the Posey Parker mystery books by L B Hathaway which elevate the 1920s murder mystery to a whole new level. The Verity Kent murder mysteries are also excellent, and have a theme that runs through them all.

So, what I can take away from this is that much of the year has been spent reading cosy murder mysteries, although not many of them have been that cosy. It seems that I need a good mystery to help me unwind and one that’s not too gritty, and one that’s certainly set in the past.

Thank you to the authors who’ve kept me entertained this year, and happy reading everyone. I’m looking forward to more in 2021.

(This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.)

Book Review – The Saltwater Murder (Posie Parker Mystery 7) by L B Hathaway – historical murder mystery

Here’s the blurb;

MURDERED WITH A BOX OF TEARS… 

London, 1924

Posie Parker has been called to her most baffling case yet.

Amyas Lyle, London’s top young lawyer, has been found with his head in a box of poisoned saltwater.

It’s the perfect murder. But who hated him enough to do such a thing?

Following a trail of strange notes, all of which speak of the sea, and saltwater, Posie travels from London to the seaside resort of Whitley Bay, looking for answers. But nothing can prepare her for what she finds there.

Can Posie find Amyas Lyle’s cold-blooded killer before further deaths take place? Can she protect those Amyas has left behind?

As Britain celebrates an Olympic summer, will Posie manage to enjoy a holiday romance of her own? And just what is wrong with Inspector Lovelace? Why is he behaving so oddly? Is it anything to do with his new, smart appearance and some very carefully starched shirt collars?

This is a classic murder mystery which will appeal to fans of Agatha Christie and Downton Abbey. The Saltwater Murder is full of intrigue and red herrings, and is the seventh book in the delightfully classic Posie Parker Mystery Series, although this novel can be enjoyed as a stand-alone story in its own right. A clean read, with no graphic violence, sex or strong language.

I have a little bit of a soft-spot for 1920s murder mysteries, and the series featuring Posie Parker is certainly one of the strongest available.

I’ve read all of the books to date, and I think what is so appealing and enjoyable, is that the mysteries are deliciously complex, and the ‘bit part’ characters really come alive. Just like a classic Agatha Christie, you do spend all the time thinking, ‘it was him,’ or ‘it was her.’ Every character always has a motive but the solution is never, ever, the predictable one.

The Saltwater Murder is set in 1924 and is a fantastic addition; twisty, complex, and yet still grounded in the characters that long-time readers love and want to read about. Equally, I am sure that a reader could begin the series from here, and not feel too out of their depths, although they will then want to go back to the beginning and find out how it all started.

The author does a fantastic job of grounding the books in the time period, right down to the mention of Fry’s Chocolate bars and Lyons tea shops, and that’s without even mentioning the accurate weather forecasts and the depiction of events in the wilder world, which in this case are the 1924 Olympics held in Paris.

If you, like me, enjoy a Poirot or a Marple, and fancy something similar, then I highly recommend all of the Posey Parker books.

Connect with the author here; Website Twitter

The Saltwater Murder is available now.

This post contains some Amazon affiliate links.

Welcome to the blog tour for Matthew Harffy’s new release, A Time for Swords

Here’s the blurb;

“Lindisfarne, AD793. The life of a novice monk will be changed forever when the Vikings attack in a new historical adventure from Matthew Harffy.

There had been portents – famine, whirlwinds, lightning from clear skies, serpents seen flying through the air. But when the raiders came, no one was prepared.

They came from the North, their dragon-prowed longships gliding out of the dawn mist as they descended on the kingdom’s most sacred site.

It is 8th June AD793, and with the pillage of the monastery on Lindisfarne, the Viking Age has begun.

While his fellow monks flee before the Norse onslaught, one young novice stands his ground. He has been taught to turn the other cheek, but faced with the slaughter of his brothers and the pagan desecration of his church, forgiveness is impossible.

Hunlaf soon learns that there is a time for faith and prayer… and there is a time for swords.”

REVIEW

A Time for Swords is an attempt to retell the story of England’s first recorded Raider (Viking) attack on Lindisfarne which is confidently dated to AD793.

It is an event that demands to be written about, and the beginning of A Time For Swords, which recounts the attack, is thrilling. Our young hero, Hunlaf, is caught up in the attack, but lives to see another day. Others are not as fortunate.

The story progresses at a steady pace, as the shock waves of the attack begin to be felt throughout the kingdom of Northumbria, and people react to the news in different ways. The addition of a captured Norse Raider, Runolf, with his strict code of honour, adds an intriguing dimension to the story, allowing the author to confidently state that the attack on Lindisfarne will not be a singular occurrence, and that the people of Northumbria need to be prepared for such.

Much of the action takes place not at Lindisfarne, but rather at Werceworthe, (Warkworth) which happens to be about 5 miles down the road from where I live. This made the story feel immediate, perhaps helped by a long-ago Sunday afternoon row down the Cocueda (Coquet) River.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Time For Swords. The opening scenes are particularly well told, and the eventual battle, when it comes, makes clever use of the physical landscape of Warkworth.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

A Time for Swords is now available in ebook format, and is available from here. (Isn’t the cover fantastic?)

About the author

Matthew Harffy grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him. He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters. 

Connect with Matthew here: Twitter, Website

And check out reviews of previous books by Matthew Harffy here.

The Wolf of Wessex

Fortress of Fury

Follow Aries

Twitter: @AriesFiction

Facebook: Aries Fiction

Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

Lady Estrid is on ‘tour’ with the Coffee Pot Book Club – check out the posts so far

Lady Estrid has taken herself on tour with the fabulous Coffee Pot Book Club. She what she’s been up to, and thank you to everyone for hosting her, and the Coffee Pot Book Club for arranging.

November 2nd Mary’s Tavern (Excerpt)

November 9th Gwendalyn’s Books (Review)

November 16th Judith Arnopp’s Official Blog (Excerpt)

November 23rd Brook Allen’s Official Blog (All about the historical Lady Estrid)

November 30th Sylv.Net (Excerpt)

December 7th Madwoman in the Attic (Review)

December 14th Elizabeth St John’s Official Blog (Interview)

December 21st Let the Words Shine (Five facts you didn’t know about me)

December 28th Candlelight Reading (Excerpt)

January 4th The Writing Desk (Letter writing in the eleventh century)

Lady Estrid is available now in ebook and paperback.

Thank you to all the hosts for allowing Lady Estrid onto their blogs, and to The Coffee Pot Book Club for being so, so, so good at organising everything. Thank you.

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that at no cost to you, Amazon rewards me.)

Book Review – The Canterbury Murders by E.M.Powell – historical murder mystery

Here’s the blurb;

Easter, 1177. Canterbury Cathedral, home to the tomb of martyr Saint Thomas Becket, bears the wounds of a terrible fire. Benedict, prior of the great church, leads its rebuilding. But horror interrupts the work. One of the stonemasons is found viciously murdered, the dead man’s face disfigured by a shocking wound.

When King’s clerk Aelred Barling and his assistant, Hugo Stanton, arrive on pilgrimage to the tomb, the prior orders them to investigate the unholy crime.

But the killer soon claims another victim–and another. As turmoil embroils the congregation, the pair of sleuths face urgent pressure to find a connection between the killings.

With panic on the rise, can Barling and Stanton catch the culprit before evil prevails again—and stop it before it comes for them?

THE CANTERBURY MURDERS is the third book in E.M. Powell’s Stanton and Barling medieval murder mystery series. Combining intricate plots, shocking twists and a winning–if unlikely–pair of investigators, this series is perfect for fans of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael or C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake.

This is the first of the Stanton and Barling Mysteries that I’ve read, and I will certainly be going back to the first two books.

The Canterbury Murders is a well constructed and intriguing murder-mystery. The main characters of Stanton and Barling are as unlike as chalk and cheese, and I really enjoyed how they clashed with one another, even though they were working towards the same outcome, of solving the mystery.

The peripheral characters are well sketched, and there were times when I was convinced I knew who the murderer was only to discover I was wrong, and when the big reveal came, it was satisfying, and more importantly, made perfect sense.

This was a very well executed and thoroughly entertaining tale and I look forward to more of the same in the future. I’ve already ordered books 1 and 2.

Thank you to Netgalley and the Publisher for my review copy.

The Canterbury Murders is available now;

Connect with E M Powell here. Twitter Website

Book Review – A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem by Manda Collins – historical who-done-it

Here’s the blurb;

An intrepid female reporter matches wits with a serious, sexy detective in award-winning author Manda Collins’ fun and flirty historical romcom, perfect for readers of Evie Dunmore, Julia Quinn Tessa Dare and Netflix’s Enola Holmes!

Of all the crime scenes in all the world, she walks into his. Twice.

England, 1865: Notorious newspaper columnist Lady Katherine Bascomb is determined to educate the ladies of London on the nefarious criminals who are praying on the fairer sex. But when her reporting leads to the arrest of an infamous killer, Katherine flees to a country house party to escape her doubts about the case – only to become witness to a murder herself! When the lead detective accuses Katherine of inflaming – rather than informing – the public with her column, she vows to prove him wrong.

Detective Inspector Andrew Eversham’s refusal to compromise his investigations nearly cost him his career, and he blames Katherine. When he discovers she’s the key witness in a new crime, he’s determined to prevent the beautiful widow from once again wreaking havoc on his case. Yet as Katherine proves surprisingly insightful and Andrew impresses Katherine with his lethal competency, both are forced to admit the fire between them is more flirtatious than furious. But to explore the passion between them, they’ll need to catch a killer . . 

A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem grabbed my attention due to the title and the cover. It sounded like a light-hearted, fun read, and in many respects, it was.

Lady Katherine is an engaging character, and with much of the story told from her perspective, we get to know her quite well, although some of her true nature is hidden behind the Victorian facade of never showing emotions. The addition of the story-line being told from the perspective of Inspector Eversham adds an entirely different dimension to the story – that of a more disciplined police officer, although it slips quite quickly.

The beginning of the book takes place in London, and I fully expected the action to remain there, but we are abruptly whisked away to the Lake District where the crimes take on an even more sinister nature, and become somewhat more personal.

The author excels here at producing quite a complex case for the main characters to unravel and it did hook me. There were points where I was convinced I had worked out what was happening, only to be wrong. The budding romance between Lady Katherine and Inspector Eversham does feel a little rushed and there were moments where I might have liked more plot development, but overall, it was a fun and reasonably light-hearted read, not because of the content, but because of the way Lady Katherine insists on solving the mystery of who the murderer is.

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for my review copy.

A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem is available now.

Welcome to today’s stop on the Sons of Rome Blog Tour

Today, I’m excited to host the blog tour for the fantastic new release, Sons of Rome, by Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney.

Here’s the blurb.

Four Emperors. Two Friends. One Destiny.

As twilight descends on the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire is but a shadow of its former self. Decades of usurping emperors, splinter kingdoms and savage wars have left the people beleaguered, the armies weary and the future uncertain. And into this chaos Emperor Diocletian steps, reforming the succession to allow for not one emperor to rule the world, but four.

Meanwhile, two boys share a chance meeting in the great city of Treverorum as Diocletian’s dream is announced to the imperial court. Throughout the years that follow, they share heartbreak and glory as that dream sours and the empire endures an era of tyranny and dread. Their lives are inextricably linked, their destinies ever-converging as they rise through Rome’s savage stations, to the zenith of empire. For Constantine and Maxentius, the purple robes beckon…

Book Review

Sons of Rome is the sort of historical fiction book that really appeals to me – people that really lived, having their story told, often against a backdrop of profound change.

The story is told from the point of view of Constantine and Maxentius. They meet as youths, and while their chance meetings are rare throughout the rest of the book, they have far-reaching consequences, as they both grow to adulthood and are forced into situations they probably never thought possible.

I loved the alternate chapters assigned to Constantine and Maxentius. It means that the reader never feels far away from the characters, and lends an ‘immediacy’ to their ‘friendship’, which wouldn’t be possible to achieve because they are so often apart.

The book is mired in politics – again a bit of a favourite of mine – and even though I had no prior knowledge of the time period, I could easily understand what was happening, and I think this is a particular strength of the story. The characters never feel distant or difficult to understand.

I would highly recommend Sons of Rome and look forward to reading Book 2.

On a personal note, as someone who writes historical fiction, I know just how complex and difficult it can be to ‘tame’ a coherent narrative from the past. I think the authors do an amazing job of making the events feel real and easy to understand, while picking the strands of the story, and the ancillary characters, that are needed to flesh out the distant past.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy, and for inviting me on the Blog Tour. I’ve really enjoyed it.

About the authors

Simon Turney is the author of the Marius’ Mules and Praetorian series, as well as The Damned Emperor series for Orion and Tales of the Empire series for Canelo. He is based in Yorkshire. 

Gordon Doherty is the author of the Legionary and Strategos series, and wrote the Assassin’s Creed tie-in novel Odyssey. He is based in Scotland.

Follow Simon and Gordon

Twitter: @SJATurney

Website: http://simonturney.com/

Twitter: @GordonDoherty

Website: https://www.gordondoherty.co.uk/

Follow Aries

Twitter: @AriesFiction

Facebook: Aries Fiction

Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

Sons of Rome was released on 15th October, and I would give it 5/5 stars. It’s a great read. (Isn’t the cover fantastic?) And the cover for Book 2 is also amazing.

Book Review and New Release Alert – Bright Helm by Christine Hancock – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Separated by anger and unanswered questions, Byrhtnoth and Saewynn are brought together by a tragic death.
Re-united, they set out on an epic voyage to discover the final truth about his father. 
The journey takes them far to the north, to Orkney, swathed in the mists of treachery, and to Dublin’s slave markets where Byrhtnoth faces a fateful decision.
How far will he go, to save those he cares for?” 

First things first, Bright Helm is book four in a tightly woven series about young Byrhtnoth, more famous for dying at the Battle of Maldon in AD991, than for anything else. But, he must have had a life before that fateful battle and the author has devised an intriguing and engaging story about his youth, weaving the tale through known historical ‘fact’ of the 940’s and 950’s in Early England.

This is a time period that I’ve also written about and studied, and I have been lucky enough to have early access to Bright Helm, as well as other books in the series. I’ve enjoyed arguing about plot developments and also taken fresh insight from decisions made for the characters. It’s strange to have ‘your’ characters in the hands of someone else, but hey, this is historical fiction, these characters belong only to themselves and the author who writes about them.

What I really enjoyed about Bright Helm was the journey Byrhtnoth has to make. Along the way, he encounters any number of ‘historical’ characters, and winds up visiting both the Orkney Islands and Ireland. I love the Orkney Islands, and I could ‘see’ everything that the author described in such detail.

The book really gather pace as it roars towards its end and I found myself, and this doesn’t often happen in books where I know so much of the back story, just relaxing and allowing the story to unfold without worrying that I might not like it. As I said to the author, I found that she really found ‘her stride’. The pacing was sound, the story thoroughly intriguing, and well, I’m just looking forward to the next book (which might be the last in the series) to find out how it all ends.

I highly recommend this book, and if you’ve not read the earlier books in the series, I believe you could jump in with Book 4, or enjoy starting at the very beginning.

You can find Christine Hancock here:@YoungByrhtnoth and at https://byrhtnoth.com

Bright Helm is released today, 15th October, and is available in ebook and paperback.

(Some links on this blog are Amazon affiliate links)

Book Review – A Pretty Deceit by Anna Lee Huber – historical murder mystery – recommended

Here’s the blurb;

In the aftermath of the Great War, the line between friend and foe may be hard to discern, even for indomitable former Secret Service agent Verity Kent, in award-winning author Anna Lee Huber’s thrilling mystery series. 
 
Peacetime has brought little respite for Verity Kent. Intrigue still abounds, even within her own family. As a favor to her father, Verity agrees to visit his sister in Wiltshire. Her once prosperous aunt has fallen on difficult times and is considering selling their estate. But there are strange goings-on at the manor, including missing servants, possible heirloom forgeries, and suspicious rumors—all leading to the discovery of a dead body on the grounds.
 
While Verity and her husband, Sidney, investigate this new mystery, they are also on the trail of an old adversary—the shadowy and lethal Lord Ardmore. At every turn, the suspected traitor seems to be one step ahead of them. And even when their dear friend Max, the Earl of Ryde, stumbles upon a code hidden among his late father’s effects that may reveal the truth about Ardmore, Verity wonders if they are really the hunters—or the hunted . . .

A Pretty Deceit is an excellent addition to the series by Anna Lee Huber. I didn’t realise when I started reading it, that I’d already read Book 3, but I soon appreciated that I ‘knew’ the characters. Then came the search on Goodreads, and then it all made a great deal more sense:)

Verity Kent is once more embroiled in a new mystery and also still pursuing an old one from Book 3, the two threads merging together expertly to give an engrossing and deliciously complicated narrative, that ensures all the old favourites make an appearance at some point throughout the book.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing read. In fact, as soon as I’d finished it, I went on to read Book 1, and plan on reading Book 2 as well. If you enjoy a well constructed and deeply rooted 1920’s (well, just as about) murder mystery, this is definitely a great series to read.

Thank you to Netgalley and the Publisher for my review copy.

A Pretty Deceit was released on 6th October, and is available here.  

You can connect with the author here: http://www.annaleehuber.com

(This post contains some Amazon Affiliate links)

Book Review – Shelley and the Unknown Lady by Lona Manning – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s brief and turbulent life was as passionate as his poetry. 
Romantic, idealistic and impulsive, Shelley had several intense love affairs. When Shelley drowned at sea in 1822, he took his secrets with him. 
Did a beautiful, lovelorn lady really follow him throughout Europe, as he claimed? Did Mary Shelley ever learn about this rival for her affections? 
Shelley and the Unknown Lady is a carefully researched imagining of the true-life tragedy behind the mystery.
This novella is a stand-alone story excerpted from Lona Manning’s Mansfield Trilogy.

And here’s my review;

I’m a stranger to the world recreated by Lona Manning, but that doesn’t matter at all when reading Shelley and the Unknown Lady.

The story immediately beguiles the reader, transporting you to another time and place, and it’s such a fascinating story, that you won’t want to stop reading once you start.

The author certainly knows the story of Shelley incredibly well, and it’s a joy to read the notes added by the author which piece together the historical mystery of the unknown lady.

For a novella, or short story, the reader is rewarded with an absorbing story.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would highly recommend Shelley and the Unknown Lady.

Disclaimer, I received a free copy of this book via The History Quill Book Club. If you’re interested in The History Quill then please go and check them out.

Lona Manning can be found here: http://www.lonamanning.ca

Shelley and the Unknown Lady is available now and can be purchased here.

(Some of these links are Amazon Affiliate links)