Saturday, 21 December 2013

Happy Holidays and See You in the New Year!

Hi everyone,
Will not get time to blog anything else for the rest of 2013, so I wanted to swing by and wish everyone a happy and safe holiday season and New Year.
See you all in 2014!!!
Best Wishes,
Medieval Mayhem (Terri)

Monday, 16 December 2013

Sure Is A Bloody Aftermath: THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM by James Aitcheson

Splintered Kingdom by James Aitcheson
In this, the second instalment of the Bloody Aftermath of 1066 series by James Aitcheson, we meet our hero again in happier times. Only this book is set against the Welsh Marches and a backdrop of violent reprisal against the Norman invasion, so happier times be damned. 
The story begins with our hero nicely settled. Something I think he deserves after the life of upheavals he led in book one.
 A lord of his own manor, he is living out his days in a rural idyll. The fields full to bursting with crops. The mill wheel turning in the stream. A woman to warm his nights and his heart.

Not very interesting really is it? For an action adventure? Well, I kind of liked it. Was looking forward to a story about our hero making a life for himself. Defending all that is his from raiders and whatever ill wind blew his way..
But, as with all rural idylls in action adventures, they are smashed apart and torn asunder. Rural idylls are for the light-hearted. And being light hearted was never this books intention. Didn't you learn that in book one?

Rural idyll is replaced by a bloody battle for survival. Not only in war against new and old enemies, but in personal battles against men who should be allies.

After a while, this book was dense with action. Battle after battle. Swords clashing. Disastrous bivouacs. Armies against armies. Urban warfare. And so on and so forth.
I confess, despite liking the book a lot, some of the long fight scenes I had to skim read and that is the reason I could not squeeze this book to the full 5 stars. In my opinion, some of the protracted battle scenes could have been less so. Of course others will disagree. Those who love battle sequences will relish this read to its climax.

If battles and fight scenes in historical fiction are your poison, then you are going to love this book. If you are like me and prefer battle or fight scenes to take up minor parts of a book, then you may not love the book entirely, but I still suspect you will like it a lot for, outside of the battles, it has plenty to offer.

I liked the first book of this series. It got raw sometimes and there was much room for improvement, but I found here in Book two, this rawness was not present. A much more refined read..
 The author has fine skill and a bright future in the genre of historical fiction if he chooses to stay in it

- MM

Monday, 9 December 2013

For Your Eyes Only: LIONHEART by Sharon Kay Penman

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman
What rating does one give a book that was not only not read to the end, but was only read to 60 pages? Only on special occasions do I actually give a rating to a book if I have not made it to around 100 pages - or in the case of a book the size of this brick - roughly 250 pages.
This is one of those special occasions. I learned enough about this book in those 60 pages to write a 10 page review. But I won't of course. That would be beyond excessive and more than a little obsessive.

I am writing this review and giving this book a star rating, despite my lacklustre effort in reading the book, for those who know me. For those people, consider this review for your eyes only. Let me explain my 1 star and my reasons for disliking this book so much. For those who don't know me, just ignore my review.

First cab off the rank. The book isn't about Richard the Lionheart. It is about the personal relationships and lives of those around him. Now, when I pick up a book called 'Lionheart' I expect the book to be about him. I expect the author's fictional biography of Richard the Lionheart. I don't know when Richard becomes a regular feature of the story, but he wasn't around nor a feature of those first 60 pages and I have it on good authority that he isn't around in any 'biographical' sense for a long time in the book. then when he is, it is from afar.

Other things I didn't like about this book. It is entirely too feminine for me. It is what I call a 'lady book'.
These kinds of books that are about personal relationships and feminine details don't work for me. Feminine details like, how she wears her hair, how glorious she looks that day, what gorgeous silks she has in her coffers, where she keeps her jewellery, how everyone is beautiful who should be beautiful and everyone is ugly who should be ugly, inner most thoughts of women about their husbands and girlfriends and babies, how every woman on woman scene is like the girls from Sex in the City meeting at their favourite cafe or nightclub.

I found the writing feminine. There is no doubt that this book is written by a woman for women. And those kinds books always make me run for the hills. The only reason I decided to try this one was because it was a group read in my group and because every now and then I have people trying to tell me how good Penman is and how her books aren't romance or lady book.

Finally I have first hand knowledge and I can say...I came, I saw, and I found out for myself that these books by Sharon Kay Penman will never be to my tastes.
I understand they are to others, that they are well loved, but for me personally, they are not to my tastes.

- MM

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Earth, Water, Wind & Fire: STONEHENGE by Bernard Corwell

Stonehenge by 
Bernard Cornwell
This month in the Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group on Goodreads, the Ancient Group Read book is Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell.
I read this book a couple years back and loved it. Gave it five stars.
Inspired by that Stonehenge book of the month read, I decided to post my review (written in September 2010).


It really has me baffled that some people don't like this book. I found it enthralling and captivating.
There was something about Bernard Cornwell's version of these bronze age people and their mystical and monolithic Stonehenge, that captured my imagination and I felt stirred by both them and their pristine, unpolluted environment.

They were innocent and gullible, ignorant and sweet, yes, even at their deadliest or maddest. They are unblemished by a modern world. Their existence is aligned in every way with nature and the elements. Everything was an omen or an augury. If a bird lit from a tree, they watched it to see where it headed, if a swan lifts from the waterway into the sky, they stop to watch it's direction in hopes of anticipating the future. They wear 'sea monsters' teeth on sinew around their necks, and dress their ring ditches with animal and human skulls to ward off people and spirits alike. They are a deep and cerebral people.

While this life may sound restrictive to you and I, everything has a meaning and a meaning in everything, I think it was beautiful to read about and I felt more connected to pre history than I have ever been before.
And all this due to the wizened hand of a master author?

I had some trepidation going into this book because of the mixed reviews on Goodreads, but I should have known Cornwell would not let me down, *he hasn't yet after all, why should he now?
Reading this book was an experience for me and I wish I had not put it off for as long as I had.

Thankyou Bernard Cornwell.

*NB: When I said in the review that 'he hasn't yet after all, why should he now' well, if only that were still true. I have since read a couple Cornwell books that I did not like, but that comment in that review of 2010, was true at that time.

- MM

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Scent of a Wind: PURE by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller
Pure. What a not so sweet smelling little charmer you are. A real treasure that I am pleased to have finally read after a couple years of some less than graceful, evasive manoeuvres. It has played a good game this Pure. Putting itself under my nose at every turn. Gawping at me from the shelf at my library as I reach for a different book. On a friends currently reading pile. In recommended reading lists. Flashing your fine cover in blue or in green. You know I love that cover. Have told you over and over. It has always been one of my favourites. A favourite of all time.
You are everywhere, Pure by Andrew Miller, everywhere I look. So, when I saw you discarded upon the recently returned shelf at my local library, I knew I could not resist you any longer. I succumbed, overcoming my apprehension towards your macabre context, and you yielded, giving up a fortune in charms.

Pure. Was probably not the book I expected it to be. For the last few years I have been raving about that exquisitely beautiful cover. Telling people it was a favourite of all time. And yet I had not read it. Had avoided it. Been evasive when people had tried to push it on me.
Why then did I resist for so long? Well, it had more than a little to do with the nature of the context. The cemetery of les Innocents. Its sides heaving with rotting bodies. The engineer, Jean-Baptiste. Commissioned to clear the over burden of death from les Innocents and transform it into a market place. Does not sound very pleasant does it?
I always knew I would get to Pure eventually. As soon as I could convince my senses that the story within, the story of removing rotting bodies buried one atop the other for hundreds of years, would not offend them. When that time came and I felt my resolve was strong, I went for it. And enjoyed every second.

Yes, the context is gruesome on occasion and yes, the descriptions of the death scent clinging to everything that surrounded les Innocents – clothes, people, food – will perhaps put you off your supper, but it really isn't so bad. Not as bad as I thought it would be. And if you can overcome it there is a story of beauty laying beneath that death mask. A treasure trove of barely restrained sexuality, of books and literature, of relationships and the human mind.

I don't know how this author writes his other books, but I believe that Andrew Miller wrote Pure in a perpetually aroused state. I do not know if others will pick up on this too. Maybe it was just me. But sexual innuendo was everywhere in this story. Not busting at your seams sexuality, but a subtle innuendo. Like a soft breath across your face. Like a length of silk falling from a bed post. The warm liquid feel of sex had its fingers in every corner. From the obvious Heloise the prostitute, to the cadavers of two women, to the moments Jean-Baptiste found himself alone with his hardness, to the girl with her peep hole. It filled the pages. Tainted the words.

And books. If you are a bibliophile then you will love the feel of being in a book surrounded by characters who love books too. Through reading, through education. Titles of books I would never have heard of. Obscure French titles to the more well known such as Robinson Crusoe. I am infatuated with the way Andrew Miller blended the two wonders of sex and books into a story about the decommissioning of a putrid cemetery.

I was seduced, repulsed and hypnotised. 

- MM

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Seal Stew Anyone?: SONS OF THUNDER by Giles Kristian

Sons of Thunder by Giles Kristian
I probably say this too often and now here I go again. Journey adventures. This is my favourite type of historical fiction. I loathe being stuck in the one place in a book, ie a castle, an army camp, a ship.
My imagination feeds on colourful journey adventures where the main characters travel from one exotic place to another, meeting one exotic person or groups of people after the other.
Somehow I think it hearkens back to the first time I saw Star Wars - the ultimate in journey adventures.
The Creature Cantina, and the adventures immediately before and after, are my favourite scenes in all of the Star Wars movies (Princess Leia/Jabba the Hut slave scenes from Return of the Jedi come a close second) and they imprinted upon me so much that even today, as an adult and no longer a kid, my reading and movie tastes are still influenced by that imprint.
This could be one of the reasons that the Vikings are my favourite journeyers of history and Viking adventures are my favourite types of historical fiction novel, after all, if you take out Luke Skywalker and the sci fi setting and replace with a Viking protagonist and an early European setting, these kinds of stories have a lot in common with the Star Wars adventures. But enough of that tangent, now on to Sons of Thunder.

Sons of Thunder was a fantastic journey adventure for me and is much improved on the first book in this series, Blood Eye. That is not surprising though. For numerous reasons. But mostly they are because Blood Eye was a coming of age for the character, Raven (I do not enjoy coming of age stories usually), and a debut for the author, Giles Kristian.
When I first read Blood Eye I wasn't won over, but I always thought that one day I would get to book two. It was a debut after all and I do like to give the debut book of a series some leeway. It is hard enough to find quality Viking era historical fiction and Kristian clearly knew how to write quality, he just had some kinks to iron out in regards to plots and character depth. Which I think he did successfully in Sons of Thunder.

Despite wanting to eventually get to book two I kept putting it off....until recently. I made myself reread book one. Rereading Raven: Blood Eye was the right move. I enjoyed it so much more and bumped it from 3 stars to 4.. It gave me the incentive to get to Raven: Sons of Thunder and I am so pleased I listened to my gut and gave the series another chance.

With a lyrical and uniquely Saga driven writing style, Kristian can mesmerise the reader. I was mesmerised and that is no easy task. I read at night after a busy day and I get tired and bored easily, so I need to be mesmerised to hang in there. 
I do not need high adventure on every page to mesmerise me and keep me awake. What I need is skillful writing backed up by vivid and transportive prose.
For example:
We tracked the coast slowly but steadily and at one point sailed right into a dirty cloud of biting gnats. They got into our mouths and down our tunic necks and even bit some of us on our eyeballs, which we all agreed was a very low thing to do. We roared at Olaf and Knut to tack us out of that Hel, but even when they tried, the movement of the wind across the sail was pitiful, and so we had to endure it, cowering under furs and skins like frightened women.
Afterward, we laughed about it, for when Svein huddled beneath a white reindeer skin, it looked as if a mountain of snow had dropped onto the deck. We laughed and we teased one another and we scratched, and when we saw three broad knorrs ploughing their own sea roads west and south, we knew we had come to the mouth of the Sicauna. Sure enough, we rounded a stubby peninsula on which dozens of houses sat coughing black smoke into the grey sky. 
Once around that, Olaf said, we would see the river. -  from chapter ten

I am sure that if he keeps this up he will lure readers and fans for a lifetime. For it is books like these and writing like this that are a gleaming beacon for the genre of historical fiction.  This Raven Saga is here to stay.  I have no doubt.

The story itself is a journey adventure of a kind that, for the reasons already expressed, held immense appeal to me. It was not restricted to only Britain and its immediate surrounds, but branched out to other exotic and fascinating places such as Paris, France. An unexpected place to see our Viking crew turn up, but delightful all the same and I loved it. It was a lot of fun. In truth, the whole book was a lot of fun. For the same reasons that I find Robert Low's Oathsworn books a lot of fun. Humour, jollity, honesty, vitality and pagan naiveté all rolled into one.
Shockingly brutal and violent at times, it was all, to me, done in a natural way. It was not at all gratuitous and I never felt that the author was just trying to please the kind of audience who prefers gratuitousness over substance and quality. If I had detected it were that kind of book I wouldn't have been able to run away from it fast enough. It was tough and gutsy without falling into the cliche of being over pumped, cheesy, gore porn.

As for the title of this review? All I can say is that there is a seal and horseradish stew in this story that I will never forget. I am nearly gagging just thinking about it. Which gives credence to Giles Kristian's ability to create believable atmosphere.

As far as a rating goes, I have to give this book the full five stars out of five. For my tastes I could not fault it. A terrific Viking read that has left me hungering for the next book in the trilogy, Odin's Wolves.

- MM

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Reading The Reader's Mind

I am no expert on all things literary. I have thoughts, opinions, observations, just as you all do. Not all my thoughts, opinions and observations are agreeable to everyone of course, but then varied opinion adds spice to what could otherwise be an all too polite conversation about books. And where is the fun in an all too polite conversation? Those are best left to the Victorians who are, thankfully, extinct.

In the spirit of varied opinion. I have one. An observation if you will. On why people are drawn to types of characters, plots, settings and story feel.
To my eyes it comes down to this. What part of your mind do you use when you read?
I believe that, though very much a woman, I read with my masculine side.
That doesn't mean I like battles and macho-centric books, what it means is that I have a low tolerance for feminine drama and emotions and for female characters (unless they too seem driven by their masculine side). I have this low tolerance in life anyway, but I have even less tolerance for it in books. I prefer adult male characters and male dominated settings.
I am not necessarily a product of my environment although I do live in a male dominated world and I speak to men many times a week and can go many months without speaking to another woman. There is no doubt that how you interact with your fellow man/woman in real life can be reflected in your reading tastes, but I still believe wholeheartedly that, as individuals, our path through life has trained our brains to enjoy and seek out particular types of characters and personalities in books.

So what parts of the mind do I think people read with?

To me there are three very definitive ones. The feminine, the masculine and the inner child.

The feminine reader can be male or female and he/she seems to need some form of female presence in books. Female characters are preferable to the reader who reads with their feminine side, but they aren't completely necessary. If a book has no prominent female characters, the feminine reader needs the male characters to be less macho and more emotive. A nurturer, gentle lover, a deeply reflective soul, tortured, wielding a charisma guaranteed to attract the opposite sex (or same sex..whatever your fancy).
The feminine reader likes matters of the heart.

The masculine reader who also can be male or female, gets exasperated or worn down with female characters and feminine feel. The masculine reader wants his or her male characters to be preoccupied with living life and not bothered with the whimsical and the melodramatic. He/she can read a whole book without noticing there were no female characters.
Focus on marriages, children, love and languishing in ones emotions are not valued character features to the masculine reader.
The masculine reader likes matters of the mind.

The inner child reader is easy to spot. They are still young themselves, or are simply in touch
with their inner child, or they will have children of their own and delight in relating to child characters or in reading young adult books because of that.
The inner child reader is anchored to their childhood. There are memories there that draw them to YA books or young characters in adult fiction. I do not know what those memories are of course – I am not an inner child reader – but I do often see men and women who read the children's classics of their youth, or read YA or juvenile fiction because they still have their childhood side deeply embedded in their psyche.
This does not mean the inner child reader is emotionally stunted or childish. It only means that something about YA books or child characters in adult books, resonates with them and gives them succour.
The inner child reader likes matters of the soul.

Naturally, some readers are going to have pieces of all three toiling away inside them. One is going to dominate their reading preferences however. One will always be the strongest.

I, without shadow of doubt, am dominated by my masculine side when I read. On occasion I can feel a little of my feminine side like a candle flame flickering dimly in a darkened window, but I never, ever read with my inner child. I have one, as we all do, but it expresses itself in other ways in my life. Joy of cooking mother's recipes, a lingering infatuation with light pink colours, baby animals. But when it comes to reading, I am all man, all of the way and I think romance is for girls (or for guys with a little bit of girl inside them)!

- MM

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Style and Substance: THE LION RAMPANT by Robert Low

The Lion Rampant by Robert Low
On most books you will find captured quotes on the front and back covers. These are quotes from book reviewers at newspapers (ie The Sunday Times), other authors (generally well known ones writing within the same genre as the book in question) and other people of varied fame and note.
They include words such as masterful, intensely exciting, gripping, a master storyteller, a legend of the genre, as good as 'so and so'.
These snatched quotes never make me buy a book. In fact, I ignore them and observe them with great scepticism, because if you scratched deeper you would find they are quotes from the author's fellow author mates or they are a paid for quote, or the person supplied a quote without ever reading the book. All these make the quotes as fake as their implied spontaneity.
Or they are the other type of quote. One that is quite clearly taken out of context and you wonder what the rest of the review said about the book. What were the negatives.

Robert Low's books are the only books where I actually trust these quotes to be genuine. The books (to me) are masterful, intensely exciting, gripping. The author is a legend of the genre and a master story teller. And no, he is not like so and so since, right now, there is nobody else around like Robert Low. Nobody who writes like him. His style is distinct and unique. A rare gem in the genre of historical fiction, where so many authors are falling into the bad habit of copying the styles of their peers. Riding the bow waves of another's success with mimicry.
For this reason, I will always reach for Low's books with trust. He does not mimic anybody. He does not write looking for market acceptance. He writes for himself - and his reader - in a style that is his own.
It is that style that can lure me to these books, even when the setting holds no interest for me.

Which happens to be the case with this Kingdom Series. It holds no true interest for me.
It is a credit to the author that he can tie me down long enough to read three books, each over 400 pages, that are set during the Wars of Scottish Independence. How he did, is easy to explain.

It is the rawness of Low's writing that does it, combined with the depth and slickness of his characters.
 I am a great admirer of intelligent writing and I feel there is none better nor any as consistent, in the genre of historical fiction, than this author. Even when I was not quite loving this Kingdom Series for its setting, I was still enamoured with the writing style and the unrelenting scope of the character development.
The only thing that took the edge off that was that little issue where the Wars of Scottish Independence have no magnetic pull on me and I don't find novels about famous figures of history to be very interesting. I am more interested in the unknown than the known. Luckily, this trilogy had fictional characters playing prominent roles too and those are the characters that kept me going with the trilogy.

It seems a waste of time to speak about the actual storyline. I have never been one to paraphrase stories in a review because there are plenty of reviews around that do that, plus you can get pretty much all you need on top of that from the book blurb, and the rest you can get by reading the book yourself.
I usually like to speak about how the book made me feel, how well the author has done the story and how skilfully he has managed his characters. And with the climax to the trilogy, The Lion Rampant, I think Low hit his straps and worked it all out expertly. Ticking all my boxes in regards to feelings, storyline and characters.
I gave it five stars out of five and it was my favourite of the trilogy for sure, but I still feel that anybody new to the series needs to start at the beginning with The Lion Wakes. I am not convinced that a reader would be able to appreciate The Lion Rampant fully without following the path that leads to it.
To my fellow readers, I will not recommend this book, I will recommend the trilogy as a whole.

- MM

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Busy Bee

Apologies to followers for not posting to the blog in the last two weeks. Life has been frenetic this month. Nothing bad, just busy.
Am behind on my reviews. Will be back on deck as soon as possible.
Book reviews still to come this month:
Sons of Thunder (Raven #2) by Giles Kristian
The Lion Rampant (Kingdom Trilogy #3) by Robert Low
The Splintered Kingdom (1066: the Bloody Aftermath #2) by James Aitcheson

and I am currently reading a really great book:

Pure by Andrew Miller

- MM

Friday, 1 November 2013

Blog Interview with Author DOUGLAS JACKSON

I am sure I do not have to tell any long term readers of historical fiction who Douglas Jackson is. Even if you have not read any of his books, or are fairly new to the genre, this author's books are hard to miss.
He has his literary aquila firmly planted in the soil of the historical fiction genre and with two Roman series' in circulation, one called the Gaius Valerius Verrens series which features the antics and adventures of the Roman Tribune that the series is named for, another series named Rufus that features so far - alongside a main fictional character named Rufus - two of the most infamous Roman leaders of history, Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) and Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), and also a contemporary thriller series with a history connection under the name James Douglas called the Jamie Sinclair series, there is no doubt that Douglas Jackson is playing a lot of aces into the game of historical fiction.

The amount of followers and fans his books have, are testament to how well he has circumnavigated the crowded Roman themed historical fiction sub genre. To stand out from that crowd an author really does need to show some flare with the pen and some aptness in carving out a story. Especially one that is strong enough to persist in a series.
With a stable of books to select from, whatever your poison, historical fiction or contemporary thriller fiction, Douglas Jackson (aka James Douglas or James Douglas Jackson) has something for readers to investigate.
As for Douglas Jackson himself, the author of historical fiction, I hope you will get to know him better as we discuss the books, the author, the history and the future, here in this recent interview.


Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction?

Absolutely. That was the first decision I made when I started writing. I wanted people to learn from my books as well as enjoy them and you can't do that if your readers don't trust the person who's doing the writing. It's great when someone gets back to me and says 'I was so interested in that I got a book out of the library/went on the internet to learn more'. But you're right to qualify it with 'as possible', because the truth is that with many aspects of ancient history we can't be certain what is accurate. We have evidence and clues, written and physical, but in many cases writers and historians have to do what they can to reconstruct the past by using them the way a detective reconstructs a crime scene.

If I do deviate from known history, which isn't often, I always detail it in the historical note. The only time I've purposely done that with a major event was in Avenger of Rome. Unknown to me when I was planning the book, by the time Valerius gets out to Antioch, Corbulo has already fought all the battles that made him Rome's most successful general. When I did my detailed research I discovered that all the elements were in place for the Parthian king, Vologases, to have one last try at conquering Armenia, so I created an entirely fictional campaign which Nero wiped from history after ordering Corbulo to commit suicide.

Where does your fire to write Roman themed historical fiction come from?  What is it about those Romans?

When I decided to write a book I had no idea what I was going to write about. It could literally have been anything. I was driving home from work one night thinking about it. They say write what you know, but my life was one big whirl of family, work, eat, sleep, anything I knew was mundane. So I thought about it a little bit more and came up with write what you love, and what I loved was history. Simon Schama's History of Britain just happened to be on the radio and I heard Timothy West saying 'And the Emperor Claudius rode in triumph on an elephant to take the surrender of the tribes of Britain.' That was the moment The Emperor's Elephant, which became Caligula and Claudius, was born, and my life changed completely.

What it is about the Romans is the mark they've made on our everyday lives and the physical evidence they've left all over Europe, Africa and Asia of hundreds of years of dominance. I did have one direct connection with the Romans. My first job when I left school at 16 was on a sort of workfare scheme, and it was restoring the Roman marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviot Hills, after it had been ploughed up to plant trees. We turned the peat turf back into the furrows, and it struck me that we were doing much the same as the legionaries who'd built the turf walls that still surrounded the fort had done two thousand years earlier.

You have written historical fiction novels that collide your interpretation of famous leaders of history with main fictional characters. 
Does this reflect an enjoyment of writing about both – real characters and fictional main characters - or do you actually prefer creating and getting inside the head of one in particular?

I do get a lot of pleasure from writing about both, but again it came about by accident. The Emperor's Elephant was a story about the slave who looked after Bersheba, the elephant Claudius took to Britain, and he needed a life. Though I didn't know it at the time, it would bring him into the orbit of Caligula, the most depraved and dangerous of the Julio-Claudians. That was when the real fun started! Caligula was the one whose head I enjoyed getting into most. There's a scene in the book where he's in a meeting room bored with wealth, bored with excess: bored with life. He asks a guard 'If I ordered it would you kill every man in this room, would you do it?' Of course, there was only one answer. Then he says, 'What if I ordered you to kill me?' I genuinely think that's the kind of young man he was. Ambitious and intelligent, he'd lived in a gilded cage all his life, and nothing ordinary interested him, so he had to make up these deadly games, push back the limits of normality, and test people to the limits of their sanity.

If you could go back in time, which real life character from your books, or one that exists on the peripheral of your stories, would you most like to meet?
And if you could ask them about anything what would it be and why?

That would have to be Claudius, because he's such an enigma. When I was writing about him I had to continually shove this image of Derek Jacobi in the TV adaption of Robert Graves' book I Claudius, out of my head. I think that image would be true of many people of my era: the drooling cripple who was a figure of fun and only became Emperor by mistake. But there's another Claudius. We have fragments of a triumphal arch that stood on the Via Flaminia and announced that the Emperor was hailed Imperator - victorious general - twenty two times, fought six bloodless (for the Romans) battles, and took the surrender of eleven British kings. Who was the real Claudius? I'd like to ask him why he had Messalina killed. If she'd lived there would have been no Nero and no bowl of dodgy mushrooms a few years down the line.

The latest in your Gaius Valerius Verrens series (of which Hero of Rome is #1) is Sword of Rome and it was released only a few months ago. This reveals a commitment to continue with this series with some frequency. Readers of series' like to see that kind of commitment. It makes it worth their while to keep reading the books.
How many more books in this series do you anticipate?

I'm fortunate that my publishers have really taken to Valerius. The Hero of Rome series started off as a trilogy, ending with Avenger of Rome, but the books were popular enough that they asked me if I could come up with ideas for three more. It turned out that our hero was well placed to be at the centre of some of great events during the bloodiest and most turbulent years of the Roman Empire. Sword of Rome, the first, takes Valerius through the opening phases of The Year of the Four Emperors to the first battle of Bedriacum, and it will be followed up by Enemy of Rome, which takes him through to Vespasian's victory. I'd originally planned to complete the second trilogy with Agricola's campaign to conquer Scotland, but we're now talking about a further two books which, chronologically, would fit in between, and a possible finale of a genuine blockbuster in the James Michener/Edward Rutherfurd mould, that would attempt to encapsulate Roman Britain in a single book.

As well as the Gaius Valerius Verrens and Rufus historical fiction Roman era series', you have also done a contemporary series under a different name, James Douglas.
Any other series' or ideas in the pipework? And on that topic, could you see yourself getting away from Romans and doing a non Roman historical fiction series?

Douglas Jackson is my real name, but I was christened James Douglas Jackson, so we decided to use James Douglas as my pen name. I'm talking to the publishers about another two James Douglas books, but I've also given them a detailed synopsis for a Second World War series that I have a real itch to write. I have two crime books on my computer that I wrote when I was looking for a publisher and didn't know if my Roman idea would take off. I don't see Transworld investing in a third genre for a single writer, even under a different name, so I have a plan to self-publish those, initially on Kindle. I've always known that I couldn't write about Romans forever, even if I wanted to, and as a writer I know that to keep yourself fresh you have to try new things. I have lots of ideas, but it's a question of choosing the right one. The one thing in my favour is that I know my strengths, the biggest drawback that there are so many great writers out there looking for the next Wolf Hall or Sharpe series.

Have you done much travelling to settings in your books? If so, which is your favourite and why?

I've been to Italy, Spain, France and Germany to research the books, loved every minute of it and would have liked to do much more. There's a valley in Eastern Turkey close to the border with Syria, where I fought the fictional battle of the Cepha gap. It's a fascinating place full of ancient caves that may have been the starting point for a later civilisation, and the nearby city of Hasankeyf has an astonishingly varied history. Unfortunately, the Turkish government, funded by foreign banks, has decided to dam the River Tigris and Hasankeyf will be under water within the next ten years. The reasons for the decision are clouded in politics, and may have a lot to do with the fact that the people there are Armenian. There's been an international outcry and I hope it doesn't happen, but I'd like to visit the area just once before it does. As for a favourite place, it would have to be Rome, the Eternal City. Every time you turn a corner there's something to make you gasp in wonder.

What authors and/or books have inspired you on your path to today and how/why have those specific authors or books inspired you?

Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome gave me the reading bug with The Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons. I loved Robert Louis Stephenson's books, particularly Kidnapped, which I thought was a sublime piece of story-telling the first time I read it and was fascinated by a story set in a Scotland I could instantly recognise. As a teenager I devoured Alistair McLean's books, and when I read that winning a short story competition in the Glasgow Herald set him on the road to becoming a best-selling author, I think that planted a seed for the future. If he could do it, why not me? Likewise later, I discovered the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser created the inimitable Flashman while he was doing night shifts as a sub-editor on the Herald. It was a revelation that ordinary people could become successful writers and fill the shelves of the local library that had given me so much pleasure. Nowadays, for inspiration I turn to John Le Carre, who makes genius look easy, and Bernard Cornwell who writes the kind of books I like to read, with the qualities I'd like to emulate.

Which do you prefer, ebook or paper?

Definitely paper. I love the feel, and the smell, and a well put together book can be a work of art as well as a work of genius, but ...

I once vowed that I would never pick up an e-book. Why would I want to spend any more time staring at what is essentially a computer screen? Then my friend gave me one as a gift for being his best man. Within a week I found that I had access to every book in the world and it was available with one click of a button. An expensive habit was born. 

Thanks again for your interest and giving me the chance to reveal a bit of my writing life!


For more details on Douglas Jackson, please check out the author's website:
To catch up with him on social media, Douglas can be found as @Dougwriter on Twitter:

- MM

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Blog Interview with Author JAMES AITCHESON

James Aitcheson has been quietly achieving with his debut novel, Sworn Sword. A story of a Norman Knight, Tancred a Dinant, and his journeys in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  It is the first in a series and has garnered the series a steadily growing fan base since its release.
Now, a few years on, and there was a book two, The Splintered Kingdom, released in 2012 and a book three recently released called Knights of the Hawk. All of which have found favour amoung many readers around the world.

Sworn Sword may have been quietly achieving over the last few years, but now the momentum is building. The series that Sworn Sword kicked off has been creeping into International markets and if you ask any UK author about getting their books released into, specifically, the US market, you will find the tales are grim.
In a market where publishers have tight specifications and reject so many more than they accept, James Aitcheson's books are not only reaching the US readership via retail outlets, but they are also showing up in libraries across the country. Now that in itself is no small feat. When breaking into foreign markets you know you have made it when the American reader can find your books in their library, or get their library to request it from elsewhere.

I am not entirely sure that getting voted in as a Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group book of the month can compare with the triumph of breaking into foreign markets, but Sworn Sword was voted in by readers of the historical fiction genre. If anything, this reflects a small piece of the market pie. A piece of pie that shows a receptiveness to not only the way the series is presented (ie cover, book blurb), but also to the historical setting the author has written in.

To help our readers enjoy their read of Sworn Sword throughout November, the author James Aitcheson gave up some of his valued research time, to sit down and do an interview with me.
I hope James' answers stir you all up to lose yourself for a while in 11th century Britain and the Norman invasion.

                                                                    *  *  *

Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction?

Before I turned my attention to writing historical novels, I studied History at Cambridge, so I do feel a certain responsibility to keep my fiction as faithful as possible to what is known, so as not to misinform the reader or present a false picture of events.
The advantage of writing fiction set during the Middle Ages, however, is that the historical sources are very often fragmentary, and sometimes in conflict with one another. A lot of information we might like to know simply isn’t available or is disputed, which gives the novelist a large degree of freedom.
Part of the fun, for me, of writing historical novels lies in weaving my stories in and out of the historical framework, and so most of the time I see little reason to alter the facts as far as they’re known. When I do, it’s always with good reason and I own up to it in my Historical Note at the end of the book.

Tell us who was William the Conqueror in your mind?

William, we’re told by our sources, was a formidable figure, not just physically but also in terms of his strength of will. He was born into a warrior society, where the elite drew their power and influence largely from their martial prowess, their leadership and their ability to secure the loyalty of large numbers of armed knights.
What marked William out as that he was thrust into the violent, backstabbing world of Norman politics from a very young age. The illegitimate son of the previous duke, he was only around 7 or 8 years old when he succeeded, and his formative years were blighted by an extended period of civil war in Normandy, which no doubt hardened him and shaped his outlook on the world.
Above all, he was ambitious and unafraid of taking chances. That he was able to convince his nobles to commit vast resources to the invasion of England in 1066 – an enterprise that at the outset must have seemed enormously risky – is testament to his charisma and influence. While his enemies feared his ruthlessness, he was also remembered as a man of great generosity and piety, which in many eyes made him the very model of a medieval king.

You are standing on the battlefield in 1066. Where would you be standing? Which team? What kind of player? Eg. Knight, Housecarl.

I’d be standing as far from the battle-line as possible! I don’t think I’d be very good in a combat situation. As for which side you might find me on, that’s a difficult question. Some people might assume that because my protagonist, Tancred, is a Norman knight, that I would naturally ally myself with the Normans in the battle, but the truth is that I don’t identify especially strongly with either side.
Both King Harold and Duke William were men who had won their way to the top through uncompromising politics and their military accomplishments. Neither of them appears to me any more likeable as an individual than the other, and neither one would command my allegiance. The Battle of Hastings wasn’t a battle between nations so much as the final showdown between those two contenders seeking the ultimate prize: the English crown.

There is much written - from both a positive and negative view - on the impact William and his Normans had on Britain. What are your thoughts on the positives and negatives post invasion?
There’s a widespread assumption, in the UK at least, that the Norman Conquest was a Bad Thing as far as the English people were concerned, and that it heralded a harsh regime of bitter oppression. There is no denying that William was responsible for some shocking atrocities, the most infamous of all being the winter campaign known as the Harrying of the North, which is mentioned in The Splintered Kingdom and which saw a vast region of northern England laid waste. We also know that the native aristocracy was almost entirely usurped by 1086, the year of Domesday Book, with only a very few English thegns remaining in possession of their estates, and the vast majority of the land being held by Norman barons.

But the jury is still out as to how much the Conquest really affected the lot of most common folk in England. Their lives were typically conducted on a much more local level, and while the arrival of these foreign overlords must have been frightening, of more immediate concern was whether they could put enough food on the table to last them through each winter. They still had to till the fields and reap the harvest and pay their rents, just as they had done in the days of Edward the Confessor(1042–66) and earlier kings, and probably cared little for the wider struggles for power.
Because no one can say how England would have turned out in an alternative, Conquest-less timeline, it’s almost impossible to make a value-judgement as to whether, on the whole, the Norman impact was positive or negative. What’s clear is that it left a lasting impression on the country, helping to shape its institutions, language and law, and also making a mark on the landscape itself in the form of the great castles and cathedrals. England today is a product as much of the Normans as of the Anglo-Saxons.

With the third book in your 1066 series released late October, where to now for Tancred? Is it a trilogy or a series? If a series, how many books are planned?

The third book, Knights of the Hawk, brings to a close one particular arc of Tancred’s saga, but it’s not the end of his story by any means. I’ve got plenty more ideas for where his travels will take him in future, but exactly how many books the series is likely to comprise, I’m not yet sure. The Normans sought adventure all across Europe in this period, including in Italy and in the Byzantine Empire, so the next instalment could well see him seeking his fortune beyond Britain. In the long term I’d like to take Tancred on the First Crusade, although that’s still some way off yet. By that point he’d be in his mid-fifties, so perhaps a little bit old for front-line fighting!

Would you like to write in any other historical settings, and why?

At the moment I’m thoroughly enjoying writing about the Norman Conquest, which is such an interesting subject, with so many facets that I’ve still to explore in detail. Having said that, I do have ideas in mind for books set in other periods, as well as for contemporary fiction too. If I was to turn my attention to a different historical setting, it would probably be Anglo-Saxon England, which is a period that has always fascinated me, and which I specialised in while at university.

Has any author, book or person had a hand in inspiring you to be a writer?

Writing is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was very young, and I never required any particular inspiration to write: I just got on and did it! During the course of 2006–7, however, when I was in the process of penning the initial stages of Sworn Sword, I was fortunate to read a number of great historical novels: Imperium by Robert Harris; Dissolution by C. J. Sansom; The Ruby in Her Navel by Barry Unsworth; and The Religion by Tim Willocks. Each of those authors has a very different style and voice, but they all equally grabbed me and showed me the potential of historical fiction to bring the past to life.

You are currently on a research trip. Can you tell us about that? What are you seeing and after all your research trips what has been your favourite place so far? And why?

I’ve actually just returned from spending a few days in the University Library in Cambridge, where I’ve been researching my next book. As a Cambridge alumnus, I’m fortunate in that I’m still entitled to access to the library, which receives a copy of every single book that’s published in Britain. So if there’s a particular subject that I need to know more about, I know the UL will have it. It’s a fantastic and invaluable resource for a historical novelist to have. 

Every new project begins with a trip to the UL, where I immerse myself in the latest academic studies. It’s one of the parts of the job that I love the most. Only once I’ve laid down the groundwork do I feel equipped to actually start writing. Even while the novel is in progress, I often need to make trips back to Cambridge to look up specific topics that I didn’t necessarily realise I’d have to know about at the outset.
Research for me also means going to visit some of the key locations that are going to feature in the novel. I like to tread the same ground that my characters would have walked. My travels have taken me to Durham, York, the Welsh Marches, the Fens around Ely, and the site of the Battle of Hastings. Of all of them probably my favourite has been the Welsh Marches, where Tancred has his manor and where I’ve spent some time walking Offa’s Dyke Path. It’s a beautiful part of Britain that oozes history at every turn, and the landscape hasn’t altered much over the centuries, so it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked to Tancred.

Which do you prefer ebook or paper?

Paper. I don’t have anything against ebooks; it’s just that I’ve grown up with traditional books, and haven’t yet heard any compelling reason to change my habits by investing in an e-reader. But the electronic format is still in its infancy and I think we’re likely to see lots of exciting developments in the next ten years that we’ve barely even begun to consider, so perhaps my opinion will change in time!


More details can be found on James and his books on the author's website:  

If you would like to follow James on social media you can check him out and even say hi via his Twitter Page: or his Facebook Page:

- MM

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Family Matters: THE BLEEDING LAND by Giles Kristian

The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian
I confess, I prefer to read historical fiction set in what I call 'pre gun'. I am a swords, daggers and spears kind of person (there may be something Freudian in that) and historical fiction set after the advent of guns feels modern history to me. The guns taint my attempts to escape into history and so I stay away. Escapism through books is important to my daily grind.
In saying that I have been dabbling in the waters of some post gun historical settings lately. And when I say dabbling, I mean only dabbling. I am not reading reams of gun strewn historical settings, only a select few which are set during the English Civil War. Those books were Andrew Swanston's The King's Spy, Michael Arnold's Traitor's Blood and now, Giles Kristian's The Bleeding Land.

All three books are so different to each other and share only two similarities. All three are set to the backdrop of the English Civil War and all three are the first in a series. There the similarities stop. They have nothing in common as regards story, plot and characters.

I won't go on about my ratings or feelings towards the former of those two authors as this review is supposed to be about Giles Kristian's book, but I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by all three author's offerings. They taught me that even though my interests in history lay elsewhere, I should be getting out of my comfort zone more often. Because there are some gems out there that I have been missing out on.

So, while I will not exactly be ferreting through library shelves for more and more 'gunpowder' historical fiction, I will be sticking with the three series' I mention here, and will select others from time to time from other settings.. ie Crimean War. I will no longer stay within my pre gun comfort zone.

The Bleeding Land is a family saga through and through and reminded me a lot of the 'other Civil War'. The Civil War that took place on an entirely different continent. Change a few things in the book, such as place names, and The Bleeding Land story could have easily been set in the deep south of America. In fact, my mind kept blending scenery on me. It was involuntary, but I sometimes caught myself visualising an American plantation house and not an English manor house.
But then they are both brutal Civil Wars aren't they? Not so hard to have them blend in the mind.

Fought within the bosom of community, in cattle paddocks and in towns and villages, across the country. In such homeland style warfare you do have the common thread of brothers fighting shoulder to shoulder, or family fighting against family as beliefs and loyalties are stretched. And you have the women, the young and elderly left behind to protect farms and homes, falling victim to not only the enemy, but also to men fighting for your own side.

Civil War truly is a mess, no matter the country, and Giles Kristian has captured that well here in the first book in his Rivers' Family series, The Bleeding Land.

It promises to be an epic series or trilogy (can't recall which it is going to be) and I believe readers with an interest in the English Civil War will love it. I have not read the next in the series (although I do own it and I will read it this year), but in regards to this first book, I would say ignore the vibe of the cover. It is not one of those battle and gore-centric kinds of books. It is a true unisex book. A book for women as much as men and involves nearly as many female characters as male characters.

Hard to say though, who will take to this book and who won't as my impressions are marred a little by my lack of interest in the English Civil War. It affects my feelings in a way it wouldn't affect others.
 All I can say is that you will have to read it and see for yourself. If you are 'pre gun' like me then step out of your comfort zone and see what you think.

- MM


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Holy Theological Coma: THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco

Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
I don't know why I should feel embarrased that I did not like nor appreciate this book. I am confident in my intelligence. I don't claim to be sporting the latest in super intelligence, but I am comfortable with the fact that the reason I did not like this book has nothing to do with it being 'beyond my intellectual reach'.

Still, when a book is regarded as a Classic. A work of genius. A “novel of stunning intelligence, linguistic richness, thematic complexity”(that's off the back of the book). And is as admired as this one, even the most confident reader can feel a little shy about coming forwards with a negative review. Shy because if the book is of “stunning intelligence”, what does that say about the intelligence of a reader who does not appreciate the book?

With such pressure to avoid looking like the village idiot, it would interest me to know how many people rate this book favourably (such as giving the book 3 stars when they feel it should be 2) and what they really want to say is “as a work of fiction, it, really, was not that great” (that's not off the back of the book, but will be off the bottom of my review..when I get there).

Let's break it down. Briefly (unlike Eco, I know how to keep it short) dissect the sum of its parts.
And there were really only two parts. Two roads. Two roads travelling paralell to each other through this novel of stunning intelligence, linguistic richness and thematic complexity.
One road is a medieval mystery set in a monastery, and as a medieval mystery set in a monastery, it was simplistic and on its own, could not stand alone.
The other road is a journey of over intellectualising and I loathe over intellectualising. Most of the time it is just included in a book because the author is carrying all this knowledge in their head and they want to flex their brain muscle and flash readers of the world their guns of knowledge.
It is the equivalent of the author who does all the clever research for their book and then needs to include all that research in their book so it does not go to waste.

So, as I travel the roads of simplistic medieval mystery and self indulgent brain flexing I walk, quite unsuspecting, into an unwelcome glut of theology. Like a fat boy devouring a buffet of cheese, Eco's ramblings about theology and philosophy dominates the offering and fills the room with an odorous fug. And for me, a person who cannot stand theological or philosophical discussion, it was a story killer.

I was suffocated and stifled. Unable to breath under the avalanche of manifest Catholicism.

It may seem strange then when I admit there was a time where I loved the book and found it both stylish and classy. Not so strange though when I admit that I only felt that way for the first 50 pages or so. Everything beyond Brunellus' horse was a tribulation for me and it went from love, to kind of still enjoy, to loathe and with about 100 pages to go I actually felt a knot in my gut at the idea of forcing myself to finish it. Mouldy old cheese will do that to you. Bind you up inside.

I understand that not everyone is going to feel this way about the book as there were personal taste issues thrown into the pot.
For me, this was, as you can tell from this review, not a marriage made in heaven. It has fortified my resolve to stay clear of historical fiction themed around monks and nuns.
Religion is not a part of my life by choice (nor is philosophical meanderings either, mind you), but for me, if you cut out the fat, cut out the ramblings, the theology and philosophy and the bla bla, as a work of fiction, it still was not that great.

- MM