Friday, 8 November 2019

#BookReview — Far Away Bird by Douglas A. Burton #HistoricalFiction #ByzantineEmpire

Far Away Bird
By Douglas A. Burton

Inspired by true events, Far Away Bird delves into the complex mind of Byzantine Empress Theodora. This intimate account deftly follows her rise from actress-prostitute in Constantinople's red-light district to the throne of the Byzantine Empire.

Her salacious past has left historians blushing and uncomfortable. Tales of her shamelessness have survived for centuries, and yet her accomplishments as an empress are unparalleled. Theodora goes on to influence sweeping reforms that result in some of the first ever Western laws granting women freedom and protection. More than a millennium before the women's rights movement, Theodora, alone, took on the world's greatest superpower and succeeded. Far Away Bird goes where history classrooms fear to tread in hopes that Theodora can finally take her seat among the greatest women in history.

Theodora seems impossible--yet her transcendence teaches us that society can't tell us who we are deep down. Before there was a legendary empress, there was a conflicted young woman from the lower classes.

And her name was Theodora.

"So rapid the slide to destitution..."

So very rapid... Theodora would never forget the night her pata died. How foolish he had been. He should have stayed at home instead of joining the rebellion against the Emperor. If it had not been for Magister Origen then Theodora, her mother and two sisters would have ended up destitute.

Magister Origen had been so kind. So very thoughtful. He had even arranged for Theodora and her sister, Comito, to attend a dance school. This was not the time to look back and lament on all they had lost. The future, thanks to Magister Origen, was bright and promising.

However, underneath the painted faces and the gruelling dance lessons, there was another much darker world to the one that Theodora had been so excited to embrace. It would only be a matter of time before the real reason why Magister Origen had been so supportive, so diligent in his care, came to light. For Theodora, this terrible truth would change the course of her life forever...

From the dark days of rebellion to the awakening and cleansing of the spirit in His High Holiness, the Patriarch, Pope Timothy the Third's private chamber. Far Away Bird by Douglas A. Burton is the unforgettable story about the early and very humble life of the most influential and powerful of the Eastern Roman empresses — Theodora.

Far Away Bird is astoundingly ambitious, for Theodora's life is surrounded by historical controversy. She was a nobody, a notorious prostitute — a woman without morals or shame who somehow stole the heart of a man who would one day become an Emperor (Justinian I). Burton has taken this controversy and with a keen novelist eye for human fragility has penned a story that is not only tautly gripping but one that is utterly irresistible and impossible to put down. This book is, in all ways, an absolute triumph.

We meet Theodora as a child whose life is turned upside down by the death of her pata. Through Theodora's eyes, we watch as her life spirals out of control. The men who she meets, the things that she sees, the life that she seems to have no choice but to embrace has been diligently narrated. At times this makes for difficult reading — things happen to Theodora that is despicable, and disgusting, and vile. She is used, abused, and her spirit is crushed. Theodora becomes what these men wanted her to be. But Burton is the ideal commentator for Theodora’s tale. He takes this woman and the events that so marred her life and has given us this wonderfully brave protagonist who somehow finds the strength to claw her way out of a world of drunkenness, brothels, and promiscuity. Burton shows his readers the kind of woman Theodora was destined to become.

Theodora struggles greatly in this book, not only physically, but mentally as well. By the time this chapter, of what promises to be a rather wonderful series, closes, Theodora is only in her early twenties. So much happens to her that sometimes I found myself forgetting just how young she was. Theodora is a woman in an era where there were no women's rights, which Burton clearly demonstrates in this book. Once a fallen woman, it seemed nigh on impossible to leave that life. This is a desperate story, but the impressive narrative kept me turning those pages.

Theodora is an incredible protagonist who wears many masks to get through yet another day. Above everything else, this book is about a woman finding her way back to who she really is.

Although the world that Theodora inhabits is a bleak one, there is one shining beacon of light. From the moment he saved her family in the Hippodrome, Theodora has been in love, although she does not recognise the feeling, with Justinian. In a world where corruption and politics walk hand in hand, and everything wants something for nothing, Justinian is a breath of fresh air. Their feelings, once recognised, cannot be denied. He loves as fiercely as she does, and I am looking forward to reading more about Justinian in the upcoming books.

We meet many historical figures as the story progresses, but for me, the most memorable after Theodora is His High Holiness, the Patriarch, Pope Timothy the Third. His portrayal was absolutely sublime. Pope Timothy is a secondary character and is part of Theodora’s journey only very briefly. However, how he reacts to Theodora demonstrates how even for those who have fallen into a life of immorality, there is always hope for a better future. 

Burton stays close to the historical events of this time — the politics as well as the people that grace the pages of this remarkable novel. I must commend the historical detailing in this book. Burton has brought, not only 6th Century Constantinople back to life but also the city of Alexandria. Burton has diligently explored the poverty, the deprivation, and the desperation of those whose life revolved around the brothels, theatre, and the hippodrome. Nothing is beyond the telling. Likewise, Burton gives his readers a real understanding of time and place, and he embraces all the senses to do this. The taste, the smell, the sights of Constantinople and Alexandria have been diligently weaved into this riveting tale. I lost track of time while I read this book, and also place. I was in Constantinople with Theodora. I could see it, taste it, smell it. I felt like I was witnessing the events rather than reading about them. Far Away Bird reads like a portal through time.

Far Away Bird is a monumental work of scholarship. Burton writes with tremendous grace and authority, but above else, he has an intuitive understanding of what makes history worth reading. I cannot wait to read book two of what promises to be a shamelessly compelling series.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.

*Pre-order your copy of
Fly Away Bird
*This title will be released on February 6, 2020.

Douglas A. Burton

Douglas Alan Burton is a speaker, author, and expert storyteller whose work depicts heroic figures and their deeper connection to the human experience. Doug blogs about heroes, heroines, and villains in pop culture with some unexpected and refreshing perspective. He grew up in what he describes as “the heroic boyhood culture of late Generation X” that has gone mainstream around the world. He also shares strategies with fellow writers for writing compelling heroic characters in fiction.

Douglas recently began outlining a breakthrough storytelling model that reveals a fascinating “heroine-centric” model for story structure he calls The Heroine’s Labyrinth. He believes a powerful new archetype is emerging for women in fiction. His forthcoming novel, Far Away Bird, which centers on the early life of Byzantine Empress Theodora, won the 2019 Manuscript Content for Historical Fiction from the Writers’ League of Texas.

Connect with Douglas: Website • Blog • Twitter.

#BookReview — A Necessary Killing (William Constable Spy Thriller Series, Book 2) by Paul Walker #HistoricalFiction #Thriller #Tudor

A Necessary Killing
 (William Constable Spy Thriller Series, Book 2)
By Paul Walker

William Constable - physician and unwilling spy - is in Plymouth waiting to sail to the New World. The expedition, led by renowned explorers and traders, John Hawkins and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, has already suffered birth pangs.
William's friend, Captain Charles Wicken, is accused of killing the son of a wealthy merchant, but the testimonies appear suspect. When William learns that Wicken is one of Walsingham’s agents he uncovers evidence to suggest the murder and Wicken’s naming are designed to conceal a plot of invasion - backed by Rome and Spain.
The sailing of the expedition's fleet is delayed while this threat is examined. William is despatched to St Malo, the lawless haunt of corsairs, to investigate. His betrothed, Helen Morton, together with the fleet, wait for his return.
Malign forces conspire to prevent William from carrying vital intelligence back to Plymouth.
William must evade enemy agents and unravel a tangle of duplicity if he is to survive - and prevent the invasion.

"Gentlemen, a plot, more devious and broader in scope than we suspected, has been uncovered..."

William Constable is a scholar of astrology and physics, he is not an adventurer, a sailor, or a soldier, but here he is in Plymouth, waiting to sail to the New World. It will be William's new instrument of navigation — The Shadow-Staff — that the fleet will be using. But since a storm ravaged the fleet during the passage from Sandwich, this grand adventure has been plagued with one delay after another. And the longer they remain in Plymouth, the more likely it is that the sailors will grow increasingly unruly due to idleness. However, there is an even darker threat than a crew of impatient and bored sailors.

William, unbeknown to most, is also a somewhat reluctant spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster and the principle Secretary to Queen Elizabeth I. But, William isn't the only one. His dear friend Captain Charles Wicken also works for Walsington and Wicken has uncovered a plot in which it seems that Spain and Papist Rome back an invasion of England.

William must discover if the plot has substance and, until he does, the grand adventure will have to wait.

From attempted murder to a daring escape, A Necessary Killing (William Constable Spy Thriller series Book 2) is the exciting new thriller by Historical Fiction author, Paul Walker.

Having been entirely captivated by Walker's debut novel, State of Treason, I was looking forward with eager anticipation to reading the second book, in what promised to be a fabulous series. A Necessary Killing was everything I had hoped it to be and then some.

As before with Book 1, William captured my attention from the very first sentence and Walker's compelling narrative seduced me and enticed me to keep turning those pages. The story is incredibly fast-paced with a whodunnit? mentality that made this book next to impossible to put down. This novel certainly has enough adrenaline to keep you up all night. A Necessary Killing does not threaten to mesmerise — it does.

In book 1, William is a somewhat reluctant spy for Spymaster Walsingham, and on the face of it, he isn't the obvious choice. William isn't a soldier, but perhaps that is what makes him so good at being a spy. He is out of his depth on more than one occasion, and yet, somehow, he gets results that others do not, and maybe that is down to his sincere personality — he is, for the most part, liked, and he is approachable. I think this makes him more useful to Walsingham than a hardened and competent soldier. 

By telling the story in the first person, Walker has made the characterisation of William all the more real in the telling. William is a man of learning, but he is also a very loyal friend, and he considers Wicken a friend — the man did, after all, save his life. William will go to any length, keeping within the parameters of the law, to return the favour. He is committed to seeing an acquittal and spends many hours trying to prove that Wicken did not kill a local man. However, sometimes, this almost blinkered determination to get the results he desires means that occasionally he misses the evidence that is right before his eyes. I thought these flaws in William's character made him all the more believable and extremely likeable. This is a hero that a reader can really get behind, and one whose journey is an absolute pleasure to read about.

Walker has penned not only an enthralling story that captures the history of the era but one that does not shy away from the darker side of Tudor life. Justice, if you can call it that, was harsh, often corrupt and lacking compassion. Through William's eyes, we experience this justice first hand when he takes it upon himself to try to help Wicken escape the hangman's noose. William is a learned man, but as he discovers, that is not always to an advantage when faced with a court full of angry men seeking justice. I thought Walker's depiction of what it was like to find yourself in front of a jury during this time was masterfully portrayed and penned with a sense of realism. Life was cheap, and Walker demonstrates this most admirably.

Which leads me on to Captain Charles Wicken's characterisation. Wicken helps to drive this story forward. He is, however, a man of two sides — there is the one that he shows William, and another much darker one. From the beginning, Walker drops subtle hints as to Wicken's true character, but as we experience this story through William's eyes, it is very easy to get caught up in the momentum of William's eagerness to see his friend walk free. I thought this was exceptionally well done.

Although William is a fictional character, we are introduced to some historical characters from this time. I thought Walker's portrayal of Admiral Sir John Hawkins was fabulous. Hawkins is a stickler for discipline and not the kind of man who William warms to, and it's certainly not one that I warmed to, but I think his depiction was very well crafted and believable — after all, you are not meant to like all of the characters! 

From ciphers to murders to plots thwarted, this book is a historical thriller reader's dream. I cannot get enough of this series or these characters. Walker is, without a doubt, a master at his craft. Historical Thrillers do not get better than this.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.

Pick up your copy of
A Necessary Killing

Paul Walker

Paul Walker inherited his love of British history and historical fiction from his mother who was an active member of the Richard III Society.
State of Treason is the first in a planned series of Elizabethan spy thrillers. The plot is based around real characters and events in London of the 1570’s. The hero, William Constable, is an astrologer and also a sceptic. He is also a mathematician, astronomer and inventor of a navigational aid for ships. The distinction between astrology and astronomy was blurred in the sixteenth century.
The second book in the series will be published in October 2019.
Paul is married and lives in a village 30 miles north of London. His writing is regularly disrupted by children and a growing number of grandchildren and dogs.
Connect with Paul: Twitter.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

#BookReview — The Raided Heart (Historic Hearts, #1) by Jennifer C. Wilson #HistoricalRomance #NewRelease

The Raided Heart
 (Historic Hearts, #1)
By Jennifer C. Wilson

Meg Mathers, the headstrong youngest sibling of a reiving family on the English-Scottish border, is determined to remain at her childhood home, caring for the land and village she’s grown up with. When an accident brings her a broken ankle and six weeks in the resentful company of ambitious and angry young reiver Will Hetherington, attraction starts to build. Both begin to realise they might have met their match, and the love of their lives, but 15th century border living is not that simple, as Meg soon finds herself betrothed to the weakling son of a tyrannical neighbour, Alexander Gray. When tragedy strikes, can Meg and Will find their way back to each other, and can Will finally take his own personal revenge on Gray?

The Raided Heart is the first of "The Historic Hearts", a collection of historical romantic adventures set in Scotland and the North of England.

“We can’t, Meg, we can’t...”

Meg Mathers knows — she knows that they can’t. But her heart seems to have no understanding of the word duty. Her heart belongs to Will Hetherington’s, and nothing can change that. Nothing.

However, these are dangerous times, and to survive Long Ridge must make alliances, and no one is as powerful as the tyrannical Alexander Grey of Cliffside. Everyone thinks they know what Grey is capable of, but it is better to have him as an ally than an enemy. But Will knows Grey more intimately than others, and he has vowed to one day have his revenge on the man who murdered his parents.

Although her heart is forever Will’s, Meg has no choice but to agree to a betrothal to Grey’s eldest son. Meg’s brothers demand it from her for they need the alliance. She must marry him. A broken heart is a small price to pay if it means that those who Meg cares about are safe. And perhaps it will not be that bad. Perhaps the story of Grey has been exaggerated, and it is not like Meg is marrying him. She is marrying his son.

Will fears for Meg, but there is nothing he can do. He cannot marry Meg himself, for he is nothing, a no-one. And yet, he cannot let her go to Cliffside alone, for Grey has a reputation for brutality. Will has to be there for Meg in case the worst happens. He will protect her, this he vows. 

From the relative safety of Long Ridge, Northumberland and a forbidden first love, to the danger of Cliffside and the tyrannical Alexander Grey, The Raided Heart (Historic Hearts, #1) by Jennifer C. Wilson is a story that threatens to mesmerise the reader and leave them gasping for more.

The Raided Heart is a wonderfully tender romance set within a backdrop of hostility and questionable allegiances. With the ever-present threat of danger, Wilson has penned a story that is not only tautly gripping but one that is impossible to resist, let alone put down. The narrative of this engrossing romance is fast-paced, and the non-stop action kept me not only engaged throughout, but eagerly turning the pages to find out what was going to happen next.

Meg is a strong heroine who, despite the constraint of her times and the lack of control over her own life, tries to make the best of it. She is incredibly brave but always willing to compromise. Meg is initially reluctant to start any kind of relationship with Will, knowing that they can never be together, but when her heart takes over, when she realises that this attraction between them cannot be denied, then she is Will’s — whether she is married to someone else or not, she will always be Will’s. I thought Meg's portrayal was perfect.

Will. Oh, Will. How I adored the hero of this story. It is all so terribly romantic, and Will is just fabulous. I was utterly captivated by Will. He is a marvellous example of what a historical romance hero should be. Will is a very capable man, who has had so much tragedy in his life and yet, his capacity to love is infinite. He adores Meg and knowing he cannot have her made his love somehow stronger. He risks so much for Meg, but he does so willingly. Will’s portrayal was undoubtedly the driving force in this story that kept me enthralled.

The historical detailing of this book has to be commended. I truly felt as if I were living in the borders of Scotland and England during the 15th Century. This was a brutal time, with the threat of war and starvation ever-present. I thought Wilson really captured the essences of the era. 

If you are looking for your next tender historical romance, then look no further than The Raided Heart (Historic Hearts, #1) by Jennifer C. Wilson. I, for one, cannot wait to read the second book in what promises to be a fantastic series.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.

Pick up your copy of
The Raided Heart

Jennifer C. Wilson

Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who developed an equal passion for history whilst stalking Mary, Queen of Scots of childhood holidays (she since moved on to Richard III). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consultant since graduating. 

Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to work on developing her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online. Her Kindred Spirits novels are published by Crooked Cat Books, alongside a self-published timeslip novella. 

She is also a co-founder and host of the award-winning North Tyneside Writers' Circle, and has hosted various events and workshops across the Tyneside area.

Connect with Jennifer: Website • Twitter • Goodreads • Amazon Author Page.

#BookReview — Serpents in the Garden (The Graham Saga #5) by Anna Belfrage #HistoricalFiction #TimeTravel

Serpents in the Garden
(The Graham Saga #5)
By Anna Belfrage

After years of hard work, Matthew and Alex Graham have created a thriving home in the Colony of Maryland. About time, in Alex’s opinion, after far too many adventures she is really looking forward to some well-deserved peace and quiet.

A futile hope, as it turns out. Things start to heat up when Jacob, the third Graham son, absconds from his apprenticeship to see the world – especially as Jacob leaves behind a girl whom he has wed in a most irregular fashion.

Then there’s the infected matter of the fellow time traveller Alex feels obliged to help – no matter the risk. Worst of all, one day Philip Burley and his brothers resurface after years of absence. As determined as ever to make Matthew pay for every perceived wrong – starting with the death of their youngest brother – the Burleys play out a complicated cat and mouse game, and Alex is thrown back into an existence where her heart is constantly in her mouth, convinced as she is that one day the Burleys will achieve their purpose.

Will the Burleys succeed? And if they do, will the Graham family survive the exacted price?

"I avenge my own. Best you don't forget that, aye?"

It had been years. So many years. So much resentment and hatred. Luke Graham should despise his brother's son, his nephew, but he did not. How could he? Jacob was a likeable young man, and he got on well with Luke's own son. Perhaps it was time to let bygones be bygones.

Philip Burley and his brothers, however, were determined to be avenged. Matthew Graham would die by their hands, for they had made a vow, and it was one that they intended to keep. Matthew was living on borrowed time, as was his wife, Alex. The Burley brothers would have their revenge in blood.

Matthew knew this day would come. They were always there, the Burleys', in the back of his mind. They had tried to kill him once. They would try again. It was just a question of when.

Alec Graham had thought all of her mother's paintings had been destroyed. There would be no more slipping through time, for anyone ever again. But then she hears a tale of a young man of colour, who claims he is a free man. Who claims to be equal to his white counterparts. Who claims to have fallen through time. Alex refuses to look the other way. She must help him, free him from the bonds of servitude. But at what cost to herself?

From a hastily muttered handfasting to a wedding built on a foundation of happiness and love, Serpents in the Garden (The Graham Saga #5) by Anna Belfrage is an undeniable historical time-travel triumph.

This series keeps getting better and better. Belfrage writes with such energy and such imagination that it is as if I have been swept up and transported back in time as quickly and as effortlessly as if I had fallen through one of Mercedes' magical paintings. I am beginning to wonder if The Graham Saga is indeed a time portal, for as soon as I began to read, time ceased to matter. I became fully invested in the lives of these characters and the era that it is set in. This is as close to time-travel as any reader could ever hope.

Having read this series from the beginning, it is like meeting up with old friends. Many years have passed by since Book 1, and the characters have aged. And with age comes maturity, ill-health for some, and for Matthew and Alex a mature, yet inspirational love. Their story is fresh, tantalisingly gripping, and one that I don't want to come to an end. But what I especially loved was how their children have grown up and found their own way, and are telling their own story. I cannot get enough of the Graham family. Belfrage is a storyteller that knows how to get her readers hooked and, more importantly, keep them hooked and begging for more.

Matthew and Alex are still the main characters in this novel, but there are several sub-plots with their grown-up children that bewitched me. Firstly, there is young Jacob — an adventure, a risk-taker. However, at the same time, he wants to make his parents proud — he wants to be someone. Jacob is an idealist, perhaps even a dreamer, and he can be incredibly innocent and naive as to the way the world works. But he has such a good heart and is always full of good intentions — even if sometimes those intentions rebounded. I thought Jacob was fabulous, and I enjoyed reading about him.

Another character who intrigued me in this book was Luke Graham. Luke has always been the antagonist in this story. He has done some wicked things to his brother, but there were moments in this book where I found myself almost liking him. Luke becomes this anti-hero. Belfrege lets us glimpse at this other side to his character — that character that Margaret so desperately loved. I am really glad Belfrage did this and gave Luke a platform in which to tell his side of the story. Don't get me wrong, he is still despicable, and he cannot negate his past, but he is not all bad either.

Ian, since he was introduced as this little boy who was unsure who his birth father was, has always been one of my favourite characters. Belfrage is not kind to him. He goes through Hell, not once but twice, and yet Ian still maintains this air of compassion. He is wronged dreadfully in this story, and yet he does not become bitter. Ian's capacity for love and his empathy towards others makes him one of those unforgettable characters. I truly hope Ian has an easier time in Book 6!

The Burley brothers are still in fine form — causing fear, anguish and suffering. How I detest them. They have no redeemable qualities at all. They are loathsome, and I genuinely feared where it was going to end. Belfrage is very good at penning contemptible villains.

The historical backdrop to this story is balanced incredibly well with the narrative. Belfrage seemingly writes effortlessly, but of course, to be able to do that means that Belfrage has certainly done her homework. The hours of research that Belfrage has devoted to this era has to be commended because Belfrage does not limit herself to one country — London, Scotland, The Colony of Maryland, and Virginia are all represented in this story. It is such a vast historical canvas, but Belfrage has not only pulled it off, but she has excelled at it. I take my hat off to you, Ms Belfrage, you are an exceptional writer and an outstanding historian.

This series is not losing any of its momenta. I adored every sentence, every word, every syllable of Serpents in the Garden (The Graham Saga #5). Historical time-travel does not get better than this.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.

Pick up your copy of
Serpents in the Garden

Anna Befrage

Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England.  She has recently released the first in a new series, The Wanderer. This time, she steps out of her normal historical context and A Torch in His Heart is with a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense with paranormal and time-slip ingredients.

Find out more about Anna by visiting her website, or herAmazon page.