Monday, September 26, 2016

Bookish Banter: The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick

I hate book clubs. I've tried quite a few, but I've yet to find one I really fit into and I find that incredibly frustrating as someone who loves talking about books. It's not something I generally think about, but after stumbling over another list of pre-written discussion questions, I found myself wondering why I shouldn't work through them on my own. I'm a book blogger aren't I?Putting my ideas out there is what I do!

For the record, Bookish Banter is not a regular post here at Flashlight Commentary. Not every book has questions and I don't have the time to sort titles that do to the top of my TBR, but as a semi-regular event I thought it'd be fun to post my two cents when the opportunity presents itself. 

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  Try to conceal your shock, but this post contains SPOILERS. Proceed at your own risk.

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Emma arrives in England as a shy thirteen-year-old girl, her marriage arranged to a man she has never met and who is much older than herself. She is obviously nervous but remembers her mother’s parting words: “No matter how ill, how frightened, or how angry you might be, child, censure your feelings. Smile. Hold your chin high, show only pride, nothing else. Fear and tears are to be kept private. You are to be crowned and anointed Queen of England. The wife and mother of Kings. Remember that”. Was this good advice from Emma’s mother? How does it help Emma to deal with her new husband?
I think that it solid advice for a woman who will be living her life on display, but I think it a hard message for a thirteen-year-old girl with no real understanding of her role and responsibilities. I think the advice worked in the long run, but it took years for the lesson to settle as I didn’t see it materialize in Emma’s actions until the conception of her first child. 

In Saxon times it was perfectly acceptable for a King to take a “handfast” wife, setting her aside for a different woman if it so pleased him. Any sons of such a union were called æthling—“king worthy”—and each had a chance of becoming the next King if elected by the Council. Emma had attempted to comprehend Æthelred’s previous marriages and England’s laws and customs, but in Normandy the eldest legitimate son inherited everything, and the younger ones receiving nothing. How does the difference in English and Norman ways affect Emma’s actions?
This is an interesting question as she treats it differently. She naturally wants her children to inherit before Æthelred’s older sons, but she sets her boys by Æthelred aside in favor of the boy she bore Cnut. Ultimately I don’t think Emma cares much for æthling status as it only applies when and how she wants it to. 

At her coronation Emma begins to realise what it means to become a Queen. For the first time in her life she is treated with respect—even her arrogant brother has to bow to her. Would you enjoy being in this position as a ruler? What would you see as the benefits or downfalls of being such a visible leader?
No, I’d detest living in the public eye. It is a necessary evil for those in power and there are obvious material benefits, but there are a million ways to interpret any action and I’d struggle with the idea that something as meaningless as who I sat next to for lunch could have political connotations. 

Emma is called Ælfgifu during the ceremony; later, she realises she is to be officially known by this other name and she objects. Everything else has been taken from her, and all she has is her pride and her name. What things do you hold dear that you would never let go of?
Interesting question and one I can't really answer. The things I take pride in are routinely attributed to others so it was easy to empathize with Emma, but I'd be hard pressed to identify something that hasn't been diminished by the insinuations and arrogance of others.

“…Emma smiled at Pallig, marveling at how a man could possibly be so superbly handsome”. Does Emma have a crush on Pallig? How does Pallig handle Emma’s growing affections for him?
Emma obviously has a crush on Pallig which is awkward considering the circumstances, but I appreciated how he tried to show her kindness regardless. His gentle guidance is endearing and I think it made him one of the strongest members of the novel’s cast. 

With Swein Forkbeard and the Danish Vikings expected to come raiding again, we see that Æthelred is not a competent King, and we begin to understand why his eldest son is always arguing with him. Emma thinks Æthelred may be a coward. Do you agree with her? Is some of the weakness of his rule caused by unreliable advisers? Who would make a better King?
Yes and no. Hollick chose to tell at least one scene from Æthelred’s point of view and that moment made it difficult to hate him outright. I’m not excusing his actions, there are moments when he is completely selfish and his actions are entirely inexcusable, but I found him difficult to pigeonhole after being privy to the inner workings of his mind. He's easily influenced and that speaks to certain weaknesses, but it also leaves him open to the influence of poor advisement. As to who would make a better king, I feel there were a handful of characters who were capable of making better decisions, but their individual interests concern me and I don't think they'd be able to put those interests aside to effective rule in Æthelred’s place.

Christianity was a relatively young religion in the early eleventh century, and many people, especially the Vikings, were still pagan. How much was either faith ruled by superstition? Later in the book, Archbishop Wulfstan orders specific days of prayers and fasting, believing the misfortune of England to be caused by God’s disapproval at the turn of the century. Is this superstition? How do some of these superstitions still manifest today? (Think how everyone thought the world was going to end at the year 2000.)
Likening faith to superstition is dangerous ground, but I think it’s important to understand that both are very real to those who subscribe to them which makes speculation on either a moot point.

Both swans and powerful women can be very dangerous. When Emma chases a swan away with a stick, is she being brave or foolish? When she later stands up to Lady Godegifa, is she being brave or foolish? Should Emma have challenged her sooner?
Taking on a wild animal when you’ve no skill is foolish, but I thought Emma standing up against Lady Godegifa was necessary. Emma needed to establish herself and allowing Lady Godegifa free reign would have lasting consequences Emma could not afford to incur.

How must Emma feel when Pallig is killed? Though the scene was imagined, the murders and destruction in Oxford were factual. Do you think people in the past felt as shocked and traumatised as we do today at acts of terrorism? Or were they more used to violence and death? 
I think death is universal and that we are each impacted by it in different way. I think people in the eleventh century would have been more used to such violent concepts, but I don’t they’d have been immune to the shock or trauma of witnessing that kind of carnage.

Just before the St. Brice’s Day Massacre at Oxford, young Godwine is helping Edmund find Athelstan. Godwine will become a respected Earl as an adult. Does his initiative with the tavern keeper demonstrate an astuteness for handling people and desperate situations? Where else does he show this? 
I was actually frustrated with this scene. I understand where Godwine ends up historically and I think this scene was written to compliment his legacy, but as a reader, I’d have much preferred witnessing the moments that shaped his character and honed his skills as opposed to simply seeing a younger version of a man who was apparently born ready for his role.

What sort of man was Athelstan? We see him in many different moods: he apparently despises Emma yet he takes care of her at Oxford, and he sees the amusing side of her outburst when he fetches her from the nunnery. In other circumstances do you think he could have been friends with Emma?
Athelstan was actually one of my favorite characters. In many ways he’s a walking contradiction and I think that has a lot to do with his personal identity. For much of his life his position as eldest son was unquestioned, but when he is set aside through no real fault of his own, he flounders. Emma is the easy target for his frustration, but I think he hates what she represents more than he does her person and I feel that they’d have gotten on much better if circumstances had been different.

During the time this story takes place, childbirth was extremely dangerous for women. Emma’s ordeal when giving birth to Edward was long and very difficult. Given the way Edward was conceived and the pain of his birth, can you blame Emma for not wanting anything to do with him? How was the situation different with her second pregnancy and the birth of her daughter? Do we have any modern superstitions connected with childbirth? 
I had mixed feelings here and the situation was made worse by Emma’s lack of attachment to her children. Edward is a hard case considering the circumstances of his conception, but Goda was not conceived in violence and Emma isn't shown to be a particularly hands on parent in her case either. In the end, I don't think Emma is much of a mother one way or the other and her failings have nothing to do with the circumstances under which her children were brought into the world.

As Emma matures, she gains courage and self-assurance. What were some of the particular turning points for Emma when she demonstrated her new maturity?  
This is a hard question as there are large gaps in the timeline of Emma’s life and much of her development occurs ‘off screen’. There were several moments where I felt her character had changed, but I had difficulty wrapping my head around them as they seemed to come out of nowhere.

There is a lot of treachery between the elders and Earls—Alfhelm is murdered by Eadric Streona, for example, and others die in unpleasant ways because of lies and political machinations. Rarely do modern-day politicians actually get murdered in our society, but have political attitudes and motivations really changed? Is there just as much squabbling and treachery in bidding for power nowadays? 
Two words: Taco Trucks.

Defending Winchester from Swein Forkbeard, who marches past with his army, a Dane and Emma exchange words. This is Cnut and Emma’s first sighting of each other. Although unrecognized, do you think this was love at first sight? How does this compare to other later scenes where they meet—as Emma enters the Danish camp just before the Archbishop is murdered, and when she boldly walks into Cnut’s tent and suggests he takes her as his wife?
I don’t think Emma is capable of love at first sight. Call me crazy, but I think her first marriage left her jaded and wary which makes instant attraction an outright impossibility. Her later actions support this theory as her suggestion is politically motivated.

Edward grows up a petulant boy. He resents his younger brother and his mother, and things do not change as he grows older and is exiled in Normandy. Could things have been different if Emma had not been so indifferent toward him? Would Edward have been happier if he had been allowed to take his vows as a monk? 
Hollick's Emma is not an attentive mother so speculation on her indifference toward Edward in particular is an irrelevant question. That said, I do feel that entering the monastery would have given Edward the structure, support, and purpose he craved.

Cnut was disturbed by the violent death of the old Archbishop, yet he resisted any interest in Christianity. He converted after the sudden death of his father. Do you think he would have become Christian if his father had not died, or would he have remained stubbornly pagan? Before he became King, Cnut was not a very nice person. What do you think was most influential in changing him: becoming Christian, becoming King, or having Emma as his wife? 
I don’t think Cnut’s faith was ever a wholly spiritual question. Conversion had political connotations and I think it'd be foolish to ignore the benefits of publicly claiming an alliance with the church.

Cnut took Ælgifu of Northampton as a handfast wife and she gave him two sons, but despite her status she was a jealous, spiteful woman. Should Cnut have handled her differently both before and after he married Emma?  
Let’s be honest, Cnut has a type and that type is 'difficult'. Ælgifu is a jealous harpy and Emma isn’t exactly a walk in the park. He made a hard bed in seeking to keep both and he deserved the headaches incurred by lying in it.

With Edmund dead and England about to fall to Cnut and the Danes, Emma had a choice of fleeing into exile or staying to make a bargain with Cnut. By this time, she was proud of her position as Queen, and she regarded England as her realm. Did she do the right thing to abandon her sons—who would have been killed had they stayed in England—or should she have gone with them and forgotten England and her crown? What should be more important to a ruler—the realm and its people, or family? 
Hollick's Emma does not actively rule her people so I justified her staying as a matter of pride above duty. I also understood flight to Normandy to be a surrender of her individual freedom so it'd be lunacy to say that remaining in England was not personally beneficial to her. When push comes to shove, this was not a sacrificial or selfless decision. Going with her children would have been both, but staying in England to retain her freedom while sending her children to fend for themselves under the rule of a brother she doesn't trust is not about the realm, its people, or her family.

As a woman, and as wife to Cnut and the mother of one of his sons, Emma has become a very strong and powerful woman. It took courage to climb the cliffs at Green Man Bay holding a baby in her teeth for part of the way. Did you admire her for this act? The author based this scene on an actual event when her own grandmother climbed the cliffs with her father when he was a baby. Does the fact that this scene is based on a true story make it more dramatic to you as a reader? 
I don’t mean to be insensitive, I think it’s a really cool story, but I didn’t think this scene fit the book. It showed a lot of character, but the character in question didn’t feel authentic to Hollick's interpretation of Emma. It felt out of place and I thought that odd until discovering it was based on the author's grandmother. The disparity suddenly made sense and while I admire the sentiment I can’t help feeling the scene was forced into the narrative for personal reason reasons and not substantiated by character or plot development.

The boy Harthacnut is somewhat spoilt by Emma. Why does she dote on him so much?  
Somewhat is a bit of an understatement. Harthacnut is spoilt, plain and simple. Emma dotes on the idea of him and allows the boy free reign, but there are so few scenes of her actually interacting with him that it’s hard to believe she has genuine affection for him. Like most things, I got the impression that Emma attached herself to the child because he solidified her position as queen. Cnut is her current card and Harthacnut is her next play and she'll support both until a better offer comes along.

Do you think Harthacnut deliberately meant for Ragnhilda to drown? Does he ever regret her death? 
I don’t think Harthacnut meant Ragnhilda to drown, but I don’t think he ever truly regrets the event as he wasn't attached to his half-sister and doesn't feel he was in any way at fault in her passing.

Much later, Harthacnut proves to be of little use to Emma because he remains in Denmark too long. Was this really Cnut’s fault? Should he have left the boy in England, not taken him to Denmark? Why do you think Cnut did this? And why did Harthacnut not want to return to England?
I think removing Harthacnut from Emma was a good thing. The boy seems to benefit from the separation and learn something of the world as a result. The move left him indifferent toward England and had obvious political consequences, but I don’t think he’d have fared well if he’d been allowed to remain under his mother's thumb.

The story of Cnut holding the tide back is a famous legend. Have you heard it before? Do you think the version presented in the book is more likely to have been what happened? Do you suspect that there are mundane explanations for many of the legends in history? 
Believe it or not, I had not heard the story before, but I do believe that most legends are exaggerated. Lady Godiva is a great example and it’s easy to imagine how small embellishments here and there grow over time.

After Cnut dies so unexpectedly, England is in chaos. In desperation, Emma turns to her eldest son, Edward. Was she wise to do this? Would Edward have made an effective king at this time? Earl Godwine is dismayed at her actions; do you think he intended to get Alfred out of England as quickly as possible, or would he have just handed him over to Harold Harefoot to secure his own position?
I thought Emma turning to Edward hilarious. What reason had he to answer her call and if he did, what reason had she to suppose he’d offer her loyalty? As to Godwine, I felt his true loyalty was to himself and whoever could offer him security and influence. As such I’m of the belief that he’d have handed Alfred to Harold.

Tragically, everything collapses around Emma at the end of the novel. She has had to fight for survival almost her entire life. Do you admire her, or do you think she should have done some things differently? What things and why?
Forgive me for saying so, but I did not admire Emma. I’ve read other interpretations where I appreciated more of her character, but Hollick's characterization struck me as selfish and fractured. She had moments, but I didn’t understand where they came from and thought she should have done quite a few things differently. In particular, I wish she’d have taken more interest both her children and stepchildren. Can you imagine what sort of influence she’d have held if she’d managed to ingratiate herself to Athelstan? Could the power struggle have been averted if she’d made it a priority to smooth ruffled feathers? She had two daughters, what sort of influence might she have had if she’d invested herself in their upbringing? What would have happened if she’d convinced Cnut to foster her elder sons and allow them the enter the church? Would it have been possible for her to undermine Ælgifu if she convinced Cnut to allow her to foster the boys at court? Pardon the assumption, but I think there was a lot of untapped potential here and I think Emma shortsighted in not taking advantage of it.

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Have you read this book? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you have an opinion you'd like to share? Please leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Cover Crush: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

We all know we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in today's increasingly competitive market, a memorable jacket can make or break sales.

I am not a professional, but I am a consumer and much as I loath admitting it, jacket design is one of the first things I notice when browsing the shelves at Goodreads and Amazon. My love of cover art is what inspired Cover Crush, a weekly post dedicated to those prints that have captured my attention and/or piqued my interest. Enjoy!

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A cover doesn't have to be complicated to be eye-catching. There's a lot to be said for simplicity and Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn is a great example as to why. The jacket has a clean and classic design and I appreciate how subtly of the solitary design element mimics the title of the piece. 

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Did this week's cover catch your eye? Do you have an opinion you'd like to share? Please leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!

INTERESTED IN SEEING MORE?
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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Character Conversations: Hugh Despenser, from the King’s Greatest Enemy series by Anna Belfrage

Tewkesbury Abbey was quiet and I was grateful. I knew people could see me when I traveled through time to conduct interviews, but I wasn't sure how it all worked when my interviewees stepped through time to talk to me and I wasn't prepared to test the waters with someone as controversial as Hugh Despenser. 

The fact of the matter was that the request itself had caught me off guard, but on learning of the discussions I host here at Flashlight Commentary, Hugh simply wouldn't be denied the opportunity and hounded Anna into setting up an interview. Thinking back on it, I half wonder what would have happened if we'd refused to arrange the meeting. I'm not sure it'd have gotten violent, but Hugh is quite intimidating and I'm not convinced a polite declination would have been accepted.

I'd arrived early to take in the grounds before the interview. The Abbey's vaulted ceilings and stained glass fascinated me, but so did many of dead and I took my time looking over the tombs that lined the ambulatory. I was on the south end, considering a fairly modest installment when I sense someone approach and take position just behind my left shoulder. I turned quickly and found myself face to face with Hugh, a smug grin of amusement on his lips as he held out his hand gestured me to the door. 

He made a quip about being interviewed over his dead body, but intimated he'd be more comfortable outside in the fresh air. I agreed and we head out to settle ourselves under a tree near the churchyard. 

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You and your wife were great patrons of this monastery. What inspired your generosity?
Truth be told, it was more Eleanor’s thing than mine. Her family has roots the size of upside-down oak trees here, and what with the de Clare line going extinct on the male side with the SO unfortunate death of Gilbert at Bannockburn, someone had to take up the mantle. Quid pro quo, if you will: I got the lion’s share of dear, dead, Gilbert’s lands – well, officially Eleanor did – and so I graciously passed some of all this wealth on to the good monks of Tewkesbury. Besides, men like me need all the help they can get to ensure a comfortable afterlife – assuming one exists. There are days when I am struck by the blasphemous thought that maybe this life is all that we get, and if so, one must really suck the marrow out of it, right?

How do you feel seeing it today?
The abbey? Dull thing these days, isn’t it? In my time, it was an explosion of colour and gold, now it is all unadorned stone. And then, of course, there’s the infected matter regarding my tomb. THEY’VE MOVED ME!!! (If we’re going to be correct, they’ve moved the parts that Eleanor managed to recover, which wasn’t all that much – not enough to get by on once Resurrection Day dawns) Instead, my alcove now contains the tomb of some fat abbot or other. Huh! Ah well: in difference to that accursed Mortimer there are some reminders of my existence – my dear wife donated a window on my behalf – and even if I am no longer where I rightfully should be, I remain close by. Mortimer, the bastard, lies buried God knows where. Serve him right…

Getting into you background, I’m curious, how did you distinguish yourself at court and rise to the position of royal chamberlain?
The same way anyone who wants to rise at court does: be adequately capable and do a lot of flattering – or maybe brown-nosing is the correct term. In my case, it helped that Edward always had a special fondness for his niece, my Eleanor. I was sort of part of the family, and when things get sticky, who do you turn to but to those closest to you? It also helped that Edward found me entertaining and refreshingly unburdened by chivalric codes and all that idiotic stuff. What the top dog wants, the top dog should get, I have always said, and Edward was more than happy to agree with that.

Your marriage obviously helped your rise. How do you feel about Eleanor and how would you describe your relationship?
Ah. Some people insinuate my dearest liege has indulged in bedsport with my Eleanor. Had he done so, I’d have been obliged to murder him – my wife welcomes no one but me to her bed. She is beautiful, my wife, and shrewd and loyal. We may not indulge in all that mushy stuff that goes for courtly love, but we are partners, determined to build a future for our children – even if it comes at the expense of others.  

Your wife has given you several children. What future do you see for them?
“What future do I see for them…” I know, don’t I? *sags* Three of my little girls, forced to take the veil, my eldest son, fighting on so bravely before finally surrendering in exchange for his life… Isabel, that apple of my eye, so cruelly divorced by her husband, and my baby Elizabeth, married off to one of Mortimer’s grandchildren. Ugh! But despite all this, the Despensers survived, didn’t they? Oh yes, they most certainly did! 

Getting back to your role at court, what are your roles and responsibilities? 
Anything the king doesn’t want to handle, I handle for him. Nice and simple, don’t you think? 

What is the nature of your relationship with Edward II? 
He’s my king, my uncle by marriage. He is also a man whose company I truly appreciate – we have the same sort of wit, I believe, and both of us enjoy some heated word sparring. He’s quite the hunk, my king, tall and handsome, strong and forceful. I make him laugh. I support him against those pesky barons of his – and especially that odious Thomas of Lancaster, a man so full of himself it’s a miracle he could ever tear his eyes away from his own reflection. It is my job to make sure my king is not bothered by the minutiae of ruling a kingdom – he is easily bored. It is my privilege to control access to his ear, thereby ensuring anyone who wishes to raise something with the king must come to me first – even, of late, the queen herself. *chuckles* She doesn’t like that, I can tell you: Isabella, daughter of France, ousted by me, Hugh Despenser.

Modern historians speculate that you two shared a bed. Do you care to comment on the rumors? 
Of course we share a bed. Don’t men in your day and age do that when travelling? When desiring to converse without any potential eavesdroppers? Do we do other things in bed than talk? Well, my dear, that is none of your business. But let’s just say my liege is hot – seriously hot. All that outdoor activity he is so fond of leaves him with a physique to die for, and I’m none too bad either, even if I say so myself. Maybe a tad too hirsute, but Edward always says he likes it. 

What of his queen? What are your thoughts and opinions of Isabella?
Isabella is the pampered only daughter of a king who showed little affection for anyone else than her. Pretty, I’ll give her that, and fully aware of how men drool in her presence. Not all men – her husband rarely falls for her wiles, preferring the company of other men to hers. I dare say it irks her, that she cannot entice him to follow her, no matter how much she batts those long dark eyelashes of hers.  Other than her looks, she is also gifted with cunning and an impressive intellect for a woman, and she is therefore a potentially dangerous influence on our king, which is why I do my utmost to drive a permanent wedge between them. Must say I’ve done a great job there. Maybe too great…

Who would consider your Lord’s greatest enemies? 
Lancaster. Well, he was, until he was executed back in 1322. Mortimer, may his name be cursed. Isabella, her damned brother Charles IV of France, and that ambitious Flemish bastard, Guillaume de Hainault.   

What are your feelings on men like Roger Mortimer and Adam de Guirande?
Adam? *laughs out loud* The man is a pain in the nether parts, and handsome enough to have me considering using certain parts of his anatomy for my pleasure, but ultimately, he’s of little consequence, minor knight that he is.  Mortimer, on the other hand, is a snake – and a dangerous one. I pleaded and begged my liege to execute him back in 1322, but Edward, fool that he sometimes is, chose to be lenient. Lenient! *spits* Look where that has got us, eh? That accursed rat of a man escaped the Tower and now sits in France, like a huge cat ready to pounce on its mouse. And we are the mice…

Were it your decision, how would you deal with these men? 
They’d have been dead since years back – both of them. Preferably after long, extended executions. I’d have liked to see Mortimer maintain that stiff upper lip of his as his entrails were drawn out of his body.

What is the worst thing you’ve had to do in Edward’s service?
Not kill Mortimer when I had the chance. What? Oh, you meant from a moral perspective. *drums his fingers on the armrest of his elaborately carved chair* You know, I can’t think of anything. Besides, Edward rarely asks me to do something I’m not happy to do, if you know what I mean.  

You had Llewelyn Bren hung, drawn and quartered without a trial. Did you feel this justified?
Yes. The man had looted Caerphilly and besieged my castle there. What do I care that the king chose to commute his death sentence to imprisonment? He deserved to die – and men with so much informal power as he had, are best dealt with by relieving them of their lives. 

You’ve robbed widows of their lands. Why?  
If not me, someone else. What do you think this is? Some sort of picnic? This is England, early 14th century, and everyone who can is out to grow their wealth. Widows and orphans make good victims – all they can do is bleat while they’re being fleeced. And as rich widows are not thick on the ground, one must be quick – or in a position of power – to grab the juicier morsels. I happen to be both quick and powerful. 

What does Eleanor think about you robbing her sisters of their share in the de Clare inheritance? 
*Smiles* As I said, we’re partners. And Eleanor is the eldest and has far more children than any of her sisters – I suppose one could argue we need the land much more than they do…

Are you haunted by any of your actions?
No. Wait: yes, I am. I will never forgive myself for convincing my beloved liege to send his son to France to do homage for Gascony. I did it to save my own arse, because had King Edward left me to rule on his behalf while he swanned off to France to pledge his allegiance to Charles, I can tell you I’d have been dead within days – beaten to death by a mob, likely. I know, unbelievable, isn’t it? Imagine anyone wanting me, the king’s favourite, dead! Anyway: the long and the short of it is that Edward sent his son instead. In retrospect, that was like handing Isabella a…a…would a WMD be a correct comparison? The prince legitimizes any venture Isabella and Mortimer may decide on, and that is my fault. Damn! 

What do you see for yourself as far as your legacy is concerned? How do you think history will remember you?
*gives a sour look* I’ve been voted the vilest man in English history, haven’t I? Huh: just goes to prove that old adage that history is written by the winners. A more balanced view would be to recognize that Mortimer and I aren’t all that different – ambitious, greedy and hungry for power the both of us. Having said that, I’d rather be hanged, drawn and quartered than be compared to that bastard! *Takes a deep breath and clears his throat” I wasn’t all bad, you know. I loved my king – and not only because he so generously feathered my nest. I loved my wife and children. I respected my father – he taught me everything I needed to know about being cunning and grasping. Circumstances made me into what I am – is that my fault? And seriously, had Mortimer died back in 1322, who do you think history would have remembered in glowing terms? Me, Ms Davies. Me, the most powerful man in England, the father of a dynasty of future royal chancellors. Damn the wheel of fate for being such a fickle thing! Damn Mortimer for ever having been born, damn Isabella for being such a prize bitch. *slams his hand down on the table, and in doing so, his apparition begins to disintegrate and fade. All that he leaves behind is a faint fragrance – of lilies-in-the-valley and sulfur. 

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Date of Birth: Birthday? Hugh scrunches up his brow and says he’s of an age with Mortimer, some years younger than his king – born in 1287 in the merry month of May, as per his mother, and she would know, wouldn’t she? 

Physical Appearance: Dark hair, dark eyes, middling height, excellent taste in clothes. Beautiful hands, if he may say so himself. Light on his feet, good teeth and a rather full lower lip. Has a tendency to overdo the jewelry, what with rings and gold collars, precious stones in his cloaks, ornate brooches decorating his mantle. 

Education and Job Skills: Education is really same old, same old: first a page, then a squire and then, finally, a knight. Skills include number-crunching, piracy, a flair for administration, for making people open up and share their secrets (and yes, at times some mild coercion might be required, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do). A soothing companion for a restless king, Hugh can also, when required, hum a song or two – him being David to King Edward’s Saul.

Family: Wife and kids. Father. Two sisters and a half-sister, married to Thomas of Lancaster’s brother, no less. 

Allies: Edward II, Walter Stapledon, his wife, his father and all those who remain loyal to Edward II. Hugh would like to point out that he isn’t the traitor here – Mortimer is. And as to that false wife of a queen – in Hugh’s opinion, Isabella should have been spanked more often, tamed, if you will. 

Enemies: Queen Isabella, Mortimer, those idiotic bishops who somehow see a better person in Mortimer than in Hugh, such as Orleton and Burghersh, bishops of Hereford and Lincoln respectively. Plus, as time passes, for some inexplicable reason (as per Hugh) most of the English barons develop a dislike for him. 

Hobbies: Embroidering – but Hugh will kill you if you tell someone that. He also enjoys hawking and hunting rabbits with ferrets. It’s so much fun to release a ferret into a warren and watch the rabbits get caught in the nets as they attempt to escape. A bit like flushing rebellious barons, Hugh says – and almost as satisfying. 

Most Cherished Possession: Ah. A rather fine set of matching golden goblets. No one in the entire kingdom has one as gorgeous – not even his dear lord and king.

Strengths: Determined, self-motivated. Never takes his eyes off the final goal. 

Weaknesses: A tad too self-centred? Plus a covetous streak a mile wide. 

Fictional Appearances: Hugh is a main player in the series the King’s Greatest Enemy. 


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Anna was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result she's multilingual and most of her reading is historical- both non-fiction and fiction. Possessed of a lively imagination, she has drawers full of potential stories, all of them set in the past. She was always going to be a writer - or a historian, preferably both. Ideally, Anna aspired to becoming a pioneer time traveller, but science has as yet not advanced to the point of making that possible. Instead she ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for her most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career Anna raised her four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive…

For years she combined a challenging career with four children and the odd snatched moment of writing. Nowadays Anna spends most of her spare time at her writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and she slips away into her imaginary world, with her imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in her life pops his head in to ensure she's still there.

Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads ❧  Blog


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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Cover Crush: Under the Jewelled Sky by Alison McQueen

We all know we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in today's increasingly competitive market, a memorable jacket can make or break sales.

I am not a professional, but I am a consumer and much as I loath admitting it, jacket design is one of the first things I notice when browsing the shelves at Goodreads and Amazon. My love of cover art is what inspired Cover Crush, a weekly post dedicated to those prints that have captured my attention and/or piqued my interest. Enjoy!

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I know nothing about Under the Jewelled Sky by Alison McQueen, but I love the cover. It's got a clean look to it and I really like how the teal plays against the yellow tones at the bottom of the page. It's straight up pretty and I like how the designer didn't feel obligated to complicate the image or throw in a cliched headless woman. 

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Did this week's cover catch your eye? Do you have an opinion you'd like to share? Please leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!

INTERESTED IN SEEING MORE?
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At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 2, 2016

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

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I enjoyed Riding Lessons and Water for Elephants well enough, but Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge simply didn’t suit. I found the characters ridiculous and I wasn’t impressed with the situational drama she created. I personally think the book was over-hyped and while I appreciated the end-all, I was annoyed that the story followed the same formula as Gruen earlier work.

The roles aren’t exact, but it’s hard not to notice that the Loch Ness Monster serves the same purpose Rosie did in Water for Elephants. Ellis and August could wear the same shoes, as could Angus and Jacob. Maddie and Marlena could share a wardrobe, but if I’m honest I much preferred the latter leading lady. This recycling bothered me and left me questioning if Gruen was out of original ideas or if she’d been pressured to replicate her past success by the powers that be. You don’t even need to read the book to see what I’m talking about, it’s all there on the jacket. The muted tones, the stylized fonts, the angled texts… I can’t say for certain, but I’m disappointed to admit I spent more time pondering these similarities than I did the actual narrative.

Maddie, Ellis, and Hank annoyed me to no end. I found their world view obnoxious and couldn’t relate to them at all. I believe the trio were written this way intentionally as Maddie’s transformation is at the heart of the story, but I thought it a poor structural choice as it made her character impossible like and/or appreciate early on. I tossed the book aside in frustration on more than one occasion and honestly considered abandoning it outright, but I’ve a deep-seated love of my ancestral homeland as well as WWII and couldn’t give up without seeing how the Gruen utilized both time and place.

The Scottish cast and their culture were easily my favorite part of the book, but the conflict that had drawn me to story played virtually no importance. It makes enough of a splash to be recognized for what it is, but I think the story would have been stronger if it’d been set after the war ended. Maddie’s journey to Scotland would have been more plausible and Gruen would have been able to manage the rest with only slight adjustment.

In the end I didn’t see much value in the story and was truly disappointed by the rehashing. Not for me and not something I see myself recommending down the road.

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“The monster—if there was one—never revealed itself to me again. But what I had learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually in plain sight.”
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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cover Cliché: Velvet Exclamations

Sometimes, while browsing the virtual shelves on Amazon and Goodreads, I see an image that gives me an oddly disconcerting sense of deja vu. I could swear I've never read the book, but I know I've seen the jacket image somewhere before.

This phenomenon is what inspired Cover Clichés. Images are often recycled because cover artists are often forced to work from a limited pool of stock images and copyright free material. That said, I find comparing their finished designs quite interesting.  

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New Orleans, 1902. A killer walks the streets of New Orleans, eviscerating men and leaving them in the streets, and for madam Trula Boudreaux, it's bad for business. Trula needs help but she's not prepared for Zeke Barnes, the charming would-be savior who darkens her doorway-or the yearning he awakens. For while Trula knows well the delights of lust, she avoids love at all costs... Investigating the killer was one thing, but Zeke can't help but be enchanted by the gorgeous mystery woman who runs an exclusive brothel. Caught between his duty to protect the city and his clear-as-day desire for Trula, Zeke sets about capturing Trula's heart-or at least a place in her bed. But with every moment Trula resists, Zeke falls into greater danger. For his investigation into the haunted city and madam doesn't just risk his heart but both their lives.

Bayou Moon was previously released as A Haunting Desire in July 2015.




Cameron MacGreagor’s wife, Flora, passed peacefully in her sleep, taking their unborn child with her. Consumed with grief, he didn’t think he would ever recover, but a child in need of a family changed all that. There was only one problem; she was the daughter of the last person the MacGreagors ever wanted to see again.

Jedediah Tanner became a thief at the early age of twelve. By the time he was twenty-six, he decided to give up his life of crime, find an honest wife and settle down. Little did he know, the remarkably beautiful woman he would fall madly in love with had a few priors of her own.




England 1651

England has been engaged in a bitter Civil War for nearly ten years. Ralph Chaplin, a farmer’s son, has fallen for beautiful copper-haired Kate. There is only one problem – he is a Roundhead soldier and she is a Royalist lady.

Tired of bloodshed, Ralph volunteers to fight, sensing that the Battle at Worcester will be a chance to finish the fighting for good. He longs for peace, so he can forge a secure future and find a different, more equal way of life for himself and Kate.

But War is not what he imagined, and soon he has made a deadly enemy; one who will pursue Ralph and those he loves, and wreak vengeance. What’s more, Ralph finds he has as many enemies at home, as on the battlefield.

Told by Ralph’s ghost, Spirit of the Highway is the stand-alone second part of the Highway Trilogy based on the real life and legend of Lady Katherine Fanshawe, Highwaywoman.


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Which cover strikes your fancy and why? What colors draw your eye? Do you think the image appropriate next to the jacket description? Leave your comments below!

Have you seen this image elsewhere? Shoot me an email or leave a comment and let me know. 


Monday, September 5, 2016

1066 Turned Upside Down by Joanna Courtney, Helen Hollick, Annie Whitehead, Anna Belfrage, Alison Morton, Carol McGrath, Eliza Redgold, G.K. Holloway & Richard Dee

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 5, 2016

Ever wondered what might have happened if William the Conqueror had been beaten at Hastings? Or if Harald Hardrada had won at Stamford Bridge? Or if Edward the Confessor had died with an heir ready to take his place? Then here is the perfect set of stories for you. ‘1066 Turned Upside Down’ explores a variety of ways in which the momentous year of 1066 could have played out differently. Written by nine well-known authors to celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the stories will take you on a journey through the wonderful ‘what ifs’ of England’s most famous year in history.

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Harold's death as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
It’s unusual for me to spend a month reading a book, but that’s how long I spent working my way through 1066 Turned Upside Down. I’d looked forward to the book, I’d even pre-ordered a copy ahead of the release, but I have to admit that the reality of the volume left me with mixed feelings.

To be fair, most of the month I spent with 1066 Turned Upside Down was dedicated to not reading it. I devoured the first story the day the book arrived on my kindle, but my mind swam when I realized the second submission was wholly unrelated to the chapter that preceded it. The second author utilized an entirely different twist and the strain of keeping everything straight quickly threatened to overwhelm my imagination. Was Harold King in this version? Was he alive? Was he dead? Did the Vikings invade? There was simply no way I could keep the actual history and twelve alternate realities straight so I resolved to tackle the book a chapter at time and consider each submission as a standalone piece which accounts for the long gaps in my completion of the volume.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this approach actually worked well as it complimented the structure of the book. Each chapter starts in a specific month and opens with a brief description of historical events. This factual refresher is followed by an intro to the story, the alternative fiction, an author’s note, and a set of discussion questions. Most reviewers have omitted any comment on this, but I personally felt the format made it difficult to enjoy the stories back to back as each author bounced between fiction and non before asking me to pause and critically consider their work. The breaks seemed natural to me and I had no trouble losing myself in other books between chapters.

That said, the actual fiction had it's own set of challenges and while I’ve no trouble recommending the volume to other readers, I don’t hesitate to caution that I found the stories unequally balanced. I've very genuine appreciation for much of the material, but I was disappointed that so few ventured into wholly original content. Playing it safe by revisiting familiar ideas and characters was their choice, but as a reader I was disappointed that so many failed to capitalize on the creative opportunity this project afforded. I might have felt differently if the authors had limited themselves to subtly nodding at their independent titles or used an existing supporting character to explore new themes and ideas, but as it stand I feel there was too much repetition within these pages and found myself distracted by the creative decisions behind several chapters.

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To Crown a King & In the Wake of the Dolphin by Helen Hollick
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Helen Hollick is an author I’ve wanted to read for some time, but 1066 Turned Upside Down marks my first experience with her work. She’s one of two authors to have contributed two stories to the anthology and I while I quite enjoyed both for their content and prose, I was curious at her decision to submit adapted content from Harold the King/I Am the Chosen King. I enjoyed her take on Edgar and William and will be seeking out her work again in the future, but her submissions definitely left me wondering what she'd have done with a blank slate.

Uncle Edward was not the stuff of being a kind when he returned from exile in Normandy. My father, when Harold, here, escorted him - us - home to England would not have made a suitable king either, yet, had he still lived, would we be having this discussion? He would have been king by right of birth. I am his son. I am the last in the blood-line of Cerdic of Wessex, why then, should I not be your king?

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A Matter of Trust by Annie Whitehead
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Annie Whitehead is another author I’d never read, but she put herself on my radar with her take on Edwin and Morcar. I found an added bonus in a light moment of humor involved an aged Godiva and I appreciated how complete her submission felt despite its modest length. There was obviously room to take it further, but I liked how she developed her twist and didn’t leave her readers with a simple ‘what if’ scenario. Her character felt developed and distinct and one could easily imagine what might have been once the story ended. So far as I can tell, her submission was not based on her prior work and I thought the risk spoke well of her range and imagination.

This has naught to do with kingship, or loyalty. The bastard is on our lands, and he need to be shoved off them.

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Emperor of the North & Hold England Firm by Joanna Courtney
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Joanna Courtney was new to me, but I was so impressed with her prose that I ordered a copy of The Chosen Queen on completing Emperor of the North. This fact wouldn’t mean much under other circumstances, but in looking at her work I realized that her stories tend to feature female protagonists. I found that very interesting as it was her male leads that captivated me in 1066 and, contrary to some close-minded individuals might preach, female readers have no trouble appreciating well-written male protagonists. Courtney’s world-building is also worth mentioning and I was quite impressed by the ‘what ifs’ she speculated over.

We were wild enough to earn for battle and arrogant enough to believe we could seize England, the jewel in Europe's crown - a land so sure of itself that all man longed to hold it.

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The Dragon-Tailed Star by Carol McGrath
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Carol McGrath incorporated a lot of personal detail into her story of Thea. I liked the portrait her submission drew of Harold’s domestic life and complex personal affairs and I thought the detailing of Halley’s Comet fun, but here again I found myself at a loss. I enjoyed McGrath's prose, but like Hollick, McGrath seemed to be revisiting her own work and I was caught up in questioning why she didn’t venture out of her comfort zone and tackle people and concepts she hadn’t played with before. I've not read the Daughters of Hastings series, but the themes of The Dragon-Tailed Star appear to emulate the ideas on her standalone titles and I was distracted by the similarity.

She shuddered and hurriedly crossed herself. Surely better for Uncle Edward that he was a star in the night sky, than facing the terrors that lay between Heaven and Hell?

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If You Changed One Thing by Richard Dee
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Richard Dee was another new author for me, but his submission stood out for a couple of reasons. Unlike his fellows, Dee put a bit of a sci-fi twist on 1066 and wrote a story that is set largely in the modern world. It was a dramatic shift and it threw me at first, but looking back I think the submission one of the strongest pieces in the anthology. I thought it was fun, I thought it was creative, and I liked how it allowed the reader a unique vantage point and perspective.

He looked at me and said nothing, but his eyes were full of tears. He was shaking his head as if the weight of the world was on him. I didn't understand why, perhaps he would tell me later. After all: I still had to hear how he had escaped without changing history.

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A Roman Intervenes by Alison Morton
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Alison Morton is one of the four authors I was familiar with on picking up 1066 and while I quite enjoyed seeing the Roma Novans once again, my enthusiasm was tempered by having considered so much of the thematic material on my own. Morton’s Roma Nova series centers on the world where Roman Culture never died and as before, I recognized a certain degree of repetition in her submission. The story was new and I liked it for what it was, but conceptually the material felt safe.

'Sometimes we must do dreadful act to prevent greater disasters, but at least history will record that the Galilean year of 1066 was not the one in which Northman William invaded Saxon England.

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The Danish Crutch by Anna Belfrage
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Anna Belfrage made a name for herself with time slip fiction and is currently working on a series set against the Despenser War which made her submission for 1066 interesting as it was not a time she’d written about before. Her submission features a strong female heroine and I liked how the story was driven by action and theme without incorporation of a heavy romantic relationship. I’ve never had an issue with Belfrage’s presentation of love and affection, but I expected to see a couple headlining this story and was pleasantly surprised to see Belfrage challenge herself by placing emphasis elsewhere.

She clutched at the amulet round her neck depicting Thor's hammer while mumbling a few lines of the Pater Noster - she did that a lot, hedging her bets by invoking both the gods of old and the new god - and begged them to spare her from ever becoming this man's wife.

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The Battle of London Bridge by G.K. Holloway
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The Battle of London Bridge marks my second encounter with author G.K. Holloway. I read 1066: What Fates Impose back in 2014 and remember being impressed with Holloway's command of the political landscape. The Battle of London Bridge plays on that same strength, but in the opposite direction and causes the reader to really question the long term implications of a failed Norman invasion. All the stories made me think, but I really liked how this one paired the alternative reality with the strength England's roots.

The English are celebrating their victory against this foreign foe. Now they think, with relief, that they have a leader in whom they can have faith.

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The Needle Can Mend by Eliza Redgold
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Last, but not least is Eliza Redgold's The Needle Can Mend. The story explores the origins of the Bayeux Tapestry and stands as my favorite in terms of subject matter. I've a deep appreciation for the relic and grinned when I realized it made it into 1066, but here again I found myself in a familiar seat. Redgold's heroine is a older version of her own Lady Godiva and while I was entranced by the ideas explored in this fiction, I couldn't help feeling Redgold had short-changed herself by opting to work within an established comfort zone.

Some women, widows, mothers of lost sons, gave pieces of wool. Some send needles, sharp as knives. My own beloved daughter, Nest, made for her part a read dragon, the creature of Wales. Harold's older sister Edythe worked with skill and speed, often by my side at the convent. She joined together the pieces as it grew, like a banner unfurled.

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