The Salt Roads

61nvaeyynml._sl500_The Salt Roads* by Nalo Hopkinson

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin

Source: my own collection

Length: 13:15:00

Publisher: Tantor Audio

Year: 2003

This is the story of a fertility goddess, Ezilie, sometimes called Lasiren, and the women whose bodies she possesses. The main point of view characters are Mer, a healer and slave on a plantation on the island of St. Domingue, what is now Haiti; Jeanne Duval, the Haitian mistress of Charles Baudelaire; and Thais or Meritet, a Nubian slave and prostitute in Alexandria, Egypt, who later becomes known as Mary of Egypt. In nonlinear timelines, the narrative follows the lives of these women as Lasiren inhabits and influences them. Mer is tasked with clearing the salt roads, the connections between Haitian slaves and their African gods. She tries to do so through peaceful means, even though a violent rebel called Makandal is rising in power and urging slaves to revolt against white slave owners. Mer knows her duty is to heal all the Ginen people. Jeanne Duval’s narrative focuses more on economic freedom. She is trying to support herself and her mother, who is ill and can’t afford medicine. To do so, she becomes a stage dancer in hopes of catching the eye of a rich man who will take her as his mistress and set her up in comfort so she can care for herself and her mother. Thais’s story comes pretty late in the book overall, but I think it can represent freedom from sexual slavery, since she was a prostitute and relied on that for survival before Lasiren began interacting with her, driving her to wander the desert. Her interactions with Lasiren eventually resulted in her sainthood.

At first, I admit I didn’t quite get this story. I really enjoyed it, but it took a few days of really thinking about it for me to find the threads that bound it together. I really love that, when a story makes me think and I don’t get it right away. Maybe I still don’t have it right, but this is what I’ve come up with. The various forms of freedom are, I believe, the overarching theme. The salt is the common element which binds women around the world together, through blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex.

I really enjoyed the way the lives of these women were linked throughout the story. They were so very different, but they each had their own struggles for freedom which bound them together, and Lasiren teased out their desires and eventually managed to bring comfort to them all, even if it was a long time coming.

Each setting was vivid and complex, containing rich cultural details. I hadn’t known, for example, that Makandal was a real man and that he did actually instigate a rebellion on St. Domingue. I learned as well that the Ginen is the Haitian name for the ancestral home of enslaved Africans, and that it referred to the slaves on St. Domingue. I didn’t know that Charles Baudelaire had a Haitian mistress. I had never heard of Mary of Egypt. Now I have so many new things to read about in more depth because of this book!

The narrator, Bahni Turpin, did a stellar job, as she always does. Her accents really bring the characters to life and she dramatizes the story without being melodramatic. She is one of my favorite narrators.

This is definitely one of the most unique books I’ve read ever, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it and am looking forward to reading more by Nalo Hopkinson.

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

The Best Books about Anne Boleyn

On May 19, 1536, an English queen was executed. She really hadn’t done anything wrong, other than failing to give her king the son he craved. So, in order to get rid of her, some trumped up charges of adultery – treason at the time – were thrown at her and she was executed by beheading. The queen was, of course, Anne Boleyn.

668,Anne Boleyn,by Unknown artist Unknown artist

People may think of many different things when they think of Anne Boleyn. I tend to think primarily “mother of Elizabeth I” and “she was framed.” Others may see her as a victim (yes, indeed), as a homewrecker (no, read more history), an advocate for Protestantism (certainly, and likely the catalyst for Anglicanism, having owned copies of Tyndale and showing them to Henry at the right moment), generous to the poor (yes), and many, many other things. She was a skilled musician, dancer, and linguist. She was a genuine Renaissance woman. I think her full impact on history may never be fully understood.

Anne was born at her family home in Blickling probably in 1507 (some scholars say 1501) and grew up at Hever Castle in Kent. When she was about 7 years old, she went to Austria at the invitation of Margaret of Austria to study with her wards. In 1514, she went to the court of Queen Claude of France, where she stayed for several years. In early 1522, she returned to England, where she became a lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon and caught the eye of Henry VIII. The rest, as they say, is history.

There remains a fascination with Anne Boleyn, and rightly so, in my opinion. By most accounts, she dazzled. She was witty and enjoyed dancing, riding, and hunting. She enthralled a king, and then she died for it. It’s hard not to be fascinated by her. Other people would seem to agree, if we take the many books written about Anne as evidence. Below are a few of my favorites.

Nonfiction:

31088The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Canto) by Retha Warnicke. Warnicke was one of my college professors. She is a little crazy, and some of her theories about Anne are not really mainstream. But she is a fierce defender of Anne and for that, I have a soft spot for Warnicke.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. Ives and Warnicke had disagreements. A lot of them. I approve of academic nerdrage.

Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession by Elizabeth Norton. This is a relatively short, accessible scholarly work by one of my favorite historians.

18111981In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Greuninger. This is a really cool book which informs readers not only about Anne, but also about the places she lived and traveled. It tells about each home, manor house, church, chapel, castle, abbey, and so on that Anne ever went to. It shows each room of those places, as much as is possible to do so now. It really helps bring Anne to life in ways that simply writing about her cannot, because it shows up the places where she lived and laughed and grieved. An absolute must-have. I wish more books like this existed for other historical figures.

Fiction:

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell. It’s been years since I read this one, but I still remember it as the one that really sparked my interest in the Tudors.

10108The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers: A Novel by Margaret George. Not about Anne Boleyn, per se, but she featured prominently, of course, and Margaret George is awesome. There are few authors who can tell such a terrific story while also being accurate.

The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper, about Mary Boleyn, the other one. Published about 20 years before the other book about Mary Boleyn that most people seem to know about, and which I’m not mentioning because it was awful, this one is nice because it gives readers the big events but entirely through the POV of Mary. None of the major characters we know – Anne, Henry, Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell, etc – appear unless it is when Mary encounters them. I liked it, too, for its more optimistic tone.

Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes. One of the older books, but still super interesting. This is not one of the most accurate books you’ll ever read, but it does do a fantastic job of giving Anne a rich internal life, something that not all historical novels really do, oddly. Well worth a read despite the quibbles with the accuracy.

13540943The Queen’s Promise: A fresh and gripping take on Anne Boleyn’s story by Lyn Andrews. This one focuses on Anne before she met Henry, and the love affair she may have had with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Told primarily from Percy’s perspective, readers get a version of this familiar story from an entirely different angle than we usually do.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m a little torn at including this one. Too many people use this as an example of how things really were, but Mantel herself has said no, it is her perception of how Cromwell might have viewed things, which makes sense since it’s from his POV. But it is a terrific read and it’s my blog, so I’m adding it because I liked the book and I want it on the list.

There are sooooooooooooo many other books, both fiction and nonfiction, I could have added here, but I had to rein it in or this would just get out of control. These are just a small handful of my favorites. Are there any others you would recommend?

*Amazon affiliate links

Age of Saints

43925261Age of Saints: Druid’s Brooch Series: 7* by Author

I read it as a: galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 240 pp

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2019

Connall had promised his father that he would take care of Lainn, his little sister. Then his father went away and Connall, despite his best efforts, failed spectacularly in every way to uphold his promise. He and Lainn endure an abusive stepfather; a neglectful mother; starvation, terror, imprisonment, and torture in the land of Faerie; and literal insanity in both human and fey realms. Connall tries to draw on the power of a magic brooch, passed down through his family for generations, to help him and Lainn survive, but in doing so, is he saving them or only delaying the inevitable?

This is the seventh book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series, and as with the others, it can be read as a standalone. I have read most of the others in the series and with each installation, I appreciate anew how well Nicholas crafts her characters. Each one has depth and vision to them, even minor characters who are only on the page a moment.

Equally appreciated is Nicholas’s deep understanding of Irish legend and lore. Her books are rich with these, and they bring the culture and people within the pages to brilliant life. This novel features the early days when the old ways of the Druids and the new ways of the Christians were still able to live together peaceably, though by the end of the book, the two religions were showing the strain. The Age of Saints refers to the 5th and 6th centuries when the Church was working especially hard to convert the Celtic countries, often using converted Celts to do so, such as St Patrick or Columba, who is referenced in this novel. It was interesting to see the interplay between the two cultures in this way.

I also loved the theme of protection that wove throughout the book. Connall cares for and protects Lainn as best he can, even when he fails utterly. He tries to keep his father’s words in mind as a way to protect himself as well, because at the end of the day, Connall is still a very young man, still in need of protection himself in a variety of ways. He learns how to protect himself, but also how to accept it from others when needed. The raven companion provides protection of a sort as well, and teaches a hard lesson. Connall protects his mother even when he doesn’t really want to. Even though most of the hardships in the book were because of a bad decision he made, Connall was still a sympathetic figure. He honestly did what he thought was best, or at least tried to. He never did anything out of maliciousness, just out of simple naivety or lack of experience, and he never whined about it, unlike some characters in other books. He Had his issues and his flaws, and he had an epic meltdown at one point, which I think was entirely understandable, but he was not an unsympathetic figure at all. He just needed someone to protect him but he had no one to do that, and so he did the best he could.

I also liked the exploration of his sexuality here, and how he was concerned about how Christians would think of him as sinful or unnatural to want to lie with another man, but the Druids had such members within their ranks and thought nothing of it. The conflict in him didn’t feel forced, like Nicholas was just trying to do something new or make a point. It was nicely done and flowed well within the narrative of the story.

One of the things I really love about this series is that it works in reverse time – the books begin in a more recent time and are gradually working back toward a time when the magic is newer and closer to the surface. I hope that, in the final installment of the series, readers will finally understand the genesis of the story, the event that caused the brooch to be given to the humans from the fey, and to see the full circle of all the novels in the series thus far. It has been a finely crafted series to date and I look forward to reading more. Highly recommended.

*Amazon affiliate link. 

Acre’s Orphans

43457902Acre’s Orphans: Historical fiction from the Crusades (The Lucca Le Pou Stories Book 2)* by Wayne Turmel

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 222 pp

Publisher: Achis Press

Year: 2019

This is the second novel featuring protagonist Lucca le Pou (Lucca the Louse), but it can easily function as a standalone novel. It opens very shortly after the Battle of Hattin in which Salah-adin’s forces defeated the Crusaders and forced them to surrender vast portions including Jerusalem, and executing many Knights Hospitallers. Lucca, one of the titular orphans of Acre, has lived his entire life in Acre and has little desire to leave the city when Salah-adin takes control. However, his nominal guardians at the leper house where he lives convince him to go to Tyre, taking along Sister Marie-Pilar, a leprous nun, and Niheda, another orphan girl who attached herself to Lucca. Lucca is determined to go to Tyre to find Count Raymond, whose name is being slandered in Acre and accused of being a traitor, setting him up to be murdered. Lucca is to find the Count and deliver a message to him from his allies still in Acre, avoid being captured by Salah-adin’s forces, keep Sister and Nahida safe, and somehow return home again in one piece.

At first, I thought this was a YA or even a children’s book because of the young age of the protagonist. However, the more I read, the more obvious it became that this is not a children’s book. It is a nicely written adult novel, replete with rich historical detail, which just happens to have a 10-year-old protagonist. The themes the book covers are not ones most children would want to read, and the violence, disease, and general human misery on display would make it unsuitable for many younger readers.

Despite the somber topics the book covers – the Crusades, leprosy, children surviving horrors on their own – Turmel does a really excellent job of keeping it appropriately light. The bits of humor that shine through in Lucca’s personality lift what could otherwise be a very grim read and instead bring in genuine laughter and a sense of adventure rather than doom.

The cast of characters is pleasingly diverse. I appreciated that the bad guys were not automatically the Muslim characters. There is enough Othering that occurs in both literature and real life as it is, so to see a book that includes a wide range of people as main characters and which doesn’t automatically pigeonhole those characters into revolting stereotypical roles is a really nice change of pace. This seems particularly true of novels set during the Crusades; one website that has the biggest list of historical novels I’ve ever encountered still only has about 15 books on the Crusades as told from the Muslim point of view, and not all of those are even written by Muslim authors. This book still doesn’t tick all the boxes for me in that regard, but I’m hard to please, and it is nevertheless a delightfully well-rounded story.

Lucca is a boy I wouldn’t mind knowing in real life. I would want to bring him home and feed him up and throw him in the tub because he needs a mother to look after him. Nahida is a girl I want to hold and protect from the world, same as with my own daughter, and keep them all safe. The giant Knight Hospitaller Gerhardt reminds me of a dear friend of mine and Sister Marie-Pilar is the fierce and protective auntie or grandmother everyone should have. These characters breath life from every page and made me care about what happened to them.

Highly recommended.

Never Waste Tears*

24354498Never Waste Tears by Glorida Zachgo

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 406 pp

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Year: 2014

Set in the late 1860s, Never Waste Tears is the story of Nathaniel Jacob Carter, a young man whose desire it is to find peace after the war, a life with a woman he loves, and the companionship of the friends he meets along the way. Dated April 12, 1861, the story starts with the journal entry of a young ten-year-old Rebecca who expresses wonder as to why her home town is so suddenly somber. Thirteen-year-old Nathan’s journal entry follows with the description of how, on his birthday, his family changes forever when his father and brothers leave to join the War Between the States. Through the personal journal entries of these two characters, Zachgo builds their relationship, and the relationships with their families. The conflicts Rebecca faces and the reasons which compel Nathan to leave his home behind soon become apparent, making the story of the young couple’s journey deeply personal.   

Soon after their marriage, Nathan and Becca begin their adventures. They join a wagon train west with hopes of homesteading land in the New Frontier. Initially, the young newlyweds set Nebraska as their final destination, but after making a bonding friendship with another young couple, Carl and Hannah, Nathan decides to head for the Kansas territory instead. What awaits the young settlers turns Nathan’s life inside out. Zachgo’s use of historical facts and descriptions of the everyday joys and hardships faced by the pioneers adds to the realism of the time period and of the settling of the United States, west of the Mississippi River.

Zachgo moves the story forward through the use of journal entries of five different characters. Doing so provides a deeper understanding of the personal lives of pioneers, and the emotional bonds they form in order to survive.  While the use of personal narrative through the journal entries is an interesting method of moving a story forward, the technique was initially confusing. The confusion was short-lived since it turned the story into a page turner that prevented me from setting the book down for even a moment.

Never Waste Tears is an interesting story about the post-Civil War settlers who traveled west in search of a new life. Zachgo does an excellent job developing characters that are true to the time period and the settling of the post-Civil War American West.

*This is a guest post by Cathy Smith. 

The Green Phoenix

36085083The Green Phoenix: A Novel of the Woman Who Re-Made Asia, Empress Xiaozhuang by Alice Poon

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 372 pp

Publisher: Earnshaw Books

Year: 2017

The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon is a sweeping saga of a fascinating woman, the Empress Xiaozhuang. She began as Bumbutai, a Mongolian princess who became a concubine at the Manchu court when she was 12  and later, became the first empress of the Qing Dynasty. She guided her country through political machinations, upheaval, and strife to see it become one of the most powerful dynasties on earth.

I confess that I know nothing at all about Chinese history. Going into this, I couldn’t have been more ignorant about a topic if I tried. That said, The Green Phoenix was an absolutely riveting novel, and appears to be meticulously researched. The atmosphere hooked me from the start and I simply didn’t want to put it down. I lost rather a lot of sleep over this book. The politics of court life were complex and, at times, harrowing, on par with anything the Tudors or Plantagenets could come up with. The intrigues and plots were so intricate and delicately wrought that I found myself breathless, wanting to know how this woman would make things right or take advantage of the situation. I found myself rooting for a person who has been gone for nearly 400 years – her story is over and unchanging at this point, but it was as gripping to me as if it were happening in real time.

The characters in this novel are people readers grow to care about. Some of them I hated, but I was supposed to. I admit that I did have some trouble keeping many of them straight, partly because there were so many of them and partly because I was having a hard time with the names. That is all on me, though; I wonder if it might be easier to keep characters straight if I could listen to this as an audiobook. Perhaps one day it will be available through Audible, but it seems not to be at the moment.

Poon’s use of language can only be described as elegant. I highlighted many of my favorite passages, as is my habit when reading any book, but I think my favorite was, “A kind ruler is an invincible ruler,” something many leaders even today need to learn. Hong Taiji really embraced that when Bumbutai first joined his court as a child bride/concubine. He allowed her to continue her education, something that was precious to her, and he was kind to her. It can be hard to understand, even for seasoned readers of historical fiction, a girl marrying at 12 years old. For Bumbutai to go from a child at the beginning of the book to the formidable woman she was is a treat to witness, all thanks to Poon’s masterful wordsmithing. Bumbutai was a woman of great strength, generosity, love, and humility. I would have liked to know her, and after reading this book, I felt almost like I did.

Overall, this was a captivating book, and it read very quickly despite its length. Very highly recommended!

 

Catch-Up: Victorican Era and Pirate novels review*

36269117The Brotherhood of the Black Flag: A Novel of the Golden Age of Piracy by Ian Nathaniel Cohen

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollickat Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 260 pp

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services

Year: 2017

In an action-packed, heroic story, Michael McNamara leaves Bristol, England, in search of himself. McNamara starts with a dream to become an officer in the Royal Navy. When an opportunity presents itself, he is accepted into the navy as a volunteer – per – order, after providing a reluctantly written letter from his father. When McNamara is then drummed out of the navy, he uses his skills with a small sword to become a fencing instructor, only to be let go from this position a year later. He then decides to pursue a fresh start in Kingston, Jamaica. Once McNamara arrives there he finds himself in a duel with a group of ruthless Caribbean pirates and thus is set in motion a series of events that leads him to the magnificent Dona Catalina Moore Viuda de Caldeira and her infamous fiancé pirate, Captain Stephen Reynard.  What happens next takes our hero on a journey that comes to define his purpose in life through his experiences with The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, and this is where the real story begins.

Cohen does an excellent job building a fast-paced story that moves McNamara’s adventures forward with vivid descriptions of battles and fights that take place on land and at sea. His knowledge of 18th-century weapons, specifically swords, helps readers to visualize the time period and the character’s personas. Readers feel McNamara’s tenacity and commitment to life by Cohen’s balance of the accuracy of facts with the originality of his fictional story.

Throughout the book, readers come to respect McNamara for his loyalty and duty to those in his life. The character builds relationships and establishes his reputation as a strong, principled individual who holds steadfast to his ideals. Equally, readers also come to know and understand the beautiful Catalina, whom McNamara comes to love; and the pirate Reynard who appears to be working on changing his swashbuckling lifestyle. When Cohen moves the story into a sudden and unexpected twist of events, readers wonder whether they missed something along the way – but soon realize the author’s masterful writing skill.  

The only thing that lets the book down is the cover. The narrative is exciting, the cover isn’t – for young adults or a children’s book it would have been fine, but not for an adult read.

The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is a must read for anyone who is captivated with the Age of Piracy. Cohen has done a remarkable job developing a story that places readers in the middle of the action, and into the heart, soul and spirit of the hero, Michael McNamara.

An excellent read.

34526009Hooks & Eyes: Part 1 of The Ambition & Destiny Series by VL McBeath

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 442 pp

Publisher: Valyn Publishing

Year: 2017

Set in 1846 England, Hooks and Eyes by V. L. McBeath is the story of Mary Jackson, a young widow, and the journey she takes to ensure that she can aptly raise her two young children during the Victorian Age. After the death of her husband, Mary decides to leave her in-laws’ country home to live with her deceased husband’s Aunt Lucy and Aunt Rebecca in the city.  Determined to make her own choices about what is best for her family, Mary, against the advice of her aunts, marries William Wetherby, her former employer, a bully, and a womanizer.

Throughout the novel, McBeath intertwines the lives of multiple families while incorporating accurate historical elements into each chapter. She touches on how the non-mechanized businesses transitioned into the mechanized factories of the Industrial Revolution. Most importantly, McBeath opens the reader’s eyes to the difficulties faced by widowed and older, unmarried women during the mid-1800s.

The author did a good job capturing the emotional struggles faced by the women throughout the novel. Readers will sympathize with Mary’s emotional and psychological pain. Seeing how women could choose to support one another, as Mary’s aunts try to do, was enlightening. Unfortunately, some of Mary’s choices do not set well with her Aunt Lucy.

Instead of using Mary and Wetherby’s marriage to focus the many subplots more effectively into the central narrative of female strength, McBeath moves the story forward by introducing multiple characters to create short, family dramas that are frequently left unresolved or are irrelevant, and because of this, the one storyline that moves the main idea forward is unresolved. Had it been, it could have given Mary profound insight into her original choice, creating a smoother transition into the final scene.

Hooks and Eyes starts with a narrative that captures the emotions of the main character and the journey she takes because of the death of her true love. The subplots are interesting and build a sense of the period, but  they fall a little short of connecting that main storyline introduced in the beginning of the novel, with the climax in the final paragraphs.

However, an interesting novel for those readers interested in this period.

The Year the Swans Came is a tragic story for anyone who wants to become captivated by the lives of two girls who are literally polar opposites of each other.  It is a story of one girl’s love of herself and her physical world, and the story of another girl’s unconditional love for the people in her life. It is a story of passion and a story of anguish. Spencer has done a wonderful job subtly showing how magical realism is a real part of the mythologies of a culture. 

**This is a guest post by Cathy Smith. 

Round-Up: Christy Nicholas books

One of my favorite authors, still sadly an obscure name, is Christy Nicholas. I had the good fortune to review a few of her books for Discovering Diamonds. A few of her other books are also reviewed on DDRevs by my fellow reviewers which I didn’t read, but they are worth checking out for sure. One reason I enjoy Nicholas’s books so much is because she imbues them with so much feminine power. They are accurate within the scope of their timeframe, yet the women in each one are strong, bold, as feminist as possible. She pushes the boundaries of creating feminist characters and isn’t shy to use mythical characters, such as The Morrigan, to be more feminist. I fucking love it. 

Below are a couple reviews, submitted as a guest post by Cathy Smith, who is also a reviewer at DDRevs. My own reviews of Nicholas’s books that have already been posted can be found both on DDRevs as well as on this blog. 

26309658

Legacy of Hunger: Druid’s Brooch Series: 1

Reviewed by: Cathy Smith

Read it as a: digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 306 pp

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2015

Legacy of Hunger, book one of Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch Series, takes readers on an unforgettable quest from the shores of 1846 America to the distressed Irish countryside of Valentina McDowell’s ancestors. Driven by her mother’s legends and a desire to find an old family brooch, Valentina finds early on in her quest that she will discover friendship and come to realize the betrayal of enemies. She will see beauty and face tragedy. Guided by her mystical visions, Valentina’s journey is filled with joy and sorrow as each step of the quest prepares her for what awaits at the end.

Nicholas does an excellent job developing the story by painting detailed descriptions of the characters themselves, their past, and their present. Readers also feel the intensity of the characters’ personalities through the descriptive images of the ship’s voyage across the sea and of the Irish villages and countryside. Nicholas stays true to the history of 19th century Ireland. She uses this history, as well as the legends from the ancients, to provide readers with a real-world sense of Valentina’s adventures.

As I experienced Valentina’s journey to find the answers to the mysteries that haunted her from childhood, I thought of a time when my own father told me the story of his grandmother who came to America as an indentured servant during the An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger. He told the story of how she met my great-grandfather while working off her servitude in a well-known Colorado bar.  As I read Nicholas’ story, I realized that the legacy of hunger is a legacy that affects generations of people even into the 21st century.

Although Nicholas provides closure in the last chapter and epilogue, the happily or not so happily ever after resolutions of the individual character stories left me with deeper questions.  It is my hope to see future novels that develop some of these characters’ journeys.

Legacy of Hunger is the story of the Irish people who suffered during the Great Hunger.  It is the story of how Valentina McDowell journeys to find her strength, courage, and inner soul by overcoming the challenges to complete a quest that reveals her destiny.

Other books by Christy Nicholas:

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Legacy of Truth: Druid’s Brooch Series: 2I don’t have a link to any DDRevs review of this one.
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Legacy of Luck: Druid’s Brooch Series: 3. I don’t have a link to any DDRevs review for this one, either.
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Misfortune of Vision: Druid’s Brooch Series: 4. You can read the review on my blog, since I’m the one who wrote it for DDRevs. 
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Misfortune of Song: Druid’s Brooch Series: 5. I don’t have a link to any DDRevs review for this one. I should see about getting this to do a review.
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Misfortune of Time: Druid’s Brooch Series, 6. Again, you can read it on DDRevs, linked above, or the exact same one on my blog since I wrote the review for them. 

Nicholas also has a standalone novel that I reviewed for DDRevs as well, Call of the Morrigu. The full review is here, as I forgot to post it to my own blog before now. 

35213101

Call Of The Morrigú

I read it as a: digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 217 pp

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2017

In late 1700s Ireland, rebellion against oppressive English rule was on the rise. In one quiet corner, however, society was still relatively peaceful. Theodosia “Dosey” Latimer lives with her grandfather in their family’s country estate of Strokestown. On the property, they discover a mysterious cave filled with ancient carvings and decide to try to excavate it. In the process, they accidentally awaken The Morrigan. Yes, that Morrigan. The mythical Irish war goddess. Now it is up to Dosey and her grandfather to teach Morrigan how to behave like a proper 18th century lady – and keep her out of the rebellion coming their way.

This was, simply put, a remarkably fun read. Author Christy Nicholas weaves in mythology and history smoothly throughout the narrative. Readers are given glimpses of Celtic myth alongside bits of information about the 1798 Irish Rebellion, led by Wolfe Tone. Parts of the story were surprisingly funny as well. Morrigan learning 18th century table manners is exactly what you would hope for.

The parts of the book that I most appreciated were its many feminist elements. Feminism was a necessary component of the plot for Dosey to be able to grow as a character and a woman. She also was a product of her time and none of her actions were unbelievable or out of place in the story. However, it’s hard for me not to cheer and fall in love with characters who make comments like “I do not understand the shame your society has for the body. It is a glorious thing, full of life and pleasure” or “You are power. You are woman. All woman are power.” Here, Morrigan was reflecting what was understood to be the typical pre-Christian culture of ancient Ireland (or at least the author’s interpretation of it), but it remains highly relevant in today’s society where women’s rights are still challenged and threatened by the patriarchy. Having a mythical character speak the words makes them no less relevant, and allows a certain safe distance from which we can examine our modern morals and values. I loved it.

My only criticism is that I felt some of the secondary characters could have been developed a little more. I wanted to get to know Nan better, and Cillian and Marcus. They were fine, but they felt like they were placeholders or extras just playing a necessary part in a formula. However, they were not totally flat or one-dimensional, either, and they served their respective purposes well enough.

Overall, I loved this book and look forward to reading more by this author. Strongly recommended for anyone who is interested in Irish mythology, history, or the influence of women on either subject.

Vacant-eyed Women, Mattress-Pounding, and Politics: Sexism in Historical Fiction? Do we mention it or keep quiet?*

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

What reader of historical fiction isn’t at least passingly familiar with the statement, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too… ?” Queen Elizabeth’s 1588 speech to her troops at Tilbury is one of the most famous and recognizable of the Renaissance. It would be hard to imagine a modern female politician making a similar speech, though, and any man saying something about a feeble woman’s body would be (and should be) immediately excoriated. Reading historical fiction requires authors and readers alike to set aside modern mores and read with the understanding that times have changed, and be sensitive to the fact that none of us can judge another time period or culture by our own standards. But what happens when those standards get distorted? How do we tell the difference between historical accuracy and outright sexism? Does it even matter? 

In a nutshell, yes. It matters a great deal because authors should avoid bias, while keeping authenticity in mind, avoiding unnecessary sexism, and bringing historical fiction into the global discussion of sexual abuse in a meaningful way. 

Authors have to be careful to check their own biases at the door when writing for a variety of reasons. Naturally, their readers will include at least a few who want as accurate a depiction of the time period as possible. That can be difficult to maintain if modern sensibilities are strongly present in a book set in, for example, Victorian England. It must be difficult for authors, products themselves of more enlightened times – see my own bias coming through – to write about women as second class citizens who are not as intelligent as, or even as human as, their male counterparts. How difficult must it be to write about women as the Angel in the House if she is good, or hysterical and subhuman if she is not good. This raises the question of what makes her good? Is the character a murderer? Or does she simply have a mind of her own and isn’t afraid to voice her opinion? Is the period Ancient Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian? How would women, feisty or otherwise, typically behave in these time periods? It may be tempting to write a woman who flagrantly tells men off, disregards the dictates of her social class, or makes her own choices rather than obeying her father, but she likely wouldn’t have really done that. It probably never occurred to her that she even could do something like that in the first place, and her capacity for actually carrying it out would depend on a variety of issues.

On the flip side, writing male characters has to come with a balance as well. Women may not have had the same rights modern women arguably have now. They may have been considered second-class citizens. Plenty of men throughout history (and now, too, tragically) were misogynists. Aristotle thought women should be “obedient as a slave,” proving that just because he was a philosopher doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a pig; Martin Luther thought women could either be wives or whores, so take your pick; Shakespeare seemed pretty disgusted by the female sex, based on his rants against them in King Lear; and even the enlightened Gautama Buddha apparently thought women were too stupid to understand Buddhism (Saṃyutta Nikāya 4). But there is evidence that many men still loved and respected the women in their lives. Refer to the real life love stories of couples like John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Abelard and Heloise, or even Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer for examples. Writing men as misogynistic blowhards is a dangerous game for authors. If there is evidence to support the misogyny of an historical character, that’s one thing. But to write a character as such simply because he lived in a time when women were not seen as equal poses a number of risks.

There is also a question of authenticity. How accurate is a character’s attitude toward women if he proves himself to be sexist? Is he truly reflecting the attitudes of the time in which the book is set? How is the author determining this? Or is it really a reflection of the author’s own sexism, which is far more disturbing?

Recently, I read a traditionally published book by a well known author that was set in the 14th century. Naturally, I didn’t expect that women would be given the same rights as the men in the story. In keeping with medieval society, I anticipated that women would expect generally to be submissive to their fathers or husbands, stay home and tend to children and the house, and so forth, even if they are salty ladies who feel free to speak their minds. I did not, however, expect the rampant sexism that I found in the book. In just the first few pages, this particular novel made multiple references to women’s vacant eyes being a big turn-on. To whom? To the protagonist? Or to the author? Similarly, there were multiple juvenile references to sex, such as mattress pounding or hide-the-sausage, which seemed like something that would appeal to young boys rather than experienced, adult readers. The sheer volume of remarks in this vein makes it sound as though the author himself finds vapid, vacant-eyed women ready for some mattress galloping a turn-on rather than his revolting protagonist. Is this a fair evaluation of the author? Perhaps not. I’ve never met him. He may be a perfectly lovely man, but his writing, in this novel, makes me automatically wonder. This, in turn, makes me not want to know him, or his books, in the first place.

Another risk historically inaccurate sexism (what a strange thought!) in historical fiction poses to authors is already posed above: the loss of readers. This is the 21st century. As stated previously, experienced readers of historical fiction know how to leave modern customs and social mores behind when reading books set in different time periods. But we do still live in a time when women generally are treated as humans and movements such as #MeToo exist solely to amplify women’s voices. Of course, feminism didn’t exist in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, or in the Victorian Era. However, it exists now, and although readers today want authors to operate within the parameters of historical accuracy, they also expect authors to hold fast to acceptable attitudes towards women as much as possible. 

Do readers have a responsibility anywhere in this? Of course. We, as readers, have to be willing to adjust our expectations appropriately. If I’m reading a medieval fiction and it’s not listed as historical fantasy, I expect the characters to behave within a certain set of parameters and for the major events of the period to be accurate. If I’m reading a book, for example, in a series called Lady Sherlock, I’m definitely not going to expect rigid adherence to Victorian social customs for each and every one of the characters. Though I must say, the novels in that series are more rigorously researched and accurate than the novels in some other series I’ve read which are touted as straight historical fiction. My expectations as a reader were confounded, as were just about every gender role known to humankind, which is a good thing. Using literature to address social issues and gender relations is one thing; using it as a way to be sexist and gross is an abuse of readers’ trust and, in the 21st century, simply unacceptable.

Sexism is an issue that needs to be addressed, and literature is an ideal place for the discussion. Making accurate historical fiction part of that discussion can play an important role in the larger, modern conversation taking place globally in places such as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Don’t use your writing platform to amplify sexism. With well-researched and sensitive characters, historical fiction can provide meaningful, relevant contributions to a powerful topic. Be more than an author – use your voice to be an advocate and ally. 

It is a difficult subject, but one that is starting to cause concern for many (female) readers who are beginning to voice that if it is not necessary for the plot, or to further develop a character or situation – then why is a scene of a derogatory or disturbing sexual nature there?

*Originally published on Helen Hollick’s personal blog, Of History and Kings. If you haven’t read her blog, you should do so immediately, if not sooner.

Llywelyn the Great

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Yesterday was the 776th anniversary of the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great. Born in 1173, he began to take control of North Wales when he was about 14 years old. By the time he was about 28, he was effectively the ruler of all Wales. He unified Wales, historically a nation often divided by war and clan fighting, and held the land in peace. Even during the difficult years when he was at odds with King John, Llywelyn eventually managed to regain lands he lost, and he held the respect of his retainers and the nobles. He is one of only two Welsh kings to be given the title Fawr, “the Great.”

As a lover of historical fiction, in particular, medieval historical fiction, some of my favorite novels feature Llywelyn Fawr or his contemporaries. The best novels bring his time to life in the most vivid ways, transport me to his castles at Dolwyddelan, on his campaign trail, at his feast table. It takes a special kind of talent to make history come alive and not turn it into a dry, boring textbook. I’ve ready plenty of historical fiction novels that read like straight history textbooks, and it was awful. All I could think of while reading those was that I hoped other readers didn’t pick those particular books up as their first exposure to the time period. Otherwise, I just couldn’t see how they would ever be intrigued enough to want to learn more about it, and that makes me sad. For those who have not yet discovered good historical fiction based on Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, below are some of the very best.

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Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Rich not only in (highly accurate) historical detail, but also in the complexities of medieval politics, kingship, and interpersonal relationships, Here Be Dragons is my favorite novel of medieval Wales. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book was the wedding night of Llywelyn and Joanna, the daughter of King John. She was young and scared, and Llywelyn, wanting to earn her trust, offered to delay consummating their wedding and opted instead to cut his arm so that she could show a bloodstained sheet to those wanting proof of her viginity.

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The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter. This series is about the grandson of Llywelyn Fawr, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, also called Llywelyn the Last. It is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Llywelyn’s scribe and friend Samson. I rather like the first person account since it gives an immediacy to the story and an intimacy into just one aspect that we might not otherwise get to see. After all, we only can see life from our own perspective.

What others have you read?