31 August 2015

Review: The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster * 

The Taming of the Queen is about the life of Kateryn Parr, the sixth and final Queen of King Henry VIII.

Told in the first person by Kateryn (the story begins in 1543 with a widowed Kateryn soon to become Queen), the reader is swept away to the court of King Henry VIII in the expert hands of historian and author Philippa Gregory.

Technically the 7th in the Tudor Court series, The Taming of the Queen can easily be read as a standalone as Gregory uses her expertise to ensure you never lose track of the characters; something other authors of the genre often fail to do. 

Religion was the driving force at the time as King Henry's support for the Papists and the Reformers continues to waver back and forth, leaving the people of England unsure where the King's faith truly lays. This creates a dangerous and deadly environment at court, and Kateryn does her best to steer clear of any trouble.

Kateryn is painfully aware of the ghosts of Henry's previous wives (the King has buried four wives after all) and does an incredible job of staying alive; desperate to learn from the mistakes of the queens before her and living with constant fear and uncertainty.

The Taming of the Queen offers a magnificent portrait of Henry VIII at the latter stages of his life, suffering from ill health and some say paranoia. Kateryn brings the young royal children to court, (Prince Edward, Mary I, Elizabeth I) and she really brings the family together in a royal first. We see her influence on young Mary and Elizabeth, and knowing what will happen later on in their adulthood gives this period more meaning.

This image of Princess Diana at Princess Charlotte's
christening, is similar to the family portrait
commissioned by King Henry VIII where he
ordered that Kateryn Parr be replaced by the
image of his late wife, Jane Seymour
The cover of the novel (above) shows part of a family portrait commissioned by King Henry VIII, the sitting and unveiling of which is included in the novel. At the unveiling, Kateryn is shocked and hurt to see she has been replaced by the late Jane Seymour, beloved Queen who died in childbirth after giving Henry his male heir (Prince Edward). I knew that including a deceased person in a painting or portrait was done and not shocking at the time, but seeing this through Kateryn's eyes really upset me, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. How would we react if this happened today?

Then I remembered that I had seen this recently, in a photograph of the late Princess Diana looking at Princess Charlotte on the day of her christening. This image was photoshopped but I found it really moving, and perhaps King Henry was chasing or seeking this same sentiment in 1545.

I had at least two Henry VIII inspired dreams while reading The Taming of the Queen and am still thinking about it weeks after I finished reading the final pages. 

The Taming of the Queen is expertly written and easily one of my favourite books of the year.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!
30 August 2015

Winner of the Salt Creek giveaway announced

Thanks to all those who entered last week's Friday Freebie, and went into the running to win a copy of Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia & Picador).

The giveaway was popular with 24 individual entrants, most of which qualified for multiple entries after subscribing by email, following on Google Connect or sharing on Twitter and Facebook etc. With these additional entries the total number of competition entries was 68.

The giveaway closed at midnight on Friday 28th August, and the winner was drawn today:

Congratulations Odette!!
Congratulations Odette, you'll receive an email shortly letting you know about your win and requesting your postal details, after which you'll have 5 days to provide a valid postal address.

I'd like to thank Pan Macmillan Australia for providing the giveaway, and all of you who entered, shared and tweeted. If you missed out this time, please enter my current giveaway here and try your luck again.
28 August 2015

Friday Freebie: WIN a copy of Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt

Available August 2015
RRP $29.99
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Today's Friday Freebie is the opportunity to WIN a print copy of Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt. See below for details.

A deeply compelling and poignant story that, like the novels of Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, dramatises the tragic lessons of war, the significance of belonging and of memory - without which we become lost, even to ourselves.

Spring, 1945: A man wakes in a field in a country he does not know. Injured and confused, he pulls himself to his feet and starts to walk, and so sets out on an extraordinary journey in search of his home, his past and himself.

His name is Owen. A war he has only a vague memory of joining is in its dying days, and as he tries to get back to England he becomes caught up in the flood of refugees pouring through Europe. Among them is a teenage boy, Janek, and together they form an unlikely alliance as they cross battle-worn Germany. 

When they meet a troubled young woman, tempers flare and scars are revealed as Owen gathers up the shattered pieces of his life. No one is as he remembers, not even himself - how can he truly return home when he hardly recalls what home is?

Author Bio
Jason Hewitt is a novelist, playwright and actor. He was born in Oxford, and lives in London. He is the author of The Dynamite Room and Devastation Road.

This giveaway has now closed.
26 August 2015

Review: Signora da Vinci by Robin Maxwell

Robin Maxwell is one of my favourite historical fiction authors and she's written about some famous and influential female figures from history, including: Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I.

Signora da Vinci is told from the perspective of Leonardo da Vinci's mother, Caterina. We begin in 1452, when Caterina gives birth out of wedlock to Leonardo. Her heart is broken when her lover's family refuse to accept the match and rip Leonardo from her arms to raise in their - more noble - family.

Caterina is an apothecary after her father, who is a well-travelled, well-read and respected man in their little town of Vinci in Italy. When her son becomes a man, he moves to Florence and Caterina wishes to see him. Not being able to travel alone (as a woman) and fearing recognition from Leonardo's father, she disguises herself as a man and changes her name to Cato.

Her disguise works and the novel really takes off from here. Lorenzo de' Medici becomes Leonardo's patron and Cato one of his closest friends.

Signora da Vinci is filled with art (the great Botticelli is also a character), religion (including the making of the Shroud of Turin by Leonardo) alchemy and the pursuit of knowledge, however forbidden it might be. 

Cato is invited to join The Platonic Academy and I thoroughly enjoyed his deception and the insights Caterina was able to get from carrying herself as a man. I also have a new appreciation for the portrait of the Mona Lisa, but no spoilers here.

Not much is really known about Leonardo's mother Caterina, and so when reading Signora da Vinci you will enjoy it more if you suspend your disbelief and just dive in. It's fair to say that a number of liberties have been taken with dates and events, but the period has been well researched and this is a fun 'what if' read.

My Rating = ****

Carpe Librum!
24 August 2015

HFVBT Guest Post: Costuming the Modern Day Swashbuckler from J.M. Aucoin, author of Honor Among Thieves

J.M. Aucoin is an historical fiction writer and I'm pleased to host him on his Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour today. He's the author of Honor Among Thieves, a gripping tale of daring sword-play and political intrigue in 17th Century France.

What makes this author stand out from the rest though, is that he loves fencing and creating his own historical costumes. He doesn't just just write historical fiction, he lives and breathes it!
Author Bio
Author. Fencer. Sometimes actor. Full-time nerd. J.M. Aucoin is the product of when a five-year-old boy who fell in love with reruns of Guy William’s Zorro grows into a mostly functional adult. He now spends his time writing swashbucklers and historical adventure stories, and has an (un)healthy obsession with The Three Musketeers.

When not writing, he practices historical fencing, crafts historical outfits, and covers the Boston Bruins for the award-winning blog Days of Y’Orr. 

Author J.M. Aucoin, designs and makes his own costumes

Guest Post: The Sword & the Needle - Costuming the Modern Day Swashbuckler

Anyone who knows me knows how big of a swashbuckler fan I am. Zorro. The Three Musketeers. Captain Blood. Pirates of the Caribbean. If it’s a book or movie with someone wielding a sword, there’s a good chance I’ll love it. I’ve been like that as wee lad, watching reruns of Zorro starring Guy Williams on the Disney Channel. I must’ve gone as Zorro almost every year for Halloween as a kid.

Author J.M. Aucoin
Of course, not much has changed in the decades since then. I just have a slightly bigger budget and a finer appreciation for natural fabrics. And as much as the flashing steel glinting heroically in the moonlight caught my captivation as a small child, the clothing of 17th Century also caught my attention. The leather gloves, wide-brim hats with impressive plumes, bucket boots, spurs. Seriously. Who wouldn’t want to dress like these guys?

It’s this 17th Century cavalier/Musketeer look that I go for when I’m making my own garb. Along with writing historical adventure novels and piratical short-stories, I also sew and fence in the Society for Creative Anachronism. It’s been a perfect place to let me live out my childhood dreams.
J.M. Aucoin on the left, photo by Scott Tollefson.

Garb making for me has the added challenge of making sure it passes the SCA “armor” requirements. I won’t bore you with the details; just know that the clothing we wear while fighting also doubles as armor should a sword break (which is extremely rare) and then hit us. 

Like most things I do, I decide to jump in the deep end when I first started learning to sew. Most people would maybe start off with something simple like a sewing a winter scarf or maybe a puffy shirt. A handkerchief even. But being an “all or nothing” type guy, I decided I wanted to make myself a cassock and a 1630s-style doublet.
J.M. Aucoin’s first sewing projects.
Photo by Tricia Augustine Sobo.

A 100+ buttons later the cassock was done. Soon thereafter I had myself a fancy doublet. Having some go-to movies definitely helps pass the time when you’re hand sewing 100 buttons. Pretty sure I can quote Man in the Iron Mask from start to finish. 

I’ll admit, I had the good fortune of my fiancee, Kate, being an amazing costumer herself, and patient enough to teach me how make my own stuff. There were a lot of “Did I pin this correctly?” before running it through the machine. There were even more long nights with a seam ripper and rage quitting for a few days. A project isn’t official unless I’ve thrown it across the room in disgust, and Kate’s talked me off the ledge from abandoning it.

There are few things I take into consideration when making myself “fight ready” garb. The first being range of motion. I’ve used some doublet patterns that didn’t scale well in the armhole, which lead to restrictive moments, the clothing pulling at weird spots, and seems ripping. Limited motion isn’t exactly what you want when someone’s flashing 3.5’ of steel at your face.

So a lot of my doublets — especially some of the first ones I made — were sleeveless. Makes for full range and a little more breathability. And sometimes you just want some simple garb to fight to wear when fighting in the mud.

The second thing I think about is comfortability/heat levels. I worry a little less about this than mobility since I know I’m going to be sweaty fencing regardless of what I wear. Sword fighting isn’t a neat & tidy business, after all. But I’m not going to wear my thick brocade doublet and full-length wool cassock lined in silk when it’s 90 degrees out and humid as hell out… at least, I won’t do that again… I learned my lesson… kinda.
Real men wear lace

Lately, I’ve decided to up my garb game some more. Been looking at extent examples for inspiration and seeing some of the details used to adorn clothing in the 1600s. What type of trim they use and where they put it on their doublets and breeches. Clothes make the man, as they say.

I’m far from an master tailor. I’m a competing costumer, but I’m merely a novice in terms of researching historical clothing. There’s always something new to learn, something new to try. In the past year I’ve started adding the lace falling bands and hand falls to my doublets, giving that extra splash of dashing rogue that captivated me as a kid. A silk sash to show off an officer’s rank and a sense of valor. I’ve even drafted my own spur leather pattern and learned the basics of molding and finishing a cavalier hat (tip: it’s all about the plumes).

If you told me 10 years ago that I would be making my own clothing and some of it would be made of lace, I’d probably die of laughter. And yet here we are.

Adventure always awaits.
When not sewing or swashbuckling, J.M. Aucoin writes historical adventure novels. His debut full-length novel Honor Among Thieves is available in paperback and for Kindle. 
21 August 2015

Friday Freebie: WIN a copy of Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Available August 2015
RRP $29.99
* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia & Picador *

Salt Creek, 1855, lies at the far reaches of the remote, beautiful and inhospitable coastal region, the Coorong, in the new province of South Australia. The area, just opened to graziers willing to chance their luck, becomes home to Stanton Finch and his large family, including fifteen-year-old Hester Finch.

Once wealthy political activists, the Finch family has fallen on hard times. Cut adrift from the polite society they were raised to be part of, Hester and her siblings make connections where they can: with the few travellers that pass along the nearby stock route - among them a young artist, Charles - and the Ngarrindjeri people they have dispossessed. Over the years that pass, and Aboriginal boy, Tully, at first a friend, becomes part of the family.

Stanton's attempts to tame the harsh landscape bring ruin to the Ngarrindjeri people's homes and livelihoods, and unleash a chain of events that will tear the family asunder. As Hester witnesses the destruction of the Ngarrindjeri's subtle culture and the ideals that her family once held so close, she begins to wonder what civilization is. Was it for this life and this world that she was educated?

This giveaway has now closed.
19 August 2015

Interview with Honey Brown, discussing her new book Six Degrees and upcoming events at the Melbourne Writer's Festival

Bestselling Australian author, Honey Brown
Thanks for joining me today Honey, and congratulations on the release of Six Degrees (6D) this month. I understand you’ve just come home from the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, how was it?
It was my first time at the festival. It was lovely to discover how outdoorsy it is – marquees, green rolling lawns, sunshine, a truly “festival” vibe. One of my favourite moments was chatting with Jane Caro. We had one of those unexpected and terrifically candid conversations. (Green Rooms are good for that.) I also loved sneaking into the back rows of the other events and listening to the other speakers.     

What was the hardest part of writing Six Degrees? Were you embarrassed or did you feel vulnerable at all writing such a sexy and erotic novel? (I remember the sex scenes in Red Queen were just as HOT!)
I actually really enjoy talking about and writing about sex. If not for my obsession with fiction writing, I’d probably study to be a sex therapist. Writing a good sex scene is always a challenge though. The characters need real depth for the sex to be truly sexy. That’s always the hardest part – making the characters real and their responses real.  

The sex in Six Degrees is meaningful and sensual while still being racy and exciting and anything but gratuitous. How did you achieve this balance?
In regard to the sex being meaningful, I made sure there was a point to each encounter, and that the sex was an extension of the character’s personalities. And with regard to making it sensual and racy, that’s a tough one to answer. It is such a balancing act. There’s some trial and error involved, lots of rewriting and editing. It comes down to being careful with each and every word, shooing your vanity out of the room, and writing truthfully and honestly. 

I love that phrase 'shooing your vanity out of the room.' I read an article in The Age on 24 July where the reporter said you were a self-confessed neat freak. I also read that you have to tidy first before you can write. This is really interesting, can you tell us more? Can you describe your writing area for us?
I feel in control and calmer if things are tidy around me. There’s a level of practicality to it too – if all the housework is done before I start writing, I don’t have to stop to hang out washing or stack the dishwasher. I have two different writing spots, one at the kitchen table and one in my home office. At the kitchen table I have a great view out over the paddocks and down the driveway. In my office, I’m a bit more boxed in, but that can be a good thing. When I’m writing I like to have a selection of well-written books beside me, and if I get stuck, I flick through them and read short passages; a dose of clever writing and good prose kick starts my creativity.   
Honey Brown is reading
R&R by Mark Dapin

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading R&R by Mark Dapin. I’m smitten. Mark’s way of describing things is incredibly unique. Every second line is a revelation. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t kick some ass at awards time.

I haven't read R&R, but I've read two others by Mark Dapin and interviewed him here two years ago. Great Australian writer. So, tell us, do you have a secret indulgence you’d be willing to share?
I eat dark chocolate every day, but that’s pretty common and not much of a secret. …Actually, I do have something, but I’m all for people having a few private indulgences, and keeping them forever secret. 
Oooookay, moving swiftly along (giggles), so, what's next? Will you be in Melbourne for the Melbourne Writer’s Festival later in the month?
Yes, I’m on a crime panel and an erotic panel at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival this month, and both are on Sunday 23rd of August. Then on the 31st of August I’m at the Next Big Thing Wheeler Centre event, doing a reading of Six Degrees. And on the 3rd of October I’m at the Coal Creek Literary Festival. 

Wow, sounds like a busy few weeks. What do you have in the pipeline after that? 
At the moment I’m midway through my sixth psychological thriller. I’m doing bits and pieces when I can, and champing at the bit to get solidly back to it. After that I’ll be writing an erotic novel.

Oooh, I can't wait to read another psychological thriller, I have no doubt it'll be another page turner. Thanks so much for your time today Honey and congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2015 Davitt Awards for Through The Cracks, I’ll definitely have my fingers crossed for you. 

14 August 2015

Review: Pro Resumes Made Easy by Andrea Drew

Pro Resumes Made Easy by Andrea Drew book cover
I'm a firm believer of personal and professional development, so when I came across the work of Australian writer Andrea Drew (when reading a review of her novel Gypsy Hunted), and noticed her book on resume writing Pro Resumes Made Easy, I purchased it straight away.

You see, when I'm not immersed in my love of books and reading, I have my own business called Extra Edge, where I prepare resumes for clients and edit the odd manuscript.

Given Drew's success and her claim on the cover to Get more Job Interviews in 30 days or less, I was looking forward to learning from her expertise. Sadly this didn't happen.

Drew includes several samples of cover letters and resumes but they're largely from the US. The examples are available for free online and she's pulled these into her book to provide a helpful resource for readers, however they don't support the advice she gives in her book. 

Some of the things she tells us not to include in a resume (such as horizontal lines and italics etc.) are all included in the examples she provides, which is a frustrating contradiction. It was also disappointing to find that the content within the samples was mostly American, despite being clear that the e-book was using Australian spelling. If you're going to write for an Australian audience and use Australian spelling, then why not include Australian examples and templates?

I guess Drew is reluctant to share her own (Australian) templates for the same reason I don't; and that's because she would be giving away her IP and could lose potential clients as a result. I understand this, but in her case readers/clients have already paid for some of her IP by purchasing her e-book, so perhaps she could have been more forthcoming.

The best part of Pro Resumes Made Easy was the list of power words / action verbs at the end but I wouldn't recommend this book to jobseekers. I'm confident there are better books on the topic.

My rating = **

Carpe Librum!
10 August 2015

Blog Tour & Review of The Beast's Garden by Kate Forsyth

* Copy courtesy of the author for review via Penguin Random House Australia and NetGalley *

Kate Forsyth is one of my favourite Australian authors, and her re-telling of the Rapunzel fairytale in Bitter Greens is still with me, years after reading it.

The Beast's Garden is Kate Forsyth's latest re-telling and is based on the fairytale Beauty and the Beast. In this case, the beauty is Ava, a talented and beautiful young German woman and the beast of the title is Leo, an intelligent Nazi Officer with an unexpected love of poetry. 

Set in Nazi Germany during WWII, Ava 
rejects all of Leo's advances (despite her attraction to him) until the actions of the Gestapo begin to impact those in her immediate circle, including her Jewish friends.

Taking place in Berlin from 1938 - 1945, we see how regular Germans react to the Gestapo and the Hitler regime, and the impact of war on the city's citizens. Ava takes risks to defy Hitler and joins an underground resistance movement, and sees many of her friends arrested, tortured and killed. Leo works for the Abwehr (secret intelligence service) but Ava isn't quite sure if he's a spy or not and has to tread carefully.

Ava's childhood friend is sent to Buchenwald concentration camp and the several chapters from his perspective are thoroughly heartbreaking and a haunting reminder of the atrocities committed during the Hitler regime.

As I was reading this love story filled with brutal destruction, hate and death, (as well as a love of literature) I didn't have the sense of reading a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast in the same way as Bitter Greens. I understand the analogy, but for me The Beast's Garden reads like a WWII historical novel with a fresh perspective. 

A handful of main characters in the book are fictional, however I've since learned that all events that take place during the novel and many of the people mentioned were based on real figures from history and required years of research.

The Beast's Garden is bound to appeal to a wide market, those looking for a complex love story and those who want a fresh perspective on the fall of Berlin and the impact of this war on everyday Germans.

My rating = ***

For more insight from Kate Forsyth herself about her inspiration for The Beast's Garden, check out her blog post on the topic.
09 August 2015

Review: The Forgotten Manuscript and The Unknown Crime by Sarah Rayne

The Forgotten Manuscript and The Unknown Crime are two short stories gathered together in the one publication, forming a novella of sorts.

Having read 11 novels by Sarah Rayne, the writing style in this was like coming home. Some of the plot components in each of the tales was familiar; uncovering mysteries from the past, a love of manuscripts and discovering connections from history to the present.

As standalone short stories, they both had their merits, but weren't long enough for the brilliant plotting of Rayne to be established and shine through.

All in all, The Forgotten Manuscript and The Unknown Crime were quick and easy reads and will tide you over until her next release.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!
03 August 2015

Review: Hark! A Vagrant, a book of comics by Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton combines her artistic talent, sense of humour and knowledge of history to create her unique comic strips.

Hark! A Vagrant is a collection of comic strips on all topics, and connecting them all is Beaton's love of history and literature.

I don't usually read comics, but after stumbling across the work of Kate Beaton on her website, I couldn't resist looking her up at the library.

I'll admit not understanding ALL of the comics, but that's okay. Beaton's knowledge of history cuts across so many eras and genres that it would have to be a very well-rounded reader to get all of her jokes.

Hark! A Vagrant is a great coffee table book, and is easy to flip open to any page and start reading. I enjoyed it while watching the Tour de France 2015, and it gave me many laughs.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

Here's my favourite comic from page 76 of the book: