I Am the Chosen King – a review

Over the next two or three weeks, I intend to review the seven books read in recent months. Some of these were on my list for my 2019 challenges, and all have counted towards my 2019 Goodreads Challenge.

First is a novel I won in a giveaway on the author’s website that I follow. As it is a thick book, I had some difficulty carrying it around in my old wheelchair. But over time, I found a solution and read the novel.

I Am the Chosen King

(Saxon #1)

by

Helen Hollick

Original Title when published in the UK: Harold the King

In this beautifully crafted tale, Harold Godwinesson, the last Saxon King of England, is a respected, quick-witted man both vulnerable and strong, honorable and loving-and yet, in the end, only human. After the political turmoil and battles leading up to 1066, we all know William the Conquerer takes England. But Helen Hollick will have readers at the edge of their seats, hoping that just this once, for Harold, the story will have a different ending.

Review 5 stars

This beautifully written novel was well worth spending time reading. In summary, I loved all the details and characters. Although I already opposed the Normans, Helen Hollick turned me into a fan of Harold Godwinesson. But I’ve never liked William the Conqueror – even when I discovered the Normans had Norse ancestors. The novel felt well-researched.

On a superficial level and the one I learnt at school decades ago, the story is straightforward. But the reality and the twists, intrigues and rivalry as it unfolds is complex. Helen Hollick captures all the nuances and fills in history’s gaps convincingly.

The settings in England and Normandy evoked a sense of what the 11th century was possibly like. Some of the places I glimpsed from my own travels. For instance, London and its environs were very different and yet the descriptions triggered images and memories in my imagination. I lived for a few years near Waltham Abbey, so could picture it as it was.

One negative could be the portrayal of the original Britons – the Welsh. Were the Welsh worse than other peoples around that period? Ruling England is a tough job, but does it mean all one’s enemies are violent savages? Or is that my Welsh bias?

Anyways, the Godwinesson family take centre stage, led by Harold’s influential father, Earl Godwin. Early on there are indications that sibling rivalry is inevitable, and as the story unfolds it becomes more intense leading to the fatal actions of one brother, Tostig. How the role of other family members weaves into this is well-portrayed and justified.

Then there is royal intrigue. Again, inevitable given the characters, a reluctant King, his powerful mother – Emma, Queen and wife of the late Cnut the Great – and then Harold’s politically astute father. Emma, who is the protagonist of Hollick’s next book in the series, The Forever Queen – chronologically a prequel – is reluctant to let her son, Edward rule as if he’s weak. But this ‘confessor’ is distracted by spiritual matters – until he tastes power.

I’m not going to accuse the author of treating her characters as black and white as others have. They take sides and few of them waver. Even the despicable William has his moments of introspection. So, the characters felt realistic, reacting and creating events. Some lived dangerously, wanting what others had and failing – or in William’s case succeeding.

Emma must teach Harold’s ambitious sister Edith about her duties as Queen when she marries Edward, becoming the next Queen of England. And what does power do when petty sibling rivalry plays its role? Hollick weaves that rivalry into the historical facts, and the tale unfolds as it did in 1066. Fortunately, Harold’s hand-fast wife, Edith Swanneck rises above this rivalry, and their love endures even when he has to marry another in the eyes of the church – another relationship well-portrayed.

When Edward dies and Harold is chosen as the King of England, other claimants emerge inevitably. One is Duke William of Normandy. Historically he claimed both Edward and Harold had promised him the crown, but the records are questionable enough for the writer to expand on the facts and give Harold justification for accepting the crown himself.

Result – invasions north and south. The pace builds as the ending unfolds that most English know from school. So, we know what happens in this timeline. Tostig creates tension and trouble with his Norwegian allies. And as made clear in the scenes of him securing his dukedom, William never gives up. History can’t be changed.

Damn that Norman bastard.

The tension of those final days gripped me as I marched up and down England. Hollick had me praying for an English victory. ‘What if’ kept playing through her words. But this wasn’t the clever alternative history collection, 1066 Turned Upside Down which Hollick contributed to. This was the actual year 1066 but crafted brilliantly and enjoyably.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

The Pearl Thief – a review

When I was compiling my list for the 2019 Cloak and Dagger Challenge, I missed off a number of books including Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief. As Wein’s Code Name Verity was my top read in 2018, I was looking forward to reading this prequel. Well listening to what was my first Audible novel, though not my first audio book.

I’m now listening to another Elizabeth Wein novel – Black Dove, White Raven – but back to the review of my sixth read for the Challenge

The Pearl Thief

(Code Name Verity 0.5)

by

Elizabeth E. Wein

Before Verity . . . there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In the prequel to Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this exhilarating coming-of-age story returns to a beloved character just before she learned to fly.

Review 5 stars

After I was bowled over by the brilliance of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, I enjoyed re-connecting with the memorable Julia Beaufort-Stuart – albeit when she was fifteen.

This is a different genre – a mystery and coming-of-age story that my wife and I listened to engrossed. This was our first Audible book and the narration by actress Maggie Service was excellent, bringing to life the characters.

The mystery begins when Julia wakes up in hospital and realises that her injury might not have been an accident. Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to first-hand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences.

Wein artfully weaves pearl gathering in the river and a missing-person investigation into Julia’s evolving relationships. Facts are slipped into scenes in subtle ways, and the author even adds a useful addendum about Pearls and Travellers at the very end. Wein always strikes me as a writer that does her research and knows how to knit it into a tale – as she does here.

The characters were distinctive and grew over time, not just as their layers were unpeeled but also by their interactions. For instance, the complex relationship between Julia and Ellen grows from social divide to mutual understanding and deep friendship. Others grow from their shells or achieve deserved recognition in a similar way.

The Scottish setting echoed my own time there, especially along stretches of riverbank. And some of the prejudices were familiar from the class world I know.

By the end, the mysteries – yes, there I far more than one- have been solved in unexpected ways. For me, some seeds had been sown that foreshadowed Code Name Verity – subtle and poignant.

An excellent listen – and another memorable character.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – five stars

Narration – five stars

Editing – five stars

Rebecca – a review


I was unsure whether I could count Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as my fifth Cloak and Dagger read of 2019, but at least it is the February/March book for  The Insecure Writer’s Support Group Book Club group so I can tick that off.

Then, I read the word ‘mystery’ in a description of the book.

Rebecca

by

Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave. 

First published in 1938, this classic gothic novel is such a compelling read that it won the Anthony Award for Best Novel of the Century.

Review 5 stars

This was a classic that I thought I had read, but I hadn’t. Now I’m glad I did as it’s memorable and worthy of multiple reads.

Although the novel is described as gothic – and by some as a romance – for me it was also a mystery. Its style by today’s standards might be called dated and yet it was ahead of its time – as was the author.

Much of the narration is as chunks of description mixed with reflection and conjecture by the un-named protagonist living in the shadow of Rebecca. In comparison with the title character, this new Mrs de Winter seems naïve, powerless and at the mercy of others. At first, it would be easy to dismiss her – even the novel – without giving either a chance…without understanding the heroine or the shy author.

I grew up in a world not dissimilar to Manderley, albeit one that had lost its glitter but not its attitudes. I felt myself intimidated by scary and overbearing people – especially when I did something wrong. Society and doing the right thing frightened me.

Especially when such amazing people as Rebecca were being fawned over.

Rebecca may be the deceased wife of Maxim de Winter, but she pervades the story, the house and the grounds. She’s on everyone’s lips. It’s a clever device making her so dominant, giving the novel her name, and naming her, not the protagonist. And it works. The reader is fooled along with the new Mrs de Winter into believing the myth – until the doubts appear.

Mrs Danvers, doth protest too much, methinks. She is the archetypal retainer that creates fear and doubts. Rebecca haunts Manderley in one way, Mrs Danvers in another – a brilliant creation, reminiscent of other classic scary presences. A living vampire?

All the characters are distinctive. All reminded me of people I had met – even worked with. The mannerisms felt familiar, whether Beatrice, the loquacious sister, or Frank Cawley, the faithful agent for Manderley. Even Maxim de Winter was real with all his faults and guilt buried.  

If I had to befriend just one, it would be Jasper. The dog? Yes, the faithful exuberant spaniel.

One other character enfolds the novel – Manderley. The house becomes character, atmosphere and setting. At first magnificent and untouchable with buried secrets. Manderley fills the narrator’s thoughts, not just the house but the gardens and the sea coves. As the protagonist’s thoughts change so do the descriptions of setting, of home, of the weather, of the vegetation. Or is it vice versa? The weather changes and then her thoughts?

But they are all one, interacting as the plot unfolds – setting and thought and events. The past even before Rebecca. Even before Manderley. The sea and the fog.

Cliffhanging language that I need to immerse myself in again.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

Ten Minutes Past Teatime – a review


This is the first post written with my new ‘one-handed’ keyboard – well, smaller than my UK-bought one so easier to use when my left-hand cramps and claws. Just need to adapt to its idiosyncrasies.

On to my review of a short story that a writer I follow sent her subscribers.

Ten Minutes Past Teatime

by

Elizabeth Chatsworth (Goodreads Author)

Please note, this is a short story/novelette.

A Victorian spinster-scientist and a Viking shield-maiden find passion and danger in dark-age Ireland.

1896: Forty-three-year-old scientist Miss Minerva Minett is determined to become the first female member of an exclusive inventor’s club. To win their annual membership competition, she invents a time-traveling submersible, and launches her vessel into the Irish sea for a quick trip to the dark ages. But when she sinks a Viking longship, accidentally joins a monastery raid, and falls into the arms of a grizzled shield-maiden, she discovers that time may not be on her side.

Review 4.3 stars

This entertaining steampunk short story had me amused and entertained as forty-three-year-old Victorian scientist Miss Minerva Minett attempted to become the first female member of an exclusive inventor’s club, by launching her time-traveling submersible into the Irish sea for a quick trip to the dark ages.

From the amusing opening through her encounter with the grizzled shield-maiden, Alfhild to the twist at the end, I chuckled at the inventive mind of Minerva and her creator.

The experiments and inventions were as memorable as the characters, including the one that delivered the twist at the end. Being steampunk, I expected alternative history, so I won’t over-judge the authenticity beyond wondering about some oddities such as a misplaced dragon-head.   

The romance between Alfhild and Minerva is a bonus with neat contrasts across cultures and time. And with a name like Minerva, there had to be goddess references.

Alfhild was the true goddess, not she. Or maybe they both were?

It was a thesis she would have to explore in more detail. For the sake of science.

But the humour is always there.

Minerva cocked her head. Surely, she didn’t hear the word goldfish in the chorus? “ . . . Minerva’s Magic Goldfish. Answers every sailor’s wish . . .” Oh, dear.

A fun read, although short.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – three stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – four stars

Worse than Dead – a review

My fourth Cloak and Dagger read of 2019 was a return to familiar territory with Stephen Puleston’s Inspector Drake series, set like my current ‘work in progress’ in North Wales. I have already reviewed Brass in Pocket, the first book in the series.

On then to my review of Book 2.

Worse than Dead

(Inspector Drake #2)

by Stephen Puleston (Goodreads Author)

A ferry leaves Dublin…The chief engineer lies dead on the car deck …There’s a killer on board…
Inspector Drake is called from a seminar on cyber crime to meet the ferry docking at the port of Holyhead. Frank Rosen the chief engineer lies on the car deck a knife through his heart. For the first time Drake knows where the killer is but he doesn’t know who. 
When Rosen’s house is ransacked the night after he’s killed Drake knows the killer was looking for something. The data stick Rosen’s wife finds may hold the clues. But the codes and numbers on it only complicate the investigation.
And then Drake’s cousin makes contact and tells him he has information. But can Drake rely on him or does he have another agenda? And when the team discover a direct link to drug dealing in North Wales and beyond there are powerful forces at work. 
Drake’s cousin drags Drake’s family into the middle of the case that piles the pressure on Drake who’s facing regular counselling for his OCD and the prospect of losing his father to cancer.
When Drake’s superior demotes him and acts entirely against protocols Drake knows that something is wrong. Establishing the evidence takes him to Dublin and Cardiff and then on a last minute chase over North Wales to the ancient Fort Belan hoping that he will catch the killer.

Review 4.3 stars

I was hoping that this second Book in Stephen Puleston’s Inspector Drake series would transport me back to North Wales. I was not disappointed.

This was the country I remembered from living there a few years – without the criminal element. That darker side was the world of the first book, providing Detective Inspector Ian Drake with another baffling case.

When Frank Rosen, a ferry’s Chief Engineer is found murdered on the car deck, Drake knows that the killer must still be onboard. But the investigation is complicated when his team is forced to let everyone disembark before a suspect can be identified. A link to drug dealing complicates matters further, especially when different police departments must be involved.

Puleston uses his background as a retired criminal lawyer to lend authenticity and detail to the working of the police and the criminals. Both sides play devious games – fortunately, Drake is not easily fooled in the end.

But he continues to struggle with his OCD as he did in the first book. This idiosyncrasy and his addiction to Sudoku make him a memorable protagonist, although I don’t warm to him. The rest of his team – Caren Waits, Dave Howick and Gareth Winder – have their own traits that we see through Drake’s OCD eyes primarily. I wondered if this was an unusual team or maybe not.

Drake’s Detective Sergeant, Caren had more scenes in her POV than in Book 1, and these helped me get to know her better. POV scenes for Howick and Winder added their perspective but to a lesser extent. Even though Puleston called Caren by her first name throughout, and all the male officers by their surname – which felt strange – I still couldn’t relate to even her.

Conflict weaves its way in the story but comes with the territory even for police with their own rivalries. The domestic tensions are there for Drake and others, echoing real-life experiences of police families as well as the impact of crime on lives.

There are again too many cast members – especially with multiple suspects and witnesses. This is a failing in many books so perhaps forgivable in the final analysis when the plot comes together. A few surprises were in store and most complexities were resolved. But one scene from a different POV confused me – or is to be resolved in the next case.

This is a recommended read and I will be checking out Book #3 as this novel whet my appetite for more from North Wales. The place and people of this beautiful country infused the writing, from scenery to language.

Story – four stars

Characters – four stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – four stars

Editing – four stars

Ninth Step Station – a review

My third ‘cloak and dagger’ read of 2019 was a new approach for me – serialized fiction released in episodes week after week. The publishers, Serial Box offered me an ARC as I had read and reviewed a novel by one of the four writers, back in September 2017: Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi. I am grateful and glad I agreed to read the ARC for Season 1 of Ninth Step Station.

Ninth Step Station: The Complete Season 1

(Ninth Step Station Series #1.1-1.10)

by

Malka Ann Older (Goodreads Author), Fran Wilde (Goodreads Author), Jacqueline Koyanagi (Goodreads Author), Curtis C. Chen (Goodreads Author)

A local cop. A US Peacekeeper. A divided Tokyo.

Years of disaster and conflict have left Tokyo split between great powers. 

In the city of drone-enforced borders, body-mod black markets, and desperate resistance movements, US peacekeeper Emma Higashi is assigned to partner with Tokyo Metropolitan Police Detective Miyako Koreda.

Together, they must race to solve a series of murders that test their relationship and threaten to overturn the balance of global power. And amid the chaos, they each need to decide what they are willing to do for peace.

Review 4.4 stars

I was pleased to receive this serialised fiction as an ARC from Serial Box Publishing as it was an exciting read.

This police procedural set in a near future Tokyo consists of ten engrossing episodes written by different authors, including at least one, Jacqueline Koyanagi whose debut novel I’ve read and reviewed.

The style is reminiscent of US crime series, but with its own interesting approach as the sense of an imminent future pervades but doesn’t take over the plots. This could be ‘tomorrow’ with China occupying part of Japan and a sector of Tokyo, and with the US playing what is meant to be peacekeeper. Ninth Step Station has some fascinating characters, interesting plots, futuristic tech and very real political intrigue.

US peacekeeper Emma Higashi (Japanese-American) is assigned to partner with Tokyo Metropolitan Police Detective Miyako Koreda at Nine Step Station, one of the key TMP stations. The cases they are tasked with solving are standalone, but there are overarching events that carry through the novel/series with the usual TV-style cliff-hanger to lead into Series 2.

The crimes in the ten episodes vary from suspected suicide and domestic violence to assassination and terrorism with differing levels of technological involvement such as body-mods, drones, data mining, and data sleeves – all realistic evolutions of existing tech. The data sleeves especially play a key role in enabling people to instantly communicate and interface – although this is also a city troubled by regular power-cuts/blackouts. However, the war and the gangs/Yakuza make solving crimes challenging with some data irretrievable and some information obscured by human evasiveness.

Each of the writers gives an individual feel to each episode, yet together they create a seamless story with consistent and evolving characters, a realistic-feeling Tokyo post-occupation and those building overarching events. The TV-style structure means the episodes are formula to some degree, but they are enjoyable – although not as complex as some mysteries I read.

Both the two main characters and the supporting players are distinctly portrayed, and there are developing attributes and discoveries as the episodes unfold. The misunderstanding and conflicts arising between the two protagonists due to cultural differences, personal secrets and political agendas create a more complex relationship than an instant crime-fighting partnership and that relationship has room to grow. I was also pleased to see that the issues of gender bias and sexuality were addressed – although not as suspected.

Not knowing Tokyo, I assume that the world-building does build on the present city, although I realise that the format only allows the setting to receive less attention than the stand-out characters who are what will pull me back here.

I look forward to the sequel as there is plenty to build on in Ninth Step Station.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Authenticity – four stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars