Night Witch – a review

I’m catching up with my book reviews – by not reading but writing. Anyway, I’m still ahead in my 2019 Goodreads Challenge– 22 books read from my target of 35 with a few part-finished books in the read-line. And after this, I’ll only be four book reviews behind – if I ignore the backlog from 2018 and earlier.

So, on to the Thursday Creation Review for today/tomorrow – a novel that continued my interest in Soviet airwomen in World War II. My research is ongoing and there are two more ‘Night Witches’ novels in my reading pile.

Night Witch

by S.J. McCormack

Farm girl to aviator in the heroic WWII Russian flying unit the Germans called the Night Witches… 

JUNE 1941 Nineteen-year old Raisa Tarasova’s peaceful life shatters when Hitler’s forces invade Russia. Her two brothers immediately enlist in the air corps. Despite Raisa’s desire to fly and her many hours of flying time, neither the air corps nor her father would allow such a thing. She is, after all, “just a girl.” 

In September Raisa returns to her engineering studies at the university in Moscow. Once there, she jumps at the opportunity to join a newly formed women’s aviation unit. Wearing men’s uniforms hurriedly cut down to fit, Raisa and 300 other female recruits are loaded into railcars and transported to a training base. 

After six hard months of schooling, Raisa is assigned as a navigator with the all-women Night Bomber Regiment. 
Their aircraft is the PO-2, a biplane made of wood and fabric. Months later, after a night of heavy losses, Raisa is given a field promotion and the new responsibility of pilot. She has no choice but to carry out her orders and face down a most significant enemy…her own fear. 

Courage, an impossible romance, and a daring rescue only a woman would devise become part of Raisa’s new life as a member of the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, the NIGHT WITCHES.

Review 4.3 stars

This was the second novel I’ve read about a young woman who risks everything to join the legendary Night Witches, an all-female Soviet night bomber regiment that wreaked havoc on the invading Germans in World War II.

Echoing the real friendships forged amid the harsh struggle to survive a gritty and vicious war – the terrible conflict known to the Soviets as the Great Patriotic War – this was a crafted story built around good research.

Nineteen-year old Raisa Tarasova’s peaceful life and engineering studies are shattered when Hitler’s forces invade Russia. But unlike her brothers, she cannot join the air corps despite her many hours of flying time – she’s a girl. However, when a women’s aviation unit is formed, she joins up with 300 other recruits.

After six hard months of schooling, Raisa is assigned as a navigator with the all-women 588th Night Bomber Regiment, which flies the PO-2, a biplane made of wood and fabric. Comrades die, leading to a field promotion to pilot – and a daring rescue at the expense of everything, including a burgeoning romance.

The build-up from peace to war pulls the reader in, giving the ideal amount of backstory. The author paints a clever contrast between everyday normality and the encroaching storm of war. The invasion triggers an increase of pace, although the female recruits are not rushed to the front – unlike men such as Raisa’s brothers.

From the training into the combat, the reader is enveloped in the realism of flying and the social interaction between the young women – and with the male aircrew. There is enough detail to ground the story, but not so much that the pace struggles. Events, especially at the front, are traumatic but some are humorous.

S.J. McCormack did her research, judging from my reading of a newly-published non-fiction book on Soviet airwomen I own. The author lists her sources, and these include ones I’ve heard of.

Only one thing concerned me. SPOILER ALERT

I knew Stalin imposed strict orders that if you surrendered or were captured by the enemy – or even just ended up behind enemy lines – you were a traitor. So, when Raisa is shot down on the German side of the front, I wondered how she could ever return to her regiment safely.

END ALERT.

The resolution the author devised for the climax was ingenious, strengthened the story – and had me diving down research rabbit holes and nodding, grin on my face.

The characters all felt rounded, especially Raisa with all her complexities and central fear. Plus, her pilot-friend who everyone admires, and who inspires Raisa throughout the story is a strong role. Even the secondary characters seemed real, from her love-interest to the girl with the cow.

The settings worked as background to the story and characters, even if nothing came alive either as distinctive or as a distraction. But the locations worked neatly into the whole structure. Although there were no WOW-twists, the inventive ending had me ‘heading home’ with Raisa, nodding in agreement.

An enjoyable read and recommended for anyone who likes entertaining WWII historical fiction.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – four stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – four stars

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey – a review


As a reader and a gamer, this was inevitable – a second game related book. Although the first was a book that led to a game – Witcher – while this arose from a game. But both related to games that absorb/distract me.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

by 

Gordon Doherty (Goodreads Author) 

THE OFFICIAL NOVELIZATION BASED ON THE POPULAR VIDEO GAME FRANCHISE.THE OFFICIAL NOVELIZATION BASED ON THE POPULAR VIDEO GAME FRANCHISE.

They call her misthios–mercenary–and she will take what she is owed.


Kassandra was raised by her parents to be fierce and uncaring, the ideal Spartan child, destined for greatness. But when a terrible tragedy leaves her stranded on the isle of Kephallonia, near Greece, she decides to find work as a mercenary, away from the constraints of Sparta. 

Many years later, Kassandra is plagued by debt and living under the shadow of a tyrant when a mysterious stranger offers her a deal: assassinate the Wolf, a renowned Spartan general, and he will wipe her debt clean. The offer is simple, but the task is not, as she will need to infiltrate the war between Athens and Sparta to succeed.

Kassandra’s odyssey takes her behind enemy lines and among uncertain allies. A web of conspiracy threatens her life, and she must cut down the enemies that surround her to get to the truth. Luckily, a Spartan’s blade is always sharp.

            Review 4.4 stars

As a fan of historical fiction and a gamer, this was an enjoyable book throughout. I admit that I finished the main questline of the game, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey before reading this novelisation. And I played Kassandra preferring the performance of the voice actress, Melissanthi Mahut.

Kassandra is a mercenary who is caught up in a conspiracy that threatens her life – and the future of Greece. Here past is entwined with Sparta’s past and one she can’t avoid.

This novel was as immersive as the game but building on what I already knew of the ancient Greek world and from the game world. Not surprising from Gordon Doherty, a writer of ancient historical fiction who clearly knows how to make a historical period come alive – in this case, the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta at the head of their respective Leagues.

Once finished, I was interested to see how far the historical detail departed from reality, knowing that some have called the Assassin’s Creed universe ‘alternative history’. In this storyline, there are elements and a few characters that are fictional and perhaps ‘alternative’. But the background, the world and many of the principal players are historical – like my favourite, Brasidas. The characters come alive – helped I admit by meeting them in game – although they may not have the complexities that some readers might expect.

The game is visually stunning – as Greece is – but this novel adds the smells of the world from the flowers and sea breezes to the unwashed bodies and corpses. There are moments that are darker, more visceral and realistic. That’s the power of crafted words.

I’ve idolised Sparta – sometimes – but I’m convinced now that Sparta is not the place for me. Athens is more suited to my artistic and democratic temperament – but under Perikles.

This novelisation adds more to the plot – even alternative motives and actions that embellish a storyline that must work in a game setting where it’s hard to have multiple endings. For me, there were few surprises, but I enjoyed the development of characters and situations that fleshed out events and structure. Time was more akin to what one would expect – journeys take days and weeks; scouting out a target can take weeks, if not months; events occur over months, even years. We mustn’t forget that the Second Peloponnesian War lasted almost thirty years, from 431 to 404 BCE.

This novelisation ended with a clever scene that worked for the Assassin’s Creed universe and was perhaps better although different from my ending. A fun and recommended read if you enjoy this genre of book.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – four stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – four stars

Editing – four stars

**

I’m still exploring the game of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, although I am now on side-quests and exploring places unfound – and I have yet to slay the Minotaur. At some point in the future, I will review the game – if there is the demand. For now, the focus will be on books – albeit the current one is non-fiction.

The Shepherdess of Siena – a review

Thursday_horizons

This week’s novel for my Thursday Creation Review was a ‘must read’ that fit two reading genres and offered more: historical and equestrian, plus it was set in Italy.

Shepherdess_Siena

The Shepherdess of Siena

by

Linda Lafferty (Goodreads Author)

Raised by her aunt and uncle amidst the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside, young orphan Virginia Tacci has always harboured a deep love for horses—though she knows she may never have the chance to ride. As a shepherdess in sixteenth-century Italy, Virginia’s possibilities are doubly limited by her peasant class and her gender. Yet while she tends her flock, Virginia is captivated by the daring equestrian feats of the high-spirited Isabella de’ Medici, who rides with the strength and courage of any man, much to the horror of her brother, the tyrannical Gran Duca Francesco de’ Medici.

Inspired, the young shepherdess keeps one dream close to her heart: to race in Siena’s Palio. Twenty-six years after Florence captured Siena, Virginia’s defiance will rally the broken spirit of the Senese people and threaten the pernicious reign of the Gran Duca. Bringing alive the rich history of one of Tuscany’s most famed cities, this lush, captivating saga draws an illuminating portrait of one girl with an unbreakable spirit.

Review 4.3 stars

A Historical novel with horses and set primarily in Tuscany was a Must Read, and it proved enjoyable.

Virginia Tacci is the young shepherdess that loves horses and wants to ride – something that few women in the sixteenth-century can do on an even playing field with men. Even those from the nobility like Isabella de’ Medici that can attempt to ignore social expectations are prey to their male superiors – or those that believe in their right to manipulate and persecute.

This is a world of rules and rulers, and Linda Lafferty paints the period and the setting vividly, demonstrating her painstaking research. This is a realistic medieval world from attitudes to architecture, from struggling peasants to scheming nobility. Many of the characters are historical, yet the author gives them distinct personalities – at times needing to build on limited documentary evidence from the period. (The author’s notes at the end make the extent of the research clear.)

The novel is strongest when focused on the horses and on Virginia. It is their story that kept me reading from the birth of a key foal, through the event that makes Virginia the centre of a thread of plots. The equestrian elements were meticulous in their detail as well as vibrant. The choice of having the protagonist tell their own first-person story also worked and enhanced this central thread.

However, with multiple plotlines, there was a need for some of the other viewpoints used. All these were the third person, and, in most cases, these worked and gave the plotlines momentum. But, purely from this reader’s perspective, there were too many, and some characters suffered through too little ‘screen-time’. There were moments when I stopped and wondered if some of these POVs could have been amalgamated – perhaps giving one observer more chapters to record events as they experience them.

This applied to the probably accurate de Medici scenes which led me to comment, mid-reading, “Whose story is this?” At times, I wanted to get back to Virginia and the horses as those scenes had a momentum that never tailed off. Of course, to me ‘Mares rule’ – except I will always find room for a great stallion.

Virginia’s ride is not always easy and not just because of her gender, although that prejudice never lets up. The ending is unexpected, but many have argued that it is right given the era. One question was uppermost as the threads converged together: “How would the antagonists atone for their sins?”

How can a historical novel ever have a neat ending? Reality is never what we expect or desire. And life goes on beyond the end of a novel. If characters evolve, as they do here, then that is the truth.

Although this novel rates 4.3 stars adjusted to 4 stars, I would recommend this to fans of historical fiction especially if they love horses.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – four stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – four stars

Editing – four stars

 

Apricots and Wolfsbane

Thursday_horizons

 

This is the first of my new Thursday Creation review posts which will usually be Books, although I reserve the right to review Games, Films or other Works of Art.

When I first encountered Apricots and Wolfsbane in an interview with K M Pohlkamp, and then read the blurb, I had to read the novel. This review is an extended and more developed version of my initial thoughts when I’d reached the end.

Apricots_36194389

Apricots and Wolfsbane

by

K.M. Pohlkamp

* Shortlisted for the 2017 Chaucer Book Awards for Historical Fiction.
* Contains a book club reading guide in the back.
* Available on Google Play:

Lavinia Maud craves the moment the last wisps of life leave her victim’s bodies—to behold the effects of her own poison creations. Believing confession erases the sin of murder, her morbid desires are in unity with faith, though she could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves.

At the start of the 16th century in Tudor England, Lavinia’s marks grow from tavern drunks to nobility, but rising prestige brings increased risk. When the magistrate suspects her ruse, he pressures the priest into breaking her confessional seal, pitting Lavinia’s instincts as an assassin against the tenets of love and faith. She balances revenge with her struggle to develop a tasteless poison and avoid the wrath of her ruthless patron.

With her ideals in conflict, Lavinia must decide which will satisfy her heart: love, faith, or murder—but the betrayals are just beginning.

“One should never condone murder, but, strangely, I rooted for Lavinia. Pohlkamp made her easily understandable, despite her odd sense of morality. She had to survive in a time period dominated by men…Her dark obsession with poison, her love for the magistrate, Haylan Moryet, and her belief in God turn the narrative into something fascinating and substantial that powers the heart of the story.”- 5 Star Review from Readers’ Favorite

**

Review 4.9 stars

I’m one of Lavinia Maud’s victims – or am I a gullible sympathiser? However, she wove her masterful ways – or rather K. M Pohlkamp did – and the price was very acceptable.

First an interview with the author then the blurb tempted me. Other reviews hooked me, and the opening pulled me in as I succumbed to the words. I knew the protagonist was poisoning people, but the author did a crafty job of keeping this reader behind Lavinia, despite the crimes. When are sins forgiven? Was it through her confessions? Unlikely as I sympathised with the priest. But I wanted Lavinia to succeed – at least in her attempt to find the elusive poison and escape to another life. Was I deceived by someone?

The plotting and character development required skill and abilities that all writers could learn from. As Lavinia’s machinations get more devious, there are repercussions – ripples that have consequences. This well-crafted plot builds, and trust is tested as the poisoned web grows.

Beyond Lavinia, there are other well-painted characters, although through the eyes of the poison mistress so the perspective is shrouded by beliefs. Words and actions make for memorable personalities, even fleeting – and strange partnerships emerge. And identifying the next victim is always under the surface in this world.

This Tudor England felt accurate, although as a Brit, I went investigating where this was set and uncovered the writer’s reasoned decision to tread a semi-fabricated path. Yet the plotting and politics painted an unsettling but familiar picture of a society where being male and having money equals privileges. A too-real world where women needed other wiles to survive – like a knowledge of herbs and more.

How far can a poison mistress climb? When is she respected?

Questions I was loath to project as my sympathies were torn between acceptance of Lavinia with all her sins, and the innocent crying out for justice. It takes a talented writer to outsmart her protagonist and her readers, creating an unexpected conclusion.

At this point, I must be careful and evade the temptation of spoilers.

As the climax drew near, I couldn’t put the book down, desperate to know what Fate and Faith had devised. Who would choose to play chess with Poison?

So, I hope that I’ve tempted you, even if a killer deserves fewer stars, and Divine Justice makes demands too. But why condemn the poison wielder, when it was the author’s skill that resolved the web of deviousness.

Am I perverse? No, Drama prevails so I recommend this novel wholeheartedly. 4.9 stars upgraded to 5.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – four stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

Traitor’s Knot – a review

As anyone knows that has read my guest post ‘From Ostler to Eventer’ on Cryssa Bazos’s website, I found a strong connection to this book through horses. But there was so much more, so, read on for my review.

Traitor's Knot

Traitor’s Knot

by Cryssa Bazos (Goodreads Author)

England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Review 5*

When I first read the reviews, I added Traitor’s Knot to my Must-Read list. However, I was lucky enough to win a copy in a Giveaway – so many thanks, Cryssa Bazos.

Growing up in England, it was hard not to take sides over the English Civil War so this excellent novel stirred all the right passions and unleashed memories. As a child, I was a Royalist but then switched my loyalties to Parliament as I read more. Then I saw yet another side and wavered again. Therefore, I can feel how many of the characters in Traitor’s Knot struggled with their consciences, although through the author’s words the emotional and physical strife comes vividly alive.

From the first page, I was swept into the past, drawn in by the characters and the action. The setting of the Civil War era felt real and the characters’ behaviour seemed appropriate for the time. I am not a historical expert but nothing jarred and, in fact, there were moments where I nodded my head thinking, ‘That sounds right’. I am convinced that Cryssa Bazos did a great deal of intense research. As a retired equestrian journalist, everything horse-related was accurate and one horse was a character in himself.

The plot was cleverly crafted, with the characters being carefully drawn together as events weaved fate. This was never going to be a smooth ride for James Hart and Elizabeth Seton, and the author made sure of that at every stage. No surprise that I wrote, ‘Beware those Roundheads and their twisted ways’, especially after the opening. One stirred my old animosities and I was ready to make him suffer – that takes great writing.

But knots have ways too. The novel’s title is clever, and knots tie things up in so many ways -I even wanted a ‘knot garden’ and the author delivered. Throughout, there was clever plot development and world building – constructing fiction that felt historical. As a mystery writer, I enjoyed the twists and turns as the plot wove around and away from the obvious. Although I knew my English Civil War, so expected one inevitable outcome – no spoilers, there were unexpected turns of events and I could easily ignore what I knew from school. This was on another more realistic level than dry history text books.

The crafting of the climax was exceptional, building on the strands of the plot, weaving them together in an intricate knot. And the final denouement was so devious and edge of the seat thrilling that I was unable to put the book down even to get some work done.

I look forward to the next novel from Cryssa Bazos.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

Followers of Writing Wings will know that over the last month I have been fortunate to connect with Cryssa Bazos through the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog, and subsequently promoting my novel. Therefore, we have chatted and I may have an idea about what her next novel might be about. But I leave that for her to say.

Cryssa’s website, where there is more about her novel, highwaymen, and the 17th Century, is: https://cryssabazos.com