S.J.A.Turney's Books & More

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Richard II: A True King’s Fall

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I do like to intersperse, in the rare leisure time I get, my fiction reading with a little non-fiction (quite apart from all the Roman non-fiction research I do.) This book was an interesting choice, because to sum up everything I knew about Richard II in one sentence: “Pubs called the White Hart are named after him.” Pretty feeble, eh? The white hart was Richard’s own insignia. Also I tend to get a little mixed up in the Plantagenet era. On the bright side, the Richards aren’t to difficult to separate. 1st was a bloodthirsty warrior who bankrupted the country fighting his crusades and yet for some reason is the country’s most beloved monarch, and 3rd is Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain. No for me, of course. I’m a Yorkshireman, so I know him for the heroic king and Henry Tudor for the usurping French/Welsh tart. But that’s an argument for another time. Damn you, Stanley…

The book opens with a who’s who. More non-fiction should do this. A common issue with numerous eras is lots of very similar names and trying to keep them straight in your head. I get that a lot with Roman names. To have a handy reference point at the start is invaluable in a world where at first glance everyone appears to be called Henry or Edward.

Then we launch into the biography in chronological order beginning with his youth, obviously. And that, I would make clear, is what this is: a biography of the man Richard II, not an account of his reign. It delves into family, relationships, motivations and the minutiae of Richard’s personal life and connections. It does not provide a vast wealth of information about the time and events of his reign.

As such, I found it interesting, yet it left me with unanswered questions. Since I know so little about his reign I was constantly cross referencing with my friend Google to fill in the socio-political gaps. But hey, I’m used to that with my Roman research. And this being non-fiction, it’s not like you’re going to lose the pace and feel of it by branching out to find out more about Wat Tyler.

But what Warner omits in terms of the political history, we gain in terms of an in-depth look at the character and life of an oft-overlooked monarch. Oh, and it is graced with some lovely colour plates too. In short, if you’re wanting a study on the reign of the White Hart King, and you’re not au fait with the history already, this might not serve you so well. But if you want to understand the man, or you are already versed in the politics of the time, then it should be a treat.

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Written by SJAT

February 17, 2018 at 9:27 am

The Last Hour

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Rarely does a book all-but leap off the shelf, batter me round the head and say ‘read me’, but the Last Hour was one such rarity. At first glance all I knew was that it was a thriller set in the later Roman empire about a man struggling to make his way through the city against unassailable odds to halt a plot. Sounded soooo good. And I love Sidebottom’s writing – his Ballista books are some of my favourites.

It was not until I actually opened the book, courtesy of Netgalley, that I realised this is for me absolutely the best of both worlds. This is all what I said above, but it is ALSO a Ballista book. This is a new Warrior of Rome novel, taking the whole series and its wonderful characters in a bold new direction, which I love.

It was interesting reading this after the other Warrior of Rome books, for gradually over the series Ballista has built up a familia of fascinating characters who have become almost as central to the plots as the hero himself. They are often set in quite a sweeping scale with epic fights and Cecil B. DeMille scenes. The cast of the Last Hour is seriously stripped back, focusing almost entirely upon Ballista himself, with walk-ons and mentions for everyone else. And it is all tightly-set. One man, in one city, in one day. The focus in terms of time and character is a new and very welcome thing.

With this whole novel set in a single day in Rome, Sidebottom gets to unleash every ounce of his considerable knowledge of the Roman world in a steady flow and in an incredibly engaging way. There is not a hint of ‘info dump’ here. Everything Sidebottom writes that will educate the reader is slipped seamlessly into the tale, and believe me, there’s a lot. I like to think I know the ancient city of Rome well. I’ve explored it endlessly in books and research and on foot with my camera. But even though I know the place well, still I get surprised by some of the revelations in this book.

Quite simply, this is a historical/political thriller that would sit well on a shelf alongside modern thrillers by Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, or Frederick Forsyth, but with an added dimension, in that it is also a cracking historical novel. As I said earlier: the best of both worlds. The book is out on the 8th of March. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Written by SJAT

February 7, 2018 at 9:36 am

Winter’s Edge

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Having been involved myself in a number of multi-author collections, I am always fascinated to see how such things are handled by other writers. Winter’s Edge is a collection of 7 historical tales penned by 7 different writers, some who I know and some who I don’t, each story set in a different period and location but linked through with a common thread – knives with wolf-head handles. In order we have:

WOLF OF SATURNALIA is a Roman tale by Paul Murphy that kicks off the collection. Set in the early empire it is a tale of a former Roman general and his extended familia, including a perilous journey through bandit infested lands on the way from Rome to Campania. This tale is slotted between two books of a series and there is minute amount of reader expectation in terms of character and setting. Towards the tale’s conclusion there is a feeling that the reader would gain more having read the characters in their original novel but, that being said, the tale is still engaging and exciting, with vivid description and a good range of characters. There is a good exploration and understanding of the nature of the Roman familia woven into the tale.

VIELLE by Prue Batten takes place in the 12th century and involves what seems to be Prue’s subject of choice: troubadours. With good reason, I suspect, since she clearly knows her stuff and has a feel for the subject and era. Like all Batten’s work, the tale flows like silk over marble with stunning prose. Immerse yourself in the world of Richard Coeur de Lion and his love of music in this wonderful and only slightly heartbreaking tale. This story is entirely a standalone tale, and feels fully rounded as a one off.

DA VINCI AND DI PAOLO is the third tale, set in 16th century Italy and France and from the pen of Teddy Hester. I had not come across Hester before and it seems she is generally a writer of erotic romance, but this tale shows a clear talent also for historical fiction. Her tale is as smoothly penned as Batten’s, her prose flowing and her subject wonderful, from a flight from Sicily under Turkish threat to the glories of the Renaissance Loire. This story spoke to me personally, as I know the locations well and am familiar with the staircase mentioned in the tale. Though this tale also has hooks into the author’s main works, they are peripheral enough that it feels like a rounded stand-alone tale.

SWEET NIGHTINGALE by David Neilson takes place in 18th century Austria. I have to admit to initially being rather confused with this tale, which throws names and details at the reader rapidly from square one, especially with the era being unfamiliar to me. Once more, I feel that there is a certain level of expectation of reader familiarity with Neilson’s characters. Soon, however, the story settled into a well-written little smuggler/conspiracy tale with some vivid character and detail, so I’m glad I stuck with it. Atmospheric.

BINGLEY AND DARCY by Martin Rinehart I’m afraid was not for me. Not for the quality of the writing, mind, which seemed to be fine, but I have an almost pathological dislike of that period literature (Austen, Brontes etc) and I simply cannot find any engagement with such stories. That being said, this is probably someone else’s perfect cup of tea. It did seem very Austen-esque, after all.

ONCE WAS LOST by Lena Maye came as a surprise for me. A complete bolt out of the blue. Set in the Dust bowl in the depression of 30s America it is so far out of my comfort zone that had it not been part of this collection I would never have read it. What I began by dreading became probably my second favourite story in the book. Written with sympathy and skill and unbearably emotional prose, it tells the tale of a young mute girl trying to manage a farm in the most impossible conditions and how a random occurrence began a chain of events that changed her world. It was beautiful and haunting and will stay with me.

WARM ME SOFTLY by D. M. Davis is quite simply the best possible conclusion to the collection. In addition to being a self-contained tale that encapsulates the spirit of Christmas and the affairs of the heart, and with a style and grace of its own, Davis manages also to tie up the thread – the daggers – that binds all these stories together with aplomb, making them an integral part of a tale that is yet not truly about the knives at all. Masterful. This is one of those When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail types of story and is a superb example. All in all an excellent conclusion.

The upshot? This is an engaging collection of tales with something for everyone. The stories are of so many different subjects and styles, that there is bound to be a tale for you, or more. And for the price, you can’t ask for more. Grab yourself a winter heart-warmer. Read this collection.

Written by SJAT

November 21, 2017 at 11:06 pm

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Heroines of the Medieval World

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In the interest of transparency, I’ve been a friend of the author of this book on Facebook for years, our joint interest in history being the connection. That being said, our direct historical paths have rarely intersected, mine being military in the classical era and hers being more of a social history angle in the Medieval era. Then, oddly, there came a convergence. In the same year I signed up to writing a Medieval novel and selected as major characters two strong women, Sharon Bennett Connolly announced this book. Given the odd connection, I was dying to read it. I was therefore really pleased to be offered a review copy and a chance to be part of her blog tour.

My Medieval heroine characters (whose identity I will not reveal for fear of spoilers) actually do not appear in Sharon’s books. In fairness they are REALLY obscure characters, so that’s not a surprise. But the fact is that, despite their absence in the text, Sharon’s book is a wealth of information and a learning curve for anyone wanting to research the role of women in the era. And, of course, for anyone simply with a passing interest in the subject. It has great value for research and just for general interest and gave me a number of new insights that will inform my own tale.

I had expected the book to be a series of biographies, with each section focusing on a different woman. I was surprised, therefore, to find that it had instead a thematic approach. Each chapter covers one aspect of women in the medieval era. One, I was interested to find, was about women and religion, which was the subject that currently interested me. But there are other aspects that also touch on my subject. Really, the book covers ever angle I can think of on the subject, missing nothing.

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(Medieval women playing music)

I shall condense my review of the book into pros and cons. You will be pleased to hear, no doubt, that I have only one con to mention and consequently I shall start with that.

Cons: The only downside I found in the book may be more of a failing in me. There was, I thought, a tendency to assume that the reader was familiar with the era and comfortable with the names and details. Consequently, I spent time either dazzled by a machine gun barrage of Medieval names or having to read back and re-check facts. I am, of course, used to writing Roman military, and while I’m currently working on Medieval stuff I spend a lot of time double and treble checking and correcting things. I suspect that this con is unlikely to touch on the general readership, since most people who buy and read this book will be more comfortable with the era and conventions than I. The upshot? Not much of a con at all I guess.

Pros? Well there’s plenty, but four deserve mention specific here:

  1. The sheer level of depth and research Sharon has put into every nuance of her book is impressive. In fact it is this level of detail that led in some way to my only con (noted above.) It is impossible to argue against the veracity of her text, she is simply that thorough. I consider at best 50% of my non-fiction books to be ‘go-to’ texts that I feel I can completely trust. This book has joined that illustrious section.
  2. Also, it is put together in an almost conversational fashion, the information delivered in an easy, informal manner. There is an almost skald-like way she approaches these characters, as though they are not so historical characters under the microscope as friends about whom she has SO MANY STORIES.
  3. The thematic approach means that I could concentrate on the aspects that had more connection with my own subject. I suspect that as a reviewer I should approach all aspects equally, but that’s not really what non-fiction works are for. They are for specific research. And the organisation of this book works well in that respect in that it is also therefore non-consecutive and the reader can leap back and forth to the sections that are most pertinent without having to rely on missed text in between.
  4. Finally, this book covers a huge swathe of time and geography. From the pre-Norman conquest world deep into the age of chivalry this is a really all-consuming text. One might think, given the very specific nature of the subject that it would focus on a short period or locale, but this is actually a more far-reaching work than I expected.

Bravo to Sharon for her depth of work.

In short, this is a very accessible and informative book that should appeal not only to the serious student or researcher into the subject but to anyone with an interest in the Medieval world and/or the role of women in history.

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So there you go. Do have a look at the other pages in this blog tour, all of which are fascinating (I read them ALL yesterday!)

A review by Annie Whitehead here

An article about non-warrior heroines here

A guest post here

Another guest post by Sharon here

An extract here

Another excerpt here

An excellent review here

An interview with Stephanie Churchill here

A video review here 

A guest post on Nicolaa at the Review here

Another guest post here

And an extract here

About the author:

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Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses. Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

Written by SJAT

November 11, 2017 at 8:40 am

The Centurions 2: Onslaught

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Early this year I had the opportunity to read and review Anthony Riches’ first Centurions book, Betrayal. I have now finished the second volume in this trilogy. It should be something of a clue as to the value I place on Riches’ work that my reading time has dropped by 75% this year due to work commitments, and yet I still made time to read both of these.

I said in my last review that the first book felt like a step into a more serious and deep style for Riches. This pace and style does not let up in the second volume of the series. This is one of the deepest and most complex of all military history series I have read.

You’ve heard the phrase ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’? Well this series does just that. Book 1 was military and political, with many switchbacks. Betrayal formed a core theme to the tale. Book 2 continues that trend. Onslaught. That is precisely what this book is. If you are looking for Machiavellian politics or civic and historical investigation or cunning mystery, this is not the book. If you are seeking war, then boy, this is for you.

Onslaught picks up the story of the Batavian revolt in Germania. There is manoeuvring politically through the contenders in the Year of the Four Emperors, but it is done on a personal and unit level in the provinces, not in noble families on the streets of Rome. Onslaught brings you unrelenting war. But it is not dull or repetitive, despite its martial theme throughout. It is possible to make a book about unrelenting war engaging. Movies do it often. Zulu. The Longest Day. Too Late the Hero. So do not hesitate if you’re a fan of the Roman military. This series is for you.

The greatest beauty of this book comes in two parts. Firstly, Riches is a military historian and knows his Roman warfare to an almost unparalleled level. The result then is a deep exploration and illustration of Roman/Germanic warfare in almost every aspect. It is almost like a lesson in Roman war. Secondly, because half these people are Germanic whether they be fighting for Rome or the native contingent, and the other half are Roman but are of their own split loyalties, this is no simple Roman vs Barbarian romp, but makes the reader appreciate the complexities and shades of grey in real Roman history.

The upshot? Well if you read book 1 you’ll be reading 2 anyway. If you haven’t then you are missing out as this is a whole new step from Riches. If you’re new to Riches’ work anyway then what the hell have you been doing? Pick up a book and get caught up.

Highly recommended as always by this man, one of the top authors in the genre.

Court of Broken Knives

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I am an on-off reader of fantasy, partially due to the lack of time I have for reading, which means I really have to focus my decisions to the currently relevant. My fantasy reading has recently been limited to Guy Gavriel Kay (because he has always been my favourite writer) and Miles Cameron, because I know the man, and he is a DUDE! Thus I might have let this one slip by had I not bumped into the author at a convention in Scarborough the year before its publication and thought ‘that sounds interesting. I’ll have to give that a read.’

I will start by saying that it’s perhaps not the easiest read. If you are looking for Pratchett or Eddings or the like, keep looking. But to clarify, I find there are two types of novel into which I can generally categorise everything I read. Some are easy reads. They are like a horse race, where you get caught up in the speed and excitement and dragged break-neck to the end. They are excitement and fun and glory and I love ’em (in movie terms let’s say Kingsman). Other novels can be harder to read, but perhaps have a different sort of reward, pushing you to a more cerebral experience (in movie terms I might offer Schindler’s List). I read fewer of this sort of book, but that does not mean they are not as good or have less to offer. Quite the contrary, in fact. Court of Broken Knives for me fits into that second category. I have pushed myself in its reading, but it has paid off in interesting ways.

I had no preconceptions going into the novel. Plot, I will deal with first. And I will be careful. You know I hate spoilers. The opening plot is simple enough. A party of mercenaries on their way to a foreign city to kill a bunch of people. And those who hired them in the city maneuvering politically throughout. Seems reasonable. A good plot, in fact. Then at maybe 40-50% of the book, everything changes. The plot takes a side alley, zig-zags to lose any anticipated ideas, does a few loop the loops and comes out the other side leaving you rubbing your eyes and wondering if Machiavelli’s line is strong and running in London bloodlines. Other than this I am not going to touch on plot. Just… experience it.

There are two strengths to this novel that stand out for me.

One is the writing itself. Smith-Spark’s prose is far from your standard fare. It is often jagged, broken, staccato. It sometimes flounces and flows into the brain, but often comes at you like knives (quite appropriately, I suppose). In doing so it manages to convey something that is lost in a more commonplace style. There is utter, raw emotion in the prose. Some is first person, some third, some past tense, some present, and the point of view leaps between a number of principle characters. The language is sometimes beautiful and haunting, sometimes sharp and horrifying. But in this manner, it is always refreshing, and I have enjoyed it. It is a style of writing I will long remember and appreciate.

The other is character. Let me say from the outset that this novel is full of utter bastards. There are few people in it who I would give the time of day, and those who are good and sympathetic are so riddled with doubt and demons that they are morally bankrupt anyway. This is a novel FULL of anti-heroes. And you find yourself supporting one against another. Because something about Smith Spark’s characterisation carries the genius of making the irredeemably wicked and unpleasant oddly lovable. I cared about characters I had no right caring about and should really have been rooting for the demise of. Oh, and there’s plenty of that, too. Anthony Riches and myself both have something of a rep for brutally offing important characters. Smith-Spark is no slacker in that department.

In short, prepare yourself for a Machiavellian bloodbath of epic proportions, full of lovably loathsome characters. Settle in, light the fire, pour a fine scotch, and marvel at this new fantasy world.

The Court of Broken Knives is an oddly fascinating gem.

Written by SJAT

September 21, 2017 at 10:15 pm

Ashes of Berlin

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I’ve been something of a devotee of Luke McCallin’s Reinhardt books since the first one. There was something about the adventures of a distinctly non-Nazi Wehrmacht officer investigating murders in the Balkan territories. It was a region about which I knew little and a time which oddly fascinates me, despite being far from my own era of choice. And interestingly McCallin’s familiarity with the locale and the subject shone through and gave the books great depth and value. I loved both books one and two.

I hesitated over book 3. Honestly, despite loving the first two I really hesitated. Because the war has ended after book 2 and that means that book 3 was guaranteed to be vastly different. Ashes of Berlin is set in 1947, in a city that is divided and overseen by an uneasy alliance of British, American and Russian, with the Germans still there and downtrodden or working desperately with one group or another. I couldn’t see this possibly being anywhere near as engaging as the previous two. But… because it’s McCallin and Reinhardt, I went to it anyway.

In fairness, it took me perhaps the first 10% of the book to get into it. For a while I thought my doubts had been borne out over the setting. But oddly the plot was still grabbing. And so it pulled me along. And I’m glad it did, because after that initial adjustment, I came to appreciate what a rich setting it is.

This world is very different from the wartime Balkans of books 1 and 2, and yet oddly similar in some ways. For Reinhardt, now serving back in the police in Berlin as he once had long ago, he is still beleaguered, untrusting and downtrodden by superiors. They’re just different superiors now. And the brutality and horror of post-war Berlin is every bit the match for the brutality and horror of wartime Sarajevo. McCallin has really pulled out the stops in his research. I cannot imagine how much reading and note-taking he must have gone through for this. But it is a triumph.

The plot is actually better than both the first two. Where books 1 and 2 tended to wander a little by necessity, this one is much tighter and more defined. It is also much harder to anticipate. It unfolds slowly and carefully and caught me out numerous times. I like a good mystery and only with a good plot do I start to guess and work out ahead of the reveal. I was wrong. Several times I was wrong. McCallin has thrown so many curve-balls I kept getting hit in the back of the head.

There are 3 major triumphs in this book for McCallin. The Plot, which I’ve already mentioned. And there’s no point in me trying to explain any of it, but it starts with a man who drowned on dry land, put it that way. Then there’s the world. The atmosphere, the landscape, the descriptive. It is stunning. It becomes immersive and all-consuming. I felt I came to know 1947 Berlin intimately. But thirdly, there is the matter of character. I’d felt there was nowhere really to grow Reinhardt after the war. Gods, but I was wrong. And he is surrounded by a stunning cast. In particular one American, one Brit and one senior Russian. They are so beautifully drawn and realistic it is hard not to picture them in your head.

So there it is. You might have read books 1 and 2 (The Man from Berlin and The Pale House) or you might not. If you haven’t give them a read. If you have, do not be put off by the change of scene with book 3. It outstrips its predecessors. Just read McCallin. He’s a master of the craft.

Written by SJAT

August 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm