Sunday 21 August 2016

REVIEW: The Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt

The Cunning Woman's CupThe Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought 'The Cunning Woman's Cup' some time ago when I realised it was set on the border of Scotland, in the tiny village of Duddo in Northumberland. The standing stones on the cover are ancient and are mentioned briefly in my own writing about the area, and I used to live near there too, so I was intrigued by the setting.

At first I thought the novel would be historical fiction about a cunning woman (or witch) from long ago, and there are elements of this in the book. But the main story is set in modern day and I have to admit this put me off reading it for a while, thinking it would not be "my kind of thing". How wrong I was. I loved this book.

However, whilst the interlinking story of the woman from Roman times with the lives of the present-day characters is well done and clever, it is not the highlight of the novel for me.

The real joy of this story are the characters. Hewitt has created a thoroughly engaging cast of people who seem totally real. I was enthralled by their tragedies and conflicts - some great, some minor - but all told with a total conviction and a poignant sensitivity.

'The Cunning Woman's Cup' is nothing like the books I usually read. There is no real action, no battles and derring do, and the main characters are elderly women, but I could not put it down as Hewitt paints a vivid picture of the passing of an era in British rural life. Many themes are investigated, from grief, love, the pressures of modern life and consumerism, to the erosion of beliefs and respect for the old ways of village existence.

This is a wonderful read. An aching tale of loss, friendship, the permanence of the past and how life is best spent surrounded by loved ones.

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REVIEW: Oswiu: King of Kings by Edoardo Albert

Oswiu: King of Kings (The Northumbrian Thrones #3)Oswiu: King of Kings by Edoardo Albert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 'Oswiu: King of Kings', Edoardo Albert brings to vivid life the battle for the land and souls of the British people in the seventh century. Albert tells an epic tale of kings and queens, omens and shieldwalls, where the future of a people was decided as much through the guile of its priests as the strength of its warlords.

Edoardo Albert deftly weaves the threads of a memorable cast of characters into the weft and warp of a vibrant tapestry of war, mystery and intrigue. Yet the true strength of 'Oswiu: King of Kings', is in the depiction of the effects of conflict on the men and women of the Dark Ages, as Albert reminds us there is much more to conquest than the ringing clash of swords.

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Saturday 20 August 2016

REVIEW: The Scribe's Daughter by Stephanie Churchill

The Scribe's DaughterThe Scribe's Daughter by Stephanie Churchill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With The Scribe's Daughter, Stephanie Churchill gives us the foundations for a compelling fantasy series, with a sassy, engaging heroine.

The book is written in first person, from the perspective of young Kassia, who becomes embroiled in all manner of political intrigues, fights and flights from pursuits, as the novel progresses. There is a lot of action with Kassia's backstory slowly revealed as the plot unfolds. The world that Churchill has built is believable and interesting, though I have to admit, I don't really understand the creation of a different world where nothing is substantially different from a pseudo-medieval Europe. If there is no magic or dragons or something else that doesn't exist on Earth, why not set it in the real world at some interesting point in history? This felt at times like historical fiction masquerading as fantasy, or perhaps vice versa. Having said that, the setting did not detract from the story or my enjoyment of the book, and Churchill has created a rich world, with a real sense of realism.

The plot trips along at a fair old pace, with Kassia being confronted with one obstacle after another. Churchill's writing is excellent, with many an elegant turn of phrase. The writing seemed to get more assured and the characters stronger in definition as the book progressed, but speaking from my own experience of writing, I think that is often the case with debut novels.

The Scribe's Daughter is a great debut from a very talented new author. The story is fast-paced and exciting, with enough twists and turns to keep readers entertained, but Stephanie Churchill's outstanding achievement is her protagonist, Kassia, a heroine with a uniquely sarcastic and lively voice who you will root for and feel like you know after the first few pages of the novel.

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Wednesday 17 August 2016

What Cynthia A. Graham learnt while researching for Beulah's House of Prayer

Next in the "What I Learnt..." series is Cynthia A. Graham. She is the winner of several writing awards, including a Gold IPPY and a Midwest Book Award for Beneath Still Waters. Cynthia is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the St. Louis Writers’ Guild, the Missouri Writers’ Guild, and Sisters in Crime. Her latest book, Beulah’s House of Prayer, is her first foray in the land of magical realism.

What Cynthia Graham learnt while researching for Beulah's House of Prayer

The past has always been fascinating to me because I never felt like it was some distant, forgotten time. It surrounds me, influences me, it contains the building blocks of who I am and where I’ve come from, it is everywhere. My family has always been a family of story. My dad was a master storyteller, relaying to me tales of his own childhood and those of his ancestors. Stories of covered wagons, twisters, music, and chopping cotton filled my thoughts and dreams.

 I grew up reading the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and when I matured devoured every novel by Jane Austen and any sister with the surname Bronte. While the stories they wrote were contemporary for their time, I was struck with the fact that our basic human needs and desires have not changed over the decades or centuries.  These authors helped me to fall in love with the mannerisms and the hardships of the past.

The Great Depression has always intrigued me, perhaps because I have known people who actually lived through it and have seen firsthand how it changed them. Their experiences colored their lives and the way they looked at the world forever. I suppose I wrote Beulah’s House of Prayer because so much of the American mystique regarding the Depression is defined by John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. But not everyone who lived through this time was a Joad -- an Okie traveling from home to try their hand in another place. In fact, the majority of Oklahomans stayed behind and these were the people who fired my imagination. I wanted to learn about them, why they stayed and what they suffered.

The Oklahoma Panhandle, where I set Beulah’s House of Prayer, was particularly devastated by the “Dust Bowl” days. It is easier to see the big picture when it comes to dust storms -- those eerie black and white photos of enormous clouds swallowing up houses -- than it is to understand the everyday nuisance and the absolute misery these storms created.  It is nearly impossible to comprehend how difficult it was to keep the dust out of a house. It had to be carried outside with a shovel after every storm. Towels and washcloths were wetted and placed in window sills to keep the dust from seeping in. Spiders, centipedes, and other insects sought shelter inside of homes and people would often wake to find them in bed.

It was also impossible to keep the dust off of and out of bodies. It is strange to think that something so seemingly benign could be deadly, but inhaled it caused dust pneumonia, an often lethal disease. To try and combat this, the Red Cross distributed Vaseline to citizens, instructing them to rub it in their nostrils to try and keep the lungs clear. But the dust was stealthy; it crept through masks, nestled in shirt pockets, and filled ears. It was impossible to escape.

Every day living was tedious and difficult. The storms were powerful enough to cause car batteries to short out leaving motorists stranded and they created the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire. Even a doorknob could deliver a considerable shock if the storm packed enough energy. Day after dust-filled day blotted the sun and eventually killed livestock and choked creeks and rivers.

But, above all, I believe these dust storms wore away at the fortitude of those living through them. They were soul killing. The mental and emotional toll caused by the constant monotony of storms, cleaning up, and hunger was staggering.  While some died from the dust outright, in the form of pneumonia or exposure, there was a hidden death toll in alcoholism and suicide. Those who didn’t succumb lived on prairie chickens and jackrabbits but they survived. And the heroism in this simple act of survival, in enduring one of the worst natural disasters in recent history, was what I sought to honor with Beulah’s House of Prayer.


Keep up to date with Cynthia online:


Buy Cynthia's books:

Beulah’s House of Prayer

Beneath Still Waters

Behind Every Door

Monday 1 August 2016


Book Two of the Bernicia Chronicles is published today by Aria / Head of Zeus.

Get it from all good online retailers, including:

And many more.

Please spread the word, and if you enjoy it, take a moment to leave a review - it really helps!