Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

A dramatic new departure for international bestselling author Bernard Cornwell, FOOLS AND MORTALS takes us into the heart of the Elizabethan era, long one of his favourite periods of British history.

Fools and Mortals follows the young Richard Shakespeare, an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. As the growth of theatre blooms, their rivalry – and that of the playhouses, playwrights and actors vying for acclaim and glory – propels a high-stakes story of conflict and betrayal.

Showcasing his renowned storyteller’s skill, Bernard Cornwell has created an Elizabethan world incredibly rich in its portrayal: you walk the London streets, stand in the palaces and are on stage in the playhouses, as he weaves a remarkable story in which performances, rivalries and ambition combine to form a tangled web of intrigue.

From Netgalley as an ebook, this is from the author of the Sharpe series of books, which I haven’t read (but have been known to watch the adaptations when they come on the TV, if that counts for anything).


So this is a departure from his normal work, in him writing about the playhouses starting up in the time of Queen Elizabeth 1 and William Shakespeare. It is told from the standpoint of Richard, William’s younger brother. Richard is already a member of the playhouse, and whilst playing the parts of women, he is getting a little too old to do so, and is desperate to get “men’s parts”. It is precarious work – they don’t get paid to rehearse, only to actually perform in a play, of which new ones are few and far between.

Those that can read and write can earn a little more money, by copying out actor’s lines or being the “bookman”, prompting the performers during rehearsals.

With new Playhouses and groups being set up almost weekly and demand for entertainment ongoing, competition for new material is constant, with some groups resorting to stealing other group’s works if they dont have a writer to create their own work.

We get to find out what living in this kind of London is like – trying to find somewhere to stay if you miss curfew; literally living hand to mouth because you haven’t been paid that week; your work and home being raided on a regular basis by the heavy handed state gangs looking for priests and seditious materials – it has long been believed that the Shakespeare family are heretical Catholics, and people are desperate to find some kind of proof. The story is framed by the completion and staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the wedding of the Lord Chamberlain’s daughter. The competition for parts, the learning of lines, what happens when things get “confiscated” by competing playhouses. There is intrigue, fighting, plotting and ever changing politics that most groundlings are unaware of.

Meanwhile, told in flashback is how Richard came to be in London – Being rather older, William has already left the family home and gone to London by the time Richard is old enough to get an apprenticeship, something that does not work out well. Richard escapes and goes looking for his brother who places Richard with Sir Godfrey Cullen. It is here that Richard learns most of his life lessons, including how to act, put on a performance and sword fight and most importantly – how to steal. Whether the William of the book or the actual William knew that being in Sir Godfrey’s “care” means that he was one of many who got prostituted out as part of St Benet’s Choir, we don’t know.  Richard’s skills in thieving, as well as the other stuff he’s learnt since coming to London, helps both himself and the group (as well as his relationship with William) when things go missing.

Because of Cornwell’s previous books, I suspect people would be a let down if there wasn’t a little sword play and fighting throughout the book, and there are several scenes included, which I hope makes some fans happy.

This is not my usual era of history – I tend to read Tudor or Regency – so this was an interesting change in tone. The difference between the rich and the poor; actors living hand to mouth, whilst performing to the groundlings and the Queen; the need to please the crowd whose tastes could be simple (bit of dancing, some fighting, some singing, some rude jokes); all combined with th pressure of finding or writing new work.

So this is not quite a Ripping Yarn, but a detailed story of a fraught time in English history, that is well worth reading and rather entertaining.



Book Review: One Night with a Duke by Sandra Masters

Reclusive, cold as ice, the politically powerful Raven, Duke of Ravensmere, denies love after the tragic deaths of his duchess and baby. He is bound by his vow never to allow love to enter his heart again. Samantha Winston permits him to seek refuge in her carriage in a time of need, and what started as a kiss in the name of safety, becomes something more pleasurable and not so safe after all. In spite of every caution, his interest escalates into unexpected desire.

Samantha, a young widow with a secret, irreverent and high-spirited, has constructed impenetrable walls against all men. When she and Raven meet again, strong wills clash. Political intrigues and a dreaded nemesis place his life at risk, and Samantha finds herself in a dire predicament. All the while, passion soars.

Can Samantha’s barriers fall with more kisses? Can Raven be released from his deathbed vow?

I have to say this was a DNF I’m afraid. It started well and I had high hopes, only to be get half way through and give up.

I really must stop asking for Regency romances, especially ones written by Americans or for the American market. I generally find there’s one or more errors that are glaring enough to stop me in my tracks and therefore spoil my enjoyment.

There were several in this book, one of which could be semi deliberate, one of which is just an out and out error. The first (possibly deliberate) point is Raven asking for investors to stump up £50,000 as an initial deposit in a new company. The reason I say semi-deliberate, is I think the author is trying to indicate this is a fairly large sum, but not impossible for investors to come up with. However, inflation doesnt seem to have been taken into account here. With the introduction of gaslight, I’m going to guess that this book is set in the 1860s. Calculations result in £50,000 being approximately £4,700,000 in today’s money. You know anyone else with £5million ready cash lying around? (especially when, later in the book, Raven alludes to the fact that he could have brought a house for £1,000). Bearing in mind, a few decades later in reality, the British aristocracy were marrying rich American women in order to bring some much needed cash to keep their houses up and running, then £50,000 was just so….wrong.

The second error that stopped me in my tracks is, whilst on a picnic, dessert includes “chocolate grenache layered cakes” . Now, maybe she did mean Grenache. However, it’s a type of wine and I’m not sure that it would be combined with chocolate to layer a cake. She might have meant Ganache, which *is* used in baking, and cakes in particular. Whether or not these cakes would have been served at this time, I don’t know, but again, it stopped me in my tracks to the point I had to look it up to check I wasn’t going mad.

Another thing that spoilt my enjoyment was the dialogue. The following is an example of Samantha talking to Raven the first time they have been formally introduced to each other, this time at a ball

“I’m impressed with you” she said. “when you spoke of your late wife, you struck an emotional chord with me. Grief overtook your face. You could not know, but my heart cried for you to know such love and such sorrow. I will never forgive myself for my behaviour when I know I’m better than that.” Samantha fingered her fan. “I would not bring such sad memories to life again when I can see hw painful it is to you. I, oo, have struggled with sadness. So I share your misery but for different reasons.”

If this is the way the other books have been written then I’m glad I havent read any of the others. I only got to 50% and then I had to give up

About this author

From a humble beginning in Newark, NJ, a short stay at a convent in Morristown, NJ, to the board rooms of NYC, and a fantastic career for a broadcasting company in Carlsbad, California, to the rural foothills of the Sierras of Yosemite National Park, Sandra Masters has always traveled with pen and notebook. It’s been the journey of ten thousand miles with a few steps left to go. She left her corporate world behind and never looked back.

She hopes you’ll like her voice and passion for writing. She’s never created a Duke she didn’t fall in love with. ONCE UPON A DUKE by Sandra Masters, New Release by The Wild Rose Press.

Book Review: The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night…. Until she finds her closet harboring Della Lee Baker, a local waitress who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother. With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey’s narrow existence quickly expands. She even bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who is hounded by books that inexplicably appear when she needs them—and who has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush. Soon Josey is living in a world where the color red has startling powers, and passion can make eggs fry in their cartons. And that’s just for starters.

Josey is a 27 year old woman, living in her mother’s house, trapped into waiting on her elderly mother around town and knowing that her mother hates her – holding her to unachievable or unwanted standards (for instance telling her to throw out the red jumper or blue scarf that everyone else tells her suits her).


Having driven her mother to and from the day’s appointments, Josey returns to her room, only to find Della Lee Baker sitting in her closet, going through her hidden stash of sweets and candy. Della Lee is a waitress (with a line in prostitution and petty theft) who is apparently hiding in the closet for one reason or another, including to escape from her cheating boyfriend Julian.

Over the next few weeks, Della Lee manipulates Josey into talking to the local postman (who she has fancied from the first time she saw him); she goes out to parties and (gasp!) wears makeup; spends more time than she has previously out of the house, much to her mother’s consternation; meets up with Chloe, who has recently split up with her boyfriend, and Chloe is hounded by books who have a habit of turning out at the most annoying times; putting her mother back in touch with the man she had an affair with 40 years previously.

Josey also begins to find that her now dead father did not deserve the pedestal she had put him on – he had multiple affairs and Josey ends up meeting at least two people in the local area that are (probably) results of these dalliances. It also gives her some insight into why her mother is the way that she is.

This is a gentle coming of age book, with several female leads, with a level of romance and magical realism. It’s not terribly demanding, but is a gentle and sweet read, with a smattering of humour.

About this author

New York Times Bestselling novelist Sarah Addison Allen brings the full flavor of her southern upbringing to bear on her fiction — a captivating blend of magical realism, heartwarming romance, and small-town sensibility.

Born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Allen grew up with a love of books and an appreciation of good food (she credits her journalist father for the former and her mother, a fabulous cook, for the latter). In college, she majored in literature — because, as she puts it, “I thought it was amazing that I could get a diploma just for reading fiction. It was like being able to major in eating chocolate.”




Book Review: Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

One bleak Friday evening in January, 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling boards an overcrowded train with £120 in cash wages to be paid out the next day to the workers of Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company. When Councillor Grayling finally finds the only available seat in a third-class carriage, he realises to his annoyance that he will be sharing it with some of his disliked acquaintances: George Ransom, with whom he had a quarrel; Charles Evetts, who is one of his not-so-trusted employees; a German refugee whom Grayling has denounced; and Hugh Rolandson, whom Grayling suspects of having an affair with his wife. 

The train journey passes uneventfully in an awkward silence but later that evening Grayling dies of what looks like mustard gas poisoning and the suitcase of cash is nowhere to be found. Inspector Holly has a tough time trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, for the unpopular Councillor had many enemies who would be happy to see him go, and most of them could do with the cash he was carrying. But Inspector Holly is persistent and digs deep into the past of all the suspects for a solution, starting with Grayling’s travelling companions. 

On a bitter January evening in 1942, Henry Grayling, who works at the Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company, finishes work and goes to London Euston to catch the crowded 6.12 home to Croxburn.  The blackout, in the middle of winter, means that visibility is poor and the reduction in trains in order to save fuel, means that the platform is crowded. All this irritates Grayling and he ends up having to share a compartment with a mix of strangers, as well as  several people he knows from his home in Croxburn: Evetts, a despised colleague from the Barrow and Furness Chemistry Company; the local vicar sits beside him and opposite him is a German refugee who Grayling has denounced on no evidence but his own suspicions. George Ransom, a corporal in the home guard, who Grayling has had reason to take to task, and another local young man named Hugh Rolandson are all crammed into Grayling’s carriage.


Later that evening the vicar receives a phone call from Grayling’s much younger wife, pleading with him to come to the house – where her husband is on the verge of dying. When he arrives, the doctor has already been, but it is too late – Mrs Grayling, tells a the vicar of hearing a noise at her door and finding her husband collapsed on the steps outside, already blind, and struggling to breathe. His case is missing – as of course are the £120 in wages that were in it.  The post-mortem results are a surprise – he was killed from a dose of mustard gas (which isnt a gas after all). How could he be killed by something so toxic without anyone else on the train be affected? Or was he killed on the walk home and if so, how?

This is not a traditional police procedural – you get to see very little of Inspector Holly as the rest of the book is mainly taken up with the back stories for each person in the carriage, and how they ended up being suspects in a murder case. Evetts has been accused (correctly) of stealing drugs from the stock room, the vicar knows Grayling’s not religious and uses his church wardenship for unethical reasons; Hugh Rolandson has been having an affair with Grayling’s wife Renata for several years.  Ransom’s story in particular was a little too detailed for me and I was surprised that he would share this kind of information with a Home Guard colleague, even during the quiet times on duty whilst waiting for the bombs to come…..

It’s only in the last few chapters that Inspector Holly comes back into the frame as he tries to pull all the threads together, and he realises that there’s one specific tale that has a major flaw in it, and he manages to determine the killer (at pretty much the same time as the reader).

In summary: a different way of telling a crime story, that got bogged down in parts just a tad with just a little too much information, but was a nice change in approach that will stop people getting too jaded in reading this style of novel

About this author

Raymond Postgate was born in Cambridge in 1896, the eldest son of the classical scholar Professor J.P. Postgate. He was educated at St. John’s College, Oxford. During the First World War he was a conscientious objector and was jailed for two weeks in 1916. He married Daisy Lansbury, the daughter of George Lansbury, pacifist and leader of the Labour Party. His career in journalism started in 1918 and he worked for several Left-wing periodicals. He was also Departmental Editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for its 1929 edition.

His son was Oliver Postgate, the popular creator of many classic British television programmes for children.

Book Review: Confessions of a Courtesan by Elizabeth Charles

Based on the true story of Elizabeth Armistead, one of the most notorious and successful courtesans of 18th century England.

From the harsh streets of London, Lizzie Cane rose to become the celebrated mistress of earls, dukes, and even a prince! Then at the height of her career, she risked everything she had struggled to gain by breaking the courtesan’s cardinal rule…Never fall in love.

Another, average freebie from Amazon, and less unsettling than the last one in its premise.  This is a fictionalised version of the real courtesan Elizabeth Armistead (born Crane), who crawls out of the gutter to become a whore, then a courtesan, and then the wife of the politician Charles Fox.

Details of the working life in a brothel is relatively detailed, but the sex details soon disappear and are largely ignored. The list of her conquests is long and a tad confusing when you are trying to remember who is who. The size of the circles she ends up in is fairly small, so the same people end up going around with the same “fallen women” and it’s not long before everyone is pretty much sleeping with everyone else’s exes. The one that upsets Armistead the most is Perditia Robinson, who inspires extreme jealously in Armistead, especially when she is out with a current or previous patron.

The book starts and ends with the warning that a courtesan must “never fall in love” as if there is some foreshadowing of some great calamity/ies for Armistead if she doesn’t heed the warnings. Far from it it seems. As she gets older she realises that she has fallen in love with her friend Charles Fox, and they finally settle down and get married (albeit in secret). The biggest “disaster” this seems to entail for Armistead is that she has to settle down (with someone with dubious levels of debts) and not actually sleep around.  Much of the book also references America trying for independence, and the general politics going on in Britain at the time.

This is clearly made for the American market, with little consideration for the market outside of this, as I can tell from one of my bugbears in these kinds of books. Despite stating the author had done “large amount of research” all characters referred to the season of “autumn” as “fall”. It was repeated multiple times in this book. It is a purely American word and not used in England to describe the season. (In other recent Romance novels I’ve come across Regency English people announcing that somewhere was “only a block away” (it’s not a measure of distance the Brits use).

So in summary: Not the worst (creepiest) Romance I’ve read recently, an annoying Americanism that kept interrupting the flow of the story, and a romp through a turbulent time in British history.


Book Review: In the Garden of Temptation by Cynthia Wicklund

HONOR – Adam Stanford, Earl of Ashworth, has always done the right thing.
DESIRE – Lady Catherine Bourgeault, lonely and rejected, longs to experience passion, to love just once in her life.
TREACHERY – The Baron Bourgeault, to what extremes will an obsessive, unstable man go to achieve his own dark ends? 
SEDUCTION – In the face of a love that will not be denied, Adam and Catherine risk everything to be together.
BETRAYAL – What price must Catherine and Adam pay for a forbidden love in a time when honor meant everything?

When I came to write this review, I went searching for where I had picked it up – I got it for free from Amazon back in 2014 and in a way I was glad I hadn’t spent any money on it.

From the beginning, it is clear that Baron Bourgeault is more than a little odd – much older than his young, pretty wife Catherine, he has a dubious reputation in town and is rarely invited to polite society. He therefore stays in his run down residence, rarely inviting people to stay, and therefore restricting Catherine’s social circle. He does have one thing on his side: a pair of identical grey stallions, that he occasionally invites young men down to inspect, with the prospect of buying.  He invites Adam Stanford down, but generally acts appallingly, ensuring that Catherine and Adam end up in each other’s arms.


It’s only when Catherine becomes pregnant, and the Baron bans her from seeing Adam again (and allowing him to claim the child as his own) does the whole sordid plan come out: the Baron needs an heir, but has a fear of being touched. He had married Catherine in an attempt to overcome this phobia, but it proved to not be the case. Therefore he has spent the last 7 years inviting men to the estate in the hope that they will squire Catherine in order to get her with child, and give him the male heir that he wants.

Catherine gives birth to a girl, which sends the Baron into even deeper depths of madness, effectively pimping his wide out mere days after giving birth, in order to get pregnant again. It turns out that the man she has been told to seduce is a friend of Adam’s and she is able to tell her tale and enable a confrontation between Adam and the Baron, resulting in a successful resolution of the situation.

Overall, I found the whole premise just down right creepy……after 7 years of being humiliated and pimped out, was Catherine really that unaware of what her husband’s motives were?  All the staff were well aware of what was going on, and how badly she was being treated, and none offered any kind of help or support (even gossiping with other servants in the local area).  By the time that Adam and Catherine get to have their first meal together, the Baron has been so, well, weird, that it was hard to see the connection between the two soon to be lovers, and the apparent disconnect between the two continued for the rest of the book. I didnt get any sense of believable “burning passion”, or “true love”.

None of the servants were particularly well developed and generally remained one dimensional. Willie, as the Baron’s henchman, had the potential to be more rounded, but just came across as a leering degenerate (I’ve seen others describe him as an “Igor” character), with no apparent motivation apart from being able to spy on pretty girls and creep them out.

During and after reading this book, I did have a distinct feeling of “why did I bother?”



Book Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris

All along the Mediterranean coast, the Roman empire’s richest citizens are relaxing in their luxurious villas, enjoying the last days of summer. The world’s largest navy lies peacefully at anchor in Misenum. The tourists are spending their money in the seaside resorts of Baiae, Herculaneum, and Pompeii.

But the carefree lifestyle and gorgeous weather belie an impending cataclysm, and only one man is worried. The young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus has just taken charge of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that brings fresh water to a quarter of a million people in nine towns around the Bay of Naples. His predecessor has disappeared. Springs are failing for the first time in generations. And now there is a crisis on the Augusta’s sixty-mile main line—somewhere to the north of Pompeii, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

Attilius—decent, practical, and incorruptible—promises Pliny, the famous scholar who commands the navy, that he can repair the aqueduct before the reservoir runs dry. His plan is to travel to Pompeii and put together an expedition, then head out to the place where he believes the fault lies. But Pompeii proves to be a corrupt and violent town, and Attilius soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work—both natural and man-made—threatening to destroy him.

This was the first non-ebook of the year, and had been on my reading wishlist for a while, so it was good to finally get my hands on a copy. I’ve always had “a thing” for volcanoes and I visited Pompeii a few years ago, so it seemed natural to want to read this.  I’ve read several of Harris’ books before (e.g. Fatherland) and quite like his style.

The story starts 4 days before the eruption of Vesuvius, where Attilius has recently arrived in Misenum to look after the aqueduct. He finds that the previous engineer (Exomnius) disappeared several weeks before and no one is admitting to knowing, or caring, what happened to him. The first sign that something is wrong with the water is the death of a pool full of fish – expensive and mainly decorative, the loss of face is made worse by the fact that it is the feast of Vulcan, where tradition states that live fish are sacrificed onto hot coals. It is whilst the slave responsible for looking after the fish is being fed alive to the pool of eels that Attilius interrupts the “show” and determines that the fish died through poisoning – the water from the aqueduct has been tainted with sulphur.

From then it’s a race to find out where the problem with the aqueduct is (Attilius makes an educated guess that it’s somewhere around Pompeii and Vesuvius) and fix it before the water in the Bay of Naples dries up. Therefore he manages to get to Pompeii and persuades Pliny to grant him permission to investigate further.  In doing so, Attilius comes up against the worst of society: the ex-slave who has become one of the richest men in the area due to corruption and brutality (he’s also the father of Attilius’ love interest); the weak and feeble local council members who are too scared to make a decision, or stand up to the man they despise the most; the work-gang leader who resents Attilius’ presence. He also comes upon Pliny, who is still well known (in some circles) for his extensive volumes of works, including a real time description of the eruption.   Attilius also gets to find out what happened to Exomnius and what he knew, both as an Engineer and a Sicilian (where they had paid attention to when Etna erupted).

Some parts of the book are stronger than others……..Attilius’s belief in Roman Engineering, understanding that a failure in the water supply would undermine most of the confidence in the Empire; Pliny (a known narrator of Vesuvius’s explosion) and his logical and factual belief in reporting what *is*;  the understanding of some as to the effect of a lack of water would have on the “mob” etc. There are things that are a little less strong – the love interest (which was too short and shallow); the local council members were lightly sketched, and it was difficult to see how they had got to the position whereby they could be dominated so completely by an ex-slave.

On the whole, a reasonable thriller, set against a known historical fact, that had a couple of things that could have been tightened up a little, but I’m glad to have read it.