October 29, 2012

The Wannabe Usurper | FEUD by Derek Birks

Feud is a tale of a bitter struggle against the odds, but it is also a love story.

Feud tells the story of a family caught up in the chaos of the Wars of the Roses. One sunny morning Ned Elder, a Yorkshire knight, finds his father has been executed, his brother killed, sisters abducted and his estates plundered by the neighbouring Radcliffe family. He flees with a few ill-assorted companions, but he resolves to regain what has been lost. To do so he seeks powerful help and to get it he must show his exceptional ability with a sword.

Meanwhile Ned’s sisters, the serious and conventional Emma and the tigerish, independent Eleanor, are fighting their own personal battles to free themselves from the Radcliffes.

The story – and the feud - reaches its climax in the aftermath of the bloody battle of Towton in 1461. Ned, his sisters, his companions in arms and the girl he loves find themselves fighting for their lives and right up to the last moment the outcome remains in doubt.


The Wannabe Usurper, a guest post by author Derek Birks:

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Richard – you know, the infamous Yorkist usurper, the one who caused the deaths of thousands by his ruthless ambition and folly. No, not the one allegedly dug up in Leicester, Richard III, the other Yorkist called Richard - the Duke of York, not the Duke of Gloucester, that was his son. It was Richard, Duke of York who started all the carnage.

Richard, Duke of York has been consigned to history as a nearly man and there is some truth in that but it seems to me that Richard was a man who had destiny thrust upon him and then whipped away at the last moment. He stepped forward in response to the question: “Henry’s a real duffer, who wants to be king?” But then it was a case of: “Where do you think you’re going Richard?” He was given a taste of royal power and then it was snatched away. It would be a hard pill for anyone to swallow.

There he was, the leading nobleman in the land with a strong claim to the throne and he was saddled with a King, Henry VI, barely worthy of the title. He must have been mightily frustrated because as a man who was at least quite capable of organisation, administration and leadership, he must have resented the King who possessed no such capabilities.

Richard had also accumulated large debts fighting on Henry’s behalf during the French wars and what did he have to show for it? Alright, he had large landholdings and a family of dynastic proportions, but did he have the ear of the king? No. Was he a valued and trusted councillor? No, he wasn’t.

When Henry, the always impressive Queen Margaret, and their trusted adviser, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset sat down in the early 1450s for a cosy chat in the royal chamber, the Duke of York would have been a very large elephant in a very small room. Why? Because he was the heir presumptive and because the royal couple were still childless.

What must have been painfully obvious to York, as it was to Somerset, was that Henry was incapable of ruling without one of his noble councillors holding his hand. Would Richard have been content with such a position alone? I think his actions demonstrate that he probably would if the prospect had remained of receiving the crown at some point in the future, but the birth of an heir to Margaret rather stymied that possibility. Was that when Richard first considered seizing the throne? What I love about the Wars of the Roses is the endless uncertainties and this is a belter: at what point did York seriously contemplate taking the throne?

We don’t actually know and there are so many possibilities, not least when he was Protector on two occasions or when he removed his potential rival, Edmund Beaufort, at the first Battle of St Albans. Or when he was forced to abandon his army and family at Ludlow in 1459? Or after the Parliament of the Devils in November 1459 when he and the Nevilles were attainted? We’re not even really sure whether he planned to usurp the throne when he landed from Ireland in September 1460, but there seems little doubt that by his entry to London and the manner of it - sword carried before him, Duchess Cecily by his side and a large number of retainers behind him – the die was well and truly cast. And then…

And then – well, it’s an “oh, bugger!” moment because, when he lays his hand upon the throne and waits for the acclamation of the Parliamentary peers, the reaction is not so much ecstatic enthusiasm as embarrassed disbelief. Even his great ally, the irritating Richard, Neville, Earl of Warwick realises that there is little support for York.[Sorry about the word irritating but I’m afraid I really find Warwick a far less sympathetic character than York – but more of that another time.

I’m with York on this one: it surprises me too that the nobility were prepared to remain loyal to a King who had shown so little ability as a ruler – but they obviously were. Warwick understood this, but York was reluctant to accept it and who can blame him given the rollercoaster he had been on since 1450. It would not have been the first time English nobles had acquiesced in a realpolitik solution, so why did they not acclaim York?

As always they needed a powerful reason to overturn the status quo, however unsatisfactory it was – York did not give them such a reason. They acknowledged he had a strong claim but the throne had been settled upon the House of Lancaster for two generations and Henry now had a male heir, Prince Edward. Nor were the lords under pressure from below for though Richard had coveted popular support, it had never really materialised.

There is a great contrast here with his own son, Edward, Earl of March, a year or so later. Edward had the same claim as his father but he was also young and charismatic, he was a very effective battle commander and an inspirational warrior. Richard was none of these things and the Act of Accord in October 1460, whilst a political success, must have been a crushing personal defeat to him. His ultimate military failure at Wakefield at the end of 1460 brought his abortive royal campaign to an abrupt end.

Thus, though history regards his eldest son, Edward with some fondness: “bit of a lad, good company, shame about the wife” and his youngest son, Richard, as fertile ground for a raging controversy, the tendency with Richard of York is to treat him with mild disapproval, either because he sought the throne and destabilised the state in doing so or simply because he failed to get the throne.

To use once more an already well overused classic, he was “damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.”

The book FEUD is available on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008ZD9ABO
Derek’s website is www.derekbirks.com
Derek is on twitter at https://twitter.com/Feud_writer

October 26, 2012

Here Be Dragons | Discussion Post 2 | to Chapter 38

Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Then Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce with England by marrying the English king's beloved, illegitimate daughter, Joanna. Reluctant to wed her father's bitter enemy, Joanna slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband who dreams of uniting Wales. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales--and Llewelyn--Joanna must decide to which of these powerful men she owes her loyalty and love.

A sweeping novel of power and passion, loyalty and lives, this is the book that began the trilogy that includes FALLS THE SHADOW and THE RECKONING. 
  We discussed Chapter 1 through Chapter 16 here last week .. next week we will have our final discussion post where you can link your reviews, but now we are discussing anything including chapter 37.

Feel free to answer any and all discussion points below.. as well as asking your own questions in the comments, and anyone can jump in at any time.

Joanna matures and the marriage to Llewellyn becomes fruitful. What are your feelings of Llewelyn's eldest son, Gruffydd?

Joanna's brother Richard is a supporter of both Joanna and King John. Did you sense a divide inevitably occurring, and how did you judge Joanna's reaction?

The mystery of Arthur comes to a tense point with the de Braose family! What do you think of the actions of
King John against the family?

At the end of Chapter 25, King John states that the marriage he arranged for his daughter Joanna with Llewellyn was "a great mistake." What do you think he was fearing? Was he fearing for Joanna's well-being, or fearing a fight against her husband?

Davydd and Gruffydd's relationship has been strained from the start. Do you feel any empathy towards Gruffydd and his jealousy of his younger brother? Do you feel Joanna should have spoken with Llewellyn regarding Gruffydd's attitude towards the Norman English?

October 19, 2012

Here Be Dragons | Discussion 1 | Chapter 1-16

Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Then Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce with England by marrying the English king's beloved, illegitimate daughter, Joanna. Reluctant to wed her father's bitter enemy, Joanna slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband who dreams of uniting Wales. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales--and Llewelyn--Joanna must decide to which of these powerful men she owes her loyalty and love.

A sweeping novel of power and passion, loyalty and lives, this is the book that began the trilogy that includes FALLS THE SHADOW and THE RECKONING.  

Discuss Chapter 1 through Chapter 16 here.. next discussion will be available on October 26, which will discuss through Chapter 37.

Feel free to answer any and all discussion points below.. as well as asking your own questions in the comments, and since some of us are not such fast readers... jump in when you get caught up!!

How did you feel when you saw how Richard the Lionheart was spoken of as homosexual? Could you imagine this portrayal occurring in writings created in 2012?

What are your first impressions of Llewellyn, and did they change by the time you reached the end of Chapter 16?

Do you enjoy the romance of Llewellyn and Joanna, or do you think there was too much focus on it and would prefer more of a telling of the battles and the details of the factions?

King John is so easily detestable in other reads, how did you like this portrayal of him as a father and a provider?

What do you think of the fate of Arthur, Duke of Brittany? Do you think Joanna is naive in her outlook?

Do you have a favorite character picked yet? Is there a character that you would rather see more or less of? Character you wouldn't mind seeing locked in a dungeon (Maude!)?

Could you sense a hero emerging, and who would that be?

Have you read similar era novels that you would recommend as companion reading? Elizabeth Chadwick's William Marshal novels are ones I would suggest for a greater grasp on some of the many characters in Here Be Dragons. Have you read any Welsh-based novels that you could recommend?

October 13, 2012

Here Be Dragons Kick Off!

Here Be Dragons (Welsh Princes #1) by Sharon Kay Penman is the focus for our read along!

Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Then Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce with England by marrying the English king's beloved, illegitimate daughter, Joanna. Reluctant to wed her father's bitter enemy, Joanna slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband who dreams of uniting Wales. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales--and Llewelyn--Joanna must decide to which of these powerful men she owes her loyalty and love.

A sweeping novel of power and passion, loyalty and lives, this is the book that began the trilogy that includes FALLS THE SHADOW and THE RECKONING.  

Start your engines!! We will have our first discussion post available on Friday, October 19!!

We will discuss everything that falls between chapter one and chapter 16.

You might want to make small notes as you read so you can add them to the comments during the discussion!
See you next week!

October 09, 2012

{Book Tour} Guest Post from author, Juliet Grey


I recently chimed in on one of the history threads on Facebook that asked who was the most maligned historical figure.  There were a lot of votes for Richard III; and perhaps the recent discovery of the bones beneath a British car park will reveal (if they indeed belong to Richard), that he was never hunchbacked or had a withered arm. And we do know that Shakespeare, a Tudor-era scribe, derived the, well, bare bones, of his character from other men on the Tudor payroll who never knew Richard; those like Holinshed and Thomas More.

But Richard brought his destiny upon himself. He DID usurp the throne and he did murder any adults he believed were standing in his way, even if you set aside the possibility that he had something to do with the death of his nephews.

I made the case for Marie Antoinette as history’s most maligned personage. From the moment she crossed the imaginary threshold between Austria and France on the Ile des Epis, she was considered by those in her adopted country as an outsider: the other. In fact, some members of the French royal family, as well as many courtiers who would soon be assigned to serve her, were against her marriage from the start. Austria had been France’s enemy for 950 years or so before the treaty that cemented their alliance. Ancient grudges were not so easily patched up by a union between a pair of teenagers.

Marie Antoinette had been urged by her mother, the formidable empress of Austria Maria Theresa, to use (in the empress’s view) her only asset—charm—to win over her future subjects. But not everyone was delighted by the young girl’s winsomeness, especially when Marie Antoinette chafed at the rigid court etiquette of the Bourbons or when she alienated the king’s mistress, the luscious Madame du Barry, because she was raised to detest such immorality. Poor Marie Antoinette was far too young, having come to France at the age of 14 (I tried to imagine my niece at that age being ready to rule a kingdom in a few years’ time!) too naïve, and too politically inept to see the larger picture. In the case of the comtesse du Barry, she got caught up in seeing the individual trees and missed the forest. Months passed while she refused to countenance the royal favorite on moral grounds, angering the king, while her mother desperately needed her to obtain his acquiescence for a much larger political gain: the partition of Poland. In the grand scheme of things, this was far more significant than an adulterous affair, but Marie Antoinette had been raised properly and couldn’t understand why her mother suddenly expected her to accept this liaison when she had always schooled her to despise adulterers.

Marie Antoinette was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t in other areas as well. During the 1770s when she dressed opulently, as befitting a queen, with the wildly fashionably coiffures known as “poufs,” she was condemned for her extravagance.  Yet in the early 1780s when she began to wear the understated white muslin gowns with pastel-hued sashes known as gaulles or chemises à la reine, accessorized with simple straw hats, she was derided for looking like she was only wearing her undergarments and dressing like a peasant. In both instances, she was accused of bankrupting the country, by instigating the women of France to follow her expensive fashion trends.

Of course, Marie Antoinette’s passion for fashion did not bankrupt the country. France was in dire economic straits long before her husband acceded to the throne. His predecessor, his grandfather Louis XV, plunged France into the red fighting the Seven Years War when Marie Antoinette was still a child in Austria. And during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, they pledged a tremendous amount of money to help the American colonists fight their own revolution against the English crown. Although it seemed against their own interests to bring down a monarchy, the aim was to weaken Britain, France’s greatest enemy. Add to that a series of bad harvests and terrible winters that led to rampant starvation.  Never mind acts of Nature: the people blamed Marie Antoinette for all their ills, thanks to the demagoguery of men like the king’s own cousin, the deep pocketed, and ambitious, duc d’Orleans. The duc fancied himself a progressive, and would eventually vote to execute Louis XVI, yet he would ultimately be sent to the guillotine himself. 

Marie Antoinette and Louis didn’t consummate their marriage for several years, for a number of reasons that scholars and historians have debated for centuries. Based on the historical record, I have my own theories, which I dramatize in DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, as well as in the first novel in the trilogy, BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE. But Marie Antoinette had come to France to bear an heir to the Bourbon throne, and without a son, she was useless to the French, rapidly becoming a waste of time and space. As the years flew by without the desired heir, rumors flew as well—that she was indulging in extramarital affairs with lovers of both sexes (the French couldn’t conceive of the possibility that she was unhappily celibate all that time). But the truth is that Marie Antoinette adored children and couldn’t wait to become a mother! Denied this for so long, with nowhere else to focus as she had no political clout, she poured her energy elsewhere: into the pursuit of pleasure—high stakes gambling, late night dances and masquerades, and a mania for fashion, interior design, and the outré three-foot-high hairstyles.  So she was blamed for not conceiving an heir, as though it was her “fault,” and becoming a queen of pleasure instead, as though she preferred these pursuits (and/or the extramarital lovers she never had at the time) to the joys of childbearing.

And when she sought refuge from her “toxic” detractors at le Petit Trianon, she was accused by the very same people of turning her rural idyll into an exclusive haven of rampant debauchery.

I wrote my Marie Antoinette trilogy to give her a voice, and to set the historical record straight, separating the truth from the centuries of  propaganda that have cast her as a tone-deaf, empty-headed spendthrift. While the books are historical fiction, they are heavily based on fact (there’s a bibliography at the back of each novel, in addition to an Author’s Note that explains where any liberties were taken with the historical record).

It’s high time that Marie Antoinette, miscast for more than two centuries as a villainess, steps into the sunlight as a heroine.

Juliet Grey is the author of Becoming Marie Antoinette. She has extensively researched European royalty and is a particular devotee of Marie Antoinette, as well as a classically trained professional actress with numerous portrayals of virgins, vixens, and villainesses to her credit. She and her husband divide their time between New York City and southern Vermont.  

Her new novel, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, was released in May 2012 from Ballantine Books.

Juliet is currently on tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  Visit Michelle's stop at The True Book Addict on November 1 for a review and giveaway.

Announcing the winner..

The Winner of the Illuminations book giveaway is.................

The last commenter,


If you did not win, you can go buy the book today, it is finally being released today! Thanks to everyone who entered!

Stop by Burton Book Review tomorrow to catch my review of Illuminations!

October 08, 2012

Fall Read Along Reminder

The Fall Read Along featuring Sharon Kay Penman's Here Be Dragons is about to start! Dust off that copy that has been sitting on your shelves or go find one at your fave bookstore or library, because now is as good a time as any! I've had my copy for close to four years, and it's way past time to dig into Penman's Welsh trilogy.

The book is roughly 700 pages, so we have the schedule as follows:

Start reading Saturday October 13, 2012.

The Weekly Discussion posts are scheduled for these Fridays:

October 19: Complete Chapter 16

October 26: Complete Chapter 37

November 2: Final Discussion

We tried to stretch out the reading for those who don't get to read everyday, but if you still fall behind the reading schedule please feel free to come back to visit the discussions at any time that is convenient to you. No pressure! There are no clear divisions in the text as far as part one or part two, so each week will average about 230 pages.
Who is going to be reading along with us? Feel free to comment with the link to your personal homepage so we can get to know our fellow read along participants!

October 03, 2012

Giveaway! Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

October 9th 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Please welcome author Mary Sharratt during her blog tour for her October 2012 release of Illuminations, and see the bottom of the post for a book giveaway of Illuminations!

The Soul is Symphonic: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen

Born in the Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary nun and polymath. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, and wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

873 years after her death, Hildegard was canonized in May 2012 and will be elevated to Doctor of the Church in October, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have made a significant impact.

But to most people today, Hildegard is known best for her soaring ethereal music.

The first composer for whom we have a biography, she composed seventy-seven sacred songs, as well as Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music.

Her melodies are completely unlike the plainchant of her era—or anything that has come before or since. Likewise her lyrics are highly original and feel fresh to us even today. She was the only 12th century writer to compose in free verse.

A Benedictine superior, Hildegard and her nuns sang the Divine Office eight times a day. She believed that song was the highest form of prayer—the mystical power of music reunited humankind to the ecstasy and beauty of paradise before the fall, connecting the singer directly with the divine, and joining heaven and earth in a great celestial harmony.

Singing the divine praises was absolutely central to Hildegard’s identity as a nun. But late in her life, the great composer and polymath was silenced.

Hildegard and her nuns were subject to an interdict, or collective excommunication, when they refused to disinter a supposed apostate buried in their churchyard. As punishment for their disobedience, they were forbidden the sacraments, the mass, even forbidden to sing the Divine Office.

It was the prohibition against singing that hit Hildegard the hardest. She wrote a passionate letter to her archbishop in protest. “The soul is symphonic,” she told him. She also warned him that by forbidding her and her daughters from singing God’s praise, the archbishop himself risked going to an afterlife destination where there was no music, ie hell.

Hildegard’s words seemed to give the man pause for thought. He lifted the interdict just a few months before her death in 1179.

“There is the music of heaven in all things,” Hildegard wrote. “But we have forgotten to hear it until we sing.”

I find her song Caritas Abundant in Omnia (Divine Love Abounds in All Things) to be particularly stirring. Hildegard conceived of Caritas, or Divine Love, as a feminine figure, an aspect of the Feminine Divine:
 Caritas habundat in omnia

Divine love abounds in all things.
She is greatly exalted from the depths to the heights,
Above the highest stars,
And most loving towards all things,
For she gave the highest King the kiss of peace.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is published in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is a Book of the Month and One Spirit Book Club pick. Visit Mary’s website: www.marysharratt.com 

Synopsis of Illuminations: Illuminations chronicles the life of Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), who was tithed to the church at the age of eight and expected to live out her days in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned but disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim. Instead, Hildegard rejected Jutta’s masochistic piety and found comfort and grace in studying books, growing herbs, and rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine. When Jutta died some three decades later, Hildegard broke out of her prison with the heavenly calling to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters and herself from the soul-destroying anchorage.

Like Anita Diamant’s portrayal of Dinah in The Red Tent, Mary Sharratt interweaves historical research with psychological insight and vivid imagination to write an engaging and triumphant portrait of a courageous and remarkably resilient woman and the life she might have lived. Deeply affecting, Illuminations is a testament to the power of faith, love, and self-creation.

  To enter the giveaway for your own copy of Illuminations, please comment here with your email address. What intrigues you about Illuminations? Open to USA and Canada followers of HF-Connection, contest ends on 10/8/2012 and will be announced 10/9/2012 on the release day of Illuminations!