Friday, October 28, 2016

Tank Commander by Ronald Welch

A couple of weeks ago I got another delightful parcel in the mail from Slightly Foxed, an English publisher of fine out-of-print books. This one contained the final book in Ronald Welch's wonderful (and long out-of-print) Carey Family series, Tank Commander.

Each of the Carey series follows the adventures of a young man from a noble Welsh family in some historical period or other. Tank Commander focuses on World War I. Young John Carey is a career soldier like his father and grandfather (and most of the rest of his family, all the way back to Philip D'Aubigny of Montgisard during the Third Crusade), but he's never experienced war until he finds himself as a second lieutenant under shellfire at Mons, in the first major battle of World War I. The death of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo has sparked off a continent-wide conflict, and nothing John has learned so far, about fencing with the sword, cavalry charges, or maneuvering over the open ground of a battlefield, has prepared him for a whole new kind of war. As the war bogs down into the ghastly, flooded trenches of the Western Front, John gains experience, rank, and cynicism as nearly everyone he knows is wiped out. When a new invention promises to end the stalemate and save thousands of lives, John jumps at the chance to help...

I've been interested in World War I ever since my teen years, when I discovered and fell in love with John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels. Though very little of those novels actually took place in the trenches, the books were peppered with references to the different battles - Ypres, Arras, the Somme, Cambrai - which meant nothing to me but would have been well-known from the headlines to the original readers. In addition, Buchan had no call to be providing a detailed picture of trench life, since the vast majority of his readers would have experienced it for themselves.  

Tank Commander, being written in the '70s for a generation who had never known war, fills in this picture with vivid, gritty, immersive detail. I feel it's the single most informative thing I've ever read about how WWI was fought--Welch, as a renowned military historian who had seen active service himself in the Tank Corps during WWII, is on his home turf in this book. And while the book doesn't give a comprehensive picture of the war - it ends right after the battle of Cambrai in 1917, when the war still had a year to go - its compelling and often stomach-churning descriptions of important battles including Mons, Le Cateau, First and Second Ypres, Arras, and Cambrai definitely give the reader a good idea of how the war developed over the first three years on the Western Front.

Each time I read a new Ronald Welch book, I gain a better appreciation for him both as a historian and as a writer. Welch is no Shakespeare, not even a John Buchan, but his books are always meticulously researched, exciting, and manly. Tank Commander, like all his novels, expects a certain level of maturity of both its characters and its readers. In this novel, anyone can (and does) die. John must break the news to a young soldier that he has been sentenced to death for cowardice. He must take orders from incompetent, outdated officers while trying to use his own experience to protect his men. Tank Commander is a challenging book for any young person to read.

The book was not without its faults. The first chapter, which catches us up on the month leading up to the war, is (I thought) rather badly edited together, with some characters introduced twice, as if for the first time. The characters, especially supporting characters, never quite come into three-dimensional life. And the plot is pretty tenuous. The book makes up for all these shortcomings by being so incredibly immersive, and so historically detailed. It straddles the line between history and fiction, its purpose less to tell a story than to follow a fictional character through a very real historical setting.

Parents might like to be warned that Tank Commander contains pretty consistent use of mild British-type swearing along with regular, graphic descriptions of wounds and death. It may be too gory and intense for young readers of previous books in the Carey series, but I'd definitely recommend it for young adults.

After being unaccountably out of print for years, Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is now being released by Slightly Foxed in illustrated, clothbound limited editions. Slightly Foxed were kind enough to send me a free review copy of Tank Commander, but I was under no obligation to write a positive review, or to tell you to rush off and MAKE THESE BOOKS YOUR OWN BEFORE THEY SELL OUT.

Find Tank Commander on Slightly Foxed.

Other Ronald Welch books on Vintage Novels:
Knight Crusader (the inspiration for my own work in progress OUTREMER)
Captain of Dragoons (about Marlborough's campaigns and the Battle of Blenheim)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


So, today, you get to hear about the other super secret project I've been working on lately!

Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales
by Elisabeth Grace Foley, Rachel Heffington, J Grace Pennington, Emily Ann Putzke, Suzannah Rowntree and Hayden Wand.

(because after all, everything is more fun when done with friends!)

Six fairytales you thought you knew, set against a tapestry of historical backgrounds.

A lonely girl plots revenge in the shadow of a mountain. A stolen princess fumbles a century backward. A dwarfish man crafts brilliant automatons. A Polish Jew strikes matches against the Nazis. A dead girl haunts a crystal lake. A terrified princess searches a labyrinth. A rich collection of six historically inspired retellings, Once is a new generation of fairytales for those who thought they'd heard the tales in all their forms.

Featuring the novellas of Elisabeth Grace Foley, Rachel Heffington, J Grace Pennington, Emily Ann Putzke, Suzannah Rowntree, and Hayden Wand.


Anticipated release date: December 2, 2016

I had so much fun designing this cover.
I'm really excited about this project. My friend Elisabeth Grace Foley and I have been discussing and planning something like this for about a year now, in fact! A few months ago we finally went ahead and recruited a bunch of other author friends to participate, and since then, we've all been pretty madly busy writing, revising, and critiquing each others' stories, and watching this collection come together.

Which means that yes, this collection will feature all-new fairytale retellings from all of us! One thing that happened almost by mistake was that all our ideas wound up having a historical flavour, and that's not to mention the different genres represented here - western, steampunk, suspense, and more.

As for my contribution...yes, this will where Death Be Not Proud makes its appearance!
Moonshine liquor, jazz-fuelled dancing, and the risk of a police raid - these are all in a night's work for cabaret singer Ruby Black. But when a rugby star mistakes her for a dead girl, Ruby's life threatens to become briefer and more exciting than she bargained for.

Two years ago, schoolgirl Wu Xue Bai was brutally murdered. Now, Ruby herself is in danger. Who killed Xue Bai? What lies behind Max Moran's obsession with the dead girl? And will Ruby learn the truth before secrets from her own past catch up with her?

A fairytale retelling set in Jazz Age New Zealand, inspired by the thrillers of Mary Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock. Novella, approximately 23,000 words.
(Check it out on Pinterest)
The even better news is that Death Be Not Proud will be just one of six new fairytale retellings in the new collection. Check out what the other authors have to say about their contributions:

Elisabeth Grace Foley, with The Mountain of the Wolf
Rachel Heffington, with She But Sleepeth
J Grace Pennington, with Rumpled
Emily Ann Putzke, with Sweet Remembrance
Hayden Wand, with With Blossoms Gold

Finally, there are (as always) a couple of ways you can help us:

1. Help us spread the word about this new release! Add it on Goodreads, share the cover, tweet, phone your mum, and splash the hashtag #OnceFairytales around as much as you like!

2. Also, we are super keen to give away copies of the book in exchange for reviews. Email us at to join our review team!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Four Short Reviews

I wish I could tell you that The Lord of the Rings and my other current reads were keeping me busy, but alas, it would be untrue. I have not read any of my current reads for several days. Gasp! I have, instead, been working hard at a couple of immense projects that have reached critical stages this week. One of those is an arts conference my family is running on Saturday, and the other is that Top Secret Project I've been hinting at for a little while. Regarding which, make sure to come back early next week for some thrilling revelations!

In the meantime, then, it's back to the old Goodreads backlog. Here are a few short reviews of vintage novels, read in the last year, which somehow never found their way to this blog.

Gentle JuliaGentle Julia by Booth Tarkington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't read a lot of American humour, but this book was hilarious. Florence behaves a little young for a 13-year-old, but she's an unforgettable character - an imaginative blunderbuss of a little girl who takes a sudden shine to her pretty Aunt Julia's most hapless, helpless suitor (named, if you can credit it, Noble Dill) - and whose matchmaking attempts, assisted by Noble's wonderful gormlessness, wreak havoc upon the whole town.

I laughed out loud right through this book, but as time passed I became less convinced Tarkington would be able to give us a satisfying ending, given that the limp Dill is the closest thing we have to a hero. Indeed, the ending, while it made a decent punchline, and was pretty realistic, didn't satisfy.

Recommended if you want a good laugh and don't mind the weak ending.

Freckles (Limberlost #1)Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I feel bad for not liking Gene Stratton Porter as much as everyone else, but this one was a little too precious and sentimental for me, and it took me an age to get through. Some of you may have a higher tolerance for this kind of thing; in which case, there's plenty to like, especially some lovely writing about nature and a cheerfully preposterous long-lost-identity plot.

No Bed for BaconNo Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun, rollicking read satirising the Elizabethan era.

I wonder if I'm quite well-educated enough to get all the jokes. Parts of the book were laugh-out-loud funny ("In what manner that I have not already used," he [Shakespeare] asked Dick Burbage, "can I bring a heroine to life who has been most dead?" HA SO TRUE), especially everything to do with Sir Walter Raleigh. The book is fairly dry and straight-faced, and I couldn't shake the feeling that some of the jokes were flying over my head.

Even if some of them do, this is still a gloriously silly read which any fan of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans is sure to enjoy.

Do Butlers Burgle Banks?Do Butlers Burgle Banks? by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of Wodehouse's late novels, from a period when his work was losing lustre. Chuckle-worthy but never uproarious, PGW seems to be merely going through the motions in this tale of a young banker in hot water and the gentlemanly gangster who comes to his rescue. Most of the jokes read like retreads, and his roundabout way of saying things seems (dare I say it) a little plodding. And yet, despite the tiredness of the writing style, this farce is superbly plotted, full of outrageous twists and turns.

Good fun.

View all my reviews

Friday, October 14, 2016

Stage-Land by Jerome K Jerome

A while back I reviewed the marvellous Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K Jerome. Around that time, a friend recommended I follow it up with Jerome's satirical guide to late-Victorian theatre: Stage-Land.

Stage-Land was a quick read, good for a few chuckles, though not quite up to the insane brilliance of Three Men in a Boat. It profiles all the usual roles and plotlines common in melodramatic plays--the Hero, the Heroine, the Stage Child, the Good Old Man, the Lawyer, and so on.

On the Hero - "His name is George, generally speaking. "Call me George!" he says to the heroine. She calls him George (in a very low voice, because she is so young and timid). Then he is happy."

On Stage Law - "The only points of stage "law" on which we are at all clear are as follows:

"That if a man dies without leaving a will, then all his property goes to the nearest villain.

"But if a man dies and leaves a will, then all his property goes to whoever can get possession of that will.

"That the accidental loss of the three-and-sixpenny copy of a marriage certificate annuls the marriage.

"That the evidence of one prejudiced witness of shady antecedents is quite sufficient to convict the most stainless and irreproachable gentleman of crimes for the committal of which he could have had no possible motive.

"But that this evidence may be rebutted years afterward, and the conviction quashed without further trial by the unsupported statement of the comic man" - and so on.

On the Villain - "The stage villain is superior to the villain of real life. The villain of real life is actuated by mere sordid and selfish motives. The stage villain does villainy, not for any personal advantage to himself, but merely from the love of the thing as an art. Villainy is to him its own reward; he revels in it. 'Better far be poor and villainous,' he says to himself, 'than possess all the wealth of the Indies with a clear conscience. I will be a villain,' he cries. 'I will, at great expense and inconvenience to myself, murder the good old man, get the hero accused of the crime, and make love to his wife while he is in prison. It will be a risky and laborious business for me from beginning to end, and can bring me no practical advantage whatever. The girl will call me insulting names when I pay her a visit, and will push me violently in the chest when I get near her; her golden-haired infant will say I am a bad man and may even refuse to kiss me. The comic man will cover me with humorous opprobrium, and the villagers will get a day off and hang about the village pub and hoot me. Everybody will see through my villainy, and I shall be nabbed in the end. I always am. But it is no matter, I will be a villain—ha! ha!' "

On the Heroine - "Sometimes the stage heroine has a brother, and if so he is sure to be mistaken for her lover. We never came across a brother and sister in real life who ever gave the most suspicious person any grounds for mistaking them for lovers; but the stage brother and sister are so affectionate that the error is excusable.

"And when the mistake does occur and the husband comes in suddenly and finds them kissing and raves she doesn't turn round and say:

" 'Why, you silly cuckoo, it's only my brother.' "

As you can see, this book is a perfect hoot. And while some of the tropes lampooned within it have fallen into disuse, I was amazed by how many remain in use! If you have a spare half-hour and want to spend it chuckling, and thinking about how storytelling has and hasn't changed over the years, I do recommend Stage-Land.

Find Stage-Land on Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Long Live the King! by Mary Roberts Rinehart

I know. I know. The vintage novel reviews have been a bit thin on the ground lately, mostly thanks to The Lord of the Rings taking up a lot of my reading time. NO REGERTS, as the ill-judged tattoo said. Still, I did find the time over the last couple of weeks to fit in my second Mary Roberts Rinehart novel, a tale of Ruritanian adventure and intrigue titled Long Live the King!

Nine-year-old Prince William Ferdinand Otto may be the Crown Prince of Livonia, poised to gain the throne upon the death of crusty old Ferdinand II, but he'd much rather have a clever dog that does tricks, a fig lady to snack on, and a small friend to play pirates with in the Park. Unbeknownst to William Ferdinand Otto, however, a revolutionary secret society is plotting his downfall, and as the old king's health deteriorates, the grown-ups around him resort to increasingly desperate measures to keep him, and the crown of Livonia, safe.

When wily old Chancellor Mettlich plans to marry second-in-line-to-the-throne Princess Hedwig to Livonia's old enemy King Karl of Karnia. Nikky Larisch, the young guardsman who loves Hedwig, and Countess Olga Loschek, Karl's discarded mistress and spy, are equally appalled by the idea. But can either of them do anything, short of betraying the entire royal family to the revolutionaries?

Meanwhile, a young student is kept under lock and key by a gang of conspirators. An old veteran is slowly induced to turn traitor. A young boy discovers the doorway to a secret passage in the park. And William Ferdinand Otto waits for the moment when he can finally have a pet dog of his own.

I thought this was a quite enjoyable book, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I did my first Rinehart book, When a Man Marries. Long Live the King! was much less comedic in tone, and I thought it was messily constructed. It has such a lot of different characters, with such a lot of different agendas, that it ultimately felt rather unfocused. Sure, there were plenty of memorable and engaging scenes and moments in the book, but they didn't feel very well woven together. One moment we would be reading about Nikky Larisch on a dangerous adventure in Karnia, and the next we would be reading about old Adelbert growing increasingly disillusioned with his country, or Prince William Ferdinand Otto looking for a lost ball. Perhaps it wasn't just the multitude of different characters that this story included, so much as the multitude of different tones and even genres. A bit of psychological drama, a bit of political intrigue, a bit of swashbuckling adventure, a bit of romance, a bit of kidlit, and so on. I felt it needed a stronger focus on just one element or just one character, in order to pull everything together.

While I can't say I ever lost myself in this story, I did enjoy certain aspects of it. I appreciated how Rinehart provides a subtle critique of both the ancien regime of this old (fictional) Eastern European monarchy, as well as of the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries are ruffians and cutthroats who believe they can give "liberty" to the people at the barrel of a gun, but it's impossible to miss Rinehart's disapproval of a society ruled by aristocrats who treat everyone beneath them--even their own children--as pawns in a game for power. But even this critique was subtle and balanced.

To sum up, I thought Long Live the King! was perfectly unobjectionable, but a little difficult to love. What about you? Have you read it? What did you think?

Find Long Live the King! on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, October 7, 2016

THE RAKSHASA'S BRIDE - Giveaway winners and paperback release!

Today's the day--The Rakshasa's Bride, my retelling of Beauty and the Beast in ancient India is, is now available in paperback.

This is just the first in the series, and I hope to release the other titles (The Prince of Fishes and The Bells of Paradise) in paperback in due course.

Also, if you're already up to date on all my stories, never fear--I'm currently making the final edits to Death Be Not Proud. My beta readers so far have loved it, and I can't wait to share it with you when the time comes!

In the meantime, we have some giveaway winners to congratulate :)

The winners! 

Thank you all for making this such a fun event! I even got some terrific suggestions for fairytales I could retell next ;)

And here are the winners:

First Prize (The Rakshasa's Bride paperback): Laura M.
Second Prize (Fairy Tales Retold complete ebook collection): Benita P.
Third Prize (The Rakshasa's Bride 2nd edition ebook): Deborah O.

Congratulations to all of you. I'll be in touch to send you your prizes, and hope you enjoy reading!


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