Review: The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith

 
 
 
A refreshingly original piece of literature, The Miracle Inspector will spur you to think in new ways. Helen Smith has created a world where women are so marginalized in futuristic London that they cannot leave their homes without full body coverings. Although the setting is in the future, the story is not set so far in the future as to be unbelievable or unrecognizable which only serves to further invest the reader in the journey.

While weaving the separate strands of this story into a cohesive tapestry Smith endears us to the main couple through her descriptions of their everyday lives, thoughts, and dreams. Simultaneously, an understanding of Lucas’s family history evolves among the pages revealing a tumultuous, if slightly scandalous, past. The details of Lucas and Angela’s planned escape from this new London smacks of accounts of refugee outflows from war torn third world countries. It is this rendering of a modern western society reduced to “an oppressive place where poetry has been forced underground, theatres and schools are shut, and women are not allowed to work outside the home” which spurs thoughts on how life could change in an instant if we allow fear to overcome rationality.

Smith has won a well-deserved Arts Council Award for The Miracle Inspector. I would recommend this book to readers looking for an unconventional love story, or those interested in themes about overcoming oppression. Also, for the descriptions of poetry and art, this book would appeal to those with an interested in performing and activist arts.

Brandy Strake
Layered Pages Review Team Member

Interview with Author Sarah Bower

What a honor it is to interview Author Sarah Bower. Sarah is an International Best Selling Author of, The Needle in the Blood & The Sins of the House of Borgia.
Sarah, I really enjoyed reading your novel, The Needle in the Blood. Could you please tell us a little about your book and what interested you the most about this story?

I’m glad you enjoyed reading NEEDLE, Stephanie, and thanks again for the lovely review you posted on Layered Pages. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Bayeux Tapestry is something we take very much for granted in the UK. It’s like the wallpaper to our history, if you like. What originally made me sit up and take notice of it in a different way was a TV show hosted by Simon Schama, in which he described one famous image in the Tapestry, of a woman and child fleeing a burning house, as being the first image in western art of what war does to civilians. That was the starting point for my novel. It then began to take more concrete form when I discovered that, although very little is known for certain about the Tapestry (making it fertile ground for the fiction writer!), current thinking suggests it was made in England, by English embroiderers, but for a Norman patron. It seemed to me that this created interesting tensions for me to explore.


Were there any challenges in researching for your novel?

I studied medieval history at university, so the historical research wasn’t quite so much of a challenge as finding out about the mechanics of how the Tapestry was made. I can scarcely sew on a button, so learning about medieval embroidery (because Tapestry is a misnomer – the work is, in fact, an embroidery) was a steep learning curve for me! That said, researching the life of Odo was also problematic because he is quite a shadowy figure in history despite his high profile at the time of the Norman Conquest. There are no full-length biographies of him, and little of his correspondence survives, just one or two letters between him and Archbishop Lanfranc. We don’t even know for sure when he was born or where he grew up. In another way, however, this made him a perfect protagonist for the novel because it enabled me to invent far more freely than if he had been a better documented historical figure.



Were there any scenes you found more difficult to write than others?

Oh, the sex scenes! They are always the hardest for me. I recently heard an interview with John Banville, in which he described the difficulty of writing sex scenes as being the bridging of the gap between noble sentiments and absurd actions. I don’t think I could put it better myself. I’m relieved, and flattered, that readers have, on the whole, been kind about this aspect of the novel because, with a hero and heroine like Odo and Gytha, sex was clearly going to play a central role in their relationship, even though I struggled, at first, to force them into a more abstemious mould. On average, I think each sex scene took me about two weeks to write – and that was just the first draft! I guess they take about two minutes to read. Nor do I find that aspect of writing gets any easier with practice.


Did writing this story teach you anything and what is it?

Although published after SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA in the US, NEEDLE is my first novel, and in that respect, it taught me a lot about the need for resilience, patience and self-belief if you are to complete a novel successfully, and then find a publisher for it. I had no idea how tough both these things are until I embarked on the process!

Regarding the specific subject matter of this book, it served to remind me that we have been a multicultural society here in the UK for well over a thousand years. If only more medieval history was taught in our schools, perhaps people would be less anxious about and more welcoming of those who still come here from all the different corners of the world and contribute so much to making us who we are. That is one reason why I chose to write the book in a way which tries to be even-handed to both conquered and conquerors, acknowledging that both sides were traumatised by the experience, and both have contributed hugely to our language, culture, law, politics and social structure.


Who designed the book cover?

The US edition cover was designed in-house, I believe, by my publishers. I think it’s gorgeous and am absolutely delighted with it.


Who is your publisher?

Sourcebooks Landmark, who also published SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA.


What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel or about writing in general?

As I have indicated in an earlier reply, I think the biggest challenge of writing a novel is the time it takes. Each of my novels has taken me, on average, three years to complete, from beginning the background reading and planning to having a final draft I think is good enough to be shared with readers. This knowledge makes getting started quite a difficult and nerve-wracking experience. I do rather envy writers I know who can complete a book in months rather than years. I’m afraid I rarely write in the white heat of inspiration but creep along at a snail’s pace, groping in the dark and hoping I find the right way. A tutor on my creative writing MA course once said, ‘Only write a novel if everything else fails,’ a sentiment with which I am in total accord! Writing novels is incredibly difficult. On the other hand, there is great reward and excitement to be had from engaging with readers who always find things in your work you didn’t know were there and thus give your book a kind of life of its own which is so much more than you can give it yourself as the author.

Have you ever had writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?

I’m not sure I really believe in writer’s block. Writing is my job. Do lawyers or nurses or refuse collectors get blocked? No. So why should professional writers be any different? Of course, it’s not always easy to gear oneself up for the imaginative effort involved in novel writing, but if that’s the case, I generally find I have some other kind of writing to do, or writing-related work such as teaching and mentoring other writers. For the imaginative work, I do think one has to be attuned to one’s emotional and mental state, even one’s physical health, in order to be prepared for the obstacles these things can throw up. One has to be aware that on a good day one might write a thousand words or more, but on a less good day it might be just a sentence.
That said, I know some writers do experience blocks in a very real sense, so perhaps I’ve just been lucky so far!

What is your next book project?

I have a contemporary thriller in the pipeline, and have just begun work on a companion piece to it. Although the new book will be more of a love story than a thriller, they have in common the fact that both are about people whose identity is different to the one they were born with and how this affects their lives. Both are also set on the east coast of England, the new one near Whitby, where Dracula landed of course!

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Well, if everything has failed and you find you have no option, you need patience, resilience and bloody-mindedness if you are going to keep going and succeed. You also need to be able to divide yourself into the writer, working in private, possibly not washing or even getting dressed for days, and the public persona who has to get out there, don the killer heels and lipstick, and sell her wares. In this regard, I find it helps to think of myself as a small marketing company set up to sell the novels of Sarah Bower. That way I can put some psychological distance between myself as writer and myself as a public figure. The business side of writing is assuming more and more importance for most of us as the publishing industry fragments and fewer and fewer novelists can expect to be published via the traditional route, by a big publishing house with a team of editors and marketing staff to put behind the book. We are increasingly having to become our own editors, proof readers and salespeople.

What is your favourite quote?

Oh dear, this is a difficult one, there are so many good ones and I have so many different favourites. So let’s go with the quote from Olive Schreiner’sFrom Man to Man which I use as an epigraph to THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD: ‘Has the pen or pencil dipped so deep in the blood of the human race as the needle?’

Bio:

Sarah Bower is a prize-winning novelist and short story writer. She is a regular contributor to the Historical Novels Reviewhistoricalnovelsociety.org/magazines/ , Ink, Sweat and Tearswww.inksweatandtears.co.uk/, andWords With Jamwww.wordswithjam.co.uk/. She works as a mentor to other writers, and teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is now based in her role as co-ordinator of the mentorship scheme for literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation.

Sarah is the author of THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD and SINS OF THE HOUSE OF BORGIA (originally published in the UK as THE BOOK OF LOVE) Her work has been published in eight countries. She lives in Suffolk, in Eastern England.

Sarah tweets @SarahBower and you also may find her on Facebook.

Thank you Sarah for the pleasure of an interview! It was an honor! 

Stephanie


Thank you, Stephanie, for asking me. It’s been a pleasure to answer your questions.

Sarah





Wednesday Book Reviews

The Queen’s Pleasure by Brandy Purdy
Brandy Purdy writes a story about Robert Dudley who meets Amy Robsart-a daughter of a squire-and falls in love with her. Despite his family’s misgivings of the match he soon marries her. Not long after, Robert’s love for Amy fades and he wants to return to court. When Elizabeth becomes Queen of England, Robert’s ambition grows and so does his resentment towards his marriage to Amy. Roberts’s loyalties seem to move to whoever is in power at the moment and throughout the story he shows no quilt or remorse for his actions. When Amy turns up dead, suspicion falls on Dudley and people question whether the Queen was involved.

This story focuses on Robert’s wife, Amy & Queen Elizabeth’s point of view. Even though Roberts view is lacking, Purdy writes in great detail of Roberts emotional, physical and mental abuse to Amy and his constant demands of Elizabeth. Robert completely disgusted me and what sadden me the most was that he left Amy shut up in various manners across the countryside for long periods of time-alone- not caring for her well-being while he was at court living the royal life and misleading Elizabeth about his relationship he has with his wife.

The lack of dialog in the beginning of the story made it difficult to read and I felt parts of it was getting a little repetitive and could have been shortened. However, Purdy does a superb job exploring the mind of an abused wife.

In-spite of already knowing about Amy’s mysterious death, it wasn’t any easier reading about it again. The circumstances surrounding her death is still a mystery and we know very little about Amy and her marriage to Robert. Purdy gives us a clear and painful perspective of how it could have been for her. I applaud Purdy for strong character building and even though I was mentally exhausted after reading this story… it was a gripping & emotional read. I recommend this story to readers who enjoy reading about the Tudors and wanting to explore more of Amy’s life.

3.5 Stars

Stephanie

What She Knew by K.R. Hughes
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Wow! Just wow! What She Knew by K.R. Hughes and T.L. Burns has left me speechless and wanting more! What She Knew is a story that based on what would happen if on that fateful night in August of 1962 if Marilyn would have lived. There are so many famous names in this book from the entire Kennedy family to Frank Sinatra and the rat pack. K.R. Hughes and T.L. Burns do an excellent job of spinning a story and keeping the reader in suspense while they read about all of these famous characters. The reader will really feel as if they have stepped into the middle of the Camelot. The story will keep you guessing right until the very end…right until the day of November 22, 1963.

I was excited to receive this book to review, I am such a big Marilyn Monroe girl and any book that I could read about her I do. This story was written based entirely off of a “What if” question and boy does it pull every conspiracy theory over the night the Marilyn Monroe died, how she died, and why she died into light. It was no secret that she had an affair with president and it was no secret that many different people wanted her out of the way but why? What did she know that made her such a liability? K.R. Hughes and T.L Burns had created a story that leaves the reader wondering just how much of what they have written is true or how much of it is make believe.

I give this book 4.5 stars!
Rachel Massaro

Layered Pages Wednesday Reviews

Vivaldi’s Muse by Sarah Grace Kelly

Vivaldi’s Muse is an eloquently told story of a young woman named Annina Giro who lives in the early eighteenth century, and who has aspirations of becoming an opera singer. A wealthy count becomes her sponsor and she travels to Vienna to study music. She quickly falls in love with Antonio Vivaldi, a priest who is a composer for the opera, and soon she becomes his protegee. They are inseparable and form a special bond that is so rare in this world–you will be captivated.

I am impressed with what can only be described as impeccable detail in this story. Sarah takes you back to the Renaissance period and gives you an enchanting picture. Her portrayal of the characters was so masterfully done that I felt a strong emotional tie to each of them. I was quickly drawn in and immersed in the opera life of that time and the relationship between Annina and Antonio. I was disappointed when the story came to an end.

Sarah truly is a talented author and she writes with such grace and style. I will continue to follow her work and I look forward to finding out what her next book project is. I highly recommend this story to all of those who are avid readers of historical fiction. This novel will not let you down.

Stephanie
Layered Pages



Sons of the Wolf by Paula Lofting

Sons of the Wolf tells the story of Wulfhere, a Sussex thegn, living during the reign of Edward the Great, in the years leading up to the Norman conquest. A landholder whose land holdings come directly from the King, Wulfhere also owes service go Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex. Wulfhere is a fierce warrior who is also devoted to his growing family, and when the book opens we meet him returning home from battle with the Scots in the year 1054.
After surviving the horrible battle at Dunsinane Hill, Wulfhere only wants to settle at home, tend to his lands and enjoy his family. Of course fate has other plans. Wulfhere and his family’s lives soon get quite complicated and Wulfhere is put in the position of trying to keep his family safe while also not compromising his honor or loyalty to Earl Harold or the King.
The author based Wulfhere on real person, recorded in the Domsday Book, as she did with Helghi, Wulfhere’s neighbor and sworn enemy whose fate seems to be tied to Wulfhere’s. Unfortunately, only the sketchiest details were recorded about Wulfhere and Helghi, so Paula Lofting used her imagination and her knowledge of history to fill in the blanks – creating a vivid, detailed and realistic world full of complex and interesting characters. I liked her characters – both the fictional ones and the non-fictional. I really liked the more personal scope of the story and its focus on Wulfhere and his family and their struggles to love each other amidst conflict and misunderstandings. Wulfhere also participates in major historical events, owing fyrd service to the King, but overall the story doesn’t have the sweeping feel of many historical novels set in Anglo Saxon England. And I find that a welcome change. Paula’s characters feel like real people, with complex human emotions, motivations and, sometimes, failings.

The book itself is beautifully packaged, with rich and colorful cover art, and drawings at the beginning of each section. The author also includes pronunciation and place names guides, as well as a glossary of unfamiliar terms, all of which was very helpful. I would have liked a map to reference as well.

Sons of the Wolf is the first in a series of novels about the Norman conquest of England, and I am very excited to read more about Wulfhere and his family – and their place in history. I enjoyed this novel very much and found it a quick and easy read, one that I will undoubtedly want to read again.

(Four and one-half stars)

Sarah Giacalone



Amber Treasure by Richard Denning


Right off, I was impressed with the extensive research done in preparing for this writing in order to remain true to the time period. The story takes you on a journey of the tumultuous travels of a great sword. While this story does indeed feature several great swords, it is the story within, of a boy growing into a man, which grips your heart. The characters of the villa and their allies are well developed and endearing. Descriptions of the countryside, towns, people and battles are detailed enough to transport the reader into battle, and inspire sympathy for the boys, without being overly gruesome. While at times the storyline was slow, Denning succeeds in attaching the reader’s curiosity to the character’s quest and fates in order to carry you through these slow spots.

I would recommend this book to those interested in the dark ages, important battles in history, and war stories in general. The ending makes clear that this is not intended to be a stand-alone volume and as such those looking for a new series to read will be satisfied as well.

Brandy Strake



Once A Priest by Ed Griffin-Cover unavailable


This book is a biography of a man brought up in a Catholic household. He goes on to become a priest with the goal of helping people, but with time, gets disillusioned with the practices and rituals of the Catholic Church. How he deals with leaving the priesthood, and finds a worthier way to help people is the premise of this book.

The beginning is choppy as the author chooses to give small snippets of information from his background. Instead of flowing smoothly, the text jars on you for a couple of chapters, but it gets much smoother after that. This is basically an autobiography of one man which runs through different themes, but in the end showcases a life well lived. The narrative is catchy and retains interest in spite of the choppy beginning, and has enough twists and turns to retain the reader’s interest.

The author describes in personal detail how the rules of the Catholic Church affected him, effectively showing all the problems of the Church. What really struck me about this book is that there is neither any venom directed towards the church nor is the church absolved of its many crimes. It is a very balanced account of the struggle of one man to see the light.
Another aspect discussed is the kind of brainwashing that takes place in religious societies. One of the strongest points made by this book is that right or wrong is relative. Religions have black and white rules, but the author realized that nothing was so simple. This gave him strength to make the right decision for himself.

There were some really poignant moments described beautifully, and a detailed look is taken at the civil rights movement in USA from the eyes of one man. But the ending chapters get a little less focused with discussion of his youth and going back and forth in time, which starts grating a little.

Overall, a good book and I give 3 out of 5 stars for this. It is really readable, and an excellent and inspirational book.

Kavitha


The Bond by Karen Magill- Cover unavailable

The Bond by Karen Magill is a paranormal love story that is neat, compact, and condensed into 88 fast paced pages. The Bond follows the story of two characters, Laura Neill and Julian Rule, who are both almost simultaneously struck by cars while crossing the street. Being far away from each other when tragedy strikes thy both experience out of body experiences, connecting their souls together. But, when danger enter Laura’s life it will be up to Julian to try to save her, will he be able too?

I enjoyed the way that The Bond was written. Karen Magill’s writing style in this short story is condensed and fast paced. The chapters are short and the plot is moved along with no nonsense. However, I do wish Magill would have expanded the story more to include more description and detail. Magill introduces us to some interesting characters in this story and I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and their backgrounds. I wanted the story to evolve slower than it did but I found myself still turning pages wanting to know what would happen to Laura, Julian, and their families.

I would give The Bond by Karen Magill 3 stars


Rachel Massaro

Layered Pages Review Team: http://layeredpages.blogspot.com/2012/07/layered-pages-review-team.html

If you are interested in Layered Pages to review your book, please email Stephanie at, layeredpages@yahoo.com.

Wednesday Reviews

The Queen’s Guard by Traci E. Hall

The year is 1147, and Lady Isabella de Lacey is traveling to Jerusalem with Queen Eleanor, King Louis of France, and his army of crusaders as a member of the Queen’s Guard. Having first arrived in Constantinople, the Queen has Isabella spy on Raoul Laskaris, Emperor Manuel’s closest guard, not knowing that Raoul is acting as a spy for Manuel.

Isabella is fiercely loyal to the Queen, because she saved Isabella from an abusive husband and will give her life to protect her. Knowing she could possibly lose her life, she must find out what the Emperor wants with King Louis. Raoul and Isabella form an attraction to one another that they both try to deny. Throughout the story, they face many obstacles that bring them closer together.

The author weaves a well-written story of political intrigue, espionage, attempted murder and mystery. There were so many twists and turns to the story that at first I wasn’t sure how the plot was going to come together, and I was pleasantly surprised as I read on.

What really stood out for me in this book was the Queens Guard, a group of talented women the Queen chose to protect her. I enjoyed the author’s rendering of the strong, individualized personalities of each of the women. What is so unique about them is their relationship with the Queen; they are like daughters to her and share a special bond. While there is not anything in history to support the idea that Queen Eleanor had Guards that were women, the focus of the close-knit group of women was a clever invention. I highly recommend this book.

4 stars

You can also find my review on http://historicalnovelsociety.org/rev…

Stephanie
Layered Pages


Narrow Marsh by A.R. Dance-Cover currently unavailable

Narrow Marsh by A.R. Dance is a different type of historical fiction than I usually read. I typically don’t read about the “common” man—my normal fare for novels set in England are about a royal personality—so when the opportunity arose to review a book about a man growing up in Nottingham of 1811, a time when the wages were low & the hours were long. Workers had very little rights, and while some might be willing to live this way, that is not true for William Daniels, the main character. For me, the plot is where Dance excelled in this novel. The tension between the upper and lower classes is what kept the story rolling, as well as the forbidden relationship between William and a certain young lady. I also appreciated that although this was a time period that I have read little about, nothing was confusing or misleading. It was a very light read, but at the same time, very informative. My one qualm about the novel was that I didn’t always feel what the characters were feeling. I knew that William was in love, but I didn’t always feel it. At times there was a bit more telling than showing. I feel like some of that just has to happen in historical fiction, otherwise the book would be forever long, but it was something that I noticed while reading. Narrow Marsh was a nice departure from some of the romance-heavy historical novels out there. This one is definitely not focused on the romance, and, overall, it was refreshing for that very reason.


3.5 stars

Beth Bulow
Layered Pages Review Team