Category Archives: Reviews

The Poisoned Pilgrim

Written by Oliver Poetzsch

496 Pages

Published by Mariner Books

Review by Carole Mertz

4quills

 

The Poisoned Pilgrim is the fourth volume in Poetzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter Series. The book depicts for citizens of the twenty-first century the duties of a seventeenth century hangman, a kind of counterpart to the chief-of-police in a contemporary town. (A seventeenth century hangman is feared, but not entirely respected, and deemed a member of a lower class of society.)

Poetzsch’s hangman is, nevertheless, a man of character and imagination, while his daughter Magdalena is determined, impetuous, and curious, characteristics which lead her into serious difficulties. She and her husband Simon, the Schongau “bathhouse surgeon,” have left their home to undertake a pilgrimage. They travel by foot from Schongau in southern Bavaria toward Lake Ammer. After crossing the lake in a small boat, they arrive in the mountainous forest beneath the Andechs Monastery during a violent thunderstorm. They wish to give thanks in the Monastery for the safety and well-being of their two young children, left at home with The Hangman.

When a robbery occurs, most of the pilgrims are unaware of the stir this causes among the monks and the abbot. An unexplained murder also occurs in the Prologue, but readers must wait many pages for its explanation.

I loved the unraveling of this rather complicated tale. I loved the glimpses it offered of life in an earlier century, within the Bavarian territory where I had once resided. (I’m a classical musician. Events similar to those recorded in this novel, I mused, may have occurred at a time when Bach, or his mentor Buxtehude, were instructing organ students in German towns not far distant from Andechs.)

A brief history of Baroque music composed in an era contemporaneous to the actions of this novel, describes the following, “To this tradition (i.e. of composing chorale preludes and fugues) must be added the instinctive German love of order, manifested still today in so many aspects of German life.” The substance of The Poisoned Pilgrim reflects that love of order.

It is Jacob Kuisl, the protagonist, who ultimately solves the murders which occur, and who ardently strives to protect his offspring. It is noteworthy that Poetzsch is himself a descendant of the Kuisl family.

Another area of interest drew me to this particular novel, i.e., the author’s references to Salzburg University. I learned the University formally opened as a Benedictine institution in 1622. The contemporary Salzburg University had not reopened as a theological center until two years past the year when I was a music student in that town.

The author’s descriptions of the territory rang true for me as did the sometimes crude manner of speaking in some of the dialogue exchanges, similar perhaps to the down-to-earth speech employed by Luther in his “Table Talk.” For example, the Schongau Hangman hurls this speech at his three-year-old grandson: “Damn it! Keep your dirty paws away from my sacred crucibles before I send you back to bed without breakfast.” We wonder how we can accept this hangman as one of the heroes in this tale, but later we witness his great love for this child.

Since the Andechs Monastery still exists, and since this location is the area of Poetzsch’s upbringing, we may well trust his descriptions of the environs. Furthermore, as evidence of his diligent research, Poetzsch modeled his chronicle on Willibald Mathaeser’s Andechser Chronik. Mathaeser was a cellarer at the Monastery for years and steeped himself in the history of the Monastery.

Visitors still make pilgrimages to the Monastery. However their desire for the double bock beer brewed in the Andechs Tavern since 1455 and still served today in the Monastery gardens, may overpower their desire to pray in the chapel.

Though I jumped in media res (by starting with the fourth volume of the series), I now plan to read the entire series. The current volume is translated by Lee Chadeayne, editor in chief of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) Newsletter.

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Carole Mertz has published reviews in The Conium ReviewThe Long Ridge Writers WebsiteThe Christian Communicator, and at Page and Spine. Her chapter on writing tips was selected for inclusion in the forthcoming Writing after Retirement, Carol Smallwood and Christine Redman-Waldeyer, Editors, (Scarecrow Press). Recently Mertz won recognition in the 4th Worldwide Intergenerational Storytelling Contest.

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

The Ambitious Madame BonaparteWritten by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Published by Amika Press

Review by Tracey Skeine

5 quills

 

I love novels about strong women characters who have the courage to be themselves despite what everyone else tells them. I also love reading historical novels about times or events I’m not familiar with. With her first novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, author Ruth Hull Chatlien delivers on each of those points.

Betsy Patterson wants to rise above her station, and she is ambitious indeed. Her severe father is a merchant in Baltimore, and that life isn’t enough for Betsy. These are the years of the early 19th century, and women were supposed to get married and have children and otherwise get out of the way of the menfolk. But Betsy has other intentions, and she is determined enough to see those intentions through, even when they cloud her judgement. She is not impressed by the young country, the young men, or the fashions of America.

When Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, comes to town, Betsy seizes the opportunity and marries him. But big brother Napoleon isn’t playing, and Betsy, now Madame Bonaparte, isn’t accepted into society.

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte has all the historical details I love in historical novels, the kind of details that make you feel like you’re there in the early 19th century alongside Betsy. Betsy is a strong woman at a time when it wasn’t acceptable to be a strong woman, and she has to fight many battles to follow her dreams. It was an engrossing story about something I didn’t know about (Napoleon’s brother marrying an American), and it held my attention the whole time. I’d recommend it for people who love strong women characters in historical fiction. And also for readers who are interested in historical fiction about Napoleon, the War of 1812, and early 19th century America.

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Tracey Skeine received her B.A. degree in English Literature in June 2012. She is still working on her first novel set in Caesar’s Rome.

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This Big Dress

Written by Sandra Graff

Published by Finishing Line Press

Review by Meredith Allard

5 quills

 

I was asked in an interview once how I accounted for the quality of The Copperfield Review. I said I didn’t have any secret formula. We’re lucky enough to have talented writers send their work our way. I publish what I like, and, as it happens, often authors who have been published in Copperfield go on to greater success.

In This Big Dress, a poetry chapbook soon to be published by Finishing Line Press, Sandra Graff has found her greater success. Copperfield published Graff’s poem “Balloon” in the Winter 2011 edition, and I was immediately drawn to Graff’s descriptive lyricism as she described the world of the painting by Grandma Moses by the same name. “Balloon” is included in the collection in This Big Dress. Also in this collection is the poem “Sugaring,” which was also inspired by a Grandma Moses painting.

Graff does what every poet should do—she captures the extraordinary in ordinary moments. In “On the Table” Graff describes a still life in words. In “Christmas Eve Party,” normal things in winter become the stuff of imagination.

The poem I most related to was “A Poet Reads Her Work.” As a writer myself, I understood the poet’s awkwardness as she left her comfort zone, her work desk, to read in front of an audience. My favorite poem in this collection is “You Don’t Know” about the extra weight around a woman’s middle and how others (always women, as Graff points out) ask about the baby when the baby was born 10 years before.

This is a thin volume, but each poem is a treasure and Graff leaves a gem on every page. Lovers of thoughtful, observant free verse will enjoy This Big Dress.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Written by Susan Cain

Published by Broadway Books

Review by Meredith Allard

5quills

After I read Quiet, I wanted to shout ‘I’m an introvert!’ from the tallest building, but then the buildings around here aren’t very tall and I’m an introvert so I wouldn’t have shouted very loudly anyway. The shout would have been a whimper, and then I would have been upset with myself for not yelling louder. After a sigh, I gave up on the idea and went back into my house where I could be alone, which is where I wanted to be in the first place.

I had heard the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ many times over the years, and I understood that along those lines I fell on the introvert side of the spectrum. Like most writers, I’d rather be home behind my computer screen writing stories, blog posts, or reviews like these than doing almost anything else. In regards to degrees of introversion, I am in extremis. I’m not dying from introversion, mind you, but I’m so far there that if you pushed me I’d drop away never to be seen or heard from again.

In Quiet, Susan Cain pleads the case for introverts like myself by using examples and research, and she shows how introverts have made many contributions to society in areas like technology and entertainment. She points out what is obvious but should be stated in a book about introverts: we live in a society where extroversion is idealized and rewarded whereas introversion is discouraged and not rewarded. Cain points to the current trend toward group or cooperative work, and then she says something I’ve been longing to hear for 20 years: group work is inherently difficult for introverts. I know this is true from frequent workshops where the directions are “Turn to your neighbor and say…” or “Form a group of four and create a…” I’m not an unfriendly person, truly. But, as Cain points out, introverts cannot think on demand. Group leaders who are trying to teach are doing an injustice to introverts by insisting that their lessons consist of talking it out. Like other introverts, I don’t learn by talking, especially to strangers. I learn by figuring it out for myself. I realized in grad school as we sat around the table discussing great works of literature that I didn’t know how to insert myself into the conversation, and the thought that I should interject somehow left me more stressed than I already was.

Each page of Quiet was an “A ha!” moment for me. One of the biggest lessons I learned is that the societal push toward extroversion isn’t always a good thing. It turns out that 1/3 of people are introverts, people like me who would rather read or write than go to parties or speak out about anything anywhere. When Cain talks about how introverts need time to recharge because being in the world can drain their energy, my heart swelled—in a good way. Here Cain describes what I have always known about myself but never had the words to articulate. For my entire life I thought I was just weird. I’m not saying I’m not weird, I’m just saying I’m weird for other reasons. Why I chose the careers I did, why I live my life as I do—it all makes sense to me in a way it didn’t before I read Quiet. I had spent most of my life feeling bad about myself, feeling like I should force myself to be more social, but this book helped me realize that if I get my jollies staying home and working around the house, that’s okay. I still need to function in the world, but I can take the time I need to recharge.

Introverts will always have to deal with the negatives—being considered anti-social, being told to smile more, listening to the comments after you stay in your office because you need to recharge instead of going out for a noisy lunch with coworkers. Reading Quiet gave me the ability to say, “I don’t have to be like them. I can be myself.” What better gift can a book give?

If you’re an introvert, or you’re in a close relationship with one, you will want to read Quiet for its perceptive insights about being an introvert in an extroverted society.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I

Written by Peter Ackroyd

Published by Macmillan

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

Review by Meredith Allard

5 quills

 

Since reading Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens, an intensive biography of my favorite author, and his London: A Biography, Ackroyd has been one of my favorite scholars.

I haven’t read the first volume in the series, Foundation, but I didn’t find it necessary. This second volume focuses on a topic I’ve only recently found an interest in, the Tudors, and in this book Ackroyd examines the time of Henry VIII through Elizabeth I. While Ackroyd focuses on the extreme religious reforms that occurred in England throughout this time, there is still enough attention paid to the main players to keep the human interest story alive.

The Tudor period hadn’t been one that caught my attention until I watched the show The Tudors. I love historical stories enough to know that poetic license can be taken when telling them, and I know the history presented in the television show often wasn’t the way it occurred in life. After I saw the show I read Hilary Mantel’s fictional Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I also read Alison Weir’s biography Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World. I came into Ackroyd’s book with some knowledge of the period and the important players, though prior knowledge isn’t necessary to enjoying Ackroyd’s book. Ackroyd gives enough background information to clue readers in about his subject from the beginning.

Ackroyd is not only a great researcher and scholar, but he is also a fine writer. For someone who loves history as much as I do, I don’t often love reading history books because they’re often not well written–merely a flatline list of facts and figures that hold as much interest for me as a mathematical equation. But Ackroyd’s prose is engaging, and his book reads as though it was written with a master fiction writer’s hand, making it extremely readable and relatable.

Ackroyd’s book filled in the gaping holes of missing information I had about the Tudor period. I had known bits and pieces of the story before, but now I feel I have a more rounded perspective. For anyone with an interest in the Tudor period of British history, Peter Ackroyd’s Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I will quench your thirst for more information.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Bellman and Black

Written by Diane Setterfield

Published by Simon and Schuster

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

Review by Meredith Allard

4quills

 

I should begin by saying that I haven’t read author Diane Setterfield’s New York Times bestselling novel The Thirteenth Tale so I had no expectations about reading Bellman & Black based on the success of her previous novel. Bellman & Black is a book about death, the whole death, and nothing but death, so help you God. It starts with the death of a rook, which a young William Bellman kills to show off in front of his friends. Let’s just say rooks hold grudges.

Many others die in the story too. William’s family dies. Those around William die. William grows into an intense man who works, works, works, and has time or care for little else. After his wife’s death, with his only remaining child close to death, William cuts a deal with a mysterious “man” he calls Black. Afterwards, William feels compelled to create an emporium for mourning—a Wal-Mart for Funeral Necessities, you might call it. Known as Bellman and Black, the mourning emporium becomes successful (since we’re all going to die after all). William thinks he has cut a deal to preserve his daughter’s life. In the end, William learns that it wasn’t a deal for his daughter’s life after all.

I love Diane Setterfield’s exquisite writing style. She has a fluidity and dexterity with the language that I feel is missing from many present day authors. She is both straightforward and poetic, and it’s from the sheer power of her writing alone that I give the book four stars. The character of William Bellman, on which the success or failure of this novel depends, begins in an interesting way but grows stagnant somewhere along the line. He watches people die and throws himself into his work, work, work with minimal emotion, which leaves minimal emotion for the reader to connect to. I kept waiting for something to happen in the story that didn’t depend on someone’s death, but when death is the theme of the novel such waiting is useless. The “ghost” in this story is Black, who isn’t a man after all. Like I said, rooks hold grudges. In the world Setterfield creates in Bellman & Black, I wonder how murderers of people would be haunted throughout their lives if this is how William is haunted after his childhood mistake? I’m not advocating killing birds by any stretch. I love God’s creatures great and small. I’m simply saying that in the scheme of things, I wonder how much of a crime the young William Bellman committed.

And yet, I finished the book, which must say something for the power of Setterman’s prose. I kept reading, pulled steadily through by Setterman, hoping for a change in William Bellman, hoping he would finally learn to connect with his daughter, hoping he would finally have the courage to live, though none of those things came to pass.  I realized I had to take the story as it was instead of what I wanted it to be, and as it was I loved Setterman’s writing.

If you’re looking for a story with a distinct plot and characters you feel emotion for and connect to, Bellman & Black may not be the story for you. If you want to read a beautifully written, lyrical, haunting novel and you’re interested in simply going along for the ride wherever the story takes you, then you may enjoy Bellman & Black. I am taken enough with Setterman’s prose that I will go back and read her previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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The Book Thief

Written by Markus Zusak

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Review by Meredith Allard

5 quills

 

I don’t know how I missed reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief in the years since its publication. I had heard of it, but you know how it is. Too many books, too little time. Then a couple of weeks ago I saw a preview for the movie version starring one of my favorite actors, Geoffrey Rush, so I picked up a copy. I’m glad I did.

The Book Thief is a hard story to absorb, as a story set in Nazi Germany should be. It should be hard to absorb the cruelty human beings are capable of. Young Liesel Meminger moves into the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents, and despite the harsh reality of the Hubermann’s poverty and the problems they face living in Hitler’s Germany, Liesel learns what it means to love and be loved. When her foster parents hide a young Jewish man in their basement—at great personal risk to themselves—Liesel forms an unbreakable bond with the young man. She finds some solace stealing books from everywhere from a graveside to the Mayor’s wife, and she learns the positive, and negative, power of words.

There’s so much I loved about this book. I loved that Liesel wasn’t a perfect character, and she didn’t always think perfect thoughts or take perfect actions. Beyond her struggles, she learns to love her foster mother Rosa Hubermann, whose hard exterior protects a heart of gold. She adores Hans Hubermann, her foster father, whose extraordinary acts of kindness make him a favorite of everyone he encounters, with the interesting exception of his own son. I loved the connection Liesel made with Max, the young Jewish man her foster parents hide in the basement, and I loved Liesel’s courage, putting herself at risk to show her solidarity with her Jewish friend. I kept putting myself in Liesel’s shoes, wondering how I would have reacted in each situation (though since I have a Jewish mother I would have been hiding in the basement alongside Max, that is, if I was fortunate enough to find some selfless people like the Hubermanns).

At one point I had to skim ahead to find out what became of my favorite character, and I never do that since I like to watch the story unfold the way it’s written. For whatever reason, the suspense was too much and I had to know what happened. My nosiness didn’t stop my enjoyment of the book; in fact, the narrator of The Book Thief (“Death”) often gives hints of what’s to come without spoiling the effect of the story.

I understand why Markus Zusak has won so many literary awards. His writing in The Book Thief is both funny and poignant, and his use of metaphorical language is perfect at painting pictures with words. I have already bought two more of his novels, and I’m looking forward to reading his new books as they’re released. And now that I’ve read the The Book Thief, I can see the movie.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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The Unknown Shore

Written by Patrick O’Brian

Published by W.W. Norton

Review by Scott Archer Jones

3quills

 

The Unknown Shore is the predecessor volume to the Aubrey/Maturin books that dominated O’Brian’s career, and is a lively book by a young author first working out his voice and his big themes.

The aficionado of O’Brian’s books (that focused on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars) will absolutely wallow in the details of this story, seeing characters, quirks, details, and ideas that will be resorted and reused in the coming series. For instance, a variation on Stephen Maturin named Tobias Barrow, though decidedly English, takes his place as the second protagonist – a genius of a naturalist whose friends describe him as a socially inept “ugly cove.”

From an author’s perspective, O’Brian is somewhat loose with point of view, and continues the turn-of-the-last-century, Henry-Jamesian preference of narration over action for perhaps half the book. Some will find this old-fashionedly charming and some will find it weak. The most compelling chunks of the novel appear as action based sequences spiced by dialogue. There is a remarkable and unbelievable ability for the characters to become fluent first in Indian, then in Spanish, and last in French – not just in pidgin, but in at a level of subtle comprehension. Finally, O’Brian’s syntax is occasionally so clotted that you have to re-read a sentence three times – he should have “killed his darlings.”

The novel is well worth reading on its own as a stand-alone. In the beginning the book has a charming tongue-in-cheek attitude towards its characters, and then shifts into dedicated drama written in a mature powerful voice. During the chapters of hardship and deprivation, starvation and debasement, O’Brain made me so hungry I was forced to get up three times and make toast. The book is strongest from midpoint until two chapters from the end, then falls into a sense of epilogue. In spite of the unevenness, The Unknown Shore is well worth reading, even if you are not acquainted with the grown-up O’Brian – it is quite superior to many of the books in the genre, including most of the Hornblower novels.

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Scott Archer Jones is currently living and working on his fifth novel in northern New Mexico, after stints in the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway plus less exotic locations. He’s worked for a power company, grocers, a lumberyard, an energy company (for a very long time), and a winery.

A new writer, he has been a finalist but not a winner too many times, published in enough places to get cocky, been rejected enough to be humbled. He is on the masthead at the Prague Review.

Scott cuts all his own firewood, lives a mile from his nearest neighbor and writes grant applications for the community. He is the Treasurer of Shuter Library of Angel Fire, a private 501.C3, and desperately needs your money to keep the doors open.

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Mrs. Poe

Written by Lynn Cullen

Published by Gallery Books

Review by Meredith Allard

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

4quills

 

 

I am a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, and I have enjoyed the mysterious stories from his dark imaginings. I never knew much about Poe’s life beyond the few paragraphs of a biography you find in textbooks. The loss of his mother at a young age, his troubled relationship with his foster father, the fact that he married his 13 year-old first cousin, his problems with alcohol—that is the stuff of Poe legend. I had not heard of Frances Osgood, though I am certainly familiar with her poem “Puss in Boots.” It has been alleged that Poe and Osgood had an affair, and though most scholars dismiss the idea as rumor, Mrs. Poe author Lynn Cullen has played the old “What if?” game. What if Poe and Osgood did have an affair? How might that have happened?

Cullen paints a colorful picture of New York City in the 1840s. The literary scene was vibrant then, with soirees featuring such notables as Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Rufus Griswold, and famed photographer Matthew Brady. As Mrs. Poe begins, Poe has catapulted to the top of the literary ladder after the stunning success of “The Raven.” Everyone everywhere seems to have read the poem, and Poe—now a literary rock star—is asked about the poem wherever he turns, much to his annoyance. Poe and Osgood (a poet of some repute herself) run into each other through their literary associations, and in time fall in love. The story follows Poe and Osgood through their ill-fated love affair, along with some unfortunate meddling from someone close to Poe.

In Mrs. Poe, Cullen accomplished something important—it kept me turning pages. I was interested in reading about Poe since I know so little about him. I had no idea that Poe was such a celebrity in his day. I really didn’t know he was so admired by the ladies. Poe has never struck me as a hottie, but tastes have changed over time, I suppose.

I enjoyed the look into the New York literary society of the 1840s. I enjoyed reading about Poe and gaining a (fictionalized) sense of who he was as a person. If you take this novel for what it is—historical fiction—and you’re interested in Poe, then give Mrs. Poe a try. Mrs. Poe is an entertaining tale with interesting characters, a vibrant locale, a good dose of romance, and even some intrigue, which is what an historical novel should be.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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The Ruin

Written by John Sawney

Published by Fireship Press LLC

Review by Tracey Skeine

4quills

 

Synopsis from Amazon:

It is the fifth century AD, in the former Roman colony of Britannia, where civilization has all but disappeared. Some vestiges of the old infrastructure remain in the urban south, but the west and north are wild and lawless. Plague sweeps through the entire country, leaving thousands dead in its wake. Eiteol, a cloddish and apathetic nobleman, saves the dictator Vertigern from an assassination attempt. The two go on the run, and as time goes on Eiteol finds himself called upon to do things he finds more and more morally repugnant. Deep down he knows that Vertigern is a monster, and that he should walk away, but for reasons he does not understand he finds himself bound to the man whose life he has saved. Their flight takes them into the barbarous west—where money has no value, the law has no power and murder is a daily reality—and they are forced to look for shelter in a country that is falling apart around them.

Review:

Years ago I read a historical novel about post-Roman Britain, and I enjoyed it enough that I was drawn to read The Ruin by John Sawney. I’m glad I did. I’ve had an interest in Roman influences in Britain, having been to Bath in England, and Sawney’s novel covers that period with well-researched details. It is interesting to read about how lawless certain parts of Britain became after Rome, and it reminds me of certain recent events—the London riots being one. While the setting of this story is historical, it is surprisingly modern in its observations about human nature, which is what good historical fiction does—point out the similarities between then and now. Everyone has ambitions, and everyone has to make choices. What will happen between Vertigern and Eiteol? How will the anarchy surrounding them affect them? Who is in charge when no one is in charge? You will need to read The Ruin to find out.

I would recommend The Ruin to those with an interest in Rome’s influence in Britain and early British history.

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Tracey Skeine received her B.A. degree in English Literature in June 2012. She is still working on her first novel set in Caesar’s Rome.

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