Tag Archives: Reviews

The Real Life Downton Abbey: How Life Was Really Lived in Stately Homes a Century Ago

Written by Jacky Hyams

Published by John Blake Publishers

Review by Meredith Allard



As I’m continuing my quest of reading books inspired by Downton Abbey, I found my way to The Real Life Downton Abbey by Jacky Hyams. The Real Life Downton Abbey is a good summary of what life was like for the British upper and lower classes during the time of the beloved television show (early 20th century), and, as you might expect in a book with this title, Hyams uses Downton Abbey as a springboard, often referencing the show as she illustrates the lifestyle at the time. She talks about the Titanic, for example, and shares a menu of an eleven-course meal that would have been prepared by the French kitchen staff. Before the ship went down, of course.

The Real Life Downton Abbey is a concise summary of the lifestyle surrounding the television show, but having already read Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson, along with several other books about the era, I felt The Real Life Downton Abbey was a lot of retelling of what I already knew. I can’t say I learned anything from this book, though I did enjoy Hyams’ easy, conversational tone as she talked about the extravagant upper classes and the poverty of the servants. For example, even butlers made only 50-100 pounds per year for their trouble, and the hardest working servants, the youngest ones who did the most labor-intensive jobs, often the scullery maids, made as little as ten pounds per year.

American readers may be put off by Hyams’ use of Britishisms, but she’s British so she can get away with it. Since I watch a lot of British television and read a lot of British literature, I feel comfortable saying I speak conversational British English and I wasn’t bothered by the British words. Context clues work very well when translating from British English to American English, and if you’re reading the book on a Kindle or other e-reading device you simply have to press on the word and the definition pops up. I found the definition for “Toff” to be as follows: a stylishly dressed, fashionable person; part of the upper classes.

For Downton Abbey fans who are beginning their journey into reading about the era, then The Real Life Downton Abbey, with its general overview, is a good place to start. If you’ve already read about the class distinctions in the early 20th century and have a firm grasp on the subject, then you may not get as much out of the book.


Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.


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Paint Me a Picture

Written by Patsy Collins

356 Pages

Published by Amazon and Smashwords

Review by Charlie Britten


Mavis Forthright surveys Portsmouth’s Round Tower with a view to hurling herself down into the swirling grey sea. The seagulls scream above her head, their raucous calls giving voice to her anguish in a way bottled-up Mavis cannot.

Recently released from years of isolation at home, caring for her bad-tempered mother, Mavis cannot cope with real life, other people and her new job. Nevertheless she delays her appointment at the Round Tower because… she’s promised to lend a book to someone… she falls into conversation with a stranger in a cafe… and she needs to paint pictures for her weekly art classes. Her workmates call her ‘old sourpuss’ but gradually she opens up, to a different sort of pain. Set in Portsmouth, England, the author mentions local landmarks and streets, which non-local readers cannot hope to follow, but which nevertheless reinforce the strong sense of place.  Like the fog in Bleak House, the lashing rain builds up the atmosphere, of ordinary life carrying on, unsatisfactory and unspectacular.  By rights, this should be a grim tale, but Patsy Collins’ optimism breaks through the downpour; in the same manner Dickens also takes his characters down into the depths of human degradation, then raises them up again.

Although Paint Me a Picture doesn’t follow a neat plotline, the strong narrative thread held this reader’s attention throughout. The author draws out the character of Mavis – a singular singleton, a real old maid in the twenty-first century – through a detailed narrative style, relating small happenings which loom large in her restricted mind, like buying a cake in a cafe and bringing Nescafe into her mother’s house where hitherto only tea had been drunk. Other characters pass in and out of the story, seen through Mavis’s judgemental eyes, all with stories of their own, like ‘the boy’ who convinces himself that she is his natural mother.

In Paint Me A Picture, Patsy Collins moves a long way from her women’s magazine roots. This is the novel she has taken ten years to write, interspersed between many short stories and her first book (Escape to the Country). It was worth the wait.


Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWork, The Short Humour Site, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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The Raven’s Seal

Written by Andrei Baltakmens

330 pages

Published by Top Five Books

Review by Meredith Allard



Synopsis from the book:

In the fictional 18th-century city of Airenchester, England, the body of Thaddeus Grainger’s rival turns up stabbed to death in an alley just hours after their inconclusive duel. Only one suspect comes to mind. Charged with murder, Grainger’s fate is sealed before his trial even begins.

A young gentleman of means but of meaningless pursuits, Grainger is cast into the notorious Bellstrom Gaol, where he must quickly learn to survive in the filthy, ramshackle prison. The “Bells”—where debtors, gaolers, whores, thieves, and murderers all mix freely and where every privilege comes at a price—will be the young man’s home for the rest of his life unless he can prove his innocence.

Despite his downfall, his friends—the journalist William Quillby and Cassie Redruth, the poor young girl who owes Grainger a debt of gratitude—refuse to abandon him. But before they can win his freedom, they must contend with forces both inside and outside the prison determined to keep Grainger behind bars and, at the same time, decode the meaning behind the crude wax seal that inspires terror in those who know its portent.

Set against the urban backdrop of late 18th-century England, The Raven’s Seal unravels a tale of corruption, betrayal, murder, and—ultimately—redemption and love.

My Review:

As a long-time Dickens fan, I loved the way Baltakmens used Dickens’ fiction as the basis for his murder mystery. Baltakmens channeled Dickens in every way in this novel, from his use of a thinly disguised London as the basis for the fictional town of Airenchester to his detail-rich nineteenth century-style language. Baltakmens brings Airenchester to life the way Dickens brought London alive—through descriptions so vivid you feel as though you’re standing alongside the characters. Also like Dickens, Baltakmens has created characters that are real and tangible as well as characters that are caricatures and yet still recognizable in their own ways. Baltakmens uses Dickensian-style names for his characters as well, such as Mrs. Scourish for a housekeeper and Quillby for a writer. Baltakmens does a fine balancing act as he takes what is wonderful about Dickens’ fiction and makes it easily manageable and enjoyable for a twenty-first century audience. The Dickens influence in the story is everywhere on every page. Fans of Charles Dickens’ stories, and those who love murder mysteries, will enjoy The Raven’s Seal.


Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Escape to the Country

Written by Patsy Collins

273 pages

Published by Creative Print Publishing Ltd.

Review by Charlie Britten


Although Patsy Collins is well-known as a writer for women’s magazines, with some 200 stories to her credit, Escape to the Country is her first novel to reach the shelves and the e-book catalogues.  Published in May this year by Creative Print Publishing Ltd., it is available from Amazon in paperback (£7.49) and also in Kindle format (£4.11).

In Escape to the Country, Patsy remains true to her ‘womag’ roots, with a small number of believable characters, driving an uncomplicated – but watertight – plotline.  Although this is an easy read, like Alexander McCall Smith, Patsy beguiles us into serious and thoughtful content and, as in his work, the more meaningful the point being made, the lighter the style of writing.

Patsy’s short stories tend to gravitate towards women at work and Escape to the Country is no exception.  When financial adviser, Leah, is accused of mishandling the account of Mr Gilmore-Bunce, one of the most important customers of her employer – the exquisitely-named ‘Prophet Margin’ – she is disappointed when Adam Ferrand, her boyfriend and an employee at the same company, does not give her the support she needs.  Suspended on full pay but feeling wretched, Leah takes a holiday with Aunt Jayne, farmer of Winkleigh Marsh.  On her way there, she encounters tractor driver, Duncan, good-looking, wholesome and rural; she is attracted at once, because, amongst other things, ‘He didn’t smell of aftershave or fabric conditioner’.  Leah expects to be refreshed by rural air, good food and the jolly company of Aunt Jayne, but, as she finds out, there is no escape, even to the country.  Not only do her problems at Prophet Margin follow her in her head and on her cellphone, but Mr Gilmore-Bunce turns out to be Aunt Jayne’s neighbour and landlord, with whom, actually, she gets on very well.

Having herself grown up on a farm, Patsy demonstrates a thorough knowledge of modern farming.  This work celebrates the slower and kinder way of life, but without the slightest trace of sentimentality.  Birth a cow?  Well, of course.  How?  ‘Presumably you don’t actually check her into the maternity ward at the vet’s and get her to fill in a questionnaire about epidurals and birthing pools.’  Get the cow pregnant again?  Take her to the AI (artificial insemination) man, obviously.

The character that leaps off the page is Aunt Jayne, who is as unlike a traditional ‘maiden aunt’ as possible, giggly, feisty, with her own admirer, Jim, and full of ideas as to how Leah might facilitate her love-life.  Jayne is strong, not just as a farmer who can lift heavy bags of animal feed, chop wood and use farm machinery, but in facing down possible cancer.  Duncan is Darcy-esque, exuding male probity, although not as ‘proud’ or as distant, but, as women, we all embrace a Darcy.  A wealthy yuppy, Adam has some of the attributes of a Wickham, but, unlike Jane Austen’s version, he never seduces the reader, not even for a few chapters.  A potential criticism is that Adam comes across as ‘unsatisfactory’ too early in the story.

It takes time to get to grips with main character, Leah, because, although Patsy writes in the third person, the whole narrative is written from Leah’s point of view and she is the lens through which we see other characters.  However, as the story develops, we gain insights into an intelligent, professional woman being belittled and emotionally stunted by her lover, and how she gains the confidence to drag herself out of that situation.

Patsy has completed two more novels, including Paint Me a Picture, which was published in September 2012.  She is a lady to watch.


Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWork, The Short Humour Site, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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The River Within

Written by Ann Taylor

Published by Ravenna Press

Review by Meredith Allard


As the executive editor of a literary journal, I read hundreds of submissions a year. Every once in a while, we’re lucky enough to receive work from an author who makes us stand up and take notice. Ann Taylor is one of those authors. Her chapbook The River Within (winner of the inaugural Cathlamet Prize for Poetry from Ravenna Press) has everything I love in poetry. Her language is precise and controlled yet maintains a fluid, musical quality. While her poems are succinct in size, they are large enough in scope to reflect life-truths about matters great and small.

It’s no surprise that I love the historical references in Taylor’s poems. She touches on everything from “Cleopatra’s Conquest” to “Annie Oakley: Peerless Lady Wing-Shot,” and she even introduces us to “Jenny and Charles,” which refers to Charles Darwin and his favorite orangutan at the London Zoo. But while history plays an important role in many of Taylor’s poems, we’re also treated to her thoughts about the natural world, about her family, and about her university students. As a long-time teacher myself, I  related strongly to her poem “Spectral” about how she lives on in the minds of her students as their “reading ghost” long after they’ve finished her class. Most literature teachers hope to have such far-reaching influences on their students. And I must admit to a special attachment to “To Carry on With the Dying” since we chose it for our 10th Anniversary Edition of The Copperfield Review.

The River Within is an excellent example of a talented poet at the top of her game. Whether you love history, mythology, travel, the natural world, or your family, you will find poetry that suits your fancy in The River Within.


Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Hosack’s Folly

Written by Gillen D’Arcy Wood

385 pages

Published by Other Press

Review by Thomas Scott


Hosack’s Folly is a fascinating first novel from Gillen D’Arcy Wood about medicine, politics, and journalism and how those three factors evolved into our modern policies.

It is 1820s New York City, and David Hosack is the doctor known for tending Alexander Hamilton after his famous duel with Burr. Hosack is afraid for the safety of New York City citizens with the appearance of yellow fever, but politics (and politicians) get in his way in his quest to quarantine the people to keep the disease from spreading. In a Dickensian way, Wood brings us through the darkest parts of NYC—the hospitals, the Bowery, the inner workings of politics—until the dissention comes to a head in riots and crowds escaping the city in panic. Hosack founds the Bellevue Hospital at Columbia University Medical School for yellow fever victims, but that is not the end of the journey.

This is a fine work of historical fiction that shows both fact and fiction in an engaging way, and the character of Hosack is one that will stay with readers long after they have finished the book.


Thomas Scott is a freelance writer from Los Angeles, California. He lives with his wife and their three daughters.

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Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

Written by William Dietrich

356 pages

Published by HarperCollins

Review by Joanna L. Oates


William Dietrich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, historian, naturalist, and historical novelist, and his latest book, Hadrian’s Wall, is set toward the end of the 1000 years of Roman reign. The Roman emperor Hadrian had a vast wall built across the Roman British empire to separate the civilized Romans from the uncivilized barbarians, the Celts, and when Dietrich’s story takes place, it is 300 years later and the Celts are ready to overthrow the Romans and remove the wall that divides their territory. This is a story of Roman civilization versus Celtic barbarism, but Dietrich notes that perhaps both cultures are equally civilized and barbaric.

A young aristocratic Roman woman, Valeria, leaves the comforts of Rome to join her intended, Marcus Flavius, as he takes charge of the troops near Hadrian’s Wall, a strategic area at the end of the Roman Empire that must constantly be under vigilant Roman guard lest the Celts decide to try to overthrow Roman rule. Valeria is an unusually modern-thinking woman for the 4th century C.E. She defies her own Roman culture in her need for excitement and adventure. She rides horses when women did not do so, and she is always scheming for herself or for those she cares about. She comes to realize that the soldier Galba has become embittered because Marcus displaced him as the head of the army, and she takes it upon herself to save her husband and her friends. Instead of saving them, she is captured by the Celts. When Valeria finds freedoms with the Celts she had never had as a Roman lady, she begins to wonder where her loyalties lay. She falls in love with the handsome, fearless chieftain Arden, and in the end, after a vicious battle between the Romans and the Celts, she finds that her loyalties lay where her heart is.

I was fascinated by Dietrich’s knowledge about this era of history. I learned much about the Roman Empire and how it was run by rulers from Rome who often knew nothing about the provinces they controlled. I found the Celtics to be a fascinating, mystical people connected to the earth and their surroundings and who did not seem to be lacking despite their crude technology. As a work of history, I thoroughly enjoyed Hadrian’s Wall, but I found the character Valeria similar to heroines found in Harlequin romances: young, beautiful, feisty to the point of being brash, yet that is exactly what the men find endearing about her. She seems to be a male fantasy because every male character in the story is in love with her, or at least wildly attracted to her. Valeria’s impetuousness does not seem true to historical fashion, however. No matter how wonderful Dietrich’s writing, I remain unconvinced that a woman of Valeria’s high social station would have conducted herself in such a display of impetuousness. Though women were strong then as women are strong now, Valeria’s strength comes from impatience, not intelligence. In fact, she often makes mistakes she would not have made if she had taken time to think things through. Dietrich seems to make apologies for Valeria because of her youth. The male characters are also mainly one-dimensional. Galba is the evil mastermind behind the war between the Romans and the Celts that finally erupts, Arden is the earthy hero. Marcus Flavius is perhaps the only sympathetic character in the novel. Marcus struggles with his place as the head of the army since he did not earn his position. He is unsure with himself, unsure about what is expected of him in that military world, unsure about his feelings for the wife he had only met once before marriage. He is the most multi-dimensional character in the novel.

William Dietrich’s talents show in his ability to bring details of Roman England to life for 21st century readers. For the fascinating study of a fascinating period in history I give the novel four quills. For characterization, particularly the characterization of Valeria, I give the novel two quills. All in all, I give Hadrian’s Wall three quills. For future novels, I would like to see Dietrich craft believable characters that add depth to his engrossing historical work, not detract from it.

Joanna L. Oates is a Master’s candidate in medieval European history at UCLA in Los Angeles, California. She has taught high school history for the past five years. She is an avid reader of historical fiction.

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If I Never Get Back

Written by Darryl Brock

470 pages

Published by Plume Books

Review by Paula Day

I am a lifelong baseball fan. Growing up in southern California, some of my fondest memories of childhood was laying on the carpeting in the living room listening with my father to the Los Angeles Dodger baseball games as they were being called by Vin Scully. I have never left my love of baseball behind, and I was thrilled to discover the baseball historical novel If I Never Get Back and its sequel, Two in the Field.

If I Never Get Back is set during the post-Civil War era, the baby days of baseball. Samuel Clemens Fowler (named for Mark Twain) steps off a train and discovers that he has left the twentieth century behind and arrived in 1869. Sam soon finds himself joined with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team. As Sam joins his new teammates on their first cross-country tour, he meets his namesake Twain and inadvertantly invents the bunt.

Darryl Brock does a fine job creating the same fish-out-of-water feeling we find in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. We have a strong sense of Sam’s outsidedness as he mingles with men with different opinions and different wordviews and even different rules for baseball. During the early development of baseball there were few, if any, rules to the game. It was each man for his own as the men played without gloves and the catcher wore no protective gear.

Fans of baseball will enjoy Brock’s realistic baseball scenes. You can feel yourself at the ballgames, watching the balls whiz by overhead, hearing the snap of the bats and the cheers of the crowd. Learning little-known details about the beginnings of baseball is a good thing for any baseball fan since baseball fans like to out-do each other in their knowledge of the game. If I Never Get Back is a great read for baseball fans as well as for those with an interest in post-Civil War America.

Paula Day is the Review Editor of The Copperfield Review and the Managing Editor of Copperfield Press. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Fire on the Waters: A Novel of the Civil War

Written by David Poyer

443 pages

Published by Simon and Schuster

Review by Molly Kinkade

David Poyer is a popular author of American sea fiction, and his new novel, Fire on the Waters, continues the tradition of engaging, well-written historical military sea fiction. Poyer’s writing helps to fill a gap in literature since every Civil War novel that I’m aware of focuses on the land battles. The sea battles are generally given little attention, if any. Here is a chance to see the Civil War fought out on the sea.

Fire on the Waters is the first book of Poyer’s new trilogy. Written in a conversational tone, it centers around Eli Eaker, a new naval officer who finds that he must make important decisions regarding his honor or his loyalty. As the Civil War begins the native New Yorker joins the navy despite his father’s protestations, and Eli finds that things are more difficult than they should be. Fire on the Waters is specifically about the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, but it is generally about the choices we must make throughout the course of our lives.

This novel is primarily recommended for fans of Civil War fiction, and especially for fans of naval fiction. But it is not necessary to be a fan of military fiction to enjoy Fire on the Waters. I do not have a particular interest in either one of those topics, but I found that Eli’s struggles with his overbearing father and his experiences with the naval crew were intriguing enough to capture my attention. I appreciated Poyer’s knowledge of the topics of which he writes, and he describes the actions of the naval crew, the battles, the plans of action, everything about the navy, in such finely pointed details that I felt myself there and saw the action happening in front of me. Anyone with some curiosity about the other battles in the Civil War, the naval battles, will enjoy reading Poyer’s work.

Molly Kinkade is a book reviewer and a student of history in all its forms. She lives with her family in the canyons of southern California.

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Drowning Ruth

Written by Christina Schwarz

338 pages

Published by Doubleday

Review by William Dressler

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz is a haunting suspense novel set during and after World War I. The language is simple and honest, the story is raw and powerful, the characters are vividly drawn, and as readers become mesmerized by this story of bitter family secrets they will not want to put the book down until they discover the heartrending truth at the end.

There are questions about what really happened that fateful night when one sister drowned, leaving the other, Amanda, to rear her child, Ruth. Amanda raises Ruth with an unshakable intensity while she is determined to keep her family’s secrets. As Ruth grows older, she learns the horrible truth that has pulled her family apart.

Drowning Ruth is a captivating, engrossing novel and it is highly recommended even if it does not stand out as a work of historical fiction. There is a mention here of World War I, and there is a mention there about period clothing, but fill different details into the blanks and the story could take place anywhere at any time. It is just as well, because this is a story with timeless, universal implications. The troubled characters pull you into their world of secrets and they will stay with you, asking you questions about your own family long after the novel has ended. Are there major secrets tearing your family apart? If there are, then you will see your story here. If there are not, then reading this novel will show you why you should be grateful.

William Dressler is a writer/reviewer with a B.A. degree from Northwestern University. He has a lifelong interest in Italian history, particularly the Renaissance, and he is currently in the final stages of writing his novel based on the life of the Medici family.

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