IndieBRAG needs readers

Because of the absolute explosion in the self-publishing market, IndieBRAG is being inundated with titles, which need homes! In order to select an award winner, these titles need to be read and help is needed. If you enjoy discovering new gems of literature and are willing the spread your enthusiasm, please do check them out.

Who We Are

We represent a group of people who are passionate about reading self-published or “indie” books. We call ourselves the Book Readers Appreciation Group.

Why We Exist

Our mission is to recognize quality on the part of authors who self-publish both print and digital books.

Who We Honor

We award a B.R.A.G. Medallion™ to the book of an Indie author based on the recommendation of our reader group.

The website is If you are interested, please fill out the contact form on the site. IndieBRAG pays for the ebooks and there is no pressure-volunteers can read as many or as few books as they like.

Review: Vivaldi’s Muse by Sarah Bruce Kelly


What a pleasure to have found an enjoyable self-published work of “pure” historical fiction (“pure” meaning, to me, the imagined lives of true historical figures)—my favorite type of story!  Vivaldi’s Muse is as professionally written and well put together as any mainstream-published novel of this type. This engrossing novel explores the life of Annina Giró, protégée of the prolific Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi.  The story is set in sparkling 18th-century Italy and skillfully depicts the cutthroat world of the operatic performer and the fickle musical tastes of the time…

Annina always wanted to be an opera singer, and when she meets Antonio Vivaldi when he is in residence in her hometown of Mantua, she knows exactly where she wants her future to lie. She aims to achieve that goal even as she experiences hopelessness, abandonment, and a destructive rivalry between herself and her professional nemesis, Chiara. Ultimately, through the help of a generous but lascivious benefactor, Annina is able to follow her dreams to Venice and beyond, but must pay a hefty price for these dreams…

Author Sarah Bruce Kelly brings the musical world of 18th-century Venice alive. The author herself is a professional musician and scholar of music history, and one couldn’t imagine a more suitable author to write this book, as the love and passion for her subject is deeply embedded in this story. The fine details about the business and the art of the opera, the portrayal of Venice herself as a major character, the affecting and sensitively rendered descriptions of Vivaldi and Annina and their evolving relationship, as well as the strong sense of atmosphere and foreboding, have been well executed, allowing everyone—not just aficionados of Vivaldi’s music or the opera—to enter into this private world.

Annina’s victimization by and the intense and vicious rivalry with Chiara is faintly reminiscent of the relationship between Chiyo and Hatsumomo in Arthur Golden’s wonderful Memoirs of a Geisha. The animosity between the rivals kept the level of tension in the story high in Memoirs, and does the same for Vivaldi’s Muse. This reader would  have enjoyed learning more in depth about Chiara—what made her act so abominably and with such commitment to Annina’s downfall..

The author also adroitly illustrates the extroverted, hot-headed nature of the Venetians, as exemplified in this humorous exchange between gondoliers witnesseJd by Annina and her sister Paolina:

 “Bauko!” shrieked one gondolier, “you idiot! You’ve wrecked my boat!”

“Ti xe goldon!” rejoined the other, “you ass! It was my right to enter the canal first!”

Fury mounted and they reviled each other as the offspring of assassins and prostitutes.

“Spawn of a bloody executioner!”

“Bastard of a hideous whore!”

Fists waved and pounded into palms, and faces contorted. With a vehemence that would make the devil blush, they each defamed the other’s female relatives down to the remotest cousin. Finally, his passion spent, one of the men calmly gathered his oar and gave the other the right of way. (p 54)

What wonderfully descriptive writing!

In fairness, I must mention a few minor distractions that I noticed in the text—one being that the writing occasionally glides quickly over events in a “talking rather than showing” manner. I do realize that the number of concerts or events covered in this time period were substantial and that, given the size of the book at over 400 pages, something had to give, but I did find this device a bit distracting.

I found very few—perhaps four or five—typos in the book, but they were significant enough to draw me out of the story for a few minutes each. I think one more copy edit would correct that problem. And finally, there are moments in the novel when a modern phrase slips in, something so out of character for the 18th century that I had to pause. For example, the phrase “now she was talking” (taken as contemporary jargon rather than a literal phrase) on pg 242 was a bit of a shock. Another was on pg 269: “’Blast,’ he thought, ‘the party is underway!’” I don’t know if this Briticism was used in 18th-century Venice…

Despite these minimal distractions, I highly recommend Vivaldi’s Muse. Once again, I don’t understand why a mainstream publisher would bypass an engaging work like this one. With professional marketing and a snappier cover design, this delightful and absorbing novel would be an irresistible find on any bookstore shelf.

Vivaldi’s Muse by Sarah Bruce Kelly. Bel Canto Press, 2012, 437 pp, paperback, 978-0983630401

Disclaimer: A copy of the novel was sent to me gratis from the author.

Interview with Joan Druett: Straddling Two Worlds

“It’s no longer an either/or world. It’s both and why the heck not?” — James Scott Bell

You are a prolific writer and have been published by various major publishing houses, such as Simon & Schuster, Algonquin, and Random House. . . . Although you write in various genres (with the maritime world being the overarching theme), such as mystery, biography, and maritime history, let’s focus on your journey from mainstream to Indie publishing through your historical novel, A Love of Adventure (previously Abigail).

Abigail was first published in 1988 by Random House, and then in paperback by Mandarin and Bantam. How did your original publisher find you?

As so often happens, it was a case of who-knows-whom. The novel was written in the middle of a burst of passion for the stories of whaling captains’ seafaring wives and daughters, and read by an interested friend with publishing contacts in London.  He passed the manuscript to a friend there, who handed it on to a professional reader, who loved the book so much that she harried him into giving it to an agent. From there, it went to the publishing director of Macmillan, who thought it was “a smashing book,” and also to another agent in New York, who handed it on to a good friend of hers, who was a senior editor for Random House.

As you can imagine, it was a very exciting time. Suddenly, out of the blue, two major houses had bought my seafaring adventure!

With so many contacts in the big publishing houses, why did you decide to self-publish A Love of Adventure (Abigail)?

The eBook phenomenon fascinates me; I truly believe that it is the most exciting development in publishing since the invention of print. I have blogged about it a great deal on my site “World of the Written Word,” and followed the fortunes of a large number of Indie authors, becoming more intrigued as the months go by. The idea of self-publishing an eBook as an experiment became irresistible, and Abigail, being my first novel, was the natural choice.

After looking at all the alternatives, I decided to do all the formatting myself, with just two conditions: that it would cost me absolutely nothing, and that I would share what I learned with the world, via my blog. This I did, ending up with seven “tutorials” that ranged from preparing the manuscript through designing the cover to the ePublishing process.  These garnered so much interest that I created a dedicated blog, “KindlePublishingHints,” and transferred the tutorials, in descending order, onto this. It pleases me greatly that in the one month since this guide went up, over 200 people have used it to create their own books.

 And why choose to publish as an e-book instead of in print?

I have been sent many self-published print books for comment or review over the years, and have often been dismayed at their quality. Print-on-demand seems to be particularly bad, in this respect. The alternative of having proper print-runs means the problem of storage—one author told me that she ended up storing unsold stock in the crawl space between the floor of her bedroom and the ceiling of the lounge below!

And I truly believe that eBooks are the popular reading of the future.

How much input on title or cover design did you have at the big houses (compared to the freedom of self-publishing)? When searching on, I came upon a rather racy mass market paperback cover from 1989—would you classify your novel as romance? Do you think it was marketed to the correct audience?

Having control over the title, cover, and general design is a huge incentive for self-publishing. I was never happy with having a girl’s name as the title, as it limited the audience to women, and I knew from male readers that it was a book that appealed to men as well, particularly because of the whaling and seafaring scenes.  So I certainly don’t believe that it was directed to the correct audience.

And the jacket designs!  I was given no say in these at all, and none of them, in my opinion, reflected the thrust of the story. As for the Bantam paperback, you should have heard my shriek when I opened the carton! Later, when the Mandarin paperback came out, a newspaper featured both covers, side by side. The Mandarin version was sedate in the extreme, being a rather plain girl at the ship’s wheel, while the Bantam one (which features a bosomy female in Regency frills being ravished by a muscle-bound male) was captioned “Abigail and her shirtless friend.”

Well, it really was rather funny, I suppose. But it was a particular pleasure to design the cover I had wanted all along for the eBook: a ship disappearing into a spectacular sunset.

It seems that you straddle two worlds at the same time: that of the mainstream and that of the Indie. Can you compare and contrast the two “worlds”? What is it like being on both sides of the fence? Do mainstream publishers give you a hard time about publishing an Indie e-book? Do you feel as though you don’t fit in with Indie authors?

I’m rather used to straddling two worlds, being a maritime historian as well as a novelist.  However, you are right, because there is a huge contrast between traditional and Indie publishing. There is nothing like working with an editor who loves your book, but wants to make it even better. Not only do you have a sense of direction, but it is confidence-building, as well.

But it only lasts until the book goes into production; while your editor keeps an eye on the process, and is available for answering questions, he or she has moved on to other authors and other books, so that the production process becomes more and more impersonal. When the book finally comes out (and remember that this is many months later), you are handed over to a publicist, but this is a finite situation, too.  Authors are strongly encouraged to do their own marketing, and before the month is out, they are completely on their own.

I enjoyed the sense of power and independence that ePublishing A Love of Adventure gave me, but had the advantage of a professionally edited book to work from, plus the confidence given by years of experience. I notice that a lot of the Indie authors who contact me feel uncertain about their self-editing skills, no matter how many writing classes they have attended, and many of them go on to say that they have hired an editor—which is a very good move, I think.

And you are right again—I do feel a closer connection with authors who are self-publishing after being traditionally published, than I do with newbie Indie writers.

I still haven’t found out what my mainstream publishers think of this experiment in self-publishing, but am very conscious of their possible reaction.  For instance, it makes pricing the books rather tricky. I am currently writing a fifth Wiki Coffin mystery, to follow the series of four that were published by Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press, but feel it is probably a good idea to wait until they bring out the first four as eBooks, so that I don’t underprice them by too much.

What are your thoughts about the quality of Indie books right now and how has the quality changed since you first began your SP project?

As I mentioned before, I found the first self-published print books disappointing, but those that have arrived on my desk more recently have certainly improved. I think this might be a result of Indie publishing becoming respectable. More established authors are going for the experiment, which raises the quality, so that newbie writers have good examples to follow.

Likewise, the formatting of self-published eBooks has certainly improved. I noticed that in the publishing guides put out by Kindle, the need for thorough proofreading is constantly stressed; as they say, having a lot of typos can mean three stars instead of a five-star review.

Can you give readers a sense of what your process of self-publishing was like? What were the advantages and the pitfalls?

My best answer to this is to recommend the running blog I wrote while I was going through the process, at  It was an intensive, deeply engaging experience.  And, what’s more, it was fun!

If you could offer aspiring SP authors the three most important lessons you learned while self-publishing, what would they be?

Proofread, proofread, and then proof again. And get your formatting right. It’s the only way you are going to end up with a professional-looking result.

Choose a jacket design that looks good in thumbnail—make it eye-catching but plain rather than fussy. It’s your major marketing device.

Let the world know what you’re doing, through social media such facebook, facebook groups, and twitter. Facebook is particularly good, as you connect with people who are doing the same thing, and who have great feedback to offer.

Finally, thank you very much indeed for posing such pertinent questions, and giving me the opportunity to share what I learned while ePublishing A Love of Adventure.

Next in the “From Mainstream to Indie” series

I am working on an interview with prolific writer Joan Druett, author of the recently re-released historical novel,  A Love of Adventure:

Set in the 1850s, this novel follows the adventures of a sea-captain’s daughter as she struggles both to learn the truth about her father’s death and to claim her inheritance, the brig “Pandora.” It is a tale of love, mutiny, and life aboard the whaling ships of the last century. (from

AND the Wiki Coffin series of seafaring mysteries based on the events surrounding the fates of the ships of United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, set in the mid-nineteenth century.

Joan is not only a fiction author but also a maritime historian and writer of nonfiction on maritime topics including women’s roles in the nautical realm. You can read about her publications and background on her website: We will be talking about her journey from mainstream publishing  to Indie, as she has recently re-released her above-mentioned historical novel as a self-published e-book.

As for the next review, I will be publishing the link to the HNS review of Julie K. Rose’s Oleanna and some further thoughts at the beginning of August.

A Focused Chat with Author Helen Hollick: Let’s Get the Story Out: Mainstream and Indie Publishing

Helen Hollick’s story and publishing history have strongly influenced my thinking about Indie books. It is one of the reasons why I believe so fervently that HIGH-QUALITY (because yes, sadly, many Indie books are still not high quality) Indie novels can be the equal of any mainstream book out there.

I want to share her story with readers who self- or subsidy-publish because, through her journey, she gives us important insights on the publishing world in general and how to succeed even without the backing of an agent or a mainstream publishing house.

Thank you, Helen, for sharing your story with us. If you are an author who has been previously published by a mainstream house and now self-publishes and would like to share your story with readers, please contact me. I would love to run a series on this topic.

How were you originally picked up by Heinemann (UK) and Sourcebooks (US)? Did you seek out an agent or did a publisher find you? Can you describe the process you went through?

I was very, very, lucky.

I had the good fortune to become friends with the wonderful Sharon Penman. I had written to her (back in the days of real letters on real paper) saying how much I had enjoyed Here be Dragons. I mentioned that I was attempting to write a book, but I doubted it would be anywhere near as good as hers. Some while later I received a reply from her saying “If you can make a four page letter as interesting as yours, I can’t wait to read the book!”

I was then lucky enough to meet with Sharon for a coffee when she was next in London – and it was so delightful to talk to an accomplished writer about history and writing. Generously she offered to read my first two chapters and, bless her, she pointed out all the technical errors, such as over-long sentences, point of view changes, author’s voice.

I took on board all she had said, finished the book and sent it to her agent (with a covering note from Sharon.) The agent took me on.

Some short while later, Heinemann approached the agent hoping to tempt Sharon to their lists, but she was contracted for several more books to her own publisher.

“I have her protégé though,” said the agent.

That was it, I was signed.

The result was The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner and Shadow of the KingThe Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy.

I was picked up much later by Sourcebooks (read on….)

On your website, you say that in 2005 you had a disagreement with your agent—can you expand on this? Is what happened to you a common problem between authors and agents these days?

 If you notice above I didn’t mention the agent’s name. Unfortunately, yes, we had a major disagreement – although I had lost faith in her quite a while before 2005. I had not felt that she was “on my side” for quite a while. Several ideas that I had sent her for possible novels had either been ignored, or come back as “not worth bothering with”; nor had there been any marketing for my fifth novel, A Hollow Crown – or any apparent enthusiasm for my published books. I trusted her though, assumed she was doing her best for me.

I was wrong. She had lost interest.

I realised this when I had poured my heart and soul into a new project –  Sea Witch. The agent wanted me to write something different, Pirates, because Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow were all the rage. Nautical novels abounded, but most were Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forrester type novels, aimed at a male readership; there was very little – to none at all – fiction of a similar nature to the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Certainly nothing for us adult Jack Sparrow fans who wanted some swashbuckling adventure, with a bit of fantasy and a very drool-able hero. I looked for books to have a “pirate fix,” couldn’t find any, so wrote my own. Sea Witch just poured out of me. I was in love with Captain Jesamiah Acorne, the moment I met him.

Unfortunately, the agent did not have the same crush on Johnny Depp and was not interested in rogue pirates. She wanted me to write Treasure Island for teenage boys. I wanted to write Frenchman’s Creek with a touch of supernatural for adventure loving grownups. I was told the manuscript I had submitted was rubbish (it came back with red lines scrawled across it, and words such as “This is so-o boring, yawn” written over it.

On the telephone she told me she couldn’t bear to read that nonsense again, so I had better find myself another agent – and by the way, Heinemann were not going to reprint my backlist, wished me luck for the future, and put the phone down on me.

I was utterly shattered. That cliché of “felt like she had been kicked in the stomach” –  I assure you, it really does feel like that.

I spent two weeks sobbing, completely devastated. Then picked myself up and decided I did not need her. What had she done for me the past few years anyway? Absolutely nothing. What did I have to lose to try and start again?

I have since come across several other authors who were similarly “dropped” by agents who, to put it bluntly, could not be bothered with mid-list authors and their backlist and out-of-print books.

If you have a good agent who backs you to the hilt, is there to encourage and assist because he or she knows you are a darn good writer with a lot of untapped potential – then support that literary guardian angel to the best of your ability. A good agent is an absolute treasure! A bad one is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

 I, along with many other readers, loved Sea Witch, and you have a proven track record of marketable writing, so I’ve got to ask why isn’t the series being mainstream published?

Thank you, several top authors have said they think my Sea Witch Voyages are probably my best work (although other readers prefer the straight historicals – I suppose it all comes down to preference, doesn’t it?) I put my heart into writing Sea Witch – I even wrote on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, taking a break only on Christmas Day itself. The words literally poured from me, I don’t remember writing half of it, as the story wrote itself.

After being dumped by ex-agent and Heinemann, I touted my backlist and Sea Witch round a few publishers. No one wanted to know. Two reasons: sales figures for my historical fiction were poor, because beyond the first book, Kingmaking, and a little for my 1066 novel Harold the King (US title, I Am the Chosen King), there had been no marketing. No marketing = no sales. And who wants to take on a has-been author?

I received some positive appraisal for Sea Witch, but again and again I received back, “We like this, but it does not fit our publication list – it is not easily marketable.”

I soon realised that I wasn’t being snapped up because I was considered a “failed” author – and because publishers like easy-to-market genres. Square pegs in square holes. Sea Witch is cross-genre, it is historical adventure fantasy – not quite one, not quite the other.

And mainstream publishers do not like taking a punt on the unknown. Nor on dumped authors. That was not going to stop me though.

Sea Witch was going to be launched – I was determined to prove that ex-agent, and all those publishers, wrong.

In the end, you decided to self-publish (SP). Can you talk a bit about what you found in the self-publishing world when you first began your search for an appropriate outlet?

I realised that my only choice was to self-publish. It was a risk, but I figured even if I only sold one book a month it would be selling more than no books at all – and I couldn’t live without sharing my characters with other people, I couldn’t just let them “die,” to not be in print and “live.”

So I found a small independent company – who had an even smaller mainstream imprint. I did pay towards Sea Witch being published – basic set-up costs – but soon after publication I was moved to their miniscule mainstream offer, which meant they covered the cost of production. It was not ideal because the company was very small, they had staffing problems, and as it turned out, financial problems as well, but all my books were in print, including Sea Witch and two more “Voyages,” Pirate Code and Bring It Close.

The company was in trouble, so with new office premises, new, enthusiastic staff who knew what they were doing, it re-launched under a different name, with good intentions and high aspirations. I was happy to back them because having been let down by the “big boys,” I wanted the Indie side to do well. Things were not smooth though, and a lot of their clients, including myself, were eventually seriously let down by the managing director when the company went broke. All the staff, I must add here, were lovely – absolute gems. They were stung as much by the company owner as much as us authors.

Being honest? The quality of my books published by Discovered Authors/Callio Press was less than acceptable. But the few years that I was with them tied me over, kept me in print (and not at my own expense) and perhaps more useful, I had a very sharp learning curve about the dos and don’ts of independent publishing.

The one big thing that assured me that I was doing the right thing (even with a company that was not as good as it should be) was that I was approached by Sourcebooks, Inc of the USA. The M.D. had always loved my Arthurian books and approached me for the American rights. I had full control over my books, so I signed up.

And God Bless my American readers, thank you, I am doing really well with my straight historical fiction!

As with other publishers, though, Sourcebooks is not interested in the cross-genre Sea Witch series.

If I ever figure out why publishers do not want good books I’ll let you know.

Why did you choose your current SP company, SilverWood Books?

I had met with Helen Hart, the director of publishing and owner of SilverWood, at the London Book Fair. I instantly liked her, her vision, and her honesty. When I realised that Callio was about to go belly-up, I contacted her again, asking for more information about going with her company – assisted publishing. I briefly considered literally going self-publish, doing it all myself, but I have very limited technical skills, and being frank, I’d had enough of my books looking unprofessional. I wanted them produced to a quality standard.

It was expensive – nothing worthwhile is cheap, but I’d had a small legacy from my mother’s estate, and decided to use that for my books.

Best thing I ever did!

Have the conditions surrounding the SP market improved or deteriorated since you began your search?

I think improved, as far as hard copy books are concerned. Although there is a long, long way to go, and reaching that position of “respectability” is up to self-published authors.

More recognised mainstream traditional authors are turning to self- and assisted-publishing for their out-of-print backlists. The big publishing houses are often not interested in old backlists, so authors are becoming empowered to “do it yourself.” As I said above, even one book a month is better than none at all.

Also, there are a lot of talented writers out there who, for various reasons, cannot get published in the conventional way – maybe because their plot is, like my Sea Witch Voyages, “outside the box.”

The development of Kindle and e-books has completely opened another market for Indie writers. It is quick, easy, and cheap to upload an e-book.

But sadly, cheap is the word….

You are an advocate of high-quality self-published books that adhere to the standards of mainstream publishers. Can you tell readers why you believe adhering to these standards is crucial?

Cheap, amateur, unprofessional, poor quality. These are the words usually – and sadly, often correctly – associated with self-published/Indie books.

Indie authors only have themselves to blame because too many do not take care in the production of their work, and what is more alarming, too few fail to realise why quality, professional production is important.

As UK editor for reviewing Indie published novels for the Historical Novel Society, I have found some absolute gems – novels that I cannot understand why mainstream did not grab them. But, oh dear, I have also been sent some sad, sorry books to review. Not from the writing point of view – I never even got that far because the layout and presentation was incorrect.

You do not see mainstream, traditionally published books with double spacing between paragraphs, or the text aligned to the left (and therefore with a ragged right margin). Nor do you find novels published by the big publishing houses dotted on every page with obvious errors – or with one word (called “orphans”) or one line (called “widows”) stuck all on their own on a page.

What amazes me are the number of authors who complain about a rejection on these grounds – look at it this way, if you go to buy a new dress, would you be happy, on getting home, to discover that the hem was not sewn up, and the buttons were uneven? If you buy a new tyre for your car, would you accept it with a bald patch, or a slow puncture? No, you would not.

If you pay good money for something you expect to get your $’s worth.

So why do Indie authors expect readers to buy, and read, a book that is incorrectly and somewhat shoddily produced?

To be fair, not all authors realise these errors, some who I have contacted and explained the incorrect layout, etc, to have responded with grateful thanks, gone away, reprinted, and ended with a fabulous book, well worthy of boasting to be every bit as good as a mainstream novel.

Isn’t that what authors want?  For their pride and joy to be as good as – if not better than, other books?

E-books are often badly set, because authors have discovered that they can upload to Amazon themselves for a cheap outlay. But without learning how the technical side of publishing a book should be done, all that is happening is that e-books are now getting the reputation of being cheap, shoddy, and poorly produced.

I can see the time rapidly approaching when serious Indie authors who care enough to produce their books properly (see below) will be the ones paying to have their books printed as “book” books, while those who are not so bothered about ragged right margins, who do not see the importance of a professional editor and cover designer, and are quite happy with comic sans as a font, will be content with Kindle.

Fair enough, at least then we will all know where we stand.

If you could give aspiring SP authors advice on how to be successful in self-publishing, what are three crucial points you would want them to know?

 1. Use a professional editor – full edit, copy edit, and proof read. Yes, I know it’s expensive, but if it is worth doing, it is worth doing it properly.

2. Either get professional assistance or learn how to publish your book professionally. Sorry, but double spacing, comic sans font, and left justified text is not a professional appearance. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing it properly.

3. Get a professional cover designer. Your cover is not just an image plonked on the front to make the book look pretty – it is the shop window to what is inside. You can, and we do, judge a book by its cover.

If it is worth doing, it is worth doing it properly.


Helen Hollick also has a number of blogs that readers can enjoy: (where you can find links to other sub-blogs) and To view the a list of her books, including her latest guide for self-publishing, Discovering the Diamond, please see the home page of

*The title of this interview is a play on one of her blog titles.

Sarah Johnson’s BEA 2012 post

Here is the link to prolific historical fiction blogger and HNS editor Sarah Johnson’s BEA 2012 post:

If you haven’t already discovered Sarah’s site, it is a wonderful HF-focused reader’s blog, covering not just reviews of the latest HF, but also industry news and trends, interviews, and giveaways.

If you are attending BEA and/or the blogger conference this year and would like to talk books in NYC, I’d enjoy meeting you!

A Few BEA Titles

I have made headway into Richard Sharp’s The Duke Don’t Dance, a story that traces what he calls “The Silent Generation” through the interconnected stories of seven very different protagonists…an excellent character-driven narrative, so far.

Book Expo America is right around the corner, and I’ve been pouring over the list of author signings but have only found two historical fiction books that I’d like to eventually review. Both, however, look to me like the kind of mouth-watering epic tales that HF lovers crave. I can’t access the Publisher’s Weekly “galleys to grab” article, so I don’t know what HF galleys are being touted this year–if anyone sees HF novels that would be of interest, please let me know.

I’ll be posting updates from BEA, but before that will be the review of The Duke Don’t Dance, by the end of the month.

City of Slaughter: A Novel by Cynthia Drew is one of the upcoming books:

Synopsis from Amazon: Fourteen-year-old Carsie Akselrod and her younger sister, Lilia, flee the Russian pogroms to live with relatives on New York’s teeming, dangerous Lower East Side. Like many Jewish immigrant Americans in the early 1900s, the girls go to work in sweatshops, eventually taking jobs at the ill-fated Triangle Waist Company, scene of the infamous 1911 industrial fire that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers. Set against Tammany Hall politics and gangland crime, City of Slaughter is a tale of a woman torn by family, faith, and her drive to rise from poverty, succeed in business, and claim her place in New York’s world of fashion and society.



John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Synopsis from Amazon: Orphaned when his mother dies of starvation, having been cast out of her village as a witch, John is taken in at the kitchens at Buckland Manor, where he quickly rises from kitchen-boy to Cook, and is known for his uniquely keen palate and natural cooking ability. However, he quickly gets on the wrong side of Lady Lucretia, the aristocratic daughter of the Lord of the Manor. In order to inherit the estate, Lucretia must wed, but her fiancé is an arrogant buffoon. When Lucretia takes on a vow of hunger until her father calls off her engagement to her insipid husband-to-be, it falls to John to try to cook her delicious foods that might tempt her to break her fast.

Review: Sea Witch by Helen Hollick

I have to admit, I am not generally a fan of nautical adventures. I have never particularly desired to read, for example, Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander or Julian Stockwin’s Kydd adventures series (but did, come to think of it, enjoy Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, hmm…), so I was a rather skeptical of my ability to become engrossed in Sea Witch. However, knowing the author is a writer of enjoyable historical fiction, I was open to giving this a try.

In all honesty, I have to say this is the best Indie book I’ve read to date. In fact, this is one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.

Sea Witch is set in the golden age of piracy, 1716, in the “pirate round” from Africa to the Caribbean. This is the story of Jesamiah Acorne, who is forced to leave his home by an abusive half-brother and fend for himself at age 15. He becomes a pirate, one of the few options open to men in this circumstance, and this is the story of his first adventure: a tale of revenge, love, and struggle, all entwined with his passion for the sea. There are four books so far in this series, I believe, and you can find all of Helen Hollick’s books on her website: Helen Hollick’s website

Everything that an avid reader and reviewer looks for in a novel is here: strong character development, multidimensional portrayal (one of the biggest strengths of the book), a superbly plotted story with excellent tempo and a tight narrative, gripping and fluid language, vivid description, and tension and release at just the right moments.

This is a pirate adventure with wide appeal; there is something for everyone. I have been skittish about nautical adventures because to me, the subject seems geared toward masculine tastes (and having not read many, I could be completely wrong about that!). Here, we have a pirate who is internally tormented and struggling with a sense of vulnerability; a character who may appeal to a more emotional sensibility.  On the other hand, our hero is not “soft”; he is a hardened pirate through-and-through, who takes pride in his work and is very good at it. He is a complex man, fighting his past, making the most of his present circumstances, and trying to avoid terrible possibilities that lurk in the future. He gets into scrapes and makes quite human mistakes: a multidimensional rogue of sorts.

A deeply moving, but not overly sentimental, love story is also well done in Sea Witch.  Tiola Oldstagh herself has been injured deeply and is the one woman who could possibly break down Jesamiah’s tough barrier. The two must exercise extraordinary patience and faith during times of great despair, and we don’t know until the conclusion if they will make it—the punches keep on coming at the end, one after the other after the other, and I couldn’t sleep until I turned the final page.

The details of the ship’s workings, the descriptions of the crew’s behavior and pirate culture throughout the book are impressive. The author has a tight grasp on nautical details (the parts of a ship, sailors’ language, the lifestyle—as far as a novice such as I can tell) and a way of writing about them that makes this book an entertaining education on top of all else.

My favorite aspect of the story, and one of the reasons, I’ve heard, that this book was rejected by mainstream publishers, is the mystical, supernatural element. The subtle, overarching theme is the epic battle for Jesamiah’s body and soul between the living, immortal “soul of the sea, spirit of the waves” Tethys and Tiola, the young healer, Jesamiah’s soul mate, who turns out to be a “White Witch,” who uses her power of “The Craft” only for good. This epic battle is a powerful element of the story. It adds a depth and a spiritual texture that is beautiful and convincing, even carrying over to the terrifying aspects of Tethys herself. There is much veneration of nature, of beauty, and of the unknowable in this theme. Let yourself float off into this element of the story, without judgment or skepticism, and your enjoyment of the book will only increase.

I appreciated the short length of the chapters—I find that short, effective chapters don’t challenge my concentration and do allow me time to digest what I’ve read. The language flows beautifully, with at least one literary reference that brought a smile to my face:

(In his first meeting with a man who would eventually come to play an important role in his future, Jesamiah is listening to Captain Woodes Rogers blathering on…)

My good friend DeFoe, back in England, so his prattling letters mention, cannot wait to meet Selkirk here. He intends to write his experiences down as an adventure story. Says he’ll call it Robinson Crusoe to protect the innocent involved in the tale. Absurd, eh? Haha!  (p. 45)

How interesting to read the opinion of a rather self-indulgent traveler of the sea about a future classic of literature when it was just a thought in the author’s mind! This is the kind of intelligent detail you will find in this novel.

The author has included a map, an illustration of a square-rigged ship with parts identified, as well as a glossary of seafaring terms at the back of the book, so readers can follow along with the  “sailor-speak” (which, gratefully, does not interfere with the reading flow).

My criticisms are miniscule compared with the overall quality of this book: more than a few typos and missing words; perhaps the dependent clause-technique was overused a bit too much for the comfort of my editorially trained ear; and a cover that is a little dark for my personal taste, but does describe the atmosphere of the book. Overall, the publication is professionally laid out and pleasing to look at.

Shame on mainstream publishers for rejecting a book of this quality. Historical fiction with an infusion of fantasy is not an uncommon or unpleasant combination in a novel! I think Sea Witch would sell quite well if it were to be aggressively marketed. This is the work of a professional, experienced author, not a novice.

I absolutely loved Sea Witch and highly recommend it whether you are a fan of pirating/seafaring adventures or not—and I will be reading the next book in the series as soon as I can get my hands on it!

Sea Witch, by Helen Hollick. Published by Silverwood Books, 2011. ISBN: 9781906236601. Price US paperback $18.50, Kindle edition $3.99; UK paperback £10.99, UK Kindle edition £3.20.

DISCLAIMER: The author and I work on the HNS Indie Reviews team together, however, this review is an unbiased opinion piece of my own, with no influence from the author. She sent me a published copy of this novel for an independent review.