Self-Published Historical Novels

Round-Up of Quick Critiques


When this website was new and I received fewer review books from major publishing houses, I was able to devote some time to self-published novels sent to me by their authors. The great majority of these exhibited flaws I have come to recognize as typical of self-published fiction. Reading and reviewing novels I cannot in good conscience recommend limits the amount of time available for novels I can, so I no longer accept self-published novels for review, except in very rare circumstances. My policy for those I accepted for review was to read only the beginning of the novel, unless it proved itself by capturing and holding my interest. The few I read all the way through received full reviews. The others are given brief critiques on this page.

Authors please note: Unless I specifically request a review copy of a self-published novel, these are no longer being accepted for review.

New printing technology (often referred to as "POD" for "print-on-demand") makes it economical to print and bind one soft-cover book at a time. Publishers like AuthorHouse, BookSurge, iUniverse, Xlibris, PublishAmerica and Lulu which use this new process refuse few, if any, manuscripts and do little, if any, editing. Authors considering publishing through one of these houses would be well advised to consider the pros and cons carefully before signing a contract (see, for example, the Writer Beware articles on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website). It has also become easier for authors to set up their own small press publishing houses for the purpose of publishing their own work. Both categories of publications are essentially self-published.

Since I have a number of unpublished novel manuscripts of my own parked on a shelf, I have great respect for the amount of time and effort these authors have put into their work. A few authors, such as Libby Cone, do have enough success with a self-published novel to attract a mainstream publisher - see our interview with Libby Cone. I hope the following brief critiques will be helpful to both authors and readers.

Jump to:

War on the Margins by Libby Cone - Published July 2009 in a new, revised edition from Duckworth

The Brother Keepers by John E. (Ted) MacNintch
The Fire and the Light by Glen Craney
French Letters: Virginia's War by Jack Woodville London
Lenape Homeland by James G. Landis
Night of Flames by Douglas Jacobson
The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas by E.S. Kraay
Partners by D.M. McGowan
The Queen's Tale by Donald Birmingham
Red Clay, Blood River by William J. Everett
The Rose and the Vine by Lydia Harman
The Saint and the Fasting Girl by Anna Richenda
Splendid Isolation: The Jekyll Island Millionaires' Club, 1888-1942 by Pamela Bauer Mueller
Those Who Dream By Day by Linda and Gary Cargill
Viking: 'The Wanderer' Part 2: The North, 984-988 by R. Hyslop
Williamsburg: Virginia on the Eve of Revolution by Jack McLaughlin
The Woman in the Wing by Jean Sheldon


War on the Margins by Libby Cone

Update: A revised edition of War on the Margins was published by the U.K. press Duckworth on July 23, 2009. This was a promising novel in its self-published edition, so the new edition is likely to be well worth reading. The following brief critique refers to the self-published edition, not the new, revised edition.

How much I read: 94 pages

Basics: About a small group of informally organized women in St. Helier, Jersey, The Channel Islands, who resist the German occupation during World War II.

Strengths: The story is well researched and the narrative is full of flair and wit. A local official is described: "Tall and slightly stooped, with wrinkled face and light, bushy eyebrows, he fancied himself to be avuncular, though nobody else did." A teenaged Bohemian (in flashback) "tried fueling her dreams with ether. The visions were astounding, sometimes terrifying, with monsters cascading down mountains of yellow fire, exploding into flaming debris. Was she tempting madness?"

Weaknesses: The narrative is interspersed with lengthy German orders, regulations and official correspondence (sometimes including address headings more than half a page long) which make tedious reading. The narrative can be confusing as it jumps from scene to scene or as characters act on decisions they have made that the reader doesn't know about.

Bottom line: This is a talented writer whose novel could have been quite good with more filling out of the story and judicious editing of the official papers. Readers interested in the Channel Islands during World War II may enjoy it.

Author's website: www.WarontheMargins.com


The Brother Keepers by John E. (Ted) MacNintch

How much I read: 18 pages, then skipped to p. 162 (chapter 11, "The Outbreak of War – 1914"), skimmed a few pages, then skipped to a random scene of warfare (chapter 22, "The MacNeil Raid") and read the entire chapter, pp. 379-392.

Basics: A fictionalized version of the experiences of the five MacInnes brothers from Nova Scotia, the author's relatives, who fought in World War I, beginning with their childhood and carrying them through the WWI years.

Strengths: The author has a clear prose style that reflects the more deliberate and formal language of the early 20th century. The depth and breadth of his research is impressive. The one battle scene I read was well-written. Since relatively little fiction has been written about the Canadian experience of WWI, this novel offers a fresh angle on the war.

Weaknesses: At 762 pages of small type with narrow margins, this is an exceptionally long novel which could benefit from judicious editing. Chapters 2-10 are essentially backstory about the boys' childhood, with the real story not resuming until chapter 11. Some of the dialogue feels artificial, supplying information for the reader rather than conveying what the characters might realistically have said.

Bottom line: As is, this novel must surely be treasured by the author's relatives as a fictionalized version of their family history. General readers are likely to feel impatient with the many chapters of backstory before the war begins, but those interested in the Canadian experience of WWI may find it worthwhile to skip chapters 2-11 and just read the war story.

Author's website: www.thebrotherkeepers.com Excerpts from the novel are posted on the website.


The Fire and the Light by Glen Craney

How much I read: 7 pages

Basics: About Esclarmonde de Foix, a twelfth-century noblewoman in southern France who was a prominent believer in the Cathar faith, condemned as heresy by the Catholic Church.

Strengths: Highly poetic language reminiscent of troubadour verses. The cover is one of the most attractive and professional-looking I've seen on a self-published novel.

Weaknesses: Readers may find it a challenge to suspend disbelief, since the story assumes the "love courts" presided over by aristocratic women of the twelfth century were central to their lives and taken seriously. "Set to flight by the dulcet dialect, so many poets began expounding on love's conundrums that people became hopelessly confused. Having been the subject of many a competing verse herself, the Marquessa had decreed the creation of an orderly system to resolve disputes of the heart without resort to violence." The language is so stylized, some readers may have difficulty accessing the story underneath. "His chatoyant eyes, permuting from azure to gray with the light, swept the hall as if assaying the order of battle."

Bottom line: Readers who enjoy deciphering ornate prose thick with carefully constructed metaphors may find this very much to their taste. The prose is crafted with a strongly poetic sensibility which tends to veil its meaning behind wordplay. Since the Cathars were persecuted as heretics, the novel's rather obscure prose style is not inappropriate to the subject matter.

Author's website: www.glencraney.com An excerpt from the novel is available on the author's website in the "Books" section.


French Letters: Virginia's War by Jack Woodville London

How much I read: 25 pages

Basics: About a small Texas town during the World War II year of 1944.

Strengths: The author has an ear for authentic dialogue and a capable, unaffected prose style that reflects the time and place of his story.

Weaknesses: The opening of the story is confusing. A prologue describes an altercation at a funeral without giving the reader enough clues to relate to why people were upset. The first chapter establishes a high level of tension when it seems to open on a World War II battlefield with young soldiers risking their lives in a firefight, but the tension falls flat when after several pages it becomes evident the "soldiers" are actually children at play in their Texas home town.

Bottom line: This is an author with considerable talent and promise who does not play fair with readers in this particular novel.

Author's website: www.virepress.com


Lenape Homeland by James G. Landis

How much I read: 10 pages (chapter 1), then glanced ahead to skim a couple of chapters near the end

Basics: A chief of the Lenape, a Delaware Indian tribe, tells a boy the story of the Lenape's history. This is the first in a four-part series with a Christian message, in which the boy grows up, converts to Christianity, and dies as a martyr.

Strengths: The author's research about this lesser-known tribe appears to be sound and extensive, and his affection for the Lenape is evident.

Weaknesses: Although I could find no reference in any of the promotional material identifying this as a children's book, the prose style seems aimed at elementary schoolchildren. The narrative's stronger focus on history and Lenape culture than on plot and character development makes it seem less a novel than a teaching tool intended for use in parochial school history classes. The strong focus on correct pronunciation of Indian names reinforces this educational emphasis: "I am Glikkikan. I like my name. It has a musical tapping sound to it. GLIK-ki-kan. It sounds good. But I like my name most of all because o-wee-CHEE-la gave it to me."

Bottom line: Parochial schools may find this of interest.

Author's website: www.conquestpublishing.com


Night of Flames by Douglas Jacobson

How much I read: 26 pages

Basics: A World War II story about a young married couple during the German invasion of Poland in 1939. It opens with the wife in Krakow during a bombing raid and the husband with the Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade, preparing to engage the German Eighth Army.

Strengths: Of the novels set in World War II Poland, few are about military officers, so this novel offers a fresh angle on World War II Poland. The physical setting is made vivid for readers with a number of striking images, such as a door after a bombing raid that is "split down the middle, hanging from the top hinge."

Weaknesses: Although the two main characters seem like caring, responsible people, little is done to individualize them and make them memorable or intriguing to readers. The writing is frequently melodramatic ("Was her father safe? Was Jan? Oh, God, Jan!") or cliched ("as abruptly as it started, it was over" and "steely eyes boring into his soul").

Bottom line: Readers with a strong interest in World War II Poland may find this worthwhile.

Author's website: DouglasWJacobson.blogspot.com


The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas by E.S. Kraay

How much I read: 33 pages, then quickly flipped through the rest

Basics: While waiting to see the Pythian Oracle, an old man happens across a group of men from the Island of Thasos who are puzzling over the oracle they have received. He tells them it refers to the late Theagenes, an Olympian athlete from their island whom he remembers with great admiration, though not for his athletic ability. The man journeys with them in order to tell them a story about Theagenes.

Strengths: The author writes with comfortable authority about the ancient Greek setting. The elegiac tone of his graceful, rhythmic prose suits the subject matter: "Even though my whiskers are white, my calves remain hard and my heart is strong for I make journey often…. Every four years, as I learned from my father, I heed the call of the Elean runners and find my way to the stadium at Olympia; it is a grand and festive sight. More frequently, I travel to the holy grove at Delphi to take the Pythia's counsel. As the gods weave the pattern of my life, I am enlightened and seek the words the priestess imparts to me and to others as well."

Weaknesses: The frame story overwhelms the narrative. Theagenes, who is supposed to be the main character, does not appear except as the subject of other characters' dialogue or inner reflections until after page 93 (a third of the way through the novel), where Chapter 6 closes with the line "I … proceeded to relate the story of my first encounter with Theagenes."

Bottom line: Patient readers with an interest in philosophy may enjoy this.


Partners by D.M. McGowan

How much I read: 3 pages

Basics: About a loner in the Canadian Old West whose life is changed when he meets a tenderfoot he feels is in need of his guidance.

Strengths: Few of the many novels of the Old West are set in Canada, making the setting intriguing. The author seems well-versed in the geography and peoples of nineteenth century Canada, peppering the narrative with smoothly integrated references like "Pembina in Dakota territory," "the Palliser maps," and "full-blood Indians who would not be as friendly as the Métis with whom he had camped."

Weaknesses: The prose is often sloppy, reading like a first draft. In the opening paragraph, the main character guesses it is "June 29, 1866, two months to the day since he had ridden away...," but two pages later, he refers to this date in the future, saying that on "June 29, 1866, he would turn thirty-six." The character's description makes him hard to visualize: "Even though his legs were slightly longer than his torso, many overestimated his weight for he was as thick through as he was wide." Laboriously spelled dialect in the dialogue creates another stumbling block.

Bottom line: Readers with a strong interest in the Canadian Old West may be willing to overlook the rough prose.

Publisher's Website: See the Partners page at the Strategic Book Publishing website.


The Queen's Tale by Donald Birmingham

How much I read: 35 pages

Basics: An brooch inhabited by the evil spirit of an ancient Irish queen wreaks havoc during the time of Robert the Bruce of Scotland and Edward I and II of England.

Strengths: Imaginative and dramatic.

Weaknesses: Even allowing for the fantasy elements in the tale, the characters' behavior often seems unlikely. The tone of the dialogue is inconsistent, mingling modern turns of phrase with archaisms ("'Everyone can go to hell for all I care! . . . If Ireland is destroyed in the process, then so be it.'"), while the Irish characters slip in and out of an exaggerated brogue ("'Tis me lucky day!'"). The prose is often purple. ("Then on one fateful stormy night, as flashes of forked lightning exploded and danced across Kildare's sky ...")

Bottom line: An unusual take on the time of Robert the Bruce written in a style reminiscent of a 1950s B-movie.

Author's Website: The Queen's Tale


Red Clay, Blood River by William J. Everett

How much I read: 26 pages

Basics A contemporary frame story introduces parallel narratives about nineteenth century German immigrants to the U.S. who become involved in the Trail of Tears, and the South African Great Trek.

Strengths: A worthwhile goal of the author was "to connect history with ecology." The Great Trek, a migration similar in ways to the Trail of Tears, is an interesting historical episode that has not often been portrayed in fiction.

Weaknesses: The eight or so characters presented in the opening 26 pages are all nice, polite people whose flaws or differences of opinion, if any, are not revealed, leading to a fatal lack of conflict or tension. The voice is often labored, clichéd or overly precious: "The sails clapped in percussive reception of [the wind's] invisible conduction." "Valentin's heavy boots nearly danced on the rutted road, sending up little plumes of dust as he hurried over to the Janz's home."

Bottom line: During the first 26 pages, the author convinced me he was a nice person, but not that his narrative would ever engage my interest.

Author's Website: www.RedClayBloodRiver.com


The Rose and the Vine by Lydia Harman

How much I read: 7 pages

Basics: An overview of the French Revolution from the perspective of enlightened aristocrats

Strengths: The author clearly has a deep, detailed knowledge of the political history of the French Revolution. Some of the descriptive passages are vivid and captivating.

Weaknesses: The prologue and first chapter move at a glacial, uninviting pace. Though the prologue begins with an atmospheric portrayal of a man's preliminary preparations for a duel, it stops short of portraying the duel. Then the novel shifts into a second-hand overview of the French political situation on the eve of the Revolution, conveyed through an aristocrat's internal reflections and then, as chapter one opens, his conversation with his daughter. "He turned his head, light grey eyes gazing steadily into hers. 'The actual structure and intended usage of an emergency council is a very fine idea. The danger however, this time, lies in the possibility of designing persons using it to launch a political coup d' e'-tat within the present climate.'"

Bottom line: Readers with a strong interest in the French Revolution who enjoy some of the more slowly paced novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may find this to their taste.

Publisher's website: This novel is self-published through Lulu.com, which has a "Storefront" page at stores.lulu.com/rosevine.


The Saint and the Fasting Girl by Anna Richenda

How much I read: 33 pages

Basics: About a Yorkshire nun who has charge of a mysterious saint's relic during a time when her convent is threatened by a corrupt archbishop during the reign of Henry VIII.

Strengths: Vigorous writing brings the scenes to life. "In the daylight, the orchard was beautiful, the unordered shrines and monuments of stone many hundreds of years old. But in the darkness, the rot of overripe quinces caught her breath. Shadows seemed clustered under the trees, and the mist rising from the stones obscured the ground." The religious beliefs and traditions of the era, alien to modern readers, are conveyed with a sympathy that makes them intriguing, while the characters are portrayed with psychological insight and realism.

Weaknesses: Repetition tends to slow the pacing, even in eventful, high-tension scenes. Readers are not always given enough context to understand what is going on, so some scenes can become confusing or frustrating as they continue to play out with the characters seeming to understand more about what is going on than the reader does.

Bottom line: A novel with a strong feminist sensibility that explores religious mysticism in the early Tudor era, amid violent clashes between male religious authorities and nuns resisting their domination. Readers with an interest in the subject matter may find the considerable strengths of this novel more important than its weaknesses.

Author's website: www.annarichenda.com


Splendid Isolation: The Jekyll Island Millionares' Club, 1888-1942 by Pamela Bauer Mueller

How much I read: 7 pages, then skimmed the next 10

Basics: A history of the Jekyll Island Millionaires' Club, located on a small island off the coast of Georgia, told in the form of a novel.

Strengths: The author has a clear, unpretentious prose style that is easy to read. Descriptions of the scenery can be lyrical: "Aproned by salt marshes and the sea, this ten-mile island is covered with stiletto-tipped palmetto groves, forests of pine and magnolia and deep-green stretches of sea grass. Its meandering roads are shaded by the gargantuan oaks whose twisted limbs seem frozen in a graceful, macabre dance.

Weaknesses: Events are summarized rather than dramatized, making the story feel distant. "Next we faced the daunting problem of disposing of the island's wild hogs. We tried to chase them down with dogs, but the hogs attacked and killed them. Finally, a professional hunter was contracted and club members were given open season on the animals. Even then we couldn't get them all."

Bottom line: Readers interested in the history of the Jekyll Island Millionaires' Club are likely to enjoy this. It seems well researched and includes 16 pages of vintage photographs.

Author's website: Pinata Publishing is the author's small press. A sample of Chapter 17 is posted on the website.


Those Who Dream By Day by Linda and Gary Cargill

How much I read: 8 pages

Basics: About the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 before the U.S. entered World War I

Strengths: The factual details relating to the Lusitania have been meticulously researched.

Weaknesses: The characters are stereotyped. The dialogue sounds artificial and is obviously designed to convey factual information to readers. At least in the opening chapters, the novel's focus is overwhelmingly on the factual details relating to the ship and its sinking, at the expense of character development and story. "'It's 30,395 tons all right,' remarked a serious young man. 'I ought to know. I'm the assistant engineer. It's the only ship with four funnels. It really is taller at seven hundred eighty-five feet.'"

Bottom line: Most readers will find it more efficient to read a nonfiction book about the Lusitania.

Author's website: Cheops Books appears to be the author's small press.


Viking: 'The Wanderer' Part 2: The North, 984-988 by R. Hyslop

How much I read: to page 10 (the one-page foreword plus the first four pages of narrative)

Basics: This is the second in a trilogy about a group of Vikings in the late tenth century; in this volume, they arrive in Iceland and spend some time there before traveling to Sweden, Gotland and Finland.

Strengths: Names like "Hjalti Squat-Nose" and "Hrapp the Soft-Voiced" are vivid and memorable.

Weaknesses: A multiplicity of characters are introduced in the opening pages, with little indication which character the story revolves around, and little distinction between the characters. Though the foreword identifies Ethelwulf as the hero, his actions are buried amid a flurry of actions by other characters which seem more important. It's not clear whether Edwy, Edwine and Ethelwulf are different characters or different versions of the same character's name. The author's inclusion of endnotes and a table of contents suggest he is unfamiliar with the layout conventions of published novels; perhaps reading more fiction would familiarize him with storytelling conventions as well, helping him to produce a more readable novel.

Bottom line: This novel needs a good deal of work before the typical reader will find it inviting.

Author's Website: Cuthan Books


Williamsburg: Virginia on the Eve of Revolution by Jack McLaughlin

How much I read: 67 pages (the first five chapters)

Basics: About life in Williamsburg, Virginia, as discontent with British rule builds toward the American Revolution.

Strengths: The author has a prodigious knowledge of the physical setting of Colonial Williamsburg, customs of the time, and the history of the period. His prose reflects the language of the time but is clear to a modern reader.

Weaknesses: The sense of story is lacking. Although interesting events are witnessed by the main characters, referred to in flashbacks or discussed in their dialogue, during the first five chapters none of the main characters directly participate in events of dramatic significance within the actual time frame of the narrative.

Bottom line: Readers interested in life in Colonial Williamsburg may enjoy the historical picture presented in this novel.

Author's website: www.williamsburgthenovel.com The opening chapters of this novel are posted on the website.


The Woman in the Wing by Jean Sheldon

How much I read: 90 pages

Basics: About a young woman who joins the WASP program during World War II because she loves to fly, but is assigned instead to do undercover work as a riveter in an airplane factory where German sabotage is suspected.

Strengths: A competent, straightforward prose style and solid pacing.

Weaknesses: After the first 30 or so pages, the plot becomes steadily less likely, and by 90 pages in, it strains credibility. While the author seems on solid ground in her portrayal of the WASP program, I had trouble believing a young woman with no training or interest in spycraft would be assigned against her will on short notice to serve as a spy. Germany did, in fact, send saboteurs to the U.S. in a failed attempt to infiltrate American factories (see the article about George John Dasch on the FBI website), but the portrayal of the sabotage program in this novel is unconvincing.

Bottom line: Readers looking for a credible portrayal of spycraft during the World War II period will find this novel lacking.

Website: www.BastPress.com


Top of Page

Back to Directory of Book Reviews