Tag Archives: strong female protagonists

The Clever Mill Horse an Entertaining Debut Historical Novel with Determined Female Lead

01_The Clever Mill Horse Cover


I first wanted to read The Clever Mill Horse because I love history of the 1800s and have some strange obsession with mills and grist mills (might be in my blood, my great x6 grandfather owned a mill). As well, I like weaving and textiles and all those old sorts of professions and inventions. I enjoyed Jodi’s foreword quite a bit about the flax vs. cotton mill and the history and I thought it was going to be a wonderful read about inventing the flax-mill and how it worked and changed society.

Though I don’t think that initial wish came true, there was still  much in the book to be enjoyed. I did hope that it would have an independent and incorrigible female protagonist that was determined and defied the odds. Check! It did. That was clear right from the start with Ella and carried on throughout the book, as she gave us a well-rounded, intelligent, and feisty female that the rest of us can all admire. That was her best formed character, followed by Aunt Lucille, the Native American from the Oneida tribe named Pete, and Jenny, Ella’s sister. I also enjoyed the antagonist, Emerston, as he was conniving, manipulative, and wholly dimensional. I felt those characters were the best done and those are the ones I’d remember as the stars of the book. At first I wasn’t sure that any of her characters would be memorable like Ella, and almost found them flat or surface in the beginning, but by halfway in, she proved me wrong as the other characters began to show themselves. I was glad to see so many strong female characters in this book.

I have to admit when I started the book I wondered where it was going and if it was reading like a middle reader more than a novel. It was slow to start and I wondered if I’d want to read it. However, eventually it picked up so if you read it and think this, don’t give up on it. I saw at least by chapter four that there was suspense, a mystery, clues, and much more just beyond the innovation of a flax-mill, which really took a back seat to the family and town drama as the story becomes more a journey of the soul of Ella as she discovers her worth and purpose.

Though I was unsure of the jilted English language she presented Pete to have as a Native American, I did admire her treatment of the Native Americans in the story, the historical background and tribe background, and how she presented him as loving, gentle, kind, and giving and had him incorporate into their lives. She was sympathetic to the Native American plight and their assimilation with white settlers who took their homes and land. I enjoyed the forbidden romance he was involved in and her gentle message to us that we shouldn’t discriminate, especially in love.

As an advocate for domestic violence, I hated that Ella’s mother did not leave Ella’s father, her abuser, and it was hard to read some of the sections for me, but I understood her character’s claim as in that time period life was hard for anyone, let alone a single woman. Those sections in the plot was very sad and emotional. Her characterization of the abuser and the abused was remarkable. She dealt with many other raw and human issues in her book too, but I don’t want to give all the surprises away.

Those are all underlying things though, as really Jodi spent a great deal of time on her plot and all the twists and turns she threw into the mix. The book was pretty long for its theme/genre, as though it was based on historical research and time period, she may have been trying to fit too much in all at once. It just felt a little unfocused, with too many things happening, and I bet it was due to the fact that she had so much she wanted to do she just couldn’t bear to cut any of it. As a content/copy editor, my eye naturally looks for this, and it isn’t to shame her as a writer, but to help her improve. I see places that could have been left out and the book would have propelled further forward all the same for the reader.

Also, with my editor cap on, in the prelude, an entire section toward the end of it in the e-book version was pasted twice. I don’t know if it was just pasted twice and I didn’t miss anything, or if it replaced something else? I would definitely check that out. Also, several times “than” used when meaning “then” and other small things like that which added up. Some of the vocabulary seemed forced and in other places, not strong enough.

Overall, I really liked the suspense, the journey/adventure they ended up going on during the second half of the novel, how several of the characters showed great growth and courage, the mysteries (that’s where the horse in the title comes in too), and the pioneer intrigue. There were plenty of surprises, secrets, reveals, and drama. It was clean enough (no sex, bad words, etc.) that I would be able to let my teenager read it and I like that about it too.

The novel’s plot and theme reminded me some of the writer Elizabeth Camden (that’s high praise, she is a wonderful author who writes these types of historical suspense, features strong female leads, and has hints of clean romance). Now what Jodi needs to do with her potential is to practice her craft and hone in on her sentences, her dialogue, and her focus. She is a great plot weaver and I look forward to seeing her grow her writing skills.

For her first novel, Jodi shows promise as a real storyteller that knows how to funnel the sensitivities of human emotions, the trials of life, the power of the female, and lessons learned messages. She was able to mix that with a plot full of suspense, drama, and mystery, in order to create an entertaining historical read that showed how one young girl could overcome any odds. I look forward to reading the next novel in the series!

Watch for my upcoming interview with Jodi!

*I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are my own. My content and editing critiques are for the author and will not be what is pasted to Amazon or GoodReads.*

The Clever Mill Horse, Synopsis~

01_The Clever Mill Horse CoverPublication Date: August 15, 2014
Caspian Press
Formats: eBook, Paperback
Pages: 424

Genre: Historical Fiction

A young woman’s gift could weave together the fabric of a nation…

1810, upstate New York. 21-year-old Ella Kenyon is happiest gliding through the thick woods around her small frontier town, knife in hand, her sharp eyes tracking game. A gift for engineering is in her blood, but she would gladly trade it for more time in the forest. If only her grandfather’s dying wish hadn’t trapped her into a fight she never wanted.

Six years ago, Ella’s grandfather made her vow to finish his life’s work: a flax-milling machine that has the potential to rescue her mother, brother, and sister from the brutality of life with her drunkard father. The copious linen it yields could save her struggling town, subjugate the growing grip of southern cotton. Or it could be Ella’s downfall. If she’s not quick enough, not clever enough to succeed, more than her own life rests in the balance…

Praise for The Clever Mill Horse

“Jodi Lew-Smith’s The Clever Mill Horse is that rarest of all contemporary novels: an authentically old-fashioned adventure story, in all the best senses. Full of drama, humor, plot surprises, and, best of all, memorable characters, The Clever Mill Horse had me hooked from page one. Best of all, there’s a sequel coming. I can’t wait.” – Howard Frank Mosher, author of Where the Rivers Flow North

“In this delightful debut novel set in the early 19th century, a young woman fights to patent her flax-milling machine. . .An assured, cleverly plotted piece of historical fiction with an irrepressible female protagonist.” – Kirkus Reviews

“. . .intricately plotted and exceedingly well paced. . . filled with danger, science, and suspense, the story rings true with historical and natural detail. . . a complete and finely polished first novel.” – Foreword Reviews

Buy the Book~

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Author Jodi Lew-Smith~

02_Jodi Lew-Smith AuthorJodi Lew-Smith lives on a farm in northern Vermont with her patient husband, three wonderfully impatient children, a bevy of pets and farm animals, and 250 exceedingly patient apple trees which, if they could talk, would suggest that she stop writing and start pruning. Luckily they’re pretty quiet.

With a doctorate in plant genetics, she also lives a double life as a vegetable breeder at High Mowing Seeds. She is grateful for the chance to do so many things in one lifetime, and only wishes she could do them all better. Maybe in the next life she’ll be able to make up her mind.

For more about Jodi and about the lives and world of the characters in the novel, visit her website or blog. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Goodreads.

Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/theclevermillhorseblogtour/

Hashtags: #TheCleverMillHorseBlogTour #HistoricalFiction

Twitter Tags: @hfvbt

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The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau is a Top-Notch Thriller of Page Turning Suspense

Are you drawn to historical novels surrounding the steamy and intrigue-laden court of Henry VIII? You’re not alone. Many readers delight in books from this time period where drama unfolds at every dark corner and crevice!

The ChaliceSo how does an author make a book stand out from a sea of Tudor-mania? I’m sure this was a challenge for Tudor-era fanatic and author Nancy Bilyeau in endeavoring to write her novels.  In The Chalice (a known sequel to her popular The Crown, but really stands-alone quite well), she writes of the same era in history, but from the perspective of Joanna Stafford, a woman of noble birth and connections who was also pious and dedicated to the Catholic church being a former nun (novice). In her writing, Bilyeau delves into how the transition from England being ruled from Catholic perspective to Protestant, and the bloody fighting and paranoia it caused, confused the entire country, especially the nobles who were strong in faith but also wanted to regard their King (he was divine after all and God-ordained) without falter or question. How did the outskirts, beyond the castle walls, really handle the transformation? How did those of faith deal with priories and convents being dissolved?

Don’t let Joanna being a pious individual dissuade you from thinking this book is lacking pulse-pounding drama because it most certainly is full of hold-your-breath moments!  It was never a dull moment and I disliked when I needed to put it down due to other life demands! I couldn’t wait to pick it up again, just in time to reveal another plot twist or another piece to unraveling the riddle.  (review continued after synopsis)

Here’s the synopsis for The Chalice~

In the next novel from Nancy Bilyeau after her acclaimed debut The Crown, novice Joanna Stafford plunges into an even more dangerous conspiracy as she comes up against some of the most powerful men of her era.

In 1538, England is in the midst of bloody power struggles between crown and cross that threaten to tear the country apart. Joanna Stafford has seen what lies inside the king’s torture rooms and risks imprisonment again, when she is caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting the King. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna understands she may have to assume her role in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each more omniscient than the last.

Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lays at the center of these deadly prophecies…

(review continued)

Sounds full of intrigue and page turning drama, right??

Though the novel didn’t take place at court, it showcased how court drama and governance carries around the countryside as families jockey for favor or position and conspire at a moment’s notice to fight for their lives. Anyone that knows of Henry Tudor (Henry the VIII) knows that he was impulsive and could make rash and unjustified decisions out of his own fears.  He would judge entire families on an extended family member’s wrong-doing and, as his father before him, tended to kill off entire family branches to fortify his own royal legacy.

Even though Joanna and her extended family were in constant fear for their lives, she had a bond with Mary Tudor that would help to serve her through some sticky situations. But with that bond, as well as her own to the Catholic church, she is most easily aghast over Henry VIII’s desecration and desire to wipe out all monasteries, sacred relics, and bones of Saints.  Then, when a prophecy is foretold that involves her, she struggles to rebel against it.  Being a good Catholic, she strongly believes that prophecy and seers are wrong in the eyes of God.  She does not want to believe that she could be a part of such dealings, but struggles to know if the greater good outweighs the risk.

I loved the book’s emotional tender moments when Joanna was overcome with human emotions for others in the book, for instance, when she mulled over her feelings for various male characters, all whom in some regard seemed to be smitten by her and feel a need to protect her. Yet there were boundaries to all relationships in regards to love and Bilyeau walked a fine line of pulling the reader into the moment of impulsive exploratory action and then whisking them away from it, just enough for us to feel the character’s internal anguish. In all, she teaches us her characters fortitude and strength (and self-control), most often through protagonist Joanna. She’s an amazingly strong woman who was too modest to see her own attributes.

My favorite supporting character in the book was Henry Courtenay, Marchess of Exeter, who had less “print time” than most, but I loved his demeanor. There were times in the book I felt on pins and needles, times I was holding my breath and then exhaling in relief, and other times (especially a particular time) that I cried for the horror.

I love the prophetic mystery within the novel and the clues filled with symbolism that heightened as I turned each chapter. The novel was most certainly full of intrigue, but quite in a different format than what I’ve read from most other Tudor-era writers. It’s drama-filled, but stemming from a protagonist so laden with religious adherence that the drama seems almost stumbled upon because she wants so badly to not be a part of the drama. But her heart tells her different and she finds her destiny.  It read like a Dan Brown novel with a strong female lead and who doesn’t love a nun on a mission? Any reader will want to take on the prophecy of Joanna, whether to see if it’s a true outcome or to prove it wrong. Bilyeau always leaves that question  up to the reader, as Joanna struggles with that same dilemma herself.

Being a journalist and editor, Bilyeau’s writing style is succinct and not heavily flowered with extra, unwarranted details. Her research skills and plot points are highly polished and shine through in this work making it a thriller for any must-read list.

I highly recommend Nancy Bilyeau’s The Chalice (and her former The Crown) for its unique presentation of a widely written about Tudor time period, her strong and memorable Joanna and well-developed supporting cast, her suspenseful riddles and exciting prophetic plot, and most of all, her page-turning literary skills.

Please stop back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with the fantastic author Nancy Bilyeau!

The ChaliceThe Chalice Information~

Publication Date: March 5, 2013
Touchstone Publishing/A Divison of Simon and Schuster
Hardcover; 512p
ISBN-10: 1476708657


We have one (1) print copy of the The Chalice to give to a lucky reader this week! Please leave a comment, with email (for notification purposes ONLY) , here or on my Facebook post, to enter! You may also email me to hookofabook@hotmail.com.

Please enter by 11:59 p.m. EST on March 26, 2013.  Open to the United States only and no P.O. boxes.

For an extra entry, please follow my blog and let me know!

Praise for The Chalice

“Rarely have the terrors of Henry VIII’s reformation been so exciting. Court intrigue, bloody executions, and haunting emotional entanglements create a heady brew of mystery and adventure that sweeps us from the devastation of the ransacked cloisters to the dangerous spy centers of London and the Low Countries, as ex-novice Joanna Stafford fights to save her way of life and fulfill an ancient prophecy, before everything she loves is destroyed.” – C.W. Gortner, author of The Queen’s Vow and The Tudor Secret

“The Chalice offers a fresh, dynamic look into Tudor England’s most powerful, volatile personalities: Henry VIII, the Duke of Norfolk, Stephen Gardiner and Bloody Mary Tudor. Heroine and former nun Joanna Stafford is beautiful, bold and in lethal danger. Bilyeau writes compellingly of people and places that demand your attention and don’t let you go even after the last exciting page.” – Karen Harper, author of Mistress of Mourning

“An exciting and satisfying novel of historical suspense that cements Nancy Bilyeau as one of the genre’s rising stars. The indominable Joanna Stafford is back with a cast of powerful and fascinating characters and a memorable story that is gripping while you are reading and haunting after you are done. Bravo! The Chalice is a fabulous read.” – M.J. Rose, author of The Reincarnationist

Nancy Bilyeau, Biography~

Nancy BilyeauNancy Bilyeau, author of critically acclaimed The Crown, is a writer and magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. Her latest position is features editor of Du Jour magazine. A native of the Midwest, she graduated from the University of Michigan. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children. For more information, please visit Nancy Bilyeau’s webiste at www.nancybilyeau.com


For more on The Chalice, including more reviews, interviews, guest posts, and giveaways click on link or banner! 
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The Cross and the Dragon by Kim Rendfeld: Legend turned Novel a Superb Middle Ages Tale

I’ve been interested in the Middle Ages since I was a little girl, fueled further by a middle and high school art teacher who had us crafting  castles, headdresses, and crests. I reveled in legends and fantastical stories of maidens, soldiers, castles, and dragons and had a love affair with King Arthur, Lady of the Lake, and even Robin Hood. It was all so romantic, mystical, and endearing….and even after taking a college course on the Middle Ages and learning the horrible conditions they endured, I still immensely enjoy reading and watching anything written about this time period.  In the past several years, there seems to have been a resurgence of stories written surrounding the Middle Ages with works such as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, but there is still room for more wonderful writers to really delve in to this rich time period.

Thoughts on The Cross and the Dragon~

9781611792270-CrossandDragon-small2I just finished reading The Cross and the Dragon, a debut historical novel by author Kim Rendfeld.  She quite amazingly takes the legend and the poem, Song of Roland, and crafts it into her own romantic tale with her own original outcome. Not only is her book phenomenally researched, it also shows a tremendous amount of thought and creativity, not to mention storytelling ability.  Though there is much historical detail, the reader is never impeded by it and her tale is smoothly weaved with a flow that dripped satisfying like honey melting on my tongue.

I read it almost in one sitting, during which I could not bear to put it down for fear I would fail Alda, her female protagonist, in her pursuits and that I’d lose the momentum of the exhilaration I was feeling of reading such a wonderful novel.  Yes, I loved it!! I was swept away into a glorious tale of a strong young woman and her man, who equally loved her as much during a time when men didn’t always love women as romantically as would be desired.

I felt happiness, romance, sadness, anger and then I was even overcome with tears toward the end.  I felt connected to Alda and her husband, Hruodland (or Roland), which means that Rendfeld wrote with superb character development.  Her supporting characters were just as endearing (and hated) and I loved how Hruodland and Alda’s family members understood Alda’s strength, will, and courage.

I also was encouraged to read between the lines with Rendfeld’s writing, mostly through her character of Ganelon–a former suitor of Alda’s who seeks revenge and has a blood feud with Hruodland–that common treatment in history that alluded to women being slaves to their husbands, without thought or independence (even beaten and raped), was abominable. I was extremely pleased that Rendfeld showed, through Hruodland, how men should love and respect a woman. I loved Rendfeld’s use of Alda as a brave, resilient, and educated woman able to make her own decisions based on her freewill.

Rendfeld shows us in her writing how politics could outweight and outmaneuver feelings during these decades, but shows us the emotional love affair between Alda and Hruodland as an example of how a relationship could properly overcome these bonds of culture and religion.  Of course as religion was a very distinct part of life in the Middle Ages (even to the point many battles were fought over it), Rendfeld was true to how their religion would facilitate their decisions and schedule their lives, emotions, and beliefs; however,  she also showed us how religious zealots could sometimes misinterpret the Scriptures to suit their own purposes or go to extreme measures for salvation. Alda was a character who fought against all norms.



Eight phases of The Song of Roland in one picture from Wikipedia

The Song of Roland is known as France’s oldest surviving piece of literature and is a poem of heroism stemming from the battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 in which Hruodland (Roland) was a commander of the rear guard of Charlemagne that was defeated by a Muslim army.  Historically, Hruodland died during this raid.  The tale of this battle was passed down as legend and propaganda over the years and was later romanticized into The Song of Roland in the 11th Century.  It’s the love story of Roland, and this poem where he is mentioned briefly, that propelled Rendfeld to turn this legend into a storytelling masterpiece of her own.

If you like strong female leads in history that are feisty, courageous, and bold in a time where women were used mostly as political pawns and child-bearing vessels, you’ll love this novel.  It’s more romantic legend than the common historical literature. Rendfeld’s smooth prose, character development, and tight detail really make this book elegant historical fantasy that could be passed down through the centuries with anyone wishing to tell a tale with a lute and harp in tow. Oh, I was lost in time…….in reality, certainly one that anyone would love to have in their collection.

Interview with Author Kim Rendfeld~



Kim Rendfeld is graciously giving away one (1) SIGNED print copy The Cross and the Dragon. With a beautiful cover and superb storytelling, this is a book you’ll want for your library. Open to United States residents only. Please leave a comment with your email (to contact winner) or email me to hookofabook(at)hotmail.com.

For an extra entry into the contest, you can follow my blog and let me know. The giveaway is open until 11:59 p.m. EST on March 2, 2013.

The Cross and the Dragon Synopsis~

9781611792270-CrossandDragon-small2A tale of love in an era of war and blood feuds.

Francia, 778: Alda has never forgotten Ganelon’s vow of vengeance when she married his rival, Hruodland. Yet the jilted suitor’s malice is nothing compared to Alda’s premonition of disaster for her beloved, battle-scarred husband.

Although the army invading Hispania is the largest ever and King Charles has never lost a war, Alda cannot shake her anxiety. Determined to keep Hruodland from harm, even if it exposes her to danger, Alda gives him a charmed dragon amulet.

 Is its magic enough to keep Alda’s worst fears from coming true—and protect her from Ganelon?

Inspired by legend and painstakingly researched, The Cross and the Dragon is a story of tenderness, sacrifice, lies, and revenge in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign, told by a fresh, new voice in historical fiction.

For Purchase~

The Cross and the Dragon, published by Fireship Press, is available in e-book (via Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and other readers) and in print from Amazon (U.S., Canada, U.K., and other countries) as well as Barnes & Noble.

 Kim Rendfeld, Biography~

KimBookPhotoSmallerKim Rendfeld has a lifelong fascination with fairy tales and legends, which set her on her quest to write The Cross and the Dragon.

She grew up in New Jersey and attended Indiana University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English, with a minor in French. If it weren’t for feminism, she would be one of those junior high English teachers scaring the bejesus out of her students, correcting grammar to the point of obnoxiousness. Instead, her career has been in journalism, public relations, and now fiction.

Kim was a journalist for almost twenty years at Indiana newspapers, including the Journal and Courier in Lafayette, The Muncie Star, and The News and Sun in Dunkirk, and she won several awards from the Hoosier State Press Association.

 Her career changed in 2007, when she joined the marketing and communications team at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. She gets paid to agonize over commas and hyphens, along with suggesting ways to improve writing, and thoroughly enjoys it. She is proud to have been part of projects that have received national recognition.

Kim lives in Indiana with her husband, Randy, and their spoiled cats.  They have a daughter and two granddaughters, with a third due in May 2013.

See more about Kim Rendfeld and her books at www.kimrendfeld.com.


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