Dead Winner, by Kevin G. Chapman

Rory McEntyre is a New York estate lawyer in a reputable firm: competent, hard-working, and single. One afternoon, his new clients turn out to be his old university friends Tom and Monica Williams, with an unusual request. They’ve won a share of one of New York’s mega-lotteries, and need his help to set up a trust to smokescreen their good fortune. Rory, who still pines for Monica but thinks that the better man won her heart and hand, obliges. But then Tom dies, apparently by his own hand, and the grieving and confused widow needs Rory’s help and support in every step of negotiating the labyrinth of complex investigations and revelations resulting from Tom’s suicide.


Dead Winner is a pacy, twisty comedy-thriller. At least, I hope it was supposed to be a comedy-thriller. That’s how I read it, and that’s how I’m reviewing it. Without spoilers, let me say I read it that way because the plot was obvious to me from the first chapters, and my enjoyment was in watching Rory getting deeper and deeper into something that wasn’t going to end well for him.


Side characters added to my chuckles. The executive assistant who was an Olympic judo contestant uses those skills in a scene reminiscent of Emma Peel in her leathers. The head of security who has ‘muscle envy’ on seeing the build of the (of course) probably-Russian hitman. Each character fit their role – harried and overworked detectives, ex-cop security, cold and efficient head of the investment firm for which Tom had worked – perfectly, instantly recognizable, taking their places in the unfolding events like the stock characters of a Christmas pantomime. As in a pantomime, there were many places when I wanted to figuratively shout ‘look behind you!’ at Rory – but then again, that would have spoiled the fun.


Recommended, but not – at least for me – to be taken seriously.


Reviewed for Coffee and Thorn Book Tours.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Chapman is an attorney specializing in labor and employment law.  His passion (aside from playing tournament poker and rooting for his beloved New York Mets) is writing fiction. He recently completed the first five books in his multi-award winning Mike Stoneman Thriller series.

Kevin writes: “The process of writing crime thrillers involves hours of thinking about and talking about how to kill people. And how to get away with it. It also involves figuring out how my protagonist detectives might solve the case. But mostly it’s about planning out ingenious ways to murder people. My wife is a willing participant in this process (so she must trust me). My current book is more of a mystery, and a little bit of a tragic romance. But all the stories are about the characters. If you don’t care about them, then I’m not doing my job.”

TO CONTACT THE AUTHOR

Kevin G Chapman welcomes communication from his readers – including comments, ideas, disagreements and critiques. He can be contacted via any of the links below:

Author website: https://kevingchapman.com/

The Mike Stoneman Thriller Group on Facebook

Email him at kevin[at]kevingchapman[dot]com

He is also on Twitter (@KGChapman)

WHAT THREE THINGS?

By Helen Hollick

Hello Marian, thank you for inviting me onto your blog. You asked me to tell you and your readers about the books I write. Where to start!

I used to write straight historical fiction: my first Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy was about King Arthur with a setting in Roman Britain in the 5th to 6th centuries. These were originally published back in the early 1990s – so I’ve been writing for a lo-o-ong while now! My intention for the trilogy was to strip away all the myth and magic of then Medieval Christian-based tales and write the books as ‘what might have happened’. Not for me the familiar ‘love triangle’, there is no Lancelot in my story, no Holy Grail, no Merlin either. I saw Arthur as an ambitious but capable war lord, Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) as an equally capable woman. They love each other but are two people with intelligent minds – and firm ideas which often clash. I used the earlier Welsh legends, which are far more interesting and very different from the later Medieval tales.

Following these, I moved to the 11th century and the events that led to the Battle Of Hastings in 1066. I am a firm supporter of King Harold II, so this story is written from the English point of view – stripped of all the Norman propaganda. The other book is the story of Emma of Normandy – Queen Emma of Anglo-Saxon England. She was married to Æthelred the Unready and then to King Cnut. One of her sons was Edward the Confessor, so a prequel story to the people involved in the subsequent Norman Conquest of England.

I turned to crime during the months of lockdown – fictionally, that is. I branched out into writing cozy mysteries. My Jan Christopher Series are quick read novellas set in the 1970s against the background of my years of working as a library assistant – with the twist of a murder mystery included. There are two in the series published so far, I plan more!

My favourites, however, are the Sea Witch Voyages. I wrote the first, Sea Witch back in 2005/6 when I wanted to read something as good as the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie – but for adults (with some adult content, some adult scenes and language, and some violence.) I couldn’t find what I wanted to read so I wrote it myself. I have just published the sixth in the series, Gallows Wake, with a short read novella prequel, When The Mermaid Sings as a bonus read.

So, three things that I care passionately about in my writing?

1) My Characters. I fell hopelessly in love with ‘my’ Arthur, mind you, I was in that man’s mind for more than ten years (it took me that long to write what eventually became The Kingmaking and half of Pendragon’s Banner!) I am even more in love with my pirate (well, ex-pirate now,) Captain Jesamiah Acorne.  Funnily enough, I did notice, a while ago, when looking through bits of The Kingmaking, just how alike Arthur and Jesamiah are! They are both rough, tough guys. Both formidable when angry, but quick to laugh, both determined, both loyal in their own way – both would willingly die for the woman they love, even though tempers often flare between them. Honour is important for both of them – although both are also ruthless when needs must. They both have a solid, reliable friend and I wanted to portray them both as men who cared, who hurt when their hearts were broken and who drowned their sorrows …

2) I care about creating a feeling of believability. ‘Harold’ and ‘Emma’ both had a lot of historical fact to base the outline of the stories on: history tells us that this, this and this happened, and when and where it happened. The novelist has to decide (OK, make up) the whys and hows. For ‘Arthur’ there is nothing to go on – let’s face the truth, King Arthur did not exist (although he might have been an amalgamation of several notable post-Roman war lords.) So for the ‘facts’ I researched post-Roman Britain and used what little we do know as the basis for my trilogy. I also extensively used my knowledge of horses.

For ‘Jesamiah’ some of the elements in the Voyages are supernatural or fantasy – the love of Jesamiah’s life is Tiola, a White Witch, a Wise Woman of Craft. To balance the ‘made-up’ bits I was as careful as I could be to get the ‘real’ bits right, in particular the sailing scenes aboard Sea Witch. I also used quite a bit of factual history from the early 1700s – although some I did ‘bend’ a little to suit my timeline (but I mention what I changed in my author’s notes.) I have absolutely no knowledge of sailing Tall Ships, though. Fortunately there are a lot of good books to use for research and I have a wonderful friend in the author James L. Nelson who checks my sailing scenes for me – and doesn’t laugh too loudly at my bloopers!

3) I suppose my third passion is for writing the book I want to read. ‘Arthur’ I wrote because I have never liked the later Medieval tales. I could never see Arthur as the sort of king who would go off and leave his country for years (although Richard I, did). Nor could I see Gwenhwyfar as being so stupid as to have an affair with Lancelot (who, actually, I didn’t like anyway.) The familiar tales, I believe, were written as propaganda to get men to go off on Crusade, and to justify Richard I, the Lionheart’s obsessions.

‘Harold’ and ‘Emma’, were the same, I wanted to write their stories as they ought to have been written. As for Jesamiah, well, he’s entirely made up, but as I said earlier, I wanted to immerse myself in a swashbuckling, enjoyable and engrossing adult nautical adventure … I didn’t expect that first Voyage, however, to turn out to be such a successful series!

Choose an excerpt or two to illustrates one of your three topics.

1a. From The Kingmaking

With a short, exasperated sigh, Cei strode over to the drunkard. As he was about to shake the man’s shoulder, he broke into a chuckle. Ah no, the poor tavern keeper could not give this one to the street.

Roused by Cei’s persistent nudging, Arthur staggered unsteadily to his feet.

It was only a short journey to the palace but, hampered as he was by the almost dead weight of his companion, it took Cei a while to reach their assigned rooms, where, laughing, he waved Arthur’s sleepy servant aside. “Go back to your bed, I shall tend your master.” He seated Arthur on the bed and pulled off his boots. “An enjoyable evening, I assume. Trust you to spoil it by getting yourself over full of wine.”

1b. Excerpt from Sea Witch, the first Voyage

Waking several hours into the fore noon to a thundering headache, Jesamiah staggered to his feet. He tottered to the  door, peered out, squinting at the brightness of the morning sun.

Rue stepped forward offering a pewter tankard. “Drink this.”

Hesitant, Jesamiah took it wrinkled his nose at the foul looking liquid. “What is it?”

“Old French recipe. Brandy, ground garlic with ’alf a pint of ale. Deux œufs – fresh-laid is that cackle fruit – a pinch of gunpowder and melted pork lard.”

Jesamiah sniffed again at the concoction. He poked a finger into it and picked out a piece of floating egg shell. “I don’t care for raw eggs.”

“Just drink it.”

Doubtful, Jesamiah raised it to his mouth. Changing his mind, offered it back.  “Later perhaps.”

“Écoute mon gars,”  Rue said finally losing patience. “Look, my friend, you lead us like the brilliant captain you are or we leave you ’ere in this God-forgotten emptiness, with as many bottles of rum as you please.”

Jesamiah looked from Rue to the tankard. Hesitant, he raised it to his lips. “It smells foul.”

The fouler the medicine, the quicker the cure, or so ma mere used to say.”

“What was she? The village poisoner?”

Both these scenes get across to the reader that the men have good, reliable friends, and that broken hearts can be dulled by drink, but not mended. The mending, of course, comes later in the stories!

THE VOYAGES

SEA WITCH   Voyage one

PIRATE CODE  Voyage two

BRING IT CLOSE  Voyage three

RIPPLES IN THE SAND  Voyage four

ON THE ACCOUNT  Voyage five

WHEN THE MERMAID SINGS  A prequel to the series

(short-read novella)

And just published…

GALLOWS WAKE

The Sixth Voyage of Captain Jesamiah Acorne

By Helen Hollick

Where the Past haunts the future…

Damage to her mast means Sea Witch has to be repaired, but the nearest shipyard is at Gibraltar. Unfortunately for Captain Jesamiah Acorne, several men he does not want to meet are also there, among them, Captain Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy, who would rather see Jesamiah hang.

Then there is the spy, Richie Tearle, and manipulative Ascham Doone who has dubious plans of his own. Plans that involve Jesamiah, who, beyond unravelling the puzzle of a dead person who may not be dead, has a priority concern regarding the wellbeing of his pregnant wife, the white witch, Tiola.

Forced to sail to England without Jesamiah, Tiola must keep herself and others close to her safe, but memories of the past, and the shadow of the gallows haunt her. Dreams disturb her, like a discordant lament at a wake.

But is this the past calling, or the future?

From the first review of Gallows Wake:

“Hollick’s writing is crisp and clear, and her ear for dialogue and ability to reveal character in a few brief sentences is enviable. While several of the characters in Gallows Wake have returned from previous books, I felt no need to have read those books to understand them. The paranormal side of the story—Tiola is a white witch, with powers of precognition and more, and one of the characters is not quite human—blends with the story beautifully, handled so matter-of-factly. This is simply Jesamiah’s reality, and he accepts it, as does the reader.”

Author Marian L. Thorpe.

BUY LINKS:

Amazon Author Page (Universal link)https://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick

Where you will find the entire series waiting at anchor in your nearest Amazon harbour – do come aboard and share Jesamiah’s derring-do nautical adventures!

(available Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in paperback)

Or order a paperback copy from your local bookstore!

ABOUT HELEN HOLLICK

First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She is now also branching out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant.

Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She lives with her family in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon and occasionally gets time to write…

Website: www.helenhollick.net

Newsletter Subscription: http://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick

Blog: www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/HelenHollick Twitter: @HelenHollick https://twitter.com/HelenHollick

Robert of Gloucester

Royal bastard, powerful magnate, capable commander – King Stephen’s man?


By Cathie Dunn

What if…Robert of Gloucester had not supported his half-sister, the Empress Matilda?
Would the mid-12 th century civil war that ravaged much of England, and Normandy by
association, have happened at all?


A Race against Time, my short story in the wonderful anthology, Alternate Endings,
published through the Historical Writers Forum, is set just before the period now widely
known as The Anarchy. It begins on December 1st , 1135, with the death of King Henry I at
his hunting lodge at Lyons-la-Forêt in Normandy.


Henry’s illness appeared quite suddenly, made worse by a meal of lamprey eels, apparently,
that didn’t do his constitution any good, and it didn’t give his administrators enough time to
consider the serious matter of a successor. Henry refused any discussions on the subject.
So the status quo remained that, as designated heiress, Matilda, Countess of Anjou and
former Holy Roman Empress, was considered Henry’s heir as his only surviving legitimate
child. But she was, of course, a woman, and one married to a rather unpopular and ambitious
young noble, Geoffrey of Anjou. It didn’t help matters that Henry had been quarrelling with
the couple before his untimely death. In short, the situation was a mess.


In A Race against Time, Robert of Gloucester, illegitimate eldest son of King Henry I, seeks
to scupper Stephen of Blois’ rushed accession to the English throne (and you’ll have to read
the story to find out what happened!), but what if Robert had stayed on at Stephen’s side, for
good?


After all, with Hugh Bigod claiming that Henry had released the barons from their oath of
fealty to Matilda on his deathbed, he opened the door for an alternative candidate – one more
suited to the responsibilities of kingship than a mere woman. It was a view that was shared
widely amongst the English nobles. Very few were surprised when Stephen – Matilda’s
cousin through his mother’s side – made a dash to Westminster and had himself crowned
with unseemly haste. Very likely, they approved of his ’decisive’ action.

The effigy of Robert of Gloucester’s tomb by: George Hollis, The Monumental Effigies of Great Britain, Public Domain.


As did Robert of Gloucester at the time, it would appear. Early on, the Empress’ older half-brother, a highly valued commander and astute politician, pledged his allegiance to Stephen. But by 1138, he’d seen enough, and was easily persuaded to pursue his sister’s claim to the
throne.


There were rumours of a strong dislike between the two men, and that Robert did not hide his disappointment in the new king. But how could Stephen have kept this man, whose sweeping lands in the west country stretched into south Wales, on his side?


With Robert covering his back, Stephen could have pacified the squabbling nobles. They’d have toed the line rather than challenge him and doing pretty much what they wanted. Perhaps Robert could even have kept Stephen’s brother Henry, Archbishop of Winchester, from scheming. He’d have had a task at hand to convince Matilda’s supporters to give up any hopes of her becoming queen, but they would likely have heeded his guidance.

But how could Stephen have ‘bribed’ this man who did not seek the highest power, who was no backstabbing traitor? Perhaps if Robert had been granted a position of high power, and in particular support against his enemies in the ranks of the barons, he may have stayed. If Stephen had been less dithering, less of a ‘good guy’, but come down harsh on the troublemakers, Robert would have supported him. If Stephen had been a decisive king, hard but fair, a medieval ruler not relying on his popularity amongst the peers, and if he’d not given in to their increasing demands. If…


Without Robert, Matilda’s chances would have been close to nil. She had friends, barons in
the west and south-west of England. But with her husband’s focus on reining in the small
uprisings in Normandy, she wouldn’t have had the influence or the manpower to stage an
attempt at claiming her throne. Without Robert, she’d never have made it to England. Perhaps
as a visitor, but never as a potential queen in her own right.


This would have also meant England and Normandy remaining divided – England firmly in
Stephen’s hand and Normandy in Matilda’s and Geoffrey’s. Normandy was her true home,
but her husband’s campaigns to consolidate his power and defend Normandy against raids
from the French may have counted for nothing without the backing of powerful magnates
such as Robert. A small duchy with a large, greedy kingdom on its doorstep, snapping at its
heel.


Matilda may have lost everything.


And Robert? Well, he’d have been in a high position of power, possibly responsible for
defence of the kingdom, or even for the upbringing of Stephen’s son, Eustace. Perhaps the
boy may have turned out a nicer character than he so clearly was. And maybe, then, he’d
have survived his father…


The balance of power would have shifted, had Robert of Gloucester remained at Stephen’s
court and in the king’s favour. The good folk of England wouldn’t have seen nearly two
decades of fighting, particularly across the south and west. There wouldn’t have been all the
burnt crops and destroyed fields and castles. And there wouldn’t have been all that needless
bloodshed.


But then, Robert of Gloucester was a man of principle, of loyalty and honour. Any personal
ambition of his never made him aim for top job itself, as he knew it to be wrong. Times had
changed. Also, it would appear, he didn’t suffer fools gladly, in that he preferred to see his
headstrong sister accede to the throne of England, rather than malleable, indecisive Stephen.
He gave the man the benefit of a doubt early on, and then chose his side, never again
wavering in his support for Matilda.


It is, perhaps, for those reasons that Robert, earl of Gloucester, is my favourite historical
character. And I dare say, he’d have made a fine King of England, even if he was born on the
wrong side of the blanket…


A Race Against Time, my short story in Alternate Endings


The King is dead. Long live the…Queen?

A Race against Time begins with the news of the death of Henry I, King of England and
Duke of Normandy. His illegitimate son, Robert, earl of Gloucester, has expected the news.
Like the other lords, he has sworn allegiance to his half-sister, Matilda, Henry I’s only
legitimate heir. But she is a woman!


When word reaches him that their cousin, Stephen of Blois, is on his way to London to seize
the throne, Robert and his fellow lords must decide how to proceed, fast.
Should they put a woman on the throne, after all, in her own right and with an ambitious
husband no one can control? Or is there perhaps another contender?

International buy link for Alternate Endings: https://mybook.to/AltEnd


About Cathie Dunn:

Cathie Dunn writes historical fiction, mystery, and romance. The focus of her current historical fiction projects is on strong women through time.


For many years, Cathie has been intrigued by the period in English history now known as The Anarchy, the mid-12th century civil war that affected England and Normandy. Although her current novel writing projects are set in other eras, she is planning to return to The Anarchy soon again, with a sequel to her romantic murder mystery, Dark Deceit.


In her spare time, Cathie loves to explore castles and ruins, allowing her to get ‘in the zone’ with her historical characters, fictional or real. She currently lives in the south of France with her husband and two rescue pets.


Website: https://www.cathiedunn.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/cathiedunn
Review Blog: https://ruinsandreading.blogspot.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CathieDunnAuthor
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/cathiedunn

Writing for Effect

A Dialogue with Eva Seyler

Eva Seyler is the author of four historical novels or novellas. Here, we discuss how she weaves emotion and reaction into her books, while maintaining a simple style.


Eva:

“Writing for effect”, in my books, is all about the characters.

Snogging 

I’m notorious for writing gratuitous snogfests that (often) don’t make it into the finished projects (for example, there’s an extremely un-kid-friendly RageSex scene that did not make it into The Summer I Found Home because it’s designed to be appropriate for kids). 

The scenes that do make the cut have to meet a few criteria: they need to signify something about the characters’ development, and they need to be focused on emotions rather than mere physicality. The goal is for what I don’t say, what is left to be read between the lines, to be as punchy as what I do say.

His voice caught as he wove his fingers into my hair and searched my eyes. “I am abominably drunk but I will show you things…” 

He bent close, his mouth exploring my throat and shoulders and breasts. His restless, certain fingertips called forth blissful whimpers from deep within me. Clothing shed, skin on skin, fingers of one of his hands interlacing with mine while the other hand like a magician’s called forth sense and life I hadn’t known existed. His mouth on mine, tasting of brandy and cigarettes and heaven, layer upon layer of feeling, sinking—drowning, but never dying, curiously alive, singing strings within. He was intense and he was focused and he knew what he was doing. 

Marian’s reaction:

My sense here is that the narrator is inexperienced, if not virginal: ‘sense and life I hadn’t known existed’. Perhaps she’s taking a risky step here?  And that the man is experienced, and both cultured and perhaps a little disreputable: – ‘abominably drunk’ – not the language of an uneducated man; the brandy also suggests this.  How far off am I?

Eva:

Right on every count. She’s been married before, but the husband was, shall we say, unimaginative at best—and it is a risk because this man is her best friend’s husband. (This snippet is from Ripples, the companion novella to The War in Our Hearts.)

Snappy dialogue 

Louise and George’s banter in The Summer I Found Home and its sequels has segued into an experiment: trying a brand-new (for me) style of dialogue that is intended to evoke the frenetic energy of 1930s-40s screwball comedy. I’m trying to perfect this for a WIP that’s third down the release pipeline: basically, using as few dialogue tags as possible, but still making it clear who’s speaking. 

Just one example of many from the WIP in question:

“I mean, friendship is wonderful. Everything is more fun with a friend. But imagine having, say, me for a friend, Miss Shipton.”

“I wasn’t aware we were friends. Anyway, I’m home now, you needn’t linger—”

“We could be. Friends, that is. Not home. We could be that too. I mean. Together.”

“Are you this eloquent and seductive with all your lady friends?”

“Oh no. Much more with them.” 

“You flatter me.”

“You hoover all the panache right out of me.”

“How romantic.”

“As I said.”

“Will you stop leaning in that impertinent way?”

He was too close, his forehead nearly touching hers. “What kind of person do you want to marry, Miss Shipton?” 

Marian’s reaction:

The short and sometimes interrupted sentences are very effective here, and it’s easy to follow who’s speaking by the inclusion of ‘Miss Shipton’ and/or ‘lady friends’. And then at the end the tone changes to more serious, simply by the dialogue becoming slower and a full sentence, and, the inclusion of an action tag prior to the dialogue. Was that your intent?

Eva:

I’m not sure I thought it out that thoroughly, but it’s true!

Simplicity 

Another strong aspect of my style is staying sharply on point. I don’t write flowery descriptions of scenery or events. I’m not against such things, by any means—it’s just not something that comes naturally. This Great Wilderness, at over 90,000 words, is incredibly long for me. Usually my books (including my two earliest, experimental novels) run considerably shorter. The Summer I Found Home is only around 62,000 words. 

I attribute this to focusing on character development and the specific events that drive that development. 

As with my snogfests and sex scenes, setting descriptions must enhance character development. Here’s an example from This Great Wilderness that encapsulates the scenery in a few short paragraphs, and the description is directly related to the state of Leni’s mind. 

The scenery is stark and incredible. There is the brown, desert-like landscape going one direction, like what the American West always looked like in the cowboy pictures we sometimes sneaked out to see when I was little. 

But face the other direction, and it is saw-toothed mountains, and snow, and ice, and vast lake. 

Two worlds. The desert is my life with Mauritz. The mountains are my life now. Both of them are terrifying to me, and the solitude is immense.

Marian’s reaction:

I’m sure this has a formal definition in writing (it’s not quite pathetic fallacy), but I couldn’t find one – the landscape reflecting the emotions of the narrator. It’s one I use a lot myself. I particularly like the starkness and simplicity of the contrast here between the desert and the mountains, and the threatening aspect of the mountains: ‘saw-toothed’ and cold. But the lake – water is usually a symbol of life and renewal – modifies that. Was that your intent, to suggest to the reader that there is hope for Leni In this new environment?

Eva:

I had not thought of the water aspect! At least not consciously, but that’s an absolutely legit interpretation, and it’s true that the wilderness does bring her back to life.


Eva’s contact information is at https://linktr.ee/theevaseyler  Find out more about her and her books at https://www.evaseyler.com/

September’s Books

OK, it’s a little late…but here’s a roundup of books I read/listened to in September, along with some I’ll be starting soon, with some brief thoughts on each.

The Lion of Skye, by J.T.T. Ryder.  The sequel to his debut Hag of the Hills, set in iron-age Skye in a world where myth and legend walk with humans, for those with eyes to see. Fast paced, sometimes bloody, and definitely not a 21st C worldview. Full review here.


Gallows Wake, by Helen Hollick. The sixth book in the Captain Jesamiah Acorne series: piracy with a touch of the paranormal. Expert writing, engaging characters, a solid plot, and no need to have read the first five. Full review here.


Something to Hide: A Lynley Novel by Elizabeth George. The 21st Lynley novel; competent, twisty, the plot focused on FGM among Nigerian and Somali communities in London. Readable, but overall it felt tired, as if the author is putting her characters through their paces reluctantly.


The Wind in His Heart by Charles de Lint. I’ve been a huge de Lint fan for many many years; this one, set well away from his usual fictional city of Newford, had some interesting elements, but overall was too similar in theme and some aspects of plot with others he’s written, even if the mythology was primarily Native American and not Celtic. Enjoyable, but not his best.


A Prayer for the Crown-Shy: Monk & Robot Book II, by Becky Chambers (audiobook). Along with the first book in the series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, hands down the most delightful, hopeful, and subtly thought-provoking novellas I’ve read in a very long time. Highly recommended for those tired of dystopias (and perhaps real life).


Begun but not yet finished (NOT DNFs)

The Welsh Dragon, by K.M Butler. A historical novel about Henry Tudor, focusing on the years before he defeated the Lancastrian forces at Bosworth, ending the Cousins’ War (The Wars of the Roses) and taking the throne as Henry VII. So far, I’m thoroughly enjoying it; review to come.


Fairy Tale, by Stephen King. (audiobook).  I have a long way to go in this…like most of King’s books, it’s not short. Reserving my opinion for now, because this is a book with two distinct parts, and I’ve only just begun the second story. 


Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, a collection of essays by the late Barry Lopez. Like authors Annie Dillard and Robert MacFarlane, Lopez’s nature writing goes far beyond a set of empirical observations. I’m only not finished because I’m pacing myself, giving myself time to think about what he’s saying about human societies, the importance of place and belonging, and our relationship with the rest of the planet.

Although there are one or two statements among all the gems that don’t ring true, overall, a thought-provoking and sometimes lyrical book.


In the Queue:

Singing for Our Supper: Walking an English Songline from Kent to Cornwall, by W.R. Parsons. I’ve been following Will Parsons on his modern pilgrimages around the UK for some years, via Facebook, Twitter and his website. Walking in Britain has been both a place of peace and a source – the source, probably – for my novels, and my own walk across England, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, a highlight of my life.  I, however, can’t sing a note. I am very much looking forward to this book.


The Last of the Atalanteans (The Drowned Kingdom Saga, Book II) by P.L. Stuart. The second book in Stuart’s magnificently imagined world, with that hardest of protagonists to do well (and Stuart does) – an unlikeable one. Will Othrun’s hubris and ambition lead him to glory or to the ashes of his dreams? I’ll find out soon.

Gallows Wake, by Helen Hollick

Gallows Wake is the first of Helen Hollick’s Captain Jesamiah Acorne books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Nor was it necessary to have read the previous books to thoroughly enjoy this one; Hollick expertly weaves enough backstory into the narrative to explain what’s happening without taking away from the focus and momentum of the story.

Forced to put into a shipyard in Gibraltar for necessary repairs to his ship, Acorne finds himself in danger from several sides. Both his distant and immediate past are catching up to him—and his wife Tiola, pregnant with their first child. With a brood of children saved from capture to take care of, both Jesamiah and Tiola have their hands full. But Tiola has her own past to reckon with, and she too is in danger, especially after her return to England without Jesamiah.

Hollick’s writing is crisp and clear, and her ear for dialogue and ability to reveal character in a few brief sentences is enviable. While several of the characters in Gallows Wake have returned from previous books, again, I felt no need to have read those books to understand them. The paranormal side of the story—Tiola is a white witch, with powers of precognition and more, and one of the characters is not quite human—blends with the story beautifully, handled so matter-of-factly. This is simply Jesamiah’s reality, and he accepts it, as does the reader.

I’m not a student of sailing ships, but the scenes on board ship felt authentic. The author’s nod to a classic story of the West Country amused me, but also helped set the mood and landscape. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and I hope there are more to come!

Pre-order Gallows Wake on Amazon.

Empress & Soldier

A boy of the night-time streets; a girl of libraries and learning.

Druisius, the son of a merchant, is sixteen when an order from his father that he can neither forgive nor forget drives him from home and into the danger and intrigue of the military.

Eudekia, a scholar’s daughter, educated and dutiful, is not meant to be a prince’s bride. In a empire at war, and in a city beset by famine and unrest, she must prove herself worthy of its throne.

A decade after a first, brief meeting, their lives intersect again. When a delegation arrives from the lost West, asking Eudekia for sanctuary for a princess and support for a desperate war, Druisius is assigned to guard them. In the span of a few weeks, a young captain will capture the hearts of both Empress and soldier in very different ways, offering a future neither could have foreseen.

A stand-alone novel that can also serve as a second entry point into the Empire series. No previous knowledge of my fictional world is needed.

Electronic ARCs available after November 15, 2022. Email request to arboretumpress (at) gmail.com

Siege

by Alistair Tosh
Edge of Empire: Book I

Edge of Empire – and the edge of my seat. I had the privilege of reading Siege during its development, and I loved every page – and that’s saying something, because books that focus on battles don’t usually hold my interest. Yet this one did, because of the humanity of the characters that are involved in the fighting.  Here’s its author, to tell us more about the history behind this spectacular debut novel.

 
The ancient battle of Burnswark
A guest post by Alistair Tosh


 Walter Baxter. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Burnswark Iron Age hillfort, near Lockerbie in the southwest of Scotland, is a unique site.

In part because of its isolated location and suitability only as pastureland, the archaeology below its turf has remained largely intact. It is a beautiful place, overlooking the silver waters of the Solway Firth and the fells of the English Lake District beyond and the heather-covered mountain of Criffel dominating the Scottish side.

It is a changeable location. When standing on its distinct flat-top summit, one moment you can be in brilliant sunshine with a cooling breeze, enjoying the 360 degree views. The next instant a hard wind blows in off the Irish Sea, cloudcover lowers, shrouding all before you. It is then that the hill takes on a more forbidding character.

I visited it many times in my childhood, often cycling there with friends during the long summer holidays. I saw the mounds of the Three Brethren, that my school history teacher told me had been platforms for Roman ballistas. But it was not until I started research for my first book ‘Siege’ that I truly began to understand the site and the ferocious battle that had taken place on its ramparts between the legions and the local tribe. 

The hill is held in a vice-like grip by two siege forts. The one to the north is unusually elongated, clearly designed to prevent the escape of the defenders as final defeat beckoned. To the south the true siege fort, or more accurately assault fort, lies hard against the hill’s base, only a mere 130 metres from the hillfort’s main entrances. Three huge gateways, ten men wide, cut through its deep north facing ditches to enable rapid deployment of troops.

The three ballista platforms sit to the fore of each of the gateways. Fist sized, carved stone balls have been found on the hillforts summit. This ammunition was not designed to shatter walls, but rather to shatter bodies. Metal detectors identified and aided recovery of hundreds of lead sling ‘bullets’, lemon shaped and heavy. Under test conditions it was established that they had roughly the same kinetic energy as a modern handgun.

A second and unique type of sling ball was uncovered. This one was smaller and capable of being slung in groups of 3 or 4, like an early form of grapeshot. But what was most startling was the 5mm holes drilled in its side. When ‘fired’ it emitted a sound like an angry wasp. You can imagine the racket that a barrage of these, shot by experts, would make. Certainly an early form of psychological warfare akin to the terrifying effect inspired by the screaming of diving Ju-87 Stukas during the Blitzkrieg in early World War II.

Additionally multiple arrowheads were located, of the type used by the renowned archers of the Hamian auxiliary regiments, from modern day Syria. This topped off by the finding of several scorpion bolts. A century of a legion had one or two allocated to them and  when fired by practised hands were both accurate and devastating, especially on unarmoured bodies.

It is hard not to pity the warriors of the local tribe, possibly the Novantae, who had gathered on its summit. Exposed and forced to take cover, faces pressed into the earth as they were assailed by wave after wave of thousands of missiles, their screams of fear and agony filling the air, accompanied by the sound of a swarm of angry wasps.

Finally, when the Roman commander, possibly the veteran Quintus Lollius Urbicus fresh from the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea, was satisfied, he would have sent in his legions, through the three 10-man wide gates, in testudo formation. In the battle’s aftermath, it is hard to imagine there were any survivors left for the slave markets.

                                                                         
 
 Alistair grew up in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of southern Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Thorthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his visits as a boy to the site of Burnswark hill and hearing the tale of the Roman siege of the Iron Age fort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire took root.

On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career. Firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.

Fifteen Memorable Books of 2021

In no order, here are the fifteen books out of all I’ve read this year that have truly stuck in my mind, one way or another.

Fiction

Karen Heenan:  A Wider World. Tudor historical fiction, but not about the royals. A nuanced portrait of a man caught up in the politics and intrigues of the Tudor Court.

Gregory Norminton. The Devil’s Highway. One landscape. Past, present, future. Spare and challenging.

Jonathan Nevair:  The Wind Tide trilogy.  Space opera at its finest: three interconnected books, with underlying ancient themes of ethics and morality and belonging.

Julie Bozza: Writ in Blood. A retelling of the story of the Earps, Doc Holliday, and Johnny Ringo – but above all about loneliness, love and acceptance.

Laury Silvers:  The Jealous.  The second of Silvers’ trilogy of Sufi mysteries, this – and the first (The Lover) as well – brought 12th C Baghdad, and the lives of working men and women, alive.

Anne Louise Avery:  Reynard the Fox.  Beautifully written retelling of the medieval western European story cycle.

Non-fiction read for pleasure:

Helen MacDonald, Vesper Flights. A collection of observational and philosophical essays on nature, with an underlying sense of both wonder and sorrow.

Charles Foster, The Screaming Sky.  Science and philosophy, once again, this time centred around swifts and their place in the world – and what the way we see them says about us.

Tom Chivers: London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City. Investigations into the lost landscapes of London. Layers of history and ecology and meaning. An urban, non-fiction companion to The Devil’s Highway.

Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris:  The Lost Spells. Beautifully illustrated collection of – poems? incantations? – about the natural world.

Non-fiction read for research and pleasure:

Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry: The Bright Ages:  A New History of Medieval Europe. A survey of early-medieval Europe, discussing change, connection, and continuity, and the contributions of often historically marginalized individuals and events.

Guy de la Bédoyère:  Praetorian, Gladius, and Domina.  All three books have been highly readable yet still scholarly works informing me about the Praetorian guard, the Roman army, and the women who helped shape Rome and Roman politics.

L.J. Trafford: Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome.  How could I not include this?  Both funny and informative, it’s a great resource for writers looking to accurately reflect Roman attitudes, or for anyone who just wants to know what Cicero had to say about sex.

Spotlight on Aaron Hodges and Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens

I’m pleased to be shining a spotlight on Aaron Hodges today, with an exciting new book – but not just a book! Aaron’s new release, Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens, is linked to an MMO game, also called Untamed Isles, releasing soon.

On a still and peaceful night, the world shook, and light split the sky asunder.

The seas parted, an island rose.

And beneath the earth, an ancient power stirred.

Zachary Sicario thought he’d finally turned his back on the underworld. For ten years he was content with his cottage in the highlands of Riogachd. But a master thief never truly retires. When Zach is struck down by a wasting illness, he is left with two options: accept his fate, or return to his criminal past in search of a cure.

It isn’t a difficult decision.

With rumours of a mysterious island circulating the kingdom, Zach goes in search of old contacts. They speak of strange lights and disappearing ships, of treasure and riches promised for the first to reach its distant shores. Zach has little interest in trinkets—but there’s another tale, one that whispers of the power to change a man’s fate.

With a secret expedition departing in the coming days, Zach decides to roll the dice. But he’s not the only one interested in magic. His competition are warriors and thieves, noblemen and assassins, all in their prime. And Zach is far from the man he once was.

Can a master thief beat the odds one more time?

Here’s an excerpt from Untamed Isle: The Path Awakens

The deck rocked beneath Garret’s feet as the ship rose on a swell, then plunged back down. Water crashed over the stern as men screamed, helpless before the storm’s wrath. Garret clung to the tiller as lightning flashed, darkness giving way momentarily to a brilliant light. Sailors stumbled in its glow, grasping at ropes and loose cargo, anything that might save them from an icy plunge.
Another surge broke across the hull and swept the deck, collecting broken rigging and men alike in its wake. Garret watched, helpless, as his people were dragged through the broken gunwales and disappeared into the dark waters of the Northern Sea.
Silhouettes of their desperate faces danced before Garret’s eyes as the lightning faded, returning the ship to darkness. And still the ocean roared, still the thunder boomed, still the men screamed.
The storm had come upon them suddenly, appearing on the distant horizon and surging across the Northern Sea, turning calm waters to whitecapped waves before they could flee. The rains had struck first, drenching every soul aboard the Blackbird. It hadn’t been long before the winds followed, carrying such power that their sails had lasted only heartbeats before they had torn loose. The waves had arrived last, crashing upon the hull of the Blackbird, smashing oars from sailors’ hands and hurling men from their feet.
Now, caught in the grips of the storm, there was nothing the crew of the Blackbird could do but cling to their ropes and pray to the Old Gods of Riogachd for salvation.
And yet Garret struggled on, hands locked to the tiller, desperate to see his crew to safety. Above, the remnants of the sails still flapped from the mast, gifting the Blackbird just enough momentum for him to steer. Miles from shore, there would be no escaping to a shallow cove, no safe birth in which to shelter. Instead, Garret watched the darkness, seeking the next rolling behemoth.
And again and again, he directed their ship into the maw of those beasts, sending the Blackbird climbing over the great mountains of water. His arms ached and the icy air burned his lungs, but still he fought, struggling to save those he could—even as he washed yet another loyal sailor washed to their doom.
He stumbled as the ship crashed down from the crest of another wave. Spray whipped across his face, stinging like a thousand tiny lead bullets. Garret gritted his teeth as the boom of lightning illuminated the next wave. It rolled towards them, white waters breaking at the peak, threatening to come crashing down upon the fragile vessel.
The Blackbird rocked as Garret through himself against the tiller, and slowly, ponderously, they turned towards the mass of water. Holding them steady, Garret closed his eyes, sucking in fresh lungfuls of air. This was it, the end of his strength. The icy power of the storm had drained his energies, leaving him empty, listless, all but spent. How much longer must be hold on, pitting wit alone against the endless fury of the ocean?


You can download the first six chapters of Untamed Isles: The Path Awakens here, or purchase from Amazon.

Aaron Hodges was born in 1989 in the small town of Whakatane, New Zealand. He studied for five years at the University of Auckland, completing a Bachelors of Science in Biology and Geography, and a Masters of Environmental Engineering. After working as an environmental consultant for two years, he grew tired of office work and decided to quit his job in 2014 and see the world. One year later, he published his first novel – Stormwielder – while in Guatemala. Since then, he has honed his skills while travelling through parts of SE Asia, India, North and South America, Turkey and Europe, and now has over a dozen works to his name. Today, his adventures continue…