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)

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.

The Lion of Skye, by J.T.T. Ryder

’Celtic’ is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come … Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight, which is not so much a twilight of the gods as of the reason.

This J.R.R. Tolkien quote would be an apt epigram for The Lion of Skye. Not in a derogatory way, but an introductory one, a warning to the reader not to expect the world of Skye in 200BC to behave in a way consistent with the modern world of reason and causality.

The Lion of Skye picks up immediately after the end of Hag of the Hills, and it picks up running and doesn’t stop for a breath for many chapters. Brennus, now renamed Vidav after the sword he found (or was given) continues in his sworn purpose to rid Skye of the Hillmen and their queen, Slighan. Over the course of the story he will make and break alliances, battle human and the sidhe, but his oath to protect the maiden Myrnna is still a driving force.

In my review of the first of this duology, Hag of the Hills, I categorized the books as more magic realism than fantasy, because this is a world imagined through eyes and minds whose concept of reality differs from ours. Gods and monsters walk the land, and perspective swirls and shatters like the shards of a kaleidoscope. Author J.T.T. Ryder’s style reflects this; the view never stands still. Characters move from friend to foe in a few brief strokes of a sword; brothers are sworn allies and then enemies. Nothing is quite what it seems in this violent world of sworn oaths and ritual battles.

Vidav’s companions are men, but it is women who drive him forward: his hatred for Slighan, his oath to keep Myrnna safe.  His ability to see into the otherworld is a gift from the Cailleach, the hag of the hills.  He both is drawn to and repulsed by the women whose fates drive his own, whether human or something else. But they wield power, both that of sexual attraction and that of judgement, and he cannot escape that, even when he believes he has.

Ryder pulls on many sources and many legends: the Wild Hunt chases through the sky; the Blue Men of Minch, selkies, Amazons all make an appearance. They fit into Vidav’s concepts of his world; while he may be surprised they have manifested, he’s not surprised they exist. Echoes of Cuchulainn – a hero to Vidav—resonate in his worldview: death matters little, fame does.

The Lion of Skye should be read after Hag of the Hills for a full appreciation of the world and characters Ryder envisions; it lacks the worldbuilding of the first book which is necessary to understanding Brennus/Vidav and what drives him. Together they make up an unusual story steeped in mythology; an envisioning of a culture inseparable from the mountains and rivers and oceans in which it developed, and whose spirits of those places are as real to its inhabitants as the birds of the air or the fish of the sea, but with behaviour far less predictable.

Where The Gulls Fall Silent, by Lelita Baldock: A Review

In a Cornish coastal village in the 19th century, the sea is both a source of livelihood and a source of fear, the ever-present power that can give or take. When the fish are abundant, life, although laborious,  is good; when they are few, life is hard. Superstition is never abandoned in a community so tied to the rhythms and vagaries of nature.

Kerensa and her mother live, physically and socially, at the edge of the village, never quite part of the community. The reasons for this slowly unfold in this beautifully described novel, revealed both as understood through a child’s eyes and then, as she grows to maturity, through a deeper comprehension. Not all is what Kerensa has thought, nor is it as one-sided as she believed. As she matures, she overcomes both the village’s concerns and her own sense of not belonging, finding love and acceptance – only to have the tides of time and change threaten the village and their way of life.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay 

Author Lelita Baldock’s writing is evocative of place and time, the details of life in fishing village brought into being by a deft hand and an eye for what matters: the sound of the sea, the smells of fish and blood and sweat, the rock of a small boat on the waves. Where the Gulls Fall Silent has no events of national importance, no battles with sword or guns, but the story told is one of both defeat and victory on a small scale, a human scale; social history revealed through the lives of ordinary men and women. Men and women who both dream and are pragmatic; who have strict precepts for living but also a deep capacity for forgiveness; who can ride the peaks and troughs of a life tied to the sea and the land.

Where the Gulls Fall Silent is not a romanticized view of life in a fishing village: life is hard, death always close, moments of peace and security rare and fleeting. A difficult life, one that leaves its mark on people, as Kerensa learns – but one not easy to leave behind. The beating of waves can merge permanently with the beating of a heart, the sea always calling.

If I had any quibble with Where the Gulls Fall Silent, it was in its last few chapters, which are perhaps an unnecessary epilogue to the true story. Leaving the future after a certain point to the reader’s imagination would have been my preference, but regardless, the book is one that will stay with me for some time.

Recommended. No star rating, because I don’t give stars in most cases. Wondering why? My reasoning is here.

The Medium and The Message

Moby-Dick was the first assigned book I never finished. It was part of our American Literature focus in my last year of high school, back in the day when Canadian high schools were still ignoring Canadian literature. I was, and am, a voracious reader. But I just couldn’t read Moby-Dick. The prose was dense, meandering, sometimes unclear. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Fast-forward about thirty years, and a long-haul flight to New Zealand. Seventeen hours plus. I’d started listening to a lot of books: family circumstances meant I was driving eight hours every second or third weekend, and my job also entailed a lot of driving. Audiobooks helped pass the time. So, I decided to listen to Moby-Dick on that trip to New Zealand and Australia.

And fell in love with a magnificent book, a symphony of language and philosophy, of style and story. Whether it was my tendency to skim-read, or a symptom of my ADHD, or just maturity, I don’t know – but this book I couldn’t read is now one of my favourites: one I needed to hear to appreciate it.

Since then, I have learned that I appreciate almost all 18th and 19th century writers better when I listen rather than read. I wonder sometimes if it was that these books were expected to be read aloud, an on-going evening’s entertainment, or if a slower pace of life (for the privileged few, anyhow) meant reading was perhaps more leisurely. Regardless, when I want George Eliot or Tolstoy or Cervantes, I reach for my phone and earbuds, not a physical book.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this ramble: a reconsideration of a recent review. A book I had difficulty reading: P.L. Stuart’s A Drowned Kingdom. It has, actually, a few things in common with Moby-Dick: a dislikable central character driven by hubris, and long expositions on the reasons for actions, to name a couple.  I read it, wrote a neutral and unstarred review (some of you reading this will know I rarely star reviews, for reasons given here), and moved on. And yet I kept thinking about it.

Then one day I was listening to Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, which is slow, and definitely not cheery (well, it’s Hardy, what do I expect?) and something clicked. I should listen to A Drowned Kingdom (which coincidentally had just come out in audiobook format.) So I did.

And, as with Moby-Dick, I liked it a whole lot more. Listening doesn’t change the arrogant hubris of the MC, Othrun, but that was never an issue for me. I still believe Stuart is brave, both for creating a dislikable main character and for writing in a style somewhat at odds with much modern fantasy writing. But the lack of enjoyment in my first reading of the book wasn’t due to a fault in the writing, but my own limitations in interacting with the prose.

Story is at the heart of what we as writers do, and stories can be told – and absorbed – in many ways: through poetry, through prose, through oral storytelling, through plays, through visual media. Sometimes, as the audience, we need to find the form that is right for us. I’m glad I could for A Drowned Kingdom.

And yes, I’ll be revising the review.

Hag of the Hills, by J.T.T. Ryder: A Review

Complex and detailed. Hag of the Hills is a hero’s journey with a difference. In the second century BCE, Brennus of Skye is a warrior’s son who isn’t allowed to be a warrior, until invasion changes that fate. But his journey to heroic status spirals around the geology and mythology of his island. His forward momentum is inexorable, driven by the words of a local deity and his own conviction that he must honour both his oaths and the visions granted to him – but with many mistakes, fears, denials and reversals.

Hag of the Hills is not a conventional Celtic-based fantasy book. I’d hesitate to call it fantasy, rather than a form of magic realism. The Sidhe are a real part of Brennus’s world, whether is it is the Cailleach or giants or the shape-shifter who speaks in words later attributed to the bard Taliesin. But they are not earthly beings, as often in fantasy, but remain other-worldly, real but inhabiting a different realm to which Brennus is given occasional access.  

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written:

 “The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.” 

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World

And this is what J.T.T. Ryder, an archaeologist specializing in Iron Age northern European cultures, has attempted to show us: that rich and complex topography experienced through a different cultural paradigm. Is it successful?  In my opinion, yes, for the most part.

Brennus’s world is one in which Cuchulainn walks in memory and stories are told of war-elephants crossing the Alps; where men leave Skye to fight in Thrace, where the stone tools found in caves are left by the Sidhe and the bronze sword in a barrow belongs to an ancestor: a world both intensely rooted in its geography and conscious of a wider world beyond, known through trade and commerce in soldiers and slaves. This duality is echoed in others: as well as the Sidhe and the everyday world, there are few shades of grey in Brennus’s world: he is either an oath-keeper or an oath-breaker, a free man or a slave, a warrior or a coward.

Whether purposely or not, this sense of duality is echoed in Ryder’s prose, which frequently changes tenses within a paragraph, creating for this reader a feeling of dislocation. Jarring at first, as the novel progressed I found it added to the veracity of Brennus’s experiences. Unconventional to 21st century prose, perhaps, but echoing the blending of past and present that Brennus’s cultural paradigms encompass. Time is a construct not experienced by all cultures in the same way.

(What was less effective for me was the use of modern words and terms, which took me out of the immersive and different world I was experiencing and returned me to ours. ‘Fetal position’ is one example.)

We are used to epic hero’s journeys, from Odysseus onward. Brennus’s is not epic; it is extremely local, both in geography and psychologically. Much of what he works towards may make readers uncomfortable: honour, revenge, a glorious death – and while there is near-constant action, the real journey is in Brennus’s mind – not a comfortable or familiar place to be, but one I found worth experiencing.

Lady, In Waiting, by Karen Heenan: A release day review.

Robin Lewis – a man who can handle the intrigue and diplomacy of the Tudor courts but prefers his books to people, is skilled enough with words to weave a web with them to save his life but can’t express his feelings, and is no one’s idea of either graceful or handsome – is by far my favourite fictional character from all the books I’ve read in the last few years. Robin is also a man for whom marriage is an unlikely union, especially in middle age, solitary and set in his ways.

But marry he has, to Margaery Preston, an unconventional young woman of intelligence and learning, at her proposal. A marriage of convenience, a compromise that allows Winterset, Margaery’s family estate in Yorkshire, to return to her while allowing Robin, who has rented it for some years, to continue to live there among his books and the isolation he craves.

Written in Heenan’s impeccable prose, Lady, in Waiting is told through Margaery’s eyes – and what a narrator she is!  Robin, many years older than his bride, has one idea of what this marriage should be: in name only. Margaery has another: she wants to be Robin’s wife in all ways. But this is far from the only tension between them: Robin is called back to the court to work for Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary, William Cecil, and Margaery is to be one of her women, a chamberer, spending her days in the queen’s presence to do her – or her ladies-in-waiting’s – bidding. Neither should speak to the other of what they learn, but which vow takes precedence: the oath to the Queen, or the bonds of marriage?

Margaery’s doubts and fears, her determination, her joys, and her sometimes wry sense of humour: ‘my virginity lingered like a bad cough’ as she grows into both her roles make for compelling reading. As she comes to both understand and love the complex man she has married, she comes to understand herself, as well. As the years progress, Margaery’s life is not always easy. Trauma, loss and grief shape her life as certainly as love and politics, and growth and acceptance are sometimes very hard. Heenan neither glosses over this nor over-dramatizes it, but expresses Margaery’s reactions in a sensitive, realistic way.

The personal story  of Margaery and Robin’s marriage provides the window through which we see the politics of the day: Elizabeth’s possible (or impossible) marriage options ; the unwise, dangerous secret marriage of another Tudor descendent; the implications of Mary, Queen of Scots’ marriage to Lord Darnley. These were important decisions, choices made that had repercussions both personal and political.  The combination of the story that Margaery tells of her marriage and private life, contrasted with these acts on a larger stage, sets the story fully in its time, without robbing it of its intimacy and universality. Highly recommended.

Purchase link: http://Books2read.com/tudorlady

FebruarySheWrote Review Roundup 1

Historical Fiction Reviews (Feb 1 – 12)

A round up of the reviews I’ve reposted for the social media promotion #FebruarySheWrote, highlighting women writers. I’ve focused on historical fiction authors for this month (primarily), and these are all reviews I’ve written, either for this website, or for Discovering Diamonds.

The War In Our Hearts: WWI fiction. ‘The depiction of {Jamie’s} troubled, doubting soul and the courage and resilience of Aveline are the centrepieces of this debut novel’

Discerning Grace: 19th C High Seas adventure. ‘an admirable debut novel, and a beguiling blend of historical fiction and women’s fiction.’

Summer Warrior: 12th C Scotland. ‘both entertaining and informative; a book to be enjoyed.’

Dear Comrade Novak: 20th C Romania. ‘one of the most devastatingly honest and brutal books I have ever read, yet I could not put it down. ‘

The Unseen/The Jealous: ‘mystics and mysteries in 10th-century Baghdad’

A Wider World: Tudor.  ‘prose as close to perfect as it comes, and settings and history thoroughly researched but conveyed with a light touch,’

Reviews Without Stars

With a very few exceptions, I’ve stopped giving stars on book reviews. Why?

Some books I read entirely for entertainment. Some books I read and discover there are deeper themes, viewpoints that make me think, and may have a lasting impact on how I see the world. Some books I read and fall in love with the author’s writing: how they use words, the grace and precision of their sentences, their images, their skill with the craft. Some authors are journeymen, shall we say, conveying a good story competently, but without a master’s touch. In my eyes.

Books I love, others don’t. Books I dislike, others love. That’s a given for all art. But here’s my first reason not to give stars: my opinions change. A book I disliked (or didn’t understand) in its first reading – The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s dream-like story about the mutability of time and memory – refused to remove itself from my mind. On its second reading, I was entranced. It remains a difficult book, hard to categorize, allegoric, but if the purpose of art is to change the way we see or think about the world, it’s succeeded for me. But if I’d rated it back in 2015, I’d have given it 3 stars, or less.

That leads me into the second reason: how people perceive a star rating. Three stars to me says ‘it’s ok, an average book.’ And that’s fine. Not every book (or movie, or painting, or meal, or hotel) is a masterpiece, even within its genre. But more and more I see authors thinking their work automatically deserves five stars. I see some authors being upset with four-star ratings, focusing on the stars, not the words in the review. I’d much rather my review was read as meaningful critique. So: no stars. Take the time to absorb what I say – that’s what matters.

The third reason is one of respect. In today’s interconnected world, very often I know – at least through social media – the author whose work I’m reviewing. Writers reviewing other writers know how much blood, toil, tears and sweat goes into writing a book, and we are loathe to undermine that effort. Overall, I think perhaps we’re a little too nice to each other, because of that. But a review without a star rating, one written with skill and thought – a proper critique, not a criticism – should indicate to other readers – and the writer – what I thought the strengths, and perhaps the weaknesses, of the book are.

Will I ever give another star rating?  Yes, sometimes. I will star-rate a book for a debut author, especially if they have next to no reviews and if I can write an overall positive review. I will star-rate an exceptional book, one that a decade from now I’m pretty sure I’ll still be thinking about. But otherwise, no. Not any longer.