November 2021 for me has been an amazing month. In the last two weeks of November 2021 I’ve met so many exciting fellow authors at two fabulous book events. There has been a great sense of cameraderie, we have all deepened relationships or made new ones, discovered each other’s books, and we have sold our books to keen readers too!
I was delighted to be invited to take part in these two events. I came away having signed up for mailing lists, bought new books, sold some of mine, listened to several fascinating talks, enjoyed creative conversations and experienced kindness, generosity and friendship. There were lots of warm, smiling authors, readers and book-buyers.
As a postscript, at the Priory Theatre, Kenilworth, I also added a few ghost stories to my collection, including ones about theatrical ghosts which I wish I had known about while I was writing Paranormal Warwickshire! (They may come in useful for a future book). Here are a few photos which give a flavour of these two events.
Today I bring you my review of the final book in Michael J Harvey‘s fantasy trilogy Oron Amular. I reviewed the first two books in the trilogy here in my last blog post.
I found this, the third in the Oron Amular Trilogy, a very intense read. King Curillian, along with his Captain of the Guard, Lancoir, his magician ally Roujeark, and his loyal band of Armist comrades go through a series of extreme ordeals, tests and snares in the Mountain of Aron Amular. These tests are set for them by the Wizard Kulothiel, along with all the other tournament competititors from various races. Their company is joined by a new heroic figure whom I found fascinating: Sir Theonar of the Pegasus, who wants to challenge Southilar for the Clan Lordship of the Aranese.
With dazzling eloquence and extended scenes of violent action, the narrative seizes you and never lets you go in this book. Many pages are devoted to a ferocious account of brutal fighting. The narrative drives you along relentlessly and the series of ordeals is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, and not unlike some of the scenes in an Indiana Jones film.
Along with this the author explores the emotional and psychological landscape of his principal characters with great conviction. The outcome of the story totally defeated my expectations. I have given this book 5 stars for its power to engage, but will admit the end left me unsettled and disturbed.
We are told the story will continue, so do look up the author’s website World of Astrom to find out more.
I’m pleased to be hosting a stop today on the blog tour for Paul Alkazraji’s powerful novel of Albanian and Greek aspirations, politics and social tension, The Migrant. In view of the current world situation, the themes of this novel are acute: “Crossing borders does not always lead you further from home.”
The action of the novel is set during the 2010 anti-austerity movement in Greece. But all the themes and issues raised in the story are highly relevant to what is going on in the world right now.
I found the novel a rich and detailed evocation of Albania and Greece: the people, their lives and longings, the geographical landscape, and the huge political, economic and ideological challenges they must navigate. The story is relevant to all of us who care deeply about the the plight of those who are deprived of the opportunity to live a fulfilling life in an environment that respects their rights and allows them to flourish on every level.
We follow Pastor Jude, an Englishman who has been working in the Albanian church, as he sets off on a rescue mission to Greece with two unlikely and rather tough companions – Mehmed, a reformed gangster and Luan, a secret-service agent. The tensions between Mehmed and Luan are sharply conveyed, as Jude – whom I found a very attractive character – acts as a bridge between them.
They are searching for Alban, Luan’s nineteen year old nephew, young and vulnerable, who has dodged border police to cross into Greece in the vain hope of finding work there in a country hit by anti-austerity riots.
I have spent some time in Greece in the past, and I was captivated by the author’s evocation of various locations in Athens. His description of the car journey from Albania to Greece, too, is rich and detailed. I could sense the atmosphere strongly and especially his lovely descriptions of the sights and sounds and scents, and particularly the taste of the national dishes and the food and drink they order in the cafes and the tavernas.
Jude’s fears for Alban are fully realised, because this young man’s most likely fate has always been either to fall into the hands of callous sex-traffickers, or to be drawn into the turbulence of violent anti-austerity riots.
This novel held my attention throughout and I was fully engaged in the search for Alban. On the way, I found very different lives being opened up for me in a fresh and compelling way. Highly recommended.
Paul Alkazraji worked as a freelance journalist in the UK from the mid-nineties. His articles were published in Christianity Magazine, The Christian Herald, The Church Times, The Baptist Times and other publications. His travel articles were also published in The Independent. His first book Love Changes Everything, a collection of seven testimonies, was published by Scripture Union in 2001. His second book Heart of a Hooligan, a biography of ex-football hooligan Dave Jeal, was published by Highland Books in 2000. His third book Christ and the Kalashnikov, a biography of missionaries Ian and Caralee Loring, was published by Zondervan in 2001. From 2004 to 2010 he was editor and publisher of Ujëvarë magazine in Albania. His first novel, ‘The Silencer’, was published by Highland Books in 2012. His new novel, ‘The Migrant’, set in Albania and Athens during the austerity troubles, was published by Instant Apostle in February 2019.
Fascist populists, callous sex-traffickers and murderous mafia gangs – these were not what Pastor Jude Kilburn had expected to face when he moved to Albania. But when vulnerable 19-year-old Alban disappears from his poverty-stricken village to seek work in Greece, Jude has to undertake the perilous journey across the mountains to try and rescue him from the ruthless Athenian underworld. Accompanied by a volatile secret-service agent and a reformed gangster, Jude soon finds himself struggling to keep everyone together as personal tensions rise and violent anti-austerity riots threaten to tear them apart and undermine the mission. Caught between cynical secret police and a brutal crime syndicate, the fate of them all will be determined by a trafficked girl – but not every one will make it home. The Migrant is a tense and evocative thriller with a powerful redemptive twist.
EXTRACT FROM THE NOVEL
Chapter One Part One
Alban Gurbardhi lay with his face pressed into the earth. He eased his breath out through pursed lips as he tried to stifle any sound he might make. It seemed his heartbeat would be heard across the valley as it pounded in his ears. An angry, black beetle marched across the thyme-grass centimetres from his nose. He glanced at Ervin, who lay in against the crumbling stone wall, and saw his eyes darting.
‘Sssst … They are near here. We’ll get them,’ Alban heard one of the men say in a low voice. ‘Keep looking. Óchi … over there.’ Ervin lifted a finger to his lips and gestured with his palm forwards to stay put. Alban blinked and thought. They should have waited at the last Albanian village for the full cover of darkness before entering Greece. He remembered Ervin saying he’d come this way many times before and not to worry. The Greek border guards were less active these days – they were lazy. As they’d taken the track up from the old Communist hut at dusk, they’d still been visible in the open from lookout points in the woods to the east. That’s why they’d been spotted. He glared at his friend: older, yes, but wiser? Stones ground underfoot as one of the policemen trod close to the other side of the wall. Alban waited for a hand or something worse to strike down on him.
He flinched and screwed up his eyes, bracing himself, and a tear welled out of one corner. Oh, Lord … let us pass, he pleaded in his mind.
The sounds of shuffling over fallen branches and rocks moved away. Alban waited. He raised his body slowly with his hands and slid his feet under him. He glanced at Ervin, who nodded, and eased his head over the top of the wall. The two men were moving up into the pine trees around five metres away. Alban saw their dark blue T- shirts and black military boots. The taller of the two looked a strikingly muscular and athletic man. His hair was dark and razor-cut close in at the sides with a quiff on top.
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As a writer, I believe we should be willing to explore new areas, and to step outside our comfort zone. And that applies very closely to our lives as readers too.
I read a wide variety of books, both non-fiction, and fiction of all genres. I admit I do like psychological insight but I believe all good writers in every genre should incorporate that in their novels anyway. I find that the way I think about genre is influenced by my own eclectic reading habits. Now, as I work on a new novel I still have trouble trying to work out what genre I’m writing in.
I have just received reports from five beta readers and am considering their thoughts, and working on polishing and sharpening my final draft. One of the big questions has been: what genre do they consider this novel to be?
Writers are given an enormous amount of advice these days, mostly from online sources, and amongst them is this adage: Write the kind of book you most love reading. But if you read a wide variety of books, how does this help? Another piece of advice we find floating around the publishing scene is that an author should, when pitching to a literary agent, be clear what genre he or she is working in, so the agent reading the letter can immediately think, “Whereabouts in the bookshop will this book will go?”
Another piece of advice suggests you should name a few established authors to whom your novel could be compared. All this is anathema to me – and to many other writers, I suggest. Yet we are forced into this kind of mindset. So now, for the benefit of the readers of this blog, I shall say that my WIP is most likely to be gothic mystery. An example of my willingness to go into new areas is my recent attendance of the UK Games Expo at the Birmingham NEC, as one of three writers on the Authors Stand.
So what do fighting fantasy and interactive and roleplay games have to do with books such as the ones I write? The atmosphere at the Games Expo is always wonderful, there’s a great sense of fun, excitement and good humour. The gaming world is one in which a vast number of “tropes” flourish: adventure, quests, danger, violence, fantasy, history, steampunk, sci fi…
My own fiction is indeed using some of those tropes, for instance, the predicament of the main protagonist as he finds himself in a deadly situation from which he must escape. Hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all find their place in the gaming world. There is an unexpected connection for me. Hidden chambers and secret passageways and dark rooms all act as symbols for states of mind – and thus their connection to my fiction genre. Family relationships also play a strong role in my novels… I find these provide a fertile stage upon which the action can be played. Which leaves me still with a fluid situation as regards genre; sometimes magical realism, paranormal, ghost story, gothic mystery, psychological suspense … all is possible.
Today I share my review of ‘Miss Graham’s War‘, the latest novel by Celia Rees, which has been released in a new edition, having spent some time on sale as ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’.
‘Miss Graham’s War‘ is a very complex and gripping account of life in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory over Germany in 1945. The main protagonist Edith Graham, a lover of recipes and cooking, goes out from England to take part in what is known as the Control Commission, in the British Zone, to try and help the education system in Germany recover. However she is also asked to act as a spy seeking out wanted Nazis in hiding. I learned a huge amount about this period, of which I had previously known very little. It opened my eyes to how the ordinary people of Germany suffered in the first few years after the War, both those who still sympathised with Nazism, and those who had not agreed with Hitler’s ideology, but who had kept quiet to save their lives.
The structure of the book, interspersed with recipes from the time, was fascinating. The recipes and ingredients were very revealing; some horrifying, as they revealed the desperately low rations for people in Germany at that time.
For instance, one recipe was for Moltkestrasse Tea: pine needles chopped fine, and boiling water. Used to ward off hunger by those who have nothing else.
Another minimal recipe for the near-starving, deprived of rations, involved finely-cut-up human hair, to provide some element of minerals and vitamins.
A third example is Prison Camp Soup – fish bones and skin; water; and buckwheat, or whatever else you can get. Note: we have no equivalent, unless you count the Irish a hundred years ago reduced to eating grasses in the Famine.
Other recipes evoked another world entirely: I loved the German cake recipes, especially one for Bee Sting Cake, which is essentially sweet dough, baked, topped with honey, butter, sugar and almonds, and filled with a custard cream. In wartime circumstances, with rations low, but with the ingredients cunningly sourced from somewhere and hoarded out of sight, a slice of that would have been pure heaven. Such cakes of course belong to the famous ritual Kaffee und Kuchen. Another recipe, for asparagus flan, sounded gorgeous; some of the recipes I thought I really must try out myself (but not the ones with human hair, fish bones and pine needles).
The book gives many harrowing details of war crimes committed by the Nazis. It is packed with characters who have different motivations, which can be confusing to the reader, but ultimately we are carried along with the decency and goodness of Edith’s character, and the passion of Harry, whom she loves, and who will later go to Israel and become a member of Mossad. Fate intervenes, along with tragedy. Depending on your point of view it may be said that Edith’s quest ultimately results in poetic justice, or not. Here on earth, we have no final answer to the mystery of human wickedness, or a perfect resolution to the quest for justice. But this story is very compelling and there are many chequered characters to arouse our emotions.
It is the kind of story which may haunt you for some time afterwards, as you wonder about war, and about the aftermath of war, and the disastrous decisions that are made in such times, that attempt to correct injustices but only sew new tragedy and pain for the future, even after the actual fighting has ended.
A highly recommended book for those who can’t get enough of historical fiction and books about the history of the 20th century.
Today I share my review of ‘Witch Child‘ by Celia Rees, now out in a special 20th Anniversary edition. This is a compelling historical novel of the arrival of a group of Puritans in New England in 1650, of their encounters with the Native Indians, and a tale not only of religious intolerance but of the deep-seated fear human beings have of anybody who dares to be different.
Having just finished reading The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, about Catherine Parr and the dangerous path she trod through religious fanaticism and intolerance, I feel my senses have been sharpened to this theme of rejection of women for being different. It seems that historical fiction is an excellent vehicle for this theme but sadly the theme is also highly relevant in today’s world.
Witch Child is a Young Adult novel and has been firmly established on the schools curriculum for the challenging issues it raises, vital for children to wrestle with, themes of intolerance, the true nature of freedom, the forces of conservatism, spirituality and female independence.
The book opens with a horrific account of the persecution of a woman in late 17th century England. Through the eyes of a young girl, we learn how her grandmother is dragged away – feared and reviled as a witch for her role of village “wise-woman and healer” – tortured then hanged for witchcraft. We are confronted with the intense hatred, fear and hysteria that flares up among the local ‘authorities’ (often self-appointed); their fanaticism aroused by another opportunity to publicly shame, humiliate and destroy a woman for being different.
As I read the story of Mary’s departure for the New World with a group of Puritans, I was keen to refresh my knowledge of this period of English history. As it happened, the Puritans sought freedom in another land to practice their own brand of religion freely. Ironically they took all their own prejudices and narrow-mindedness with them and transplanted it into the communities they built in New England.
I was moved by Mary’s growing connection with her two allies from the local Indian tribe, White Eagle and Jaybird. They too knew what it meant to be ostracised for bring just what they were. The themes of nature-connection are strong between the girl trained in ways of herbalism and intuitive healing, and the native people with their deep spirituality and knowledge of the earth and their environment, as with all First Nation peoples.
I loved the overriding structure of the book, pages of an authentic historical journey, found sewn into a late 17th century quilt, and the mystery with which the book ends. I know the author wrote a sequel, but this book left the way wide open for me to imagine exactly how I wanted it to end and what I hope happened to Mary next.
A compelling story from an author who has just brought out a new book, this time for adults, called Miss Graham’s War. Set in Germany in 1946, and published by Harper Collins in May 2021, this will be my next read.
The story of All the Light We Cannot See tells of Marie Laure, a blind girl living in Paris in the 1930s with her father, a museum locksmith and miniaturist. Marie Laure’s father creates a model of the city to help his daughter make her way around the streets; and every birthday his gift to her includes a puzzle box which needs skill and ingenuity for her to open, and find the gift within. Thus she gains skills in orienteering and in construction projects requiring dexterity and ingenuity; both of which will be invaluable to her survival, not only in peace, but during the coming war, the Nazi occupation of France, and especially when she finds herself alone and vulnerable in St Malo during Allied bombing.
The story is told in two time frames, early 1940s, and then on to the final stages of the War, and also shifts back and forth between Marie Laure’s story and that of Werner, a German boy, who is an expert at constructing radios, and who is compelled to join the Military Training Academy for young people, whose methods are often cruel and ruthless and sadistic. We meet Frederick, Werner’s friend at the academy, who openly defies the cruelty, and suffers for it. Ultimately Werner and Marie Laure will meet; grief, tragedy but also love and hope is ahead for them.
The novel creates for its readers an immersive experience, of what it would feel like to be part of the French Resistance in St Malo. I was totally absorbed in Marie Laure’s world, her challenges and threats, her relationships, her courage and resourcefulness.
Werner too aroused my compassion and I understood what it must have been like to be swept along by the Nazi machine, compelled to participate. Even though his sister Jutta shows evidence of a free spirit, people like her within Nazi Germany would have needed to be extremely discrete and subtle about their dissent.
I found the story slow-moving to start with and difficult to get into; then, when the War starts, it becomes totally immersive, as young Marie Laure and her father escape from Paris to her great uncle Etienne’s house in St Malo, while 8 year old Werner in Berlin with his sister Jutta discovers how to make a radio.
In St Malo Marie Laure and her father are cared for by the kindly Madame Manech who gathers together a group of ladies to resist the Nazi occupiers by ingenious means. Madame Manech sets about persuading Etienne to use the one remaining radio in the house – which he has cunningly hidden in the attic, away from the Nazis – to transmit messages to the Allies from the Resistance.
The reader needs to get used to the switches of time-scale from 1940 and then on to 1944 when the Americans are bombing St Malo in a last attempt to flush the Nazi occupiers out, and Werner is hunting for illegal radio operators in occupied France, with orders from the Nazis to kill all those he finds in possession of radios.
In 1944 Marie Laure, blind and totally reliant on her own strength, courage and instincts, is trapped in the house in St Malo. The people who have loved and protected her are absent: Madame Manech has died; her father has been seized by the Germans whilst visiting his Paris Museum; and her great-uncle Etienne has vanished.
Back in 1940 Frederick invites Werner to join him on a visit to his mother at his privileged and wealthy home in Berlin. The two boys are friends; and yet Werner feels powerless to help when Frederick is persecuted for voicing his dissent from the Nazi creed.
In 1944 Werner is told he has been at the Military Training Academy under false pretences, and we fear he will be killed; instead he is sent to “a special technology division of the Wehrmacht.” Werner is pressed into service in France, tracking illegal radio transmissions by members of the Resistance, using his transceiver.
From this point the story moves forward relentlessly, with high emotional stakes and jeopardy for both Marie Laure and Werner. How they come together is something you will discover when you read the book.
This is the kind of book which is so immersive you are with the people of the story, experiencing the danger and the emotional and psychological challenges alongside them; and indeed the kind of book which has you scurrying for Google to refresh yourself on such areas of knowledge as the Allied bombing of St Malo; the activities of the French Resistance; and the shocking facts about systematic rape of German girls and women by Russian soldiers for three years after the 2nd World War ended.
The story shows the resilience of the human spirit and the prevalence of love, goodness and kindness, along with courage and ingenuity; whilst also inevitably opening our eyes to the sheer wickedness and evil of war.
Today I am pleased to be reviewing an Advance Review copy of the latest novel by author S.L. Russell: The Thorn of Truth.
Having read three of this author’s previous novels I see her as a writer who opens up major ethical issues in our contemporary society, in such a way that they present a spiritual challenge to the main protagonist – and also engage us in our own dilemmas.
In each of S.L. Russell’s previous novels I have learned many new things about a profession which had formerly been a mystery to me: in her novel The Healing Knife I felt I was in the operating theatre with a senior surgeon, understanding all the details of major surgery; in this novel I found myself in a world of barristers and judges and courtrooms and the Inns of Court and the Middle Temple.
Our main protagonist Anna, a barrister, is faced with a direct personal challenge; a corrupt police officer is keen to use a new court case to put away a man he has long believed to be a drug-lord – and Anna is required to defend him in this case which she believes weak, and in which she feels convinced he is innocent. Yet she herself has strong personal reasons to get this man put down for a long time: he may well be responsible for a life-altering tragedy in her own close family.
Anna must put her own personal feelings aside and do what is right.
In this author’s previous novels, I have come to see her as a novelist who always surprises the reader with the direction in which she ultimately takes her story.
Each time, for me, the focus of the story has shifted. I think the novel is about one thing; and then it changes, and becomes something else entirely. Yet the focus on the central ethical issue remains strong.
In The Thorn of Truth, our main protagonist Anna takes a decision to defend Leaman, a man who might be a Mr Big in the drug world. She must do this despite the fact that her family may condemn her for her actions. Then her own personal involvement is complicated by her daughter’s new and growing friendship with Leaman’s own daughter. Later on the story becomes less about the guilt or innocence of this man in regard to the drugs, and instead focuses on the true killer in the current case, and the shocking and unexpected risk to her daughter Millie’s life.
In this story too, S.L. Russell interweaves the lives of three characters from her previous novel, as Anna meets and builds up a relationship with Rachel, the main protagonist of The Healing Knife, and Rachel’s husband Michael and step-son Jasper.
I found Anna’s relationship with her daughter Millie the strongest element of the novel, and was gripped by the crisis that flares up.
Ultimately this is a novel of big moral issues causing agonising ethical dilemmas which test the spiritual values of the main protagonist.
Another challenging and powerful novel from S.L. Russell.
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Today I share with you my review of Spirited by Julie Cohen, published by Orion July 2020.
I loved this book; I found it enchanting, and it gripped me throughout. Set in the mid nineteenth century in England and India, the story covers spiritualism, so-called “spirit photography”, the oppression of women in Victorian times, and the power of women to assert their identity and to triumph over suffocating prejudice.
The novel reminded me of Affinity by Sarah Waters, published by Virago, another book which captivated me.
Fans of that book will love this one. Curiously, the colour and design of the covers on both books is very similar.
Julie Cohen’s mastery of atmosphere is compelling and as she builds the sense of mystery, the sympathy of the reader must surely rest with all three main characters, with Jonah who has returned to England from tragic events in India; with Viola, who responds to her grief at her father’s death by giving herself heart and soul to her photography; and to Henriette, strong and resilient, who rises above the cruelty and abuse she has received in the past.
Blended into all this is an intelligent and powerful debate about life after death and the various things we cling to in order to uphold our beliefs. Very highly recommended.
I waited quite a long time for Waterstones to send me this book; and having received it, I spent the next few hours devouring this story of William Shakespeare’s family and the tragic death of his 11 year old son Hamnet.
Living as I do near Stratford-upon-Avon I have visited all the Shakespeare properties a number of times. I will never experience Shakespeare’s Birthplace the same way again, now I have read this book. As I enter the rooms, I will imagine Ann Hathaway giving birth here, to her twins Judith and Hamnet; and in another room I will think of her laying out Hamnet’s body with loving care, sewing him into his shroud; and in another, of John Shakespeare browbeating William, or of his sister questioning or advising him.
Ann in this story is called Agnes; William himself is never named but called either ‘the Latin Tutor’ or ‘her husband’ or ‘their father / brother’. So we think of him in his relationships as an ordinary family man, rather than being distracted by the weight of his awesome reputation, over five centuries later.
The story initially moves back and forwards between two time-frames: the time of Agnes’ pregnancy with Suzanne, and the turbulent reaction of the families, and her subsequent marriage to Will; and then to the final 24 hours of Hamnet’s life, 13 years later as he falls victim to the Bubonic Plague. Life and death, beginnings and endings, are constantly interwoven, folding back on each other.
I found the book very intense, full of exquisite moment-by-moment accounts of highly emotional events, and the long period of Agnes’ grief, while her husband is in London on one of his long absences.
Will’s sister Eliza is the go-between in that she, unlike Agnes, is literate and can write the letters Agnes dictates and read the letters Will sends in return. Some have thought William Shakespeare very unloving to his wife and family, spending so much time away from them; but in this story we are offered a much more sympathetic picture. Will asks Agnes to come to London to live with him but she refuses as she fears Judith’s delicate health will suffer in the disease ridden city streets.
Ultimately with his London money Will is able to buy the gracious mansion at New Place; and I loved the descriptions of Agnes creating her dream garden there, planting many fruit trees and medicinal herbs and keeping bees and a host of cats.
The epiphany in this story comes with Agnes’ realisation of the true significance of her husband’s new tragedy ‘Hamlet’.
This is a book which will certainly have you scurrying to Google to check up on the known facts of William Shakespeare’s life and family members. You will see him in a new light and may also be deeply moved by the reality of life and death in 15th & 16th century England. A very highly recommended book.