Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Witch at Wayside Cross

This is the second book in the Jesperson and Lane series, following the brilliant Somnambulist & The Psychic Thief of last year. The duo have just solved their first case when they are immediately plunged into their second. A man hammers at their door in the early hours and once inside he drops dead at at their feet; a look of terror on his face; the last word from his mouth was "Witch" shouted at Miss Lane. Could he really have died from fright? Was he cursed? Engaged to investigate the mysterious death by the dead man's brother, the pair must travel to rural Norfolk to investigate. There they find a mysterious school of Wisdom run by a charismatic man, rumours of witchcraft and strange tales of the shrieking pits. This is a fantastic follow up to the first volume. The characterisation is pitch perfect; while Miss Lane is always portrayed as a modern and forthright woman she is none the less a modern woman of her own era and not ours. Mr Jesperson is similarly forthright and at times their attitudes are met with resistance. The story is full of twists and turns and there is, as in the first volume just enough hints at the supernatural to keep a speculative fiction fan intrigued.
Thanks so much to Olivia at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy.

Read my review of the first in the series HERE

If you like this try

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

News, Reviews and Recommendations from the Ancient World

It seems a long time since Madeline Miller won the Women's Prize for fiction (it was the Orange Prize then) in 2012 for The Song of Achilles but the wait for a second novel from this talented writer is almost over. It is a retelling of the story of Circe; the first Witch in Western literature and a fascinating character to me and I'm sure many others. Circe is released next April. Here is a short video of Madeline Miller introducing the book.

If you have yet to discover Miller's writing and want to know more about her first book here is an interview she did back in 2012 about writing The Song of Achilles.

and here is a link to the author's own website

If you are interested in Classical Literature then you need to follow Jean's Bookish Thoughts on YouTube. She recommends all sorts of books but as a Classics scholar she has a fascination with books that feature the ancient world and in a sea of samey booktubers all reviewing the exact same thrillers with irritating mid Atlantic accents her book choices and Scottish accent are a delight. Check out Jean's updates at the link HERE

If you are London based or London bound then you should definitely try to check out the newly reconstructed Temple of Mithras which is now open to the public all the details are in this article

The first ever translation of the Odyssey by a woman is now available and you can read an extensive interview with the author in the New York Times HERE

If you aren't already subscribed to Dan Snow's History Hit then you are missing a treat. Dan interviews historians and authors of historical fiction and the podcasts are a fascinating companion while walking or working. Here's a link to a recent interview with classicist Mary Beard about her newest book Women and Power.

I also listened to a fascinating interview earlier today with Catherine Nixey author of The Darkening Age but I cannot find the link for the life of me. However it was a History Hit podcast so it should be available there. Instead I will link you to an article in which Catherine passionately defends the study of Classics at University. I am sure her views will provoke some debate. HERE

Friday, November 10, 2017

Ever This Day by Helen Moorhouse

Having started the previous post talking about the perfect book to curl up with on a gloomy Autumn evening. This is certainly a book that fits that bill. Helen Moorhouse is a favourite of mine. Follow this link Helen Moorhouse to see previous reviews, events and interviews.  Helen was also kind enough to judge a short story competition for me a few years ago. Helen's books are utterly compelling. She is one of the few authors I've read that will make you gasp out loud or shout no, no, no at the characters. Helen's latest novel is about Ria who is haunted by her past at an Irish boarding school; Maria Goretti and the strange and frightening events that occurred there. Gripping and terrifying in equal measure  this is a perfect Autumn read. If you have yet to discover Helen's books, then get thee to a bookshop, library, website etc and gobble them down right now.  Ever this Day is Helen's fourth book following The Dead Summer, The Dark Water and Sing Me to Sleep. If you are a fan of Susan Hill, Sarah Waters or Elly Griffihs these books will be right up your street. I was delighted to be able to ask Helen some questions recently and here's what she had to say about Ever This Day. 

Q1. What draws you to tales of ghosts, the past, the frightening?

I don't think I've ever lost my love of fairy tales from childhood - I adore the idea that anything is possible,  and that events aren't just confined to this mundane world that we know. Loving, and writing ghost stories is an extension of that - the idea that stories are escapism, a little step into a world where there's magic, where there's 'something else'. 
I love stories - being made to feel by the events as they unfold - I adore being drawn in by a story so much that I become completely emotionally invested in it - it's so satisfying. And for me, a ghost story has all of the necessary ingredients for that - firstly, there's fear - the most obvious, and the most discomfiting, and not for everyone. Then there's curiosity, doubt, wonder - what can it be? That's not possible, surely?
But if that's true, then....
And every ghost story needs a backstory - who is the haunted or who is doing the haunting? How did they die? What was their life like? A good ghost story will have a back story that makes you feel even more afraid, or sad for them; make you feel outrage, or pity at what has happened to them. It will make you feel curious, caring, anxious, broken-hearted, terrified. 
A good ghost story will have elements of every single other type of story - crime, romance, tragedy, loss, betrayal, revenge - all seasoned with that most visceral of emotions, which is fear. And there's also that indescribable sense of 'something else' which makes them so appealing. What if there is something else out there? What if there is life after death? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?  

Q2. Have you had any spooky encounters yourself?

Nothing as exciting or terrifying as Ria in Ever This Day. I've never seen an actual ghost, much as I'm intrigued by the idea, but I have had a few unexplained events happen that I often wonder about. When I was growing up in our big, old house, myself and my sisters used to hear banging and thumping noises from the unused attic space above our bedroom. We heard them so often, in fact, and got so used to them, that we actually stopped being perturbed by them. They sounded for all the world like brick or plaster landing on the floor from the walls - sometimes they were like little falls of pebbles, other times like bricks thumping down - so we assumed that's what they were. Until eventually my Dad climbed up to check the space at one point and we all had a look in turn - only to find that there wasn't a thing out of place. No pebbles, no bricks, no animal droppings - nothing. It's still a mystery to this day what those noises were and, although, I haven't slept in that house for years, what I'm sure they still are.
The other events that spring to mind happened when I worked in a radio station in Cork which was housed in a former school, coincidentally enough, considering Ever This Day is set in a boarding school. There was a story that circulated around staff that the building was haunted by the ghost of a former pupil who had died tragically there but I never really paid it a huge amount of attention until I took a part-time position in the newsroom doing evening and weekend shifts, on top of my day job in the S&P department, and began to see all the events for myself that were linked to the alleged haunting. 
Firstly, the lift would travel up and down by itself at nighttime when, for the most part, there were only two people in the building - the on air presenter who couldn't stray too far from the on air studio, and the person covering the newsroom for the evening shift who couldn't stray too far from the newsdesk. Sometimes the lift would ping and the doors would slowly slide open just as you passed it on the way down the stairs to nip to the loo, which was pretty unnerving. 
Secondly, the phone system that we used in the station had handsets where you could see all of the extensions around the building, with a light for each one. At night, the extension lines would often light up - internally, which didn't happen unless a phone handset was physically picked up. All calls for the on air and newsroom came in on phones separate to the main system, with direct dial numbers, after office hours, so it wasn't external calls coming in. But it wasn't calls being made from desk to desk or office to office either - after I left, I remember bumping into a former newsroom staff member who told me that one evening herself - a news editor who worked in facts - and her friend, a sales rep, had watched the lights and decided to walk to the locations of the extensions that were lighting up as they were lit - naturally, there was no one there. 

On another occasion, in the newsroom as I worked the evening shift, various pieces of electrical equipment started to power down and then back up again without any pattern, explanation or reason. The TV turned itself off at one point and wouldn't respond to the remote controls or the physical buttons, only to power back up again minutes later. Then my mini disc machine went down completely while I was reading a bulletin which made for a pretty short nine o'clock news! The building was a pretty eerie place at nighttime alright, and when my shift finished and I tried to get out of there at about 11pm each evening I always fled as if being chased and I  let out a little sigh of relief out when I'd close the front door behind me. 

Q3. What are favourite supernatural books/ films  and why?

I've read a lot of supernatural books - and am painfully aware of how much more there are that I desperately want to read - but the one that always sticks in my mind is James Herbert's 'The Secret of Crickley Hall' - it's such a pure ghost story - unexplained noises, apparitions, the gravestones of children, the well in the cellar, a horrible past and a bleak present. It's about ghosts and haunting in a very old-fashioned, back to basics way. It doesn't try to do anything with the genre other than be a ghost story and I love it for that. Also, the classic Shirley Jackson's 'The Haunting of Hill House', of course. They are both very simple in their form, in that they rely on terror rather than horror to set chills up the spine. There's no gore, no otherworldly creatures - there's nothing in them, to my opinion, which strays very far from what could possibly happen in real life and that, to me, is the scariest thing of all. 
In terms of film, I don't watch a huge amount of conventional horror movies - they just don't appeal to me. But I do love dark stories, and these days there's a ton of excellent stuff available on TV - off the top of my head, I've recently enjoyed The Kettering Incident, Inside No. 9, Les Revenants, Penny Dreadful, Being Human, Misfits, - there's tons of stuff I'm leaving out, but it really is a great time for people who want something that little bit darker, with a supernatural edge to pass an evening.

Q4. Part of the new book is set in the 1980s. Is there anything 1980s you would like to bring back? or banish forever?

I'd like to bring back Andrew McCarthy, Zanzibars, A-ha, and MT USA. 
I'd banish white socks and black slip-on shoes and mullet hairstyles. 80's revivals are only acceptable to a certain level!
I think the older I get, the more nostalgic I feel about the 80's - I'm loving a lot of stuff set in the 80's at the moment like Stranger Things and the Black Mirror episode 'San Junipero' which is the most beautiful love story, and 80's accurate without turning into pastiche. In writing Ever This Day, I've spent a lot of time there in my head and I quite liked it - MTV, John Hughes movies, synthpop - of course the 80's were tremendously bleak too - the Cold War, Thatcherism, recession etc. - but I'll always view the decade through the eyes of a teenager who just longed for John Cusack on the front lawn blaring Peter Gabriel through a boombox. A lot of what is good about the 80's has survived of course, as happens with every decade - classic music and cinema, for example. And a lot of it - like the hairstyles - has remained just where it should, in nostalgia TV shows and hysterical photographs of your schoolmates. If I had a TARDIS, would I go back? Maybe just for a day trip but yes, I'd love to pay the 80's a visit.

Q5. Your book features a boarding school filled with frightening memories and you attended boarding school yourself. Is there any real life inspiration in The Convent of Maria Gorretti? Would you ever see yourself writing spooky-school stories in the future?

I had a message only last night from a schoolfriend who had just finished reading Ever This Day and who said that she couldn't tell where our reality ended and the book's fantasy began with regards to Maria Goretti and our old school, the Brigidine Convent, Mountrath in Co. Laois. Not in terms of ghostly goings-on, and insane nuns, of course, but I've used the setting of the school, apart from the odd flourish here and there, more or less brick for brick. In describing Maria Goretti, I simply walked around the corridors and classrooms in which I spent five formative years, adding things here and there, and taking the odd thing out but for the most part the physical description of the building and also of the daily routine are based on fact. Most of my 'pack' from school have recently read Ever This Day and I get messages on WhatsApp all the time from them remarking on how they had forgotten this and that, and recalling stuff that I didn't put in the book but which they were reminded of in reading it, which has been enormous fun and quite emotional at times. 
It made writing it that little bit more difficult too, however, in that sometimes my descriptions were way too long winded, or too confusing, because the locations and events were completely familiar and clear in my mind and I was either at pains to describe them in as much detail as possible, or so over-familiar with them that they made sense only to me. I re-wrote the physical description sections in the book - when Ria goes there at first - four times and I still didn't fully trust in them until my editor, Gaye, took them apart and worked on them with me which was a real relief. 
It's been lovely to share those memories with old schoolfriends actually, and to re-connect with those girls because the whole five years was an incredible time - and we had a lot of fun, despite how bleak everything sounds in the book. Our fun years, however, of terrible food, giggling and listening to the radio after lights out, wouldn't have made for a very good story however - so that's why Maria Goretti and its residents - both living and dead - are a little darker than it was in real life! 
I'll probably give the spooky school a rest for a bit - but it's the type of location that has such enormous scope that I wouldn't say never to revisiting it. After all, one of my earliest influences was the TV adaptation of Antonia Fraser's 'Quiet as a Nun' which petrified me as a child so there's plenty of life in a veil and wimple, I reckon!

Q6. Finally what are you working on next?

At the moment, I'm taking a little writing break for a couple of months - at least until I've finished promoting Ever This Day. It was a really difficult book for me to write - it's been four years since my last book was released, and in the interim I wrote yet another book that I hated and wasn't prepared to publish, lost my writing mojo a little, and had twins which brings my family to four, all under nine years of age (which also explains where the writing mojo went) so it's been a very demanding time both physically and creatively. Finishing and releasing Ever This Day was a huge personal milestone for me but the process took a lot out of me so I'm letting the field go fallow for a few months, to see what comes out when I sit down to write next. I think I might like to give ghosts a little rest for a while - although I've been saying that for the last two books! - and see what else I can come up with. I'm toying with two ideas at the moment - one is a little bit of Irish mythology and legend with a twist, and the other is a more up to date story about internet support forums - a little lighter in places, but not too much in the long run! As to what will eventually emerge on the page? Probably something completely different altogether - I guess I'll know when I know.

Ever This Day is published by Poolbeg
Thanks to Caroline at Poolbeg for sending me a copy of the book for review. 
Thanks so much to Helen for her brilliant responses. Here is a recent article in which Helen reminds us all how brilliant fantasy, horror and ghost stories can be.

Wychwood by George Mann

I don't know about you but when the evenings are dark and the air has grown cold I long for a real fire, a comfy chair, a nice hot drink and a book that sends a tingle up your spine. Mysteries, ghost stories, thrillers, dark tales; however you want to categorise them and with George Mann's latest book Wychwood you get all that and more. Wychwood is a bit of a departure for Mann who is famous for the Newbury & Hobbes Series and the The Ghost series which are steampunk adventures and many readers will also know that George Mann is a prolific writer and editor of Sherlock Holmes inspired fiction. So what's different about this book you ask? Well to begin with this book is contemporary and it's set in rural Oxfordshire with the main characters being a journalist and a police officer so there are no airships or secret spy networks but don't worry there is a chilling serial killer mystery and plenty of dark and supernatural scares. I asked the author about Wychwood and here's what he had to say:

Q1. You are well known for writing in the worlds of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who and your own Steampunk stories, so why the big change in direction to a contemporary murder mystery novel?

Good question! I think it's very much the culmination of a long journey as a writer. I've always loved crime fiction, and I think that's something that has crept into a lot of my storytelling over the years. My Newbury & Hobbes steampunk novels are essentially crime mysteries at their heart - they often start with a murder, and Newbury and Veronica typically team up with Scotland Yard to investigate. Clearly they're also adventure novels, with a lot of fantastical content, but strip them back and the central mystery often follows the template of a crime novel.
So I think this is something I've been building towards for a long time. I wanted a new challenge, I wanted to write from the perspective of modern day characters, and I wanted to write the sort of story I love reading, or watching on TV on a Sunday evening.
There's a lineage with my previous books too, though, I think - there's still a gentle thread of the supernatural running through the book - but it's a much more traditional murder mystery than I've written before. The start of a new path!

Q2. The murders in Wychwood are inspired by mythical figures and folklore. Is English folklore and mythology in general an important inspiration for you? Will we see further folklore inspired books?

Oh, absolutely. I've had a long fascination with myth and folklore, and in particular the kind of quirky stories that pop up in different regions all over the UK. It's that sort of local mythology that really appeals to me. I think it adds so much character to a place, and it's always the thing I'm most interested to find out when I visit a new place. What are the stories that bring a town or village to life? What does it say about the cultural history of the place? Does it influence the character of the town now? That's something I'm definitely going to explore in future books. I'm working on a second investigation for Elspeth and Peter now, and I'm having a great deal of fun researching a very different type of folklore for that.

Q3. Who are the writers of murder mysteries that inspire you?

Peter Robinson has been a big influence. I adore his DCI Banks books. Ann Cleeves, Peter James, Peter Lovesey, Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter are others. I also collect the old Sexton Blake pulps which were at their height between 1900-1930, and though they've been largely forgotten now, there's some brilliant stories to be found.

Q4. What's next for Elspeth and Peter? Can you reveal anything about what's in store for them?

Well, that would be telling! But I'm working on a second novel now, as I intimated above. Family secrets, a 17th Century witch stone, and an old manor house feature. Elspeth is going to feel the lure of her old life back in London when a friend comes to
visit, and Peter has to decide what his future in the police force might look like. Any more, and I'll give too much away!

Q5. What are you working on now?

Aside from the next Wychwood book, I've got another Newbury & Hobbes book in the works. That'll be the sixth book in the series, and kind of brings things to a head. Beyond that, I'm certainly keen to keep on exploring this new path with more crime fiction, too.

I have to say I really enjoyed reading Wychwood, the first of what I hope will be many adventures for Elspeth and Peter. This is an intriguing murder mystery full of impressive detail, a twisting plot, some spooky encounters and best of all two main characters you will really root for. It's the kind of crime thriller that lovers of ghost stories will enjoy and the kind of horror novel that will appeal to readers of crime. The mythology threading through the story is fascinating and I think this book will have broad appeal; bringing George Mann many readers who might not have read his previous work. Because of the supernatural thread I would also say that this will be a must read for fans of Elly Griffiths, Syd Moore and James Oswald.

Wychwood is published by Titan, thanks so much to Philippa Ward for a copy for review.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Minette Walters The Last Hours marks a triumphant return.

After a gap of ten years Minette Walter's new novel is a game changer for the author once dubbed the “queen of British crime” The Last Hours is an historical novel set in 1348 in rural Dosetshire as The Black Death sweeps across England. I had the chance to put a few questions to the bestselling writer and asked her what drew her to the subject matter. As a story teller, I'm intrigued by everything and the Black Death is a powerfully interesting subject. Six centuries on, it's hard to grasp how devastating it was or how far-reaching its consequences.”
While it might seem an unusual step for a writer to move out of the thriller genre towards historical fiction; the author sees it as a natural progression.The idea for The Last Hours kept knocking at my mind and never to have written it for the sake of remaining in 'genre' would have been frustrating. In any case, I wonder if it is such a big change! The Black Death was the worst killer man has ever known. Which crime author wouldn't want to write about it... and point fingers at the culprits? There are many worse criminals in history than there are in crime fiction. Despite the apparent change of genre Minette Walters talents as a thriller writer are still very much in evidence with a cast of characters trapped in a confined space and growing fears about their own survival the author ramps up the tension and with this novel she has given us some truly memorable characters that will captivate readers.
Walters is a longtime resident of Dorset and the locality and it's history seems to gotten under the author's skin “My husband and I moved to Dorset nearly twenty years ago, and one of the first things we learnt about our village was that it has a plague pit. No one’s entirely sure where it is, but the 12th century church still stands and visitors can still see the mounds that delineate the medieval settlement. The whole site is a scheduled monument and it's hard to rub shoulders with history without becoming fascinated by it.” Living in an area so closely impacted by such a a devastating event it was probably inevitable that Walters' writer's brain would begin to ask what if? While the Black Death has been explored in fiction before the fact that the novel focuses in on the impact felt in a very particular location and a small group of people makes it a unique and intriguing prospect for fans of Medieval fiction. “The Black Death became a particular interest when I discovered that its first port of entry into England was Melcombe (Weymouth) which is 9 miles from where we live. 14th century chroniclers reported barely one in ten being left alive in Dorset by the time the pestilence passed. I wondered what that meant...Had some fled?..who were the ‘bare’ few who managed to survive? And how had they avoided it?”
Walters took a long break from writing, other than a horror novella The Cellar in 2015 she has not published in ten years and while she never gave up wrting she did take a step back and with time to think the idea for The Last Hours began to form “I did indeed spend considerable time on research for The Last Hours but, once the idea crystalised in my head, the writing came easily.” I'm sure her countless fans will be pleased she's back and she is likely to gather many more fans from those who enjoy the books of Sarah Hawkswood, Karen Maitland and S.D. Sykes.

Lisa Redmond is a writer, currently working a novel about 17th-century Scottish witches. She blogs about books, writing and women in history.

Guns in the North by P.F. Chisholm

Guns in the North brings together the first three books of P.F.Chisholm's Sir Robert Carey mystery series first published in the mid 1990s and now available in one volume for the first time. The books detail Sir Robert Carey's appointment as Deputy Warden of the English West March in 1592. These are tales full of adventure, conflict and humour. The locals of Carlisle and the surrounding districts have a variety of reasons for disliking and distrusting the London courtier sent to kep the peace; not least his fine clothes, fine manners and fine way with a sword but the border marches of Elizabethan England are a place of constant conflict, theft, kidnap and murder and Sir Robert Carey soon proves he has the daring the wit and the courage to take on even the most cut throat of villains. Managing to stay just within the law Sir Robert soon makes his name known as one to watch, both to the lawless bands of Scottish and English clans outside the city walls and his supposed colleagues scheming within. Along with the action, adventure and derring-do each book presents a murder and another mystery to be solved.; such as hundreds of stolen horses, stolen and dangerously faulty guns, and the kidnap of his own beloved but married Elizabeth. The books are full of romance and intrigue with a great mix of real and imagined characters. The plots unfold with all the drama of a wild west tale and will have broad appeal to those who enjoy historical adventure and historical mystery alike. Perfect for fans of Diana Gabaldon, Dorothy Dunnett and S. J. Parris.