Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Sunwise by Helen Steadman

Sunwise is the second novel from Helen Steadman and is a direct follow up to the story she began with Widdershins; her debut. Widdershins was one of my favourite novels of recent years. It's a beautifully well crafted story of ordinary women caught up in a desperate man's campaign to rid the Scottish and English border areas of witches. You can read my review of Widdershins HERE
When I was asked to review Sunwise of course I jumped at the chance. I was delighted to receive such a a gorgeous package; my review copy came with a lovely corn dolly and two postcards. It's often happened that I have approached a second novel in a series with a sense of trepidation; worried that it won't live up to my expectations. With Helen Steadman's book I had no such worries and all of my high expectations were met. In Sunwise we once again meet Jane; mourning her mother as the seasons turn and her second child grows in her womb. John Sharpe meanwhile has fled Newcastle and arrived in Berwick where his fervent belief in the evil of women continues to grow and his mental state begins to fracture. For Jane everyday life has also become a mental struggle as Tom has returned from sea, unaware that Jane has married Andrew and the rift between the two men grows deeper as Andrew taunts Tom and it becomes clear that he tricked Jane into marriage. Jane feels that she cannot go on, desperate to create a life with Tom, they begin to plan a future elsewhere.
Helen Steadman is a powerful writer her characters jump from the page, fully realised and I read this book with bated breath, desperate to know what happened next. The story alternates between Jane and John's viewpoints and the tension is brilliantly maintained throughout. I cannot recommend Helen's books highly enough. The careful research that goes into the writing; on the traditions and superstitions of the period; the herbs and ointments that a healer or cunning woman would have used are clear but the storytelling is paramount. Highly recommended.

The blog tour continues

Monday, March 4, 2019

Kin by Snorri Kristjansson

Kin is the first of the Helga Finnsdottir mysteries from Snorri Kristjansson set in Scandinavia in the 970s and featuring a tenacious detective in Helga, Kristjansson blends the best of Viking historical fiction with a well paced and well plotted murder mystery. If you love scandi crime and Vikings then this for you. The paperback of Kin will be published on Thursday 7th March. I asked the author a few questions about his writing.

Helga is a wonderful character, smart, curious and capable, she makes a great detective. Who are your favourite detectives? Where did the inspiration for Helga come from?

Helga, bless her, is what in Icelandic theatre parlance is sometimes (and not always altogether kindly) called a 'Scene Thief'. She popped up in book 2 of the Valhalla Saga, and was immediately very fun to write. She knew her mind and had no trouble navigating in a very male-oriented world. One of the things she did was navigate herself into book 3, where she played a much bigger part than I'd initially envisioned. She was also in her mid-to late 40's. When I started thinking about what I might want to do next, I was watching a lot of murder mysteries with my wife, and the strands sort of connected - I figured that this intelligent, capable, independent and curious woman must have come from somewhere, and a Viking detective story was born. 

As for my favourite detectives, I reckon Sherlock Holmes will always be my first love, and the grandfather of the brilliant-but-flawed archetype, closely followed by the moustache-twirling arrogance of Hercule Poirot. I've got time for Kate Atkinson's fractured Jackson Brodie and the dogged determination of Robert Galbraith's Cormoran Strike, but as a counterweight to the tortured genius there is also a soft spot for the master manipulators and cunning string-pullers - particularly if they are in the guise of twinkly-eyed old dears ranging from Miss Marple to Jessica Fletcher, who are as enjoyable in stories as they would be utterly insufferable in real life. I am probably forgetting a baker's dozenof worthy candidates, too - every character brings a unique approach to solving puzzles and bringing order to chaos. Give me humour, empathy and a little bit of sass and I'm in.    

While The Helga Finnsdottir mystery series is set in the Viking era it is a departure from your previous books that feature Viking heroes and legend. How have you managed this transition?

Writing in a different genre did present some challenges - the book had to work as a murder mystery and I had to unlearn some habits in order to make the story tick along. The hardest part was to stop throwing a hundred cursing soldiers at the page when I needed problems to be either made or solved. It felt positively alien to me to count the deaths on one hand only. Jokes aside, though, I haven't felt like there was really a transition that needed to be managed (although maybe my editor would have thanked me if I did). Once the parameters of the story were established, the tools with which to tell it became quite apparent (occasionally through quite abominable failure. There was rending of hair and occasional gnashing of teeth). Heroes and legend still feature, because the environment would not have felt real to the characters if it didn't - but perhaps they were viewed from a slightly different angle. The gods are very much a part of the book, and Helga herself believes in and may (or may not) be receiving a little bit of a nudge from Odin from time to time. As far as the heroes go, the Helga books focus, as the women of the time would have, more on the damage and fall-out of living a warlike life - PTVD, if you will.   

Researching the Vikings must be fascinating. Do you spend a long time on research before each book? What has proved most useful? 

I have a rhinoceros-type approach to writing. I charge furiously out into the wild with great purpose, only to find myself completely lost for words. This is usually when I sigh, curse myself for not automatically knowing everything about the Vikings even though I am Icelandic, and drag myself to do some research. I don't enjoy finding out things for finding out things' sake, as such - what I look for tends to be driven by questions from the story. Could they do this? How long would it take to travel from here to there by horse? And so on and so forth. That being said, I do aim to have my stories be as historically accurate as possible because I know it unsettles the reader to find details that shouldn't be there. And while that sounds all virtuous and clever and craftsman-like, there are several occasions in the last five novels where I have doubted the wisdom of writing things before the advent of the clock as a time-keeping device. It has also taken me this long to stop giving the Vikings sodding potatoes to eat. There were, I think, two potatoes in the second Helga book (both caught by my excellent editor, the legendary Jo Fletcher). First book? Largely potato-based.
I reckon the most useful resources, if I were to pick only two, would be Chartrand/Durham?Harrison?Heath's The Vikings from Osprey and I also suspect the idea that authors existed  before Wikipedia is largely fictional. Anything written by Kevin Crossley-Holland will be worth a read, too.

Book 2 in the Helga series is publishing this year. Do you plan many more adventures for the intrepid heroine?

There is at least one more thing that needs Helga's immediate attention - and I do get the sense that she has a knack for finding trouble. She's that kinda gal. I'll not say much more than that, except to note that maps showing where in Europe the Vikings travelled to are very interesting...

Do you have any advice for aspiring historical novelists?

Historical novelists have a large chest of toys to open, and it is really easy to get lost playing around with your favourite ones. My question that I always ask myself - over and over, because I need a little help staying on track - is : can you tell your story in 15 words or less? If I can do that, then the thrilling period-based details and the authenticity will end up where it is supposed to be. Apart from that, I'd say the same thing everyone says - read stories, go back to the research and write the book you want to read.

Kin is published in paperback by Jo Fletcher Books on 7th March 

The follow up book Council will be available in May