No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary – Review

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Publication date : 23 April 2015 (Trade Paperback and ebook) 30 July 2015 (Paperback)

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“From the Richard and Judy bestselling author Sarah Hilary. The phenomenal Marnie Rome returns in the outstanding follow up to the critically acclaimed SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN.

Two young boys.

Trapped underground in a bunker.

Unable to understand why they are there.

Desperate for someone to find them.

Slowly realising that no-one will…

Five years later, the boys’ bodies are found and the most difficult case of DI Marnie Rome’s career begins.

Her only focus is the boys. She has to find out who they are and what happened to them.

For Marnie, there is no other darkness than this…”

4.5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from the author and this is my honest opinion of the book.Two little boys. Scared. Alone. Trapped in an underground bunker. Aware somehow that no one is coming to help them. Five years later their underground tomb is found and it’s horrors unearthed. Marnie Rome and her team are on the hunt for the truth. Who are the boys? Who put them in the bunker? And why haven’t they been reported as missing?

The first four pages of this book set the tone for the rest of the novel. Dark, emotionally challenging, unnerving, rage inducing and moving. In just a few hundred words Sarah Hilary draws the reader in, willing Rome to find out what happened to those boys all those years ago.

No Other Darkness has all the elements of Someone Else’s Skin that I loved. Rome and her team are fantastic characters, each one has their role in the story, none steal unnecessary page space and it was a joy to see their characters develop. In particular I loved seeing more of the relationship between Rome and Ed and Noah Jake and his brother Sol. Further details of Marne’s past were revealed, rounding out her character and the running story arc Stephen Keele and Marnie’s parents is slowly developing.

It is always hard to write a review that says something without giving the game away. The same goes here, even more so in that this is novel is so original in its content. No Other Darkness deals with a topic that I have not seen in crime fiction before. It is necessarily shocking but never dealt with gratuitously. It will move you, dealing with a little known and difficult topic with care and respect and turning the idea of right and wrong on its head.

Sarah Hilary is fast becoming one of my favourite crime authors. Her books are joining those by Jonathan Kellerman and Donna Leon as ones where the wait for the next seems interminable and is always eagerly anticipated. With Someone Else’s Skin she set out her stall as a rising star in crime fiction. With No Other Darkness she firmly fixes herself in the crime writing firmament.

I absolutely adored Someone Else’s Skin and was worried when I started No Other Darkness that it wouldn’t live up to my high expectations. I needn’t have worried. No Other Darkness is an outstanding novel. If you love crime novels you will love this. If you don’t, try it, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Now comes the hard part. Having to wait for book three….

 

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The Tricks Behind Bryant and May – Guest Post by Christopher Fowler

Today I’m pleased to welcome Christopher Fowler, author of the award-winning Bryant and May series to the blog. Here Christopher talks about the puzzles, jokes and references hidden in his Bryant and May series.

The Tricks Behind Bryant & May

Christopher Fowler

Mystery authors can be tricksters; some of us like to hide puzzles, jokes and references inside our books – we can’t resist it. Musicians do it all the time, and I’ve been doing it for years in the Bryant & May books. The most obvious joke is the names of the detectives, which were taken from a matchbox (this will be made more explicit in an upcoming volume of Bryant & May short stories exploring their lost cases).

A number of characters came from my love of old forgotten British comedies. Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright is clearly an amalgam of several policewomen. I couldn’t take any characteristics from the best one, the long-suffering Ruby Gates, played by Joyce Grenfell in the original St Trinian’s films, because they didn’t suit her character. In one of the films Gates, who is in love with her sergeant, gets hauled over the coals for missing a police broadcast after he finds that the channel was tuned to one playing romantic music. Her response; ‘Oh Sammy, you used to call me your little blue-lamp baby.’ This is only funny if you can picture her.

Instead I borrowed a little from Eleanor Summerfield’s character in the Norman Wisdom film ‘On The Beat’, wherein the sergeant has to avoid suspicion during her investigation of a hairdresser’s by repeatedly having her hair done under the name of Lucinda Wilkins. As the film progresses, she ends up with such strange hairdos that the other officers all stare at her. Here she is meeting gangland boss-cum-hairdresser Wisdom for the first time.

There are also bits of Diana Dors, Liz Fraser, Sabrina and other pin-up models from the 1950s, but to this I’ve added the toughness of a Googie Withers in ‘It Always Rains On Sunday’ and Barbara Windsor in ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’. The first film is explicitly mentioned in one of the PCU bulletins that always start off the novels.

Arthur Bryant’s run-ins with his doctor are parodies of Galton & Simpson’s work with Tony Hancock, and with a scene from ‘On The Beat’ in which Norman Wisdom sings an eye-chart. Bryant’s landlady started out as an Antiguan version of Irene Handl (whom I once spent an enjoyable afternoon with) in ‘The Rebel’. The name of Dame Maude Hackshaw, one of Maggie Armitage’s coven, is taken from a St Trinian’s film, as is the idea of the two Daves never leaving the PCU office.

‘The Victoria Vanishes’ is a direct homage to Edmund Crispin’s ‘The Moving Toyshop’, one of my favourite Golden Age mysteries. I’ve also broken the ‘fourth wall’ a few times in the style of Crispin.

One of my favourite movie puzzles is hidden in the swinging London film ‘Smashing Time'; if you put together all the character names in the film you get the first verse of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. I’ve been trying to set something like that up for years. There are puns and character names hidden all over the place; things like this keep us sad blokes amused as we write.

“Why would I have picked forgotten B movies to take homages from instead of serious-minded British films? Because I like the peripheral pleasures of small films. These were the last series of home-grown movies made without Hollywood interference. Most aren’t terribly good but they have strange moments and quirky characters.

Artist Keith Page made some of these homages clearer in his drawings for the Bryant & May graphic novel, ‘The Casebook of Bryant & May’, packing his scenes with recognisable character actors.

There are other references to mysteries in the books, most notably to Robert Louis Stevenson and R Austin Freeman. Agatha Christie would have been a little too obvious, I felt. One day I might catalogue all of the jokes and puzzles tucked in the pages, but for now I’ll let you spot them if you can.

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About the book

The Burning Man is the latest in the Bryant and May series and is out now.

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“London is under siege. A banking scandal has filled the city with violent protests, and as the anger in the streets detonates, a young homeless man burns to death after being caught in the crossfire between rioters and the police.
But all is not as it seems; an opportunistic killer is using the chaos to exact revenge, but his intended victims are so mysteriously chosen that the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in to find a way of stopping him.
Using their network of eccentric contacts, elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May hunt down a murderer who adopts incendiary methods of execution. But they soon find their investigation taking an apocalyptic turn as the case comes to involve the history of mob rule, corruption, rebellion, punishment and the legend of Guy Fawkes.
At the same time, several members of the PCU team reach dramatic turning points in their lives – but the most personal tragedy is yet to come, for as the race to bring down a cunning killer reaches its climax, Arthur Bryant faces his own devastating day of reckoning.
‘I always said we’d go out with a hell of a bang,’ warns Bryant.”

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The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain – Review

Gallic Books

Publication date – 5 April 2015

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

9781908313867

“Bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street and feels impelled to return it to its owner.

The bag contains no money, phone or contact information. But a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet.

Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?”

4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from the publishers and this is my honest review.

Laure is walking home one evening when her bag is stolen. Events take a turn for the worse and she is unable to do anything to track down her much loved possession.

Laurent is on his way to the local café the next morning when he sees a bag lying on top of rubbish bins. He makes a spur of the moment decision to save the bag and deliver it to the police station. Unable to do this, he opens the bag, hoping to discover the owner’s identity and return it to her. The only clue to the owner is her red notebook. Though it doesn’t contain her name, Laurent builds a picture of the notebook owner through her words and becomes determined to meet her in person.

I have previously read The President’s Hat by the same author and one of the things that I took away from that book was the author’s ability to weave a sense of magic into such a short space. The same is apparent in The Red Notebook.

This is a charming story of Laure and Laurent. I found myself routing for Laurent from the beginning. I just kept hoping that he would be seen as romantic and not as a stalker! He is very likeable character, well aware of his flaws but charming and kind. Laure too is a similar character and having met tragedy in her life, you want the happy ending for her too. The other characters that appear, fleetingly in some instances, all help drive the tale along.

I was easily transported to the streets of Paris. In fact this story made me want to revisit it even more. Part of the romance of the story comes from the city itself, giving the story a wonderfully warm feel.

Whilst short on words; there are approximately 200 pages, the story does not feel any less for it. It’s brevity in places was necessary and the flow of the novel felt just right.

There is mystery, romance and friendship running throughout this book. It was a lovely little read and one I will probably revisit again.

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Runaway – Peter May – Review

Quercus

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“In 1965, five teenage friends fled Glasgow for London to pursue their dream of musical stardom. Yet before year’s end three returned, and returned damaged.

In 2015, a brutal murder forces those three men, now in their sixties, to journey back to London and finally confront the dark truth they have run from for five decades.

Runaway is a crime novel covering fifty years of friendships solidified and severed, dreams shared and shattered and passions lit and extinguished; set against the backdrop of two unique and contrasting cities at two unique and contrasting periods of recent history.”

3 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from Midas PR and this is my honest review.

Jack Mackay is contacted by an old school friend. He is dying and want’s Jack to help him travel to London to right a wrong from 50 years ago. From a time when Jack and his school friends ran away from home, headed to London with the hopes of making it big with their band. Returning home a few months later with 2 less friends, lives irrevocably changed and secrets to keep.

This is the first book by Peter May I have read though I was aware of his previous novels including The Lewis Trilogy. Runaway appealed as I liked the sound of the duel setting of 1965 and 2015. Here the characters seemed more real, the lessons of life having been taken on board. The 17 year old boys were to some extent just that. They appeared naïve, unaware of the reality that would meet them when they arrived in the capital, of the dangers of the world outside their own safe, and to their eyes, boring, world at home in Scotland. The character that came to the fore was Jack, the 1965 world is narrated by him and the 2015 world centred around him. To some extent therefore the other characters didn’t appear as well rounded. The development of Ricky, Jack’s grandson, was one thing I would have liked to see more of, especially as more came to light as to what had exactly happened in 1965.

I easily found myself transported to the 60s when the story came to those scenes. I could easily imagine the sites and sounds, the sense of freedom and opportunity that was present. However I did enjoy the 2015 story more and found myself rushing through the 60s scenes. To be fair to the author, I think this had more to do with my impatience that the story. I started the book knowing that something had happened when the runaways were in London, and that the return by the men they had become was to do with that. I just wanted to find out what had happened so we could see what would happen.

I enjoyed the final third of the book much more than the rest. I sped through the book, seeing how things slotted into place. This isn’t really a crime novel, though a crime has taken place, nor is it a mystery, though there is a mystery to ‘solve’. It’s more a story of self-discovery and righting of wrongs. I’ll be interested to read more by Peter May and will be adding the Lewis Trilogy books to my wishlist.

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The British Museum and Fantasy – D B Nielson – Guest Post

Keepers of Genesis, by DB Nielsen is a gripping new epic adventure series perfect for fans of Twilight and A Discovery of Witches. A magical blend of romance, fantasy and fascinating ancient history, this captivating four-part series is already enthralling a legion of young adult readers and crossover fiction fans alike. As the second part, SCROLL publishes this week I am joined by the author Denise who tells us about her love of history, The British Museum and fantasy.

The British Museum and Fantasy by D B Nielsen

As the heroine of my novel, Sage Woods observes, history is often more fantastical than fiction – or fantasy for that matter. Perhaps it’s because history feeds our curiosity and wonder – that we can discover much about the human condition whereby, to know ourselves, we need to understand our past, and at the end of our journey, we learn that all human stories are about love and mortality. 

Perhaps this is why so many Hollywood movies are based on the mystery and mysticism of ancient artefacts and talismans, such as the popular series of Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, The Mummy, the Night at the Museum (a new film instalment has just been released) and, of course, The Lord of the Rings (based on the bestselling novels). Some of these films have even featured landmark museums or archaeologists and historians adventuring all over the globe – which is probably why I love them so much (plus the fact that they often have mythical creatures such as dragons and elves).

My own novel begins with Sage at the British Museum as she discovers her extraordinary link to an ancient artefact that leads to the only undiscovered Wonder of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and to the origins of humankind. And whilst this particular artefact is based purely on fantasy, much of the novel shows the strong link between our mythology and history. So let me take you on a journey of the British Museum that will spark your imagination…

Filled with ancient artefacts, relics and mummies, the British Museum is a popular tourist destination, but it is here that Sage experiences her first paranormal incident. It’s no wonder too … the museum is a mysterious, spooky place where history, myth and legend reside within its walls. The lives of others make for interesting stories and, if you’re interested in history like I am, you can travel through time as you gaze upon the Rosetta Stone and statues of the Pharaohs, the Elgin Marbles taken from the Parthenon, and the Viking ship found buried at the Sutton Hoo…

But if you follow Sage’s journey in the novel, the exhibits described in the museum can actually be viewed, such as the ‘cosmic map’ from ancient Mesopotamia. 

This ‘cosmic map’ explains the Babylonian view of the mythological world and is part of the mystery that surrounds Sage’s quest. In fact, this tablet isn’t much to look at – you might miss it if you’re in a rush as it is not much more than ten centimetres tall. But it does contain an interesting cuneiform inscription and a unique map of the Mesopotamian world and the places shown on the map are in approximately the correct positions. Despite giving relatively accurate positioning, it isn’t meant to be geographically accurate,  merely a representation of cosmic geography, a representation of a mythical world.

So what key does it hold to Sage’s future? If you’re interested in horoscopes, the Zodiac and astronomy, take a look at some of the exhibits at the British Museum, especially in the areas featuring artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia…

It is here that Sage first meets the young, enigmatic and alluring archaeologist (move over Indiana Jones), St. John Rivers. It is a meeting that will have surprising ramifications for Sage and, in turn, for humankind…

“It was because I was so transfixed with my find that I initially failed to notice that I was being scrutinized from across the room. The first I became aware of it was a prickling sensation down my back, the hairs on my neck and arms raised giving me goose bumps. I turned my head round nervously, looking back over my shoulder … He stood at a distance, a young man in his mid-twenties perhaps, taller than average. No mere accident of lighting, his slightly curly locks, the colour of polished brass, formed a halo around a face that was much too beautiful to be called handsome. The only way to describe him was golden.”

But that’s not all that’s featured at the British Museum. 

Sage’s twin sister, Saffron is obsessed with the legend of Tutankhamen’s Curse, the curse of the pharaohs. Of course, no such curse exists, right? But, here’s an interesting fact – in 2004, the British Museum undertook a unique project to unlock the secrets of a 3,000 year old mummy, a priest called Nesperennub, by performing a “virtual unwrapping” using cutting edge CT scanning technology and computer visualisation techniques. So was this part of the legend that spawned The Mummy and its High Priest Imhotep? Fact or fantasy?

Or perhaps if you journey through Rooms 40 and 41, which houses the artefacts from Anglo-Saxon England and one of my favourite exhibits, the Sutton Hoo ship burial, it may remind you of the legends of King Arthur and Merlin, and feel like you wandered onto the set of Game of Thrones.

So next time you venture into the British Museum, you may want to look a little closer … a little deeper… 

Who knows? You too may meet an angel or magician or vampire on a night at the museum with its curious blend of ancient and modern…

SCROLL: KEEPERS OF GENESIS II by DB Nielsen is published on 12th March http://www.dbnielsen.com @db_Nielsen

(All images are provided by DB Nielsen and have been used with her permission)

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Normal – Graeme Cameron – Review

Mira

Publication Date – 9 April 2015

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“””The truth is I hurt people. It’s what I do. It’s all I do. It’s all I’ve ever done.””

He lives in your community, in a nice house with a well-tended garden. He shops in your grocery store, bumping shoulders with you and apologizing with a smile. He drives beside you on the highway, politely waving you into the lane ahead of him.

What you don’t know is that he has an elaborate cage built into a secret basement under his garage. And the food that he’s carefully shopping for is to feed a young woman he’s holding there against her will—one in a string of many, unaware of the fate that awaits her.

This is how it’s been for a long time. It’s normal…and it works. Perfectly.

Then he meets the checkout girl from the 24-hour grocery. And now the plan, the hunts, the room…the others—he doesn’t need any of them anymore. He only needs her. But just as he decides to go straight, the police start to close in. He might be able to cover his tracks, except for one small problem—he still has someone trapped in his garage.

Discovering his humanity couldn’t have come at a worse time.” (synopsis taken from US version)

4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from the publishers via Net Galley and this is my honest opinion of the book.

Our narrator could be anyone. The person you shared a lift with, or stood in line next to at the coffee shop. He has the same issues as you and me, bills to pay, chores to carry out. He has three women in his life; the one he’s just met; the one he saves on a dark night; and the one he has locked up in a cage in his basement. He was going along through life quite happily getting away with murder. His life was normal, it is anything but now.

This is a strange, chilling, intriguing book. The narrator is a nameless, faceless predator. He enjoys killing and disposing of women. Enjoys the hunt. Needs the power and the kill to still the feelings that threaten to overpower him. He is a loner. He is happy with this, until he kidnaps someone he can’t come to kill and falls in love with someone.

Two people may be given the same book to read but they never read the same story. Everyone interprets a book in their own way, picture a character in your mind and chances are you won’t be imagining the same person as another reader. Here, with Normal, that most certainly will occur. We aren’t told details about our narrator. And that is the point. He could be anyone. Killers don’t advertise their predilections. When caught, invariably the response by people is that ‘they appeared so normal’. Graeme Cameron has deliberately made his anti hero faceless and nameless. We don’t know his age, race or even his job. This makes it all the more real, and chilling.

This book isn’t for the faint hearted, there’s murder from the first page. But there is also humour. His relationship with the women bring some comedy and light-heartedness to the book. My particular favourite were the interactions with Erica. This is also a bittersweet tale. You want him to get caught, especially at the beginning. You want him to fall in love and give up his ‘hobby’, almost forgiving him his past if he promises never to do it again. You want him to be normal.

The anti-hero novel is appearing more and more and this is a great addition to the group. I’ll be interested to see what Graeme Cameron comes up with next.

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The Journey to Publication – Helen Giltrow – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Helen Giltrow to the blog. Helen’s novel, The Distance, out now in paperback and will be reviewed here soon.

Today Helen talks about the journey to publication.

Tell us about your journey to publication. When did you start writing?

I started young. I’ve still got the first book I wrote, when I was six. By my teens I was writing full-length novels. I even sent one to a publisher – I got rejected but the editor wrote me an encouraging letter, suggesting I submit it elsewhere.

And did you?

No – which in retrospect was crazy. But I did keep writing. 

In my twenties and early thirties I worked in educational publishing, but the more my career took off, the less time I had to write. Finally I thought, ‘If I don’t have a proper crack at this now, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’ I’d had an idea for a book that really intrigued me, and I’d got some money saved, so I decided to take a year off to write it. I entered the opening for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger, and quit my job. But half an hour before my leaving party, I got a call to say my elderly dad – whose behaviour had become increasingly erratic – had run away from home. He was found a few hours later. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s followed, Mum (also elderly) decided she wanted to look after him at home, and all my plans changed overnight. 

I made the Debut Dagger shortlist. Stephen King’s editor Philippa Pride was on the judging panel that year and she wrote to me, asking to see the manuscript. But by then I’d put the book aside.

How long was it before you got back to writing?

I worked on the book in short bursts when I could, but for years one crisis seemed to follow another, and there were long stretches in which I didn’t touch it. I didn’t hit clear water again until early 2009. The first thing I did was dig out what I’d written. As you’d expect from that sort of writing process, it was all over the place. But I still loved the story and I thought I could make it work.

When did you finish the novel?

October 2011. I sent it out to three agents during November, and two of them asked for meetings. One of them was Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton. She hit me with a whole heap of comments, but I really liked her, and I liked the way she was pushing me to make the book better. I spent a few months reworking the manuscript, then Judith sent it out to publishers. But secretly I felt it still wasn’t quite right. I thought nothing much would happen.

We got the first offer a week later. By the middle of the next week, six editors had asked to bid – two of those were within the same publishing house, so one had to drop out, which left us with a five-way auction. I couldn’t believe it. 

How did you decide which publisher to go with?

I spent three days going from meeting to meeting, with a heavy cold, dosed up to the eyeballs and trying not to cough all over everyone! Bill Massey at Orion was the last editor I met, and within twenty minutes I knew I wanted to work with him. He saw the book exactly as I did – problems and all. And he made me laugh. 

Shortly afterwards I signed up with US and Canadian publishers too. So now I had three sets of comments coming in.

Was that difficult to deal with?

The hardest part was the waiting. Two sets of comments arrived in early May … then nothing. I tried to work on revisions in the interim, but I found I was looking over my shoulder all the time – what if the last editor saw the book in a completely different way? 

Ten more weeks passed before the last set of comments came in, but at last I could start serious work on the edits. There was one particular issue that took a lot of unravelling – one plot point I’d put in almost without thinking, but which caused a host of problems down the line. Eventually I realised I’d have to take it out completely. It meant big changes, but once I’d done it, everything else fell into place.

You’ve worked as an editor yourself. Did anything about your journey to publication surprise you?

Loads of things! Educational publishing is a world away from trade fiction. And even where the basic processes are the same, as an author you’re coming to them from a completely different angle. For the first time, it’s your book you’re talking about. That makes a world of difference.

So what’s next?

A sequel. There’s been talk of a TV adaptation too. After that – who knows?

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About the book:

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“They don’t call her Karla any more. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there. It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.

So why can’t she say no?”

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A Place Called Winter – Patrick Gale – Review

Tinder Press

Publication Day – 24 March 2015 (Hardback)

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“To find yourself, sometimes you must lose everything.

A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.

Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.

In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.”

5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and this is my honest opinion of the book.

Harry Crane is born into a life of privilege. The eldest son of a wealthy man, he is left motherless at a young age. With his father often absent, he finds the love he seeks from his younger brother. Harry provides the foundation Jack needs, and Jack provides Harry a window to the outside world, a lifeline for the extremely shy young man. Almost unconsciously aware of his wealth, but well aware of the lack of direction his life takes, he soon finds himself married. A daughter soon follows. Then he falls in love with the wrong person. Forced to give up his life in England, Harry seizes on the chance to farm land in Canada. Harry’s journey brings him into contact with people who will change his life irrevocably. Sometimes it takes a change of pace and a change of place to find yourself. For Harry Cane that place is A Place Called Winter.

Sometimes I review a book I’ve read and think ‘Am I being too harsh with my ratings? Should this book be rated higher? Why do lots of people often give 5 stars and I rarely do?’ Then I read a book like this and realise why. I read many books. Some ok, some good and others great. But what can I do to show that I think a book is truly outstanding, one that stays with you long after the final page has been turned? One that you wish would not end, just so you could stay with the characters a little longer. That’s when I realise why I rarely give 5 stars. Because I need to save them for such a book as this, and A Place Called Winter is such a book.

Not one word is wasted. Literally. Each page holds something to savour. I didn’t care if the narrative was at a crucial juncture or simply giving a glimpse into farming in turn of the century Canada. Each page was fascinating. I found myself completely absorbed in Harry’s world from first page to last.

Patrick Gale’s writing is vivid and engaging. My heart wept and soared as Harry’s did. I could picture each scene vividly. I was on the sea voyage with Harry, tilling the fields and building his home with him. I was willing him to see the dangers ahead. I have only read one other book by Patrick Gale; Notes on an Exhibition. Though a completely different story to this, what I brought away from that was Gale’s skill in characterisation. That skill is equally evident in A Place Called Winter. Each character was vividly portrayed. Those I loved, I did so with a passion, those I hated equally so.

If I find a book I am passionate about I will happily suggest it to anyone looking for a book in that genre. Rarely do I find a book I would recommend to anyone regardless of genre. This is one of those books. It is saga, romance, historical fiction and a story of self-discovery all tied up in one outstanding novel. There’s even a hint of crime in there.

What makes this story all the more fascinating is that it is loosely based on real characters. This makes the story all the more poignant and the characters all the more real.

Having used up my superlative allowance I will end the review here.

A book to submerse yourself in and to finish slightly dazed to realise you are back in the real world. A book I will re-read again and soon. If you take a chance and read it and like it half as much as I do, you’ll love it.

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The Birth of A Book Baby – SJI Holliday -Guest Post

Today I’m pleased to welcome SJI Holliday to the blog. Her debut novel, Black Wood, is published by Black and White Publishing on 19th March 2015.

The Birth of A Book Baby

By SJI Holliday

You might’ve heard people using the analogy of the ‘book baby’… the nice idea that you talk about in the pub, that causes a lot of discomfort as it grows, leading to panic, frustration and many hair-raising moments – coupled, of course, with the sheer happiness of seeing what the pen-and-ink child has become. So, with that in mind, on the eve of its electronic birth – here’s a list of what I imagine to be the parallels between actual human children and their counterparts: the fictional characters that live inside writers heads.

Will it hurt? (AKA – “trying to get published”)

No matter how long you spend writing and editing, no matter how many of your friends and family tell you how great your book is, getting published is not easy. There is no ‘overnight success’. It takes a long time and it takes a thick skin. However, you will be able to save money on wallpaper if you paste up your rejection letters. Of course there are exceptions – like Posh Spice, who pops in for a quick C-Section between shopping trips, there are always the Publishers’ Chosen Ones who are plucked from obscurity and destined for instant adulation. These are the exception, not the rule. In short: yes it will hurt.

Will I get fat? (AKA – “Writers’ Arse”)

Quite simply, yes. Just as those mothers-to-be are eating for two, so are you, dear writer. The physical you, and the mental you. The physical you can survive on very little, especially when it is jammed into a seat/on a bed/sprawled on the sofa for twelve hours a day while you bang out your next big thing. You should really consider wearing support stockings. Mental you, however, can only survive on caffeinated beverages, alcohol, toast and chocolate; and as much as you might think you’re exercising via the brain gym, your body will soon tell you otherwise.

Will it make friends? (AKA – “reviews and recommendations”)

It might do, depending on how pushy a parent you are. You might think that telling everyone that Little Johnny is a masterful recorder player as well as top of the class in every subject and able to bake the best cupcakes is a good thing, but the other mothers might not be so happy to hear you bleat on all the time. How about just letting Little Johnny make his own friends? He’ll soon meet like-minded folk if he tells them about how he doesn’t really like baking cupcakes but that he’s quite fond of watching daytime TV and having his writing time thwarted by twitter. Be yourself and be nice, and friends will soon come your way… and if they like your book, they’ll tell you – and they’ll tell others too.

Will it get bullied? (AKA – “jealousy”)

See above. If you don’t push anyone around in the playground, there’s a good chance that no one will try to beat you up. There’s always one though. The kid who would rather call other kids names than join in and have fun. There are adults like this too – they want your success, but they’re too scared to achieve it themselves. If this happens, and you get a horrible review, the only thing you can do is ignore it. Or find out who they are, steal their clothes after gym class, and throw them in the showers.

Will it change my relationship? (AKA – “the writers’ widow/er)

All I can suggest here is that you find a partner who likes making endless cups of tea, and doesn’t mind being ignored mid-conversation while something they’ve said has triggered an idea that you must tap into your phone immediately.

Will I have another one? (AKA – “the difficult book 2”)

Once the dust has settled, and the nice reviews are in – and the launch parties are over… and the 20 author’s copies you’ve been sent are firmly ensconced on your bookshelf, it’s time to reflect. It wasn’t so hard, was it? That nine months of carrying that thing around inside you… the stressful time before the birth, when you weren’t sure if you could carry on. The birth itself – the panic, followed by the excitement and delight that it was finally, after all that, HERE. You’ll have forgotten the sleepless nights and the despair. You’ll have forgotten how your skin turned grey from too many white carbs and a complete lack of Vitamin D. You’ll get a nice review one day, or you’ll spot someone reading your book on a train – and you’ll think, “aww, how lovely… I think I’d like another one.”

* * *

Bio:

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SJI Holliday grew up in Haddington, East Lothian. She works as a Pharmaceutical Statistician, and as a life-long bookworm has always dreamt of becoming a novelist. She has several crime and horror short stories published in anthologies and was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham Prize. After travelling the world, she has now settled in London with her husband. Her debut novel, Black Wood, was inspired by a disturbing incident from her childhood. You can find out more at http://www.sjiholliday.com.

About the Book:

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“Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. 

Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun. 

But what is the connection between Jo’s visitor and the masked man? To catch the assailant, and to give Jo her long-awaited justice, Gray must unravel a tangled web of past secrets, broken friendship and tainted love. But can he crack the case before Jo finds herself with blood on her hands?”

Links: http://www.sjiholliday.com

http://www.facebook.com/sjiholliday

http://www.twitter.com/sjiholliday

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Culture and Conflict in Fantasy Fiction – Stephen Deas – Guest Post

 

Today I’m pleased to welcome Stephen Deas to the blog. Stephen is a prolific author, writing Fantasy novels as Stephen Deas and Nathan Hawke, Historical Fiction as Stephen Deas and under the pseudonym S. J. Deas  and co-writes Science Fiction with Gavin Smith as Gavin Deas.

Today he talks about culture and conflict in Fantasy. At least that’s what I think it’s about. That or giving all the characters weapons….

The Crimson Shield was my first fantasy novel aimed squarely at being more sword-and-sorcery than epic. The two sequels duly followed in subsequent months. It did well enough, but I’m not here to try and sell it to you (buy it, buy it now!), rather to share a couple of lessons I learned from the writing of it.

The Crimson Shield centres around Gallow, essentially an angry white dude with an axe. He’s a bit more three-dimensional than that, but for the purposes of this, angry white dude with an axe will do. He makes a friend (sarcastic white dude with an axe) some allies and some enemies (more white dudes with various edged weapons and in various states of mental stability). Entertaining mayhem ensues. I think I do a decent enough job both of angry white dudes with axes and of entertaining mayhem, if that’s what you want, but for the second volume it seemed a good idea to mix things up a bit, so I threw in an angry white lass with a bow and a pacifist alchemist with a satchel of interesting powders. In part I hope I was driven by a writer’s instinct for variety and to keep exploring new spaces. In part I know I brought them in to honour the call for diversity in fantasy, and in way that was shameful, bringing in the token “minority” characters in order to have some token minority characters. Generally speaking I try not to be anything that ends in -ist, but underneath that trying there’s clearly still a middle-class white dude with a bunch of middle-class white dude attitudes lurking in corners that haven’t been cleaned out yet. Sorry about that. Work in progress.

Fortunately a story-maker is blind to most -isms. My token sidekick characters quickly made it clear that they had no interest whatsoever in being bland-assed henchmen and set off on their own trajectories, ignoring the arcs of plot I had planned for them and making up their own. My angry white dude was left without any sidekicks at all, and you know what? His story was the better for it. Team Former-Sidekicks went off and had their own major plot. The second volume in that series was better (I think it’s the best of the three, which is perhaps unusual for the second volume of a trilogy, although Elizabeth Moon did much the same to me as a reader once with the Deed of Pakksenarrion). So that was a good thing, but why did it work out that way? I’ve given that a lot of thought since, and here’s how all that thinking ended up, brought to you now so you don’t have to.

Drama is driven by conflict. Obvious, yes? And different types of conflict are more or less dramatically interesting. Also obvious, I hope. Start with the easiest: Angry Dude wants to be king because reasons. Other Angry Dude also wants to be king, because (different) reasons. This a conflict quite capable of sustaining a novel (or indeed a Shakespeare play). It’s as simple as conflict gets, really, with an external antagonist and a black-or-white resolution that involves a fight to the death. Yes, you can do lots of things to make it more complicated, but why would you . . . oh, right, to make it interesting, because without some sort of nuance, the only drama here is which angry dude will win. Now I can work very hard to make you care about that outcome, and maybe I’ll succeed, but if that’s all I have to offer then frankly I’m being lazy.

What makes this sort of drama engaging (or not) are the obstacles that Angry Dude has to face and how he overcomes them. What makes it much more interesting is how he deals with the dilemmas he faces; typically Angry Dude has some sort of code of honour: he must stand up for those less able to defend themselves. Included in this are the sick, the poor, the crippled, the weak, family and any friends who aren’t other angry dudes. It’s a basic trick of drama (and a good one too) to strongly establish two of those moral traits, push Angry Dude into a corner where those two traits are directly in conflict with one another and then force him to make a choice. This sort of internal conflict tends to be more rewarding because it doesn’t have a “right” answer, and the way Angry Dude deals with it reveals more about him and evolves him and so makes him more interesting. The drama is no longer about which angry dude with an axe gets to sit on the throne at the end, but how

far our protagonist is prepared to go to get what he wants, what moral compromises he makes, the delicious dilemmas we manage to skewer him with and how he resolves them. The question isn’t just will he win any more, but also and if he does, will I still like him? and what sort of person will he have become? Much better.

(I use the word skewer and dilemma together with good reason. If the dilemmas you set up don’t leave your characters feeling eviscerated, you’re not trying hard enough).

For added fun you can do the same with the antagonist. Give both of them moral codes and skewer them with equally hard dilemmas. Maybe the assumption that we should all root for the “hero” goes out the window entirely. We have a different story. This can work fantastically well, but there are two big drawbacks with doing this to the antagonist: the first is that you have to spend a deal of page-time with him/her in order to fully realise them as a character and make the whole thing work. The second is that there isn’t a clear black and white any more. There’s no obvious side to root for; and maybe that’s not the story you wanted to write.

A diversity of cultures can be a shortcut to setting conflict without throwing away the black and white and without distracting from the central protagonist. Give your protagonist a small cast of supporting characters who broadly share the same objectives, but whose moral priorities are different. So one of Angry Dude’s allies is an alchemist who’s a pacifist, but the alchemist is in love with the archer, who will do almost anything to defend her people. What does the pacifist do when his love is threatened? A few chapters later both the alchemist and Angry Dude agree that the approaching army must be stopped, but each finds the others’ methods abhorrent. And then after the battle Angry Dude wants to burn the bodies of his fallen friends and press his advantage but the archer has an obligation to take the necklaces of the dead back to her tribal homeland – for one this is a distraction from their objectives that might threaten their overall goal, but for the other it is an absolute priority. These sort of conflicts help to define the central character through how he or she resolves them; yet the Big Bad is still the Big Bad – everyone can still agree on that – and the drama remains firmly centred on the protagonist because the conflicts are all are his/hers to resolve. These are more satisfying to explore because every resolution shapes and defines and the characters involved – we see them more deeply for what they are, and we see them evolve (or not) with each compromise (or lack of).

Obviously using diverse cultural backgrounds isn’t strictly necessary to achieve this end – you can have another angry dude with an axe who happens to be a pacifist if you want – but they provide a shortcut. We immediately expect two characters from different cultures or with different religions to have different beliefs (and if you put this in and then don’t explore them, then why did you put them in in the first place?) while we expect characters from the same cultural background to broadly believe in the same thing, and thus, if that’s not the case, page-time must be devoted to their back-story to explain why they’re different, and that’s page-time not being spent on the central character, plot, and drama.

One other thing I’ve found: it’s all very well having characters who are the best swordsman/archer/ huntress/wizard/whatever for miles around – and yes, in fantasy, sometimes you need to go that way for at least a few characters because they’re the ones with the ability to make a difference – but these skills run the danger of being a crutch and a means to define a character instead of defining them by their beliefs. Sometimes the most interesting characters turn out to be the ones who can’t rely on brute force or raw power. Just beware though or you may find, as I have found, that secondary characters in whom you invest time and thought turn out to start having a will of their own . . . And stories too.

Mrs Gallow’s specialist skills, for example, largely seem to consist of bloody-minded stubbornness and scathing sarcasm. Her novelette, The Anvil, is available as an e-book from 26th February. Damn but she was fun.

The Fateguard Trilogy featuring Gallow are available now.

The Crimson Shield

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“Fantasy needs a new hero. Meet Gallow – Truesword, Griefbringer and trouble for anyone who crosses him.

I have been Truesword to my friends, Griefbringer to my enemies. To most of you I am just another Northlander bastard here to take your women and drink your mead, but to those who know me, my name is Gallow. I fought for my king for seven long years. I have served lords and held my shield beside common men. I have fled in defeat and I have tasted victory and I will tell you which is sweeter. Despise me then, for I have slain more of your kin than I can count, though I remember every single face.

For my king I will travel to the end of the world. I will find the fabled Crimson Shield so that his legions may carry it to battle, and when Sword and Shield must finally clash, there you will find me. I will not make pacts with devils or bargains with demons for I do not believe in such things, and yet I will see them all around me, in men and in their deeds. Remember me then, for I will not suffer such monsters to live.

Even if they are the ones I serve.”

Cold Redemption

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“Fantasy needs a new hero. Meet Gallow – Truesword, Griefbringer and trouble for anyone who crosses him.

I fought against your people, and I have fought for them. I have killed, and I have murdered. I betrayed my kin and crippled my king. I led countless warriors to their deaths and fought to save one worthless life. I have stood against monsters and men and I cannot always tell the difference.

Fate carried me away from your lands, from the woman and the family I love. Three hellish years but now, finally, I may return. I hope I will find them waiting for me. I hope they will remember me while all others forget. Let my own people believe me dead, lest they hunt me down. Let me return in the dark and in the shadows so no one will know.

But hope is rare and fate is cruel. And if I have to, I will fight.”

The Last Bastion

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“Fantasy needs a new hero. Meet Gallow – Truesword, Griefbringer and trouble for anyone who crosses him.

The last battle for the fate of your country is coming. My kin are out for blood and revenge. Another empire sees a chance to come in and pick up the pieces of our war. Most of your warriors are stuck hiding in the swamps, always aware that they do not have enough numbers to win a straight fight.

And from over the seas, my people bring their most deadly weapons, the Fateguard. Living suits of armour, imbued with mystical and deadly power. The end times have come for your land. I have fought alongside you, I have bled for you, I have made myself a traitor to all I believe in for you. And yet you still do not trust me.

But you have no option.

This will be our last battle, and there is only one place that it can be fought. We must defend our stronghold, no matter how many lives it may cost, no matter how hard it is. For if we do not, there will be no mercy and no relief from the terrors to come.

Good thing I’m on your side.”

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