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The Custard Corpses – cover reveal and First Chapter

Here is it, a book I never thought I’d write – not only a mystery, but one set nearly a thousand years after most of the books I write, and one which began with a series of adverts.

Here’s the blurb;

A delicious 1940s mystery.

Birmingham, England, 1943.

While the whine of the air raid sirens might no longer be rousing him from bed every night, a two-decade-old unsolved murder case will ensure that Chief Inspector Mason of Erdington Police Station is about to suffer more sleepless nights.

Young Robert McFarlane’s body was found outside the local church hall on 30th September 1923. But, his cause of death was drowning, and he’d been missing for three days before his body was found. No one was ever arrested for the crime. No answers could ever be given to the grieving family. The unsolved case has haunted Mason ever since.

But, the chance discovery of another victim, with worrying parallels, sets Mason, and his constable, O’Rourke, on a journey that will take them back over twenty-five years, the chance to finally solve the case, while all around them the uncertainty of war continues, impossible to ignore.

As this is something completely new to me, I’m going to share a snippet of the new book.

Chapter 1

Erdington, October 1943

Sam bit back the cry of pain, coming to an abrupt stop. The pavement was shaded with the colour of the advancing night, but even so, he knew where the uneven step was. He really shouldn’t have kicked it. Not again. Would he never learn?

He blinked the tears from his eye and lifted his right hand to rub it over the ache of his lower back. All these years, and still it hurt. It would never stop. He knew it, and yet sometimes, he forgot, all the same, only to be rudely reminded when he overbalanced or attempted to take a step that was just too wide.

There was a reason he was here and not on one of the many front lines of this terrible war, the second in his lifetime. There was a reason he was here while his son, John, fought in his place.

His breath rasped through his suddenly tight chest, and yet the thin shard of light from behind the tightly closed curtains encouraged him on. Inside, there was companionship, and it drove him onwards, made him quest to be a better man. Despite the fact he knew it wasn’t true.

“Come on,” he urged himself, and although it was going to ache, he forced his legs to move, left, then right, then left, and his hand reached up to push the welcoming door open.

Appetising smells greeted him, and he dredged a smile to his face, turning to hang his hat on the waiting peg and to shrug the overcoat from his thin shoulders, revealing his policeman’s uniform beneath. The blue so dark; it was almost black. He hooked his gas mask above his overcoat. There in case he should require it. But no bombs had fallen for half a year now. He hoped none ever would again. No voice was raised in greeting to his noisy arrival. It never was.

With the door closed and locked behind him, he slipped his feet from his black shoes, using one foot to force down the ankle and then doing the same in his socked-feet. It was better than being forced to bend when his back was so painful, even if it was destroying the back of his shoes, as his wife complained whenever she witnessed it. He’d taken to hiding his work shoes behind the boots he wore to the allotment. Better that Annie did not see them.

Opening the door that led into the heart of his home, he paused, just watching her for a heartbeat.

“Evening, love.” He bent to place a kiss on his wife’s head, refusing to notice the thinning brown hair, the streaks of grey making up more and more of it as the years passed. A skeletal hand reached up to grip his, and he squeezed tightly, settling beside her at the table.

A single lamp afforded the only light in the small kitchen, a warm fire burning in the hearth in the sitting room as he settled beside her. His wife didn’t so much as look at him. Sam considered that she didn’t want to see the ruin of her husband. 

Time hadn’t been kind to either of them and yet he couldn’t help but be grateful for the years they’d had together. It could have been so different. So many of his brothers-in-arms lost fighting over two decades ago. They would have loved to live long enough to see the ravages of time etched into their skin and characters, to grow weary with aches and pains, to learn the experiences that only time could afford.

A flurry of movement from Annie, and a plate was placed on the table before him, the lid swept aside. The steam took only a moment to clear, and he suppressed his rumbling stomach. It was a meal as any other day, not particularly appetising, and yet, food all the same. He was grateful for the potatoes, harvested from their garden, and the gleaming orange carrots, if not for the small sausages. Gravy pooled around the meat, and he closed his eyes, imagining a feast fit for a king, before meticulously cutting, eating and savouring every mouthful.

His wife didn’t speak, and neither did he. No doubt, she was as caught up in her thoughts as he was in his.

He considered reaching for his newspaper, but instead, his eyes were fixed by the bright image that lay open on the magazine discarded on the table before him. The Picture Post. Was there ever a magazine more filled with stories that titillated while offering little or no actual facts?

Not that he ever complained. Not anymore. If she enjoyed the stories and bright images of the adverts, then why should he? Anything that distracted her from the constant worry about their son. Anything.

Now, he found a smile tugging on his lips, and his mind cast him back to when his son had been a small boy. John had delighted in such simple antics as that on display. The custard advert enticed all parents to part with their hard-earned ration coupons. He couldn’t see that a liberal dollop of the sugary, creamy mixture would help any child become an athlete, professional cricket player or ballerina, but what did he know? He was just an old man, with a job that kept him busy and an ache in his heart where his youth had once been.

Sam reached for the folded newspaper, the smirk still playing on his lips.

“Don’t.” His wife’s voice shocked him, sounding more formidable than he’d heard for the last few years, ever since their son had left to fight Britain’s fresh battles against the might of Hitler and Germany.

He lifted his eyes to find hers boring into his.

“Don’t,” and now there was more softness, but it was too late. His eyes had alighted on what she’d been trying to keep from him.

Once more, he felt an unbidden tear form in the corner of his eye as he gazed at the hazy black and white photograph. Not that he didn’t know it intimately. He did. He’d stared at that image, and others besides, until they were emblazoned on his very soul, overriding even the final images of his lost comrades from the Great War, the war to end all wars. How wrong they’d been.

He swallowed, the burn making it feel as though it were cardboard and not the remnants of his dinner that he evacuated from his mouth.

“Again?” he felt the need to say something.

“Again,” she replied, and there was understanding and sorrow in that look, and he didn’t want any of it. He didn’t want to add to her fears and worries with his own.

“It was a long time ago,” he tried to reassure, reaching for her hand and encasing it within his. It was no longer soft but instead forged in iron, the wiry strength surprising him, even though it shouldn’t, not after all this time.

“It rolls around too quickly, these days,” a hint of a smile on her thin lips, blue eyes glistening with sorrow, and he realised that she was trying to reassure him. He hated it that she felt the necessity.

“And still, there’s no closure for the family.”

“No. But they’re not alone in that. Not anymore.” Her voice trailed off as she spoke, and he turned to gaze into the glow from the table lamp, allowing it to haze in front of him. She was right in that, as well. Many would never hold the knowledge of what exactly happened to their loved ones. Yet, there was a world of difference between adults and children. It was the fact he’d been a child that cut the deepest. 

His mind returned to that terrible day. How could it not? He’d been a young man, wounded and broken after his time at The Front, but at least he’d still breathed. Not like the splayed body found in the undergrowth close to the church hall, eyes forever staring. Somehow, the rigour mortis of a smile on that cherubic face, so that anyone could be forgiven for thinking the boy was merely caught in the act of playing hide and seek.

But the face had been blue and white, the eyeballs rimmed with the grey haze of death that he’d come to know so well during his time in the trenches before his injury had ensured he need never revisit the place.

In the faded light of the lamp, he watched the scene, as though he’d been a bird, able to watch from above. His eyes alighted, not on the corpse, but rather on his chief inspector, the man who’d made him who he was today, and yet who’d been broken by the failure to solve the death of the boy.

Sam found a soft smile playing around his lips. Fullerton had been a meticulous man, with his long mackintosh and tightly wedged police hat covering the tendrils of greying hair showing beneath it and in the sideburns that snaked down to meet the dark moustache quivering over his lips. Many would have been forgiven for thinking he had no compassion for the corpse. But no, he’d had more than most, but he had desired to solve the case, to bring the perpetrator to justice. It was a source of unending disquiet that it had never been possible.

It had marked him from that day he’d found Robert’s body to the day of his death.

It hadn’t been Sam’s first case, far from it, but it had felt like it. He’d learned so much, and yet it had never been enough. Not for young Robert McFarlane and his family.

He swallowed once more, his keen memory fastening on the scene. Or rather, on the way that the body had been presented. The murderer hadn’t killed young Robert beside the church hall behind the High Street. In fact, they’d never found the place the murder had truly taken place, only where the body had been found.

Sam thought of Mrs McFarlane, her tear-streaked face, her shaking shoulders. Her oldest son, taken from her, just as her husband had been by the enemy’s bullets during the Great War. There’d been so much grief and loss in the years during and after the war, if not dead on some far-flung battlefield, then carried away by the terrible Spanish influenza. It had all seemed never-ending. And then, the spark of an untainted future when all had seemed calmer, taken between one breath and the next.

Sam had never seen grief festoon someone so entirely. As Chief Inspector Fullerton had told her the news, she’d aged before their eyes. It had taken his quick reflexes to ensure she didn’t collapse to the floor on the bright red doorstep, her young daughters, wide-eyed and sobbing as they watched their mother, hands clasped tightly together, as though they could hold their mother up with such an act.

There’d been a time when Sam had wished Chief Inspector Fullerton hadn’t told Mrs McFarlane in such a way, his words hard and unfeeling, and yet, he’d come to appreciate that there was no right and wrong way to impart such terrible news. It was almost a kindness to say the words, ‘your son is dead,’ as quickly as possible. There was no need to use superfluous words, to offer sympathy, to say anything but the facts.

Her accusing eyes had followed him through the years. Why they’d said that day and many days since, is my son dead, while yours yet lives?

It was not Mrs McFarlane who’d marked the anniversary of her son’s death, each and every year for the last twenty years, but rather, her daughter. The older one, Rebecca, had taken on the responsibility for ensuring that no one ever forgot her brother when her mother sadly passed away, worn down by grief and loss, by the need to survive in a world turned upside down, with nothing but a war pension to ease the burdens. 

It was Rebecca who routinely sent letters asking for updates on the case. It was Rebecca that he tried to avoid at all costs when he saw her at church, on the tram or along the High Street. It was Rebecca who’d broken Chief Inspector Fullerton, in a rare show of emotion that shocked him to recall, even now. He’d never seen Fullerton like that. He’d never imagined Fullerton could be so very emotional that tears would run from his brown eyes, that he’d tear at what remained of his hair in frustration. 

Chief Inspector Fullerton had retired a few years ago, but he’d not lived long enough to enjoy it. Sam shook his head. One murder and so many lives destroyed, and still, the murderer was out there, perhaps hiding, perhaps luxuriating in what he’d managed to get away with, or maybe, he was dead as well, getting away with his crime for all time. Twenty years was a long time.

Sam was snapped from his reveries by a bowl appearing before him. Somehow, he’d become so lost in the past; he’d not even heard his wife stand at the stove for the last many minutes.

A cheeky smile from her, driving away the wrinkles and the grey streaks in her hair, making her look twenty years younger, and he looked down at the bowl before him.

“Custard?” he asked, enjoying the unusual light-hearted look on her face.

“I know it’s your favourite. There’s even some apple in there, somewhere, and some blackberries, picked from the country lane on my walk yesterday afternoon to Pipe Hayes Park.”

“How did you get it?” he asked, eagerly spooning the sweet mixture into his mouth.

“I’ve been saving my packets. I didn’t tell you. I know you wouldn’t be able to wait.”

“Then you have my thanks,” he grinned, fully returning to the present. He couldn’t do anything about the past. No matter how much he wished he could.

“This is delicious,” he complimented his wife, leaning back, hand on his full belly.

“Well, now you just need to wait another year, and then you can have more.” But there was a lightness to her voice when she spoke, and the flash of joy in her eyes cheered him. There was so much wrong with the world at the moment, and yet here, beside his wife, in their cosy front room, everything was well. Even if only for now.

Intrigued? The Custard Corpses is released on 25th March 2021, and you can preorder it here.

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The First Kingdom by Max Adams – New Release alert – historical non-fiction

Now, confession time, I’ve not quite finished reading yet, so my review is ‘pending,’ but it doesn’t matter. I’ve read enough to know this book is fantastic, and so I’m going to shout far and wide on its release day.

Here’s the blurb;

“The bestselling author of The King in the North turns his attention to the obscure era of British history known as ‘the age of Arthur’.

Somewhere in the dim void between the departure from Britain of the Roman legions at the start of the fifth century and the days of the venerable Bede, the kingdoms of Early Medieval Britain were formed. But by whom? And out of what?

Max Adams scrutinizes the narrative handed down to us by later historians and chronicles, stripping away the most lurid nonsense about Arthur and synthesizing the research of the last forty years to tease out strands of reality from myth. His central theme evolves from an apparently simple question: how, after the end of the Roman state, were people taxed? Rejecting ethnic and nationalist explanations for the emergence of the Early Medieval kingdoms, Adams shows how careful use of a wide range of perspectives from anthropology to geography can deliver a picture of the emergence of distinct polities in the sixth century that survive long enough to be embedded in the medieval landscape, recorded in the lines of river, road and watershed and in place names.”

To give you a taste of what you might find within the pages of The First Kingdom, I’m going to share my review for Ælfred’s Britain, another truly fantastic, and incredibly accessible and readable book.

“Aelfred’s Britain is an excellent book, not confining itself to the period of Alfred’s rule but comprehensively offering an account of England from the reign of Alfred’s grandfather to the end of the reign of his youngest grandson (King Eadred) in 955. This makes it much more than a book about Alfred and rather a book about Britain and the Vikings just before, after and during The First Viking Age.
Instead of focusing on England and the Vikings, the book covers the actvities of the Vikings in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, in a very similar vein to the wonderful book by Claire Downham ‘Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014’, along the way noting events on the Continent and in the homelands of the Vikings and Danes.
This is an important development in the history of the period and a step that should have been taken long, long ago. There is little point in knowing events in England in isolation during this period – a wider view point should and must be adopted.
The author also employs an enjoyable and enlightening look at the ‘map’ of Britain – offering something of a handy guide to the various ‘stopping-off’ points available to the men and women from Scandinavia along the coast and riverways.
Some may find the author’s naming conventions a little annoying – but it seems to me that all historians have a preferred naming convention and insist on sticking to it no matter what – and it is only a slight bug-bear but that is because I know much of the period well.
This is a far more ‘historical’ book than The King in The North (which I always felt was too much like a travel guide for comfort) but it is, at heart, a book by an archaeologist, and this means that the archaelogy is used to ‘clothe’ the ‘known’ historical facts and vice versa. Yet, and I must applaud this, the author, while relying on some slightly dubious ‘primary’ sources, does ensure that the reader is aware of this – and the reader would do well to heed the warnings.
Overall a very enjoyable book, filled with fascinating insights that adopts a view point that has been a long time in being applied to this time period.”

Hopefully, this sets the scene for the direction taken within the pages of The First Kingdom.

The First Kingdom is released today in ebook, hardback print book, and audio book, and you can purchase it here;

On a side note, I’ve just noticed that The King in the North is on special offer for just 99p as an ebook. You won’t be disappointed with this detailed analysis of the seventh century, and at times, you will truly be walking through the Northumbrian landscape.

Watch this space for my full review of The First Kingdom, which I’ll write as soon as I’ve finished reading. I’m savouring this one because it is just so good.

(This post contains some Amazon affiliate links)

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Murder at the Ritz by Jim Eldridge – Book Review – 1940s murder-mystery

Here’s the blurb;

“August 1940. On the streets of London, locals watch with growing concern as German fighter planes plague the city’s skyline. But inside the famous Ritz Hotel, the cream of society continues to enjoy all the glamour and comfort that money can buy during wartime – until an anonymous man is discovered with his throat slashed open.

Detective Chief Inspector Coburg is called in to investigate, no stranger himself to the haunts of the upper echelons of society, ably assisted by his trusty colleague, Sergeant Lampson. Yet they soon face a number of obstacles. With the crime committed in rooms in use by an exiled king and his retinue, there are those who fear diplomatic repercussions and would rather the case be forgotten. With mounting pressure from various Intelligence agencies, rival political factions and gang warfare brewing either side of the Thames, Coburg and Lampson must untangle a web of deception if they are to solve the case – and survive.”

Murder at the Ritz is the first book I’ve read by Jim Eldridge, but it won’t be the last.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable 1940s murder-mystery with enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing throughout the story. I loved the way the author embedded the story into the events of the time, with the threat of air bombs, and the tragedies they brought. The book felt quite claustrophobic in places, with the threat of the German invasion never far away.

The story felt very complete, and well researched – the gangsters, the British Fascist party, MI5, MI6, the Foreign Office, and that’s even without the events at the Ritz, and the murder!

Highly recommended. Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for my review copy.

Murder at the Ritz is available now in ebook and hardback from here.

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Welcome back to The Danish King’s Enemy – The Earls of Mercia Book II.

It’s taken a while, and the completely edited and slightly re-worked second book in The Earls of Mercia series has been available in paperback for about a year, but finally, I’ve had the ebook rights restored to me, and I’m able to share it with you all.

Now, I’ve changed the name again (I know, sorry) but it needed something to mark it as different from its two previous editions (Ealdormen and Viking Enemy) as it’s not quite the same book it used to be. It’s better – infinitely better – and more importantly for me, and hopefully for my readers, it now ‘fits’ much better with the stories I’ve written about Lady Elfrida. I’d made brief mention of her when I initially wrote the book, but I needed to bring her into it more, and indeed, I’ve done just that.

So, a new cover, a new title, and some additional bits and a few bits taken out, but still, Ealdorman Leofwine and his trusty allies, taking on King Æthelred, King Swein of Denmark and the rest of the ealdormen in England.

I hope you enjoy, and if you happen to fancy popping a review on the new edition, that would help me hugely. Thank you. Happy reading.

Here’s the blurb;

“Every story has a beginning.

Leofwine has convinced his king to finally face his enemies in battle and won a great victory, but in the meantime, events have spiralled out of control elsewhere.

With the death of Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, England has lost an ally, and Leofwine has gained an enemy. And not just any enemy. Swein is the king of Denmark, and he has powerful resources at his fingertips.

In a unique position with the king, Leofwine is either honoured or disrespected. Yet, it is to Leofwine that the king turns to when an audacious attack is launched against the king’s mother and his children. But Leofwine’s successes only bring him more under the scrutiny of King Swein of Denmark, and his own enemies at the king’s court.

With an increase in Raider attacks, it is to Leofwine that the king turns once more. However, the king has grown impatient with his ealdorman, blaming him for Swein’s close scrutiny of the whole of England. Can Leofwine win another victory for his king, or does he risk losing all that he’s gained?

The Danish King’s Enemy is the second book in the epic Earls of Mercia series charting the last century of Early England, as seen through the eyes of Ealdorman Leofwine, the father of Earl Leofric, later the Earl of Mercia, and ally of Lady Elfrida, England’s first queen.”

The reworked and edited book 1 – The Earl of Mercia’s Father is available in paperback. Hopefully, I’ll get the ebook rights restored to me in 2021.

And book X, The English King, will release on 28th January 2021.

Until them, I am running lots of promotions on the Earls of Mercia books so have a look each week.

(This blog post contains Amazon Affiliate links).

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To celebrate the release of The Last Enemy, my interviewer caught up with Lady Cyneswith.

I’m very honoured to have caught a few moments with Lady Cyneswith, the aunt of King Coelwulf. Thank you for finding the time to speak to me.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve discovered that my nephew is a very busy man, a bit rough around the edges some times, and so I’m delighted to speak with you on his behalf, smooth away any ruffles he might have caused.

Yes, I confess, I had noticed that he was short on time when I tried to speak with him earlier.

Short on time, and economical with his words. He is the king, you know, but of course, his priorities are with defeating the Raiders. I think there are those who don’t quite appreciate the persistence of the enemy. It takes a strong and decisive leader to defeat them, and we should be pleased to have one. Much better than our previous king, who gave up Mercia in exchange for his life. Shocking.

I speak for the whole of Mercia when I say we are so pleased to have such a man leading us. Some new, vigourous, blood was needed to ensure Mercia stayed together.

Our previous king, Burgred, was not blessed with the military requirements for the post. But then, I won’t be alone in believing that Burgred should never have been king. He only achieved what he did because of the manipulation of the natural right of succession.

So, you believe that all the kings since King Coelwulf, first of his name, were usurpers?

I make no bones about that. Mercia wouldn’t be in such peril if my family line had retained their hold on power, as they should have done. But, now is not the time to dwell on that. It’s important to think of the future, and of what is yet to be achieved, but which will be, and soon.

I asked King Coelwulf if had a few words to explain why people should read the latest book.

I imagine he said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t have time for reading, so I wouldn’t.’ And, of course, he means that, but it is difficult for him to appreciate the fascination others have with what he’s trying to achieve. So, I would say, read it and discover just what risks your king, and his warriors and ealdormen are making to ensure Mercia’s freedom. Read it, and understand the peril and take steps to ensure your freedom as well. 

And, have you read the latest book?

I have yes, and I’m pleased to say there’s a slightly bigger part for me in, than usual. Of course, it’s difficult with all the fighting to find room for the women of Mercia, but I’m sure that one day, in the not too distant future, Mercia will have female warriors to keep her safe. After all, anyone can learn to chop off someone’s head, or slice them through the neck, the skill, of course, is in staying alive afterwards.

Um, yes, quite. Thank you for that. I wondered if I could get a few words from you about King Alfred of Wessex.

No, not really. I don’t speak about neighbouring kings, and I’ve never met the man. Now, if you asked me about the king of Gwent, then I might have something to say about him, but you haven’t, and so, I don’t.

Could I ask you about the language used in the book? It’s quite strong in places.

While I have no particular need to hear such words, I can well appreciate that, on occasion, they might be warranted. After all, our king and his warriors are risking their lives every time they enter a battle against our enemy. I put it down to the rush of adrenaline, and hope everyone else does the same.

I asked King Coelwulf about his warriors, do you have any particular favourite amongst them?

I take pride in teaching all of the men some simple techniques to treat wounds received in battle. It’s important to know how to heal as well as to maim. My favourites are obviously those who listen carefully and learn what I teach them. 

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

It is of course, my pleasure, and my duty, as the king’s sole surviving relative. Under his leadership, Mercia will once more be great again.

And there you have it. An interesting interview with Lady Cyneswith, a most formidable woman. I should think she’d be as lethal on the battlefield as her nephew is proving to be.  If you haven’t read my earlier interview with King Coelwulf, then you can find it here.

The Last Enemy is available now in ebook and paperback from Amazon.

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(This blog post contains Amazon affiliate links)

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Today is the release day for The Last Enemy, and my interviewer caught up with King Coelwulf to talk about it.

A few weeks ago, I was granted exclusive access to King Coelwulf, to talk about his new book, The Last Enemy. Here’s what the enigmatic king of Mercia had to say.

King Coelwulf, thanks for allowing me entry into your stronghold at Northampton. It’s quite interesting to be at the heart of the Mercian defence against the Raiders. Now, can you tell me why people should want to read the fourth book about you, The Last Enemy?

“Well, I’m not saying that they will. I mean, if they’re like me, then they probably don’t have time to be reading a story. I’ve got bodies to bury, Raiders to hunt down, and a kingdom to rule. I would tell anyone to spend their time more wisely than reading a book. That sort of thing is for the monks and the clerics, not warriors trying to defend a kingdom.”

Ah, well, in that case, thank you for finding the time to speak to me.

“I didn’t have much choice. Or rather, I was advised it would be a good use of my time, by my Aunt, Lady Cyneswith.”

Well, Lady Cyneswith is a wise woman, and I’m grateful that she’s encouraged you to speak to me.

“She is a highly intelligent woman. Braver than many men when it comes to the Raiders, and skilled when it comes to healing injuries of the body, as well as the mind.”

And her dogs have very interesting names, what was it again? Wiglaf and Berhtwulf, surely the names of old Mercian kings? Men who usurped the ruling line from your family?

“Oh really. I’d never realised. Funny, that.”

Ah, well, moving on, could you tell me about your new book? I’m sure my readers would love to hear about it.

“Nothing to say really. Same old, same old. Raiders to evade, Raiders to find, Raiders to kill, a kingdom to keep whole. It’s a grand old bloody mess. I swear, I’ve barely managed to scrub the grime and body fluids from my sword and seax. Or rather, Wulfhere has. He’s a good lad. Quick on his feet. He’s one of my squires. Couldn’t do it without him.

That’s interesting that you should mention your squire, did you say? I wouldn’t have expected you to even know the lad’s name. After all, you are the king of Mercia, surely your squire is beneath you. Are there any more of your warriors you’d like to mention by name?

“Of course there are. I’d name them all if I had the time, which I don’t, just to make you aware. I’ve got to go to a crown-wearing ceremony shortly. But, I’ll mention a few, just to keep you happy. And you should know that no man is ever above knowing the names of those who serve him. Remember that. 

But, I’ll mention some of my warriors by name. If only because it’ll infuriate some of them. Edmund, he’s my right-hand man, a skilled warrior, missing an eye these days, but it’s not stopped him, not at all. His brother, Hereman. Well, where do I start? Hereman does things no one would consider, in the heat of battle, and he’s a lucky b……. man, sorry, he’s a lucky man. And then there’s Icel. He’s lived through more battles than any of the rest of my warriors. I almost pity the Raiders who come against him. None of them live for much longer. 

And Pybba. You know, he fights one handed now, and the Raiders seem to think he’s easy picking, but he’s not. Not at all. And, I can’t not mention Rudolf. He’s the youngest of my warriors, but his skill is phenomenal, not that you can tell him that. Cheeky b……, sorry cheeky young man. But, all of my warriors are good men, and we mourn them when they fall in battle, but more importantly, we avenge them all. All of them. No Raider should take the life of a Mercian without realising they’ve just ensured their own death.

Yes, I’ve heard that you avenge your men, with quite bloody means. And Edmund, there’s a suggestion that he’s a scop, a man who commits the deeds of the fallen to words? That fascinates me, as someone who also makes a living from using words.

“Well, Edmund has some small skills with words, but he honours our fallen warriors by weaving them into the song of my warriors. In fifty years, when we’re all dead and gone, our legend will live on, thanks to Edmund, and his words.

Can I ask you about Alfred, in Wessex? Have you met him? Do you think he’s doing a good job in keeping the Raiders out of Wessex?

“I’ve never met him. Couldn’t say either way. It’s not for me to comment on a fellow king. We’re all after the same thing. Kill the f……, sorry, kill the b……., sorry, kill the enemy. All of them, until Mercia is safe once more. And Wessex, if you’re from there.”

Well, it looks like you’re needed. Is that your crown?

“Yes, and now I need to go and perform some ceremonial task. It’ll take a long time, no doubt. Make sure you have an escort when you leave here. I wouldn’t put it passed the f……, sorry, the Raiders, to be keeping a keen eye on the bridge over the Nene. 

Thank you for your concern, and yes, I’ll make sure I do. Good luck with the new book.

“I don’t need luck. I just need to kill all the b……., sorry, Raiders. 

As you can tell, King Coelwulf was a very busy man. But his new book, The Last Enemy, is well worth a read. Bloody, brutal, just like the man himself, but I found him to be honourable and worthy of leading the Mercians against our persistent enemy. Long live the king.

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Book Review – The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married to a war-traumatised husband and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex where she is to photograph the contents of the house for auction.

She learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, and that the lady of the house has asked those who gathered back then to come together once more to recreate the evening. When a mysterious child appears on the grounds, Louisa finds herself compelled to investigate and becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house. Gradually, she unravels the long-held secrets of the inhabitants and what really happened thirty years before… and discovers her own fate is entwined with that of Clewer Hall’s.

An exquisitely crafted and compelling mystery that invites the reader in to the crumbling Clewer Hall to help unlock its secrets alongside the unforgettable Louisa Drew.

I’ve been drawn to books like The Quickening for my last few reads, and it’s helped that there’s been a good selection in the Kindle 99p sale.

The Quickening sits comfortably within its genre – it’s not a terrifying ghost story, although it is eerie in places, and with a definite supernatural element.

The main character, Louisa Drew, immediately earns the sympathy of the reader. A life challenged by recent tragedies, a desire to move on from them finds her in an uncomfortable position, hungering for the life she once led before the war, with the promise of the future not quite what she’d thought it might be. Combined with the secrets that permeate Clewer Hall, the scene is set for a fascinating and intriguing story as we learn more about Louisa, and more about the inhabitants and history of Clewer Hall, and the famous seance of thirty years before.

An enjoyable read.

I snapped this up for 99p in the kindle sale, and you can buy it here.

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Book Review – Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver – historical fiction. Recommended.

Here’s the blurb;

In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. 

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened. 

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

Spanning five centuries, Wakenhyrst is a darkly gothic thriller about murderous obsession and one girl’s longing to fly free by the bestselling author of Dark Matter and Thin Air

Wakenhyrst drew me in because of the blurb and the cover. It might have helped that I’ve just read a few books with a similar theme – supernatural mixed with historical fiction.

Wakenhyrst didn’t disappoint. The character of Maud was immediately engaging, that of her father, quite distant, until we get some way through the book, and the reader begins to realise the story is about the relationship between Maud, her father, the fen and the local church.

What delighted me about this book was just how deeply embedded it was in the distant past – both the Early English period, and the fifteenth century, moving forward to the early 1900s and also stopping off in the 1960s, making use of the pervading attitudes in all four time periods to drive the narrative.

It’s not an easy, pleasant read, but it is a worthwhile read, extremely atmospheric and with a little twist, right at the end, which makes sense of so much more. Recommended.

It was 99p on Kindle when I purchased it, and still was when I wrote this review. You can purchase here.

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Book Review – The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea – historical murder mystery

Here’s the blurb;

When Rósa is betrothed to Jón Eiríksson, she is sent to a remote village. 

There she finds a man who refuses to speak of his recently deceased first wife, and villagers who view her with suspicion. 

Isolated and disturbed by her husband’s strange behaviour, her fears deepen. 

What is making the strange sounds in the attic? 

Who does the mysterious glass figure she is given represent? 

And why do the villagers talk of the coming winter darkness in hushed tones?

The Glass Woman is an intriguing tale of Iceland in the late 1600s.

I make no bones that I am fascinated by Iceland, perhaps not during this time period, but earlier, when the country was being settled. I tried this book on the off-chance – Jane Eyre in Iceland – yes, please.

And indeed, it is a dark tale, told from the viewpoint of Rosa. It is dark, frightening and claustrophobic, and reads very much like a much more modern Icelandic ghost story I read recently. It makes you shiver, it makes you feel for Rosa, but then everything changes and the book is not at all what you think it’s going to be.

I found the story intriguing and engaging, and if it’s not Jane Eyre in Iceland, it’s because the book is actually much harsher.

A wonderful story, thoroughly enthralling.

The Earls of Mercia Series – what possessed me?

Somehow, and I have no idea how, I’m about to release Book X (yes X) in the Earls of Mercia series, and that doesn’t include the three direct side-stories, or Lady Estrid, which could also be said to be a side-story, books. I decided it was time to take a hard look at myself, and why my very first historical fiction project is proving to be the longest so far.

The Earls of Mercia inspiration

The last century of Early England is a place well-trodden by non-fiction and historical fiction authors, so why did I choose to tell it through the eyes of a handful of people who almost slip through the historical record unnoticed because of the ‘giants’ of the period?

History is filled with those who get swept aside because other events overtake their achievements, and so it is with the Earls of Mercia. They were a family who ‘ruled’ continually from 993 to 1066 – a feat not even achieved by the Wessex royal family, begun by King Alfred, during the same time period. In the annals of the time they’ve been pushed to the side by the likes of Eadric Streona, King Cnut and the family of Godwine, by the events of both 1016 and 1066, and also by the fact that when the family married into royalty, it was destined to be short-lived.

I ‘discovered’ my first character – Ealdorman Leofwine – while meandering down the aisle in a university library. By rights, I shouldn’t have been there, not in that section, and equally, I shouldn’t have gone on to write my dissertation about him, but I did, but only after I’d made him into a fictional character. So just what was it that made him so appealing as a character?

As I read about the family, in Stephen Baxter’s, The Earls of Mercia, Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England, I was flabbergasted that this character existed and yet hadn’t been put to good ‘use.’ Ealdorman Leofwine, his sons, grandsons, and great-grandchildren were witnesses to all of the events I’ve mentioned above. Not only did they witness them, but they were involved as well. I remember picking up and reading Frank Barlow’s book on the Godwines and being disgusted that Ealdorman Leofwine, Earl Leofric, Earl Ælfgar and his sons and daughter get little more than the odd mention. The desire to tell a story only about the Godwines excluded the perfect foil for them. I couldn’t allow that to stand.

But, how to tell the story of a century, of four generations? Initially, my idea was to tell a retrospective story, through the eyes of the great-grandson who did survive the tumultuous events of 1066, using the idea of a scribe writing down the family’s history while he was imprisoned at the request of William the Bastard for well over a decade. I still have the words I first wrote. But, that was not the route I eventually went down. No, I wanted to make Ealdorman Leofwine more than just someone’s ancestor, I wanted to make him a person in his own right, even if I do harbour the suspicion that he might have been retrospectively given greater influence than he might have claimed. 

And that is the path that I’ve continued to tread. My overarching ambition is to tell the story of the years from 993-1066, but each player must have their own story, they must all be allowed to live, before they die; they must all be people in their own right. And now, as I begin to retell the story that so many are familiar with, that of the reign of Edward the Confessor and the events that led to 1066, I’m pleased by my decision to ensure the Earls of Mercia have their own story to tell – and also by the fact that because of that, other historical characters are also having their story retold a little – the oft-forgotten or misunderstood characters, and that means kings as well as earls and great ladies. 

I’m pleased that people who read about the Earls of Mercia are able to consider that the Godwines were not quite the ‘top-dogs’ they might appear to be from such a distance. Not that it doesn’t involve playing around with what some might call the ‘facts’ but that is the joy of historical fiction – in getting to know my characters, in playing around with the information that we do have, I can find other possibilities, and they are not quite as far-fetched as it might be believed.

I began writing the first book in the Earls of Mercia series in 2011. Since then I’ve been slowly working my way backwards through Early England, as well as slightly forwards in Denmark. It has meant that the first two books in the series have undergone some subtle changes as they’ve been rereleased in paperback and the copyright returned to me by my publisher. So, for any who haven’t started the books yet, it isn’t necessary to start with book 1, or even book 2, but if you’re going to, then the paperback version – The Earl of Mercia’s Father – is the correct edition to read. But I genuinely hope, that it should be possible to pick up any of the books and still be able to understand what’s happening and enjoy the individual title.

The English King, Book X, is released on January 28th, and Book II, The Danish King’s Enemy, has just been rereleased.

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The Mirror Dance by Catriona McPherson – Book Review – 1930s murder mystery

Here’s the blurb;

Something sinister is afoot in the streets of Dundee, when a puppeteer is found murdered behind his striped Punch and Judy stand, as children sit cross-legged drinking ginger beer. At once, Dandy Gilver’s semmingly-innocuous investigation into plagiarism takes a darker turn. The gruesome death seems to be inextricably bound to the gloomy offices of Doig’s Publishers, its secrets hidden in the real stories behind their girls’ magazines The Rosie Cheek and The Freckle.

On meeting a mysterious professor from St Andrews, Dandy and her faithful colleague Alex Osbourne are flung into the worlds of academia, the theatre and publishing. Nothing is quite as it seems, and behind the cheerful facades of puppets and comic books, is a troubled history has begun to repeat itself.

The Mirror Dance is my first encounter with Dandy Gilver, even though this is book 15 of a 1930s mystery series.

The story is told from Dandy Gilver’s point of view, and while she does sometimes share thoughts and speech which are a little wordy, it doesn’t detract from the storyline, which is satisfying and quite deliciously complex.

Even though the voice of the narrator, Dandy, gives a few hints that all is not as it seems, I genuinely didn’t work out what had happened until it was revealed at the end.

A really enjoyable and entertaining read. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

The Mirror Dance is released on the 21st January 2021 in hardback and ebook and is available here;

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Welcome to today’s stop on the She Sees Ghosts by David Fitz-Gerald Blog Tour

Today I’m pleased to welcome David Fitz-Gerald and his new book, She Sees Ghosts, to the blog, and I have an exciting excerpt to share with you.

But, first things first, here’s the blurb:

“A blazing fire killed her family and devoured her home. A vengeful demon haunted her. Ghosts of the Revolutionary War needed help that only she could provide. A young woman languished, desperate to survive, and teetered on the edge of sanity.

Mehitable grew up in a freshly tamed town, carved from the primeval forest. Family, friends, and working at the mercantile filled her days and warmed her heart. For Mehitable, life was simple and safe, until tragedy struck. When her family perished in their burning home, she retreated into a world of her own making.

As a young girl, she had seen glimmers, glimpses, and flickers of the spirit world. She closed her eyes. She turned her back. She ignored the apparitions that she never spoke of, desperately hoping they would leave her in peace. She was mistaken.

Grief-stricken, Mehitable withdrew from the human world. Ghosts were everywhere. They became bolder. She could no longer turn her back on the spirit world. Her friends feared for her survival. Nobody understood her. She would have to find her own way.

Fans of TV’s Ghost Whisperer and Long Island Medium will especially love She Sees Ghosts. This historical novel features memorable characters and delivers bone-tingling, spine chilling goosebumps. It stands on its own and it is the next installment in the Adirondack Spirit Series by the award-winning author of Wanders Far―An Unlikely Hero’s Journey. David Fitz-Gerald delivers a historical novel with a bittersweet ending that you won’t see coming.

Would she save the spirits’ souls, or would they save her? Only time would tell.”

Trailer Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_PA9P2b3Q0&feature=youtu.be

And here’s the excerpt;

“Mehitable stood in the cemetery beside her family’s marker. It was the first time she had returned to the cemetery since the funeral, four years earlier. She had dreaded going to the cemetery and had to force herself to look upon the words carved into the stone. Though she felt a sense of loss every day, New Year’s Day was always particularly hard for her. The painful memories cascaded around her like snow dropping from heavily laden branches on a sunny winter morning. She brushed the tears from her cheeks with a wet mitten and inhaled. She was glad that she visited the cemetery after all. Soon she would move away with Polly and Reuben, and she might never return to Poultney again. Other than the fact that her toes were cold, she realized that the visit to the cemetery was quite peaceful.

As she began to leave the cemetery, something caught the corner of her eye. It was a man. Not just a man, but a soldier. She walked slowly toward the road and cast her vision to the ground in front of her, where she planned to place her feet. Even with her eyes diverted, she was able to watch the man whose path she was certain to cross. She couldn’t remember ever having seen a soldier before.

As she got closer, her pulse quickened. He was an imposing figure of a man. The closer she got, the more intriguing he looked.

Every couple of steps he stopped to look off into the woods or turned to look back down the road behind him. He put his fingers in his mouth and sent a shrill whistle trumpeting down the intervale below. Then he put his hands to his cheeks and called out, “Pendennis!”

Mehitable walked slowly toward him. Normally she would have walked briskly but she tarried along because she was fascinated. She felt drawn to him. He had a certain magnetism, though he seemed somewhat distracted. She wondered if he was looking for a child, or perhaps a dog.

The man looked to be in his mid to late twenties. He was tall, significantly taller than most men, even taller than Reuben. His shoulders were broad and his waist was narrow. Instead of a red coat or a blue coat, like the soldiers she had heard of, the man wore a dark green jacket with bright gold buttons that matched the tassels that dangled from epaulets at his shoulders. He wore a tricorne, beaver skin hat with a cockade that resembled a chamomile flower. His waistcoat was tight, like his jacket and matched the color of his snug breeches. His neatly tied white cravat and ruffled jabot adorned his neck and chest. His tall black riding boots looked immaculate. Mehitable had never seen such a well-dressed man. She was working up the courage to politely say, “How do you do?” when the man began to fade. She gulped and hurried her pace. The air smelled strangely of woodsmoke, horse manure, and pomander, that intoxicating scent of an orange spiked with rare and exotic cloves. It had not crossed her mind that the man was a spirit. She wondered at the strength of his presence.

She chastised herself for getting all out of sorts over a dead man. Yet she couldn’t resist stopping and turning to look when she heard his voice again, calling. “Pendennis!” When she turned, he stood at attention and stared straight into her eyes. Then he removed his hat, bowed deeply, sweeping his long arm dramatically behind him before returning his hat to his head. Mehitable turned and hurried away as quickly as she could.

Finally, when she could only hear his call far off in the distance, she turned to look one final time. He appeared as a tiny green dot surrounded by white snow on the top of the hill. Despite his flamboyance and the fact that he was dead, she couldn’t help having romantic thoughts about him. Thoughts she hadn’t entertained about living men or boys, except Reuben, briefly and occasionally before sending those thoughts from her mind. As she hurried up Lewis Road that afternoon, she compared the man to Reuben. He was a bit taller, more muscular, and his facial features looked strong and boyish at the same time.

She tried to put the man out of her mind, but she couldn’t shake a feeling of sadness over his loss, and she felt a desperate need to know what or for whom he was searching.”

If you’re intrigued, then the book is available now.

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Meet the author

David Fitz-Gerald writes fiction that is grounded in history and soars with the spirits. Dave enjoys getting lost in the settings he imagines and spending time with the characters he creates. Writing historical fiction is like making paintings of the past. He loves to weave fact and fiction together, stirring in action, adventure, romance, and a heavy dose of the supernatural with the hope of transporting the reader to another time and place. He is an Adirondack 46-er, which means that he has hiked all of the highest peaks in New York State, so it should not be surprising when Dave attempts to glorify hikers as swashbuckling superheroes in his writing. She Sees Ghosts―A Story of a Woman Who Rescues Lost Souls is the next instalment in the Adirondack Spirit Series.

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The Windsor Knot by S J Bennett – Book Review – Contemporary Murder Mystery

Here’s the blurb;

The first book in a highly original and delightfully clever crime series in which Queen Elizabeth II secretly solves crimes while carrying out her royal duties.

It is the early spring of 2016 and Queen Elizabeth is at Windsor Castle in advance of her 90th birthday celebrations. But the preparations are interrupted when a guest is found dead in one of the Castle bedrooms. The scene suggests the young Russian pianist strangled himself, but a badly tied knot leads MI5 to suspect foul play was involved. The Queen leaves the investigation to the professionals—until their suspicions point them in the wrong direction.

Unhappy at the mishandling of the case and concerned for her staff’s morale, the monarch decides to discreetly take matters into her own hands. With help from her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian and recent officer in the Royal Horse Artillery, the Queen secretly begins making inquiries. As she carries out her royal duties with her usual aplomb, no one in the Royal Household, the government, or the public knows that the resolute Elizabeth will use her keen eye, quick mind, and steady nerve to bring a murderer to justice.”

So, this isn’t quite historical fiction, but it’s mainly set at Windsor Castle, so I’m going with it. The Windsor Knot was in the Kindle sale for 99p, and I decided to try it out on a whim, and I’m pleased I did. What I initially thought to be a cosy-mystery is a bit more than that and the plot becomes more and more complex as the queen wades through the information available to her.

What I really enjoyed was the way the author managed to move the queen through the duties of her day to day business and still find time for her to be thinking more than the people at MI5.

Set in 2016, just before her 90th birthday, this book is very much centred around the queen, and the people she trusts who have far more freedom than she does to get to the people and places she needs information about. There are no end of false leads and the two main characters, that of the queen and her personal secretary, Rosie, are well-constructed and engaging. And, although he only makes the odd appearance – Prince Phillip is a delight as well.

If you’re looking for a (reasonably) light-hearted murder-mystery that’s well-grounded in today’s world, then I would recommend this, and for 99p, it’s an absolute steal. Not my usual read but a delight all the same.

The Windsor Knot is available now.

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