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Today, I’m reviewing The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy (Roman historical fiction) as part of its new release blog tour

Here’s the blurb:

AD 105: DACIA

The Dacian kingdom and Rome are at peace, but no one thinks that it will last. Sent to command an isolated fort beyond the Danube, centurion Flavius Ferox can sense that war is coming, but also knows that enemies may be closer to home.

Many of the Brigantes under his command are former rebels and convicts, as likely to kill him as obey an order. And then there is Hadrian, the emperor’s cousin, and a man with plans of his own…

Gritty, gripping and profoundly authentic, The Fort is the first book in a brand new trilogy set in the Roman empire from bestselling historian Adrian Goldsworthy.

The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy is good ‘Roman’ era fiction.

Set in Dacia in AD105, it is the story of ‘The Fort’ under the command of Flavius Ferox, a character some will know from Goldsworthy’s previous trilogy that began with Vindolanda.

Mistakenly thinking this was an entirely new trilogy with all new characters, it took me a while to get into the story. Everyone seemed to know everyone else apart from me. But Ferox is a good character, and he grounded me to what was happening in the immediate vicinity of the Fort, and apart from once or twice, it didn’t really matter what had gone before.

This is a story of suspicions, ambition and lies, and it rumbles along at a good old pace. This isn’t the story of one battle, but rather many, a slow attrition against the Romans by the Dacians.

Overall, this was an enjoyable novel, and some of the fighting scenes were especially exciting. Those with an interest in Roman war craft will especially enjoy it, although, I confess, I don’t know my spatha from my pilum (there is a glossary, fellow readers, so do not fear.)

About the author

Adrian Goldsworthy has a doctorate from Oxford University. His first book, THE ROMAN ARMY AT WAR was recognised by John Keegan as an exceptionally impressive work, original in treatment and impressive in style. He has gone on to write several other books, including THE FALL OF THE WEST, CAESAR, IN THE NAME OF ROME, CANNAE and ROMAN WARFARE, which have sold more than a quarter of a million copies and been translated into more than a dozen languages. A full-time author, he regularly contributes to TV documentaries on Roman themes.

Adrian Goldsworthy , Author , Broadcaster , Historical consultant .

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Poison Keeper by Deborah Swift

Today I’m delighted to welcome Deborah Swift to the blog with a fascinating post about the historical research she undertook to write her new book, The Poison Keeper.

Researching Giulia Tofana

Finding an Enigma

I first came across Giulia Tofana on the internet when I was researching herbs for a different novel. I was immediately fascinated but somewhat daunted as it was quickly apparent that she was more of a legend than a real historical figure, although undoubtedly that figure was grounded in truth. By far the best and most thorough article about her online is this one by Mike Dash. https://mikedashhistory.com/2015/04/06/aqua-tofana-slow-poisoning-and-husband-killing-in-17th-century-italy/

This was my starting point, and I probably followed his footsteps a lot of the way, but I needed more context because I had a whole society to build, not just one woman. His article contains a thorough list of references most I which I consulted through Academia and JStor, where academic papers are available to subscribers for a fee. This included articles by the British Medical Journal on poisons, and articles about the Seventeenth Century Judiciary, or articles about the poison Giulia Tofana invented, Aqua Tofana. Everyone has theories about what the poison was made of, but no-one has absolute proof. The prime suspect is a combination of arsenic and a crushed herb which is a type of toadflax.

pic of Academic articles

My search for the truth was hampered by the fact that I don’t speak Italian, however I did do Latin at school and that definitely helped when faced with a text in Italian and ‘Google Translate!’

The sources that are available for Giulia Tofana are all secondary, but most are available as on the internet and many written years after her death. From my research it is apparent that there are records for the deaths of Theofania di Adamo in 1633 (probably her mother) and Girolama Spara (her daughter) in 1659, and that they were both executed for their part in the poisonings. Giulia Tofana, although by far the best known of this trio of women is herself a shadow in the background of this story, which is why I chose her as the subject of my book. Here is the diary of Giacinto Gigli on JStor which I found very useful. It makes reference to Giulia Tofana and I used it again especially for the second in this series, The Silkworm Keeper when Giulia goes to Rome. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w76twr.6?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Background Research

The Italians’ reputation as keen poisoners can be traced back as far as the Borgias. I read anything I could find on the Borgias and their ‘cantarella’ or poison. According to the Encyclopaedia of Toxicology this was a mixture of copper, arsenic, and phosphorus, prepared in the decaying carcass of a hog. I also researched antidotes which sounded equally outlandish, Venice Treacle for example contained rotting viper’s flesh, and the use of Bezoar stones which were imported from the East and were stones from the stomach of a yak. 

Apart from this, my main concern was to paint a portrait of a realistic woman who existed in her milieu, and for that I needed mostly books. When researching I always invest in books I might need. One particularly useful book about women of this period is Women in Italy – 1350 -1650 Ideals and Realities by Mary Rogers and Paola Tinagli. For example, one woman’s advice to another woman in a letter:

“If your husband beats you or torments you and keeps bad company, you should blame your bad behaviour, your excessive loquacity and extreme obstinacy, which would be enough to make you unpleasant even in hell.”

The ‘friend’ certainly pulls no punches! But the real extracts from letters give a fantastic insight into the mind-set of the age, and many insights into how repressive the society for women was, and why the cult of poisoning was so strong. I also investigated Italian courtesans in Naples who formed a vast number of the population, and there are several extracts about them in the books I have on my desk. There are currently 27 books on my desk relating to this project,

Research Books

Mapping the Territory

Two things that were incredibly useful to me were the maps of Palermo and Naples that I used to orientate myself to the geography. Have a look at this fantastic map of Naples on Wikimedia here which is dated very close to the time period in which the novel takes place. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Alessandro_Baratta%2C_pianta_di_Napoli_1629.jpg

Maps were particularly useful as my research trip to Naples was cancelled because of Covid. The street names, and landmarks could then be explored on google maps. I am writing the sequel now, and also used online guided tours of The Vatican and Rome. Sometimes video views of Italian works of art with a good guide can be more informative than a real tour where you are wrestling with crowds and the heat.

Map of Palermo (Palermo Wikipedia 1024px-Palermo_-Braun&_Hogenberg,_1588-97)

The novel is born

Of course putting all this together in a novel is like constructing the star on a Christmas tree, there’s a lot holding up the story, but it might not be the focus of the reader’s attention. I am always surprised how little of all this makes its way to the pages, but as a writer I would feel quite unsupported without it all. In the end I invented incident to keep the plot moving, but only where it would fit within the context of the time and place and what was plausibly known of Giulia Tofana. But in the end, this is fiction, and my sincerest wish is for the research not to show!

Thank you so much for hosting me!

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. I find maps incredibly helpful, even when they’re centuries older than the storyline, because they show the old streets which can have changed radically in recent years. Good luck with the new book. Intrigued, here’s the blurb.

Here’s the blurb:

Naples 1633

Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.

Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.

Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.

The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.

Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.

‘Her characters so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society

The Poison Keeper is available with Kindle Unlimited.

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Meet the Author


Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner. 

Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.

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Book Review – The Girl Who Died by Ragnor Jonasson (1980s’s Icelandic mystery)

Here’s the blurb:

Teacher Wanted At the Edge of the World

Una wants nothing more than to teach, but she has been unable to secure steady employment in Reykjavík. Her savings are depleted, her love life is nonexistent, and she cannot face another winter staring at the four walls of her shabby apartment. Celebrating Christmas and ringing in 1986 in the remote fishing hamlet of Skálar seems like a small price to pay for a chance to earn some teaching credentials and get her life back on track.

But Skálar isn’t just one of Iceland’s most isolated villages, it is home to less than a dozen people. Una’s only students are two girls aged seven and nine. Teaching them only occupies so many hours in a day and the few adults she interacts with are civil but distant. She only seems to connect with Thór, a man she shares an attraction with but who is determined to keep her at arm’s length.

As darkness descends throughout the bleak winter, Una finds herself more often than not in her rented attic space – the site of a local legendary haunting – drinking her loneliness away. She is plagued by nightmares of a little girl in a white dress singing a lullaby. And when a sudden tragedy echoes an event long buried in Skálar’s past, the villagers become even more guarded, leaving a suspicious Una seeking to uncover a shocking truth that’s been kept secret for generations.

I’m fascinated by Iceland’s history and that’s why I chose this book (even though it’s not strictly historical at all).I read The Girl Who Died some months ago, and it struck me as a particularly good winter read. Here’s what I had to say at the time.

The Girl Who Died toys with the reader – is it a murder mystery, a ghost story or the story of a woman before her murder? At one point, all of these seem to be possible.

I really enjoyed the story, it kept me up reading, under the covers, long into the night until I had to stop because I was a bit terrified. For a short book, it certainly packs a punch.

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

The Girl Who Dies is released today, 10th June 2021, and is available from here.

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Sisters At War by Clare Flynn

Today, I’m excited to share a post from Clare Flynn about the research she undertook when writing Sisters At War, and the particular resources she relied on.

Thanks for hosting me on your blog today. 

You asked me to talk about my research methodology. I hesitate to use the word methodology as that implies I have a strict disciplined and systematic approach, whereas mine tends to be more exploratory and often serendipitous. It seems I’m the opposite to you, MJ, I’m a writer first and then a historian.

I usually start with a big pile of books to read around the subject. While I mostly read fiction on an e-reader, all my non-fiction research books have to be physical copies. I don’t necessarily read everything cover-to-cover although sometimes I do if it warrants it. I tend to begin like a magpie hopping around and grasping things, then I turn into a rabbit and disappear down the research hole! 

For Sisters at War I read a wide range of books – about the merchant navy in general and during World War 2 in particular, about the Liverpool Blitz, general background on the war, on the Wrens, on life on the home front, on the rounding up of Italian “aliens”, etc. I visited Liverpool and bagged a pile of Blitz books – including photographic books from the Museum of Liverpool. The latter – which I visited before I started writing the book ­– also had an excellent photographic exhibition of the Merseyside Blitz with memories of those there. I often find images more helpful than words in creating a believeable canvas on which to paint my story.

REFERENCE BOOKS AND MAPS (author’s own)

A sense of place is very important to me. I was born in Liverpool ten years after the end of the war, then left as a child, and the war changed the cityscape dramatically. I ended up buying about a dozen street maps from pre-war to cover the entire area in detail – I have a bit of a thing for maps and even if I don’t always use actual place names or street names I like to place them exactly. I also look at public transport timetables, and bus routes. I also have detailed maps of the Liverpool docks before and during the war.

Sadly, everyone in my family who was around in the war is now dead, but I drew on what I remembered from my mother’s stories of her childhood – and read accounts in the Museum of Liverpool and listened to testimonies online. 

I do a lot of online research. Unable to visit Liverpool again while writing the book, I discovered the excellent website for the Western Approaches museum. I was able to wander freely around this underground rabbit warren using the excellent virtual tour – almost as good as  being there and without stairs to climb! Western Approaches is a giant underground bunker under the streets of Liverpool and was the nerve centre of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Western Approaches Map Room with permission of photographer, Mark Carline

To immerse myself in the period I also use music – I listen to songs that were popular at the time, films – I’ve always been a fan of old black & white movies and grew up on a diet of old war films, fashions – I have various books on period fashion and supplement them with online research – Pinterest is often a treasure trove as are old sewing patterns.

Part of the book is set in Australia – in Tatura in Victoria where there was an internment camp for civilian enemy aliens shipped out there by Britain, and a little bit in Sydney. I lived briefly  in Sydney so had my own memories to draw on, backed up with online research and Google Earth. I’ve never been to Tatura (a bit of a one-horse town) but the family of my brother’s wife come from nearby Mooropna and I was able to check if I had my impressions of the scenery right – again supplemented with online research. I found a video on YouTube of a train journey between Melbourne and Sydney – edited down to two hours so I was able to experience the scenery for real! I also did a lot of digging to make sure I was having my ships dock at the right quay in Melbourne and again looked at old YouTube videos and maps.

I chanced upon the tragic stories of the Italian ‘aliens’ and their experiences on the two ships, the Arandora Star and the Dunera while reading about Italians in Britain in WW2. That led me to lots more online research – including videoed testimonies from the surviving ‘Dunera Boys’ recorded in the 1980s-90s.

HMT DUNERA IN 1940 – credit Australian War Museum, public domain

While I read, watch, look and listen, I take notes in longhand. I have a dedicated notebook for each novel and go back and highlight the areas I want to include and cross things out once I have used them. I do far more research than I include in any given book and try to wear the research lightly. There is nothing worse than reading novels where you feel you are sitting in a lecture hall as the author displays all their knowledge in front of you. The research is there to serve the story not the other way round. And a lot of research is not used at all – it’s fact checking, making sure dates are correct, checking the tiny details that add flavour and colour, and making sure no anachronisms creep in – particularly in speech. I also try to check every historical reference as often we can make erroneous assumptions. An example – I have a character listening to one of Churchill’s famous speeches on the wireless – the one at the time of Dunkirk – and had assumed the broadcast was the one we are familiar with now with Churchill’s stirring rendition. In fact it was not! When that speech was first brodacast it was read by a BBC announcer. It was only later that Churchill recorded himself for rebroadcasting. That meant I needed to rewrite that scene.

You asked what draws me to ‘play with the facts’ but as I don’t write biographical fiction, I don’t see it as playing with facts. All my characters are fictitious – although their experiences draw on my discoveries about real people’s similar ones in wartime. My characters are also ‘ordinary people’ so the historical facts are dates, times and locations of bombs, etc – all of which form the hard scaffolding on which I hang my entirely fictitious story. I am meticulous about repecting the history.

My approach to research is more as a creative exercise. I’m not someone who locks themselves away in a library for months before they begin writing. I do some reading in advance but for the most part I dip in and out, moving between writing the book and reading around the subject. Frequently, something that crops up in my research feeds the story and takes it in a direction I had not anticipated before starting – so it is a huge aid to creativity. For example I had not planned to write about the experience of Italian aliens – but once I discovered their dramatic and often tragic stories I had to bring back Paolo Tornabene – a minor character in Storms Gather Between Us – and give him a significant role in Sisters at War. As you will have gathered by now, I am not a planner – my stories evolve as I write and research them.

I hope this has given you some insight into how I work and thank you very much, MJ, for giving me the chance to share it. 

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s always so fascinating to discover how authors go about creating their stories. I’m not one for much planning either. The story comes to me as I write and research. Good luck with Sisters At War.

Here’s the blurb:

1940 Liverpool. The pressures of war threaten to tear apart two sisters traumatised by their father’s murder of their mother.

With her new husband, Will, a merchant seaman, deployed on dangerous Atlantic convoy missions, Hannah needs her younger sister Judith more than ever. But when Mussolini declares war on Britain, Judith’s Italian sweetheart, Paolo is imprisoned as an enemy alien, and Judith’s loyalties are divided.

Each sister wants only to be with the man she loves but, as the war progresses, tensions between them boil over, and they face an impossible decision.

A heart-wrenching page-turner about the everyday bravery of ordinary people during wartime. From heavily blitzed Liverpool to the terrors of the North Atlantic and the scorched plains of Australia, Sisters at War will bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart.

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Meet the Author

Clare Flynn is the author of thirteen historical novels and a collection of short stories. A former International Marketing Director and strategic management consultant, she is now a full-time writer. 

Having lived and worked in London, Paris, Brussels, Milan and Sydney, home is now on the coast, in Sussex, England, where she can watch the sea from her windows. An avid traveler, her books are often set in exotic locations.

Clare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of The Society of Authors, ALLi, and the Romantic Novelists Association. When not writing, she loves to read, quilt, paint and play the piano. 

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Welcome to today’s stop on the audio tour for The Sterling Directive by Tim Standish

Today I’m delighted to welcome Tim Standish to the blog with a fascinating post about his alternative historical fiction novel, The Sterling Directive.

Weaving with history: developing an alternative Victorian world for The Sterling Directive

A question that I get asked a lot by people when they first read The Sterling Directive is why write an alternative-history rather than a straight history novel? The simple answer is that it’s a genre that has always interested me. I loved the ‘Future Shock’ stories in the comic 2000AD that I read growing up and novels like Fatherland by Robert Harris as well as counterfactual exploration of the more serious kind, for example in the excellent ‘What if?’ series of historical essays.

The first inkling I had of The Sterling Directive, and long before I even knew I was writing a novel, was an idea for a scene of two men duelling on a late Victorian station platform. By then I had come across, and was greatly enjoying, the burgeoning genre of steampunk – its blend of geeky scifi and Victorian society really struck a chord with me and infused this scene from the beginning.

Several years later, when I began to write in earnest, I was consciously sitting down to write an alt-historical novel of the kind that I would enjoy reading – probably a thriller, definitely story-led and in a world that was a recognisable alternative not too far from our own world. 

I wanted to create an alternative history that that supported the story rather than driving the story, one that was alternative but alternative ‘in the background’, as part of a believable world that had evolved organically away from actual history. The science fiction writer William Gibson was a big influence on this choice, as he does a great job of revealing a dystopian future as a world that seems as natural to me as a reader as it does to the characters within it, for example in his novels Count Zero or Virtual Light.

I had read enough Victorian-set fiction, as well as works in the expanding alt-Victorian genre, to have a broad sense of the setting. However, while existing knowledge was enough to get me started, I realised pretty quickly that there would be an ongoing list of research questions large and small that I would need to answer along the way. These ranged from the micro ‘what would an evening gown look like in 1896’ to the macro ‘How might the Confederate States have won the American Civil War?’.

For very specific questions my first port of call was the internet. Given the wider fascination with the Victorian and Edwardian eras, I soon discovered there is a wealth of information to be found on sites ranging from personal blogs to academic research centres. The online catalogues of museums and auction galleries were also a boon when it came to furniture, and other odds and ends for set dressing. From time to time my searching for one thing accidentally led me to something else – the Stirn Waistcoat Camera was one such item that provided a helpful boost to a particular aspect of the plot. 

Social media is also a superb resource for this sort of thing, for example @WikiVictorian on Twitter and @millywdresshistorian on Instagram whose eclectically curated photos are a great source of creative sparks.

The broader questions that needed answering inevitably involved some more in-depth research. 

In The Sterling Directive’s world Babbage’s Difference Engine has given rise to a late Victorian computer age. This is a familiar theme in alt-Victorian fiction, though one that I wanted to firmly root in reality. Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, exploring the early use of the telegraph and drawing similes to the early internet provided an excellent starting point and something that I returned to time and again. Another is Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age by Mike Hally. Kevin Mitnick’s books describing his experiences as a hacker in the early days of computing were also a great source of anecdotes and personalities. 

In terms of the people and politics of Victorian society, I started with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and read out from there. I also went to a Victorian History symposium at the V&A and the associated book, The Victorian Visionprovided another good jumping off point. Donald Thomas’ The Victorian Underworld was another, as was Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Probably because it has always interested me, and because it is the centre of the protagonist’s world in The Sterling Directive, I did quite a lot of reading into the early days of espionage. Christopher Andrew’s histories of MI6 and MI5 were early influences, particularly the descriptions of the Topographical and Statistical Department which inspired shady off-book agency The Map Room and their governmental antagonists The Bureau of Engine Security in The Sterling Directive. Michael Smith’s The Spying Game was another key source as was John Hughues-Wilson’s The Puppet Masters, a world history of spying.

Image by T Standish

Finally, one key source for everything and anything was my brother. Far more widely read than myself, and with a background in antiquarian books, his encyclopaedic knowledge was invaluable at various stages, from pointing out that a song a character was singing hadn’t been written yet, to recommending books. 

Hopefully that gives you a sense of where the historical aspects of The Sterling Directive came from, but what about the ‘alternative’ part? Having already decided that I wanted something less divergent and fantastical, it struck me that it would be helpful to set a broad frame and to have some rules of thumb in place.

In terms of a frame, I used Charles Babbage’s invention of the Difference and Analytical Engines as a point of divergence; in my timeline the Engines were actually a success and kick-started a Victorian computer age. It’s a relatively common notion in ‘steampunk’ fiction which can lead to wildly differing and often fantastical versions of history. 

I wanted to plot a more organic evolution from this starting point. My first bit of reasoning was that the development of Babbage’s Engines would lead to domestic computers for richer households by 1896 (when The Sterling Directive is set). I saw this as broadly analogous to the time elapsed between the use of the Bletchley Park ‘bombes’ in the second world war and the spread of basic personal computers at home in the mid to late 1980s and early 90s. That time period became my overall benchmark for computing technology and its likely impact on a Victorian world. 

Using this as a broad frame I also developed some principles or rules of thumb to judge alternative ideas ‘out’ or ‘in’:

  1. Access to computing power means calculations and hence research can be accelerated and that new technologies can emerge 15-20 years early. For example: airships are commonplace.
  2. Inventions and ideas that existed but at the fringe can become more mainstream. For example: a mechanised version of Bertillon’s measurement system is the default means of identifying people. 
  3. Wider use of technology will have a destabilising impact on broader societal norms. For example: Suffragettes are an active lobbying group in the 1890s.
  4. Rules are breakable if doing so a) serves the plot or b) is cool. For example: transport devices used in Chapter 20, details of which would be a spoiler! 

Some of the changes I introduced were based on outliers from real history, or by introducing them earlier than in reality. For instance, I decided that Brunel’s wide-gauge railways were a commercial and UK-wide success (and, crucially for one scene, allowed the heroes to have a game of billiards as they travelled).

Some changes were a product of transposing an approximation of the 1980s into an approximation of the 1890s and were often in the background. One of my favourites was based on the Hard Rock café style of themed restaurants that I remember being quite the thing in the 1980s. I wondered what a Victorian version of this would be like and had the idea of a Dickens-themed chain of restaurants called ‘Pickwicks’, that I imagined would be festooned in memorabilia and merchandise and perfect for a low-key lunch in an airport. 

Finally, some changes were a result of the sorts of questions posed by historians in the What-if? series of books. The biggest one of these in The Sterling Directive is ‘What if the Confederates won the Civil War?’ shortly followed by ‘How would that happen?’ and ‘What would that mean for the rest of the world?’. It is a big question that I only begin to answer in The Sterling Directive. It’s one that I’ll continue to tackle as the series progresses, starting with the second book which takes place in The Confederate States of America in 1898. A shelf or two of reading awaits…

Thank you so much for sharing your research and reasoning. It sounds fascinating – playing with ‘history’ in such a way.

Here’s the blurb:

It is 1896. In an alternative history where Babbage’s difference engines have become commonplace, Captain Charles Maddox, wrongly convicted of a murder and newly arrested for treason, is rescued from execution by a covert agency called the Map Room. 

Maddox is given the choice of taking his chances with the authorities or joining the Map Room as an agent and helping them uncover a possible conspiracy surrounding the 1888 Ripper murders. Seeing little choice, Maddox accepts the offer and joins the team of fellow agents Church and Green. With help from the Map Room team, Maddox (now Agent Sterling) and Church investigate the Ripper murders and uncover a closely guarded conspiracy deep within the British Government. Success depends on the two of them quickly forging a successful partnership as agents and following the trail wherever, and to whomever, it leads. 

An espionage thriller set in an alternative late 19th-century London.

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Meet the Author

Tim Standish grew up in England, Scotland and Egypt. Following a degree in Psychology, his career has included teaching English in Spain, working as a researcher on an early computer games project, and working with groups and individuals on business planning, teamworking and personal development.
He has travelled extensively throughout his life and has always valued the importance of a good book to get through long flights and long waits in airports. With a personal preference for historical and science fiction as well as the occasional thriller, he had an idea for a book that would blend all three and The Sterling Directive was created.


When not working or writing, Tim enjoys long walks under big skies and is never one to pass up a jaunt across a field in search of an obscure historic site. He has recently discovered the more-exciting-than-you-would-think world of overly-complicated board games.

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for the audiobook of The Assassins by Alan Bardos

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Alan Bardos to the blog with a post about the historical research he undertook to write The Assassins.

My main research process is to start by reading every book I can on the subject I’m writing about in order to get an overview of the period and an understanding of the events in the story. My aim is to write a work of fiction based on historical events so I try to remind myself that I’m not writing a textbook every so often. However, there is a lot of background information in The Assassins which was needed to put the events into context.

The first book I read on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was David James Smith’s, ‘One Morning in Sarajevo’, which proved to be a great place to start; providing a detailed introduction to the assassins, what motivated them and the volatile political situation in the Balkans at the time.

It also had an extensive bibliography that led me to Vadmire Dedijer’s, ‘The Road To Sarajevo’, which is the definitive books on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. These two books were the foundation for my research. With other books providing more specialist information.

‘The Archduke and the Assassin’, by Lavender Cassels, is a particularly good biography of Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand and a gold mine of information about the Young Bosnia movement that produced the assassins and Austro-Hungarian intelligence’s failure to detect them; which is a major storyline in my novel. ‘Archduke of Sarajevo: The Romance & Tragedy of Franz Ferdinand of Austria’, by Gordon Brook-Shepherd, is specifically about Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s relationship which formed the heart of the novel.

In terms of the events that led to the outbreak of the First World War: ‘Thirteen Days: The Road to the First World War’, by Clive Ponting, was my main book giving a day by day account of the diplomatic crises that led to the outbreak of the war, from the perspective of all the protagonists. There were other books that helped add detail, but these were my principal go to books in writing The Assassins.

Once I have a clear idea of a story I like to try and find first hand accounts. In my most recent books I’ve gone to the reading room of the Imperial War Museum and the National Archive. Unfortunately I did not have access to these type of resource when writing The Assassins, but the wealth of books on the subject do provide excerpts from primary sources. For example ‘The Road To Sarajevo’, gave extensive firsthand accounts. Including parts of Gavrilo Princip’s interview with the Police after carrying out the assassination. 

The main problem I had when researching The Assassins was that some of the books often contradicted each other and repeated mistakes. So my mantra was, when in doubt do what was best for the story.

This was particularly prevalent when trying to work out where the Assassins were standing when they made their first attempt on Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. This is largely because the assassins themselves gave varying accounts and changed positions.

Once I have a clear idea of the story and where it is set I carry out research trips, to get a flavour of places and to pick up details you could never get from a book.

The centre piece of my research was a trip to Sarajevo, which helped me get a feel for the city and imagine how it would have felt in 1914. It was very humbling to stand in the place where Princip would have stood when he assassinated Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. The main thing that the trip brought home was how close everything was to each other. The boarding house where Princip lived is about 5 minutes walk from the corner where he assassinated Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. 

However many of the streets and buildings had changed in the cities turbulent history. So I had to make educated guesses as to where some of the buildings would have been by studying maps, old postcards and photographs of the time.

1. Graf & Stift car

The Museum of Military History in Vienna, was also a fascinating place to visit, it has the Graf & Stift car in which Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were in when they were shot, as part of an exhibit about the assassination. This includes three of the assassins’ guns, some of the bombs recovered after their arrest, the chaise longue Franz Ferdinand died on and his blood-stained uniform.

2. Pistol

Artstetten Castle in Austria, where Sophie and Franz Ferdinand are buried, is an incredible place to see. It has a museum established by Sophie and Franz Ferdinand’s great-granddaughter and has the feel of walking through a family scrapbook. It has a very good display on the assassination, including the official programme of events for the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo which was useful when putting together those chapters.

Sophie and Franz Ferdinand’s favourite country seat, Konopiste Castle, is also a beguiling place to visit with a tour of Sophie and Franz Ferdinand’s private apartments. It features a few artefacts from the assassination including the ermine stole and bodice that Sophie was wearing on the 28th June 1914 and the bullet that killed her.

These trips helped to give colour and perspective to the novel, as well as brining home the terrible family tragedy the assassination was, as well as a world shattering event.

Thank you so much for sharing your research. It sounds as though there was a huge amount of source material to wade through.

Intrigued?

Here’s the blurb;

1914.

Tensions are reaching boiling point in Europe and the threat of war is imminent. 

Johnny Swift, a young and brash diplomatic clerk employed by the British embassy is sent to infiltrate the ‘Young Bosnians’, a group of idealistic conspirators planning to murder Franz Ferdinand. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in a bid to liberate their country from the monarchy’s grip.

Swift has been having an affair with his employer’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Smyth. Sir George Smyth dispatches the agent on the dangerous mission, believing that it will be the last he will see of his young rival.

The agent manages to infiltrate the Young Bosnian conspirators’ cell, helped by Lazlo Breitner, a Hungarian Civil Servant.

However, Swift soon realises that he may be in over his head. His gambling debts and taste for beautiful women prove the least of his problems as he struggles to survive on his wits in the increasingly complex – and perilous – world of politics and espionage.

Desperate to advance himself and with the lives of a royal couple unexpectedly in his hands, Swift tries to avert catastrophe.

Praise for The Assassins

‘A cracking read, highly recommended’ – Roger A Price 

‘Written with polished panache, it kept me gripped from the first to last. Five stars from me!’ – A.A. Chaudhuri

‘Part historical fiction, part thriller and part love story, this is a compelling and entertaining read’ – Gary Haynes

Buy Links:

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Audio links:

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Meet the author

Alan Bardos is a graduate of the MA in TV Script Writing at De Montfort University, he also has a degree in Politics and History from Brunel University. Writing historical fiction combines the first great love of his life, making up stories, with the second, researching historical events and characters. Alan currently live in Oxfordshire with his wife… the other great love of his life.

Despite the amount of material that has been written about the twentieth century there is still a great deal of mystery and debate surrounding many of its events, which Alan explores in his historical fiction series using a certain amount of artistic license to fill in the gaps, while remaining historically accurate. The series will chronicle the first half of the twentieth century from the perspective of Johnny Swift, a disgraced and degenerate diplomat and soldier; starting with the pivotal event of the twentieth century, the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in ‘The Assassins’.

Connect with Alan

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Assassins blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Essex: Tudor Rebel by Tony Riches

Today, I’m extremely pleased to welcome Tony Riches to the blog to talk about his fantastic new book, Essex: Tudor Rebel.

Your book, Essex, Tudor Rebel, is set in a time I love reading about. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories. Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring your historical landscape to life?

Thank you for inviting me to your blog to talk about my new book.

I particularly wanted to keep Robert Devereux’s story as factually accurate and authentic as possible, so immersed myself in the world of Elizabethan London. I often spend a year tracking down primary sources and visiting actual locations used in my books. 

I was lucky to have access to Robert Devereux’s personal letters, which offer a real insight into his character and state of mind throughout his life.

Letter from Robert Devereux to Queen Elizabeth 

Transcript:

Hast [hasten], paper, to thatt happy presence whence only unhappy I am banished. Kiss thatt fayre correcting hand which layes new plasters to my lighter hurtes, butt to my greatest woond applyeth nothing. Say thou cummest from shaming, languishing, despayring, S.X.

Signed with the unimaginative Essex cipher, he should have known the queen well enough to realise this approach was unlikely to change her mind.

I also visited the Devereux Tower and Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, (where he lies close to Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn).

Devereux memorial

During my research I was amazed to find Robert Devereux lived at Lamphey Palace, twenty minutes from my home in Pembrokeshire!

Picture of Lamphey Palace

Do you have a ‘go to’ book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it?

I studied Walter Bourchier Devereux’s two-volumes of the Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex, a rich source of both primary and secondary details. Interestingly, these books include the author’s own comments and interpretation on the Earl’s letters, which helped me understand the context. 

A lot has been made of the unusual relationship between the aging queen and Robert Devereux, and even at the time, they were so close to the queen many wonder if they are lovers. The truth is far more complex, as each has what the other yearns for. I wanted to keep his story as factually accurate and authentic as possible, so immersed myself in the world of Elizabethan London. I hope readers will be able to tell that this book is one I’ve really enjoyed researching and writing, and that I’ve been able to find some of Robert Devereux’s redeeming qualities.

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s fascinating.

Here’s the blurb:

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is one of the most intriguing men of the Elizabethan period. Tall and handsome, he soon becomes a ‘favourite’ at court, so close to the queen many wonder if they are lovers.

The truth is far more complex, as each has what the other yearns for. Robert Devereux longs for recognition, wealth and influence. His flamboyant naïveté amuses the ageing Queen Elizabeth, like the son she never had, and his vitality makes her feel young.

Robert Devereux’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with the best-selling Tudor trilogy and concludes with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

This novel is free to read with #KindleUnlimited subscription.

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Meet the Author

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling Tudor historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony’s other published historical fiction novels include: Owen – Book One Of The Tudor Trilogy, Jasper – Book Two Of The Tudor Trilogy, Henry – Book Three Of The Tudor Trilogy, Mary – Tudor Princess, Brandon – Tudor Knight and The Secret Diary Of Eleanor Cobham. 

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the Essex: Tudor Rebel blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club

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Book Review – The Girl and The Mountain by Mark Lawrence – fantasy

Here’s the blurb:

On Abeth there is only the ice. And the Black Rock.
 
For generations the priests of the Black Rock have reached out from their mountain to steer the ice tribes’ fate. With their Hidden God, their magic and their iron, the priests’ rule has never been challenged.


But nobody has ever escaped the Pit of the Missing before.

Yaz has lost her friends and found her enemies. She has a mountain to climb and even if she can break the Hidden God’s power her dream of a green world lies impossibly far to the south across a vast emptiness of ice. Before the journey can even start she has to find out what happened to the ones she loves and save those that can be saved.

Abeth holds its secrets close, but the stars shine brighter for Yaz and she means to unlock the truth.

To touch the sky, be prepared to climb

This is the 14th book by Mark Lawrence that I’ve read. If you don’t know the story, I received Prince of Thorns free when I preordered Book 5 in The Game of Thrones series by GRRM. I’ve read 14 books by Mark Lawrence since, and I’m still only half way through that tome by GRRM (that’s because I’ve decided to wait for the next book before finishing it – I might be waiting for a while.)

I can’t say that I’ve loved everything that Mark Lawrence has ever written but the crafty bugger has a theme running through all the books (he jumped ship to a modern fantay/sci-fi for the Impossible Times Trilogy) – and like the fate of the wolves in The Game of Thrones – I need to know the answer – and that keeps me reading. (Damn you, Mr Lawrence.)

The Girl in the Mountain is the middle of the trilogy following Yaz and her friends. I found book 1, set in a cave system, claustrophobic, and at times, quite uncomfortable. Book 2 at least takes us out of the cave system, but it’s still not necessarily a comfortable read, even for someone who enjoys the starkness of landscapes. There’s no end of peril, and some horribly twisted ‘baddies’ but by the end, I do feel as though we might be ‘getting’ somewhere.

I’m quite sure that the final part of the trilogy won’t answer all of my questions, but all the same, I’m looking forward to the conclusion – and I can’t help but admire someone who can mastermind such a thread through 14 books, and at least three different ‘worlds,’ and an assortment of time periods. I miss the humour of Jalan from the Red Queen’s War trilogy because there’s little of that to be found in the story of Yaz, but the end is in sight. And it’s been quite a ride, and one I do highly recommend you take.

The Girl and the Mountain is available now on kindle, audiobook and hardback. I’m off to preorder Book 3.

(My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy. It goes without saying that I would have purchased it anyway.)

Connect with Mark Lawrence. Blog. Twitter. Website.

Just a little shout-out that without Mark Lawrence we wouldn’t have the hugely successful and influential – Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off – an author doing what he can to unearth the gems of e-publishing. Check out his blog for details.

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Today, I’m excited to welcome Anne O’Brien to the blog on tour with her fabulous book The Queen’s Rival

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anne O’Brien to the blog to talk about her fantastic book, The Queen’s Rival, a real favourite of mine. (Find my review here).

I have read Queen’s Rival and I found it riveting. Yet, it is deliciously complex, and there’s a huge amount of both primary and secondary material available for study. Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring the historical characters to life? 

The complexity of the Wars of the Roses within the story of Cecily Neville was daunting when I first took it on.  Where to start, where to end.  Should I consolidate into one book, or write a sequel?  While I thought about it, all became clear to me.  Because I write about medieval women and form their point of view, many of the political events and battles must dealt with lightly, made only relevant when they had a bearing on Cecily’s experience, and then rarely in grat detail.  To begin: the day that she became a force in her own right – the events at Ludlow after the debacle at Ludford Bridge when she was left to face the rampaging mob of the Lancastrian army, alone with her three younger children.  To end: with the crowning of Richard III when Cecily must come to terms with the political forces that had removed her grandson Edward V from the throne.  

Who to include in Cecily’s story?

Some major figures would have to be short-changed because they did not develop the plot that was Cecily’s life, but were merely people on the periphery of Cecily’s story.  These included such notable characters as Margaret Beaufort,  Anne Neville,  Henry Tudor.  Even Margaret of Anjou might have demanded a more dynamic role although she is not entirely absent.  This may disappoint some readers but these are characters for another book.  There is a finite length to a novel as my editor is keen to tell me; Cecily and her family must take pre-eminence.

Cecily was the youngest of a large family.  To include all her brothers and sisters would definitely be a bad plan.  I deliberately made a choice of those who would be most useful to me   Her brother Richard of Salisbury of course and his son the Earl Warwick.  Two of her sisters, the eldest and the one closest to her in age.  The rest would sadly have to remain anonymous.

Why write in letter format?  I chose to do this to develop the family aspect of the Wars of the Roses.  These were real people who suffered and rejoiced within their families.  I decided that letters would make this a very personal account for Cecily, and thus make the emotion of her losses and achievements even stronger when faced with scandal and treachery.

Mostly when researching I refer to secondary sources.  I do not always find the need to return to primary sources.  For me this would be like re-inventing the wheel since the history of the Wars of the Roses has been magnificently researched by a number of historians, although I admit to being picky over whom I might use. I find myself returning to the works of  Matthew Lewis, Ian Mortimer, Nigel Saul, Anthony Goodman and Michael Jones.  For Cecily herself , when I was was half way through writing, a new long-awaited biography of Cecily was published:  Cecily Duchess of York by J L Laynesmith which proved endlessly useful for tying up a number of loose ends for me.

For primary sources, the chroniclers of the day are fascinating and encouraged me to write my own version of a Chronicle to help the plot to progress in The Queen’s Rival.  Accounts of Cecily’s pious lifestyle in her later years and the vast detail of her will were both excellent.

Taking the facts, together with the reactions of those who knew Cecily, it is then a matter of historical imagination to create an interpretation of her life as accurately as possible.

Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it?

I don’t have a ‘go to’ book when writing because my medieval women span a number of reigns, but one I find myself referring to frequently is The Senses in Late Medieval England by C M Woolgar.  It opens up the medieval world and life in aristocratic households beautifully, from every possible angle.  I also have quite a collection of books on medieval armour and costume – an essential part of my research, as well as medieval poetry and chivalric tales.  And then there  are the general history reference books …  Altogether my bookshelves are groaning from the weight of medieval history books.

Thank you so much for sharing your process with me. It’s fascinating and I’m in awe of how you managed to fit so much into one novel!

(Isn’t the cover beautiful).

Here’s the blurb;

England, 1459. 

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne.

But when the Yorkists are defeated at the battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Stripped of her lands and imprisoned in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit. One that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.

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Meet the author

Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.

Today she has sold over 700,000 copies of her books medieval history novels in the UK and internationally. She lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels which breathe life into the forgotten women of medieval history.

Follow Anne

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Queen’s Rival blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.

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The Last King is available on audiobook

I’m really excited to announce that the audiobook for The Last King is now available. My narrator, Nigel Gore, has done a fantastic job of bringing Coelwulf and his allies, and enemies, to life.

To celebrate the release, I have 5 Audible download codes for the US and 5 for the UK. If you would like one, send me a quick email, specifying US or UK, and I’ll wing the code over to you, (as well as some instructions on how to redeem.)

For those in other parts of the world, apologies I don’t have codes for you, but you can listen to The Last King with a free trial for Audible, (just remember to cancel after the first month, or you will be charged). If you live in France, Germany, the UK or the US just click the links.

Here’s a little snippet for you. Remember, this is Coelwulf – it’ll be rife with foul language, blood and gore. Enjoy.

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Today sees the release of The Last Sword – get back in the saddle with Coelwulf

It’s finally here! The Last Sword is book 5 in the series featuring Coelwulf, and his warriors. (If you’ve not caught up just yet, book 2, The Last Warrior is on special offer for 99p/99c this week only in the UK and US).

Here’s the blurb;

“The three defeated jarls of Grantabridge might be hiding behind the walls of their settlement as winter storms ravage, but the weather is no deterrent for another adversary, and Coelwulf holds a far more personal grudge against Jarl Halfdan.

King Alfred hovers on the border with Wessex, his intentions impossible to determine; his relationship with the Raiders, problematic.

Exposed to the south, in jeopardy from the north; Coelwulf hasn’t fought his last battle yet.”

Taking Coelwulf into the year 875, The Last Sword will reunite my readers with some fan favourites, and not a little peril.

I hope you all enjoy, and thank you to everyone who’s supported the series so far. You’re all loyal Mercians, and he couldn’t do it without you.

(Check out the new covers for the first 4 books in the series).

Want to stay up to date with news about releases and reissues, sign up to my newsletter here.

(This post contains some Amazon Affiliate links – which means that at no cost to you, Amazon may pay me for referring you to their site).

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The Last King is a year old today – thank you to everyone who’s read and reviewed the book

I’m really quite bad at remembering all the publication dates of my books, but The Last King has certainly stuck in my mind. What started quite inauspiciously, with a few die-hard fans preordering the book, has become my most popular series, and most popular book to date.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, but I am. The book, a few years in development, burst from me in a flurry of excitement early in 2020, when I opted for a ‘harder’ character, a man who is simply so good at what he does, he doesn’t understand that others can’t do what he can. It’s not arrogance. It’s confidence.

So, why the hesitation? It takes a lot to stomp, and I mean, stomp all over a time period made so famous by another giant of the field – Bernard Cornwell with his Uhtred, or The Last Kingdom books. And yet, I couldn’t move away from the temptation of the little known Coelwulf, and the story of Mercia which has never been told.

Yet, I needed to do it in a different way to BC. I remember handing the first few chapters to my critique partner and editor and saying ‘is this edgier?’, ‘would a warrior speak like this?’ It came back with a ‘yes’ and also some pencil marks and a bit more swearing added in, and a comment that if I was going to cauterise a wound, then I needed to do it properly, gore and all.

I’d previously written what I thought would be an opening scene, while sitting in hospital for an appointment with lots of different bits to it – but while that gave me the characters, it didn’t give me quite what I was looking for. Still, you can read ‘A Meeting of Equals‘ over on my author platform on Aspects of History.

And that was almost it (apart from a dose of my own confidence drawn from watching The Gentlemen by Guy Ritchie – which truly made me think ‘anything goes,’ and gave me the idea for the opening scene – if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean.) Coelwulf reared his head, and so too did a cast of characters that are unique, complex, enjoyable to write about, and often, a bit pushy.

So, how to celebrate a year since book 1? Well, by bringing Coelwulf ‘to life’ of course.

The ‘new’ covers will be going live at points throughout today, and I’m so pleased with the way he’s turned out. Thank you so much to Shaun at Flintlock Covers for being able to bring Coelwulf to life. I especially love the detail on the sword, which shows the double-headed eagle of Mercia!

And that’s not it. Not only a visual Coelwulf, but also the ‘sound’ of Coelwulf. My narrator, Nigel Gore, has finished work on The Last King, and it will be released soon. There’s a sample below – remember, it’s Coelwulf, it’s going to be pretty full-on from the word go. (18 rated)

The Last Warrior is also about to start the journey to audio, and I’m considering producing some hardbacks as well, but I’ve not yet had the time to devote to that task.

And of course, the story hasn’t finished yet. The Last Sword is released on 29th April (preorder here) and I’ll be starting work on Book 6 even as you read this.

So thank you, to all my readers and reviewers, to my beta readers (you know who you are), to the people I’ve collaborated with on ensuring the word gets out there about Coelwulf.

Here’s to many more such anniversaries.

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Book Review – Skelton’s Guide to Suitcase Murders by David Stafford – historical mystery – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“November 1929. A woman’s dismembered corpse is discovered in a suitcase and police quickly identify her husband, Doctor Ibrahim Aziz, as their chief suspect. Incriminating evidence is discovered at his home and his wife was rumoured to be having an affair, giving him clear motive.

With his reputation for winning hopeless cases, barrister Arthur Skelton is asked to represent the accused. Though Aziz’s guilt does not seem to be in doubt, a question of diplomacy and misplaced larvae soon lead Skelton to suspect there may be more to the victim’s death.

Aided by his loyal clerk Edgar, Skelton soon finds himself seeking justice for both victim and defendant. But can he uncover the truth before an innocent man is put on trial and condemned to the gallows?”

Skelton’s Guide to Suitcase Murders is a wonderfully plotted novel, with a cast of unmissable characters that is an absolute delight to read. And the cover is fantastic too.

It made me laugh out loud on many an occasion, and the eclectic mix of cast and events, keeps the reader hooked as the story progresses, from the guinea pig to the motorcycle ‘bad-boy,’ from London to Leeds to Whitley Bay to Scotland. And oh, how I loved the letters from Cousin Alan.

It trundles along at a wonderful pace, filled with exquisite detail and I would struggle to decide on a favourite character because all of them, even the bit part characters, are so well sketched.

This is genuinely an absolute treat if you enjoy a mystery deeply steeped in the times (1929-1930) and with an unmissable cast. Looking forwards to Book 3. And, I have the joy of knowing I’ve not read Book 1 yet.

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

Skelton’s Guide to Suitcase Murders is released today, 22nd April, and is available from here.

Follow the publisher, Allison and Busby for more great mystery novels.

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Happy Release Day to The Custard Corpses – a delicious 1940s mystery

Say what?

I know, but there you have it. 2020 was a strange year and out of it grew The Custard Corpses. I really, really hope you will take a chance on it, and enjoy something a little (okay, a lot) different from this historical fiction author. (The advanced reviewers are loving it.)

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.

I want to give a shout-out to my cover designer, Flintlock Covers. It is exactly what I wanted when I thought about the cover for the book.

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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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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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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 Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien – historical fiction – highly recommended

Here’s the blurb;

“One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

England, 1459: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, is embroiled in a plot to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne. But when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Cecily can only watch as her lands are torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Queen Marguerite. From the towers of her prison in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit – one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.

This is a story of heartbreak, ambition and treachery, of one woman’s quest to claim the throne during the violence and tragedy of the Wars of the Roses.”

The Queen’s Rival is a stunning look at the ‘later’ life of Cecily Neville from 1459 until 1483. This is not a ‘quiet’ period of history and to cover the tumultuous events, the author adopts the technique of recording the letters of the main protagonists, either from the pen of Cecily or from those who write to her.

It does take a little while to get used to the technique, but the reader is quickly drawn into the story, not perhaps by the events taking place, but rather by the relationship between Cecily and her two sisters, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham and Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The words they share with each other are just what sisters might well say to each other, especially when they’re not likely to see each other soon.

More importantly, the sisters, while fiercely loyal to their Neville inheritance, are not of one mind about who should rule England, and who has the right to rule England. It highlights just how destructive the War of the Roses was, and is a genius way of quickly ensuring the reader appreciates that families were ripped apart by the protracted war.

This is the story of the women of the later 15th century. It’s their voices that we hear, as they try and come to terms with the rises and falls all of them experience. There are moments when the narrative is hard to read, either because you know what’s going to happen, or just because you really feel for Cecily and don’t want her to experience the tribulations than she does.

I am a huge fan of Anne O’Brien and the ‘forgotten’ women of the medieval period in England. While the author may stress that Cecily is not really a forgotten woman, I was not really aware of her before reading this book. The mother of two kings, the grandmother of future kings, and yet she could also have been queen herself. What an interesting life she led.

I highly recommend this book. And you can find my review here for A Tapestry of Treason.

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

The Queen’s Rival is released in ebook and hardbook on 3rd September 2020. (What a stunning cover.) It is released in paperback today, 15th April 2021.

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Cotillion Brigade by Glen Craney

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Glen Craney to the blog with a fascinating post about the historical research that went into writing The Cotillion Brigade.

Thank you, M.J., for inviting me as a guest on your blog.

As part of my research process, I try to travel to the historical locations of my novels. And one of the first things I do is head first for the local cemetery. More than once, I’ve made discoveries from the headstones that changed the trajectory of my stories.

LaGrange, Georgia, is the setting of my latest novel, The Cotillion Brigade, which is based on the true story of the Nancy Hart Rifles, the most famous female militia in American history.

When I pulled into the scenic town of LaGrange to learn more about the Nancy Harts, I parked the car and walked among the monuments of Hillview Cemetery, where many of my characters from The Cotillion Brigade are buried. To my astonishment, and not a little chagrin, my protagonist, Captain Nancy Colquitt Hill Morgan, was nowhere to be found among her comrades in arms. How could she not be buried in the town she helped save?

I learned later that she is buried in Decatur, more than seventy-five miles away. I wondered if this was her wish. Had she moved to Decatur late in life to reside with family? I knew from my research that many Southern families, devastated by the war, could not afford to transport deceased members back to the homesteads.

Nancy Morgan’s Grave

Still feeling a little sad for Captain Nancy in exile, I drove across town to the smaller Stonewall Confederate Cemetery, where I was unprepared for another tragic discovery. Most of the three hundred soldiers buried there died from wounds and disease. After the bloody battle of Chickamauga and during Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, thousands of Confederate wounded were shipped south along the Atlanta and West Point rail line, one of the last surviving transport arteries in the heart of the Confederacy. Cities on the way, like Newnan, LaGrange, and West Point, became hospital centers, and the Nancy Harts took time from their military drills to help nurse the men.

The Stonewall Cemetery sits near the railroad tracks, and as I studied the names on the stones, the horrific reason for this location suddenly dawned on me. Many of the wounded men would not have survived the jarring journey from the battlefields northwest of Atlanta. Their bodies were likely removed from the train cars to be buried immediately.

John Gay-Stonewall Cemetery

Captain Nancy’s close friend, Carolyn Poythress, was widowed very young before the war. She fell in love with another man, Lt. John Gay of the Fourth Georgia infantry regiment, who came back to LaGrange to convalesce from an artillery chest wound received at Antietam. After they married, Lt. Gay returned to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He fell mortally wounded at the siege of Petersburg, only two weeks before the surrender at Appomattox. Caroline, accompanied by the daughter her husband never lived to see, insisted he be buried with his comrades at Stonewall Cemetery. Caroline lies in Hillview.

A thousand miles away, another plot revealed a secret about my second protagonist, Colonel Oscar Hugh LaGrange. The Union officer who confronted Captain Nancy and her militia during the last days of the war lies buried in the Bronx’s Woodland Cemetery. Next to his stone is that of his third wife, Susie Gray LaGrange, who goes unmentioned in the history books. Strange as it seems, the ardent Abolitionist colonel from Wisconsin married not one, but two, Southern plantation belles. That discovery would lead me to a new understanding about the officer’s transformation and the impact the Nancy Harts of Georgia had on him.

Colonel LaGrange’s Grave

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s always fascinating to understand the discoveries made while researching, and how they add to the finished story.

Here’s the blurb

Georgia burns.

Sherman’s Yankees are closing in.

Will the women of LaGrange run or fight?

Based on the true story of the celebrated Nancy Hart Rifles, The Cotillion Brigade is an epic novel of the Civil War’s ravages on family and love, the resilient bonds of sisterhood in devastation, and the miracle of reconciliation between bitter enemies.

“Gone With The Wind meets A League Of Their Own.”

— John Jeter, The Plunder Room

1856. Sixteen-year-old Nannie Colquitt Hill makes her debut in the antebellum society of the Chattahoochee River plantations. A thousand miles north, a Wisconsin farm boy, Hugh LaGrange, joins an Abolitionist crusade to ban slavery in Bleeding Kansas.

Five years later, secession and war against the homefront hurl them toward a confrontation unrivaled in American history.

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Meet the Author

A graduate of Indiana University School of Law and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Glen Craney practiced trial law before joining the Washington, D.C. press corps to write about national politics and the Iran-contra trial for Congressional Quarterly magazine. In 1996, the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences awarded him the Nicholl Fellowship prize for best new screenwriting. His debut historical novel, The Fire and the Light, was named Best New Fiction by the National Indie Excellence Awards. He is a three-time Finalist/Honorable Mention winner of Foreword Magazine’s Book-of-the-Year and a Chaucer Award winner for Historical Fiction. His books have taken readers to Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade, the Scotland of Robert Bruce, Portugal during the Age of Discovery, the trenches of France during World War I, the battlefields of the Civil War, and the American Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. He lives in Malibu, California.

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Cotillion Brigade Blog Tour.

Today, I’m delighted to welcome back H D Coulter on tour with Saving Grace: Deception. Obsession. Redemption

Today, I’m delighted to welcome back H D Coulter, with a post about the historical research that went into writing Saving Grace.

Saving Grace is the sequel to Ropewalk, and the setting couldn’t be more different – from the North of England to Boston. Could you tell me about how you went about researching the setting for Saving Grace, and why you chose that particular location?

I would like to thank M J Porter for inviting me back again to guest post. Today I am discussing how book 1, Ropewalk, which took place in the north of England but book 2 mostly takes place in Beacon Hill, Boston and in the American deep south state of Georgia. 

I will not go into spoilers here. But at the end of book 1, circumstances happened which meant that Bea and Joshua could no longer live in England and needed to flee. I choose to locate some of Saving Grace in Beacon Hill as it was a flourishing hub of Boston. It was a representation of what was happening across America in the 1830s, with various cultures descending on different areas of the hill. A class divide between north and south slope in wealth, with a sense of unrest bubbling underneath. With Joshua’s background in shipping, it was a natural selection for the character to choose that location with Boston harbour situated on the south slope and possible business connections. It was an area much like Ulverston, with new industrial advancement owned by the rich and yet filled with small clusters of different communities scattered from one street to the next. 

For book 1, Ropewalk, there was a lot of research done locally whilst I lived there and into the Reformer’s. However for book 2, Saving Grace, I had to rely on research more for the locations, history, people and society. Moving the story to America and placing the characters into this alien landscape reflected my own sense of discovery into the local culture and the rules of this unknown society. 

Since I couldn’t walk the streets and see Bea walking beside me, I needed more visual resources so that I could picture it in my mind’s eye. Thankfully, there are still locations in Beacon Hill and Georgia, that seem unchanged from that period. So, I read books, watched TV, You Tube documentaries and films, taking place in those locations. An interesting point I’ve noticed whilst I was researching book 2 and now that I’m deep down the rabbit hole for book 3, is that Georgia, South Carolina and into the wilds surrounding those states are like the fells around Cumbria and the south lakes. Which wouldn’t seem so alien to Bea. 

For Beacon Hill, I gathered all the resources I could to transform the streets into the 1830s. There are a lot of original features still left in Beacon Hill of the time they developed it, like Charles Street and Acorn Street. Whilst I was researching Beacon Hill; I discovered the African Meeting house, which was a hub for the abolitionist movement and a rumoured connection to the underground railroad. Which created a whole new subplot to the novel and leading into book 3. It mirrored that of Bob Lightfoot and yet independent to Bea. Once I discovered the Underground Railroad, the story came to life and the character of Sarah was born; a strong, formidable and caring character who has her own story and their friendship becomes vital for Bea as she finds her voice once more. 

 One aspect I found, the Underground Railroad shows, documentaries and films, fixate on to the late 1840s and 1850s. Around the time the legendary Harriet Tubman escapes on the Underground Railroad to the north but had the strength in the characters to return and free her family and slaves from neighbouring plantations. She was another formidable character and opponent against the slave patrollers and developed the nickname “Mosses” as she delivered people to the promise land. But during the 1850 American congress signed the ‘Fugitive Slave Act’ which brought a new law allowing capture of escaped slaves and blocked the sanctuary in the northern states and allowed patrollers to roam the streets and drag them back down south. 

“They were never really free.”

The more I discovered, the more I researched, looking into the tiny details and become fascinated by the smouldering embers that fuelled the American Civil War. 

“She had been born a coastal cottage girl and now she was a lady. But it was all a lie. It wasn’t how she had thought it would be. She carried so many secret labels that she had given up wondering which one was her true calling; a lace-maker, a cottage girl, a wife, a mother, a murderer; a fugitive?”

Saving Grace, chapter 5.

Each one of the principal characters feels like they are battling their own form of deception, obsession and redemption. Unbeknown Hanley is watching in the shadows, controlling their lives and waiting to make his move. 

Some resources I used: 

  • Beacon Hill (Images of America) Kindle Edition

by Cynthia Chalmers Bartlett (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition.

  • Beacon Hill, Back Bay and the Building of Boston’s Golden Age Kindle Edition

by Ted Clarke (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition. 

  • The Underground Railroad: LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017 Kindle Edition

by Colson Whitehead  (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition. 

  • Passengers: True Stories of the Underground Railroad Kindle Edition

by William Still  (Author), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Introduction).

  • The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts (African American) Kindle Edition

by William Still  (Author), Ian Finseth (Editor).

  • Underground, TV show about a group of slaves trying to escape the south. 

Thank you so much for sharing your research. I do love a good rabbit hole! Good luck with the new book.

Intrigued?

Here’s the blurb;

Beacon Hill, Boston. 1832.

“You are innocent. You are loved. You are mine.”

After surviving the brutal attack and barely escaping death at Lancaster Castle, Beatrice Mason attempts to build a new life with her husband Joshua across the Atlantic in Beacon Hill. But, as Beatrice struggles to cope with the pregnancy and vivid nightmares, she questions whether she is worthy of redemption.

Determined to put the past behind her after the birth of her daughter Grace, Bea embraces her newfound roles of motherhood and being a wife. Nevertheless, when she meets Sarah Bateman, their friendship draws Bea towards the underground railroad and the hidden abolitionist movement, despite the dangerous secrets it poses. Whilst concealed in the shadows, Captain Victor Hanley returns, obsessed with revenge and the desire to lay claim to what is his, exposes deceptions and doubts as he threatens their newly established happiness.

Now, Beatrice must find the strength to fight once more and save Grace, even if it costs her life.

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Ropewalk; Rebellion. Love. Survival (The Ropewalk Series, Book 1) is only 0.99 on ebook during the tour. Here are the buy link

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Meet the Author

Hayley was born and raised in the lake district and across Cumbria. From a young age, Hayley loved learning about history, visiting castles and discovering local stories from the past. Hayley and her partner lived in Ulverston for three years and spent her weekends walking along the Ropewalk and down by the old harbour. She became inspired by the spirit of the area and stories that had taken place along the historic streets.

As a teacher, Hayley had loved the art of storytelling by studying drama and theatre. The power of the written word, how it can transport the reader to another world or even another time in history. But it wasn’t until living in Ulverston did she discover a story worth telling. From that point, the characters became alive and she fell in love with the story.

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the Saving Grace blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.