Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Random thoughts post-Christmas

Well I'm back home after ten days of skiing. I've slept most of the last 24 hours and feel rather more self indulgent than usual, so this is going to be a bit of a random blog post. Come on – it's that weird time of year when Christmas is over but the horrors of the New Year have yet to really sink in, so we're all a bit more random than usual.

Whatever your views on global warming, if you're a regular Christmas skier you will have seen some changes lately. This year saw the French Alps covered in snow in November, which all melted away sometime early in December. When we arrived, temperatures were firmly back down at snow-making levels but there was an obstinate refusal of anything to fall from the sky. Resorts have responded to these early-season mishaps by massively improving the quality and quantity of snow cannon that produce white stuff that skis just like regular snow. The result is that a large area resort – like the three valleys where we were – has areas of high altitude natural snow linked with long paths (sometimes miles long) of wide pistes stretching across otherwise snowless mountain meadows. It's an odd experience, but we were able to cover all four of the three valleys (yes – the fourth valley is now very definitely a thing) and ski a wide variety of different pistes over our ten days.

The combination of no recent snowfall, low temperatures and some quite high winds meant that at altitude many of the slopes were essentially rather steeply sloping ice rinks. Our old skis were not up to the job and we decided it was time to finally bite the bullet and get something more suited to the conditions. The fashion, which had been getting sneakily longer for a few years, is now firmly back to shorter skis and we were able to have fun on our nippy new toys with their viciously sharpened edges. If you enjoy icy slopes, there is something particularly satisfying about remaining attached to a smooth, steep stretch of something that bears only the most distant relationship to what most people think of as snow and somehow magically remaining upright. We had a fabulous time.



What I very definitely didn't do on my holidays was keep in touch with the lovely people who are still reviewing 'Back Home'. So many, many thanks to Sharon, who blogged her review just as we set off for France. And thanks too to Jera's Jamboree for posting an interview about my books on James Burke. And Elle Field, whose interview with me was a particular pleasure. She had some really interesting questions and it's a shame that the interview may well have got overlooked in all the pre-Christmas excitement..

This last month of 2016 has seemed to produce a lot of publicity from some lovely people. I was particularly thrilled when Rosie Amber's book review team made Back Home runner up in their awards for best Historical Fiction of 2016. It's the first time any of my books have won anything and it meant a lot to me – especially as sales of Back Home have been disappointing.



I was also excited to be the featured interview in Historia magazine, the online magazine of the Historical Writers' Association. This was a particular honour for me, as I featured alongside Paul Collard, whose Jack Lark books I really admire.

So here I am in a welter of dirty laundry and some lovely Xmas presents (yes, books featured), trying to come to terms with being back at home and getting on top of domestic chores as well as thanking all of you who have been so kind about my books and generous with blog posts and reviews and interviews. Most people are happy to see the end of 2016 (with George Michael and Carrie Fisher the list of lost icons seems determined to drag us down all the way to the very end of the year) but it has, after its share of ups and downs, ended on a high note for me. I am truly grateful to all of you who have supported my writing and only sorry that the last ten days have left me too tired to give you all the acknowledgement you deserved. I hope it's not too late to thank you all now.

Enjoy the rest of 2016. I'll see you all next year.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Celebration time!

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you probably already know that yesterday was an exciting day.

Photo: Niels Noordhoek

Given the number of books out there and the limited marketing budgets of most smaller publishers (and, increasingly of larger ones as well) the efforts of online book bloggers are really important. One of the most influential is Rosy Amber. She heads a team of reviewers and between them they cover hundreds of books in a year, posting their reviews at rosieamber.wordpress.com. At the end of the year the reviewers draw up a shortlist of their favourites, which go to a public vote for the books of the year. It isn't the Booker, but it's a nice recognition of the work that less well-known authors put in. And this year I am thrilled to tell you that 'Back Home' was the runner up in their Historical Fiction category.



That seemed a pretty good way to end 2016. But this morning there is more! I am a member of the Historical Writers Association who published the excellent online magazine, Historia. The latest addition leads with a front-page interview with to writers of the 19th century historical fiction, comparing the way they approach their subject. One is the excellent Paul Collard (author of the Jack Lark books) and the other is ME!!!

I think that writers are always looking for what psychologists call "validation". Writing is a solitary activity. We hide in garrets scribing away and eventually release our books into the world where, unless we are very, very lucky, they will vanish into a huge pool of other books, leaving scarcely a ripple on the water. We are all slightly obsessive about sales figures, not because we are ever going to make any money (realistically, we’re not) but because we so want to think that there are people out there who have read and enjoyed what we have written. That's another reason why we are constantly asking people to leave reviews – and if you have read anything by less well-known author and enjoyed it, please do review it, because it does mean such a lot. Comments on blog posts leave a warm glow. Fan mail can feed an author emotionally for a month. But awards, or the acknowledgement of your peers – that’s super special. And to have both in two days is just mind blowing. It's the best early Christmas present I could ask for.

If you have bought any of my books, or reviewed them, or voted for me for Rosie’s award, or just been one of those many, many people who have said the odd nice word when reviews have been thin on the ground and sales have been rotten, I really do want to say THANK YOU. It is the support of readers that keeps writers writing and we really are very, very grateful for it.

I will be stepping away from the keyboard soon to take a Christmas break. I am looking forward to a lovely Christmas, all the better for such good news in December. I hope you all have fantastic holidays too and that you find many new books to enjoy in 2017.




Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Outlaw's Ransom

This week's blog is a couple of days early because it's part of the promotional effort for Jennifer Ash's new book, The Outlaw's Ransom. Who is Jennifer Ash  and why should we care? I hear you ask. Jennifer is one of the increasing number of pen names of fellow Accent author and multiple personality disorder sufferer Jenny Kane. She's become  Jennifer Ash as she moves into historical fiction. (Welcome to the madhouse, Jenny.) Anyway, here she is, talking about some of the history behind her book.

Enjoy!



The Outlaw’s Ransom: The Folvilles in History


I’m delighted to be visiting today, as part of a blog tour celebrating the publication of my medieval mystery, The Outlaw’s Ransom – a book which was inspired by my love of all things ‘Robin Hood.’
The earliest mention found (to date) of the name Robin Hood appears in the poem The Vision of Piers Plowman, which was written by William Langland in c.1377. This was a protest poem complaining about the harsh conditions endured by the poor in the Fourteen Century. Not only did it mention Robin Hood, but it also makes reference to the real outlaw gang, the Folvilles.
“And some ryde and to recovere that unrightfully was wonne:He wised hem wynne it ayein wightnesses of handes,And fecchen it from false men with Folvyles lawes.”

The Folvilles were a noble family from Leicestershire who, throughout the late 1320’s and 1330’s, ran Ashby-Folville and its surrounds within the Hundred of Goscote, as a base for criminal activity.



In 1310, John de Folville, Lord of Ashby Folville, died, leaving his widow Alice and seven sons. The eldest son, also John, inherited the Ashby-Folville manor. Historical records show that John lived largely within the bounds of the law. However, his brothers, Eustace, Laurence, Richard, Robert, Thomas and Walter formed a criminal gang which became notorious.

The first crime that brought the Folvilles to the notice of the authorities was the murder of the Baron of the Exchequer, Roger Belers. Over the following decade, the Folville brothers’ travelled the countryside assaulting those they considered deserving of such treatment, and holding people and places to ransom. They hired themselves out as mercenaries, willing to commit crimes for the right price. The most violent of the brothers, Eustace, is known to have committed murders, robberies and even rapes across Leicestershire and Rutland.

Like Robin Hood and his men, the Folvilles are often portrayed as the allies of the common people fighting a corrupt authority. Eustace’s crimes aside, their targets were all officials that had gone beyond the norm of taking advantage of their positions. For example, in 1332 the Folville gang kidnapped the judge, Sir Richard Willoughby, on the road between Melton Mowbray and Grantham, near Waltham on the Wolds. A ransom of 1,300 marks was demanded from his men. While the Folvilles waited for the ransom they stole over one hundred pounds worth of goods from Willoughby as they dragging him from ‘wood to wood.’

Willoughby was so hated by the people, that in 1340 another criminal gang made him the target of an attack, trapping him in Thurcaston castle. Later, Willoughby was imprisoned by King Edward III for corruption and was forced to pay 1200 marks for a pardon.

It is perhaps not surprising that parallels have been drawn between Robin Hood’s stories and the real life activities of the Folville brothers. It was these parallels that led me to use the Folville family as the central focus for my first ever medieval mystery, The Outlaw’s Ransom.

Blurb

The first in an exciting new series by acclaimed author Jenny Kane writing as Jennifer Ash.

When craftsman’s daughter Mathilda is kidnapped by the notorious Folville brothers, as punishment for her father’s debts, she fears for her life.  Although of noble birth, the Folvilles are infamous throughout the county for disregarding the law – and for using any means necessary to deliver their brand of ‘justice’.

Mathilda must prove her worth to the Folvilles in order to win her freedom. To do so she must go against her instincts and, disguised as the paramour of the enigmatic Robert de Folville, undertake a mission that will take her far from home and put her life in the hands of a dangerous brigand – and that’s just the start of things…

A thrilling tale of medieval mystery and romance – and with a nod to the tales of Robin Hood – The Outlaw’s Ransom is perfect for fans of C.J. Sansom and Jean Plaidy.

You can buy The Outlaw's Ransom for your Kindle HERE


The many faces of Jennifer Ash


Jennifer Ash is the author of the medieval murder mystery, The Outlaw’s Ransom (Dec, 2016). Her second novel, The Winter Outlaw, will be published in 2017.



You can find detail’s of Jennifer’s stories at www.jenniferash.co.uk
Jennifer also writes as Jenny Kane
Jenny Kane is the author the contemporary romance Another Glass of Champagne, (Accent Press, 2016),  Christmas at the Castle (Accent Press, 2015), the bestselling novel Abi’s House (Accent Press, 2015), the modern/medieval time slip novel Romancing Robin Hood (Accent Press, 2014), the bestselling novel Another Cup of Coffee (Accent Press, 2013), and its novella length sequels Another Cup of Christmas (Accent Press, 2013), and Christmas in the Cotswolds (Accent, 2014).
Jenny’s fifth full length romance novel, Abi’s Neighbour, will be published in June 2017.
Jenny is also the author of quirky children’s picture books There’s a Cow in the Flat (Hushpuppy, 2014) and Ben’s Biscuit Tin (Hushpuppy, 2015)
Keep your eye on Jenny’s blog at www.jennykane.co.uk for more details.
Twitter- @JennyKaneAuthor

Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/JennyKaneRomance 

Comments are open

After years of running this blog  and wondering why I get so few comments, I've discovered that Blogger's defaults limit the number of people who can comment. I've taken these limits off, so comment away below.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Comments


I keep asking for comments on my blog and wondering why I get so few. I've just discovered that the default settings for this blog only allowed that minority of you who are registered with Blogger to comment.

I've changed the settings. Anyone should now be able to comment. I'm looking forward to hearing from more of you.

Friday, 2 December 2016

'Back Home' on Award Shortlist

Books from small publishers seldom get reviewed in the newspapers. Fortunately, we have review bloggers. I've been reviewing quite a few books on my blog lately, but I just dabble at it around other things. For some bloggers, book reviews are the centre of their online lives.

Bloggers can be very influential. Rosie Amber stands out. She doesn't just review by herself, but heads a team of reviewers whose reviews are all posted at https://rosieamber.wordpress.com



I have had not one, but two, very positive reviews for Back Home on this site, which has made me feel better about a book that (so far) has had excellent reviews but not particularly exciting sales. What has made me feel really excited, though, is that the Rosie Amber Book Review Team has short-listed Back Home for its Historical Fiction Book of the Year Award.



Will this guarantee that I will become a bestseller? Will I make a speech at a fancy awards dinner? Alas, no. But, for a still relatively unknown author struggling to stand out, it will substantially increase my visibility on the web. And, much more important, it will make me feel a whole lot better.


It takes about a year to research, write, and edit a historical novel. I enjoy doing it, but it's definitely hard work. You can buy Back Home as an e-book for £2.99 so I'm clearly not going to make a fortune from it. Getting recognition from awards like this is the most that I can really hope for. I know that (like almost all the writers I know) I'm always asking people to write reviews and I do understand that a lot of you find it difficult. This time I'm just asking you to go to https://rosieamber.wordpress.com/rbrt-book-awards-2016-vote-here/ and vote. If you have enjoyed Back Home, please do.

Friday, 25 November 2016

It's 25 November, so I guess that we're allowed to start thinking about Christmas now. And that means that I have to remind everybody what good presents books make. Essentially this is the same message that I put out in October last year, so you've been spared a whole month of pre-Christmas buildup. (You can thank me by voting for Back Home in the #RBRT 2016 Book Awards.) Given that Christmas is about traditions and that the annual plea of all authors that you buy their books doesn't change from year to year, this is a slightly edited version of what I wrote last year.

Dead trees and Xmas gifts

Yet again, the news is telling us that paper books are very much here to stay. Honestly, they never went away and, equally honestly, e-book's have become  well established and they're not going to go away either. It's a non-story, presumably raising its head particularly at this time of year because with Christmas coming we remember that people still buy books as gifts.

It’s weird, this idea that e-books versus paper is like one of the great divides of human-kind, like Mods vs Rockers, Mac vs PC, Corrie vs East-Enders. [Should I explain the last one for American readers? No, that’s what Google’s for.]

I’m a huge e-book fan. I read mainly on an iPad. It lets me carry lots of books with me. It allows me to highlight and make notes on them. (I know some people do that on paper, but I was brought up to see that as vandalism and I still feel uncomfortable with it.) I don’t lose my place. And it’s massively cheaper and easier to get new books. (Given the amount of 19th century reading I do, it’s often the only remotely realistic way to get hold of obscure out-of-print Victorian volumes.) So am I a paper-hating child of new technology? Hardly. 

This is the biggest bookcase in the house, but far from the only one.

  
Practically every room in the house has at least some books propped up in it somewhere (not the bathroom – the steam makes the paper soggy). Paper books are attractive. It’s easier, sometimes, to browse a shelf full of books than to find something useful in an e-library. E-books are easier to search when you know what you want, but they can be frustrating when you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for. Paper books allow more opportunities for serendipitous discoveries. The original inspiration for Cawnpore was a book I picked up browsing through someone else’s (paper) library, stuck indoors on a wet day. If I’d had an e-reader with me, I’d probably never have come across it.

Bookshops can be very frustrating in their selection of stock. (Try asking for one of my books – or pretty well anything published by a smaller press – at Waterstones and prepare yourself for, frankly ridiculous, claims that they can’t get it for you.) But the shelves of temptingly displayed volumes can draw you to books you would never otherwise have discovered.

Paper books can be lent to friends or passed on when they’re finished with. They do, indeed, furnish a room. Old textbooks remind us of our student years, an autographed volume of a special meeting. Most of all, as ‘Super Thursday’ reminds us, paper books can be gifted in a way that e-books cannot. A paper book says that you want to share something you have enjoyed, or that you have thought about the interests and enthusiasms of your friend and sought out a book that matches them. The transfer of digital data from computer to computer does not, for some reason, carry the emotional resonance of the gift of a physical book.

All my books are available in paperback as well as on Kindle. Most good publishers try to produce paper copies, if only for their authors to display proudly on their bookcases. (Second shelf down on the extreme right if you’re checking the photo.) All authors I have ever met want to see their words on paper. It’s odd because, in this digital age, the paperback is probably the first time I’ve seen my book printed out in its entirety. Still, there they are. And you can buy them, and give them to your friends.

Pay attention to that last bit. Buy one for yourself and give others to your friends. And keep a couple spare, for those last-minute gifts.  And remember, a book is for life, not just for Christmas.

Important note


This was a public information announcement  on behalf of all writers everywhere. However, I do draw your attention to the fact that clicking on any of the images of book covers on the right-hand side will take you to the appropriate Amazon page to buy the book. (It takes you to the e-book page, but you can click through to the paperbacks from there.)For the latest – Back Home –  click HERE. They are really rather good and if you buy them you will be one of my favourite people for the whole of 2017. Thank you.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Another book review: Best Seller

A couple of weeks ago I used this blog to talk about my books and suggest that people might read them. Posts here usually get a respectable number of views, but not that week. As an author published by very small press (Accent Publishing) with limited marketing budgets, much of my life is spent not writing but desperately trying to promote my books. My reviews suggest that the books are reasonably successful but my sales figures suggest that my promotional efforts are not.

It is a constant source of frustration to self-published or small press authors that they feel that sales are often more the result of a good social media presence and successful promotion rather than the literary merit of the books themselves.

Terry Tyler is in a better position than most to write about the angst of the self-promoted independent author. A prolific and successful writer, Tyler also has a strong social media presence. She understands how to use Twitter to sell books. (I wish I did.) She blogs, too. She's generous with advice and will happily promote other people's work if she thinks it's good. She is, all-in-all, what in a gender neutral (if dated) way you could call a Thoroughly Decent Chap. Yet, with all her hard work and talent, you will not see her books in WH Smiths and she will not be promoting them on The One Show.



Perhaps it is her frustration at the blatant unfairness of the system that has produced the novella Best Seller. (She calls it a novella although it is at least as substantial as many novels.) [Major spoilers ahead, though the plot is hardly going to surprise anyone.] It's a book about a struggling author who concentrates on writing at the expense of maintaining a respectable social media presence and thus manages to sell even fewer books than me. The villain of the piece is a pretty girl, with excellent social media skills and an able publicist, who persuades our struggling author to write a series of books as a ghost-writer. The books are, of course, enormously successful but, contractually forbidden from producing any books of her own, the talented young writer kills herself.



This could easily have been a maudlin expression of self-pity by Tyler, but in fact it's a jolly good read. We learn about the ghost-writer’s plight through a friend of hers who is, in turn, tempted to pass off somebody else's work as her own. Lacking professional support and handicapped by a conscience, her efforts end badly whereas the pretty villainess recovers from the disgrace when her fraud is exposed and is clearly on her way to bigger and better things. (Hi, Zoella! How’s it going?)

Best Seller does offer some real insight into the modern world of independent publishing and a profoundly depressing insight it is too. It's a good thing that Tyler has a relatively light and bubbly style that carries us through a story that could easily leave us too miserable to read (or in my case write) anything else for a while.


Tyler is in a long tradition of books by authors criticising the unfairness of the publishing trade. Gissing’s New Grub Street (published in 1891) shows the talented and able Edmund Reardon dying in poverty while the superficial hack, Jasper Milvain, ends up with the girl, the money and the publishing deal. Over a century later, it seems that nothing has changed. Still we battle on. Writers gonna write and all that. Terry Tyler demonstrates that, despite everything, there are still good writers out there, writing good stuff.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Another take on James Burke

In an alternative universe, James Burke, hero of Burke in the Land of Silver, is Ben Blackthorne, hero of Rob Griffith’s book Expect No Safety. Blackthorne was an existing fictional character when Griffith appropriated Burke’s real life persona for a second book, while I started with the real-life Burke, who has become steadily more fictionalised as the series has continued. That’s just one way in which the two of us have taken different approaches to a very similar subject matter.


Reading the adventures of Ben Blackthorne was a strange experience for me. Here was this man who was clearly my own James Burke, a man I thought I had come to know quite well, having often very similar adventures and yet a completely different person written in a very different style. This makes a regular review rather challenging but does give the opportunity to see how two different authors will tackle the same subject matter in very different ways.

Griffith has produced in Blackthorne a hero who wants to be a spy, rather than a soldier, but who, at least in this book, ends up uncomfortably in command of soldiers in the field. In this he is almost the exact opposite of my James Burke, who desperately wants to be a soldier but who ends up always forced back into spying. Griffith is wise to have his hero spend a lot of his time in uniform, though, because this author knows a lot about warfare in the time of Napoleon – much more than I do. His battle scenes are longer and more detailed than mine and carry a great deal of conviction. Indeed, Griffith is simply much more in command of the details of the military campaign than I ever was. We both describe the taking of Buenos Aires in similar terms, but his account of the subsequent military defeat is detailed and based on thorough research. Mine is not – being almost entirely fictional and driven by the demands of the plot. If you want a good piece of fictionalised military history, you are better off with Griffith than Williams.

Where I have a slight advantage is that I have visited Buenos Aires and I hope that James Burke roams a more realised city than does Blackthorne, but I suspect that the difference is less than I would like it to be. Griffith’s grip of the reality of street fighting in the town is excellent and the scenes in which the British are forced back through the city to make a last stand in the town square are well-written and convincing.

The real James Burke was busy seducing Ana, the wife of his local contact in Buenos Aires. Ana appears here, too, and, as with my book, it is clear that she would be more than happy to betray her husband with the British spy. Blackthorne, though, for no obvious reason, will have nothing to do with her, instead falling in love with the fictional Romero. Romero is sexy and a useful girl to have at your back in a fight and, more importantly, contributes chapters throughout the book which show the scene from the Spanish perspective. She blunders from meetings with the local bishop (and arch-villain) who blackmails her into spying for him, to plotting with an ill-assorted bunch of Spanish rebels, to fighting alongside Spanish troops. Yet, through it all, she carries on her tempestuous affair with Blackthorne and is instrumental in allowing him to escape alive. At the end of the book they have been separated and we leave Blackthorne trying to swim to the safety of a British ship. Will he make it? We have no idea: the book follows the increasingly common (and to me infuriating) practice of ending on a cliff-hanger. We do know that he will get back with Romero, though, because she tells us so. Blackstome points out, in a post-modern comment to the reader, that this somewhat reduces the suspense of the romantic sub-plot at the same time as a quite artificial bit of suspense is inserted to get us to read the next book. In the name of god and traditional publishing values, can authors please stop doing this.

Blackthorne is witty (wittier than Burke) but shares Burke’s cold-hearted ruthlessness. I like the man and his cynical take on life. His wit does cease to sparkle in some of the extended passages of dialogue that try to explain the political situation, but that’s understandable. The reader may well lose the will to live here and, unlike Blackthorne, the reader can slip off for a coffee (or something stronger) in the middle. Politics, though, isn’t really where this book is at. It’s about sex and violence, strong men and beautiful women and a fine understanding of early 19th century battlefield tactics. Griffith writes about all of these with confidence and conviction. Once you’ve read Burke in the Land of Silver, I can recommend Expect No Safety as a gripping alternative take on the same events.


A quick plug for my own book

Expect No Safety is a fine book, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Burke in the Land of Silver is a fine book too. Burke in the Land of Silver is less clearly in the military history genre and more a spy story with some war in it. Paul Collard (author of the Jack Lark books) described it as 'James Bond in breeches' and that's pretty much what I was aiming for. Just £1.99/$2.99 on Kindle.


Friday, 4 November 2016

The Williamson Papers


Every so often I remember that the purpose of writing a blog like this is to sell my books - and the arrival of a royalties statement this week reminded me that I don't do nearly enough of that. So here is an update on the Williamson Papers and why you should be reading them. [NB There are major spoilers here, so don't read on if you don't want any idea of how things end.]




The first book of the Williamson Papers is The White Rajah. It introduces us to John Williamson, a young man who runs away from farming life in Devon to go to sea in search of adventure. He finds it when he becomes the companion of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.

James Brooke is an amazing figure. (I've recently written about his real-life history HERE.) Brooke arrives in Sarawak (in Borneo) in 1839 and is made ruler by Muda Hassim, the Bendahara of Brunei. He starts with nothing but the most liberal and humane of intentions, yet goes on to preside over a massacre so terrible that it leads to protests half a world away in London. It's a fascinating story of how the high ideals of some Europeans produced such terrible outcomes when applied to other peoples' countries.  


WHY READ IT? It's got pirates and headhunters and battles and loads of excitement. This is the background for a story about a good man who ends up doing terrible things and how this affects the man who loves him. There's a lesson for today in the story about good and evil in the mid-19th century.

In Cawnpore, Williamson leaves Borneo, unable to live with what he has seen. He sails for India and takes up a post with the East India Company. He is sent to Cawnpore, where he finds himself at the centre of the events that will lead to the siege of the city and a massacre of Europeans unprecedented during colonial rule in the subcontinent. As with The White Rajah, the background to the story is closely based on real historical events. Williamson, ever the outsider, flits between the Indian and European camps, passing himself off as an Indian amongst the sepoys (something that we know Europeans managed to do during the Mutiny). Again, Williamson struggles to reconcile his own liberal principles and the realities of colonial life. This time it is the Europeans who are (in Cawnpore, at least) on the losing side. Williamson becomes one of a handful of people to survive the siege and its bloody aftermath. The experience marks him, though. He has watched his Indian friends massacre women and children without mercy and then been rescued by European soldiers who strike back with awful savagery. Once again he turns his back on a European colony, this time to return to England, where he hopes at last to find peace.


WHY READ IT? The siege of Cawnpore is one of those bits of colonial history that we have decided to forget about but it's an amazing story - even if nobody involved comes out of it looking good. This lets you top up your historical knowledge and enjoy a good read at the same time. And I can't help thinking that if more people had known anything about the history of the region, some recent foreign policy adventures might have been given a bit more thought.

Back Home, Williamson finds a country he hardly recognises. Industrialisation at home and military expansion abroad have made Britain into a dynamic political and economic power that dominates the world. Yet Williamson finds the same divide between the poor and the rich that he saw in the Far East. A friend from his youth has tried to escape his poverty by entering a life of crime in the slums of London. Faced with threats of war with France and concern about Communist terrorists, the government needs to smash a foreign plot - and if they can't find a real foreign plot, they're quite happy to invent one. Williamson's friend is caught in the machinations of a Secret Service determined to prove him an enemy agent and, in his attempts to help him escape, Williamson is once again caught between the machinations of the powerful and the resistance of the powerless. 

Back Home ends with Williamson back in Devon where he started out in The White Rajah. But will he finally find happiness there?

Read the book and find out.


Sunday, 30 October 2016

Another book about Victorian London - well worth a read

Antoine Vanner writes about the late 19th century. His 'Dawlish Chronicles' follow the adventures of Captain Nicholas Dawlish, a naval officer who is anxious to embrace the technological changes in naval warfare in the period. Antoine certainly knows his stuff and his blog provides fascinating details of naval history on a weekly (often twice-weekly) basis.

The latest book in the Dawlish series is now available in paperback. I'm delighted to have the chance to review it here.

Britannia's Amazon

Nicholas Dawlish is on an extended trial of one of the new class of steel-built cruisers. Dawlish’s adventures are intimately related to advances in naval technology in the late 19th century and this looks like more of the same. But Britannia's Amazon is to be a very different book from the previous ones in the series, for as Captain Dawlish vanishes over the horizon the story remains with his wife, Florence.



A brief prologue has summarised Florence’s back-story for anybody new to the series. Once a companion to Lady Agatha, she has married above herself after meeting Dawlish while he was on active service in Turkey. We know she is brave and good, sometimes to the point where she can be quite irritating to a reader who might respond more sympathetically to someone with the occasional fault. In this book, though, we are going to get to know (and probably like) her a lot better.

With her husband away, Florence occupies herself mainly in good works at the Seamen’s Mission. Returning from another day of dull administrative effort, she sees a woman being dragged into a closed carriage. She tries to save the victim, but is beaten to the ground and the two men who are apparently kidnapping the girl make off with her.

Florence reports the incident to the police who take neither her nor her complaint seriously.

At this point the new element is added to the plot. A young naval officer approaches her because he knows her to be a friend of Lady Agatha's. He has a mysterious message which must be relayed urgently to Lady Agatha's brother.

Hurrying to London to see Lady Agatha she meets an American journalist who is writing about the life of the poor in England. Together with a campaigner for improved conditions for the working classes she explores the conditions in the London slums and, in doing so, discovers the truth behind the young officer and his death and how this is in turn tied to the kidnapping that started the adventure.

The plot is Dickensian in its twists and turns, with a large cast of characters and a few Dickensian coincidences to move things along. Like Dickens, it uses the story as an opportunity to explore and expose the world of the Victorian underclass. 1882 was at the centre of an interesting period in British history when new technology and changing social attitudes were hurrying us towards the 20th century, while the condition of the poor harked back to the 18th.

Having just written BackHome, set in the slums and rookeries of 1859, Vanner’s London is a place I recognised and felt at home in. The appalling conditions are all-too-credible. By 1878 there were more movements to improve the lot of the poor and the description of a public meeting to protest about the conditions of workers in match factories (no nonsense about Health & Safety then!) is convincing.

A recurring theme in Britannia's Amazon is the differences between rich and poor. This is often highlighted by Florence’s situation as she moves between her family (her father is a coachman) and her friend Lady Agatha. Her family is at once proud of her and embarrassed as her father finds himself in the position of a servant to his own daughter. Class is inextricably tied into every aspect of her life: the Admiral’s wife snubs her; the police don’t take her seriously. Struggling to cope with the ambiguity of her social status, Florence is a more sympathetic figure than when we met her in Britannia’s Wolf, especially when she is driven to morally dubious measures in the interests of the greater good. Moral dubiousness, though, is kept well in check, usually confined to mysterious foreigners. Otherwise the moral lines are clearly drawn: the poor are generally virtuous and sympathetic while the rich are, with some saintly exceptions, villains who one would expect to twirl their moustaches except for an absence of any really fine facial hair. This is, though, just another Dickensian aspect of the book and if the approach was good enough for Dickens (who, let’s face it, pushed that particular envelope to tearing point) it’s hardly fair to complain about it here.

There’s a lot of solid social history in this book. As I have found writing about the period, one difficulty is that the most outrageously obvious fictions all turn out to be rooted in fact. I have few illusions about Victorian morality, but I was surprised to discover that one of the more improbable details about vice in the Metropolis turns out (according to the Historical Note that completes the book) to be absolutely true. [No details because it’s a spoiler.]

Britannia's Amazon works because we get close enough to Florence to care about her and, through her, to care about the social divides in Victorian society. It provides a vivid picture of Britain, showing the social changes that are reflecting the technological changes that are a strong feature of the earlier books. In the course of Florence’s adventures, we learn a lot about Victorian life at the bottom of the social scale. The other end of society is less sympathetically described and can be sketchy in its details but by the end of the book you should have learned how to cut a person socially, if nothing else. That alone will be a key skill in negotiating Florence’s world.

The plot bowls along and, if it is not entirely convincing, it is, once again, no worse than Dickens. It’s a plot that is true to the era it’s describing and it pulls us into Dickens’ world so we can explore it further. The writing is, thank goodness, not Dickensian. It’s an easy read.


If you’re a fan of novels about the Victorian world (or, indeed, a fan of Victorian novels) it’s well worth a read.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Nell Peters: a case history.

I've just finished another book by Nell Peters. I've got a great pile of worthy tomes that I ought to get round to reading, but (as I think I just mentioned) I've been reading Nell Peters.

I don't for the life of me know why. If I were writing an Amazon review I certainly wouldn't give them five stars. They're idiosyncratic, self-indulgent, break all the rules and hop about in a rather disconcerting way. Yet with all those piles of excellent novels waiting for my attention, I keep coming back to hers. Those idiosyncrasies create a wonderfully quirky approach to writing which doesn't so much defy genre categories as put them into a sack, pound them with a baseball bat, run over them with a steamroller and then drop them into a river encased in concrete. Much in the way that people seem to get disposed of in her books, come to think of it. For Ms Peters combines a ghoulish sense of humour with a disturbing enthusiasm for violence.

Nell Peters’ books are not for everybody. But those of us who enjoy them, enjoy them quite a lot. It all seems to depend if your mind is warped in quite the same way as hers is. So, to give you an idea of whether it is or not, here's Nell Peters (not her real name), psychologist, on the twisted mind of Nell Peters, author.



Nell Peters, psych (NPP): Why thank you, Tom. You say the sweetest things! Just not to me … I’m inviting Nell Peters, Author (NPA) to join in the fun – if she’s not too busy torturing little furry animals. Hello, Nell. Did you have any trouble parking you broomstick?

NPA: Hi Nell – very amusing. I can put Tom in my next book and create a truly gruesome end for him, if you like?

NPP: Thanks for the offer – I’ll certainly keep it in mind. Meanwhile, would you care to come and perch on my couch?

NPA: Thanks – how quaintly old-fashioned. Are you a Freudian?

NPP: Most definitely not. Will that be a problem?

NPA: Not for me.

NPP: Good. If you’re sitting comfortably, would you like to begin by telling me your earliest childhood memory?

NPA: Why do psychos always ask that?

NPP: It just provides background, acts as an icebreaker – take your pick.

NPA: I’ll probably need that to break the ice.

NPP: Funny. Do you have a memory to share?

NPA: I was two and my little brother had just been born at home, as was the norm back then. Stephen was very sick and I wasn’t allowed into my mother’s room. I’ve no idea who was meant to be looking after me, but I must have given them the slip and I recall climbing the stairs and crawling along the landing to the bedroom.

NPP: Why do you think you crawled, when presumably aged two you could walk?

NPA: I was an early walker, so perhaps I was trying to make myself as small and inconspicuous as possible, trying not to be noticed.

NPP: Interesting. Go on.

NPA: When I got to the bedroom door, I pushed it open – my mother was sitting in bed, resting on plumped-up pillows, and the nanny was there, holding my brother. She looked around and saw me, of course – told me off and said I had to leave. But my mother allowed me to stay, for some reason. That’s all I remember. My brother was admitted to hospital at some stage and died before he was a month old.

NPP: That’s very sad. Did you have any other siblings?

NPA: A sister, born when I was seven.

NPP: I see. Was yours a happy childhood generally?

NPA: No.

NPP: Care to elucidate?

NPA: Not really, suffice to say I was a lonely child who spent extended periods in my room reading, hoping to be neither seen nor heard.

NPP: Not all bad then. The reading bit, I mean.

NPA: I would probably rather have had happy, family fun-type memories to look back upon, but I don’t. C’est la vie.

NPP: Tell me, what sort of books would you read in your room?

NPA: Almost anything I could get my hands on – there was a lot of Enid Blyton early on and I galloped through the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, thereby sewing the seeds of murder, mayhem and dastardly deeds in my imagination. These were reinforced by my enthusiasm for Agatha Christie and her convoluted plots, so the die was well and truly cast, to paraphrase Suetonius.

NPP: Tom describes your mind as both warped and twisted – any thoughts on that? You’d better keep on the right side of polite, as it is his blog.

NPA: Hah! I believe Tom read psychology as well – I wonder if he used warped and twisted as adjectives in his assignments. If so, did he actually walk away with a decent degree, in fact any degree at all?

NPP: Perhaps we’ll ask him later. I specialised in serial killers, terrorists and everyday psychopaths – now they really do have a screw loose.

NPA: Is that a bona fide term found in the DSM – any number you like?

NPP: Ah, I was forgetting you sat in on the psych lectures too.


NPA: Like I had a choice!

NPP: Go on …

NPA: When I read fiction, I want to be entertained, surprised and challenged – what is the point of being able to work out whodunit before chapter two? (I tend to read mostly crime, as I have very little leisure reading time.) There is nothing worse than a pedestrian and predictable plot – I like to get to know fully-fleshed characters (whether I like or loathe them) who don’t do what’s expected of them, and to live in their world for a short time.

NPP: Mmm … Any book – or indeed TV programme, play or film that hits one over the head with too many signposts tends not to be a satisfying experience.

NPA: Agreed. I feel it’s the writer’s duty to come up with a sequence of events for the reader, without their being able to anticipate what comes next – even worse, what the denouement will be. I see the crime reader as a detective, analysing clues and discounting red herrings – there should be no formulaic content, even in a series using the same core cast of characters. Fiction is just that, depicting situations and events that most of us will never encounter, except vicariously.

NPP: If an author is not firing on all cylinders mentally, it’s evident in their writing, don’t you think?

NPA: Absolutely – for example, the Mervyn Peake trilogy, Gormenghast. It was many years ago I read all three in quick succession, but I recall noticing an increasing decline in structure and fluidity toward the end, suggesting the author’s descent into early on-set dementia.

NPP: I wrote a dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and obviously read a lot of his work …

NPA: I remember. Some of it was extremely hard to follow, as he started to lose his grip on reality, his cognitive function failing.

NPP: That’s my line!

NPA: Shall we move on – it must almost be wine time?

NPP: Sure. Do you do a lot of planning or plotting, before you start writing?

NPA: No, I’m more of a panster, though I do usually have an idea of likely scenarios that will trigger the action, plus some ghostly apparitions of potential characters floating through my head. But things change all the time and characters don’t always obey my instructions, so that plots perform somersaults whilst they evolve. And as for genre-hopping, most of us lead lives that aren’t genre-specific – stories should reflect that. How boring a fictional read would be without the mingling of relationships and incidents on every level to be found between the pages. 

NPP: Where do you get your ideas from?

NPA: Sometimes I develop a thread picked up from an overheard conversation, a scene witnessed, a news item, or similar, but nine times out of ten an embryonic plot will develop in my head. After all, I spent my formative years living in my imagination.

NPP: Quite a few of your reviews mention the humour in your writing, yet Tom refers to your
sense of humour as ghoulish. What say you?

     NPA: I have a very basic (some might say pathetic) sense of humour – my OH frequently despairs of what amuses me. I don’t actually mean to be funny when I write – it just slips out, and my editor (whom I share with Tom) has to get out his red pen and obliterate ninety per cent. As for ghoulish, gallows is perhaps a better term.

NPP: Mentioning no names, a review for one of your books included the phrase ‘Peters has a taste for the grotesque and a tendency to Grand Guignol that can be disturbing.’

NPA: It did; presumably the inference being that if Grand Guignol was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. I’m happy with a recent comment; ‘James Ellroy over-super-embellishes everything but it works well, and so does yours!’

NPP: Shall we leave Tom to it?

NPA: Suits me, I’m hungry. But before we go, any thoughts on our host?

NPP: I don’t know him well enough to make an informed judgement, but the words patronising, deluded and egocentric are strolling through my mind – and although he’s not quite a sociopath, his social awareness is severely stunted.

NPA: I’ll go with that – and after all, let he who sits atop the best seller list cast the first withering critique.

NPP: Toodles, Tom!

NPA: Don’t forget to write!


Nell Peters' books are available on Amazon: CLICK HERE  for her author page – if you dare.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Naval Hospital at Greenwich

Last week I produced not one, but two, blog posts about pattern-welded swords. It was a specialist subject and, as I expected, not wildly popular (though worth a look if metallurgy and edged weapons are your thing). I promised a return to normal service this week so here is something much lighter.

This week I finished the first draft of the next book about James Burke, so, what with that and writing about metallurgy, I've been a bit busy. So I have no brilliant ideas for this week's blog post.

I know that you all seem to like things with photographs and last month I spent an afternoon taking pictures at the Naval Hospital in Greenwich, so I thought I'd just share some of these with you.

The Naval Hospital was the brainchild of Queen Mary, though it was completed after her death in 1694. She was concerned that, while old soldiers had provision at the Chelsea Hospital (where they can still find accommodation as Chelsea Pensioners) there was no equivalent institution for old sailors. Note that  this was a hospital in the old sense of somewhere providing a place of shelter, rather than  a medical facility. The buildings did include an infirmary, though, which  continued operating as the Dreadnought Seaman's hospital until 1986.

The building was very grand, designed to reflect the country's gratitude to the Navy rather, perhaps, than meeting the needs of  common seamen. Indeed, one of the reasons that  the naval hospital (unlike the Chelsea Hospital) was eventually  closed down was because sailors did not particularly want to live there.

There is a good example of the way that  the glorification of  Britain's naval history was worked into the architecture here:


This shows the dead body of Nelson being delivered to Britannia by an angel and (look carefully for the tail) a merman. [Click on the photo to see the detail.]


Nelson is not wearing his uniform, but is naked except for a cloth spread across his loins. The figure is strikingly similar  to many depictions of Christ taken down from the cross. Notice Nelson's great victories inscribed on plaques held by the figures around him (including a cherub). There is Trafalgar, of course, but also Copenhagen and the Nile. Nowadays we tend to forget  the Battle of the Nile, but it was an astonishing triumph over a vastly superior French force. [And I might mention that it's the climax of Burke and the Bedouin.]

The accommodation was spacious but utilitarian. This is a view of one of the rooms nowadays.


The public rooms (most notably the chapel and the Painted Hall) were quite extraordinary,  although savings were made whenever possible. The "marble" pillars in the chapel, for example, are not real marble and the  sculpture work (including the  scene of Nelson's death shown above) are not actually carved from stone but cast in ceramic.


The Chapel
The Painted Hall
Ceiling of Painted Hall
The buildings ceased to be used as a retirement home in 1869 and were later taken over by the Royal Navy as a training college for its officers. The Navy left in 1998 and the sailors accommodation  is now used by the University of Greenwich for teaching and administration. The students there are lucky to be working in such beautiful buildings.

My books

I have written a series of books set in the Napoleonic Wars, when this hospital would have been filled with sailors who had lost limbs fighting the French. The second in the series (all the books stand alone, so you don't need to have read the first) ends with an account of Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile. It's called Burke and the Bedouin and if, like most people, you have never heard of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, you will know a lot more about the history of the wars with France when you finish it than you know now. Like all the Burke books, it features dark deeds and desperate fights, a beautiful woman and a sardonic streak of humour. You can buy it on Kindle for just £2.99/$3.99 or in paperback for £9.99/$14.95