Thursday, 28 April 2016

My five favourite Napoleonic War books.

I'm stepping away from the mid-19th century this week and back to the Napoleonic world of James Burke.

The James Burke books take us from Napoleon's Egyptian adventure (Burke and the Bedouin) to his defeat at Waterloo (Burke at Waterloo) via the disastrous British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver). I'm currently working on another James Burke adventure set in the Peninsular War.

The Napoleonic Wars offer great scope for novelists and there are some excellent books set in this period. Here are five of the best (not written by me). Enjoy.

Sharpe’s Company by Bernard Cornwell. There are an awful lot of Sharpe books and it's difficult to choose between them. This is one of Cornwell’s own favourites and is a fast paced story set around the fall of Badajoz in the Peninsular War. There is a lot of military action, but also plenty of description of the relationships between the various regiments and the life of the men. Cornwell's novels bring the Napoleonic Wars alive. If your school history lessons concentrated (as mine did) on the long list of battles and the makeup of the continually shifting alliances, then these books give a useful reminder that there were real people in those red (or, in Sharpe's case, green) uniforms. Sharpe isn't an especially rounded or credible character, but he's rounded and credible enough. And the details of military life are fascinating.

The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow. It's easy to sneer at Scarrow's books. They aren't 'proper' novels. The characterisation is thin and the dialogue unconvincing. But Scarrow approaches the Napoleonic Wars from the opposite direction to Cornwell. His main interest is the way that Napoleon and Wellington planned their campaigns at the grand strategic level and how these grand plans worked out in blood and terror on the battlefield. Fields of Death may not be great literature, but by the end of it I understood more about how and why Napoleon was finally defeated than I had ever learned before.

The Recollections of Rifleman Harris by Christopher Hibbert. For a real infantryman's view of the war, you can do no better than read Rifleman Harris's account. Harris told his story in his own words after the war had ended. There is no sense of grand strategy, no neat little parcels of story. Harris advances across Europe and retreats back to the North Sea coast without ever bothering about objectives and political goals. He's more interested in staying alive, bedding the local women and keeping on the right side of his officers. A worm's eye account of Napoleonic warfare and a valuable antidote to modern romanticisation of history.
[An aside here: I read a lot of old books that are well out of copyright and yet which someone is collecting money for when they sell it on Amazon. If you find this objectionable, download Rifleman Harris free and legally from]

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. British control of the seas was crucial to success in the Napoleonic Wars and any list of books about them has to include at least one set at sea. When I was young, the obvious choice would have been one of C S Forester's Hornblower novels, but nowadays I think Patrick O'Brian is more in fashion. His attention to nautical detail is impressive and in Aubrey and Maturin he has produced two well-rounded characters, whose adventures are easy to get caught up in. As with Sharpe, it's difficult to pick out any individual book in the series. Master and Commander is the first of twenty completed novels (a twenty-first being unfinished at the time of O’Brian’s death).

The Officer’s Prey by Armand Cabasson. UK readers will find an easy diet of Napoleonic War stories featuring British heroes and perfidious Frogs. The Officer’s Prey provides an interesting look at things from the other side. The book is essentially a murder mystery, but it is set against the background of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Although the story is a detective thriller, there is an enormous amount of military detail. Armand Cabasson is a Napoleonic Wars expert, and it shows. If you are interested in Napoleon's march on Moscow (and the retreat), the interminable descriptions of uniforms and details of the different regiments will be gripping, though for many readers they may become tedious. The descriptions of the horror of war and the scale of the disaster that was the retreat are well handled, though. 

Monday, 25 April 2016

Henry V

This is rather different from my usual blogs. Look on it as a bonus posting. It's really just for the benefit of people who were involved with Henry V on Saturday, but feel free to read on and enjoy if it appeals to you.

The Wallace Collection celebrated Shakespeare's birthday on Saturday with an unrehearsed performance of Henry V. A bunch of people, recruited online and given parts without auditions, turned up in whatever costumes they thought appropriate and, without direction or rehearsal, put on a performance.

We did have an amazing venue, though.

I didn't get to see it (and, in any case, I might have been the tiniest bit biased) but the audience certainly seemed to enjoy it. As my beloved put it: "It makes you wonder why most plays bother with rehearsals and a director." Certainly, as I rushed through my four lines, I found I was entirely concentrating on telling the Constable of France to get on and start fighting. I couldn't worry about how to project to the audience (it was in the round). I didn't have to think about where the director had told me to stand (he had refused to give any direction at all). I was just there in the moment and it gave the whole play an intensity that those of us doing the playing really appreciated.

Anyway, if you were in it and don't have any photos, these might be better than nothing.

Producer, Main Man and all-round Good Egg, here playing Chorus: Andrew Hobbs

SP Howarth bigging it up as Henry
We were all terribly impressed that Henry's girlfriend had made him an actual proper costume. Others had resorted to their imagination. It takes a certain something to wear a wooden spoon instead of a sword, and yet, somehow, it worked. (Note gender-neutral casting.)

Jessamy James as Captain Gower

Some of the costume ideas were pure genius. Here, Henry, disguised in his cloak, goes among the soldiers. You can tell they're English soldiers as at least some of them are wearing England football shirts.

Here a Robin Hood costume from a fancy dress party gets a new lease of life.  

I must admit to having doubts about the sword, but we were very definitely told that real swords were forbidden, which seems a little odd, remembering where all this is happening.

Here we are waiting to go on. Oh, the glamour of life backstage!

And here is my 15 seconds of fame, telling the Constable of France to get his finger out and stick it to the English.

And here the French troops are ordered forward. This turns out to have been a bad move, which is pretty much the point of the play.

Anyway, a few thousand dead Frenchmen later, we came in to take our bows.

Here I am, grinning like an idiot. What an amazing way to spend St George's Day!

I think everyone involved had so much fun - even the audience. It was a fabulous day.

Many thanks to everyone who made it happen.

Friday, 22 April 2016

A Day in the Country

It's been quite a week. Back Home is now well and truly launched. If you missed the post about the party, it's HERE. It was a lot of fun and nice to meet some Accent authors (and my editor) in the flesh.

In order to drum up interest in the book, I've been posting on blogs all over the place, which has left me with not that much energy to post anything on my own blog. If you want to read any of last week’s efforts, they're still available – check the addresses in the poster below.

Inevitably, I'm suffering something of a sense of anti-climax at the moment. According to Amazon, nobody is buying the book, which I know is untrue, so I'm expecting a sudden surge in reported sales once their systems catch up with reality. If you're still wondering whether or not to buy it, have a look at THIS post and then get your money out. It's only £2.82 on Kindle. (Why £2.82? I have no idea: Amazon still getting their act together, I suspect. If you hang about, it may well go up to £2.99.)

I calmed myself down after the excitement of the party by going to Bletchley Park for the day on Saturday. This is where Britain's codebreakers worked during World War II. Their success in breaking the German Enigma codes is said to have shortened the war by about two years. It was a massive effort, involving experts from all of the British services and with some of the key breakthroughs coming from work done by Poles in the run-up to the war. It's a huge site; at its height, 10,000 people worked where. There was far too much to take in on one visit and we will be going back. Meanwhile, here’s a taster: the house itself, an Enigma machine, and Turing's office, where he made such a massive contribution to breaking the code.

It's strange to think that this is the place where so much was achieved. Many people say that it marked the beginning of modern computing science, although Turing’s Bombe (a rebuilt version is pictured below) was not really a computer. The work done at Bletchley Park  certainly marked the beginning of modern cryptanalysis. After the war the place was closed down but most of its functions are now replicated at GCHQ in Cheltenham.

Well, that's how I wound down. Next week I'll be back working on the next book and posting about novels of the Napoleonic wars.

Friday, 15 April 2016

'Back Home' launch party

Last night we had a party to launch Back Home. It's the first time we've had a proper launch party – by which I mean a party that we didn't just hold for a few friends at home. We used the Seven Dials Club in, unsurprisingly, Seven Dials. It seemed very appropriate, given that Back Home is set there.

If you've missed the photos in my earlier blogs, here is Seven Dials nowadays. It's a very upmarket area right next to London's Covent Garden.

The Seven Dials Club is in one of the buildings on the right of the photo.

It was lovely to get the chance to meet my editor, for the first time, together with a couple of other Accent authors I have only known online before.

Lynne Shelby, Editor Greg, me, Nell Peters, Laura Wilkinson

There were friends and chat and dancing and cake. What more could I want?

Selling a few more books would be nice, of course. It's officially published on Monday, but you can pre-order it now at Click HERE to find out why you should buy Back Home.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

'Back Home': just buy it!

I'm in the middle of a blog tour at the moment, popping up on blogs all over the place with all sorts of interesting (I hope!) posts about the world of ‘Back Home’. But – being British don’tcha know – I'm perhaps missing one crucial point, which is that it really would be the most awfully good idea if you buy it.

Here’s why.

‘Back Home’ is a thrilling story of crime and politics set in the world of 1859 London. It was a lot more like London today than you might think, so this won’t just be a surprisingly well-researched peek into the past, but it might also make you think a bit about the present. After all, we all believe in Victorian values these days – or do we?

If you want to know more about the book, have a look at my blog or read some of the posts on the blog tour.

You can buy ‘Back Home’ in paperback or on Kindle (or via a range of other electronic devices). It comes out next week, but it’s already available to pre-order. It’s £9.99 in paperback or just £2.82 on Kindle. (You can buy it in the US too – $3.99 on Kindle.)

Use the link below to take you to Amazon, or go to Accent Press at

Friday, 8 April 2016

A blog tour and some photographs

I'm not doing a proper blog post this week, because my posts are popping up all over the place in a blog tour to launch Back Home, which is officially published on 18 April. (There is a launch party a few days earlier, which is your first chance to get hold of a copy. If you are a regular visitor to the blog and haven’t seen an invitation to party, please scroll down the page to find out more about it.)

I'm posting some photos on Facebook and Twitter that show places that are featured in the book as they are today. The first of these was the Burlington Arcade, now a respectable (even posh) shopping arcade; in 1859 it was well-known as a place where men met prostitutes.

The second photo shows the famous seven dials sundial that marks the centre of what was, when it was built, rather a desirable development. By 1859, the place was an utter slum and the column had been removed because it was thought by the authorities that it provided a meeting place for the mob. 

Here it is as described in my book:
We arrived safely at a little plinth that marked the centre of the neighbourhood. Here there had once stood a pillar with the seven sundials that gave Seven Dials its name, but the pillar was long gone. Only a few stones, too low even for a mounting block, remained in the middle of this square. Not that the area was square. It marked the spot where seven streets met. In whatever direction you faced, sharply angled buildings stabbed toward you. The effect was disorienting, for each street looked the same. Furthermore, at this confluence, all the buildings that the traveller found himself looking at were public houses. Only dirty street signs, high on the walls of the narrow roads, provided any clue as to the direction that you should follow.
Today, of course, it's the centre of a very nice part of London and the sundials have been reinstated.

More photos will follow over the next few days. Meanwhile, I hope you will read my posts on other people's blogs. Different people asked me to write in very different ways – everything from a simple excerpt to addressing particular issues about life in 1859. I hope that you might also see stuff on their blogs that interest you. It's always nice to get out of our genre ghettos and explore the wider world of books.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Now available in paperback and on Kindle

Friday has come around again and I'm trying to get back into posting on Fridays, which has got a bit disrupted of late with our holiday and then the Easter break.

Time flies, doesn't it? It's just over two weeks now until the official publication date for Back Home. I'm very excited about it.

Back Home is different from my previous books because it isn't based around a particular historical event. It's set mainly in London in 1859, a year which is easily overlooked by most history books. But the mid-19th century was an exciting time in London. Before 1860, London had more in common with the world of the 18th century than it does with the London of today, but this was a time of rapid change, with modern London beginning to emerge. Back Home tries to capture some of the spirit of the London of that time - a city in transition. It was a time of uncertainty and rapid social change and, as is common in such circumstances, a time of social and political unrest. Karl Marx and his Communists were meeting in Great Windmill Street and the Chartists were seen as a threat to public order.

John Williamson has come back to England after a lifetime in the Far East. In his previous adventures, The White Rajah and Cawnpore, I wrote about colonialism. My view is that the modern notion that colonialism was an unalloyed evil is simplistic, to put it mildly. But the relationship between those with all the power and those with none is always going to end up damaging both. Back in London, Williamson thinks that he has left the violence of the struggles between the powerful and the powerless back in Asia. He learns that the same divisions exist in his own country and that they can lead to bloody battles even in the heart of the capital.

Back Home is an adventure story with criminals and plots and fights and, yes, John Williamson again tries to find love, but there is politics in it too. It's probably the only story you'll read this year that includes detailed instructions for forging sovereigns and a discussion of Marx's Critique of Political Economy. (Don't worry: it's a very short discussion.)

If you've read the previous books about John Williamson, I hope you will find this a fitting end to his adventures. If you haven't, I hope you'll enjoy a story that stands alone, even if you don't know the character and his past. (Perhaps you will even decide to read one of the other stories - I recommend Cawnpore.) Over three books I have grown close to Williamson and I wanted to see him off in style. I hope Back Home has done that.