Friday, 29 July 2016

Blowing my own trumpet

Every so often I mention coyly that I've had some rather good reviews. Then I go on to talk about 19th century history or someone else's books, or the fun I had doing something vaguely historical at the weekend. (Staying at a 15th century castle, as you ask. And, yes, it was very nice, thank you.)

Herstmonceaux Castle

This week I'm going to go all un-British and quote some of the lovely reviews I've been getting.

My latest book, Back Home, was published in April and reviewed (twice) by Rosie Amber's Book Reviews. Terry Tyler wrote: "I enjoyed every word of this novel. It's so cleverly written, with low-key humour in parts, the research used subtly and inobtrusively." Judith Barrow said: "I loved everything about Back Home and have no hesitation in recommending this book."

Back Home has had nine 5* reviews on Amazon (seven on and two more on More reviews would be nice (hint, hint) but I'm delighted that the people who've read it have been so positive.

Terry Tyler has also reviewed Cawnpore (twelve reviews on, ten of them 5*). She said the book was "all that historical fiction should be: absorbing, believable and educational." The Historical Novel Society wrote: "For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you."

The White Rajah, although averaging 4.2 stars on, has the most amazing review I have seen from a blog that I would never have read if it were not for the wonders of Google:
It's ages since I've started reading a book and then been 100% annoyed at the world that it won't let me just sit there and finish it all in one go, but The White Rajah by Tom Williams has totally been that book! 

OK, I'll stop. I'll leave the reviews of the books about James Burke ("James Bond in breeches" - Paul Collard) for another week. And I apologise if this shameless self-promotion irritates. In the end, though, if I don't tell you how good people think my books are, you won't buy them. And if you don't buy them, I can't really justify writing this blog every week.

Reviews are so important. Terry Tyler (yes, the same one) is trying to get everybody to write just one Amazon review in August so that some less well-known authors get the chance to be seen. She explains it all on her own blog. (Click HERE.) I'd love for you to review one of mine, but it's more important just that you review any book by an author published by one of the smaller publishers (or self-published). These writers rely on reviews to get noticed. Please help by reviewing. (Telling all your friends how much you enjoyed a book makes a big difference too.)

Thanks for reading. Now let's get back to the weekend and enjoying the grounds of Herstmonceaux Castle.

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Kilmorey Mausoleum

Yesterday (Thursday) marked the anniversary of the 1798 Battle of the Pyramids, which features in Burke and the Bedouin.

Napoleon's invasion of Egypt was unusual in that, besides a substantial military force, Napoleon took leading academics to study the monuments of ancient Egypt. Famously, the French plundered the country for relics, many of which ended up back in France.

The Obelisk of Luxor, now in the Place de La Concorde

Although the campaign was ultimately a military failure,  the French efforts generated a lot of interest in Ancient Egypt – interest that eventually extended to the UK. One little known example of this is the Kilmorey Mausoleum, near where we live in southwest London. It is the last resting place of the Second Earl of Kilmorey and his mistress Priscilla Hoste. It was built in 1854, well after the initial passion for all things Egyptian, but the design is thought to have been based on a plate in a French book, Description de l’Egypte, published in 1809.

The idea for the mausoleum is supposed to have been that of a friend of the Earl's, the Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi. Like Kilmorey, he was an occultist. The mausoleum, covered with hieroglyphs and dedicated to Osiris, the god of resurrection, would serve as a portal to the underworld.

Joseph Bonomi
The building was designed by a noted Victorian architect of his time, Henry Edward Kendall, and originally erected in Brompton Cemetery on Priscilla's death. It was moved to Woburn Park in 1862, and then, in 1868 it was moved again, to Gordon House in St Margarets. The Earl had made his home there and wanted his beloved nearby so that he could visit her. He was even supposed to have had a tunnel built to enable him to access the Mausoleum secretly at night.

The Earl died in 1880 and was finally laid to rest alongside his mistress.

The Kilmorey Mausoleum

The mausoleum was neglected until recently, when restoration work was undertaken and the grounds surrounding it were tidied. It is now very occasionally open to the public and you will have a chance to see it on Sunday 24th July from 1.00pm to 5.00pm. It will be open again on Sunday 18th September at the same time. Admission is free. 

The mausoleum is an interesting piece of architecture, although I was more interested in the idea of building a private burial place in your back garden, which is essentially what the Earl did. It was a curious coincidence, though, to find that I live so close to something that would not exist were it not for the military adventure that I had just finished writing about when I first saw it a couple of years ago

How to get there

The mausoleum is on St Margarets Drive, TW1 1QN – opposite the Ailsa Tavern. It's through an anonymous black wooden gate in a high brick wall. The nearest station is St Margarets.


I first wrote about the mausoleum on this blog in 2014, but it seemed worth mentioning again, as it is going to be open this weekend. My thanks to the St Margarets Community Website for drawing that to my attention and for some of the information in this blog post. The Kilmorey Mausoleum has its own website at

The photo of Obelisk of Luxor is by Christophe Meneboeuf.

The painting of Joseph Bonomi by Matilda Sharpe (1868) is in the National Portrait Gallery and is used with permission.

*  *  *

Burke and the Bedouin is the second of my stories about the spy, James Burke, who worked for the British during the Napoleonic wars. According to 'The Review Group' ( it's "an entertaining light read", which is pretty much what I intended to write. It's a painless way to learn about one of Napoleon's less well-known adventures. You can buy it on Kindle for £2.99/$3.99 at

Friday, 15 July 2016

A funny old week

It's been a funny old week, hasn't it? If you're in the UK, watching your government morphing overnight from a bunch of old-Etonian posh boys to a rather more state-school educated group of people reporting to our second-ever woman Prime Minister has been interesting. Even more interesting will be seeing what policies they will come up with, given that they seem to be moving in a dramatically different direction to the people they replaced, and all without the distraction of any sort of election. Without the distraction of any sort of Parliamentary Opposition, too, because Labour MPs have decided that fighting their own distinctly uncivil war is massively more entertaining than doing the job they're paid for, which is to provide some sort of critical analysis of the Government.

I usually don't do politics (at least not overtly) on my blog, but there are times when what's happening to your country is so big, so potentially significant and all-embracing, that it becomes impossible to ignore. Ever since the Referendum, life in London has become dominated by political chat, even amongst people who professed to be profoundly unpolitical before all this kicked off. (In fact, many of those complaining that Britain is now on its way out of the EU were so unpolitical a month ago that they didn't actually get round to voting in the Referendum that started this mess.) There are people who have lost long-time friends in the flurry of insults currently passing for political debate and I'm avoiding parties where I just know that more cross words will make things even worse.

With all this going on (and even before the awful events in Nice which are only just sinking in as I write), I'm finding it quite difficult to concentrate on my books. It's a particularly bad time to discover that your work in progress needs significant tinkering to make the chronology of the plot fit the few facts that we absolutely have to incorporate into what is, after all, a historical novel based around real events. The changes are nothing too dramatic - the same incidents will happen but shifted to a different locale; the army corps that my hero infiltrates will be a different corps; crucial messages will be sent on slightly different dates. It's all under control and in some ways it's this jigsawing of real and imagined events that is the fun part of historical fiction, but it can be quite tedious to plot and, with real life increasingly resembling a particularly exciting episode of Game of Thrones, I find my attention keeps drifting away from the plains of 19th century Spain and towards 21st century Westminster. I'm expecting dragons over Big Ben any moment.

Image from 'Reign of Fire'

The last week has also made me wonder how much people want to read historical novels based around wars and battles. (My books are not, strictly speaking, military history, but they do have quite a lot of war in them.) Most books in this country are bought by women and what women want in a historical novel (to generalise wildly, but we're talking marketplaces, not individuals) does seem rather different from what interests men. In my last blog post, I reviewed Jane Jackson's The Master's Wife and compared the way she approaches her historical material with the way that I would tackle the same stuff. What came out very clearly is that her books and mine take very different approaches to often very similar subject matter. Neither approach is 'better' than the other. I did wonder if a book combining both would be the ideal historical novel and realised that one well-known title does. It's War and Peace and, whatever its literary merits, I think it would struggle to find a publisher or a market these days.

This exercise in comparing and contrasting was interesting in itself, but what I found astonishing was the response to the blog post. A week after writing, it is one of the three most-read (or at least, most clicked-on) blogs I have ever posted. By this evening, I'm pretty sure it will be in the #2 spot. (#1 is a post about Nana Sahib, the 'villain' of Cawnpore, who gets a lot of views because he's an important historical character with not that much written about him in the UK.) In the five and a half years I've been blogging, my readership has increased, so recent posts are more likely to have got more readers, but that can't be the reason for such overwhelming interest. Looking at other popular posts, though, I see that #4 is a review of Laura Wilkinson's romantic novel, Redemption Song. It beats into fifth place my account of the battle of Quatre Bras, the little-known but decisive conflict that preceded Waterloo. Published on the 200th anniversary of the battle, it was the sort of post that appealed to people with an interest in military history but there were far fewer people wanting to read about that than there were wanting to read about a romance.

Black Watch at the Battle of Quatre-Bras, 1815, by William Barnes Wollen. Quite an important battle.

All this, at a time when everyone in the UK is having to come to terms with a very rapidly changing world, is making me wonder if I have to accept that the market for the sort of historical novels I write is just not big enough to make sense. There are still people succeeding there: my personal favourite is Paul Collard. Antoine Vanner also writes well in this sub-genre, but without great commercial success. Authors such as Bernard Cornwell, though, have moved away from the 19th century to more profitable tales of much longer ago. Other well-loved writers of 19th century military fiction, like Patrick O'Brian and George MacDonald Fraser, have sadly parted this world. I feel that, perhaps, the 19th century military boat has sailed. The problem is not that books about this period are not appreciated by their audience - my books, like those of Collard and Vanner, have had some very favourable reviews. It is just that the size of that audience seems to be becoming too small to support more than one or two commercially successful writers.

What to do? I'm really not sure. I'll finish the book I'm working on now - I've written 40,000 words and it seems to be ticking along quite nicely - but then I'm going to have to give it quite a lot of serious thought. Everyone I know seems to be giving quite a lot of things serious thought right now and the future of James Burke - His Majesty's Confidential Agent - is hardly that significant in the scale of things. If you do like reading about 19th century military history, though, might I suggest you buy some? Not necessarily by me: buy the latest Jack Lark by Paul Collard or something in Antoine Vanner's Dawlish series. But do buy something. Because if people don't buy the books, authors will stop writing them. And that, I think, would be a shame.

Why not try these? (Click for Buy link.)

*  *  *

Tom Williams writes books about the Napoleonic era spy, James Burke. He's a spy and the books are full of beautiful women and dastardly plots, but, yes, they do have the odd battle. The history is quite well researched too, but they are, above all, fun. Give them a go.

If you like your history a bit more serious, try the Williamson Papers. Set in the mid-19th century, they see the height of the Colonial Era through the eyes of a man who is never entirely comfortable with what he is doing in the name of Britain and Christian civilisation. But these books have battles in too. 19th century history was like that - rather dominated by men with guns.

Friday, 8 July 2016

'Bonnets vs bullets' or 'Can Romantic Novelists do Real History?'

Jane Jackson’s novel, The Master’s Wife, is set in the late 19th century. Captain Barata, a Cornish merchant seaman, has been commissioned by the British government to take gold to Egypt to bribe the Bedouin to favour the British in a dispute that threatens to involve Britain in war with the Egyptians. Barata has become increasingly estranged from his wife following the death of his two sons while he was at sea. Both lost in their own grief, husband and wife are drifting steadily apart and he welcomes the excuse to be voyaging again as soon as possible. His wife, Caseley, though, is desperate to build some sort of relationship with her husband and insists that he takes her to travel with him. She, after all, can speak French and she says that her language skills will ease his path in Egypt.

Having written my own story set in Egypt less than a century earlier (Burke and the Bedouin), I was interested to see what a very different historical novelist would make of this subject matter. I was even prepared to overlook the fact that Jackson writes romantic novels, a genre that I generally struggle with.

To my delight, I found that this story merges history and romance in a satisfying way. The history bits are often narrated by a convenient newspaper reporter who fills our heroine in on the background, an approach which critics may find clumsy, but which does allow an awful lot of really interesting stuff to be got over relatively quickly and painlessly. Our heroine's experience of Alexandria has an immediacy that more than makes up for the lectures and her trip to visit a Bedouin encampment was packed with detail while remaining lively and involving.

There is plenty of action and excitement to spice up what might otherwise be a simple travelogue and, of course, there is the romance. How lovely to see two grown-ups wrestling with the real demons that can eat away at a relationship, instead of dragging ourselves through the emotional self-indulgence of retarded adolescence that all too often passes for romance. Watching husband and wife tentatively reaching out, misunderstanding and being misunderstood, wanting so much to rebuild their trust but always shying away from that commitment - well, I really felt for them. It was a lovely examination of how real love [not really a spoiler] can triumph in the end.

The Historical Writers Association conference at Harrogate is going to have a session in which writers of historical romance and writers of military fiction will fight to the death (or faint prettily in a fit of the vapours) to justify their own approach to the history genre. I’d love to be there but not enough people are buying my books for me to afford conferences. (Brief pause while you listen to the plaintive tones of the world’s smallest violin.) My books are not really military history like Sharpe or the excellent Paul Collard, but they do seem to involve an awful lot of battles, so I tend to favour the books with bugles and blood over the ones with bonnets. It was interesting for me to see how Jackson covered territory that over-lapped quite a lot with mine. The differences were educational.

The first thing that surprised me was how little there was of the business of sailing a ship. This is the second book about Captain Barata and I was looking forward to finding out much more technical stuff about handling a late 19th century sailing vessel. My characters end up spending a fair amount of time at sea (Burke and the Bedouin climaxes with the Battle of the Nile) and I am always worrying about rigging and sailing speeds and different types of vessel and the circumstances in which each would be used. Jackson, though, seems profoundly indifferent to such technical details. But she does describe every aspect of domestic life aboard: what foods they are served, what the washing and sleeping arrangements are in the cabin and what clothes the well-dressed Master’s wife would wear on the voyage. Her approach and my own are both equally valid, but it is amazing just how differently two people can describe the same thing.

The difference of outlook is also vivid when we meet the Bedouin. My book sees camp life solely from the male point of view. We learn how to hunt with hawks, how the tribes fight and something about the weaponry. Jackson sees camp life almost exclusively from the women’s quarters, with dress and cookery described in detail while the men discuss politics firmly off-stage. Of course, given the segregated nature of Bedouin life, Jackson’s heroine must inevitably see a different world from my hero, but the different emphases (both legitimate) mark the way that these two sub-genres see different sides of the same picture.

Jackson is particularly strong when describing the British shelling of Alexandria, seen entirely from the point of view of the civilians caught up in the bombardment. Jackson and I are both aware of the horror of war, but she concentrates on the ‘collateral damage’ while my books focus more on military casualties. Reading The Master’s Wife, I think I could write more about the effect of war on civilians, but it would have been helpful if we could have had at least a reported account of life on the British side. This is important, as Jackson’s approach shows the bombardment as a deliberate atrocity and the British claimed that civilian casualties were accidental. Is there any evidence for either argument? And, if it was deliberate, how did the British naval crews feel as they aimed at homes and hospitals? The politics underlying wars is something I do try to explore and the feelings of those involved in the killing do seem important to me. I wonder if there is a middle ground between the almost exclusive concentration on the military that you see in ‘military history’ novels and the notion that the reality of soldiering is not suitable for ‘historical romance’. Anyone reading Austen would be forgiven for thinking that soldiers existed only as unsuitable matches, rather than that the country was engaged in an epic battle with France that absorbed most of its energies and many of its young men. Jane Austen’s view of the role of the military in fiction seems to have been adopted by many who write historical romance today.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a romance writer in possession of a good publisher, must be in want of plots that concentrate on Romance, and this is absolutely as it should be. If it’s Historical Romance, though, I think the history does need to be taken seriously. Jackson certainly takes history seriously in her writing, but she perhaps thinks that her readers might not be that interested. Thus, though I was fascinated by this little-known conflict, I had to resort to Wikipedia to learn more about it. Even the date (1882 since you ask and, if you are serious about history, you probably should) isn’t given in the text. The Master’s Wife really would benefit from the sort of historical note that is de rigeur in most serious military fiction. The war is one of the many military adventures of the 19th century which the British seem now to have forgotten and, as we are increasingly drawn into the idea that bombarding cities in the Middle East is a sensible way to resolve conflicts, perhaps we need to be reminded of them. Jackson has clearly done her research and is to be complimented on not shoving it down our throats in the story, but surely sharing some of it with the reader in a separate note could only add to the book’s strengths? After all, people who just want to get to the happy ending and then stop don’t have to read it.

Overall, this is an excellent book. Possibly there a few too many bonnets and not enough turret guns, but fans of late 19th century fashion will love the detailed descriptions of the dresses and my interest in the details of the weaponry of the period may not be shared by Jackson’s readers.

* * * *

Burke and the Bedouin is the second of my stories about James Burke. Desperately as I try to explain that Burke is a spy first and a soldier second, they may be mistaken for military history. They're not really - they're much more fun than that.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Excuses, excuses (including some good ones)

There was no regular blog on Friday last week. This was partly because I was in Wales.

No phone. No internet. No TV. Bliss!
Partly, though, it was that last week I did post a blog on my publisher's website. Last week was the anniversary of the first of two massacres at Cawnpore in 1857. My novel Cawnpore is set around the events that led to these massacres, so a blog marking the historical facts seemed worth writing. You can read it at

Last week was also disrupted with the aftermath of a visit by a kestrel that turned up half-starved literally on our door-step. It was a house-guest for four days before it was strong enough to be released. It turns out that birds of prey are not ideally suited to living indoors and cleaning up the mess took a while. 

I took some video of her getting the strength back in her wing (the left one seems to have been damaged but not broken). I had to encourage her to flutter round the room until I was confident she could cope outside. I wasn't sure how I'd know, but, when the time came, it was suddenly clear that she was ready. Unfortunately for my future as a wildlife film maker, getting the pictures was entirely secondary to looking after the bird, but, if you want to see what it's like keeping a kestrel as a house-pet, there is video at In the last frame you can just see her vanishing off back to her normal life.

So not a lot on my blog here, but enough to be going on with elsewhere, I hope.
* * * * *

Cawnpore is the second book about John Williamson. The third, Back Home, was published in April and has been getting amazing on-line reviews  (like THIS ONE and THIS ONE). Both of these books (and the first in the series, The White Rajah) are available on Amazon. For more details visit