Kanti's Books

Some new ones, some old ones. "The oldest books are only just out for those who have not read them." (Samuel Butler)

 

I read Historical Fiction, Fantasy of all kinds, especially anything involving time travel or a time-slip, and I lap up well-written contemporary Crime, Mystery and Spy stories.

 

I am very fussy about shoddy editing. This annoys me even more than illiterate wannabe authors thinking they can get away with no editing at all.

 

Which brings me to poetry. I love reading good poetry, poetry that has been worked on and crafted as an artist works on and crafts a painting or an actor works on and crafts a performance. Poetry which is a work of art. 

YOUR BODIES MANY CRIES FOR WATER

Your Body's Many Cries for Water - Fereydoon Batmanghelidj

Probably the single most important thing we can do for ourselves when we are unwell is drink more water.

 

You are not sick, you are thirsty.”

 

But not only when we are unwell. We need water, lots of water, to keep us well, says Dr Batmanghelidj in his best-selling book Your Body’s Many Cries For Water.

 

Read it, if you can get hold of a copy. But in brief, he tells us that our bodies require an absolute minimum of six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day. And that means water, not coffee or tea, or fruit juice, or any other beverage. Water, plain and simple.

These six glasses would ideally be drunk as follows: one half an hour before each meal, and one two-and-a-half hours after each meal.

 

But that is the minimum, remember. We should also wash our food down with some water, and drink more water whenever we feel thirsty. Not only when we feel thirsty, though, but also when we feel hungry for a snack outside our regular meal-times: the body, especially as it grows older, becomes incapable of distinguishing thirst from hunger. While young people, who do know when they are thirsty, tend to quench that thirst with rubbish instead of water, many older people don’t believe they are thirsty at all and if given a glass of water just sip at it, merely wetting their mouths and throats and convinced that that is all they need.

 

As simply as dehydration will in time produce the major diseases we are confronting now. a well regulated and constantly alert intention to daily water intake will help to prevent the emergence of most of the major diseases we have come to fear in our modern society.”

Shroud of Dishonour

Shroud of Dishonour - Maureen Ash

A Templar Knight Mystery

 

Lincoln, May, 1202

 

It was not the third but the fifth book in this series which came my way - I am working serendipitously here with second-hand paperbacks - and this one opens with an unusual and mysterious Prologue: two Knights Templar outside a brothel in the suburbs of Acre (in Outremer, the Holy Land), one reluctant to enter, the other determined to go in and do his business – which is not, as it happens, what you might expect.

 

It is a story that would be all too easy to spoil by inadvertently blurting out "spoilers"; suffice it to say that what happens there, then, is intimately connected with the death a few months later in Lincoln of two prostitutes, and an attack on a third who manages to defend herself with a sharp little knife she carries on her belt (wise girl). (Though no doubt in modern Britain she would be charged with assault and being in possession of a deadly weapon.)

 

Why prostitutes? wonders our hero, Sir Bascot de Marins. Because they are easy victims, peculiarly vulnerable and defenceless? Yet the killer seems to be targeting the Templars rather than prostitutes as a group: he makes each murder look as though it had been committed by a member of the Order.

 

Or is the killer in fact a member of the Order?

 

Bascot, who first came to Lincoln (with Gianni, a starving street-kid he had picked on his travels, tagging along) in order to recuperate after eight years as a captive – a slave – in the Middle East, has now rejoined the Order and is due to sail for Portugal, where the Templars are committed to aiding the Portuguese in their fight against the Moors. But of course he is roped in to assist in the investigation and driven by his hatred of cold-blooded murder of the innocent and defenceless he does so with his usual quiet modesty.

 

But will he go to Portugal when all this is sorted out? Will the next Templar Knight Mystery be set there, among the olives and the orange trees? Or will this be the last of these books? You have to read to the very end to find out – and to find out who has been going around killing working girls, and why.

 

I love this series set in my second favourite period (the 12th and early 13th centuries), in this case during the reign of King John, son of Henry II (though the King himself does not appear in this story). 

The Alehouse Murders

The Alehouse Murders - Maureen Ash

The first of the Templar Knight Mysteries

 

Lincoln, AD 1200

 

No one had been told why the Templar was in Lincoln. Gerard Camville had said in passing that de Marins had been on crusade in the Holy Land with the now-dead King Richard back in '91, and had been captured by the Saracens during a skirmish near Acre at the end of that year. After eight long years of captivity he had recently escaped. It was obvious that he had been tortured during his incarceration, for he wore a leather patch over the eye-socket of his missing right eye and walked with a pronounced limp. When, early one morning, he came into the hall to break his fast after attending Mass in the castle chapel, all eyes had turned his way but, although polite, he had said nothing of his past and seemed disinclined to talk about it. [...]

As he began to recover his health, he had taken to practising his combative skills in the yard, first with a blunted sword against the wooden stake erected for the purpose, and finally with Ernulf in mock battle using both sword and shield. While he seemed to have regained his former weight, his prowess with a sword was hampered by the lameness of his leg and the blindness of one eye. For all that, he still made a formidable opponent for Ernulf, who needed all the tricks he had learned in his many years as a soldier to keep pace with the Templar.

 

The scene is Lincoln Castle one year early in the reign of bad King John – though no one here seems particularly against him, or to remember his brother Richard the Lionheart with any affection. They do look back on the days of Richard and John's father, Henry II, and his queen, Eleanor, as "the good old days", but that is normal, as is one very bright old lady being scornful about Eleanor's "Courts of Love".

 

It is high summer. The Sheriff of Lincoln, Gerard Camville, is out hawking by the river with his wife, Lady Nicolaa de la Haye, and their attendants, when urgent news arrives: four people have been found dead in a local alehouse. It is Nicolaa who goes to sort out the problem. She is the chatelaine of the castle, her father's heir, and tends to run things her way, with the compliance of her husband, who just wants to be left in peace to enjoy his knightly pursuits.

 

The man Nicolaa calls upon to investigate the murders, Sir Bascot de Marins, is one of the most interesting sleuths I have come across in years of reading such books. He is a Templar Knight on a kind of extended sick leave after spending eight years as a captive and slave in the Middle East and finally escaping to Cyprus. He is unsure whether he wishes to remain with the Order and his superiors show great (to me surprising) sympathy. D'Arderon, the officer in charge of the Lincoln Preceptory, has introduced him to Lady Nicolaa, and he has been given a room in the castle which he shares with a mute Sicilian street-kid he fed at some point on his travels and who has followed him like a dog ever since.

 

As you watch this man, wounded in body and soul, deal with these murders, with those around him, high and low, and with his own personal problems, I am sure that you, like me, will be thinking about getting hold of the second (and third!) books in the series while you are still only half-way through this one.

Unpretentious and excellent.

 

The Tower's Alchemist

The Tower's Alchemist (The Gray Tower Trilogy, #1) - Alesha Escobar

I received a free copy of this book from the Author Marketing Club in return

for an honest review

 

.

 

"British intelligence wants her spying skills. A vampiric warlock wants to steal her powers. The Master Wizards who trained her want her dead…"

 

The Tower's Alchemist, the first book of The Gray Tower Trilogy,  has an authentic WWII setting among spies and resistance fighters in Denmark, France, Spain and, of course, London.

 

The protagonist, Isabella (aka Emelie and Noelle) is an alchemist, one of the magicians working with the Allies against Hitler's Black Wolves (a kind of supernatural Gestapo). I identified with her immediately, from the very first paragraph, and stayed with her all the way through - no changes of viewpoint, thank heaven (or rather, thank Alesha Escobar). There is, however, an array of well-drawn characters surrounding her, many of whom elicit our sympathy - indeed, our love - as they struggle on against a seemingly invincible foe.

 

A great read if you are a WWII buff (I am), especially if you also suspect that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes in this world than 99.9% of us are ever aware of.

All Good Deeds

All Good Deeds (A Lucy Kendall Thriller) (Lucy Kendall #1) (The Lucy Kendall Series) - Stacy Green The Four Just Men - Edgar Wallace

Quite by chance, I started on All Good Deeds   while in the middle of re-reading Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men, so I had a couple of days of vigilante justice delivered in two very different styles, one set in Edwardian London in 1914, the other in present-day Pennsylvania. And while the heroes of the London story are cultured middle-aged males (there are only three of them, actually) the protagonist of the modern story is a pushy, opinionated young woman who goes rushing in where "just men" would – no, not fear to tread, but certainly think very, very carefully before they trod.

 

Lucy's one concern – and It's become an obsession – is abused children. Years ago when she was working for the Child Protection Services, she was responsible for monitoring a boy of eleven who had been allowed to go on living with his family against her advice and had then murdered his nine-year-old sister. The boy, Justin, subsequently spent several years in juvenile prison but was later released back into society without being tagged as a child-molester. Lucy fought against his release because she considered him a danger but she was overuled by the judge.

 

Now a nine-year-old girl called Kailey has disappeared, been kidnapped, and Justin not only lives right there in the immediate neighbourhood but turns out to have been in direct contact with the girl prior to her disappearance.

 

So far as Lucy is concerned, she was right all along and this is an open-and-shut case. When she learns that the Detective in charge of the investigation is Justin's half-brother and that he insists there is no evidence against Justin, she starts taking things into her own hands. Not for the first time. Several pedophiles who had evaded official justice have already met their maker after a brief encounter with her.

 

But further developments sow doubts in the reader's mind about Justin being in any real sense a pedophile, or dangerous. And a young man approaches Lucy in a bar and informs her that he knows her secret: a word from him to the police would result in Lucy being arrested and charged with a whole series of murders.

 

The reader is torn in two.

 

Great writing.

 

But the moral of the story? All Good Deeds is described as "a psychological thriller". I'm not sure what that means. That the bad guys have psychological problems? Well, yes, but so does Lucy, when judged by normal standards of behaviour in any civilised society.

 

I wonder where this will go in the second book in the series ...

 

And The Four Just Men? It is a classic. A little slow perhaps (life then was slower) but essential reading. If you haven't read it, read it. You can download it almost free from Amazon and completely free here.

Unstoppable: My Life So Far - Maria Sharapova

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalleyin exchange for an honest review.

 

I have to admit that I have been a fan of Maria Sharapova's since she won Wimbledon, beating the seemingly unbeatable Serena Williams, at the age of seventeen. And why "admit", as though there were something shameful about it? She was, and still is, a great player whom the mass-media made into an instant celebrity because not only did she look like being very soon the best tennis-player in the world but she was also one-in-a-million beautiful. And what the mass-media create they are always happy to destroy again.

 

All right, in a sense the mass-media are simply agents of the Wheel of Fortune. Maria Sharapova had after all begun at the bottom.

 

Before opening this book, I knew about her injuries, how her shoulder had to be operated on, and how hard it was for her to work her way back up through the ranks with a different and much less deadly serve. But she did come back up, and won, among other titles and grand slams, the French Open. The sneering and contempt (Maria is finished, done for) became once again jealousy, pure and simple. Much of the jealousy based on total ignorance of her family background, the assumption being that she was a spoilt brat, one of the entitled daughters of the super-rich, in this case the post-communist Russsian super-rich.

 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Her father was a worker without two roubles to rub together. Quite by chance, at the age of four, little Masha (her real name) was noticed by none other than Martina Navratilova - a chance meeting if ever there was one! - when she was knocking a ball about with an old unwanted racket someone had given her father in lieu of payment. Martina spotted the fire, the determination, in the small child's eyes as she swung the huge racket. "Take her to America," she told Masha's father.

 

And astonishingly he did. They arrived without a word of English, penniless and homeless. They had no one but each other, and for the next few years he worked as a labourer to pay Masha's fees at tennis school and maintain some kind of home for himself and her in the cheapest posssible rented rooms. They even shared a sagging sofa bed.

 

After a few years, her mother finally managed to get a visa to leave Russia ans she joined them in the States. Masha began winning junior tournaments, things began to look up, and Maria – yes, Maria now – got a sponsorship from Nike.

 

In Unstoppable you will read all about the years of struggle and the years of success – and then the sudden catastrophic scandal: Maria Sharapova had been taking drugs!

The media immediately set about destroying her. Nor did they retract their lies (do they ever?) when the authorities declared publicly that Maria had never knowingly consumed any prohibited substance, and that the medication she was using (meldonium, which she had been taking for 10 years after her doctor recommended it for health problems including an irregular heartbeat) had been placed on the list of banned substances without her knowledge and was not, anyway, "performance-enhancing". No, the mass-media left her body lying at the side of the road where they had deposited it after they crucified her.

 

Alone, now, she has got back up and, in the American Open a few weeks ago, unexpectedly defeated Simona Halep, the current World Number Two, before herself being knocked out in the next round.

 

But she is back playing against, and defeating, top-level performers. My heart goes with her!

Spider Bones

Spider Bones - Kathy Reichs

I read this author's Grave Secrets (Kindle Edition) a long while ago but I never followed it up, nor have I ever seen the Bones series on TV, so when I spotted this on a shelf of second-hand books I had little to go on.  Yet suddenly I knew that Tempe Brennan, forensic anthropologist, was someone I wanted to know more of.

 

At the front of the book, after the dedication, is a page bearing the following words:

 

 'Until They Are Home'
The motto of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command

 

This is the background to this novel. POW/MIA is Prisoners of War/Missing in Action, and we learn all about the activities of this admirable adjunct of the military: just how much time and money is spent on retrieving the body of a serviceman who may have been dead for decades and repatriating him to his homeland.

 

Tempe is called upon to examine a body found floating in a pond in Montreal. To everyone's astonishment, the fingerprints turn out to be those of a soldier killed in Vietnam and subsequently brought home and buried in his hometown in North Carolina. How can this be? Whose body is in fact buried in that grave?

 

The exhumation of that body, instead of clearing up the mystery only makes it worse. An unforeseen and inexplicable link to Hawai means Tempe must go there to continue her investigation, and Tempe's ex-, Ryan, joins her there, along with his daughter Lucy and Tempe's daughter Katy, spoilt 24-year-olds who can't stand each other and generally behave like teenagers.

 

A gripping story, well-fleshed out, with plenty of fascinating background information, both anthropological and forensic, and about an aspect of the military which had never really crossed my mind before.

Death of a Squire

Death of a Squire - Maureen Ash

Back again - after a long break! - with some of the books I've been reading. And, yes, I'm still into the medieval period ...

 

(The second Templar Knight Mystery) Lincoln, autumn, 1200 AD

 

'He's nowt but a lad,' said Talli. 'Looks to be no more than fifteen or sixteen. And from the way he's been trussed, he didn't string himself up there. Why would anyone bring a youngster like that out here and hang him?'

'I don't know and I don't care,' Fulcher replied. 'I'm going to forget I ever saw him and if you two have any sense in your addled pates you'll do the same.'

Laden with their booty, the three men made haste down the track towards the stream that had been the destination of the deer thay had killed. In its water the poachers would place their steps until they were well away from the scene of their crime so that any dogs used to track them would lose their telltale scent and the smell of the deer's blood. Above them a slight breeze rattled the dry branches of the oak and the body swayed slightly, then moved a little more as the first of the crows landed on the bright thatch of hair that topped the corpse's head. Twisted under the noose, caught by the violence of the tightening rope, was the boy's cap, the colourful peacock's feather that had once jauntily adorned it now hanging crushed and bedraggled. As the crows began their feast, it was loosened and fluttered slowly to the ground.

 

This is the second book in the series and I haven't read the first, but that wasn't a problem. You are soon put in the picture. An ex-Templar, Sir Bascot de Marins, is living at Lincoln Castle. He had already solved one murder for the castellan, Lady Nicolaa, (the first book) and now when another nysterious death occurs she turns to him again.

 

A young man, a squire, has been hanged deep in the forest. He was trussed up, so it cannot have been suicide. Nicolaa's husband, the Sheriff, a rather stupid man interested only in hunting who leaves all his more boring duties to her, wants to blame it on poachers or outlaws, easy scapegoats, but the boy's dagger and fine clothing were not stolen, so Nicolaa and de Marins think that unlikely.

 

It turns out that the squire, Hubert de Tornay, was an unpleasant boy. No one could stand him and no one is sorry he is dead. There are many potential suspects. What worries Nicolaa, though, is that the boy had apparently been claiming to know details of a conspiracy against the king. In the year 1200, "Bad King John" was still new to the throne and many felt that the king should really be John's nephew Arthur, a boy who lived in France. What was worse, King John himself was on his way to Lincoln to meet there with King William of Scotland. The murderer had to be found before King John's arrival for John was a suspicious and vindictive man.

 

The squire was also a notorious woman-chaser, so there are girls involved. He had had a rendez-vous in the forest with a village girl that night. But he had been seen riding into the forest with a woman from the city up behind him on the horse. Or had he? Were the villagers lying?

 

De Matins questions a charcoal burner and his sons who live in that part of the forest. The next day they are brutally murdered. Then his servant, Gianni, disappears – kidnapped. Gianni was a starving street-kid de Marins had picked on his travels, and had now grown very fond of. Was the kidnapper also the murderer of the squire and the charcoal-burner's family?

 

It is exciting and well-written, and seems historically accurate. I am certainly going to read the first book in the series, The Alehouse Murders, as soon as I can get hold of a copy. I also want to know what will happen in the third book. At the end of this one, de Marins is faced with a difficult choice: to return to the Order of the Templars and full obedience, or to renounce all his ties with them and cease to call himself a Templar. What will he do?

The Devil's Hunt

The Devil's Hunt - Paul Doherty

A Medieval Mystery featuring Hugh Corbett

 

England, 1303

 

Ascham opened his eyes. the library was dark. He tried again to scream but the sound died on his lips. The candle, flickering under its metal cap on the table, shed a small pool of light and Ascham glimpsed the piece of parchment the assassin had tossed onto the table. Ascham realised what had brought about his death: he'd recognised the truth but he'd been stupid ebough to allow his searches to be known. If only he had a pen! His hand grasped the wound bubbling in his chest. He wept and crawled painfully across the floor towards the table. He seized the parchment and, with his dying strength, carefully hauled himself up to etch out the letters – but the pool of light seemed to be dimming. He'd lost the feeling in his legs, which were stiffening, like bars of iron.
'Enough,' he whispered. 'Ah, Jesus ...'
Ascham closed his eyes, coughed and died as the blood bubbled on his lips.

 

When the book opens, Hugh Corbett is at home in Leighton, in Essex, enjoying his peaceful life as Lord of the Manor, even if that does involve the odd hanging (as on the first page of Chapter 1) which he certainly does not enjoy, though everyone else seems to. But this country idyll is rudely shattered when the King, Edward I, arrives at the manor house demanding that Hugh return to his service immediately.

 

A demand from a king, though phrased as a request, is in reality an order, and in the case of this king, to cross him when he is in this mood would be to invite disaster. So Sir Hugh, along with his henchman Ranulf-atte-Newgate and their friend-servant-squire Maltote, are despatched to Oxford, where Sparrow Hall is in a state of turmoil. Two murders have already been committed there. Left near the second corpse was a parchment announcing "The Bellman fears neither King nor clerk [...] The Bellman will ring the truth and all shall hear it."

 

Meanwhile, outside the college, in the city, this Bellman has been posting proclamations attacking the King and claiming that Simon de Montfort was in the right of it when he took up arms against the King. And these proclamations purport to be emanating from Sparrow Hall, which the masters there all fervently deny. Well, they would.

 

Also outside the Hall, another seemingly separate series of murders has been taking place. In each case, an old beggar from the city, by definition helpless and defenceless, has been taken out into the forest and decapitated and his head has been hung from the branches of a tree. Sir Hugh finds reason to believe they were not actually killed in the forest but taken there – from Sparrow Hall, which would link them in some strange way with the Bellman and the murder of the two masters.

 

Another perfect medieval whodunnit from Paul Doherty. Not a word is wasted, and the excitement never flags for a moment. Nor can one possibly guess (without cheating!) who the Bellman really is.

The Midnight Sea

The Midnight Sea (The Fourth Element Book 1) - Kat Ross

FREE TODAY ON AMAZON 

 

Nazafareen's sister Ashraf was killed by the Druj (Undead things with iron swords and shadows whose touch meant death) when Nazafareen was twelve and Ashraf was seven. Now, all she lives for is revenge.

When the authorities-that-be discover she has the power to link with a daeva she willingly agrees to do so if this means that together she and the daeva will be a match for the Druj and able to hunt and destroy them. At first, she distrusts the daeva, whose name is Darius, thinking of him only as another kind of Druj but tamed and under her control – litle more than a sentient weapon. But living together, linked like that, she and Darius find themselves growing too close for her comfort in other ways.


This is an alternative version of ancient Persia and features a form of the dualistic Zoroastrian religion, in which two Gods fight an endless war, and people have to choose which side they are on, the Good or the Evil. (I have always found this form of dualism much more philosophically tenable than strict monotheism.) It also features both the prophet Zoroaster, the founder of this religion, and Alexander the Great, though here in this book they remain in the background; in Book 2, Blood of the Prophet, which I have already started reading, they both move into the foreground.

 

Extremely well written and highly recommended.

An Unholy Alliance

An Unholy Alliance - Susanna Gregory

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

 

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew's shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
'Matt!' he gasped. 'Come out of there!'
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew's shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
'What is it?' breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. 'It looks like a goat,' he said.
'A goat?' whispered Michael, in disbelief. 'What is a goat doing here?'
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat's head nevertheless, atop a human body.

 

An Unholy Alliance is long, and it is slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

 

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

 

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse's teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

 

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew's sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on "Lady Matilde", a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

 

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] 'How may I help you?' she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. 'I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?'
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
'We have come to give you some information,' said Bartholomew quickly

 

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim's foot.

 

This circle is the sign of a mysterious "guild"of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

 

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people's helplessness and gullibility?

 

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.

The Darkling Plain

The Darkling Plain - Douglas R. Mason

The north-west of England,

13th Century

 

There was a patter of bare feet on the beaten earth floor and Aelfgyth, late but willing, was among the company nervously smoothing down a stained yellow robe from where it had been hitched up in a plaited thong belt. There was already a sweet smell of decay about the shabby room, but from the fresh stink she carried with her, it was likely she had been busy with the pigs when the summons came. She said, 'Here, Master. What do you lack?' and stopped with her head hanging down under the stares of Alain's men-at-arms.

The host put a hand flat on her chest and shoved her away. 'When will I teach you not to push yourself forward? This gentleman was speaking to me. Away. Bring a new loaf and cook a pan of eggs. And broach the barrel I fetched up yesterday. Lively now, or you'll feel the weight of my hand.'

She was off again at a run, hair flying in a dark brown pennant, and he was ready to wink and nod at Alain and draw him aside as far as space allowed.

[...]

The muttered conference with the host was finished and the man had a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he waddled across the floor to the seated figure. He never knew how close he came to having his head swiped off its stalk. But at the first words, Edward knew that the moment of truth was not yet.

The innkeeper said, 'Here's a stroke of luck for you now. Here's a gentleman looking to employ you. He'll give you a fair price and set you on your way …'

[…]

Edward relaxed, stood up slowly and nodded down at the innkeeper.

On his feet, he was seen to be a massive figure. His straw blond head was only an inch from the cross beams. The thick folds of his cloak could not conceal his breadth of shoulder and the bearing of a man trained in arms.

 

Set in what seems to be a straightforward late twelfth or early thirteenth century English provincial world in which there is still a clear distinction between Norman, Saxon and (encroaching) Welshman, this is a short book (less than 150 pages) and can easily be read in one night (I did). It is also a deceptively simple book: a younger son denied his birthright by his elder brother; a daughter deprived of her inheritance (following the death of her brother) by a wicked uncle; a beautiful Jewish girl whose father is killed when local people who are in debt to him set fire to his house; a wandering scribe and scholar who turns out to be a great nobleman and – more to the point – fearsome warrior.

 

Yet it is thoughtful, too. We see the world as it was, but also hear sensitive people questioning the mores of that world. And we realise once again that there are good – and awful! – people in every world and at every level of society. A great nobleman may have far more in common with the serving wench in a sleazy tavern than with his own brother.

 

An excellent story set in an unusual part of the country (Wallasey – opposite Liverpool – on the Wirral Peninsula), well worth reading, and suitable for teenagers, too.

Marking Time

Marking Time - April  White

Saira Elian is a 17-year-old Californian girl whose English mother disappears while Saira, a solitary parkour free-runner and tagger (hope I got that right!), is out doing her thing in “the tunnels” somewhere under LA. Faced with the Child Protection Services unless she can name a relative who will take responsibility for her, Saira reluctantly tells them about someone in England.

 

That someone was waiting for me when I stepped off the British Airways flight in London: Millicent Elian. I hadn’t seen my grandmother since I was three years old […] My mother couldn’t stand her. Not a big surprise given the way she was sizing me up, probably wondering if I was worth the effort. […] “I see you got his height.” Millicent’s tone was not flattering. “Hello, Millicent.” I knew I should be more polite and call her “Grandmother”, considering she just kept me out of foster care, but she hadn’t really earned the title. “And his manners, too, obviously.” “I wouldn’t know.” […] “I have a car waiting.” Of course she did. Millicent’s fancy gray Rolls Royce waited at the curb outside the airport, and her fancy gray driver held the door open for us. “Home, Jeeves,” she said with total authority. “Jeeves? You’re joking.” “I don’t joke.” Millicent’s expression didn’t change. Jeeves caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and very slowly, he winked. It wasn’t much, that wink, but it was something.

 

It turns out that the Elians are a family of time-travellers, and Saira’s mother, who is normally gone for only a couple of days (or that's how it seems!) is now being held against her will in Victorian London. And that, of course, is where half the story, and most of the adventure, takes place.

 

One aspect of the story that fascinated me was the love between Saira and a young man in Victorian times who had already known Saira in the future in her own time and fallen for her there – or should that be “then”? He, of course, doesn’t know about this yet, and she can’t tell him because the secret of how he came to be still a young man all those years later is just – well … I’ll leave it to you to sort all this out when you read the book, and add only, by way of encouragement, that while the ingredients may not be entirely original (there’s Hogwarts here, and Ann Rice, and Jack the Ripper, and Time Travel) the resulting dish is something different from the usual run-of-the-mill YA, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

 

(Here's a different cover - I much prefer it.)

A Conversation with James Munro/Jim Hawkey

Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists (Mariana de la Mar Book 1) - Jim Hawkey

Kanti Burns interviews the author of the Mariana de la Mar books

 

Please note that Mariana de la Mar Book 1, Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists, will be FREE on Amazon from the 1st to the 5th of March.

* * *

Perhaps I should mention in advance that Jim and I are not strangers, though our friendship has always been at a distance, via the internet; we originally got to know each other when, for several years,  we both wrote reviews for the late, lamented MedievalMysteries.com.

 

KB: So, shall we start at the beginning? It's a long time now since you wrote the first Mariana book. I remember reviewing it for Medieval Mysteries.

 

JM: A very long time. I suppose I've had Mariana on my mind for about fifteen years. I published the first completed Mariana novel, The Witch of Balintore, with Lulu in 2004.

 

KB: Then you published two more as part of a planned series, the Mariana Books. But what I want to know, as someone who wrote five-star reviews of the original books, is why you later withdrew them all and then, last year, started publishing radically revised versions of them with new titles and under a new pen-name, Jim Hawkey. And even then, back in 2004, why you started with Marian, Mariana, as a woman of – what? 26? – in The Witch of Balintore – and then afterwards worked backwards until finally you reached her childhood (in Mariana la Loca).

 

JM: Right. I often holiday in the north of Scotland, and I wrote The Witch of Balintore after spending a month near Tain and on the Nigg peninsula in Easter Ross – that's where Balintore actually is. I'd already written half of a rather different novel, set in the same area but 800 years earlier, in the 6th century. In that story, the main protagonists were a small indigenous people I called the Elpin – Elps – and suddenly Mariana, who as I say had been on my mind for quite a while, acquired yet another strand to her already very mixed ancestry: Elpin blood, to go with her father's Scottish ancestry (Pictish, Gaelic and Viking), and with her mother's Spanish, Moorish, Jewish descent. And she acquired a name to go with it: MacElpin. From there, the novel took off: Mariana from Spain via Paris and London now in the north of Scotland among her father's people and what were left of the indigenous Elps. It wrote itself, as they say. Then came, Mariana in Paris seven, eight years earlier, with Raoul, who had been in Scotland with her – or rather would be in Scotland with her –

 

KB: It confuses even you!

 

JM: No! That was a slip of the tongue. Then I knew I had to write the story of her life before Paris, the one that was originally published as Wrong Way Round the Church. I started it, but got stuck, distracted by other things, busy at the school, and so on. But listen. Let's leave that and switch to the new series of books. The new Thirteen-Card Spread, the one set in Paris, is called Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.

 

KB: Which you wrote under the name Jim Hawkey. Why is that? When an author publishes under two or more different names, it's often because he prefers to keep the different genres he writes in quite separate. Is that what is happening here?

 

JM: It is, yes. Under my own name, I normally publish poetry and articles and posts on esoteric religion and philosophy, gnosis, reincarnation, as anyone who follows me on Twitter for instance, or Wordpress, will know. When I first started writing the Mariana books, I envisaged them fitting in with this –

 

KB: Literary novels written by a poet.

 

JM: Yes, and with esoteric themes, like the witchcraft and astral travel and tarot in what is now Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.

 

KB: And the Cathars and the Mary Magdalene Heresy in The Rose of Sharon. Well, I've read the new versions of both, and I think I can see what is coming.

 

JM: The best laid plans of mice and authors gang oft aglay. I've found I'm incapable of imposing my will on the main characters in my novels. Mariana in the first two books as I originally wrote them was a Lady with a capital L forced into playing the whore. It wasn't really working in Thirteen-Card Spread, and spoilt the book. In Wrong Way Round the Church, the prequel to Thirteen-Card Spread, it became obvious that to everyone else she was a whore playing at being a Lady, whatever her background may have been. Everyone, that is, except her late father's old friend, the Scottish knight Sir Farquhar. He insisted on her being her father's daughter, the Scottish Lady, rather than the Spanish whore she had become between being kidnapped at the age of fourteen and arriving in Paris with him soon before her twentieth birthday. I believe strongly in character-led novels, and these two were leading me from – from –

 

KB: From James Munro to Jim Hawkey. From literary fiction to what Graham Green called "entertainments" laced with erotica.

 

JM: Well, not erotica exactly, but given Mariana's special niche ...

 

KB: So you rewrote the books, giving Mariana a free hand and allowing all those around her to react and respond in the way they naturally would.

 

JM: Exactly. I'd been bowdlerising my own work! And the turning point was Avignon in the last part of The Rose of Sharon, where Mariana is forced through no fault of her own to work once again in a bordel. The Mariana who – let's be honest – took to that like a duck to water was not the Lady Marian – or even the Mariana! – I'd depicted in Paris or in Scotland. They had to be completely rewritten. But in order to do that successfully, I had to give myself free rein as well. As James Munro I was – I am – too straight, too much the child of my upbringing, too tight-arsed in a word – too inhibited, too repressed. But when I adopt the Jim Hawkey persona ...

 

KB: You are suddenly free to – I was going to say to be yourself. Which is the real you, I wonder? But can we just get the new books and their titles clear for people who read this. I notice that Mariana in Paris, Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, is Mariana de la Mar 1 now.

 

JM: Yes. And the prequel has been rewritten and published as The Rose of Sharon.

  

KB: Okay, so we have the prequel and book 1 published. And next?

 

JM: The Undeparted Dead (Mariana de la Mar 2) will be out on April 1st. That's set in Southwark, for hundreds of years the red-light district across the Thames from London, and in Essex, where Mariana finds herself being used as live bait by powerful people attempting to trap the walking dead –

 

KB: Zombies? Don't tell me!

 

JM: Revenants, back up out of the grave. It seems there were many such in the years following the Black Death, especially in Essex. But also a wraith and a harpy and –

 

KB: I want an advance copy!

 

JM: You'll be the very first. Then there is Mariana in Revolt, which will be Mariana de la Mar 3. You remember what happened in 1381?

 

KB: The Peasants' Revolt. But I had no idea Mariana was caught up in it?

 

JM: Oh, yes. And on both sides. As the Lady that old Sir Farquhar, who has now assumed complete authority over her, still expects her to be, and as one of the girls at the Green Unicorn in Southwark and the Shag in Colchester, Essex, where many of the rebels and their leaders come from. Mariana in Revolt contains a sub-plot called An Errand for Lady Alice, which I'd originally intended to stand alone –

 

KB: Lady Alice? Not the much-maligned Alice Perrers?

 

JM: Yes, old Edward III's mistress.

 

KB: Plots and sub-plots. Right. Anyway, that brings me nicely to something I always like asking authors about: your thoughts on the interface between fact and fiction and fantasy in historical novels, especially those set in the medieval period. Alice Perrers is fact, a historical character, while Mariana is fiction, a figment of your imagination.

 

JM: Right. And then we have mermaids and lamiae, which are fantasy. Let's try to clarify this. Bruce wins at Bannockburn: historical fact. Bruce hiding in a cave by the sea watching a spider swing back and forth: legend that could be historical fact. A woman with Bruce in the cave: historical fiction.

 

KB: How do you know?

 

JM: I just made it up. A mermaid with Bruce in the cave: fantasy. So far, fairly clear. But between the last two, for instance, if it's the woman, not the mermaid, but she's a witch? She is communicating with the spider, influencing it, making it keep swinging: historical fiction, or fantasy?

 

KB: Yes, witchcraft – and shape-shifting. All the things that Mariana can do, and her Scottish grandmother, and Niniane in Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, and the old witch that Niniane and Mariana take on. And then, of course, the revenants and wraiths and harpies you just mentioned.

 

JM: The question is, to what extent should our criteria for what could have been true depend on their idea of what could be true rather than our idea now?

 

KB: How many impossible things was it possible for them to believe before breakfast.

 

JM: When you are writing historical fiction, it's all a matter of point of view. From the protagonist's point of view, anything is acceptable and believable that would have been acceptable and believable then, at that time, while anything which would not have been acceptable and believable is inadmissable. When it is First Person narrative, this becomes even more so. A hint by the author to the effect that of course he doesn't believe all this rubbish, and the whole thing is ruined. His hero becomes a time-traveller, not a native born and bred in the period.

 

KB: I like that, yes. Homer mixes history, legend, fiction and fantasy and his characters are all absolutely at home in that setting, and we have the impression he believes in it all as well. Whereas Euripides' Agamemnon and Iphigeneia are clearly time-travellers.

 

JM: That's a very good example.

 

KB: Thank you. And now we're going to have to stop.

 

JM: And thank you, very much, for your support over the years.

Phoenix Blood (Old School - Book 1)

Phoenix Blood (Old School Book 1) - Jenny Schwartz

This is a story set in a world of magic. Not quite the various worlds of vampires and/or werewolves we have all grown accustomed to - or the world of Hogwarts, although it does feature an English boarding school (the Old School of the series title) where magical talents are fostered.

 

Sadie Howard's talent is Finding. She can find anything, whether it be a physical object like the pendant she is carrying when the story opens, or something more intangible like the safety she is seeking as she races into a bikers' bar on the opening page pursued by two "Stag Mercenaries" intent on killing her and seizing the pendant, and finds safety with a man sitting quietly in the corner with his pet bird of paradise.

 

(Do you think one can judge a person's age by the length of her sentences?)

 

A man called Marcus Aurelius, who nine years earlier "couldn't fight a feather duster" but now effortlessly disposes of the two killers; who nine years ago had dropped her publicly and brutally, and broken her heart; who nine years ago had not believed in magic but proves now to be a powerful magician in his own right.

 

(I did it again.)

 

That, then, is the situation. But who wants the pendant so badly that he is sending Stag Mercenaries after Sadie? Will Sadie and Marcus ever complete the long road journey across the States to California, where she must deliver the pendant? Can their love have survived the nine years of heartbreak and loneliness they both (yes, both) went through? And what, really, is the entity now passing as a bird of paradise and Marcus's companion?

 

A great story that on two successive nights kept me riveted to my Kindle till the early hours of the morning.

The Pendant

The Pendant (The Angela Fleetwood Paranormal Mystery Series Book 1) - Lawton Paul

Germany, 1944; Chickasaw, Florida, present day

 

The book opens with a chapter entitled Marlina. The chapters are not numbered, only named, and this functions as a prologue, set seventy years before the main action of the story.

 

Marlina is a nurse in a German military hospital which is now behind enemy lines. She saves a little boy's life when the only remaining doctor declares him dead. But she has some help in the form of a miraculous metal cone (of extra-terrestrial origin, or so the author implies). She does not know this, but she does take the cone with her when, dressed up as a nun by a helpful priest, she abandons her post and sets out on foot with the boy, heading into the unknown.

 

Forward 70 years. Angela Fleetwood is a cancer survivor whose husband, Walt, originally brought her to Chickasaw to die. Instead, she recovered, and he died. She believes he was murdered, and this is confirmed in her mind when a neighbour of theirs drowns in her bath and the Sheriff declares that, too, an accident, though Angela is quite sure it was no such thing. Especially as the neighbour, known to be an old woman, proved to have the body of a fit young woman. Her hair, too, was the hair of a young woman; it had been died grey.  

 

Angela must be one of the most original amateur sleuths to hit the bookshelves (or rather Kindle). I loved her. And I loved her bizarre collection of neighbours and supporters.

 

I shan't forget this story or these characters, and that for me is one of the basic criteria for Five Stars

Currently reading

An Ace and A Pair: A Dead Cold Mystery (Volume 1) by Blake Banner