“A Morbid Taste For Bones” by Ellis Peters (1977)

Leave a comment

“On the fine, bright morning in early May when the whole sensation affair of the Gwytherin relics may properly be considered to have begun, Brother Cadfael had been up long before Prime…”

Detectives seem to have it easy these days. CCTV, fingerprinting, banking data, DNA evidence, tracing of mobile phone locations … there are any number of ways they can reach their conclusions and solve crimes. We forget how recent a lot of this is. Miss Marple didn’t have any of it in the fifties. Sherlock Holmes would have dreamed of DNA testing in the Victorian era. Miss Gladden would have longed for GPS. So imagine now we strip this back even further. This book takes us back to the year of 1137. King Stephen is on the throne of England, and religion reigns supreme across the island. Things might look a bit different, but people are still people.

Brother Cadfael is a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, responsible for running the herb garden. This is little about plants and their properties that the wise monk doesn’t know. There’s much more to him than life in the church however. Before he took up residence in the monastery, he travelled much of the known world and is very educated. When another of the monks has a vision that Saint Winifred has called for the Benedictine order to uncover her burial ground and move her bones to the safety of the abbey.

Convinced that this is the right thing to do, Prior Robert declares this to be a great idea and so sets off to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to ask for the relics of the long dead saint. They are met with suspicion and caution, with the Welsh not sure whether they are ready to sacrifice Winifred to the arriving Englishmen. Things become even more fraught when Prior Robert offers monetary compensation and it is taken as a bribe. With the Welsh villagers divided on what to do, tensions rise, and then it all comes to a head when the the leading opponent to the grave’s relocation is found dead. Some say that Winifred herself did it, but Cadfael is sure that there is a much more earthly solution. Using his intelligence and skills as a detective, he must solve the murder and restore trust and order to the community.

I had worried that a cast of monks would lead to a book that gave us a set of boring, pious characters, but fortunately twelfth century monks are still human and you can give them a habit and tonsure if you like, but they’re still going to express lust, pride and wrath. Cadfael is an intriguing addition to the pantheon of literary detectives and feels like a man out of time. He is cunning and clever, gentle with those he likes and impatient with big-headed superiors. Many of the other characters – and there seem to be a lot – bled into one another, however, and only the ones that were really pivotal to the story stood out to me. It took me a while to unpick who was who, which isn’t necessarily what you want when you’re trying to solve a murder.

Throughout history, death is often suggested to have been quick and cheap, so it’s actually nice to see someone caring about a specific death and realising that there’s something suspicious about it. Brother John, a fellow monk, seems at first to take on the role of his Watson, but by the end it seems more fulfilled by Sioned, the victim’s daughter. Naturally as a book centred around a Benedictine order, there are very few women in it – I think there are three with any dialogue – but she does good work and is a strong character. At one point, when someone comments on the weakness of women, Cadfael steps up to point out that there are just as many weak men and women are capable of great emotional strength. It’s a small touch, but it’s appreciated.

It’s an interesting concept for a novel and it’s definitely a unique motive for murder, but I can’t say I’m enthralled enough to continue with the series. The writing style doesn’t suit me, which is not to say that it’s bad. People may be people wherever they are in time or space, but this felt just a touch too removed for me.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

Advertisements

“The Third Wheel” by Michael J. Ritchie (2019)

2 Comments

“The room is perhaps eight feet square.”

Back in 2014, I published a novel. Now, I’ve done it again. There is no stranger feeling that seeing something you created for sale out in the world, but last time it was just an e-book. This time round, I’ve gone full paperback, and that’s truly bizarre, to be able to hold the physical copy of something that for a long time just existed in your head. This post obviously isn’t quite a review, but to keep the format, here’s what The Third Wheel is about.

Dexter is fed up. All of his friends are getting married, settling down, moving in together and growing up, and he’s being left behind with no one to hold hands with and only his ginger tom, The Great Catsby, for company. It’s not that he’s jealous of their relationships, it’s just that he thinks there’s more to life than wrapping yourself up with one other person for eternity.

But after a wedding that ends in drunken disaster, Dexter’s world – and everyone else’s, come to that – is shaken when aliens make first contact. Now faced with the prospect of imminent destruction and no practical skills whatsoever, Dexter and his friends, including sunshine optimist Ruby, science fiction geeks Jay and Kay, hard-nosed pragmatist Priti, and no-nonsense Gavin, set out on a mission to survive in this new world.

So I’m not actually going to review a book I wrote, but I’m afraid I am going to talk about it and why you should buy it for a little bit. I’m hoping that it’s something really different, as I’ve become somewhat tired of the entertainment market being saturated with remakes and retellings of the same stories. I’m not claiming that I’ve invented something brand new here – a first contact story is hardly unique – but I’ve tried to make something that doesn’t follow traditional rules. I’ve subverted the notion that science fiction always seems to have heroes who somehow possess just the right skills and knowledge.

Mostly, however, I’ve done away with the romantic subplot. This is one of my biggest bugbears about modern media – the insistence that no matter the genre or plot, there always has to be a romance somewhere in it, often detracting from the main story or simply weakening it. That was actually the original seed of the novel – a story in which a romantic subplot wasn’t possible. I confess that your opinion may vary as to whether I’ve been entirely successful in this aim, but hopefully I’ve subverted it and played with the trope enough for you to accept that this is a rare book in that respect. I’ve attempted to write about friendships, as I think truly that platonic relationships get a hard rap in fiction and we don’t get to read enough about them. Like Dexter, I don’t believe that we’re all destined to find “the one”, and I struggle with society’s insistence that we all belong in pairs. I’m a full person by myself, and so is Dexter. On the other hand, I hope that the novel doesn’t seem to be an attack on romantic relationships. I’m a fan, of course, I just don’t think they’re for everyone.

The novel is a curious blend of typically English humour and dark scenarios, but I think they mix well together and allow for a deep novel packed with emotional punches. I’ve done my best to create a large cast of unique personalities so that you find yourself rooting for everyone, but accepting that none of them are perfect. Dexter is perhaps something of an unreliable narrator, but that plays in to the theme I had of life never giving you all the answers. Yes, you almost certainly will have questions by the end about things that don’t get cleared up, but like life, it’s messy. However, if you want a few answered, read on past the acknowledgements for a few bonus chapters that fill in some of the gaps, showing scenes that occurred when Dexter wasn’t around to narrate.

If you want to pre-order the book prior to its release on January 17th 2019, you can do so at Amazon or Waterstones, and doing so will give them an indication of demand, so it would really help me if you could. It is available as both a paperback and an e-book. I really hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please let people know on social media and use the hashtag #TheThirdWheel to spread the word. If you’re not already, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more information.

Right, better get on with the next one.

“Four-Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple (1949)

Leave a comment

“The idea was too big for the mind to grasp in all its implications at the first attempt.”

Throughout history there have been numerous discoveries and inventions that have shaped and altered the path of human development in unimaginable ways. Penicillin, mechanical clocks, the wheel, x-rays, telescopes … the list is long and remarkable. There remain a good deal of things still out of the grasp of reality that belong firmly in the world of science fiction still. Interstellar space travel, time machines, universal translators, perpetual motion machines – we aren’t likely to get a grip on any of these for some time yet. Authors, however, aren’t limited by real technology, so if they want to invent a duplication machine, they can. And William F. Temple has.

Narrated by Doctor Harvey, medic to the English village of Howdean, this is the story of how the doctor’s young charge Bill and his wealthy, conservative friend Rob manage to create a Reproducer. This amazing device will revolutionise the world, giving them the ability to duplicate works of art, rare medical cures, food and anything else they choose. Every museum can have a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in its galleries, and every hospital can now have huge amounts of cancer drugs at its disposal. Things become complicated, however, by the arrival of Lena.

Harvey has saved her from her suicide attempt and now, upon meeting Bill and Rob and learning of their amazing invention, she has found a reason to live. That reason, it becomes rapidly clear, is Rob and she wishes to marry him. And while Rob is indeed smitten with this girl, unfortunately so is Bill. After the wedding, Bill finds himself caught up in the madness of jealousy and begins tinkering with the Reproducer. Surely it wouldn’t take much more to make it clone living things. And then Bill and Rob could both have a Lena of their own, if she consented to be cloned. It’s only when she does that the problems really begin…

You may already be noting from the plot that aspects of the book have dated, not least the notion of Bill and Rob being able to share the same woman by cloning her. Fortunately, creepy though this is, it could be worse, and Lena (and, indeed, her duplicate Dot) is an early example of the manic pixie dream girl. She does, however, have to consent to being duplicated, but even here, it is her husband that has the final say. The science is also patchy, and Temple gets away with it by having Harvey explain that he doesn’t want to give away all the science, partly because he doesn’t understand it, and partly so that no one else can build a Reproducer. The book discusses the ethics of this and how in the wrong hands, someone could produce a whole army of workers or soldiers who all think and act the same way.

Much as this is a science fiction novel, most of the time the more fantastical elements are incidental. At its core, this is a story of a love triangle and how unrequited love is so painful. It’s also about memory, identity and individuality, and what right we have to reproduce not just unique items, but entire people. Temple is free to play around with the theoretical here, as it’s highly unlikely this sort of technology will ever be possible, but that’s often the joy in these kinds of stories – give people the impossible and see what they do with it. Or, rather, as is the way of humanity, see how they manage to cock it all up.

It’s a clever and interesting book, in places predictable, but also occasionally stepping away from the safety net and surprising you. It does, however, have one of the most accidentally hilarious final paragraphs I’ve ever encountered simply because it caught me off-guard, (it smacks a little of the loathed and hurried ending of Lord of the Flies) which does take the edge off somewhat. Nonetheless, it belongs in the canon and is well worth checking out if you’re a hardcore science fiction fan.

“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

Leave a comment

“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)

4 Comments

“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

Leave a comment

“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

“Death And The Dancing Footman” by Ngaio Marsh (1942)

1 Comment

“On the afternoon of a Thursday early in 1940, Jonathan Royal sat in his library at Highfold Manor.”

As the sunshine finally breaks through and the northern half of the planet remembers that spring exists, I instead make my way back to the 1940s to a snowy scene of murder and mystery. Yes, it’s a return to the works of Ngaio Marsh, the woman I’m currently interviewing as a replacement for Agatha Christie. Both women are hugely regarded in their field, and people it seems tend to view one or the other as superior. My loyalty remains to Christie, but Marsh is certainly not one to be trifled with.

Jonathan Royal is throwing a party, but not just any party. As he tells his first guest, his friend the playwright Aubrey Mandrake, each of the other guests has been specifically invited to create the most drama possible. For a start, there’s no love loss between brothers William and Nicholas Compline. Chloris Wynne was first engaged to Nicholas, and is now set to marry William. Their mother, Sandra Compline, dislikes the woman, adores Nicholas and all but ignores William, the son who dotes on her. As if this wasn’t enough, Royal also invites Francis Hart, a plastic surgeon who is the man responsible for the failed surgery on Sandra’s face that has left her with a tragic appearance. He is enamoured, so it seems, with Elisa Lisse, the woman responsible for the break down of Nicholas and Chloris’ engagement. Completing the set is Royal’s cousin and Lisse’s rival, Lady Hersey Amblington. Everyone has accepted the invitation unaware of the fellow guests, and now they’ve all arrived, fireworks are sure to fly.

Things, however, begin to get out of hand when the arguments are slightly bigger than Royal perhaps imagined they might be. A snowstorm traps everyone in Highfold Manor, many miles from the nearest town, and the phones are cut off. As tensions rise and secrets are revealed, nasty events that can hardly be called accidents begin to happen to some of the guests. Everyone feels their lives are in danger. And then one of the party is found dead. As everyone professes their innocence, it can only be the case that someone is lying. It all seems to hang on the testimony of Thomas, the dancing footman…

Not that I didn’t enjoy my first tromp into Marsh’s work, Surfeit of Lampreys, I found this one much more engaging. Sure, it took me a while to get through (part of that is due to having started watching The Crown on Netflix) but it’s been a while since characters leapt quite so readily off the page. Each one appeared to be very visually and so the action seemed all the more intense. There are plenty of red herrings abounds in the story, as is the nature of the genre, but by now I’d managed to pick up on a couple of them and saw them for what they were. However, it doesn’t mean I caught them all, and I still didn’t get the solution, although I think a couple of extra clues and I would have done.

A tricky novel, but one that is clearly enjoying itself very much.

Older Entries