Thursday, 13 January 2022

REVIEW: COMMANDER by Paul Fraser Collard

Commander (Jack Lark #10)Commander by Paul Fraser Collard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Commander, the tenth book in the Jack Lark series, Paul Fraser Collard's melancholy hero faces the challenge of the untamed wilderness of Egypt and the Sudan. As if the heat, vegetation-clogged rivers, savage wildlife and vicious hunters were not obstacles enough, Jack Lark must once again confront something that proves much more difficult to vanquish: the darkness that drives him. The title of the novel could just as easily refer to its author as to its protagonist, for Paul Fraser Collard commands the genre of historical action adventure with as much aplomb as Jack Lark commands his troops.

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Thursday, 25 November 2021

Interview with Prue Batten on the release of her new novel, Reliquary

Over the years I have interviewed Tasmanian author, Prue Batten, she has written guest blog posts for me, and I have reviewed some of her novels, such as Tobias. It is safe to say I am a fan, so it should be no surprise that when I heard that her latest medieval novel, Reliquary, had been published, I jumped at the chance to invite her once again to my humble blog.

Welcome back, Prue. First thing's first, please tell us about your latest book, Reliquary.

An elevator pitch perhaps? 

1196 France

A small Benedictine convent

The world’s most desired and sanctified relic

The Knights Templar want it

A nun and a crusader have it

Lives lost

Faith tested

Revenge exacted

Where did you get the inspiration for the Peregrinus Trilogy?

My books are usually inspired in some way by a nugget from research for previous novels. In the Peregrinus Series, there is a pattern – people making pilgrimages, visiting relics, finding hope or redemption, some even finding damnation.

Relics were perceived as a ticket to Heaven for many in the Middle Ages and as I researched, it became inevitable that the merchant house of Gisborne ben Simon would trade in relics, a seriously cut-throat business. The Peregrinus (Latin for traveller or pilgrim) Series was born.

How does the trilogy fit in with your other books? Are they related or linked?

They are all linked by the 12th century trading house of Gisborne ben Simon which is featured in all of my backlist. Those who work for the house are an eclectic bunch of strong personalities with vivid backgrounds. Each story is a standalone, held in its place by the fact that the characters are all comrades-in-arms and this camaraderie is like a web, binding them to each other. There is very little that is light-hearted in the novels, because trade in the Middle Ages (and at any other time) was venal, and murder frequent. The old adage of First Come, First Served, could have been a 12th century mantra for a successful mercantile endeavour.

In the case of Reliquary, Christendom’s greatest relic is the centrepiece of the novel.

In Oak Gall and Gold, an illuminator monk is the ‘peregrinus’ and a lost manuscript the focus.

As for the unknown, untitled Book Three, who knows?

What was the biggest surprise for you while writing Reliquary?

That a Bride of Christ might kill to save herself.

Like all of your books, Reliquary is set on the other side of the world to where you live. I have recently moved some of my novels out of Britain and taken the characters to mainland Europe. Due to COVID, it has been impossible to travel to those places, and I yearn to be able to visit the places I have written about. How do you research the locations so far from where you live?

As I have mentioned to you before, I would have to be a millionaire to travel repeatedly (9 books) from far-removed Tasmania to the settings for my stories. However, I have travelled through Europe and the UK and filled journals with sensory detail. 

That travelling was prompted by my lecturer in medieval studies when I did my degree many years ago. He had a way of talking about the philosophical side of the Middle Ages that was electrifying for me.

In addition, I’ve been very fortunate over the years in England, Istanbul, France and now Germany, to have very qualified friends who are happy to research on my behalf, even a friend who ran a charter yacht service through the Med and Adriatic and so his watery observations of winds, tides and coastlines have been perfect.

But I also think we authors today are extremely lucky to have the web. There is NOTHING one can’t find via Google Maps, YouTube, forums and the many published research papers in various fields. 

I have been fortunate with Reliquary. Whilst my much-respected friend and researcher in France passed away last year (he is responsible for finding the little convent of Esteil in Reliquary as well as massive input into a large proportion of my backlist. I miss our repartee and academic connection), I have videos, notes, stills and experiences filed away. 

I would like to note that the reality of the settings of my novels has never been questioned and it’s humbling to receive many plaudits similar to the ones below: 

‘writes in 3D and surround sound…’

‘…vivid and believable…’

‘…an intricate tale highlighted by the details of that vast city and the life within it.’

‘The mixture of cultures in the eastern Mediterranean of the period was… realistic and handled with superb understatement.’

‘You feel you are in the cities that were described.’ 

Travel for authors may never ever be what it was. Pandemics make sure of that. I live on a healthy island which is part of an island continent and so the nation was able to ‘control’ the ingress of a certain amount of the pandemic. In addition, my own state government will always put the people’s safety ahead of everything, so I can’t guarantee 100% freedom to travel and get home – even into the future. With that in mind, I think Covid has given writers the chance to work in a different way and to build settings with unique effort and creativity rather than just showing and telling. 

But to be honest, I don’t stress about the ‘need’ to travel. I just read and write.

If I had to choose one location that I have never visited and which is written about solely from the research and five senses of my researchers, it is 12th century Constantinople, of which, sadly, there is very little left thanks to the Fourth Crusade and the Ottoman Invasion.

If I was able to choose others? The outer Scottish Isles, Scandinavia and Lindisfarne.

I interviewed you several years ago. What has changed for you as a writer since then? What is better? What is worse?

Firstly, the flooding of the indie marketplace with vast amounts of appalling writing which has damped down the reputation of so many good writers.

Secondly, Time is not on my side. I’m now seventy and have a 3 year old grandson and many things I want to accomplish. That means writing must take its place, whereas before, I did nothing much but…

I’m fortunate that I can write with little to no pressure. My portfolio is increased at my own speed and with the kind support of my readers. I live my writing life without expectation and with the desire to publish for those readers to the best of my abilities.

What has had the biggest influence on your work in the last five years?

I think I write better because life’s experiences, good and bad, continue to make a very deep mark. It’s something age delivers – a kind of soul-deep wisdom which younger folk may not yet have experienced. I think I write even more emotively. If I didn’t, I would be disappointed. And I think by writing at my own pace, I have the opportunity to hone the craft to better and better heights.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

Words and language – they are the most perfect things in the world. I saw the word ‘ethereal’ the other day and I took it, held it in my palm for just a moment and thought ‘What a beautiful word.’ Sometimes it can be that simple.

What is the best book you've read in the last twelve months?

Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow. Such beautifully parsed, elegant writing and an engaging saga.

What is next for you? The sequel to Reliquary? What plans after that?

Yes, Book Two, Oak Gall and Gold (working title) is a third of the way and I am guessing that at some point, a nugget will drop in my lap from the current research which will provide Book Three. I don’t stress about it. What will be will be.

After that? There’s a fantasy of nearly 40,000 words waiting to be finished and a colonial history novel waiting to be started and… 

But therein lies a whisper of that word – ‘Time’. ‘Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have and only you can determine how it will be spent.’ Carl Sandberg.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions.

Thank you, Matthew.

Connect with Prue:

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Interview with C. F. Barrington

Today it is my great pleasure to welcome C.F. Barrington to the blog. Barrington's first novel, The Wolf Mile was published earlier in the year and I loved it. Read my mini review here. It was the first exciting outing into what is set to an epic series of novels about The Pantheon, an underground game that sees sword-wielding warriors clash on the streets of modern-day cities all over the world. Book two of the series, The Blood Isles, is out now, so it seemed like the perfect time to invite C.F. Barrington in for a chat.

C.F. Barrington has worked in organisations as varied as the RSPB, Oxford University and the National Trust. When his role as Head of Communications at Edinburgh Zoo meant a third year of fielding endless media enquiries about the possible birth of a baby panda, he finally retreated to a quiet desk beside the sea and discovered the inspiration for the Pantheon saga. 

Raised in Hertfordshire and educated at Oxford, he now divides his time between running over the hills of the Lake District and dog walking on the beaches of Fife.

Please tell us about your Pantheon series.

The Pantheon series charts the rise of Tyler Maitland and Lana Cameron as they are plucked from their normal lives to become players in The Pantheon, an underground game bankrolled by the world’s wealthy elite and watched online by thousands. Warriors from seven ancient civilisations are trained, sworn to allegiance, then pitted against each other in battles across five major cities while being filmed in real time. 

The first installment – The Wolf Mile – sees the protagonists recruited into the Viking Valhalla Horde and their battles amongst the claustrophobic alleys of Edinburgh. The series is a modern thriller, but it mixes elements of historical fiction, as well as a sweeping romance, which takes the protagonists from friends, to sworn enemies and finally to lovers.

What inspired you to base The Wolf Mile in Edinburgh?

The story is first and foremost inspired by a sense of place. Apart from a sojourn into the forests of the Highlands, the book’s action all takes place in the closes, tunnels and rooftops which flow from the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Indeed, it was Edinburgh’s Old Town which really allowed the story to manifest. The dark, malevolent history of the Old Town and its stunning architecture and rumours of tunnels and secret passages, set my mind ticking. I am sure that the whole concept of The Pantheon could not have come together if it had not been for my life in and around Edinburgh.

The story was also prompted by two other factors: Firstly, I had always wanted to take my love of historical fiction and coax it into a modern thriller – without going down the well-trodden route of some sort of time-travel. Secondly, after a career spent in major gift fundraising for charities and universities, I had communicated with many very wealthy individuals and I got to wondering what makes someone excited when they can buy everything? As the book asks….. Imagine riches beyond your wildest dreams. What would you do with them? Travel the world? Buy a yacht? Now times it by ten.  A hundred. We’re talking mega-wealth - the kind that buys governments, shapes economies, enervates security forces and makes a mockery of justice systems. NOW what would you do with it? Less certain?

In ancient times, the wealthy of Rome spent their money and energies on forsaking human life in the gladiatorial stadia – and that’s where the concept of The Pantheon grew from in my head.

Please tell us a bit about book two, The Blood Isles.

While The Wolf Mile focuses on the recruitment of the main characters and the challenges thrown at them in the first of the Pantheon’s annual seasons – the Raiding Season, The Blood Isles takes them on to the Blood Season – where the risks become far greater and the action culminates in a full Grand Battle between the Valhalla Vikings and the Titans. As the name suggests, the story shifts from the tight spaces of Old Edinburgh to the bleak expanses of the Outer Hebrides, somewhere lonely enough for two Palatinates to face-off in the ultimate blood struggle.

How many novels are there going to be in the series? Where are they heading next?

There are five books in the Pantheon series, with The Blood Isles launching in October 2021 and Book 3 (The Hastening Storm) coming in spring 2022.

As the series progresses and the characters advance through the ranks, the story opens out to Rome, Budapest, Beijing and Istanbul as each of the rival warrior teams must be faced. 

There are clearly many references to the past and mythology in the Pantheon Series of books. Have you considered writing historical fiction or high fantasy?

I’ve often considered writing historical fiction. I’m addicted to reading the genre and love authors such as Bernard Cornwell, Wilbur Smith, Giles Kristian and Mr Matthew Harffy himself! (MH: Well, what was he going to say?) I did write a book set during the Third Crusade – Led By A Lion – when I was in my teens and I had lots of encouraging letters from publishers, but my writing needed the benefit of a few more years to mature!

I’m less into fantasy, apart from classics such as Lord of the Rings, and it’s been somewhat strange to find The Wolf Mile classified as Sci Fi in Waterstones stores! I guess it’s because the events in The Pantheon could never really happen in real life without them being closed down by the security forces, but I’ve never viewed the story as fantasy or sci-fi and there are certainly no dragons or elves or magic!

What do you love (and hate?) about having set the books in the 21st century? 

I love the mix of history and modernity in the series. When the characters are fully ensconced in their roles within the Valhalla Palatinate, they could be part of a genuine historic Viking horde. But then the story shifts and they are traipsing the modern streets of Edinburgh or sharing coffees in Jenner’s department store! I really enjoyed being able to bring the buzz and vibe of today’s city into my descriptions.

Another aspect I love about the 21st century setting is that if my ancient warrior teams have any historical inaccuracies I can get away with them because this is a modern game re-interpreting historical cultures!

The worst thing about the modern setting is that I’ve had to find plausible reasons why blood battles on the streets of Edinburgh do not bring with them headlines, online notoriety and clampdowns by government and multiple arrests! You’ll have to read The Wolf Mile to discover how I achieved this.

What are you working on at the moment? Have you got plans beyond the Pantheon Series?

I’m currently editing Book 3 – The Hastening Storm – and planning the story arc for Book 4. The series is such a twisting, turning adventure with a large cast of characters and a tale which expands geographically, so I’m finding it a complex task to pace and plan the action and to ensure all the loose ends tie up between books!

When did you start writing? Do you write full-time now? What made you take the plunge and write your first book?

I’ve always aspired to be an author – but my actual attempts to make this a reality have been few and far between. I wrote a full-length novel when I was fifteen, set amidst the 3rd Crusade, and I had some encouraging feedback from publishers. Nevertheless, it took me another fifteen years before I wrote my next one, Crestfallen, a thriller set in the Lake District. I was lucky enough to obtain a well-known London agent, but no publishing offer was forthcoming. It’s then taken me another fifteen years to get around to writing The Wolf Mile

I currently work three days a week and try to focus on my writing for another three – with a day off to keep the family happy!

What are the best and worst things about being a writer?

Now that my first book is published, the best thing about being a writer is knowing that there are actually real people out there who are enjoying reading my work! It is utterly amazing to be able to spend time dreaming up stories and then see them professionally packaged so that people – strangers(!) – can immerse themselves in the world I’ve created. I count myself as unbelievably privileged to be in this position.

For me, the worst thing is forcing myself to focus and get the words down. I’m easily distracted by social media and daytime tv! Each morning, faced with a blank screen, it’s so hard to get into the zone. It feels like being a student again and having to write an essay from scratch every single day – and that’s got to be everyone’s worst nightmare!!

What is the best book you've read in the last twelve months?

I adored Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts for the sheer, utter beauty of the language. And I’m currently blown away by Into The Silence by Wade Davis, chronicling the early attempts to map and conquer Everest. 

And now for the quick-fire questions:

Tea or coffee?

Tea every time. Proper loose leaf, in a pot with a strainer and warmed milk! Not quite the whole Japanese experience, but nearly!

Burger or hot dog?

Burger if I have to – but not that keen on either. I prefer a curry.

Villain or hero?

It’s got the be the villain. You always want to understand why they’re so bad.

Beer or wine?

Tough one. Probably wine. A glass of Merlot after dinner. But I spend a lot of time in the Lake District and there are some damn good Cumbrian ales.

Movie or TV series?

TV series. If they are good – and I’m often a fan of foreign series – there is so much more opportunity to explore the characters.

Happy ending or tragedy?

I must admit I’m partial to a tragedy. Leave the readers/viewers in tears – though maybe with some light amongst the clouds.

In the car, audio-book or music?

Music. When I’m writing I have only instrumental scores playing, but in the car it’s going to be songs. I like many styles – but according to my partner, they’re all crap!

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions.

Connect with C.F. Barrington





Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Interview on The Reading and Writing Podcast

I have listened to The Reading and Writing Podcast for years, so it is extremely exciting and gratifying for me to be interviewed by Jeff Rutherford about A Time for Swords on his great podcast that has featured some of my favourite writers in the past.

Listen here:

Thursday, 2 September 2021

The powers at play in FOR LORD AND LAND

In the eighth novel of the Bernicia Chronicles series, I not only wanted to continue Beobrand’s story in the seventh century, but also look at some of the powers at play in the early medieval period in Britain. In particular, I wanted to investigate the roles of kinship and inheritance, and how the bonds of blood and marriage could impact on the affairs of both royal dynasties and those of a more lowly station.

Much of what we know about Anglo-Saxon Britain comes from land grants and wills. We find how land was parcelled up, and what boundaries were used as markers. Things like trees and streams were commonly named as bounding the area of a piece of land. And it might come as a surprise that in a period commonly known as the ‘Dark Ages’, in which men dominated positions of authority, women were able to inherit and own land.

Of course, land can provide lucrative income. Leaders will even start wars over it, sometimes with their own kin. This is the case with Oswiu of Bernicia and his second cousin, Oswine of Deira, who in 651 led their warhosts against each other in a conflict over the southern part of Northumbria.

Apart from this clash of kings, in FOR LORD AND LAND I also describe smaller land disputes and tell the story of how a family, and one strong woman, have to deal with a particularly nasty neighbour.

Though unable to stand in the shieldwall along with Beobrand and the other warriors, women of the time could exert huge influence on events. In FOR LORD AND LAND, that influence is felt by King Oswiu, whose queen, Eanfl├Žd, is instrumental in forcing her husband to establish a new monastery. She also becomes a patron of important Christian figures who will shape the future of the church in Britain.

By the end of the novel, it becomes clear that some things never change. Avarice can always create conflict, and no matter how closely people are related, and irrespective of gender, blood is sometime not enough to protect against greed.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

In conversation with Christian Cameron

On 26th May I spoke with acclaimed author, Christian Cameron about A Time for Swords, writing process, research, inspiration, and lots more. We were hosted by Book People, the largest independent bookshop in Texas.

Watch the talk on Book People's Facebook page on the following link:

Intros start at about 5 minutes in. Christian and I start talking at about 8 minutes in.

Friday, 30 April 2021

REVIEW: Protector by Conn Iggulden

Protector (Athenian #2)Protector by Conn Iggulden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Grit, intrigue, venal villains, honourable heroes and cataclysmic battles to save Greece and the future of democracy. Having conquered Ancient Rome, Mongolian hordes and the Wars of the Roses, with PROTECTOR Conn Iggulden does what he does best and turns the battle of Plataea into a triumph of historical fiction.

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