Thursday, 21 June 2018

REVIEW: The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry

The Last Kind Words SaloonThe Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone who knows me will almost certainly have heard me mention that Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is one of my all time favourite books. I have read several other westerns penned by McMurtry, and whilst none of them has reached the heights of his Pulitzer-winning masterpiece, they have all been entertaining enough. So it was with some excitement that I spotted The Last Kind Words Saloon in a bookshop. I jumped at the chance to read a new McMurtry western, and the fact that it was short, was a plus for me, as I have very little time to read. That it was about Wyatt Earp, one of my favourite characters, clinched the deal.

I am not really sure what McMurtry was aiming for with The Last Kind Words Saloon, but it is written with his recognizable charm and sparse prose and has that feeling of authenticity that makes it feel as right as a well-worn pair of boots. Each chapter is a short vignette in the life of Earp, Doc Holliday, Charlie Goodnight and a handful of other western legends. The plot doesn't really go anywhere and McMurtry manages to sidestep and gloss over the showdown at the O.K. Corral, rather than make it the climax of the novel. I think this was intentional and perhaps says something about McMurtry's idea behind the novel. This is about the debunking of the western myths. Showing the sad, petty, violent and often lost people who became legends. There are no heroes in this vision of the American West, just drifters, drunks and chancers and some hard-working men and women who managed to forge a future for themselves in difficult times and in the harshest of terrains and climates.

It has the ennui of McMurtry's Buffalo Girls and perhaps even the shortness of the book was a nod to the subject matter being the sorrowful end of the golden age of the American frontier. If Lonesome Dove, with its close to a thousand pages, is a tour de force of western writing, The Last Kind Words Saloon, at about two hundred pages, feels like a shadow of McMurtry's most famous work, perhaps echoing the sad decline into insignificance of characters like Wyatt Earp who, rather than doing the decent thing and dying in a blaze of glory, lived out his later years in relative obscurity and poverty in California.

I enjoyed this book, mainly because McMurtry, even when he is not trying hard, can breathe life into his characters and write fabulous, insightful dialogue, but if you have not read Lonesome Dove, go there first. This one is for the true fan and best left as a slightly bitter digestif after the sumptuous main course.

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Friday, 4 May 2018

The Dark Ages is the best era - and here's why! A fun talk at Wrexham Carnival of Words.

This time last week I was at Wrexham in North Wales attending the Wrexham Carnival of Words festival. I was appearing as part of their popular Historical Fiction evening, sharing the stage with some wonderful authors.


The first part of the evening was a relaxed buffet mingling and chatting with the Wrexham Writers Group, which was a fabulously relaxed affair with fun and enlightening conversations and some wonderful catering. A special shout out for the Canadian lady who brought treats from her shop, The Canadian Cottage - the Peanut Butter Truffles are to die for, and they deliver all over the UK.


I had a lovely time, meeting the local authors and chatting all about writing and publishing.

Then came the main event, which was split into two halves. The night was compered by fellow historical fiction author, Dave McCall (who writes under the name, David Ebsworth). Dave was a wonderful host and ran the evening with just the right touch of humour and fun.

The first half of the proceedings was entitled My Era is Better than Yours, and it pitched four writers against each other, each trying to convince the audience that the era they write about is the best.


I talked about the Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages and alongside me were Carol McGrath (Norman Conquest), Michael Jecks (The Plantagenet Apocalypse) and Tony Riches (The Tudors).

Me, Carol McGrath, Michael Jecks and Tony Riches

Each of us spoke for six minutes, then there were questions from the audience, and then we were allowed a further minute to seal the deal. After that, the audience voted for their favourite era.

Well, I rolled out my secret weapons, that were reciting some of Beowulf in the original Old English and then mentioning that, without the Dark Ages, we would not have had J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, I won with a resounding majority of the votes! Not bad, considering, as I pointed out, the baddies in my books are often the Welsh!

You can read my full talk at the end of this post.

Robyn Young and Dave McCall

After a short break, Dave went on to interview Robyn Young about her novels and her journey as a writer. It was a relaxed, enlightening talk and the forty-five minutes flew by. Then we were all signing books and chatting, before heading back to the hotel for some wine and chips (apparently a tradition of the festival).

Signing books is always a blast, though I forget how to write my own name!

When we got back to the hotel, there had been a mix up and, despite the organisers having done the same thing for years, the new management of the hotel forbade us eating our chip-shop-bought chips in the hotel restaurant. So, after a few minutes of indignation, still basking in the glow of victory, I invited everyone up to my room.

Greasy chips! On my bed?!

What goes on in Wrexham stays in Wrexham!

It was all very rock and roll. There was talk about throwing the TV out of the window, but in the end the party was over by eleven, leaving me with a room filled with empty bottles and glasses and reeking of chips! And some great memories of Wrexham.

The aftermath of the after party!
Photo Copyright Matthew Harffy

My full talk notes
My Era is Better Than Yours - Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages

Being here in Wrexham is an honour, but I’m pretty sure that being here in Wales in particular is going to go against me. I can’t see how I can win because, although my era is of course better than all the others, my books are written from the perspective of the bloody Saes! Yes, the Anglo-Saxons, who become the English, are the main characters, and the Welsh are often the baddies! Of course it was the Anglo-Saxons who gave the Welsh their name, Welsh being the old English for foreign. You see the English penchant for disliking anyone different to them started long before Brexit!

So why is my era the best? The early medieval, as it is known by historians and academics, is more commonly known as the Dark Ages, a term coined by historians centuries ago who saw the decline of the Roman Empire as a descent into darkness and a loss of education and learning.

I like to call it the Dark Ages because nobody knows much about what was going on, especially in Britain. There are few primary sources and those there are, are pretty sketchy. All of this is great for an author! It is also sometimes known as the Heroic Age – and who doesn’t like a good heroic protagonist?

Hƿæt! Ƿē Gārdena     in ġēardagum,
þēodcyninga,     þrym ġefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas     ellen fremedon.

No, I haven’t just had a stroke, those are the opening lines of Beowulf translated by John McNamara
as:

Hail! We have heard tales sung of the Spear-Danes,
the glory of their war-kings in days gone by,
how princely nobles performed heroes’ deeds!
(Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005.)

Epics like Beowulf, the oldest English poem, came from this period. And the seeds of the legendary tales of King Arthur emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire. The greatest stories in the English language hearken from such a time of myth and legend, a time of scops singing their tales in the flickering light of smoky mead halls.

All good stories need conflict and Dark Ages Britain is rife with it – Angles and Saxons clash with the native Welsh, Anglo-Saxons fight other Anglo-Saxons, they fight the Picts, they fight the Irish, and of course later, they all fight the Vikings!

There were so many small kingdoms in Britain it was like a continent in miniature, providing a great scope for stories.

Not only were there battles between the different kingdoms, there were clashes between religions. It is a period before Christianity had become the overwhelming winner in the battle for the hearts and souls of the people of Britain. The Anglo-Saxons worshiped the pantheon of gods that were the same as those followed by the Vikings in all but name. Thunor/Thor, Woden/Odin, etc. Christianity came into Britain from Ireland and Iona in the West and North, and from the south from Rome and France over to Kent and through the kingdoms of Britain. As I said before, conflict makes for great stories and here there was a new God promising everlasting life battling against the old pagan gods that demanded sacrifice. Even the two strands of Christianity were in conflict. Culminating in the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, where such exciting things were discussed as the calculation of the date of Easter and the type of haircuts that monks should have! Heady stuff indeed!

The Dark Ages cemented so much of what we know today in our day to day lives. The names of the days of the week come from the gods - Woden gives us Wednesday, Thunor gives us Thursday, Tuesday is from Tiw, the God of war. Even the counties in many areas come from the kingdoms of pre-conquest Britain. Sussex for the South Saxons, Wessex for the West Saxons Essex, the East Saxons, Mercia, Powys and Gwynedd… all have their roots in the Dark Ages.

Even the name 'Wrexham' may possibly trace its etymological origins back to this period as being derived from an Old English name, 'Wryhtel' and 'hamm' meaning water meadow i.e. Wryhtel's meadow. And Wrexham was almost certainly founded by Anglo-Saxon Mercian colonists in the 8th century. So without the Dark Ages and those bloody Saes, we wouldn’t be talking here today!

With all the great battles and action you might be forgiven in thinking there is no place for women, but you’d be wrong! Women don’t have a great time in some of my books, but unlike later in history, it was an enlightened time in many ways. On marrying (which didn’t have to be done in church, by the way – after a couple plighted their troth and were hand-fasted, they were married). On getting married women were given a bride gift, which was theirs alone to do with as they pleased and they were also allowed to inherit and own land and wealth. Although the history of the era is crowded with kings, warriors and priests, there are also powerful women who commanded great influence, women such as Hild, the Abbess of Whitby, of the famous Synod. And others, such as Queen Eanflaed and her mother Ethelburga, who are often mentioned as having profound influence on the men in their lives, often changing the course of the politics of whole kingdoms. Nothing changes! I am sure Melania is running the United States of America!

Of course, as I said before, the Dark Ages are really the Early Middle Ages and apart from the lack of electric light, they were not that dark at all. If you look across the whole period you can see exquisite craftsmanship such as that seen in the Sutton Hoo burial and the Staffordshire Hoard, and of course the Lindisfarne Gospel and the Book of Kells were produced by monks in the British Isles in a time that is infamous for its lack of education. If you look wider, over the rest of the continent, the Moors bring algebra and advances in medicine and science in this time, and there were massive innovations in architecture across Europe.

In short, with its epic poems, the works of great craftsmanship, the impacts on our everyday language and place names, the Dark Ages still burn brightly in our history and our collective psyche, not to mention they still enthrall us and are a great backdrop for gripping novels!
And that is why my era, The Dark Ages, is the best!

Final closing comment

The others have talked about Shakespeare, and Boccaccio and Chaucer and the Domesday Book. I bring you an author better than any of those. The best author of the twentieth century! J.R.R. Tolkien!

The Dark Ages is a time of enlightenment and progress, as well as a huge amount of conflict. An era of great kings who stood in shieldwalls alongside their retinues of brave warriors. Kings like Oswald of Northumbria, who was part of the inspiration for one of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th century. In JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the exiled King of Gondor, who returns to claim his birthright, is based on Oswald.

On talking about the time when the epic poem Beowulf was written, Tolkien described it as “a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion”. It is an era, he said, that is to us “as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo”.

I think the echoes from that distant time still resonate today, particularly in the British Isles where people speak a language that after so many centuries still has essential kinship with that spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.

Beyond our language, we share many other characteristics with the men and women who recounted sagas and told riddles around the hearth fires of feast halls. Some would say we are still a bellicose people, and we certainly still like a good drink. But above all of that, just like those Dark Age forebears, all of us here tonight like a good story.

(Wrexham, 27th April, 2018)


Unless otherwise stated, all photographs copyright Phil Burrows.

Monday, 9 April 2018

REVIEW: DAUGHTER OF WAR by Simon Turney

Daughter of War (Knights Templar #1)Daughter of War by S.J.A. Turney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having conquered ancient Rome, Simon Turney turns his hand to medieval Spain.

Daughter of War is set in 1198. It is a period of upheaval and violence, a time of bloody reconquest, as Christians battle Moors to reclaim the kingdoms of Iberia. In this tumultuous time there are several factions, each vying for power, land and wealth and not all followers of Christ are friends of the Knights Templar. Against this canvas of intrigue, greed and uneasy alliances, Turney brings us the gripping tale of Arnau de Vallbona, a young knight, who finds himself thrust into conflict with a ruthless noble. Along with the lady he is sworn to protect, the honourable Arnau joins the "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon" where he learns there is great strength in giving oneself over to higher causes. And victory can come from placing one's faith not only in God, but in his new brothers and sisters of the Temple.

Turney is a master-storyteller and this is a classic, epic adventure that hurtles headlong like a galloping destrier. With prose and plotting as polished and sharp as a Templar's longsword, Simon Turney propels the reader into the turbulent time of twelfth century Spain.

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Sunday, 1 April 2018

WARRIOR OF WODEN is out NOW!

It feels like it's been a long time coming, but finally the day is here for book five of The Bernicia Chronicles, WARRIOR OF WODEN, to be unleashed on the world! If you pre-ordered, it should have already appeared magically on your e-book reader. If you didn't pre-order, what are you waiting for?!


I hope you enjoy the book, and please leave a review on your online site of choice once you are finished reading it. As writers are so fond of saying, reviews really do help others to find books and to take a chance on a new author.

WARRIOR OF WODEN is currently available as en e-book and print on demand paperback. It will be available soon as an audiobook (date TBD) and in other print formats (hardback and mass market paperback) next year.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

On the release of WARRIOR OF WODEN and writing a series of books

Seventh century Britain was a time of great conflict and turmoil. Peoples and religions clashed, vying for supremacy over the kingdoms and fertile lands of the island also known as Albion. This dark age is the time of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of action-packed thrillers that centre on the character of Beobrand, a young man who is thrust into battle, discovers he is a natural warrior and eventually enters the service of the lords and kings of Britain’s distant past.

By the time we reach WARRIOR OF WODEN, book five and the latest novel in the series, Beobrand’s life has been filled with excitement, intrigue and more than its share of tragedy. At only twenty-six, he has long since transformed from a naive farm boy into a ruthless warlord. He has stood in shieldwalls, slaying the enemies of his king and been rewarded with land and riches. He has found love, and lost it all too quickly. He has travelled from the southern kingdom of his homeland of Cantware (Kent) all the way into the northern realm of Dál Riata to the isle of Hii (Iona). Beobrand has witnessed the resurgence of the religion of the Christ, and he has even stood against the dark power of the old gods, wielded at the hands of a cunning woman seeking revenge against him.


Beobrand’s world is one of violence and vengeance, but in WARRIOR OF WODEN, he is no longer free to pursue his own quests against those who have wronged him. Time has passed and after the resolution of many story lines in the fourth book, KILLER OF KINGS, Beobrand is now oath-sworn and bound by his words and promises more strongly than any ropes or chains ever could.

It has been six years since the action in the last book and eight years since Oswald took the throne, aided by Beobrand. Elevated by the king to thegn as reward for his fealty, Beobrand is now a wealthy warlord, with a sizable warband. But battle is once again brewing on the borders of Northumbria, Beobrand’s adopted kingdom. Penda of Mercia, the great killer of kings himself is planning to invade and Beobrand is called upon to stand in an epic battle where the blood of many will be shed in defence of the kingdom.


Writing a novel is a unique challenge. Writing a series of books comes with an extra set of difficulties. Readers expect a certain flavour they have come to recognise. They wish to revisit the same characters they have grown to love, or hate. They want some familiarity, but at the same time, they do not wish to be bored. Readers want to be thrilled and excited by new, fresh twists, not to have the same old stories repeated. And then there is the issue of new readers. It is always in my mind that a reader might come to the Bernicia Chronicles at any point and so each novel must stand on its own merit, providing a satisfying read as well as adding to the overall series.

In WARRIOR OF WODEN, Beobrand has grown as a leader of men and as a man. His friendships from previous stories have matured and he has less self-doubt. He has more wealth and is now secure in his position. But with that position comes greater responsibility and in this story Beobrand sees his prowess in battle tested more than ever and his oaths and loyalties stretched to the limit. He leads his friends into the bloodiest battle he has faced yet and, as with all warfare, not everyone returns alive and nobody escapes unscathed.


The passage of time since the action of the previous book has allowed me to start afresh, creating new backstory, adding new characters, both friend and foe, and providing even more depth to the world Beobrand inhabits.

Whether you have already enjoyed the other books, or choose WARRIOR OF WODEN as the first book in the series to read, follow Beobrand on a breakneck ride of an adventure as he stands in the climactic clash between the pagan Penda and the Christian Oswald. In this battle, which is one of the most important in the history of the island, there is much more at stake than sovereignty. This is a battle for the very souls of the people of Albion.

WARRIOR OF WODEN is published on 1st April.

The digital boxset of the first three novels of The Bernicia Chronicles is currently available at a reduced price. BUY IT HERE.

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This blog post originally appeared on the Aria Fiction blog.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

KILLER OF KINGS gets a review from a great author!

It is always great to read a positive review of my books. But it is even better than normal, when the reviewer is a talented author of historical fiction whom I admire. This is the case with Jemahl Evans, whose Blandford Candy series of novels set in the English Civil War is brilliant.
Jemahl Evans' review of KILLER OF KINGS is below, but to sum up: "bloody brilliant! Matthew Harffy just gets better and better"