The Frankenstein Inheritance by Simon Cheshire

frankenstein1879.  Professor Marchbanks arrives at Charing Cross station having just travelled from Europe. He is very afraid.  He is accompanied by two children, incongruously named Victoria and Albert.   There is something strange about them.  They have pale, waxy, unnatural-seeming skin, piercing, needle-sharp eyes, strange fissures and what looks like stitching on their heads and necks. They are alarmingly intelligent but remember nothing which happened more than a few days before.  They also extremely strong: Albert even rescues some children from drowning with extraordinary presence of mind and daring within a few minutes of leaving the train.

Yes, Victor Frankenstein’s spirit has passed on to his descendants and they are carrying on the good work.  In this parallel universe, they have bought up every extant copy of Mary Shelley’s unfortunate account and had them burnt.  Professor Marchbanks has been called out to the Frankenstein castle, remote and terrifying, to give advice about the latest developments in the programme.  He is appalled by what he sees and escapes with the two children.  But their creator Wolfgang von Frankenstein is determined to have them back.

Thus starts a gothic thriller, full of the special darkness which only Victorian London can give, involving horror, some particularly nasty deaths, a chase across the stews and teeming streets of the East End as it once was – Jack the Ripper country.  The pace is breakneck, the tension taut like a bowstring.  A terrific read in its own right.  I devoured it at a sitting.

But there’s more.  Underneath its pastiche (though I don’t like using that word because it seems to cheapen the whole) is a serious debate.  Simon Cheshire is well aware of the literary tradition, the way the central image of Mary Shelley’s novel galvanised a whole genre as well as raising just about the most serious possibility which could ever face the human race.  Many writers and, of course, film directors have revelled in the story’s horror and sensationalism (after all, it  took the gothic and romantic to a new level) and are oblivious to its ethical and societal implications.  Cheshire understands how a later generation could realise what power Victor’s discovery can lead to in an industrial, capitalist society.  Technology and money meet in an unholy alliance which adumbrates the modern age: Wolfgang’s ambitions, which forecast contemporary debates about the ethics of medicine in prolonging and even perfecting life, are suddenly given shape by his realisation of the power of money and the tentacles of Victorian finance.  They have emerged from Romantic fantasy, entered the real world and become inestimably more dangerous.

Simon Cheshire has made his writing reputation through humour.  But there’s not much to laugh about here.  Nevertheless, cheerfulness does keep breaking through.  The climax of the novel, Wolfgang’s demonstration of his discovery to the most select members of Victorian society, takes place on the premises of a rather shady pharmaceutical firm on the brink of bankruptcy and desperate for the one blinding transformative success – Phage and Blight Ltd.  Cheshire has a Dickensian talent for surnames.  These, especially the second, help to suggest that, though the consequences of this occasion are horrific and serious, a thread of black humour runs through it.

Perhaps, however, the most impressive feature of the novel is the very one over which Mary Shelley agonised most.  What can the place of Victoria and Albert be in human society?  In Cheshire’s story, they perform wonders.  They are fiercely loyal, especially to Professor Marchbanks. They are instrumental in destroying their maker.  It would be easy for them to die in the attempt: we could feel sad for a while and then forget about them.  But Cheshire presents no such easy solution.  Victoria and Albert inconveniently stay alive.  They have special and entirely benign powers.  The solution involves a character with another Dickensian name: Inspector Goodley, who shares with Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff the distinction of being one of the very few policemen in the Victorian fictional world who is both intelligent and a force for good.  Once again, the implications of a moral difficulty are not shirked.

So – a page-turner which can be read as merely terrific entertainment and also a narrative which deals seriously with issues still current today.  But there’s more.  Earlier, I used the word ‘pastiche.’  Well, it is: a modern presentation of the language and conventions of a particular sort of nineteenth-century literature.

To work at all, pastiche must be done well.  This demands a deep literary understanding.  Just to check my instincts about this book, I reread the opening pages of, next to Mary Shelley, the other great peak of nineteenth century gothic writing, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that bewildering mixture of genius and prejudice.  Jonathan Harker’s account of his journey to and escape from Dracula’s castle, with its peculiar first-person tension between paranoid dread and detached exactitude of observation, is echoed with great force in Professor Marchbanks’s opening account.  And more: Stoker’s novel is a complex construction of multiple viewpoints: letters, articles, newspaper reports, reminiscent accounts, all maintaining the hectic pace without sacrificing his eye for detail.  Cheshire’s method, though on a much smaller scale, is very similar and has the same effect.

And this led me to another musing.  The Victorian horror/crime/supernatural novel lives on.  The Quickening by Mari Biella, which I reviewed here recently, is a fine example, as are Susan Hill’s ghost stories, Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency novels and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series.  These are all very fine writers; in their hands, pastiche is more than imitation, more even than homage.  It’s a living tradition with a lot more mileage left in it.  The Frankenstein Inheritance is a great addition.

Reviewed by Dennis Hamley

 Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Simon Cheshire

 

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Alice Parker’s Metamorphosis by Nicola Palmer

Meet Alice Parker – the very likeable heroine of a new fantasy series for children.  She’s part of a family who are both quirky and reassuringly normal – her paramedic dad, her cake-baking granny, a secretive granddad, a mum who’s experimenting with veggie recipes and an older brother, Thomas, who’s moody university student.  Alice herself is a pleasingly non-girly girl who hates clothes, makeup and romantic books, and likes food so much her brother nicknames her the ‘wiglet’ (short for ‘wicked piglet’).  Her idea of heaven is meeting her best friend Susan for a chocolate-fudge cake at ‘The Coffee Cauldron’.

Things begin to get curious for Alice though – she’s finding it hard to sleep and her back feels constantly hot and itchy.  Her hunger’s getting out of control, particularly for fruit and sugar – she’s knocking back a whole carton of pineapple juice at breakfast and even steals a banana from a still-life she’s supposed to be painting in art class.  What’s the feathery shape she keeps seeing by her window?  Why does the woman in ‘The Coffee Cauldron’ say she’s special?  And why does she keep getting a 100% on all her exams?  It only seems to give the gang of unpleasant girls she nicknames the ‘coven’, led by horsey Lucinda Rowbottom (or No-Bottom), another reason to hate her.

It turns out Alice Parker is undergoing a metamorphosis, and will soon emerge like a butterfly from her chrysalis as a Finwip – or a ‘fully intergrated winged person.’  This runs in her family – Thomas and her granddad are Finwips too – and explains why she’s been mainlining the sweets and orange juice (nectar is needed to produce her butterfly-like wings).  Finwips have learnt to live in the human world, but still meet occasionally in villages underground for mutual support.  And yes, some of them are small and have pointy ears, but don’t call them fairies okay? (Well, not Alice’s granddad anyway, he doesn’t like it!)

The plot, when it does emerge, is pretty simple – Alice is asked to complete a task for the Finwips, which she does without any real surprises or jeopardy occurring.  It means facing up to some bad winged people called the Sinwips, who have potential, but in this book feel a bit under-developed.   For this reason I’d say that despite Alice herself being 13, this is probably aimed more at 7-10 year olds – for Harry-Potter junkies the story might seem a bit slight.  Still, Nicola Palmer has modernized the idea of fairies with real charm, and I like Alice a lot – the best scenes emerge from her dealing with being a fairy in the real world, whether that’s struggling with her wings in the school loos or finding she and Susan don’t have a mobile signal at a moment of crisis.  The world Palmer has created is full of possibilities, and with more Alice Parker adventures to come, I can see the series might transform into something lovely.

Reviewed by Evie Glass 

Available in Kindle format and also as paperback

Find out more about Nicola Palmer

Delilah Dark and the Teacup of Doom by Evie Glass

As someone who has never seen the appeal of Harry Potter, I have to say, the title alone does it for me!  It’s clearly a tongue in cheek spoof style novel and features a Goth type teen girl with attitude instead of the squeaky clean and wholesome HP.  This is much more my cup of tea.  But it’s also a lot more than an amusing spoof on Harry Potter. Or a modern take on the social satire to be found in Willy Wonka. There’s depth here beneath the humour. But there’s humour aplenty.

This is the second part of a trilogy so we can be expected to know something of the central characters. They are a group of pre-teens who collectively are known as SKIVE and their mission is to overthrow BigCorp. So far, so funny.  Delilah as the central character is well drawn and lives up to her ‘gloomgirl’ image.  But underneath all that marmite on toast and black coffee which serves as a stance on her Goth identity, there is a ‘good’ girl. One who appreciates that moral goodness is not at odds with her ‘dark’ image.

The story involves Skive trying to subvert and prevent BigCorp from world domination via the terrifyingly familiar ‘Global Pop Puppet’ show. Delilah’s ‘adventures’ are often presented as cartoonesque but the consequences behind them are all too real. It’s this entertaining combination that keeps the reader hooked throughout.  One can easily recognise the ‘players’ in BigCorp and the FuturesLab and the Pop Puppet TV show.  Skive are called to fight on a number of fronts, encompassing tackling issues of biotechnology and genetically modified food (food that you can literally ‘play with) to animal testing and challenging a range of contemporary issues such as the impact on society of global consumerism.

None of this is worthy or preachy however. It’s funny in a satiric sort of way and Glass excels at observing society in a subversive way that will appeal to the younger generation who are beyond fairy stories but crave fantasy.  It’s funny for adults too and I suspect interesting enough for bored/cool teens to engage with it, allowing them to vent their desire for irony in literature.

It offers not only a point of connection for the ‘lost’ generation but also a rallying cry to the ‘whatever’ generation. It doesn’t challenge by being wordy or worthy but it contains a lot to think about and questions important issues such as globalisation from a left field perspective.

The ironic savvy kid who is too cool for…well,  everything will still find humour in Delilah’s adventures and perhaps learn some self-reflective skills in the process.

Added depth is given by the fact that the characters are in real jeopardy. Mike falls prey to the horrors of the computer game Infinite Quest while Brandon rushes headlong into the Pop Puppet competition, desperate to be a success by wining even if this means he’s going to have microchip implanted. And Delilah has her own ‘demons’ to face. She has to learn that healing energy requires compassion which in turn requires learning empathy with others and this is hard for an isolated and precocious girl who keeps her distance because of her personal pain.  All the characters ‘grow’ through the story and there’s plenty of scope for the third part to be even funnier and even more poignant. I’m looking forward to what happens in the final part – and when Delilah turns thirteen!

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Amazon Kindle Format

 Find out more about Evie Glass

Death’s Daughter by C.J.Ward

 

‘In the middle of the fourteenth century,’ begins C J Ward’s Death’s Daughter, ‘A merciless disease ravaged England.  It ravaged and ravaged.  And then, just for good measure, it ravaged a bit more.’  This disease is called the Black Death, for, as our storyteller acknowledges: ‘Its infamy would hardly have echoed through history had it been known as the Mauve Death.  Or the Slightly Brown Death.’  In the face of this, Medieval medicine is useless – the physician would recommend ‘placing a hen next to you, which was supposed to coax the disease out of your body.  This is not something hens are particularly good at.  Clucking?  Yes.  Curing you of the plague?  Not so much.  If that failed (and it always did), she would usually tell you to drink your own urine.’

If you’re already sniggering, as I was, then this is the book for you.  It tells the very story of how the shire of Lower Chegwin manages to escape death by plague, thanks to the local death-bringer, or Reaper – Roland – and Myla, a feisty nine-year-old unafraid of kicking a King in the shins or playing with rats.  Roland kills people by tapping them three times on the shoulder and tapped Myla twice when she was a sickly baby, but couldn’t bring himself to give her the third tap when she smiled at him.  Now she is a wraith – neither living or dead – and has been brought up as his daughter.  But when her curiosity leads her to the Council of Reapers in the Great Forest, they are soon both in serious danger.

C J Ward shares my own delight in puns and playing with language.  The whole book bursts with delightful details, such as the names of medieval shops (Tapestries‘R’Us, Axes and Wimples) or the increasingly surreal similes used to describe a character called Dim Peter (‘dim as a bag of prunes’, ‘dimmer than a squashed trifle’).  Adults will enjoy the running joke about the preposterous names real ales have, as the knights sup pints of Hefty Ferret, Bishop’s Nostril and Crazy Otter.  One part of the story is told via a pastiche of a ballad that begins:

King Death he was a nasty git,

Imagine the worst and he was it,

Like getting seventy-seven zits

On your first day back at school.

But aside from the jokes, this is also a genuinely moving story about a father and daughter – the end made me a little teary.  And there are some scary moments along the way – I thought the forest demon called the Mandrake particularly chilling, with his algae green eyes, and body encased in moss and woodlice.

It’s always hard to judge when children are ready for a book like this.  As you’ll have gathered by now there is a lot of death in this novel (just within the first chapter a man has been crushed to death by a cow), and lots of icky bits.  It’s all done in a very comic-book way, but I know from my own experience of writing darkly comic books for children that some ten-year-olds will absolutely love this and others find it a bit too scary.  If you’re buying it for a young reader and aren’t sure I’d read the sample online first – the first chapter gives the general flavour.  However, I know that when I was a child – as a fan of Roald Dahl and Blackadder – I would have absolutely loved this book, with its brave heroine and sarcastic narrator.  And, as an adult, it’s the best indie children’s book I’ve read this year.

Reviewed by Evie Glass

Available in Amazon Kindle format 

Find out more about C.J.Ward

DENNIS HAMLEY SPECIAL REVIEW FEATURE

Dennis Hamley – 50 years in publishing

Special Feature 

Dennis Hamley has been a published author since before I was born (just)and to my mind that makes him worthy of a special feature. He’s published well over 60 books, mostly in the children’s market and this year he embraced e-publishing.  Whereas some would have you believe that indie epublishing is only for those who cannot get books published ‘properly’, Dennis, like many other well published authors, has plenty of work that has gone out of print as fashions in publishing houses change (or as publishing houses change/go out of business). In the past this was at the very least annoying for an author, at the worse extremely depressing. With the advent of indie epublishing it’s possible for the writer to take their rights back, reclaim the work and re-publish it in ebook format. And that’s what Dennis has done. Being a sensible and cautious man, he first published a series of short stories (dipping his toe in this new fangled technology) and published COLONEL MUSTARD IN THE LIBRARY WITH THE CANDLESTICK. Now I ask you, irresistible title or what?  That learning curve weathered and the sky not falling in, Dennis set about publishing the COMPLETE saga of  Joslin de Lay. This was a series of 6 books (historical mystery for children/YA – and adults seem to like them too!) which was first published in the late 1990’s.  You can still find   but Dennis wanted to bring the stories to life for a new generation

Dennis won’t mind me saying that at times he struggles with technology (I’d like to know which of us engaged in indie epublishing hasn’t struggle to climb the steep learning curve in this emerging market) and he’s worked with K.D.Lathar who helps format/convert and publish the books. They’ve done it in less than 6 months and you can now download and read ALL the Joslin novels.

Collaborative partnerships such as this are becoming much more common in the new world of epublishing where writers feel they can pool their skills as they are no longer competing with each other for a limited number of publishing ‘deals’ but instead are able to work collaboratively. Remember readers don’t have a problem with ‘it’s a bit like…’ because however fast we work, they can read faster!  So writers are discovering a camaraderie and working together in informal and more formal co-operative ventures on what might be termed ‘cross promotion’ but actually for most of us is something a lot less cynically market driven and much more – we’re all in this together and we all want to find readers who WANT to read our work. Dennis and I both blog for Authors Electric (which is where we ‘virtually’ found each other) which is one example of a disparate group of individual writers who have found common ground and share their thoughts and experiences of the new ‘epublishing’ world.  There are many more such groups and in a way they become a progression of the concept of a writer’s group – with the emphasis now on publishing – we are all experienced, professional writers but are all finding our way through the epublishing ‘experience.’ And it really helps not to be alone.

For all the above reasons and for many more, today’s special feature is a tribute to Dennis Hamley and his ‘journey’ to bring Joslin back into the published world for a new generation.  Dennis writes briefly about the work and then we offer some of the reviews Dennis has had for the print and ebook versions of the Joslin Saga. Which hopefully will send you off to investigate for yourself.   (Ed) 

THE LONG JOURNEY OF JOSLIN DE LAY

And

The Even Longer journey of Dennis Hamley!

MODERN MURDER HAS IT EASY – Dennis Hamley

It’s a pity about crime novels set in the present day.  All this DNA, mobile phones, CCTV, laptops, emails, even fingerprints – it seems criminals nowadays shouldn’t stand a chance. Though of course they do. Crime stories set in the present day are good to read and great to write: I’ve done a few myself.

But if you want to write a murder mystery of the old sort, one which is solved with just your eyes, your ears and your commonsense, you’ve got to think differently. And that’s where setting crime stories in the past comes in. You’ve got to work out the solution to the mystery for yourself because there’s nothing to help you. You don’t know where people are because there are no phones, not even landlines, you can’t move faster than walking pace unless you’ve got a horse, a letter will take months, nobody has thought about fingerprints and DNA wasn’t even heard of. That’s why I turned to writing crime stories set way back in the past – and decided to set them in the Middle Ages.

The figure of a seventeen year-old French minstrel lost in England stole into my mind and the The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay (originally called The Joslin de Lay Mysteries) was the result.  They were first published by Scholastic and came out between 1998 and 2002 – six novels set over six hundred years ago in about 1370, telling the story of Joslin’s quest from France to Wales to find his mother after his father was murdered. Being a minstrel, Joslin sings his way through the land because, even though England and France were at war, he’s welcome everywhere. He can sing in inns and taverns to ordinary people, he can sing in Oxford colleges, he can sing in castles to Earls. All of society is open to him.   He has his own big mystery to solve, which finally comes clear in the last book. But on the way, in every town he comes to – London, Oxford, Coventry, Hereford – murder stalks him.

Of Dooms and Death,

A Pact with Death,

Hell’s Kitchen,

A Devil’s Judgement,

Angel’s Snare,

The False Father.

Six separate mysteries, lots of dead bodies – and Joslin solves them all.

But it’s not just murder which follows him.  A forbidding, threatening character is hunting him across the land as well – and he possesses the key to the whole of Joslin’s story.

The Middle Ages really are another world. So much research to get everything right, all of it fascinating. Here are some ways in which I tried to make the facts come alive.

•At the time the novels are set, Europe was just getting over the Black Death. So one of the books concerns the villain using the bubonic plague for his own ends to kill his victims.

•The Hundred Years War, between England and France was on. It’s very important to the books. It sets off the first and is part of the solution of the last.

•The Church believed some things couldn’t even be thought of because they were so dangerous. That meant that some books were forbidden: it was mortal sin to read them. One of Joslin’s mysteries concerns a forbidden book about something the Church thought was about the most dangerous thing of all. But some people read it and murder follows.

I loved writing these books. I said I’d do just six, each one a separate standalone novel but with one larger story overarching them.  My hero wouldn’t die at the end but I’d make sure there couldn’t be any more books about him.   Although…well, you never know!

When they came to an end and I finally had to say goodbye to Joslin I felt really quite upset. We’d been through a lot together but I knew he would be happy and well-provided for and I often think of him still singing and living with his wife, a girl he meets on the way (whose name I won’t tell you because he meets quite a few) then loses her but finds her again at the last..   And now all six books are back as ebooks on Kindle and I’m so glad.  And one day they’ll reappear as fairly sumptuous printed editions, with their new covers, as ‘books beautiful’ which should enhance anybody’s bookshelves.

Dennis Hamley  (From  CRIME CENTRAL blog, revised for the Edinburgh ebook festival)

Reviews of THE LONG JOURNEY OF JOSLIN DE LAY

A juicily macabre series of page turners                                                                                                          Jan Mark (Carousel)

Some years ago I was asked to review The False Father, the last in Dennis Hamley’s series of six medieval murder mysteries linked by a quest story.   I can’t now remember much about that story except that I enjoyed it and wished I’d read the other five first.

Now, I’m glad to say, I shall have the chance.  The books have been out of print, but Dennis Hamley is gradually reissuing them as e-books under the title The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay.

The first two books are already available.  They are Kindle editions  – and the covers, by Anastasia Sichkarenko, are stunning.

The books are set in the mid-1300s, when England and France were at war, and concern a 17-year-old French minstrel, Joslin de Lay, who escapes to England after the murder of his father.  England – an enemy country – might seem a bad choice, but Joslin is on a quest to find his lost mother, and his ultimate destination is Wales.  However, not only is Joslin, as a Frenchman, feared and threatened in England, but he has been followed there by a mysterious stranger.

Joslin’s adventures begin in the East Anglian village of Stovenham, where two young artists from London are painting a Doom (a picture of the descent of dead souls into Hell).  He is befriended by the artists, but the locals are hostile to him.  And when a series of gruesome murders occurs, linked to the plague.

These fast-paced stories blend adventure, mystery, friendship and romance.  There is just enough detail about medieval life and beliefs to bring the period to life without overwhelming the narrative.  And, since Joslin is a minstrel, there are tantalising snatches of the songs he sings.  I found myself wishing the series came with a CD.                                                                                                                 Ann Turnbull (An Awfully Big Blog Adventure)

Of Dooms and Death

A  fine and unique take on crime fiction    

When I first read this book, I was amazed to see it belonged in the child’s fiction catagory. Although the writing style is simple enough for children, some of the nuances of the story may be beyond them, and it is this that helps older readers enjoy it also.
Starting in a French castle, the story leaps almost immediately into the plot of this, and the coming series of books. Our hero, Joslin de Lay, finds himself on an epic quest, but finds many problems on the way, the first of which he encounters after landing himself in the south east of England.

The many characters that Joslin meets are some of the books finer points.   Each one, with their little idiosyncrasies, play an important part in this, and the following books, and even small parts may turn out to be of great importance.  I really enjoyed this book, especially during some of the later, heart pounding scenes. If any book can make you confused and frightened at one time, this is it.

Any fans of crime or horror fiction will love this book, and the following books in this series of six.                                                                                                                                         Amazon 5-star review  “oracle225”

A rattling good yarn.

Set in England of the 1300’s, if you can imagine a kind of junior Cadfael – but featuring a minstrel rather than a monk – you won’t be far wrong. It starts off a little slowly, but hang in there, as once Joslin actually sets foot in England the pace picks up nicely and continues at a good clip. There are a few unexpected plot twists at the end, but I won’t spoil it for you – read it and discover them for yourself. Be warned that there are a few gruesome moments too, although nothing is unduly dwelt on: this is the equivalent of a family film – a book which the whole family can pass around to read and enjoy. I’m now looking forward to reading the next in the series!

Amazon 5-star review By nogginthenog

I don’t suppose I’m the only lover of historical fiction and murder mysteries to feel excited when I discover a new series. I loved Cadfael and Dorothy Dunnet and CJ Sansom’s Tudor mysteries (except when they got too long). The Joslin de Lay series may have been written with children in mind but the complex plot, sense of menace and overarching mystery will work for readers of any age. I’m looking forward to all five volumes.                                          Julia Jones (author of Strong Winds Trilogy and reviewer for IEBR)

The Joslin de Lay novels by Dennis Hamley are a real treat and I can’t get enough of them. Set in the 1360s, they invoke a tense, disease-ridden and shaky society which the author re-creates in loving and glancing detail as the protagonist faces his problems head-on. And Joslin’s problems are not minor ones. Always moving westward, from France through England, heading for answers he must find in Wales, he encounters treachery, murder, ill-spirited people seemingly out to stop him finding out the truths and answers he desperately needs to understand his life. But, more than that, Joslin comes face to face with evil, and this novel, like the others in this marvellous series, broadens out until we have both a classic quest tale, with all odds stacked against success, and a wide battle, which draws us inexorably into it, between good and evil. Joslin becomes, quietly but persuasively, our everyman, trying to save us from forces of the devil himself. This is an astonishing series, worthy of being put up with the Cadfael books.  The books are exciting, provocative, beautifully written and the product of an author whose many other books demonstrate a keen intelligence and, above all, a deep capacity for emotion. Kids will love the cliff-hanging adventure. Adults will respond to the way the protagonist becomes the hope of the world and someone who must stand firm in order to protect civilisation from the chaos of evil. VERY strongly recommended indeed.                                                                                                                                Christopher Wiseman (poet, professor emeritus Calgary University, recipient of Order of Canada for services to poetry and creative writing education)

The way that children’s attitudes to learning history have changed is a constant delight and amazement to me. I sat in a pub in Cumbria a couple of months ago and listened to an eleven-year-old called Henry dispute some World War II ‘facts’ a friend was airing – and then put him right. It was an amazing moment. The speaker is a history fanatic, and not often wrong. But Henry – politely and calmly – suggested he might have misread, misremembered or (horror of horrors) misinterpreted

It was a weird moment, made weirder by the fact that Henry was absolutely correct, which the ‘expert’ munificently conceded (with delight, I must add). He wanted to know where Henry got his knowledge from, and was told ‘the horrible histories’ which he, being childless, had never heard of. ‘So do you like history?’ he asked. ‘Love it,’ Henry replied. ‘It’s so much more exciting than what goes on round here!’

When I was a boy, I hated history. It was indeed so boring, and I still can’t see much value in knowing the names of all the kings and queens who croaked hundreds of years ago. But Henry knew, in detail, the ins and out of plots to assassinate Hitler, and why, and when, and how. And loved it. He loved the nuts and bolts, the feeling that real people were involved. Which leads me on to Dennis Hamley’s Of Dooms and Death, the first part of ‘The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay.’

This book, these books, achieve the knack of ‘getting into’ history, and making you see, and feel, it through the lives and personalities of the protagonists. Joslin is the Gascon son of a Gascon troubadour, who has to flee to Britain after his father is mysteriously targeted by assassins. Dying, he leaves Joslin very little – his harp, his troubadour’s tunic, a locked metal box, and some money. A canny English mariner relieves him of the cash, but does take him to the east coast – not Wales, where Joslin has been told he has to go to find his mother and the answer to some knotty mysteries.

It is at a time of great political upheaval – the peasants are revolting, for want of a better rule of thumb – and it is not long after a major outbreak of the Black Death.  Joslin, in fact, spends his first night in England in the ruins of a church. When he digs into the soft earth to hide his harp and his tiny residue of coin, he finds a rotting skull. He is in a burial pit. What’s more he’s being watched, and before very long he realises he is being hunted to the death.

The plot moves like wildfire, and Joslin’s troubles multiply at breathless speed. He meets a youth called Robin, a lovely girl called Alys (Joslin is quite susceptible to lovely girls), and at least one mysterious clergyman. There are lords and their hangers on as well, who have a habit of getting themselves serially murdered in the night. Poor Joslin, inevitably, is suspect number one. He is French, he is not a peasant…and he has absolutely no reason to be where he is. Rhyme, yes – he’s a troubadour. But not a reason in the world that the English can accept.

While the language avoids Middle Age mummery like the plague (forgive me), the whole thing has a wonderful authenticity of feel. Boys and girls get almost equal weight, and some of the dangers they must face are honestly exciting. My friend Henry up in Cumbria is going to get a copy, believe me. I’d be astonished if he didn’t lap it up. It’s history, with plague pustules and buckets of blood thrown in, and it’s not just the baddies who get most horribly hanged. There are five more in the series to come. I want them now!                                      Jan Needle (Indie E-books Review)

A Pact With Death

I enjoyed the first volume of the Joslin de Lay series and this one even more. It gave me a real sense of the claustrophobic confusion of the mediaeval city of London in the years immediately following the Black Death. Hundreds of years later I think that Dickens would have recognised the lightermen fishing yet another body from the Thames and checking it for valuables before deciding how to deal with it with minimal bureaucratic fuss. Likewise the various officials – the casual, the prejudiced, the opinionated and the decent – were authentically portrayed and nicely differentiated from one another. What really made the story grip was the genuine bafflement of the plot, the macabre details and the unremitting pace.  Highly recommended – especially for lovers of the Cadfael mysteries or CJ Sansom’s Tudor series,                                                                                                                                        Julia Jones (author of Strong Winds Trilogy and reviewer for IEBR)

Fourteenth century London. The “city” is small and squalid, overcrowded and busy, surrounded by walls built in Roman times. Outside are the villages of Hackney and Tottenham. Waste runs in the streets, murder is commonplace and into this place arrive French minstrel Joslin de Lay and his close friend Alys, both grieving after the death of Alys’ beloved Robin. Joslin is escorting Alys to the home of her guardian – master painter Randolf Waygoode – before he travels on to Wales. But no sooner do they arrive at Randolf’s house, when Joslin is threatened several times. When one of Randolf’s apprentices goes missing, somehow it’s Joslin that is under suspicion and he sets out to find out what has happened. His search for the truth gives us a glimpse of life in medieval London. From the gravedigger to the local coroner, each has a part to play in the story.

But there is another thread in this tale, one that I suspect weaves through the entire series. Who – or rather what – is stalking Joslin? There are hints of strange encounters, pacts made with the Devil and promises of immortality. I admit to being concerned about reading book 2 of a 6-book series, without having read the first one. And I suspect that reading the books in sequence might make the wider series arc of the story more understandable, but book 2 is perfectly readable in its own right and I didn’t feel disadvantaged by not knowing what had gone before. There’s enough information fed into this story for it to make sense in its own right and be a complete stand-alone tale.

What I loved about this book was the richness of detail. The names of the streets, the journeys within the city and outside of it, the descriptions of the river and the depth of the lives of London’s inhabitants. The research is meticulous and brings the story alive. I felt like I was there in the city, with the sights, sounds and smells of a fourteenth century London, still in the grip of the plague. But this isn’t a story about the disease that wiped out so many people in medieval Britain and the plague is simply a part of everyday life.

This is a historical mystery for children/young adults. But the history is subtle, woven in so deep it’s not history at all – just reality. There’s a fantasy element for those who like that kind of thing, but not enough to spoil the story for those who don’t. Lots of  action and adventure story. A great read for children or adults.                                                                                                      Debbie Bennett  (Indie E-books Review)

A riveting read.                                                                                                                                      The Observer


Hell’s Kitchen

Great, one of the best books yet

This one is the third in the series and probably the best one yet. Joslin has reached Oxford and has to sing at the college.  Here he learns secrets he should not know.  Along the way he meets new people and makes friends and enemies.  The book contains a few surprising twists and you will not be able to put it down, I couldn’t!

Amazon 5-star review by A Customer

This time the hapless Joslin is in Oxford. Still being stalked. Still attracting the ladies, and the unwelcome attentions of a murderous cast of characters while making his sweet music. The whole novel is filled with darkly clad strangers and the pace is still breakneck.  The descriptions of 14th Century Oxford are amusing and thought provoking but somehow one never feels them as less than accurate. The language is modern and the fine balancing of history and a modern feel is maintained.

What increasingly amused me was how the Fellows (who should be striving for knowledge and truth) are intent on hiding unpalatable realities (usually murder) or inconvenient truths (anatomy) which calls their very purpose into question.  How little changes?  That’s one thing I really enjoyed, making the leap of faith from present reality to fictional history, and seeing how closely the two melded.  I laughed as I read ‘I should never have credited Fellows of Oxford Colleges with open minds.’ And there was many another chuckle in the course of my reading.

Hamley is an expert at giving us observations on so many things that today we find ordinary (transplants for example) and yet keeping the modernity of his characters and their fictional world to the fore. We do not see them as benighted people further down the scale of progressive history, but flawed people, just like those we might find today. Despite his comments at the end that most of the Oxford he described is no longer as it was, I felt I knew each street and district of Joslin’s Oxford as well as I know the present day town. (Obviously Joslin didn’t have the benefit of Blackwell’s to rest in which I do when I go there. But then I’m not usually careless enough to have my horse stolen either.)

I don’t read a lot of this sort of fiction and dare I say it, the concept of ‘Horrible Histories’ quite appals me (not that I’ve read any) and I admit to being  completely flummoxed by the twists and turns of the complex plot, battered this way and that and continually wondering just ‘who dunnit?’  But I was never overwhelmed. Just led by the nose through a range of possibilities and of course the perpetrator was the last person I expected. It’ll give any young (or old) person with an interest in this kind of thing a run for their money. I’ll certainly go back (and forward) to experience the rest of the series.                                                       Cally Phillips (Indie E-books Review)

 A Devil’s Judgement

Dennis Hamley’s impressive new novel.                                                                                        Historical Novels Review

A Lot Of FunThese books are really enjoyable, they take you back to medieval England and throw in a mystery to boot. I can’t wait to see how the series finishes. Amazon 5-star review By A Customer 

Angel’s Snare

No reviews as yet available but YOUR review could be posted on IEBR  if you enter our Joslin de Lay review competition.

 

The False Father

A gripping end to a gripping series

In the final book of the Joslin de Lay mystery series, we discover the real truth behind Joslin’s history, his father’s secret locket, and that odd man with the sallow, pock marked face who has been following our crime-solving minstrel.

Although in places the story may be a little slower and less heart racing than the other books, the plot contains many interesting twists, including the reappearance of one of Joslin’s old flames!  But the main reason why you would want to buy this book is to find the answers to all the questions that we’ve thought up since reading the first book.

Dennis Hamley’s writing appeals to all ages, and this book is a fitting end to an impressive series of crime thrillers. Plus we finally get to see Joslin on the book’s cover.  Amazon 4-star review By  “oracle225”

 (Sorry Oracle.  You won’t see him on the Kindle cover.  It doesn’t matter: Anastasia’s cover is much, much better than the old one so Joslin must live in your imagination only.  DH))

Dennis Hamley appears at the Edinburgh ebook festival on August 22nd in Writers’ Pieces at 12.30pm

Visit his Festival Page and his Amazon Author Page to download all the Joslins and more

K.D.Lathar also appears at the ebook festival in Beyond Fiction  Aug 11and his novel The Changeling is reviewed on IEBR

here is also a special Festival Review competition. Details of this will be in the Extras @ 8 section on August 21st

Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick

Some titles just jump out and hit you between the eyes. Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick is one of them. It’s so evocative, apart from anything else. Took me straight back to evenings playing Cluedo with the kids, and all the joys of that most random of games. Random for us especially because of the wide age range and abilities of the children. No names, no packdrill, but some of us were better than some others, and some didn’t get the hang of it at all.

So a game of Cluedo could be puzzling, exciting and funny in almost equal measure. With the bonus that it made you actually want to be a murderer, or maybe a detective (unlike the mega-boring Monopoly, which successfully put me off getting rich for life).

Whether this is where Dennis Hamley got his first idea from I have no idea, but the title story in this volume is steeped in all those fears and feelings. It tells the story of a group of school kids sent up to Cumbria on a geography field trip, to stay in a big old, cold old, spooky old house.

As the narrator, Laura Lomas, puts it, ‘lots of people love the Lake District. I don’t. I hate it: it’s a lot of wet and a lot of steep – things to fall in, and things to fall off. And, come to think of it, I hate geography too.’

Still, there’s always Cluedo. Except that every game they play (and that is many) ends up the same. Colonel Mustard, in the Library, etc… And to make it that much worse, the hated geography master running the field trip is called Mr Mustoe, who almost certainly got his training at Prison Warders’ School or the Army Corps of Screaming. Very quickly, Laura is, quite frankly, ‘ready to kill.

And also very quickly, Mr Mustoe dies. Face downward with his skull smashed in. In the library, with a candlestick. At least the police teams bring the kids some outside excitement, and there are clues and theories galore. Laura is a very unreliable witness indeed, and the whole thing flips from mystery to comedy to ghost story very satisfactorily. It’s nicely gruesome, too.

There are three more stories in the collection, ranging from fantasy to a very silly comedy about a referee (the worst in the world, probably) who sells his soul to the devil in return for some skills. He doesn’t ask for much, for Norbert Nosworthy is as modest as he is incompetent. And the deal is a good one, certainly. For twenty one years he is the best, the very, very, very best. He would, he tells the devil (whom he thinks is just a friendly fellow he has met) like to go on refereeing for ever. For ever. Oh dear, Norbert – do be careful what you wish for… Football’s not my normal bag, but I actually laughed out loud at this.

More straightforwardly ghostly is Hospital Trust, which is almost a cautionary tale. Morley Cartwright’s mother, by some unfortunate circumstance, can’t see her normal doctor, and gets a locum called Dr Grout – ‘incredibly tall, unnaturally thin, black-suited like a badly-dressed spider,’ who manages to very nearly kill her. Told by the authorities there is little they can do about it, they determinedly cause such a fuss that Dr Grout is struck off. They, and everybody else, are assured that he will never, ever practise again.

Five years later it is Morley himself who needs urgent treatment. On a foggy, foul, winter day he goes back to the surgery, registers – then takes his turn. He turns the handle and walks into the consulting room. To meet a man behind the desk ‘black-suited, yellow-toothed, bending over like a broken arch in a ruined castle.’ Dr Grout. From there, Morley’s fortunes go downhill…a very, very long way downhill.

The other story is a fantasy involving creatures etcetera from another world, which I’ve never been able to get along with much. Am I the only person in creation who thinks The Lord of the Rings is total tripe? Probably. So don’t take my uninterest in The Other Task as a worthwhile take on it – I just didn’t warm to it.

But three out of four is good enough for me. It’s a lovely little volume for children, and for me as well. And I’m a bit grown up. What’s more it only costs a quid.

Reviewed by Jan Needle

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Dennis Hamley

 

Banshee in the Well by Robin Lovejoy

With my kid’s head on I loved Banshee in the Well. The idea was great.  Niall finds a banshee, Sathra, down a wishing-well and rescues her. She turns out to be a trickier character than he first realizes.  A great character as well from a kid’s point of view, sparky, spiky and full of life – which she’s trying to hang onto at all costs. Any child would identify with Sathra and with the dilemma she faces, which I won’t tell you about because it would spoil your fun.

And therein lies my ‘but’.  From the blurb onwards – which acts as its own spoiler – I knew too much. And I knew too much because I was told too much and most definitely too soon.  What could have surprised me was frequently spelled out. Where I could have had the pleasure of discovering things, I was told them instead.

So, when Sathra’s been rescued, for example, before I’d had time to decide whether or not to trust her, I’d been told the legend of the devil child. And later, when I could have been still wondering who Sathra was, I knew about the Banshee Sisterhood. The information had to come out some time, but did it have to happen so soon?  I’d have liked some suspense here, but Robin Lovejoy is an impatient author with a lot to tell – and she can’t wait to tell it.

Having said all that, Lovejoy’s first chapter is exciting and dramatic, her portrayal of the 21st century through a stranger’s eyes is insightful, and there’s a real skill in the way she presents that stranger – even with her dastardly intentions – in an attractive light.  With speech that’s weird to modern ears, and her equally weird markings, Sathra’s a fascinating mixture of mythical and punk.

‘What’s the matter?’ said Stewie. ‘Don’t you like girls?’

‘Well… I guess I do,’ said Niall. ‘Except the stripy ones.’

‘Stripy girls?’ said Stewie with a grin. ‘Get a lot of those in Cumbria, do you?’

‘No, just the one,’ said Niall. ‘And I don’t need to worry about her any more.  She’s history.’

I don’t think so.  I feel a sequel on the way. Robin Lovejoy is a good young writer despite my little gripe.  I enjoyed her book, I’m sure that many children will love it and I wish it well [excuse the pun].

Reviewed by Pauline Fisk

Available in Kindle format

To find out more about  Robin Lovejoy