Category Archives: fiction

Friday Five – unusual historicals

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There’s a tendency sometimes for historical novels to be set in very similar time periods – Henry VIII, the English Civil War, Victorian Britain.  So it’s a breath of fresh air to discover books set in some much more unusual times and places that you might not otherwise have come across.  Here’s a handful I’ve read over the years.

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Beautiful, lyrical and incredibly authentic story set in medieval Japan, with all the elements of Japanese literature including romance, destruction and tragedy. I believe it’s actually a YA title, but really doesn’t read like it and tackles some amazingly adult themes.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

This is actually set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, but stands out for two reasons.  One is the sheer sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds of the time, which gives it a strong sense of authenticity. The other is that the main character is a gay man.  The romance is affecting, the characters strongly drawn, and I found it hard to put down.

Death of a Monk by Alon Hilu

A simply extraordinary book written by an Israeli author and translated into English in a volume I found in a second hand book store in London. The story involves another gay man struggling to cope with marriage, relationships and life in 1840s Damascus, when the city was subdivided into a number of racially divided but surprisingly well integrated quarters. A unique and mesmerising book.

People’s Act of Love by James Meek

A searing romance-cum-historical-cum mystery set against the wilderness backdrop of early twentieth century Siberia during the early years of the Revolution. At times brutal, but also imbued with a mischievous sense of humour – and the final revelation is almost literally to die for!

The Sleeper in the Sands by Tom Holland

A sort of ‘thousand and one nights’ for ancient Egypt, with a storyline that moves from Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb to a series of ancient myths and legends that form a story within a story within a story. Slightly confusing at times and I’d have like more about Carter, but it was gripping and unusual.

 

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Friday Five – garden mysteries

P1020888I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery and I love gardens and gardening, so it stands to reason I would seek out books with a bit of both.  I’ve read a few over the years; here’s a selection of some of them:

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Still one of my favourite books and a big influence on my writing even now. I love the descriptions of the garden of the past, and the happiness Tom finds there, and the reveal still has the power to send shivers up my spine. I also love the way she manages to write a children’s novel without ever talking down – the language and themes are remarkably grown up.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

A fascinating exploration of a Renaissance garden in Tuscany, and the macabre hidden message it sends out via statues, grottoes and classical inscriptions.  I found it hard to put down.  It’s billed as a murder mystery, but really has more in common with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, except that it’s less hysterical and much, much better written.

The Serpent in the Garden by Janet Gleeson

Overall this was a little too cosy for my tastes, but I enjoyed the descriptions of the 18th century garden, the hot house and the mystic art of growing pineapples!  There’s also a nod to the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.  A shame that the plot, involving a stolen emerald necklace, didn’t entirely hold up to scrutiny.

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

Another favourite, with a wonderful sense of otherworldliness and a plot that involves telepathy, white witchcraft and herbalism.  In places it’s desperately sad, but the ‘fairy godmother’ saves the day.  A beautiful and absorbing read.

The Sea Garden by Sam Llewellyn

A recent find, set in a fascinating 18th century garden by the sea (on an island off the Cornish coast, no less), where the new owner finds a human skull in a flower bed and sets off to discover who it once belonged to.  Again, this is less murder mystery and more a sprawling family saga involving all sorts of skeletons in all sorts of closets, and I really enjoyed it.

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Noises Off

chairThis is the title of my latest short story, a spooky little tale told in exactly 75 words, which is appearing at Paragraph Planet today.

Telling a whole story in so few words isn’t easy – I often find that even when I think I’ve achieved the target I’m actually two words short, or three over.  After much fiddling, pen-sucking and head-scratching (not to mention swearing and banging of head against the nearest wall), I managed to convince this story that it really, really wanted to be told in those 75 words, and ‘Noises Off’ is the result.

It’s available to read free at Paragraph Planet today so head on over and check it out. And don’t forget the magazine is always open to submissions if you want to have a go at your own tiny tale.

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The Sea Garden

seagardenI’ve just finished reading Sam Llewellyn’s mystery-in-a-garden The Sea Garden, and loved it.

As I say in my Goodreads review, I’m a complete sucker for any kind of mystery involving gardens (Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Savage Garden, Thornyhold), and this was no exception.

The present-day heroine Victoria uncovers a skull in the ancient, rambling and mysterious garden she and her husband have just inherited on an island off the Cornish coast.  When the skull vanishes again before she’s had a chance to examine it properly, she sets off on an investigation of who it could have belonged to and why it was buried there.  And uncovers a whole furniture-store of closets full of family skeletons and secrets in the process.

The writing was every bit as good as Mary Stewart at her best and the unexpected humour reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett.  Since those are two of my favourite authors it’s hardly surprising I liked this.

The ending was perhaps a little too melodramatic for my liking, but it fitted well with the ‘gothic’ feel of the book, and with the historical elements, and it tied everything up very neatly.

I’m hoping Mr Llewellyn will write more books in a similar vein, that I can look out for and devour.

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Fearful Symmetry

tigerExcellent news today – I’ve had my first short story in ages published over at the Library of Rejected Beauty.

The Library does what it says in that wonderful title – collects stories and other assorted creative content that have been rejected elsewhere, often multiple times, but which the creator still considers to have some worth or beauty.

In my case that was ‘Fearful Symmetry’, a short story I wrote for a contest years ago, and have had no luck placing anywhere, perhaps because it’s told in second person point of view which can be unpopular.  Basically, it tells the story of a dark and dangerous forest during a thunderstorm, but with a unique twist at the end.  And the quote about tigers is something my own Mum used to say to me when I was a small child, which gives it a personal touch as well.

I’ve always loved the hot, steamy and vaguely threatening atmosphere I managed to conjure up in the story, and I’m delighted to say that the Library of Rejected Beauty liked it too.  You can read it over at their website, free, today by following this link.  I hope you enjoy it.  At the very least, you may never feel the same way about curtains again!

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It could never happen…

Could it?  After all, police officers are there to uphold the law, not bend it to their own devices or desires.  However, the more often I read about cases like this, where an undercover officer had a relationship with a woman, whilst operating undercover using an assumed identity, the more I realise that that ain’t necessarily so.

100NecessitysDoorAnd this is exactly the sort of background I was thinking of when I wrote Necessity’s Door, just over three years ago now.  Back then, details about cases like this were only just beginning to creep out of the woodwork, but they were there if you knew where to look.  I didn’t reproduce them exactly (my hero is gay, where this case involves a heterosexual relationship) but they provided suitable inspiration for all sorts of ‘what if’ scenarios involving undercover police and just how far they would/should go to maintain their cover.

Including, it seems, lying to the people they were sleeping with about the fact that they were police.

It all goes to show that however outlandish a writer’s plots, real life almost always manages to be another shade darker, and to surprise us in all sorts of ways.

If you’d like to read Necessity’s Door for yourselves and see where I took the inspiration and ran off with it to, then it’s still available as an e-book on Amazon US or UK.  Happy reading, and don’t forget – however unlikely it sounds, the book is based on fact!

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New from Fox Spirit

I’ve been remiss lately in reporting on new books from various friends, colleagues, writers and publishers.  Top of the list are two new releases from Fox Spirit – African Monsters, and Things in the Dark.

The latter is the latest in the Fox Pockets series – a wonderful 51boyxxrd7l-_sx307_bo1204203200_collection of small, beautifully produced volumes containing some excellent stories.  You may remember my own Boyfriend From Hell turning up in the Fox Pockets Shapeshifters anthology.  Things in the Dark looks set to continue the trend with “a collection of strange, scary and sometimes humorous tales considering all manner of … things in the dark” – eighteen stories involving the weird and wonderful.  You can find it on Amazon and if it’s anything like as good as Shapeshifters was, it’ll be well worth the effort.

 

51kpemsmi2l-_sx491_bo1204203200_African Monsters is “a fantastic anthology featuring many African writers at the forefront of the new wave of Speculative Fiction tapping directly into the deep and rich mythology of African cultures…” according to Ivor W Hartmann, the editor of another of Fox Spirit’s Monsters series.  This collection also features a heap of stories from authors including Margret Helgadottir and Joan de la Haye.  And the cover is simply gorgeous.  Get a copy here and see for yourself.

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