Reading 2017: The Importance of Covers (Book Blogger Group Chat)

I am so pleased to present this joint interview blog, Readers Voice: The Importance of Covers, which appeared early this year on Discovering Diamonds, author Helen Hollick’s brilliant blog highlighting the best of historical fiction in the form of reviews and other features. I was so pleased to join with three other bloggers as we chatted with Anna Belfrage, author of the wonderful Graham Saga series, to talk about covers and why they matter to readers. I’ve included the responses from Jo, David and Jenny, and highly encourage you to check out their blogs as well as books they’ve dipped into or treasured.

In some instances my own answers vary slightly from what appears at the original blog (linked above); owing to considerations of space, some snipping had been required for Anna’s posting. Feel free to spin through other entries too, both here and at Discovering Diamonds, as well as by Jenny, David and Jo – and as always, have fun!

Author Anna Belfrage has brought together four book-bloggers for a discussion about covers. 

Are covers important? Yes or no? 

Anna: I’d say they are – but let us not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, I’d like my guests to introduce themselves. Jo, why don’t you go first?

It’s difficult to overstate my love for this novel and its cover

Jo: Hello everyone, I’m Jo, a prolific reader and also an active book blogger at Jaffareadstoo – a blog I share with my ginger tom, Jaffa. I live in Lancashire in northwest England, and I am happily retired after a thirty year nursing career. To fill the void after I finished work I started blogging and chatting about books to anyone who would listen. I’ve also reviewed books for magazines and online websites. My passion is historical fiction and whilst I prefer medieval history, I do also love a good time slip novel that keeps one foot firmly in the present whilst visiting the past.

The one book that has made the most impression was Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It’s the only book EVER that, as I finished the last sentence in the book, I turned immediately to the beginning and read all 863 pages again.
 
David: Hi, I’m David from David’s Book Blurg. I live up north near Newcastle in the UK with my wife and twin girls. I’m a lover of history but favourite period so far would have to be 1066. I particularly enjoyed 1066: What Fates Impose by Glynn Holloway.
 

Jenny: I’m Jennifer Quinlan, but everybody calls me Jenny Q! I am a native of Virginia—a ninth-generation Virginian, actually. My family has lived in the same county since the 1680s! I studied history and English at Virginia Tech, and I am the owner of Historical Editorial. I provide copyediting and developmental editing services, and I design book covers. I also have a book review blog, my first love, Let Them Read Books.

I will read a novel from any historical period if the subject catches my fancy, though I am partial to British, French, and American history. I can’t possibly name a favorite read, but some of the timeless books on my historical fiction shelf of honor are Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy and The Sunne in Splendour, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, and Forever Amber. (AB: Ah, yes: Forever Amber – one of my first hist fit loves.) 

Lisl: Ehem. (clears throat) Well. I’m Lisl and come from the Great Land, known to most people Outside as Alaska. (“Outside” simply means any place not Alaska.) I keep a blog called Before the Second Sleep, in which I write book reviews and other tidbits that strike my fancy. Back in September I had a series called “Month of Mary Stewart” to celebrate 100 years since the birth of this wonderful author. My mother recommended Stewart’s The Crystal Cave to me and solidified the affection I already had for Merlin. Other than this author’s Merlin Trilogy, I love to read time travel, historical fiction—mostly in Arthurian, 1066, Wars of the Roses and American history—and a few other genres.

AB: Wow, what a lovely and varied group of people you are! And, dear readers, I recommend you pop over to the various sites – these are four very different reviewers with a common passion for good books!

Now, before we get started, what can I offer you to drink? Coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate with whipped cream?

Jo: Hot chocolate with whipped cream wins every time!

David: Earl Grey for me.  (A man of good taste.)

Jenny: Coffee please, and lots of it! Two creams, one sugar.

Lisl: Anna Belfrage, are you offering me chocolate? 😉 (AB: What can I say, Lisl? I live in hope ….) I would love a cup of tea, thank you!

AB: Right, with the practicalities sorted let me start by asking you how important you think the cover is. Will it sell the book to you? Or is it more a case of some covers putting you off even looking inside?

I can absolutely see why this image grabbed Jenny’s attention

Jo: A well-designed cover suggests that time and care has gone into the story. The cover sells the book to me and I have bought books just on the basis of the cover; equally I have been turned off by poorly designed covers, or covers which bear no resemblance to the story. I have given up on a book if I have found the cover unappealing.

David: When buying a book the cover is the most important thing to me. I need a cover that catches my eye otherwise I might not even look at the back of the book to see what the story is about. I wish I could take the time to browse more but there’s so much choice out there that an author needs to stand out and the cover is the first thing you see.
 
Jenny: It’s both for me. I am drawn to gorgeous book covers like a kid in a candy store, so it’s more likely that a cover is going to draw me to the book rather than put me off. I tend to just skip right by books with unattractive covers. I would like to say that the importance of your cover is second only to the quality of your content, but there are many books with subpar content and outstanding covers that are selling a lot of books, so if your goal is to be a bestseller, then your cover is probably the most important part of your package.
 

Lisl: Oh, in some instances a cover can indeed be the pull to the whole story. It has happened not a few times that I see a cover image or design from afar and from that alone must check to see what’s inside.

AB: Consensus seems to be covers DO matter. Do you have any favourite covers?   

Lisl: First I want to toss in here that I love old editions’ book covers, both size and pictures. Some are quite alluring and bring me in, while others are dated, though often still captivating! Two in particular that stand out for me are from Stewart’s above mentioned Merlin Trilogy. The first shows Merlin in his early years, which perhaps caught my attention at the time because he was a child, like me. I had been somewhat accustomed to hearing mostly about adults in my mother’s stories. On the second book in the series was a depiction of Arthur, whose attractiveness, strength and boldness—all seen in this image—appealed to me. The two covers possessed a sort of mystical feel with the night sky, troops on the move, discovery and magical growth, all set within an ancient time, one that I felt I was being beckoned to join. They both stand in stark contrast to that of The Crystal Cave’s first UK cover, which shows a bunch of crystal clumped together. A geologist might appreciate it, but I think even students of literature would find it a staid and simplistic choice, also lacking in the human touch.

David: Oh yes, Nursing Fox by Jim Ditchfield and Legionary by Gordon Doherty! Both very different but pleasing and eye catching.
 
Jenny: I couldn’t name a favorite cover, but here are four historical novels that had not been on my radar that I recently bought or checked out from the library for no other reason than that I found the cover irresistible.
 

Jo: My favourite cover is Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. I bought the book purely for the cover and had no clue what the book was about and hadn’t heard of the, then, debut author. I just knew that I had to have a hardback copy of it to keep. 

One of David’s favorites 
AB: What must a cover have for it to grab your attention?
 
Jenny: I’m very drawn to women (and men) in period clothing. A gorgeous dress with a dreamy background gets me every time. I’m also drawn to evocative setting images combined with an attention-grabbing title/font combination.

Jo: Good graphics, nothing too fuzzy. Easy to read font that stands out. A design that ‘grabs’ my attention. I like simple designs using negative space rather than filling the whole of the cover with too much information. For me less is more. I want to feel an emotional connection to the story and to pick up on the mood of the book from the picture on the cover.

Lisl: Well, it needn’t have people, as my last comment may have implied—but the design should inspire some sort of sensation, even if it is simple admiration for the colors, bends, direction, etc. Ideally it would give me some sort of hint regarding the where and what for, but apart from that should at least have some element that reaches out to make a connection, even if it is a time period, for example, I don’t often read, or design that implants some curiosity into the moment.

David: For me the cover has to set the tone of the book. With Legionary by Gordon Doherty you can tell straightaway the period and that you’ll see a lot of battles being fought. Nursing Fox, however, has a much more contemplative cover, again setting the period but also has a human touch to it which fits perfectly with the tale. It’s clear we might see some war but you know mainly it’s going to be through the eyes of the nurse.
 
AB: What will immediately put you off a cover?
 
David: I hate to say it but cover with pictures of real people on them. I’m all for portraits depicting individuals; I’m just not a big fan of photos of real people being used. I like an artist’s touch rather than the Photoshop look.
 
Jo: A title in a font that is difficult to read. Garish colours. If the cover is too vague and confusing so that I can’t decipher what the book is about. If the cover looks ‘cheap’ or poorly presented.
 

Jenny: Too many elements crammed in. Text that’s hard to read. Black-and-white or sepia photos with a simple title slapped on them.

Lisl: Generally speaking, solid colors and no drawing or design. There is a very popular series whose covers are a variety of different solids. If I ever saw these books in the shops before I heard of them, I never noticed and likely wouldn’t have investigated what they are about. It was only word of mouth that brought me to them. It isn’t that I loathe this sort of cover, just that there’s a nothingness to them that produces usually the very same in terms of response … nothing.


AB: Now, one perennial cover is the “headless woman in a period gown” cover. What are your thoughts about it? 

Jenny: Works for me! So often when a woman’s face is on the cover, it doesn’t match my vision of the character in my head. Her manner of dress and her body language is much more alluring for me.

I totally agree with Jo – a stunning draw into the story!

Lisl: To be honest, I really enjoy taking in the different gowns—colors, styles, era designs and so on. Bodies without heads, though, well, it’s a bit weird, to be honest. That said, they do create a bit of curiosity re: what the rest of the woman might have looked like: does she seem confident in her carriage? (This you can see in the eyes.) Does she give off a strong vibe or one that shows she can be bent to another’s will?—and all kinds of questions, really. The lack of answers to these in terms of an illustration or image to give some clues matches the historical reality that, with some exception, women’s lives simply were not recorded to the extent men’s were. The humanity we often want to see is missing in the records, but it also extends the mystery of distance in time, lending it to the story.

Audiences tend to want to see into characters’ souls, and you can’t do that with a headless body, but there are other ways to captures reader attention, and one great cover image I thought was Anne Easter Smith’s Queen by Right, which depicts Cecily Neville with gloved left hand holding a goshawk and in the other, a basket of white roses. While I don’t know all that much about falconry, the image piqued my attention and bestowed upon Cecily greater individuality, strength in particular. The roses go along with the theme, of course, all adding significantly more meaning to the cover than many others, whose great dresses, unfortunately, don’t take us beyond beautiful fashion.

Jo: I’ve grown to accept this as it seems that a lot of historical fiction features the “headless woman” or a woman in period costume gazing wistfully into the distance. It’s immediately recognisable as a historical ‘brand’ and as such, survives and to be honest, I’ve become accustomed to it now.
 
David: I like it I’m honest. It sets the tone and lets the reader know the type of book it will be before reading, a female lead, some romance, delicate period drama perhaps. I like to know what I’m getting and this type of cover wouldn’t put me off.
 
Another of these perennial favourites is the “bare-chested, wild-haired man in a kilt” covers. Thoughts? 
 

David: Not for me really… I’m not a fan of bare chested men 😊  I’m aware that books appeal to different readers so these covers do have their place but just not on my book shelf.

Jenny: I do love a man in a kilt, but I am not such a fan of the bare-chested cover. It really doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not reading the book for the man’s abs. But I’ll take a man in breeches, vest, and coat any day!

Jo: If the book is about a “bare-chested, wild-haired man in a kilt” … then yes, why not. I’m sure this type of cover sells this particular genre and if it’s what readers enjoy then that’s ok with me.

Lisl:
I tend not to take them seriously, really.

AB: Which historical fiction covers do you think work particularly well? Why?

Jo: All three covers are different and yet they all appeal to me both for their simplicity and attention to detail: The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick, The First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson, The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne.

David: Oo, apart from the two previously mentioned I think others which get it spot on would have to be Wolf’s Head by Steven A. McKay, The Bowes Inheritance by Pam Lecky and I’m by no means biased when I say In the Shadow of the Storm by Anna Belfrage (AB: Thrilled! But I can’t very well include a pic of my own cover). I think each of these set the scene for the story nicely and speak to me as a reader before picking the book up.
 

Jenny: For me, historical fiction covers absolutely need to impart the essence of a time gone by, and the good news is there are many ways to do this using a combination of character representation, settings or objects, or even a historical-looking font. (AB: As Jenny designs covers, she preferred not to name specific covers.)

Lisl: Apart from the Stewart covers already mentioned, there are a few that come to mind straight away. I loved Annie Whitehead’s cover for To Be A Queen so much I wrote a cover crush entry about it.  A mood of longing and loss is woven into the image, and even the title speaks of the distance—in time or space—between ourselves (or the characters) and what has been lost, or can never be.

I always thought the first edition for Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf was as beautiful as its successor turned out to be. A ghostly rider moves amongst swirling colors that race past him, obscuring a completely clear view, as if we are given glimpses through an indistinct tapestry, the hues of which bend and blur events. The wolf referenced in the title, and who represents the warrior’s forebears, is seen above. I especially loved a particular effect of the image: one may have to take it in more than once to fully realize what it depicts, as it is not portrayed starkly, but rather as if one is seeing it—and events—through time.

I’m also a total sucker for medieval art, and I love it on book covers. Martha Kennedy uses one to grace her novel Savior, and the effect is one of growing with the cover from the first phase, before reading the book, but still admiring the image. Taken from a medieval illuminated manuscript, this one depicts knights on their coursers in the heat of war. Brought to bear on the passages set at the Battle of La Forbie, a new understanding of how these men lived and died alters what one sees in the image, a lovely cooperation between storytelling and cover art.

AB: As a final question, is there any particular period you would want to see more books about? 

David: I’d like some more books set in the Wild West. It’s not a period I’m particularly familiar with but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved cowboys.

Jenny: No more Tudors please! I’d like to see more fiction set during the American and French revolutions and the War of 1812, maybe some more Irish medieval.

Jo: 11th, 12th or 13th centuries.

Lisl: I’d love to read more about the Barbary Wars.

(AB: And for those who, like me, don’t go “aha!” when hearing Barbary Wars, here’s a link.)

I am rather encouraged by Jo’s periods given my own writing preferences 🙂 And I agree: no more Tudors! How about some Stuarts instead? Thank you so much for joining me here today – and I must say that the covers you’ve mentioned are very varied – which just goes to show that what appeals to one reader may not appeal to another. Duh!

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Many thanks to Anna Belfrage and my wonderful co-bloggers for such a great time!

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Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

Upcoming:

New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): Title TBA

New Genre Library (Science fiction): Title TBA

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

And a couple of other fun entries to round out the year!

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950: 1066 Remembered, Interview: Glynn Holloway

1066: What Fates Impose is a recipient of The Wishing Shelf Book Awards Gold Medal 2014 (click image for more about the author)

Nearly a thousand years ago today—951, to be exact—a battle took place at Stamford Bridge at East Riding of Yorkshire, between the English King Harold Godwinson and Norwegian Harald Hardrada. Though the Norwegian was aided by the English king’s brother Tostig, the victory went to Harold. Icelandic historian, mythologist, poet and politician Snorri Sturluson writes that before the battle a lone man rides up to Harald and Tostig with a message that the latter could re-gain his lost earldom if he turns against Hardrada. Tostig asks what King Harald would gain from this. “Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men,” comes the reply. Impressed by the now-departed rider’s fearlessness, Hardrada asks Tostig who the man was. Tostig tells him this was Harold Godwinson himself.

Harald and Tostig are both killed in battle and the Norse lose with such severity that only a couple of dozen ships out of their original fleet of some 300 are needed to transport survivors back home. Today author G.K. Holloway, who writes in 1066: What Fates Impose of King Harold in the time leading up to this fateful year, is off to re-enactment of the famous fight which, despite Harold’s win, influenced how the next battle in his struggle to save his country would turn out.

Glynn Holloway joins us today as we look back in time and discuss motivations of Harold as well as William. Why should we remember this era? What happened before and after Harold’s shipwreck? What drove William despite the law standing against him, and the others affected by all this: soldiers, civilians, families, survivors, those who came after? What did it all portend for them, for us? Holloway’s novel portrays both figures, as well as others, thoughtfully and with great care to the reality of how various events affected each other. He speaks today of Anglo-Saxon achievement and what they set out for us before their end, why they matter and how our remembrance of them gives them some justice. I posed some challenging questions, and Holloway takes them up, as in 1066: What Fates Impose, with both sensitivity and passion, the strength of his convictions shining through as he speaks for a people who can no longer do it for themselves.

Welcome, Glynn Holloway, and thanks so much for spending a bit of time again with us as we approach the end of our year-long observance of the 950th anniversary of 1066. It’s been a time of introspection, hard thought and contemplation, remembering all the people who lost their lives at the Battle of Hastings, and who survived – or didn’t – its aftermath. Your fantastic novel, 1066: What Fates Impose, really brings so much of that home for the modern reader, as well as what led up to it all.

Your bio mentions being gifted Ian W. Walker’s The Last Anglo-Saxon King, which inspired you to research and write about the time yourself. Had you learned about it before and wanted to delve deeper? Or was it a cold call, so to speak, in terms of titles?

When my wife, Alice, bought me Walker’s book I had no more idea than the average person about what was happening in England before the Norman Invasion. Walker’s book opened my eyes and made me want to know more. The more I researched the more I wanted to know. Eventually, I thought the end of the Anglo-Saxon era one of the most interesting and exciting epochs ever. I was amazed no one had made an epic film or book about the period. So, I decided to do it myself. 1066: What Fates Impose is the result.

In writing about historical figures, what cautions did you come up against, from yourself and others? What are the ethics of writing about people who really lived?

My main concern is keeping as close to what is known of the facts as I can. No one knows everything about events that led up to the Battle of Hastings. We know quite a lot, the approximate number of soldiers on each side, whose army was filled with professionals, whose was not, who had archers, who did not, etc. Where the history becomes foggy, and there’s quite a bit of fog in the eleventh century, are places like Harold’s reason for journeying to Normandy, how he became shipwrecked, what were the circumstances of his oath swearing to William. This is where the fiction comes in but even so, I tried to keep the story within the bounds of reality. Keep the story real and balanced. If your subject is genuinely exciting, you shouldn’t need to ‘spice it up’ too much. Portray the characters as accurately as possible, even the villains deserve that, and the story should be better for being more ‘real.’ And finally, on a different note, I feel that writers of historical fiction owe it to their readers to present the history as accurately as they can otherwise we’re in danger of obscuring real events and characters and if that happens, then we won’t know what really happened in the past and it follows from there that we won’t know who we are or how we got here.

Whether writing about them or not, do you feel we owe something to Harold Godwinson and the others he fought with and against?

Memorial stone & plaque commemorating the Battle of Stamford Bridge, September 1066. The memorial overlooks the site of the Stamford Bridge battlefield, at the end of Whiterose Drive, a modern residential street, by Æthelred [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons (click image)
Do we owe something to Harold Godwinson? Well, he laid down his life for his kingdom and his people. A cynic would perhaps say, well, he owned a massive chunk of the country, so he was only fighting in his self-interest. For the following reasons, I don’t believe that to be true. William offered Harold his daughter’s hand in marriage, she would be Harold’s queen and their descendants would rule after them. This would mean Harold would have to betray/disinherit his family with Edith Swan-neck but he and his descendants with William’s daughter would continue his dynasty. But Harold didn’t take up the offer.

What convinces me of Harold’s sincerity, is his eagerness to get into Sussex in 1066 when William and his army arrived. He took his responsibilities as lord and protector seriously. He left London too early because he felt he’d let down the people on his estates and wanted to defend them. His brother, Gyrth, wanted to implement slash and burn tactics around Hastings to starve out the Normans. Harold would have none of it. He saw it as his duty to protect his tenants, not destroy their livelihoods. Naturally, my respect goes out to Harold’s followers but as to those he fought against, the bulk of them were just out to feather their own nests and this they did with zest.

Is there anything you think Harold could have done or not done that might have changed the outcome of the Battle of Hastings? What helped William the most?

I think Harold’s biggest mistake was not to wait a day or two longer before setting out from London. Having just travelled up to Stamford Bridge, battled against the biggest Viking army to land in England, before returning south, exhausting his forces in the process. If he had waited just that couple of days, Earls Edwin and Morcar would have marched down to Senlac with him, his men would have had a little more rest. That probably would have swung it for him.

What helped William the most? Luck. I don’t say that lightly. William’s first attempt at invading England came sometime around 12th September and ended in disaster. A storm had blown up in the Channel and blown his fleet onto the shores of Ponthieu. It could easily have been worse and his armada might have ended up at the bottom of the sea.

What I will give William credit for is his organizational skills. Putting the army together, building a navy to carry it across the sea is quite a feat, as is supplying his forces for a month while he waited in Dives for a favourable wind to come along. He also had political guile. Gaining the support of the Pope was a master stroke and helped draw additional support for his campaign from many countries north of the Alps.

Knowing Harold and William as you do, what do you think each would have thought of your portrayal of him?

I don’t think William would be too pleased. I portray him as cruel. There are some people who would tell you, this is in the medieval period, things were barbaric but for the harrying of the north alone, and by harrying, I mean genocide, he was more barbaric than any other king of England. I’d point to this for those who say William was no worse than the rest and don’t forget, his contemporaries thought him cruel, so he must have been cruel, even by the standards of the time.

Was he honest or a liar? He had no claim to the English throne. Under English law, the king had to be of royal blood, legitimately born and elected by the Witan. Under Norman law, the title was inherited by primogeniture, i.e. down the male line. William wasn’t eligible under either law, but he claimed the throne anyway. Why?

I think he may have been offered it by someone. If may have been King Edward or perhaps Archbishop Robert de Jumieges. Whoever it was, it wasn’t theirs to offer. But I think William thought he was in the right. He wouldn’t much appreciate me pointing out his error.

I think Harold might well like my depiction of him. He comes across as what he was, handsome, courageous, intelligent, a great leader of men and a good king. He is also not without faults. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he had a tendency to ‘dally and he was too liberal.’ So, not too bad then.

A king and his Witan – from the eleventh-century Old English Hexateuch [British Library] (click image) An entire system of succession and society existed long before the Normans.
If given the opportunity, would you agree to meet with Harold in life? What about William? What would you say to them, and what do you reckon they might say to you? Would you be interested in an encounter with Harold’s ghost? (I don’t think it would be at all like William’s, as portrayed in 1066: What Fates Impose!)

It would be fascinating to meet with Harold in real life. I’d ask him all those what if questions. Where he thought he went wrong. What would he do differently if he had the opportunity? As for William, I think that would be a bit scary but I’d love to know why he really thought he was entitled to the English crown.

Do you think it would matter to either one that we know their history (even long before 1066), or that we believe in the rightness of what either of them did?

I think they would both want to be seen as doing the right thing and be recognised for doing so. I think Harold would be particularly keen to know what we, 950 years after the event, thought of the oath he swore to William and if anyone thought it binding.

What about the ordinary people, combatants and non-combatants alike? Do you think it would matter to them that we know what happened and how they suffered? What considerations do you feel they are entitled to?

Nobody likes to be forgotten and to suffer and have no one know or care would be hurtful in the extreme. I think it would matter to them we know and care. It’s as close as they’ll get to justice.

Do you believe enough Anglo-Saxon history is taught in schools today? What would you say to people unconvinced that this history is worth learning about? (Or to people overwhelmed at the thought of studying this period?)

No, I don’t think enough Anglo-Saxon history is taught in schools today. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people know about Anglo-Saxon history from reading Bernard Cornwell’s novels, or TV adaptations, than anything taught in a classroom. Anglo-Saxon history, to many, is the Dark Ages. The Romans left, the lights went out, then the Normans came and switched them on again. While the lights were out the Vikings took advantage, and robbed the churches from the feeble Anglo-Saxons who did nothing much to defend themselves.

The Anglo-Saxons laid the foundations for England and established a proto-democracy with a first-rate administration to back it up. Their society was relatively wealthy and cultured. All this is passed by. You can buy wall charts in England with all the Kings of England represented, starting with William in 1066. I can’t tell you how annoying I find it.

Do any of the characters or historical figures speak to you?

No, they don’t. I can visualize them easily enough and imagine them interacting with each other quite clearly. But no, they don’t talk to me. Heaven only knows what they’d say if they did.

Do you think one could be an effective writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

I think a writer is most effective when writing about what they know. So, if you don’t feel emotions strongly, it’s going to be difficult to write about them. My book is historical fiction. It’s all very well researching the history but for people to really engage they need to feel the fear, lust, love, hate, sympathy, etc. A lot of people have told me when they were reading 1066, in the final battle at Hastings, they really wanted Harold to win, even though they knew how it would end. I think that’s, in part, because I feel passionate about the era and what went on and that is conveyed in the story telling.

How do you balance being reader and writer friendly? For example, how do you know or decide how much background information to add and how, so that readers are not put off by either a perceived sense of being “spoon fed” or left hanging by lack of information?

You’ve asked me some interesting questions and this is the most difficult. All I can say is I write what I’d like to read. I can be quite certain my readers would like to know some details about the history, clothes, jewellery, weapons, etc. They wouldn’t be reading historical fiction if they felt otherwise. But where to draw the line? I try to weave things together so I’ll try and merge a scene, say, in a mead hall, with the customs, the kind of food and type of dance by presenting a single scene and not a series of mini lectures. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, while the reader learns a little about Anglo-Saxon life they’ll read an interesting scene which moves the story along.

Do you perform all your research before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were)? Or do you periodically dip back in the archives? Do you go on research trips?

I do the bulk of my research before I start typing but then I’ll come across something that I feel needs flushing out or is more interesting than I first imagined, so then I’ll research around the topic. In 1066, it was herbal medicine, horn dances, sword manufacture, falconry, Anglo-Saxon horse breeding and pagan wedding ceremonies, to name a few.

Research trips, for me, are essential. All the places I’ve written about, I’ve visited, except Norway, and that was because my wife became ill the day we were due to leave. I know they’ve changed a bit since the eleventh century but you get a feel for the places and the lie of the land, whether it be Falaise Castle in Normandy, or Bosham in Sussex.

Why did Harold go to Normandy? Had Edward promised William the throne? Was he now rescinding the offer? Was this an attempt to rescue Wolfnoth and Hakon? Scene 1 of the Bayeux Tapestry. King Edward the Confessor sends Harold Godwinson to Normandy. By Myrabella CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (click image)

What is one thing you would give up to become a better writer?

Twitter.

What does literary success look like to you?

My experience of literary success, if you can call it that, is some great reviews. Someone telling me my book is brilliant (yes, it has happened and more than once). In a word, recognition.

When not writing what do you like to read? What is your favorite underappreciated novel? Nonfiction?

I switch between novels and history books. My favourite underappreciated novel is The Boy with No Shoes, by William Horwood. It’s a beautiful evocation of a boy’s tough childhood in 1950s/60s England.

A few fun questions:

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Pies! I love them.

Are you a morning person?

These days I am but I never used to be.

What do you find difficult to throw away?

Lots of things but I have noticed I have a boundless collection of socks, most of them are full of holes.

What song would you listen to on a loop?

Van Morrison, “Have I Told You Lately?”

Do you prefer dogs or cats?

I like dogs but prefer cats.

Thanks so much, Glynn, for taking time to chat with us and I hope we will see lots more of you!

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Mark your calendar for these events with author Glynn Holloway:

Remainder 2017

Book signing at The Bookshop in East Grinstead on 30th September

Book signing at the Morley Arts Festival on 7th October (10:00 – 4:00).

2018

Hawksbury Upton Indie Lit Fest, Gloucestershire, 21 April 2018 (10:00 – 5:30).

Llangollen Red Dragon Festival, Wales, 18/20 May 2018.

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Per Glynn Holloway, Summer of 2018 should see the publication of the sequel to 1066.  You can sign up for the author’s newsletter at his blog, and keep up with new dates added to his calendar, as well as news about his upcoming sequel. Also,  follow him on Facebook and Twitter. 1066: What Fates Impose is available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK. He is also a contributor to 1066: Turned Upside Down.  

Author Glynn Holloway writes …

gk-hollowayI’ve always liked stories ever since I was a kid and not fussy about what format they came in; whether it be stories read out loud on the radio, TV, comics, books or films, I still get great pleasure in listening to people telling me their own stories, whether it be at a bus stop or some heart to heart conversation, whatever. When other people get bored or impatient at the supermarket checkout, I find myself picking out other customers and working out their back stories or develop a character in a novel. I just love stories, so, I suppose, it’s only natural that I tell stories as well as listen to them. The only people I didn’t listen to were teachers – unless they taught history, literature or Bible stories.

Being dyslexic, I never really read much, until, at the age of eight, I ended up in hospital with appendicitis. Lying in a hospital bed is pretty boring and as there was no TV in hospital wards in those days, I read through all the comics I could get my hands on. So my Mum brought me in a couple of books and that’s what got me into reading. In my teens I progressed through every Biggles book ever published to Penguin Modern Classics and most of what they had to offer.

After leaving school I became a compositor on a local newspaper; trained in a job that should have seen me set for life. Along came photo-film-setting and I watched as printing changed overnight and saw a machine doing the job of half a dozen men in a fraction of the time they could. I knew this was just the beginning of the end for me and decided to get myself an education and a different career. Studying O Levels and A Levels part-time at the local technical college, I went on to take a history and politics degree in Coventry.

air-detectiveFrom Coventry I went to Bristol, studied to be a Careers Officer, worked in Gloucestershire in schools, colleges and Adult Education, before becoming a Student Welfare Officer.

What made me write? My wife, Alice, bought me a book for Christmas, which I just loved. It was called Harold: The Last Anglo Saxon King, by Ian W Walker and it shone a light into the dark recesses of history I knew little about. I found the whole period so fascinating I just read more and more about it. In fact, I found the whole era so exciting I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been covered more in films, TV, books, etc. (think Tudors). ‘Somebody ought to write a novel about this,’ I thought and decided that somebody ought to be me. Fortunately, things worked out in such a way I was able to realise my dream. The rest is historical fiction.

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Click here for my review of 1066: What Fates Impose, and here for links to previous entries in our “950: 1066 Remembered” series. Stay tuned for our closing entry coming in October.

 

Friday Five: The First Set

I simply couldn’t wait to start gathering my piles together. I’ve been thinking so much lately about so many of the wonderful books I’ve been dreaming of reading in the new year—and very possibly sooner. Not unlike my son, who has been organizing piles since his fine motor skills were first developed enough to curl his little fingers around the items of his choice, I’ve been stacking in anticipation of the day after I post the last review in my current bracket.

What of it? Well, I had planned to re-open for a few more submissions, as I did last time, but in the end decided against that. I may do it again; possibly requests will make their way to me, and certainly I’ll do reviews of some books I read on my own, and blog about things I’ve been wanting to but haven’t had the opportunity. For right now, though, the goal is to finish up the year and open 2018 with a clear, settled, relaxing slate.

So my thinking was that on the occasional Friday I’ll share a bracket of five books I have on my TBR, works I’ve been especially chomping at the bit to get to. I may or may not read them in bracket order, as often my reading choice is subject to mood, and it’s not likely to be easy to choose—you should have seen me just now sorting through books with such indecision—but I console myself with the possession of new time and the understanding there will be other Fridays.

Enjoy!

Four Nails (by G.J. Berger) This author’s debut novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, has been instrumental in widening my parameters to include more reading of Roman and early Celtic historical fiction. This really is a fascinating time, and other great reads related to the era or its people have made their way to me, further adding to my enjoyment of the amazing stories people have to tell. In the case of Four Nails, Ashoka, taken into a slave caravan from India, navigates his way through the Second Punic War as he discovers the power of friendship and strength “known only to those with nothing left to lose.”

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 (by Richard Zacks) I’ve tried to read this book before and been overwhelmed by commitments I’d made to the reading and reviewing of others before it (not to mention real life). Possibly my inhalation of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates answered my appetite for that time being, but I wanted more about the Barbary Wars and it’s been dancing around my mind, demanding answers. Having started the book once, I believe it provides more extensive details about some historical figures discussed in Brian Kilmeade’s aforementioned title, such as William Eaton, who knew well the old Barbary maxim that “whoever acts like a sheep, the wolf will eat,” an understanding seemingly forgotten in today’s world. I’m looking forward to learning more about these wars and where that might lead me.

The Lost Kingdom—1066: I am the Chosen King (by Helen Hollick) It’s been awhile now I have heard not a small amount of praise about this author, and though I purchased this volume some months ago, have not yet read it, a situation I intend to remedy as soon as possible. I can thank Paula Lofting for pushing me, if not exactly kicking and screaming, somewhat reluctantly into the Anglo-Saxon era, which I completely and utterly fell for. Here Hollick picks up in 1044, when events unfold that have a role in how the battles of 1066 will play out. In this year England stands at a crossroads and everything hangs in the balance as Harold Godwinson sacrifices all for his country. From childhood history lessons we know how this will play out, but here we are promised a revelation of what makes up the real Harold, “shattered by the unforgiving needs of a Kingdom” and given “all the honor and dignity that history remembers of its fallen heroes.”

The Path of the Hawk (by Ian Graham) This is another novel, first in a series of the same title about “an elite unit of soldiers and spies,” that I purchased and reluctantly put aside in this year of overflowing plate. It came to my attention via a review written by author Steven A. McKay (remember this name—you’ll see it again), who describes exactly what I’m looking for in a fantasy novel (when I do read one): “The writing style is engaging and entertaining, the action fast paced and imaginative, and the characters interesting and well-drawn. The world they inhabit is detailed enough to feel real but not in the boring, overdone way some fantasy writers do.” Real is a key word for me here, not dismissive of magical elements, just that they don’t appear each time like some deus ex machina, with little or no relationship to the characters or their history. I also like McKay’s mention of fast-paced, and knowing they are spies and soldiers—characters I’ve been enamored of since childhood—I’m very much looking forward to a thrilling read.

Sextant: A Young Man’s Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans (by David Barrie) I almost feel guilty mentioning this account, given I’ve done so at least twice before. I love the sea and reading a history of mapping it, I imagine, will provide a glimpse into a world so many of us only dream about knowing, even having learned of all those important historic expeditions in school. Of course that’s not enough! “[A] love letter to the sea and sky,” this book’s blurb gives me the impression it will tap directly into more of my childhood fascinations as the two definitively linked earthly elements recount memories of my own attempts at creating a sextant—wholly unsuccessful, but the keeper of a fleet of wondrous memories.

Thanks for joining us and look for more in weeks to come!

Book Review: The Darkness (Tales From a Revolution: Maine)

Tales From a Revolution: Maine
The Darkness
by Lars D.H. Hedbor

Note: Lars Hedbor will donate all proceeds for The Wind in the month of September to hurricane relief. Books are great for gifting, a weekend read or your favorite classroom. By purchasing in September, you will be positively touching the lives of those affected. Thank you so much!

In each young adult novel within his Tales From a Revolution series, Lars D. H. Hedbor focuses on a particular region, whose Revolution story is told from within the context of how the people there experienced the breakaway colonies’ fight for freedom. Each tale comes to us through the perspective of a local, in the case of The Darkness, George Williams, a teenager living on a small island off the coast of Maine.

Like Florida, a portion of whose story we see in The Wind, Maine isn’t one of the original thirteen colonies. Owing to geography and current events, the region acts as a bit of a buffer between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, and the inhabitants are not unaffected by incidents farther south, such as the Boston Tea Party and Lexington and Concord. Shubael, George’s father, has pledged his family to the king’s side with the signing of a loyalty oath, but as the novel gets moving, Hedbor uses a rhythmic ebb and flow of dialogue to inform us that the man does, actually, have some rather firm sympathies for the rebels. Still, he would prefer to just live his life, as does George, whose excessive breaks and poor choices frustrate his father.

The author has a talent for creating characters apart from the standard mold; they are ordinary people, those so many of us long to read and know about, but they inhabit a wide range of society, as briefly spoken of in my review for The Smoke. In different ways, the choices they make render them extraordinary, and the roles they play in their time each aid in underwriting a chain of events that contribute to history as we now know it—or, as the case may be, don’t always know. Hedbor adds to his plots by setting episodes against the backdrop of documented historical and natural events, such as the war on Lake Champlain in The Prizeor a thrilling glimpse of General Washington in the time leading up to his crossing of the Delaware in The Light.

The author continues in this fashion with his inclusion of a Harvard-sponsored expedition to Maine to observe the solar eclipse of 1780. In fascinating detail drawn out by characters’ experiences, we also learn of a phenomenon that occurred on May 19 of the same year: a strange darkness that shrouded a wide area of land, upward to Portland and as far south as New Jersey, where Washington recorded the event in his diary. Later known as “New England Dark Day,” it was widely feared to portend the approach of Judgement Day.

George’s own observation of the occurrence is matched by that of the animals around him.

It was dark enough now that George could hear the birds in the trees at the edge of the field singing their evening songs, though they sounded confused and forlorn. The cattle were moving of their own volition to the barn, too, just as though it was the end of the day, and not close to noontime.

Perhaps more than any previous Hedbor novel I have read, The Darkness emphasizes the need as well as reward for our awareness of such events in the lives of our forebears, especially given these occurred at such a watershed moment. Moreover, many of us having ourselves recently experienced a solar eclipse—or at least witnessed the enthusiasm for it—speaks to the reality that our place and response to this natural phenomenon, indeed our understanding of it, has its roots in the culture that experienced it before us, as well as within the embryonic path of American science pursued by Dr. Williams of Harvard.


In a historically famous response to the darkness, Connecticut legislator Abraham Davenport replied: “I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” —New England Historical Society


George’s attention is drawn to this expedition as well as a rebel spy he first encounters as she pummels a British soldier attempting to assault her. Securing an apprenticeship in town enables George to meet up with Louise more often, and he slowly begins to realize that the network of rebels and their active sympathizers is wider than he once understood. He becomes more involved than he’d originally planned, partly through a growing love for Louise, as well as events linking all of them to the scientific investigation, a criminal act and the perverse justice and public relations meted out by British officials. However, circumstances conspire to separate the pair as the redcoats keep an eye on the expedition, wanting no part of further American rebelliousness.

Another talent in no short supply is the author’s ability to portion out just the right amount of information to facilitate the growth of his plot and character development. In The Darkness, Louise’s introduction might have been a bit more rounded out, to explain her attraction to the grungy and hapless George, other than his status as her would-be rescuer. Nevertheless, the pair work well together and Louise’s strength and will helps George to grow within his. Hedbor’s portrayal of the relationship George has with his two menacing older brothers is not only realistic, but often intensely relatable, especially to those readers who occupied the lowest rung in their respective families. Sibling cruelty, the author is well aware, often knows no bounds.

As always, Hedbor’s dialogue frequently contains within it messages passed, revealing the speaker’s positions, all while utilizing language beautifully suited to the era. The end result is a revelation that people are people and whether then or now, are subject to a wide range of emotions that, even when veiled, occasionally display a need to release. As George’s oldest brother, Lemual, speaks to a student setting up equipment in preparation for the eclipse study, the results of which have implications for the improvement of seafaring accuracy, he asks the young man about the importance of knowing the precise time.

“Because, on the day of the eclipse, we will then be able to determine with great precision when specific parts of the event take place. With that knowledge, and some rigorous and painstaking mathematical analysis, which the good professor will doubtlessly suggest one of us would profit from performing on his behalf, we can calculate precisely where within the moon’s shadow we stood when it crossed over our location.”

The dialogue also presents us with an opportunity to explore their perspective from their angles, as opposed to our own. Observing George silently examining

a marvelous mechanical clock, with hands that not only counted off the hours, but also the minutes and even the seconds[, o]ne of the students pointed out the pendulum that swung ponderously back and forth under the main workings of the clock and explained, “That’s made of two different medals, arrayed such that it will adjust itself for complete accuracy, even when the temperature changes. It’s an amazing advance in the precision of timekeeping, and we’re very fortunate to have this one.”

The novel’s conversations reveal Hedbor’s attention to the detail of language, not only pertaining to era but also relational makeup. Maine is within close proximity to Nova Scotia, from where thousands of French-speakers were expelled, less than two decades before, to the thirteen colonies. Therefore, when a Harvard student’s reply includes French nuance—“Understand that we are, of course, sensible of your position under the occupation of the Crown’s forces”—it is not out of the realm of possibility that his English might have been influenced by those Acadians who may have landed nearby, especially given his likely age. Linguistically, minority speakers do not generally have an enormous effect on the mainstream language, and Hedbor’s limited instances of such influence would be a statistically sound representation.

That the author’s inclusions of details large and small, within language and other angles, could engender such discussion, speaks to his dedication to research as well as accurate and genuine representation of the people he portrays. Readers can experience this in a variety of ways, such as within the tasks set out by Helen, George’s mother, purchases and availability of items and the running of a business. War is depicted, certainly, but people also had to continue with their lives during and after, and the rich detail Hedbor presents magnificently fills to the brim a 200-page book written in a manner amazingly suited to young adult as well as grown-up readers. Being able to attract a crossover audience and create intrigue and appeal within those readers is no small feat, but Hedbor pulls it off time and time again.

The Darkness is a worthy addition to Hedbor’s Tales From a Revolution series: it is an enthralling and absorbing story that captures reader imagination and brings to life the history we know a portion of and its people even less. Suitable for young adults (perhaps even a bit younger) and up, it also brings to us the richness of our ancestors’ lives and broadens the appeal of historical fiction and, indeed, the search for more real details of the lives of people who shaped who we are.

sensitive

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About the author ….

What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.

My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.

I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and will be a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.

I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.

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You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook. The Darkness may be purchased in paperback (signed copies available upon request), as Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo or at Smashwords. (Paperbacks also available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble links.)

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Keep an eye out in these pages for more from Lars Hedbor, including an upcoming giveaway of a signed and personalized paperback copy of a Hedbor novel of the reader’s choice, and my review of The Path, the author’s latest novel, on sale October 19 (or pre-order now).

For those in or close to Aloha, Oregon, come have some fun! Release party for The Path will be October 28, between 1:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, at Jan’s Paperbacks

Photo courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor

A copy of The Darkness was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

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Poetry in Bloom: “The Lady of Shalott”

Today we start our New Year’s resolution a mite early with a series-in-development, one that gives us a space here at Before the Second Sleep to advance more deeply into the realm of poetry, territory we’ve not had much previous occasion to explore. Given our love of poetry and the enormous opportunities one has as poet as well as reader, we have decided it is high time to move forward.

The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, one of three interpretations of the character by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons

It is fitting to open with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” partly owing to our considerable affection for all things Arthurian, going back to childhood. This new direction has also been inspired in part by a review upcoming, for a “retelling and metamorphosis” of the ballad.

The works of Tennyson, Poet Laureate for over 40 years, reflect a reality about poetry, in that while in his lifetime his words were exceedingly popular (even when savaged by critics), following his death they receded a bit into the shadows. Dr. Stephanie Forward notes that “with such adulation [as the poet received in his lifetime] a subsequent decline in his reputation was probably inevitable.”

Following two world wars and re-examination of Tennyson’s place within Victorian society, his work began once more to be recognized as amongst the greatest in English literature. As literary tastes change and peoples re-discover the values within what came before, perhaps his poetry again shall wilt and bloom in a representation of the ongoing and also inevitable death and re-birth of the artistic design of our world.

“The Lady of Shalott” is loosely based on the life of Elaine, who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur as a noblewoman enamored of Sir Lancelot, later dying from a broken heart following this unrequited love. Tennyson writes of a Lady confined to a castle and subject to a curse that bars her seeing outside save for what is reflected in her looking glass. “Shadows of the world appear” describes how she witnesses life outside via those images, weaving her portrayal of them onto a loom, though becoming weary of the poor substitute the glass provides. “I am half sick of shadows,” she cries, determining that she shall leave her tower, even if it means facing the consequences within the curse.

Below are stanzas excerpted from “The Lady of Shalott,” first published in 1833 in Tennyson’s collection entitled Poems. For the ballad in its entirety, click here, and be sure to have a quick glance at Schmoop’s “Why Should I Care?” section—a brief and easy-to-read segment that may pleasantly surprise you.

Excerpt: “The Lady of Shalott”

[from] Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

[from] Part III

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

[from] Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

 

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons

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For our review of Richard Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows, click here.

Audio Book Excerpt: Timing, Extracts B & C (Richard Abbott)

Excerpts from Timing, Book 2 in the Far from the Spaceports series by Richard Abbott

Click image for book description
Click image for more info

Today I’m pleased to present to readers what’s next up in our series featuring author Richard Abbott, whose space jaunts have so delighted meand many others. Of course, I’d previously reviewed Abbott’s debut sci-fi novel, Far from the Spaceports, followed up by another for its sequel, Timing. The audio excerpts below come from the second novel and, like our previous entry, utilize Amazon’s Polly software, which is enabled for text-to-speech in multiple accents and intonations. This compares to Alexa, a single voice.

Before moving forward, for those unfamiliar with the novels and their plots, I’ve linked the book covers to their respective Amazon blurbs. Abbott’s world-building opens a new type of sci-fi, one accessible even to those not typically enamored of the genre (such as myself), and Mitnash, along with his partner Slate, originating from artificial intelligence (AI), will capture your imagination as they seek to solve the mysteries of high-tech crime in space. Last time we listened in as a group discussed data they’d studied; today we pick up our place within Timing at a moment when Mitnash and Slate are perplexed about Callisto, then continue as the pair are joined by Parvati and Chandrika, who share their conversation regarding the loss of Selif’s ship.

Owing to the limitations on the range of voices offered just now, as Abbott points out, one voice’s accent isn’t quite where it should be. Will you spot it? Readers with previous experience in this technology, unlike myself, are likely to agree with the author, who expresses his fascination at “just how much the field has moved on since the first ‘computer voice’ some years back.” He adds that the wording is “broadly the same as the book, but changed in a few places where it sounded more flowing to move words around (funny how different spoken-aloud can sound than read-in-your-head).” (Indeed, that is so!) I’ve indicated changes in red, with words omitted from the original text in brackets and red font, and any added text (just one spot, in this instance) in red.

Note that there is more omitted text than what I’ve indicated, and can be seen in the paperback edition on pages 38-43. Toward the end of Extract A, however, while Abbott’s choice of excerpt makes perfect sense, I added in the rest of Mitnash’s statement (Maybe. But I’m not convinced. Is there any way to see if there’s any crossover of personnel?) as a point of interest to indicate some text that does not yet transfer as smoothly within text-to-voice. However, if I left out the rest (see red below) the remaining text on its own would be unclear as to who is speaking, and the missing text would be sensed. Hence my longer addition here, where I did not do it elsewhere.

Finally, related to this technology are two articles pertaining to development, limitations and what awaits in the margins of progress, for better or worse. “Computer-dictation systems have been around for years. But they were unreliable and required lengthy training to learn a specific user’s voice[,]” writes The Economist at the start of this year (click here and see note below). By June, Baidu, Inc.’s Deep Voice 2 text-to-speech technology was being reported on following a paper presented the previous month, detailing its ability to “listen to hundreds of voices to learn certain speaking styles. After less than 30 minutes of time listening to each speaker, Deep Voice 2 then can recreate the style perfectly[.]” (Click for article.) Where do we go from here?

And without further ado, simply click the arrow to listen–and enjoy!

 Extract B

After that debacle, [we] Slate and I gave up investigations for a while, and just had fun. But eventually we both decided it was time to start work properly.

“Slate, perhaps we should go through the details of the problem on Phobos?”

She cleared the wall screen, and scattered a whole array of documents across the surface.

“Where shall we start?”

With a top-level summary of the losses, compared with the ones we saw on Callisto.”

A chart opened, with two traces spilling across it. Red for Phobos, blue for Callisto. They were mostly flat, with irregular spikes showing the discrepancy pattern. Irregular, but averaging out at more or less one a week when you looked at the big picture. Callisto came out slightly more often,  Phobos slightly less. Other than that, there really wasn’t a great deal of similarity. Different days, different amounts, different principal components.

I was missing something.

“Slate, we did leave the old code on Callisto running in parallel with the new, didn’t we?”

“Absolutely. With triggers to send an alert down to us, if ever the problem surfaced again.”

“And have the triggers fired at all?”

“Not at all Mit. Not even once.”

“But why not? We never found the root cause. Why isn’t the same problem happening every few days still?”

Slate was silent for a while.

“That’s a really good question. I have no idea. Maybe, whatever situation was causing it has gone away?”

“That would be an absurd coincidence.”

“Or maybe it was an insider job, and the person is keeping a low profile? Maybe we frightened them off?” [In which case Jo’s coding style has nothing to do with the problem.]

I wasn’t convinced, but we lacked information. [Maybe. But I’m not convinced. Is there any way to see if there’s any crossover of personnel?]

[I can request the staff roster. But remember Callisto: the records are very skimpy. I’ll ask Khufu what he can find out.]

[Meanwhile, is there any chance of getting a look at the code repository on Phobos?]

[No. I asked last night while you were asleep, and they won’t open a remote link. Not for anyone, not for any reason. You’ll have to wait until we get there.]

“So, is there any more we can do for now?”

“Not really. I can show you the same data in different charts, but you’re not going to learn anything helpful by looking at them.”

So we didn’t do that. We cleared the screens, out of habit, then Slate got on with whatever she did when I was not conversing with her.

 

Extract C

I wanted human company again, so I stretched, and went in search of Parvati. She was brewing chai as I wandered in to the kitchen. Seeing me, she doubled up the amounts, found a second mug, and arranged some savoury crackers and a red and yellow striped cake on a tray.

“Did you and Slate get anywhere?”

I shook my head.

“Total blank. The figures don’t tell us any more than the basic alert message we got from Finsbury, and they won’t let us access the code yet. There’s almost nothing we can do until we get there.”

We moved back to the bridge, and enjoyed the snack together.

“Chandrika just picked up the latest from the wreck site for Selif’s ship, if you’re interested?”

I very definitely was interested. We finished the crackers, and she sliced two generous portions of the cake.

“They’ve made available the results from the data recorders. There’s nothing at all unusual until about three minutes before the crash. At that point, Selif took the vessel’s riding lights offline, and uploaded an amendment to the nav plan. [Anyway,] The upload was completed successfully, taking only the expected lag. Except that a couple of seconds later, both recording devices ceased gathering data. At the same instant. That is unheard of.”

I looked at her.

“How did that happen?”

“The maintenance log for the recorders showed that Selif had skipped two routine services. So they highlighted that in the report, and almost immediately the manufacturer put out advisory notices, basically denying all responsibility if people ignore the recommended schedule. So the official version simply lists an open verdict.”

“Is there an unofficial version?”

She grinned.

“Of course. Chandrika, why don’t you tell them?”

“To be sure. I heard this from one of the personas on Martin’s. He works part-time with a man who’s an expert on the embedded systems in boat engines.”

I nodded. It was a highly specialised area, and one that I knew next to nothing about. But it made sense that a man with those skills would have an opinion on data recorders.

“Well, he said two things. One is that a full restart cycle for those boxes is about half a second longer than the time from the point of failure, up until the impact on Tean. And the second thing is that there are only two known exploits for that model of recorder which could bring down both boxes together. One of them cannot possibly have anything to do with this case: a different ship configuration altogether. The other one happens to rely on a routing plan change.”

I sat there, absorbing the news. It made sense that these units would go into an automatic reboot mode if they went dark for some reason. Normally, that would restore them to full operation in plenty of time to carry on doing their job. But in this case, the boat had hit Tean before they had started up again. I stirred in my seat, but Slate beat me to it.

“That’s very precise timing on someone’s part. Does anybody think it is just a coincidence?”

“Oh, Slate, the official verdict is open. Nobody is suggesting anything.”

We all laughed together.

“Either it was phenomenally bad luck on their part, or…”

I paused, and Parvati continued.

“Or else someone wanted rid of them, and found a clever way to do it.”

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Click here for the previous entry in this series, Extract A, and stay tuned for my review of Half Sick of Shadows as well as more from Richard Abbott!

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction set in two very different places. First, there is science fiction, set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships. The second area is historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC.

His first science fiction book, Far from the Spaceports, introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His historical fiction books explore events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

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You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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Note: The Economist link loads slowly, if at all, though I’ve noticed a direct copy/paste of address to bar, as opposed to linkage, seems to do the trick: https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21713836-casting-magic-spell-it-lets-people-control-world-through-words-alone-how-voice

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Book Review: Hand of Glory

Hand of Glory by Susan Boulton

Dried and pickled, bestowed with magical powers and held in the highest of esteem by thieves, a Hand of Glory, retrieved from the right arm of a villain, was their gateway to a house of riches just waiting to be relieved of them. Lighted candles held aloft by the hand’s fingers predicted how many occupants were abed, and not only provided a mystical tool and protective power for the intruder, but also prevented anyone from a premature awakening until the flame was extinguished.

Such is the object of Archie Hawkins’ desire as he and his brother, Jim, have been carrying on a family crime legacy by joining the fighting at 1917 Passchendaele with the aim to scavenge loot off soldiers—and they weren’t picky whose side they came from.

On the same night they perform their ghastly duties to retrieve a hand, Captain Giles Hardy lay wrapped in barbed wire, watching as death and destruction fall all around him, convinced that he too would, and should, die. As it turns out, Hardy makes it home to Stafford, but is haunted by what he has seen as well as the ghost of a close comrade, Corporal George Adams. Drawn by a new acquaintance into the world of outdated séance and a crafty medium, the spirit realm both intrudes and lends a hand to lead Hardy to the links in his past he never knew, as he continually seeks to escape the Great War battlefields he remains tied to, even years after the Armistice.

Given that I was not entirely convinced this particular mythology was a good fit for my interests, it was fortuitous that Susan Boulton’s Hand of Glory opens with robust action playing out on the Western Front as more than one brand of battle rages. From there I was drawn into the dugouts, witnessing the death throes of men both resigned to as well as fighting death, the wet dust of the departed and all the filth, excrement and other assorted miseries of the infamous trenches. While there are indeed battle scenes, the author focuses less on them than the histories and personalities of the men they engage, and the sudden silence of remembering as unlikely suggestions purr amidst senses on the brink: the silky voice of a lover or “burning autumn leaves. The scent that lulled the English countryside into its winter sleep.” Boulton’s subtly is even subtle as she artfully weaves memories of the dying within the deafening pounds and thuds of warfare so that, not unlike some of the men themselves, we don’t realize that slipping away in such an environment could be so serene.

These are amongst Hardy’s haunted memories as he begins to piece together details surrounding thefts within Stafford of late, and the investigation he hopes will bring peace to himself as well as the departed. If I thought it would be a simple matter to just read a bit one day and put the book down, I was disabused of that notion as Boulton’s pages flew from left to right under my fingertips, my eyes greedily soaking up the story with a setting, era, plot and mythology that mesmerized my reading self. Not unlike sleepers unable to rise from their beds when a Hand of Glory’s fingers were lit, I was frozen to the folio as the tale progressed.

The War Memorial in Stafford in its current location. (It was turned round when the new Crown Court was built.)

Part of what makes Boulton’s yarn so addictive is the authenticity of the era’s presentation. Small moments and particular words make it so, and contribute to a feel of reality as the author also manages her narrative to ensure smooth progression. Early in the novel, a waitress “bobbed a small curtsey” to a group of newly-arrived patrons. Later, from Archie’s perspective, we read that “[t]he Victorians had turned the small halt into one of their gothic, wrought-iron confections, which now straddled six lines.” Here Boulton also conveys characters’ own awareness of the time they inhabit, with this reference to the now-passed Victorian era and the growth of the railways, with a small dig at the era’s predilection for excess.

It would be one thing to say Hand of Glory is a thrilling read and the pages couldn’t be turned fast enough, though this wouldn’t be doing the novel justice. Readers are swept into the story with a breathless anticipation, all the more so because the author’s words and imagery bring the scenes to a living presence, as if we are watching the real characters experience these events, or in a movie, its Hitchcockian elements—trains, domineering mother, false accusation, side-switching or suspicions of such, suspense over surprise (though there is this), the charming criminal, crucial close-ups and more—lending a weighty heaviness to a number of scenes as the camera slowly, willfully, pans across a dark, silent setting, or one in which a single element is ever-present and undisguised, but often also remains undetected.

Adams coughed, as if the smoke of the non-existent cigarette were troubling his lungs. He looked at Hardy, his ghostly eyes narrowing. “It’s coming to a bloody head, sir, after all this time. We’ve got a good chance to get it damn well done for good.”

 “Get what done?” Hardy asked, confused and angry, cursing under his breath at the nonsense of it all.

 Adams did not answer. The smoke from the cigarette gathered against the windscreen. Flames flickered. Red-hot. The gothic window of tree branches. Fingers entwined in his. The cold metal of a ring on a small finger. Hardy screamed and the illusion shattered. He slumped back in his seat, staring out at the windscreen at the night-wrapped lane that led to his home. How long he had been sitting there he did not know. His mind tumbled over and over, stressed to breaking point. Was he really here? Still in Flanders? Or, as one doctor had tried to put it, in a mental retreat where all his fears and perhaps hopes played out: a self-created purgatory?

 The author easily transfixes us not only with suspense, mystery, horror and criminal enterprise, but also imagery that, while often reminiscent of the legendary director mentioned above, casts as well its own role with lines powerful enough to stop us dead as we seek to take them in again. Boulton shows us moroseness,

Dull and reluctant, the day began

 a silken, swarthy sense of voyeurism as we follow an intruder

The moonlight crept down the hall, running pale fingers over the pictures hanging on the walls.

and the theater Hardy cannot escape.

A star shell exploded high over the battlefield, banishing the darkness for the space of its short, sputtering fall to earth. In the flickering man-made light, hell was again visible, pockmarked and drowning in the late autumn rain.

That hell follows Hardy, chained to his prior entrapment even years after release, with his investigation and journey to free himself as well as others questioning “the war to end all wars,” as character dialogue purposefully reveals no perceptions as to what anyone may or may not have gained from it all.

From the start Hand of Glory is gripping, taking us to an England transitioning into a new world forged from flames while the old still undergoes its destruction. Its people, forward-looking and dated alike, walk side by side, and Boulton utilizes their shared language—the feel and character of it—to depict Hardy and others within this transition as they examine that circumstance and what it will mean for all involved.

That the paranormal mixes with historical fiction and wartime storytelling is quite clever and makes the novel stand out from either genre. Boulton takes that one step further by writing a story that carries readers along quickly as the action and suspense build up through a cast of characters intricately linked to the past as their paths converge in their post-war present. Some of this is recognizable before or as it occurs, but the manner in which it does, itself brings us back to stories of the past attached to readers (or viewers) urging on their heroes or shaking fists at baddies, this reader involvement entangling with the action and furthering the sense of urgency previously built upon by the author. It’s an innovative kind of old story that will capture new readers in its imaginative, disturbing grip.

War medals of the author’s grandfather, the real George Adams, who, as she writes in her dedication, “made it home in 1919.” The medals are 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal, referred to by veterans as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. (Click image for more information.)

About the author …

My name is Susan Boulton and like the song by The Police says, I was born in the 50′s and I had the unusual distinction of arriving into this world  200 yards from where, 37 years before, Tolkien spent time thinking about hobbits.

I have lived all my life in rural Staffordshire, and have a passion for the countryside, its history, myths and legends, all of which influence my work. Married with two grown-up daughters, I now put my over-active imagination (once the bane of both my parents and teachers) to good use in my writing.

I have had short stories published in the following:

Flash spec (Volume I and Volume II) (EQ Books)

Touched by Wonder (Meadowhawk Press)

Ruthless People

Alien Skin

Golden Visions

The Dark Fiction Spotlight

Tales of the Sword (Red Sky Press)

Malevolence – Tales From Beyond the Veil (Ticketyboo Press)

“Mirror” – Kraxon Online Magazine

Novels:

Oracle  (Ticketyboo Press)

Hand of Glory (Penmore Press)

To learn more about author Susan Boulton and keep up with her news, follow her at Facebook, Twitter or her blog! She will also be at, and taking part in panels, Sledge Lit 3 at the Quad in Derby UK on November 25th 2017. This looks like a lot of fun, so go on and check it out! Hand of Glory and other works by Susan Boulton may be purchased at at Amazon or Amazon UK. Enjoy!

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A free copy of Hand of Glory was provided to the blogger in order to facilitate an honest review. 

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Photos courtesy Susan Boulton