Book Review: Fair Weather

Fair Weather by Barbara Gaskell Denvil
A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

I absolutely adore time travel, and for that reason alone was fairly certain I would enjoy Barbara Gaskell Denvil’s Fair Weather. All right, there’s the medieval setting, which played a sizeable role in persuading me as well. Set partly in King John’s England, it also contains a murder mystery, which I haven’t read a lot of, though have found I tend to be fond of the furtive element.

As it turns out, enjoy is rather an understatement. I sped through this book of over 500 pages in four days, and though a quicker read is not always indicative of its worth, my online log shows the bulk of the reading done in the final 48 hours, and I remember these hours well: staying up appallingly late, the sense of urgency as I devoured pages with avaricious hunger until, finally, as I observed the bulk on the right side of my copy thinning out, the occasional warning to my inner self that it would soon be over.

From the very first page I was invested in the book, as Molly opens by confiding in the reader about her secret place. The very first large paragraph draws us into her existence, one in which even the pervasive smells of her other world—as we are to learn of—beckon from the streets of thirteenth-century London. Here is Tilda, an orphaned street waif, and Vespasian Fairweather, who has taken the little girl under his wing and taught her and others how to steal for survival.

As Molly’s visits to this time become more frequent, and grisly murders splinter her life and state of mind, she realizes she must find answers, quickly, before both worlds are destroyed. Encountering Vespasian, she senses he holds much of the information she seeks while necessarily protective of her own. What has he done? How much power does he really contain? Is he aware she is not native to his era? Seeking these and many other answers, Molly comes to understand that she must get much closer to the dangerous Vespasian in order to free herself of him and the menace looming all around.

Gaskell Denvil is an extremely talented writer. The murders do occasion some rather descriptive images, though I was able to make a clean break from the physical element each time as I moved forward in my reading. Many readers find this a troublesome proposition, given their horror at such acts as the author describes, or toward what they sometimes fear is their own severance from compassion. In other words: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Molly, however, agonizes over the crimes, though via the deft hand of a creator whose perfect balance keeps it all from becoming overly melodramatic or without substance. Simultaneously, as the author leads us in, we feel right along with Molly, whose self-awareness works to keep us all in check. This in turn ties in with another deliciously mysterious and captivating element of the book I shall leave for readers to discover. Suffice to say the author handles the enigma that is identity exceedingly well—readers will notice certain passages that reveal her expertise.

Other techniques she engages are the sprinkling throughout Fair Weather of enchanting personification—

Shops shut early as winter dark still slunk in by mid to late afternoon.

—along with passages of graceful and shimmering imagery:

The electricity lightens my room in gaudy detail, but my eyes see only the spasmodic sputtering of lemon shadows from candle stubs.

Expressive in its striking eloquence, possessing perfect rhythm within each and every sentence, Gaskell Denvil’s poetic words convey so vividly what she points out for us to see. The ordinary isn’t simply transformed into magical, for this meanders throughout the world of the novel, recognized by characters and their observers; simple words are strung together like pearls until we are presented with a glorious necklace that transforms, as a whole, an entire sentence and, in turn, each scene.

This is not all: the author creates a world in which many complicated events and perspectives intertwine, and links within their history connect to larger figures and implications. In the hands of a lesser writer this could spell doom, and indeed a complaint of mine regarding some other fantasy novels is that they often tend to involve an overabundance of characters amongst unorganized events and too much deus ex machina. However, Gaskell Denvil’s management of her characters is in perfect balance: she allows them to be who they are, but they don’t run amok. They make sense in relation to each other, have limitations, sometimes can offer quick solutions and at others meet the consequences of when they cannot.


I tumbled into the pupils of his endless eyes. He was utterly in command of my mind.


Interestingly, characters’ comments occasionally seem to deliberately reach out to readers: “Time travel is more common than you think.” (“Yes! Yes!” I shout from within.) At other moments they engage in this while simultaneously reminding us that they, too, have a sense of history while we delight in the recall of figures we’d forgotten amidst our overloaded modern society, or in recognition of religious reservation, not a recent invention. “Purgatory,” said Vespasian softly from his high chair in the shadows, “is a dubious invention of the church.”

As Fair Weather progresses, its plot widens and we come to know more of the ancient demon Lilith and other mythological figures than before as we witness the rise of the battle between good and evil, acted out by individuals whose lust for power is so great, no act, vessel or other is sacred enough to be spared their malevolence. Gaskell Denvil—or is it Vaspasian himself?—does a superb job of revealing only what she wants to be known. Mystery, however, is not retained for its own sake, as we gradually are brought to understanding of the methodology of revelations and the harsh lessons and consequences of choosing to ignore events that do not seem to directly affect us. Not that the author wags any fingers—simply that her scenes are so vibrant, powerful and comprehensively created, it is easy to envision ourselves within the environment as we encounter surprises and questions are answered.

I also loved that these people defy easy characterization. While good and evil battle it out, there typically is an element of both within any entity, and their dimensions don’t always allow readers to determine so quickly whether one is to be trusted, liked, avoided and so on, placing us that much more into the mind of Molly. We observe the world through the eyes she herself sees it—and even that changes, given the times she inhabits, events that occur and her growing understanding of the nature of all matters, such as the spirituality of alchemy, what good really is and the nature of control.

I sat beside him. He didn’t move or seem surprised … I looked down at my own reflection in the water at his feet, my face partially obscured by floating weed and summery green algae. It was deliciously balmy … [b]eside me, still watching me[, h]is cotta was crumpled as a cushion, his hands clasped beneath his head. He cast no reflection in the pool at all.

“If you are who I believe you are, you know about that already. I have no intention of explaining myself further—even in dreams. Come back into my own world if you dare … and find out for yourself.”

“I shall, though not at your command ….” I lowered my gaze, knowing his eyes could read me. Cross and frustrated by his answers, I pointed to the pool. “Look,” I said. “Like the devil, you cast no reflection.” But when I looked up for his reaction, he had gone.

Despite its hefty bulk—oh and this becomes a great boon soon enough!—Fair Weather is a novel one will definitely return to, for its language is accessible, the story captivating and those who populate it will reach out to readers. It is commonly understood that great works reveal to us more each time we approach them, and this will certainly be so with Fair Weather, for we grow with its reading as does Molly, and getting to know Tilda, Vespasian and others is an enchanting maze into which we will want to re-enter repeatedly.

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About the author …

Having been born into a literary family where book shelves filled every room, Barbara Gaskell Denvil grew up assuming that writing would be her career. She began writing when she was extremely young and then went to work in the British Museum Library, with ancient folios and manuscripts.  This cemented her love of both literature and history. Moving on to work in traditional publishing, scripting, reviewing, editing and publishing many articles and short stories.

Her books now alternate between fantasy and historical fiction, drama, mystery, adventure and romance, with a passion for medieval settings and historical accuracy.

Miss Gaskell Denvil’s work has been traditionally published by Simon & Schuster, but she now favours self-publishing as it gives the huge satisfaction of individual control. And personal choice of genre and artistic inspiration.

… with a few extra words:

Bannister’s Muster is my new project. This is a children’s series (for age group 8 to 14) based partially in the medieval shadows of old London, and partially in a fantasy world. Book 1 – Snap – is already out and Book 2 – Snakes and Ladders – will be published in late November.

The launch will be held in the Eltham Library, Melbourne, Australia, on 2nd December. Everyone is invited.

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Sign up or follow Barbara Gaskell Denvil for news, review, historical, writing and research articles and more at her website or Facebook and Amazon author pages. Fair Weather and her other books are available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Barbara loves to hear from readers, so do please get in touch

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A free copy of Fair Weather was provided in exchange for an honest review. 

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Month of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Original cover art for first publication in 1958 of Nine Coaches Waiting (Wikimedia Foundation) (click image)
Original cover art for first publication in 1958 of Nine Coaches Waiting (Wikimedia Foundation) (click image)

I have never encountered any reader who did not adore Mary Stewart’s gothic mystery, Nine Coaches Waiting. From the author who invented the suspense-romance, this universally admired classic is often referenced as the favorite of all Stewart novels. Literary allusions seamlessly sewn into the narrative, each chapter is headed by an epigraph bringing deeper meaning and connection to events within.

It is not long into the tale when Linda Martin, just arrived in Paris to serve as governess to the young and newly-orphaned heir to Château Valmy, reflects on the draw to her assignment, simultaneously embedding observers in a close read and unwittingly receiving a glimpse into events ahead. Though she dismisses her remembered poetic reference as inappropriate to the moment, her insight into significance behind the novel’s title is telling.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace:

Securèd ease and state, the stirring meats,

Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now

Quicken when they’re eaten. . . .

Banquets abroad by torch-light! music! sports!

Nine coaches waiting — hurry, hurry, hurry —

Ay, to the devil. . . .

Having also lost her parents at an early age, Linda is returning to her mother’s homeland, where she herself was raised until taking up residence in an English orphanage. As an adult she is recruited to the governess position, contingent upon her Englishness, for Léon and Héloïse de Valmy want young Phillipe to perfect his English language skills. She conceals her French fluency from the uncle and aunt, later chalking up her tension at their first meeting to her keeping a secret from them.

Her wariness, however, persists as she is unable to shake a feeling of menace. Léon comports himself with a strange brand of arrogance and soundlessly rolls through the estate in his wheelchair. Héloïse is aloof, with a “chilly elegance” that sets Linda into an inexorable state of second guessing herself. Thankfully she and her charge, the nine-year-old Comte de Valmy, develop a good rapport and, in fact, we see his growing attachment to and somewhat dependence upon Linda, for he is not only a lonely little boy but also one deeply disattached from his uncle and aunt. Linda reasons that his bereavement surely plays a role in this, until an accidental shot fired at Phillipe during a walk in the forest results in a near miss that Linda begins to contemplate might not have been so accidental.

Through the novel Stewart’s trademark descriptive powers are in full evidence, leading us from one occurrence to the next on a narrative as flowing and verbally picturesque as the settings she describes. When Linda is invited to the Easter Ball and gathers the courage to attend, she admires the dress she has sewn; the natural world is threaded through Stewart’s portrait of her gaze, fractal light references indicating Linda’s spirits, the mood, possibilities.

The long window curtains mirrored behind me were of rose-colored brocade. The lighting was lovely. As I moved I saw the gleam of the cobwebbed silver thread shift and glimmer through the white cloud of the skirt the way sunlight flies along blown gossamer.

Stewart also engages her protagonist in a budding romance, albeit one that defers to the central mystery as the novel’s primary focus. We see Linda initially becoming attached and the relationship develops, though as events play out we can never be sure where Raoul’s motives position him, or of his explanations for his actions. The suspense becomes wound so tightly that by the end, no matter what readers may have suspected regarding this character, the end results nevertheless come as a twist because it always could have gone either way. Being the consummate master that she is, Stewart utilizes character self-reflection as technique to turn the screw.

Wikimedia Commons (click image)
Wikimedia Commons (click image)

The characters of Nine Coaches Waiting are drawn to the era of the then-contemporary novel, set in the 1950s, and as a result readers will find some interaction that dates the work. At one point Linda refers to herself as “only a woman,” though it is set in a passage in which she remonstrates herself and may be employing a bit of sarcastic self-reflection.

Curiously, however, Stewart periodically engages postmodernist technique within character interaction, such as by noting Mrs. Seddon’s accent in her pronunciation of Rowl—in a manner noted only by readers and Linda; she herself is unaware. Linda, in concealing her ability to speak French, places her awareness in the minds of others in order to perceive herself as they do, and remember not to acknowledge what she has heard.

As Linda’s initially guarded response to the de Valmy clan transitions into distrust, suspicious behavior elevates and unexplained accidents continue. The young governess must face the terrifying consequences of remaining at the isolated château with her charge or find a way out, and work out if the man she loves is who she should be running from.

As with Thunder on the Right, Nine Coaches Waiting is a blast from my past, and the thrill I felt as events began to heat up was no less enthusiastic this time round. Perhaps more than any other of her many novels, Stewart’s background in literature is quite evident in this one: the literary snippets throughout foreshadow events and reflect the young woman’s thought processes. Linda is compared to Jane Eyre and Cinderella, and she hearkens back to her earlier ruminations on The Revenger’s Tragedy when she inwardly contemplates Léon de Valmy as the Demon King (and hears him refer to himself as the fallen Lucifer). That the author can effectively manage a sweep through centuries of poetry and prose while remaining true her plot strengthens the story and is a testament to the mastery that even today continues to mesmerize and gain new readers as they discover the magic that is Mary Stewart.

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

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Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with the “Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin” and a review for The Crystal Cave.

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries. 

Month of Mary Stewart: Thunder on the Right

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

I first read Thunder on the Right at a fairly early age (11) and recall enjoying the book quite a lot. Shortly before my recent re-read, however, I had to confess I remembered very little of the plot. As I settled in for my re-visitation I wondered how much would catch my attention in “drifts of memory” beckoning from the pages.

thunder on the rightI was surprised to learn that the one utterance I thought I recalled, on the part of the protagonist, did not actually occur—although I could pinpoint the spot I must have been thinking of and which settled into my brain erroneously. Apart from that, none of it seemed familiar, actually a positive circumstance because it enabled me to approach the novel from an almost-first-time reader’s perspective with very little bias.

The caveat I will throw out here, though, is that while I deliberately avoid reviews of books I plan to write about, I hadn’t planned or avoided in this case—not last year when I had been wading through books read in the past and threads regarding what others made of them. Lucky for me, I read reviews with a grain of salt, given how utterly opposite so many predictions have been as regard actual outcomes.

As it turns out, I enjoyed Thunder on the Right as much or more than I did as an eleven-year-old child. In truth, likely more, owing to greater understanding of certain references—“Velasquez getup” and “Roland’s great sword Durandel,” e.g.—and ways of the world. As our story begins to roll, within the “Academic Overture” Stewart utilizes to position the acting out of a dramatic performance, readers are given to understand that protagonist Jennifer Silver’s mother embodies the traits of a parent who today might be labeled “helicopter.” “[W]ith [an] unswerving devotion to the standards of a fading age,” she restricts her only child from much life has to offer under the guise of speaking what she believes Jennifer is too timid to do. For her own part, Jennifer is easygoing and quietly reserved. Together “[m]other and daughter got on very well indeed, with a deep affection founded on almost complete misunderstanding.”

At 22, the well-educated but inexperienced Jennifer makes a sojourn to post-war France, where she plans to meet up with her cousin Gillian, who for a time lived with the Silvers following the deaths of her parents in one of the first air raids. She meets up with Stephen, a suitor rejected by her mother just before a two-year study stint, now come to “claim” her, a circumstance Jennifer is unaware of, though not Professor Silver, her father.

Jennifer finds herself enlisting Stephen’s aid subsequent to her first visit to the convent in the Pyrenees, where the widowed Gillian had been staying—and possibly planning to join. Having met with one of the resident orphans and the convent’s bursar, Doña Francisca, the young visitor learns that Gillian had indeed been there, though as a patient following a motor vehicle accident and pneumonia, and had died two weeks earlier. The strangeness of the place, Doña Francisca’s odd demeanor and dodgy response to Jennifer’s appearance, and the sum of reported events not adding up all combine to spur the suspicious Jennifer to investigate.

Initially skeptical, Stephen plays along until events wind up and the fate of poor Gillian is at last confirmed. In Stewart’s groundbreaking style, mystery is joined by romance as the pair become close, noted even by our protagonist, who chides herself for repeatedly “running into Stephen’s arms.” Nevertheless, strong and determined, Jennifer performs her sleuthing as she follows, eavesdrops, noses around and pays attention, eventually drawing a conclusion that now requires the hardest part: follow up. As danger intensifies, so too does the thematic thunder of the title, initially present but aloof. The tension rises as the self-aware nature of the two main characters sparks fears that this play will ultimately end as a tragedy.

One critique of Thunder on the Right is that it has adjective overload and that at least portions of its plot are predictable. In truth, Stewart probably could have made her prose less descriptive heavy and it still would have come out a marvelous story. However, I wouldn’t agree the adjectives add too much weight, and in fact find her descriptive prose stirring and sometimes magical. At her first visit to the convent, Jennifer waits in the unmoving heat of a silent moment:

A grasshopper, leaping across her shadow, spread parasol wings of palest powder-blue and the tiny lizard that flicked across the baked stone seemed part of the same enchantment that hung around her in the stillness.

thunderI would concede the possibility of a predictable reveal, though Stewart did keep me guessing as there was at least one other eventuality to consider. Moreover, there are many more instances of intrigue, action and circumstance that potentially throw up roadblocks to assumptions, and the shifting nature of the thunder’s presence, with characters seeking its location on the right—nod to an ancient omen and the eastward positioning of a tempest now past—leaves readers wondering, with perhaps not a few jitters, what danger it might really be signaling.

As Stewart moves her narrative along readers get a sense of musical accompaniment to pair with “Tragic Overture: stringendo,” or “Danse Macabre” and other chapter titles reflecting events within. As murder becomes a tool to enable continued criminal activity, the thunder is mirrored in betrayals, facial expressions, dangerous waters … a memento mori for all involved, no matter how, in the chilling underworld of the darkly ambitious.

One of my favorite passages in the book serves as part of this linkage, in many instances so subtly placed:

It was a swift beat, accelerando, that thudded behind her, up the turf of the valley track, bringing with it that faint crawling sense of excitement, that slow apprehensive prickling of the skin that is our inheritance from countless long-dead men to whom the sudden sound of galloping hooves spelled danger.

Here Stewart brilliantly captures an involved, collective response sharply, concisely, the rhythm of our own blood beating in time with the musical pieces she summons as we “watch” this story play out, simultaneously becoming part of it. She masterfully manages the multiple threads running throughout, all the while keeping the suspense element dominant over a developing romance. An end result is a thrilling race against time as Jennifer searches for the questions to ask and the answers to lead her forward.

While not the most well-received of Stewart’s novels, I still find this one drew me in and consider it an overlooked gem in Mary Stewart’s legacy. For those new to the author or who haven’t picked up her work in some time, Thunder on the Right is a spectacular choice with the twists, surprises and intrigue that will keep readers up far past bedtime.

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

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Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for Nine Coaches Waiting.

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Update: This post has been corrected to reflect its series title and add links to related entries.

Friday Night Flashback: The World of Mary Stewart

Readers of this blog know of my lifelong love affair with Merlin, in particular the version of him presented in Mary Stewart’s best-selling novel The Crystal Cave. However, I haven’t really mentioned Stewart’s other works so much—perhaps not at all— and this month is a wonderful time to rectify that, as it marks the 100-year anniversary of the novelist’s birth.  Stewart’s bestselling novels were renowned for merging romance with mystery and suspense, and presented determined and capable heroines who didn’t shy away from dangerous situations.

madamWhile Stewart herself never endured any of the experiences her heroines did, she didn’t shy away from keeping on through adversity, adjusting when needed, but also grabbing life by the reins, taking chances on what she believed in.

Born September 17, 1916 to parents who cherished the spirit of adventure—her father was a vicar who sailed around Cape Horn and brought a New Zealand bride back home with him—Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was a reader and writer from very early on, publishing her first poem at age five.

Following the end of World War II, she met the future Sir Frederick Stewart and distinguished geologist at a war victory celebration. The pair were married within three months, though it was not until 1953 that Frederick Stewart persuaded his wife to submit her first novel, Madam Will You Talk?, which was an immediate success.

A lover of Roman history, Stewart took full advantage of her husband’s travels to pursue observations of her settings, the details and research informing her novels, rich with descriptive landscape and natural environment. Despite its outdated use of semi-colons substituting for commas, the strength of her prose is such that it remains eloquent and mesmerizing. From My Brother Michael, set in Greece and on the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time:

All along the Pleistus—at this season a dry white serpent of shingle beds that glittered in the sun—all along its course, filling the valley bottom with the tumbling, whispering green-silver of water, flowed the olive woods; themselves a river, a green-and-silver flood of plumy branches as soft as sea spray, over which the ever-present breezes slid, not as they do over corn, in flying shadows, but in whitening breaths, little gasps that lift and toss the olive crests for all the world like breaking spray.

Thunder on the Right, set in the French Pyrenees—the first Stewart novel I ever read, at age eleven—is one she “detested and [was] ashamed of.” A criticism of the novel is its adjectives, though one reader counters this with her defense, remarking that she “always wonder[s] what people have against adjectives. To me they represent the difference between colour and black and white television.” It is also of note that certain activities in her books, such as smoking, a character often tossing the butt down and grinding it into the ground, frequently dates or diminishes the appeal of various works. However, Mary Stewart has invested so many other timeless and intriguing angles to reel readers in, that these images become more like time capsules into a world that was.

MyBrotherMichaelThe author went on to publish a catalogue of other mystery romance novels and it is curious to note that her publisher didn’t even want anything to do with Merlin, when she broached the topic. “Publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don’t want you to change horses.” Stewart herself confesses medieval times never appealed to her, though she had always wanted to write an historical novel. Upon reading through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain one day—she had no idea why she would be doing that—she found her story. Setting the medieval knight Arthur back in Roman Britain, and re-inventing Merlin—given his full name of Merlin Ambrosius, she wrote Ambrosius in to be the wizard’s father—she invented nearly all the series’ details, though writing the books one at a time. That is to say, she never set out to create a trilogy. In the end she felt Mordred had “been given a jolly hard deal as a character,” a perspective resulting in The Wicked Day, capping off the quintet.

Given the time in which Stewart wrote all her books, it is unsurprising she would have used a typewriter, though many fans likely don’t know the agony she endured to get it all done. Dictating and sending to a typist’s was the easy part—as were subsequent revisions, four in all. An ordinary portable “wrecked” her wrist, and at first she was terrified of a new electric. Later she developed spinal arthritis, but wrote through the agony, maintaining her sense of humor, quipping with a thematic link back to her war era mechanic qualification that “All this makes me sound like a proper old wreck. The chassis may be, but the engine is fine.”

airsStewart also maintained a humility about her craft, stating that “You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the story teller’s flair or you don’t. It’s no virtue of mine. It’s just there.” Also not one for labels, she perhaps brushed off her status as a groundbreaker in the same way she did the stylization she acquired after her husband was knighted: Lady Stewart never used the title. However her work may have been categorized, she maintained, “To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written.”

It’s clear to me which one of these Mary Stewart’s books are, though she herself would likely just have repeated a previous plea: “Can’t I say I just write stories?”

Yes, dear lady, you certainly may. You wrote stories that captured the imagination of readers the world over and in subsequent generations who continue to drink up your words and hope you don’t mind that we kind of adore you. You are a writer’s writer, not threatened by an admission that you hadn’t the energy to pursue a particular idea, gracious in response to those inspired in their own work by yours, secure enough to have a chuckle at your own expense. It is in human DNA to want to hear a story, and you answered this call, thrilling us, keeping us on edge, making us guess. We have lost you in this world now, but you are there for all time.

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Mary Stewart’s last book was Rose Cottage in 1997, and her beloved husband, Fred,  passed away in 2001, after which she stopped writing, for he had always been her first reader.

Continuing the journey, I’d like to play my small bit by reviewing Mary Stewart through the month, which also will be a bit of reminiscing for myself. Each week I will revisit a novel with a brief review and commentary about how I remember reading them the first time. Tomorrow’s installment, for example, brings me back to a book that, when I picked it up recently, I knew I barely remembered. Re-reading it reminded me how our memories can play tricks, for I recalled a musing, on the part of the protagonist, that I seem to have invented! There is one scene that could be what stuck in my mind, however flawed the settling in was. Nevertheless the journey continues in earnest and I hope I can persuade you to re-visit or acquaint yourself with the world of Mary Stewart, which is sure to enchant yours.

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for

Thunder on the Right.

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Works Consulted

Hauptfuhrer, Fred. “Novelist Mary Stewart’s a Lady, Like Antonia Fraser—by Title; and That Ends the Similarity.” People. September 6, 1976. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Hutchinson, Chris. “Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart: Doctor of Letters.” Durham University Honorary Degrees Speech. July 3, 2009. http://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/ceremonies/congregation/stewart_mary.pdf. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Page, Katherine Hall. “Mary Stewart: Teller of Tales.” Mystery Scene. mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2354:mary-stewart-teller-of-tales&catid=38:profile&Itemid=191. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Thompson, Raymond H. “The Camelot Project: Interview with Mary Stewart.” Robbins Library Digital Projects. April 14, 1989. d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/interview-with-mary-stewart. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Von Behren, Diana Faillace. “Stormy Locale Packs a Wollop.”  Review of Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart. Amazon.  amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R326X91CN955C9/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0060747463. Accessed August 31, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2002.

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Note: This post was updated to include a link to the next installment in the “Month of Mary Stewart” series. 

Book Review: Far from the Spaceports (with Giveaway)

Author Richard Abbott is generously gifting a FREE COPY (Kindle or e-pub) of

Far from the Spaceports

for one lucky winner! Read the review and comment below or here to get you name in the draw!

Update: The draw has been completed and we have a winner. Congratulations to Nataliya, and thank you so much to author Richard Abbott for generously providing a copy of his marvelous novel for our contest!

Far from the Spaceports by Richard Abbott

Spaceports cover

I’ll be honest up front: I don’t normally read science fiction, and in fact am not really a huge fan. Nevertheless, when a read of Far from the Spaceports was presented for possible review, I was open to it because I’d seen reviews for other novels by Richard Abbott, which … means nothing really, I know, given they aren’t sci-fi. But he’d piqued my curiosity in the past and a preview at the blurb gave me a sneaking suspicion this wasn’t “typical” sci-fi.

How glad I was I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, for Far from the Spaceports was a delightfully pleasant read, not only with a fantastic plot but also personable characters (one as artificial intelligence!), intriguing world-building, an especially thrilling and sweat-breaking scene and lures from one transition to the next—all the way through.

The sole bump for me was an opening chapter segment with a tad bit of disconnect, but I put this down to the narrative and I getting to know one other, and walking into a scene in progress smoothed over quite quickly. Potential readers with the same sort of relationship to sci-fi as I generally have can also rest assured that the jargon written into the tale is not the dense or fearsome linguistic mine trap from which we often recoil: in fact it’s fun to read and typically rather understandable: “Slate … had flicked on the message within a couple of femtoseconds of reception.” Abbott does a great job, as I came to see early on, of keeping his readers informed and on track with contextual passages of dialogue or prose that need little information padding at all.

Far from the Spaceports, set in the Scilly Isles, an asteroid belt close to Jupiter, is Mitnash’s story of his mission to the Isles to investigate financial fraud. He works under the jurisdiction of the Economic Crime Review Board (ECRB), along with his “onboard persona,” Slate, also referred to in the beginning as a stele. This I found rather fascinating, given that Slate performs, really, essentially the same function as ancient stelae in terms of the passing of information, though electronically and with the added modern ability to communicate via cochlear implant.

Ceres
Ceres, largest of the real-life asteroids, discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. It lies in the orbit between Mars and Jupiter (NASA/JPL)

Abbott’s choice to tell Mit’s tale in first person is a splendid one, as readers can more closely get to the heart of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling, whereas there would be a remove with even an omniscient but detached narrator. We engage in more of a personal feel to what Mit experiences, such as the whining of an electric car, “probably older than I was,” in double-duty fashion providing readers an idea of just how long the colony has been functioning as well as the character’s sense of resigned acceptance regarding priorities of supply.

Mit has been doing this for a while as well, as indicated by his statement that, “Some years ago I’d asked Slate to use [his partner] Shayna’s voice as the audio basis whenever we were away from Earth.” As the story progresses we are privy to Mit’s impressions as he takes up his newest mission as well as his relationship with the loyal Slate, who provides him with data computations and information helpful to his investigation.

The information technology is what in part makes this novel different to many other sci-fi stories I’ve given a shot: it is the focus, not stereotypical laser battles with weapons that can melt your enemy, nor outstanding physical feats of bravado acted out by your hero. Mind you there is action and Mit is tested, required to engage his wits to escape physical and other danger that he finds himself embroiled in, can predict or see coming. His arsenal is awareness and prep, intelligence—of the cerebral as well as provided sort—and quick wits in detecting and escaping the mysterious, suspicious and dangerous. Abbott’s persuasive mixture of just the right ingredients at particular moments shows off a research and storytelling expertise blended together with such dexterity readers periodically pause to admire the effect—of writer as well as character.

“[He] was looking at me with the unfocused expression of someone who was querying a remote [stele]. I had practiced for hours in front of mirrors and human trainers to avoid exactly that look. He saw me watching and tried to cover himself.

 ‘[My contact] tells me your supplies will be transferred within the hour, Mr Thakur.’

 I nodded, knowing full well he had been running a completely different query.”

 Indeed, Far from the Spaceports is a mystery novel, complete with queries and lies, and the author skillfully balances this genre mix with humor, including that coming from interaction with Slate, who has a developed personality as well as perspectives. On occasion she is suspicious, which makes sense given her ability to mine data and utilize formulae to determine viability. But Abbott bestows her with more than that, allowing her to avoid the paradigm of “sidekick” by making her a greater part of the story and not merely a tool Mit utilizes to progress in his detective work; he needs her as much as she needs him, and not just for efficiency. Readers will appreciate her worry about being marginalized, for example, or frustrations, even snobbery regarding equipment. Already miffed in one scene, she retreats into mostly silence.

’The fake[ flowers] are better on Deimos.’

 Pretty, though.’

 She made a noncommittal noise. Neither of us had seen a real agapanthus plant, but Slate would have been able to acquire much more accurate sensory data than I could, so she was probably right.

 Whether right or not about the quality of the flowers, she also disliked her current living space and was letting me know. A hand-held was small, slow, and impoverished compared to her usual frame. She always made her voice sound tinny when she was transferred to inadequate hardware to remind me of her frustration.”

 At one point Mit partners with a new character who, despite her late appearance in the book, is also well developed, though presented in such a way I often wondered if she was helping Mit or would turn out to be a double agent or baddie. This continued the anticipation earlier created—and that provoked actual sweat on my forehead—when Mit has to work his way through a spell of psychological warfare perhaps even more frightening than super-powered space arms.

This links also to contemplations of what a futuristic world looks like, though to Abbott’s credit, he doesn’t fall into any sort of dystopian-like trap with machinations of evil—also sci-fi staples that may have turned me off in the past. Instead, he gracefully explores various elements, periodically pointing to new versions of what appears in our existing world: small anachronisms used to define or identify actions no longer actually performed in the manner described. For example, someone today might counter repetition with, “You sound like a broken record,” despite these devices being obsolete. In Mit’s world, errors in a systematic analysis are “still call[ed] a fat finger problem even if no fingers are actually used.”

Things can also get a little intrusive, such as it being “almost impossible to persuade anybody you were out of contact,” to the very dangerous, such as hacking and a higher level of identity theft. Abbott makes it believable because though it amps up the results to something quite deceptive and potentially very destructive, more so than we deal with today, it was birthed from our current technology. It adroitly fits readers of all stripes.

Dawn
Artist’s impression of the Dawn spacecraft above Ceres (NASA/JPL)

At the end of the day one could describe Far from the Spaceports as a sci-fi mystery, which it is, though it is so much more than merely that sum. With likeable characters and bad guys readers can’t easily identify, believable futuristic technology, a well-balanced mix of drama and dry humor, and a very engaging and well-told storyline, it is a new take on detecting, with enough questions arising in the end or remaining unanswered from earlier that it seems open to a sequel.

Like many books before it, Far from the Spaceports surely contains elements I missed that could be caught on a subsequent read. Of course, readers know only too well this is near impossible in these days of to-be-read piles threatening to topple over. However, as I approached the end I felt sorry not to be moving through more breathtaking scenes with Mitnash (I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve been calling him Mit), that there weren’t at least 200 more pages. So then, as now, I resolved it shall be read again and I hope I’ll be doing it in anticipation indeed of that sequel I mentioned as possibility.

Far from the Spaceports is simply an amazing book that took me to a world I was alien in yet felt comfortable exploring and want to return to. Combining all the right elements of mystery, psychological thriller, sci-fi, adventure—not an easy balance—this is a novel that will bring aboard a wave of new readers for sci-fi, and have Richard Abbott to thank for it.

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Update: I am so pleased to announce that the author is indeed working on Timing, a sequel to Far from the Spaceports projected for release in early autumn. Stay tuned for my review as well as some chatting with and a guest blog from author Richard Abbott. 

In the meantime, be sure to comment below or here to get your name in the draw for your  FREE Kindle or e-pub copy of Far from the Spaceports

About the author …

richardabbottRichard 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. A sequel, Timing, is in preparation for release 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.

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.

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! Far from the Spaceports is also available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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The blogger was furnished with a complimentary copy of Far from the Spaceports in exchange for an honest review.

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All images courtesy of and/or provided by Richard Abbott. 

Book Review: The First Lie (Plus Giveaway)

The First Lie (Book I in the Selkie Moon Mystery Series) by Virginia King

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

See below for details as to how you could win a signed copy or audio book of

The First Lie

and an Amazon gift card!

Plus: Download a free ghost story below!

Though I am a huge ghost story fan, over the years I’ve come to avoid various books classified as “paranormal” because so many involve blood-drinking and other creatures who fail to excite my imagination—and even disgust me a little. Let’s face it: it’s a wide continuum and though understandable why these and others might be placed on it, there are nevertheless huge gulfs. For a while there I found most of my ghostly reading came from the time when séances were all the rage.

First Lie coverSo it was with pleasure that I came across Virginia King’s The First Lie, a modern paranormal mystery steeped in Celtic and Hawaiian mythology that promised to draw me into an international chase between two worlds—and draw me in it did.

One of the first elements I admired was the likability of King’s protagonist and supporting characters. These are individuals who talk to each other in ways that genuinely reflect the way people really act and converse. Even the baddies are credible, their behaviors and consequences developing as a result of realistic foibles.

Australian Selkie Moon escapes an emotionally abusive marriage—itself entered with the hope of providing refuge from a cold and calculating stepmother—by re-locating to Hawaii, where she sets up a business venture. She begins to experience visitations by a woman warning that someone is trying to kill her. Selkie’s art-student roommate Wanda, knowledgeable in the supernatural, counsels her, but even her native understanding is limited by her experiences. Following her decision to fully investigate this and other goings-on, Selkie garners her information from a variety of sources, themselves linked within true-to-life degrees of separation and in possession of knowledge that makes sense relative to who they are—a wise direction for King to take and cleverly mapped out.

Selkie’s co-worker Derek and his partner, Nigel, gift her a dress custom made by an Irish girl, whose later link to Selkie weaves the story through a project at work, which in turn affects the business relationship between herself and a client who subsequently plays a large role in bringing her closer to understanding the events playing out in her life. Real life tends to operate this way, so it makes sense for the author to reflect this in her work, and she does it in a way so sleek and engaging I found myself moving through transitions I’d wanted to use as a good stopping point, but didn’t because I was so involved I had to keep following.

This ho’ohihi, interconnectedness, is also addressed within the tale in the context of the roles people play not only in their own lives and personal pasts, but also their ancestral histories and how that affects the paths they travel. The selkie mythology—sea creatures resembling seals who can take human form on land—is explained in a dialogue that unwraps yet another layer to the story and mirrors some of Selkie’s own memory and experiences, beginning with the name her mother loved so much, and into the present-day ghostly stalking. “Around here,” Roger tells her, “the interface between the living and the dead … wavers.”

At dinner the night before a proposed outing, Selkie asks for details. The exchange about photography encompasses a picture of the relationship between Selkie and Roger, expands upon the “interface” the latter had spoken of and becomes a conduit, a road for Selkie to make her way toward her next supernatural experience, developing a foundational event in her story.

“A competition. For serious photographers. Called … Life and Death.”

A topic that might be haunting me. “Isn’t a cemetery a bit … obvious?”

“Only to an amateur. It’s the artist’s job to accentuate drama. Transmute the ambience into something … palpable. A solitary gravestone against the horizon … signifying the folly of man’s struggle against nature. That kind of thing.”

“Right.” Roger could be a tad pretentious. “So why do you want me along?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” he mimics. “I need someone pretty to carry my bags. And waggle her excellent buttocks occasionally.”

“I want to take photos too.”

He laughs. “You know sweet FA about photography.”

King even enables the reader to interconnect with the tale, not only in its captivating nature and how she draws readers in, but also by a small addition at the novel’s opening, a list of Hawaiian words. She does this by keeping the list limited—removing the potential overload and overwhelming nature of too much new information—and her word choices render us familiar with but also visitors to this world: we are new, yet still connected, much like events and characters in the story. Kahuna, a wise person or sorcerer and menehune, legendary little people, link with the familiar: Pele, a volcano goddess, Mai Tai, lei and muumuu.

As the tale moves on and Selkie begins to find answers—often raising more questions—explanations are called for, and King provides in a way that encourages absorption rather than confusion. Her style is spare but not sharp. She deftly renders the potentially complicated into a succinct exchange or passage of a fascinating topic against the backdrop of Selkie’s story and intriguing hints at her ancestry. I remain rather impressed at how well she handles as many layers as the novel contains, all while still drawing in and keeping us mesmerized. For just a small taste at what that means, consider the variety of genres and styles The First Lie overlaps: psychological thriller, drama, betrayal, paranormal, mystery, magic, mythology, self-discovery and romance, to name but a few. Selkie’s real life experiences blend beautifully with her visions and King brings us to emotional depths, and with such expertise, often unexplored in modern literature.

The First Lie is simultaneously what I’d hoped yet nothing I expected: thrilling all the way through with new twists at every turn, written in a grand style in a modern setting, and opening the door to further exploration. What will Selkie’s future hold? What other questions will arise as a result of what she finds here? Will she in time be able to accept all she has learned? Does she want to know more?

These and other questions will arise in the series’ next installment, The Second Path, and I look forward to seeing where the tale will take me as well.

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About the author…

Virginia KingWhen a voice wakes you up in the middle of the night and tells you to write a mystery series what’s a writer to do? That’s how Virginia King came to create Selkie Moon, after a massage from a strange woman with gifted hands was followed by this nocturnal message. Virginia sat down at the keyboard until Selkie Moon turned up. All she had to do was jump, the first sentence said. Soon Virginia was hooked, exploring far-flung places full of secrets where Selkie delves into psychological clues tangled up in the local mythology.

Before Selkie Moon invaded her life, Virginia had been a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, the author of over 50 children’s books, an audio-book producer, a workshop presenter and a prize-winning publisher. These days she lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband, where she disappears each day into Selkie Moon’s latest mystery. Bliss.

You can learn more about and follow author Virginia King at her website, blog, FacebookTwitter or Amazon author page.

A Free Ghost Story

Get a taste for the Selkie Moon mystery series with Laying Ghosts, a modern 24-page haunted house story inspired by a Russian folktale and tangled up in a murder ballad dating back to the 1700s. It’s a standalone story but also a prequel to the series and explains the chilling reason for Selkie Moon leaving Sydney to start a new life in Hawaii. Download your free copy here.

Laying Ghosts
Click image to get to download page!

Giveaway of The First Lie

You could be one of ten lucky winners who will choose either a signed paperback or an audio book of The First Lie plus a $15 Amazon gift code. One grand prize winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift code.

Enter here.

Or, if you simply can’t wait to own your own edition of The First Lie, hop on over to the author’s website and grab your copy!

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Click here for Virginia King’s captivating guest post about souvenir and sorry rocks!

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Images courtesy Virginia King. A free copy of The First Lie was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review. 

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This post was updated to include a link to the author’s subsequent guest post.