We’re just a week off the big day – or as big a day as people are going to allow themselves at the end of a quite extraordinary year.
I don’t want to dwell on a miserable past few months and an uncertain future. If I’m going to write a downbeat blog post, it’s going to be after Christmas. For now we’re just concentrating on a few days with our family trying to put Covid behind us. We’ve been careful, as I hope you all are, but I think, perhaps, the time has come to remember that human relationships and the ties that bind us are, in the end, vital to our health as individuals and as a society.
Anyway, whatever you’re doing for Christmas I hope you have a good one.
I promised a couple of months ago that I was going to cut back on blogging. For the next couple of weeks there will be no blog posts. I hope you are all far too busy with other things to miss them. If you really want to read stuff that I’ve written over the Christmas break, it’s not too late to buy one of my books! Or you could sign up for my newsletter (check the bottom of the page). As I blog less, I’m trying to send out newsletters more regularly.
So the last thing to do this year is to send you all Christmas greetings and a photo from happier times when we could spend our Christmases in Wales. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to visit there again soon.
Since I started limiting myself to blogging just once a week, a lot of my posts here have been book reviews. I really don’t want this to turn into a book blog, but there are a lot of good books out there and I like to help promote them.
This week I finished two very different historical novels. One was a serious book about the assassination that triggered World War I, while the second was a more tongue-in-cheek adventure set in the Palaeolithic. Both were, in very different ways, excellent reads. Here are my thoughts:
The Assassins – Alan Bardos
The Assassins is a novel based around the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. It was the murder that precipitated World War I, but who was Franz Ferdinand, why was he killed, and how on earth did this start one of history’s greatest bloodbaths?
If, like me, you’ve got some vague awareness that it was all to do with the Balkan Problem and Great Power alliances at the beginning of the 20th century, but you really struggle with more detail than that, then Alan Bardos’s book will, if nothing else, leave you much better informed. In fact, the time spent reading could be well justified purely for its value as a work of historical pedagogy. But, although there is the odd page where there is a danger of being overwhelmed by “facts” about the political situation, the book reads well as a work of fiction. This is mainly because we see events unfold through the eyes of an entirely made-up (at least, I really hope he’s entirely made-up) young chancer in the diplomatic service, Johnny Swift. Swift’s mother had been a governess. He has made it into the diplomatic service despite being, dash it all, pretty much from the servant class. His response to the continual prejudice and unpleasantness that he is exposed to from his superiors is to behave ever more outrageously, seducing his boss’s wife and embezzling embassy funds to feed his gambling habit.
Rather than dismiss Swift in disgrace and risk an open scandal, the diplomatic service sends him to Vienna to report on the political situation in the Balkans. He is passed from arrogant caddish official to arrogant caddish official, all of whom deny that there is anything to worry about in Bosnia, until he finally ends up in Sarajevo where he quickly learns that there is a violent nationalist movement threatening terrorist outrages.
A series of unlikely, but not incredible, events ends up with him being infiltrated into the Bosnian nationalist movement, mainly thanks to the efforts of Breitner, a disgraced Austro-Hungarian intelligence officer who, like Johnny, doesn’t come from the right background and whose intelligence on the nationalist movement is therefore systematically ignored by the Habsburg administration.
The mechanics of putting these characters into a position which means that the reader will be able to follow in detail the machinations that led to the Archduke’s assassination could be plodding and unrealistic. Instead, Bardos’s mastery of characterisation and fluent writing style carries the reader along with it. In fact, as we move closer and closer to the assassination, I found myself turning the pages desperate to see how it would work out – ironic as we all know exactly what happened.
There is a definite pause in the narrative thrust of the book once poor Franz Ferdinand and his wife (portrayed as easily the most sympathetic character in the book) are duly bumped off. However, Johnny Swift is not just a site cipher created for purposes of plot and Bardos now has to conclude his story. Bardos manages to make us care as Johnny is bounced from meeting to meeting when nobody seems quite sure whether he should be given a medal or sent to prison. Again Bardos fact and fiction really well with Johnny’s Odyssey taking the reader through the key moments that finally lead to war. In fact Johnny is even in the room as Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, delivers the famous line: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”
Franz Ferdinand is dead; the world is about to be plunged into war; but what awaits Johnny? Johnny’s ultimate fate is a twist I did not see coming, but at least he’s still alive at the end of the book. I’m glad about that. Promiscuous, caddish, dishonest, and a thorough rascal he may well be, but he managed to make what could have been a boring history lesson into a most enjoyable read and it would be lovely to share his adventures again.
A Remedy in Time – Jennifer Macaire
Jennifer Macaire’s books combine wild action adventure plots against a meticulously researched background. Her latest thriller does not disappoint on either of these.
Although I am pretty sure the book was written before covid, the background is scarily contemporary: the world is being ravaged by a pandemic with no cure. The best possibility of a cure lies in the blood of sabre-tooth tigers (smilodons) which studies have shown carried the virus and from which you could make an antidote. Don’t spend too long worrying about this: it’s mainly an excuse for our feisty heroine (I really didn’t want to say that, but it’s that sort of book) to travel back to the Pleistocene (Macaire loves time-travel adventures), get a sample of sabre-tooth tiger blood and save the world.
What could possibly go wrong?
As if dire wolves, giant beavers, huge salmon with enormous teeth, and mammoths were not enough of a problem (not to mention the smilodons), the expedition is packed with Bad People, anxious to kill Robin and get the vital serum for themselves. Cue murder plots, terrible deaths and a great deal of running through the woods trying to avoid becoming something’s dinner.
Is this a good read? You betcha. Macaire’s writing is fluid and entertaining. I powered through the story. Is it an improving read? Well, oddly enough, it does have quite a lot of fascinating facts about the animals of the time, so you can claim an educational credit. Is it great literature? Of course not. It’s entertainment pure and simple and easy to disdain as commercial rubbish. But it’s huge fun and brightened my day at a time that we all need our days brightening. And, though it’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as hack writing, it’s surprisingly difficult to get right. Macaire scores a bullseye on this style.
It can’t have escaped your notice that it’s December and we are very firmly in the run-up to Christmas.That means it’s the time of year when starving authors try to fill their Christmas stockings by persuading you to buy their books. So here, in case you are struggling to think of a last-minute Christmas present (or you are looking for some escapist reading yourself to take your mind off season) is a quick reminder of the books available from me.
Books about James Burke
I introduced James Burke, my Napoleonic era spy, inBurke in the Land of Silver. The story is set around the British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806 and is fairly closely based on the adventures of the real-life James Burke who, when not seducing the Queen of Spain or the Crown Princess of Portugal, turns out to be a brave and resourceful spy.
The Burke books dodge about in chronological order. That, as readers of Cornwall’s Sharpe series will know, seems to be an occupational hazard of historical fiction writers. Fortunately, all of them are written as stand-alone stories so you don’t have to worry about trying to get them in the right order. There is a 12 year gap between the events in the first chapter of Burke in the Land of Silver and the rest of the book. Burke’s second adventure, Burke and the Bedouin, slots neatly into this. After all the solid history of the first book, this is an unashamed romp, with a beautiful damsel to be saved, midnight rides across the desert and duels of wits with French spies. And, in the middle of all this, real history intrudes with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. We even manage to get Burke witnessing the Battle of the Nile, one of Nelson’s greatest victories. (Personally I’m with the people who think it was even more impressive than Trafalgar.) Burke and the Bedouin has no politically aware sub-text or useful message for today, which may account for the fact that though it has very few reviews, it has satisfyingly steady, if unspectacular, sales.
The third book in the series,Burke at Waterloo, was published in 2015 because there’s a law that anybody writing about Napoleonic heroes had to write a book about Waterloo 200 years after the battle. If you are interested in Waterloo but struggle to keep track of what actually happened there (and why), this is a painless introduction. If you couldn’t care less about the battle, enjoy the spy story: assassination attempts, midnight meeting in graveyards, murder, mayhem and a night at one of history’s most famous balls.
This year saw the publication of a new book about Burke: Burke in the Peninsula. Our hero is with Wellington’s army in Spain. The story, (very) loosely based on some of the exploits of a real spy there, finds Burke ranging ahead of the troops, working with the guerrillas in a dirty war against the French. The story follows on directly from Burke in the Land of Silver. In fact you could read Land of Silver followed by Peninsula and have one very long historical novel – ideal for the sort of people who like to spend Christmas buried in a long historical novel. There was going to be another book published this year but Covid has disrupted the whole publishing industry so much that I put that off until early next year. Look out for Burke in Ireland then.
The John Williamson Papers
Before there was James Burke, there was John Williamson. (At least in the order I wrote them: John Williamson’s adventures are set in the mid-19th century, a very different world from Burke’s.) These are much more serious books than the Burke series, following the experiences of my eponymous narrator as he comes face-to-face with the reality of the British Empire. The first book, The White Rajah, finds him in Borneo with James Brooke who ruled the little country of Sarawak as his own private kingdom. He moves on to India, just in time to be caught up in the horrors of the Mutiny in Cawnpore. Broken by his experiences, he returns Back Home to England to find that the rich are exploiting the poor as ruthlessly in London as their Empire does across the world.
The whole issue of the British Empire and how we should feel about it has become much more contentious since I wrote these books, but I remain proud of them because I try not to take sides. James Brooke, for example, did a lot of good in Borneo, but he also presided over some horrific wartime atrocities. Poor John Williamson, with his working class origins, is always an outsider in the world of Empire, forever caught between his European upbringing and his sympathy for the natives of the countries he finds himself in. There are no (or few) happy endings and the books were never going to have the simple appeal of the Burke series, but if you are looking for something a bit more thoughtful, I’d love you to read them.
If you want a flavour of The White Rajah, there is a short story with the characters from that book, which you can read, alongside nine other stories by some well-known historical writers, in Victoriana, which was published during the summer.
Something Completely Different
Last year I decided to do something completely unlike the historical novels I generally write. I produced a comedy-horror novella, Dark Magic. Comedy horror is always a dangerous area. Many of books in the genre are neither funny nor scary, but my Amazon reviews suggest that this had actually worked. It’s very short and fun and the paperback is only £4.99, making it an ideal stocking filler.
It’s that time of year when I blog my annual reminder that books make ideal Christmas presents.
Amazon has now introduced the option to send Kindle books as a gift in the UK. (This service has been available in the US for a while.) Look for the button on the right of the page for the book you are ordering.
That’s a convenient (and cheap!) way to buy gifts right up to Christmas Eve. I can see the Internet crashing on 24 December.
In the end, though, there is nothing quite like a paper book as a gift. For many people, including me, the convenience of e-books means that that’s where we do most of our reading these days, but paper is special. Paper books can be lent to friends or passed on when they’re finished with. They do, indeed, furnish a room.
Old textbooks remind us of our student years, an autographed volume of a special meeting.
There is something personal about gifting a paper book. A paper book says that you want to share something you have enjoyed, or that you have thought about the interests and enthusiasms of your friend and sought out a book that matches them. The transfer of digital data from computer to computer does not, for some reason, carry the emotional resonance of the gift of a physical book. Paperback books make excellent Christmas presents and paperback books from less well known authors suggest you’ve given your gift more thought than just a quick check on the Best Sellers shelf.
All my novels are available in paperback as well as in e-book format, though Amazon can sometimes hide them away. If the paperback edition doesn’t show up, try adding “paperback” to your search. If all else fails, let me know about the problem (try mentioning it in the ‘Comments’ here) and I will track down the link.
I’m delaying publication of Burke in Ireland until 2021 when life may be coming back to some sort of normal. Until then, the latest is Burke in the Peninsula, though don’t forget that, besides the Burke series, Lume books is still publishing my slightly more serious mid-19th century books, the Williamson Papers.
So there you are: your Christmas gift problems solved and it’s barely November. Buy a book for yourself and give others to your friends. And keep a couple spare, for those last-minute gifts. And remember, a book is for life, not just for Christmas.
My Christmas Present to You
I’m experimenting with the idea of audio books. I’ve recorded the first chapter of my contemporary fantasy, Dark Magic, to see what it sounds like. If you subscribe to my newsletter (there’s a subscription box at the bottom of the page – let me know in the ‘Comments’ if you have problems with it) I’ll send you the link in the newsletter. I’d love to know what you make of it!
Thank you, Tom, for your blog post about my new thriller, The Stranger in My Bed. I appreciate you taking the time to do this. As you mentioned, I normally write romance novels, where love wins in the end and everything goes right. Whereas The Stranger in My Bed, is a portrayal of a marriage gone badly wrong.
You commented in your blog that ‘Like many men, I had my suspicions that coercive control was mainly an invention of militant feminism and that, if it happened at all, it happened to weak women who were, to a degree, complicit in their abuse. Since then two separate friends of mine, both strong, confident women, have fallen victim to this sort of relationship.’ A lot of people think this, unless they are involved, or know someone involved, in this kind of destructive relationship and this is one of the reasons I wrote this story, to raise awareness of the issue.
Both women and men – although it’s mainly women – are affected by domestic abuse – over 2.4 million according to the 2019 Crime Survey for England and Wales, it’s a big problem that is often misunderstood and pushed under the carpet. Someone who has never been in an abusive relationship, or never known anyone in one, can find it difficult to understand why the abused person doesn’t run for the door when the first incident occurs and say things such as ‘why didn’t she get out sooner?’ or ‘why does he put up with it?’ These comments suggest that the victims of domestic abuse are partly to blame for it, that it’s their fault for ‘allowing’ it to happen. I wrote The Stranger in My Bed to try and dispel the myth that abused partners are weak doormats and to try and show how insidious the emotional impact of domestic abuse is, how the abuser gaslights their partner into believing that they are imaging the abuse, or that it is their own fault, they cause it to happen. Also, these kinds of abusers aren’t abusive all the time, they are sometimes kind, loving, the life and soul of the party. This can be confusing for their partner who hangs on in there waiting for the abuser to return to the person they know they can be, the one they fell in love with and who loves them.
In The Stranger in My Bed, both Freya and Phil have their faults – as all people do. Freya is no doormat. She is outgoing, strong, a career woman who fights her corner determined not to put up with the things her mother put up with from her father, who was a serial adulterer. Phil is intelligent, loving, kind, charming if a little overbearing, they seem the perfect couple. One night Phil storms out and Freya packs her bag ready to leave him when he is involved in a serious car accident. When he comes out of his coma he can’t remember the past two years – all their married life – his last memory is of them returning from their happy honeymoon. Freya is faced with the dilemma of whether to still leave him or give their marriage another chance. It’s evident that some kind of abuse has gone on in the marriage, but the story changes POV so that the reader isn’t sure which one of the characters is the abuser and which one the abused.
It’s a story that, I hope, will make people think. That nice couple next door could be going through this, your sister, brother or friend. Did they really get that bruise on their arm by walking into the door frame? Do they always wear long sleeves for a reason? Would they tell you if something was wrong or cover it up? And when they finally do confess to you what’s going on will you believe them or say ‘but he/she seems so nice?’ As you say in your blog, Tom, ‘it can be difficult to believe that there can be a real threat lurking in an apparently normal home’.
No one knows what goes on behind closed doors. Even the victims of domestic abuse often don’t realise what’s happening to them and question whether they are really the ones at fault, if they are causing the abuse. If my book helps just one of them to open their eyes and reach out for help then I’ll feel that I’ve achieved something.
The Stranger in My Bed
‘We have a patient who has been involved in a serious accident. We believe he’s your husband.’
When Freya first met Phil, she thought he was the man of her dreams. He bought her roses every week, booked surprise trips to sun-soaked destinations, and showed her affection like she’d never experienced before. But over time the dream had become a violent nightmare. And now Freya is packing her bags, knowing it’s time she escaped their increasingly broken marriage.
But then Freya gets a visit from the police. Phil’s been in a horrific car crash and – as he comes around – it becomes clear that he remembers nothing since their blissful honeymoon two years before, back when their relationship was perfect. All he wants is to be happily married again.
Freya knows giving him another chance could be dangerous. But now he’s the one who needs her, it’s a chance to turn the tables, and to change the outcome of their relationship once and for all. After all, he will only know what she chooses to tell him…
But what really happened during those two years of marriage? And as they start over again, who is safe? And whose life is in danger?
Fans of The Girl on the Train, Behind Closed Doors and Date Night who are looking for a dark, gripping psychological thriller, with a final twist that will leave their jaw on the floor, will love The Stranger in My Bed.
Karen King was born in Birmingham and has always enjoyed reading and writing. She’s been published for over thirty years, in a variety of genres for both children and adults. She loves writing about the complexities of relationships. She is published by Bookouture and Headline. Her first three books for Bookouture were romances where relationships came right, she has turned to the darker side of relationships for her next two books, writing two psychological thrillers about relationships that go badly wrong. Karen now lives in Spain where she loves to spend her non-writing time exploring the quaint local towns with her husband, Dave, when she isn’t sunbathing or swimming in the pool, that is.