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Autumn Writing Update

People have been asking what I’m up to now that I’ve finished writing The Secret of the Tirthas. So here’s my Autumn Update….

I’ve taken the summer off from writing! After spending the last 4 summers writing and publishing novels (albeit with short hols thrown in), this year I decided to have a break. What did I do? I went here with my family:

Niagara Falls

That’s Niagara Falls by the way, for those who don’t recognise it. Wow. I mean, wow

Now I’m back, I’m compiling a book of poetry that I’ve written over the last [mumble…mumble] years. This includes collecting some of the poems that I’ve had published in magazines such as Poetry Ireland, The New Welsh Review, and Poetry Scotland.

It’s fun getting all this together – but it’s not doing much flexing of my imagination muscles. So I’m also thinking about my next book. I’ve got a few ideas swirling around – speculative fiction for young adults and / or grown-ups; another fantasy series for middle grade / teens; something more ‘literary’. Some of these ideas have been around for years, some are entirely new. But what I’m waiting for (or maybe working my subconscious on) is the writer’s eureka moment. That moment every author knows, when they feel that pure excitement and know this is the story they are going to tell because… well, because they have to tell it. It’s too exciting to let it go.

So, besides lots of family time, that’s what I’m up to now. Plus I’ll be doing to a few promotional activities in the real and social media worlds – including a book signing session at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead for Christmas on 1st December.

Let me know what you’re up to in the comments section, or send me an email at!


TigerFish – a gripping story of a young Vietnamese refugee

“Do you see how beautifully this hardship has shaped and formed the stretching branches and foliage, like long slender fingers pointing toward the sea?”

Hoang Chi Truong’s autobiography of her experience as a young girl fleeing the Vietnam war is fascinating on many levels: as an insight into Vietnamese culture, both before and after the war; as a harrowing tale of the upheaval and existential terror of having to flee your own country to save your life; of the nuanced and changing feelings towards the culture and people that take you in as a refugee.

I found the story gripping from start to finish. The language is precise and evocative, with moments of poetic beauty, such as the quote above. I recommend you read the story of TigerFish, not only for its own many merits, but as a stark reminder of the need for countries to be bigger and wiser and kinder towards refugees.

You can purchase a copy here:

The Artefacts of Power in The Secret of the Tirthas

In The Secret of the Tirthas, the demons and their followers are desperately seeking to capture the Artefacts of Power. These magical items have gained their power from the devotion of worshippers over the centuries.

Each Artefact in the story is based on a real life sacred object, from a different religious tradition. Here’s a list of them, with the culture or religion they came from:

Nkisi statue – a wooden figure from African shamanistic religion. People drove iron nails in to release the power of the ancestor spirit residing in it.

Nkisi statue

Nkisi statue

Hilili Kachina – a raindance doll with a snake hanging out of his mouth, from Native American culture.

Hilili Kachina doll (image: Creative Commons-BY; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 03.325.4648_threequarter_PS6.jpg)

The Holy Grail – a chalice containing the blood of Christ from the Last Supper, much pursued by medieval knights.

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, Rossetti

Easter Island statue (maoi) – over 1,000 of these mysterious statues were constructed by the inhabitants of a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. All the statues look inland, away from the sea. It is thought they represented ancestors, guarding over the islanders.

Maoi sculptures

Easter Island sculptures from the original Garden of Rooms in Herefordshire

Venus – the statue is based on the famous Venus of Hohle Fels, found in Germany and believed to be 40,000 years old. She was carved from mammoth tusk.

Venus of Hohle Fels

Venus of Hohle Fels (Image: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Green Man – a figure from Western paganism, symbolising the regenerative, mysterious powers of Nature.

Green Man

Green Man from a Herefordshire church

Other Artefacts in The Secret of the Tirthas:

Yingarna – a goddess of creation, who carried children from different Aboriginal tribes in her many bags.

Shiva Lingam – a holy symbol of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, carved from stone.

Buddha’s Tooth – there are several teeth relics of the Buddha, including a very famous one in Sri Lanka.


The Unknown Realms – Taster


The Unknown Realms is the fifth and final volume in The Secret of the Tirthas. In it, Lizzie faces her most perilous challenges yet as she seeks to stop the demons and their followers from corrupting the power of the tirthas for their own treacherous ends. And worst of all, she must face them alone, as she has lost all hope of reuniting with her friends.

Here’s a short excerpt from the second chapter, The Cannaregio Shrine:

Alessandro’s grandfather, Nazario, told him that the shrine of the Madonna in Cannaregio was the oldest in Venice. When Nazario suffered a stroke that left him bedbound and dumb, Alessandro used his pocket money to buy a tealight each day from Severina’s shop which he would take to the shrine in the wall, light with a match, and pop through the grill. He could just reach through to the bottom ledge if he stood on tiptoes. He would say a prayer to the ivy-shrouded statue of Our Lady, wishing his beloved grandfather would return speedily to good health, so they could laugh again and enjoy a sweet zaleti together in the morning sunshine.

Today, as he was coming down the canal-side street to the corner where the steps led up to the shrine, Alessandro was thinking about his cat, Tito. He was wondering why Tito never ate all of his food, even when it was fish, when he heard an unusual creaking sound ahead. It was followed by a dull thud, and then a cough, a human cough, echoing through the twilit street. He was sure someone must be up by the shrine, perhaps a straggling tourist.

Alessandro cried out in surprise as he turned the corner and came face to face with the person who must have made the noise.

‘Madonna!’ he gasped, seeing the bedraggled, greasy hair, the bony, wrinkled forehead, and above all the large, desolate eyes, eyes full of a sorrow that would haunt him for the rest of his life. ‘Chi sei?’ was all he could think to say, who are you? Although at the same time he was thinking what are you might make more sense.

The awful crone didn’t reply. After holding his gaze for a moment and filling him with a wretched chill that he felt right down to his heels, she barged past him, clutching something tightly against her side. She hurried off in between the tall buildings, alongside the still, green-dark canal.

Alessandro stood still, feeling sad, in need of his mother, in need of God, but most of all just confused. After a moment, he realised the sharp edge of metal that his thumb was flicking in his pocket was today’s tealight. Before running back home, he would at least light that, to remember his grandfather’s health, and the hope and mystery of the Madonna.

He turned the corner and began to climb the small, white-washed steps to the shrine, which was set a couple of metres up in the wall and covered in a fine ivy that was turning red with the autumn.

Then he stopped again, and watched something happen that simply did not make sense.

Dropping from the shrine, from its opened grate, was a person – a girl with a pony tail, older than him – with the Madonna statue clutched in one hand. No sooner had the girl landed on the pavement than she was followed by another, much larger, figure – a woman, no, a man, thought Alessandro, and then he thought, no, un mostro, a monster!

The second figure was huge, only just able to squeeze out through the small opening in the wall, clad in black, with the most terrible features, a giant, reddish face, teeth like a bear’s, a brutal, snubby snout, and thick dark hair.

Diavolo!’ gasped Alessandro, as the creature straightened and placed a hand on the shoulder of the girl, who was looking down the steps at him with a clear, steadfast gaze.

And then his eight-year-old imagination kicked in, a clear connection was made, and he realised what he must be seeing. A woman wearing a mask, of course! But then he thought: why, when it wasn’t carnival season?

The girl said something to him then. She spoke in a language he didn’t understand, but her eyes were kind and her voice reassuring, so he felt the fear in him subside. Then she looked up at her strange companion and said something to her. The masked woman replied, in an urgent voice that sounded to Alessandro like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Was something wrong with her? he wondered. The woman stepped aside and, standing on tiptoes, the girl quickly replaced the statue of Mary in the shrine and pushed the protective grill back into place.

Next moment, the woman with the demonic mask was striding down the steps towards Alessandro, pulling the girl along behind her.

‘Togliti di mezzo!’ the woman said to him, and he stepped sideways to pin himself to the wall as they came past, clearly in a hurry.

There were many things Alessandro would never forget from that night – the crone, the foul, factory-like smell of the devil-masked woman, the deathly, unbearable wail that shook Venice a short while later and made everyone think their decadent city had finally reached the End of Days.

But the one thing he would remember above all were the eyes of the girl as she came past him on the steps.

The eyes of a girl who understood more than any other girl. A gaze that held so much, and that made him think one day, years later when he was an apprentice glass maker in Murano, that this must be what the gaze of a saint would be like.

A gaze full of compassion and understanding.

And trapped by Fate.

The Unknown Realms will be out in June.

Where do you belong?

Kenilworth castle

Last week I had a short break with my family in Kenilworth, a small town in Warwickshire. I was born in Eastbourne but moved to the Midlands when I was very young, and spent most of my childhood there. Despite not having lived in Kenilworth for 20 years, I was surprised at the deep connection I still felt with the place.

We rented a small cottage near the ruined but impressive Kenilworth castle. The castle was owned in its prime by Robert Dudley, the probable love interest of Queen Elizabeth I. They had been friends ever since they met as prisoners in the Tower of London. We spent a day in the castle, stomping up rickety, often rotten-looking stairways, taking in the magnificent views from the keep and the stately wing that Dudley built for the queen.

We spent a long time at the nearby flooded ford. With a small crowd, we cheered those cars that went for it and booed those that didn’t. (At least until our youngest, ignoring pleas to step back from the railings, was soaked by an SUV.)

We visited Leamington Spa, where the highlight for the boys was not the lovely Georgian Parade but a new rotor-blade swing in Victoria Park. We spent a sunny day in Stratford-on-Avon where the river had flooded its banks. Finally we visited splendid Warwick Castle, which unlike Kenilworth survived the ravages of the English Civil War.

Warwick castle

I was excited to be back in the area I grew up. But I hadn’t expected the depth of connection I felt, run through by the precious seams of so many good – and some not-so-good – memories. I realised that, despite the length of time away, this still felt like my place. I love where I am now, and I’ve loved being in Scotland and London. But these small, Warwickshire towns, and especially Kenilworth, are where I was formed.

They are the places where I will always, to some degree, belong. Where do you belong?


Land of Mine: life as a Prisoner of War

I’ve just watched the harrowing Danish / German war film, Land of Mine. It’s about a group of German Prisoners of War who, contrary to the Geneva Convention, are made to find and defuse 45,000 land mines along a short stretch of brilliant white coastline. That’s 45,000 out of the 2.2 million mines that were laid along the Danish coast, more than the rest of Europe altogether. This is where the Fuhrer thought the invasion would come.

The film is heart-wrenching. The soldiers are all in their teens, clearly out of their depth, carrying all the burden of a situation that was not of their making. They are harassed and abused by their guards. It’s understandable, but hard to watch when they are crying and having to loudly deny that they are missing their homes, or their family, or even crying in the first place. This is grim. It is only a matter of time before, starving and sick from eating stolen animal meal, the expected happens.

My grandfather was a German Prisoner of War, which was one of the reasons I watched the film. I wanted to try to get some insight into what he must have experienced, being little more than a boy during this period of seismic upheaval. He died when I was 10, but I still remember sitting at his feet and pestering him for war stories whilst he sat in his favourite armchair in his Eastbourne semi, smoking Golden Virginia rollies. He didn’t like talking about the war, but over the years I got several stories from him.

He told me how he was at the launch of one of the first V2 rockets, which went straight up in the sky and came straight back down on the launch site, leaving the soldiers scrambling for cover. He told me how he was captured at the Battle of Caen, aiming a Panzerfaust at a British tank and being spotted by the tank commander who fired his machine gun at him. My grandfather’s stick grenade was hit and exploded, wounding him from head to foot on one side and blowing to pieces his friend who was loading behind him. My grandfather was saved by the Red Cross, sent to Canada – ‘the bears used to raid the bins every night’ – then to Scotland, and finally to Eastbourne, which is where he met my grandmother.

His experience of growing up is incomparable to mine; that’s why I was interested in seeing Land of Mine. In those young, proud, frightened German boys I was able to imagine some of the barely suppressed, frequently overt hatred he must have experienced from those who saw him as no more than a representative of the evil that had taken away their loved ones in the war.

Being one-quarter German, I am painfully aware that both my great-grandparents and my grandparents effectively tried to kill each other in two of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen. My parents and my generation have been spared – thanks in no small part to the European Union, winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, which has helped forge the longest period of peace in Europe since Roman times. But the lesson of history is never to become complacent. We must do all we can to keep our children’s generation free from such ruin.

German grandfather (former Prisoner of War) and English grandmotherMy German grandfather, Egon Korn, and English grandmother, Pamela (nee Guy)


This incident with an adventurous (or possibly confused) housemartin took place when I was staying in a cottage on holiday in rural France. It was an intriguing place, in the grounds of a very small chateau, whose elderly owner used to stand every morning at one of her parapets with a huge Great Dane beside her. The first night I was terrified someone was breaking in because the electrics tripped out downstairs, making a huge cracking sound. That cottage felt like a different world, and a different time.


in through the blue window

a housemartin
hunched up around

angelic beating wings

circling the rafters

tensing our naked bodies
as we read
and drink coffee in bed –

we curl our morning papers,
prepare to drive the thing out.

this bird is no amateur,
doesn’t panic in a crisis –

no, this bird
knows rooms,
is a reader of houses

and sees this one’s ours

so retreats quickly
leaving us with only

the gift
of the beat
of his wings

in our hearts.

This was one of several poems I had published in the Belmont Art Centre’s Poetry File programme for teaching in secondary schools in Shropshire.

The Lesson – Short Story

Before I began writing novels I wrote a few short stories. Mimi, based on a true story of witchcraft in Zambia, can be found here.

And here is The Lesson, a short, apocryphal tale of a boy returning to his old school, surprised to find that he is not the only one still alive. I’ve made only one or two minor edits, so this is pretty much as I wrote it in my early twenties.


The Lesson

On the seventeenth day I came across my old school on the hill.

For seven hundred years its granite towers had nurtured the misery of countless stoic children, sending them out into the world with a lifetime’s supply of gall and bitterness.  But no longer.  Now its high, vaulted classrooms and corridors were empty, drained of life, of youth’s tenacious concentration and capacity for knowledge.

Or so I assumed.

I only went in because there was nothing else for me to do.  Nowhere else for me to go, and no one to see.  I was alone, alone in the deepest sense, without any possibility of home.  Like the butterfly in the story that moves casually on the currents and scents of the air, only to find itself far out at sea.  It was without any sense of hope or sentiment that I went back into my school.

The wind blew cold as I went up past the bleak, gabled houses of Marriott Street.  I glanced back at the city once or twice, black and grey like a machine broken on the earth below me, but found it easier to look at my feet, and the rain-polished cobbles of the road.

At the gates of the school I stopped, looking up at the emblem that hung crucified on their skeletal black iron.  Altiora Peto, said the small capitalised white letters beneath the knight’s helmet.  I should think, I thought.

The gates were halfway open and I went in, feeling once again the leaden reluctance that had accompanied those steps every time I’d made them.  I came into the main courtyard, the place where we’d assembled for fire drills, or on long benches for the school photographs.  I turned about, looking up at the gaunt buildings that crowded the square, like spectators at a classical games.  They stared at me impassively, indifferent as to whether I excelled or bled.  Even outside, a faint sour-milk reek still lingered on the air.

Then something happened, like a lash caught in the side of my eye – a movement, off to the right.

My heart leapt – someone was alive!  But whoever it was had disappeared around the corner, so I shouted and gave chase.  You must remember, I hadn’t seen a living thing for days.

I came round the side of the Humanities block and caught sight of a young boy, standing with his hand against a door, catching his breath.  He looked about eleven or twelve, and he was wearing school uniform – a navy blazer, grey shorts, and long grey socks with two maroon-coloured bands at the top.  As soon as he saw me he sprang off into the building.

‘Come back!’  I shouted, then realised he probably wouldn’t be able to hear me anyway.

I followed him into the building and ran down several long corridors, hearing his patent shoes slipping on the red-tiled floor as he skidded around corners.  After a minute or so I thought I’d lost him, but then heard the loud muffled boom of a bell.  It was the first real noise I’d heard for weeks.

Knowing where the sound had come from, I headed for the main hall, where the bell-rope hung and worn stone steps rose around the walls to the second and third floors.  When I reached the rope it was still snaking, and giving off the odd kick.  I looked up and saw the boy’s head above me, leaning out from the second floor banister with his scruffy blond hair splaying out like a halo.

‘Wait!’  I cried, but he didn’t.

I went up the stairs slowly, breathing heavily.  I remembered this floor because one of my classrooms had been up here.  At the landing I was about to carry on up, when suddenly I felt the urge to see that old classroom.  I headed down the corridor, and soon came to the nut-brown panelled door of H5.  I turned the bronze handle, and went in.

Those thirty-odd desks, each with its own small, plastic chair – I was instantly taken back, and felt a pang of nostalgia.  For a moment I remembered the sense of calm that came on the odd time you were first in, when the space was your own.

Except now it wasn’t.

The Master stepped out from behind one of the pillars, dressed in his beige check suit and shabby black cloak.  His face was swollen and pink, streaked with capillaries, and what remained of his dark hair frizzed around the flaking dome of his head.  From behind black-rimmed spectacles his beady eyes fixed on me, sharp and alive like some weather-beaten seabird.

‘You! Burns, isn’t it? You’re late,’ he said.

I wanted to grasp him, to shake him and tell him how pleased I was to see him – but didn’t.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘It better not.  Sit down.’

I cleared one of the chairs, and sat down looking at the blackboard.

‘Today we have maths,’ he said. ‘Open your text book at page seventy-five.’  I noticed his voice was thick and slurred as if he’d been at the drink again.  But I suspected it might be something else.

‘I’ve forgotten my book, sir,’ I said.

‘Put your hand up when you want to talk to me,’ snapped the Master.

I raised my hand.


‘Sir – I’ve forgotten my book.’

He took a deep breath and looked down at the parquet flooring.  He pushed a palm across his sweaty brow.  ‘You’ll just have to share with someone else,’ he said, turning his back on me and shuffling towards the blackboard.  I noticed several white rectangles of chalk imprinted on the back of his cloak, and remembered how we boys used to bash each others’ blazers with the board rubber.

As the Master straightened himself in front of the board, I looked across the classroom to the broad bay windows.  Their panes of glass, swollen at the bottom, distorted the view of the fields and ox-bow lake in the carse below.

‘Right,’ said the Master. ‘I’d like you, Burns, to remind me of what we went through yesterday.  You know, the algebra.’

I looked back from the window at the Master.  ‘I don’t remember, sir.’

‘No, no, never mind.  Let me see now…’  Hand shaking, he picked up a stick of chalk and turned to the board.  ‘What was the question… oh yes.  Burns, see if you can tell me the answer to this one: what does thirty plus one equal?  Got that?  Thirty, plus one.’

I thought for a moment, trying to ignore the old-milk odour that was particularly strong in the classroom.  ‘It depends, sir, which one you mean.’

‘Don’t be stupid, boy.  You know very well what I mean.  Thirty plus one – what is it?’

‘I think thirty plus one equals a class, sir. Thirty pupils and one Master.’

‘Yes, yes, v. good!’

‘But thirty plus one…’ and here I gently pushed with my toe the corpse of the boy that I had removed from my chair, ‘can also equal nought, sir.’

‘How so?  How so?’

‘Thirty boys, plus one sound bomb, sir.’

His face dropped, and the arm that had been looping across the blackboard with my every word suddenly fell limp at his side.  ‘Oh… of course.’

For a moment he stood, staring across at the body of another boy slumped forward across a desk.  A trail of congealed blood had seeped from the boy’s ears and now linked him for eternity to his open exercise book.

Then the Master shook himself and said: ‘You’ve done well, Burns.  As with most things, the way you tackle the question will influence your answer.’

‘How come you survived, sir?’

‘I – I don’t know.  Maybe I was down in the archive vaults – I’m not sure…’

I remembered my own experience, pot-holing in the Highlands.  Even deep in the earth the noise had managed to seek me out, making my ears burn and bleed as if they’d been stung in the most tender cavities by a thousand angry wasps.  I was left coughing and gagging for hours, half senseless with agony.  But I had got better.

‘Were there any others…’ I began to ask, but then he pulled his back straight, revitalised by a new wave of memory.

‘That’s all for today, Burns.  Class dismissed.’

I stood up and headed slowly towards the door.  Suddenly he spoke again.

‘By the way, Burns… if you see Evans, tell him I want to see him.’


I decided that I would stay the night in one of the dorms.  I headed up to the third floor, hardly noticing as I stepped over the bodies of two teachers who had fallen across the stairway – just part of the huge necromass I had grown used to, which not only included people but also pets, birds, and fishes of every kind.  Even the vast majority of insects had perished.

At the top of the stairs I came to the dormitories, crammed up in the slate roof of the ancient building.  The windows of these rooms were small squares, and many hung open, letting in the cold autumnal air.  I closed a few and headed for one of the washrooms at the end of the corridor.  Then saw Evans again.

He came out of one of the toilets, but as soon as he saw me he was off, through into another dorm.  I shouted at him to come back, but was now certain he was deaf.  Wearied by my encounter with the Master and the unsettling atmosphere of the school, I couldn’t be bothered to give chase.  I was going to wash, but then heard a crashing noise in the next room, and went over to the door.  I turned the handle and pushed but something heavy had been brought down behind it.  Jamming my shoulder against it I eventually managed to push my way in.

And found myself confronted by the strangest sight of all.

The room was in chaos.  Beds and furniture had been overturned and the walls had been covered in pictures and spray paint.  Washing lines and string had been taped to the ceiling, and pages from magazines hung from them like something to scare off birds.  But worst of all was the smell, a mixture of long-moulded, sour cheese, and urine.

A fire escape door banged suddenly in the wind, alerting me to the way the boy had fled.  I moved carefully through the room, picking my way amongst piles of sheets and blankets and broken chairs.  I looked at the pictures, saw Batman and Spiderman comics, women in lingerie.  On one wall, the Anarchy symbol had been drawn in red, that I hoped wasn’t blood.

Halfway down the room I came across an upright bed with a dead boy in it.  Like the others, his skin was loose and mottled, and his eyes sagged back into his head.  Life had left him through the ears and down the sides of his cheeks, leaving two dark slug trails of blood that bloomed on the white pillow.  The whiff of rotten gas still hung around him.  I guessed the boy must have been off sick when the bomb struck.

At the far end of the room a small tent-shaped enclave had been created by propping several beds up against each other and covering them with blankets.  I looked in and saw a mattress with some scrawled-up sheets and a pillow, evidently where Evans now slept.  The bed was covered in a litter of cuttings from comics and other magazines.  A small torch nestled on the indented pillow.

Looking closer I noticed a black-and-white picture of the Master holding the hand of the boy.  The Master had a tight smile on his face and his small dark eyes fixed the camera .  The picture appeared to have been cut from the school magazine.  The caption read:

Miles Evans (Year 4, H5) being presented with the Kingston Award for Mathematics by Head of Dept, Mr Bennett.

At that moment I heard a muffled cry, coming from the centre of the building.  I ran back through the dormitories, towards the main staircase and bell tower.  As I came into the red-tiled hall, I heard the shout again.  It was the cry of a man, followed by a thwack, and the screech of a child:

‘You did this!  You did this to us!’

I leaned up against the banister and looked over the stairwell.  On the second floor below, I could see the cowering, cloaked form of the Master, lunging about with his arms in front of his face.  The boy Evans was a few feet away from him, pulling board rubbers from a satchel and hurling them point blank at the helpless man.

‘It’s all your fault!  You did it!’  His words were shrill yet distorted, as if coming up through water.

The Master wailed ‘No!’, stumbling away from the boy.  A board rubber struck him on the top of the head with a loud crack, producing a network of bloody trails like forked lightning.

‘You’ve let us down.  You’ve let us all down!’

I was just about to intervene when the Master, clearly terrified and confused, staggered back and hit the low balustrade.

I watched as he pivoted swiftly over, and quickly struck the floor below.  He lay there motionless, sprawled like some ghastly black bird that had died in flight and fallen from the sky.

Evans looked over the railing at the body of the Master.  After a few moments, and without uttering a sound, he headed off down the corridor.

I stood there for a while, then made my way back down through the building and out into the courtyard, past the corpse of the photographer and the lines of children collapsed on the benches.  I had decided not to spend the night in my old school.




The Rewards of Writing

Book signing at Barton's bookshop

Book signing at Barton’s bookshop

Let me start by saying it’s not for the sales – although of course they are welcome! I write simply because I enjoy it. I’ve always written, starting with my own New Avengers and James Bond stories when I was eight, and later on casting my school friends as the heroes and villains of action stories and westerns. It was fun – and gratifying – to see them being passed round class.

After focusing on poetry in my twenties and thirties, I am back to writing adventure stories with The Secret of the Tirthas. I enjoy creating stories full of suspense, mystery and intrigue – and it’s always fantastic to get feedback from readers. Obviously, sales are a good, hard measure of how appealing your book is. But reviews, particularly on Amazon and Goodreads, and increasingly direct, face-to-face feedback from readers are both huge reward and encouragement.  I was over the moon when The Guardian newspaper published a positive review of The City of Light by a 14 year-old-reader. And I have been similarly bowled over reading reviews by book bloggers such as Handsfull Mama in America and The Whimsy Bookworm in India.

But of all the direct feedback I’ve had, perhaps the most rewarding to date came yesterday, when an 80 year old lady came with her husband into Barton’s Bookshop, where I was doing a book signing event. This lovely lady had been given my first two books as gifts by her daughter, whom I met two years running at Pippfest in Dorking. I was delighted when she introduced herself with the words ‘I’m a fan of yours’ and we proceeded to have a long conversation about the inspiration for the books, including the real garden of rooms, my trips to India, and the Herefordshire countryside, which she and her husband knew well.

So, if you’ve read one of my books please write a review. And, if you meet me face to face, tell me what you liked (or didn’t) about the story. It means a lot to me.

Best Books: Grown-ups

My last post was a collection of my Goodreads reviews of the best Young Adult and Children’s books that I’ve read over the past couple of years. In the same vein, here’s some of the books for grown-ups that I’ve reviewed in the same time period:

Jack, by A.M. Homes

One of the best coming of age novels. Jack’s initial mortification at his dad’s coming out is soon compounded by everyone at school finding out, and not helped by the anodyne wisdom of the adults around him. But his parents’ separation is just a springboard to greater worries about joining the ‘complicated, boring’ world of society. Jack is sure there’s an alternative, but he’s shooting in the dark. Will he make it? 5 stars

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips. 5 stars

The Crossing, by Andrew Miller

This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times. 5 stars

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

Beautifully written, strong on character and historical detail, but overall lacking in drama and suspense. The book didn’t live up to its fabulous title, with the serpent and related gothic trappings never really coming to life. The relationships were interesting, and I liked the ending, but again they felt devoid of sufficient tension to merit the long story. 3 stars

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

My only criticism of this fantastic book, the first Agatha Christie that I’ve read, is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless. 5 stars

In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Nora, or Lee as she was formerly known, has partially resolved a past trauma through her work and the isolated life of a writer. But it all comes back again when she is invited to a hen party, only to find that the her former best friend is marrying the man who broke her heart. The setting, in a remote, glass-walled house in a Northumbrian pine wood, adds to the tension. We know from the start it will end in blood – but is it going to be at the hands of angry locals, or someone in the party? A masterful suspense story. 4 stars

The Wine-Dark Sea, by Robert Aickman

The attention to detail in these stories and the deeply-knit tensions make you think you are heading for a full length novel, something that is going to take you to fantastic, dark places and give you all kinds of revelations. And you get some of that, but Aickman uses the short story to cut you off in mid-flow, to leave early, to depart in a manner that leaves you wanting more. There hangs the doom of foreclosure across all his tales, which I think is exactly what he wants. His glimpses, of the afterlife, of archetypes, of the dark and strange potential behind reality, are perfectly suited to the form. I haven’t read a book as compulsive, as strange, as brilliant as this in a long time. Read it! 5 stars

City of Light, by Lauren Belfer

A complex historical thriller set at the turn of the twentieth century, when the first power stations were being established at Niagara Falls. It was a time of great hope (with promises to roll back the darkness and let poor children read by electric light) and great conflict, between unionists, black people, and nature ‘preservationists’ against the powerful new industrialists. It’s all told from the perspective of the spinster head teacher of the local girl’s school, who bears a major secret of her own that commits her to engaging with the dark and dramatic events. Recommended. 4 stars

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