Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Britannia's Gamble by Antoine Vanner - A Review by Lisl

Britannia’s Gamble
The Dawlish Chronicles: March 1884—February 1885
by Antoine Vanner

A Discovered Diamond Review and Book of the Month

The author has so kindly donated a copy of Britannia's Gamble for one lucky winner of our contest! Simply comment below or here and your name will be part of our drawing! Drawing will be June 8, 2018 with winner announced the same evening. 

 Following my previous read of Britannia’s Spartan, Nicholas Darwish returns in Antoine Vanner’s Britannia’s Gamble, sixth in his series chronicling the life and adventures of the Victorian era Royal Navy officer. This time we see him recruited for a mission placing him within grasp of a savage Islamist revolt across the Sudan, his key objective being to reach and rescue General Charles Gordon, who maintains a weakening defensive position within the lone holdout, the city of Khartoum. Plagued by one catastrophe after another, time runs short as Dawlish contemplates and questions his own motives and role in the operation, and their position becomes ever more desperate.

My “discovery” of Antoine Vanner’s novels came quite by chance in that I’d won a copy of Britannia’s Spartan in a contest, and it set me happily back onto the course of nautical adventures. I found Dawlish to be a likeable character who poses authentic questions of ethics and morality to himself, and while he has high expectations of others, is no less demanding of his own conduct. In the pages of Gamble, too, he is courageous, though not without fear.
The felucca edged across, the oars still, now only the current carrying it forward in absolute silence. Dawlish crouched like Shand and the Sussexes in cramped discomfort. He tugged at the lanyard of his holstered pistol—an action that was by now an unconscious habit—and pushed the safety catch forward on his Winchester. The same fear was on him now as he had first experienced as a mud-plastered boy in a ditch in China and he prayed that, as then, it would not master him. Each man around him would be feeling no less. Courage was conquest of fear, not its absence.
One of the best elements of Vanner’s tales is that they take readers to locales many of us don’t know much about, or only recognize in a broader view or modern context. As we progress through the story, the author utilizes documented historical figures or actions—such as Gordon or the Siege of Khartoum—within his plot, its population increasing with fictional characters whose roles are so smoothly matched with history we sometimes think we might look them up to discern who is real and not. All the while their experiences tell us even more of the place at this time: its geography, conditions, influence, challenges, allies and workable military strategy.

I also thoroughly enjoy the manner in which Vanner truly takes readers on board his vessels, immersing us in the naval and shipboard terminology without drowning our senses—a perfect combination of trusting readers without making unreasonable demands on their previous knowledge. Feeling a part of the crew, readers rejoice in their victories and feel their hearts sink when things go wrong.

In Britannia’s Gamble, there are plenty of things that can go south, and they do. Vanner’s expertise in storytelling is such that we follow his narrative and sometimes recognize an oncoming crisis, pulling in our breath along with his characters in whose journey and mission we have invested. Maps are sprinkled through the novel, so we get a sense and better idea of where the group is as they travel overland or upriver, with even more suspense at such moments as when we know we are close to Khartoum, or dangerous passages, when that internal uh ohhh occurs.

Another great characteristic of the author’s presentation is that he makes plenty of room for readers to bond with characters apart from Dawlish. He most definitely maintains the spotlight, but true to his character, he gladly gives due recognition. A talented and accomplished naval officer, Dawlish also cares about the dignity of humanity, and this stirs childhood and professional memories as well as gnaws at his ideas of the future, particularly following one incident that will undoubtedly alter the course of his life, and even the nature of his concern for others.

Dawlish contemplates his own perspectives by way of his journal, an activity that sets up the possibility that the chronicles are drawn from the diaries as the captain looks back upon his life. We see his immediate musings, which of course reflect upon the kind of person he is. “Night fell, not darkness absolute, but the same vast unfeeling dome of stars that had mocked the pettiness of their aspirations ever since Kurgel.” He often thinks of his wife, Florence, back home, perhaps dreading her response to something he’s done, or feels delight in her presence in his life. The variety and breadth of his meditations even develop the character of the absent Florence, additionally bringing to the novel a female influence other than that of the standard lovable prostitute or sought-after heiress.

These and other angles are what tend to make Dawlish himself more fully developed than many other nautical or historical fiction protagonists, and Vanner placing him in the various locales, following plotlines drawn from history with plenty of his own life events depicted within, are surely what bring us back time and again. Of course, so far I’ve only read two of The Dawlish Chronicles, but the officer hasn’t seen the last of me, nor I of him.

A smooth and addicting read, Britannia’s Gamble is fully capable as a standalone or installment in a series one simply cannot get enough of. Realistic action scenes—in which victory is not always assured—and a well-developed plot combine with the strength of the author’s imagination and impressive research to bring a story of great quality and years of re-visitation, and the seeking of Dawlish in other volumes in which we will follow him time and again around the world.

Photo courtesy Antoine Vanner
About the Author

Antoine Vanner has been writing on and off for many years but as his business career took off he had to cut back. The impulse to get going again - seriously so - came just before retirement from full-time work when he attended a lecture and book-signing session by the late naval-novelist Douglas Reeman at a local bookshop. In a calm, dignified and erudite way Reeman conveyed not only vast knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject but the importance of a methodical approach to writing. He provided the inspiration for taking the task really seriously and since then Antoine has adopted the Latin motto "Nulla dies sine lines - not a day without a line." So thank you, Douglas Reeman!

Antoine's adventurous career in international business gave him the opportunity to live and work in eight countries as well as shorter assignments in a dozen more. He is bilingual in English and Dutch, adequate in Spanish, abysmal in German and has smatterings in two other languages so rusty as to be not worth mentioning. He currently lives in Britain with his wife, dog and two horses.

Learn more about and follow Antoine Vanner and his work at his fascinating website, The Dawlish Chronicles, including more about Britannia's Amazon, also a Discovered Diamond, with Florence Dawlish as protagonist and narrated from a female point of view. Additionally, subscribers to Vanner's mailing list at intervals receive free short stories that fill in some gaps in Darwish's life not covered in the novels.

The author provided Lisl with a copy of Britannia's Gamble in order to facilitate an honest review. 


About the reviewer

At age six, Lisl announced she would become a spy; shortly thereafter she added poetry to her list of goals. She wrote poetry through high school and beyond; by this time spying had lost a bit of its appeal, though she utilized stealthy methods to observe people and activity around her.

Nowadays, she is an editor and writer and can be found at her blog, Before the Second Sleep, as well as her website, Great Land Services. She writes on a variety of topics and is currently working on a collection of short stories, work of historical fiction and a series of essays, as well as illustrations for a volume of poetry. Her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and Alaska Women Speak, and she is a contributor to Naming the Goddess

She adores Indian food, vanilla candles and hot tea (no milk). 

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Little Mouse by CW Lovatt - a review by Diana Milne

The Little Mouse by C W Lovatt

"From the creator of the best selling Charlie Smithers Collection comes an endearing tale of enchantment and forest creatures with a powerful message. This charming story, with appeal to both young and old, shows that even the smallest of us is able to change the world and that nothing is impossible with trust, friendship and love."

In a beguiling departure from his usual genre, C W Lovatt introduces us to Kit, the smallest and youngest mouse in the Enchanted Forest, and takes us on a journey of delight and discovery following the mouse and his companions as they travel to find food after The Great Fire.

From the very first pages The Little Mouse has a magic and charm that is rarely found and can only be likened to such well known classics as The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, delighting readers for almost a hundred years, and one of my favourite books, Prince Caspian by CS Lewis. I can well see this book being read a hundred years from now. It deserves to be.

Although most of the characters are forest creatures, they have individual and very well developed personalities that the reader can relate to and get to know and love. Gort the badger is typical of his species, by appearing grumpy and bad tempered. Kit the mouse persuades him that being happy is a better option:

The badger’s brow wrinkled doubtfully.

“Happy? Me?” and then, “All the time?”

“Yes, all the time.”


Gort pondered this imponderable for a moment, and then stretched his lips up from his snout in a dreadful smile.

“Howsh thish?” he asked through his fangs. Tod took a nervous step backwards, but the little mouse said, “That will do nicely, thank you..."

The scope and range in the book showcases the author's prestigious talent and versatility and this tale, which will appeal to all ages, carries not just one, but several important and poignant messages. Without being 'preachy,' the book lets the reader carry away a positive and life affirming precept.

With his clever use of words, words that often can express several meanings, Lovatt ensures that we have a tale that can be read on many different levels, making it suitable for the very young to the very old, all of whom will be bewitched by the charm and enchantment of being allowed to be into a magical land for a little while. The author also introduces a character, Smithers - the valet and Major Domo of the King - who can only be a relative of his famous Charlie Smithers, with a similar life outlook, work ethic and attention to detail to the well known man.

Each idea, each stage of the journey of the forest friends, is perfectly thought out and every detail meticulously but not tediously noted, the author having thought through the situation from the perspective of the creature, or human, in question, which adds greatly to the depth and richness of the narrative. We meet Kit here, his friend, Orso the bear, is in mortal danger, having been wounded deeply by a spear:

"It was he who had brought Orso to this place, and he thought that the bear’s death would be a burden too heavy to endure. The spear had gone deep – he had seen the blow struck – had watched, horrified, as the shaft had sunk into his friend’s body, and had seen the blood…

Then, caught in mid-sentence, the transformation began.

The blood…

The blood as it coursed through his body, gifting life – coursing… surging…weaker now…dwindling….but, still Life. As though his mind had become separated from his body, he rose and followed the passage of the deep wound into the bear’s body. At length, he came to the great heart, and a sound like a leaking bellows. There was a cut, a very little cut, in the wall of the artery.

It was then that the voice of the wizened old mouse appeared in his mind.

'Healing….healing….yessss….yessss…' "

Other than Kit and Orso, we meet Amos the porcupine, Lulu the skunk, Gort the badger, Rowena and her son Chaser, the deer and fawn, Bumper the hare and Tod the fox, plus the King, Queen and Princess, Smithers, various princes and guards and Farmer Brown and family and their unfortunate dog Brutus, all of whom help to create a glorious tapestry of a story.

The book is enhanced (if that is possible) with beautiful illustrations created by the talented Angel-Rose, who brings to life the pictures that Lovatt's words form in one's brain. The pictures are meticulously detailed and show unforgettable moments of the story in beautiful colour that will live in the reader's minds.

There are so many beautiful moments and little phrases or sentences to make the reader delight in the written word. This brought little tears to my eyes, it seems so very beautiful and so very, very profound: 'Why, Lord?' the little mouse asked through little tears, 'Why has this happened?'

The timing the author employs throughout the story is exceptional. Whether it is used for a dramatic moment, or for humour or to startle the reading audience, Lovatt never misses a beat and the reader reacts as if on cue, with the smile or the cry, yet the book is never predictable. I could not have foretold the incredible way the story unfolds near to the end of the tale. The a scene is described from a different point of view to the expected one and it had a major impact on not only the characters of the story, but on me! an impact that will not lessen with time but will remain clear in my mind.

It is a beautiful enchanted fantasy, with so much meaning and so much depth. I really enjoyed it and it made me smile and cry and believe in magic and totally took me out of myself for a while.

Another triumph for CW Lovatt. He has a totally unique and absolutely massive talent.

The book is available to pre-order, and will arrive on your Kindle on May 25th. Click here to preorder

About CW Lovatt

CW Lovatt is the award winning author of the best selling Charlie Smithers Collection, the short story anthology, “And Then It Rained,” and the critically acclaimed “Josiah Stubb: The Siege of Louisbourg.” 
Interim,” is the second book of the Josiah Stubb trilogy and the third part is getting close to completion.

You may read CW Lovatt's blog here at Story River

I was privileged to interview C W Lovatt in 'Diana Talks To...' 

To read the interview please click Diana talks to CW Lovatt

The author hard at work with the help of his research assistant, Sindy, who told him everything she knew about little mice!
The picture is shared with the permission of absolutely no one. I blatantly stole it from the author's Facebook page 

About Angel-Rose, who created the inspirational illustrations.

I am Angel-Rose Smith, 25 from the UK. I spend the majority of my time drawing, painting or crafting. I enjoy baking and reading - or being a classic dork and playing video games!

Fun fact, I failed art at school 😂

Ⓒ Diana Milne February 2018 revised May 2018

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Today I welcome C. W. Lovatt to *Diana Talks... *

Today I welcome C. W. Lovatt to *Diana Talks... *

On 25th May,  C W Lovatt is releasing a new book, The Little Mouse, a complete change from his usual genre, with illustrations by Angel Rose. Two days before, on Wednesday 23rd May, the Review is hosting my in depth review of this charming and life affirming book. I won't give any spoilers now, but watch the Review Blog for the post on Wednesday.


The Hi Chuck. It is a real pleasure to talk to you here. Not only do I consider you a friend, I consider you an exceptionally talented writer. I am delighted to have the opportunity to see  a little of what goes on inside that formidably intelligent brain of yours ...

Are you sitting comfortably.


Well, never mind... (sigh) ... wriggle around a bit then and let's just get on with the talk ...

First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!

My own question, eh? Hmm, that is different! Let’s see, I’m going to go with ‘what’s it like being a writer?’

Well, it’s not as glamorous as I thought it would be, but remember I’ve dreamed of becoming a writer almost as soon as I learned how to read. As a consequence, there’s been plenty of time for that dream to grow to surpass all reason. For instance, I was going to own a tropical island and live in a house that opened up like a clam shell – you know, glamorous stuff like that. It’s laughable now, even risible, but that dream stood me in good stead over the years, through some really bleak times. When others (ie sane people) had nothing at all, I would always have that dream to sustain me. So when that long awaited first royalty cheque arrived and that dream vanished with an almost audible ‘pop,’ I couldn’t really begrudge its leaving, because it had already served me so well.

If your latest book, “Interim,” the second book of the Josiah Stubb trilogy, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?

I had to get some help with this one as I’m not as up on film actors as I used to be. A friend suggested Tom Hardy, so let’s go with him to play Josiah Stubb.

What made you choose this genre?

Historical Fiction appeals to me, so I figured that, if I’m going to sit down and write something as lengthy as a novel – to dedicate so much of myself, pouring my heart and guts out onto the page - it had better be about something that I’m interested in.

How do you get ideas for plots and characters?

Plots and characters are what make writing such a joy. Plots are usually the product of a ‘eureka’ moment I often have when something triggers the kernel of an idea. As far as characters go, I’ve never written any with a preconceived idea in mind, just as I’ve never had a preconceived idea about meeting a person. We introduce ourselves as would anyone else, and get to know one another over the course of time.

If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!)  you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?

I began my career writing short stories, with some success, winning awards and so on. During that time there can’t have been too many genres that I didn’t explore. In that light, I’m not afraid of other genres, in fact we’re old friends, and many examples can be found in in an eclectic anthology I’m very proud of entitled “And Then It Rained.”  (Note from Diana: If "And Then It Rained" is not my favourite book of all time, it certainly is there in the top three. Heck! What am I saying?? Thinking of the title story again and others that I love with a passion bordering on insanity for a story, yep, it has just been promoted to definitely my favourite book of all time!)

Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.

I would have to say that it was compelling. Why, I’ve no idea, it’s just something that I’ve come to accept over time. I wrote my first novel, longhand, back in my mid to late twenties, and you have to be serious to tackle a project like that.

Marmite? Love it or hate it?'s an acquired taste...

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??

I suppose my greatest ritual is to try to clear my desk before starting a new project. I need to keep distractions to a minimum, so that finding that ‘centre’ is more achievable. After that, it’s pretty much whatever works. I’ve written with the music on and with it off, in my office, in front of the television, out on my deck at night, or in the morning (summer and winter,) and out under the giant cottonwoods in my yard. Each novel has had its own routine, and I’m rather curious what it will be for my next one. Really, I’m a bit like a cat before taking a nap, turning and turning, before finally finding the place where I’m most comfortable.
(Note from Diana: Hmm. Clear? Desk? Clear desk?  Nope. I don't understand those words put together in that format!)

I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?

That’s a very good question and I’m glad you asked it! Next question, please…
((Laughing. Loudly!!))

Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

I always wanted to be the next Neil Young.
(Note from Diana: Well, you can't. End of.)

Coffee or tea? Red or white?

Ooo, herbal tea, please (don’t judge,) and red.

How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?

I don’t have a plan, and that includes not having a plan to not having a plan. Sometimes I’ll write at least a partial outline, and sometimes I won’t write one at all. It depends on the project and (I’m coming to suspect) the phase of the moon.  😂

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

Trust YOU to ask this one! Okay then, let’s see: so far Times New Roman is working for me, but you never know what the future holds. What I can tell you is that I’m not a fan of Helvetica.
(Everyone hates Helvetica! Printers hated Helvetica. It was the 'new big thing and everyone wanted it', but it was expensive and hard to get hold of.)

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

The note that Lord Raglan scribbled to Lord Lucan, that caused the The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?

Oh those characters! When haven’t they shocked me? But the thing to remember about writing is that it’s not about you, it’s about the story – always the story – and the thing to remember about the story is that it’s the characters who are telling it, the writer is merely the chronicler. So in answer to your question I pretty much give them their head, and try to keep up.

How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?

Writing Historical Fiction requires extensive research…that is if you don’t want to look like an absolute fool. Nothing drives me around the bend more than to read such a work and find that it is riddled with inaccuracies. Further, I feel strongly that a work of Historical Fiction should be seen as an alternate reference book – something that takes those dry old textbooks, that we’ve all had to endure in school, and makes them interesting by weaving a tale through the facts.

As for research trips, I often travel to where the story is taking place, but not always. For the first book of the Josiah Stubb trilogy I went to see the fortress of Louisbourg for myself, and then on to St. John’s Newfoundland. For the second and third books, I travelled to Quebec City, and then drove the length of the Gaspé Peninsula. In 2015 I flew down to Australia and drove across the Nullarbor Plain while researching for “Adventures Downunder” – the latest in the Charlie Smithers Collection.

Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?

Good lord no! If they spoil the plot, then it’s the plot that’s at fault. Create another one, by all means, but if you value your credibility, don’t alter the facts by one iota.

Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?

See above. Blasphemy!

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

I certainly hope so; it’s my business to do just that.

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
Loiyan, my first leading lady, I loved her desperately.

(Note from Diana: We, the readers, could tell the depth of feeling with which this wonderful woman was written. It shone throughout the pages of not just the first book, but the second and third. I will never forget her plaintive cry of Charleeeee.)

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
Anything, as long as it’s well written.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?

A good stiff tot of something distilled. The action gets a bit intense at times.

Last but not least... favourite author?

My idol, George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman books.

Thank you, Chuck. That was a wonderful talk. 

You can read C W Lovatt's blog and find out more about him at Story River

He lives in Canada, where it is cold, and is the self-appointed Writer-In-Residence of Carroll, Manitoba, (population +/- 20).

This tree was upright before being leaned on by our author! Vandal!!
 C. W. (Chuck) Lovatt, is the author of the

Charlie Smithers Collection;

And then it Rained and currently the first two parts in the on going Josiah Stubb series, the second one of which, the excellent

Josiah Stubb: Interim,

was released to great excitement on 14th April last year by Wild Wolf Publishing.

© Diana Milne January 2017 © C W Lovatt April 2017

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Diana talks to MA student, Elizabeth Stafford-Smith

My name is Elizabeth Stafford-Smith and I am a MA Creating Writing and Publishing student at West Dean School of Arts and Conservancy. I am writing my first novel, Illusion or Delusion.

What is your favourite picture?

At the moment I would say it is Portrait de Dame by Tom Roberts, because the moment I saw it I knew I had found an image of the heroine, Anna, in my novel, Illusion or Delusion. She is a well born young Englishwoman who travels to America to track down the man who have her inheritance and this portrait is just right for her - the clothes and the hair.

Was becoming a writer a conscious decision? How old were you when you first started to write seriously?
It depends on what you call seriously. I have been writing, scribbling in notebooks really, since my teens and have lots of them locked away but I have not been brave enough to try and get anything published. Now I’m coming to the end of an MA in Creative Writing at West Dean which has involved writing and editing the first draft of a novel. I still have a lot of rewriting and editing to do but I think I will try and get this out in the world. I think part of it is getting older – I’m in my 60s – and I don’t worry so much about how people see me anymore.

Marmite – love it or hate it?
I love Marmite so much I’ve been known to eat it from a spoon! I had marmite soldiers as a child and tried them with my three children but none of them would have anything to do with it.

Do you have any ritual and routines when writing?
I can write just about anywhere (good advice received years ago to not be dependent on a particular time or place) but I do like a coffee when I start and later, lots of water (and perhaps some chocolate, depending on how it’s going).

Other than writing full-time, what would be your dream job?
A designer and maker of art quilts – I love playing with fabric and threads and often dye my own. I always have at least a couple of projects on the go, I use hand stitching as a form of relaxation – I can think about anything while my hands are occupied.

Coffee or tea?
Always coffee. I used to drink tea until I realised I didn’t actually like it! Now I’ll drink herbal teas if I’ve had too much coffee and I’m bored with just water.

How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I don’t know what’s going to happen in scene until I write it. I know what it will be about and what the outcome needs to be but how the characters will get there I don’t know. It involves a lot of sitting staring out of the window, wondering what might make someone do or say what I want them to.

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document, what would it be?
The missing pages of the books Dr John Dee hid a chest. The books were found in the 1640s but were unintelligible to those who found them and were used to light fires until someone realised what they were. They were a distillation of his knowledge of alchemy and magic and I think they would be fascinating.

How much research do you do, and do you ever go on research trips?
I probably like research too much – I can always think of another book or website I could be reading rather than settling into writing. I enjoy visiting museums and like to get a feel for a place. I have used a rock formation in Kansas as the setting for the end of my novel and plan to go there as soon as I can.

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
I think I’m always a little bit in love with my heroes – I have to find them appealing even if not perfect.

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
As long as a book is well written, I’ll enjoy it. I’m reading the second book in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle at the moment and have a Phil Rickman lined up next. I’ll always be happy with a Terry Pratchett even though I’ve read them all many times.

The author, Elizabeth Stafford Smith.

© Diana Milne January 2018 © Elizabeth Stafford-Smith April 2018

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Renny reviews His Last Witch Hunt by Deborah C Foulkes

Today on the blog Renny de Groot reviews His Last Witchhunt by Deborah C Foulkes, set in the midst of the English Civil War.  
And there's a giveaway!
The author has kindly offered a signed paperback copy as a prize. To be in with the chance of winning, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page. Good luck!

It is 1646 and England is in the middle of a civil war, but Matthew Hopkins is fighting another war. One against witches, but where he once was seen as a saviour, now the tide is turning against him. Dying, Matthew has no other choice to place his reputation into the hands of one girl, whose witch trial could make or break him forever. 

Jared Wilson has been sent across East Anglia to find Matthew Hopkins and destroy his reputation. Too many have died at Hopkins’ hands and now it’s time for it to stop. Tracking him to a small village, a young woman has already been arrested for witchcraft and Jared makes a deal with her to help destroy Hopkins in exchange for saving her soul. 
Sinead Crowley is an outsider in Hopton Village. Hated and feared, by many, but when her only friend dies unexpectedly, she finds herself accused of witchcraft and face to face with the Witchfinder General. But Jared wants to destroy Hopkins and with the promise of a clean soul, she now must decide on whose side she will stand on for her freedom.

With this synopsis Deborah Foulkes introduces us to the key characters in the historic drama of His Last Witch Hunt. I found the characters intriguing and my heart went out to the young girl, Sinead in her struggles to find love and acceptance in her small village. Ultimately those common human desires are dwarfed by the even greater fight for her very life. Accused of witchcraft, she finds herself a pawn between two powerful men and must draw on all her resources to navigate her way.
I found the complex story line interesting as Foulkes keeps the reader guessing until the very end about the possible outcome. The male characters have been imagined well, embroiled in the politics and power struggles of the times. As her end notes explain, Matthew Hopkins was a true character that Foulkes has woven into a story that will keep you turning the pages.
At times Foulkes created real magic, with images that gave life to the characters and setting, such as this one:

“The cold river chilled her bare legs as she waited for breakfast to make an appearance.”

With this introduction to Sinead, I immediately could see the young girl, fishing for her breakfast. My sense of her unique‘one-ness’ with nature came across cleanly and set the stage for the trials to come.

I feel that the book would be enhanced by a further editorial polish. There were times where I was pulled out of the story by certain weaknesses that would be resolved by a strong editor; however, I still enjoyed the read and learned something about a period in history with which I am less familiar.
Thanks to the author for providing me with a complimentary ebook.

About the Author: Deborah C Foulkes
Books have been a part of my life as far back as I can remember and I count Stephen King, James Herbert and the Brothers Grimms  as my literary heroes. I have a fondness for the macabre and a weakness for the antagonist of any story. By day, I work in a public library and by night or days off, I am hitting the keys of my lovely blue laptop.
Amongst all that I am a mother of a very mature teenager, who acts older than I am and has an uncanny ability to talk to animals. We all live together in a Victorian terrace with one depressive cat, another dumber cat and two ghosts who make themselves known by smoking woodbines every now and then.
Links: website; Amazon; Linked In; Blog.

About the reviewer:
Renny deGroot is a first generation Canadian of Dutch parents. Her debut novel, Family Business, was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, 2015.  Her second novel, After Paris, has also been well received, with the current interest in all things WW1.  She is working on a new Historical Fiction called Asunder which is expected out for Christmas 2018. Renny has a BA in English Literature from Trent University, Canada.
Renny lives in rural Ontario with her elderly Chocolate lab, Great Pyrenees and young Golden Retriever.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Diana talks to Hillary Taylor-McCaffery, MA Creative Writing and Publishing student at West Dean School of Arts and Conservancy

My name is Hillary Taylor-McCaffery, I’m a second-year MA Creative Writing and Publishing student at West Dean School of Arts and Conservancy, in Chichester, and I am writing my first novel, Box of Sparks. My novel is set on Vancouver Island, Canada, and follows a young girl, her best friend, and a darkly-eccentric taxidermist, trapped in a bunker together following a devastating earthquake.

What made you choose this genre?
            I didn’t set out to write a YA novel, but as Box of Sparks grew, and my plot and character development progressed, I kept hearing feedback from my MA tutors and fellow classmates that the novel had a distinctly-YA feel. I wouldn’t say this influenced my narrative style or voice, but it helped me focus on market placement and pitching of Box of Sparks. I like the idea that I can explore a bit with YA; I feel younger readers tend to be more accepting of magical elements, and it gave me an outlet for some long-buried teenage angst!

How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
            Before I gained some confidence as a writer, my plots and characters were developed very much in line with academic expectations, and I found they ended up feeling flat and forced. It took me some time to ‘relax’ into my environment, to make some space in my head for characters to appear. I also had to overcome the awkwardness of sitting down and listening to the voices in my head, convincing myself they were characters and not a symptom of mental illness…although that conclusion is still debatable… I also remember something one of my tutors recommended in the first year of my MA: if you want to write beautiful things, you need to surround yourself with beauty. I try to get out and experience new things whenever I can; you never know where inspiration or influence are going to spring up.

If, as a one-off, (and you could guarantee publication!), you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot in mind?
            I have always been interested in magical realism, ie: Gabriel Garćia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I think it takes great talent to balance believable narrative with the mystery of the unknown, and to achieve this balance whilst holding the interest of the reader. I think most people construct fantasy within their everyday life; these fantasies can be hidden and never acted upon or can evolve into delusions with serious consequences. The abilities of the human imagination fascinate me, and I would like to be able to reflect that need for escape within a cleverly-balanced narrative. I think these interests will always influence my work.

Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously?
            Writing is something I have always kept on the backburner. I was praised for my writing talents in school, and won a few prizes in youth competitions. After reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, I was inspired to keep a diary, and have an entire drawer full of them now, going back to the mid-90s. Despite a large amount of material, and a dedication to the craft, I didn’t take writing as a serious career option until, in my early thirties, I decided to undertake an MA in Creative Writing and Publishing, telling myself it was ‘now or never’. It was humbling to realise how little I knew, not only about the craft of writing itself, but about myself as a writer.
            I was given a book, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, as a pre-teen, and it has stuck with me through many years, many situations, and many moves, even my emigration from Canada to the UK. I dip into it now and then, reminding myself that although I write, I am still on the journey to becoming a writer. I’m not sure at what point the journey ends!

Marmite: love it or hate it?
            Marmite was one of those ubiquitous ‘English’ things that Canadian children spoke of in mock giggles, usually paired with terrible posh accents and the miming of lifting a teacup to one’s lips. I didn’t taste it until I moved to the UK and made the rookie move of sticking a dipped finger of it into my mouth, instead of spreading it delicately on toast. A few years after this initial moment of disgust, I was reintroduced to it by a monk who lived at the monastery where I was staying on a retreat. We tasked me with making soup, and when it was finished we both sipped from the same spoon and declared that something was missing. “Marmite!” was the monk’s answer, and he proceeded to stir an enormous spoon of the stuff into the pot. Despite my reservations, it was delicious, and I now keep a little yellow-topped pot of it in my spice drawer for when my soups lack that certain “something”.

Other than writing full-time, what would be your dream job?
            I used to be very ashamed of my haphazard CV, boasting (?) myriad roles from barista to fluid technician to care worker to housekeeper to pharmacy supervisor, and so on, but now I realise that all of those experiences have influenced the kind of writer I am, and have given me some excellent character studies! One common thread through all of my past jobs has been the act of helping people. I am particularly interested in the role of creativity in the treatment of mental health, and if I had to create my own dream job it would be empowering disadvantaged people to realise their own creative potential, mastering it, and using to help others. Healing the world is up to us, the people, and we need to heal ourselves before we can help the planet. I think there is a correlation between the lack of or complete obliteration of arts funding, and the rise in mental illness and stress, and I think we need to re-realise the importance of creativity, art, and expressing ourselves in a constructive manner.

Coffee or tea? Red or white?
            I’m going to admit to being really boring, now. I don’t drink enough tea to earn my honorary British citizenship, and when I do drink it, it’s usually herbal (rooibos with a bit of milk and honey, to be exact!). I also don’t drink alcohol anymore. I made a choice in my early thirties to stop drinking, as it had been an unhealthy coping mechanism for my struggles with mental illness. I now have a better grasp on my wellbeing, and a lot more time to write!!

Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like or they spoil the plot?
            I definitely try to ignore characters that are demanding of my time, but it never works! I find that if a character is begging to be seen or heard, they usually have a really good story, or something integral to add to the plot, so I’m learning to set aside time to listen. Easier said than done, because I have many ‘real life’ people that are also demanding of my time, and much more likely to be offended if I ignore them! Characters are patient, luckily, and usually they will find a nice little corner of my brain in which to curl up and wait.

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
            I think this happens in real life as much as it does in novels. One of the buzzwords of the moment is ‘post-truth’; it’s getting increasingly difficult for people to determine what is real and what is influenced or distorted by the media, and this can be frustrating, isolating, and confusing. I think novels are a safe space to explore themes of truth and honesty; a way to make people think about the real world. Novels have huge potential to influence ways of thinking and being, and they are presented in a medium where the reader still has a large degree of control, which is becoming a rare thing.
            Instead of clearly-defined lines between fiction and non-fiction, bestsellers lists are now often topped by books that blend information into a beautiful narrative. I think this is a great strategy by which to make information more accessible and easily-consumable.

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
            I have definitely used elements from real people when building certain characters, usually traits or habits that ignite a spark of emotion in me, whether that be the cadence of one person’s speech, or the way another person exhales smoke, or even the absence of a person, the way they keep you wanting more long after they’ve left.
            I’ve found it interesting to hear other people’s reactions to my characters. In the development phase of Box of Sparks, one of my tutors routinely expressed her blossoming love for one of my protagonists, which I found interesting as the character as I knew him was very dark and somewhat threatening. I found that I wasn’t writing what I knew of him, instead I was writing what the character wanted to reveal, which told me a lot about his personality and psychology.
            I think writing is a brilliant medium through which to present problematic or ‘unlikeable’ characters. When you meet someone in real life, you are basing your perception of them on physical factors, your emotional response to what they choose to reveal. In a novel, you usually see a more complex picture of a character; you see them as multifaceted, and often you can empathise or relate to one of those facets, which makes you at least care about them and their narrative arc, even if you don’t particularly like them.

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
            I lean towards non-fiction most of the time, and tend to read fiction when I want to give my overly-analytical brain a rest. I am interested in human behaviour, psychology, mental health, and various natural sciences. I’m not much of a ‘name-dropper’, I don’t tend to read what is popular or what is recommended on reading lists, (sorry, West Dean tutors!!). I choose books more instinctively: initially, by the visual impression given by the cover, the title font, and the design layout. I always, always read the blurb on the back, and have been known to put very-well-regarded books down because I can’t identify with the description. This is a tricky thing for writers, as well. How do you condense the entire world and mood of your novel into a few sentences on the back? That takes skill.

What are you favourite authors?

            Because I’m so fickle and flaky with my reading choices, I cling more strongly to individual books than to the authors themselves, and their bodies of work. Saying that, I have enjoyed almost everything by Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami, and Ben Goldacre. Books that I’ve carried with me, that have worked their way into my subconscious in some creative way, have been: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garćia Márquez, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.