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Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Chap O'Keefe rides again!

Way back in 2014 I interviewed a stalwart of comic and genre fiction, Keith Chapman. He was an editor and contributor to various fiction publications in London in the 1960s before moving to New Zealand and spending nearly 35 years in newspaper and magazine journalism. He returned to fiction writing in earnest in 1992, using the pen-name Chap O'Keefe, writing westerns, and also edited the Black Horse Extra online magazine. Recently he has concentrated on bringing out his quite considerable back-list in e-book format, rather than producing new fiction.

Chap O'Keefe, his wife, adult children and grandchildren live in Auckland, New Zealand. The family home was high on a North Shore hillside overlooking Hellyer's Creek and the sparkling Waitemata Harbour, but 8 years ago for medical reasons they moved to a small unit in a retirement village.

Black Horse extra online magazine appeared quarterly for six years from March 2006. It promoted the western genre and the work of authors published by the (now defunct) Robert Hale company’s Black Horse Western hardback novels. You can still read each issue of this magazine here

Black Horse Extra (

Keith’s writing history is covered in two lengthy blog items, featuring among other legendary characters for magazines devoted to Sexton Blake, Edgar Wallace, and Leslie Charteris’s The Saint:

WRITEALOT: Blog Guest - Keith Chapman aka Chap O'Keefe ( -

WRITEALOT: Blog Guest - Keith Chapman - part 2 (

Some of Keith’s re-issued westerns as e-books can be found on Amazon and other platforms:

Rebel and the Heiress

Frontier Brides

Blast to Oblivion

A Gunfight Too Many

Gunsmoke Night (his first book written as Chap O’Keefe)

This is my review of Blast to Oblivion

Inspired by Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, this twenty-first Black Horse Western by Chap O’Keefe starts with a bang – a shotgun killing in Denver.

Ex Pinkerton Joshua Dillard was hired by the deceased’s sister, Flora, to investigate the murder. She suspected that her brother’s wife was concealing something – particularly as she had moved away with her male secretary Joseph Darcy to the mining town of Silverville. When Dillard arrives there, he meets up with an unusual character with the monicker of Poverty Joe, who happens to be instrumental in saving Dillard from some desperadoes. Dillard interviewed the ungrieving widow but couldn’t find any evidence to link her with her husband’s death. Besides the unwelcome attentions of the desperadoes led by Cord Skann, Dillard also has to contend with the duplicitous Marshal Broadstreet.

This is an enjoyable yarn and it’s clear that the author has written about Joshua Dillard a number of times (this is his seventh appearance, in fact); the character fits like a well-worn glove. Subtle evidence of research crops up from time to time, too. ‘An English lady traveller in the district had recorded that bad temper and profanity in the presence of women was widespread.’ I could be wrong, but this may be alluding to Fanny Trollope’s classic ‘Domestic Manners of the Americans’.

The action-packed story is laced with humour as well as gunplay. The twist at the end is neat and it’s satisfying for both the reader – and especially for Dillard – that Flora is a woman of her word.


‘Told in Pictures’ is an article written by Keith and featured in the prestigious Illustrators Quarterly (2013), lavishly illustrated with covers from Combat Picture Library, Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine and The Sexton Blake Library, among others.

Tuesday, 26 September 2023


Margaret Lawrence’s final book in her Hannah Trevor historical trilogy, The Burning Bride, was published in 1998. I have been remiss in not reading it until now. 

This tale takes place between 6 November and 24 December 1786.

Widow midwife Hannah Trevor has always been an independent soul, even when wed to her unsavoury husband. So, even though she is pregnant by Daniel Josselyn, Major of the Continental Army, and a landowner, she is not committed to the betrothal. Yet, as circumstances begin to crush them all, she relents: ‘If marriage be a bond, I am ready to bear it. If love be a fire, I am already burnt’ (p269).

Daniel had once been the friend of Hamilton Siwall, but that was a long while back. 

Siwall is a land merchant, moneylender, magistrate and member of the General Court. When he tries debtors, he often acquires the offender’s land in settlement, continually extending his power and prestige. It seems that Siwall is keen to lay blame on Daniel for the slightest perceived infraction, and it is not long before the opportunity presents itself.

Marcus Tapp is the High Sheriff of the county and a creature of Magistrate Siwall. ‘Tapp’s eyes scanned the yard, missing nothing…Strange eyes, they were, so pale they seemed in daylight to have no colour at all, glass eyes that the world passed through without effect, to be recorded by the raw ends of his nerves’ (p23).

At this time there is a big issue regarding taxation among the townspeople of Rufford, Maine: ‘Tax upon tax had been laid on them, debts from a war that set rich men free to get richer, but ground out all hope from the labouring poor’ (p2). There are too many debtors; often the prison is bursting at the seams.

‘Rich men elected other rich men and they scratched one another’s backs like sleek cats and did not understand why poor men resented them, and any who resisted the growth of their power was labelled as traitors and fools. So it would be under governors and presidents, as it had been under kings and popes and caesars’ (p235). Anarchy does not seem too far off…

Another of Siwall’s creatures is the town’s local doctor, Samuel Clinch; he is a drunkard and a misogynist: ‘These country midwives are no more skilled than a witch with a broomstick, with their pawings and strokings! What does a woman know of such matters? Can she spell, sir? Can she read and write and cipher Latin like a man? No, she cannot! Women are soft for our pleasures, but they ain’t got the brains of a sheep where Science and babies is concerned!’ (p128). As implied, he is not averse to taking payment for his doctoring of female patients with pleasures of the flesh. Until, that is, he is found murdered in the forest. A mystery surrounds the violent death.

For different reasons, both Siwall and Tapp soon accuse Daniel of the murder, though there is little conclusive proof.

Hannah is kept busy with her midwife role. ‘It was always there at a borning, the spectre of dying, the other side of the treacherous coin of hope’ (p335). Yet, in reality, she would prefer to spend her time quilting and finally preparing for her wedding to Daniel. Several quilt patterns are named throughout the book: Bridges Burning, China Dish, Cross and Crown, Cradle in the Wilderness, Flame in the Forest, and Star of the Forest. Instead, she finds herself puzzling over the unpleasant doctor’s murder. That is, when she is not laying out the men who’d been sentenced to death by the loathed magistrate.

‘This is her work in the world, to reconcile living and dying. To wash away fear and shame and loneliness with a touch the dead must somehow feel where they stand watching, invisible, behind their window of clouded glass’ (p244).

Again, we meet Hannah’s deaf mute daughter Jennet, always depicted with compassion and eloquence. As before, Lawrence’s prose and imagery suck you into the story, and into the period:

‘A woodpecker rattled in the crown of an oak tree, and a flock of kinglets chattered as they flew from one tree to another, their scarlet crowns a flash of fire against the heavy hung branches. And now and then a limb creaked with the weight of slowly melting ice, and a burden of wet snow fell with a plop to the ground…’ (p398)

Here you will find poignancy, cruelty, anger, despair, injustice, love, hate, suspense, and tension aplenty.

A fitting end to an engrossing historical series. 

Friday, 15 September 2023

BLOOD RED ROSES - Book review


Blood Red Roses is the second book in Margaret Lawrence’s trilogy about Hannah Trevor. I read the first – Hearts and Bones – in 1999. I found Hannah, her main character, very compelling, and the storytelling was excellent. I obtained the two sequels as soon as they were published in paperback. And yet for some unfathomable reason I’ve only now got round to reading them – a matter of some two dozen years later! In mitigation, I have acquired several hundred books still to be read… Unfortunately, I recall little about the first book after such a lapse of time, save that I recall admiring it greatly. (Since that time, beginning in 2008, I have attempted to write brief reviews of the books I’ve read, if only to remind me what they were about, for it is unlikely I will re-read a book when I have so many lingering on the shelves unread).

‘Lucy Hannah Trevor turned thirty-eight years old on that foggy St Valentine’s Day of the year 1786. She had the ripeness of a woman who had borne four children and the unconscious sensuality of one who thinks she has long since cured herself of needing men for more than idle conversation’ (p11, Heart and Bones).

Hannah is a midwife in the town of Rufford, Maine. Three of her children died and her fourth, Jennet is a loving deaf mute, now aged eight. ‘She had listened in vain for the birth cry, and when her aunt laid the girl-child on her belly, Hannah was sure she had given birth to the dead. Even when her hands found the warm, slippery shape of a living baby there, it seemed to her an alien gift that had nothing to do with her own body nor with anyone else in the world – and was more precious, being only itself’ (p47).

Her husband James had abandoned her while she was pregnant with Jennet, leaving gambling debts, and was presumed dead. Hannah’s secret lover was Daniel Joselyn – Jennet’s father.

The three books are written from the omniscient point of view. However, each book begins and ends with an extract from Hannah’s journals in the first person: 1) 14 February 1786 and 22 February 1786; 2) 12 July 1786 and 12 September 1786; 3) 6 November 1786 and 24 December 1786. So the three novels barely cover ten months of the same year – though event-filled months indeed!

A recurring theme is the making of quilts, which Hannah endeavours to accomplish when she is not in conflict with officialdom and some thoroughly unpleasant individuals. And the three books tend to follow a pattern, too.

Each book begins with a prologue. 1) How he killed her; 2) How she made God weep; 3) How he killed the ghost of shame. None of the individuals are either Hannah or Daniel; at this point they are anonymous.

The penultimate chapter headings are relevant: 1) The breaking of hearts and bones; 2) Blood and roses; 3) The refiner’s fire. Each echoes the titles of the relevant books. The book title Blood Red Roses is from a children’s dance.

Interspersed are chapters relating to legal proceedings investigating the murders – they’re all murder mysteries besides being historical novels: ‘Piecing the Evidence’.

When they first met, Daniel’s wife was living in England. Hannah wanted him merely to give her a child; she did not seek love. Yet inevitably love followed – on both sides: ‘His life turned always upon the sight of her – even more intently since the winter, for now he knew her heart better. As she went upon her nursing visits, Hannah was a bright fleck of colour – her hooded red cloak against the winter snow, and in summer, a plain linen bodice and a homespun skirt that might have been dyed in the same pot of cochineal as the cloak’ (p27).

Midwife Hannah was independent, and did not stand for any nonsense. ‘It was no matter of dying; surely Molly’s case was, the midwife judged, more messy than desperate, the girl cried for a nurse if she suffered a hangnail. Hannah could witness, and besides, men always got liverish, and histrionic at bornings’ (p44).

Many of the characters are neatly described. ‘Andrew Tyrell held a long-handled glass to one eye and peered through it. He had spent much of his life poring over badly-printed books and now, at five-and-forty, he could not see more than a yard beyond his nose without a lens’ (p52). And: ‘He was a tall man and heavyset, with a long, lugubrious countenance and grey eyes set deep in his skull, like musket balls in a bore’ (p177). And: ‘Honoria Siwal eyed Hannah down a nose so long and thin it might have served a heron for a beak’ (p217).

And the author’s descriptions of Jennet’s travails are beautifully done: ‘But when there was music, Jennet Trevor seemed to see it in the very air, and something that had slept in her since before she was born awoke and climbed the blank walls of her silence, demanding to be heard’ (p87). And: ‘Hannah could feel the pounding of her daughter’s heart like a fist, slamming, slamming, slamming at the invisible door that locked her out of the world’ (p89). Jennet ‘did not wake from her drugged sleep till near six that evening, but in the clock of her bones it was morning still’ (p278).

This period – like many before and after – was a time where women were considered chattels, second-class citizens, if considered at all. ‘Known and unknown, seen and disregarded. All women are nobody. Poor women are nothing at all’ (p161). [Have times really changed? Women have had to fight for recognition for centuries and now a certain vociferous minority want to eliminate the definition of ‘woman’. Really?] ‘Nothing. I am nothing human. I am a weed to be torn from the world’ (p170).

The murder mystery is resolved.

The times were perilous, violent and in many instances unjust; that’s history for you. Certainly, if anyone is ‘offended’ by factual historical events, then these splendid novels are not for them. For the majority who enter Hannah’s world they will feel they are almost there, and will be moved by her gripping tale.

The final book is The Burning Bride, which I have begun and will review next.

Thursday, 7 September 2023

Promotion by Rough Edges Press


£0.99/$0.99 e-book For 1 week only – starting on 6 September!

From Rough Edges Press


Amazon UK:

Amazon US:

A fast-paced thriller with plenty of threats and sexy suspense…

A catalyst is a person who precipitates events. That’s Catherine Vibrissae. Orphan, chemist, model, and crusading cat.

Seeking revenge against Loup Dante, the Head of Ananke—and the man responsible for the takeover of her father’s company—Cat will stop at nothing to uncover his wicked agenda. A trained chemist and an accomplished climber, she is not averse to breaking and entering. So, when she crosses paths with an attorney for the bloodless organization and uncovers a mysterious product called Catananche, Cat risks injury and death to learn more.

Ranging from South England to the North-east, from Wales to Barcelona, Cat’s quest for vengeance is implacable. But will she be able to escape the clutches of an unexpected and whip-wielding enemy?

The first in the Cat’s Crusade series, Catalyst follows a strong female character with a thirst for action.

Wednesday, 6 September 2023



Dennis O’Neil’s novel Batman Knightfall was published in 1994 and was mainly adapted from a story arc serialised in the following DC comics, many of which he edited: Batman, Batman: Shadow of the Bat, Detective Comics, Legends of the Dark Knight, and Robin; with additional material from Batman: Venom, Batman: Sword of Azrael, and Batman: Vengeance of Bane – all published between 1991 to 1994. I read the series at the time but have only now got round to this book. (My TBR pile is enormous!)

Way back then O’Neil and his other editors wondered, after the release of the Batman Returns movie, that there was a risk of saturation, scaring off potential readers. Also, there was a feeling that in the time of Eastwood, Schwartzenegger et al piling high corpses maybe Batman was an anachronism, even passé – especially as the caped hero would never kill. They decided to test the concept with the Knightfall story arc. The readership response was conclusive: they wanted a ‘Batman who was avenging and compassionate. The Batman archetype is the creature of darkness who serves the common good, the devil on an angel’s mission’ (p349).

The familiar characters in the comics are here; firstly, Commissioner Gordon: ‘… sometimes he despised himself for his reliance on the masked vigilante, but he knew that without Batman, his job would be impossible. Gotham City hadn’t had an honest government since the Civil War… Batman was necessary – a necessary evil… if Batman’s a devil, he’s my devil. I’ve made a pact with him and I’ll keep it. Until he steps over the line. Until he kills someone. And then? The day that happens it’ll be the end for both of us, and probably for the city, too’ (p11).

There are appropriate dark moments in the tale, but there’s also banter and wit: it’s become a cliché almost that after Gordon’s meeting with Batman the Dark Knight would tends to vanish. ‘I’ve finally figured out how you do that. You’re one of those ninjas, aren’t you? You learned it in Japan.’

Batman said, ‘Correspondence course. It was either ninja or air-conditioning repair, and I already had a black suit.’ (p24).

At this time, Tim Drake is the third incarnation of Robin. The first, Dick Grayson, naturally grew older and became crime-fighter Nightwing. Jason Todd, the second, was killed by The Joker. The Drake family lives close to Wayne Manor, which is handy. Tim is still a novice Robin, but a fast learner.

At the beginning, the criminal psychopath Bane crosses paths with Batman and escapes. Bane realises that if he wants to control Gotham, he must first get rid of the Dark Knight. So he embarks on his strategy, diverting Batman to numerous crime scenes, to fight felons; and eventually he even releases several terrible criminals from Arkham Asylum. Finally, Batman confronts Bane and in his worn-out frazzled state is no match and his back is broken. Bane contemptuously dumps Batman in the street.

Alfred and Tim find Batman and take him to the Cave and thence to hospital, pretending that Bruce Wayne had a serious RTA. Bruce is worried, however; although he has apprehended several escapees from Arkham, there are others still on the loose, more than the police department can handle. He informs Tim that a substitute Batman is needed – and selects Jean Paul Valley, who had previously been a costumed avenger, Azrael. (Clearly, Nightwing was otherwise occupied).

In their own ways, both Bane and Valley are psychologically damaged. Bane’s back-story makes grim reading (pp19-32), but sheds some light on the warped violent character. At an early age Valley had been brainwashed by his religious father to follow the Ancient Order of St Dumas and train to be an assassin. Yet in an earlier adventure, Azrael was instrumental in saving Batman’s life.  

Talking of psychos, we meet The Joker only briefly; he is one of the escapees: The bright red lips slashed across his white skin curled upward into a smile. ‘Of course, hurting people really isn’t done in the best circles.’ His lips curled down. And up again. ‘So I’ll do it in a straight line.’ (p51).

While taking weeks to recover, Bruce is determined to fight crime from his bed. ‘Sometimes there’s a clue to the present in the past,’ Bruce observed. ‘The story of your life,’ Alfred replied dryly (p223). Obsessed with combatting crime, Bruce pushes Alfred to the point where his faithful manservant finally has enough and with regret leaves his employer…

A number of questions are raised and answered about the Dark Knight, not least what drives his soul. Also on display is the power of redemption. O'Neil's Afterword is enlightening too.

If you are a fan of Batman, then this should be in your collection. Just don’t take 29 years to get round to reading it. Mea culpa

Editorial comment:

The substitute Batman drove the batmobile into the rear of a school bus – in an attempt to prevent the children being killed. Yet a short while later, Robin is following the batmobile and ‘noticed the damaged rear end and wondered…’ (p284). But of course it was the front end of the vehicle that sustained damage. Blame the editor…

Sunday, 3 September 2023

HANNAH - Book review


Paul-Loup Sulitzer’s saga Hannah was published in 1988 – translated by Christine Donougher. This is one of those sprawling novels that cover many years, taking the heroine from childhood to old age; a book to get lost in and enjoy. It’s narrated from an omniscient point-of-view.

It begins in Poland in 1882. Hannah is a seven-year-old Jew. While playing in the fields with her brother Yasha and a friend Taddeuz, a young Polish Catholic, she learns of the attack by Cossacks on her village. Then the pogrom reaches them; Hannah hides but her brother is burned to death and Taddeuz betrays her by running away.

She was a precocious child and her father Reb Nathan taught her to read and talked of the wonders of the universe. ‘There was between the two of them an extraordinary closeness that she would know with no other man’ (p5). ‘He would declare: Nothing in the world is more mysterious than a little girl’ (p5). Her father was killed in the raid.

The drayman Mendel Visoker was twenty-four when he discovered Hannah alone in the fields and took her home. She was traumatised, but did not cry. A phrase Mendel uses is: ‘One of two things is possible…’ which Hannah hijacks several times in the narrative, to comic effect.

The years passed and Hannah continued her learning in several languages, borrowing books from Mendel when he visited. She would always be of diminutive stature and had enchanting grey eyes. When she was fourteen Mendel agreed to take her to a relative of the village rabbi in Warsaw as Hannah was plainly stifled in the little village. She stayed in the Klotz household; the woman Dobbe was the power in the marriage, Pinchos was ‘only a suggestion of a husband’. There are many amusing and colourful character descriptions in the book; this one stands out: ‘The couple were nearly sixty and had never had any children. In fact, they had not spoken to each other for some thirty-odd years, united in one of those silent bonds of well-maintained hatred that only a perfect marriage can achieve’ (p77). ‘She was truly colossal, as tall as Mendel, and the look she shot him would have terrified a lesser man. Her small keen eyes were tucked away beneath heavy eyelids that fell, like the rest of her face, in folds’ (p77). However, Dobbe is no match for the wilful Hannah.

While working in the Klotz shop, Hannah sets about improving things and strikes a deal with Dobbe to earn a percentage of the takings. Eventually, she strikes out on her own, achieving considerable success – until she is attacked and robbed. Mendel learns of this and metes out his own revenge but is then on the run and arrested, sent to Siberia. Hannah is given his boat-ticket to Australia, where she is taken in by the Mackenna family. ‘… this sudden immersion in a real family came as something new and surprising; she had not experienced the same since she was seven… Their average height alone was impressive… She felt like a fox terrier invited to share a meal with an assembly of St Bernards’ (p206).

Hannah was a quick study and soon turned her hand to developing scented cream lotions. She scoured much of Australia for the ingredients and quickly understood commerce: ‘she knew that the less cream she included in each pot the more highly priced – and prized – the contents would be’ (p284). All the time she desired to find and reunite with her childhood love, Taddeuz…

‘She was not going to remain in Australia for twenty years, and she was already getting old, nearly eighteen. Taddeuz would not wait half a century for her, nor would Mendel, in the event he had not already escaped…’ (p292).

By the turn of the century, Hannah is a rich and successful woman, head of a cosmetics empire with establishments in London, Paris and Vienna. And yet she seems unfulfilled unless she can find Taddeuz…

This is a completely engrossing novel with a wonderful and memorable heroine in Hannah and plenty of other fascinating characters, not least Mendel, her protector who possesses an unrequited love for her.

The book ends on a reasonably high note; however, there appears to be a sequel, The Empress, dubbed Hannah Tome 2, but it is hard to come by. I’m quite content to leave Hannah at the end of this book.

Apparently, Sulitzer used a ghost writer for many of his books: Loup Durand. I don’t know if Durand wrote this one.

Sulitzer is a French financier, and was a self-made millionaire by the age of seventeen.

It has been postulated that Hannah’s story is a fictional account of Helena Rubinstein. True, both originally came from Poland, and both took the cosmetics and fashion industries by storm at the start of the twentieth century. Quite a number of authors have used real larger-than-life people as templates for their fiction. Whatever the story behind the book, that should not detract from a well-told and affecting tale.




Thursday, 31 August 2023


Although Dana Stabenow had science fiction books published prior to this, A Cold Day for Murder (1992) was her debut crime novel – which happened to win an Edgar Award from the Crime Writers of America. There followed over twenty Kate Shugak Investigation crime books.

It’s set in Alaska. Kate is an Aleut investigator who has recently survived having her throat cut by a paedophile (now deceased). She previously had an affair with Jack Morgan, Anchorage’s DA. None of this we experience directly, as it’s flashback – much of it in nightmare form. In effect, there’s a lot of back-story presented, as if we’re diving in to another chapter in the series; still, it’s neatly done.  

After that brutal experience, it had taken her some time to recover from the trauma: ‘For fourteen months she had said nothing, had blunted every effort by every friend she had to get at the hurt, had pushed back the reckoning, and now here he was, Jack Morgan, her nemesis, her fate, the man who had hired her to deal every day of her working life with hurt, terrified defenceless children, who had loved her and asked, no, demanded that she love him in return, who had taken her rejection of himself, his job, his love and his world without apparent objection…’ (p116).

Jack calls upon her to find a missing National Park Ranger; and also seek the detective who had been sent earlier to find the ranger… Kate knows The Park, it’s her home turf, even if she abandoned it to get education and a career.

Kate has a slightly awkward number of relatives in the town of Niniltna; colourful, cranky, difficult and not particularly likeable... Perhaps too much emphasis was placed on the local colour in the text. However, Kate is an engaging character, plucky and stubborn. Sadly, for me, the arrival at the solution seemed rushed and a bit contrived. As the character is sustained over so many books, I suspect any perceived shortcomings noted here have been rectified in subsequent outings.

What sets this book apart from many other crime novels, and very possibly earned the award, is the local knowledge and feeling for Alaska.

If you like crime series, then you might want to consider diving in here and make up your own mind.

Editorial comment:

My copy (2013) oddly has a back cover blurb that doesn’t relate to the story at all. Oops, Head of Zeus… The blurb on Amazon is correct, however!

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

A Dance to the Music of Time (10 of 12) - Book review


Books Do Furnish a Room, Anthony Powell’s tenth book in his series A Dance to the Music of Time was published in 1971; my copy attests to it being reprinted eight times (in 1981) and the book is still in print. (I read the previous book The Military Philosophers in May 2019).

Like all its predecessors, it’s narrated in the first person by Nick Jenkins; this time he covers the post-Second World War period of austerity. I certainly liked the title – having over thirty shelves crammed with books!

The book title derives from the cognomen Books-do-furnish-a-room Bagshaw given to a journalist of that surname: ‘Bagshaw’s employment at the BBC lasted only a few years. There were plenty of other professional rebels there, not to mention [Communist] Party Members’ (p37). There were two variants on his acquiring the sobriquet: one, while in his cups, he overturned a full bookcase of books on himself and made the observation, ‘Books do furnish a room’; two, he made the observation at the moment of consummating a sexual encounter in the lady’s husband’s book-lined study; she later told someone that she considered the remark lacking in sensibility.

Bagshaw becomes the general editor of the left-leaning magazine Fission; Nick acts as reviews editor and Kenneth Widmerpool, now a Labour MP, joins the team to write about politics and economics. The owner of the magazine is left-wing publisher Quiggin who ‘had lost interest writing. Instead, he now identified himself, body and soul, with his own firm’s publications, increasingly convinced – like not a few publishers – that he had written them all himself’ (p125). Quiggin even considered he had a right to alter the prose of ‘his’ authors without consultation. One author, as well as others, objected – X Trapnel. ‘These differences of opinion might have played a part in causing Quiggin – again like many publishers – to develop a detestation of authors as a tribe’ (p126).

Jenkins observes how the aftermath of the war affected individuals: ‘The war had washed ashore all sorts of wrack of sea, on all sorts of coasts. In due course, as the waves receded, much of this flotsam was to be refloated, a process to continue for several years, while the winds abated. Among the many individual bodies sprawled at intervals on the shingle, quite a lot resisted the receding tide. Some just carried on life where they were on the shore; others – the more determined – crawled inland’ (p140).

Trapnel was self-obsessed, and always seemed to act a part, the roles varying depending on whoever he was dealing with; whether that was Widmerpool or his butterfly wife, Pamela. He was a bit of a fantasist as well. And attractive to women…

Yet again Powell rarely lingers on Nick’s own marriage: ‘Not so very long after that evening, Isobel gave birth to a son’ (p104). He doesn’t even name the boy!

Hitting hard times, Trapnel ends up in a run-down part of the city, living in squalor: ‘… but buildings already tumbledown had now been further reduced by bombing. The neighbourhood looked anything but flourishing’ (p203).

Post-war paper shortages, artistic temperament disagreements, the squalid affair of Trapnel combined to ensure the demise of Fission.

As ever, the characters keep the pages turning. Two more books left to read in the sequence.

Tuesday, 15 August 2023

THE LUTE AND THE PEN - Press Release

Historical fiction - 10th century Spain!

960AD. Al-Andalus.

Spirited and learned, Qamira has discarded the strictures of her life in Baghdad to travel with her grandfather to Cordoba. Here she embraces the undreamed-of freedoms accorded women. She befriends her neighbours, attractive young men and women of Jewish, Christian and Arabic faiths, all living in harmony. One of these is Zayd, a swordsman, poet and teacher from the Maghreb; they form a strong emotional attachment. Sadly, that harmony will be shattered…

Amazon UK:

Amazon US:


She had gone through twelve months of deep depression after her parents died horribly and swiftly of the plague that had wiped out hundreds of pilgrims on the way to Mecca. The vultures had made light work of the bodies.

When fellow travellers brought the devastating news, although a younger maiden aunt said she was happy enough to care for Qamira, Talha insisted she come to live with him. 

Since that day she had barely spoken, just sitting swaying, silent – an elective mute. She ate because she must; she said her prayers because God was watching her; she kissed her grandfather good morning and good night because it was expected; but all joy had fled her short life.


Talha and Qamira entered the splendid garden with the three-tiered fountain Qamira had glimpsed from above. They made their way along cobbled pathways, past myrtle hedges and a pool covered with water lilies. Jasmine clambered up the walls to reach the balconies of the upper floors and niches, pots and urns brimmed with scented roses.

They followed the colonnade that snaked round the house, passing tables and chairs, glass-fronted cabinets filled with ornaments and books.

Voices and laughter summoned them to the feast. Comfortable leather divans surrounded a convivial table in whose centre were bowls of water containing sweet-scented rose-petals and lemon peel. Soft cloths were provided to dry hands and faces. Each place had a drinking glass and ceramic plate. Ornate metal teapots and trays of food stood at the ready. Three young people sat in one corner, heads together, whispering, oblivious of the presence of strangers.


The gate swung open on well-oiled hinges and Yuhana and Qamira exited into glorious countryside. Qamira gasped at the view, deeply inhaling the cool morning air, scented with herbs and pine. Carobs and oaks lined the narrow winding path leading to the lake and in the distance the Dark Mountains were bathed in a ghostly white mist.

They ambled along the shady path then Qamira halted, suddenly anxious.

Yuhana grabbed her arm and lengthened her stride, pulling her past the high wall of the munyat cemetery. ‘Qamira, hurry, the lake is this way. Or have you lost your nerve, no longer daring to defy Urvan’s ban?’

‘Not at all.’ She slowed her pace. ‘Why do you let him dictate to you? Does your father also disapprove?’

Yuhana fell into step beside her. ‘Yes, he also fears for our safety and because he is my father I must obey him! Surely you obey your grandfather?’

Qamira gave her a devilish grin. ‘Most of the time. But he is always open to discussion. It is often the only way forward. Besides, he approves of swimming. This is an ideal time of day to bathe and,’ she indicated the cemetery, ‘the dead won’t talk, or harm us.’

They reached a clearing, uncultivated except for clumps of herbs. At a glance Qamira recognised borage and rosemary, comfrey and lavender. She stooped and squeezed a handful of rosemary, cupped her hand around her nose and inhaled the sweet smell. Rising, she observed a small copse of hazel and almond trees. A cluster of six beehives to her left crouched like slatted creatures from another world. ‘Whose are those hives?’ she asked.

‘Ours but no-one tends them. I stay away. I was stung once. Mother used marigold flowers to ease the pain.’

‘She was right to do so,’ Qamira said. ‘Perhaps I can take the beeswax for my creams and I must gather those herbs before the sun wilts them.’

Yuhana plucked a stem of lavender and breathed deeply. ‘Tell me about them.’

‘There are many types. Here we have thyme, parsley, sage and rosemary for cooking.’ She spun round. ‘And there are comfrey and witch-hazel for sprains and bruises, borage for fevers, lavender to aid restful sleep. There are poisonous plants too – arum, nightshade and wormwood – but they can be used safely…’ She ran ahead down the path, calling back, ‘if you know how.’

They arrived at the lake. Herons skimmed the calm surface seeking fish, a bunting hidden in the reeds called plaintively to its mate, frogs croaked unharmoniously and the reeds themselves whispered in the breeze. Along the shore-line, a row of willows stood sentry-like, a natural barrier from prying eyes. Qamira noted the trees. She must tell Grandfather.

She ran forward to the edge, removed her sandals and dipped in her toe. Glancing around, she stripped off her robe and undergarment then plunged into the rippling wavelets, naked and free. She disappeared below the surface, swam some way off then reappeared.

‘You are bold!’ Yuhana called. ‘And such a strong swimmer.’

‘It is heavenly. Come in.’

Yuhana began to wade in but Qamira called out peremptorily, ‘Your clothes? Remove them. Or walk home soaking.’

Yuhana blenched. ‘Someone may see.’

‘There is no-one. Anyway, the trees will hide us. You must, or your robe will drag you down.’

Yuhana removed her robe, threw it ashore then ducked down into the water.


Zayd sat beside her and eyed the poem. ‘Is that a muwashshah?’

‘I don’t know. It’s an ode.’

‘A qasidah, then, a classical ode. To…?’ the handsome Berber inquired gently.


‘Ah, the tragic Queen of Carthage.’

‘When Grandfather and I disembarked there, he recounted the sad tale of Dido and the Greek Aeneas: their love affair, his treachery, his abandonment. Her despair, her death,’ she finished with barely a whisper.

‘Please read me your ode.’

‘It’s not ready.’

‘No matter. It’s not the end-product that matters but the journey we make to achieve it. The road we pursue can enrich all things. So, may I hear it?’

She obliged, reading the poetry in a clear voice.

‘Your words are poignant. How they remind me…’

Qamira’s brow furrowed. ‘Remind you of what?’

‘Of my own land, Qamira, of El-Maghreb.’

His look was wistful, longing for something lost forever. Maybe, like her, he was a wandering soul, far from his native land, still on his own journey, accepted but apart, not quite at peace. Was this to be their common bond, then? Should she feel sorry for him, or a kindred spirit? Should she by silence demonstrate her understanding of his situation and his destiny or by questioning seek to discover more?

‘Do you miss your home?’

‘Sometimes.’ He ran his hand through his thick hair. ‘Tell me about Baghdad.’

‘It is a city of wondrous architecture: minarets, mosques. Much activity: learning, invention. Like here but bigger.’

‘And the people?’

‘Dark and mysterious.’

Zayd pursed his lips. ‘And life?’

‘Unbearably lonely. I had my dreams and I was afraid I would never achieve them, always bound by tradition and rules. A foolish desire.’

His eyes bored into hers. ‘No, Qamira. No ambition is foolish. The only rules that should bind your life are those that you yourself make. Nothing should constrain you.’

‘Easy to say.’ She turned slightly to contemplate the garden. ‘Are we not all constrained – even Nature? Do not the trees grow to their expected height, flowers bloom with their due colours, all things in their season? Dogs bark and cats mew? Unchanging? Never branching out?’

‘We are humans, not flowers. We may do as we please. You have branched out. You’re here with your grandfather, embracing a new life.’

Qamira contemplated this a while. ‘As did you,’ she agreed finally. ‘Do you have any family left in El-Maghreb?’

He gazed at the ground. ‘My parents are both dead.’

‘Mine died too – before their time. We’re both orphans, then.’

He looked up at her through long thick lashes. ‘Indeed we are.’


‘Do not run from me!’ His voice rasped unkindly in her ear. ‘I want you! I have made myself clear on countless occasions. I will wait no longer. You will submit to me.’

‘If Grandfather were here, you wouldn’t dare make so bold.’

‘But he is not here, and I am. Here, to fulfil your destiny.’

Then his mood changed, his voice pleading. ‘It is I who beg you, my sweet nightingale. You cannot comprehend how much I love and desire you. Not just your music–’

She turned her face away as he kissed her again, his beard scratching her soft cheek.

Remember Zayd! She sobbed, her will almost broken. Why was he suddenly so difficult to resist? Then from somewhere in her inner core she mustered the strength of mind to withstand him. ‘I cannot do this. I cannot love you as you would have me do. I do not want you!

But to no avail. He was panting now, whether from passion or exertion, she could not tell. She tried to push him away, the heels of her hands against his shoulders, but his grip tightened and he slid down to his knees, kissing her stomach, her abdomen, moving lower until his hands were raising the hem of her nightgown. His desperation revolted her yet her whole being ached with a treacherous sensation of pleasure and betrayal – and she the betrayer.

Remember Zayd! Now his fingers probed, seeking her secret warmth.

The sudden unexpected stab of bliss surprised her. She gritted her teeth, shuddered. She must not succumb.

Remember Zayd! The dim light and his lustful eagerness made him awkward, fumbling, and in that instant she came to her senses, all thoughts of pleasure fled. Her fingernails dug into the soft flesh between his shoulders and neck. She hoped she’d drawn blood. He roared in pain and stumbled away, releasing her to massage the spot.

She slid sideways and staggered towards the door.

Available on Amazon - paperback and e-book



Monday, 14 August 2023

CHILL OF THE SHADOW - Press release

 If you like Stephen King's vampire novels, then you might like this!

This cross-genre thriller is set in present-day Malta and has echoes from pre-history and also the eighteenth century Knights of Malta.

Malta may be an island of sun and sand, but there’s a dark side to it too. It all started when some fishermen pulled a corpse out of the sea... Or maybe it was five years ago, in the cave of Ghar Dalam?

Spellman, an American black magician, has designs on a handpicked bunch of Maltese politicians, bending their will to his master’s. A few sacrifices, that’s all it takes. And he’s helped by Zondadari, a rather nasty vampire.

Maltese-American investigative journalist Maria Caruana’s in denial. She can’t believe Count Zondadari is a vampire. She won’t admit it. Such creatures don’t exist, surely? She won’t admit she’s in love with him, either...

Detective Sergeant Attard doesn’t like caves or anything remotely supernatural. Now he teams up with Maria to unravel the mysterious disappearance of young pregnant women. They’re also helped by the priest, Father Joseph.

And there are caves, supernatural deaths and a haunting exorcism.

Just what every holiday island needs, really.

Where there is light, there is shadow…

Paperback and e-book on Amazon:

Amazon UK:

Amazon US:


His body aching in every bone, Zondadari straightened in the front pew and rubbed his strained eyes. Recovery from each transformation was the same: excruciating.

He remembered his pains with a shiver; then gulped the revitalizing warm blood from the church’s golden chalice and licked red dribbles from fleshy lips.

Ever so slowly, the draught would do its arcane work and heal the agonizing ache and give him new life. Not for the first time, Zondadari cursed Theresa. Still, there were compensations: and blood-lusting Desiree was just one of many.

He turned in the high-backed wooden seat to eye Father Pont, sprawled lifeless at the base of the choir stalls. The fool’s vacant eyes reflected no beatitude at abruptly and prematurely meeting his Maker and perhaps because of this they stared at him accusingly. And with good reason. The poor man’s heart must have stopped for a fleeting second as he saw a cloud of bats swoop down from the belfry. Father Pont’s eyes were almost extended on stalks as he viewed the creatures in front of him clustering together, as if purposefully forming into a seemingly pain-racked leather-clad man. Suffused with agonizing pain, the man glared and then smiled, grabbing the nearest piece of silver to hand. The priest stayed rooted to the stone flags, an easy target. No wonder his eyes stared accusingly.

Zondadari shrugged. Even after all these years, he wondered how he could have been taken in by such an empty religion. Of course, in those distant days, superstition reigned supreme.

Standing, he hung the plastic crucifix round his neck.

In a moment he would drag the dead priest down to the catacombs to join his ancient brethren. With great will-power, Zondadari refrained from draining the blood from the priest; he would return for the rest later, a cool libation, after which the body would molder and become sacred dust.

Taking his time – of which he had plenty – he donned the dead priest’s round-brimmed hat. He paused to check his reflection in the shining silver ciborium, its rim smeared with blood and hair where he had clubbed the kappillan.

He lifted his head, accentuating the line of his aquiline nose. His steely grey eyes shone mischievously. Quite the local vicar, he mused, but he still preferred to see himself in his ancient knight’s helmet.

Licking the silver clean, he smiled. Today, he would have a little amusement.


Zondadari swore. Despite his efforts, he had succumbed to the hunger. As if viewing through a gauze screen, he pictured the events of the last hour – inviting the attractive tourist to the villa, plying her with rich food and wine. She was pretty in a simple way, awed by the decorations and furnishings – material signifiers of wealth, of no consequence to him. He sought power, in all its forms, not possessions. She was intrigued by the scar on his cheek: like so many of her age, there was a morbid fascination with gore and death; they dressed in black, the Gothic fashion, draping themselves in funereal leather, silk and chiffon. Perhaps they fancied they were immortal? The young often did, until they grew older or became diseased. He laughed at the thought and his pulse raced again as he remembered her gauche invitation for him to seduce her.

She was only partially mesmerized as his teeth chewed and tore at her supple and elastic neck and into the meaty sterno-mastoid muscle. He found the shock of comprehension on her face most pleasurable. The carotid artery gushed forcefully into the roof of his mouth and he almost choked on the girl’s life-blood. Applying skillful pressure, he stemmed the cascade and savoured the taste. It was exquisite.

Even half-asleep, she had tried to fight, to scream away the living – or rather, dying – nightmare, but to no avail. The anticoagulant in his saliva kept the blood flowing until he was sated.

Soon, she slithered into that warm darkness between life and death. It was so long since Therese had sucked him down into those beauteous shadowy depths; the difference was, she then fed him her own blood and made him like her. Normally, victims were used simply to supply blood to re-energize his body. It was a long time since he had brought his own woman back from the dead, to serve him and feed her own blood-lust. At one time it might have been tempting to have a harem of female vampires, but their excessive need for continual sustenance – human blood – would have meant their discovery and ultimate hounding to death. He’d managed to survive simply because over the years he was able to curb his hunger and find substitutes that still gave him the vitality of undead life.

It was weak moments like this when he hated himself. He didn’t like giving in to the hunger. He had promised David Bugeja, after all. Still, it was too late now. He eyed the naked woman sprawled on the moonlit parquet floor. He might as well drain her. It would be a shame to let all that good blood go to waste – especially as it was still warm.


Selena was halfway down the stairs, whip held threateningly. “Being flayed alive isn’t a nice way to end your journalistic career, but it’s probably what you deserve!”

Biting her lip, her heart hammering, Maria thundered, “How dare you attack me and break into my home!”

“Maybe I don’t like your writing style?” Laughing, Selena lashed out with the whip.

The vicious strip of leather cut Maria’s left wrist, ripped her jacket and sliced into her shoulder; the sudden pain made her drop the damned phone on the hard tiles, where it shattered. She winced, a hand covering her bloody wrist, and staggered to one side, against the wall. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the fallen coat-stand, coat and umbrella. Repressing the fear of more pain from the whip, she lunged and snatched the umbrella’s wooden handle.

Again Selena’s whip snapped but Maria pressed the umbrella’s button and it opened, deflecting the leather thong. Through a rent in the umbrella’s fabric she saw Selena scream and stamp her foot.

Grimly, Maria charged forward, the umbrella’s metal skeleton deflecting the next whiplash as she approached.

Selena started to back off up the stairs, onto the landing.

Maria heard police sirens outside, getting nearer.

Clearly, Selena heard them as well and moved more hurriedly up the stairs.

With a swift lucky flourish, Maria closed the umbrella and trapped the whip in its folds. She quickly grabbed the length of leather and yanked, pulling the whip from the woman’s hand.

“Oh, hell!” Selena snapped.

“You’ve got some explaining to do!” Maria said but she was ignored and Selena turned and ran up the stairs.

Maria was exultant; she had the madwoman on the run! She discarded both whip and umbrella and followed, her bare feet slapping on the marble steps.

There was a door at the top and it was swinging open as Maria got there. She emerged on the roof solarium, its concrete surface glaring, reflecting the intense sunlight. Shielding her eyes, she noticed Selena was crossing over a low dividing wall to next door where two lines of washing fluttered in the strong breeze.

Below, police car sirens sounded, and then stopped as cars screeched to a halt in the narrow street.

Selena glanced back at Maria.

“You can’t get away, Selena – give yourself up!” Maria called, still chasing her. “The police are here now!”

Scowling, Selena turned and stumbled straight into a fluttering still-damp sheet.

Maria saw her chance and leapt for the pole and untied the washing line. Working on instinct and the adrenalin rush of unfamiliar fear, in an instant she had encircled the sheet-covered madwoman with the clothesline.

Her words muffled and defiant, Selena shouted, “Rot in Hell!” Then, struggling to get free, she stumbled backwards and toppled over the roof balustrade.

Maria grabbed for the line, shrieking, “Selena!” But she was too late…

Below, Attard pulled up his car behind a stationary karozzin. He got out and looked up at the sound of Maria’s voice. He saw the sheet-enshrouded figure fall headfirst, the washing line twisted around the torso and legs.

Selena swung once, and then bashed against the building’s whitewashed wall.

He winced on hearing the cracking of her skull-bone, the sound not unlike a melon bursting.

The black horse whinnied, as if smelling blood and death, and reared up between the shafts of the karozzin.

Swiftly, the white sheet enveloping the woman’s head turned red, while her corpse continued to swing like some grotesque pendulum from Poe’s fevered imagination.


Part amused, part amazed, Maria said, “Why so many mirrors?”

“Every fifty years or so, I go through a collecting phase. In the 1820s, it was mirrors...”

She started. “Your reflection–”

“Yes, what about it?”

“You have one!”

Zondadari laughed, the sound echoing. “A myth. Some laws of physics can’t be broken by the supernatural.”

She hugged him close. “Garlic – does it repel you?”

“Only if I hadn’t eaten it at the same meal as you.”

“Your skin – you mentioned barrier creams. Does that mean–?”

“No, sunlight won’t turn me into a pile of dust. It will age my skin, though.” He stroked his chin and grinned. “And as this skin has to last me quite a few centuries, I’d rather it didn’t suffer too much. I’m more fortunate than those sufferers of porphyria, who are confined to a life of darkness; anything stronger than a 40-watt lamp and the skin will shrink under scalding blisters. Necrosis of the skin is not uncommon. Acute varieties of the ailment can be very painful.”

“That rings a bell. I think it’s treated with blood. In fact, wasn’t porphyria used as a scientific explanation to support the existence of vampires?”

He nodded. “A pint or two of haeme can ease the symptoms. Yes, haeme as in haemoglobin.” He smiled. “Of course, there’s no basis in fact that porphyria is in any way related to vampirism.”

She couldn’t resist an exasperated, “Are any of the stories true about vampires?”