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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?”


Monday 7 August 2023



[#2 in the Bethesda Falls series - all self-contained stories!]

The Bethesda Falls stage is robbed and Ruth Monroe, the stage depot owner, is being coerced into selling up by local tycoon, Zachary Smith. Meanwhile, Daniel McAlister returns from gold prospecting to wed Virginia, the saloon’s wheel of fortune operator. Daniel hits a winning streak but is bushwhacked, his winnings stolen.

And newcomer to town, Horace Q. Marcy, seems to be playing a game close to his chest, too.

Virginia sees this romance with Daniel as her last chance of happiness and no matter what, she’s determined to stand by her man, ducking flying bullets if need be. Daniel and Virginia side with Ruth against Smith and his hired gunslingers.

Only a deadly showdown will end it, one way or another.

Amazon UK

Amazon US


The downhill swaying motion of the Bethesda coach dislodged Alfred Boddam and he fell forward, half-into the front boot, his arm crooked over the side-lantern, hand dangling and bashing against the flapping leather curtain.

‘What on earth’s happening?’ A passenger boldly peeled back the curtain and stared at Alfred’s limp hand. ‘Oh, dear Lord! Mr Boddam’s dead!’ he shrieked. ‘Nobody’s driving our coach!’


When Daniel McAlister entered The Gem saloon, Virginia Simone’s heart lurched against the fitted boned bodice of her red satin dress and she almost made a hash of triggering the concealed device under the roulette wheel.

Pulling her eyes away from the entrance with an effort, she turned back to her table and flicked the hidden lever to ensure that the House won. The ball bounced a few times and a couple of gamblers let out exclamations of surprise. But for Virginia it was no surprise at all. Yep, the House won when it mattered, when the stakes were high. She hated this part of her job, suckering the poor dupes just to line the pockets of owners Royce O’Keefe and Zachary Smith. Still your foolish pride, she told herself; it’s a job, and she was one of the best in the whole damned Dakota Territory.


Wading through the stream, Wolf Slayer came after him.

Daniel got to one knee, withdrew his knife and splashed water at the oncoming Indian’s face. As the Sioux warrior was deflected for a moment, Daniel sprang.

He grasped hold of the wrist of the Indian’s knife-hand and twisted harshly but the blade didn’t drop. Wolf Slayer grabbed Daniel’s wrist and simultaneously brought up a knee, thrusting it into Daniel’s belly. Daniel gasped, falling backwards, yet he managed to hold onto the Indian’s wrist and Wolf Slayer fell on top of him. The man’s breath was foul, but he imagined his own wasn’t much better.

The underwater rocks were smooth but unforgiving hard against his back. Spluttering, stream-water lapping round his face, Daniel felt his strength ebbing as Wolf Slayer thrust a knee on his chest, pressing down hard. It wouldn’t take long before his rib-cage broke under the pressure. Wolf Slayer’s free hand was clamped around Daniel’s throat, trying to force his head under water.

Review:  This is one good read... not a typical western it has character, humour and storylines with enough questions in the plot to maintain interest from beginning to end. Strongly recommended.”

Previously published by Robert Hale 2008 - now re-published as a paperback!

Saturday 5 August 2023



The author J.A. Brooks has written a number of books similar to this one, covering the Cotswolds, London, Wales and even railway ghosts. My copy was published in 1988.

I’d picked up this slim volume (144pp) a while ago and since Jen and I were visiting the Lake District for the fourth or fifth time, it seemed appropriate to begin reading it, at last! Certainly, a number of familiar place-names cropped up.

Apparently, near Lindeth there was the Scout Dobbie, a headless woman who guarded a cave; often these scare stories were put about by smugglers and moonshiners to deter the inquisitive and excise men. Here’s a quotation: ‘Dobbies are just one of the colloquial forms of ghost native to Cumbria. They were a comparatively friendly type of ghost (more of a household fairy or hobgoblin) compared with the more fearsome boggle or boggart…’ (p9).

‘When visible, a boggart was seen to be half man – the half spirit was his unseen self – no more than knee high, his face wizened, his neck scrawny like an old man’s, his arms thin, his legs looking incapable of supporting his corpulent body. In bad mood his face was contorted as in a rage: when indulging in pranks he grinned with impish glee; in good mood his mien was benevolent’ (p11).

The above two passages rang bells with me, having read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books and watched the movies! Bringing to mind the house-elf Dobbie. One of the references Brooks refers to is The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling…

Apparently, ‘early in the Middle Ages the last wolf was killed in the Lake District’ (p29). Needless to say, there is a legend involving a Sir John Harrington, a wolf terrorising the Cartmel district, and Adela, a young girl, would be promised to him if he could slay the animal.

In June 1921 a Londoner named Crump set out to walk from Coniston to Wasdale Head. Lost in mist, he fell, badly hurt and ended up trapped in Piers Gill, a great chasm. As chance would have it, a climber found him some twenty days later. He had survived on a small piece of gingerbread and a sandwich, and trickles of water; (p47). I include this snippet simply because Melvyn Bragg uses the name Crump in his novel The Maid of Buttermere! (qv).

Before 1890 there were just two small lakes occupying the lovely valley that Thirlmere covers today. Wordsworth used to picnic there. However, in 1894 Manchester Corporation flooded the valley to create the Thirlmere reservoir. The waters covered Armboth House and subsequently hauntings were reported: ‘Lights at night, bells ring, and as all are set off ringing a large black dog is seen swimming across the lake. Plates and dishes clatter, and a table is spread by unseen hands preparing for a ghostly wedding feast of a murdered bride about to rise from her watery grave to keep her terrible nuptials… There is something remarkable, like witchery, about the house’ (p52). It was believed that ‘the sight of a black dog presaged a fatal accident’ (p94).

‘At the summit of Helvellyn there is a monument commemorating an accident that occurred on Striding Edge in 1803, when Charles Gough fell and was killed while on a walk with his yellow terrier Foxey. His body lay undiscovered for three months, and when it was found his faithful dog sat close by, still guarding him, rather like Greyfriars’ Bobby’ ’ (p56). There was some suspicion that the dog survived by taking occasional bites of his master’s body…

Mention is made of the Luck of Muncaster Castle – a piece of ancient glassware. It was said to have been presented to Sir John Pennington by Henry VI in gratitude for hiding the defeated Lancastrian king. ‘The castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of Thomas Skelton, the “late fool of Muncaster”, who died c1600’ (p134). [See also WRITEALOT: Visit to The Lake District, Cumbria ( ]

‘A swarth is a supernatural being akin to the fairies. It performed the same function in the North of England as a banshee does in Ireland – foretelling death’ (p88). Superstition was rife: ‘All the mirrors in the house were covered while a dead person was lying in a house, for it was considered to be extremely unlucky should the spirit catch sight of a reflected image of itself. People visiting the house for the lying-in used to touch the body. This served two purposes: if the corpse had been murdered and it was touched by the guilty part, then it would begin to bleed; also if the hand laid on the body felt cold to one’s own flesh it meant that that person would die within the year’ (p90).

At Greystoke (the family name Edgar Rice Burroughs gave to Tarzan) there are supposed to be two ghosts. ‘One is a monk who is said to have been bricked up in a secret passage. He appears in a disused room occasionally’ (p112). The second concerns a local beauty who falls to her death at Aira Force waterfall.

‘At the foot of Kirkstone Pass just into Ambleside there is a large house that had been a hotel. A fire in the topmost bedrooms killed several staff. ‘The hotel was forced to close because the terrible smell of burning flesh would sometimes, and for no apparent reason, pervade the building’ (p113).

Egremont has a ghost of a pony and rider that only appears on Christmas Eve; he may have been a fell-farmer who imbibed too much ale and left on his horse, and neither were ‘seen again in earthly form’ (p135).

‘Wigton has the reputation of being the most haunted town in Cumbria. Its ghosts have intriguing names, such as the Church Street Phantom, the Clinic Ghost, the Burnfoot Spirit, the Water Street Boggle, the New Street Headless Horror’ (p140).

A fascinating little book which seems to dwell more on local legends rather than ghosts; however, for variety there is also mention of a vampire in the village of Croglin, and it is quite a classic scary tale (p115).

Editorial comment

The book would have benefitted by having a map or two. And a small number of the old illustrations are without any caption so it is not clear what part of the text they are referencing.

Friday 4 August 2023



The Maid of Buttermere is Melvyn Bragg’s twelfth novel and was published in 1987; my copy is a fourth impression, 1988. It’s a fictional account about the historical figures of a shepherdess Mary Robinson, the Maid of the story, and her suitor, Colonel Hope.

Taking place in 1802, the tale is told in the measured language of the period, and the point of view is omniscient.

It is clear early on (even if you haven’t read the giveaway blurb) that the main male character is suspect. He recounts to himself and the empty Morecambe Bay sands his identity: ‘I am Alexander Augustus Hope, Colonel, Member of Parliament for Linlithgowshire and brother to the Earl of Hopetoun’ (p20). Interesting to me, he also states: ‘now Lieutenant Governor of Tynemouth’ (p21) which is just down the road from where I live. Though carrying himself as a gentleman and of high birth, he is not averse to talk with anyone on an equal footing. He meets a fish-woman on the shoreline and tells her, ‘If they bathed you in oils, Anne Tyson, and put you in silk gowns, you’d be as fine a lady as them all’ (p24). In short, he’s a sweet-tongued womaniser. Not long after this conversation, he is having sex al fresco with a local woman Sally, and they depart, he promising to see her on the morrow, but lying.

Hope has a confederate, Newton, who seems to have a peculiarly strong hold over Hope. Their joint intention is for Hope to find and marry a rich heiress and as soon as possible afterwards run off with the loot to America. Newton’s dark presence hovers even when he is absent, like the black dog of depression. It is hinted at that he has committed murder, but I must have missed the actual revelation. A list or real characters is listed at the back; Newton’s name does not appear there, so it is possible he is to all intents and purposes Hope’s conscience.

In Chapter Two we encounter Mary Robinson who is a beautiful shepherdess and helper for her father in the Fish Inn. She has been discovered by poets and artists and her fame has spread and she gained the sobriquets ‘Mary of Buttermere’, the ‘Maid of the Lakes’ and the ‘Beauty of Buttermere’. Yet she has managed to repel all suitors, while attracting customers to her father’s hostelry. A local lad, Richard Harrison, is too tongue-tied to be her suitor, but at their first meeting he realises ‘She was everything they said she was’ (p41).  

While visiting the ancient upright stones of Castlerigg, Hope encounters a group comprising Colonel Moore, his wife and their ward, Miss Amaryllis D’Arcy. The young woman seems the ideal prospect for his purpose.

Mary is not short of friends, one of whom is Kitty, an old woman who lives in the wood, was ‘gypsy brown, the tan so shiny on the mild skin that it was like a fresh varnish. She sat in front of her turfed tepee like a re-located squaw – the mass of brown hair loosely braided and heaped on her head like a parcel carelessly tied with twine, her forget-me-not blue eyes looking at Mary only when she thought she was unobserved…’ (p97). Another friend is Alice, who married Tom, a boy who Mary had rejected.

Hope is referred to in several ways, among them ‘the man who called himself Hope’, John-Augustus, John, and Hope. This may imply that there is a touch of schizophrenia harbouring in the conman Colonel’s psyche. Indeed, Samuel Taylor Coleridge stated: ‘It is not by mere Thought, I can understand this man’ (p291).

Hope also makes the acquaintance of the attorney Mr Crump and his wife who constantly interrupts him, affording us a few humorous scenes: ‘ “We are in fact,” continued her husband, who took no offence at her interruptions, indeed, in these foreign circumstances, counted on them as if his sentences were much improved for being broken into…’ (p149).

Bragg’s descriptions naturally evoke the place, his own beloved Cumbria, as well as the period. ‘It was still damp, a little drizzle now and then, the fells purpling with misty mizzle, the greens of trees drenched greener, their green swan song before the winds and colds of autumn drained them yellow and blew them down’ (p252).

This is a true tragic and notorious story, fictionalised, and inevitably true love does not run smoothly: ‘The future had become impenetrable as any of the large darkening silent fells between which the coach rocked and waddled its way’ (p301).

Bragg has masterfully insinuated himself into all the characters – thanks to the POV he has employed – and given them depth and imbued them all with sympathetic traits and human flaws.

Note: My wife and I have visited the Lake District a number of times. It was fascinating to come across so many familiar places and names, such as Honister Pass, Derwent Water, Cockermouth, Lorton and Grasmere, to name but a few that crop up in the novel. I actually began reading this book for the first time during our latest trip there (18-22 July this year).