Author Archives: Kate (For Winter Nights)

About Kate (For Winter Nights)

Lover of books, lover of movies

Semiosis by Sue Burke

Tor | 2018 (US: 6 February; UK: 8 March) | 336p | Review copy (US edn) | Buy the book: UK/US

Semiosis by Sue BurkeWhen a group of men and women leave Earth to start afresh on a new planet, they are alarmed to discover that the new planet is not the one they were aiming for. And other disasters follow as they attempt to land on the surface. But land they do and they name the planet Pax, almost immediately establishing a constitution that upholds peace and harmony with nature, and trust and support for each other. This will be a utopia in the making. There will be obstacles to face but they will endeavour to meet them with hope.

But, of course, they can have had no idea what they would face on a world so far away to the one that they had left. And a perfect society is no easy thing to achieve. In Semiosis we view the struggles of the settlers over a hundred years of so, moving from one generation to another. Each generation is clearly defined and apart from the others – one may have green hair, another may wear beads, and no sexual relationships are allowed between them. The result of this distinction and definition is an absorbing portrait of a society as a whole from members of it who have purposefully limited their perspective. It’s appealingly complex and unusual.

My favourite element of Semiosis, though, is its depiction of the animals and plants of Pax. Both have certain characteristics that are reminiscent of animals and plants on Earth – cats, lions, eagles, bamboo, oranges and so on – but, in other and more fundamental ways, they are entirely different, alien. All are sentient to varying degrees. The utopian aim of Pax is aided by the playful and trusting nature of some of the animals (some are adorably fluffy and friendly) and there are some stunning concepts – plants that swim through the seas or fly high in the skies. But one of the main challenges of life on Pax will be deciding how to evolve a new and equal society when the plant life wants to take an active part. The relationship between humans is difficult enough but how much more difficult life becomes when one must learn to decipher signals and signs from an entirely different alien species.

There are more discoveries to be made on Pax and some are shocking. Misunderstandings are rife and can have lethal consequences. Each section focuses on a different generation and so our perception of events and people shifts and there are moments when we realise that something may well have happened entirely differently to the way in which it’s presented. And it also means that we draw close to certain key individuals in each generation but then we’re almost forcefully taken away from them.

Sue Burke is a sophisticated storyteller and Semiosis intrigues from start to finish. It’s fundamentally a first contact story but it’s largely character-driven, complemented by the beautiful descriptions of the other life forms on Pax. The human settlers – Pacifists – constantly remind each other that it is they who are the aliens and it is up to them to try and make peace with the exotic life around them but everything in this wonderful novel is strangely curious, occasionally terrifying and often gorgeous. The themes are huge! There’s a great deal going on to think about and, as the clever novel continues, one character in particular tests everybody’s ability to understand the signs and symbols around them – the semiosis that is so crucial on Pax if society is to evolve. It is all absolutely fascinating and thoroughly engaging.

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Pilgrim’s War by Michael Jecks

Simon & Schuster | 2018 (8 February) | 552p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pilgrim's War by Michael JecksIt is March 1096 and the people of Sens in France gather to hear the crusading call of Peter the Hermit. The Holy City of Jerusalem is in the hands of the Saracens, the Christians within persecuted, the places and rituals of Christ forbidden. The Emperor of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire is begging for help from the west and, in return, the Pope has promised that the sins of all crusaders shall be forgiven. Among the crowds who hear the call there are many who stand up to follow it, including Sybille and her husband who sees earthly riches at the end of his pilgrimage, not heavenly ones. Likewise, brothers Odo and Fulk have their different reasons for taking the cross – Fulk sees opportunity and adventure while Odo feels the stirrings of a buried faith. And then there are the women. Jeanne and Guillemette have been treated badly, finding refuge and independence as prostitutes in a brothel. For them and the other women and children on the pilgrimage there will be particular dangers.

And still they come. Many more of all walks of life, of every age, take the cross and are faced with a journey, mostly on foot, across lands that have no idea how to deal with this flood of humanity. Knights and preachers urge them on, pressing them to fight when necessary, even when they go hungry and can hardly walk another step. There are almost as many motives as there are pilgrims but one thing is sure – not all of them will reach their goal and even fewer of them will live to return home.

Pilgrim’s War is a fabulously rich chronicle of the First Crusade, which brings the events of 1096 to life through the varied experiences of a small group of individuals. Often the strands of the stories come together as people meet, hate each other or fall in love. They’re such a wonderful mix of people and all are given their time in the spotlight. I particularly enjoyed how both male and female pilgrims are given equal footing, showing how this crusade isn’t at all how crusades are usually perceived. This one, the first, was a madly disorganised affair, mostly undertaken by ordinary men and women with their children, and this spirit of hope, of a new age, of people being on the move for the first time, is all captured so brilliantly by Michael Jecks. As is the age’s absolute dread of the Saracen and the barbarous cruelty that was carried out in the name of Christianity against anyone perceived as different.

Of course, it might start off with dreams of glory and victory but soon the reality hits and it’s fascinating watching these people transform. The stories of Odo and Fulk are particularly powerful. There’s a real agony in watching what happens. And there’s also tragedy. The stresses and anxieties of this extraordinary, unprecedented pilgrimage kept me gripped.

I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of action and romance. Pilgrim’s War is in many ways a sweeping historical epic. Many lives move through its pages, each with their own dreams, and the structure of the novel dramatically moves backwards and forwards between them. There are some great battle scenes, including my favourite – sieges! – and these are complemented by the quiet moments of friendship and love. As the novel (and the pilgrimage) moves on we meet new people, this time from the East, although not necessarily originating there – I really liked the character of Alwyn.

Pilgrim’s War is the beginning of a new series, which is such good news because when I finished it I was so ready for more. It’s a substantial novel but I gobbled it up in only a couple of days. It moves around so quickly, there’s so much to look at, and the historical setting is wonderfully described and evoked. The movement from the known to the exotic is especially well done. The First Crusade was a disastrous affair for many – and catastrophic for many that they encountered along the way – and this novel gives us a good idea why and it makes for glorious reading. Pilgrim’s War is the first novel by Michael Jecks that I’ve read which is plain daft because he’s clearly a fantastic storyteller. I can’t wait to see where this series and its pilgrims take us next.

Other post
Guest post – The origins of the Vintener Trilogy by Michael Jecks

Creating Scarcross Hall – guest post by Katherine Clements, author of The Coffin Path

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsThis week Headline Review publishes The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements. This beautifully written novel, set on the moors in the 1670s, is a haunting, atmospheric and deliciously creepy tale that transports the willing reader to another time and place, so vividly created by this marvellous writer. I am delighted to feature on For Winter Nights today a guest post by Katherine Clements in which she discusses the inspiration for The Coffin Path‘s ‘crumbling pile with a dubious history, Scarcross Hall.

My review of The Coffin Path.

Creating Scarcross Hall

‘It’s grander than he’d supposed, with the high chimneys and crenellated gables of an older age, mullioned windows and two jutting wings on either side of a central hall, clearly designed with more than practicality in mind – a statement of wealth and power, one man’s attempt to make his mark in this wild landscape.’

This is Scarcross Hall, the setting of my new novel The Coffin Path, as first encountered by one of the main characters, Ellis Ferreby.

When I began to plan my 17th century ghost story, I knew that the house I created would play a significant part. Set high on the desolate West Yorkshire moors, Scarcross Hall is a crumbling pile with a dubious history. The stuff of gothic cliché perhaps, but as an historical novelist with a respect for the past (and my readers) I wanted to make sure my house was historically plausible.

East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935

East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935


The Coffin Path takes place in 1674 and, for story purposes, my house needed to be at least 100 years old, preferably with a much longer history. Luckily for me, the West Yorkshire area has a distinct architectural heritage, rooted in the area’s economic past.

The pre-industrial economy was mostly farming and weaving. Sheep were farmed for wool rather than meat and through the 15th and 16th centuries the area became one of the foremost producers of Kersey – a coarse woollen cloth that was made for domestic and international markets. For some it was a hard, hand-to-mouth existence but, then as now, some people got rich. Self-styled ‘Yeomen Clothiers’ built large residencies to reflect their status at the top of local society. Known as ‘Halifax houses’, these vernacular buildings were built of the local millstone grit, with long mullioned windows and often a circular rose window above the doorway. Local gentry also built grand manor houses, ensuring the continuity of their estates by adding to older timber-framed buildings.

I went looking for examples.

Oakwell Hall

Oakwell Hall

Scarcross Hall probably owes most to Oakwell Hall in Birstal near Batley. Built in 1583 by John Batt, this manor house has been beautifully restored with 17th century interiors and was the first place I visited. It delivered inspiration in spades. In The Coffin Path readers might recognise Oakwell’s central hall with large mullioned windows and a huge stone fireplace, circled by an upper gallery that connects the first floor rooms. A bedroom, complete with large Elizabethan bed and painted fire screen, was the model for the creepy old bedchamber in Scarcross Hall.

Oakwell Hall bedchamber

Oakwell Hall bedchamber

When I found out that Oakwell has its own Civil War history (the Battle of Adwalton Moor was fought nearby in 1643), Brontë connections, (Charlotte Brontë is said to have based Fieldhead, the house in her novel Shirley, on Oakwell), and even its own ghost, I was sold. I had found a great prototype for the interior of Scarcross Hall, but what of the exterior?

Next was East Riddlesden Hall, built in 1642 by wealthy Halifax clothier James Murgatroyd. There has been a house on this spot since the 12th century, owned by various gentry families, but the house that exists today is mostly 17th century. Despite a salubrious history, the hall fell into disrepair and was uninhabitable by the early 20th century. This picture, taken in 1905, certainly has the atmosphere I was looking for.

East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)

East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)

The hall was almost demolished but was saved by locals William and John Brigg, who bought the hall in 1933 and donated it to the National Trust. Inevitably, East Riddlesden has its ghosts too: the Grey Lady, who is said to have been bricked up alive by her cuckolded husband, and the Blue Lady, who met a slightly less dramatic end by drowning in the fish pond!

East Riddlesden Hall was saved by the passion and generosity of two local men, but many other houses were not so lucky.

High Sunderland Hall is widely thought to have been the model for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. This 16th century house, built by the Sunderland family, stood on the outskirts of Halifax, on a site inhabited from the 13th century. Quite unlike the other houses I’d encountered, High Sunderland was incongruously decorated with Latin inscriptions and many grotesque statues of mythical creatures.

Emily Brontë would certainly have been familiar with the building during her time as a teacher at nearby Law Hill School. Here is Emily’s description of the Heights, which seems to match the pictures we have of High Sunderland:

Before passing the threshold I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front and especially about the principal door, above which, among the wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500 …

High Sunderland Hall

High Sunderland Hall

Imagining High Sunderland as it might have been inspired several elements of my own fictional house: the bleak setting, the crenellations, the strange, atmospheric mixture of the sacred and the superstitious. Sadly, it was demolished in 1951, though judging by the photos of the house in its latter days, it may not have been the most welcoming place. Perhaps it may have looked something like this…

‘There are slates missing from the roof, cracked panes in the leads and a crumbling central chimney. A high wall lends poor protection, pocked and lichen-stained, ravaged by years of storm and gale. It has the air of a shipwreck, abandoned and disintegrating amid the great wild ocean of the moor. Even now, the dark windows seem to stare back at him, soulless, like the eyes of a destitute.’

The Coffin Path.

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Coffin Path blog tour poster

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Raven Books | 2018 (8 February) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonWhen Aiden Bishop comes to his senses, he is standing in a wood, wearing a dinner jacket splattered with mud and wine, and he has absolutely no idea who he is or where he is. All he knows is that he must save Anna, a girl he can hear running in panic through the trees. But this is the story of Evelyn Hardcastle. Tonight she will die and the night after that she will die again, and the one after that. Until Aiden Bishop can break the cycle. But on each of those days Aidan will inhabit the body of a different person, each a guest at a weekend party being held at the isolated and unhappy house of Blackheath. But somebody is determined that Aiden will never be successful, that he shall never leave, and Evelyn will be doomed to die every night forever more.

And that, which is what you can also learn from the book’s cover and blurb, is all I will reveal about the astonishing plot of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. In fact, it barely does it justice because this is one of the most deliciously complex, multi-layered and clever plots that I have ever read. How the author Stuart Turton managed to knot this all together is a feat beyond all comprehension. Not an end – and there are countless ends – is left loose. The author’s powers of imagination, which are substantial, are equalled by his confident and self-assured handling of a plot and structure that must at times have felt like juggling cats. I am in awe of Stuart Turton’s genius.

As befitting one of the finest novels that I have ever read, there are so many elements to it. In some ways, it is science fiction – its premise is undoubtedly mindbending, its mood at times fantastical; but it is also historical fiction. We’re trapped in the English countryside of the elite in the years immediately following the First World War. As we move above and below stairs, there is most definitely a feel of Gosford Park about it. But it is also a murder mystery and its setting and elegance, as well as the confined setting and limited cast of suspects, immediately reminds the reader (at least this one) of Agatha Christie. And it is also accompanied by wit, deceit, ugliness, horror, blood.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a substantial novel and not a page of it is wasted. Every page moves on this stunning plot in some manner and, as the novel continues, everything cross references. We move around the story in ingenious ways, we meet characters from a multitude of perspectives. And hanging over it all is a mood of dread and intensity, as well as of hope and of dashed hopes.

I was glued to this incredible, beautifully-written book, reading it all over one glorious weekend. This is a novel that expects you to keep your wits about you. You might have to flick back through the pages on occasion. It makes demands. But all of them are rewarded. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a debut novel – how extraordinary is that?! Surely there can be few better. Stuart Turton is about to make a very big name for himself. What on earth will he write next? I cannot wait to find out. In the meantime, make sure you don’t miss The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

A Darker State by David Young

Zaffre | 2018 (8 February) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

East German police detective Karin Müller is given an offer that is very hard to refuse. In return for running a serious crime unit, liaising with the Stasi when appropriate, she will be promoted to Major of the East German People’s Police, a jump of two ranks, and given a luxurious apartment for herself, her mother, boyfriend and their baby twins. It comes with a price. Her maternity leave will be cut short and her mother will spend more time with her babies than she will. The reality of this hits almost immediately when Müller and her partner Tilsner, likewise promoted, are sent close to the Polish border where the body of a teenage boy has been found weighted down in a lake.

This isn’t the only crime to test Müller. Markus, the son of one of her team members, is also missing and it’s clear that the Stasi are keeping a close watch on the case. Müller soon realises that she is caught up in a conspiracy and it will take all of her skill to disentangle herself. The future of her own family is at stake.

A Darker State is the third novel in David Young’s Karin Müller series, a series that I have loved from its beginning. It is set during a most fascinating time and place in modern European history – East Germany in the 1970s, during the Cold War. The West looms beyond the Wall (or the Anti-Fascist Barrier as it was known on the eastern side), a temptation to some, the epitome of immoral decadence to others. David Young’s research into the time and place is clearly considerable and his insight and knowledge can be seen on every page. But because he’s the very fine writer that he is, he carries his learning lightly. It doesn’t interfere with the narrative or the pace of the plot, but it most certainly enriches both.

One of the things I really love about these books is that Karin Müller is depicted as being comfortable in her skin. She has considerable issues with the Stasi, who have actually endangered her at times (we feel that perhaps she is ignorant of the true extent of their influence and power), and she deplores some other aspects of her life in the East, but she is an East German to her heart. She believes in its Communist ideals, she deplores the lack of social care and responsibility for the old and poor in the West. There is no right and wrong here, no black or white. Except for one thing – the Stasi. And even they, or at least individuals, are more complex than might first appear.

A Darker State has such a strong plot. The novels in this series always do. And it’s so interesting watching their investigation with 1970s’ police techniques, quite apart from the interference of the Stasi. As usual, it is also an emotional case. Vulnerable young people are its victims. Müller is such a developed individual – she feels the suffering. She’s tough, she has to be, but she cares. Her assistant Tilsner is an enigmatic character, embodying the novel’s sense that not everybody is to be trusted. As a result his relationship with Karin is particularly rich.

This is fascinating historical fiction, just as it’s also gripping crime fiction. Its sense of place and time are second to none. When I read one of David Young’s books, I feel completely immersed in it, even more so because of the quality of the characterisation and the empathy that the author feels for these people. The fact that A Darker State is also such a pageturner doesn’t hurt in the least! If you haven’t read this series before than A Darker State can definitely be read as a stand alone, but I certainly suggest that you give yourself a treat and also read Müller’s first case, Stasi Child and its excellent successor Stasi Wolf.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Headline Review | 2018 (8 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsIt is 1674 and the earliest signs of spring are creeping across the frozen Yorkshire moors. A ewe is labouring to give birth to the first lamb of the season but it’s in need of help from Mercy Booth who farms the hills and slopes for her elderly father. Scarcross Hall is their home and Mercy is never more alive than when she strides across the moors. But this year all is not well. Her father is increasingly unwell, his behaviour erratic, and little things are going missing from the house, most notably three ancient coins. And now, when the mist comes in, Mercy feels a malignance in it that she’s never felt before. But she refuses to be frightened. Especially now when the farming year is coming back to life. With the lambing season about to begin, followed by the summer’s harvest, men are returning to Scarcross once more to help with the annual labour. But with them comes a stranger looking for work and nothing will ever be the same again.

The Civil War and the years that followed it is one of my favourite periods for historical fiction and few authors bring it to life with such atmosphere and feeling as Katherine Clements. She also finds an unusual perspective, focusing on the overlooked role of women in such male domains as war (The Crimson Ribbon) and highway robbery (The Silvered Heart). In The Coffin Path, Katherine Clements portrays another woman who has to live independently in a male world (farming and stewardship), coming to terms with the suspicion and abuse that this independence arouses in a superstitious society. We have been removed in this novel from the centre of political or social affairs. We’re now in a remote and challenging, albeit beautiful, part of England where some of the old ways survive. The coffin path, the ancient path along which coffins are carried from the moors down to the church, passes by the White Ladies, a prehistoric stone circle that continues to exert an influence on those who behold it. Nature is harsh up here on the moors. Life struggles. Death is common – and it might not always be the end.

Scarcross Hall is Mercy’s home and she loves it but it is the perfect setting for a haunted tale. It was once grand but has now fallen into disrepair, its larger rooms difficult to heat. Its walls and floorboards creak. It’s not a silent house and its history holds secrets.

I love a historical spooky tale and The Coffin’s Path is one of the most atmospheric and chilling that I’ve read. This is mostly due to Katherine Clements’ beautiful, rich and elegant prose but it has also much to do with the spirit of its setting on the moors which is so perfectly painted. It is both stunning and frightening and the author captures this so well, and personifies these conflicting moods in the character of Mercy Booth. Mercy couldn’t fit better into the landscape and the fact that she’s so hard to frighten – if she hears a noise in another room she’ll fling the door open, or stare out of the shutters into the dark night – makes her a more unusual figure in a ghostly tale.

The story is split between Mercy’s perspective and that of the stranger. They dance around each other. They complement one another and add another level to the novel. There are some wonderful characters here, quite apart from Mercy and the stranger, and my favourites were the boy Sam and his mother. We are also taken from the wild world of the moors into the so-called civilised places of the church and local town but what we see there is every bit as superstitious and threatening as the worst of weathers that fall and freeze on the moors.

I read Most of The Coffin Path late at night, perfect for its chilling and creepy mood. There’s something otherworldly about the moors (and I was reminded of Wuthering Heights) and Katherine Clements captures it so well while also providing such a fascinating depiction of rural society and beliefs in the 1670s.

Other reviews
The Crimson Ribbon
The Silvered Heart

Look For Me by Lisa Gardner

Century | 2018 (8 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Look For Me by Lisa GardnerBoston Sergeant Detective D.D. Warren should have been out with her family buying their son a shoe-chewing puppy but instead she is called to a house in the suburbs and is faced with a tragedy in all its bloody horror. Juanita Baez, her partner Charlie Boyd and her 13-year-old daughter Lola and her little boy Manny are all dead, shot, murdered. But the other daughter, 16-year-old Roxanna, is missing along with their two old and blind dogs. The dogs are soon discovered, tied up and waiting for rescue. D.D. has more questions than answers – why is Roxy on the run? Is she guilty? And, if so, why would she shoot her family when everybody knows what a sensible young woman she is, and how devoted she is to her family? What secrets is she hiding?

D.D. Warren, whether she likes it or not, is not going to be investigating the murders alone. Survivor turned vigilante Flora Dane already has her eye on the case, alerted to it by a fellow survivor in her online support group. Flora knows better than anyone the right questions to ask and she knows how to get the answers. D.D. might not like it but once again she will need Flora’s unusual help.

Look For Me is the ninth novel in Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren detective series but effectively it continues the previous novel, Find Her, which introduced us, and D.D., to the remarkable Flora. You don’t need to have read any books before to enjoy Look For Me but, after reading it, you may feel compelled to seek out Find Her to discover just what happened to Flora Dane.

I’m still discovering the D.D. Warren books (reading them in the wrong order as I often do with long running series) but I do think that Flora brings something extra special to an excellent series and I’m so pleased to see her return. She adds an extra dimension, literally because the novel moves between D.D.’s perspective, presented in third person, and Flora’s first person account of the case and her own understanding of it. There’s another voice given a hearing as well – there are extracts from Roxy’s own account of her childhood, written as a school writing exercise. The murders of the Baez family are approached from so many different angles and this adds enormously to our emotional involvement. This is not an easy book to put down.

The crime at the heart of Look For Me deals such an emotional blow and it casts a dark shadow over everything that follows. It pulls in some important themes, notably the state of the foster system in the US, and this is particularly disturbing. I was kept on my toes throughout as I tried to work out who was responsible. Look For Me kept me guessing. My one slight issue is that I’m not sure that the result lived up to the promise of the novel’s superb delivery but that really is nitpicking and it comes down to personal taste.

Look For Me is an emotionally involving and engrossing mystery, populated by some fascinating characters, notably Roxy and especially Flora. There are moments in it that stab the heart. It is at times so painful and desperate. And then there are the dogs. How my heart went out to the two blind dogs. Lisa Gardner writes beautifully. She knows how to involve her readers in every step of the story. I do hope that we haven’t seen the last of Flora Dane but I’ll certainly be keeping my eye on D.D. Warren whatever happens.

Other review
Find Her