Category Archives: Extract

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom – a review and extract

Zaffre | 2018 (8 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Hour by Harry SidebottomBallista runs for his life through the spiraling tunnels of Hadrian’s Mausoleum in the centre of Rome. As he climbs on to its roof top and stares down at the Tiber flowing many feet below him, his options are limited. The stakes, though, couldn’t be higher. At the last hour of daylight tomorrow, after a day of games and spectacle, the Emperor Gallienus will be murdered as he leaves the Colosseum. Ballista knew Gallienus when they were boys growing up together. He may be the only man allowed to get close enough to the emperor to save him. But before Ballista can save the emperor, he must first save himself.

It is the second half of the 3rd century AD. Gallienus is Emperor. The Empire is on the verge of being torn apart from within. And only one man stands in his way…. The Last Hour is a long awaited Ballista Warrior of Rome novel from the master Harry Sidebottom but it’s a Ballista book with a great deal of difference. This isn’t an adventure that sees Ballista fight for his life and those of his men in the empire’s most remote arenas of war – instead, he is placed in the heart of Rome and his high military rank is irrelevant. Ballista has just one task – to save the emperor, on his own, and to escape the conspirators who are intent on ensnaring Ballista in their trap.

The action takes place over just one day and it never lets up. This is a Roman thriller. There aren’t many of these and if an author can be trusted to do it right it’s Harry Sidebottom. The author brings an awful lot to it more than action and swordfights. As a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Oxford, Harry Sidebottom knows his stuff and he always makes sure that his novels are enriched by that knowledge and understanding, but at no expense to their pace and merit as works of fiction. I always learn things from a Harry Sidebottom novel and The Last Hour is no different.

Throughout we’re given little pieces about Roman history and society – whether it be about the place of slaves and women in that world, or its religion and philosophy, its gladiatorial games or arena punishments, or its streets, tenements, temples, villas and inns. This book provides a fantastic tour of Rome. We move right across the city and, despite the pace, we’re given time to take it all in. And we’re taken to places that are evoked so strongly we can almost smell their stench. There are also references to the previous Ballista novels – we meet people we’ve met before and that adds something rather special. But, on the whole, this is a novel in which Ballista must survive, endure and win on his own and its edge of seat stuff, it really is.

The best historical fiction entertains while also informing. The Last Hour succeeds in this perfectly, injecting so much accessible information and detail into a novel that is intensely exciting, all packed into a 24-hour period. Harry Sidebottom’s recent and superb Throne of the Caesars trilogy looked at a year that shook the Roman empire to its core. The Last Hour evokes ancient Rome in an entirely different way, focusing on just a few hours in such a narrow space, as it affects such a small group of people. And yet it informs every bit as much. Life in ancient Rome comes alive in The Last Hour and I loved every page of it.

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III

I’m delighted to post below a taster from The Last Hour to celebrate the novel’s publication this week.

Extract

Another scream echoed up the long passageway, then ended abruptly.

Every breath hurt. Sweat was running off Ballista. Would the stairs ever end? It was like some infernal punishment in myth.

A final corner, and there was the door. All the gods let it be unlocked.

The door opened outwards. Ballista closed it behind him, and leant against it as he fought to regain his breath. Forty-three winters on Middle Earth; too long for this exertion.

The roof garden was gently domed, like a low hill. It rose to where a plinth supported a more than life-sized statue of the Emperor Hadrian in a triumphal chariot drawn by four horses. The terrible storms of the last several days had passed, but the air smelt of rain. The stones underfoot were still wet.

There had to be another way down. Ballista pushed himself off the door, set off up the path to the top.

The sun was dipping towards the horizon. It cast long shadows from the cypress trees, dappled where they were festooned with vines or ivy. Less than an hour until darkness.

Ballista circled the base of the statuary. No door, no trapdoor. Nothing. There had to be another way down. A passageway for gardeners, plants, servants. He looked around wildly.

Under the cypresses the garden was thickly planted with fruit trees and flower beds. Paths radiated out. There were hedges, potted plants, heavy garden furniture, small fountains, more statues. The service access would be carefully hidden. The elite did not want to see slaves when they were enjoying the views. There was no time to search.

Ballista thought of the light wells. No, even if he could find one of them, it would be too narrow, offer no handholds. Another thought came to him. He took the path down to the east.

There was a thin wooden rail above a delicate and ornamental screen along the edge of the garden, with yet more statues at intervals. Ballista did not look at the city spread out beyond the river, barely glanced at the swollen waters of the Tiber at the foot of the monument. He gripped the sculpted marble leg of Antinous, the doomed boy, loved by Hadrian. A Roman might have been troubled by the association. As heir to the different world view of the north, such omens did not bother Ballista. He had a head for heights, and leaned out as far as he dared over the rail.

The cladding of the Mausoleum was white marble. The blocks were so artfully fitted together that there was barely a discernible line where they joined. No hope of a finger hold. Seventy foot or more of smooth, sheer wall down to the base, after that ledge perhaps another forty foot down to the narrow embankment and the river. No way to climb down.

Ballista ran back to the head of the stairs, opened the door. The men were nearing the top.

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Kin of Cain by Matthew Harffy – an extract

kin-of-cain-by-matthe-harrfyOn 1 March, Aria published Kin of Cain, a novella in Matthew Harffey’s Bernicia series set in Anglo-Saxon Britain during the first half of the 7th century. I’m delighted to take part in the celebratory blog tour. You’ll find an extract below but first here’s a little about what this Bernicia Tale is all about.

630 Ad. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical tale set in the world of The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell. Winter grips the land in its icy fist. Terror stalks the hills, moors and marshes of Bernicia. Livestock and men have been found ripped asunder, their bones gnawed, flesh gorged upon. People cower in their halls in fear of the monster that prowls the night. King Edwin sends his champions, Bassus, Octa and band of trusted thegns, to hunt down the beast and to rid his people of this evil. Bassus leads the warriors into the chill wastes of the northern winter, and they soon question whether they are the hunters or the prey. Death follows them as they head deeper into the ice-rimed marshes, and there is ever only one ending for the mission: a welter of blood that will sow the seeds of a tale that will echo down through the ages.

Reviews
The Serpent Sword
Blood and Blade

Extract

The scream silenced the mead hall like a slap to the face of a noisy child.

A chill ran through the throng. The brittle laughter died on lips that quickly twisted from smiles to scowls. The warm hubbub of moments before was shattered as easily as the thin skin of ice that formed on the puddles in the courtyard outside.

One of the hounds looked up from where it gnawed a bone by the hearth fire and whimpered.

Ælfhere, the scop, lowered his lyre, the last, interrupted notes, jangling in the air.

Octa set aside the mead horn he had been drinking from. His senses were dulled by the drink, but not enough that the small hairs on the back of his neck did not prickle with the sound of anguish that came from outside the hall. He turned to his friend, Bassus, who sat on his left. The huge warrior’s brow furrowed. Bassus met his gaze and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, another scream rent the chill night that smothered the great hall.

There were words in that scream.

“The night-walker! The sceadugenga brings death!”

Night-walker. Shadow-goer.

Octa felt bony fingers of terror scratch down his spine. He shuddered, hoping none of the other king’s warriors would notice. He had not long before joined the king’s gesithas and some of the men were wary of him, he knew.

They had feasted; eating, drinking and boasting. Trying to ignore the one who haunted the dark winter paths. They had prayed, some to the old gods, others to the king’s new Christ god, in the hope that the night devil would prove to be nothing more than a wild animal. A man could hunt an animal. Arrows would pierce a wolf or a bear’s flesh. But deep down they had all been expecting more screams in the night. More death stalking the shadows. Few of those in the hall had seen the remains of the people who had been slain by the beast, but the tales of the corpses, ripped and raw, bones smashed, limbs removed, had reached them all. This was not the work of any animal. This was something else.

Something evil.

At the head of the hall, the imposing figure of the king surged to his feet. Edwin, King of Deira and Bernicia, pointed to the end of the hall where the door wardens stood.

“Open the doors,” he said, his tone commanding.

The shorter of the two warriors who guarded the door hesitated. There was a murmur in the great hall. There were many present who did not wish to see the stout wooden doors opened to the night. For who knew what horrors dwelt there in the darkness?

“Lord?”

“You heard my words clearly,” Edwin said. “Open the doors.”

Another scream, closer now.

“I am king of the folk of these lands. I will not leave them outside in the dark while we feast in the fire-glow and warmth of my hall. Now, open the doors.”

“Wait, lord king,” Bassus’ rumbling voice stilled the door ward’s hand before he had lifted the bar. Edwin looked to his champion, arching an eyebrow at the interruption.

“You are right, of course,” said Bassus, “but let us arm ourselves first. We know nothing of what awaits us beyond the walls of Gefrin’s hall.”

Edwin nodded. The door wards quickly distributed the weapons that had been left in their care. A hall crammed with drunken warriors carrying swords and seaxes was not wise, hence the precaution, but now protection of the king and the hall was more important.

Octa retrieved his seax. The weapon had been a gift from his uncle Selwyn and the smooth antler handle was comforting. For an instant his mind was filled with memories of his home in Cantware. Edita and Rheda. His mother. Beobrand. Would he ever see them again? As usual when he thought of them, he felt a pang of regret, a twist of guilt at having abandoned them. But Bernicia was his home now. Edwin his king, and the men around him, his sword-brothers.

He readied himself with the rest of the men near the doors of the great hall of Gefrin. Women and children huddled at the far end of the room, with the priests and the queen.

The reek of fear-sweat filled the air as another wail came from just outside.

“Open the doors!” roared Edwin.

The door wardens lifted the bar and swung the doors open.

Cold night air cut into the hall’s muggy warmth like an icicle plunged into pliant flesh.

For a moment, nobody breathed. The hall was silent, all eyes staring into the utter blackness of the night.

Then, stepping out of the dark and into the frame of the doorway, came a vision from nightmare. Blood-slick and steaming, staggered a figure into the hall. The men stepped back, without thinking, wishing to be distanced from this ghoul. The women gasped. The dark-robed priest, Paulinus, raised the amulet he wore at his neck and recited words of magic in the secret tongue of the Christ followers.

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

kin-of-cain-blog-tour

The Follower by Koethi Zan – an extract

The Follower by Koethi ZanOn 23 February Harvill Secker published the ebook edition of The Follower by Koethi Zan, with the paperback due to follow on 18 May. To mark the occasion, I’m delighted to post an extract here as part of the Blog Tour. But first here’s some information abut what the novel is all about…

She’d do anything for her husband.

Julie has the perfect life. A kind boyfriend, loving parents and good grades. She has everything ahead of her.

Cora’s life is a nightmare. A psychopath for a husband, a violent father and a terrible secret. There’s no way out.

But one night, their worlds collide. Locked in an isolated house together, they must work out what has happened – and who they can trust to set them free.

From the bestselling author of The Never List, this is a breath-taking new thriller about the wife of a kidnapper and her relationship with his last victim.

Extract

She crouched in the corner, clutching her pen, her heart pounding in her chest. She was as ready as she could be, but her breathing was too loud in her ears. It was impossible
to concentrate. Impossible to keep the panic from taking over.

It was a long time before anything else happened. Hours sitting in that truck, imagining every possible scenario that could occur when that door was raised up. Hours trying to focus her jumbled thoughts, to sort out the shock from the anger and fear, to force herself to accept that she had to face this horror utterly alone.‘I want my mommy,’ she whimpered to herself. ‘I want Mark. I want to go back in time and make Ryan wait with me. I’m such an idiot. No, I can’t think like that. No crying. ‘Come on, Julie. Come on. No one will realize you’re missing until tomorrow and tomorrow might be too late. You have to get out of here as soon as he stops. Come on, you can do it, buck the fuck up.’

Then without warning, her body was thrown again hard to one side. They were turning. It must have been a tight one because the truck struggled to make it, lurching back and forth as the driver changed gears to get it up the hill. Eventually it reached level ground and then slowed to a stop. Julie stood up and ran her hands along the side of the trailer until she reached the end. She hugged the right wall, hoping he wouldn’t see her at first and she could jump out, get past him, and make a break for it.

As he hoisted the door open, she saw his form in shadow, a bright light shining from behind as his outline was revealed to her inch by horrible inch. His face was familiar, but she had no time to puzzle it out. She screwed up her courage, hunched over, and launched herself out of the truck bed. She bolted sideways, determined to slip around the side of the truck and back down that hill. He’d anticipated that, of course, and he was fast. She never had a chance. He grabbed her by the arm and yanked her around to face him. Her eyes met his – his squinting, terrifying, pale eyes, full of suppressed rage. She went for them, jabbing at his face with her pen but he pried it effortlessly from her hand. She tried to twist out of his grip, to kick him in the groin. He shook her so hard her feet came off the ground and her head whipped back and forth. He pushed a pistol to her face. She froze, staring at the barrel, at his hands clutching it. ‘Please,’ was all she could muster up to say. She’d never seen one this close up, didn’t even know anyone who owned a gun. She stood there, in the cold, in the dark, shivering with fear and blinking back tears. Her mind had gone entirely blank when she saw that hunk of metal. No one had ever prepared her for this. ‘Please let me go. I know it was just a mistake. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll tell them I ran away. I swear I won’t tell them if you’ll just let me go right now.’

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

the-follower-blog-tour-poster-2

Viper’s Blood by David Gilman – An extract for the Blog Tour

Viper's BloodLast month, Head of Zeus published Viper’s Blood, the fourth novel in David Gilman’s fine Master of War chronicle of the Hundred Years War. I’m delighted to be part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication and you’ll find below an extract from the novel in which Sir Thomas Blackstone and his loyal bowmen and swordsmen carry war into the streets of a besieged French town in the 1360s.

You can read my review of Viper’s Blood here.

Extract

Hundreds of fireflies shimmered from the dark alleys. Burning torches. And what had been silence a few heartbeats before was now overtaken by a rising roar of men’s voices as from the streets and alleys men and women advanced in a surging line, torches held high. Fear and anger mingled in their throats. They carried pitchforks and scythes, falchions and iron bars. Women held kitchen knives ready to stab, their voices an eerie pitch that could raise the dead. Anger and fear drove them against the English invaders. And the French troops who pushed their swords into their backs. The garrison were using them as shields against the Englishmen.

Blackstone saw the threat. They would be overwhelmed. A greater fear needed to be inflicted. He raised his sword arm towards Longdon and his archers on the walls. ‘Kill them!’

Without hesitation Will Longdon’s archers turned their bows towards the snarling faces in the shimmering torchlight and as Blackstone raced for the steps screams echoed against the walls. The bowmen were slaughtering the townspeople, but, shields held high against the arrows, the French soldiers came on, trampling their bodies underfoot. To French eyes, this was to be an easy victory. Fewer than fifty men appeared to have breached the walls. They looked to be routiers and they were now trapped in the confines of the square. Crossbowmen sheltered behind the advancing soldiers and four of Longdon’s archers died on the walls.

Blackstone reached the windlass. He jammed in the turning pole. Normally it took two men to turn the drum but, letting Wolf Sword dangle from its blood knot, he grasped the handle and heaved his weight against it. The chain bit and the great door creaked. Meulon was suddenly at his side and lent his weight. The door was barely halfway up. ‘Enough!’ Blackstone said and Meulon jammed the holding rod into position.

They turned for the square. A hay cart blazed; shadows loomed high on the walls. They hurled themselves into the fray. Renfred, Perinne and John Jacob were shoulder to shoulder holding ground; Killbere was to one side and it looked as though he had been separated by a mixed group of troops and townsmen. The townsmen’s fury and terror made a heady mix as the torches illuminated a scene from the underworld. Dogs howled and barked; some driven mad by the smell of blood panicked, snapping and snarling at both attackers and defenders. Both sides slew them. Will Longdon ordered some of his men to keep shooting at the surging crowd as Jack Halfpenny and Thurgood ran further along the wall with three other bowmen and loosed arrows into the Frenchmen’s flanks.

Blackstone glanced over his shoulder. Where was Chandos? He turned around and saw the flames illuminating the throng of men and women who were still surging forward. Their weight of numbers might push Blackstone’s few men back through the very gate they had raised. Killbere had cut down four of the attackers but he was overwhelmed and fell beneath repeated blows. Blackstone turned again, Meulon at his shoulder.

‘John! Perinne!’ Blackstone yelled. They saw him move towards Killbere and within a few strides joined him. Thirty paces away Gaillard and his men had raised a shield wall and that had slowed the French advance; his men were thrusting beneath the wall into those who pressed against them, making no distinction between those they struck, turning the square into a charnel house more terrifying than any priest’s threat of purgatory. Women writhed, screaming from their wounds; soldiers fell to their knees, hands grasping at entrails spilling from pierced bellies.

‘Get him back,’ Blackstone shouted to the men-at-arms who had manoeuvred themselves to join him. Two men grabbed Killbere and dragged him into an abandoned building. ‘Stay with him!’

Several men were now at Blackstone’s shoulder and with a skill borne from years of efficient killing they moved forward in a wedge like a broadhead arrow, forcing the French back yard by yard in a grunting, sweating trial of arms that few could match. Blackstone reached Gaillard, saw the arrows still cutting into the French. Panic was claiming the enemy.

As John Chandos and his men stormed through the half-raised gate the looming shadows of Blackstone’s men methodically killing anyone who challenged them almost made the veteran knight falter. He had never seen so many being slaughtered by so few.

And then he brought his men to bear and the surge forced the French to turn and run.

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If you want to read more, you can find Viper’s Blood here or in all good bookshops.

For other stops on the Blog Tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Viper's Blood blog tour

Blog Tour: Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent – the opening chapter

lying-in-wait-pbLying in Wait by Liz Nugent was one of the best psychological thrillers I read last year, perhaps no surprise considering how superb its predecessor, Unravelling Oliver, was. One of the attractions of Lying in Wait that was most commented upon at the time of its first release in the summer was the hook of its opening lines. This is a book that grabs you by the neck and insists you read it. Penguin is celebrating the paperback’s publication at the end of 2016 with a Blog Tour throughout January. I am so pleased to be a part of it and I have the perfect post for it – that wonderful, attention-grabbing opening chapter. Put your feet up, pour a glass or cup of something lovely and journey into the lives of Lydia, Andrew and their son Laurence – if you dare.

My review of Lying in Wait
Buy the paperback

Part 1
1980

1. Lydia

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it. After we had overcome the initial shock, I tried to stop him speaking of her. I did not allow it unless to confirm alibis or to discuss covering up any possible evidence. It upset him too much and I thought it best to move on as if nothing had happened. Even though we did not talk about it, I couldn’t help going over the events of the night in my mind, each time wishing that some aspect, some detail, could be different, but facts are facts and we must get used to them.

It was the 14th of November 1980. It had all been arranged. Not her death, just the meeting to see if she was genuine, and if not, to get our money back. I walked the strand for twenty minutes to ensure that there was nobody around, but I needn’t have worried. The beach was deserted on that particularly bitter night. When I was satisfied that I was alone, I went to the bench and waited. A cruel wind rushed in with the waves and I pulled my cashmere coat around me and turned up the collar. Andrew arrived promptly and parked not far from where I was seated, as instructed. I watched from thirty yards away. I had told him to confront her. And I wanted to see her for myself, to assess her suitability. They were supposed to get out of the car and walk past me. But they didn’t. After waiting ten minutes, I got up and walked towards the car, wondering what was taking so long. As I got closer, I could hear raised voices. And then I saw them fighting. The passenger door swung open and she tried to get out. But he pulled her back towards him. I could see his hands around her throat. I watched her struggle, mesmerized momentarily, wondering if I could be imagining things, and then I came back to myself, snapped out of my confusion and ran to the car.

‘Stop! Andrew! What are you doing?’ My voice was shrill to my own ears, and her eyes swivelled towards me in shock and terror before they rolled back upwards into her head.

He released her immediately and she fell backwards, gurgling. She was almost but not quite dead, so I grabbed the crook lock from the footwell at her feet and smashed it down on to her skull, just once. There was blood and a little twitching and then absolute stillness.

I’m not sure why I did that. Instinct?

She looked younger than her twenty-two years. I could see past the lurid make‑up, the dyed black hair, almost navy. There was a jagged white scar running from a deformed top lip to the septum of her nose. I wondered that Andrew had never thought to mention that. Her jacket had been pulled off one arm during the struggle and I saw bloodied scabs in the crook of her elbow. There was a sarcastic expression on her face, a smirk that death could not erase. I like to think I did the girl a kindness, like putting an injured bird out of its misery. She did not deserve such consideration.

Andrew has always had a short fuse, blowing up at small, insignificant things and then, almost immediately, remorseful and calm. This time, however, he was hysterical, crying and screaming fit to wake the dead.

‘Oh Christ! Oh Jesus!’ he kept saying, as if the Son of God could fix anything. ‘What have we done?’

‘We?’ I was aghast. ‘You killed her!’

‘She laughed at me! You were right about her. She said I was an easy touch. That she’d go to the press. She was going to blackmail me. I lost my temper. But you . . . you finished it, she might have been all right . . .’

‘Don’t even . . . don’t say that, you fool, you idiot!’

His face was wretched, tormented. I felt sympathy for him. I told him to pull himself together. We needed to get home before Laurence. I ordered him to help me get the body into the boot. Through his tears, he carried out my instructions. Infuriatingly, his golf clubs were in there, unused for the last year, taking up most of the space, but luckily the corpse was as slight and slim as I had suspected, and still flexible, so we managed to stuff her in.

‘What are we going to do with her?’

‘I don’t know. We have to calm down. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. We need to go home now. What do you know about her? Does she have family? Who will be looking for her?’

‘I don’t know . . . she . . . I think she might have mentioned a sister?’

‘Right now, nobody knows she is dead. Nobody knows she is missing. We need to keep it like that.’

When we got home to Avalon at quarter past midnight, I could see by the shadow from his window that the bedside light was on in Laurence’s bedroom. I had really wanted to be there when he got home, to hear how his evening had been. I told Andrew to pour us a brandy while I went to check on our son. He was sprawled across the bed and didn’t stir when I ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead. ‘Goodnight, Laurence,’ I whispered, but he was fast asleep. I turned out his lamp, closed his bedroom door and went to the bathroom cabinet for a Valium before I went downstairs. I needed to be calm.

Andrew was trembling all over. ‘Jesus, Lydia, we’re in serious trouble. Maybe we should call the guards.’

I topped up his glass and drained the bottle into my own. He was in shock.

‘And ruin Laurence’s life for ever? Tomorrow is a new day. We’ll deal with it then, but we must remember Laurence, whatever happens. He mustn’t know anything.’

‘Laurence? What has it to do with him? What about Annie? Oh God, we killed her, we murdered her. We’re going to prison.’

I was not going to prison. Who would look after Laurence? I stroked Andrew’s arm in an effort to comfort him. ‘We will figure it out tomorrow. Nobody saw us. Nobody can connect us with the girl. She would have been too ashamed to tell anyone what she was up to. We just have to figure out where to put her body.’

‘You’re sure nobody saw us?’

‘There wasn’t a soul on the strand. I walked the length of it to make sure. Go to bed, love. Things will be better tomorrow.’

He looked at me as if I were insane.

I stared him down. ‘I’m not the one who strangled her.’

Tears poured from his cheeks. ‘But maybe if you hadn’t hit her . . .’

‘What? She would have died more slowly? Or been permanently brain-damaged?’

‘We could have said that we’d found her like that!’

‘Do you want to drive back there now and dump her, ring an ambulance from the phone box and explain what you are doing there on the strand at one o’clock in the morning?’

He looked into the bottom of his glass.

‘But what are we going to do?’

‘Go to bed.’

As we ascended the stairs, I heard the whirr of the washing machine. I wondered why Laurence had decided to do laundry on a Friday night. It was most unlike him. But it reminded me that my clothes and Andrew’s really needed to be washed too. We both stripped and I set aside the pile of laundry for the morning. I washed the sand off our shoes and swept the floors we had passed over. I deposited the sand from the dustpan in the back garden, on the raised patch of lawn beyond the kitchen window. I studied the ground for a moment. I had always thought of having a flower bed planted there.

When I slipped into bed later, I put my arms around Andrew’s trembling form, and he turned to me and we made love, clawing at and clinging to each other like survivors of a terrible calamity.

Andrew had been a very good husband until just a year previously. For twenty-one years, our marriage had been solid. Daddy had been very impressed with him. On his deathbed, Daddy had said he was relieved to be leaving me in good hands. Andrew had been Daddy’s apprentice in Hyland & Goldblatt. He had taken Andrew under his wing and made him his protégé. One day, when I was about twenty-six, Daddy had telephoned me at home and told me that we were having a special guest for dinner and that I should cook something nice and get my hair done. ‘No lipstick,’ he said. Daddy had a thing about make‑up. ‘I can’t stand those painted trollops!’ he would say about American film stars. Daddy’s views could be extreme. ‘You are my beautiful daughter. No point in gilding a lily.’

I was curious about this visitor and why I should dress up for him. I should have guessed, of course, that Daddy was intent on matchmaking. He needn’t have worried. Andrew adored me right away. He went to enormous lengths to charm me. He said that he would do anything for me. ‘I can’t stop looking at you,’ he said. And indeed, his eyes followed me everywhere. He always called me his prize, his precious jewel. I loved him too. My father always knew what was best for me.

Our courtship was short and very sweet. Andrew came from a good family. His late father had been a consultant paediatrician, and though I found his mother a little contrary, she raised no objections to our relationship. After all, when Andrew married me, he would get Avalon too – a six-bedroom detached Georgian house on an acre of land in Cabinteely, south County Dublin. Andrew wanted us to get a house of our own when we got married, but Daddy put his foot down. ‘You’ll move in here. This is Lydia’s home. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’

So Andrew moved in with us, and Daddy gave up the master bedroom and moved to the large bedroom on the other side of the corridor. Andrew grumbled a little to me. ‘But, darling, don’t you see how awkward it is? I’m living with my boss!’ And I admit that Daddy did order Andrew around quite a lot, but Andrew got used to it quickly. I think he knew how lucky he was.

Andrew did not mind that I did not want to host parties or socialize with other couples. He said he was quite happy to keep me to himself. He was kind and generous and considerate. He usually backed away from confrontation, so we did not have many arguments. In a heated moment, he might kick or throw inanimate objects, but I think everyone does that from time to time. And he was always terribly contrite afterwards.

Andrew worked his way up through the ranks until finally all his time on the golf course paid off and three years ago he was appointed as a judge in the Criminal Courts. He was a respected member of society. People listened to him when he spoke, and quoted him in the newspapers. He was widely regarded as having the voice of reason on matters legal and judicial.

But last year, Paddy Carey, his old pal, accountant and golfing partner, had left the country with our money. I thought that, at the very least, Andrew would be careful with our finances. That was the husband’s job, to be a provider and to look after the economic well-being of the household. But he had trusted Paddy Carey with everything and Paddy had fooled us all. We were left with nothing but debts and liabilities, and Andrew’s generous salary barely covered our expenditure.

Had I married badly after all? My role was to be presentable, beautiful, charming – a homemaker, a companion, a good cook, lover and a mother. A mother.

Andrew suggested selling some land to developers to raise capital. I was horrified at the suggestion. Nobody of our status would do such a thing. I had spent my whole life in Avalon. My father had inherited it from his father, and it was the house in which I was born. And the house in which my sister died. I was not going to compromise on selling any part of Avalon. Nor was I going to compromise on the money we needed to pay the girl.

But we had to take Laurence out of the hideously expensive Carmichael Abbey and send him to St Martin’s instead. It broke my heart. I knew he was unhappy there. I knew he was victimized because of his class and accent, but the money simply wasn’t there. Andrew quietly sold some of the family silver to pay our debts, and we kept the wolf at bay. He could not risk being declared bankrupt, as he would have been forced to resign from the bench. We had never lived extravagantly, but the few luxuries that were normal to us began to disappear. He gave up his golf club membership but insisted that he could still pay my store account at Switzers and Brown Thomas. He always hated to disappoint me.

But now, this? A dead girl in the boot of the car in the garage. I was sorry she was dead, but I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t or couldn’t have strangled her myself under the circumstances. We just wanted our money back. I couldn’t stop thinking about the scars on the girl’s inner arm. I had seen a documentary about heroin addicts on the BBC, and reports of a heroin epidemic were in our newspapers. It seemed obvious that she had injected our money into her bloodstream, as if our needs and wants hadn’t mattered.

As Andrew slept fitfully, whimpering and crying out occasionally, I made plans.

The next morning, a Saturday, Laurence slept late. I warned Andrew to say as little as possible. He readily agreed. He was hollow-eyed, and there was a tremor in his voice that never quite went away after that night. He and Laurence had always had a fraught relationship, so they were not inclined to be conversational. I planned to get Laurence out of the house for the day, send him into town on some errand or other while Andrew buried the girl in our garden. Andrew was shocked that we would bury her here, but I made him see that, this way, she could not be discovered. We were in control of our own property. Nobody had access without our permission. Our large rear garden was not overlooked. I knew exactly the spot where she could be buried. In my childhood there had been an ornamental pond under the plane tree beyond the kitchen window, but Daddy had filled it in after my sister’s death. Its stone borders, which had lain under the soil for almost forty years, were conveniently grave-like.

After Andrew had buried the body, he could clean out and hoover the car until there would be no trace of fibres or fingerprints. I was determined to take all precautions. Andrew knew from his job the kind of thing that could incriminate a person. Nobody had seen us on the strand, but one can never be too sure of anything.

************

When Laurence arrived at the breakfast table, he had a noticeable limp. I tried to be cheerful. ‘So how are you today, sweetie?’ Andrew stayed behind his Irish Times, but I could see his knuckles gripped it tightly to stop it from shaking.

‘My ankle hurts. I tripped going upstairs last night.’

I examined his ankle quickly. It was very swollen and probably sprained. This scuppered my plans to send him into town. But I could still contain my boy, confine him to quarters so to speak. I strapped his ankle and instructed him to stay on the sofa all day. That way, I could keep an eye on him, keep him away from the rear of the house where the burial was to take place. Laurence was not an active boy, so lying on the sofa watching television all day and having food delivered to him on a tray was no hardship to him at all.

As dusk fell, when everything had been done, Andrew lit a bonfire. I don’t know what he was burning, but I had impressed upon him the need to get rid of all evidence. ‘Think of it as one of your court cases – what kind of things betray the lie? Be thorough!’ To give him his due, he was thorough.

However, Laurence is a smart boy. He is intuitive, like me, and he noted his father’s dark mood. Andrew was snappy about wanting to see the television news, terrified, I suppose, that the girl would feature. She did not. He claimed he had the flu and went to bed early. When I went upstairs later, he was throwing things into a suitcase.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I can’t bear it. I have to get away.’

‘Where? Where are you going to go? We can’t change anything now. It’s too late.’

He turned on me then for the first time, spitting with anger.

‘It’s all your fault! I’d never have met her if it wasn’t for you. I should never have started this. It was a crazy idea to begin with, but you wouldn’t stop, you were obsessed! You put too much pressure on me. I’m not the type of man to . . .’ He trailed off because he was exactly the type of man to strangle a girl, as it happens. He just didn’t know it until now. Also, my plan had been perfect. He was the one who ruined it.

‘I told you to pick a healthy girl. Didn’t you see the marks on her arms? She was a heroin addict. Don’t you remember that documentary? You must have noticed her arms.’

He broke down into sobs and collapsed on the bed, and I cradled his head to muffle the sound. Laurence mustn’t hear. When the heaving of his shoulders had subsided, I upended the contents of the suitcase and put it back on top of the wardrobe.

‘Put your things away. We are not going anywhere. We will carry on as normal. This is our home and we are a family. Laurence, you and I.’

********************************
For other stops on the Blog Tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Blog tour poster

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton – ‘Of Babies and Bellies’

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth NortonThe Tudor period continues to fascinate – a period dominated by so many larger-than-life, charismatic, powerful, fearful, proud and dangerous personalities, male and female. But what was life like for a Tudor woman away from the public eye, in those major life-changing moments, such as marriage, giving birth, widowhood, but also in her daily life? In The Lives of Tudor Women, Elizabeth Norton presents the seven ages of the Tudor woman from childhood to old age, from the first years of the Tudor period to its end in 1603, through the examples of a number of very different women, ranging from the royal to the merchant’s wife to the peasant and servant. Their stories highlight many aspects of the Tudor age, including the intimate and homely as well as the religious and the unconventional.

To celebrate the publication of The Lives of Tudor Women this month by Head of Zeus, I’m delighted to host a special post. Below you’ll find an extract from Chapter 1 – of Babies and Bellies – in which Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, faces the anxiety of pregnancy and childbirth.

The Lives of Tudor Women – Book Extract from Chapter 1: Of Babies and Bellies

Towards the end of January or early February 1492, Queen Elizabeth of York, felt a familiar fluttering in her womb – a fluttering that provided proof that she had conceived for the fourth time.

Henry VII’s queen was, by then, close to the midway point of her pregnancy. But in the first months of pregnancy, the condition was notoriously difficult to diagnose. Could her symptoms merely be ‘her natural sickness or store of water’? Alternatively, could her increase in girth be due to ‘some windy matter’ rather than an expected baby? There were signs, of course, which could indicate pregnancy; but few physicians were prepared to confirm their diagnosis until the child actually began to stir in the womb. A mistake could be highly embarrassing for all concerned, and so for months women were left on tenterhooks.

The first gentle movements, when they came, were testament to the fact that a new life had begun. For as far as most Tudors were concerned, life did not begin at conception. The man’s seed entered ‘the woman’s privitie’ as one physician coyly called the neck of the womb, there to be met by a matching seed, released by the woman. To contemporaries, these were the raw materials for a child.

Even before conception, most Tudor parents had a preference for boys. They were then anxious for some hint that their wish had been gratified. It was theoretically possible, asserted some physicians, to tell the sex, since boys occupied a right chamber to a sub-divided womb and girls the left. This segregation was, of course, a myth (‘but dreams and fond fantasies’), as others rightly realized. Life itself was deemed to begin when the soul entered the fully formed foetus, which occurred at 46 days for a boy and 90 days for a girl. A Tudor girl was thus nearly three months in the womb before her contemporaries considered her to be a living person.

The question of gender still gnawed at the minds of many Tudor parents as the mother’s sickness subsided and her stomach began to swell; and most Tudor mothers wanted a son. The wealthier sort of parents could interrogate their physicians on the sex, their questioning filling the doctors with despair. ‘It is very hard to know at the first whether the woman be with child or no,’ complained the French royal physician, Dr Guillimeau, towards the end of the sixteenth century, and ‘so by great reason must it needs be far more difficult to discern and distinguish the difference of the sex, and to determine whether it will be a boy or a wench’. They were not miracle workers. But even Dr Guillimeau believed there were certain signs a mother could look for. Everyone knew that men were hotter than women, which gave them strength, intelligence and vigour. It stood to reason then that younger women, who became hotter than their seniors, would bear boys.

There were, it was thought, some helpful things prospective parents could do to better their chances of conceiving the right gender. Those most anxious for a boy should refrain from sexual intercourse when the wind blew southwards, since this was almost sure to result in a girl. The pregnant woman could also scrutinize her reflection – was her complexion clear? If so, it could be a boy. Carrying a girl was harder work, and so the mother would have ‘a pale, heavy, and swarth countenance, a melancholic eye’. Boys reputedly lay higher in the wombs than girls – again due to their heat – while a girl would lie ‘at the bottom of the belly, because of her coldness and weight’. Carrying a girl was even believed to affect a mother’s health more adversely than carrying a boy.

In early 1492, at least Queen Elizabeth of York could content herself that she had already fulfilled her dynastic duty, with the births of two fine sons – even though death could strike down seemingly healthy children at any moment.

Once pregnancy was established, it behoved a mother to ensure the health of both herself and her child. Spending her time in ‘good tempered air’ was particularly important, as was a good diet. Pregnant women also had to think about clothing, since few women owned an extensive wardrobe. Even queens adapted their existing clothes, with extra panels added to their dresses. They could supplement them with more-specific maternity wear, such as ‘self grow’ waistcoats, kirtles and gowns, which could be let out as the wearer’s pregnancy advanced. To begin with, gowns could first be unlaced to make them roomier, before more drastic changes were required. Women would also think about clothes for the birth itself. It was common for Tudor women to wear a hood with a shoulder cape in which to give birth.

Elizabeth of York may initially have had concerns over her fourth pregnancy, because she had conceived only three months after the birth of her second son, Henry, on 28 June 1491. Her husband, heir to the House of Lancaster, had won his crown on the field at Bosworth in August 1485 – inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. His marriage to Elizabeth, who was the eldest daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV, had helped cement his position by unifying the houses that had fought for decades. To the royal couple, who were frequently surrounded by proud demonstrations of the new dynasty, each of their ‘issue lawfully born’ helped to symbolize their union and their hold on the throne. Nonetheless, such a rapid new pregnancy in 1492 – almost certainly an accident – was a cause for concern, given the very real dangers that threatened women in pregnancy and childbirth.

Watching Edie by Camilla Way – review and extract – Blog Tour

Psychological thriller Watching Edie by Camilla Way was published on 28 July by HarperCollins and I’m delighted to be a part of the novel’s celebratory Blog Tour. Below you’ll find a review and, to give you a tantalising taste, an extract from a key part of the novel’s earlier stages. For other stops on the tour, take a look at the poster at the bottom of the post.

Watching Edie by Camilla WrayReview
Heather and Edie were best friends at school. Everyone was drawn to Edie. She was beautiful, popular, with a brilliant future ahead of her. Heather, on the other hand, faded into the background but Edie was drawn to her nevertheless and the two of them were almost inseparable. The time for boyfriends had to come, of course, and Edie was the one boys wanted. When Edie began a relationship with Connor, Heather continued to tag along, bearing the insults and teasing. She felt so alive when she was with Edie. She never wanted her out of her sight.

Years later, aged 33, Edie lives alone in a small flat, her promise unfilled, pregnant. Something has happened in the past that has driven her from her family, isolated her from her friends. Only one thing could make her situation worse and one day that something happens – Heather turns up.

There are plenty of psychological novels around these days but Watching Edie is one of the most disturbing that I’ve read. Alternating between the first person narrative of Heather set in the present day and Heather’s account of the past, the two perspectives slowly merge, the past catching up with the present, just as Heather has finally caught up with Edie. As readers, we’re desperate to know the nature of the terrible event that is hinted at but before that we must deal with the worry and anxiety of Edie’s situation as she comes to terms with imminent and isolated motherhood, feelings intensified by the arrival of Heather.

Camilla Way skilfully manipulates the reader’s sympathies, using the opinions of other characters in the novel to reinforce our own. It’s done very well and means that the twists and shocks are all the more disturbing. While I wished that I could care more for Edie and Heather, I nevertheless admired the novel greatly for its building of tension and its portrait of tragedy. It has such a good premise and its depiction of the relationship between Edie and Heather is brilliantly done as well as being extremely sensitive. There are moments here when everything is stripped away and only the raw emotion remains. As a result, Watching Edie is one of the more harrowing and memorable psychological thrillers I’ve read this year.

Extract
In the weeks following Heather’s visit she phones me repeat­edly, sometimes several times a day. I never answer. Instead I watch as my mobile vibrates and buzzes, the unfamiliar number flashing on the screen, my stomach twisting queasily. Sometimes she leaves a message, but I delete them all unlist­ened to. It’s six weeks before the calls stop abruptly one day. Life begins to return to normal, the water closing over the disturbance that she’d made, my pregnancy taking over my thoughts once more, leaving no room for anything else, not even her.

But out of the blue like a carefully aimed dart, she pierces my life again. A few days after the woman and her two lads move in downstairs, I spot the postman approaching from my window and go down to collect my mail, expecting an appointment letter from the hospital. As I pass the new tenants’ ground-floor flat I hear the sound of bolts being drawn and keys turning in their locks before the door opens a crack, stopped by a heavy thick chain. Someone peers out at me through the slim black gap as I pass. For a few seconds I feel myself being watched until finally the door closes again. I hear the locks turn and the bolts shoot home once more.

Amongst the scattered envelopes lies one that’s pink and square. I don’t remember ever seeing Heather’s handwriting before, but I know instinctively that it’s from her. The physical presence of it makes my scalp crawl but I return with it upstairs, carrying it like some dead and rotten thing between my fingertips. There on my kitchen table it sits. I leave it unopened, curling up in a ball on my sofa, my legs tucked beneath me, my arms tight around my bump. The minutes tick by until with quick decisiveness I run into the kitchen, snatch up the envelope and tear it open. Along with a piece of pink notepaper a photograph falls out, landing face down on the floor.

My hands trembling, I pick up the letter and quickly scan the words. Dear Edie, it says.

I’ve tried to phone you loads but I think I’ve got the wrong number. Can I come back and see you? Here’s my number at the top. Please phone me.
Lots of love from Heather Wilcox. XOXO
PS. I found this photo of us! LOL! You can keep it if you want!! X

Eventually, reluctantly, I pick up the picture and look at it. It’s of Heather and me. I’m sitting just in front of her by the quarry and I’m smiling up at the camera, holding my hand out as if to defend myself from its lens, my fingers a big pink blur in the foreground. Heather is looking away, staring off down the hill. I’m shocked at how childish we look, our faces plump and stupid with youth. But the picture’s not of us, not really. Even though he’s the one taking the picture, it’s of Connor. He is in the expression in my eyes and in the shadow that streaks across the grass between Heather and me. Connor. In my flat the walls feel a little closer, the air a little harder to breathe. A wave of nausea hits me and I have to run to the sink to vomit up the bile that floods my mouth.

Watching Edie Blog Tour