‘The Sweet Oil of Vitriol’ by Daniel Eagleton

The Sweet Oil of Vitriol: A Tom Glaze Hit

Mossad agent Thomas lands in hospital after his first hit goes badly wrong. Left without a job, he’s offered another opportunity when his former handler asks him to assassinate the head of the African Union. However, in order to make it look like an accident, Thomas must pose as a waiter in a top London hotel for several months leading up to the hit. In the meantime, as always, beautiful women, drinks and drugs begin to get in the way. Can Thomas stay focused until the job is done, and will he be able to resist the lure of compromising his cover that could lead to his undoing?

With one or two reservations, I enjoyed this book immensely. The writing is generally good, though the style did occasionally leave me wondering if the author was trying to be clever or if he’d simply missed out some words. It’s a familiar technique so I can see what he’s trying to do, however, it takes skill to get this sort of thing exactly right and I don’t think it’s quite there yet.

The story unfolds gradually, leaving the reader unsure where it’s going, what it is actually about. The characters are well-drawn and believable in the main, though Thomas himself is too easily distracted (and generally too drunk), to be entirely credible as an agent. He’s certainly no James Bond and while his behaviour is always interesting and at times quite amusing, it seems unlikely anyone would trust him with making a sandwich, let alone toting a gun. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable ride and the denouement was clever and well thought out.

On the whole, this was an interesting and exciting read, and given it’s the first of a series, it’s one I’ll be happy to dig into again.

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‘The Enemy Within’ by Scott Burn

The Enemy Within

Teenage outsider Max can’t deal with the chaos going on inside his own head, but after a failed suicide attempt he finds himself in an institution. Realising his ‘visions’ aren’t necessarily signs of insanity, he learns he’s not the only one who can see them. When three young people with similar abilities help him break out, he finds himself on the run from the military. As Max gets to grips with his new powers, he is faced with questions he can’t answer – like who he really is, and what does he have that poses a threat to the Government?

While it seems to be aimed at YA sci-fi fans, this is a novel that would appeal to anyone with a taste for realistic and well-thought-out fiction with a speculative bent. The writing has a light and fresh touch to it, making it an easy and quick read. From the beginning, we’re not really sure what’s going on, but Scott Burn’s character’s are interesting and well rounded, drawing us into the story. The plot, though not exactly complicated, might easily have ended up tying itself in knots, but the author weaves the pieces together perfectly, giving us a denouement that leaves a pleasantly curious feeling in its readers.

A clever and thoughtful novel that promises great things for the future.

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Creating Inspiration – Where to Start

Embarking on the task of writing a new book is always a thrill, but that thrill doesn’t start for me until I have the title, because until then, I don’t have a clue where to start.

I little while ago, I wrote about coming up with the idea for a series of books in the horror genre aimed at kids. What I came up with at that time was a title for the series – Skeleton Cove Horror – and the title for the first book – The Demon of Devilgate Drive.

All well and good, but now that book is out in the world, I need to think about the next one. Now, normally, I don’t consider the cover image until I’m at least half-way through writing the book, since I’m more likely to come up with something inspirational if I actually know what the story is about.

This time, however, I started thinking about the title in conjunction with finding an image, so the two things were swirling around in my head at the same time. I knew I wanted the background image (the town of Skeleton Cove) to be the same as that of the first book, as that would help to give the series a bit of branding, so bearing this in mind, I began exploring possible titles.

My initial thoughts were along the lines of a murderous butcher (The Knife Man Cometh), a cutthroat hairdresser (The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), or a pirate. Going with the latter option, I played around with that old nugget: The Something of Something Thing.

The Treasure of Something Thing
The Curse of Something Thing
The Ghost of Something Thing

I then resorted to looking up the names of actual pirates. Now, if you’ve ever done this you’ll know there are millions of them – since the dawn of time men (and occasionally women) have been plundering and ripping it up in an ‘Arrgh Jim-lad’ sort of way all over the world. And strangely enough, most of them have pretty ordinary, boring names, like, William Walker and James Ford. However, there are others who sound more interesting:

Scandinavian lady pirate Awilda
William (Captain) Kidd
Sadie Farrell (Sadie The Goat)
Edward Teach (Blackbeard)

But it was the wonderfully named English pirate John Rackham (named Calico Jack after his penchant for wearing calico) who really caught my eye. Said to be the originator of the Jolly Roger, Rackham was also known for having two female crew members, including the infamous Anne Bonny.

Although Calico Jack’s life and exploits are fascinating, there’s no obvious link to explore in terms of horror (vengeful murder, ghostly curses, haunted treasure), leaving me no option but to do what most other writers do – make something up.

So now I’ve got the title: The Curse of Calico Jack, I needed an image to go with it and turned to my favourite stock photo provider: Dreamstime. Naturally, there were lots of pics of pirates (or blokes dressed as pirates), but one in particular stood out. With a little bit of Photoshopping, I turned a stock photo into what I was looking for and hey presto!

Now all I have to do is write the book.

‘Now and Then in Tuscany’ by Angela Petch

Now and Then in Tuscany: Italian Journeys

A sequel to the author’s first novel, ‘Tuscan Roots’, this volume follows the journey of Giuseppe Starnucci, in the early part of the last century, as he exchanges an unhappy life at a seminary for one travelling with shepherds, herding sheep to new grazing lands near the Tuscan coast. The ‘Now’ parts of the book trace the lives of English Anna, her Italian husband Francesco, and their children, charting the differences and similarities of their lives in contrast to the older generation.

Angela Petch has an eye for the minutiae of life and her writing is crammed with stunning descriptions, bringing the story and her characters vividly into focus. There are photographs too, and while in the Kindle edition these are quite hard to see, Angela’s words make up for any lack of detail. Though I enjoyed the book, I did find it a little hard to get into at first. This may have been due to the mix of fact and fiction, which at times jarred a little. However, on the whole, this is a beautifully written and well-observed tale that will take you straight into the Tuscan countryside.

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Victorian Villains No 3 – Katie Webster

In my search for characters, I must admit I do enjoy a good murder. Some time ago, I started a series on Victorian villains, the first two being Amelia Dyer and Mary Ann Cotton. Ms Dyer ended up being the model for the baddie in the second of my Christie McKinnon stories, The House That Wasn’t There. Now that I’m thinking about the next book in that series, I’ve turned my thoughts to some of Dyer’s contemporaries.

Katie Webster was an Irish woman who took employment with widowed former schoolteacher, Julia Martha Thomas in Richmond, Surrey. Unfortunately, for both ladies, Mrs Thomas was a bit of a stickler for cleanliness and liked things to be done properly. When her latest domestic servant proved less than perfect, the two regularly fell into heated arguments.

One Sunday evening in March 1879, Mrs Thomas intended going to church and had expected Webster home in good time from her afternoon off. However, Katie W had indulged in a few jars at the local alehouse and returned late. Unsurprisingly, when she did get home, the women quarrelled before Mrs Thomas left for church. According to Katie Webster’s statement, when her employer came home later that night, another argument started:

‘…in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs…’

In the hope of preventing her from screaming the house down, the hapless servant grabbed the older woman’s neck and strangled her.

Perhaps Katie Webster might have saved herself a lot of trouble if she’d made out the whole thing was an unfortunate accident, but instead, she opted to dismember her employer’s body and boil it in a large copper pan, in an effort to render it unrecognisable.

She then shared out some of the body parts between a Gladstone bag and a wooden box, before disposing of both in the River Thames. The box, however, was found by a workman who handed his find to the police. In nearby Twickenham, part of a foot was discovered and a subsequent inquest decided the remains belonged to the same body (the head of Mrs Thomas was not recovered until many years later, making identification at the time difficult).

Katie Webster, no doubt thinking she’d got away with it, decided to pass herself off as Mrs Thomas. This worked well for a couple of weeks until she sold items of furniture to a local landlord. When a deliveryman turned up to take possession of the goods and identified Webster to one of the neighbours as being Mrs Thomas, killer Katie realised her goose was cooked and did a runner.

Needless to say, she did not escape justice for long, and was soon arrested in her native Ireland. During the six-day trial, it emerged that Katie had made plans to sell some of her employer’s goods before the murder, making it all too clear that the killing was premeditated.

Katie Webster was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on 29th July.

Ms Webster’s shenanigans are perhaps a little too gory for a children’s novel, so I’ll have to tone things down a little. However, I do like the idea of someone masquerading as a ‘missing’ employer. Having said that, I don’t like to plan my books, so I’ll more than likely let the bones of the story bubble away (in that old copper pot), seeping into my unconscious, and see what emerges.

‘The Man Who Hunted Himself’ by Lex Lander

The Man Who Hunted Himself

Former Secret Service operative, André Warner, faces a challenge of a different kind when he’s offered a contract by an American racketeer. Trouble is, the job is to kill the assassin who knocked-off the gangster’s own brother. While Andre might have few qualms about taking out a fellow hitman, the job becomes more dangerous when he discovers the identity of his target.

Unable to turn the job down, Warner sets out to gather information from the dead man’s widow and finds himself drawn to her in more ways than one. But as their relationships develops, the stakes grow ever higher and the chances of getting out of the assignment alive begin to look decidedly dodgy.

In the third volume of Lex Lander’s ‘André Warner, Manhunter’ series, our hero takes on his biggest challenge yet – one that might result in a change of direction for him. Lander skilfully slides his characters into a messy knot of danger and intrigue that pushes his protagonist into several corners at once. As always, the geographical locations are beautifully described and the characters never fall into the two-dimensional outlines so common in this genre.

After reading the first two books in the series (End as an Assassin and I Kill), I did start to wonder if Andre Warner would continue his career as a hired gun or put an end to it all in favour of a safer, more sedate lifestyle. In The Man Who Hunted Himself, such a scenario may well be on the cards, but as usual, Mr Lander gives no quarter. The denouement is such that we are left with a teasing what-if? scenario – one that could well continue this particular storyline into the next volume.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Lex Lander writes about killing people like he really knows what he’s talking about. Scary man, brilliant books.

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