It’s easier to write qualitative statements about Bone Lines (‘brilliant’ and ‘beautiful’ come to mind) than it is to define it. Yes, it’s a time-slip, weaving the stories of two strong women; the courageous survivor of an extreme natural disaster, and the scientist who analyses her newly-discovered bones more than 70,000 years later. Yet there are several other labels I could add, such as literary, since it is beautifully written, even lyrical at times. I struggled for a while with the question ‘what’s it all about?’ before I realised that in some ways, that question was the answer. Eloise, the introspective, present-day scientist, has a search for meaning running through her mind like a philosophical playlist, and her self-reflection is an intriguing thread that drew me forwards. 

The other protagonist, that the present day calls ‘Sarah’, is a true heroine; resourceful, courageous, indomitable in the face of seemingly impossible situations. The reader wills her to succeed and I for one would like to have read more of her. The way in which Bretherton has imagined and written the mindset of a woman from the archaeological past is stunning. Sarah is at one with nature and respectful of it; a hungry woman who would spare an antelope for the sake of its unweaned faun, yet rip the throat from a human aggressor to protect her own infant.

Eloise is complex, fascinating, and perhaps too given to introspection; the kind of person I’d love to find across the table at a dinner party. Both women yearn for company; Sarah as the sole survivor of disaster in an almost empty world, nurturing the baby that is born on her epic journey, and Eloise who is alone, sometimes by choice, in our crowded modern world.

Bone Lines is a very intelligent book, straying at times into the science of genetics but remaining readable to the layman. It is also thoughtful, perhaps a bit philosophical, yet repaying any effort and earning its five stars for the quality of the writing and the appeal of the main characters. If my bookshelves had labels it would go on one called ‘Undiscovered Gems’. Recommended.

Stephanie Bretherton’s web site is here. You can find Bone Lines on Amazon here, or here on Hive (as of today, the lowest price), or at Waterstones here.

I recently reviewed Obsidian by Suzie Wilde, which is pitched as ‘A gripping Viking tale of one woman’s courage, fighting old and new gods amid the savage beauty of Ice Island’. I love historical fantasy novels and especially books with a strong female protagonist, and was intrigued enough ask Suzie some questions. Here’s what she said.

GG: Suzie, you write very believable characters; they are all flawed, and all have some redeeming aspect. Your protagonist Bera is complex; powerful yet insecure, tender yet sometimes spiteful. What was your inspiration for her? 

SW: All characters are a mix of an author’s experience, personality and imagination. You begin with a short acquaintance with the first sketchy drafts, then get to know them better as the plot develops and then in later drafts they make decisions and do stuff. I love the ‘Oh there you are’ moment when, as Kate Mosse puts it, the characters pass from behind to walk in front of you. They can be guided of course but can clearly be seen, like real people, and that’s often when the author gets out of the way so the reader can see them clearly too.

GG: You write beautifully about the landscape of Iceland, or Ice Island as it becomes in Obsidian, and the climactic scenes during a volcanic eruption are masterful. Have you ever seen an eruption, up close and personal? 

SW: That’s why we have YouTube! I was a maritime researcher and read many accounts written by people who have experienced these events. There are a few groups I follow on Twitter and Instagram, who post stunning images (#volcano or #iceland will pull up loads).

GG: Bera’s world seems very Viking at first, yet it rapidly diverges from Norse culture, particularly in their belief system; Bera is a seeress rather like a Nordic Völva, yet there is little mention of the Norse pantheon of gods. The dead don’t go to Hel or Niflheim but might lurk as ‘drorghers’ to plague the living. Did you set out to create a whole new world view, or did it evolve as you wrote? 

SW: I wanted readers to feel they had fallen through a trapdoor into a world only slightly strange. It’s a carefully researched Norse world, as far as it goes, except I’m not keen on having gods involved. They don’t infest the everyday now, so perhaps they didn’t then. The book is written in English, dialogue included, so I didn’t want sudden Old Norse words. Instead I’ve based these fantasy elements on what we know of their beliefs, so drorgher comes from draugr, the walking dead. By a similar process, as you note, Iceland becomes Ice Island. It’s to suggest to readers a slight ‘otherness’.

Anyone who likes Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis might enjoy spotting a similar ‘Norseness’ with their daemons, the Valar and Eldila, respectively. Tolkien  was famously a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford. I studied it at UCL, where I fell in love with Beowulf, as so many others have over the years. I envy W.H. Auden, who wrote, years later, to his former professor, ‘I don’t think that I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.’ 

GG: You write very evocatively about boatbuilding and the sea. Is that drawn from personal experience? 

SW: I grew up beside the sea and my father built boats as a hobby. I love the smell of marine ply. I used to play among the rotting hulks while he worked on converting an old lifeboat. Named the Freya, she went out with the ice after only one summer afloat, when I was nine. Loss is a powerful theme in the trilogy.

GG: Sea Paths and Obsidian are stand-alone books, but they are the first two parts of a trilogy. That’s a huge sweep of a story and an impressive undertaking. Did you have the whole series in your mind when you started? 

SE: Bera stormed into my life while I was trying to write a crime thriller. Book 1 was intended to be the whole story – but once I had finished it Bera wouldn’t let go. I was even dreaming about her, and other characters too, even the dog! Luckily, enough readers kept asking me what happens next that I had an excuse to work that out. Each book explores what ‘Home’ means and where do you belong if you always keep moving? I don’t like narrative weighed down with backstory: Sea Paths starts on Day One and always moves forward – why Lee Child loved it  – so if you read Obsidian it’s the same, except readers of the first will know more backstory. If you’re someone who wants more detail about a character’s past, then you might like to read them in order. At their most basic, Sea Paths is a revenge thriller and Obsidian a quest, though both have a thriller structure.

GG: Any sneak previews of Book 3?

SW: My editor is the brilliant Liz Garner, whose father Alan has been a hero of mine for years. They both hug a story while it’s forming, as if its magic will vanish if spoken. I’m staying silent about Book 3 until it’s done, except to say that the themes of Home and Belonging are resolved, and that this will be the last in the series. It’s quite a challenge to satisfyingly have new story and characters each time, but not leave anything unresolved across the whole series.

GG: I share your respect for Alan Garner. I learned a lot from ‘The Voice That Thunders’. Suzie, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I’m looking forward to the next, and last instalment of Bera’s adventures.

Obsidian is published by Unbound. Click here for my review on Amazon.

Bone JackPerhaps it’s something to do with my grey hair, but I don’t often read Young Adult books. I started Bone Jack out of curiosity, intrigued by a tale about ancient, rural traditions that have their roots in a pagan past. Within a page I was reading for pleasure. The opening is masterful; a boy willingly teetering on a cliff edge, held from falling only by the uncertain push of the wind. From that point on you know you’re in the hands of a great storyteller.
Central to the book is an annual ‘stag run’ in wild, mountainous country, a slice of local folklore which pits a young man, the ‘stag’, to outrun the pursuing ‘hounds’. The protagonist, 15-year old Ash, is to be the stag, and Crowe builds the tension steadily so you know he’s going to be running for his life. The setting of a drought- and disease-ravaged countryside is well crafted, and even the supporting characters are finely drawn. Ash has to contend with plausible human relationship issues such as a war-damaged father and a best friend who goes off the rails in the aftermath of tragedy. He also has to face Bone Jack, a shadowy figure who may be a hermit, or perhaps something much more sinister. Such supernatural elements are introduced progressively and subtly, and in a way that tightens the pace towards a climax that is as fulfils the promise of the first pages.
Above all, Bone Jack is extremely well written. Some passages I found myself re-reading purely for the pleasure of the prose. A stunning debut and highly recommended.
 

Deer IslandI started Deer Island thinking I’d just read for thirty minutes before bed. I put it down in the early hours, when it was nearly finished and all hopes of a full night’s sleep were gone, and I’m still trying to define its appeal. The quality of the writing certainly has something to do with it; the prose is clean and bare, yet wonderfully descriptive, but there is something more than style.
I’m also trying to define the book. It doesn’t fit easily with convenient labels. ‘Memoir’ is probably the closest fit, since it structured as personal recollections. Ansell has lived and worked with the destitute, has himself been a squatter, and has wandered the wild places of the earth. This slim book could also be seen as a series of vignettes; of poverty, of lifestyles, of places, all of which are articulated with sharp clarity.
I think I was hooked by the way he writes with such respect, even love, for the kind of people most of us hurry past in the street; the alcoholics and homeless beggars, Ansell’s friends and companions during his years serving with the Simon Community. There are also descriptive passages of intense beauty; it’s worth buying the book just for the paragraphs where he emerges from a freezing rainstorm in the Kalahari desert to see a scimitar-horned gemsbok standing under an extraordinary, purple sunset. His descriptions of Jura, the ‘Deer Island’ of the title, could inspire me to shoulder a backpack and start walking North.
I’m left with the impression of a man whose life is richer for carrying so little with him, ‘Memories,’ he says, ‘are the only things we truly own, and even they slip from our grasp if we don’t handle them with care’.

IMG_0234 Let me share a little happiness; my author copies of Saxon’s Bane have arrived from the wonderful people at Solaris. It is almost exactly six years since I stepped off a corporate ladder and went freelance, specifically to release time to write. Six years from ‘I’m going to do this’ to publication, and I tell you this moment feels better than any business deal I ever landed. My thanks to those who’ve helped along the way, many of whom will find their names inside the cover. It seemed appropriate to record the moment in the arbour, where much of Saxon’s Bane was written.
Saxon’s Bane will be released in the USA on 27th August and in the UK on 12th September.

My wonderful publishers, Solaris, sent an Advance Review Copy of Saxon’s Bane to Christopher Fowler, the author of thirty published novels including the Bryant and May mysteries. Christopher commented:
‘Once there was a great classical tradition of rural British horror from MR James to The Wicker Man. Now Geoffrey Gudgion has revived the style and modernised it to great effect, proving there’s still nothing as creepy as the countryside.’
Thank you, Christopher! Definitely a quote for the cover.
 

This rewarding book is the story of a Scottish family with their complex inter-relationships, seen primarily through the eyes of a young man. Note ‘primarily’; at first I found the multiple points of view and multiple time-periods confusing. If hadn’t been so well written, he’d have lost me about 1/4 of the way through, but Banks has a way of pulling the reader in. The Crow Road is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, confusing, but builds a sense of real lives. Characters are very sharply, sometimes brutally drawn; picture the middle aged aunt at a wedding, ‘dressed in something which looked like a cross between a Persian rug and a multi-occupancy poncho, [who] moved with the determined grace of an elephant, and a curious stiffness that made the experience a little like dancing with a garden shed’, and who had ‘the same effect on the dance floor as a loose cannon manned by hippos’.
It is worth persevering through the initial confusion. Plot lines and dominant characters do emerge, and I finished the book well satisfied, and wishing I could capture characters as well.

I’m delighted to hear that Saxon’s Bane has been selected by The Qwillery for their 2013 Debut Author Challenge.  Watch this space for guest blogs and interview.  Further details at http://qwillery.blogspot.co.uk/p/2013-dac.html