Eva Jordan in conversation with… M.J. Lee

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Last month, in honour of Remembrance Day, I wrote about my Great Great Uncle William who is commemorated on the Menin Gate. How apt then, when writing my column, I came across author Martin Lee’s recently published novella, The Silent Christmas, which finds Jayne Sinclair, a genealogical investigator, trying to unravel a mystery concerning her client’s great grandfather in the trenches on December 25, 1914. Read my review here to find out more but in the meantime, I’d thought we’d do an interview with the author himself.

Martin, can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself? How long have you been writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life, but not a novel writer. I worked in advertising for over 25 years as a copywriter and creative director. Every day, I had to go into work and, in the blink of an eye, come up with creative solutions to business problems for clients. About four years ago, I was offered a new job and I had a chat with a headhunter who asked me what I really wanted to do with my future. Without a thought, I answered ‘write novels’. And now, here I am, with The Silent Christmas being my tenth book to be published, the fifth in the Jayne Sinclair series.

I really enjoyed The Silent Christmas, which falls into the historical fiction genre, however, I also understand that you’ve recently released a contemporary thriller called Where The Truth Lies? My question being, which do you prefer to write about, the past or the present?

I’m so glad you enjoyed The Silent Christmas, I really loved writing the book. The answer is both because the challenges are very different for an author. When writing about the past, you have to put yourself in the mind of the character, his or her beliefs, attitudes and thoughts at the time. Writing in the present is much more about the observation of people and events in one’s daily life. I think what links the two is the idea of character. What made people act the way they did, whether it is yesterday or 100 years ago. That’s what I love to write about.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I love research, it’s where you can escape the banal and ordinary and discover something new. As I write historical crime fiction, the mores, actions and beliefs of the time are present in all my work. Readers would soon point out (and have) anachronisms for me. Research allows me to stay true to the times whether its 1920s Shanghai, the Restoration period of Samuel Pepys, or the first year of the Great War.

I’m quite methodical, probably because I was at one time a researcher in history as well as my background in advertising. I start with some general books of the period, in this case, the lead-up and first year of World War One, so that I can understand what was happening on a macro level. Then I will read contemporary newspaper accounts of what happened. In most cases these are third hand, ie reporters writing about something told to them, but in the case of the Christmas Truce, some newspapers published letters from men at the front describing what had happened. At the same time, I will look at newsreel footage, programmes or films on the subject. Some of the participants actually described what happened on film. Next, I will read memoirs or first-hand accounts of what happened. There are three or four published accounts of the Christmas Truce the best being by Henry Williamson, Bruce Bairnsfather and Bertie Felstead. Finally, I will look at contemporary documents such as War Diaries and individual diaries kept at the National Archives or, in this case, at Cheshire Military Museum.

I’m generally researching two books ahead of my writing. So at the moment, I’m looking into the Emancipation of Slaves in 1834….

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Character. Why do people act like they do?

In The Silent Christmas, what made people, on both sides, stop killing each other for one day? What made people stop being enemies and become friends? And conversely, having met and chatted with their opposite numbers, how did they return to the trenches a day later and start killing again?

And finally, what one piece of advice would you offer any would-be writers out there?

Read. Read. Read.

But read smartly.

How is the writer telling his story? What are they trying to say? How are they saying it? What would you do differently? How have they built up character and themes? What genre are they writing in? How would you describe this book in one sentence?

And once you’ve decided to be a writer, never, never give up. There will come a point when you want to stop. Don’t. Push on through to the end, because nobody will ever read an unfinished book.

Writer Martin Lee

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Eva Jordan reviews… The Silent Christmas by M.J. Lee

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Thanks to a cousin who has been researching our family tree, I recently discovered I had a Great-Great uncle who served in the trenches during WWl. He joined at the start of the war as a volunteer in 1914, and just one year later, aged twenty-one, he was dead, killed in action, his body never recovered but is commemorated on the Menin Wall in Ypres, Belgium. How apt then, I should stumble upon Martin Lee’s recently released novella, The Silent Christmas, the fifth in the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, which can also be read as a stand-alone.

Set in both the present day and the WWI trenches, the story centres on the informal football match believed to have taken place between the English and German soldiers during a brief truce on Christmas Day 1914. The first chapter takes us straight to the trenches on December 21st in Belgium, capturing the conditions and possible mindset of some soldiers, ‘He lay on his back on the hard ground and dreamt of England; picnicking on the grass in front of the bandstand, straw hat tipped over his eyes to shield them from the sun… A shadow crossed his face and he felt a tap against his foot. ‘Time to get up, Tom, we’re moving forward… The men began packing up… As they did so, a solitary shell from a German whizz-bang whistled overhead, landing one hundred yards past the farm. None of the men moved or even ducked; each one carried on preparing to move forward as if nothing had happened.’ We then move forward to the present day and discover Jayne Sinclair, a genealogical investigator, asked, just days before Christmas, if she can help shed light on the mystery of several items, namely a label, a silver button and a lump of leather, found in a chest in the attic of her client. Ms Sinclair, who says, ‘Our role as genealogists is to use our research to bring these lost people, the vanished people of our family, back to life,’ agrees, and the mystery begins to unravel.

Written in the third person throughout, The Silent Christmas is a fictional tale exploring the actual events that took place during December 1914, later called the ‘Christmas Truce.’ A real “feel good” story handled with great care and respect, full of hope and love, that is both well written and researched. And, as 2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of Armistice it is also particularly poignant.

You can find The Silent Christmas on Amazon 

Writer Martin Lee

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Eva Jordan reviews… Corrupted by Simon Michael

 

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Corrupted, the latest book by fellow Urbane published author Simon Michael, is the fourth in a series of noir gangster crime thrillers concerning criminal barrister Charles Holborne. However, although part of a series there is just enough back-story for it to read perfectly well as a standalone. Set in London’s swinging sixties, the author mixes historical fact with fiction, making Corruption a story that sees its fictional barrister, Charles Holborne QC, drawn into the real-life investigation of a sex ring scandal that involved the Kray twins and some very powerful but corrupt politicians. The author’s note reads, ‘This is not a true crime novel, but the historical facts upon which it is based did actually occur.’

Written in close third person, Charles, the flawed main protagonist, narrates throughout and the story itself unfolds during several crucial months of 1964, namely Friday 26th June–Monday 24th August. Charles, a Jewish East Ender doing well for himself, building his reputation as a brilliant murder trial lawyer, is living with his partner Sally. On the surface all looks well, however, Charles is clearly at odds with himself. ‘An East Ender, born and bred on the wrong side of town, the wrong side of the track and the wrong side of the law, Charles has muscled his way into the Establishment by becoming a war hero, barrister… His acquaintances include Oxbridge graduates with country seats, titles and racehorses; they also include boxers, burglars and con artists. He no longer quite fits in anywhere, and everywhere feels like the wrong place.’

Charles is asked to help a young lad called Teddy who has been arrested and accused of murder. Charles agrees to take the case on and in doing so takes the reader on a magical mystery tour of 1960s London including the music, fashion and haircuts of the time. The author also gives the reader a fascinating glimpse of Fleet Street during the sixties, sprinkled with sporadic but fascinating historical facts like the time Charles takes a run past Jack Straw’s Castle–the pub and reputed favourite haunt of Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Bram Stoker. However, at the heart of this story is a dark, uncomfortable tale about power, corruption and sexual abuse. Pacey, but often sombre and heartbreaking, it also includes great dialogue and some extremely well-written courtroom drama. A thrilling page-turner and one I highly recommend.

Remembrance Day, The Menin Gate and Great, Great Uncle William

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When I was a very small child and people asked me when my birthday was, I’d tell them—11th November. “Ah Remembrance Day”, they’d reply, nodding their heads gravely. Understandably, their sobriety confused me. Remembrance Day or not, it was my birthday… and birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions aren’t they? As I got older though, understood better, I realised what an important day it is. Marked on the date of the World War I Armistice (1918), Remembrance Day is a day when—regardless of politics, religion, and race—everyone in the UK and Commonwealth remembers those who have lost their lives in war and military conflict while serving in the armed forces.

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2018 is particularly poignant because it marks the 100-year anniversary of Armistice. It is also the year that my lovely cousin Dean, who lives in Kent, got in touch with some very interesting information. He’d been doing family research (on my mother’s side) and discovered we had a Great, Great Uncle, Corporal William Alfred Tuckley, who is commemorated on the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial in Ypres, Belgium dedicated to soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. The memorial is at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line. Since the inauguration ceremony, which took place in July 1928, a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate every night at 8.00pm regardless of turnout or weather. The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ieper (Ypres) and local people are said to be very proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town.

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Built in the form of a Roman triumphal arch, the vast, white, Portland-stone walls of the Menin Gate are engraved with the names of some 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lost on the battlefield with no known graves, my Great, Great Uncle William among them. His recorded date of death was 17th October 1915—he was just 21 years old. A very sobering thought when I think of my son who recently had his 20th birthday, and my daughter who is 22. So, this year during the two-minute silence, while my thoughts, as usual, will go out to all those who have served and lost their lives, I will also take a moment to spare a special thought for my Great, Great Uncle William.  

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The Legend of Black Shuck

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Modern day celebrations of Halloween generally involve groups of children dressed in scary costumes roaming from house to house, demanding a “trick-or-treat”. However, traditionally, Halloween is also a time for telling ghost stories. Therefore, with a mind to keep things local (to me) I thought we’d take a look at “Black Shuck”, the name given to a ghostly black dog – supposedly the inspiration behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles novel – said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia.

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Research suggests the name Shuck may come from the old Anglo-Saxon word “scaucca” or “scucca” which means a “demon”, or it may be based on the local dialect word “shucky” meaning “shaggy” or “hairy”. A creature of legend, alleged sightings of Black Shuck vary in both shape and size but usually include a large dog with large red or yellow eyes, or sometimes one huge eye in the middle of the ghostly black dog’s forehead. All sightings describe thick, shaggy black fur, a snarling mouth, and, most importantly, Shuck is supposedly the harbinger of death, an omen of doom, and to see him is to befall a terrible fate before the week is out.

In his “Highways & Byways in East Anglia”, published in 1901, W. A. Dutt says…

“He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Snarleyow you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.”

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An article posted in the Peterborough Advertiser in 1936 states that local people used to shun the A605 road between Whittlesey and Coates during the hours of darkness because of the ‘Shuck Dog’ said to haunt the highway at night. The creature is large, black, has “great yellow eyes”, and “brings sure death to anyone he meets.” However, other stories describe the Shuck as assisting lone women, wandering or lost in the night, to safety.

Perhaps, late at night, if you listen hard enough, you’ll hear Black Shuck howling …?

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Eva Jordan in conversation with… Betsy Reavley

Eva Jordan in conversation with Betsy Reavley

On my blog I’ve been lucky enough to host some great interviews with some amazing local authors, and just recently that extended to a wonderful and informative Q&A session with prolific book blogger, Linda Hill, which you can read here. However, this month I’m really honoured to bring you an interview with someone who is both a successful author and one half of a successful husband and wife team behind the publishers Bloodhound Books and Bombshell Books, Betsy Freeman Reavley. 

  1. Hi Betsy, can you tell everyone a bit about yourself? 

I began my career as a writer and started my first novel when I was twenty-two years old. After having my first daughter and then getting married, I finally got round to finishing it and I was thrilled when an indie publisher offered me a contract and went on to publish the book.

The birth of eBooks and Amazon changed how people could publish and gave me, and my husband, an opportunity to start our own business, which we did in 2014. Bloodhound Books was born and we’ve never looked back. 

  1. What is the most difficult/frustrating part of being a publisher? 

The publishing world has changed since the birth of eBooks. Many authors still think of publishing in traditional terms and some authors struggle with the idea that our focus is on eBook sales, despite the fact we also produce paperbacks.

  1. As we all know, life can be difficult at times. Do you have a quote (either your own or someone else’s) or a motto that you try and live by, not just during the tough times but the good ones too? 

I listen to music to encourage me to focus my mind. Anything from BB King to Eminem will help me concentrate on what I want to achieve and keep going. The lyrics are all important to me and I take strength from them. I also love poetry, which inspires me to never give up.

  1. Truthfully, which do you prefer, writing or publishing?

They are both fulfilling but require very different skill sets. I couldn’t say. The pressure from publishing can be stressful but keeps life interesting. Writing is a lonely pursuit but one that I love.

  1. Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones? 

I used to read every review, taking each to heart, whether those words were good or bad. I am grateful to anyone who takes the time to leave a review, be it good or bad, but I’ve grown a thicker skin and now worry much less. What I do care about are sales figures. I am not a literary writer who does it for the art of writing. I am a career woman and I want to make a good living.

  1. And finally, what advice would you offer anyone thinking of becoming a writer or a publisher?

I don’t think you can advise someone how to become a writer. It’s either in you to do it or it isn’t. Writer’s write, it’s that simple. As for publishing, I never thought I’d end up being a publisher but I have discovered that I enjoy business and the opportunity to give talented writers a platform. The one thing I would always encourage people to remember is that publishing is based on opinions. Do I like this book? Can I sell it? What one publisher may think another may disagree with. Neither is wrong. It’s all just opinion. As long as you remember that, then you’ll keep your head screwed on properly.

 

 

Eva Jordan reviews… Over My Shoulder by Patricia Dixon

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This is the first book I’ve read by this particular author and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Over My Shoulder is no holds barred look at the physical, mental and emotional effects of a controlling, abusive relationship. A dark psychological thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat racing through the final pages.

Set in Manchester, written in the first person, the story is narrated retrospectively through the voice of Freya, the main protagonist. Freya takes us back to where it all began, as a young woman in her twenties during the 1990s. I didn’t particularly warm to Freya, to begin with. It wasn’t that I disliked her as such, but first impressions painted a picture of someone shallow, materialistic, more concerned about her looks and labels, easily impressed by those who could afford the finer things in life.

However, I quickly realised my initial judgment was somewhat harsh. I also remembered what it was like to be a young woman at the start of my own adult life, all the angst, uncertainty and possibilities that lay ahead, the need to forge my own identity and yet at the same time the need to assimilate, to somehow fit in.

So in that sense, the author got Freya’s character bang on because she also demonstrated just how vulnerable young people are, how prone to manipulation they can be and therefore, despite coming from a loving and caring family, what a prime target for dangerous, and controlling individuals like Kane, they can be. Kane is the antagonist in this tale, a real anti-hero, the very epitome of evil, although, as with all good storytelling, the reader is not privy to the depths of Kane’s depravity until much further into the story.

Over My Shoulder is a dark tale of domestic abuse and the far-reaching, destructive effects such a relationship can have on the victim and their loved ones. Well written with a sympathetic understanding of a difficult subject matter, it is a rollercoaster of a read that also delves into the murky underworld of criminals and sexual predators. Gripping, hard-hitting, it is not a read for the faint hearted but it is one that will find you taking a sharp intake of breath towards the conclusion and will also, perhaps, at times, like me, find you looking over your shoulder.

You can purchase Over My Shoulder on Amazon

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