Friday 23 April 2021

The Cottingley Cuckoo by A J Elwood


 Charlotte Favell, one of the elderly residents at Sunnyside Care Home, has taken a strange interest in Rose, the new member of staff. With an interest in literature and fairy tales, Rose is lured by the old lady's talk of the infamous Cottingley fairies hoax, and the hints that she has letters which prove the existence of the fairies beyond all doubt. More experienced staff at the home warn Rose that Charlotte has played similar tricks before, causing trouble for her carers, but Rose's curiosity is insatiable, even though she feels she's being dragged into a dark web of, perhaps, supernatural events.

I accidentally came across The Cottingley Cuckoo on Twitter, and it probably isn't quite like my usual read but I really enjoyed it. There's a slightly slow start to the story but like Charlotte herself it gradually works its spell and hooks the reader.

 It's a difficult novel to pin down by genre - it has the suspense and twists of a psychological thriller, a tinge of supernatural horror, a subtle lack of clarity over whether Rose is being manipulated, or just an unreliable narrator. There's a clever interweaving of Rose's present day story as she falls under Charlotte's spell, and the old letters, purporting to be written by a Cottingley resident  who actually saw the fairies himself, and could attest to their disruptive and occasionally malevolent ways. At times it seems like everything is merely Rose's imagination, and that Charlotte is just the troublesome old lady the other carers she her as; at times it seems like fairies could be real, and Rose is caught up in something sinister. 

And, although there are hints and common sense alone should raise a warning flag in the reader, the ending still comes as a shock.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Jonathan Pinnock 'Bad Day In Minsk' interview

You may recently have spotted my review of Bad Day In Minsk, the fourth in Jonathan Pinnock's Mathematical Mysteries series starring (if that's the appropriate word) the rather hapless PR executive-turned-sleuth Tom Winscombe. It's a series I really enjoy for its mix of  action adventure, comic mishaps, and quirky characters, so I'm delighted to have been able to persuade Jonathan to join me today to answer some pressing questions ...

Firstly, I've read (and loved) all the Mathematical Mysteries series but for anyone who hasn't could you please give a little introduction to Tom Winscombe and his adventures so far ... 

 A chance encounter on a train leads disillusioned junior PR executive Tom Winscombe into a rabbit hole where he is joined by on/off girlfriend Dorothy Chan in pursuit of the secret behind the deaths of the Vavasor twins, mathematicians Archimedes and Pythagoras, ten years earlier. He is still blundering around that rabbit hole four books on, although it seems to have expanded into a full-blown warren the size of the London underground. On the way, he has faced certain death at the hands of various people, including renegade financiers, psychopathic monks and more than one faction of the Belarusian mafia. Somehow he is still alive, a sadder but not necessarily wiser man.

Obviously Tom's latest escapade takes place in Minsk, but it's not a place you've visited. How did you go about research? Lots of time on Google maps? Contacting the local tourist board? 

Google Maps certainly played a large role in my research, along with maps of the Minsk underground and images of the stations. The Minsk Metropole hotel is, however, a complete invention. Outside of Minsk, Google Maps was helpful in finding a route from the airport to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and the camp where one of the mafia gangs hangs out is actually based on images of an abandoned children’s summer camp in the Ukraine. The cottage where Tom subsequently hides out is inspired by a YouTube video I saw ages ago made by one of the many lunatics who explore the Exclusion Zone for fun. That episode in the book very nearly didn’t happen, in fact, because in an early draft of the story he ended up in the abandoned fairground, but the trouble is, that one’s quite a tourist attraction these days and in the end I decided that I wanted him to be somewhere where there weren't many other people.

I had only the vaguest idea of Minsk's location - somewhere between Poland and Russia - so DID end up on Google maps, and thought it looked an interesting place for a weekend, though Tom doesn't really get to see the city. Are you planning to put it on your destination wishlist once restrictions are lifted?

Yes, I do quite fancy going to Minsk now, if only to see how horribly wrong I’ve got everything! However, Belarus isn’t in a good state at the moment. The regime is getting ever more repressive and there are occasional outbreaks of unrest, so I might leave it for a year or two.

The Belarusian mafia families, perhaps like all mafia families or indeed all of us, are interested in ways of making money, specifically in their case by trying to use mathematical formulas and chaos theory to profit on the world's stock markets. Is this a 'real' thing? If I were clever enough and rich enough in the first place could I do it, or is it just a writer's fantasy? 

Hmmm. Good question. Certainly the algorithms behind automatic trading are horrendously complex, and if you had enough capital you might be able to start things swinging about in a fairly chaotic manner. Mind you, the amount of capital required would be vast, and you’d need to be able to predict how the other players in the market (including the regulators) would react, so it’s edging towards “writer’s fantasy” territory. Then again, I might be saying that to put everyone off the scent while my secret fund gets down to business...

There were a couple of things that seemed to mark a change in direction from the previous stories - one being Tom left to muddle his way through on his own more than usual. I was a little disappointed to see less of Dorothy. Was she always intended to sit this one out, or did the plot just develop that way? 

Interesting question. This is going to sound a bit weird, but stick with me here. One of the continual problems that the modern writer has is how to dispose of the hero’s mobile phone. You’ll notice that Tom is pretty good at either smashing his phone up, having it taken away from him or ending up somewhere with no signal. From a purely technical point of view, Dorothy’s presence has a similar effect on the plot, in that she is WAY better at problem solving than Tom. So if we want life to get as challenging as possible for Tom, we need to sideline Dorothy at least for some of the story. So in The Truth About Archie and Pye, she doesn’t arrive until page 100. In A Question of Trust, she doesn’t actually appear properly until page 220. She is there for most of the time in The Riddle of the Fractal Monks, but even then she is missing for quite a while during the sequence with the alpacas. So it’s not unprecedented for Dorothy to be absent for much of Bad Day in Minsk, although - without wishing to give too much away - their rift is a little bit more significant this time. I feel quite bad for spoiling a lovely relationship like this, but that’s what writers do, I’m afraid.

And, related to that question, do you believe in planning every move of your hero and villains in advance, or just throwing Tom in at the deep end and seeing what happens?

I’m very much a pantser rather than a plotter. My approach to planning a book is to chuck a load of stuff up in the air, see where it lands and then try to work out how they connect. The amazing thing is how often things just pop up that afterwards seem completely planned. There was one thing that happened this time which I can’t mention for fear of spoilers that I’d done subconsciously and turned out to be hugely significant.

What's next for you (and Tom)? Are there more Mathematical Mysteries on the way, or something entirely new?

I’ve certainly got ideas for further Mathematical Mysteries, but I’m overdue for a chat with my publishers to see what they think! I’ve also had an idea for a proper airport blockbuster psychological thriller, although I doubt if that will ever see the light of day. It does have an excellent title though, which is always promising.


If this interview or my review of Bad Day in Minsk have intrigued you, more can be found out at

Jonathan has also asked me to mention his new podcast, It’s Lit But Is It Funny?, where he and his guests take a critical look at one of the most neglected genres in literature: the funny book. So far they’ve covered Lucky Jim, 1066 And All That, Heartburn, Cold Comfort Farm and Emotionally Weird. There’s more information, along with buttons to enable you to subscribe here [link:].

Monday 19 April 2021

The Damask Rose Blog Tour


Today we're delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Damask Rose, the second of Carol McGrath's new historical fiction series, The She Wolves.. It's the story of Eleanor of Castile, wife of  Edward I, an unusual queen with a 'modern' outlook, not content with domestic accomplishments, but  interested in creating beautiful gardens, in supervising her ever-growing property portfolio, and whenever possible accompanying her husband on campaign at home or on Crusade to the Holy Land.

Here's Carol herself to tell us more

Introducing Eleanor of Castile


I loved writing The Damask Rose, second novel in The She Wolf Series of books about medieval queens who were regarded as difficult by their contemporaries. This book’s heroine is Eleanor of Castile who gathered up a large property portfolio thus annoying Barons who when in debt sold manors and lands to her. She bought up their properties and debts cheaply. Many disliked this able thirteenth century business woman and queen. Her husband, however, adored her and when she died Edward I erected the famous Eleanor Crosses to commemorate her final funeral journey. Charing Cross derives its name from one of the Eleanor crosses. I off set Eleanor’s story with that of a medieval female gardener in The Damask Rose. See the blurb below.

Eleanor loved gardens and introduced many ideas and now popular flowers such as hollyhocks into English gardens from Castile. Stone Masons from Aragon constructed water features and statues in Eleanor’s castle gardens. Eleanor enjoyed beautiful objects and comforts in her many homes. She loved books and was a blue-stocking. It is said she was responsible for floor carpets as well as gorgeous hanging woven tapestries, ideas brought from Spain.


The Blurb for The Damask Rose

1266. Eleanor of Castile, adored wife of the Crown Prince of England, is still only a princess when she is held hostage in the brutal Baron's Rebellion, and her baby daughter dies. Scarred by privation, a bitter Eleanor swears revenge on those who would harm her family - and vows never to let herself be vulnerable again.

As she rises to become Queen, Eleanor keeps Olwen - a trusted herbalist, who tried to save her daughter - by her side. But it is dangerous to be friendless in a royal household, and as the court sets out on crusade, Olwen and Eleanor discover that the true battle for Europe may not be a matter of swords and lances, but one fanned by whispers and spies . . .


To Buy Link :



Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs- and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in History, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.

For more news, exclusive content and competitions, sign up to Carol’s newsletter at:
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You can read Mary's full review here at OurBookReviewsOnline

and check out the rest of the blog tour as detailed below

Saturday 17 April 2021

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

1266. Eleanor of Castile, adored wife of the Crown Prince of England, is still only a princess
 when she is held hostage in the brutal Baron's Rebellion, and her baby daughter dies. Scarred by privation, a bitter Eleanor swears revenge on those who would harm her family - and vows never to let herself be vulnerable again.

As she rises to become Queen, Eleanor keeps Olwen - a trusted herbalist, who tried to save her daughter - by her side. But it is dangerous to be friendless in a royal household, and as the court sets out on crusade, Olwen and Eleanor discover that the true battle for Europe may not be a matter of swords and lances, but one fanned by whispers and spies . . .

Carol McGrath's latest series The She-Wolves continues with the story of  Eleanor of Castille, wife of Prince Edward (later to become Edward I of England). Married when Eleanor was barely a teenager, their relationship grew into one of great love, though their early years together were marred by the death of children in infancy, and the time Eleanor spent as a hostage, held in impoverished circumstances with barely enough money for food, by Simon de Montfort during the Baron's Rebellion.

From these inauspicious beginnings, Carol McGrath shows us a woman growing in determination, power, and love for her husband. In many ways Eleanor seems a remarkably 'modern' woman, not content to stay home, rear children, and quietly embroider. Vowing never to suffer such the trauma of imprisonment and poverty again, she resolves that whenever feasible she will stay by Edward's side, accompanying him on campaigns against the rebels, then further afield on Crusade. At the same time she sets about accumulating lands and wealth to protect herself against future hardship.

Intertwined with Eleanor's story is that of (totally fictional) Olwen, her herbalist. The two come together to create gardens of herbs and flowers, of healing and relaxation, for  Eleanor's new manor houses and the castles Edward builds as part of his campaign against the Welsh.

Throughout there's a wealth of historical detail, sprinkled unobtrusively to not mar the progression of the story, but underpinning it, giving it a real feel for the world of Eleanor and Olwen.

Next week, I'll be taking part in the blog tour for The Damask Rose but meanwhile check out the other posts here - 

Thursday 8 April 2021

Bad Day in Minsk by Jonathan Pinnock

We've all had bad days, haven't we? But rest assured they've never been quite as bad as the one Tom Winscombe's having - kidnapped after a failed break in at the offices of a secretive think tank, sent under-cover into Belarus, kidnapped again (by Belarusan mafia this time), escaping, getting caught in a fire-fight between various gangs while the building burns beneath him ... It's the stuff of nightmares, but since he became involved in the affairs of deceased mathematical geniuses the Vavasor brothers it's become all too frequent an occurrence for Tom.

Bad Day in Minsk is the fourth in the Mathematical Mystery series by Jonathan Pinnock, and as much, if not more, fun than the earlier stories. Always inclined to stumble into the sort of trouble that ends up with armed men threatening him, Tom finds himself coerced into posing as an expert on chaos theory and sent to Minsk. He's on his own this time, without girlfriend Dorothy who usually saves the day but with luck on his side, and help from some new acquaintances, Tom manages to not only escape with his life but come out of it all looking quite heroic (if only Dorothy would see that!)

Full of thrills, tension and laughs in equal amounts, it's a fun read, which, despite the danger that Tom frequently finds himself in and the high body count among his adversaries, doesn't take itself too seriously. For me, it's the kind of escapism I need right now. It is possible to jump into the series at this point, as Tom makes great efforts to explain the back-story of his highly improbably adventures as he goes along, but I think it's best to start at the beginning with book one - The Truth About Archie and Pye 

If you want to learn more about Jonathan Pinnock and the origins of the series see our interview with him here

Thursday 1 April 2021

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

A holiday is an unusual, if not unheard of, thing for Stevens, the butler at Darlington Hall, but his new American employer is back in the US for a few weeks, and Stevens is off on a trip to the West Country, to see the sights and visit a former colleague. Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, was formerly housekeeper at Darlington and Stevens hopes to be able to persuade her to return. His reasons are solid and practical, citing the unavailability of staff in the modern post-war world of the 50s, but hidden away he holds more personal, sentimental ones.

As he travels the quiet roads of 1950s England, Stevens reminiscences about the inter-war glory years, when Lord Darlington was heavily involved in European affairs, and the house filled with people of power and influence, ponders on what makes a 'great' butler and the meaning of dignity, and just occasionally lets his imperturbable butler's mask slip enough to let us glimpse the man behind - the emotions he's bottled away, the life and love he could have had if not for his belief that duty overrides all.

I first read The Remains of the Day sometime in the early 90s shortly after it won the Booker prize; I loved it then, and it was a pleasure to revisit it, though I think my feeling about Stevens have changed. Then I felt his life had been totally wasted, and that it was his own fault - his loyalty given to a man who never deserved it, the love of his life lost through his stubborn pride and 'dignity'. Now I'm inclined to judge Stevens less harshly; even feel sorry for him. Born and bred into the profession of butler, he follows his father's footsteps, and I feel there's little else he could have done. He copies the example set for him - believing that a butler should be ever-present, constantly at his employers beck and call, putting their needs above his own, never breathing a word of his own personal troubles. His aim is to be a perfect cog in a machine - in another life I could imagine him as the perfect Soviet factory worker putting tractor production and state quotas above personal feelings. 

And like that factory worker, Stevens has put total faith in his employer. His sole aim in life was to be the best butler possible. He didn't consider himself informed enough to have an opinion on anything outside this, particularly on the wider poltical issues of the day, but unquestioningly left that to his 'betters', such as Lord Darlington. Such loyalty has turned out to be misplaced (in the light of later events Lord Darlington is labelled as a Nazi sympathiser), and Stevens now finds himself adrift, unsure of how he should have behaved, and uncertain of what life now holds for him.

The Remains of the Day is a quietly moving story of a life spent in serving others, often at the loss of personal happiness, but ultimately I feel it's one of hopefulness as we leave Stevens with his professional brave face on, looking forward to to the future.