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Interview with local writer Rupert Ashby

Rupert Ashby is the author of Izzie, the novel about a young girl growing up on the waterways of southern England.

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About the story: In the years before World War II, Isobel Horne is a boat girl with a burning ambition to learn how to read. Encouraged by her mother, she is enrolled in school. But war and tragedy turn Izzie’s life upside-down and almost put a stop to everything. But in the end, her ability to read becomes more important than she could ever have imagined.

Rupert is better known in his home city of Peterborough as Derek Harris. He sails a narrow boat himself and is a local authority on the canals and their history. For about fifteen years, Derek (as I must call him) has been giving entertaining talks to local groups about his favourite subject. He has also written and published a number of short stories.

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Bookheathen: Hi Derek. Thanks for talking to me, and welcome to my blog! The first thing I want to ask is about the rather unusual sub title to your novel – ‘A Child of the Cut’. Can you explain that to us? What exactly is the Cut?

Rupert Ashby/Derek Harris: The Cut is the canal. The boating fraternity rarely, if ever, used the word ‘canal’. Their water highway was away the ‘cut’.

BH: We tend to take education for granted today – even tertiary education. Perhaps we undervalue it. It wasn’t always like that, was it?

RA/DH: In the early days of education students had to pay for their schooling.  Boat children ‘slipped through the net’ of the Education Acts as they were never in one place long enough for a thorough education.  Some schools were happy to take boat children for a few days at a time while their parents were waiting for orders and some boat companies ran their own schools.

BH: I know you have a lifelong interest in the English canals, and have been giving talks about them for about 15 years. What made you decide to write a novel about them?

 RA/DH: I’ve always enjoyed what these days is called Creative Writing.  Back in my junior school days it was called Composition and it was my favourite lesson. I never expected to win a prize for literature, but when I get an idea for a story I find it won’t leave me alone until I have, at least, started to write it. One day, I decided to set one of them down. Izzie is the result.

BH: What drew you to the character of Izzie? Was she based on a real person?

RA/DH: No, Izzie is a figment of my imagination. She is a composite character based on what I’ve read and learned about children’s lives on the boats in the 1930s and 40s.

BH: How about the other characters, for example Izzie’s parents, Bill and Maggie – or George and Jean? Are they real people or types?

RA/DH: All of the characters in the book are inventions with the exception of Mary Ward.  They are, indeed, types who I think are representative of the diverse waterway community. 

BH: You’ve put at least one real person in the story – Mary Ward. Tell us about her.

RA/DH: Sister Mary Ward lived in a canal-side cottage at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire as a child.  Her career as a young woman involved working at various convents in mainland Europe that specialised in the care of the sick.  On her return to Stoke to look after her elderly father, she renewed her acquaintance with the boat families and became, to all intents and purposes, their doctor, often paying for their medicines from her own money.  After many years service the Grand Union Canal Company put her on the payroll.

BH: Tell us a bit more about the world of your characters. How important were the canals to the British economy?

RA/DH: In the late 18th and 19th centuries the canals were vitally important to the industrial growth of this country.  Without them the Industrial Revolution could not have happened.  They were the motorways of their time.   Canal people kept themselves to themselves, often distrusted by the folk ‘on the bank’.

BH: Did the canals have any special importance during WW2?

RA/DH: By World War II the canal trade had largely disappeared, having gone to rail and road.  But the war gave a short lived boost as there was an increase in the volume of goods needing to be moved.

BH: Izzie’s father didn’t want her going to school. Why not? How typical do you think his attitude among the boat people?

RA/DH: Bill Horne has the traditional boatman’s view of education.  He never needed it and so no-one who works the boats would ever need it.  Being a ‘scholar’ was viewed almost as being disloyal to the boating trade.

BH: Great things from small acorns, they say. Without giving too much away [no spoilers, please, Derek!], can you explain the importance of Izzie’s schooling to the resolution of the plot?

RA/DH: Her schooling enables her to read an item in a newspaper, which leads on to proving to her father that he has been duped, and could go to prison as a result.

BH: It’s often said by critics that too much dialect puts people off. You have used quite a lot of it in your novel. How did you go about researching the speech and manners of the period?

RA/DH: There is, indeed, a lot of dialect, but I thought this was important to reinforce the identity of the boat folk.  Having heard numerous original recordings of boat people from the Grand Union, I settled on a kind of (diluted) West Midland accent for my characters.

BH: Today, we have motorways and huge trucks to carry goods. The canals are mainly about leisure and pleasure, aren’t they? Are any of the  waterways still in use for the transport of goods and, if so, what?

derek's boat

RA/DH: There are still some boats trading on the canals but it is very localised.  Mostly they are selling coal and wood for burning to other boaters.

BH: Are you planning to write another novel about the Cut? Or about Izzie?

RA/DHI have also published a book of four short stories, all with a canal theme, entitled The Lure of the Cut, and have started working on a sequel to Izzie.

***

“‘You what?’ Bill Horne exclaimed, stopping what he was doing and staring at his wife. ‘You done what? You signed our Izzie up for book learnin’? What the devil do she want wi’ bloomin’ book learnin’? Answer me that!'”

***

“‘I never quite caught what you said jus’ then.’ As she said the word ‘then’, Jean took hold of a handful of Izzie’s hair and pulled it hard, jerking her head back and causing her to squeal….. she put her face so close to Izzie’s that the girl felt overcome by the smell of drink and tobacco….”

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Izzie by Rupert Ashby, ISBN 978 0 9575135 0 1 may be ordered through your nearest bookshop, or email derek@halfcuttheatre.com. The author donates half of all profit from sales of the book to Foxton Inclined Plane Trust charity, www.fitp.org

You can read more about leisure opportunities on the English canals at https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/contact-us/canal-and-river-faqs
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‘Et tu, Brute?’

Emperor

by Conn Iggulden

The supposed last words (or nearly last words) of Julius Caesar are best known from the play by William Shakespeare. Whether he said anything of the sort – or anything at all – when he was fatally stabbed, remains in doubt. But, of course, Shakespeare was writing drama, not history.

Latin isn’t taught much in British schools nowadays. You’ll often hear the argument: school days are short, and there are so many other important things for our kids to learn; why bother with a useless subject, a language that isn’t spoken today anyway? What’s the point?

Like in so many other arguments, it’s a matter of perspective. If you’re interested in languages at all, including your own, Latin (and Greek, for that matter) has a lot to teach. If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’ve forgotten most of the Latin I learned at school. However, one thing the Latin class did do for me was to stimulate an interest in Roman history. Through the medium of simple Latin narrative, and later more difficult stuff that left me floundering, I learned about Romulus, the Kings, the Consuls, and inevitably, Julius Caesar.

And it was knowing a little about Caesar that drew me to read Conn Iggulden’s novel Emperor, The Gates of Rome, the first of several (five, I believe) featuring the great Roman general and politician.

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Emperor, The Gates of Rome tells the story of Caesar’s boyhood and youth. There are two main characters, Caesar himself, who for most of the book is called Gaius, and another, equally well known from the pages of Shakespeare – Marcus Junius Brutus. Conn Iggulden depicts them as growing up together, sharing their training in discipline and military skills and, in Gaius’ case anyway, learning to be a member of the nobility.

The background to the novel is the power struggle between two decorated generals, Marius and Sulla, for control of the Roman senate. Both existed; you can check. It’s strong stuff, with lots of political manoeuvering, corruption and back-stabbing (both literal and figurative). Most of the early scenes are invented, but it is considered invention, and we get a very credible picture of what the young men’s lives might have been like, growing up in the Rome of that period. The power struggle and the civil wars that followed are manipulated and condensed for dramatic effect, and it works as a story, dropping both Gaius and Marcus where they need to be in order to make a comeback in a later volume.

If you like lots of graphic killing in your fiction, then Emperor, The Gates of Rome is a book for you. I find it a bit bloodthirsty but it is certainly exciting as a historical novel. One of the most engaging characters is Renius, the ageing, no-nonsense ex-gladiator charged with making men of Gaius and Marcus. He is the sort of man you begin by hating for his cruelty but end up admiring for his endurance.

Iggulden gives female characters too little space but two stand out. Alexandria, a pretty slave-girl, probably fictional, is determined to be free and charts her own course through the turmoil that is Rome in order to earn enough to buy her freedom. I also admired Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna (both real people), who challenges conventional morality and her father’s authority to bed Caesar and eventually marry him in the novel’s bloody climax.

Though I enjoyed reading The Gates of Rome, I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the series. I’m going to vote for Shakepeare and my school Latin class!

*****

 

Ballade of True Wisdom

Quotations Day 3

I’ve been spending most of the day in my garden. With temperatures  ranging from 33 degrees on the patio at the back to 36 in front of our white garage door, it isn’t the ideal weather for physical effort. But as rain is expected (actually it’s started now), I thought it best to get on with a few of the jobs that were piling up.

Being of a literary turn of mind ( as I’m sure many of you will have noticed), thinking about the garden made me think about books too  – books about gardens or with ‘garden’ in the title. A few spring to mind:

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré

A Child’s Garden of Verses (Poems) by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Cake Shop in the Garden by Carole Matthews

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

If we extend the thought process to include things that grow in gardens, like trees, flowers and grass, we get a few more. In fact, the list may be almost endless! Here are just a few of the titles:

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The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

The Red Dahlia by Lynda La Plante

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley

I’m not saying I’ve read all of those, or even that they are books I would read in the ordinary course of events. However, it just goes to show how powerful a connection there is between literature and horticulture.

And that brings me to my ‘thought for the day’ and the third of my choices of literary quotation. It’s part of a poem Ballade of True Wisdom by Andrew Lang, a Victorian poet and authority on folklore and fairy tales.

‘While others are asking for beauty or fame,
Or praying to know that for which they should pray,
Or courting Queen Venus, that affable dame,
Or chasing the Muses the weary and grey,

The sage has found out a more excellent way –
To Pan and to Pallas his incense he showers,
And his humble petition puts up day by day,
For a house full of books, and a garden of flowers.

The sun has come out again – so back to the

patio!

:-):-):-)

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I took her hand in mine …

For my second quotation, responding to the tag challenge set me by Anne at Inked Brownies, I have picked another from the Classics:

‘I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.’

[Charles Dickens – Great Expectations]

dickens

I suppose not many readers think of Dickens as a writer of love stories. Great Expectations, like David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby and others are biographical in nature.They are life journeys, coming-of-age stories, and not romance in the usual sense. Yet the love Pip has for Estella (though not always reciprocated) is as passionate as any in literature. The story – boy meets girl, girl leaves boy, they find each other again – is typical of so many others.

But is it?

Dickens never intended the novel to have a Happy-Ever-After ending. The familiar passage at the conclusion of Great Expectations does indeed suggest a happy resolution. However, Dickens originally wrote a different one, where Pip and Estella part forever, and he was only persuaded to change it at the last minute by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, First Baron Lytton (better known for coining the phrases ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ and ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ )

Even with Lytton’s intervention, there’s still something ambiguous about that last scene of Great Expectations.

Yet, even with Dickens wavering, I remain an optimist! Pip and Estella – like David Copperfield and Agnes Wickfield – SHOULD be together. Echoing (or nearly echoing) the words of Alan Jay Lerner,  when commenting on Shaw’s ending to Pygmalion, that he preferred his own:

– Dickens was wrong!

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If any of my readers feel the inclination to pick their own quotations (at least three), please do so!

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The Sister

by Louise Jensen

‘I did something terrible, Grace. I hope you can forgive me.’

What has Grace’s best friend Charlie done that’s so terrible? Grace doesn’t know, but in the four months since Charlie’s death the question has lain heavily on her mind.

When the girls were fifteen, they buried a memory box with photos and other bits and pieces from their lives, intending to dig it up when they are older. Included in the box is a mysterious pink envelope which Charlie won’t allow Grace to examine. Now there is only Grace. She’s in her mid twenties and living with boyfriend Dan and cat Mittens in a country cottage – and she wants answers:

Who was Charlie’s father and why did he leave – why does Charlie’s mum Lexie blame Grace for her daughter’s death – did Charlie really have an invisible friend called Belle?

sister

The Sister is written in two timelines. Louise Jensen follows Grace as she tries to unravel the mystery surrounding her friend’s family and to find Charlie’s missing father. The novel also takes us back to the day when Grace, having lost HER father, goes to a new school and meets Charlie for the first time. Gradually, the two lines come together as past merges with present in a thrilling and nail-biting climax. When Grace advertises on social media for Charlie’s father to come forward, she has a visit from Anna, who claims to be Charlie’s long lost half-sister. Grace is glad to have someone whom she believes connects her to the past and she invites Anna to stay at the cottage. She begins to rely on Anna more and more, to Dan’s apparent distaste.

We learn more of the past. Grace has begun to receive nasty anonymous letters – and worse – in the mail and blames it on one of her other “friends”, Siobhan. In the present day, she thinks she’s being followed, and some really nasty things happen to her (which it’s best I don’t tell you about because it might spoil the story for you). It’ll be enough to say that what’s happening affects her career, her relationship with Dan, and even threatens her life.

‘My phone is vibrating …. I answer it, say hello. There’s the sound of breathing on the other end. I hear someone swallow. Sniff.’

‘My palms are damp with sweat. I remove my hands from the wheel, one at a time, and wipe them on my jeans. My foot squeezes the accelerator … but the car stays on my tail.’

In The Sister, her debut novel, Louise Jensen has served up a whirlwind of pace and excitement. The book is marketed as a psychological thriller, and a thriller it is, though readers expecting lots of blood, gore and sex might be disappointed that these aspects are muted. I suppose the operative word is psychological. The story focuses more on mind games, and on human relationships and how they can so easily go wrong. The author has a good eye for detail. Amidst the harsh realities of Grace’s life, there is humour – and some tender moments too.

‘I turn towards the Tube train thundering towards me. Step closer to the edge…. Hands slap against my shoulders, shoving me forwards.’

‘Siobhan turned to me, her hatred so thick it was almost as if I could reach out my hand and touch it.’

Nearly all the main characters have secrets, and the trick for the reader is to discover which are harmless and which are deadly. Poor dead Charlie and the alcoholic Lexie are especially well drawn characters, believable though not always lovable; I found myself putting other names to them from my own life. Grace’s grandparents are nice and dependable as one expects from grandparents, whilst Anna, Dan, Siobhan and the others are, well ….

You’ll have to read The Sister to find out!

On a more personal note, I’d like to tell you that I was privileged to be able to read some of Louise’s drafts for parts of the story. Having a rough idea what was going on, I wondered if that little knowledge would be a spoiler when I came to read the finished article. I needn’t have worried. The plot twists and turns a lot, and I confess that while reading I had no firm idea of how it was going to end. I liked it a lot!

‘… the footsteps are getting closer and I can’t afford to stop. There’s hot breath on my neck.’

The present and past timelines are separated throughout by the use of different tenses, and the chapters by the adverbs ‘Now‘ and ‘Then‘. This serves to identify where we are in the story. However, I would recommend new readers do not lose sight of the adverbs since, as the timelines coalesce, present and past are – how shall I put it? – not that separate after all. Both are necessary to help us understand Grace, her demons and their resolution.

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[For those who don’t already know, Louise Jensen has a blog at fabricatingfiction.wordpress.com]

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Who Do You Think You Are?

Blood of the Isles

by Bryan Sykes

A Bookheathen Review

I became fascinated by genetics back in my student days. The science was still at an early stage then. We knew about DNA but were still a long way from using it to solve crimes, and an even longer way from sequencing the human genome.

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‘It is now almost ten years since the day I drilled into the Cheddar tooth, but the moment is still vivid in my memory. It was not the first time I had attempted to recover DNA from ancient skeletons, but it was the most scary.’

Bryan Sykes is Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University and chairman of Oxford Ancestors Ltd, a company dedicated to providing its clients with ancestry information based on their DNA (on payment of a not-so-small though reasonable fee). I have written about Professor Sykes before, and I reviewed his first book here on WordPress back in 2014 (https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/its-all-in-the-dna/) .

Whereas The Seven Daughters of Eve discussed female ancestry, Blood of the Isles, his third book, published in 2006, looks at male, in particular the amazing history that can be discovered from the Y-chromosome.

[If you already know all about DNA, forgive the pedantry and omit the next two paragraphs!]

DNA exists in two forms, the ordinary stuff attached to our chromosomes inside the nucleus of our cells, and mitochondrial DNA (mDNA). We get the former from both our parents; we get the latter only from our mothers.

We all have forty-six chromosomes, and forty-four of those come in pairs, twenty-two from each of our parents. Two, the X and Y chromosomes are special and how they combine – either as XX or as XY – determines our sex. The do not necessarily come from both parents. Human beings with the XX combination are female; those with XY are male.

The Isles of the book’s title are the British Isles. (NB a geographical description and not in any way political). Bryan Sykes has done DNA tests on more than ten thousand people from all over these islands, from Shetland to the Scilly Isles, from the Aran Isles to the North Sea. His work demonstrates that whoever we think we are, wherever we suppose we came from, we are in all probability wrong!

‘Whereas there are seven maternal clans which predominate in western Europe, there are only five paternal clans defined by the Y-chromosome. Each of these began with just one man …..’

The first part of the book deals broadly with history and myth. The author moves on to discuss blood groups and the nature of his work. Finally, he gives details of his team’s research in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England (in that order) and gives us the results both in narrative and in diagrammatic form.

‘The first conclusion, blindingly obvious now I can see it, is that we have in front of us two completely different histories. The maternal and paternal origins of the Isles are different.’

Danes, Vikings, Picts, Scots, Normans and Saxons all come into the story, and they – all of them – form the mish-mash of humanity that makes up the population of these islands. The most common male ancestor of the people of Ireland turns out to be a man to whom Sykes gives the name Oisin, from the mythical son of the mythical leader of the Fianna, Finn mac Cumhaill. That Oisin genes should predominate in Scotland, England and Wales as well, though not to the same extent, is quite instructive as it turns out.

The most populous of the female ‘clans’ is that of Helena (45-46%), a woman who lived 20 thousand years ago somewhere along the valley of the River Rhone during the height of the last ice age.

Blood of the Isles is a great book for anyone with an interest in family history and ancestry. While it doesn’t tell you how to go about tracing your family tree, it does explain what ancestry is all about and why assumptions are unwise and often erroneous.

***

 

 

 

The Other Queen

by Philippa Gregory

(A novel of the captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots)

Mary Stuart must be the most written about person in the whole of history, and with good reason. Pick your side: she was either a hopeless (and foolish) romantic, a woman too trusting for her own good, a victim of one conspiracy after another, none of which she had any part in, OR she was an unprincipled trollop who plotted the downfall of her cousin Elizabeth of England (and thus deserved everything she got). The latter seems to be the view of historian David Starkey who, of course, may think what he likes without it being true. I make no apology for siding with – among others – Jane Austen’s opinion that ‘Mary had never been guilty of anything more than imprudences into which she was betrayed by the openness of her heart.’

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Philippa Gregory’s novel does not exactly break new ground and it doesn’t answer any questions. However, she takes an unusual approach to the tale of Mary’s life and death. In The Other Queen, she gives the job of telling the story to three narrators. There is Mary herself, twenty-six years old at the start, newly arrived at Tutbury Castle, one of the homes of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury, where she is to be a ‘guest’ on the orders of Queen Elizabeth or – depending again on which side you take – on those of the latter’s upstart chancellor William Cecil, First Lord Burghley.

Next, there is the Countess, the formidable Bess of Hardwick, who survived four marriages and emerged from them as the richest woman in England, and who also happens to be an ancestor of the present Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain.

Lastly, there is her husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who was very likely in love with Mary.

There are no real historical bombshells – no piece of hitherto undiscovered history – in The Other Queen. Some readers might be astonished to learn how close Mary’s supporters came to defeating and deposing Elizabeth, but that is all. And the history of the period, and of Mary’s life after she arrived in England is too well known for me to bother much with a plot summary. Some quotations from the POV of the three narrators will give a flavour of Philippa Gregory’s approach to characterisation.

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Bess of Hardwick

Mary: ‘I dream. Not the nightmares that haunted me in Scotland but I dream that I am back in France, in the sunshine of my childhood.’

‘… the Holy Father has named me Queen of England. And besides, it will force my family in France, and Philip of Spain, to act … to put me on my throne of Scotland, and England too.’

Bess: ‘I am a Protestant. I don’t acknowledge this Stuart Papist queen … and I don’t believe that Queen Mary is now Queen of England just because some old fool in Rome chooses to say so.’

‘There is no peace for a woman who tries to run a proper household with a spendthrift guest and a husband who is a fool. Her wine bill alone is more in a month than mine is in a year.’

George: ‘I thought that if us lords of England saw a better way to rule this country … then we could topple Cecil and advise the queen. I thought we could show her how to deal justly with the Scots queen, befriend the French and make alliances with Spain.’

‘ “Leave them for me,” she says simply, and the moment she speaks, it does all seem extraordinarily clear. Why not? Why should I not go with this most beautiful woman and keep her safe … defend her against her enemies?’

talbot stair

The “Fotheringhay” Staircase at the Talbot Hotel and  George Talbot (inset)

Living where I do, in the midst of the ‘shires and spires’ of rural England, The Other Queen was a historical novel I just had to read. I’m surrounded by the history of this part of the country. I know all about William Cecil and his plans to unite the islands of Britain under a Protestant ruler; I’ve been to his tomb in Stamford and from time to time I visit his magnificent home, the nearby Burghley House. And of course, I know a great deal about Mary too, and a bit about George. I live not far from the village of Fotheringhay where she died, and eat regularly at its splendid hostelry. Another of my favourite haunts is the nearby Talbot Hotel (http://www.thetalbot-oundle.com/) , named after the Earl, parts of which are believed to have come from Fotheringhay Castle.

Philippa Gregory paints clever portraits of her three protagonists, with their strengths and weaknesses. If anything, all three come out as victims – victims of political ambition, conspiracy and of the march of history itself. There are no heroes, no real villains. Men and women alike did only what they had to do to survive in a changing world. The author has built carefully around the historical records. She has made up her own mind where accounts are disputed and by her own admission ‘when there is a gap … I invent, as a novelist should, a fiction which accounts for the known facts.’ She places Bess’s serious suspicions about George’s relationship with Mary earlier than I would have done. These lie at the heart of the novel in the early 1570s. Many histories suggest that, though it’s probably true that George Talbot fell in love with Mary, there was never any physical relationship, and the two women only ‘fell out’ later in their sixteen year acquaintance, when rumours of an affair began to circulate.

The Other Queen, like The Taming of the Queen – which I reviewed recently – and The Other Boleyn Girl, is a great historical. My only negative thought is that the short chapters, while they help the pacing, sometimes confuse the reader as to which narrator is speaking.There isn’t enough time to get into the new character before the POV changes.

*****

See https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/the-road-to-fotheringhay/ for some of my earlier thoughts about Queen Mary.

*****

 

 

 

The Snakes of Horus

A Short Story

by Andrew Greenfield Lockhart

[I originally wrote this for a session at my writers’ group.]

‘We’re safe for now. They can’t get in.’

I risked a glance at Jude out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t, I daren’t allow my attention to be diverted from the window. She was statuesque, her face drawn in a rigid mask, her eyes staring, her arms crossed and her hands tightly gripping her shoulders. Somehow she had lost a glove and her knuckles were bruised and red.

‘And we can’t get out! We can’t take off!’ She laughed hysterically. Then the sharp intake and rapid exhalation of her breathing were the only sounds I could hear in the dimly-lit module. Jude was a brilliant theorist, but she was a lab scientist, a computer kid. She was of no use in a crisis.

‘We have to concentrate on fixing the engine,’ I snapped. ‘Kathy?’

‘Working on it!’

‘Ben . . .’ Jude was moaning now, her body shaken by gigantic sobs. ‘Snakes . . . We have to do something.’

‘He’s beyond help now,’ I said with as much sympathy as I could muster; there was no time for it. They had been an item, Jude and Ben, since we began training for the expedition three years ago. ‘We can do our mourning later.’

I had no confidence in the plate glass of the window. Two inches thick and built to contain our atmosphere, it was still vulnerable to attack from outside. We had all seen the creatures in action and knew what they were capable of. Those enormous jowls with their hideous serrated teeth could snap a man or woman in half. I had watched them, sick to my stomach and retching, as they opened and closed again over the mangled remains of one of the team. Gerard, our biochemist, thirty years old with a wife and kids back on Earth.

I had gasped in horror as the swinging tail of a female snake caught Ben, our navigator, off balance, felling him to the alien dust and shattering his helmet. Jude had calculated that we could survive eight minutes in the Horus atmosphere, but it hadn’t been proved and never would be now. Ben had lasted barely ten seconds before the creature sank her teeth in his arm and struck him with her poisonous tail. I had heard the snapping of his bones and the creaking of his skin as he changed, growing before my eyes into one of the monstrosities that now paraded hungrily outside in the blue, moonlit terrain.

I’d hesitated no more than a second before running. Jude had stopped to help her boyfriend but it was too late. Kathy pulled her away. There was nothing any of us could do. The three of us, Jude, Kathy and I had only just made it back inside.

The first inhabited exoplanet and its dominant life-form were deadly serpents!

The window shuddered as the head of the alpha male, by far the largest of the creatures, thudded against it. The glass held. Jude screamed.

‘It’ll be OK.’ I tried to reassure her but feeling all the while that our situation was hopeless. Kathy was working frantically at the engine, trying to start it again, but in the minutes since we slammed the module door on the monster snakes, it’d done no more than stutter and die. And that was what the three of us who were left would do if she didn’t fix it soon.

There were four monster snakes now, the original three and the one that had once been Ben. We still couldn’t be sure what he had become – male or female. It really didn’t matter. Only the alpha was carnivorous but the females carried the virus that apparently destroyed human DNA and replaced it with their own. Going outside in our suits to collect soil and rock samples hadn’t been the smartest thing we’d done. Unless Kathy could restart that engine soon and take us into orbit and back to the ship, we were done for.

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The alpha’s head connected with the window – twice. The glass shuddered again, the module door too as an armoured tail crashed against the steel. The choice was not one I wanted to make: slow death by poisoned air; swallowed whole, turned into a shapeless mass of blood, flesh and bone in the alpha’s intestine; or become one of the creatures myself.

We had no weapons capable of defeating them. Guns were useless. Gerard and Ben had tried. The seconds taken to shoot had cost them their lives. Even if we had a knife or sword sharp enough to pierce their scaly hides, how could any of us get close enough? How could we avoid those sharp, tissue-tearing fangs or those scything tails with their deadly sting?

Outside, the landscape was darkening. The three blue moons of Horus were sinking to the horizon. The largest, so clear that I could see clouds moving across its surface, was already only a half disc at the edge of the desert. Any hope that the snakes would dislike the darkness was fading. If anything, the night seemed to vitalise their efforts to reach us.

‘Help me here,’ Kathy yelled and I backed up, still keeping my eye on the window. Jude was a helpless, cringing wreck in the pilot’s seat. ‘I’m going to count to five then I want you to kick that lever. Hard!’

She pulled a switch and fiddled with an electro-spanner at the back of the motor casing. ‘ . . . four, five . . . now!’

I struck the lever as hard as I could with my right foot. The motor growled but didn’t start.

The window shuddered once more as the alpha creature butted it with his head, its jaws wide, its dripping tongue drawing a band of bloody slime across the pane. I saw its eyes, pale green and frighteningly intelligent, peer into the glass. Hesitating between brute strength and strategy. It knew we were running out of oxygen. I could almost read its mind; it wouldn’t give up. Better to wait?

‘Fuck! Again,’ screeched Kathy. She pulled the switch again and I kicked with all the strength I could muster. An excruciating pain shot up my leg and I guessed my foot was broken.

The motor stuttered twice, coughed and roared into life. Kathy gave a triumphant whoop. Jude still seemed paralysed with terror

‘Ten seconds more and you take it,’ Kathy said to me.

I bundled Jude into a passenger seat and settled myself into the pilot’s chair. Kathy took her position next to me. The engine noise became an expectant and familiar whine as I eased the module into the air. The large moon had almost set but there were two others.  One gibbous, one full. I could still see the huge snakes writhing below and snapping at our vapour trail. Time slowed as we gained height. The seconds seemed like minutes. With all my concentration on the controls, there was no time for conversation. If only the repair held until we reached escape velocity.

The module soared into the upper atmosphere. The snakes of Horus were tiny fading specks on the moonlit desert. In a few moments we would make ship orbit. I sighed with relief and turned to grin at my two companions.

‘We made it!’

Kathy stared back at me. Her expression was one of abject terror.

‘Look at Jude,’ she hissed.

I looked but there was really no need. I heard the sound of ripping nylon, the scrunch of pulverising skeleton, the creak of sinew and muscle that already was no longer human. None of us had been stung; that I knew with certainty. But we had no way of knowing the snakes had other, slower means of infecting us, of transferring their genes. A cold tremor of fear crawled along my spine. I remembered Jude’s bruised, swollen hand. She had touched Ben. She must have; the venom was in her system.

We would not make it back safely. None of us would ever see Earth again.

Jude was already changing.

***

Blogger Recognition Award

https://readandsurvive.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/bloggerrecognition.png?w=191&h=127

As I mentioned in my last post, Anastasia at Read and Survive nominated me for this accolade, so my thanks once again to her for the mention.

How I Started

I was always hearing: ‘You’re a writer, so you have to put yourself out there in social media. Get on Facebook, Twitter and so on. Write a blog!’ So, about five years ago, I decided to give blogging a go. I signed up to WordPress and wrote a few posts, but wasn’t satisfied with the results so I took them down again. The problem was I hadn’t thought sufficiently about what I was going to write here. I wanted it to be different from all the other stuff I was doing at the time (historical romances and family history). Then I remembered some book reviews I’d written for Amazon and a couple of other websites. I’ve always been a great reader, so I decided ‘why not that?’ So here I am, five years down the road and still blogging. It’s fun and you meet a lot of nice people.

Advice To New Bloggers

If you’re going to enjoy the process, I think it’s important to write about something you like doing, be it books, movies, photography or whatever.

Explore the site. Find out about the tools you can use – the tags, the ‘like’ buttons, the ‘follow’ buttons and the various widgets. Make sure readers are able to reach out to you if they want.

Nominate Others

I’m not going to name names, but if you’re reading this please feel free to respond. I’d love to know how you started blogging and why you do it!

RULES

  1. Write a post to show your award
  2. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
  3. Give a piece of advice or two to new bloggers.
  4. Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  5. Select up to 10 other blogs you want to give the award to.

 

Happy blogging!

*****

 

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