Book Review: The Crow Journal by Finn Cullen

The Crow Journal by Finn Cullen is a wonderfully evocative, meticulously researched, intricately woven tale that slots in impeccable references to mid Victorian London and joins them seamlessly to a chilling tale of faerie, enchantment, adventure and treachery.

The story is told in a style that would have been familiar to Dickens or Conan Doyle. Here’s an excerpt to give some flavour:

The carriage ride was not a long one, and my companion was not inclined to conversation. I was thoughtful myself after my encounter in the court of Green Jack. I had not gained the answers I sought, but I had taken a first step into the realm of Faerie. More importantly I hadn’t lost my life in the taking of that step. There in the safety of the cab’s compartment it began to dawn on me how perilous that encounter had been. Thorn’s ruthlessness had been clear, the memory of those cold killer’s eyes would not soon leave me, and the sense of power that came when I recalled the vast landscape face of Green Jack himself was daunting.

Barnaby Silver, having finished the first part of his magical training with his kindly mentor, Doctor Moran, journeys from a remote village in Yorkshire to London. He is searching for news of his father, who he never knew. His mother, a magus or magician, had fled London when he was a baby. Now he needed to find out about his father.

His quest takes him through the darkest streets of mid Victorian London and the dangerous lands of faerie. Interlaced with the search for his father is the intrigue and scheming of the magi, the magicians that are now based in London after moving from Glastonbury.

The story has plenty of great action scenes and lots of plot twists, although only a hint of romance. As a story, it stands alone but there are a few strands left that suggest further great stories may come.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Window

brown brick wall with green plants
Image from Unsplash, taken by Random Sky

“It’s easier to show you,” Kate said.

“We wouldn’t have believed it if we hadn’t seen it,” Kes chipped in.

Kane looked nervously at the couple. “I’ve never dealt with a haunted window before,” he said. “They’ve always been haunted by someone.”

Kes shrugged his broad shoulders. “We didn’t know where to turn until you were recommended.”

Kane sighed. “Show me the problem, please.”

Kate led them into the small back room in the tiny terrace. “We sunk a lot of money into this. We always came in the evenings, though, and when we look back, the old owner always rushed us out of this room.”

“We thought of suing the surveyor,” Kes said. “But how do you explain this in court?”

Kate went over to the far wall where thick curtains hung and pulled them back. Kane stared as Kes switched on the light. The window was completely bricked up. Kate saw his confusion. “We thought we could have it knocked through, but, well…”

Kane watched in disbelief as Kate’s hand passed through the apparently solid brick and rapped smartly on what sounded like a glass pane. “I think I see.”

“It looks normal from the outside,” Kes said. “You can even see the furniture in the room and everything.”

Kate nodded. “We asked the previous owner.” She sighed. “He had inherited the house from his aunt. Apparently the old lady had seen her fiancé kissing another woman through this window, and so she had it bricked up.”

“She never married, or even dated, as far as the nephew knew,” Kes said. “It’s a very sad story.”

“I’ve never done a window before,” Kane said carefully. “I’ve only done people.” He thought for a moment. “And dogs.” He walked slowly up to the window and pressed his fingers against what looked like dark brick. They passed through and rested against cool glass. “Could you give me a moment?”

Kane waited until the door had shut quietly behind him and then looked carefully around. It took a moment, but he saw her, a bent old lady huddled in the corner. “Hello, Miss. I’m Kane. Are you okay?”

“I’m so ashamed,” the frail figure said. “I’ve never forgave myself.”

“I knew it wasn’t just a window,” Kane said. “There is always someone there.”

“I found out later that it was his sister,” the shade of the old lady said. “It had just been a peck on the cheek anyway, but I was so jealous.” The ghost of a withered hand wiped away a translucent tear. “And afterwards, well, I just couldn’t look him in the face. I had said such dreadful things.”

“I’m sure he knew that you didn’t mean them.” Kane said sympathetically.

The old lady’s ghost shook her head. “I couldn’t live with myself. I wouldn’t see him. I couldn’t even bare to read his letters.” She gestured to the ghost of the brickwork. “I had to do this.”

Kane stared at the ghost of the brickwork and then back at the old lady. “Who took it down?”

“My nephew, Arthur, took it down.” The old lady slowly approached the window and stood next to Kane. “I should have done that years ago, and I was glad that he had.” Tears slid down the wrinkled cheeks. “I should have gone to him years ago, and now it’s too late.”

Kane thought for a moment. “But it isn’t really too late,” he said. “You could find him now.”

The old lady was suddenly still. “You mean, apologise? It’s too late for that. And I could never find him now.”

Kane shrugged. “People seem to manage once they’ve passed over. And perhaps you could just talk to him. You can explain.”

The old lady slowly shook her head. “I need to apologise. I need to go and find him.” She slowly faded into the dim light in the corner of the room. As her presence left, light flooded in as the ghosts of the bricks on the window followed her.

Kane sighed as he turned to call in Kate and Kes, his heart breaking a little for her sadness. He had dealt with enough ghosts to be unsurprised by her stubbornness.

Closing the White Hart

Don’t forget to read the IMPORTANT BIT below.

I have a few blogs which are spread across the internet. I have my personal blog, Sybil Witters On, my writing blog, this one, Always Another Chapter, and a series of stories on a blog set in a former pub in York called At the Sign of the White Hart.

I started the blog ‘At the Sign of the White Hart’ as an experiment to see if it would be possible to write a story on a blog, with each chapter being a separate blog post. Over time it grew and sprawled over a host of stories and characters. There are 71 separate posts and I don’t know how many people of various shapes and flavours. I became incredibly fond of all of them.

I came to the conclusion, in the end, that the blog format doesn’t really work unless you are reading it from the start. It’s always tricky to go back and read through in order. It was also distracting me from other projects. I hate to mention money, but I was writing the White Hart stories and making them freely available but those stories were taking time and attention away from writing which could pay. I had to say goodbye.

And speaking of money again, it’s a site that costs me some money to use and I can’t work out how to get adverts on it, and now that I’m no longer posting on there, it isn’t getting any traffic. It isn’t a huge amount of money, but I could do with not spending it. It’s coming up for renewal and I have decided to close the blog.

IMPORTANT BIT I have been supported and encouraged by some amazing people – seriously awesome, lovely people – and it’s important to me that those people who have been so wonderfully kind should still have free access to the stories that they helped me write. I am therefore going to be spending the next few days cutting, pasting, swearing, editing and trying to work out Canva and creating free books on Amazon. I’m using Amazon because I’ve finally worked out how to make a book free on there and you can download an app for PC, laptop and phone (and probably mac) for free to read things on there.

I’ve done some preliminary cut and paste work and we are looking at a tome that is four times the size of Out of the London Mist and that is before I add all the additional stories that have cropped up as flash fiction. It will be mighty and may be tricky to download on a phone. I will therefore probably (I’m still working this out) do one mighty collection and then a few different ones that are the collection but split for ease of reading, all free if I can manage it.

It may take a few days (or more) as I am also armpit deep in the sequel to Out of the London Mist and the editor has a cattle prod, but I am not going to let down those who have been so generous with their kind support.

I will keep you all informed. Thank you all again.

Writing about Writing

I got my first review for Out of the London Mist, and it was a good one. I felt so hugged, and so giddy and proud.

I feel I ought to print it out and frame it.

Writing Out of the London Mist was really the easy part. I then went through editing and the Three Furies, especially Rebekah, Julia and Emily, were so kind and supportive, even when I had made a complete mess of things. Once that was done, it’s time to work on publicity.

I’ve been steadily trying to contact book bloggers to ask for honest reviews over the last couple of weeks, along with working on the sequel. I’ve only asked for honest opinions and gone with people who are straightforward. I haven’t paid for any reviews. Anyone who has been contacted are willing to write bad reviews or not review and not just give good reports (which makes the good review above so sweet).

As I’ve gone through, I’ve found some lovely blogs with some lovely people. I’m starting to think less about the whole publicity stuff and more about the community. I feel like I need to raise my game after seeing all the awesome blogs out there.

I wrote Out of the London Mist as my first full steampunk novel and I grew as I learned about steampunk. I learned so much about English grammar and structure – and a lot about punctuation (thank you so much Julia and Emily) during editing. Now I’m learning a new appreciation about books and approaching them as I look around book blogs. Writing this book has been an absolute blessing.

I will certainly be following Lizanne Lost in a Good Book.

A Victorian Dinner

dessert food in tray
Image from Unsplash, taken by Richard Iwaki

Do you eat avocado toast? Because if you do, there will be people out there who will label you as soon as you confess. Do you eat ramen? How about swordfish steak? Do you eat tofu? How about truffle oil in your omelet aux fines herbes? Food can come with more labels than ‘best served hot’.

Throughout the ages the difference between the peasant’s pot and the lord’s table was always there. However, in Great Britain during the nineteenth century, there were new differences and complications.

As the events of ‘Out of the London Mist’ were unfolding, households were coming to grips with new foods and ideas. Curries had been popular in Great Britain for over a hundred years at this point, and were becoming more widely eaten as the men and their families returning from Colonial India brought back a nostalgia for the food they had enjoyed. Along with curries, fish and chip shops started opening, often credited to Eastern European immigrants. Markets now had such exotic stuff as bananas as well as the familiar onions and turnips, and the grocer now had stacks of meat in tins from far off Australia and South America.

Along with the new foods appearing on the tables, new social distinctions were causing confusion. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the Middle Classes of doctors, lawyers and business men expanded massively. Suddenly there were polite households, desperate to keep up to high standards but completely unaware of how to run a household with servants. Housewives in the new, brick-built villas of the expanding suburbs were faced with a swathe of social difficulties. How does one ‘leave a card’? How should one pack a picnic? What are the duties of the second housemaid?

Instruction manuals on cooking and housekeeping proliferated as women who once would have stayed at home and cooked the stews and puddings that fuelled the working class were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into a more supervisory role. The most famous of these was the weighty Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. It was originally published in 1861, and by the time of Out of the London Mist it had a huge following and had already gone to many editions. Along with clear, logical and precise instructions for how to clean a bedroom and how to lay a fire are cleaning tips (mirrors should be cleaned with gin and an old silk handkerchief), morality (‘Charity and Benevolence are duties that a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow creatures’), etiquette (‘in giving a letter of introduction, it should always be handed to your friend, unsealed’) and several hundred recipes.

I love reading recipe books. I don’t necessarily use them, and no-one should expect fine dining from me, but I love the social history behind the food. Along with such recipes for dishes such as a toast sandwich (yes, a piece of toast between two slices of bread), an Indian Dish of Fowl (cold, cooked chicken seasoned with curry powder and sautéed and served with fried onions) and Collared Calf’s Head (I always skip that one) are recipes for sumptuous desserts, elegant entrees and some very intriguing recipes for liqueurs.

Mrs Beeton was aware that most of her readership were middle class and quite content with plain cooking with a cook and a housemaid. Lady Clara grew up in such a household, and the meals that were served to John Farnley were very middle class in nature with mutton featuring heavily. However, housekeeping books always include the aspirational and Mrs Beeton included plans for formal dinners of the sort that John Farnley would have found familiar.

A suggested formal dinner for October, for six persons, starts with Hare Soup, Broiled Cod a la Maitre d’Hote, and Haddocks with Egg sauce. The entrees are Veal Cutlets garnished with Green Beans and Haricot Mutton. The second course is Roast Haunch of Mutton, Boiled Capon and Rice and Vegetables. Finally the third course would be wheeled in with Pheasants, Punch Jelly, Blancmange, Apples a la Portugaise, Charlotte a la Vanille and Marrow Pudding. After all that culinary splendour, there would be coffee, fruit and liqueurs before the ladies left the room and the gentlemen enjoyed their port and cigars. I have stomach ache just thinking about it.

Of course you would not have a full plate of each dish placed relentlessly in front of you. Instead you could take some of each or just have a portion of one of the offerings. Even so, it was a hefty amount of food laid on the table. Mrs Beeton was much more realistic with plain family dinners. One October menu starts with ‘the remains of a codfish flaked and warmed in a Maitre d’Hote sauce’, followed by cold mutton and salad, veal cutlets, rolled bacon, French beans and potatoes and followed by an arrowroot blancmange with stewed damsons. That would be much kinder to the household bills, though still extremely substantial.

Food was very different in the East End of London. In the overcrowded slums, it was rare to find a family with access to the basic means to cook. Houses often were crammed with a different family to each room. Cold and draughty attics and dank, dark cellars were all crammed in with the rest of the house and shared communal washhouses and toilets at the end of the street. Food was bought elsewhere, usually from the street vendors. A halfpenny could get you some hot eels in broth or some pea soup. You could buy baked potatoes, whelks, oysters (then very much a staple of the poor), pies and cold meat from hundreds of street vendors. If you had a few pennies there were stalls selling nuts, fruit, pastries, coffee, tea, cocoa and cakes, all of varying quality. There were no food inspectors checking whether the food was safe. One of the regular sights were a herdsman selling milk fresh from a cow. At least then you could be sure of what you were getting and its freshness.

And on every corner there was a pub, and cheap gin was always available.

Less well known than Mrs Beeton, Alexis Soyer produced a shilling cookbook aimed at the working class. Soyer was a Frenchman who had moved to England and was a celebrated chef at the Reform Club. He was not, however, merely a celebrity chef. He advised the British Army on food and supplies during the Crimean War and took an active part in organising soup kitchens during the Irish Famine. His aim was to help those poorer people who couldn’t afford the veal cutlets that Mrs Beeton described. Instead he described how to make a hasty pudding, how to cook a cow heel for a good soup or stew and how to buy meat that, while not of the first quality, is still fit for eating.

Many of the East End would be unable to read the book, and they would have had no access to any sort of stove or fire to use for cooking, but it was a useful resource for those struggling in less straitened circumstances. Soyer described his meals clearly and methodically, always aware of the meagre resources available to the poor. One of his recipes seems very thin. ‘Poor Man’s Potato Pie’ which is sliced potato, laid in a dish with some suet or dripping, seasoned with salt and pepper and covered with pastry. Soyer suggested that perhaps some smoked herring could be added for flavour. For many of the people huddled in the streets where John Farnley pursued his brother’s murderer, even if they could afford the potato and fat and the pastry to go over it, the access to any form of fire that could cook it was out of their reach.

This is a snippet pulled from my research for Out of the London Mist, a steampunk novel set in Victorian London where there is more than just food barrows hiding in the East End in the London fog. – available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and all good online booksellers as well as from the amazing Three Furies Press

A London Peculiar

grayscale photo of street post with smoke
Image by Rory Bjorkman on Unsplash

My novel, Out of the London Mist takes place during a prolonged period of smog, or a London Peculiar. Over the centuries, London became known for its noxious, choking fogs that were sometimes called ‘pea-soupers’ as they were as thick as pea soup. Other countries around the world have suffered from smog, but London became known for them at an early date due to an uncomfortable set of circumstances.

The London Peculiar formed when fog settled and absorbed the fumes and soot of the myriad of fires that fuelled England’s capital. When London, or Londinium, was first built by the legions on the low-lying Thames estuary, and so subject to sea fogs, the soft woodsmoke was not such a problem. However, by the twelfth century, London was the largest city in England, with around twenty thousand souls. Not only did the population use open fires and flame filled ovens for heating and cooking, but many of them were busy with the industry and commerce that was fuelling London’s growth, including large scale iron and glass works. At the same time, wood became expensive as the demands of Edward I’s military expansion and castle building made a diminishing resource even scarcer. London turned to coal.

Woodsmoke is not safe, and, when mixed with the fogs that rolled in through the estuary, would not have been pleasant in concentration, but coal has its own hazards. Like wood, burning coal produces carbon monoxide that, when trapped in the fog, would be far from healthy. Coal, unfortunately, also produces such nasties as sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide becomes sulphuric acid when mixed with water, and fog is, essentially, water vapour. In the still conditions that produce a fog, the fumes of carbon monoxide, sulphuric acid and irritating soot particles, are trapped at street level. There is no escape. By the time of Out of the London Mist, London was a vast, sprawling city filled with workshops and factories and stuffed with tenements with only coal for heat and cooking. Fogs could be so dense that moving around the city was nearly impossible. Only the London Underground was likely to keep running.

The regular winter smogs took a terrible toll on the people of London. Far too many died during these events, and the death toll kept rising. Finally, there was the Great Smog of 1952 which lasted five days and is generally thought to have caused 12,000 deaths, either immediately or in the following few months. This was such a striking event that it led to the passing of the Clean Air Act, which limited what sort of fuel could be used within urban areas and meant a massive reduction in London Peculiars.

As the air quality around the world improves during the lockdown due to Covid-19, perhaps it’s as well to remind ourselves that the air we breathe isn’t always as wholesome as we think, and we should never take it for granted.

And meanwhile, back in the world of Out of the London Mist, the smog rolls around the East End, shrouding the horrible deeds within.

Check out Out of the London Mist on Amazon and other great retailers

Perspective

I am a bad lass. I’m so slammed with other stuff that I haven’t written anything for this. However, I think this piece from February 2018 works. Hugs and good health to all.

I look around, my mind is filled

With pots and cloths and clothes and things

The clutter that comes in bags from school

The scattered stuff the postman brings

A sock hangs off the angled chair

A cup is perched right on the edge

Fingerprints on walls abound

Cat fur lines the window ledge

But if you walk across the park

And head towards the underpass

Ignore the coloured painted tags

Step round the routine broken glass

Look up, a square of pristine sky,

Windwashed leaves are dancing free,

Nothing besides, that’s all I want

The sky, the leaves and, down here, me.

Sometimes You Lose

woman in white long sleeve shirt sitting on chair holding wine glass
Image from Unsplash, taken by Klara Kulikova

My response to this week’s writiing challenge is actually a re-post of a former challenge. I saw the picture and all I could hear was the old story, so here it is!

I tried everything, using every trick in the book.  He never saw me cross or demanding and I was always, always attentive.  I made him the centre of my universe in the stolen moments he could get away. 

I lived for those moments, when he kept one eye on the clock and one foot on the floor as we snatched some tenderness.  He brought me perfume and a gold chain that I wear always.

I never faltered.  I kept myself just for him, curled up on the comfy sofa with the soft cushions, desperate for the rushed phone call or hurried text.  Why would I go out when everything else was ashen compared to his vital passion? 

Then she found out and he chose.  I heard him telling her how little I meant to him as he dashed off back to the perfect wife.  He left me behind with his spare razor and a coat and hat he forgot in the rush.  I keep them hanging near the door and sometimes I spray them with his cologne.  He is still the centre of my world, and I am empty without him, but there is nothing I can do.  Because sometimes you lose. 

Deepest Desire, or, How I Found Steampunk

Many, many months ago, a challenge went out for stories based on a steampunk theme. I’d always loved Jules Verne and the stories written at the end of the nineteenth century, full of lost worlds and strange sciences, but I never thought I would be able to write them. I am not very good at science. I always have to ask either my brother (big chemistry and general science nerd) or my son (who actually seems to pay attention in science lessons). So when I saw the call, I thought about it and then rejected the idea. I could never write anything like that. I should have known myself better, and, besides, it’s always about the story.

I finished Deepest Desire about four hours before the deadline. The idea had ambushed me a few days earlier and so I went for it with gusto. Things changed a little after the call but it eventually ended up as the sparkling Crowns Cogs and Carriages that I reviewed here. For various reasons, mine wasn’t included, partly because I was already mentally tied up with Out of the London Mist and I didn’t want things to get confused.

Out of the London Mist was accepted by Three Furies Press and is coming out soon (as I may have mentioned a gazillion times) and I didn’t know what to do with the short story. Yesterday I made a decision, swore, muttered, grumbled, converted files, created a book cover and published Deepest Desire on Amazon. It’s not a very long read, and I put it at the lowest price I could, so the equivalent of 99c in Amazon. However, if you want to save some money you can register at Booksprout where I have listed it as an ARC (Advanced Review Copy). This is where you have access to free copies of books in return for a review, either on Amazon or similar places like Goodreads, and the link is here I’m not stressing about reviews, just trying to make sure people get access.

Deepest Desire is my first attempt at steampunk, and is a dashing tale about a gallant aether pilot, John Farnley, who flies an expedition to the Balkans near the edge of the Ottoman Empire to uncover a potential archaeological site. His passengers are the coolly capable Miss Sylvia Armley and the erudite Professor Entwistle, but things are not exactly all that they seem and a forced and bumpy landing is just the start of his problems.

I hope that people have as much fun reading this as I have had writing it as I had a blast! If you have any questions or suggestions, or any thoughts, please leave a comment. I love hearing from people.

Book Review: Cogs, Crowns and Carriages, a Steampunk Anthology

Cogs, Crowns and Carriages is a sparkling Steampunk anthology collection of a dozen stirring tales. As a newcomer to the Steampunk genre, I was excited to dip in to a great selection. The thing about Steampunk is that it is gloriously undefined and wonderfully varied, so I really looked forward to getting stuck into this.

The collection starts with an intricate and intriguing story of pirates steering airships through uncharted seas. Then there is the wonderful vampiric inventor written with a lovely light touch, the ghost powered machines and an amazing, delicate story with a Japanese background that resonates so much with the interweaving and contending cultures of today.

There is a wonderful clash with a sea-monster that is only pushed back by the ingenuity of the characters, a tale of silken bowers framed by mechanical wonders and a tense, layered story set in an alternate timeline. Then a rollicking western-style story of monsters and wrong doing followed by an exquisitely crafted gothic story of colour and loss which is followed by a dark, psychological horror.

Finally there is a beautiful story of transcending the horror of war and a last, piratical yarn of derring do in airships wheeling above the Spanish Main.

It is a wonderful, glorious, vivid collection of stories and I sincerely recommend it.