Monday 26 August 2019

Rivers of London

Down the sodium-lit streets, along roads that have been traffic-calmed to within an inch of their life, Peter Grant is trying to subdue the spirit of riot and rebellion:

My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (and as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England.

Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden ... and there's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair.

The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying.

I really enjoyed this one. It fell into a sub-genre of novels I really like, where institutional bureaucracy meets the fucking insane. In this case, the spirit of Punch & Judy, with a Punch who can split your face wide open. 

Grizzly back-alley goodness, steeped in ancient mythology and believable police protocol. Same ilk as Jane Lovering's Vampire State of Mind, and Yhatzee Crowshaw's Differently Morphous, with the sinister atmosphere of Mr Punch by Neil Gaiman.

I'm a latecomer to this, but it seemed at one point it was on everybody's bookshelves. I'd always liked the cover and so, when I saw it on Audible, I thought, 'I'll have that.' Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is an excellent narrator and really carries you along on the current.

The book provides some useful advice for life:
When I'm considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me, "Who knows why the fuck anything happens?"

"Just because you think you know what you're doing, doesn't actually mean you know what you're doing." 

And a few really interesting snippets of London history:

‘I am Jack Ketch,’ I said, and this time I felt it carry out to the audience. I got a ripple of vestigia back, not from the people but from the fabric of the auditorium. The theatre remembered Jack Ketch, executioner for Charles II, a man famed for being so unrepentantly crap at his job that he once published a pamphlet in which he blamed his victim, Lord Russell, for failing to stay still when he swung the axe. For a century afterwards, Ketch was a synonym for the hangman, the murderer and the Devil himself: if ever there was a name to conjure him with, then it would be Jack Ketch. 

In 1861 William Booth resigned from the Methodists in Liverpool and headed for London where, in the grand tradition of metropolitan reinvention, he founded his own church and took Christ, bread and social work to the heathen natives of east London. In 1878 he declared that he was tired of being called a volunteer and that he was a regular in the army of Christ or nothing at all; thus the Salvation Army was born. But no army, however pure its motives, occupies a foreign country without resistance, and this was provided by the Skeleton Army. Driven by gin, bone-headedness and growling resentment that being the Victorian working class was bad enough without being preached  at  by  a  bunch  of  self-righteous  northerners,  the  Skeleton  Army  broke  up  Salvation  Army  meetings, disrupted marches and attacked its officer corps. The emblem of the Skeleton Army was a white skeleton against a black background – a badge worn by right-thinking ne’er-do-wells from Worthing to Bethnal Green.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch is a dark, fun frolic of a book, and the start of a long-running series.

Friday 23 August 2019


Every now and then I indulge in a true crime book or documentary. The most recent of which was Zodiac by Robert Graysmith, who was involved with the case during his time as a political cartoonist for San Francisco Chronicle, which is one of the papers Zodiac sent letters to.

During my post-grad, I studied Forensic Linguistics. We studied cases like the Yorkshire Ripper, and how local accent helped catch him, and the Unibomber, who was brought down by his own idiolect. Each of us has a pattern of speech which is unique, like our fingerprints. That's called idiolect. The Unabomber apparently thought himself too smart to use the phrase You can't have your cake and eat it (because you can), so he used You can't eat your cake and have it (which is true, you can't). This turn of phrase was recognised by his sister-in-law in letters to his brother.

So, speech, language and crime is a fascinating subject, and the reason I was drawn to this.

A sexual sadist, the Zodiac killer took pleasure in torture and murder. His first victims were a teenage couple, stalked and shot dead in a lovers’ lane. After another slaying, he sent his first mocking note to authorities, promising he would kill more. The official tally of his victims was six. He claimed thirty-seven dead. The real toll may have reached fifty.

Robert Graysmith was on staff at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969 when Zodiac first struck, triggering in the resolute reporter an unrelenting obsession with seeing the hooded killer brought to justice. In this gripping account of Zodiac’s eleven-month reign of terror, Graysmith reveals hundreds of facts previously unreleased, including the complete text of the killer’s letters.

Things I learnt:

  • E [is] the most common letter in the English language, followed in order by T, A, O, N, I, R and S. The most commonly doubled letters in English are L, E and S. The letter most commonly occurring together are TH, HE and AN. More than half of all words end in E, and more than half of all words begin with T, A, O, S or W. 
  • The most commonly doubled letter in the English Language is L (LL).
  • The most common three-letter combinations, trigrams, are THE, ING, CON and ENT.
  • During an autopsy, it's called 'penetrating' if an object, such as a bullet, enters the body but doesn't exit, and 'perforating' if it also exits. Not sure why this stuck with me - useful if I ever retrain as a coroner, perhaps.

Returning to idiolect, there was a suggestion that perhaps Zodiac was British because he used the phrases Happy Christmas and picking off the kiddies (killing the children), which works for Britain and Canada, but not so much America. Later, there's a suggestion that the term fiddle and fart around, is commonly heard among older men of Lubbock County, Texas. But I'm curious as to why that doesn't also back up the British theory, as fiddle about and fart about are common expressions in the UK. Although, fiddle and fart together, not so sure. 

Given that the guy deliberately misspelt things to throw people off the scent, it wouldn't be surprising if he also drew from colloquial speech outside his native area.

Something else I found interesting was the Zebra Murders. A racially-motivated set of murders by The Death Angels in the 1970s. Interesting purely because it's a footnote of history I had never heard of before.

There was also the suggestion that Zodiac was influenced by a 1932 film called The Most Dangerous Game. The whole thing is available online, so you can make up your own mind.

The obvious allure of Zodiac is that he was never caught, therefore the reader always has that tantalising prospect of noticing something others have missed and solving the crime. The book firmly places suspicion on  Arthur Leigh Allen, who died in 1992.

I must admit, it all seemed a bit circumstantial and bias-confirmatory, but then, I wasn't there, so don't know. Whilst looking into the case after finishing the book, I stumbled across this fascinating story, where a guy called  Gary L. Stewart tracked down his biological father, Earl Van Best Jr., who is a man with a very unfortunate resemblance to the Zodiac composite.

Stewart went on to co-orther a book called The Most Dangerous Animal of All, in which he claims his father was Zodiac.

Anyway, interesting stuff, and quite an education in deciphering ciphers.

[Update October 2021: The killer is now believed to have been a man called Gary Francis Poste.]

Thursday 22 August 2019

Blog Tour Complete

The blog tour for The Children of Lir is complete. The reviews are in, the interviews given. To find out what people are saying, head here. Huge thank you to Fraser's Fun House for organising this tour, it was a real pleasure working with them. Hope to do so again in the future. You can pick up your copy:
Kindle UK/US
Paperback UK/US

Sunday 18 August 2019

Children of Lir Takes Flight

Love it when people send pictures of them reading my books. Here's the latest, The Children of Lir. Find out more here, and join the UK giveaway.

David, Rwanda

What's in my Wonderland

Patsy, Wales

Friday 16 August 2019

Children of Lir Giveaway

First review up for The Children of Lir on What's in my Wonderland, along with details of a UK giveaway. Head on over for details.


Kindle UK/US
Paperback UK/US

Monday 12 August 2019

The Children of Lir Launch Week Blog Tour

Hello everyone!

My novel, The Children of Lir, will be launching this Thursday 15th August.

Here's a list of the participating blogs who will be running reviews, interviews, excerpts and giveaways. As the week progresses I will add direct links below, so check back each day to view them.

We'll also be running the hashtags #TheChildrenOfLir #MarionGraceWoolley on Twitter.

The Kindle version is currently here: UK/US and the paperbackis here: UK/US.

Thursday 15 August 
B for Book Review (interview)

Friday 16 August 

Sunday 18 August 

Monday 19 August 
Margaret Pinard (interview)

Tuesday 20 August 

Wednesday 21 August 

Wednesday 7 August 2019

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Recently finished A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It's my second adventure with him, and I'm a huge fan of his book Shakespeare: The World as a Stage. This one was first published in 2003, and although the audio book is considerably more recent, narrator William Roberts still manages to infuse suitable levels of horror that CFCs won't be banned in developing countries until 2010. Like Bertrand Russel's History of Western Philosophy, though, it seems to have largely stood the test of time and still reads as highly relevant to today.

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson trekked the Appalachian Trail—well, most of it. In A Sunburned Country, he confronted some of the most lethal wildlife Australia has to offer. Now, in his biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand—and, if possible, answer—the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

There was so much to unpack in this book, which stretched from the beginning of existence, through the first signs of life to the possibility of life on other planets and the future of mankind. Here's some of my favourite nuggets of knowledge:

Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe. 


Even the Reverend Buckland, as pious a soul as the nineteenth century produced, noted that nowhere did the Bible suggest that God made Heaven and Earth on the first day, but merely “in the beginning.” That beginning, he reasoned, may have lasted “millions upon millions of years.” 


The confusion over the aluminum/aluminium spelling arose because of some uncharacteristic indecisiveness on [Humphry] Davy's part. When he first isolated the element in 1808, he called it alumium. For some reason he thought better of that and changed it to aluminum four years later. Americans dutifully adopted the new term, but many British users disliked aluminum, pointing out that it disrupted the -ium pattern established by sodium, calcium, and strontium, so they added a vowel and syllable.


You may not feel outstandingly robust, but if you are an average-sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7 X 10^18 joules of potential energy—enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point. Everything has this kind of energy trapped within it. We're just not very good at getting it out. Even a uranium bomb—the most energetic thing we have produced yet—releases less than 1 percent of the energy it could release if only we were more cunning.


The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand. 


As you might expect, oxygen is our most abundant element, accounting for just under 50 percent of the Earth's crust, but after that the relative abundances are often surprising. Who would guess, for instance, that silicon is the second most common element on Earth or that titanium is tenth? Abundance has little to do with their familiarity or utility to us. Many of the more obscure elements are actually more common than the better-known ones. There is more cerium on Earth than copper, more neodymium and lanthanum than cobalt or nitrogen. Tin barely makes it into the top fifty, eclipsed by such relative obscurities as praseodymium, samarium, gadolinium, and dysprosium.

Abundance also has little to do with ease of detection. Aluminum is the fourth most common element on Earth, accounting for nearly a tenth of everything that's underneath your feet, but its existence wasn't even suspected until it was discovered in the nineteenth century by Humphry Davy, and for a long time after that it was treated as rare and precious. Congress nearly put a shiny lining of aluminum foil atop the Washington Monument to show what a classy and prosperous nation we had become, and the French imperial family in the same period discarded the state silver dinner service and replaced it with an aluminum one. The fashion was cutting edge even if the knives weren't.


By and large, if an element doesn’t naturally find its way into our systems—if it isn’t soluble in water, say—we tend to be intolerant of it. Lead poisons us because we were never exposed to it until we began to fashion it into food vessels and pipes for plumbing. (Not incidentally, lead’s symbol is Pb for the Latin plumbum, the source word for our modern plumbing.) The Romans also flavoured their wine with lead, which may be part of the reason they are not the force they used to be. 

The dandelion was long popularly known as the “pissabed” because of its supposed diuretic properties, and other names in everyday use included mare’s fart, naked ladies, twitch-ballock, hound’s piss, open arse and bum-towel. One or two of these earthy appellations may unwittingly survive in English yet. The “maidenhair” in maidenhair moss, for instance, does not refer to the hair on the maiden’s head.


At least 99 percent of flowering plants have never been tested for their medicinal properties. Because they can’t flee from predators, plants have had to contrive chemical defenses, and so are particularly enriched in intriguing compounds. Even now nearly a quarter of all prescribed medicines are derived from just forty plants, with another 16 percent coming from animals or microbes, so there is a serious risk with every hectare of forest felled of losing medically vital possibilities. Using a method called combinatorial chemistry, chemists can generate forty thousand compounds at a time in labs, but these products are random and not uncommonly useless, whereas any natural molecule will have already passed what the Economist calls “the ultimate screening programme: over three and a half billion years of evolution."


Even thinking, it turns out, affects the way genes work. How fast a man’s beard grows, for instance, is partly a function of how much he thinks about sex (because thinking about sex produces a testosterone surge).

I also learned that Mary Anning was the inspiration behind the tongue-twister 'she sells seas shells on the sea shore,' that panspermia is the word for the theory that life on earth originated from outer space, and that English Sweating Sickness wiped out thousands of people in the 1500s before disappearing without a trace. 

It also took me on a nice trip down memory lane with an entry about the dinosaur display at Crystal Palace, where my dad lived for a time when I was a kid. And also when he was talking about dodos, it brought back memories of the New Walk Museum in Leicester, which I loved when I was young. It had ancient Egyptian mummies, a life-size diplodocus skeleton and a stuffed dodo. Most of which, thanks to this book, I now know are reconstructions, but it still fascinated me.

Enthusiastic thumbs up. History with a twist of humour.

Thursday 1 August 2019

Two Weeks to Children of Lir Launch

With two weeks to go before the launch of The Children of Lir, here's the blog tour list. There will be interviews, giveaways and excerpts. Currently got a bit of pre-release nerves, but looking forward to it. Thanks to Fraser's Fun House for organising this, it's been a real pleasure working with them.

If you'd like to purchase this in e-format, please put in a pre-release order. This helps to give it a bump up the rankings on launch day. The paperback will be available from 15th August.