Shadows in the Ashes

Christina here, and I’m very excited because tomorrow it’s publication day at last for my new dual time novel SHADOWS IN THE ASHES! It is set partly in Roman times, in Pompeii 79 AD, just before and during the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This event really fired my imagination and I’ve wanted to use it in a story for quite some time. It was also a great excuse to finally visit the ruins of the city and the surrounding area in the Bay of Naples – you can read my blog post about that here if you haven’t seen it already.

I’ve been writing about Vikings for quite a while now, so it was great fun to switch to another era for a while. But I didn’t go completely Roman as Raedwald, the hero of the story, is a ‘barbarian’ from Frisia (north-western Netherlands), who has been captured and enslaved. He eventually ends up as a gladiator, and is plotting to regain his freedom, as well as revenge on the younger half-brother and step-mother who betrayed him. Was it possible for slaves to escape? Ordinarily, it would have been very difficult, but with a volcano covering your tracks – quite literally – I figured anything could happen!

The heroine in the present also longs to escape, but in a different way. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage, held hostage by the fact that she has a three-year-old daughter whom her husband wouldn’t hesitate to use as leverage against her. Domestic abuse, both mental and physical, is unfortunately all too common, and it was a subject I wanted to highlight. It takes great courage and determination to break free from a relationship like that!

Here’s the blurb to tell you what SHADOWS IN THE ASHES is about:-

Can you forge a new path from the ashes of your old life?

Present Day – Finally escaping an abusive marriage, Caterina Rossi takes her three-year-old daughter and flees to Italy. There she’s drawn to research scientist Connor, who needs her translation help for his work on volcanology. Together they visit the ruins of Pompeii and, standing where Mount Vesuvius unleashed its fire on the city centuries before, Cat begins to see startling visions. Visions that appear to come from the antique bracelet handed down through her family’s generations…

AD 79 – Sold by his half-brother and enslaved as a gladiator in Roman Pompeii, Raedwald dreams only of surviving each fight, making the coin needed to return to his homeland and taking his revenge. That is, until he is hired to guard beautiful Aemilia. As their forbidden love grows, Raedwald’s dreams shift like the ever more violent tremors of the earth beneath his feet.

The present starts eerily to mirror the past as Cat must fight to protect her safety, and to forge a new path from the ashes of her old life…

And here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the story when the heroine in the present begins to realise that perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for her on the horizon:-

North London, 10 April 2022

‘You really should leave him, you know.’

The quiet voice coming from across the hedge made Cat jump, and she forgot to cover her face as she swung round to see who was talking to her. Her neighbour, Suzanne, a woman in her late fifties or early sixties, was peering over the clipped yew. Her expression of quiet compassion turned into one of concern when she caught sight of Cat’s rapidly swelling eye and cheek.

‘The utter bastard!’ she hissed. ‘Honestly, what is it that makes some men think they can act however they like?’

‘No, no, I . . . tripped. It was my own fault,’ Cat whispered, putting up a hand to protect her face from view. ‘Really, it was nothing.’

She’d had worse, but she’d never admit that, especially not to the only person in the neighbourhood who ever talked to her. They’d chatted occasionally across the fence, just small talk about the weather and such, but it made Cat feel slightly less isolated.

‘Hmm.’ The non-committal noise conveyed the woman’s scepticism, and Cat cringed inwardly.

How had it come to this? Why was she lying to protect a man who mistreated her? But she had no choice if she wanted to keep Bella from harm. If she wanted to keep her, full stop. So far, he had never hurt their daughter, but should she try to divorce him, he would be given shared custody of the little girl. Knowing him, he would use that to torment Cat endlessly. Perhaps even turn the child against her through bribery and lies as she grew up. She simply couldn’t risk it.

‘I’d better go inside. If I put some ice on it, the swelling will soon go down.’ She turned away, wanting nothing more than to escape now. The embarrassment of being caught looking like this was more than she could bear.

‘No, wait! Please, let me take a photo. It might help … one day, when you’re ready to walk away. And I’d be happy to testify on your behalf any time you need me.’ Suzanne shrugged and gesticulated towards their adjoining semi-detached properties, modern and purpose-built. ‘These houses weren’t made with thick walls, so I’m afraid I hear a thing or two …’

Cat swallowed hard. This was getting worse and worse. ‘Oh God,’ she muttered, but then a small spark of defiance lit up inside her and she turned back towards Suzanne, lifting her chin a fraction.

‘OK, then, take a photo if you want, but I doubt I’ll use it. I can’t. My daughter …’

Suzanne snapped a couple of quick pictures with her phone camera and nodded in sympathy. ‘I understand. What’s her name again? I’ve seen you with her in the garden, of course.’

‘Isabel, but we call her Bella. She’s, um, named after her grandmother, so we don’t want to confuse the two.’

She shuddered at the thought, and sincerely hoped her daughter would be nothing like her mother-in-law when she grew up. The woman was as cold as a hoar frost; a control freak who had raised her son with an iron fist. It was no wonder Derek thought violence was acceptable, really, although it was still no excuse. From what Cat had gathered, he’d been subjected to corporal punishment from an early age. He had been just ten when his father had died, and from that moment on his mother had expected him to ‘be a man’. No excessive emotions allowed. No weakness either. In fact, she’d done a fine job of turning him into an insensitive brute. It was a shame Cat hadn’t realised that until it was too late.

Suzanne put her phone in her pocket. ‘Now, please, will you do me a favour? Whenever something like this happens, come out here and call for me and I’ll take a photo. I’m usually in the kitchen or living room, so I’ll hear you. I’ll download the photos to my computer and date them, then if you ever want to, er … break free, I’ll send them to you. Deal?’

She held out her hand across the low hedge and Cat felt compelled to shake it. There was something firm and reassuring in Suzanne’s grip, giving her a tiny spark of encouragement. And an even smaller flicker of hope.

‘Deal,’ she whispered.

‘And just in case you were wondering, you’re not alone. I was in a similar situation some years back. It might feel hopeless right now, but it is possible to get away, trust me.’

Cat blinked away a sudden rush of tears. She’d probably never have the courage to leave Derek, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared. Perhaps she could do it. Break free. One day. But not just yet.

‘OK,’ she murmured. ‘Th- thank you, Suzanne.’

I enjoyed switching eras and writing about the Romans. Is there a period in history you would like to learn more about?

Please leave a comment below for a chance to win a giveaway – a signed copy of the book and a small Roman reproduction coin pendant.

(SHADOWS IN THE ASHES buy link:- )

Where in the World are You?

John_C._Munro_off_Hong_KongNicola here. I've been away travelling for the last couple of weeks and (hopefully!) just got home today with piles of washing to do and (again, hopefully!) lots of lovely memories which I can turn into a blog post or two to share in the future. In the meantime, however, I'm calling up a short, updated Wench classic post from nine years ago. How the time flies! It seems appropriate, though as it's all about travel, whether in real life or via our reading. So, step back in time to 2014:

"There’s a meme that was going around on Facebook a while ago that proved very popular. It asks: “You have been transported to the location in the last book you read. Where are you?” The answers flood in, from Scotland to the West Indies, from the New York of the future to London in 1515 and all times and places in between.

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Interview on The Winter Garden!

The Winter Garden NA "Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot …”

Christina here and tomorrow is Guy Fawkes’ Day here in the UK so what better time to interview Wench Nicola about her new book THE WINTER GARDEN? It was published last week and is based on the infamous Gunpowder Plot that Mr Fawkes was involved with in 1605. He was part of a group of Catholics who had decided to kill the King by blowing up Parliament, but they were betrayed and ultimately their plot failed. I was lucky enough to read an ARC of this story and it is absolutely fabulous! I seriously couldn’t put it down – if you’d like to read my review you can find it here, but I’d recommend you read it for yourself!

Here’s a short summary:-

1605: Anne Catesby fears for her family. Her son, the charismatic Robert, is secretly plotting to kill the king, placing his family in grave danger. Anne must make a terrible choice: betray her only child or risk her family’s future.

Present Day: When her dreams of becoming a musician are shattered, Lucy Brown takes refuge in her family’s ancestral home in Oxfordshire, once home to Robert Catesby, the gunpowder plotter. There she starts to have strange visions of a woman in Tudor dress, a woman whose story runs parallel to and then converges with her own. Lucy is determined to find out more about this apparition and in doing so uncovers a chain of secrets that have been hidden for centuries…

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Hidden in the Mists

Hidden In the Mists mediumAnne here, and today I'm interviewing Christina Courtenay about her new book, HIDDEN IN THE MISTS (released yesterday 18th August). As expected, this is a Viking story — and just as an aside, Christina's Viking stories have brought me happily back to this genre, after I'd thought I'd given up on Viking stories. Hers are fresh, original and really well researched. But this time Christina has departed from the time-slip plot and written a dual timeline story, one set in Viking times and the other in modern times.

Here’s a short summary: Skye Logan has been struggling to run her remote farm on Scotlands west coast alone ever since her marriage fell apart. When a handsome stranger turns up looking for work, it seems that her wish for help has been granted. But echoes of the distant past wont leave them alone, and it seems that the ghosts of the past have secrets … and they have something that they want Skye and Rafe to know.

Anne:  Christina, what inspired this story?

22 ViewChristina:  HIDDEN IN THE MISTS was written during the Covid pandemic when we were in lockdown here in the UK. Usually I like to travel to the places where my stories are set, but as we weren’t allowed to go anywhere I decided I had to use a location I’d already visited. Scotland is one of my favourite places and it seemed ideal as I wanted to write a dual time narrative that was partly about Vikings. They raided and settled along the west coast of Scotland and the islands there quite early on. It helped that I happen to have a very good friend who lives there and she was able to assist me whenever I needed any precise details. As I mentioned in last week’s blog post, the spark for this book also came from the Galloway Hoard, the fabulous Viking treasure found in 2014. The plot grew from there and the various elements came together in my imagination.

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What We’re Reading in October

SpeakeasyNicola here with our monthly blog post on What We Are Reading. As usual, there's a wonderful range of intriguing books—so dive in for some great recommendations and be sure to tell us what YOU have been reading too!

Christina: This month I’ve read my way through Sarina Bowen’s True North series, starting with Bittersweet. I wasn’t sure if I’d like these stories as much as the ice hockey ones (Brooklyn Bruisers), but I did and once I’d started, I couldn’t stop until I had devoured them all. Bittersweet is the story of Griffin Shipley, a farmer and cider brewer who has had to step into his father’s shoes far too early and shoulder the responsibility for the family, thereby giving up some of his dreams. He feels the strain and the last thing he has time for is dating, but then an old flame turns up unexpectedly and suddenly he’s not as tired as he thought … It was great seeing this gruff and grumpy man being tamed by the right woman – a wonderful start to the series. But my favourite of all is Speakeasy, because the hero, Alec Rossi, is simply irresistible! He’s a total player, but with a fabulous sense of humour and he’s way smarter than he gives himself credit for. I fell in love with him right from the first page and wanted him to prove the doubters wrong!

Another story I really enjoyed this month was Jenni Keer’s Hawthorn Place, a timeslip story with magical elements. It is Hawthorn Place (002) based on two amazing Arts & Crafts houses (from the late 1800s), mysteriously designed and built by the same architect, and the heroine Molly in the present visits them both. To begin with, she is naïve, spoiled and entitled, but she is also endearing and the reader can’t help but like her. Bewildered by her parents’ sudden tough love, we watch her grow in maturity and blossom as she gains some valuable insights and starts to turn her life around. Her adventures throughout a summer spent with her grandfather in Dorset were a joy to read about. Then there is 19th century architect Percy, whose unrequited love seems hopeless, even though the reader wants nothing more than for him to be happy. Gentle humour abounds, and there is a simmering love story in the present, as well as an all-consuming one in the past. Both were equally riveting and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them – a lovely dual time story.

Mistletoe (002)Finally, I had the pleasure of reading an ARC of Sue Moorcroft’s new book, Under the Mistletoe. If you’re in the mood for a perfect Christmas story, this is it! I loved this book from the first page to the last, and stayed up way too late to finish it. Laurel, the heroine, has returned to the village where she grew up in order to help her sister, who suffers from agoraphobia. It’s the last place she wants to be as she has bad memories from an incident that happened there when she was a teenager. Making things worse, she immediately comes face to face with some people from the past who she’d rather not see again. But meeting up with old flame Grady awakens feelings she thought long forgotten, and he’s such a wonderful hero – how could she resist him? I definitely couldn’t! I was rooting for this couple all the way through and hoping they could find a resolution to their problems. I really wanted Laurel to forgive and forget, because Grady didn’t deserve to suffer for something he didn’t do. This is a truly festive read, complete with mistletoe, snow and Christmas cheer!

Pat here: I recently dived into the ARC for Andrea's MURDER AT THE ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS for the next episode in her wonderful historical mystery series featuring Wrexford and Sloane, the earl and the satirical artist. In this one, the intrepid pair set out to find who murdered a scientist who had found a cure for malaria—and for the plant that might save millions. And they really need to solve this case before their wedding! The familiar cast of characters grows in depth and interest and are just as fascinating as the mystery. Historical mystery fans–and anyone who just likes a great story, highly recommended!

And then for a lovely departure from history:  Rosaline Palmer takes the Cake by Alexis Hall is hilarious, angsty women’s fiction about a single mother who Rosaline palmer expected to become a doctor. Instead, she ends up on a British bake show in hopes of winning enough to fix her alien boiler. Warning: tons of the funniest swearing I’ve ever read, a bit of graphic sex, an almost-forced sex scene, and truly terrific depictions of not-always-heterosexual perspectives. If this all sounds like a contradiction in terms, that’s because this book is. It has romance but it’s not a romance. It has amazing mother/daughter scenes while being totally about a fascinating collection of bake show contestants. Let’s just call this book original and funny and if you want to get out of your rut, give it a try.

500 miles from YouSusan writes: The other day I finished 500 Miles from You by Jenny Colgan, and loved it. She is a favorite among the Wenches, though this is the first of her books that I've read. When Lissa, a nurse based in London, witnesses a shocking accident and is devastated by the experience, she is assigned to a temporary post far away from the madding crowd to give her a chance to recuperate mentally and chill a little. The assignment sends her to the Scottish Highlands to substitute for another nurse, a former Army medic who will temporarily take her place in London until they swap jobs again. Cormac, a native Highlander, is not keen on taking on duties in London, which seems a foreign and unappealing place to him. The swap has both Lissa and Cormac experiencing some culture shock. The city girl is not used to the peace and quiet of the Highlands or the whimsical laid-back attitude of the locals, and the country guy is at odds with the pace and demands of city life, and for both, the medical duties are very different as well. Jenny Colgan sets up a unique romance that grows slowly between two people who are only texting and emailing – an interesting story challenge – and the progression is fascinating, as they begin to rely on and care about one another. When they finally meet, it's unexpected and deliciously romantic, and I adored it. This is a comedy of errors with wonderful characters, humor, and real depth – and a nice plus is that it incorporates one of my favorite Scottish rock songs, the Proclaimers' "And I Would Walk (500 Miles)." Colgan writes with a light hand and yet with true wisdom and a deft touch that is at times poignant, meaningful, touching, yet without ooky sentimentality. Just lovely, and I will be glomming her other books soon. No wonder she's a Wench favorite! 

Nicola: It’s no secret that we Wenches are big fans of Sarah Morgan and I grabbed her latest book The Christmas Escape as soon as I could get my hands on it. Christmas escape As with all Sarah’s books, it’s a wonderful multi-generational story full of reflections on friendship and relationships, with some gorgeous Christmas sparkle! Christy Sullivan had planned the perfect Christmas on a dream trip to Lapland with her family and her best friend Alix. Then her marriage to Seb is plunged into crisis and she has to ask Alix, and Seb’s oldest friend Zac, to take her daughter Holly on the trip, aiming for them all to meet up to celebrate Christmas Day together.

Alix is a career woman who is inexperienced with children and terrified that she’ll not be up to the task of taking care of Holly. Plus she has history with Zac that she’d rather not remember. The spiky relationship between the two of them is funny and sexy whilst the barriers that Christy and Seb have to overcome to find honesty between them are deftly handled and thought-provoking. It’s a happy feel-good read with depth and poignancy and it’s also so, so Christmassy! I wanted to run away to Lapland for Christmas and ever after!

Andrea here:

Once a lairdI was lucky enough to snag two ARCs this past month and am delighted to give a big shout-out to both! First of all, our own Mary Jo has a new Rogues Redeemed book, which is always cause for celebration. Once A Laird (which just released!) features the enigmatic Kai Ramsay, who has been an intriguing presence earlier in the series. He's been summoned home to the remote Thorsay Islands in Scotland after years of absence. The old laird is dying, and Kai must face his duty of taking over the responsibilities of caring for the islands and his people . . . and who better to teach him than the fiery Signe Matheson, who has been handling the demands in his absence. Needless to say, sparks fly when the old acquaintances meet and need to work together despite their complicated past. What I love about Mary Jo’s books is that her characters are so wonderfully real and “mature”—they have suffered disappointments and set-backs, so they are bruised, but also strong, having gained wisdom and resilience. They think beyond their own needs to make honorable and hard decisions . . .which is why it is always such a joy to watch them slowly come to discover love and fulfillment with the perfect partner. Complementing the engaging characters, the setting of the starkly beautiful islands is magical . . . and who can resist a one-eyed cat named Odin!

The Regency-era setting continues in Stephanie Barron’s latest book in her delightful mystery series starring Jane Austen as Jane Austen the sleuth. In Jane and the Year Without A Summer, we find a mature Jane now beginning to suffer from fragile heath—which she thinks is caused by the travails engulfing her family. With money short, and the future uncertain, she decides to take her apothecary’s advice and splurge on a visit to the spa in Cheltenham with her sister Cassandra in order to take the waters. The weather is wretched—Britain is suffering from a horribly cold and wet summer—and so they find themselves much confined to their lodging house . . .where the presence of a beautiful invalid and her quiet companion soon draw Jane into the middle of a dark mystery. The invalid turns out to be a runway wife, and when her husband appears demanding to take her back home, a number of questions arise, complicated by the intentions of the other guests at the lodging house. I love this series, as Barron always creates such a wonderful ambiance, a twisty mystery and a lovely imagining of Jane, based on meticulous research. It’s a slightly bittersweet story as we see Jane struggle with her health, but it’s a wonderful read— and it has poignant romantic element that mirrors the manuscript that Jane is currently writing.I highly recommend it!

From Mary Jo: I've had a bunch of reading fails this month, and the books I like most were rereads of old favorites. But I found one new winner:

BoyfriendBoyfriend by Sarina Bowen. Sarina Bowen is popular with the Wenches, and this new release was great fun. It's set at Moo U, which I assume is Bowen's version of the University of Vermont.  Naturally, the hero is a hot hockey player. <G>

The heroine, Abbi, is another student who works long hours as a slinger of burgers and chicken wings to pay for her cold, tiny apartment.   She particularly likes it when the hockey team comes in after practice or a game because they're fun, they tip well, and she has a quiet crush one of the players, the handsome and charming Weston Griggs.

Abbi doesn't want to go home for Thanksgiving for a good reason, so when she sees an anonymous posting on a bulletin board:

Rent a boyfriend for the holiday. For $25, I will be your Thanksgiving date. I will talk hockey with your dad. I will bring your mother flowers. I will be polite, and wear a nicely ironed shirt…

When she finds out it's posted by Weston, she makes a pitch and he chooses her.  Of course he recognizes her from the restaurant, they get along find, and he is just the buffer/fake boyfriend she needs for Thanksgiving.

It turns out that Weston has good reasons for not wanting to go to his home for Christmas, so he enlists Abbi to go as his fake girlfriend….  As I said, the book is lots of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Anne here, and this month I have three recommendations for you. The first is The Last Bookshop in London, by Madeline Martin. August 1939 and war is London hanging over England. Orphaned Grace Bennett comes to London with her friend Viv, hoping for a job in Harrods. Instead she gets one in a messy, cluttered and dusty bookshop in the heart of the city. Grace is no reader, but she's a good worker and has a gift for organization and sales and soon the bookshop is attracting more customers. She meets an attractive man, but before their first date can happen, he's called up. He gives her his favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo, and that eventually starts Grace reading.

The war finally hits London, in horrific nightly bombing raids, and one night Grace starts reading her current book aloud to the others sheltering in an underground station. And it becomes a regular thing.

I won't tell you any more, except to say it's a wonderful story. It's very evocative of what it must have been like for people stuck in London during the Blitz, and while it doesn't shy away from the terrors of war, it's also heartwarming and ends on a positive note. As well, it's an ode to the power of good books. I couldn't put it down. Highly recommended.

CastleAs regular readers will know, I'm a fan of Trisha Ashley's books, especially her Christmas ones, and her latest book, One More Christmas at the Castle is a worthy addition to the collection.

Elderly widow Sabine is dying, and she wants one last Christmas in Mitras Castle, her grand family home — the kind of Christmas she loved as a child. To this end she invites the people who most matter to her for Christmas and hires Dido Jones and her business partner Henry, who run a brilliant service called Heavenly Houseparties to organize and cater the whole event.

It's classic Trisha Ashley with an intriguing collection of characters, a number of family and other secrets lurking beneath the surface, a lovely dose of romance, and all the fun of Christmas, including her trademark lashings of English comfort food. Most enjoyable, and I've already read it twice.

Lastly, if any of you have been reading the JD Kirk Scottish crime series I've regularly recommended, I bought and read the first in his new series — Northwind — a spinoff that stars disgraced former Detective Superintendent Bob Hoon. I wasn't sure I'd like it — in the original series Bob Hoon distinguishes himself as foul-mouthed, infuriating and not particularly likable. However in recent books he showed there was more to him than that. To quote from the amazon blurb: "He may be a disgraced ex-copper, a barely-functioning alcoholic, and a borderline psychopath, but Bob Hoon still believes in justice."

Anyway to cut a long story short, it's funny outrageous and dramatic, and if you've hesitated about picking up the Hoon book, don't — I loved it.

Now it's over to you! What are your reading recommendations this month? Please share!