Ness of Brodgar – Uncovering #Orkney’s Neolithic past

dsc02070I’ve been fascinated by the Neolithic period in a very unscientific kind of way for years.  Stones circles are a bit of an obsession of mine and I’ve driven down many tiny lanes in search of sites that are marked on OS maps but don’t have a single sign post. I love the mystery of them, the sense of time and place that is beyond understanding and occasionally, the pulse of ancient energy in the stones.  A friend of mine, who is a proper archaeologist with a PhD and everything, refers to people like me as ‘stone botherers’.

It was the sheer wealth and variety of Neolithic sites (together with the stories of George Mackay Brown) that drew me to Orkney for the first time six years ago and I spent a very happy week visiting tombs, stone circles and the village of Skara Brae. Back in 2010 people were only just starting to talk about the amazing finds at the Ness of Brodgar.  Since then I’ve watched lovely Neil Oliver at the site, read about it in the National Geographic and seen updates on the internet.

dsc01966A couple of weeks ago I finally got to visit the site and, more by luck than judgement, turned up during one of the two site open days.  It was a dreich day, as they say on Orkney, which you can see from the pictures but it seemed like half of the population had turned out to see what was going on.  The Ness of Brodgar is on a narrow isthmus of land between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness.  A short distance away on one side are the Stones of Stenness and, at the top of a small hill, on the other side is the Ring of Brodgar.  On a lovely day it is quite exceptionally beautiful.  This wasn’t a lovely day but wrapped up in waterproof, fleece and woolly hat I got to walk round the site, talk to the people working there and actually handle some of the finds.

Having seen so much about the dig over the years and read about the number of structures that have been found I’d expected it to be much larger.  Instead it fits into a surprisingly small space with a jumble of walls that the guides made sense of for us, pointing out the entrance to this structure or the walls of that structure.  The stone work is still, 4,000 to 5,000 years since it was built, immaculate.  They have a dry stone wall expert working at the site and he says that that we could learn a thing or two from the Neolithic builders.  However they did need a few lessons on foundations as when buildings went out of use they simply knocked them down and built over them.

dsc01972In a lot of places there are examples of ‘ritual and ceremonial use’ which our guide, a man who’s clearly not an archaeologist, said was archaeologist’s code for ‘we haven’t got a clue’! They do admit that the dig throws up more questions than it answers, that each season they’re rewriting the books on this period of history.

After we’d looked round the site we went to the local school where they had finds on display.  More incredibly we were allowed to hold some of them.  It was a bizarrely disconnected moment to stand in a modern school hall holding a stone hammer head made, maybe, 3,000 years ago.  But from the size and feel of it I could imagine the hands that had used it, the person who’d cherished it as their tool of choice.  I’m not the kind of person who spends much time using a hammer but the man next to me worked with wood and he said it was perfectly balanced.  And there was a sense in that of things echoing down the ages, of skills being timeless and some connections that don’t need words to be felt.

As well as trying to understand the past I was searching for a sense of connectedness with one of my characters. I’m currently working on Storm Witch, the second of the Spellworker Chronicles books, and without really thinking through the ramifications of this, have made one of my characters an archaeologist working at the Ness of Brodgar dig.  Having actually seen the dig in action has given me a better idea of what he’d be doing but it’s also highlighted to me the vast gaps in my knowledge about archaeology, the Neolithic and how digs actually work.  After all, I’d never have dreamed that they have stacks and stacks of tyres lying around ready to be used to cover over the site at the end of the season until they can start again next year.  I’ve a lot more research to do but at least I’ve got an image in my mind to fall back on now.  And if you read Storm Witch when it’s published don’t be surprised if it’s always a dreich day at the archaeological dig.

If you’d like to know proper historical fact about the Ness of Brodgar dig then you can find it at  The BBC have been making a series of 3 programme about this site and the Links of Noltland on Westray called ‘Operation Orkney’ which will be shown in late autumn/early winter so Neil Oliver will be available to explain all of this far more competently than I ever could.

Orkney part 2 004
Loch of Stenness at sunset

#Fridaybookshare – War for the Oaks by Emma Bull #Book Review

This is my first attempt at a #Fridaybookshare review so I hope I get all the right bits in and hopefully in something like the right order.  Here we go…

War for the Oaks is urban fantasy with a touch of romance.

First line: By day, the Nicollet Mall winds through Minneapolis like a paved canal.

Recruit fans by adding the book blurb:

Eddi McCandry sings rock and roll. But her boyfriend just dumped her, her band just broke up, and life could hardly be worse. Then, walking home through downtown Minneapolis on a dark night, she finds herself drafted into an invisible war between the faerie folk. Now, more than her own survival is at risk-and her own preferences, musical and personal, are very much beside the point.

War for the Oaks is a brilliantly entertaining fantasy novel that’s as much about this world as about the imagined one.

Introduce the main character using only three words (which will be a challenge for me as brevity is not my strong point): Eddi McCandry is brave, determined and sassy.

Cover: I read the 2001 paperback version which has a less than enticing cover but I’m delighted that the book will be reissued by Penguin next month as an e-book and paperback with this rather cool cover.

War for the Oaks

Audience appeal: This book will appeal to anyone who likes fantasy, particularly urban fantasy.  But if you’re not sure you’re a fantasy fan and you’ve enjoyed watching TV programmes like Buffy or Supernatural then it’s worth giving this a try because I think there’s a really good chance you’ll love it.

My favourite line/scene:
Carla came out from behind Dan’s chair, walked over, took hold of Eddi’s shoulders, and gave a little shake.  “And then there’s my best friend. Friendship comes from shared experience, right? So what am I supposed to say when my mother wants to know why I don’t hang around with you anymore? ‘Oh you know. She got a little fey and we just drifted apart.’”

Eddi shook her head. “I don’t want to have to say that I got a little fey, and you got a little dead.”

Carla looked down, and shrugged.  “Well, neither do I. But this is a party. If there’s a truce on, it’s safer than a lot of parties I’ve been to.”

My review:

A friend recommended this book to me and it’s a sign of how much I trust her taste in books that I ordered a second hand paperback version which had to be shipped from America.  But I’m so glad I did.  War for the Oaks is one of the first urban fantasy novels.  People far more knowledgeable than me about the history of fantasy, credit it and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman as the books which started the genre.  For that reason there’s much that’s familiar about the book because more recent authors have borrowed and built on what Emma Bull created.  I wish I could have read it in 1984 when it was new and incredibly different from what had gone before.

The book starts quite slowly but please don’t let that put you off.  The prologue sets the scene in Minneapolis which, in true urban fantasy fashion, almost becomes another character in the book.  It also introduces the magic of the Fae that infiltrates our world.  When we meet Eddi McCandry she’s just dumped her lousy boyfriend and left the rock band he runs.  Then she meets the phouka and things get much more complicated as Eddi gets recruited into the war between the Fae.  Her mortal blood ups the stakes and means even the immortal Fae can die in battle.  It also lands her with the phouka as houseguest and bodyguard which she’s completely unimpressed by.  But Eddi’s not the kind of girl to let the intrusion of the Fae in her life get her down for long.  Determined to start a new band with best friend, Carla, she meets the very gorgeous Willie Silver who plays lead guitar and Hedge who’s a bass player.  With the new band rehearsing and getting ready for their first few gigs, Eddi is completely unprepared when the war with the Fae spills out into her world and has a devastating impact on her life.

There’s so many things that I loved about this book that it’s hard to know where to start.  Eddi’s a kickass, smart, sassy heroine.  The dialogue is sharp and witty.  There’s lines like, “Who writes your dialogue? Lewis Carole?” which reminded me of the kind of beyond good dialogue you get in Buffy.  The Fae, both good and bad, are believably otherworldly creatures and yet with an edge of reality that made me care whether they lived or died.  Eddi’s life in the band and the ups and downs of being a professional musician are brilliantly described (probably because Emma Bull was a professional musician) and I love the way the music is woven through the story.   And, more than anything, it’s a great page turning read with a wonderfully satisfying ending.

In Emma Bull’s introduction to the 2001 version, she says “A book makes intimate friends with people its author will never meet.”  I felt like I met a new friend when I read War for the Oaks, that it is a novel that I will read again and again.  And that’s the best compliment I can give any book.

War for the Oaks is being reissued by Penguin on 29th September and you can pre-order a copy here


A Small Celebration

Two weeks before Christmas I had a bit of a party to celebrate the launch of Beltane.  It was held in my local village hall which, with the help of my friends, was transformed into a Yuletide haven. So step inside and join the celebration…


There was music from some of my extremely talented friends. Lovely Sarah Dean played her harp.


Unfortunately the actual paperback wasn’t ready but a friend mocked up a fake book for me with blank pages and I asked everyone to sign it.  Reading them after the party was pretty emotional as people had  written some really lovely things.

photo (13)

And there was cake! One of my friends made this amazing Beltane cake based on the book cover.  She was disappointed that she ran out of room to fit the title on the cake but everyone else thought it was completely amazing.


Apparently it wouldn’t be a book launch party if the author didn’t do a reading so I read three short extracts from the book (can you tell that my hands are shaking?) and then did a bit of a speech to thank everyone who’d helped make the party so special.


And I also want to thank all of you who’ve read my very intermittent blog posts this year.  I wish you a very Happy New Year and all the very best for a wonderful 2016.

Alys xx

If you’d like to find out more about Beltane please click here



My turn on the Lovely Blog Hop

I’ve been asked by my fabulous friend, Jessica Redland, to take part in the Lovely Blog Hop where writers talk about some of the things which have shaped their lives and their writing.  Jessica lives not far from me in Scarborough and we often meet up for cake and to talk about writing.  Her first novel, Searching for Steven, a charming romantic comedy set in a fictional town on the Yorkshire coast is out on 3rd June and is available for pre-order here.  You can read Julie’s blog here

Now as anyone who knows me well is aware I’m not all that good at sharing information about myself so the Lovely Blog Hop is a bit of tough one for me as it involves talking about myself. A lot.  I’ll do my best but if I wander off a bit then I apologise in advance!

First Memory

IMG_0780My first really clear memory is from when we moved to York when I was nearly 4.  The day we moved into the new house our new next door neighbour walked up through the garden and knocked on the back door.  It seemed like she was completely surrounded by girls and my Mum said ‘Are these all yours?’  Only two of them belonged to our neighbour.  The other six or seven lived around and about.  Our neighbour said, ‘does she want to come out to play?’ (I must have been too little for people to actually ask me a question) and Mum must have said ‘yes’ because that was it really.  My parents say that I really only came home for meals and to sleep for the next five years or so.  I spent the rest of my time out playing with the girls I met on that first day.


I’ve always loved books and my parents said that I was never hard to entertain once I’d learned to read (that could also have been because I was hardly ever at home!) I read Enid Blyton, as many pony books as I could get my hands on and all of the Swallows & Amazons series.  My Dad still had his copies of those and they now stand proudly on my bookshelf waiting to be handed on to my nephew when he’s old enough. IMG_0782

In my twenties I read the classics and actually waded through War & Peace which took me almost a year.  I adore Jane Austen and Persuasion is one of my all time favourites.  These days I rarely have the energy for serious literature and read entirely for entertainment.  At the moment I’m reading Stoner by John Williams for my book club and Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham for a bit of light relief.


IMG_0781Mum and Dad took me to the library from a very early age and for a while in my teens I wanted to be a librarian.  Somewhat to my regret, I grew out of that idea but I still think it would be a lovely job.  The libraries in York have always been very good and have survived relatively unscathed from recent cuts.  I’m extremely grateful for the huge range of books that they’ve been able to lend me whilst I’ve been writing Beltane and Lughnasa.  From books about witchcraft and druids (which generated some interesting looks from the library assistants, I can tell you!) to tomes on the history of Glastonbury and the islands of Orkney they’ve hardly ever let me down.

What’s your passion?

Writing is my greatest passion but I’m going to talk about that later so I’ll have to find another one.  Would Ross Poldark sound too shallow?  Yes? Alright, I’ll try again…

Loch of Stenness at sunset
Loch of Stenness at sunset

I love folk music and going to folk gigs.  I’m pretty obsessed with Orkney at the moment, does that count?  Oh and I’m passionate about Yorkshire and will bang on about how amazing ‘God’s Own County’ is even though I’m not strictly speaking a true Yorkshire woman as I wasn’t actually born here.


I was a bit of a girly swot when I was younger.  I got decent O’ levels, rather embarrassingly good A’ levels and a competent degree.  I’ve always enjoyed learning and these days I get to impose my love of learning on students as I tutor at the university one day a week.  The thing I’m really loving at the moment is seeing how my nephew and godson learn about the world.  Nephew’s favourite word is currently ‘why’ and he simply will not give up.  If you answer a question and he’s not happy with the reply then he’ll say ‘why’ again and again until you come up with something better.  To be honest, he’s tougher to please than the undergraduates.  At least with them I’m allowed to tell them to go away and look it up for themselves!


IMG_0024 (2)I tried to write my first novel when I was eight.  It was a Famous Five type adventure with added ponies.  I’m absolutely sure it was terrible but it was the start of my desire to write and I’ve known since then that I wanted to be a writer.  I started writing seriously five years ago and I absolutely love it.  I’m a much happier person since then.  It’s a wonderful thing to have something in my life that I’m absolutely passionate about and makes me happy and it’s got me through some very testing times in the past few years.  I’m currently taking a break from my second novel, Lughnasa to write a steampunk novella set in Whitby.  With luck that will be ready to be published in the late summer.

This is the point where I’m supposed to hand over to another writer to take the Lovely Blog Hop forward but everyone I know has either already done it or is too busy.  Instead I’m going to suggest that you might like to read Sharon Booth’s turn on the Lovely Blog Hop which you can find here.  But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d like a go at that Lovely Blog Hop’ then do please let me know and I’ll pass the (metaphorical) baton to you.

Ghostly Whitby


In the days around Halloween, English Heritage transformed Whitby Abbey with light and stories.  The ruins were bathed in coloured lights. Turning the west end a glorious shade of purple, drenching arches in ghostly green and lighting the pillars blood red.


In the darkness we gathered to hear stories. Burke and Hare told us tales of grave robbing and dissection.  Calling themselves ‘Resurrectionists’ they took bodies from churchyards and sold them to a surgeon who used them in his anatomy classes.  They demonstrated not only how to get a corpse from a grave without anyone realising but how to kill someone without leaving a mark on their body.  Apparently the secret is to get the victim blind drunk and then chloroform them (definitely not one to try at home!)  Although I knew their names, I hadn’t been aware that they lived in Edinburgh, the enormous amounts of money that they earned from body snatching or that they eventually turned to murder in order to get fresher corpses.


At the opposite end of the abbey, was Catherine Eddowes the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper.  She warned us that her talk wasn’t for the faint hearted and she was right.  She told us about living in Whitechapel in 1888 and how she’d been arrested for drunkenness that evening.  She thought that as the Ripper had struck once that night she’d be safe as she walked home.  She was wrong.  She explained in explicit detail what happened to the other victims.  I had to look up when I got home how she died and it made a shiver run down my spine.

Of course, I know that they were talented actors telling these stories.  But when you’re listening to the tales in the dark with a bitter wind whistling around the ruins and half the audience dressed in period costume (it was Goth Weekend in Whitby) it was impossible not to get caught up in the moment and feel like I’d, just for a few minutes, wandered into another time.

A Steampunk Winter’s Tale


Last Saturday was launch day for the short story anthology, Winter Tales – Stories to Warm Your Heart.  As one of the Write Romantics I’ve been working on this since February when we first came up with the idea.  You can read more about the anthology and why we decided to publish it here.

Thomas with nebuliserAbsolutely every penny we get from sales of the anthology will go to two amazing charities, the Teenage Cancer Trust and Cystic Fibrosis Trust.  My nephew, who is 3, has cystic fibrosis and the fact that we’re raising funds to help him and other children like him means an awful lot to me.  You can find out more about the work of the CF Trust here.

My short story for the anthology is called A Pistol for Propriety. It’s set in Whitby and was my first, but hopefully not my last, attempt at steampunk.  Whitby is one of my favourite places and it was great fun to set a story in some of the places that I love visiting like the 199 steps to the abbey and St Mary’s church.

Goth girlsIf you’ve ever been in Whitby during Goth Weekend then you’ll have seen people in steampunk costumes.  Steampunk is a tricky thing to define. Wikipedia goes for ‘a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century’. I can’t say I felt much wiser after reading that.  My favourite explanation comes from Liesel Schwarz, author of A Conspiracy of Alchemists, who described it as ‘what happened when Goths discovered brown’!Steampunk

So here’s a little extract from A Pistol for Propriety:

Moving over to the piano, Harriet stared at his back. He stood, long strong legs planted squarely on the Axminster carpet, staring out of the window, apparently more interested in the view than the décor.  What was it about the way he spoke which took her back to those last lazy days in York?  Careless, summer afternoons of tennis parties and glorious evenings dancing in the elegant Assembly Rooms.  The young men she’d known then had that same casual confidence, same easy charm.  

She shook her head slightly. No point dwelling on the past.    

“Is there any information you would like to know?” she asked.  Her tone was more pointed than she’d intended.  “My lord,” she added, more quietly.

“You can stop tripping over the title for one thing.” He turned to give her a quick glance over his shoulder. “I’ve only had it for a few months and as I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony it’s been hard to get used to.”

IMG_0024 (2)“If you wish,” Harriet said carefully.  She’d not had many dealings with the nobility but this kind of behaviour seemed as unconventional as his clothes.

“I’ll be visiting with my mother and two younger sisters.  Amelia’s been ill and mother thinks some sea air will do her good.  As they’re mad for this Dracula book they wouldn’t consider going anywhere else.”

“Mr Stoker’s book has caused quite a sensation in London I understand.  Your sisters are not the only ones who want to see the places they’ve read about.” 

“I’m just grateful they haven’t taken it into their heads to want to go to Transylvania,” Lord Ripley said a little grumpily.

“May I enquire as to the ages of your sisters?” Harriet found herself drawn to join him at the window.

“Eighteen and twenty one.” As if he’d suddenly became aware of it, his hand rubbed at the soot marks on his trousers.  “I don’t think they have a sensible thought between them from one day to the next.”

Harriet smiled.  “I’m sure I was no different at their age.”

Lord Ripley raised his eyebrows.  “That I cannot believe, Miss Hardy.”

DSCF1932His gaze held hers.  She blinked and turned away.  “Shall we view the dining room?” she asked hastily.  Not waiting for his reply Harriet swiftly returned to the hall and opened the door to the dining room. 

Trailing her hand along the lengthy expanse of the mahogany table, Harriet felt a little flushed.  It had been a very long time since a man had looked at her like that.

If you want to find out what happens to Harriet and Lord Ripley then you’ll find the rest of their story in Winter Tales.  If it’s not your cup of tea then there’s 23 other stories which are not steampunk but are wonderful, heart-warming stories (generally involving an awful lot of snow) so there’s plenty of good reasons to buy the anthology and help support the work of these two incredible charities. Winter Tales is an absolute bargain at £1.53 for the next few days and it’s available here

Thanks for reading

Alys x

Steampunk Research at Lanhydrock


I love visiting stately homes and grand country houses.  There’s something about these glimpses into long gone lives that I find really fascinating. I’m also a sucker for costume drama and historical novels.

Copper kettles and pans in the kitchen
Copper kettles and pans in the kitchen

However when I started writing a steampunk short story for the Write Romantics charity anthology I realised that I’d not learned as much as I’d thought from all of this.  Suddenly, every detail became important.  Although steampunk is an alternate history I didn’t want to get it wildly wrong so I found myself researching when men started wearing wristwatches, wasting hours looking at photos of ladies fashions from 1890 (the hats are incredible – I will never know how anyone did anything in a hat that size!) and trying to get my head around steam technology.


When I visited Lanhydrock House in Cornwall, a beautiful late Victorian country house, I was determined to pay more attention to the details.  Especially the innovations that were state of the art at that time.  The National Trust have done an amazing job with Lanhydrock and it feels like a home which is still lived in, almost as if the inhabitants have just walked out of the rooms.

Rack for draining dishes in the scullery
Rack for draining dishes in the scullery
Dairy - I'm told that they would fill the channel with hot water when they were making clotted cream.
Dairy – I’m told that they would fill the channel with hot water when they were making clotted cream.
Lady's travelling medicine chest
Lady’s travelling medicine chest
Picnic basket with small kettle. My Mum told me that her uncle had one that was a bit like this (but not as posh) and the kettle was powered by meths.
Picnic basket with small kettle. My Mum told me that her uncle had one that was a bit like this (but not as posh) and the kettle was powered by meths.

The Write Romantics charity anthology which includes my steampunk story, A Pistol for Propriety, will be out in early November.  You can find out more about it at here