Thursday, 17 May 2018

City of Masks by SD Sykes

City of Masks
By SD Sykes
Published by Hodder (Paperback - 25 January 2018)
I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher.

Publisher's description
1358. Oswald de Lacy, Lord Somershill, is in Venice, awaiting a pilgrim galley to the Holy Land. While the city is under siege from the Hungarians, Oswald lodges with an English merchant, and soon comes under the dangerous spell of the decadent and dazzling island state that sits on the hinge of Europe, where East meets West.
Oswald is trying to flee the chilling shadow of something in his past, but when he finds a dead man on the night of the carnival, he is dragged into a murder investigation that takes him deep into the intrigues of this mysterious, paranoid city.
Coming up against the feared Signori di Notte, the secret police, Oswald learns that he is not the only one with something to hide. Everybody is watching somebody else, and nobody in Venice is what he or she seems. The masks are not just for the carnival.

My verdict
Reading City of Masks was like coming back to old friends, as I loved the first two books in the Oswald de Lacy series. This book is set seven years on from The Butcher Bird (Book 2). This time, SD Sykes transports readers to 14th Century Venice, where Oswald and his mother wait for a galley that will take them on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

City of Masks is a medieval murder mystery with an intricate plot, well-drawn characters and a realistic period setting. When the grandson of an old family friend is found murdered, Oswald is set the task of discovering the killer, due to his previous success as an amateur detective. At first he refuses but, thanks to gambling debts, he reluctantly takes on the case, in need of the financial reward.  As I expected, having read the previous books, there are lots of red herrings, twists and turns and surprises right until the end.

However, City of Masks seems very different from its predecessors, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all. The first two books are set just after the Black Plague in Kent, and had a claustrophobic feel to them with a smaller cast of characters - think of them as Oswald's 'coming of age' years, as he progresses from novice monk to Lord Somershill. I would suggest that you read all three of the books in order, as City of Masks does contain a few subtle references to Oswald's past.

City of Masks has a darker, almost melancholy, feel to it, set in a busy city on the cusp of war. Oswald has matured since the first two books, influenced by recent events that are revealed as the book progresses, and is struggling to fight his inner demons and overpowering feelings of depression. His domineering mother provides some light relief and entertainment amid all the darkness.

Venice is one of my favourite cities and I certainly felt that SD Sykes brought it to life with her in-depth research and colourful prose, contrasting the wealth and splendour with the poverty and squalor. I look forward to seeing where Oswald finds himself next, whether it's back home in Kent or on yet another foreign adventure.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

A Fractured Winter by Alison Baillie

I am delighted to be today's stop on the blog tour for A Fractured Winter by Alison Baillie. A Fractured Winter was published by Williams and Whiting on 8 April 2018.

A Fractured Winter
By Alison Baillie
Published by Williams and Whiting (8 April 2018)
I received an Advance Reader Copy from the author

Publisher's description
A missing girl.
Threatening notes.
Sinister strangers.
Olivia's idyllic family life in a Swiss mountain village is falling apart. She thought she'd managed to escape the past, but it's coming back to haunt her. 
Has somebody discovered her secret - why she had to leave Scotland more than ten years ago?
What is her connection to Marie, a lonely schoolgirl in a Yorkshire seaside town, and Lucy, a student at a Scottish university?

My verdict
I loved Alison Baillie's first book, Sewing the Shadows Together, and yet again she's written an intriguing novel with plenty of heart.

A Fractured Winter is a combination of psychological thriller and family saga. It focuses on Olivia's seemingly idyllic life, which changes when two young girls go missing and a mysterious stranger arrives, with the potential to tear her family apart. The plot is filled with secrets and lies. It's clear that Olivia has a mysterious past, but what happened all those years ago?

The book is set mainly in a small alpine village in Switzerland, which gives the book a claustrophobic feel and a small cast of characters. It's beautifully written and its stunning descriptions of the surroundings create a great sense of place. Flashbacks to the past take place in England and Scotland, providing a series of breadcrumb clues to traumatic events in Olivia's past.

The characters are realistic and believable, all well described, with some quirky ones slotting some humour into the otherwise dark plot. I found myself turning the pages, determined to discover more about Olivia's secret, the mysterious stranger and the fate of the two missing girls.

Follow the Blog Tour

Monday, 14 May 2018

My self-publishing journey by Rodney Hobson

I'm delighted to welcome Rodney Hobson to Off-the-Shelf Books today to talk about his experience of self-publishing. Rodney is already a well-established journalist and author of traditionally published finance books. He has recently self-published his novel Dead Money

My self-publishing journey
By Rodney Hobson

I have just self-published a book for the first time. It was a daunting experience and I will probably lose money on the arrangement but the thrill of seeing my name in print is undimmed by 50 years as a journalist and author. It helped that I have previously had books published by recognised publishers so at least I knew the ropes.

Starting with Shares Made Simple in 2007, I have now had six finance books published as paperbacks and subsequently as ebooks by Harriman House, which specialises in financial publications, plus a second updated edition of the first book. Traditional publishers typically pay royalties of 7.5% on paperbacks and 25% on ebooks. Harriman pays using a slightly different and slightly more generous system.

I faced a much tougher decision when Endeavour Press offered to publish my detective stores but only as ebooks with a 30% royalty. The 'bird in the hand' view was that at last I got published and the royalty offer was generous. The downside was that I would have no hope of persuading a traditional publisher to take on these books as they would want the full rights.

I took the bird in the hand. Over the past few years, publishers have preferred ever longer crime books, so it was unlikely that anyone would look at my 45,000 word book when the norm has become 80,000. Also, I was conscious of the trend away from the type of cosy whodunit that I write and towards gritty psychological thrillers.

However, I retained the print rights, keeping open the option of self-publishing. After Endeavour had published the first five Paul Amos Lincolnshire murder mysteries, and with a sixth started, I decided to take the plunge.

The main consideration was that the book was set in a specific area, Lincolnshire, so there was the possibility of selling through bookshops in the county as a local author and even setting up a stall at Christmas and summer fetes, as my wife comes from Lincolnshire and we are frequent visitors.
I already knew the very important difference between self publishing and vanity publishing and had no intention of taking the vanity route.

In traditional publishing, the publisher takes all the financial risk but retains ownership of the books and takes the larger slice of the proceeds. In self publishing, you publish under your own name and stand all the costs, but you own the books and you take all the proceeds. In both cases, risk is linked to reward. Vanity publishing has the worst of both worlds: you take all the financial risk while the publisher owns the books and takes the greater reward. You are paying for the pretence that the publisher chose to publish your book.

I went on the Internet to find a company specialising in self publishing, and three names came up. One was a printer in Catford, just four miles from where I live in southeast London. This had the advantage that I could call at the premises and see its work first hand. A friend who does cover designs had used it and could vouch for its quality. The big drawback was that it was only a printer and would not be able to give support in distribution.

I spoke on the telephone to the other two companies, one in London and one in Essex, but it became clear to me that they both provided what I regard as vanity publishing, despite their protestations to the contrary. Both would have published under their imprint and would have paid me royalties.

I finally chose York Publishing Services from an advertisement in the magazine Writers’ Forum. Their deal meant the book was published under my name as publisher. They sent a comprehensive, easy-to-read guide, so I knew exactly what was happening, and they arrange printing and have supply deals with Amazon and book retailers. As it happened, my wife and I had planned a holiday in Yorkshire so I arranged to call at the YPS office on York, as I prefer to deal with people I have met rather than communicated with entirely by email.

The copyright on the cover for the ebook belonged to Endeavour, so we needed a new one. YPS would have arranged this and would have offered me a choice of possible covers, but as I knew a book cover designer I made my own arrangements – though it is important to make sure that your designer is working to the correct size specifications.

YBS gave me a choice of typefaces and page layout styles with a pick and mix option. Costs depend on the size of book and how many copies you have published, but you are probably looking at about £1,400 in total to produce 250 books. Any subsequent reprints work out cheaper as the book is already set up on the computer and longer print runs cost less per copy.

After talking it over with YPS, I decided to print 250 copies and to price the book at £7.50. Pricing is a tough choice and was entirely my decision, although YPS was willing to give some guidance. The initial price will probably not cover the first print run but will, I hope, recover most of the costs and if I get sufficient sales the second run will be more of an economic proposition. At least I can claim the costs against income tax, although by the same token I will naturally be obliged to declare sales as income. I chose to have 50 books sent to me and the rest remain with YPS for distribution. The choice of the split was mine and I can always ask for more books if I sell the ones I have. After all, the books belong to me.

The title of the book is Dead Money. Whether that refers to the decision to self publish as well as the plot, I am about to find out. The webpage is - see below for the blurb.

Anyone thinking of self-publishing should allow six months from completion of the book to having a copy in your hand. You can do it faster but it is best not to rush, rather to think carefully about decisions. There can also be unexpected hold-ups – a package sent to me was delivered to the wrong house and not passed on so always keep in touch with the company handling the publishing.

If any readers of this blog are thinking of self publishing and want to ask any questions, you are welcome to email me at and I will do my best to help.

About Rodney Hobson

Rodney Hobson is an experienced writer, journalist and broadcaster who has held senior editorial positions with publications in the UK and Asia, including Business News Editor at The Times. He is the author of a series of investment guides, most notably Shares Made Simple, the authoritative beginner's guide to the stock market, and has written five crime fiction books. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and on cruise ships.

Find Rodney Hobson through his website and on Twitter - @RodneyHobson

About Dead Money

Dead Money
By Rodney Hobson

About the book
The first Inspector Paul Amos Lincolnshire murder mystery
A Lincolnshire businessman is found brutally bludgeoned to death in his bed with a blood-stained iron bar lying on the floor.
At first it looks as if the murderer must be a neighbour, but Detective Inspector Paul Amos is forced to widen his search as he realises that the dead man has made enemies in his wheeling and dealing. To make matters worse, a chance discovery suggests that the murderer may have accidentally picked the wrong victim.