Review: ‘The Darkest Heart’ by Dan Smith

The Darkest Heart

‘There were times I felt I would always be death’s passenger. It moved one step ahead of me wherever I went, shading me from the world other people lived in.’ 

Dan Smith’s latest novel is set in deepest, darkest Brazil where shadows of every kind lurk, waiting to strike. The protagonist, Zico, is looking to leave behind a life of violence and death in order to live a ‘normal’ life with his girlfriend, Danielle. However, he is given one last kill which could net him everything he needs to start afresh. Throughout the novel, Zico struggles with the man he’s been his whole adult life and the man he wants to be.

Although I initially took a few chapters to become fully engaged with the characters, I became hooked by the narrative and was desperate to know how it would play out. The scenes on the river and at the mine featured fast-paced, heart-in-mouth action. Smith really evokes the setting with his detailed descriptions, as I was reading I could feel the cloying heat of the jungle.

Throughout the novel, the reader is drip-fed Zico’s backstory and that technique works very well, helping the reader understand how Zico became who he is. I really cared about the characters and completely understood the difficult position Zico had been put in. I was eager to find out how the dilemma could possibly be solved. The ending, for me, was satisfying but bittersweet. The evolution of the main characters was really realistic.

This is absolutely a novel worth sticking with!

Vic x

A sense of achievement

People who have been reading this blog for the last two years or so will know I started a Post Graduate Certificate in Education in September 2012.

Yesterday, I got an email to confirm that I had passed the course! It has not been easy, the workload was challenging at times and sometimes my health issues didn’t exactly help but the sense of achievement I felt receiving that email yesterday was incredible.

I tend to look on the negative side quite often and can be very hard on myself. However, I feel I must acknowledge how hard I have worked over the past couple of years. I’ve done a part-time job, studied and built my own business – no mean feat. I’m so thrilled to have finally qualified, I feel like this is the start of something really exciting.

There have been, though, so many people who have supported and encouraged me through this time and I won’t forget those who have shown me kindness when I most needed it. You know who you are, thank you!

Vic x

Getting to Know You (Again): Kate Kerrigan.

Following on from last week’s post, a review of Kate Kerrigan’s latest novel ‘The Lost Garden’, we have the author here to talk about it! I hope you all enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it. 

Vic x
Kate Kerrigan
This story is based on a true story, how did you find out about it?

The story of the Kirkintilloch Ten – the Irish men from remote Achill Island who men who died in a fire in their sleeping ‘bothy’ in Scotland in 1937 while potato picking in Scotland – had been something that has just been part of my Irish family lore and while looking for a story around the Irish Islands it just sort of emerged from my subconscious and I began researching it – more out of curiosity that anything else. 

As I dug deeper into the story I ambitiously wanted to try to capture something of the terrible grief such a seismic loss would cause in a small community and bring some redemption, some hope into it.

So – I wrote a love story. 

The two young people we meet in the prologue are Aileen Doherty is a daughter of nature, a talented gardener – and Invincible Jim is her beau – a feisty young fisherman.

Aileen and Jimmy fall in love but then are separated when Aileen loses her father and brothers in the fire and Invincible Jim becomes disfigured trying to save them.

 Aileen returns to her island, where she finds solace through restoring a forgotten garden, rebuilding her own life and that of the other grieving women – and Jimmy goes to London to try to get his handsome face rebuilt by the famous war surgeon McKinley.

As these two young people go on their separate journeys they are bound together by the thread of their young love. Because love, even the thinnest thread of love, can never really be broken and if anything death makes good love stronger.

Jimmy is a really interesting character, how did you think him up?

I live in a fishing village in Ireland and was out fishing in my neighbour Jimmy’s boat. We got talking about his childhood on a small island off the Donegal coast and he just totally inspired me with his idyllic picture of the simple, wholesome happy days of his childhood. Jimmy the character just grew out of that. An innocent, adventurous lad untouched by anything bad until he leaves his island – then it all goes pear-shaped for him….

The Lost Garden

My favourite scenes were in London, do you have a favourite scene / part of the book?

I love the ending – the scene on the bridge. I started that book with a picture of the ending and wanting to get there – to write that scene was my motivation right the way the through.
Do you have a favourite character in ‘The Lost Garden’?
I love the gay old farmer John Joe who is mother and father to his niece and nephew. There is so much darkness in Ireland’s history with church and institutional child abuse – I wanted to write about one to the good stories about how children were looked after and loved by members of their family in unconventional sets ups that also happened at that time.

I really loved John Joe too! How long did the novel take to write?

One year – beginning to end – like all of them. I have the germ of an idea and start researching a book straight after delivery of the last one – then as I am editing and proofing it – I research and develop the next one. In September when the whole proofing process ends – I begin the actually writing of the next then deliver around May.  it takes me six  to eight months actual writing time.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us about it?
My new book  – working title ‘The Dress’ is set in present day London and New York in the 1950’s and deals in the worlds of online fashion and old-style couture. Nearly finished. A long time since I have written a modern-day setting – so it’s interesting, nerve-wracking – but I’m excited about it and hope my readers will like it. It’s important to keep taking risks to make me feel I am evolving as a writer and storyteller.
Thanks to Kate for taking the time to share her thoughts with us today. Thanks to Kate and her publishers, Macmillan, I have a copy of ‘The Lost Garden’ to give away to one lucky reader of this blog. To be in with a chance of winning, please leave a comment on this post. I will announce the winner on Sunday, 15th June 2014.

Review: ‘The Lost Garden’ by Kate Kerrigan.

The Lost Garden

Aileen Doherty can’t wait to leave her sheltered life to go on her first adventure, tattie picking for the summer in Scotland, with her father and two older brothers. Before Aileen even steps foot in Scotland, though, she meets ‘Lucky Jimmy’ Walsh who falls in love at first sight. During the trip, the pair work together and fall in love but a horrible accident leaves both irreparably scarred in different ways.

Back at home, following more misery, Aileen makes it her mission to revive a lost garden. Meanwhile, Jimmy goes in search of other ways to improve his life.

On the surface, ‘The Lost Garden’ may look like your typical chick lit but it is so much more than boy meets girl, boy loses girl and so forth. This book explores the different kinds of love that people encounter – romantic love, the love of a parent or child as well as friendship and the love of a place. This novel also features darker elements which were really compelling.

‘The Lost Garden’ is also a study on how people cope with tragedy differently. The vast array of characters demonstrate different emotions and coping mechanisms in the face of the accident.

As always, Kate Kerrigan builds up a vivid picture for the reader, drawing you further and further into the story. Her emotive language is used with great aplomb and the characters are built up into three dimensional people who you genuinely care for. Kerrigan employs some interesting metaphors as well as a spiritual element in the story but her prose is always sensitive.

A great read.

Vic x

Getting to Know You (again): Stephanie Butland

Frequent readers of this blog will know I have known Stephanie Butland ever since we were introduced by author Mari Hannah a couple of years ago. Stephanie has written a couple of non-fiction books about her ‘dance with cancer’ but ‘Surrounded by Water’ is her debut novel. 

Vic x

Stephanie Butland (c) Jonathan Ring

You capture the sense of life in a small village very well (it’s realistic, including good and bad), is that something you have experience of?

Yes! I grew up in Amble in Northumberland where you have a real sense of the connections and networks between people. But I also lived in Wimbledon for 20 years and found a very similar feel there. Communities create themselves everywhere: school gates, work canteens, coffee shops.

The relationships between the characters in the book are very interesting, do you have a favourite and least favourite character?

Ooh, that’s a tricky question! I love, love, love Elizabeth’s sister Mel, who is sparky and sarcastic and really would rather be back in her native Australia. Blake, who is steady and strong, made me feel safe whenever I was writing about him. But to me, everyone has their merits – even the ones who behave very badly.

I like Blake a lot too. Reading the book was a really emotional experience, was writing it difficult?

Not difficult, but absorbing. When I was writing the very emotional sections of the book I could think of almost nothing else, and I had frightening, dark dreams.

Tell me more about these dreams, please. 

I think I was having the classic dreams associated with the emotions I was writing about. When I was writing about grief I was dreaming of being stuck in dark places or wandering through tunnels trying to find a way out. When I was writing about secrets I had being-found-out dreams:  on stage not knowing my lines, doing an exam not having revised. One night I dreamed I was drowning. That was very scary indeed.  

What’s the best thing about having your debut novel published?

Do I have to pick one?! The feeling of A Dream Come True. Seeing it in book shops. Strangers tweeting me about missing their stops on trains because they’re so deeply in the story.

Any downsides?

Oh yes. The fear that people won’t ‘get’ the book, but mostly, the fear that people won’t read it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes. Don’t aspire, do. If you write 500 words a day you’ll have a novel in 6 months. It might not be a good novel, yet, but it’s something to work on. And read. Read widely, read passionately, read the things you know you’ll like and the things you think that you won’t. Words, words, words – that’s my advice!

Thanks to Stephanie – and her lovely publishers at Transworld, I have a signed copy of ‘Surrounded by Water’ to give away to one lucky reader. Leave a comment on this post and the lucky winner will be drawn at random on Monday, 28th April 2014. 

Review: ‘Surrounded by Water’ by Stephanie Butland.

Surrounded by Water

This book begins with Elizabeth writing a letter to her husband, Mike.

Mike, it quickly transpires, has drowned in a nearby lake while saving the life of a local teenager, Kate. Mike, a well-respected policeman who has previous form for putting his own life in danger while trying to save someone else, is feted as a hero but Elizabeth is falling apart at the loss of her soulmate, a man she left her home in Australia for several years earlier.

However, Mike may not be the hero everyone thinks he is.

Through a series of letters and time shifts, the miserable truth comes to light – with Mike’s death not being the worst thing that Elizabeth has to deal with while living in Throckton, a small village, where everybody knows everyone’s business.

I was pulled into this book from page one. Elizabeth’s anger at her husband for playing the hero is almost palpable. I felt that I experienced the whole gamut of emotions during this novel. The clever foreshadowing ensures that the reader knows, well before Elizabeth finds out, that her seemingly idyllic marriage was not so and, in a way, that provoked pity in me as well as outrage on Elizabeth’s behalf.

I have to say, though, the other characters in this book  – Mike’s mum Patricia, his friends Blake and Andy, Elizabeth’s sister Mel – all add something to the narrative. I’ve got to admit, I was hoping for a romance between Mel and Blake but it was probably more realistic that their needs were put on the back burner in favour of looking after Elizabeth. Patricia, for me, was an excellent character – well-drawn, full of pomp and totally infuriating.

And as for Throckton, it was like it was a character in itself. We’ve all been to those places, haven’t we? It could be a village, it could be a workplace, it could be a pub – that place where everyone knows everything and you know that when you’re not there, you’re quite possibly the subject of conversation. Because of Stephanie’s wonderfully thought-out descriptions of Throckton, I also felt the cloying sense that everyone knew what was going on and it only served to ensure I felt as paranoid as Elizabeth surely did.

This is a novel that will pull you in and refuse to let go.

Call back later today to hear from the author herself and for a chance to win a copy of ‘Surrounded by Water’.

Vic x



Review: Dancing on Ice, The Final Tour at Newcastle Arena, 05/04/14.

Since its launch in 2006, I have been a huge fan of ‘Dancing on Ice’. So much so that every time I watched the TV show, I’d find myself ‘skating’ on the kitchen floor in my socks trying to recreate the magic.

I’ve been lucky enough to see the show live on at least four occasions (I’m thirty now, the old memory isn’t as good as it used to be, ok?) however, with the introduction of the insanely annoying Louie Spence  who took over from Jason Gardiner as a judge in 2012, I stopped watching the TV show. Despite all the glitz and the glamour (as well as the ever-present threat of danger – headbanger, anyone?), I just could not bear to watch the show with that insufferable eejit on it. Louie Spence tried to make the show all about him – and it shouldn’t have been.

However, when I found out that this year would be the final series, I tuned in. I was relieved to see Jason Gardiner back on the panel (although I know Spence was canned after just one season) and, despite his sometimes cruel comments, Jason’s feedback was delivered in a way that kept the focus on the skaters and how to improve their performance.

And so it ended with Ray Quinn being crowned ‘Champion of Champions’ just a few weeks ago. Now, the show is on the road for its final goodbye.

The seats we were allocated were in the Gods, with a limited view (despite no warning of this on the ticket website) and the steward I spoke to was unwilling to assist so I feel that our enjoyment of the first act was somewhat limited. However, it’s with all my heart that I thank the very kind lady who informed us about empty seats with a far better view beside her and her daughter. They were great company and my mum and I enjoyed the second half tremendously.

It’s interesting to see how the live show has changed over the years. We saw it the first time they came on tour in 2007 but, over the years, it has evolved into a slicker, more impressive show with bigger effects and better costumes. This year, Torvill and Dean not only skated this year but acted as comperes throughout the first section of the show, interviewing skating stars as well as taking comments from the Ice Panel. I must say, though, I find the judges redundant on the live tour – I’d prefer less chat and more skating.

That’s why, for me, the second half was far better. I love that, on the tour, the audience not only get to see show favourites like Ray Quinn and Beth Tweddle but they’re treated to numbers by the professional skaters. The pro sections are always my favourite part of the show. However, someone else stole my heart last night: Joe Pasquale. OK, he’s a train wreck – he managed to fall several times during the show and I’m not entirely convinced the falls were on purpose for laughs – but he came onto the ice alone during the second half and did a Skating for Beginners lesson. He was hilarious and wasn’t afraid to take the mick out of himself. And, I must say, he skates better than I ever could.

The curtain fell following a performance of Bolero by Torvill and Dean and it was with tears in my eyes that I left Newcastle Arena last night, I am so sad to see this wonderful show come to an end.

Vic x