Review: ‘The Chalk Man’ by C.J. Tudor

A group of teens come up with a secret code to communicate with each other one summer – chalk drawings. The effects of that summer – and the drawings – have far-reaching consequences for the friends. 

This review is going to be short because I want readers of the book to enjoy the twists and turns of the story as they read it. 

I will say, though, that ‘The Chalk Man‘ is a compelling read with a vivid cast of characters. It’s insidiously creepy with a constant feeling of foreboding throughout. I found ‘The Chalk Man‘ really easy to read and eminently unputdownable. 

Fans of Stephen King will love ‘The Chalk Man‘. 

Vic x

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Guest Post: Louise Mangos on Writing What You Know

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It is my pleasure today to welcome Louise Mangos to the blog to talk about her intimate knowledge of the setting for her debut psychological thriller ‘Strangers on a Bridge‘.

Louise writes novels, short stories and flash fiction, which have won prizes, been placed on shortlists, and have also been read on BBC radio. Her debut psychological thriller ‘Strangers on a Bridge‘ is published by HQ Digital (Harper Collins) in ebook, paperback and on audio. You can connect with Louise on Facebook and Twitter or visit her website where there are links to more of her stories. Louise lives in Switzerland with her husband and two sons.

Vic x

Portrait with orange dress

The much-travelled author Mark Twain allegedly said “write what you know. Having spent much of my time in central Switzerland for the past twenty years, the one thing I feel confident in portraying in my novels is the setting. Both my first and second novels are set in and around the Swiss Alps. 

Strangers on a Bridge begins with ex-pat Alice Reed out for a jog one morning when she sees a man – Manfred – about to jump from the Lorzentobelbrücke. As this is rather a mouthful for English readers, it is referred to in the novel as the Tobel Bridge. In reality it is a notorious suicide hotspot that has sadly found its way into many local newspaper articles over the years.

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A quick trip on the bike to re-visit the setting for the first scene on the Tobel Bridges.

The area surrounding the village where my protagonist Alice lives is called the Aegerital, or the Aegeri Valley. It is a cleft of land gouged out of alpine granite with rivers running in and out of the jewel at its centre – the Aegeri Lake. Our family moved there twenty years ago when my first son was six months old. Many of the difficulties Alice faces in Strangers on a Bridge were challenges I also faced when we first moved, speaking no German and pre-occupied with a new baby. 

But that’s where the similarities end. I’m happy to report I never witnessed a person wanting to jump from the Tobel Bridge, and I was certainly never stalked by anybody. I should also point out that we worked hard to integrate into the community we now live in. We made an early effort to learn the language, and have experienced friendliness and acceptance from our neighbours ever since.

During the creative and theoretical modules for my Masters in Crime Writing at UEA, two of my professors, Henry Sutton and Tom Benn, talked about the importance of setting in a novel. They encouraged the students to incorporate the setting to such an extent that it effectively becomes one of the characters. 

No matter where a crime novel is set, this atmosphere must be conveyed to the reader to enhance the tension. This might include how a setting behaves through the seasons, for example, the environmental influences in extreme weather conditions.

Strangers on a Bridge begins in spring, the perfect opening for any novel. The season of births and beginnings. Alice is out for a spring jog when she sees Manfred on the bridge and is convinced he is about to jump. Her shock jars alarmingly with the beautiful alpine spring surroundings.

A great deal of research was still undertaken to make the narrative of this psychological thriller believable. Although I am familiar with many of the rules and traditions in Switzerland, police and legal procedures had to be subsequently verified and checked.

But with the setting clearly cemented as one of the characters in the narrative, it was a pleasure to embellish the plot to match the drama of the Alps.

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The view of the Aegerital from Alice’s running trail in spring.

Review: ‘Not Thomas’ by Sara Gethin

 

“The lady’s here. The lady with the big bag. She’s knocking on the front door. She’s knocking and knocking. I’m not opening the door. I’m not letting her in. I’m behind the black chair. I’m waiting for her to go away.”

Tomos – not Thomas – lives with his mother but he is desperate to live somewhere else, somewhere he has lived before, with people who loved him. But he’s not allowed to go back, or see those people again.

Tomos is five years old and at school, which he loves. His teacher teaches him about all sorts of things, and she listens to him. Sometimes he’s hungry and Miss gives him her extra sandwiches. She gives him a warm coat from Lost Property, too. There are things Tomos cannot talk about but, just before Easter, the things come to a head. There are bad men outside who want to come in, and Mammy has said not to answer the door. From behind the big chair, Tomos waits. He doesn’t think it’s Santa Claus .

I downloaded ‘Not Thomas‘ on a whim, I think it may have been a 99p Kindle deal and I’m not sure I knew what to expect but this story knocked me off my feet. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover.

Published by Honno Press, a publishing house dedicated to Welsh women’s literature, ‘Not Thomas‘ is a compelling read that deals with child neglect and substance abuse. Sara Gethin has mastered the child’s voice and should be commended for tackling such a difficult topic so sensitively. 

Gethin has managed to capture the five year old’s voice and it remains consistent throughout the novel. Although the subject matter is distressing and disturbing on its own, the fact that it is relayed to the reader through an innocent child’s eyes makes it even more heartbreaking. 

Although there were parts of the story when I questioned whether characters would really behave in a certain way, I realised that in such dramatic and complex situations, there’s no telling how people will react. 

Throughout the story, there are hints of Welsh dialect and slang. Gethin captures the cadences of the language perfectly. With this in mind, I was slightly confused initially about who Tomos was actually missing although I did wonder whether Gethin had employed this technique on purpose. 

I cannot recommend ‘Not Thomas‘ highly enough. This book, although a tough read at times in terms of the content, was completely enthralling. I bawled my eyes out at the end of this book. One of my top books of 2018. 

Vic x

Review: ‘The Pimlico Kid’ by Barry Walsh

In the summer of 1963, Billy Driscoll and his best mate, Peter ‘Rooksy’ Rooker, have the run of their street. There’s plenty going on in Pimlico for two young lads who are growing up and filling out – whether they’re perving on someone’s mum or running from the local bully. 

Billy’s also discovering the opposite sex – particularly his pretty neighbour, Sarah. But Sarah’s charms have also caught the eye of Kenneth ‘Kirk’ Douglas and Billy knows he must do something drastic if he’s to be victorious. 

When Rooksy suggests a day out with Sarah and her shy friend, Josie, it seems like the perfect idea to win the girls’ hearts. Little do the group realise that it’ll be a day of declarations and revelations; of secrets and terrifying encounters – and that it will change them all forever. 

Barry Walsh has captured this period and the setting skilfully. The characters are vivid and the sense of community is very strong. I could imagine this story on screen in a sepia haze. 

Billy’s adolescent voice is consistent and authentic and that is a feat achieved by Barry Walsh. The experiences recounted by Billy are the kind that remain in the psyche forever. Walsh manages to build up complex, realistic relationships between characters and demonstrates the long-lasting effects that formative experiences have on individuals.  

The Pimlico Kid‘ is a must-read for fans of ‘Call the Midwife‘. 

Vic x

**What Was Lost Blog Tour**

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Today it’s my turn on the blog tour for ‘What Was Lost‘ by Jean Levy. 

Sarah has no memories. She just knows she was found, near death, on a beach miles from her London home. Now she is part of a medical experiment to see whether her past can be retrieved.

But bad things seemed to have happened before she disappeared. The police are interested in her hidden memories too. A nice man she meets in the supermarket appears to have her best interests at heart. He seems to understand her – almost as if he knows her…

As she fights to regain her memories and her sense of self, it becomes clear that people are hiding things from her. Who are they protecting? Does Sarah really want the truth?

We’re lucky to have an extract from this excellent psychological thriller today. Once you’ve read it, I’m sure you’ll be as enthralled as I was. Read on after the extract for my review of this novel. 

Vic x

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Episode Two

As far as I can remember, the day began with waiting. Of course, I had by now come to realise that cats care very little about the passage of time. Only people care about that. So I stood patiently and watched the black and white cat sniff the newspaper around the outside of the plate, lick some invisible scrap of tuna from the newsprint, re-sniff the plate and then, without casting even a glance in my direction to offer some gesture of humble gratitude, pad purposefully towards the cat flap and nose its way through. I had no idea who that cat belonged to. If it had a name I was not aware of it. In fact, my association with this animal depended entirely upon the fact that the door that opened from my dank backyard into my kitchen included this special, cat-sized flap. I had considered resealing it. Parcel tape would probably have been enough to stop the ungrateful animal nudging its way through. But there was always the worry that the parcel tape might turn up at its edges and look a mess and then I’d regret my decision. There was also the possibility that I might miss the cat. Sometimes it purred. I might have missed the purring. 

I watched the flap for a few moments then hurried over to the window to catch a last flash of black tail as it disappeared over into the yard next door. The cat was gone. So I turned my attention to the list on the work surface, took a pencil and added the word TUNA, folded the slip of paper into my jean’s pocket, replaced the pencil and walked over to the back door to confirm that the two bolts were secure. I checked that my wallet, driving licence, notebook with attached pencil, mobile phone and car keys were in my bag, touched the kettle and washing machine plugs three times each, rechecked the back door then hurried out of the kitchen before any doubts might set in. I knew it would be all right once I was in the car. I was always all right in the car. 

*

The supermarket was anywhere between ten and twenty minutes away depending on traffic, and all the way there I played over the morning so far, from the point when I’d been ready to leave and that black and white cat had popped in through the flap and purred. So now it was after nine and the car park was busy. Too busy. But I knew that driving straight back home would not have been the right thing to do. 

*

Inside, the aisles were still sparsely populated. So it would probably be OK. I grabbed a trolley and navigated it straight through the opposing rows of crisps and biscuits towards the central walkway. A sharp left took me into the tea and coffee aisle, which stretched deep into the rear of the supermarket. Then, avoiding the stack of Easter eggs abutting the central aisle, I pushed on to cereals, halted my trolley and observed the choices before me. So many choices. So many rectangular boxes, diminishing off into the distance. An intimidating range of nuts, dried fruits, seeds, wheat / no wheat, oats to absorb cholesterol, low salt, low fat, high fibre, additives / no additives stretched out before me. I threw myself into reading labels, studying carbohydrate contents, pushing my trolley further in past illustrations of happy, healthy other thirty-five year olds, whose lives were perfect because they consumed the correct breakfast cereal. The happy images began to coagulate into one multi-coloured muddle of good advice, manufacturers’ commitments, occasional warnings. I could feel myself diffusing into the options that surrounded me. The familiar stirrings of panic were rising up from just below my diaphragm. I controlled my breathing, observing the oat-coloured floor tiles, the matt surface of a shoe. Its partner shoe hovering slightly off the ground. My eyes traced up the many-deniered tights to a woolly hemline, thick, wintry cloth, grey hair, an outstretched arm, an aged hand reaching hopelessly for a small packet of cornflakes on the top shelf. My own crisis was suddenly dwarfed by the plight of this diminutive shopper. I watched her sag in frustration and help herself to a family-sized box from the shelf below. I had no choice but to intervene. 

‘Shall I try and reach?’ I whispered.

The woman glanced round. ‘Oh, would you, dear?’ She replaced her family-sized box and turned to me, wobbling her head slightly as she watched me ease one of the smaller boxes from the top shelf. I handed it over. She thanked me. I smiled graciously and watched her round the end of the aisle before stretching up, taking an identical box and placing it into my own trolley. I stood for a moment staring back along the aisle of wasted opportunity then, clenching the handle of my trolley so hard that it must have looked as if my knucklebones might burst through my skin, I hurried away from the cereal. Justifying my decision. Cornflakes are good for you.

There was a feeling of openness about the fruit and vegetable terrain. Here the produce was arranged on long, sloping stalls. It was like a huge, sterile homage to those fairy-tale markets, where ragamuffins stole peaches and a boy might trade his cow for a handful of magic beans. I brushed past a tall stands of fresh herbs and the air filled with the lush, calming fragrance of basil. A startling yellow and black promotion demanded: BUY ONE GET ONE FREE. I ignored it, hurried on past strawberries and grapes, grabbed a bunch of green bananas, then wheeled my trolley back and helped myself to a pot of basil, re-read the promotion, selected a second pot, put both pots in my trolley, picked one of the pots up and put it back on the stand. Why would anyone want two pots of basil? One’s enough. Why on earth was I getting myself wound up about a pot of basil?

But it wasn’t really about the basil. Or the cornflakes. I knew that It was about deciding. Not just deciding what to choose. It was all those other decisions about what not to choose. Because every choice involves not merely the possibility of choosing the wrong thing but an endless number of possibilities of not choosing the right thing. Too many decisions about not choosing. Dr Gray always insisted: ‘If there are two many decisions, just take a deep breath and walk away.’ So I had walked away. I’d walked so far away that there were now six mountainous banks of food between me and those unchosen boxes of cereal. I took a deep breath, fumbled in my pocket and pulled out my list:

BANANAS

CEREAL

CAT BISCUITS

TUNA

I read it several times to make sure. Then, just as I was folding it back into my pocket, I glanced up and noticed a perfect read and green apple rolling towards me. Arcing towards my foot. Impact was inevitable. Inevitable. And that’s when it all began. Well, just some of it began. Although, in truth, it really did all begin with an apple. 

****

What Was Lost‘:
Review.

I whipped through ‘What Was Lost‘, a thrilling story of Sarah and the amnesia she endures. I was hooked from the opening ‘episode’.

I found it easy to empathise with Sarah and the predicament she found herself in. The sense of frustration at her loss of control pervaded every page as did an uneasy sense of something being held back. In an age of the unreliable narrator, I was unsure who could be trusted in this novel, giving this story more depth. 

The foreboding felt by Sarah was almost palpable at times and, as the story developed, I enjoyed getting to know certain characters at the same time as Sarah made their acquaintance. Conversely, some of the unlikeable characters proved completely realistic and accurately portrayed. 

Levy’s background in psychology shines through in her knowledge of psychological conditions and the impact of trauma on patients. 

Jean Levy wilfully misdirects the reader on a number of occasions and, despite some fantastical elements, I found ‘What Was Lost‘ utterly compelling. 

Vic x

Review: ‘The Devil’s Dice’ by Roz Watkins


A lawyer is found dead in a Peak District cave, his face covered in scratches. 

Whispers of a curse begin to circulate but DI Meg Dalton is sure this is a cold-blooded murder. There’s something that makes it difficult to believe in a straight-forward murder though: chiselled into the cave wall above the body is an image of the grim reaper and the dead man’s initials, and it’s been there for over a century.

As Meg battles to solve the increasingly disturbing case, it’s clear someone knows her secrets. The murderer is playing games with Meg – and the dice are loaded…

I love how Watkins has managed to produce a rounded character who battles against a number of issues while managing to be a very competent detective. Meg may be flawed but her flaws make her human, allowing readers empathise with her. Meg’s acerbic wit makes her someone I can really identify with.

Adding an extra dimension to ‘The Devil’s Dice‘, the inclusion of Meg’s family is an interesting study on an ageing population and the guilt some women feel around their obligations in the home. What I really liked about this novel was that it balanced its depiction of police work with personal life. 

The dynamic between Meg and her sidekick, Jai, also adds an extra dimension to ‘The Devil’s Dice‘. 

The Devil’s Dice‘ covers a number of thought-provoking issues with sensitivity and depth. This story is an original one, with beautiful descriptions of scenery of Derbyshire perfectly juxtaposed with the horror of the crime. 

An impressive debut. I cannot wait to read the next book in the Meg Dalton series. 

Vic x

Review: ‘The Rave’ by Nicky Black

It’s 1989, the second Summer of Love, and Tommy Collins is doing what he does best: organising all-night raves on a shoestring, and playing a game of cat and mouse with the police. But his adversary, Detective Chief Inspector Peach, is closing in on him, and his dreams of a better life are beginning to slip through his fingers.

DCI Peach finds it all a waste of his force’s time until his teenage daughter is found unconscious at one of Tommy’s raves. Then the issue becomes personal, and Peach’s need to make Tommy pay becomes an obsession.

Set in Newcastle upon Tyne, during a moral panic, ‘The Rave‘ is a fast-paced, gritty portrayal of life on the edges of society at the end of a decade that changed Britain forever.

As with Nicky Black’s previous novel ‘The Prodigal‘, ‘The Rave‘ is set on the fictional Valley Park estate. Nicky Black captures the essence of the characters that reside within this community perfectly. They’re funny, offensive and complex – and they don’t hold back. Black uses her characters to bring light and shade to her story, showing that even the grimmest of circumstances have a vein of humour. 

Black’s narrative voice is strong, with the reader’s attention grabbed from the prologue. As a native Geordie, I loved the setting and found I could imagine ‘The Rave‘ on TV. Black has captured not only the location but also the era very well with her strong eye for detail. As the end of the book approaches and the stakes increase, so does the pace.

With an original plot and setting, as well as compelling characters, ‘The Rave‘ delivers on all fronts. 

Vic x