Tag Archives: chapter

Review: ‘Anthrax Island’ by D.L. Marshall

FACT: In 1942, in growing desperation at the progress of the war and fearing invasion by the Nazis, the UK government approved biological weapons tests on British soil. Their aim: to perfect an anthrax weapon destined for Germany. They succeeded.

FACT: Though the attack was never launched, the testing ground, Gruinard Island, was left lethally contaminated. It became known as Anthrax Island.

Now government scientists have returned to the island. They become stranded by an equipment failure and so John Tyler is flown in to fix the problem. He quickly discovers there’s more than research going on. When one of the scientists is found impossibly murdered inside a sealed room, Tyler realises he’s trapped with a killer…

Thanks to the team at Canelo for my ARC of ‘Anthrax Island‘. It’s available as an e-book now and will be released in paperback on 6th May. To get a signed copy, order through my lovely local independent bookshop Forum Books.

This, the debut novel from D.L. Marshall, is a tense, taut, pacy thriller which weaves fact and fiction together seamlessly.

I absolutely cannot rate ‘Anthrax Island‘ highly enough. D.L. Marshall has created a whip smart character in the form of John Tyler. I love the fact that Marshall trusts his readers to understand the subtext in the novel without always having to spell out what he’s insinuating. I really enjoyed the political barbs as well as Tyler’s one-liners.

It’s clear from the first chapter that Marshall has done a large amount of research into Gruinard Island and the testing that was carried out there. Marshall uses his knowledge to add extra tension to the fact that there’s a killer prowling the place: if the murderer doesn’t catch you, the anthrax might.

Given the fact that any time one of the small – but suspicious – cast of characters ventures outdoors, they must wear protective suits, Marshall uses this to create a cloying atmosphere in his prose. The way he describes being in the suit was so deftly done that I felt I was in the suit with Tyler. I could feel the claustrophobia the characters were experiencing.

The desolate setting is evoked perfectly through detailed descriptions that really bring the place to life. But don’t think that because he’s so good at setting that this is a gentle story – ‘Anthrax Island‘ is a high velocity read that will leave you breathless. The way in which each chapter ends on a cliffhanger means that it’s almost impossible not to read on.

With cinematic action sequences and adept plotting, ‘Anthrax Island‘ is a classic locked-room mystery crossed with the greatest of action thrillers. If Lee Child and Agatha Christie co-wrote a book, ‘Anthrax Island’ would be that novel.

Vic x

Review: ‘Black Widows’ by Cate Quinn

Blake Nelson moved onto a hidden stretch of land – a raw paradise in the wilds of Utah – where he lived with his three wives: Rachel, the chief wife, obedient and doting to a fault; Tina, the other wife, who is everything Rachel isn’t; And Emily, the youngest wife, who knows little else.
When their husband is found dead under the desert sun, the questions pile up.
But none of the widows know who would want to kill a good man like Blake. Or, at least, that’s what they’ll tell the police…

Set within Utah – Mormon-country – ‘Black Widows‘ delves into the Church of the Latter Day Saints – and an extreme form of Mormonism: polygamous marriage. The idea of reading a book set within this community is intriguing enough but what Cate Quinn has done with ‘Black Widows‘ is create a compelling read featuring characters I could engage with despite wildly different cultural differences. I was utterly invested in the women in this book.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the wives – Rachel, Tina and Emily – and each voice is distinctive in character and tone. I found the three wives completely captivating. They were honest, engaging and utterly believable. Thanks to Quinn’s excellent writing, I could even hear their accents as I read. The character development as the story goes on is exquisite.

I genuinely could not put this book down. I spent several nights reading long after I should have gone to sleep – I just couldn’t stop. ‘Black Widows‘ is one of those books where I couldn’t wait to find out who was responsible but also didn’t want the story to end. I think one thing that really contributed to this were the short, snappy, perfectly crafted chapters that left me wanting more.

My thanks to Orion for supplying me with an ARC of this novel. I cannot recommend ‘Black Widows‘ highly enough.

Vic x

#BlogTour #BeforeSheDisappeared @LisaGardnerBks

Today it’s my turn on Lisa Gardner’s blog tour for her first standalone novel in ten years: ‘Before She Disappeared‘. I’d like to thank Penguin Random House for allowing me a sneak peek at this brilliant book and for having me on the blog tour.

Frankie Elkin is a middle-aged woman who spends her life doing what no one else will: searching for missing people the world has stopped looking for. When the police have given up and the public no longer remembers, that’s when Frankie starts looking. Carrying little more than a backpack and her own demons, Frankie travels around the US looking for people who have been forgotten.

Arriving in Mattapan, Boston, Frankie starts her search for Angelique Badeau, a Haitian teen who vanished after school almost a year earlier. Although Mattapan’s reputation precedes it, Frankie doesn’t let it stop her from asking around – but she’s met with resistance from the police department and Angelique’s family, who seem pretty wary of the white lady who’s sticking her nose in. Frankie soon learns, though, that she’s asking too many questions – questions someone doesn’t want answered.

I’ve got to admit, the first chapter didn’t grip me and I was worried that this might be a bit of a slog but once we arrived in Mattapan with Frankie, the story completely lifted and I enjoyed not only the mystery but also the descriptions of Mattapan and the people that live there. Gardner really creates a strong sense of the community that Frankie inserts herself into. It was a pleasure to learn about the rich Haitian culture that exists within Boston.

Frankie is a well-rounded character. She may be ballsy but she’s not infallible by any stretch of the imagination and this lent her an air of authenticity to me. Gardner portrays the insidious nature of alcoholism perfectly but manages not to hit the reader around the head with it. There were almost times in the story where I forgot that Frankie had a problem with booze, only for the demons to rear their heads again and I genuinely believe this is what it’s like for addicts. I really liked the idea that Frankie has swapped one addiction for another – she may not be obsessing over her next drink but she’s certainly consumed by the case she’s investigating.

Although there are references to police investigation techniques, I didn’t feel that I was reading a police procedural novel and that, for me, meant that ‘Before She Disappeared‘ wasn’t bogged down in the minutiae of police work. I did, however, feel that the details that were included were not only relevant but also interesting.

Thanks to the interesting cast of characters that Lisa Gardner has created, I found myself heavily invested in the outcome of this book. ‘Before She Disappeared‘ is a well-paced mystery that really packs an emotional punch.

This may have been the first Lisa Gardner book that I’ve read but it won’t be my last.

Vic x

Getting to Know You: M.J. Arlidge

Hope you’re all keeping well. If you’re looking for something new to read, M.J. Arlidge’s eighth Helen Grace novel ‘All Fall Down‘ is due out next week (Thurs, 11th June) .

Matt has joined us today to give us a little insight into his work as a writer and some advice for those of you out there who’d like to give it a go yourselves.

I’m hoping to host Matt at a Virtual Noir at the Bar in the coming weeks so make sure you’re first to find out when he’ll be appearing. Sign up to our newsletter now.

Big thanks to Matt and Orion Books for making this happen.

Vic x

M.J Arlidge

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?

I love the escapism of it. I never get tired of sitting down at my desk and opening up my laptop. There are dozens of different characters and numerous interweaving stories in each of my books, meaning I have a whole host of different people to climb inside and bring to life. I love working out what makes characters tick, what’s important to them, what would drive them to do reckless or desperate things. It’s so enjoyable to escape from my normal life, especially so during lockdown! 

There’s not much I dislike, though there’s no question writing a novel is a hard slog. I’ve just written the first chapters of a new one this morning and the road ahead seems long!!!

What inspires you to write?

Anything and everything. Just life really. I find ideas come to me unbidden and at the strangest times – in the middle of the night, when I’m in the shower, when I’m shopping in the supermarket. And once a really good idea pops into your head, it has you, you have to write it. 

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?

Yes, of course! I love reading and always find time, usually at the end of the day. Generally I read novels, but at the moment I’m making use of lockdown to consume the works of Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens, Homo Deus etc. I find his work absolutely fascinating. 

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?

So many authors to choose from. Thomas Harris, James Patterson, Harlan Coben…but I think I’ll have to plump for Stieg Larsson. When I was writing Eeny Meeny (my debut novel), Lisbeth Salander was very much in my mind. She was the most unusual, most interesting crime fighter I’d ever come across. There are shades of Lisbeth Salander about Helen Grace – I was desperate to make her as unconventional and intriguing as Larsson’s brilliant protagonist. 

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Wow. Good question. I would have loved to have been a photographer. Or a chef. I still harbour fantasies about the latter, but I’m probably too old…

What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?

That’s probably not for me to say! I’d say I work hard and am very committed to my writing and my readers – to the extent that when I’m writing a novel I find it hard to resist creeping back to my office late at night or as the sun is rising.  

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve literally just started writing Truth or Dare, the ninth novel in the Helen Grace series. Usually the first few chapters are utterly terrifying, but actually I’ve really enjoyed starting this one. 

Where can we find you online?

At my Facebook page or on Twitter.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

To borrow a phrase from Nike, just do it. Don’t spend too long prevaricating – pretending to research stuff, when actually you’re just putting off writing. Just be disciplined and get that first draft done. Only then do you have something you can work with, something you can potentially sell. When I was writing my first novel, I still had a day job, but managed to carve out one hour a day (5pm-6pm) to write. It was slow progress, but I got there in the end, and, boy, was it a good feeling!

What’s been your proudest moment?

The day Eeny Meeny was published by Penguin. To have joined the ranks of authors at such an impressive and important publishing house blew my mind!

What was the best writing advice you received and who was it from? 

When I delivered the first draft of Eeny Meeny to my agent, she declared that it was good, but needed “more emotional cruelty”. It was sage advice and something I bear in mind every time I’m penning a new Helen Grace novel!

ALL FALL DOWN by M.J Arlidge is published by Orion Fiction and out in hardback on 11th June 2020.

**Out of the Ashes Blog Tour**

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I have known Vicky Newham – author of ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ and ‘Out of the Ashes‘ – for several years. As regular readers of this blog will know, ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ was one of my top reads in 2018 and I’m now delighted to be part of the blog tour for the next book in the DI Maya Rahman series: ‘Out of the Ashes‘. 

A flash mob in Brick Lane is interrupted by an explosion. With fire raging through one of the city’s most infamous streets, DI Maya Rahman is called to the scene. With witnesses too caught up in the crowd to have seen anything, Maya must lead an investigation with no leads. And when Maya is faced with a second, more horrifying crime, she knows she is in a race against time to solve the crimes before East London burns. 

Feast on the first chapter of ‘Out of the Ashes‘ here and then order / download the rest of it. I guarantee you will not be able to put this fantastic book down.

Vic x

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Rosa, 2 p.m.

Rosa Feldman stood at the door of her Brick Lane newsagent’s, staring out at the street she’d known since she was four. She couldn’tshake the feeling that something was wrong. It was the shop opposite,run by the young Lithuanian couple. Since first thing this morning, the lights had been off and the shutters down. Initially, she was relieved that for once, the ugly neon sign, with its air of Margate or Blackpool, wasn’t flashing outside her bedroom window, but as the morning progressed, she felt increasingly uneasy.

It wasn’t like them at all. She couldn’t recall ever seeing the shop closed in the daytime.A tap on the glass snapped Rosa back into the afternoon. It was Mr Walker from the off-licence a few doors down. He shouted a cheery greeting and waved as he passed the window. Regular as clockwork, off to get chips for tea. Rosa raised her hand to return the gesture, but the pain in her wrists and knuckles bit again. Damned arthritis.

Mr Walker’s knock was usually her reminder to think about their meal. Today was Friday after all. But without Józef, the Sabbath meal wasn’t the same and she didn’t bother with the rituals any more. In the last year, she’d lost weight and clothes hung off her spare frame. What was the point of lighting candles when there was only one of you? She’d steam a plate of yesterday’s chicken and potatoes. That would do her. Fortunately, she didn’t have to go far to get home, just upstairs to the flat, even if it was still freezing at this time of year.

Over the dusty window display, two men were putting a new shop sign up where Rosenberg’s jewellers used to be. Work had been going on for weeks, and it looked like the place was nearly ready to open. Alchemia, it said. A swanky new Polish bar by the looks of it, slap bang next-door to Mr Hamid’s curry house. He wasn’t going to be happy. So much had changed in Brick Lane since she and her family had arrived, and life moved so fast on the other side of the window, it made Rosa dizzy. The pace was relentless and the change uncompromising. Inside the shop, though, she felt safe. Change there was slow and predictable. Above her head, by the door, the fan heater droned noisily and made little impact on the chilly air, but she didn’t mind. It had always done that. And she barely noticed the crumbling plaster of the ground floor walls, or the mildew which clung to ceiling corners like a nasty rash.

Her thoughts slid back to the shop over the road. The place was usually open all hours of the day and night, selling its fancy five-quid soups to whoever could afford them. She had no objection to people earning a living, but her parents would be turning in their graves. They’d survived the Ghetto on two hundred calories a day. When they left Warsaw, and arrived in London, it was the handouts from the Jewish soup kitchen in Brune Street that kept them alive. It was extraordinary to think that what had been humble subsistence for many families was now a fad-food. She’d been over for a spy at the menu, of course, when they were shut. Apart from some matzo ball soup, she couldn’t find much she fancied and didn’t know what most of it was, let alone how to pronounce it. Keen-war, or something, a youth with a bicycle and a dog had told Rosa.

She sighed. She missed her old neighbours. Those were Sabbath meals to look forward to. They were exactly how her mother described Warsaw before the war. Mrs Blum from the bagel shop would make the challah. Rich, eggy and sweet. It had been ages since Rosa had felt one of those in her hands, soft and warm, in its pretty braid shape. The Altmans would bring the wine. The Posners, candles. And the Rosenbergs, the jewellers, always came with freshly made kugel.

But now her parents were dead, and all her Jewish neighbours were either dead too or had moved away. Except Rosa.

And there was that feeling again, a gnawing emptiness, a sense that life had moved on without her. It was so unsettling. Every fibre of her being was exhausted by the continual need to think about whether to follow her compatriots out of the East End and into the London suburbs.

The sound of voices jolted her back into the present. Yelling. Music. Outside in the street, a thumping bass beat started up. Tremors vibrated through the shop, and a booming noise invaded the silence of her thoughts. Yobbos, probably, spitting everywhere and pumping out music from one of those dreadful sound-systems. They’d pass in a minute.

But they didn’t.

The music got louder and louder, and – oh, typical – the group had stopped outside Rosa’s shop. All guffaws, swearing, floppy hair and hoodies. More voices, bellowing and cheering, and one by one, people were joining them. What on earth was going on? On a Friday afternoon, from lunchtime onwards, she was used to the steady trickle of people down Brick Lane, getting ready for a night on the tiles and a curry, but it was unusual to see so many people together. She edged over to the corner of the shop window to get a

better view. The music had changed, and one by one people pulled black bandanas into masks, over their mouths and noses, and were dancing, if jabbing a finger in the air and screaming counted as dancing these days. Teenagers, by the look of them. Some younger. She wasn’t very good at judging age, and they all wore such similar clothes, but she’d put money on some of them not being a day over ten.

Rosa pressed her nose against the pane of glass. Outside, the street hummed with joy. There was an innocence to their dancing, even if the masks were a bit scary. And they weren’t doing any harm, were they? She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She used to know all the kids round here; knew their families by name, but none of this lot were familiar. There were at least ten of them, dancing in the street, throwing themselves about like acrobats, bending, leaping, twirling each other around. For a moment, Rosa was reminded of the tea room dances she and Józef used to go to before Agnieszka and Tomasz were born. They’d save for weeks, get dolled up in their best clothes. Oh, how much fun they’d been.

There were more than twenty of them now, maybe thirty. Someone was lighting sparklers and passing them round for the kids. She adored sparklers. And before she knew it, her fingers pulled the door handle and she was outside, the bell dinging shut behind her. The sulphurous smell set light to her dulled senses and she felt the day’s irritation shake itself from her shoulders. She was a kid again, at crisp November bonfires and balmy mid-summer street parties, with people passing sparklers round.

Rosa cleared her throat. Coughed. Her lungs weren’t good these days, weakened by years of a poorly heated flat, the damp shop walls, and Józef’s cigarette smoke.

 

She joined the throng of passers-by who were huddled, mesmer- ised by the dancing. Was it a student gathering? She was puzzled. Who was in charge? She couldn’t see any organisers or anyone giving instructions, and had no idea where the music was coming from. People were merging with the group of their own accord and encouraging others to do the same. They all looked so carefree.

 

The music brought a smile to Rosa’s cold lips. Her heel began to tap and she was lost to nostalgia. It was such a relief to forget the pain and drudgery of the last year. To forget her arthritis and money worries. Was that Lulu and ‘Shout’? Her heart leaped. Many a time she and Józef had danced to that tune. Her mind was flooded with memories of all the occasions when they’d danced together, his warm hand in the small of her back, guiding her forwards, the other clasping hers, keeping her safe. She felt a lump in her throat. They were glorious memories, even if they were now tainted by the agony of loss. It had only been a year and she still missed him so much.

A waltz kicked in, floaty and dramatic. Initially, it had been youngsters dancing but now it was people of all ages, lured over by the infectious atmosphere of Brick Lane on a chilly April afternoon. Hearing the waltz start, a Sikh man checked his turban and, with a huge grin, he clasped the hands of a woman in a navy-blue trench coat. She was giggling like a schoolgirl, a small flat bag diagonally across her body, her head tilted back, carefree and stunned, as though she hadn’t had so much fun in ages. Rosa guessed the woman was about her age. Perhaps she was a widow too?

Rosa’s hips started to sway, and she was tempted to go over and join in. What was she thinking? She was being silly. She couldn’t. Who would mind the shop while she was cavorting in the street?

Another crowd of youths piled in, hee-hawing and smoking, in their thin cotton clothing and baseball shoes. Some with their bottoms hanging out of their trousers, others in drainpipe jeans. Didn’t they feel the cold? Several more children were in tow. Why weren’t they all at school? Before Rosa knew it, one of them had taken her hand and led her towards the group. Elvis’ crooning tones wafted down the street and once again Rosa’s spirits soared. The teenagers looked so funny, impersonating the rock ’n’ roll moves of ‘All Shook Up’. It was the most fun she’d had on a Friday afternoon since . . .

Józef would have enjoyed this.

‘Come on, Rosa,’ he would have said in his calm, decisive voice, and he’d have locked the shop, led her out into the street and begun whirling her around with that boyish grin of his.

A quick head count told her there were about fifty people dancing now and a good twenty more hanging around. The street whiffed of whacky-backy. Rosa had forgotten her nagging joints and aching legs; the grimy shelves with mounting dust; the delivery boxes she couldn’t carry. For a few sweet moments, she’d stopped feeling sick to death of the damn shop, of book-keeping and fretting over decisions. She didn’t care about any of it anymore. All she wanted was—

A loud splitting sound tore through the air, followed by a series of cracks and bangs. Rosa gasped as orange flames burst out of the top floor windows of the shop opposite, and billowed upwards. Swirling streams of black smoke inked the pale sky. Fire raged behind the first-floor windows, and the ground floor shop was filled with smoke and flames. She cried out in pain as acrid fumes hit her lungs, forcing her to clamp her hand over her mouth. Everyone was shouting and running for cover as burning timber peeled away from windows. Screams pierced the air as lengths of wood and red-hot embers rained down on the crowd below. Rosa’s legs were like jelly and she felt dizzy. She stumbled over something on the ground in front of her and lurched forwards. She made out a woman, clutching her arm.

 

‘Help,’ came the agonised cry at Rosa’s feet. ‘Please help me.’

Panic engulfed Rosa, and she was transported back to the sensory onslaught of the Warsaw Ghetto, to primitive memories of endless screaming, to the cacophony of bombs and blasts and gunshots. From behind, someone shoved her out of the way and she stumbled forwards. All around her, people were coughing, retching and staggering, scarves and hands clasped over their mouths, desperate to escape the blaze. The air was cloying. Putrid. She was plunged into blind terror, realising she could die. This wasn’t Poland, and it wasn’t the end of the war, but she had to get away from the fire and ring 999 before someone died.

As the blaze ripped through the roof, smoke continued to spiral upwards into the sky. Rosa staggered blindly towards the blue door of her shop, to the step and doorway, arms groping ahead for something to grab. The fumes bit at her lungs and she was gasping for air so much she was retching. Finally, her hands grabbed the handle. She used all her weight to heave the door open and stumbled inside, pushing it shut behind her as quickly as she could.

She sucked in some air. It was like breathing through needles. She had to get to the phone in the back room. Stands and magazine racks flashed past her as she lurched towards the till, gasping for breath and snatching for a hold. She hauled her way round the counter, head spinning, and grabbed the phone receiver from the wall. Her eyes were streaming.

Keep blinking, she told herself. Breathe. She tried to calm herself; to rub away the tears that the fumes had produced; to steady her shaking hands and press the buttons. What should she say? Was it terrorists? Had there been an explosion?

Just say FIRE.

Rosa felt her head starting to spin. Lights flashed, dots appeared and she went floppy. Her mind slipped sideways and everything stopped.

**One More Lie Blog Tour**

Charlotte wants a new start. This means forgetting her past – including the years she’s spent in prison and her friend Sean. But, even with a new identity, moving on proves to be less than simple. 

Wearing an ankle monitor, Charlotte visits her therapist regularly but her demons begin to close in, dragging her back down a path which takes her closer to the crime that ruined her life. 

From the moment I picked up ‘One More Lie‘, I was utterly compelled by this original premise. Combining an intriguing idea with skilful plotting and rounded characters, Amy Lloyd has written another gem. 

Amy Lloyd writes with real skill – presenting her characters with empathy and depth. I loved the fact that, despite knowing Charlotte had been involved in something hideous, I couldn’t help but care for her. The supporting characters are used excellently to illustrate the difficulties Charlotte experiences – as well as the kindness she is shown. 

The way in which the story is presented ensures that the reader is kept gripped throughout. ‘One More Lie‘ is one of those books that I kept promising myself “one more chapter” at bedtime then finding myself still reading ages later! 

You can download ‘One More Lie‘ now – or pre-order a physical copy. You won’t regret it – ‘One More Lie‘ had me completely hooked.

Vic x

Getting to Know You: Daniel James

Over the last couple of years, I’ve got to know Daniel James, author of ‘The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas’. I’ve been lucky enough to host him at Noir at the Bar a few times as well as being invited by Daniel to read my own work at his ‘After Dark’ event for Books on Tyne. 

Daniel will be in conversation with Jacky Collins at Waterstones, Newcastle, on Wednesday 30th January. Tickets are £3 and I’m reliably informed that there are a few left – reserve your space now!

My thanks to Daniel for taking the time to chat to us. 

Vic x

daniel james, zurich, october 2017Tell us about your book.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is based on the real life story of Ezra Maas, a British artist who became famous in the late 1960s, but who turned his back on fame and created his greatest artworks from the shadows, before eventually disappearing altogether in mysterious circumstances in the early 2000s. I became interested in telling the true story of Maas’s life and presumed death, but nothing could have prepared me for the truth that the book uncovers.

It quickly occurred to me that in searching for the true story of Maas’s life, travelling around the world to the cities he lived, visiting the galleries where he created his work, and interviewing those who knew and collaborated with him, that my role as biographer was essentially a kind of literary detective. As such, I consciously decided to write these chapters of the book in the style of a detective story, a page-turning mystery thriller through a postmodern, existential lens. However, the book is also very much a biography and there are chapters dedicated to documenting Maas’s life from 1950 onwards in a more journalistic style, accompanied by reproductions of authentic archival material and correspondence, including news clippings, letters, emails, phone transcripts and more. If one half of the book is like a detective story, the other half is a biography written by an investigative journalist. There are a lot of different styles and techniques being employed throughout the text, but they come together to create a new kind of book where readers are challenged to become detectives themselves, following in the footsteps of my investigation, as I attempt to separate fact from fiction and history from myth, page by page, chapter by chapter.

What inspired it?
Ezra Maas’s incredible life story was the inspiration. In 2011, I received an anonymous phone call suggesting the true story of Maas would make an interesting biography and everything led from there. It didn’t take long for my research to reveal a number of contradictions and inconsistencies in the authorised version of Maas’s life, and naturally, the journalist in me began asking questions. The more I asked, the more secrets I uncovered, and I soon found myself being warned off the story. Of course, as soon as that happened, I knew I had found something special and there was no turning back.

Alongside that, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between truth and fiction, the self and reality, as a writer. And in many ways, Maas’s life was the perfect gateway into those subjects and themes. His life, and my interests as a writer, were perfectly aligned and the phone call that set me on the path to writing his biography couldn’t have come at a more ideal moment. I was in the right place at the right time.

I recently read an interview with a writer who described her latest work as ‘existential noir’ because of the way it used the structure of a traditional mystery story to explore unanswerable questions of being and knowing – what can we ever know with any real certainty, about ourselves or the world – and that’s very much the territory I like work in – crafting stories around questions of identity and reality that lead us down the rabbit hole, and force us to confront our deepest subconscious fears.

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I’m happiest when I’m writing regularly because it feels like I’m fulfilling my potential and doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my time. Kafka supposedly said that ‘a writer who isn’t writing, is a monster courting insanity’ and I completely understand what he meant. Whenever I’m not writing, I feel like I should be, and when it’s going well, it’s like electricity flowing through me – it’s a serious high, but more than that, it also provides a deeper sense of purpose and satisfaction.

And on a lighter note, it’s great fun. Who doesn’t want to make up stories and let their imagination run free? I love the freedom that writing gives me. I can create entire worlds, people, and histories. I’ve always been a daydreamer and writing allows me to share my dreams and imaginings with others.

I don’t really dislike anything about writing itself, but like any physical or mental endeavour, there are days when it can really feel like hard work. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to listen to my body and not force myself to write when it isn’t flowing. You can still work on your book without actually writing. You can read for research, visit a location, watch a film, listen to music, take a walk. Professional athletes warm up before an event, they stretch, eat and drink the right things, and get their bodies ready to perform. Writers need to do the same with their minds. Sometimes it’s about clearing your mind to allow space for the ideas to come in, other times it’s about tuning into a certain frequency, atmosphere or mood, and channelling a particular character or scene.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I love reading. It’s one of my great pleasures in life and it’s ultimately the reason I wanted to become a writer myself. I try to get through a novel every couple of weeks if I can. The books I return to the most are detective novels – Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, James M Cain to modern greats like James Lee Burke – and also postmodern works. At university, I specialised in fiction from 1940-1990 and that’s the era I find myself returning to the most when I’m looking for something new to read. I read a lot of comic books and graphic novels too (I practically grew up on Marvel Comics in particular). I’m a fan of Science Fiction and many other genres, and I read quite a bit of non-fiction, mostly literary and cultural theory, but it depends on what I’m working on at the time. I read a lot of books on contemporary art history, biographies and journalism when I was researching Ezra Maas, and I can imagine I’ll do the same with future novels. 

Currently sitting at the top of my to be read list currently are two excellent new novels – Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash and The Study Circle by Haroun Khan. The last book I bought before those was by the late, great Mark Fisher, a cultural theorist who blogged under the name K-Punk. I highly recommend his work to anyone who has yet to come across it. Mark’s writing introduced me to the concept of Hauntology, which I touch on in my own book.

Earlier this year, I also read the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer after being intrigued by Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first in the series, Annihilation. I’ve got a huge stack of books waiting to be read though. I love buying books and I love reading, but I do take long breaks when I’m actively writing myself, so this has resulted in an increasingly expanding To Be Read pile that I’ll probably never get through!

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Paul Auster. Raymond Chandler. Samuel Beckett. James Joyce. Thomas Pynchon. Philip Pullman. Philip K Dick. Jorge Luis Borges. Alasdair Grey. Flann O’Brien. David Lynch.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Everywhere. My life. Other people’s lives. History. Dreams. Music. Films. Ideas are all around us, all of the time. You’ve just got to open your eyes, listen and be in the right frame of mind to be inspired.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
Well, the novel is the best piece of work I’ve written so far and Ezra Maas is probably the most complex character I’ve brought to life, not just because he is a real person, but because there are so many conflicting stories about him. I’ve tried to reflect this in the book by capturing the multiple, overlapping narratives and descriptions, allowing them to coexist alongside each other so that the emphasis is on the reader of the book to play detective themselves and separate fact from fiction in Ezra’s life.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m about halfway through a second novel, which I hope to finish within the year. I actually started working on it in 2013, but Ezra Maas took over my life , so I put the other book on hold temporarily. Now that the Unauthorised Biography’ is out, I can focus on new projects, including returning to my work-in-progress second novel. Once that’s completed, I plan to work my way through the other novels I have planned, although I wouldn’t rule out one of those new ideas becoming my second novel – it just depends which idea excites me the most.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
“Write the books you want to read.” 

Philip Pullman said that to me when I met him at the Durham Book Festival in 2015. It was very reassuring advice to receive from such a master storyteller, particularly as that’s exactly what I’ve always tried to do. I’ve been writing stories since the age of four or five and have always written for myself. If the story excites and interests me, if I want to keep turning the page to find out what happens next, if I find myself disappearing into the world of the book and thinking about it every waking second, then I know I’m on the right track.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
I’m somewhere in between. Generally speaking, I like to follow my intuition and let the story guide me, rather than plotting the entire book out in advance. I have a destination and a road map in my mind, but it has enough wide-open space to allow me to go off on unexpected adventures and detours as and when I need to. I might be the author of the book, but it’s a process of discovery for me too. An author is almost like a pioneer heading off into the wilderness. They discover the trail and share it with the readers who follow them.

Of course, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is based on real events, so it required several years of research, travel, interviews, and quite meticulous planning. At the same time, I remember the moment when I decided to write the book very vividly and I could already see the story fully formed in my mind. It all came to me in an instant. It was a Big Bang moment. One second there was nothing and then… everything. I knew where to start, how I wanted to present the story, with letters and emails and phone transcripts, and I knew exactly how it would end. But it also surprised me on multiple occasions. It kept me guessing all the way through with its twists and turns. It genuinely had a life of its own, sometimes in quite scary ways, almost as if the story couldn’t be contained on the page and wanted to bleed out into the world. Perhaps because it’s based on a true story, it has a special kind of power that makes it dangerous. I may have written it, but I don’t think even I know the book’s true potential.

This book, more than any other idea I’ve ever had, felt like it had already been written in a strange way and I was simply receiving it, like a transmitter, from somewhere out in the ether and it was my job to put it on the page; bring it to life.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
If writing books is really what you want to do, if it’s genuinely your dream in life, then don’t ever, ever give up. Keep going, keep believing in yourself, and keep writing, no matter what. You can and will make it happen, but only if you keep believing and keep writing.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
The moment I found out the book was going to be published will always stand out in my mind. I didn’t tell anyone – not a single person – for about a week as I was worried I would jinx it somehow. It was something that I wanted so much and so badly that I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise it. About two years after that, I walked out onto the stage at the Newcastle Book Festival in front of a crowd of about 80 people, including my family and friends, and I read an extract from the book for the very first time. I was introduced on the night by Professor Brian Ward, we premiered a documentary video about Ezra Maas featuring the award-winning writer and artist Bryan Talbot, and we finished up with a Q&A where I was interviewed by Dr Claire Nally. Everything went as planned and afterwards we celebrated with cocktails created especially for the book at a late night after-party in a speakeasy-style basement bar called The Poison Cabinet in Newcastle. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect night and it was definitely one of my proudest moments.

The long-awaited launch of my novel with a trio of fantastic events in the North East, featuring guest authors and speakers and more than 150 attendees in total. This included a return to Books on Tyne and a special late-night event afterwards entitled Fiction After Dark with cocktails, live music and readings by Elementary Sisterhood. And of course, there was the launch itself at the wonderful Forum Books in Corbridge. It was a really lovely evening and a special moment for me. I can’t recommend Forum Books enough and I think it’s really important to support independent bookstores and local businesses

My next event will be at Waterstones Newcastle – the biggest bookstore in the North East – on Wednesday 30 January at 7pm, so that will be another proud moment. I’ll be reading an extract from the book, answering questions from the brilliant Dr Jacky Collins, and signing copies of my novel at the end. Tickets are £3 and on sale now.

Getting to Know You: Adam Peacock

Drum roll please! May I introduce you to Adam Peacock, a member of Elementary Writers and author of ‘Open Grave‘.

Because Adam is a debut author, I wanted to introduce him to you as I suspect you will be reading Adam’s novels for many years to come.

My thanks to Adam for taking the time to answer my questions.

Vic x

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Tell us about your book(s).
My novel Open Grave is a crime thriller set in the North East of England. The protagonist, DCI Jack Lambert, is different to most other detectives within the genre in that he is gay. On a personal level, this is something he is struggling with, having only recently made this admission at the beginning of the book.

The main ‘crime’ within the story is that of a serial killer who is murdering people in pairs, burying them and then digging them up so that they can be found. Alongside this, gang warfare is about to break out between rival criminal groups and a well-known local celebrity reports that she is being stalked. I wanted to create a sprawling world within my book with multiple threads, the idea being that nothing ever resolves neatly, with certain storylines and characters crossing over into future novels.

What inspired your novel?
I read a lot of crime and so it felt natural to write something within that genre. The inspiration for Open Grave came about from an image I had in my head of a crime scene in which a member of the public stumbles across two bodies in an open grave (strange, I know). The story unfolded from there.

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I quite enjoy editing, which is a good thing as there’s always plenty to do when you don’t intricately plot your book before beginning! Knowing that I am whipping something up into shape is a great feeling.

The thing I dislike most about writing is just how easy it is to fall out of your routine when it comes to putting words onto the page. Like most things in life, a few days away from the computer can easily stretch into weeks and this can lead to unnecessary procrastination.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I do find the time to read. As I prefer to write in the mornings, I dedicate time to read most evenings. I’m currently reading Martina Cole’s Dangerous Lady.

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
As a writer, I would have to say Stephen King and Jo Nesbo. I would also include Lee Child in that list. With regards to Stephen King, I read his book On Writing before I penned so much as a character profile and I use the template he gives in terms of how to go about writing. I also enjoy reading his books!

As for Jo Nesbo, I find the protagonist Harry Hole to be a wonderfully complex character. He has many of the traits that we see in crime fiction from such detectives but I find myself invested in Harry in a way that I rarely find in other books. I also like that Nesbo leaves certain threads open between books, which always leaves me wanting to read more. With Lee Child, it has to be his pacing. I find myself flying through his books and every page carries a tension with it. This is something I am hoping to refine in my own work moving forward.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Usually they just pop into my head either as an image – like happened with Open Grave –  or as a question. I like the idea of concocting a problem, in the form of a question, which seemingly makes no sense initially. Within my own writing, I basically keep asking a number of questions until an answer presents itself. This helps create misdirection.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
I enjoy the opening scene from Open Grave, mainly because it is the opening chapter of my first published novel. In terms of a character, it would have to be gangland boss Dorian McGuinness, my protagonist’s former employer. I feel like his character has a lot of room to grow and that there are all manner of skeletons in his closet which may or may not be revealed in future…

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing the second novel in the DCI Jack Lambert series and I’m excited to see where it will go. This novel is a little more focused around one event and, with characters having already been established in the first novel, I am keen to see how they react to the hurdles put before them.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
In a non-direct sense, Stephen King’s ‘just get an idea and go with it’ has had the biggest impact on me. Whilst this can lead to a lot of editing, it minimises the scope for procrastination and I find myself able to get on with things. I also try to stick to his mantra of completing 1,000 words a day with varying degrees of success.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
I’m definitely not a plotter! Get the idea and run with it. Of course, as I work through a novel, ideas spring into my head in terms of where I want things to go, but you won’t find any colour-coded charts or timelines pinned to my wall. I should point out, that’s not a judgement on writers that do spend time plotting, I’m merely saying that it doesn’t work for me.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes! Read Stephen King’s On Writing, get yourself along to a writing group and don’t fret about giving it a go. Most writers I meet begin by being somewhat self-conscious about their work, often talking down their ability and/or experience. I’d say just get stuck in and see what happens. If you can get into some kind of writing routine, you’ll soon see huge improvements in your work.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
Until recent times it would have been winning the Writers’ Forum monthly magazine short story competition. However, opening the email from Bloodhound Books to find that they believed in my work and wanted to publish Open Grave has definitely topped all other writing-related moments!

You can order/download Open Grave‘ now. You can also follow Adam on Twitter and on Facebook

Getting to Know You: Charlie Laidlaw.

Today it’s my pleasure to host writer Charlie Laidlaw on the blog. My thanks to Charlie for sharing his time and experiences with us. 

Vic x

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Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
My first book, The Herbal Detective (Ringwood Publishing) was inspired by the seventeenth century witch craze. Back then, it was a crime not to believe in witchcraft. What, I thought, would happen now if someone still did believe in witchcraft? That said, to make this improbable tale work, it had to be a bit of a Benny Hill romp. It’s a fun book.

My second, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead (Accent Press), while a gentle comedy, is darker. It’s really a reworking of The Wizard of Oz – young woman gets knocked on the head, remembers her life in flashback, and emerges from the experience as a different person. It’s a book about the power of memory and how, if we remember things in a different way, we can be changed by that experience.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Good question because I have no idea. The basic inspiration for my second book came on a train from Edinburgh to London, which was apt as Edinburgh is the only city in the world to have named its main railway station after a book. When I got home, I wrote the first and last chapters. The first has changed beyond all recognition, but the last chapter is pretty much the same.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
Not really, no. I tend to be something of a perfectionist and am constantly editing and rewriting. I hope that, for the reader, it comes across as effortless. From my perspective, everything is hard work – so I tend to like most of the stuff that eventually makes it into the final cut!

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Not entirely sure what you mean. But I think that good books need good characters, a good plot, and good narrative and dialogue. Those are at least some of the basics. However, as I’ve mentioned the word “plot” I suppose I’m a plotter.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
I’m always reading because I take inspiration from other writers, and the world and the characters they create. You can’t write if you don’t read.  Simples.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
I can’t remember who gave me this advice but, like most advice, it’s both blindingly obvious and wise. Simply: you can’t edit a blank page. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing gibberish. You can go back to it later and turn it into English. The important thing is to keep writing.

What can readers expect from your books?
I hope, to be entertained. But also, maybe, to be taken on a slightly mad thought-provoking journey. I like books that are not too deep, entertain me, and make me smile. I hope that’s what mine do.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep writing and don’t give up. I honestly believe that some of the best books ever written will be mouldering at the bottom of landfill because their authors received one too many rejection. If you genuinely think that what you’ve written has merit, stick with it.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I like the way that one idea can lead onto another and then another. I dislike it when those ideas turn out to be bad ideas, and I’ve wasted days or weeks of my life. I try now to plan well ahead, with an ending in sight.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
It’s complete and provisionally entitled The Space Between Time. While (again) a gentle comedy, it’s also about mental illness and how we can grow up with false impressions of the people closest to us. It was a difficult book to write, because it has to balance lighter elements with tragedy and poignancy.  It will be published late this year or early in 2019.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
I’d like to say, putting in the final full stop. But that just provokes me to go back into the manuscript and edit, edit, edit. So, perhaps the best moment is when your editor and proofreader tell you that no further changes can be made!

Review: ‘I Am, I Am, I Am’ by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am‘ is a memoir told through near-death experiences. 

Maggie O’Farrell is a beautiful writer, she frames every incident with emotional sophistication. The drama inherent in every chapter is balanced with O’Farrell’s exacting attention to detail. I have cried numerous times while listening to this audiobook as well as marvelling at the insightful and intelligent storytelling. 

Separating each chapter with the part of the body that was responsible for her almost-demise, O’Farrell bucks the trend of the chronological autobiography. This is possibly one of the most inspirational books I have ever read. In the dictionary, beside the word ‘resilient’, there should be a picture of Maggie O’Farrell.

From the first chapter, I was absolutely enthralled. Even when I wasn’t listening to it, I was thinking about it. I’m not sure I will ever stop thinking about it.

As someone who rarely revisits books, this is the biggest compliment I can give: I will read ‘I Am, I Am, I Am‘ again.

Vic x