Tag Archives: characterisation

Review: ‘Critical Incidents’ by Lucie Whitehouse

DI Robin Lyons has been dismissed for misconduct from the Met’s Homicide Command after refusing to follow orders. Unable to pay her bills (or hold down a relationship), she is left with no choice but to move back in with her parents in the city she thought she’d escaped forever at 18. This time, though, Robin has her teenage daughter Lennie in tow. 

In Birmingham, sharing a bunkbed with Lennie and navigating the stormy relationship with her mother, Robin works as a benefit-fraud investigator – to the delight of those wanting to see her cut down to size.

Only Corinna, Robin’s best friend of 20 years, seems happy to have Robin back. But when Corinna’s family is engulfed by violence and her missing husband becomes a murder suspect, Robin can’t bear to stand idly by as the police investigate. As Robin begins her own investigation, she realises there may be a link to the disappearance of a young woman, and she begins to wonder how well we ever know the people we care about. 

Having read Lucie Whitehouse’s ‘The Bed I Made‘ several years ago, I was intrigued to read ‘Critical Incidents which seemed a rather different premise to the ‘The Bed I Made‘. 

As I have come to expect from Lucie Whitehouse’s writing, ‘Critical Incidents‘ is a superb story, with sensitive characterisation and an emotional pull that you often don’t get from crime fiction. I couldn’t put ‘Critical Incidents‘ down. It’s a wonderful blend of pacey plot and intrigue with a touch of humour in the darkness.

There are plenty of interlinking stories here which some may dismiss as “convenient” but I actually enjoyed the story so much that I was happy to suspend my disbelief. 

Whitehouse has a real skill for presenting fictional crime alongside domesticity and I really like that about her writing. She really captures familial tensions perfectly – the tense relationship between Robin and her mother adds plenty to the story.

The way in which Whitehouse portrays Robin is pitch perfect. Despite obviously being a competent officer, Robin’s unwillingness to play by the rules consistently gets her in bother. I like that Robin has her problems but her intentions are good. I could really identify with Robin and her well-intentioned missteps. 

Critical Incidents‘ is a must-read. 

Vic x

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Review: ‘The Secretary’ by Renee Knight

Look around you. Who holds the most power in the room? Is it the one who speaks loudest, who looks the part, who has the most money, who commands the most respect?

Or is it someone like Christine Butcher: a meek, overlooked figure, who silently bears witness as secrets are shared  Someone who quietly, perhaps even unwittingly, gathers together the knowledge of the people she’s there to serve – the ones who don’t notice her, the ones who consider themselves to be important.

There’s a fine line between loyalty and obsession. And when someone like Christine Butcher is pushed to her limit, she might become the most dangerous person in the room . . .

Christine is an average wife and mother, who is the personal assistant to Mina Appleton, the chair of a large supermarket chain. Following accusations of unethical practices within Mina’s business, Christine has to decide how far she wants to go to prove her loyalty to her boss in a surprisingly cutthroat industry. 

As ‘The Secretary‘ progresses, told through Christine’s eyes, it was interesting as a reader to work out what had happened to Christine and where she was telling her story from. When this was revealed where she actually was, I was quite surprised. Renee Knight didn’t go for the most obvious explanation and I appreciated that. 

I thought Renee Knight’s characterisation in this novel was very strong. I enjoyed the transformation in Christine as her job became all-encompassing. I thought the character of Mina seemed really believable, her manipulative behaviour certainly seemed to represent what we have come to expect from heads of corporations. In many ways, ‘The Secretary‘ reminded me of ‘The Devil Wears Prada‘. 

I thought the idea of having the central crime in this novel centre around unethical business practices and perverting the course of justice was really original. Although it may not initially seem as compelling as murder, this story seemed really realistic and the behaviour of the characters made me want to read on. This is a character-driven psychological thriller which keeps the tension tight throughout.

Vic x

Getting to Know You: Lucy Nichol

I’m delighted to host Lucy Nichol, author of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes‘, to the blog.

My thanks to Lucy for taking the time to chat to us today and for her honesty. 

Vic x

Lucy N - headshot - colour.JPGTell us about your book.
A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes is a memoir that’s packed with comment about mental health stigma and how it has influenced my thinking over the years. I tried to write it humorously and accessibly, as I’m an expert by lived experience when it comes to mental health – I am not a professional. So the views on the book are simply based on what I have soaked up and how I feel about it all.

It takes us through a range of stereotypes linked to mental health, and compares them to the reality. 

front cover - a series of unfortunate stereotypes

What inspired it?
I started writing and blogging in 2016. I started working as a media volunteer / champion with Time to Change and I also when started writing regularly for a range of media titles. The title of the book came to me when I wrote my first piece for Sarah Millican’s Standard Issue magazine, which was almost a summary of everything that is in the book. It was all about stigma and how we perceive anxiety disorders, specifically, as that was what my personal experience was based on. 

I love the Lemony Snickett stories, but Aunt Josephine sprung to mind when I was trying to think of a fictional well-known character with anxiety. And I thought – Christ, I have anxiety and I’m nothing like Aunt Josephine. I was convinced she was a pretty poor role model for anxiety.

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I find writing heaps of fun. I have a real thing for nostalgia, which is why I write so much about the 80s and 90s – not just my experience but everything that was happening around me – from food and TV shows to government safety campaigns and pop music. It always makes me smile and gives me context as to why and how my opinions on life have changed over the years.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I never stop! I’m currently finishing Lost Connections by Johann Hari which I can genuinely say is quite the life changer and I urge anyone to read it.

When I first started reading I was apprehensive, as I have naturally always yearned for quick fixes in everything. I think that is why I rely solely on taking anti-depressants and going for therapy, rather than adding self care into the mix as well. This book is a real eye-opener and I believe it’s good to challenge our own beliefs.

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I love Caitlin Moran’s no-nonsense humour and focus on music, as well as Aaron Gillie’s (aka Technically Ron) hilarious reflections on living a life with anxiety. But I think overall the biggest influence on me was, and still is, the Standard Issue community. Sarah Millican set that magazine up (which now runs as a podcast) as a no-bullshit magazine for women. And all the contributors – from comedians to every day peeps like me – have a real authentic feel about them. It’s refreshing and it helped me find a voice. It made the in-crowd inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Where do you get your ideas from?
I look around me and I consider how pop culture / society has impacted me. I can’t comment on other people’s relationships with it, but I can share my own, and it seems to have rung true with a good few people so hopefully it is relatable.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
I’ve just started experimenting with fiction, and I have created a character I would love to hang out with. She has elements of me in there but overall, aside from her anxiety and taste in music, she’s a very different character. Far more confident, I’d say. I wrote a scene about her trip to her local pub with her best mate, who is made up of lots of people from my past, and it was so much fun to write.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the fiction project mentioned above, as well as a series of short stories I’m working on together with my husband, actor Chris Connel. It’s been interesting so far, we’ve had to be very careful to avoid the bickering, so we have set out clear boundaries – I’m doing the research and overarching concepts, he’s doing the characterisation and creative scriptwriting!

Me!.jpg

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
I arranged a manuscript assessment recently via The Literary Consultancy and author Angela Clarke was my assessor. Her review was honest and helpful, giving me some technical advice, but also getting me to think more about the bigger picture. It helped no end – giving me encouragement but also making me realise how commercial I need to be, and how I need to keep at it until I get it right (remember what I said earlier about always wanting the quick fixes – this was a reminder that I needed to hone my ideas before pitching them out).

I also remember, when I very first started writing a proposal for my book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, author and blogger, Claire Eastham asked me some tough questions to help me to craft the proposal. She apologised for being so challenging, but it was her most challenging questions, I believe, that have helped me the most.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Ha – probably a pantster. I just write and write whatever comes into my head. In experimenting with fiction, I have, however, done a bit of planning with regards to characterisation and an outline structure, which has been immensely helpful. But for blogs and comment and my own memoir, I fire up the laptop and see what happens.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I still see myself as very much a fledgling writer, so I am learning all the time. But I think the most important things I have picked up are to keep at it. I’ve had rejection after rejection – and I’m still seeking a literary agent to this day. But I am not giving up. I read somewhere you have to enjoy writing and writing for yourself. That way, regardless of what comes of it, it’s time well spent.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
I could go for the big one and say it was when I was invited to Buckingham Palace with the Time to Change and Mind teams for World Mental Health Day in 2016. It was pretty amazing to be part of that and sit on a royal throne (of the lavatorial kind, of course). However, I think the proudest moment for me was seeing the impact that my writing has had. One person, who I won’t name but she knows who she is, has made me feel that every single hour put into writing and trying to get my work out there has been worth it, after messaging me to say she was close to calling an ambulance during a severe panic attack, but she asked her husband to read my blog out to her and it helped to calm her down. There’s nothing that can beat that kind of response to your work. That has to be the proudest moment for me.  

Review: ‘The Tall Man’ by Phoebe Locke

Almost thirty years ago, three young girls devote themselves to a shadowy figure in the woods. Ten years later, a young mother disappears, leaving her husband and baby behind. In 2018, a teenager captures the world’s imagination when she is charged with murder. These three terrifying events are all connected by one shadow that looms large. 

Where do I start?! Well, if you enjoy novels like ‘Gone Girl‘ and ‘The Girls‘, then you’ll love The Tall Man‘. I whipped through this novel – it’s achingly on point and I found it totally compelling. The characterisation in this novel is so skilled, I found myself utterly taken in by the key players in this story.  

The Tall Man‘ examines the blurring of the lines between criminal and superstar. You can see that Phoebe Locke has been inspired by real events – I was reminded of the media’s obsession with Amanda Knox and the Slender Man mythology – but the culmination of this is an absolute corker of a novel.

Phoebe Locke’s debut novel plays with the grey area between reality and psychosis. What is it that links these characters through the years? Is it something paranormal or is it something psychological? Locke builds up a relentless atmosphere of unease throughout the story and it left me questioning what was real. 

Standing alongside novels like ‘Hydra‘ and ‘The Bone Keeper‘, ‘The Tall Man‘ promises that once he’s with you, he won’t leave you alone. 

The plotting in this novel is masterful and it all comes together to leave the reader afraid to turn out the light. 

I implore you to read this book – but only in daylight. 

Vic x

Getting to Know You: Claire MacLeary

Today on the blog, we have the lovely Claire MacLeary. Claire is the author of ‘Cross Purpose’ which was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize – Bloody Scotland’s annual prize – this year. The award was renamed in memory of William McIlvanney who was often described as the Godfather of Tartan Noir so to be nominated is an exceptional achievement. 

I have met Claire on several occasions and she has always been incredibly kind to me. When I heard Claire read from ‘Cross Purpose’, I was utterly blown away. Her character, Big Wilma, has really captured readers’ imaginations. I can’t wait to host her at Noir at the Bar one day. 

Thanks to Claire for sharing her thoughts with us. 

Vic x

Congrats on the nomination! How did that feel?
Surreal. I was on a boat in Bratislava relaxing after submitting my second book, when instinct told me to switch on my phone. My publisher, Sara Hunt, had been trying to contact me and ultimately sent a text. With no signal or Wi-fi access – and wild imaginings as to what crisis could have precipitated the message –  I rushed ashore, found a bar with good reception and … well, luckily I was sitting down when I read her email. Needless to say, I was so giddy the rest of that day is a blur.

 

How did you feel at the awards ceremony?
Happy and humble in turn. The late Willie McIlvanney was a towering figure in Scottish literature, the founding father of Tartan Noir and the most charming and unassuming of men. To be longlisted for a prestigious award that bears his name – and that in the company of such stellar fellow nominees – validates the hard work I have put in over the past few years and is at the same time deeply humbling.

Had you read the other shortlisted books?
Almost all. I made a start when Bloody Scotland announced the longlisters – tagged The Dirty Dozen – and I am still working through the eleven other novels (I’m currently reading Jay Stringer’s How to Kill Friends and Implicate People). Familiar with the writing of the big name nominees, I started with Helen Fields and Owen Mullen, debut authors like myself. I was blown away by Perfect Remains (I thought my mind was dark till I read the gruesome torture scenes) and loved Owen’s Glasgow PI, Charlie Cameron. But my money for the McIlvanney Prize  was on Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, in part because I spent half my childhood living in Burnside at the time the Watt murders were committed there.

Tell us about your book, ‘Cross Purpose‘.
I’d developed a literary novel from my MLitt thesis, but had an early rebuff, being told domestic fiction didn’t sell. Having already written the first scene of Cross Purpose for a writing exercise, I consigned the literary novel to a drawer and decided to try my hand at crime fiction.
Set in Aberdeen, where I lived for some years, my debut novel is a departure from the norm in that its protagonists are neither experienced police professionals nor highly qualified forensic scientists, but two women ‘of a certain age’. They’re an unlikely pair: Maggie petite, conservative, conventional. Her neighbour, Wilma, is a big girl: coarse, in your face and a bit dodgy. But before your readers decide Cross Purpose is ‘cosy crime’ be warned, it’s dark. Humorous too. Think Tartan Noir meets Happy Valley.

What inspired ‘Cross Purpose‘?
I moved from Edinburgh to Aberdeen when my first child was born. Having given up a high-intensity job as a training consultant and far from friends and family, I looked for something I could do with a baby under one arm and became an antiques dealer. Then, when my son started primary school, I opened a sandwich bar. Cross Purpose was inspired by the colleagues who worked with me there, and in the spin-off catering business: women whose aspirations and self-confidence were constrained by the lack of affordable childcare. Most hadn’t had the benefit of further education, yet they rose magnificently to every challenge – and there were loads! My book is a tribute to those unsung women.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Life. As an older woman, I have plenty to write about. Aside from consultancy work, I’ve done a range of jobs: market trader, advertising copywriter, laundry maid. I’ve travelled widely: India, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan as well as Europe and USA. I’ve also had some challenging experiences: detained by soldiers in the Egyptian desert, escorted at gunpoint off an aeroplane in Beirut, given a talk to Business School students at Harvard, drunk cocktails in a private suite at The Pierre.
I’m curious. I keep my eyes and ears open, a notebook always to hand. It’s amazing what a writer can pick up.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
George Laird’s funeral scene always makes me cry. Then I feel heaps better. If it can still move me, there’s a chance it will move my readers.
That apart, I love writing the scenes where Wilma is pushing the boundaries. It was my publisher who coined the ‘Big Wilma’ moniker. I was resistant at first, because I didn’t want Maggie’s business partner to morph into a figure of fun. I needn’t have worried. Readers have taken both protagonists to their hearts: Maggie because she’s straight as a die, Wilma for her frailties as well as her couthy humour.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
‘Make every word count.’ The advice came from the acclaimed New Zealand novelist Kirsty Gunn, my MLitt professor at the University of Dundee. Kirsty was a hard taskmaster, and some of her strictures didn’t make sense until long after I’d gained my degree. But the rigour she instilled, together with the reading list she tailored to my needs, combined to make me a better writer.

What can readers expect from your novel?
Strong characterisation. I try to draw characters my readers can readily identify with: think Maggie’s money worries, Wilma’s yo-yoing weight, their respective marital woes, their hopes and fears for their offspring.
Pared-down style. I’ve been told my writing ‘says a lot in a few words’ and ‘leaves a lot unsaid’. I set out to engage the reader, but leave room for interpretation.
Social commentary: affordable childcare, housing problems, alcohol/drug dependency to name a few.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep chipping away. I’m impatient by nature, but have learned the big projects take their own time.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I love that feeling of satisfaction when you write a good sentence, or even find the right word. Problem is, you can waste time trying to fine-tune when what’s needed is to get on and write the first draft. Good advice is to circle or highlight the words that aren’t quite right and sort later.
I have a low boredom threshold, and get weary halfway through the edit, even though I know it will improve the end result.
That said, after several years and endless rewrites, it was a thrill to finally see Cross Purpose in print, even more satisfying to see it earn plaudits from book bloggers and readers.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Burnout
, second in the Harcus & Laird series, has gone to proof and will launch in Spring 2018.
A short story will appear in the next issue of Gutter Magazine.
My literary novel has been turned on its head and may yet find a home.
My head is bursting with ideas for a police procedural into which I’m trying to insert Maggie and Wilma.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
It should be when I got offers for Cross Purpose from two separate publishers, but I must admit that scenario was eclipsed by those few minutes when, with my fellow McIlvanney Prize longlisters, I was piped across the courtyard of Stirling Castle into the Great Hall to thunderous applause.

Review: ‘The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene’ by E.V. Harte

Dolly Greene, professional Tarot reader and resident of Tinderbox Lane, finds herself disturbed by what appears to be a psychic vision, during a reading for the mysterious Nikki on a stiflingly hot summer’s day. The vision, of what appears to be Nikki’s face covered in bruises and blood, throws Dolly off balance and her usual patter is interrupted.

Following a bizarre phone call a few days later, the body of a woman is washed up by Chiswick Bridge. The body is battered and bruised, leading Dolly to suspect that Nikki has been dealt a very bad hand indeed. However, Dolly must ask herself how she can be sure and how far she’s willing to go to follow her intuition.

Although I would have described ‘The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene‘ as cosy crime initially, I have to admit that E.V. Harte doesn’t shy away from violence or bad language but that, for me, made the book more believable. It’s set in modern-day London and I think a modern crime novel must have an element of unsavouryness about it! However, the swearing and violence is tempered with lovely, lively characters who leap off the page and into your heart. Dolly, her daughter Pippa and Raff, the policeman are all extremely lovable in their own ways.

The characterisation in this novel is perfect; E.V. Harte manages to pitch each individual character at exactly the right level to evoke a certain emotion in the reader. Whether it’s the bumbling Professor West or the intimidating Ade, E.V. Harte has a real gift at creating convincing characters.

In addition to the crime element of this novel, there is a vein of humour and the potential for romance running through the story. I absolutely loved it. ‘The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene‘ is perfect for fans of M.C. Beaton’s ‘Agatha Raisin novels.

The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene‘ is the first in a new series for Daisy Waugh, writing under the pseudonym E.V. Harte. I’m already dying for the next instalment (which is due out next year).

Vic x