Tag Archives: descriptions

Review: ‘Have You Seen Her’ by Lisa Hall

Nanny Anna only takes her eyes off Laurel for a second, thinking Laurel was following her mum through the crowds. But in a heartbeat, Laurel is gone.

Laurel’s parents are frantic. As is Anna. But as the hours pass, and Laurel isn’t found, suspicion grows. Someone knows what happened to Laurel but they’re not telling.

My mum recommended ‘Have You Seen Her‘ to me and I could not put it down. The narrative is simple yet effective, sucking the reader in. 

Set in a small village, ‘Have You Seen Her‘ explores the reaction of a community after a child goes missing. Sadly, it seemed an all-too-familiar scenario which added some realism to the story. 

Alongside evocative descriptions of place, Hall’s exploration of her characters sets up a great mystery where anyone could be guilty. I thought her descriptions of Laurel’s parents and their relationship were particularly strong.

Have You Seen Her‘ is the first of Lisa Hall’s novels that I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last. 

Vic x

Advertisements

Review: ‘We, The Survivors’ by Tash Aw

A murderer’s confession reveals a story of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny.

Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. With Asian society changing around him, he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh.

Ah Hock’s description of the years building up to this appalling act of violence – told over several days to a local journalist whose life has taken a different course – is a portrait of an outsider like no other. 

We, The Survivors‘ reminded me of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist‘ by Mohsin Hamid, possibly because it’s the story of a life-changing event, told in second person.

We, The Survivors‘ is a story of class, education and what it is to be an outsider. The idea that Ah is a person who’s excluded from the rapid modernisation of Asian society, despite the dominant narrative being that of everyone can succeed marks him as different even though there are many people that have a similar experience. The struggle to survive in a constantly changing world is almost palpable. 

The level of detail that Tash Aw goes into when describing locations and scenarios is astounding, building up tremendously evocative imagery. 

Tash Aw’s character study of a man who loses control in the most appalling way makes ‘We, The Survivors‘ an insightful, thought-provoking read.

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.

Review: ‘She Lies in Wait’ by Gytha Lodge

If you follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Goodreads, you may have seen that I’ve been championing ‘She Lies in Wait‘ by Gytha Lodge since I got my hands on an advance copy at Harrogate last July. There was a huge buzz about this book at the festival and I was determined not to leave without a copy.

In July 1983, six school friends go camping in the forest. Aurora Jackson is allowed to tag along with her sister’s group of friends. Thirty years after her disappearance, Aurora’s body is discovered in a secret hideaway that only the six on the camping trip knew about. For three decades, the group have maintained their innocence but DCI Sheens is about to uncover the truth, and it’s been lurking closer to home than anyone realised…

Set across two timelines, ‘She Lies in Wait‘ is a twisty read which explores the impact of how one tragic night echoes throughout the years. Lodge evokes the 1980s perfectly, capturing the era with strong descriptions and cultural references. I found it really easy to get in the mindset of the characters because Lodge captures the preoccupations and concerns of teenagers with aplomb. 

She Lies in Wait‘ isn’t your average crime novel. Gytha Lodge has managed to create a nuanced portrayal of a crime and how it impacts on those left behind. Lodge considers the impact of the murder on not only the family of the victim but the detective who is haunted by the lack of resolution. It’s also a really interesting study on what happens to those who are accused. 

Fans of ‘Unforgotten‘ will love ‘She Lies in Wait‘. 

Vic x

Review: ‘what are you like’ by Shelley Day

img_3133

In ‘what are you like‘, Shelley Day studies the human condition and the uncertainties of life. Day evokes familiar yet unusual settings, a library where a mother lives on a shelf and a diner where words fall from the menu.

There is something so ordinary but so other-worldly about each of these stories, lending the narratives an ethereal quality. Day’s descriptions drip with delightful dynamism, conjuring worlds that completely envelope the reader. 

What I liked about the range of stories in this collection is that they provoke the reader and encourage us to ask questions. What is not said is almost more important than what is said in this collection. By trusting the reader, Shelley Day gives her audience the chance to explore their own feelings about a range of issues.

what are you like‘ is full of complex, detailed stories that don’t underestimate the reader and I find that this makes it unlike any other book I have read this year. 

This collection covers such a range of deep issues, dropping characters into almost-impossible situations and seeing how they fare. Shelley Day particularly manages to capture the adolescent voice well. 

An intelligent, thought-provoking read which will stay with the reader long after the stories have ended. 

Vic x

Review: ‘The Hermitage’ by LJ Ross

When an old man is found dead inside the ancient hermitage at Warkworth Castle, Northumbria CID are called in to investigate. With no apparent motive, it’s their job to discover why he was murdered – and this time they’re forced to do it without their star detective as DCI Ryan has tracked a killer across Europe and has sworn not to return until he has his man in custody. Nathan Armstrong is a dangerous psychopath but there’s just one problem – he’s also an international celebrity; a world-famous thriller writer with money and connections.

When I began reading ‘The Hermitage‘, I was staying in a hotel very close to the village of Warkworth, where LJ Ross’s latest book is set. I loved being even more immersed in the setting than usual. However, Ross’s descriptions are so evocative that you’ll be able to picture the locations even if you haven’t visited them before. 

The Hermitage‘ is also unusual in the fact that DCI Ryan is actually out of the UK, we follow him and his wife Anna to Florence. Despite the beauty of their surroundings, Ryan and Anna find themselves fighting for their lives against an intelligent adversary. 

I really enjoyed finding out more about Nathan Armstrong’s backstory, LJ Ross demonstrates an insightful streak by understanding the motives behind his heinous acts. Combined with a keen awareness of her main character, Ross uses ‘The Hermitage‘ to inform her readers about Ryan and his family too. 

I think what continues to make the DCI Ryan series so successful is Ross’s ability to combine some awful crimes with strong relationships between the recurring characters. I particularly enjoy the banter between Ryan and Phillips. 

Ross’s stories demonstrate a duality that most of us experience: that things are rarely all good or all bad. 

I honestly did not want ‘The Hermitage‘ to end, it was utterly gripping. However, DCI Ryan fans don’t have long to wait for the next instalment: ‘Longstone‘ is due to be released on 10th December. Before that, though, is a new multicast drama on audiobook. ‘The Infirmary‘ will be available on Audible from 8th November. I, for one, can’t wait! 

Vic x

Review: ‘My Name is Anna’ by Lizzy Barber

On Anna’s eighteenth birthday she defies her Mamma’s rules to visit Astroland, Florida’s biggest theme park, despite her mother’s ban on the place. When she arrives, though, Astroland seems familiar. On the same day, Anna receives a mysterious letter she receives and she starts to question her whole life.

In London, Rosie has grown up in the shadow of the missing sister she barely remembers.  With the fifteenth anniversary of her sister’s disappearance looming, the media circus starts up again, and Rosie uncovers some information that threatens to tear her family apart. Will Rosie uncover the truth before her family implodes?

I enjoyed ‘My Name is Anna‘ from the outset, my attention was grabbed by the intriguing prologue and beautiful prose. Lizzy Barber manages to balance a compelling narrative with excellent attention to detail and exquisite descriptions.

Told from two points of view, ‘My Name is Anna‘ is an interesting study of self-discovery. By having eighteen year old Anna and Rosie, who is sixteen, Barber evokes a time every reader can understand: adolescence. Combining typical coming-of-age drama with a serious crime is an effective tactic, I thought this was particularly inventive. 

The characters are well-drawn and, thanks to Barber’s descriptions, I could see them in my mind’s eye. Anna’s mamma, in particular, was brilliantly evoked.

My Name is Anna‘ is such an intelligently-written book. It covers all sorts of issues including religion, coercion and the repercussions of past mistakes. It’s fast-paced yet sensitive, with several layers. 

If I had to compare ‘My Name is Anna‘ with other books, I’d say ‘Carrie‘ meets ‘Sharp Objects‘ with a sprinkling of ‘The Couple Next Door‘. 

My Name is Anna‘ is Lizzy Barber’s debut novel and is available to download now. The paperback is released in January 2019. 

Vic x