Tag Archives: fiction

Review: ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover

What is it to be educated? Is it to have spent every day of your life from the age of four until the age of twenty-one in a classroom? Is it the ability to read and write? How about being able to reflect deeply on your own personal experiences? 

Tara Westover was not educated in the way one might expect. She did not have school records. In fact, she didn’t have medical records. Tara Westover didn’t even have a birth certificate – officially, she didn’t exist. Tara grew up in Idaho with a father who didn’t trust in intervention.

From the moment she was born, Tara was to be taught to prepare for the End of Days. Her mother ‘home-schooled’ Tara and some of her siblings while their father proselytised about the dangers posed by doctors, teachers, government and law enforcement.

At the age of sixteen, Tara decided to educate herself. That decision took her to Harvard and then to Cambridge.

Having recently heard Tara talk at Forum Books about her experiences growing up a Mormon with an increasingly radical father and erratic brother, I was moved by the erudite way in which she spoke about her unusual childhood and her decision to make a change in her life.

Educated‘ is a beautifully written memoir. Westover’s prose is almost lyrical, featuring evocative descriptions of the rolling hills. Her gorgeous writing is juxtaposed with the terror I felt when reading about some of the things she had lived through. At times, the events were so out of my sphere of understanding, I had to check online that this was a memoir and not fiction! 

Throughout ‘Educated‘, there is a sense of not quite knowing what will happen next. At times, the tension was almost too much to bear. Westover masterfully allows the reader to tread the fine line she walked on a daily basis. There is also a feeling of sadness and grief that pervades this memoir. Ultimately, though, ‘Educated‘ is a hopeful book about the power of taking control and never giving up. 

Tara Westover is my hero.

Vic x

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Getting to Know You: David Ahern

I’m here to introduce readers of the blog to writer to David Ahern, author of the Madam Tulip Mysteries. I hope you enjoy learning about David and his work and find some of his advice helpful. 

Thanks to David for sparing some time to chat to us.

Vic x

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Tell us about your books.
The Madam Tulip Mysteries follow a young actress who moonlights as a fortune teller at celebrity events. Fortune tellers get told the most surprising things. But where you have money and secrets you’ll soon have trouble and crime. 

What inspired them?
Actors are wonderful people, dedicated to their art but who have a hard time making a living.  What do you do to pay the rent if you act and you’re a teeny bit psychic?

Where do you get your ideas from?
Staring into space, mostly. If I stare for long enough, ideas will come just so I can get something to eat.

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Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
All of the Madam Tulip books have hilarious scenes between Derry’s divorced parents, her Irish artist father and her stupendously successful American art dealer mother.  Readers love them, and I do too.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Both. A bit of plotting and bit of pantsing. I write character-driven stories, so I have to let the characters take me where they want to go.  On the other hand, a mystery has to be cleverly put together, so you need to plan.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Not fiction, but I devour non-fiction. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
My mother (who is a wonderful actress and writer) said: ‘Apply seat of pants to seat of chair.’ It works.

What can readers expect from your books?
The most believable heroine out there, lots of laughs and page-turning tension.  

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Learn to punctuate fluently.  You won’t believe the freedom it will give you.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Love making myself laugh out loud (or blub). Hate being stuck at a desk.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Madam Tulip Book #4.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Seeing the galley proof for the first time.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Cathie Devitt

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

My guest today is Cathie Devitt who will be telling us all about how her working life inspired her writing. Cathie’s final novel in the Bernice O’Hanlon trilogy, ‘Don’t Break the Circle’ is due out later this year. Thanks to Cathie for being part of this series.

Vic x

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My working life began at the tender age of 15, I lied and said I was 16 to get the weekend job). 

The children’s clothes shop I went to work in was owned by the female half of a wealthy Italian family for whom the men’s business was ice cream. Yup. Ice cream.

The clothes were all imported from Italy, designer label and very expensive. Parents all want their little angels to look their best, even if it meant paying for the outfits on credit. That, and the regular visits from celebrities and football stars, kept the business going. There were loads of interesting characters to draw on from that experience.

My full-time work varied from working in National (yawn) Savings (yawn) Bank to working in a bakery putting the jam into doughnuts. Mis-shapes were a perk of the job as was overfilling said doughnuts and slurping hot jam as it dribbled down my hand. The characters I have worked with in catering have given me great one-liners and insight.

Life chuntered on and I worked as a waitress, cleaner, in a supermarket, as a civil servant and for youth charities. I was a housing officer for years working in one of the poorest areas of Scotland. Most of the housing was flats within closes, so 8-12 flats in one building. Have you ever seen a tank housing Iguanas fill an entire living space? The fact that the tenant fed them live crickets didn’t go down well with his neighbours who found the critters in their cornflakes and were wakened by a morning chorus of crickets rubbing their legs together. 

I have travelled extensively on high class airlines courtesy of my sister’s staff travel perks and have seen “trolley dollies” in action. Believe me, their lipstick is a badge of honour. Strong characters, strong stomachs. Watching the crew and the travellers was a gift for a writer.

Some people say they long to write full time as a career. For me, with the retirement age going up, I am likely to expire before I retire, but I feel that writers benefit from interaction with other people and what better way than working with the general public?

I currently work in local government and see first-hand the issues faced by people, the way politicians handle situations and the press coverage that can make or break policies. 

I have never blatantly characterised a real person in my writing, but my current trilogy, the life of Bernice O’Hanlon, is loosely based on my friend who is a High Priestess, Wiccan witch. The plot is based on some true events, some are total fiction. That is the power of the pen. I wouldn’t want to expose someone or hurt anyone’s feelings so my characters are all patchwork.

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**Friends and Traitors Blog Tour** Getting to Know John Lawton.

Today it’s my pleasure to welcome John Lawton to the blog. His latest novel ‘Friends and Traitors‘ is available now. 

Many thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions today.

Vic x

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Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
I really don’t know. I’ve written most of my life. Certainly since 1957 when I first encountered Shakespeare’s history plays. And in the years that followed, since you can’t imitate Shakespeare’s dialogue unless you’re Tom Stoppard (and whoever watched or read him for his plots?), I came under the influence of writers who were writing stunning dialogue. My first sight of a Pinter play about three years later is still vivid.

Peter Cook’s EL Wisty monologues were compulsive and when the Dagenham Dialogues with Dudley Moore came along … well, I think I learnt as much from them as I did from Pinter. The really odd thing is the switch from writing drama to writing novels, which happened about 1983 … cause? … failure. Wasn’t getting anywhere as a playwright. That said, much of what I write, certainly in earlier drafts, strikes me as reading like a two-hander play. That’s how most of my books begin  … two voices talking in my head.

A taste for dialogue, a course in Russian at University, reading Gorky Park, watching Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game (not the recent film of the same name) all fuelled the plot line that became my first Troy novel.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Dunno where they come from, but I know where they arrive. Usually in trains, and almost as often out walking. I do a lot of walking.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I think my favourite scene might be towards the end of A Little White Death, when Tara Ffitch takes about a page to slam the morality that put her in court. I stand by every word of that. And I’m quite partial to the scene in Friends and Traitors when Guy Burgess rattles off the list of things he misses in his Russian exile. My favourite characters would be among the minor figures … Fish Wally in two or three novels, and Swift Eddie in most of them — a part I wrote hoping Warren Clarke would play him one day.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Not sure I quite understand the question, but I usually have a plot fully worked out in my head before I write a word. Only book I’ve ever plotted on paper was Black Out.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Yes. But not books by anyone doing what I’m doing.

I spent last autumn on a Mick Herron binge, and I think I’ve just begun a Timothy Hallinan binge. Neither of them write historicals.

I keep picking up and putting down Illusions Perdues. I think I might have to wait for a new, better translation, but if that theory works why do I have six different translations of Ovid?

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
“Write a book a year and take control of your life” – Gore Vidal. Somewhere I still have the letter.

I’ve never been able to do that of course. Come to think of it, I turned down a book-a-year offer from Penguin ages ago. I’m a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series which appears very regularly and I don’t know how he does it. My ‘mentor’ Ariana Franklin got up to a book a year in her seventies, but I honestly think it was exhausting for her. With hindsight I wish she’d slowed down. So good advice as yet unheeded.

What can readers expect from your books?
Writer vanity prompts me to say that I hope I can shatter expectations with the odd surprise, but a running character creates expectations otherwise she/he would be rather inconsistent. So expect politics, romance, a touch of mayhem. Do not expect a who-dunnit, as my books can bang on for another fifty pages after the who of dunnit is obvious. I cannot change Troy’s character, he will change only as the time-setting of the novels change (and I’ve never liked the idea of fiction existing outside of time …  Troy ages and hence changes) but I quite deliberately move the locations around. Black Out is set entirely in London, with Old Flames I went rural and in Friends & Traitors has a lengthy continental journey before settling back in London.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Yep. Abandon all social media. Leave it to Trump, he’s welcome to it. I am looking forward to his ‘Twitts from Prison’. Shut down your twitt and bookface accounts, resign from your readers & writers group, bin your iphone, stop talking about writing and write.

If anyone asks why they haven’t seen much of you lately tell them you’ve been studying for the civil service entry exam and are hoping for a job with the ministry of [fill in blank as appropriate]. My usual choice is the ‘White Fish Authority.’ Such a wonderful name for a government ministry, alas it shut up shop in 1981. I wonder if there was ever a ‘Chips and Mushy Peas Marketing Board’?

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Like … the doing of it. One of the best narcotics around and it’s free.

Dislike … promoting a book. Best regarded as a necessary evil. I hate being photographed. (Sorry, Ali Karim.)

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Yep. Third book in the Wilderness trilogy. And another game of with Zoë Sharp. All done by email as we live in different countries.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Dunno. I live by writing, which I consider most fortunate, but to say my moment was the first time I received a fat cheque would be both crass and untrue. I’m not interested in prizes, the gongs and daggers, and winning one didn’t engage with me much. I think it has to be ‘finishing-summat-that-had-me really-foxed’  … which has happened from time to time, but I’m not saying which book or books it was.

**Black Water Blog Tour** Author Interview

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Our guest today is Cormac O’Keeffe, author of ‘Black Water‘. I’m delighted to have been included on the blog tour of a book that has been described as ‘…’The Wire‘, set in Dublin’ (Brian McGilloway) so my thanks to the publisher and to Cormac for sparing the time to appear on my blog.

Vic x

Cormac O'Keeffe

Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
My debut novel Black Water is about a boy groomed into a criminal gang and the fight to save him and bring the gang to justice.

A number of factors influenced the novel. The first was living in communities affected by gangs and the drugs trade, amid economic neglect and a struggling policing response. I wanted to tell a story about that, through the experiences of a vulnerable boy. In the areas I lived, there was no shortage of boys running fairly wild on the street, without much structure and afraid of no one. All those things and a lot more fed into my character of Jig, who is being reeled into a gang. Poured into that mix were other events and experiences from my work as a journalist.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Many of my ideas came from living in communities and my work as a journalist specialising in crime, drugs and policing. I have met many people over that time, from community workers to detectives. But really the ideas come from deep within.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
It’s hard to single out a particular character as a favourite. I have so many of them. I have three main characters that I am very close to. There are a host of secondary characters that I really like, including gang members, such as local crime boss Ghost.

It’s very difficult to choose a favourite scene. There are a number of scenes with Jig that are quite moving, but I do like the shooting scene about a third of the way in and the bomb attack at the end.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
A ‘pantster’ sounds more like it. I was definitely not a plotter with this novel. Anything but. I wrote about the three main characters separately, which weren’t woven in together, to about the halfway point. I had to commit an enormous amount of work (and considerable pain) to tease out and establish plots – and go over those again and again.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Absolutely. Often I might even read a novel, perhaps some literary fiction, to get into the use and flow of words, to free up my mind and then get to work.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
It’s impossible to single out any particular advice as the best, let alone try and remember who said it. ‘Dive in’ was one of the first bits of advice I remember, which was true. You have to dive and dive deep for a long time. Only then can you worry about all the other stuff. You need the raw material down first (or have started that process), before dealing with, and getting entangled in, structure and plot and pace.

Rewriting, though, is absolutely fundamental. Repeated cycles of rewriting, with spaces in between if you can. Do not rush sending it out, particularly to agents. That is a real biggie. It is very tempting, but resist (counsel others who know) and go over it again and again.

What can readers expect from your books?
Ah, that is hard for me to say. I would like to think a story that is powerful, gritty but with humanity, original, authentic and thrilling. I would hope that readers of Black Water will feel like they have been dropped into a living, breathing community where people are fighting to survive.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes, but I would be slow to be too loud or firm about it. I would say, just start writing. Try not to waste too much time online or on social media. Look for a writing group, a good one if you can. Be gentle on yourself. Yes you will suffer from self-doubt and from procrastination, but don’t give up. Keep on going. Seek help from authors. Don’t rush sending it out. Hold back. Chisel. Fine tune. Polish. Repeat. Don’t crumble from the rejection. Lean on someone for support. Keep on going.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I like when it flows. I like when you pierce through and carve out a piece of a character or a plot. I like when the dialogue rings true, when action sings, when you leave a reader wanting more. I like it when you come up with an idea for a plot, or how to plug a gaping plot hole.

I dislike the persistence of mistakes and errors, no matter how many hundreds of times you read something. I don’t like it when you can’t ‘see’ your writing anymore, because you have gone over it so much. I don’t like that feeling that the novel is never going to be finished.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Only inside my head.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
When, eventually, I realised that there was nothing more I could do and it was the best it could be.

Getting to Know You: Judy Penz Sheluk

International Bestselling Author, Judy Penz Sheluk has kindly given us some of her time today. Judy’s debut mystery novel, ‘The Hanged Man’s Noose‘, the first in the ‘Glass Dolphin Mystery’ series, was published in July 2015. The sequel, ‘A Hole In One‘, was released on the 1st of March.

Skeletons in the Attic‘, Judy’s second novel, and the first in her ‘Marketville Mystery’ series, was first published in August 2016 and re-released in December 2017. ‘Past & Present’, the sequel, is scheduled for early 2019.

In her less mysterious pursuits, Judy works as a freelance writer and editor. In addition to all of that, Judy is also a member of a number of crime writing collectives and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Director and Regional Representative for Toronto/Southern Ontario.

As you can see, Judy is a very busy lady and I’m really grateful that she’s taken the time to chat with us. 

Vic x

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Tell us about your books.
I write two amateur sleuth mystery series. The first is the Glass Dolphin Mysteries; the Glass Dolphin is an antiques shop on historic Main Street in the fictional town of Lount’s Landing. The main characters are Arabella Carpenter, owner of the shop, Emily Garland, a journalist, and Levon Larroquette, ex-husband (and occasionally more) to Arabella. Let’s just say they have a complicated relationship. The first book in the series is The Hanged Man’s Noose (which happens to be the name of a pub; Lount’s Landing is named after a real life Canadian politician, Samuel Lount, who was hanged for treason in the nineteenth century). It’s available in e-book, paperback, and audiobook. The sequel, A Hole in One, has just been released in e-book and trade paperback. Audio will follow later this year.

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The other series is the Marketville Mysteries. The first book in the series is Skeletons in the Attic, told in first person by Calamity (Callie) Barnstable. Callie inherits a house from her late father on the condition she moves into the house (which she did not know existed) while investigating who murdered her mother thirty years before. It’s available in e-book, trade paperback and audiobook. The sequel, Past & Present, should be released in early 2019.

Both my series are published by Barking Rain Press.

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What inspired them?
The premise behind Noose is that a greedy developer comes to a small town with plans to build a mega-box store, thereby threatening the livelihoods of the local indie shops. We see that sort of thing happen all the time. I merely took that premise and said, “What if someone was willing to kill to stop it?”

The premise behind Skeletons came to me when my husband and I were waiting in our lawyer’s office. He was delayed in court and we were there to redo our wills. In fact, opening scenes are directly culled from that experience. Let that be your takeaway: everything that happens to an author may well end up in one of their books.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Life. I keep a notebook in my purse, and I’m also jotting down things I’ve seen or overheard. But I also have this wicked imagination. For example, this past summer, I was golfing and the houses along the perimeter of the course were having their roofs done. And I heard the pop-pop of the pneumatic nailers, and I said to my golf buddies, “You know, someone could get shot and everyone would just think it was the roofer.” They did look at me as though I was a bit odd!

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I love Arabella Carpenter, the irascible owner of the Glass Dolphin. I even included her in a cameo role in Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in my Marketville series. Arabella’s motto is “authenticity matters” and she lives by that, even when it comes at a high personal cost. I admire that about her.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Definitely a pantser. I’ve tried plotting but it just doesn’t work for me. That said, I’m planning to write a non-fiction work, and that will have to be outlined in detail. With fiction, I just let the story go where it wants to go.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Absolutely. Reading is the best teacher. I try to read 30+ books a year. Most are mystery or suspense, but I’ll also read mainstream fiction and I enjoy short story collections. I’m a huge fan of a number of authors, most recently Fiona Barton, who I think is absolutely brilliant.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
I always quote Agatha Christie when I’m asked this: “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”

What can readers expect from your books?
I refer to them as amateur sleuth with an edge. There is the requisite small town, no overt sex, violence or bad language, but there’s also no cats, crafts or cookie recipes. People tell me the plots are more complicated than a typical cozy, and I do have a lot of characters, but they all play a part. They’re not just there for window dressing.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Make time to write every day. You can’t edit a blank page. And write what you’d like to read, not what you think will sell. By the time you’ve written the next great vampire book, the vampire craze will be long over. Start your own craze.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Of course I like it best when the words flow like maple syrup, but even when they don’t I’m reminded of Erica Jong, who wrote: “When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish. I think it’s a wonderful way to spend one’s life.”

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Always. I’m currently working on the third book of the Glass Dolphin series, and a standalone mystery/suspense. And I have a couple of short story ideas I’m mulling over. And the non-fiction work I’m researching. I try to write every day, even if I only have a few minutes, even if it’s Christmas, New Year’s Day or my birthday. It doesn’t always work out that way!

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
The day I signed my first book contract for The Hanged Man’s Noose. I’d faced the usual rejection from agents and publishers, but I wasn’t giving up. The email came in on July 1, 2014, which happens to be Canada Day. My husband and I popped open a bottle of champagne and danced on our back deck. The book came out July 2015.

Where can we find you?
My website where I write about the writing life, interview other authors, write the occasional book review, and I also have a series called New Release Mondays where I include a brief summary of a new book. Most are mysteries or suspense, but not always, and most of the authors are not well known, but deserve to be better known.

I’m also part of two multi-author blogs: Pens, Paws and Claws and The Stiletto Gang

I’m also on Facebook, and Twitter and Pinterest. 

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Martyn Taylor

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Martyn Taylor, a member of Elementary Writers, is with us today to talk about how his day job has affected his writing. 

Vic x

For Wild Wolf copy

Are we authors or writers?  No, we are liars.  Our stories did not happen.  Our characters live only in our imaginations.  Even the most meticulous historical author only presents a cartoon because it is impossible to know the entirety of the actuality.

Crime writers deal with liars.  Bad guys do not care they are lying.  Good guys have problems with truth.  Why?  We all lie every day, although accepting consequences ranging from the disapproval of a loved one to being taken to a place of execution and hanged by the neck until we are dead.  Fiction is the art of good lying, which means knowing the motivation of our liars.

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I have had two occupations that brought me into contact with chronic liars.  As a portfolio manager in the City I was daily invited to pay more for what was on offer than it was worth.  Because I was dealing for clients I had no personal stake in the transaction and so could buy their bill of goods because – as Danny De Vito put it – it was ‘other people’s money’.  These barrow boys with their red braces and Oxbridge degrees worked in an institution that still has a motto ‘My Word is My Bond’, but – as has been so often shown – these guys never signed a contract they didn’t have five ways from Friday of slithering out from under if things went wrong.  Their motto, as expressed by a stock broker who took me to lunch, was ‘If God didn’t mean them to be sheared he wouldn’t have made them sheep’.  ‘Them’ being those outside the gilded circle, you and me.

These liars do not know they are lying.  The difference between them and someone trying the Nigerian scam online is that the scammers know they are lying.  Presenting these liars in fiction is almost impossible because of the corrosive universality of their lying and the fact that the finance industry is so ‘valuable’ that the liars buy off our gate keepers with pocket change.  We accept their edifice of lies as normality.  They may have problems selling me their Ponzi schemes but, yes, I did have PPI.

As an investigator of motor thefts and accidents I was daily confronted by those stalwarts of crime fiction, unreliable witnesses, people recounting what they believe they witnessed rather than what actually happened.  Four ‘independent’ witnesses will give you at least six plausible versions of events and believe they are telling the truth.

Some, however, lied outright, mostly for simple financial gain.  Knowing them was relatively easy:  they began by saying ‘To tell the truth…’

Others had murkier motivations.  They could not allow themselves to be overtaken by a woman, or possibly have caused loss to someone of a different race, creed or colour.  With them the HL Mencken question was as important as it is in fiction.  ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’  It is insufficient to be convenient or demanded by the plot.  Our antagonists must be as fully motivated as our protagonists.  We expect fiction to illuminate life rather than reflect it.  Everyday lying is as banal, captivating and convincing as flat soda.  Nobody expects life to make sense.  Everyone demands that fiction does.

Which is why we must lie better in our fiction than we do in real life.