Tag Archives: narrative

Review: ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae’ by Stephanie Butland

For many people, including me, a stand-out read of 2017 was ‘Lost For Words‘ by Stephanie Butland so it was with excitable trepidation that I began reading ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae‘.

I needn’t have worried. Stephanie’s latest novel surpassed my expectations – I did not want to stop reading this heart-warming tale of Ailsa Rae, a young woman who, following a lifetime of illness, has to learn a new way of navigating her way through the world while struggling with grief and survivor’s guilt.

Once again, Stephanie Butland has created inimitable characters that I’d happily be friends with. One of Butland’s skills is to make her characters rounded, creating light and shade in both the narrative and within the characters.

Ailsa, in particular, seems completely real to me. After suffering from a heart condition since birth, Ailsa finally undergoes a heart transplant and afterwards feels somewhat lost – her identity no longer revolves around being ill, but she’s not sure what it should revolved around. Despite her apparently hard exterior, it was lovely to peel back Ailsa’s layers and see a more vulnerable side to her. Stephanie Butland really seems to have a talent for creating seemingly tough characters with soft centres.

It was easy for me to fall into this story, I was totally invested in the characters – Seb was particularly appealing to me. The once-close relationship between Ailsa and her mum is portrayed sensitively and realistically as both mother and daughter struggle to come to terms with their new roles.

I felt that having a novel revolving around organ donation was a bold move and it absolutely works. The amount of research undertaken by Butland shows but it’s the human element of this story that makes it utterly compelling.

Although it’s an enjoyable read, ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae‘ has a very important message behind it – the incredible difference organ donation can make to someone when your organs are no longer of use to you.

Vic x

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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!

**Twin Truths Blog Tour** Guest Post and Review.

Twin Truths Blog Tour Poster

Regular readers of the blog will know that Shelan Rodgers’s ‘Yellow Room’ was one of my favourite books of 2017 so I jumped at the chance to read her new novel ‘Twin Truths‘. 

I’m also thrilled to have Shelan with us on the blog to talk about how she creates a story that lingers with the reader long after they’ve finished reading it. My thanks to Shelan and Dome Press for having me on this blog tour. 

Shelan Rodger Headshot 2

Creating a story that stays with people
By Shelan Rodger

The idea for this blog piece came from Victoria and I loved it immediately. Creating a story (or a painting or a piece of music or a film) that stays with people is something I believe is at the heart of artistic aspiration. If a piece of art lingers and plays in our minds, it means that we have truly connected with it; like a pebble dropped into a pond, it sends ripples into our lives.

If I think of books that have stayed with me – books like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being – they all share certain characteristics associated with ambivalence and pushing the boundaries. If ‘creating a story that stays people’ were a recipe, I think I would identify six possible ingredients:

  1. Ambiguous characters – not just straight forward goodies or baddies, likeable or unlikeable, but complicated people with flaws that make them human. I believe that deep down there is a white swan and a black swan in us all and this multiplicity is intriguing and unpredictable, an ambiguity that makes it possible to empathise with the character on the page and enter into minds and places we might never normally go.
  2. Engaging in the character’s journey – if we connect to the characters, we feel their dilemmas and conflicts in a way that is intimate and yet safe at the same time. As we read, we slip in and out of our own experiences, relating them subconsciously to what we read – and this becomes a filter to look at our own world and ourselves in a different way, challenging what we have always taken for granted or hidden from the world or ourselves. The story, the character’s experience emanates outwards, rippling into our own life and reflections.
  3. Twists – their power to shock, to reveal, to make sense of chaos, or turn order upside down. By making us reevaluate what we thought was true, they challenge and push the boundaries.
  4. An ambivalence or openness in the ending – an ending which gives us a sense of closure and yet does not close doors completely, so that we feel satisfied and curious at the same time. There may be the hint of a future, or that things might not be as resolved as they seem and may continue to change and evolve, as life does. As a reader and a writer, I love last lines – and I think they are the most challenging thing to write of the whole book!
  5. Transformative power of the narrative – The Lovely Bones is a beautiful example of this: the almost transcendent way the author enables you to engage with an appalling subject matter (the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl); how she manages to convey the horror but also a sense of redemption, something beautiful and uplifting from the very ashes of what happened.
  6. The language itself – it is not all about plot and character, it’s also about the language, the images, the reaching for symbolism and connections. As a reader, I don’t want language that it is totally transparent; I want to be carried along by the current of the narrative, but I want to swim in it and feel its texture on my skin.

In Twin Truths, I have aspired to combine all these ingredients. Even the title is ambiguous and my hope is that you will come back full circle to it at the end of the book. Here’s to your journey and I hope it lingers with you!

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Review: ‘Twin Truths’
By Shelan Rodger.

What is the truth? And how do you recognise it when you hear it? Jenny and Pippa are twins. Like many twins they often know what the other is thinking but when Pippa disappears Jenny is left to face the world alone, while trying to find out what happened to her sister. But the truth can be a slippery thing.
In ‘Twin Truths‘, Shelan Rodger has surpassed herself with this bold, audacious novel about truth, lies and everything in between. 
Rodger transports her readers to Buenos Aires, Greece and London while exploring the nature of identity and how the stories we tell ourselves and each other influence our sense of self. 
Rodger’s prose is at times poetic but always beautiful. She doesn’t shy away from sensitive subjects and handles them with aplomb. ‘Twin Truths‘ is truly unsettling with a really shocking ending. 
Vic x

 

**Conviction Blog Tour** Extract and Review

Conviction_blog tour poster

 CHAPTER ONE

Morning
July 5, 1992
Crown Heights, Brooklyn

The little boy walked to the storefront church alone, with blood on his hands and face.

Dorothy Norris arrived early, as usual, to lift the gate and set out the worship programs she’d photocopied the night before. She found him standing on the sidewalk, eyes unfocused, feet bare.

She bent down. “Ontario, where are your parents?” He didn’t answer. It was already eighty degrees, but his teeth were chattering.

Dorothy used her key and ushered him inside, flipped the lights, and walked straight to the phone in the pastor’s tiny office. She dialed Ontario’s foster parents, but no one answered, so she called Pastor Green, and then she called her husband and told him to stay home with the girls until she knew what was going on.

Dorothy asked and asked and asked, but Ontario wouldn’t say a word.

Redmond Green’s wife, Barbara, answered the phone at his apartment. Red was in the bathroom scribbling last-minute sermon notes in a rare moment of solitude. Barbara sent fourteen-year-old Red Jr. to bang on the door and summon his father. Barbara hadn’t asked for details—Just go, she told her husband—and as he walked the eleven blocks between their apartment and the church, he worked himself up, convinced the metal gate had been defaced again. Since opening Glorious Gospel on Easter morning 1982, Pastor Green had been losing a battle with vandals. He called the police often, but they rarely came to take a report. He knew that most of the officers in the precinct thought his crusade silly, given the many miseries plaguing the neighborhood, but he wasn’t about to stop calling. In 1992, one year after the riots, Crown Heights was still a disaster. A battlefield and a garbage dump. It was getting hot again, and everyone seemed to hold their breath, waiting for the neighborhood to explode.

Pastor Green found the gate up when he arrived at Glorious Gospel. Dorothy Norris was inside with Malcolm and Sabrina Davises’ foster son, Ontario. The pastor’s first thought was that the boy had been attacked on his way to church. But Ontario was wearing sleep clothes, not church clothes.

“Something’s happened at the Davises’,” said Dorothy. “What?”

“He won’t say.”

“Ontario? Are you hurt?”

Ontario stared at the pastor. Past him, really. Through him. Pastor Green kneeled down and touched his arm. “He’s freezing cold,” he said, looking up.

“I think he’s in shock,” said Dorothy.

Ontario’s face was smeared with red. If the pastor had to guess, he would say that the boy had rubbed his eyes with his bloody hands.

“Is this his blood?”

Dorothy lowered her voice. “I don’t think so. But I don’t know.”

“Have you called the precinct?” asked Pastor Green. “Yes,” said Dorothy.

The pastor turned back to the boy.

“Ontario. Can I make sure you’re not hurt?” He took the boy’s right hand, turned it over, looked up and down his arm. He repeated the inspection on the boy’s left arm. “Is it all right if I lift your shirt?” Ontario was still. “I just want to see if there are any scratches or cuts. . . . Good. Looks good. Ontario? Will you turn around for me? Just to check your back.” As he turned, Pastor Green put his fingers on the boy’s neck, and then his skull. “Good. Looks like you’re okay.”

He put his hand on his knee to straighten up, and as he did, Ontario vomited. Right on the pastor’s Sunday wingtips. The boy’s eyes widened and filled with tears.

“Oh, honey,” said Dorothy, leaning down. “It’s okay.”

“It’s all right, son,” said Pastor Green. “Nothing a little water won’t fix up.”

Dorothy walked Ontario to the bathroom to wash out his mouth.

A voice came from the front door.

“NYPD.”

***

Review: ‘Conviction’
by Julia Dahl

Rebekah Roberts, a journalist at one of New York’s sleaziest tabloids, has ambitions beyond the New York Tribune. When she gets her hands on a letter from a convicted murderer who claims he is innocent, Rebekah sees not only a compelling story but an opportunity to expose the true murderer. 

Twenty-two years earlier, just after riots between the black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn, Deshawn Perkins was convicted of the brutal murder of his adoptive family. It’s not only time that has passed that hampers Rebekah’s investigation, everyone involved wants to forget the violence that occurred and even Saul Katz – a former NYPD and Rebekah’s source – can’t help her with this investigation. 

As you’ve probably already gathered, Julia Dahl drops the reader straight into the action and doesn’t let up until the final page. The story unfolds through a number of viewpoints and switches between the time of the murder and Rebekah’s investigation. 

One thing I really appreciated about ‘Conviction‘ was the fact that that I learnt about the Hasidic community and their traditions. I really felt that this was a unique aspect of this story and it really added something to the narrative. 

I felt that the character of Rebekah was believable and it was really easy to empathise with her.

Julia Dahl’s writing ramps up the tension, evoking the cloying heat of New York City in a heatwave perfectly. 

Conviction‘ is an utterly compelling page-turner of a book. Miss it at your peril. 

Vic x

Review: ‘I Did It for Us’ by Alison Bruce

Emily tells herself that her best friend Joanne’s new boyfriend is trouble, worrying that he will hurt Joanne – and Joanne’s children. But her friend is in love and can’t see what Emily is worried about so Emily decides to watch and wait. But Emily’s past isn’t as straight-forward as she’s led Joanne to believe – is she as good a friend as she claims to be? 

 

Although I recently read ‘Cambridge Black‘ by the same author, ‘I Did It for Us‘ is a very different novel – they’re both very good but in different ways. ‘I Did It for Us‘ is a twisty story featuring a questionable narrator. 

Throughout the novel, I was unsure who to root for and second guessed myself until the final chapters. I genuinely didn’t know who to trust – Alison Bruce has created a cast of characters so layered that any of them could genuinely be misleading the reader but at the same time may be completely innocent.

This unsettling thriller tackles a number of subjects which make ‘I Did It for Us‘ a dark, edgy read.

I whipped through ‘I Did It for Us‘ in a couple of days because I was so desperate to see what would happen. I honestly didn’t want to put this novel down. 

Vic x

*City Without Stars Blog Tour* Guest Post and Review

I am really delighted to be involved in the blog tour for ‘City Without Stars’ by Tim Baker. 

Tim’s debut thriller, ‘Fever City‘, was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award. City Without Stars‘ is published this month by Faber & Faber. 

My thanks to Faber & Faber for including me on the tour and to Tim for taking the time to answer my questions. 

Vic x

Photo by Colin Englert

Tell us about City Without Stars‘.
For the residents of Ciudad Real, in Mexico, the situation is desperate. A deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered, and union activist, Pilar, is about to risk all; taking social justice into her own hands by organizing illegal lightning strikes in protest.

As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation into the serial killings, a newly assigned homicide detective, Fuentes, suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo, and turns to Pilar for help. Although she will do anything to stop the murders of her fellow workers, Pilar’s going to have to ignore all her instincts if she is to trust Fuentes enough to work with him. When the name of the city’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise the immensity of the forces aligned against them . . .

What inspired it?
So many elements go into the creation of a novel and every one of them is a form of inspiration. From the first day I arrived in Mexico, I knew I wanted to write about the country, but it took over four years for the major themes to emerge and coalesce into a narrative, including the plight of exploited female workers along the border region with the United States and the vast numbers of these young women who were being abducted and murdered. Why were no suspects being apprehended? Why weren’t the women being offered better protection? And why were authorities refusing to consider the situation as an emergency? There was only one force in the region that could exert such malign control: the cartels. Add to that the growing concerns about the dehumanizing dangers of rampant globalization, and suddenly I had a book.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Perhaps surprisingly, most of my ideas come from either dreams or daydreams when I’m in nature and there’s interplay between elements or light. These moments are not so much a blinding flash as half-formed glimpses or impressions and usually take on greater clarity when I’m doing some kind of physical activity: swimming or walking and not consciously thinking about ideas. It’s a long and imprecise journey and you need to have faith.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I never read any of my books after their final edit because I’m already invested in creating new characters and other stories. There’s only so much space available inside my head so I have to keep the decks clear at all times! So my favourite characters, stories and scenes are always the ones that I’m currently writing, because they will be rewritten, edited, re-imagined and perhaps even deleted. Anything that’s in flux and emerging in surprising ways is always exciting.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
It was a great piece of advice from the Canadian author, Mavis Gallant, whom I once interviewed at her home in Paris over a bottle of white Alsatian wine. She told me never to begin a line of dialogue with “Yes” or “No” as it invariably makes redundant everything else that follows, and at the very least robs the sentence of any dramatic tension. Like all great advice, it was simple but effective.

What can readers expect from your books?
I think my novels have a couple of things in common: strong social themes woven around a propulsive, violent story; a powerful sense of place; dark swathes of humour; and an unstinting belief in the endurance of human dignity.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
My own writing journey and the way I write is atypical, so I may not be the best person to offer advice! All I would say is simply to embrace whatever works for you and don’t worry if it’s a little unorthodox. Aspiring writers need tenacity along with talent but they should also be aware that luck plays a strong part in any writer’s career. Luck comes in waves. If something is not working, then don’t become too despondent – put it down, pick up something else, and try it again later on. It worked for me!

What do you like and dislike about writing?
The great thing about writing a novel is that you have this vast canvas upon which to explore ideas, characters and complex concepts such as destiny.  It’s a luxury and a privilege to have that scope for consideration and I never take it for granted. The only thing I dislike about writing is not writing.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
I usually work on several projects at once. At the moment I am completing a dystopian thriller, a first-contact novel set in northwestern Australia, and a thriller about the Algerian war.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
It’s exactly the same moment that applies to my life as a reader: leaping into the unknown of a new novel.

Review: ‘City Without Stars
by Tim Baker.

My interest was piqued when I was offered the opportunity to review ‘City Without Stars‘ because I haven’t read many thrillers set in Latin America. I was intrigued to read about the type of crimes that could be an issue in this region. 

Tim Baker’s prose evokes the setting, conjuring the claustrophobic climate beautifully. I read this nuanced story with the action unfolding in my head through a sepia haze. The atmosphere that Baker creates is cloying and claustrophobic, allowing the reader to step into this world and understand exactly what the characters are experiencing. 

Baker’s strong attention to detail helps create the layered, compelling story of cartels, inequality and murder. The action in this story packs a real punch and is certainly not for the faint-hearted. However, I found it insanely compelling. I could stomach the violence because it felt so desperately real. I cared about the characters and was totally invested in Pilar and Fuentes’s struggles. 

The female characters in this novel, on the whole, are very strong – despite their less than idea circumstances. 

I’d be very surprised if ‘City Without Stars‘ didn’t emulate its predecessor’s success. 

Vic x

Review: ‘Dark Skies’ by LJ Ross

One fateful, clear-skied night, three friends embark on a secret trip. Only two return home. Thirty years later, the body of a teenage boy rises from the depths of England’s biggest reservoir and threatens to expose a killer who has lain dormant…until now.

Detective Chief Inspector Ryan is back following an idyllic honeymoon with the love of his life but returns to danger from all sides. In the depths of Kielder Forest, a murderer has evaded justice for decades and will do anything to keep it that way. Meanwhile, back at CID, an old adversary has taken the reins and is determined to destroy Ryan whatever the cost.

As usual, LJ Ross excels in her descriptions of the landscape where the story is set. What I really like about the DCI Ryan series is that LJ Ross sets macabre discoveries and heinous crimes in beautiful locations, ‘Dark Skies‘ is no different in that respect.

Add to that a number of intriguing sub-plots and a recurring cast of compelling characters and it’s no wonder that this series is one of the most successful in recent times. 

With ‘Dark Skies‘, however, there’s a new element to the series with malevolent forces within the force bringing extra tension to the narrative. 

As with the previous novels in the series, there are some unresolved issues which will undoubtedly keep readers hungry for more. 

Vic x