Tag Archives: read

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

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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

Review: ‘Blood Orange’ by Harriet Tyce

Alison has it all. A doting husband, adorable daughter, and a career on the rise – she’s just been given her first murder case to defend. But all is never as it seems…

Alison drinks too much. She’s neglecting her family. And she’s having an affair with a colleague whose taste for pushing boundaries is becoming more than she can handle.

The woman who Alison’s defending doesn’t deny that she stabbed her husband – she wants to plead guilty but something about her story is deeply amiss. Saving this woman may be the first step to Alison saving herself.

Someone knows Alison’s secrets. Someone who wants to make her pay for what she’s done, and who won’t stop until she’s lost everything….

Ever since I first saw people talking about ‘Blood Orange‘ on Twitter last summer, I was desperate to read it. I was lucky enough to get a very early review copy last year – then to host Harriet Tyce’s first public reading of it at Noir at the Bar in October. Harriet had the audience absolutely transfixed with the excerpt she read aloud and I can promise you that the entire novel is as compelling.

Blood Orange‘ is a thoroughly intriguing domestic thriller. Tyce’s prose is tight and the plot of the novel is an incredibly twisty rollercoaster. ‘Blood Orange‘ is a riveting read centring around revenge, lust and obsession. It’s bound to draw comparisons with ‘The Girl on the Train‘ but, in my opinion, ‘Blood Orange‘ is far superior. 

Harriet Tyce has created a compelling, complex central character perfect for the #MeToo generation. I love how, despite Alison’s flaws, the reader is given an insight into the myriad ways women are subjugated by men. I found myself absolutely livid throughout much of this book because it brought into crystal clear focus how women are abused, dominated or undermined regardless of their personal situation. 

A timely, excellently-plotted novel. Harriet Tyce’s debut is sure to be the smash hit of 2019. 

Vic x

Review: The Puppet Show by M.W. Craven

A serial killer is burning people alive in the Lake District’s prehistoric stone circles.

Leaving no clues, the murderer – nicknamed The Immolation Man – is managing to render the police useless. When disgraced detective Washington Poe’s name is discovered carved into the charred remains of the third victim, he’s brought back from suspension despite wanting to be no part of this gruesome investigation. 

Reluctantly partnered with the brilliant, but socially awkward, civilian analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, the mismatched pair uncover a trail that only Poe is meant to see. The elusive killer has a grand plan and for some unknown reason Poe is part of it.

As the body count rises, Poe discovers he has far more invested in the case than he could have possibly imagined. And in a shocking finale that will shatter everything he’s ever believed about himself, Poe will learn that there are things far worse than being burned alive. 

I tore through ‘The Puppet Show‘, unable to pull myself away from this compelling narrative. The characters are well-drawn and Craven appears to have a deep understanding of their back stories and what motivates them. I am, of course, #TeamTilly. Despite this being a dark, violent crime drama, Craven paints Tilly with sensitivity and, in her relationship with Poe, manages to bring some light relief when things get heavy. Craven, a former probation officer, has used his experience to create compelling, realistic characters.

Alongside his obvious understanding of the motivations of his characters, Craven’s experience within the criminal justice system shines through. Craven maintains the fine balance of demonstrating his depth of knowledge while ensuring that the story isn’t bogged down in minutiae. ‘The Puppet Show‘ is a well-plotted, fast-paced read. 

 Setting these grisly murders against the beautiful scenery of the Lake District was a stroke of genius by Craven, too. I really appreciated the experience of reading about somewhere I’m familiar with, turning it from a place of rugged beauty to something far more terrifying.  I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough. 

The Puppet Show‘ is the first in the Washington Poe series and I can’t wait for the next one. ‘Black Summer‘ is due out later this year. 

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.

**Kindred Spirits: York Blog Tour**

I’m delighted to host Jennifer C Wilson on the blog today to kick off her blog tour for ‘Kindred Spirits: York’

In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and has been working on a number of projects since, including co-hosting the North Tyneside Writers’ Circle. Her Kindred Spirits novels are published by Crooked Cat Books and her timeslip novella, ‘The Last Plantagenet?‘, by Ocelot Press. 

She lives in North Tyneside, and is very proud of her approximately 2-inch sea view. 

You can catch Jen on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Vic x

Jennifer C Wilson on finding your writing tribe… 

Thanks so much for hosting me today, Victoria, and kicking off the blog tour for Kindred Spirits: York, due out on 31 January 2019. Although, having heard a large proportion of it in writing group last year, you know mostly what to expect already!

I’ve said this many times before, but I think finding a good writing group is so, so important, whatever level of writing you’re at. Writing is a mainly solo activity, and by default, therefore, has the potential to be incredibly lonely. In the middle of writing York, I found myself doubting the whole thing. The story, the characters, even the point of carrying on with the series. Happily, after a chat with yourself and other members of Elementary Writers, I was able to see through the problem, and settle down to finish the rest of the book. 

Whether you all write in the same genre or style doesn’t matter one bit; what matters is finding a group of people who get the issues you’re going through (and get that they are issues in the first place – some people just don’t understand how real the trauma is of your imaginary world not going entirely to plan!), and even if they cannot help directly, they at least understand and listen sympathetically. On the other hand, it’s also brilliant being able to celebrate with people who appreciate the effort you’ve gone through to finish that published or prize-winning story, and know how good it feels to see your name (and work) in print. 

Getting feedback on your work at an early stage, from writing friends and colleagues who you really trust, is also important. However much the notion terrified me back in the day, now I love reading my work out in sessions, and getting that immediate understanding of what works and what doesn’t, both from my own reading, and stumbling over words which simply don’t flow, or by listening to the comments from others in the group. Obviously, you’re never obliged to take on board every comment, but if three or four people say the same thing needs working on, it’s unlikely they’re all wrong. 

Being online, and picking up snippets of gossip, you hear terrible tales. I’m so lucky this has never happened to me, and I love heading along to group on Monday evenings, and getting stuck into the prompts. It’s also the atmosphere I’ve strived to build in the North Tyneside Writers’ Circle, which I co-host. Writing can be hard enough when you’ve got your own negative thoughts to content with from time to time, without adding external negativity too!

Therefore, amongst all the self-help books out there, and the various Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags, as well as the ‘IRL’ groups, I’d say the best thing you can do for your writing (and sanity) is find your writing tribe. Whether online or in the local café, sharing works, trials, tribulations and triumphs cannot be beaten. Certainly without mine, I wouldn’t be where I am today. 

Review: ‘Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life’ by Marianne Power

I’d heard great things about ‘Help Me!‘ and decided to give it a read on the run-up to the new year – what better time to consider a little self-improvement, right? 

Marianne Power wanted to improve her life. Sick of out-of-control debt, Netflix binges, anxiety and hangovers, she turned to the tomes that have lined her bookshelves for years. Marianne wanted a perfect life where she floated around town, full of energy and happiness, on the arm of her dream man. She made vision boards and sent her dreams out to the universe. She did yoga and drank green things. But did any of it really make her happier? 

I absolutely adored this book. Marianne writes in such an engaging way that I could not put it down. Although it is non-fiction, ‘Help Me!‘ is written in such a way that it reads like the best kind of chick lit novel.

The concept initially seems like it’s going to provide a lot of laughs – and it does – but the real surprise for me was how honest Power was about the process and its impact on her life. She laid everything bare – even the parts that didn’t paint her in the most positive light. Not only did I chuckle through ‘Help Me!‘ but I wept during some of it, too. This book went way beyond my expectations. 

I felt like I had found a new friend in Marianne. I was rooting for Marianne throughout the book despite, sometimes, also being massively frustrated with her. I totally identified with her and a lot of the issues she was experiencing are ones me and my friends have been through too. This book is about the struggle to find happiness and realising that perfection is a myth.  

Fans of Bridget Jones will love ‘Help Me!

Vic x