Tag Archives: readers

**Bones in the River Blog Tour**

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Zoë Sharp’s “Bones in the River“. I’ve known Zoë for many years now but here’s a little bit of background to the enigmatic writer.

Zoë Sharp began her crime thriller series featuring former Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, after receiving death-threats in the course of her work as a photo-journalist. Zoë opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and wrote her first novel at fifteen.

Zoë’s work has won or been nominated for awards on both sides of the Atlantic, been used in school textbooks, inspired an original song and music video, and been optioned for TV and film.

When not in lockdown in the wilds of Derbyshire, she can be found improvising self-defence weapons out of ordinary household objects, international pet-sitting, or crewing yachts in the Mediterranean. (It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.) Zoë is always happy to hear from readers, reader groups, libraries or bookstores. You can contact her via email.

My thanks to Zoë for having me on her blog tour.

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job:
Zoe Sharp

I suppose there was half a chance that writing fiction might have been my day job, right from the start. After all, I penned my first novel at the age of fifteen—and I do mean ‘penned’. I wrote the entire thing, long-hand, in a month, and gave myself the most appalling writers’ cramp in the process.

That early effort did the rounds of all the major publishers, where it received what’s known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’—everybody said they loved it but nobody actually wanted to publish it.

Looking back, I’m rather glad about that.

Because, in order to be a writer, you need different experiences under your belt. At the age of fifteen, I’d had few worth mentioning. Apart from living aboard a catamaran from the age of about seven and leaving school at twelve. But that, as they say, is probably another story.

Having failed at my first attempt to be a novelist, I became side-tracked by a variety of jobs in my teenage years, including crewing boats and learning astro-navigation. I was mad keen on horses, rode competitively, and once even took part in a rodeo. I learned to shoot—did a little competing there, too. Long guns, mostly. I considered myself an average shot with a handgun but, as I discovered on my last visit to a US indoor gun range, most people can manage to miss the target entirely at less than ten feet.

As for jobs, I became a freelance motoring writer at the height of the classic car boom of the late 1980s. That quickly transmuted into being a photojournalist, having taught myself both how to write commercial magazine articles and also how to take images good enough for numerous front covers and centre spreads.

It was hardly surprising, then, that eventually I’d have to start writing a character who was a photographer. Enter Grace McColl, first in Dancing on the Grave and now in Bones in the River. Grace started out as a keen amateur photographer, who became involved in providing evidence for the defence in a court case. She was then approached by the Head CSI at Cumbria police, who asked her if she’d ever thought of joining the side of the angels. Always nice to be able to write any parts of the story concerning photography without having to do lots of research.

My time spent writing about cars also played a part in Bones in the River, which begins with a hit-and-run incident. Understanding how the mechanics of a vehicle work makes writing scenes with them in so much easier and, I hope, more accurate.

Plus, all that time spent with horses came in very useful for a book that takes place during the largest Gypsy and Traveller horse fair in Europe. There were still plenty of times when I had up to a dozen different scientific research books laid on the table at the side of my desk as I wrote, though. Fortunately, forensic science and pathology are such fascinating subjects.

They tell you to write what you know. I disagree. I think you should write what you’re desperate to find out instead.

Bones in the River“, the second book in the Lakes crime thriller series, was published worldwide on May 26 2020 by ZACE Ltd. You can grab a sneak peek of the first three chapters, and is available from all the usual retailers.

Reflections on Noir at the Bar – four years on

It’s four years today since I hosted the first Noir at the Bar in Newcastle. If you’d asked me then what my expectations for the event would be, I would have been excited just to do a second one.

Our first Noir at the Bar in Newcastle

So it’s a huge surprise to me where Noir at the Bar has taken me, and many others.

Zoe Sharp has been a wonderful Noir at the Bar supporter

In addition to giving readers and writers a space to socialise, championing writers and bringing people from all over the world together, Noir at the Bar has helped me form some of the most important friendships of my life. Many of you will know that Jacky Collins – AKA Dr Noir – has been my partner-in-crime through this adventure. Three years ago, I read at Edinburgh’s Noir at the Bar for the second time and met Kelly Lacey of Love Books Group. I’ve met so many wonderful people throughout the course of Noir at the Bar and I hope that will continue.

Kelly Lacey and I

Despite being locked down for many weeks, Noir at the Bar is still bringing people together through our virtual events. In addition to that, Simon Bewick has masterminded an anthology called “Noir from the Bar“, a collection of short stories from thirty authors who have – or will – read at Virtual Noir at the Bar. All profits will be donated to NHS charities. This anthology was put together in thirty-five days. Simon, the editors, the writers and the designer, Nicola Young, have achieved an incredible feat.

Noir at the Bar continues to bring people together, inspire and demonstrate the goodness in people.

Vic x

Guest Post: James Henry on Writing a Crime Series

Today on the blog, I have James Henry, author of the DI Nicholas Lowry series. James’s books are popular among readers and writers of crime fiction alike.

Whitethroat‘, the third in the series is due out in July and James is here today to give his thoughts on writing a crime series.

My thanks to James for taking the time to share his experience with us.

Vic x

James Henry

Tips on writing a Crime Series

When I start thinking about writing a new crime series, my first rule is to try and write each book in such a way that it works, as far as is possible, as a standalone novel. That is to say, a reader should not have to have read book one in order to understand and enjoy books two, three or four – each should be satisfying in its own right. The point of this, of course, is that you can still pick up new readers with each new book as your series develops – readers who may then dip back to earlier books. If you achieve that, you continue to build your audience.

To do this successfully, remember a few key points when starting out:

Keep a notebook detailing simple things – like description of characters physical traits, their age, their habits and peccadilloes. You think you will remember the simple things; you think you will remember your character prefers white bread to wholemeal; you won’t – but your reader most certainly will… You will thank yourself for having something to refer back to. 

However, I would caution against going overboard on detail too soon: you have a long road to travel, so be wary of packing too much baggage in the early days. You have to carry it all with you. Allow characters to develop gently. The first book in the series should focus on the story, making the plot as tight, engaging and pacy as possible.  

As your series progresses you can allow your characters to develop. The more books you write the more backstory you will accumulate – a sense of shared history involving character relationships, tragic events, celebrations, any number of things. You will draw on this history in your writing, but do so judiciously – too much repetition risks slowly the pace of the story as a whole. Say that book one sees your detective break up from a long relationship, as well as receive a great promotion at work. A long explanation of the reason for their new job in book two may not warrant the page space it takes to tell; but exploring the reasons why they are miserable and drinking more than usual in spite of having an important new job, very well may. 

Remember that as your series develops you have to write with two readers in mind: your new reader, the one who may be discovering this series for the first time; and the readers who have been with you from the start. From now on, think about how you orientate new readers in the world you have created as well as keep things fresh for those who are familiar with it. For instance, you can re-introduce the setting, the landscape – but perhaps you can add some new detail on the geography or history of the area. There is always a way to make the familiar newly interesting.

With all this to bear in mind, the writing may seem hard work, much beyond a one off novel say, but there is a sense of satisfaction in an adding another layer to the world you have created that can only be had by series fiction.

Thoughts on Virtual Noir at the Bar

OK, so since my last post about Virtual Noir at the Bar, things have gone a bit, well, insane. Virtual Noir at the Bar is being hailed as “the best night in”, “a reason to know what day it is” and “the highlight of the week”. Our afterparties are getting a bit of a reputation too, bringing people together until the wee small hours.

This week sees our eighth virtual outing with yet another stellar squad of writers. Within a couple more weeks, we will have hosted more than a hundred authors – and we still have at least another hundred on our guest list. You can still sign up to our mailing list to be first to find out the full line-up every week.

So, every Wednesday evening, after I put my little boy to bed and begin to get ready to host another virtual gathering, I reflect on how different doing a virtual event is to hosting an event in the flesh. I also think about the similarities, the things I miss about “live” events (i.e. non-virtual) and the things I’m grateful for when broadcasting from home.

We’re trying to keep Noir at the Bar as close to the “live” events as possible. There’s still a hat, albeit a new one after the old ratty tatty hat disintegrated the other week (if that had happened in a bar someone else would’ve tidied the mess up).

I try to keep the informal style going but it is very unnerving making jokes and name-checking people into what is, essentially, a void. I can see the chat happening in Zoom and, from the feedback we’re getting, people seem to be enjoying it but I do miss the immediate response of hearing the audience give me a drum roll when we’re picking names from the hat and the “woos” when they hear something impressive.

On that note, I have felt so self-conscious that my own “woos” of appreciation reduced in length and I started to worry they sounded sarcastic. I said that a couple of weeks ago, that I encouraged everyone else to do it but didn’t feel comfortable doing it myself for fear of offending anyone. That lasted half the evening as I got a lot of encouragement from the audience to reinstate the woos, safe in the knowledge that my appreciation was genuine.

Every Wednesday night, I still put perfume on and curse myself for having had a tidy out of my make-up and never replacing the stuff I chucked. I have very limited supplies and this leaves me discomfited.

I know lots of memes have popped up recently about staring at your own face on Zoom calls but it is very unnerving. At least in the bar, I don’t have to see myself. Similarly, we don’t record our outings when we’re in an actual bar so I don’t have the opportunity to go back and criticise every little mistake and weird facial expression. I am delighted, though, that people are able to use our archive to catch up at their leisure if they’ve missed an “episode”.

I love the fact that we’re no longer bound by geography. We’ve always been lucky that writers are willing to travel to appear at Noir at the Bar but with Virtual Noir at the Bar, we are able to host writers from their homes. So far we’ve hosted writers from LA, New Zealand, Germany and Iceland.

I’m also aware that by being accessible to anyone with a computer means that we can reach people no matter where in the world they are. People are getting up early in NZ to be part of the live event – I can’t get my head around it! Being virtual also means that people who may be housebound or unable to come to a public event can still be part of it. We also have a lot more space for people in the virtual bar so there’s no fear of anyone not being able to join us.

I haven’t enjoyed asking people to support us financially. I know people are enjoying the events but they don’t come cheap. Mentioning our Ko-Fi page feels crass – even though no one makes any money out of VNatB – any donations go towards hosting software and the like. We’ve pledged that any surplus will go to NHS Charities Together.

RIP the ratty tatty hat

I like that I only have to have a presentable top half. I don’t have to squeeze myself into jeans which is just as well because I’m not sure I’d be able to stand them at the moment – lockdown weight gain is a thing, ok? So, yeah, I’m delighted that I can wear my elasticated trousers while hosting VNatB.

I like that, within minutes of the event ending, I can be in my pjs eating a crisp sandwich (now do you understand the lockdown weight gain?).

As is customary with Noir at the Bar, we have hosted established and emerging authors and I’m delighted that we’ve been able to keep the community together during this bizarre time.

I like that I can stay at the afterparty until I’m ready to go to bed. I don’t have to factor in getting home because I’m already there!

I don’t get to hug my friends. We still do a group photo but it’s not the same. I don’t get to mingle with the audience during the breaks.

I’m grateful to every writer who has given up their time to read at Virtual Noir at the Bar. I’m indebted to Simon Bewick who keeps the plates spinning. I’m delighted that Virtual Noir at the Bar has obtained what some are calling “a cult following” (I think they said cult, anyway). But I really wish we could all get together properly.

Until then, see you at the virtual bar every Wednesday.

Vic x

Review: ‘The Murder of Harriet Monckton’ by Elizabeth Haynes

On 7th November 1843, 23 year old Harriet Monckton, a woman of respectable parentage and religious habits, was found murdered in the privy behind the chapel she regularly attended in Bromley, Kent.

Harriet’s death – as a result of swallowing prussic acid – disgusts the community. They are further shocked when they discover that Harriet was pregnant. 

Using witness testimonies and reports from the coroner, Elizabeth Haynes creates an interesting story through the eyes of the last people to see her alive and those closest to her.  Whether her companion, her would-be fiancé, her former lover or her seducer – they all have a reason to want Harriet dead. 

After stumbling upon records of Harriet’s untimely demise while researching another book, Elizabeth Haynes has melded fact and fiction beautifully to create an intriguing account of a young woman’s final days. The characters are perfectly embodied and Haynes gives enough information to encourage the reader to empathise with some more than others. 

With consistent language and distinctive voices, Haynes conveys society and the time well as well as how families functioned in the 1800s. The complex investigation is used to create tension and pull the reader into this ultimately sad story. 

Poignant and thought-provoking, ‘The Murder of Harriet Monckton‘ will stay with readers long after the final page is turned. 

Vic x

Review: ‘Hysteria’ by L.J. Ross

IMG_4449-683x1024

Following his last case in Ireland, criminal profiler Alexander Gregory is called upon by the French police to investigate a spate of murders during Paris Fashion Week. One victim has survived but she’s too traumatised to talk. Without her help, the police are powerless to stop the killer before he strikes again – can Gregory unlock the secrets of her mind, before it’s too late?

L.J. Ross takes readers to Paris in this, the second in the Dr Alexander Gregory series. The descriptions of The City of Light reflect the storyline where the world’s most beautiful people have gathered for fashion week but juxtaposes the brutality of the murders Gregory is investigating. Ross’s descriptions evoked such strong imagery that I could see the action unfolding in my mind’s eye. 

It’s difficult not to draw parallels with this novel and what’s going on in the entertainment industry at the moment regarding abuses of power and the #metoo movement. Featuring illegal dealings and murky underworlds, ‘Hysteria‘ pulls the reader in and uncovers the horror that lurks behind the glamour. 

The characterisation of Gregory is further explored through his relationship with a mystery woman. He’s a complex character and I’m really looking forward to seeing how he develops as the series continues. The way in which Ross uses Gregory to explain psychological conditions and theories is really well done. 

As always, Ross weaves a compelling narrative full of characters with substance. I particularly enjoyed that Ross uses a smattering of French in the book and doesn’t underestimate her readers by then providing translations.

Hysteria‘ is a well-written novel with a surprising conclusion. Whether or not you’ve read novels by L.J. Ross before, you won’t want to miss ‘Hysteria‘. 

Vic x

Review: ‘The Man on the Street’ by Trevor Wood

img_8562-1

 

When a homeless veteran hears something heavy fall into the River Tyne in the middle of an argument between two men, he tries to ignore it. But when he sees a plea from a girl whose dad is missing, Jimmy can’t turn a blind eye anymore. The girl – Carrie – reminds Jimmy of someone from his past and he decides he has to face the truth. Telling Carrie what he thought he heard, Jimmy gets pulled into an investigation which puts his life at risk. 

Trevor Wood’s protagonist, Jimmy Mullen, is a truly original character. I love the fact that Wood has tackled stereotypes with characters like Jimmy, Gadge and Deano – they’re truly unforgettable and massively sympathetic despite having complex backgrounds. Wood’s characters are portrayed sensitively and with understanding. I rooted for Jimmy from page one. 

Set in Newcastle, ‘The Man on the Street‘ evokes a strong sense of place while drawing the reader into a complex investigation. Having read crime fiction for many years, it’s not often a reveal leaves me speechless but Trevor Wood has managed it! 

With engaging characters, strong dialogue and gritty realism, ‘The Man on the Street‘ is utterly compelling. I couldn’t put it down. 

Vic x

**Out of the Ashes Blog Tour**

Out of the Ashes blog tour.jpg
page1image19295872

I have known Vicky Newham – author of ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ and ‘Out of the Ashes‘ – for several years. As regular readers of this blog will know, ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ was one of my top reads in 2018 and I’m now delighted to be part of the blog tour for the next book in the DI Maya Rahman series: ‘Out of the Ashes‘. 

A flash mob in Brick Lane is interrupted by an explosion. With fire raging through one of the city’s most infamous streets, DI Maya Rahman is called to the scene. With witnesses too caught up in the crowd to have seen anything, Maya must lead an investigation with no leads. And when Maya is faced with a second, more horrifying crime, she knows she is in a race against time to solve the crimes before East London burns. 

Feast on the first chapter of ‘Out of the Ashes‘ here and then order / download the rest of it. I guarantee you will not be able to put this fantastic book down.

Vic x

Out of the Ashes.jpeg

Rosa, 2 p.m.

Rosa Feldman stood at the door of her Brick Lane newsagent’s, staring out at the street she’d known since she was four. She couldn’tshake the feeling that something was wrong. It was the shop opposite,run by the young Lithuanian couple. Since first thing this morning, the lights had been off and the shutters down. Initially, she was relieved that for once, the ugly neon sign, with its air of Margate or Blackpool, wasn’t flashing outside her bedroom window, but as the morning progressed, she felt increasingly uneasy.

It wasn’t like them at all. She couldn’t recall ever seeing the shop closed in the daytime.A tap on the glass snapped Rosa back into the afternoon. It was Mr Walker from the off-licence a few doors down. He shouted a cheery greeting and waved as he passed the window. Regular as clockwork, off to get chips for tea. Rosa raised her hand to return the gesture, but the pain in her wrists and knuckles bit again. Damned arthritis.

Mr Walker’s knock was usually her reminder to think about their meal. Today was Friday after all. But without Józef, the Sabbath meal wasn’t the same and she didn’t bother with the rituals any more. In the last year, she’d lost weight and clothes hung off her spare frame. What was the point of lighting candles when there was only one of you? She’d steam a plate of yesterday’s chicken and potatoes. That would do her. Fortunately, she didn’t have to go far to get home, just upstairs to the flat, even if it was still freezing at this time of year.

Over the dusty window display, two men were putting a new shop sign up where Rosenberg’s jewellers used to be. Work had been going on for weeks, and it looked like the place was nearly ready to open. Alchemia, it said. A swanky new Polish bar by the looks of it, slap bang next-door to Mr Hamid’s curry house. He wasn’t going to be happy. So much had changed in Brick Lane since she and her family had arrived, and life moved so fast on the other side of the window, it made Rosa dizzy. The pace was relentless and the change uncompromising. Inside the shop, though, she felt safe. Change there was slow and predictable. Above her head, by the door, the fan heater droned noisily and made little impact on the chilly air, but she didn’t mind. It had always done that. And she barely noticed the crumbling plaster of the ground floor walls, or the mildew which clung to ceiling corners like a nasty rash.

Her thoughts slid back to the shop over the road. The place was usually open all hours of the day and night, selling its fancy five-quid soups to whoever could afford them. She had no objection to people earning a living, but her parents would be turning in their graves. They’d survived the Ghetto on two hundred calories a day. When they left Warsaw, and arrived in London, it was the handouts from the Jewish soup kitchen in Brune Street that kept them alive. It was extraordinary to think that what had been humble subsistence for many families was now a fad-food. She’d been over for a spy at the menu, of course, when they were shut. Apart from some matzo ball soup, she couldn’t find much she fancied and didn’t know what most of it was, let alone how to pronounce it. Keen-war, or something, a youth with a bicycle and a dog had told Rosa.

She sighed. She missed her old neighbours. Those were Sabbath meals to look forward to. They were exactly how her mother described Warsaw before the war. Mrs Blum from the bagel shop would make the challah. Rich, eggy and sweet. It had been ages since Rosa had felt one of those in her hands, soft and warm, in its pretty braid shape. The Altmans would bring the wine. The Posners, candles. And the Rosenbergs, the jewellers, always came with freshly made kugel.

But now her parents were dead, and all her Jewish neighbours were either dead too or had moved away. Except Rosa.

And there was that feeling again, a gnawing emptiness, a sense that life had moved on without her. It was so unsettling. Every fibre of her being was exhausted by the continual need to think about whether to follow her compatriots out of the East End and into the London suburbs.

The sound of voices jolted her back into the present. Yelling. Music. Outside in the street, a thumping bass beat started up. Tremors vibrated through the shop, and a booming noise invaded the silence of her thoughts. Yobbos, probably, spitting everywhere and pumping out music from one of those dreadful sound-systems. They’d pass in a minute.

But they didn’t.

The music got louder and louder, and – oh, typical – the group had stopped outside Rosa’s shop. All guffaws, swearing, floppy hair and hoodies. More voices, bellowing and cheering, and one by one, people were joining them. What on earth was going on? On a Friday afternoon, from lunchtime onwards, she was used to the steady trickle of people down Brick Lane, getting ready for a night on the tiles and a curry, but it was unusual to see so many people together. She edged over to the corner of the shop window to get a

better view. The music had changed, and one by one people pulled black bandanas into masks, over their mouths and noses, and were dancing, if jabbing a finger in the air and screaming counted as dancing these days. Teenagers, by the look of them. Some younger. She wasn’t very good at judging age, and they all wore such similar clothes, but she’d put money on some of them not being a day over ten.

Rosa pressed her nose against the pane of glass. Outside, the street hummed with joy. There was an innocence to their dancing, even if the masks were a bit scary. And they weren’t doing any harm, were they? She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She used to know all the kids round here; knew their families by name, but none of this lot were familiar. There were at least ten of them, dancing in the street, throwing themselves about like acrobats, bending, leaping, twirling each other around. For a moment, Rosa was reminded of the tea room dances she and Józef used to go to before Agnieszka and Tomasz were born. They’d save for weeks, get dolled up in their best clothes. Oh, how much fun they’d been.

There were more than twenty of them now, maybe thirty. Someone was lighting sparklers and passing them round for the kids. She adored sparklers. And before she knew it, her fingers pulled the door handle and she was outside, the bell dinging shut behind her. The sulphurous smell set light to her dulled senses and she felt the day’s irritation shake itself from her shoulders. She was a kid again, at crisp November bonfires and balmy mid-summer street parties, with people passing sparklers round.

Rosa cleared her throat. Coughed. Her lungs weren’t good these days, weakened by years of a poorly heated flat, the damp shop walls, and Józef’s cigarette smoke.

 

She joined the throng of passers-by who were huddled, mesmer- ised by the dancing. Was it a student gathering? She was puzzled. Who was in charge? She couldn’t see any organisers or anyone giving instructions, and had no idea where the music was coming from. People were merging with the group of their own accord and encouraging others to do the same. They all looked so carefree.

 

The music brought a smile to Rosa’s cold lips. Her heel began to tap and she was lost to nostalgia. It was such a relief to forget the pain and drudgery of the last year. To forget her arthritis and money worries. Was that Lulu and ‘Shout’? Her heart leaped. Many a time she and Józef had danced to that tune. Her mind was flooded with memories of all the occasions when they’d danced together, his warm hand in the small of her back, guiding her forwards, the other clasping hers, keeping her safe. She felt a lump in her throat. They were glorious memories, even if they were now tainted by the agony of loss. It had only been a year and she still missed him so much.

A waltz kicked in, floaty and dramatic. Initially, it had been youngsters dancing but now it was people of all ages, lured over by the infectious atmosphere of Brick Lane on a chilly April afternoon. Hearing the waltz start, a Sikh man checked his turban and, with a huge grin, he clasped the hands of a woman in a navy-blue trench coat. She was giggling like a schoolgirl, a small flat bag diagonally across her body, her head tilted back, carefree and stunned, as though she hadn’t had so much fun in ages. Rosa guessed the woman was about her age. Perhaps she was a widow too?

Rosa’s hips started to sway, and she was tempted to go over and join in. What was she thinking? She was being silly. She couldn’t. Who would mind the shop while she was cavorting in the street?

Another crowd of youths piled in, hee-hawing and smoking, in their thin cotton clothing and baseball shoes. Some with their bottoms hanging out of their trousers, others in drainpipe jeans. Didn’t they feel the cold? Several more children were in tow. Why weren’t they all at school? Before Rosa knew it, one of them had taken her hand and led her towards the group. Elvis’ crooning tones wafted down the street and once again Rosa’s spirits soared. The teenagers looked so funny, impersonating the rock ’n’ roll moves of ‘All Shook Up’. It was the most fun she’d had on a Friday afternoon since . . .

Józef would have enjoyed this.

‘Come on, Rosa,’ he would have said in his calm, decisive voice, and he’d have locked the shop, led her out into the street and begun whirling her around with that boyish grin of his.

A quick head count told her there were about fifty people dancing now and a good twenty more hanging around. The street whiffed of whacky-backy. Rosa had forgotten her nagging joints and aching legs; the grimy shelves with mounting dust; the delivery boxes she couldn’t carry. For a few sweet moments, she’d stopped feeling sick to death of the damn shop, of book-keeping and fretting over decisions. She didn’t care about any of it anymore. All she wanted was—

A loud splitting sound tore through the air, followed by a series of cracks and bangs. Rosa gasped as orange flames burst out of the top floor windows of the shop opposite, and billowed upwards. Swirling streams of black smoke inked the pale sky. Fire raged behind the first-floor windows, and the ground floor shop was filled with smoke and flames. She cried out in pain as acrid fumes hit her lungs, forcing her to clamp her hand over her mouth. Everyone was shouting and running for cover as burning timber peeled away from windows. Screams pierced the air as lengths of wood and red-hot embers rained down on the crowd below. Rosa’s legs were like jelly and she felt dizzy. She stumbled over something on the ground in front of her and lurched forwards. She made out a woman, clutching her arm.

 

‘Help,’ came the agonised cry at Rosa’s feet. ‘Please help me.’

Panic engulfed Rosa, and she was transported back to the sensory onslaught of the Warsaw Ghetto, to primitive memories of endless screaming, to the cacophony of bombs and blasts and gunshots. From behind, someone shoved her out of the way and she stumbled forwards. All around her, people were coughing, retching and staggering, scarves and hands clasped over their mouths, desperate to escape the blaze. The air was cloying. Putrid. She was plunged into blind terror, realising she could die. This wasn’t Poland, and it wasn’t the end of the war, but she had to get away from the fire and ring 999 before someone died.

As the blaze ripped through the roof, smoke continued to spiral upwards into the sky. Rosa staggered blindly towards the blue door of her shop, to the step and doorway, arms groping ahead for something to grab. The fumes bit at her lungs and she was gasping for air so much she was retching. Finally, her hands grabbed the handle. She used all her weight to heave the door open and stumbled inside, pushing it shut behind her as quickly as she could.

She sucked in some air. It was like breathing through needles. She had to get to the phone in the back room. Stands and magazine racks flashed past her as she lurched towards the till, gasping for breath and snatching for a hold. She hauled her way round the counter, head spinning, and grabbed the phone receiver from the wall. Her eyes were streaming.

Keep blinking, she told herself. Breathe. She tried to calm herself; to rub away the tears that the fumes had produced; to steady her shaking hands and press the buttons. What should she say? Was it terrorists? Had there been an explosion?

Just say FIRE.

Rosa felt her head starting to spin. Lights flashed, dots appeared and she went floppy. Her mind slipped sideways and everything stopped.

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: ‘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