Tag Archives: themes

Review: ‘Out of the Ashes’ by Vicky Newham

When a flash mob is interrupted by a sudden explosion, DI Maya Rahman dashes to the scene. A fire is raging through Brick Lane, one of the city’s most infamous streets, the site of Maya’s childhood home. The discovery of two charred bodies in the burnt-out building transforms an arson attack into a murder case.

With witnesses too caught up in the dancing to have seen anything useful, Maya faces a complicated investigation without any leads. Then, when reports of a second, even more horrifying crime land on Maya’s desk, it’s obvious there’s more at stake than she could ever have imagined. She must solve the case – before all of East London goes up in flames

Having really enjoyed the first novel in the DI Maya Rahman series – ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ – I had high expectations for ‘Out of the Ashes‘. I was not disappointed!

Vicky Newham reflects the rich diversity of London well, building complex characters within the wider narrative of an explosion on Brick Lane. There are plenty of nuances to these characters, making them well-rounded and believable. I cared about the characters, even the ones that weren’t wholly “good”. In fact, I liked them all the more for their flaws.

Newham builds a rich, compelling picture of the residents affected by the explosion and how far-reaching the consequences of the past can be. I also love the way in which Maya’s own backstory interlinks with the central storyline, too.

Exploring serious themes of racism, immigration and gentrification, ‘Out of the Ashes‘ delivers a depth that many crime novels lack.

I can’t wait to read more from Vicky Newham.

Vic x

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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.

*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