Monday, 25 August 2014

Review of No Country by Kalyan Ray

No Country begins with the discovery of the bodies of an Indian couple who’ve been murdered in their bed, in Clairmont, New York, November 1989. As the investigation gets underway the reader is taken back to County Sligo, Western Ireland, in 1843.

Best friends Padraig Aherne and Brendan McCarthaigh are watching the landlord’s tax men tear down the property of one of their friends. Times are hard for the poor of Ireland and they are about to get worse with the arrival of the Irish Potato Famine, which would claim around a million lives and drive another million away from the land of their birth. 

Brendan is the calmer of the two friends as they grow up observing the unsettled landscape of their homeland as families begin to starve. Padraig’s passionate determination to fight for his country eventually drives him away from Ireland to make a new life in Calcutta, without informing anyone he knows or loves. As the years pass and the famine worsens in Ireland, Brendan also decides to leave, taking those that remain of Padraig’s family with him to America, hoping that one day their paths will cross again.

Ray has captured the authentic rhythm of the Irish language; you can hear the accent as you read even though he hasn't relied on obvious quirks in the language to express it. The sense of time and place is rendered beautifully in the detailed descriptions of the mundane as well as the dramatic. This ability to reflect the essence of different cultures through descriptive prose is continued throughout the novel as Ray takes the reader to India, America and other countries.

No Country explores how a person’s sense of identity is formed, what connects it to a time and place and how it can be uprooted, reformed and replanted. Historic events across each nation over the years drive the narrative, determining cause and effect, as the choices people make impact on each connection and missed opportunity. People die and new generations are born, some stay together others are torn apart. Each person in the chain struggles with a sense of identity and belonging, some cling to what they know others are forced to adapt to new circumstances. Others lie to themselves and betray those they profess to love because the loss they fear is more terrifying than what they might gain. Even the writing feels disconnected at times as it jumps from one person’s history to the next, which I thought was a great technique to make the reader feel as unsettled as the characters. This is a demanding read but a worthwhile one in order to understand how everyone is connected no matter how far they have travelled from the place they call home.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Review of Letters To My Daughter's Killer by Cath Staincliffe

Staincliffe has created an authentic voice for the narrator of this heart-breaking yet ultimately uplifting tale of loss and hope. Ruth Sutton is grieving for her daughter, Lizzie, who was brutally murdered four years earlier. The rage Ruth feels towards her daughter's killer leaps off the page in the opening sentence as she pours everything she is thinking and feeling into letters to her daughter's killer. 

The novel is brave, bold and takes the reader into uncomfortable territory as it explores Ruth's desire for revenge and her determination to comprehend what drove the killer to do what they did. The raw intimacy of Ruth's sense of grief, guilt and courage as she writes will keep you hooked right up until the end. This is a story of survival in the most horrendous circumstances. It's about learning how to live with unbearable knowledge without succumbing to the worst impulses of human nature, while examining whether or not forgiveness is possible. The passages between Ruth and her granddaughter, Florence, are filled with patience and love as the child comes to terms with the fact that her mother won't be coming back. Staincliffe has written Ruth's story with tremendous insight, sensitivity and emotional intelligence. There are no easy answers in this novel, it's a disturbing, thought-provoking page-turner and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I bought my copy at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2014.

Published by C and R Crime.
Find out more about the author here.
Follow the author of Twitter: @CathStaincliffe

Struck by lightening... among other things

Dear readers,

I'm so sorry to have reappeared and then disappeared again. An exceptionally loud clap of thunder a few weeks ago blew my internet connection (I had suspected for a while that it was on its way out so I wasn't entirely surprised). 

The thunder was so earth shatteringly loud it reminded me of a storm that occurred when I was about five. My mum made me a birthday cake, a rare treat due to tight budget constraints. The kitchen was full of the sweet smell of beaten butter, sugar and eggs cooking in the oven to form lighter than air sponges, and the sound of sifted icing being whipped into softened butter. A Robertson's jar sat on the counter, a spoon at the side waiting to extract the strawberry jam and smear it thickly across the sponge base once it had cooled.

Me and my brother were sat round the table waiting for the candles to be lit when a huge thunderstorm exploded over the house, shaking the walls. We all took cover in the corner by the kitchen door that led into the hall, and watched as my birthday cake bounced across the table in time to each thunderclap, until it fell off the edge and splattered onto the floor just as the storm moved on to torment another neighbourhood. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry at that point, I suspect my mum was relieved that it was just the cake that got hammered and not the house.

While waiting to be reconnected to the internet, I've also had a run in with a virus that was a real bone ache. I kid you not, every bone in my body ached. It was the kind of virus that leaves you so exhausted that lifting the kettle to pour out a cup of tea feels like you're hauling yourself up the side of a cliff. 

So for the last few weeks I've worked, slept and when I had the energy I've read a bit, which is good news for you because that means new book reviews are on the way. I hope you enjoy the reviews and that you never encounter my bone aching virus or a cake bouncing, broadband busting thunderstorm!


Sunday, 3 August 2014

Join The Big Poppy Knit

I have picked up my knitting needles for the first time in years to take part in BBC Radio Nottingham's Big Poppy Knit. They would like the people of Nottingham to knit 11,000 poppies to represent the 11,000 local men who died in World War 1. 

The radio station has helpfully supplied free knitting patterns on their facebook page. On Friday I bought some red wool, dug my knitting needles out of my sewing box, found a surprising number of black buttons stashed away and started knitting Pattern 2.

As I did so I tweeted my progress, especially my pleasure at finishing my first poppy, which turned out quite well considering I hadn't knitted in a while.

Then I received this tweet: 

@TraceyWalsh @Pamreader @BBCNottingham two of my Grandad's brothers died in WW1, Sherwood Foresters regiment

I was moved to tweet back the following:

@Pamreader @TraceyWalsh then my first two poppies will be knitted in memory of your grandad's two brothers *hugs*

And Tracey responded:

@Pamreader @BBCNottingham oh thank you Pam. Walter Walker (20) & Edward Walker (31). Family originally Nottingham lace makers.

Knowing that I was knitting poppies in memory of two men, whose names and ages I now knew, made the experience emotionally poignant as I thought about the war they had both fought. Tracey sent me a copy of the 1911 census which features the details of these two men. In 1911 Edward was a coffin maker and Walter was an Apprentice to a Printer. My skin grew cold as I continued to knit and thought about the way they had lost their lives. Particularly Edward, who in his former life had the responsibility of encasing the dead in a respectful manner. How had he felt as he watched his friends being killed, their bodies encased by the mud and blood of the battlefields in France? 

Knitting a poppy for each of these two brave men is the least I can do.

If you would like to take part in The Big Poppy Knit you can find more details here.

Book Review: Love and Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

Love and Fallout is a beautiful novel about love, friendship and family, and the 
pressures that people put themselves under due to fear and loss.

Tessa’s worst nightmare starts to come true when her best friend arranges a surprise TV makeover. She's never been the kind of woman who worries about what she looks like in the mirror and right now Tessa has bigger concerns. Her business is on the verge of collapse, her husband is unhappy and her daughter wants to take part in beauty pageant. 

As a woman who has spent her life trying to save the planet, including joining the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp as a teenager, Tessa can’t comprehend her family’s complaints, any more than they can understand her desperate need to cling on to the illusions of the past. Then Angela gets in touch, the one girl that she had never been able to get on with in Greenham Common, and the memories of the past come flooding back.

As a teenager, Tessa is badly let down by love and is desperate to escape the confines of her home town. She decides to make her way to Greenham Common, a place where men were not welcome, in order to come to terms with her loss. Tessa has no real idea what the women are fighting for when she arrives and has a hard time fitting in with the group until she finds a friend in Rori, the camp live wire. Naive and innocent, Tessa often makes mistakes as she tries to embrace the greater knowledge of the women around her, leading to an embarrassingly comical interaction with a journalist.

The chapters switch between the present and the past to explore how Tessa’s time with the women in Greenham Common has shaped her. The conditions the women lived in are well drawn and evocative. The camps were rough and basic, the camaraderie and passionate beliefs of the women the driving force behind keeping the campaign to stop the bombs alive. Every time the women left the camp they never knew if they were going to find kindness or discrimination, which reinforces the sense of loyalty between them. 

The undercurrents of each relationship, both in the past and the present, are well observed and written with humour and understanding. Love and Fallout is an apt title for this sensitive and compelling novel, as Tessa faces the painful lessons of the past while searching for a sense of peace in the present.

Published by Seren (with thanks to Seren for the review copy)
Follow the author on twitter: @KathrynSimmonds

The Broadway Book Club choice for August is...

The Broadway Book Club choice for August is... 

My Notorious Life by Madame X By Kate Manning 

About the book: 

‘In the end, they celebrated. They bragged.
They got me finally, was their feeling.
They said I would take my secrets to the grave.
They should be so lucky.’

Axie Muldoon, the headstrong daughter of Irish immigrants, forced to beg for pennies as a child on the brutal streets on New York City, grows up to become the most successful – and controversial – midwife of her time. 

‘Saved’ from poverty by a well-meaning philanthropist, Axie is sent West with her younger brother and sister. But the kindness of strangers is short-lived and soon Axie returns to the city of her birth, alone, but determined to one day reunite her family.

When she is taken in by a Manhattan doctor Axie learns the craft that she will live by – and later fight for. She rises from the gutter to the glitter of Fifth Avenue high society, and discovers that the right way is not always the way of the church or the law, and that you should never trust a man who says ‘trust me.’ But what if that man is an irresistible risk-taker with a poetical Irish soul?

As Axie’s reputation grows she finds herself on a collision course with the crusading official who would be the righteous instrument of her downfall. It will take all of her power to outwit him and save both herself and those she loves from ruin.

For an insight to the inspiration behind the novel, please watch the video below:

I'm really pleased that members decided to accept this suggestion as there is a huge amount to talk about in this novel. Unfortunately we are not open to new members at the physical club at the moment but you can follow online. If you'd like members to know what you thought of this book you can send me your comments using the contact form in the right hand column and I'll share them with the group on the meeting night.

The next meeting is on Thursday 28 August at 7pm in the Broadway Cinema.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Tea Time by PL McIlroy

Jason Quinn had always found his wife's gaze unsettling, especially the speed at which her sapphire eyes could turn to a thunderous navy. Today they were the shade of a calm sea after a storm.

Bracing himself, Jason steps over the threshold into the hall where his wife, Lisa, is waiting for him. The welcoming smile on her lips not quite reaching her eyes. Undoing his tie he removes it in one swift movement before stuffing it into his trouser pocket, then unbuttons his shirt at the neck.

“Sorry I'm late," he said. "Traffic was bad.”

"I know, they said there was an accident on the A46 on the radio," said Lisa. "Fancy a cuppa?”

Jason nods in agreement, the tight knot of tension in his stomach relaxing at the calm tone in his wife's voice. Following her into the kitchen he flicks the switch on the kettle without checking the water level, knowing Lisa will have filled it in anticipation of his return. The familiar scent of the Shepherd's pie in the oven making his stomach rumble as the moisture in his mouth runs dry. Bruised memories of the previous evening flicker at the edge of his consciousness. Closing his eyes for a moment Jason takes a deep breath and pushes them away, then fetches the milk from the fridge.

“I've made your favourite for tea...” Lisa leans against the counter by the sink, watching her husband make the hot drinks, her eyes never leaving his face, a trait Jason had adored until the day they tied the knot. Lisa was his childhood sweetheart. They'd sat together in the same classroom at secondary school, two souls drawn together by the absence of a parent's love.

When Lisa moved away to another city he'd lost contact for a while. They said it would be better that way, that Lisa needed a fresh start but Jason had felt the loss keenly. Lisa eventually returned to his home town when she was twenty-one: beautiful, poised and a magnet for men, but she hadn't expressed interest in anyone except Jason. They were married on his 24th birthday. Jason had felt proud that day with Lisa on his arm, as she had charmed the guests and joked that he'd never have an excuse to forget their anniversary.

Trying to control the slight tremor in his hands, Jason lifts the kettle and pours the hot water into two mugs. Squeezing each teabag he removes them one by one and turns to dump them in the bin at the side of the worktop, his movements stiff and careful. Adding milk to one of the mugs he hands it to his wife, turning it so she can grasp the handle. Taking it from him, Lisa stirs the milk into her tea slowly, while studying the prune like texture of the skin on her husband's left hand, her expression as clinical as an animal stalking its prey.

Jason had been careless the day he was burned. He had stopped late at work to help someone in the office. When he finally arrived back home Jason went to make the drinks as usual, choosing to ignore the pent up fury coiled his wife's slim frame. The events of the day had poured from his lips in a desperate bid to fill the empty spaces as he walked into the kitchen. Jason hadn't realised how close Lisa was to him when the boiling water from the kettle had shot across his hand. At least that's what he told his colleagues at work the next day, the dressing on his blistered flesh masking his shame. The pain had been excruciating as Lisa calmly drew him over to the sink, turned on the cold tap and shoved his hand underneath the running water. Jason had been grateful for his wife's quick reaction the first time, had appreciated her administrations despite the pain. Lisa had been considerate afterwards, had even kissed his hand better, her lips cool against his hot skin, before making his favourite for tea.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Nottingham Festival of Words Blog-Hop

I'm delighted to be invited to join the Blog-Hop to highlight the second Nottingham Festival of Words event in October 2014. It will be a celebration of the spoken and written word, as well as a key part of the city’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. 

In the run up to the Festival, the organisers thought it would be fun, and interesting, to pass a blog baton around those who write within or around Nottingham or who have a connection of some kind with the area. I've been tagged by Sarah Dale over at the aptly named Creating Focus website and you can read Sarah's post

What’s your connection with Nottingham and its written and spoken words?

I moved to Nottingham around 1979 and on my first day at school I was introduced to the history of the city. I found out that it was originally named Snottingham (really glad someone decided to drop the 'S') and learned all about the myths behind the legend of Robin Hood, followed by the history of lace making. I was also introduced to what happened to those who were charged with a criminal offence during this period in history and what life was like in the city prison (which is now known as The Galleries of Justice). My new school packed a lot into one morning and I fell in love with the city. 

The best thing about moving here was living two minutes walk away from a library. I spent the first few months working my way through the children's section, before liberating my step-dad's tickets (with his permission) to read the adult section. If I hadn't moved to Nottingham I don't think I would have read as much or as widely as I did, as where I lived before I was miles from a library and we didn't go very often. My reading addiction has proved to be useful in many ways over the years, especially when the arrival of computers, the internet and mobile technology expanded my options to learn. Whenever I've wanted to learn or understand something I've generally found what I need in books, articles, websites and blogs. 

When I joined twitter in September 2010 I started this book blog, which was quickly picked up by writers, agents and publishers. In January 2011, I was invited to host a book club in a local café by the owners (which has since closed). When the café changed hands the Broadway Cinema gave us a new home, I renamed the club and we've been there ever since. We currently have over 80 registered members, some follow online via the blog, facebook or twitter (@Pamreader) and others come to the physical club. 

I encourage my members to try books by relatively unknown authors as well as those who are well known, and to experiment by reading different genres. I've also invited authors to come and talk to the club, which has given many members fresh insights into the books they read and how they were created. One fascinating talk was by Stephen Holland from Page 45, who introduced many members to graphic novels for the first time.

What do you love about Nottingham and its creative scene right now?

One of the best things about this city is the many stories it has to tell if you become a tourist for a little while and stop looking at it like a native. I'm not remotely surprised that writers like Lord ByronD.H. Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe found inspiration here. 

These days the city has many creative outlets for writers and performers. The Nottingham PlayhouseFive Leaves BookshopWaterstones, the Nottingham Contemporarylocal librariesAntenna and the Broadway Cinema have all run literary and/or spoken word events. In Lowdham, The Bookcase runs amazing events all year, including an annual literary festival in June. The Nottingham Writers' Studio has also moved to new premises recently and now has a fantastic performance space in the basement.

We also have the Lakeside Arts, Royal Concert Hall, Theatre Royal, Capital FM Arena, Nottingham Arts Theatre, Lace Market Theatre, Bonnington Theatre, the Albert Hall, Rock City and The Studio Theatre, who are all fostering talent, plus Dance4. Add the Creative Quarterlocal journalism and the new Notts TV channel into that mix and you'll understand why Nottingham is an exciting city to be in right now. 

How would you describe Nottingham to a visitor coming to the Festival of Words?

Friendly, welcoming, open, direct, creative, collaborative, buzzing and a source of inspiration.

Don't just take my word for how creative people are embraced in this city, check out writer
 Andrew Kells' post to highlight The Festival of Words. I'm passing the baton over to Elaine Aldred over at the inspirational Strange Alliances blog and Sam Priestly, who will be posting in the next few weeks. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Interview with Tom Vowler, author of That Dark Remembered Day

Tom Vowler has an extraordinary ability to express subtle meaning Tom Vowler 2014through the actions of his characters. His second novel - That Dark Remembered Day – swept me up and held me in its wings as I was given an overview of the fragile landscape of the family within, where battle lines had been drawn and crossed, the remnants fatigued by a war they couldn’t understand. I’d only intended to read for a little while. Four hours later I turned the last page, my emotional landscape shredded by a deft hand, yet ready to turn back to the beginning and read it again. This is such powerful novel of psychological suspense, so finely balanced and well executed that I couldn’t resist taking Tom up on his offer of an interview to find out more about how he wrote it. I hope you find his answers below as fascinating as I did.
The novel centres on a family of four: a mother, father, son and daughter. Each member of the family feels as isolated as the house in which you place them. They are inextricably entwined. What motivated you to make the house a significant character in the plot?
Place is often a character in my fiction, landscape used for atmosphere and texture, but also to ground the narrative, to connect the reader more closely to events. But to give the house such prominence was something that evolved during writing. I think I passed an old boarded-up property out walking one day, miles from nowhere, graffiti-strewn, remnants of the previous family life evident if you looked closely enough. What had happened here? Why had it been abandoned? When did the rooms last hear laughter?
You write realistically from female perspective, what challenges did you encounter when writing as the opposite sex?
Only the usual ones. It’s something I’m discussing at a forthcoming event, so I’ve perhaps given it more thought than usual. I’m always tempted to say too much is made of this, that such a viewpoint differs no more than other characters the writer has to draw convincingly. But it seems, unconsciously, something I’m drawn to, having just written a short story with a female narrator, and the next novel is making a strong case for this point-of-view also. The challenge, as ever, is to convince the reader, to have them believe utterly in the voice they are hearing. I have many wonderful female friends who often get early drafts to look at.
Why did you decide to focus on the impact of post traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) in your novel?  
I think I first heard the term in relation to soldiers who’d returned from Vietnam, though of course little acknowledgement was made of it then – this condition that could emerge months or even years after a disturbing experience, where the sufferer would be overwhelmed by flashbacks and nightmares, all of it indistinguishable from the actual event. So much is still unknown about how the mind processes and copes with extraordinary, disturbing experiences, how they linger, how they manifest. Few of us can ever really know what it’s like to witness truly terrible happenings, to carry those images in life, to go to sleep with them.
What was it about the Falklands War that made you select this period in history as a key event?
I became fascinated in a war that was the last untelevised one. Certainly there was coverage, but it was drip-fed and highly censored. The imbedding of journalists on the frontline didn’t really happen until the first Gulf War. So I had this vague recollection of a conflict, almost over before it began, and I wondered if there wasn’t some untold aspect of it. I think it’s still regarded as an unqualified success, yet Britain came very close to defeat and casualties on both sides were relatively high, the fighting at times brutal and close-quarter. For me, though, the startling fact was how more British veterans of the conflict have committed suicide since their return than died on the battlefield. I was also keen to explore Argentine experiences or the war.
I recently went to see The Two Worlds of Charlie F which centres round the real life experiences of British Servicemen and women who served in Afghanistan. I have to say that real life impact of war that I witnessed on stage is equally well reflected in your novel. How did you approach your research?
It felt important to keep my own views on the futility of war away from the research, my antipathy of politicians who send young men and women to kill and die for egregious reasons. Talking to those who’d served was crucial, but reading about the loss on both sides formed a greater understanding of the conflict. Many of the Argentine troops were teenage conscripts, hopelessly ill-trained, fathomless as to why there were there.
The evocative prose as you describe the events in the Falklands resonated deeply with me on an emotional level. How difficult were these scenes to write?
In some ways they form the heart of the book, yet we don’t hear about them until late in the day, once their impact is known. This was a calculated move – the non-linear narrative – aimed at mimicking certain symptoms of post-traumatic stress in the reader: namely, the disruption of temporal flow, which occurs due to flashbacks, hallucinations and nightmares. The scenes themselves weren’t particularly difficult to write, being so well documented, but drawing emotion from the reader is, so I’m pleased to hear your response.
As events unfold you depict a balanced overview of the options each person has, as the impact of PTSD on a main character follows a destructive path. What were you hoping to achieve by describing it in this way?
As a friend always tells me, there are no absolute truths beyond pure mathematics. Everything else is a version, an account, moulded and influenced by whoever experiences it. Richard’s psychological unhinging impacts everyone he encounters, but their understanding of it will differ each time. And of course his own regard for his mental breakdown is unique, both insightful and distorted as he confuses the past and present.
The village where the family lives becomes the target of voyeurs who come to stare at the scene of the crime. This reminded me of the sense of distance that soldiers are sometimes subjected to, where they are treated as objects of curiosity as people who have had to kill in the name of war. How hard was it to get the balance right in these scenes to increase the emotional impact?
Probably the hardest aspect of writing the book, for how far can one’s imagination take us to understanding such matters? With all research, you read a lot, you interview people with a closer knowledge of the subject, you observe if possible. But ultimately you have to fall back on your own emotional interpretation to give resonance. It’s not for me to say if I’ve got this aspect of the book right.
Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Alison Moore said: “As an admirer of Tom Vowler’s short stories, I came to his novels with relish. That Dark Remembered Day is a compelling story about damage done, a touching exploration of the possibility of forgiveness and recovery.” How did that make you feel?
Writers are often the harshest critics, so such appraisal is always hard-won and therefore greatly satisfying. Alison’s work is wonderful; she’s someone who takes risks, departs from all the formulaic noise that’s out there. So, yes, I was very flattered.
What do you gain from attending events like Crimefest?
Crimefest is one of those rare festivals where authors and audience connect on the same level. There’s no pomp, no ego. Just passionate readers and writers thrilled to talk about books.
What is your top tip for anyone who would like to write?
Stop ‘liking’ and start ‘doing’. The apprenticeship is often long but essential.
A huge thank you to Tom for the interview. If the above has piqued your interest, please read on to find out a little more about Tom and That Dark Remembered Day.
Tom Vowler is a novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010 and his novel What Lies Withinreceived critical acclaim. He is co-editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and an associate lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, where he’s completing a PhD looking at the role of the editor in fiction. That Dark Remembered Day is his second novel.
Publisher synopsis: 
Can you ever know what those closest to you are really capable of? 
When Stephen gets a phone call to say his mother isn’t well, he knows he must go to her straight away. But he dreads going back there. He has never been able to understand why his mother chose to stay in the town he grew up in, after everything that happened. One day’s tragic events years before had left no one living there untouched.
 Stephen’s own dark memories are still poisoning his life, as well as his marriage. Perhaps now is the time to go back and confront the place and the people of his shattered childhood. But will he ever be able to understand the crime that punctured their lives so brutally? How can a community move on from such a terrible legacy?
Published by Headline and currently an e-book bargain on kindle at £5.99 (price correct at time of going to print)
Chat to Tom on twitter @tom_vowler

My #TOPCRIME2014 top 10

As 2014 is the year of the selfie, and the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is the crime writer's equivalent of the Oscars, I collared my exceptionally willing volunteers - Mel Sherratt, Mari Hannah and Rebecca Bradley - for a mugshot the minute we arrived on Thursday 17 July. Then we headed off to the famous Betty's Tea Shop for a round of tea and scandalously good scones, before returning to The Swan for the announcement of the Crime Novel of the Year and opening night party.
I'd predicted earlier that Belinda Bauer would win Crime Novel of the Year with Rubbernecker and she did, if you haven't read it yet you're missing out on a cracking thriller. I was also delighted to witness one of the most inspiring writers of my generation - Lynda La Plante - receive a well deserved Outstanding Contribution to Crime Writing Award. 

My top ten highlights

1) Seeing my friend Mel Sherratt's dream come true when she took part in her first ever panel at Harrogate. Mel was on The Good Old Days panel discussing the changing landscape of publishing with James OswaldMark Edwards and Mari HannahMartyn Waites is without fail brilliant every time he chairs a panel. It was an interesting discussion which centred around the differences and benefits of self-publishing and traditional publishing. 

2) Meeting best selling author JK Rowling and watching her face light up when I thanked her for the many hours of reading pleasure she has given me. From the first moment I picked up a Harry Potter book I knew Rowling had a lot to say, and this was made even clearer during her warm and engaging interview as her pseudonym Robert Galbraith with the legendary crime writer Val McDermid

Photo of JK Rowling with Val McDermid by Fenris Oswin

Anyone who dismisses the Harry Potter series as merely a fantasy series for kids is missing a trick. Rowling is piercing, perceptive and clever as she weaves contemporary issues throughout every single one of those seven novels. 

I'm really pleased that Rowling has found a niche in the crime writing world with the creation of private detective Cormoran Strike. During the interview Rowling revealed that she has always been a huge fan of crime writing and has plans to write many more Galbraith novels, saying that the Harry Potter novels could be interpreted as six whodunits and one whydunnit. Rowling added that The Tiger In The Smoke by Margery Allingham was her favourite crime novel, and described how the novel had such a good story that it compelled her to read one page a night before she fell into an exhausted sleep during a fraught Christmas with a newborn. What Rowling intends to do is bring the classic detective novel up to date with authentic characters and contemporary themes.

I personally think that the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancy were just the warm up for what Rowling really wants to do, and I've been saying as much for years. I'm genuinely looking forward to spending many more hours curled up with Rowling's Galbraith novels in the future.

3) Lynda La Plante's uproariously funny yet thought-provoking interview on Saturday morning. The first La Plante novel I ever bought was a signed copy of Bella Mafia and I've followed her writing career with interest ever since. La Plante has the same ability as Billy Connolly for going off on a tangent, as she called on all her acting skills to recount events from her past while bringing the people she had known vividly and hilariously to life. Everyone was roaring with laughter at 9a.m. in the morning as they listened to La Plante, which was no mean feat considering some festival goers had been up until 4a.m. that same morning. The news is that La Plante is currently writing a prequel to the DCI Jane Tennison series soon perked everyone up.

La Plante also revealed her serious side when a member of the audience asked why she hadn't chosen to write comedy when she clearly had a talent for it. La Plante explained that she had chosen the crime genre because she felt there wasn't enough help for the victims of crime. The whole audience was still and quiet as she described all the help that the Moors Murderers had received while a bereaved mother haunted the moors in search of the body of her missing child. Never has a hard hitting message been more effectively delivered.

4) Steve Mosby's happy face during the entire weekend. He had that slightly dazed look of a little boy who couldn't quite believe that he'd got exactly what he wanted for Christmas, who desperately wanted someone to pinch him to check that it was real. Steve was the Chair of the Festival this year and he was incredibly modest whenever anyone congratulated him, making sure he included the entire team behind the event as he graciously accepted the hordes of well deserved compliments. 

If you haven't read a novel by Steve Mosby yet, I strongly suggest that you do because he is an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful crime writer, with a gift for descriptive prose that has a distinctly literary quality. 

6) All the games in the tent on the lawn devised by Dead Good Books. This was the fourth time that I've been to Harrogate but the first time I've ever had time to play the games. I discovered that I should be kept well away from paint guns after almost taking the eye out of one of the staff members during the shoot a character game. I won a drinks voucher and a bag of sweets in the grab a bone comp and dressed up in a long blue wig, sunglasses and a feather boa to have my mugshot taken. The team were handing out goody bags of proof copies on the hour and I bagged loads of great books, some of which I shared out because I knew I wouldn't be able to carry them all on the train home. 

7) Getting my hands on a proof copy of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. When I caught a tweet on the way to Harrogate re this title, all my spidey senses (as @EMAldred on twitter likes to call them) kicked off and my heart started drumming. When my sixth sense goes off like a rocket it usually indicates a potentially great read. The most recent sixth sense alert was for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel which has more than lived up to my expectations (review to follow). So when I found a sample of The Girl on the Train in a goody bag during the Lynda La Plante event, I read it. My instincts were confirmed and I never shut up about it from then on, saying this was 'The One' I really wanted. Thank you to the Dead Good Books team who ensured I got a copy. 

8) All the wonderful people I met during the festival. There were lots of hugs, laughter, interesting chats and more selfies. Thanks everyone for making this year's festival an extra special experience. There was an incredibly happy vibe throughout the weekend, not least when Rebbeca J Bradley screamed out loud with joy when she pulled a bone out of the Dead Good Books suitcase to find a tag for free weekend rover for next year attached.

9) Finding a mystery book wrapped in brown paper wrapping that said 'do not open until Christmas' in a goody bag. 

Author Tammy Cohen was delighted when she saw I had one of the mystery parcels, saying that it was a copy of her latest novel and told me I couldn't open it until Christmas Day. I decided then to post a pic of the unwrapped parcel on twitter every Thursday up until the big day. You have no idea how hard it is not to rip the wrapping off and start reading because I really loved The Mistress's Revenge.

10) The panels I went to were fantastic. It's impossible to go to a panel at Harrogate and not learn something useful, generally while being thoroughly entertained by the quick witted banter between panellists. 

Obviously one of this year's highlights was the thrilling Broadchurch panel. If you would like to find out more Steve Mosby has collated all the Harrogate #TOPCRIME2014 reviews here. Better yet, why not find out how great the panels are for yourself and book for next year.

I hope you enjoyed my top 10 memories from this year's festival. I managed to lug home 13 new books on the train, hopefully they'll help me to generate a few arresting blog posts for you in the months to come. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Review of The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

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When bloggers started posting their invites to the launch party for the third book in the All Souls Trilogy - The Book of Life - on twitter, I remember thinking how amazing the invites were but never expected to receive one, as I'd never read any of the books. Then in mid-May a delivery card was dropped through my letterbox to say a parcel was waiting for me at the post office. I still hadn't had time to go and pick it up when I received an email on 22 May asking for confirmation that I had received the invite to the Harkness event.

Shortly after reading the email I went on Facebook, and found that a friend had posted a video of Deborah Harkness's acceptance speech after she was presented with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters earlier that month from her former College - Mount Holyoke.

When life lines up a series of coincidences, I have learned to pay attention. After listening to Deborah's speech I said yes to the invite, collected the parcel from the post office, downloaded the first two books and started reading the trilogy.

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Harkness has a gift for storytelling and what you take away from the All Souls Trilogy will depend on how open you are to to alternative ways of thinking. The trilogy can be enjoyed simply as a fantasy that features romantic, historical and thriller themes, which moves back and forth through history and scientific research through the ages to the present day, or it can open up new ways of thinking or being, just as the discovery of a magical manuscript does for Diana Bishop, the main character.

Book 1: A Discovery of Witches

The story revolves around the search for an alchemical manuscript known as Ashmole 782 which was collected by Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). It was rumoured to have been lost during the transfer of Ashmole's collection of precious manuscripts to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Obviously a missing manuscript offers many options for the imaginative writer, especially one such as Harkness who has a professional background in researching the history of science and magic in Europe, specialising in the periods between 1500 - 1700.

The first book - The Discovery of Witches - focuses on the slow, evolving romance between the historian and witch Diana Bishop, a professor at Yale who is the last descendant of the first Salem witch to be executed - Bridgit Bishop, and the vampire and geneticist Matthew Clairmont who has a passion for Darwin. Up until this period in time, Diana has suppressed her true nature in a bid to live an ordinary life, but when she effortlessly draws the Ashmole 782 out of hiding she comes to the attention of the other witches, daemons and vampires who work around her in the Bodleian. As I was interested in the origins of most beliefs as a child, I knew at this point where the trilogy was likely to be headed and settled in to enjoy the rest of the journey.

Due to rejecting the gifts she was born with, Diana is vulnerable to those with ulterior motives who seek to understand what this unexpected and unusual occurrence means for the wider population. Unfortunately, Diana is no wiser than they are as to what the manuscript contains because it is incomplete. Matthew witnesses the moment Diana succumbs to using magic and when he realises how clueless she is about the sudden interest in her unusual ability, he insists on becoming Diana's protector and they fall in love.

Matthew is drawn as a secretive, possessive vampire who looks around 35 years of age but has walked the earth for 1,500 years, while Diana is initially drawn as and independent, intelligent yet somewhat naive and stubborn woman in her late thirties. According to their cultural backgrounds, neither of them is allowed to form an intimate relationship for reasons that are unclear at first. Matthew refuses to consummate the relationship, even after he 'marries' Diana without her formal permission in order to keep her safe under the protection of his name, which is highly regarded and feared in the vampire, deamon and witch communities.

On the surface, the romance between Diana and Matthew in the first novel follows the classic passive female, dominant male characteristics that you'll find in other novels in the fantasy genre. While the writing does periodically slide into into swoony descriptions of the new lovers, it doesn't detract from the compulsion to keep reading to find out what happens next. All is not as it seems as Diana and Matthew set the boundaries of their new relationship. Vampires are inclined to be possessive and Matthew has the added complication of a medical condition known as blood rage, which inclines him towards a brutal level of action rather than considered thought, especially when a family member or mate is under threat. Over the years Matthew has learned to control his condition while he searches for a cure. 

As the story progresses, both characters gradually come to realise that in order to be with each other, they first need to understand what has made them different in relation to other vampires and witches within their respective cultures, to enable them to come to terms with their fears, and those of others, real or imagined. This dual search for the self is continued in the second novel - Shadow of Night.

Book 2: Shadow of Night

The second novel is stronger than the first in terms of characterisation, as the reader is drawn into the past to experience life in Elizabethan England, a period of history that Harkness has considerable knowledge of. I enjoyed working out which characters from history were real and which weren't as Diana and Matthew went in search of the missing pages from Ashmole 782. The liberties Harkness takes here with Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are particularly entertaining, but the character that stood out for me was Matthew's intriguing father, Philippe.

As Diana learns more about herself and the history of witches she develops a strong core of empathy for the difficulties vampires, daemons, witches and humans have faced throughout history. This sense of empathy gradually begins to erode some of Diana's fears, enabling her to learn how to expand and trust her gifts as a witch, and the possibilities of life begin to bloom both within and outside her.

All the strands of ideas from the first two books are entwined in the third book - The Book of Life, when Diana and Matthew return to the present. 

Book 3: The Book of Life

I read The Book of Life in one sitting. I've always found genetics to be a interesting area of science and the research is manipulated here with great sensitivity and forethought. The writing throughout the trilogy conjures incredibly vivid imagery, especially in the third book. Harkness's attention to detail created a fully realised, three dimensional world I was able to observe as each scene unfolded before me.

Humans have always feared what they don't know, just as the witches, daemons and vampires do within these pages. Harkness explores cultural diversity throughout history via the stories the creatures and humans share. The common thread throughout the trilogy revolves around learning to accept differences and embrace change from a place of understanding and empathy, rather than rejecting them outright through ignorance and a fear of the unknown.

After you've finished The Book of Life, I recommend that you watch the video clip of Harkness's acceptance speech, in order to better appreciate the journey she as taken you on through the gift of this fascinating, enlightening and thought-provoking trilogy.

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I bought the first two books in the trilogy and received a signed first-edition of The Book of Life during the launch event in London on 4 July. I had a wonderful time and it was lovely to meet Deborah Harkness in person. Thank you to Headline for the invitation, not only to the event but also to experience the world that Deborah Harkness has created.