Friday, 31 October 2014

The Haunting by PL McIlroy

Her eyes snap open. Was she awake or still asleep? Her nights are so disturbed that sometimes she cannot tell, sometimes reality merges with a nightmare she would rather forget. Sitting up slowly, she adjusts the pile of pillows behind her back, then leans against them to observe her surroundings. Her gaze flits from the comfortable armchair by the window to the bookshelves on the right, before falling on the blank screen of the TV in the far corner, which looms in the half light from the full moon filtering through the thin curtains of the studio flat. Nothing lurks inside the room, yet she still feels uneasy. 

Then she spots it, the red glow in the cassette recorder at the foot of her bed, a light that didn't exist in real life. She'd bought the machine to help her rest. The only way she could sleep at night was by drifting off to the sound of another's voice, the comforting tone of the meditation tape reminding her that she wasn't alone.

She waits.

Four, sharp, blackened claws appear above the top of the cassette enclosure, pushing it open. A tiny, horned, blood red form emerges, its long tail twitching. She'd been expecting this visitor for some time but she hadn't expected the Devil to be so small. Maybe his size was a reflection her sins? She didn't know, all she knew was that this would be the last visit. Watching the creature through half closed lids she suppresses the urge to laugh, as her devilish companion withdraws a wooden spear from the cassette deck with three sharp prongs on the end. Sometimes she despairs at the predictability of the unexpected. Only He would send the Devil armed with a Trident. 

She unconsciously rubs the two nubs of hard skin on her chest just above her heart as she waits for the creature to make its next move. The Devil's tiny hooves barely leave an indentation as he clambers up the length of her quilt covered limbs, until he arrives, legs akimbo, on her chest, his arrogant little face burning with rage. 

Looking down at her miniature tormentor from a protective cloud of pillows, she is reminded of Him again, the man she had once loved. She used to wonder what she had done to deserve such loathing, why nothing she did or said was good enough. It had almost taken her too long to accept that there was nothing she could do to make Him love her, that something beyond her had poisoned His mind.

The fiery Devil on her chest mutters familiar curses as he tries to pierce the scars above her heart with the spear. He stabs again and again, just as He had with the meat fork, but to no avail. The harder he tries the whiter her scars glow, until they shimmer with a purity that pierces and the creature is forced to turn away in an impotent fury. The little Devil starts to burn from the inside out, his expression tortured, as his red skin peels back to reveal the dark, empty, shell beneath. It saddened her to see such potential die, just as it had before, but she was impervious now, didn't He know that? Nothing would ever hurt her again. Not even the horrors of the past that haunted her dreams.

The Broadway Book Club choice for November is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

We're coming up to the final book club meeting of the year in November and this month's choice is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. 

Publisher synopsis: In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, its owners - mother, son and daughter - struggling to keep pace with changing society. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.

Published by Virago.

The next Broadway Book Club meeting to discuss the book will be on Thursday 27 November at 7pm in the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Review of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is the perfect companion novel to Joyce's first novel - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. 

In the first novel, as Harold walks hundreds of miles to see Queenie before she dies, he encounters the kindness of strangers and gradually realises that many painful secrets lie behind the facades of the people he meets, secrets that have held them back from truly living their lives. Harold comes to terms with the secrets in his own past the nearer he comes to Queenie and is able to find happiness once more.

Queenie's journey is similar, except that she is coming to terms with the unrequited love she felt for Harold and the heartbreak of taking on a responsibility that didn't belong to her. Queenie is tormented by the idea that she has failed the one person she loves. This beautifully nuanced novel is all about letting go of the misplaced guilt that can haunt you to your grave in order to leave the world peacefully.  

As Harold walks, Queenie decides to write down her memories of him, starting with the first moment they met over twenty years ago. Her voice is direct and lively, masking a more sensitive soul. Queenie has not encountered much kindness until she meets Harold and becomes fascinated by his gentle, old fashioned charm. Then circumstances beyond Queenie's control throw them together on a daily basis, which leads to her becoming more involved in Harold's family life than she anticipated.

Moments of raw emotional pain from the past are balanced against comical scenes in Queenie's hospice, which is full of believable and engaging characters. When you read a Rachel Joyce novel you are in safe hands, for she is a truly exceptional writer whose simple perceptive prose resonates on a much deeper level. The gentle grace of Joyce's writing provoked a powerful sense of empathy in me. I wept for Queenie, for the guilt she carried and the touching ending to her life. This is a beautiful, beautiful novel, I hope it touches your heart as much as it did mine.

With thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.
Published by Doubleday
Twitter: @QueenieHennessy #QueenieHennessy 
Find out more about the author Rachel Joyce

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Review of The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield

It was impossible to put Mayfield's memoir down once I'd started it. In 1959, Mayfield's father decided to move his family to a small town called Jubilee in rural Kentucky and become an undertaker. 

Mayfield's dad is full of teasing wit and charm yet there's a sense of him keeping everyone at arm's length. Determined to know her father better, Mayfield expresses interest in learning more about his job as an undertaker, regularly asking questions despite often feeling repelled by the processes involved. She's endlessly fascinated by her father's ability to switch on his professional persona seconds after receiving a call, no matter what he had been doing beforehand; whether gambling with friends, having a disagreement with his wife or simply enjoying time with his family.

The memoir is brimming with memorable characters; from the independent Miss Agnes who has a gift for marketing, to Belle the family's help. Mayfield's insatiable curiosity about other lives leads her to question racial discrimination and to challenge convention when she falls in love for the first time. Meanwhile, Mayfield's older sister has issues that the family hasn't addressed, her father has secrets and her mother has to make some hard choices to keep the family together. 

I loved the rhythm of the language which evoked the scents, sights and sounds of the time. The history of each life and death is is explored with care, and each chapter ends on a thought-provoking note. The Undertaker's Daughter is a beautiful memoir. At times it is tender, poignant and often humorous, and at others there's a genuine sense of danger and uncertainty. There are many life lessons to be learned in this funeral home, where compassion and kindness marks the end of each life.

Published by Gallery Books
With thanks for the review copy
Find out more about the author here.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Is Jane Eyre passive or strong?

I've just watched The Secret Life of Books, BBC4, on iPlayer. The topic was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and whether or not your perception of a classic novel will change when reading a childhood favourite again as an adult. The reviewer on the show initially interpreted Jane's character as weak. We discussed Jane Eyre at my book club last week, while we were reviewing Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I've always said that anyone who believes Jane Eyre is a passive, drippy romantic who swoons at Rochester's every word may want to rethink that perception.


I've known since I was nine that Jane was fighting to be treated as an equal throughout the novel, it's one of the reasons I wanted the book so badly. I entered a challenge at school on the agreement that I'd be given my own copy by my then step-dad if I passed (see photo above).

The one thing Jane isn't is passive. Jane stands up to her cruel aunt as a child after being bullied by her cousin. She learns the rules of the game to survive the correctional facility known as Lowood School after her first friend, Helen, dies. As a young adult, Jane successfully applies for the position of Governess and leaves the school for the first time. That alone was a courageous thing for a young woman to do, especially for one who feels she's all alone in the world.

When the wealthy, reserved Rochester meets Jane, he knows he's met his intellectual equal. This is a problem because of the perception of class and status in society in the 1800s. Jane knows 'society' perceives Blanche Ingram as the right match for Rochester, and he knows he'll be bored to death if he does marry Blanche. Plus there is the little problem of his first wife that no one knows about, who's locked up in the attic due to her mental health issues. 

Rochester eventually proposes to Jane, and even then she asks him if he's marrying her for the right reasons, because she knows how strong they'll have to be as a couple to go against the rules of society. He is, he just neglects to mention that he's not actually free to marry her. The wedding day arrives, the wife in the attic is unveiled and Jane refuses the alternative position of mistress. 

Jane bolts and suffers a breakdown, which is perfectly understandable considering the size of Rochester's lie and the fact that this was the first time since her friendship with Helen that she's ever felt loved. Jane grieves, recovers and turns down the world's least romantic proposal from her rescuer, the ever practical St.John Rivers, who thinks she'd make a great missionary's wife (a respectable position in society which many girls would have given their right arm for. Security and status people, it counted for a lot in those days). 

Then Jane receives an unexpected windfall and returns to Rochester on her own terms. But he is no longer a man of great fortune with a big house. Rochester has been blinded in a fire caused by his now deceased first wife and his fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. Does Jane bolt again? No, she marries him, not because he needs her but because she loves him, and she has come to terms with what has gone before from a place of understanding. Jane isn't passive, she's strong. 

It's worth catching the programme on iPlayer to see whether or not you agree with the passive or strong camp when it comes to assessing Jane's character. 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Review of Here Are The Young Men by Rob Doyle

Here Are The Young Men by Rob Doyle is a riveting debut that gives voice to the dispossessed Irish male teenager. This is one of the most gripping stories I've read all year, as I was hurled into the frustrated mindset of  four young men: Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney. Doyle has a cracking ear for dialect and the authenticity of each voice leaps off the page. 

This is powerful writing as Doyle explores the fears and hopes of these four teenagers who live in Dublin and have just finished the Leaving Certificate at school. Adult life holds no appeal to them. They're into drink, drugs and computer games, rather than finding work and settling down. They're also dealing with the complexities of romance and sexual desire. They're doing everything they can to avoid responsibility and are hitting the self-destruct button hard.

Doyle writes with a darkly comic sense of humour and a penetrative understanding of the teenage male psyche. His genius lies in exposing all four young men to the same toxic distractions and exploring the outcomes, which are entirely different in each case but brutally realistic. The novel poses questions about how far you can push the self-destruct button without losing an essential part of what it means to be human, and asks who has the power to decide your fate before ending with a mind-blowing conclusion.

Here Are The Young Men will put you through a wringer of emotions, it's an uncompromising and extraordinarily provocative debut. A must-read for fans of Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and 4.a.m. by Nina de la Mer.

Published by Bloomsbury on 25 September 2014.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

Fine out more about Rob Doyle here.
Follow the author on twitter at @RobDoyle1

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Agatha Christie: A writing heritage to be proud of

I discovered there was an annual Agatha Christie Festival when I heard that Sophie Hannah was writing a new Poirot novel – The Monogram Murders - and that she would be appearing at the Festival in September. I booked a B & B, event and train tickets and off I went to Torre Abbey in Torquay on Friday 12 September.

The Abbey was the Festival venue and it is beautiful. It's worth spending a morning exploring all the interactive tools that share the fascinating history of the Abbey. Some events were held in the Ballroom and others were outside in the Spanish Barn, which is often hired for weddings. There was a Jazz band performing in the gardens outside not far from the Agatha Christie poisonous plant garden. There were guided tours with the Head Gardener if you wanted to learn about the plants that were used to murder the victims in Christie novels.

On Sunday I went to the All Things Vintage and Lovely Fair in the Abbey, which was basically a giant dressing up box. You could buy vintage clothes, pottery, books and jewellery. There were also lots of craft stalls. I had a go at stamping prints on a canvas bag and learned how to make flowers out of ribbons. I was sitting there stitching away when a lady came up to me and asked about the flower I was making because she thought it might match the silk beaded purple dress she had bought off one of the vintage stalls for the bargain price of £15. When she realised I was not the stall holder she took up my invitation to sit down and join me to make a ribbon flower. The finished article was a perfect match for her dress (see mine below right).

In the afternoon I went off to the Spanish Barn to listen to Sonia Beck and Adrian Metcalfe read two short stories from the Agatha Christie collection: The Companion and The Mystery of the Plymouth Express. Both Sonia and Adrian are part of The Agatha Christie Theatre Company and they were fantastic as they brought every character in the stories vividly to life. I could have sat there and happily listened to them read for a lot longer. The event was a bargain at £5.  

Later that day I returned to the Spanish Barn to learn all about how Sophie Hannah became the first author to be given the Christie families blessing to write a new Poirot novel. The Barn was absolutely packed and there was a real sense of warmth throughout the event, as Hannah explained the series of happy coincidences that led up to writing The Monogram Murders. Hannah had a great idea for a new Poirot novel just as the Christie family were considering whether or not to invite an author to write one. The grandson of Agatha Christie, Mathew Prichard, said that it was really important that Hannah was a huge fan of his grandmother’s work. Apparently, Hannah did a Dragon’s Den style pitch of her idea to the Christie family to win their backing.

Hannah reassured everyone that she hadn’t attempted to write The Monogram Murders in the style of Agatha Christie, as each author’s writing style is as unique as a fingerprint. Having read the novel this weekend I can attest to that. What Hannah has done is create a new relationship for the character of Poirot to bounce off in the form of Inspector Catchpole, who is more like Captain Hastings. Throughout the novel Poirot teaches Catchpole (and the reader) how to read between the lines to come to the truth. The novel features a cracking plot and captures the authentic feel of an Agatha Christie while retaining the uniqueness of Hannah’s fingerprint. I really loved it and I hope there are plans for a second novel because I’d really like to see how the character of Catchpole develops around Hannah’s fantastic interpretation of Poirot.

The next day I was back at the Abbey for the Kate Summerscale event in The Ballroom. Within minutes everyone was taken back to the 1860s as the origins of investigative policing were laid out through the story of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. This was a fascinating talk as Summerscale described how she found out about the true story of Mr Whicher. She originally wanted to write it as an autobiography but there wasn’t enough source material to do it, so she decided to tell his story in the form of a novel. It took 18 months of research before she sat down to start to write and the research continued for the next 18 months as the story came together. Since then Summerscale’s novel has been a massive success and has been turned into a TV series. Summerscale says she likes Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mr Whicher (as do I). Apparently she has seen an image of the real Mr Whicher and he looks more like David Jason!

I headed to the Mystery Film Event With Dr John Curran in the Spanish Barn later that evening. Dr. Curran was highly entertaining as he explained that we would be listening to an old radio performance of Witness for the Prosecution first. This turned out to be equally entertaining, not least due to the dodgy foreign accents of said Witness. Afterwards, we watched a film of Lord Edgware Dies which was made in 1934. It was one of those films that was so bad it was great entertainment. Austin Trevor was terrible as Poirot, but not as bad as Richard Cooper as Hastings. Cooper’s ‘acting’ was so wooden you felt embarrassed for him! According to this movie was meant to be the start of a series but failed to take off due to a lack of box office success. I don’t think any of us were surprised by this fact but watching the movie did lead to an entertaining discussion afterwards. It all made us appreciate just how marvellous David Suchet has been in the role of Poirot.

On Tuesday 16 September, I attended the International panel Event with Dr. John Curran, Ragnar Jonasson, Christie collectors and enthusiasts. This was one of the most fascinating panels, especially when Dr Curran asked everyone in the room whether or not they had spoken of their love of Agatha Christie novels with pride or kept it to themselves. This question arose when one panel member said that they had kept his passion a secret because they wanted to fit in at school. They were not alone in this as other people discussed whether or not they had been open about their love of Agatha Christie as young teenagers, or even in the present day. This drove me to ask the same question on twitter and that generated a huge chain of responses reflecting similar views to the answers during the panel. My twitter followers were mainly loud and proud about reading Agatha Christie novels (a huge thank you to everyone who did respond to that tweet).

Personally, I think that the Agatha Christie legacy is so great that no one should keep their admiration hidden. She is an author who is regularly mentioned when writers are questioned about the origins of their passion for crime writing during other festivals I’ve attended around the country. One American panellist said that an Agatha Christie novel had even been listed on the school curriculum one year. This sparked off another round of responses where people from Brazil, Germany and Malaysia said they had read the novels as an introduction to the grammatical structure of the English language, which was also confirmed by one of my twitter followers who has assigned the novels to their students in the past.

I was in the mood for Black Coffee at the Princess Theatre in Torquay on Wednesday 17 September. This new production of the play by Agatha Christie features a superb cast, including Jason Durr (Heartbeat) as Hercule Poirot. This is a cracking production that alternates between gentle humour and a dark atmosphere of murderous intent. Durr’s Poirot captures the mannerisms of the well known character in the novel perfectly, alternating between his despair at the English habits to snappy asides that indicate he knows when someone is lying to him. The play is going on tour and is well worth catching, log on to to find out more.

I didn’t attend any of the Fringe events although they did look like a lot of fun. You could attend murder mystery parties held in a variety of venues, including a train. There were also bus tours to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Torquay, which you can also go and stay in (thanks to Sophie Hannah for sharing that little gem).

Overall, I really enjoyed my few days in Torquay at the Agatha Christie Festival and would recommend the experience to anyone who loves the books or wants to find out more about one of England’s most celebrated crime writers. I stayed in Linden House, which is two minutes walk from Torre Abbey and about 20 minutes walk from the town centre. I had the Garden Room which was fabulous and featured a private patio area overlooking the garden. The breakfasts were fantastic with plenty of choice and freshly cooked. Linden House deserves all the accolades it has received on Trip Advisor to date, I highly recommend it if you fancy a luxury break. I also enjoyed exploring Torquay, If you love homemade cakes, you'll be in heaven here and there are restaurants to cater to every taste. The town has a great transport network and there are plenty of interesting places to explore around this part of the world, from Brixham to Dartmouth.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The opening scene is set at the beginning of act 4 of King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Arthur Leander plays the King who has lost everything, just as he loses his own life to a heart attack while on stage. From this moment on Arthur's story is entwined with Jeevan Chaudhary - a paramedic in the audience who tries to save him, and Kirsten Raymonde, who is one of the young actors playing Cordelia as a child.

As Jeevan leaves the theatre he realises that the person he thought he could count on hasn't waited for him. He takes a call from a friend informing him of the rapid onset of the Georgia Flu and how fast it can kill, and decides to hole up with the only person he can count on to ride out the worst of the pandemic.

The Georgia Flu kills within hours. Within a few weeks the world population is severely decimated, only 1% survives. In some ways Arthur's entire life follows that of King Lear's. Arthur had three wives, Lear had three daughters. The more successful Arthur is, the more he is drawn to the superficial, just as Lear is flattered by his two eldest daughters' sycophantic declarations of love. As Arthur's colleagues discuss his final moments on stage, they speak of him not as someone they knew well but as a celebrity, someone who was beyond their reach on pedestal of success, not quite real and fairly unknown to them on a personal level.

At the end of each discussion, Mandel drops in how long it takes each speaker to die of the Georgia Flu, emphasising how fragile life is, how temporary, no matter who you are. That life is but a moment in time is also acknowledged by Arthur later in the novel. As his back story is revealed, Arthur, like Lear, decides to make choices that will affect the lives of those around him, it's only towards the end of his life that Arthur awakens to the possibilities of the other choices that had been available to him.

Arthur's first wife, Miranda Carroll, is in Malaysia when she accepts a call from Arthur's best friend, Clark, who informs her of her ex-husband's death. Whenever life becomes difficult Miranda takes comfort in drawing on her life experiences to express what is missing from it. She is woman who sees everything, just like Cordelia in King Lear. 

These revealing chapters are followed by one with short punchy sentences detailing what no longer exists in the world as the Georgia Flu pandemic takes hold. Each line on that incomplete list forms a breakdown of our current existence and it packs an emotionally powerful punch.

The novel moves on to 20 years after the end of air travel. We rejoin Kirsten who is now a member of The Travelling Symphony, who visit small settlements of survivors across the country to give live performances. Those who survived the Flu pandemic take comfort in the familiarity of Shakespeare and classical music. The route the Symphony travels can be dangerous. Towns change depending on who is in charge in this new world order, where there are no laws and everything can be reinterpreted. 

Kirsten was eight when she joined the Symphony, while the memory of her parent's faces has faded she can still remember Arthur Leander, the man who gave her the comics featuring Station Eleven. The world of Station Eleven resides in a perpetual twilight, its people desperate to see the sun once more. In Kirsten's world it's the brilliance of technology that people miss: the internet, the Cloud, the TV. The ability to log on to other lives and to interact via social media. It's easier for the young ones and those who don't remember much of life before the Flu pandemic, but for those who do, coming across a piece of technology like a computer or TV opens a floodgate of memories of human creativity and imagination. There are discussions around whether or not it's worth sharing the memories of the past with the next generation who have no concept of what has gone before and are not likely to see it again in their lifetime.

The Travelling Symphony agree that if they are split up for any reason they should reconvene at the Museum of Civilisation, which is rumoured to be in the Severn City Airport. While out on the road they come upon news of a Prophet and what they hear is not good, survival soon becomes the only thing that matters. 
Kirsten's motto 'Survival is insufficient', taken from an episode of Star Trek and tattooed on her arm, is explored through all the major characters both before and after the Georgian Flu pandemic. There are moments in the novel that will make you pause and reflect on the world as it is today, the wonder and magic of human creation as well as the natural world. Mandel's novel remarks on the impact of science and art on life: what makes humanity great and what can make it thoughtless, cruel and unreasonable. There are pockets of tenderness and poignancy that will make you weep with their beauty; snapshots of a life, capturing a moment in time on which the next strand of the intricate plot pivots. When I first finished reading this novel I had to sit still with it for a while in appreciation, then I turned back to the beginning and read it again. The writing is extraordinary: enriching and completely unforgettable.

Published by Picador

Monday, 1 September 2014

Review of The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum

I'm a big fan of the novels by Agatha Christie, she was brilliant at building complex plots around a group of people within an closed environment, whether it was a house, a village, a train or a trip down the Nile. 

When I was a young teenager Christie novels kept me entertained as I worked out the clues. So you can imagine my delight when I picked up The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum and found myself in a classic Agatha Christie style novel with a few contemporary twists.

The novel is set in Oslo, 1968. The legendary hero of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation - Harald Olesen - is found murdered inside his locked flat. There's no sign of the murder weapon or a break-in.

Lahlum reverses the roles of the detective and sidekick in this locked room mystery. It's not long before you realise that while Detective Inspector Kolbjorn Kristianson (known as K2) has plenty of ambition he lacks the ability to see beyond the obvious, much in the way that Hastings does in his relationship with Poirot. 

Enter my new favourite sidekick, the sharp and intelligent Patricia; who understands more about the case while confined to her home in a wheelchair than K2 ever will. Patricia is well read and a natural strategic thinker. While she's not an entirely likeable character in the beginning, your feelings toward Patricia are likely to thaw as you appreciate how confined her life has been up until the point she offers to help to K2. The relationship dynamic is an interesting one as K2 finds himself consistently turning to Patricia for help but is reluctant to share the credit for any breakthroughs. While Patricia's sense of self-worth lies in highlighting just how clever she has been, she delights in teasing K2 when he struggles to keep up with her. 

It's obvious from the start that whoever committed the crime has to be living in the building. As the investigation digs deeper it soon becomes clear that everyone in the flats has secrets to hide, and it's K2's job to sift through them to find the truth. The Human Flies is a great thriller and and well worth your time. The novel features one of the most intriguing plot lines I've read in a while, as it explores the dynamic of human relationships under extreme pressure, and how the past can overpower the present to the detriment of all else. The novel is dedicated to the author's late aunt, Dagmar Lahlum, whose experiences during the Second World War inspired the story that unfolds within these pages.

Published by Mantle.
Translated from the Norwegian by Karl Dickson.
With thanks to Sam Eades for the review copy.

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 and some 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.

Update: Sunday 28 September
People have been knitting so many poppies that there will be an exhibition of the thousands of donated poppies at the Nottingham Contemporary.
10am-5pm on Friday 10th and Saturday 11 October
11am-5pm on Sunday 12 October
You will also be able to drop off more poppies.
Thank you to everyone who was inspired, like me,  
to knit poppies due to BBC Radio Nottingham's campaign.

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

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