Koethi Zan – Q&A

Today I’m pleased Koethi Zan to the blog. Koethi is the author of The Never List and her latest novel, The Follower was published by Harvill Secker on 18 May 2017

Koethi kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about The Follower.

The Follower tells the story of Cora Jenkins, the wife of a madman. Cora is not an evil person. At least that’s what she tells herself. But when left alone to mind Julie, her husband’s captive, their psychological warfare forces Cora back into the part of her past that she tries to forget. There she must confront how she ended up the complicit wife of a psychopath and decide whether she will continue to carry out his bidding. Meanwhile, as Julie, a perfect student with a formerly perfect life, struggles against her captors, she discovers she has her own dark side and has to figure out whether it’s strong enough to keep her alive. 

2. What inspired the book? 

When researching my first book, I encountered many stories of the wives of abductors who helped their husbands commit unfathomable crimes. I couldn’t understand why they would assist with such gruesome acts that also seemed to be against their own self-interest. For this book, I wanted to explore that more deeply and find out the psychological key to it all. As I would have expected, the answers are extremely complicated. Hopefully, the book captures some of that complexity and uses it to propel a deeper story.

3. How much research do you have to undertake when writing your novels? Do you plan all of the story or see where the words take you? 

I tend to do quite a bit of research. For THE FOLLOWER, I examined the true stories of the wives of abductors–women like Wanda Barzee, Nancy Garrido, and Michelle Martin, whose husbands all held girls captive. I read newspaper accounts, the memoirs of their victims, and their court testimony. I wanted to get at why women would participate in such crimes and how they manage to survive within these constricting worlds they’ve built for themselves. As for plotting, I don’t plan the whole story in advance, but I tend to know the character arc and know generally how I want it to end. Then I let the characters get me there. 

4. What did you discover about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?

Everyone says it, but I wouldn’t have believed it until it happened:  that magic moment when the characters take a life of their own and you’re just trying to get it on the page. That’s when it’s really fun.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I’ve been very involved with local politics and activism for several years now, and that keeps me busy. Besides that, my life is quite boring: cooking, hiking, and reading. I live in a beautiful rural area, near horse and sheep farms, so to relax I like to go on long walks and try not to think about things like people being held captive by psychopaths.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be? 

I think I’d pick ULYSSES because it would take me the rest of my life to get through it. But I could only choose it if I also got to have a companion guide to go along with it.

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer? 

My question would be: what do you do when you get stuck when writing?

If I’m really stuck, I like to take a break and watch a lot of creepy films alone in my basement. I developed the habit of solo movie watching when I was in graduate school for Cinema Studies years ago (another story). The school screened films on Saturdays from early morning through late afternoon, and I was often the only one there for hours on the morning shift. They showed everything, but I had a taste for the slightly off-kilter films and now have a set that I return to regularly for inspiration. For this book, a few of the films I watched were Repulsion (1965), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Peeping Tom (1960), Eyes Without a Face (1960), and Face in the Crowd (1957). I highly recommend all of them, but maybe with long breaks in between to recover. 

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About the book:

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SHE’D DO ANYTHING FOR HER HUSBAND.

Julie has the perfect life

A kind boyfriend, loving parents and good grades. She has everything ahead of her.

Cora’s life is a nightmare

A psychopath for a husband, a violent father and a terrible secret. There’s no way out.

But one night, their worlds collide

Locked in an isolated house together, they must work out what has happened – and who they can trust to set them free.

From the bestselling author of The Never List, this is a breath-taking new thriller about the wife of a kidnapper and her relationship with his last victim.
Read more on the Penguin website.

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Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith – extract

Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith is published by No Exit Press on 23 February 2017. The publishers have kindly given me permission to share an extract of the book.

The old man was nearly to the Louisiana line when he

saw the woman and child walking on the other side of the

interstate, the woman carrying a garbage bag tossed over her

shoulder and the child lagging behind. He watched them as he

passed and then he watched them in his rearview mirror and

he watched the cars pass them as if they were road signs. The

sun was high and the sky clear and if nothing else he knew they

were hot, so he pulled off at the next exit and crossed the bridge

over the interstate and headed back north on I-55. He’d seen

them a few miles back and as he drove he hoped there would be

a damn good excuse for what they were doing.

He slowed as he approached them and they walked in the

grass, the girl slapping at her bare legs with her hands and the

woman slumped with the weight of the garbage bag. He pulled

onto the side of the interstate and stopped behind them but

neither the woman nor the girl turned around. Then he shifted

the car into park and got out.

‘Hey!’

They stopped and looked at him and he walked over. Their

cheeks red and sweaty from the heat and traces of a sunburn

beneath the streaks of the blond, almost white hair of the child.

The woman and the girl both wore shorts and tank tops and

their shoulders were pink and their legs spotted with scratches

and insect bites from walking in the rough grass on the side of

the road. The woman dropped the garbage bag to the ground

and it hit with a thud.

‘What y’all doing out here?’ the old man asked. He adjusted

his hat and looked at the bag.

‘Walking,’ the woman said. She squinted as looking at the

man meant facing the sun and the little girl folded her hands

over her eyes and peeked between her fingers.

‘You need some help? She don’t look too good,’ he said and

he nodded toward the child.

‘We’re trying to get up to the truck stop. At Fernwood. You

know it?’

‘Yeah, I know it. Another ten miles or so. What you got there?’

‘Gonna meet somebody.’

‘Somebody with a car?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Come on and get in. Y’all don’t need to be out here like this,’

he said and he reached down and picked up the garbage bag.

‘It’s heavy,’ the woman said.

The old man grunted as he tossed it over his shoulder and

the woman and child walked behind him to the long, silver

Buick. He opened the trunk and set the bag in it and the woman

followed the child into the backseat.

He watched the woman in the rearview mirror and tried

to talk to her as they drove but she looked out the window or

looked down at the child as he spoke, only giving one-word

answers to questions about where they’d been or where they

were going or what they were doing or what they needed or

if she was sure there was gonna be somebody there to meet

them at the truck stop. In the air-conditioning her face lost its

color and he saw that there was a vacancy in her expression

when she answered his questions and he knew that she didn’t

know any more about what they were doing or where they were

going than he did. The woman’s face was thin and he could

only see the top of the girl’s head in the mirror but she seemed

to look down, maybe from exhaustion or hunger or boredom

or maybe some of all of it. He hadn’t been around children in a

long time and he guessed she was five or six. She sat quietly next

to the woman, like a wornout doll. The old man finally gave up

talking to the woman and let her ride in peace, figuring she was

happy to be sitting down.

In minutes the sign for the truck stop appeared above the

trees on the left side of the interstate and he pulled off the exit

and drove into the vast parking lot, where the big trucks moved

in and out. Around to the right side of the truck stop were the

diesel pumps and a row of motel rooms. The old man drove

to the left of the truck stop, through the gas pumps and past

the gift shop and truckers’ showers and changing rooms and

he stopped at the door of the café, which had its own separate

entrance at the back.

‘This all right?’ he asked the woman and she nodded.

‘C’mon, baby,’ she said to the girl.

The old man walked around to the trunk and lifted out the

garbage bag and set it down on the concrete. Then he reached

into his back pocket and took out his wallet and he picked out

forty dollars and he held it out to the woman.

She bowed her head and said thank you.

He nodded and said he wished he had more but the woman

told him that was plenty. She hoisted the bag and took the

girl’s hand and thanked the man with a half smile and he held

open the door of the café for them as they walked inside. He

watched them through the glass door. A countertop and row

of bar stools lined the right side of the café and the little girl

tapped her fingers on top of each stool as they walked past

and the woman dropped the bag on the floor and dragged it

across the linoleum. He watched until a waitress took them to a

table next to the window and he started to go in after them, to

give them his phone number, to tell the woman to call him if

her ride didn’t show up and that he’d do what he could. But he

didn’t. Instead he got back into the Buick and he crossed over

the interstate and drove along the highway, back toward home,

where he parked underneath the shade of the carport and

where he would then go inside and sit down with his wife at the

kitchen table. He would tell her about the woman and the child

and when she asked him what he’d been doing driving toward

Louisiana in the first place he wouldn’t be able to remember.

 

About the book:

9781843449874

“In the vein of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and the works of Ron Rash, a novel set in a rough-and-tumble Mississippi town where drugs, whiskey, guns, and the desire for revenge violently intersect

For eleven years the clock has been ticking for Russell Gaines as he sat in Parchman penitentiary in the Mississippi Delta. His time now up, and believing his debt paid, he returns home only to discover that revenge lives and breathes all around.

On the day of his release, a woman named Maben and her young daughter trudge along the side of the interstate under the punishing summer sun. Desperate and exhausted, the pair spend their last dollar on a motel room for the night, a night that ends with Maben running through the darkness holding a pistol, and a dead deputy sprawled across the road in the glow of his own headlights.

With dawn, destinies collide, and Russell is forced to decide whose life he will save – his own or that of the woman and child?”

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J.S. Monroe – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome J.S. Monroe to the blog. His latest novel, Find Me, was published by Head of Zeus on. 9 February 2017.

J.S. Monroe kindly answered some of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about Find Me.

Find Me opens with a scene that’s haunted me for much of my adult life. Jar, a young Irish writer, is on his way to work, going down the escalator into Paddington station, when he sees Rosa, his girlfriend from university, passing on the up escalator. But Rosa died five years ago and Find Me is not a ghost story… It turns out Jar has been suffering from post-bereavement hallucinations, but he is convinced that this sighting is for real. The book is ultimately a love story as Jar sets about trying to prove that Rosa is still alive. 

2.  What inspired the story?

Unfortunately, I’ve lost a few people in my life, including a former girlfriend from my own university days. I once thought I saw her on a crowded station platform. I knew it wasn’t her, but it got me thinking: what if… I’ve also been interested for a long time in the role of psychologists in America’s war on terror, and in particular a disturbing psychological state called “learned helplessness”, when someone no longer tries to escape pain, even if they can. 

3. J.S. Monroe is a pseudonym. Does having a pen name allow you more freedom to write? Did you find yourself writing differently under another name? 

I wanted people to judge this book for what it is: a standalone story. I didn’t want people to approach it as a Jon Stock book. I’ve written five novels under my own name, including the Daniel Marchant trilogy, and they are all spy thrillers. J.S.Monroe is the name I’m using for psychological thrillers. I also like the name’s gender neutrality, which is quite the thing at the moment. J.K.Rowling started it all, and many others have followed, including S.J.Watson, C.J.Sampson, and J.P.Delaney – ‘J’ seems particularly popular, doesn’t it?! One of my main characters, Rosa, is female and it would be a compliment if people think that J.S.Monroe is a woman.

4. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?

I have a rough idea of where I want to go with a story, but I don’t plan it out chapter by chapter before I begin writing. It’s a bit like telling a joke: you know the punch line, where you’ve got to get to eventually, but you might tell it differently each time. Oddly, I get a very strong feeling when I’ve veered away from the story I want to tell – when I’ve wandered off the path through the forest. On those rare days the writing process is going well, it’s as if the story already exists and I just need to follow it. 

As for how long, I reckon a 95,000 word novel takes me one year from 1st draft to final proof, if I’m not doing anything else (I used to work as an editor in Fleet Street). Having said that, I’ve just written a 45,000 spy novella (under the name Jon Stock) that took me three months. I’m now writing fulltime, so I have no excuses. All I will say is that the house is a lot cleaner when I’m embarking on a book – I set myself 1,000 words a day, but I’ll find anything to do other than writing.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?  

I love running – we live in a beautiful part of rural Wiltshire. I’m currently reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. I also enjoy playing tennis, walking the clifftops in Cornwall and traveling to India, where we used to live.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be? 

I’m afraid I’m going to cheat and say the Complete works of Shakespeare. But if it’s a single book, then probably The Bible, as it’s full of so many amazing stories and I have read so few of them. The book I’ve re-read the most is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carré, which fits together like a Swiss watch. Each time I read it, I marvel at the intricacies of the plotting.

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. What question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer? 

Do you ever read your reviews?

Yes, and I know I shouldn’t. Actually, good reviews – and by that I mean well considered, thoughtful and intelligent ones (no pressure, then), not necessarily positive ones – can be very useful for writers, providing interesting feedback about what works and what doesn’t for the reader. But one should never try to second-guess the market – that’s the beauty of fiction. There is no magic formula. We know what the ingredients should be, but the alchemy that combines them into a bestseller remains an elusive mystery.

Thanks for answering my questions and appearing on the blog.

It’s been a genuine pleasure. Great questions – thank you!

About the book:

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“Five years ago, Rosa walked to the end of the pier in the dead of night. She looked into the swirling water, and jumped. She was a brilliant young Cambridge student who had just lost her father. Her death was tragic, but not unexpected.

Was that what really happened?

The coroner says it was. But Rosa’s boyfriend Jar can’t let go. He sees Rosa everywhere – a face on the train; a figure on the cliff. He is obsessed with proving that she is still alive. And then he gets an email.

Find me, Jar. Find me, before they do…

Is Rosa really dead? And, if she is, who is playing games with the ones she left behind?”

(Image and synopsis from Amazon)

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Jackie Buxton – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Jackie Buxton to the blog. Her debut novel, Glass Houses was published by Urbane Publications on 7 July 2016.

Jackie kindly answered some of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about Glass Houses

Glass Houses is a tale of contemporary fiction about two women who make stupid mistakes, the repercussions and the silver linings. It’s dark and heavy, been described as a cautionary tale, but is not without hope. 

2. What inspired the book?

Years before I wrote the first words of Glass Houses, a couple of, ‘wrong place, wrong time’ articles in the news, where press and public had demonised the perpetrator of a foolish but not malicious act, had really got my mind buzzing with the contradictions of human behaviour. I found myself asking: if there are no unfortunate repercussions from our ‘crime’, if we escape without incident, are we any less guilty than the person whose ‘crime’ does have consequences and whose life is thrust into a desperately dark place? In a caring, cohesive society, what should the appropriate punishment be for somebody who has done something stupid but not through malice or cold-blooded evil? And I couldn’t help thinking that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones…

3. Are you a plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?

I would say I’m slightly more pantser than plotter, but only just. I toss ideas around in my mind a lot but if I can’t sketch out the first chapter and the ending, then the ideas don’t get further than the notebook. 

Once I start writing the first few chapters, I write quickly in an excited fashion with little re-reading and re-writing, until it all grinds to an inevitable halt. This is when I realise I need to stop, think carefully about who these characters are and where they’re going. I’m forced to curtail my ‘chuck-it-all-down-on-paper first draft madness in order to do some research.  

So, in the case of Glass Houses, after writing my beginning and ending (which haven’t changed an awful lot, plot-wise during the process from idea to publication), in addition to much reading around the topics, I met with police, a lawyer, road traffic accident victims and perpetrators, emergency services and hospital staff, ex-coma patients and their carers etc. I do this to make sure I’m writing with some authority but it invariably informs the plot, too. And it’s fine by me because I love the research almost as much as I adore first draft ‘splurge’ writing.  

How long from first line to completed novel?  Are you sitting down?? Glass Houses is actually my second novel and the first is stashed in a hidden folder somewhere, never to see the light of day unless I pay it some serious attention. With both Glass Houses and the novel, the first draft took about a year to write (including initial research) which doesn’t seem too bad, does it? But the editing, at least of Glass Houses, took many, many years. I was working on other projects as well at the time, and sometimes would wait six months for the response to a submission before I’d respond to suggestions made by the rejecting agent or publisher, and start the submission process again. But nonetheless, I think I’d have raised an eyebrow if anybody had told me it would take eight years to move from the first word to published book…

4. What did you discover about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?

How long it takes! 

And that I really do love every aspect of novel writing – from ideas forming, to research, the first draft, re-writing, re-writing some more, final editing and polishing and the promotion once it’s finally out there. 

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I also teach and edit and help with a tiny business which means my working week is pretty crammed and my evenings and weekends, too. So, when I’m not writing or working (or reading – generally in the bath late at night) I try to get outside and socialise. I try really hard to keep in touch with my lovely friends and family but it’s a constant battle to find the time. When I’m not lolling around drinking coffee (or Prosecco…), I can often be found running or cycling, being slightly addicted to both. I’m lucky that I live in a gorgeous part of Yorkshire and love to run on cold winter days with the wind on my face. My perfect day would be a morning of writing, a chilly run followed by a coffee with friends and then a long leisurely meal with the hubbie and children. It does happen – sometimes!

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, which book would it be?

Oh, that’s tricky, particularly as I’m not someone who reads a book twice – my To Be Read pile is generally too big for that. But one book that worked for me on so many levels was The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. Beautifully written, the two main characters have stayed with me for the 20-ish years since I read it and although there are parts of the story which are almost too sad to read, it’s a fantastically life-affirming tale of the goodness of humanity in very trying circumstances. I think this is one of those book which if I were to re-read it, I’d see more and more in it every time. 

7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done, what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

This is such a great question! I’m not just schmoozing when I say that the questions I’m asked are excellent and often really make me think. But one particular question I’ve only been asked once and it was by a student working on a course assignment. It really had me thinking for days and I haven’t been asked it since. It’s this:  Why do you write? The answer is because it’s one of the few things I do where I become totally immersed, single focused, without a single wandering thought. And that’s very refreshing and really quite relaxing. It’s because I like to tell stories and they’re better when they’re edited than when I waffle on real-time. And I love language and seeing what I can do with it and there is no better feeling in the world than when that story is just pouring out of your fingers as you race to write it all down. 

About the book:

9781910692844-190x285

“51 year old Tori Williams’ life implodes when she sends a text while driving on the M62 motorway and allegedly causes the horrific crash in which three people die. Public and press are baying for her blood but Tori is no wallflower and refuses to buckle under their pressure and be a pariah. Etta, another driver involved in the fatal accident, saved Tori’s life at the scene. She’s a hero, so why is her life falling apart? Perhaps by saving Etta using any means, Tori can save herself. And in doing so protect her own future and the future of those she loves.”

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The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough – review

Published by Jo Fletcher Books

Publication date – 1 December 2016

Source – review copy

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“Tonight is a special terrible night.

A woman sits at her father’s bedside, watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters – all broken, their bonds fragile – have been there for the past week, but now she is alone.

And that’s when it always comes.

The clock ticks, the darkness beckons.

If it comes at all.

This is a short yet powerful novella that follows a woman as she sits by her dying father. As she narratives his final days we find out more about the man and his family, how each of his children have deal with their grief and how death can both unite and divide them.

There is a skill to writing a good novella. The prose has to be fluid yet tightly held together, providing a myriad of information in a succinct but entertaining way. This is such a novella. The unnamed narrator guides us through parts of her life, filling the pages with details of her dysfunctional and broken family history, introducing us to siblings and giving a glimpse into the life of the man that lays close to death upstairs.

It is hard to provide a lengthy review for such a short novella for fear of revealing too much and spoiling the story. That said, every reader will take away something different from the book. It may be for some that the book resonates too close to experiences they have been through, though that may provide comfort to others. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and that is what this book discusses.

This book is an essay on grief, on how we can grieve for something that has not yet gone, that we can mourn the loss of an idea, a feeling, a certainty just as much as the loss of a person. Although written from one person’s view this book can resonate with anyone, for grief is a universal emotion, though it may manifest itself in a myriad of ways, the underlying feelings are expertly expressed in The Language of Dying.

Whilst not an easy read this is a moving, thought-provoking look into loss.

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Perfect Remains by Helen Field – extract

Today I’m pleased to share with you an extract from Perfect Remains by Helen Fields which was published by Avon books on 26 January 2017 and both Helen and Avon have given me permission to post this extract.

Mrs Yale could be heard before she was seen, yelling at her husband to let Callanach and Tripp in, as she controlled an Airedale Terrier who appeared more hungry than friendly. She was large, in her late seventies and obviously excited by the attention.

 

‘Don’t mind Archie,’ she fluttered. ‘Sit yourselves down. Michael will fetch us tea, won’t you, dear?’ Her husband shuf­fled dutifully away.

 

‘Mrs Yale,’ Callanach began.

‘Isabel,’ she said. ‘Would you like biscuits with your tea?’

 

‘No, thank you. You saw a man leaving the road with a case. Can you describe him again?’ Callanach asked.

 

‘There wasn’t much to see, I’m afraid. It was dark and cold. He was wearing a long coat, grey or black, a woolly hat and a scarf right up over his mouth. He was all shadows, my darlin’.’

 

‘You noticed a case?’ he prompted.

 

‘Yes, a big thing. I hate the sound those wheels make.’

‘Can you describe it in more detail?’ Tripp asked, taking a tea cup from the tray.

 

‘It was soft, like a giant rucksack rather than one of those hard ones. Heavy too, by the look of him pulling it. It was black, with lots of zips. Didn’t see any labels, I’m afraid.’

 

‘You seem to remember more about the case than the man, if you don’t mind my saying,’ Tripp commented.

 

‘That’s because I was closer to it. I was bending down as the man came past me, bagging Archie’s doings. My first thought was what shiny shoes the man had. You don’t see many gentlemen that bother these days. Black lace-ups. Not really the best thing in this weather.’

 

‘Anything else, Mrs Yale? Anything at all?’ Callanach said.

‘I hadn’t realised I’d seen anything of note.’ She fussed over biscuit crumbs. ‘But there was a faint smell about him. I don’t

 

suppose many would recognise it nowadays, but I’m sure it was mothballs.’

 

‘Mothballs?’ Callanach asked Tripp, not recognising the word.

 

‘You hang them in closets to stop moths from eating your clothes. Not very common any more.’

 

L’antimite. You’re sure?’ Callanach double-checked with Mrs Yale as she fed crumbs to the ravenous Archie.

 

‘It was the smell of my childhood, Mother swore by them. We couldn’t afford new clothes during the war, dearie, so we jolly well looked after those we had.’

About the book:

9780008181550

The first in a nail-shredding new crime series. Fans of M.J. Arlidge and Mo Hayder will be gripped from start to finish.

On a remote Highland mountain, the body of Elaine Buxton is burning. All that will be left to identify the respected lawyer are her teeth and a fragment of clothing.

In the concealed back room of a house in Edinburgh, the real Elaine Buxton screams into the darkness

Detective Inspector Luc Callanach has barely set foot in his new office when Elaine’s missing persons case is escalated to a murder investigation. Having left behind a promising career at Interpol, he’s eager to prove himself to his new team. But Edinburgh, he discovers, is a long way from Lyon, and Elaine’s killer has covered his tracks with meticulous care.

It’s not long before another successful woman is abducted from her doorstep, and Callanach finds himself in a race against the clock. Or so he believes The real fate of the women will prove more twisted than he could have ever imagined.

Fans of Angela Marson, Mark Billingham and M. J. Aldridge will be gripped by this chilling journey into the mind of a troubled killer.

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A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys – review

Published by Doubleday

Publication date 23 March 2017

Source – review copy

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“It was a first class deception that would change her life forever

1939, Europe on the brink of war. Lily Shepherd leaves England on an ocean liner for Australia, escaping her life of drudgery for new horizons. She is instantly seduced by the world onboard: cocktails, black-tie balls and beautiful sunsets. Suddenly, Lily finds herself mingling with people who would otherwise never give her the time of day.

But soon she realizes her glamorous new friends are not what they seem. The rich and hedonistic Max and Eliza Campbell, mysterious and flirtatious Edward, and fascist George are all running away from tragedy and scandal even greater than her own.

By the time the ship docks, two passengers are dead, war has been declared, and life will never be the same again.”
Read more on the Penguin website.

Lily Shepherd is setting off on the trip of a lifetime – she is moving to Australia to enter into domestic service, and to hopefully leave behind the past that haunts her thoughts. She is soon caught up with life on board, making friends with siblings Helena and Edward and soon dazzled by Max and Eliza from the first class deck. She soon realises that things are not as they seem with her new friends, but is it too late for Lily to not be affected by them. Though Lily knew when she set off that her life would never be the same again, little did she think that it would change so irrevocably before she even arrived in Australia.

The book is wonderfully reminiscent of the old fashioned, golden age novels of the past. This is a story that soon draws the reader in, allowing them to be encompassed by a tale that appears to be glamorous and inviting but underneath is darker and more thought-provoking.

Whilst there is murder and mystery on board the Orentes, there is much more to the story than that. There is the mystery surrounding Lily’s reason for being on the ship and for the reasons the other passengers are travelling to the other side of the world. There is the potential love stories, and hate stories between the passengers and it is a commentary on the class structure of the time.

The characters are all extremely well drawn. There are a variety of characters, each one with individual traits and quirks that makes them easy to imagine. Lily is essentially a good character. She is reliable and moral and though resistant at first is seduced by life on board. This makes her more susceptible to others and the story follows her path, showing how she is changed as a person as the ship sails closer to its final destination. Eliza and Max are complex characters as in their own way are Helena and Edward, all of them battling their own demons. All are described in a way that the reader can easily imagine them, and given that this is a character driven story, this element is vital.

Setting the story on an ocean liner allows the tale to take a closer look at society. It puts the societal norms of the day under the microscope, class divisions are blurred and normal social lines crossed and briefly forgotten. It also highlights the anti-Semitism and xenophobia that was rife in the time leading up to the second world war, where people were open about their prejudices. Due to the current political and social climate this makes the story all the more impacting as a result.

The writing is evocative, the reader can easily conjure up images of the sleek ocean vessel and its inhabitants. The atmosphere of the ship is vividly portrayed, there is a sense of how the passengers feel, a mix of excitement, dread and fear for a war that may or may not break out. There is a hint of Agatha Christie about the novel, a closed room mystery feel despite the fact that the setting is the middle of the ocean.

Although there is murder and mystery there is so much more to this story. It is a story of life and death, of love and hate, understanding and intolerance and a study in society. A Dangerous Crossing is the debut novel written by Rachel Rhys, which is a pseudonym of a well established crime writer. I do hope that we have more books from Rachel Rhys soon.

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The Selkie Legend by Su Bristow – Guest post

Today I’m pleased to welcome Su Bristow to the blog. Su’s debut novel, Sealskin, is published by Orenda Books on 15 February 2017.

Today Su is talking about the Selkie Legend, which inspired the novel and how there’s more to it than first appears.

I’d like to unpick the selkie legend a little, and talk about the difficult issues at the heart of it. Lots of people have said to me ‘Oh, I love that story!’ And it is certainly romantic, melancholy, magical – but it’s also about rape and abduction.

The legend tells us how a lonely fisherman, seeing the selkies come ashore and become beautiful young women, falls in love with one of them, hides her sealskin and ‘takes her home to be his wife’.  In some versions, there is detail about how she weeps and begs him to let her go, and how, although they marry and have children, she never forgets her life as a seal. And when she finds the skin again, she goes straight back to the sea, leaving husband and children behind.

I could have told it that way, and it would be yet another sad tale of how men abuse women. But there’s so much more here than that, and the story wouldn’t stick in your mind the way it does if there weren’t other layers to be explored. That’s why I told it from Donald’s point of view. What if the fisherman regretted what he had done, and tried to make amends? How would that be?

Straight away, you have a much more nuanced and poignant story: of two people, both damaged, both struggling to cope with life, and both with a huge capacity for love and joy. Real people, in other words, just like you and me. And although it is a kind of fairytale, there is no happy ending; the dilemmas inherent in the lives of Mairhi and Donald are not resolvable. Just like most of life’s big questions, in fact – and we’re back to legends again, because what they do, in their countless wonderful ways, is to explore these big questions.

About the book:

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“Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous … and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?

Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people – Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Exeter Novel Prize-winner Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable.”

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Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson – review

Published by Orenda Books

Publication date – 15 January 2017

Source – review copy

Translated by Quentin Bates

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“1955. Two young couples move to the uninhabited, isolated fjord of Hedinsfjörður. Their stay ends abruptly when one of the women meets her death in mysterious circumstances. The case is never solved. Fifty years later an old photograph comes to light, and it becomes clear that the couples may not have been alone on the fjord after all…

In nearby Siglufjörður, young policeman Ari Thór tries to piece together what really happened that fateful night, in a town where no one wants to know, where secrets are a way of life. He’s assisted by Ísrún, a news reporter in Reykjavik, who is investigating an increasingly chilling case of her own. Things take a sinister turn when a child goes missing in broad daylight. With a stalker on the loose, and the town of Siglufjörður in quarantine, the past might just come back to haunt them.

Haunting, frightening and complex, Rupture is a dark and atmospheric thriller from one of Iceland’s foremost crime writers.”

Siglufjörður is closed off due to a virulent virus. Ari Thór, to pass the time, agrees to look into a mysterious death from half a century ago. In the uninhabited fjord of Hedinsfjörður a woman had died of accidental causes. There were supposed to be only 4 people and a baby living there at the time, but a photo emerges showing a fifth person. Ari Thór begins to investigate, aided by Ísrún, a news reporter in Reykjavik, who becomes wrapped up in a death and a child’s disappearance.

Whilst this book is part of a series it can be read as a standalone novel, as can any of the series. Indeed, the English Language versions are published out of sequential order.

The storyline lent an almost nostalgic bent to the story, given part of it was set in the distant past, with all but one of those affected long dead. Knowing the outcome for the woman who died makes it all the more tragic, as does the case of the suspicious death in the capital, and the circumstances that surround it.

One thing that stands out in the Dark Iceland series is that Iceland itself is a major character in the book. The sites, the geography, the weather, all effect the story, all bring another layer to the tale. Iceland is a beautiful country, with it’s own unique atmosphere and vibe and this comes across in the novels. The mountains that surround the town, together this time with the virus, make its inhabitants seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. The sense of isolation is added to by the fact that so few characters appear in the story, only a handful complete the tale, making the town seem almost deserted.

As with the rest of the books in the series it is easy to fly through Rupture. Short paragraphs lend themselves to the obvious ‘just one more chapter’ promise to oneself and often end on a cliff-hanger that obviously means another must be read.

The characterisation is solid. There were times when I didn’t particularly like Ari Thór, his grumpiness sometime verging on unnecessary rudeness and Ísrún could often be found to verge on this herself. Kirsten, Ari Thór’s on/off girlfriend appears briefly in this novel and whilst she had annoyed me in past outings, she was more agreeable in Rupture.

This outing is slightly different in that a major part of it focusses on the incidents and investigations Ísrún carries out in Reykjavik, who is looking into a suspicious death and the kidnap of a boy that has shocked the country, all the while, battling her own health and personal issues. The storyline is solid and engaging and given there are three threads, not complicated or easy to loose track off.

Ragnar Jónasson’s literary past includes translating Agatha Christie into Icelandic. That influence shows in that he has created strong characters, with their own idiosyncrasies and foibles, possessing of course a keen eye for detection and giving all of his novels the closed room feel of a classic crime novel.

A sign of a great translation is the fact that the reader forgets they are reading a translated work. That is the case with Rupture. Quentin Bates has done a fantastic job of allowing English language readers the chance to experience this book. Whilst I obviously don’t know the original Icelandic version, it feels as if Quentin Bates has been true to the original and retained the voice of Ragnar Jónasson.

Another great installment in the Dark Iceland series. I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

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Echoes in Death by J.D. Robb – review

Published by Piatkus

Publication date – 7 February 2017

Source – review copy

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“New York at night. A young woman stumbles out on to a busy street – right in front of Lieutenant Eve Dallas and husband Roarke. Her name is Daphne Strazza, and she has been brutally assaulted. Confused and traumatised, she manages to tell them one thing. Her attacker wore a devil’s mask.

As Eve investigates this shocking case, she soon discovers a disturbing pattern. Someone is preying on wealthy couples, subjecting them to a cruel and terrifying ordeal. Worse still, the attacks are escalating in violence and depraved theatricality. Eve and her team are now in a race against time to find the man behind the mask – before he strikes again. But for Eve, this case in particular has unsettling echoes of her own troubled past…”

Eve Dallas and her husband Roarke are returning from an evening out when a woman falls in front of them. Naked, bloodied and battered, Daphne Strazza has suffered a terrible ordeal, one which has left her husband dead. Her attack fits in with a series of other, similar, brutal assaults. Now Eve and her team must find the culprit before he strikes again.

J.D. Robb also known as Nora Roberts, has an impressive turnout of books, having written over 200 romance novels and this, Echoes in Death, is the 44th Eve Dallas novel.

For fans of the series this will be a welcome return to Dallas, Roarke, Peabody and co. To those new to the books, they are crime novels that are set in New York, some 50 or so years in the future. This setting, the fact that it is the future, gives a unique slant to the books. Things are the same but different, with references to droids, off planet holiday destinations, holograms and hover boards. But greed, and lust and jealousy and rage are still the same, and murder goes on as normal.

The dialogue sometimes seems to hit a flat note, there is something frenetic about it that it almost appears that the author was in a rush to type it. Because the novels are set in the future the slang and some terms used are a little different and so I sometime found myself translating what was said, figuring out what was meant.

This book is the 44th in the Eve Dallas series. I haven’t read all of these and I did find myself at a disadvantage when references to other characters and past stories was mentioned, especially as these weren’t given any further background information, it is assumed that the reader will have read the others in the series.

The crimes involve a fair bit of violence which may sound obvious but is quite overt in this instance and sometimes unrelentingly so, but it is part of the storyline so doesn’t verge into gratuitous territory.

But despite these quibbles I did enjoy the book.  Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb is a best selling author for a reason, she can write entertaining novels, books that people can find a bit of escapism in. The story is fast paced and drags the reader along, ensuring they are caught up in the action. I had figured out the culprit before the reveal, but part of the fun was seeing how Eve brought him down.

An entertaining installment in the Eve Dallas series.

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