The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel – review

Published by Hodder and Stoughton

Publication date –

Source – review copy

“Beautiful.
Rich.
Mysterious.

The Roanoke girls seem to have it all. But there’s a dark truth about them which is never spoken. Every girl either runs away, or dies.

Lane is one of the lucky ones. When she was fifteen, over one long, hot summer at her grandparents’ estate in rural Kansas, she found out what it really means to be a Roanoke girl. Lane ran, far and fast. Until eleven years later, when her cousin Allegra goes missing – and Lane has no choice but to go back.

She is a Roanoke girl.

Is she strong enough to escape a second time?”

Eleven years ago Lane Roanoke ran away from her grandparents house in Osage Flats and vowed never to return. But then her cousin Allegra goes missing and she is drawn back to the house she spent a long hot summer in. What has happened to Allegra? And why do all of the Roanoke girls either run away or die?

A few people who saw me reading this book commented on the beautiful cover. In this case this book is the embodiment of the adage ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ for it’s beautiful frontage conceals a dark tale.

I had been warned before I read this book that it would be traumatic and disturbing. Being the person I am I therefore started to guess at what the story could be about. I had therefore already drawn my own conclusions before I started to read. Once I did pick the book up my thoughts were confirmed. It was at this point I put the book down for a while. Not because I found the story too traumatic. Mainly it was because I was a little disappointed that I had been proved right, contrary person that I am. I think I was hoping for something to surprise me, to shock me and because I had anticipated it, the shocking reveal fell flat. (Now this storyline is revealed early in the book for it makes up most of the narrative. I’m not going to spoil it for you and reveal it here, there are no doubt other reviews that will tell all if you want to find out before reading.) So I let the book sit for a while, read another book but then decided to pick this one up again. And I’m glad I did.

None of the characters are particularly likeable, with perhaps the exception of Cooper and Tommy. All have their own secrets to keep, things in their history that have shaped them today. Lane is the outcome of her upbringing, raised by a mother who showed no love, looking after herself from the age of 16, all the distrust and betrayal shaping her into a woman who is outwardly tough, but still lost on the inside. Cooper, subject to his own traumatic childhood, has emerged a more resilient man, determined to not become his father, something that drives him every day. The other characters are all well drawn, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it by describing them here for you. They all have secrets that have shaped their lives, which have impacted on others and which have far reaching ramifications for themselves and others.

The town of Osage Flats and the house of Roanoke are also characters, the small town almost aiding in the disappearance of Allegra and the other Roanoke Girls, allowing the secrets to be kept, to not be questioned. The weather is oppressively hot, stifling the will of the residents. The saying goes that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Perhaps it should be amended to include the Roanokes too.

It has been said that this book is a marmite book – you’ll either love it or hate it. I like to be different and whilst I didn’t love the book, I didn’t hate it either. It’s hard to say that you can ‘enjoy’ a book with this subject but in the sense that it was an entertaining, readable book, I did enjoy it. I enjoyed reading about the present day Lane, and seeing how her relationship with Cooper, the boy she left behind, developed. The storyline of what happened to Allegra is almost a side story, something to tie up the story of 16 year old Lane and the Lane who returns to Roanoke 11 years later.

It is a story about the secrets we keep and the secrets we share, of how selfish acts can destroy but also how they can save, of the toxicity that love can bring but also of the freedom it can also deliver.

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Stephen May – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Stephen May to the blog. Stephen is the author of Tag and Life! Death! Prizes! and his latest novel Stronger Than Skin was published by Sandstone Press on 16 March 2017

Stephen kindly answered some of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about Stronger Than Skin.

A man – a contented man, a family man, 2 children another on the way, beautiful wife, beautiful house, responsible job – is cycling home when he sees the police calling at his house. He knows why they are there and he cycles on. What follows is his attempt to resolve the things in his past which have returned to haunt him. We see the unfolding of his 1990 University affair with a professor’s wife and the appalling consequences of this, and we also follow him as he tries to stay one step ahead of the pursuing police. We also get glimpses into the effect of the revelations of his past on his wife and children. And we meet some eccentric characters along the way. 

2. What inspired the book? 

The germ of the idea came from a newspaper story where a Belfast dentist walked into a police station and confessed to a murder committed twenty years previously which the police had thought was a suicide. I was interested in what would make somebody fess up to something they’d got away with and interested in the ramifications that confession might have on those around them. I was also interested in ideas about how far people are allowed to change and whether changing for the better can mitigate terrible things done earlier. I was actually thinking about concentration camp guards. Does a blameless life after the war make up for the horrors they participated in, or colluded in, or even just turned a blind eye to? (No, not really is my answer I think) And I wanted to write about both the passions of adolescence and the reflections of middle age and how far that passionate teenager within us can be silenced by advancing years and the gathering of responsibilities. Doesn’t that teenager remain inside us, awaiting their right moment to come back out? 

3. Your debut novel Tag, was longlisted for the Wales Book of the Year and won the Media Wales Readers Prize and your second novel, Life! Death! Prizes! Was shortlisted for both the 2012 Costa Novel of the Year and for The Guardian’s Not the Booker. What do these sorts of accolades mean to you as a writer?

I’d like to say I don’t care about them. But that would be a lie. I do recognize that the hoo-hah around prizes is all nonsense. A lottery. A dog-and-pony show. But it helps find readers and I don’t care (honestly!) about wealth or fame, but I do want my books to be read. Also the rare days when something you’ve done gets recognized are more than counter-balanced by the days when your books get ignored, rejected or otherwise dissed so you might as well enjoy the nonsense and the tinsel when it arrives.

4. Is there anything about the process of creating a novel that still surprises you?

How long it can take. The mistakes I can make in plotting in characterisation and even in the sentence-to-sentence writing it. And, also, sometimes, how writing a novel can call up insights and phrases – even a kind of poetry – that you didn’t know you were capable of.

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

I am very boring. (as Flaubert said ‘be orderly in your life so you can be an Anarchist in your art.’) I read (not just novels – history and biography and magazines about science and economics) and I tinker about on a guitar I can’t really play. I listen to music. I cook. I like to natter with my mates. I also have a job. I promote literature for the Arts Council and that takes up quite a bit of time. 

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

Blimey. It should be something really difficult. The major works of philosophy or religion. The Bible, the Koran, or something by Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. Actually I think the collected Greek myths would be good, they seem to be the best metaphors for every aspect of the human condition and we all only half-know the most obvious ones. It would be nice to know them properly. If you’re asking me about contemporary novels then Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro and Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel have created worlds that are so believable that I could easily wander about in them for a few decades and still find new things. They’re books that make fictional worlds so real that you almost believe you could visit them.

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?

The question? Is it true you were once a model? And the answer is… yes!

About the book:

Mark Chadwick is cycling home from work, eager to get back to his pregnant wife Katy and two children, when he sees the police calling at his house. He knows exactly why they are there and he knows that the world he has carefully constructed over twenty deliberately uneventful years is about to fall apart. He could lose everything.

A story of a toxic love gone wrong, with a setting that moves easily between present day London and 1990s Cambridge, Stronger Than Skin is compulsively readable, combining a gripping narrative with a keen eye for the absurdities of the way we live now.

 

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To cull or to keep, that is the question…

Any book lover will know that there is nothing better than getting your hands on a new book. It might be the latest novel from your favourite author, the book that everyone is talking about or a newly discovered gem from a charity or second hand book shop. Adding it to the book case or to the toppling TBR pile it soon becomes part of the furniture (unless it’s a library book of course, otherwise you’ll also be adding to huge return fine to the collection). It might be read immediately, or else sit languishing in its place until the mood takes you and that is the book you must read.

Then there is what to do with the book once it’s read. Some of us will simply put it away, back on the shelf, or onto a shelf containing books that have been read. If that’s full it might go in a box under the bed, and when there’s no more space under the bed, into the garage, or wardrobe or any small nook or cranny. There are those of us who will simply drop it off at their local charity shop or donate them to friends or relatives. For the thing I’ve noticed about readers, we are either cullers or keepers.

Since I started blogging the amount of books entering the house has increased quite dramatically. I’m lucky enough to sometimes receive advance copies, which I am always grateful for and never expect to receive. I very rarely request a book so any books I do receive tend to be surprises that I make space for on the shelves. Then of course there are the books I buy myself. And yes, even though I do receive copies from publishers I still buy books. I have my favourite authors whose books I always have to buy. I see books talked about on social media and covet a copy so buy it when I see it, there are those books I need that I have to buy, in addition to those I just want. I trawl charity shops and local bookshops to see what catches my eye, and I’ll buy a book just in case I might want to read it one day – the fear still there that I may run out of things to read. And after all, authors don’t write books just for the love of the written word. For many this is their only income so by buying books I help in my own way. And I can even do this by borrowing from a library as an author receives a small royalty every time one of their books is borrowed.

Until very recently that flow of books was one way. My house is very much the Hotel California for books, they can check in but never leave. I would occasionally part with one, lend them to people who would even less frequently, never return them. There may be some where I had accumulated more than one copy, so those I would pass on.

I admire those who can easily shed themselves of a book once it’s fulfilled its purpose. It has entertained for those few hours or days and now is to be moved on, passed on to someone else to discover and enjoy. There is something freeing about not having the old overtaking the new, and of course ebook readers never have to worry about the possibility of being killed by their toppling book collection.

However it began to dawn on me that I may have too many books (no there is no such thing and yes I have known for a long time that I have many, many years worth of books dotted around the house). My husband had kindly surprised me with a reading room. After turfing the kids out of their playroom (for playroom read toy dumping ground and to be fair they play in every other part of the house other than that room…), he chose me a lovely new carpet, and furnished it with a beautiful desk and, the best bit, a wonderful set of double shelves. Now came the fun part, filling those shelves. There I was happily day dreaming that the books I currently have would fill perhaps three quarters of the space and that I’d have room to grow the collection. It soon became apparent that I would need much more than the reading room could hold. So then it was decided that the wardrobes in the spare bedroom could turn into bookcases (I manage with fewer clothes, but fewer books, never). It was all planned, I’d be able to rescue the books under the bed and those languishing in the garage – checking for spiders obviously before I moved them into their new home. So the great move began. And it seemed to be going well. I started a shelf for unread books and one for read novels. Then I had to expand both, so some were sorted into fiction, non-fiction and classics. Then, alphabetised. Then they started to be double shelved. Then just thrown on where any random space could be found. And still there was about half left to be moved from the garage.

(The reading room – this picture is now very out of date as those shelves are not so neatly packed – it’s more like book jenga at the moment)

I could avoid it no longer. A cull was inevitable. But how was I to choose? Yes I may have had that copy of Tara Road for approximately 10 years and still no read it but how knew when I might have a Maeve Binchy emergency. I know I may have stopped reading the Scarpetta series a gazillion years ago but those battered paperbacks might be worth some money. But away they must go.

I had already rediscovered books I’d forgot I had. Some of these I of course wanted to read immediately. Others I soon realised I probably never would read, especially as I couldn’t even remember how long I had them.) Some I had read but kept in case I would ever read them again. I realised I probably never would, even if I did manage to read every single unread book I owned. So into the clear out bag they went (after of course, checking on the internet that they weren’t actually super rare and therefore super expensive first editions).

After much deliberation I managed to cull around 40 books, no mean feat for a first time culler like me. Feeling rather pleased with myself I popped them all in a large bag and moved them firstly downstairs, then into my car to be dropped off at the charity shop. There they remained for many weeks until I brought them back into the house again after I had to empty the boot of the car. Then after complaints that putting them in a bag for people to trip up over was not technically getting rid of the books I did what any normal adult would do – gave them to my mum. Who said she would take them to the charity shop – after she’d had a look through the bag first of course…

 

(parting is such sweet sorry…)

So I have now made the transition from keeper to culler. I know it’s not painful, I know I’ve forgotten half of the books I’ve given away already which just proves that I was probably never going to read them. And I know I can always buy the book again or borrow it from the library if I really do ever want to read one of them. Now I just need to tackle the rest of the books in crates in the garage. And I should probably make a stab at culling the ones I’ve crammed onto the shelves, if they aren’t packed in too tight that is….

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Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski – review

Published by Orenda Books

Publication date 15 March 2017

Source – own copy

“1997. Scarclaw Fell. The body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found at an outward bound centre. Verdict? Misadventure. But not everyone is convinced. And the truth of what happened in the beautiful but eerie fell is locked in the memories of the tight-knit group of friends who took that fateful trip, and the flimsy testimony of those living nearby. 2017. Enter elusive investigative journalist Scott King, whose podcast examinations of complicated cases have rivalled the success of Serial, with his concealed identity making him a cult internet figure. In a series of six interviews, King attempts to work out how the dynamics of a group of idle teenagers conspired with the sinister legends surrounding the fell to result in Jeffries’ mysterious death. And who’s to blame… As every interview unveils a new revelation, you’ll be forced to work out for yourself how Tom Jeffries died, and who is telling the truth. A chilling, unpredictable and startling thriller, Six Stories is also a classic murder mystery with a modern twist, and a devastating ending.

WHSmith Fresh Talent Pick for Summer 2017″

1996 and a group of teenagers are at an outward bound centre. Tragedy strikes when one of them, Tom Jeffries, disappears, his body not found until a year later. His death is ruled as misadventure but what really happened the night he disappeared? 2017 and journalist Scott King decides to cover the story as part of his Six Stories podcast, which examines cases from the past. The story follows the six podcasts, interviewing the teenagers who were present when Tom disappeared. Will the truth surrounding the death of Tom Jeffries finally be revealed?

I initially heard the author read the opening to his novel at a book event and was immediately drawn to the story. When I started to read the tale for myself I was soon drawn into a narrative that promised to reveal a dark and compelling tale.

The chilling aspect of this novel was added to by the fact that it was reminiscent of my childhood. Not the murder aspect obviously, but I did attend a residential in a similar setting, that had it’s own tales of hauntings by Peg Leg and the Blue Nun rather than Nanna Wrack. Rather than wandering the abandoned mines we visited Mam Tor. I live close to moors and peaks and could easily imagine the scenery of the novel. And those fond, though very vague and aged memories and familiar images juxtaposed the tale that was unfolding in Six Stories, and made it all the more atmospheric and effective for it.

It has a closed room feel, despite the fact that most of the story revolves around the open fells of the Northumberland countryside, aided by the small cast of characters and the personal way the story presented itself, the reminiscent narrative of the now grown teenagers blurring the lines between fact and imagined memories. The setting itself is a character, demanding attention. The landscape is portrayed as both beautiful and bleak, welcoming and dangerous. It is seen by the teenagers as a chance to escape yet they can never truly be free of the Fell, or of the issues that surround them.

Matt Wesolowski’s narrative is a fresh yet highly effective take on first person characterisation. The use of having chapters as podcasts bring the story bang up to date, tapping into the appeal of Serial and other such series. Each character was unique and well drawn. You could imagine the voices as they narrated. Their story, told through one of the podcasts, gradually layered the narrative, rounding out the events that led to the death of Tom Jeffries. What is interesting is that there are descriptions of the characters as teenagers but little of them as adults. This makes them perpetually young, together with the fact that even in the present day, they are only ever really talking about events from twenty years earlier. There is of course the suspicion that one of them is not telling the truth, all the more convincing in that each one has a slightly different take on what happened. The inevitable differences that come from seeing and experiencing a situation from a different perspective means that the story develops both in a linear and a more rounded way, but is never quite filled out. The reader sees more of the picture than the characters, for we see all sides, yet there are still gaps to be filled, contradictions to be dissected and conclusions to be drawn.

The story tackles a number of different themes. There is the usual difficulties of being a teenager, adapting to new boundaries, peer pressure and just working out how you fit into life. The novel also deals with bullying in its various guises, how people seek out the perceived weaknesses in others and exploit it for their own gain or entertainment. And how those actions can have a lasting impact on the lives of both the bullied and bully.

I had worked out what had happened before the reveal but Matt Wesolowski draws the strands of the story together so well I was just happy to follow the story to it’s conclusion.

Atmospheric, chilling and compellingly written I thoroughly enjoyed reading this debut novel. I look forward to reading more from Matt Wesolowski soon.

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The Dark Circle by Linda Grant – review

Published by Virago

Publication date – 3 November 2016

Source – review copy

“The new novel by the acclaimed author of Upstairs at the Party and the Booker-shortlisted The Clothes on Their Backs.

The Second World War is over, a new decade is beginning but for an East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent to learn the way of the patient, they find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman. They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.”

Twins Lenny and Miriam are shocked to discover they have both contracted Tuberculosis. Whisked away to a sanatorium in the Kent countryside, they soon find themselves mixing with people they would never normally be associated with. They bring with them a rebelliousness, one which they discover may not be what sees them through their stay in the Gwendo, but which may have a lasting effect on themselves and their fellow patients.

Don’t read this book expecting a happy story. It is quite a dark tale, the claustrophobia and intuitionalism of the sanatorium hanging heavy over the story. The early treatment of TB was often barbaric and Linda Grant’s narrative made it all too easy to imagine the distress and pain the patients went through. The story is peppered with light moments, the slight rebellions of the characters, some which caused less ripples on the surface than others.

There are a variety of characters, each unique, showing that the terrible illness crossed social boundaries, was indiscriminate with those it infected. Linda Grant’s characterisation meant that each was well drawn, bringing their own slant to the story. Lenny and Miriam were not particularly likeable, at least at first. They are quite selfish characters, thinking only of what betters their own lives and quite condensing and dismissive of others who are different to them.  As their stay in the sanatorium grew, so did their characters, Lenny becoming less gregarious and more thoughtful, Miriam stepping out somewhat from behind her twin’s shadow. This is very much a character driven piece, a study in how the fledgling NHS started to work away at social boundaries and class divide and though set in the 50s, echoes some of the political and social climate of today.

There are echoes of a prison to the sanatorium and indeed many of the patients refer to themselves as inmates, and become institutionalised. There is little freedom for the patients. The fitter of them can attend the local village but most are ordered to remain in bed, sleeping outside in the cold or shut away from the outside world. It is this sense of imprisonment, of control by others that leads some of the characters to rebel, to upset the status quo in order to survive, both physically and mentally.

The Dark Circle of the novel’s title can be many things. It is the scars on the lungs of the tuberculosis sufferers. It is the circle created by those patients not chosen for the innovative cure. It is the ripple left by the rebellious actions of the patients and the condescending view of the new National Health service by others. It is the group of survivors from the sanatorium, forever bound together by their time in the Gwendo.

I did read this in two parts, with a gap between the second reading, but I am glad I picked up the book again. This is not an easy read, nor is it light entertainment. It is however a well written, intriguing and thought-provoking tale.

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Cursed by Thomas Enger – review

Published by – Orenda Books

Publication date – 15 February 2017

Source – review copy

“When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-­‐wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Norway’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son. With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-­‐wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history. Taut, chilling and unputdownable, Cursed is the fourth in the internationally renowned series featuring conflicted, disillusioned but always dogged crime reporter Henning Juul, and marks the return of one of Norway’s finest crime writers.”

Cursed opens with a bang when Daniel Schyman is shot dead in his own forest in Sweden. In Norway Hedda Hellberg has failed to return from a retreat and her husband enlists her old friend Nora, a journalist, to help track her down. Nora’s husband Henning Juul is soon embroiled in the search. As the pair investigate, they discover a murky past to the Hellberg family and Juul finds clues as to the instigator of the fire that killed his son two years earlier.

 

Whist this is the fourth book in the series it is the first to be published by Orenda and can certainly be read out of sequence as all the novels can be read as standalone books.

I loved the setting of the novel. It gave a glimpse into life in Norway, a fascinating country that made me want to read more. The location itself is a character in the story. I felt it gave the book a darker edge, as if the narration was preparing for a lengthy Norwegian winter.

There is an edge, an undercurrent of darkness and tragedy to the novel, lent by the storyline following the murder of Juul’s young son. Juul was the intended target and this alone torment him. As he digs deeper into the circumstances he becomes more involved with the criminal underbelly of Oslo. This storyline is central to the novel and will follow through into the next in the series.

Juul and Nora are complex characters. The reader gets the impression that the Nora and Henning we see are just shadows of their real selves. Irrevocably changed by the death of their child, the trauma of such a loss has impacted them as people. There is a sadness that pervades them, yet it also allows Juul’s steely determination to spur him on to discover the truth, with a lack of self preservation at the heart of it.

The mystery surrounding the Hellbergs is compelling, and flows well with the other storyline. By having the story focus around one family and a handful of people the story gains an almost closed room feel to it. I also liked the fact that both protagonists were not law enforcement, allowing them to work outside the usual legal confines to delve deeper into the truth.

Short chapters lend itself to the ‘just one more chapter’ mentality and this meant I flew through the novel. It wasn’t until half way through that I thought to myself that I was really enjoying it. That’s not to say the first half isn’t good, far from it. It was just that this realisation that I was wrapped up in the story, so much so that I couldn’t wait to find out what had happened, snuck up on me as the story weaved itself into my subconscious. Put simply, the more I read, the more I wanted to read.

A note on the translation. Without obviously reading the original Norwegian I did feel that the story I read was close to that originally written and that Kari Dickson had retained the voice of Thomas Enger. If you forget that you are reading translated fiction then the translator has done their job well and that’s the case with this book.

This is the first book by Thomas Enger I have read but it certainly won’t be my last.  I look forward to catching up with Henning Juul soon.

 

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Under the Reader’s Radar – celebrating the quiet novel

There are thousands upon thousands of books published each year. Only a small percentage of those make it to the best-seller list. That doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t worthy of reading. It may be that they are written by self-published authors who don’t have the marketing knowledge or a small independent publisher who doesn’t have the marketing budget to spread the word. Even the larger publishing houses have a limited marketing and publicity budget so can’t promote all the novels they publish to an equal degree.

I’m part of a wonderful online community called Book Connectors where bloggers, reviewers and authors can discuss all things book related. During one of the threads there was mention of ‘quiet’ books, the ones that miss out on the big publicity push. It was agreed that it was such a shame that certain books weren’t as widely read, as the reading public were missing out on hidden gems. So that sparked a germ of an idea and I decided to do a series of posts highlight titles that myself and other bloggers and authors feel may have gone under the reader’s radar. (That was the working title for this series of posts and as inspiration hasn’t struck me with anything better, its the one I’m going with for now).

So in each post I’ll aim to highlight a couple of titles that may have been missed from your reading awareness. Hopefully you’ll discover a treat or two. And please do let me know if you have any books you’d like to suggest.

The first suggestion comes from Koethi Zan. Koethi is the author of The Never List. Her latest novel, The Follower, was published by Vintage in ebook format on 23 February 2017 and is out in paperback on 18 May 2017. Koethi has suggested Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Falluda, published by Penguin as part of their Modern Classics range under the title Alone in Berlin and translated by Michael Hofmann.

Inspired by a true story, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin is the gripping tale of an ordinary man’s determination to defy the tyranny of Nazi rule. This Penguin Classics edition contains an afterword by Geoff Wilkes, as well as facsimiles of the original Gestapo file which inspired the novel.

Berlin, 1940, and the city is filled with fear. At the house on 55 Jablonski Strasse, its various occupants try to live under Nazi rule in their different ways: the bullying Hitler loyalists the Persickes, the retired judge Fromm and the unassuming couple Otto and Anna Quangel. Then the Quangels receive the news that their beloved son has been killed fighting in France. Shocked out of their quiet existence, they begin a silent campaign of defiance, and a deadly game of cat and mouse develops between the Quangels and the ambitious Gestapo inspector Escherich. When petty criminals Kluge and Borkhausen also become involved, deception, betrayal and murder ensue, tightening the noose around the Quangels’ necks …

Read more on the Penguin website.

Here’s what she has to say:

“I would recommend EVERY MAN DIES ALONE by Hans Falluda, written in 1947, but only translated into English in 2009. I’m constantly buying copies of it and shoving it in my friends’ hands. It’s about a working class couple who dare to participate in the German Resistance, and I guarantee it is one of the most suspenseful books ever written.”

The next suggestion is from J.S. Monroe, who’s novel Find Me was published by Head of Zeus on 9 February 2017.

He has suggested Shake Off by Mischa Hiller published by Mulholland Books.

An internationally acclaimed thriller of love, espionage and subterfuge, in which Middle East meets West with dangerous consequences.
Years of training have transformed Michel Khoury into a skilled intelligence operative. A refugee whose family was murdered by extremists, he has one mission: the peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict that upended his life.
An alluring enigma, he attracts the attention of Helen, a pretty English girl who lives in the adjacent apartment. As their relationship develops, Michel is unable to tell Helen about his past–or the collection of passports and unmarked bills he’s concealed in the bathroom they share.
When Michel’s secrets turn deadly, Helen and Michel find themselves pursued through the streets of London, Berlin and the Scottish countryside, on the run from the very people they thought they could trust.
A critically celebrated novel that “recalls the cool detachment and compelling eye for ordinary detail that characterized the early thrillers of Graham Greene” (“Independent on Sunday”), SHAKE OFF is that rare breed of riveting tale–of intrigue and suspense, love and betrayal–that announces a bold new voice for our increasingly global times. (Image and synopsis from Amazon)

Here’s what he had to say:

“A cracking spy story with a unique voice and perspective that deserves to be an international bestseller.”

So there we have it, two books that had certainly passed me by. Have you read either of them or do you have a quiet book you want to shout about?

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Purged by Peter Laws – review

Published by – Allison and Busby

Publication date – 16 February 2017

Source – review copy

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“Matt Hunter lost his faith a long time ago. Formerly a minister, now a professor of sociology, he’s writing a book that debunks the Christian faith while assisting the police with religiously motivated crimes. On holiday with his family in Oxfordshire, Matt is on edge in a seemingly idyllic village where wooden crosses hang at every turn. The stay becomes more sinister still when a local girl goes missing, followed by further disappearances. Caught up in an investigation that brings memories to the surface that he would prefer to keep buried deep, Matt is on the trail of killer determined to save us all.”

Professor Matt Hunter long ago lost his faith and gave up his role as minister. Now commissioned to write a book debunking faith he also assists the police with religiously motivated crimes. Matt travels to the village of Hobbes Hill with his family, perturbed by the flurry of crosses that fill the buildings. He also comes face to face with his past when the pastor of the local church turns out to be a former theological college student. The beautiful setting seems to be hiding some darker deeds as local women go missing. Matt is soon drawn into the case, hunting a killer determined to send those worthy to heaven.

This is the debut novel by Peter Laws, himself a minister, and is a cracking start to a new crime series.

The book focuses on the fervent and the lapsed, the role that belief or lack of can have on a person. During the course of the investigation Matt is forced to look further into his own loss of faith and how that may have affected his life and the lives of his family.

I had guessed the killer’s identity before the reveal but this did not detract from my enjoyment. I was completely wrapped up in the story until the very end. Peter Laws has a compelling writing style, mixing the comedic with the macabre and the more I read, the more I grew attached to the characters and the story.

Matt Hunter is a great character, funny, acerbic and devoted to his family. He is settled into his role as professor and is enjoys working with the police, investigating religiously motivated crimes. He has a tragic past, one that led him away from his calling as a minister, and the loss of faith resulting from that. During the novel, Matt is forced to face these issues, whilst trying to find a very real and dangerous killer. His wife, Wren is also a good character, perfectly balancing Matt and I look forward to reading more about Matt’s police colleagues in further novels.

Don’t let the religious theme put you off. I’m not remotely religious but I found this book to be a fascinating and gripping novel with a personable and unique protagonist.

A welcome new addition to the crime writing scene, peppered with humour but also thought provoking, dark and traumatic. A compelling, absorbing read and I for one can’t wait for the next book in the series.

 

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Writing The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days by Juliet Conlin – guest post

Today I’m pleased to welcome Juliet Conlin to the blog. Juliet’s novel, The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days was published by Black and White on 23 February 2017.

Here Juliet discusses writing the novel.

Writing The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days

I don’t hear voices; I never have. But the notion of hearing voices that others don’t hear has fascinated me since I met somebody who had heard voices when he was a teenager. It was only many years later that I decided to pick up the idea and try to turn it into a story. What began as an online research session ended up as a very lengthy, in-depth investigation (2 years, to be exact). I soon discovered that although it is commonly assumed that hearing voices is a symptom of severe mental illness, there is a growing movement of voice-hearers who are attempting to challenge the psychiatric model – that is, hearing voices is not necessarily a sign of madness. Many famous people have reported hearing voices, including Joan of Arc, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Sigmund Freud. Sadly, though, voice-hearing is still heavily stigmatised, and those who hear voices often suffer just as strongly from discrimination and isolation as they do from what their voices say to them. In fact, recent research has shown that voice-hearing is a complex, heterogeneous experience, and that there are a good many voice-hearers out there who would not wish to part with their voices.

As a result of my research, I decided that this complexity of the experience, and the different meanings given to what psychiatrists term ‘auditory verbal hallucinations’, is what I wanted to tackle in my book. I decided to give one of my central characters – Alfred Warner – ‘good’ voices. In other words, Alfred hears the voices of three mythological women who provide advice and guidance throughout his life. Without them, his world would be a very different place. The other main character – Alfred’s granddaughter Brynja – hears ‘bad’ voices. For her, it is an agonising, confusing experience and her coping mechanisms include self-harm and heavy medication.

As the novel spans a period of more than eighty years, it required extensive research. But research for a novel, especially one that is set in a different time or place, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it fed my insatiable curiosity for new information, led me to read books I would never have thought of reading, and to reach out to people I would never thought of talking to. But I also had to be wary of research becoming an end in itself (procrastination feeds off distraction!) and too much background information would make the novel read like a text book. In fact, the first draft was close to 600 pages and required a number of re-writes – and the invaluable feedback from others, in particular my agent Jenny Brown – to beat it into shape.

In The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days, my aim was to frame the phenomenon of voice-hearing in two contrasting ways, chronicling the joyful, wondrous experience of hearing voices, but also the agony and despair that some voice-hearers suffer. In choosing to tell the stories in this way, I wanted to explore this phenomenon beyond mental illness, and to defend the validity of complex human experiences that do not fit into a very narrow understanding of what it is to be “normal”. I would certainly invite my readers to consider that there are many people who experience the world differently, and that it is worthwhile to approach them with an open mind.

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About the book:

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“Approaching 80, frail and alone, a remarkable man makes the journey from his sheltered home in England to Berlin to meet his granddaughter. He has six days left to live and must relate his life story before he dies…

His life has been rich and full. He has witnessed first-hand the rise of the Nazis, experienced heartrending family tragedy, fought in the German army, been interred in a POW camp in Scotland and faced violent persecution in peacetime Britain. But he has also touched many lives, fallen deeply in love, raised a family and survived triumphantly at the limits of human endurance. He carries within him an astonishing family secret that he must share before he dies…a story that will mean someone else’s salvation.

Welcome to the moving, heart-warming and uncommon life of Alfred Warner.”

 

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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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