Thursday 30 March 2017

Wacky Man by Lynn G Farrell

Book review by Greenacre Writer Mumpuni Murniati

It’s as plain as day that my little life is about to plummet so far down in the gloomy depths of the psyche, there is no way back up without a miracle – and who could believe in any of that miracle bollocks after a decade of Catholic schooling?

Amanda May Duffy decides to lock herself in her room and give up on the world.

She’s a trouble maker, bunks off school and hardly has a friend. She’s attacked every mirror she can see. Little does anyone know that she keeps a piece of jagged glass with her.

Her words are spewing anger and frustration. She’s furious. She mocks at the people who have tried to talk her round; the psychiatrists, her mother and her English teacher, Mr. Kramm. She’s beyond help.

In Wacky Man, Lynn G. Farrell’s protagonist is a battered child. Growing up with a nonchalant mother who battles with her untreated depression and an abusive father, Amanda is a voice only a handful of people would turn round and listen to. Not only is she brutal about what has happened to her childhood, but also she shows her fists.

Amanda takes a momentary bow off the stage when Farrell goes back to where it all begins. Barbara meets her charming fiancé Seamus Duffy on the dance floor. He introduces her to his big family while they go to Dublin for his sister’s wedding.

Before she has had a chance to react she is surrounded by three young women who have come tearing out of  the house. One of them is Might-be-Marie, who says,’Here she is – his fiancée.’ She says the word proudly and the girls crowd round. All of them, like her, are teenagers, though at the younger end to her. They stare at her as if she were a movie star dropped in. She is hugged by each in turn, who fire off their names and then bombard her with questions about ‘Would her dress be from London or would it be from Manchester?’ and ‘What brand is her lipstick?’

Barbara scarcely copes with motherhood. She has a difficult labour with her twins’ Jammie and Tommo. Moreover, she has to deal with a rough husband; Seamus isn’t anything but a brute. Fierce and abusive. The moment he steps into the house his hard-working-family-mask is off.

Until recently, mental health issues among young people were often swept under the carpet. Although according to Young Minds, 1 in 10 suicides in the UK occurs to people between 15 and 24. Among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70% in the past 25 years, particularly since the mid 1980’s. More importantly, the intertwining with domestic violence is tough to chew.

Yet Farrell ploughs on; her determination to discuss the devastating consequences of a much complicated matter deserves her winning the Luke Bitmead Bursary Award. The Wacky Man may not be an easy read, but the expose on the interdependent factors that affect the children in the book is amazing.
Look who it isn’t. Yes, that was me screaming. Because I felt I like it, that’s why. I feel like I’m going to burst, I scream. Except I don’t really feel like it’s me. It’s like another side of me, inside, that wants to scream and I can’t stop it. I feel like I’m watching the other me doing it, gliding above myself like a plane circling a trapped animal, like I have no control over the me that is screaming. You don’t have to stare at me like that, I know I’m mental. Much more of this solitary confinement and I’ll be eating fucking spiders and pulling out my teeth like Papillon. What? What’s Papillon? It’s a he, not a what. Steve McQueen? Dustin Hoffman? Never mind. Anyway, there you have it – my dad.

In her monologues, Amanda does her best to piece together what she can about herself. About her parents. About her brothers’ untimely fleeing home as soon as they reach sixteen. Above all, about her tyrannical father.

Despite the heart-wrenching portrayals, Farrell marvels at bringing forward her points about the power of an abuser. Throughout the story readers might feel a chill at the back of their nape. As Seamus Duffy looms in the background with a sneer, his children scamper away. The sheer neglect on the part of the authorities and the community giving a cold shoulder to the children’s suffering, is enough to rub salt in the wounds. The fleeting happy moments Amanda has with aunt Pammy, a respite with her granny and little sympathies from a handful of people feel sporadic.

Suffice to say that Farrell’s deep understanding on the matter and her superb but horrifying scenes play a significant part to her solid plot. Nonetheless, in the age of strong female characters, it’s intriguing to realise that Amanda and Barbara seem to lose their battles. In spite of her postpartum psychosis, Barbara believes she’s made her bed and must lie on it. She takes refuges with her ‘magical’ pills. As for Amanda, she becomes more difficult and keeps pushing away the people who genuinely care for her.

On another note, how different would have been if the history of violence had been told from Barbara’s viewpoints? On the one hand, Farrell’s approach of sandwiching Amanda’s voice with the flashback of events from third-person point of views enables readers to follow the building up of the conflicts that morph Amanda into her current state; from a fighter who stands up to her father to the pessimistic, broken girl. On the other hand, the switching from the past to present in the intervening parts gives the impression of two different Amanda's with a touch of Barbara in her and vice versa. Besides, there’s little about Seamus. What had his childhood been like? Or, does he deserve no sympathy at all?

At the penultimate point the quest remains: can Amanda be saved? Will she save herself? Or will the jagged piece of mirror she’s been keeping be her way out?

I know what I am. I am a name typed on a form in a file inside a drawer at the back of an office. I am a document tutted over by people who go home and love their kids. I am a fifteen-year-old smear on the arse of society. I am something not right, something broken down and busted, something to be put away and forgotten.....

Sometimes the uneasiest thing to read is by far the worth reading thing.

Thanks to Legend Press for the review copy.

You can follow Lynn on Twitter: @FarrellWrites

Wednesday 22 March 2017

A Conversation With Camron Wright

Camron Wright is the award-winning author of Letters for Emily, which was a Readers Choice award winner, as well as a selection of the Doubleday Book Club and the Literary Guild. In addition to North America, Letters for Emily was published in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, and China.

His most recent book, The Rent Collector, won Book of the Year, Fiction, from ForeWord Reviews; Best Novel of the Year from the Whitney Awards; and was a nominee for the prestigious 2014 International DUBLIN Literary Award.

Wright received a B.S. in Business from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in Writing & Public Relations from Westminster College. Camron lives with his wife, Alicyn, in Utah. They are the parents of four children.

The Orphan Keeper tells the story of seven-year-old Chellamuthu's life--and his destiny and how it is forever changed when he is kidnapped from his village in Southern India and sold to the Lincoln Home for Homeless Children. His family is desperate to find him, and Chellamuthu anxiously tells the Indian orphanage that he is not an orphan, he has a mother who loves him. But he is told not to worry, he will soon be adopted by a loving family in America.

Chellamuthu is suddenly surrounded by a foreign land and a foreign language. He can't tell people that he already has a family and becomes consumed by a single, impossible question: How do I get home? But after more than a decade, home becomes a much more complicated idea as the Indian boy eventually sheds his past and receives a new name: Taj Khyber Rowland.

It isn't until Taj meets an Indian family who help him rediscover his roots, as well as marrying Priya, his wife, who helps him unveil the secrets of his past, that he begins to discover the truth he has all but forgotten. Taj is determined to return to India and begin the quest to find his birth family. But is it too late? Is it possible that his birth mother is still looking for him? And which family does he belong to now?

Taj Rowland was born as Chellamuthu in Erode, India. At the age of seven, he was kidnapped, driven to a city three hours away and sold to a Christian orphanage. He was adopted by a family in the western United States where he grew up.

He lives with his wife, Priya, and their two daughters, splitting their time between homes in both India and the U.S.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

My background is in business, not English. I found writing (or did it find me?) as I was approaching 40, passing through a midlife crisis of sorts. (It was strictly career related—no girlfriend or sports car involved.) We had just sold our business, and I was struggling to find a new professional direction for my life. I thought it would be easy to jump into corporate America, but I’m the type of person who needs to wake up and feel like I’m making a difference and I was struggling to find that. My wife happened to be in a couple of book clubs at the time, and I remember picking up her books, reading through them, and then exclaiming, “I could write this stuff!”

Weeks later, as I naively attempted to pen my first novel, I learned it was an agonizing, insufferable, forlorn occupation—and yet equally magical. I couldn’t get enough.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

It’s a journey of constant learning. One of my favourite quotes is from Hemingway who said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” That’s pretty humbling. That said, I love the creative process—ending the day and feeling good about a particular sentence, paragraph, page, etc.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Sure, all the time. If not, I’d be concerned that my characters were flat and stereotypical. It’s often the flaws that make characters flavourful.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

It’s often a struggle to get into a character’s head, being that we all come from such different places. That said, it can also be an adventure. It almost always broadens my appreciation for others and their circumstances.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I visited Ireland a few months ago for the first time and was enchanted—the scenery, the people, the accent. One night, while having dinner in a traditional Irish pub, the server wandered over and with her adorable accent asked, “May I get you a wee bit more water?” Had she asked for my wallet and firstborn child, I would gladly have handed both over.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Actually anything by Anthony Doerr.)

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

I’ve given this advice before, but it’s worth repeating. While it may sound a bit blunt, it’s often spot on. Spend more time writing your story and less time on social media talking about writing your story. (It turns out many are in love with the idea of being a writer, but they won’t put in the work to get there.)

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

There are always a handful of stories swimming around in my head. That said, I’m one who gets very involved in the marketing side of a project. As such, it’s likely I won’t get too serious for another few months until The Orphan Keeper is well on its way.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Perhaps Wilbur the pig from Charlotte's Web because at one time or another, we all feel like the runt of the litter and just need a friend.
Thanks to Shadow Mountain for the review copy

Follow Camron on Twitter: @AuthorCamronW

Friday 17 March 2017

A Book for Readers about Writers who Read.

A review by Lindsay Bamfield.

The Book That Made Me. Edited by Judith Ridge. (Walker Books Australia)

Here is a book for readers about writers who read. Comprising thirty two accounts from authors about the books that had a lasting impact them, it embraces a huge range of literature. Many of these memorable book encounters were during the authors’ childhood or their teen years and some chose their stories because, at last, they had found heroes and heroines with whom they could identify. Others chose books that inspired them to write, although I particularly enjoyed the account by Will Kostakis who, while reading a book set in Year 6 at school, was so annoyed by its basic premise that he started to write his own more realistic story.

The contributors are mostly Australian or New Zealanders writing for the Young Adult and children’s market. They encompass a diverse range of backgrounds and reading experiences from those living in homes packed with reading material to others for whom books were scarce. While UK readers may not be too familiar with some the featured authors, don’t let this deter you from picking up this book and diving in. The experiences and  delights of developing as a reader is universal whether reading is conquered effortlessly in the early years or is a struggle requiring persistence.

You will know many of the books the authors discuss and will be inspired to find out about those you don’t. Judith Ridge includes a list of the books and authors cited, ranging from Enid Blyton, Dr Seuss to George Orwell. I found many that I had loved in my early reading years and for that reason enjoyed Fiona Wood’s memories of Anne of Green Gables, which I too loved, although I don’t think I re-read it as frequently as Fiona. While most of the books mentioned are children’s books, adult literature is present too, so readers may be introduced to new books and will hopefully be inspired to read them.

It struck me how readers from diverse backgrounds reading many decades apart and thousands of miles from each other can share universal experiences through the medium of good books. But the accounts also demonstrate that we need more diverse literature in our world. Children’s literature has been, and is still, dominated by western cultures. Catherine Johnson grew up believing only white people lived in books. That is changing but not fast enough. I hope that if Judith Ridge edits a similar volume in another ten or twenty years the new stories will reflect change.

The personal anecdotes definitely demonstrate the necessity of stories in children’s lives. I would like to see a copy on every teacher’s bookshelf. The accounts that resonated the most with me were from those writers who recalled feeling like an outsider, or misunderstood in some way, discovering a character who knew how they felt. The characters validated their lives and feelings which all children need, especially those who feel vulnerable. This is how literature enables us to develop and mature.

This is a book that begs to be picked up again and again, dipped into, enjoyed, and considered. The reading list may well be a source of new books for you to explore and many will be old favourites ripe for a spot of reminiscence.

All royalties from book sales will go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation

Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy.

Follow Judith on Twitter: @msmisrule
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @LindsayBamfield

Thursday 9 March 2017

A Conversation with Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut novel, Someone Else's Skin, won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2015, and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer's Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. No Other Darkness, the second in the series was published in 2015. The Marnie Rome series continued in 2016 with Tastes Like Fear. Sarah lives in Bath. She will be appearing at this year's CrimeFest and the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

Sarah, returns with a new DI Marnie Rome novel, Quieter Than Killing

Marnie and Noah are investigating a series of assaults. The attacks appear to be random, the targets young and old, men and women, but all were convicted of violent crimes and recently released. They are on the perpetrator's trail when outside events come to the fore. 

'Sarah Hilary goes from strength to strength with the Marnie Rome series, writing with great empathy and unerring psychological precision about the darkest corners of the city and the human heart. Tastes Like Fear is a truly chilling exploration of control, submission and the desire to step out of a normal life.' - Eva Dolan

It's winter, the nights are dark and freezing, and a series of seemingly random assaults is pulling DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah Jake out onto the streets of London. When Marnie's family home is ransacked, there are signs that the burglary can have only been committed by someone who knows her. Then a child goes missing, yet no-one has reported it. Suddenly, events seem connected, and it's personal.

Someone out there is playing games. It is time for both Marnie and Noah to face the truth about the creeping, chilling reaches of a troubled upbringing. Keeping quiet can be a means of survival, but the effects can be as terrible as killing. 

We would like to thank Sarah for taking part in A Conversation With... and wish her much success with the latest Marnie thriller and her future writing.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. As a teenager, I regularly sent script ideas to places like Warner Bros, fully expecting replies. When I was older, I wrote flash fiction, short stories, everything but poetry. Then, around six years ago, I knuckled down to the business of writing a publishable novel. It took a long while to get it right but, when I did, one of the UK’s top agents signed me up and, within twelve months, my debut Someone Else’s Skin was being sold at auction. I had a book deal! I’d summarise the journey as two parts pure obsession, stamina and hard slog to one part luck. But luck doesn’t just happen; it has to be worked for.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

To entertain, first and foremost. Unless that happens, I’ve failed. But if I can get that right then I can succeed in the other goal which matters to me: what Arthur Miller described as reminding us of what we’ve chosen to forget. A good writer pricks our conscience, and our curiosity. I hope I do that.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

All the time. Writers have to empathise with every character, otherwise they won’t convince the reader. Every character I write feels real to me, and that’s vital.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

In one sense, I don’t treat these characters any differently. When I made the decision that Noah Jake (my detective sergeant) would be black and gay, I also decided that this wouldn’t be a big deal, either to Noah or to the story I was telling. Of course homophobia and racism exist - I don’t pretend they don’t - but I wanted Noah’s story to be independent of his race or sexuality. That’s true for all my characters. At the same time, I want to tell the truth about the challenges people face - internal and external - so I don’t shy away from exploring these. But “black gay detective” isn’t a story, or it shouldn’t be. Noah is Noah. I’ve been told that this is more controversial than if I’d made an issue out of his colour and sexuality. Well, good. I like to be controversial.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Somewhere cold, and bright, and sunny. Maybe Copenhagen. Somewhere I could walk every day, by water, which is the best creative stimulus.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Any of the Tom Ripley books. Then I could be writing a new one, right now. Or a prequel.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Read, read, read. Widely, critically and with curiosity. And write, every day, even if it’s just a diary entry.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m working on two new books. The fifth in my Marnie Rome series, and a standalone psychological thriller. I’m very excited about both!

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

So many to choose from ..! If I have to pick just one, I’d say Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books. He has a complicated and very complete character arc, from bullied kitchen boy to a position of unrivalled power. He has shades of Dracula about him, who’s another of my favourites, but at the same time he’s very human, entirely made of flaws.

Thanks to Headline for the review copy.

Follow Sarah, on Twitter: @sarah_hilary

Sunday 5 March 2017

A Conversation with Kate Hamer

Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire and has recently been awarded a Literature Wales bursary. Her bestselling novel The Girl in the Red Coat was a no 3. Sunday Times bestseller and shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award, the Bookseller Industry Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the John Creasey New Blood Dagger and Wales Book of the Year. The Doll Funeral is her second novel. 

The dark and glittering new novel from The Sunday Times Bestselling author Kate Hamer is as gripping as it is gorgeously written - the perfect second book from the author of The Girl in the Red Coat.

My name is Ruby. I live with Barbara and Mick. They’re not my real parents, but they tell me what to do, and what to say. I’m supposed to say that the bruises on my arms and the black eye came from falling down the stairs. But there are things I won’t say. I won’t tell them I’m going to hunt for my real parents. I don’t say a word about Shadow, who sits on the stairs, or the Wasp Lady I saw on the way to bed.

When Ruby discovers she is adopted she is filled with joy, elated that the parents who have treated her so badly aren’t her blood relations. The hunt begins for her real mother and father but dark and disturbing secrets are unearthed along the way.

There is a magical dream-like quality to Kate Hamer's second novel, which reminded me of Kate Atkinson's early novels...The Doll Funeral is the story of a separated mother and daughter, and the last line is heart-stoppingly beautiful.’
            - Alice O’Keeffe, The Bookseller, Editor’s Choice *****

Soon Ruby finds herself with a ragged group of teenagers fending for themselves. Thinking she has found refuge, they gradually reveal secrets of their own and Ruby realizes that being with them is more dangerous than she could ever have imagined. 

We'd like to thank Kate for taking part in A Conversation With... and wish her huge success with her latest novel, a haunting and heartbreaking story of love, loss and family.

Tell us of your journey as a writer 

It started really young. I think from about aged seven I was writing stories and diligently illustrating them then stapling the papers together into home made books. I carried on writing through one form or another: diaries, short stories, ideas, fragments pretty much the whole time as I was growing up. But when it came to studying I had a bit of a blip – the ambition to be a writer just seemed too bizarre and otherworldly to countenance so instead of studying English Lit, which was my passion, for reasons I still can’t quite explain I did History of Art at uni. In the subsequent years working in radio and television I continued to write when I could and I realise now that working in the media is definitely a form of story telling so I was moving ever closer! Then about six years ago a few life changing things happened and I thought, it’s really now or never. I’d always, always wanted to tackle writing a novel – it just seemed as if it would be like going on the most exciting and incredible journey – so I began The Girl in the Red Coat.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it? 

Lord, that’s an interesting question. I’ve not been asked that before. It made me remember the line in Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing, where he exhorts the writer to ‘tell the truth,’ whatever version of the truth that may be – science fiction, romance, horror or mix of all those. That’s something I strive for – an emotional truth. Aside from the satisfaction and privilege of doing something creative with my days (which has its highs and lows) I think my favourite thing is the sense that I’m connecting with readers. I do loads of events and it’s partly because of that. I’ve had some hilarious/heartbreaking/moving/joyful conversations with readers because we all have the common ground of sharing a passion for words and stories, and that’s a strong bond.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with? 

Yes, that’s such an interesting one. I certainly enjoy creating characters that are all shades of grey rather than black and white, what’s the old adage, ‘every villain is a hero in their own story.’ Without giving too much away there’s a character called Lewis in The Doll Funeral that I ended up empathising with a great deal, despite his many flaws. Life is complex and I hope to reflect that in the characters that people my books.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters? 

Well, I write books that are centered around women because that’s just what comes naturally to me. Talking to young people I find they are still longing for fiction where women are seen as having their own stories; that women, like everyone else, have flawed and difficult life journeys and are neither victims nor warrior princesses.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why? 

That’s a difficult one, my instinct is to choose somewhere warm and fascinating with delicious food but that would be counter productive. My desk faces a blank wall rather than a window and really the plainer and more boring the surroundings the better I can concentrate on the writing. It may be a cliché but it allows me to concentrate on what’s going on inside rather than outside. So, reluctantly, I may have to pick some kind of tundra, or an estate where everything looks the same, somewhere that is not too warm or sunny, does not have a beach or tempting restaurants. Actually, just somewhere with a blank wall!

What is the one book you wish you had written? 

There are just so many. A few I’d pick out – Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. It seems to have everything – it’s important, has gripping subject matter, is beautifully written and all wrapped up in a perfect structure. Another one I would love to have written is Joanne Harris’ Chocolat – there’s just glory in those pages.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers? 

Write the story that you’re passionate about, the one that burns your heart up rather than the one you think people might want. Trust your instincts. Read, read, read. Read contemporary work as well as the classics. It’s good to get to know what’s around. Root for your fellow writers, they are an amazingly supportive and lovely bunch.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading? 

I’m writing another novel. It’s dark again (surprise, surprise!) about that time in life, when you’re about seventeen, when things can fly off kilter and go very badly wrong. It has three main characters in it and I’m already a little bit in love with them all.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why? 

The introduction for one of the most terrifying characters in fiction as far as I’m concerned is Tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. As a child I would read the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island over and over again compulsively. Actually I was waiting for the same thing every time I read, the moment in Chapter Three (entitled ‘The Black Spot’) when Blind Pew appeared, tapping his way through the fog to the Admiral Benbow inn. The narrator, young Jim Hawkins has been told out to look for the bearer of ‘the black spot.’ Rereading this piece in Chapter Three of the book I was amazed at how short it is. In my memory the action plays out for pages and pages like some slow motion nightmare. When Blind Pew thrusts the black spot into the hands of a sea captain, staying at the Benbow, he promptly dies. The character of Blind Pew seared himself on my consciousness and I think his invention is a kind of genius on Stevenson’s part.

Thank you to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @Kate_Hamer

Saturday 4 March 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Book review by Greenacre Writer, Kate Wong

Last July, while reading the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016, I came across Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien and experienced that feeling which we writers fear the most second to rejection- that of our work having been explored by another in advance, thus rendering our hours of creativity, often times painful, redundant. So it was with great trepidation that I ordered the book and set about seeing if my own ideas and script were still valuable.

Set in Shanghai, Beijing and Canada, and spanning 60 years, the story opens when Li- ling (known by her English name Marie), recalls the mystery of her father’s (Kai) death in 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. A couple of months later, Marie’s mother receives a letter from a woman in China asking them to provide shelter for her daughter, Ai Ming, Sparrow’s daughter, who has fled China in the aftermath of the protests. Through Ai Ming and her own diligent research, Marie pieces together the intricate details of her father who, “ In a single year left us twice”, first by ending his marriage to her mother by going to Hong Kong to meet Sparrow, and secondly, by committing suicide.

Madeleine Thien, skilfully charts the impact of The Cultural Revolution, on two gifted musicians in the Shanghai Conservatory who have an illicit love for each other. Sparrow, a composer and mentor to Kai, a concert pianist, experience the   pressures on their musical talent within the rigours of the Communist regime.  The main plot in the novel exposes us to the decisions which these two musicians, and Sparrow’s 14-year-old violinist cousin Zhuli, are forced to make under political pressure which have long term implications on all their relationships inter se.

We are graphically led through the contemporary political setting with the labour camps, routine beatings, public humiliations and denunciations of all those who found themselves on the wrong side of the Cultural Revolution.

The heartbeat of the novel is that creativity can be stifled forcefully during political oppression, but loses its power over courageous artists who would rather die than compromise their artistic souls in the face of fear.

Thien enlightens us about the political background to the Tiananmen protests by setting the middle aged Sparrow, his wife Ling and Ai Ming, into the web of political coercion, using the contemporary events to propel the story forwards and ultimately to Canada.

Although intricate in detail, the novel is at times, hard to follow by the use of multiple narrative points of view ranging from Marie, Ai Ming, Sparrow, Zhuli, her mother Big Mother Knife, Wen the Dreamer, to other minor characters in an attempt to weave all the different stories together.  This technique, although highly ambitious, distorted the flow of the novel as I found myself having to reread many sections of the prose to decipher which of the stories I was following, thus making reading a rather disjointed process rather than one of lyrical fluidity.

The novel is not easy to read- it is long, the pace is slow and lacks dramatic tension to keep us engaged due to the over abundance of description and the introduction of excessive sub characters who seem to have been introduced to enlighten the reader to yet another historical feature of the Cultural Revolution. For example the introduction of the ‘study group’ with various characters in the subplot is to enlighten us as to the effect of contemporary political flavour on literature but I feel that its inclusion is superfluous.  Historical fiction is hard to craft as it is difficult to avoid the story becoming a textbook of facts and Thien does for me, veer into the territory of trying to cram too many details into her story and this weighs down the pace of the novel.

To avoid any hint of plagiarism I’ve reread the novel with a highly critical eye, absorbing all the details with great precision.  I had to change aspects of my own novel which coincidentally teetered on the verge of being slightly similar to Thien’s, but it is with great conviction that I’m currently editing my novel throughout, wondering on the one hand how someone I’ve never heard of prior to her book being published, could have thought of setting her novel in the Shanghai Conservatory during the same era, but realising even more that the chances of this being almost impossible assures me that my story is authentic and as a voice which deserves to be heard!

I would recommend the novel to readers with an interest in historical fiction but   beware, a great amount of patience is needed in order to sift through all the numerous story lines, not to mention absorb all the characters and their Sino-Western names. 

Friday 3 March 2017

A Conversation with Patsy Collins

Patsy Collins lives on the south coast of England with her husband; photographer Gary Davies. She's the author of four novels and is working on a fifth.

Patsy's short stories (500+ published to date) have appeared in a range of UK, Irish, South African, Canadian, Swedish and Australian publications. Some of her stories are available to download from Alfie Dog Fiction.

When she's not writing, Patsy travels with her husband in their campervan acting as his photographic assistant, and eats cakes. She sometimes gives talks to writing groups.

Patsy's latest book is not a novel but is about writing. Patsy, together with Rosemary J Kind, editor at Alfie Dog Fiction, have combined their experience to publish a book of writing advice for those looking to write and publish short stories.

From Story Idea to Reader is an easily accessible guide to writing fiction. Whether you are brushing up on your writing skills or starting out, this book will take you through the whole process from inspiration to conclusion. No matter if you are looking to submit your work for publication, enter a competition, or want to self-publish, this practical guide will help you every step of the way.

We'd like to thank Patsy, for taking part in A Conversation With... and wish her much luck with her writing in the future.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

Although I've always loved stories, both reading them and making them up, it wasn't until around 15 years ago that I started writing any. To start with I only intended it as a bit of fun, but the tutor of my creative writing classes had other ideas and encouraged me to submit my work. After winning cake and book tokens for a 40 word story, I was hooked!

Since then I've had hundreds of short stories published, many of them in magazines. I've won more competitions, including a novel writing one, written articles for Writing Magazine, self published four novels and co-written From Story Idea to Reader - an accessible guide to writing fiction.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

With my fiction, the aim is to entertain people. I write mainly light-hearted short stories and romantic novels. If one of my stories makes a reader smile, then it has done its job. The biggest compliment people can pay me is to say my writing has cheered them up.

When it comes to non-fiction, I want to encourage people to try writing and have fun as they do. I don't feel there's just one right way to write, or that everyone should have the same goals, but we should all enjoy what we're doing.

There are so many things I like about writing! A big one is the control I have. Reality can be grim and scary and frequently doesn't seem fair or to make sense. In fiction it needn't be like that. There has to be a certain amount of conflict of course, and there will be obstacles to overcome but, if I wish, my characters can resolve the conflict, leap over or dodge round the obstacles and live happily ever after.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Quite often a story idea is the result of someone irritating me. I put them in a story to sort them out. Unlike real people, characters can't just be randomly annoying – they need a reason for their actions. Looking for their motivation frequently does make me empathise with them. The characters, I mean. The real people don't get fully forgiven until after I've sold the story.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

If I only wrote about people with my exact background and experiences I wouldn't have many stories to tell, so I don't restrict myself in that way. I firmly believe that most of us have far more in common with each other than we have differences. I write about those similarities, sometimes known as universal truths.

My characters have included small children, old men, teenage girls, aliens, people living in the past or the future. Most have lifestyles, beliefs and difficulties which I don't share. They all have emotions which I know well.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Don't hate me, but I don't have to fantasise about this. I'm very fortunate that I make my living travelling about in a campervan, with my photographer husband, just making stuff up. If I want to write overlooking a beach, mountain or forest then I do.

What is the one book you wish you had written?
My next one!

There are loads of writers, past and present, whom I admire. I wouldn't mind their sales figures, but I don't want to write their books – I want to write my own.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?
Write stuff.

That may sound flippant, but I mean it as serious advice. If you want to be a writer, all you have to do is write and that's exactly what you are. If you have hopes beyond that, of winning prizes or publication perhaps, then the single most important step you can take is to start writing. You can't improve, edit or submit anything until you get that first draft written.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

It's a romance about a woman travelling around in a campervan with a photographer. I promise it isn't autobiographical.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Hard to choose, but possibly Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. I liked that she changed so much and went from being a brat to someone who helped others and became happier herself as a result. As a child I had a lot of freedom and my grandparents' gardens to explore, so perhaps I identified with her in that way.

From Story Idea to Reader is published by Alfie Dog

Follow Patsy on Twitter: @PatsyCollins

Wednesday 1 March 2017

A Conversation With Pam Jenoff

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of several novels, including The Kommandant’s Girl, which was a finalist for both the Quill awards and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal. Pam draws inspiration for her books from her service as a diplomat for the State Department in Europe working on Holocaust issues, and her experiences as the politically-appointed Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon. She also practiced law at a large firm and in-house, and is on the faculty of Rutgers School of Law. Pam received her bachelor’s degree in international affairs from The George Washington University, her master’s degree in history from Cambridge University, and her juris doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children. Pam's latest novel, An Orphan's Tale is based on real events.

In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.

Passing through the woods is a German circus, led by the heroic Herr Neuhoff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.

Wonderfully compelling… The story grips from the very first page, and the atmosphere of the circus is entrancing – you feel all the terror and thrill of the flying trapeze.’ 

                        – Margaret Leroy, author of The Soldier’s Wife

Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.

Pam says of the book:
'A few years ago while researching I came across two remarkable stories in the archives of Yad Vashem. The first was a heartbreaking account of the “Unknown Children” – a boxcar full of babies, ripped from their families and headed for a concentration camp, too young to know their own names. The second was a story of a German circus that had sheltered Jews during the war. There was a rich history of Jewish circus dynasties that spanned centuries, and other circus families which had ten or more siblings performing and/or running the circus. Sadly they were largely annihilated by the Germans. Reading the remarkable histories of the Unknown Children and the circuses, I knew that they somehow had to come together. 

I have taken great liberties with the nature of the circus acts and the ways in which they lived and performed during the war. But I was so inspired by the real people I’d met in my research. When the circus owner Adolf Althoff received the honour of being named Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem in 1995, he said, “We circus people see no difference between races or religions.” I consider this book to be a tribute to the courage of these people

We'd like to thank Pam for taking part in A Conversation With...and wish her much success with her very moving story, The Orphan's Tale.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

My stories come out of my years in Poland working on Holocaust issues for the State Department. I was profoundly moved and changed by those experiences and knew I wanted to write a book about them in novel form. But while I had inspiration, as well as the childhood dream of becoming a novelist, I never quite got started. The turning point was 9/11. I had gone to law school and began practicing as a lawyer on September 4, 2001 – exactly one week before 9/11. That day was an epiphany for me: I realized I didn’t have forever to fullfill my novelist dream. So I took a night course and began writing. It wasn’t a smooth path from there. I was an attorney and had to write from 5-7 in the morning each day. Also, it was 5 years and 39 rejections before a publisher accepted my first work.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

Most of my books center around World War II. I consider them love songs to the people who lived through that era and I feel a great responsibility to tell a story well, accurately and with respect.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I often write dislikeable characters. I find them more interesting. The question is to see what motivates them. For example, I once wrote a book about a Nazi Kommandant and then wrote a prequel exploring how he had become that person as a result of the Great War.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

One thing I love is to explore the gray areas in people. So, for example, if I am writing about the war, my German characters are not all bad, my Jewish characters are not perfect and my ordinary folks (Poles, etc.) are somewhere in between. Some readers are not comfortable with diverse characters who are drawn in more complex and nuanced ways, but I think it makes for better storytelling that is more true to life.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

That’s a tough question. I have written in palaces in Europe and in mountaintop retreats in Banff. But I have also written in my doctor’s waiting room and in my car and I can tell you which coffee shops in my neighbourhood open at 6am on a Sunday. Being away is great but ultimately I prefer being close to loved ones, in an ordinary day’s routine and writing in my office.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Many! But of late, All The Light We Cannot See. Just such beautiful prose.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Be disciplined. You have to carve out and protect your writing time really zealously. You make the time to do it. Be tenacious. Don’t give up. It took me a long time to get published and I think that the only thing that stands between me and lots of other really more talented writers who are not published is that I just kept going.
I also think the ability to revise makes a huge difference. The ability to take feedback from an agent or an editor or a peer group and incorporate that into your work makes all the difference.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

My new book, The Orphan’s Tale, is just coming out. It has been described as The Nightingale meets Water for Elephants. Inspired by two true stories, it tells of Noa, a young Dutch girl who has been cast out by her family, and who finds a boxcar of unknown children, taken from their parents by the Nazis too young to know their own names. She takes one of the infants and flees and finds shelter with a German circus that has rescued some Jews. She must learn the aerialist routine in order to fit in from a Jewish trapeze artist in hiding. The question is whether they can save each other or whether their secrets will destroy them both.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Huge fan of Mary Poppins from the P.L. travers books. Those books inspired my desire to travel, which has led to my whole career and life.

Thank you to HarperCollins for the review copy

Follow Pam on Twitter @PamJenoff.