Tuesday 29 August 2017

Don't say a Word by A L Bird

Book review by Greenacre Writer Carol Sampson

Ten year old Josh means the world to Jen Sutton. She would do anything to protect her son and keep him safe – as most caring mothers would. It becomes clear immediately, however, that Jen protects her son more than most.

Something as innocent as a postcard, delivered early one morning, sends Jen reeling.

My stomach twists. I flip back to the name again. And that’s when I see. There’s a stamp, but no postmark. Where the postmark should be, it’s written: ‘By hand’…We both know who it was. And that Josh isn’t safe.

As fear wrap itself around her, knowing they have been found, Jen is forced to face the past yet again as their safety is threatened. Their life, built on a lie, begins to crumble around her.

Meanwhile, Jen has her hands full at work when Tim, one of the lawyers, asks her to help him on a new case. She is thrilled to be asked to work on something decent rather than the mundane admin jobs usually pushed her way.

Tim says: “Keep this new matter between us OK? Very confidential, I’ll explain why later...If you need to speak to someone, you can talk to Daniel Farley. I’ve instructed him.

Jen, understandably is excited. A confidential case and the opportunity to rekindle her friendship with the gorgeous Dan Farley. As Jen tries to juggle work and the problems with home life, she feels any control she had slipping away. 

Why is Jen so afraid of the past? What  - or who - are they running from? And why has Tim felt the need to keep the case they are working on so confidential?

Don’t say a Word is a psychological thriller with all the twists and turns that A L Bird is known for. The style of writing – Jen’s first person narrative – took a little getting used to but as her character developed and her personality came through it settled into a rhythm. The style – a little jumpy – reflected Jen’s anxiety, which made sense as the story unravelled.

It is an easy read and keeps the reader engrossed to the very last page.

An enjoyable book.

Don't say a word is published by HQ and we thank them for the review copy.

Follow A L Bird on Twitter: ALBirdwriter

Wednesday 23 August 2017

A Conversation with Nuala Ellwood

Photo courtesy of Justine Stoddart
Nuala Ellwood moved to London in her twenties to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter but ended up writing novels instead.

She comes from a family of journalists and they inspired her to get Arts Council funding to research and write a novel dealing with psychological trauma in the industry.

Her debut thriller My Sister’s Bones was a Top Ten Bestseller and will be published in paperback by Penguin on 7th September 2017. Nuala was named as one of the Guardian’s New Faces of Fiction 2017.

If you can't trust your sister, then who can you trust?

Kate Rafter has spent her life running from her past. But when her mother dies, she's forced to return to Herne Bay - a place her sister Sally never left.

But something isn't right in the old family home. On her first night Kate is woken by terrifying screams. And then she sees a shadowy figure in the garden... Who is crying for help? What does it have to do with Kate's past? And why does no one - not even her sister - believe her?

'Rivals the Girl on the Train (and beats it for style)' - The Guardian

'Memorable, jaw-dropping ... harrowing fiction that skilfully draws parallels between the effects of civil war and domestic violence' - Sunday Times

Review of My Sister's Bones can be read via carolsampson.co.uk

We thank Nuala for taking part in our conversation and wish her lots of success in her literary career.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I’ve always loved writing; it’s how I make sense of the world. I grew up in a very creative household full of singing and storytelling and music and being the youngest of five I had a wealth of material to draw on from the comings and goings and dramas of my elder siblings. As time went by my writing came out ‘song-shaped- and I spent several years working as a session singer/ songwriter. But writing novels is what I love and so a few years ago I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing at York St John University. It was an amazing experience and it helped to hone my writing in so many ways. Soon after graduating I signed with my agent Madeleine Milburn and she secured me a two-book deal with Penguin. The first of those novels, My Sister’s Bones, was published this year and tells the story of a troubled female war reporter who returns from Syria to her childhood home and fears that something deeply disturbing is taking place in the house next door. The novel took three years to write and I was awarded Arts Council England funding for the research phase, which explored the link between Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and war reporting.

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

I have always been fascinated by people, their quirks, their motivations. As a writer I like to see how ordinary people cope in extraordinary circumstances. I’m a lifelong people-watcher and I get most of my ideas from sitting on the train or bus. I see my role primarily as a storyteller. There is something ancient about the need both to tell and to hear stories – they help us make sense of the world and of our place within it. I’ve always felt that the last page of a novel is really the beginning as a good story should leave the reader with more questions, about themselves, about life, the world, and that is what I hope I have achieved with My Sister’s Bones.

What do I like most about being a writer? 

The sense of equilibrium I feel when a novel comes together. It’s a wonderful feeling and also rather addictive. I think it is the pursuit of this feeling that keeps me wanting to write more and more, despite the rejections and uncertainty that come with being a writer, there is still magic to be found.

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

Yes. In My Sister’s Bones, the character of Sally, my protagonist’s sister, is a pretty dislikeable character, but once I set about fleshing her out and delving into her background it was clear that there was more to her than the hard, brittle persona she presented to the world. By the end of the novel Sally redeems herself both with her sister Kate and the readers.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

In My Sister’s Bones the characters range from a female war reporter to an ordinary suburban dad to a Syrian child trapped in a war zone and an alcoholic woman living in a new build estate in Kent, so there were many diverse voices to tackle. As a writer I find the best way to capture the essence of a character is to spend time in their habitat. For the Kent part of the story that was simple – I travelled to Herne Bay and spent two weeks immersing myself in the setting, listening to the voices and stories of the people who live there, walking the same streets and seeing the same views that my characters would. The Syrian part of the story was more challenging. I spent a lot of time researching Aleppo, the war, the culture, but I’d always intended the character of Nidal, the Syrian child, to be a universal child, someone we could all relate to. During the time I was writing the novel my husband Nick, a reportage artist, travelled to the Calais refugee camps to document what was happening there. The stories he told me, particularly those from of the children who had fled Syria, chilled my blood. And it was from those stories and my own experience of being a mother to a ten year old boy that shaped the character of Nidal, a little boy who, though trapped in a war zone, just wants to play football, to go to school, to laugh and sing and, most importantly, to be safe; something every child deserves.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Oh gosh, that’s a hard question – there are so many! I guess it would have to be Tolly from The Children of Green Knowe. Tolly is a shy, bookish young boy who goes to stay with his grandmother in an ancient moated house called Green Knowe. Once there he befriends three seventeenth century ghosts and travels back in time to explore the history of the house and the ghosts that haunt it. I loved this book when I was a child and there is a lot of me in Tolly. Like him I was a bit of an introvert but I also have a fascination with ghosts and haunted houses – something that comes through a lot in my work.

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

I think that depends on my mood at any given moment. Right now I would like to be sitting on a roof terrace in the beautiful Moorish hilltop town of Vejer de la Frontera in Southern Spain. I would work all morning then have lunch of gazpacho, salted tomatoes and a glass of rioja in the town square before retiring for a well-earned siesta. There are certain places that really capture your soul and this is one of them. It was also where, many years ago, I jotted down the opening lines of what would go on to be my first novel.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Any Human Heart by William Boyd. This novel, a beautiful evocation of an ordinary life played out against the pivotal moments of the twentieth century, had such an impact on me when I read it and it has inspired my writing in so many ways. The title is taken from a Henry James line - ‘never say you know the last word about any human heart’ - and that quote pretty much sums up what novel writing is all about for me.

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

Try to write every day. Read, read and read some more. Get plenty of sleep and a good accountant!

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

I’m currently working on my next novel which tells the story of Maggie Ashford, a woman who wakes from a coma to find her world torn apart. The police tell her that her daughter Elspeth is dead, drowned when the car Maggie had been driving plunged into the river. Maggie remembers nothing, just the fleeting sense that someone else was there, standing on the riverbank. When Maggie begs to see her husband Sean, they tell her that he has disappeared and was last seen on the day of her daughter’s funeral. And so Maggie must piece together what happened that day at the river and why her husband has gone. But she can’t shake the suspicion that somewhere, somehow, her daughter is still alive.

Like My Sister’s Bones, it is a haunting psychological thriller, this time set in the watery marshlands of East Sussex. It will be published by Penguin in 2018.

Follow Nuala on Twitter: @NualaWrites

Thursday 17 August 2017

A New Map of Love by Abi Oliver

Book review by Greenacre Writer Mumpuni Murniati

How would middle-aged men respond in the event of their partners’ passing? For women, the answer may be clearer: they carry on. Because the statistics say that women live longer. But if not? 

George Baxter is adjusting to life without his wife of twenty-six years, Winifred. His antiques business keeps him occupied and Monty, his beloved Basset Hound, keeps him company. Moments of loneliness hit him hard until Slyvia Newsome sweeps him off his feet. Is she his golden ticket to the second chance of love?

Set in a village in 1960s England, A New Map of Love portrays a ‘just widowed’ man learning the ropes of his new status. In a light-hearted tone, Abi Oliver is bringing forward a series of niggling issues men and women would quietly ask to themselve
s: how much does life change after twenty-six years of marriage and the death of a spouse? How many memories are retained? In a life without a long-term partner, how easy is it to adjust and move on?

Oliver is at her best describing people’s idiosyncrasies through their comedy of errors. Done in warm but hilarious depictions which often finds her protagonist being trapped in a number of ‘women situations’. Not only is the plot brimming with scenes of George’s mishaps with the opposite sex, but also his ‘exploration’ of women; the latter being a tick
for Apple Tree Yard (2014) without its messy aftermath.

Oliver's crafting of a scene can make a seemingly ordinary domestic scenario become imbued with an unusual seriousness. An undercurrent of disagreements needs not turn into a battle of viewpoints, whilst her depictions of George’s encounters with some of his quirky clients are seriously hilarious set in an already hilariously serious situation.

Lady Byngh’s pugnacious face presented itself at the open window from under a crushed-looking hat of a black straw. At the sight of George’s face, the two bloated Cairn terriers hurled themselves like cannonballs with teeth and moustaches against the black widow. An equally paunchy golden Labrador gazed desperately at him from the passenger seat through a haze of smoke. Clearly Lady Byngh was not intending to get out of the car today so he was not to be treated to the sight of her cigarette-scorched tweeds or oddly matched stockings.

Oliver’s choice of the setting may be personal but nonetheless it's an audacious one. The old-world feeling might recall to readers’ mind the Miss Marple’s novels set in the same sorts of villages, George visits. Or perhaps to Marguerite Steen's last years in Blewbury. Yet it is the enthralling details of the seasonal features in the book, the feisty women round George and their occasional frivolities that are a pleasure in the reading.

Any impression construed that Oliver’s debut is another novel about grief is unfounded and moreover misunderstands the complexity of moving on. More importantly, she puts forward the quest about rules of mourning for men: how long is long for them? How short is short? Above all, are there any rules at all?

Maybe, he calculated, once we have finished our coffee, I should just ask her, outright. No messing about. They were both mature, experienced people. She might like the masterful approach. The only thing was, he just wasn’t very masterful. As she chattered on to him he rehearsed the words in his head… Now then- how about we…? No – how about, Isn’t it time we went upstairs? Or perhaps the martinet approach – come along now! Or perhaps, Oh, darling, come with me, I must have you, now!

Does being a man make grieving easier? Before passing a verdict, read the book, there’s more to just being a widower in George Baxter.

Thank you to Macmillan for the review copy.

You can follow Abi on Twitter: @AbiWriterOliver

Thursday 10 August 2017

A Conversation with Ruth Hogan

Photo courtesy of Ben Croker
Ruth Hogan was born in Bedford. Like many authors she has been an avid reader since childhood and went on to study English and Drama at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. She then took a job in Human Resources for a government department. 

Although Ruth enjoyed writing it was only when a car accident left her unable to work full-time that she began to write more seriously. 
It was all going well until 2012 when Ruth got Cancer – which she describes as ‘bloody inconvenient’. When chemo kept her up all night she passed the time writing and the result was her debut novel.

The Keeper of Lost Things was published in January 2017.

Once a celebrated author of short stories now in his twilight years, Anthony Peardew has spent half his life collecting lost objects, trying to atone for a promise broken many years before.

Realising he is running out of time, he leaves his house and all its lost treasures to his assistant Laura, the one person he can trust to fulfil his legacy and reunite the thousands of objects with their rightful owners.

But the final wishes of the 'Keeper of Lost Things' have unforeseen repercussions which trigger a most serendipitous series of encounters...

“Heartwarming and engaging from the start.a mysterious, ghostly, magical love story with some really wonderful characters and a brilliant premise” - The Bookbag

We wish to thank Ruth for taking part in our Conversation and wish her a huge success with her first novel and all the best in her future writing career.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

If you’d asked me when I was about six what I wanted to be, I would have said a vet. I had no talent for or interest in the sciences that were required, and no understanding of the years of study it would take. I just loved animals and wanted to make them better. As I grew older and wiser and developed an intense dislike for my chemistry teacher, I moved on to plan b. I’d always loved books, and my parents taught me to read before I started school. From my love of reading, came a love of writing and I decided that I would do something with English. I would be creative and mysterious, henna my hair, and wear strange and exotic outfits. And I did. For the whole three years that I was at Goldsmiths College studying English and Drama. Then I came home, married and got a ‘proper’ job. My career in local government took off and I was rapidly promoted. But then, in my early thirties, I had a car accident that left me with chronic back problems and unable to work full-time. But eventually I came to realise that the accident had given me the opportunity to resurrect the dream I’d had at university of ‘doing something with English’. I got a part-time job to pay the bills and I began to write. 

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

As a writer, I see my role as a story-teller. But I don’t just want to tell the stories, I want to draw the reader completely into the world where my characters live. One of the things I love most about it is finding fresh and original ways of saying things. English is such a rich language, but it is easy to become lazy and use the same tired descriptions and clich├ęs. I can while away hours poring over words in a dictionary!

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

Portia in Keeper is a detestable little madam, but when I was writing about her reaction to her father’s Alzheimer’s, I did empathise with her fear and the way that she tries to cover it with anger.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I enjoy writing about people who are different or flawed in some way. I genuinely find it more interesting and challenging than writing about so-called ‘normal’ people. But it isn’t always easy. My portrayal of Sunshine (a character who happens to have Down’s Syndrome) in Keeper has been soundly criticised by a small minority of readers, who felt that her portrayal was ‘insensitive’ and ‘patronising’. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I developed Sunshine’s character on the back of considerable research and personal experience and so I’m very happy to stand by what I wrote.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I couldn’t possibly choose just one! I loved the Moomintrolls and the magical world they inhabited, Winnie the Pooh because he’s adorable in a morose kind of way, and I wanted to be Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I was also an avid fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, but could never decide whether I wanted to be Anne (she could be a bit wet) or George (I didn’t like her short hair).

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

I’ve thought about this. A lot! My ideal writing room would be on the second floor of an isolated house right on the beach. My writing room would face the sea and have huge windows. It would also have a balcony where I could sit and write when it’s warm enough. I like to be alone when I’m writing – I’m very happy with my own company (and a dog or three!) and I love the sound and sight of the sea.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Morning's at Seven by Eric Malpass. It’s the book that made me want to be a writer.

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

It’s a tough game. You can write a brilliant novel, but if it’s not seen by the right people at the right time it might never get published. As well as talent and determination you need a bit of luck. If you don’t love writing, if your story doesn’t wake you in the middle of the night demanding your attention and if you’re easily disheartened, it probably isn’t the career for you. Rejections can be very hard to take, and the chances are you’ll get them. In spades. The thing that kept me going was that I found it impossible not to write. It’s what makes me happy and you need that passion to get you through the bad times.

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

My next novel is called The Particular Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes, and will be published by Two Roads in spring 2018. It focuses on Masha, an intelligent, independent woman in her early forties whose life has been irremediably changed by a tragic event. Unable to share her grief, she finds solace in the local Victorian cemetery and in her town's lido, where she seeks refuge underwater, safe from the noise and the pain. But a chance encounter with two extraordinary women – the fabulous Kitty Muriel, a convent girl-turned-magician's wife-turned-seventy-something roller disco fanatic, and the mysterious Sally Red Shoes, a bag lady with a prodigious voice – opens up a new world of possibilities, and the chance to start living again.

Follow Ruth on Twitter: @ruthmariehogan