Friday, 24 November 2017

She's Not There - Joy Fielding

Maybe it is my imagination but there seems to be a plethora of missing child books around at the moment. Or possibly it is one of those weird synchronicity episodes where they’ve come my way so I can offer a more viable review by virtue of having more material to compare. A means of sifting the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad or, more accurately, the not as good.

This latest read from Joy Fielding is one of the good. Very gripping and emotional. I’ve not read any of her previous books so my comments relate purely to this one story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and was reluctant to put it down. It is a fine example of a book that relies on the strength of the characterisations to hold the narrative together and advance it. Caroline Shipley synthesises this whole story ably abetted by her daughter Michelle. Two strong women dealing with unenviable emotional burdens. And they’re palpable. You can feel their angst and tension. The relationship between Caroline and Michelle is superb, an acutely observed portrait of teenage/maternal wrestling where neither party seems aware that it is love that drives them both.

Certainly for UK readers, and maybe the awareness is wider but this is a missing child story and parallels with the Madeline McCann case are undeniable. Whether Madeleine’s case motivated this story and with it the underlying theme of the role of the press and media in circumstances like these. I have no idea but it wouldn’t surprise me. This story doesn’t put the press in a very good light. It’s a well structured fiction using a dual chronology between the past and present and the final two chapters demonstrate a skilful and experienced writer who understands her readers.

And so we have on the one hand a tight ‘almost’ thriller and on the other a considered examination of how one woman deals with a mother’s worst nightmare and the effect that has on families and extended families. I don’t do spoilers so I can say no more other than read the book!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Maid's Room - Fiona Mitchell

From the moment you start reading this novel comparisons with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help are inevitable. However the author was intelligent enough to realise that and took the precaution of alluding to that book in the early pages of this book. So you continue reading thankful that plagiarism is not on the menu. Then suddenly you are stopped in your reading tracks and jolted into an awareness that what you are reading has little to do with early 60s Mississippi but all to do with present day Singapore; Skype - smartphones - blogging? It is a truly shocking awakening. So much so that all aspirations you had of composing a review based upon characterisations, plot structure, the narrative and the other stuff that reviews are made of are thrown to the wind. You read on and start to pick yourself up by the scruff of the neck and rationally convince yourself that this is a fiction, it’s a jolly, good story, it didn’t really happen, its imagination, active, fertile imagination. Phew. And so you reach the end. It’s a happy, satisfactory ending for the most part. Then you read the Author’s Note and the sickening realisation hits you that this isn’t imagination at all, it’s all based on first hand knowledge and experience. 

If, and it’s a big if, you can divorce yourself from that impact,  the story is well put together with some compelling characters, Tala, Dolly and Jules all stand out. In fact Jule’s personal story, very moving, runs the risk of being overlooked by the dilemmas of domestic workers Dolly and Tala. Wisely the story has a positive redemption. But the implications of the book stay with you. 

The Maid’s Room is a debut novel from an experienced writer who I think was astute enough to feel that this story was better told in novel form than left to the pages of newspapers, periodicals and the transient trends of social media. It is shocking to grasp that people are treated this way in our modern world. Arguments about cultural diversity and our tenuous grasp on it cannot be put forward here for the employers of these domestic workers are of our culture. I think that’s what is so chilling. What could be accepted, though not condoned, in The Help was due to the historical nature of that work. This isn’t history, this is contemporary. 

It is a story that needs to be told and I do hope as many people as possible read it. If you’re undecided as to what to read next please consider this book. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Question and Answer with Katherine Webb

I was fortunate enough recently to be invited by Nudge Books to interview Katherine Webb, best selling author of The Legacy and whose recent book The Hiding Places was published in paperback in September. I thought the interview deserved a further airing on my blog.

GC: The Hiding Places was the first of your books that I read and I loved it. I delighted in the twist at the end and that made me wonder whether it’s the ‘twist’ that comes first when you’re plotting and structuring a novel? Or whether it evolved from the body of the story?
KW: Thank you! I’m very pleased you enjoyed it. As a general rule, I know the beginning and ending of a novel before I start. I’m not a planner, and I will then navigate the story between those two points in a very freeform way, but I don’t think I’d be able to start at all without an idea of the ending in mind. This was especially the case with The Hiding Places, since the whole novel was geared towards misdirecting the reader, right the way through, so that the twist at the end would come as a big surprise.
After the more exotic locations of The Night Falling and The English GirlThe Hiding Placessees a return to the rural landscapes of England again. Was that a strong desire, to return to ‘Blighty’ for this novel?
I think I was ready to return, yes. I generally find that the settings of my books choose themselves — the idea for a story appears in my head, and usually the setting is already a given at that point. But it was a pleasure to write another book set in the English countryside — the By Brook Valley is not far from where I live, and it’s one of my favourite places. I feel very at home in this landscape, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of writing about it.
There seems to be a need today to compartmentalise everything including fiction. Your work is often described as historical fiction. Are you comfortable with that? Do you consider The Hiding Places to be a work of historical fiction? Have you ever considered writing in a different genre?
Truthfully, I’m not a big fan of that label — or labels in general! I think of my books as mystery dramas that are sometimes set in the past. I think labels can put as many people off as they attract. The story is what’s important, and even if you had no interest in history in the slightest, I like to think you could still get wrapped up and carried away by one of my stories.
My first three books contained contemporary storylines as well as historical, and I wouldn’t rule out doing that again, or indeed writing something set wholly in the present. But again, I am sure the story and characters would be what was really important.
Do you do your research before you start writing or is it an ongoing processes as the need arises?
I do most of it before I start — it helps the story to develop, and I think I’d find it impossible to start writing without a clear idea of what life would have been like for my characters at the time I’m writing them. This includes any research trips I might need to go on. But research does carry on alongside the writing, too — it helps to keep me immersed in the period; there are often small facts that need checking, and I’m always finding interesting little snippets to put into the book, to help give it historical authenticity.
Your books often depict a friendship between two women of differing backgrounds who are brought together through circumstance and a desire for a common goal. It’s often a fascinating juxtaposition. The Hiding Places offers us Pudding and Irene. I was wondering what the motivation is for your exploration of these relationships.
One of the things we seem to be perennially fascinated by, when we study or recreate history, is class structure — the strict rules of social interaction people used to have to adhere to. Often, it can seem that the classes didn’t intermingle at all — that they existed in separate spheres, only occasionally touching. But I can’t imagine that was always the case! Life is messy, and I’m sure all sorts of different people came together — or were forced together — for all sorts of reasons.
It’s fascinating, as you say, and I find it a really interesting way to explore a character — their strengths and limitations. Can they make that leap out of their social comfort zone, and free themselves of prejudice, to help and be helped by people they see as fundamentally different to themselves? Are they kind, or strong, or clever, or brave enough?
Love, loss, secrets, betrayal – they are all recurring themes in your work. What is it that fascinates you about these topics?
Well, these are the stuff of life, aren’t they?? And more importantly, they’re they stuff of good stories. They happen to us all, and these times of heightened emotion, of stress and passion and anger, are what drive people to do extraordinary things. And I love to pose readers the question: can they sympathise with a character who’s done something drastic or terrible, if I can adequately present the pressures that led them to do it? Can I make the reader question what they would have done if they found themselves in that position?
I always find your novels very ‘reader -friendly’ books. You seem to strike a balance between making demands of your reader and caring for your reader. Is that a conscious desire or does it come naturally with your writing?
Well, that’s lovely to hear! I can’t make that kind of choice, truthfully — I’m not sure any writer could. I write the way I write, in my own voice; and I write the stories that come to me. And if they’re a good balance of engaging and readable, then I’m delighted with that — what more could an author hope for?
From that last question, are you an avid reader yourself? (Assuming you have the time that is!). And what was the first book that made you cry?
I am an insatiable reader. I don’t know many authors who aren’t — we were all readers before we were writers! There hasn’t been an hour I’ve not had a book on the go since I was about ten, I think, though there’s definitely less time for it now. I do try to make time — if I can, I’ll sit down late in the afternoon and read for half an hour or an hour, and I’ll always read before going to sleep. Several books I read in my teens brought a tear to my eye, but the first book that really made me sob my heart out was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. In several places! It’s a story made all the more powerful for being so plausible, and it really brought home to me the devastating human tragedies of the Second World War, the nature of loss and lost chances.
Where did the inspiration for The Hiding Places come from initially?
For this book, it really was a question of place. I started walking in the By Brook Valley about six years ago, when I moved down to live in the countryside near Bath. It’s such a beautiful spot, unchanged for centuries, and it’s full of evocative ruins — one of my favourite things! There are the ruins of Weavern Farm, once a huge, thriving place, now just a shell, sitting alone by the river; and there are the industrial ruins of the village of Slaughterford — its two mills, the larger of which still operated right up into the 1960s, which can be walked through and explored. Ruins cast a bit of a spell on me — they recall all the many lives that were lived there, all the secrets and stories that have vanished forever. A place like that was always going to spark my imagination!
September sees the publication of the paperback edition of The Hiding Places. Can you give us any clues as to when your next new novel will be published? 😉
My next book — as yet untitled — is due for publication next year. I think it will be in the spring although I’m not sure of the exact date. I’m still writing it at the moment — it’s nearly finished! It’s set during the bombing of Bath in 1942, but it isn’t really a ‘war story’. A bomb falling on one of Bath’s slum areas uncovers the remains of a little girl who went missing twenty-four years previously, and sends her best friend on a mission to find out what really happened to her.

The Year of the Knife - G.D.Penman

And the 2017 Award for Speculative Fiction goes to - The Year of the Knife. Joking I am! I’m not even sure if there is such an award! But knowing nothing of G.D. Penman before I received this book led me to do a little research. And I found that he writes ‘Speculative Fiction’ . A term I love. I remember Margaret Atwood using it to describe The Handmaids Tale in preference to Science Fiction and it’s been a term I’ve enjoyed ever since. So that endeared me to this novel of Mr. Penman’s from the off.

I found the basic premise original. The police using magic to solve crimes. It has probably been done before but I cannot think of an example off the top of my head so I’ll stick with finding it original.  I’m loathe, as ever, to detail much about the plot as I am obsessively paranoid about offering spoilers. But Agent Sully ( and that set off a memory of Agent Scully and the X Files, not to mention Monsters Inc. and Tom Hanks!) is a kick ass heroine, a kind of adult Harry Potter meets Katniss Everdene and is the tour de force that drives this novel along. Accompanied by her extraordinary magical abilities she is an exciting character. So exciting that the others faded in comparison despite fulfilling their various functions.

There’s everything for lovers of the supernatural here; vampires and demons, magi and witches, spells for every possible situation. I found it a very visual book, I could even imagine video games. 
The writing is fast paced, imaginative with an underlying intelligence that gives credence to the infrastructure of the magical aspects of crime and policing. There’s even a little supernatural history and politics thrown in for good measure which adds more depth to the book. There’s much action, some gory, more than a little humour and  a conclusion that possibly paves the way for another Sully story.

This isn’t a book for everyone. If you’ve a penchant for realism and plausibility you might not derive as much pleasure from it as a reader who has a fertile imagination and a love of things magical and supernatural. I am possibly over endowed with those latter qualities so I enjoyed it! Thanks to Nudge Books for the opportunity.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Perfect Victim - Corrie Jackson

I’m not a fan of the press; media, journalists on the whole. Especially the aggressive style journalism that places newspaper sales and scoop stories ahead of morality and human decency. So I didn’t instantly warm to Sophie Kent and her colleagues. I’ve not read the previous book in the series either. So a not altogether promising start for me. But I am pleased to report that things did improve. A little.
Overall I found this story to be convoluted and over plotted. In the end there was only place to go and inevitably the book went there but not before the reader was thrust into a generous shoal of red herrings. 

It’s fast paced, full of action and interactions and despite much of the implausibilities never allows its reader to get bored. It’s definitely not a feel good read and the final denouement leaves you with a bit of a sour taste in your mouth having read on and on simply to find out who did ‘dunnit’ and who didn’t ‘dunnit’! I found it quite visual and could imagine a contemporary crime drama for TV coming from it. Some of the writing that describes the newspaper office read like one of those black and white film noir B films which I did enjoy. 

I struggled to engage with the characters although my initial antipathies towards Sophie dissolved as the book developed. Flawed characters seem to be the meat and thrust of contemporary thrillers nowadays and there was no lack here. The entire premise depended upon that.

I can see this book having a wide appeal for a great many readers and whilst I fear I may have been over critical, even implying maybe that I didn't enjoy the book that would not be quite true. It just didn’t blow me away enough.