Book Review: Summer of the Dead

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Summer of the Dead, by Julia Keller, is a crime thriller set in small town West Virginia during a stifling summer. The backdrop of poverty and a socially stunted community mingle with descriptions of oppressive heat to create a claustrophobic tension as a series of murders unfold. Few clues are left for the forces of law and order to investigate. Everyone it seems has a criminal record, a drug problem or unsavoury family secrets that are suspected but rarely discussed. This is a place where residents expect few favours, each looking out for their own, raised to keep thoughts and feelings to themselves.

The protagonist is a prosecuting attorney with her own damaged past. Raised locally she understands the people she is dealing with and works hard to follow the rules that justice may be served. I did wonder about the repercussions when she failed in this endeavour, but the potential fallout for herself and the cases she was working on were barely touched upon.

In many ways the progression of the story reminded me of television crime shows: the slow build up; improbable fight scene; subsequent reveal of who was who, their relationships to each other, and why they acted as they did. As a crime novel it was easy to read. It offered false leads, twists, turns and surprises along the way. The book is atmospheric and nicely written. What I felt it lacked was depth and, at times, plausibility. I guess a work of fiction does not always have to be real.

Neither does every book written have to be a literary masterpiece. I found it difficult to empathise with the characters but I could appreciate the structure and pace of the developing plot. At times I had to check back to remind myself who was who, but I always wanted to know what happened next.

I would recommend this book to fans of compelling, gritty, crime dramas. This is the third book in a series. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had I preceded it with episodes one and two.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Review: Literary Afternoon Tea at Bowood with Dinah Jefferies

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Traditional afternoon teas have become quite the thing at luxury hotels of late, and Bowood Hotel in Wiltshire does them with aplomb. Taken in the library, which overlooks a part of the estate’s beautiful park and woodland, one can easily feel transported back to an age of elegance and refinement. The range of fine teas served with a surprisingly generous selection of delicate sandwiches, delicious scones and tempting cakes, is attractively presented and impressive. An experience to be savoured.

Sidetracked as I was by the good company, I did not do the array of goodies on offer justice. I was at the hotel to attend what has become a regular and popular event in their busy calendar, a Literary Afternoon Tea. These occasions combine the delights of this stylish treat with the chance to meet and listen to a visiting author as they talk about their latest book and how it came to be written. The ambience of the library was perfect for author Dinah Jefferies, who started her talk by sharing some of her experiences growing up in 1950’s colonial Malaya where her debut novel, The Separation, is set.

Writing is essentially a solitary pursuit. However, the rules of the game are changing all the time. Where once an author could have expected to live a quiet life, creating their imaginary worlds for all to enjoy in print, they are now required to promote their work on numerous social media sites and at the increasingly popular Literary Festivals, bookshop visits, and events such as this one at Bowood.  If Dinah finds these public appearances a challenge then it did not show.

Her talk offered attendees an insight into her writing process, inspirations and the issues faced by a successful author. The Separation is her debut novel; her second book, The Tea Planter’s Wife, is due to be published in the spring of next year; she is currently writing her third book and is already considering ideas for her fourth. With all of these imaginary worlds and their characters swirling around inside her head she is required to move seamlessly between them: to talk of one, edit another, create a third and develop a fourth. For someone who claims not to have a good memory this must be quite an ask!

Dinah likened writing a book to a sculptor creating a work of art. If many people have a book inside them then this would be the block of stone. The quality of this base product will vary, as will the ability of the artist to produce something worthwhile. Creativity requires skill and dedication. What emerges may not be exactly what was envisaged when the writer first started chipping away at their idea.

Each of Dinah’s books has started with a setting, a place and time, and a plot that has been developed through extensive research. She decides how the book is to feel initially, its structure and key events. The detail of the story emerges as she writes, with editing ensuring continuity and a flow that will engage the reader throughout. She explained that she tries to avoid long, descriptive sections, aiming to offer sensory stimulation, showing rather than telling.

Dinah attended this event with her husband, who I had the privilege of talking to as Dinah signed the books that were offered for sale after her engaging question and answer session with the receptive audience. Richard exuded justifiable pride in his wife’s achievements. I would imagine her job is made easier by having such a supportive partner.

The couple of hours that I spent at Bowood flew by, filled as it was with pleasant company, interesting conversation and the ambience of a delightful setting. I hope that, after I left, Dinah and Richard were able to relax and enjoy the tempting treats offered.

I would recommend an event such as this as an appealing indulgence for all with an interest in books. I am grateful to Dinah and to Charlotte at Bowood for adding me to their guest list.

 

Author Interview: Dinah Jefferies

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When I approach an author I am unfamiliar with for an interview, it is usually because there has been something about the way they write that has intrigued me. Dinah Jefferies’ life has presented her with some significant challenges, which is perhaps why she can imbue her female protagonists with such depth of feeling and strength whilst avoiding clichéd or cloying descriptions. Her prose is deft, her characters real.

From the people she has created in her first book, The Separation, I got the feeling that this author is an adroit judge of character as well as an intelligent and talented writer. The steamy setting, with its 1950’s housewives and pompous husbands, could easily have placed her book in that much maligned genre of romantic ‘chick lit’. This is sidestepped cannily, although I suspect that fans of the genre will enjoy her writing. Alongside the passion and intrigue she offers nuance and insight whilst avoiding any suggestion of earnestness.

I was eager to find out more about the creator of this book so was delighted when she consented to be interviewed.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Dinah Jefferies.

Where do you typically write?

I always write in my little work room at the back of our terraced Victorian house. I have a desk for the computer, and a desk for writing notes and for plotting my novels, although by the time a book is complete the layers of notebooks are usually a foot deep. When I have a tidy up at the end it shocks me how much stuff I’ve accumulated. There’s probably enough material for half a dozen books.

Tell us about your writing process.

I start with a location; so far all my books are set in the East. Once I’ve picked a country I’ll read about the history and hope to find a time period that fascinates me. Usually I’ll choose a period of upheaval, where social change is happening or is about to take place, and often that process of reading will suggest an idea for the story. Of course a lot of time and heartache will have to go into developing the idea, and that tends to happen at the same time as I develop the characters. I’m known for strong female characters who undergo an emotional journey during troubled times, so I look for challenging situations for my main characters. My favourite stage is when I’m thinking about how I’ll weave the characters into the time and place I’ve chosen. I don’t plan everything in advance, although I know what my themes are and I know what drives the central story. I usually write a first draft and while reworking it the deeper story unfolds. Sometimes it is a little different from the original idea. It’s a complex process of discovery and it can keep me awake at night.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

Well all I can say is that my publishers at Viking/Penguin have been fantastic and I’ve enjoyed every part of the experience. Their offices are on the Strand in London overlooking the river, so I love going up there for meetings. They’re also extremely friendly people and that helps.

In what ways do you promote your work?

I do all the usual things: blog tours, interviews, signings. Also I give talks at bookshops, libraries and Literature Festivals. I shall be appearing at three festivals this October: Beverley, Cheltenham and Ilkley. I’m also to be found on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. I love Pinterest because I tend to think visually. I’ve been interviewed on the radio several times but have yet to do television. Hopefully I will at some point.

What are some of your current projects?

I’ve just finished the edits for The Tea Planter’s Wife set in Ceylon between 1925 and 1934 which will be published by Penguin and in translation next year. I really loved writing it and I’m very pleased with the end result. Now I’m working on my third book - a complex story set in Vietnam – and therefore terrifically hard to write. I’m at the fingers crossed stage. It always happens somewhere along the line and, so far, I’ve found my way through. Writing ‘on the edge’ you could call it!

Where can my readers find you?

On Twitter: Dinah Jefferies (@DinahJefferies)

My  blog: Dinah Jefferies – Author  (www.dinahjefferies.com)

On Facebook: Dinah Jefferies – Author, Penguin UK

On Pinterest: Dinah Jefferies – Author

The Separation is available for purchase now, from the publisher, Amazon and all good bookshops.

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Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaya and moved to England at the age of nine. She still loves South East Asia and the Far East and jumps at the chance to travel there whenever she can. She once lived in a commune with a rock band, and has worked as an exhibiting artist. After also living in Italy and Spain, she now lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and very naughty Norfolk Terrier where she writes full time. The Separation is her first novel.

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Book Review: The Awakening

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The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, is a powerful work of literary fiction that was condemned in its time for suggesting that a women may want more from her life than a husband, children and a comfortable home. Published in the USA in 1899 it tells the tale of Edna, a wife and mother who awakens to desires that polite society refused to acknowledge in its female members. From a life spent acquiescing to the wishes and expectations of family and acquaintances, Edna starts to consider her own thoughts and feelings and, most shockingly, to act in a manner of her choosing.

There is so much in this book that reads as depressingly timeless. Her husband is materially kind and generous to his family, but cannot comprehend how this may not be enough for his wife. The men they mix with talk incessantly of themselves with little regard for the women so long as they are supportive and act as required and expected. The women gossip and flirt but rarely converse, even amongst themselves, with candour.

Upon observing with some chagrin the changes in his wife, Edna’s husband’s first reaction is to ponder her state of mind:

‘It sometimes entered Mr Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally.’

Concerned by the unexpected instability in his comfortable and ordered life, he consults with a doctor who asks:

‘has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women?’

The insertion of pseudo rang so familiar. Over one hundred years later, too many men still struggle to regard women as mentally and intellectually their equals.

Despite the risks of association, Edna entertains men to satisfy her desires, a shocking idea at the time and one which led to her book being condemned as ‘immoral’.

‘[He] meant absolutely nothing to her. Yet his presence, his manners, the warmth of his glances, and above all the touch of his lips upon her hand had acted like a narcotic upon her.’

Edna did little to hide from others the change she was undergoing. A friend cautioned her:

‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’

In the end though, the object of her imaginings turned out to be not so different to the other men, only able to regard her as a woman and not as an intelligent being.

‘He looked at Edna’s book, which he had read; and he told her the end, to save her the trouble of wading through it, he said.’

The Awakening is beautifully written, telling an insightful story that provides a social commentary which could almost be contemporary. Having said that though, I was disappointed with the denouement. I regretted that this woman, who had shown so much strength and insight, could not avoid the trappings of expectation, of a wish to be with a man.

As an early feminist work it is well worth reading, not least to consider the furore its publication caused. It has interesting characters, a compelling plot and is a true page turner. Such a shame that its protagonist could not, after all, find contentment living with herself; that she felt the need for the presence of another to make her life feel complete.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Lizzie from These Little Words.

Book Review: The Separation

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The Separation, by Dinah Jefferies, is a book filled with love and loss. Set in 1950’s Malaya and England, it tells its tale from two points of view: a mother separated from her children by a vindictive husband, and their young daughter who is torn from everything she holds dear without explanation. It is a story filled with tragedy and longing, of the misuse of power and the inner strength that can be found in times of crisis.

The descriptions of Malaya are colourful and evocative throughout, placing the reader firmly within the mindset of post war colonialists living a gilded, threatened  lifestyle in a country being torn apart by war. With danger and unrest a part of everyday life, the British drink and party, conduct affairs and look on the wide variety of locals as a sea of coloured faces to be subdued, used and feared. The immigrant men are arrogant, the women decorative, the risk of death an accepted part of life.

The pictures painted of the Malayan towns and countryside convey a place of great beauty filled with underlying danger, of natural and man made oppression in keeping with the times. For the adult incomers there were fortunes to be made, for the children there was a freedom and magic unimaginable to those in England.

The lifestyle in England provided contrast with its damp greyness and cramped conditions. The attitude of so many of the adults seemed alien to modern day thinking. With demands for control and dogmatic mind sets, the children were cowed into a submission they had no option but to accept. It made for painful reading.

The author though writes beautifully. The story has depth, passion, fear and longing yet it is presented with a light touch that suggests as much as it describes. The tale is so much more than an historical account of family misadventures from days gone by. It transports the reader back in time to experience the lives and emotions as they were lived. I felt impotent loss and anger as I read, despair at the lies, pain at the tragedies, a glimmer of hope as the truth finally emerged.

The scale of the story is breathtaking. The scope of the wrongs done to so many would have made for difficult reading had it not been for the skill of the storyteller. I enjoyed this book immensely.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author at my request.

 

 

Book Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice

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Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie, is a tale of superstition, corruption, power struggles and fear of change. Set in fifteenth century Mainz, it chronicles the events that led to the production of the Gutenberg Bible, credited as being the first major book printed in the West using movable type.

The story is told from the point of view of Peter Schoeffer, a talented young scribe who is apprenticed to Johann Gutenberg by his foster father, Johann Fust. Each of these men is key to the endeavour by which the first run of one hundred and eighty bibles were produced over a four year period.

In order to bring Gutenberg’s idea for a printing press to fruition, the utmost secrecy was necessary. A power struggle between the hierarchies of the church and the local guilds of tradesmen threatened to bankrupt Mainz as each tried to extract profit from the citizens whilst limiting the cost to themselves. It was recognised that both would wish to exert control over this new invention when they realised its potential.

The creation of the press and the production of the bible were lengthy processes and suffered many setbacks. To get across the grinding nature of the tasks required, the book goes into repetitive detail on the struggles encountered. These included the challenges of the living and working conditions, the battles between the ruling classes, and the never ending need to finance such a long and costly venture that could show no return until completion. The author succeeds in conveying the frustrations but at a price. The book contained much of interest, but the slow process described made for heavy reading at times.

There were lighter moments, such as Peter’s courtship and his relationship with his father’s young wife and her children. It did seem though that there was little understanding or trust in the town. Even knowing from history that the bible would eventually be produced, I felt exhausted from the constant battles of wills described.

This is a beautifully produced book that tells a tale that will be of interest to any bibliophile. Between hunger, plague and the squalid conditions it is a reminder of how hard life was even for the wealthier citizens in the middle ages. The corruption of the powerful seemed all too familiar.

The invention of the printing press enabled books to be produced that could be afforded by the many. It also made redundant the skills of the scribes whose artistry had graced all books before. Machines replacing man is a tale that continues, with quality and skills being lost as cost becomes king. This invention though is hard to regret, ushering in as it did the wider dissemination of literacy and news. It is the actions of man that are to be feared, not his creations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

 

Random musings: Burqas and bikinis

The idea of wearing a burqa holds certain attractions. Until I am able to purchase an invisibility cloak it offers the chance to hide away from the judgemental eyes of other people. What I don’t like about this garment is the repression that it represents. It is worn because men say that it is required, because a woman’s body tempts a man to sin simply by being on display. It absolves these men of their most basic responsibility: self control.

Those who try to claim that a girl in a skimpy outfit is asking for sex are speaking the same language as those who insist on women covering themselves from head to toe in a black or blue tent. I don’t buy this argument. Any individual should be able to display themselves as they wish without fear of attack, physical or verbal. An attack is always the fault of the attacker, never the victim.

I like to read diversely. Fiction is such a fabulous way to learn about different ways of thinking. I do not tend to seek out books featuring sexually diverse characters or those with varied skin colours because I already see these people as just like me. Skin tone is of as little significance as the colour of clothes. I eat meat but have friends who are vegetarian, am heterosexual but have friends who are gay or bi. Personal preferences are not my concern, unless there is an element of coercion. I do not wish anyone to tell me how to live my life.

What I do like to read about is characters whose day to day lives are coloured by expectations that are foreign to me, whose actions are ruled by cultural differences, acceptance of which I find hard to comprehend.

I will actively seek out a book that will enable me to better understand the issues faced by a child raised in a traditional Pakistani family, or who is expected to adhere to rules laid down by a religious organisation to which their family has always subscribed. Whilst I may wonder at the way these people think, I can learn more about why traditions have developed and see benefits beside the many flaws. I can broaden my understanding and challenge my thinking; see oppressors as people who, perhaps, have never known that it can be beneficial to act in another way. I may not agree with their choices, but I can gain a better understanding of why they behave as they do.

I find it much harder to empathise with those who have been raised with the ability and freedom to decide for themselves, yet who consider it vital that they always present an outward appearance that is acceptable to those around, such as women whose main aim in life seems to be to achieve a bikini body, big hair and smooth skin.

I tend to avoid books where the heroine must be beautiful and has her life enhanced by a handsome hero who will take care of her every need. Why does she have to be beautiful to find love? Why can she not look after herself? I am not against relationships, I have after all been married for more than twenty years and value my husband’s place in my life highly. He is not, however, responsible for my happiness, that is down to me and me alone.

I support the campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks because I recognise that there are too many people who think it is fine to have only pale skinned, heteronormative, cisgendered, able bodied protagonists. In young people’s literature especially, a more realistic physical, sexual and cultural mix matters. All children should be able to see themselves as the hero in at least some of the books that they read.

Still though, I am uncomfortable reading books that contain characters who match a huge section of the society in which I live, those who feel it is desirable to look like Ken or Barbie. I do not understand why so many fear wrinkles and grey hair, why they feel unable to don a bikini because of the very natural shape of their stomach following childbirth or because their legs are dimpled by their love of cake. I find it sad that some men are now swallowing the marketing hype and feel a need to build muscle or moisturise skin. I cannot comprehend this way of thinking.

My hankering after invisibility indicates that I am not immune to other’s judgements. I may struggle to understand why so many think so much about outward appearance, but I am affected by the knowledge that how I look generates negative comment. My antipathy and therefore avoidance of books where the young and beautiful win some mythical happy ever after may well be feeding my prejudices. If I am to gain empathy and understanding then I need to step beyond my view that these books are damaging because they sell an impossible to achieve lie, and try to better understand why they are so popular.

I decided to review a book titled ‘Diary of a Diva‘ because I expected it to be an amusing if superficial account of life from the point of view of a beautiful, media type person who moved in the sorts of circles that are anathema to me. Having read it I suspect that I wished to pat my prejudices on the head and feel quietly superior. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I feel ashamed.

I judged this book by its cover, the author by her looks and career, something that I call others out on doing all the time. This searingly honest account was as much of an eye opener as any of my chosen, foreign based reads. I had wrapped up ‘media type people’ as a vain, homogeneous mass to look down upon. It would seem that I still have a long way to go in dealing with my negative responses towards those who think differently to me. The protagonist of this non fiction book had many admirable qualities to which I should aspire.

I will wear neither burqa nor bikini because that is my choice. I will however continue to try to read more widely. The author of ‘Diary of a Diva’ was able to see and acknowledge her flaws which she then worked to improve. In reading her book I have uncovered a fair few of my own. I will try to do better.

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