Book Review: The Cruelty of Lambs

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The Cruelty of Lambs, by Angelena Boden, is a challenging contemporary thriller, dealing as it does with the insidious effects of domestic abuse. The protagonist is a middle aged musician who has been forced to step down from his teaching job at a school following allegations, subsequently withdrawn, of sexual misconduct with pupils. His wife blames him for the difficulties her business is now facing citing the stress and financial cost of supporting him while he fought to clear his name.

Una Carrington is a controlling woman, damaged from her own upbringing but unable to shoulder responsibility for any failures on her part. She has built a successful business that enables her to fly around the world. She has little interest in her two children and keeps them at a distance. She takes out her frustrations on her husband, Iain Millar, a quiet soul who is happiest when playing his beloved cello.

Iain is spiralling into depression. The emptiness and minimalist decor of his sterile home are at odds with the warmth and clutter in which he was raised. He misses his children. The eldest, a son from his first marriage which fell apart when he was unfaithful, is working abroad. The younger two are away at boarding school thanks to a trust fund set up by his father. With his wife constantly haranguing him for being out of work he suffers debilitating stress along with the physical abuse she inflicts when he will not do as she demands. He starts to hear voices in his head telling him to harm her.

Una turns to men she meets on business trips and in bars to try to shore up her diminishing reserves of confidence. She blames Iain with his peace loving compliance, which she regards as weakness, for forcing her to behave in this way. Iain has the support of his good friend, Fergus, a rough diamond out of his depth when it comes to other’s marital issues. Fergus can see what is going on in Iain’s life but feels powerless when his friend will not admit to the extent of the issues he is trying to deal with.

The story plays out over a six month period. It is told in snapshots of key incidents taking the reader inside the minds of both the unstable Una and the increasingly agitated Iain. These are uncomfortable places to be. The details of what exactly is happening remains murky. Iain’s valuable, heritage cello becomes a fixation for Una’s neurotic behaviour. She resents the comfort he finds in music, and that it enables him to shut her out. Friends and family circle the unhappy couple, feeling helpless as they each descend physically and psychologically.

Whilst in places this is a bleak, disturbing tale, the known prevalence of domestic abuse makes it an important issue for all to consider. Marriage is a complex institution, especially when children are involved. Despite Una’s cruelty, the author allows for a degree of sympathy. Having been drawn into Iain’s dilemma I was apprehensive about how his story would end. This is a page turner, but not one for the trepidatious.

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

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Author Interview: Guy Mankowski

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Today I am delighted to welcome Guy Mankowski to my blog. Guy is the author of ‘An Honest Deceit’ which I review here

1. You have done what so many writers dream of and had your novel published. How have you found this experience?

It’s very exposing to write something that is so personal and then have its value publicaly debated- and An Honest Deceit is my most personal novel yet. In order to create a lifelike, credible world in a novel you have to portray the world as you know it. So you are putting a great deal of yourself into the characters and the setting you present and so it can be strange when the book is finally released because people are evaluating you. An Honest Deceit is my fourth book and because it is so personal the whole process has felt intense. But it is wonderful when people engage with something so personal and take it to their hearts and I’ve had some touching messages.

2. Urbane require collaboration with authors in marketing their books. Has this worked out as you expected?

I think that because novels are personal a personal touch is needed, so Urbane’s collaborative approach works. It is good to have a publisher you can contact at any time and debate ideas with. The publishing industry is changing and I think that approach is required to give books a fighting chance in the big bad world. You aren’t just competing with other books for attention but with video games, X Factor, newspapers, whatever Donald Trump has written last night on Twitter. To get people to take a story to their heart requires work.

3. Have you done many live author events and, if so, do you enjoy them?

Yes, I’ve done talks on my travels to Russia to research a novel on ballet and talks on how I met experts in corruption and worked with whistle-blowers to research An Honest Deceit. I am doing a talk next week with Books On The Tyne about how I turned this research into a thriller. I find the talks nerve-wracking to be honest. It is hard to make a private process public. Like any venture the writing of a novel requires sheer graft and tenacity and people are more interested in hearing about the latter than the former.

4. What is your approach to the on line reviews of your book?

I dismiss the good ones and analyse the bad ones that seem credible because I want to be a better writer. I don’t want to compete with Jordan’s latest biography and just get a few book sales. I want to compete with the writers who made me feel alive and who expressed how the world really is, like Albert Camus and Leonard Cohen. I have a long way to go.

5. When asked what you do, do you describe yourself as a writer?

Yes. I write to try and make people feel less lonely.

6. Are you going to do this again – is there another novel in the pipeline?

My next novel is called A Club Called Meaning and it’s about a nightclub where everyone gets to live their fantasy life for one night. It’s also about how the elite class and the super rich are pulverising the artistic class and it’s nearly finished.

Where my readers can find you

Website: Guy Mankowski.com

Twitter: Dr. Guy Mankowski (@Gmankow)

Blog: Guy Mankowski

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Guy Mankowski is a journalist, academic and author. He was born on the Isle of Wight and educated at St. Johns College Southsea, commuting to school every day by hovercraft. He was then educated by monks at Ampleforth College, Yorkshire. He trained as a psychologist, working in a hospital by day and as singer of a signed band, Alba Nova, by night. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently lectures in Creative Writing at York University. An Honest Deceit is his fourth novel.

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An Honest Deceit is published by Urbane Publications and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: An Honest Deceit

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An Honest Deceit, by Guy Mankowski, is a psychological thriller with a theme of domestic noir. It is written in a language that is almost poetic so vivid is the imagery and emotion conjured. It tells a story that had my heart racing and my anger growing as the protagonist battles a corrupt system which is hiding behind due process, determined to protect its own.

Ben and Juliette have worked hard to provide a home for themselves and their two children, Marine and Christian. They met at university where Ben was encouraged to ask Juliette out by his best friend, Philip. Ben subsequently becomes a teacher, a job he enjoys. Philip makes his name as a stand-up comic and moves to a modern flat nearby the couple.

When Marine dies whilst on a school trip their world is blown apart. They are told it was a tragic accident, but the reactions of a few key staff at Marine’s school plant seeds of doubt. Juliette wishes to mourn and move on. Ben determines to fight for the truth. In the process he discovers that this may cost him his job and thereby their home.

Philip uses his contacts to raise public awareness as Ben battles to keep investigations into his daughter’s death open. A new headmaster appears to hold all the cards and resents what he regards as the unnecessary expense of detailed enquiries, and the adverse publicity this can cause. The confrontations that ensue threaten not just Ben’s job but his remaining family. He must dig deep to find the resolve to go on.

The pain of losing a child is unimaginable. The rawness of this hurt is sensitively portrayed yet does not overwhelm the tight progression of the plot. Ben’s choice to grow and then draw on public support makes him enemies who could prevent him ever working again. Juliette questions his loyalty and motives.

This book has a potent depth – it is rare for me to feel so emotionally invested in a story. An impressive and absorbing read.

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

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Author Interview: Christina Philippou

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Today I am delighted to welcome Christina Philippou to my blog. Christina is the author of ‘Lost in Static’ which I review here.

1. You have done what so many writers dream of and had your novel published. How have you found this experience?

Amazing! It started slowly – I decided to get back to writing (which I used to love) whilst on maternity leave so as to keep the brain functioning. Somehow this morphed into a novel which morphed into a publishable novel which morphed into a published novel thanks to Urbane Publications…

My journey to publication, like most people’s, was filled with ups and downs, but it’s all been worth it to see the final version of Lost in Static and the lovely reviews that have come with it – I’d recommend the experience to everyone!

2. Urbane require collaboration with authors in marketing their books. Has this worked out as you expected?

I didn’t know what to expect, if I’m honest! I’ve heard so many horror stories about having everything dictated to you (from those with large publishers) to being ignored (from those with some independents), but I’ve found working with Urbane a joy – I’ve had a say in my cover, edits, and marketing suggestions. There’s been a bit of a division of labour, with me concentrating more on the online side and Urbane on the traditional side, but it has worked well so far.

3. Have you done many live author events and, if so, do you enjoy them?

My debut has only been out a couple of months and my participation in live author events to date has been in the audience or as a volunteer at the Guildford Book Festival, so not much to report there! However, my non-author working life involves a large amount of public speaking (I’m a university lecturer, mainly teaching forensic accounting), so I’m happy to entertain people live as well as through the printed page.

4. What is your approach to the on line reviews of your book?

As a book blogger myself, I know the importance of reviews for both authors and readers, and I read all reviews of my book that I am aware of. I appreciate that not everyone will enjoy Lost in Static, and that’s absolutely fine (in fact, part of the book’s message is designed to grate with certain readers).

Overall, it’s been a great experience, reading reviews of my book (especially as the vast majority are very positive), but it’s also been interesting. As Lost in Static is written from four different students’ points of view, there are inevitably four protagonists with very different personalities at its heart – and I’ve been fascinated by how different readers have identified with or lauded different characters. It’s made me realise even more the importance of communication, as people are so diverse in their thoughts, ideas, and preferences!

5. When asked what you do, do you describe yourself as a writer?

Good question! Depends on the company I’m keeping at the time, I suppose. Saying I used to be an accountant and now teach accounting sounds far less exciting than ‘author’ to most…

6. Are you going to do this again – is there another novel in the pipeline?

Yes, yes, yes! I’ve got the writing bug now and, of course, I know that I can write a whole novel that people will enjoy (or hate). I’m currently whipping the very originally named ‘Novel 2’ into shape – it’s darker than Lost in Static, but still plays with perspective (this time age).

Where my readers can find you

Website: Christina Philippou | Writing round the block

Twitter: Christina Philippou (@CPhilippou123)

Facebook: Christina Philippou

Instagram: Christina Philippou (@cphilippou123)

Google+ Christina Philippou

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Christina Philippou’s writing career has been a varied one, from populating the short-story notebook that lived under her desk at school, to penning reports on corruption and terrorist finance. When not reading or writing, she can be found engaging in sport or undertaking some form of nature appreciation. 

Christina has three passports to go with her three children, but is not a spy. Lost in Static is her first novel.

 

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Lost in Static is published by Urbane Publications and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: Lost in Static

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Lost in Static, by Christina Philippou, tells the story of a group of university freshers during their first year living away from the constrictions of the family home. As a parent of two students it made for disturbing reading, but it is a brilliantly constructed story that held my attention throughout.

There are four pivotal characters and the academic year is chronicled from each of their points of view. They arrive at halls on the first weekend of Fresher’s Week determined to engineer a new start, to put the preconceptions and expectations of those who have known them since childhood behind them. At university they can be themselves as they are now, freed from the judgements of those who regard them as their parents’ children rather than independent individuals.

Callum is handsome, public school educated, and eager to hide the fact that he has famous parents. Yasmine is blandly beautiful, interested in designer clothes, and appalled by the run down state of her new abode. Juliette has escaped the confines of her deeply religious upbringing but retains the guilt drummed into her since childhood. Ruby is eager to embrace her freedom, a sports fanatic who wishes to be regarded as more than just one of the lads.

The book opens with an incident that happens later in the year. Thus the reader knows that the nervous but excited first day students are going to encounter potentially deadly group tensions. They will develop as individuals but reinventing themselves is not as easy as some may hope.

In many ways this story plays on the stereotypical impression often portrayed of students. There is much socialising, heavy drinking and other mild drug taking. There are sexual encounters both desired and regretted. There is jealousy, the sharing of secrets, perceived betrayal. Each incident is related from the differing perspectives of each of the four hall mates.

The tension of these scenarios is maintained by taking the reader inside the heads of young adults burdened by their upbringing and battling conditioned insecurities. Unused to social freedom they turn to their newly found friends for support when problems occur, largely unaware that these friends are also struggling to cope. Narcissism and self entitlement lead some to attempt dangerous revenge on those they blame for thwarting the acquisition of what is coveted. There are few brakes applied on their behaviours.

Within the hothouse bubble of university life it is difficult to step back from the pack. Rumours must be lived with, adversaries faced. Issues are exacerbated when parents become involved.

This is a multi-layered story exploring nature, nurture and group dynamics within a social setting that has the potential to protect from class and culture yet which cannot prevent them insidiously leaking in. The assured writing keeps the reader’s attention focused as unsettling events unfold. Can anyone ever know what another is thinking within the privacy of their own head? How actions are making them feel and the reactions that will result? I found this an engaging and fascinating read.

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

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Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? – Guest Post by Matthew Smith

Today I am delighted to welcome Matthew Smith to my blog. Matthew is the founder and force behind the independent publisher, Urbane Publications. I interviewed him earlier this year as part of my Q&A with an Independent Publisher series. Today he is giving us an update on how far the company has come.

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It hardly seems possible, but it was Christmas 2013 when I walked away from a directorship with an established publisher and just two months later launched Urbane Publications. I’m often told by those I know – and people I meet on my publishing travels – that they can’t believe what Urbane has achieved in such a short space of time. But of course, and perhaps because I’m so close to everything, all I can see is what still needs developing, creating and improving.

Because publishing is a constantly evolving industry, particularly in how readers can discover and connect with books and authors, and it is this, more than anything else, which provides an independent publisher like Urbane with its greatest opportunities, and greatest challenges.

I suspect much of the ‘traditional’ publishing world longs for the ‘good old days’, the days before Amazon, the days before the self publishing phenomenon (when self publishing could be dismissed as vanity publishing), when publishers ruled the roost, and thousands of bookshops provided the only access to an audience. Those were the days when many authors were terribly grateful for a deal and 10% of bugger all. I know there are certainly times where I wish all I had to do was take the book to market knowing that getting it to stores was all the discoverability and profile I had to worry about.

Okay, of course I’m simplifying (perhaps only a little), but while many of the mechanics of the publishing world remain the same – get a great script, edit, design, print, publish (or upload!) – the route to reader, and ultimately selling copies, has changed out of all recognition. When an author can finish a script and have it uploaded and selling on the world’s largest retail platform within a day, then as publishers you know you’ve got to evolve, change your attitudes, your processes and your aims. And constantly be open to continuous change.

The premise behind starting Urbane was a simple recognition that authors were beginning to understand how vital they are to the future of publishing – not the publishers themselves – and that as a publisher if we were to have any chance of succeeding then authors had to be at the heart of what we did. This in turn – or so the theory goes! – would create a ‘community’ of engaged authors, all with their own networks and readerships, that would gradually combine to help Urbane both raise its own profile as an independent publisher in a very crowded and noisy market, and more importantly the profile of all its authors and books. And as profile goes up discoverability rises and more sales are made.

Of course, that alone isn’t enough, and as a traditional publisher Urbane is trying to continuously make inroads in bricks and mortar sales channels utterly dominated by the big five publishers, and for the most part very risk averse when it comes to non-established authors and publishers. Simultaneously I’m constantly looking at what is being achieved by the more entrepreneurial self-published authors and trying to learn from them as they have a huge number of new tricks to teach us old dogs.

It’s keeping up with opportunities – and finding those that might work – which is the biggest challenge. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last two and a half years it’s that there is NEVER one route to market, NEVER one way of doing things, and that EVERY book and author has to be treated as a bespoke project.

At the same time Urbane needed to make an impact and we have gone all out to build our ‘brand’ and our list quickly, but also to publish the books that don’t just ‘tick boxes’ but offer different, new, challenging, ‘genre busting’ themes and approaches; and to work with authors who want to grow with Urbane, who understand the sometimes harsh realities of the publishing world and the fickle nature of success in such a challenging, competitive and often ‘confusing’ marketplace.

So, two and a half years in, how are we doing? I’d probably give Urbane a B minus for achievement but an A for effort. We still have a huge way to go. I believe we’ve published some fantastic books and provided an opportunity for some very talented authors, an opportunity they perhaps wouldn’t get with other publishers, and I’m extremely proud of that. Are all our authors happy? Nope. Some inevitably will be looking for pastures new with their next project and that’s absolutely fine with me – they go with nothing but wishes of future success. But overall those authors who ‘get it’ and want to be part of that idea of community and a support network, and who understand they HAVE to be an integral part of the process not just during the book’s creation but post publication, are definitely starting to benefit. Of course, there will always be those books that don’t work no matter how hard we try and want them to succeed, and every new debut is a genuine challenge, but after two years of hard work Urbane is now in a place where much bigger success seems like a genuine opportunity rather than just a pipe dream.

Sales this year have already doubled with a month still to go. We have great partnerships with a distributor (CBS), a UK sales force (Compass) and have just signed agreements with The Rights People and also Durnell to represent our rights and our European sales respectively. The first range of Audible deals were also signed this year (with more to come) and there is a genuine sense of progress, that retailers and readers alike are starting to take notice of Urbane’s authors. And of course, our profile within the bricks and mortar channels is particularly gratifying with sales to Waterstones this year up 636%. This is off a tiny – and I mean tiny – base in 2015, but it’s still reassuring to know that the books we are publishing are deserving of their place in the leading bookshops. And the support of WHSmith has been particularly welcome and vital in growing our lists and long may it continue! We have also taken on continuous PR support to help to continue to raise the profile of all our books, particularly in the traditional media.

What needs to improve? EVERYTHING! On a personal level I want to spend far more time with individual authors to ensure they are fully supported in their writing and publishing ambitions, and that includes those who writers who send proposals to Urbane – I’m absolutely guilty of not getting back to people quickly enough because of other priorities. And of course that has to be set against the need to continually drive forward the business, and most importantly the profile and discoverability of our books and authors. One day Urbane will have the cash to splash on huge marketing campaigns. But until then we have to work – and I mean work – for every single book sale. Until we are in a position to guarantee visibility for every single book, we have to focus on driving profile through every channel and means possible. And this is where bloggers, reviewers and readers have been integral to our growth and will be vital to our future success. I spoke earlier about the community of authors, but that extends far beyond our writers to every single person who has ever seen and read an Urbane book. Every comment, every tweet, every facebook post, every review builds our company, supports our authors, and gives us new and exciting opportunities.

That’s the key. For all the shenanigans, politics and frustrations of the publishing industry and how we must work so hard to make an impact in such difficult times, I’m absolutely convinced Urbane will succeed. Because we are creating priceless word of mouth, we are building a community of readers and writers and supporters, and we believe there is a readership for every book we publish, regardless of whether it gets reviewed in the Guardian or not. Our challenge will always be finding that readership, but if you’re reading this right now, perhaps, just perhaps, we’ve added another fabulous Urbaneite to our ranks.

 

Website: Urbane Publications – Ordinary words made extraordinary

Twitter: Matthew at Urbane (@urbanepub) and UrbanePublications (@urbanebooks)

Facebook: Urbane Publications

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December Focus: Urbane Publications

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I like to do something a little different on my blog in December. I am not a fan of the modern day Christmas with its emphasis on big parties and conspicuous consumption but with all the presents being exchanged by more festive minded friends I am eager to spread the word about good reads. I suspect I am preaching to the converted when I point out that books make the ideal gift.

I am always keen to ensure that readers know of the existence of the fabulous independent publishers for whom I have a particular fondness. Last December I read only releases from these small presses. I also started a series of interviews with those publishers who wished to take part which continued well into the New Year. There is a menu option available above if you wish to check some of these out. I would like this series to be ongoing so if you are a publisher and would like to be involved do let me know.

This year, in the run up to Christmas, I am going to focus on just one of these independent publishers – Urbane Publications. Starting next week I will be posting reviews of a small selection of their more recent releases alongside interviews with the books’ authors and the occasional guest post. We will kick off on Sunday with an update on the company from its founder, Matthew Smith.

I hope that you will enjoy this series and consider buying some of Urbane’s books. They publish an eclectic mix so their list is bound to contain something you or those you buy for will enjoy. As a bonus I will be offering one lucky reader a chance to win their choice of book from those featured. I will post details of how to enter this giveaway at the conclusion of the series, in the week leading up to Christmas.

I am grateful to each of the Urbane contributors for their willingness to jump on board with such enthusiasm. The content they have provided will, I hope, be of as much interest to you as it has been to me.

Urbane Publications – Ordinary words made extraordinary

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