Book Review: The Arrival of Missives

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The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley, is set in a small West of England village in the aftermath of the Great War. The families of the village have lived here for generations, each taking an interest in their neighbours’ lives and playing the role expected of them in occupation and village life.

The protagoinist, Shirley Fearn, is the only child of an increasingly successful, landowning farmer. She has been raised to be of interest to someone who would be willing and able to take over the family farm. Shirley has other ideas. She believes herself in love with the village schoolteacher, Mr Tiller, a badly injured veteran of the war. Her ambition is to gain her own teacher’s certificate from the nearby training college in Taunton, to marry Mr Tiller and then teach by his side.

When Mr Tiller learns of her plans he shares a secret that she must never divulge. He believes that Shirley can avert a catastrophe, but to do so she must trust him and do exactly as he asks. Shirley finds herself caught up in a personal conflict between helping her idol and following her own desires.

All her life Shirley has been expected to comply with the wishes of others. Her parents will contemplate no other future for her than that of the wife of a farmer on the family land. Shirley is headstrong and articulate, yet finds her voice ignored as the men of the village make decisions regarding her future. She receives little support from her mother who has learned to cope by hiding how she feels and pandering to her husband:

“He is an enormous tyrant baby to whom she will be forever bound.”

Shirley is a fascinating character, a young woman with opinions and desires who wishes to wrest control of her life from those who are convinced they know best. She observes that men’s plans rarely consider women, yet all men are born of a woman and therefore their participation over time is required.

The village May Day celebrations bring matters to a head as Shirley exercises the small power she has been granted. In the aftermath she comes to realise that her destiny is still being controlled. She acts to thwart the plans of the men intent on dictating the course of her life. She is unwilling to submit to village expectations, to comply with their skewed demands.

I enjoyed unpicking the surreal aspects of the story which came clear by the end. The denouement is intensely satisfying.

This is just the sort of book that I enjoy reading with its complex, recognisable characters whose well intentioned prejudices still resonate. I am grateful that, through the ages, there have been women like Shirley willing to step out of line.

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

Book Review: The Long Count

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The Long Count, by JM Gulvin, is the first in a new series of thrillers featuring Texan Ranger, John Q. The voice in the story telling is very much that of a modern day Texas Cowboy, laid back and fearless with a down to earth and gritty determination.

John Q is a veteran of the Korean War. He is famed for his gunslinging, for having the ability to draw and shoot before his adversary has time to pull the trigger on a threatening weapon. He is also a widower and loving father, a loyal friend who calmly counters the racism inherent in his state by deeds more than words.

Set in the 1960s, when Americans were starting to protest their involvement in the Vietnam War, the book opens with a vicious assault at a lonely railway station. John Q is enjoying a sunny Memorial Day by the river with his friend, Pious, and son, James. They make a gruesome discovery but before this can be dealt with John Q is called across state to investigate the railway station attack.

The assailant is making his way elsewhere, calmly removing those who get in his way. John Q is soon on his tail but with no apparent motive can only follow the bodies left in the attacker’s wake.

Due to proximity, the ranger is first to respond when an apparent suicide is called in. The local law enforcement officers declare it an open and shut case but John Q has other views. When the suicide’s son, Isaac, hears this he gets in touch. Isaac cannot believe that his father, a commensurate soldier from a family of valiant fighters, would ever take his own life.

Isaac tells John Q that he has just returned from his third tour of duty in Vietnam. Not only has he to cope with his father’s death but also the disappearance of his twin brother, Ishmael, who is unaccounted for following a devastating fire at the Trinity Asylum where he was being held. It emerges that Ishmael was the victim of ill conceived treatment by the recently appointed psychiatrist at this institution, but the doctor is determined to carry out his own investigations rather than allow the police to become involved.

The plot twists and turns as links between these events emerge. John Q remains one step behind the killer as the body count rises. An agitated Isaac takes matters into his own hands.

A skilfully written thriller although I did find the teasing out of the denouement a little overdone. I understand the desire to provide a concluding twist, and I had not guessed every detail. My impatience with the number of cliffhanger chapter endings before the final reveal coloured my satisfaction, neat though the ending was.

This is still a worthwhile read. The Texan voice is authentic and adds a welcome variation to the thriller genre. John Q is a fine creation and I will be looking out for the next book in this series.

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

Book Review: All Things Cease To Appear

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All Things Cease To Appear, by Elizabeth Brundage, is set in a remote farming community in upstate New York. In the late 1970s the town of Closer was on the cusp of change. Traditional farming had become financially unviable and the land was being bought by developers, eager to cash in on a growing demand for country escapes from the city elite. The residents of the town, who had known each other all of their lives, were forced to adjust.

The Hale family have been farmers for generations. When their farm fails the parents choose the ultimate way out leaving their three teenage sons to cope as best they can. George Clare, a newly appointed college professor, buys the old Hale farm at auction. He is aware of its history but chooses not to share this with his young wife, Catherine. She senses that her new home hosts a sadness but does her best to make it comfortable and welcoming for the sake of their toddler daughter, Franny.

Catherine struggles to settle away from her life in the city. She wishes to be a good wife and mother but misses the regard she enjoyed as an intelligent, working woman. Her husband is distant and critical, taking from her whatever he desires, by force if necessary, and belittling her efforts to find a niche in this watchful town. Over time she befriends Justine, a wealthy neighbour who is viewed with perplexity for being comfortable in her own skin.

“she’d discovered her true self […] peeling away the carefully wrought costume designed by her parents to find what glimmered beneath.”

“Gone were the scare tactics that indicted her body as a biological enemy, routine strategies of degradation that made her nearly desperate for a partner, someone who could love even her.”

George is wary of the changes in his wife. His method of dealing with people who do not follow his agenda is to ruthlessly gain the upper hand in their relationship, at whatever cost. He sets out to take from Justine as he has succeeded in doing with his wife.

The Hale boys are offered casual work by the Clares and through them we get to view life through the eyes of the younger generation of the town. The eldest Hale, Eddy, is involved with a young waitress whom he works alongside at a town inn. When George notices the girl, she too is drawn into his web.

The plot is one of life, of the dramas played out behind the closed doors of a marriage, of the intrigues of the disillusioned and the issues that haunt from upbringing. At the core of this story is George, a man capable of doing what many may secretly consider but rarely act upon. The author takes the reader inside the heads of each of the key characters, to rattle around amongst their dreams, ambitions, and day to day anxieties. The brooding undercurrents of the tale penetrate as they go through the motions of work, home life and socialising. Underneath the facade of acceptable behaviour there exist strangled lives.

The lyrical prose and imagery make this a beautiful read yet the pace is that of a thriller. From the off we know that a tragedy will unfold. There is evil lurking in plain sight yet so many look away, unwilling to pry for fear of what they may find and the personal repercussions if exposed. So much is endured despite all futures being unknowable.

I loved this book for the quality of the writing, the intriguing exploration of the secrets kept through inculcation. The plot development makes it a page turner but it is the portrayal of people and their myriad complexities that truly impressed.

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

Guest Post by Lyn Farrell, author of ‘The Wacky Man’

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When Lucy at Legend Press invited me to take part in the blog tour for ‘The Wacky Man’ I had not yet read the book. I was told that it was “very hard hitting, fiction but part of it autobiographically inspired.” I was intrigued but also a little nervous given the subject matter (child abuse). The author told me that some agents had rejected it because of the brutality, but that she needed to give a voice to the voiceless, the child/teenager at its heart.

When I finished the book I immediately emailed Lyn to say “Wow!” Yes, it is hard hitting but what a fantastic read (my review is here). I am today delighted to have the opportunity to share with you this guest post which gives some insight into why the author wrote as she did.  

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Books saved me. They got me through a traumatic childhood and ever since have been my anchor and joy in life. It’s no wonder then that fiction holds a special place in my soul. I think the seeds of wanting to write could well have been planted the minute I learned to read the Mr Men books, particularly my favourite, Mr Dizzy. I can still feel the delight I got from entering his world only to shed tears when poor Mr Dizzy was bullied and then, finally, to laugh again when he triumphed. I wanted to create more worlds like this to escape into.

I’ve carried ‘The Wacky Man’ around with me for about thirty years. I ignored it through self-doubt for about twenty then finally gave it a shot and took another ten years to write it. On reflection most of that final decade was spent learning how to write – vast amounts of prose that never made it to the book – so that I could, at long last, transfer what I held in thought onto the written page. I know it’s a brutal read. There was no way around that without changing the essential essence of the book.

The world in this particular novel had to be bleak so that readers get a sense of what it is like to be a battered child. It wasn’t an easy novel to write either. It is inspired by real events, real horror, real violence. Many times I’d be overcome with sadness or anger and have to stop working and there is one section of it that I still can’t read without crying. It needed to be written, not only for me, but for all children who live through the nightmare of violence at home. I’m proud that I managed it. And I’m absolutely proud of my sisters and brothers who have encouraged me since I finally admitted I was writing it (I kept my writing a secret from everyone except my mentor until it was almost finished).

Writing the novel was also difficult in the technical sense. I’ve had sleepless nights and fruitless days where words disobeyed and refused to line up in the right order and when events got muddled up time wise and I had to rework whole chapters to sort it out. I’ve worked myself to exhaustion at times, fuelled by too much sugar and not enough vitamins and I’ve sat for weeks on end without adequate exercise just because I couldn’t leave a chapter alone until it was ‘better’. However, I’ve also been extremely fortunate that the amazing Clio Gray, herself an award winning author, was my novel mentor. We met online by chance and she supported me for the last 2 years of writing the book. She taught me so much about how to hone my writing and when I lost faith she demanded that I kept going. Without her, I wouldn’t have finished it and I certainly wouldn’t have known about the Luke Bitmead Bursary Award.

From winning the award onwards it’s been a wonderfully exciting, and at times surreal, journey to publication. And though I thought I’d only write one novel, I’m currently addicted to writing. The novel I’m working on at the moment is about the healing power of unusual friendship. I hope it turns out as well as The Wacky Man but I also hope it doesn’t take as long. I don’t think Legend Press could wait that long.

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The Wacky Man Blog Tour

‘The Wacky Man’ is published by Legend Press and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire

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We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire, by Jules Grant, tells the story of an all female gang of drug dealers in Manchester. In getting to know these women the reader gains an understanding of their lives and why they live as they do. To those of us born into privilege, by which I mean a life that offers the possibility of shelter, sustenance and safety within the law, this is a rare opportunity to gain some empathy for those who are often regarded as the dregs of society.

Donna has had a tough upbringing. She lost her mother to drugs and her father to prison, suffering a short period in care before escaping to the streets to fend for herself. She now leads the Bronte Close Gang alongside her second in command, Carla. Donna is god-mother to Carla’s ten year old daughter, Aurora, a child who considers herself streetwise and who her mother is trying to protect.

Both Donna and Carla are gay. They prefer the members of their gang to be likewise inclined as it removes the danger and complications of interference from the men they must deal with on the streets, who treat their women as property.

Donna has built up a business dealing drugs in the city’s clubs, successfully hiding her nefarious income by laundering it through a cleaning company. The Brontes have a quid pro quo relationship with the all male gangs who work the surrounding turf. When Carla falls for one of the gang member’s woman, just as a police operation takes out the top tier of the major players in their scene, she endangers her associate’s lives. Donna realises that she no longer knows who amongst the men she can trust to assist.

The Brontes are not the only all female gang. When Carla is shot the women agree to combine resources and set up a sting operation to flush out the men they believe are to blame. Complications arise when Aurora goes AWOL. Donna believes that the greatest danger to the girl is if she falls into the hands of Social Services, having suffered this fate herself.

The author succeeds in showing how law abiding citizens look to these women. They despise the southern students who pass through Manchester to attend the university. They cannot comprehend what most would consider normal, family life as this is beyond anything they have experienced. These women fight to survive, accepting the danger as necessary if they are to live autonomously.

The story is raw and unflinching in its depiction of life in the underbelly. By telling the story from Donna and Aurora’s points of view they are presented as humane in their skewed world where choice is limited to fight or go down. Their hardness is a veneer, carefully cultivated to enable them to survive.

The story demands sympathy for those who most would deride. Such people would mock this sympathy and the lack of understanding obvious in any solutions proposed. This alone makes the book challenging to read because their are no easy answers to a situation generations in the making.

A fast moving thriller that lays bare a way of life that will continue to exist unless a cure can be found for the underlying causes. It is depressingly clear that within a society which prefers to punish, this is unlikely to occur.

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

Book Review: In Her Wake

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In Her Wake, by Amanda Jennings, is a psychological thriller that crosses genres into literary and women’s fiction. If, like me, you dislike pigeon holing books then this is a good example of why doing so can limit the potential outreach of what is a great read. It has well developed, believable characters and a plot that has breadth and depth. The tension required for a thriller is there in spades but this is also a story about people and the importance of family. It will leave the reader pondering well beyond the final page.

The protagonist is Bella, a compliant young librarian married to an older man who wants them to have a baby. Her husband likes to look after her. His need to control every aspect of her life appears creepy but Bella’s acceptance of it becomes more understandable when the details of her childhood are revealed.

Bella was sheltered from the outside world by her devoted if neurotic mother. She was home schooled, rarely permitted to leave their home where doors were triple bolted and curtains remained drawn. Links with the outside world were strictly limited; television was forbidden. Bella’s father, a doctor, was a kind but distant parent whose main concern was protecting his wife from the upsets which caused her to self harm.

The story opens with Bella’s return to the family home for her mother’s funeral. Her father has something he needs to tell her but cannot find the words. Following his death Bella finds a letter revealing that their close family unit was a sham. Twenty-five years ago her parents committed a heinous crime, the consequences of which led to their need to raise her as they did.

Bella is grieving, not just for the parents she now feels she did not know, but for the person she could have been if they had not acted as they did. She travels to Cornwall to confront her past, to try to reclaim what was stolen from her.

Life is rarely simple; people are never solely good or bad. Throughout her secluded childhood Bella was surrounded by love. So long as she remained compliant her parents and then her husband provided for her every need. Now she discovers the harsher realities of what could have been. Her life of ease, albeit in a gilded cage, came at a terrible cost both to those who were given no choice and to those who were complicit.

The opening chapters of this tale were pacy and powerful. I then felt some impatience with subsequent chapters in the first third of the book as they did not quickly satisfy my desire to find out what would happen next. It was necessary to understand the nuances of Bella’s life up to this point. The descriptions of place beautifully evoked the majesty and danger of the Cornish landscape which became an integral part of the story. I was still relieved when the pace picked up. It did not then relent until the well executed denouement tied up the many threads.

The narrative probes the meaning of family and how expectations of the roles within it shape character and relationships. It is also about the complexity of love. What an individual is attracted to in another may not be what the loved one wishes to be themselves.

I enjoyed Bella’s development but, for me, Dawn was the hero. The contrast between the experiences of these two young women offers an interesting exploration into the importance of nature vs nurture.

A well written book with a multi layered plot populated by believable characters. This was an enjoyable and satisfying read.

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

3P6A0204  In Her Wake Blog tour

This review is the penultimate stop on the In Her Wake blog tour. Do check out the other posts in the tour, detailed above.

This coming weekend, Amanda will be a featured author at Newcastle Noir.

Gig Review: Crime Night at the Rooftop Book Club

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Not being a resident of London I look at the wealth of book events happening in our capital city with a touch of envy. Seeing pictures of all those happy people getting together to celebrate the work of the authors whose books make my life so much better is delightful, but does make me feel somewhat wistful that I can so rarely join them.

When I read online last year about a new initiative from publishers Headline, the Rooftop Book Club, I started to dream that one day I too would stand on the terrace of Carmelite House (the headquarters of Hachette UK) and enjoy a book event whilst gazing out over the Thames. Yesterday this became a reality. The line up for their collaboration with Crime Files was enough to persuade me to make the journey, an eight hour round trip as it turned out, and be a part of something rather than watch from afar.

I attended the evening with my daughter, a student in the city and also a writer (fan fiction rather than a blog). Prior to the event we explored the area as tourists, braving rain, hail and snow between the sunshine. It was one of those days when the British weather appeared unable to decide what to do. Thankfully when the time came to climb to the top of 50 Victoria Embankment the only inclement weather was a stiff breeze. We could cope with that.

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We were welcomed with a glass of wine and had time to venture out onto the terrace and mingle with other attendees before the event kicked off. I recognised a few faces but all seemed engrossed in conversation so I contented myself with playing ‘spot the book celebrity’. The organisor, Caitlin Raynor, then invited us to take our seats and the guest authors were introduced.

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The first panel consisted of James Law, Claire McGowan and Elly Griffiths discussing ‘Sense of Place: Region as Character’. Chaired by the Daily Telegraph’s crime reviewer, Jake Kerridge, this turned into a fascinating discussion during which it became apparent that crime writers like to locate their stories within a broadly defined ‘closed room’ but that this could be anywhere. You could see new ideas for plots forming in the author’s heads as alternatives were suggested.

Each explained their reasons for choosing particular locations – Elly had fond memories of Norfolk from childhood and is inspired by the archaeology, Claire wished to write Ireland out of her system, James worked on submarines for many years and when the idea of setting a story on one was suggested he thought it was a grand idea.

The authors offered the audience an insight into the way a story is conceived. They agreed that a fictional place offers more scope for creative writing, and also avoids the possibility of being sued for misrepresentation!

There followed a short break during which time I helped myself to a second glass of wine and returned to the terrace just as the sun was sinking below the horizon. London from this vantage point was looking very beautiful despite the cold.

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The second panel of the evening consisted of Antonia Hodgson, Sarah Hilary and Janet Ellis discussing ‘London: Past and Present’. Chaired by author, journalist and Times reviewer Antonia Senior they were quizzed on their views of the city and how important it was to their plots. As their novels are set over different historical time periods this offered an insight into how period can be a factor in the detail, but that people are much the same.

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I enjoyed their musings on research and how, for them, Google can be more useful than personal experience of a place. They prefer to allow the plot to lead and characters to develop rather than fretting over factual detail. There will always be a reader pointing out something they believe is incorrect.

The evening concluded with thanks and a show of appreciation from the rapt audience before the authors made themselves available to sign copies of their books. As I had a bus to catch across London I felt compelled to hurry away, pausing only to admire the night time skyline.

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I am grateful to all who made this fun and fascinating evening possible. I may now enjoy the contents of the generous goody bag that was given to each attendee. My tote bag collection is growing.

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