Book Review: Case Study

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“This was what people did. They sat in pubs drinking beer and gin and listening to each other talk. They pretended to be interested and then took their own turn at talking. It was difficult to see the point of any of it.”

If you enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, His Bloody Project, then you are going to love Case Study. Set in the 1960s it explores what Shakespeare expressed so well:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

In the preface, the author explains that the tale he is about to tell came about when he was offered a series of notebooks written by a young woman whose supposedly successful sister, Veronica, died of suicide. The woman blames a notorious psychotherapist her sister had been seeing, without the family’s knowledge, for Veronica’s unexpected action and sets out to gather evidence. The author had written about this man, Collins Braithwaite, in a blog post and the current owner of the notebooks believed they would be of interest.

The story is then structured as a variety of entries written in appropriate literary styles and compositions. The contents of the notebooks are reproduced along with key pages from books written by Braithwaite. There are also chapters that tell the man’s life story.

The young woman starts her quest by making an appointment with Braithwaite under an assumed name, Rebecca Smyth. She does not wish to reveal that she is Veronica’s sister. Having little knowledge of mental health issues, she assumes that Braithwaite’s clients must be ‘nuts’. This assumption injects humour into the narrative as she gives herself leave to behave in ways her carefully controlled and repressed normal self would never countenance. As Rebecca, she will flirt with a handsome admirer and become inebriated. She also finds herself talking freely to Braithwaite about her past, something that surprises her and makes her think this is why people pay a therapist for their time. Braithwaite states of her:

“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone quite as hollow as you”

Braithwaite was a contemporary of R. D. Laing and railed against how the mentally ill were being treated at the time – drugged and electrocuted more than listened to. Despite agreeing on many issues, the two men were not interested in collaboration. Each thought their own work deserved the greater recognition, along with the wider respect this would garner.

Braithwaite gained fame through notoriety. He took on clients to earn money and provide cases he could write about in his books. Veronica appears in one of these under the name Dorothy. When her sister reads the account given of Dorothy’s relationship with her family she dismisses it. This was not the Veronica she had known and often derided. She could not accept that her sister may have differed from her assumptions.

As the story progresses, Rebecca Smyth and Collins Braithwaite emerge as fully formed characters, their thoughts and behaviours being at least as ‘nuts’ as those imagined people Rebecca initially tried to emulate. Perhaps if one looks closely enough at the life decisions made by any supposedly sane person, societal behaviours and constraints make little sense in terms of seeking contentment.

The author writes with skill and verve from the points of view of both men and women. There is only the one jarring inclusion. The narrator in the notebooks writes of her time at a girls’ school where sex was discussed but remained mysterious:

“At St Paul’s there was frequently exciting talk about The Penis, this chiefly concerned its dimensions”

Personally, I have never known any girls or women discuss the size of a man’s penis, although plenty of males have expressed interest in the subject. In the author’s favour, he avoids bizarre mentions of women’s breasts in descriptions of sexual encounters.

There are cringeworthy moments when Rebecca is out drinking with her admirer, Tom. These add flavour to her acknowledged difficulty in making conversation. Mostly the story builds on the emotional repression those at the time lived under, and how some strained and suffered at the behavioural shackles placed on them. Braithwaite may have pushed at the boundaries but even he could not fully escape what had shaped him as a youngster.

The young woman lives with her widowed father and has no particular wish to change this situation. She foresees for herself a future looking after him. When he encourages her to find a job, he then takes on a housekeeper his daughter soon grows jealous of. It is only when she invents Rebecca that she starts to question how she would choose to behave if freed from the constraints ingrained by her late mother.

There is much name dropping as real people coexist alongside those invented by the author. Rebecca relates many tall tales of encounters with the famous that Tom laps up. This adds to the sense that the young woman behind this mask is not as content with her lot as she has convinced herself.

The various strands come together effectively, leaving the reader questioning the fictions we create about ourselves and others. Even within close families people are unlikely to be understood, thereby building resentment, often unacknowledged. Social interactions are indeed a performance. Personas evolve but always around the foundation of upbringing.

A wise and witty portrayal of attitudes towards non conformists – how they appal but are also envied. This is impressively addictive storytelling, with breadth and depth, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

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

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Gig Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet in Bath

Having read His Bloody Project last weekend (you may read my review here) I availed myself of the opportunity to meet the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, at Toppings in Bath on Monday. Graeme talked about all three of his books including his latest, The Accident on the A35, which I purchased at the event. I look forward to reading and reviewing it in the coming weeks.

A35 is a sequel to Graeme’s debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Both are set in the unremarkable, small French town of Saint-Louis on the Swiss French border. They were inspired by a visit to the town on which Saint-Louis is based a decade before Adèle was written. The cafe at their centre exists and has not changed in that time – Graeme returned as part of his research for A35 and told us even the menu has remained the same.

All three of Graeme’s books share a playfulness of form. They are written as if true with Adèle and A35 presented as translations. When Adèle was released a bookseller sold it to customers as a newly discovered French work that Graeme had translated into English, as is claimed on the fly page. He felt somewhat hoodwinked on discovering this was untrue. Of course, all works of fiction are untrue. Readers want to believe that stories could be real, to enter their fictional world.

The remote, mundane places Graeme writes about enable a feeling of claustrophobia to be explored. The central characters are young men who consider life to be better elsewhere. Living in a backwater, where middle aged residents treat them as children and will ask after their parents, Graeme prefers not to dwell on the key event – a death. He focuses instead on the effect of living where they do on the characters psyches and what goes on in their heads. The drama is the development of these young men, not who did the killing.

The structures employed are not new, they existed in 19th century fiction. By including documents and changing points of view it is possible to employ unreliable narrators. Graeme spoke of the apparatus of truth, that everyone is an unreliable narrator. Memory is partial, biased and selective. The reader must consider for themselves what is actually happening.

A member of the audience asked Graeme about the effect of his Booker Prize shortlisting. His Bloody Project was rejected many times before being picked up by Saraband, a small Scottish independent publisher. The initial print run was 1000 copies which were selling slowly until the Booker longlist was announced. From there Graeme’s life as a writer changed. He did point out that not all listed books do so well – his outsold even the eventual winner. It gained exposure for being with a small publisher, and a crime novel on the Booker list, although Saraband shouldered the risk in deciding how many copies to reprint. Sales of a book depend so much on visibility, on whether Waterstones will stock, on interest in foreign rights. The Booker Prize listing helps by putting books on tables at the front of shops for a time. Graeme is happy that His Bloody Project continues to sell. With digital and overseas markets he has recently found an agent to deal with the complexities of such deals.

Another audience member asked how he wrote his young protagonists, if he drew on personal experience. Graeme does not have children but as a reader has a view on what is engaging. He did not wish to write historical novels, or to present his protagonists as victims. He understands that seventeen year old boys, in whatever era or place, will be developing an interest in sex and pushing boundaries. The structure of his novels was fun to write but the vividness of the setting and making characters relatable adds the depth.

Graeme shared a few anecdotes: Adèle is currently being translated into French, he is unsure how that will work as it is already presented as a translation; His Bloody Project includes a glossary of Highland words which provide a challenge for any translator; he received an email from a resident of the small town on which Saint-Louis is based. Worried he had caused offence with his portrayal he was relieved to be told he had captured it perfectly. Graeme pointed out that from the point of view of his seventeen year old character he had to present the town negatively as the boy was eager to escape.

Asked if there were any plans for film or TV adaptations we were told rights had been sold but who knew if this would be taken any further. Graeme would be happy to wait a few years for this to happen as such things change readers perceptions of what a story should be.

When I presented my copies of his books for signing I was pleased to discover Graeme is as friendly as this frank and open discussion suggested. I am delighted with the inscriptions he provided, including these very appropriate stamps.

   

   

 

Book Review: His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of three brutal murders in a remote community of the Scottish Highlands in 1869. A young man by the name of Roderick Macrae is arrested and stands trial for the crimes. He readily admits that he carried out the attacks but shows no remorse. All that stands between him and the gallows is the question of his sanity.

The unusual structure of the book is inspired. In the preface the author talks of discovering documents from the case while researching his own family history. He then reproduces witness statements from those who had known Roddy throughout his life, taken soon after the killings. There follows an account written by the accused at the behest of his advocate, a sympathetic and forward thinking man who, unlike many at the time, does not appear to regard the Highlanders as a lesser species.

Roddy was born and raised in the township of Culchie, a settlement of nine dwellings in the far north west of Scotland, whose occupants eked out a living working the crofts adjacent to their homes. As a child he attended church and school at neighbouring Camusterrach. Further along the road was Applecross where an Inn and Big House provided for Lord Middleton who owned the land. These and the surrounding hills were as far as Roddy had ever travelled.

The nine dwellings in Culchie varied in style and comfort. Roddy’s was crudely built and housed animals as well as the family. His mother had died in childbirth a year previously and this had badly affected those remaining. Despite his academic ability, Roddy was required to leave school and work on the land as soon as was allowed. His elder sister took their mother’s place at home, including caring for the younger siblings. Their father believed that all transgressions could be dealt with by viciously beating the offender.

Roddy’s account details his upbringing and events that lead to his decision to kill. The family’s life is hard, made moreso by a neighbour who harbours a grudge. When a member of this family is granted a position of authority by those tasked with managing Lord Middleton’s estate, they use it to undermine what little autonomy the Macrae’s have retained.

Following Roddy’s account there are short medical reports written by doctors who examine the young man while he is incarcerated at Inverness Gaol. Although there are scientific truths in many of their observations, they highlight the low opinion held at the time of those who lived in poverty, especially those who turned to crime. The doctors believe themselves not just superior but born that way. They view the harsh living conditions of the Highlanders as all they deserve.

The account of the trial makes up the remainder of the book. As with all good trials, this throws some doubt into the narrative that has thus far been built. Detail is added as to how Roddy was viewed locally. Incidents recounted by witnesses introduce uncertainty as to his motivations.

The epilogue is short but shows how reporting of heinous crimes has always been sensationalised with little regard for the truth. The story is a tragedy, but for more than just the murders.

It is a rare treat to come across a book that is so intriguing and compelling. It explores complex issues yet is entirely accessible. There is much to ponder around how difficult it is to puncture individual and societal preconceptions. A riveting story that I recommend you read.

His Bloody Project is published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband.

Book Review: The Last Treasure Hunt

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The Last Treasure Hunt, by Jane Alexander, explores the lure of fame and the capricious nature of celebrity. It lays bare the personal cost, and the impact on family and friends, when one man succumbs to the draw and deceits of a publicity dependent lifestyle.

Thirty year old Campbell Johnstone works as a barman in a rundown Glasgow pub. He shares a decrepit flat, owned by his financially successful brother, with his cousin Roddy who is studying for a PhD. When Roddy is offered a paid fellowship in America it hits Campbell that all of his family and friends are making something of their lives, all except him. In a maudlin state he Googles the name of the most outwardly successful of the lot of them – Oscar nominated actress and old childhood friend, Eve Sadler.

The gossip hungry internet informs Campbell that the Hollywood star is currently filming at a location in his home city. Campbell and Roddy decide to gatecrash the site and, somewhat to their surprise, succeed in getting through. Eve recognises Campbell and agrees to give him the number of her hotel, where they meet for a drink. A careless update on social media is followed by a brief kiss, and the trajectory of their lives is changed.

Campbell is thrown into the limelight. For a brief period every tabloid newspaper is clamouring for his story, doorstopping his flat and his parents’ home in the hope of gleaning exclusives on Campbell and Eve’s relationship. Their mothers had been friends and the families had holidayed together when the children were young. The papers see the potential for a lucrative love story of the sort their readers will lap up.

Campbell makes the decision to play along, selling exclusive rights to the lie the papers seek. His burgeoning bank balance enables him to paper over the cracks forming in his friendships as a result of his actions. He employs an agent, moves to London, and begins to believe in his own worth. It is only when he veers off the course dictated by his relationship with Eve, to establish a reason why he should be regarded in his own right, that he realises how fragile this gilded lifestyle is.

Although straplined ‘A Modern Media Morality Tale’, this story is not preachy. Campbell is foolish but all too believable. He allows himself to be sucked into an industry created to feed the insatiable appetites of a public hungry for real life fairy stories, where the players are either heroes or villains, a role must be played, and attention spans are short. He is naive in imagining that his part is anything more than temporary. He suppresses thoughts of the cost to others, the hurt he inflicts in order to fan the flame of his fame.

I enjoyed the structure of the story, the way snapshots of the childhood holidays were interspersed with the contemporary action. The author has drawn the petty cruelties and self centredness of children to perfection. The cast is ordinary, neither poor nor rich, overly successful nor downtrodden. It is conceivable that this could happen to someone each reader may know.

The catalyst for the action and the denouement required some literary licence but worked well enough. Campbell was foolish but not evil, insensitive but not mindfully cruel. It would be good to think that he could learn from this experience and be more satisfied with what he has. Perhaps that is harder than it seems for all.

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

Author Interview: Moira McPartlin

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Today is publication day for Ways of the Doomed, the first in a planned trilogy of YA novels by Moira McPartlin. I have read some cracking YA fiction and this was no exception (you can check out my review here). I was therefore delighted when, as she prepared to release her latest book into the wild, Moira found the time to consider a few of my questions on her experiences as a writer. I hope that you find her answers as interesting as I did.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Moira McPartlin.

Where do you typically write?

Anywhere I can find a seat. Also it depends on what I’m working on. I always write the first draft in longhand. I choose fancy notebooks and find good quality pencils or pens. Notebooks are the greatest small pleasure in the world! I love to write in bed first thing in the morning. I’m most creative then. I live in a small village, so a trip to the local café can be unproductive if every second person joins you for a chat, but I often travel to the city to café-write. Even if there is music playing in the background I find cafés inspirational spaces.

Like many writers I suffer from backache, so I switch seats often when working for long stretches on a keyboard. I have a sunroom that looks out to the garden and the surrounding countryside – this is my favourite spot. Light and nature are so important to me. I like to seize every moment of it while I can. If it’s even slightly bright and dry I work in the sunroom. If it’s rainy and cold, which it often is in Scotland, I retreat to my small study where it is quiet and warm, although very dark.

Blogging and emails are done in the evening curled up on my sofa in front of a wood-burning stove. The common denominator here is my need to be cosy, comfortable and warm.

Tell us about your writing process.

I’m in the middle of writing my fourth novel (my first is buried under the bed). If I’d been asked this question a couple of years ago I’d have said I didn’t have a process, but I now realise I do.

I always start with a couple of big ideas or one simple story and create one or two characters to drive the story along. Then I embark on a month of writing (longhand) 2000 words a day. I often do this in November to coincide with NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I never know what’s going to happen to my story. I let the characters take over: it’s fun and liberating to know you can write rubbish if you want and no one is going to judge you for it.

After the month is up I have notebooks filled with 60,000 words or so and a pretty good idea of what the book will be about. I don’t read it back but stick the notebooks in a drawer and continue with whatever project I’m supposed to be working on.

When the time comes to begin the novel I have a head start of 60,000 words to type up and on balance most of the words are not that bad. This wild approach normally gives me about two-thirds of the novel and I work on those, redrafting and editing, until I am ready to write the ending, which has been gestating in my head. The time I know a novel is alive is when I can’t stop thinking about it day and night. That is a wonderful feeling.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

I have a file filled with almost a hundred rejections from publishers and agents. I kept them all!

Some are encouraging, most are standard. With my first novel (the buried one) I had mostly standard rejections. With my debut novel, The Incomers, I knew I had something special. The full manuscript was requested by many publishers. Some were interested but were scared off by the racial content. Eventually Fledgling Press were brave enough to take it and they published it to critical acclaim in 2012.

Ways of the Doomed had a different journey. Saraband saw an early version, recognised its potential and gave me great editorial advice. Meanwhile I half-heartedly sent it out to some English publishers and received quite a bit of interest and positive rejections. I always wanted Saraband to publish so resisted sending to other Scottish Publishers. Saraband continued to provide me with editorial input even before the contract was signed and we are now both happy with the result.

In what ways do you promote your work?

Both Fledgling and Saraband are small independent publishers without the budgets larger companies can dedicate to marketing campaigns. I’ve always embraced the responsibility for promoting my books and work hard with my publishers to maximise my exposure.

Before The Incomers was published I contacted every book festival in the UK and every bookseller in Scotland to ask for an event, or even just a mention. I contacted all the publications who had even a tenuous connection with the subjects in the books – I even wrote a letter to Land Rover Monthly because Land Rover is mentioned twenty times in the book. They said they would publish the letter, but I don’t know if they did.

Before I began writing full time I worked for a large global corporation and that gave me a huge address list of good friends. Ebooks paid off for me here because no matter where they were in the world they could buy a copy. One pal was working in Kazakhstan and downloaded The Incomers the minute he received my mail.

I used social media, mostly Facebook, as much as I felt I could get away with before turning people off.

Ways of the Doomed is aimed at young adults as well as adults and I am working hard to do things differently.

Last year I joined the International organisation SCBWI (Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators) and began to build a network of writers. The organisation is fantastic for providing training for all things promotional. They made me realise I was only scratching the surface of social media.

Ways of the Doomed is a good read for schools so I created a Teacher’s guide linked to the various curricula and have been systematically contacting local authorities, libraries and schools to introduce them to me and the novel.

During the publication period I am spending two weeks in London and have ten promotional events planned for that time. I can’t wait to meet some of my readers!

What are some of your current projects?

As well as the promotional work I am working on book two of the Sun Song Trilogy and thinking about the themes for book three which I plan to blitz during NaNoWriMo in November.

I am also an active member of Scottish PEN, an International organisation that campaigns for the rights of writers oppressed or imprisoned by extreme regimes. Through PEN I have been working with a group of female refugees and asylum seekers to produce new writing. I have been neglecting the ladies in the past few months but hope to get them involved in an event in September.

Where can readers find you?

Blog – www.moiramcpartlin.com

Twitter – @moiramcpartlin

Tumblr – theweemcp  (Sun Song)

Instagram – moiramcpartlin

Snapchat – moira.mcpartlin

Moira McPartlin is a Scot with Irish roots. Although born in the Scottish Borders, she was brought up in a Fife mining village. She has led an interesting life as a mother and successful business woman. Moira made a big impact with her debut novel The Incomers, which tells the tale of a West African woman moving to a small town in 1960s Scotland. It was shortlisted for the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and was a critical success. Moira is also a prolific writer of short stories and poetry, which have been published in a wide variety of literary magazines. She currently lives in Stirlingshire, Scotland.

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Book Review: Ways of the Doomed

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Ways of the Doomed, by Moira McPartlin, is a YA novel set in a dystopian future where society has been divided into Privileged and Native based on genetics. The natives serve the privileged and it is expected that they be treated as less than human, never referred to by name, and disposed of if they fail to perform as required. Lives are strictly controlled and constantly observed. Transgressors from both castes are quickly removed, never to be heard from again.

The protagonist, Sorlie, is the only child of military parents whom he believes are well regarded. When they are away on missions Sorlie is cared for by the family native. He has observed that his parents treat her with frowned upon kindness. At sixteen his concerns are for the quality of his gaming machine and his status amongst his peers at the Academy where he is educated. He has learned not to question the status quo.

All of this changes when he is forced to flee the family home and live with his grandfather who runs an island penal colony. In the days leading up to this shocking transition both his father and their native had tried to explain some of his personal history along with the truth behind the setting up of the societal structure in which they live. It is all too much for Sorlie to take in and he struggles to contain his anger and despair at his sudden change in circumstances.

On the island his freedom is curtailed and he slowly begins to understand the horrors of the place in which he now resides. With the help of a prisoner assigned to assist with his education he hatches a plan to escape. His problems escalate when he realises that those he trusts have a more audacious plan in which he is expected to play an integral part. The new world order may have eradicated religion but it has been replaced by a different kind of belief.

The tension builds nicely as the story progresses. I felt Sorlie’s irritation as he was treated as a child and then expected to accept the adult plans without question. It is rarely clear who can be trusted or whose side they are on.

This is the first book in a planned trilogy. Although it stands alone it sets the scene for further action and intrigue as the political landscape of this world and its factions are revealed. An enjoyable read and proof once again that YA novels can be appreciated by all. I look forward to reading the sequels.

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

A literary treasure hunt

Today I am delighted to be revealing the eighth clue in the Jane Alexander Treasure Hunt.

Read on to find out how you can join in the fun.

Clue 8

An act of violent vengeance sees

A local gangster plummet

Decades on, a similar fate

Awaited this brutalist summit.

#treasurehunt

 

How the hunt works:

  • Each clue refers to a landmark or iconic location in a film. The landmark/location is the answer – when you figure it out, make a note of it!
  • (If you need a hand, check out the #treasurehunt hashtag on Twitter or Instagram for a hint to the landmark’s location…)
  • Clues will be revealed by some fantastic book bloggers from March 26th until April 21st. Keep checking back on Jane Alexander’s dedicated treasure hunt page (click Join the hunt) or on the #treasurehunt hashtag for links and new clues.
  • When all the clues are revealed, the first letter of every answer will make an anagram. Solve the anagram and you have your final answer!
  • Email this answer and all the landmarks you figured out to hermes@saraband.net by April 30th to be entered into the prize draw. Two entrants will win a signed copy of The Last Treasure Hunt – and if you’ve guessed the most landmarks and locations, you’ll win a goodie bag and something special from Jane personally! On top of that you’ll get bragging rights on Twitter and we’ll publicly dub you queen/king sleuth.
  • Good luck!

 

The  Last  Treasure  Hunt  –  a  modern  media  morality  tale      

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At  the  age  of  thirty,  Campbell  Johnstone  is  a  failure.  He’s stuck  behind  the  bar  of  a   shabby  pub,  watching  from  the  sidelines  while  everyone  else  makes  a  success  of  their   lives.  The  most  visible  is  Eve  Sadler,  a  childhood  friend  and  rising  Hollywood  star. When  Campbell  tries  to  rekindle  their  relationship,  he  longs  for  the  glitter  of  her   success  to  rub  off  on  him,  but  a  single  shocking  night  –  the  novel’s  shattering  twist   delivered  with  a  knockout  punch  –  changes  everything.  Campbell  is  about  to  discover   the  bittersweet  taste  of  fame,  and  in  the  process,  struggle  to  save  his  soul  and   overcome  his  own  self-­‐delusion.   The  Last  Treasure  Hunt  explores  our  obsession  with  fame  and  celebrity  with  great   intelligence  and  sly  wit  –  it’s  a  modern  media  morality  tale  with  bite.

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Jane Alexander’s short stories and creative non-fiction have been widely published in a number of anthologies and literary magazines. A winner of two major national story competitions, and the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council New Writers bursary, Jane is also a lecturer in creative writing at the Open University.