Book Review: The Speech

The Speech, by Andrew Smith, is set over a ten day period in April 1968 during which Enoch Powell, as local MP, gave his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. It is written from a variety of points of view thereby enabling the reader to gain a better understand of each of the protagonists. The era is evoked with a perceptive wit, whilst the story told – the machinations surrounding a Jamaican immigrant’s wrongful arrest for GBH – reminds how little certain people have progressed.

“He moved on to the effects on the “native population” of the granting of rights to so many immigrants – people were confronted by crowded maternity wards and their children forced to study in overflowing classrooms. Their neighbourhoods were being transformed against their will. He applied words to the British public such as “defeated” and attributed to them the feeling that they were “unwanted”. Powerful words […] painted a scene of utter degredation of ordinary native citizens as a result of immigration”

The tale opens with some background to Powell’s ancestry and upbringing, wryly salient given the opinions he developed. By 1968 he had been Wolverhampton South West’s MP for eighteen years and was serving in a shadow cabinet led by Ted Heath, who he wished to usurp. Powell’s constituency home is in a neighbourhood becoming popular with an increasing immigrant population and he is concerned about the effect this will have on property value.

Powell is supported in his local Tory party office by the intelligent and loyal Mrs Georgina Verington-Delaunay, known as Georgy. Whilst she acknowledges the strengths of Powell’s work ethic and values, she is increasingly disquieted by his beligerance. His regard for the days of Empire and conviction that England should not change frustrate her efforts to demonstrate the benefits of enabling recent arrivals to integrate.

Meanwhile, Wolverhampton art student, Frank McCann, is in his favourite bar examining a set of photographic prints taken at the previous day’s student demonstration in support of racial equality. The bartender points out that every face in his photos is white, suggesting that the images would be more powerful if a darker skinned person were portrayed. Frank accepts a wager from a couple of fellow students, disparaging his talents, that he will successfully doctor a print to replace one of the marchers with the image of a Jamaican friend, Nelson Clark, in a manner that makes the change undetectable. This challenge sets in motion a series of events that result in Nelson’s incarceration. Frank, with the help of his strong minded girlfriend, Christine, must then try to find a way to persuade the police, who are all too eager to prove Nelson guilty, that the photo they are using as evidence is a fake.

Racism, intolerance and hatred are never going to be comfortable subjects to read about but the warmth and humour of the narrative, and the breadth of characters populating each page, make this an engaging tale. Even Powell comes across with a degree of poignancy, notwithstanding his damaging rhetoric. It is sad that, despite improvements in many other areas, his ilk are still being listened to today.

The author uses dialogue to expand on arguments which, although succinct and well constructed, did not always segue with plot progression. The denouement relied on a stroke of luck, admittedly a familiar device. These were minor niggles in a work that offers an entertaining story as well as an evocative history of a period this country should by now have learned from. This is an intelligent and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Electric Souk

Electric Souk, by Rose McGinty, tells the story of a young, single, Irish woman’s experiences working in Arabia during the period of regional uprisings known as the Arab Spring. It is a story of expatriates, culture clashes, clandestine friendships and betrayals. In the simmering heat of a desert city, nothing is quite as it first appears.

Aisling Finn leaves the grey and damp of Ireland following the breakdown of a lengthy love affair. Drawn by the lure of sunshine and a lucrative contract she ignores her mother’s warnings of the potential dangers in a fiercely segregated, veiled land. Her Grandaddy understands Aisling’s need for adventure.

‘Woman, let her go will you.’ Grandaddy roared from his chair by the stove, ‘I remember when I was a young’ un my mother, and her mother before her, were always covered from head to toe in black. My mother was a clever woman, but she was dead behind the eyes from peeling spuds all day. We had our own Taliban, those fecking Christian Brothers.’

Aisling takes some time to acclimatise to expatriate life with its raucous parties, illicit activities and conspicuous wealth. Many of the woman look on her with disdain while the men veer between charm and sleaze. Although her work at the National Health Board is well regarded by colleagues, she discovers that powerful rivalries are ubiquitous and vicious. With everyone there to make money, trust is a rare commodity.

Aisling wishes to experience life outside the gilded city but requires male escorts and female chaperones if she is to stay within the law. Those who offer to accompany her invariably have ulterior motives and she finds herself enmeshed in schemes she does not fully understand. When she declines advances, the spurned warn of dangerous consequences.

News filters in of protests and uprisings in the region leading to a clamp down on previously overlooked activities. Foreign workers are blamed for sewing the seeds of discontent amongst the locals. With their privileged way of life under threat, governments are eager for scapegoats to punish as a warning to others. Aisling finds herself caught between her new western and eastern friends with little idea who, if any, she can rely on.

The plot is fast moving with a taut, hungry prose that evokes the precarious simulation of high-class living conjured out of a hostile desert. The Arabian family Aisling becomes involved with are discomfited when she acts like a western woman yet many of their compatriots yearn to enjoy the freedoms she takes for granted. Men from both cultures regard her as a pawn to be subjugated, by whatever means, to further their own dangerous games.

This was a fascinating look at an area known to offer luxurious conditions for visitors willing to look only at the glittering facade, possible because of a hidden army of mistreated workers. The arms and oil trades are considered too important for other nations to attempt interventions, whatever the human cost. If foreign worker contracts are truly as tightly controlled as portrayed here I wonder why anyone would choose to go, whatever the reward. Nonetheless, this provides a searing backdrop for a compelling tale.

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

Rounding off the Urbane Book Blast with a Giveaway

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I hope that you have enjoyed reading the reviews, interviews and guest posts from Urbane Publications and their authors over the past couple of weeks. You now have a chance to win one of the books featured, and you may choose which one you would like to receive. If you would like a reminder about my thoughts on each, click on the titles below.

Once you have decided on your choice of book, this is what you have to do to enter the giveaway:

  1. Follow me on Twitter: Jackie Law (@followthehens)
  2. Tweet me the title of the Urbane book you would most like to receive from those reviewed this month (pictured above) using the hashtag #UrbaneBlast
  3. Do this before 8am GMT on Wednesday 21st December 2016, after which I will randomly draw a winner.

The giveaway is open internationally.

Thank you to Matthew at Urbane for providing the prize.

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You may wish to consider joining the Urbane Book Club. For £99.99 you’ll receive a print and ebook edition of every new Urbane title published from the date you join for an entire year – Urbane currently publishes around 5 books a month. You’ll receive a 75% discount on any further purchases of Urbane titles through the Urbane website, including the entire backlist – all with free p&p in the UK. There are other benefits to joining, including opportunities to meet the authors. Check out the details by clicking here.

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Ordinary words made extraordinary

Author Interview: Liz Cowley and Donough O’Brien

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Today I am delighted to welcome Liz Cowley and Donough O’Brien to my blog. Liz and Donough are the authors of ‘Serial Damage’, 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?

Liz:

Very rewarding, and also very interesting, writing jointly with my husband Donough. And the publisher, Urbane, is a joy to work with – far easier than some I’ve known. I never thought I’d write a novel – or more accurately half of one – or dovetail so smoothly with a co-author without any disagreements. He does action, I do reaction – and it’s a recipe that seems to work.

Donough:

To tackle something completely new, a crime novel instead of the illustrated history books that I normally write, I realised that to get the detail right we needed outside expertise. Luckily we knew, or got to know, top detectives, judges, psychologists, gun makers and surgeons, and they gave us the accuracy we needed. Most of the places round the world we featured we have actually visited, which was another help.

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

Liz:

Yes, very well. While Urbane promoted us, we do our bit with a series of launch parties round the country in aid of charity. We also helped to promote the book in both the UK and Ireland using our own media contacts. It helps that we were both from marketing and advertising backgrounds.

Donough:

We contacted the media in places where our ‘murders’ take place, like Cornwall, Kent and Ireland and the local press and radio stations were happy to feature us. Most media are intrigued by a husband and wife writing team, but it also helped that Liz’s latest book of amusing poetry, Pass the Prosecco, Darling! was coming out at the same time. A woman who can write light poetry and heavy murder is surely very unusual.

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

Liz:

Yes, quite a few. National radio like Saturday Live and lots of local radio. I’ve also given speeches at the Hampton Court Flower Show. My poetry books were made into a live stage show in Dublin and London, and the show was the finale of the West Cork Literary Festival at which I appeared.

Donough:

In addition to the charity events, we have been on the radio a lot and in my case television (BBC Breakfast, etc). I enjoy such events and also meeting all sorts of people.

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

Liz:

They are very important – it thrills me if they’ve enjoyed my books, and if you get criticism, you learn from it. In many ways, it reminds of my many years as an advertising copywriter – starting with picturing the audience and then learning from the feedback if you’ve got it right.

Donough:

Yes, very important and one should never worry about criticism. You can’t please everyone!

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

Liz:

A writer (never a poet) although I’ve had seven poetry books published so far. I’m afraid the word ‘poet’ tends to make people freeze!

Donough:

Having drifted into this, I call myself an author – I don’t know why!

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

Liz:

We already have. Urbane are publishing From One Hell to Another next year. Our heroine is a Spanish girl in the French resistance. Once again Donough pulls the triggers and I do the emotional bits.

Donough:

And in February I’ve got a thriller about the IRA coming out with Urbane called Peace Breaks Out. I wrote it with my friend Robin Hardy, famous for The Wicker Man film, who has sadly just passed away. And Liz and I have just finished a sci-fi novel called Testosterone. So collaborative writing seems to work for us.

 

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Liz has had a long career as an advertising copywriter and Creative Director, working in several of the world’s leading agencies. A long-time fan of poetry, she enjoyed success with her first collection, A Red Dress, published in 2008 and her second, What am I Doing Here? (2010), which were then made into a theatrical show – first staged in Dublin, then chosen as the finale of the West Cork Literary Festival and later touring the UK. Her next book ‘And guess who he was with?’ was out in February 2013. Two poetry books for gardeners, Outside in my Dressing Gown, and Gardening in Slippers are selling very well, not only in the book trade but also in garden centres.

Before turning to writing, Donough enjoyed a successful marketing career in the US and Europe. His previous books include Fame by Chance, looking at places that became famous by a twist of fate; Banana Skins, covering the slips and screw-ups that brought the famous down to earth; Numeroids, a book of numerical nuggets, and In the Heat of Battle; a study of those who rose to the occasion in warfare and those who didn’t. His latest historical book was WHO? The most remarkable people you’ve never heard of.

 

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Serial Damage is published by Urbane Publications and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: Serial Damage

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Serial Damage, by Liz Cowley and Donough O’Brien, is a crime thriller set over three continents. It tells the story of a killer whose victims appear unconnected, and whose lives would not be expected to warrant such attention. Each murder has been executed with care suggesting planning and cold blooded resolve.

Alice Drummond is a psychologist building her private practice in London. When her eighty-four year old godmother is shot whilst tending to her roses in her remote, Cornish garden Alice is at a loss as to why anyone would target an old lady. The only person with any apparent motive is a financially compromised nephew who stands to benefit from a substantial inheritance. He shows little distress at his aunt’s passing but has an alibi for the time of her death.

In Kent an old man is killed in a care home. In Belfast a much admired swimming coach is shot at his local leisure centre. The killer travels to America and then to Hong Kong before returning to London and bringing it to a standstill when he attacks again.

In each case the separate police forces remain baffled as to why their victim has been selected. The crime scenes offer scant evidence and motives remain unclear.

The reader is offered details on each murder and on the movements and mindset of the killer. Background events suggest why he acts as he does.

Alice’s private life is narrated. She is looking for Mr Right and wonders if she has found him when a friend introduces her to the entertaining and steady John. Although enjoying John’s company he lacks the frisson she is often drawn to in less reliable men. When she meets the handsome and enigmatic David, who whisks her away on luxurious, sexually satisfying yet somehow disturbing dates, she is unable to resist. She keeps these liaisons secret thinking that, at her age, it is time she chose a suitable husband and settled down. John is kind and attentive, but would this be enough when he is unexciting in bed?

The structure of the story is unusual with its switches between character study and police investigation. The pace is steadier than in many crime thrillers with focus shifting between the impact of death on the various families and the ongoing killing spree. Several characters are introduced who provide insight but little action. Even Alice is not a typical, modern and independent woman. There is a right wing feel to the book that I rarely encounter in my chosen literature.

The killer is an interesting creation, although the completion of his part in the tale felt quite far fetched. The story held my attention, I enjoyed the psychological profiling, but overall I would have preferred a tighter focus. I was left with a feeling of ambivalence despite this being an engaging enough read.

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

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Author Interview: Thomas Hocknell

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Today I am delighted to welcome Thomas Hocknell to my blog. Thomas is the author of ‘The Life Assistance Agency’, 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?

Publication is a fence I’ve been running to leap over for twenty years without any thought as to which way to land – forward roll, the splits, or careen into the nearest gorse bush to emerge quicker than I went in. Time will tell, but at risk of sounding like one of those positive affirmations back-dropped by a rose, publication day was one to savour. Although, it mainly involved sweeping up untouched children’s breakfast cereal and being asked to pay for 4-months worth of backdated Sunday papers at the local newsagent. I used to think writers lived somewhere indefinably special, but they walk among us.

It was certainly a day to quit worrying about MS spell-check missing thong instead of thing throughout the 300 pages of the Life Assistance Agency.  It’s a day like no other, although most writers would claim it’s the best day to start writing the next novel.  Which is lucky, because the most popular question since publication is “Have you started a 2nd one?” I mean talk about not being allowed to rest on your laurels.

Publication day is the sort of day that validates those annoying motivational Twitter status updates involving ‘following your dreams’, and ‘Stars can’t shine without darkness.’ The sort of updates that no one says to your face in fear of being strangled, and without which Twitter would be diminished to people declaring themselves as coffee addicts, uploading photos of cats and flogging vampire novels thinly disguised as porn. Or is it the other way around?

But it’s been wonderful. A dream has come true even if it was a 10-year overnight success. If anything it still feels a little surreal, but it certainly changes your relationship with writing. You suddenly have readers beyond immediate family!

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

They do. They are an independent publisher, but not having been published before means I have no idea of how it works elsewhere. I’ve been blogging at Idle Blogs of an Idle Fellow for 2 years, and that has gained a secure and loyal following, for which I am deeply grateful. It’s resulted in a kind of established market, albeit a small one. And the generosity of support from friends on Twitter (let’s not call them followers) has been flabbergasting. Ultimately though, you can’t keep flogging the book; it has to take on a life of its own. But there’s no better feeling than seeing it in a bookshop window.

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

At the first book launch, I so hated being the centre of attention that I found myself still up at 3:30am imploring people to stay, and that it was too early to call it a day. Actually, ask me this again next week, as I have a second one lined up.

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

Well, I initially declared I wasn’t going to read any. So, once I’d read them all, I found myself in a collapsed state best known as depression. It’s amazing how one negative review can skewer the glow of the good ones. If I’m honest, it also made me feel exposed and a little vulnerable. I was reminded of the Edna St Vincent Millay quote – “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”  I thought it best to buy some smart new pants.

However, as the weeks passed, the review about me not knowing what genre I was writing in began to sting less. After all, I’ve never chosen to read a novel according to its genre. Then a complete stranger compared the Life Assistance Agency to Douglas Adams’Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. He only wrote 2 and a half of these novels, which I always wanted more of. I’m cautious when aligning myself with such a great like Adams, but he was a huge influence that I’m happy to shout about it. His sentences were so unpredictable that you get the sense even he didn’t know where they were going.

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

That is a brilliant question. I do now. Or rather no one has asked since I was published, which is a bit annoying, so I don’t know for sure. I look forward to not saying I’m a social worker, at least initially, although that is what pays the mortgage. The most popular question when people hear that you write is “Are you published?” like it’s something that inevitably happens to every writer. Of course you want to grab them by the lapels and scream ‘D’you have any fucking idea how hard it is to get published?’ This is now avoided by simply pointing them in the direction of my T-shirt emblazoned with I’M PUBLISHED.

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

See what I mean about not being allowed to rest on your laurels! There is actually. I’m pleased to say that this novel can be seen as cue for further adventures of the Life Assistance Agency, which will vindicate its proprieter Scott Wildblood, as much as it will annoy his partner Ben Ferguson-Cripps. I love writing, at least when it’s going well. It’s like pottering about in a garden shed but without the spiders and tripping over the patio heater you don’t recall buying.

Where my readers can find you

Blog: Idle blogs of an idle fellow – Journeys from the fax

Twitter: Tom Angel (@TomAngel1)

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Thomas Hocknell is from Kent and lives in London. He has been a social worker, car salesman and gardener. He attended the Faber Academy and The Life Assistance Agency is his first novel. His blog, Idle Blogs of an Idle Fellow, aims to embrace random topics of modern living, but mostly complains about other people’s inability to make decent tea. He also writes for Classic Pop magazine, the Good Men Project and The Line of Best Fit.

 

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The Life Assistance Agency is published by Urbane Publications and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Life Assistance Agency

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“I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud” (Jung)

The Life Assistance Agency, by Thomas Hocknell, introduces the reader to Ben Ferguson-Cripps, the author of a mildly popular blog and one published book with sales figures so disappointing his agent is considering no longer representing him. In need of an income, Ben has taken a job transferring data from an ancient mainframe onto a contemporary IT system, despite having no idea how to do this. When he is found out and dismissed he visits the newly formed Life Assistance Agency. He discovers it has been set up by an old friend, Scott Wildblood. Ben last saw Scott when he was having a heart attack in the office where they both used to work.

Scott offers Ben a job, although he has yet to secure any clients. Ben is sent out wearing a sandwich board to drum up business, but has more success when he rings the number on a missing person’s poster and taps into the desperation of a middle-aged woman whose husband has not been seen for two weeks. The man, Thomas Foxe, had an interest in medieval alchemy and had attempted to commune with angels, much to the irritation of his now worried wife. Ben and Scott discover that a series of related artefacts have recently gone missing, their provenance leading the less than intrepid duo to follow the errant lecturer across Europe.

Ben and Scott track the missing Dr Foxe whilst sinister operatives from a secret society, intent on retaining their monopoly on contacting higher beings, track them. There are night-time flits, car chases, underhand thefts, and the translation of a diary that dates back to the sixteenth century. This tells of an alchemist, Dr John Dee, who worked with a scryer in an attempt to create gold and the secrets known only by the angels.

The plot is fantastical and is told with a healthy dose of cynicism, especially when considering man’s preoccupation with wealth and longevity. However, after an entertaining opening I found I was not always engaged as the adventure progressed. There are many amusing one liners and I enjoyed the denouement but my concentration drifted during the twice detailed journey through Europe.

I enjoy the author’s blog and this is written in much the same style. It is a light-hearted and wry look at belief whilst pandering to modern day sensibilities. A shame then that, in places through the middle, it did not fully hold my attention.

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

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