Book Review: Seeking Eden

Seeking Eden, by Beverley Harvey, is not the sort of book I would normally read. I suspect it may fall under the genre of women’s fiction – although I consider the descriptor soap opera fiction to be more fitting, women liking a broader range of books than some seem to believe. The story centres around a middle aged married couple, Kate and Neil, who move out of London to a new build housing estate in suburban Kent. Kate is a copy-writer and Neil works in advertising. Naturally they are both beautiful people.

After the move Kate works from home, although she has plenty of time for other pursuits. Neil finds the lengthy commute to the city exhausting so takes a room in a friend’s flat, coming back to their new home for weekends. Kate is lonely without him and misses the bustle of their previous life, her old friends showing little interest now that she is less readily available. She gets a dog for company and joins a gym. Slowly she starts to make new friends.

Ben is a one hit musician and an old flame of Kate’s. When he gets in touch after many years, in an attempt to win her back despite her marriage, she is tempted. With Neil away during the week it is easy for her to meet up with Ben, something she comes to regret.

Kate befriends Lisa, another siren, and ex-wife of a successful footballer. Lisa is scornful when she becomes the object of a local shopkeeper’s mid-life fantasies. His wife suffers from depression and he is struggling to cope with her moods. Their daughter has recently moved out of the family home leaving it bereft.

Alongside this cast of characters are Kate’s sister and confidant, Alice, and a bevy of well groomed acquaintances. Over the course of a couple of years there are affairs, misunderstandings and a death. Jobs evolve effortlessly, although behaviours ensure personal lives do not run smooth. The action is played out against the backdrop of a quietly affluent housing estate that the cool London crowd regard with disdain – I found this particular prejudice illuminating.

The writing is polished and the plot as tangled as people have a tendency to be. Much is made of personal presentation, including of partners, regarded as desirable accessories.

For those who enjoy gossip, about acquaintances and others, this was like a catch-up with a distant friend. It is effortless entertainment, and there is nothing wrong with that.

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

Book Review: Nemesister

Nemesister, by Sophie Jonas-Hill, is the first book in a proposed series of American Gothic thrillers. The story opens in a remote and run-down lodge hidden within the swamps of Louisiana. The protagonist is a young woman who arrives at this place badly injured, with no recollection of who she is or why she is here. In her hand is a gun, in her pocket a leaflet. She can find no other clues to her identity.

As she stumbles into the damp-ridden shack a man appears who introduces himself to her as Red. She is terrified of him but has no idea why. Red offers her water and then a bed on the couch. When she wakes from exhausted sleep he has tended to her wounds. Despite these efforts the woman remains wary. With injured feet and no means of transport she has little choice but to stay. Red tells her that his truck requires attention, that once mended he will take her to the nearest town as she has requested.

Over the course of the following twenty-four hours Red tells the woman about himself. He was a soldier, had a wife, and is at the shack to meet his brother for a spot of fishing. He is not always consistent in what he says. The woman feels a strong urge to escape but when unknown assailants fire shots at the house, the doors are locked and the key pocketed by Red.

The woman’s memory returns gradually with brief flashbacks to scenes that as yet make little sense. It is unclear if she is remembering what happened to her or to others, and who those others are to her. Within the shack are clues, but the more she uncovers the less she understands. Then what happened to her sister returns.

From the first page the tale unsettles. Despite the unremitting tension it takes some time before the flashbacks coalesce and characters gain form and context, enabling greater reader engagement. From here the pace picks up as backstories are presented and woven together. The drip-fed details now make disturbing sense.

The writing is taut and polished. Each of the cast’s true motives keep the reader guessing to the end. Dark and disquieting throughout, this is an intense, compelling read.

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

Book Review: The Lighterman

The Lighterman, by Simon Michael, is the third book in the author’s Charles Holborne series of crime thrillers (I review the first two here and here). Set in 1960s London, in and around the historic law courts at the Old Bailey, Holborne is once again working as a barrister from chambers where his Jewish heritage is disdained. Family background is an important backdrop to the story. The key case being dealt with involves Holborne’s cousin, Izzy, with whom he worked on the Thames during the Second World War.

Following events from the previous intalments in the series, Holborne is on the Kray twins death list. The metropolitan police are unwilling to help as they still believe Holborne was complicit in the murder of his wife and therefore deserves whatever comes his way. With blackmail and bribery rife on both sides of the law he must risk all to save Izzy and himself.

Holborne is in a relationship with Sally who is unhappy with being sidelined when work continually demands her lover’s time and attention. Despite a tentative reconciliation with his family, his harpy mother’s continuing complaints about his life choices remain a thorn in Holborne’s side.

I began to understand some of the bad feeling harboured against Jews, that it is their rejection of assimilation, a refusal to accept a different way of living for the next generation, just as is the case for many other orthodox religions. Holborne chose to break away but cannot shake the feelings of guilt this has caused, stoked by his mother’s criticism. These personal conflicts are well presented within the context of a fast moving plot.

With Ronnie Kray determined to punish Holborne and a judge eager to support the river police, one of whom Izzy is accused of murdering, Holborne is forced to take matters into his own hands. He puts his career in danger to gather his evidence and must then go to court and give the performance of his life. This representation of a barrister’s role and thought processes remains a highlight as in the previous books.

The writing throughout is slick and engaging, the plot well developed with a strong sense of time and place. The ending sets up an interesting dilemma for subsequent intalments in the series to explore.

On a personal level I struggled to warm to the protagonist. Holborne is described as strong and muscular, able to hold his own in a fight. He works out by running and boxing. He has a high sex drive. Although portrayed as a tough, east end lad made good, with a moral compass that isn’t as strong as he would like where justice, as he sees it, is involved, his exploits reminded me too much of the typical male, all action hero. I had to remind myself that this was 1960s Britain and women were even more objectified than today. Sally is no shrinking violet but Holborne’s interest in her appears largely sexual and selfish.

An enjoyable read for those who like their heroes physically strong, their justice warriors slightly flawed. It is a well written page turner strengthened by its setting within the rarefied world of the courts of law.

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

This post is a stop on The Lighterman Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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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