Monday, 21 January 2019

Blog Tour! - Changeling by Matt Wesolowski - Blog Tour!

This is the third book in the author’s Six Stories series and follows on from the first book, titled Six Stories (see my review here:, and its sequel Hydra (which I reviewed here: Once again we’re with Scott King and his popular Six Stories True Crime podcast. King is not an investigative journalist as he is at pains to explain; rather than looking to solve a case or undo a miscarriage of justice, he examines cases through six different perspectives to ask why the crime occurred and what lay behind it. He tries to do this non-judgementally, allowing his listeners to make up their own minds.

Changeling follows on from the events of the second novel, Hydra, and while it is far from essential to have read the previous novel to enjoy this one, there are certain aspects of King’s behaviour while making this latest podcast that will make more sense having read it. For this instalment he examines the case of seven year old Alfie Marsden, who disappeared from his father’s car in the middle of Wentshire Forest. Sorel Marsden claims that as he was driving the child home one evening, he heard knocking from beneath the vehicle’s bonnet. He pulled over to check and was only looking under the hood for a few minutes. Upon his return, the child had vanished and has never been seen since. Thirty years on the mystery endures and King is on the case.

This is a mystery he has been reluctant to examine however. He is unsure why this so, but whenever listeners have suggested he take it on he has always demurred. But after receiving a letter from someone who mysteriously claims to have some information never heard in public before, he feels strangely compelled to take on the challenge. What follows is six perspectives on the Alfie Marsden disappearance, alongside short excerpts of King’s engagement with the author of the letter.

Wentshire Forest is a place with a strong folkloric tradition. There are stories of elves, strange sights and sounds. Most of all there is talk of the Wentshire Witch, who resides deep in the forest and lures people in. Once they fall prey to her spell these people are never seen again. Is this what happened to Alfie Marsden? Was he lured from his father’s car and deep into the forest by the Wentshire Witch? Finally there’s the Changeling of folklore. Throughout Europe there were tales of human children snatched and taken away by fairies, only for a fairy child to be left in its place. This child would look identical to the lost human child, but would be sickly, afflicted by various disorders, or full of malice. The myth was obviously an attempt by people at the time to explain sickness and developmental disorders in children, but what if these tales contain a germ of truth? Throughout the narrative there is reference to Changelings, particularly when it’s discovered that Alfie’s behaviour changed suddenly during his childhood. As  King’s investigation unfolds we find out more about Alfie, his family and his home life. We also learn more about the strange happenings in Wentshire Forest, which has since been bought by the Royal Air Force and closed off to the public.  

As with the previous two titles, while there is a resolution to the story and we discover some things for sure, there is much left unresolved and thus for the reader to decide. In particular, what to believe of the supernatural? But equally, there’s a huge twist at the end of this novel, unlike any seen in the previous two titles. I shan’t say more, for I don’t want to divulge any spoilers, but needless to say this is a big development not just in the narrative of this title, but in the character arc of Scott King himself. 

It will be interesting to see what direction the author, Matt Wesolowski, takes with the series after this. That’s of course assuming that he writes another Six Stories tale. After the events in Changeling it could make sense to wrap up the series and write something else. Certainly, after the twist at the end, it would be understandable if his protagonist, Scott King, wanted to stop podcasting. But equally he might choose to carry on. I sincerely hope there is another Six Stories novel as the series has been a joy to read. 

Changeling is a brilliant read that like its predecessors subtly tackles thorny social issues, which are woven adeptly into a psychological horror chiller. It’s a compelling, at times challenging novel, that had me turning the pages to the very end. I can’t recommend this enough, in fact I can’t recommend the series enough, and look forward to whatever Matt Wesolowski decides to write next.

5 out of 5 stars

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

True Crime is all the rage these days and its popularity shows no sign of abating. Starting with with true crime podcasts such as Serial and Murdertown, then migrating to screen with such hits as the NetFlix series Making A Murderer, it appears that the public’s appetite is insatiable. It’s inevitable that this phenomena should make it into fiction and the author, Matt Wesolowski, did just that with his novel Six Stories (which I reviewed here: Hydra is the second novel in the series and once again we follow Scott King, the anonymous presenter of the Six Stories podcast, as he rakes over an old and infamous crime. King is not an investigative journalist as he is at pains to point out. He is not seeking to solve crimes or overturn miscarriages of justice. Rather he examines a case through six different perspectives to ask why the crime was committed and what lay behind the perpetrator’s actions. He does so as non-judgementally as possible, allowing his listeners to make up their own minds.

In Hydra. Scott King and his Six Stories podcast are examining the Macleod massacre of 2014. Arla McLeod, 21 years old at the time, bludgeoned her family to death - father, mother, and younger sister - with a hammer. Arla was found guilty of manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and has since been detained in Elmtree Manor Hospital, a medium security mental health facility. This is controversial in itself, some people believing she got off lightly. As often with notorious murder cases, the media were quick to latch onto the the aspects of Arla’s personality that would paint her in a bad light. She was an adherent of the musician, Skexxixx, who’s nihilistic lyrics and propensity for gothic makeup she emulated and thus provided the tabloids with many a lurid photo. As with the first book in the series, Hydra is split into six parts, each focused on Scott’s interviews with six different people who knew Arla or who can shed some light on her case.  As the narrative unveils we learn more and more about Arla, and as is so often the way in real life, we quickly discover that the tabloid tale is shallow to say the least. 

Hydra has a strong supernatural element, namely the Black Eyed Kids (BEKs). From the outset she labours under the belief that she committed her horrific crime because of their influence. Is this true or is this delusion? Did she commit her crime due to the damage caused to her personality by trauma, and if so, did this open the door to the supernatural? Or is that just the fantastical imaginings of a tortured psyche? 

A major strength of Hydra (and indeed of the other titles in the series) is that the reader is left to make up their own minds about the case as much as the imaginary listener of the imaginary Six Stories podcast. We rarely get to read more than Scott King broadcasts and so, like the listener, are left to decide what we believe. This is not to say there is no resolution. By the end of the novel we know some things for sure. But there is always an open ended element, such as just how much the supernatural came into play.

One thing I would say for certain is that Hydra is well and truly chilling. The BEKs really were creepy and I don’t mind admitting that at times this novel freaked me out. I would strongly advise not reading this book at night, especially if one’s all alone in the house. But it’s not just scares. Hydra, again like the other titles, subtly grapples with some issues - in this case the damage that can be caused by dysfunctional family life, the simplistic intrusiveness of the tabloid press, how youth culture and music can be portrayed negatively and become the focus of moral panic, and the power of urban myths and internet meme. This is all seamlessly interwoven into a tight plot and is a joy to read.

Hydra is a gripping and chilling read. Part supernatural suspense, part psychological chiller, this is a great book and a brilliant follow on from Six Stories.

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Eamonn Griffin Q&A

Increasingly, there are many paths a novelist might take. Gone are the days when an agent and traditional publishing house was the only route to success. In recent years self-publishing has taken off, as have smaller independent publishers. The traditional agent and publisher route still exist, of course, and not a few writers cross from one route to the other. But with publishing as an industry in flux, and books having increasingly to compete with other entertainment mediums, new approaches are flourishing.

One such innovation is the crowd-funding publisher, Unbound being one of the leading proponents. On the Unbound website authors share their ideas for the books they want to write. If enough people support it by pledging in advance then the book gets published, a special subscribers edition for those who pledged money, a regular edition and ebook sold to the general reading public.

Having read and reviewed a number of Unbound titles I found them to be as good as any published by the traditional publishing houses, just as importantly, the books were edited and presented just as professionally. 

As an aspiring author myself, I’m intrigued by Unbound and thus decided to put my money where my mouth is. East of England by Eamonn Griffin was the title I decided to back. A noir crime thriller set in rural England, it is just the kind of book that I enjoy reading. This Q&A with its author, I post on the day I received my copy of his book. 

Where did you get the idea behind East of England?

The idea was an image first, that became the first shot of a film script that I never got my head around. The opening, where Dan Matlock leaves prison and steals a car. That, filmed as a shot in a single camera move was pretty much all I had.  

Over time, I got to thinking about who this person was, and what might motivate them to be prepared to launch themselves into something straight out of jail. Everything fell into place from there. 

Your novel sounds like it has a tremendous sense of time and place, in fact that was one of the things that sold it to me, this evocation of rural England and how a noir crime thriller would work with that. How did you achieve this?

That’s very kind of you to say so. Straightforwardly, I was born in Lincoln, and was raised in a town called Louth, which is on the east of the county of Lincolnshire, which is where the book is set. The places evoked in the novel are based firmly on existing places; the names have been changed slightly to allow me some fictional wriggle-room, but that’s about it. 

In terms of temporal setting – the book’s set in the early-to-mid 80s – that’s drawn partly from my own experiences, and partly from the needs of the book and the genre. I was an adolescent in the 80s, and so my first independent experiences of life and of the county are from that time, so I’ve drawn from that. Also, I wanted some kind of specificity, and I can do that with the Lincolnshire of the 1980s. Though the book didn’t need to be set in the past, I wanted - eventually – to support the book by making sure that people had to go to places to do things. Not having mobile phones helps with that a lot! Plus, it distances the book slightly; some of my influences in writing this are from the past, and from the US in particular, and I wanted to draw on the feelings I get as a reader when shown a combination of time and place that’s not familiar to me, in pat to help the writing and in part to make the book a little distinctive.  

What made you want to tell this particular story and in this particular way?

Inevitability. Once I started thinking constructively about the beginning I mentioned earlier, things fell into place a bit. In terms of organisation – the story takes place over five consecutive days – I like tight timeframes (that’s a feature of all of my books to date), and I like being specific too, so that helps as well. A ticking clock is always useful.  

How do you get your ideas? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?

Ideas are easy. My pockets are full of them. The stronger ones take root, though, and start nagging at you. That’s when - these days – I make a note of them on an app on my phone. The they sit there until the phone can’t contain them. The seed or spark is always a little thing, and usually something which provokes a series of questions for me, and part of the project of writing the book is finding out answers to those questions.  

Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?

It depends a lot on the story, inevitably. Some of East of England is experiential, some relies on books/interviews/documentaries, some of it is imaginative. The trick – if there is one – is making everything feel organic, so that it comes from the characters and their situations. There’s a bit of thinking about what would X do now, rather than what might make sense for me to do in that situation. 

In the past I’ve spent both a whole year reading before writing, and on the other hand having an idea so strong and vivid and fully-formed that I’ve had to get off a Tube train (I’m not a Londoner so this isn’t an everyday thing), find a bookshop, double-check the idea, and then try to capture it before is fades.  

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Of the two, a pantser. I like to know where I’m going, and then work out interesting and logical – for the characters – ways to get there. 

As a non-plotter, how do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents? 

I use a mixture of simple spreadsheet-style diagrams and random notes. Sometimes snatches of dialogue, sometimes detail on beat-by-beat movements through scenes. 

Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?

I’ve got a full-time job job. That’s writing-based also, but the creative writing has to work around the time commitment to the da job. 

When is your most productive period of the day?

Early morning. The earlier the better. 

Is any part of your writing biographical or are any of the characters inspired by real people? 

Yes and yes. I’m a magpie, and steal from everywhere, though mostly from myself. Some of the characters in East of England are drawn from real life, or are composites. Sometimes I’ve thought who might play the character in a movie, and have used that to support the writing.  

What writing projects are you working on now? 

I’ve three. Maybe four. It depends. 

There’s a sequel to East of England, titled Canine Jubilee. Then, a proper haunted house novel of the old school. And a historical novel about Sir Francis Walsingham.  And a non-fiction project I’m still wresting into shape. 

Is East of England your first novel? What, if anything, have you written previously?

East of England’s my fourth novel, and my fifth book. Previously:

The Prospect of This City: a novel about the days before the Great Fire of London
Torc: a timeslip children’s novel about modern-day and 2ndcentury Scotland
Juggernaut: a sequel to RL Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Benches of Louth: a non-fiction exploration of my old home town 

They’re all up on Amazon if folk are interested!

Unbound is a unique and new publishing company. How did you find the process of crowdfunding your book?

It’s harder than it looks, especially for fiction projects, unless you’re a household name (and even then it’s not straightforward). Non-fiction is perhaps easier to explain to people, and so folk can more easily make a decision about whether to support the book or not. That’s not so easy with a novel. You’ve got to be patient, persistent, and realistic. 

How has your experience with Unbound contrasted with that of publishing your previous books?

It’s been pretty straightforward. The other books have ended up being self-published, so it’s a pleasure not to have to do everything yourself. There’s still plenty of stuff to do though, and in lots of ways the writing of the book is the easy bit. 

Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of His First Lie and It Was Her) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before he became a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That no-one respects it. With other creative activity there’s a corresponding physical skill, be it in dance, music, painting, sculpture, drama. With writing there’s just typing. And it’s easy to confuse the two, because everyone’s got a laptop or a smartphone, or has at least used a keyboard.  

Give me some advice about writing?

First, learn to use your writing software of choice. 
Second, back everything up twice. 
Third, story is structure. Stories are stories because they’re shaped like stories. Like houses, they’re all the same, and each is unique. Start to appreciate their general shape, and that’ll help no end in getting towards interesting specifics. 
Fourth, there’s no short cuts.
Fifth, and most importantly, [indecipherable] 

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Red Snow by Will Dean

This is the author’s second novel, a sequel to his debut, Dark Pines, which I reviewed here:  One again we’re with Tuva Moodyson, an outsider in the very insular rural town of Gavrik, working as a reporter on the local paper. She’s also deaf and bisexual, both of which, in a place like Gavrik, mark her out as “different.” Isolated, Tuva has few friends, Tammy who runs a Thai food business from a van, her boss Lena at work. So, Tuva drinks too much and pretty much hides away from the world.

But Tuva is on the cusp of leaving Gavrik. She’s been offered a better job on a biweekly paper down south. Covering a bigger patch, it’s a step up on the small local for which she currently works. Not that her time on the Gavrikposten has been sedate. In Dark Pines she became embroiled in the Medusa killings, exposing a serial killer, though things have quietened down since then.

Red Snow opens with the owner of the town’s main employer, the liquorice factory, jumping to his death before Tuva’s eyes. The man had climbed one of the factory’s chimneys and leapt. Tuva starts covering his death and its ramifications for the paper. This leads her to meet the family which has owned the factory since it was first established generations ago. The Grimbergs are as odd as can be and come with lots of baggage.

While doing this, Tuva takes a job on the side as a researcher for David Holmqvist, a character we met in the first novel. Holmqvist lives in the nearby forest and is ostracised by locals who see him as weird. He’s a writer and wants Tuva’s help researching his book on the factory and the Grimbergs, for the family have not opened up to him.

As mentioned, Dark Pines was in essence a serial killer novel, though it wasn’t gory. Rather, its power was in the incredible sense of place and characterisation it made use of. Much of the narrative took part outside of Gavrik, in the nearby forest where Holmqvist lives. There was a cast of intriguing, strange, and downright creepy characters who lived in that stretch of woodland. Apart from the writer, Holmqvist, there was Viggo Svensson the taxi driver, and the wood carving sisters. Both Svensson and the wood carving sisters have small parts in Red Snow, but this sequel shifts to the town itself.

Red Snow is not a serial killer novel. I won’t say any more at risk of divulging spoilers, but this book shifts gear from Dark Pines. Once again however, the real power of this title is in the sense of place and characterisation. Whereas in Dark Pines one had the foreboding darkness and claustrophobia of the forest, here we have the rather gothic confines of the liquorice factory and the family residence in the floors above. Whereas Dark Pines had the oddballs who live in the wood, Red Snow has the eccentricities of the three generations of Grimbergs, a handful of embittered workers, and those sniffing around on the periphery in the hope of a payday.

I wrote in my review of Dark Pines that I was worried the author might not be able to take his character anywhere new, that what made the novel fresh would soon turn stale in repeat outings. Many an author has made that mistake, especially when their protagonist is situated in a small town. How many fictional detectives encounter murder rates in villages that would make the police departments of major metropolises squirm? In Red Snow, Will Dean has proven that this is not an error he intends to make. Most cleverly, by changing gears and writing a different kind of crime novel altogether (Dark Pines being a serial killer tale, Red Snow being more of a mystery story) he’s shown that he’s an author that’s adaptable and varied. By situating Red Snow in Gavrik and the liquorice factory, and Dark Pines in the surrounding woods, he’s also imbued the two novels with very different atmospherics, despite the fact that geographically their locations are very close.

I don’t how many novels in the series the author has planned, whether he sees it as a trilogy or more. On Twitter he’s promised that we haven’t seen the last of Tuva and I believe the third novel is well on the way. With Tuva set on leaving Gavrik, it will be interesting to see what comes next. Will he have his protagonist return to the rural and insular community of Dark Pines and Red Snow? If he does, I’m sure he can mine new stories, and it would certainly be a pleasure to encounter such memorable characters from the first novel, such as the Wood Carving Sisters. Or might he make the bold move of casting Tuva in locations new? Whatever he decides, on the strength of what he’s written so far, I’m sure it will be a success.

5 out of 5 stars

The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

The debate as to what makes a good novel, what makes a good crime novel, is never ending. Creative writing courses and manuals talk about plotting, characterisation, upping the stakes, and all manner of other advice. There’s truth in all of this of course, but that isn’t the whole picture. Sometimes a book, tv show, or film, will come along which appears to do all this right and yet for some unfathomable reason it just stinks. Other times something will shine even though the characters aren’t great or the plot is just so-so. Personally, I think that while all the advice is worth listening to (as an aspiring writer myself, I certainly try to listen and learn) there’s a fairy dust which just touches some works, a certain something that one just can’t put one’s finger on.

A great example of this is the TV show The Killing. People have raved about the show, explained why they liked or loved it, but really I don’t think at heart the plot is that original. That said, I loved it. Why? Because it has that fairy dust. It might not have been groundbreaking per se, many stories feature killers and slain teenagers, but it was told in such a way as to make it compelling. So when I learnt that the creator of The Killing, Søren Seistrup, had turned his hand to writing crime fiction I was more than a little interested.

I have to say I was a little put off however when I learnt that Seistrup’s novel, The Chestnut Man, was a serial killer novel. Despite being a crime fiction aficionado, I’m not a big fan of serial killer fiction. To my mind, they’re an overdone trope. The reality is that serial murder is incredibly rare and those that kill in the fiendishly complex ways shown in fiction are rarer still. Yes, there have been the notorious cases like Ed Gein, who made furniture out of his victims, but most have killed their victims in more mundane ways. 

It’s not just the rarity of serial killing in reality compared to it’s overload in fiction that bothers me. In crime fiction there’s also a danger of crossing into salaciousness. Recently there was a mini-furore in the crime fiction world when the Staunch Book Prize was launched. The prize sought crime fiction “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Some luminaries of the genre, such as Val McDermid, saw the prize as an attack on their craft, arguing that violence against women is a fact of life, and that their writing dealt with the world as it was. I situate myself in the middle of these two positions. I read much crime fiction (and some horror, and occasionally some dystopian titles) and don’t shy away from books which feature violence against women (or men, obviously), but equally I see what the Staunch Prize was trying to achieve. In the end it comes down to the fairy dust. Some works of fiction, like The Killing, feature a victim dying violently (whether a man, woman, or even on occasion, a child) and the story is told in such a way that it’s gripping. Other tales might be written just as well, but for some reason the gore and butchery bothers me. 

So which was it with The Chestnut  Man? Did this story about two mismatched detectives in the Copenhagen murder squad, desperately investigating a series of murders of women, where their limbs are hacked off with a saw, a small doll fashioned from chestnuts left mockingly on the corpse, have the fairy dust magic of Seistrup’s TV show? 

Well unfortunately for me it didn’t. That’s not to say The Chestnut Man is not a well written book. It’s very well written, if one defines that as a book that has you turning the pages. I turned those pages, desperate to find out what happens. But I didn’t really enjoy this novel. Throughout, the gore and violence to the female victims bothered me. I found myself yearning to read something that might have been nominated for that Staunch Prize.

I have to stress once again that I’m no prude. I love crime fiction. But I tend towards more political works, noir such as the novels penned by James Elroy and Don Winslow. Do any of these feature women brutally murdered? Yes, of course. One of James Elroy’s most famous books was The Black Dahlia, which certainly featured the brutal murder of a woman. But reading these titles it’s clear that the murders, whether of women or men, are not the point. The violence drives the story forward, the author having bigger things they want to say.  This might explain the success of The Killing, the investigation of the murder in that show leading to the expose of grubby corruption. But The Chestnut Man?  I just couldn’t escape the feeling that the killings of the women were the point.

Now again, I must stress that I’m not saying this review that every novel, crime or otherwise, must have some weighty message. I have enjoyed more straight forward tales in the past, even serial killer stories, The Silence of The Lambs being a obvious case in point. But this leads me back to the fairy dust argument. If a novel such as the Silence of the Lambs has me enjoying it in such a way that the gruesome violence isn’t at the forefront of my mind, then job well done, the book works for me. If however, as with The Chestnut Man, I can’t help but notice the violence, can’t help but wonder it’s too prurient, then to me it’s failed.

To be sure this is a novel that’s bound to be a roaring success. For a start, I’m under no illusions that there appears to be an insatiable desire for entertainment such as this, that I’m in a distinct minority amongst crime fiction fans; serial killer fiction sells, and I’m sure many reading this review will disagree with my take. And that’s ok, a review can only be a personal opinion. Secondly, written by the creator of a blockbuster TV show as it is, the author’s name alone will ensure sales. And I’m sure the publishers will publicise the title widely. And I have to admit, as I mentioned, I whipped through The Chestnut Man; it’s nothing if not compelling. That all said, if the author writes a sequel, I might just take a pass

3 out of 5 stars  

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Tim Baker Q&A

Tim Baker is the author of two brilliant novels that I’ve enjoyed immensely. The first, Fever City, is a wonderful JFK conspiracy thriller and put Tim on the map alongside the likes of James Elroy. 

His second, City Without Stars, is centred on the Mexican narco wars and the horrific femicides that have plagued some of the cities that rest against the US border. This is an assured and complex novel that can be compared to Don Winslow’s Cartel trilogy (the final instalment of which, The Border, is published in February 2019). I reviewed City Without Stars and you can read my review here:

In short, Tim is an author who produces work that can be read alongside the greats - Elroy and Winslow - and someone who’s work I really look forward to. So who better to teach me something about writing? 

I asked Tim for a Q&A and here it is.  

How do you get your ideas? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?

All my work starts with a visual image that excites me enough to want to explore it more. If I can locate a voice there, I follow it. I never know at the beginning where my stories will lead me.

Both your novels so far have dealt with conspiracies – Fever City, the Kennedy Assassination and City Without Stars, the Mexican drugs wars and the femicide that’s plagued border cities. What attracts you to these kinds of stories?

The notion of something hiding in plain sight has always appealed to me. History is made up of broad, block strokes, but it’s the novelist’s role to insert the shading and I’ve always been attracted especially to the shadows. We live in a world of injustice and rampant criminality, except that these days, the criminals are mainly businessmen, industrialists, media barons and politicians who control society. It’s never been a better time to be a crime novelist.

Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?

My non-fiction reading will unconsciously lead me to the story. For example, one day my wife asked me why I had so many books about Charlie Lucky Luciano on my bedside table. I hadn’t even realised it, but once she asked the question, I knew the answer: because I was going to write about him one day. Often times, my research takes place years before the actual novel begins. Once the writing starts, the research stops.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I never plot. It’s more exciting that way.

As a non-plotter, how do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents? 

It’s the journey, not the arrival. And sometimes you need to go off on those wild tangents, either because there’s something worthwhile lurking there, or just to get it out of your system. Luckily the trip is not made in real time. I go through many drafts – enough to see what I have to change to make sense of what’s come before and to ensure that outcomes are both unexpected and at the same time inevitable.

Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?

To my despair, and that of my bank manager, I write full time. That means that every day, in one way or another, I aim to advance my writing.

When is your most productive period of the day?

Until I became a father, it was always the night. Then I began to reassess the virtue of sleep. Now it is the morning, the earlier the better.

Is any part of your writing biographical or are any of that characters inspired by real people? 

None of my writing is biographical except that all of it reflects my own interests and concerns. I have quite a number of important secondary characters who are based on historical figures, but they are so much more interesting and complex when they become fictional characters.

Both your novels have been standalones, would you ever write a series?

It’s not on the cards, but who knows. Although my novels are standalones, they are interconnected by themes and by a number of characters who pass through all of them. 

What writing projects are you currently working on? 

A Cold War epic about three retired spies who come out of retirement to take down the presidents of the USA and Russia, and a thriller about a Mexican-American woman whose child is mistaken for a migrant and gets lost within the Child Separation System.

Tell me a little about your journey to success, how did you secure that all important agent and first publishing deal?

Persistence. Tenacity. Luck. They all played a role in my journey as a writer. I tried to identify the agents who were actively looking for the kind of work that I was producing and then aimed to send them the best submission pitch I could come up with. I do feel that once you get the right agent, you’ll tend to get the right publisher and the right deal.

Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of His First Lie and It Was Her) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before he became a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

The scenes you love the most are usually the first ones you have to sacrifice.

Give me some advice about writing?

Never listen to advice about writing. That way you’re free to make your own mistakes, and that’s the only way you’ll ever learn how to find your own voice.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Dead of Night by Michael Stanley

This is a standalone by the writing duo of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollop, authors of the Detective Kubu series of novels. While the Detective Kubu novels often tackle serious and weighty subjects, they’re a touch more light hearted than Dead of Night. This is in part because of Detective Kubu himself who never fails to bring a touch of humour to proceedings. Crys Nguyen, the Vietnamese born American journalist who’s the hero of Dead of Night is a more serious protagonist and thus the book is a more straight  tale.

Crys is a local journalist aiming for the big time. When she learns that her friend Michael Davidson, a writer for National Geographic, has gone missing in South Africa, she is more than a little concerned. Michael was on assignment in South Africa, writing an article on rhino poaching and Crys persuades the magazine to commission her to finish his piece so that she might go in search for him. So off Crys goes to South Africa where she slowly discovers that Michael got more than he bargained for in pursuit of his scoop.

This is a novel on a mission, if that makes sense, the authors’ clearly having a message they want to tell and they convey it with urgency. They clearly care deeply about the plight of the rhino, which is endangered due to the the demand for its horn, an ingredient in Chinese medicines. Along the way Crys discovers the tensions between those who want the trade completely banned, and those that want it licensed (apparently rhino horn can grow back, so some estates carve horns off sedated animals), and this debate forms a backdrop to the wider conspiracy she tries to expose and foil.

Throughout the narrative Crys comes into contact with a variety of actors. There are the obviously bad - the rhino poachers and horn traffickers - but there are also many that she is unsure whether, and to what extent, she can trust. Estate managers, NGO workers, police officers - in third world countries where a black market trade flourishes which can make people millions, corruption and hidden agendas is always something she must consider. We’re never clear as readers who is on Crys’s side and who might betray her and this adds to the books tension.

The story travels the globe, principally from South Africa where the rhinos are poached, to Vietnam, Crys’s home country and where the horn is trafficked. The novel has a good sense of place, particularly the South Africa sections, the authors’ clearly being familiar with the country. The scenes in the African bush are brought to life vividly as is the authors’ obvious affection for the rhino and African wildlife more broadly.

Dead of Night is a pacey and well crafted story though I didn’t like Crys Nguyen nearly as much as the authors’ usual protagonist, Detective Kubu. I also struggled with the initial set up. Apart from Crys, nobody appeared particularly concerned as to where Michael had disappeared to; even his employers in National Geographic appeared quite sanguine and I’m sure in actual fact they would have been a little more alarmed by one of their star writers going missing.

That all said, this was a novel that kept me interested and it’s good to see an issue of such importance that doesn’t often make it into fiction featuring in a thriller such as this. The plight of the rhino is something that we should all be concerned with and if popular fiction can make people take note then that can only be a good thing.

3 out of 5 stars