Friday, 21 June 2019

A Modern Family by Helga Flatland


This is far removed from my normal reading material, not crime, not horror, not dystopia. Rather this is a literary tale about the changing dynamics of a family after they converge in Rome to celebrate the patriarch’s seventieth birthday, only to discover that he and the matriarch are divorcing. 

Liv, Ellen and Håkon, are the grown children of the couple, who with their partners and children come to Rome for their father’s birthday. Stunned by the news of their parents divorce, they are forced to reflect on the narratives of their childhood, the tales they have long told themselves, their recollections of their past and their sense of identity as a family.

As with all adults, each of the three has their own issues and preoccupations in life; each has their own personality and temperament, and all this helps determine how they react to the news. Each reacts in very different ways, ranging from rage (Liv), through indifference (Ellen) and empathy (Håkon). Of course, all this is further complicated by their own relationships, with each other, and with their own spouses and children.

All of us like to people watch - on the beach, in an airport, in a restuarant or shopping mall - and when we do we wonder what is occurring in those people’s lives. We all have our dramas and conflicts and that’s what this book is really about: an ordinary family, regular people, how their lives rupture when their parents drop a bombshell and how they must navigate the aftermath to try and regain something akin to normality.

A Modern Family is a beautifully written novel, bittersweet, moving and poignant. This is a story of love, regret, and the hidden tensions that lie beneath the surface of all human relationships. It’s a wise novel of great insight.

4 out of 5 stars  

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Andrew Crofts Q&A

Where did you get the idea behind What Lies Around Us?


A number of ideas came together at once: 

1. From my previous novel, “Secrets of the Italian Gardener”, I already had an established character in the narrator; a ghostwriter with a reputation that allows him access to people in the highest places. 

2. I saw that Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency had started with the book which was ghosted for him “The Art of the Deal”. It led to “The Apprentice” and that made him famous enough to win power.

3. I saw that the boundaries between politics, show business and social media were becoming imperceptible – are characters like Trump, Johnson and Farage reality television personalities or politicians? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could end up being president one day, but she could have become a film star.

4. I liked the idea that there could be a successful liberal backlash to the current rise of right-wing politics.  

5. I also liked the idea of a happily married man finding that he has become the trusted confidante of one of the most beautiful and desired women in the world.

6. It is becoming increasingly clear that behind all the power structures everywhere in the world, lie some connections to organised crime.



The power of the tech companies is something that is very much in the news and your novel addresses this head on. How worried are you personally by this?

I am not worried about it as long as I can see that the companies are being continually called out on the things that they are doing wrong. Many new industries have their moments of apparent invincibility. Once it was the railway barons, then the oil industry. I am sure that pressures of innovation and competition will eventually erode the powers of Apple, Google etc just as they eroded the powers of the East India Company, the Gettys and the Rockefellers, turning them into dinosaurs and allowing new, small companies to rise up and challenge them.


Are you on social media or do you avoid it? Do you try to stay off the tech grid?

I am as susceptible as anyone. I follow people on Twitter who I think will guide me to interesting articles, books, films and television programmes. I no longer fall for the tricks of clickbait, any more than I watch soap operas on television. There are a limited number of hours in any day and a dazzling array of things to watch, listen to and learn. I am quite self-disciplined about avoiding things that I know will suck up too much time. 


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

Many of my ideas start when I am ghosting books for people who live in entirely different worlds to me. They also come from asking endless impertinent questions of everyone I meet, particularly people who have had very different experiences of life. Then there are newspapers and documentaries and books to fill in the gaps.

Normally one idea occurs to me first, maturing in the back of my mind for a few years. Then another presents itself out of the blue and the two fit together, creating a plot which is strong enough to support a full-length book. Once I start writing and the characters begin to grow other ideas then follow.  


Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?

Again, most of my research comes from asking people questions. It is amazing how much people will tell you if you ask them. 

If I need more in-depth background information then I will start with the internet and let that guide me to the best books on any given subject.

I tend to use locations that I already know, having been lucky enough to travel extensively over the years.

  
Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I don’t start writing until I have the whole plot worked out in my head because I want to be sure that I will be able to get to the end. But that doesn’t mean I won’t change direction and create new characters or think of new twists as I go along. If I think of something better, then I am happy to change my original plan. 


So you both plot & pants, a hybrid process, if I can put it that way. Can you tell me a little more about how you go about this?

I will do a chapter breakdown to make sure that I have enough material and that I know roughly where I am going to be going each day. That also cuts the job into manageable slices.

By having the plotline there in the background. I can go off at a tangent, but I need to see how that tangent will work with the rest of the story and either abandon it if it doesn’t work or adapt the following chapters.


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

Yes. I have written full time for more than forty years. I wrote my first book when I was sixteen and reached a point where I could support myself full time from writing about ten years later.


When is your most productive period of the day?

Late afternoon and early evening, having procrastinated and prevaricated all day. Usually, however, pressure of deadlines keeps me at the screen from about ten in the morning to about seven at night. 


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

It is all a mixture of both those things, with an added swirl of imagination.


What writing projects are you working on now? 

I am ghostwriting a novel with an international businessman and a memoir for an extraordinary Chinese lady.


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

In the early years of my career I would be writing to as many as a hundred people a week, both in search of commissions and submitting work on spec. They included publishers, editors, agents and the corporate writing world. To begin with I received a hundred percent rejections, but after a few years the percentage of acceptances from magazines and newspapers increased and an agent showed an interest, then another and another and slowly I started to get publishing deals. 

It’s the same as starting from scratch in any new business; you have to keep knocking on doors until they begin to open, adapting the product that you are offering as you go along.


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?

A percentage of people in the world are never going to be interested in the things that I find fascinating and there will always be some people who will not like my writing style.


Give me some advice about writing?

If you are stuck, then start any project by imagining you are writing a letter to a friend, telling them the story from the beginning. That way your voice is bound to come through strongly.

Monday, 10 June 2019

The Wolves at the Door by Gunnar Staalesen

This is the latest outing for the author’s private investigator hero, Varg Veum. The  reading of a series is always better if one has read the earlier novels, though how much so depends on the particular series and the particular book. While this could be read as a standalone, I think the enjoyment will be much heightened if the reader has read the previous title in the series, Wolves in the Dark, because the plot of this latest novel follows directly on from the last.

In Wolves in the Dark, Veum was accused of online paedophilia, with his computer tampered with and child porn put on the hard disc. He managed to prove his innocence and discover who had attempted to set him up and why, but it was a close run thing. In Wolves at the Door, Veum is still trying to put his life back together. Mud sticks even when the claims are baseless while his work has suffered as he needed to concentrate on clearing his name.

One dark night while walking he is nearly knocked over by a speeding car. Veum is certain it wasn’t an accident, that someone tried to kill him, a notion that solidifies when he discovers that two of the men who were convicted for the child pornography have died suddenly in prison. He also becomes convinced that he is being followed, all of which leads to his mounting concern that he and those close to him are at risk.

I won’t divulge any more of the plot for risk of divulging spoilers, but needless to say Veum now investigates to get to the bottom of what he is up against. As with the last book, Wolves at the Door addresses issues of child abuse and paedophilia, and while not being too gratuitous, at points it can make for difficult reading. 

Gunnar Staalesen is clearly influenced by Raymond Chandler and his creation, Varg Veum, has more of a touch of the Philip Marlowe about him, not least with his snappy dialogue. This is pulp American noir (I mean that in a good way) from the 1940’s updated to modern day Norway. To be sure, there’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief needed; Veum traipses around Bergen asking questions, and for the most part people answer him, this despite the fact that he is not a police officer and has no legal force to compel them to. But it’s all good fun and compelling stuff and the author pulls it off with more than a little aplomb.

If you like the work of such greats as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as well as works of Nordic noir, then with this you’ll be in for a treat. A well written PI novel, this is an enjoyable, albeit at points slightly harrowing, read.

4 out of 5 stars  

Friday, 7 June 2019

Sister of Mine by Laurie Petrou

Hattie and Penny Grayson are sisters but are complete opposites. Hattie is red-headed and full of life, while Penny is dark haired and with a darker and more intense personality to match.  That said they’re very close and will do anything for each other, in effect they have an abnormally intense bond and one that is surely to lead them into trouble.

After a traumatic childhood - their father walks out on the family, their mother dies from a bee sting - Penny grows up and gets married to Buddy, who soon proves to be a brutal bully. After much abuse she can no longer take it and snaps. She decides to burn down her house with him inside it. Only she can’t bring herself to do it. Hattie does it for her in an act of sisterly commitment. When Hattie wants a child but cannot get pregnant, Penny steps in to return the favour. 
For a while it appears that balance is restored, but of course, life is never that simple and soon their past returns to haunt them.

This is a well written family drama and domestic thriller, full of hidden secrets and tensions. Its not a long book, just two hundred and fifty pages, and those pages turn fast. The publishers say that readers will burn through the book in one sitting and I can see why, its brevity complemented by its tight plotting and compelling characters.

Sister of Mine is the author’s debut novel and won a prize when unpublished, so I expect she will be a writer we will hear much more from in the future. Those who like psychological thrillers and domestic noir would be advised to give this a read.

3 out of 5 stars 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Someone is Lying by Jenny Blackhurst


A year after Erica Spencer falls to her death from a tree at a Halloween party in the exclusive Cheshire gated community of Severn Oaks, a podcast emerges from nowhere to speculate that rather than a tragic accident, someone amongst  her friends and their husbands is guilty of murder. Cheshire has many affluent areas and is known as a place where many a celebrity and premiership footballer opts to live; Severn Oaks is that kind of place and the six are all relatively wealthy, a couple are also famous. So it isn’t long before the press are besieging their neighbourhood, while all the other local families and the parents of other children at their kids’ schools gossip amongst themselves. In short, everyone is listening to the podcast and digesting each and every revelation that comes to pass. Add to that another parent, one who was best friends with Erica, has just gone missing, and it isn’t long before tensions are threatening to tear apart what was once a close-knit friendship group.

Psychological thrillers and domestic noir aren’t normally my chosen genre, I prefer my crime more gritty and noir, but of late I’ve been enjoying a couple of books from this genre. I was attracted to Someone is Lying due to the podcast angle. I listen to quite a few true crime podcasts myself, and lately a number of authors have made use of the phenomenon to great effect, most notably the supernatural chiller writer, Matt Wesolowski. I was hoping for a crime fiction version of that. I would have preferred Jenny Blackhurst, the author of Someone is Lying, to have made greater use of this element of the plot, but instead she chose to focus more on the reaction of the six to the podcast rather than the podcast itself.

As a reader of hardboiled crime noir, such as the work of James Elroy and Don Winslow, I’m used to reading books where none of the characters are particularly likeable. So that isn’t a problem for me. Which is good, because none of the characters in Someone is Lying are likeable, rather they’re all self-centred, self-obsessed, and narcissistic. Personally, I had a bit of difficulty engaging with this novel, but then I feel I’m not really the target audience. I don’t watch programmes like Real Housewives, and while as a husband and father I’ve spent my time at the school gates talking to other parents, as a man I don’t feel I really ever see the bitchiness and suburban infighting that can occur.

That all said, I can appreciate how well this book is written and how it will appeal to its target audience. Women make up a greater proportion of the reading public than men and there’s a reason domestic noir has boomed so much, because female readers are more likely to relate to the subject matter. Certainly, I could see how well-to-do yummy mummies would lap this book up. Similarly, anyone who watches programmes like Real Housewives, Made in Chelsea, and The Only Way is Essex, will love this novel. 

Someone is Lying perfectly encapsulates the thin veneer of civility that lays over affluent suburbia, and the petty rivalries, hatreds, quiet desperation and dissatisfactions, that all too often lie underneath. While I didn’t enjoy this book as much as my usual reads, it’s well written and I reckon it will fly off the shelves.

3 out of 5 stars 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Bothy by Trevor Mark Thomas

In the 2007 book Freakonomics, the behavioural economists Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner revealed a number of surprising aspects about the world around us. One of those, was that many street level drug dealers actually make little money, that in some cases the cash they earn is less than the minimum wage. This interesting factoid kept coming back to me when reading this novel.

Tom, the protagonist of this novel, is grieving. His girlfriend has died and her family, The Conways, a powerful crime family in the local area, have put a bounty on his head. His friend helps him go on the run and arranges for him to hide in The Bothy, a pub in the middle of nowhere and run by Frank, an aging criminal. Tom is not welcomed by his new co-workers, a handful of misfits and thugs. The only person he really becomes friends with is Cora, Frank’s much younger girlfriend, and something that fuels the others hostility towards him. Frank, however, welcomes Tom with open arms and doesn’t appear to mind his flowering friendship with Cora. 

Tom is put to work at the Bothy and on its surrounding land. It’s a shabby place well past its prime. It becomes apparent that Frank himself was once a crime lord of sorts, running brothels and having his finger in other scams. To a certain extent he still does, a crime gang from Bradford occasionally turn up, but what they’re doing for Frank is never quite clear.

Throughout the novel it is apparent that Frank’s best times are far behind him and this is why it reminded me so much of that Freakonomics revelation. The parallels are far from perfect, Frank is no street dealer and it seems likely that at some point he was earning the big bucks: he seems to own The Bothy for a start and there are hints that he was heavily involved in running rackets once-upon-a-time. He has enemies, either from the old days or from whatever he’s mixed up in now, people he wants dead. But he’s clearly in poverty. The Bothy is derelict, no customers ever visit, and food is sparse; this is no lifestyle of five-star hotels he’s living. Equally, while it’s never spelt out, it seems likely that his crew ended up with him the same way as Tom: through accident and misfortune, rather than choice. Certainly, Frank is not paying them very much, if at all.

All this puts an original spin on the gangster crime novel and helps makes this book an original and compelling tale. While on some levels The Bothy is a story about gangsters, it’s not a gangster novel in the traditional sense. This is a much slower burn novel than many that feature gangsters, much more about the tension between the people living and working in The Bothy, their almost hand-to-mouth existence, the mounting suspicion and paranoia as things start to go wrong and both Frank’s enemies, and The Conways who have put a bounty on Tom’s head, start to encroach. The finale, when it comes, is suitably visceral and fitting to the tone of the novel as a whole.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Bothy and would recommend it highly. This is the author’s debut and a pleasure as a book reviewer is finding new talent. I look forward to reading what he writes next.

5 out of 5 stars

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman

Erin Locke is a documentary filmmaker engaged to Mark, a handsome banker. She’s working on a film about what happens to prisoners on the cusp of release and has three subjects lined up: Alexa, a forty-two year old convicted for assisting her terminally ill mother’s suicide; Eddie, a gangster who picked up the mantle of the infamous Richardson gang after their downfall and who has been convicted of money laundering; and Holli, a wayward and some might say feral young woman, convicted for arson after the London riots.

Mark loses her job just as they are planning their wedding and her documentary - her big break in the business - is being filmed. Struggling to find a new job they have to cut back on their wedding, but still fly to Bora Bora for a two-week honeymoon. While there they go diving and find something in the water, something sinister that will change their lives forever. They decide to keep it, the temptation too great, and it is here that the story really picks up.

Returning to the UK they need to capitalise on their find and launder the profits. But the original owners are never far behind and soon Erin feels threatened and can sense them closing in. Meanwhile, aspects of her documentary are going awry, bringing her to the attention of the police, exactly what she doesn’t need when engaged in illegality and becoming involved in the underworld.

Something in the Water is brilliantly told and plotted, the author juggling the twin threads - their discovery of something in the water, attempts to launder the profits, while dodging the dangerous owners, with Erin’s documentary and its own brush with illegality - which eventually intertwine and impact on each other. The characters are believable and Erin’s relationship with Alexa, both bonding over their pregnancies - Erin with Mark, Alexa via IVF - is touching and emotional.

But what I really liked about this is the obvious research the author has carried out and how she uses it to great effect throughout the novel. Examples include the lifestyles of the rich and how money makes life much easier in ways readers might not realise, which is fascinatingly illustrated; the minimum depth one should dig a grave so the body is undiscovered; the qualities of diamonds and how much each are worth; how art is used by the super-rich as an investment portfolio. I don’t know how accurate all this is, though it seems authentic - though the minimum depth of a grave I know from my own writing research and can attest to. While as a former documentary film maker myself, I can say that her depiction of Erin’s work in documentaries is also spot on and I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel as well.

Something in the Water is a very compelling story. The author is somebody to watch and I will definitely be reading her next book.

5 out of 5 stars