Review: The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

 I’m very excited to receive an early review copy of The Birdwatcher. William Shaw is a great writer, I’ve loved his Breen and Tozer detective series set in 1960s London, and I’ve been looking forward to this new standalone crime novel.

As usual with a good, gripping book, I managed to read it straight through in a couple of days. The Birdwatcher follows police sergeant William South,  a quiet man who’s Kent coast beat usually involves liaising with the local community rather than murder. Things are further complicated by two factors, the arrival of new detective Alexandra Cupidi, and the murder victim is William’s friend and neighbour. Then, in the first lines we discover that William has two more reasons not to want to get involved in the murder: it’s migration season (he’d rather be watching birds) and he is a murderer himself. You’ll see that this book has great potential for a compelling, complex, story, and I’m pleased to say that Shaw delivers and kept me gripped all the way through.

I enjoyed the characterisation. William South is, much like the hero of Shaw’s other books, a quiet man. He likes his life on the wild, barren coast at Dungeness, and his job as Local District lead for the Kent police. He fights against getting involved in the murder even before he finds it is so close to home, and he’s unsure about the new DS who has moved down from London. Against his better judgement, South gets sucked further and further into the case, his local knowledge helping him uncover link after link that tells him the death of his neighbour and fellow birdwatcher wasn’t just a random killing.

The other character who worked well for me was Zoe Cupidi, Alexandra’s teenage daughter who is angry at being dragged away from her friends and school. South finds himself forced to play babysitter and take Zoe birdwatching. I’m not sure how many teenage girls would genuinely manage to become interested in birds, but Shaw writes persuasively!

I also enjoyed the flashbacks to South’s childhood, growing up on a Protestant estate surrounded by Catholic areas in Northern Ireland in the seventies. At first I was a little unsettled by the change of setting, but soon I grew used to this part of the book which gradually showed us how South became the man he is, and raises the question of whether his past is catching up with him.

The final part of the book I want to highlight is Dungeness itself. I love to write in Dungeness, it has a special characteristic of it’s own, a wide expanse of beach overshadowed by the power station, and I guess Shaw has spent quite some time there too. It’s the ideal setting for a murder, and I may not be able to write there in quite the same way again!

The Birdwatcher costs £12.99 in hardback and £6.99 on Kindle and is due out 19th May

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Review: Jonathan Dark or The Evidence Of Ghosts


I just read AK Benedict’s Jonathan Dark or The Evidence Of Ghosts. It came out last week and I read it in it’s entirety in two days. Compelling, multi-layered,  this a good book for anyone who likes detectives and the supernatural.

I love to read detective and crime novels, but I’m not sure that I’d want to write one. There is a degree of complexity, of multi-layeredness, of a problem with a solution that is drip fed in a subtle way but which ends in some sort of denouement, that seems like a lot of hard work! AK Benedict sews many threads into her second novel: a conspiracy theory with a major criminal Ring that runs much of London, the personal stories of Maria who was born blind but has reluctantly regained her sight, and detective Jonathan Dark. There’s cybercrime, mudlarking and cross dressing, stalking, obsession and romance, and diamond rings made from the ashes of the deceased to throw into the mix too.

Benedict plays with the reader: Dark is separated from his wife and sometimes it seems like he is as much a stalker as the man who he is trying to track down. And then there is the supernatural element. Not just a detective story set in modern day London, this book takes place in a world where some people can see ghosts, in a London where ghosts are all around us. Is there a seat on the tube that no-one takes … that’s because a ghost is occupying it. You pick up a taxi one night, and the driver doesn’t say a word: they could be a ghost. Some of the ghosts in this book are content, but most are involved in struggles just like their human counterparts, and this interweaves with the key parts of the plot where Jonathan Dark tries to find the stalker turned murderer and at the same time investigate The Ring.

This is a compelling story, with perhaps too many ideas for each to get its due weight. One of the interesting threads which I felt could be drawn out further is Maria’s experience of regaining her sight. We know she was born blind but has gone through a new treatment that has restored her sight. We don’t discover how much sight she has regained, and we don’t really get to grips with the experience of seeing for the first time which i think could be fascinating. By the time we meet Maria she has decided that sight is not for her, and she wears a blindfold throughout the book. As the subject of a stalker this means that she is easily watched, and I wonder if Benedict is challenging the idea that ‘she asked for it’. To most of the population it is easy to say that Maria should take her blindfold off to protect herself. For Maria, this is an unthinkable step. She argues that seeing diminishes what she experiences through other senses. She is adept at navigating her London locality, and uses touch and smell when she goes mudlarking, tracking down antiquities that wash up on the banks of the Thames.

There are some great characters in the book: I like Frank the undertaker, Keisha the feisty policewoman, and Maria and Jonathan too. I think there’s more to Jonathan Dark than can be achieved by this one novel: I hope AK Benedict has a sequel in mind. Jonathan Dark or The Evidence Of Ghosts costs £6.99 on Kindle, and from £4-£12 on Amazon at time of writing.

What I’m going to be writing about next: I’m very excited that I’m getting a nice early review copy of The Birdwatcher. William Shaw is a great writer, I’ve loved his Breen and Tozer detective series set in 1960s London, and I’m looking forward to this new stand alone book.

What I’m reading, watching, writing #whatimwriting

I’m still in research phase for the current book, and over the last couple of weeks I have read Home Truths by Sara Maitland, watched Bamako and Timbuktu , both set in Mali, by director Abderrahmane Sissako and stumbled across Saviours, season 13 episode 8 of NCIS where a doctor is kidnapped, in South Sudan.

It is unnerving how once you have written a draft, life starts throwing coincidences at you. I saw a link to Home Truths, I think in something in the Mslexia diary for 2016 which is all about writing the body. The book was mentioned as the main character loses a hand in an accident on a mountain in Zimbabwe.  The short description ticked several of my ‘might be interesting’ boxes and I picked up a second hand copy. I didn’t realise how many areas of the book would resonate with my novel in draft.  There is a missing person; a return from Africa, changed, mutilated; a return to a family home where things are the same and nothing is the same at all; a return where pain and confrontation leads to healing and moving on. There are differences too, my book doesn’t focus on religion in the way Maitland does, but some similar questions are raised about identity, ability and disability.

I started finding out more about Sara Maitland (see my post on authorial intent … I’m still open minded about whether knowing the author’s biographical details enhances or diminishes your experience of reading their work, whether it confounds and distracts from the book as a work.  Nonetheless as a writer I’m curious to see what else a writer has created, where the inspiration might have come from.). Anyway, looking up Sara Maitland lead me to Lancaster University where she is a contributor to the Creative Writing MA. That lead me to the PhD, and put me back into the ‘shall I, shan’t I?’ mindset, where my fingers hover over the keyboard and I consider investing days in filling in a PhD application form, investing years in one single project. Having completed the MA I have more idea of what it might take, and so I hesitate, but I’m working on this book regardless and part of me thinks I may as well take that one extra step.

One of the motivations to suck up my qualms and just apply for a PhD is the fact that I’m going to do a fair chunk of research anyway. Right now I’m aware I haven’t studied post colonial theory, so I’m starting work on that. I’m aware that by writing a white man and woman into Africa, there is a danger that I’m unsure I can avoid. Unavoidable or not, I need to know more about what I’m doing, to write consciously. What I can tap into, what most people can find somewhere in their lives, is the feeling of being other, of being the different one. It’s interesting to watch Sissako‘s work and see the difference in pace and story telling, particularly when compared to Beasts of No Nation, set in West Africa, based on an African author’s book, but fundamentally an American production, or the popular NCIS series where everything is fast paced and wrapped up in less than an hour. I’m not sure how to do this, but it would be good to learn how to write that difference in pace and perspective and that is something I want to consider when I go to Tom Connolly’s Film and Fiction event on how the movies can help you tell your story.


So, that’s where I’m up to. I took time out to read a good supernatural detective story over the weekend, which I’ll write about soon, but now I’m back to Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (I love this series for kickstarting you into a topic) and more hostage memoirs with Amanda Lindhout’s  A House in the Sky.

 

 

 

The Madwoman Upstairs and Authorial Intent

The Madwoman Upstairs succeeds in throwing fresh light on the lives and writings of the Bronte sisters, and raises questions about authorial intent and the biographical fallacy.

Samantha Whipple, last remaining descendent of the Bronte family is a twenty year old undergrad, an American starting her first term at the fictional Old College, Oxford. It is interesting to me, as a Brit who has lived in Oxford, to see how she views the strange collegiate traditions she encounters, some of which are true to life, others overdrawn to aid the fiction that Lowell creates to fuel the environment that pushes Samantha to some edge of sanity.

The book will ring true for students of English Literature, and perhaps any student who has wrangled with a tutor or professor who starts from the position that they are irrefutably right and anything that you know already is worthless.  All Samantha’s studies of literature seem to count for nothing with her tutor, James Orville.  The book follows Samantha through her first two terms as she unravels her previous experience and deals with the death of her father, while wrestling with the issue of authorial intent: when reading a book, do you need to know about the author and their intentions to understand the story, or should a novel stand alone ? If you search for Catherine Lowell online, there is a scant one liner: “Catherine Lowell received her BA in Creative Writing from Stanford University and currently lives in New York City.” Lowell is giving us no clues to her intent, leaving us to understand that she follows the New Criticism belief that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding. We have to do the work ourselves as readers. In the book, we learn how Samantha’s father, a man who sprinkles aliases into his every day life, obsessively reads the works of the Bronte sisters, looking for enlightenment in their words, the message within the story. In contrast, his old enemy Sir John Barker has thrown over an academic career and become curator of the Bronte Museum at the Old Parsonage in Haworth. His obsession is in tracking down the ‘Vast Bronte Estate’, every quill or handkerchief used by the family, every dress or painting or manuscript. These two characters stand for the different sides of the debate: does the quill or the first draft of Withering Heights tell us more than the book itself?

Samantha becomes swept up in a posthumous treasure hunt, spurred on by obscure and lateral clues from her late father. The man who taught her than she should look only at the books, draws her on to find a mystery treasure, some part of the Bronte estate that Sir John Barker has made his life’s work to find. Of course, she voyages to Haworth, and perhaps unsurprisingly finds that her ‘ancestral home’, which she imagined many times as a child, does not hold the secret she is looking for.

This is a clever book, but perhaps Samantha’s madness doesn’t go far enough nor with enough conviction. I did keep reading right to the end, keen to find out exactly what Samantha had been left in her father’s will. Do we find out which side is correct about authorial intent: I lean to the approach of deconstruction, that authorial intent is unknowable and possibly irrelevant. What we learn from a text depends on an interaction between our life experience and the words on the page. We may psychoanalyse exactly what the author intended, but we can never know the answer. When I write myself I write with one idea in mind, then see others that emerge as the text sits on the page, some of which may only be apparent to me as author months or years after writing.   I have completed The Madwoman Upstairs with the sense that it is time to go back and reread the works of the Bronte sisters, which is a worthwhile gift and perhaps one that this author did intend.

 

The Madwoman Upstairs costs around £13.50 for a hardback and £7.50 on Kindle at time of writing and is released on 3 March 2016

Review: The Making of Her

 I’ve been reading Susie Nott-Bower’s first novel, The Making of Her, and I’m impressed.  Too often one looks at the small and independent press as a second choice for publication, but The Making of Her shows that there’s nothing second rate about working with independent publishers. The book examines being a woman in the twenty first century where looks are valued over experience. It asks questions about how we regard ourselves, how we see our flesh and skin as it changes over the years. Nott-Bower uses her experience in the world of television, the medium that puts a magnifying glass to our lives, and writes the story of Clara, a TV producer who has just reached 50 and denies her birthdays. She can’t combat other peoples’ perceptions as she wrangles with her young assistant Alix who is after her job. Clara’s best friend Josephine is married to a successful playwright and has let her own dreams of writing become buried in a verbally abusive relationship where all she is, is typist, copyeditor and cheer leader in chief.

In advance of the Reading and Being Read conference at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, I spoke to Susie Nott-Bowers about her experience of writing and publishing The Making of Her. Susie says, “It started when I went on a University of Falmouth How to Write a Novel course. The course equipped me with the steps I needed to write a novel, and we formed a critique group that met fortnightly for quite some time afterwards. I set myself a deliberately achievable target of 2000 words each week. I made a schedule and within a year I had my first draft.”

The novel follows Clara’s struggle as, within creasing pressure at work, she is forced to put aside her feminist principles and the documentaries she usually worked on for a straightforward makeover show. Susie says, “I’d worked in television for many years, and while I hadn’t worked on a makeover programme it was easy to find out about them. Clara and Jo are two sides of myself, the ambitious, outward person in need of finding femininity, and the introverted writer, the person who was in need of spirit. The novel was a way to allow them to find the hidden part of themselves.” Clara’s battle for her career, to ensure that she is seen as someone who still has value, interweaves with gradual revelations from her past. Jo finds the courage to take steps to change her life: as she separates from her soul-sucking husband she rediscovers herself, at first gradually and then with one drastic step that changes things for both herself and for  Clara.

Susie completed her first draft and says, “It began as a very depressing novel, entitled The Change. I gradually edited it, changed the title, added humour, and then sent it off to a selection of literary agents. I had a few requests, but no-one took it on. An agent had held on to the manuscript for many months and then sent a brutal rejection. I was ready to throw in the towel, but a friend from my course sent me the link to Linen Press.  With a last throw of the dice, I sent it to this unknown press. Within 24 hours Lynn rang to ask for the rest of the book, within a week she had offered me a contract subject to some revisions. We spent quite a few months working on it – Lynn is a fantastic editor. She asked me to write a new opening, she wanted more of Pete Street and I added a couple of smaller sub plots. At the end it was sub edited, I had a hand in choosing the cover, and it was published.”

Looking back at her experience of being published, Susie says, “It was a strange time. I was very much taken up with my parents health at the time. I did a lot of publicity, and Lyn helped too. I must have written to every magazine and newspaper in the country with no response, but a lot of bloggers read it and reviewed it. It was mixed though: wonderful to have the book published, but difficult to get it out there and get it read. It has sold several hundred copies. The small press experience has had many wonderful sides. Friends have had good and bad experiences with bigger publishers. I think all writers hanker after the big contracts. The main driver for me is for as many people as possible to read what you have written.”

Currently Susie is working on her second novel. She says, “I started another novel, then paused due to life events at 30,000 words, and now I’m looking at it again, with ideas of replanning and replotting. I put so much into that first novel and have doubts about doing it again which slow me down when completing the second novel. I wrote the first book in innocence, and now I’m writing in experience. I was reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, all about the creative process. In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert says the outcome of any creative act is a souvenir of the process, ‘something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.’” However you publish your work, it is this reminder that we all hope to create.

Reading and Being Read takes place at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, and is run in association with The Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster. Book here.

The Making of Her is available from Amazon and costs £5.99 on Kindle, or from www.linen-press.com in paperback for £11.99.

 

 

 

This review first appeared on The Contemporary Small Press site.

Review: When Breath becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

I thought that I had reviewed Kate Gross’s Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) but it seems that I haven’t. I know I haven’t written about Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh, because I wrote about that in a term paper rather than on the blog. I’m not sure if it’s my age (!) or whether closeness to death just makes a good story, but I love how these two books show you life right on the edge. Kate Gross describes her life and end of life after diagnosis with cancer at 34. Henry Marsh writes as a neurosurgeon, looking back on a long career dealing with people with life threatening brain disease and injury.

Somewhere in between Late Fragments and Do No Harm, lies the new release, When Breath Becomes Air. It is written by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and writer. Kalanithi had degrees in English literature, human biology, history and philosophy of science, and Medicine, and he brings all that knowledge to bear in his writing, sharpened by a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in his thirties.

The book takes you from when Paul started to suspect cancer, to the diagnosis, then right back to his time growing up in Arizona, his studies at different universities, a beautiful description of what made him. The second part of the book returns us to his last two years, his treatment, improvements, relapses, and his struggles to work out what it meant for his sense of self, his relationships, his career. None of it is maudlin: instead Paul writes with the clarity that I think we would all like to achieve given the same situation. The book is not long: I read it on a return train journey in less than three hours. Paul’s writings were cut short by the progression of his illness, and the book is completed with an epilogue by his wife Lucy. Nonetheless, it is a book I would read again, and again. It seems that, as with Late Fragments, Kalanithi has discovered something truly special. In his book he somehow transfers to the reader a little of the change in the way that you value life when the date of your death is suddenly brought near.

Listen to Paul and watch the video, A Strange Relativity: Altered Time for Surgeon-Turned-Patient, that he made before his death. It is beautiful, a thoughtful meditation on what time meant for him as he watched his baby daughter grow up while his own time was running out.

At some point I’ll write more about Do No Harm and Late Fragments, both great books and very different examples of writing from life changing experience.

When Breath Becomes Air costs around £9 at time of writing.

Disclaimer: I was sent this book to review

Review: Not if I see you first


I don’t generally review YA, but I’m writing about sight loss so couldn’t miss out on the chance to see how another author has dealt with this. Not If I See You First  by Eric Lindstrom tells the story of Parker, a fifteen year old, and her journey as she comes to terms with the loss of her father. So far, so conventional in the genre. The twist is that Parker is blind.

I know something about sight loss, probably more than most people, but it’s because I’ve studied it rather than experienced it. I’ve written a book about it, in fact, Sight Loss: The Essential Guide. I’ve worked with people with sight loss from the age of 15, but I still am not entirely qualified to determine if Lindstrom has  created an authentic piece, I don’t think anyone can truly understand sight loss without personal experience. Parker is, unlike most ‘blind’ people, entirely without sight: her optic nerves were severed in an accident when she was seven. The experience has left her spiky and defensive: she holds her close friends close, but has rules that she, and anyone who wants to be with her, have to live by. The rules run from one to eleven, plus there’s rule infinity.

Rule #1: Don’t deceive me. Especially using my blindness. Especially in public.

Rule #2 explains how not to touch Parker without warning, rule #3 highlights not to move her stuff, because she needs to be able to find it, rule #4 says, ‘Don’t help me unless I ask.’ and so on. Rule infinity is slightly different: ‘there are NO second chances… betrayal is unforgiveable.’ And this is where things get interesting. Parker’s high school has recently combined forces with another school, throwing her back into contact with kids she hasn’t seen since middle school, including one, Scott, who broke rule #1, and in doing so, smashed rule infinity too. Parker hasn’t spoken to him since.

Parker is quirky, and she’d rather attack than defend: she uses words like weapons, and throughout the book she begins to realise how this can keep more people at arms length than she might intend. She meets a nice guy, Jason, goes on a first date, and rows with her best friend when she starts to doubt how much Sarah is sharing with her. Lindstrom does a good job of tapping into the teenage mind with all its insecurities, adding in a heaping of extra worries that surface when you can’t see what’s going on and rely on other people to fill you in.

The characters are authentic – new girl Molly who buddies with Parker as she shares the same classes, Parker’s cousins Sheila and Petey who have been moved from their home town as Parker’s aunt and uncle move to take care of her. The plot speeds along at the perfect pace as we watch her deal with tensions with Scott, and decide that maybe she had been harsh in cutting him out of her life all together back when they were thirteen.

So, I’d say that this is a good read, with a twist of something different. It could certainly get teen readers to think a bit more about sight loss, while being carried along by a good story. Not If I See You First  costs from £7.99 at time of writing.

PS. Braille! Eric Lindstrom has liaised with the American Braille society in writing this book. There is Braille on the cover and in an end note. I reviewed the eBook, and I suspect that there may be a reason to get the print copy for the full experience. If you have the print copy and have checked out the Braille sections, let me know.