Book review: Watching from the Dark

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Readers of the Richard & Judy book club pick, ‘She Lies in Wait’, have come to expect a fast pace, intricate, meticulous plotting and nuanced, compelling characters from Gytha Lodge. The second in the DCI Jonah Sheens series, ‘Watching from the Dark’ certainly does not disappoint.

Aidan Poole logs on to Skype to chat to his girlfriend, Zoe Swardadine. But he doesn’t expect to see a stranger enter her flat. To hear a desperate struggle and then a dreadful silence. Aidan is desperate to find out what has become of Zoe, so why is he hesitant to contact the police?

The book switches deftly between the present-day investigation and the run-up to Zoe’s murder, as well as furthering the stories of Jonah’s likeable team – not least the magnetic Lightman and the vulnerable but smart Hanson.

It’s ideal for the hardened thriller reader, with twists and tangles aplenty to keep you guessing and a complex cast of characters, each with their own secrets to hide.

With thanks to Gytha Lodge and publishers, Michael Joseph, for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

We grieve because we love: why the end is so much harder than ‘The End’

I’ve never actually typed ‘The End’ on a manuscript. Maybe it feels too much like tempting fate to me, especially on a troubled first draft. Like, the more pronounced my certainty and celebration, the more work there will be to do when the edits come back.

‘Finishing’ this time (oh God, I typed it) was harder than before. There was a brief sense of accomplishment, but it didn’t feel enough to justify the amount of work I’d put into the manuscript, and then a terrible sense of loss and dread swept in, and I can’t remember feeling to such an extent before.

I’ve been trying to work out why. What it might mean about my manuscript, or my writing.

It feels a lot like grief.

I’ve lost a world that grew around me and people I had come to love. And of course, I’ve surrendered that perfect vision of what it might have been, if only I were Julie Cohen or Maggie O’Farrell or Sarah Waters.

Not to mention I’ve spent too long in its company now, and as we all know from months of lockdown, that’s an uncomfortable feeling to have about a loved one.

We need a break, me and my manuscript, but that break is going to change us. It has to be read now, and all its faults exposed. (I’m so very aware of its many faults, I had to stop myself listing them point by point in a caveat to my agent.) It’s no longer my own, and that’s not only a letting go, but a letting in… It’s dangerous and scary and exposing.

But there’s more this time around. We’re all already grieving right now, aren’t we? So this is grief on top of grief. This time, when the world I’d written went ‘pop’, my escape hatch closed. I’ve lost the land at the top of the ladder I could climb when the news was all too much.

When you’re grieving, it’s tempting to try and seek out that intimacy in any way you can, knowing (but wanting to forget, each time grief strikes) that it will never be the same.

Starting a new project now is ill-advised. I’m tired. Burnt out. Other responsibilities are calling.

Besides, it won’t be the same. It mightn’t be less, but it won’t be those characters, that world. I dreamed of them. I breathed them. They fed me lines. In the shower, in the car, at the school gates. Anywhere I couldn’t easily write them down, the little bastards.

Now I’ll have to find new loves, write them wrong, dig my way out of one plothole and into the next. Rewrite, rehash, replot, rethink. Relive the frustration and then, with any luck, the limerence.

And then, when I’m finding my way with them, it’ll be time to revisit the old and I’ll rush back to that world I knew so well, with open arms and renewed energy.

Straighten the timeline, bend the arc, drop a hint.

Shift their table into the kitchen.

Make it rain.

Saying goodbye is hard. Starting again is harder. But I love it, all of it. And we grieve only because we love.

Book review: All in Her Head

All in her head

At first glance, Alison has a simple life. She works in a library and returns to her tranquil flat. But something is very wrong. Alison believes that her husband, Jack, is stalking her, leaving messages in her flat and tracking her down at the library. What did he do and why did he leave? And who is the woman who keeps talking to Alison in the cafeteria? Where does Alison remember her from, and how is she involved with Jack?

I have followed Nikki’s journey to publication with interest, and have heard a lot about this book, but happily not enough to have anticipated the ending.

It’s everything you want from a psychological thriller: it’s cleverly plotted, engaging and creates tension and an atmosphere of foreboding right from the outset. What’s more, it has an incredible twist that pulls the rug from under your feet and sends the story hurtling in a new direction, towards a satisfying and heart-warming conclusion. Like all the best twists, the clues are there on reflection, but the answer is well-hidden until the big reveal. I’m willing to bet not many readers will see it coming.

Nikki demonstrates her mastery of both characterisation and plotting in her debut. She weaves the story together from Jack’s perspective as well as Alison’s, and both characters are well-rounded and sympathetic but also compelling and complex.

It’s difficult to maintain so much mystery whilst giving the reader enough to keep track of what’s going on, but Nikki’s handling of the narrative makes it look easy and keeps the pages turning.

Don’t miss this incredible book – and keep an eye out for Nikki Smith in future!

With thanks to Nikki Smith, publishers Orion and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Missing Pieces

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What if the one thing that kept you together was breaking you apart?

Exploring family and love, grief and guilt, Missing Pieces follows two generations of the Sadler family, who are torn apart by the tragic death of a child. Grieving for her daughter, Linda becomes distanced from her husband, Tom, elder daughter, Esme, and even from her unborn baby. The second half of the book, set twenty-five years later, follows that baby, Bea, as she navigates not only the challenges of her family’s past, but also difficult questions about her own future.

So, it’s a book of two halves. In the first, everything slides off the rails and nothing is airbrushed. The repercussions of Phoebe’s death – and Linda’s anger at the injustice of it – is palpable from her clandestine drinking, to the breakdown of her relationships with the rest of her family. In the second, those old scars are very much present, but the unravelling of the past brings some kind of healing.

Missing Pieces is not a noisy, showy book. The tone suits the subject matter – it’s eloquent and raw, unassuming and unflinching. There is no schmaltz or melodrama – the author remains true to the characters and the threads of their relationships are woven realistically and sensitively throughout the story.

The characters’ attempts to scrabble together the ‘Missing Pieces’ are realistic and human – there is no tying everything neatly with a bow, no attempt to paper over the cracks. This is what makes the book beautiful – melancholy and thoughtful, without being bleak. Devastating and yet hopeful. Intense without being overwhelming. And compelling reading.

I follow Laura Pearson on Twitter and was inspired by her personal story and the challenges she overcame to write her debut, Missing Pieces. I certainly look forward to reading more from Laura.

Thank you to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read Missing Pieces in exchange for an honest review. You can purchase your copy here.

Image reproduced with permission. Design by Heike Schuessler: @heikeschuessler

Book review: Big Little Lies

With a large cast of primary school parents, a suspicious death and a dénouement that explores domestic abuse, Liane Moriarty’s HBO hit is a page-turner with a big message.

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Big Little Lies was published in 2014 – one in a string of hits for Australian author, Liane Moriarty. This was the first book to make it to Hollywood, however, with HBO turning it into a series starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley.

I enjoyed ‘The Husband’s Secret’ (published the year prior) and this is the second book of hers I read whilst writing my first book, and seeking to discover how well-known authors were handling infidelity storylines. Contrary to billing, it’s ‘The Husband’s Secret’ which tackles infidelity head-on (and for my money, it’s a more engaging and meaningful read), but this story has much to recommend it too.

It’s the start of term at Pirriwee Public School, and Jane has recently moved to the area with her son, Ziggy, to start afresh. She quickly makes friends with the outspoken Madeline and glamorous Celeste, whose children will also be in Ziggy’s class.

At a fundraiser, someone dies, but we don’t know who or how – and we won’t find out the details until the dénouement. The creative stalling for time (as the individual stories unfold), combined with Moriarty’s knowing humour which rings throughout, keeps you turning pages, until the ending delivers a sobering reality, handling domestic abuse with sensitivity and a depth you might not expect from the tone of the story.

Moriarty manages a large cast of characters with aplomb. We meet them along with Jane, and her mnemonics help bookmark the players enough to keep a handle on who’s who. With a cast this big, it’s difficult to work with subtle character traits, so it’s more of a case of planting a flag and differentiating – creating enough contrast to avoid confusion. Cameos from police interviews – which ostensibly offer tidbits of information about the murder – actually serve to re-establish minor characters whose motivations will be important later, and who risk getting lost along the way.

Because of the simplicity and accessibility of the prose, it’s a case of art concealing art – a lesson in authorial plate-spinning. And a few clatter. Jane, highly anxious and inclined to dwell on the past, suddenly becomes an optimist. And if you’re going to have a catchphrase that sticks out like a sore thumb (‘Oh, calamity’), you want to make sure one character keeps a tight grip on it. But none of these spoil the read, because there is a sense of ‘knowing what you’re in for’, when it comes to this author.

As with other Moriarty reads, I couldn’t help but feel that she had something on the tip of her tongue and that it was never quite said, until the end, where it was announced with a drum roll and cymbal clash, and lost its nuance in all the noise.

But maybe that’s genre preference, above anything else.

In short? It’s a good read – a page-turner that mixes complex social issues with light, airy prose. And sometimes that’s exactly the read you need.

‘Set out early’ published at The Same

I’m delighted that my flash fiction, ‘Set out early‘ is over at The Same today.

This piece is really special to me. Like all ideas worth their salt, this one came to me when I was driving on the motorway and had no way to record it. It came fully formed – the meadow, the characters, the heavy, vital moment they find themselves in.

You can read it here: https://thesame.blog/2018/03/19/issue-7-3-fiction/

I truly hope you enjoy it – do let me know what you think!

You can find more of my published short fiction listed here.

Book review: The End We Start From

Hailed as the first novel about motherhood and climate change, The End We Start From is a mysterious, tender and uplifting work – a short book that leaves you wanting more. 

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I had the pleasure of hearing Megan Hunter speak at the Cambridge Literary Festival last year, and couldn’t resist the boldly original premise of this book…

As a woman’s waters break, London is drenched by floods and finds itself in the grip of an environmental crisis. As she comes to terms with new motherhood, her family also face a fight for survival.

The title is taken from T.S. Eliot and if this doesn’t tip you off that the author is a poet, the narrative style will. The prose is rich and sparing – it dances lightly along a couple of lines at a time and the characters are referred to only by their initials. Whilst the reader may crave more detail about the violence and anarchy which threaten the safety of mother and baby Z, the blank space on the page speaks volumes, serving only to increase the menace.

“Home is another word that has lost itself,” says the woman. As their support structures disintegrate piece by piece, mother and child drift untethered and itinerant, and the story swims forward from point to point too. Again, the narrative nods at the reader’s questions, but doesn’t answer. The effect is to focus our attention as much on the inner story – the concerns of mother and child, the fluidity of time with a new-born, the ebbing and flowing sense of self, the milestones – as on events unfolding in the outside world. It is what Margaret Atwood refers to as ‘herstory’ versus history. We are confronted with how little we understand of nature – the forces that shape our world and act on our bodies.

Babies, we’re reminded, need very few of the trappings of modern life. It is the intensity with which they take what they need from their mother that can leave us flailing in the water.

As mother and child each find their feet in a new and different world, the narrative carries a message of hope and comfort: that all we can do is embrace the unknown and trust in our deliverance.

Editing your manuscript with an agent… what to expect

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I’ve been editing my manuscript with my agent, Julie, preparing it to go out on submission.

When an agent offers representation, author and agent will often work together to whip the manuscript into shape. The degree of involvement varies from one agent (and book) to the next, but because of the law of diminishing returns, it makes sense to have your script as polished as possible before it lands on a publisher’s desk.

Here’s how the editorial process worked for me.

The feedback

Julie began by going through the script a second time after her initial read-through, line-editing and marking up the script with comments and questions.

In addition, she sent me an editorial report identifying some thematic issues, followed by feedback broken down by viewpoint character, which often consisted of filtering the broader themes into each of my viewpoint character’s words and actions.

The discussion

Once I’d had time to digest the report, Julie and I discussed her comments and talked through some ideas about how to implement her suggestions.

Many writers seeking representation worry unduly about this stage – that it is typically antagonistic, with the agent trying to change the writer’s intention and the writer digging their heels in to protect a sacrosanct text. I’d suggest this isn’t the case for the majority of author-agent relationships. It certainly hasn’t been my experience.

An agent takes a chance on a manuscript because they feel strongly enough to champion it. That’s a real vote of confidence. And both parties want the best outcome – a stronger book. If you disagree on the ‘how’ or you can’t see a way forward, that’s when you open a dialogue.

For me, reading and discussing Julie’s comments focused my attention on the weak points in the story and helped me understand why I’d never quite managed to make them work. I could see the effect the changes she outlined would have on the whole. There was only one question she raised that I didn’t know how to execute. It was an alternative ending – one I’d tried before I submitted the manuscript – so I’d already had difficulty making it work. I explained that, we talked it through and came to a resolution that felt right. It truly was as straightforward as that.

In my writing process – and I suspect the same may be true for many writers – some scenes just flow straight from the pen and onto the page, usually at some silent, still hour of night, when the censoring part of my brain has given up and gone to sleep. The characters seem to tell me what to write, and they move effortlessly from A to B. Other scenes have to be carved out of solid rock. The action beats are a struggle and the characters end up in a dialogue that doesn’t lead anywhere. It can take weeks to bash it all into shape.

When it came to the mark-up, without exception, the scenes that just flowed were untouched. It was the hard-wrought chapters that Julie flagged – clearly the angst was still a part of the palimpsest.

Getting down to work

Where previous self-edits have sometimes felt piecemeal, professional editorial guidance and support has brought greater focus and confidence. I could see what we were aiming for, and was excited to get started.

But, of course, some parts of the editorial process are more enjoyable than others. If you’re starting out on edits, here’s my advice.

  1. Let it rest. Deadlines permitting, give yourself some distance from the manuscript before embarking on the editing process. Because I’d been submitting my book to agents, I had a few months’ natural hiatus. Looking back, I was glad I’d let us both rest – myself and the text – before I tackled any edits.
  2. Plan your edits. It’s tempting to dive in, but sometimes making a seemingly small change at the start ricochets through the book, and you spend time chasing your tail trying to fix it. Stick with it. Having a table of chapters and themes helped me map out where each thematic change or addition would have an impact later on.
  3. Save your easy wins for when you need them. Line edits and stylistic tics can be tackled when you’re tired or you’ve hit a wall with the bigger stuff. Keep them in reserve.
  4. Enjoy spending time with your characters. I’ve been writing and editing my book for a few years, but this time around, I was aware that my days spent with these characters might be numbered. Writing new scenes when you already know the players inside out is a gift, and something you’ll truly appreciate when you have to start a new work and get to know brand new people. Having my characters say and do new things, in the name of strengthening the existing story, was far and away my favourite part of the process.

So, my message is: embrace the process, both with your agent, and when working on your own. Like many elements of writing, it isn’t always easy, but it is incredibly rewarding.

 

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Book review: The Summer Book

There’s nothing like a cold snap to make you yearn for summer, crank up the Beach Boys and imagine the orange warmth of the sun kissing your eyelids. 

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Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is just the remedy. Indeed, the popularity of the book in Scandinavia, says Esther Freud in her foreword, owes much to ‘the allure of summer itself for those people who spend so much of the year in the dark’.

Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, wrote the book in 1972, the year after her own mother died, and the book borrows characters and memories from the author’s life.

A touching yet understated novella, it shrugs off delineations of genre (combining adventure, humour, biography and philosophy) and just keeps you coming back for more.

Sophia spends her summers with her father and grandmother on a tiny, remote island in the Gulf of Finland. She has just lost her mother and – although the story is positive and life-affirming – loss is ubiquitous. Whilst Grandmother has no objection to her swearing, she won’t allow the child to call her ‘Mama’.

There is no plot, in the traditional sense. Time is elastic, but nevertheless linear. Presented as one summer, the chapters stretch into many, with friends and others drawing into focus and then disappearing into the shadows without explanation.

In the absence of traditional plot points, the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is the narrative’s primary driving-force. Grandmother is terse, yet fiercely kind and protective. Determined to foster Sophia’s independence without crushing her spirit or cutting short her childhood, she is equal parts delight and frustration at the absolutes which govern the young girl’s thinking. Sophia, too, insists upon pulling ties that bind them, then returning for comfort when bowled over by adult emotions.

Like the push and pull of its characters, the prose vacillates too – by turns, sparse and crisp, then gentle and meandering. One of the delights of the book is that conversations between the two are as likely to end abruptly in childish frustration as they are to unfold into profound philosophical discussions.

We are different creatures in the summer, Jansson reminds us. We stretch our minds and bodies towards nature. And while Sophia grows and explores, Grandmother’s physical decline is becoming ever more apparent.

The island – a character in its own right in this work – is developing too. We are reminded that a space that feels small to the point of claustrophobia for adults, is perfect for an exploring child, whose imagination and adventures expand it.

The island is ravaged by storms which blow over by dawn, like the characters’ arguments. Moss, trampled by summer guests, never comes back. New neighbours bring new customs and erode the old ways of life. Each change threatens to upset the delicate balance and uproot Grandmother. It is Sophia, with her youthful openness to possibility, who is able to usher in an acceptance of new ways of living on the island.

Humorous, wise and thoughtful, The Summer Book is a breath of fresh air in the truest sense, and a little taste of the trickling, pebble-strewn pleasures of summer in the midst of an unrelentingly cold winter.

So, I signed with an agent…

A month ago, something amazing happened. I sent a query to Julie Crisp, former editorial director at Pan Macmillan – where she published authors including bestsellers: Ann Cleeves, China Mieville and Peter F. Hamilton – turned literary agent. A day later, she replied, asking to see the full manuscript. Three days after that (the speed was just as well, since I was holding my breath the entire time…) Julie asked to speak to me and later that week, I was holding a signed agreement in my hand.

Here’s how it happened.

I was just starting out with the querying process and found Julie’s name via the Writer’s Workshop – she was speaking at the York Festival of Writing in September. I was also trialling the Agent Hunter website for the Writer’s Workshop at the time, so was able to find out more about Julie’s ethos, interests and the sort of writing she was looking for.

Julie has worked as an editor in publishing houses all over the globe for over fifteen years, and headed up the Tor imprint in the UK before setting up her agency two years ago. She was actively looking to build her list and – having secured publishing deals for clients in a variety of genres – was on the lookout for upmarket women’s fiction in particular.

I was really nervous about the call, but Julie put me at my ease straightaway, with her overwhelming enthusiasm for the book and compliments about my writing – those are words I’ll never forget. In fact, I was pretty sure I was dreaming at one point… We talked about my background, then the logistics of preparing the novel for pitching to publishers and Julie helped me understand what to expect at each stage.

We discussed editing and it was amazing to hear her feedback on each of the three main characters in Unsteady Souls. Julie had a knack for seizing on the weak points in the story – places where I’d been scratching my head, but not able to see a way forward. I knew at that point that if Julie wanted to represent me, it was going to be an incredible journey.

The possibility of others reading and enjoying your story is what sustains many a writer through the solitary and difficult business of writing and editing a novel. It’s such an exciting prospect to be working with someone so passionate about the book to make the story the strongest it can be, and send it out into the world.

Julie says:

“I loved the voice, the characters, the emotion and felt a genuine resonance with the novel which is very hard to achieve. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, so accomplished was the writing.  I was totally thrilled when Victoria Bird agreed to join the list.”

You can find Julie’s full post about signing me up here, and watch this space for news about Unsteady Souls.