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Book Review: Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

In her second novel Elizabeth is Missing author Emma Healey casts her forensic eye on a family dynamic put under strain.

How do you rescue someone who has already been found?

Jen’s fifteen-year-old daughter goes missing for four agonizing days. When Lana is found, unharmed, in the middle of the desolate countryside, everyone thinks the worst is over. But Lana refuses to tell anyone what happened, and the police think the case is closed. The once-happy, loving family returns to London, where things start to fall apart. Lana begins acting strangely: refusing to go to school, and sleeping with the light on.

With her daughter increasingly becoming a stranger, Jen is sure the answer lies in those four missing days. But will Lana ever reveal what happened?

Whistle in the Dark looks at a family reunited after a traumatic separation. They’re no longer able to function as they once did, perhaps understandably so, and especially for as long as the mystery of what happened in those missing days goes unresolved.

Getting to the bottom of things is a twisty, often tortuous task but something which Jen takes upon herself. While her husband Hugh favours an altogether more relaxed approach, Jen is dogged and extreme in some of the lengths to which she’ll go. These include stalking Lana on Instagram, overanalysing comments made, and even following her in real life.

I grudgingly admired her for her terrier-like attitude and refusal to give up trying to unearth what happened, while questioning Jen’s behaviour throughout the book, which is often desperate, sometimes verging on paranoid. She becomes obsessed, seemingly self-absorbed, and turns inward, analysing herself and her relationships with others along the way. To the extent where I wondered if it wasn’t Jen who was slowly losing her mind, and she who had more issues than her daughter.

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Book Review: The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas

If you’re looking for something a little different, something quirky, say, or even geeky, with a superhero for our times, where there’s quiet courage and genuine pathos, a tragic backstory, the hope of a hesitant heart, romance, kindness and humour, then you need to read The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas.

Sam Holloway has survived the worst that life can throw at you. But he’s not really living. His meticulous routines keep everything nice and safe – with just one exception…

Three nights a week, Sam dons his superhero costume and patrols the streets. It makes him feel invincible – but his unlikely heroics are getting him into some sticky, and increasingly dangerous, situations.

Then a girl comes into his life, and his ordered world is thrown into chaos … and now Sam needs to decide whether he can be brave enough to finally take off the mask.

The beautiful cover should tip you off that this book is something special. Open it and you tumble headlong into the world of Sam Holloway’s alter ego. (I had way too much fun reading some of these Phantasm sections in my best film trailer voice. It is unavoidable. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

It’s clear from Sam’s impeccable taste in chocolate bars that he’s one of the good guys, despite life treating him cruelly. But you sense that, whether he’s in disguise, doing good deeds, or quietly living his ordered existence at home or in the office, he’s not dealing with past trauma and it’s holding him back. His friends are there for him when he wants to go to the pub or play board games but something seismic needs to happen to effect change. Enter Sarah, potential romantic interest and human catalyst.

The Unlikely Heroics runs the whole gamut of emotions. You laugh, you cry, you get mad, you get goosebumps; you wince, you sigh, you gasp with pain, you cringe with embarrassment; you feel like hugging or punching someone, and you just plain feel for Sam. It’s this emotional range together with its humour which makes The Unlikely Heroics work so well and has you rooting for Sam to open up, hopefully find happiness, and enjoy closure. Especially when this requires the book’s dark horse to step in and help.

The Unlikely Heroics is an engaging and affecting novel, showing the power of the imagination to shield us, the bravery there is in opening your heart and letting someone else in. Grab yourself some cherry Coke and a Toffee Crisp, suit up and geek out with The Unlikely Heroics. Because this superhero needs YOU.

The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas is published by Wildfire Books, an imprint of Headline. It is available as an audiobook and an ebook and in paperback from 9th August. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and WorderyThis is the third novel from Rhys Thomas. His previous two were The Suicide Club and On The Third Day. You can follow Rhys on Twitter

My thanks to the author and his publisher for sending me an early review copy.

Book Review: Star of the North by D.B. John

Since Mum found out this was on my TBR pile, she’s asked me whether I’ve read it every time I’ve seen her. Why? Because the author’s parents live in our village and he is, therefore, “practically a local.” I’m grateful she did though because Star of the North is a superb and incredibly timely thriller, coming out as it did a month before the recent summit between the US and North Korea.

A young American woman disappears without trace from a South Korean island.

The CIA recruits her twin sister to uncover the truth.

Now, she must go undercover in the world’s most deadly state. 

Only by infiltrating the dark heart of the terrifying regime will she be able to save her sister…and herself.

The disappearance in 1998 provides the spark for this novel but the action properly gets going twelve years later in 2010. John cleverly tells his story, while shedding light on this unfathomable regime and the mysterious country over which it presides, by focusing on three main characters: Jenna, a university professor and the missing woman’s sister; Cho, rising through the ranks in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang; and Mrs Moon, a resourceful farm worker scratching a living in Hyesan, in the northern province of Ryanggang.

I enjoyed the way in which Star of the North‘s narrative switches between these three. John leaves it just long enough between each changeover, that I never felt as if I was losing the thread of anyone’s story. This helped me come to know each character, care about them and their fate, to the point where I still wonder how they are and what they’re doing even after having finished the book. Read more

Author Q&A: Dazzling the Gods by Tom Vowler

Image credit © Jojo Moreschi, 2018.
Image credit © Jojo Moreschi, 2018.

I’m welcoming Tom Vowler to the blog today. Tom is the author of short story collection, The Method, novels What Lies Within and That Dark Remembered Day and is here to talk about his latest story collection, Dazzling the Gods, which I reviewed for Wales Arts Review

Tom, you travel from Ireland to Paris, the Gaza Strip, from London to Lucca in Tuscany, and around the coast, woodland and countryside nearer to home in this collection. Is place the starting point for you when writing? 

Place can be a way into a story, yes, certainly the Paris fiction came after a visit to the Musée d’Orsay. I’m generally compelled to give the reader a ‘felt’ world, to ground and immerse themselves in, place often functioning more than just allegory or aesthetic, but as character itself, to take on meaning beyond its physicality. Proust spoke of landscape having four dimensions, the fourth being time, the places we inhabit having not just a present but a past and future. Characters must never be merely inhabitants of a place but products of it.

As I was reading, I noticed that lives and loves not fulfilling their potential is a recurring theme, with childlessness especially noticeable throughout the collection. Was this something that you wanted to explore in particular? 

Theme, for me at least, tends to emerge unconsciously, and I’m often unaware of such patterns throughout a collection until they’re highlighted by a reader. I suppose it’s hard to ever fully escape the primordial swamp of our psyche, and the short story more than most forms concerns itself with human truths more than escapism. And people who do fulfil their potential are generally dull, I find.

I hadn’t realised the prevalence of childlessness running like a seam through the collection. Oh the delight a psychoanalyst could take in trawling an author’s oeuvre.

In Lucca: Last Days of a Marriage, an editor works on a late author’s manuscript, someone who “troubled his sentences into existence, cared for them as one might a prized possession or one’s child.” Is this how you’d describe what you do as a writer? How would you explain it?

Very meta that story, probably too much so. I was drawn to the idea of a posthumous edit, how you might finish a manuscript for an author without demeaning it. The editor in question wrestles with this almost unreasonable task, to both second guess the author’s intentions and to remain consistent to the aesthetic course charted.

I do concern myself with fiction at a sentence level, yes, regarding them as units of energy that must function at optimum efficiency, neither over- nor under-written. I loathe writing that seems to merely borrow language as a basic tool with which to build the story, as if it had no significance in its own right. The best writing is troubled into existence, functioning on myriad levels, from the pragmatic to the sublime. Read more

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