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Guest Post: A Sense of Place by Alex Christofi #LetUsBeTrue

I’m very happy to welcome Alex Christofi today as part of the blog tour for his latest novel, Let Us Be True. Set in post-war Paris, it follows the stories of Ralf and Elsa, who meet there but come from elsewhere, and is a fascinating take on love and loss, home, belonging, and identity, especially that which we choose to conceal and how we present to others.

Alex very kindly agreed to write about his thoughts on the importance of place to understanding who we are and why where we are matters more than some of us might think. 

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that

Keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next. 1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place. Read more

Writing Elba: Guest post by Emylia Hall #TheThousandLightsHotel

Author Emylia Hall is my guest today as part of The Thousand Lights Hotel blog tour. As we’re both huge fans of Tim Winton, it’s little surprise that place is as important to her in books as it is to me. Which is why I’m thrilled to host Emylia’s post on writing place and the island of Elba, the setting for her latest novel, The Thousand Lights Hotel

All four of my novels have begun with place. I settle on somewhere first – a place bright in my memory, or a longed for destination – and then I ask, who might live here? What’s their story? The setting is what draws me in; everything else follows. This isn’t something I’ve contrived; it’s just the way it happens.

I’ve always been captivated by location. They say that it’s the people who make a place, and maybe that’s true, but relationships are fluid; people can swap cities, move countries, and exist outside of earth-bound constraints. We can gather all our favourite people together in one room, but places must stay put – we can only ever be in one at a time, and to me there’s something melancholic and kind of beautiful about that. This human limitation is why I sometimes feel wistful bordering on sad that I’m here, not there; why, when I’m washing up in my kitchen in Bristol, I’m thinking of a French mountain town, or a Californian beach, or an Italian island, and feeling such longing. I can’t be everywhere, any more than I can stop time. So… I write about place. I travel from my desk. I take what I believe is the Genius Loci, the spirit of somewhere, and I put it on the page. Because as long as I’m writing, or thinking about writing, I’m cheating time and space: I’m both here and there.

Alta & Marina
Alta & Marina

When I started working on The Thousand Lights Hotel I poured all my memories of the island, from trips in 2003 and 2012, into my writing. I lived again among Elba’s verdant hills and rocky coves and gilded beaches. Once more I took in the extravagant bougainvillea, the terracotta pots exploding with hibiscus, the plump and spiky prickly pears. I followed the swooping descent and ascent of the island buses, the rattle of scooters, the languid drifting of a sailing boat. I tasted the bittersweet tang of Aperol, the creamy depths of Torta della nonna, the garlic-rich prawns. I felt sand between my toes, coconut sun-cream on my skin, a midge bite on my ankle. It’s a place I love, and I loved making a novel from it, sitting in my writing hut, writing with clarity. Read more

Book Review: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell #Exquisite #BlogTour

I know from personal experience how intense a week’s writing retreat can be; they forge lasting friendships and can be as life-changing for the individual as they are for their writing. But I’m incredibly relieved they’ve never proved to be as devastating as the one which sparks off the central female relationship in Sarah Stovell’s Exquisite.

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.

When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…

Or does it?

Exquisite’s main characters Bo and Alice are writers, albeit at different stages of their careers. And when you have people who make things up for a living telling the story, they might not be the most reliable of narrators. They’re both persuasive storytellers, possibly prone to exaggeration and bending the truth or shaping things to fit their own narrative. To further muddy the waters, there’s an unnamed narrator to try and identify before Sarah Stovell’s ready to reveal them, who could help shine a light on what’s going on here. All of which helps to make this a deliciously dark, fast-paced psychological thriller that not only messes with the minds of its characters, but also that of the reader. It makes you question who you believe, what you’ve read and witnessed, and causes you to doubt your own understanding of events.

Exquisite is a book of contrasts, some of which are real and others illusory. It contains love and beauty, nurture and openness, kindness and generosity alongside calculated behaviour, cruelty and manipulation, lies and deceit. An already damaged person perpetuates more damage on themselves and others to devastating effect, exploiting their vulnerability and openness, and affecting the lives of innocents.      Read more

Book Review: The Finding of Martha Lost by Caroline Wallace #FindingMarthaLost #BlogTour

It’s the summer of 1976 and there’s a heatwave in England. Strange things happen in heatwaves and inside Liverpool’s oldest and largest railway station, Lime Street, Martha’s life starts to spin out of control. Will her cake-wielding best friend, a Roman centurion and a phantom fisher in a bowler hat be able to help her before everything’s as lost as Martha?

Liverpool, 1976: Martha is lost.

She’s been lost since she was a baby, abandoned in a suitcase on the train from Paris. Ever since, she’s waited in lost property for someone to claim her. It’s been sixteen years, but she’s still hopeful.

Meanwhile, there are lost property mysteries to solve: a suitcase that may have belonged to the Beatles, a stuffed monkey that keeps appearing. But there is one mystery Martha has never been able to solve – and now time is running out. If Martha can’t discover who she really is, she will lose everything…

When I discovered that The Finding of Martha Lost was set in Liverpool’s main rail terminus, I was excited to read it. Probably because I’ve never had to use them for my daily commute, I’ve always found train stations to be pretty exciting places. A large station always feels like a whole world unto itself, ripe for people-watching and full of stories; people meet up or part ways at the beginning or end of a journey, or while passing through on the way elsewhere. Think about all the (possible) human connections, those made accidentally or on purpose, some fleeting, others destined to be more lasting, and those which are completely missed out on. Caroline Wallace gives us a wonderful glimpse into these lives, of some of the people using Lime Street Station, through the things they forget or discard and which eventually make their way into Martha’s hands in the lost property office. For Martha has a special talent when it comes to lost things and it’s one which can be quite revealing.

Martha is a magical character; she’s charming and winsome, kind and friendly, wise beyond her years in some ways but naive about others. She’s eccentric with her daily spinning around the station concourse, and resolutely cheerful despite a soul-crushing life with Mother. Martha shares with her creator, the author, a gift for seeing the beauty in the everyday, the quirkiness and fun, and the wonder of books: how the stories behind certain ones are every bit as important as those within their pages. Understandably, she has a library befitting such a literary heroine. Martha separates her life out into the parts of a fairytale and, as with every fairytale, there’s a dark side and a curse. Only ever having known Lime Street Station as her home, Mother’s convinced her that if she ever leaves, the station and everything in it will crumble.   Read more

Book Review: We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings #BeginAsStrangers #BlogTour

Harriet Cummings’ debut novel We All Begin As Strangers is inspired by real events that took place in her home town the year she was born. In providing her own take on the mysterious intruder ‘The Fox’, she weaves a contemporary tale of the loneliness, suspicion, gossip and misunderstandings rife even in the smallest community.

It’s 1984, and summer is scorching the ordinary English village of Heathcote. What’s more, a mysterious figure is slipping into homes through back doors and open windows. Dubbed ‘The Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.

When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes The Fox is responsible. But as the residents scramble to solve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, little do they know it’s their darkest secrets The Fox is really after…

We All Begin As Strangers is split into four parts, each one told by a different Heathcote resident, starting with Deloris, the only female narrator, followed by Jim and Brian, and ending with Stan. This works well as long as you don’t get too attached to one narrator and their story, and is a boon if you don’t find another so easy. The change in narrator helps to give a real sense of movement around the streets and houses affected while also switching up the perspective. You get that character’s internalised thoughts together with how they behave towards the other residents, and how they’re viewed by the other resident-narrators. This helps shift your own view of Heathcote and its inhabitants as you get to know them better.

We’re not seeing these people at their best: they’re in crisis, responding to the unsettling threat of a home intrusion and the shocking disappearance of Anna which suggests the Fox is altogether a more sinister and dangerous creature. But often when people are under stress is precisely when it’s most revealing. Some people will find themselves or discover strengths they didn’t know they had while others will succumb to fear and allow their inner sheep mentality to take over. In We All Begin As Strangers, there are those helpers we should either always be or look for when something bad happens. But there are also suspicions no longer whispered but openly voiced and once chattering gossip takes the more threatening form of a braying mob looking for a scapegoat when the Fox proves elusive. It’s a fascinating look at how we behave towards others when under pressure or we feel threatened and seems a timely novel in that respect. Read more

Author Q&A and Book Review: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg #AllGrownUp #BlogTour

I’m excited to welcome New York Times best-selling author Jami Attenberg today as part of the blog tour for her latest novel, All Grown Up. Here’s who and what it’s all about:

Andrea is a single, childless 39-year-old woman who tries to navigate family, sexuality, friendships and a career she never wanted, but battles with thoughts and desires that few people would want to face up to. Told in gut-wrenchingly honest language that shimmers with rage and intimacy, All Grown Up poses such questions as:
– What if I don’t want to hold your baby?
– Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce?
– What can I demand of my mother now that I am an adult?
– Is therapy pointless?
– At what point does drinking a lot become a drinking problem?
– Why does everyone keep asking me why I am not married? 

“I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”

Andrea walks and talks off the page right from the very beginning of the book. She’s such a ferociously real character that I still imagine her stalking around her NYC haunts. How did you come to her as your protagonist, and then go about putting together her background and choosing the stories she would tell the reader?
I tend to write short stories when I finish a novel in order to cleanse the palate between books. I wrote a story cycle from the perspective of an unnamed, single, childfree woman watching her friend achieve traditional milestones in life, i.e. get married, have a baby, etc. It was interesting to explore it but I didn’t want to write a book about it. After 150 pages of two other book projects I finally decided to go back to the book after giving it another stab. I figured out I didn’t have to write a single girl in the city book, that there was a way to break it and reinvent it. Part of that comes with the structure of the book, it being told in time-shifting short vignettes, as opposed to a linear narrative. As to how I put together her background, I have lived in New York City for eighteen years, so the landscape was all there for me. And then I just began to invent.

One of the aspects of reading All Grown Up I enjoyed was getting into the head of someone who lives a different life to my own. Andrea’s observations of the people and life around her were often acerbic, but at other times, really resonated with me: two examples that spring to mind are when Andrea talks about getting a gift for her friend who’s having a baby, and in particular, the way in which we lose some friends in life and how we’re unable to do anything to prevent that happening. What are you hoping your readers take away from reading All Grown Up?
Oh I think each reader is going to take away from it whatever they want to take away from it, or perhaps are capable of taking away from it. I can’t control that. I was trying to present a version of a modern woman and human being and all her flaws and strengths and also all the challenges and pressures she faces in society. I’ve been told it’s educating for some, and I’ve been told it’s validating for others. The book is going to do different things for different kinds of people. I certainly hope people enjoy the book too, though. It was meant to move quickly and be entertaining and consuming. Read more

Book Review: Summary Justice by John Fairfax #SummaryJustice #BlogTour

The lawyer in me was attracted to the title and striking cover of Summary Justice, which led me to expect this to be about a legal battle against all the odds, even though unfamiliar with the author’s name. (Which as it turns out is a pen name.) Once I read the following blurb, I knew I had to read it.

The last time Tess de Vere saw William Benson she was a law student on work experience. He was a twenty-one year old, led from the dock of the Old Bailey to begin a life sentence for murder. He’d said he was innocent. She’d believed him.

Sixteen years later Tess overhears a couple of hacks mocking a newcomer to the London Bar, a no-hoper with a murder conviction, running his own show from an old fishmonger’s in Spitalfields. That night she walks back into Benson’s life. The price of his rehabilitation – and access to the Bar – is an admission of guilt to the killing of Paul Harbeton, whose family have vowed revenge. He’s an outcast. The government wants to shut him down and no solicitor will instruct him. But he’s subsidised by a mystery benefactor and a desperate woman has turned to him for help: Sarah Collingstone, mother of a child with special needs, accused of slaying her wealthy lover. It’s a hopeless case and the murder trial, Benson’s first, starts in four days. The evidence is overwhelming but like Benson long ago, she swears she’s innocent. Tess joins the defence team, determined to help Benson survive. But as Benson follows the twists and turns in the courtroom, Tess embarks upon a secret investigation of her own, determined to uncover the truth behind the death of Paul Harbeton on a lonely night in Soho.

You can’t get much more flawed as a criminal lawyer than if you’ve been convicted of murder, so even before you know much more about William Benson, you wonder why he did what he did, if he even did what he was convicted of, and why he’s now back in court but this time as counsel. He’s an intriguing character and one that we start to get to know throughout Summary Justice. I say start, because as this is the first book in an intended series, the reader won’t know everything by the end, even if the story threads are tidied up neatly enough to satisfy most readers while still leaving some unanswered questions to ponder until the next book in the series comes out.

It’s also interesting for two characters to have a past connection or shared history and meet years later, especially if there’s a shift in the dynamic as here. When William Benson and Tess de Vere first met, one was the defendant in a murder trial, the other a law student taken to court to observe law in practice. When they next meet, it’s after he’s studied law while serving some of his sentence, and is today not only out on licence but qualified as a barrister. Tess is also qualified, but as a solicitor rather than barrister, and she’s making a name for herself, currently in a respected London law firm. Although they’re both technically and professionally on the same side of the law now, it seems a part of William Benson will forever be classed, and treated, differently. Despite his apparent rehabilitation, some will always see the criminal in him, the murderer, and nothing beyond that.

If Summary Justice has such a memorable backstory, the present-day case also needs to be a good one so it’s not overshadowed, and it certainly is that. A single mother with a disabled son accused of murder in what appears to be an open and shut case. But nothing’s ever that straightforward and with only days to go before trial, Tess joins forces with Benson and his equally unusual clerk to delve deeper into it and come up with some answers, and a defence for their client. Read more

Book Review: The Method by Shannon Kirk #TheMethod #BlogTour

If you’re looking for a strong central character and are tired of female characters being portrayed as helpless, always waiting on a man to save or rescue them rather than doing the job themselves, then Shannon Kirk’s The Method might be the book for you.

You’re sixteen, you’re pregnant and you’ve been kidnapped.

If you’re anyone else you give in, but if you’re a manipulative prodigy you fight back in the only way you can. You use what you’ve been given against your captors.

You have only one chance to save your life and that of your unborn child. You’re calculating, methodical, and as your kidnappers are about to discover, they made a big mistake in abducting you.

What happens when the victim is just as dangerous as the captors?

It was the book’s blurb that first made me want to read The Method. The premise is as intriguing and different as its main protagonist. A pregnant teen doesn’t sound like your average victim, so while I had my suspicions about why she was targeted, I needed to know for certain what and who were behind her disappearance. And, as quickly becomes apparent, her kidnappers might have chosen the wrong girl. If they thought they were choosing a vulnerable and troubled teenager, they’re about to find out the extent to which appearances can be deceiving and just how fatal an error underestimating someone is.

For our narrator is anything but victim material: she’s already survived one traumatic event in her childhood. She has been raised to be one of life’s survivors. That, together with the pretty unusual skill-set she’s honed, means that this girl is about to turn her time in captivity into one big science project. And while some of her calculations are of their nature repetitive, as she finds a pattern to her days, there are also enough slight twists and upsets that this isn’t a huge problem. Besides, it’s interesting to try and work out if and how she’ll use each asset she identifies and labels throughout the book, and here Shannon Kirk will misdirect you, before reaching Show and Tell day.

Read more

Book Review: Cursed by Thomas Enger #Cursed #BlogTour

Cursed is the fourth book in Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul series but my first introduction to both the author and his investigative journalist protagonist and it works well as a stand-alone.

What secret would you kill to protect?

When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests.

Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-­wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Norway’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son.

With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-­wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history.

I have to confess that I initially chose to read this because, while the bulk of the action takes place in Norway, there was a Swedish connection. And I had a shiver of excitement reading the first page of the prologue to Cursed, which opens with a scene in Sweden and mentions the death of a character called Gunilla because when I was in Sweden I wrote a short story about a woman whose name is Gunilla and is sadly dead by the end. It felt as if my story was in some small way handing over the baton, or talking to Thomas Enger’s much better and far more polished novel. I got a kick out of that idea anyway but enough self-indulgence and back to what I made of Cursed.

I thoroughly enjoyed how the novel is told in dual narrative, Henning Juul taking one strand, and his ex-wife, Nora, also a journalist, the other. I liked seeing how they approached their work, bumped up against each other as they navigated life apart and after the death of their son, and tried to work out at which point the stories they were investigating might find some overlap. Henning and Nora are very different characters but interesting and strong enough in their own right to carry their part of the story when the other is off the page and it gives Cursed a very contemporary feel, having these two former partners still caring for each other and with a connection but also dealing with this next stage of their lives. Read more

Book Review: Ragdoll by Daniel Cole #RagdollBook #BlogTour

Daniel Cole’s debut novel, Ragdoll, intrigued me because it had not one but multiple victims, and I thought I’d enjoy seeing what the connections between them all were, that is, beyond the stitching that loosely connects the initial six. Here’s what the blurb says:

A body is discovered with the dismembered parts of six victims stitched together, nicknamed by the press as the ‘Ragdoll’. Assigned to the shocking case are Detective William ‘Wolf’ Fawkes, recently reinstated to the London Met, and his former partner Detective Emily Baxter.

The ‘Ragdoll Killer’ taunts the police by releasing a list of names to the media, and the dates on which he intends to murder them. With six people to save, can Fawkes and Baxter catch a killer when the world is watching their every move?

The prologue of Ragdoll opens with the end of what appears to be a wholly unconnected case to the one you’re expecting to read, that of the Ragdoll victims and their killer, so this was a disconcerting start. However, as quickly becomes apparent, the two cases are inextricably linked, thanks in great part to Detective Wolf’s involvement in both.

Wolf’s character is interesting: he’s about as flawed and damaged as a person can get, while still holding down a job, and stretches the ‘detective with issues’ idea to new limits. He’s recently reinstated and working with a team of detectives you’ll be familiar with from other detective novels or television series: the usual suspects are all here, but given his nickname, it’ll probably come as little surprise that William Fawkes is most comfortable when operating as a lone wolf. I couldn’t quite see how he had ever appealed to his TV journalist ex-wife or why his former partner on the force feels drawn to him. He’s volatile and obsessive when working a case which leaves very little over for anything, or anyone else. Of all the characters, though, it’s Wolf and Edmunds, the recent transfer across from Fraud, who held my interest the most. Perhaps because they are both terrier-like when on a case. I did like the Scot, Finlay, too but found Vanita fairly insubstantial and Baxter almost too much of a stereotype in any number of ways. Read more

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