Book Review: The Things You Didn’t See by Ruth Dugdall

 

the things you didn't see

Ex-probation officer Ruth Dugdall won the CWA Debut Dagger award for her novel The Woman Before Me and also won the Luke Bitmead Bursary in 2013, her experience within the prison system heavily informing her highly successful crime novels. In her new standalone suspense novel The Things You Didn’t See, Dugdall’s skill at creating mystery and intrigue continues.

In the farmhouse where she grew up, Cassandra Hawke wakes one morning to find her mother has been shot, the apparent victim of a tragic suicide attempt. Called to the farmhouse as part of the emergency response team, paramedic Holly realises that she knows Cassandra from the past. The two women becoming allies, they set about trying to unravel the mystery of what really happened to Cassandra’s mother, Holly using her rare condition, synaesthesia, to gauge who is telling the truth and who isn’t. Did Maya really want to kill herself? Or, with the authorities and her family fighting over her inherited farmland, is there more to the tragic event than at first appears?

Unlike in Dugdall’s crime novels, the plot in this one simmers rather than explodes, the reader taken down a number of twisted paths, not unlike the narrow lane that leads to the book’s rural farm setting.  This book is very character driven, the questions that Dugdall sets up for the reader possibly not so much about who is behind the tragic events of the 31st October but what their motives are, how the tragedy links to events of the past and who exactly knows what. Bringing in unusual subject matters like synaesthesia and sleepwalking also add a unique edge to the book that makes what perhaps could have been quite a traditional murder-mystery into something much more original. Dugdall’s use of setting in this novel is excellent and highly authentic, with the atmospheric Innocence Farm and its surrounding rural village perhaps akin to the small-town claustrophobia of a Stephen King novel.

If you like a traditional suspense novel with a unique twist, The Things You Didn’t See is definitely for you.

 

 

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Book Review: The Old You by Louise Voss

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When I began reading The Old You by Louise Voss, I presumed that what I had ahead of me was a few pleasant days immersed in a memoir-ish fictional account of a family dealing with the aftermath of a diagnosis of dementia.

In the opening chapter, Lynn Naismith and her husband Ed deal with the devastating news that Ed has Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia that he has inherited from his father. As his condition seems to quickly worsen, Ed soon muddling words, forgetting essential passwords and losing all sense of inhibition, Lynn commits herself to juggling her new job with Ed’s care, the man she previously adored disappearing before her eyes.

When Ed is offered the chance to take part in a clinical trial, Lynn is hopeful that the results will at least put a halt to her husband’s rapid deterioration.

But is all as it seems?

A few chapters into the book, Voss suddenly pulls her reader down a completely unexpected path, the gentle suburban reading trip I thought I was taking suddenly becoming a dark and sinister mystery tour akin to the plot of a Hitchcock film. Gone now is the domestic tale of coping with illness. In its place is a twisting psychological thriller in which no-one can be trusted. To say any more would be to spoil what is a highly original plot. Suffice to say that The Old You is a one-of-a-kind novel that will have you turning the pages to find out what is really going on.

The Old You is published by Orenda Books and is out now.

Book Review: Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

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Good Me Bad Me is a disturbing thriller that tells the story of 15-year-old Annie. Until recently, Annie lived with her mother Ruth, in whose care she suffered devastating psychological and physical abuse alongside witnessing her mother commit crimes against other children that will be forever ingrained on her memory. Now living with a foster family and renamed ‘Milly’, Annie is attempting to come to terms with being the one who reported her mother to the police.

The premise of this novel is strong: Annie’s mother is a manipulative serial killer whose influence on her daughter didn’t simply come to an end when she was arrested. Constantly battling with the sound of her mother’s voice in her head, Annie tries to fit in at her new home and her new school whilst also preparing herself for having to testify against Ruth in court. Although, I occasionally wondered what the system was thinking placing Annie with another obviously dysfunctional family (her foster sister hates her and her foster mother is rarely seen without an alcoholic drink in her hand), the protagonist is a strong and likeable character for whom the reader feels much sympathy. Although the sometimes chatty style of her narrative is not always easy to read it is certainly authentic and her attempts to make friends, hampered by frequent panic attacks, make often heart-breaking reading.

As the book progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Annie’s attempts to fit in are possibly beyond her and that her battle to convince herself that she is not her mother’s daughter will quite possibly be one that she cannot win. Will it be ‘good’ Annie or ‘bad’ Annie that prevails?

Good Me Bad Me is a chilling page-turner that I’m sure will be adapted for cinema screens before long.

Things I wish I’d known…

While scrolling through Twitter recently (ever the procrastinator!), I have noticed a number of tweets that have referred to the difficulties that a debut author might experience after he or she has signed a publishing contract or been offered representation by an agent. Of course, achieving what you have worked towards, perhaps for many years, is exciting and something to be celebrated, but the path to having your novel or short story collection published can also be paved with huge amounts of anxiety. Indeed, Jade City and Zeroboxer author Fonda Lee recently summed up her own experience in a series of tweets:

Perhaps, for a new author, being prepared for the sometimes-stressful journey to becoming published is the answer, so I recently asked a few authors what they wish they had known before they were published that might have made their experience a little easier.

Winner of the CWA Debut Dagger and Luke Bitmead awards Ruth Dugdall stressed how important a social media presence can be for a new author. She said, “I wish I’d known just how important social media is. The relationships an author has with book reviewers and bloggers can make all the difference to the success of a novel, and I didn’t realize this initially, so I didn’t devote as much time to Twitter and Facebook as I should have done.”

Ruth also stressed that a debut author can make connections in other ways, for example in their local community: “I also wish that someone had told me just how important it is to contact local groups and try and build a local following. WI (Women’s Institute) groups are my all time favourites, and, once they get to know you, more invites will come. Every opportunity to meet a potential reader should be cherished.”

Much as a debut author might relish the idea of signing copies of their beloved book, Ruth stresses that bookshop events can often have a downside: “Book signings suck! Standing next to a whopping pile of books in Waterstones is the most demoralizing experience, and some of the stores won’t even offer you a cup of tea!”

Ruth’s seventh novel, The Things You Didn’t See, is out on 24th April.

Daniel Culver, whose debut novel White Midnight has recently been released by Manatee Books, agrees with Ruth about the importance of becoming involved with social media and of making connections with readers: “I never realised the value of having your book reviewed and rated. I don’t know if this would have changed anything, knowing how important things like Amazon and Goodreads (and Twitter, of course) are beforehand. I never did social media before, so only signed up to Twitter because of the book.”

Daniel also stressed how debut authors need to factor in how promoting an already published book might impact on writing the next. He said, “I always thought once the book is done and out there, that would be it, but the work to promote it is endless.”

Author of Between You and Me and Tell Me No Lies Lisa Hall agrees that signing a publishing or agent’s contract is just the beginning: ” The real work only starts after you have signed a book deal, what with editing, polishing, tweeting, promoting, writing articles…”

Lisa also stresses that debut authors shouldn’t be put off by negative reviews, “One-star reviews are not the be all and end all” and that authors should always remember that their agent or editor is on their side: “Your editor is your best friend. Ditto, your agent, if you have one.”

Lisa’s new novel, The Party, will be released on 26th July.

Finally, Manatee Books author James Stansfield, who has recently released his debut novel Anaconda Vice, and Orenda Books author Louise Beech nicely sum up a writer’s experience after signing a contract from different perspectives:

James said, “One thing that has surprised me is how much having a novel published has messed with my sleep patterns. I’ve not had this little rest since my daughter was a newborn.”

Whilst Louise states, “I only wish I’d known that it would happen for sure, then I could have been as excited as hell…”

Book Review: Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

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It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that I couldn’t put down and I admit I’m quite late to the party when it comes to Lisa Jewell novels. I downloaded Then She Was Gone to my Kindle on a Wednesday evening and, by the weekend, had finished it. No mean feat considering that, in between reading sessions, I had a birthday, mother’s day, a trip away with my boys and some shifts at my day job.

Then She Was Gone tells the story of 55-year-old Laurel Mack whose daughter Ellie disappeared when she was fifteen. Laurel has spent the ten years since the tragedy trying to rebuild her life. She has separated from her husband Paul and has an uneasy relationship with her remaining children Hanna and Jack. While the rest of her family seem to have moved on with their lives, Laurel has never given up hope of finding her daughter, struggling to maintain relationships and live in the present. When Laurel meets handsome American Floyd in a café, she finally begins to see a way forward, the joy of being in a new relationship lifting her spirits. However, when she meets Floyd’s unusual and older-than-her-age daughter Poppy, Laurel once again finds herself in the grip of past hurts. Who is this strange child and where did she come from? Can she and her father somehow lead Laurel to find out what happened to Ellie all those years ago?

Marketed as a psychological suspense novel, Then She Was Gone is more a disturbing character study that focusses on the impact of trauma and the domino effect one person’s actions can have on all involved. Flitting between the past and the present, as well as various points of view, Jewell begins to tell us the story in flashback, each revelation then taking us forward to Laurel in the present and successfully moving the story on. Admittedly, as a few other reviewers have pointed out, some of the plot of this novel requires a slight suspension of disbelief and, for me, the ending of the book kind of fizzles out a little, the showdown that I might have expected from a psychological suspense never quite arriving.

However, Jewell’s characters are believable and sympathetic and Then She Was Gone is a touching study of loss and hope. Definitely a page-turner.

Review: Ellipsis Zine: Two

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Read three over a cup of coffee. Read four on your daily commute. Read one that will make you think twice.

I was recently given the opportunity to read Issue Two of Ellipsis Zine in return for an honest review. Ellipsis Zine, launched by Steve Campbell in 2017, is an online and print literary magazine that publishes flash fiction and short creative non-fiction with each contribution within the 1000-word mark. As stated on the Ellipsis website: We love stories that make us forget where we are, stories that introduce us to people, places and things we’ve never seen before and stories that stick with us long after we leave them.

Ellipsis Zine: Two is a stunning collection of flash that explores themes such as loss, escape, infidelity and the impact of trauma.

In Jack Somers’ Billy, a wounded child feels the presence of his father’s past. As Dad tends to the boy’s injured foot, his son gains a mature insight into how past hurt can linger.

In the marvellously succinct opening of First Untruths, Tomas Marcantonio’s incredible use of description drags the reader back to the churches of childhood in a just a few well-chosen words: The thurible swung from its gibbet chains, releasing a heavy cloud of hallucinations to the rafters, and the purple tang of incense tickled in my nose and throat like a mouthful of fizzy petals… The story goes on to explore the familiar childhood fear of having nothing to say in the confessional.

In the brilliantly original The Oversharing Omniscient Narrator by Caleb Echterling, character Dave tries to control his own story: He flings an empty vodka bottle at the ceiling. “Dammit! Don’t tell them that…it’s extraneous to the plot.”

In Judy Darley’s fabulously insightful Flamingos and Ham, personalities and gender practically become non-existent as colours are outlawed: “Don’t let them make you believe that this is normal. You wore pink once…”

In Lucie McKnight Hardy’s highly moving Diptych, a hot and bickering family take a long journey to the funeral of loved-one, McKnight Hardy’s wonderful use of description again lingering in the reader’s mind long after the short is finished: Bewilderment filters through, intensified by silence; a diptych carved from grief.

And, in the not-too-distant future of Luke Richardson’s Two Minutes, Richardson’s protagonist marvels at past levels of concentration: before computers and machines completed complicated tasks, people had to concentrate for as long as an hour. You’d seen pictures of them driving cars and trains, operating machines, reading books.

A brilliant flash fiction showcase that is ideal for those random moments when you need nothing more than a quick literary fix, Ellipsis Zine publishes new work online every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and even offers writers a share of the royalties, as well as a complimentary copy of the print edition. All submitting authors also receive purchase discounts.

For information about submitting and to purchase Issues One and Two, visit the Ellipsis Zine website.

 

Why we should value our canine and feline writing companions

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A few weeks before Christmas, I lost my faithful writing companion: the West Highland terrier I rescued almost eight years ago, my lovely Molly.

Molly (and her brother George, who we sadly lost just two years ago) was with me when I made my very first serious attempt at writing a novel, sitting on her bed at my feet as I wrote longhand in a pad at the kitchen table. She was also at my side when I wrote my latest novel, the one that has finally won me a publishing contract and that will be released with Manatee Books in the coming year.

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For much of my time, Molly drove me quite bonkers, fighting my laptop for space on my knee, barking at every figure that passed the window, and crying for her walk or her tea just as I might be finding myself in the ‘zone’ (you all know what I mean, that place in your novel that you pray you will reach every writing day, the one that, when it comes, you never want to leave). What we writers all know, however, is what a solitary, sedentary world we can create for ourselves when we are writing, and what Molly did for me was make me get out of the chair, make me shut down my laptop, if only for a short while, and make me go out of the house, something that I am struggling with a little on the days I’m not in my day job now that she is not here.

I won’t get another dog, not for a while anyway, but for many writers, our canine and feline companions can often be the only thing that connects us to the outside world, that enable us to have a responsibility to something other than the characters we are creating on the page.

So, here’s to Molly: with me in spirit for the next one.

 

 

Book Review: The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

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In the summer of 1983, lonely teenager Helen meets the Dovers, a quirky and sometimes dysfunctional family who move into a house on the bank of the canal near where Helen lives. As Helen becomes drawn into the Dovers’ world, attempting to fill the emotional gaps left by her parents’ split, her life changes forever.

Helen lives with her father, Mick, a reclusive drinker devastated by the loss of his wife. When the Dovers move into a nearby cottage, she is instantly captivated by their seemingly eccentric lifestyle. Young twins Pippa and Will run free without any discipline, teenager Victoria does as she pleases and mother Alice spends much of her time wrapped in her own world. The only authority in the family comes from older brother Seth and part-time uncle Piet. Spending the summer by the canal with her new friends, Helen feels that she has found her niche, never daring to imagine that her life might go back to the way it was before. It won’t, but not all change is good as we find out when we meet Helen thirty years later, the impact of that summer on the now reclusive and vulnerable adult clear.

Much as Helen’s world with the Dovers seems idyllic at first, Sarah Jasmon does an excellent job of making the reader feel uneasy from the off, of hinting at what is to come and of making us feel that all will not end well. As indeed it doesn’t. How exactly, we don’t find out until the end of the book. Along with the reader, even Helen is in the dark about what exactly happened during that summer, her memories as an adult unclear and playing tricks on her. It takes another meeting with the now successful photographer Victoria to reveal all.

The Summer of Secrets is highly atmospheric, Jasmon successfully making the reader feel the intense heat of Helen’s summer with the Dovers and her own experience of living on a canal boat making the novel’s setting highly authentic. The slow-burning plot in this book is like a ticking time bomb, the summer’s events being revealed bit by bit, both to the adult Helen and to us. And, when we find out what happened, we can clearly see why Helen is as she is, the secrets of the books title ones that will possibly stay with her forever.

The Summer of Secrets is available now. To find out more about Sarah Jasmon, visit her website.

Book Review: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

left neglected

Still Alice author Lisa Genova tackles another complicated medical condition in her latest offering: Left Neglected.

Left Neglected tells the story of Sarah Nickerson. Married with two young children, Sarah lives a hectic and demanding life, her job involving long hours, little time at home and reliance on a nanny for her children. Even when she is at home, Sarah’s time with her kids and husband is squeezed in between constant emailing and telephone calls, her position as primary wage earner enabling her family to keep up the two-house lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

When Sarah suffers a devastating car accident, however, her life changes drastically. Waking up in hospital, she feels lucky to be alive and, determined to go back to work as soon as possible, she sets out to do everything she can to get better. What Sarah doesn’t realise immediately, though, is that her accident has left her with a life-changing condition: Left Neglect. Although not paralysed, she now has no awareness of the left side of her body. The left side of the room, anybody standing on her left, the left page of a book, for Sarah, simply don’t exist. Look left, scan left, go left becomes her mantra.

Having once managed her life as if it were a military operation, Sarah now must accept help for the first time: from her husband Bob, the staff of the hospital where she is recuperating and, even, her mother, with whom she has always had a difficult relationship.

What I liked most about this book is its realism. Sarah’s accident doesn’t immediately pull her up short. She continues to want to go back to work, is adamant that she will get her life back on track and, although positive (no spoilers here!), the ending of the book is not miraculous or sickly-sweet. The characters are all 3-dimensional and, like all of us, have their flaws, which makes it much easier to identify with them. Will Sarah get back to the job she so loved? Or will her condition change her life in more ways than she realises?

Left Neglected is available to buy now

 

Book Review: Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley

constable cock

In the early hours of 1st August 1876, Police Constable Nicholas Cock was shot and killed as he patrolled his usual beat in the quiet area of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. The fascinating series of events that followed the young constable’s murder form the second in historian Angela Buckley’s Victorian Supersleuth series: Who Killed Constable Cock?

Although only 21-years-old, Constable Cock had made some enemies during his time serving the Manchester community. As a result, Superintendent James Brent, leading the investigation, was convinced that the perpetrators of the crime were a group of Irish immigrant brothers, the Habrons, who had been heard to make threats against the policeman. Soon arrested, the brothers were brought to trial, with various witnesses giving surprisingly different  accounts of what happened in the days leading to the crime and of the shooting itself. Who was the strange man seen lurking nearby? What was the strange noise heard by residents of the area? Why were William Habron’s boots muddy on a dry day? Despite the presence of several witnesses at the time of the shooting, including student John Massey Simpson and Cock’s colleague PC Beanland, witness statements could not have been more varied. After the trial concluded, the mystery of what happened to PC Cock appeared to have been solved but when, many years later, a notorious criminal confessed his involvement, it seemed that this crime was not so clear cut after all. Did Superintendent Brent help convict an innocent man?

This book also gives a fascinating account of the origins of the forensic and investigative methods that are so familiar in policing today. For example, the use of footprints, and the casting of them in plaster of Paris, was pioneered in the early 1800s by French ex-convict and police informer, Eugène Vidocq. The technique was later refined by physician and criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, who even began to make casts in the snow by using salt. Vidocq was also responsible for the first uses of mugshots to keep records of arrested criminals.

Who Killed Constable Cock? is a fascinating and meticulously detailed account of a Victorian-era crime, the impacts of which spread far and wide and stretched over a period of many years.

The book is available to buy now.

To find out more about Angela Buckley’s work as a Victorian Supersleuth, visit her Facebook page.