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: Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana by Jacob M Appel

coulrophobia

Jacob M Appel is a physician, bio-ethicist, attorney and registered tour guide based in New York City. If that wasn’t enough of an impressive CV, Appel also has a magnificent talent for storytelling and has published over 200 short stories, his novel The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up winning the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012. Seeming to draw from this impressive amount of life experience in his writing, Appel, in his latest release, Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana, has created a magical collection of short stories that stay with the reader long after the reading light is turned off.

In this collection, Appel explores the world of family and friendships, picking apart the daily lives of what, at first, seem to be very ordinary characters with the perception and insight that seem to be this author’s trademark. The recycling of family violence and relationships, the dilemma of companionship over love, power, family hierarchy, sexuality and disability are all subjects explored by this author with an honesty and delicacy that is always very much without judgement.

“There but for the grace of God go I…” the reader might think as we follow the story of two lonely border guards pondering their isolation as they are faced with what seems like certain death. “What would I do?” we might ask, as we enter the life of Rita the butcher, suddenly finding herself sole carer of her dysfunctional sister’s newborn. Wincing as we witness a grandmother’s punishment of her wayward grandson, we wonder what we would truly do if we were in her position, if we were left to raise a grandchild alone, had been raised in a violent household. Indeed, as Appel makes us flies on the walls of his characters’ homes, he also makes us look more closely at our own lives, our own families, our own relationships, if only to stop for a few seconds and reassess them, perhaps value them more highly.

As in Appel’s previous collections, running through these shorts is a sense of magic, the mysterious mime artist, who has a profound effect on those around him, the Mrs Robinson type language teacher and her handsome chimney sweep, the baby prone to swallowing coins, not to mention the ghost of Greta Garbo, all being brilliantly rounded and fully formed without being quite real. Indeed, in each and every one of these stories, Appel’s characters seem to be of our world but, at the same time, not quite, the author seeming to create an other-worldly scenario with which the reader can nonetheless very much identify.

Anyone who thinks that short stories do not have a place in the publishing market should read the stories of Jacob M Appel, an author who actively exercises his gift of drawing the reader in and never letting them go.


Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana is available now. For more information, visit jacobmappel.com.

This review was originally published on Humanity Hallows.

Book Review: The Ghost Who Bled by Gregory Norminton

The Ghost Who Bled_FRONT COVER

Writer and Manchester Writing School Lecturer Gregory Norminton has recently released a new book, The Ghost Who Bled. The book, published by Comma Press, is a witty and often highly moving collection of meticulously detailed short stories that span nearly twenty years of Norminton’s writing career, stories that take the reader on a journey not only across continents but also through time.

What is immediately striking about Norminton’s writing is the author’s ability to adapt his voice to the collection’s settings and characters. Stories in The Ghost Who Bled span the world and its cultures, the author taking us as far afield as Malaya and Japan before bringing us nostalgically back to the green Surrey of his childhood.

In Zero + 30, we meet the American husband of a woman who survived the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia. Returning to the country with his wife, he finds out the real motive behind her decision to marry him many years ago.

In Confessions of a Tyrant’s Double, a commoner’s likeness to a much revered, and perhaps reviled, president leads him to a life that is no longer his own. A prisoner of his own appearance – ‘my good looks did not belong to me’ – his only hope in ensuring his existence is not forgotten is to note down his experiences and hope them to be a read by a suspected snooper: ‘by your aid I have proved that I existed.’

In Bottleneck, a ‘flagrantly pregnant’ musician struggles with the concept of bringing a child into an already overpopulated near-future world. Here, we clearly see the battle between capitalism and creativity – ‘Is  it common for the Small Hall to have so many empty seats?’ – beautifully shown in the fatalist but practical attitude of Clare’s scientist  husband, her tendency to find refuge in music and, ultimately, in the conception of a baby despite strict precautions.

In what is probably the strongest story in the collection, The Ghost Who Bled, a ghostly young Japanese airman reflects on his life, watching from a distance the impact of the horrific nuclear bombing of his country. Unbearably lonely, he is unwilling to leave his life behind, hiding to watch his loved ones and longing to be part of their lives again. Why, we ask ourselves, is he so reluctant to move on?

Gregory Norminton’s writing is beautifully lyrical, yet, at the same time, completely concrete. The author not only describes Cambodia, Japan, Malaya, but picks his readers up and drops them in the very countries, villages, pasts and futures in which his stories are set.

The Ghost Who Bled is available now from Comma Press. To mark the launch of the collection, Gregory Norminton will be talking about his work at a series of events, including an appearance at Waterstones on Deansgate, Manchester on Friday 19th May at 6.30pm. The event is free to attend and refreshments will be available.

This review was originally published on Humanity Hallows.

 

Book Review: My Sister and Other Liars by Ruth Dugdall

my sister and other liars

Ruth Dugdall is a former probation officer turned novelist who lives in Suffolk. Her works include the Luke Bitmead Bursary and Debut Dagger Award winner The Woman Before Me, Nowhere Girl and Humber Boy B. Ruth has a BA in English from Warwick University and an MA in Social Work. My Sister and Other Liars is her sixth novel.

The book tells the story of 17-year-old Samantha Hoolihan, who, due to a severe eating disorder, is currently residing in the ‘Ana’ unit of a Suffolk hospital. The subject matter of this book immediately creates a novel that is, by no means, an easy read, Dugdall’s portrayal of the unit and its inhabitants brutally honest and often heart-breaking. The author’s obviously detailed and thorough research into the impact of anorexia is clear on every page; as the girls hide their food, idolise those patients having to be fed with a tube and even ‘water load’ before weigh-ins, the reader is very much drawn into life on the ward, feeling hopeful for the patients we think might get better and extremely sad for the ones we think might not.

Life with an eating disorder, however, is not the only focus of this psychological crime thriller as, using flashback, the author takes us back to the traumatic events in Sam’s life that led to her being hospitalised. With the help of Sam’s therapist, Clive, and a box of treasured family photographs, we learn how, eighteen months before, Sam’s sister Jena was attacked and severely injured, the incident leaving her family broken almost beyond repair. Taking it upon herself to rescue all she holds dear, Sam sets out to discover the identity of her sister’s attacker, her actions subsequently leading her into the darker side of Suffolk and towards a truth which could completely shatter her world.

My Sister and Other Liars is a challenging novel, the details of life on Ana Unit and of Jena and Sam’s often horrific experiences certainly not for someone looking for a light-hearted read. As she successfully drip feeds the plot to up the suspense, however, what Ruth Dugdall creates here is a page-turner, forcing the reader to keep going until the end so that, alongside Sam, we can get to the bottom of this mystery and found out who attacked Jena and, perhaps more crucially, why.

With a string of successful crime novels behind her, it seems that mystery and suspense is what Ruth Dugdall does best.

The Kindle version of My Sister and Other Liars is available now from Amazon and other good retailers. The paperback can be ordered ahead of its release on 1st May.