Thursday, 19 December 2019

BEST OF CRIME with Mario Theodorou

Welcome to my latest BEST OF CRIME feature, looking at crime writers' top picks, from their favourite author and fictional detective to their best writing tip. 

Today I'm delighted to welcome 


to share his BEST OF CRIME ...

Arthur Conan Doyle. I just love the Sherlock set up and the way he launches into each caper without it feeling like we’re being hurried along. Stylistically and tonally, Doyle’s books and short stories are mesmerizing, and they always feel fresh and original regardless of their age or how many times I’ve read them. 

This is tough. I’m a huge film fan and love crime films from every decade. With a gun to my head, I’d have to say Training Day. I love everything about this film. It’s real lesson in how to write memorable characters and tie them to plot. I’ve never wanted a bad guy to win so much in my life. 

Again, there are a lot of great crime dramas. I’m a fan of the original Prime Suspect, although it’s a bit dated now. I loved The WireBreaking Bad and Sherlock, of course. But I’d have to say that the first series of True Detective takes it for me. Very twisty, with great performances, and that edge of discomfort and anticipation throughout.

Patrick Bateman. What a revelation. A wealthy, high-flying, perfectionist who kills to alleviate his feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred. He’s so complex. Everything he does is a response to how people make him feel about himself. Even though his crimes are horrific, you always know emotionally where his mind is at before he commits them, which scarily allows you to relate. 

I’d have to say Matthew Shardlake. It's not often that the protagonist is a hunchbacked lawyer. Shardlake’s unthreatening demeanour perfectly disguises his incredible mind, which is a set up that really appeals to me. I love that whole series. 

I’m a fan of the elaborate weapons in Greek Mythology and the dual symbolism. The staff of Hermes, entwined with serpents, Kronus’s Scythe, Hade’s Bident… but my favorite has to be the Tunic of Nessus. The poisoned shirt that caused the death of Heracles. It has since come to represent destruction, ruin and misfortune, from which there is no escape. Beats a knife. 

Has to be Game of Thrones. The scene when the Mountain crushes Prince Oberyn’s head like a watermelon. It was absolutely shocking visually, but also emotionally. We are not used to seeing our heroes lose to the bad guy, and not in such a horrific way. The shock value was incredible. I thought about it for days. 

I like true crime websites and podcasts. I read all the news websites too. Anything about people and what motivates them really, which can come from anywhere. I’m also forever on Wiki, legal websites and The Metropolitan Police’s website, making sure that I know all the procedural elements to an investigation.

I mostly write for TV and Film and find a lot of the tools available to screenwriters help make writing novels more visual.
In terms of a good writing resource, I like, – I find the character ghost section very useful. 
Top tips would be to make sure your character arcs are meaningful. People care about people in the end, not elaborate plots. If you can do both, then perfect! 
Also, if you feel it’s not working for any reason, step away, go for a walk, figure it out away from the screen and then come back. I solve all my puzzles away from the computer.

Anything that gives you energy. I eat lots of almonds and drink lots of green tea.

Mario Theodorou is an award winning, London based writer. He first came to prominence after being discovered by Merman Films who optioned his original comedy series, Conny. A script commission from Sky followed for The Master Forger, before he was selected by the BBC for their prestigious writer's programme. He has since been named in the BBC top emerging talent list and has released The Cyprus Missing, a single drama for BBC Radio 4 and Anonymous, his Soho based short film which picked up numerous awards on the film festival circuit, including a nomination for the Short Film Award at the Academy Award qualifying, Austin Film Festival. 
Represented by WME, Mario is currently working on a number of projects, including an original commission for BBC Drama and other original works in development with BBC Studios, Twelve Town, Riff Raff, Sprout Pictures, Tiger Aspect, Vox Pictures, Sevenseas Films, Unstoppable TV and Mainstreet Pictures. 
Felix Grey and the Descendant is Mario’s first novel, and the first in a series of planned works.

Find Mario Theodorou on his website and on Twitter - @MarioTheodorou


Publisher's description
1904. Three years since the death of Queen Victoria and the ascension of her son, Edward VII to the throne. In that time, the decline of the British Empire has accelerated, the econ-omy has stuttered, Captain Scott has gone to the South Pole, and Liberal politician, Felix Grey has been parachuted into Number Ten on the crest of a populist wave. The third youngest Prime Minister in history and the son of a Suffragette, Felix is modern and pro-gressive, but also inexperienced, self-deprecating and doubtful. Having taken on the Conservative old guard in the House of Commons, Felix has found his policies continually blocked and his time in power dogged by his inability to affect any real change. However, when a member of the House of Lords is abducted from the East India Club, and a mysterious card is discovered, Felix begins to feel a sense of purpose again. Against his better judgement, and that of his loyal steward, Humphrey, Felix begins to dig into the card and the missing Lord, desperate to be of service to the people he rep-resents. With public approval disappearing under a spate of fatal factory disasters, and the emer-gence of the German and American economies making the front pages, Felix’s premier-ship is suddenly under attack from all sides. When another Lord is abducted, Felix begins to escalate his investigation, determined to uncover the truth. With suspicious links to fel-low members of Parliament and a period synonymous with British history, Felix has to fight off his enemies, unmask the perpetrators, find the missing Lords and solve the case, all whilst protecting his identity and preserving his position as the British Prime Minister.

Felix Grey and the Descendant was published on 11 December 2019.

I proofread this book and loved it, which is why I invited Mario to do Best of Crime. This isn't something I usually do when I proofread books for authors! But Felix Grey is a fabulous protagonist and this book is great fun to read!

Look out for more BEST OF CRIME features coming soon.

Click here to read more BEST OF CRIME features.

Monday, 16 December 2019

#BookLove2019 on Off-the-Shelf Books

I haven't had the chance to make #BookLove2019 banners this year - though there's still time! 

In the meantime, here are some of the books I've been shouting about in 2019 (in the order I read them, though I do have my favourites, obviously). These are books that have wowed me with their beautiful writing, compelling or fast-paced plots, intriguing characters and/or great sense of place.

I haven't read vast numbers of books this year. In case you haven't seen on social media or read some of my posts, I've been finishing off my own book, The Redeemer, and I'm currently trying to find it the right home. I was first runner up in the DHH Literary Agency's New Voices Award. I have also been proofreading fiction and increasing my writing/editing workload. I'm hoping to catch up on a few more of my 'must reads' over the festive season. I also need to catch up on reviews, as there are several that I still need to write up.

Anyway, here are my top reads of the year (I haven't counted them but I know there are a lot more than 10 - oops!).

Changeling by Matt Wesolowski

This first one is cheating a little as I actually read it at the end of 2018, but it wasn't published in paperback until 2019 so I saved it for this year's Book Love post. And I certainly can't leave it out!

'...gripping writing, authentic dialogue, heart-pounding tension and a final twist that I seriously didn't see coming! Yes, as you may have guessed, I loved Changeling.'

Read my full review here.

The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl

It's not often that crime novels prompt me to do more research, and this book certainly took me on a journey of discovery. You can read about that here.

'So much tension bubbles away under the surface. But this is far more than just a thriller and a murder mystery ... it's a heartbreaking read.'

Read my full review here.

The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon

I love this series - Sam Shepherd is a fabulous protagonist.

'This gripping series is a definite 'must read' for me - and anyone else who loves entertaining, humorous crime fiction with plenty of heart.'

Read my full review here.

The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins

I love Fiona's books and now can't wait to read her next one, When I Was Ten. She's an expert in creepy crime fiction!

'Fiona Cummins writes beautiful prose with some gruesome descriptions, and certainly manages to get right inside the minds of all of her characters - good or bad!'

Read my full review here.

My Name is Anna by Lizzy Barber

I couldn't put this book down, reading it into the early hours!

'This book is more than just 'another psychological thriller'. It's a dark, intense and well-plotted exploration of identity, childhood abduction, memories and a mother's love.'

Read my full review here.

Turbulent Wake by Paul Hardisty

The writing in this is stunning and the book is compelling, educating me as well as entertaining me.

'I could read this book forever and it's likely to become one of my all-time Orenda favourites.'

Read my full review here.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

For me, it's often all about the writing - and this book's prose is beautiful.

'This is a touch, challenging read - brutal, unsettling, raw and shocking yet also filled with vivid beauty and hope ... I wanted to turn away yet couldn't as the writing was too compelling, too addictive and too powerful.'

Read my full review here.

Violet by SJI Holliday

SJI (Susi) Holliday is an expert plotter - and this book certainly showcases her talent.

'The plot is creepy, chilling and clever - and very dark and very twisted... SJI Holliday has written two believable and deeply flawed unreliable narrators.'

Read my full review here.

Ruin Beach by Kate Rhodes

Kate Rhodes is a favourite writer of mine, with her beautiful poetic prose that I often read out loud.

'...yet another suspense-filled crime novel from Kate Rhodes with a fabulous sense of place.'

Read my full review here.

The Secretary by Renee Knight

A leading character that you may love to hate - or hate to love.

'I struggle with a lot of psychological thrillers at the moment, but The Secretary had me hooked all the way through.'

Read my full review here.

A Window Breaks by C.M. Ewan

Yet another book I couldn't put down! This whole book is a rollercoaster ride - and I felt as though I was part of it!

'I read this book so quickly - I barely took a breath and could feel my heart pounding throughout. I had to force myself to slow down.'

Read my full review here.

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

I haven't yet written a review of The Lost Ones - it's on my list. This book swept me away to spooky 1917 England and wowed me!

I tweeted: 'A haunting, emotional, ghostly & tragic mystery filled with family secrets.'

Nothing Important Happened Today by Will Carver

I used the word 'brilliant' a few times in my review...

'The writing is staccato - quick, fast-paced and compelling - drawing the reader in. As a few things slotted into place, I realised the book was so clever too - like nothing I've ever read before. The underlying premise is unique and ... yep... brilliant.'

Read my full review here.

Six books that are out next year:

Three Hours by Rosamund Lipton (9 January 2020)

This book ... it's incredible.

'Three Hours was a traumatic reading experience in many ways - it challenged me, thrilled me, stunned me and upset me - but I am so glad that I immersed myself within its pages.'

Read my full review here.

The Other People by C.J. Tudor (23 January 2020)

No review written yet. But I tweeted: '...pretty much a one-sitting read. A twisty & compelling crime thriller with supernatural/horror undertones.'

Haven't They Grown by Sophie Hannah (23 January 2020)

No review written yet. But I tweeted: 'It's brilliant - very twisty and not what I expected at all!'

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (31 March 2020)

No review written yet. But I tweeted: 'Traumatic, dark, thought-provoking ... I had to put it down several times yet each time felt compelled to pick it up again.'

These, and several other books I've read that aren't yet published, could well be in next year's list! 

For full transparency, I'm disclosing that I have been proofreading for Orenda Books this year, BUT I never recommend books if I don't truly love them. If you know me well, you'll know that I'm honest about the books I read and only tweet about, and review, the ones I have genuinely enjoyed. Any Orenda books featured in this list really did wow me for various reasons.

In 2020, I'm looking forward to reading some more fantastic books and catching up on some of the books I didn't manage to get to this year. I'll be a book blog partner of Jewish Book Week 2020, so look out for some of those posts.

Have a great Christmas and New Year!

Sunday, 15 December 2019

BEST OF CRIME with M. W. Craven

Welcome to my latest BEST OF CRIME feature, looking at crime writers' top picks, from their favourite author and fictional detective to their best writing tip. 

Today I'm delighted to welcome 


to share his BEST OF CRIME ...

Terry Pratchett is the author I read most often (closely followed by Michael Connelly and Carl Hiaasen). Sam Vimes, the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (in his legendry Discworld series), is creation of pure genius and I devour over and over again any book he’s in. Funny, sarcastic, not overly bright but tenacious, he’s the perfect literary cop.

This really varies from day to day. My all time favourite film is Heat with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer, and I do enjoy a good heist film (The Town is another favourite) but I’m equally happy with a Marvel blockbuster. If I’m going to invest a couple of hours of my life, I need it to be entertaining, that’s the only caveat I have. I also have a soft spot for The Sound of Music (much to Mrs C’s amusement) but please don’t tell anyone . . .

Anything with strong writing and well developed characters. There are some amazing shows on at the minute and we really are spoilt for choice. My top five would be The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Northern ExposureI’m currently watching, and loving, Watchmen.

The killers in Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand and in Michael Connelly’s The Poet are two of my all time favourite serial killers. Genuinely frightening and that’s because they were developed by two of the best authors in the world. And a bit left field, but Carcer in Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch also gave me the chills, as when he’s cornered he just grins and makes you think he’s done nothing wrong. Pure evil.

Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, Michael Connelly’s LA-based detective, is the stand-out cop of my generation. He’s absolutely relentless, has a strong sense of right and wrong and, with ‘Everybody counts or nobody counts’, he has the best motto of all time.

I do like the T-bone steak scene in Law Abiding Citizen. Thought it was extremely clever and, albeit a tad gruesome. And the Discworld’s first-ever gun (or as they spell it, ‘gonne’) that Sam Vimes had to investigate in Men At Arms was particularly funny.

Boromir’s death in The Lord of the Rings hit me hard, as did Ned Stark’s in Game of Thrones (the book deaths rather than their film deaths). Terry McCaleb, a criminal profiler in Michael Connelly’s books had a great death. Very sad but incredibly well done. And if you want someone investigating your murder, then who else would you want but Harry Bosch? Also, in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (the memoir The Sound of Music was based on) there are some very sad deaths after the family escape to America.

I tend not to use writing sites but have The Guardian permanently open. I’ll then use a variation of the ‘So what?’ technique we used in probation management meetings when we were stress testing ideas. When a headline, a byline, or even a sentence gets my attention, I’ll ask myself, ‘What if?’. When I have an answer to that I’ll ask ‘What if?’ it again. A few ‘what ifs’ and you can go from reading about the life of a celebrity chef to a murder victim coming back to life...  

Accepting that your first draft won't be very good is half the battle. It’s not until you start editing that the novel takes shape, finds a voice and becomes a coherent piece of fiction. 

Fizzy sweets. Strong enough to make me wince and suck my cheeks in. And just in case Mrs C reads this, I suppose I’d better say I eat lots fruit, nuts and pulses as well .

A brand new voice in British crime fiction, M. W. Craven was born in Carlisle but grew up in Newcastle. He joined the army at sixteen, leaving ten years later to complete a social work degree. Seventeen years after taking up a probation officer role in Cumbria, at the rank of assistant chief officer, he became a full-time author. The first in the Washington Poe series, The Puppet Show,won the 2019 CWA Gold Dagger, has sold in numerous foreign territories and has been optioned for TV by Studio Lambert. M. W. Craven has been shortlisted for the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award, an Amazon Reader Award and a Cumbria Life award. He is also the author of the Avison Fluke novels, Born in a Burial Ground (shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger) and Body Breaker. 

Find Mike Craven on his website and on Twitter - @MWCravenUK


Publisher's description
After The Puppet Show, a new storm is coming…
Jared Keaton, chef to the stars. Charming. Charismatic. Psychopath . . . He's currently serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of his daughter, Elizabeth. Her body was never found and Keaton was convicted largely on the testimony of Detective Sergeant Washington Poe.
So when a young woman staggers into a remote police station with irrefutable evidence that she is Elizabeth Keaton, Poe finds himself on the wrong end of an investigation, one that could cost him much more than his career.
Helped by the only person he trusts, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, Poe races to answer the only question that matters: how can someone be both dead and alive at the same time?
And then Elizabeth goes missing again - and all paths of investigation lead back to Poe.

Black Summer was published in paperback by Constable on 12 December 2019

Look out for more BEST OF CRIME features coming soon.

Click here to read more BEST OF CRIME features.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Outside looking in - a 2019 Chanukah update

It's that time of year again, when pre-Christmas celebrations fill up my social media feeds. This year, Chanukah starts on 22nd December and lasts for eight days, so it 'clashes' with Christmas Day (two years ago, it started on Christmas Eve). We won't have a Christmas tree, but we will have a lit menorah and other Chanukah goodies. I originally wrote this post two years ago. But it seems relevant to post it again - with yet another update.

Christmas: Outside looking in

At this time of year I sometimes feel like a trespasser. A ghostly apparition peering through a smudged window into a tinsel-draped world I'm not really part of.

On the outside looking in. 

Here, but not here.

I watch the fervent build up and read frantic discussions on social media from the sidelines. Present buying. Christmas trees. Delicious festive treats. Large family meals. I don't join in, but that doesn't mean I don't understand your stress and excitement. I have my fair share during the year, with the weekly Jewish Sabbath and several Jewish festivals (with a strong focus on food!).

I've never celebrated Christmas. 

During my childhood, December 25th was simply a family day with a large lunch, as there was little else to do. No Christmas tree. No presents. No Christmas pudding. We would still eat turkey though, along with home-made stuffing, brussels sprouts and minced pies. I remember Christmas crackers on the table and watching festive TV. After all, that's what everyone did at 'this time of year'.

I knew all about Christmas, don't get me wrong. I had plenty of friends who celebrated it - non-Jewish ones and Jewish ones - and I didn't go to a Jewish school. I didn't take part in the annual Nativity play but would watch the rehearsals from the sidelines, learning the songs and the lines, just as I watch the build up to Christmas now. I didn't go to the school carol services either (we had a day off instead - shopping or cinema, if I remember right, though we were probably meant to do school work(!)). Yet I knew all of the carols anyway.

I guess not much has changed.

For me, this time of year has always been about Chanukah (Hanukkah), the Jewish festival of lights, which lasts for eight days. A festival of miracles and hope and joy. Unlike Christmas, Chanukah doesn't occur on a set date each year, as it's determined by the Hebrew calendar. One year, it may be in November, and the next year in December. This year it begins on 22nd December as soon as darkness falls.

In keeping with tradition, each night we will light candles on a nine-branched Menorah (also called a Chanukiah), an extra candle each night (with the ninth candle called a Shamash (helper) to light the others).

So one candle on the first night, two on the second and so on, until all eight candles are twinkling in a row. The candles symbolise a miracle in the second century BCE, when a handful of Jews defeated the Greeks to reclaim back their Holy Land and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. When they wanted to light the Temple's Menorah, there was only enough oil for one day - yet miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, known as the miracle of Chanukah.

There's a whole Rugrats episode devoted to this!

At Chanukah, it's traditional to eat fried foods - especially doughnuts (donuts) and latkes (fried potato pancakes like rosti) - and to play a game with a dreidel (a four-sided spinning top) for coins, nuts or chocolate.

We can buy Chanukah biscuits (including candle or dreidel shaped ones).

Chanukah is often associated with presents, but that's not a Jewish tradition so I assume it's down to the influence of Christmas over the generations. We give money called Chanukah gelt (or chocolate coins) to children, as well as to charity. You can now buy Chanukah decorations, as sparkly as the Christmas ones, and lots of crazy Chanukah-themed items.

Even Chanukah socks last year (no, I didn't buy them).

As a child, I would receive one Chanukah present each night (some small, some large), as did my two boys when they were younger. Now they are teenagers, the eight-present tradition has faded away in our house. But not the candle lighting - never that.

Chanukah is also a time for community, with activities and celebrations at our synagogue. Last year we had our second interfaith event with the local church - our rabbi lit a large menorah as the vicar beside him switched on the Christmas tree lights. There were Jewish songs and carol singers, and mulled wine and minced pies and kosher donuts for the children. This year, it's a little different due to the timing, as the Christmas lights are already lit. But our synagogue is still doing a communal Chanukah lighting, encouraging people of all faiths to come along.

Some people worry they'll offend me if they wish me Happy Christmas. But not at all. 

When I say I'm on the outside looking in, I don't mean this in a negative way. I enjoy watching friends building up to their big event of the year - my Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with that positivity. After the last few years of world politics, the election this week (and Brexit (currently still) on the horizon), we all need plenty of that.

People who know I'm writing fiction often ask me what I'm writing. 

I used to be suitably vague and didn't say much about what I'm doing or what stage I'm at. But last year, I was more open about the fact that I'm writing Jewish-themed crime fiction, set in a fictional multi-cultural town in Hertfordshire, UK. I'm very open about my Jewish heritage and proud of it too. My book happens to be set at this time of year - Chanukah and Christmas season.

I finished my novel, The Redeemer, earlier this year. Here's the blurb:


Threatening plaques, vigilante killings, a Jewish community - what’s the link? 
The clock is ticking to the next murder.

After journalist Shanna Regan witnesses an antisemitic incident in Hillsbury, a small Hertfordshire town, she uncovers a series of threatening fake commemorative plaques. Each plaque highlights someone’s misdemeanour rather than a good deed. Delving deeper, she realises these plaques are linked to vigilante killings spanning several decades, with ties to the local Jewish community. As her search for the truth becomes personal, she puts her own life in danger. 
Can she stop the next murder in time? 

I was first runner up (honourable mention) in the DHH Literary Agency New Voices Award at the end of September 2019, as announced at the Capital Crime festival's opening night party. I've had great feedback on my novel and I'm now looking for an agent - the right agent - or a publisher.

I'm hoping that one day you'll get a chance to read my novel (if you want to!) and learn more about Jewish traditions, the worrying rise of anti-semitism in the UK (what it's like to experience it for real 'on the frontline', not what you read in the newspapers) and the huge sense of family and community spirit that I know so well.

2019 has also been exciting on the work front. In January, I launched my own work website (finally). You can visit it here. I also started proofreading for publishers - including Orenda Books - and individual authors, and I added several magazines and websites to my health writing portfolio.

I was one of Jewish Book Week 2019's official blog partners and hope to do the same in 2020.

Thank you for reading to the end of this non-bookish post and for supporting Off-the-Shelf Books, which turns five on 30th December 2019. I'm very behind with reviews, but hope to catch up soon - it's been a particularly busy few months.

I wish you all a Happy Christmas, Happy Chanukah or whatever you're celebrating within the next few weeks. And a Happy New Year too.