Thursday, 25 April 2019

Locations are characters by Neil White

Today, I am delighted to welcome Neil White to Off-the-Shelf Books to talk about locations and settings. The Innocent Ones was published by Hera Books on 24 April 2019.

Locations are characters
By Neil White

Locations are characters, whether they are real or not. Even the made-up ones have their roots in real-life.

My next book, The Innocent Ones, will be my thirteenth, if I include my stand-alone non-crime Johnny Cash novel, Lost In Nashville, and I’ve always moved around the north of England. But that was never my original intention.

When I first started writing, I wanted to write an American novel. The reason was simple: I prefer American crime fiction.

Not that there’s anything wrong with British-set crime fiction. In fact, in recent years it has got better, with the increase in popularity of psychological thrillers, as the closed-in, relationship-set nature of them somehow suits the repressed nature of the British psyche. Everything on the outside seems normal, but there are darker things happening on the inside.

No, the reason is much simpler. I’m a criminal lawyer. I spend my days in English courtrooms. I don’t always want to spend my evenings wallowing in fictional English courtrooms, or in police investigations that will end up in English courtrooms. I want a break from all that and to visit more exotic or exciting places in my leisure time, where I’m not looking out for technical errors.

My first attempt at writing was an American-set novel, called Salem. I followed it up with another, with scenes set in Chicago and a small town in Indiana called Creek Crossing. Although Salem saw the light as a typo-filled self-published work, publishers didn’t want them. And why should they? There are enough good American writers without a pale imitation like me trying to crash the party. So, I rewrote them, and Chicago became London and a small town in Indiana became a small town in Lancashire called Turners Fold. Avon came knocking, if you’ll excuse the pun, and my first published novel, Fallen Idols, entered the world.

Searching for an English location hadn’t been easy though. Although I lived in Lancashire, I grew up on the other side of the Pennines, in Wakefield, and for ten years, from aged twelve, in the seaside town of Bridlington. My heart told me to set them in Wakefield or Bridlington, but my head told me that the answer could be nearer to home. If nothing else, the research involved less travelling.

It was a Who Do You Think You Are episode featuring Jane Horrocks that changed things, because they presented the Rossendale area of Lancashire very picturesquely, with old wrought iron lampposts and large mills that either stood empty or redeveloped. I started to see the area differently, where even the decay looked atmospheric, so I decided on the old cotton towns for the setting, although it was a morning in court that provided the actual location.

For the book Fallen Idols, I wanted a setting in a small town that was the kind of place where teenagers hang around and drink illicit bottles of cider and try out cigarettes, away from critical adult eyes. I was in court one day, in Accrington, prosecuting a youth who had burned down a brick aviary in a small town called Great Harwood. When I asked around about this aviary, I realised it was a perfect setting, on the edge of a park, so I shot to Great Harwood during my lunchbreak. By the time I returned for my afternoon court session, I’d discovered my location.

Turners Fold, and the nearest larger town of Blackley, lived on for five books. Blackley was a mix of the Lancashire cotton towns along the Leeds-Liverpool canal, but I kept it fictional, as I didn’t want the real locations to limit the story. That way, I could borrow a viaduct from one town and something from somewhere else.

Eventually, the big city beckoned, and I took my Parker brothers trilogy to Manchester, and this time I let the city dictate things. I knew Manchester because I had trained to be a lawyer there, and it is a perfect setting for a crime book. So much history and so much grit. It has everything.

But I had a yearning for the hills again, so I brought the Dan Grant books back to rural Lancashire, this time the fictional town of Highford, although locals may recognise it as Burnley, which is where I was located as a Senior Crown Prosecutor for sixteen years.

The vibe I was after was Happy Valley but in a courtroom setting. A legal thriller without the glamour of the big city.

Despite the setting, however, as The Innocent Ones is the final book in the Dan Grant trilogy, I decided that it was time to explore my own personal locations and say hello to the places that were important to me.
The book is set mainly in Highford, as always, but there is some time spent in a small seaside town in Yorkshire called Brampton. People who have visited that part of the world might recognise it as Bridlington, where I spent my teens. There is also a scene in a house in Wakefield, 19 Rockley Drive. That was my home as a child. It was an affectionate nod.

I said at the beginning that locations are characters, and that is how I feel. The setting governs how people respond, because things happen differently in different places. In The Innocent Ones, the book begins in a small deserted park. In a different place, it would be a different park, perhaps overlooked by high-rise flats, or just a cut-through to somewhere. In The Innocent Ones, however, it is a Highford park, so it is quiet and cold, with views over a valley, the stars like bright dots.

For the future, I think I’m back to the big city though. Which city, of course, is something that will have to be revealed at a later date, with a new set of lead characters and a whole more heap of dead bodies.

About Neil White
Neil White has written thirteen novels, including the number one ebook bestseller, Cold Kill. His first six books were published by Avon, followed by three books with Sphere involving the Parker brothers. His latest trilogy involving defence lawyer Dan Grant and investigator Jayne Brett is published by Hera, with the latest, The Innocent Ones, published on April 24th.
As well as a successful novelist, Neil is also a practising criminal lawyer, starting out as a defence solicitor before spending eighteen years as a Senior Crown Prosecutor. He appears in court less regularly than he once did, but is still a regular feature in the criminal courts in the north west of England.

Find Neil White on his website, on his Facebook page and on Twitter - @neilwhite1965

About The Innocent Ones

The Innocent Ones
By Neil White
Published by Hera Books (24 April 2019)

Publisher's description
Three lives cut short. Two decades of silence. One evil secret.
By day, the park rings with the sound of children’s excited laughter. But in the early hours of the morning, the isolated playground is cloaked in shadows – the perfect hiding place to conceal a brutal murder. 
When London journalist, Mark Roberts, is found battered to death, the police quickly arrest petty thief, Nick Connor. Criminal defence lawyer, Dan Grant, along with investigator Jayne Brett, are called to represent him – but with bloody footprints and a stolen wallet linking him to the scene, this is one case they’re unlikely to win. 
Until help comes from an unlikely source…when the murder victim’s mother says that Connor is innocent, begging Dan and Jayne to find the real perpetrator. 

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Wednesday, 17 April 2019

On My Life by Angela Clarke

On My Life
By Angela Clarke
Published by Mulholland Books (E-book - out now; Paperback - 11 July 2019)
I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher via NetGalley

Publisher's description
Framed. Imprisoned. Pregnant.
Jenna thought she had the perfect life: a loving fiancé, a great job, a beautiful home. Then she finds her stepdaughter murdered; her partner missing.
And the police think she did it...
Locked up to await trial, surrounded by prisoners who'd hurt her if they knew what she's accused of, certain someone close to her has framed her, Jenna knows what she needs to do:
Clear her name
Save her baby
Find the killer
But can she do it in time?

My verdict
On My Life is a punchy whodunnit that was impossible to put down.

The premise drew me in straight away, along with compelling writing and a tense race against the clock, with Jenna determined to clear her name to save herself and her baby. The snappy chapters switch between Now and Then, contrasting Jenna's seemingly great life in the past with her current situation.

As well as being a fast-paced psychological thriller, this is a shocking portrayal of pregnant women (and young vulnerable women) in prison and their lack of rights and access to information. Descriptions of prison life were harrowing at times and so realistic that I felt as though I was there too - hearing every slam of a cell door and experiencing the women's claustrophobia and fear.

Another well-researched crime novel that's taught me something, as well as entertained me, and left me musing over a system that's clearly in desperate need of reform.

Definitely Angela Clarke's best book yet! Can't wait to see what's next!

Monday, 15 April 2019

Twisted by Steve Cavanagh

By Steve Cavanagh
Published by Orion (4 April 2019)
I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher

Publisher's description
1. The police are looking to charge me with murder.
2. No one knows who I am. Or how I did it.
3. If you think you've found me. I'm coming for you next.
After you've read this book, you'll know: the truth is far more twisted...

My verdict
Well, Twisted certainly does what it says on the tin - fills the reader's head with twists from beginning to end, with tension and suspense all the way through.

Twisted is Steve Cavanagh's first standalone, following his successful Eddie Flynn series. Thirteen, the most recent book is such a brilliant read, so you must check this series out. And the author couldn't resist mentioning Eddie Flynn in Twisted, I noticed!

So, back to Twisted.

The plot is centred around an elusive bestselling crime fiction author who prides himself on the killer twists in his books. No one knows who he is - not even his publishers. When Paul Cooper's wife, Maria, discovers his bank account statement, she realises that her husband has been keeping secrets - and now it's time to take what she's owed.

This is certainly lots of fun, with a rising body count and plenty of surprises in store. I can imagine it must have been lots of fun to write too, blasting the reader with twist after twist after twist. The characters are all quite insane, even the detectives conducting the investigation into a break-in at Paul and Maria's home.

This entertaining rollercoaster ride of a read is thrilling crime fiction fans - and I'm not surprised!

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Friday, 12 April 2019

Passover and the diversity of diversity...

... and why it can be a challenge to please everyone (plus a bit more about the book I’m writing).

I originally wrote this post last year. In one week, the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) begins, so it's a good time to share this post again with a few minor changes. 

This post of mine is based on a comment I made in a Facebook group (for bloggers and authors) in February 2018. We were discussing Lionel Shriver’s article in The Guardian (you can read the Guardian article here), which raised many questions within the group:

  • Should we only write about the life we know?
  • Or should we feel comfortable writing about a life we don’t know?
  • Should we write about topics we haven’t experienced - and may never experience?
  • Or should we only write about topics we have experienced?

I'm writing Jewish-themed crime fiction. I've never committed a murder (you'll be pleased to know), but I do keep many of the Jewish traditions and live in a Jewish area, so to some degree I am writing about what I know. Yet this doesn't make writing a novel any easier. I still need engaging characters, a great plot and a believable setting (and I'm working hard on those, if anyone's interested). It also brings up other challenges for me, as I'm explaining concepts and practices I take for granted to people who know nothing (or very little) about the religion. I'm not ready to share any details about my plot, but my main character is a journalist who is learning about the religion as she investigates some possible crimes - which helps to take the reader on a journey of discovery too.

Many people show interest when I tell them what I'm writing. Comments include:

  • 'Jewish-themed crime fiction is definitely something different.'
  • 'I don't know much about Judaism so would love to learn more.'
  • 'Get on and write it - I can't wait to read it.'

Judaism in the UK
Jews make up only 0.5% of the UK's religious groups - much less than Christians, those with no religion, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the chart. It often surprises people when I tell them this fact, as Jews seem so prominent within society and we are not considered by many to be an ethnic or religious 'minority group'.

In February 2019, a DNA analysis by My Heritage revealed that I am 97.5% Ashkenazi Jewish and 2.5% Middle Eastern. Who says being Jewish isn't in the blood or an ethnic group? Bizarrely, the test revealed that I have a very close DNA match with a 90-year-old woman (and her family) with a surname that's very similar to one of my great-grandparents' surnames - not a common surname at all.

Many people tell me they've never met anyone Jewish before - yet, how would they know, as we look and behave like everyone else. Ignorance breeds antisemitism and racism - this is something that needs to be addressed and one of the reasons I'm writing this book. 

My book begins with an antisemitic attack by two teenagers against a Jewish woman. Most people don't realise how much antisemitism occurs in the UK and that it is on the rise, as the incidents often don't make the national news. According to the Campaign Against Antisemitism, one in three British Jews has considered leaving Britain in the past two years due to antisemitism, with concern mounting over failures to tackle antisemitic crime and antisemitism in politics. Universities throughout the country are now a breeding ground for anti-Israel and antisemitic behaviour. According to the Community Security Trust, there were 1,382 antisemitic incidents recorded nationwide in 2017 - a record level in the UK.

Diversity within Judaism
The Facebook group discussion moved on to the concept of diversity and whether it's possible to write books that appeal to diverse readers if you're not part of that group yourself. My point was that it will always be difficult to please everyone but you do have to make sure your book is well researched - and others in the discussion agreed.

Just as there is diversity in the country as a whole, there is diversity within all communities and there isn't (or shouldn't be) such thing as a stereotype. The Jewish population in the UK is an example of this. You have the ultra-religious communities, who may dress and behave in a particular way (and are most easily identified as being Jewish). You may see them in parts of London, Greater London and Manchester, for example. Then you have the non-observant Jews, who don't keep any of the traditions, but are still Jewish because it's in their blood and are proud of their Jewish heritage. And then you have everyone else in between.

My book is set in a fictional town based on where I live, with some more observant Jewish families and some who keep very little of their religion but still identify themselves as being Jewish. Despite living in a fairly Jewish area, many people around here (including us) have experienced antisemitism (some openly, some disguised and some completely shocking).

Next weekend, the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) begins. This is one of the most commonly observed festivals, even by many people who are otherwise normally non-observant. But as with all diverse groups, everyone keeps the festival in their own way - so I'll use this as an example. It's one reason why I've been busy recently and will be for another couple of weeks.

Some Jewish people observe all of the 'rules' and others observe very few - and some in between. Even where I live, members of our Synagogue observe it in different ways, at different levels of religiosity. This is a clear example of diversity within one Jewish community.

What is Pesach?
Pesach, which lasts for eight days, commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The name Pesach (Passover) comes from the miracle when God passed over the houses of the Israelites during the 10th plague  - 'Death of the First Born'. The festival has many different features. It's too complicated to explain in detail, but here's a relatively short summary:

1. We eat special foods. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) rather than bread, reminding us that the Israelites didn't have time to let their bread rise when they left Egypt in a hurry. Matzah is made from flour and water and cooked very quickly. It's flat, like a cracker. I can't say I'm a great fan of it - I think of it as edible cardboard - but other people (including my husband and Dad) like it! Pesach is more complicated than just eating Matzah though, as all of our food (other than fruit, vegetables, meat/poultry and fish) has to be specially made for Pesach - even down to cooking oil, tins of tuna, dairy foods, crisps and chocolate (no Easter eggs!) - to ensure it hasn't been in contact with bread and chametz - see point 2). Some people will just avoid bread and eat matzah during Pesach but won't change any of the other foods they eat. Everyone keeps Pesach in a way that suits them.

2. We prepare for Pesach with the ultimate spring clean. We clear our house of bread and other foods (known as chametz - pronounce the 'ch' as in the Scottish 'loch') before Pesach begins. During Pesach, we can't eat pasta, rice, barley and legumes. We use different crockery, cutlery, pots and pans for those eight days, sealing up our kitchen cupboards (so we don't use our 'normal' items) or swapping them around (our Pesach items are stored in boxes in our garage and loft during the rest of the year). We cover all the kitchen surfaces. It's a bit like moving house (or at least, kitchen), with all the preparations beforehand. And yes, it can be stressful (okay, a nightmare).

3. We have a special family meal on the first two nights. It's called a Seder, which means 'order', because the meal has a special order that we follow, with specific traditional foods (such as parsley dipped in salt water to symbolise tears shed in slavery and raw horseradish to symbolise the bitterness of slavery). The Seder details, and the story of Pesach, are written in a special book called a Haggadah. Some families only do one Seder on the first night - we do both nights.

During the Seder, we sing songs and have discussions. Frogs may be dotted around the table (not real ones, I should add) - as frogs feature in the second plague.

Two years ago, we had the parting of the Red Sea down the centre of our Seder table - thanks to blue crepe paper, sand-coloured felt, fish stickers, shell-shaped sequins and Playmobil figures (Egyptians and builders etc). I think I enjoyed making it far more than my teenagers enjoyed seeing it. We even have a big Playmobil pyramid stored in the loft from when my boys were younger.

Pesach has many different themes and we do try to relate them to the 'here and now'. One of these is the theme of modern slavery (and not just the obvious - think about how enslaved we are to technology and social media). Then there's the theme of refugee status - as currently seen in Syria. Then finally the theme of antisemitism, which returns to my book. Just as the Jews were persecuted by Pharaoh then, they have been persecuted ever since, with the Holocaust and modern day antisemitic attacks.

So should we be free to write about lives different to our own?
I know that if I do get my novel published, it may come under a lot of scrutiny and I may be more open to antisemitism - I've already experienced antisemitic behaviour on social media, in response to a tweet about Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yes, this does worry me, but I know that I'll rise above it and have a strong support network of people around me.

But I may not only attract criticism from the wider population, and in some ways this worries me more, turning writing this book into more of a challenge to get it right. And this is probably the reason why I've been dragging my feet (or my typing fingers, in this case). As already mentioned above, the Jewish community is diverse. So my personal experience of Judaism probably won't be the same as someone else's. The Jewish characters in my book are also diverse, from a Jewish community like my own.

Some Jewish people may disagree with the content of my book if it's ever 'out there', because it's too Jewish, not Jewish enough, tells too much, tells too little, 'we don't do it like that', gives us a bad name... and 'you can't have anyone Jewish committing a crime'. Others may say it's great as it highlights antisemitism, shows that we're like everyone else, raises awareness of Judaism etc - which is exactly what I'm trying to do.

I don't think there's any way to 'win' in terms of writing about diverse groups of people, even if we're part of the community ourselves. When we read books, they touch us in many different ways, based on our nature and nurture, our upbringing, our past experiences, our present situation. No two readers will read a book in the same way or respond to it in the same way.

And that’s the beauty of reading - and writing.

Ultimately, we should be free to write (and read) about what excites us, what motivates us, what challenges us and what drives us.

For me, it's crime fiction with a Jewish theme. 

Watch this space!

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Worst Case Scenario by Helen FitzGerald

Worst Case Scenario
By Helen FitzGerald
Published by Orenda Books (E-book: out now; Paperback: 17 May 2019)
I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher

Publisher's description
Mary Shields is a moody, acerbic probation offer, dealing with some of Glasgow’s worst cases, and her job is on the line. Liam Macdowall was imprisoned for murdering his wife, and he’s published a series of letters to the dead woman, in a book that makes him an unlikely hero – and a poster boy for Men’s Rights activists. Liam is released on licence into Mary’s care, but things are far from simple. Mary develops a poisonous obsession with Liam and his world, and when her son and Liam’s daughter form a relationship, Mary will stop at nothing to impose her own brand of justice … with devastating consequences. 

My verdict
For the last 19 years, I've edited a newsletter about the menopause as part of my day job as a health journalist/editor. So I was delighted to read Worst Case Scenario, as it's not often that I find a menopausal protagonist in a crime novel. I don't just mean a woman 'of a certain age'. I mean one with actual menopausal symptoms - the ones you may know about and the ones you may prefer not to know about!

Mary Shields is a foul-mouthed probational officer with clients who have committed some abominable crimes. She wants to help her clients (although some don't want the help she's offering), but struggles with the paperwork and bureaucracy of her job and has finally had enough. She just needs to get through a few more weeks. 

Worst Case Scenario is dark, insane, shocking and highly entertaining - menopausal AND criminal madness. Lots of laugh-out-loud moments, cringeworthy ones and sad ones too, as protagonist Mary Shields' life falls apart at the seams. She's struggling to juggle her work, family, friendships and drinking habits, as well as cope with her troublesome menopausal symptoms - hot flushes, mood swings, those 'oops' Tena moments (seen the adverts?) and more. She may not come across as a caring individual, but has a strong sense of justice and would do anything for her family. Sadly, she makes terrible decisions and gets herself - and her family - into all sorts of trouble!

This is a short book but is hard-hitting and punchy - making up for its size with its highly memorable characters and gritty writing. You'll need a slightly warped sense of humour (lots of slapstick scenarios) and shouldn't take anything TOO seriously. It's pure escapism and lots of fun from beginning to end - and I really did find myself panicking at Mary's 'worst case scenario'! 

Plus Helen FitzGerald's first and the last lines are brilliant! 

You won't forget this book in a hurry - if at all!

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Science in crime fiction by Vanda Symon

Today, I am delighted to welcome Vanda Symon to Off-the-Shelf Books. If you follow my reviews, you'll know how much I'm enjoying Vanda's Sam Shepherd series. The Ringmaster (the second book in the series) is being published in paperback by Orenda Books on 18 April 2019.

On reading Vanda's biography, I discovered that we have some shared interests. As well as being a talented crime writer, Vanda is also a pharmacist with a PhD in Science Communication. I write about consumer health for community pharmacists, have an MSc. in Science Communication and LOVE crime fiction. Perfect!

So Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books put me in touch with Vanda so that I could ask her about her PhD. Read on to discover more...

Science in crime fiction
By Vanda Symon

What on earth possessed you to do a PhD?
For some strange reason I decided that it would be a great to do a PhD – well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. There were two main motivators. I had completed a University of Otago Summer School paper in forensic biology in the name of research for my crime novels. Trouble was, I enjoyed the studying and the topic too much and the course co-ordinator was an utter force of nature and a very persuasive man so when he said Vanda, you should come and join us for a PhD, I thought, why the hell not?
The second reason was a little more subjective. I wanted to do this for myself – to prove to myself that I had the wherewithal to undertake a long and rigorous project and see it through. Hand in hand with that was an underlying need to feel people took me seriously – which probably sounds a bit pathetic and needy, but that was the head space I was in when I embarked on the journey.

How did you decide on a topic?
A lot of people assumed, because I was a writer that I would do a PhD in literature or creative writing. But I am a science gal at heart – my undergraduate degree was in Pharmacy - so I wanted to explore something that wove together the many strands of my world - science, crime writing, and communication. My initial idea was to do something exploring the wonderful New Zealand Crime writer Dame Ngaio Marsh – she wrote 32 Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn novels in the golden era of crime fiction, and was heralded as one of the four Queens of Crime Fiction, along with Agatha Christie, Margerie Allingham and Dorothy Sayers, yet she had been largely forgotten in New Zealand. I wanted to look at her works from a science perspective because she had a knack of knocking people off with in some extraordinarily gruesome and unique ways, and she used poisons a number of times – gold for a pharmacist gal like me. I was also really curious about people’s attitude towards the science they encountered in crime fiction, and if they cared whether or not it was accurate. Somehow I managed to combine all of these elements into my thesis titled The Communication of Science in Crime Fiction.

So how did you find out if people cared whether or not the science in crime novels was true?
I took advantage of the power of the internet. I created an online survey with a series of questions about accuracy in science, if people liked learning about forensic science in their crime fiction, which authors they trusted to deliver the goods and related things. This was then distributed out into the world via social media, email sharing by libraries, book groups, writers and readers organisations. One thing I did have to do was make sure that people didn’t know that I was the researcher in case it swayed how they responded – I didn’t want them responding how they thought I might want them to! I was thrilled to have over 1000 readers complete the survey. And the amazing thing was how generous people were in their comments at the end of the survey questions – I was very pleasantly surprised.
It wasn’t just the readers I targeted – the writers didn’t get off Scott-free. I also created a survey for writers of crime fiction asking if the felt it important to provide accurate science in their fiction, whether they felt ethically obliged to make it correct, and if they worried about things like  copycat crime.

So what did you find out? Did people care?
They sure did – which you would expect, I know as a reader I hate it when I spot a booboo. But where it got interesting was why, which became apparent in the comments people made. As one reader put it, if there was a mistake in the science, it broke their trust in every element of the novel, characters, plot, everything. When asked if they believed the science they read, they mostly did – but it depended on who the author was. The most trusted author by a country mile was Patricia Cornwell, followed by Kathy Reichs. Interesting that both have careers involved in forensics and science.
The authors likewise liked to ensure the science they provided was accurate, with a little bit of wriggle room. For example, they had no issue with compressing time for the sake of avoiding mind-numbing tedium for the reader, so in fiction their lab test results could come back way quicker than they do in real life. Another reason they liked to be accurate was because no one wanted to have a reader point out an error (and believe me, they do!)
I was surprised that very few authors were worried about potential copycat crimes from their works, or that criminals would learn from their works, but as a number of them put it – people can learn anything they need to know from the internet. And as one author brilliantly put it -  the bias of crime readership is towards middle-aged women. The bias of violent criminals is emphatically not!

Has your research had any impact on your own writing - or how you perceive (and read) fiction containing science?
Yes indeed. I was always very careful about accuracy, because I didn’t want to be called out by a reader and made to look like a numpty, but I am probably even more so now. As a reader I have been pretty unforgiving about errors in the science in novels, or the history in historic fiction, and my bull-shit-o-meter is probably even more finely attuned now.
The research made me realise that readers actually really enjoy learning a bit of science, in the right context and if it seamlessly fits into the plot and isn’t info-dumped. I have always liked to weave interesting science into my works, and I will shamelessly make the most of my science background to do that in the future. Hmmmm, I feel a poisoning or two coming on…

About Vanda Symon
Vanda Symon is a crime writer, TV presenter and radio host from Dunedin, New Zealand, and the chair of the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The Sam Shephard series has climbed to number one on the New Zealand bestseller list, and also been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel. She currently lives in Dunedin, with her husband and two sons.

Find Vanda Symon on her website and on Twitter - @vandasymon

About The Ringmaster

The Ringmaster
By Vanda Symon
Published by Orenda Books (E-book - out now; Paperback - 18 April 2019)

Publisher's description
Death is stalking the southern South Island of New Zealand...
Marginalised by previous antics, Sam Shephard, is on the bottom rung of detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it. She gets involved in her first homicide investigation, when a university student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens, and Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident. There is a chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin, and a very strong possibility that the deaths are linked to a visiting circus…
Determined to find out who’s running the show, and to prove herself, Sam throws herself into an investigation that can have only one ending…

Here's a snippet from my review: "In summary, The Ringmaster wowed me with its twisty journey, weaving various threads together, right through the shocking, and surprising, ending. This gripping series is a definite 'must read' for me - and anyone else who loves entertaining, humorous crime fiction with plenty of heart."

Read the rest of my review here.

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Thursday, 4 April 2019

Turbulent Wake by Paul Hardisty

Turbulent Wake
By Paul E. Hardisty
Published by Orenda Books (E-book: out now; Paperback: 16 May 2019)
I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher

Publisher's description
Ethan Scofield returns to the place of his birth to bury his father. Hidden in one of the upstairs rooms of the old man’s house he finds a strange manuscript, a collection of stories that seems to cover the whole of his father’s turbulent life.
As his own life starts to unravel, Ethan works his way through the manuscript, trying to find answers to the mysteries that have plagued him since he was a child. What happened to his little brother? Why was his mother taken from him? And why, in the end, when there was no one else left, did his own father push him away?

My verdict
Turbulent Wake is a round-the-world journey through a lifetime of regrets. This one-sided father-son story is intense and emotional - it's very different to Paul E. Hardisty's Claymore Straker series but just as compelling.

While Ethan Scofield takes centre stage, this is also the story of his father, Warren, and the relationship between them, gradually revealed as Ethan reads through Warren's manuscript after his death. The title of the book is perfect. The story reminded me of the ocean, switching between moments of calm and moments of turbulence, and back again. It's filled with mishaps and misadventures - life's ups and down, those we can control and those we can't. An insight into how the turbulence of our past can shape not just our future but the future of those around us.

The writing is sublime - the beautiful vivid descriptions of flora and fauna and exotic locations have lyrical rhythm. I felt as though I was on location myself, with Ethan, Warren, Helena and all of the other characters. Geography, science and geological references are carefully woven into the prose, with powerful environmental messages. So yet again, Paul E. Hardisty has written a book that not only entertained me but also educated me.

Turbulent Wake really showcases the author's writing talent. I read it twice because I loved it so much and to appreciate and discover the many layers. I could read this book forever and it's likely to become one of my all-time Orenda favourites.