Monday, 22 May 2017

Book Review - Western Fringes by Amer Anwar




A SIKH GIRL ON THE RUN. A MUSLIM EX-CON WHO HAS TO FIND HER. A WHOLE HEAP OF TROUBLE.
Southall, West London.
Recently released from prison, Zaq Khan is lucky to land a dead-end job at a builders' yard. All he wants to do is keep his head down and put his past behind him.
But when he has to search for his boss's runaway daughter it quickly becomes apparent he's not simply dealing with family arguments and arranged marriages as he finds himself caught up in a deadly web of deception, murder and revenge.
With time running out and pressure mounting, can he find the missing girl before it's too late? And if he does, can he keep her - and himself - alive long enough to deal with the people who want them both dead?

If you like gritty action, sharp dialogue and pacy plotting, then you'll love this award winning action thriller from Amer Anwar.

I was delighted when Amer Anwar contacted me to ask if I'd like to read his debut book, Western Fringes. I always enjoy discovering new authors and with Western Fringes having won the prestigious CWA Debut Dagger Award, I suspected I was in for an enjoyable read.
I wasn't wrong, Western Fringes gripped me from its opening few pages and despite being a fairly long read never lost pace or focus. The book opens with Zaq Khan called in see the owner of the builder's yard where he works. Recently released from prison following a five year sentence and as the only Muslim in a company owned and run by Sikhs, he fears the worst and assumes he may be out of a job. The worst turns out to be far more troubling than sudden unemployment; Mr Brar informs him he has to find his runaway daughter, Rita, and if Zaq even thinks of refusing he will find himself back in prison, framed for strealing from the family firm. It appears that Rita has fled an arranged marriage and her father and two brothers, Parminder and Rajinder are determined that she should be found swiftly to avoid their family being shamed in the community. it quickly becomes apparent however, that this is far more than a family argument and before long Zaq's life is in real danger.
Throughout the book Zaq is an engaging and likeable protagonist, he wrestles with his conscience when he realises to protect himself he may have to return Rita to a dangerous situation and though we, the readers may hope desperately that he makes the right decision, we fully understand and sympathise with the moral quandary he finds himself in. His relationship with his best friend, Jags is one of the highlights of the book, the affection between the two characterised by their mutual name-calling and teasing but their bond means Jags is prepared to support his mate, whether that's with cups of tea and painkillers or as his partner in a risky stakeout. Zaq finds himself in numerous fights and though his years in prison mean he has learned to take care of himself, he receives some punishing blows and we realise that despite the lighter moments with Jags, he isn't playing a game, he has become involved in a shady underworld that could result in deadly consequences. The violence is brutal and one scene in particular is difficult to read, I would caution anybody who is of a more sensitive disposition as the treatment meted out to one character is truly shocking.  However, it's equally important to note that it never feels gratuitous, Zaq's enemies are dangerous killers and there should be no ambiguity as to what they're capable of and what both Zaq and Rita are at risk from.
The setting for the book, Southall plays an important part in the story, both the streets themselves and the tensions and camaraderie between the Asian community who lived there. There is real honesty about Western Fringes, the depiction of diverse cultures and the divisions between them give a real sense of  the challenges of living in an urban Asian community. I loved the sprinkling of Punjabi words throughout the book, the frequent (and mouthwatering!) descriptions of food, the music blaring from car stereos, all combining to bring to life the atmosphere of the area. Western Fringes is one of the most descriptive books I've read in a while, we learn even the tiniest minutiae sometimes of Zaq's day, even down to the order he eats his KFC meal in, yet this never detracts from the tight pacing of the plot. Instead it gives the book an almost televisual quality as we feel we are there with Zaq, observing his every move, his every decision, as he uses his fast talking and quick thinking skills to figure out how he is going to extricate himself from the nightmare situation he finds himself in. The book eventually builds to a tense and gripping finale, the twists and often visceral violence meant I truly didn't know how the action would pan out and was completely immersed in this exciting and cleverly plotted urban noir.
Western Fringes is an exciting and fresh thriller, I absolutely loved it and look forward to reading more from Amer Anwar. If you're looking for a book that is action-packed, witty and believable, then look no further.
Many thanks to the author for my copy, received in return for my honest review.

Western Fringes is available on Amazon.


About the Author

 Amer Anwar grew up in West London. After leaving college he had a variety of jobs, including warehouse assistant, comic book lettering artist, driver for emergency doctors and chalet rep in the French Alps. He eventually settled into a career as a designer/creative artworker producing artwork mainly for the home entertainment industry. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London and is a winner of the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award. WESTERN FRINGES is his first novel

You can follow Amer Anwar on Twitter as @ameranwar and find his website here

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Week in Words: 14th - 21st May 2017

Welcome to my very first Week in Words, my new regular feature where I look back at what I've been reading and watching over the past seven days.

Books


Last Sunday I finished Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson, having only started it the day before. It's a book I've been meaning to read for some time, I'm glad I finally got to it because I loved it. You can read my review here











I currently have three books on the go. I'll most likely finish Western Fringes by Amer Anwar later today so look out for my review early next week. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say it's going to be a very complimentary review!







After finishing Snowblind, I immediately started the second book in the Dark Iceland series, Nightblind. It's only my busy week and the fact I'm switching between three books that has stopped me racing through this one too as I'm enjoying it just as much. Congratulations to Ragnar Jonasson, shortlisted for the CrimeFest eDunnit Award in Bristol this weekend.







On Wednesday I travelled up to London for the Orenda Roadshow at Waterstones Piccadilly. You can read my post about it here. I started reading Gunnar Staalesen's latest book, Wolves in the Dark on the train and have been kicking myself ever since that I haven't read any of his Varg Veum stories before now, with almost 40 years of the series to catch up on I certainly have lots to look forward to! Huge congratulations to Gunnar, winner of the Petrona Award at CrimeFest for Where Roses Never Die.




Television


It's dark and he's wearing sunglasses (image from denofgeek.com)
I haven't watched much television this week. It's definitely been all about the written word this week! I never miss Doctor Who though, and thought Extremis was another excellent episode in what has so far been a superb season. It appears to have divided opinion somewhat with some people finding it too muddled and unnecessarily complicated. However, I found it tense and  thought-provoking and can't wait to see if things are resolved in the second part of this adventure next week.

Sing a yo ho (image from popsugar.com)
Talking of two-parters, I've yet to catch up with the finale of Once Upon a Time but I have rewatched the cheesily fantastic musical episode,The Song in Your Heart. I loved every single moment but if pushed I'd say enjoyed Josh Dallas giving it everything was what I loved most. Always a pleasure to see Hook in his pirate leather and guyliner too.

Some pig! (image from imdb.com)

This morning I watched Charlotte's Web again with my 9 year old daughter. It's a film I've seen several times before but I think it's a lovely adaptation of one of the finest children's books of all time.

Next Week
Once I've finished the books I'm currently reading, I'll be starting We've Come To Take You Home by Susan Gandar, and The Former Chief Executive by Kate Vane. I have several more books lined up (of course!), including the three I bought at the Orenda Roadshow, The Mountain in my Shoe by Louise Beech, A Suitable Lie by Michael J. Malone, and Exquisite by Sarah Stovell.

Hope you all enjoy your visits to different places next week. I thought this picture I spotted on Twitter was perfect!

(h/t @thelaceylondon on Twitter)
I'd love to hear what you've been enjoying. Happy reading everyone!

Friday, 19 May 2017

Book Review - Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

Siglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors – accessible only via a small mountain tunnel. Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik – with a past that he’s unable to leave behind. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life. An avalanche and unremitting snowstorms close the mountain pass, and the 24-hour darkness threatens to push Ari over the edge, as curtains begin to twitch, and his investigation becomes increasingly complex, chilling and personal. Past plays tag with the present and the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness – blinded by snow, and with a killer on the loose. Taut and terrifying, Snowblind is a startling debut from an extraordinary new talent, taking Nordic Noir to soaring new heights.

Snowblind is the first book in Ragnar Jonasson's Dark Iceland series centred on Ari Thór Arason. In this novel he is a rookie officer who, when he accepts a job offer, must move away from Reykjavik and his girlfriend, and adapt to life in Siglufjörður, a quiet fishing village in the far north of the country. He learns from Tómas, the police sergeant in charge of Siglufjörður police station, that nobody ever locks their doors because there's no point as nothing ever happens. Ari Thór's sense of isolation at this news is immediately palpable, he's in a strange town, one that views outsiders with suspicion and he somehow has to learn to work within this tight-knit community but if nothing happens how can he ever hope to be accepted?
However, the sudden death of celebrated local author, Hrólfur Kristjánsson, immediately plunges him into a case and he finds himself caught up in the secrets and lies of this little community. At first it is widely believed that Hrólfur's death may have been a tragic accident but Ari Thór suspects this may not be the truth, leading him to become further isolated from the locals who object to his questions about their relationships with one another. When a young woman is then found brutally attacked and left for  dead, half-naked in the snow, it appears they may really have a killer in their midst. With the only road out of the town blocked following an avalanche, tensions rise as Ari Thór battles to control his growing claustrophobia as he strives to find the killer when he doesn't know who he can trust.
 We slowly learn more about the community as Ragnar Jonasson cleverly switches the perspective numerous times meaning we discover little snippets about the various characters from their own thoughts and actions. There is a risk with multiple points of view that the narrative becomes confused but that never happens here, instead this gradual drip-feeding of hidden truths helps to build the tension and increased my desire to turn the pages to discover more. Ari Thór is an engaging protagonist, instinctive and impulsive; the twists and turns kept me captivated and the descriptions of the landscape and weather in Iceland are beautifully and atmospherically described.
I found Snowblind an unsettling read, perhaps because I suffer mildly from claustrophobia myself, the overwhelming sense of being trapped in this dark little town was palpable. I became so immersed in this world, in which the landscape was as much as character as the people of Siglufjörður, that I physically felt the tension, my chest became tight and I could sense the unease in the pit of my stomach. This of course, is in a strange way, exactly what I loved about Snowblind, to experience that deep connection with Ari Thór meant once I picked the book up I didn't put it down until I'd read the whole thing. To say a book made me feel anxious may seem an odd way to recommend it but I mean it as the highest compliment, to write a novel I felt as well as read is something very special and I thoroughly recommend Snowblind to anybody who enjoys gripping, atmospheric thrillers. I've already started reading the second book in the series, Nightblind!

Snowblind is published in the UK by Orenda Books. You can follow Ragnar Jonasson on Twitter as @ragnarjo and Orenda as @OrendaBooks

About the Author

Ragnar Jónasson is author of the international bestselling Dark Iceland series. His debut Snowblind went to number one in the kindle charts shortly after publication, and Nightblind, Blackout and Rupture soon followed suit, hitting the number one spot in five countries, and the series being sold in 15 countries and for TV. Ragnar was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he continues to work as a lawyer. He also teaches copyright law at Reykjavik University and has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV-news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. Ragnar is a member of the UK Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) and set up its first overseas chapter in Reykjavik. He is also the co-founder of the international crime-writing festival Iceland Noir. From the age of 17, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic. He has appeared on festival panels worldwide, and lives in Reykjavik with his wife and young daughters.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Orenda Roadshow - An Evening of International Crime Fiction at Waterstones Piccadilly



After finishing work yesterday (when I discovered a small girl actually believed I was 106 years old!), I didn't go home and curl up with a book - or google the latest anti-ageing treatments... Instead  I took the train to Waterloo and after a few hours of enjoying the rainy streets of London, I made my way to Waterstones Piccadilly for the Orenda Roadshow - An Evening of International Crime Fiction. I've made no secret on this blog of my admiration for Orenda Books, Karen Sullivan is a brilliantly astute publisher who specialises in crime fiction from around the world. The opportunity to attend an event where you could see fifteen of the brilliant Team Orenda authors talk about their books and read an excerpt from them was too good to miss. I've read several already of course, and with the others all on my bookish radar, I knew I wouldn't be coming away empty handed.

Johana Gustawsson talking about Block 46

The evening began with an offer to try aquavit, three of the authors attending (Gunnar Staalesen, Thomas Enger and Kjell Ola Dahl) are Norwegian and it was also the Norwegian Constitution Day yesterday so only right we helped them celebrate. It felt especially apt for me as I'd been reading Gunnar Staalesen's new book, Wolves in the Dark on the train - although admittedly Varg Veum drinks rather more than a shot glass of the drink! Once we were all seated Karen introduced each of her authors in turn and then they told us a little about themselves and their most recent book. We learned that there used to be just one television station in Iceland, it didn't broadcast on Thursdays or at all in July which might explain why they're a nation of readers, Johana Gustawsson is a Swede killer, Thomas Enger is co-leader because of his bag carrying prowess but has a serious rival for the position in Antti Tuomainen and some of the authors turned to crime (fiction) because there's no money in historical fiction, poetry or farming!

Paul E. Hardisty captivating the audience with an extract from Reconciliation for the Dead

Karen then asked each author to read an excerpt from their latest book. This was a real goosebumps moment for me: whether hearing the words of a book I already know and love, or listening to an extract from a story I'm looking forward to reading, there's always something very special about having the author read their own words. I can honestly say I was enthralled and again blown away by the calibre of writers published by Orenda, each and every book published is an absorbing read and always beautifully written. There was then time for a short Q&A session when we learned more about the research some of the authors have done before writing their books, and how it feels to write some of the darker, more horrific scenes (and now I'm looking forward to what Matt Wesolowski has up his sleeve because it sounds intriguing - and disturbing...)
Matt Wesolowski reading from the gripping Six Stories

We then had the chance to mingle with the authors over a drink and a slice of chocolate cake, and to have our books signed. There was also a table of temptation, laden with Orenda books to buy. I selected three but could easily have picked more, if only I had a Thomas Enger or Antti Tuomainen to carry my books! I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Johana Gustawsson, whose Block 46 is one of my books of the year, I will be reviewing it soon for the current blog tour, and Paul E. Hardisty, author of the very first Orenda book I ever read, The Abrupt Physics of Dying and whose subsequent novels, The Evolution of Fear, and Reconciliation for the Dead have cemented my belief that he is one of the most exciting and intelligent writers of action thrillers around today. It was also lovely to be able to meet two of the authors I've not read yet, Michael Malone and Louise Beech. I'm looking forward to reading A Suitable Lie, and The Mountain in My Shoe soon and even more delighted to be a recipient of Louise's breasts...

 Karen is clearly and justifiably proud of each of her novelists, I came away from the evening even more convinced that she is a true force for good within publishing; the support she gives to her authors, and the relationship she has developed with book bloggers is inspiring a growing number of loyal readers.
It was only when I finally left the warmth of Waterstones and headed back into the rain that I realised it was almost nine o'clock and I had to run to catch my train. It was probably just as well I'd only bought those three books - I just hope somebody figures out a way to clone the bag carriers for next time (please be a next time!) because I know there are even more fabulous stories to come from Team Orenda!

I'm going to need a bookshelf dedicated to Orenda soon

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Book Review - Will of the People by David Hurst




“If you close that door on me, it’ll be murder.”
“No Mr Brand, it’ll be justice.” 


Will Of The People is a Lord Of The Flies-esque allegory for this infantile political era – asking what would we think if children behaved just as badly?

Will is a friendly teacher who lets his class call him by his first name, and who he collectively calls the People. On a school trip, they are travelling in a coach through a Spanish mountain tunnel when an earthquake leaves them trapped. Within their new world, when Will becomes ill, the children have to take charge…


Will of the People is a difficult book to categorise, on the one hand it's an exciting, albeit dark at times, story for children. It's also a biting, occasionally humorous political allegory. This means of course it can be enjoyed by a wide audience, although I suspect the further to the right your political opinions the less you'll want to read it...
The story opens with a coach load of school children from England and their two teachers, on a trip to Andalucia, caught up in traffic after a small earthquake had brought down a tiny part of the tunnel they are in. Their frustration soon turns to terror as a massive earthquake causes the tunnel to collapse. Many of their fellow occupants are instantly killed and with his fellow teacher unaccounted for, it is left to Will Folk to try to restore calm - but Will's foot is trapped under a large rock. Taking advantage of Will's predicament, class bully Tom and some of the other children leave the coach in search of food. Fortunately a young but emotionally advanced young lad, Dani remains on the coach and administers first aid to Will. Eventually he is freed but badly hurt and barely mobile he is unable to stop Tom's gang from leaving the coach to set up camp elsewhere. Away from Will's compassionate and sensible guidance they are easily manipulated by those that prefer to lead using divide and conquer tactics.
What follows is a gripping story of two rival groups of children battling to survive not only the conditions in the tunnel but also each other - and themselves. The frequent aftershocks, precarious rocks and debris, poor air and limited resources would be enough to cope with but add in monstrous egos, violent aggressors and a need for something in their lives, even if that something leads to hatred and bloodshed, and before long Will, Dani, his best friend, Asad and their friends face an uncertain future at the hands of those who should be working with and not against them. 
I never felt the political allusions detracted from the flow of the story, some were lighthearted, "you kip", while some had a darker humour to them, and I enjoyed trying to work out if certain characters represented more well known political figures. The strongest and most poignant allusions were at the more distressing points of the story however, and shone an uncompromising light on the way those seen as different, particularly refugees are treated, and how people are manipulated to believe they are more threatened by those who have very little than those who have power. In some ways it's quite a bleak story, as with our turbulent times there are no easy solutions and not everybody is willing or able to reflect on their behaviour and examine their beliefs. However, it's not entirely without hope, the humanity shown by Dani and Asad in particular show that there is still good in many people. We are reminded too that even what seem to be the coldest of hearts has the capacity to change. 
I'm mindful not to give the impression that Will of the People will only appeal to those interested in politics. While I think an awareness of this 'alternative facts' era is useful in really appreciating David Hurst's intentions, this is still a cracking story. It's tense, dark and has a few surprising twists. I think it would also really appeal to older primary school children who enjoy well structured stories where kids of their own age drive most of the action. As with all good stories they may even learn something and consider what sort of world they want to shape. Will of the People is a book for the people, young and old.

Will of the People can be purchased on Amazon. Follow David Hurst on Twitter as @DavidHurstUK and @FolkTalesEU

About the author


David Hurst is an author and prolific freelance writer published in British national newspapers & magazines; as well as in Spain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, USA & UAE. He also helps people with addiction and relationship problems on a voluntary basis. David is married to Debs and a hands-on daddy to his amazing two little boys.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Book Review - Did You See Melody by Sophie Hannah




She's the most famous murder victim in the country.

What if she's not dead?

Did You See Melody? is a different kind of Sophie Hannah novel.

It is a stand alone.

It is pure psychological suspense, with a chilling hook and a killer central mystery.

It combines Sophie’s critically acclaimed writing with a pacy and twisty plot.

Confession time first - this is the first Sophie Hannah book I've read. It's unlikely to be the last. Did You See Melody has a slow paced start and reads more like a family drama than a mystery. Cara Burrows is an English woman who has spent her family's savings on a solo trip to a luxury resort and spa in Arizona. However, instead of the space and tranquility she was hoping to find, she becomes embroiled in a years old murder case after another guest reports seeing Melody Chapa - only Melody's parents are both serving life for her murder.
I read Did You See Melody in little over a day, it's surprisingly lighthearted considering the subject matter, with an intriguing mystery at the heart of the book. It's the female characters though who are the book's main strength; Cara is an interesting lead character, much of the humour in the book comes from her English reserve and awkwardness in the face of American hospitality and positivity. I must admit to finding her reason for leaving her family, albeit even if it was just for a break, a little flimsy but was pleased to see her character's growth as the book progresses. Bonnie Juno, criminal prosecutor tuned television personality is the very essence of dogged and is a memorable character although not at all likeable. Tarrin probably deserves a book of her own, a wisecracking no nonsense florist turned amateur detective might be a little unlikely but she was definitely the stand out character of the book.
I found the secondary characters a bit weaker unfortunately. Cara's husband, Patrick isn't given much to do and the teenagers, Cara's children, Jess and Ollie, and Tarrin's daughter, Zellie felt a little stereotypical. Zellie never really fulfilled her early potential and although she was clearly an intelligent free thinker ultimately came across as a typical eye rolling teen. I was a bit disappointed too with the way certain parts of the story seemed to fizzle out. At one point the story focuses on the past history of the investigating police officers but what could have been an interesting sub-plot never really went anywhere.
The main story though is fascinating, I was completely intrigued by the premise of a murder that may not have been a murder, and the questions about who is guilty of what kept me turning the pages, eager to discover the truth. It is a book that probably requires its readers to accept a few unlikely coincidences, close scrutiny would likely stretch credibility a bit. However, it's still a gripping story with some excellent twists. Much of the story of Melody's disappearance is told through television transcripts and while arguably this interrupted the pace somewhat, I rather enjoyed the drip feeding revealing of the past. I have conflicting feelings about the conclusion to the book and suspect it will divide opinions. It is undoubtedly a truly disturbing twist but I wish it could have been explored a little further. While I can appreciate an open ending this just felt a tiny bit unsatisfying but I am nit-picking here as it definitely made me gasp! Overall there really was much to enjoy about Did You See Melody and I think it will be a deservedly popular holiday read later this summer.
My thanks to the publishers for my copy, received through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

Did You See Melody will be published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton on 24th August 2017.

Sophie Hannah is on Twitter as @sophiehannahCB1 and Hodder & Stoughton as @hodderbooks.  See #ISawMelody for more reviews and news about the book.



Sunday, 7 May 2017

Blog Tour - Sleeper by J.D. Fennell review and Q&A




Sixteen-year-old Will Starling is pulled from the sea with no memory of his past. In his blazer is a strange notebook with a bullet lodged inside: a bullet meant for him. As London prepares for the Blitz, Will soon finds himself pursued by vicious agents and a ruthless killer known as the Pastor. All of them want Will's notebook and will do anything to get it. As Will's memory starts to return, he realises he is no ordinary sixteen-year old. He has skills that make him a match for any assassin. But there is something else. At his core is a deep-rooted rage that he cannot explain. Where is his family and why has no one reported him missing? Fighting for survival with the help of Mi5 agent-in-training, Anna Wilder, Will follows leads across London in a race against time to find the Stones of Fire before the next air raid makes a direct hit and destroys London forever.

I'm delighted to be the host today for the Sleeper blog tour. Sleeper is an exciting YA/crossover story from debut author J.D. Fennell. You can read my review below but first I'm pleased to introduce J.D. who was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

1. The events in Sleeper take place during the Second World War, what made you decide to set it during this period?
I loved the idea of an action/mystery set in London during the Blitz. Not only do Will and Anna fight for survival against evil villains, but they have to navigate a city that is being destroyed around them. I wanted back to basics action and having no high tech such as mobile phones, internet or laptops was a huge appeal. Also, as a writer, weaving Sleeper into the timeline of 1941, and setting it in real places, during real events, was just too irresistible a world to create. 

2. The Blitz is so much a part of the nation's consciousness, how much and what sort of research did you have to do?
I did quite a lot of research, before and during the writing of Sleeper. I drew up the actual timeline of what was going on in London, and the world in 1941, and then developed my story around that. 

3. Are any of the characters in Sleeper based on real people or are they all from your imagination?
Mostly from my imagination, however, there is much of me in Eoin and a some of me in Will. 

4. I loved your main character, Will Starling and was also really pleased that he is helped by a girl, Anna Wilder who is just as brave and resourceful as he is. Do you have a favourite character in the book, and if so, why?
I’m so glad you loved Will and Anna. I do too. It was very important to me that Anna is on an equal footing with Will. She is as remarkable as him, if not more so. Will is special; he was a long time in the making and almost feels like an imaginary son to me. That said, what a wicked father I am for making his life so difficult. I’m really fond of all the characters, however, if I were to pick one I would say the Pastor because his darkness is terrifying, entertaining and fun to write. Blimey, what does that say about me? *smiles*

5. Sleeper is a YA novel but doesn't patronise your younger audience at all, there's a real sense of danger throughout. How difficult was it to get the balance right between keeping the plot so tense whilst still remaining suitable for your target readers?
Thank you so much for saying that. It really means a lot. When I wrote Sleeper I did not think once about holding back because some of my readers might be younger. As a writer you are limiting your creativity if you start down that path. Also, young people are not as fragile as some people might think. They are tougher and smarter than most adults when it comes to dealing with hard core subjects. To answer your question - it was not difficult, mainly because I wrote the book that I wanted to read.

6. Any British spy novel will almost certainly be compared to James Bond and I'm sure Sleeper, with the shadowy VIPER threatening Will and all of London will be no exception. However, I was also reminded of John Buchan's Richard Hannay books probably because both are faced with anarchic traitors aiding Britain's enemies but also because both Will and Hannay seem rather reluctant heroes who nevertheless have a great deal of skill plus a generous helping of luck. Were you influenced by other fictional spies and do you have a favourite spy novel?
Interesting that you say that - It’s been a long time since I read it but I loved The Thirty Nine Steps. I also loved the many different movie and TV adaptations. I am also a fan of the Bond novels. 

7. Although it has a wartime setting, the mystical Stones of Fire so sought after in the book add a fresh element to the story, was it a challenge to combine the historical adventure with the mythology and yet remain believable and not too farfetched?
It was challenging but also great fun. The key here was to not go overboard with the mysticism. I wanted to keep it mysterious throughout the story with the big reveal at the end.

8. I was intrigued by the ending of Sleeper as clearly there is more to come. Without giving too much away, can you tell us what you have planned next?
There is more to come. I can’t say much other than there will be consequences. Make of that what you will. ;-) 

And now for some more general questions

9. What authors influence your writing?
I love Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Sarah Waters, JK Rowling and Ken Follet, to name a few.

10. What underrated book would you most recommend?
I loved the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which is a wonderfully written, atmospheric tale of love, magic and a creepy circus. I think it did quite well, but really needs to be read by more people.

11. What was your favourite book as a child and have you reread it as an adult?
Yes, I still love the Tintin books and am collecting the original first editions. One book that springs to mind is Richard Matheson’s post apocalyptic thriller, I am Legend, which tells the story of the last man on an earth populated with vampires. It spawned four different movie versions and was the inspiration for many zombie films. I read it again four years back and enjoyed it just as much.

12. When you're writing a book do you have much of the outline worked out in advance or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
I am a planner. I cook the idea in my head, write a rough synopsis followed by what happens in the structure, i.e. Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3. I will then do a chapter by chapter summary and crack on. 

13. What advice would you give to your younger writing self?
Don’t doubt yourself. Read more poetry and dream big.

14. What can you tell us about how you structure your day when writing? Many authors seem to tweet about their favourite writing/procrastinating snack - do you have one?
I’m a planner, so I usually know what chapter or scene I am about to tackle, which has the advantage of extra thinking time before I start writing. Regarding snacks: I don’t really have a favourite. That said, if you were to press me I would say cheese or chocolate.

15. Are you currently reading a book?
Yes, I am reading Spellslinger by Sebastian De Castell. It’s a wonderful fantasy with a western influence.

Thank you for hosting me today, Karen. 

Many thanks J.D, I'm very much with you when it comes to cheese and chocolate! Now for my review...

I was delighted to be asked to take part in the Sleeper blog tour, although I haven't read much historical fiction of late I'm always a sucker for novels set in the First and Second World Wars. That this is an adventure story piqued my interest still further, as you may be able to tell from the Q&A I loved the Hannay books!
Sleeper opens with Will Starling still knowing who he is and what he is doing. At this early point the reader is told very little. It is clear he is on some sort of mission but why and who he is working for is a mystery. However, it is immediately obvious that there are people who want him dead. After Will loses his memory we are on equal footing with his character, which I found a really clever way of revealing the truth, neither the protagonist nor the reader knows before the other. What follows is a hugely enjoyable tale, in some ways it's almost an old fashioned rollicking yarn, filled as it is with spies,dastardly baddies, thrilling twists and a mysterious artefact, the Stones of Fire, that threatens London's very existence. However, don't be fooled into thinking old fashioned equals tired or cliched, Sleeper may have a historical setting but the story feels fresh throughout. The mythological element of the novel adds an intriguing twist but the story stays plausible, Fennell's research pays off well here as events in the book are linked to historical incidents.
Although an action story, Sleeper is equally strong when it comes to the characters in the novel. Will himself is a deeply engaging protagonist, with a novel and indeed trilogy that is centred on him there was a risk that he could have become a rather two dimensional figure but thankfully this is far from the case. He is a highly skilled and resourceful young man but his memory loss has made him confused and more vulnerable than whatever training he has received intended. Not knowing who he is or who he can trust makes him a more sympathetic character and of course leads to a real sense of tension as he learns more about why people want him dead. He is joined by MI5 agent-in-training Anna Wilder and she is probably the character who most gives Sleeper a contemporary feel despite the wartime setting. She is never there as window dressing to be rescued or patronised, like Will she is highly trained and skillful, that she is a girl is immaterial when it comes to her capabilities.
The enemies they face are truly menacing and a real threat, the Pastor in particular is really quite terrifying. Without giving anything away, there are multiple deaths, J.D. Fennell is never condescending to his younger readers and doesn't let all his characters walk away unscathed. Sleeper is genuinely tense and also deeply moving, losses are felt and characters aren't merely disposable.
I really enjoyed Sleeper, I'm very much in the 'crossover' part of a YA/crossover and while this is clearly written to appeal to readers younger than me I still found it a gripping and often dark story that surprised me several times and managed to keep me guessing. The book ends with a tempting glimpse into Will's plans for the future and leave the reader in no doubt that his life isn't going to become any less dangerous. I can't wait to find out what happens next!
Many thanks to J.D. Fennell and the publishers for my advance copy received in return for my honest review.

Sleeper is the first book from exciting new independent publisher, The Dome Press. You can follow them here on Twitter and follow the author at @jd_fennell. Sleeper has its own webpage here.

About the author




J.D. was born in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, and began writing stories at a young age to help him understand the madness unfolding around him. A lover of reading, he devoured a diverse range of books - his early influences include Fleming, Tolkien, Shakespeare and the Brontës.
He left Belfast at the age of nineteen and worked as a chef, bartender, waiter and later began a career in writing for the software industry.
These days he divides his time between Brighton and London, where he lives with his partner and their two dogs. 

It's been an honour to be the host for Sleeper's blog tour today, you can follow the rest of the tour too, details are on the poster below.






Thursday, 4 May 2017

Book Review - Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1) by Mark Lawrence




"I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin" At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

If that short description whetted my appetite for this book, the opening paragraph of the prologue caught me hook, line and sinker,
'It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.' 
Red Sister follows the tribulations of Nona Grey, a small peasant girl with dark and dangerous secrets. Nona has been bought  by Giljohn, the child-taker. Abeth is a harsh world, much of it now covered in ice, its people are forced to live in a narrow corridor. With little space and a climate that makes crop growing near to impossible, starving families are often forced to sell their children. We learn of this in flashback form as Nona remembers the events that have led her to the gallows, convicted of murder. She has been rescued from execution by Abbess Glass and brought to the Convent of Sweet Mercy but why would a nun save her, and is she really safe now? The answer to that latter question is quickly apparent, Nona has powerful enemies and she will need to learn not just the skills taught at Sweet Mercy; she will also need also understand and come to terms with who is she is, and what she is capable of, if she is going to survive.
Much of Red Sister follows Nona's education alongside the other novices at the convent. Novices move through four classes on their way to receiving their holy orders, classes are named after the four orders of nun. At just eight, Nona joins Red Class and we learn that there are four paths nuns eventually follow  - a Bride of the Ancestor (Holy Sister) honours the Ancestor and maintains the faith; a Martial Sister (Red Sister) is skilled in armed and unarmed combat; a Sister of Discretion (Grey Sister) is skilled in espionage, stealth and poisons,and a Mystic Sister (Holy Witch) can walk the Path and manipulate threads. Novices quickly learn which path they are likely to follow and this is generally decided by whether they show any sign of bearing the distinguishing features of the four tribes the people of Abeth are descended from. The tribes who came found an unforgiving world even before the ice spread and were forced to mix their blood to breed people who could survive. Their descendants may still display touches or more obvious signs of the attributes that differentiate them. The tribes are described as:
Gerant - distinguished by their great size
Hunska - distinguished by their speed. A dark-haired, dark-eyed people
Marjal - distinguished by their ability to tap into the lesser magics.
Quantal - distinguished by their ability to walk the Path and work greater magics.
A book set in a school that teaches magic, with four categories pupils can be determined by, with the principal character a child from a difficult background will inevitably be compared to Harry Potter. While I think this book will appeal to Potterheads it's a much darker and bleaker book, not something I'd recommend to younger HP fans. This is a brutal world with cruel and violent characters. Nona suffers some horrendous attacks, without giving anything away there is one particular scene that is really quite difficult to read. Nona is a remarkable lead character, she is bright - she often seems much older than her years but her hard life has doubtless caused her to grow up fast - skillful, brave and principled. She is also impetuous, finds in hard to trust people and is frequently an unreliable narrator. Her vulnerability and need for acceptance means she is desperate for friends and must endure some hard lessons about truth and trust. There are several other strong characters in the book, her friends are diverse and believable, often with their own secrets, the nuns are a fascinating bunch and far removed from the pious expectations we have of holy sisters. That one (my favourite) is nicknamed the Poisoner, should be enough of a hint that these are nuanced characters. Their enemies are, in various ways, terrifying. Whether its a deranged High Priest, a vengeful rich man or a warrior able to take on and beat several attackers at the same time, the tension and danger is palpable.
So superb characterisation then, but Red Sister is also beautifully written, This is a world brought vividly to life, visceral, menacing and thrilling. There's always a risk with the first in a series that too much world building goes on at the expense of  an exciting plot but here the balance is perfect, there is much to look forward to with the next instalment but this is a gripping and immersive story from the very start. There are twists and turns, a breathtaking conclusion and an epilogue that has me desperate for book two! I highly recommend this book, if you're looking for a new fantasy series then look no further, this should hit the spot.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for my unbiased review.

Red Sister is published in the UK by Harper Voyager.

About the author
Mark Lawrence is married with four children, one of whom is severely disabled. His day job is as a research scientist focused on various rather intractable problems in the field of artificial intelligence. He has held secret level clearance with both US and UK governments. At one point he was qualified to say ‘this isn’t rocket science … oh wait, it actually is’.

Between work and caring for his disabled child, Mark spends his time writing, playing computer games, tending an allotment, brewing beer, and avoiding DIY.

You can follow Mark on Twitter as @Mark__Lawrence and his website is at marklawrence.buzz