Review: Alison Baillie – Sewing the Shadows Together

11960282_889857477759894_5008831289727561431_nI was looking forward to reading Alison Baillie’s debut novel Sewing the Shadows Together. She and I attended an Arvon course together at the end of 2012. She was working on an early draft of this book and I was finishing In Bitter Chill. We were early readers of each others novels and I was delighted to read the published version. I always felt the book was an excellent mystery with a strong sense of place and it’s great that other readers now have the chance to enjoy the story.

Thirty years earlier 13-year-old Shona McIver was raped and murdered. A man went to prison for her killing but recent DNA evidence has now shown he was innocent. Sarah was a childhood friend of Shona and becomes convinced that the killer comes from a close circle of family and friends. As she battles demons within her own family the secrets of the past begin to unravel.

The mark of a good book for me is a writer’s ability to draw you completely into their world. Sewing the Shadows Together so successfully does this that I didn’t want to put the book down. There’s a strong family element to the narrative and relationships are satisfyingly dysfunctional. Baillie is excellent at showing how old hurts and unspoken suspicions can devastate a family.

I hope readers of Crimepieces enjoy the novel as much as  did. I don’t normally interview authors on my blog but wanted to dig deeper into the book so I got Alison to answer some questions for me.

This is your debut novel. What were your motivations for writing crime fiction and how long did the book take to write?

I’ve always enjoyed reading crime fiction and I’ve always dreamt of writing a novel – I wasn’t sure if I could, but there was never any doubt that, if I did, it would be a crime novel! I’ve had the plot of Sewing the Shadows Together fermenting in the back of my mind for many years, but it was only when I stopped teaching full-time that I was able to actually write it down. When I began writing the plot felt quite well-developed, after all these years lingering in my subconscious, so the book took me about eighteen months to write, which was less than I had anticipate. I was very much helped by two Arvon courses and the people I met there!

Your book has a strong sense of place. How much of the book uses real life locations and how much is fictional?

The main locations, Portobello and Edinburgh, the Outer Hebrides and Plettenberg Bay in South Africa are all places I know well. I tried to capture the atmosphere of the places, but not every detail is completely accurate. This is deliberate – I didn’t want people to make assumptions that some incidents and characters are based on real ones and I also made some changes to fit in with elements of the plot.

‘Sewing the Shadows Together’ is an unusual title. How did it come into being?

It’s a quotation from DH Lawrence’s poem ‘Bat’. I remember reading this poem with an inspirational English teacher when I was about thirteen – an incident I have used in the book (but my wonderful teacher is very different from HJ Kidd, my fictional teacher). I chose the title for several reasons: firstly, the poem is about discovering the difference between appearance and reality, an important theme in the book; secondly, the phrase could apply to making sense of the traumas of the past and, finally, I just love the sound of the words.

The book’s focus is very much the past. Why do you think we’re fascinated by unsolved cases?

We all want to solve a puzzle and the longer it has remained unsolved, the more interesting it becomes – it has a greater effect on people’s lives and the ripples extend further. Readers are also fascinated because uncovering secrets in the past is always intriguing and you can scratch the surface of any seemingly perfect life or relationship and discover the cracks beneath.

There’s also a strong emphasis in the book on marriage and the constraints of family. How conscious were you of trying to balance a crime story with focusing on human relationships?

The crime stories I enjoy usually have a strong emphasis on character, motivation and relationships. In this novel I wanted to focus on ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation, and how a tragedy in the past affects every aspect of their life, their relationships, their confidence and their self-esteem.

What’s next? What are you planning to write and will it be set in the same location?

I have an idea gestating at the moment and I think it’s just on the point of birth. It is set in Scotland, Yorkshire and Switzerland and involves completely different characters, but once again features ordinary people caught up in a tragic situation and focuses on hidden secrets and relationships.

Thanks to Alison for taking time to answer my questions.

 

 

Review: Chris Simms – Savage Moon

I’d been meaning to read Chris Simms for a while. His books are set in my 41Nymp-howL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_hometown of Manchester and have a reputation of being well-researched gripping police procedurals. It was the author’s appearance at a local festival which finally spurred me into action. Savage Moon is a crime novel with a strong sense of place with an excellent balance between police work and family drama.

A farmer’s wife is savaged on the north Manchester moors and her assailant is believed by locals to be a panther roaming the countryside. DI Jon Spicer is sceptical until another victim appears with his throat ripped out in the city centre. The murdered man, Derek Peterson, had previously been subjected to an assault because of his homosexuality. As the locals begin to panic about a wild predator, Spicer finds Peterson’s murky past complicates his investigation.

A moorland setting is an evocative place for crime fiction fans but, although there’s a nod to The Hound of the Baskervilles, the book also feels resolutely northern. Of course, for Mancunians, Saddleworth Moor has a real life resonance due to the atrocities of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. But Simms cleverly ensures his plot is devious enough to draw the reader completely into his world. As it’s the first book I’ve read featuring Jon Spicer, I can’t comment on how he was as a single man. But the portrayal of him a new parent I thought was exceptional. The tensions between Spicer and his wife were believable and complemented the murder story very well. There’s a colonial element to the plot which stops the book feeling too insular and gave the reader plenty of food for thought.

Savage Moon is a great example of how you can pick up a book mid-series and be drawn into the world that the author has created. A book with a local feel but addressing universal issues.

Review: Johan Theorin – The Voices Beyond

Johan Theorin is one of my favourite Swedish writers and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the fourth instalment of his quartet set on51tSovCdE-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ the island of Öland. The first in the series, Echoes from the Dead, was outstanding and all his writing has been of a consistently high quality. The Voices Beyond concludes the series that has as its common thread the picturesque setting of Öland and the sense of a community where secrets run deep, often for generations.

It’s summer on Öland and visitors are flocking to a resort owned by the influential Kloss family. Jonas Kloss is looking forward to spending time with his cousins but one evening he stumbles aboard a ship and finds dying passengers. He tells his strange tale to Gerlof Davidsson, an elderly resident who has seen plenty of strange events on the island. One man, The Homecomer, has decided to return to the place of his birth and exact revenge for a crime decades earlier.

There are a number of narrative strands in The Voices Beyond. The book works best in when chronicling the story of Gerlof and his memories of past feuds on the island. The modern criminal element is also well described with, perhaps, the best character that of Lisa who DJs at the resort as ‘Lady Summertime’. Stealing from the guests to fund her addict brother’s drug habit, she’s a natural magnet for other criminal elements operating out of the resort.

It’s a substantial book, at 462 pages, and the narrative tension occasionally drops. But overall the reader is drawn into the world that Theorin creates which involves, as usual, a touch of the supernatural. There’s a resolution to the murder narrative and a sense of the quartet coming to an end. The translation, by Marlaine Delargy, is very good with clear and restrained prose.

Thanks to Transworld for my review copy.

Review: Quentin Bates – Summerchill

Quentin Bates is one of the organisers of Iceland Noir, an excellent event that I’ve attended since it first started. He translates51hN2ErUx7L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Ragnar Jonasson’s books from Icelandic into English but is also a very good writer himself. He recently published a novella, Summerchill, featuring his protagonist Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gisladottir which was a lovely read for the July sunshine we had here.

At the end of a warm summer, a man goes missing from his home in the Reykjavik suburbs. Gunna and her partner Helgi investigate his disappearance but discover that he has been keeping some unsavoury company. The challenge is to follow both the missing man and his nemesis before murder is committed.

Novellas are a great way to try new writers and Summerchill certainly gives readers a flavour of Bates’s style of writing. Its title is a clue to the atmosphere of the book. You get an insight into Iceland in the summer with its long hours of daylight and an empty-ish Reykjavik. The pace of the narrative is perfectly suited to a novella form. The action is fast with a regular influx of new characters. Unlike many crime stories, you don’t necessarily sympathise with the alleged victim but become engrossed in the chase for a resolution to the mystery.

A great, short read to take away on your kindle this summer.

Review: Håkan Nesser – The Living and the Dead in Winsford

51I7Od6SANL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, Håkan Nesser is one of my favourite authors from Scandinavia. He’s an interesting writer because, although he hails from Sweden, his Van Veeteren books are set in the fictional city of Maardam which I’ve always felt has a Dutch feel to the place. The actual country where the city is located is never revealed to the reader. With his last book to be translated into English, The G File, the series came to an end. This year, however, fans of Nesser have two standalone books of his to enjoy: The Summer of Kim Novak which I’ll be reviewing next week and The Living and Dead in Winsford. They are very different but excellent reads.

In the village of Winsford on Exmoor, a woman arrives to take up residency of an isolated cottage. She tells locals that she is a Swedish author who is writing her next book. However, Maria’s intention is simply to outlive her dog. Maria is escaping the recent traumas where we know that she and her husband, Martin, had to flee Stockholm because of a scandal. Martin is portrayed as a blustery liar who may have raped a maid at a hotel. Her children are keeping their distance and Maria has long since stopped loving her husband. However, why Maria is now on her own in a foreign country is only gradually revealed.

Håkan Nesser generality writes substantial books and The Living and Dead in Winsford is no exception. The atmosphere of Exmoor, its isolated location and bleak weather is well portrayed and Maria appears to revel in the landscape, taking long walks in an attempt to exorcise the past. What her personal history is, however, is only gradually revealed to the reader. When it becomes clear what Maria is escaping from, the reader becomes engrossed in how Maria’s story will be concluded. This is partly due to the fact that she clearly settles into the community, forming a relationship with a local man. It’s hard to say any more without giving too much of the plot away.

The book is part thriller but also reads like literary fiction. This is no surprise as Nesser is an excellent writer. The tone is less humorous than his Van Veetern series but was perfectly suited to the narrative. A great read.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for my review copy. The translation was by Laurie Thompson.

Review: Ava Marsh – Untouchable

Occasionally you read a book that takes you completely out of your comfort zone. Untouchable was one such read. It tells the Untouchablestory of Stella, an escort, who operates at the high end of London’s sex trade industry. She’s matter of fact about her job. She does it for the money although, from the very beginning, hints are given about a trauma in her past. When, Elisa, a fellow call girl is murdered, Stella’s initial response is simply to meet with the girl’s partner, give her condolences and not get involved any further. But there are a number of strange factors leading up to Elisa’s death that suggests her murder wasn’t by one of her clients. Stella gradually becomes drawn into the Elisa’s dark secrets and puts her own life in danger.

Untouchable is a fascinating read. The first third of the book which introduces Stella, the world within which she operates and the men who use the services of prostitutes is absolutely fascinating. Stella’s clinical approach to what she does allows the read to step outside the narrative and take an overview of the build up of tension. There are fascinate vignettes. The girls use false names and when their private and professional lives occasionally interact there’s confusion over which identity to use. Marsh could have gone down the road of using Stella’s past trauma as an excuse/easy explanation as to why she enters prostitution. It’s to the writer’s credit that it feels far more subtle than that.

Untouchable is an engrossing read and a bit different from the usual crime fiction on offer. I highly recommend it.

In Bitter Chill – Launch, Publication Day and a big Thank You

11667362_10152930536666272_4707983935079917515_nYesterday, my debut novel In Bitter Chill was published in the UK. It’s been a special time and I’ve only just drawn breath to write this post.

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Goldsboro

On Wednesday I was in London signing copies of my novel for the excellent Goldsboro Books. In the evening we celebrated publication at a launch party at the Faber and Faber offices in Bloomsbury. People from across the crime fiction community came to celebrate the book’s launch. I had guests from Switzerland and Greece as well as across the UK. A regular haunt for us crime fiction aficionados is Maison Bertaux in Soho. The day kicked off there with cakes and tea before moving on to the launch. There, we had more cake made by Karen Sullivan, publisher at Orenda Books. For those of us who wanted something to eat on the hottest night of the year we then moved on for a curry. Many thanks to everyone who attended: bloggers, readers, writers, translators, journalists and all crime fiction lovers. Special thanks to Katherine Armstrong, my editor at Faber and Kirsty Mclachlan, my agent, at DGA for helping bring In Bitter Chill into being.

Curry

Curry

I started Crimepieces before I became an author and I intend to keep posting my reviews here. There’s some great crime fiction out there to discuss. For those interested in the progress of my book, I have an events page and am posting quotes from reviews. All are accessible from the tabs at the top of the website. I also have a Facebook page and Twitter account that can be accessed from the links on the right.

At Maison Bertaux with friends

At Maison Bertaux with friends

In the meantime, I want to thank all the regular readers of Crimepieces for their support.