The Distance by Helen Giltrow

Phew! I feel like I’ve just finished a marathon reading The Distance! To put that into context, I began reading this book in February (no it hasn’t taken me that long!) but within days of starting, I went down with the worst flu I’ve had in years. For 3 days I couldn’t read anything and it took me 3 weeks to fully recover. I only came back to reading it a couple of weeks ago when I was ‘match fit’. Coming in at 400 pages in the paperback (I was reading on Kindle so had no idea about length), it’s a hefty read with a fiendishly complicated plot. You have to have your wits about you to keep up. But it is stunning!

Meet Charlotte Alton – she’s sophisticated, connected, wealthy and aloof. And then there’s Karla – mastermind of an underground criminal network who knows how to ‘fix’ things. Both live in a swanky apartment in Canary Wharf, the same apartment in fact, because Charlotte is Karla. When Simon Johanssen, a hitman, appears at the Royal Opera House, Charlotte knows that she has to become Karla again. Simon has a job but he needs her help to do it. The set up appears easy. All Karla has to do is get Simon into a prison to take out an inmate. But the prison is The Program and the inmate isn’t officially in there.

I daren’t tell you anymore because I don’t want to give away the complete plot but this is a huge thriller. Helen Giltrow hasn’t shied away from prison violence – it’s brutal but I don’t think it’s gratuitous. Told from three different viewpoints, the story twists and turns like rapid gunfire. I absolutely did not guess the final twist and although everything is explained in the end, we’re also left hanging a little, in a good way. Book 2? I do hope so! Five stars from me.

If you want to follow Helen Giltrow on Twitter

@HelenGiltrow

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Orenda Books Roadshow At Waterstones Piccadilly

If you haven’t heard of Orenda Books, that might be because the independent publisher has only been up and running for 17 months. So you may think that Orenda won’t have published many books in that time – wrong. 22 books have been published so far. Karen Sullivan who runs Orenda brought 12 of her 17 authors to Waterstones in Piccadilly for a roadshow.

First up was Michael Stanley who is not one man but two – Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both from South Africa. Their detective series is based in Botswana. The idea for their first book, A Carrion Death, came from watching a pack of hyenas eat a complete wildebeest and it got them thinking – what a great way to get rid of a body!

Kati Hiekkapelto is from Finland and The Defenceless is her latest book. Kati didn’t give too much away but the story is a mixture of illegal immigration, drugs and gangs.  It’s up for the Glass Key Award, the highest award in Scandinavian Crime Fiction. And since there’s only be one winner from Finland, It’s high time there was another!

Matt Johnson is a former MET officer and soldier. He’s come to writing later in life and his book was borne out of writing for therapy. Matt was diagnosed with PTSD after living through several traumatic events, including the shooting of Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy (something I remember clearly). Wicked Game was initially self-published but came to Karen’s attention later on. Matt has combined his real experiences and emotions with fiction to create Robert Finlay, a royal protection officer, with a secretive past.

I’ve already reviewed Amanda Jennings stunning book In Her Wake. After the death of her parents, Bella discovers that her life is not what she thought and has to go on a journey to discover her past before she can move on to her future. For Amanda there were two roots for this story. Firstly Ben Needham who went missing as a small child from the Greek island of Kos. It made her wonder who would take a child from their family? And the other strand is Amanda’s love for Cornwall. Being half Cornish she has deep affection for the county. She likes to think that maybe she can start Cornish Noir!

Yusuf Toropov is an American Muslim and his book is Jihadi: A Love Story. His protagonist, a former US intelligence officer, now converted Muslim, is accused of terrorism. As the story unfolds, the reader has to decide who the reliable narrator is and who is the real terrorist. Jihadi: A Love Story has been put forward for The Booker Award.

How To Be Brave by Louise Beech has been a big hit. Combining two real life events from her family, How To Be Brave tells the story of nine-year-old Rose and her battle with illness. In order to keep her daughter alive, Natalie tells Rose stories of an ancestor who survived in a lifeboat in the Atlantic Ocean for fifty days in 1943.

Paul Hardisty was Orenda Books first author. The Abrupt Physics Of Dying was Thriller of the Year in the Telegraph and the story follows Claymore Straker who is working with the oil industry in Yemen. When he’s kidnapped at gunpoint, Claymore has no option but to help his kidnappers discover the truth as to why a village is afflicted with a strange sickness. The Evolution Of Fear is the sequel and this time, Claymore Straker has to travel to Istanbul and Cyprus, in the search for truth.

David Ross is from Scotland and his book, The Last Days Of Disco, has been described as Trainspotting with music. Set in Ayrshire in 1982, it follows the trials and tribulations of two friends trying to start up a mobile disco business. The Ayrshire music scene continues in the sequel, The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas. Both books are written in vernacular and are described as incredibly funny.

Michael Grothaus is an American journalist and author and has worked in Hollywood. Having spent many years investigating  the effects of sex trafficking , it’s unsurprising that this takes centre stage in Epiphany Jones, his new novel. Jerry, who’s traumatic past has left him vulnerable to mental health issues, becomes the main suspect in the case of a stolen Van Gogh painting. It isn’t long before Jerry becomes embroiled in something far deeper and sinister than he could ever have imagined.

Michael J. Malone is another Scottish writer. His latest book, A Suitable Lie, will be published in September. But we did get a sneak preview when he read the prologue. Andy Boyd lost his first wife through childbirth and believed that he would never be happy again. But Anna has changed all that and appears to love his son as much as he does. After they’re married though, things start to change…

Steph Broadribb aka Crime Thriller Girl is more used to talking about other people’s books than her own. This was the very successful book blogger’s first panel to discuss her debut novel Deep Down Dead and it will be published next year. Lori Anderson is a single mum with a nine-year-old daughter, living in America. She’s also a bounty hunter. Author research is always important but Steph took it to another level. She went out to California and trained to be a bounty hunter herself.

Su Bristow’s new book is Sealskin and will be published soon. It’s a reworking of the Selkie story and tells of a fisherman who goes out on his boat and sees the seals taking off their skins and turning into young women. He hides one of the skins, thereby trapping  of the women and takes her home to be his wife. Although the legend is seen as romantic, there is the horror of abduction at the centre of the story.

It was a fantastic evening listening to all the authors and naturally there were plenty of Karen’s amazing cupcakes to go around. There was also the excitement that, apparently, Yuko Ono was in Waterstones at the same time but I didn’t actually see her. However, there was one star of the evening for me and that’s Karen Sullivan herself. What she’s achieved in 17 months is nothing short of miraculous. Orenda Books is going from strength to strength.

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First Monday Crime – May

(I couldn’t get any decent photos of the panel so here’s some pics of my prized possession from last night!)

Yes, it’s that time again! In fact, it’s a week late! The First Monday Crime team wisely worked out that no one would turn up on a Bank Holiday. Our authors this time were William Shaw, Sarah Hilary, Christopher Fowler and Jack Grimwood. The panel was chaired by Jake Kerridge.

Once more, I have written a silly amount of notes, so I will pick out my favourite parts.

Christopher Fowler writes the Bryant & May novels. Bryant and May are part of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Perhaps the most peculiar thing about them is their age – this is not a case of police officers getting younger. Bryant and May are in their 80s. As Fowler put it himself, they’re ‘Golden Age detectives in a modern world’. Book no. 13 in the series has recently been released and is called Strange Tide.

Sarah Hilary has created one of my most favourite female police officers – DI Marnie Rome. Her third book is Tastes Like Fear. This time, Marnie is investigating homeless people going missing.

William Shaw writes a detective series called Breen & Tozer but his latest book, The Birdwatcher, is a standalone novel. His new officer is William South and he’s slightly unusual. He doesn’t like investigating murder crimes at all. Well, it’s not a pleasant job at the best of times but when you’re a murderer yourself…

Jack Grimwood’s debut crime novel (he’s a very established sci-fi writer), is Moskva, set in Moscow in the mid 80s. His detective, Tom Fox, is not a police officer but an Army Intelligence Officer who’s been sent to Moscow so that he can’t speak the truth at a government committee.

Jake Kerridge asked, as the authors have such distinctive heroes, how do they create them?

Fowler is a huge fan of Golden Age crime books but doesn’t like the racist and sexist comments in them. So although he takes older characters and puts them in the modern world, he uses the classic constructs of the Golden Age. If he’s asked, do you write cosies? – then his response is, do you want a punch in the face? (Think the answer’s no). He likes having older characters confronting today’s issues.

Marnie Rome has been compared to Jane Tennison in terms of her tenacity but otherwise she’s quite different. Sarah Hilary deliberately wanted to move away from the idea of the depressive officer and has made Marnie more empathetic. Although she has demons, she has the courage to live in the world and face them.

William Shaw has the detective who doesn’t want to detect. As William South is a keen birdwatcher, Shaw knew it was important to get that aspect of the book right. As Shaw said, men often communicate through their hobbies. And calling his character, William, wasn’t a Freudian slip. As we learn through the book, William South grew up in Northern Ireland and William is a very popular Protestant NI name.

Jack Grimwood said that he still doesn’t know who Tom Fox really is or where he came from. He sounds to me like a bit of a maverick. He spends most of the book, drunk, although by Moscow standards, he’s teetotal.

Kerridge pointed out that  a sense of place united all four books.

For Christopher and Sarah, it’s London. Christopher said that London is not a static city – it’s always breaking down and renewing. Sarah also alluded to this as she spoke of London becoming more vertical – we can’t build out so we have to build up, making it less accessible for all (only the rich can go up).

William Shaw has Dungeness and Northern Ireland. As Dungeness is small, he had to be more careful. Readers are much more likely to pick him up on anything wrong.

Jack Grimwood spent some time in Russia in the 1980s so had some memories to draw on. However, as he’s more used to writing fantasy worlds, he did feel constrained writing the real world and had to be more disciplined.

I could write more but I won’t! First Monday Crime is back at City University at Angel on Monday 6th June – Peter James, Sharon Bolton, Chris Morgan Jones and Mark Hardie. Why don’t you join us? Go to http://www.goldsborobooks.com for more details.

If you want to follow the authors on Twitter

Christopher Fowler @Peculiar

Sarah Hilary @sarah_hilary

William Shaw @william1shaw

Jack Grimwood @JonCG

 

ChipLitFest

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I went to ChipLitFest in Chipping Norton for the first time on Saturday. This popular book festival has been running for about five years and attracts a wide range of authors. In fact I had huge problems choosing which panels to go to because there were so many good ones going on at the same time. In the end I plumped for three that were in the same venue as I didn’t know the town at all. Now that I’ve been, I can see how close the venues are and how easy it would have been to get around. I know now for next year!

Looking through my notes, I’ve realised that I took far too many. I listened to three one hour panels and I’m in danger of writing something that could take three hours to read! So, instead I’m going to choose my favourite bits from each panel and just give you edited highlights.

Firstly, New Voices with debut authors Fiona Barton (The Widow), Joanna Cannon (The Trouble With Goats And Sheep) and AA Dhand (The Streets of Darkness) and chaired by Sue Cook. To the question – how and where do you write – the answers were varied and a little surprising. Joanna Cannon can write anywhere in the house as long as there’s silence. To make sure of that, she gets up at 3 am to write for a few hours, then walks her dog, writes a bit more and after that, off to work. AA Dhand writes between 11pm-2am in a little alcove on his landing. He did have an office but he prefers the intimacy of the alcove. Fiona Barton though is a duvet writer! (I like the sound of this!) She starts writing as soon as she wakes up around 7am. As she said, it’s a bit Dame Barbara but that’s what works for her.

Competitions have worked well for the debut authors. AA Dhand signed with his agent after entering a novel competition. Joanna Cannon took part in a book pitch comp at a literary festival in York on a Friday evening. She won and by Monday she had seven offers of representation. Fiona Barton entered the Richard and Judy Novel competition and was shortlisted. She didn’t win but found her future agent (Madeline Milburn) in a Google search.

The next panel was Liar, Liar with Lucy Atkins (The Other Child), Amanda Jennings (In Her Wake), CL Taylor (The Missing) and Hannah Beckerman (The Dead Wife’s Handbook) chairing. The authors were discussing their favourite fictional liars. Lucy chose Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Amanda – Ian McEwan’s Briony from Atonement, Cally – Gillian Flynn’s  Amy from Gone Girl and Hannah – F Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

Are they liars that we love to hate or is it possible to have sympathy for them? All the panel had sympathy for Gatsby. He just wanted to get the girl and so his lies were almost justified. Amy could never live up to Amazing Amy, created by her parents, so her whole life became a lie. Ripley was vulnerable, damaged and would take umbrage at other people’s lies . Briony was a naïve 13 year old and believed she was doing the right thing.

I think for me, the most interesting thing about this panel was understanding the unreliable narrator and how he or she should be written. As CL Taylor said, readers don’t like being duped but at the same time, it adds mystery to the book. The reader doesn’t know if the narrator can be trusted. I certainly know that after reading Gone Girl, I’ve approached books in a different way and wondered if I can trust the narrator. Sometimes I spot it but sometimes I don’t!

The final panel was Criminal Violence with Eva Dolan (After You Die), David Mark (Dead Pretty) and Stav Sherez (Eleven Days) with Mike Gayle as chair. As the panel was called Criminal Violence, Mike Gayle posed the question – do you think your books are violent? Stav said yes but went on to say that he uses historical violence so it’s already happened. He thought it would be wrong to soft peddle it as it would then lose its consequence. Eva said that she didn’t like gratuitous violence and if used, it had to be justified. She’s far more interested in showing the after effects of crime and she’s careful to not titillate the violence or diminish the suffering. As a former Crime Desk journalist, David Mark has covered over a thousand murder trials and believes that deep down, everyone is capable of killing someone and compared to what’s written in a book, much worse happens in the world.

Mike Gayle asked how does it feel to write crime? For Eva, it’s just a technical process and she’s more aware of how it’s going to be perceived. Stav said that it’s just words, it’s important to get the right sentence and that he’s more emotional when thinking about it and researching it. It’s the bit of writing that David likes least, he prefers reading it back.

My favourite quote from the session came from Stav – crime novels aren’t about violence but about justice, that readers love the intellectual game of looking for clues and solving the crime.

And I guess that’s why I, and millions of other readers, keep coming back for more.

The A Word and Shtum

Joy – yes, that’s my name, don’t wear it out! But have you noticed, that’s exactly what advertisers are doing at the moment. Joy appears to be the new buzz word. If I’d trademarked my name then by rights, I should be given free chocolate, pens, grocery shopping, sticky tape and a new car. So why am I telling you this? Well, at the moment, you’d be forgiven if you thought that Autism was the new ‘buzz’ condition. April was Autism Awareness Month and there was plenty on TV to remind you. Apart from Employable Me and Undercover, The A Word took centre stage.

For anyone who didn’t know anything about Autism, then The A Word gave some insight into one child’s life (and it’s important to remember that – just one child) and the impact on the family. As a mother with two high functioning sons on the spectrum, there were a few things that I could quibble with – the incredibly quick diagnosis for a five year old child (it can be that quick for an older, articulate, high functioning child), allowing Joe to wander off by himself every day (and if you saw the last episode then you’ll know how that one ended) and pulling Joe out of school without even discussing his issues with the teacher. But there were plenty of things that did ring true, not least the storyline of Rebecca, Joe’s sister, who is increasingly side lined by her parents in favour of Joe. It’s very difficult for siblings and it’s wrong to assume that they don’t need as much care and attention.

Trying to explain to other family members and friends is also hard. Alison and Paul were blessed with having Nicola, the GP sister-in-law, who not only could explain what was happening to everyone but could also find the right help for them. Not all families have this. It’s hard to explain what’s going on, especially as often the parents don’t really know themselves. Ultimately, this show was about how a family has to come to terms with the situation, the grief of knowing that their child is different but then allowing acceptance to move them forward.

It’s been left open for a possible second series. I’m hoping that there will be another and that the focus will be on the battles that have to be fought and won by parents to get the best for their children.

So, you’ve watched The A Word and you now know about Autism. Well, as I wrote earlier, you know about one child with Autism. Consider The A Word to be the beginner’s guide. Are you ready for the intermediate guide? Are you ready for the sharp end of Autism? The non-verbal, doubly incontinent child who will never function in ‘normal’ society? Sure? Then get a box of tissues ready. If The A Word brought tears to your eyes, then you’ll be an emotional wreck by the time you finish reading Shtum by Jem Lester.

Meet Jonah Jewell. He’s 11 years old and likes feathers to fidget with, being outside and eating apples. His parents, Ben and Emma Jewell, are trying to find the best secondary school for him but it’s not as easy as putting down six choices and hoping for the best, especially when the best is a residential school, out of borough and costing £200,000 per year. Jonah is autistic at the far end of the spectrum. Non-verbal, doubly incontinent, he will have to be looked after for the rest of his life. Ben and Emma have done their best but know that it’s not good enough – Jonah needs more than they can give. They are taking the Council to a tribunal to try and get the school that Jonah needs. They’re at breaking point themselves when Emma suggests that they temporarily ‘split’ for the sake of the tribunal. She’d heard somewhere that they were more likely to win if Jonah was living with a single parent. So Ben and Jonah are pushed out of the family home to live with Georg, Ben’s father. And therein lies another problem – Ben and Georg don’t really talk.

Jem Lester will have you laughing one minute and crying the next with Shtum. It’s both beautiful and harrowing. Each chapter starts with a letter and a PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) sign that then set the tone for that chapter. I particularly liked the letter where Jonah’s name was wrong and I half expected Ben to be referred to as ‘Dad’ at some point during a meeting (a particular bugbear of mine). This novel highlights the battles faced by so many parents just trying to do the best for their children. Add to this the heartfelt story of Georg and Ben’s unacknowledged alcoholism and you will break. Although Shtum is fiction, this is also reality for Jem Lester and his son, Noah. Jem and his family know all too well the battles that have to be fought and won.

So you see, for all the buzz that was created around Autism in April, it’s now May and the Media will move on to something else. But for those of us with children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), or indeed any condition, it’s not about our moment in the spotlight or the buzz, it’s about everyday life with our children – the highs, the lows, the misunderstandings, the meltdowns. It is, simply, just life.