‘Who Killed Little Johnny Gill?’ by Kathryn McMaster

Who Killed Little Johnny Gill
Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? A Victorian True Crime Murder Mystery
4-stars

Bradford, late December 1888. Young Johnny Gill leaves his loving family to help milkman William Barrett on his daily round. As his mother Mary Ann bids the lad goodbye, she has no idea she’ll never see her son alive again. When the boy fails to come home at the usual time, his parents become concerned, and though they search the boy’s regular haunts around Manningham, it isn’t until early on the Saturday morning, only a few yards from their house, that his body is finally found.

The killer’s modus operandi bears a marked resemblance to that of recent murders in Whitechapel – a dismembered body drained of blood, intestines draped around the victim’s neck. Gathering witness testimonies, the police soon notice inconsistencies in William Barrett’s version of events and cart him off to gaol, but even while the suspect languishes in custody, the 23-year-old appears strangely unconcerned at his situation. Could the quiet and unassuming Barrett really be the murderer – a clever, scheming sociopath – or is Jack the Ripper at large in Bradford? With conflicting testimonies and taunting letters purporting to be from the Ripper himself, the jury face a drawn-out trial that’s far from simple.

In this fictionalised version of the murder, Kathryn McMaster brings to life the day-to-day reality of the people of Manningham, as well as capably portraying the distress of the Gill family, the difficulties and mistakes in the police investigation and the way public support swayed between the grieving family and the prime suspect. Though at times rather gruesome, the author takes an impartial viewpoint in this fascinating account of one of England’s most brutal and sadistic killings.

 
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5 Things I Learned from Writing

Lessons Learned 350

I always assumed my writing would improve as time went on, though I have to say I wasn’t sure how that would happen. With 13 titles out in the world now, it got me thinking about what I’d learned from each of my books and how that affected subsequent creations. I’ve only included my middle-grade books here, since I reckon these have made the most difference to my writing.

The Devil’s Porridge Gang

This was my first novel so naturally I’m very proud of it. However, since I’d mainly written stage plays up til then, I wasn’t even sure if I could write a novel, so my main challenge was to see if it was possible. And also to see if I enjoyed it.

When I started, all I had was the title and this way of working has stayed with me – make a title, write the book. Like many authors, I don’t want to know the ending before I get there, since I’d be bored before I started. What interests me is finding out what happens. It’s worth saying I wrote this book over the span of several years, though the bulk of it was written over a two-month period.

What I learned from Devil’s Porridge is that I hate working on something that takes a long time – I want to start it and finish it within a reasonable time frame. In addition, it hadn’t occurred to me to open the story with a bang, and instead I rambled away about stuff I thought was quite interesting but didn’t actually move the story forward.

Lessons: Set a deadline. Don’t ramble.

The Architect’s Apprentice

Immediately after finishing Devil’s Porridge, I started this one. I’d already written two or three pages a few years previously (for a writing competition), but didn’t have much idea about where it was going. Planning to write as fast as possible, I gave myself a deadline and managed to finish it (near enough) within three months.

Although this is a children’s book, I discovered I’d focused quite a lot on the adult characters. In most of the kids books I’ve read, this doesn’t happen and I realised I’d have to be careful not to leave my heroes behind, or my readers might get a bit hacked off. My biggest challenge was sorting out the time-frame, as my characters were moving back and forwards in time. I did get terribly confused towards the end and had to move several chapters around for it to make sense. Phew.

Lessons: Stay focused on the main characters. Stick to chronological – it’s easier. 

The Hounds of Hellerby Hall

I started a new series ‘The Christie McKinnon Adventures’ as soon as I’d put the previous novel to bed. I’d come up with the title years before when I was trying to write a comedy radio play. However, that project didn’t work out and I stored the title away for a rainy day. I began with a female protagonist this time and though I concentrated more on the children’s characters, I found I was still veering away from them a little too often. I also introduced more characters than I needed and at one point began to wonder if I’d created a monster. In the end, it worked out fine, but my job would have been easier if I’d been a little less generous in inviting all and sundry to join in.

Lesson: Stay focused on the main characters. Again.

Mortlake

In the follow-up to The Architect’s Apprentice, I assumed because I’d already created the characters etc, it would be easier this time. Wrong! The problem started with the fact I’d created a world of time-slips and needed to develop this without getting too caught up in how the phenomenon actually worked. As with its predecessor, I had to move chapters around for the story to make sense, and I found the restrictions of focusing on one place (Dr Dee’s house at Mortlake) a bit too restrictive. Nevertheless, I also managed to surprise myself when a character I wasn’t expecting turned up out of the blue. (This is why I don’t plan – it’s more exciting).

Lesson: Make sure the premise can sustain the story.

The House That Wasn’t There

With the follow up to Hellerby Hall, I stared with a ‘puzzle’ title – I wanted to tell a story that began with a mystery: someone is stealing children and taking them to a mysterious house on Deadman’s Lane – except, the house isn’t there. I worked out the solution, but couldn’t be sure if it was just a bit too farfetched. On the positive side, I did focus on the main characters much more, but towards the end of the novel, I needed an additional character for the whole thing to make sense. Doing a fair bit of re-writing, I was able to make it work, but it would have been easier if I’d spent more time thinking about the plot and less time doing my usual seat-of-the-pants thing.

Lesson: Sometimes it pays to plan.

‘Run Girl’ by Eva Hudson

Run Girl
Run Girl
3-stars

FBI agent Ingrid Skyberg is in London for a conference, but when a young American woman goes missing in the City, Ingrid is recruited to help find her.

The cover and the title drew me to this one and as I didn’t lose interest on the first page (which is always a positive sign), I’m happy to say I continued reading and finished the book without feeling I’d been duped. Though nothing very much happens in terms of action or excitement, I thoroughly enjoyed this novella and the banter between the main characters. As a prequel, it sets up Skyberg for her later adventures. However, though I liked the characters and warmed to the less-than-thrilling storyline, I did get a sense that she’s a bit of a clutz, so I can’t help wonder how she’ll manage when they put her in situations that are actually dangerous.

I’m not really sure about my rating, but I definitely want to read the next one (Fresh Doubt) before making my mind up completely.

 
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‘No Good Deed’ by MP McDonald

No Good Deed
No Good Deed: A Psychological Thriller
4-stars

When photographer Mark Taylor finds a camera that takes unusual photos, he realises he can stop bad things happening – but there’s one disaster he’s unable to change: 9/11. Taken into custody, Taylor is not charged with any crime and doesn’t get the chance to have his day in court. But his captors want the truth and they don’t seem to care how they get it. With no-one on his side, Mark Taylor’s future looks bleak.

MP McDonald tells a good story – she had me gripped from the first page with an attention-grabbing plot that kept me reading. Her main character is well drawn and realistic, as are the ‘bad guys’, and the torment he goes through is all too believable. There were one or two typos and a couple of things that felt a bit clumsy, but on the whole, I enjoyed the story very much – it left me feeling that for a piece of fiction, it was also scarily real.

 
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‘Elizabeth, Just 16’ by Cecilia Paul

Elizabeth Just 16
Elizabeth: Just Sixteen
3-stars

When teenager Elizabeth Appleton seeks medical advice to find out why her periods haven’t started, she is dealt a shocking blow – she can never have children. It transpires she has Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome (MRKH) – a congenital disorder affecting the female reproductive tract. The discovery throws the young woman into turmoil, questioning everything she has assumed about herself and her body thus far. How can she be a ‘normal’ girl if she can’t do the things other girls her age can do? The horror of the situation even prompts her to beg her parents not to tell anyone. In time, however, and with the support of her family and through sharing experiences with another young woman who also has MRKH, Elizabeth is able to begin to look to the future with hope.

First-time novelist Cecilia Paul explores this unusual condition in a bid to raise public awareness of MRKH and its sufferers. While the book is informative and educational and gives a rare insight into the difficulties facing women with MRKH, the writing was rather dry and matter-of-fact and for the most part didn’t engage me. To be honest, the book wasn’t suggestive of a novel at all, and often felt as if I were reading a well-researched article in a medical journal. For anyone with a particular interest in the syndrome, I’m sure it’ll serve as a valuable and positive account of this life-changing condition, but as a novel it didn’t work for me.

 
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‘Sandlands’ by Rosy Thornton

Sandilands
Sandlands
5 stars copy

From ghostly whisperings in a run-down Martello Tower (‘Whispers’) and the solemn toll of Old Jack’s bell in ‘Ringing Night’, to the unearthing of a strange talisman in ‘The Witch Bottle’, Rosy Thornton tells ordinary stories tinged with more than a hint of the odd and the unusual. In this magical collection of sixteen tales, she effortlessly weaves the present with the past, creating characters who leap from the page and lay their emotions on us like old friends.

Having spent a few years in Suffolk, I’m familiar with the geography and landscapes Ms Thornton’s characters inhabit, though her talent for description creates images that need no introduction – we’re right there in the scenery as if watching her stories unfold before our eyes. My first impression was of a writer who, as she says herself, has a preoccupation with nature and landscape, and while many of her stories reflect this, she also has an unerring talent for the peculiar. Her tales are beautifully crafted, moving the reader from laughter to tears in an instant and I found myself a little overawed at her ability to create such flawless prose.

Imagine writing that mixes Susan Hill and Gavin Maxwell with a hint of Edgar Allen Poe and you’ll be on the right track. This is an outstanding collection of stories from a woman who is clearly a master of the form. If Rosy Thornton doesn’t win some major literary prize very soon, I’ll be very surprised.

 
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