‘The House of Silk’ by Anthony Horowitz

House of Silk
The House of Silk: The Bestselling Sherlock Holmes Novel
5 stars copy

Sherlock Holmes is dead and now his ageing companion, Dr Watson, also teeters towards death. With no-one left to answer to, the great detective’s biographer puts pen to paper one last time to document two very different, yet inexplicably connected, mysteries. When Edmund Carstairs turns up at 221B Baker Street, he unfolds a strange tale of ruined artworks, a pair of villainous brothers and a stranger in a flat cap.

Holmes and Watson begin their investigation, but are soon drawn into another far more sinister mystery, where the oddly named House of Silk spreads its dark influence across the city, frustrating the duo at every turn. Following a visit to an opium den, Holmes finds himself accused of murder and thrown into prison, and with a host of distinguished witnesses on the side of the prosecution, it seems that even he cannot avoid the hangman’s noose…

Having long been a fan of the author’s TV work (in particular ‘Foyle’s War’), I was keen to see what he would do with Conan Doyle’s great detective. From the outset, I felt as if I were reading the work of ACD himself – the narrative is so similar to Doyle’s style that at times it felt positively uncanny. As with all good detective stories, the text is littered with clues that (with any luck) the reader won’t fit together until the denouement. In this case, one of those clues was a little too obvious for my taste, but I have to say the aforementioned denouement, when it arrived, was superbly executed and totally unexpected.

Anthony Horowitz captures not only the voice of Dr Watson, but constructs a thoroughly believable and authentic setting for his heroes. I can’t wait to get my hands on his next offering – ‘Moriarty’. The game’s afoot…

 
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A Book Cover Paints A Thousand Words…

When I started putting ideas together for the cover of my middle-grade book ‘The House That Wasn’t There’, it’s fair to say I didn’t really know what I was doing.

The problem was that, as usual, I’d come up with a title that intrigued me, but part of that intrigue meant I had to work out what it meant and, more importantly, what it would look like. My initial thoughts came in the form of a threesome: a house, a sunset and maybe a girl (Christie McKinnon), or a woman (the evil Mrs McIver).

The House That Wasn't There COVER
Cover 1
So with this first cover, I begin to see how it might work – I have the house and a woman and…well, that’s about all. The sky is awful due to using poor quality images, but that’s okay cos all I really need at this point is something that fits what’s in my imagination. Sort of. So I need a better sky, a better house and maybe play around with the colour of the fonts.

The House That Wasn't There COVER2
Cover 2
Now I really like the colour of the sky with the different hues, though maybe it’s still a bit dark. The next issue is the title. I have a bit of fun trying to create a sort of gradually darkening effect towards the bottom, but this version feels like there’s too any colours. Maybe we should pare it down a bit. Less is more, as they say.

The House That Wasn't There COVER 3 copyCover 3
Better. However, the figure standing at the side of the house like the French Lieutenant’s Woman is bugging me, so I get rid of her. What I need is someone dangerous like real Victorian villain Amelia Dyer (who inspired the character of Mrs McIver). I found a Victorian image and played around with it, initially thinking it might work in black over the title. But then you couldn’t read the damn title, so I eased up on the colour and discovered a rather nice shadowy effect. Adding a bit of Gaussian blur helped too. But I still don’t like the house…
The House That Wasn't There COVER 4 for website
Cover 4
Okay, so we’ve got another house but I’m not sure if it works – it’s a strange shape and a bit too small, and maybe not imposing enough. And before I forget, my name needs to be bigger, or it’ll look crap on the thumbnail.

Final Version (for the paperback)
So I get another house, lighten up the sky and use a bigger font for my name. So why didn’t I just do all that in the first place? Well, like everything, it’s a creative process and I got there in the end. As somebody famous probably once said

‘It’s all about the journey’

. The House That Wasn't There CSP Cover copy

Got my ePub working…

Not sure about this, but well worth taking a look. Re-blogged from Stevie Turner…

‘Long Way Home’ by Eva Dolan

Long Way Home210
Long Way Home
5 stars copy

When a man is found burned to death in a garden shed, Hate Crimes Unit Detective Zigic and bolshie sidekick Ferreira find themselves battling a wall of silence. Investigating an ill-treated and untrusting immigrant population who are slow to give up the truth, the good guys are left with nowhere to go but dead-ends and one-way streets.

With an increasing list of suspects the pair struggle to put the pieces together, but just when they think they’re making progress, the body-count too, begins to climb. In the midst of a politically-charged operation with plenty of voters on both sides, the team unearth a network of slum racketeers and people-trafficking gangs, along with an underlying contempt for human life that can only end one way.

Eva Dolan’s debut novel had me from the word go – her fast-paced thriller grabbed me by the neck, threw me a handful of loose cannons, then stamped on my brain – and that was just the first three pages. Her finely-drawn third-generation hero treads a different path to the usual gritty police procedural – not one of Peterborough’s bog-standard cops, Zigic is a foreigner with a local accent, and in the lopsided Fenland community, that sort of thing can make things easier or a damn sight harder, depending on your point of view.

This is a brilliant first novel and bodes well for the next two books – ‘Tell No Tales’ and ‘After You Die’ are already on my to-be-read list.

 
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The Something of the Some Thing Thing…

Something of the Some Thng 350
Why ‘something’ is my favourite word.

Writing can be a choosy business – choosing which direction to take with the plot, choosing the settings, atmosphere and time of day, and (my favourite) choosing who to kill off, push down the stairs or throw into bed with the leading lady. But choosing which word to use is always the one that gets me going.

Okay, so what I mean is this:

When I’m in mid flow, banging out the adjectives like there’s no tomorrow, trying to avoid clichés (see what I did there?) and striving to find that perfect word or phrase to make my prose sing, I get stuck. I get stuck because there’s always a ton of stuff that doesn’t quite make it onto the page at the first draft stage. But if I stop writing and try to figure out what the missing word or phrase is, I could easily spend half an hour searching through a thesaurus, on the Internet or just wracking my literary brain. But I don’t want to do that – I want to continue the flow, press on, get down what I can while the ol’ muse is a-workin’.

Usually, the difficulty is in describing things. Here’s an example from my first Christie McKinnon Adventure The Hounds of Hellerby Hall’:

Georgie turns away and stares at the mirror on the far wall. It reflects the scene through the window outside. Two men are doing something with something. After they’ve passed, he continues to stare at the reflection.

I knew I wanted the boy to notice what was happening outside but I wasn’t sure what it was going to be or why he needed to notice it. At the re-writing stage, what I eventually ended up with was this:

Georgie turns away and stares at the mirror on the far wall. It reflects the scene through the window outside. Two men push a cartload of timber over the gravel drive towards the walled garden at the side of the house. He watches them struggle with the heavy cart. After they’ve passed, he continues to stare at the reflection.

The timber becomes important later on, so it’s essential that the reader gets a clue about it at this early stage.

Here’s another example when I couldn’t quite work out how to describe the mechanism of a pub-like counter-top:

‘Come away in, then, the pair of yous,’ says Miss Watt, her face almost giving in to an actual smile. ‘I’ll see whit I can do.’ She does something with the something that lets them into the office.

The final version goes like this:

‘Come away in, then, the pair of yous,’ says Miss Watt, her face almost giving in to an actual smile. ‘I’ll see whit I can do.’ She unfastens a catch on the counter, swings the top half up and pulls the half-door towards her, allowing them to pass through.

Hellerby Hall Cover 4 150x
Most times, though, it’s only the odd word that I’m not sure about, so I’ll often have sentences like this:

The silence is thick enough to something he observes, with a grim smile.

In true Chandleresque style, the sentence ended up as:

The silence is thick enough to slice with a cheese grater, he observes, with a grim smile.

So there is it – something has got me out of a lot of holes over the years and it’s still doing a pretty good job. In book 2 of The Christie McKinnon Adventures, ‘The House That Wasn’t There’, there were lots of ‘somethings’ that needed attention. Here’s one that’s a straightforward matter of geography, since I used the names of several real streets in the story:

Deadman’s Lane is a rough, winding track that begins near the top of SOMETHING Road.

I sorted that one out with the help of an 1890s map of Edinburgh:

Deadman’s Lane is a narrow, winding road that runs off Cramond Road at an acute angle.

And of course, something is a fine word by itself:

Later, he’ll wonder if he knew there was something wrong, something not quite right, something odd, different.

I love ‘something’ – it’s a great word. As George Harrison didn’t say – ‘There’s something in the way he writes those novels…’

Killer Clothing…

Mary Ann Cotton
One of the things I like about writing historical fiction is doing research. Well, I’ll clarify that a bit – the thing I really like is looking at pictures. Trouble is, finding images that will fire the old imagination ain’t that easy, so sometimes it comes down to good old fashioned reading.

I mentioned in a previous post about my current bit of research reading (for my middle-grade novel ‘The House That Wasn’t There). The book is set in Victorian Edinburgh (1897 to be exact) and centres on a series of child disappearances.

Although my main areas of research have been around Victorian villains, such as serial kidnapper Amelia Dyer, what I really wanted to know is what these people looked like and what they wore. In Ruth Gordon’s book ‘How to Be a Victorian’ I’m currently on the section about clothing, and rather surprisingly, I discovered that the most authentic-looking Victorians (in terms of dress) were the villains.

Photography was still very much in its infancy, so most folks only got near a camera if they had a photography-mad relative, or if they sought out a professional in a studio setting. Given that having your photo taken would’ve been a special occasion, people dressed up for it (often in their Sunday best), resulting in a less than accurate portrayal of everyday wear. Conversely, the folks who were more likely to be pictured in their actual clothing, were generally snapped following their arrest for whichever underhand activity they’d been nabbed for. Not having had the opportunity to go off and have a wash, fashion a new hairdo and – most importantly – get a change of clothes, they presented themselves as they really were.

Husband-killer Mary Ann Cotton’s photograph (above) is reminiscent of Ms Dyer’s and it’s perhaps only the fact of knowing who she was (and the detached way the shot is set up) that gives us any clue that she’s anything but an ordinary woman.

As a writer, I naturally want to know something about my characters and having a photo of a real person can be helpful as a starting point. The only difference between the real villains and my imaginary ones, is that I don’t want any of my characters to be all bad – there has to be something in their makeup that allows them to give a little, to slip an extra slice of bread to their victims, or simply to acknowledge that if things were different, it could easily be them tied to the chair, locked in the cellar or chained to a post.

More Deadlines, Schmedlines…

Deadlines
Back in October, I wrote a little post about deadlines and how, in true Douglas Adams style,

‘…they go whooshing by…’

The book I was working on at the time was ‘Mortlake‘ (book 2 in my ‘Maps of Time’ series). Somewhat surprisingly, I managed to hit that deadline in a week-or-two-either-side sort of way, which is fine, but since then I’ve found my affinity with Mr Adams’ experience has doubled, tripled and maybe even quadrupled. In other words, by deadlines are out the window.

But I know the problem. The problem is twofold:

1. I’m working on two books at the same time

Actually that’s not quite true, because for a while I was actually working on three books at the same time (one of which has been published), but in any case the result is the same – less time, more work, goodbye deadlines.

2. I must be slowing down

This isn’t so easy to address. Essentially, I still write every day and I still work on one or both of those books most days. But while it feels like I’m writing the same amount, it seems as if it’s taking me longer to get to where I’m going.

Which means that those two books I was (naively) thinking I’d easily finish by Christmas, are still awaiting those final chapters.

Actually, there’s another reason:

3. Stress

Yes, I admit it, I’m stressed about these deadlines and I don’t like it and yes, okay, I know it’s contributing to my overall inability to get on with the tasks in hand and so here’s how I’m going to sort that one out:

To Name It is to Get Rid of It. Right? Well, let’s hope so. Okay, now we’ve dealt with that one…

And finally yes, yes, yes, I know some authors spend years writing a single book, but come on, who the hell wants to immerse themselves in the damn thing for that amount of time? Not me, mate! No, I want to spend a reasonable chunk of time on a book and then move on to the next one (or whatever), because the way it works for me is that I need to be excited about what I’m doing and the longer it takes to finish, the less excited I get. (Stevie King wrote Cujo in a week. Yes, I know he was off his face at the time but still…)

So I suppose what I’m saying is that unless there’s a really good reason for tightening the bolts on our self-imposed deadlines, maybe we should just do what needs to be done in the time it takes and be cool with that?

‘Oy Yew’ by Ana Salote

Oy Yew copy
Oy Yew
5 stars copy

Nabbed by waif-catchers in the alley where he spends his days sniffing bread and dreaming of floury loafs, Oy Yew is dragged in front of the wiry-haired Mrs Rutheday who sets him to work at bench 54. Oy meets Linnet Pale, a colour-drained girl who becomes his first friend. But assembling unknown items intended for nameless people is not destined to be his lot for long and the new boy is soon recognized as a perfect specimen for Duldred Hall.

Peopled with strangely-named characters like Alas Ringworm, Raymun, Mrs Midden and the hateful Master Jeopardine, the waifs of Duldred are assigned duties around various parts of the big house (‘Drains’, ‘Ceilings’, ‘Stairs’ etc), and expected to perform their tedious obligations out of sight of the Master and his upservants. Oy learns about the strange hierarchy of the place, the peculiar regularity of ‘accidents’ and the habitual ‘measuring’ routine where children must reach the perfect height of 5 thighs 10 oggits in order to escape the everyday graft of the Hall. But if escape is so wonderful, why are the details kept under lock and key? And what strange secrets are hidden in Rook’s Parlour and the Bone Room? Gradually, with Oy’s help, the waifs begin to educate themselves and their discoveries lead to revelations that will change their lives forever.

Ana Salote’s first book in ‘The Waifs of Duldred’ trilogy is, she says, a crossover fantasy for ages 9 to 90, and I can well believe it. The world she creates is original and yet familiar, with its wonderfully Dickensesque settings and a host of intriguing characters. I’ll definitely be looking out for the next book in the series.

 
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‘Fatal Forgery’ by Susan Grossey

Fatal Forgery
Fatal Forgery
5 stars copy

Long before the days of online banking, a big part of any banker’s working life was trust – but not all bank employees were able to resist the lure of hard cash. In 1824, respectable banker Henry Fauntleroy is arrested on charges of forgery, leaving Constable Samuel Plank to find out exactly what’s been going on, and why. However, Plank finds himself with an apparently impossible task, for even with the threat of the hangman’s noose waiting for him, Fauntleroy is set on pleading guilty. With single-minded determination, the constable begins to pick away at the evidence and soon discovers the apparent forger’s private life is not all it should be. Nevertheless, with all the evidence pointing in one direction, it’s only a matter of time before Fauntleroy faces the ultimate sentence.

Inspired by the real-life arrest and court case surrounding banker Henry Fauntleroy, anti-money laundering expert Susan Grossey’s first foray into fiction might well have been a little dry and lacking in the thrills department. But I’m happy to report that apart from leaving me a mite confused over some of the financial aspects of the case, I thoroughly enjoyed the first of Constable Plank’s adventures. The attention to detail and realistic depictions of the prisons at Newgate and Coldbath Fields, as well as the trial itself at the Old Bailey, place the reader right down there in the thick of it.

Susan Grossey’s writing is sharp and clever in her portrayal of the world she’s created, with a knowledge and feeling for her characters that brings them to life as clearly as if we were sitting down to tea with them. I’ll definitely be grabbing a copy of her next book in the series – ‘The Man in the Canary Waistcoat’ – in the very near future.

 
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‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections
The Corrections
5 stars copy

All Enid Lambert wants is to have one last Christmas with her family round her. She and her husband Alfred are getting on a bit and the reality of their lives together has reached a point where the words ‘fractured’ and ‘awkward’ may be the best they can hope for. At times, the relationship appears almost irretrievable: with Enid’s need to have the whole world think everything’s fine while she struggles (still) to change her husband into the man she thought she’d married, and Alfred’s inability (in and out of the bedroom) to give his wife the level of intimacy he knows she wants.

Unsurprisingly, the lives of their three grown-up children are no less troubled, with each one facing his or her own series of mini-catastrophes as the book charts their lives over the years. While the timescale jumps around quite a bit, the narrative was easy to follow and I found myself drawn further and further into this family’s general need to make right its mistakes.

Given the history of Mr Franzen’s writing career in relation to this book (such as his infamous ‘feud’ with Oprah Winfrey), and his various derogatory comments about women readers, I can understand why so many people hate it – the characters are deeply flawed, miserable, whiny, vengeful and most of the time deeply, deeply irritating. And to be fair, any other book with so many annoying people in it would have ended up on my Did Not Finish pile, no trouble at all.

However.

The modern obsession with what to do with our old folks is the central theme, and I have to say, I found the siblings’ approach to dealing with their parents by turns hilarious, painful and intensely moving. Jonathan Franzen writes about being human as if he knows exactly how I feel, and that’s not something that happens very often. He also uses big words, gets into technical jargon that occasionally lost me a little, and really, really likes long sentences – there were a few I thought might never end and I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if the book had turned out to be one long sentence. Nevertheless, the writing is superb, masterful and wonderfully real. If I could write like this guy, I’d be very happy indeed.

 
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