Welcome to my book-blog. I spend as much time as I can within the pages of a book and hope you'll get some reading inspiration from my library. Catch me on Instagram as well as books.tea.and.me – I'm always looking for recommendations!
It was lovely to be invited on the BLOG TOUR for WINTERKILL (thank you Anne!) and the atmospheric book cover design really caught my eye too; the bleak landscape looks a perfect setting for this latest book in the NORDIC NOIR Dark Iceland crime series, published by the fabulous ORENDA BOOKS. Please keep scrolling for lots of book information and chat…
The Book Blurb
When the body of a nineteen-year-old girl is found on the main street of Siglufjörður, Police Inspector Ari Thór battles a violent Icelandic storm in an increasingly dangerous hunt for her killer … The chilling, claustrophobic finale to the international bestselling Dark Iceland series.
Easter weekend is approaching, and snow is gently falling in Siglufjörður, the northernmost town in Iceland, as crowds of tourists arrive to visit the majestic ski slopes.
Ari Thór Arason is now a police inspector, but he’s separated from his girlfriend, who lives in Sweden with their three-year-old son. A family reunion is planned for the holiday, but a violent blizzard is threatening and there is an unsettling chill in the air.
Three days before Easter, a nineteen-year-old local girl falls to her death from the balcony of a house on the main street. A perplexing entry in her diary suggests that this may not be an accident, and when an old man in a local nursing home writes ‘She was murdered’ again and again on the wall of his room, there is every suggestion that something more sinister lies at the heart of her death…
As the extreme weather closes in, cutting the power and access to Siglufjörður, Ari Thór must piece together the puzzle to reveal a horrible truth … one that will leave no one unscathed.
Chilling, claustrophobic and disturbing, Winterkill marks the startling conclusion to the million-copy bestselling Dark Iceland series and cements Ragnar Jónasson as one of the most exciting authors in crime fiction.
The Blog Tour
Firstly, I need to admit that this is my first time reading Ragnor Jonasson’s DARK ICELAND books, so I’m very late to the series, and I’m beginning at the end! Jonasson has been billed as writing ‘Nordic Noir of the highest order’ and ‘breathing new life in Nordic Noir’, so I was very excited to read WINTERKILL. It’s the sixth installment in the series, which began in SNOWBLIND and introduced the series protagonist Detective Ari Thor Arason. So our principle character has obviously a long history with fans of these books, and I looked forward to reading to see how this works as standalone for a new reader. What a credit to the skills of the writer, that its quality narrative relays enough information to settle the reader in and the new investigation runs beautifully alongside this.
WINTERKILL is a quality Nordic Noir (translated brilliantly by David Warriner) that reels you in from the opening emergency operator call to the duty Inspector on call: Ari Thor Arason. Siglufjordur is the setting, a land of day and night, where the sun barely sets in the summer. It’s so remote, it becomes almost uninhabitable. This remote Northern Icelandic village provide the frozen backdrop to the investigation of a teenage girl’s body found in a unusual setting.
Now, in term’s of character, obviously I’m missing the previous character developments, so have only a surface level of understanding of this journey through the series narrative. I was aware I missed out, but in all honesty, it didn’t impede my enjoyment of this book. There’s a great sense of humanity in Ari, and you can’t help but respect how he works and lives; he’s a character who’s dealing with several issues in his private life as well and these pop up throughout the central crime story.
The investigation is a delight for the reader to follow, pick up clues and surmise where the plot is heading. It’s really well crafted and the quality of the translation adds to the success of this. The pace is slow, but works. The readers glances in onto different characters as Arason investigates the complex nature of a seemingly tragic suicide.
I did find the contemplative nature of the story-telling the more dominant aspect of the book, perhaps as it’s the end of the series, and therefore the crime is in a more secondary position. From the more reflective, personal thoughts of our protagonist the reader gets a sense of humanity, desires, needs, love and reflection – all working well to add depth. For many, this is the final book in a loved series, for me, it’s the start of a new adventure – to find out how we arrive at this point, and I look forward to beginning my journey.
An accomplished character driven crime novel, set in a unique world of snow and light, where the darkness in humanity is uncovered by a driven, complex and engaging protagonist.
Icelandic crime writer Ragnar Jónasson was born in Reykjavík, and currently works as a lawyer, while teacher copyright law at the Reykjavík University Law School. In the past, he’s worked in TV and radio, including as a news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. Before embarking on a writing career, Ragnar translated fourteen Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic, and has had several short stories published in German, English and Icelandic literary magazines. Ragnar set up the first overseas chapter of the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) in Reykjavík, and is co-founder of the International crime-writing festival Iceland Noir.
Ragnar’s debut thriller, Snowblind became an almost instant bestseller when it was published in June 2015 with Nightblind (winner of the Dead Good Reads Most Captivating Crime in Translation Award) and then Blackout, Rupture and Whiteout following soon after. To date, Ragnar Jónasson has written five novels in the Dark Iceland series, which has been optioned for TV by On the Corner. He lives in Reykjavík with his wife and two daughters.
Cassie Raven believes the dead can talk. We just need to listen . . .
People think being a mortuary technician is a seriously weird job. They can’t understand why I choose to cut up dead bodies for a living. But they don’t know what I know:
The dead want to tell us what happened to them.
I’ve eviscerated thousands of bodies, but never someone I know before – someone who meant a lot to me; someone I loved.
The pathologist says that her death was an accident.
Her body is telling me differently.
Do check out the book chat about Body Language until Dec 6th and do keep scrolling for my bookish chat 🙂
Our protagonist is a mortuary technician who is so attuned to the dead she encounters in her job, that she can sense and ‘hear’ them. This supernatural element provides a different tone to what is a new mystery crime thriller series featuring Cassie Raven. Cassie is unconventional in the sense that she’s young, and a goth adorned with tattoos and piercings; she adds originality and freshness to a new investigative crime character. Cassie’s certainly had some ups and downs in her life, and she appears to the reader early in the book as someone with tenacity, compassion and drive to both her job and for the end of life care her job can offer.
There are, of course, descriptions of the mortuary world of autopsies, so if you are squeamish or might find memories of lost ones upsetting, then do read with caution. For me, there’s a great deal of respect embedded behind the narrative, and Cassie herself is a comforting figure, as she talks to, cares and respects for the people she deals with.
I enjoyed the character of Cassie, and she’s the main drive for pushing the narrative forward for me, rather than the investigations. I liked the slow development of her relationship with the newly transferred DS Flyte, from distrust and unease to a respectful bond with an additional developing warm and twinkle.
Body Language is a great supernaturally enhanced new crime series with a great modern protagonist at the helm. I look forward to seeing how Turner develops the series.
With thanks to Zaffre Books for the review copy and to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for the Blog Tour invite.
A perfect book for October; it’s half-term and I’ve been lucky to have read ‘The Once and Future Witches’ by a warm fire with my ‘familiar’ on my lap (AKA Mr. Willoughby, my cat, he’s nearly all black apart from his white ‘socks’ and face markings). This is certainly a perfect autumnal/Halloween read, do keep scrolling for more bookish chat…
In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.
But when the three Eastwood sisters join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote – and perhaps not even to live – the sisters must delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.
There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.
Firstly, this book is creative; the lyrical and creative writing lifts from the pages and you can take time and savour the words. Harrow is also just as creative with her punctuation, and you get a real sense of crafting throughout. The structure and plot are meticulously planned and literary history, actual history and the female is reworked and re-represented in a mix of childhood rhymes, fairy tales and lore.
An evenly paced story, that allows the reader to indulge in good storytelling against a backdrop of more pertinent and relevant themes. Gender, race, and identity are woven into the threads of this story. On its surface is a story of three sisters, of how they became separated and how their witchcraft begins to define them. There is a great bond, although severely fractured, between these three women. I love their flawed but powerful characters, and how over time we begin to view each one differently. Harrow connects the female, and her repression over centuries into the current lives of the three Eastwood sisters. History is re-worked as a plot device to relay themes of repression, feminism, racism, women’s suffrage, patriarchy, and persecution.
The Eastwood Sisters are great characters; they are not perfect; they have let each other down and are rather downtrodden and lost at the start. They soon change their current situations and begin a battle to promote witchcraft in a town that would have them burned. Their power and determination become a strong reading hook, as they unite to battle inequality and subjection from a shadowy, evil nemesis.
A book of witchy spells, creative fairy tales and the power of words with powerful overriding themes. It is also a great adventure: a book of love and resilience in the face of powerful adversaries.
Full blog tour belong – do check out all the bookish chat about The Once and Future Witches:
In rural Somerset in the middle of a blizzard, the unthinkable happens: a school is under siege. Children and teachers barricade themselves into classrooms, the library, the theatre. The headmaster lies wounded in the library, unable to help his trapped students and staff. Outside, a police psychiatrist must identify the gunmen, while parents gather desperate for news. In three intense hours, all must find the courage to stand up to evil and save the people they love.
Yet do I fear thy nature…
Phew! Thrilling, terrifying and the stuff of nightmares… but also deeply rooted in humanity, this is a narrative that hooks you from the opening page into a world of violence, fear and deep shock; when all too real terror strikes at the heart of a rural community.
I teach in a school, and the notion of ever being in such a situation is deeply traumatising; the construction of this novel pulls you in to a seemingly actual timeline and really does not let you go until the last page is turned.
The heart of this story is what humanity draws upon in the darkest of moments, of what lies with our hearts, our compassion, our resilience and is rooted in our communities, whether we know it or not.
I loved this book; it was a nail-biting experience from start to finish, but the beauty of the relationships and selfless behaviour under extreme pressures also kept emotional tears in my eyes, and turned a harrowing story of radicalisation, grief, loss and the willingness to sacrifice into something very special . A book that stays with you long after the closing page is turned.
Rosamund Lupton graduated from Cambridge University in 1986. After reviewing books for the Literary Reviews and being invited to join the Royal Court Theatre, she won a television play competition and subsequently worked as a screen writer. Her debut novel Sister, was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, has been translated into over thirty languages and has international sales of over 1.5 million copies. It was the fastest-selling debut of 2010 by a British author, and was winner of the Richard and Judy Best Debut Novel of 2011 Award and the Strand Magazine Critics First Novel Award. Film rights of Sister are currently under option.
Lupton’s critically acclaimed second novel Afterwards also went straight into the Sunday Times bestseller lists and was the No. 2 Sunday Times fiction bestseller of 2011. The Quality of Silence her third novel was a Sunday Times best seller and a Richard & Judy book club pick.
Wow, what an eye-catching cover! With thanks to the publisher and Anne for the tour invite, please keep scrolling for some bookish chat about THE NESTING…
The grieving widower. The motherless daughters. A beautiful house in the woods. And a nanny come to save the day….
So what if Lexi isn’t telling the truth about who she is? Escaping to the remote snows of Norway was her lifeline. And all she wanted was to be a part of their lives. But soon, isolated in that cold, creaking house in the middle of ancient, whispering woods, Lexi’s fairytale starts to turn into a nightmare. With darkness creeping in from the outside, Lexi’s fears are deepening. Lexi knows she needs to protect the children in her care.
But protect them from what?
Firstly, C.J. Cooke is a clever storyteller who’s not afraid to mix things up! What I loved most about THE NESTING is the many layers structured through the narrative and the landscape that’s as important as the characters and story. This book has been written with passion, and pulls together the author’s love of nature, Norway, folktales, and the gothic, in a story of love, loss, fragility and rebirth.
Seemingly a story of a young woman, displaced in the world, who finds a position as a nanny under dubious circumstances, but layered with so much more. I loved the character of Lexi/Sophie, her strength and resilience underscored a young, fragile, frightened girl trying to find her place, and her people. It’s her relationship with her new ‘charges’ that you quickly warm to as a reader, and find you are very much on her side. The children, Gaia and Coco are delightful characters, and the heart wrenching journey of deep loss through the little Gaia is beautifully written. But this book is also more than a story of the loss of a parent and its aftermath. It’s also a story of the otherworld and a deeply entrenched menace. The supernatural element works so well, with terrifying images of creatures from local folklore and the slow drip feed of horror elements is balanced well. The narrative switches from the ‘now’ to the ‘then’ as we slowly come to understand the events of the past and how they are beginning to shape the future. This is also a book with a sharp warning about meddling with nature, and you can really see the passion the author has for the beauty and importance of Norway’s natural world.
I found this book a compelling read, perfect for the autumn/winter season. Deeply emotional and intensely creepy. I am happy to recommend this book to readers seeking an emotive, nerve-wracking story pulled straight out of a fairy tale.
Drama, mystery, grief, and the supernatural combine in an intense story from C.J. Cooke that will demand you keep turning the pages.
The Blog Tour
C.J. Cooke is an acclaimed, award-winning poet, novelist and academic with numerous other publications under the name of Carolyn Jess-Cooke. Born in Belfast, she has a PhD in Literature from Queen’s University, Belfast, and is currently Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. She also founded the Stay-At-Home Festival.
It’s lovely to be chatting about THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER today for the Blog Tour – many thanks to Tracy for the invite, and Orbit for the review copy. I enjoy reading fantasy, so this appealed to me straight away, and I wasn’t disappointed…
The Sukai Dynasty has ruled the Phoenix Empire for over a century, their mastery of bone shard magic powering the monstrous constructs that maintain law and order. But now the emperor’s rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.
Lin is the Emperor’s daughter, but a mysterious illness has stolen her childhood memories and her status as heir to the empire. Trapped in a palace of locked doors and old secrets, Lin vows to reclaim her birthright by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
But the mysteries behind such power are dark and deep, and wielding her family’s magic carries a great cost. When the revolution reaches the gates of the palace itself, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her throne – and save her people.
THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER is certainly an eye-catching book, and the title an intriguing one. I enjoy reading fantasy novels, so was delighted to read this one as part of its Blog Tour.
Firstly, I’m not usually a fan of too many narrative perspectives, in this book we see the story through several eyes, written either in the first or third person. Lin and Jovis are connected via their first-person narratives, and I personally enjoyed the immediacy and drive of these sections. I really liked both Lin and Jovis. Jovis in particular is very endearing as he copes with what life throws at him, but also the thought and dedication to maintain the search for his missing wife is very emotive; I loved the snatches of memory built into the story as we piece together the past. Ah, and then there’s the adorable evolving relationship with Mephi – a magical horned cat/otter type creature. Loved every moment with Mephi! I also enjoyed the third person narrative pulling into the story the lives of Ranami and Phalue that explores the relationship between two social classes and pulls in the revolution theme.
Overall, meticulous planning and structural format creates a multi-layered perspective fantasy set in a creative island-based world ruled by a failing Emperor. There’re all the elements fantasy readers expect, and importantly the world is carefully crafted in detail, so the transference from reality is seamless. This is a book of layers with a thought out embedded magical system – I found Pullman’s Dark Material vibes made creepy with the creature constructs lurking and spying. The idea is menacing, and Frankenstein vibes underscore the reanimated creatures. It’s really creative and explores more modern themes of experimentation and exploitation.
With themes of identity, control, loss, the past, memory, and connection this is an impressive debut; I’m be looking forward to the second book in the Drowning Empire Trilogy.
I’m very excited and grateful to be a part of the Blog Tour for Erin Kinsley’s Innocent – many thanks to Anne for the invite and Headline for sending the book. I love a good thriller with a large dose of drama, and this was billed as great for people who enjoyed LIAR and BROADCHURCH. As soon as I started reading, I could see this as a TV drama, and please do keep reading to find out why…
The pretty market town of Sterndale is a close-knit community where everyone thinks they know everyone else. But at a lavish summer wedding a local celebrity is discovered slumped in the gardens, the victim of a violent assault that leads to a murder investigation.
As the police search for answers, suspicion and paranoia build – and the lives of the locals are turned upside down.
Secrets that lurk beneath the pristine façade of Sterndale come to light as detectives close in on the truth…
This book from the start was so easy to visualise as a TV series, I could picture the mix of close and long shots, and the switches in perspectives, as all the central players come into focus. In all good thrillers, you need a great location and great diverse characters, and Innocent provides all of this in abundance. I really enjoyed it.
The book is set in the small town of Sterndale, and begins with a brutal assault of a celebrity, Tristan Hart, who lives in the town with his wife, Izzy and their young daughter. This novel certainly begins with ‘the calm before the storm’, as the perfect couple leading a perfect life, fractures within the opening pages and is pulled apart over the course of the novel. Secrets, lies and betrayals take centre stage as the reader is tasked with working out what’s behind the surface and who could possibly have acted so violently.
From the start, there are plenty of suspects to choose from, and this only builds as the investigation progresses. I enjoyed the Police investigation perspective as those who knew Tristan Hart are investigated, and secrets are revealed. The investigation and interviews are written in detail, and sometimes repeated back, some may find this a repetitious, but I enjoyed the reflection time to wonder about the suspects.
This is not a fast-paced book, it takes its time to describe this community and the events that shake it up, I enjoyed taking my time reading it as well, and loved the heart behind the story. I enjoyed the tensions, the reveals and the emotional depth within this thriller. With some smart red herrings to put you off the scent, there’s some super plotting in this book that makes you want to keep reading.
A emotionally charged, intelligently designed thriller that demands you keep turning the pages. Highly recommended.
A huge thanks to Alex for sending me a copy of The Quickening , it’s a gorgeous looking book, and seemed a perfect genre match for me, and I was right; I had such an enjoyable ride reading this one.
Keep scrolling for more bookish chat…
An infamous séance. A house burdened by grief. A secret that can no longer stay buried.
England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex to photograph the contents of the house for auction. Desperate for money after falling on hard times, she accepts the commission.
On arrival, she learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, the consequences of which still haunt the family. Before the Clewer’s leave England for good, the lady of the house has asked those who attended the original séance to recreate the evening. Louisa soon becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house, unravelling the longheld secrets of what happened that night thirty years before… and discovers her own fate is entwined with Clewer Hall’s.
I love gothic fiction, so jumped at the chance to read Rhiannon Ward’s The Quickening, described as a supernatural, chilling historical mystery; centering around a séance at a crumbling, isolated hall in Sussex. With that introduction, there’s no way I’m not in!
We begin with two quotes, a definition of quickening, which is a time in pregnancy where the female can feel dizzy, nervous or experience hysteria. The other from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from his collection of essays, The History of Spiritualism, that explores the question of life after death, and seeking to know if communication is possible with passed loved ones to seek ‘the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still.’ This sets up the tone of the narrative, that is split over two time periods.
Our story begins in 1925, where the central protagonist wakes from a dream, filled with memories of the past and those she has lost. This is Louisa Drew, and she is a woman ahead of her time, with a strong determination to achieve and contribute to her life and wider world. She’s a photographer, and despite being heavily pregnant takes on a job at Clewer Hall, to photograph household items for a auction. She knows her second husband will object, so she arranges to leave before he gets home and finds out. I liked Louisa from the start, and soon we begin to realise that Clewer Hall and its inhabitants are hiding many secrets, and that Louisa’s new commission will not be straightforward.
I love crumbling expansive mansions in isolated settings, adding a heavy dose of gothic atmosphere and I’m hooked. This is my kind of book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the merging of mystery thriller, gothic deliciousness, supernatural events and murder. However, it’s the additional depth that really resonated with me, from the devastation of World War One, to female empowerment, photography methods of the time, grief and finding the strength to change your life, even in difficult circumstances.
Added to all this, there’s the intrigue of the recreated séance, the mysterious behaviour of the characters, and Louisa’s increasingly dangerous position that racks up the tension. The séance adds an intensely creepy tone that adds malevolence with increasingly odd, and unexplainable events to add turmoil to Louisa’s commission. There’s a darkness lurking in the shadows of the house, and this drives the narrative; the reader begins to piece together the clues, that reveal the truth of the house. Along the way, Louisa makes both enemies and friends, but she remains determined. There’s a little of a romance sub-plot which is nicely handled, and adds to Louisa’s spirit and determination to live her life, and build her future in her own terms.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy historical gothic fiction, and enjoy some supernatural thrills.
I struggled to put it down, a goose-bump inducing supernatural ride! Read it!
It is 1941. Hope’s father, Jenner, builds Liverpool Cathedral while the Luftwaffe’s bombs fall. It is 2014, and Hope cares for her husband Robert as Alzheimer’s destroys his personality.
Hope’s husband Robert is a retired civic sculptor. As Alzheimer’s unravels his mind, a secret he has kept for her threatens to emerge, breaking the fragile peace she has made with her parents’ memory: the truth of what happened to her mother during the Liverpool Blitz.
Hope brings in Louise to be home-carer. A young mother, the last resident of the Blackbird Estate, harassed by her ex-partner. But now they are together, can they find a way the past can’t hurt them?
I’m absolutely delighted to be a part of ‘The Blackbird’ Blog Tour for @HenninghamPress with thanks to David for the invitation. I’m also delighted to be adding a conversation between Claire Allen and Dr. Sophie Oliver.
Firstly, and importantly, I loved reading this book. It’s also a joy to look at and there are lovely little illustrations dotted throughout the pages.
The story is constructed via two narrative timelines, there’s a mix of character perspectives, and the reader moves between 1941 and 2014. I soon became absorbed in the unfolding stories, albeit initially contrasting in nature. From the war threatened city of Liverpool and those connected to the challenging building of its imposing, dominating Cathedral, and to London’s Blackbird Estate, which is dilapidated, and the tenants are slowly being evicted.
Forgive my oxymoronic phrasing, but there’s both simplicity and complexities in its syntax, expression and figurative style. It’s both minimal and detailed; there’s a deep control to the writing, and I loved it. For more than one reason, the book also resonated with me. Last year I visited Liverpool and spent time at the Cathedral with my daughter. It’s a stunning building, and whilst I was there, an organist was rehearsing; the music seemed to dominate every space and people were absorbing the atmosphere, and reflecting in their own ways. It was an almost sublime and cathartic experience – reading about its challenging construction brought back these memories.
Our family is also dealing with dementia at the moment, and it’s a very hard journey, so the story of Hope and Robert was very emotional for me. There’s loss, heart-break, turmoil, grief wrapped in its pages, but it’s also a story of how the past remains within us, construction of the physical and the spiritual, and how relationships form and break. I loved this historical character led novel and would highly recommend it.
Please keep reading for a discussion of this novel between the author and Dr. Sophie Oliver, lecturer in Modernism at the University of Liverpool.
Claire Allen and Dr Sophie Oliver discuss ‘The Blackbird’.
The Blackbird is preoccupied with construction, with building things, but also with things being destroyed. The book itself is carefully built around several storylines in different places and different times. How did you construct the novel? What was your process of building? Tell us about the components.
I began with characters and small, specific things about them. For example, with the older character, Hope, my starting point was when I noticed a small block of nineteen-thirties flats built in a gap between rather grander, older houses in one of the roads that leads up to Telegraph Hill, near where I live, and I imagined an elderly woman living there. Her character and elements of her story grew from that. And I had, for a long time, wanted to write a novel about the building of Liverpool Cathedral. I’d originally thought of a kind of multi-generational saga but, in the end, I found the old lady living on Telegraph Hill kind of wove herself into things and I decided she belonged in the novel about Liverpool.
With the construction/destruction theme, I did try to knit everything together with underpinning threads which run through the whole novel, and they all tended towards oppositions: as well as construction/destruction, I was also thinking about memory/truth, control/independence and the idea of random chance versus things being connected.
How do you teach your students how to ‘knit everything together’?
I tend to deal with structure on a micro level, rather than on the bigger scale. Partly because of the kind of creative writing courses I teach, which are made up of very short, free-standing sessions, generating new ideas each week, so we don’t work on shaping a single piece over a longer period of time.
One thing I do focus on with students is how a good piece of writing can be a kind of choreographed plate-spinning exercise, in which the various separate elements that might be teased apart in creative writing classes are all working together. The trick is to keep all the plates spinning at the right speed and keep the joins seamless. So, for example, we will do an exercise on dialogue, but we also keep the ‘setting’ plate spinning and have the characters interacting with their environment while they’re speaking. And we keep the ‘character’ plate spinning by incorporating the characters’ movements, gestures, habitual actions, etc into the section of dialogue.
It’s funny because in The Blackbird, I felt that the threads you mention are actually visible. I think you can see the seams as a central part of the book. Not in a clunky way at all, not in the way you might want to iron them out – their visibility is poetic because the construction is also thematic. Perhaps it’s not always desirable to make the joins seamless?
That’s fantastic to hear! I’m really pleased that those thematic threads are visible because it’s always so difficult to know, when you’re writing something, how it’s going to work for the reader. And because the construction of the book is as much thematic as it is narrative I always imagine the themes, rather than the plot, as the skeleton that holds it all together and I absolutely do want that to be visible. So you’re right – it isn’t always desirable to have seamless joins. I suppose what I was talking about with the seamlessness was more the nuts and bolts stuff of how to put a passage of prose together so that it is fluid and as potent as it can be. And to avoid that thing where people will sometimes skip bits that describe the setting when they’re reading. If that descriptive passage also incorporates character development, for example, because it’s showing a character experiencing the setting, rather than just describing it from a more distanced, authorial point of view, then it feels more likely the reader won’t be tempted to skip it, and chances are it’ll be a richer, more effective few paragraphs into the bargain!
I’m new to Liverpool, having been in London for the best part of 20 years. You can see the cathedral in Liverpool from so many places in the city, and when I lived in south London I would pass the Heygate estate – which for me was brought to mind by the Blackbird estate – every day on the bus, until it was demolished. That symmetry pleased me, a sense of connection between the two cities that otherwise are only connected in my mind because I decided to move recently. How are the two cities connected for you? Is connection important in a wider sense?
Yes, my experience of watching the Heygate Estate gradually disappear as I passed it on the bus every day was very similar to yours and, in fact, The Blackbird Estate is very much based on the Heygate, (with a nod to other estates with bird names, eg The Nightingale Estate in Clapton, the Woodpecker Estate in New Cross, and an estate in Oxford called Blackbird Leys, which was at one time notorious for joyriding.)
The two cities are very connected for me in a personal sense, because they are the two main places I have lived. I grew up in Liverpool and lived there until I left to go to university, and I’ve now lived in London for well over 20 years. There was a time a few years ago when I became very aware of the fact that I was approaching the point where I would have lived in London for as long as I’d lived in Liverpool, and the question of where I belonged, where I was ‘from’, started to nag at me. I’ve now passed that pivot point and have lived in London for far longer than I ever lived in Liverpool, so I guess I’m now undeniably a Londoner, but I still find the idea of ‘belonging’ really interesting.
And yes, connection is something I find very important in a wider sense. I love reading novels where there are echoes and parallels between characters’ experiences or between different times and different stories and I’ve enjoyed creating my own echoes and connections in The Blackbird.
Are there any specific novels that influenced you?
William Golding’s The Spire was the most obvious influence, in the sense that the 1941 sections of The Blackbird have lots of narrative parallels with Golding’s novel. I also enjoyed playing around with the way I echoed the earlier text, so, for example, in my opening chapter I kept the beginning of The Spire very much in mind, but, instead of using sunlight to create a sense of joy and divine chosen-ness, which is how Golding begins The Spire, I tried to create a sense of discomfort.
I’m not sure there are any other similarly direct influences, but the idea of connection– the ability of some to see or seek connection and others to deny its existence or importance, and to what extent it is possible to bridge the divide between the two – was something I always had at the back of my mind as I was writing and creating relationships between characters.
I have a feeling that you think of ‘connection’ in a gendered way – the women in the novel are the ones building relationships, taking care of others. Is there something in that?
That’s a really good point! I’d never really thought about it as being gendered, and it’s not something I did consciously in The Blackbird, but you’re absolutely right – it is the female characters who do more of the connecting and the relationship-building. Hmmm. It’s interesting, because in the novel I’ve been working on since The Blackbird, I have been developing two characters who are shaping up to be slightly Forsterian older women who just sense stuff. And my narrative point of view has, so far, been deliberately female-only, so I think there is definitely something in what you’re saying!
‘Sensing stuff’ suggests a way of knowing that isn’t about facts, but more about intuition, and it might even be faulty. There seems to be something similar happening with your approach to the past, for example, in The Blackbird. It’s partly a historical novel, half set in the 1940s, but apart from the war you quite deliberately avoid giving too much historical detail in terms of time and place. Can you say a bit more about your approach to the past generally?
Yes, I think that ‘sensing stuff’ is about intuition, and it can, as you suggest, sometimes be wrong. I think the character of Mary is maybe a good example of that: her tendency to see connections everywhere is certainly seen by her husband and her friend Thomas as something based too much on feeling and sensitivity. And I think I, too, thought rather as they did and felt that she tended to read too much into things. But it’s ambiguous, because in the end she is right about the need to accept one’s own responsibility and culpability and it’s Thomas’s inability to do that which makes her so disappointed in him.
The idea of ambiguity was really important to me, and I used the instability of memory, and offered alternative versions of what might have happened in the past, as ways of exploring this. I enjoyed not giving answers and exploiting the tension between that need to know ‘what really happened’ on the night Mary Jenner died, and the genuine possibilities that are offered by not knowing.
With the point you make about avoiding giving too much historical detail, I think maybe that’s to do with being so close-up to the characters rather than stepping a bit further back and taking a wider view that incorporates more of the surrounding time and place. It’s not necessarily another influence from The Spire, but that is a novel that does something similar, I think, although to a more extreme degree, in the sense that the whole book is from such an incredibly close-up, blinkered point of view that it is difficult to see anything outside the point of view of the main character, so you don’t really get a sense of a wider historical context. I think, in general, I tend to zoom in on characters, so perhaps the effect that has on historical period is that it gives only a partial view.
Claire Allen spent her childhood in Liverpool and lives in London. She teaches English literature and creative writing at City Lit. Her first two novels, The Mountains of Light (2004) and Protection (2006) were published by Headline Review. Her books have been translated into French and Greek.
Henningham Family Press
Henningham Family Press is the collaborative art and writing of David and Ping Henningham. We are both Artists and Authors, and we are curious about every aspect of writing, printing and publishing. We complete and represent our writing through fine art printmaking, bookbinding and performance.
Books and Prints are machines for communicating ideas, and the ideas that fascinate us tend to involve Money, History and Religion. We exploit the fact that reading makes the dead available for comment. We make live shows that bring our books and ideas to life.
HFP have teamed up with G.F Smith, paper merchant to Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, to celebrate small presses. All editions of the book will be covered with Gmund Urban, which uses “genuine pulverized cement” to recreate concrete’s subtle texture and sparkle. The Römerturm paper mill has created “tradition and dynamic modernism in one material.” Especially apt for a book that is set in a post-war housing estate: The Blackbird. It is a sculptural material, perfect for HFP’s hand-bindery.
WIN A COPY OF CLAIRE ALLEN’S ‘THE BLACKBIRD’
For a chance to win a copy of this book, please comment on this post, and I’ll add you into the prize draw. Winner chosen on Friday 14th August, 2020. The winner will be contacted shortly after. Huge thanks to David, at Henningham Family Press for the generous offer of the gifted book for this giveaway. The giveaway also runs across Twitter and Instagram.
I’ve just realised I didn’t post about my May and June reads, I think the ‘RONA’ pandemic has taken my focus away! I’ve been shutting down my costume and fancy dress hire shop (it sadly is a victim of RONA) and putting into stasis the Stage School, Touring Theatre, rehearsals rooms and other theatrical work, in the hope that they’ll come back to life in the future. So, like many others, these are tough times. If you’re having a difficult time too, I really wish you well, and keep the faith!
So back to books, I thought I’d tag the May and June reads into my July reads blog post, so if you are interested then do keep scrolling. 🙂
Book totals: July 13, June 5, and May 18
Cape May by Chip Cheek – set in the 1950s and explores the loss of innocence; lots of potential, but soon turned into the unexpected, and not in a good way for me. Disappointed.
From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout – I enjoyed this, a fantasy novel about protected maidens waiting for Ascension, until one decides to make a different choice, and with the help of Hawke, changes her course.
The Official Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea Cookbook – delightful cookbook, full of cookery history and delicious recipes.
The First Lie by A.J. Park – entertaining thriller, about a man coming home to find his wife over the body of a dead man.
Daughters of Cornwall by Fern Brittain – an enjoyable family saga from 1914 to 2020.
Very Nearly Normal by Hannah Sunderland – funny rom-com and entertaining escapism, enjoyable.
A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell 5) by Deanna Raybourn – the lastest book in the Speedwell and Stoker mysteries, always entertaining!
The Deck of Omens (The Devouring Grey 2) by Christine Lynn Herman – the second in the series set in Four Paths, and the Beast that threatens the town may once again return, enjoyable.
The Devouring Grey by Christine Lynn Herman – the first book in the duology, set in a town threatened by an ancient curse, and as a new girl arrives in town, she soon notices something is very wrong. Fun,
The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren – Perfect summer garden read, lots of laughs and your predictable but necessary happy ever after.