Book Review: Dancers in the Wind by Anne Coates

Dancers in the Wind is a classic thriller in the mould of Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect. It could be that I was reminded of the series because it is set in London’s King’s Cross in the early nineties – an era when this part of London was a world away from the chichi urban village it is today (and where a one bedroom flat will set you back a cool £Million).

Action packed from the first page, the book opens on the grisly discovery of a murdered prostitute – the latest in a series of vicious killings in the area.  Detective Inspector Tom Jordan heads up the investigation, but the story centres on Hannah Weybridge, a Freelance journalist and single mother who is commissioned by a national newspaper to write an investigative feature on the red light district in Kings Cross.

As a critical part of her research, Hannah interviews ‘Princess’ a young prostitute. Days later, Princess (real name Caroline) turns up at Hannah’s home, beaten within an inch of her life and demanding sanctuary. Hannah soon finds herself sucked into a sleazy underworld that hitherto she could never have imagined.  After discovering more than a whiff of police ineptitude and media cover-up, Hannah sets out to uncover the truth about the murdered prostitutes.

The gap between Hannah’s modest but genteel life and the murky world she is now entangled in is powerful stuff and the threat to Hannah and her baby daughter is palpable. We sense her frustration and dilemma throughout as she is torn between walking away from the grime – and gaining justice for Caroline and her co-sex workers.

Another layer to this gripping read is the sexual tension between Hannah and Tom Jordan, a complex character who is seemingly charismatic and compassionate; whether or not he can be trusted had me guessing until the final page.

Anne Coates captures the era and the location perfectly – and you’ll find yourself rooting for Hannah, whose very ordinariness is the key to her appeal.

There is no love like dog-love

The last few weeks have been a bag of mixed blessings; the rough with the smooth, the yin with the yang (insert your own cliché here).

Still raw from the passing of our beloved old dog Rodney, after new year the Boyf and I returned to the shelter Rodney came from, hoping to adopt another pup. There we found Brodie; a male, five year old Jack Russell terrier, who’d been picked up by dog wardens on the streets of south London.  He was posted as ‘Found’ on a number of databases – and was also micro-chipped, but no owner came forward.

Brodie red ball

It was love at first sight, so we took him home, via a large pet emporium, where we bought him a bed and blankets, toys, new collar and lead, and a shed-load of food.  Then we marvelled at our good fortune, thankful that fate had delivered us another little dog to love and care for.

Within twenty-four hours, we were wondering what the hell we’d done, when it became clear that Brodie has a serious (read extreme) reaction to other dogs.  Now, anyone who knows JRTs will be aware that they can be feisty, fearless and to anthropomorphise like mad for a second, can suffer from little man syndrome.  And I get that – been there before with Rodney, and was forced to wear the T-Shirt for many years.

But Brodie is in another league, and I fear that unless he can be rehabilitated, he will spend his life on a very short lead.  To this end, we have a trainer in place – a former police dog handler – who is hopeful that Brodie can improve over time.

Are we tempted to return Brodie to the shelter?  Yes, every day; there is no such thing as a nice chilled walk spent chatting with other dog owners, while enjoying the fresh air and nature’s bounty – instead, I am on tenterhooks, scanning the horizon for dogs, and ready to march Brodie past whatever poor creature he is focused on attacking.

If you are wondering why there is no squeal of tyres in our haste to drive him away, it is because at home he is the softest, sweetest and most affectionate boy we could ask for.  Obedient, clean and cuddly beyond my wildest dreams, I am determined to give Brodie every last chance at succeeding.  All dog aggression stems from fear – and who knows what this poor little dog has been through in the last five years.  I am hopeful that he will respond to love, kindness and security.  I’ve no wish to consign him to kennel life, by returning him to the rescue where I found him.   Trust me, if this has to happen, my world will implode and my heart will break a second time.

Book Review: Love and a Dozen Roast Potatoes by Simon Wan

Simon Wan’s Love and a Dozen Roast Potatoes is an autobiography with a fresh take.  Dates, names and places are unimportant; instead the author takes an acerbic yomp (or more of a techno-twitch) through the decades, luxuriating in the 90s and their deeply shallow proclivities.

It’s the story of a quest for true love in a wilderness of wannabes. In a landscape of chemically induced raving and hedonism, the author captures the zeitgeist perfectly (as least that’s how I remember it).  The writing style is accomplished and rhythmic, in itself giving a nod to the dance music of the era – and certainly the mood and vernacular.

Brutally honest, Simon Wan toys with our emotions, making us laugh out loud one minute, before choking us with moments of pure pathos and utter disappointment the next.

The novel’s title references Simon Wan’s modest desire to take home the perfect woman for a family Christmas – to enjoy his mum’s flawless roast potatoes – with hilarious and sometimes baffling results.  As the saying goes, you couldn’t make it up.

Nick Hornby fans will lap up this clever book.

If you’ve written a novel, you’ve probably played ‘who would I cast in the movie?’

It’s a fun game (go on, admit it) and one I am no stranger to. Oddly enough, Seeking Eden is already a fully cast three-part drama on ITV, complete with amusing Sainsbury’s idents at ten minute intervals – at least it is in my head.

Bev crop

After the credits have rolled (my name all over them like a rash, natch) we open with tracking shots through a car window, of a large new-build housing estate – of the kind that have mushroomed all over the country in the last ten to twenty years.  We see neat suburban homes, with trimmed hedges, freshly painted front doors, and shiny new cars – many of them 4x4s – parked in immaculate driveways.  A background cast of apple-cheeked children on bikes and scooters, and well-dressed adults leaving for work, all adds up to a tableau of suburban prosperity.

The location is easy to imagine; it’s a scene that hundreds of thousands of Brits wake up to every day.  But what about the characters? Who would play Kate Farleigh – recently married, but restless and lonely? Or self-styled rock star Ben Wilde, amusing and sexy, but with opinions he just can’t keep in, and an ego the size of a small planet?  And who would play divorcee Lisa Dixon, determined to leave her WAG image behind…if only others would let her?  Or workaholic Martin Bevan – trapped in a dutiful marriage with a family-sized midlife crisis that is spiralling out of control.

I’ve thought about this a lot (though never let it be said that I have too much time on my hands) and this is what I’ve come up with.

Keely Hawes (The Missing) would make a stellar Kate – but would need to be aged-up a few years. Stand-up comedian and Jonathan Creek star Alan Davies would make a brilliant Ben; Holby City’s gorgeous Tina Hobley is a no-brainer for lubricious Lisa – and Martin…?  Well, that’s where I’m stumped.  I can’t think of a British actor with a playing age of 50-55, who would do super-straight Martin justice.  He’d need to look the part of course; trim from racquet sports, short haired and clean cut, but wild eyed and angst ridden.  He’d need to be an accomplished actor, too – because Martin is a complex character; an everyman on one level, but with unique and quirky personality traits that make him dangerous to know.

Hmm, more thought required; so who would you nominate for the role of Martin?  Suggestions below please…

Seeking Eden by Beverley Harvey will publish with Urbane Publications 6th July 2017

 

 

RIP darling Rodney; you were our son and our sun

20141111_064635The thing I’ve been dreading all year happened yesterday; our adored Jack Russell Rodney died. He was very old (16 and a half) and his life was, for the most part, happy and carefree. We helped him to die with serenity by asking our caring vet to euthanize him because he’d become very ill and frail. At his age, his future was unlikely to brighten.

At the point we intervened, he’d been refusing all food and to go for walks for several days. Instead, he lay sighing, dozing and watching me flap around him, angst ridden, with the saddest, most knowing expression. His eyes said ‘I’m done, mummy – time for me to sleep.’

So we took the pain and suffering away from him – heaping it instead on ourselves. Mark and I are in tatters and have wept buckets all week long, but today was off the scale. Rodney made us a family, now we are just a middle-aged couple. He made me a mum, now I am just an under-employed copywriter. He made both of us better human beings; having a dog is like having a toddler – they are always helpless no matter what age they are, or how long you have them.

Now he’s gone and the pain is visceral. The Rodney shaped hole in our hearts may heal eventually – or it may not. It has just happened and it is too soon to say how we’ll cope. I hope we’ll both have as much dignity in Rodney’s passing as he did (no sign of that so far).

I wrote a few words to sum up how I was feeling the night before our boy died. I make no apology for it being sentimental.

Sweet dreams my old dog

If tears were a finite thing
I would fill some buckets then blow my nose
And get on with life
Among the living and not the ruins of the dead

If sadness were a finite thing
I would sigh and weep, and then go about
My daily routine
With gusto and care, and a cheerful smile

If love were a finite thing
I’d take comfort to know, that every last drop was poured into you
My dear old furry friend
Our hearts and souls entwined, until we meet again

If you’re telling stories about real life, set the bar high…

For many years I’ve been a huge fan of the British playwright and film director Mike Leigh. My fascination with his work spiked in the 90s when his filmmaking was most prolific. Relationship dramas such as Life is Sweet, Naked, Secrets & Lies and Career Girls depicted the daily conflicts of ordinary people with a warmth, wit, realism and occasional brutality that no one else was doing (at least not on my radar). And although Mr Leigh is no one trick pony (just watch Mr Turner if you are in any doubt) his colossal and unique ability to portray human frailty is his calling card.
Much of Leigh’s work drips black humour, too. Who can forget Abigail’s Party, originally performed in 1977, about an excruciatingly bad lower-middle class drinks party that spirals out of control?

Mike Leigh has influenced my love of literary fiction, too. Authors like Fay Weldon, Joanna Trollope and the late Jenny Diski, although disparate in style, all have a way of making life’s minutia significant in a way that captivates and entertains readers. It is this ability I aspire to – and I’m working on it.

When I decided to write a novel two years ago, I realised that the lives of friends and neighbours were a rich seam to mine. Not actual personalities – that would be rude and underhand – but the circumstances we find ourselves in. And so I started to write about a couple in their 40s, Kate and Neil, who leave the gritty but pulsating streets of south London for a gentle but suffocating housing estate in a Home Counties suburb, drawing on my personal experience of doing just that some ten years ago.

I still live in that ‘new town’ (a purpose built village if you will) which did not exist thirty years ago, but now has a population of over 8,000 people. It’s a Marmite of a postcode; people love it or hate it. For me, the jury is still out; I love that I live in a place where there is little to no crime, where people are friendly and terribly decent to each other, because community spirit comes as standard, along with a double garage and two en-suites. But there are things that drive me mad, too; the materialism – keeping up with the Joneses. It is a battle I fight – and sometimes lose and roll over to.

It is this struggle with materialism, loneliness, burgeoning mid-life crises and self-loathing that beats within the characters of my debut novel Seeking Eden. That sense of searching for something – and not even knowing what it is; of feeling like a fraud and not quite belonging; of making mistakes and committing indiscretions that cannot be taken back. Of looking out for your friends, but not always knowing who they are.

And if I could tell a story of real, averagely dysfunctional people, doing normal stuff with even a quarter of the wit and authenticity as the genius that is Mike Leigh, I’d be a happy author.
But that’s for you to decide.

Seeking Eden will publish in June 2017 on Urbane Publications http://urbanepublications.com/book_author/beverley-harvey/

Book Review : Close of Play by P J Whiteley

I have just read and thoroughly enjoyed PJ Whiteley’s Close of Play. Set in the late 90s, there are dual themes running here: First to emerge is our hero Brian Clarke’s devotion to cricket (the clue is in the title). Brian describes himself as ‘old school’ and is well aware that his middle-aged, middle-class, middle-England life is saved from boredom and despair by the ‘gentleman’s game’ which he plays with vim and vigour every weekend of the season.

Cricket lovers are in for a treat as Mr Whiteley’s vibrant descriptions of the Sussex team manoeuvres – on and off the pitch – leave you feeling as though you are spectating – or at times, batting.

But this is not only a story of locker room bonding, which becomes clear when Brian meets a 42 year old spinster, the gracious and often feisty Elizabeth. Devout Christians both, Brian and Elizabeth embark on a tentative love affair that at times reminded me of one of my favourite books, Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, in that it left me feeling frustrated with the main characters, and thinking‘for god’s sake, man – just KISS her!’

Beautifully and vividly written, Close of Play is a ‘will they/won’t they?’ that leaves you hoping desperately that they will…eventually. It runs the gamut of emotions, and is packed with warmth and humour and some wonderful images of bucolic Sussex village life. What’s not to like? Recommended.

Book Review: The Life Assistance Agency by Thomas Hocknell

Thomas Hocknell’s debut novel The Life Assistance Agency skilfully combines two genres. It’s an adventure thriller; tense, suspenseful and threat-laden with twists a plenty, but the supernatural theme of the book means that it will also appeal to lovers of adult magic and fantasy.

The barest bones of the plot are that Ben Furguson-Cripps, a hapless author disillusioned with his craft, finds work alongside an old chum, the ebullient (or should that be jammy?) Scott Wildblood, proprietor of the mysterious Life Assistance Agency.

The LAA works much like a detective agency; clients present challenges (and none are too obscure); Ben and Scott provide the solution. The pair are hired to find a missing person, Mr Foxe, a historian and scholar with links to an Elizabethan angel-caller, Dr John Dee.

Ben and Scott travel across Europe in their quest for Foxe, with considerable hindrance from The Society, whose role it is to stop ordinary folk straying into extraordinary territories (ie, occult and spiritual mine fields). A trail of historic relics, together with the vibrantly written diary of Mrs Jane Dee dating back to the 1500s, leads Ben and Scott to the streets of ancient Prague where the dark and shocking secrets of Dr Dee are finally revealed.

As someone who rarely reads this type of novel, I am struggling for a literary comparison, but if a filmic one will suffice, this book lands on a spectrum that includes the Bourne series and Angel Heart for its fast paced and vibrant locations, and spooky supernatural undercurrent of the main character respectively.

Throughout the drama, readers will enjoy Tom Hocknell’s lively prose which is liberally sprinkled with funny and original metaphors and similes. There’s even an element of sexual tension and betrayal which threatens an unlikely bro’mance.

Overall, TLAA is a highly entertaining read.

Book Review: 183 Times a Year by Eva Jordan

Eva Jordan’s debut novel 183 Times a Year is the story of beleaguered mum Lizzie and angst-ridden teenage daughter Cassie’s relationship and their chaotic ‘blended’ family.

Thanks to a first person narrative by Lizzie and Cassie alternately, we get both sides of the story. There is never any confusion about who’s talking as the two protagonists have their own distinct tone of voice.

A rich supporting cast of characters speeds the action along and the goodies and baddies are clearly flagged from the outset. Other family members add depth to Lizzie and Cassie’s characters (for instance, Cassie’s empathy for her cancer-suffering Nan rescues her from being a monster), then there are friends, boyfriends and a loathsome ex-husband to contend with; all vividly drawn and believable.

It’s a book of two halves; the first is brimming with laugh-out-loud comedy – mainly due to Cassie’s utterly selfish take on the world, and her frequent malapropisms. In the second half, the book takes on a darker tone, becoming less slapstick and more thought-provoking. You’ll get no plot spoilers from me – but a shocking twist changes the direction of this novel entirely, adding layers and depth.

The complex (and often toxic) mother-daughter relationship theme will resonate with women everywhere and you don’t have to be a parent to get it; if you are child-free, just think back to your own teenage tempest. Expect a roller coaster of emotions that includes tears, laughter, anger and indignation. Above all, this book has shed-loads of heart.

The jig is up…

But I can’t stop dancing. Or smiling. I’ve known for a few weeks that my first novel is to be published next year by the awesome Urbane Publications, led by the inimitable Matthew Smith. I could not be more thrilled but keeping the news a secret has been a real challenge.

bev-harvey-015_sl_3

Finding a good home for Seeking Eden has not been easy. Last March I started looking for a literary agent, and wrote to nine or ten, pitching my novel which was then called ‘Beginner’s Guide to Burb Watching’. Within three months, I’d clocked up a few rejections – others simply ignored my efforts and never replied.

Next I paid a well-known heavy-hitting editor and critic to run her expert eyes over my partial manuscript. It was a sobering experience. Her unequivocal view was that the novel I had lovingly spent over a year crafting was un-publishable – at least via traditional routes. The reasons? I don’t have enough space here, so comprehensive were her suggestions. But in brief, the setting was wrong, the age group of the cast, even more so; too many points of view (I had written from the perspective of four adults; two men, two women). Lastly, my child-free heroine was deemed unlikeable because of her indifference to kids and a lapse in judgement during a brief affair.

The only ray of hope in the whole sorry – but very detailed, conscientious and constructive report – were the words: “I’d like to assure you that you are a talented writer, with a smooth and lively writing style.” Phew, well that’s alright then!

I was devastated – nobody wants their work shredded – and I expect the bureau concerned would say that it was just a matter of making some revisions. But it was clear to me that if I rewrote the characters, the setting and the plot – nothing would be left of my original concept.

So I had a dilemma; whether to park my first novel and file it under ‘apprenticeship’ or to self-publish as so many of my wonderfully supportive twitter brethren are doing with great success already. It was during the process of researching how to self-publish that I found Urbane on Twitter; up to that point, I had not known a third way existed. I emailed Matthew Smith and not only did he not ignore me (as many had done ), he suggested meeting up. Our conversation was a big eye opener so when, a few weeks later, I discovered Matthew was speaking at Margate Bookie, I drove to the seaside to find out more.

I knew at once that Urbane was the right partner. Not only because Matthew Smith is down to earth and straight talking, but also because Urbane’s authors are all huge fans of his, full of admiration and respect for their publisher.

Another two or three weeks passed before I received the news I’d been hoping for. I’m proud and chuffed to be an Urbane author and after working alone for so long in the freelance wilderness, it is great to be part of something so positive and committed.

But there is another side to this; after editor-lady’s damning report, I had to decide whether I was prepared to be shoe-horned into existing genres and formulas (and there is nothing wrong in that – commercial success is the stuff of dreams), or whether to have the courage to walk a different path. As a keen reader, some of the books I have enjoyed the most have been just plain weird – and certainly don’t fit into any chic-lit ideal of cloudless skies and happy endings.

With Urbane, talented new writers can flex their creativity, without being railroaded into the genre du jour. Originality is encouraged (not quashed) and there is a clear culture of mutual support among authors. Owner managed independents are the future of publishing – I only hope I have a future as a novelist. All will become clear – for now, I am happy and grateful to be given a chance to bring my book to life. At this stage, it would be greedy to ask for more.