Monday, 25 July 2016

Q and A: Liz Nugent on Lying in Wait

I really enjoyed Liz Nugent's page-turning debut Unravelling Oliver, reviewed on my blog here.
As mentioned in my review, once you start reading, it's exceptionally hard to put down.

Well, now Liz has just published her second novel Lying in Wait. It has much in common with Unravelling Oliver - the multiple viewpoints, the why rather than who dunnit - but is equally compelling and no less enjoyable for that.

Today I'm delighted to welcome Liz to my blog to answer questions about Lying in Wait. 

1) Lying In Wait, like your first novel Unravelling Oliver, has an incredible opening line. Why did you decide to open your two novels in such a distinctive way? And what effect did you want the opening lines to have on your reader?

I think that in both cases, I wanted to immerse the reader in the world of the character immediately. With Unravelling Oliver, ‘I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her’ sets you up for a thoroughly dislikeable character, dismissive of his victim from the very first line. Similarly, in Lying in Wait, when Lydia opens with ‘My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle but the lying tramp deserved it’ she tells you that although she does not consider herself responsible, she feels the victim earned her own murder.

My hope is that the reader will be intrigued enough by these opening lines to want to know more about these despicable characters and their victims.

2) Lydia has a very distinctive voice yet Lying In Wait is told from the perspective of three different characters. How did you get into the head of Lydia, who is such a dark and unlikeable character? And how did you manage to keep her voice separate from the other two characters, Laurence and Karen?

Writing Lydia was really interesting. Without giving anything away, an incident that happened on her ninth birthday has left her emotionally stunted, so even when she is near 50 years old, she still speaks like someone in 1940. Her language is formal, but she is an expert manipulator who must always find justifications for her actions.

Laurence, her only son, has quite a sophisticated vocabulary for a young man, but that is because he had no siblings and therefore grew up mollycoddled in the company of two middle-class educated adults. He does, however, have his teenage influences from TV shows and pop music so his language is more relaxed than that of his mother. He is not clinging to the past in the way that she is.

Karen comes from a working class background. Her father and sister both have dyslexia and can barely read. A lot of the time she speaks in a way that is grammatically incorrect, but she is smart and has no problem making herself understood. She speaks the vernacular that she grew up with. Her vocabulary is more limited than the other two narrators, but she is emotionally more advanced than either of them.

3) Lying In Wait is set in Dublin during the 1980s. Why did you choose to set it during this time period? And do you think the time they are living in impacts the characters and their decisions in any way? 

Without giving away too much, in present day Ireland, nobody would bat an eyelid at a 16-year-old girl having a baby, but I needed to write about a time where that would have consequences. For Annie Doyle, those consequences were devastating and really dictated the course of her life thereafter.

Also, I grew up in the 1980s in Ireland and it was quite a scary time for a child. There was constant talk of nuclear war between Russia and the US, the IRA was bombing innocent children in the UK, Ronald Reagan and the Pope survived assassination attempts and John Lennon was shot dead on a New York street. It was a time of great unease and uncertainty and there was an underlying feeling that the world could end at any time. In writing Lying in Wait, I wanted to capture that sense of unease without referencing all those events. I hope I managed to do that.

4) You’ve described your book as ‘a mother’s love can be smothering’. Why did you choose to write about such a sinister mother?

I don’t think there are enough sinister mothers in fiction! There are lots and lots of horrific fathers but I really couldn’t think of too many mothers that were murderous like Lydia is. Also, I like to confound expectations. With the opening line above, you don’t really expect that Lydia might be the driving force behind the murder, but she is, and worse!

5) Lying In Wait has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. In what ways do you think your novel is similar to Gone Girl, and in what ways is it different?

I hope that Lying in Wait is as compelling as Gone Girl and that readers will see both books as page-turners where you want to get to the next chapter quickly. I guess where we differ is that I use lots of twists and turns along the way rather than one big one in the middle. I admire Gillian Flynn enormously and am flattered that anyone would compare me to her!

6) What can we expect from you next?

Fingers crossed book 3 next September 2017, but I have had very little time to work on it over the past month or two so that may not be realistic!

Thanks very much Liz!

Thank you Claire for the great questions and for taking part in the blog tour! x

Lying in Wait is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Many thanks to them for my review copy and for facilitating this Q and A.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Theatre Review: King Lear at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

There may have been a glut of King Lears already in Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year, but never has one felt more apposite in its post-Brexit timing than this production from Bristol Old Vic. Timothy West takes on the role of a leader brought down and driven mad by his own actions, bequeathing to the younger generation a country split asunder and riven by fault lines of hatred.

In his collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Tom Morris’ casting of the majority of roles with its students brings out a strong sense of youthful energy. It’s an effective counterpoint to Timothy West’s Lear, resigned and world-weary from the start, foreshadowing what is to come rather than emphasising the heightened tragedy of a monarch’s loss of absolute power.

West’s performance, after a slightly shaky start, is thoughtful and nuanced; there’s a rare moment of rage as Lear slashes at a huge projected map of his newly divided kingdom. More often, he contains and hints at inner turmoil, the occasional flashes of the charismatic tyrant beneath all the more striking. He’s at his most touching in the final scenes as, with renewed clarity, he recognises the enduring strength of Poppy Pedder’s loyal Cordelia.

Stephanie Cole is endearing and winsome as the far-sighted and aged Fool; part guardian angel, part comedian in knitted coxcomb hat. She alone recognises what will come of the schism as David Hargreaves’ increasingly frantic Gloucester is deceived and betrayed by Alex York as the scheming Edmund. Goneril and Regan (Jessica Temple and Michelle Fox) are glib-tongued and unflinching in their pursuit of power, while Tom Byrne masters his various incarnations as the wronged son Edgar and Danann McAleer is memorable and enduring in his portrayal of Kent.

The Theatre School students have been involved in all aspects of production; Anna Orton’s set design presents an effectively oversized, dark and forbiddingly masculine kingdom, if occasionally unwieldy for actors to manoeuvre. Aldo Vazquez Yela’s contemporary costuming, though sometimes puzzling, is full of colour and interest, while the storm is a highlight of lighting and sound by Rob Casey and Dave Price in an otherwise pared-back treatment. But, in the background, the chorus is more often a distraction than an enhancement; there are ideas and imagination aplenty but they lack a certain cohesion.

In case we ever doubted it, so many of Shakespeare’s lines emphasise his enduring relevance; as Lear in their bittersweet reunion tells a blinded Gloucester ‘get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not’, it draws a rueful laugh of recognition from the audience. There may be unevenness in this King Lear, with some moments feeling underpowered, but there’s plenty of promise from a new generation, here well supported by its seniors.

Reviewed on 28 June 2016 | Image: Simon Annand

Monday, 11 July 2016

Book Review: A Perfect Square by Isobel Blackthorn

Isobel Blackthorn was born in London but received her doctorate in Western Esotericism from the University of Western Sydney in 2006. She's the author of Asylum and The Drago Tree, both published by Canberra-based Odyssey Books in 2015.

Her latest novel A Perfect Square - part meditation on creativity, part literary thriller - is certainly ambitious in scope. Telling the story of two sets of mothers and daughters separated by thousands of miles, it encompasses the artistry of painters and musicians, their personal relationships and struggles to find through art a healing balm to overcome the ills of the past.

When fledgling pianist and composer Ginny Smith moves back into her mother's house in Sassafras, east of Melbourne, her return is not entirely welcomed by reclusive artist Harriet. The two have long shared an uneasy relationship; centred around the absence of Ginny's father, there's an enigmatic void that Harriet is reluctant to discuss.

Nevertheless, determined to make something of their predicament and provide her daughter with direction, Harriet proposes a creative collaboration; an exhibition of art and music, themed around - one of her many unconventional obsessions - the phases of the moon. Ginny agrees reluctantly, to find to her surprise that it is she, rather than her mother, who is able to tap more easily into the wellspring of inspiration.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world on the moors of Devon, Judith, another mother and artist, reflects on her troubled relationship with her daughter Madeleine, as her own prodigal returns to the fold. It's the mysterious connection between these two fragmented, distant families that lies at the bleak heart of this story, a thriller that will take the full course of the novel to unfold.

It's a complex, intriguing premise in a book that can be read on many levels; most insightfully, for me, as an examination of the process of creativity and true nature of art. This brings with it a typical level of artistic self-absorption that can render the main characters obtuse in their internal monologues. It's a realism that makes them difficult to empathise with at times; Ginny, in particular, wallows in the feeling that her mother has ruined her life, while the synaesthesic, eccentrically intellectual Harriet becomes a fascinating but difficult puzzle to piece together.

As a literary thriller, this novel holds a great promise that it doesn't always quite manage to deliver; the pacing is uneven, starting slowly and leaving too much of Ginny's father and his dark associations to be unveiled at the end, with few clues along the way. Yet, despite this, A Perfect Square proves to be an evocative and unusual read; on the one hand charting creative depths and exploring alternative philosophies, on the other dissecting the often dysfunctional but still indestructable bonds between mothers and their daughters.

A Perfect Square will be published by Odyssey Books on 29th August 2016. Many thanks to Odyssey for my review copy.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Theatre Revew: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


Celebration is in the air at Bristol Old Vic, as the UK’s oldest working theatre marks the 250th anniversary of its opening. And the birthday festivities continue this week in collaboration with the ever-exuberant Kneehigh, bringing Emma Rice’s final production for the Cornish company, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, to the main stage.

The lovers in question are Marc and Bella Chagall, who met and fell in love in 1909 in their Russian hometown of Vitebsk. They shared a particular vision of the world; Bella, a gifted writer, quickly became her painter husband’s muse and continued to inhabit his canvases for the rest of her life. Famously, he often depicts them flying together – their love embodied as a physical reverie.

Marc Antolin as an elderly Chagall looks back over his life; he and Audrey Brisson have the daunting task of telling the couple’s story as a two-hander in a combination of direct address and tender vignettes. Joining them on stage are musicians Ian Ross and James Gow, who weave into the narrative an original soundscape ranging from the sultriness of a Parisian cafe to the rousing traditions of Eastern European Jewish Klezmer music.

It’s an intimate combination that soars from the start; Antolin and Brisson dramatically look the part and their voices harmonise exquisitely. Brisson’s voice is particularly striking as she leads their paean to the transcending power of love and art. Marc makes a name for himself in modernist Paris, but returns to Vitebsk in 1914 to marry Bella in a traditionally Jewish ceremony that, staged with intoxicating song, dance and specially-adapted wedding chairs, suggests a whirling hall full of guests.

All of Kneehigh’s inventiveness is present in the couple’s ‘milkmoon’ (a honeymoon blessed with cheap and readily available milk) filled with the colourful animals of Marc’s paintings. And there is a memory to revisit, of Bella surprising Marc with flowers in his room for his birthday. In a set made up of disorienting slopes and angles, Antolin and Brisson move together with a dynamic and physical fluidity that refuses to acknowledge any hard edges – holding onto ropes and leaning in, weaving through Sophia Clist’s timber-framed set. Their chemistry is entrancing and Malcolm Rippeth’s stunning lighting design reflects the many colours and shades of their relationship.

But the Chagalls are living through turbulent times of war and revolution. They argue in their hardship and, although blessed with a daughter, often have differing priorities. The music becomes an elegy to the devastating and needless losses of their generation – of their Jewish homeland Vitebsk and its many inhabitants.

Other characters are created by Ross and Gow, by Antolin and Brisson acting with themselves and using puppets, balloons and canvases. But the presence of others is fleeting; it might round out the narrative if roles such as Bella’s brother were further developed, but ultimately this is a story that belongs to the Chagalls.

Although there are occasional lapses of pace that could be tightened, this is a gloriously mesmerising, romantic and joyous production that will ultimately break your heart. A wonderful farewell from Rice, it’s a fitting part of Bristol Old Vic’s celebrations and up there with Kneehigh’s best.

Reviewed on 2 June 2016  |  Image: Steve Tanner

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Theatre Review: Sasha Regan's H.M.S. Pinafore at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub
Sasha Regan’s all-male take on Gilbert & Sullivan’s Victorian classic H.M.S. Pinafore was originally staged at Southwark’s Union Theatre over two years ago, but feels just as pin-sharp in this 2016 tour as when it first set sail.

Based below decks in a Second World War battleship, sailors lounge on metal-framed bunk beds with little in the way of distraction. To occupy themselves, they begin performing one of their favourite comic operas and H.M.S Pinafore is reborn in a version teeming with vitality, imagination and breath-taking vocal arrangements.

All the infectious humour and rollicking silliness associated with this tale of mismatched love on the high seas, between common sailor Ralph Rackstraw (Tom Senior) and Captain’s daughter Josephine (Ben Irish), is here. Mattresses are dragged off beds to facilitate an opening display of gymnastics, while a stack of metal boxes is enough for First Lord Sir Joseph Porter, played with great little man pomposity by Michael Burgen, to elevate himself above the crowd in an energetic rendition of When I Was A Lad.

In between the heightened fun and laddishness of the chorus – a company of cooped-up sailors letting off steam – it’s surprising to find moments of genuine pathos. The duet Refrain, Audacious Tar between our handsome, erudite hero Ralph and the lissom Josephine captures all the intense desire and anguish of a love disallowed by society. Then Irish expresses the dilemma of Josephine’s choice between her duty to marry Sir Joseph and love for Ralph with heart-rending tenderness in his exquisitely sung The Hours Creep on Apace.

With the minimum of costume changes – lifejackets, netting and different coloured shorts – members of the crew seamlessly inhabit all the male and female roles. David McKechnie creates a coquettish, strong-voiced Buttercup from a tool-belt of cloths while James Waud becomes the dastardly hunchback Dick Deadeye with the aid of a doubled-up pillow. Rope is used to great effect to recreate both the sea and the sides of the ship, and torches illuminate the scurrying mischievousness of the nocturne Carefully on Tiptoe Stealing.

There may be a simple piano accompaniment, but this H.M.S. Pinafore couldn’t be further from a typical am dram performance. In its pared-back, innovative staging it moves on with great pace. Seemingly spontaneous frivolity is built on solid foundations; movement and dancing tightly choreographed by Lizzi Gee and soaring harmonies under the musical direction of Richard Bates.

We may be getting used to Regan’s various all-male reinventions of Gilbert & Sullivan, following The Pirates of Penzance last year, but she once again succeeds in bringing a fresh twist to the work for a contemporary audience. Whatever your opinion of the Savoy Operas up to now, this outrageously entertaining version of H.M.S. Pinafore is enough to make you think again.

Reviewed on 31st May 2016 as part of a UK tour | Image: Theatre Royal Bath

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Book Review: Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

Last year, I reviewed We Shall Inherit The Wind, my first Gunnar Staalesen novel. You can read my verdict here, but - short version - it left me keenly anticipating the next instalment in Norwegian private investigator Varg Veum's turbulent life.

Now this has arrived in the form of Where Roses Never Die, which finds Veum three years later with - for reasons quickly apparent - the darkness closing in around him. Drinking too much, a bottle of Aquavit always close at hand, he's barely taken on any work and the only thing bleaker than his mood is the disastrous state of his finances.

Yet, when approached by the mother of Mette Misvaer, a three-year-old girl who disappeared seemingly without trace almost 25 years ago, Veum is galvanised into action. He begins by uncovering links to a recent brutal jewellery heist and, digging further, unearths intimate secrets between close neighbours that have lain undiscovered by police.

Like the wolf he is named for in Norwegian, Veum is relentless in his pursuit of the truth; circling his chosen prey with probing questions until he finds a weakness that lets him in. And, if he doesn't exactly conquer his own demons in the process, then he is at least able to walk alongside them for a while.

Veum is not the only one damaged; all the characters he meets from different walks of Norwegian life - from car salesman to failed footballer - have been ravaged by their experiences in one way or another. At every stage, Staalesen demonstrates Veum's keen perception of human nature; a flawed protagonist able to understand others because of his own personal failings.

Tense and authentically inspired by two real crime cases in Norway, you can find the reasons behind the book's title (and a link to the song it's taken from) in this guest post on Jackie Law's blog neverimitate.

Once again fluently translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, Staalesen's first person prose is so meticulous, it could have been sculpted out of ice. There's not a superfluous word as Veum edges closer to the frozen core of a truth buried away for decades, revealing as he does so dark and shocking tensions that have split apart the couples living near little Mette's family. Superbly paced, taut and atmospheric, this is a beautifully-crafted crime thriller that's always full of humanity.

Where Roses Never Die is published by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Perspective: M J Carter on Pornography in 19th Century London

The Infidel Stain, second in M J Carter's Victorian detective series, was one of my favourite historical reads of 2015. Now, for the launch of the paperback, it's been retitled as The Printer's Coffin. According to publishers Penguin this avoids the term 'Infidel', in this context referring to 19th Century Chartists, being confused with Middle Eastern conflicts.

Continuing the adventures of Blake and Avery at the end of their heroic struggles in The Strangler Vine, here we find the mismatched duo returned from colonial India to London. Once again meticulously researched and full of period detail, this is a novel that grips from the very first page (you can read my full review here). Much of its intrigue centres around the scurrilous goings-on in Holywell Street, centre of London’s 19th Century pornography industry, and the people who worked there.

Today, I'm delighted to host a guest post from M J Carter on my blog, sharing her insights about the street and some of its shadier characters: 

Holywell Street and Pornography in 19th Century London
by M J Carter

It was when I was doing my research for The Printer’s Coffin that I first came across Holywell Street, a dingy little thoroughfare that ran off the east end of The Strand, where the Aldwych is now. In the 1840s, when the book is set, The Strand was the fashion and literary hub of London. As for Holywell Street, well, it was the hub of London’s porn industry (though the word didn’t take on its current meaning until about 1906).

Holywell Street had a reputation before Queen Victoria came to throne, its booksellers produced rude cartoons of the fat spoilt Prince Regent and his mistresses. But in the 1830s a new generation of pornographers arrived and the place came into its own — a bit of an irony as Britain as a whole was becoming increasingly prudish.

I came across Holywell Street because I looking into the working-class revolutionaries of the 1820s who were inspired by the French Revolution. They were an angry lot, some of whom planned to bring down the government. But it turned out that in the 1830s many of them had gone from fighting for press freedom and the vote to setting up as pornographers in Holywell Street! Middle age had arrived and they needed a steady income. Why not publish obscene publications! After all they were well-used to producing underground publications and distributing them secretly. One printer got his pamphlets to his customers in a laundry basket tied to a rope that was lowered from an attic window at the back of the premises. I thought, how can I not write about this?

The striking thing about much of what they produced was that it wasn’t just smutty and rude (though it was that), it was also full of social satire and attacks on the church and the government and the aristocracy. A particular Holywell Street speciality was prints of bishops and nuns having orgies (you knew they were bishops and nuns because the men wore mitres and the women wore wimples), and endless jokes about arse-bishops. There were books, such as The New Epicurean or the Delights of Sex, which included explicit prints and tales of sexual escapades, but also attacked Victorian morality and the law, which the writer claimed were just cynical methods by which a hypocritical corrupt aristocracy kept the rest of society under its thumb: the pursuit of pleasure and sex was the only honesty. Ironically, a lot of this material was regarded as high-class erotica, highly-priced and only affordable by the wealthy.

Most of the porn wasn’t political of course. The ex-revolutionaries were also big on erotic parodies of famous books (Nicholarse Nickelby anyone?), lewd poems about the sex lives of famous people: ‘What ‘e gets up to round ‘Er Majesty’ about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and pamphlets with racy titles like Lady Bumtickler’s Revels. There was also a lucrative market in flagellation, known as ‘birchen sports’, for which the customers, (mainly aristocrats and boarding school girls according to George Cannon, a former editor of philosophical journals and political radical turned pornographer) were willing to pay extra.

It turned out that the move from radical politics to porn was a lucrative one in general as many of these booksellers and printers were still making a good living from it well into the 1850s and 60s.

The Printer's Coffin by M J Carter is published in the UK in paperback by Penguin Books.