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Seed Loves You

Review: Seed, by Lisa Heathfield

To return to my roots of reviewing books which have been out for ages, I have just read Seed and aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah cults. I actually thought this had only been out two months, and that I was *almost* on time, but no, alas, it was released April last year and I just didn’t have my glasses on. That would have been embarrassing.

I heard some buzz about Seed on Twitter, and I’ve never read anything about cults, but I’m interested in them because isn’t everybody!?

And what a cover.

 

Pearl has lived her whole life at Seed, a farm community run by the enigmatic Papa S. The group worship nature, as channelled through their leader, and live a life of idyllic simplicity, free from technology or modern distraction. Yet their peace is shattered at the arrival of Outsiders, Linda and her two children, Sophie and Ellis – the latter being an attractive young man who makes Pearl feel things that she doesn’t understand. As Pearl and Ellis grow closer, the bonds of the Seed community begin to unravel. Ellis dares to question Papa S’s authority, and Pearl begins to question what she has always believed..

The thing about life at Seed is that so much of it sounds absolutely lovely. You know, being as one with nature, growing and picking your own food, and this wonderful, close community filled with genuine love for one another… but then as you read on, you find that there’s also sexual abuse and drugging.

Papa S is a brilliant villain – like Snow from Hunger Games. I imagined him played by Donald Sutherland, actually, and suggest you do too! He has that calm authority, that manipulation, that unsettling attitude and an evil core. I’m a really big fan of a good villain. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t on his side, but the perfect manipulation and the way he was fuelled by his unshakeable belief in his own self, was masterfully done.

On the other hand our narrator and heroine, Pearl, is naive almost to the point of being irritating. When it came to the crimes Papa S committed, I wished her understanding of them had been more explicit, and that Heathfield had pushed it further. It felt, at times, like an 18 edited down to be a PG. The reader knows what happens to Papa S’s “companions”, we can see that Pearl’s friends are being sexually abused, but none of this touches Pearl. Her innocence is barely rippled.

I wanted so badly for her to be more questioning and less trusting, yet in truth she stayed resolutely true to character. It’s difficult to imagine having all my knowledge of modern life taken away from me. To imagine that all I know is told to me by one man, and that I would trust his word absolutely because I knew nothing else. Of course Pearl didn’t have a clue what was going on, she had grown up in a cult. Her innocence is frustrating, yes, but an unshakeable and defining part of her character.

For all that it felt a little tame, Seed was utterly compelling. I enjoyed it so much, but I wanted it to be more. I wanted there to be more. I want a sequel. A Seed-quel! (Sorry.)

Try Seed for yourself here.

Review Round-Up

I am always late to the party.

Not real parties with real people, because I don’t very often get invited to those, but cultural parties. Take Harry Potter – I only read the books (after giving up on them as a kiddywink because they were too scary) when the last film came out. Same with Hunger Games, and loads and loads of other books. As such, when I “discover” books for myself they tend to have been out for quite a long time. Hence, I shan’t wax lyrical about any of the following books for more than a few sentences, because chances are you’ve read them already! If you haven’t, perhaps this will inspire you to give something different a try; I missed some of these books first time round because back then, I was neck-deep in romance, and murder mysteries just weren’t my bag.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Patrick Suskind

I only had a vague idea that this was about a guy who made perfume and killed people. While this is factually correct, what sets this book apart is the fragrant use of language. At times repugnant, scent and odour are conveyed through beautiful prose.

The Tea-Planter’s Wife – Dinah Jefferies

A young woman marries a man she barely knows and begins a new life in another country. A bit Rebecca, a bit Victoria Holt, and a little bit… “what!?”, but in a good way. If you know what I mean.

The Seed Collectors – Scarlett Thomas

An old aunt dies and leaves various members of the younger generation possibly poisonous seeds. Trippy, gripping, and even though I finished it weeks ago, it’s been on my mind ever since.

House of Shadows – Nicola Cornick

I don’t usually like time travelly, magicky stuff, (I’m looking at you, Labyrinth) but I loved this. Three stories revealed consecutively, three pairs of lovers each two centuries apart, their fates entwined with a mirror and a pearl. Who will be brave enough to give themselves to love?

What books have you discovered after the initial buzz had died down?

The Butterfly Garden – Review

Review: The Butterfly Garden – Dot Hutchinson

Hey, look at me! I’m reviewing a book that isn’t even out yet! And it was freakin’ weird.

Don’t be fooled – this book will rip your insides out and make you look at them.

Due to my complete lack of status and/or blog visitors, I don’t get sent ARCs for review, but happily Amazon has given me the opportunity (due to our paying them for Prime Membership) to purchase from a small selection of books ahead of their release.

This month, I chose The Butterfly Garden, because… it sounded both the most interesting and the most weird. And weird it certainly was. Have I mentioned that it was weird? Think Sucker Punch, and you’re in the right area. Less… pornographic, but kind of similar? Weird.

Maya lived in the garden with the other butterflies, under the care of The Gardener. Yet in spite of the wings etched into their backs, these are girls, all under 21 and all snatched from the real world and held captive in a beautiful but terrible harem. Now the garden is no more, and Maya is avoiding questions from the FBI. Why won’t she talk, and what is she hiding? Over the course of a long interview, Maya slowly reveals the terrible truths about what went on in the garden, and how the walls came tumbling down.

I read this in one sitting, both out of intention and need. Each page revealed something more terrible, more enthralling, and I could not have put it down had I wanted to. Maya is tough to get to know, and her narration reveals her as guarded and tentative, hiding her heart and refusing to feel. Yet I could not help but warm to her, and admire her courage as her story comes to light.

There’s not much to say without giving away the story, and part of the horrific joy of this book is the slow reveal, discovering new layers of horror at the turn of each page.

The Butterfly Garden also raises the question of how complicit we are when we do nothing. If we see a crime and ignore it, are we as guilty as those who  perpetrate that crime? In life this is generally not so bad as pretending your father doesn’t have an illegal harem, but hey, a lesson is a lesson.

I know this book will stay with me for a very long time, and Maya a strong female lead who I admired greatly. The Butterfly Garden was unlike any book I have ever read, and while it makes for an uncomfortable read, I highly recommend it.

The Butterfly Garden will be available on June 1st.

3 Great Videos on Character Development

It’s been a while since I’ve worked on my Victorian Mortuary thing. I even started getting some words down a few weeks ago, but then I stalled. I tried drawing instead, but jacked in my 1-a-day Instagram pictures a few days ago. In short, I was depressed.

But I can’t blame that entirely. I’ve been struggling with getting going on this idea for a while, because I’m scared. This has been in my head for about 2 years, waiting to be worked on, and I absolutely love the concept and the possibilities – I’ve been raring to start… but now? I’m scared I won’t do it justice.

It’s easy not to do stuff in case you fail. And no, I’m not good enough to carry this out how I want to, which is *multimedia*. But I never will be, if I don’t try! So with that in mind, and in an effort not to be completely miserable all the time, I’ve been doing some refreshers on stuff I learned over the years about character development. I’ve got my main characters pretty much down in my head, but I want them on paper. Cue YouTube!

I really enjoyed this one. It’s always a pleasure watching people who are good at things doing them well, and this guy is just great. Very good if you only have a few character traits to start with. Just the sort of thing to make you want to start drawing, and it’s really interesting listening to him decide what features to move forward with and why.

Basics! I’d recommend drawing along with this one. If you know anything about proportioning faces this is a useful refresher and helps you think in 3-D. I drew along!

I just really like green ink. I don’t know why.

This one is good if you like watching people drawing. It’s bad if your bottom lip sticks out more than your top one from the side because apparently that’s odd and looks weirdAnyway, it’s extremely long so I put it off after the lip comment, but I’ll recommend it anyway because watching other people draw is really therapeutic. Perhaps put the sound off, though, if you too have a weird mouth.

There you have it, that’s how I’ve been spending my time. I’ve also been working on an acrylic painting which is going quite well considering I’ve never really used acrylic before. I feel like I’m remembering everything I used to be able to do now, which is nice. I’ve not felt like myself in a while, hopefully this will help me get back to normal.

For the Love of Art

Review: The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

I like books with paintings in. Every book I’ve written to date features at least one artist, and some of my favourite books centre around either particular paintings or the art world. There’s Jilly Cooper’s Pandora, A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and now, Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love.

This week has been very painting-y.

I left university (having studied Illustration) entirely disillusioned and determined never to pick up a pencil again. I hated everything I had created, and had lost all sense of pride in my work. I want to say something extremely bitter here about the quality of teaching I received, but frankly, if you choose a university based only on how close it is to your home and nothing else, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

As the years have gone by I’ve dabbled here and there, but I had forgotten how it used to be. I had lost all the joy in creating.

Then, quite by chance, two events collided. I started to read The Improbability of Love, and I saw my old artwork for the first time in 10 years. I realised just how much I had lost. Looking through my portfolio from AS Level to the end of Uni, I saw how the pleasure had gone out of creating and how my education, rather than pulling me forward, had pushed me back to a level of such deep insecurity that I was unable to paint. I will say one thing for my art education – it’s taught me how to be extremely critical.

The Improbability of Love reminded me of a feeling I had completely forgotten – of being entirely captivated by a painting. Of having the process of creating something with your hands be the first and last thing in your mind. Of being all-consumed.

Why yes, I did get my copy from Waterstones, and yes, I did also get another book for half price. Why do you ask?

Why yes, I did get my copy from Waterstones, and yes, I did also get another book for half price. Why do you ask?

The story centres around one painting, The Improbability of Love, and chronicles the effect that art can have on the lives of those it touches. From the just-not-bothered to the obsessed, from those who want to bask in reflected glory to those who feel a deep attachment, Rothschild skilfully answers the question of what makes art, art, and what makes one picture more valuable than another.

Rothschild presents a broad cast of characters, from exiled Russian billionaires to struggling tour-guides, through the impoverished British aristocracy and dusty scholars. She opens up a world of sleaze, intrigue and high integrity. She contrasts the life of the artist, both idealised and not, and the gravitational pull that mysterious world has on those who surround themselves in it. There is a great deal of difference between Damien Hirst (who incidentally dropped out of one of the Higher Education courses I completed) and Watteau, painter of the story’s central masterpiece. There is a greater distance still between the work of those who create and those who deal in high art, and Rothschild illustrates this perfectly.

For me the real beauty of The Improbability of Love is that it makes me want to go to museums and galleries. It makes my hands stretch out to paint, it reminds me of the way I used to look at things with the idea of getting them down on paper. Coupled with my recently awakened memories of just how long I used to spend painting and drawing, and what pleasure there was to be found in it, the aching chasm where art used to be feels like it’s been reopened. My skill is rusty, but it’s still there.

In the spirit of this I’ve decided to draw a picture a day for all of May. The one caveat is that it has to be created using something indelible. Nothing makes you look at what you are drawing so closely as the knowledge that the line you are putting down is unalterable. If you’d like to check out my progress (and keep me accountable!) I’ve been posting the drawings here on Instagram.

Have you read The Improbability of LoveI’d love to hear what you thought!

How to Write a Victorian

Review – How to be a Victorian – Ruth Goodman

The point of all this – this blog, this reading, this marathon Poirot watching – is that I intend to write a new series of Victorian mysteries. At times, this goal seems a lot further away than I would like.

I don’t like it when I’m not writing. I’ve had the germ of this idea in my head since before I started writing The Review, the first book in The Liberty Troupe Trilogy, almost two years ago. Then I was writing almost constantly, working on each of the books in the trilogy in a sort of fervour. Before that, it had been over two years since I’d finished An Unnatural Daughter. These were two years spent fluctuating in and out of depression, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it, that I was still capable of writing books.

Having finished The Advocate, and therefore the trilogy, late last year, I decided to approach this new series differently. I wanted to be efficient, I wanted to know exactly what I was doing, I wanted it to be meticulous and filled with deep, historical detail. As all my other books were based in the Regency era, I wanted to learn more about the death-obsessed Victorians before I committed words to screen. I wanted to do justice to an idea I have been longing to work on for so long.

It’s now been about six months since I’ve written anything, and while I know a lot more about mourning and embalming and all sorts, I’ve still felt distant from my characters. I’d given myself the deadline of May for starting writing, and I feel nowhere near ready. There’s still so much to learn, but that’s always going to be the case, I suppose. I’ll never know enough, and once I start writing that will uncover even more that I need to learn.

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Cover reminiscent of a scrapbook page – also a topic covered in the book!

Then I found How to be a Victorian, and the biggest step so far has been taken. How can you know a character when you don’t know what they ate for breakfast, how they brushed their teeth, what sort of rugs covered their floors, if any, and why? These little things we do or know as a matter of course compliment our daily lives, and missing or changing them in some way can alter how our day pans out. I get grumpy, for example, if I haven’t had hummus in a couple of days. Just imagine how grumpy the Victorians must have been!

I jest, of course, but the admirable Ruth Goodman has lived as a Victorian did, tried the petticoats and skirts and corsets, and not just lived like a grand lady, but like a poor worker. In this inestimably useful volume she provides a trove of information regarding the minutiae of everyday life, from deodorant to sports and everything in between. She tells you how it felt to do these things the average Victorian did, but which we nowadays know nothing about.

“I have handled many pieces of Victorian clothing for men. They don’t feel at all like the clothes or fabric we are all so used to wearing now.When we look at images of people in Victorian dress, what we tend to notice mostly is the changes that have occurred in fashion. The fabrics the garments are made of go largely unnoticed.”

I’m not usually much of a non-fiction reader, but this research has been changing my mind. As a result of reading this book, I now know what sort of underwear my characters wore – from those who would be considered old fashioned to the avant garde. I know how they styled their hair and how they cleaned their clothes. I know the staples of their diets and I know what time they went to bed and why. And I am so, so much further along than I was only a week before I picked this book up.

A must read for anyone with an interest in social history, and a book which has not only made me feel closer to my characters, but closer to my ancestors, too.

You can find out more here on amazon.co.uk.

The Big Reveal

REVIEW – The Sudden Departure of the Frasers, by Louise Candlish

One of the main queries (and concerns!) I have about writing mysteries is what to reveal and when. Too much, and you give the game away too early. Too little and the reader loses interest. I try and read mysteries with one eye on which clues are dropped and when, but it’s usually difficult not to get immersed. Personally, I find it easier when watching mysteries on TV. Constrained by time, clues are a lot more frequent, I think, and it’s difficult to miss all but the subtlest, so long as you’re not distracted by iMDb and where you’ve seen that actor before.

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers is a masterclass of the slow reveal. Told with two alternating view points – first from one of the key players, leading up to the big incident, then one from an outsider, looking in on the carnage after the fact, trying to decipher the clues – the reader is dropped straight into two mounting scenarios, both with the same reveal. What really happened on the 15th January?

I suspect this may be a lady mystery...

I suspect this may be a lady book…

The first narrator is Amber Fraser, darling of Lime Park Road, incandescent beauty and reformed bad-girl. She’s retired to the suburbs with her silver-fox husband and the intention of reincarnating herself as a loving wife and mother to her as yet un-conceived children. But old habits die hard, and pretty soon she falls back into her old habits.

“My name is Amber Fraser. I’ve just moved into number 40, Lime Park Road. You’ll come to think of me as a loving wife, a thoughtful neighbour and a trusted friend.

This is a lie.”

The second is the more relatable Christy Davenport, who can’t believe her luck when she and her husband manage to afford – at a steal – a newly renovated house on one of the most sought-after roads in London. Yet saddled with spiralling debt and much more free time than she’d like, Christy finds herself drawn into the mystery of why her predecessors left, and what precisely happened to make her bear-like neighbour deserving of the censure of the entire street.

What Candlish has done, which I admire hugely and hope I’ve learned from, is drip feed the reader with just enough information- so we think we know what’s going on, but never really do until the end. The pacing was such that I raced through this book, desperate to find out the big secret and to see if the vague ideas I had could possibly be true.

And having finished the book half an hour ago, I feel… deeply satisfied. Often with books which whip the reader up into a spiral of guessing and intrigue, the twist is disappointing and mediocre (or it’s magic, in a universe where magic was never even hinted at, and then the book gets thrown hard and far, and maligned to all who dare mention its name before me.) Yet this? It made perfect sense. And the manipulative twisting of other people’s lives was elegant, in so far as such a thing can be, and as I say, deeply, deeply satisfying.

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers is a sophisticated soap-opera – and I mean that in the best possible way. The high drama of the every day, which builds into a shocking, life-shattering conclusion. We care about these people – and I mean Christy, the fish out of water who has lost her whole identity of self, and tries to find it in that of her idealised predecessor – because we can relate. Less so the rich and beautiful Amber, who wants for nothing but still looks for more, and less so – for me at least – the well-to-do mummies of Lime Park Road. And I am a sucker for stories about manipulative and powerful women – and Amber baby is certainly one of those.

“Personally, I’d never doubted for a moment that women were the more dangerous sex; their interest in others was far sharper than men’s, which made their suspicions more intelligent.”

This was a recommendation from a colleague at the day job, and all through reading it I have been recommending it to all and sundry, with a vigour I usually reserve until after I’ve finished, just in case it’s one of those disappointments. But no – Louise Candlish is now going on my auto-buy list. Highly recommended!

Have you read this, or any other books with a masterful handling of “the reveal”? I’d love to hear what you think!

And if you haven’t read it, you can find The Sudden Departure of the Frasers here on amazon.co.uk.

Death at the Priory

Review: Death at the Priory – Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England – by James Ruddick

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a friend, and she said an approximation of the following:

“We woman all say we want equality, but really we want to go back to being married off and put on a pedestal by our husbands.”

The romanticism of arranged marriages in history is what inspired me to write An Unnatural Daughter – one of my first forays into having my heroines murder people. Historically, marriage hasn’t been all that great for ladies. They gained protection, yes, but at what cost?

There were, however, things they could do to get by – things that they did to help themselves when the demands on their bodies became too great.

This is where Death at the Priory comes in – an investigation into one of  Victorian England’s most famous unsolved murders.

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I bought it for the juicy murder, but came away with a deeper understanding of how women of a certain class coped with difficult marriagesIt introduces us to Florence Bravo, a woman ahead of her time. Educated, wealthy, vivacious and beautiful, she had a loving and supportive family and everything going for her. But that support stopped when, having married a man who turned out to be a violent alcoholic, she asked her parents for help leaving him. I shan’t go into too much detail, but on the advent of her second marriage, Florence realized she’d made the same mistake again.

The first half of the book introduces us to the victim and suspects, and paints an intriguing picture of the lead up to the long and agonising death of Florence’s second husband, Charles Bravo, who was poisoned by an unknown hand. The second half follows Ruddick as he sifts through the available evidence before reaching his verdict on what really happened.

Ruddick’s investigations and conclusions occasionally take great leaps of faith, but nonetheless I raced through the book, eager to find out whodunnit according to his theories.

What really got me though, was the revelation that women of the higher classes were known to drug their husbands’ alcohol, when said husband habitually drank too much and became violent with it. The drug, antimony, was highly poisonous, but when used very sparingly it induced sickness or a deep sleep. This wasn’t something I had ever considered before, but as I read it I found myself thinking, but of course they did.

Ruddick also posited and then dismissed the idea that women did the same to control how often their husbands were able to share their beds. I wasn’t able to dismiss the idea so quickly as he did – to me it seems perfectly logical that in an age where death in childbirth was common and the miscarriage rate was high, women in such marriages would use any means at their disposal to save their health. Why would you drug your husband to stop him beating you, but still allow him open access to intimacy when another pregnancy might kill you?

From then on I found myself questioning all of his conclusions. Perhaps I’m blinded by my own agenda, much as I feel Ruddick was blinded by his. Nonetheless, though, an interesting read, and a fascinating window into the life of a very unhappy woman, and a timely reminder of the position of women in Victorian society.

Come to your own conclusions and try the book here.

Not For the Faint Hearted

Sometimes, I really resent being squeamish. As an adult, without having to worry about weekly biology class and the embarrassment of having to be excused or risk fainting, I sometimes forget how squeamish I still am. After all, I’m one of those hard people who can watch Bones (although not necessarily while eating). I can do anything.

Except… I can’t. I didn’t take History or English Lit at A Level because I knew the syllabus and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through without chucking up. Being squeamish means that I can’t take a first aid course at work, and that I almost passed out in a manual handling training course. I hate it. It’s embarrassing, at least partly psychosomatic and, when I’m feeling particularly bitter, directly responsible for any problem I’ve ever had, ever.

But let us not dwell! Let us instead consider my current quandary. Do I buy these disgusting but beautiful books?

Click through to look inside!

One thing that I am a lot better at now than when I was younger, is my ability to approach gore and general innards on my own terms. Some pictures of carpal tunnel surgery came up on my Pinterest feed the other day (Why though, Pinterest!?), and I was fascinated! But put me in a room with other people and no escape route and I’ll crawl under the desk in a cold sweat.

As I’m writing this, it seems like a childhood trauma I’m not over, and that just I need a good bit of therapy. Well, sure, that’s probably correct. I should get that sorted. Or, I could buy these beautiful gross pieces of art and avoid parts of my own house if they get too much.

I’m not just wondering whether or not to risk making myself sick on a whim. I will probably need these for my research, and look at them. They are a chronicle of some of the most important drawings in history. They are part of the journey we have taken to get to where we are today.

So I probably will buy them.

Just not yet.

What about you? Are you fascinated by your fears? How far do you push yourself to conquer them?

In other news, I still haven’t finished the book I was going to review. But! I started another one! Reviews back up next week… I’m going to be talking about Death at the Priory, Sex and Murder in Victorian Englandby James Ruddick. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

The End is Nigh

Life never seems to go to plan.

Every new book I start, I intend to go through my research with a robot-like efficiency, then construct an infallible and beautiful structure to follow, from which I can write X-thousand words a day and finish my first draft in a matter of weeks.

Then I’ll be poorly, I’ll have to go visit people for the weekend, talk to people, do extra-curricular work activities, sleep… and the whole thing will go to pot. I don’t know why I don’t expect it any more, or why I don’t factor it in. Then I’ll feel guilty about missing targets, and everything will take even longer.

Many moons ago, back when I was young, fresh-faced and full of hope and bright ideas, I decided to start a podcast.

It has been fraught with error and dogged by misfortune.

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Not that sort of dog, sadly.

From microphone issues to losing my voice, what I intended to take a month or two has stretched to almost a year!

You may think this is a filler blog, and in a way you’d be correct. I have been reading a very long and very good book for about three weeks now, in half hour snatches. I intended to have it as this week’s recommendation but alas, twas not to be. Similarly, I intended to have this post up on time, then…. got food poisoning? And was sick for a day and a half, hence…

Anyhoo, guess what! The podcast is finished, uploaded, and all available on this new podcast tab!

Hurrah! And now I’m going to eat some dry toast and feel sorry for myself.

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