We are All Completley Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Witty, stylish, page-turning and very finely written. Fowler takes a startling subject and creates deeply-felt characters as well as a shocking twist in the middle of the book. The disturbing lives of the Cookes family consists of a pedantic psychologist father who specializes in animal behavior, an emotionally fragile mother and three children: Lowell, Rosemary and Fern.
One daughter mysteriously vanishes, the other changes from a prodigiously talkative child to a silent adult; the brother runs away. And beneath the basic plotline lies a story as fantastic, terrible and beautiful as any Grimm's fairy tale.
This unconventional, dysfunctional family can't be too autobiographical, but Bloomington, Indiana where they live in the novel is also where Fowler spent the first 11 years of her life.
I found the ending didn't live up to the promise of the rest of the book, but that may be because I wanted it to be fairytale, and in reality, that woulnd't have been fair, right or very convincing.
Please welcome Nina Milton to Author Talks!
Nina Milton is a British writer of children's books, short fiction and now crime stories. She's won many literary competitions, including the Crossroads Competition, Kent Festival Prize, and the Wells Literary Short Story Competition.
You can visit her blog and follow her at BookLikes: Sabbie Dare and Friends, and win her title on BookLikes.
Have you always wanted to become a writer? How long have you been writing?
When I was five, my infant school teacher Mrs Marsden read a story to the class. It might have been the fable 'The Mouse and the Lion', but I can't really remember. Then she asked the class to write a story. I was dumfounded. For the first time I realized that the books I loved had actually been written by real human beings. Before that, I believe they must have fallen from some sort of story heaven. It was a revelation - from then on I was scribbling down stories all the time.
I started to write a novel at the age of fifteen. It was chock full of angst and I never finished it. I then took to writing short stories, which I began publishing a few years later in women’s magazines. Once my children were at school I made a big push to start some children’s stories.
Your first published works were books for children, you also enjoy writing short stories, and now you focus on crime novels. What’s your favorite genre to write?
I do love writing crime. I love the mystery aspect, trying to puzzle the reader while keeping them on the edge of their seat. I stay awake at night, trying to sort out all the permutations of each novel. I’m not sure I value that as much as the actual writing, though...the creating of strong characters, for instance, or the creation of a lyrical ‘voice’ for the narrative, but perhaps I should.
A revelation has been writing a series; the characters become so entirely real, and their lives, past and present, open out. I’ve had such fun writing my shaman ‘sleuth’, Sabbie Dare. She’s like a younger sister to me now.
The second installment of your mystery series is out, Unraveled Visions has been released in UK on October 5. Congratulations! Can you tell our readers more about the title and A Shaman Mystery series?
In the Moors was the first of the Shaman Mysteries published by Midnight Ink last year and available online and from bookshops and libraries as a paperback or hardback large print book. It’s also an ebook and available on Kindle. Unraveled Visions continues to follow Sabbie’s adventures as she runs a therapeutic shamanic business in Bridgwater. She’s still seeing Rey Buckley, the maverick cop she sparked with in book one. And she’s still as cock-eyed and gutsy as she was in the first book, even though, yet again, her investigations hurtles her towards a dark and menacing place.
The idea for my Shaman Mysteries, and In the Moors in particular, came to me when Sabbbie Dare. She walked right into my head and spoke directly to me - sort of - ‘hi, Nina, I’m Sabbie, I’m 28 and I’m a shaman, which means I walk in the spirit world to help my shamanic clients. I love my job, but sometimes very strange people come into my therapy room...’
Sabbie gains the strength to get through life with her pagan beliefs, but still struggles over the memories of her difficult childhood which left her as a very angry young teenager. But she has an open heart, and is adept at inviting trouble into her life. In Unraveled Visions, a gypsy is looking for her missing sister and a neighbour is terrified of her husband and as aways she has a hard time keeping away from danger. As she says in In the Moors I’m the sort of person who has to poke their finger into all the holes marked, ‘do not insert’.”
Before A Shaman Mystery you wrote books for children. Was it difficult to switch to another genre and audience? A Shaman Mystery is quite dark.
I loved writing for children, and, once I’ve found the voice to my main character, I don’t really notice much difference between writing for adults and children - apart from the amount of swearing! I’m certainly hoping to write more for children and young people in the future. In my books for eight to thirteen year olds, I still have a central mystery to the story.
The Shaman Mystery series will continue to have a dark, atmospheric edge. Sabbie has a mysterious past herself, which she’s only just beginning to unravel.
How do you invent the story? Does it happen spontaneously or is it a long lasting process?
Like most writers, I’m fascinated by the way ideas, characters and entire scenes drop into a writing place in our heads, which becomes increasingly real to us. Characters seem to appear from nowhere, or from a muse, as the ancients would have it. They have conversations in houses that don’t exist, or stand gazing out from headlands, the salt spray on their lips, while the writer is actually under the shower.
I call it ‘walking in your imagination’, because you can travel to any place or time or the mind of any character you chose. In this slower state of thinking, you naturally enter the relaxed, twilight world where vivid imagery flashes into the mind’s eye and we become receptive to information. To create this sort of trance state, hypnotists use a swaying crystal, therapists use a soothing voice, and shaman use the beat of a drum - Sabbie Dare uses a drum to enter her otherworld.
Writers, on the other hand, mostly use their legs. As far apart chronologically as Dickens and Drabble, writers are known to swear by the afternoon walk, disappearing after lunch to walk in the woods, allowing the beat of their stride and the beauty of the surroundings to let their minds drop into the world of story.
In my experience it doesn’t much matter where you walk (although scenery can be inspirational in the most surprising ways), but it’s important to walk alone. I have beautiful Ceredigion countryside to walk through, and I use that a lot when I’m creating new stories. Once the characters are talking to me, I start serious plotting; making charts and lists and timelines and investigating possibilities. I also spent time plotting carefully. I don’t dry up half as often as I used to nowadays.
Do you consult the crimes you want to put in your books with the police, detectives, doctors?
I have two very friendly and helpful relations who are in the police force and keep me up to date with things. And I know a lot of shamans, as I’m a druid myself. I’m also in touch with people in the medical profession and have a good grounding to start with as I was a nurse before I became a full-time writer.
Which authors influence your writing and your works?
Do you prefer writing novels or short stories? How is the process different?
I’ve just been writing a degree-level course about writing short fiction for the Open College of the Arts. But yes, writing short stories is very different indeed. You need a tighter timeline (hours, preferably) less characters (two, preferably) and a single core theme - the cleverer the better.
I have to say I’m more comfortable writing 100,000 words than 1000, but inbetween my crime fiction I can’t help be drawn back to the genre. My favourite short story writer at the moment is Geoffrey Ford and my most recent short stories can be found in the anthology Unchained (Tangent Press) available from Amazon uk.
What are the best and the worst things about being a writer?
The best thing is the sheer creativity and the way you can lose yourself in the writing when it’s going well. The worse thing is sitting on your butt for so long! (Especially when the sun’s shining.) It’s good to get out, meet other writers, go to events.
You’re participating in “Books Are My Bag” which supports local bookstores and writers. Is it easy to be a writer nowadays? How can readers support local authors?
Yes, if you’re in the UK on the 11th October, I’ll be launching Unraveled Visions the 2nd Shaman Mystery Novel from Midnight Ink in a Bristol bookshop - Foyles in Quaker’s Friars - as part of the Books are my Bog weekend. I'll be there from 2pm to 7pm at this drop-in event, signing my new book, and reading from it. I'll also be holding a short workshop for writers. So if you’re around do come to meet me, check out my writing, and also meet a lot of other Bristol writers.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not writing?
Gardening. I love growing veg and I would love growing flowers, if I could get the hang of it! I also love transforming the things we grow into food, and I’ve just been part of a project for writers who bake. The book is out now on Amazon; it’s called Bake, Love, Write.
If not writing than what? Who would you like to be if you couldn’t be a writer?
I would have loved to be a dancer. Maybe a ballroom dancer. The idea of swirling gracefully around a floor to a rush of beautiful music is tantalising. Sadly, I don’t swirl gracefully. I trip over my feet and crash onto the parquet.
What are you reading now?
I’ve just finished The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, which deserves every bit of praise - characters who are real and unforgettable and deep, clever Theme with a brilliant twist towards the end. I’m now reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which carefully explores themes of race and belonging. Not such an exciting read, but a very meaningful one.
Paper books or e-books? Why?
I do own a Kindle and I do use it, but you can’t beat holding a book in your hand.
What are your favorite books?
Please recommend some must read titles for our readers.
I couldn't put The Hours, by Michael Cunninham, down, It's the perfect accompaniment to Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. It is also a great achievement in itself. Written somewhat in the Woolf style, it moves deftly, never making a shortcut, through a single day in the lives of three women.
In 1923 Virginia Woolf, living in countryside Richmond, but longing to go back to London, is setting out to write the first words of her new book, about a woman holding a party. In 1951, in Los Angeles we meet a woman with a small son and one on the way. Laura Brown is reading Virginia Woolf, struggling with her husband’s birthday cake and contemplating suicide. In 1990 in New York, Clarissa Vaughan a middle-aged woman with a grown daughter and a female partner, is planning a party for her friends, to celebrate her early love’s recent literary award. But Richard has AIDS and doesn’t want a party in his honour. I saw the film before reading the book, but the book itself is the revelation. Stunning.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Get yourself a writing buddy; someone who can read your work and comment honestly, and someone who has fallen into all the writing pitfalls you’re likely to encounter. It should be someone who can buy you a consolitary drink when there’s bad news and join you in champaign cocktails when there’s good news!
What are your favorite quotes?
Show, don’t tell - Chekhov said…
Don’t tell me the moon is shining;
show me the glint of light on broken glass…
Characterization - Ernest Hemingway said…
A writer should create living people; people not characters.
A character is a caricature.
Description - Proust said…
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,
but in having new eyes…
Follow those three pieces of advice and you’ll hit the ground running.
What’s your favorite writing and reading spot?
(our readers would love to see some photos).
My garden (the bench where I sit is just out of the picture), my office, and the countryside I walk in.
Thank you, Nina!
And here's a surprise from Nina Milton:
enter the giveaway to win Unraveled Visions!
and more on Nina Milton's author page.
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Photos courtesy of Nina Milton.
I was pulled straight into the book with the first words; The woman’s body was winched from Dunball Wharf at 17.13, dripping with sluice-slime. The hip bones shone white against the sun and there were fish swimming in her belly.
After that, I knew I was reading an absolute winner. Milton set up her puzzles and they take you deep into dark and horrid worlds; exploitation, modern slavery, brain-washing cults, and much, much worse. The conclusion sped towards me as I kept turning the pages. But despite the dark pits of despair she mines, Milton’s heroine, Sabbie Dare, keeps things light. When she meets a Romani from Bulgaria, the girl tells her how her boss, Stan, is exploiting the gypsies;
“He say, come England, work. Wage good. Four euro hour.” – “Sounds like this Stanislaus deserves a whipping.” – “You have this punishment?”
I read the first in this series, In the Moors, shortly after it came out, and I’ve been waiting for number two ever since. I was not disappointed. I love the way Milton uses Sabbie’s relationship with a spirit world to help her solve the mysteries, but she’s not given too much help at all, and that made it a story that needed some real working on. I had no idea what was coming when it finally hit the page. I was shocked. This is a deeper investigation of the worse sides of humanity, but it is also a song to good qualities. I finished the book feeling better than I had when I began it; lighter, more in tune with the world.
I am sorry, Kate Atkinson; I'm really, really sorry. I've loved all your other books, but this one just left me cold. Maybe it's the constant return to all the snow.
Winter of 1910, and a child is born; and keeps being born until she survives the ordeal. This is a book that tackles a tricky premis; I commend it for this. The concept of allowing a character to try at life until she gets it right; life after life; is an appealing one and one that has not been attempted much. And the scope of this novel is vast; two world wars and a landscape of England and Germany. But I never got to like any of the characters, especially Ursula, and her irritating mother, Sylvia. Perhaps I was expecting something a bit more self-determining; Ursula may keep going back until she gets it right but quite a lot of the problems random; if you drown in an undertow, then you learn very little (not to go paddling?) on your return. I wanted to get closer to Ursula; see what made her tick, and was prevented by the sheer speed of the narrative. The Guardian's review describes this as…Atkinson's looping, metamorphosing narrative…which, they say…inevitably makes it sound tricksy, almost whimsical. Structurally, it is…
I agree. Structurally it's tricksy. Emotionally is did not impact on me. So; 10 out of 10 for a clever idea, Kate, but sorry, sorry I didn't like the result.
The Visitor, by Katherine Stansfield is written with an aching poignancy and vivid, intense descriptive powers. Set between the 1880s and the mid 1930s, it brilliantly contrasts its protagonist, Pearl, as a child, a young woman and an old woman on the verge of being sucked under by dementia, which allows Stansfield to withhold essential facts until she’s ready to allow us to piece the clues together. The past is now clearer to Pearl than the present, demonstrated by Stansfield through her clever structural weaving of past and present.
Stansfield now lives in Wales, but spent her childhood in Cornwall, and a major character in the story is the beautifully described Cornish fishing village of Morlanow, where in the last century, huge shoals of pilchards made some people rich, while others are lost at sea. Now, between the two world wars, the shoals have gone and the village is preparing to look to tourism and holidaymakers for an income.
Pearl has lived in Morlanow all her life, and her love of swimming, which she still sneaks away to do in her nightie, comes across as her enduring pleasure. Slowly, throught memory and the troubled times of her present life, it emerges that Pearl ‘lost’ her first and only love, and has lived through an unhappy marriage with Jack, hoping that her Nicholas will return. Now, she is certain that he will. She see the signs everywhere…
In the Moors is the first in the Shaman Mystery series from Midnight Ink Books.
Set around the Somerset Levels and in Bridgwater, where sleuthing heroine Sabbie Dare, a therapeutic shaman in her late twenties, lives. In the Moors opens when a body is found buried in the moors. Detective Sergeant Reynard Buckley is sure that Sabbie’s new client, Cliff Houghton—a wounded, broken man—has something to do with the chilling crime, but Sabbie believes Cliff is being set up. Continuing the therapy she'd begun with Cliff, Sabbie uncovers repressed memories hearkening back to a decades-old string of abductions and murders. But after another boy is abducted, only Sabbie can prove Cliff's innocence . . . and find the real culprit before any more lives are shattered.
The book keeps getting four to five stars on Amazon and Goodreads, so I'm not alone in having loved it, and been unable to put it down Library Journal said; Sabbie Dare is the most compelling protagonist I’ve met this year, and Milton’s tale is riveting. Perhaps readers will figure things out before Sabbie does, but the visceral suspense Milton creates is commendable, not to mention terrifying. I like pairing her work with Elly Griffiths’s atmospheric English mysteries.Professor Ronald Hutton, author of The History of Druids (Yale University Press), writes…In the Moors has a cracking pace, evocative landscapes and a shocking twist at the end; I’ve rarely read depictions of shamanic journeying that have felt so authentic.
I'm giving it five stars, too.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy's has been converted into a road movie, staring Viggo Mortenson, a film that was both acclaimed and hated; described as uplifting and depressing. My second road movie is You would think that at the end of Cormac’s The Road, there would be no hope. But I found this novel superb. There are cadences of prose that are magical, transporting, and an elemental simplicity and a true parable for life.Although the style is almost as deceptively simple as Joyces, this is a book that paints a dystopian picture of the planet’s - and human kind’s - future. He keeps the pressure on the reader by never showing them quite what they should be scared of; a master approach, which means this book will haunt the reader for year, as they relive the sounds of burnt trees crashing to earth, and the moaning, perpetual wind, and the bitter ice of the land. McCormac peers into an abysmal future and what he sees are the darkest corners of human existence.’
As many have pointed out before me, he's unafraid to stare into the abyss. He's peering into the darkest corners of human existence. The man takes his small son along this road, towards the coast, because he’s sure (rather like Harold) that there will be something better for them there. But the route is dreadful. As the small son keeps asking; ‘are those the bad guys?’ ‘Are we the good guys?’ This is the extent of the child’s world. When his father has to kill a man who threatens them, the son asks ‘are we still the good guys?’ The son also has a lack of curiosity that feels strange in a growing boy; his second favourite cry is ‘don’t go in there.’ Most of the time, we’re yelling the same thing.
In a house on the hill, the pair seek food and shelter from the snow covered world. They descend some rough wooden steps towards an ungodly stench. The writer shows us a stone wall, a clay floor and a mattress darkly stained. Don't go in there, whispers the boy. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man in chains with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt, who turn to him and whisper; Help us, please help us.
So the next time there are steps down into a hole, the boy is incandescent with fear, and so is the reader. We are all yelling; Don’t go down there! And so the unremitting terror continues; the battle between the pair of then and the bad guys who eat people alive, but also between the pair of them against the inhospitable climate conditions where they are never warm and dry and between them and other good guys, for early on, when the man uses his gun to kill, it’s established that it is hard to stay a good guy.
Joyce’s novel ends is tangible hope and a new beginning for the Fry’s. McCormacs ends in death and trust as the boy moves on without him, and with people he does not know. We leave him there, but it is MrCormac’s world I find myself returning to, rather than the tread of Harold’s deck shoes. The world of The Road is as deep as one of those black lakes that have dragons at the bottom.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a Booker long-listed debut novel.
Harold Fry is retired, but still as timid a man as he was in middle age. He replies to an unexpected letter from a former friend who is dying in a hospice. He sets out to post his reply, but finds himself simply going on walking...from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed. 600-miles away. Something someone said to him in a gas station makes him believes that in some way his journey will help his friend to live. He has nothing with him; he’s wearing yachting shoes, for goodness sake, and meanwhile, his wife Maureen is waiting for him to come home from posting the letter.
Joyce's narrative voice is simply done, reminding me, at times, of fellow long-lister and Jane Rodgers (who kindly endorsed my last children’s novel, Tough Luck). The novel is episodic and I did have trouble with they repetitive structure, but commend the writer on sticking to her guns, keeping Harold on his road and not having any form of extra subplots to entertain us. Sometimes the writing is almost twee, but always, just in time Joyce rarely sugar-coats thing shocks the narrative back out of a tendency to the anodyne, by hinting that Harold and his wife hold a secret, almost the same secret but kept from each other. We know their son has separated himself from their lives, and that he only speaks now, to his mother. As Harold’s journey continues, he finds himself walking through that story again, through it’s horrid loneliness, remembering his flaws and mistakes in life towards a kind of hope, while at home, Maureen is slowly waking to reality herself, and a new flowering of her half-dead heart is taking place.
My favourite parts of Harold’s journey are the descriptions of him finding his way through the sudden savage word (he sticks to roads because he’s a driver, but then, at the end, finds he can survive entirely without money within the wild countryside and posts his credit card home).
The final chapters deal unexpectedly savage blows. I did not think I would have handled the hospice scenes in the same way; but then I used to be a hospice nurse so I’m particularly sensitive to such things...I can’t watch Casualty ever! At the end, there is hope, and a good outcome, and celebration.
Vincent Alan Chell is coy about answering the questions of his captor. He’d much rather talk about his dead wife, Yael, whose suicide somehow led him into captivity. Or Preacher, the bearded leader of a cult-like group that meets in the bowels of a church basement. Or the Peacemaker, the computer intelligence that has guaranteed peace between nations for half a century.
Chell describes a world where cultural norms have changed the way people interact with technology. Humanoid robots, though ubiquitous, are confined inside private homes, giving the impression that all is well with the world. Which may be the case. Yet Preacher and his group are convinced that humankind is already in the thrall of the Peacemaker. And they might be right.
Solomon the Peacemaker, Hunter Welles’s debut novel, explores the limits of technology, nonviolence, love, and memory in the twenty-second century as it races to its incredible conclusion.
Solomon the Peacemaker is undoubtedly one of the most thought-provoking reads I’ve ever embarked upon. The writing itself is welcoming, fairly easy to read, and filled with concise sentences and a feel of suspense throughout the whole novel –however, it was very easy to get into, even when at times you don’t feel like reading.
Perhaps one of the greatest feats of Solomon the Peacemaker is how it touches upon so many different topics, and so cleverly expresses the themes and beliefs of the characters, world and society in such subtle ways. We are brought to a world with world-peace, which although wouldn’t seem to be dystopia, is exactly that for an unfortunate man by the name of Vincent. A lot of themes were explored, as I said earlier, but the greatest accomplishment –perhaps the most painful– is how human and vulnerable all these characters were. They abuse substances, have hedonistic attitudes at the worst of times, and that affects the society around them.
Another excellent characteristic of this novel is how so many genres crossover, but none feel forced or added for the sake of it. For example, this is a dystopian fiction which focuses on an utopian –or what is assumed as utopia– society, but is also a philosophical text highlighting the characters, the people around them, and what it means for where they live. There is also heavy emphasis on carnal desires, but in a way that it adds a more human, realistic portrayal of the characters involved.
Overall, Solomon is a beautifully written book in the style of an interview. However, I found the book to read smoothly, without disconnection from the main theme, and although details may seem irrelevant at times, they all fit together in the end. It’s an achingly painful book to read near the end, but I can’t stop thinking about it, which means it’s clearly succeeded.
This book is actually quite good.
I must admit though, I had a hard time getting through it. In fact, I pretty much had to sit myself down and force myself to read through to the end. I’ve decided that has much more to do with me than the book itself (consequently my high rating). The truth is, I just don’t like mysteries, and now I know that even by setting the mystery in a fascinating time period, this doesn’t change. When I was younger, I used to read every Agatha Christi ‘Poirot’ story I could get my hands on, and I think I burned myself out. Most of the time I just don’t care about ‘whodunit’. This leaves the magnetism of the detective to carry the story, which recently just hasn’t been enough.
For people who love mysteries though, I think you will love this. Peters writes very well. She uses dialogue to bring her characters to life, and it’s great. I was surprised at how funny this book was. Cadfael is simply a GREAT character. Peters also captures the 1100s with insightful details into monasterial life. I think so many authors forget how powerful and important the church truly was during this time. This same attention to detail was used on the inner workings of a medieval Welsh village too. So many books just make out the villagers out to be ignorant clods, but Ellis is much more generous than that, giving everybody a more rounded feel. Everybody has a different agenda and a different motive, and Cadfael is able to work this out quite clearly and succinctly.
Maybe someday I will be in the mood to read another Cadfael book, but I think I’m going to skip historical mysteries for a while. I do believe this is the crème de la crème of historical mysteries though.