GOING OFF SCRIPT PROVES THE BIGGEST FLAW IN WESOLOWSKI’S STORIES

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Sixstry CvrThe British Isles and Ireland are pockmarked with moorland and bogs, from as far south as Dartmoor to the Yorkshire Dales, Rannoch Moor in Scotland and The Burren in the West of Ireland. All through history, as well as in literature, these vast tracts of desolate land have fascinated us. Whether it’s as the roaming area of the fabled Hound of the Baskervilles in Sherlock Holmes, the setting for a doomed love affair between Cathy and Heathcliff on the Yorkshire moors, the hunting grounds of the reputed beasts of Bodmin Moor or as burial grounds for the Saddleworth Moors victims,the moorlands of Britain and Ireland are notorious for their role in the darker side of life and literature. So they are a great setting for this month’s book. Its “Six Stories” by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books (www.orendabooks.com) at the end of March.

The book follows a collection of interviews between Scott King, a mysterious investigative journalist, who regularly posts examinations of complicated cases online via Podcasts. This series is called “Six Stories” – in it Scott is looking back over the events surrounding the discovery of a body on Scarclaw Fell in 1997. The body is that of Tom Jeffers, who disappeared from an outdoor adventure centre on the Fell while on a weekend away with an inner-city youth group. No one was ever found guilty of his murder in a court of law but the media had a good go at pinning the blame on various people. The interviews are with members of the youth group and locals who he’s managed to track down ten years later and, who are willing to talk. As the tagline on the cover states, one death six stories, which one is true…

From the front cover to the blurb on the back, everything about this book shouts, Read Me!!! Along with promising a great thriller inside but then you open the book and basically you realise you are reading the transcript of a radio documentary / podcast.

Being a confident public speaker and actor who has trodden the boards in amateur drama, I was able to get over this obstacle by reading aloud and putting my own accents and inflections into the characters, although – this limited me to places I could read the book, thus reading while I was commuting was a no-no.

Alistair Cooke speaks at taping of his 2000th program 'Letter From America' at the British Broadcasting Company's Manhattan studio

Alastair Cooke

I love radio documentaries, In Ireland there is the “Doc on One” which is broadcast weekly on RTE radio – Ireland’s national broadcaster – and has won numerous awards, both in Ireland and abroad. The idea for the Six Stories was inspired by the real-life podcast phenomena “Serial”.  But could I see myself reading the transcripts of either of these shows… No, why?!

Now I grew up listening to Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America” which was broadcast on BBC Radio Four from 1946 up until his death in 2004. Cooke wasn’t just a radio journalist but also a print journalist and author of over twenty books. Eleven were his “Letter from America” ,which were the transcripts of said broadcast. The difference between Six Stories and Alistair Cooke’s The Americans’, was that they weren’t broadcast like a radio show, but like a letter or a newspaper column, hence the ease with which I took to Cooke’s books.

This doesn’t take away from Six Stories, despite the style of writing which may put some people off… The mystery at the heart of the story intrigues the reader and keeps you turning the pages until the very end when the killer punch surrounding the mystery is delivered.

This is Newcastle – Upon – Tyne native Matt Wesolowski’s first novel, but not his first

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Alex Wesolowski

book. His first novella The Black Land, a murder mystery set on the Northumberland coast was published in 2013 and his second novella set in Sweden will be published shortly. He started writing horror stories for various publications and anthologies, then in 2015 he won the Pitch Perfect Bloody Scotland competition. He is currently working on his second novel Ashes.

 

This book has been hailed in some quarters as a new departure in thriller writing, but it didn’t really work for me because it’s biggest flaw, was this new departure, which placed it in the wrong media. It will make a better Audio book than it has a printed one. Even then it may struggle to hold its audience.

If this was made into a radio drama it would be one of the best and darkest programmes out there and ripe for a TV adaptation.

So, if you are looking for a new thriller writer and can overcome the unusual writing style of this book, then download it or hike down to your local bookshop and pick up a copy.

YOU’LL WANT TO BE EXILED FOR A DAY TO ENJOY HIEKKAPELTO’S THIRD BOOK

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TheexiledcbrOne of the main rivers in central Europe is the Tisza at one stage called “The Most Hungarian River“ for despite now also flowing through Hungary,  Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia  at one stage it flowed entirely though the kingdom on Hungary. Along it banks you will find numerous forms of wild life among them is the Mayfly. It was the Swedish – Finnish journalist Heidi Avellan who coined the phrase ‘The Mayfly Effect’, to describe a movement or an event which harnesses the right social current at the right time.

Avellan’s comment sprang to mind while I read this month’s book as it is set during the Mayfly Flowering on the Tisza.  The book is The Exiled, the latest offering from Kati Hiekkapelto’s’ and published by Orenda Books (www.orendabooks.co.uk)  in November 2016.

This is the third novel featuring Hiekkapelto’s Finnish Police detective heroine, Anna Fekete. Here, she travels from Finland to her home village in the Balkans to have a holiday and catch up with family and friends. Her visit is set to coincide with the much anticipated ‘Flowering of the Tizsa’ when the mayflies hatch and take to flight in great clouds over the river. A cause for celebration in the locale each June. Her break gets off to a poor beginning however, when her bag is stolen. Later the thief is found dead by the riverbank.  Anna cannot help but take an interest in the investigation, which she feels is being poorly carried out. The victim is identified as a refugee and local in tolerances and prejudices come to light.  As she delves deeper Anna finds links to her own father’s death. Untangling a web of deception and corruption, her own life and that of a refugee child are put in danger.

Kati Hiekkapelto

Kati Hiekkapelto

This is the first of Finnish author Kati Hiekkapelto’s (www.katihiekkapelto.com)  three books I have read and I will certainly be reading the others. The Hummingbird was published in the UK in 2014 and her second , The Defenceless was published in the UK in 2015.  Hiekkapelto started writing when she was two recording her stories on to a tape cassette, her first job was as a special needs teacher to immigrant children. Nowadays she devotes her time to writing from her base in a 200 year old farm house in northern Finland, while in her spare time she performs with her band, runs, ski’s hunts and tens her garden.

Anna Fekete is a strong female lead. I was particularly impressed by the sensitive portrayal of the strained relationship between herself and her mother and how, as secrets are revealed, Anna and her mother learn to understand each other better.

The movement of populations and the rezoning of country boundaries loomed large in the book and made it very relevant in the current refugee crisis. Whilst we were given descriptions of the refugee camps and the problems they faced we were also aware that Anna’s family were themselves had been refugees. I was also given the impression that the Hungarian inhabitants of the area where being sidelined by the Serbian population. Anna is herself, living as an immigrant in Finland and much was made of the differences in the two cultures. My knowledge of the geography and history of the area are poor and I was prompted to do a small amount of background reading. However, my own lack of ‘sense of place’ did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.

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Mayfly “Flowering” On The Tisza

I found the book to be well written and tightly plotted with a good level of suspense. It had a certain depth and I would not consider it a light read, whether that is due to the setting or the content I’m not sure. Anna is a multidimensional character. Driven and feminist, she can also show a more vulnerable side, which we see in her relationship with Peter. The supporting cast of characters were also well drawn and I was fascinated by  the descriptions of the riverside village, the camps  and the library club.

Whilst the mayfly only lives for the briefest of times , I hope Anna Fekete makes many more appearances. So flit down to your local bookshop for a copy or download it.

Reviewed by Georgina Murphy

MARTELL DELIVERS THREE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL TALES FROM UP IN THE MOUNTAINS

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High Mntns of Portugal cvrI’m no stranger to the Iberian Peninsula, having been there numerous times with my family on holidays when I was growing up. Then with a good mate in my early twenties. After that a girlfriend dumped me midway through another holiday there in my early thirties, by a poolside in front of fellow sun worshipers stretched out on sun loungers – classy. Then, last year I went there on my honeymoon.

I’ve never been any further north than the Algarve not even to its beautiful capital city of Lisbon, often referred to as the San Francisco of Europe because of its Golden Gate styled bridge and cable cars. Neither am I acquainted with any of Portugal’s mountains. To be honest there aren’t really any. The highest Portuguese mountain isn’t even on the Portuguese mainland but in the middle of the Atlantic, on the Azores. The highest point on continental Portugal is Torre “Tower” at 1,993m and that’s the highest point in a mountain range, not an individual mountain so you can see why there was some smiles when we discussed this month’s second book at our recent book group. It’s the High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – published by Canongate (www.canongate.tv)  in 2016.

The book is basically a compilation three novellas the first one entitled “Homeless” follows the exploits of Tomas a grief-stricken archaeologist as he goes in search of a religious icon, over his short Christmas holidays. The artifact in question is a crucifix with monkey on it brought from Africa by a long dead Portuguese missionary. To help him in his search, his wealthy uncle entrusts him with one of his prized new-fangled automobiles, something he has never encountered before, let alone driven. The second story tells of a Pathologist who is asked to perform an autopsy on a man by his widow, when  she turns up at his offices late at night with the deceased in a large trunk. Finally, a Canadian politician, retires to Portugal after the death of his wife with a monkey he bought from sanctuary, to start a new life in his ancestral home in the last tale.

If you’ve never read anything by Yann Martell, then this book is going to feel a bit weird. But if like me you you’ve had the experience of reading his work before, then it’s going feel a bit like par for the course. However, this book is straight out of left field even by Yann’s standards.

Yann Martell

Yann Martell

One thing you should be made aware of from the outset is that Martell has a fascination with Animals – especially monkeys. The Life of PI features a Tiger, Orangutan, Hyena, Zebra and boy in a life raft… Beatrice and Virgil, explores the relationship of a writer and a taxidermist and two of his prized works; a donkey and monkey. Then again, in the High Mountains of Portugal he places monkeys in all three stories.

Regarding the three stories, the first one is humorous  in the main – especially when we observe Tomas trying to get to grips with the art of driving after a very brief 5 minute lessen from his uncle and his manservant. His run ins with the locals who are both scared, bewildered and in awe of this new contraception. Then his exploits in making sure he can get fuel for the car is the wilderness that is the uplands of north eastern Portugal, the ending has a tragic event which had the book group divide as to whether it was deliberate or an accident.

After the brevity of the first story, the second one entitled “Homeward” is a real head scratcher and had me thinking I was reading the script to an episode of the British TV series “Tales of The Unexpected” or similarly, “The Twilight Zone”. But the twist at the end is fantastic and considering the first half of the story centres on a discussion between the central character and his wife on the parallels between Agatha Christie and the miracles of our lord, near the witching hour on new years eve. I was almost falling a sleep but the autopsy it self had me sitting bolt upright again and not knowing whether to laugh or cry after it.

As for the third and final story called “Home”,  which follows the ups and downs and the Every which way but loosewacky events of the previous two stories, this is straight out of the Disney school of how to write a heart wrenching and emotional feel good animal story. It’s ‘Lassie-esque’, with the theme of the film “Every Which Way But Lose” driven straight through it. Images of Clint Eastwood and Clyde were stuck in my head while reading it.

This is Canadian writer Yann Martell’s (www.yannmartel.ca ) 8th book, the others being The Facts Behind The Helsinki Racamatios(1993), Self(1996), Life Of PI(2001), What Is Stephen Harper Reading(2009), Beatrice & Virgil(2010) and 101 Letters To a Prime Minister(2012).

Just to add to the Twilight Zone feel of this book is the discovery gradually that all the stories are linked in a roundabout way, this in turn adds to the appeal of the book.

The thoughts of the book group, where divided. None of them bar one person, myself, recognised a  theme running  throughout, grief,  The whole book is an examination of how different people deal with it. Everyone at some stage in their life experiences loss, and no two people go through it the same way. Myself included. It was quite by coincidence that the 18th anniversary of my father’s passing occurred while reading the book.

It’s strange that this book had me feeling quite apprehensive at the start, going on the experiences left over from Beatrice and Virgil. It took me to heights and places I’d never felt Martel’s work could do. As a result, I now see his work in a new light, making me want to give his other unread works a go. So if you fancy tripping the light fantastic and finally getting into the mind of this author, download a copy or get down to your local bookshop and begin a fantastic journey.

JOHNSON CONTINUES TO OVERCOME HIS DEMONS IN A DEADLY GAME WITH THE AID OF A GREAT BRITISH BOBBY

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Deadly game CvrBattle Stress, Shell Shock, War Neurosis, Post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s been around for centuries but only recently, the 1980’s actually, has it been officially recognized and become more widely known thanks to its buzzy new moniker PTSD. For years battle weary soldiers and those in the front-line of emergency response who’d witnessed truly awful sights, things you wouldn’t have shown a five-year-old, let alone a thirty-five-year-old. They have suffered in silence trying to deal with the images seared onto their temporal lobe, usually dealing with the repercussions through substance abuse and self-harm, leading ultimately to taking their own life in some cases. The author of this month’s book is a former policeman, who was advised to take up writing to overcome his PTSD, brought about by having been at the centre of some of the worst atrocities caused by the IRA and other terrorist groups on the British mainland. He was one of the first officers on the scene of the Regents Park bombing in 1982, was injured in the Baltic Exchange bombing in 1993, and traveled with his mortally wounded colleague WPC Yvonne Fletcher after she was shot by Libyan terrorists in 1984. The book is Deadly Game by Matt Johnson published by Orenda books (www.orendabooks.co.uk)  at the end of March.

For Inspector Robert Finlay, things are hopefully starting to return to normal following the attempt on his own, his family’s life and the lives of a few of his former SAS colleagues. On returning to work with London’s Metropolitan Police force, he finds himself the centre of internal and inter agency politics and the fear by other officers that he is a “Bullet Magnet”.  Assigned to the Department dealing with the Eastern European Sex Slave industry, whilst Robert and some of his superiors thought  it might be a way of keeping out of trouble, they are in for a rude awakening.

For no sooner has he started his new job and while on a Mediterranean holiday, he saves a young woman from drowning and is invited to her wedding as a sign of her gratitude, only to realize that his past and present lives are about to collide again.  Her families publishing company are a well-known front for the sex trafficking industry and their latest book is a rehashed memoir of an operation Finlay’s SAS team were on in Afghanistan. During the wedding, he defuses a situation by disarming a security guard. Then a couple of weeks later, while investigating the murder of an escaped sex slave worker turned informant, he and his new partner come face to face with the same man in an armed standoff in a London street. Add to that, the kidnapping of a female Firearms officer and Robert is hurled into a race against time to disrupt the Sex Trafficking gang’s activities and save the life of the kidnapped police officer. This, all while trying to decipher the mysterious documents that were found in the papers of an ex-army buddy , which are costing people who come into contact with them their lives.

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The aftermath of WPC Yvonne Fletcher’s fatal shooting

I didn’t get a chance to read Johnson’s first book “Wicked Game”.  If I had and it had been written as well as this one was, and all the reviews seem to point to that conclusion, then I’d have camped out overnight in-front of my local book store book on this one’s publication date or at least politely harangued my friends at Orenda for a copy. What starts out slowly, soon explodes into a vibrant and Le Carre-esque read that had me on the edge of my seat from the first page.

Most books have one main story running through it, but here Johnson has so many threads running at once that, I almost needed a towel to mop the sweat from my brow and a masseur to work on my neck which was almost constantly sore from looking over my shoulder, so enveloped by this book and Johnson’s writing was I. The last fictional police hero to leave me with this excitement and enthusiasm for his next book was Frank Pagan, the hero of the books Jig, Mazurka, Mambo, Jigsaw and Heat by the late Scottish author Campbell Armstrong.

This is English author Matt Johnson’s second book(www.mattjohnsonauthor.com), his

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Matt Johnson

first one Wicked Game was originally self-published in 2012, then following the acquiring
the rights to it. Orenda published in 2016, where it went on to be long-listed for the 2016 John Creasey New Blood Dagger award, as well being listed on Amazon as the highest rated debut novel of the year.

Like Pagan, Finlay, is an old-school policeman whose graduated from the University of hard knocks and developed his skills on “The Beat”, but unlike Pagan he’s also got a military background which gives him additional talents in the firearms and hand to hand combat departments. Thus, enabling him to swim against the tide when in deeper waters than most coppers would find themselves in.

The main story line centering on the modern sex Slave trade is still very current and hasn’t been over worked by numerous authors before him.  Although I was worried that he was going to fall back on a hoary old chestnut in the form of IRA involvement – because in the past authors who’ve written about ex-SAS operatives, think the only foes they’ve ever faced were in Northern Ireland, but this ends up as just a bit of a red herring in Johnson’s case.

There are a few loose ends in this book, which look intriguing going forth, I’ll therefore look forward to seeing what future perils Johnson pits his very believable creation against in in future books.  While doing so, I suggest you buy or down load a copy of Johnson’s first two books and get in at the start of what could be another crime series featuring a great British bobby.

TREMAIN’S SONATA IS MORE ROCK AND ROLL THAN WALTZ, BUT WORTH THE DROPPED NOTES

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gustav-sonata-cvrOn the day that I finished reading this month’s second book, back at the start of February, it’s ironic  that Rolf Harris was cleared of three further historical sex abuse charges. One of his greatest hits was a firm favorite at Christmas and  I’ve  found myself humming regularly, especially while reading this book.  Since his conviction it and all his other work, both artistically and musically has been scrubbed from playlists and removed from public view, which is a shame.

I’m referring of course to Two Little Boys. A song which tells the story of two friends who grow up then get separated in battle only to have one ride out of the smoke and rescue his mate with the chorus line “Did you think I would leave you dying, when there’s room on my horse for two….” and this is the main theme of this book, The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain published by Vintage publishing www.Penguin.c.uk/Vintage  in January this year.

Gustav Perle grows up in the sheltered existence of neutral Switzerland just after the second world war. Raised by his widowed mother Emilie, they live a hand to mouth existence as she works two jobs, at the Cheese factory and cleaning the local church early on Saturdays, doing her level best to try and keep their heads above water and provide some sort of respectable normality to his childhood, although her own depression and borderline alcoholism is a hindrance. One day Gustav’s solitary existence is shattered when a new boy Anton Zweibel (which translates as onion) arrives at his school. They hit it off instantly and from there on a lifelong friendship begins which goes deeper than just friends and the boys discover different things about each other’s past.

The book deals with a lot of topics which are current even today, such as immigration, the Humanitarian Crisis, as well as what is right or wrong and it asks the question, what would we do if in a certain situation. Through Gustav’s journey of discovery, we uncover the truth about what happened to his father during the war and why his mother will not talk about it. What unfolds via a revelation is his old man’s infidelity, his work related stress, but also the beautiful and passionate courtship of his parents, before Gustav’s birth and early life.

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The main part of the book centres on the relationship between the two boys . There is a  ‘will they won’t they ‘unrequited gay scenario. While also showing how two friends lives can change over time due to their different aims or more importantly upbringing.

Gustav’s life is pure struggle to survive until he meets Anton. Anton is the son of a Jewish banker who has everything he needs and is being groomed to be a concert pianist, only for his nerves to get in the way. What comes across in the book is that Gustav is a virtual doormat to all of humanity and is all but used by everyone he meets, even Anton, who comes across as a spineless self-centred human being is used to having things done for him and who can’t really deal with any harsh challenges (bit like the youth of today in the blogger’s opinion). Thus he needs Gustav to be his emotional crutch, who must break various bits of bad news to Anton’s parents’, employers etc, etc… Gustav it appears, is the son the Zweibel’s never had and wished they did instead of Anton. Through his friendship he is exposed to the good things in life, things his poor washed up mother can’t provide. Expensive holidays in Geneva and Davos and skating at the local ice rink.

This English Author Rose Tremain’s www.rosetremain.co.uk thirteenth novel, the others include The Sadler’s Birthday(1976), The Cupboard(1981), Restoration(1989), which was shortlisted for The Booker and made into a film with a stellar cast, including Robert Downey Jnr., Meg Ryan, Hugh Grant, Sam Neil and David Thewlis. The Road Home(2008) was the Whitbread Novel of the year and Trespass(2010) was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick.  She has written five collections of short stories and a children’s book called Journey To The Volcano(1985). Rose was made a CBE in 2007 and currently lives in Norfolk with her partner the biographer Richard Holmes.

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Rose Tremain

This isn’t the first time she has used immigration and sexual discovery as a subject for her books, Her 1992 book Sacred Country tells the story a young English girl who is gender challenged. While The Road Home, follows the exploits of a young Eastern European man as he leaves his homeland to start a new life in London.

The general reaction to this book at the book group, including myself was that the book was a nice read. But could have been a bit longer, and was a victim of over editing, which is usually lacking in other similar novels. Thus, the story in the Gustav Sonata is not given more time to develop, so what you get is short jumpy bits which feels a bit like a hashed-up time travelling piece.

The ending also feels a bit twee and just thrown in to finish a book the author had lost interest in or was under pressure to finish. The topics covered in the book allowed for a frank and in-depth discussion on current problems facing Europe and the world, what with immigration through Europe and Trump’s botched travel ban. So, take yourself off and download or pick up a copy of this book.

BROADRIBB GOES FROM CRITIC TO CRITIQUED TO BURY THE OPPOSITION DEEP DOWN IN A KNOCK EM’ DEAD DEBUT.

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deep-down-dd-cvrI was in the UK’s second city recently at an event in the NEC, when I was informed by a sign on the wall of some of the well known people who have come from Birmingham. The likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Leona Lewis were mentioned, while the literary world wasn’t referenced. The West Midland’s capital has produced such luminaries as J.R. Tolkien, James Barlow, Bill Odie and Barbara Cartland. When it comes to bounty hunters though… They’re a bit thin on the ground, until now. This month’s book is written by a former bounty hunter, who’s a Brummie. The book is Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb and was published in January by Orenda books www.orendabooks.com .

Our heroine Lori Anderson is a single mother working as a bounty hunter in Florida. When the medical bills for her nine – year old daughter’s treatment start to stack up, along with the rent, she’s forced to take an out of state skip trace worth enough to cover her mounting bills. But there’s a deadline, she must have him back in court in three days. The ‘him’ turns out to be her mentor, JT, whom she hasn’t seen in ten years. Getting him back from West Virginia in three days should be a cake walk. But then things start to go downhill,  her child minder goes  away early to see relatives out of state, thus forcing her to take Dakota on a “Ride-Along”. JT is being held by another bounty hunter in the hills awaiting Lori’s arrival.  At the hand-over she’s ambushed and just about manages to get away with JT, then Dakota is kidnapped by a theme park owner running a pornography ring from one of his parks ,who wants incriminating evidence JT has on him. Meanwhile the mob also want a piece of JT.  Will she get Dakota back? Will she manage to return JT to Florida without letting her past with him get in the way?

The first thing that strikes me about this book is that it’s full of the usual bog standard storyline building blocks of your average half decent American tv drama. A kid, a bounty hunter playing fast and loose with the law, the mob and the two main characters bumping off each other or having done so in the past with the usual results…. But add to that Broadribb’s tense and moving writing style we are presented with a steadfast page turner of a first novel and if she can keep this up for the next couple of books she’ll set herself up as a force to be reckoned with in this genre.

The child pornography ring being run out of a Winter Wonderland theme park was original, but in parts reminded me of the plot of Beverly Hills Cop 3, when Axel investigates a money laundering racket in a theme park. Also, the link between the three main characters is a bit predictable but again it doesn’t take away from the self-assured, fresh – in your face writing style of this new kid on the block.

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Steph Broadribb

Broadribb’s life reads almost like my own, I was born in London grew up in Chesham in Buckinghamshire and then moved to Dublin where I write this blog. Ok, so I haven’t trained as a Bounty hunter but I often thought about it while growing up watching “The Fall Guy”.

This is the first foray into becoming a crime fiction writer for the Birmingham born debutant, but not her first time writing about crime fiction, as she’s been writing the book blog www.crimethrillergirl.com for several years now. She trained as bounty Hunter in California, studied creative writing at the City University London and now lives and writes surrounded by horses and cows in the English home county of Buckinghamshire.

Steph is planning to make this into a series set around the exploits of her heroine Lori Anderson,

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Duane “Dog” Chapman

who comes across as very likeable and far more interesting character than the real-life Duane “Dog” Chapman and his cohort of hanger-on’s in the reality TV series “Dog”.  The methodical way Lori goes about things and the style of writing shows experience and sufficient knowledge of Broadribb’s field of expertise, means she is to this sub-genre what Kathy Reich’s is to the Medical Examiner sub-genre.

So without further ado download this book or hot foot it to your local book store and snap up a copy and get in at the start of what looks set to be an enthralling series.

SIJIE’S LITTLE SEAMSTRESS MAKES A FLUFFY SILK PURSE OUT OF A VERY UGLY MAO’S FOUR YEARS

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balzac-cvrIn a little over 6 weeks time, one of the smallest countries in the world, with the largest diaspora celebrates its annual holiday. I am of course referring to Ireland and St. Patrick’s day, which is celebrated almost the world over. While this weekend sees one of the largest countries in the world with an equally wide spread diaspora celebrate its New Year, four weeks after the rest of the world. That is China and the arrival of the year of the rooster. This month’s second book  is  written by a Chinese writer, something I wouldn’t normally get much chance to experience, unless of course, like me  you’re in a book group, which is how I came to read this. The book is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, published by Vintage publishing in 2002 (www.vintage-books.co.uk).

The book tells the story of two teenage boys Ma Jianling and Luo Min  – sons of doctors, who as part of Chairman Mao’s re-education program, are sent to the wilds of rural china to knock the elitist well educated corners off them. Here they are put to work in the paddy fields, down mines, doing back breaking hard labour and other menial tasks. They are treated with disdain by the town elders and their poor and uneducated subjects but from the outset the two boys prove they can offer more than just cheap easy labour. One of them plays a violin, while the other is a fantastic story teller and they are soon given the additional task of going to the local city to watch the films and re-enact them to the locals. During their first couple of weeks traipsing back and forth across the foothills to and from the their daily back breaking chores, they meet a local travelling tailor and his beautiful daughter – whom Lou starts to court. Shortly after that  they discover a friend known as “Four Eyes,”  has a stash of forbidden 19th century European novels in a suitcase under his bed. They borrow one of the books and as they educate the young seamstress in the writing of Balzac, they realize she wants to hear more and so they set about planning to liberate the suitcase and its contents from under Four Eye’s bed. Will they succeed? Will the elders discover the books and burn them, or will their re-education program come to an end sooner? Will Lou and the little seamstress – end up happily married.

I didn’t know anything about Mao’s “Re-Education” program. Not until I opened the book and started reading, did  I realize it was part of the Cultural Revolution and was more commonly known as the “Up To The Mountains, Down To The Countryside Movement”. Through this program the People’s Party under Mao set about ridding the country of capitalist influences, by sending an estimated 17 million young people from the large cities to rural hard labour camps between 1966 – 76.

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The book is very short. At only one hundred and seventy pages it is a classical novella, so theoretically there is no reason this can’t be read in one sitting. Of the two main characters, we only really get to know the name of one Lou – the other one never reveals his name and if he does it is a fleeting reference (it was only through research of the film did I find his name in the credits). The story is educational and well written and documents perfectly the coming of age and re-education or widening of every character’s knowledge from the little seamstress’s exposure to literature to the boy’s introduction hard labour and the joys of romance as well as sex.

Dai Sijie was born in china, the only child of two medical professors under the Re-Education program he was sent to rural Sichuan. Although, as an only child he would have

dai-sijie

Dai Sijie

been exempt, but he went any way to experience the spartan lifestyle. On his return after 4 years, he became a lecturer in art in 1974. In 1984 he moved to France on scholarship where he still lives today. There he developed a liking for writing and  directing films. Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise) was the first of two books he’s written and his experiences in the re-education camp are the inspiration for the book. His second book Mr Mouch’s Travelling Couch ( Le Complexe de Di)  was published in 2003. It was translated into English in 2005. He made Balzac And the Little Chinese Seamstress into a movie in 2002, he has made five other films since.

Sijie does for the Cultural Revolution through this book, what the likes of Schindler’s List, The Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas and The Book Thief for example did for the brutality of the Nazi regime. Lift a small stone and shed a very big light on it. Although compared to Schindler’s List – Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress is a laugh out loud comedy. Though, this is not to denigrate the experiences of those who survived the Re-Education camps. Sidjie has put a rather fluffy feel on a very arduous and harrowing period in Chinese history.

So buy or download a copy of this book, then as you decide what’s for dinner, maybe opt for Chinese take away with  traditional New Year’s Moon Cake, and settle down for both an educational and hugely enjoyable romp through the Cultural Revolution. Xinjian Kuaile…