Monday, April 27, 2009

Interview with S.J. Bolton

Recently, I reviewed "Awakening," the second book by British author S.J. Bolton (see review two posts below). This book so intrigued me that I had to know more about the author.

Q. You’ve had interesting careers before this, as an actress and in PR. What drew you to writing novels?

A. Looking back, I realize I had all the ingredients that make up a writer, I just didn’t recognize them for what they were. I’ve always loved books and read avidly, the part of my job I enjoyed the most was the writing and I’ve always been one of those people who have a fantasy life running in parallel to the real one. It wasn’t until I was married with a baby on the way that I realized I might have a work of fiction in me. Once I started, it was like falling off a log! I loved it and knew that, published or not, it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my working life.

Q. Elsewhere, you’ve written that you wanted to write “spooky crime.” The supernatural does pop up in some mysteries, but you’ve really embraced it. What is it about the spooky that draws you?

A. Its very darkness; the sense that no rules apply; the expectation of a journey into the complete unknown from which there may be no return; complete escapism from the real world. All these things and many more. I’ve always loved stories of the supernatural but because I write in a very strict genre, I have two editors, one on either side of the Atlantic, who work very hard to keep me grounded in reality. Ultimately, there is nothing supernatural in my books; it just looks that way for a while.

Your first book, Sacrifice, has been short-listed for several prizes. Writing this novel, did you have any idea of the impact it would have?

A. All the time I was writing Sacrifice I had no idea it would even get published. Technically, I felt the book was shaping up well but I knew the story might prove too fantastic, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, to be taken seriously by the publishing world. Luckily for me, it was, but even now that it’s been published in several countries, the reaction has been mixed and extreme. For every person who’s loved it, another has hated it.

Q. You’ve written two books with a third one almost finished. They all have very different settings and plots. How do you come up with the ideas for them?

A. My ideas come from the people and places around me. Sacrifice was born out of my own experience of wanting to have a child and finding it difficult to conceive. Awakening was inspired by the village I live in now and by its residents – both human and reptilian. My third book is set in a remote town in the Pennine hills in the north of England, the place were I grew up. I find myself inspired by landscapes frequently. For a small island, Great Britain has a remarkably diverse and beautiful topography and I love to imagine the dark undercurrent beneath the idyllic surface.

Q. I’m always interested in how writers create characters. Are any of them based on people you know?

A. All of them. That’s not to say people will necessarily recognize themselves. Sometimes it’s just a hairstyle or a mannerism that makes it into print. I don’t worry too much about developing characters at the outset. I have a very vague idea about them – age, appearance, occupation. Then I concentrate on telling the story and let the characters develop themselves through their behaviour and their reaction to events.

Q. In Awakening, you’ve created a damaged yet strong protagonist, Clara. Long after I put the book down, I kept thinking of her – and wondering what would happen next to her. Any chance you’ll ever bring her back, or are you done with the characters once you finish a book?

A. I’d love to see Clara again. She is easily my favourite heroine so far. Her job, though, is very specific, so I will need to come up with a mystery that, somehow, revolves around wild animals. Nothing immediately springs to mind but maybe one day.

Q. Can you give us a peek into your third book – what is it about?

A. Folklore meets forensics on the bleak and remote Pennine Moors. A charismatic young Anglican priest is on the verge of falling in love with a beautiful children’s psychiatrist, when the remains of several young children are found on land close to the church. The resulting events test his faith to its limits and threaten everyone he cares about.

Q. Who are your favorite current authors?

A. Stephen King is, and probably will remain, my favourite contemporary author. He combines the most formidable imagination with a real gift for language. So many books can wind me up for so many reasons but when I open a King novel, I feel myself breathing a deep sigh of relief. I know I’m in the presence of a master. Other authors I love include Joanne Harris, JK Rowling, Thomas Harris, Dan Brown and Tess Gerritsen. New writers that I think have immense talent include Ariana Franklin, Simon Beckett, Nick Stone and Tom Cain.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shatter by Michael Robotham

Protagonist: Joe O’Loughlin
Setting: West Country
Rating: 5.0

There is a moment when all hope disappears, all pride is gone, all expectation, all faith, all desire. I own that moment. It belongs to me. That’s when I hear the sound. The sound of a mind breaking.

It’s not a loud crack like when bones shatter or a spine fractures or a skull collapses. And it’s not something soft and wet like a heart breaking. It’s a sound that makes you wonder how much pain a person can endure; a sound that shatters memories and lets the past leak into the present; a sound so high that only the hounds of hell can hear it.

Can you hear it? Someone is curled up in a tiny ball crying softly into an endless night.

Joe O’Loughlin, who we met in Robotham’s first book, The Suspect, is back, this time teaching college psychology as his Parkinson’s disease gains on him. He’s asked by police to help talk down a woman who is perched on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, naked except for her Jimmy Choo shoes and with the word “slut” written across her stomach in lipstick. Even stranger, she’s talking into a cell phone. O’Loughlin is unable to save her; she jumps to her death. A few days later, her business partner is found dead, also naked, hanging from a tree in a park.

Why would these women kill themselves, seemingly on the orders of a person on the other end of their cell phones? With police, and the help of friend Vincent Ruiz, a retired chief inspector, O’Loughlin figures out the how, then the why and finally the who. From there, it’s a cat-and-mouse game with one of the most chilling villains I’ve come across lately. This is a man who has come mentally unhinged, and there’s no reasoning with him. The book’s title refers to the killer’s M.O.: he “shatters” the psyche of his victims. After O’Loughlin is able to prevent a third murder, the villain strikes close to home. At this point, the tension is so high that, as a reader, I wasn’t able to come up for breath until the end.

I knew Robotham was a good writer, but after his last book, The Night Ferry, I was a bit disappointed. This book has put him back on my list of must-read crime writers. Shatter is far and away his best. If you listen to audiobooks, then I further recommend “reading” it in that form. The narrator, Sean Barrett, only enhances the story. There’s one point where O’Loughlin and the villain are having a rapid-fire conversation; Barrett modulates the voices enough that you always know who is speaking.

This book gets a perfect score from me. In fact, it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Awakening by S.J. Bolton

Protagonist: Clara Benning
Setting: Dorset
Rating: 3.5
Clara, a 30-year-old veterinarian, has become a reclusive in a quiet, rural town. Half of her face has been disfigured (although how and to what extent remains a mystery for awhile), and so Clara tries to have minimal contact with the world – the human world, at least. All that changes when snakes, some deadly, start showing up in villagers’ homes, killing one man. Clara is the only expert on snakes in the village, and she’s soon thrust into the middle of the crisis. When she becomes a suspect after several other deaths, Clara has to prove she’s innocent. Normally, a book about snakes would not have attracted me at all, but I found this a compelling read. I was drawn to Clara, so much that I kept wondering how her life would turn out after I finished the book (from what I gather, unfortunately, this appears to be a standalone). Awakening is due out in bookstores in June.

The Black Tower by P.D. James

Protagonist: Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: Toynton Grange, Dorset
Rating: 3.5
Recovering from an illness, Dalgliesh receives a letter from a family friend, Father Baddeley, imploring him to visit. By the time Dalgliesh is able to travel to Toynton Grange, a home for those with physical disabilities, Baddeley has died. But there’s been another suspicious death, so Dalgliesh lingers for a few days. There follows more deaths, an attempt on the life of Toynton Grange’s owner and questions about Father Baddeley’s death. This is a classic closed community mystery – not James’ best, but certainly not disappointing. It is the fifth in her series.

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin

Protagonist: Insp. John Rebus
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 3.3
When MP Gregor Jack is caught in a brothel, Rebus is sympathetic, suspecting the government official was set up. When he visits Jack’s home, he finds a nervous man – and not only because of the press coverage. Jack’s wife, who likes to indulge in sex and drug parties, is missing. Soon after, she’s found dead – and there are plenty of suspects. This is the fourth in the Rebus series. As always, Rankin brings us memorable characters and sharp dialogue.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

Protagonists: Vince Teague, Dave Bowie and Stephanie McCann
Setting: Maine island of Moose-Lookit
Rating: 3.5

(Warning: Contains a spoiler). Stephanie McCann is a young intern at The Weekly Islander, run by Vince Teague and Dave Bowie, who have been at the newspaper forever. One day, they share the story about the Colorado Kid with her – a man, at first unknown, is found on the beach without identification. He is eventually identified (he was from Colorado), but his abrupt disappearance from work, only to show up later that day in Maine, is a mystery. Teague and Bowie have taught McCann that a good feature story always has “a beginning, a middle and an end.” This novel, however, only gives the reader a beginning and a middle – no end at all, since the mystery is never solved.

While I enjoyed the story during its telling (narrator Jeffrey DeMunn did a great job of capturing the Maine accents and Stephen King can tell a story), the ending left me feeling frustrated, a bit cheated. I’d recommend this only on audiobook, which is how I experienced it, and only after warning people that this book, billed as a mystery and the first entry in the Hard Case Crime series, is not a traditional whodunnit by any stretch. Also, this is most definitely a case of not judging a book by its cover -- this is a most deceiving cover.

The Book of Murder by Guillermo Martinez

Protagonist: Luciana
Setting: Buenos Aires
Rating: 3.5
Luciana, who worked as a transcriber for two authors as a young woman, calls one of them up 10 years later (our unnamed narrator) with a tale of how the other author, Kloster, is slowly killing off her family and friends. She feels he is doing it as revenge for the death of his daughter, of which he somehow blames Luciana. But the deaths all seem accidental or unrelated to Kloster. Is Luciana going mad, or is there something behind her story? Book kept me hooked, but fell flat -- very flat -- with the ending.