Archive | October, 2018

Van has finished reading… The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

25 Oct

underground railroad


Imagine all the human race left behind were certain books, and the aliens that come to investigate the used-up husk that was Earth have only these as indicators of our existence, so they’d have to wonder: is this history or entertainment? Which shelf would your favourite books go on? As far as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad goes, I’d bet the mortgage they’d go for history. In fact, forget aliens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see current readers googling it and finding themselves disappointed by the book’s subterfuge. Yes, it is that good.

The Underground Railroad tells Cora’s story. Born into slavery, abandoned by her mother at a young age and treated as an outcast on the plantation, as Cora comes of age she faces a stark choice: stay (and probably die), or run (and possibly die). And that’s where the fiction kicks in and The Underground Railroad sets itself apart in the ranks of novels centred on slavery in America. The reality of plantation life is there; the jeopardy inherent not only in running away but in simply being black in America is there; the range of responses from white people, from zealous application of the laws to rank indifference, is there (what a harrowing scene the plantation garden party presents!); but the Underground Railroad, that’s something else. With actual stations and engines and rails, it opens up the American south in a way the metaphorical railroad never could. And the chase is on, as we journey through various States, and their equally various laws and dispositions.

The characterisation is superb, with everything happening to a purpose, and while there are inevitably horrors in the portrayal of plantation life and the treatment of black people in the slave states, that purpose lends power to their presentation rather than their inclusion feeling gratuitous. No danger here of the reader maintaining an over-exposed distance from the narrative. And then there are the ads posting rewards for runaway slaves – real ads – to quietly underline that, while this is fiction, the facts of this history are not so distant, are close enough for the reader to feel the possibility held between the covers. Such is the power of the wrong done, of the will to escape, and the testament it speaks of those souls that such a feat really does feel possible. There’s an excellent refrain running through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a joke written in the darkest ink, about looking out as you speed through, and finding the true face of America. And its punchline chimes with William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer. For all the necessary action, whether hidden or in plain sight, illegal or not, taken to bring a slave to liberty, it always comes down to one person. And freedom is never a thing that’s given. Freedom is a thing that must be claimed.

It’s an astonishing book that could find fans for many reasons – the quality of the writing, the historical and political context, the straight-up adrenalin of the chase – but the why is not so important. Just make sure you do pick it up. Read it, and then pass it along to the next station.

The Underground Railroad was published by Fleet in June 2017 ISBN:9780708898406

You can find Colson on Twitter @colsonwhitehead or at his website

A Q&A with Laura Laakso, author of Fallible Justice

17 Oct

I haven’t been at all surprised to see great review after great review for Laura Laakso’s debut novel, Fallible Justice. It’s a pacey and absorbing introduction to the world of Yannia Wilde, and the first in the Wilde Investigations series. You can read my review here, and I am delighted to say that Laura has agreed to answer some questions about her novel, and writing generally. I hope they will illuminate Yannia’s world, and add to the enjoyment you’ll undoubtedly get from reading Fallible Justice.

Fallible Justice cover


Which came first, the idea for the story, or the idea for the world it happens in? How did each develop to become Fallible Justice?

The story came first. I was bored one day and idly wondered how one could fool a justice system based on a celestial being looking into a person’s soul to determine guilt or innocence. As soon as I figured it out, I knew I had to write the book. Everything else developed from there. I took a very mechanical approach to the plot and built it piece by piece; red herring, complication, motive, the mechanics of the crime, and so on. It was an interesting process, especially given that I had no experience in writing crime, and I can still remember the thrill of the pieces falling together to form a picture far more intricate than I had originally planned. The world I built grew organically around Fallible Justice and later expanded when I realised that this wasn’t just going to be one book.

The world-building in Fallible Justice is particularly strong. How did you go about researching the magical world of Old London? Did you make any discoveries that shaped or changed your thoughts about the world you were building? What’s the most surprising thing you learned?

In the very beginning, each element of the world served a purpose in Fallible Justice and they soon developed stories of their own. Each race had its own complications and agenda, which I think helped give depth to the characters from those races. With the main character, I was very clear about wanting a female PI as a protagonist, but one that wasn’t a Mage. I had an image of Yannia running on a beach, channelling all of nature, and that was it. She chose me, I suppose, and that initial image later became the opening chapter of the book.

I also wanted there to be a separate area of London for the magical races to live in and the City of London borough seemed like a perfect fit. It’s a wonderful mix of Wren architecture and modern skyscrapers, and that seemed like an apt reflection of the people living in Old London; smartphones and CCTV go hand in hand with ancient traditions and archaic social structure. I live fairly close to London and I’ve done several trips just to walk around the “Old London”. Every time I do, I see some detail that blossoms into a plot idea or setting. I didn’t do a great deal of research for the first two books in the series, but the thing that will stay with me is the sheer joy of building this exciting world that combines real places and buildings with a magical element. Writing the Wilde Investigations series hardly feels like work!

I’m interested in the terminology you use in your magical world – heralds, shamans and paladins. How did you come to choose the names?

I’ve been gaming and reading fantasy since my early teens, so I had a vast array of terms to choose from. The Heralds were named thus because I wanted a clear separation from Christian mythology. Although they are arguably celestial beings, I didn’t want them to be thought of as angels. When it came to upholding peace in Old London, I liked the idea of knights instead of police. It made sense to combine peacekeeping with the Heralds, and thus Paladins seemed like an appropriate term, although they are not quite as lawful good as in most fantasy literature. With Shamans, I liked the idea of a tangible connection with nature but wanted to make it animal specific. This was partly because by then, Karrion had wandered into my head to complain at length about pigeons. In fact, Karrion is to blame for the whole Shaman race! The Eldermen of the Wild Folk conclaves are a variation on the term alderman. I liked the idea of crusty old men, removed from the modern world, sitting around a campfire deciding the future of each conclave.

What’s the best editorial advice you had in writing Fallible Justice?

Patience, patience, patience. I have a tendency to get carried away and rush the first draft, and my first reader is forever reminding me to take my time and let the scenes develop at a gradual pace. That’s not to say there the plot isn’t constantly moving forward, but I have to remember not to gloss over descriptions and conversations that are vital to the story. I think by book 3 in the series, I was finally getting the hang of being patient.

Your route to publication doesn’t appear to follow the more familiar pattern of submissions to agents, and then to publishers. Had you submitted Fallible Justice, or other work, to anyone before? What is the impact for you of Retreat West’s involvement, and the approach from Louise Walters Books?

About two years ago, I made a Plan. At that point, I’d written two novels and was well into writing Fallible Justice. I was going to spend 2017 building a writing CV by taking part in lots of competitions, all the while editing my novels. Once I had a few writing credits to my name, I was going to start looking for an agent in the hopes of getting the usual agent + publisher deal. The Retreat West First Chapter Competition changed everything! Fallible Justice was chosen as a runner up and the literary agent who judged the short list asked to see the full manuscript. She liked it, but ultimately decided that she didn’t know enough about fantasy to represent me. My first (and to date only) agent rejection. Around the same time, a Retreat West newsletter mentioned a new indie publisher looking for submissions. I had a look at the website, saw the strict genre criteria and sent Louise the opening to my first novel. She replied almost straight away asking for Fallible Justice instead. Despite her website saying no to fantasy, crime and thrillers, she loved Fallible Justice and here we are! My publication journey is a classic example of no matter how good the Plan is, things will always happen along the way that change it. As it is, I couldn’t be happier with the way things worked out.

Have you always written? Did you always want to be a novelist?

I’ve wanted to be a lot of things along the way, including a dolphin trainer by day and a mad scientist by night, spaceship designer and a female Indiana Jones! More seriously, becoming a novelist is a relatively recent aspiration of mine. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family of bookworms, so reading and storytelling have always been a big part of my life. In primary school, when we had to write stories based on pictures we were given, I was the insufferable kid who wrote five pages more than anyone else and then asked for extra pictures as homework. Later on, much of the writing related to roleplaying campaigns I was running, but gradually I moved more into fanfiction and later original fiction. Turning 30 caused me to take stock of my life, and I realised that becoming a published author was a dream I wanted to pursue more seriously. All the hard work over the last few years has paid off big time.

Your protagonist, Yannia, suffers from a debilitating disease, which I might add she handles with a very real and affirming attitude. What led you to choose Ehlers-Danlos syndrome?

When I was developing Yannia, I wanted her to have a flaw, some complication that no amount of magic could fix. So I gave her my pain, and straight away the life she’d been born to lead became unsustainable. Old London isn’t a complete solution either. No matter how successful she becomes as a PI and even if she can sort the rest of her life out, EDS is never going to go away. It’s her reality and something she must always bear in mind, but I wanted to show that being sick doesn’t mean she can’t be successful or make difficult life choices. Giving her a condition I have meant that I could offer an authentic, but a compassionate depiction of the illness. On a more selfish note, I’m not terribly good at talking about what living with constant pain is like, but through Yannia, I have expressed things that would otherwise have remained unsaid.

There’s quite a range of characters in Fallible Justice. Who was the most fun to write? Who was hardest to get right?

Although I’ve never really considered myself a character-led writer, I’ve had so much fun with the characters in Fallible Justice (and the later books). Wishearth is a firm favourite, as is Lady Bergamon, and writing them has been simply wonderful. I also loved the interaction between Yannia and Karrion. Their friendship really grows through the series, but I love how they tease and argue like siblings. Fria was difficult to write because her mindset is so different from mine and it took me a long while to “get” her. And while I love to hate Lord Ellensthorne, in the long run it’s been challenging to strike a balance between him being a thoroughly unpleasant man and not turning him into a caricature antagonist.

Fallible Justice stands as the first in a series, Wilde Investigations. How many books do you have planned? Do you already know what’s going to happen in each, or are the stories yet to develop? And what about after Yannia. Do you think you’ll stay in the world of paranormal crime, or have you projects in different genres waiting in the wings?

At the moment, I’m editing book 3 in the series and planning book 4. I have clear ideas for books 5-8, plus another one that will come a little later, and various random ideas and thoughts floating around. While there are long-term plot lines I’ve been setting up since Fallible Justice, I don’t want to make too many firm plans too far in advance because every book brings up side plots I wasn’t expecting. Book 3 had a huge impact on the future stories and I’m still getting my head around all the implications. It feels like I’m only just getting comfortable in the series and I hope I get to write these books for some time to come!

Outside Wilde Investigations, I have an idea for a YA novel set in the same world I’d like to explore at some point, a paranormal thriller that’s completely separate, a paranormal romance (though I’m so hopelessly cynical I’m not sure I could ever write a romance novel), a psychological thriller, and a literary fiction novel waiting to be developed. And those are just the more tangible plots I’ve written down in a “Random ideas” document on my computer. I don’t think I’m ever going to be short of ideas! At the moment, all I can say is that with Wilde Investigations, I feel as though I’ve found my voice and no matter what happens in the future, writing is always going to be an integral part of my life.

Finally, if you were a character in Yannia’s world what would your magical ability be?

While my dogs no doubt expect the answer to be a Dog Shaman, I think I’d probably be one of the Wild Folk. Growing up in Finland, wilderness and nature played a big role in my life and I appreciate the Wild Folk way of living. Their world is by no means perfect, but their connection with nature makes sense to me.

Laura Laakso


My thanks to Laura Laakso for answering my questions so fully, and to Louise Walters for facilitating so smoothly.

Fallible Justice is published by Louise Walters Books on the 8th November, though you can order it now from Louise Walters Books direct, and you’ll get a signed copy and an exclusive flash fiction written by Laura to accompany the book! What are you waiting for!

Van has finished reading… A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley

15 Oct

a different drummer


What a book William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is, marching to its own beat not only in name but in nature too! Set in a fictional southern state, described by means of a snippet from ‘The Thumb-Nail Almanac’ from 1961 – a device that effectively stands it in the stead of any southern state built on slavery – the important line is the one presented as a footnote of recent history, as something of a curiosity: Today, it is unique in being the only state in the Union that cannot count even one member of the negro race among its citizens.

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is the story of how that came to be.


The thing I find most incredible about A Different Drummer is that it’s 2018 and it’s the first I’ve heard of it. Okay, it’s not like I’ve been an enormous book nerd since birth who knows everything that’s ever been written but equally, when you begin to read in a particular vein it’s inevitable that connections will be made, and recommendations offered. It’s a travesty that A Different Drummer, first published a mere 10 years after Ralph Ellison’s exquisite Invisible Man, doesn’t share that book’s reach. Especially since I could well imagine Invisible Man’s detractors holding up William Melvin Kelley’s novel as an alternative.


I love the structure of A Different Drummer, beginning with that scene-setting excerpt from the almanac and shifting to the spinning of a tale on a store front porch as the area’s white farmers watch the trickle of the town’s black inhabitants leaving. The telling of the tale titillates with its tendency toward the unbelievable, hyperbole that alludes to the savagery and strength of the first slaves, even unto the name one slave family inherits, Caliban (yet there is the presenting later of a little white stone…).

The structure centres then on the Willsons, the richest and most influential land-owners in the area. Their ways may be more progressive and they may be beginning to seek a route out of their situation, but they are still essentially a white family entrenched by their own privilege and tradition. It’s through successive members of this family that the story unfolds – the story of a black man, Tucker Caliban, seen through white eyes – until the ominously titled final chapter.

And what a finale it is, too, the last word given to the optimism (or oblivion) of a white boy in a white man’s world; no-one else in the book could share that viewpoint at that moment. Genius.


How apt it is that all that noble-savage imagery is distilled into the strength and conviction of the slightest character in the novel. Stronger than all the well-meaning and progressiveness, all the lobbying you can imagine, it’s the making up of a mind that starts a movement. There’s a big difference between wanting change and being the change. That takes a Different Drummer!


Some books you think you might come back to. William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is one I know I will come back to. It’ll be on my shelf alongside Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Caryl Phillip’s Cambridge. You should make a space for it on yours.


A Different Drummer will be published by riverrun on the 1st November 2018 ISBN:9781787478039

My especial thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for allowing me to review this wonderful book.

Van has finished reading… Mr Doubler Begins Again by Seni Glaister

5 Oct


A connoisseur of the potato and its many applications, Mr Doubler doesn’t find people so easy to understand. Living a reclusive life, his farm, his potatoes and visits from his housekeeper, Mrs Millwood are all Mr Doubler needs to get by. So when Mrs Millwood doesn’t show one day, Mr Doubler’s routine, his work, his very way of life threatens to unravel. Can the kindness of strangers draw Mr Doubler out of his retreat?

Seni Glaister’s Mr Doubler Begins Again is a delight. From the very first page there’s humour. A character’s quirky name, and their manner of being that tells you straight away you’re going to find them funny, and probably a little heart-warming. But that catch in the breath, that febrile something in the flow of the words – no, there will not be plain sailing, no mere frivolity.

But there will be tea, and the tea will be perfect.

I suspect this may prove to be the author’s oeuvre: telling the tale simply, with charm and wit yet without the sentimentality; and it’s a little later, when you think back over what you’ve read that the seriousness of it emerges, that you see the application of it in your own interactions. Although it is a tale told simply, an eminently readable book, don’t imagine that makes it mere fluff. Its very readability is testament to the skill and work that’s gone into the writing. It all brings back lovely memories of Seni Glaister’s debut, The Museum Of Things Left Behind.

The author tackles the notions of friendship and family, of kindness and second chances, and particularly of what it is to be older and alone with delicacy. It won’t be the author wagging her finger at you but rather your own conscience when you ponder the odd opportunity missed here or there. And as for Mr Doubler himself, God help me I can’t help thinking that if that pedantic streak I have really takes root… He’s a gem of a character and I particularly like the swing of his moods, the deftness with which Seni Glaister portrays them. It’s that visual I found myself starting to think about who might play him if someone has the good sense to option it for TV! When he’s on his ground and in full flow he is a sight to behold indeed. The overall feeling these characters are like to leave you with is that you know people like them, or at the very least know of people like them, and if it’s the latter then the hope that springs from this book is that before too long you will know them.

You don’t need outlandish events, extravagant locations and larger-than-life characters to tell a good story. In Mr Doubler Begins Again Seni Glaister takes a wholeheartedly everyday-story, full of everyday-people, and tells it perfectly. I guarantee it will make you smile. It might even make you laugh out loud.


Mr Doubler Begins Again will be published by HQ on the 24th January 2019 ISBN:9780008284985

You can find Seni on Twitter @SeniGlaister

My thanks to Seni for allowing me to review this book