Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney

Thomas de Quincey
Thomas de Quincey, author of ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’

Some years ago I came across Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.   It was a fleeting moment within my studies but he has lingered somewhere in the depths of my mind and I thought that one day I would like to discover a little more about the man who not only shared such an intimate and scandalous memoir but was also friends with William Wordsworth. I was therefore greatly delighted when Holland House publishers sent me a novel by the name of The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keany.

Alphaber of Hearts DesireThis is a novel born from true events in de Quincey’s life but it is a gloriously imagined work of fiction. When de Quincey was only 17 years old he ran away from his family and their expectations of what his future should be and spent some time in London.  In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater de Quincey recounts how he met a young street girl (Ann of Oxford Street) and it was this passage that lit the spark for Keaney’s novel. I must say I thought the novel rather wonderful and it has reignited my desire to explore de Quincey further.

‘I am nobody of consequence,’ the stanger replies. ‘I am only here to give you this.’  He holds out his hand and in his open palm there nestles a small silver locket upon a chain. ‘She asked me to return it to you, at the very end.’

A visitor calls with a gift and a message from the past…

In 1802 Thomas de Quincey, a young man from a comfortable middle-class background who would go on to become one of the most celebrated writers of his day, collapsed on Oxford Street and was discovered by a teenage prostitute who brought him back to her room and nursed him to health.  It was the beginning of a relationship that would introduce Thomas to a world just below the surface of London’s polite society, where pleasure was a tradeable commodity and opium could seem the only relief from poverty.  Yet it is also a world where love might blossom, and goodness survive.

The lives of a street girl, an aspiring writer, and a freed slave cross and re-cross the slums of London in this novel about the birth of passion, the burden of addiction, and the consolations of literature.

A young man taken far away from everything and everyone he has ever known and sold to the highest bidder; a young girl living in squalor, who chooses to run away to a brothel rather than endure the abuse of her mother’s lover; and a young man desperate to find his own path and not be bullied into a life without passion or creativity.  Through the lives of each of these characters we are taken back through the mist and fog to early 19th century London. A London where death came early to many through illness or violence. This is a richly woven story with some wonderful characters. It is incredibly vivid and beautifully written and I felt it a celebration of the written word not only in the way Brian Keaney shares the story with us, but as an underlying theme that runs through the novel.

He lived extremely frugally, spending nothing on his own attire or his appearance beyond what was necessary to preserve a degree of respectability, or on furnishings for the house or shop.  Reading was his sole recreation.  He brought books and he read them.  In time, I came to appreciate the wisdom of this way of living, and to make it my own.  Between us we sought to work our way through the great pile of books that littered the upstairs of the house.  But we never came anywhere near exhausting the volumes in Archie’s makeshift library for their number was always growing.

The novel is incredibly dark at times and I can fully understand why these characters would need the written word to escape their reality.  Harsh and unkind as it quite often was, yet amongst the darkness there was kindness, hope and love.  Something that can be difficult to see in times of hardship.  The London that Keaney brings to us is corrupt and filled with crime and selfishness.  It brings to mind Wordsworth’s sonnet London, 1802 in which he laments the capital and how it has lost its way.

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;

An excerpt from London, 1802 by William Wordsworth

I feel that Keaney has captured the tone of the city at this time.  The despair and darkness that many lived with and the effects of drug addiction.  A thought provoking, interesting novel and one that I thoroughly recommend.

This is the first time I have read anything by Brian Keaney although he had written many books for children, YA and The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is his first book for adults. I very much look forward to reading more from him in the future.

You can find out more about Brian Keaney by visiting his website here.

The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire was published by Holland House Books in November 2017.

Thank you so much to Holland House Books for sending me a review copy of The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire.  

 

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Liz Robinson Reviews

James Deegan – A Liz Robinson Author of the Month

A fair proportion of the British Public (me included) find the SAS an endlessly fascinating subject. I’ve delved into the origins of the SAS in the Second World War, discovering David Stirling and Paddy Mayne in the process, I’ve read various books on Bravo Two Zero, watched numerous documentaries, and of course am a big fan of SAS: Who Dares Wins. I therefore jumped at the chance of reading Once A Pilgrim by James Deegan before publication back in January. From my review you can tell I adored it, I watched Once A Pilgrim take off on social media with a big smile, and a certain picture of the book with Tom Hardy didn’t hurt its credentials!

James Deegan MC spent five years in the Parachute Regiment, and seventeen years in the SAS. Twice decorated for gallantry, he retired as an SAS Regimental Sergeant Major. – Liz Robinson

Liz in conversation with James Deegan

Liz  – Have you always been a storyteller, have you ever written before?

James – It depends on what you mean by ‘a storyteller’. I’ve never written before, but I’m quite good at recounting stories or events that I’ve been involved in and keeping an audience interested. The actual process of putting the first book to paper initially seemed quite daunting but it was also quite cathartic, and allowed me to escape from the pressure I had at work and find a bit of time to myself. Once I started, I really enjoyed it. I can touch type, which people often find amusing given my background. I taught myself using a software programme during my downtime during the insurgency in Baghdad. It was a bit of an escape from the chaos of what was around me at that time.

LizWas John Carr sitting in your thoughts for a while, how did you develop him as a character?

James – People who have read ‘Once A Pilgrim’ and who also know me say that John Carr is me, and it’s true that he’s based on me to an extent – we share the same childhood and professional experiences, for a start. His favourite song – Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’– is my favourite track, too. But he’s more than that. In my old line of work, and in life generally, you meet a lot of very interesting people, good and bad, and Carr contains bits and pieces of lots of people, to give him more colour.
And obviously he’s a lot larger than life – I think my wife would have something to say about some of his escapades, and I also never threw an IRA man over the side of the Larne-Stranraer ferry. I have been asked several times whether that incident in the book actually happened. The answer is obviously no – it would be murder! – but it means I’ve achieved my aim, because I want people to wonder all the way through… ‘Is this real? Did this actually happen?’
 
The idea is to bring my real work experience and knowledge to the fictional pages and blend the two. Jeffrey Archer read the book recently and gave me a line for the cover of the paperback, which sums that up: ‘You could not make it up, Brilliant.’ I will leave the reader to decide what they think.

LizHow did you enter the book world? Was it what you expected?

James – I tripped into it. I’d been approached several times to write my memoirs, and I have always declined. It’s common knowledge that SAS soldiers sign contracts not to disclose aspects of the organisation and an autobiography would potentially put me in conflict with a Regiment in which I’m immensely proud to have served, and with people whom I respect and admire.

I also don’t particularly want to be in the public domain as ‘me’. if that makes sense.
 
I read a lot, and I’d always thought about writing fiction myself but I’d never really done anything about it. The last time I was approached re a biography it spurred me to think harder about having a go, and here we are.
 
I didn’t have any expectations, to be honest. I was quite prepared for it to go nowhere – we all know that many people write good books and never get published – but I was fortunate enough to secure Jonathan Lloyd at Curtis Brown as my agent, and then Harper Collins, via their HQ imprint, as my publisher.

LizWhat are your writing habits?

James – My writing habits are erratic. ‘Once a Pilgrim’ took around two-and-a-half years from concept to completion, most of it done in my spare time or evenings after work or when I was on trains or planes. I travel a lot internationally with work, and you can get a lot done at 40,000ft over the Indian Ocean! I get advice and help from a mate who’s a writer, and that has made it easier. Book two in the John Carr series – ‘The Angry Sea’, due out January 2019 – took about a year, so I’m getting quicker. But for someone used to setting and achieving objectives, and moving relentlessly onward, it still feels like a long time.

LizWhat has your favourite piece of feedback about ‘Once A Pilgrim’ been?

James – Jeffrey Archer’s endorsement was very nice, considering he’s one of the world’s best-selling novelists. He and I share the same agent, Jonathan Lloyd; Jonathan mentioned the book to him, Jeffrey asked to read it, and twenty-four hours later he emailed to say it was ‘brilliant’. Apparently, he almost never gives cover lines for books, so I was very humbled.

Beyond that, I don’t have any one favourite piece of feedback, I have lots. I enjoy the fact that the people that have read it are from very different backgrounds, mums, dads, soldiers and Generals, civvies, rave DJs, international rugby players… it seems to be hitting chords with a very diverse group of people.
 
If someone sends me a message via social media I will always endeavour to respond, and I had one from a woman who told me how much she had enjoyed the book. She said she was ex-military, a former Major General. When she told me her name, I knew immediately who she was – she was a princess in a Middle Eastern royal family. (I have verified this!) We’ve maintained contact, but it’s a bit surreal.
 
I’m also constantly amazed at the reviews I’m receiving on Amazon – some of the reviews are really in-depth reviews, and lots of people have posted pics of themselves with the book. Which is fun.
 
So in a rambling sort of way my favourite piece of feedback is all of it!

LizAre you an avid reader, what are your personal favourites?

James – I read a lot – planes and trains again – and I always have done. There’s a scene in ‘Once A Pilgrim’ where John Carr, then a young Parachute Regiment corporal, is reading ‘Chickenhawk’, the memoir of the Vietnam War helicopter pilot, Robert Mason – that is exactly what the young James Deegan might have been doing during a bit of downtime on ops (and it’s a great book).
 
I read a lot of military non-fiction, but more about personal experiences than about campaigns. And I’m not interested in hearing from Generals, I want to read stuff by those who actually fought and suffered the hardships at the sharp end.
 
In terms of fiction, I read a multitude of different genres. My favourite authors, in no particular order, are Bernard Cornwell, George MacDonald Fraser, Conn Iggulden, Simon Scarrow, and Irvine Welsh. Welsh was knocking around Edinburgh as a teenager a few years before me, and I was brought up in the areas he talks about, and I know people like his characters. He captures the manic intensity, insanity and dialect of the city brilliantly.
 
Cornwell and the rest are just great fun and total escapism.
 
Currently I’m reading ‘Lonesome Dove’, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story of life on the Texas frontier in the mid-1800s. It’s brilliant, and the first ‘western’ book I’ve ever read; I’ll probably now read all his other work.

LizWhich character from books or film do you love to hate? And who melts your heart?

James I don’t have any single character that I hate, but the actor Christopher Heyerdah who plays the Swede in ‘Hell on Wheels’ and Louis Gagnon in ‘Tin Star’ is a brilliant villain. His mannerisms, how he talks, how he looks, it all brings a character to life, and I spend my time watching those shows wanting him to pay the price every time his character is on screen. He makes me angry!
 
If any book or movie features a bad guy who creates emotion then the producer or author has achieved their aim. I also like the bad guys to get their just desserts, and that’s where John Carr steps in.
 
As for having my heart melted…

Liz – Can you tell us anything about book two?

James – I can’t give too much away at the moment, but it involves a major terrorist attack in Europe, a kidnapping and a lot of bloody vengeance!

Some fabulous answers there, thank you James… and I now want to read Lonesome Dove! James Deegan has a gift with words, at drawing you in and telling a story, if you haven’t yet read Once A Pilgrim, do buy or borrow a copy!

James Deegan is on twitter as @jamesdeeganMC and on Facebook as James Deegan MC.

Once A Pilgrim was published in hardback by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins in January 2018.  The paperback edition will be published on the 31st May 2018.

Adult Fiction, Blog Tour, Suspense, Thriller

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings

I’m so thrilled to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings.

Synopsis

Some friendships are made to be broken

Cornwall, summer of 1986.

The Davenports, with their fast cars and glamorous clothes, living the dream in a breathtaking house overlooking the sea.

If only… thinks sixteen-year-old Tamsyn, her binoculars trained on the perfect family in their perfect home.

If only her life was as perfect as theirs.

If only Edie Davenport would be her friend.

If only she lived at The Cliff House…

Amanda Jennings weaves a haunting tale of obsession, loss and longing, set against the brooding North Cornish coastline, destined to stay with readers long after the final page is turned.

Cliff House

You sit and watch them from the same place you always do.

I spy.

With my little eye.

The opening lines to this thrilling novel are sinister and full of meaning. The prologue setting the tone of the book from the get go. I read this in two days straight. I loved it. It held my interest and sparked a need in me to find out what happened and who indeed would become the victim in the end. I could feel it coming. The sense of foreboding that ran through the novel like a stream rushing towards the ultimate deluge when all was revealed.

The characterisation was fantastic. The different view points gave an interesting perspective on proceedings never quite allowing me to work out who I should feel sorry for, who was the victim and who was really injecting the posion that threaded its way through the story. I have my theory now but not wishing to spoil the story for you I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. Do message me though if you’d like to know.

The characters are complex, all damaged in their own way. This novel has so many layers. It looks deeply at how past experiences can taint our actions and lives forever but it also looks at how memories are never quite true but heavily influenced by who owns it. The same experience is never equally remembered by two different people and time has the power to change and alter events so that the reality can become grotesque and unbelievable in our self editing minds. We remember what we chose to remember from our own view point.

So what is the story about? The central character for me, is the house itself. Echoing faintly of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, The Cliff House not only takes the title but also takes centre stage. It seems to have a life of it’s own and possesses people in an unnatural way that makes them either love or hate it. Jennings has done a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere, providing the contrast of a hot summer in 1986 and the cold, sinister evil that seems to catch hold of both the occupants and visitors of The Cliff House.

As you read you know that things are going to go horribly wrong but you can’t quite work out what or who it will happen to. It was a thrilling read and one that lingers in my mind. I can almost hear the soft lapping of the water as Tamsyn swims through the still, dark water or the ‘caw’ of the raven.

Tamsyn has never recovered from the death of her father six years ago. The whole family have been suspended in their grief, doing all they can do to survive but never quite living. She takes solace in stolen visits to the house she and her father adored from afar when he was alive. The house they crept into to swim in the pool on the day he died. For Tamsyn there was always a part of her father still at the house and there wasn’t anywhere in the world she’d rather be. One day she sneaks back into the house only to be surprised by the early return of the owner and she soon becomes a part of the lives she has spent so long watching and idolising. And so begins a story of obsession and jealousy that can only lead to catastropy.

Amanda Jennings has a beautiful way with words. Her descriptive prose is stunning as she gets to the heart of the way her characters are feeling and sets each scene perfectly.

I turned my attention back to them all as they danced and screeched and smoked and drank. I was mesmerised by it all and relieved I’d stayed and not run back to St Just. This world was Wonderland and I was Alice. The characters around me were as weird and wonderful as the Queen of Hearts and the smoking Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat’s floating smile. I thought of my father, hear the voices he used when he read me that story. Saw his face twisted into the manic grin of the Mad Hatter as he poured tea on the Dormouse. As I watched them they seemed to grow more fantastical. Their clothes brighter and more outlandish. I watched them pop whole eggs into their mouths, the eggs so tiny it gave the illusion they were giants.

Tamsyn longs to be part of the life at The Cliff House. She longs to run away from the pain and frustration of her family, a family left splintered by the death of her father.

He drags his feet up the stairs. He can never be the man he knows he should be. A man his father would be proud to call his son. While his mother worries about red-topped bills and food in their bellies, what does he do? Kicks around feeling sorry for himself. Moans about unemployment and the government and Tory wankers who live up their own arses. He smokes weed he can’t afford. Apathy is his constant companion, his Peter Pan shadow, sewn to his heels so he can never escape. It’s like he’s slipped into a waking coma. He is numb.

Just wonderful. I especially loved the line ‘Apathy is his constant companion, his Peter Pan shadow, sewn to his heels so he can never escape’

This was a thrilling, exciting read and one that I would thoroughly recommend.

The Cliff House is published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd in Hardback on the 17th of May 2018.

You can find out more about author Amanda Jennings here.

Author Spotlight, Young Adult Fiction

Author Spotlight – Nic Stone

I’m delighted today to be taking part in the blog tour of Nic Stone’s brilliant debut novel Dear Martin.

A debut confronting modern racism in America finally hits the UK

Justyce McAllister, a black scholarship student at an elite private school in Atlanta, is top of his class, captain of the debate team and heading for Yale.  But his presumptions are challenged when he is arrested by the police for helping his druck ex-girlfriend late at night.  This won’t be his final run-in with the police.  The next time someone gets hurt…

“Why try to do right if people will always look at me and assume wrong?”

Despite leaving his rough neighbourhood, he can’t seem to escape the scorn of his former peers or the attitude of his prep school classmates.  The only exception: Sarah Jane, Justyce’s gorgeous (and white) debate partner and Justyce is starting to feel guilty about how he feels.

Struggling to cope with it all, Justyce starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

How far has America come since 1968?

Dear Martin cover final[1188]Reading is like a super power. It takes you to places you’ve never been, never seen and allows you to try an infinite amount of lives, explore different characters, worlds and experiences.  Stories are the doorway to so many possibilities.  Reading a great novel makes you feel, it creates emotion and touches your very soul. That I love.

We are all different and books, I believe, give us the chance to put ourselves in to another’s shoes.  To feel their emotions, their hopes, their fears, their highs, their lows.  Dear Martin is one such book.  Superbly written, powerful, moving and an  insight into racial hate and the effect it still has on the world today, this is an incredible book.  Eye-opening and unflinching in it’s brutality, I was moved by Justyce and his story.  Such an amazing character; he is brave, tough yet fragile and already so close to being broken.  Justyce is at odds with the world around him.  He is a good kid, smart and popular, yet  for some these qualities are eradicated by the colour of his skin. In a world where people are still judged first by their colour, this novel shows that change does come, albeit slowly, but it comes.

The diversity is excellently portrayed.  Nic Stone has the ability to look at situations from all angles and we are able to build a picture of how the situations arise and although heart-breaking in parts, it is only a reflection of what is still happening in our world today. Prejudice breeds prejudice.  The refusal to accept difference is what keeps conflict alive. That constant lack of understanding and emphathy.  We need stories like this to teach, show and inform.

“Jus, I think I hate everything,” she says. “Why can’t we all get along like butterflies?”

He tuckes her hair behind her ear.  Tries to shift his focus to the TV, where layer upon layer of monarchs cover the trees in some Mexican forest.  While he appreciates her sentiment, Jus wonders if she notices all those butterflies look exactly alike.

This book, like so many that are inspired by real life, has an important message.  Having the courage to stay true to ourselves no matter what conflict or predjudice we might be facing is tough.  We discover this alongside Justyce and at times he is pushed to his absolute limits, but ultimately it will be his own choices that will make the real difference.

I thoroughly recommend this courageous and thought provoking novel and think it would be an excellent choice for the classroom too.  Dear Martin is Nic Stone’s debut novel and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.  She is definitely an author to watch.

You can find out more about Nic by visiting her website here.  Here is a snippet that I feel sums up our experience as readers perfectly…

Nic Stone[1189]
Nic Stone
It wasn’t until the summer I turned twenty-three and hopped on that plane to Israel that I began to get a real grasp on the role of Story in the human experience. I spent that summer stepping into other people’s shoes. There were the shoes of a Palestinian Christian girl living in the West Bank who wasn’t allowed into Israel Proper without a permit, but faced insane amounts of harassment in her neighborhood because of her family’s chosen faith. There were the shoes of the Israeli soldier who’d been trained to view all Arabs as potential threats, but was so sickened by it he couldn’t wait to get out of the army so he could leave the country. There were the small shoes of the children in the Palestinian refugee camps training to be Martyrs for Allah because they felt it was their call in life. There were the shoes of the orthodox Jewish man whose entire family had been murdered in his home by Palestinian militants while they slept.

As I listened to these stories and made an attempt at empathy—putting myself in their proverbial shoe—my perspectives shifted. Life became less about right and wrong, good and bad, black and white, and more about complexity and nuance, the power of the human being to bring either calm or chaos into the lives of others and the world around them. Storytelling revealed itself as a means of getting people to listen without interrupting. Done well, it engages listeners/readers to the point where they’re completely oblivious to the shifts in worldview taking place as a result of stepping into a different perspective.

The stories I heard over that summer, like my own, were the ones I hadn’t encountered in my Language Arts classes. And they shook me. They changed the way I approach people with beliefs that differ from my own. They changed the way I voice my opinions. In a way, they cleaned the lens through which I view the world.

I discovered that once I put on all those different pairs of shoes, I wanted to share those shoes and their impact with others. I wanted to tell the stories that weren’t being told, the ones featuring diverse characters in non-stereotypical roles, the ones that blurred the line between “right” and “wrong”, the ones that reveal the humanity in those who are underrepresented or misunderstood. Since that summer I turned 23, I’ve reread most of the books that I was unable to connect with as a teen, and I’m happy to report that I quite enjoy them now that I’ve found the shoes for myself. The answer to my identity crisis was simple: I am a storyteller.

Now get those shoes off so I can give you a different pair to try on.

Dear Martin is published in the UK by Simon & Schuster on the 3rd of May 2018.

Thank you to Eve at Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy of Dear Martin and inviting me to take part in the blog tour.  This is a book that will stay with me for a long time.