Indie Book Reviews (13): British Indie Authors (4)

This week, Evie Woolmore reviews a vampire YA novel by a young British indie author.

Runaway Girl by Elaine White (at Amazon sites including Amazon UK)

I’d be the first person to admit that I don’t read much vampire or gothic fiction; my last dip into the genre was Ann Radcliffe’s classic late eighteenth century gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho almost twenty years ago, and I haven’t even seen the box set of Buffy. Nonetheless, maybe being new to this kind of fiction allows me to see it with fresh eyes, and appreciate this book as a novel in its own right, a proper story rather than seeking originality in the genre.

There’s certainly a lot of freshness about Ms White’s book, and it has a fast-paced opening with plenty of characters making an early appearance. Certainly it takes a certain flair and energy to keep several inter-connected storylines moving along, and the opening premise of a search for a figure of great significance is always going to get things off to a swift start. The reader is quickly drawn in, not merely by the compelling experiences of the characters we meet but by the comfortably engaging worlds that Ms White paints for us.

What is obvious, even to the relative vampire novice that I am, is that the fracturing of Amelia’s soul is a clever idea both in story terms and in reaching out beyond the vampire genre to readers with an interest in magical realism and spirituality. Magic aside, it’s an interesting way to explore the tensions in all our personalities and there are certainly enough tensions in this book to keep the reader thoroughly engaged.

It says as much about my reading background as it does this novel that at times I felt there was just a bit too much going on, but that is the style of fantasy fiction born of imaginative and complex worlds and if it didn’t suit me as a reader then that is, as I say, as much a comment on me. Probably if I’d had more experience of this fiction, I would have got everything straight in my head, because I would have gone into reading it with more refined expectations of what I wanted to read in this sort of novel.

Certainly, Elaine White is an imaginative writer who has crafted a very readable book, and it’s clear that without limit to that imagination, she has much more to offer her readers.

****

You can find out more about Elaine and her writing at her website. You can find out more about Evie Woolmore and her magical realist novels here.

 

A stunning review of Evie Woolmore’s The Salt Factory

Author Alan Skinner posted this review of Evie Woolmore‘s novel The Salt Factory on Goodreads. His review – like his books – is worth reading, for its diligence and honesty. And if you ever review books, his blend of the personal and the objective is a style worth evoking.

The line between fantasy and magical realism is not a thin one. Between the two lies a huge gulf filled with literary conventions, belief and, most of all, the difference between suspension of belief and the creation of belief. Evie Woolmore may well disagree but magical realism is about the fantastic seen within the ordinary rather than jostling for room beside it. Marquez, the greatest of all the so-called magical realism novelists, elevated the ordinary into the magical rather than forcing the ordinary to give way to the magical. Woolmore respects that though her brand of magical realism is less flighty than that of Marquez or Borges.

The Salt Factory by Evie WoolmoreIn the Salt Factory, Evie Woolmore deftly teases out the fantastic. It is, perhaps, more mystical than magical but she has a sure grasp of her spirit, never letting it slide into the mundane and facile supernatural. While we might guess where she is going, the trip there is what matters, not the arrival.

It is best that I make clear my interest in writing this review. To say I am writing this review only because I liked the book would be to state only half the truth and since the unspoken half could unfairly damage the credibility of the review, it is best to come clean.

Last year, Evie, as reviewer for Awesome Indies and her own book review blog, Allonym Books, produced a very generous review of one of my books. Now, I detest the practice of cross reviews, where authors make a pact to review each other’s books. Readers deserve more honesty and transparency than that. It never occurred to me to to even read one of Evie’s books, let alone review it. I rarely write reviews being far too self-centred to think that any books but mine deserve to be reviewed, and far too busy working on new ones to be distracted. Yet, the intelligence and literary grace of Evie’s review piqued my curiosity and I found myself buying The Salt Factory.

So, you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is not a tit-for-tat thank you, or part of a bargain made with another author. If I was to bargain away my soul, believe me, I would side with Faust and ask for a much higher price than a review. My soul is worth at least the guarantee of a best-seller, most likely several, with an unusually inspiring Muse thrown in for insurance.

This is a well-written book. Its measured prose flows easily and treads confidently between exposition and description. The book unwinds itself around you. We often talk of a book as being a page-turner as if that were some automatic measure of value but it seems to me that the page you can’t bear to leave is a better mark of a well-written book. The reader should want to remain with, to to linger over, each page, rather than rush past it to see the next one. And that is the type of book Evie has written; the well-written page-lingerer, like the novels of Henry James.

That is not to say that it plods or is dull. It has a compelling storyline that moves along briskly enough with only one or two brief and barely noticeable quiet spots. And its main protagonist, Thelonia Jones, is an intriguing and unusual creation: a English-born, gunslinging US marshall not afraid to be masculine but not compelled to be so. Children and adolescents may well like and need kick-ass heroines but feisty, independent and smart ones like Thelonia serve adults better.

Disconnection and displacement are obviously important and interesting themes to Woolmore for they loom large in the book. In fact, it is a book populated by the disconnected or those connected to the wrong people or places, almost like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that is pulled apart, shuffled and re-assembled. When Woolmore gradually pushes the pieces back together, we realise that the landscape actually hasn’t changed at all but that we’re just looking at it from a different horizon.

It isn’t a deeply profound book but it does’t set out to be. It is a reflective, thoughtful, intriguing book. There’s a mystery at its heart but it isn’t a whodunnit. I’m not even 100% sure there’s a defined solution. I know I came to my own, one that satisfied me, but perhaps it isn’t the same one as Woolmore intended. It doesn’t matter; she only wrote it. I read it. And it worked for me.

*****

Evie Woolmore’s The Salt Factory is available from all Amazon sites. And if you want to try before you buy, you can read an extract here.

Indie Book Reviews (12): British Indie Authors (3)

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore reviews Alan Williams’ novel The Blackheath Seance Parlour (available from Amazon)

My own interest as a writer in the spiritualist world of the Victorian and Edwardian eras drew me to this novel, but if you are looking for a good historical novel with plenty of authentic detail then there is much to appeal here. Middle-aged sisters Judy and Maggie Cloak have inherited a shop in the windswept, weather-beaten village of Blackheath on the outskirts of east London, but it is doing badly in its current incarnation as a sweetshop and the Cloak sisters are getting desperate. Judy has ambitions to escape both literally and metaphorically through a gothic novel she is writing, while Maggie seeks solace in drink from her sense of abandonment as a daughter and a prospective wife. Their lives change with the arrival of the rather mysterious Mrs Walters, a woman of some spiritual ability, who soon helps the sisters transform the shop into a focal point for many contrasting things: gossip, hope, faith, belief, mystery, and all the trappings of the occult. But the initial success of tea leaf reading is not enough for Maggie, Judy or Mrs Walters, and the story explores how the paths of each woman diverge as they seek their own resolutions with the past and the future. The novel is also intercut with long extracts from Judy’s novel, through which she explores certain aspects of her own reality and the society to which she imagines belonging.

The other main character in this book is the village of Blackheath, and Williams notes at the end of the book that he wanted to do justice to the community and its history as part of his aim in writing the novel. He captures very effectively the bleakness of the heath as it must have been in the Victorian era, and with a subplot around the murder of two girls, he infuses a certain chill in the already atmospheric spiritualist action. He has also done great justice to what must have been substantial research of spiritualism in the Victorian era. In the scenes where the sisters and Mrs Walters are reading tea leaves and the glass ball, and later the seances themselves, he has drawn very authentically on reports of the time, both of the fake and the genuine, and that level of accuracy will please readers of historical fiction and those interested in spiritualism.

It’s interesting too that he has essentially focussed on three middle-aged women, and he explores the social confinement these women must have felt in being unmarried while also seeking to be independent. Each woman is seeking something different as a consequence, and while their stories are interesting I wasn’t always as convinced by the historical authenticity of their actions and particularly some of their dialogue. Without giving too much away about how the story develops, some more spiritually-inclined readers might think it a shame that the most talented character spiritually was also the least attractive personality. It also might be seen by some readers as not doing much for a feminist agenda: the social emancipation and independence each of these women is seeking is in a way undermined by the lengths they go to to achieve what they want, and in some ways none of the women comes out of it very well. I was also a bit disappointed by the way Mrs Walters’ storyline resolved itself and not entirely satisfied with what happens to Maggie. But to discuss that at any length would be to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book.

As in my own spiritualist novels (search for Evie Woolmore), there is some discussion about the science vs religious faith vs spirituality conundrum, and this appears in the last part of the book only. It would have been interesting to do more with this much earlier in Maggie’s arguments with Father Legge, although it makes a very fitting climax dramatically in other respects. The book – though quite long – is generally well-paced, although I personally didn’t engage as much with the extracts of Judy’s novel. I think there could have been fewer of them and shorter ones too, without detracting from the part they played in reflecting some of the real-life action and the issues that arise for Judy as a consequence of writing the book.

This is a historically detailed novel, which I’m sure residents and those familiar with Blackheath will much enjoy for its local portrait, and which will provide a good escape on a wintry evening or two.

*****

Evie Woolmore is the author of historical novels with a spiritual twist. If you enjoyed The Blackheath Seance Parlour, you will probably enjoy her novel Equilibrium too, available at Amazon.

Indie Book Reviews (10)

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore reviews a curious journey.

My Problem with Doors by Scott Southard (Amazon UK and US)

Jacob has a problem with doors. From time to time, when he walks through one, his life changes in a flash, transporting him across time and space, interrupting the flow of a normal life with the juxtaposition of extraordinary characters and challenging experiences. Just as he gets used to one life, one period in history, just as he builds relationships that are meaningful to him, so is he snatched away by some mysterious hand of… Well, of what? Of fate? Of God?

It’s a really interesting premise for a novel, that of a wanderer through time whose destiny and purpose is uncertain. He encounters somebodies and nobodies, revealing the truth behind some of the most notorious characters in history, and the smaller but no less significant stories of every day individuals. Indeed, in some senses this is a novel of two halves. While it begins as a narrative romp through history, told by Jacob himself who is scratching out his memoirs a candle at a time, it becomes increasingly a reflective existential analysis. What is the point of all this diversity of experience if I can’t change anything about my own life, let alone anyone else’s?

And therein lies the novel’s strength and, for me, its weakness. There is a richness of imagination in Southard’s telling of Jacob’s tale, of the places he sees, the events he witnesses, the characters he meets and falls in love and in hate with, is helped and hindered by. He witnesses some extraordinary periods in history and it would be a remarkable novel if that were what it chose to focus on as story-telling and imaginative odyssey, contrasting the values, people, places, morals, the continuity of human emotion and experience and the differences. And there is some fine, well-constructed story-telling, particularly the sections featuring the Shelleys and Byron, though less so those with Jack the Ripper. There are though some contrivances around Jacob’s increasing desire to explain why he is enduring this journey, including his desire to change the course of one particular event in recent American history which feels a little unnatural in the course of the novel. There are so many events in the history of the nation, and given that we are never really sure of Jacob’s nationality for he is not explicitly, patriotically American but rather a citizen of time and space, why does he choose to focus on that event rather than the Holocaust, for example, as a means of finding out whether his ability to move in time could change the course of history?

There is a love story too at the centre of this, and perhaps it is the most compelling theme in the novel, for it is this aspect of his life which transforms Jacob and changes him from a travelling storyteller into a journeyman of a different kind. Yet perhaps, like Jacob, we too end up with more questions than answers. I found myself wondering why Southard had chosen the events he had for Jacob’s story, why those famous historical people, why I felt dragged in and out of the story, sometimes utterly absorbed and sometimes jerkily aware of the story’s construction in equal measure. This is such an original idea for a novel which is at times really well executed but which at other times left me frustrated and wishing for more fulfilled potential.