Today I’ve got a guest post from Heather Child, author of the spookily brilliant Everything About You (you can read my full review here)
AIs are becoming more like designer friends
Google Assistant and Alexa haven’t always been on our wavelength. Alexa went through a period of terrifying people with its witchy laughter, and has been known to record private conversations and email them to other users, as well as making some serious blunders with shopping lists.
It probably got a lot of abuse from users as a result, and perhaps this is why some of the new generation of intelligent assistants are being designed to be less ‘assistant’ and more ‘friend’.
Microsoft’s Xiaoice, an AI styled as a teenage girl, has 660 million users and mixes in emotions and empathy – she doesn’t always answer questions, but learns to be more ‘human’ every day. People send her gifts and seek her advice on all kinds of personal issues.
In Everything About You, the AI has been built from the data of the main character’s foster sister, meaning the relationship is personal from the very beginning.
So we started with search engines, and now we have helpful ‘friends’. It’s a blurring moment between service technology and humanity, and our perception of ‘friendship’ could potentially change as a result.
A Japanese man who married a hologram (again modelled on a teenage girl) hit the headlines last November, and he is one of thousands who have married similar AI characters. Part of the attraction of these virtual friends and partners is that they don’t come with the challenges of a real human. With some virtual girlfriends such as Kari, you can tailor the personality to your liking. On forums users discuss how they’ve dialled up certain traits on their Kari, making her super horny and anti-feminist (these forums make for unsettling reading). But I digress…
When it comes to designing friends, there is a lot of temptation to make designerfriends. As in Everything About You, the companions we choose will fulfil our deepest needs, whether they are home-made, idealised, or built like snowmen from the data of people we have lost.
about the book
THINK TWICE BEFORE YOU SHARE YOUR LIFE ONLINE.
Freya has a new virtual assistant. It knows what she likes, knows what she wants and knows whose voice she most needs to hear: her missing sister’s. It adopts her sister’s personality, recreating her through a life lived online. But this virtual version of her sister knows things it shouldn’t be possible to know. It’s almost as if the missing girl is still out there somewhere, feeding fresh updates into the cloud. But that’s impossible. Isn’t it?
Delighted to welcome Neil White, author of The Innocent Ones, to the blog today for a guest post. It’s not Neil’s first time here, as he’s already had a chat with us about plotting his novels and setting up a new series. So I was intrigued to see what he’d come up with this time around for his new book. More about that new book later (it sounds fantastic), but this time Neil is here to talk about influences. They’re hard to define…
Without, as they say, further ado, over to Mr White.
Influences are hard to define, because our whole life influences us, those small things along the way, like the people we meet and the places we visit. For a writer, it’s more about looking at what impressed me along the way and made me want to emulate it.
Books are the first thing to consider, because to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.
As a child, I followed the well-worn path of Enid Blyton, and I longed to visit islands where weird uncles forbade me from going in secret tunnels. As a young kid on a Wakefield council estate, this was never going to happen, but perhaps that was why I was a dreamer. In Enid Blyton, I read about lives and places I could only imagine, so my imagination was fed and took me away on different adventures.
The Three Investigator Series from Alfred Hitchcock was another big favourite, and I remember reading it in bed and feeling that delicious thrill of terror, where I was scared to turn the page but knew that I had to. From then, that was what I sought in books, that churn of the stomach, the tightness of the chest, and it took me to horror for a while. Stephen King was in his pomp when I was a young teenager and I lapped those up. And James Herbert. And Peter Straub.
My father was a big science fiction fan but I could never quite get it. I did read all the Doctor Who novels, and in fact loved them more than the television versions. You don’t get wobbly sets and naff costumes in the novels. Instead, you got the vision of the storyteller but unhindered by costume and set budgets. Once I decided I wanted to be a writer though, it was always going to be crime.
I was thirty when I decided, having just qualified as a solicitor (I went to university late – that’s a whole other story) and I needed a new challenge. I’d ditched horror by this stage, after finding myself rarely scared anymore, but crime never failed to intrigue me. I’d even chosen crime as my preferred field in my legal career. Perhaps it was those Petrocelli episodes back when I was a child (if you don’t know it, Google it).
My throwaway line has always been that I became a writer because I never learned to play the guitar. Perhaps there is some truth in that. One big draw for me in my musical preferences was the quality of the lyrics. From the age of around fifteen, books took a backseat to music, but I was always drawn to some well-spun words, particularly when they tell a story.
I grew up surrounded by Johnny Cash, my father’s obsession, and his songs were always small stories set to music, and often about criminal justice, in a loose sense. Prison songs, gunfighter ballads, tales of murder and revenge. When I think back through my favourite artists, lyrics have always been at the forefront.
Paul Weller, back in his Jam days, was my first big love. I was only seventeen when The Jam disbanded, but I managed to see them twice, and in the years that followed I would spend many happy hours talking about his lyrics or reading the album sleeves. Going Underground is just about perfect lyrically, summing up that feeling you get when the world around you seems insane. Town Called Malice is a perfect little tableau of small-town life in Thatcherite Britain.
The Style Council occupied my devotion for the next few years, and I was always straight to the record shop to buy the new single on twelve-inch and pour over the musings of the Cappuccino Kid.
The quality waned though and my next loves were The Smiths and The Pogues, both lyrically-fantastic. Shane McGowan is one of the best lyricists the UK music scene has produced, even through his boozy haze, and Morrissey one of the most unique and poetic.
One of my favourites though is Paul Heaton. I’ve followed him through all his versions, from The Housemartins to the Beautiful South and then into his solo career, and I don’t think anyone can touch him for lyrics. Sharp, often witty, he just nails it for me.
The reason I’m talking about music rather than writers is because I think prose isn’t about words or descriptions, but about rhythm. The words have got to bounce and roll, with no missed beats or bad notes. The reading should be effortless, and it’s the rhythm that drives it.
That isn’t to say that writers haven’t influenced me. I was trying to write when Lee Child’s first book, Killing Floor, came out (and if we’re going back to music, it’s also the title of a Howling Wolf song). When I read it, I realised that I wanted to write like that, where the pages just turn themselves.
In terms of style, however, my main influence was W.P. Kinsella. Many of you might not know of him, but he wrote many whimsical tales set around Iowa and similar areas, often with a baseball background. His most famous book is Shoeless Joe, which was made into the film Field of Dreams, with Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta.
What I loved about his writing style was that it took the reader straight to the porch of an Iowa farm, corn blowing in the breeze, and there was a real poetry to his writing. It was his style that was the first that I tried to mimic, and again it was about the rhythm. To give an example of how I tried to emulate it, here first is a paragraph from Shoeless Joe:
“Two years ago at dusk on a spring evening, when the sky was a robin’s-egg blue and the wind as soft as a day-old chick, as I was sitting on the verandah of my farm home in Eastern Iowa, a voice very clearly said to me, “If you build it, they will come.””
This is a paragraph from my second novel, Lost Souls:
“She was standing by an open-plan lawn in a neat suburban cul-de-sac, with the hills of the West Pennine Moors as a backdrop, painted silver as the rising sun caught the dew-coated grass, just the snap of the crime-scene tape to break her concentration.”
The rhythms are similar.
In terms of influences, there have been many, but the biggest one in terms of finding my style was W.P. Kinsella.
Thanks Neil, fascinating stuff!
The Innocent Ones, by Neil White is published by Hera Books on 24th April 2019. You can find Neil on twitter @NeilWhite1965. The blog tour continues tomorrow!
By day, the park rings with the sound of children’s excited laughter. But in the early hours of the morning, the isolated playground is cloaked in shadows – the perfect hiding place to conceal a brutal murder.
When London journalist, Mark Roberts, is found battered to death, the police quickly arrest petty thief, Nick Connor. Criminal defence lawyer, Dan Grant, along with investigator Jayne Brett, are called to represent him – but with bloody footprints and a stolen wallet linking him to the scene, this is one case they’re unlikely to win.
Until help comes from an unlikely source…when the murder victim’s mother says that Connor is innocent, begging Dan and Jayne to find the real perpetrator.
Unravelling the complex case means finding the connection between Mark’s death and a series of child murders in Yorkshire over twenty years ago. Father of two, Rodney Walker, has spent years in prison after being convicted of killing of 6-year-old William and 7-year-old Ruby back in 1997.
Welcome to day three of the ingredients which make up Rosewater. Today Tade is going to talk about the characters of Rosewater.
Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless—people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumoured healing powers.
Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again—but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.
My secret is that in ROSEWATER I’ve written a stealth character-based novel, but don’t tell anyone. It would have been career suicide to pitch that to a core science fiction audience which is used to massive world-building, technology-porn and space battles.
At its core, ROSEWATER is a character study of Kaaro. Everything else is built around him and the exigencies of his existence. I wrote about two periods in his life to create the illusion of a different character, since he changed significantly from his youth.
I read in all genres, and what I’ve always enjoyed is how writers approach character. My favourite books focus on character. Even Frankenstein is more of a study of creator of the monster if you forget what you see in the adaptations.
I’m not a fan of the cheap character arc, and I don’t believe people change significantly (sorry, self-help folks!). I just like to know how people become…people. Were they secure in their childhood? Did their mother love them? Did they fight or appease bullies in the playground? Who do they love and why?
This was the kernel from which ROSEWATER grew. Who is Kaaro? Where does he live? What does he want? Why does he want this? Does he get what he wants?
That is the simple premise of the book. The aliens are incidental.
Rosewater by Tade Thompson is published by Orbit Books, and is out now. It’s really really good. You should read it.
Delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Hugh Fraser’s Stealth, the fourth book in his bestselling Rina Walker series, following on from Harm, Threat and Malice.
Today I’ve got a short extract from Stealth for you.
I’m sitting at a corner table in a pub in Wardour Street waiting for Bert Davis. It’s Friday night and the place is heaving. I look at my watch, see it’s near closing time and I’m wondering if he’s going to turn up. He wants to talk about a bit of work his governor George Preston has got for me. I’ve been able to stay well out of the game since I scored the money my dad left behind from a blag he pulled off before he got shot, but George, who ran a big firm with my dad, has got so much on me he could have me away for life anytime he wants. Even though I doubt if he’d break the code, I can’t risk turning him down. The landlord shouts time and I’m about to finish my drink and leave, when I see a face called Jack Fenton coming through the crowd with his eye on me. He’s big man with a long reach and I’ve seen him do some damage in the ring. He sits down and leans across the table until his ugly red face is close to mine. ‘You think you’re so fucking clever, you slimy little bitch.’ I put my hand in my jacket pocket and slip my fingers into the knuckle duster. ‘I know you offed Charlie and I’ll have you screaming in pain with a blade up your drawers before I do you the same way you did him.’
Stealth, by Hugh Fraser is published by Urbane Books on 4th October. You can buy a copy here.
When a step out of line means a fight to the death…London 1967. A working girl is brutally murdered in a Soho club. Rina Walker takes out the killer and attracts the attention of a sinister line-up of gangland enforcers with a great deal to prove.When a member of British Military Intelligence becomes aware of her failure to fulfil a contract issued by an inmate of Broadmoor, he forces her into the deadly arena of the Cold War, with orders to kill an enemy agent.Rina needs to call upon all her dark skills, not simply to survive but to protect the ones she loves.
Hugh Fraser is best known for playing Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s ‘Poirot’ and the Duke of Wellington in ‘Sharpe’. His films include Patriot Games, 101 Dalmatians, The Draughtsman’s Contract and Clint Eastwood’s Firefox. In the theatre he has appeared in Teeth’n’Smiles at the Royal Court and Wyndhams and in several roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He also composed the theme to Rainbow!
Delighted to welcome Ruth Dugdall to the blog today to celebrate the launch of her new book, The Things You Didn’t See. It’s a tense psychological thriller, a novel about families and love. It is about the nature of guilt and innocence. It is about the secrets we keep, especially from ourselves.
But more about the book later. First Ruth will be telling us a little about sleepwalking, synesthesia and other stories.
Over to Ruth…
When my mum was a girl she would inwardly groan if any relative ever bought her a book. As an adult the only ones she ever opened were cookbooks, and yet she is a natural storyteller. She likes dark tales, and she likes to tell them again and again. And she’s good at it – I haven’t watched Coronation Street in years but I know exactly what’s happening! I grew up with Mum’s stories, and would ask for specific ones the way you might ask for a favourite food or film, enjoying the familiarity of it.
One of my favourite stories was about my great Uncle George, who died before I was born. He was a poultry farmer, living in rural Lincolnshire. He was also a sleepwalker. His sleepwalking was well known locally, especially after the time he jumped through an upper floor window thinking he was still jumping fences on his horse.
One day, so the story goes, George had been culling chickens for market. Wringing their necks and tossing them into a steaming pile of feathers. That night his wife awoke in a panic to find hands tight around her neck. Someone was trying to kill her. She fought and screamed and, luckily, George woke up. He had been dreaming about those chickens.
Years later, I learned about people who had committed grave acts in their sleep, including murder. Some were terribly sad – one boy had killed his father, whilst dreaming he was defending the home from a burglar. Other cases seemed less believable, like the murderer who drove many miles to his victim’s home whilst apparently asleep.
Non-insane Automatism is the legal defence used when someone kills whilst asleep, meaning that they aren’t culpable because they were unconscious. When this defence is used, which isn’t often, the stats show that a jury will believe the suspect only half the time, the other half they convict. It is this defence that Hector Hawke gives in The Things You Didn’t See, after his wife Maya Hawke is discovered at the bottom of the stairs, shot in the head.
The second trait featured in the book is synesthesia, a neurological condition in which wiring in the brain works differently so the senses are blended in an unexpected way. Some synesthetic taste words, others see sounds as colour. There is an argument that we all have a little synaesthesia; many of us listen to music and experience emotions, or associate a smell with a place, or dislike certain words because of how they make us feel. It is a diverse trait, and studies have recently discovered a genetic link, but there is still much more to understand about it.
Holly Redwood is the paramedic who arrives at the farm after Maya’s shooting has been called in. She has a form of synesthesia, known as Mirror Touch, which means that she can feel what others feel. If she sees someone get slapped, her cheek stings. If she sees a couple kissing, she experiences that too.
When Holly sees Maya, who is unconscious and in a critical condition, she can feel her pain. But she can also feel emotions, and within the house are Maya’s husband and daughter. As suspicion builds about what really happened to Maya, Holly must work out what her overloaded senses are telling her, and establish if they can be trusted. For someone wishing to solve a crime, synesthsia can be a talent, so long as they know how to interpret their feelings.
The title, The Things You Didn’t See, refers to both traits: sleepwalkers don’t see clearly, even though they move with their eyes open. Synesthesics sense things beyond their vision. The crime at the heart of the book can only be solved if these two things are addressed, and Holly and Cassandra must work together to do this.
I don’t know if my mum will read my book, but I’m grateful to her for sharing her stories. And thank you for letting me share mine with you.
Her instincts are telling her something isn’t right… On a chilly morning in rural Suffolk, Cassandra Hawke is woken by a gunshot. Her mother is clinging on to her life, the weapon still lying nearby. Everyone thinks it’s attempted suicide—but none of it makes any sense to Cass. She’s certain there’s more to it than meets the eye. With her husband and father telling her she’s paranoid, Cass finds an unlikely ally in student paramedic Holly. Like Cass, she believes something is wrong, and together they try to uncover the truth. But is there more to Holly’s interest than she’s letting on? With her family and loved ones at risk, Cass must ask herself: is she ready to hear the truth, and can she deal with the consequences?
Ruth Dugdall studied English at university and then took an MA is Social Work. She worked in the Criminal Justice System as a social worker then as a probation officer. Her novels are informed by her experience, tackling human relationships at their most dysfunctional. She lives in California with her family.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Christopher Fowler to the blog as part of the tour for his new Bryant & May book, Hall of Mirrors.
Without further ado, I shall turn the floor over to Mr Fowler…
ARTHUR BRYANT: ‘These hippies are selfish and irresponsible. I’ll tell you what made our nation the bastion of patrician morality it is today; the ability to be profoundly miserable. It’s one of our greatest strengths, to be ranked beside shutting the boozers at ten thirty and regarding the waterproof mackintosh as an acceptable item of clothing.’ – From ‘Hall Of Mirrors’
In case you haven’t encountered them before, the Bryant & May mysteries are a bit different. Readers often ask me what they’re most similar to, and I’m really hard pushed to think of anything they’re like.
You could say that Arthur Bryant and John May are Golden Age detectives who’ve been left behind in a modern urban world. They head the Peculiar Crimes Unit, London’s oldest specialist police team, a division founded during WWII to investigate cases that could cause national scandal or public unrest. (My father worked in something very similar.) They’ve been there forever but won’t leave – and why should they when they still solve the cases that defeat everyone else?
The technophobic, annoying Bryant and smooth-talking modernist May, together with their glamorous sergeant Janice Longbright, head a team of misfits who I suppose are just as likely to commit crimes as solve them. The books are written chronologically, but I’ve cunningly arranged it so that they can be read out of order (in fact, some volumes benefit from doing so).
The cases take on the different styles of the classic detective stories.
The latest one, ‘Hall of Mirrors’ is, incredibly, the 16th volume featuring my senior detectives. This one, according to Bryant’s deeply unreliable memoirs, is set back in swinging London, in a grand country house called Tavistock Hall. Back then the detectives were young and energetic (they’re always playing silly word games) and are ready to solve a proper country house murder.
The interesting thing about writing flashback cases is getting immersed in the period and writing about the recent past with a fresh eye. I had a lot of fun with the fashions! Although ‘Hall Of Mirrors’ is very mischievous, comedy still requires a moral viewpoint. Humour and tragedy go together very well in crime novels. However, I have to follow a set of rules, one of which is that the serious parts of my plot are taken seriously, while the comedy comes from character.
It helps that my detectives are facing mortality, as it lets me use graveyard humour. I’m very careful to respect victims and honour them over villains. I don’t like books in which women are always the victims, and even when I’m being funny there is a serious intent underpinning the laughter. The mysteries reflect the way we learn to deal with life, and you’ll always find a strong underpinning of reality in the books. There are often arcane details about hidden or secret London that I’ve discovered in old libraries. Many of the weirdest facts I use are absolutely true.
Having said that, I love writing Arthur Bryant most of all, because he’s so mischievous, and is usually described as looking like a disreputable teddy bear. He gets away with being rude to people because he’s everyone’s cheeky old grandfather, and knows that people will miss him when he’s gone.
You can find Christopher Fowler on Twitter- @Peculiar.
Hall of Mirrors was published in hardback by Doubleday on 22nd March 2018.
The year is 1969 and ten guests are about to enjoy a country house at Tavistock Hall. But one
amongst them is harbouring thoughts of murder…
The guests also include the young detectives Arthur Bryant and John May – undercover, in disguise
and tasked with protecting Monty Hatton-Jones, a whistle-blower turning Queen’s evidence in a
massive bribery trial. Luckily, they’ve got a decent chap on the inside who can help them – the one
armed Brigadier, Nigel ‘Fruity’ Metcalf.
The scene is set for what could be the perfect country house murder mystery, except that this particular get-together is nothing like a Golden Age classic. For the good times are, it seems, coming to an end. The house’s owner – a penniless, dope-smoking aristocrat – is intent on selling the estate (complete with its own hippy encampment) to a secretive millionaire, but the weekend has only just started when the millionaire goes missing and murder is on the cards. But army manoeuvres have closed the only access road and without a forensic examiner, Bryant and May can’t solve the case. It’s when a falling gargoyle fells another guest that the two incognito detectives decide to place their future reputations on the line. And in the process discover that in Swinging Britain nothing is quite what it seems… So gentle reader, you are cordially invited to a weekend in the country. Expect murder, madness and mayhem in the mansion!
Christopher Fowler is the author of more than forty novels (fifteen of which feature the detectives Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit) and short story collections.
The recipient of many awards, including the coveted CWA ‘Dagger in the Library’, Chris has also written screenplays, video games, graphic novels, audio plays and two critically accalimed memoirs, Paperboy and Film Freak. His most recent book is The Book of Forgotten Authors, drawn from his ‘Invisible Ink’ columns in the Independent on Sunday. Chris divides his time between London’s King Cross and Barcelona.
Today I’m delighted to welcome James Stansfield to my little blog. James is the author of Anaconda Vice, which is published by Manatee Books.
The main character in Anaconda Vice is Lucas Winter, a retired pro wrestler who finds himself stranded on a lonely highway late at night, out of gas, near the small town of Anaconda, where nothing it quite as it seems.
More on that later – first, over to James!
Wrestling with Character
My debut novel Anaconda Vice introduces the world to Lucas Winter, a man whom on first glance may make for an unlikely action hero. Lucas isn’t a cop, a former soldier or hard-boiled marine; he’s a wrestler. More specifically, he used to be a wrestler until an injury cut his career short.
So why did I choose to make my protagonist a wrestler?
The old adage is that you should write about what you know. I’m not a cop, former soldier or hard-boiled marine and whilst I’m not a wrestler either, I have been a big fan of pro-wrestling since I was fifteen. Over the last twenty-five years I’ve followed wrestling through it’s good times and bad, initially cheering for Bret The Hitman Hart and Shawn Michaels, through being a Triple H fan boy and now enjoying the thriving UK scene with the likes of #CCK and Will Ospreay. I’ve read countless interviews in magazines such as the now sadly defunct PowerSlam and several autobiographies. In short, it was a profession I felt knowledgeable enough about that I could write a character who came from that world.
Making Lucas a wrestler played very well into the kind of character I wanted to have in my lead and allowed me to make him suitably different to his peers. As a wrestler, Lucas could be in good shape and physically capable of handling himself in a confrontation but without having to make him an authority like a soldier or policeman. Wrestling is an incredibly physical form of theatre that takes years of training, but ultimately that’s what it is, a performance. Having Lucas come from what is essentially an entertainment background helped form the wise cracking element of his character. I like to think he’s a cross between John McClane, John Cena and Chandler Bing.
A few things happen to Lucas in Anaconda Vice that were informed by his former occupation. At one point he is challenged by the notion that wrestling is “fake”. This is something that is certainly familiar to wrestling fans and no doubt those who step into the ring too. It’s an all too common reaction when a person finds out you like wrestling for them to tell you it’s “fake”, like this is going to be some huge revelation to you. I’ve always found this a rather odd reaction as there’s no way these same people would go to the theatre and boldly proclaim to everyone there that the play on stage isn’t real, but with wrestling it seems fair game. Lucas’ defence mechanisms against this kind of attitude are already firmly in place by the time he reaches Anaconda. It these traits that on occasion don’t help him dig himself out of the holes he finds himself in.
My own view on wrestling is reflected in Lucas’ in the book. When wrestling is done right, it is a form of entertainment that is like nothing else and can lift an audience in the same amazing way as books and movies. I’ve been in wrestling crowds where people have been moved to tears by what’s going on in the ring. I’ve witnessed matches that were so exciting, most recently Wild Boar vs Will Ospreay at Attack Pro Wrestling in Cardiff last January, that I couldn’t sleep once I got home. WWE, the all conquering behemoth of the wrestling world, may be going through something of a creative low at the moment but there’s still a lot of great wrestling out there for fans to get emotionally invested in.
The coolest stuff in wrestling is undoubtedly going on in Britain and Japan right now. The UK has a massive wealth of talent competing in promotions such as Progress and the aforementioned Attack. The shows are getting bigger and WWE have begun raiding the talent pool for their own ends.
Wrestling is a world that is chocked full of different personalities, ideas and stories. It’s a place where people come to cheer the ones they like and boo the ones they don’t and be entertained by a physical spectacle of timing, stunts and storytelling. It’s the place that spawned Lucas Winter and hopefully some of the fun that can be found at the shows has translated into Anaconda Vice.
When Lucas Winter, a retired professional wrestler, runs out of gas on a dark and desolate road, his only thoughts are on getting to the lights of the small town up ahead, getting some gas, and getting out of there…only things aren’t quite what they seem in the tiny town of Anaconda.
Before he has a chance to solve his transport problem, Lucas finds himself in trouble with the law after a local man picks a fight with him…and then ends up dead. Innocent, Lucas fights to clear his name, tangling with the local law enforcement and the family of the dead man, who seem set on taking their revenge. Can Lucas get out alive? And just what is it that the residents of Anaconda are hiding…