Guest post: The Innocent Ones – Neil White

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. 

The Stars Now Unclaimed – Drew Williams

Delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for Drew Williams’ The Stars Now Unclaimed, from Simon & Schuster. More about the book later – today I’ve got an extract for you.


Chapter One

I had Scheherazade drop me on top of an old refinery, rusted out and half collapsing. Around me the stretch of this new world’s sky seemed endless, a bright sienna-colored cloth drawn over the stars above. I watched Schaz jet back off to orbit—well, “watched” is probably a strong word, since she had all her stealth systems cranked to high heaven, but I could at least find the telltale glint of her engines— then settled my rifle on my back and started working my way down, finding handholds and grips among the badly rusted metal.

It’s surprising how used to this sort of thing you get; the climbing and jumping and shimmying, I mean. On a world free of the effects of the pulse, none of that would have been necessary— I would have had antigravity boots, or a jetpack, or just been able to disembark in the fields below: scaling a three-hundred-foot-tall structure would have been as easy as pressing a button and dropping until I was comfortably on the ground.

Now, without all those useful cheats, it was much more physically demanding—the climbing and jumping and shimmying bits— but I didn’t mind. It was like a workout, a reminder that none of that nonsense mattered on the world I was descending toward, and that if I wanted to stay alive,  reflexes and physical capability would be just as important as the few pieces of tech I carried that were resistant to post-pulse radiation.

By the time I made it down the tower I’d worked up a decent sweat, and I’d also undergone a crash course in the physical realities of this particular planet: the vagaries of its gravity, of its atmosphere, that sort of thing.

Most terraformed worlds were within a certain range in those kinds of measurements—on some, even orbital rotations had been shifted to roughly conform to the standard galactic day/night cycle— but it’s surprising how much small differences can add up when you’re engaged in strenuous physical activity. A touch less oxygen in the air than you’re used to, a single percentage point of gravity higher or lower, and suddenly everything’s thrown off, just a bit. You have to readjust.

I checked my equipment over as I sat in the shadow of the refinery tower, getting my breath back. Nothing was damaged or showing signs of the radiation advancing faster than I would have expected. I had a mission to complete here, yes, but I had no desire to have some important piece of tech shut down on me at an inopportune time and get me killed. Then I wouldn’t be able to do anyone any good.

As the big metal tower creaked above me in the wind, I kept telling myself that—that I was still doing good. Some days I believed it more than others.

After I’d recovered from my little jaunt, I settled my rifle onto my back again—a solid gunpowder cartridge design common across all levels of postpulse tech, powerful enough that it could compete with higher-end weapons on worlds that still had a great deal of technology intact, low-key enough that on worlds farther down that scale like this one, it wouldn’t draw undue attention—and set off across rolling plains of variegated grass.

This world was very pretty; I’d give whoever had designed it that. The sky was a lovely shade of pinkish orange that would likely shift into indigo as night approached. It perfectly complemented the flora strains that had been introduced, mostly long grasses of purple or green or pink, with a few patches of larger trees, mostly Tyll-homeworld species, thick trunks of brown or gray topped by swaying azure fronds. Vast fields of wheat— again, of Tyll extraction—made up most of the landscape that wasn’t grassland; that made sense with the research I’d done before having Scheherazade drop me off.

The research told me that this world had been terraformed for agricultural use a few hundred years ago or so; it had seen only mild scarring during the sect wars, which meant it was a little bit perplexing that the pulse had knocked it almost as far down the technology scale as a planet could go—all the way to before the invention of electric light.

Still, trying to understand why the pulse had done what it had done was a fool’s errand: I’d seen systems where one planet had been left untouched, another had been driven back to pre-spaceflight, and the moon of that same world had lost everything post–internal combustion. There was never any rhyme or reason to it, not even within a single system—the pulse did what it did at random, and looking for a will behind its workings was like trying to find the face of god in weather patterns.

I knew that much because I was one of the fools who had let it off the chain in the first place. That’s why I was here: trying to right my own wrongs.

In a very small way, of course. I was only one woman, and it was a big, big universe. Also, I had a great many wrongs.


I can’t wait to read more. Huge thanks to Harriet Collins from Simon & Schuster UK for inviting me to take part in the tour, and for the review copy of Drew’s book.

The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now. You can find Drew on twitter @DrewWilliamsIRL

AN IMPOSSIBLE MISSION
A century ago, a mysterious pulse of energy spread across the universe. Meant to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, it instead destroyed technology indiscriminately, leaving some worlds untouched and throwing others into total chaos.
AN UNSTOPPABLE ENEMY
The Justified, a mysterious group of super-soldiers, have spent a hundred years trying to find a way to restore order to the universe. Their greatest asset is the feared mercenary Kamali, who travels from planet to planet searching for gifted young people and bringing them to the secret world she calls home. Kamali hopes that those she rescues will be able to find a way to reverse the damage the pulse wreaked, and ensure that it never returns.
THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
But Kamali isn’t the only person looking for answers to unimaginable questions. And when her mission to rescue a grumpy teenaged girl named Esa goes off the rails, Kamali suddenly finds herself smack in the centre of an intergalactic war… that she started.

The Courier – Kjell Ola Dahl

In Oslo in 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly
avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In great haste, she escapes to
Sweden whilst the rest of her family is deported to Auschwitz.
In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum,
who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and
allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, Ester ’s childhood
best friend. A relationship develops between them, but ends
abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.
And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He
wants to reconnect with his daughter Turid. But where has he
been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles
across information that forces her to look closely at her past,
and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

So this marks the third appearance of Kjell Ola Dahl’s books on the blog, and roughly a year apart. First we had Faithless, then The Ice Swimmer, books five and six in his series featuring his detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich. Classic slices of Nordic Noir, both.

And so now we have The Courier, a standalone historical thriller which delves into the dark history of Norway in WWII. The story is told across three time periods – 1942, 1967 and 2015, though the modern-day element bookends the story.

It’s a fascinating tale, told in Dahl’s signature style of short, punchy sentences, once more ably translated by Don Bartlett. It’s a style that in previous books took me a little while to get into, but here it’s like sinking into a familiar, favourite armchair and you’re soon lost in the story.

As with his earlier books, Dahl shows a deft hand with plot, juggling the two main threads between 1942 and 1967 and revealing his cards only when he’s good and ready. Even though we know how things turn out in the quarter century after the earlier chapters, there’s a real sense of menace and genuine peril in the earlier sections.

It’s not just the plot though, character and especially the relationships between them is where Kjell Ola Dahl excels. Fascinating to see Ester grow from the girl who loses her parents to Auschwitz, a courier who is forced to flee to Sweden to escape the Gestapo herself, to the woman she becomes some 25 years later. The world has changed and so has she, but then everything changes again when an old face makes a startling reappearance.

I don’t usually read a lot of historical fiction, but couldn’t resist seeing what Kjell Ola Dahl, the Godfather of Nordic Noir, would come up with. It’s proper, hard-boiled Noir with a wonderfully gritty, distressingly authentic edge.

It’ll keep you thinking for a long while after you’ve finished. Highly recommended.

The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl is published by Orenda Books on 21st March 2019. You can find Kjell Ola Dahl on twitter @ko_dahl.

Huge thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the review copy.

A Gift For Dying – M.J. Arlidge

Adam Brandt is a forensic psychologist, well used to dealing with the most damaged members of society.
But he’s never met anyone like Kassie.
The teenager claims to have a terrible gift – with one look into your eyes, she can see when and how you will die.
Obviously, Adam knows Kassie must be insane. But then a serial killer hits the city. And only Kassie seems to know where he’ll strike next.
Against all his intuition, Adam starts to believe her.
He just doesn’t realise how deadly his faith might prove…

A Gift for Dying is the first book by M.J. Arlidge that I’ve read, and it definitely won’t be the last. Intriguing premise, great characters and snappy pacing make for a great read.

Teenager Kassandra Wojcek has a gift (if you can call it that) – she can see how and when a person will die, just by looking in their eyes. And some of those people will be meeting a very sticky end. A serial killer is on the loose, and she is the key to stopping him. She’s a wonderful character, troubled and alone, but with a deeper, hidden strength that she eventually comes to realise she has.

Forensic psychologist Adam Brandt is faced with a tricky dilemma – Kassie can’t be telling the truth. Or can she? She knows too much about what’s been going on. Is she somehow involved in the murders? Or can she actually do what she claims to be able to?

Arlidge’s writing style tends towards the short and snappy, with chapters coming thick and fast, giving you the excuse to just read one (or ten) more. A Gift For Dying was very hard to put down, and races towards the ending at breakneck pace.

Thanks to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

A Gift For Dying by M.J. Arlidge is published by Penguin and is out now. You can find M.J. Arlidge on twitter at @mjarlidge

The Leaden Heart – Chris Nickson

Leeds, England. July, 1899.

The hot summer has been fairly quiet for Detective Superintendent Tom Harper and his squad, until a daring burglary occurs at an expensive Leeds address. Then his friend and former colleague, Inspector Billy Reed, asks for his help. Billy’s brother, Charlie, a shopkeeper, has committed suicide. Going through Charlie’s papers, Billy discovers crippling rent rises demanded by his new landlord. Could these have driven him to his death? As Harper investigates, he uncovers a web of intimidation and corruption that leads back to the mysterious North Leeds Company. Who is pulling the strings behind the scenes and bringing a new kind of misery and violence to the people of Leeds? Harper is determined to unmask the culprits, but how much blood will be shed as he tries?


The Leaden Heart is the seventh of Chris Nickson’s Tom Harper Mysteries, but the first I’ve read. Set in Leeds in 1899, we find Detective Superintendent Tom Harper sweltering in the long, hot summer. Harper’s old friend and colleague, Billy Reed, comes back to Leeds from Whitby for the funeral of his brother, only to discover that it was suicide. The two friends dig into the mysterious circumstances of his death to discover there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, and some powerful men do not want him uncovering the truth.

I really enjoyed The Leaden Heart. I read a lot of contemporary crime fiction so it was a breath of fresh air to delve back into my adopted city’s past and see it through a different lens. Familiar streets and places brought to life through Nickson’s evident extensive research and love of the city gave the story an extra edge for me. It may be the seventh book in the series, but could easily be read as a standalone as I did. That said, I’d be interested to go back and find out more about Harper and his investigations.

It’s a great story too, full of political intrigue and corruption. Harper is a fascinating character, a solid, no-nonsense old school copper with a determination to get to the bottom of what’s going on, no matter the consequences to his reputation. There’s an interesting subplot too featuring Harper’s wife Annabelle, a Poor Law Guardian investigating the deaths of two young girls and trying to change the minds of the men who make the rules but have no time or desire to listen to her.

I’ve not read much historical fiction, but on the strength of The Leaden Heart, perhaps I ought to add a few more to my reading list!

The Leaden Heart by Chris Nickson is published by Severn House at the end of March 2019. Many thanks to the publisher and author for the advance copy for review. You can find Chris Nickson on twitter @ChrisNickson2 or at his website www.chrisnickson.co.uk

The Raven Tower – Ann Leckie

For centuries, the kingdom of Iraden has been protected by the god known as the Raven. He watches over his territory from atop a tower in the powerful port of Vastai. His will is enacted through the Raven’s Lease, a human ruler chosen by the god himself. His magic is sustained via the blood sacrifice that every Lease must offer. And under the Raven’s watch, the city flourishes.

But the power of the Raven is weakening. A usurper has claimed the throne. The kingdom borders are tested by invaders who long for the prosperity that Vastai boasts. And they have made their own alliances with other gods.

It is into this unrest that the warrior Eolo–aide to Mawat, the true Lease–arrives. And in seeking to help Mawat reclaim his city, Eolo discovers that the Raven’s Tower holds a secret. Its foundations conceal a dark history that has been waiting to reveal itself…and to set in motion a chain of events that could destroy Iraden forever.

Well now. At face value The Raven Tower checks all the regular classic fantasy boxes. A son returns home from afar to take up his father’s post as ruler, only to find that his position has already been filled by his scheming uncle. A kingdom under threat. Mysterious machinations at court. Gods making alliances with mortals.

You know, standard fantasy stuff.

But Ann Leckie takes those standards and twists and pulls them into something new, something different, something quite unique.

It took me a little while to settle into the style of The Raven Tower, as large parts of it are told by a mysterious other, who appears to be talking to Eolo, warrior aide to the true heir to the Raven’s Lease, Mawat. You are doing this, it says. You are thinking that. You go here and see things.

It takes a little getting used to. For this mysterious narrator (don’t worry, all does become clear but you know, spoilers) knows an awful lot about a lot of things, and appears to be almost relating the tale to Eolo from after the fact, pausing only to drift off into stories of what once was, setting the scene for present day tensions against the tapestry of long ago.

And there is a lot of this tapestry of history to read, making the scope of The Raven Tower utterly vast, from the dawn of this land up to present, all told through the eyes of this almost omniscient narrator. The characters are fascinating and well written – I was particularly interested in the power structures in play here, from the enigmatic Raven god, to its Lease and the assembled that made up the court.

So yes, it’s a story of gods and power and what people will do to gain the latter and the price they’re willing to pay to do so. But Ann Leckie does this with such a deft hand that you’re left marvelling at how it’s all constructed. The way she plays with character and language and structure reminded me not a little of the skillful hand of Claire North, and whilst they tell very different stories, they both show a similar joy at playing with expectations.

It’s really hard to say more without spoiling the experience, and I can only urge you to discover the secrets of The Raven Tower for yourself.

Highly recommended.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie is published by Orbit Books and is out now in hardback and ebook.

Huge thanks to Nazia Khatun and Orbit Books for the review copy.

Call Me Star Girl – Louise Beech

Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech
Published by Orenda Books, April 2019
Source: review copy

Tonight is the night for secrets…
Pregnant Victoria Valbon was brutally murdered in an alley three weeks ago – and her killer hasn’t been caught.
Tonight is Stella McKeever’s final radio show. The theme is secrets. You tell her yours, and she’ll share some of hers.
Stella might tell you about Tom, a boyfriend who likes to play games, about the mother who abandoned her, now back after twelve years. She might tell you about the perfume bottle with the star-shaped stopper, or about her father …
What Stella really wants to know is more about the mysterious man calling the station … who says he knows who killed Victoria, and has proof.
Tonight is the night for secrets, and Stella wants to know everything…

Welcome, dear listener. It’s five after midnight and have I got a tale for you to take us through the small hours. Are you sitting comfortably? Got your hot chocolate? You might want something a little stronger this time.

You see this is a story of love and loss, of secrets and lies, of families that once were and might have been. Of obsession. And murder.

Are you still with me, out there in the dark? It feels strange, sat here with just the glow of the mixing desk, talking into the ether. There’s no-one here but you and me. It’s almost like a confessional. A final show, our last chance to share.

So this is a story about a girl and her mother. And what happened when her mother disappeared. As all such stories go, the girl grew up and met a boy and fell in love. Stella and Tom forever and ever.

And then, twelve years later, Stella’s mother came back. And long-held secrets started coming to light. And the world changed. For everyone.

There’s another girl in this story, Victoria Valbon. Poor Victoria is brutally murdered not far from the station where Stella works. And one of Stella’s callers says that he knows who did it…

Secrets and lies. Twists and turns. Where will it all lead, dear listener? Dare you find out?

I read a lot of crime books. Some are good, some are great. This one falls firmly into the latter category. Call Me Star Girl is tautly written, cunningly plotted and twistier than a curly wurly.

Louise Beech has crafted a beautifully dark little tale in Call Me Star Girl, with a creeping sense of menace that leaves you wondering if you locked the doors. You might want to go and check. You never know who might be lurking outside.

Highly recommended.

Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech is published by Orenda Books in April 2019. You can find Louise on twitter @LouiseWriter.