Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Exciting Times: Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2021 by [Naoise Dolan]

When reading a novel, I don’t have to like the main character, but it helps if they have a few redeeming qualities.  For me, Ava doesn’t.

I feel this novel is too clever for its own good.  There are many witty lines throughout, and the use of language is razor-sharp, but it’s all just a bit too pretentious for my liking.

You don’t have to be 22 anymore to remember what it was like.  I thought I would identify with the main protagonist somewhat as I too had been a TEFL teacher and had also worked abroad (not teaching TEFL.)  However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Ava is self-centered, totally lacking in real self-awareness – although from her stream of consciousness ramblings you would think she was as enlightened as the Buddha himself – and totally lacking in empathy or compassion for anyone.   She is also incredibly pretentious.

Ava is in Hong Kong working as a TEFL teacher when she meets a wealthy banker named Julian.  After a few dates, Ava moves in with him.  There appears to be no genuine feeling on either side.  Julian seems perfectly contented to let Ava stay in his apartment rent-free for as long as she wants.   I never understood why.   He could have had the sex without the added complications.

Ava then meets a wealthy Hong Kong Lawyer named Edith, and as their friendship develops you do at least see a modicum of genuine self-reflection on the part of Ava, as she realizes her feelings for Edith are a lot more complicated than she realised. 

I felt the sense of place in the novel was weak.  I didn’t feel the atmosphere of Hong Kong.  Streets and restaurants were named but could have been anywhere.

There were some incredibly witty lines throughout the novel, and I did find myself laughing out loud several times. 

Naoise Dolan, like her contemporary Sally Rooney, studied English at Trinity.  She clearly has an excellent grasp of the English language and uses it to superb effect.  What I feel she lacks is maturity with regard to portraying the complexity of real emotions.   In short, she needs to grow up, and I think as a writer she may produce some incredible work when she does.

Review of Jane’s Away by Clare Hawken

In the interests of transparency, Clare is a friend of mine and was my next-door neighbour when we lived in Zambia. I have known her since we were both kids!  

When I first met Clare she always – and I mean always – had her head in a book.  She was constantly reading, and I was fascinated by this, because I thought I read a lot until I met her!

I then discovered through her letters to me at boarding school – (yes, we both went to boarding school and yes, we did write to each other – no email in those days!) that she was quite the talented writer.  Her letters were always witty, eloquent, and never ever boring.

I am thrilled to see her first book on Amazon, and I couldn’t wait to read it.  I am always honest in my reviews whether the person is a friend or not, but I think if I had truly hated the book, I wouldn’t have reviewed it! These are the joys of having your own blog – you can do what you like!

Fortunately, I am delighted to say that I am far from hating it.   

The narrative is written in the third person, as we are introduced to Roger Kurmudge on his retirement day. It is evident from the start that Roger is interested in one person – himself. He is vaguely aware of others including his wife Jane, in so far as she is there like a comfortable pair of shoes that you don’t realize how much you love until you lose them.

Jane heads off to the hospital to have a day procedure – a mole removed.  Roger duly turns up after his retirement bash to pick her up and discovers that not only is she not at the hospital, but she is not at home, and he has no idea where she has gone.

This is the beginning of Roger’s awakening.  The novel sets out to show what happens when you have taken someone for granted your whole married life and suddenly, they are not there. The realization dawns on Roger that Jane looked after everything, and not only did she do it without complaint, but she loved him even though he didn’t deserve it.   He also discovers that she has a life of which he was totally unaware.  Quite the rude awakening!

The reader is left guessing as to where Jane has gone, why and will she ever return – all questions that Roger asks himself every day as his despair increases.

For me it is the characterization that makes this novel so strong.  Roger’s grandson Alfie is a wonderful character and adds much laughter and poignancy to the book.  He is immediately endearing by dint of calling his grandfather ‘Woger’ and making a beeline for the café whenever they go out – boy after my own heart! Alfie is the catalyst for much of Roger’s transformation and growth.

This heart-warming tale covers a lot of issues such as loneliness, parental angst, grief, and betrayal, but does so wrapped up in humour and a narrative that’s as comforting as a hot chocolate on a winter’s day.

For me, the test of a good novel is whether I care enough about the characters to want to know what happens to them after the story is over. ‘ Jane’s Away’ passed this test with aplomb and I am delighted there will be more to come from the Kurmudge family.

Highly recommend!

The Mayfly by James Hazel

The Mayfly (1) The Mayfly (buy here on Amazon) 

(If you wish to skip the review – but why would you?! Then please scroll down to see an author interview which gives a fascinating insight into the writing of this novel.)

Review: 

Every crime fiction series of note that has lasted the test of time has one essential element – a protagonist that the reader can believe in.  A character who will intrigue and with whom we will empathize and wish to see succeed in his mission.  Charlie Priest, the ex-detective inspector turned successful London lawyer, more than ticks these boxes.

The novel follows a complex storyline with many interweaving plot lines, but it is so well structured as to make it easy to follow.  The novel jumps between the present day and a second but equally strong story line that takes place at the end of World War II, involving another complex character – that of Colonel Bertie Ruck.

Bertie Ruck is investigating a Dr Schneider, a Nazi doctor, who was responsible for experimenting on and poisoning prisoners during the war.  The sinister element of the novel begins here and never falters, as Ruck’s life and that of Dr Schneider form an essential part of the modern-day dilemma in which Priest finds himself.

From the start both storylines steam ahead without ever flagging.  However, this is no flimsy action- packed thriller without substance.  For what separates Hazel’s book from many lesser crime fiction novels is the attention to detail and depth of his characters.  Each character is vividly portrayed, as we delve deeply into their world and find ourselves rooting for some and detesting others in equal measure.

Charlie Priest has a family.  His brother William is in a psychiatric ward after committing several murders.  Charlie has not given up on him and visits him once a month.  Charlie suffers from dissociation disorder which means he can suddenly find himself disconnected from reality and unaware of his actions or what is going on around him.  This vulnerability enables him to empathize somewhat with his brother.  For although he can never condone his brother’s actions, he can understand to some extent what it is to be completely out of control of your own mind.

Charlie’s sister Sarah has not been able to come to terms with Will’s actions.  She has wiped all traces of him from her life, but is a strong support to her brother Charlie and is always there for him.  Her daughter Tilly enables us to see Charlie’s softer side when he interacts with his niece.

The family of Charlie and his colleagues at the law firm Priest and Co enable us to anchor the characters in a real setting, so that when the narrative hits the points where we have to suspend our belief, we can still believe in Charlie and his family and friends.

The central theme at the heart of the novel is the evil perpetrated not just during World War II, but by modern day sociopaths who seek fulfilment at any cost.  The story begins with an intruder to Charlie Priest’s house, the step son of a man who runs a large pharmaceutical organization. The intruder is desperately seeking a data memory stick with names on it, about which Priest knows nothing. This episode is only the first step in a complicated investigation that will take all of Priest’s abilities to solve.

The title of the Mayfly is beautifully interwoven into the narrative and takes on a deep significance as the story unfolds.   As the body count mounts, so does the tension, added to the desperate search for the USB stick and the question of its significance.

Fortunately, Charlie has some very smart colleagues to help him.  The smartest, and the heroine of this novel is the intriguing and lovely Georgie Someday.  Smart, sassy and addicted to the thrill of the chase, she is Priest’s right-hand woman and is there for him every step of the way.   As a woman character I loved her grit, her tenacity and her fearlessness.  Yet she reveals enough flaws and weaknesses to make her human.   Whether her last name is a cheeky teaser by the author remains to be seen, but she is too good a character to leave out of future books in my opinion.

The two parallel stories grow in intensity and the level of fear ratchets up as the novel progresses.  The references to the horrors carried out during World War II by Nazi doctors are horrific, and give an insight into the terrifying evils that were perpetrated during the war.  James Hazel pulls no punches and the reader is left in no doubt as to the lengths to which humans will go to satisfy their depravity, all in the name of a completely perverted and utterly warped belief system.

If there was the rare occasion when people seem to coincidentally have the information that Priest required (Sandra Barnsdale for one) it is easy to forgive, given the complexity of the overall plot and the number of characters and storylines.

The final chapters are chilling and thrilling. James Hazel creates utter spine chilling fear with just a few short sentences:

‘Can you scream….?’ He whispered softly.  ‘Can you scream? I hope so.  Because people have paid me a lot of money to hear you scream tonight?’   (I removed the name so as not to give any spoilers.)

This is a heart thumping page turner with a difference.  It has depth.  The characters are brilliantly portrayed and the narrative is beautifully paced and written with intelligence and heart.

I believe there is to be a second novel featuring Charlie Priest. He will be a character who will win a legion of fans for James Hazel, and deservedly so.    A heart stopping, intelligent crime novel.  Most definitely one to watch.

James_Hazel_author_photo(2)_colour

Interview with the Author: James Hazel:

  1. As a reader, what authors did you love to read as a child, and do you think this influenced your later passion for writing?

I remember reading the Chronicles of Narnia series at a young age and just being mesmerised by the sheer enormity of C S Lewis’s world. More importantly, I also remember watching various TV and film adaptations and, for the first time, realising that most things I watched came from books. This was a trigger for me. I don’t think it was necessarily the moment I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but it was certainly the moment when started to realise how important literature was to me.

  1. When did you first become attracted to writing Crime Fiction and why?

I was relatively late to the party and my interest in crime fiction was really kindled by my wife, who is vastly more intelligent and well-read than me. During most of my twenties I was reading horror and supernatural thrillers (the weirder the better) and, whilst I still enjoy the occasional freaky outing, Jo introduced me to crime fiction and I’ve never looked back.

  1. I learnt a great deal about World War II from my father who had a lifelong interest in the war (having lived through it,) so I wondered where your interest in World War II began, and why it became a pivotal part of this novel?

This started when I was five years old and my grandfather started to tell me about his experiences in the war. My mum was called into school one day and asked about him because I’d told all my teachers he was a prisoner. I think I’d triggered a safeguarding alert. In fact, he had been a POW for most of the war Stalag 18A, a POW camp at Wolfsberg, Austria, having been captured in Greece in May 1941.

One particular story he told me still sends a shiver down my spine. On the 28th December 1940, the HMT Orcades arrived at Suez and the troops, Grandad included, were lined up to embark on one of two ships to Greece. Just before boarding, someone who knew Grandad called him over to the other ship: a regiment there needed a driver. He swapped ships at the last minute. It was to become the most important decision of his life. The other ship was sunk and the troops on it were lost to the sea.

A different ship, a different decision, and I would never have been born. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the war, and the role that fate plays in all of our lives.

  1. Your main character Charlie is complex, in that he is both incredibly smart and at times sure of himself, yet also with a uniquely vulnerable side. Where did you draw inspiration from for this character?

Charlie Priest is a mish-mash of people. First and foremost, he isn’t me. I’m not that cool. There’s bits of me in there, a little, but not much. Charlie is kind of the guy I would want to be if I was infinitely more confident and brighter. He’s like a bespoke fictional role model that I drew from various elements of other characters, from James Bond to Sherlock Holmes to Harry Hole and maybe a bit of Luther too.

  1. This novel is a fascinating mix of the past and present. Could you share some insights as to how you came up with the concept for this story?

It’s a difficult process to breakdown but I guess it went something like this:

  • Create an antagonist that everyone will find universally detestable;
  • Confuse the nature of the antagonist through the introduction of a secret society or cult to exacerbate the sinisterism;
  • Give the antagonists a diabolical motivation, something utterly abhorrent so as to really make the reader want to see the hero prevail;
  • Make the secret society a paedophile ring;
  • Abandon the idea of the paedophile ring because it’s been done before and come up with something else. Something worse;
  • Write The Mayfly

6. Could you name three authors who would be among your top ten favourite authors of all time?

Okay, here goes, in no particular order:

Antony Horowitz – because of his breath-taking ability to not only write novels in his own voice but in the voice of other writers who are, on their own merits, masters of the craft

Val McDermid – The queen of crime has few rivals when it comes to her ability to portray the ugly reality of crime but without it ever being overkill

Stephen King – because nobody tells stories like Stephen King. Nobody.

Thank you for your time James.

I think we can all agree this is a fascinating insight into  both the author and his thoughts behind the writing of this novel.   Away and buy your copy now!