Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Intriguing Story from Holloway Prison

As a Crime Fiction writer, I'm drawn to TV programmes about prisons, always on the look out for information that is not normally revealed to the public and bizarre stories. Well - I certainly found one!

Channel 5: Inside Holloway
The current series on Channel 5 - Inside Holloway  whetted my appetite with a curious incident during World War II, when conditions in the jail were decidedly impoverished. Several former inmates of Holloway prison are household names - Ruth Ellis, Myra Hindley and Maxine Carr, for example - but this most intriguing story surrounds a woman called Helen Duncan (1897-1956).
Helen Duncan

Duncan, who had demonstrated psychic ability throughout her life, claimed to produce Spirits from what she called 'ectoplasm' that emerged from her mouth under trance. This was a stringy white substance that was supposed to give form to Spirits and allow them to communicate. Duncan made a living by conducting impressive séances throughout Britain, during which the spirits of the dead were alleged to have appeared, talking to and even touching their relatives. In fact the 'ectoplasm' was a mix of saliva, egg-white, cloth and faces cut out of magazines - essentially Duncan was an expert regurgitator! Her act was alleged to be merely a stage show...

Duncan became unstuck when she performed a séance in Portsmouth in November 1941 and accurately revealed (through the spirit of a sailor) that a battleship, the HMS Barham, had been sunk with 859 lives lost. HMS Barham was not officially declared lost until several months later; its sinking having been kept secret to mislead the enemy and protect morale. Duncan was arrested, but instead of being charged the usual petty fine for vagrancy - she was charged under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which stated it was an offence to falsely conjure spirits.

Duncan was given a prison sentence of nine months in Holloway in January 1944 - many believed the extreme penalty was imposed for fear that she would reveal other damaging military secrets regarding the war effort. In her cell, she was given soiled underclothes to wear, little hot water and no toilet paper (it was common practice at the time to tear pages from the Bibles that were given to prisoners). Still - she didn't appear to be put off by her ordeal and after her release in September 1944, she went on to conduct further seances, although no further charges were brought against her.

Stories like this just send shivers up my spine!
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Aren't Words Fascinating?

Something a little different this week - a glimpse into Etymology, which looks at the origins of common words in the English language - words we usually take for granted, but which often come into standard use through oblique and unusual routes.

This is not to be confused with Entomology - 'the study of insects', which is also a useful tool for the crime writer! Who knows when you're going to need to have your fictional pathologist scrutinise those burrowing larvae, in order to determine the time of death of your corpse?

Anyway - maybe I'll look at forensics another time! Here are three random words I've chosen:

Image: Microsoft
Word: Junk
Definition:  Discarded material, such as glass, rags, paper, or metal, with little or no value. 
Origins:  In 1338, junke or jonke was a nautical term for old ship's cable or rope, from the old French jonc or junc which means rush or reed. The original nautical meaning of junk meant any old piece of rope cut up and used to make fenders and gaskets etc (from Pepe's Diary in 1666). Later the meaning included discarded refuse items from boats and ships, such as sold in marine stores (1842), which led to the term junk dealer.

Marilyn Shea 2005
Word: Kowtow
Definition: To show servile deference
Origins: In 1804, koo-too was the Chinese custom for touching the ground with one's forehead to show respect or submission, taken from the Chinese word k'o-t'ou which literally means to knock the head! First recorded in English as an act of slavish submission in 1834.

Word: Laconic
Definition: using or marked by the use of few words; terse of concise.
Origins: First recorded in the English language in 1583, via Latin from the Greek Lakonikos, relating to the inhabitants of Laconia, the region of Greece of which Sparta was the capital. The Spartans, noted for being warlike and disciplined (hence the adjective 'spartan'), were also known for the brevity of their speech and laconic became an adjective reflecting this quality from 1589.

A little taster of the richness of our language!

Information from:  http://www.thefreedictionary.com, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Psychological Thrillers - 3 Autumn Reviews

Now the nights are drawing in - time for some reviews of recent novels:

Do Me No Harm - Julie Corbin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When her teenage son Robbie's drink is spiked, Olivia Somers is devastated. She has spent her adult life trying to protect people and keep them safe - not only as a mother, but also in her chosen profession as a doctor. So she tries to put it down to a horrible accident, in spite of the evidence suggesting malicious intent, and simply hopes no-one tries to endanger those she loves again. But someone from the past is after revenge. Someone closer to her family than she could possibly realise. Someone who will stop at nothing until they get the vengeance they crave. And, as she and her family come under increasing threat, the oath that Olivia took when she first became a doctor - to do no harm to others - will be tested to its very limits.

I loved the ‘writing’ in this book – it feels like it’s in ‘full-colour’, lots of real-life detail so that you are actually there, rather than ‘reading about’ it. That’s lovely in a writer (although there are also times when I want to read the kind of book when I can be more aware of the writing style itself; the poetry, rhythm, imagery, originality etc).

I sailed through this book, although I didn’t feel the plot itself had me by the throat. It’s a familiar theme; a family drama about the way in which a mistake in the past creates a problem (revenge) in the present. It didn’t throw up many twists or shocking moments, but nevertheless, it felt real and involving. One issue, however, is that we know the identity of the culprit very early on and this leads to a bit of an anti-climax. I also found some aspects of the book rather unlikely - the main character jets off to Ireland leaving her two teenage children behind when they are clearly in danger - somewhat implausible given that she’s portrayed as a deeply caring mother. Otherwise, the main character is well-rounded and worth rooting for. I would certainly read more by this author.

The Good Girl - Mary Kubica
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been following her for the past few days. I know where she buys her groceries, where she has her dry cleaning done, where she works. I don't know the colour of her eyes or what they look like when they're scared. But I will.

Mia Dennett can't resist a one-night stand with the enigmatic stranger she meets in a bar. But going home with him might turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia's life... 

A lot of comparisons have been made between this novel and Gone Girl - perhaps partly because of the title and also because it's about a missing woman. I'm not sure any similarities go further than that - but it's a useful marketing ploy! I really enjoyed this book and it picked up as it went along. The story is about Mia Dennett, an art teacher, who goes to a bar to meet up with her on/off boyfriend. When he doesn’t show up, she takes off for a one-night stand with an enigmatic stranger. Mia thus walks into a trap, abducted as part of an extortion plot to deliver her to the perpetrator's employers. But things take an unexpected turn when he changes his plans on a whim and takes Mia to a remote cabin in the woods, steering clear of his menacing superiors as well as the police.

The story follows the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views from three of the main characters – Mia’s mother, the abductor and the detective. We know who has taken the daughter, so that’s not a mystery, but the unfolding of the story is what counts, with shifts in the key relationships and backstory that gradually reveal motives and new threads. In a slow-burn style, it forces the reader to re-examine the situation. And there's a neat twist at the end which turns everything on its head. An absorbing read.

Thursday's Children - Nicci French
 My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've always loved the novels by the duo that make up Nicci French and have read their books right from the first one, The Memory Game in 1997. After all, their books introduced me to the world of Psychological Thrillers! Sadly, however, I haven't taken to the latest series (using the days of the week, with psychotherapist, Frieda Klein). Estranged from her family, an insomniac, Frieda walks the streets of London at night in an attempt to tame her own demons, but she's too cool and clinical for me. In Thursday's Children, I found her character humourless, cheerless and nothing warmed me to her or the story. If a character is not particularly likeable, she has to be compelling in other ways - and I didn't find this either. Her dialogue is clipped and stilted, keeping the reader at a distance. It was hard to get involved when I wasn't particularly interested in the lead character.

The storyline isn't terribly fresh or exciting, either. Most of the novel is spent raking over sketchy memories of Frieda's contemporaries from the school in her old home town in Suffolk where Frieda left a 'painful memory' behind. In the present day, an old classmate appears in London seeking Frieda's help with her teenage daughter and 'long buried memories resurface.'

The quality of the writing (apart from some stilted dialogue - and presumably that's intentional) is good, solid and admirable 'French', but unfortunately, I didn't find myself rooting for Frieda.

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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Stress Relief for Writers

'Niggle' Box (or 'Gripe' Box)

This is a great exercise for writers. Presumably, you like writing things down and trying to find the exact words to express something! The focus in this instance is not going to be on your fictional endeavours, but on your own personal niggles, quibbles and gripes - whether these are to do with your life as a writer or not.

Image: Fotolia
As a writer, even  if the profession is your ‘dream job’ - there will always be worries, anxieties, irritations and concerns to deal with along the way. In any career - as a teacher, landscape gardener, vineyard manager, parachute stuntman - there will be teeth-gnashing moments - whether it’s vexation with work colleagues, anger at your boss, despair at the work-load, new directives, enforced changes in working-hours, the faulty photo-copier and so on. As a writer, these concerns are likely to hover around areas of uncertainty and insecurity; aching for that great idea to fill out in your mind, finding time and space to get the story down, waiting for feedback from an agent/editor, waiting for figures on book sales, waiting for payments, fraught deadlines, panic when a broken wrist or PC meltdown clashes with a string of last-minute edits to your novel.
The potential for distress as a writer is far-reaching. Take my writer friend, for example; she faced a classic humdinger. Before she secured an agent, an editor at a well-known publisher said she was ‘really interested’ in her novel, but felt the angle wasn’t quite right. She suggested my friend do a complete re-write – which she did – grinding away on the manuscript for nearly a whole year. She contacted the editor a couple of times, but was advised to get back to her once the book was finished. She did so - only to find when she finally submitted the novel, that the editor had left…and no one else had heard of the author or was interested in her book. Grrr… Or there’s a recent one of mine, when I found a gap on my royalties’ sheet. There was no explanation, so I had to ask, only to find that one of my overseas (non-fiction) publishers had gone out of business and wouldn’t be giving me a penny for all the copies of my book they’d sold during a period of three years. Right…

Things you'll need:
Blank paper, pen, small box (eg shoe-box, plastic box for file cards or pencil box).

Filling my 'Gripe' Box...
1. Cut the sheets of paper into scraps of about 7cm square (or tear an A4 sheet into smaller shapes).

2. Identify each issue that is troubling you at the moment – it doesn’t matter where you start, just aim to articulate as many as you can.

3. Write the date and one concern on each scrap. Be sure to write them all down, no matter how big or small – directly related to writing, or not. Include concerns about your family, car, holidays, bank account – anything that’s uppermost in your mind and making you anxious. Be clear, detailed and specific. For example, instead of, ‘Worried about selling the flat’ write, ‘Worried that the current offer will be withdrawn.’ The more specific you are, the more this will work.

4. Take each issue and ask yourself, ‘Is there anything I can DO about this worry?’ If the answer is Yes, write the action you could take on the back (even if you don't feel like doing it right now): ‘I could phone Lucy about this’, for example. It could be a small thing – such as finding a relevant phone number, emailing someone or asking for help etc. Be rigorous with yourself. Most issues have something that can be done about them, even if it is only to talk to a friend about the issue. Have you ever had this issue before? Is it familiar? Look at similar situations in the past and how you dealt with them. How would you advise a friend if they had this problem? Continue until each concern has an action point. Don’t worry about taking the action just yet – just be aware that you’ve noted it, for now. If there’s no possible action, just date it.

5. Fold each sheet of paper and put them all into your box. 

6. Shut the lid.

7. There they are – all in one box – not inside your head. 

8. The next part is optional, but really powerful if you choose to do it. In your mind - offer up the box to someone else for them to take care of it, for you. This could be a loving relative who has passed away, the ‘universal energy’ around us, an Angelic, God or Goddess figure or any kind of higher-power you believe in (or would like to believe in).

9. Once you’ve asked for your worries to be taken care of, you may feel something has shifted. If you didn’t do the last point, just writing down worries helps to shift them outside our heads. Our minds are rather like a ‘washing-machine’ - a tangle of thoughts, fears and worries. This technique helps you to separate out this mass of feelings and inner thoughts – and to set them apart from you. It allows you to work out which issues need attention first and which ones can wait for a while. You will begin to discover the difference between worries you can do something about and those you can't. I often feel a weight has been lifted when I do this exercise – and less powerless.

10. Then - when you feel ready, return to the action points you’ve identified and GO…

If you want to know more - and would like more tips for looking after yourself - I’ve written about dealing with worries extensively, as a Psychotherapist, in The Self-Esteem Journal.
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Spy Thriller – A Most Wanted Man - Film Review

The Story

A Chechen illegal immigrant gets into Hamburg, believed by the authorities to be a dangerous terrorist. Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a German spymaster, always wants to play the long game, waiting it out in order to breech the hierarchy and seize the terrorist leaders at the top. In this case, the asylum seeker isn’t penniless; he’s been left millions in his father’s legacy and everyone is watching to see what he does with it. The CIA are cagey, but give Bachmann 72 hours to pull off his softly-softly approach.

Image: Demarest Films, Potboiler Productions, The Ink Factory, Film4 Productions
Review: 4 of 5 stars.

I very much enjoyed this film of the book (same title) by John le Carré with its superbly understated performance from Hoffman as Backmann – I couldn’t take my eyes off him! He's shabby, appears constantly hungover, world-weary and lonely, yet he's committed to the cause of rooting out terrorism albeit it with a tendency to put his trust where he shouldn't. The film is saturated with typical John le Carré mood: mysterious phone calls, unexplained action and unspoken scenes couched in uncertainty and jolting twists.

What struck me was how dark and threatening this film was without the usual violent and bloody ‘spy thriller’ scenes. I love the Bourne films, by the way, but here there are no manic car chases, no train derailments, no guns. In fact, there is very little violence at all; no one is shot, strangled or blown up, yet the film is brimming with disquiet and menace nevertheless. It’s the simmering undercurrents, the hidden possibilities, as we watch and wait, that make the viewer squirm. Highly Recommended.
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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