Sunday, December 20, 2015

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward, 2015

Review & Interview

Sadler looked out across the whitening square. “I don't think it was ever closed.”

Detective Inspector Francis Sadler is talking about a three-decade old case in which two young schoolgirls in Bampton, a sleepy town in Derbyshire, England, were abducted. While Rachel Jones was found alive, her friend Sophie Jenkins was presumed dead—murdered by their kidnappers.

Way back then, the police investigation remained inconclusive and the case was closed. Was it really? Apparently not.

More than thirty years later, the unexplained suicide of Sophie’s mother, Yvonne Jenkins, in a hotel room, and the discovery of school teacher Penny Lander’s strangled body in a wooded area, comes back to haunt Rachel, survivor of that terrible event of January 20, 1978.

Rachel, now in her late-thirties, is a genealogist who digs up family secrets and histories, but keeps her own strictly under wraps. She’d like nothing better than to forget her past, the little that she remembers, and get on with her quiet life.

But the thing about the past is that it usually catches up with the present, and the outcome is not always pleasant.

When Detective Inspector Sadler and his diminutive partner, Detective Constable Connie Childs, link the two mysterious deaths to the old case, Rachel is sucked back into her past and forced to confront the sordid truth behind the abduction. She becomes an unwitting collaborator in the rebooted investigation of the crime.

In Bitter Chill—the debut novel of English writer and blogger Sarah Ward—is a compelling and well-written story of family secrets within secrets which, while being dark, is not discomfiting.

The novel is like a trident, a spear with three prongs, where each point holds three key plot elements of the story.

One, in spite of being a child-kidnap victim, Rachel becomes a genealogist when she grows up. She refuses to look over her shoulder but you can tell she is curious to know what happened to her and Sophie that day. Her own independent inquiries help her to come to terms with her mysterious past.

Two, Sarah has handled the subject of child abduction thoughtfully and sensitively, not to mention deceptively, because she doesn’t make it easy for the reader to guess why Rachel and Sophie were kidnapped. I had a few ideas, like child trafficking, for instance.

Three, DI Sadler and DC Childs are like two obsessive archaeologists who dig into the ruins of a thirty-year old case and put the skeleton of the crime together. They operate on the same wavelength in this mild police procedural. I expect to read more of their stories in future.

Sarah has written In Bitter Chill with engaging frankness. The narrative is well-plotted, evenly paced, and meticulously clean. The descriptive nature of the story fits in well with the small-town setting where everyone knows everyone by name. The three main characters, Rachel, Sadler, and Connie, are believable and drawn with ease. Each one works on the case with a quiet determination. The genealogist and the two detectives are bound by a common interest—putting a lid on the case and achieving a sense of closure.

On the flipside, at 310 pages, I thought the novel was a touch too long. There were moments when I wanted the author to cut to the chase, but that was largely because I was keen to see what happened in the end. Frankly, I didn’t see it coming. Another plus for Sarah’s fine debut.


I thank Sarah for sending me a review copy of In Bitter Chill as well as agreeing to do the interview that follows.

‘I became a writer because I'm a reader’

Photograph provided by the author.

Sarah Ward spoke to the 3Cs in an email interview, which is split into three parts: the book, the characters and setting, and the author.


Sarah, how did the idea for In Bitter Chill originate? Was the child abduction and murder based on a true story?
It's based on an experience that happened to me as a child when I was walking to school and a woman attempted to persuade me to get into her car. Of course, I didn't go with her. But it left a feeling of confusion that I wanted to explore in my debut novel.

Did you always want to debut with a police procedural?
I see In Bitter Chill as a mix of police procedural and as a standalone book. Although the police investigation plays a role, I feel the book is primarily about Rachel's own investigation into her past.

What kind of research did you have to do for the subject of your novel?
I did a certain amount of tracing my own family tree and also talked to people about the impact of childhood trauma. I was keen to show that Rachel could come across as aloof but that this would be a response to what happened to her as a child.

Were you influenced by other crime fiction authors while writing In Bitter Chill?
Not while I was writing In Bitter Chill, but I suspect that I've been influenced by every book that I've enjoyed reading.

The narrative is slow but evenly paced for most part of the book and then builds up towards the end. Did you plan it that way or did it flow as you went along?
I suppose the flow was natural. I rewrote the book quite a lot, so it's difficult to assess In Bitter Chill objectively. I didn't want the book to be full of shocks but rather a gradual unfolding of the mystery.


Sarah, I thought two of the three main characters, Detective Constable Connie Childs and kidnap victim and genealogist Rachel Jones, were similar in not too obvious a manner. Who or what inspired their characters?
That's interesting as I didn't intend to make them similar.

I see Connie as impetuous and investigating from the heart. She becomes involved in the story of the girls' disappearance when the rest of the team are lukewarm about the chances of discovering what happened those years ago.

Rachel, I see as more resolute, determined to find out what happened to her rather than it being done by an outside agency. She also comes across as slightly cold due to her self-sufficiency. Neither character is based on a real-life person. They developed during the writing.

Is Bampton, the small fictional town in Derbyshire, based on a town you knew well, or maybe, grew up in? 

Bampton isn't based on a real-life town but I wanted it to embody the sort of place where I grew up. There was one high school and one doctor's surgery. You would walk down the street and see someone you knew. It's the type of place where secrets can exist for generations and, at the same time, where everyone knows each other's business.

There is a subtle hint of attraction between Detective Inspector Francis Saddler and Connie Childs. Can we expect them to come together in future?

Who knows. I suspect Connie's path in life won't be a smooth one.

In spite of being an excellent genealogist, why is Rachel Jones reluctant to delve into her own past?

I think people are capable of drawing a distinction between their personal and private lives. I'm also drawn to how people can unwittingly choose professions that have a resonance with their own past.

How real are family secrets in the small towns of England?

I think every family has its secrets. But I think when families live in close proximity to each other, the potential for tension and conflict can be greater.


Sarah, can you take us through your journey as a writer and an author?

I became a writer because I'm a reader. Crime fiction has always been my love but I do read other genres, particularly literary fiction and poetry. I started writing when I was living in Athens, Greece. In Bitter Chill was my second attempt at a novel. Both Sadler and Connie were in the first novel I tried but I decided I liked the characters better than the plot, so I had a second go!

What does writing mean to you? How do you describe the experience?

Umm...hard work! I wouldn't say it comes that easily to me although I have moments when the words flow out. But I am diligent and I try to write something every day. And I'm a conscientious editor and am happy to keep rewriting something until I like the ‘feel’ of it.

Where, when, and how do you write?

Usually in my house although sometimes at a cafe. And I do like to have at least one intense burst during a book's first draft. Mornings are my most productive time, afternoons are hopeless and I try again in the evenings.

How long did it take you to write In Bitter Chill?

About two years with long gaps in between.

What can your readers expect after your brilliant debut?

Thank you! I have just finished the second book in the series which will be called A Fragile Spring. It's coming out in the UK next September. It will feature the same police characters with a new female protagonist and a new mystery.

What books have influenced your writing and who are some of your favourite authors?

No individual book. My favourite crime writers are Agatha Christie, PD James and Ruth Rendell.

Do you have a specific time and place for reading?

Whenever I get a chance. Always in bed and on trains.

Finally, Sarah, what is your advice to budding authors?

Finish what you start and then make it better. I don't think there's any magic formula. Most of the best authors I know are extremely hard working.

Thank you, Sarah.

Reviews by my blog friends and acquaintances

Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery

Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Name?

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading

Rebecca Bradley at Murder Down to a Tea 

Moira Redmond at Clothes in Books

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Thirteenth Day by Aditya Iyengar, 2015

The old warrior lay on a bed of arrows.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the two great epics that most Indians hear about from childhood. At the heart of the larger-than-life stories about royal succession and moral dilemma are dynastic conflicts that take place on a grand scale.

Although the narratives are more mythological than historical, many scholars cite archaeological evidence to suggest that the two wars in the epics actually took place thousands of years ago. Each battle of right and wrong and good versus evil occurs during a yuga, or epoch, in Hinduism.

Mumbai-based writer Aditya Iyengar has set The Thirteenth Day: A Story of the Kurukshetra War (2015) in Kali Yuga—the Dark Age or Iron Age—the fourth and final cycle of life, the times we live in. The Kurukshetra War is the main element of the Mahabharata. It pertains to a fierce struggle between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas, for the kingdom of Kuru at Hastinapura, said to be in modern-day Haryana in North India. 

The succession battle eventually leads to an internecine war fought over eighteen days and decides the fates of the cousins and their friends and allies.

Iyengar infuses a fresh perspective into his story by narrating it through the eyes of Yudhishthira, Radheya, and Abhimanyu, three of several principal characters in the epic who are as flawed as they are infallible.

Yudhishthira, the eldest and most virtuous of the five Pandava brothers, fights his own inner battles as he tries, somewhat reluctantly, to prove he is as good as his more valiant brothers. The man who would be king would rather be elsewhere than on the battlefield.

Radheya, popularly known as Karna, is half-brother of the Pandavas. He lends his warfare skills to Suyodhana (Duryodhana), the Kaurava leader, after he learns the truth about his illegitimate birth to Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. The stable boy grows up to become a great warrior and an expert archer. In this, he is almost equal only to Arjuna, the third Pandava. Radheya is bitter and confused as he struggles with his feelings towards his royal half-brothers and his desire to rule the kingdom as the eldest.

Abhimanyu, the warrior son of Arjuna, is desperate to prove himself on the battlefield. He resents his father’s instructions to stay in the reserves. Skilled in warfare and audaciously brave, the young prince enters the battleground, vanquishes rulers far more experienced than him, and pays with his life.

The thirteenth day in the title of the book refers to the 13th and most decisive period of the 18-day war when the wily Kauravas lure Abhimanyu into the Chakravyuha, a multi-layered battle formation akin to an onion, and kill him in cold blood. The event is seen as a game changer in the war as Arjuna, distraught with grief, vows to destroy the enemy and avenge his son’s brutal death. 

Author Aditya Iyengar
The author explains the premise behind his debut novel in his synopsis. 

“The 13th day treats the Kurukshetra War as a historical event rather than mythology. So the events are explained as if they really happened—without the fantastic elements: the flying asuras, nuclear potential astras and divine intervention. In doing this, I've tried to explain how real events and people become stories and legends, and eventually the myths that become a part of our living heritage.”

He continues, “In a sense, I've written the story as a parallel to our times and while the story is set a thousand years ago, it acts as a mirror to society today. The underlying theme of the story revolves around identity and deals with our need for a positive public impression and the lengths we can go to secure it. All the characters act with a motive to gain greater glory or public currency from the battle. None more so than Abhimanyu, who wants to be remembered as the greatest warrior of his times and who, like any young person, wants to be spoken of 'in the words of bards and poets' (the mass media of those times).”

In retelling a section of the Kurukshetra War, Aditya Iyengar has tried to remove the veneer of mystery and romanticism from the epic and redrawn its feared and revered characters and made them more realistic and appealing. While he has kept the famed celestial weapons of war out of his narrative, he has described the battle on the ground with graphic intensity. The brutality of the Kurukshetra is reminiscent of violent and bloody conflicts of the modern world.

I enjoyed reading The Thirteenth Day because of my familiarity with the epic. The Mahabharata can and has been interpreted in different ways. Iyengar chose to do so from the point of view of three disparate characters and, in so doing, demolished some of the myths surrounding the powerful warriors and the battles they fought. I saw them as more human and less supernal beings.

Iyengar’s writing is good and his narrative is engaging, though it tends to meander through some of the battle scenes. At 260 pages, I thought my ebook was a tad too long. It’d have read crisper with less, but that's the writer's prerogative. A reader not familiar with the Kurukshetra War will find the book of interest as it provides a glimpse into one of ancient India’s premier Sanskrit literature.


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

New Year's Eve, 2011

Theme: Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

I enjoy watching films with big casts of popular and familiar actors, called blockbusters in Bollywood. Of course, blockbusters pertain to mega hits and not the strength of actors, as they usually do in Hindi cinema. The thinking is more the number of actors, greater the entertainment. It doesn’t always work that way unless we are talking of The Dirty Dozen.

New Year’s Eve, directed by Garry Marshall, has a diverse cast that includes both principals and ensemble. The 2011 romcom is all about twosomes caught in various stages of their lives and in different situations on, you guessed it, New Year’s Eve. The various characters put their lives in perspective hours before ringing in the New Year. It’s not a happy time for everyone, though. For instance, we have a dying patient, Robert De Niro, and his caring nurse, Halle Berry, in a hospital setting. Two mature people coming to terms with the realities of life.

You can give the film a miss if you like. There is nothing terribly exciting about it. I watched the film because it was a lazy Sunday afternoon when I didn’t feel like doing anything truly worthwhile. Besides, I wanted to see how Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, John Lithgow, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Josh Duhamel, Hilary Swank, H├ęctor Elizondo, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Ashton Kutcher, Sofia Vergara, Russell Peters, Seth Meyers, and Jim Belushi, among others, got together and entertained the rest of us, in a decent and mild sort of way.

Garry Marshall made Valentine’s Day, a somewhat similar film, in 2010. He seems to be the master of makeup and breakup movies as evident from his other fare that includes Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Raising Helen, and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.