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Written in Red by Annie Dalton

written-in-red

 

Shortly before Christmas, Professor James Lowell is found brutally attacked in his rooms at Walsingham College, where Anna Hopkins works as an administrator. Baffled as to why anyone would wish to harm such a gentle, scholarly man, Anna discovers that Lowell had a connection with her fellow dogwalker, Isadora Salzman, who knew him as an undergraduate in the 1960s, a co-member of the so-called Oxford Six. It turns out that Isadora has been keeping a surprising secret all these years. But someone else knows about Isadora’s secret: someone who has sent her a threatening, frightening letter.

Could the attack on Professor Lowell have its roots in a 50-year-old murder? And who is targeting Isadora and the surviving members of the Oxford Six? Anna, Isadora and Tansy, the dogwalking detectives, make it their business to find out.

Written in Red is the second in the Oxford Dog Walkers Mystery series, and such an enjoyable read. This one kept me up late at night, and cost me a few hours’ sleep, due to my reluctance to put the thing down when it was time to go to bed.

Anna has become a million times stronger, mentally and emotionally, than she was at the beginning of the first book, in which she was tormented and haunted by the horrific events of her past. Isadora, Tansy, Jake and her other friends and family all help her heal, slowly but surely. She becomes a much more stable and happy individual. Throughout the two novels, Anna’s friends help her realise that life is worth living and that it IS possible to keep moving on without forgetting those that she has lost.

However, what I think makes Anna’s story all more the realistic is that she isn’t completely ‘fixed’: she still struggles in certain social situations; still gets scared and claustrophobic and still has troubles lurking beneath the surface. Anna isn’t managing to develop a more quiet, settled life; instead, violence and crime seems to be following her around more often that it ever was. But this time, she’s managing to fight it without completely falling apart. To me, this makes Anna more of a 3D character, and gives us the promise that more character development is yet to come in subsequent books.

I also think that it’s the need for Anna to support others in their times of crises that help her get through things. In Written in Red, it’s Isadora’s past that comes back to haunt her and it’s down to Anna and Tansy and their friends to help her get through it and discover the truth behind a series of killings and threatening letters. A wide range of strange, compelling, colourful characters come out of the woodwork from Isadora’s youth: the dangerous and sinister Tallis, who single-handedly ruins the lives of many of her friends; Catherine, the enigmatic born-again Christian with a big secret, and Professor James Lowell, racked with pain and regret about his actions of his past, to name just a few.

Now, since I was a young girl, Annie Dalton has been teaching me about history through fiction. In her Agent Angel books, the main character zoomed throughout history and I learned so much about various civilisations and events of the past from all over the world. She didn’t stop there: I learned a lot in terms of war and the fight against communism in this book. Annie expertly intertwines a modern-day narrative with diary excerpts and tales from a troubling political time in British history, showing how business, politics and international relations can affect the home lives of normal, innocent citizens.

Another brilliant aspect of this series is that there are also a lot of twists and turns within the books that aren’t necessarily linked to main crime story. These twists build upon the underlying and continuous story of Anna and her world, parallel to the individual murder mystery within the novel. I won’t give anything away here, but I was just as surprised and intrigued by these as I was by the many surprises thrown in my direction by the crime aspect of the story. If you think you know Anna and her life from reading the first book, think again! And if you haven’t read the first book yet, then you are most definitely missing out.

The truth about the killer, and other mysteries, is not revealed until really quite close to the end of the book, and what I particularly loved about it was that it isn’t a straightforward, black-and-white, morally simple case. I defy you to read this book and come out of it thinking that there is only one side to every story.

I seriously loved this book; lovers of crime and mystery will adore it, but it will also appeal to lovers of literary fiction, romance, and even chick-lit alike. Well, well worth a read!

 

 

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The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton and Maria Dalton

I would like to thank the publisher Severn House for the review copy of this book.

 

My copy - on my very battered kindle!

My copy – on my very battered kindle!

When I first heard about this upcoming book, I was incredibly excited about getting my hands on it. I am a lifelong fan of Annie; she is the one writer who made me so passionate about literature and publishing that I actually became a publishing professional myself (currently working for an academic publisher in a job I love.) Throughout my childhood I was in love with Annie’s Angels Unlimited Series – they stuck with me for a long time, and for this reason I really wanted to read this. As a child I read her children’s novels, and now as an adult I have read her adult novel and it’s really made me feel like I have grown up alongside her literature. And the best part of all? She’s just as good an adult fiction writer as children’s fiction writer. What’s even better? Her daughter Maria, with whom she wrote the book, is just as talented.

Now, I want to stress that I genuinely, genuinely loved and enjoyed the book. There is no bias here whatsoever. I’ve often talked to publishing professionals and authors about the need for honest reviews. Gushing about a book just because somebody has sent you a review copy is all well and fine if you’re in it just for the free copies – but that’s not my style! As anyone can see from my book review blog, if there’s something I don’t like about a book, or indeed a whole book I don’t enjoy, I will come right out and say it. As the author Matt Haig stated in a recent book event, there is not enough criticism in book review blogging right now. People are trying to please authors, rather than being honest about the quality of the work. And I agree 100%.

First in the brand-new Anna Hopkins dog walking mystery series: an intriguing new departure for award-winning YA writer Annie Dalton. It is Anna Hopkins’ daily walk through Oxford’s picturesque. Port Meadow is rudely interrupted one autumn morning when her white German Shepherd, Bonnie, unearths a blood soaked body in the undergrowth. For Anna it’s a double shock: she’d met the victim previously. Naomi Evans was a professional researcher who had told Anna she was working on a book about a famous Welsh poet, and who offered to help Anna trace Bonnie’s original owner. From her conversations with Naomi, Anna is convinced that she was not the random victim of a psychopathic serial killer, as the police believe. She was targeted because of what she knew. With the official investigation heading in the wrong direction entirely, Anna teams up with fellow dog walkers Isadora Salzman and Tansy Lavelle to discover the truth.

All this means in this case is that this proves that Annie is genuinely a great writer in a number of genres. The story is carried along at a good pace and I didn’t find myself getting bored or side-tracked at any point, which personally I feel is essential in a murder mystery novel. There is a fantastic twist at the end and nothing is too obvious or easy to predict.

Also crucial to a good novel for me are believable characters. Annie’s characters are three-dimensional, believable, and they each develop and grow throughout the novel in ways that a lot of characters in other books don’t. The main protagonist Anna is a troubled and introverted young woman, haunted by the tragic events in her past. She suffers from social anxiety as a result, and is all but a recluse. Ironically, it is the occurrence of another tragic event that brings her out of her shell and results in a new-found social life, when it was a tragedy which originally robbed her of it. It proves that she has become much stronger emotionally as she has gotten older. But it also says a lot about the people she surrounds herself with – more of Annie’s and Maria’s colourful and skilfully crafted characters.

Jake, the American ex-soldier who was the previous owner of Anna’s White Shepherd dog Bonnie, is one of the characters most able to help Anna find and remember herself and who she was before the events of her past which scarred her mentally and physically. The interplay between Anna and Jake shows how skilled Annie Dalton is at crafting a complicated but effective relationship on the page. Anna finds herself becoming more animated and enthusiastic about life when she is around Jake:

“‘Catte Street?’ he said, glancing back at the sign. ‘That’s not named after actual cats?’
‘No, it really is!’ she said, catching his enthusiasm, ‘because I happen to know that at one point they changed the name from Kattestreete to Mousecatchers’ Lane!’”

An additional character who is also essential in helping Anna keep sane is her grandfather. She nurtures and looks after him to such a touching degree that it’s obvious that this is a part of a subconscious need on Anna’s part to protect those she still has around her. Anna may shy from social situations and find communicating with people difficult, but she hasn’t lost love or the warmth of who she once was. Her deep affection for the immensely lovable Bonnie, her White Shepherd dog who plays an integral role in the book, also reflects this. Bonnie becomes her rock and Annie pulls off the writer’s ultimate goal perfectly – making the reader fall in love with a central character. Along with these there are of course Anna’s new-found friends Isadora and Tansy, so utterly different to her but who compliment her perfectly.

I find that a lot of murder mystery novels, especially those that try too hard to be flat-out bleak and grim in order to achieve a certain pathetic fallacy, are often lacking in richness and depth. This wasn’t so with The White Shepherd. Annie has a beautiful way with words and paints Anna’s world and her home life as a place of total beauty. Annie’s love of nature shines through the book and makes the reader want to step into that world – even if it’s a world often tinged with sadness and pain. Her writing stimulates the senses, as though you’re almost in the book itself.

 

“At the top of a steep hill, the breathtaking view of the valley below stopped them in their tracks. Sandstone cottages were dotted about here and there. In one of the gardens a man was tending a bonfire. Anna could hear the snap of burning wood mixed with the cawing of rooks above their heads. They hadn’t seen a single car since they’d started walking.”

The beauty of passages such as these make for an effective and brutal contrast when the menace and foreboding of a murder mystery is introduced alongside it. It serves to make the unpleasant and grim parts of the novel all the more satisfying, entertaining and gripping.

The novel has a very strong plot, rich in detail and very cleverly done. It is difficult to know what has happened – it truly is a murder mystery.

In all, this is a richly woven tale full of everything that a reader could want – intrigue, mystery, love, sadness, happiness, lovable and believable characters, a strong plot, an unpredictable twist, and most of all, very talented writing. I adored this book, and I urge you read it.

Introducing Children’s Author Annie Dalton

I was extremely excited to conduct this particular Q&A. Today’s interview is with a children’s author Annie Dalton, a woman who can I say with complete confidence is probably the reason I am who I am today: a book lover, passionate about publishing and writing.

I first came across Annie’s books in my local library when I was eleven years old. I can still picture it now; I know people have always said you should never judge a book by its cover, but I was eleven, and that’s exactly what I did. What child doesn’t? The bright, vibrant, happy, colourful front cover called out to me the moment I set eyes on it. It was the first book in the Angels Unlimited Series: Winging It. From that point onwards, I was hooked.

winging it

The beautiful artwork on the Angels Unlimited Winging It book. Here is my (well-worn and read!) copy that I’ve had for 13 years.

Growing up in high school was an extremely difficult time for me. My triplet sisters and I were heavily bullied; it was one of those situations where, if you were different or stood out like a sore thumb as we did, you were either destined to be very popular or the victims of bullying. Sadly, we were the latter. Identical triplets could have been ‘cool’, but we were far too obedient and hard-working and we stayed true to ourselves, rather than changing to fit in. And in a rough, working-class, badly-performing school, that was a recipe for disaster. (It turned out to be the best thing later in life, but kids can be very cruel.)

Annie’s books were the absolute perfect form of escapism for me. That may sound cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. I was immediately drawn to Melanie Beeby, the time-travelling angel. I identified with her because despite the fact that she was an angel in the most sublime place in the universe (Heaven itself, in fact!) she still often felt insecure, isolated, and inferior. All emotions which I felt on a daily basis. But the fact that she could become something so special – and surrounded by people so special – gave me some kind of hope for myself. It was the promise of something special for me, a girl who felt ordinary, mistreated and inadequate, that drew me back to the Angels Unlimited world over and over again.

My collection of (first edition) Angels books. For later novels, the covers were re-designed and renamed Agent Angel.)

My collection of (first edition) Angels books. For later novels, the covers were re-designed and renamed Agent Angel.)

I became such a huge fan of these books that I did a little digging and found Annie’s email address on the HarperCollins website. I emailed her, telling her of my love of her books and Melanie’s world. To my astonishment, she replied! We began talking and BOOM! Ever since then I have had a strong friendship with my most favourite author on the planet. This woman got me and my sisters through some dark days. She then did the most amazing thing – she based some characters in one of her books on the three of us! In the sixth book of the Angels Unlimited series, Fighting Fit, a set of identical triplets based in Ancient Rome were separated at birth, and now lead completely different lives. Mel Beeby’s job is to reunite them or the future of the human race will be in grave danger!

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A form of me finally lived within the pages of my favourite books in the world! I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy as a child.

Throughout my teenaged years, into adulthood and the real, scary, world, Annie has been a true friend and a constant support to me. I’m extremely happy to share her story with you in this Q&A.

At what point did you realise that you wanted to write professionally?

Some people have more than one string to their bow, but I am not one of those people. The only thing I have ever known how to do is to write stories and it took me thirty plus years to get up the courage to do that! Writing for me has always seemed like a natural extension of reading but also of being a compulsive talker and daydreamer. I was always getting in trouble for talking, day-dreaming, or not concentrating at school. I never secretly dreamed of being a published writer when I was a child, as some writers apparently did, simply because (and this is rather embarrassing) I had absolutely no idea that books were written by people! To me, books and the stories inside them were some kind of glorious natural phenomenon that I never thought to question; like apples and clouds, they just were. I did however have an immediate and intense feeling of connection with the world of children’s fiction. Something inside me said, ‘Oh, yes!’ And like a struck tuning fork this childhood ‘Yes’ carried on reverberating over the years, sometimes louder, sometimes pushed into the background, until one day, when my youngest daughter was at school, I sat down at the kitchen table and finally gave into an increasingly powerful impulse to attempt to write a book of my own. 2014-08-10 18.22.59

How did you get into writing, and how did your first book deal come about? How did you feel?

Becoming a writer was a gradual process. There wasn’t any one big epiphany, more like an accumulation of moments and influences. I grew up in 1950s Britain when few families owned a TV, and entertainment was commonly via the radio. After school, I listened to Children’s Hour on the Home Service, particularly dramatisations of popular children’s books like John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth. At bedtime my mum read to me from our book of Grimm’s Fairytales. To be honest, she did mostly out of duty and stopped reading to me just as soon as I learned how to read for myself! But I didn’t care about her motivation, I just soaked it all up, the magic dog with eyes like cartwheels, the little boy who was murdered by his evil stepmother slamming down a chest lid on his head, everything! And during the short time he lived with us, my father actually made up stories in which I starred as the main character. So before I became a reader I was a listener, simultaneously creating the story in my imagination as I listened. Then I learned to read and my imagination was fired in other new and wonderful ways.

My first effort turned out to be a rather baggy fantasy for older children/teens called Out of the Ordinary and was rewarded with serious beginner’s luck. I immediately found an agent who sent my manuscript to Miriam Hodgson, the now legendary children’s editor, who saw some potential in my writing despite its flaws, and persuaded Methuen, as it then was, to publish it. I have been lucky enough to earn my living from my writing ever since.

I was not a clever or academic child. I failed my eleven plus and went to a secondary modern school where our teachers seemed irritated and resigned at the thought of having to teach us. It wasn’t an environment that was very conducive to love of learning. We basically just endured, teachers and pupils alike. Any education that I managed to glean, I owe almost entirely to my local library. But by the mid 60s, change was in the air. It was the totally opposite process of what is happening to young people today when so many doors are closing. A fresh breeze was blowing in the 60s and new opportunities were becoming available for educational misfits like me who would never have ticked all the old boxes. Despite my uneven A Level results, I managed to talk myself into the English department at the University of Warwick. When I handed in my first essay, my tutor commented, as school teachers had commented before him, ‘You write so well, but you never answer the question!’ I wasn’t being deliberately subversive. I just always felt that I would rather write about something that excited me and usually the set questions didn’t! I eventually left with a degree but my three years at Warwick had actually driven my vague longings to write even further underground. It was only once I had children of my own and discovered exciting new children’s writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy, that I suddenly felt compelled to try to write my own. I always feel slightly embarrassed that my first book deal came about with virtually no effort on my part. A neighbour’s photographer son had recently written a children’s book using his own photographs as illustrations and had acquired an agent at Curtis Brown. When I told him that I was writing a book for children he offered to introduce us and did. That was it! It’s over twenty years ago now but I will never ever forget the feeling when my agent phoned me to tell me that Methuen were taking my book. The joy! Followed by rather less joy when the manuscript came back and I saw all the dozens of red scribbles – every scribble representing a crucial change that my editor wanted me to make!

Did you always set out to become a children’s writer?

Actually I started out writing really bad poetry! And I wrote a lot of first chapters for novels, some of them for adults and all fairly hopeless, though maybe not as bad as the poetry! But the first book I ever finished and had published was for children. My first love as a child was fantasy, though I never thought of fantasy as a genre when I was small. But I instinctively gravitated to books with some kind of magic in them – I’d include time slip stories in my personal magical category – so my initial instinct was to write the kind of novels for children that I had loved to read. I never really believed that I’d become a professional writer of any kind to be honest. With my first book I thought more in terms of giving something back, having been given so much. Like you I was pretty much saved by reading as a child. I thought of myself as just adding my small contribution to this already existing sea of stories. I didn’t think there would necessarily be any more where that came from! But over the years I have written in different genres and for different age groups of children. I was blessed with some wonderful reviews early on and have been shortlisted for various prizes including the Carnegie and the Nottingham Oak. But it wasn’t until I was asked to write a short story for a HarperCollins anthology to celebrate the millennium that I stumbled on the elusive holy grail of commercial success. The anthology was called Centuries of Stories and my contribution featured a thirteen-year-old time travelling angel called Melanie Beeby. HarperCollins loved the character and decided she deserved her own series. The series ran for twelve titles, became an international best seller, and was optioned for a feature film by Disney. As so often happens with options, this film was never made, and the books eventually slipped out of print – but, thanks to my daughter, they have recently been given new life as ebooks.

What would you say is your favourite of your books/work?

I think it’s probably true to say that whichever book I am writing, at the time of writing, is my favourite! This is because writing a book takes huge commitment and energy, or, to put it in simpler terms, love. While you’re writing and experiencing the inevitable ups and downs, frustrations and downright terror that go with writing, it’s that love, that totally irrational belief that this book is worth writing, that gets you through; just as love for your child will get you up in the night even when you are bug-eyed with exhaustion and can barely put one foot in front of the other. At different times I have been in love with all of my books. Then time passes and I tend to see only the flaws. Then more time passes and I fall back in love! I recently wrote a book for Barrington Stoke called Cherry Green, Story Queen, a kind of remix of Scheherazade, set in a foster home. I still love it. I once wrote three books about a small girl called Tilly Beany whose ungovernable imagination innocently causes havoc at school and home. I am still proud of that book. I am still very fond of some of my angel books. But I am also looking forward to falling in love with future books that I hope will be completely different to anything I have previously written.

How would you say, from your perception and point of view, the publishing world has changed from when you began writing to the present day? Anything changed for the better, or worse, in your opinion?

My perception is that today it tends to be sales departments that call the shots, where publishers were once more editorially led. When I started out, my editor Miriam would listen patiently as I talked through an incoherent tangle of ideas for new books, before carefully tweezing out the single tiny seedling of an idea that struck her as having most potential. ‘Just put a few words down on paper,’ she’d say cheerfully when we’d finished, ‘so I can run it by Acquisitions.’ And a week or two later I’d have a contract! This would never happen today. In those days, editors would often take a chance on an unknown writer, nurturing him or her along, investing time and energy that might or might not pay off. But children’s books were not such big business then, and there were fewer children’s writers trying to make a living than there are today. I don’t want to get into things being ‘better’ or ‘worse’. The changes are here now as our current reality. We’ll have to learn to adapt, to reinvent ourselves, possibly several times over, in order to survive. It’s no use being precious about it – no one asked us to be writers after all! – but I sometimes feel like a bit of a dimwit for not sufficiently appreciating my good fortune, for not realising that it was just a passing era, rather than a life-long magic ticket for being an author.

Can you describe the challenges and benefits of being a full-time author?

I have had times of feeling stuck in a writing desert or no-man’s land; wanting and needing fundamental changes in the way I work but not knowing how to bring this about. It’s a hideously familiar rerun of all those initial doubts and fears that paralysed me when I first started out, doubts and fears that I had foolishly imagined to be gone forever! People assume that with several published books under your belt, you must have acquired an unshakeable level of confidence. Sadly creativity doesn’t work like that. Rowan Colman, a hugely successful novelist, talks about a phenomenon she names ‘The Fear,’ a creativity-sucking terror, which is all the more terrifying obviously if writing is also how you feed and clothe your family.

On the other side of the scales is that incomparable excitement which comes with finally breaking into new writing territory; or the thrill of those rare but glorious days when both sides of your brain are suddenly joyously in synch and you feel as if you’re flying; or, yes, an unexpected film deal; or receiving a letter from a thirteen-year old girl confiding that reading your book is helping her to heal from the death of a sibling. On the benefits side of the scales I would also include being sent a bright pink working clock (complete with sparkly winged angel logo) made by eleven-year old triplet girls, now grown up, one of whom is hosting this blog!

You’ve recently re-released your Angels Unlimited books as ebooks, with new cover artwork and under the name of Angel Academy. Can you describe the challenges and benefits of republishing your Angels books as ebooks?

Republishing the Angels series has just been win-win all round. The first four books particularly were written to very strict deadlines, and often I was writing other books alongside. This meant that the writing wasn’t always as tight as I’d have liked. As part of the process of converting them to e-books I’ve been able to re-read and re-edit, taking out any extraneous fluff and also bringing them up to date. My daughter designed new covers, giving these books a more contemporary – and I hope more powerful and grownup – look. It makes me very happy to know that Mel’s cosmic adventures are being read by a new generation of readers.

 

To find out more about Annie, visit www.anniedaltonwriter.co.uk

 

 

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