Books Reviews

Interview: Saigon Dark Author, Elka Ray

THIS BOOK IS CURRENTLY ON A 99c KINDLE DEAL (19th & 20th March 2017)

saigon_darkAfter reading SAIGON DARK last month, I reached out to Elka Ray’s publishers at Crime Wave Press with some interview questions, and was amazed at some of the replies I received. As readers, we get used to authors reaching deep to bring our innermost fears to the pages of their books, but we don’t often expect them to come from real life experiences. However, Elka Ray’s Saigon Dark is anything from the usual…

LISSA: In Saigon Dark, a really unusual drama creates a platform for exploring, among other things, issues of trust. Did you decide on the plot first or draw the plot around the themes?

ELKA RAY: Ten years ago, my first daughter died as a baby. It was a total shock. I’d believed my child would outlive me. Instead, I was cremating her. How could this have happened? Why her? Why me? Was this a punishment for my failings and mistakes? I had all sorts of crazy thoughts. The trauma of her death shook my trust in the world. I felt unsafe – like a door I didn’t even know was there had opened and couldn’t be shut. If this unthinkable thing had occurred, more bad luck could follow.elka_ray

Without trust, we can’t function normally. We trust other drivers to stop at red lights. We trust the food we buy is not poisonous. We trust our friends have our best interests at heart. Most importantly, we trust ourselves to make reasonable choices.

When you doubt yourself, you’re lost. You can’t trust anyone or anything else. This was the starting point for Lily Vo, the main character in Saigon Dark. I wanted the novel to explore grief, trust and paranoia.

The plot centres around passing one child off as another. This idea came to be shortly after the birth of my son, whose first passport photo was taken when he was three days old. He was squinty and bald – indistinguishable from most newborns. That passport was valid for five years, which gave me the idea: it could be used for almost any kid.

LISSA: You chose to make the main character a Vietnamese woman who was born and raised in the US. Did this allow her to behave differently or be more identifiable to non-Vietnamese readers than a native, or is her background incidental to the story?

ELKA RAY: To make Saigon Dark work, I needed the main character, Lily, to be as isolated and stressed as possible. Her marriage to a local man has just broken down. She’s a single mom in a foreign country. Her youngest child is unwell. She has no real friends nearby. She’s leery of the police and feels judged by the locals.IMG_4873.JPG

This story wouldn’t work if Lily trusted the authorities. It wouldn’t work if she had family nearby. Someone with a strong support network would get help. They’d make less desperate choices.

When I first heard Lily in my head she was American Vietnamese – and that worked perfectly for the story.

My husband is Australian Vietnamese. Some of my closest friends are American Vietnamese. In Vietnam, Viet Kieu (Overseas Vietnamese) face special stresses compared to other foreigners. They often come here expecting to feel “at home” only to experience profound culture shock. Many local Vietnamese don’t understand that culture is learned – not passed down in your blood – and judge Viet Kieus for not speaking fluent Vietnamese and behaving like natives.

With suspense, your goal as an author is to keep adding pressure and building tension throughout the book. You’re stacking the deck against your poor protagonist to test how strong they can be.

LISSA: Your previous work include kids and more mainstream fiction. What tempted you over to the dark side? And most importantly, are you staying?

ELKA RAY: My first novel, Hanoi Jane, is a romantic mystery. It’s light and funny – a book about a young woman rebuilding her life after a bad break up – but there’s still a crime at its core. And my short story collection, What You Don’t Know: Tales of Obsession, Mystery & Murder in Southeast Asia is packed with crimes and ill will. I’ve always been fascinated by why people behave like they do, especially when their actions seem unreasonable. Crime fiction is about motivation – and that’s crack for me.

Many thanks to Elka and Henry Roi at Crime Wave Press for the interview! 

 

A Woman of Integrity by J. David Simons

British film star, Laura Scott’s is the other side of fifty and the last film role she had was for the voice of an animated fish. She’s become financially embarrassed and doesn’t want to reduce herself further and head into a sitcom position like her friend. So when an American producer says he wants her for a play about one of her favourite stars of the silent screen, things look like they are turning around. However, she soon realises, there’s more to integrity than simply drawing a line between your heart and your art.

I never like to give plot lines away and I won’t here. It’s enough to say, this story is about two actresses, one of which intends to play the other in a play and we get to read the manuscript of the latter’s autobiography interspersed throughout the tale. It’s the manuscript she’ll get hold of later on after dealing with a little dishonesty, treachery and soul searching along the way.

I don’t think it needs pointing out that it’s a book about two women written by a man, but I do point it out because I think he did a surprisingly good job. If I’d guessed the author’s gender I would have said female because it is insightful and often explicit in a way you’d expect an Alice Munro story to be.

Laura Scott has integrity, so did Georgie Hepburn and both of them have to wrestle with maintaining it. The story is fluid and enjoyable and kept me reading. My only qualm with the story would be that I was expecting a big reveal, but I don’t feel like this was delivered. The way the two stories run parallel together gives you the impression that at some point a fusion will occur, but it doesn’t. Of course, it doesn’t, it’s a sensible British story not some piece of Hollywood Tomfoolery!

Ultimately, this story already has that tingly, BBC one, lottery funded, BAFTA winning actresses kind of feel to it. It’s very British, set in North London and you can hear Emma Thompson’s voice coming off the pages. I closed the book with a pleasant sigh. Well, that was rather nice…

Expected publication: March 16th 2017

Freight Books

Book Review: Saigon Dark by Elka Ray

UPDATE: This book is on an Amazon 99c deal Sunday 19th March and Monday 20th March. 

The premise – that a single mother (Lily) living in Vietnam decides to ‘rescue’ an abused child who wanders out in the night on the same night as her child of the same age drowns, and then deals with the consequences – doesn’t do the story justice. It’s a tale of motherly love and how it effects the most sensible, well educated and grounded of us all as an obsession and compulsion. It’s also an account of the fragility of human relationships in matters of trust and romantic love and how ‘blood’ or in this case motherly love is thicker than water.

Saigon Dark Review

I don’t do stars, but this book is an easy 5. It’s the best new fiction I’ve read this year (okay, it’s February), but it is still an excellent novel. Saigon Dark is best enjoyed if you have no idea what’s coming. So I won’t get too much into the plot. The best I can do is to compare it to some other well-known books to give an idea of the style and quality.

One such would be Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in which the story starts off as a romance then veers towards the supernatural before becoming a full-on psychological suspense novel. Likewise, Elka Ray’s Saigon Dark starts off as a story of a woman wishing back her ex-husband, then becomes a little spooky, turns into a tale of a woman living under the constant pressure of lies and then explodes into a classic noir romp full of secrets, blackmail, and murder. Elements of Ray’s story also had the feel of Patricia Highsmith’s, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in that occasionally, the pose becomes quick and economic, rushing through Lily’s intensely focused actions of dealing with dead bodies and the fear of being discovered. There’s also the tense but stylish management of lies and the evolution of Lily into a new person, completely at odds with her previous or professional self.

There are many themes here that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Throughout the book, a thread regarding trust is present. Lily can only trust herself, she has to compartmentalize everything she feels in order to protect herself and her children. There are also ideas of rebirth and renewal and the hope of making something better. Ultimately, there is sadness and tragedy to the story, but it is not of the soppy, anti-climatic variety, rather a more sensitive and empathic approach to noir. And all this wrapped up in a fascinating Vietnamese location and culture that reads as genuine and authentic.

There’s no way this book can be easily described – well written and fascinating subject matter is only the beginning. It could easily become a huge hit and also has all the hallmarks of a noir classic. It should be read, simple as that.

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Crime Wave Press

Elka Ray

Manly Stories Mainly for Men: Rivers of Gold and The Graybar Hotel

Two interesting looking books popped up on my Kindle this week: Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn and The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins. Both sounded gritty and noir-ish for different reasons, so I was pleased to give them a go. After finishing, I had a strange feeling, kind of like waking up after being hit by a plank of wood to find a credit card receipt for 20 shots of premium tequila in my pocket.

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I guess you could say that’s my masculine side coming out. I felt like a man – a manly man. Because, these books are just that – totally – manly.

32620303The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins
First up, this is a collection of short stories written by a current inmate serving life without parole for a murder during a ‘botched’ house robbery. The first thing you notice in this collection is how well it’s written. This isn’t a teenager writing fan fiction, this is someone who knows their craft, and I suppose he should as he has an MFA from Western Michigan University. This book isn’t actually out yet and the publishers have asked that no quotes be shared, but I’ll just say this, the authority of the stories just melts off the pages.

The setting is mostly Kalamazoo Prison, Michigan and the narrator seems to be often the same person interspersed with an Arthur or a George as he tells us their stories too. He takes us through a wide range of experiences from Processing to spending time in Quarantine before being sent to a prison, to the prison itself. It feels dramatically realistic, but there’s also a smattering of the supernatural too.

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Where this book really shines is in the glimpses of insights into how an obviously intelligent and educated man mitigates the monotony of life in prison. Early on, ‘I’ tells us he isn’t normally a sociable person, talking for no reason, but in jail, you have to be, as there’s nothing else to do. And I think many of us could imagine this of ourselves (imagine it and shudder). So in order to reconnect with the outside world, he calls random numbers collect (he doesn’t have any personal contacts he can call) in the hope that someone on the other end will talk to him for 15 minutes, or at least let him listen to the traffic noise outside their house or the background TV and this as an idea is mesmerizing. In a nutshell, this book is mesmerizing, like been taken for an experience which I hope I’ll never encounter, but for which I’m grateful for the advice. It reads partly like a diary, partly like a philosophy.

However, a couple of factors got in the way of absolute pleasure. First off, there’s the issue of the author. If you want to learn more about him, check out Bullmenfiction.

The phrase, “I shot a man dead who had no business being shot” shows up here and this reeks of a lack of genuine remorse. If I went to someone’s house and shot them without any reason, I hope I could muster up a little more emotion than that, but hey. The other issue is the short story format. I wish to high heaven, this were a novel, but alas, I’m guessing Mr, Curtis doesn’t have his own personal MacBookPro in his cell with all his research and files neatly organized in coloured folders. And you know what they say, if you don’t want short stories, don’t read them. It’s a free world – for some of us.

Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn

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Okay, hold on tight. NYC 2013. Man in a taxi thinking about money and sex. My first impression of Renny was that he was a fat, boring version of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho travelling through an NYC that seemed recognizable to me. But wait, it’s meant to be a dystopian future version of NYC after some huge financial crash and an over running of drugs… It’s always tough when fiction falls short of reality.

Now there is a storyline and once you get into it, it is good but it’s hard to get past the layers of (to a woman) boring man-stuff. There’s a fashion in women-centric novels at the moment for including the recipes of the foods the characters eat, and in Rivers of Gold, there is so much talk of cocktails that I felt it was just the same need being fulfilled but differently. The sex talk is grim and sounds like it’s coming out of a middle aged, over fed man who is partial to botox, as in ‘no thanks, I’m late for a spin class’. But I can imagine plenty of guys really love those scene. Plus Renny gives girls head, so that make him a modern-thinking man, right?

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But enough of the man bashing, because Rivers of Gold is a good book. Dunn has some great ideas and thoughts, which translate well on paper as the thoughts and ideas of his characters. He can also write well and in this age of self-publishing, that has to be recognized.

Naturally, this book, both these books, are populated with men and deal with how men think. The women are superficial, attractive or sexual characters or remarkable because they’re not attractive or sexual. I read and enjoyed both books on a surface level, but felt a little out of touch with the context and emotions.

Maybe this is just how guys feel if they read an Alice Walker/Munro collection. To each their own. Thank God we don’t all like the same stuff!

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson

Okay, so it was with some trepidation that I first opened this book. I am a Highsmith fan – a huge Highsmith fan – and the one thing that repulses me more than walking dog mess into my house is reading someone’s take on who they think Highsmith is/was… that differs from my own.

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Not everybody enjoys a Highsmith novel, but for those who do, reading her work can become near obsessional. So we are a hard audience to please. I went into this book wondering…will it be respectful or exploitative and of course, will it agree with my own, personal imaginations of Highsmith? For a whole month, I didn’t buy The Crime Writer, but then, you know, it’s Highsmith related, so I did.

The Premise

In 1964, Patricia Highsmith moved to Suffolk to finish editing The Two Faces of January and carry on putting together Notes on Suspense in peace, so the story goes. This was a bit of a put-on, as she primarily wanted to be somewhere not too far away from London, where the woman many biographers refer to as ‘the love of her life’, lived with her husband. In The Crime Writer, Jill Dawson uses this detail as a springboard for a book, part biography, part Highsmith tribute novel in which Pat plays the protagonist.

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The village setting Dawson creates is a perfect expression of the Suffolk background in A Suspension of Mercy. I found this to be a really good move. Highsmith used this world in her fiction and Dawson does the same. Dawson’s portrayal of 1960’s village life from the perspective of a famous (although not famous in the US) American author, is also spot on and as Dawson delves into her own area of research – Pat’s childhood in Texas – we could start to wonder if this book is just a vehicle for her own biographical urges. However, from the very start, her portrayal of Pat, warts and all, is so recognisable from Highsmith’s novels as well as some other biographer’s renditions that as a reader I was immediately lost and captivated.

Throughout the story, I had to repeatedly remind myself that this was a work of fiction. Patricia Highsmith did not write this story about her own experiences. This story is a perfect rendition of a Highsmith-esque escalation of tension. There is a murder, we care and dislike the person who is murdered but are then drawn into a cat and mouse game of whether this murder will be discovered. This creates a second, more disliked person that we and the protagonist desperately need to see the end of.

A Highsmith suspense often includes a suicide or accidental death and whereas Highsmith often got a lot of slack for this ‘easy way out’, Dawson creates a lovely (from a murderer’s perspective) death which Pat both has a hand in and from which she can be completely pardoned.

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I enjoyed this book thoroughly from beginning to end and felt really thankful that someone with the right amount of obsession, attention to detail and the research skills to carry it off, was able to get it out there.

Well done Jill Dawson.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Where to start with this book? Okay, you’ve probably heard that it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That’s a big deal, ‘Huge’ as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman might say. It’s like the Booker Prize wearing the Noble Prize’s big sister’s dress. It means it’s good.

The great thing about prizes like The Booker and Pulitzers is that they seem beyond the boundaries of words like ‘subjective’. The book is brilliant. Okay? It’s the best book out this year.

A Side Note: How Are Pulitzer Prize Winners Determined?

If you take a look at their website you will see 2 criteria for a prize. Firstly, the author needs to be a U.S citizen, secondly, the judges must determine the work to be a ” standard of excellence” So, just as those clarifications as to why you got a B on your last Ancient History of Knitting paper might leave you scratching your head, so do the Pulitzers. For this reason, I always read prizing winning novels, at least the first 10 pages, with just one eye open. I find this avoids a lot of disappointment.

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The Actual Review (It’s about time)

Set in occupied France during World War II, the novel moves back and forth between the storylines pertaining to a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths will eventually cross.
This premise starts off beautifully. The fortress city St. Malo, is being bombarded and both our characters are already here, giving the reader the needed reassurance that their stories are interconnected. There is also the early introduction of a magical gemstone known as the Sea of Flames, which is said to bring great misfortune to whoever possesses it…but also immortality. Wonderful, this is going to develop well.

So, here we have the blind girl, with her innocent little hands wrapped around the stone as the bombs drop and presumably her neighbours perish. You had me at ‘magical’. Oh yes, because the Pulitzer is not the type of prize they give out to books that come out under the heading of ‘special interest’ (read, guardian angels and pink Himalayan rock salt here). That means, if there’s magic in here, it’s amazing and unusual magic, with some smattering of science behind it and I want to find out what that science is!

In the next 300 or so pages, Doerr takes us on a wonderful ride (backward and forward) through the years when the Nazi party came to power. Our two characters see war first hand, the boy, who turns out to be an engineering genius, is reluctantly drafted into the finest training Nazi school in the land where he witnesses the kind of bullying which leaves his best friend brain damaged. The girl takes off with her father on a mission to save the Sea of Flames from these Nazis.

This story, which really is the Pulitzer Prize-winning element, is delightful. There’s a senior Nazi bad-guy after the stone for the glory of the Reich and as he’s dying of a terminal illness, for personal reasons too. He’s closing in on the poor blind girl and her stone and we are guessing, somehow the boy will save her.

I don’t like spoilers, so I’ll just say this…Somewhere near the end, there is the potential for that promised magic to occur. There is even the hint that the magic has occurred, the two have lived and families are reunited. But then something strange happens, reality happens. And quite frankly, reality bites.

Within twenty pages, Doerr seems to decide that whole set up with the Sea of Flames…disaster and immortality, well, we’re just going to forget about that. Don’t look. It’s not important. This is a real story, about war and people living normal, boring lives afterward.

But just as the first two seasons of GoT was mocked for having promised dragons that never appeared, only to deliver dragons in abundance shortly after, so I expected something great from the ending of All The Light We Cannot See. For that reason, I read quickly to the last word, still expecting the magic…

In conclusion, I’ll say this – All The Light We Cannot See is a brilliant book, but as a modern reader who expects payoffs, I was left wanting more.

The Truth and Other Lies

This book came out last year and quickly garnered the kind of newspaper reviews which a certain type of person will find intriguing.

Here, our hero is a fraud, a grand fraud. He publishes books written by his wife. He has affairs with women out of vanity. He has a dubious past and may or may not have killed his parents.

So far so good.

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The Guardian Round Up described the main character, Henry Hayden as a Tom Ripleyesque anti-hero (oh be still my beating heart).  The NY Times Review name dropped Gillian ­Flynn and Paula Hawkins, who for a short spell, had both been hailed as a new Patricia Highsmith.

The author himself is Sascha Arango, a German play write.

Is he good? Yes, he is – very good. His writing is clear and concise and the story flows. Is he Highsmith – good? Is Hayden, Ripley – good? Don’t be silly.

As The NY Times review goes on to say… and I paraphrase… Henry Hayden is a sociopath, but whereas The Talented Mr. Ripley is a creature of ambition and anxiety, Henry Hayden is barely self-aware. His dishonest, good fortune, which raised him up from nobody to famous author, was not by his own design. And sadly there is something less magical about a character who – to put in Seinfeld terminology – “falls ass backward into money”.

However the story develops well, the web gets stickier, the police get closer… surely, he’ll never get away with all this!

Without giving away any spoliers, I’ll just say. The climax of the story came and went with me still expecting a grand reveal. So, it was a very, very good book. But sadly, it missed that magical, full on, panting in satisfaction ending which his wonderful writing had made me expect.

Oh well. Like they say, when pizza is perfect, it’s really, really good and when it’s not perfect, it’s still damn good. This book is the second type.