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The brother left behind

By Linda Schoales, editor

Feb 10, 2010: “Cold Hillside” is the story of Simon, a man dealing with the recent death of his brother Giles in a car accident. Simon goes to Giles’ house, once their childhood home, to remember his brother, wrap up his affairs, and to try to make sense of his death.

The story is told in first person and starts with Giles experiencing the car accident that kills him. The narration then switches to Simon being interviewed by a detective while reminiscing about this brother. He remembers incidents from their childhood on the downs near Dorset, an auction they went to, the moment when the phone call came, the funeral, and the visitors afterwards.

The pace of the first 73 pages is fairly slow. There’s lots of description and conversation but nothing much happens “in the present”. I enjoyed reading the stories as Simon remembered his brother because they fleshed out the two brothers and their relationship. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the places and the people. The time shifts in the writing were well-handled and it was always obvious when a “story” was done and Simon was back talking to the detective. The overall feeling was rather languid or numb, as it probably would be after the loss of a loved one. There is a definite sense of loss and being lost as Simon remembers his brother.

After that the story changes. The detective seems to be gone and things start happening that make Simon suspicious. Someone seems determined to make him leave Giles’ house. Simon remembers other incidents in his relationship with his brother that weren’t so innocent. I found the change to be rather abrupt. The writing seems to have changed to being “in the present”, and to being darker. Instead of sepia-toned memories we have hints that Giles was mixed up in something dangerous. The violence is jarring and the mystery seems out of place after the long lead-in. I gave up after 100 pages because I was missing the quiet Dorset countryside.

I’m not sure who to recommend “Cold Hillside” to. On the one hand, it’s well-written and the characters feel like real people. If you like character-driven stories about family relationships you’ll probably enjoy the beginning but the rest may not be your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a mystery or thriller you may be disappointed. The mystery takes a long time to appear and the pace of the first 73 pages is too slow to be “thrilling”.

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Helen tries to reach out to life, but will she find death?

By Fiona Gregory, editor

Jul 7, 2009: So far, 17 chapters have gone down with great ease and enjoyment.

As the story unfolded, the characters found their warmth. Helen breaks out of her prim, cautious existance as a dutiful wife to find what is probably her first genuine friendship in years with people very different from herself. The loyal affection between Carla and Addison is revealed, and Addison himself, however one may feel about his view of religion, emerges as a sincere, idealistic,and ultimately kind (although moody) man. In fact, he makes a nice counterpoint to the familiar fiction and TV reality of the corrupt, hyprocritical fundamentalist preacher. Even the obtuse Malcolm is more to be pitied than despised.

The plot starts off slowly, but interest was held as we seem to move in step with the charactors as events sweep them up. As the menace stalking them forms a more visceral presence, the tension builds, although still subtly, in the background, as the characters pretend to continue their lives as if everything was normal. The antagonist is in fact the only character who is not multidimensional in strengths and flaws; he seems to represent pure evil as he pursues his seemingly irrational goal. However, sadly, sociopaths do exist. Unlike many Web Fiction Guide listings, there is no supernatural in this tale; this is about the creepiness of reality.

There are moments of unevenness – a diary appears as, the author herself admits, a rather cliched plot device, and there is the familiar frustration of watching characters neglect to take obvious, sensible measures to protect themselves for reasons that feel a little obscure. Yet the great fascination and genius of the story, in my opinion, is even as we get to know the characters, each is going through some kind of personal transition, and we’re never quite sure how they will react to the events that unfold. Overall, I would say this a well crafted, fascinating, and suspenseful tale that rings true to life.

As an aside, I’m not sure the title is right for the story. I wouldn’t call any of the main characters mad, deluded maybe, but not insane. There may be a better title for this story, but I can’t think of one myself yet!

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Solid literary fiction

By Chris Poirier, editor

Nov 15, 2008: Ride With Madness—to date, at six chapters—is some very solidly-written literary fiction. The word that keeps coming to mind while I write this is "immaculate". With the exception of the opening few scenes, every word seems right—there’s nothing out of place.

The story begins when Helen, the taken-for-granted wife of a self-involved corporate climber, finds Carla, a young woman with a shady past, going into labour at a bus stop. Helen really doesn’t want to get involved, if the truth be told—she’s not that keen on spending time with the underclasses, and she needs to get home in time to make Malcolm dinner, or there’ll be a fight—but, at Carla’s plea, she puts her doubts aside and drives Carla to the hospital in her BMW. Unbeknownst to either of them, they are being watched and photographed as they drive off, by someone who cares a little too much about one of them.

Ride With Madness is the study of four (and maybe five) characters: Helen and her husband Malcolm, and Carla and her husband Addison (and possibly the stalker from the opening scene—but I won’t talk about him any more). Each character is very different from the others—in terms of background, wants, and personality—but each character is deeply flawed. Helen is timid, and afraid of everything. She hates her life, but is terrified of unsettling it. Malcolm is shallow, self-involved, and controlling. He’s a boy playing a man—and a small man, at that. Addison is a preacher who sees the world in terms of Good and Evil—for him, there is no middle ground, no room for humanity, not even within himself. And yet, he’s desperate for the adoration of his congregation. He does everything for them—to the point of neglecting his new wife and young baby—but, deep down, he does it all only because he needs what he gets in return. He married Carla to "save" her—from her past, from her situation—but, even there, he gets far more from the arrangement than he gives. In his better moments, he even realizes it. Finally, Carla is probably the most stable of the set, yet she is running from some form of violence or abuse in her past. Her child is not Addison’s—she was already three months pregnant when he met her. Addison believes her former life was one of forced prostitution, but at this point, we can’t be sure.

In the end, Ride With Madness stands or falls on its characterization—the plot is slow-moving, and, to be honest, very little actually happens. Fortunately, the characterization is solid—there is lots of vivid, subtle detail in evidence. However, there is an odd distance to the narrative—it talks about the characters, but it keeps them forever at arms’ length. The details it describes are intimate and personal, but it does it without intimacy, without feeling. And without a strong plot, this "distance" only serves to further dull any sense of urgency. The result is a read that isn’t very compelling.

As a side note, have a look at my second previous paragraph. See how I’ve described the men in more detail than the women? It’s not an accident. As much as the story appears to be mostly about Helen and Carla, the men are . . . less ambiguously painted. There’s little redeeming about any of them, and that’s a problem. Against such foils, the female characters seem weak, unable or unwilling to stand apart from these men—men who barely deserve the label. It would be one thing if the women stayed with them out of love, but there is very little love in evidence, here. In fact, if there is love conveyed in the writing (excluding Carla’s love for her newborn daughter, of course), it is that growing in Helen for Carla. It seems an odd bias in the narrative, as it doesn’t seem to serve the story’s aims—or, at least, what I can see of them so far.

Overall, I feel ambivalent about Ride With Madness. It is, as I said, exceptionally well-written—sentence-by-sentence, I really can’t fault it. But, despite that—and despite the strong character focus of the narrative (that I would usually like)—I’m just not sure I care about what happens to anybody in the story. And for a story that stands or falls on its characterization, that can’t be a good thing.

That all said, if you like quality literary fiction—if you like to immerse yourself in a few characters and really get to know them—give it a try and let me know what you think. I’m curious to find out if I’m just a troglodyte.

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