Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tidbit Tuesday: BLOG TOUR for Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

Hello beautiful people

I had the pleasure and honour of taking part in a blog tour in association with a publicist from Little Bird Publicity Agency a couple of weeks ago. The experience was so exhilarating that when I was offered another opportunity to showcase a book and its author, I jumped on the occasion.

The book in question is Alison Wonderland, written by British author Helen Smith.

DISCLAIMER: In no way was I influenced, asked, or requested to endorse this book with a positive review - any and all opinions expressed herewith are my own, and only my own.

So, to put you in the picture, here's a blurb about the book:

When Alison discovers her husband has been unfaithful, she divorces him and joins the all-female detective agency, Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation. Exciting and fulfilling at first, after a few years Alison finds herself getting bored by the routine of catching cheating spouses and the mundane “temp” jobs she uses as cover. The lack of fidelity, or at least interesting infidelity, only strengthens her commitment to waiting for her “Mr. Wonderland.”

Then Mrs. Ella Fitzgerald, her boss and owner of Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation, puts her on an odd case involving genetic testing and animal mistreatment. Alison’s barely touched the new assignment when things start happening. Odd things. Unexplainable things. Suddenly Alison, her friend Taron, and the circle of people around them, are put in danger. Alison and Taron decide to escape to the seaside for a bit while things settle down, but things aren’t any slower at the seaside. While away, the two friends embark on a side-mission of finding an abandoned baby for Taron’s mother, a supposed witch, to raise as her apprentice. They go clubbing, stumble upon a transgenic animal, and seemingly dream a baby into existence.

And the rabbit hole goes deeper.

They return to London when Alison learns her neighbor Jeff, an inventor of sorts, has been abducted and is being hidden in a secret room under the Thames. Alison can think of nothing but saving Jeff and with Taron and the baby at her side, traverses London’s gritty underground to reach him. Could Jeff be her Mr. Wonderland? And what will she and Taron do with the foundling? As Alison starts to unravel the pieces of her seemingly nonsensical world, she figures out that she might be the key to everything.

*****

I'm not sure if I would have picked up this book if I had been at the bookstore. I wasn't too thrilled about the cover, but the blurb was intriguing, and it was described as a modern take on the Alice in Wonderland storyline, so I thought, why not give it a go?
And boy, am I glad I did! This is one of the most amazing books I have read lately. Taken by itself, there's nothing spectacular about any aspect of this book on its own - but taken together, as a big whole, you're in for an experience.

My first impression when I started reading this book is that this is serious chick-lit (and no, that is not an oxymoron! And that's why the cover didn't sit well with me - this book could do with a lighter, quirkier, chick-lit cover!) Chick-lit can be light, funny, but serious as well and provoke questions inside your brain - exactly what Ms. Smith accomplishes with Alison Wonderland. The book is described as literature - it is, but at the same time, it's not dry, stuff-it-down-your-throat British literature. Let's just say it's a cross between the lightness of Jane Austen, the humour of Janet Evanovich reminiscent of the Stephanie Plum novels but with a dry, totally British twist that makes you chuckle loudly instead of bursting into laughter, all amid a world of suspended fantasy.

Let's see if we can elaborate on that description. The book and its plot is light - no saving the Third World or big reflections of the kind here. And the humour - British wit at its best. Anyone who loves British humour will dig this story (and there's talks of Alison Wonderland being made into a TV series - I say 'bring it on'! I can totally see this as a typically Brit TV show in the style of Being Human).

As to the suspended fantasy... let's just say I've never read anything like this before. The story takes place in modern London and England, but this take that Ms. Smith infuses into the location turns the world-building into a full facet of the book. Imagine a psychic postman who gets a psychic message from a witch warning him that so-and-so is in danger, and he writes down the note on a postcard and slips it through your mailbox - there's nothing more mundane than a postman sliding a postcard in a mail box, right? So that's why this, and other such fantastic episodes and happenings in the story, strike you. When you put this book down, you start to look at the world around you with different eyes - maybe, just maybe, what you see is not the reality you imagine it is... And that's a strength of Ms. Smith's writing, making you question your reality in a subtle, curious way.

Another strength of this book is the characterization. Like many books by British authors, this story and its plot focuses on the characters. It is these people living inside the book that take you places and show you their world - their quirks, their foibles, this little sneaky peek into their minds. The POV hops between chapters and that's a little confusing at first, but you get into the rhythm along the way. Throw in some Brit pop culture references - such as how Alison's friend Taron kinda looks like an old flame of Prince Andrew and they're travelling to an area where there are lots of army men, so possibly they could fall on the prince himself; not to mention Jaffa Cakes, liquorice allsorts, and Wagon Wheels (making me crave British sweets and biscuits, darn!) - and you feel like you're in England right along with Alison on her quirky journey.

All in all, a book to be added to your to-read list. There's something almost magical about Alison Wonderland, and I cannot wait for you to discover it for yourself.

I was also given the opportunity to interview Helen Smith, and what follows is a Q&A about Alison Wonderland. Enjoy!


1. How did the idea for this book come to you?

Thanks for the questions, Zee. I’m so glad to hear you like ALISON WONDERLAND. I wanted to write a book with strong, interesting female characters and set the story in Brixton in south London, where I live. I read an article in the paper about an all-female detective agency in Singapore: apparently the detectives spent most of their time following unfaithful husbands. I liked the idea of having a private detective as my main character because her job would bring her into contact with lots of strange, potentially funny people and situations, and I loved the idea of an all-female detective agency. But I didn’t want to write detective genre, I wanted to write a kind of satire on London life. Alison’s cases go unsolved, or clear up by themselves – but we learn a lot about her and her friends during the course of her adventures, and that’s really the point of the book.

2. Tell us a little more about Alison, the heroine, and what 3 words would you use to describe her?

Alison wants to hold other people at arms-length because her husband cheated on her and she doesn’t really trust anyone, not even her neighbor, Jeff, who is in love with her. But when she meets Taron, who is to become her best friend, it’s the catalyst for all sorts of exciting things to happen in her life. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when you’re young, you’re having fun and you let your guard down, she ends up with more than she bargained for...

The three words I would use to describe Alison are: loyal, cynical, fun.

3. And a few words about the nutty cast in this book - how did these characters come into existing?

I wanted the boss at the detective agency where Alison works to be efficient and admirable. But I also wanted her to have secret doubts and worries that she doesn’t share with anyone else, and an almost na├»ve yearning to make the world a better place. In fact, most of my characters are on a mission to improve the world, including Taron and Jeff. I liked the idea that these characters have something that defines them and drives them – whereas, of course, very few of us ever discover what that might be in real life; we drift through life wondering what to do with ourselves.

Even the baddies in the book have some redeeming quality; something that they care about. I think that very few people ever think of themselves as bad; they think of themselves as dog-lovers or dancers or magicians or people who are in love with their wives. But they do things that society categorises as bad, or they fail to fit into society, or they live outside its norms.

Like a scary witch casting a spell, I took little bits of myself, and stolen bits of other people, and threw them all together and came up with what you so aptly call “the nutty cast” in the book.

4. I was impressed by the parallel and the superimposition of modern notions and the fantastic - like the fact that children born when the waters are broken will drown if they try to swim. How did you come up with this concept, and was it hard/complicated to weave such notions in?

Thank you. I have always loved myths and I enjoy trying to make sense of everyday life by creating stories to explain otherwise inexplicable, frustrating or even frightening situations – however far-fetched the story, it can make the situation feel more manageable, especially if the story is also humorous.

When my elderly dog was dying last year, for example, my daughter and I came up with all sorts of silly stories about what she was thinking and feeling and how her demise might be connected to, or even influencing, world events. Joking about it and giving this sad situation a purpose and meaning took some of the pain away. It seems natural to write that way, too.

5. Alison Wonderland is a modern literature read, but it is escapist in nature - agree or disagree?

I agree – there are plenty of things in the book that make you think, “That would never happen!” It’s a fantasy and yet there is (I hope) a truthfulness about it that makes you believe in the characters and the world.

6. How did you write this story - one big whole in a single go, or small building blocks that added up on top of the other?

I wrote the book while working full-time and bringing up my daughter, never sure if it would ever get published, working and reworking every passage on every page, wanting to get it right, proceeding cautiously. It took me a long time to write it. I knew how it would end, and what would happen as the story developed, and I would go back and fill in the scenes, not necessarily writing them in order. I would put down on the page whatever I “saw” in my head. If I couldn’t quite see it, I’d go on to another scene and write that, and then come back and have another look, and if I could see it properly, I’d write it.

7. I never quite saw London as you see it in this book. How did this version of the British capital come to exist in your imagination?

It’s a crazily condensed version of London, isn’t it? I loved the idea of Mrs. Fitzgerald being known, respected and feared by dangerous villains who are close to the government, even though she’s in charge of a small women-only detective operation in an impoverished part of town. I also liked the idea that any small incident that Alison or any of her friends were involved in might have repercussions elsewhere in London.

London is an amazing city but it can feel lonely and disconnected. Many of us live here because we like to live independently, among strangers. Others live here because of the cultural attractions: the history, the museums, the art galleries, the restaurants, the nightclubs, and so on. Others move here for work. I thought, what if London had all the same landmarks and other attributes – but everyone was connected in some way, as though it were a small village with a population of about 300 people, all of whom know your business? It’s a colorful, slightly magical version of London and one that I plan to return to in other books.

8. Tell us a little about you - I'm curious about the woman who could come up with such a fantastic (both literally and figuratively!) story idea.

Thank you! I’m English and I live in London. I have always wanted to write but I thought I needed to live a little and see something of the world before I tried to put down on paper what I felt about it. I traveled all over the world with my daughter when she was small, and then came back to London where I now live, very quietly, spending far too much time looking at the Internet when I should be writing novels and plays.

9. What's next for you now?

I just had a meeting with a British TV channel about the possibility of making ALISON WONDERLAND into a TV series. It’s early days yet, and it may never happen, but if it does it will be really exciting. I have also been commissioned to write an adaptation of a Muriel Spark novel for the London stage – hopefully that will be produced some time in 2012. I’m also writing another novel.

10. Where can readers find you?

I have a blog which I update regularly at http://www.emperorsclothes.co.uk. I’m also on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emperorsclothes. I’m following too many people – my timeline is a kaleidoscope of links, laughs and book recommendations – but please say hi and I’ll follow you back.

Thank you for your time and patience, Helen. It's been a pleasure to showcase your book and this interview with you here today, and I wish you all the best of success with your works.

It has been a pleasure, Zee, I really enjoyed answering the questions. Good luck with your books, too.

(Isn't she sweet? Love that last line she left me *grin*)

From Mauritius with love,
Zee

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