Realer… a story for 2020

Realer, my latest audio exclusive, this time narrated by the wonderful Gemma Whelan, is about to appear, launched on January 29 by WF Howes and available in all the usual audio outfits.

I first started work on this story four years ago and picked it up again earlier this year during lockdown when the pandemic seemed to give its theme – a murder story hiding behind a discussion on how we deal with isolation an tragedy – an extraordinary timeliness.

And now we’re in the middle of a debate about north versus south, something else that’s current throughout the tale too. I’m going to be very interested to see what people make of the story when it comes out.

But here’s a taster… a new review on the Netgalley page for the project from ‘Laura B’… Thanks Laura!

REALER is one of the first books I’ve come across that visualizes a post-COVID (or at least post-lockdown) world, and Hewson’s world is a dystopian, dangerous place. The good news is that while the Northern England setting is bleak, REALER is a thrilling story that I couldn’t bear to turn off until I listened to it all. Charlotte “Charlie” Mackintosh is a much-bullied ginger living a drab teenage existence among her lower-class peers. Mom is drunky, her beloved Dad has abandoned the family for no discernible reason, and a creepy guy named Rick has moved into the cottage and her mother’s bed. Rick is her dad’s supervisor at a warehouse company that sounds a lot like the one that immediately comes up if you type the letter “A” into any search engine.

It employs a lot of low-skilled people, but not for long, because the robots are coming. But before the robots, comes Realer. Realer is a kind of virtual/augmented reality mash up that lets you travel anywhere in the world (or atmosphere) without leaving your home–something that a lot of people, like Charlie, have gotten used to because of “the pandemic.”

Realers are quickly becoming must-haves all over the world. You simply pop on “specs” or a “hood” (the hood image is uber-creepy because it reminds me way too much of hoods put on people about to be executed), and away you go. Charlie’s dad gives her a Realer of her own. She’s not excited about it, because she’d much rather spend her time drawing birds on paper, or reading books. But she uses it with him to humor him, and to spend time with him. That’s when the real trouble starts.

On one of her first Realer outings, she sees her father murdered. Charlie has no real adult support in her life. At sixteen, she’s not taken seriously by anyone. When the police barely seem interested in her father’s murder, she slowly realizes she must take on the investigation herself. Though Charlie is no Nancy Drew with a flashy car and a wealthy parent to bankroll her. Charlie’s world is bleak and friendless in the extreme. Fortunately she’s smart, and braver than she thinks she is. She dives deep into the Realer world to uncover her father’s connection to it, and discover what sort of toy Realer really is. It’s fascinating to watch her navigate, trying to figure out whom she can trust (no one, she concludes), and whom she can manipulate or fool into revealing their motives.

This is an incredibly timely book, and though the protagonist is only sixteen, it is a cautionary tale that anyone over the age of, say, fifteen will enjoy. It was a bit of a shock to realize how plausible the world of Realer is. If you’re like me, you’ll run to turn off every microphone in your house, pocket, or purse the moment you finish.


Realer… an audio exclusive performed by Gemma Whelan

A few years ago, when I was working on one of my earlier audio exclusives, someone in book publishing took me to one side and asked, ‘Why do you bother with this stuff? It’s so small.’

I don’t think anyone would ask that now. Storytelling in audio has exploded in recent years as people have discovered how powerful a medium it is, and how easy and convenient for audiences to access. But I loved audio long before its present fashionable status. This is narrative art in its purest form, a chance to put a real voice in the ear of a listener’s imagination. When it works there’s nothing quite like it.

And now I’m delighted to be able to announce my latest audio exclusive, Realer, a brand new standalone chiller set in a dystopian near future and narrated by that wonderful actor Gemma Whelan, whose many great roles include the fabulous Yara Greyjoy from Game of Thrones.

The project I was writing when I had that conversation, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with the amazing voice talent of Richard Armitage, went on to win an Audie, the audiobook equivalent of an Oscar. Realer is an idea I started working on in a buzz coming back from New York after we won that award, keen to keep on exploring the many exciting possibilities audio offers.

Note that word ‘performed’. The best audio storytelling is more than narration – someone simply reading the words in a book. It is a very. intimate kind of theatre, which is why actors with wide stage experience, like Gemma and Richard, excel at the task.

At the heart of Realer is Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Mackintosh, a solitary girl from an impoverished family in near future Yorkshire. I desperately wanted to write about the North, the region I come from, one I love, one whose future I fear for which is, in part, at the core of this tale.

Charlie witnesses the murder of her father through a virtual reality system and then realises she must use that same system – which she hates and fears – to find his killers. It’s a story about broken families, the control technology is coming to hold over our lives, and the cost of lockdown. When I began I saw it not as a book but more a one-woman play divided into short, accessible chapters, a first person narrative that might be told directly to an audience in a theatre. Or to a bunch of people on a broken down bus.

Charlie speaks to you personally, a funny, emotional and occasionally unreliable narrator telling the story of how she came face-to-face with tragedy and – no great spoilers here – found a way to survive and defeat the challenges of a post-pandemic world. Can you tell this tale in a conventional book? Yes, and one day Realer may be just that. For now though I wanted it to be delivered in the direct and personal way that only great performances in the studio can manage, which is how I first imagined it a couple of years ago on the way back from New York. I’m very grateful to WF Howes for the opportunity to produce this latest audio exclusive, and to Gemma Whelan for bringing her formidable talents to the task.

For those of you who use NetGalley I’m delighted to say the service now handles audio release too – so if you head to the Realer page you can apply to be one of the pre-release reviewers. Just go here on NetGalley.

And here’s the cover copy…

‘Life is real.. but this is Realer…’ Realer promises a new virtual reality, a safe and sanitised window into a virtual existence without the risks of the real, crumbling, post-pandemic society beyond the door.

Sixteen-year-old Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Mackintosh is a loner whose father works for the company. He gives her Realer for her birthday – only to be murdered as she watches through her high-tech hood at home.

Alone in a tense, post-lockdown world, Charlie has to turn to Realer to find his killers. She’s soon trapped in a murderous conspiracy behind a system that’s steadily beginning to take over people’s lives.

Charlie comes to understand that she can only hide from outside dangers for so long. In the end, the only way to defeat them is face-to-face, in the real world. A place she fears more than any.

A brand new audio exclusive for WF Howes, performed by Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones). Available through Audible, Apple iTunes, Amazon and other audio outlets on October 29.


TripFiction Sense of Place

The website TripFiction just keeps getting better and better with its mix of fiction reviews that marries books to their location around the world.

Today the site’s announcing a new venture too, its Sense of Place creative writing contest. In a nutshell…

This autumn, as the world finally takes its first tentative steps into a post pandemic world, we invite adventurous writers to create new stories. Ideas that transport people to a place where imaginations can escape from the claustrophobia of locked down lives and restricted travel. Welcome to the TripFiction ‘Sense of Place’ Creative Writing Competition.

There are very few rules and guidelines: we want to encourage creative adventure and freedom. It might be a fully formed short story, a travelogue or a more personal memoir. It might be set in Shetland, Shanghai, Shoeburyness or Shaker Heights, Ohio. It might be rooted in history, love, humour, romance, crime or food. It’s entirely up to you.

But the one thing your entry must include is a strong sense of place: the destination at the heart of your story will be as important a character as the protagonists and the plot.

The maximum word count is 3,000, minimum 750. All rules and guidelines for this TripFiction ‘Sense of Place’ creative writing competition are set out below, including the closing date for submissions.

I’m delighted to be one of the judges. And if you sign up to take part you’ll receive three essays from your truly offering some insight into the tips I’ve picked up about writing location in Rome, Venice, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, among a few other places, over the years.

There’s money to be won and you have until November 15th to submit your entry. So start writing…


The Garden of Angels

Out in the UK from Severn House on January 29, 2021. E-book UK and US March 1, 2021. US hardback April 6, 2021. Mass market paperback summer 2022.

In 1999 fifteen-year-old Nico Uccello is called to his dying grandfather’s bedside. The ailing Paolo Uccello has a gift that will change his life forever… the untold story of his life under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, and his relationship with two young Jewish partisans on the run from the Germans.

The dark past of wartime Venice is suddenly about to become shockingly alive for young Nico, and come to haunt his adult life as he struggles to come to terms with what his beloved Nonno Paolo has to tell him and him alone.

This is the labour of love I’ve been working on for nearly three years and it is, I think, the most ambitious book I’ve written in thirty years as a novelist. A story of courage against tyranny, of the desperate choices made by ordinary people when faced with oppression and terror.

Gripping and powerful, THE GARDEN OF ANGELS richly evokes the tension and threat of Nazi-occupied Venice.  A moving and important novel.

Tess Gerritsen, NYT bestselling author of I KNOW A SECRET

At his beloved Nonno Paolo’s deathbed, fifteen-year-old Nico Uccello receives a gift that will change his life forever: a typed manuscript which tells the haunting, cryptic tale of what really happened to his grandfather in Nazi-occupied Venice in 1943.

The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he dies, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

An atmospheric and gripping thriller by a writer who really knows Venice – its history, its intricate geography, and, not least, its people.

Gregory Dowling, author of THE FOUR HORSEMEN

When a Jewish classmate is attacked by bullies, Nico just watches – earning him a week’s suspension and a typed, yellowing manuscript from his frail Nonno Paolo. A history lesson, his grandfather says. A secret he must keep from his father. A tale of blood and madness . . .

Nico is transported back to the Venice of 1943, an occupied city seething under its Nazi overlords, and to the defining moment of his grandfather’s life: when Paolo’s support for a murdered Jewish woman brings him into the sights of the city’s underground resistance. Hooked and unsettled, Nico can’t stop reading – but he soon wonders if he ever knew his beloved grandfather at all.

Read more about the title with the publicity sheet below. As always thanks to Severn House for their support for this ambitious book in these strange times.