REVIEW: How the Trouble Started – Robert Williams

How the Trouble Started by Robert Williams

How the Trouble Started


Faber and Faber

Kindle and Paperback

As beautiful as it is unnerving, How the Trouble Started needs to be on your must-read book-list. This is Williams’ second novel and, while I haven’t read the first, Luke and Jon, I now feel compelled to get myself a copy. It’s clear from the first page – the first line, actually – that this writer knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s all in the gaps. The information we’re given, and the information that’s withheld. It’s our desire to fill in those gaps that draws us along.

The police were involved over the trouble. They had to be . . . They wanted to know what I understood by ‘intent’.  

The author says ‘it took him 40,000 words to get to that line and realise that’s where the novel started’. Donald is the novel’s narrator. The one who caused ‘the trouble’ which ended one life and changed his forever. It is this question of intent which drives the novel. What has he done and did he mean to do it? From Donald’s perspective, we also see the impact of events on his mother, his only visible parent, and the rest of his life as he grows up, imprisoned by the loneliness this ‘crime’ has created. He embarks upon ‘vanishings’, detailed imaginary places and situations that always seem to involve a picturesque family life. A far cry from the one he has now.

It is this desire for family, for connection, which sees Donald getting caught up in a new friendship that could destroy the new start his mother has tried so hard to create. Throughout the novel, we are challenged to question Donald’s intent. What is at the heart of this new friendship? What lengths will he go to in order to preserve it? Who is at risk? Is it completely innocent, or is the secret of ‘the trouble’ about to be revealed? At one point, Donald sets up a ‘haunted house’ for his new young friend, which could either be a seriously disturbing way of grooming the boy, or yet another method of constructing a family, a home he has never fully experienced himself.

It’s the fact that Williams keeps the ‘truth’ of the trouble hidden until the very end that makes it such a motivating read. You want to know the truth. But can you ever, really?

Follow Robert Williams @redwardwilliams

More reviews…

Max Dunbar

I never thought about feminism when I was younger. I had a lot of vivid, contradictory ideas about capitalism, imperialism and war but I would probably have dismissed feminism as irrelevant identity politics. As I grow older, though, I become more and more feminist. Part of how I got there was by reading more widely and coming across, again and again, the oppression of women in other countries – for the most part religious.

There were more subtle changes. I met women who had tried to starve themselves, under the influence of billboards and magazines telling them how to look. And the irony is that men are just as likely to become feminists as women, because we hang around with men and we hear the things men say when women aren’t around. Certain assumptions and attitudes kept recurring in the company of men, and the more I saw of this male groupthink the…

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Review: Natsuo Kirino – ‘Out’

‘Out’ by Natsuo Kirino is a provocative, disturbing and highly intelligent psychological thriller. Written by a female author, the novel is a sensitive exploration of the difficulties faced via 4 quite different women who all work the night shift at a boxed lunch factory. When beautiful Yayoi murders her philandering husband, she goes to sensible Masoko for help who then enlists 2 other friends to help deal with the problem of the body. Eventually, they decide it must be cut up and thrown away.


Vintage, 2004, pp.528

Initially, these appear to be ordinary women dealing with an extraordinary situation, but the novel subtly explores what happens once that something you should never do is out and unlocked. In various ways, the emotional threshold for what they have done becomes eroded, and re-realised in curious ways.

On the one hand, I could see how this novel considers the opportunities available to women in Japan, as well as men, as a response to their particular society, and the roles demanded of them. All are in various stages of discontent, governed by cultural expectations of what they should be or should have. Or of longings that remain painfully unfulfilled. For Kuniko, it’s the debt she gets into to fill the void of her life. For Jumonji, a loan-shark and erstwhile yakuza, it’s high school girls that he realises don’t appeal in the same way as older woman, Masako. For Kazuo, a homesick half-Japanese Brazilian who lurks in the factory shadows to feel up unsuspecting women, it’s the absence of love. When we’re given his POV, he becomes a strangely redeemable figure, who is achingly lonely and isolated. 

The novel has a devastating arc, in which characters that you don’t think are initially important, become crucial. Satake, a casino-owner provides the threat. Having raped and murdered a woman years ago, and ‘sharing her death’, believing her also to have loved him in this moment, he realises he can never be this close to anyone again. He locks himself away from women and builds a mini empire from the ground up. The detail, and strange beauty, with which this is described is extremely unsettling. When he becomes a suspect for Yayoi’s husband’s murder, he loses his reputation, his past is out, and so is the instinct and anger that he has subsumed all these years.

He wants revenge and starts to track Masako, who he sees as (and who is) the mastermind of the whole affair. But she isn’t frightened that easily and begins to fight back, which makes him want her all the more. The only part of this novel that wasn’t compelling, perhaps because it felt so extreme, was the suggestion that Masako was coming to love, or at least be fascinated by, her pursuer. She forgives him and expresses a desire to run away with him. Whether this is truly meant or not is uncertain, but I did start to feel overly uncomfortable with this idea. Pleasure and pain is a much-discussed concept, but does that mean you come to love everybody who has hurt you, purely because they push you to such an unusual sense of being.

I might be reading that incorrectly, I have a suspicion that this notion is purely a suggestion, a way for Kirino to question how the operation of society constructs its inhabitants. The ever-increasing pressure it increases until people crack. Occasionally, the portrayal of the characters we are supposed to dislike seems somewhat heavy-handed but these two things are the novels only flaws. It’s the type of book, with a level of insight and sophisticated telling, that I’d aspire to write.

More reviews…

Writers in Lancashire...

The Word Festival are delighted to announce that Ra Page, co-founder of Comma Press and co-ordinator of Literature North West, will be giving a talk and Q&A session on how to attract a publisher / agent. 

Ra Page works at the heart of the North West literature scene, publishing both new and established writers through Comma Press, as well as being a core instigator and promoter of new literature, short film-making and other arts projects in the North West.

Comma Press is a not-for-profit publishing house dedicated to promoting new fiction and poetry, with a strong emphasis on the short story. Founded in 2002, Comma Press ‘is committed to a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses,’ and publishes a biannual “new writers” showcase ‘as a way of bringing in new talent alongside collections by already established writers such as David Constantine…

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Have you written a crime, thriller or psychological suspense novel?

via Have you written a crime, thriller or psychological suspense novel?.

(Hi all – Competition to find representation at Madeline Milburn agency – Sarah x)

Have you written a crime, thriller or psychological suspense novel?


Competition: To launch an exciting new Crime, Thriller & Psychological suspense List, the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency is offering talented writers an exclusive opportunity to be represented.

 To Enter: Please submit the following material in one email to:

  •  The first 8,000 words of your original crime, thriller or mystery novel
  • An introductory letter
  • A one-page synopsis
  • A 250-word biography of your central character

There must only be one submission per person and all the material must be attached to one email.  Please put the title in the subject line together with the word ‘Competition’.

 Closing date: Entries will be judged as and when they come in but must be made by 30th July 2012 on an exclusive basis.  That means your novel cannot be on submission to any other agency or publisher until the results are released in August.

 The Prize: Representation by the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency.

Madeleine Milburn says: “I am so excited about launching a crime and thriller side to the Agency, which I am looking to fill with exceptional new writers. I love authors such as Harlan CobenS.J. Watson and Lee Child.  I am looking for an incredible voice that makes you stop whatever you are doing, together with an extremely strong central character, and a plot full of unexpected twists and turns that keeps you up all night.”

Review Copies of Killing Daniel (1/9/12)

This is just a quick one. Most of you know that Killing Daniel is getting published soon (1/9/12).

The publishers have just said this:

Any bloggers or reviewers interested in an early review copy of Killing Daniel by Sarah Dobbs (1/9/12) get in touch or DM us @UnthankBooks

You can also get updates on their Facebook, page should you like. Me aside, they’re a bold and brave independent publisher with some excellent short story collections out there and on the horizon. Discover some fantastic fiction! (if you haven’t already)… 🙂



In Manchester Fleur is drifting through life haunted by her murdered boyfriend Daniel.

In Japan Chinatsu is trying to escape a passionless marriage to Yugi Hamogoshi, a man with a secret who won’t let her go.
Fleur and Chinatsu used to be schoolfriends.
Fleur and Chinatsu had a bond.
Fleur and Chinatsu had dreams.
This is the story of what happens before they can be together again

“KILLING DANIEL is an assured debut novel from a young writer who sets parallel worlds in motion and burns them into the reader’s imagination. Possessing an authentic narrative voice and impressive imaginative range, she is as much at home in Tokyo as in the post-industrial North West of England where her story begins. Her writing is economical, poetic, and darkly evocative; perfectly honed to explore the violence and retribution that underpins human affairs in her work, whilst also sustaining a tenuous but unbreakable thread of hope.” GRAHAM MORT on KILLING DANIEL by SARAH DOBBS. Published by UNTHANK BOOKS, September 2012.



The Seventh Suicide Note

New project…


At 1.51am on Monday 2 July, the woman finished the seventh of the letters that marked the end of her life. She sat at her writing desk in an apartment that overlooked Tokyo, her waist-length black hair providing amusement for her thin black cat, Suki.

The shadowy apartment crept with shy sounds; the washing machine finishing a rinse cycle of her partner’s white work shirts. Suki’s diligent licking of her paw, tongue pulling roughly at her fur. The woman’s sobbing which, although conducted by her entire body, could seem as though she was merely sniffling through a cold.

Suki made a figure of eight around the desk chair leg, then neatly occupied her original position.

The woman sealed the final envelope, ironing it smooth with one fist. She placed the seven gold envelopes in a row on her writing desk. All but one was addressed in an elegant, slanted script. The woman pushed the tears from her cheeks, smiled and sighed. She turned in her seat, one strap of her bamboo-coloured nightgown slipping from a too-thin shoulder. She had been trying to eat more recently. The woman tickled Suki’s whiskers. The black cat pushed her face at the woman’s slender fingers. 

‘Hello, little girl.’

The woman picked up the animal, held her to her chest and padded across the landing to the bedroom. Letting Suki down, the woman stepped into the legs of a pair of jeans, fastening the button across a stomach still etched with pink scars. She pulled on a cream sweater and flat shoes. Taking six of the seven letters, the woman crouched to kiss Suki’s cool nose before exiting the apartment.

Outside the air conditioned apartment, the weather was humid. Her skin grew clammy, but she breathed in the air as though she could sense the onset of Spring. She smiled and nodded at the little door man, whose face looked like he was permanently sneezing, and walked the block to the convenience store. She mailed the six of the seven letters, just one through internal mail, the remainder via the international slot, and then returned to the apartment. Nodding again at the doorman. 

The seventh letter she hid somewhere only she would think to look. She texted a kiss to her partner, knowing that in his timezone he would already be in the middle of an eight hour sleep. He would find it in the morning and smile. Perhaps it would ease his recent doubts. She responded to an email from her mother, asking about her father’s recurring migraines, and making a vague arrangement to try and fly home for his seventieth that summer. Finally, she resent an invoice to an old client who was always late with payment and did not mind the prompting.

The woman settled into the firm, high bed and took her usual sleeping pill. As her partner would testify, such was the woman’s difficulty around sleeping, the pill was not always helpful. But that night, she slept easily. It was the best few hours sleep she had ever had in her entire life.

At 4.53am, someone let themselves into the woman’s apartment. They crept towards the bedroom, nudged Suki aside who had jumped from the bed to say hello. The woman stirred at the cat’s thud, but the person continued forward. They removed a plastic bottle of mineral water from their coat. The water looked murky.

The police would later find Suki licking vomit from the woman’s slack mouth. The finished bottle of mineral water would be stood on the woman’s bedside table, together with ten packets of English paracetamol. The metallic packets would all be opened, with only her fingerprints upon them. After a thorough investigation, the verdict, seemingly corroborated by the autopsy and the six letters the woman posted hours before her death, would be suicide.

The seventh note sat in a secret place, just waiting to be found.