Fresh Blood

Name: Stephen Lloyd Jones

Title of Book: The String Diaries

'This is an amazingly brilliant debut. I can’t wait for the next instalment. '

Hannah Wilde is driving through the night, her heart thumping, her head throbbing and fear scratching at her throat. Beside her sits her husband Nate, bleeding from a stab wound. In the back asleep is her daughter, Leah. All Hannah can think of is to reach the safe haven she knows may give them shelter – but for how long. How long will it be before the monster Hannah’s family have been fleeing from since she can remember, finds them once again.

Also packed in the car are the only things that Hannah refers to so she can help her family survive. They are a stack of diaries – some so old they are disintegrating. A pile of diaries held together with string, a chronicle of Hannah’s family history and a guide on how to survive. The rules are very simple: verify everyone, trust no one and if in any doubt, run!

‘The String Diaries’ is a mammoth debut and I don’t simply mean the amount of pages. This is a very ambitious work for a first time author and thankfully it does work and that the author did not get tied up (in string?), but manages to tell his story with clarity.

The scenes in Snowdonia were my favourite part of the story as this is where the story begins and what enraptured me immediately. The author conveys well Hannah and her family living perpetually on a knife edge. The scenes showing a family on a tightrope without a safety net, in my opinion, are what drive this story. I was intrigued by the narrative of Hannah’s mother and father and this side of the story gave a strong sense as to the sort of life Hannah had been forced to live. The scenes of Hungary, although chronicling the origin of the conflict, I felt were a little over long, but this was the only part of the book which I felt was slightly overplayed. Thankfully, once that part of the plot had been explained, most of the latter part of the book see-saw’s between the 80’s and the present.

In the present, newcomers like Sebastien and Gabriel force themselves on Llyn Gwyr where Hannah and her family have sought shelter. All through the novel, like Hannah, you are not sure if either can be trusted and if their intentions are true. As expected, events race to a stunning conclusion and right at the very end there are more revelations that stun you, but upon reflection you can see are entirely reasonable.

‘The String Diaries’ sucked me in from the start and was a book I was literally unable to leave behind once put down (sometimes forcibly) as I really couldn’t wait to get to the end as the story propelled me on and on as more and more revelations were thrown up. This is a novel that stands astride crime fiction and the supernatural and I was totally intrigued by this story. If you are a crime fiction traditionalist then I would say move along – but if you are up for a thumping good read with a twist, then I say you should definitely open ‘The String Diaries’ – I am sure that like me, you will be carried away by the myth and the mystery of the ‘hosszu elet’. This is an amazingly brilliant debut. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What inspired you to write your debut novel?
For quite a while I'd been carrying this snapshot of a scene around in my head: a mother - Hannah Wilde - driving through the mountains at night, searching for a safe place to hide. Her husband is bleeding to death on the passenger seat beside her. Behind them on the backseat sleeps their nine-year-old daughter. Something terrible is following them; something that has killed the last five generations of Hannah's family.

While I mulled over that scene, I began asking myself questions: Who is this family? What is it that's hunting them, and why? What will happen when it finds them? Will any of them survive? It might sound strange, but as I began to fill in the blanks, I became hooked on the story. I needed to find out how it all ended so I sat down at the keyboard and began to follow Hannah as she drove along those mountain roads. A year and a half later I completed the story of what became ‘The String Diaries’.
2) Besides being a thriller, there is a supernatural element to ‘The String Diaries’? When did you start to involve the Hungarian folklore within your story and did you worry if people would be open to your concept or not?
Right from the start, I knew that I'd only succeed in taking readers with me - experiencing Hannah's terror for her family's predicament - if the threat that followed them was as credible as possible. As there's a slight supernatural element to the story, I wanted to ground it in as much authentic background as I could. (I mean 'authentic' here in the fictional sense.) It couldn't just be. It had to have a logical - and very human - history. The Hungarian folklore was a natural progression of that, and was woven into the novel as I progressed. I can't tell you exactly why I decided on Hungary as the source of the material, other than I've always been fascinated with Eastern Europe, and Budapest offered a particularly dramatic setting for the book's historical chapters.
3) For a debut novel, the scope of ‘The String Diaries’ is quite vast as it is told through three different timelines. Was this a scary prospect and were there times when you were literally tied up in your own plotlines?
Definitely! I experienced more than a few sleepless nights, long walks and impotent rages, asking: 'How the hell do I untangle myself from this development? How can I reveal this fact in one timeline without revealing that one in another?' Sometimes I'd spend all evening drawing out annotated timelines, swearing and screwing them up into a ball. Still, no one forced me to write this story. And I got there in the end - although it's up to the reader to decide how well I succeeded.
4) The basis of your novel focusses on Hungarian folklore and the ‘Hosszu Elet’. I have searched online and found some Hungarian websites about the longevity of life. Is this actual folklore and how did you find out about it? What was your ‘jumping off’ point for ‘The String Diaries’?
I have to admit to the tiniest spark of gratification when someone asks that question because every scrap of it is fictional. As I said earlier, I knew that the threat Hannah's family faces must feel as credible as possible if readers were to care about the outcome, so I spent a lot of time creating the fictional strand of Hungarian folklore - corrupted as it is through countless retellings over the years - that forms the basis for the book's background. 'Hosszu Elet' literally translates as 'Long Life' in Hungarian but you won't find any associated folklore online or elsewhere because it doesn't exist. However, again for authenticity's sake, I employed a Hungarian philology expert to help me with the various words and phrases associated with that part of the story.
5) The diaries of the book are not ancient artefacts or mythological folklore, but actual diaries with the history of the family’s battle against the ‘hosszu elet’. Was this a conscious decision not to make them some kind of mystical objects?
I never really considered making them anything other than what they are: one family's record, across five generations, of everything that's happened to it. Because of the unique threat Hannah Wilde faces in ‘The String Diaries’, there are very few people she can trust. The diaries, for her, serve not just as a family history but as a survival guide; they represent everything her ancestors have managed to discover about the nightmare that hunts them, and they're a tool Hannah can use to protect herself.
6) Thankfully you didn’t include vampires, werewolves or zombies in your book. Due to the recent trend did you purposely decide not to go down that avenue?
There are many excellent novels that feature vampires, werewolves and zombies but I had no desire, when I started writing ‘The String Diaries’, to add another one to the pile. I don't say that out of any sense of snobbery, though. (You only have to look at my bookshelves.) I was simply having too much fun developing my own background.
7) Do you normally plan your books or do you see where the book takes you? Is the end result of ‘The String Diaries’ vastly different from the original landscape of the book at the beginning of your writing process?
I like to have a rough plan of where the story is heading, and a good feel for the main protagonists. But actually, most of the development comes once I've taken the plunge and typed out the first sentence. There's only so much planning I can do before I start getting restless, and that's the point I know the engine's about as warm as I can get it. Any more procrastination and I'll either stall or explode in a shower of rusty old engine parts.
8) What is the method to your writing? Are you very strict with yourself when you are embarking on a book and during the writing process?
I work for a central London media agency by day and come home to a wife and three sons - all under five - every night, so ‘The String Diaries’ was written whenever I had a spare moment: on the train during the daily commute, during snatched lunch breaks in coffee shops or late at night when everyone else was in bed. I have to say that without a heroically understanding wife I never would have managed to finish it as quickly as I did. I've needed to be far more disciplined with the second book, as this time I have a deadline bearing down on me. Still, it's a fantastic problem to have, so I'm not complaining about it.
9) What are your plans for your next novel? Will it be in the similar vein of ‘The String Diaries’? Will we be hearing more from those who survived the end of the book?
I'm halfway through the second book and yes, it's a connected story. Readers of ‘The String Diaries’ will recognise a few of the characters, no doubt, albeit with a whole new threat.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
Anything written by Robert Harris or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And the most recent crime novel I enjoyed reading was James Oswald's excellent ‘Natural Causes’.