Yesterday Jim, my editor, and I enjoyed the immense privilege of running a writers’ workshop at Wakefield One, the City of Wakefield’s wonderful new complex that incorporates the library and other arts and community facilities. Like the event in which I took part at Wakefield One last year, it was part of Wakefield’s LitFest, and impeccably organised by Alison Cassels, who, in my experience, is second to none at enthusing and gathering in intelligent and appreciative audiences for such occasions.
Eventually, there were twenty-two lively and responsive participants of all ages, from twenty upwards. One recent graduate came with his grandfather.
We began by giving the workshop delegates a sheet containing the opening paragraphs of six novels and asked them to take on the editor’s task of choosing (and providing justification for their selection!) just one that they would personally want to publish. The results were Illuminating: although one of the extracts (actually from a novel by Ruth Rendell) emerged as the clear winner, all six had at least one champion. Everyone was thus able to appreciate the dilemma of choice that an editor faces when sent many different manuscripts. Then, in pairs and against the clock, the group accepted the challenge of producing an opening paragraph that might persuade an editor not to reject it. The results were exceptional: all were coherent, interesting and, most impressively, cliché-free; the activity itself generated wonderful engagement, as you can see in the photographs here.
I then went on to explore some of the practicalities of getting published and what new (and, indeed, established) authors need to do in order to engage and keep their readers. This audience was thoughtful as well as appreciative and turned it into a dynamic, interactive session. Finally, I read the opening chapter of Sausage Hall, the third in the DI Yates series, which will be published on 17th November; it was well-received (I’d been holding my breath, as I’m sure all authors do when they give their new ‘baby’ its first airings). The workshop members were generous: many bought copies of In the Family and Almost Love in the signing session at the end; some were kind enough to buy both.
The informal debate continued after the workshop was officially over. Several participants said that they’d been delighted to receive Salt Publishing’s online alerts. If any of the readers of this blog would also like to obtain these, just let me know and I’ll pass on the information.
Very many thanks indeed to Alison Cassels and the rest of the staff at Wakefield One (not forgetting those who work in the Create coffee shop, which produces a mean cappuccino!) and heartfelt gratitude to all those who joined the workshop – I hope that you will become occasional or even regular visitors to this blog.
This summer, events and commitments have seemed to conspire to restrict the time I had become used to spending on blog posts and engaging with others on the social media, by which I really mean Twitter, because, try as I might to be active with it, I can’t feel very comfortable with the lumbering mode of global communication that Facebook always proves to be to me. Even Twitter has found me out as a tweeting dilettante, never spending long at all up there amongst the flocks in the branches, but flitting in and out in sharp bursts like a swallow. So, first, may I apologise to loyal friends who must think me at best unreliable and, at worst, not a friend to them at all. Some of you (you know who you are) have put up with my scant regard for relationship consistency with huge patience and unstinting support in my absences, for which, please do accept huge thanks for keeping this bird in flight.
In the context of all this, I should like to make as public a declaration of thanks as this blog permits to a wonderful pair of Jennies, who, separately and at different times, could almost be assumed to have been acting in collusion to make me feel good about myself and about my novels. They have joined a wonderful group of reviewers of the first two DI Yates books who have taken much trouble both to read them and then to provide splendidly constructive and insightful commentary upon them. The DI Yates page on this site quotes them verbatim, which is my best way of saying ‘thank you’. However, Jenny Lloyd, who has reviewed both books, and Jenny Burnley, who has just reviewed Almost Love, have yet to find their comments transferred here (I’ve been remiss about this and I’ll be rectifying it shortly!) and I’m thus giving them a post to themselves by way of appreciation.
Both Jennies have been absolutely consistent in their celebration of other writers’ and bloggers’ work, mine included, and I’d like them to know just how much I value such selfless enthusiasm for writing about and spreading what they read, which helps so many people on the networks. I’d also like to say how much I enjoy their work, too. Thankfully, their qualities are shared by many of my virtual friends and acquaintances; they do epitomise the best of good social media practice, which means that they are always a pleasure to talk to.
I imagine that readers of this post will readily understand how I feel upon reading such reviews as these two, not just because they are so positive, but because their insights are so very thoughtful. Here they are:
Jenny Lloyd, on In the Family:
While laid up with an injury, the days can seem interminably long. What I needed was a book that would take my mind off the pain in my knee and the stultifying boredom that comes from sitting in one place for too long. I’d just finished reading The Luminaries (an 800 plus page book I would never have got round to tackling if I hadn’t been laid up). Then my daughter found the lost charger for my Kindle while looking for something else (as always happens). Browsing through some of the titles, I came across In the Family by Christina James, a book I’d bought some time ago, immediately following my reading of the author’s other book, Almost Love.
There is always a risk, after reading a really good book by an author, that one’s expectations will be disappointed by the next one. So it was with fingers crossed that I began In the Family, hoping I would enjoy it as much as Almost Love. I needn’t have worried, though. If anything, I enjoyed this one more.
In the Family has all the ingredients which one expects from a crime-thriller but it is the author’s skill which takes these ingredients and turns them into a crime-story bristling with mystery and suspense, written with intelligence and deep psychological insights. And the characters! Some of this family’s characters you would not want to meet, let alone be related to, but the author portrays them so well I now feel I have met them all and they linger in my memory still. Essentially, I felt the central theme of this story explored how damaged people can result in damaged families with devastating consequences for any children involved.
The gist of the story; a skeleton is found buried alongside a road and Inspector Tim Yates is called in to investigate. The remains are that of a young woman, Kathryn Sheppard, who disappeared thirty years before. As Tim and his team unravel what happened to Kathryn, the Atkins family’s past comes back to haunt them.
I devoured this book in two days; not because I had little else to do but because I honestly couldn’t stop reading it. My measure of a good read is: how much I don’t want to stop reading to go and do something else; how much I relish picking it up again; and how much I don’t want it to end. In the Family scored top marks on all counts.
I feel I must thank Mrs James for the thoroughly enjoyable two days I spent captivated by her story. The Luminaries may have won the Booker Prize last year, but for me In the Family was the better read. Mrs James has a third novel coming soon; I will be first in the queue to buy!
Jenny Burnley, on Almost Love:
This excellent crime thriller weaves a complex story around the main characters of Detective Inspector Tim Yates and Alex Tarrant, following the inexplicable disappearance of Dame Claudia, a celebrated archaeologist with a mysterious past. In a weak, alcohol-fuelled moment, Alex, married to the boring, but dependable Tom, allows herself to be seduced by the dastardly Edmund, a dangerous, unlikeable character. This adulterous liaison is central to the story, which moves along at a cracking pace. The reader is drawn along deeper into the story, demanding to know the all-important answer to ‘whodunit’ and how. This quest required reading late into the night to unravel the mystery and see what happened next. Suspects abound in Almost Love and there is plenty of action, tension and suspense, with many clever twists and turns. The characters are exceptionally well-drawn, with close attention paid to human foibles and weaknesses. As the story unfolds, a dramatic late twist leaves the reader breathlessly awaiting the next D.I. Yates novel.
Thank you, Jenny and Jenny. You have jointly ‘made my summer’ and I know that your good offices as discriminating reviewers benefit many authors and make them feel very good about what they do. Thank you, too, to all those other wonderful reviewers and readers who have supported my books so far.
[Please be aware that I’ve included here precise reference to some key events in this novel, though not plot detail. If you fear your future enjoyment in reading Apple Tree Yard may be at risk, read the novel first – you won’t be disappointed – and come back for my review!]
I became a fan of Louise Doughty’s work almost by accident, when I was given a copy of Whatever You Love, a very distinguished novel and a brilliant study of obsessive grief, and was so impressed with it that I reviewed it on this blog. Subsequently, I have read Stone Cradle, set in my native Lincolnshire, and this summer I made a point of buying Apple Tree Yard before I went on holiday.
Apple Tree Yard is a truly magnificent work, shortlisted for the Specsavers National Book Awards 2013, and it certainly merits a prize. It doesn’t exactly fit into the crime genre (just as Stone Cradle isn’t ‘just’ a historical novel), but it is about at least two crimes and, possibly, about several others, depending on how you choose to read it.
This last point holds the vital key to the novel, because this is a book that manages to capture the ambiguities, generosities and tyrannies of the relationships that it describes and also succeeds in conveying that, although no human is perfect and some will commit atrocious acts of perfidy, betrayal, cowardice and cruelty, it is impossible to define anyone as simply good or evil. Even sleazy George Craddock, victim of a horrific murder but also perpetrator of an appallingly brutal crime, is shown to have vulnerabilities and a father who loves him.
The story begins, rather shockingly, with an act of consensual sex between the narrator, Yvonne Carmichael, an attractive middle-aged professional woman, a scientist, and a man who has just picked her up during a visit to the House of Commons. She does not even know his name, but allows him to penetrate her in the vault of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, which he has offered to show her on what she understands quite clearly to be a flimsy pretext. There is great skill in the way in which this encounter, which triggers the rest of the plot of the novel, is presented. On the one hand, it could be viewed as a grubby sexual exploit between two people who are addicted to risk; on the other, we don’t question Yvonne’s claim that she believed it was an act of mutual tenderness. Despite the fact that she doesn’t know her lover’s name and at this stage does not expect to meet him again, the reader is persuaded that this is not just a lustful fumble in the dark: it ‘means’ something. Finally, she does not spare herself some wry reflections on the absurd indignity of the situation: how she has to hobble along with one leg out of her tights, one foot out of her (elegant) boot; how her ‘lover’ – she calls him ‘my love’ throughout the novel – wordlessly passes her his handkerchief to enable her to deal with the physical detritus of their congress.
Yvonne could be seen as a woman who has been taken advantage of by a predatory male, a woman naïve in her assumptions about his motives, despite her intelligence and education. Yet she proves not to be entirely wrong about him, even though it becomes evident that at first he did merely regard her as a quick lay, a conquest that he more or less took on as a personal bet with himself that he could do it. As gradually becomes clear, Yvonne makes use of him, too (and in the most extreme of ways, as we discover in the final sentence of the novel). Furthermore, the two other men who are described in detail, Guy, Yvonne’s husband, and George Craddock, who is an academic she meets through her work, both also take advantage of her. Of these three men, Guy is the gentlest, yet also the most selfish. He says that he loves her and is fiercely protective of the family life they have built together, but he refuses to give up the young mistress with whom he is conducting an affair that compromises him professionally. Yet it is Guy who stands by Yvonne when she is accused of being an accessory to murder and Guy who cares for her after the trial, despite the fact that she has done to him the one thing that he always said that he would find unforgiveable: humiliating him in public.
The reader is always on Yvonne’s side, but the author shows that we’re not always expected to think that she is right; it’s clear that she behaves badly, too. There are mitigating circumstances. As the court case unfolds, we discover that her son has bi-polar disorder, that he fights her off when she tries to help him, that she stalled her career for many years (despite, it is implied, being as able as, or more so than, her husband) to raise her family and that now she is the person at the centre of the family who has to try to hold it all together whilst also holding down a demanding and financially insecure job. This sounds a bit like an addition to the already large literary dossier of women’s complaints about being treated unequally, but it is less clear-cut than that, just as the encounter in the vault could be viewed either as a sordid seduction by a stalker or a joyful, life-affirming act of freedom. I don’t know whether Louise Doughty studied rape and stalking cases in order to write this novel, but of one thing I am sure: if she were a barrister, she would be equally good at putting the case for the defence or the prosecution.
Yvonne’s treatment by George Craddock can’t be defended: it is hideous and brutal. The sequence of events that it unleashes reveals the strengths and foibles of all the main characters. The trial is described with forensic accuracy (Louise Doughty acknowledges help from various legal authorities in her depiction); the descriptions of how a jury operates chime exactly with my own experience of jury service earlier this year.
I realise that I may have made Apple Tree Yard sound like a gloomy book, but it isn’t at all. Partly because of the author’s dexterous use of language and partly because there is a rich vein of dark humour underpinning the whole story, it is a bright gem, a novel that captures the privileges and drudgery, the ecstasies and ironies and, above all, the ambiguous moralities of modern middle-class life. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now!