Finale to my National Crime Reading Month daily blog series
Today is the last day of June and therefore today’s is the last of my daily blog posts to celebrate Crime Reading Month. I’d like to pay tribute to the CWA for coming up with the idea of CRM and to the countless people who have supported it. I’d particularly like to thank everyone who has contributed to these thirty posts by providing so many magnificent insights and vignettes and for giving up their time so generously to help me. It’s impossible to pinpoint highlights – I feel as if I’ve been on a high all month! – although a few moments stand out for me personally. I was struck by Hannah Deuce’s comment that all writers are different, so she supports each one in different ways; by Natalie Sammons’ observation that if you write to please yourself, you won’t be disappointed ‘whatever the outcome’; and perhaps most of all by Frances Pinter’s description of Brexit in one punch-packing word: ‘frivolous’. Frances’ post was all about the importance of peace and how we should dread the danger of war that is looming once again; sadly, as we reach the end of this month, the conflict in Ukraine is no nearer to resolution than it was on 1st June.
CRM has given me some humbling opportunities to read or re-read some fine works of fiction: Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, and The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore impress with their originality and fine use of language, but I have enjoyed all the novels that I have written about this month and am in awe of all their authors. In this, I include Annie, the only poet featured, whose stark poems about domestic violence bring home the enormity of it more vividly than any number of newspaper and court reports. I’d also like to pay tribute to those who have always supported me as a writer and continue to do so: Annika, Valerie, Noel, Dea and now, Hannah, please take a bow. I salute those who have dedicated their lives to supporting the bookselling and publishing industries: Richard, Nick, Lynette, Linda and, again, Frances and Noel. I’d love to be a member of Deirdre’s reading group – she and her book club friends seem to have such fun! And finally, I’d like to thank Betsy, Tara and Hannah for publishing The Canal Murders to the usual high Bloodhound standards; and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise for (temporarily) having forgotten my own publication date!
As readers of this whole series of posts will know, I have been privileged to speak at four libraries during the course of the month. I have, of course, known for many years how much librarians bring to their communities, but when I met Helen, Kathryn, Tarina and Kay and their teams, their generosity, talent and tireless efforts to help people were brought home to me all over again. I’d like to thank them once more for their wonderful hospitality – and the equally wonderful audiences to whom they introduced me, each of which taught me far more than I felt I had to offer them. I now know about ran-tanning, the use of opium for Fenland agues and many more facts about life in Lincolnshire, both past and present, than when I started out. The library visits also gave me the opportunity to research some unsolved Lincolnshire murders, including that of Alas! Poor Bailey, my favourite. My encounter with the vicar of Long Sutton church will stay with me.
When I introduced this blog series, I promised to tell my readers at the end of it why I write about the Spalding of my childhood even though my novels are set in the present. I renew that promise now, but I hope you will allow me a short delay. It is because – as I mentioned earlier this week – I am currently on holiday in Orkney – in fact, sadly, my time here is drawing to an end; and while I am still able to imbibe the magic of this place I should like to introduce you to one of the island’s serial murderers – the great skua. Called “the pirate of the seas” or, in Orkney, “the bonxie”, this formidable bird – which appears not to be afraid of humans – hunts other birds on the wing. Today my husband and I watched spellbound as a pair of great skuas systematically chased a curlew through the soft blue skies and engaged above and around us in aerial combat with greater black-backed gulls. I came to Orkney for inspiration as a writer and I have found more here than I could ever have dreamed about.
As I prepare to return home and submit myself to the discipline of the keyboard once more, I should like to conclude by thanking everyone who has read even one of these posts. I do hope you have enjoyed them. There are more to come – I was surprised and grateful to have more offers from would-be contributors than there are days in the month of June. And of course I shall not forget my promise.
I leave you with a cheerful picture of one of Orkney’s denizens.
The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore
Sometimes you can go a longish stretch without reading a book that really amazes you – a book that fills you with awe, one that you can truly say you ‘love’. Then such a book comes along and the gratitude and pleasure that you feel is redoubled by the wait. Such a book for me is The Manningtree Witches, A. K. Blakemore’s debut novel and one of my spoils from this year’s London Book Fair. I read it early in May after many weeks’ fare of enjoyable, well-made and admirable books, none of which, nevertheless, quite reached the heights that this novel achieves.
The Manningtree Witches is classified as historical fiction, but it is as surely a work of crime fiction. It tells of the witch-hunts pursued by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, in the seventeenth century. It is a novel at once lovely and appalling, the world which it depicts a place of ingenuousness and sin, white magic and black magic, faith and cynicism. Blakemore weaves her tale in words that are elaborately rich and beautiful; the speech the characters employ is a brilliant reconstruction of the language of people who lived only a generation or two after Shakespeare, a serious and melodious tongue which sometimes conceals, sometime reveals the decadence at the heart of their society. It was no surprise to me to learn that Amy Blakemore is also a distinguished poet.
Rebecca West, the protagonist of the story and also its narrator, is a survivor. Clear-eyed and intelligent, she is capable of weighing shrewdly the characters and personalities of those around her – though she is not without her weaknesses, among which is her girlish infatuation for Master John Edes, the church clerk. Eventually Edes takes advantage of this, but he is too cowardly to acknowledge their intimacy. Rebecca is ahead of her time in understanding whence springs the muddled superstition that governs everyday life:
“I am not superstitious – I am useful. I have taught myself to watch and listen. I have seen enough suffering in my life to know that the diseased mind is prone to invent all manner of phantoms that might hover over a person. Better to blame a sprite or a puck for the souring of the milk or the tangles in the horse’s mane than to concede one’s own slovenly habits may have contributed to the situation.”
Rebecca’s intelligence shines out, making her superior to the other women in the novel, all of whom are seen through her eyes. Generally, the female characters, for all their coarseness and jealousies, are morally superior to the males, but also more vulnerable. The following short passage conveys the condescension and cruelty of Hopkins and John Stearne (“the second richest man in Manningtree”):
“At that moment Misters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne emerge from the dock office across the way, lovely furs frothing at their collars in the spry wind and begin to pick their way along the road. They pass the women with a reluctant tipping of their hats, like crows’ sharp heads to a wound.”
There is also implied hypocrisy here, though Hopkins gradually emerges as a complex character, perhaps – but only perhaps – as deluded and vulnerable as his victims.
The Manningtree Witches is the best historical novel I have read since The Miniaturist (and that was published more than six years ago!). It won the Desmond Elliott prize in 2021. I am certain that Amy Blakemore, who is only at the start of her career as a novelist, will go on to win many more prizes and accolades. She is already one of the best novelists of her generation.
Natalie Sammons, debut crime fiction novelist
Natalie is one of my fellow Bloodhound authors. We ‘met’ on a podcast in April, when The Consequence of Choice, her debut novel, and The Sandringham Mystery were both published.
Q: What is the title of your novel? Briefly, what is it about?
A: The title of my novel is The Consequence of Choice. The book tells the story of the introduction of a ‘one-child’ law as a means to minimising the world’s ever-growing population. Fast forward ten years. Elspeth, the main character finds herself pregnant, which is illegal, and soon the police are on the case. The story follows four characters. Each has his or her own agenda: they either strive to help Elspeth or to catch and convict her.
Q: Why did you decide to write a novel in the crime genre?
A: I don’t feel that it was a conscious decision to write a crime-based novel. It suited the plot, allowing for suspense, twists and turns and drama to be woven into the story.
Q: How long have you wanted to write? And what inspired you to start writing this book?
A: I have always had a passion for books, but until I wrote The Consequence of Choice I was content to be the reader rather than the writer. It was only after I had my son that I first put pen to paper. I wanted to write a story for him. My ambition snowballed as my love for writing took hold. It is my first attempt at writing something other than children’s fiction.
Q: I know you are a nurse by profession and that you live in Sussex. Have you drawn on your knowledge of nursing, medicine etc. in the novel? Or on the local topography?
A: Like me, Elspeth is a nurse. A piece of advice I read early on in my writing journey was to ‘write what you know’. I felt that following this advice ensured that my novel had authenticity and allowed me to write with confidence. I drew on my nursing knowledge at times, although I was mindful that I didn’t want the text to feel too clinical. The locations depicted in the book are familiar to me. I wanted to be able to picture the places I was writing about.
Q: What do you find most challenging about writing fiction? And what do you find most rewarding?
A: Being able to weave a story which has the reader enthralled is the most rewarding part of writing fiction: knowing that the reader is as invested in the story as I have been. The main challenge always lies in creating a story which captures someone’s attention. I often worry that the plot isn’t moving quickly enough or is moving too quickly. Sometimes I feel I overthink how my writing will be received by my readers.
Q: How did it feel to see your book in print, when the first copies arrived?
A: It was amazing to hold that first copy in my hands. It felt like such an achievement to have created a piece of work which other people also believed in.
Q: Are you working on another novel now? If so (without giving too much away) can you say what it is about?
A: Yes, I am, although it may be put on the backburner soon as I am due to have my second child this summer. The plot of this book is quite different from The Consequence of Choice. It focuses on two characters who are each struggling with demons: one is challenged by a mental health issue; the other by a medical condition. For one of them, all is not as it seems. In facing up to what she has most been afraid of, her medical condition, she discovers that her path is inextricably linked with that of the other character’s.
Q: What do you like to read yourself? Are there other crime fiction writers you admire? Aside from crime writers, who are your favourite authors?
A: I will read novels in most genres. I am all about the characters, I want to be invested in their story. Regarding crime writers, I do enjoy Peter James’ books; perhaps this is because his books are set in and around Brighton, the city I grew up in.
Q: What would be your advice to struggling new authors just starting out?
A: I can only pass on that same advice: ‘Write what you know’. This will make your story real and enable you truly to picture what you’re writing about. Oh, and don’t give up. You should write because you enjoy it, because there is a story you’re burning to tell, then you will be rewarded, no matter what the outcome.
Noel Murphy: bookseller, publisher, reader extraordinaire
It would hardly be right to celebrate Crime Reading Month without including a post about a publisher! Noel Murphy is the Commercial Director of Granta, one of the UK’s most distinguished – and long-lived – independent publishing houses.
Noel is a graduate of University College London, where he read Philosophy. When he graduated, he had no career plan – just a burning desire to visit South America, inspired by his having read One Hundred Years of Solitude,by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His mother told him there was a vacancy at the Waterstones in Stratford-upon-Avon and he applied for the job, with the intention to save some money to fulfil his travelling dreams. He got the job but has still not visited South America.
After Stratford, he spent two years respectively running the ground floors of the Waterstones at Cardiff and Hampstead. Then he moved to Dublin, where he opened a new branch, and after that he worked at Waterstones Head Office for two years as Promotions Manager. He says the latter job connected him to publishing and enabled him to “jump the fence” to Bloomsbury, where he helped to develop its website in the early years of online bookselling. After that, he was the Marketing Director at Faber for six years.
For family reasons, he then moved to New Zealand and worked for a not-for-profit organisation, where he says he didn’t earn much but learnt a great deal. On his return to the UK, he made his only foray into academic publishing when he joined Yale as Sales and Marketing Director. After Yale, he worked as a freelance for a short while before joining Granta.
Noel is extremely proud of Granta’s fine frontlist and equally acclaimed backlist, to which he says “different editors have added lots of great books. As Commercial Director, I don’t have to worry about the books – I know they’re all going to be good. They’re also the kinds of books that booksellers like, which means that buyers will always give them a hearing. They’re therefore stocked by most of the big bookshops.”
He has spent his career working with and talking to booksellers, publishers and authors. To those wishing to embark on a career in bookselling, he says the good news is that it’s still not particularly difficult to get your first foot on the rung. What prospective booksellers need to know is that bookshops vary tremendously, so the choices they make depend on which part of the industry they want to work in and the type of readers they want to serve. Independent bookshops are very different from chains: new booksellers are “thrown into it” and have to pitch into doing most tasks from the word go, though they learn a lot in the process. The qualities of a good bookseller are, above all, to like people and to be happy to give customers recommendations (which implies keeping up with what’s being published and themselves reading a great deal). Booksellers aren’t well paid, but they do get to see new books and are given as many proof copies and reading copies as they can handle.
Noel’s advice to would-be publishers is to start out by working in a bookshop. It’s a really useful way of understanding the market. Working in publishing is very hard if you don’t understand what readers want. Publishers also need to be proficient in using Excel and other technical applications and to know how to produce accurate and detailed metadata and then deploy it – otherwise, the books they publish won’t achieve their potential. It’s also important to understand what books look like on the Internet. “Today people have grown up with Amazon and it has changed their perception of the book.” Most important of all is to gain an understanding of customers. To do this, some form of experience – e.g., taking a Saturday job in a bookshop – is vital.
His message to writers is that being a published author is a difficult thing to be and requires resilience – but don’t give up. Spend time in bookshops and talk to booksellers. When he was working in Hampstead, there were lots of local authors who came into the shop. Louise Doughty stands out in his memory as having been “really, really nice”. She liked books and would sign them while she was in the shop, and always talked to the staff. From this perspective, his “best author of all time” was Maeve Binchy (he says she is a “better writer than her packaging suggests”). She was always nice to everyone and never took anything for granted. He still has some postcards she sent him. “The staff in the shop would do anything for her.” Elly Griffiths is an author who has similarly won over booksellers more recently.
Noel describes his own reading tastes as ‘catholic’. He has recently been reading Timothy Snyder’s books about Ukraine – four in a row – which are “a bit bleak, though brilliant”. He’s also reading Station Eleven, a science fiction novel published in 2014, which he says is uncannily prescient. He enjoys reading crime fiction and likes Michael Connelly. He is also addicted to the L.A. Confidential series , by Curtis Hanson. A seminal book which made a huge impression on him was Blake Morrison’s And when did you last see your Father?, partly because “Many other good books would not have been written if Morrison had not explored the subject first.” He has “not read as many classics as I should”, but he likes Thomas Hardy and enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights when he was young because “it appealed to my teenage angst”.
Of a career in books, he says the biggest pitfall is that “you can’t stop recommending them to other people”. It seems to me to be a very venial shortcoming.
An Orcadian digression
Today’s post is a bit of a self-indulgence. I hope you’ll forgive me, because it is only tangentially related to National Crime Reading Month and crime fiction, or indeed to any of the other topics this blog has covered since 1st June.
Allow me to explain. Since Thursday, I have been travelling north with my husband through the whole length of Scotland, reaching Stirling on Thursday evening and Thurso on Friday. Yesterday, we boarded the ferry for Orkney and reached our holiday house for the week – which is in Stromness – late yesterday afternoon. It has been one of my lifelong ambitions to visit Orkney and it does not disappoint. It is a magical place, palpably the residence still of the ancient, tricky-to-propitiate Norse gods of the old sagas, but with plenty of more recent history to explore and enjoy. Our first evening also gave us a moment of northern summer splendour, too, a sparkling view into space!
The gods seemed very close in the early hours of this morning when we got up at 03.40 am to try to watch the rare conjunction of five planets. It was almost daylight and we could see the moon, a fine sliver
in the pearl-grey sky, but unfortunately the fast-scudding clouds soon obliterated it and kept the planets out of view. We braced ourselves to stay outside for fifteen minutes to watch the rising of the chilly dawn and then returned to bed.
Today we have explored Stromness, a venerable port and fishing village.
A warm sun was shining on its mellow grey stones, tempered by a sharp and intermittently buffeting wind. The boats in the harbour gleamed white and blue, the waves turned briskly, flecking the blue-green sea with cream, and the mountains in the distance presided over all with summery bonhomie. (I imagine they loom with a much grimmer aspect in the winter.) People were out strolling on the cobbles or seated at the outdoor cafés drinking coffee. The ferry came and went again. Most of the quaint old shops were open – though the bookshop was closed, a visit to it therefore a treat to be saved for later in the week.
So, what has all this got to do with CRM and writing crime fiction? Well, to be honest, not much – yet. To be even more frank, today’s post is mainly an excuse to show off the wonders of Orkney by posting some nice photographs. But please have patience: I am also on writing alert. I already have a plot in mind and am thinking of ways in which I can make the most of this unique place to set the scene.
Murders in Orkney? I have read of a few, including a relatively recent one which is too harrowing either to discuss here or make use of in a novel. There will soon be a murder or two in Orkney – according to me – but they will not be founded in fact. I do not wish to arouse the wrath of the old Norse gods. I shall leave them to slumber until they themselves choose to wake again and you to stroll with us round Stromness:
The crime writers’ heroine: Dea Parkin, Secretary of the CWA
In a previous post, I described Agatha Christie as the ‘Queen of Crime’. This post features an interview with Dea Parkin, Secretary of the CWA, and the (often unsung) heroine of crime writers.
Q: Please describe your job. What does it entail? What do you like best about it? What do you find most challenging?
A: I’m the central point of contact for the CWA and co-ordinate all the different elements. I implement strategy decided by the Board and make day-to-day decisions on anything from website copy to competition process for the Debut Dagger and the Margery Allingham Short Mystery competitions. I liaise with members, external organisations and individuals, and the other officers and board members, as well as our hard-working admin and accounts departments. I’m the lead editor of the CRA Newsletter.
I enjoy the communication with our members, helping them with questions, benefit awareness and encouraging them to make the most of their membership. That’s very rewarding and it’s especially good to meet face to face, at the Daggers, Chapter meetings, festivals and above all the annual CWA conference.
I also enjoy encouraging would-be authors through the Debut Dagger competition and overseeing our Criminal Critiques service and carrying the torch for the CWA at events such as CrimeFest and Harrogate. There is a lot about the job I absolutely love!
The most challenging aspect is keeping up with all the emails, especially when there are big projects that need to be seen through, such as organising material for the AGM, proofing Dagger shortlists or writing reports. There is always more to do and my assistant, Fiona Veitch Smith, is invaluable, as is Joint Vice Chair Antony Johnston in particular.
Q: Why did you want the job? What was your inspiration? What was your previous job?
A: Well, I was asked in early 2016 by Martin Edwards, who was Vice-Chair at the time, if I could help out when the former director resigned. I’ve always worked freelance and had capacity at the time, and I’d been an associate member of the CWA through my editorial consultancy since 2012. In a past life, Martin had been a client of the PR firm I freelanced for and he knew a little about my organisational skills as well as my love of writing and editing – skills he thought the CWA might be able to use.
My editing work continues on days when I’m not working for the CWA and until the pandemic I also continued as a copywriter and marketing consultant for private companies. Working in the publishing industry was a dream come true; I feel I have finally found myself in the sphere I wish I’d discovered much earlier in my career.
Q: When you were appointed six years ago, you quickly transformed the CWA, which had perhaps been quite a fractured organisation previously. How did you manage to achieve this, and in so short a period of time?
A: I can take no credit for improvements the CWA has made in the last six or seven years or so. It’s been down to a board, comprising almost all volunteers, appreciating what needed to be done to make the CWA a cohesive and accessible organisation offering many benefits to all members. Membership has shot up since 2010 and it was a matter of putting a structure and people in place who could manage that growth and keep the CWA relevant and useful to authors, enhancing existing benefits such as the social networking through the Chapters and introducing new ones, especially online. This process continues as our dynamic Board find different ways of addressing this central issue, while always bearing in mind our responsibilities to crime writing in general, especially through the Daggers, and our members in particular.
Q: It seems to me that running an organisation for authors who, although they co-operate, are also essentially rivals, must bring its own peculiar difficulties. How do you manage to be equitable?
A: Interestingly, no crime writer I’ve met through the CWA has mentioned viewing their fellow writers as competitors. They generally appreciate that what helps one, helps all and that contributing to the popularity of crime writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, is a good thing for all crime writers. I have personally found the CWA to be a warm, friendly and welcoming organisation and the members delightful. I enjoy reading as many of their books as I possibly can! I encourage everyone to write articles for the CRA Newsletter and blog, and the CWA Debuts web pages, and love to help anyone who submits these or events for the websites. Yet my job is to help all members, whether they’re interested in those opportunities or not, and together with our excellent CWA team I’m very keen on doing exactly that, with everyone offered the same courtesies and friendly service.
Q: What are your future aspirations for the CWA? Where would you like it to be in the next two years? And next five years?
A: I’m not sure this is really for me to say, as it’s more for the board and the members themselves. I’d hope it continues to grow, attracting more members while offering a high quality of service to all. We appointed a PR company a few years ago now, Cause PR, and they have helped us to raise our profile within the industry, together with our hard-working Library Champions and Bookseller Champions. The stronger we are, the more good we can do for more writers.
Q: Are you a crime fan yourself? Do you have favourite crime authors? Outside the crime genre, who are your favourite authors?
A: I am a huge crime fan! However, this is where I prefer to be equitable, as you describe it, and not name any live crime writers. My tastes are very wide; I enjoy everything from historical mysteries to psychological noir, 1930s spy stories to cutting edge cyber thrillers. I enjoy a gentle touch of the supernatural. I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and Ian Fleming and later Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell and PD James. Nowadays my favourite-author list would spill over many pages and many CWA members feature there.
Outside crime, I love Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Paul Torday and Joanne Harris. Tolkien has always been a big favourite together with many of the classics, and Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett books also have a space on my furniture and floors. (Bookshelves are inadequate to the book-holding task!) I buy history books and sometimes get round to reading them. Alison Weir and Helen Castor are amazing!
Q: A few personal details. What do you do to relax, apart from reading?
A: I live in Chorley, Lancashire, though I’m from Yorkshire and still get teased, Wars-of-the-Roses style, from friends at both sides of the Pennines. My other work as a developmental and copy editor takes up a lot of time, but I love helping writers to achieve their full potential. For leisure, I both play tennis and watch it on TV, which accounts for almost all my viewing, and I’m secretary of my local drama group. I write poetry, one-act plays and short stories, and struggle with several novels I dare show no one. Beyond tennis and stories, as a history graduate I don’t get more satisfaction than looking round a castle or historic monument, though rambling in the hills is something I could wish I had more time for. Next week I’m walking the Tolkien Trail with a book-loving friend, so that’s a perfect leisure combination!
Q: Do you have a message for struggling new crime writers who are just starting out?
A: Keep going. Take the time to learn your craft and develop a professional business approach too. Above all, enjoy your writing. Keep perspective.
Berlin’s where it’s at, in the reading group scene
Reading groups are some of an author’s greatest friends. They may be organised by libraries or bookshops, or just set up by like-minded people who want to explore books together. Modern technology means the members no longer have to meet in person, though of course it is much more fun when they do. Deirdre Watchorn tells the story of how her international reading group works.
Q: What inspired you to set up / join your reading group? How many members does it have? Did you all know each other already? Had you belonged to other reading groups previously?
A: The book group idea came from my Czech friend, Katka. Her husband is American and had been running his own book group for about three years… but with men only! Katka decided she would like to be in a book group and the only way to do this was to set one up herself. She then extended the invitation to me and various other women she knew, including a wife of one of the ‘men’s book club’ members (!) who was also jealous of her husband’s book club. None of us had been in groups before and didn’t know what to expect. We had heard stories of the men’s book club – that they stayed up until 4 am in the morning, sometimes discussing very heavy literature and drinking lots. But I don’t think any of us had any expectations in the beginning about what ours would be like.
The reason I joined is that I used to be an avid reader on my daily commute into town when I lived in London. But once I moved to Berlin and gave up work for a few years, I hardly picked up a book. My concentration was in pieces. I was intrigued to see if the book club could reignite my love for reading.
Q: I understand the members live in more than one country. How does the group operate? Do you mostly meet virtually? Do you meet in person?
A: Apart from during the pandemic, we always meet in person in Berlin at least every 4-6 weeks. The group is made up of one Czech, one Belarussian, two Germans and two Brits. We also had an American member, but she moved away from Berlin a few years ago. During lockdown, we continued to run our book groups over Zoom and it usually worked really well! Even our American friend, now living in Brussels, continued to join us for some meetings as a special guest! We have taken short breaks away together, with themed books to match. We have become such good friends over the past seven years. I love my book club!
Q: How do you choose the books you read? Is there consensus on this or do you take turns to choose? Do you ever really dislike the book that has been chosen? If so, do you continue to read it to the end? Do you always choose fiction, or do some of the books you read belong to non-fiction categories? Do you all buy the book selected? If so, is it usually in hard copy format or do you buy ebooks as well?
A: It’s a very democratic process. We each take it in turn to lead the club, in strict rotation! The person leading needs to come up with a list of at least five titles, email them to all members and then the members vote on which one to read. If there is a draw, we take a straw poll on WhatsApp. At the very first meeting we decided we’d read only fiction and we have stuck with that. The only thing we sometimes discuss in advance is what theme the books for the next book club meeting should be. That for me is one of the most exciting parts, deciding on a theme and then seeing which books are put forward.
Yes, we tend buy the books to read, in print, although sometimes we share books between us, especially if they are expensive – i.e., only just published or hard to get hold of in Berlin. One of our members works in a school library so there have been occasions where she has provided the books for us to read, which is helpful! We rarely read ebooks. One of the members will sometimes read one on her phone but I could never do that.
I am known for being the most critical of the books we read! It’s quite rare that I ‘love’ a book we have chosen. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading all the books and indeed that for me is the beauty of the group, getting to read things I would never dream of picking up otherwise – classics, for example. I almost always read a book to the end. It’s disrespectful to the author if you don’t. But I am also a very quick reader.
Q: How long do you allow to read a book? Is there a fixed time – e.g., one month – or do you vary it?
A: We aim to hold the group every 4-6 weeks, but it does vary. I’m a very fast reader, some others (no names mentioned!) less so. As many of the group are non-native English speakers, we have a rule that if a book is over 500 pages long, we mention this when making the selection, so people don’t get a nasty surprise when they buy it.
Q: Do you always read books in English, or are some of the books you choose in other languages as well?
A: We have always them in English, even if the books were originally written by German authors or authors from other countries. This means a lot of the titles which are suggested are from US and UK authors, but we are conscious of this and try to internationalise as much as we can.
Q: Is the group’s discussion about the book pretty much spontaneous, or do you suggest themes or topics about the book prior to your discussion? Do you ever use the sets of questions about the book that some authors include – either at the end of the book itself or on their own or their publishers’ websites?
A: We agree never to discuss the book before the meet up, even if we see each other beforehand. The person leading starts the discussion and we go around the table. To be honest, we have never used the questions at the back of the book. I don’t know why! Probably because we have never been short of ideas or things to talk about. Some of us will have done some further research on a topic online, to find out about the author or the story and we bring those discussions into the group. But there is no set format. Some of the group studied literature at university, so it’s always interesting to hear their observations. But my favourite discussions are those that lead into other topics about life, the world and everything. Our first book, The Circle, was very memorable, not because we liked the book all that much, but because it prompted huge debate about social media and the damaging impact it has had on our lives.
Q: Is there one book that stands out above others as the one the whole group really enjoyed?
A: It’s really hard to remember. I know many of us disliked Mood Indigo, a French classic which was just too random to follow. We all enjoyed Station Eleven, a story about the collapse of civilisation and the aftermath. And also the novel Blindness, which we read just before the start of the pandemic. Maybe that’s our book club’s main theme: death and the end of civilisation.
Q: What are your own favourite types of book? Do you like crime or other kinds of genre fiction, or are your tastes more literary?
A: I’m a big fan of contemporary American literature: authors like John Updike, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, stories with quirky characters in everyday settings. But I like to read a real mix. At the moment, I am reading Elena Ferrante, Damon Galgut and Marion Keyes. I read a lot of crime novels in my twenties and have not felt the urge to return to that genre since. But never say ‘never’.
Q: What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up a reading group? Do you have any advice for authors?
A: Just do it! Don’t mull over the format too much or what titles to read. The group will develop organically, reflecting the membership. But do ensure you do spend time talking about the book at each meeting! I know of book clubs that were more about the wine than the books and unsurprisingly they fizzled out. Talking about the book helps strengthen the relationships between the members, too. In terms of advice for authors, I don’t have any I’m afraid… and I don’t think they need any. Creating these amazing characters and worlds is more than enough for us (thankful) readers.
The author’s reader
Readers are, of course, the most important component of an author’s life: without readers there would be no point in writing. There are, however, two kinds of reader. As well as the wonderful readers who pay authors the compliment of spending time on reading their books after publication, most authors also have personal – or test/beta – readers, who read the book on behalf of the author to make sure that it ‘works’.
I’m particularly fortunate in that Annika, my chief test reader, is German. Although she speaks English fluently, it is not her mother tongue. As she says, “I read every word because it’s a foreign language and otherwise I would not understand the full meaning of the sentence.” She proof-reads the books at the same time, and sometimes goes back and reads a passage twice because she has been struck by something odd about it. She checks for inconsistencies in the narrative, often double-checking with other passages in the book she’s reading and in the DI Yates novels that have preceded it. For example, in one of the early books she thought the timescale didn’t work, so she went back and took notes of all the events that were supposed to have taken place within a certain time period, to make sure they were feasible. “The characters did four or five things on a single day, before lunch! I remember thinking they had squeezed an awful lot in.” I altered the timescale of the events she mentions. She adds, however, that there have been occasions when the narrative didn’t seem quite right to her and then when she went back it was actually ok. She also checks practical details – travel arrangements, which flights go from which airports, whether the time it takes to get from A to B is doable.
Her favourite DI Yates novel is Fair of Face – “because it’s so unusual”, but she says she likes all of them, for different reasons. She reads more books in German than in English, because it’s more relaxing for her, but when she reads crime it’s mainly in English, because most crime fiction available in German is translated from English and she would rather read it in the language it’s written in. It takes Annika about two weeks to read one of my books, reading approximately two hours a day. She estimates that she spends about twice as long on them as an English reader would and probably a third more time than if she were just reading them for pleasure.
Annika usually reads the Yates novels in typescript and she checks details in previous novels from the typescripts she worked on originally, because it’s quicker for her. “I often think I should read them in print, to see what you made of my comments! They’re suggestions only, you’re bound not to agree with some.”
I asked her if she learns anything from them – do they, for example, give her a feel for what it’s like to live in Lincolnshire, a county that she doesn’t know well? She says the books do give her an idea of what the area I write about is like, but “I can’t tell if it’s realistic – in that if I went to live there, I don’t know if it would be like that”. (I don’t think it would – on the whole, I don’t write about people with a similar lifestyle to hers.)
She says that all authors should have a test reader to look out for inconsistencies. She adds that I’ve improved – she’s finding fewer mistakes in the more recent novels than in the early ones.
Annika’s own tastes in reading are eclectic. She likes Jan-Philip Sendker, a German author who has described evocatively what it’s like to be a westerner in Asia. “The quality of language when I’m reading in German plays a higher role for me than when I’m reading in English. But I don’t like high-flown or pretentious writing and, generally, not ‘classical’ authors – I don’t like Goethe or Schiller. For this reason, poetry often doesn’t ‘speak’ to me. I liked Der Schwarm, by Frank Schätzing, but I didn’t like his other books nearly as much when I tried them.”
There are exceptions to her preference not to read books in translation. “I really loved The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which I read in German.” That is a point on which Annika and I can agree wholeheartedly!
So, without Annika, I’d miss out on a very shrewd aspect of the editorial process; my editor similarly values the fact that Annika’s unique skills and linguistic viewpoint work in tandem with his scrutiny and together they are a formidable team in support of DI Yates!
The Good Life, by Sarah K. Stephens
This is a classic ‘woman at risk’ crime novel with a great twist at the end. It combines the woman-at-risk sub-genre with a newer trend in crime fiction – the portrayal of protagonists endangered not only by evil adversaries but by having been pushed by circumstance to the farther reaches of civilisation. In this respect it reminds me of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days.
Kate, the heroine, is a woman at war with herself, plagued by self-dislike. It has been triggered partly from the disappearance of her toddler son a few years before the novel begins, forcing her to confront the fact that she was a ‘bad mother’, and partly from much further back in her life, when the child she was babysitting as a teenager died. The boy choked on fruit Kate had assembled to make a smoothie while he was in her care.
Calvin, Kate’s husband, takes her to an expensive – but somewhat tawdry – holiday resort in Costa Rica, for a much-needed break and to try to rekindle romance in their strained marriage. On the flight there they meet an over-friendly couple, Ashby and Bill, who it turns out are staying at the same resort. Kate throws herself enthusiastically into cultivating this new friendship. Calvin is not so sure. Then, after a night of heavy drinking, the nightmare begins. Rebecca, Kate’s sister, comes to her aid, but very soon she, too, becomes a casualty.
The novel explores the themes of redemption and self-respect and how they are connected. It shows how wrong choices can be made, relationships damaged – and, sometimes, lives curtailed – by the reckless behaviour of people who believe they don’t matter. It looks at both selfishness and selflessness from surprising new angles.
I found Rebecca by far the most interesting character in the novel, even though there is much more space devoted to Kate. Rebecca remains enigmatic until the end. The female characters in general are drawn in more detail than the male characters. Ashby Garcia, who turns into Kate’s nemesis, fascinates from the start with her hard glamour. This is the passage which set Kate on her nightmare journey:
The woman had the aisle seat, just like Kate, and so Kate shoved her hand out across the space, ignoring the soft bustle of the other passengers surrounding them. “I’m Kate Whitaker.” Their hand intertwined into a firm handshake. Kate felt a pinch as wedding rings dug into her hands. A stack of Bulgari chokers decorated the woman’s long neck.
“Ashby Garcia.” She flipped her hair over her right shoulder, one shiny curtain of good grooming. “This is my husband, William.”
The passage is understated, but you can just feel that things won’t end well, can’t you?
If you have yet to select books for holiday reading this summer, I can’t recommend The Good Life too highly.
In which I almost miss my own publication day!
This morning I got up at 4 am, just as the day was dawning, rejoiced in the singing blackbirds, took a quick look at the BBC news – complete with midsummer celebrants at Stonehenge – and spent almost four hours facilitating a webinar featuring librarians from Australia and New Zealand. As you do, when you live at the wrong side of the world. 😉
By 9 am, all the librarians had signed off and I was looking forward to breakfast, but I could see emails in my Outlook and thought I’d read them first. (I can never resist that little yellow envelope symbol – it has encroached on my writing time on more occasions than I can remember.)
And there it was. A message from Hannah, the lovely marketing manager at Bloodhound: I just wanted to pop you over an email to say congratulations on your publication day for The Canal Murders! I hope you are able to find time to celebrate today.
Reader, I had forgotten the publication date of my own novel! Duh!
That doesn’t mean to say that I am not over the moon. I’m humbled, too: everyone at Bloodhound has been beavering away while I have been focusing on the Antipodes. Not that I regret that, but clearly I need to do some serious work on my multi-tasking skills.
As readers of this blog are aware, I have given several library talks recently. It has been striking how often members of the audiences have asked me how I got the idea for a particular book. What was the initial spark that started off the creative process? What triggered the gleam (or grit!) in my eye?
The Canal Murders was inspired by several separate events and discoveries. A few years ago – pre-COVID – I was asked to give a talk at the main library in Lincoln and had time beforehand to explore the beautifully restored waterways in the city. I’m interested in canals – I’ve taken several narrowboat holidays – and have read about the Fossdyke, the ancient canal originally dug by the Romans that connects the River Trent to Lincoln at Torksey; and because I’m interested in canals, I have also read about two murderers, one based in Yorkshire and the other in Greater Manchester, who have made use of the canal network to dispose of the bodies of their victims (I won’t identify them, as I have used aspects of their real-life crimes in the novel and I don’t want to give too much of the plot away). When I was thinking about this novel, I had also been reading about copycat murders and how their seeming lack of motive creates extra obstacles for the police when trying to track down the killer(s). Yet another theme came from some items of farming news in East Anglia at the time, about soil erosion and the need to take proper care of the land. This is also woven in.
The novel has a multi-layered plot, because there are several murders, each featuring a different type of victim. And the sub-plot – in response to requests from readers – focuses on DS Juliet Armstrong’s private life.
I hope that you will think this sounds intriguing. I rarely write about my own books on this blog, but perhaps you will forgive me on this occasion, as The Canal Murders has been published during Crime Reading Month, the focus of all my June 2022 posts, and it’s also been published on Midsummer’s Day. I can think of no more propitious date on which to launch a murder mystery. The gods will surely raise a cheer, awoken from their slumber as they have already been by the votaries at Stonehenge!
More to the point, Hannah has been cheering The Canal Murders, too, in her own quiet but indomitable and infinitely more practical way. Thank you, Hannah, for all your inspired work and for being a much better multi-tasker than I am.