About writing

Bewitched by Long Sutton library – and murder and tea with the vicar

On Monday, after a cloudy start, the weather suddenly started to improve, aided in my case by my travelling south to Long Sutton, which already had a head start in the heat stakes. It was a glorious sunny afternoon when I arrived in this old Fenland village with its ancient silver and grey church and mellow ‘city centre’ (that term beloved of satnavspeak that makes me smile when the ‘city’ in question has a population of 5,000 people😉).

As I was an hour early for my talk, I headed to the churchyard, intent on finding the grave of John Bailey, a surgeon from the village who was murdered in 1795. I spent an interesting half hour examining the gravestones, having quickly discovered the late eighteenth-century graves, but I could not find John Bailey. I knew he was there somewhere because I had seen a photo of his stone. A quick online search told me that it was inside the church. The church – which began to be built in 1170 – is magnificent; I recommend anyone who is passing through the area to visit. Luckily for me, on Monday it was unlocked and, having it to myself, I walked slowly up the aisle from the back of the church to the altar and then down the aisle on the other side, reading all the plaques on the wall and the gravestones set into the floor. I discovered tributes to several ‘vickers’ and members of the Fitzalan Howard family – the local toffs – but still John Bailey eluded me.

The time of my talk was approaching and reluctantly I decided I’d have to leave, Bailey still unfound. Outside the main door, I met a man dressed in black and wearing a dog collar – and, super-sleuth that I am, having honed my investigative skills through the medium of writing nine detective stories, I deduced that it was the vicar. He asked if he could help and when I said I was looking for John Bailey he led me straight to Bailey’s memorial stone, which was set in the floor very close to the altar and cunningly concealed by a chair.

The vicar told me a bit more about the church and said he would have liked to have come to my talk, but the parish meeting was taking place at the same time. He therefore had tea and biscuits to hand! Very hospitably, he made me a cup of tea which I had to drink quickly as time was running short. It was not exactly what you might expect of tea with the vicar – we drank standing up from recyclable paper beakers – not a bone china cup in sight – but it was hugely welcome after a long journey and the dusty ramblings among the tombstones.

On to the library, where I met Tarina and Alison, the librarians,

and a very lively audience made up of some of their readers.

As with my other Lincolnshire talks to celebrate CRM, the discussion following the formal part of the event ranged far and wide. I discovered, for example, that in the nineteenth century, the citizens of low-lying Wisbech were plagued with agues which they assuaged by taking laudanum made with opium from the boats that still sailed up the river from the sea. (I’ve never been to Wisbech, though my Great Aunt Lily lived there. I doubt if she was one of the laudanum set. She signed the ‘pledge’ when she was fourteen and thought my father, who could make the same bottle of whisky last across three Christmases, was a drinker because he indulged in the odd glass of shandy on his way to the coast.)

One of my audience is a curator at Bewsey Old Hall in Wisbech. I have been invited to give a talk there later this year. The vicar would also like me to return to talk to various groups in the village, so I am already looking forward to visiting Long Sutton again.

Huge thanks to Tarina, Alison, Jonathan Sibsey the vicar and my wonderful audience at the Long Sutton library for an enchanted afternoon. And thank you, John Bailey, for eventually emerging from your hiding place. I’ll write about you in a later post.

Footnote

On an entirely unrelated topic, today is Bloomsday, the day that Leopold Bloom pounded the streets of Dublin in 1916 in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a date that I remember every year. Joyce chose the date because it was the same day of the year in which he met his (eventual – they didn’t marry until they were middle-aged, after many years and two children) future wife Nora Barnacle in 1902. Barnacle really was her name – I’ve always been surprised that Joyce didn’t use if for one of his characters. She was a chambermaid at a Dublin hotel when they met. I envisage her as a homely, no-nonsense lady who did her best to keep Joyce grounded. He was one of the (slightly) more stable members of the brilliant but half insane generation of writers that included Virginia Woolf (his exact contemporary), Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott FitzGerald. Happy Bloomsday, everyone!

A Q & A with Nick Clee, the founder and editor of Bookbrunch

More than most industries, publishing and bookselling depend on the oxygen of publicity for survival. They rely on the support of friendly journalists who present them faithfully and without exaggeration or malice. The industry is lucky to be represented by Nick Clee, a distinguished news publisher who understands it inside out. Here, he kindly responds to my questions.

Q: Before you founded BookBrunch, you were the editor of The Bookseller, so you moved from a very established old-school type of publishing to something much more dynamic – and perhaps, nowadays, more resilient. Did you set out to do this? What was your rationale when you first set up BookBrunch?  Has it evolved in the way you thought it would?

A: I left The Bookseller in 2004, and went freelance – in those days, still just about a feasible pursuit. In addition to journalism, I wrote a couple of books. I had delivered the second of them when Liz Thomson, editor of the recently defunct Publishing News, phoned me to ask whether I’d join her in a new, online venture, which had private backing. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned, but I had a space in my schedule and hated to turn down jobs. We had no coherent mission statement for BookBrunch: we simply intended to provide a news service, selling it on our long experience of the trade.

Q: Did you get a lot of support from the industry in the early days?

A: In the internet era, you can get known fast, particularly in a trade such as the book industry. People signed up enthusiastically.

Q: Are you a journalist by profession? Has your whole career been spent in journalism? Is there a reason why you have focused your efforts on publishing industry news for so many years?

A: I fell into it. I got a job as maternity cover at The Bookseller; twenty years later, I was still there. I’ve been very lucky.

Q: How do you gather information for BookBrunch?  Do prospects mainly come to you with items they want you to publish or is it the other way round? Do you have ‘roving reporters’ to cover events etc?

A: I have to admit that most of our stories arrive on a plate, by email. (By the way, I’m now joint editor with Neill Denny, another ex-Bookseller editor. I work two days a week and he covers the other three; Lucy Nathan is reporter; and Julie Vuong contributes twice-monthly interviews or features.) We try, on our limited resources, to get out to conferences, launches and so on. Occasionally, we commission features – but the budget is limited. 

Q: What is the business model? How do you get paid?

A: We carry some paid advertising, but get almost all our income from subscriptions. Our salaries are very modest.

Q: What kinds of support are you able to provide for authors?

A: We have discounts for freelancers and for Society of Authors members. Not all authors are interested in trade news, but some are.

Q: How did you survive during the pandemic? Were you forced to change the way you operate? If so, are you more or less back to normal now?

A: The pandemic was/is an awful thing, but looked at only in commercial terms it turned out to be not unfavourable for our business. Subscriptions went up. It hit networking on the head and is still doing so, in my case – I remain cautious.

Q: Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you think the publishing industry will look like in five years’ time?

A: I’m not qualified to talk about the academic publishing world. In general books, we appear to have reached a relatively stable balance of digital and print formats. If further disruption is imminent, neither I nor anyone else can foresee what will cause it. The pandemic confirmed to us – because it hastened them – things that were already apparent; among them were the decline of the High Street, an alarming trend for publishers as well as retailers.

Q: Do you enjoy reading? If so, what kinds of books do you like?  Do you have a favourite author? Do you have other hobbies?

A: I read a lot of crime fiction, ranging from American noir to police procedurals to psychological thrillers. A favourite recent example is Simon Mason’s A Killing in November. In literary fiction, I go for writers who are interested in the domestic: Katherine Heiny has been a delightful discovery this year. My favourite author is John Updike.

I play tennis, and follow sport. I’ve been lucky enough to make horseracing my work as well as a hobby: my second book was a racing history and I’m writing another racing book at the moment.

Giant’s Bread, by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

I knew that I couldn’t write a blog post every day for a month to celebrate CRM without including something about Agatha Christie, the Queen of crime fiction herself. It’s some time since I read any of her books and I’m not familiar with all of them: of the ones I know, like other people I’ve interviewed, I like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd best.

However, although I have long been aware of them – and, indeed, as a library supplier used to sell them – I was unfamiliar with all the Mary Westmacott novels. I remember reading once that Christie’s publisher encouraged her to write under several pseudonyms – there is at least one other besides Westmacott – because she was so prolific, to avoid flooding the market with Christies. This may have been part of the reason: it is also true that the Westmacotts are not billed as crime, but as mysteries. Despite this, I hope that my readers will indulge me by allowing me to review one of them here, instead of a more traditional Christie murder story. The one I have chosen is Giant’s Bread – mainly because I saw a dramatisation for radio advertised recently.

It is one of the most puzzling novels I have ever read. Christie is famous for her lack of interest in character development, but she gives her protagonists – particularly the women – some very individual attributes in this book. It could not, however, be described as conventional character development: rather the twists and turns of the characterisation seem to be adapted – and in fact are subservient to – the demands of the plot.

This is not all that is unusual. The book was first published in 1930 and is set before, during and in the years that follow the First World War. Yet the character of Nell Vereker – and the choice of a first name that is reminiscent of Dickens’s saintly Little Nell may not be accidental – in the first chapters seems to hark back to the weak and dependent but ensnaringly pretty female characters beloved of nineteenth century novelists. Nell is Dickens’ Dora Spenlow or Wilkie Collins’ Laura Fairlie, spiced up just a little with a sprinkling of George Eliot’s selfish Rosamond Vincy.

Having been tempted by the offer of marriage from a rich American, Nell decides to marry her true love, Vernon Deyre, an impoverished aristocrat who knows he will not be able to afford the upkeep of Abbots Puissants, his ancestral home, when he inherits it. In young manhood, Vernon has ‘discovered’ music and yearns to be an avant garde composer. He knows that marriage to Nell is likely to jeopardise this ambition. Then the war intervenes and Nell is suddenly transformed into Marion Halcombe: she becomes a dependable, serious, hard-working nurse. Vernon, sent to the front, deplores her wish to play a useful part in the conflict and thinks she should be socialising in London instead. It is an interesting feature of the book that men repeatedly cast Nell as a priceless ornament who should not be expected to sully her pretty hands: yet she is at her best, and only truly comes alive as a character, when she defies such stereotyping.

Jane Harding, the other main female character in the novel and a rival for Vernon’s attentions, is a different type entirely. She epitomises the ‘new woman’ that other early twentieth century novelists have described. She is a Cassandra-like figure who sees everything clearly and always speaks her mind, often quite brutally. Yet, like Nell, she also has roots in nineteenth century literature. Like Trollope’s Mrs Winifred Hurtle in The Way We Live Now, she is a ‘fallen woman’. She has lived, firstly, with a theatrical impresario who treats her cruelly, and then with Vernon himself. Vernon ditches her without a second thought when the ‘pure’ Nell re-enters his life.

I won’t give away any more of the plot – which bears the authentic Christie hallmark of being tortuous but credible. What I have described so far indicates that this novel tackles some very serious themes: infidelity, domestic violence, the artistic imperative that demands selfishness to succeed, the confused and often demeaning roles occupied by women in early twentieth century society and the unequal – with either gender sometimes prevailing – relationship between the sexes. It also touches on themes that seem very contemporary: PTSD (although of course the name is not used) as it afflicts returning soldiers, antisemitism and the impossibility of ‘having it all’.

What’s not to like? Well, the jejune upper crust slang grates on the modern reader. Dialogue is peppered with “I say”, ‘beastly’, ‘frightful’, ‘horrid’ and so on, which sometimes makes it hard for readers to take seriously some of the more profound comments made by the characters. The plot, despite the ingenious tergiversations, is a bit disappointing – though perhaps that’s because I was waiting for a murder that never materialised, unless you count the murder of the soul. And those sudden character changes I have noted, especially in Nell and Vernon (though his are triggered by illness), can be hard to swallow. However, I think that Westmacott is breaking new ground here: if it doesn’t seem too fanciful, I think she is taking the reader on a tour of nineteenth and early twentieth century society as represented by the novels of those eras and sending it up. In other words, I think that Giant’s Bread works on several levels; and at one level it is a social satire.

The writing often shines. Here is Vernon’s mother, making the most of his funeral:

“She stared ahead of her through blood-suffused eyes in a kind of ecstasy of bereavement.”

Whereas this is how Nell, the (truly grieving) young widow, reacts to the occasion:

“Again Nell felt that wild desire to giggle. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh… Awful to feel like that.”

Which reader would not sympathise with Nell?

Giant’s Bread is an experimental novel, unlike The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which, although ingenious, sits firmly within the traditional crime fiction genre. Does it work? I would give it 8 out of 10, whereas Roger would always score 10.

The gold of reader loyalty

Val Poore

Were I to say that readers are not unimportant to writers, I’d be providing you with an extreme example of litotes. Readers are an author’s lifeblood. If a novel has no readers, it barely deserves to be called a book, just as a portrait kept forever in the dark is scarcely a picture. I feel blessed that as a crime writer I have been ‘discovered’ by some loyal readers who have subsequently read and reviewed all my books. No one has been more staunchly supportive of my work or sympathised more with what I have set out to achieve than Valerie Poore. Recent posts of mine have featured Fraser Massey, a fledgeling crime writer and Mickey J Corrigan and Sarah Stephens, two established writers whom I’ve never met in person.  Similarly, I have never met Valerie (a couple of times, on my way through Holland, I tried to visit her on her vintage Dutch barge in the Oude Haven in Rotterdam there are two links here – but, sadly, on those occasions she was not there). I know she supports other authors as well as myself. I have asked her to write a short post on why she is so generous with her support for others – and how she finds the time to do it!

For several consecutive years, I’ve looked forward eagerly to each of Christina James’ nine crime novels. If I remember correctly, In the Family, her first DI Yates book, was also the first crime fiction I’d ever read from a novelist who wasn’t already widely known in the genre. I was a detective novel fan of old and had read most of the big name authors: PD James, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, to name just a few. But at some point, I found the plots becoming ever more harrowing and disturbing – so much so that I stopped reading crime fiction for quite some time.

As a result, I was somewhat hesitant to start down the detective novel path again, but after meeting Christina James on Twitter and enjoying our interaction, I decided to give In the Family a try. To my delight, the book ticked all my mystery-solving boxes and I can say with some conviction that Christina gave me back my taste for crime (so to speak). It was an extra benefit that having ‘met’ her on Twitter, I could also continue to interact with her and support her writing on social media.

Since then, I’ve added several other, mostly independent, authors to my list of favourite crime fiction writers, nearly all of whom I’ve discovered through Twitter and book bloggers. And even though I’m not a crime writer, it’s still the fiction genre I read the most, so I love being able to support their books as a reader, reviewer and tweeter.

So when Christina asked what motivated me to help other authors through social media support, the answer came easily: it’s because I was an avid reader long before I became an author myself. Without exaggeration, I can say I’ve loved immersing myself in books my entire life and nothing gives me more pleasure than reading. I also appreciate others’ excellence in writing, so if I read an author whose prose, dialogue, plot development or even turn of phrase I admire, I instinctively want to tell the world about them and share my enthusiasm.

As a student and young adult, I could talk books for hours with my friends – I studied English and French literature, which helped, of course. These days, that appreciation is more easily conveyed through social media, as I no longer have the time to linger with fellow readers to the same extent; nor do I live in an environment which would tempt me to do so. My home for twenty years has been on an old barge in the Netherlands among folk whose passion is restoring historic vessels. Welding, not reading, is what lights their fires. And although I’ve written about these colourful neighbours in my memoirs, I cannot talk books with them.

My solution, then, is to share my reading discoveries on social media where I can promote and interact with the authors whose books I enjoy. But there’s a spin-off benefit too: I now belong to a community of readers and authors, many of whom reciprocate by reading and sharing my books too. Promotion, I discovered, is reciprocal. What you give is what you get, a further reason (as if I needed one) to share and share alike.

So, there you have it: someone who loves crime fiction and promotes it, brilliantly! I should add that Val is a writer of memoirs other than those of her experiences on the canals of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, for she has lived in South Africa, too. I’m adding the link to her fascinating blog so that you may wander with her if you wish! I’ve also provided two links to my posts about my visits to the Oude Haven, if you’re interested. I’ll finish with a photographic flavour of her watery life and her books about it:

At the wheel of her vintage Dutch barge
My review of this is here

Ukraine: an author’s evocation of Kyiv (Kiev) in the 1990s

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts both touch on the war in Ukraine and feature interviews with an author and a publisher who have a marked affinity with the country. In today’s post, Judith Heneghan talks about Snegurochka, her debut novel for adults (she was already a prolific children’s author when she wrote it), which is set in the Ukraine of the 1990s, shortly after the breaking-up of the Soviet Union. The novel was published by Salt in 2019.

Q: Snegurochka is set in Kiev in the 1990s. Briefly, could you describe what it’s about.

A: Snegurochka is the story of a young English woman, Rachel, who lives in newly independent Ukraine in 1992 with her journalist husband and their new baby. Isolated, unable to speak Russian or Ukrainian, she develops a crippling fear of the balcony at their apartment. The city below is distrustful of foreigners and reeling from economic freefall, but her own needs create dependency and soon she is caught in a frightening endgame between the elderly caretaker, a money launderer and the boy who lives upstairs. Each is defined by their past, but Rachel doesn’t know how, until it is too late. All she wants is to keep her baby safe.

Q: It is a very powerful novel. Does it draw on personal experience?

A: Yes, I am drawing on personal experience, in that I lived in Kiev (as we called it back then) with my journalist husband and our new baby.  This allowed me to use my own memories of places and public events. However, the characters are all invented; we were far too boring. I have placed made-up characters and their problems in some real environments with many fictitious scenarios and outcomes. I think this is how much fiction is written – it’s a potent mix of experience and imagination. I am drawing on my memories of how hard it was to make friends, to find nappies, to navigate a city where people still carried the legacy of famine, invasion, suspicion and, of course, Chernobyl. 

Q: Have you visited Kiev again since you wrote the book?  Had it changed?

A: I did visit at the end of 2018, although I chose not to go back before then, while I was writing the novel, for fear of recent changes diluting my memories of thirty years ago. And it was such a joy to find that what I loved about Kiev remained – the exquisite churches and monasteries, the broad, tree-lined boulevards, the cobbles and cafes and the over-priced (still) Bessarabsky Market. However, what had made it a difficult place to live had changed. Now people seemed open, welcoming, happy to smile, to talk to strangers. Young families were everywhere. There were, also, new memorials and shrines to those who had lost their lives in Crimea and Donbas since 2014 – another layer of history now ran through the city’s streets – but the atmosphere was vibrant, forward-looking, hopeful. 

However, one theme of the novel is the way we as foreigners might think we know a country and a people. My impressions in 2018 were superficial, and of course any place is much more complicated than that.

Q: You must feel particularly horrified by the war in Ukraine. Are there people (especially writers, but anyone) there you are in touch with? Are they safe?

A: The war is utterly horrifying. I think most Europeans feel this, and of course when one has lived in a place that is being bombed, there is more to imagine, and perhaps it is less easy to forget.  But the journalists we mixed with back in 1992 have all moved on, and I had very few Ukrainian friends because of the language barrier. So no, I’m not in touch with people there now. I watch the news, feeling helpless, as do we all.

Q: If the novel were to be made into a film, who would you choose to play Ruth? And Lucas?

A: Absolutely no idea! Lucas is described as looking like the Marlboro Man, if anyone remembers those ads…

Q: Are you working on a new book now? If so, can you describe it very briefly?  

A: I am working on a new novel, yes. It is set in the Catskills, in Upstate New York, in a small, hippyish commune-style community on the verge of folding. It has young strangers in it, and a river, and mountains and pickups and dogs…

Q: Who are your own favourite authors – both classical and contemporary?

A: Oh, I feel a list coming on… in no particular order, Elizabeth Strout, A M Homes, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor… less contemporary (and the loves of my late teenage years) John Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy.

Q: I understand that you teach creative writing. What would be your top three tips to would-be authors?

A:

  1. Learn the conventions so that you can break them.
  1. The scene is the queen (unless… see above).
  2. Don’t worry if you don’t have a plan.

Murder in Horncastle and Mablethorpe

Conviviality in the very friendly library at Horncastle!

Yesterday was an exciting day for me. It involved a very early start – in perfect early summer daylight, the gentle sunshine gradually getting stronger – as I travelled to the first two of the four library talks I have been invited to give in Lincolnshire to celebrate Crime Reading Month.

The first was scheduled to take place at the library in Horncastle, which is a fine old market town of brick, mellow stone and painted rendered buildings.

Post Office building, complete with guerrilla knitting!

It was also my first visit there. It was market day – I love Lincolnshire markets! – and I had time to buy new potatoes (‘Boston potatoes’), the rich local soil still clinging to them, and some strawberries.

Buying potatoes: “You want washed or dirty? Dirty? Help yourself.” Lol.

The event was very ably hosted by Helen, the library manager, and Donna and Hannah, two of the library’s librarians.

Helen, Donna and Hannah: In amongst and engaged with everyone.

All were wonderfully hospitable and knowledgeable about the history of the town and famous people who have lived there: I discovered, for example, that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was born at Somersby, near the town. The audience – some of them members of the library’s book club – was also formidably knowledgeable, as well as being avid crime fiction readers. After the formal part of the talk, the discussion ranged far and wide. Over tea and biscuits, we managed to talk about local murders, discrimination against women, why I use a pseudonym, local tycoons and local customs – including an explanation of the fascinating ‘ran-tanning’, something I had never come across before, even though I am Lincolnshire born and bred. It was an ancient practice adopted by the neighbours of a wife-beater, who would surround his house and make a racket by beating on pots, pans and farm implements until he treated his wife with more respect. If he transgressed again, the process was repeated: an early version of Neighbourhood Watch and vigilantism combined which was probably more effective than calling the police today. It might be worth a revival.

I stayed talking with the Horncastle audience for so long that I only just made it to Mablethorpe for the afternoon event.

The light and airy new Mablethorpe Library.

Kathy, Manager of the recently built and very well-stocked library, and her colleagues had gathered an impressive audience which consisted of local people across the age range, including several children.

An animated and warm welcome from Kathy.

Once more, there was a lively discussion which covered many topics –  again accompanied by tea and biscuits – after the main talk. This audience was interested in the process of writing, how to get published and how authors exercise their rights over the more unusual outputs of publishing – films, TV scripts, audio etc.

They particularly wanted to know whether, if I sold the film rights to my books, I would let the film company alter the characters and the endings of the books. (My answer was a resounding ‘No!’ 😉) They said they had often been disappointed when they’d watched films of books they had read, only to discover that the script writer had “mucked about” with the author’s story.

One of the young women present and two of the children were aspiring writers who wanted to know how to get their work noticed. One of the children had already won a writing competition. Ebony, her sister, presented me with a tiny, fluffy feather, which I have carefully brought home. I think it is beautiful. I suggested that they should start a blog and post on it often, sometimes supporting other writers, attend festivals, book themselves into author surgeries at events and, above all, exercise patience, courage and self-belief! Regular readers of this June CRM series will see that I have ‘borrowed’ many of these tips from others who have contributed to it.

For this series of Lincolnshire talks I have carried out some research to find an unsolved murder which took place in each of the towns in which I am speaking. As I still have two more talks to go – I am at Long Sutton library next Monday (13th June) and at Sleaford library on Friday 17th June I won’t today bomb the blog by introducing a spoiler that tells more. I shall, however, write a post about these murders – some of them very unusual – when the talks have all been delivered.

Huge thanks to Helen, Donna and Hannah and Kathy and her team for all the work they put into making these talks a success and for their magnificent hospitality. Massive thanks also to all the members of the two marvellous audiences. I hope that some of you will find this post, read it and like it – and that we may meet again. Kathy has already expressed enthusiasm for my suggestion of including a writers’ workshop next time I come.  So, two more exceptional library teams that are awe-inspiring in their people skills, organisational flair and warmth of personality. Well done, Lincolnshire!

And a very special thank you to Ebony. I shall treasure the feather!

A Q. and A. with a fellow Bloodhound author

Following on from yesterday’s post, Sarah Stephens is a fellow Bloodhound author whom I have also not met in person. I am hoping to review her book on the blog later this month.

What is the title of your novel? Briefly, what is it about?

My latest thriller is The Good Life. It focuses on Kate and Calvin, a married couple traveling to a luxury resort in Costa Rica to rekindle their marriage. After an evening of partying with another couple at the resort ends in tragedy, Kate must unravel a mystery that threatens to reveal secrets she’s been hiding for years—from her husband, her family, and herself.

I also have four other thrillers: Isolation, The Anniversary, It Was Always You, and A Flash of Red.

Why did you decide to write in the crime genre?

I’m a developmental psychologist and my teaching at Penn State University focuses a great deal on healthy development for children and families. In my writing, I like to explore the darker side of the human experience, since my other work examines the more joyful pieces of life.

And what inspired you to start writing this book?

We were deep into lockdown here in the States, and I wanted to transport myself to somewhere bright, full of luxury, and warmer climes. My husband and I honeymooned in Costa Rica many years ago (and I should mention that our trip was much less eventful than Kate and Calvin’s!), and the story for The Good Life evolved from imaginings I had of specific places we visited during our travels.

What do you find most challenging about writing fiction? And what do you find most rewarding?

The biggest challenge is the blank page and getting over your inner critic. Once I get started, I find the process deeply enjoyable. Living with characters you create and transporting yourself to a different place and set of experiences is a fun reprieve from life’s normal challenges.

Are you working on another novel now?  If so (without giving too much away) can you say what it is about?

I am! It’s another thriller. It focuses on a young professor who crashes weddings to pick up one-night stands. One of her lovers ends up dead, and intrigue and danger ensue as she works to prove her innocence.

What do you like to read yourself?  Are there other crime fiction writers you admire? Aside from crime writers, who are your favourite authors?

My beloved P D James is forever a touchstone for me. I love everything she’s written, and go back to her novels often. I enjoy almost any psychological thriller, especially those by Gilly Macmillan, Fiona Barton, and Ruth Ware. Recently, I finished The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris and highly recommend it.  

Author friendships and a fine novel: The Physics of Grief

One of the best things about being a writer is the unexpected opportunities you get to meet and correspond with other writers. I use the word ‘meet’ in its widest (post-COVID) sense, which may mean Zoom or Teams meetings, webinars or online chat as well as face-to-face encounters.

I first met Mickey J Corrigan digitally – we have never met in person – in my capacity as an editor for Salt Publishing in 2016. Mickey, an American author, had written a book entitled Project XX, subsequently published by Salt in 2017. I was privileged to edit it – the book required minimal alteration from me – and the long email correspondence that ensued – and continues – has mainly been about sharing our ideas and experiences as writers. Project XX is an incisive satire about America’s gun culture, high school shootings and materialism. Sadly, it is as relevant today as it was when it was first published, as the recent Texas school massacre shows.

This single-sentence blurb describes it so eloquently that, although I can’t remember who wrote it, I am certain it must have been Mickey: “A darkly humorous story of girls on the rampage that will grip you by the throat and won’t let go until you gasp for breath on the final page.”

The main purpose of this post is not to review Project XX, however. Instead – with permission – it is primarily a page-long quotation from Mickey’s The Physics of Grief, a crime noir novel which is sadly no longer in print. Another powerful satire on the American way of life, it describes the career of Seymour Allan, a man in late middle age who is offered the job of professional griever by the mysterious Raymond C. Dasher. Seymour embarks on the strange occupation of being paid to ‘mourn’ at the wakes and funerals of some very unpopular people. He cares for a dying criminal who tries to murder him; he attends unorthodox funerals in the Florida Everglades that are probably illegal; he encounters trigger-happy gangsters and an alligator and meets Yvonne, a sexy redhead mourning her mobster boyfriend.

The Physics of Grief is beautifully written, quirky, erudite – though it wears its learning lightly – and profoundly funny. If you are a publisher and think it may appeal, please contact me and I will put you in touch with Mickey.

There were seven of us not counting the one in drag. Together but with much difficulty we managed to lift, shove and roll the massive body into the deep and muddy hole. After he had landed – with a resounding splat – we high-fived each other. It took us another hour to fill in the hole and pack down the wet dirt. Finally we covered the fresh grave with branches and brush, leaves and acorns, pebbles and small rocks, until the burial area blended in nicely with the surrounding environment.

Very much a natural burial. Except for the fact the gravediggers were most likely murderers, and the body that of a murder victim.

Also, in this case, there was no marker. Obviously, no one would be coming here to mourn their loss. Their very big loss.

As we worked, the night had closed in around us. The hum of mosquitos had died down and the crickets were singing from the trees while tiny bats swooped overhead. An arc of juvenile egrets swept upwards with a whoosh and flew off together. The moon rose in a silver sliver and bright stars popped out across the black sky.

The men talked among themselves, joking around and laughing. When I finished up I stood off to the side, scratching my bug bites while they smoked cigarettes and chatted. I tuned them out. I didn’t want to know. All I wanted was to get away from them in one piece. But I was afraid to leave. What if they didn’t let me go? What if they saw me as an outsider, a witness to their crime?

I needn’t have worried. My friend in drag pointed to me and reminded his peers, “This guy’s on the clock. He’s gotta go.”

All the men shook my sore hand and a few slugged me on my sore shoulders. They were dirty, sweaty, rough-looking gangsters, but okay guys.

My guide and I retraced our steps over the trail to the lot. We halted once to allow a hunching bobcat to scurry past, a fresh-killed rabbit in its mouth. Barred owls swooped down, capturing rodents in the tall prairie grass. The hooting of great horned owls, their deadliest enemies, was seriously creepy.

When we arrived back at the well-lit parking area I still felt nervous. I headed for the SUV, hoping my new mobster pal wouldn’t shoot me in the back before I reached the safety it offered.

He didn’t. He did call out to me, however. “Hey! Aren’t you gonna ask me?”

When I turned around, he was standing with his hands on his hips, head cocked to the side. The wig hair shone a brilliant gold in the light of the street-lamp overhead.

Did he want me to ask him who the dead guy was? How he’d died? If they’d murdered him? Why they were allowing me to leave after witnessing what they’d done?

My legs felt weak and I stuttered for a few seconds before he interrupted me.

“I’m transitioning, bro. But it’s early yet. I got a long ways to go.”

All rights reserved © Mickey J Corrigan 2021

Her Majesty the Queen Investigates: The Windsor Knot, by S.J. Bennett

As a small offering to the finale of the Platinum Jubilee long weekend, I thought it would be jolly to review this zinger of a book. First published in 2020, the same year as The Thursday Murder Club, the first of Richard Osman’s crime fiction series about OAP sleuths, The Windsor Knot delights with a similar combination of wicked irreverence, compassion and incisiveness and a similar regard for the prowess of the elderly. Is it too fanciful to suggest that these two novels, both published in the first year of lockdown and therefore written before COVID struck, sparkle with a pre-pandemic joy that is only slowly being rekindled in fiction?

The Windsor Knot tells the story of a murder that takes place in 2016 at Windsor Castle after a soirée that the Queen has agreed to host for wealthy Russians to please Prince Charles, who is hoping for donations to one of his charities. Some of the guests are invited to stay the night and the following morning one of the performers, a young dancer with whom the Queen herself has danced, is found hanged in a cupboard. At first, he seems to have accidentally suffocated whilst engaging in an arcane sexual practice – Bennett has a lot of fun depicting a scene between the Queen and her private secretary in which the latter tries to explain the nature of this practice while cloaking it with a delicate vagueness that immediately causes the Queen to probe further: as she later remarks with terse precision to Prince Philip – who has just observed that the young dancer had been ‘strung up like a Tory MP’ – the official cause of death was ‘autoerotic asphyxiation’. She had looked it up on her iPad.

The Queen, however, comes to realise the accidental death notion won’t wash. Reluctantly she accepts that the young Russian has been murdered and then, with increasing enthusiasm, sets out to uncover the killer. I won’t reveal any more of the plot, as it would be certain to introduce some spoilers; but suffice it to say that at every twist and turn she displays a commonsense attitude coupled with uncanny acumen and impressive levels of expertise in all sorts of areas that perfectly reflect what the actual Queen allows to be known of her character.

As well as trying to shield her from the seamy side of life, people with whom the Queen comes into contact regularly patronise her. She accepts this behaviour with a grace and wry amusement that is shared with the reader. Here she is with Gavin Humphreys, the new Director General of MI5:

She stopped in her tracks, calling briefly to the dogs, who were keen to keep going. ‘Assassination?’ she repeated. ‘That seems unlikely.’

‘Oh, no at all,’ Humphreys said, with an indulgent smile. ‘You underestimate President Putin.’

The Queen considered that she did not underestimate President Putin, thank you very much, and resented being told she did. ‘Do explain.’

There are several prescient accounts of geopolitical events that had not occurred when the book was written but have happened since, the sinister references to Putin included.  There are also some scenes that are both funny and sad, particularly those between the Queen and Prince Philip, who in the novel is semi-retired from public life, but still very much alive. About to set off on a trip to Scotland, he asks the Queen if he can bring anything back for her: ‘Fudge? Nicola Sturgeon’s head on a platter?’

‘Actually,’ she said, as he bent arthritically to drop a kiss on her forehead, ‘I wouldn’t mind some fudge.’

Poignantly, the Queen as she appears in The Windsor Knot is ‘only’ eighty-nine and still in robust good health, as the real Queen was at that age. There is now a sharp contrast between this fictional figure and the frail if still beautiful and determined matriarch full of years who appeared so briefly on the balcony of Buckingham Palace last Thursday. The jacket of the book – again, by coincidence – sharpens up the pathos with its illustrations of the Queen’s familiar black handbag, the Queen herself dressed in powder blue, a brooch pinned high on her chest, in an outfit very similar to the one she was wearing last week.

This is a brilliant novel: it sends up the establishment, but only very gently, it offers huge laugh-aloud entertainment, it’s a great whodunnit and, for those who care to look for them, it offers some profound insights into Britishness and what makes the British nations tick. It sparkles with wit but most decidedly is not ‘cosy crime’ – a term I abhor and which is used far too loosely to pigeonhole a work of crime fiction that is not filled with gore and violence on every page. It is crime fiction for grown-ups. I had never encountered S.J. Bennett’s work before I bought this book. The blurb tells us that she ‘wrote several award-winning books for teenagers before turning to adult mysteries.’ I understand that there are already three titles in the Her Majesty the Queen Investigates series. I shall certainly read the others. I hope the real Queen knows about them and has found time to read them, too, as they would certainly make her laugh.

Making crime fiction happen: the Marketing Manager’s story

Hannah Deuce is the Marketing and PR Manager for Bloodhound Books.  In this post she tells her story.

“I love the variety involved in my work. My role embraces marketing as well as PR and publicity, which means no two days are the same! My key responsibilities include the creation and execution of marketing campaigns for all the books published by Bloodhound. This means designing the graphics for publicity, gathering reviewer quotes for marketing materials, generating digital advertising campaigns and reporting on the data gathered so that we can do the very best for our authors.

“I am one of the main points of contact for Bloodhound authors. I work with press outlets as the opportunities arise and oversee brand management for Bloodhound. The marketing side of my work is highly strategic, whilst the PR and publicity require creativity and the ability to act quickly. 

“After gaining a Masters degree in History from Goldsmiths, University of London, I worked for PR companies and at magazines. These jobs gave me invaluable experience of the broader PR and marketing landscape. Next I studied for a Masters degree in Publishing at City, University of London, to hone my understanding of the industry and help me break into what I knew was a highly competitive job market. It was then I fell in love with the complexity and creativity of marketing and PR. I was lucky enough to be appointed Marketing Executive at Hachette UK, based in London. I learned so much there and became even more passionate about my work, but at the same time grew weary with big city life. A few years working in central London is enough for anyone! So I applied for posts with independent publishing houses that weren’t based in London, which led me to Bloodhound’s door!

“While I was studying for my Masters degree, I supported myself financially by running my own business. I offered my services as a digital marketing manager for companies working in the creative space (e.g., photographers and makeup brands). During this time I developed my own distinctive take on digital promotion, utilising cross-channel attribution (this means cross-referencing social media channels to complement each another) to create effective promotional opportunities. I brought this experience to Hachette and developed it further, so that when I moved to Bloodhound I was able to merge my own methods with the Bloodhound team’s existing frameworks and knowledge to create the publicity techniques we use today. 

“Bloodhound is perceived to be a specialist in the crime and thriller genres. However, we also publish historical fiction, women’s fiction and, occasionally, so-called ‘chick lit’. I love the variety of what we publish and feel that it provides me and consequently Bloodhound authors with an advantage, as I am able to recognise trends developing across different genres in both the UK and USA. I can then adapt my work and techniques accordingly. 

“Though all Bloodhound crime authors may be working in same genre, I believe that every book we publish should be treated individually. We design separate marketing and publicity campaigns for them, adapting reader targets, visuals and the language we use to maximise the opportunities offered by the storyline and author’s style for each one. We therefore create a bespoke package for every book to help it to achieve its full potential. 

“My advice to new authors would be, first of all, to build a social media presence. Even if technology isn’t your best friend, social media is here to stay. Platforms may evolve and change, but the best thing you can do is establish an author profile online by setting up a blog or website, and then create pages on the key social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and maybe Instagram). When you have done this, continue to update them regularly with news about your books, any events you’re attending, what you’re working on, etc. Don’t be afraid to have fun while you’re doing it: social media is designed to have a casual feel, so post what you think you yourself would like to see or read, update your accounts regularly and let your readers engage with you directly. 

“I am an insatiable reader myself, and enjoy books from multiple genres, written by authors from all walks of life. I love a book with a twist that I can’t guess, or an ending I didn’t see coming! I don’t really have any favourite authors within the crime genre as I read so widely, but if pressed I would say my all-time favourite author is Kate Mosse. I would read her grocery lists!

“I live in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge with my partner Jon. My favourite way to pass time when I’m not working or reading is to train with my horse, Vince, a Danish Warmblood Dressage horse who has been with me since he was a youngster. He and I now compete nationwide, riding at national level, and we enjoy nothing more than just relaxing in the yard together.

“To anyone who is looking for a job like mine, I would say don’t give up! But be aware that it is possible to over-romanticise working in the publishing industry. People thinking working among stacks of books every day must be heavenly (it is, but it has its white-water rafting days, too!). Roll up your sleeves and keep applying for jobs, as no one simply walks into this industry. I sent off more than 100 job applications before I got my first job in publishing, so keep trying, even if you don’t get an acknowledgement after you’ve put your all into applying. Keep your CV up to date and do things which make you stand out – for example, run a book blog or book Instagram account; take a short course in creative writing to help understand authors better, or a Masters if you have the resources to do it. Network at every opportunity and build your LinkedIn contacts, keep up-to-date with books in the charts and make sure you understand the unique characteristics displayed by different publishing houses. Finally – and I would say this, wouldn’t I?! – consider working at an indie publishing house rather than one of the ‘big five’: we’re a lot more fun and you will learn so much! 

I’ve certainly benefited from Hannah’s expertise!
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