Original writing

The power of poetry: exposing crime and reforming norms

Annie Lloyd-Hyde is a poet who has written several humorous and thoughtful books of contemporary verse. However, Girl Good Enough, her most recent book of poems, and Misogyny for Beginners, a collection which is still in draft form, are much more hard-hitting. In them, she explores the related themes of female inequality and male abuse.

Asked why she has chosen these subjects, she says there has been so much in the media recently about the abuse of women and how the police often react to reports of domestic attacks that she felt compelled to write about it. However, she has long been aware of the differences in the way men and women are viewed and how biased male treatment of women can be. “I have always had a great sense of fairness and justice. The way women are routinely treated has always niggled me.”

Annie trained as a primary school teacher and remembers listening to arguments about the inherent differences between girls and boys. Girl Good Enough is about heightening awareness of sexist behaviour, some of it unconscious, and the nature/nurture conundrum. When she was teaching, she says she consciously tried to approach both sexes in the same way, although she believes teachers can never be sure they have achieved this. She has read about a teacher (based on the Isle of Wight) who was convinced that he taught all his pupils in a scrupulously equal way; however, when he came to analyse his behaviour, he acknowledged that there were some differences in his approach.

Annie grew up in a household of daughters and says that her father supported them completely in their wish to build careers. “He went to university himself and expected us to do the same.” However, her mother didn’t work outside the home until her daughters had left for college. She probably would have liked to, but at the time it was a mark of respectability that middle-class women ‘chose’ to be housewives.

Annie can’t recall extreme instances of discrimination in her own career, though she is sure that unspoken preference was given to male teachers, which discouraged the aspirations of their female counterparts. On one occasion, she applied for a deputy headship and then pulled out because she thought she wouldn’t stand a chance against the male candidates. “Male teachers in primary schools are revered, because they’re in a minority and the view is that boys need male role models.” She perceives a correlation between male over-confidence and female lack of self-esteem and says there are many jobs in which sexual discrimination is much more overt than in teaching.

Misogyny for Beginners is not about the nuances of discrimination which Girl Good Enough captures: it is about the direct and terrifying physical attacks that take place in many homes. One of the poems is dedicated to Sarah Everard. Annie has shown the poems to people who’ve expressed an interest in them and says they strike chords with her readers. Some of the responses have been surprising, even shocking: one woman said that the type of violence described in one poem had happened to her, though she had never discussed it with anyone before. There are women who dread their husbands’ return from football matches; if the husband’s team has lost, he goes home and batters his wife in a fury. Annie is even-handed, however, in her depiction of domestic abuse. One of the poems is about a man suffering from being brutally attacked by his wife. “Men who go to the police to report a violent female are often laughed at, just as women who report their partners are not believed.”

As for what her advice would be to young women trying to make sense of the worlds of the workplace and home they are about to negotiate, Annie says that the sentiments expressed in Girl Good Enough could be their yardstick. “Don’t feel you have to be perfect in everything or have never to say no. Always look for equality – by which I mean, someone to share the tasks fairly.” This is Annie Lloyd-Hyde’s philosophy in a nutshell. She doesn’t believe that women are superior to men, just as she doesn’t believe men are superior to women; nor is she searching for some female-run Nirvana. True equality between the sexes: that is all she asks for.

She has kindly agreed to share drafts of two poems from Misogyny for Beginners with readers of this post:

There’s no place like home

There’s no place like home

No place you’d

Least like to be

A claustrophobic web

Of tension

Unpredictability.

Home

A trip-wired

Trap-laid

Survival course

Malice in Wonderland

With GBH

Flying words

Flying fists

Frightened mother

Who insists,

“It’s only because he cares.”

Bringing you down

I’ll savour bringing you down

Feeling your happiness

Darken and fade

That sparky confidence

Once flying so free 

Now a captured bird

Caught in a sea

Of my casual derision.

My caustic comments

Designed to erode,

Your self reliance

Your easy mode

Of being

Your dress too tight

Your love of food

Seeing your judgement

Distorted, skewed

And friends kept away.

And if I sense you plan to escape

Feel you can take no more

I’ll turn on the charm

Seek your forgiveness

Beg on my knees

As god be my witness

For I’ll change, start afresh

I’ll pursue and persuade

And be assured

Those bruises will fade.

Poems © Annie Lloyd-Hyde

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.

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

The Sandringham Mystery and some personal memories of places and people with a part to play in its creation

When I was a child, the motor car was the ultimate status symbol. Families aspired to own one and felt they had ‘arrived’ when the car did, however shabby or humble it might be.

Our next-door neighbours, Harry and Eileen Daff, were the first in our street to bring home a car. Theirs was a forties Morris with running boards which looked as if it belonged on a film set, but that made it yet more glamorous in the eyes of the local children. The Daffs went out for Sunday afternoon rides in their car. Mrs Daff – ‘Auntie Eileen’ – was always promising to take me, too, but the invitation never materialised.

My father acquired our first car about three years afterwards, when I was nine. It was a two-door Ford Popular which we nicknamed ‘Hetty’. I can remember the registration number: it was HDO 734. Hetty, like the Daffs’ Morris, was not only second-hand but practically vintage. My father had saved hard to afford her and had still needed a loan from my miserly – but loaded – Great Uncle David to complete the purchase.

Great Uncle David lived – indeed, spent his every waking moment – working in the convenience shop in Westlode Street which he had inherited from his parents despite being their youngest son, presumably because he had scoliosis and was considered ‘delicate’. My paternal grandmother kept house for him. They were only a short bike ride away.

My mother’s mother, however, was the paid companion of a very old lady and lived in Sutterton, nine miles distant, which meant that in pre-Hetty days visits had to be accomplished by bus. It was usually she who visited us, invariably spending the morning of her day off shopping in Spalding and then walking to ours for lunch. Post-Hetty, we were able to make more frequent visits to Sutterton. However, I was still sometimes allowed to travel there alone on the bus. It was nearly always on a damp, foggy day when the sun never broke through the Fenland mists.

The house she lived in was the house I have called Sausage Hall in The Sandringham Mystery. It was a big, gloomy red-brick house in considerable need of repair. Sometimes she occupied the breakfast room when she had visitors, but her natural habitat was the kitchen with its adjoining scullery, in both of which roaring fires were kept burning night and day throughout the winter months. The kitchen fire had a built-in oven in which she would bake perfect cakes. Lunch would be tinned tomato soup and bread, followed by a big hunk of cake. Cherry cake was my favourite.

Her employer’s name was Mrs James. My grandmother always referred to her as ‘the old girl’. Mrs James’s first name was Florence and she was one of a large family of sisters, the Hoyles, who had been brought up in Spalding in extreme poverty. One of the sisters still lived in what could only be described as a hovel in Water Lane and occasionally, after one of my visits to Sutterton, I would be sent round with cake or chicken. Miss Hoyle never invited me in. She would open the door a few inches, her sallow face and thin grey hair barely distinguishable from the shadows of the lightless cavern behind her, and reach out a scrawny hand to take what I had brought, barely muttering her thanks before she shut the door again.

My grandmother, also the eldest of a large family of sisters, despised the Hoyles. Mrs James was not exempt. My grandmother’s father had been a farm manager, employed by a local magnate. He was a respectable, hard-working man of some substance in the community, unlike the allegedly feckless Mr Hoyle. According to my grandmother, Florence had ensnared Mr James with her pretty face, but that did not excuse her humble beginnings.

Florence, long widowed, had taken to her bed, for no other apparent reason than that she was tired of the effort of getting up every day. My grandmother delivered all her meals to her bedroom and sometimes sat there with her. When I visited I was expected to call in to see her before my departure. I never knew what to say. She would extend a plump, soft white hand from beneath the bedclothes and offer it to me. I’d shake it solemnly. Once, when I’d been reading a Regency novel, I held it to my lips and kissed it. She was momentarily surprised – I saw the gleam of interest in her eyes before her spirit died again.

Mrs James’s sons, both middle-aged gentlemen farmers, also performed duty visits. My grandmother and I were expected to call them ‘Mr Gordon’ and ‘Mr Jack’. In The Sandringham Mystery, Kevan de Vries, head of the de Vries empire, has his staff call him ‘Mr Kevan’. I lifted the idea from my experience of the two James brothers. I was about nine when I met them and could identify condescension when I encountered it.

Hetty broadened our horizons immeasurably. Instead of going out for bike rides at weekends, we drove to local beauty spots – Bourne Woods, the river at Wansford, Barnack – and sometimes on nice days even further afield, to Hunstanton, Skegness and Sandringham.

Sandringham, the Queen’s Norfolk estate, consists of many acres of forest, most of which were already open to the public, though the house itself wasn’t. It was possible to visit the church. Both local people and visitors would wait outside the wall beyond the churchyard for glimpses of the royal family when they were in residence. I saw Princess Margaret once. She had the most astonishing violet-blue eyes.

I associate Sandringham particularly with the clear bright cold of Easter holidays and the drowsy late-summer warmth of blackberrying. The blackberries there were enormous and my brother and I would scratch the skin on our arms to ribbons trying to reach the best ones. Parts of the woods were deciduous, but the blackberries seemed to flourish in the areas where the pine trees grew, planted in squares and divided up by trails (‘rides’).  When I was writing The Sandringham Mystery, I remembered vividly a clearing in the woods that had been made by the crossroads of two trails. In the novel, it is here that the body of a young girl is discovered, the start of a police investigation that not only reveals why she was murdered, but also uncovers some other terrible murders that took place in the past, in Sausage Hall itself. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books today. I hope you will enjoy it.

Awakening of Spies: Review

Awakening of Spies

This spy thriller is the impressive first novel of a series planned about Thomas Dylan, who is plunged into ‘security’ work when, shortly after his graduation, he agrees to attend an interview for an organisation that needs a linguist. It is the 1970s. The job, which Dylan accepts, means working for the Defence Intelligence Service (DIS) as a civil servant. He is warned that there is no glamour attached to being part of the DIS, which is poorly regarded by both MI5 and MI6.

A boring future seems to beckon: he is convinced he has chosen – or, rather, fallen into – the wrong career, but he is very quickly sent to Zandvoort in the Netherlands on an undercover operation in which he is set up to fail. However, despite failing as resoundingly as expected, he quickly finds himself on his way to South America on a more important mission. It is to retrieve a device called ‘The Griffin’: ‘Garble-Recognition-Interrogation-Friend-or-Foe-Inboard Nautics – Master Control Unit’.  The Griffin is never explained more clearly than this, but a reader well-versed in tales of espionage might assume it to be something like a portable 1970s version of the Enigma machine.  All the usual suspects are after The Griffin, from the CIA to British Intelligence to various assorted Russians, Israelis and Arabs, not to mention the South Americans on whose turf the action takes place, some of whom are not South Americans at all, but escaped Nazi war criminals.

The plot is a relatively simple one – the novel tells the story of Dylan’s adventures as he tries to track down The Griffin.  Both pursuer and pursued, he is continually trying to figure out which of the people he encounters are really who they say they are and which ones can (or can’t) be trusted. Among them is the intriguing upper-class (anti-?) heroine Julia, whose uncle is (allegedly?) a bigwig in the security services. The narrative is written in the first person, which works well: during the course of the novel we see Dylan progress from a greenhorn apprentice spy to a much more mature operator whose rite of passage has included killing as a duty of his new profession.

What makes this novel stand out, apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, is that it is a spy thriller for grown-ups. The plot may be straightforward but the relationships between the various characters are intricate, their underlying rationale complex; yet despite the welter of detail and counter-detail, the author never makes the reader feel lost or, as so many spy writers do, leaves her or him feeling that the book is teetering perilously close to the edge of credibility. Landers has also accomplished the difficult trick of showing a profound understanding of the milieu which he describes without over-parading his knowledge.

There is some violence in Awakening of Spies, but it is not gratuitous or unduly sensational (I’m mentioning this because I know some of my readers don’t like too much bloodshed).  Both death and sex are described in a restrained way – there are no James Bond-type shenanigans. If you’d like to try a good spy thriller without the Boys’ Own escapades, I recommend this novel. And I’m already looking forward to the next one in the series.

Awakening of Spies is published by Red Door Press. ISBN 978-1913062330

There is no Planet B: review

There is no Planet B

Written by Mike Berners-Lee, brother of the more famous Tim, this book is difficult to categorise. It is part economic text, part philosophy, part psychology; sometimes worldly-wise and sometimes quite naïve. It continually switches the spotlight from the universal to the personal, from the state to the individual. The author appeals to the latter alternately – sometimes abruptly – as sensitive planet-lover, average citizen and fellow-sinner. Thought-wise, Berners-Lee is the descendant of Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Malthus and Tom Stoppard, with sprinklings of the Archangel Gabriel for good measure. The book triumphs because of Berners-Lees’ racy, informal style: he has achieved the difficult coup of turning a disquisition into a page-turner.

Mike Berners-Lee is described by Wikipedia as “an English researcher and writer on carbon foot-printing. He is a professor and fellow of the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University and director and principal consultant of Small World Consulting, based in the Lancaster Environment Centre at the university.” Berners-Lee is the mature adult’s Greta Thunberg. He tries, and mostly succeeds, not to fall into knuckle-rapping piety. The great strength of his book is the force of the scientific and statistical evidence he has amassed about the sustainability – or otherwise – of Planet Earth as we know it. A huge corpus of data has been packed into this relatively slim volume. It exposes the plight of what he memorably calls the “Anthropocene” – “the era in which human influence is the dominant source of change to the ecosystem”.

That statement immediately raises the question of the fake news peddled by those who claim that global warming isn’t happening. He repudiates this with a workmanlike definition of what truth means to a scientist:
“…there is no such thing as one person’s truth as distinct from another person’s truth. If something it true, then it is a fact. Period. There is nothing subjective or personal about it. A person’s view of the truth is a different thing altogether and always is personal.”

He provides a statistician’s bounty of lists and charts that illustrate the carbon footprints of different foodstuffs, the relative benefits of and damages caused by different kinds of fuel, the energy consumption of the rich versus the poor, etc. They certainly make you think, and there are some surprises: for example, relentless facts demonstrate that production of biofuels steals food from the starving.

The charts contain so much information that it can be difficult to absorb it all. Consequently, and because the author appeals directly to the reader so often, it is tempting to view the data through a personal prism, rather than objectively. Thus I can award myself gold stars for not consuming beef – which he proves incontrovertibly is the most carbon-expensive food on the planet (even more expensive than the asparagus flown in from Peru, so often the beef eaters’ favourite retort) – and for running a very old car. If I’m honest, I deserve no praise for either of these – I don’t like beef and cars per se have never interested me. What brings me up sharp, though, is that dairy products are also environmentally greedy. As a very occasional meat eater, I consume a lot of dairy; as a small-boned woman, I have been persuaded by my doctor that this is essential to avoid osteoporosis. Should I consider reducing my intake drastically, for the sake of the planet? Leaving fossil fuels in the ground also makes perfect sense, but I live in a place where there is currently no viable alternative for heating.

Berners-Lee is not an economist in the conventional sense. Neither am I; but, as it was my misfortune to have to teach Economics as a subsidiary subject for three years when I was MBA course director at an English university, I understand the basic principles of ‘the dismal science’. I therefore admire the chutzpah of the counter-economics feats he has pulled off. For example, when acting as consultant for the Booth’s supermarket chain, he persuaded them to offer “buy one, get one free next week” as part of a push to reduce consumer waste of food. This runs entirely against the first economic principle of retailing, which is to get people to spend at least the same – and preferably more – every time they go shopping.

Another economic principle he tries to buck, but only hypothetically and much less convincingly, is the dynamic of scarce resources. He gives the example of two charities, one of which is doing well, the other less well, and suggests that the latter will applaud the former and be glad for its success, because both are working for the greater good. I have on several occasions either taught or worked with charity officials and I can report that they are at least as cut-throat as all but the most thuggish businesspeople. Not only is their own charity – of course – very close to their hearts, but their personal prestige and, in all probability, their livelihood, depends on its success. And who is to decide which charity is most worthwhile? Enter the Archangel Gabriel?

This brings me to the nub of what’s most difficult about this book. Even the most public-spirited of us cannot comprehend, in absolute terms, of what the greater good consists. In a world of seven billion people, most of whom are, shamefully, living from hand to mouth each day, how do we decide and who makes the decision? The one per cent in whose hands most of the world’s wealth lies? And what difference can we humbler – but still by world standards very affluent – individuals make? Berners-Lee offers advice on this in almost every chapter. Much is of the ‘no-one is too small to make a difference’ Greta Thunberg sentiment. Some seems over-optimistic or impractical: for example, only vote for politicians who are in sympathy with saving the environment; if no-one meets your standards, vote for the least bad. (I should be intrigued to know how Berners-Lee voted in the 2019 UK general election.)

The least satisfactory chapter is the one in which he describes how he and colleagues have worked with clients to reduce carbon emissions. Because he must summarise, his accounts seem both arcane and too much like plugs for his mates. The systems thinking he illustrates is a bit clunky, too. (I wonder if he has come across the work of the – sadly, late – Peter Checkland, another scion of the University of Lancaster, whose subtle and flexible Soft Systems Methodology was my bible when I taught strategic management.)

These are minor quibbles, however; There is No Planet B is an astonishing achievement, a seminal work that just might change Anthropocene Man’s hell-bent pursuit of his trajectory suicidal. The lockdown offers a perfect time to read this book and reflect on the messages it sets out so eloquently. Perhaps we can emerge from the current crisis stronger, more thoughtful and kinder to both ourselves and the planet and, in the process, find ways of avoiding the much bigger crisis that is hurtling towards us.

There is No Planet B is published by Cambridge University Press. I read it in paperback format (978 1 108 43958 9; £9.99); it is also available as an audio book, read by the author – more details here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/audiobooks-from-cambridge  The book is also available online to academic institutions from: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108545969.

Christina’s summer, aside from work!

9781784631086cvr.indd

Despite all my good intentions (and I’m very grateful to Lisette Brodey, Laura Zera, Val Poore, Sylvia Peadon and Tamara Ferguson for the supportive empathy they have shown me over my failure to keep up to date with social media generally!), the summer mostly slipped away without my posting on this blog. However, I met some great people at literary events over June, July, August and September and want to share those occasions with you before they become distant memories.
On 16th and 17th June, I attended the Winchester Literary Festival for the fourth time, partly to conduct one-to-ones with twelve new authors, partly to give an updated version of the talk I first delivered last year (‘Whodunnit: how it’s done’), which, as last time, attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. Winchester has now become one of the most important dates on my calendar: it’s a brilliant festival, thoughtfully and imaginatively created by Judith Heneghan, who lectures in creative writing at the university, and efficiently organised by Sara Gangai. The guest talk that takes place first thing on the Saturday morning is always a treat. This year’s speaker was Lemn Sissay, the performance poet.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay

Lemn’s talk was full of wit and unusual insights: for example, he said that every single day we are part of a privileged generation because we have the Internet. “We are at the most exciting time for words that there has ever been. So how can it be that the point of view that the Internet promotes rubbish is always held above that that says the Internet promotes beauty and genius?” And: “Every day I wake up and think of ways that I can promote writing other than the book. But the book is the greatest gift you can give any child or adult.” My own books were kindly stocked and sold, as always, by staff from P. & G. Wells at the festival book stall; they also gave me a signing session, when I met several new and a few old friends.
July 6th was the next big date for me, as the legendary bookseller Richard Reynolds had invited me and eleven other authors to participate in his summer evening of crime at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge.

Heffers Crime July 2017

Reading at Heffers

I was particularly pleased to meet Barbara Nadel, whose books I have read with real enjoyment. We were each asked to describe ourselves and read, in not more than two minutes, a short extract from our latest novels (Richard’s assistant had a bell and said that she was “not afraid of using it”!). This actually worked very well: it’s surprising how much you can get across in two minutes if you think about it beforehand and try hard.

Richard Reynolds

Richard Reynolds, in rapt concentration during the readings

Afterwards, there was a drinks reception at which all of our books were on sale. The audience numbered more than one hundred (Cambridge is a real Mecca for crime enthusiasts!) and we all sold lots of copies.

Heffers July 2017 2

Busy at Heffers

Wednesday 12th July followed hard on the heels of the Heffers event. I had the good fortune to be invited to a Houses of Parliament reception (held by the Booksellers Association, Publishers Association and the charity, World Book Day) for authors and booksellers, with MPs and peers.

Houses of Parliament

Before the bell was silenced!

There I met several booksellers who have supported me by stocking my books, including Sam Buckley, from Bookmark in Spalding, who over the years has generously given me a launch event for each of them. The event was hosted by Dame Margaret Hodge, who emphasised the civilising influence of both books and booksellers on our society (a sentiment about which I need no persuading!).
Last but not least, on 15th July I was invited to give ‘A Morning with Christina James’ at Spalding town library. This was a round-table event, at which I read a couple of excerpts from In the Family and Rooted in Dishonour and then talked to the audience about how I came to write the novels, my own Lincolnshire roots and, most important of all, their views on fiction. I was delighted to be able at last to meet Sharman Morriss, the librarian, having been told at one of the Bookmark evenings that she tirelessly promotes my novels to her customers. Sharman then put me in touch with Alison Wade, her colleague at Boston town library,

Boston Stump

Boston Stump (the library is just the other side of it)

which has been holding a month-long crime-writing festival during September. Alison very kindly asked me to open this on the afternoon of September 1st, when I talked to the audience about my own books and what they like to read. I was really pleased to have been able to meet readers and new writers on this occasion.

Boston library

Alert readers at Boston!

Fair of Face, the sixth novel in the DI Yates series, will be published on 15th October.

I’ve diligently been updating my Twitter header and posting the new novel’s cover here and on Facebook! Bookmark in Spalding is providing a signing session on the afternoon of 16th October and an evening launch event on 19th October and I know both will be memorable moments for meeting friends old and new. If you would like me to come and talk at your local bookshop or library, or to your reading group, just let me know.
Oh, and hello again to all my readers here!
[An apology to Spalding Library – I’ve temporarily mislaid my SanDisk – a picture will follow!]

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In its launch week, a wonderful review of ‘The Crossing’!

The Crossing

“… when we’re pretty sure we have the whole picture and are reflecting on the roller coaster nail biter of a journey as the end approaches, the author punches us in the stomach. Once again we’re treated to a big last minute shock in the same way she shook us in Sausage Hall.”

May I express here my sincere thanks to @TheBookbag’s Ani Johnson. The review may be found in full here.

Ani Johnson

Ani Johnson

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