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Natalie Sammons, debut crime fiction novelist

Natalie is one of my fellow Bloodhound authors. We ‘met’ on a podcast in April, when The Consequence of Choice, her debut novel, and The Sandringham Mystery were both published.

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

A: The title of my novel is The Consequence of Choice. The book tells the story of the introduction of a ‘one-child’ law as a means to minimising the world’s ever-growing population. Fast forward ten years. Elspeth, the main character finds herself pregnant, which is illegal, and soon the police are on the case. The story follows four characters. Each has his or her own agenda: they either strive to help Elspeth or to catch and convict her.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel in the crime genre?

A: I don’t feel that it was a conscious decision to write a crime-based novel. It suited the plot, allowing for suspense, twists and turns and drama to be woven into the story.

Q: How long have you wanted to write? And what inspired you to start writing this book?

A: I have always had a passion for books, but until I wrote The Consequence of Choice I was content to be the reader rather than the writer. It was only after I had my son that I first put pen to paper. I wanted to write a story for him. My ambition snowballed as my love for writing took hold. It is my first attempt at writing something other than children’s fiction.

Q: I know you are a nurse by profession and that you live in Sussex. Have you drawn on your knowledge of nursing, medicine etc. in the novel? Or on the local topography?

A: Like me, Elspeth is a nurse. A piece of advice I read early on in my writing journey was to ‘write what you know’.  I felt that following this advice ensured that my novel had authenticity and allowed me to write with confidence. I drew on my nursing knowledge at times, although I was mindful that I didn’t want the text to feel too clinical. The locations depicted in the book are familiar to me. I wanted to be able to picture the places I was writing about.

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

A: Being able to weave a story which has the reader enthralled is the most rewarding part of writing fiction: knowing that the reader is as invested in the story as I have been. The main challenge always lies in creating a story which captures someone’s attention. I often worry that the plot isn’t moving quickly enough or is moving too quickly. Sometimes I feel I overthink how my writing will be received by my readers.

Q: How did it feel to see your book in print, when the first copies arrived?

A: It was amazing to hold that first copy in my hands. It felt like such an achievement to have created a piece of work which other people also believed in.

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

A: Yes, I am, although it may be put on the backburner soon as I am due to have my second child this summer. The plot of this book is quite different from The Consequence of Choice. It focuses on two characters who are each struggling with demons: one is challenged by a mental health issue; the other by a medical condition. For one of them, all is not as it seems. In facing up to what she has most been afraid of, her medical condition, she discovers that her path is inextricably linked with that of the other character’s.

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

A: I will read novels in most genres. I am all about the characters, I want to be invested in their story. Regarding crime writers, I do enjoy Peter James’ books; perhaps this is because his books are set in and around Brighton, the city I grew up in.

Q: What would be your advice to struggling new authors just starting out?

A: I can only pass on that same advice: ‘Write what you know’. This will make your story real and enable you truly to picture what you’re writing about. Oh, and don’t give up. You should write because you enjoy it, because there is a story you’re burning to tell, then you will be rewarded, no matter what the outcome.

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.

Fight for your rights and be free!

Many authors are mystified by – and sometimes afraid of – the seemingly arcane world of rights. Interestingly, as internet books sales have boomed and the RRP is merely a guide to how much the book will cost, many readers also feel frustrated by their lack of understanding of rights and sometimes ask if authors are getting a good deal. In this post Lynette Owen, editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements, explains what rights are and how they should be used.

In the world of publishing, rights – sometimes referred to as subsidiary rights – can be something of a mystery to authors (and indeed to some staff working in other areas in publishing houses). Rights are ways of exploiting the intellectual property in a literary work by licensing the content – perhaps to be published in an overseas market, published in translation, or used as the basis for a stage, television or film adaptation. These rights normally belong in the first place to the author (and perhaps also to the illustrator where relevant) who may then choose to specify that all or some categories of rights are handled by their literary agent or their publishing house. The share of revenue paid to the author from licensing arrangements will be specified in the contract between author and publisher; for deals handled by a literary agent, an agreed rate of commission will be paid to the agent.

As General Editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements: A Book of Precedents (11/e, Bloomsbury Professional, January 2022), I receive mixed feedback on how the contractual precedents are used. Many small publishers use the downloadable templates verbatim, whilst larger publishers may want to tailor the wording to reflect company practice in terms of royalty models, warranties and indemnities, accounting dates etc. Some publishers incorporate selected wording from the Clark templates into their own contracts.

How an author chooses to grant control of rights in their work will depend on individual circumstances. If represented by an agent, the agency may make separate publication arrangements for separate markets, e.g.  the UK and Commonwealth with a British publisher and separate arrangements with a US publisher.  The agency may have specialist departments to handle translation rights or film and television rights, so those categories would be withheld from the English language publishing house/s. If no agent is involved, much will depend on the geographical territories granted to the publisher and the resources of the publishing house to exploit rights, something authors should discuss before contracting. These days, many larger publishers will expect e-book and audiobook rights to be included as part of their primary publishing rights. If some categories of rights are withheld from the publisher, authors do need to consider carefully whether they have the time and expertise to handle rights negotiations and contractual and accounting arrangements themselves.

The role of a literary agent is to act in the best interests of the authors they represent; however, not all authors are represented by an agent and it is rare for agents to operate in the areas of educational, academic and professional books, where contracts tend to be directly between author and publisher. If authors are concerned about the fairness of some elements in the publisher’s contract, they should first clarify any points with their editorial contact in the publishing house, who should be able to explain the reasons behind the contractual requirements. It is also worth noting that the Society of Authors can offer advice to member authors, although they probably do so more frequently for trade (general) authors than for educational and academic authors whose contracts usually differ from trade contracts to reflect different market conditions. Any formal legal advice on a publishing contract should be sought from a firm specialising in intellectual property matters.

I first joined the publishing industry immediately after graduating from London University, starting work in the London office of Cambridge University Press, and came to work in their rights department almost by accident – rights work was little known as a career path back then. In 1973, I moved to set up a rights department at Pitman Publishing, then spent a year at trade publisher Marshall Cavendish before joining the multinational publisher Longman Group Ltd (now Pearson Education), latterly as Copyright Director. I was fortunate to be able to travel extensively to sell rights, both at international book fairs but also on sales trips and publishing delegations – educational and academic publishers were early entrants to challenging markets such as the former Soviet Union, central and eastern Europe and mainland China. Space here precludes recounting many strange experiences in those markets, some of which I covered in my recordings for the British Museum Book Trade Lives project! Since 2013, I have worked as a freelance copyright and rights consultant, providing advice on rights and contracts to smaller publishers and also running training courses for publishers and degree students on rights in the UK and abroad. In addition to my work on Clark’s Publishing Agreements, I am also the author of Selling Rights, now in its eighth edition (Routledge, 2019) – as far as I am aware, the only book on the subject.

I think the most attractive aspect of working in rights is the opportunity to meet a wide range of publishers from all over the world and build up long-term relationships with them; a great deal of rights business hinges on personal relationships. It is also challenging and hugely rewarding to negotiate rights deals on behalf of authors and to tie up those deals in legally sound licence contracts, fair to both parties. By contrast, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of rights is that senior management in some (but not all!) publishing companies still do not recognise the value of the rights function, both in terms of generating revenue for authors and publishers but also in terms of the PR value derived from broadening access to publications through licensing.

My rights-related tips to authors would be:

  1.  If you have a literary agent, talk to them about rights possibilities and be prepared to assist with promoting rights if required.
  2. If you work directly with a publisher, find out how they handle rights and make contact with their rights staff.
  3. But do try to be realistic in your expectations for rights deals – not every book is a candidate for the silver screen!

For publishers, my tips would be:

  1. Time and effort expended on the promotion and sale of rights will produce results, even for smaller publishers with limited resources, and will enhance expertise.
  2. Rights selling depends on building long-term relationships with compatible publishing partners – these take time to establish.
  3. To publishing management – recognise the importance of a rights operation, both in terms of revenue and PR value to author and publishing house alike.

© Lynette Owen

In tomorrow’s post, Hannah Deuce, Marketing and PR Manager for Bloodhound Books, describes how she works with authors.

National Crime Reading Month and www.christinajamesblog.com

The Crime Writers Association (CWA) and the Reading Agency have built on their brilliant lockdown idea of designating June as Crime Reading Month (CRM). This June, crime writing of all kinds will be celebrated in bookshops, schools, libraries and museums and at special events. CWA members are all encouraged to engage in some kind of activity to celebrate crime writing and reading, however small – it could be something as simple as encouraging a local library or bookshop to mount a crime fiction display – or large – the festivities culminate with the announcement of this year’s Daggers Award winners. More information about individual activities and events can be found at Events – National Crime Reading Month. It is worth checking this site every day, as exciting new projects are continually being added.

I think CRM is a very exciting concept and I am planning to participate by offering a new blog post every day during June on some aspect of crime writing, reading or publishing. Most of the posts will take the form of interviews with people prominent in these areas and I have many great interviews already lined up: for example, with Richard Reynolds, the doyen of booksellers specialising in crime fiction; Dea Parkin, the secretary of the CWA; and Lynette Owen, the distinguished editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements, as well as authors, book lovers, bloggers, librarians, publishers, policemen and more booksellers. I have been invited to take part in several events myself and shall be covering these, too. There are still a few spaces left in the latter half of the month, so, if you would like to take part in an interview for the blog, please let me know.

I’ll write one or two posts about certain aspects of my writing. Questions that I have been asked are: ‘Why do your books describe the towns and villages of Lincolnshire as they were when you were growing up, even though the novels themselves are set in the present?’ and ‘What is the fascination that Lincolnshire still holds for you as an author, when you say you moved away many years ago?’

I’ll pick up on this later in the sequence. In the meantime, I do hope you will find time to follow the posts and enjoy them. The series will begin tomorrow with the Richard Reynolds interview. Why have I started with a bookseller? The post itself explains.

Fact and fiction; fiction and fact – and ‘faction’ and ethics!

I spent the weekend reading a novel (no, not the one above, which I’ll mention later) that described a series of events with which I am personally familiar, although they happened more than ten years ago and my role at the time was very much that of bystander – I didn’t know most of the facts until some years later. I emphasise the word ‘facts’ – I’m not talking about a lookalike situation here. I didn’t know there would be any kind of personal connection when I bought the book. It is by an author whose work I have read before – mainly in the form of journalism – and I was curious to know how she had shaped up as a novelist.

As I embarked on the novel and the narrative unfolded, I was stunned to realise that this was an undisguised account of those very events. The only subterfuge the author had used was to give the main characters different names – though names very much in keeping with the originals.  She didn’t, for example, rename a Charles ‘Sidney’ or a Joanna ‘Edith’.

The novel tells the story of a love triangle. The three protagonists are a married couple and the man’s colleague, with whom he embarks upon an affair. Nothing special about that – it’s one of the oldest plots in the world. Think Jacob, Leah and Rachel or Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot. Think The English Patient. This novel’s uniqueness lies in the detail: the venue and circumstances of the lovers’ first tryst, the man’s family situation, the place to which he takes his by-now mistress for a holiday, his death by suicide. Yes, indeed – the man commits suicide, unable to extricate himself from the mess which he has made of his life. And my point is: none of this is fiction.

Let me wind back to my own very tangential participation in this tale. I have never met the author, who is the mistress in the triangle. I have also never met the wife. As far as I know, neither is aware of my existence. I knew the husband as a professional acquaintance during the last months of his life – although of course neither he nor I knew that they were. I had just set up a new freelance business and I was working on a project with him. Out of the blue, his PA called me and told me he had “died suddenly”. I didn’t know it was suicide until some years later, when I worked on another project with another of his former colleagues, who had by now moved to a different company. We talked about his death and she described to me more of the details that led up to it.

As a result, and belatedly, I am much more clued up now about the course of events than I was immediately after they took place; and what strikes me very forcefully is that most of what I have just read in this ‘novel’ is not fiction at all. Except for the passages that conjecture what the main actors were feeling (including the wife, who, unsurprisingly, is not portrayed with much sympathy until the end), it is a blow-by-blow, more or less verbatim account of what actually happened. It may very well have been cathartic – and even lucrative – for the author, but what about the emotions it will have triggered in the other players in the story, particularly the wife? How could she have felt when she realised the hugely distressing events that had changed her life forever had been dragged into service as ‘fiction’? What about the two sons, now young men, who were teenagers at the time?

I have asked these questions rhetorically, but I am genuinely interested to know what others think. I am aware that authors have sometimes been taken to court for writing about characters who bear too close a resemblance – or even the same name – as someone who exists. For example, the first printing of Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (great novel if you don’t know it) was recalled after an acquaintance of his objected to his use of her name and he had to change the name. Conversely, I know some authors make fictional use of their own experiences but relate them to characters who are quite different from the originals. None of my own characters is recognisable as an individual who truly exists, though I have observed and written about unusual characteristics in people I know to make my characters more interesting.

When does something billed as fiction actually become ‘faction’ – and how much should an author be allowed to get away with, not just legally, but also morally speaking?

I have chosen not to name the title of the novel I’ve been discussing here or identify its author. I do not want to add more oxygen to the publicity it has already received. I don’t wish to sound sanctimonious, but reading this book has made me feel very uncomfortable indeed.

National Libraries Week

It is National Libraries Week (see Libraries Week). This is a great occasion for public libraries in the UK to showcase all their brilliant initiatives and demonstrate how much they do to support their local communities. Each year, National Libraries Week adopts a theme; this year’s is ‘Taking Action, Saving Lives’.

Given the unprecedented events of the last (almost) two years, it could hardly be more apposite. Like almost every kind of institution, public libraries here closed down for a few weeks during the first lockdown – and, like millions of people, I immediately noticed this left a big draughty gap in my life. Some people felt the loss much more acutely – both practically and emotionally, they really had lost a lifeline.

We were fortunate that most libraries continued to be resourceful, even in lockdown – my former school friend, Jane Barber, who works at Stamford Library, told me how she had quickly mastered how to run story-telling events and competitions online. Staff at the British Library searched their world-class collections to dazzle and entertain members with a stream of online displays and exhibitions and, as a result, I have discovered more about maps, newspapers, oriental art, Anthony Gormley, ‘killer bunnies’ and many other topics that I would otherwise never have explored. Wonderful as all these things were and are, it was with great joy that I received the notification on 17th August that the British Library Reading Rooms were open again – with no need to book. Long may that last!

I have written many times on this blog about how libraries have supported me and my books by inviting me to take part in readings and other events and, most importantly, by also finding great audiences to attend them. The last event I took part in – ‘The Body in the Library’ – was at Stamford in late January 2020. 

Stamford Library, January 2020

Shortly after that, Stamford and every other library in the country had to cancel events and shut their doors. As I’ve said, the libraries didn’t stay completely closed for long – they operated click-and-collect facilities, allowed patrons to enter in limited numbers and developed other ingenious stratagems to provide essential services. Events, however, remained untenable. First to disappear from the library schedule, they have also (of course with good reason) been last to be reinstated.  

I was therefore delighted last week to receive an invitation from Sharman Morriss, librarian at Spalding Library, to kick off its celebrations for National Crime Month by taking part in an event at the library on 4th November. Sharman and I had a call about it earlier today, during which she gave me total carte blanche over what form the event should take. So far, we have just agreed that it will start at 14.00 on 4th November and last perhaps for one-and-a-half or two hours. My editor and I will come up with a programme for it shortly and, after Sharman and her colleagues have approved, I’ll post more details about it on the blog.  If you’re in the Spalding neighbourhood on that day, I do hope you will find time to come! More than anything else since the lockdown regulations were relaxed in July, Sharman’s invitation has persuaded me that we’re back on the road to normality.

In the meantime, I shall scrutinise the National Libraries Week website avidly each day and celebrate the huge variety of events that librarians are sharing to celebrate it. Sharman said that earlier today she and her colleagues had welcomed guide dogs to Spalding Library. Other libraries are posting details about initiatives that support the housebound, prisons and mental well-being. There will be more as the week progresses.

I know I’ve said this before, so I hope you’ll forgive the repetition: Librarians and booksellers are the (largely) unsung but nevertheless peerless civilisers of modern existence. They deserve our support; we’d be lost without theirs.

Happy library memories: with Lynne and her lovely colleagues at Gainsborough Library

Love is the answer

I must confess I am not a connoisseur of ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novels. I was a student when everyone was reading Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, so they didn’t appeal, but at the time there was in any case no question of their being aimed at teenagers. They were books for adults – hip, trendy adults, the same ones who liked Monty Python. YA as a genre had yet to be invented. It still lay in the future when my son was born a decade later. And, although eventually I read to him ‘The Hobbit’ and the Narnia novels, they were not billed as belonging to the YA genre. As a bookseller, I was responsible for cataloguing fiction and the genre in which we placed them was firmly labelled ‘fantasy’. Fantasy was science fiction without the science. C.S. Lewis was considered ‘a good thing’ by the librarians who were my main customers because his novels were allegories of the Christian condition, but they bought the Narnia books for the under-twelves, not for adolescents. I’ve read Steinbeck, of course (but long before some of his works were hi-jacked from mainstream adult and appropriated as YA), and I’ve read and enjoyed some of Philip Pullman’s and Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but there my acquaintance with YA ends.

Or, ‘had ended’. This summer, I read a book called ‘Love is the answer’ which took my breath away. Its publisher, QuoScript, classifies it as YA and, although I would agree that this is the primary genre to which it belongs, I’d also say it is a ‘crossover’ book, i.e., one that holds appeal for all readers from the age of twelve onwards.

‘Love is the answer’ is the debut novel of Ben Craib. It’s about loss, grieving, going off the rails and, above all, the value of love in all its true forms – love of parents, love of friends, legitimate love of self. It distinguishes between these ‘pure’ forms of love and the false and destructive love that springs from self-doubt, spiting former partners by shacking up with a ‘rebound’ lover and using an unsatisfactory relationship to bolster self-esteem. This makes the novel sound sombre and moralistic, but in fact it is the opposite – vibrant with some of the best dialogue I have ever read, extremely funny in a sitcom kind of way and lyrical without being precious.

‘Love is the answer’ tells the story of Scarlett, whose mother has died of cancer by the time the novel begins, though she appears in some flashbacks. Scarlett, who has clearly now arrived at the angry part of the grieving process, is reluctantly (and badly) keeping house for her father, who is himself floundering in grief. Although he clearly loves Scarlett, he shows it in all the wrong ways, coming across sometimes as heavily dictatorial as a Victorian papa, sometimes ridiculously over-indulgent (because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter) and always as out of his depth emotionally as Scarlett herself.

Other important characters include Elliot and Bad Ben, Scarlett’s two college friends, whom she all but abandons when she meets Hayden, her first proper boyfriend, and Jennifer, Scarlett’s father’s new girlfriend, a slim, elegant ballet teacher who seems to hold all the cards when Scarlett herself holds none. Scarlett resents Jennifer and rejects her genuine concern. She does not recognise the deep affection in which she is held by Elliot and Bad Ben. She fights against her father’s protectiveness and instead throws in her lot with Hayden, believing that she has not only found her soul-mate, but, through nurturing their relationship, the solution to all her predicaments.

That’s certainly enough of the plot, though I’ll just highlight a few of the other riches within this poised and light-of-touch but very accomplished novel.  First of all, the characters: all the leading ones are complex and self-contradictory – at times, noble and brave; at times, absurd and cowardly. Ben Craib is a master of characterisation, a gift which he extends to the minor characters, too. My favourites among these are Cenk, the thuggish Cockney/Turkish owner of Scarlett’s local convenience store, and Mikey Miles, the ageing, pathetic – but extremely wealthy – pop star whom Scarlett and the other residents of Hayden’s squat treat as a sort of demi-god. And the sub-plots are fascinating: Ben Craib wears his knowledge lightly, but he is clearly expert on  contemporary music and – more originally – superheroes, the comics in which they feature and the strange fantasy world which their fans inhabit. Ironies abound, some so subtle that it takes two or three readings to recognise the nuances in the masterfully constructed narrative. As I’ve said, Craib also has a natural ear for dialogue. I won’t elaborate further – I’ve said my piece. I do encourage you to read this book, whether you identify as a YA reader or one of more mature years, especially if, like me, you have always thought the YA genre is divided between ‘Frozen’-style fantasies and gritty, if hackneyed, works about modern teenage angst. ‘Love is the answer’ has so much more to offer than this, to readers of any age. It is the novel that has persuaded me never to pass by the YA sections in my local bookshop in future. There may well be other masterpieces hiding there! And I look forward with impatience to reading Ben Craib’s next book.

The Physics of Grief

It is my privilege to have received an advance copy of The Physics of Grief, by Mickey J. Corrigan. Mickey is an author whose work I have long admired, someone who brings wisdom, humour and gracious writing to both the mundane and humdrum grind of daily life and to the truly horrific events that occasionally engulf human beings. This book is published today, April 22nd 2021, by QuoScript.

The Physics of Grief is classic Mickey. The protagonist of the book, Seymour Allan, is initially only a semi-likeable character to whom the reader is drawn – if at all – by sympathy for his situation. He is living in a retirement complex because poverty, rather than old age and infirmity, has made this a necessity. He is broke; he is lonely; he is full of self-loathing; and he lives alone, save for a stray cat he has adopted. (Note from a cat lover: few characters in novels who love cats are entirely bad.)

Seymour’s luck changes when he is accosted in a café by the mysterious and enigmatic Raymond C. Dasher. For me, Dasher is the most intriguing character in the whole novel. Is he even a real human being? There clings about him something of the supernatural, reminiscent perhaps of Hermes Diaktoros, the “fat man” of Anne Zouroudi’s crime novels set in Greece (surely intended as an earthly manifestation of Zeus?), who comes and goes like the Cheshire Cat, or of the shade of the grim reaper who lurks in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, having a voice but never a physical presence.

But Raymond C. Dasher is both corporeal and articulate. He’s not particularly likeable, either: he has a dangerous sense of humour that verges on the cruel and he treats his employees – or perhaps I should say employee, because Seymour never meets any of his colleagues, another puzzle – with casual if paternalistic contempt. Nevertheless, the poverty-stricken Seymour does agree to become an employee of Dasher, as a professional griever (apparently this is genuinely a way of making a living in several countries today – not entirely surprising, as paid mourners, or ‘mutes’, were a definitive part of the grief landscape in Victorian Britain, too). 

Corrigan has great fun while portraying Seymour at work, as he uncovers the back-story behind each of the deceased who, without being able to muster a respectable number of personal mourners, has left cash to pay to plug the gap at the funeral with “extras”. And whose funerals are they?  You’ll be enmeshed!

However – and with a few hiccoughs at the start – Seymour begins to take it all in his stride… with what effect on himself? And how is he personally affected? What lies in his back-story? Corrigan’s skill plays delicately with the reader’s reactions to this man.

Funny, sad, ambiguous, profoundly philosophical yet grounded in the reality of the everyday, extremely erudite about the customs of death (but wearing its erudition lightly), The Physics of Grief is a hauntingly beautiful novel about people and why they do what they do – until they die. And Corrigan also manages to suggest without any hint of religiousness, that even then – perhaps – death is not the end. This is a crime novel with a labyrinth of twists, its originality breath-taking. If you are looking for a mesmerising book to read this spring, you can hardly do better than to invest in The Physics of Grief.

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