Friday, 17 August 2018

The Women Friends: a Book Review

The Women Friends
I know, I know. I’m a binge reader. I can go for months without reading anything, but if I’m on holiday and the mood takes me I can read half a dozen books in as many days. So it is just now: oh, the joys of holidaying at home when the cloud is down and there’s a chill wind blowing. 

I won’t bore you with every book I’ve read since my last blog, partly because some of them are quite samey, and also I’ve always vowed not to review books I don’t think are very good. (There have been some of those, too.) But I tore through a novella last night that was both good and different. 

The Women Friends: Selina is by a Facebook friend of mine, Miriam Drori, and her co-author Emma Millar, and I bought it (as I so often do) to support an author who writes for a small independent publisher, in this case, Crooked Cat. It’s a novella set in Vienna between the wars and it’s the story of Selina, who (briefly) models for artist Gustav Klimt and falls in love with one of his other models with whom she sits for his famous painting, The Women Friends.

It’s not a period of history I’m particularly familiar with, and I know nothing about art, but that really didn’t matter. The two authors set the scene wonderfully, and they cover a range of characters in what’s almost a cartoon of a louche, hedonistic society that’s sleepwalking towards its nightmarish end. 

Selina’s sexual awakening comes from the Jewish woman Janika, and she goes on to have another affair with a woman called Anja. The story got considerably darker, as Anja became drawn into the unsavoury politics of the far right with what appear to be the best of intentions, but we know the course of history. It was only going to end one way. It’s a credit to the authors that I was desperately hoping that somehow Selina would be able to save all her friends who fell on the wrong side of the nazi party for their race or their sexuality. (No spoilers, though.)

It’s a beautifully written story, and highly evocative. For me the relationship with Janika, clearly the love of Selina’s life, petered out a little: I never like it when a main character disappears from the story. Klimt died very early on, too, and the story moved away from the artistic circles not long after that point, which was a little odd given that the whole premise of the books appeared to be the painting and the two women in it. That said, the blurb implies there will be more in a series and if there are, I’ll be looking out for them.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

1930s Crime Revisited: The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes

I yearn for the golden era of crime writing — so much so that I’m thinking of writing a series myself, though that will have to wait until I’ve got rather further with the ongoing contemporary series. I’ve always been a fan of Christie, Sayers, Marsh and the like, and the current trend for reprints of some of the less well-known of that genre is a positive pleasure to me, and has given me many hours of pleasant reading. 

With that in mind, I turned to a contemporary take on the 1930s genre with relish — a cosy historical, if you like to call it that. It’s called The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes, and if the name Fellowes rings a bell in connection with the upper-class Mitfords then so it should. Jessica is a scion of the (Downton Abbey) Fellowes dynasty, and has written the companions to the tv series. 

With that in mind, I was expecting sumptuous detail on the lives of the minor aristocracy, and I wasn’t disappointed. Nurserymaid Louisa fetches up with the Mitfords as she attempts to escape from her unfortunate background (dead father, weak mother, exploitative uncle) and becomes confidante to sixteen-year old Nancy. When Nancy gets a bee in her bonnet about the murder of a war nurse on a train (on which Louisa was a passenger), the plot is born. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the detail and the story, with plenty of twists that I didn’t see coming. If I have a grouch it’s that some of the investigation seemed a little bit simplistic, and that Nancy didn’t come across as the precocious, brittle and not particularly pleasant person she seems to have been from other books I’ve read. 

The book was nicely written and flowed well enough, though the pace slowed at a few points so that I put it down and went off to do something else. That said, I did keep picking it up again, though it wasn’t what I’d call a page-turner. I particularly loved the way that Louisa’s rather innocent romance with hapless railway policeman Guy runs alongside Nancy’s determination to find a man, regardless of whether or not he’s a crook. 

The concept of putting a fictional character in the heart of real events isn’t original — Laurie Graham, in particular, does it wonderfully well in both The Importance of Being Kennedy and Gone With The Windsors — but it works. That said, the book is billed as the first of a series and I’m not quite sure how long this can be spun out. The tagline is ‘six sisters, a lifetime of mystery’ but with the younger sister not born when the series begins and the oldest close to leaving home on a lifetime of adventure, I’m not quite sure how it will work as a series. 

I’ll just have to read the next book and find out…

Monday, 6 August 2018

Can You Write Too Well? A Review of Haweswater by Sarah Hall

Mardale Green begins to emerge from its watery grave
So, the other day I began reading Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, a book which begins with water lapping around the wheels of a cart leaving the Cumbrian dale of Mardale as the eponymous reservoir fills with water. First thing the next morning I walked along the lane leading into the hamlet of Mardale Green as it emerged after a period of drought. Then I went home and finished the book. 

What a book it is (mainly in a good way). For me it reads like a tribute to a lost Eden, a richly-written description of a beautiful land. Hall implies that it’s a lost landscape, but it isn’t. It’s very much there and endlessly attractive. (Do you have a spare hour? I can show you my photos.) 

What’s lost isn’t the landscape of the dale, but the way of life. 

This is the problem I have with the book. It’s the story of Janet Lightburn, resistant to the flooding of the valley, and her intense (for intense, read violent) affair with the man from the Manchester Water Company, Jack Ligget. But I didn’t really care about Janet, or Jack, or anyone else. Hall manages to drown her characters in the richness of her prose characters, and I never felt I knew or understood them enough to care. 

I can see what the author’s trying to do, with her switches of tense and her broken sentences, but it doesn’t work. Part of the problem is that the book is reminiscent of the 1930s rural-misery-memoir genre of Mary Webb and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, in which life in the countryside is relentlessly miserable and the stones of (insert rural area here) are stained with blood and lead only to tragedy. Of course, it doesn’t help that the genre was so wonderfully debunked by Stella Gibbons, and I do find myself wondering whether I’d have viewed Haweswater differently if I hadn’t read Cold Comfort Farm, but who knows?

No spoilers, of course, but I wasn’t surprised by the way the story turned out, and nor, I’m afraid did I particularly care. While I loved the descriptions of the landscape, and even the many pages devoted to the building of the dam (unnecessary to the story) kept me reading, I could’t engage with the characters. At one point Jack “watched the scene like a silent picture” and that’s pretty much how I felt about it. 

I feel a bit guilty about thinking this way, because the writing (those odd broken sentences apart) is pretty damned good, but for me fiction relies on characterisation and narrative drive, and in those respects it falls far short. I’ll reread it, though, if for not other reason than the descriptions of Jack climbing High Street or the hard, hard work of farming on the fells, or whatever. But in terms of character, it was over-written, with description substituting for emotion. 

Despite what I’ve just said, I did like this book — just nowhere near as much as I desperately wanted to. 

Friday, 27 July 2018

A Different Sort of Mystery

I know, I know. What I’m about to say is at best ill-advised, and the sound you can hear is that of a whopping great stone crashing through my own glass house. When I go and inspect the damage I daresay I’ll find it more extensive than I thought, but I’m going to say it anyway.

I’ve read a lot of ordinary books recently.

Now the caveats. I’ve actually enjoyed them all. They’ve been well-written and their settings have been appealing. Their characters have been interesting. They’re just the type of book I’m aspiring to write myself, in fact. By ordinary I don’t mean bad. I just mean samey. And yes it’s the genre and yes it’s what readers want. I know all that. But.

Maybe it’s the heat that’s giving me a terrible sense of ennui. Maybe what I need is some sparkling wit and a Martini, rather than sitting on my own with a hot, grumpy cat and a glass of tepid Ribena. But suddenly I find I’m tired of reading all these crime novels and I want something different.

Fortunately help is at hand, in the shape of the latest crime novel by Ian Sansom. Sansom’s books are a bit light on crime, but they do have an original theme, a very jolly writing style (and a wit as dry as my non-existent Martini) and a cast of original and entertaining characters.

The concept is a series of murder mysteries set in the counties of England during the 1930s. The narrator, Stephen Sefton, is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War with all the traumas that involves, not to mention a penchant for some of the sleazier entertainments that London has to offer. His big break, if you can call it that, comes in the opening book where he becomes employed by the extraordinary Swanton Morley, an encyclopaedia of a man whose mission its to augment his phenomenal output of books and articles with a guide to each of the counties — each one researched and written in a week or so.

Essex Poison is the fourth of them, and the pattern is familiar. Sefton and Morley travel round in a Lagonda driven by Morley’s sassy and very modern daughter, Miriam, who’s way out of Sefton’s league and besieged by alternative suitors, while some of the more villainous characters from Sefton’s past are in pursuit for payment of his debts.

To date there have been murders in Norfolk, Devon and Westmorland, and now the caravan has alighted in Essex. At an oyster festival, a local dignitary dies. Was it poison?

In actual fact I didn’t really care what happened. (I did say it was light on the mystery.) It was fun, it was different, and there’s a serious underlying theme as Sefton struggles with his demons (to which, of course, his employer is totally oblivious).

I’ll go back to my ordinary mysteries. After all, they’re a well-tested genre and there are so many, so similar, because it works. But sometimes you want something different, and by the next time I’m in need of an alternative twist on crime, I hope the next book in the series will be out.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Me and the Ghosts of Mardale Green

The old field walls of Bowderthwaite
on the shores of Haweswater 

I love a good walk. I was down in the Lakes recently, and rather than go to the gym I got up early, packed my breakfast and headed off for a scenic walk. Just as I did for the walk I described in my last blog I picked Mardale, which happens to be where my current protagonist, Jude Satterthwaite goes to clear his head. 

This time, I chose to walk round the lake rather than head up the dale. It was hot, and the route is much flatter and there is, crucially, no bog, though there are other hazards. Haweswater as we see it isn’t entirely natural, but a larger lake resulting from the expansion of the original body of water following the building of a dam in the 1930s. 

The new reservoir flooded the village of Mardale Green, leaving us one of those drowned villages that are common across the UK and that occasionally reappear in times of drought.

The long-submerged walls and old bridge
emerge from the lake
As you may be aware, it’s been incredibly dry in the UK recently, and Cumbria’s lake levels have dropped dramatically. On an earlier visit, a lady I met on my walk informed me that we would soon be able to see the church tower, which we never will because the church, like every other building in the dale below the waterline, was demolished, though the village bridge does appear along with the footprint of its buildings. 

Even the ducks sink into the soft mud.
Maybe one day these will be fossil footprints.
The village hasn’t emerged yet, though its presence is slowly crystallising as the water level drops. For my walk I left the main footpaths and walked around to Riggindale, out of sight of the car park and much of the road. Once there I followed the shore back round until I ran into rocks and had to scramble up the bank and into the woods. 

If you look at old maps (you’ll find one here) then you can see where the old houses are. I spotted the ruins of Fieldhead and the skeleton of its bridge. On the other side of the lake, the remains of the farms of Goosemire and Grove Bridge were printed on the landscape. Ducks had left their footprints on the rapidly-drying mud, making fossils for the future. Most hauntingly, I could see the trees. Cut down before flooding, their stumps roots are still there, the soil washed away from under them so that they stood free on the rocky shore like stranded aliens. 

The line between the lucky and the unlucky -
trees above and below the new shore.
It was an amazing walk, made all the better for being so early in the morning that I met nobody. I doubt I’ll ever weave it into a story, because someone somewhere will have done that before, far more elegantly than I ever could. But it’ll be a long time before I forget that sunny early morning on the parched shores of Haweswater. 

Just me, a couple of sheep, several dozen ducks and the ghosts of Mardale Green.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Problem of the Boggy Middle

I am writing the first draft of a novel and it is mince.

I write from a plan, much as I walk from a map and, like a walk, a story has many different options for getting from A to B.

This is a map of a walk I did the other day. It’s also one of the favourite walks of my protagonist, DCI Jude Satterthwaite, who likes a quick stroll to clear his head.

Jude, in solving a crime, knows the beginning and the end, as do I. It begins with a crime and it ends with an arrest. So it is with a walk. It begins at the car park and it ends at your destination, in this case, Blea Water. 

Unfortunately, things aren’t always so simple. You will see that this map has all sorts of possibilities — a positive spider’s web of wonderment. But when you get to the ground, your options are rather more limited. Because, bluntly, a lot of these routes that are marked on the map are utterly invisible on the ground, and the ones that are there have a nasty tendency to peter out in the middle of nowhere. 

In my walk, as in my writing, I have to make sudden sideways jumps to accommodate them. (Don’t worry. In draft 2 I’ll go back and sort them out.) In the meantime, at least I have two options. I'll pick one.

 But the big problem, dear reader, is marked in green. 

It’s a bog. And to get from A to B, from the crime to the arrest, from the beginning to the end, we have go through it. There is no way round. High road, low road. You end in the bog.

This is where I am right now. 

In a draft of — say — 75,000 words the first third is easy, and the last is easy. The middle third, known to writers as the saggy, or as I now call it, boggy, middle, is where all the things you need to do to get from A to B get shovelled in to a big heap, a random selection scenes. Get to the end of it. Sort it out later. 

I’m at 34,000 words right now, and I’m not so much heading through mud as jumping from tussock to tussock and hoping the next one I land on will bear my weight. It’s an energy-sapping experience but, I tell myself, it’ll be worth it. And when I finally finish it, I hope my readers enjoy the view. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Oh, Amazon...

I feel I should take a view on the current issue that’s bothering a lot of indie (and non-indie) authors at the moment — the Great Amazon Review Robbery. In its latest crackdown on fake reviews, Amazon has taken to removing swathes of those that it deems to be in breach of its terms and conditions, and in so doing has taken out every review ever written by a large number of book bloggers or prolific reviewers.

I have some sympathy with Amazon on this, but do think they’re going about it the wrong way. The problem is not authors reading and reviewing one another’s books, asking their friends to review a book “if you enjoyed it” or sending copies to book bloggers in return for an honest review. These practices have been going on for as long as indie publishing has been around. They’re the only way that self-published authors, who don’t have PR departments to send their books to the major Sunday review supplements and wouldn’t be listened to if they did, can get their profile raised high enough for anyone to notice them. (Because Amazon loves reviews.)

There are so many things going on here that I can’t really grasp them, and in truth no-one knows what’s going on with Amazon. It seems to me that reviews which were previously deemed acceptable no longer are, which is bad enough in itself. What’s worse is that bloggers with years of reviews behind them are losing the lot.

Quite why people are losing reviews is a weird one. One of the criteria seems to be that “too many good reviews” aren’t deemed acceptable — but many reviewers, myself included, don’t give bad reviews. In my case, there are two reasons for this. The first is because I generally only choose books I think I’m going to enjoy reading. The second is that I don’t review books I don’t enjoy because I don’t want to give a bad review. Both of those, in my view, are perfectly legitimate.

I hope the brou-ha-ha over Reviewgate will give Amazon pause, and they’ll stop and think about the implications of it. As an author I’m not someone who obsesses about reviews. I don’t count them or keep track of them, but when I checked last week I did notice that my overall review rating had dropped with no new reviews added, implying that some of my reviews have dropped off. Since then (I did take a note at that point) I’ve lost three reviews on Amazon UK and my paltry total has dwindled further.

I read a lot and I don’t review a lot. Where I do make the effort, it’s because I enjoyed a book and a review will help an indie author (the JKRs of this world don’t need my reviews: they have enough). But these seems to be the reviews that Amazon is targeting — 4* or 5* reviews by authors of other authors.

I hope Amazon sorts this out, sooner rather than later, and focuses its efforts on the people who are scamming it out of serious amounts of money, but I’m not holding my breath. I the meantime, I’ll continue to review good books by indie authors, who I may or not know, but on my blog.