Saturday, May 31, 2014

Far From the Tree

Andrew Solomon set out to study families in which the children were very different from the parents, children born deaf, dwarfs, autistic children, children with severe physical disabilities, prodigies, schizophrenics, and others including children who turned out to be criminals or were conceived through rape. And what an extraordinary book he has produced. The full title is Far From the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love. A huge amount of research went into it including interviews spread over nearly twenty years, some with people Solomon visited again and again. The stories he heard were sometimes terrible, almost always deeply moving. It turned out that schizophrenia was one of most difficult conditions to deal with, because of the way it seemed to erode personality.  He talked to the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers and the mother ended by saying: 'I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had not been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.' Again and again he heard something similar. His conclusion was that 'Parenting had challenged these families, but almost none regretted it: they demonstrated that with enough emotional discipline and affective will, one could love anyone.' The research was fuelled by his experience of growing up gay in a heterosexual family and he came to realise that it was also a means of subduing his anxieties about becoming a parent. The last chapter is an account of how it gave him the courage to have a child himself.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Euro Crime

I bought two books at Crimefest. One was the excellent Euro Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to European Crime Fiction, Film and TV, by Barry Forshaw, which was launched at Crimefest. Barry knows pretty much everything there is to know about contemporary crime fiction and he moderated one of the most interesting panels at Crimefest, also called Euro Noir. The writers were Lars Kepler (a Swedish husband and wife team), Dominque Manotti (French), Paul Johnston (lives in Greece) and Jorn Lier Horst (Norwegian). For an interesting discussion of the panel you could go to There is also a lot about translated crime on a splendid website:
    I've been reflecting on how much translated fiction I read these days. I've read Simenon for years, but my love affair with foreign crime fiction really began sometime in the 1990s when my eye was caught by a copy of Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers on a table in Waterstones. I think that was the first one to be translated into English and was published by the estimable Harvill press. I was attracted by the stylish black and white landscape on the cover. I bought it and have never looked back. Andrea Camilleri was one of my favourite writers long before Montalbano appeared on TV. Then there is Fred Vargas in France, Arnuldar Indridason in Iceland, and many other Scandanavians. Do I even read more translated fiction than English language fiction? It may well be the case, especially as we read a lot of foreign fiction in my book group. I enjoy it so much, I think, because it is a window into other cultures, even a little armchair holiday.
     The other book I bought was The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst, a new writer that I'm keen on. This is the third of his books to be translated into English from Norwegian. I am keeping that as a treat, but I read Barry's book on the train on the way home and it's given me lots of ideas for future reading and viewing.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Leaving York without a book?

Yesterday I went up to York for the day to meet my friend and web designer, Madeleine, for lunch. My train got in an hour before hers so I wandered around the shops, feeling nostalgic for the days when I met my mother there. Some of the places we used to go to don't exist anymore: the lovely Blakehead bookshop and cafe on Michelgate where we used to have lunch has gone, and so has Droopy and Brown's, where we chose my wedding dress. So I was especially pleased to see that a shop I've mentioned in an earlier blog, Burgin's Perfumery, established in 1880, is still going strong. It sells every perfume you can think of (and only perfume): that and the discounted lines must be the secret of its longevity.
      And also still there is the Minster Gate Book Shop, which was where I began to wonder if I was going to escape without adding to my book collection. They have a great collection of remaindered books in the basement and I was tempted by Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them, her novel set in a convent in the 14th century. I read a couple of pages and was gripped, but reminded myself that I could get it out of the London Library, and the same was true of the biography of Sydney Smith that beckoned to me. And then I spotted The Way We Write: Interviews with Award-winning Writers, edited by Barbara Baker, reduced from over £40 to £4.95, and that was my downfall. I love reading about writers and thinking 'oh, so you do that, too, do you?' or conversely, 'I couldn't possibly write like that.'
     And then after lunch I passed another second-hand bookshop and was drawn in. Nothing really spoke to me, but the place was so empty that I wanted to buy something out of solidarity. Luckily I spotted a World's Classic edition of Trollope's Framley Parsonage for £4. I'd noticed a few days ago that it was the only one of the Barchester novels that I hadn't got, so I snapped it up. Luckily at that point I realised that I would have to hurry for my train, so I was saved from further tempation.

More news about my own books: Invisible is now out as a paperback, for those who prefer to read the good, old-fashioned way. It's available here: or you could order it at your local book shop.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Cosy crime-writers?

It was a pleasure to find myself moderating a Crimefest panel featuring some of my favourite writers. From the left it is Christopher Fowler, me, Jill Paton Walsh, Helen Smith, and Martin Walker. The subject was 'The Contemporary Cosy: Is there Life Left in the Golden Age?' and I asked everyone if they considered themselves to be a 'cosy' writer and if there is even something a little perjorative about the label? I'm not altogether happy myself to be classified in that way. It makes me feel like a maiden aunt. I hope there is a bit more edge than that to my writing.
Martin Walker's novels feature Bruno the chief of police in a small town in the Perigord region of France and there is something hugely reassuring about the country setting, and the wonderful descriptions of food. But he's not afraid to tackle contemporary issues. His new novel, Children of War, for instance, opens with an undercover Muslim cop is found dead. 
Helen Smith's witty novels, peopled by eccentrics, are, she told us, written purely to  entertain - and they do. She avoids avoid sex, drugs and swearing altogether and in that respect is happy to be considered cosy.
Jill Paton Walsh is perhaps the closest of us all to the Golden Age as she was actually invited to finish a novel by Dorothy L. Sawyers, Thrones and Dominions, by Sawyer's son. Her most recent novel, The Late Scholar, takes Harriet Vane and Peter Whimsey up to the 1950s. She wants to provide readers with an escape from mundane reality, but the restoration of moral order is important, too. 
Christopher Fowler's marvellous Bryant and May series have an element of the macabre, but part of the charm of his novels lies in the way they draw on the traditions of the Golden Age. His suggestion that 'traditional mystery' might be a better term than cosy is a good one.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014


It's always a red letter today for a writer when a new novel comes out, so I am delighted that my new novel, Invisible, published by Accent Press, is now up on Amazon: At £1.82 it is a snip. The paperback will be available shortly.
The roots of this novel are in a trip that my husband and I took to Sweden in 2001, so it's been on my mind a long time. It's a stand- alone suspense novel written from several viewpoints.
When the novel opens Lisa is in the perfect relationship. Once a month she escapes from caring alone for her son, who has cerebral palsy, and meets Jay, just for the weekend, free from all responsibilities. It’s perfect - until the day when Jay doesn't show up, and everything she thought she knew about him turns out to be a lie.

 For Jay it was perfect, too. Five years ago he fled witness protection after his wife and son were murdered and began a new life.  But he shouldn't have let himself fall in love with Lisa, because now the villains are onto him and he must disappear again.
 Realising now how much she loves Jay, Lisa tries desperately to find him, but she is not the only one, and the more she goes on, the more dangerous it becomes...

There'll be a book launch. I'll keep you posted.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

Reading on the train

This, for me, is one of the great pleasures in life: a long train journey and a good book is a prospect to relish. It wasn't a very long journey from Sheffield to Bristol and it involved a tedious change at Birmingham, one of the most inconvenient and dreary stations I know. But I did have a good book - Asa Larsson's The Black Path - and it was a beautiful spring day, the may blossom was out, and I looked up at one point to see a deer in a field gazing at the train.
I was on my way to Crimefest and had only brought one book with me on the principle of bringing coals to Newcastle. Not only does Foyle's have a conference bookshop here, but we were given a bag of books when we registered, by Kathy Reichs, Simenon, and others. There is absolutely no chance of running out of things to read. I didn't bother to bring my e-reader this time. I am going to have rather a heavy case on the way home.
I was on panel yesterday talking about forgotten authors and mine were Emma Lathen and Harry Kemelman. Great fun. If you are interested in finding out who the others are, you can go to which has the whole programme up online. Today I moderated a session on 'The Contemporary Cosy: Is there still Life in the Golden Age.' I always feel a bit nervous beforehand, but the panel, Christopher Fowler, Martin Walker, Helen Smith, and Jill Paton Walsh were all great - and so was the audience. My bit is over now, and I can relax and enjoy meeting old friends and making new ones.
I do have some exciting publishing news, but it deserves a blog all of its own so I'm going to carry that over to another day. Suffice it say that I'll be raising a glass tonight.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Desert Island Crime Fiction

I'm off to Crimefest - see - on Thursday where I am moderating a panel on the Contemporary Cosy. This has set me thinking about my all-time favourite crime novels and I've drawn up a desert island selection of eight classic crime novels or collections of stories that I'd be very happy to read again. In the spirit of Desert Island Discs, that venerable radio programme, I have assumed that the complete works of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are already on the island. So here goes.

1. Frederic Brown, The Night of the Jabberwock. I have mentioned this fantastic novel (in very sense of the word) before. Superbly plotted, funny, and touching.
2. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman. I also very much like The Fire Engine that Disappeared, but this is perhaps the better novel.
3. Dorothy L Sawyers, The Nine Taylors. Need more be said?
4. G. K. Chesterton, The Complete Father Brown. Similarly.
5. George Simenon, Maigret's Christmas. Again hard to choose one among so many, so I'd go for this splendid collection of short stories.
6. Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes. Many times re-read and never fails to enthrall. I love the character of Miss Pym and the atmosphere of the teacher training college is so vividly evoked.
7. Rennie Airth, River of Darkness. This is a relatively recent novel (2004) which might not be a classic yet, but deserves to become one. Set in the 1920s the trauma of World War I casts its shadow over both killer and detective. Gripping, scary, and full of humanity.
8. Michael Gilbert. Always good value, so not easy to pick out one. Among the later works, I like The Final Throw, but in the end I'll plump for Smallbone Deceased, one of the earliest and a true classic.

It's been fun choosing. What would you choose (you needn't pick eight)?

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Friday, May 09, 2014

How many books are too many books?

I am tempted to say that you can't have too many books, but that is patently not true, unless you are the British Library, or the Library of Congress or some other copyright library. I don't know how many my husband and I have, but it must run into quite a few thousand. Every time I try to estimate it, my head begins to swim. Let's just say we have nine walls of books and that two of those are long walls, one in a corridor and one along the wall of an attic. We are both academics, and over the years have amassed collections of books on our subjects: architecture for my husband, art history and literature for me. I started off with an English degree and still have all my text books, including an Anglo-Saxon primer. That's before we get on to contemporary fiction of almost every kind, particularly crime novels.
      I know really that most of the academic books I own won't be opened again - I am not planning to write another book on the Arthurian legends - but it's hard to get rid of them. I feel about books what my mother felt about clothes. She grew up during rationing when new clothes weren't easy to come by and loved to trawl the charity shops for bargains. Books were the same for me: desirable commodities that had to be carefully budgeted for. I haven't got over their relative cheapness these days and go on snapping them up in charity shops and second-hand bookshops. Truth to tell, it goes against the grain to leave a bookshop without a book.
       Recently we've run out of shelf space again and my husband is talking about making some more. But I have been thinking that maybe it's not more shelves that we need, but fewer books: heretical thought!  Ebooks have helped a bit. Some of the books that would be otherwise on the shelves are stored on my ereader or in cyberspace. But if I really, really like something, I want a hard copy, so they still accumulate. Perhaps the answer is to institute a 'one in, one out' policy. Or maybe to chose one every day to go to the Oxfam shop or to give to a friend. My dear friend Carola used to be ruthless about this and have periodic culls. Maybe I should do the same.
     I'd love to know how other people manage.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Crime-writer Quentin Bates guests

I've been a fan of Quentin Bates's Icelandic mysteries since the first one, Frozen Out, came out in 2011. His latest, Cold Steal, was published on 1 May so this seemed an ideal time to interview him for the blog. I began by asking him to tell us a little bit about his new novel.
Without giving too much away, it involves some of Reykjavík's immigrant community and some of its criminals, both local and imported varieties. A businessman is murdered in the country cottage he keeps for getting to know his secretary better and as a murder is rare in Iceland, a full scale investigation starts, with Gunnhildur tasked with investigating the dead man's murky business affairs. With everyone busy on this enquiry, the hunt for a particularly skilled housebreaker who never leaves clues is shelved, although the burglar carries on with his activities and one night gets the shock of his life when he breaks into the wrong house. Of course it all links together before Gunnhildur gets to the bottom of it.
How do you carve out time to write? What's your writing routine?
This can be a problem, as a I have a day job that's also writing. It has taken a while to get used to it, but I've had to get used to working in shorter bursts of a couple of hours at a time instead of the longer stretches that I prefer but can't find much opportunity for. Half a day, or more, is great but doesn't happen often. I actually do most of my day job work in the shed and other stuff at the kitchen table. So moving from day job mode to fiction mode means unplugging the laptop and carrying it upstairs.
What comes first for you. a theme, plot, characters?
Characters, I think. With Cold Steal it was certainly the characters of the three immigrant women, the Reindeer Cleaners, who started the ball rolling. Then there was the solitary burglar who became quite a fascinating character to write, with a peculiar set of skewed values all of his own. Writing the criminals is becoming more interesting than the regular characters and I was at least a third of the way into writing Cold Steal before Gunnhildur even made an appearance.
Gunnhildur Gísladóttir is a beguiling heroine. How did she come into being and does she have a real-life counterpart?
That would be telling, I'm afraid. She is an amalgam of a whole group of people, with aspects of her from all over, plus a large dollop of imagination. To begin with in the first draft of the first book she was the sidekick of the original male protagonist. He didn't last long as I figured out that he was too many clichés rolled into one, while his sidekick was a far more interesting character, so he was rapidly retired and Gunnhildur was promoted to centre stage.
Her name comes partly from my late mother-in-law, Hildigunnur, who died many years ago and far too young. Although we had plenty of disagreements, I was very fond of her. So I switched around the two halves of her name for my rotund heroine and there's undoubtedly an element of the old lady in Gunnhildur's character.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
There are so many and they tend to change all the time, but the ones I keep coming back to are Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Simenon. Sjöwall & Wahlöö were the forerunners of Nordic crime fiction and in spite of all the excellent stuff that has followed, I don't feel they have ever been bettered. I have a liking for Simenon, and Maigret in particular, that goes back a very long way. His stories are straightforward, very character-based and they conjure up atmosphere beautifully in a few words, although the translations vary in quality. What's noticeable is that his stories work effortlessly, and without any gimmicks or twists.
     Other favourites are Dominique Manotti (why are there so few of her outstandingly excellent books in English?), Edward Wilson, Donald Westlake, Belinda Bauer and John le Carré. But there are many more, although normally if I'm scanning a shelf of books I'll go for something I've never heard of rather than something familiar and comfortable.
     A man after my own heart! Do you have a favourite bookshop?
That's a sore point these days. There used to be a couple of very decent bookshops near where I live in England, but online shopping killed them both off. Now I have to travel a few miles to get to the nearest Blackwells, run by the excellent @booksellerjo. So the bookshop I always head for is the one run by Bragi Kristjónsson on Hverfisgata in Reykjavík. It's called Bókin (the Book) but referred to by everyone as Bókabúð Braga (Bragi's Bookshop). It's a second-hand shop and a chaotic wonderland of the weird, the wonderful and the mundane all rolled into one, plus the old chap himself behind the counter taking snuff and telling stories, not that he's there as often as he used to be. Then there are the bookstalls in the Kolaport flea market that are always good for a browse for something obscure in English or Icelandic that's been out of print for decades.
There is more about Quentin and his books at his website: And we'll both be at Crimefest in Bristol from 15-18 May if you want to meet us there:

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Shakespeare Knew Everything

Yesterday in Cambridge I was missing a dear friend who died recently. I went into Heffer's Bookshop (best crime fiction stock of anywhere that I know) and my attention was caught by a book on one of the tables at the front: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. I'd heard it mentioned on Radio 4.  As I turned over the pages I came to Melvin Bragg's choice: Shakespeare, Sonnet 30 and these words sprang out at me: 'For precious friends hid in death's dateless night.'  They so perfectly captured how I felt. Was there anything that Shakespeare didn't know about the human heart? Here is the whole poem:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
   But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
   All losses are restor'd and sorrows end.

And you can go here to hear it read by Kenneth Branaugh: Sublime.

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