CrimeFest Day Two (Meeting Favourite People)

If the first day of the CrimeFest in Bristol was more about dipping the toes into the water, the second day was more about excesses! Not of drink, but of meeting favourite authors and bloggers.

Always favourites of mine – a few of the Orenda authors: Matt Wesolowski, Michael J. Malone, Johana Gustawsson and Louise Beech.

Although the conversations are often quite rushed in-between panels, I always enjoy chatting to knowledgeable and opinionated readers and bloggers such as Kat (aka Mrs P), Karen Meek (aka EuroCrime), Jacqui (aka RavenCrimeReads), Karen Cole (blogging at HairPastAFreckle), Ewa Sherman, Mary Picken, Emma Hamilton (blogging at BuriedUnderBooks), Louise Fairbairn. I can only recommend you seek them out and read their reviews. They know their stuff! Needless to say, I forgot to take pictures with most of them (slightly motivated by the fact that I hate appearing in pictures myself).

Ewa signing a book of poems by her mother which she has translated into English.
The beautiful Lady Hamilton in suitably bookish attire.
A selfie attempt with Cathy Ace.

But you are probably more interested in the panels.

I discovered three new authors in the Tension and Paranoia panel, where I had previously only been aware of Alison Bruce. She is the creator of the Cambridge-based series featuring the endearing Gary Goodhew (I want to be his Mum!), but was here to talk about a standalone psychological thriller entitled I Did It for Us. Every time I think I am over psychological thrillers, I hear authors talking so passionately and relatably about their books and their characters, about the fears that every woman has about stalkers or something bad happening to their children or experiencing gaslighting. I wanted to buy every one of them, but decided to do so on Kindle rather than having to schlep four bags to the railway station. They were: Claire Kendal with a story about a pregnant spy which will be out later this year, real-life Derry Girl Claire Allan’s Apple of My Eye featuring another pregnant main protagonist and Lucy Clarke’s story You Let Me In, which should cure you of any thoughts of renting out your property on Airbnb.

So refreshing to see all-women panels, moderated with gusto by US author CJ Daugherty.

The second panel I attended was on Partners and Sidekicks. Once again, it was about reconnecting with my beloved baby elephant (Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh and Inspector Chopra series), but also about discovering new authors. Lynn Britney writes about a team of both male and female detectives and scientists who investigate crimes in post-WW1 Britain. T.E. Kinsey tackles cosy historical crime fiction with amateur sleuth Lady Hardcastle and her ‘servant’ (actually, friend) Florence, set in Edwardian Britain. Vaseem Khan’s series of course is set in contemporary India and is actually more gritty than cosy, although the baby elephant adds a bit of whimsy to the series (and will have to grow up very, very slowly, as the author admitted, since a grown elephant is not as cute). Meanwhile, M.W. Craven is the creator the curmudgeonly police officer Washington Poe, whom no one else likes, and civilian analyst, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, who has three Ph.Ds but doesn’t know how to boil an egg.

As I told you, this was a day of excesses, so no rest for the wicked and I went straight into the third panel about Guilt. Moderated by an Irish writer, Anthony J. Quinn and featuring two further Irish writers (Olivia Kiernan and Jo Spain) plus a lapsed Catholic (Vanda Symon), you can imagine this panel focused quite heavily on feelings of guilt, on being suspicious of other people and on how they feel about writing in a genre that has been called a ‘guilty pleasure’. Sarah Hilary, also on this panel, was let loose on this topic and said: ‘Why are literary authors never asked if they feel guilty about writing yet another story about a white middle-class midlife crisis?’ Olivia Kiernan agreed that genre is nothing more than a label for booksellers or librarians to order things on a shelf, while Jo Spain said that crime is a study of human nature and all great writers address it (Wuthering Heights, for example). Vanda Symon went so far as to say that crime fiction makes us feel safe, because we read about awful things happening to other people, so crime authors are providing a public health service.

Another all-women panel, as it should be, since women dominate the crime fiction genre, both as readers and writers.

The next panel on Secrets that Haunt You had me almost in tears… of laughter. Louise Beech is an absolute wicked riot as a moderator (or, indeed, as a panelist) and she gave her fellow Orenda authors Thomas Enger and Johana Gustawsson a particularly hard time, claiming they worked as a member of the Norwegian Chippendales and as a Tokyo cage-fighter respectively. Also on the panel were: Fran Dorricot, whose debut thriller After the Eclipse about sibling love and guilt was a huge favourite with my Crime Fiction Lover colleagues; and Barnaby (aka BP) Walter, who looks no older than my son, but has in fact written a rather grim psychological thriller A Version of the Truth whose moral is: Don’t ever go looking for things on someone else’s device, you might not like what you find out!

The panelists were divided in terms of plotting. Johana finds plotting one of the most fun parts of writing, like doing a puzzle, but she doesn’t take it quite as far as Barnaby, who does a full cast list and a chapter by chapter outline, otherwise it would unnerve him to start writing. Fran doesn’t plot much, but knows what emotional ending she wants for her characters, and she knows her characters well. Meanwhile, Thomas says he is still struggling to find the perfect methodology, even though he is on his tenth book, because he doesn’t plot and therefore has to do so many rewrites, as many as 18, which takes up far too much time. There were also some emotional moments, when Thomas admitted that his wife is his first and harshest reader. She has a great eye but tears his work apart, so he can only show it to her every 2-3 months, otherwise he would get too depressed. Meanwhile, Johana sends her father a chapter every day and they discuss it on Facetime, it’s a real partnership and she is frightened to think of the day when she will no longer have that support.

I had an indulgent lunch break when I discovered the cake stall in St Nicholas’ Market. Heartily recommended if you ever visit Bristol! The polenta and fruit cake was a dream and I am somewhat of a connoisseur.

After lunch I had a moment of pure hero worship, as John Harvey was being interviewed to mark his 80th birthday. He is in many ways the kind of author I aspire to be: he likes jazz and theatre, he writes poetry and even ran a poetry press for a while (he published Simon Armitage, amongst others). Of course, it would help if I had his work ethic. Before he turned to crime fiction, John used to write Western novellas, publishing as many as 12 a year. I loved what he said about ‘Fiction is a job and pays the mortgage, while poetry is something that gets written in the cracks.’

His Charlie Resnick series is one of my all-time favourites, and it was satisfying to learn that my personal favourite Darkness Darkness is also the author’s favourite. I also had to get his latest book Body and Soul, although I haven’t read any of his Frank Elder series, because John said it was most definitely his last book. He wants to rest, relax, watch afternoon movies in-between Stairlift ads. He still gets plenty of ideas, but he won’t act on them – maybe someone else would like to buy some of his ideas?

The great John Harvey. Meeting him felt a little elegiac; it reminded me of seeing PD James at Quais du Polar. But I hope he gets many more years of movie-watching, walking and listening to jazz.

I was flagging a little by then but the last panel of the day, about Friends, Family and Convoluted Relationships (moderated by C. L. Taylor) cheered me right up. I know and love all four authors on this panel: the irrepressible Amanda Jennings, Antti Tuomainen of the wicked, wry humour, Mel McGrath (whose Edie Kiglatuk series set in Inuit territory I absolutely love) and Paul Burston, Polari Prize and Polari Salon founder. However, I did not know the story that inspired Paul’s latest novel: he was trolled and stalked online and off for a good few months. It kept escalating, until he had to take it to court. Writing the book The Closer I Get from the point of view of the stalker rather than the victim was quite cathartic, but it was understandably very difficult to find the right voice. Meanwhile, Amanda had no problems finding the voice of her teenage self in her book The Cliff House, which took her straight back to the 1980s.

I have remarked before how much I love Antti’s change of tone in his two most recent novels, but he also said that he now has more affection and empathy for his characters, even the villains. They are all rather inept at their jobs, and make even bigger mistakes when they try to compensate for a mistake, something he can identify with. He also claims that it’s harder to write humour than dark fiction, even though he believes that kind of outlook in life feels more natural to him as a person.

I did not attend the Gala Dinner, and my friends who were the judges refused to give me a quick heads-up, so I had to find out on Twitter… but I was delighted to hear that a Norwegian won the Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime novel. It was the dapper, very smiley Jørn Lier Horst, who looks so much like a former Norwegian classmate of mine from Year 6, that it’s quite disconcerting. Well done to the Petrona Award Committee for reading all the entries and selecting such a worthy winner! I was nearly right in my predictions!

The selection committee with the happy winner and a representative from the Norwegian embassy.

Henley Literary Festival: Amanda Jennings, Lisa Owens, Cesca Major

henleylitfestivalHenley Literary Festival is virtually on my doorstep, and it was the first literary event I attended, back in 2009. I met the dynamic and very accessible, friendly duo Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (better known as Nicci French) there, we discussed the Moomins and the Martin Beck series, and the rest is history. In other words, my passion for reading and writing was rekindled.

It has grown considerably since, in ways which are not always to my liking, although I do understand the motivation behind it. For instance, it relies heavily on sponsors, who are advertised EVERYWHERE. The eclectic mix of writers and TV celebrities has shifted perhaps a bit too much in favour of the latter. The timing of events has become a bit stricter, so there is less opportunity to chat with your favourite writers. But it is still an informal, friendly affair, with good ticket availability, and with many interesting panels introducing debut authors or authors I’ve not heard of previously.

Henley on Thames, from thamesriviera.com
Henley on Thames, from thamesriviera.com

So I missed it during the past 5 years that I was abroad and was keen to reconnect this year! I would normally choose to spend a whole day in the coquettish riverside town of Henley and attend a number of events, but I had work commitments and came down with flu this week. So the only event I did manage to attend was Book Club Friday at the Town Hall, where Cesca Major interviewed two writers I knew: Amanda Jennings and Lisa Owen. The three women were witty, charming, intelligent and very candid about their writing quirks and paths to publication.

[Sadly, I forgot my mobile phone and camera at home, so was unable to take any pictures, so I am relying on official author photos.]

Lisa Owens, author photo from Picador.
Lisa Owens, author photo from Picador.

Lisa Owens, author of the millenials’ manual for procrastination and disorientation called Not Working , did not expect to write the novel she did. She had left her job in publishing to do a Creative Writing MA and used odd fragments which she had scribbled down as the basis of her dissertation. She realised that there was a clear voice emerging from these fragments and was planning to turn it into a more conventional type of narrative, but, luckily for us, it’s those pithy observations and vulnerability mixed with cynicism which raise this book above any Bridget Jones comparison.

Amanda Jennings, courtesy of Shotsmag magazine.
Amanda Jennings, courtesy of Shotsmag magazine.

Amanda Jennings, meanwhile, admitted that In Her Wake, which is her most successful novel to date, was the one which initially caused her the most heartbreak. It was the second novel that she wrote and she dedicated so much time and effort to it, felt that she had neglected her family to give it her all, that she was devastated when it just didn’t sell. Her agent advised her to embark upon another novel (which did sell, The Judas Scar), and it was only a few years later (after 11-12 rewrites) that she finally found a home for it with Orenda Books.

Meanwhile, Cesca Major enjoyed writing romcoms but decided to put her knowledge of history and love of research to use to write a more serious and dramatic story set in war-time France The Silent Hours. Now she alternates between the two, as it provides her with much-needed light relief.

Cesca Major, from her author website cescamajor.com
Cesca Major, from her author website cescamajor.com

Other topics these authors addressed (often to much laughter from the audience) were: reactions to bad reviews, treating writing as a 9-5 job, leaving notes to self in CAPITAL LETTERS in the first draft and how you think you will write one type of book (Irish rural drama in Lisa Owen’s case, romance or bonkbusters in Amanda Jenning’s case) but you end up writing something very different, more in keeping with your voice. They also revealed what they read during the writing process. Lisa is the only one who doesn’t mind reading writers achieving the effects she is after, and reads a few pages of Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis for inspiration. Cesca and Amanda understandably say they try to avoid those writing works that are too similar to their own, as it can discourage you as a writer (‘They’ve already said it so much better than me’). So they comfort read: recipes books for Amanda, Enid Blyton and Jilly Cooper for Cesca.

The Friday Book Club format works very well: it felt at times like we were eavesdropping on a conversation amongst writerly friends. And it certainly made me eager to read Cesca’s works now as well. Wishing all three writers every success in the future and many more such events!

 

Two Recent Orenda Book Titles

It’s hard not to have favourites among publishers, although I primarily choose books and authors rather than from publishers’ catalogues. However, Virago (for women writers), Tuttle (for Japanese writers), Faber & Faber and Penguin Classics were my childhood favourites, and in recent years I have been impressed by Europa Editions, Gallic Books, Peirene Press, World Editions and Istros Books for their commitment to fiction in translation. One publisher who is unabashedly dedicated to genre fiction, especially thrillers and crime fiction, is Orenda Books and I have mentioned before how much I admire founder Karen Sullivan’s drive and energy in finding and promoting writers in the UK and abroad.

What is interesting about Orenda is that their list is made up of books which personally appeal to Karen, so they feature quite a mix of styles and subjects. Not all of them have sparked my interest, but the ones that have been in my ‘preferred genre’ have all been great picks, a surefire combination of commercial appeal and good writing. I will just mention here Nordic noir such as Ragnar Jonasson and Kati Hiekkapelto.

The two most recent titles I’ve read have been somewhat different, something which I would hesitate to label ‘psychological thrillers’, although they have their fair share of thrills and twists. They are stories which rip your heart and make you think long and hard.

jihadiYusuf Toropov: Jihadi – A Love Story

This is not the easiest of books to read, partly because of its themes (terrorism, random savagery, betrayal, misguided ideology – all uncomfortably close to real life and what I perceive the whole ‘war on terror’ to be), but above all because of its structure. The ‘document’ is largely written by a dead man, Thelonious Liddell, an intelligence officer accused of being a traitor, and is interspersed with comments very much like Post-It notes by a psychologist, who we gradually realise is in fact his wife Becky, herself an intelligence officer.  But it’s worth persevering with, because it  is unquestionably an important book for our times, a read that plunges you into the icy water of the costs and failures of ‘the war on terror’.

Thelonius’ memoir contains passages recounting significant moments from the point of view of two other characters whom he meets in the course of his assignment: Fatima, the devout interpreter, and the American soldier Mike Mazzoni, a nasty bully. Points of view, of course, which he is guessing at, which he cannot possibly know, but which sound very plausible (although the psychologist’s comments make fun of them). They really add to the story, but it does mean that you need to concentrate and read carefully. There are so many complex layers and allusions, that you probably need to read the book two or three times to get all the nuances.

And a word of warning for those of you who cannot bear cruelty to animals: in addition to descriptions of flechette attacks on civilian population, and some graphic scenes of torture, maiming and killing (on both sides of the divide), there is also a sad moment when Thelonious has to watch his cat Child die.

inherwakeAmanda Jennings: In Her Wake

I read this in one breathless go, just couldn’t stop, the story is such that it takes you along on a voyage full of suspense, sadness, poignancy, drama. It is the story of a family – two families in fact, and the secrets and pressures which nearly tear them apart. When Bella’s mother dies, her father seems quite broken, about to share something with her but then changing his mind. A series of shocking discoveries makes Bella realise that everything she thought she knew about her life was wrong.

Her search for the truth takes her to Cornwall and another deeply damaged family. But reading the book as quickly as I did does not do it justice, because the writing is very subtle and perfectly judged. Throughout, the settings are conveyed with a great sense of atmosphere – not just Cornwall, but the Old Vicarage, the Bristol bolthole. The characters are complex and vividly described, behaving consistently but also in surprising ways – much like in real life.  Some scenes very nearly made me cry, both by what was said and what was left unsaid. 

There is also a dream-like, almost supernatural strand to the story – as enticing and mysterious as the sirens singing to Ulysses. A book which can be read on many levels: a romping good tale of unanswered questions and suspense, but also a poetic, thoughtful piece on the intricacies of human relationships, loss, regrets, identity and lost dreams.