I’m not blogging as frequently as I used to, and I even forget to thank people for sharing my blog posts on social media. This is because I’ve been busy with so many things, but at some point I hope things will quieten down again.
In the meantime, I went to Bristol on Saturday for a flying visit, to see our Icelandic author Jónína Leósdóttir at Bristol CrimeFest. She was on a panel that might just win the prize for the most uncompromising title ‘Kicking Against the Pricks’ and her fellow panelists were just as fascinating as her: Emma Styles from Australia I already knew from Bloody Scotland and loved her book No Country for Girls. Antony Dunford’s Hunted addresses the subject of hunting and wildlife poaching in Africa, a subject I feel very strongly about. And the revelation to me was David Heska Wanbli Weiden from the Sicangu Lakota Nation, whose debut novel Winter Counts had sold out (so I couldn’t get it signed), but I ordered it as soon as I got home.
An author I did not manage to meet in Bristol but could not resist buying a few of her books was Ovidia Yu. As if she knew that I was reading the Far East this month, there is an entire crime series set in her native Singapore. She has a cosy crime foodie series featuring Aunty Lee, but it was the historical series with determined young woman and aspiring journalist Su Lin that captivated me. The series starts in 1936 in a Singapore that was a British Crown Colony and covers the very murky and shameful period when Britain was unable to defend Singapore, but I couldn’t resist reading The Mushroom Tree Mystery first, since it takes place in 1945 just as the war is ending, when Singapore was under Japanese occupation and in very real danger of being utterly destroyed in an attempt to gain more favourable terms for surrender.
You know how much I enjoy crime fiction set in different locations, especially ones I am not very familiar with, and how I love to learn more about the past or the present society while also being entertained. This series fits the bill perfectly and I look forward to reading more. Su Lin is an engaging heroine: very smart, ambitious, able to hold her own despite her youth. Dismissed by most people (and even her own family) as ‘the Chinese girl with a limp’, she is in fact well-educated and multilingual. In this book she is part of a Japanese household that is sheltering a prestigious blind Japanese scientist, who was supposed to build a bomb similar to the atomic one. When the professor’s assistant is found dead, Su Lin herself comes under suspicion as the only foreigner in the household, but there are far deeper secrets going on, not least major disagreements about whether to end the war or not.
Enigmatic characters, an international cast, a vivid backdrop and a good mystery (even if I rather guessed the outcome). Above all, I loved the observations and wry asides of the narrator, Su Lin:
One good thing about the Occupation: there were so many real threats that we stopped imagining what could go wrong. There just wasn’t enough energy to go on worrying about everything. Instead, unless there was actually a gun pointed at you, you got on with your life. And if there was a gun pointed at you? Then either you got shot and died – or you got on with your life.
The Japanese were less aggressive towards Eurasian and Indian locals then they were to Chinese and Malays. It was part of their trying to sow dissent between the different races in Singapore. The Japanese didn’t understand that most or all of use were descended from people who’d left their old ancestral lands to make new lives for themselves. Being a Singaporean wasn’t about having a certain skin colour or religion. It was about whether you were willing to survive, and for your family and the island to survive.
It’s human instinct to want to fit in. If you can’t fit in with the majority, you try to persuade others (but mostly yourself) that you are superior to them. If you try hard enough, you may actually become superior. But you will find you still don’t fit in. The British looked different enough to feel superior just from the colour of their sunburned skin. The Japanese looked more like us so had to work harder to put us down.
There was something of a precocious child and endearing about Su Lin (although she is in her early 20s in this book), which reminded me of Flavia de Luce. I liked her experimentations with growing mushrooms, and the way she mothers the two young houseboys, her curiosity, stubbornness and courage. She is cautious at times and at other times quite impetuous. I certainly look forward to reading more about this place, this period in history and this heroine.
The final day was supposedly a short one, since it finished at 1 o’clock, allowing us plenty of time to catch our trains or even have a nice lunch (yes, it’s all about the food with me!). However, it was packed full of goodies.
The first panel was on the Domestic Noir, and I am not the only reader who has grown somewhat weary of this label and also of the steady output of psychological thrillers conforming to this type, which can end up all sounding very samey. Luckily the authors on the panel not only didn’t conform to the stereotype, but they were also expertly moderated by the hilarious Michael J Malone, who knows how to ask those audacious questions to which you really want to hear the answer! Plus, no one can say ‘Murrderrr’ in a more Taggart like fashion.
Elizabeth Mundy’s amateur detective is a cleaner, because cleaners know so much about the most intimate household details. She is also Hungarian, because it allowed the author to use some of her grandmother’s stories, swear words and cooking recipes. Vanessa Savage’s latest book The Woman in the Dark nearly veers into horror territory as a couple move into a very creepy Victorian seaside home (the original title of the book was going to be The Murder House, but then James Patterson published a book with that title, how inconsiderate!). Will Carver mined his own experience of marriage breakdown to write his disturbing story of a dysfunctional couple and the consequences of their deadly boredom. Louise Beech also used her personal childhood experience of feeling abandoned by her mother to create the central character in Call Me Star Girl.
I liked the conclusion of the panel that if you are going to base any of your characters on real-life people, put in their very worst traits, because they will be reluctant to recognise themselves in that (or may not be self-aware enough to do so).
The second session I was unable to take notes, as I was torn between two panels and tried to attend each of them for 20 minutes or so. The first was entitled Down with Patriarchy and featured Anne Coates, Alison Joseph, Christi Daugherty and Jane Shemilt. The second was a bit more free-for-all, entitled Close to the Edge: How Far Would You Push Your Characters?. It featured the near-legend Gunnar Staalesen, Kate Rhodes (one of my personal favourites), Caroline England (whom I admit I’ve never read) and a newcomer to me, working police officer and writer Charlie Gallagher.
The last session of the day I did take notes: it was about crime science vs. crime fiction. It featured Vaseem Khan, who is untroubled by the veracity of the fact that his baby elephant never seems to cause trouble by pooing when his detective is conducting interviews (but is otherwise a bit of a forensic expert, as he works at the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science); Dr Georgina Meakin, who is a colleague of Vaseem’s and researches the transfer of trace DNA; Abi Silver, a lawyer turned legal thriller writer; and Robert Thorogood, creator of the anything but realistic Death in Paradise TV series, moderated by Barry Forshaw, who does not shy away from difficult questions.
It was a bit of an eye-opening session, although the panelists started from a well established fact, that you don’t want to let too much accuracy get in the way of a good story. After all, a scientist setting up endless samples and having 6 month’s backlog of evidence to analyse, or a solicitor compiling reams of paperwork do not make for riveting reading (or viewing). At the same time, the scientists were slightly annoyed by the misunderstandings about their profession perpetuated by shows such as CSI. For example, juries nowadays place far too much importance on DNA evidence and expect it to prove things beyond any reasonable doubt, when the truth is far more messy and open to interpretation. I also found out that Death in Paradise was conceived as a deliberate antidote to the scientific sterility of CSI and that you shouldn’t expect to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth in court, because in fact you will only get the version of the truth presented by the storytelling lawyer. Robert Thorogood demonstrated just how hard it is to squeeze a whole story and investigation into just 54 minutes, which is why he moved all the science bits to be analysed off the island. Last but not least, the predicted boom of cyber-crime and the sophistication it has already reached was frightening to both Vaseem Khan and the audience.
How does it compare?
I haven’t been to a huge amount of crime or even more generic literary festivals, but I have been to a few in France and Switzerland, and I’ve been to Henley, Hay, Newcastle Noir and now CrimeFest here. So what are the similarities and differences between countries and types of festival?
Generic literary festivals of course appeal to a broader audience, but the crime fiction readers are a passionate and knowledgeable lot, always willing to recommend or try new authors and titles. So it feels much more like a tribe, particularly when it’s more concentrated on a particular type of crime fiction, such as Newcastle Noir. (But not too narrow, like Iceland Noir, which is mostly Scandi). Besides, crime writers are very funny and nice people – I think they let all of their darker side out in their writing, so they are really quite pleasant to be around.
Of course Quais du Polar has the beautiful backdrop of Lyon, but Bristol and Newcastle proved quite fun cities as well. However, the festival does not take over the city like it did in France, and there aren’t many additional activities beyond the confines of the venue (although Newcastle Noir did include a guided tour of the town, a bit like the mystery trail organised in Lyon). There aren’t any family-friendly activities either – probably because, unlike in France, the local council cannot afford to become involved. There were more opportunities here to mix informally with the authors beyond the signing tables, which was rather lovely. The panels in France (and Switzerland) tend to be much more serious, with quite a high-level (occasionally pretentious) discussion of themes, social influences, politics and so on. Here in the UK the aim of the panels is to entertain – if you are a natural performer, if you come across as charismatic, at the end of the panel the attendees will make a rush on your books. I felt that I was asked to confront my own prejudices or assumptions far more in Lyon – the writers made me think deeply (perhaps because the moderators were usually journalists and literary reviewers, who’d had time to prepare extensively).
However, I really enjoyed going to both UK crime festivals, probably more than the general literary festivals, and will write about Newcastle Noir soon. I’d sent a report about it to another website the very next day, but they still haven’t published it, so I may have to publish it myself on my blog. Depending on my finances (they are expensive to attend, plus I left Bristol with 11 books, and would probably have got more except that my luggage had severe limitations), maybe Harrogate or Bloody Scotland next year?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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!
I can heartily recommend cavorting at crime festivals when you have got all sorts of worries at home – it really does take your mind of things, and you get to meet some wonderful people. I was at Newcastle Noir the previous weekend and just returned from Bristol’s Crimefest last night, my only two crime festival outings this year (it is an expensive business). Both very good, though very different!
I managed to take a day off work to be at CrimeFest from Friday until Sunday (it runs Thursday to Sunday, so I did miss some good panels on the first day). Although I didn’t stay at the Conference hotel, my Premier Inn was only a short walk away over the bridge and I had a wonderfully spacious room with a chaiselongue on which I could drape myself artistically to read all the many, many books I acquired.
Not that there was much time for reading. CrimeFest is much bigger than Newcastle Noir, so runs parallel sessions all day. Which means that there were, inevitably, clashes of panels I wanted to attend. The crime fiction represented in Bristol is also much broader – not just noir, but also cosies, historical crime fiction, true crime – a little bit of everything. This means that some of the panels didn’t feel that organically put together, with one or the other of the authors (usually my favourite one of the panel) sticking out like a – not a sore thumb, but a seriously glamorous and sparky thumb!
For example, the first panel I attended was the Humour in Crime Fiction panel, featuring Mike Ripley, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Bernadette Strachan from the MB Vincent writing duo and Helen FitzGerald. While the first three write cosyish or satirical crime fiction, the subjects that Helen writes about are incredibly dark; the humour is very black indeed and stems mainly from the characters trying to lighten up a desperate situation. Some general points were made about reality becoming so crazy nowadays that it’s becoming hard to satirise things any longer, which is probably true, but Helen’s work proves almost the opposite: that you can be compassionate, funny and yet still say something profound about the society we live in. I also rather took exception to the assertion of some panel members that humour doesn’t translate well, which sounded to me more like a complaint that their own books haven’t necessarily achieved high overseas sales. I can think of many exceptions to that: Antti Tuomainen, Andrea Camilleri, the Auntie Poldi series and Jakob Arjouni. Fred Vargas’ team has really quite hilarious eccentricities, although the books themselves are not funny. Dare I suggest that maybe the esteemed panel simply does not read enough in translation?
With my love for international settings, the next panel on Worldwide Police Procedurals was just my cup of tea, especially since it was moderated with grace and wit by Vanda Symon, a fantastic crime writer from New Zealand. The best panels for me are the ones where I am familiar and supportive of half of the panel (in this case, Quentin Bates and GD Abson) but also discover two new writers (in this case, Stuart Field and VM Giambanco). Quentin sets his books in Iceland, where he lived for a long time and went completely native. Garry Abson has not lived in St Petersburg but has a policeman friend there, and studied Russian politics at university. His books plug a much-needed gap in terms of international crime fiction, namely contemporary Russia under Putin. Stuart Field is the pseudonym of a former soldier turned writer and he drops his British detective into a New York City setting in his John Steel action thriller series. Last but not least, Valentina Giambanco is Italian but has lived in London for many years. Her setting is Seattle and the wilderness of Washington state, although she initially tried to set her book in London and Scotland.
The authors all had three things in common: strong female protagonists, being Brits writing about foreign locations and a feeling of freedom when setting their stories elsewhere. While they make every effort to do their research and get the details correct, they said that if they were writing a UK police procedural, they would feel too limited by the actual facts, while this way they can let their imaginations run riot a bit more and write a sort of ‘unprocedural’. I asked them if they ever had a hankering for another location – and sure enough, some of them have already embarked upon books set in a different place. Stuart has set his latest novel in Malta, while Valentina is currently writing a standalone set on her very own doorstep in London. Garry admitted he was attracted to dark places and alternative universes scenarios, for example a fascist Britain full of Tommy Robinson types (perhaps too uncomfortably close to possible futures for some). Meanwhile, Quentin is attracted by the possibilities of doing research in a place with a warmer climate and better food than Iceland: e.g. Morocco.
This perhaps leads me to the question why we prefer to hear from British writers setting their stories abroad rather than from those countries themselves (not the case with the countries represented on this panel, but fitting it well with what I heard elsewhere this weekend)? Readers seem avid for new, exotic locations, so why are publishers encouraging writers to set yet another cosy crime novel in the Cotswolds as opposed to even Wales? I suppose they want to find a successful formula and then stick to it, but as a reader I find it very boring.
Speaking of Wales, I really wanted to go to the Crime Cymru panel, not only because I love Wales, but also to support Cathy Ace, whom I’ve reviewed from her very first novel. Unfortunately, it clashed with the Historical Fiction panel.
Although I don’t read much historical fiction, I really wanted to support Estonian author Indrek Hargla, whose medieval apothecary series I mentioned a few posts ago – and whom I’d previously met in Lyon. He writes across multiple genres, and if you can read French, the entire series has been translated into French. It appears there are more good Estonian-French translators than there are Estonian-English ones, as well as more French publishers interested in trying something from that part of the world. The other panellists were all new to me but sounded quite interesting. David Penny writes a series set at the end of the 15th century, the chaotic period when Moorish Spain is disappearing and Spain becomes a great naval power instead. L.C. Tyler’s novels are set in the late 17th century, that very disreputable era when they finally got Cromwell out of the way. John Lawton sticks to the 20th century, from the laste 1930s to the late 1960s, because he hated the post-hippy world. Great quote: ‘I was looking the other way when the 1970s happened’.
The final panel I attended on the first day was Sunshine Noir – again, this clashed with the Scandi is Dandy panel that I also wanted to attend (and where I missed the best-dressed Norwegian and Finnish authors convention, see below). I think the authors on the Sunshine Noir panel felt a little competitive about it, since they kept mentioning the Scandis, but to my mind, there is no need to set the two against each other, as they are both equally interesting and readable.
However, some of the comparisons made were interesting. Scandinavia is culturally closer to the UK, and there is something inherently cuddly about that sensation of being wrapped up warm and safe and reading about a relentless cold and dangerous climate out there. Meanwhile, the hotter settings offer noise, chaos, insects, heat and sweat, which makes people more irritable. Additionally, these countries do not operate by rules we generally believe in and value in the Western world. Things don’t work out in Africa in the way you want them to, nothing adheres to the organised template that you expect. You have to let go of your expectations and embrace life as it is there, with the good and the bad.
Moderated by Stanley Trollip of Michael Stanley fame, the panel featured Jeffrey Siger’s Mykonos, Paul Hardisty’s Africa (and other dangerous places), Barbara Nadel’s Turkey and Robert Wilson (who has series set in Spain and London as well, but in this case was here for his series set in Benin). Although each of the authors were dismayed by the corruption and political turmoil they saw in their ‘host’ countries, they all displayed a deep affection for the land and its people. They all agreed that the higher up you go, the less nice people become, but the everyday people you meet are wonderful and welcoming, despite their sometimes horrific personal circumstances.
The longlist for the CWA Daggers were announced that evening and added yet more to my TBR pile, but I managed to escape with only four book purchases on my first day: the Sunshine Noir anthology; Inccoruptible, the latest Inspector Ikmen by Barbara Nadel, although a new one is coming out in 2019; Indrek Hargla’s second book in the series (I have the first one in French); and a new author to try out, V.B.Giambanco’s first in the series The Gift of Darkness.
Buckle up, though, because the second day got even busier (and more expensive)! So much so, that I will dedicate a second post to it.
In sharp contrast to the previous weekend, which was dedicated to plumbing, mopping, fridge replacement and the like, this weekend was spent in the luscious surroundings of Trinity College Bristol at the second annual Flash Fiction Festival in the UK. This is an event created by the energetic and benevolent Jude Higgins, who is a writing tutor for flash fiction at Bath Spa University and co-runs the Bath Short Story and Flash Fiction Awards.
I took lots of pictures, but they seem to have disappeared on the way from my mobile phone to my One Drive, so you will have to make do with the small amount below and believe me when I say it was the most peaceful environment high on Stoke Hill in an old manor house (now a training seminary for the Church of England) which appeared in a Turner watercolour at some point.
The Flash Fiction community is a tight-knit one, and everyone seemed to know each other, but were also very welcoming to newbies like myself. I volunteered to help out during the festival, so had the privilege of setting out sumptuous lunches such as these.
The workshops were on a variety of topics, reflecting the rich diversity of the form itself. Almost anything goes with flash fiction: from novella-in-flash, to historical flash, to science-fiction and humorous. In contrast to other literary events I’ve attended, I noticed that flash fictioneers always have a very quick comeback, a witty turn of phrase. I struggled to keep up: I was barely warming up in the writing exercises and they would come up with a piece that sounded very polished. Perhaps it’s like sprinting vs. long distance running. Here, it was all about the twist and the word play – perhaps because they have to condense such a lot, that every word counts. It’s also a way of observing the world: minute details yet very elliptical, leaving a lot out. I also noticed a lot of second person being used in the flashes, which probably would have become wearisome in a longer piece.
Although I found it difficult to produce something immediately based on workshop prompts, they did plant some seeds which I am going to grow and experiment with. The satisfying thing with flash fiction is that it doesn’t take up too much of your time, so you feel free to experiment more than you might with a novel. The workshops I attended were Dreams into Fiction with Jude Higgins (which led to a triptych of flashes about the Ice Queen going to the basement), a comparison between prose poetry and flash fiction with the enthusiastic and funny Carrie Etter and Michael Loveday (which felt a lot more comfortable and familiar to me as a poet), Vanessa Gebbie on the Weird and Wonderful, Writing Funny Fiction with Meg Pokrass and Jude Higgins was hilarious (although it did make me feel slightly inadequate), a visualisation workshop with Karen Jones (which opened me up to some very unexpected ideas and feelings, but also might lead to 1-2 pieces of flash fiction, Extraordinary Points of View with American poets and professors of creative writing John Brantingham and Grant Hier. I ended up with quite a few books, as you might expect, and wished I could have attended more of the parallel sessions, although my brain would not have thanked me for it!
There were also plenty of readings, book launches, and an opportunity to connect with publishers and magazines that were previously only half-known to me, such as V Press, Ellipsis, Molotov Cocktail and the National Flash Fiction Day anthologies.
Although there were lots of breaks in-between sessions, allowing us time to talk, have coffee and cake, wander around the grounds and generally recharge our batteries, I have to admit I felt exhausted by the end of the weekend. And I don’t think it was just because of all the running around that you have to do as a volunteer, but because of the density of information and ideas that you are taking in all the time. However, it was fascinating to connect with people who were so generous with their time and explained patiently the ‘rules’ of flash fiction to me. I am certainly planning to try it out more in the future. And possibly attend again next year!
I’ve fallen far behind with my book reviews, so I will try to remedy that with a quick-fire post containing no less than four reviews of crime novels written by women and set in a variety of locations.
Rodica Ojog-Braşoveanu: Omul de la capătul firului (The Man at the End of the Line)
The ‘grande dame’ of Romanian crime fiction has been compared to Agatha Christie, but in this book at least she shows more similarities to Dorothy Sayers. It features an infuriating, yet charismatic and larger than life main investigator called (appropriately enough) Minerva, who cannot hide her elitism and know-it-all sentiment (she used to be a high-school teacher) this is great fun, though a bit elitist. It was written in the 1970s, so we not only have calls from phone-booths but also Communist censorship in Romania. So, with a topic of espionage and counterespionage, you might expect it to be breast-thumpingly ‘patriotic’ and ideological, but it is quite nuanced and interesting. Not at all what I expected.
Linda Huber: The Attic Room
Nina’s mother has just died and their content little three-generation-of-women household on the isle of Arran (including Nina’s daughter Naomi) has been disrupted. Then Nina finds out she has received an inheritance just outside London from a man she doesn’t know. Could this really be her long-lost father, as the solicitor seems to believe? But then, why did her mother claim that he died when she was a young child? As Nina gets sucked into her family’s history and dark secrets, the creepy house she has inherited starts to play a big part in her feelings of discomfort and fear.
There is a good story hiding in there somewhere, but I found the plot somewhat predictable and the style a bit long-winded. However, the characterisations are generally strong. I enjoyed the burgeoning relationship between Nina and her solicitor, and her concerns about her daughter.
Gilly Macmillan: Burnt Paper Sky
Another child in danger, another domestic thriller set-up, but what made this one stand out from the morass of frankly quite average recent surfeit of offerings in this area was the focus on ‘judgement by the press and social media’. Rachel is a single mother, still struggling to come to terms with abandonment and divorce, and she pays dearly for one brief moment of allowing her eight-year-old son to run ahead to the rope-swing in the woods just outside Bristol. She does not live up to the media’s expectations of what a distraught mother should look like or behave, and she is demonised and hounded by strangers and acquaintances alike. Helen Fitzgerald in ‘The Cry’ also touches on this topic, but here it becomes the main focus of the book. We also see the point of view of the investigating team, and how they too struggle to believe the mother.
Strong descriptions, sensitive use of language and great interactions between the characters make this a very promising debut novel for me. Heart-wrenching for any mother, I can promise you, so I had to read it very quickly to find out the worst (or not).
Fran Pickering: The Cherry Blossom Murder
The cherry blossom is rather tangential to this story, but the Japanese setting is not, so it was a real pleasure to read it in Japan. It’s the first in a series featuring amateur detective Josie Clark, an Englishwoman trying to survive in the Japanese corporate world in Tokyo. She speaks Japanese and has friends, and she is a fan of the Takarazuka Revue (an all-woman cabaret show with a huge following in Japan). When one of the helpers at the fan club meetings is found dead just outside the theatre, everyone wants to keep a safe distance and let the police investigate. Yet Josie can’t help feeling that the police are just going through the motions, so she uses her Western rebellion and curiosity to dig a little deeper herself. With the help of her wise, if scruffy-looking mentor Tanaka-san, she unravels the mystery in this entertaining ‘cosy in an exotic location’. Perfect for armchair travellers, and reminiscent of Jonelle Patrick’s ‘Only in Tokyo’ series.
So there you have it: travelled to Romania, Scotland, Bedfordshire, Bristol and Japan lately, how about you? Coming up: a physical trip to Quebec, so I can feel another bout of Louise Penny coming on… I’ve been trying to find some Quebecois writers in French at the library here, but no luck so far. Nelly Arcan, Marie-Claire Blais, Elise Turcotte, Gabrielle Roy – there are lots of wonderfully subversive women writers from that province.