From now on, I will ignore both annoying politicians and ex-husbands, and focus only on books. I still have a few books to review, but I’m also starting my annual round-up. Perhaps I’ll even get around to a decade’s round-up.
I’ve found a very clever way around the limitations of the ‘Top Ten Books of the Year’ list. I will compile my choices by categories. In this first instalment, I’m featuring my favourite crime fiction books and the 2019 releases (never mind that these two lists might overlap, I will ignore that).
Second instalment will contain Non-Fiction and Classics, while the final one will be about new discoveries or new books by authors I already admire. And, since I’m an optimist about still finding memorable books in the 20 days still left of 2019, I will leave the last instalment open for late additions and only publish it on the very last day of the year.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – if I say social critique and suicide cults, it will sound incredibly depressing, but this is a very unusual and highly readable mystery
Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia – action-packed noir with a philosophical slant and surreal, even slapstick humour, this is a story about losing your faith and what it might take to regain it
Doug Johnstone: Breakers – heartbreaking, yet avoids sentimentality, this story of brotherly love and deprived childhoods
Helen Fitzgerald: Worst Case Scenario – at once a condemnation of the stretched resources within our probation services, as well as a menopausal woman’s roar of rebellion
G.D. Abson: Motherland – a fresh and timely setting for this first book in a crime series set in Putin’s Russia
Bogdan Teodorescu: Baieti aproape buni – sharp, scathing critique of political corruption and media cover-up
I notice that all of the below are rather dark, although they also ooze humour (maybe that’s just me and my love of black comedy)
Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall – misplaced nostalgia for a more heroic past and a domestic tyrant you will love to hate
Nicola Barker: I Am Sovereign – an ill-fated house viewing, where everyone seems to shed their multiple masks and either reveal or question their identity
Robert Menasse: The Capital – the almost surreal absurdity of a pan-European organisation and the people within it, a satirical yet also compassionate portrait of contemporary Europe and Brussels
You’ll have seen from previous posts that I think Karen Sullivan is a pretty special person and that she has created a wonderful family of authors, readers and reviewers with Orenda Books. So I was keen to take part in the #Orentober celebrations, although without the deadlines and hoopla of participating in a blog tour.
I read the most recent books by two of my favourite Orenda authors (which is a bit unfair to all the others, who are each brilliant in their own way, but I suppose these two most correspond to my very noir taste in crime fiction).
Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia
Put simply, Tuomainen is one of the most versatile and interesting crime fiction writers currently at work. He can do dark and melancholy exceptionally well, but he is also one of the funniest authors out there. I really admire the way he blends the absurd or ridiculous with the violence, despair and sadness and would love to be able to replicate in my own work.
The plotline sounds like something taken out of a Russian novel deliberately designed to be fantastical or surreal in order to escape censorship. A suicidal racing driver is determined to wreck himself and his car on the snowy, deserted roads of Northern Finland. But then a meteorite crashes into his lap (practically). This rare and valuable artefact is carted off to the local museum, where it is guarded against potential thiefs for a few days, before it can be sent to London to be examined in a laboratory. One of the volunteer guards is Joel, a priest who is about to lose his faith – both in God and in his wife, who announces she is pregnant, although he knows for a fact that he is sterile.
Soon, everyone in the little town of Hurmevaara seems to be chasing the meteorite and what it represents: an easy way to get rich quickly and escape all of their problems. Joel himself is not immune to temptation, although he fends off the repeated attempts at burglary. He also suspects that among the would-be burglars there might lurk the father of his wife’s baby.
This has all the frenezy and farcical set-ups of a Mozart opera, all the cases of mistaken identity, dissimulation, not being able to trust anyone… Just like in Mozart, the often absurd situations are rescued by wonderful music (in this case, writing), which singes your heart while avoiding bathos. And you will see why I compare it particularly with ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, as (I hope I am not revealing too much) both have a beautiful scene of forgiveness.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today
Will Carver is a more recent discovery – I read his toe-curling, mind-bending Good Samaritans only back in May this year (by the way, I mean those adjectives in the best possible way). This new book is just as good at making the reader feel uncomfortable; it will throw up all sorts of questions about how we live our lives today. It’s eerie, unsettling and, in a very good way, political.
Nine strangers meet up on Chelsea Bridge one evening, with a coil of rope in their bags, which they calmly tie around their necks and then leap off to their deaths, all at the same time. It turns out that they are all unwitting members of a mysterious suicide cult called The People of Choice. Soon, the movement is attracting likes on social media and imitators all around the globe. How can you stop such a movement when there doesn’t seem to be any clear leader, when followers are not even aware they are being targeted, and where there is no clear ideology?
It is a very unconventional crime thriller, for, although it features a police detective, he doesn’t actually do all that much detecting for most of the book. In a way, you could claim that no crime has been committed, for all the victims freely chose their own death. It is in fact a pretty forensic examination of how brainwashing works, whether it be a religious or political group.
The key to building a successful cult is to fill it with real people. Take absolutely anybody. Find some common ground. Use it as your starting point. Listen. Don’t do too much talking. Pwer comes from hearing what others have to say. Now tell them what they really need. Believe that what you are saying to them is true. Now you can manipulate them to do what you want… Because everybody wants to feel like they are part of somethings. Something bigger than themsleves. Give them something they can belong to.
‘Cult’ is a disaparaging term, so I hesitate to use it, but I did study ‘new religious movements’ for my Ph.D. and I used to joke that I had the blueprint for creating my own movement. The frightening truth is that it is reasonably easy to manipulate huge swathes of people, and social media has expanded the reach of these ‘mind merchants’. At times, it feels like Will Carver is simply dissecting our contemporary society and showing all its ills. You might even be tempted to agree with certain passages, until you realise that they are actually written from the point of view of the master manipulator him or herself.
Anybody can feel like a nobody. Like the thing they are doing doesn’t matter. Like they wouldn’t be missed by anyoone if they were gone. And it’s not just the recent batch of entitled millenials, who want everything and want it now and for no effort. .. It’s their parents, too… And their own parents, who can’t keep up with the pace of technology and feel that the youth of today have no concept for what they have lived through…
Starting a cult is easier than ever.
Because people want a way out of their lives; they want it to be simple. A tablet that will melt all the fat so they don’t have to work hard at the gym or quit bacon.
Neither of these two books are the cosiest, most escapist of crime novels, but they are both excellent and pushing the boundaries of any crime fiction formula you might be expecting.
Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – A dark thriller about suicide pacts of people who belong to a cult – even if they don’t know they do. I studied so-called cults for my Ph.D; it’s a term that I really objecto to, because, as the author quotes right at the start of the book: ‘Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organsiation, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like.’ For #Orentober reading with Orenda Books.
Sébastien Meier: Le Nom du père (The Name of the Father) – To continue with my Swiss in October reading, another francophone Swiss writer, despite his Germanic sounding name, with a psychological thriller.
Always in the background: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (the German edition) – trying to read one entry per day, although it usually ends up being 4 days’ worth of entries in one day and then a break.
Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring – part of my Swiss in October reading. The story of the two most notorious bank robbers in Basel or perhaps the whole of Switzerland. I had no idea this was based on a true story and was about to give it brownie points for the stylistic innovation of making it sound like it’s a documentary, with quotes from eyewitnesses and people reminiscing after the event.
Camil Petrescu for the #1930Club
Nicola Barker: The Cauliflower – From one guru to another; and finally a woman writer after a very male-centred week of reading.
China Mieville: Embassytown – because I think it might be a nice counterpoint to the Meier novel, with crime fiction as a pretext for uncovering so much more.
Looking ahead at November, because some of my blogger friends so kindly reminded me that it will be German Literature Month, I have the following possibilities in mind:
No matter how engaged you might be with your current read, when it comes to a complex doorstopper like The Debacle, you need some alternative reads to keep you sane. Happy to report I’ve found, courtesy of Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest, just the remedy with the following crime fiction novels. These may be teeny-mini-reviews, but all the books are worth a look.
The first three (incidentally, all Orenda books – I promise I’m not on commission, though!) were the ones that most tugged at my heartstrings, so I suggest you be in a good place emotionally when you read them. They are not entirely depressing – there is hope and humour in each of them – but they are about as gritty as it is possible to get without turning into a sandpit on an abandoned building site. The remaining four are more conventional police procedurals, although there is nothing bland or boring about any of them.
Will Carver: Good Samaritans
Winner of the Description of the Most Dysfunctional Marriage Award, the sorry tale of insomniac Seth and his bored wife Maeve will stay with you. Fiercely funny as well as unbearably sad to read about their inability to communicate with each other, as well as about all the other lonely people out there and their desperate urge for connection, looking for it in all the wrong places. It will leave you reeling, uncomfortable, and wondering about your own life.
Helen FitzGerald: Worst Case Scenario
Another book with deeper messages rippling out as you read it, leaving indelible marks in your psyche. Beneath the humour and the refreshing ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rebellion of the disillusioned and menopausal probation officer Mary Shields, there is a lot of social critique and an uncompromising portrayal of life at the margins of society, the kind of things we would rather not know about.
Doug Johnstone: Breakers
And, since we are on the subject of heartbreak, let’s move from the mean streets of Glasgow to one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, where 17 year old Tyler is trying to somehow hold together his precarious life and profoundly dysfunctional family. Filled to the gills with brutal scenes and characters that no child should have to deal with, it also has moments of tenderness involving puppies, bedtime stories and home cooking that nevertheless manage to steer clear of clichés and sentimentality.
G.D. Abson: Motherland
If you are equally fascinated and repulsed by Putin’s new (same old) Russia, then this is the book for you. Plenty of local colour and an all too believable backdrop of suspicion, corruption and cover-ups, with an engaging and tough heroine who is just trying to make her way as honestly as possible in a society that seems determined to thwart her at every turn. The start of a series that I will definitely be keeping an eye on.
Mari Hannah: The Scandal
I’ve been a huge Mari Hannah fan from her very first series (and still my favourite), the Kate Daniels one, although she has moved on to two other series since then. As a former probation officer, like Helen FitzGerald, she too injects a voice of authenticity and social concern in her writing, most obvious in this book in her description of the lives of those sleeping rough on the streets of Newcastle.
Mick Herron: London Rules
So many people had been recommending the Slough House series by Mick Herron to me, that I could no longer resist and jumped in at the deep end with one of his most recent. This did mean that perhaps the descriptions of some of the characters and their motivations were opaque to me, but I can see the appeal of this satirical, almost absurdist take on spy thrillers. The clumsy, incompetent and woefully mismatched ‘intelligence’ team led by the undiplomatic and uncharismatic Jackson Lamb (who reminds me slightly of Dalziel) are a joy to behold.
Vaseem Khan: Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
The much longed-for relief in a bunch of rather dark crime novels, this is a charming and quirky story about the rather earnest Inspector Chopra, his sweet-tempered and playful baby elephant, his practical wife Poppy… oh, and a murder at a luxury hotel. The author does a great job of balancing light and dark, without it ever descending into an unbearably cosy and unbelievable situation, and there are references to darker elements of Indian history and society.
Although I’ve written three posts about Bristol’s CrimeFest, I wrote a very long and detailed post about Newcastle Noir long before that, which I generously handed over to a different site. Since they still haven’t put it up yet (and may not do so anymore, since it’s out of date), I’ll put it up now. With apologies to the wonderful organisers and all the great people I met there for the delay. If it makes them feel better, I think I liked Newcastle the town (and the festival) even more than Bristol.
Newcastle Noir 2019
The 2019 event (3-5 May) was the sixth annual event, and this time it was housed in the City Library. While this did mean that the venue got very crowded at times (it remained a fully functional library and community centre and it was a busy Bank Holiday weekend), it also made it very easy for people to pop in for just one panel if they so wished. And why would they not wish to, since they were very reasonably priced (£4 – eat your heart out, Hay Festival!).
The timing of the panels was a huge bonus: they each lasted about 45 minutes, which gave attendees sufficient time to regroup, take a comfort break, get their books signed by the authors and then head back in for the next panel. And, while the event remains small enough to avoid parallel sessions, you didn’t face the pain of having to choose between two equally fascinating panels. There were a couple of fringe events (writing workshops or a guided tour of Newcastle’s fictional crime heritage) which coincided with a few panels, but these provided a change of pace and respite for those overdosing on author talks. A bookshop and a bar on site (as well as the library café) also offered small escape areas for when it all gets a bit too intense. However, if I had one small criticism of the event, it would be that there aren’t enough dedicated places to just sitting, resting or gloating over your newly-purchased books.
There were, however, more opportunities to mingle with the
authors informally in the evening. Or, as is typical in my case, fangirling
over my favourite authors and waylaying them with book signing requests.
Thursday night was a pre-festival Noir at the Bar Open Mic session of readings.
A great opportunity to hear not only from authors who were present at the
festival but also from emerging writers or others (such as Zoe Sharp) who had
to leave early. Friday night we all headed over to the Central Bar in Gateshead
for a cabaret evening. Crime writers proved themselves to possess enviable
talents as singers, songwriter and even stand-up comedians. Last but not least,
a silent disco on Saturday night gave everyone the chance to show their best
(Dad) dance moves or else catch up on the day’s events without having to shout.
But what about the panels themselves?
They were an intriguing combination of themes, yet managed
to avoid that forced feeling or random groupings which are sometimes the bane
of literary festivals.
I really liked the mix of the familiar faces and the fresh,
emerging talent. There were some obvious suspects there, such as showcases with
big hitters such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir, or Gunnar Staalesen and John Harvey,
or the finale with two of the most popular female crime writers working in
England today, Mari Hannah and Elly Griffiths. But there were plenty of chances
to find a new favourite regional author (Femmes Fatales from the NE including
Sheila Quigley, Danielle Ramsay and Eileen Wharton; Northern Noir with Mel
Sherratt, Caroline England and Robert Parker; Tyneside male authors such as
Howard Linskey and Mick Herron; Yorkshire Noir for example Nick Quantrill, June
Taylor and AA Dhand; and Welsh crime fiction with Phil Rowlands, John Nicholl and
GB Williams) or to discover debut authors such as Adam Peacock, Alison Belsham,
GD Abson and Noelle Holten. The international panels gave readers the
opportunity to travel further afield and discover new worlds. Alongside the big
international names, there were also writers from Romania, Australia and New
Zealand who are still relatively unknown (or who, like Helen Fitzgerald, are
not necessarily perceived as Australian), as well as fresh Icelandic writers
who have not yet been translated into English. Let’s not forget panels that are
loosely grouped around a theme but are likely to have a very wide appeal, such
as modern gothic and supernatural writing (SJI Holliday, Anna Mazzola and
William Ryan), LGBTQ authors (Paul Burston, Derek Farrell and Jonina Leosdottir),
historical crime fiction (Lesley Thomson, Oscar de Muriel, Nicola Ford and
Fiona Veitch Simon) or writers who have chosen woods as their settings for
murder (Antti Tuomainen, Matt Wesolowski, Will Dean and MJ Arlidge).
From BalkanNoir to
Bucharest Noir – here come the Romanians!
I was there to support my fellow countryman and women, the Bucharest Noir panel, represented by Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and their publisher and fellow crime author Bogdan Hrib.
Anamaria Ionescu was introducing her ‘hot off the press’ English translation of Zodiac, part of a trilogy featuring the nearest thing Romania has to James Bond. Sergiu Manta is a trained but reluctant assassin, who has to live apart from his beloved family in order to work for an organisation that is so secretive, it’s not even supposed to exist. The author acknowledged that a real-life person, a biker friend, was the inspiration for the Sergiu Manta character, and that she deliberately made him not quite as feminist as he thinks he is in a still rather traditional macho Romanian society.
Teodora Matei is well-known in her home country for her science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as crime and even (steampunk) romance. Her first novel to be translated into English Living Candles perfectly conveys the less glamorous aspects of urban life in present-day Bucharest. Her husband is NOT the source of inspiration for Toni Iordan, her main detective, although he had high hopes initially that he was. However, Toni does represent Mr. Average in every respect: a little overweight, a little fed up of his wife and kids, a little unfaithful but not quite as much as he dreams of being…
Bogdan Hrib is one of Romania’s most successful contemporary
crime writers (and publishers). He has had several novels translated into
English, although not necessarily in order of appearance. His series featuring
journalist Stelian Munteanu are fast-paced, moving from one European capital to
the next, with complex characters who vacillate between cold-bloodedness and sentimentality.
Quentin Bates, himself a respected crime writer and translator, helped edit the English language translations and moderated the panel in Newcastle. He asked the authors what they consider to be special and different about Romanian noir, and why it deserves to be translated into other languages. The answer showed, I believe, that noir is at the very heart of Romanian literature: ‘We have a different way of thinking and living. It’s hard for people to understand what it takes to move from Communism – actually, that wasn’t Communism, it was pure and simply a dictatorship – to Capitalism. We survived against all odds, we’re survivors and fighter, and sometimes we have to fight against ourselves first and foremost.’ However, there was also agreement that the books that do get translated (or even the books that get talked about in the Romanian press) tend to be literary fiction, often very experimental and impenetrable. There is a bit of snobbery about genre fiction in Romania as everywhere else.
Love and crime are
One of the liveliest panels despite the early morning start on Saturday was the panel What’s Love Got to Do with It? A feast of Orenda authors, moderated by Mamma Orenda herself, Karen Sullivan, talking about dysfunctional relationships and the crimes that people are ready to commit in the name of love. Lilja Sigurdardottir and Steph Broadribb’s kick-ass heroines both engage in dangerous (and sometimes criminal) pursuits to protect their children, so maternal love is strongly represented. In Doug Johnstone’s latest novel Breakers, it’s brotherly love that drives the narrative, although a Romeo and Juliet burgeoning of adolescent feelings gives some hope to the conflicted main protagonist.
Meanwhile, Will Carver’s insomniac Seth is desperate for
love and connection, feeling lonely and trapped in his marriage, so seeks to
talk to random people he selects from the phonebook. As the author says,
boredom should also be on the list of factors that motivate us to commit a
crime – the unbearable dreariness of routines often make us long to do stupid
Doug Johnstone agrees that he likes to focus on those
split-second stupid decisions that people make. Readers can relate to that:
they might think that they would act differently and wisely if they were in the
same position, but when we are under pressure, how many of us wouldn’t make a
Lilja Sigurdardottir admitted that one of the most embarrassing things she had done for love was to stalk her partner when she first met her (in pre-internet days), in order to convince her that they were right for each other. 24 years later, they are still together, so the panel agreed that what we might deduce from that is: ‘stalking works’.
One of the most surprising moments was when the authors talked about their own favourite reading matter, love related or not. Who would have thought that tough thriller writer Steph Broadribb likes to alternate crime with romance and chick lit type fiction? Doug Johnstone admits he is envious of Sara Gran’s writing, while Will Carver considers The Great Gatsby to be one of the most poignant love stories ever told. Lilja appears to be the most romantic (or possibly the most dysfunctional) of them all, citing Wuthering Heights as her favourite, as well as being a regular re-reader of Shakespeare.
Seen one festival,
seen them all?
Literature festivals are a bit like music festivals in the
UK at the moment – there seems to be one (or several) taking place every week
all across the country. Poetry, regional literature, special interest (children
and YA, romance, for aspiring writers etc.), big names and debut authors –
there seems to be something catering for every taste. Quite frankly, I don’t
know how any writing or reading gets done, as we could just spend three quarters
of the year touring from one event to the next.
Crime festivals seem to be particularly popular.
Unsurprising, since crime fiction is consistently one of the most bought and
widely-read genres. However, in this crowded landscape, how can you make your event
stand out? Well, if you are Dr Jacky Collins (aka Dr Noir) and her organising
committee, you pick your lively local town (Newcastle), put together an
eclectic but affordable programme of local, national and international writers,
with some quirky additional events (more about that later). Above all, don’t
forget to create a cosy sense of community around the event, while opening it
up to as wide an audience as possible. Newcastle Noir certainly succeeds in
having its very own distinct, informal feel.
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?