Books, life the universe

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Currently reading

Jane Austen's Persuasion - I'm also listening to an Audio book version as well. I've just got past the bit where Louisa Musgrove knocks herself out at Lyme Regis. I think the book is probably the least humorous of the six novels - possibly because it was written when the author was ill. I am enjoying it though and the portrait of Anne's hypochondriac sister is brilliant. A few minutes conversation with Anne and she is suddenly so much better that she can go out and pay a visit to her in-laws! Everyone uses Anne as a go-between so she inevitably gets both sides of any argument which is going on.

I'm also reading Dan Waddell's Blood Atonement - the sequel to Blood Detective which I read last week.

I just read Kirsty Robinson's Grass Stains about Louisa, a journalist, who is teetering on the brink of a breakdown and really doing nothing to stop herself falling over the edge. If you like the sort of book which depicts the excesses of the drink and drugs culture as though it is a really great lifestyle - then maybe this is the book for you. I'm afraid it brought out the prude in me and I just wanted to shake both Louisa and Dan - her alcoholic and junkie husband - and tell them there is more to life than getting wasted.

I've just started Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog - which I'm really not sure about yet. It is set in Leeds - a city I know quite well - which drew me to read it. I'll see how it develops - it may improve.

I'm also reading Mike Pannett's Not on my Patch, Lad about his experiences of policing in North Yorkshire. I enjoy books about people's jobs and have read the previous two by this author.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey is probably the least well regarded novel of the 6. I really like it. She manages to steer a middle path between parodying the trend for Gothic novels but at the same time supporting the novel writer's art. Catherine Morland visits Bath in the company of her friends Mr and Mrs Allen. How she makes friends with the Thorpes - Isabella and John - and the Tilneys - Eleanor and Henry and learns the difference between friends who have her best interests at heart and those who don't makes an amusing story.

Isabella must be one of the most manipulative, simpering and silly women in Austen's books. Yes she has to make a reasonably wealthy marriage - having no fortune of her own - but to behave how she does is not the best way to achieve that aim. The misunderstandings about everyone's relative wealth and status are the sub text for the love story of Henry and Catherine. Ultimately it does not matter to Henry how much Catherine's fortune is because he has enough money of his own, but others in the story such as his father, have other opinions.

Catherine is not typical heroine material, as her creator acknowledges, but I found myself warming to her as she tries to make sense of her world. Her journey home on her own shows she is made of sterner stuff than the average heroine. Her civil manners and generous tipping provide her with good care and treatment as she has to sort out hiring her own post horses - a frightening prospect for a young girl of 17 in the early 19th century.

I have Persuasion, the Juvenilia, Sanditon, The Watsons and Lady Susan left to read. I have read Persuasion before - though not for many years - the rest I have not read, so that is a treat in store.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Blood Detective

I read Dan Waddell's Blood Detective on my train journey on Monday. It was extremely good - though I had my doubts about it when reading the first two pages - 2 people threw back their manes of hair!! So I was thinking - oh no! - there are going to be too many cliches in this book! But it wasn't like that at all - or maybe I didn't notice them because of the exciting and complex plot.

A murder victim is found in London with what appears to be a reference number carved into its chest. This proves to be a reference number for the GRO registers of births marriages and deaths. Fortunately one of the detectives - Heather Jenkins - knows of a family history researcher - Nigel Barnes - and contacts him about it. Heather Jenkins and Grant Foster - the detectives - are then involved in an exciting to chase to try and second guess what the murdered is going to do next based on what happened in 1879.

My only complaint about the book was that some of the violence was a bit too graphic for my taste and that yet again we have a hard drinking morose policeman. I really wish someone would write a crime novel featuring a cheerful detective - maybe someone has done so - if so can anyone let me know who? In spite of that criticism I shall be reading the next one in the series - and skipping the violent bits.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Problems of choosing a book for a train journey

I am off to Norwich by train tomorrow and I was pondering what book to take with me. It has to fit in my bag and not be too heavy to carry around. Should it be an old favourite or something previously unread? If an old favourite it might not quite fit my mood. If unread I might decide I don't like it after page 1. So should I take two books with me? An average size one and a thin one perhaps?

You see even the most trivial decision is fraught with difficulty if you want it to be. I was debating whether to take Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey with me but I like to appreciate Austen in peace and quiet - so maybe not her. But there is Joan Aiken's Mansfield Revisited (thank you, Noreen, for the information about this) which may need less savouring but is fewer than 200 pages long. My journey is about 2.5 hours each way and I therefore need something longer than 200 pages.

In the end I've plumped for Dan Waddell's The Blood Detective and Joan Aiken's Mansfield Revisited - neither of them heavy books in the physical sense; and I'm taking my trusty Kangol messenger bag so there's plenty of room. I had considered a heavy weight tome about feminism - Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex but as I've tried to read that before and found it difficult a train journey is not the place to get to grips with it.

Friday, 18 June 2010


This really belongs on Lady Sophia but it deserves as much publicity as it can get. I've just read an article on about someone called Dr Dix Poppas who is surgically reducing the clitorises of small girls because he deems them too big. The reason? in order for the girls to 'undergo a more natural psychological and sexual development'. The details of the follow up examinations nearly made me regurgitate my lunch and need to be read to be believed.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Kate Fforde

I think I've read all Katie Fforde's books at various times. Her latest is A Perfect Proposal. She writes light women's fiction which is a relaxing read and her earliest books - Wild Designs, Living Dangerously and Life Skills - were all excellent reading but her later ones were not so good in my opinion. Highland Fling was the one which started to put me off her books. The edition I read had so many typos in it that it almost looked as though it had never been proof read. I hope these error were corrected in later editions. I think it was at that point that her books suddenly became about 85% dialogue and virtually no narrative.

I have no problem with dialogue - if it is well written, which hers is - but I do like to see a larger proportion of narrative in the novels I read. Her last book Love Letters - set in the literary world - was good - almost back to the standard of her earlier work. So I had high hopes of A Perfect Proposal. I did enjoy it but . . . It seemed almost as though there were two books trying to get out. There was the story about Luke and his grandmother Matilda - from New York and there was the story with Sophie's (the heroine's) family. There just seemed to be too much material for one book and it seemed a little disjointed and sort of thrown together in a hurry. The problem is, I think, that Katie Fforde has found a formula that works and sells books - which she and her publisher obviously love - but I think she needs to maybe do something a bit different.

If you like light fiction then don't let me put you off - just read her earlier books as listed above. - anything prior to about 2003 was excellent in my opinion.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Interview with Leigh Russell

I interviewed Leigh Russell - author of Cut Short and Road Closed - by e-mail last month. Here are her responses to my questions.

How did you first get into writing?

It seems unbelievable that three years ago I had an idea, started writing and haven't been able to stop since. It was like turning on a tap.

Was Cut Short your first published work?

Yes. In fact Cut Short was the first story I ever wrote.

What do you think about creative writing courses and have you ever attened one? Do you think they help writers achieve publication?

I've never attended a creative writing course so I can't really comment on how useful they are, but I've given talks to a number of writers' groups and I think the mutually supportive atmosphere can be very positive. It is very helpful for any writer to have trusted readers who can give feedback.

In what way was Road Closed easier, or more difficult, to write than Cut Short?

I enjoyed writing Cut Short, I enjoyed writing Road Closed and I'm enjoying writing Dead End. I just love writing! My main problem is finding enough time to write!

Do you think it is important to have a series character - such as Geraldine Steel - in crime novels?

I hadn't anticipated how important it would be, but fortunately there has been a generally positive response to my detective so far, which has surprised me! Her popularity has even spread to the US where Jeffery Deaver wrote 'you're just plain going to love Geraldine Steel' and US Publishers Weekly described Geraldine as 'a compassionate and complex heroine who's sure to win fans.' I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they are right.

How do you research the police procedural side of your books?

The best form of research is always real people. I'm lucky that I have one particularly knowledgeable contact in the police force who always responds to my queries immediately and in great detail. Sometimes I have quite trivial questions to which I could never find an answer by researching on the Internet. I have collected a number of fans on the force who are all incredibly helpful and I'm very grateful for their input.

How did you feel about Jessica Mann's comments last year about crime novels always featuring women as corpses? Do you consciously decide to have a man or a woman as a corpse or does this come out of the needs of the plot itself?

This arises out of the plot. All my corpses in Cut Short are women but this certainly isn't true in Road Closed or Dead End. I'm not going to say any more!

Many very popular authors put an excessive amount of graphic violence in their books as violence seems to sell well. Cut Short contains very little 'one the page' violence - did you deliberately set out to write a crime story with very little violence?

No. Graphic descriptions of violence don't inspire me for their own sake, although I will include them if the plot requires it. It is the characters who interest me, and what motivates them, so if I have a character who is a sadist I might include a violent scene exploring my character's feelings. I do find some contemporary crime writers rely too heavily on the shock factor of violent scenes, instead of focusing on writing a gripping story.

Did you get any rejections for Cut Short before No Exit Press accepted it?

No. I sent my manuscript out to three publishers who specialise in crime fiction and No Exit Press telephoned me two weeks later to express interest and shortly after that they offered me a three book deal.

Do you have an agent? Do you think it necessary for an author to have an agent in order to find a publisher?

I recently signed up an agent after the runaway success of Cut Short. I seem to have done everything the wrong way round! In general I would say it is much better to seek representation before looking for a publisher as agents can advise and guide an aspiring author. I was unusually lucky to find a publisher straightaway without an agent and it was my success, once published, that led to interest from agents, rather than the other way round.

How did you first create the character of Geraldine Steel?

When I started writing Cut Short I had no plans to write a series. It never even occurred to me that my writing would one day be published. So I wrote what interested me. I was fascinated by my killer and wrote pages and pages about him. My detective was really only there to serve the plot. My editor quite reasonably pointed out that the detective continues from book to book and had to become a character in her own right who would hopefully engage my readers' interests. At that point I had to do some work on my detective's character and her story begins to unfold in Road Closed and develops further in Dead End.

Do you have plans for any more books featuring Geraldine Steel following on from Road Closed?

I have written the first draft of the third book in my series, Dead End, and my publishers have already put it an offer for a fourth book, so it looks as though the series is going to run for a while.

Do you think of your plots first or the characters?

I think the crime - so far murder - comes into my head first, so that's really a combination of plot and character. Although it's the plot that drives my narrative, my characters and their motives are my main interest.

Some authors use complicated systems for plotting their novels such as charts and timelines. How did you work out the plot of Road Closed?

I didn't plan Cut Short at all. I just started writing one day and found I couldn't stop. I had to so some work on my initial manuscript once I found a publisher, to make sure readers would be able to follow what was going on. I did plan Road Closed on an A3 sheet of paper. My novels are written in 'real time' in the sense that I follow the investigation day by day. So I plotted what each character would be doing each day. That meant that when I moved certain events there was a knock on effect on everything else that occurred. I got in a terrible muddle but managed to sort it out in the end. By the time I was plotting Dead End I had an agent who advised me to write a ten page synopsis so I could see where everything was going to fit in before I started writing. Sounds foolproof? I'm afraid I still ended up getting in a muddle as I decided to move a murder to improve the narrative pace. I write very easily but organisation is not my strong point!

Do you write with a pen or pencil or straight onto a computer?

When I started writing I followed a certain routine writing every word in long hand before typing it up. Now that I'm more practiced - and more confident - I can type, write, jot down, scribble - you name it. When I'm writing, I write, and I'll use whatever comes to hand.

I've heard other writers say that their characters sometimes 'take over' and start doing things which they hadn't planned for them. Have you ever had such an experience?
Yes! Because crime fiction has to be tightly plotted, characters often need to perform certain actions for the sake of the plot, but as an author I cannot allow a character to step 'out of character' or my readers might not believe in them. So I have to keep a tight rein on how my characters want to develop. It's not always easy.

Thank you very much to Leigh for answering my questions. Both Cut Short and Road Closed can be purchased online from or from I can thoroughly recommend both of them and I hope they continue to sell well. There's always room on the shelves for well written crime.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Reading Emma

I am re-reading Jane Austen's novels in order of publication and having read Mansfield Park I have recently started on Emma. I studied the book for A level in the late 1960s and apart from listening to an Audio version of it I haven't re-read it since. The book has a lighter feel to it that Mansfield Park but it is still a very moral book in some ways. Emma is frequently reproved by Mr Knightley for not treating people how she should do - most notably being rude to Miss Bates in the famous Box Hill incident. Emma does learn throughout the book and becomes a better person in the long run.

Many people like Frank Churchill as a character but I find him too smarmy and insincere. He does not treat Jane Fairfax well at all especially when you consider his clandestine relationship with her. It is a book which repays several readings as do all Jane Austen's novels.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Time's Legacy

I was lucky enough to get hold of a proof copy of Barbara Erskine's Time's Legacy which is not published until July in the UK. Naturally I devoured it in the space of two or three days. This one if a bit of a departure for Barbara Erskine I felt as her heroine is Abi Rutherford - a female curate in the Church of England. The book features the familiar time slip theme but this one also features a modern day Druid and several members of the clergy - not just Abi. There are also some pagans as well including Athena who runs a shop selling crystals and jewellery in Glastonbury.

Abi - having fallen out with her boss Kieran Scott - is sent by her Bishop to stay with some friends of his who live near Glastonbury. But she has not seen the last of Kier who has accused her of being a witch and conjuring up the spirits of the dead when they both see and hear a ghostly congregation in a church in Cambridge. This is a fascinating and compelling story of history and the present day and religions both past and present. I loved it and found it totally enthralling.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Road Closed

Road Closed is Leigh Russell's second novel and the second in her DI Geraldine Steel series. I really enjoyed the first one in the series Cut Short and I looked forward to reading Road Closed. I wasn't disappointed.

The plot is complex with several apparently overlapping investigations. There's the unsolved series of burglaries, a murder of an elderly lady which might have been an accident and a deadly arson attack. Pretty standard police fare you might think. But then things get complicated with an apparently unprovoked attack on a local small time villain. Geraldine herself has problems with her on/off relationship with Craig, a local estate agent, her mother's death and a demanding friend who can't understand Geraldine' devotion to her job.

The characters are believable and I really like Geraldine herself who is far from perfect, unlike some fictional police officers. I also liked the way everything dovetailed together so that while you're reading you get those light bulb moments when a piece of the jigsaw slots into place. I thought the petty villains and the arson victim's widow were particularly well drawn as was the elderly man whiling away his time in the seedy pub.

Enjoyable crime, without the graphic blood and guts so many authors use and well worth reading if you enjoy psychological police procedural novels where the police seem like real people with lives outside the job. I'm looking forward to the next one in this series.

I will be posting an interview with Leigh Russell on jillysheep on Monday 14 June 2010.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Slap

I finally got to the end of The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. The plot idea is good: man slaps child - not his own - at BBQ; child's parents report him to the police and the case goes to court. The basis of the plot is the reverberations around the circle of family and friends - some of whom support the parents and others support the perpetrator of the slap. The book is divided into sections - each of which concentrates on an individual who was at the BBQ.

Here it all goes pear shaped as far as I'm concerned. The obnoxious swear word on the first page; the violent impulses of many of the male characters; the concentration on bodily functions; and the obviously endemic racism against anyone who isn't exactly like the character whose thoughts the reader happens to be privy to at the time. Yes I'm sure the writer is accomplished and he paints an interesting and accurate(?) picture of middle class life in Melbourne. But do people in Melbourne really behave in this way? Are they constantly fantasising about attacking their wives or any one else they don't happen to like at that moment?Misogyny is rife and what a man says goes. The women who attempt to stand up to them are mainly defeated.

I found I didn't really care what happened to any of the characters and the book was about 250 pages too long for me. There was too much verbiage; too much irrelevant back story for all the characters which clouded all the issues. If the author had concentrated on the ripples spreading out from the slap and nothing else it would have been a powerful story. As it was, I felt there were at least two novels trying to get out and to remove most of the second one would have left a much better book.