Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Question and Answer with Katherine Webb

I was fortunate enough recently to be invited by Nudge Books to interview Katherine Webb, best selling author of The Legacy and whose recent book The Hiding Places was published in paperback in September. I thought the interview deserved a further airing on my blog.

GC: The Hiding Places was the first of your books that I read and I loved it. I delighted in the twist at the end and that made me wonder whether it’s the ‘twist’ that comes first when you’re plotting and structuring a novel? Or whether it evolved from the body of the story?
KW: Thank you! I’m very pleased you enjoyed it. As a general rule, I know the beginning and ending of a novel before I start. I’m not a planner, and I will then navigate the story between those two points in a very freeform way, but I don’t think I’d be able to start at all without an idea of the ending in mind. This was especially the case with The Hiding Places, since the whole novel was geared towards misdirecting the reader, right the way through, so that the twist at the end would come as a big surprise.
After the more exotic locations of The Night Falling and The English GirlThe Hiding Placessees a return to the rural landscapes of England again. Was that a strong desire, to return to ‘Blighty’ for this novel?
I think I was ready to return, yes. I generally find that the settings of my books choose themselves — the idea for a story appears in my head, and usually the setting is already a given at that point. But it was a pleasure to write another book set in the English countryside — the By Brook Valley is not far from where I live, and it’s one of my favourite places. I feel very at home in this landscape, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of writing about it.
There seems to be a need today to compartmentalise everything including fiction. Your work is often described as historical fiction. Are you comfortable with that? Do you consider The Hiding Places to be a work of historical fiction? Have you ever considered writing in a different genre?
Truthfully, I’m not a big fan of that label — or labels in general! I think of my books as mystery dramas that are sometimes set in the past. I think labels can put as many people off as they attract. The story is what’s important, and even if you had no interest in history in the slightest, I like to think you could still get wrapped up and carried away by one of my stories.
My first three books contained contemporary storylines as well as historical, and I wouldn’t rule out doing that again, or indeed writing something set wholly in the present. But again, I am sure the story and characters would be what was really important.
Do you do your research before you start writing or is it an ongoing processes as the need arises?
I do most of it before I start — it helps the story to develop, and I think I’d find it impossible to start writing without a clear idea of what life would have been like for my characters at the time I’m writing them. This includes any research trips I might need to go on. But research does carry on alongside the writing, too — it helps to keep me immersed in the period; there are often small facts that need checking, and I’m always finding interesting little snippets to put into the book, to help give it historical authenticity.
Your books often depict a friendship between two women of differing backgrounds who are brought together through circumstance and a desire for a common goal. It’s often a fascinating juxtaposition. The Hiding Places offers us Pudding and Irene. I was wondering what the motivation is for your exploration of these relationships.
One of the things we seem to be perennially fascinated by, when we study or recreate history, is class structure — the strict rules of social interaction people used to have to adhere to. Often, it can seem that the classes didn’t intermingle at all — that they existed in separate spheres, only occasionally touching. But I can’t imagine that was always the case! Life is messy, and I’m sure all sorts of different people came together — or were forced together — for all sorts of reasons.
It’s fascinating, as you say, and I find it a really interesting way to explore a character — their strengths and limitations. Can they make that leap out of their social comfort zone, and free themselves of prejudice, to help and be helped by people they see as fundamentally different to themselves? Are they kind, or strong, or clever, or brave enough?
Love, loss, secrets, betrayal – they are all recurring themes in your work. What is it that fascinates you about these topics?
Well, these are the stuff of life, aren’t they?? And more importantly, they’re they stuff of good stories. They happen to us all, and these times of heightened emotion, of stress and passion and anger, are what drive people to do extraordinary things. And I love to pose readers the question: can they sympathise with a character who’s done something drastic or terrible, if I can adequately present the pressures that led them to do it? Can I make the reader question what they would have done if they found themselves in that position?
I always find your novels very ‘reader -friendly’ books. You seem to strike a balance between making demands of your reader and caring for your reader. Is that a conscious desire or does it come naturally with your writing?
Well, that’s lovely to hear! I can’t make that kind of choice, truthfully — I’m not sure any writer could. I write the way I write, in my own voice; and I write the stories that come to me. And if they’re a good balance of engaging and readable, then I’m delighted with that — what more could an author hope for?
From that last question, are you an avid reader yourself? (Assuming you have the time that is!). And what was the first book that made you cry?
I am an insatiable reader. I don’t know many authors who aren’t — we were all readers before we were writers! There hasn’t been an hour I’ve not had a book on the go since I was about ten, I think, though there’s definitely less time for it now. I do try to make time — if I can, I’ll sit down late in the afternoon and read for half an hour or an hour, and I’ll always read before going to sleep. Several books I read in my teens brought a tear to my eye, but the first book that really made me sob my heart out was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. In several places! It’s a story made all the more powerful for being so plausible, and it really brought home to me the devastating human tragedies of the Second World War, the nature of loss and lost chances.
Where did the inspiration for The Hiding Places come from initially?
For this book, it really was a question of place. I started walking in the By Brook Valley about six years ago, when I moved down to live in the countryside near Bath. It’s such a beautiful spot, unchanged for centuries, and it’s full of evocative ruins — one of my favourite things! There are the ruins of Weavern Farm, once a huge, thriving place, now just a shell, sitting alone by the river; and there are the industrial ruins of the village of Slaughterford — its two mills, the larger of which still operated right up into the 1960s, which can be walked through and explored. Ruins cast a bit of a spell on me — they recall all the many lives that were lived there, all the secrets and stories that have vanished forever. A place like that was always going to spark my imagination!
September sees the publication of the paperback edition of The Hiding Places. Can you give us any clues as to when your next new novel will be published? 😉
My next book — as yet untitled — is due for publication next year. I think it will be in the spring although I’m not sure of the exact date. I’m still writing it at the moment — it’s nearly finished! It’s set during the bombing of Bath in 1942, but it isn’t really a ‘war story’. A bomb falling on one of Bath’s slum areas uncovers the remains of a little girl who went missing twenty-four years previously, and sends her best friend on a mission to find out what really happened to her.

The Year of the Knife - G.D.Penman

And the 2017 Award for Speculative Fiction goes to - The Year of the Knife. Joking I am! I’m not even sure if there is such an award! But knowing nothing of G.D. Penman before I received this book led me to do a little research. And I found that he writes ‘Speculative Fiction’ . A term I love. I remember Margaret Atwood using it to describe The Handmaids Tale in preference to Science Fiction and it’s been a term I’ve enjoyed ever since. So that endeared me to this novel of Mr. Penman’s from the off.

I found the basic premise original. The police using magic to solve crimes. It has probably been done before but I cannot think of an example off the top of my head so I’ll stick with finding it original.  I’m loathe, as ever, to detail much about the plot as I am obsessively paranoid about offering spoilers. But Agent Sully ( and that set off a memory of Agent Scully and the X Files, not to mention Monsters Inc. and Tom Hanks!) is a kick ass heroine, a kind of adult Harry Potter meets Katniss Everdene and is the tour de force that drives this novel along. Accompanied by her extraordinary magical abilities she is an exciting character. So exciting that the others faded in comparison despite fulfilling their various functions.

There’s everything for lovers of the supernatural here; vampires and demons, magi and witches, spells for every possible situation. I found it a very visual book, I could even imagine video games. 
The writing is fast paced, imaginative with an underlying intelligence that gives credence to the infrastructure of the magical aspects of crime and policing. There’s even a little supernatural history and politics thrown in for good measure which adds more depth to the book. There’s much action, some gory, more than a little humour and  a conclusion that possibly paves the way for another Sully story.

This isn’t a book for everyone. If you’ve a penchant for realism and plausibility you might not derive as much pleasure from it as a reader who has a fertile imagination and a love of things magical and supernatural. I am possibly over endowed with those latter qualities so I enjoyed it! Thanks to Nudge Books for the opportunity.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Perfect Victim - Corrie Jackson

I’m not a fan of the press; media, journalists on the whole. Especially the aggressive style journalism that places newspaper sales and scoop stories ahead of morality and human decency. So I didn’t instantly warm to Sophie Kent and her colleagues. I’ve not read the previous book in the series either. So a not altogether promising start for me. But I am pleased to report that things did improve. A little.
Overall I found this story to be convoluted and over plotted. In the end there was only place to go and inevitably the book went there but not before the reader was thrust into a generous shoal of red herrings. 

It’s fast paced, full of action and interactions and despite much of the implausibilities never allows its reader to get bored. It’s definitely not a feel good read and the final denouement leaves you with a bit of a sour taste in your mouth having read on and on simply to find out who did ‘dunnit’ and who didn’t ‘dunnit’! I found it quite visual and could imagine a contemporary crime drama for TV coming from it. Some of the writing that describes the newspaper office read like one of those black and white film noir B films which I did enjoy. 

I struggled to engage with the characters although my initial antipathies towards Sophie dissolved as the book developed. Flawed characters seem to be the meat and thrust of contemporary thrillers nowadays and there was no lack here. The entire premise depended upon that.

I can see this book having a wide appeal for a great many readers and whilst I fear I may have been over critical, even implying maybe that I didn't enjoy the book that would not be quite true. It just didn’t blow me away enough. 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Norma - Sofi Oksanen

My knowledge of Finnish writers, prior to reading this book, extended no further than Tove Jansson who I believe wrote in Swedish anyway! So this was very much a first for me. However a cursory google of contemporary Finnish authors reveals an impressive list with Sofi Oksanen occupying a prevalent place. 

I am always impressed by a translator’s ability and I would imagine Finnish is a complex language to learn for English speakers so I am doubly impressed by the work here. But it did strike me most forcibly that I was reading a work in translation. It had that curious, indefinable kind of stutter that renders the flow of the narrative uneven.

The actual premise of this book I found to be very original and quite quirky. Norma has ‘supernatural’ hair’ and whilst that may sound like a contemporary advertising strap line for hair products nothing could be further from the truth. Norma’s hair is sensitive to mood, changes her own and others,  plus it moves and grows of its own volition. That alone could put this book firmly in the magical realism category. However the hair tendrils alert their owner to the idea that her mother’s supposed suicide may not be quite as it seems. And thus we have a complex thriller on our hands.

I’d love to continue by saying what a fabulous book this is because the basic premise has it all but whether the translation contributes to this or not I found the book overall a tad confusing and some of the characters muddled. I was frequently referring back to look at the relationships and connections. The plot was a complex one and offered some food for thought regarding how women can be taken advantage of. But it lacked cohesion and the pacing was patchy. The conclusion was - inconclusive!! 

However I wanted to find out what happened and I did enjoy the book, mostly because it was unusual and quite unique. My thanks to Readers First for a copy of this book.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Foxes Unearthed - Lucy Jones

I generally select fiction to read by choice although I’m never averse to non fiction per se but often it has to be thrust upon me as was this illuminating volume by Lucy Jones. A volume about an animal I certainly always get a thrill from seeing, the fox. 

This book seeks to investigate the history and lore of the fox and attempts to offer a balanced view from both pro and anti fox perspectives. I am very much pro and one thing the book did emphasise for me was how, as a species, man is the only animal to have the belief that domination and ownership of this planet is somehow exclusively theirs. I think the book also illustrates how fragile the entire eco system is and how man doesn’t really understand how intervention can disturb that fragile balance. 

I was especially interested to read how foxes manage to interact and communicate with other animals including humans as I had a moving experience once where a fox came and asked me for help in broad daylight. He had injured his back leg and could barely walk. I will never forget his eyes as he looked into mine somehow knowing he could trust me. My cat also responded to his suffering and she sat a respectful  distance away from him, with no fear, but seeming to offer him some kind of moral support. The RSPCA came and collected him but he was too badly hurt and was euthanised. Apologies, I have digressed. 

I found it a simple, gentle book. Not in terms of everything described certainly but at no point did the author attempt to preach at her reader. It is a compassionate, factual and observational overview with some pertinent research backed up by the informative notes and bibliography. The legal aspects regarding hunting are interesting as I was ignorant of the specifics. It is generally well written although it had the feel of a dissertation about it with the exception of the personal accounts of foxy matters.

I suspect it will appeal more to fox lovers than fox haters despite the writer’s very laudable attempt to be objective and non partisan. And one is left with an overwhelming admiration for this magnificent and oft maligned animal.

Thanks to Nudge Books who sent me this as a maverick choice to read and review. And I am the better informed because of it!

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Foreign Bodies - Edited by Martin Edwards

I have read several books in this series of British Library Crime Classics and often I skip the Introduction until after I’ve read the book so eager am I to involve myself in the meat of the story. I’m not sure how fair that is to Martin Edwards who does such an incredible job with this series but in this latest collection from the Library each individual story is introduced by Mr. Edwards so I cannot escape him My experience is all the richer for it. Not merely en expert in his field Mr. Edwards demonstrates  the love he has for this exciting genre. My acknowledgement of his work has been long overdue and I’m happy to redress the balance here.

This book is a fascinating and quite unique collection of vintage crime stories in translation very aptly called Foreign Bodies. As mentioned previously each story is accompanied by an introduction which puts the story into context and gives us some information about the author of each one. Each story is enriched and I am in no doubt that my reading was enhanced by these prefaces.

It’s like a chocolate box of crime tales, some with hard centres, some with soft but all extremely tasty. They are diverse both in terms of the crimes but also culturally, Credit to all the translators who have rendered these accessible to English speaking readers. It’s a veritable global plethora of vintage crime writing. They are rich historically as we have an opportunity to learn about various crime solving techniques. I am always struck by how cerebral crime solving was before all the advances in forensics and technology were widely used. That doesn’t alter whatever the location. 

I guess everyone who reads these will have their favourites but standout stories? For me I particularly. enjoyed ‘The Stage Box Murder’ with, what must have been quite unique for its time, its structure. Also ‘The Mystery of the Green Room’ paying homage to Leroux. But there wasn’t a weak tale in the whole of this anthology. Unless you are an arachnophobe. Maybe there’s a couple you might want to miss.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Magician's Lie - Greer Mcallister

Although this book seems to have been originally published in 2015 I suspect that was the American edition and since the author is American it stands to reason. So we in the UK have had to wait a couple of years but some things are worth waiting for and this is definitely one of them!

I had not heard of Greer Mcallister before Nudge Books sent me a copy of this captivating tale. I approached it as one of those books where I had no expectations at all but ended up being utterly absorbed in this tale of magic and love and adventure and survival.

I’m beginning to be spooked by the number of books that have come my way recently with magic and travelling circuses in the theme, I think of Jess Richards City of Circles and A Jigsaw of Fire and Star by Yaba Badoe. It has to mean something but I’m darned if I know what!

Structurally this is what I like to call a story within a story narrative. The guts of the novel - The Amazing Arden’s life- is told by Arden whilst in custody for a murder that she may or may not have committed. And whilst that particular device may be seen as some as hackneyed it works wonderfully well here because it is also interspersed with the much lesser tale of Virgil Holt the policeman who arrests Arden. The dynamic between the two urges the story onwards until we are desperate to know what happens. 

These two characters dominate and are well drawn, especially, Arden. But the novel is populated with other characters of strength and importance. Some of them drawn from real life. I had never heard of Adelaide Herrmann but she leaps off the page at you. If you’re going to include historical characters within your narrative then the research had better be good and this story flows with conviction and authenticity. 

It is very well written; almost every word is crucial so as a reader you’re never lost within a sea of words wondering where the writer is going with them. I sometimes wonder if that is what renders a book ‘unputdownable’? For I was certainly reluctant to put this down and left other tasks untended in favour of immersing myself in this book. And if that isn’t a recommendation I don’t know what is!