Monday, 27 November 2017

Adèle Geras: THE ACCIDENT ON THE A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The first novel I read by Graeme Macrae Burnet was His Bloody Project, which I thought was wonderful. A historical novel, a thriller, in a Scottish 18th century setting with several entirely beguiling narrative voices making up a story which was both brutal and also touching in many ways. Above all, this book did what I love books to do: it created a world. By the time you reached the end, you knew exactly what living in a Scottish croft was like: who your neighbours were, what the landscape looked like, how your days would unfold.

His next book, The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau, is set in Saint Louis, a small town near Strasbourg. I was attracted to the name for obvious reasons but when I read it I was bowled over by the versatility of this writer who could move between Scotland and France with such ease; who could conjure up an urban landscape as well as a rural one. The Disappearance introduces us to a detective called Georges Gorski, with his snobbish wife Céline and his teenage daughter, Clémence. While I was reading it, I kept on thinking: this is like Simenon: simply told, not terribly dramatic or violent. A quiet book with things going on under the surface. When I reached the end, and the author's 'revelation' that the book was a translation from the French, I was full of admiration...a twist in the tail/tale that took me by surprise and delighted me with its cleverness. Burnet had invented a writer called Raymond Brunet....and it's Brunet's novel he's translating. As he says, in the post script to The Disappearance, quoting from Simenon: Everything is true but nothing is accurate.

I went back to read the Translator's Note on the first Gorski novel, and its full cleverness is only revealed when you open The Accident on the A 35. For this novel describes what happens when Raymond Brunet's father dies in a car accident. The first Gorski novel foreshadows the second almost entirely. It's very clever. Graeme the Scottish writer is counting on a couple of years dulling the memories of all but his most careful readers, and indeed, I'd forgotten the details of this amazing dovetailing of the two books.

Two Raymond Brunet novels, we're told, have come into the possession of the writer. This one describes, very carefully and in enormous detail, what happened when his father died. It's Raymond Brunet who is the model for Raymond Barthelme, the teenager in the novel we're reading. Gorski's wife has left him for the moment and the question of whether the two will be reunited is almost as gripping as the mystery.

And there is a mystery to which we seek an answer. In fact, there is more than one and we are with Georges, trying to get to the bottom of where a rich lawyer was when he said he was meeting with his colleagues and friends in order to discover whether the accident is truly accidental. His son also wants to find out what his father was really up to. We follow them both. Gorski has a drink problem. We spend a lot of time hanging round cafés and bars. The boy is a prototypical disaffected French teenager: all existential angst with a strong whiff of 'je m'en fou-tism". Everyone that Georges and Raymond meet along the way is beautifully described. You can see/hear/smell every single one of them. The answers to the mysteries are both satisfying and (to me) surprising me, though I have to say I'm not terribly good and guessing things in books and perhaps I ought to have seen at least one shock coming.

Saint Louis is a dull little town. Nothing much happens. If you want sensation and thrills and rushes of dramatic action, this is not the book for you. But if you want to mooch along drab French streets and smell the coffee and the brandy and meet the denizens of the establishments where Gorski drinks and passes most of his time, then you'll love this, as I did. There's another Brunet novel in the pipeline. I for one can't wait.

The Accident on the A35 is published by Contraband.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Guest review by Penny Dolan: THE COLD COLD GROUND by Adrian McKinty

Penny Dolan works as a children’s storyteller and writer. Her last novel for older children, A Boy Called Mouse, was nominated for the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award, and she is currently completing a companion book. She posts on the History Girls, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and also on The Cranky Laptop Writes, her personal blog. For more, see

The Cold Cold Ground  is the first in a series of crime thrillers set in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. McKinty grew up in Carrickfergus, so his segregated estates, damaged buildings, industrial wastelands and lonely roads are bleakly believable. Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, his main character, even “lives” in the same council house that was McKinty’s home. Throughout the book, incidents remind the reader how angry and painful life was during the Troubles, less than thirty years ago.

The plot mixes moments of sharp fact and social realism with dramatic action. For example, so far, through the novel, Duffy has routinely checked under his car before driving away. Now, mid-story, he’s driving away from a gang of armed, drugged teenage thugs, and had no time to look.

“My knuckles were white. The downslope was coming up ... The reason the IRA use mercury tilt switches is that they only work when the mercury establishes contact on an incline or decline . . . thus it could stay safe under a car for days or even weeks ... As soon as it was driven, however, you’d eventually encounter a hill.”

Here Duffy investigates two cases: a weird double murder by a homophobic serial killer who is eager for publicity, and the apparent suicide of the ex-wife of a prisoner now on hunger strike in the Maze. As in all the Duffy books, these apparently unconnected crimes lead him deep into greater conspiracies.

Duffy is a great character: a university-educated Catholic working in the Protestant Royal Ulster Police Force. He is a compelling, cynical, street-wise hero who looks beyond accepted explanations for crimes, acts impulsively, and comes into conflict with criminals, corrupt officials and police budget restrictions. Nevertheless, among his team, there is a great sense of camaraderie: his officers, like the reader, recognise Duffy’s determination, care and courage.

Duffy’s life-style is, naturally, troublesome. He enjoys vodka gimlets in pint glasses, music and recreational drug use and is a soft touch for more than one friendly woman. His literary quotations and philosophical references can sometime feel overwritten but this is not a great problem when you can also enjoy the pace of the storytelling.

The plot’s complexity is sharpened by the everyday observations of the narrator. Through Duffy’s eyes, we experience the daily pressures of the province: the IRA bombing campaigns and road blocks; the ordinary lives worn down by riots and strikes, the antagonism between police and the British army. We see how, in a time of unemployment, both factions keep “their” local economy running through organised drug-running, EU meat parcels handed out to supporters or protection rackets.

McKinty also points out the growing media indifference: Duffy, searching the papers for important item about Northern Ireland, notes that the editions are filled with Lady Di’s wedding plans and the Yorkshire Ripper. Items about Northern Ireland are, usually, hidden several pages down, reminding the reader that media “weariness” with long-term problems is an ongoing issue.

While McKinty’s fiction seems very realistic, his story edges into dramatically complex areas. His plots often include small “walk-on parts” for real-life characters. For example, within The Cold Cold Ground  Duffy phones and meets up with Gerry Adams, while another character echoes the infamous IRA informer Stakeknife. Such real-or-not moments made me shiver a little, partly for the well-being of the author, who now lives in Australia.

As for the writing, The Cold Cold Ground  is a fast-paced crime-noir thriller: a genre rather than a literary novel. The prose contains tough language, violent sequences, sex scenes and dangerous driving. Even so, McKinty’s writing has a way of slipping between staccato sentences and lyrical description. Here’s his opening passage:

“The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife. And all this through a lens of oleaginous Belfast rain.”

I read about McKinty’s Duffy series last year. Bookwitch, on her well-established blog, was sharing her delight about the forthcoming Duffy title. Thank you, Bookwitch! Being curious, I ordered The Cold Cold Ground  from my local bookshop, enjoyed it tremendously and have now finished McKinty’s sixth and possibly last Duffy title.

Finally, I have a too-topical reason for choosing The Cold Cold Ground.  The book may be gritty escapism but it is impossible to read this story, or the series, without worries about Brexit, the current Irish border and the uneasy political situation creeping into the back of one’s mind. The dark world shown within McKinty’s thrillers really makes one hope that the Irish Peace Process - and the people either side of that border – will not be ignored or forgotten by those in power now.

The Cold Cold Ground is published by Serpent's Tail.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Guest Anthony McGowan on writing THE ART OF FAILING: Notes from the Underdog

Anthony McGowan was born in Manchester, brought up in Leeds, and lives in London. He is the author of two adult thrillers, and seven award-winning young adult novels: Hellbent, Henry Tumour, The Knife That Killed Me, The Fall, Brock, Hello Darkness, Pike and, most recently, Rook. His books for younger children include The Bare Bum Gang series, Einstein’s Underpants, Leopard Adventure, and The Donut Diaries of Dermot Milligan. His humorous memoir, The Art of Failing, was published by Oneworld in September 2017. Everybody Hurts, a YA novel written with Joanna Nadin, also came out in 2017, and has, along with Rook, been nominated for the Carnegie Medal.

My latest book, The Art of Failing, is an odd fish. Or perhaps more a Chimera, that mythical monstrosity made up of more or less random parts collected from other animals. Part memoir, part journal, part essay collection, with a few scraps of light verse (could anything be more out of fashion?), with meditations, ruminations, complaints, jokes, puzzled reflections, whimsical digressions, it seems rambling, but there is a narrative of sorts concealed in there for those who have the patience to look.

It’s not quite right to say that The Art of Failing is my Facebook book, ie my old Facebook posts, tarted up, and offered to the world as an original work of art. Not quite correct, but not absolutely false, either. I signed up for Facebook towards the end of 2007. I can’t recall why – just a whim, I guess, blown along by the fact it was free. For a couple of years, I didn’t do much with it. The same with Twitter. I was on social media in the most nominal and passive way. I was there because people told me I should be.

And then I got stuck in Washington during the 2010 ash cloud. I recorded the experience on Facebook, accentuating various indignities – getting caught by room service washing my underpants in the hotel sink, that sort of thing. I discovered that I’d invented a persona – me and yet not me. Incompetent in the small things of life, ponderous, accident prone, neurotic, a little obsessive. Funny, too, I hoped. I found it was a voice that was very easy to write in. Perhaps because it was both me and not me – close enough for the act of writing to be organic, rather than fake, but far enough away for me to be able to go into areas I’d have turned away from if the ‘I’ had been more straightforwardly me.

I found that people enjoyed these posts, and so I continued with this ‘character’ after I returned. Facebook is, of course, collaborative and responsive – this was like having a live audience, and I soon found what sort of stories worked – in the sense of garnering ‘likes’ (my humiliations, occasional moments of poetic revelation, more stuff about my trouser-based catastrophes) and what didn’t (anything about cricket, my bitter attacks on more successful writers, my exultant crowing over small scale victories).

But there were other things going on as well – other, I mean, than my attempt to amuse the passing Facebook trade. One of my main goals was to show that ‘ordinary’, everyday life was full of drama and strangeness, that a fascination could be found in the junk and dreck that lies around us, that ordinary people – the characters I encountered every day on the streets of West Hampstead – were worthy of a kind of anthropological study. Just as van Leeuwenhoek made us see fleas and pinheads and water droplets in a new way, discovering in them the bizarrely beautiful, I thought I could turn my gaze on the mundane and make it … well, less mundane.

Almost from the start I thought that there might be something here I could turn into a book. Or at least that the Facebook posts themselves were a sort of literary or artistic production. Not simply a record of my life, but a thing that might have a wider interest or significance. My goal came to subtly change. Could I say something important about life in the 21st Century? Could I give the reader the sense of what it feels like to be me – both a particular human being living in a humdrum London suburb, and a universal type?

So I took my Facebook posts (more than half a million words), printed them out as a massive Word document, and had a look to see what was there. Much of it was dross. Perhaps a third was of only passing interest. But the rest had … something. My wife – always my staunchest critic, the Penicillin to the rampant bacillus of my ego was, despite her best efforts, impressed. I suppose it may have helped that she’s a major character – the dreaded Mrs McG of the text. Mrs McG is terrible, but beautiful. And who wouldn’t settle for that?

But the text still needed a lot of work. I slashed it further, and I wrote and rewrote, expanding it as much as I cut. Finally, it was ready, I thought, for my agent.

She hated it.

She said it would ruin my career, and damage hers. She suggested that the whole of publishing and possibly Western Civilization was in jeopardy, should it see the light of day.

This was a blow. She was, without doubt, one of the finest and most powerful agents in the children’s book world, but beyond that, I loved her, and she’d been great for me over the years. But I’d gone this far, and there was no turning back. My friend Charlie Campbell took me on, helped to further refine the text, and finally hand-sold it, talking the ears off anyone who’d meet him. It was a brilliant piece of agenting – he sold the unsellable. He was greatly aided by a very kind quote from Nick Hornby – someone I knew only through Facebook. Without his sweet words, it might never have got the few minutes' attention every book needs, if it’s to squirm its way out of the slushpile.

In the end the book went to Oneworld – a wonderful indie, riding high on the back of consecutive Booker wins. My editor at Oneworld, Sam Carter, was fantastically committed to the project, and gave the manuscript the best editing I’ve ever had.

And now it’s out, a thing in the world. It means more to me than any book since my first, back in the early noughties. It’s always impossible to know, as a writer, what people really think of your books. People are kind. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. They might want you to review their book generously next year. But I’ve genuinely felt that those few people who have read it have derived amusement from it. Maybe more.

Several people have pointed out the paradoxical fate that awaits the book. If it’s successful, then it refutes the theme. If it fails, it triumphantly confirms its own prophecy. Really, I can’t lose. Or win.

The Art of Failing is published by Oneworld.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Guest review by Rachel Ward: crime round-up

Rachel Ward has written five thrillers for young adults, the first of which, Numbers, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. Her first book for adults, The Cost of Living, is a cosy crime story set in and around a supermarket, recently published by Sandstone Press. Rachel lives in Bath where she also paints and takes photographs.
Twitter: @RachelWardbooks  Facebook: Rachel Ward Art

Over the last couple of years, I’ve pretty much only read crime. There’s something comforting about having a puzzle set at the beginning of a book and knowing that there will be some sort of resolution by the end, however dark the story. Here’s a round up of the books I’ve been reading. My tastes are fairly mainstream and I don’t like very violent or disturbing books, but I’ve picked up some more unusual books and recommendations at Bristol CrimeFest for the past two years.

Ann Cleeves – the Shetland and Vera Stanhope books. I was led into these by the television adaptations. Vera started off as my favourite, but the Shetland books now have an equal place in my estimation. Cleeves creates believable characters, whose own story arcs develop slowly and convincingly through each series. I actively look forward to each new book from her.

Ian Rankin – I’ve dipped in and out of the Rebus books, alas not reading
them in order. No introduction needed from me, but I did see Rankin speak at Bristol Crimefest in 2016. He was treated like a rock star by the audience and who could really complain about that? He writes cracking books.

Elly Griffiths – I first bought two Stephens and Mephisto books (The Zig Zag Girl, Smoke and Mirrors) at Bristol CrimeFest after several panels recommended her. I enjoy the setting of Brighton shortly after WW2, and the police/theatrical ‘mash up’. Next up, I’m going to try the first of her Dr Ruth Galloway books, The Crossing Places.

Jorn Lier Horst – Horst is a stablemate at Sandstone Publishing. I only needed to try one of his William Wisting books to be hooked and am happily reading all the novels so far translated from Norwegian (When It Grows Dark, Dregs, Closed for Winter). They are conventional detective stories, given an extra twist of realism from Horst’s previous career as an investigator in the Norwegian police.

Ragnar Jonasson – there was a real buzz on Twitter about Jonasson and I saw him speak at CrimeFest in 2016. His Dark Iceland books are very readable. I particularly enjoy the setting – an isolated settlement, Siglufjordur – and the relative youth of his main character, Ari Thor Arason.

Henning Mankell – the Wallander books are among my favourites and I’ve enjoyed the Swedish and English TV adaptations. I haven’t read all the books yet as I am deliberately rationing them, to eke out the enjoyment. For some reason I find these particularly scary, I’m not sure why. It may be that sometimes Mankell switches to the killer’s point of view, which ratchets up the tension for me. I was very sad to hear of Mankell’s death in 2015. A great loss.

James Runcie –  the Granchester books are lighter in tone than the television adaption, with more humour and a good dollop of philosophy thrown in.

WHS McIntyre - from another stablemate at Sandstone, the Best Defence series is fast-paced and witty. It took me a while to get used to McIntyre’s wisecracking style but once I ‘got’ it, I really enjoyed Good News, Bad News and the plotting was very neatly done and satisfying.

Donald Westlake, Drowned Hopes – I started reading this out loud to my husband when he first came home from hospital. We ran out of steam but I think we’ll try again this winter as it was a brilliant set up.

Cass Green, In a Cottage In a Wood – Being a timid soul, this is at my limit for scary and twisty, but I really enjoyed it. It’s brilliantly plotted and a real page-turner, with very believable, recognisable characters – it hooks you in and doesn’t let you go.

CJ Skuse, Sweet Pea – This is a no-holds-barred, sexy, violent, rollercoaster of a book, recommended for those without a nervous disposition. I’ve seen it described as  Dexter meets Bridget Jones’ Diary and that’s about right … and then some.

Fleur Hitchcock - I must mention crime for younger readers. Hitchcock is a great storyteller and I really enjoyed Murder in Midwinter, which was shortlisted for an award at CrimeFest 2017. It's a genuinely exciting book for children of 11+ (?), or for much older readers, like me.

I’m always looking for new reads, especially series. If you have recommendations for crime reading, do let me know.

(Ann Cleeve's COLD EARTH was the choice of guest reviewer Jocelyn Ferguson. "Fans of Ann Cleeves have come to expect a compelling narrative, a powerful sense of place and atmosphere, acute characterisation and pared back prose, and with Cold Earth, her seventh novel in the Shetland series, she does not disappoint." Read the full review here. )