Apologies to those readers who had trouble accessing my site today. I decided to explore the new opportunity from WordPress to create podcasts from my blog posts. With my technical skills being fairly limited, I didn’t manage to record a satisfactory version with my own voice. So I adapted one of my posts slightly so that it would make sense when converted from text to audio and read by “Remy”. I think she reads it very well, even though her American accent may sound incongruous to people who know me! So here is my first podcast, on the topic of “The Fascination of Crime Fiction” – I hope it works.
Continuing my bi-annual list of book recommendations, here’s a selection from my reading list of recent months.
Literary fiction: I presume it’s just coincidence that the two novels I’ve enjoyed the most are both about inhibited older Englishmen with links to former British colonies. Old Filth by Jane Gardam, in which an old judge takes stock of his complex past life, is a masterpiece. The Mission House by Carys Davies, a much shorter book, is an elegantly written story about a depressed librarian’s sojourn in the hills of India.
Stoic philosophy: Though I have yet to tackle any of the ancient texts, a recent interest in this topic has led me to read several modern ones. Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars gives an excellent short introduction. I have also enjoyed books by Donald Robertson, William Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci. Next year I intend to work through The Daily Stoic Book by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.
Psychological thrillers: I read a lot of novels in this genre, and here are three of the ones I’ve enjoyed most. I was interested in Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly because it is set in an old county mental asylum similar to those where I worked many years ago. Here to Stay by Mark Edwards is a gripping account of an in-laws’ visit which goes from bad to worse. Who Did You Tell by Lesley Kara is about a young woman in a seaside town struggling to maintain sobriety and come to terms with an event from her past.
Biography and memoir: A Bit of a Stretch, the diary kept by Chris Atkins during his spell in a London prison, describes the appalling conditions in a darkly humorous style. Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, the book on which a recent Netflix hit was based, is about her repressed upbringing in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York. On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, set on the Lincolnshire coast, describes a different kind of unhappy childhood in gentle prose.
From my large pile of other books waiting to be read over the Christmas and New Year holidays, I’ve just started reading How to Walk a Dog by Mike White; a collection of entertaining though sometimes poignant true stories about the human-canine bond.
Five years ago I wrote a short ebook called Wellbeing for Writers, based on my experience of having writers as clients in my life coaching and Bach flower practice, and on the rewards and challenges of my own writing career. It contains practical tips about technical and commercial aspects for those new to the field, but is mainly focused on psychological ones that may also be relevant for experienced authors. Why do you write, and is it primarily for yourself or for your readers? How to protect time for writing when working from home with family responsibilities? How to respond to rejection and criticism? How to overcome a phobia of marketing? How to avoid the physical and mental health problems that particularly affect writers? What personal qualities and values are relevant to fulfilment and success?
Wellbeing for Writers had sales and positive reviews to begin with, but then lapsed into obscurity like so many of the other books on Amazon (according to one unofficial estimate, there are over 48 million of them now). I had more or less forgotten about it myself until an email inquiry prompted me to read it again and make a few updates.
Revising an older book can be a rather tedious task and is often neglected, though with non-fiction topics for which new knowledge and information frequently become available, it really ought to be done every few years. The content of Wellbeing for Writers required little change apart from a few corrections. Some of the website links had become invalid and, to my embarrassment, I found that Virginia Woolf’s name had been wrongly spelled in the original version.
Wellbeing for Writers by Jennifer Barraclough, ASIN B00YWEK97Y, is available from your local Amazon store in Kindle format (if you don’t have a Kindle you can read it with the Kindle App on another device).
I loved Agatha Christie’s books when I was a teenager. I read most if not all of her 66 crime novels featuring the detective skills of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, and occasionally other characters such as Ariadne Oliver or Tommy and Tuppence. Many years later I still have a few dogeared paperback versions, passed down from my mother’s estate, and look at them occasionally.
Agatha Christie’s writing career spanned more than 50 years, from 1920 to 1974. The majority of her books are set between the two world wars, a period that has been called the Golden Age of detective fiction. They seem old-fashioned today, yet I still find them appealing, and am obviously not alone in this. Her novels are still widely read, and new dramatisations and pastiches of her work and biographies of her life continue to be produced.
What is the secret of their enduring popularity? For me, there are several reasons:
The plots, mostly following a classic “whodunnit” formula, are extremely ingenious. Although there are clues scattered throughout the books, the solutions cannot easily be guessed before the end. It is said that the author herself often did not know the identity of the murderer until she had written the first draft, which seems amazing if it is true.
The books provide an authentic picture of an England that no longer exists – a time when life was simpler and more slowly paced, comfortable middle class families in quaint villages or country houses were supported by domestic servants who knew their place, and male and female roles were clearly defined. Whether you feel some sense of nostalgia for those days, or are thankful they are gone, it is interesting to read about a relatively recent period of English history so different from today.
Agatha Christie’s style is highly readable. She had a remarkable gift for writing with a light and sometimes humorous touch, but without trivialising the serious subject of murder. Her characters, if somewhat stereotyped, are mostly sympathetic. There is no graphic sex or violence in her books, and they are often categorised today as belonging to the “cozy crime” genre – a term which seems to me to devalue them. They are quite short, I think around 60,000 words. Many modern crime novels are twice that length, but personally I find the more concise format more satisfying.
As you can see from its cover image, there are references to Agatha Christie’s work in my own recent novel You Yet Shall Die. Set in rural England between the 1950s and early 2000s, it is a story of family secrets and discovery of a long-ago crime. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please have a look on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Dr Edward Bach described his flower remedies as having “beautiful vibrations” capable of promoting positive mental states such as hope, courage and calm. Established as a safe and natural therapy for almost 100 years, they can help to relieve the emotional distress often associated with physical illness. This short practical guide explains how to select and use the remedies as part of a holistic approach to healing. There are sections on common problems such as anxiety and sadness about the medical condition and its treatment, and difficulty in adjusting to changes in lifestyle and relationships. Despite all its negative aspects, serious illness can have “silver linings” and the flower remedies can help to bring these out.
Dr Jennifer Barraclough is a former consultant in psychological medicine with many years’ experience of working with patients and their families especially in cancer care settings. She is also a qualified Bach flower practitioner, life coach, and author of fiction and nonfiction books.
Beautiful Vibrations is available from your local Amazon website:
During the interval between lockdowns I decided to have some professional portrait photos taken, for use on my website and elsewhere. I was quite nervous before my session at headshotstudio.co.nz in central Auckland, but the afternoon with photographer Richard and makeup artist Ruth turned out a very enjoyable experience.
I had previously been using some amateur photos on my social media. The snaps of me holding cats or kittens were nice but maybe too informal. I rather liked another which showed me drinking wine at a cafe but perhaps this gave the wrong impression.
Like book covers, which I wrote about in my last post, author photos are a marketing tool which should ideally convey an impression appropriate for their genre. A crime writer might want to look slightly sinister or mysterious, a romance writer attractive and glamorous, a writer of medical books serious and academic. When I read a book I always hope to see a photo in the About the Author section at the back, though sometimes there isn’t one.
As I have written in several different genres myself, I aimed for nothing more specific than having a nice picture taken before the ravages of time affect my appearance any more than they have already. Here are the two of the best ones from my recent shoot.
As a self-published author I really enjoy choosing the covers for my books, but have learned that it’s not just about finding a pretty picture. The cover image is very important for marketing purposes, so it can be worth employing a professional designer rather than relying on stock photos. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” may be good advice in theory but, in practice, our first impressions about both objects and people are usually based on their appearance. A split-second glance at the cover often determines whether or not a potential reader will look inside.
What makes a good cover for a novel? Ideally the image, in combination with the title, will “capture the essence of the book” so as to appeal to its target audience – a tall order. Experts advise that the image should be relevant to the genre, but distinctive enough to stand out from other titles in the field. It should convey something about the story in a way that excites readers’ curiosity. The design is best kept fairly simple, with a single focal point to draw the eye, and needs to look good in thumbnail view. Personally I think the colour scheme is also very important.
A highly skilled artist may be able to ignore these rules, and create a cover image which looks so stunning that it attracts potential readers even if it bears no obvious relation to what the book is about.
Revamping a book’s cover from time to time can stimulate sales by attracting a fresh group of readers, and I recently changed the image for my novel You Yet Shall Die. The original version showed a photo of the North Kent marshes, where much of the story is set. I really liked the appearance of that one, but it gave little indication of the genre or content. The new version, featuring an old-fashioned dressing table strewn with books, is more relevant to the plot and more likely to appeal to the mature women who are the main target audience – hopefully without putting off all the men, considering that several of my male friends have enjoyed it.
Original cover on the left, new one on the right.
You Yet Shall Die is a gentle mystery novel set in Kent and Sussex. Who is the woman who claims to be Dr Harper’s “love child”? What was the true cause of his wife’s early death? As Hilda Harper researches her parents’ early lives in postwar Oxford and Swinging London’s nightclub scene, she discovers some shocking secrets but also finds new hope for her own future. You Yet Shall Die is available in paperback or ebook format from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and other Amazon marketplaces.
A positive aspect of my lockdown experience was having more time to read, which enabled me to finish a very long book – The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This is the final volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy set in England during the reign of Henry VIII, the first two books in the series being Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Although I would have enjoyed it even more if it had not been quite so detailed, the trilogy – a product of extensive historical research and vivid imagination – is a monumental achievement.
Another “faction” book (that is, a book based on a historical figure or events interwoven with fictitious elements) is The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester. The surgeon in question, WC Minor, murdered a man under the influence of paranoid delusions and was committed to Broadmoor Hospital in 1872. During the long years of his confinement there he devoted himself to researching the origin of words, contributing over 12,000 quotations to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This book was recently made into a film called The Professor and the Madman.
Having spent my professional life in general hospital psychiatry I am interested in popular books based on real-life case histories. Writers in this genre face a challenge; they must alter the details enough to preserve patients’ confidentiality, but not so much as to sacrifice medical accuracy. Three such books I have read this year are Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom, an American psychotherapist; Into the Abyss by Anthony David, a British neuropsychiatrist; and The Prison Doctor by Amanda Brown, a British GP.
I enjoyed autobiographies by two very different women. Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner is an engaging description of the life of a socialite who was born and married into the British aristocracy and had close connections to royalty, especially Princess Margaret. Her family’s privileged and hedonistic lifestyle was no protection against a series of tragedies, and after reading this book I felt glad that my own social background was more ordinary. Becoming by Michelle Obama is a longer book written in a more serious style. Born into a modest, hardworking black family in Chicago, she qualified as a lawyer and could have pursued a high-flying corporate career, but elected to focus instead on community and social issues, and as the wife of Barack Obama spent the years 2009-17 as First Lady of the United States.
Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die is a mystery about family secrets and a long-ago crime.
Today I donated the last box of my book Focus on Healingto the church fair. It was published just before print-on-demand paperbacks and ebooks became widespread, and although it was well received by readers, more copies were printed than were sold. I didn’t want to be like the author I once heard about whose garage was full of his own books when he died, and whose heirs gave the books away at his funeral.
Just as new cars start losing value as soon as they are sold, books on medical and healthcare topics start going out of date as soon as they are published. The content of Focus on Healing is still valid, and the ebook version is still available, but there is new information that could be added if I wrote a second edition. I’m not intending to do that, because I no longer work in the healthcare field.
Novels do not go out of date in the same way, although most sales usually occur in the first few months after publication. My own latest You Yet Shall Die is certainly selling better than my earlier ones, the Dr Peabody series which provide a somewhat cynical picture of medical practice in the 1980s, and the Three Novellas which are mystery/romances set between England and New Zealand. Some readers dislike older novels simply because their content seems out of fashion, or because they convey racist or sexist views, intolerance of minority groups, or other attitudes that would be indefensible today. Other readers accept these things as representative of the time the novels were written, and find that the historical aspect adds to the interest of the story.
A few older books become classics. Most of them fade into obscurity unless, rather sadly I think, they only become popular after being mentioned in the author’s obituary.
Over four years have passed since my mother died. The financial side of her estate has finally been settled, following prolonged correspondence with accountants and lawyers. A personal aspect, namely the letters in two of the box files I discovered in the spare bedroom when clearing her house, remains unresolved. I hope this is the last weekend of the Covid-19 lockdown, which would seem an ideal opportunity to deal with these boxes before my life gets busy again. But I still can’t decide what to do with them.
One box contains a series of letters written to my mother during my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, regarding a situation of which I was only dimly aware. I don’t know whether she intended me to find them after her death, but as she was a very “private person” I suspect not. I did read them, while feeling somewhat guilty about doing so. I think it likely that she intended to destroy them one day, but having become weak and unwell in the last months of her life, either lacked the energy to do so or forgot they were there. I haven’t shown the letters to my husband, but he knows something about their content, and suggests that it could make a good basis for my next novel. This may be true, but writing such a book would seem disloyal however heavily I disguised the plot. I have several options. I could destroy all the letters now. I could go through them again and copy selected extracts into a file on my computer for future reference, then destroy the rest. I could leave them in the box, with a note asking whoever finds them after my death to destroy them unread.
The other box contains the letters I sent home to my mother and grandparents in Yorkshire when I was a medical student in Oxford in the late 1960s. I have only reread some of these, having found the style embarrassingly naive, but some contain descriptions of the course which might perhaps be of interest to a medical historian. I was shocked to find that I remember nothing about most of the people and events described. What a contrast to my husband Brian Barraclough and my friend Jean Hendy-Harris, who can both recall their past lives in great detail and have published memoirs about them. I wonder which of us is the more unusual.
Update December 15 2020: With the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death approaching, it was time to make decision about her letters. I destroyed them all yesterday, not without regret, but felt it was the right thing to do.
Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.