My Author Bio

I have just turned 75, and it feels like the right time to review my long and winding journey to becoming an author.

Writing was my first love and as a child growing up in Kent I produced a variety of short stories and plays. These early works have long since been thrown away and their content forgotten, though I think they usually featured cats and dogs. I did well in English at school and was expected to take a university degree in that subject, but in my teens I developed an idealistic wish to heal the sick. The medical courses at Leeds and Oxford, then life as a junior doctor, absorbed so much time and energy that I never even thought about writing fiction again till years later.

It was after many changes both professional and personal that I decided on a career in psychiatry, and when studying for the postgraduate qualifications I compiled my notes into what would turn out to be my first book. A senior colleague suggested sending it to a publisher. It was accepted, and without any marketing on my part sold well and continued into five editions; by far my greatest commercial success. I moved on to academic posts, involving opportunities for research, writing papers for journals, and medical books relevant to my specialty of the interface between psychiatry and cancer.

In my mid-30s, when finally settled into a contented domestic life, I wrote three novels inspired by my earlier work experience in general practice and in mental hospitals. I enjoyed this tremendously, and given my earlier success with the psychiatry book, I assumed that I would have no trouble getting them published. I was soon disillusioned. Some rejection letters were encouraging but others were not, and I was so upset by one damning verdict that I put the manuscripts aside for 20 years. An overreaction, and I now realise that you can’t please everyone and that even the best of books gets an occasional bad review. Knowing how devastating it can be for writers to receive harsh criticism of their work, I will only review a book myself if I can give an honest positive opinion.

Fast forward to my 50s when, after a rewarding career as consultant in psychological medicine in Oxford, I came to live in New Zealand. Alongside many new interests, I focused on writing and editing. Twenty years later I have a variety of titles, non-fiction and fiction in a variety of genres, some traditionally published and some under my independent imprint of Overcliff Books, listed on my Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk author pages. My current project is editing my husband’s autobiography. What, if anything, I will write next I don’t know.

Books I’ve enjoyed #10

I had plenty of time for reading during Auckland’s prolonged lockdown and the very hot summer which followed.

First, some popular novels set in the UK. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, about three young women who worked as code-breakers at Bletchley Park during World War Two, is an intriguing and well researched combination of fact and fiction. Watch her Fall by Erin Kelly is a complicated story which gives insights into the world of ballet, and after reading it I will watch Swan Lake with new eyes. The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach, an elderly woman’s quest to find a new man after being deserted by her husband, is full of dark humour and was described in The Times review as a “deliciously savage tale of sex and death”. And Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner is a psychological thriller in which a pregnant woman’s life is disrupted by the stalker she meets at an antenatal class.

Next, a small selection of the many books recently published by members of the Auckland Crime Writers group. Blood on Vines by Madeleine Eskedahl, Quiet in her Bones by Nalini Singh and my own novel Cardamine are all set in New Zealand and evoke the local scenery of forests, beaches and vineyards. Some describe other locations. The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle is set on a yacht, and The Forger and the Thief by Kirsten McKenzie is a historical thriller set in Florence.

Two novels in the literary fiction genre. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, narrated in the voice of a gentle and observant robot who is purchased as the “artificial friend” of a fragile teenage girl, is a readable story which raises some profound questions. More challenging is We Germans by Alexander Starritt, in which an old man writes to his grandson in an attempt to come to terms with his past as a soldier serving on the Eastern front in World War Two.

Four non-fiction books which left an impression on me. The Devil You Know by Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne contains a series of (disguised) case histories of psychotherapy with mentally disturbed criminal offenders, not all of whom could be helped. I reread an older book, The Power of Premonitions by Larry Dossey, a physician who has made a detailed study of “psi” phenomena. Against All Odds by Craig Challen and Richard Harris is a vivid description of the 2018 rescue of the young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand. Lastly, Dear John by Joan Le Mesurier is about her marriage to the actor who is still fondly remembered for his role as Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army.

Writing as an Englishwoman in New Zealand

Here’s a little background to my new novel Cardamine: A New Zealand Mystery. Amazon links: US, UK, AU

Most novels contain elements of autobiography and the setting for this one was informed by my own memories of visiting New Zealand for the first time, discovering the beautiful beaches and countryside, the enticing vineyards and coffee shops. Several North Island locations – Waiheke, Browns Bay, Riverhead Forest, Muriwai – are featured in the book. There are also references to the confusion that can arise from subtle differences in culture and use of language between two English-speaking nations. My background in medicine and psychiatry had an influence on the plot, with speculation about how emotions, beliefs, personality factors and mental or physical illness can contribute to crime.

The main character, Kate, is in New Zealand on holiday on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic. She is much younger and more adventurous than me but shares my liking for sea swimming and the local wines. After drinking rather too much of them during a vineyard tour, she loses the bag containing her valuables and so misses her night flight back to London. A rich and eccentric elderly man comes to her rescue and invites her to stay in his country house, called Cardamine after the flowers around the pond in the garden. His wife, a “mail order bride”, is mysteriously absent. Kate’s summer holiday had begun as an idyll of sunshine and swimming and budding romance, but she becomes aware that the country’s “clean green” image conceals a darker side involving racial prejudice, illegal drug use and unnatural death.

Cardamine is available in paperback or Kindle format from your local Amazon website: US, UK, AU. New Zealand residents can buy a print version directly from me – please write via my contact page if you’d like to order a copy.

Free speech?

“This may be offensive to your reader” warns Microsoft Word when it finds bitch in the text of my forthcoming novel. Considering that I was using the term to describe a female dog I find this quite amusing, but it makes me think about other less trivial ways that the use of language is becoming curtailed. One of my characters expresses racist views before being admonished by his wife, and I understand that a similar incident in one of Sally Rooney’s books led a journalist to accuse the author herself of racism. JK Rowling was “cancelled” for a comment that some interpreted as transphobic – fortunately my novel contains nothing about gender identity issues. It seems more acceptable to portray violence towards people and animals in fiction than to risk upsetting “woke” sensibilities.

Free speech is also limited in real life. Here in New Zealand, doctors who express valid concerns about the safety of Covid vaccination are being disciplined by the medical authorities. The rare but well authenticated cases of serious illness or death attributable to this vaccine are seldom reported in the media, and campaign materials designed to get everyone vaccinated make no mention of potential risks. I regard the vaccine as the lesser of two evils so have had my own two shots, but I respect the rights of those who have researched the pros and cons of this intervention and decided not to accept it.

Books I’ve enjoyed #9

Here is a selection of the books, fiction and non-fiction, that I’ve enjoyed in recent months.

Top pick among my favourite genre of English psychological mystery novels is Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins. This held a special attraction for me because of its evocative descriptions of Oxford, where I lived for many years but have been unable to revisit since the pandemic began. Its unusual protagonist is a Scotswoman, a mathematics dropout who works as a nanny for academic families. She becomes closely attached to her latest charge, an eight year old girl neglected by her self-centred parents. The girl disappears, prompting a police investigation. Another good and original read was The Appeal by Janice Hallett, written mainly in the form of email exchanges among the legal team preparing an appeal against a murder conviction. It is set in a fictional town where the amateur dramatics society includes a large cast of players.

After watching the award-winning film Nomadland, I read the book of the same title on which it was based. The author, Jessica Bruder, is a journalist who spent three years observing and befriending some of the thousands of van dwellers who travel around America supporting themselves with seasonal jobs. The majority are single older people who, though often well qualified and skilled, have met with financial hardship and can no longer afford conventional housing. Their fortitude and ingenuity, as they navigate the practical challenges and endure what sound like appalling working conditions in campsites, Amazon warehouses and beet farms, are impressive. I found this book somewhat long and meandering, but its content was an eye-opener.

The only medical book in this selection is The Sleeping Beauties by neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, who has travelled round the world observing “culture-bound” epidemics of illnesses for which no medical explanation can be found. Such syndromes have been described by many different terms including “hysterical” “psychosomatic” and “functional”. The causes may be complex, but the author believes sociocultural factors to be more relevant than than individual psychopathology. I found the discussion sections at the end of each chapter rather heavy going, but I do know how difficult it is to write clearly about this subject. I liked the final section about the growing “over-medicalisation” of life problems in Western countries.

Two autobiographies are on this list. Father Joe: the man who saved my soul is by the late English satirist Tony Hendra, best known for his work on the Spitting Image TV programmes. As a result of a sexual transgression in his teens, he was sent to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight to meet the Benedictine monk who was to become his spiritual mentor throughout his colourful adult life. A very different memoir is One Woman’s War by Eileen Younghusband who, aged nineteen, volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and worked as a “filterer” transcribing Radar transmissions in WW2. After the war she was posted to Europe and among other duties worked in a liberated concentration camp. This beautifully written short book gives a modest account of an extraordinary life.

I recently wrote a separate post about Happy: why more or less everything is absolutely fine, Derren Brown’s take on Stoic philosophy and other things.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

You Yet Shall Die: A psychological mystery about family secrets and a long-ago crime

I’ve recently been so focused on writing my next book that I’ve neglected the marketing of my previous ones. So I’ve now set up a price promotion for the Kindle version of You Yet Shall Die, a gentle psychological mystery set in rural England in the recent past. The novel has 5-star ratings on Amazon, and readers’ comments include “It was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess” and “Top marks for an absorbing crime and mystery story without the gory bits.”

How to respond to a stranger who claims to be your half-sister? Hilda, a single woman living as a recluse in a marshland cottage with her rescue cats, is faced with this question when she is visited by a young woman claiming to be the “love child” of her late father. Hilda’s quest to investigate her family background leads to a dangerous conflict with her brother, and to the discovery of some shocking events rooted in postwar Oxford and the 1960s London nightclub scene, but also widens the options for her own future.

The Kindle promotion, available to readers in most but not all countrie, is running from 20-27 June. Please have a look on your local Amazon website, and it would be much appreciated if you can help my marketing efforts by sharing this post with your contacts – thank you.

Murder mystery in Matakana

Matakana, a pretty village in the wine-growing region north of Auckland, was the venue for Sunday’s launch of the novel Blood on Vines by my friend Madeleine Eskedahl. My husband and I attended the event and stayed in the Matakana Motel overnight.

Matakana Estate, photo from TripAdvisor

I am unable to drive while recovering from a wrist fracture, so we took public transport. This involved working out the connections between four bus routes: 814 to Akoranga, NX1 to Hibiscus Coast, 995 to Warkworth and 997 to Matakana. We were almost the only passengers for parts of the journey, and as the modern double-decker NX1 on its dedicated busway sped past the traffic jams on the parallel motorway we wondered why Aucklanders are so wedded to their cars. However the trip did take a long time because the rural buses are infrequent. Our wait in the charming little town of Warkworth was pleasantly occupied with lunch and a riverside walk.

The book launch took place in The Vintry, Matakana, an intimate bar in a complex which also contains a cinema, restaurant and boutique shops. We were served with a selection of local wines accompanied by platters of cheeses and tapas while listening to readings from Madeleine’s novel. I haven’t opened my copy yet so can only quote from the back cover blurb: “… an ex-wine-maker is murdered … a rampage of death is about to rock the local community to its core.” The event was well attended and it was good to see some fellow members of the Auckland Crime Writers group.

Madeleine and Jennifer

Afterwards a walk down Wharf Road to the Matakana River. The public toilet buildings at the top of the road looked most distinctive.

Photo by Brian Barraclough

A dip in the pool at the Matakana Motel, and a delicious dinner at the Matakana Country Kitchen, rounded off the evening and our overnight accomodation was quiet and comfortable. There was a spot of panic in the morning when, due to a discrepancy between the timetable on the bus shelter and the information on the Auckland Transport app, we risked missing the 997 on its occasional trip from Matakana to Warkworth. But all was well and we were home by lunchtime. It felt good to have had a “mini-break” especially considering that, due to lockdowns, I haven’t been away from Auckland since my last visit to England in 2019.

Book review “Happy: why more or less everything is absolutely fine” by Derren Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been an admirer of British illusionist Derren Brown since watching his brilliant and controversial TV shows such as “Miracle” and “Sacrifice”. He is also a writer and when I learned that he shared my interest in Stoicism, and that this informed his book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine, I was keen to read what he had to say. It’s a big book, ambitious and sometimes provocative, spanning a wide range of topics. The style is fluent and engaging, though tends to ramble at times.

I very much enjoyed the potted history of philosophy and psychology, the critical appraisal of the self-help industry, and the practical guidance on modern applications of Stoicism in Parts One and Two. I would have given 5 stars if the book had ended there but was less impressed with Part Three, in which Derren presents his views about death and dying and argues against the existence of an afterlife. Reference to the work of the many thinkers and researchers who have studied these fields, and to others’ contrasting experiences and beliefs, would have made these chapters more balanced and helpful.

Reservations aside, this is an original and stimulating book that can be recommended for serious readers seeking a fulfilling life.






View all my reviews

Writing a book is like having a baby

This is a light-hearted piece about the possible parallels between writing a book and having a baby. It’s adapted from Wellbeing for Writers by Jennifer Barraclough, a short guide full of practical tips about finding fulfilment and enjoyment through a writing career.

Although the time it takes to write a book can vary from a few weeks to many years, it is said that the average is about nine months – the same as a full term human pregnancy. But just as some babies are delivered prematurely, some books are submitted for publication too soon, because their writers are so impatient to see them in print. It would have been better to take more time to check for typos in the manuscript and flaws in the plot and generally polish up the finished product. At the other extreme some books, like some babies, become overdue. Maybe the writers are continually revising them in a futile quest for perfection. Or maybe, as first-time authors, they are afraid to take the step of putting their work out to the world.

Of course many pregnancies end in miscarriage. Similarly, many manuscripts are abandoned before they have developed into a complete book. This may not be a bad thing. Writers often need to experiment with different styles, genres and themes and it may become clear that some early drafts are not going to work out well and the best policy is to give up and make a new start.

Just as good care for mothers and babies before the birth is important, writers working on new books need to avoid the physical and mental health hazards associated with their occupation. There’s a chapter in Wellbeing for Writers about how to avoid problems like these.

Publication, like giving birth, is both exciting and stressful. Although writers are spared the physical pain of labor, they may experience acute complications such as discovering a last-minute problem with the proofs, or technical difficulties when uploading their files.

It’s not uncommon for new mothers to develop post-natal depression, due to the huge hormonal and social changes they are experiencing. And writers often feel low after finishing a book, though for different reasons. There is a sense of anticlimax, and sometimes the best treatment is starting to write another one. But inspiration does not come to order, and the equivalent of infertility is writer’s block.

Just as children need care from their parents for many years after they are born, writers need to keep on looking after their books after publication if they hope for ongoing sales, by continuing with marketing and by updating the content if required.

Both having children and writing books represent ways of expressing creativity and leaving a legacy for the future. Just as your children contain some of your genes, your books contain some part of yourself – yet they also have separate lives of their own and you cannot predict or control just how they are going to turn out.

Wellbeing for Writers is available in Kindle or paperback format from your local Amazon website.