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.

Podcasting

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.

What I’ve been reading (July – December 2020)

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.

***

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).

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Wellbeing for Writers” revisited

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).

Why I still admire Agatha Christie

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.

“Beautiful Vibrations”: Living through medical illness with Bach flower remedies

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:

Amazon US: Kindle, Paperback

Amazon UK: Kindle, Paperback

Amazon AU: Kindle

Author profile pictures

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.

Changing covers

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.comAmazon.co.uk and other Amazon marketplaces.