“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Afterwards a walk down Wharf Road to the Matakana River. The public toilet buildings at the top of the road looked most distinctive.
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.
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.
This is a light-hearted piece about the possible parallels between writing a book and having a baby. It’s adapted from Wellbeing for Writersby 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.
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.