Twelve books for Christmas

susan-yin-2JIvboGLeho-unsplashA few ideas for holiday reading: mostly crime and mystery novels plus a few books in other genres, listed alphabetically. (Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash)

A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley: The film Lion was based on this book. An Indian boy from a poor village gets trapped on a train, is taken into an orphanage far from home, adopted by an Australian couple, and then in adult life manages to reconnect with his birth family. An extraordinary true story, sincerely told in simple prose.

Normal People by Sally Rooney: this novel about the on-off relationship between two young adults in Ireland has won several prizes, but the reviews on Amazon are mixed. Like a number of other readers I found myself losing interest in the story halfway through, but appreciated the original writing style.

Platform Seven by Louise Doughty: A psychological thriller told from the viewpoint of a ghost who haunts Peterborough Station. Although this literary device didn’t quite work for me, the back story of a controlling male-female relationship is convincingly portrayed, and the account of a railway suicide and its effect on observers is chilling.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney: A novel loosely inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant and Soviet spy. An elderly widow living quietly in London is arrested by MI5, and interrogated about the events that followed her meeting with communist sympathisers when she was a naive and idealistic student in Cambridge during the 1930s.

Sleep by CL Taylor: A modern variant on the country house murder mystery. Anna, traumatised by a car crash and unjustly blamed for the death of one of her passengers, leaves London to work in a hotel on a remote Scottish island but finds the guests are not what they seem.

The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter: A lucid explanation of basic statistical concepts, illustrated by published research studies in the medical and social fields.  The results of such studies are sometimes misinterpreted, for example the health risks of eating bacon have been widely exaggerated in the media.

The Dragon of God by Earl Thor: An intelligent and fast-paced American thriller involving serial killings, religious fanaticism, near-death experiences, reincarnation, and the romance between a theology professor and a neuroscientist. It reminded me of Dan Brown’s novels and was just as good.

The Secretary by Renee Knight: Highly efficient at her job but unfulfilled in her personal life, the secretary in this novel is obsessively devoted to the charismatic but unscrupulous businesswoman who employs her. Eventually her devotion is exploited too far and she determines on revenge.

The Sound of her Voice by Nathan Blackwell: This crime thriller, clearly informed by the author’s former career as a police detective, is set in the Auckland region close to where I live. It’s an absorbing story, and highlights the mental and physical trauma experienced by frontline staff dealing with violent deaths. It contains some graphic descriptions of the murder of young women, and a lot of swear words.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay: My own experience as an NHS junior doctor in the 1970s was hard enough, but what Adam Kay went through in the early 2000s sounds far worse. His book, based on extracts from the diary he kept during obstetrics and gynaecology training, uses black humour to convey the stress of managing an impossible workload with inadequate facilities. In the end it became too much, and the medical profession lost a skilled and dedicated doctor.

Where Rowans Intertwine by Margaret Grant: This long historical romance is set in the island of Mona (now called Anglesey) off the coast of Wales, almost two thousand years ago. The story charts the relationship between a young Druid priestess and a surgeon from the occupying Roman army. The author explains that the book took ten years to write, and was the product of detailed research combined with spiritual inspiration.  

You Yet Shall Die by Jennifer Barraclough: And lastly my own latest novel, a story of family secrets and a long-ago crime, set in rural England. 

 

Good Books July-September 2019

Books photo unsplash

Here’s the latest roundup of books I’ve enjoyed reading lately, mostly crime and mystery novels and a few general titles. They are listed in alphabetical order.

A Keeper by Graham Norton: A gentle and somewhat old-fashioned mystery involving family secrets. Following her mother’s death, a woman returns to her childhood home in rural Ireland and explores her father’s identity. Graham Norton’s writing reveals a more thoughtful and sensitive aspect to his personality than is apparent from his TV show.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper: Five work colleagues,  all women, embark somewhat reluctantly on a “team-building” exercise in the Australian bush. They get lost, run out of food and water, and quarrel among themselves before one of them goes missing. The hostile environment is vividly described, making me feel very thankful not to be there.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe:  Classified on Amazon as “political fiction”, this long novel follows a group of middle-class characters over the years before and after the Brexit referendum. I chose it because I still follow the UK news since moving to New Zealand 20 years ago. Society has changed in many ways since I left, and Coe paints a witty if somewhat depressing picture of the current tensions, for example around the topic of immigration.

Mind to Matter by Dawson Church: Since attending a series of courses at the College of Healing in England, many years ago now, I have been trying to reconcile its teachings with my training in orthodox medicine. This book summarises numerous research studies that support the idea that energy creates matter and that “thoughts become things”. There is a lot of technical detail but not much about its clinical relevance, for example how the human energy field may relate to the auras and chakras or how the memory of water may relate to homeopathy, and the only therapies described are EFT (tapping) and meditation. The final message is the simple one of think positive.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty: I was attracted to this one because the action takes place in an upmarket wellness retreat in Australia, not too dissimilar to the one where Brian and I stayed last year. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first part, with character development set against tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the regime, but found the later chapters protracted.

Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler by Cate Haste: Growing up in Vienna at the turn of the century, Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel possessed outstanding musical talent, physical beauty and sexual allure. The conventions of the time prevented a woman from pursuing a professional career as a composer, and Alma’s first husband Gustav Mahler forbade her to express her musicality until towards the end of his life. Deeply frustrated by this sacrifice, she channeled her energies into a frenetic series of marriages and affairs with creative men.

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman: A young London couple on honeymoon in a luxury tropical resort make a gruesome discovery. Thwarted in their cursory attempt to hand the matter over to the proper authorities, they decide to use it for their own financial gain and are soon drawn into a web of intrigue involving the criminal underworld and the undermining of their relationship. Despite some loose ends in the plot and an improbable ending, this is a gripping psychological thriller.

The End of the Line by Gillian Galbraith: During the 1980s, a number of patients with haemophilia were accidentally infected with the HIV virus through contaminated blood products. This intelligent medico-legal thriller is set many years later, when a retired Scottish haematologist is called to give evidence in a court case related to the scandal, and then dies in suspicious circumstances. The elderly bookseller dealing with his estate sets out to investigate. There are some rather gruelling descriptions of the decrepitude of old age.

The Holiday by TM Logan: Four 40-ish women friends, along with their husbands and children, spend a summer holiday in a villa in France. The surroundings are luxurious but, with suspicions of infidelity between the adults and disturbed behaviour among the teenagers, the atmosphere soon becomes strained. The escalating tensions culminate in the death of one member of the group.

What we Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde: An Iranian woman with a revolutionary past becomes a refugee in Sweden, is widowed, and then diagnosed with terminal cancer. The subject-matter of this short novel makes it sound like heavy going, but the dry humour and lack of sentimentality make it a worthwhile read.

And at the end of the alphabet my own book You Yet Shall Die, a story of family secrets and concealed crime set in southern England in the recent past, has a couple of good reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

A giveaway backfires

I recently gifted a print copy of my novel Fatal Feverfew to the winner of my latest Goodreads Giveaway. Soon afterwards she posted a rating on the website, giving it 1 star and commenting “the writing was dull, the plot was poorly written, and the characters were extremely unlikeable and boring. I really struggled to finish this book.”

In my younger days I would have been depressed for weeks after reading a review like that. Now I am more philosophical, reminding myself that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. All the previous novels that I put through the giveaway programme received 4 or 5 star ratings, and I can’t believe this latest one is so much worse than the rest. I do wonder whether someone who has to “struggle to finish a book” would do better to abandon it and move on to something they enjoy reading – this is my own policy now, and I don’t write a review unless I can say something positive.

So, my latest giveaway has backfired as a marketing method – or has it? A day or two after that damning review was published, a little peak in sales of both Fatal Feverfew and some of my other books showed up online. Maybe this proves the truth of the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Here are some suggestions about how to cope with bad reviews.

Accentuate the positive

I’ve recently been visiting sites such as https://bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com/ and http://www.theindieview.com/indie-reviewers/  in search of bloggers who might like to review my novels. In their guidelines for authors, some of them state that they will only post about those books to which they can give a good rating, while others warn that they may include negative reviews as well as positive ones.
I tend to favour the first policy, although I do think that an honest and helpful review usually needs to include a few points of constructive criticism. Reviews which consist of undiluted praise may have been paid for, or written by friends or relatives of the author.
Negative reviews can be devastating for authors, especially sensitive or inexperienced ones, but they are often highly subjective. Even prizewinning best sellers are never universally admired, but receive a handful of damning comments and low ratings. From the reviewer’s angle it can be a waste of time and energy to read through to the end of something boring, distasteful or poorly edited, though there are a few who derive perverse satisfaction from trashing a book. A strongly worded negative review can actually attract readers, whereas if the book was really all that bad it would have been kinder to ignore it and let it lapse into obscurity.
For all these reasons, I prefer not to post ratings of less than 3 stars or reviews which are predominantly negative, even though I do find that negative reviews can be the the easiest sort to write. When I dislike a book I can usually give a specific reason for my opinion. For example, novels containing descriptions of cruelty to animals are my pet hate (no pun intended). I recently gave up on a thriller in which the F-word appeared several times on almost every page. And an autobiography which should have been fascinating was, in my opinion, marred by the self-pitying tone of its author. In contrast, when I do like a book I am often unable to explain exactly why, and find myself reduced to using bland general terms such as “interesting”, “original”, “gripping” or “uplifting”.
For the record, looking back at my list of 5-star ratings on Goodreads, a few of the titles which I have enjoyed reading or re-reading lately have included psychological thrillers (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Children Act by Ian McEwan, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn), biographies (Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary, Bomber Boys by Patrick Bishop, Noel Streatfeild by Angela Bull), and books about holistic healing (You are the Placebo by Joe Dispenza, Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani).

Discounts and giveaways?

I have mixed feelings about self-published books being given away free of charge. This practice seems to devalue all the hard work of their authors, and can perpetuate the belief that they are inferior to books from traditional publishers. Although a free ebook will usually get far more downloads than one which carries a price tag, many of these will be from undiscerning readers who are not really interested in the content and may never even look at it at all. But in some circumstances, offering free books is worthwhile.

Some of the authors who write about self-help, educational or spiritual topics have altruistic motives, and would rather reach the widest possible audience than make any money. My little Bach flower book, which has always been free, continues to get thousands of downloads per year.

Turning to the profit motive, free books can be a “loss leader” to promote sales of other titles. This easy-to-use method of marketing is particularly recommended in the case of a series; readers who download the first one for free, and enjoy it, may go on to purchase the later ones too. For the reasons given above I am reluctant to use this strategy, though I may change my mind one day. But when sales of my own fiction books were flagging after Christmas, I decided to experiment with reducing their prices: currently the three novellas are just 0.99 USD each, and the box set is 2.99 USD. Details can be found on my Smashwords and Amazon author pages.

A variant of free promotion which I do like using is the Goodreads Giveaway programme, in which the print version of my Three Novellas will be included until 11th March. ( Click here to enter the draw for a free copy.) Winners in this programme are encouraged to post reviews on the Goodreads site, and they often do – hopefully these will be positive reviews, though even negative ones are better for publicity purposes than none at all.

Lastly, there is the option of sending free copies to journals and book blogs for review. One of the things I miss from my traditional publishing days is having this done for me, and I have only just started to explore it in my indie publishing career. I know that many professional reviewers are overwhelmed with submissions and cannot deal with them all, so I prefer to approach those who will accept ebooks. Sending out print copies without any promise of a response can prove a costly and futile exercise.