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

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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.

Writing plans 2019: Kent, cats and family secrets

I came home from the RototuaNoir crime writing festival in January fired with enthusiasm for working on my next novel. The story is inspired to some degree by my own life experience, involving some old family secrets, and set in the North Kent marshes close to where I was brought up. Writing from my home in New Zealand I have rely on the internet to refresh my memories of these isolated wetlands beside the Thames estuary, a haven for birds and wildlife littered with relics of light industry. The video in this blog post by Carol Donaldson conveys the area’s strange appeal.
The crime element of my new plot, which is purely fictional, is essential to the story but occupies a relatively small part of the text. This is in keeping with the trend, noted at the festival, for the term “crime fiction” to include much more than the traditional who-dun-its and police procedurals. “Crossover” books which combine crime with, say, the historical or romance genres or qualify as literary fiction are increasingly popular.
The characters in my new novel are also fictional, with the exception of rescue kitten Magic who plays a small part as herself. Despite its feline content, I don’t think the book will belong in the BISAC category of Fiction/Mystery & Detective/Cozy/Cats & Dogs, as it touches on some serious themes. I would prefer to see it coded as Fiction/Family Life or simply Fiction/Crime.
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I hope the new novel will be published later this year. Meanwhile some of my earlier books are being discounted in the Smashwords sale from March 3 to March 9, so please have a look at this link and consider downloading one or more of them for less than the cost of a cup of coffee! They include the three 1980s medical crime-cum-black comedy novels I presented at the RotoruaNoir festival; the more recent Three Novellas set between England and New Zealand; and non-fiction books mostly on health-related topics.
Lastly, if you found this post through the “North Kent” tag, you may be interested in the new book Sunday’s Child by Jean Hendy-Harris describing some vividly detailed memories of what life in the area was like in the post-war years.     

Writing crime fiction set in the recent past

Recently I had the pleasure of attending New Zealand’s first crime writing festival, Rotorua Noir. I’d been invited to take part in a panel session called “Digging into the Past”, which was a surprise because my novels are set within my own lifetime and I had not previously thought of them as historical. But of course they are, because the world has changed such a lot in recent decades. Writing about the recent past, which I will arbitrarily define as covering the 70-odd years following World War 2, is somewhat different from tackling more obviously historical settings such as medieval England or Ancient Rome.

Human nature doesn’t change much and nor do the basic motives for murder. PD James summed these up as the four Ls – Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. To these might be added Lunacy, although that is an outdated term and it would be a cop-out to use it as the sole explanation for a fictional crime. Only a minority of murders in real life result from the delusions and hallucinations of mental illness. Most murderers do however have some or all of the personality characteristics which are labelled psychopathic, and psychopaths have always existed.

So, the main challenge for writers of historical crime fiction is getting the background right. Checking on the dates of major events is easy enough. It is harder to capture the subtle cultural changes – when did certain behaviours, attitudes and terms of speech that once were commonplace start to be regarded as outdated or inappropriate? Social attitudes have changed considerably, with the advent of political correctness and greater acceptance of minority groups. Then there are the practical details of everyday life, for example: When did the use of computers and mobile phones become widespread? When did the contraceptive pill became available to unmarried women? When did gramophone records give way to cassettes and CDs? What clothes were in fashion, and what songs were in the Top 10? What did people have for breakfast? While most readers might not pick up inaccuracies about such matters, a few will delight in pointing them out.

How should the writer deal with those historical aspects which might cause confusion unless they are explained? “Show not tell” is the ideal. Overloading the text with facts, in the style of a history lesson, is to risk boring and patronising the readers. A better way to convey information is through the characters’ speech and behaviour, which demands considerable skill, or by including explanatory notes at the beginning or end of the book.

My own long and winding path to becoming a fiction writer illustrates these points. During the 1980s I wrote three novels based on my experiences of working as a doctor in England:  Overdose set in a psychiatric hospital, Fatal Feverfew in an alternative health retreat and Unfaithful Unto Death in rural general practice. Having previously found publishers keen to accept my medical books, it was a shock to find that fiction publishing was a different ballgame and after a few rejections I gave up. I put my typescripts away in a box, and almost forgot about them.

In 2000 my husband and I moved to Auckland, and having retired from medicine I had time to take up other interests and decided to have another go at fiction. I wrote three linked short novels: Carmen’s Roses, Blue Moon for Bombers and The Windflower Vibration, set between England and New Zealand with flashbacks to the characters’ earlier lives as far back as 1940. Self-publishing had become a viable option and, feeling that I was getting too old to spend time waiting for responses from traditional publishers, I decided to try the indie way and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom it conferred.

Wondering what to write next I remembered my 1980s novels, though I wasn’t even sure if they had survived the major decluttering process which preceded our move. I managed to find the faded typescripts and read them again. Some of their content seemed old-fashioned and rather shocking – arrogant doctors who disrespect their patients, accept lavish hospitality from drug companies, drink alcohol before driving, sexually exploit junior colleagues – such behaviour would not be tolerated today although it would be naive to believe it never happens. Should I tone my text down, to avoid offending modern readers? But I decided to leave it largely unchanged, as an only slightly exaggerated record of how things sometimes used to be.

The timeline of my forthcoming novel You Yet Shall Die shifts between the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While writing it, I found it useful to draw up a detailed chronology listing the dates of the main events and the characters’ ages at the time. This list, not for publication, helped to prevent me from making mistakes.

 

Murder in the Library

Last night, along with two of the other authors entered for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award, I had the pleasure of taking part in a “Murder in the Library” event in Takapuna. Besides describing our own books, we discussed some questions about crime fiction in general.

My husband came along for moral support but he is not a fan of this genre, and had asked me privately why on earth people enjoy reading novels about something so unpleasant as murder. I agree it is a challenge for writers to create entertainment out of such a serious subject. But crime novels are enduringly popular, and I think there are several reasons for this. They have a clear structure and focus, with a mystery to be solved and a solution at the end. They can provide insights into criminal psychology, and raise ethical and moral issues. The good ones have interesting characters and settings as well as convincing plots.

The crime genre as broadly defined covers novels of many different kinds. The traditional whodunnit, often featuring a private detective who is more competent than the police, begins with discovery of a body and ends with unmasking of the killer – usually the most unlikely of suspects from a circle of middle-class characters. This format may now seem old-fashioned but the books of “Golden Age” writers such as Agatha Christie are still very readable. Modern sub-genres of crime fiction are many: cosy, hard-boiled, police procedural, courtroom, spy, psychological thriller, and “noir” from diverse places including Scandinavia, Scotland and New Zealand.

There may be an overlap with other fiction genres, as with my own entry Unfaithful unto Death which combines crime with black comedy, and touches on the themes of corruption in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. It could almost qualify as a historical novel, because I wrote the first draft in the 1980s following a spell of working as a doctor in general practice in rural England. I had nearly forgotten about the manuscript until I found it among some old papers last year. Reading it through again, parts struck me as rather outrageous compared to my more recent work, and the practice of medicine has certainly changed a great deal since it was written. All the same I decided to publish it without changing the content too much.

The protagonist is Dr Cyril Peabody, who also made a brief appearance in my other two 1980s novels. He is a clever and hard-working doctor who means well but has developed a hefty dose of the arrogance and cynicism which besets his profession, and his bedside manner is appalling. Having failed to gain promotion as a hospital cardiologist because of his awkward personality, he takes what he considers to be an inferior position as a country GP. Predictably he soon clashes with his partners, his patients and his wife. He sets out to improve his status by mounting a trial of a new drug, but finds it has some unexpected side effects. One of the men who has been taking it dies, apparently from a heart attack. Cyril is called to his house in the middle of the night. Having examined the body and considered the history he decides that a post-mortem is indicated, but encounters vehement opposition from the dead man’s wife …

As discussed in a previous post the medical setting provides ample scope for murder both in fiction and in real life.

Medical murder in fact and fiction

Having one of my medically themed crime novels entered for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award has led me to reflect on the topic of murder in healthcare settings.

Deliberate killings by doctors or nurses, though rare, are probably more common than can ever be known. Clinical staff are better placed than most people to get away with murder. They have ready access to drugs, anaesthetic gases and surgical instruments, and deaths due to these agents can easily be passed off as natural or accidental. They are privileged to know intimate details of their patients’ lives. And as members of trusted professions they are not readily suspected.

Among the most notorious murderers of modern times was Dr Harold Shipman, who incidentally trained in the class ahead of me at medical school in Leeds in the 1960s. He was found guilty in a court of law of murdering 15 patients in his single-handed general practice and it is likely that he killed many more over his long career, usually by injecting large doses of diamorphine. The estimated number of his victims was 250, most of them being elderly women who were in good health although he fabricated a diagnosis of serious illness on their records. The nature of the mental aberration that led him to commit all these crimes is unknown, because he continued to deny them up until the time he hanged himself in his prison cell. As a result of Shipman’s case, much stricter controls were imposed on medical practice in the UK.

Other convicted serial murderers from medical settings have been nurses, popularly dubbed “angels of death”, working in hospitals or care homes. Their crimes usually masqueraded as mercy killings, but rather than arising from any genuine sense of compassion for someone whose incurable illness was causing unbearable suffering, they were committed for the perpetrators’ own satisfaction and without the knowledge or consent of the victims or their relatives.

Psychiatric evaluation of medical murderers would usually lead to a label of psychopathy, or personality disorder: the lack of moral sense, the inability to feel empathy, the enjoyment of killing, the grandiose belief of having a right to decide that certain persons are not fit to live. These are the extremes of the arrogance, cynicism and wielding of power that are occupational risks in medicine and related professions. Hallucinations and delusions secondary to psychosis or drug abuse are sometimes implicated.

Most if not all murderers are found to have a psychiatric diagnosis of some kind, and this may be sufficient to explain their crimes. In the context of fiction, however, using mental disorder as the sole reason for killing would usually be seen as a cop-out. Readers of crime novels expect a murder mystery to have a more complex solution,  perhaps involving money, sex, revenge, or concealment of discreditable secrets. These motives may of course account for real-life cases too.

Some would say there is a fine line between deliberate criminal killings and the various other forms of unnatural death that can occur through the actions of medical personnel. Some result from malpractice, others are sanctioned by law in certain jurisdictions. They include euthanasia, abortion, execution, experiments such as those carried out in Nazi Germany, drugs or surgery used inappropriately for commercial gain, and simple carelessness or incompetence.

My novel Unfaithful unto Death is intended as a light read with elements of black comedy, but touches on some of these serious themes.