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The Couple at No 9 by Claire Douglas

Starts brilliantly, but fades a little towards the end

I’ve given this four stars; really, that should probably be 3½. For at least two thirds of the book (and it isn’t short) I was gripped. As the author moved from twist to twist, I didn’t want to put the book down. Sadly, it’s a little like the party guest who you are delighted to see and who makes your party go as your parties have rarely done before – but then fails to realise that the time to go home passed a little while ago. It is, in other words, too long. It takes too many pages to unravel the final mystery. Disappointing, but I shall certainly want to read Claire Douglas’s next book. Anyone who can write this well is only going to get better.

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A Killer Makes Himself Known

I’m writing a series of police procedurals under the new pen-name, JJ Sullivan. Book 1, Drawn to Murder, is already complete and when I went to bed last night I was 17,000 words into Book 2, Westwood, but I don’t plan to publish until I have three books ready to go.

Most people who read mysteries probably read them to find out who the killer is, and why. It may come as a surprise to readers who are not themselves writers to find out that that’s also why I write them. I want to know who the killer is, and what motivates him or her.

I say, “him or her,” because Drawn to Murder features two serial killers working together – and they are both women. I must have written 15,000 words of that book before I realised that the male serial killers I was writing about couldn’t have done what they were supposed to have done and the killers must be female.

What that tells you is that I’m a pantser and not a plotter. When I start writing the book, I know very little about what’s going to happen. Westwood starts like this:

Jensen Bartholomew was Zooming with his brother, Cedric. A stranger sharing Jensen’s screen would have taken it that Cedric was not doing too well – the room he sat in was poorly furnished and Cedric himself looked as though his next full meal would be his first for some time. Cedric had just finished the first ten minutes of a series of moans about his predicament that experience told Jensen was likely to last for some time when the door behind him opened and a figure entered covered from head to foot in a black gown and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. As Jensen watched, the figure wrapped something around Cedric’s neck and pulled it tight. Cedric half rose from his chair. His hands struggled to free himself and his feet were stamping a furious tattoo on the worn lino beneath them, but the figure did not relent. In less than a minute, Cedric had sunk out of sight, to all appearances dead. The figure leaned in close to the screen and pointed through it at Jensen. In a deep and gravelly voice, it said, ‘You’re next.’ Then the screen went as dead as Cedric.

And that’s all I had. I didn’t know who killed Cedric, I didn’t know why he needed to die – I knew almost nothing. But I did have the confidence that comes from having written a large number of books, most of them published under other people’s names, to know that the characters would help me out. The most extreme case of that was when I was writing Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I wrote the first sentence:

All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers.

I didn’t know where that sentence would take me – but Billy, the lead character, extracted himself from the story and stood over me as I wrote. “Poppy wouldn’t have said that.” “It didn’t happen like that, it happened like this.” “Don’t forget to tell them about the anger management.” And so it went until the book was complete. You could say Billy McErlane wrote that book and not me – and Billy McErlane doesn’t exist.

Something very similar happened today. With a quarter of Westwood written, I still had no idea who had been doing the killing (the body count by then was three) and nor did I know why. And then, at 4 o’clock this morning while I was still in bed, the killer announced himself. ‘It’s me,’ he said. ‘And this is why I’m doing it.’ He’s been in the book from the start and he hadn’t for a single moment been a suspect in my mind – but as soon as he identified himself, it made complete sense.

I’ve spent the day first in rewriting work already done and then in adding 3400 words to take account of what I know now and didn’t know before. This is the stage at which I know for certain that the book will be finished.

When it is, you’ll be the first to know.

The Truth in a Lie by Jan Turk Petrie

Jan Turk Petrie has quietly made her way into my list of favourite authors. Reading this latest of her novels, I found myself thinking of Deborah Moggach and there isn’t, for me, any greater compliment than that. This is the first Petrie book with a contemporary setting – everything else has been historical or, as in the case of the Eldísvík series, set in the future. The Truth in a Lie follows a path that has been trodden elsewhere – in fact, it’s one of the staples of fiction – where what people do is influenced by something in their past about which we receive plenty of hints, but which only becomes clear in the final stages. What marked this book out for me was the sheer skill with which what could have been a hackneyed tale is told. Jan Turk Petrie is a writer at the top of her game and the only further comment I have to make is: Read This Book.

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The Lost Blackbird by Liza Perrat

I’ll willingly admit to an interest here: Liza Perrat is an Australian writer married to a Frenchman and living in France, and I’m a fan. What you get with Liza is an Australian straightforwardness that draws you into her books and says: ‘This is real life as lived by real people.’ And it is. Real people aren’t always nice people, and Liza does not shy away from that. She shows you what people do and why they do it and she leaves the judging to you.

The Lost Blackbird is the story of two young English sisters, Lucy and Charlotte known as Charly, who lose their home and their mother after their father’s death. You see him die and you think you know the whole story. You may be in for a surprise, but there are no spoilers in my reviews. They are taken into a Catholic orphanage in London and from there they sail to Australia to start a new life. The new life is not what they were led to believe it would be.

It would be easy at this distance to see The Lost Blackbird as an indictment of the Australian authorities – but that would be only part of the story. What it really is is an indictment of relationships between adults and children. At the time the story is set ( the early 1960s, so we’re not talking about the distant past) children still had the same rights in practice as children in the days of Charles Dickens. No-one listens to Lucy and Charly – the people who should be making sure their lives are okay are too busy taking note of the views of adults who, if we’re frank, don’t give a toss about the girls; they are happy to pay lip service to any set of decent values you might choose, but lip service is all it is. Have things improved today? I’m really not sure that we can claim that.

In the hands of a less than stellar writer, this book could be very heavy going. The fact that it isn’t is the product of Liza Perrat’s great skill as a writer. It will make you angry that adults could treat the vulnerable as they do here, but you won’t want to stop reading. Recommended without reservation.

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The Second Time Around by Gloria Antypowich

I know there are people in the UK who look down on the Romance genre. There are also people who look down on the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and religious/inspirational genres. I think this has to do with the snobbery that has been part of publishing in this country since the nineteenth century. Part of that snobbery says, “If it sells, then lots of people like it and, if a lot of people like it, it can’t be any good.” That would apply to all of the genres I just mentioned, because they are among the five largest money spinning genres – and Romance is right at the top. Romance pulls in more money than any other genre. And good writing is good writing, whatever the genre. So, instead of belittling it, let’s take a moment to think about what makes a good romance. And if we want to do that, Gloria Antypowich is a very good place to start. Because The Second Time Around is an object lesson in how to construct a romance. It’s also an illustration that not everything you hear about Romance genre tropes is correct.

Gloria wastes no time in introducing the two central characters (a man and a woman – there’s a market, too, for every other romantic combination you can think of and a number you probably can’t, but Gloria is mainstream. Or straight. Or whatever you want to call it). Not every romance features a pair whose hearts have been broken, but that probably describes the majority and it’s certainly what we have here – and Gloria wastes no time, either, in apprising us of what caused the breakage. Then she moves them into a position where they cannot fail to meet and, as we will have expected the moment we turned the first page, creates a situation in which they absolutely detest each other.

So far, so formulaic; where Antypowich scores so heavily is in the skill with which she pencils in the characters and the background (which is Western Canada, ranching, farming and the rodeo – not surprisingly, because that is also the author’s background. She knows the people and the place she’s writing about). I mentioned tropes; one very well-established romance trope is: Everyone else may be having it away but for the principal characters there can be no sex until they have it with each other. Antypowich sticks to that for her female lead, but the guy gets up to all sorts of stuff your Aunt Mabel would not have approved of. He does, though, in the end realise that the woman he’s been fighting against is the only one for him and we get our Happy Ever After. The trend in romance today is towards Happy For Now, but this author is more traditional than that. But none of that happens until a series of new obstacles has been placed in the way, each of which is obviously the final nail in this romance’s coffin and each of which is somehow overcome.

It’s Romance writing at its very best – and if you don’t like it because you never read it, you’re missing something. Remember how, when you were young, you didn’t eat something because you didn’t like it, and you didn’t like it because you’d never eaten it? You’re doing it again.

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The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat

The Silent Kookaburra is not an easy read. Extremely well written, it demands to be read with the same concentration as went into writing it. And it repays the effort. What this book does is to trace the evolution of Australia from place of safety to one that knows that the safety was always an illusion. It presents the story first from the point of view of eleven-year-old Tanya; the tragedy is already there, implicit in the knowledge that the adult reader can see what the child cannot and the adult reader knows what is going to happen to the girl. At the end, Tanya is herself an adult who not only understands now what she did not understand as a child but also presents us with a shocking ending that we feared but hoped would not happen. Perrat does not shrink from showing us the worst of human nature, though she leavens the mix with humour, and leaves us always uncertain whether we are seeing simple vileness or the results of mental illness. It is, as I say, not an easy read – but a very worthwhile one.

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Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

5 Stars. Stunning. Brilliant. A tour de force by a brilliant writer

Just occasionally, you read a book that has attained absolute perfection. It doesn’t happen often – once a year if you’re lucky (and I average more than 100 novels in a year). This is one such. The author leads us (and misleads us) through a whole life in which she forces us to care desperately about the man leading it and all around him, and presents us at the end with something utterly unexpected that, nevertheless, could not have been otherwise. Stunning. Magnificent.

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Towards the Vanishing Point by Jan Turk Petrie

Before reading this I read all three of the author’s Eldísvík novels and before that I read Too Many Heroes, so I guess you could call me a Jan Turk Petrie fan. What I like most is the way she creates real, believable characters and then carries them forward in a plot that makes sense and doesn’t get lost on the way. In Towards the Vanishing Point, she’s done it again. The author’s photograph suggests she isn’t old enough to remember the 1950s in England, but I do. It was a dishonest decade, ten years that we’re lucky to be rid of, and Petrie captures it as though she lived through the whole thing. I look forward to her sixth book.

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(NOT) WRITING ABOUT SEX

Writing about sex
Reading about sex should make you smile – not gag

5-star writer Jill Marsh recently drew attention on Facebook to a Guardian link to the Literary Review’s annual awards for the worst writing about sex (Bad Sex Awards). I wouldn’t have seen this because the level of dishonesty in this country since the referendum has reached a level that means I no longer read newspapers, but I was grateful to be pointed at this article.

There is a description of the sex act as a vaginal ratchet swallowing a boa constrictor. Frankly, I hope I never meet a woman with a vaginal ratchet. Just imagine the damage something like that could do. And the thing about a boa constrictor is that it bends and wraps itself in loops, which at the moment this writer is describing is the last thing either party wants to happen. James Frey thinks the bathroom sink is a good place to have sex (I refuse to use the expression ‘making love,’ because that’s not what they’re doing). For Julian Gough, finding a female nipple in his mouth as an adult recalls being breast-fed as an infant. (Giving away more about yourself than you intended there, Julian). Haruki Murakami describes an ejaculation so powerful the sheets are sticky. (You have to spend the night in those sheets, Haruki. Unless, of course, you’re planning to clear off as soon as you’re done – which would not be nice behaviour, Haruki). Luke Tredget imagines being ‘slurped’ like a stick of rock. And so on…and on.

 In my house, ‘What dis shit, ma’an?’ has become the standard response to something not understood

But why? It’s many years since I lived in the West Indies, but I still cherish the memory of a question asked by a surprised Trinidadian: What dis shit, ma’an? In my house, that has become a standard response to something someone does not understand. And I don’t understand what these writers think they are doing – or why they are doing it.

Are you a novelist? Or a sex therapist?

If you have either been commissioned or have decided to write a sex manual, then explaining the mechanics of the act is likely to be necessary– though I suggest you don’t refer to vaginal ratchets because that would call your knowledge into question. If you are writing a novel, then sex is quite likely to come into it – but that doesn’t mean your reader is looking for a detailed description. As well as making love, your characters will eat, shower and urinate. And you can make it clear that all of those things happen without the need to explain how they do it.

As it happens, writing about sex is something we discussed at the November ALLi meeting in Cheltenham. My offering was from my book The Making of Billy McErlane. There are two things you need to know as background:

  1. Billy and Poppy were boyfriend and girlfriend at school, and the relationship was chaste. They were separated by events but have now met again after several years, they are in love, and they know that they would like to consummate their relationship
  2. Way back then, Poppy asked Billy, ‘How much do you love me?’ and Billy didn’t have an answer. He couldn’t think of any way to measure love, so he asked, ‘How much do you love me?’ and Poppy answered, ‘Up to the sky and down again a million times.’

So here they are, and they know that they want to get it on, and so does the reader. This is how it happens (the book is written in the first person):

She walked round the flat looking at things while I made coffee. After she’d taken her first sip she said, ‘It’s decision time, Billy.’
‘That makes me very nervous.’
‘Oh, I’ve made mine. It’s you, Billy—you’re the one who has to decide. Is this for ever? Or just a nice interlude?’
My heart beat fast. ‘It’s for ever, Popps.’
She nodded. ‘When you got out of prison, did they give you your condoms back?’
‘Eh? Oh, I…’
‘I’m asking if you’ll keep me safe, Billy. I still don’t want a baby.’ Her eyes came up to hold mine. ‘Not till I’m married.’
‘I’ll take care of you.’
‘You’ll be gentle, won’t you?’
I wrapped my arms round her. I kissed her: on the forehead; on the cheek; on the throat; on the lips. She kissed me back. She eased herself out of my grasp, took my hand and led me towards the bedroom. Just before she gave herself to me she said, ‘How much do you love me?’
‘Up to the sky and down again, a million times.’
‘You’d better, Billy Mac. You’d better.’

“Just before she gave herself to me.” That’s the sex scene. That’s it. That’s all the reader gets. It’s all the reader needs. My job as a writer is to get inside the characters’ heads and show what they are thinking and feeling in a way that the reader will understand. My job is not to describe the nuts and bolts of the sex act. I assume that the reader knows what people do when they go to bed together with love in their hearts but, if the reader doesn’t know, it isn’t my job to explain it.

And it certainly is no part of a writer’s job to talk about vaginal ratchets and boa constrictors. To the question, Why do people write that stuff? I would add, Why do people read it? I don’t know how many copies that book sold and I don’t know who bought it – but I’m fairly clear that I don’t want those readers.