Random Musings: Reader Fatigue

To be clear…

If you wish to read a book, any book, then you should read it. If you enjoy reading a certain genre – and genre is simply a means of classification – then you should read it. No reader should be shamed for their choices. Sometimes it is good to switch off from life’s stresses by indulging in easy entertainment.

As for me…

I like to read an eclectic mix of books. As a book blogger I am fortunate in being sent a generous quantity of books to review. Other than romance, which I am unlikely to enjoy, I accept most genres.

Over the past few years this has resulted in me reading a large number of crime and thriller novels. Recently I have become aware of them merging. The means by which they grab my attention, maintain the tension, throw out a few red herrings, offer a twist at the denouement, has appeared uniform. I believe I am suffering reader fatigue with these popular genres.

There are, of course, exceptions. Authors such as Sarah Hilary, Mick Herron, AA Dhand, Adam Hamdy, Paul E. Hardisty and Ragnar Jónasson have produced books in the last year that have sufficient depth and character development to stand out – and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

What I have become aware of though is that I am seeking out more literary fiction. I crave the variety of structure, the experimentation, the lyricism. Beautifully crafted prose delights me more than clever plot twists. I seek characters who challenge my preconceptions.

 

I find the books I currently enjoy reading bubbling up from the small presses. It is not that I wish to fall off the radar of the bigger publishing houses who still produce much fine work – Gather the Daughters and Tin Man come to mind as recent reads I would not have wanted to miss.

Still though, the market feels crowded and I am not simply after the next big thing. For me, a standout read must do more than mimic. Rather than the next, I seek the original.

 

 

On Judging Artistic Endeavours

A number of weeks ago I was invited to join a judging panel for a literary prize. This surprised and delighted me. It is not the Booker Prize (ha!), and it is not the Not The Booker Prize – more than that I cannot yet say. What a tease I am being. With lead times and read times the official announcements will not be made for some time, although my involvement starts immediately. I have already received the first books to be considered. All of this has got me thinking, once again, about how each reader judges a book.

When writing a review I consider the way a publication is being marketed. For example, I will compare crime thrillers alongside others in this genre – books should be of interest to their target audience. In all works the writing must be fluent and fluid. The reader needs to be engaged and in some way entertained. Genres may be crossed but there are certain expectations to be met. Romance readers are unlikely to welcome unremitting horror, literary fiction needs to challenge but not be impenetrable.

My husband often reads no more than one book a year, generally when travelling to and from a holiday destination. When he asks for my recommendations I therefore choose with special care. Sometimes I have gushed about a book but subsequently suggested it may not be for him. He has been known to mock such retraction in a manner similar to our appreciation of art, with accusations of pretention.

I know very little about art. I visited Tate Modern several months ago and pondered how people ascribe value to certain of the chosen exhibits. A pile of bricks that wouldn’t look out of place in a builders yard was on display. A urinal on its side in a glass case had an information card explaining this was not even an original installation but rather a replica, the original being elsewhere. My first thought was if either had ever been used for their intended purpose.

Even in more traditional galleries I quickly grow bored of the many portraits of rich, dead people, or the endless depictions of religious scenes. I understand that those who know more about the subject may relish texture, style and perspective. I want an artwork to be pleasing to look at, not merely an investment. Pleasing is, of course, a matter of individual taste.

Music is another art form that generates strong opinions. I have a friend who adores opera, another who raves about the minutiae of David Bowie. My husband’s musical tastes have at times made me long for silence. I once sat up late with an acquaintance while he played me examples of innovative offerings that he became quite animated educating me on. It sounded to me like hitting metal bins together. When we watched a video of the musicians this was exactly what they were doing.

My musical choices tend to be influenced by memory: Chopin’s piano concertos which my father played; rock music from the seventies and eighties, my formative years; the stadium bands popular a decade or so ago when my children were developing their musical tastes. In my view music should provide the listener with pleasure. If catchy pop songs do this they have served their purpose however shallow the purists deride them for being.

My views on books are much the same. I read The Da Vinci Code and now understand why Dan Brown’s writing style is often mocked. The samplers from the Fifty Shades of Grey series were enough to convince me to avoid. Yet so many have read these books and this has encouraged them to read more. I consider this a good thing even if not to my taste.

Literary prizes reward particular attributes so it will be on these that I will judge the books I am being sent. My reviews are a reflection of writing I am impressed by and these titles look to be a good fit. I would not, after all, have agreed to take part had I not expected to enjoy the reading. This is an adventure in which I am thrilled to participate.

Gig Review: Launching Quieter Than Killing

Yesterday evening I attended the Book Launch for Sarah Hilary’s latest crime thriller, Quieter Than Killing (reviewed here). Held in one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, Toppings, it drew a large and friendly crowd. I was soon chatting to two Bristol based crime book reviewers who were unimpressed by my efforts to get there. Ladies, that 45 minute journey is only straightforward for those comfortable with driving a car…

Unusually for me I opted to settle at the back when we were invited to take our seats. Having attended several of Sarah’s events I wanted to take this opportunity to photograph the crowd.

Sarah opened proceedings by thanking her publisher, agent and family before reading from her book to a rapt audience. Alison Graham (@TVAlisonGraham), whose other claims to fame includes her work with the Radio Times, then asked an excellent range of questions.

Throughout the Marnie Rome series the plot arc of her foster brother Stephen, who murdered her parents when he was fourteen years old, is developed. Why did he do it?

Sarah talked of Stephen’s obsession with Marnie and the emptiness he feels, how Marnie fills a void in him, and that she got away. In Quieter Than Killing his predicament is presented in a way that draws a degree of sympathy from the reader. Sarah does not plot her books prior to writing so cannot say if or when his reasons for killing will be revealed.

Alison asked where Marnie Rome came from, and also the writing in general.

We were told that Marnie arrived fully developed and first appeared in a story that has not been published – thank goodness according to Sarah! She has always been scribbling stories but didn’t make any serious attempt to write until about fifteen years ago, starting with short stories and flash fiction. A friend told her that she had a dark streak and suggested she try her hand at the crime genre. Novel writing commenced six to seven years ago.

As this series has progressed Marnie has become softer, nicer. Sarah’s child has suggested that she kill Noah (cue gasps of horror from the audience) to explore the emotional impact on Marnie. No decisions have been made…

Sarah was asked why Marnie has a tattoo.

It is all about secrets. The quotes are from Albert Camus, who Sarah loves, although she smiled at how pretentious this can seem. She wanted Marnie to have chosen to undertake something painful, a youthful decision that she may, in later life, regret. At a book club event Sarah was taken to task about the cost “How could an 18 year old afford such an expensive procedure?” She would not reveal if she herself has a tattoo.

Sarah’s empathy and her ability to write children so well was commented on.

Her mother spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and Sarah was raised on her grandmother’s stories from this time, although they were told as interesting anecdotes, the full horror only being understood as she got older and learned more from history. It taught Sarah that stories can be multi-faceted.

 

Alison and Sarah – photo credit, the Twitter feed of author MG Harris (@RealMGHarris)

There was a discussion of London, where Sarah lived for eleven years, and of her fascination with Battersea Power Station. She has no plans to buy one of the modern apartments being built there – having Sting as a neighbour, with his noisy, tantric sex, was not appealing.

Sarah was asked if she would consider setting a book in Bath. The answer was no. Three severed feet have been found in the city in recent years. Local news outlets considered if these may be art installations or a student prank. There was no suggestion of a serial killer – as if such a thing could never happen in Bath. She may consider taking Marnie north though, perhaps to Cumbria.

Which contemporary crime writers does Sarah admire?

  • Mick Herron, whose Slough House series  is funny and clever.
  • Ali Land, whose debut, Good Me Bad Me, about a fifteen year old in care because her mother is a serial killer, is amazing.
  • Alex Marwood
  • Sabine Durrant
  • Jane Casey
  • Susie Steiner

Questions were invited from the audience and Sarah was asked if she would consider writing anything other than crime fiction.

She has an idea for a dark and twisty ghost story, although suspects it would be more of a novella. She has also considered a standalone psychological thriller. There are at least two more Marnie Rome books to come (my note – yay!).

Did Sarah know from the beginning that she would write a series?

This was always her hope. She wanted to take Marnie on a journey, developing the character as she was affected by her various experiences. Character is what matters. A diverse cast, especially in London, is a reflection of reality. Characters do not need to be nice to be compelling.

Good fiction is about raising questions in the reader’s mind. Crime fiction, and also young adult fiction, offer scope for exploring a wide range of social and political issues.

After the questions Sarah took time to chat to eager members of her audience who then cleared the counter of the enticing, new hardback editions of her book. A long queue formed for these to be signed at which point I took my leave. This was an excellent event and well worth that anxiety inducing drive.

Quieter Than Killing is published by Headline and is available to buy now.

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winner(s) Event

Yesterday evening I enjoyed my first literary prize presentation event when I attended the announcement of the winner(s) of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Held in the impressive Fyvie Hall at the University of Westminster this turned out to be a fun and friendly evening. I managed to talk to some lovely people from Cassava and Peirene as well as Becky and Sally, who have also been reviewing the books that were under consideration for the Contemporary Small Presses website.

After drinks, canapes and mingling with the attendees, Neil Griffiths, who instigated and organised the prize, opened proceedings. He told the rapt audience that he has been accused of trying to overthrow the literary establishment. He acknowledged that there is plenty of fine fiction coming from the bigger houses. He was not the only one in the room who believed that the best innovative fiction is being published in the UK and Ireland by the small presses, that they enabled stories, characters and experimentation not found anywhere else in British publishing.

   

This wasn’t an evening for long speeches so Neil moved swiftly on to the first award – for a Surfeit of Multitudinous Energy. He explained that he had decided on the name and criteria for this and was keeping his reasoning to himself. The award went to Galley Beggar Press for publishing Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge. Both the author and publisher, Sam Jordison, accepted the award. It was good to see that under his shirt Sam was rocking his now signature EU t-shirt.

After a short break during which I was able to chat about the books with fellow attendees and more drinks could be consumed, Neil introduced Guardian newspaper reviewer, Nicholas Lazard, who presented the remaining awards.

There were two runners up.

The first went to Anakana Schofield for Martin John, published by And Other Stories. As the author could not join her publisher, Nicky, to collect the award she was represented by Joanna Walsh.

The second runner up prize went to Solar Bones by Mike McCormack published by Tramp Press. The publisher had travelled from Ireland to be there.

   

Moving swiftly on to the winner. The inaugural Republic of Conciousness Prize for Small Presses was won by Counternarratives by John Keene, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. The publishers accepted the award, expressed their gratitude and commented that it is not easy to publish their kind of fiction. This reader is very glad that the fabulous small presses enrich us by managing to do so anyway.

Having concluded formal proceedings there was once more time to mingle. The venue staff ensured that nobody went thirsty – we were well looked after.

   

As Neil has a book coming out next year he will hand over organisational duties to James Tookey. I do hope that we see Neil’s Family of Love, published by Dodo Ink, take its place on the 2018 shortlist.

Thank you to the publishers who have provided me with interviews or guest posts as part of my coverage of this prize. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be involved.

Guest post by independent publisher, And Other Stories

Chatting to independent publisher, Daunt Books

Chatting to independent publisher, Freight Books

Gig Review: Claire Fuller in Bath

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Waterstones in Bath is fast becoming one of my favourite venues for book events. Yesterday they hosted another fascinating evening. Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days and the recently published Swimming Lessons, was expertly interviewed by Jason Hewitt, whose fabulous book Devastation Road I review here. I confess I have not yet read either of Claire’s books. I know her, if that is a term I may use, through her blog, Claire Fuller | Writing and art, particularly enjoying a recent series of interviews she posted featuring people who work within the publishing industry. Having heard her speak I am now also curious about her books.

The event was opened with a brief introduction by Jason followed by a reading by Claire from the opening pages of Swimming Lessons. They went on to discuss Claire’s writing and inspirations.

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Claire had completed the first draft of her second book by the time her first was published. Thus, when it became such a success – amongst other accolades it won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, was nominated for the 2015 Edinburgh First Book Award, was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick for Spring 2016, and a Waterstones Book Club book – she was not writing under the pressure of producing another hit.

Claire tries to write the sort of book she enjoys reading. Although she starts with ideas she does not plan her stories and much of the detail is developed as she goes along. She edits as she writes so a first draft, which takes her about eighteen months, subsequently requires just a few further months of editing before submission.

Swimming Lessons contains letters which the protagonist’s missing wife has left hidden within the covers of his extensive collection of books. The idea for this came from Claire and her husband who, before they lived together, wrote letters to each other in this way. Claire told us that she has yet to find some of these, that between them they own a lot of books. Even the old cynic in me found such an anecdote beautifully romantic.

The locations in Swimming Lessons exist but the village has been renamed due to the dark deeds, sex and infidelities detailed, which actual residents may not appreciate! The National Trust owns one of the properties featured and Claire stayed in it twice to soak up the atmosphere.

Both of Claire’s books are quite dark which she ascribes to her reading as a child. After school she would wait for a lift home in a library where she devoured the likes of Stephen King and other novels perhaps not now considered appropriate for a nine year old. One of the books she loved was Phenomena, about paranormal activity.

Although dark, Claire also considers her books to contain elements of hope. Her characters have depth and lighter moments together even if they are not always likeable. She agreed with Jason that the nastier ones can be a lot of fun to write.

Jason was surprised to learn that Claire writes to music as he requires silence, although he will play music to put him in the mood to write. Claire explained that before she starts she compiles a playlist she feels is appropriate for the ideas she has, and then plays this on a loop until the book is complete. Her family may not always appreciate this. She pondered if there was some CBT involved, that the music comes to signify that it is time to put words on a page. Now a full time writer she considers that progress has been made even if only a few hundred words are written each day.

Both Claire and Jason had their debuts published when they were in their forties and have since become members of The Prime Writers which they describe as a welcome source of advice and support, especially as writing is necessarily a solitary occupation. Claire described herself as an accidental writer, falling into it after deciding to try her hand at a short story. Her debut was her first attempt at writing a novel. She talked of luck as well as ability.

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I could have continued to listen to this fascinating discussion but Jason had promised to allow questions from the audience and there were plenty eager to participate.

Claire was asked if the struggles some of her characters have with motherhood were drawn from experience. She admitted that they were, that she harboured a degree of guilt over her work-life balance and occasional need for her own space. In creating fictional characters extreme versions of reality can be woven into place enabling empathy from readers. Each comes to a book burdened by their own experiences so she also likes to leave a degree of ambiguity, especially in endings.

Claire was asked if she is happy with how she has been pigeon-holed as a writer. This is a known problem, for instance romance writers wanting to create a thriller, a change of direction their publisher may not be happy with. Claire is content for now. She would like to write a ghost story one day but feels this would fit with the dark themes she is known for. She mentioned that she explores other genres in her short stories.

Another question was asked about how happy Claire is with the advice given by her agent. Absolutely was the answer given, she trusts her completely. Claire’s debut went to auction but she was not simply required to accept the highest bid. It was recognised that the relationship she would develop with her publisher mattered too.

The evening was wrapped up with a reminder that Claire will return to Bath on 28th May when she will appear at the festival with Kate Hamer and Michael Hughes. I left her chatting to the queue of attendees eager to acquire her signature on their copy of her book.

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You may keep up with Claire by following her on Twitter: Claire Fuller (@ClaireFuller2)

Jason may also be found here: Jason Hewitt (@JasonHewitt123)

For news and events at the bookshop: Waterstones Bath (@waterstonesbath)

Claire is published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin. Jason is published by Simon & Schuster UK.

 

Me, the Literary Hero

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Image (c) Irena Sophia 

Influx Press put out a list of their literary heroes from 2016 last week and included me. I am still in shock. Good kind of shock, obviously. Influx are a bit rad which makes this even more unexpected and delightful.

Please go and read their post. When you see who else they have included you will understand why I am so chuffed to be standing amongst them. Or sitting down at the back drinking it all in. I shall certainly be drinking something to celebrate.

Thanks Influx. You rock.

Rather than write about our favourite books of the year from other publishers as we have done for a few years, we thought we’d write about the people in the publishing industry who we think were absolute heroes during this year.  So without further ado, we present the Influx Press Literary Heroes of 2016

Read on: Twelve Literary Heroes of 2016 according to Influx Press — Influx Press

December Focus: Urbane Publications

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I like to do something a little different on my blog in December. I am not a fan of the modern day Christmas with its emphasis on big parties and conspicuous consumption but with all the presents being exchanged by more festive minded friends I am eager to spread the word about good reads. I suspect I am preaching to the converted when I point out that books make the ideal gift.

I am always keen to ensure that readers know of the existence of the fabulous independent publishers for whom I have a particular fondness. Last December I read only releases from these small presses. I also started a series of interviews with those publishers who wished to take part which continued well into the New Year. There is a menu option available above if you wish to check some of these out. I would like this series to be ongoing so if you are a publisher and would like to be involved do let me know.

This year, in the run up to Christmas, I am going to focus on just one of these independent publishers – Urbane Publications. Starting next week I will be posting reviews of a small selection of their more recent releases alongside interviews with the books’ authors and the occasional guest post. We will kick off on Sunday with an update on the company from its founder, Matthew Smith.

I hope that you will enjoy this series and consider buying some of Urbane’s books. They publish an eclectic mix so their list is bound to contain something you or those you buy for will enjoy. As a bonus I will be offering one lucky reader a chance to win their choice of book from those featured. I will post details of how to enter this giveaway at the conclusion of the series, in the week leading up to Christmas.

I am grateful to each of the Urbane contributors for their willingness to jump on board with such enthusiasm. The content they have provided will, I hope, be of as much interest to you as it has been to me.

Urbane Publications – Ordinary words made extraordinary

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