Crimefest – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly… and The Sad

Those of you who know me will be aware that I now travel extensively. Part of my work includes running literary courses for holiday retreats and cruise liners and includes both recommending reading material and organising seminars on creative writing. It has taken me away from the buzz of the literary world a little, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

As I reflect on the past 12 months it has dawned on me that the Bristol Crimefest event is once again nearly open us. Sadly I can’t attend, or if I can it will be fleetingly. However, last year I joined my friends in Bristol to catch some of the goings on.

I recall that the very first panel on the Sunday morning was the ‘Emerging Indie Author Panel’. I was glad to attend, particularly as I have spent much of the last few years advising writers on how best to approach agents and publishers. This has included practical guidance regarding getting manuscripts and final drafts ship-shape and using copy and line editors to be as professional as possible in all areas.

During those years I have seen the growth of ‘Indie’ writers and the rise of Direct Publishing, which has increased the awareness of new writers amongst industry professionals. There is still an element of snobbishness amongst some, but thank goodness it is now evaporating at a pace, and quite rightly so, as some fabulous new talent has emerged.

I have noted that authors such as Rachel Abbott, Anya Lipska and Mel Sherratt have gone from first time debuts via self publishing on Amazon to successful careers as agented writers with publishing backing.

Indeed twelve months ago Mel Sherratt was already on this journey when she appeared with three others on the inaugural ‘Emerging Indie Author Panel’ – and well done Crimefest for starting this up.

So I thought I’d take a look back at that panel and see how Mel and the others had got on. It was then that I was reminded that one of the panellists was Eva Hudson, who was tragically taken from us a few months back, way too early. I’m told she lost her battle against cancer with great spirit and dignity. Those amongst you who followed her on twitter will notice that she still tweets. This I believe is a tribute to her erstwhile partner, a marvellous gesture to keep her work alive and I understand a ghostwriter of her future.

I met Eva briefly last year at the Marriot Hotel in Bristol and I seem to remember we talked about birthdays, along with fellow panellist TJ (Tim) Cooke. I think they shared the same Gemini history and actually had their birthdays during last year’s Crimefest, which was more towards the end of May. In any event it is so very sad to think Eva will no longer be around. She was a very talented writer and I had tipped her to build a substantial following.

Of the other three panellists, I expect you will have heard most of Mel Sherratt. She really has gone from strength to strength with her pithy brand of crime fiction, which vividly reflects her own working class roots.  This was something Mel talked passionately about on the panel. The first book I read of hers was Taunting the Dead and I was glad to see that the sparky DS Allie Shenton has returned in Follow The Leader. Mel Sherratt provides a marvellous model for what can be achieved. If you’ve read her blogs you will note that from time to time she refers back to her ‘journey’, involving many years of self doubt and rejection. However Mel always knew deep down that she was doing the right thing and once others showed their support there was no stopping her. Excellent stuff Mel.

I also recall hearing Carol Westron, a most pleasant and somewhat quirky South Coast writer who pens both Victorian crime novels and contemporary fiction.  Since Crimefest she has written ‘Strangers and Angels’, featuring the intrepid Lady Adelaide. What really caught my eye though was the name of her next novel… Carol likes to create unusual and noticeable titles, and the author of ‘The Terminal Velocity of Cats’ has now come up with ‘The Fragility of Poppies’! Like it.

Carol, it appears, is not one to stand still and watch the world go by. I had hoped to have the time to interview her because I was fascinated about how she had organised the set up of a publishing company to distribute her work. Pentangle Press was instigated by her after recovering from a stroke. She and some writing friends decided they’d spent enough time trying to get published through traditional methods so started an imprint of their own. Now that’s dedication!

The publishing industry offers far fewer opportunities to new writers than before. The dwindling of budgets, slashes to advances and fear of anything ‘different’ has conspired to result in some absolute gems remaining virtually undiscovered.  Some of yesteryear’s more maverick and creative authors in this genre would never see the light of day.

That brings me onto the last of Crimefest 2014 panel, TJ (Tim) Cooke. Both Tim and Eva, though thrilled to be on the panel, told me that they were not entirely comfortable with their ‘Indie’ status. The reality is that as an Indie writer publishing directly on Amazon, or even with the backing of a small publishing house, you are likely to be burdened with most if not all of the marketing onus. ‘It’s the ugly side of it’ Tim told me, saying that he just wasn’t the best person to promote his own work.

On pure writing ability it remains a mystery to me, as it does to some significant others, how Tim has failed to be taken under the wing of one of the crime fiction imprints. If you are a fan of Michael Connolly or Patricia Highsmith you will love his book ‘Defending Elton’. I was recently reminded of it with the huge heist at Hatton Garden.  If you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t don’t worry it won’t be a spoiler. Judged on the reviews from some very respected sources I fully expected ‘Defending Elton’ to be a big hit, and perhaps his other work ‘Kiss & Tell’ to be the first of many adventures for feisty working class lawyer Jill Shadow – but it seems not.

I wrote to the author a couple of weeks ago to see if we might catch up whilst he was in Bristol and was disappointed to hear that he has ‘lost his mojo’ for crime fiction. ‘The ride was just too extreme’ he told me. ‘I’d been taken up to great heights with the backing of some of the most admired literary agents around, but it seemed like the publishers were too wary of my narrator protagonist Jim Harwood.  They didn’t ‘get’ him.  Was he a goodie or a baddie? Fact is I don’t know, or care. Why can’t readers judge for themselves? I always engaged with characters like Tom Ripley or RP McMurphy because they fascinated me. Sometimes it takes a flawed individual to highlight the flaws in the system, and that’s all Jim was really doing, to get out of an awful situation. I don’t think I ever stopped and thought is he a goodie or a baddie. I’m not sure I even believe in such concepts. Anyway, though I wrote ‘Kiss and Tell’ in an effort to create a more endearing lead, and a returning series, I think the stuffing was already taken out of me with ‘Defending Elton’.

Whether its choice or necessity Tim tells me he’s been concentrating on his advertising business. Indeed, on this very weekend of Crimefest he will be in Nottingham with a nomination for a national radio advertising award. It’s in the ‘best use of humour’ category so perhaps he’s not quite as despondent as he makes out! Seriously though I do hope his writing mojo returns, and that a publisher somewhere in the crime fiction hinterland backs him. ‘Defending Elton’ remains one of my favourite ever reads.

It leads me all to surmise that perhaps being an ‘Indie’ or ‘Self Published’ writer isn’t for everyone. Some writers however just have the knack of being able to promote their own work. Rachel Abbot was a past master at it, and Anya Lipska, Mark Edwards and others have all shown what can be done. Mel Sherratt has also shown that by investing in networking and adept social marketing much can be achieved. If you have a good product and a skill at both presenting and promoting it you can now go a long way in this business. That’s what some of these Indie authors have shown and I really admire their passion and perseverance.

So, my best wishes go to those debut authors at this year’s Crimefest, not just the ‘Emerging Indies’ but those on debut panels who may have small publishers behind them or are on tenterhooks with a one book deal.

With my readers hat on there is nothing more satisfying than finding an original voice with something to say. I do sometimes recoil from the ‘copy and paste’ brigade, who rest on their laurels with a narrative based on a serial killer and detective couple in a ‘will they won’t they’ relationship. There is so much more to the genre than that, and I’m always on the lookout for that something a little different. In my experience that often comes from new authors, with strong voices and bold narratives.

I dedicate this to the memory of Eva Hudson. You will find her still on twitter @Eva_Hudson, and I highly recommend her work.

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2014 Crime Fiction

 

Back from hols, my first ever cruise and a very welcome break.

Did plenty of reading on board and worked my way through a few crime fiction crackers. Pride of place goes to Eva Dolan’s debut Long Way Home. I’m always keen to discover fresh talent and this is a tasty murder mystery with an intriguing underbelly. It fits the bill as a crime thriller but also gives a rare insight into the plight of immigrant workers in the UK. It’s tense and well paced and all in all a thoroughly good read.

On the subject of new and emerging talent I have read that Crimefest are hosting a panel of emerging authors this year which is good to see. I understand that Mel Sherratt is on the panel. I’ve read about Mel’s journey as a self-published author and am glad that such tenacious effort is now being rewarded.  Her book Watching Over You is near the top of my TBR pile so I’ll get to it soon. I understand that TJ Cooke is also lined up and I’ve already reviewed his excellent debut Defending Elton. It’s an intriguing and inventive story and I hope the first of many from this author. [see further below]

If I get to hear who the other panellists are I’ll share that with you in the future and try and review some of their work. I’m just pleased to see that my favourite genre seems to be going from strength to strength.

I’ve recently helped edit a novel from another new author, Francesca Drake. She has written a psychological thriller with a background in human trafficking and I was very impressed. It has a certain edge and a narrator who challenges you on some uncomfortable issues. She’s just submitted to an agent and I hope that sometime during the course of the year she might get some positive news on the publishing front.

Happy reading everyone…

[from previous post] I think 2013 was a cracking year for crime fiction… either that or I was very lucky with my discoveries!

Whether you like to stick to a tried and trusted police procedural or seek out something which pushes the boundaries, there seems to have been something for everyone in 2013.

So with that in mind my wish for 2014 is… well, more of the same please.  More gripping investigations, intriguing characters and tales of the unexpected.

More please from those established authors we all know and love, those who are now making their mark and, just as important for our reading future, from the fresh and emerging talent which has made 2013 such an interesting year.

I’ve picked out 5 ‘Stella Reads’ for 2013. If I can find 5 books as good as these in 2014, from a similar wide range of writers, then I’ll be a very happy reader indeed!

All of these books made a particular and lasting impression on me. Here’s why…

Rubbernecker – Belinda Bauer

Intriguing from first page to last. One of those books that you can’t quite compare to anything else, from a writer who is adept at finding new ways to make crime fiction enjoyable.

Here, parallel stories are expertly woven. The protagonist, as such, is a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome who is allowed to drive the plot forward in his own inimitable way. Together with the nurse’s story and the patient’s this makes for a very rewarding read. I really enjoyed being transported into the worlds of these three characters and Bauer has that knack of making them engaging. An unusual plot, which like others in my favourite 5 reads, isn’t afraid of breaking new ground. The test of a really good read comes at that moment when you’ve just read the last chapter. If you’re like me, and it’s a belter, then you’ll have the urge to tell someone else to read it immediately. My friends will testify to that!

Police – Jo Nesbo

Harry Hole is back for, I think, his eighth outing in the series. When it’s done well series sleuths can build a certain intrigue of their own, whatever the plot. When it’s done badly the flaws can get unscrupulously exposed. At times I’ve given up on a series for simply cutting and pasting characters from past endeavours and adding them to rehashed plots. Here though is a classic example of how to do it well.  To keep up this level of consistency in writing excellence shows what a master of the art Jo Nesbo has become. You could easily read this as a standalone and enjoy it, but in the event that you haven’t read any of his books before do take the time over the coming months to immerse yourself in Harry’s world. Another outstanding effort from Nesbo.

Monument to Murder  – Mari Hannah

Bamburgh Castle may have featured in films as diverse as Polanski’s Macbeth and the Python’s Holy Grail, but here Mari Hannah uses it as the setting for a murder mystery, when a female skeleton is found in the windswept sands which surround it. This is the fourth book in the DCI Kate Daniels series and I think the best so far. Here is a writer well into the process of making her mark.  I do hope she continues to surprise and engage like this. I’ve cited Nesbo as a classic example and if Mari Hannah continues along these lines she’ll prove to be a writer worth following.  She writes police procedurals with a gritty edge featuring characters who often intrigue as much as her plots. Another one like this would be most welcome.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter – Malcolm Mackay

There’s no doubt that this one has that ‘that something a little different’. This time it’s style, yet despite the terse prose it loses nothing of its substance.

Mackay tells a gripping yarn in a cold, no-nonsense and direct manner. He paces his story well, making the most of the Glasgow underworld and building effortlessly towards a powerful denouement.  The icy, almost psychopathic lack of empathy could be a distraction to some, but it made the book for me. Maybe it works so well in this instance due to the subject matter of contract killings? I’m not sure, and his next novel might be the acid test, but to pull this off with your first offering is quite something.

Defending Elton – TJ Cooke

This was another debut. A refreshing and original slant on crime fiction, one I hadn’t come across before. Sprinkle a touch of Highsmith and Haddon on a layer of Grisham and you’re somewhere near. It works as a suspenseful legal thriller but is so much more. There’s a lightness of touch throughout yet Cooke still manages to expose some serious vulnerabilities in both our criminal justice system and in our care for those with mental health issues.  I also found the concept of the character of Sarena quite fascinating… a ‘victim’ who remains an enigma throughout. Narrator and protagonist Jim struggles to portray her objectively, and in the book’s surprising end we realise it’s not just because he’s been obsessed. This novel is certainly worthy of a wider audience. It’s by an ‘Indie’ author and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him getting picked up in 2014.

New Year – more great reads please – 2014 Crime Fiction

I think 2013 was a cracking year for crime fiction… either that or I was very lucky with my discoveries!

Whether you like to stick to a tried and trusted police procedural or seek out something which pushes the boundaries, there seems to have been something for everyone in 2013.

So with that in mind my wish for 2014 is… well, more of the same please.  More gripping investigations, intriguing characters and tales of the unexpected.

More please from those established authors we all know and love, those who are now making their mark and, just as important for our reading future, from the fresh and emerging talent which has made 2013 such an interesting year.

I’ve picked out 5 ‘Stella Reads’ for 2013. If I can find 5 books as good as these in 2014, from a similar wide range of writers, then I’ll be a very happy reader indeed!

All of these books made a particular and lasting impression on me. Here’s why…

Rubbernecker – Belinda Bauer

Intriguing from first page to last. One of those books that you can’t quite compare to anything else, from a writer who is adept at finding new ways to make crime fiction enjoyable.

Here, parallel stories are expertly woven. The protagonist, as such, is a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome who is allowed to drive the plot forward in his own inimitable way. Together with the nurse’s story and the patient’s this makes for a very rewarding read. I really enjoyed being transported into the worlds of these three characters and Bauer has that knack of making them engaging. An unusual plot, which like others in my favourite 5 reads, isn’t afraid of breaking new ground. The test of a really good read comes at that moment when you’ve just read the last chapter. If you’re like me, and it’s a belter, then you’ll have the urge to tell someone else to read it immediately. My friends will testify to that!

Police – Jo Nesbo

Harry Hole is back for, I think, his eighth outing in the series. When it’s done well series sleuths can build a certain intrigue of their own, whatever the plot. When it’s done badly the flaws can get unscrupulously exposed. At times I’ve given up on a series for simply cutting and pasting characters from past endeavours and adding them to rehashed plots. Here though is a classic example of how to do it well.  To keep up this level of consistency in writing excellence shows what a master of the art Jo Nesbo has become. You could easily read this as a standalone and enjoy it, but in the event that you haven’t read any of his books before do take the time over the coming months to immerse yourself in Harry’s world. Another outstanding effort from Nesbo.

Monument to Murder  – Mari Hannah

Bamburgh Castle may have featured in films as diverse as Polanski’s Macbeth and the Python’s Holy Grail, but here Mari Hannah uses it as the setting for a murder mystery, when a female skeleton is found in the windswept sands which surround it. This is the fourth book in the DCI Kate Daniels series and I think the best so far. Here is a writer well into the process of making her mark.  I do hope she continues to surprise and engage like this. I’ve cited Nesbo as a classic example and if Mari Hannah continues along these lines she’ll prove to be a writer worth following.  She writes police procedurals with a gritty edge featuring characters who often intrigue as much as her plots. Another one like this would be most welcome.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter – Malcolm Mackay

There’s no doubt that this one has that ‘that something a little different’. This time it’s style, yet despite the terse prose it loses nothing of its substance.

Mackay tells a gripping yarn in a cold, no-nonsense and direct manner. He paces his story well, making the most of the Glasgow underworld and building effortlessly towards a powerful denouement.  The icy, almost psychopathic lack of empathy could be a distraction to some, but it made the book for me. Maybe it works so well in this instance due to the subject matter of contract killings? I’m not sure, and his next novel might be the acid test, but to pull this off with your first offering is quite something. 

Defending Elton – TJ Cooke

This was another debut. A refreshing and original slant on crime fiction, one I hadn’t come across before. Sprinkle a touch of Highsmith and Haddon on a layer of Grisham and you’re somewhere near. It works as a suspenseful legal thriller but is so much more. There’s a lightness of touch throughout yet Cooke still manages to expose some serious vulnerabilities in both our criminal justice system and in our care for those with mental health issues.  I also found the concept of the character of Sarena quite fascinating… a ‘victim’ who remains an enigma throughout. Narrator and protagonist Jim struggles to portray her objectively, and in the book’s surprising end we realise it’s not just because he’s been obsessed. This novel is certainly worthy of a wider audience. It’s by an ‘Indie’ author and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him getting picked up in 2014.

Crime Fiction and The Quarrelsome Page-Turner

First of all a very big thank you to all who have come back to me following my ‘best crime fiction reads of 2013’ post.

Great to discuss and I was pleased to discover that many shared my views. I suppose the bottom line is that a ‘great read’ makes universal appeal, and many of these books did indeed appeal simply because of that.

I did come to realise though that were one or two ‘marmite’ selections – Lauren Beukes ‘The Shining Girls’ being the prime example. No wonder some poor agents and publishers scratch their heads over what will prove popular. It just shows you what a difficult game publishing is, something which I’ll return to later in this piece.

Anyway, Lauren, if you’re reading, I’m sure you won’t mind. Better to cause a reaction than none at all, and after all, there’s plenty of tasty marmite on the shelves!

It was good to see that a couple of weeks after the post some of these made CWA dagger nominations – and all very much deserved. I don’t know about you, but I always find it hard to answer the question ‘what sort of books do you like?’ It seems facetious to reply ‘good ones’ but I don’t really have a ‘type’ as such. Yes crime fiction is my favourite genre, but taking a look back at my list, books such as ‘Water Blue Eyes’ and ‘The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter’ are a million miles apart.

It may be a bit of a cliché but my marker on this is still the ‘page turner’. However, maybe I could refine it to the ‘quarrelsome page turner’. Those times, often in the early hours, when the bedside clock tells you that you should have gone to sleep a long time ago, but you must read the next page or reach the end of the chapter, or in some circumstances keep going until you’ve read the whole book – and damn the consequences.

Sometimes a little voice nags at me not to turn another page, or scroll down to the next one on my Kindle, but when there’s a good book in front of me I fight it, shout back at it, scream at it sometimes to leave me alone. That’s when you know you’re reading a good ‘un… and my work colleagues can always tell in the morning! One look at me and tell-tale signs are there. It might be the hastily applied make-up, the lack of time spent on coordinated attire, or the inability to utter a cohesive sentence before my first coffee of the day. I usually get ‘Go on then Stella, tell us about the book’.

I think it’s been an exciting year for crime fiction, and the vibes are that 2014 will be no different. I sense that there has been a real injection of new talent to add to the tried and trusted authors we all know and love. I’m going to stick to my wont of seeking out new authors next year. I have heard some encouraging noises from folks in the industry. One example is Eva Dolan with her debut ‘Long Way Home’. I haven’t got a review copy, but the vibes from those that have read it come from trusted sources. If you hear of anything else in the pipeline, which you think I might enjoy, do drop me a line, either in reply here, or via twitter [@hayesstella].

Before I leave my list in the archive, I must say a quick piece about TJ Cooke’s ‘Defending Elton’. Last week I watched the second episode of Bedlam on CH4. It’s a documentary about a triage unit which assesses those with acute mental health issues. This one’s in Lambeth, South London, but sadly, since funding has been reduced, they are few and far between, and with very limited spaces.

One patient featured was Rupert, a giant of a man who immediately reminded me of Elton in the book – in fact so much so it was uncanny. It made me realise what an exceptionally clever piece of writing ‘Defending Elton’ is. Like Rupert, Elton is left to wander between psychiatric unit, the streets and prison with nobody willing or able to properly diagnose his condition. A danger to both himself and the public it struck me that Cooke’s characterisation is spot on, with the plight of Rupert in the real world endorsing the frightening scenario which he paints for Elton in his book.

Tackling a subject such as mental health isn’t easy, in any genre, and in this book a very strong message is buried within a thoroughly engrossing story. The temptation to air such issues can lead to the odd pious and lecturing piece, which I tend to rail against. Cooke does well to avoid this trap, notably with the use of much appreciated humour, albeit some of it rather dark. On the back of ‘Defending Elton’ I’m currently reading his other offering ‘Kiss and Tell’. Another topical issue is faced head-on here, that of controlled drugs and decriminalisation. Again the author seems to have pulled off the task of making a strong statement within a gripping crime fiction read. It’s good to see that there is some real quality writing out there in the Indie community.

Of course three of my listed authors, Anya Lipska, Mark Edwards and Rachel Abbot, have all trodden this path before. They all put their work ‘out there’ via the likes of Amazon, and were eventually spotted by traditional publishers. It’s not a substitute for the classic model of submission, but an interesting and quite enlightening addendum to it. It gives writers that little extra chance of being discovered and for us book lovers that’s no bad thing.

I have always been a little wary of what used to be stigmatised by brand as ‘self-publishing’, and I think quite rightly so. It was a market seemingly dominated by those who either had funds to promote their own books or, more worryingly, a few less than salubrious folk who tempted others to depart with such funds, for very little reward!

However, the sands have certainly shifted this last couple of years. Now budding authors don’t have to ‘buy’ in as an alternative to traditional publishers. They can make their books available with very little funding, and consequently be judged on merit – and therein lies the rub, because merit, rather than money, is now the operative word.

It’s only during the last six months that I’ve taken the step of accessing some of the books directly published [as perhaps we should now call it] via the likes of Amazon’s KDP [for Kindles etc] and Create Space [for paperbacks]. There are some real nuggets in there that’s true, but there are also many poorly crafted pieces of work.

What I would advise is to consider reviews selectively and take note of those people whose views you already trust. The temptation has been to look at sales figures to highlight directly published works which may be worthy of further consideration, but I would be very wary of this. Why? Because the old enemy ‘money’ can still play a part. I have come across books which have been hyped and marketed with gusto, which consequently have led to reasonable Amazon sales. Yet some of these, and I’m not in the business of negative vibe, have been very disappointing. This side of the business is still relatively new and if you’ll allow me to coin an awful phrase ‘the proof of the pudding is in the reading’.

So, how do we, the great reading public, get to know about a really good Indie author? In being selective there is quality to be found, but the problem at the moment is that it’s like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.  I’m very glad to see though that some are trying to make the task of spotting the nuggets from the fool’s gold that much easier. We can all do our own little bit if we find something we really believe in, and we should, because these authors don’t have publishing house back-up. This week however, some with a little more clout, such as the Crimefictionlover website and the renowned convention ‘Crimefest’ have really added to the cause. Crimefictionlover.com does a splendid all-round job, and has suggested a few more Indies which are well worth a mention. Also this week Crimefest announced that for the first time they are going to have an emerging/Indie author panel which reflects the rise of new talent via this route.

So times are changing, and I really do think as book lovers we should rejoice in that. Ultimately, from the perspective of readers, all it will mean is that there is a higher chance of a few more fabulous authors being discovered, whose books may otherwise not have seen the light of day. We all know that some wonderful writers have taken many years to get published, quite a few in this genre, and if the new Indie model helps to speed up that process then I think we’ll all reap the benefit.

Those I know in the industry have told me that it’s always been challenging in deciding which authors to back, from both agent and publisher perspectives. One agent told me that it’s like ‘waiting for the planets to align’ before they can be confident that one of their charges will be offered a deal. Nobody is saying that judging these things is easy, and of course it will inevitably remain highly subjective, but both agents and publishers might now get a few more clues as to what’s out there from other respected people in the industry, and not just in this genre either.

I’ll try and keep tabs on what’s happening in 2014, but my guess is change will continue. There’s now the hybrid author too, which muddies the waters further for unfortunates like me who are trying to keep pace. There are those who were traditionally published who then release subsequent books directly, thereby taking advantage of the readership they’ve built up and taking a higher percentage of profit from sales to boot! Add to this the Indie authors who publish direct to get noticed by traditional publishing houses, the Indie authors who are quite happy to do their own marketing and remain Indie, and then a whole mass of folk who just publish one often poorly written manuscript – no wonder some say it’s a minefield. Did I suggest I’d try and keep tabs with it? Maybe with the help of others I might. 

Still, let’s not be scared of change. Let’s try and embrace it, which is all I’m trying to do in my quest to find talented new writers to add to our entertainment.

Finally, I must also say thanks to Arcadia and Faber & Faber for the lovely books they sent me. I thought ‘Norwegian By Night’ was a terrific read, and Arcadia also have a fine author in Edward Wilson. Though the TBR pile was down a few notches a month ago, it’s soon stacked up again!

Well, as I’ve said, my posts will hopefully be meaty, but invariably sporadic. The run up to Christmas will be hectic at work I’m sure, but I’ll try and post again mid December if I can, and New Year if I can’t.

Cheerio all. Happy reading.

Stella reads… the year’s best crime fiction

THESE ARE ‘STELLA READS…’

MY TOP TEN CRIME FICTION BOOKS READ IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS

0CTOBER 2012 – OCTOBER 2013

 

Those who I’ve met, or emailed, or tweeted with, will know that I love my crime fiction. Now that I’ve succumbed to the temptation of joining the blogosphere I thought I’d get going by trying to discern my favourite ten reads of this last calendar year.  

The selection of just ten was tough, very tough. I have read so many crime fiction books over the years and it’s focussed me to concentrate on those which have ‘that something a little different’. That may mean that some very established authors didn’t get a mention, possibly because they are happy writing what their public want [or perhaps their publishers want] and are sticking to their templates.

I have no problem with that, but my recent drive has been towards those who are relatively new or completely fresh to the genre. I wanted to see what they had to offer – and I wasn’t disappointed. I was surprised to find that five new authors made this list, but all do so on merit.

Here’s a little about each selection and why I chose it – with a one word summary to boot.

 

1    The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter – Malcolm Mackay

A debut. With some fabulous new authors in this list the genre is in for a heady time… and Malcolm Mackay is a prime example.

The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter is utterly compelling. There’s no doubt that this one has that ‘that something a little different’. This time it’s style, yet despite the terse prose it loses nothing of its substance.

When I’d read this book I enjoyed it immensely, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that so impressed me. Thinking about it now, I reckon it’s the ability Mackay has to tell a gripping yarn, and engage the reader, whilst writing in such a cold, no-nonsense and direct manner. Mackay paces his story well, making the most of the Glasgow underworld and building effortlessly towards a powerful denouement.   

At times the prose mesmerised me, but the icy, almost psychopathic lack of empathy engaged rather than distracted. Maybe it works so well because of the subject matter of contract killings? I’m not sure, but to pull this off with your first novel is quite something. Stunning.

 

2    Where The Devil Can’t Go – Anya Lipska

Another very impressive debut. Here, Anya Lipska has crafted an original crime fiction novel with a distinctive voice, and one which has all the vital ingredients of a thrilling read.

It’s largely provided by the charismatic Janusz Kiszka, an established immigrant who has carved out a little niche for himself amongst East London’s Polish community. He sets out to help solve the riddle of a young waitress who has disappeared without trace, but when a body is found he finds himself the subject of detective Kershaw’s parallel investigations.

The skilfully plotted narrative makes this an excellent read, along with keenly observed characterisations. I also enjoyed the way the author compares the old and the new, with the heady heights of the 2012 Olympic city contrasting with the dark meanderings of the old Eastern bloc states. Old and new, East and West, it’s all portrayed with authority and a steady build up of tension. Riveting.

3     Defending Elton – TJ Cooke

What a year for debuts, here’s another, which means that my favourite three reads this last year have all been written by newcomers.

There are a number of elements which make this book so memorable. One, it has a most inventive storyline, which is told with the authority of someone who knows how the criminal justice system works. TJ Cooke sets up the simple yet frighteningly real scenario of a lawyer representing a defendant for a murder he’s actually committed himself. Sorry Mr Grisham but you’ve missed this trick – and it’s a clever trick too, which succeeds by morphing the fates of lawyer Jim and his client Elton, thereby drawing on the empathy vicariously.

Some particularly sparkling dialogue, unexpected humour and colourful characters are the other ingredients which make this book shine. Narrator Jim bends the truth with just about every character in the narrative, but he’s honest with the reader… about how, in a moment of panic and desperation, he has gone from trying to help Elton, to framing him for murder. I loved how the author forces you to question whether you should or shouldn’t be rooting for the protagonist. I also doubt whether many crime fiction novels have references to Dick Dastardly and Basil Brush! Quite different from the crime fiction norm, and I struggle to think of anything similar. Mind you, it’s all the better because of it. Ingenious.

4    The Back Road – Rachel Abbot  

We’re in established writer territory here, and I’m not just referring to the author. There is something of the old Christie in her plotting yet it is thoroughly modern and effortlessly believable. I’m not sure there’s anything ‘cosy’ about this tale though. It is a dark world we enter, yet we do so through a concealed entrance, set in a place we can all familiarise with. The narrative hooks you in with the intrigue of the ‘hit and run’ and keeps you guessing who the goodies and baddies really are right up until the end.

We are constantly reminded not to take anything at face value. There are many lies to unravel, some told to hide indiscretions, others schemed for more sinister reasons. This is ‘top of its game’ crime fiction and that’s why it makes my favourite reads list. Maybe it doesn’t possess that ‘something a little different’, but the fact is that our oldest friends are often our most cherished, and there’s something of the ‘old friend’ here. Unlike the characters revealed, the writing is solidly dependable. Flawless.

5    Police – Jo Nesbo

Familiar territory here too, with a Scandinavian police procedural. I include this despite getting a little too familiar with police procedurals over the years and a little wary of the trend to like all things Nordic. However, this book makes it because it is, quite simply, a master of its art.

I think it’s the ninth in the Harry Hole series, which should tell you everything about how good the writing is. I forgive the violence and brutality, and I don’t always, but it seems so integral to the narrative. What I admire greatly is Nesbo’s ability to toy with his readers like a cat with an almost dead mouse. He squeezes out every last drop of intrigue from his multi layered plots and it’s easy to see how he has developed such a keen following. All the usual twists and turns are there, but they are delivered in such a way that you feel you are never going to find that route out of the maze. Classic in its own way. Compelling.

6    The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

Well I set my stall out folks, I said right at the beginning that I’m always on the lookout for crime fiction with a difference – so how could I not include this book?

A time travelling serial killer is something you don’t come across every day of the week, even when you’ve read as many books as I have. Author Lauren Beukes allows him to span sixty odd years, which makes the task of tracking him down, performed by his failed victim Kirby and her ally Dan, that much tougher. 

The writing and the sheer audacity of it was enough to pull me through, though rather like ‘Ghostman’ (see below) you have to perform a few leaps of faith. ‘It’s not you, it’s the house’ is a device used in some horror flicks and Beukes uses it to good effect here. In a way it’s a shame that there was so much hype around the launch of this book. It’s done its job in terms of sales no doubt but I know there are many like me who are wary of such things. Still, the bottom line is I really enjoyed it and it ‘stayed with me’, meaning it’s done enough to feature in this list. Like a few others mentioned here it has a certain ‘intelligence’, from a writer who is not afraid to break the mould. Brave.

7    Ghostman – Roger Hobbs

Yes, another debut, and this one by a relatively young writer. It begins with a high voltage heist and does its best to keep the pace going throughout. Now, I’m going to pause there because despite this being one of my favourite reads this year I actually think it could have been even better. What excites me however is that I’ve found another new author who I now know can entertain me. Roger Hobbs writes with a commercial flair and it would be no great surprise if Hollywood latched onto him.

My tastes do vary and I have to admit I’m filling a need here, call it my adrenaline rush read fix. That’s what the author fulfils. It isn’t classy writing, but it is what it is and it works. My only reservation about ‘Ghostman’ is that you have to allow a few holes to be filled, where your imagination is stretched to its limits. That being said this was very entertaining and what made me include this is the sheer thrill of the opening. It was enough for me to want to read his next offering. Hobbs is an ‘in yer face’ writer, as my father used to say. Rousing.

8    The Magpies – Mark Edwards

I like to be scared, in my own time, in my own space, as long as I’m in control. This book is what used to be referred to as a ‘chiller’ and it did actually scare me.

I thought I’d start with that observation because if it didn’t scare me then the book would have failed by not doing what it says on the tin. However, it’s an excellent psychological thriller with all the necessary twists and turns. Although some might argue that the plot has been done before, what makes this such an engaging and rewarding read is the detail that is put into characterisation. Edwards allows the characters to breathe, thereby allowing you to care about them and their jeopardy. He also paints a familiar picture of suburbia, which heightens the ‘this could happen to you’ fear factor. The build up from nuisance to sheer terror is skilfully woven.

I know some will shout loud that victims Jamie and Kirsty should have upped ships and moved at the first sign of a dead rat… but where would the fun be in that? I got the same chill from this as a good horror film, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Creepy.

9    Water-Blue Eyes – Domingo Villar

This is not a new release, but it’s new to me and came by way of recommendation. Very different in style to say ‘The Necessary Death…’, very different indeed, but then that’s what keeps me loving this genre.

The novel is set in the town of Vigo in north-west Spain. I’m lucky enough to have visited so perhaps I felt especially at ease with the locations. There is something quite British in terms of its terrain, with this being the only part of Spain which has a large amount of rainfall. I likened it to parts of Devon and Cornwall, with the society Villar describes not being dissimilar from some of the smaller fishing villages of our own South West. The setting is important too because the story throws together the rather languid local cop Caldas with a fat city rat in the shape of Estavez.

A body has been found and they are teamed up to investigate. It’s the relationship between these two, with their vastly different backgrounds and mores which make for such an enjoyable read. 

Despite the usual grizzly bits there is a lightness of touch throughout. It’s a beautifully constructed novel which reeks of atmosphere, so much so that you can almost smell the Spanish tapas. Great plot, vivid characters and another in my top ten this year that isn’t scared of a touch of crime fiction humour. Rewarding.

10     Hunting Shadows – Sheila Bugler

Another impressive debut, and a police procedural with heart. DI Ellen Kelly has her own past to overcome which becomes interwoven with the story of a missing girl. There are some very lucid settings both in urban London and the wilds of the Kent coast, but it’s Kelly’s character which really made this book for me. She is multi-dimensional and whether she’s acting out the role of widow, mother or top rank cop she does so with credibility.

The story is given time to develop and in doing so the author allows space for some in-depth character analysis. Some may argue that the ending was predictable but for me it only reinforced the believability of the plot. Some writers get seduced by the unexpected final plot twist, only to ‘lose the plot’ themselves. Sheila Bugler skilfully avoids this trap. Gritty. 

 

Well folks, that’s my list, and though I appreciate that the selections won’t be to everyone’s taste, I can’t imagine than many would be disappointed by reading any one of these wonderfully constructed novels.

They are all quite different in their own way and the reason that these, and not a few other contenders made it, is purely down to what I describe as that ‘stay with me’ factor.

Only when I finished this compilation did it dawn on me that a few of these novels arrived on the scene via ‘independent’ routes. For example, Mark Edward’s ‘The Magpies’ and Anya Lipska’s ‘Where The Devil Can’t Go’ both started out as directly published works via Amazon, which were later picked up by Thomas &Mercer and Harper Collins respectively. I’m not sure about TJ Cooke’s ‘Defending Elton’, if it hasn’t yet been picked up it surely soon will be.

I wonder if times are a changing in the publishing world with new avenues opening up? The old model of submission of writer to agent, and agent to publisher, seems to have a new version, with writers now able to bring their work to public attention first and then attract representation. It is certainly no bad thing, giving writers a little more opportunity and readers a better chance of finding nuggets such as these.

Finally for now, I have a few ‘bubbling under’ contenders for the list which I’ll come back to in a future post. I’d also love to hear from anyone with their own recommendations. My TBR pile might be growing!

 

The reluctant blogger

ImageOkay, so I’ve caved in. After much procrastination I have taken the advice of friends and decided to write a blog about my love of all things crime fiction. So, pretty soon I will post that list of my favourite crime fiction reads of 2013 so far. Many of you will have tweeting with me about them over the past few months. I’ve chosen ten and explained why they make the list.

In the future I will blog about films as well as books. So please do let me know some of your own favourites across the years. My own book and film recall goes back to the mid seventies, when I was a tiny little thing on my daddy’s knee. He had me watching Francis Durbridge plays on the tv, and reading out chunks of his books to me – that’s how it all started. Bless you dad, wherever you now are. You’re influence is ever present.