fiction

Not writing a novel in November

Suddenly, in burst a man with a gun. “What the hell are you doing?” I cried. “Blasting you out of a plot hole, sugar,” he said around a dog-eared roll-up.

NaNoWriMo, month of furious writing. I have been taking part this year, but you might not have realised because I’ve been relatively quiet about it. Those of you of an optimistic bent are now picturing me hunched over a computer keyboard, fingers a blur of caffeine-fuelled activity. Those of you who know me (not to mention my typing skills, usual coffee intake, and the state of my back) have a whole different idea, and you’re probably nearer the mark.

So far I’ve written just over 6,000 words, which is 6,000 more than I had on October 31st. It was never intended to be a novel – keeping it realistic, I was thinking maybe a novella. It’s called Larry Price is Missing and here’s the synopsis I put on my NaNo page:

Larry Price’s wife sent him on an errand but – typical Larry – he doesn’t turn up to meet her where he was supposed to. Not for the first time, her Saturday afternoon shopping trip is spoilt by her selfish husband and she’s not happy about having to traipse round their small town looking for him. When he isn’t in any of the obvious places she begins to wonder if he hasn’t just forgotten about her, after all. Might he be genuinely missing?

It’s based on an idea I suggested for Ilkley Writers months ago, when we were first kicking around ideas for this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival – we would each have done a monologue from a different character linked to a missing middle-aged man. In the event, we ended up doing something entirely different (and you can hear me reading the final performance story, and the one I wrote for the intervening idea here) but I liked this idea and decided when I had time I’d write all the monologues myself. Only in the meantime I read the wonderful Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg (you can read my review of it here) and it gave me the confidence to try something a bit different in terms of structure.

So that’s the novella I should be writing at the moment. Why haven’t I got further with it? Well, I’ve been reading and reviewing books (there’s a new one at The Bookbag if you haven’t seen it – gentle South of France mystery for gourmets and art-lovers), following up new possibilities for Ilkley Writers (more of which soon, I hope) and entering a couple of writing competitions. Plus of course, it being November, I’ve spent a few days wrapped in a duvet, sneezing.

A restrained hurrah, then, for my minor wordcount achievement (and the month’s not over yet), best of luck to those of you sprinting to the 50,000-word mark, thank you to all the spouses (spice) etc that make all this extra writing fit into busy lives relatively painlessly, and sorry to those who get sick of hearing about it.

Kate Atkinson and style envy

I haven’t even read all of Kate Atkinson’s novels, just the Jackson Brodie series and a couple of the others (Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet) but she’s a writer I frequently point to and say ‘that, that’s what I’m after’.

Like Stephen King or Terry Pratchett (both of whom I’ve long admired) Kate Atkinson makes it look easy and tantalisingly attainable. She has a natural, almost conversational style even when she’s sounding like Literature (with a capital L). She makes you care about the characters not because of their grand tragedy (though many of them do have tragic circumstances) but by details, little glimpses into their mildly disappointing childhood or a wholly inappropriate first love.

With her tightly connected web and echoes of actions reverberating throughout the book, she manages to make even the most odd circumstances seem somehow plausible. I know some people find the coincidences and neat connections in her novels contrived but I like the way it makes it feel almost like a fairytale. Which sounds contradictory, given I’ve just praised her seemingly down to earth style, but she has a way of taking something ordinary, presenting it as magical, and thus emphasising its ordinariness. If only I could work out how she does it.

The Prisoner of Paradise by Romesh Gunesekera

Set in Mauritius in 1825 this is a richly descriptive novel about freedom and fetters, be it freed slaves, shackled convicts, or those bound by convention and the rules of society.

Don Lambodar is from Ceylon, the young interpreter for an exiled old prince of that island. Lucy Gladwell is a 19 year old orphan, recently arrived from England to live with her uncle who works for the British administration. Their class, race and gender separate them, yet events and a penchant for philosophical discussion keep throwing them together.

The heat and humidity, exotic flora and the ocean-dominated landscape are vividly conjured. I found the poetry of the language engaging, and a certain tension was built up as the paths that Don and Lucy’s lives would take unfolded. Outside of the focus of this pair, however, I felt that the other action (a slave revolt, for instance) became mere background with few consequences, and Lucy had a remarkable amount of leeway considering her uncle’s demeanour. Enjoy it for the strained romance and the beautiful writing rather than the history.

Beside the Seaside: Stories set around the Yorkshire Coast (edited by Scott Harrison)

How could I resist this short story collection when I spotted it in the library a few days after my east coast jaunt? Particularly with its old train poster on the cover. Add to that the promise of ‘A collection of thriller, science fiction, & horror to stimulate the mind and invigorate the senses’ (despite being on the general fiction shelves) and I was looking forward to finishing the novel I was reading at the time so that I could dive in.

The stories (by a Doctor Who novelist and other established writers as well as some less well-known) are:
That’s the way to do it, by Alison Littlewood (chilling fantasy set in Scarborough, involving a sinister Punch and Judy man); Landlady Interface by Lee Harris (Robin Hood’s Bay, far in the future in a guest house run by an outmoded AI named Ivy); Scarborough in July by Sadie Miller (A day in the lives of four loosely-connected people, neither thriller, nor science fiction, nor horror); The Woman in the Sand by Trevor Baxendale (Kate and her 7 year old son have an unsettling encounter with a sand sculptor); She Who Waits by Gary McMahon (mild horror/ghost story about a grieving widower and the legend of a local haunting); Scarborough Warning by Sue Wilsea (a secret holiday in Scarborough that doesn’t stay secret for long enough. Well-written, but more mainstream fiction than any of the quoted genres).

The stand-out stories for me were The Last Train to Whitby by Scott Harrison (a gripping 1950s secret agent story with just enough of a light touch to stop it being grim. Quite 39 Steps with its railway compartments and codenames, double-crossing and paranoia, and made good use of the setting) and The Girl on the Suicide Bridge by JA Mains (powerful dark fantasy about the all-consuming love of a teenage girl for her troubled older brother, in a town where the nearby bridge is a national suicide-magnet. Hard to say much about it without spoilers, but it will stay with me for a long time I think).

Unfortunately, the whole book was riddled with typos and felt like it hadn’t been proof-read, which was a shame as it looked enticing and professional, and the intro from David Nobbs (he of Reggie Perrin fame) persuaded me of its quality when I picked it off the shelf. The mistakes were only mildly irritating until I got to Sadie Miller’s story, and by the end of it I felt quite sorry for her as they’d started to overshadow her writing a bit (for this grouchy pedant, anyway), for instance ‘The water was icy cold and she submerged herself, as fast as soon could, which always seem to help.’

There was an interesting mix of styles and approaches to the theme, with some stories making full use of their setting and others (like Landlady Interface) feeling like they were more about the characters. Personally, I would have liked more of a mix of settings, as all but 2 were based in Scarborough (my least favourite part of the coast), but you can’t have everything. Maybe there’s just not much drama to be had from Filey. I would recommend if you’re drawn to the darker side, read this then go to the Yorkshire Coast yourself to soak up the atmosphere (and if you’re a writer, start work on something that might fit in a follow-up volume. Preferably set in Filey or Brid…)

Scandinavian crime: Camilla Läckberg

As with Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg was on my dad’s useful list of Scandinavian women who write crime, and I was fortunate to find her first three novels in one ebook from the library (though I only read 2 before the loan expired). The Ice Princess and The Preacher were both gripping novels set in and around the small Swedish coastal town of Fjällbacka. Again, as in Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, there is that sense of small-town interconnectedness, the potential for gossip and everyone knowing everyone else’s family background. However, there is no isolation here: Fjällbacka is a summer tourist destination, there are residents who’ve moved to the city (and some who’ve returned), and we occasionally follow characters to Gothenburg or Stockholm.

Having, as I said, only read the first two novels from a dozen or so years ago (and synopses of some more recent ones) it seems that the first volume, The Ice Princess, follows a different format. While the series as a whole seems to be referred to as the Patrik Hedström books, it’s hard to say who is the central character in The Ice Princess, and Patrik doesn’t appear for quite a while. We mainly follow the amateur investigations of Erica, a moderately successful non-fiction author who is temporarily in town sorting out her parents’ house after their recent deaths. When her childhood friend Alex’s body is found, apparently as the result of suicide, Alex’s parents ask Erica to write an article about Alex’s life. Speaking to Alex’s friends and family, and dredging up her own memories and photographs, Erica begins to feel that something isn’t right.

In The Preacher, the murder of a tourist seems to be connected to two twenty-five year old disappearances, and a divided local family. With the fresh death occurring at the height of the tourist season that most of the town depends on, the police are under pressure to clear it up as quickly as they can. If they don’t melt in the heatwave, first.

With The Preacher, there is an explicit connection to 1979 (including flashbacks to events of that time), but the death in The Ice Princess also has its roots in past events, and according to my dad the third novel, The Stone Cutter, delves into the 1920s. This put me in mind of Robert Goddard and his novels based around family secrets, with the key to the present being obtainable only by solving a puzzle from the past, so the series may appeal to his readers.

Camilla Läckberg draws out the human side of the Tanumshede police force, whether it’s Mellberg (the chief) with his comb-over, or young Martin’s disastrous love life, we’re reminded that they are people too. Patrik has his doubts and insecurities, mistakes are made and laziness creeps in with the summer heat. Because of that human side, there is a degree of natural humour in the books (in a similar way to Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels) and though there are descriptions of gruesome situations, the books are by no means bloody and grim.

Perhaps one of the things that initially drew me in to The Ice Princess when I began to read it was the herring connection. The book I’d finished reading the day before was Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor, set in North Shields and partly about the decline of the herring catch. In the early part of The Ice Princess, Läckberg talks about the decline of the herring catch in Fjällbacka (which I was delighted to discover is a real place) and how that changed the town, so it was interesting to see that mirrored on both sides of the North Sea. While I appreciate that not everyone will have such a niche interest, I think this series will have wide appeal with its engaging characters and well thought out thriller plots.

Scandinavian crime: Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum

The joy of libraries in the digital age, eh? Just before my May Day holiday my dad emailed me a list of Scandinavian women whose crime novels he’d recently read courtesy of the e-book loans from his county library service. My nearest Kobo-friendly library service had a few of them too, so the night before I left I was able to load up with half a dozen crime novels by unfamiliar authors without bulking out my rucksack. I won’t say I picked them on the recommendation of my dad, because in his usual style he said he couldn’t remember which ones were any good.

I tried a couple of chapters of an Anne Holt novel (according to the blurb she’s a former minister in the Norwegian government) and found the style a bit too lyrical for murder, so I picked Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum at random from the remainder of my list. I was hooked by about page 2.

The central thread concerns the body of a girl found by a tarn, but it ends up being about so much more than that. The setting is a small village at the foot of a mountain where everyone knows each other, rumours spread fast, and yet somehow everyone has secrets. Some of them might even be worth killing for. The connections between the residents are complex, and once you start untangling a trail, who knows where it might lead.

The sense of place in this Norwegian novel was wonderful – admittedly I’ve never been to Norway but the isolation, stillness and beauty were conjured vividly. Refreshingly the police detective, Konrad Sejer, instead of being jaded, hard-drinking and divorced, was a reasonably contented grandfather, albeit still mourning for his late wife, and his sidekick Skarre seemed like a nice chap, full of boyish enthusiasm. There was a small amount of violence in the novel but nothing particularly graphic or out of place; if you like your detectives full of action like Harry Bosch or Elvis Cole, you’ll be disappointed here.

Fossum wrong-footed me constantly with this novel, and it’s hard to say much about the plot without letting a spoiler slip, but I raced through, desperate to find out where it was going next. The frequently switching point of view (at least once to a dog) might be disconcerting if you prefer a tight focus, but I know I’ll be reading more from Karin Fossum before long. If you like the more thoughtful end of crime fiction (Ross Macdonald, say) I recommend you do too.