Archive for the ‘Sue Grafton’ Tag

Best Books of 2017

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

This post is a bit late coming, given that we’re already halfway through February.

Every year I set up a ‘Goodreads’ challenge to read so many books in a year. On average it takes me about a week to read one average-length novel. Most of this is down to my long commute – I spend the best part of 3 hours a day every working day on public transport, travelling to and from work, and I use most of that time to read. I am also quite a fast reader, especially if the book is exciting, and I find myself turning pages faster to find out what happens next.

In 2017 I set myself a goal of reading 68. Happily I exceeded that goal and a read a total of 70 books last year. Six of those books I gave a five-star rating to, and this my criteria for the ‘best books of the year’ list.

In no particular order, they are:

Pet Sematary: Stephen King
Heart-Shaped Box: Joe Hill
Behind Her Eyes: Sarah Pinborough
X: Sue Grafton
Bones Never Lie: Kathy Reichs
Soul Music: Terry Pratchett

No real surprises here – these are all authors whose books I enjoy, and three of my four all-time favourite authors – Stephen King, Sue Grafton and Kathy Reichs – are in this list. The only one who isn’t is Sara Paretsky, and that was only because I did not read her 2017 release (though I bought it, at Bouchercon in Toronto) last year.

More details about these books and why I enjoyed them can be found below.

Pet Sematary:
The first time I read this book was over 25 years ago. I had to re-read it last year for my horror book club, and I had forgotten just how good it is. This is an almost-perfect horror story that contains all of the characteristics of King that made him my inspiration.

Louis Creed, doctor and Ordinary Guy moves his family to rural Maine when he takes up a job as resident physician on a university campus. The road outside the house claims the lives of many pets, so many that a pet cemetery has been set up by local children. But there’s something much darker lying beyond the cemetery, and Louis’ descent into madness is creepy and downright disturbing.

Heart-Shaped Box:
I got to meet Joe Hill at Fantasycon in Scarborough a couple of years ago, and end up buying a few books of his which he signed. This was one of them. It involves a fading, self-absorbed rock star with a fascination for collecting macabre items who ends up buying from the internet a suit that allegedly has a ghost attached to it. The suit turns up in a heart-shaped box and the promised ghost does indeed come with the suit, but as always the story is far more complex and it soon takes a sinister turn.

Though not in the same league as his famous father, Stephen King, Joe Hill is still an accomplished horror writer in his own right, and this is a creepy and rather disturbing tale.

Behind Her Eyes:
I know Sarah Pinborough personally through both the crime and horror convention circuits, and I am always impressed with both her versatility and her writing style. The author of 20-plus published novels, this is the one that seems to have moved her up into the big leagues, and well deserved that move is to.

‘Behind Her Eyes’ starts out as effectively a love triange between David, Adele and Louise. David is a doctor, Adele his apparently fragile wife, and single mother Louise his secretary. But she meets him in a bar and shares a kiss with him before she starts her new job and realise that he’s her boss. Meanwhile Adele offers a hand of friendship to Louise and she finds herself getting closer to Adele, whilst feeling guilty about carrying on a relationship with David. Alternating between Adele and Louise’s point of view, it soon becomes apparent that this is not a typical psychological thriller, and it has an ending that will blow you away.

X:
I was not to know, at the time I read this book, that it would be Sue Grafton’s penultimate novel and she would tragically leave us before getting to the end of her ‘alphabet’ books. I have been with Grafton’s couragious female PI since ‘A is for Alibi’. Kinsey Millhone isn’t married and doesn’t seem to be able to commit to relationships, has no kids and no desire to have any, doesn’t cook and doesn’t play particularly well with others. I think she’s wonderful. In ‘X’ Kinsey ends up crossing paths with a particularly vicious villain, and the encounter will have long-term repercussions for her.

I am aware that Grafton’s writing style, and her character, has influenced my own crime series. Sue Grafton is the only one of my favourite crime writers I never got to meet, and I wish I could have.

Bones Never Lie:
Kathy Reichs is another one of my favourite crime writer, and one I’ve had the privilege to meet. Forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan shuttles between Montreal and North Caroline, uncovering murders in her examination of bones, and with a long-standing on-again off-again relationship with Montreal cop Andrew Ryan. She also has a daughter, Katy, whose chronological age marks the passage of time in the series, though by now Katy is grown up and off doing her own thing.

This one was very typical of Kathy Reichs’ style. But I freely admit I love the formula, and I found this one a proper page-turner.

Soul Music:
I’ve been re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for a while, and I expect it to take me quite some time yet, since there are over 40 books in the series and this is #16. And eventually I will get to books I haven’t read before, since I didn’t get through them all the first time around.

My favourite books are the ones about the witches, but Death comes a close second and this one features the latter. In this chronicle of the fantasy world, the inhabitants discover Rock Music, and the spirit of teenage rebellion it inspires. Pratchett’s books are always entertaining, and are always a good thing to read when I need my spirits lifting.

So there we have it for the best books of 2017. For 2018 I’ve decided to play it safe and set a goal to read 70 books. Nearly 7 weeks in I have read 7, which puts me a bit behind schedule. But I am sure I shall catch up!

And if anyone is on Goodreads and wants to link up there, this is my profile page.

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Best Books of 2014

As always, I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books I read throughout the year. I set myself a goal to read 65 books in 2014. I actually managed to read 71.

The number of books I have been reading since I started keeping track on Goodreads has been steadily increasing year on year. Just look at the stats:

2011 – 55 books read
2012 – 60 books read
2013 – 63 books read
2014 – 71 books read

I am not sure why this number is increasing. I have started reading books on the journey in to work, whereas I used to read the newspaper, so that’s a difference. I used to take the underground from London Bridge to Holborn every morning, which required changing trains and a great deal of walking to get from one platform to another, which would interrupt my reading time. This year I’ve started taking the bus instead, which is a straight 20 minutes of uninterrupted reading time before I have to get off. So I think that’s made a difference too.

Another noticeable change in reading habits in this past year is the increasing number of books I have read on the Kindle, as opposed to paper books. In fact the only paper books I read were those that I was sent by Shots e-zine to review for them, those that I picked up as freebies from conventions and those that had been given to me as gifts or were already on my shelves (for instance the Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky books). Every new book that I purchased myself, I bought as a Kindle version. The convenience of the Kindle is making a significant impact on my reading habits, and now that I have a plastic waterproof cover for it, I can even read it in the bath (which is another place I like to get some quiet reading time).

I started the year re-reading the Sara Paretsky books, who as I have mentioned many times is and always will be one of my all-time favourite authors. I enjoy all of her books, and many of the five-star rated books of 2014 are hers. I read many excellent books in 2014. However, since there were all of 16 books I gave five stars to, this already makes for a long list of ‘Best books read in 2014’. So although there are many deserving four-star books that should be on the list, the final cut contains only the ones I rated five stars. Some of them I have reviewed on Goodreads, and the link is included. Others I have included a few words about below the title.

Lamentation – CJ Sansom

This is the sixth book in the excellent crime series about Matthew Shardlake, hunchback lawyer in the time of Henry VIII, and it just as good as the previous in the series. The series is not only excellently researched, but each one has featured one of Henry’s six Queens, in chronological order. In this latest book, Henry is dying and his last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book called ‘Lamentation of a Sinner’ that has been stolen. Shardlake is hired to find out who stole the book and retrieve it, for if it gets out into the public domain it could prove the Queen guilty of treason.

The religious and political instability of this era is effectively portrayed. My only worry was that with the death of Henry VIII there would be no more Shardlake books. Without giving away too much, however, the end of this book sets the stage for a potential new era of Shardlake adventures.

Before I Go Sleep – SJ Watson

A film starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth was released of this book last year. It’s the sort of plot where you either read the book or see the film because once you know the ending, it’s a fairly major spoiler.

The premise of the plot is that Christine Lucas has suffered an accident that affects her long-term memory. Every day she wakes up with no memory of the last twenty years, and the man she wakes up next to, who tells her he is her husband, is a stranger to her. It’s a frightening concept, but as Christine tries to explore her surroundings she discovers she has secrets she has not been telling her husband. Who can she trust?

This book is a very exciting and gripping thriller, and I was hooked from the first chapter.

V is for Vengeance – Sue Grafton
W is for Wasted – Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton is another of my all-time favourite authors, and I love her feminist, kick-ass heroine Kinsey Millhone. The books are all set in the 1980s, when Grafton started the series, and she says she is going to stop at Z. So there will only be three more, which makes me sad. However, this is another series I shall enjoy re-reading, since it’s been some time since I read the early books and I can’t remember much about them.

The Secret Place – Tana French

This is book five of the Dublin Murder Squad series, and I haven’t read the other four, but found this book in my pile of free booty from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. It involves the murder of a teenage boy on the grounds of an expensive boarding school for girls. The investigating officers whittle the list of suspects down to eight girls – two groups of four, close-knit clusters of friends. But who killed Chris Harper? I really wanted to find out. And this book about adults moving around in the world of adolescent girls made me feel really glad I am long past that stage of life – been there, done that, no wish to go back thank you very much.

Breakdown – Sara Paretsky
Hardball – Sara Paretsky
Blacklist – Sara Paretsky
Hard Time – Sara Paretsky
Tunnel Vision – Sara Paretsky
Guardian Angel – Sara Paretsky
Burn Marks – Sara Paretsky
Body Work – Sara Paretsky

I worship the ground Ms Paretsky walks on. I’ve re-read every VI Warshawski book, and in doing so came across a couple that were new to me (‘Hardball’, which somehow I missed the first time around, and the latest book ‘Breakdown’). I now eagerly await the next book, out later this year. VI Warshawski is now in her fifties, though, and I wonder how much longer she can run around scaling walls and getting shot at.

Stone Bruises – Simon Beckett

Merivel: A Man of His Time – Rose Tremain

The Accident – CL Taylor

Sometimes I browse the Kindle specials store, and end up finding something really good for 99p. This was one of those occasions. The premise involves a teenage girl who ends up in a coma after deliberating stepping in front of a bus. Her mother, desperate to find out why her daughter tried to kill herself, starts to investigate and discovers some murky secrets in her daughter’s life that she knew nothing about. It’s another suspenseful page-turner.

And so this is my review of the best books I read in 2014. I have set myself a goal to read 70 books in 2015. Could be a challenge, but the Kindle is charged and loaded with plenty of unread books, all ready for my return to the day job and the London commute tomorrow. I suppose that’s one good thing about the days the train service is appalling. The longer it takes me get home, the more reading time I have.

Sara Paretsky, Shara Summers and Feminism

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I read a great many books – on average, just over one a week.  I have read so many books that I find it impossible to pick out just one favourite.

I do, however, have several favourite authors.  Authors whose books I constantly go back to, and it feels like visiting an old friend.  Books which affect me in such a way I have to choose carefully what I read following them, because everything else will just seem inferior.

One such author is Sara Paretsky.  I discovered her V I Warshawski series in the early 1990s, back when I was first aware of enthusiastically embracing feminism.  It was a revelation.  Here for the first time I encountered a heroine who represented everything I wanted to be.  A fiercely independent woman who was brave, resourceful, unafraid to speak her mind and without need of a man to define her existence.  Single and childless, V I is sarcastic, blunt and able to hold her own in a fight.  I thought then, and still think now, that she is a fantastic role model for young women.

And even in the 21st century, there are few heroines like her.  Sue Grafton has a similar independent minded, single and childless heroine in Kinsey Milhone.   Kathy Reichs, another writer I admire, has a strong woman in Temperance Brennan, but unlike V I Tempe is a mother, and does occasionally need rescuing by men.

Not everyone shares my adoration of V I, as reviews on Goodreads and Amazon testify.  Some readers – among them women, I was surprised to note – find her too unlikeable.  They don’t like her sarcasm and confrontational manner.

I do not deny that my amateur sleuth Shara Summers was inspired by V I Warshawski.  When I set out to write a crime series, I wanted a heroine like V I – someone courageous and independent minded, who was not afraid to speak her mind.  But I wasn’t brave enough to write a police procedural, so I went for an amateur sleuth.  And in many ways Shara is very different from V I.  She’s not as brave.  She’s not the champion of the underdog the way that V I is.  And she does occasionally get rescued by men.  And because I’m just not as good a writer as Sara Paretsky, sometimes I don’t pull off what I’m trying to do.  Maybe Shara just comes across sometimes as being bitchy instead of courageous.

It’s also clear that Shara is not everyone’s cup of tea.  DEATH SCENE racked up 31 rejections before it was published by Lyrical Press.  One of the most common reasons for the book being rejected was the character not being likeable enough to take through a series.

The revelation that not everyone loves V I Warshawski – because I’ve been enthusiastically recommending these books to everyone for the last 20 years – was a bit of a surprise, and I’ve recently been ruminating on that.  V I is sarcastic, snarky, and blunt.  She can be downright rude – especially to arrogant and patronising men.  In the early books, which seem to be set in the early 1980s, V I is unusual in being a woman P I, and she encounters a hostile reaction to this by many people.  Especially men.

Women are not supposed to embody these qualities.  Even in these times, they are generally expected to be soft, caring and nurturing, and I think this is the main reason that women who don’t possess these qualities are regarded with suspicion.  They are considered to be not ‘normal’ women.

I like the fact that V I is snarky, blunt and rude.  But there are some people out there who might say I embody similar qualities.  And the same people who wouldn’t like V I for these qualities probably don’t like me much, either.

I must confess that now I’m the wrong side of 40 I’ve got to a point in life where I don’t really care if people don’t like me for being me.  As a woman gamer, role-player, and horror writer, I’ve encountered a number of men over the years who don’t know what to make of me.  The fact that I’m deliberately childless also causes resentment in certain people – it’s surprising (and depressing) how many people, even in this day and age, who assume that all women want children and any who don’t are instantly labelled as being abnormal and not to be trusted.

None of these things matter that much to me these days, but I’m pretty sure that the people that fall into the aforementioned categories are not my target readership.

For the length of time that human beings have existed on this planet, we’ve proved to be depressingly stagnant in moving on with our thinking.  I will go on recommending Sara Paretsky’s books to everyone I have a conversation about crime books with – particularly women.  I would like every young women to read at least one V I Warshawski book.  For every one who comes away thinking, “this is the sort of woman I want to be,” then a battle will be won.

There’s a long way to go before we win the war, though.

Introducing Shara Summers

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

With less than a week to go before my amateur sleuth Shara Summers is unleashed on the world, I thought it was a good time to talk about how she came into existence.

I’ve always been fond of strong female characters, and been a fan of kick-ass female sleuths since first introduced to Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski. When I decided I wanted to create a crime series, I looked to my fictional heroines for inspiration – as well as VI, these include Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Linda Fairstein’s Alex Cooper, and Kathy Reichs’s Tempe Brennan. But they are all American, and I wanted – being British – to base my sleuth in the UK.

British private eye stories are an entirely different kettle of fish to US ones, due to the differences in the law (not least of which is the UK’s much more stringent gun control laws). And I am not a big fan of research. Writing about a private investigator or a detective inspector involved far too much homework, to my mind.

I decided instead to create an amateur sleuth. Then you can perhaps get away with a bit of creative licence, as people are prepared to suspend belief when it comes to the fact an amateur sleuth trips over dead bodies far more often than a normal person could reasonably expect to. And I wouldn’t have to do quite so much homework into the workings of a police department, which I’ve only really picked up from cop shows on TV.

Then there was another snag. Most amateur sleuth series are set in the past. History is not my strong point. There’s no era I know enough about, or wanted to learn enough about to set a series there. So that’s why I decided to set my series in contemporary South London, specifically my own stomping ground.

That did prove to be a bit of a sticking point when I started shopping DEATH SCENE around to agents, as it got rejected by more than one on the basis that they didn’t feel they could sell a contemporary amateur sleuth novel to a publisher – fans of the genre apparently prefer historicals, or so I was told.

In deciding what day job to give to my amateur sleuth, I decided to make her an actress. The theatre is an area I’m interested in, and I spent many years involved in amateur dramatics, both onstage and behind it. I thought that a sleuth who could act would open up some interesting possibilities – she could disguise herself and play a role when she’s poking around where she shouldn’t be, in order to get information. And like being a writer, actresses can get away with being incurably nosy – an actress can claim to be doing research for a role, if she’s listening in to conversations she shouldn’t be.

Finally, I drew on my own history to give my sleuth a Canadian background. I spent eight years of my life in Canada, and I still have an affinity for the place, having family and friends there I visit frequently. So I gave my amateur sleuth one parent in Canada and one parent in the UK (which is my own situation). Although she eventually relocates to the UK, I felt making her a Canadian in London might make her a more interesting viewpoint character, as she adapts to British life and British way of thinking.

And so this is how Shara Summers came into existence. Known as Shari to her friends, she’ll step out into the world on Monday, in my forthcoming novel DEATH SCENE.

I can’t speak for Shari, but I’m certainly feeling a bit nervous about her debut. I have a lot of ideas for future books about her. I really hope I get the chance to write them!