Categories for Books

October 2, 2016

British Film Institute – 10 great erotic thrillers  

I’m working on plotting a sequel to my first novel at the moment. Perhaps there’ll be some inspiration in this list of films from the BFI.

Jane Campion’s In The Cut was the inspiration for my villain in my first novel, A Savage Art.

It’s about to be published! Yay! I shall write a little about how the film inspired me to create my villain later.  Unusually for me, I discovered the film first –  but I enjoyed both the film and the book by Susanna Moore.

The BFI blog post suggests that with the easy availability of pornography online, erotic thrillers have fallen out of fashion – although they say there’s a strong case to bring them back – not least because they’re enjoyable.  And although women characters have often been brutalised and punished for their sexuality and independence in these films, there’s also plenty of opportunity for us to subvert that – which I think Jane Campion attemped with some success in In The Cut.

A Savage Art would make a great film, I think.

Well, I can dream!

And just look at those actresses – Angie Dickinson, Kathleen Turner, Charlotte Rampling, Nicole Kidman…

Who could play my own Kate Savage?

If anyone can recommend any other erotic thrillers – books or films – please do let me know in the comments.


November 12, 2015

What the author meant – a rant.  

This meme has been doing the rounds on Facebook again. There seem to be a never ending stream of people who like and agree with it, and every time I go argue. It keeps me out of the Guardian comments…



There are so many different ways in which this is wrong.

Indulge me.

First, it suggests that teachers are rubbish and know nothing of the “real world” – because that’s what this is fundamentally about. It’s an argument about the nature of reality, and who gets to define it. Now me, I’m not particularly authoritarian (pun not intended) and I like to rebel more than the next person. But just as a teacher doesn’t get to define reality for me, neither does a writer. I would prefer to engage with both before coming to my own conclusion. Which may change at any point in the future….

Second, teachers and writers are not always mutually exclusive groups.  I expect quite a high proportion of English teachers – and these are the targets of this simplistic, reductionist, ill thought out meme – also do a bit of writing.

I’m going to lose count at some point, so I’ll give up here.

If you’re reading a story and the curtains are mentioned, I’m just guessing – but if we’re beyond Ladybird books and Janet and John, there’s some meaningful thematic reason for the damn curtains to be mentioned.

Anyone who’s ever tried to write a story knows description is hard. If you write too much of it, it slows the story down – and in the words of Elmore Leonard that becomes the bit that readers skip. If you’re otherwise offering them enough reason to keep reading and not fling the book across the room, that is.

If you don’t offer enough description then you fail to create a world in which the reader can lose themselves in the fictive dream. Your writing is too abstract and fails to engage the reader’s emotions.

So the writer has to select the details they choose to include very carefully.  They must be details which make the story come alive for the reader, they must be visual or sensory in some way. But if you waste a detail like the colour of the curtains to convey something only about the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum then you’ve wasted an opportunity. Perhaps you’ll get away with it in a hundred thousand word novel, but not in a short story, that’s for sure.

There’s another question this raises. Does the author always consciously know what their intention is when they describe the curtains.

I think you’ll know what I think. Sometimes I think we barely know what we consciously mean when we converse in our daily life. But I’ve certainly had the experience as a writer when I’ve re-read a piece where I’ve written better than I consciously knew.  (I’ve also had pieces of intended symbolism miss the mark completely and fall flat, of course.) But perhaps a text that is being discussed by a teacher is more likely to contain the former – symbolism which works.

And finally – for now, at least – reading is a collaborative process. As is all communication. We all bring our own experiences to it, and every reading, every instance of understanding – and misunderstanding – takes the work of more than one conscious mind.

Note I am not saying there’s no such thing as misunderstanding. Of course there is. Sometimes it is just mistaken, sometimes it is self-evidently wilful. However the point I am making is that there is nothing clear cut about these blue curtains.  They could be a pretty floral print that represent depression because they are drawn on a bright sunny day, failing to keep daylight at bay.  Or they could be a deep blue silk velvet that represent security and safety to a girl who grew up on a sink estate with grey nets and Woolworth’s finest.

But if they’re in a story, they’re not just curtains.



August 18, 2015

Private Investigations  

crime fiction

So what is this fixation I have with fictional private eyes? It’s been with me a long time.

Of the male detectives, I loved Roger Moore as The Saint, Simon Templar. I practised for hours in front of the mirror until I could raise a single eyebrow. My Dad let me use his library ticket to borrow the original Leslie Charteris novels, before I moved on to reading John D. McDonald and Chandler.

But even back then, I loved the female detectives more. I was transfixed by black and white films with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, and from there I read the books. I got hooked on Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane – who was far too good for Lord Peter Wimsey – initially through the TV series with Harriet Walter.  Then I borrowed the novels from the library – always in the right order. Working my way through the crime fiction section I discovered the psychoanalyst sleuth Dame Adela Lestrange Bradley – an old witch of an investigator created by Gladys Mitchell. Later I devoured the Women’s Press feminist crime fiction list of the 80s and 90s – far too many of them to mention.  And they are all so different – the village busy body Miss Marple, through the sophisticated academic Kate Fansler, to the tough and streetwise working-class-made-good VI Warshawski.

Some years ago, PD James argued that middle class crime stories – often criticised as “snobbery with violence” – were more interesting because in deprived areas where crime is an everyday matter, there are fewer ‘interesting’ moral choices.  I love her novels – especially the stand alone Innocent Blood – but I think she was very far of the mark there.  The moral choices may be different but they are no less stark in the mean streets of VI Warshawski’s Chicago than in one of PD James’ locations – whether English country house, theological college or private plastic surgery clinic.

Issues of class have always been at the heart of crime novels. Miss Marple commented on the invisibility of ordinary working people – the maid, or the postman.  I recently re-read Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and was fascinated by how relevant it still is today – asking questions about working women, motherhood, and marriage. Unusually the crime isn’t a murder, but is a series of poison pen letters aimed to discredit a women’s college at Oxford – and (spoiler here) – the culprit is a servant, who is avenging her husband who she feels was wronged by one of the academics.

Amanda Cross’s detective Kate Fansler is an academic – a Professor of English Literature – who is a feminist and frequently obstructed by male professors and irritated with her status as “the token woman.” Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of real life Columbia University Professor Carolyn Heilbrun – whose non fiction is also worth reading – I recommend her article about Gertrude in Hamlet, her biography of Gloria Steinem, and her book about old age. Later in her life she resigned from her post over the discrimination against woman in the University. So it’s interesting to see how she quite deliberately used her crime fiction to make a critique of academia many years before she made her more public protest.

Like male private eyes, the female of the species are outsiders.  They see the world from a different perspective – they’re not part of the establishment. Where in the original detective novels the point was to restore the world to order, the private detective has long questioned the basis of that order.  Moral ambiguity is part and parcel of all modern crime fiction – but it originated with the private eye novels.

I am contemplating the creation of my own private investigator, I even have a name for her, and something of a backstory. But I have a lot of thinking to do first – and another psychological thriller is beginning to take shape…

Who are your favourite fictional private eyes? Or do you prefer crime novels that focus on the police investigation?


Just after I finished writing this post, I found an interesting article about Agatha Christie and gender –“If Not Yourself, Who Would You Be?”

So these are some of the books on my reading list at the moment

The latest Sara Paretsky novel Brush Back – the 17th in the VI Warshawski series.

The first three Amanda Cross novels – starting with In The Final Analysis

Val McDermid’s non fiction book – A Suitable Job for a Woman, about real life female private investigators. She has a couple of her own fictional ones too – Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan.

Perhaps I might add the PD James An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – featuring her female private investigator Cordelia Gray.

And the next of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels is due out at the end of August. Simply called X – I’d been wondering what it would be. X is for Xylophone would have been a challenge to plot.

Sources – PD James Snobbery and Violence in the Independent

Carolyn Heilbrun/Amanda Cross

Remembering Carolyn Heilbrun : Feminist Scholarship and Suicide



August 5, 2015

Go Set a Watchman  

Most of us can’t read Go Set a Watchman without being influenced by our earlier experiences of  To Kill a Mockingbird – and the gulf between the two has left many readers disappointed.  Yesterday it was reported in the Guardian that a US bookshop was refunding customers who were disappointed that it was not “nice summer novel” but more of “an academic insight into Lee’s development as a novelist.”

There’s something faintly disturbing about that to me. I recognise that the situation with Harper Lee is unique – not just because of the status of To Kill a Mockingbird, but because of the doubts surrounding the way the book was published.  But surely one of the joys of reading is having our expectations overturned, and being made to look at the world in a new way.

And really – would anyone have ever recommened To Kill a Mockingbird as “a nice summer novel” – something to read on the airplane or the beach?

Alhough I love To Kill a Mockingbird – I cannot regret reading Go Set a Watchman. It does give an insight into the development of a novelist, but it is also interesting in its own right.

Watchman is a growing up novel.  Scout has become Jean Louise – all grown up and coming back to her home town after working in New York. Reading the novel, I shared Scout’s journey as she discovers her father hold views she finds abhorrent, and when I finished I felt a bit battered and bruised. Some of my earliest moral lessons came to me from Atticus, imprinted on me at an early age, as for so many other readers. I don’t think that’s diminished by finding him a more complex character – as Jean Louise’s uncle says – he’s no longer godlike and perfect. He’s so far from godlike and perfect that a man who we saw as a heroic fighter for justice for black people now supports segregation and says they are not in any way ready for equality.

It’s clear that many readers weren’t happy being confronted by this new vision of Atticus. It’s not been any easier for us than it was for Scout to let go of that child-like idealisation.

In fact her uncle confronts her with this – and says she has a Daddy complex. It’s one of the least satisfying parts of the novel – this wordy and at times abstract confrontation. I would guess that the psychoanlytic approach was very fashionable when the novel was written, and seemed edgy and modern too – but now it just seems clumsy.  And yet that’s also one of the strengths of the novel. The personal is political – as feminist thinkers were to say later, in the 1960s and 70s.

Ursula Le Guin’s blog post about the novel is well worth reading in its entirety.  Le Guin’s personal experience adds so much to my own fumblings towards understanding the context. Here’s her conclusion

So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.

Little white lies . . . North or South, they’re White lies. But not little ones.

Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.

 Having re-read it, I still think Mockingbird is a much more accomplished novel – but perhaps Watchman was more ambitious.  Watchman reads like an early draft, but there are glimpses of the skilled writer who wrote Mockingbird. Not just in the childhood scenes that Lee was persuaded to transform into Mockingbird, but in the character of Jean Louise, and the way she challenges her Aunt, her father and Henry – the man she was considering marrying.  I can’t help but wonder what Watchman might have been, if it had been worked on and polished to the same standard as Mockingbird. I doubt it would have been as popular as To Kill a Mockingbird. But it might have been a better novel.