Category Archives: Crime

Tough Teens

As Daniel Hahn and I agreed afterwards, we had forgotten the event a couple of Augusts ago, which he had chaired and where Anthony McGowan turned himself into the bad voice re YA. But we remembered the night fondly, because last night’s event with Tony and Alex Wheatle was also a really good one.

Tough Teens, it was called. Chaired by Mairi Kidd – who had ‘mothered’ Tony’s fictional boys into being – this was a great conversation. In fact, it’s one of very few where the authors involved got so caught up that they talked to each other, in earnest, about writing, [almost] forgetting the chair and the audience.

Yes, the audience. It wasn’t the biggest I’ve known, but it was Monday night when the schools had just gone back. But it was the right audience. It was nearly all teenagers, mostly boys, with a few token adults like me and Daniel, and Kwame Alexander. This is how it should be.

Alex Wheatle and Anthony McGowan

So, the talk was right, and the audience was right. The questions were great, and far better for me staying out of things (someone had wanted me to ask the first question…).

And jail, well, it can turn a man into a reader, and then into an author. The young Alex met his ‘mentor’ in a jail cell; someone who told him he’d nothing better to do in there so he might as well read. And now with his personal experience of living in care, Alex has written a book about a girl in care. He had to force his own daughter to tell him what girls talk about, to get it right. He was a bit shocked at what he discovered.

Tony, on the other hand, returned to Sherburn in Elmet outside Leeds, where he grew up, to write about two brothers in the four-book Brock trilogy. It’s a place for boredom, and with a bacon factory. Not as exciting as London.

Alex’s fictional Crongton can be London, but it could also be almost anywhere else. He knows about detentions, and remembering how he wanted to impress a girl he met there, it all went into Kerb Stain Boys. His reading from the book revealed a lot about his made up slang and accents.

When it was Tony’s turn to read, I thought he was trying to get out of it, but a member of the audience lent him her reading glasses, so all was fine. He needs to pace around when he reads, and we all enjoyed the story about swimming across the ‘bacon pond’ in the nude.

Winning awards is nice, and it opens doors. But, they feel shortchanged by the media. Asked if they get fan mail, it seems that teens are too cool to write; it’s mostly younger ones who do. Mental health is a big thing in their books, as is life for young carers.

They recognise their own teen years when they do school visits, but reckon mobile phones have changed how pressured children are today. Tony remembers everything from his teens, but not what he did last week. Alex is the hopeful guy who wants to date the beautiful girl, who already has a more exciting boyfriend.

Anthony McGowan

And on that happy note we all congregated in the bookshop. Well, Tony got there a little late, but he got there. Kwame chatted to Alex and got a book signed. Even I remembered after a bit that I had books that wanted signing. (I’m the one without an ‘e’ at the end, btw.) Tony discussed tonality with a fan, and did his best to sign in Chinese.

Alex Wheatle and Kwame Alexander

As I said earlier, it’s great when authors simply get on with it and talk about writing. It’s also great when their peers come to the event, along with the appropriate age readers.

We want more of this.

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Skiving off?

There is a small part of shame in admitting that I have for the second time now been excused from jury service. It’s something I’d actually want to do, were it not for various personal hang-ups that make sitting still, quietly, without leaving the room, for several hours, quite difficult.

If I go to a concert, or a book event, say, I have the freedom to leave if I have to, and I would not be upsetting anyone other than myself. This is all right. It’s free choice, in a backwards sort of way.

For most of my many years in the UK I was ineligible for jury service, so I was surprised when I was called last year. But it seems [at least] Scotland will take anyone on the electoral roll (which doesn’t mean I, or other foreigners on it, have much we can vote for). And even the more minor courts use juries, which I presume means more people are needed.

But when it arrived, the letter mentioned ‘civic duty.’ I am all for civic duty, but in return I’d like some reassurance that they will have a duty to look after me, too. Like not deport me, or something. If it was possible, I’d happily spend the same number of hours on doing something else, other than sit in a courtroom. Just to be suitably civic.

And I’d like to apologise for this week of opinions. Sometimes I get so I can’t do much more than have opinions.

Sara on ICE

Isn’t it odd how people read books written by authors whose – sometimes strong – opinions they don’t share?

Whereas I am all for reading anything that appeals, in whatever way – if only to be able to throw the offending book into the fireplace, George Mikes style – I don’t get why I’d annoy myself by reading an annoying book.

I think I’ve seen something similar from Sara Paretsky earlier, but a couple of weeks ago she reported on an email from a ‘fan’ who thought Sara was too negative about ICE in her most recent novel, Shell Game. I believe Sara is negative about the actions of ICE, but even if she isn’t, it would still be appropriate in fiction about the state of things today, to say bad things about the bad things that occur.

Sara wrote this after taking part in a rally in Chicago, ‘to highlight opposition to the U.S. government’s detention policies and methods. One person had brought photographs of the children who’ve died in these border prisons, most of them alone, separated from their parents.’

We have to be grateful we have authors who care about these things, and who can put some of that which is wrong into fiction, making it known to more ordinary people. She hopes her writing is a bit like that of Mrs Gaskell’s. I believe it is.

And with every move my adopted country takes in the wrong direction, I am glad we have people who will speak out like this.

Memories

After seeing a video snippet on – probably – Facebook the other day, I was gently guided by Daughter to Doctor Who and The Unicorn and the Wasp. What I’d seen was Agatha Christie introducing herself to a group of people, including Donna and the Doctor. And Daughter said it was a particularly good episode and why didn’t we watch it while the potatoes baked?

So we did. I vaguely recognised maybe one per cent of it and the rest was new. I guessed the recognition could be caused by trailers for the next episode. Or something.

I enjoyed it. And then we tried to work out why I hadn’t watched it in May 2008. (Because I obviously remember what I did eleven years ago.)

And, well. I hope I’m not getting demented, but it seems I did watch the episode back then, after all. Daughter went and found a blog post by some witch, which sort of proves it…

Murder in Midsummer

This summer crime anthology seemed like such a great idea. Clever title as a Midsomer look-alike book, and if you equate midsummer with summer holidays, or even warm, sunny holidays, you are mostly there.

And it starts well, with Ruth Rendell’s Wexford on holiday with his wife. I really enjoyed the story, nicely period, but not too old, from the 1970s. Later on, Appleby and wife are also out holidaying; also enjoyably, apart from for the poor victim.

Actually, I’m being unfair here. Nearly all the stories are good fun, and make for nice period entertainment.

Murder in Midsummer

I think it was primarily the Dorothy Sayers story featuring Lord Peter Wimsey himself which disturbed me. Yes, it’s historical. And yes, I firmly believe in not tampering with language for our delicate modern eyes. It wasn’t even the use of the word dago that got to me. It was how good old Wimsey looked at life. Yes, lighthearted as ever, but he made me feel uncomfortable. Even crusty old Sherlock Holmes felt slightly fresher.

There’s a curious – intentional? – pairing between the stories, with similar settings or characters. Lions, beach deaths, closed rooms, that sort of thing.

I’m the first to say how much I love period crime, but there is something that no longer feels quite right. And it’s so reassuring when the English, even when abroad, put their superior brains to good use and solve the crimes the local police are struggling with.

Sea Change

Sea Change by debut author Sylvia Hehir was a pleasant surprise. A YA crime novel set somewhere in Scotland, it has an interesting – if somewhat idiotic and naïve – main character. Alex loves his mother, truants a lot, makes great jam, and isn’t all that good at knowing who’s a reliable friend, and who isn’t.

There is an untrustworthy, but charming, stranger in the village, and Alex doesn’t say no nearly as much as he ought to. Before long he and his best friend Daniel are in deep trouble. And the way trouble tends to escalate, here it does so in spades, and in the end Alex can’t keep juggling all those tasks he feels are his to look after.

Love comes into it, and there are many secrets and much mistrust. And when you are 16 or 17 you don’t share with ‘responsible’ adults, and what happens happens.

This book is a real page turner, and I’m glad I read it.

Sylvia Hehir, Sea Change

(If you are in Edinburgh, there is a launch at Blackwell’s tonight at 18.30.)

The Partisan Heart

Gordon Kerr’s fiction debut – The Partisan Heart – reminded me a lot of the books I used to read in the 1970s. That’s perhaps fitting, as it’s a crime thriller set alternately in Italy during the end of WWII and also over fifty years later, at the end of the 1990s.

Bad things happened in the war, and quite a few of the actions taken back then reverberate in the lives of some of the characters 55 years on. Englishman Michael has just lost his Italian wife in a car accident in Italy, and his life seems to be falling to pieces.

In true fiction hero style, discovering that she had some unexpected secrets, he decides to find out who his late wife’s lover was.

We also meet young Sandro, who was a partisan fighter in the war, in the same area that Michael’s wife came from. You can tell that some of the people from those times will still be around in the later story, but you’re not quite sure which ones, or how what they did influences later actions.

Wartime Italy seems to have become more popular, and this two-period kind of mystery/thriller is not unique. But Italy during the war is still unusual enough that I feel it merits more books.

The characters are mostly not all that likeable, with the exception of the barmaid in Scotland. But then, war did terrible things to ordinary people, and even worse to those who were already bad. I wouldn’t have minded not ever reading about some of the ways to kill other human beings. Even if it was in the war.

Gordon Kerr, The Partisan Heart