Category Archives: Crime

The Door That Led To Where

Whenever there is a new Sally Gardner book out, I just know it’s the best she has written. Same this time, with The Door That Led To Where, which features time travel, and is set in the part of London where Sally grew up. Thanks to the time travelling, she also manages to fit in almost-Dickensian London, which is something she knows a lot about.

Both these factors explain why the novel works so beautifully, on so many levels.

It begins with, if not bullying at home, then some serious discord between poor AJ and his single mum. He has achieved exactly one GCSE (but at least he got an A*) and his mum is fed up and sends him out to get a job. And what a job! He ends up as baby clerk at a law firm in Gray’s Inn.

Sally Gardner, The Door That Led To Where

And that’s where the trouble starts; AJ discovers a key with his name on, and it leads to London in 1830, and it’s a fascinating place. Dangerous, but no more so than AJ’s modern London. He and his two best friends are forever getting into serious scrapes with people, and being able to escape to an older London seems ideal.

Except, that also has its problems. The three of them need to decide where to stay, and they must sort out some time travelling problems that have escalated over the centuries.

Sally deals with both modern social problems and 19th century crime as though she was born to it. And that’s the thing. She is the most wonderful of storytellers, and she spins fantastic yarns and makes it all appear totally plausible. I believe I’ve finally worked out how she does it; Sally is a time traveller. She has been to old London, as well as living in the city we know now. It’s the only explanation.

This is one of the best books I’ve read.

And the cover in its simplicity is fiendishly clever and attractive.

Gun Street Girl

Finding Adrian McKinty’s Gun Street Girl – his fourth Sean Duffy novel – in the post was like Christmas coming early. It was unexpected, and all the more wonderful for it. I would like to think it’s still not the last Duffy, but couldn’t say, other than he doesn’t die…

Gun Street Girl is Belfast in 1985, and I’d forgotten most of the big news, like the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and a couple of other ones that help make up the plot, so I won’t name them. But it’s so incredibly interesting to read about it ‘from the inside’ as it were, even if Adrian is helped by hindsight, since we now know how things developed afterwards.

Adrian McKinty, Gun Street Girl

A double murder followed by the – maybe – suicide by the murderer, and another death and some more attempts to kill is enough to make Sean want to solve the crime he can see while others don’t want to meddle too much. They have a new boss in Carrickfergus, as well as two brand new detectives, who are thrust into the mayhem as they learn on the job.

Sean seems lonelier than before. There is a hilarious chapter when he tries a dating service (seems no one wants to get romantically involved with a – possibly – shortlived police officer).

Gerry Adams is back in a cameo, Thatcher is pulling strings in the background and those pesky Americans think they are the boss. (They probably are.)

Gun-running, politics, love and murder. You can’t ask for more when it’s Adrian doing the writing. Personally I want more Duffy, but maybe he has been beaten up too many times for that to be likely. And I was going to say that parhaps it’s not good for me to have all I want, but I felt fantastic reading Gun Street Girl. Just saying.

Best of 2014

I was about to say that whereas I had told myself I’d go for fewer books on my best list of the year (best books, not best list) this time, it has proved too hard to do. But then I discovered I managed to slim the list last year, so I have a bit of credit and I can let the list swell. Because I must.

Can’t even offer you a photogenic pile of best books, with most of them still hiding in boxes. Besides, one of the best comes on Kindle, and the Resident IT Consultant’s e-reader isn’t the prettiest of things to take a picture of.

2014 was a good year for series of books coming to an end, be it the two-pack type or the trilogy or the ten-pack. I decided not to put those on The List, but I am happy to mention them.

They are Timothée de Fombelle with Vango 2, Caroline Lawrence with the fourth book about Detective Pinkerton, Derek Landy at the end of his ten book Skulduggery Pleasant marathon, Lucy Hawking and the fourth book about George in space, Gennifer Choldenko and the last Al Capone story, Deborah Ellis about Parvana again, Teri Terry’s dystopia had as satisfying an end as you could hope for, Gillian Philip finally finished her faeries in Icefall, and Che Golden sorted her fairies out too.

Helen Grant and Eoin Colfer did beautifully with their second books from Belgium and time travel London, so there is more to look forward to there.

Two authors are standing shoulder to shoulder on my awards stand this year; Michelle Magorian and Nick Green. Michelle for Impossible! and Nick with his Firebird ebook trilogy.

The runners-up are – in no particular order – Ali Sparkes and Destination Earth, Sally Nicholls and Shadow Girl, Cliff McNish and Going Home, Tanya Landman and Buffalo Soldier, Ellen Renner and Tribute, Simon Mason and Running Girl, Carl Hiaasen and Skink No Surrender, Robin Talley and Lies We tell Ourselves.

Thank you everyone, for hours and hours of good company, and please keep up the good work!

Rachel Hamilton – runner up

When I noticed a photo of three people in the Emirates Lit Fest email, I decided to take a closer look, on the off-chance that I’d know one of them. And I did! The two men I have no idea who they are, but the lady on the right was Rachel ‘Exploding Loos’ Hamilton. It seemed she had been at the festival, and that she’d been runner up in their writing competition. I didn’t know that! I thought Rachel ‘just’ wrote amusing books about exploding portaloos.

Which is not a bad thing. We need books like that, and she does it so well. But anyway, I immediately emailed her to demand a blog post explaining her past, her runner up status and anything else interesting. Because if it’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that exploding loos authors can be pretty entertaining on almost any subject:

Rachel Hamilton

“I’m Rachel Hamilton, author of The Case of the Exploding Loo a title I’m beginning to regret now people have started to refer to me as the Exploding Toilet Lady!

There I was, minding my exploding toilets, when Bookwitch got in touch to say she’d spotted my name on the author list for the 2015 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. (A spectacular list, full of kids’ book superstars like Michael Morpurgo, David Walliams, Julia Donaldson, and . . um . . . me!?!). She asked me to write about my journey from struggling scribbler, via literature festivals and exploding toilets, to the wonderful world of published author-hood. How could I refuse a witch? She can do terrible things with that wand.

So here are the steps that helped me create my own Happily Ever After.

I got my family on side early

It’s rubbish to live with an absent-minded author – my daughter tells the story of the day she opened her school lunch box and found a sandwich and a packet of biros. So I try to make up for my frequent lapses into rubbishness by involving my family in the bits of my book journey I think they’ll enjoy. When I did my book tour I asked my drama-loving daughter to come up with a comedy routine to introduce me at each event. My computer-obsessed son helped me organise my website and blog tour. And my husband has been entertaining himself making facebook ads for my book (although he may be fired from my campaign after adding a ‘shop now’ button to the last one and accidentally linking it to the Amazon page for Veet hair removing cream!?). I grab every opportunity to tell my family how much I appreciate their support and dedicated my book to them:

Rachel Hamilton acknowledgement

I kept on writing even when I wasn’t quite sure why.

Rachel Hamilton - footprint 2

I love strange words from other languages. One of my favourites is ‘Sitzfleisch’ (literal translation, seated meat) which means the power to persevere in a sedentary activity – for example, putting your bottom on a seat and keeping it there until you’ve finished your book. I’m proud of my ‘Sitzfleisch’! I’ve heard people liken being a wannabe author to being Wile E Coyote – with obstacles being flung in your path or dropped on you from a great height – but the authors who succeed are the ones who laugh in the face of killer boulders and jagged rocky ravines, and keep on chasing that bird.dream.

I found my ‘voice’

I wasted a lot of my early writing years trying to create books for adults. But, over time it has become clear that my brain never fully matured to adulthood, so writing that kind of book always felt like hard work. It was only when I started making up silly stories for kids that my imagination and my writing really started to take off. Writing become more fun than fun, and people wanted to read what I’d written.

I found brilliant people to play at ‘book writing’ with.

Writing is often described as a solitary profession. Not for me. I drag everyone I know into the creation of my books! I kidnapped my sister Kate and my cousin Chris and forced them to rampage through the Science Museum with me for The Case of the Exploding Brains, setting off alarms as we acted out ways the bad guys might have been able to steal the museum’s moon rock. I lured all my cleverest friends and relatives into helping me solve the science problems that popped up in early drafts of both books. And I regular harass my forensic detective, policeman, explosive expert and prison officer friends to help me with fact checking.

But the most helpful ‘playmates’ of all are my kids and their friends, who act as slightly crazy guinea pigs for early versions of my books. When they laugh, I know that chapter’s a keeper. And when they start poking each other instead of listening, I know that scene has to go. I am also shameless about picking the brains of brilliant fellow children’s authors. The wonderful Tony Bradman was my hero and mentor while writing The Case of the Exploding Loo. The hilarious Tatum Flynn (author of the hellishly funny, D’Evil Diaries) was my brilliant critique partner for The Case of the Exploding Brains. And the marvellous Joe Craig very kindly allowed me to gatecrash one of his school visits to see how the professionals do it.

Rachel Hamilton book covers

I got lucky

Obviously, I think my book is brilliant 😉. But there are thousands of other brilliant books sitting in cupboards or on laptops out there, so I’m very grateful for the chances I’ve been given. I was lucky enough to enter the right competition at the right time – the 2013 Emirates Festival of Literature First Fiction Competition. I didn’t even win, but as I always say (and I do mean ALWAYS, it drives my daughter mad) being runner up didn’t hurt One Direction. My entry caught the eye of the competition judge, Luigi Bonomi, who became my literary agent a couple of weeks later and within a month, he had negotiated a two book deal with Simon & Schuster! Which is why I keep telling everyone (cue: more groans and eye-rolls from my daughter), ‘I couldn’t have written myself a better happy ending.'”

There you are! I like immature people with Sitzfleisch. (And Rachel is right about the wand.)

Witch livingroom library #2

The Resident IT Consultant has kept up a steady pace all week, so just in time for St Andrew’s Day and the First Sunday in Advent, we have shelves. Not just undercoated, but ‘overcoated’ and filled.

Shelves

He painted for three days, and then the joiner came and secured the shelves with screws. Except for the one he forgot to do, so that will have to be done on his next visit.

'The Paretsky Shelf'

In anticipation of putting ‘all’ the books up, we placed the first few early, as they were hanging around all un-boxed. These are on ‘The Paretsky Shelf’ as we have named the slightly taller shelf for recent hardbacks. New hardbacks are very tall and never seem to fit where other books will happily go. As for Sara, she was pleased to have a home, although she declared it slightly tacky. (I’m hoping that’s the paint tacky, not the tasteless one.)

And the day I swanned off to Edinburgh I left a room full of boxed books, and returned to a wall filled with books. He’s quite useful that way, the Resident IT Consultant. He even made time to pick me up from the station.

My heart is flowing over, and so, obviously, are the shelves. They are generous, taking up a whole wall. But that is never enough, is it? There will, eventually, be more shelves in other rooms, but each step has to be done in the right order. I estimate at least two more months before the next worthwhile contribution to our shelving issues.

Shelves

We spent the following day placing the newly released books in a more orderly fashion, while also pruning quite a bit. I was being very good, sacrificing all my Ann Grangers and my remaining Wycliffes and some of the Ed McBains.

We gained a little more space by moving some books to the shelves in the alcove, which until this week had held a number of completely irrelevant items.

Bookcase

We’re slowly getting there. Thank you for your time!

The onion fryers

I’m reading a real onion fryer kind of book right now. I almost got impatient with the Resident IT Consultant for coming back from his walk, because I was reading so comfortably and there he was and I had to make conversation instead. Who am I kidding? I did get impatient, but only quietly. It was just the right kind of day for reading; chilly and dark, and it was so inviting, there in my holey armchair. (Don’t worry, I’ve covered the holes with a blanket for the moment. Tartan. Because we’re in Scotland.)

Despair had been creeping in, because I’d had a few books I wasn’t rushing to get back to. They don’t have to be real onion fryers (that’s my name for them, borrowed from Adèle Geras, who has described the can’t-let-go-of books as ones she reads while stirring the onions she’s frying for dinner), but I like to feel a certain longing when I think of returning to my reading chair. Coming up with other things to do instead is not a recommendation.

What I find so amazing is that my current onion fryer was offered by a writer so diffident, but who truly belongs to the very greatest of children’s authors, that I’d have snatched it out of their hands, had we been in the same room.

I have a few onion books sitting around at the moment. One of them was also of the hard to come by kind, as I only found out about it by chance and then had to ask for it. Now, is it wrong to be so desperate for onion style sequels by – I would think – one of the more reliably bestselling authors of today? Should I leave an excellent book by someone who is less in need of another review, in favour of a needier book? In fact, is that why I had to ask for it? Did the publisher feel it needed less TLC?

For about a year I’ve carried a book round with me on trips, expecting to ‘read it next’ and when I finally got to it the other week, I was rather underwhelmed. I didn’t mind it, but neither was I making excuses to go and sit down with it. All I wanted to do was to grab one of my onion fryers instead.

I think my reasoning here is along the lines of that intelligent Dave Allen sketch about bread. You have fresh bread, warm from the oven. But you have a bit of yesterday’s stale bread, and you must eat it first. Which means that today’s lovely fresh bread will be tomorrow’s stale offering, which you have to eat before… And so on. Whereas I reckon I can just as well toast yesterday’s bread tomorrow as today, so will eat the new bread first.

The same goes for books. I’m all set to read every one – or most – of the onion books now. And maybe when I’m done, there will be more of them waiting. Just not sure what to do about the ‘toast.’ Because I do like toast.

My teacher, Mrs Christie

When Sophie Hannah was talking at Bloody Scotland about growing up with Agatha Christie, it was like hearing myself speak. Or it would have been if I could sound as intelligent and articulate as Sophie. And I wished I’d known this ‘sister’ back when I was twelve, except at the time her mother Adèle Geras was barely out of university herself, so Sophie and I were never destined to be the same age at the same time.

Also, we wouldn’t have had a language in common. It was more our behaviour and reading patterns that seem to have coincided. I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to school with children who read Agatha Christie at twelve. If I had I might not have felt like a freak.

And if there was a likeminded child at school, I’m reasonably certain they didn’t read Agatha in English. (This peculiar habit of reading in a foreign language really only took off with Harry Potter.) Mrs Christie was my English mentor/teacher. If not for her, I wouldn’t have tried. And I suppose I wouldn’t have attempted it if first I’d had to go to the library to check out their foreign langauges section. It helped that Mother-of-witch had a few Christies in the original; leftovers of her own attempts at educational improvement. So I could test drive them to see if it would work, and it did. Reasonably.

Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit

I was going to ask the rhetorical question of whether I’d be blogging right now, were it not for Agatha Christie. But my question has to go deeper than that. Not to be blogging wouldn’t be the end of the world (I mean, if I’d not started, I’d not know what I was missing). But would I have come to Britain to live? There would in all likelihood not have been a Resident IT Consultant. Or Offspring.

Perhaps Agatha wasn’t so much my English teacher, as my life designer. Not that she knew, but still.

It’s extraordinary what an early exposure to niblicks will do to a little girl.