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April 2014

GUEST BLOG: Tackling taboos the Mirabelle Bevan Way
18th April 2014 - 12 Midnight Sara Sheridan Read more »


England ExpectsSara Sheridan is the author of the highly acclaimed Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries, set in London and Brighton during the 1950s, and whose investigative hero has been described 'Miss Marple with an edge'.

 

The third book in the series, England Expects, out in hardback now and in paperback in July, sees Mirabelle investigate the seemingly unrelated murders of a racing journalist and a cleaning woman. The trail leads them to Brighton Pavilion's crumbling passageways, to the quad of a Cambridge college and finally into the shady underworld of freemasonry in Brighton.

 

Here Sara explains how she approaches the issues of sex and violence, which remained largely taboo subjects in the 1950s.

 

 

It's all about keeping secrets and that's fascinating for me as a writer. As an historical novelist it's your job to spill the beans. You need to recreate a lost world - be it Roman Britain or Georgian London or 1950s Brighton - and you do that with the details. The sounds and smells, the fashions, the ins and outs of how people used money or communicated. Writing historical fiction is all about dropping in the day to day realities that bring the story to life. Historical readers are gripped by that kind of thing - how much a housemaid earned or how long it took people to get from Oxford to Cheltenham by stagecoach.

 

Writing crime is the very opposite. You keep every secret you can, you're stingy with your clues. Crime fiction compels readers because beneath the surface of the story there's something going on and they can't quite get at it. Famously, a third of all books sold in the UK fall into the crime genre. That's a lot of people hooked on secrets.

 

The ABC MurdersIt's a wide genre too. I love public speaking and I spend a good portion of my year at book festivals, in libraries and bookshops, talking about what I do. The Mirabelle Bevan mysteries fall into the category of cosy crime. It's my favourite category - I idolized Agatha Christie as a teenage reader. I remember reading The ABC Murders, which I borrowed from my local library, and thinking 'I hope she's written something else...' I am hooked on secrets myself, you see.

 

Within the genre though, cosy crime is often considered the poor relation of more flashy thrillers and gruesome police procedurals. So when I'm at an event and I meet those kind of crime writers (standard uniform is jeans and a leather jacket) I can see their eyes glaze over when they find out that I write cosy. The truth is, though, I think cosy crime is misunderstood. Agatha Christie wasn't cosy at all. There's no detailed evisceration, gruesome weapons or pools of blood in her stories, but once you understand the historical context of the times, the shock of writing a range of characters who are by turns, gay, lesbian, divorced, abused or suffering from mental illness, really hits you. Those subjects were absolutely taboo in the 1930s and things hadn't changed much by the 1950s (when Christie was still putting pen to paper and where I now spend much of my time). Readers today just don't get shocked by the details that Christie's contemporary fans found so horrifying.

 

When I started to write Mirabelle's first adventure I wanted to create something that fitted the cosy crime monicker but I wanted to imbue it with the spirit of Christie. I wanted to give it an edge without having to resort to graphic descriptions of violence. I come from a background in historical fiction and what I'd found most shocking in my research for the series was a side of the 1950s that wasn't shocking at the time. I remember slouching in my seat as I watched Pathe News Reels, uncomfortable at the way men were talking about women. The discomfort ratcheted up when it came to white people talking about black people. The day to day terms are horrifying to a modern reader.

 

In distress myself I rang my mother. She met my father in the 1950s.

 

'Mum,' I asked, 'did Dad talk to you like that?'

 

'Oh yes, dear,' she drawled. 'It took me to 1972 to train him out of it.'

 

That's the thing with the 1950s - it negotiates an interesting faultline between memory, nostalgia and history. There are living links to the era right now - fading fast, but they're there in our older relations.

 

Thinking about it, I was taken aback by what Mum had done. Let's be frank - my parents aren't political people, they're not radical campaigners but what I realized was that Mum had changed the world. My Mum and probably yours too (or depending where you stand on that memory-nostalgia-history faultline perhaps it was your Granny). Many of the rights I enjoy are down to action those women took. And for that matter, the men as well - after all, Dad took in what Mum was saying and changed his ways. And he was not alone.

 

I had to write a female detective, I realized. And Vesta Churchill, Mirabelle's sidekick (the Hastings to her Poirot) had to be black. That's where the action was in the 1950s - that's where things changed.

 

When I did my first interviews - just after Brighton Belle came out - I could see the journalists and bloggers were a bit like the jeans and leather jacket brigade. There was an unspoken assumption that I'd written cosy crime because I couldn't write forensics. Or that I was soft. Or squeamish. So I renamed the genre.

 

'No, no, no,' I said. 'It's not cosy crime. It's cosy crime noir.'


That monicker genuinely suits the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries because there is violence, there is racism and sexism too and there is (coming up later) just a little bit of sex. It's cosy crime for the contemporary reader and I'm really enjoying pushing the boundaries of the genre.

 

 

 

Once upon a time in the west
15th April 2014 - 12 Midnight Joshua Piercey Read more »


While Westerns remain popular in America, they have largely fallen out of favour with British readers. This is a great pity, suggests Joshua Piercey, from our London Waterloo Station branch, as they are missing out on some wonderful fiction, both classic and contemporary.

 

 

The western is probably my favourite genre, and so I'm rooting for Tarantino. The director has declared his love for the western and his desire to bring it back to the front of the Hollywood consciousness, but the wheels of the machine are notoriously sluggish, and one director working alone might have his work cut out for him. The leaking of the script for his latest film (another western to follow up the success of Django Unchained) has derailed it for the time being, and I'm hoping his strop doesn't last - he's threatened to shelve the project completely in protest.

 

DeadwoodThe western was once a Hollywood staple, but from the 50s onwards the popularity of the genre waned, replaced by cop dramas and the new 'action thrillers.' Aside from the occasional remake (3:10 to Yuma and the Coens' True Grit), and the occasional star turn (Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James), the western doesn't seem to be a bankable prospect as far as Tinseltown is concerned. And even with the critical success of Deadwood, the new credibility of television drama is yet to bless the genre with its touch. Is 'Breaking Bad with spurs' too much to ask?

 

Written fiction to the rescue, as always.

 

The list below contains omissions that will have purists gnashing their teeth (No Zane Grey? No Virginian?). It is compiled via my own bias, naturally, but I've also attempted to give as broad a representation as I could of the genre as it currently stands. This list therefore leans towards the contemporary, and also away from the sole vehicle of literary fiction. I also tried to make sure the books were easy to acquire in physical form. This has undone a few more obscure ones, and leads to my biggest regret: every author on the list is male. If you don't mind some searching, I recommend you correct this oversight, starting with The Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin. Annie Proulx has written some books that have a little of the western in their soul: Postcards is one, and is among my favourite novels.

 

Anyway, the list. 11 excellent pieces of literature inspired by the Old West, in no particular order:

 

ScalpedScalped by Jason Aaron and R M Guéra

I could easily have filled this list with graphic novels. The comic book industry fell in love with the cowboy much as the pulps did, and their fortunes were much the same: a slump in the latter part of the 20th century, and then a slow-burning but steady revisionist revival. Just missing out on a spot were Ennis and Dillon's gleefully profane classic Preacher, and The Sixth Gun, a horror romp centered around magic pistols. Scalped is worth picking up even if you don't care for the funnybooks, it transcends its medium and genre much as The Wire did. It also focuses on the modern experience of Native Americans, something I think is sorely under-represented in contemporary fiction. The Lakota residents of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation struggle to preserve something of their culture as they battle against poverty, crime and addiction.

 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

This novel's inclusion on the Man Booker shortlist was met with pointed surprise by some members of the literati, but this is not only dark, well-told and very funny but also wonderfully original. The Sisters Brothers is a worthy reminder that far from being a constraint, the tropes of a genre can allow for subversion and play. Its plot and cast and central Macguffin are like nothing you'll have encountered recently.

 

The SonThe Son by Philipp Meyer

American Rust was always going to be a tough act to follow, Philipp Meyer obviously decided to go big or go home with this blood-spattered, multi-generational saga. Its portrayal of a dying indigenous culture is unflinching but fascinating. A thoroughly modern western.

 

Lucky Luke by 'Morris' and various writers

He's the fastest cowpoke in the west - so slick he can outdraw his own shadow - but Lucky Luke is also a paragon of fairness, justice and social balance. Younger readers will be delighted by his resourcefulness and cool, older heads will smile at the affectionate parodies of western stereotypes. The majority of these classic tales have been translated from the original French, and are perfect for fans of Tintin and Asterix (in fact René Goscinny penned a few Lucky Lukes).

 

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I read and re-read The Call of the Wild when I was a kid, and although it's set in an land of ice and snow rather than dusty drylands, an adult re-assessment reveals it as clearly a western. All the boxes are checked: frontier towns, crazy prospectors, fear of the wilderness and its inhabitants, the law of the pack. Terrifically exciting, having a dog as the protagonist makes it surprisingly accessible: one for younger teenage boys and other recalcitrant readers.

 

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

There are plenty of source texts for film adaptations that could have made the list, and I picked True Grit because it's a good place to begin, familiar but distinct enough from both its adaptations to be its own animal. And it's a great book: simply put together but with great characterisation and description, with a laconic humour that stops it becoming overwrought. And it's my favourite John Wayne film by a country mile, although that's not relevant.

 

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

It would be remiss not to include a 'Weird West' book - the blending of horror-fantasy and pulp western that expanded and sustained the genre in the 80s and 90s. King wanted to write a fantasy epic comparable to The Lord of the Rings, but just the first line - 'The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed' - makes it a true western in my eyes. Much edited, much changed, now the first part of a literary sequence that stretches the imagination, The Gunslinger nevertheless tries to address and codify the cowboy as archetype, something
King is very good at.

 

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Sometimes considered McCarthy's magnum opus, this bloody and unapologetic novel is almost mythic in its violence. The ultimate revisionist western, it's about as far way from the Lone Ranger and men in white hats as you can get. With all that said (and it bears repeating, this is not one for the faint of heart or stomach), Blood Meridian is McCarthy's writing at its best, and his quest towards the dark heart of us at its most acute and dispassionate. Comparisons to Moby-Dick hold merit - this is a raw, brutal icon.

 

Butcher's CrossingButcher's Crossing by John Williams

Had it not been for the incredible success of the recent reprint of Stoner, this powerful, unsettling novel might have been forgotten. And that would have been a shame, because in my opinion it's an even better book. This is the west as it probably really was: no gunfights, no stagecoaches, just the wild edge of things. William's writes with tact and understated beauty of a landscape that can - and does - drive men beyond themselves.

 

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

The word 'epic' is thrown around a lot in relation to genre fiction, but this Pulitzer Prize-winner is deserving of the term. Larry McMurtry is hugely responsible for the modern re-addressing of the western genre, and this remains his greatest contribution. Broad, fantastically well-researched, generous but unsentimental, it's big but doesn't feel flabby. The occasional poetry and common brutality of the west are both rendered in McMurtry's laconic, unbiased prose. If you read one
western in your life, this should probably be it.

 

And finally...

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

This is my favourite western, and one of my favourite books of all time. I couldn't leave it out, but McCarthy already has a book on this list, and Blood Meridian probably edges out ahead in terms of acclaim. But this is the book that made me fall in love with westerns and the idea of westerns. John Grady Cole goes in search of the life of a cowboy, and finds less and more than he wanted. It doesn't all turn out for the best, but it still made me want to do the same.

 

GUEST BLOG: Generating questions
10th April 2014 - 12 Midnight Chris Pavone Read more »


The Accident by Chris PavoneChris Pavone's debut novel, The Expats, captivated readers with its thrilling plot, bouncing between Paris, Luxembourg and Washington. It was one of Foyles' biggest sellers in 2013 and the follow-up, The Accident, should prove just as entertaining for fans: a New York literary agent receive a manuscript full of jaw-dropping revelations that the security services are determined must never see the light of day.

 

Here Chris reveals how revising the screenplay for the upcoming film of The Expats helped him realise a fundamental truth about what what it is in a novel that makes readers keep going to the very last page.

 

 

Yesterday morning I woke up at home in New York City a bit earlier than normal, and more than a little panicked. I put on a suit and tie, which in the past few years I've done very rarely - for a few evening events that require it, and for a single funeral. The network sent a car to ferry me uptown, where I had some powder applied to my face for only the second time in my life. Then I walked out into the cavernous space filled with lights and equipment and headset-wearing people scurrying around, and I shook the host's hand and I sat down in a chair in front of a camera, and I started talking on live television.

 

Then I went home, where my bag was already packed, waiting, and said hello to my mother-in-law's dog Kipchu, who makes far more eye contact than I expect out of a dog. I changed clothes and headed to the dreadful Pennsylvania Station, where I boarded a train for Washington DC, a trip I have made a good number of times and wrote about, in one of my favorite passages of my own writing, in The Accident. I checked into a hotel near Dupont Circle, and spent some time in the gym, working on my injured foot.

 

I arrived at the bookstore exactly on time, despite the shop being much farther away that I expected, having in fact for years thought that this bookstore was another place entirely. I signed the store's presold stock, and gave my new talk, which has evolved greatly in the three consecutive days that I've been delivering it. Then Peter gave me a ride to his house, where he and Shannon were throwing a party on my behalf, populated almost entirely by people I didn't really know. But Shannon is one my wife's oldest, closest friends, and it was wonderful to see her, and her kids, and also Catherine and her daughter Charlotte and her husband Grant, who's just returned from Ukraine.
Now I'm on a cross-country flight to San Francisco, a long stretch of uninterrupted time that I set aside to read the second-draft screenplay of The Expats, which I enjoyed much more than I had the first draft, but just a few minutes ago I finally put my finger on the one thing that I think ought to be a bit better.

 

All of the above is a 100 percent true account of the last day of my life, bringing me to the point where I decided to type this, when I realized that what the screenplay doesn't do quite enough of is what I try to do a lot of in my novels and set out to do in the 400 words you just read: raise new questions constantly, hopefully in every single sentence (why did I wake up panicked? what's my foot injury? why was Grant in Ukraine? etc.) and supply answers only in the context of generating more questions, delaying answers to get to more questions, on and on until the end...


And maybe not even finishing then.

 

 

GUEST BLOG: Is Hitler a suitable subject for satire?
3rd April 2014 - 12 Midnight Katharina Bielenberg Read more »


Look Who's BackIf you haven't heard of it yet you soon will: Timur Vermes' Look Who's Back is already a bestseller in Germany and now it's published in English by MacLehose Press, translated by Jamie Bulloch. Set in 2011, the novel imagines that Adolf Hitler has returned to Berlin and is very unhappy with the modern Germany he discovers, run by a woman and with a large immigrant population. But no one takes him seriously, believing him to be nothing more than a very convincing impersonator, although his rants lead first to his becoming a YouTube sensation and then to his own TV show.

 

It's presented as satire, but - not surprisingly - the book has angered almost as much as it has entertained. Katharina Bielenberg, Associate Publisher at MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus), looks at how German readers reacted to the book and explains why she decided to publish it in the UK.

 

 

Timur Vermes' Look Who's Back was the book that rocked Germany last year, with 1.5 million sales since its publication in late 2012, and sixty solid weeks in the top ten. Rights have been sold so far for translation into thirty-five languages, from Persian to Indonesian, Vietnamese to Catalan. While the German public consumed the book with gusto, critics found it more difficult to digest, arguing that aspects of it were unpalatable.

 

In its opening pages Adolf Hitler wakes up, in full military uniform and reeking of petrol, on an area of disused ground in modern-day Berlin. Mistaken for a brilliant impersonator, he rapidly becomes a television star and YouTube sensation, and threatens to makes waves in the political arena once again. Vermes admits to having had a huge amount of fun writing his first book, a brilliant satire that savages the superficiality of media-managed politics and our obsession with celebrity, but the novel has a serious message too.

 

It goes without saying that Germany still has a complicated and uncomfortable relationship with its past. Even at this remove from the Second World War, it is a nation trying to build a good future in spite of a very rotten period in its history. Currently a debate rages over whether Mein Kampf should be allowed to enter the public domain, now that its author has been dead for almost seventy years and the copyright term will end. Vermes' own contribution to the discussion is unequivocal: Does the government trust its people or does it not? If, after 70 years, the answer is no, does that not mean that something has gone wrong in the educational process? And if that is the case, should this not be admitted to, and something be done about it?

 

Bold and humorous, Vermes' book heralds a new approach to what in German is termed Vergangenheitsbewältigung ('coming to terms with the past'). More than just a clever comedy, Look Who's Back is layered and complex; its first-person narrative produces confused, uncomfortable reactions in the reader, who can only marvel at how this Hitler outwits politicians, journalists and celebrities with his twisted logic. With our long tradition of satire, and an uncanny fascination with the Nazi era, this bold and ground-breaking German import is certain to strike a chord with an English-language readership.

 

 

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Latest Blog
GUEST BLOG: Tackling taboos the Mirabelle Bevan Way
18/04/2014

Sara Sheridan, author of the 1950s-set Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries, explains how she tackles subjects that were taboo at the time, like sex and violence.

Once upon a time in the west
15/04/2014

While Westerns remain popular in America, they have largely fallen out of favour with British readers. This is a great pity, suggests Joshua from our Waterloo branch, as they are missing out on some wonderful fiction, both classic and contemporary.

GUEST BLOG: Generating questions
10/04/2014

Bestselling thriller writer Chris Pavone explains how revising the script for the screen adaptation of his debut, The Expats, revealed a fundamental truth about what ensures readers keep turning the pages.

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