Hazel McHaffie

Fingersmith

Mixed reviews

I’ve been giving myself a stern talking to this week. After a concerted burst of frenzied writing, I’d just sent out novel number 10, Listen, to my first raft of critics … I should have been feeling elated, yes? Well, I was … for about two days. But then the lowering thoughts started, the doubt, the gloomy prediction. My earlier books have had such generous reviews; what if nobody likes this latest one? Is there anything of value in it? What if I’ve gone past my sell-by date? What if I’ve lost my own powers of discernment?

And believe me, in the solitary world of a writer, it’s all too easy to sink into a trough of self-doubt. I’m my own sternest critic, always seeking to do better, never satisfied. But then, quite unsolicited, several unconnected people spontaneously commented on one or more of my books. Positively. You will never know what a welcome lifeline you threw me, folks. Thank you hugely.

My sane dispassionate self tells me that, of course, no author anywhere is going to please all the people all the time. Not even the best of the best, and I’m a million miles away from that pinnacle.

I’ve just finished ploughing through Mark Haddon’s The Red House. I really really really disliked it – the thin plot, the linguistic pretension, the whole thing – and had to force myself to  complete it. Whereas I loved his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Same with Sarah Waters, Lionel Schriver, JKRowling, to name but three famous authors. Fingersmith, We Need to Talk about Kevin, are among my top 50; I’m in awe of Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter books. But some of their subsequent writings left me unmoved.

So, I’m working at convincing myself that the world as we know it will not disintegrate if one or more of my critics doesn’t like this latest work. It might not be time to bin all ideas and drafts. To give up. It might simply be a question of taste; this particular book doesn’t appeal to this particular reader. Get over it!

It’s a very good thing that former apprentice painter and decorator from Coatbridge in Scotland, Brian Conaghan, didn’t give up, even after 217 rejections by publishers and agents. He persevered, he believed in himself, and he’s just won the Costa Children’s Book Award! I might re-read this paragraph every night before going to bed by way of therapy!

 

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First lines

What is it that makes us pick up a book and then buy/borrow it? The author’s name? Title? Cover? Back cover blurb? A combination, maybe?

What makes us open the book and having started, keep reading? First line? First page? First chapter?

Books 1Well, last week I told you about Ian Rankin releasing the first line of his new novel. I doubt very much if that will ever become an oft-quoted introduction, but it led me to thinking about famous first lines and what it is that makes them memorable. Ones that spring instantly to mind are …

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)

Marley was dead, to begin with. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

But I rather think that some of these have acquired legendary status, not just for their literary merit, but because they evoke fond memories of classic favourites.

There are other first lines, less well known, that instantly grabbed my attention and made me want to read on to see what the book was all about. If this author could write a few words this well, I’d be happy to commit a day or two/a week or two to finding out what he/she has to tell me.Books 2

It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Iain M Banks, The Crow Road)
Not an everyday occurrence, grandmothers exploding, so intriguing. How? Why? Where? When? What happened next?

The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years. (Nicholas Evans, The Loop)
Who’s been slaughtered? Who’s smelling their deaths today? Is it true?

I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story. (John Grisham, The Racketeer)
A story I want to hear. Why? What’s he done? How will he be treated? Is he guilty?

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this is a second conception. (James Bradley, The Resurrectionist)
Makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it? Who are these people condemned to such a death?

Books 3When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. (Harlan Coben, No Second Chance)
Was there a second one? Who was shooting him? Why was it his daughter who sprang to mind?

The clothes of the dead won’t wear long. (Barbara Vine, The Brimstone Wedding)
There is so much wrapped up in this thought that transcends this one story, but I want to know what happened to make it an apposite statement.

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. (Sarah Waters, Fingersmith)
So, why has it changed? What happened when she was Susan Trinder? What has transpired since?

I’m now thinking hard about my own first line. To date I’ve tended to concentrate more on getting the first page gripping. That introductory bit is so important; if you haven’t hooked your reader from the outset, he/she’s probably not going to bother to read on. I’ve actually often written the beginning last, spent ages refining it, for that very reason. I’ve sometimes even added a prologue to bring all the key intriguing elements to the fore and make the reader want to know how everything was resolved.

But first line? That’s a different level of demand. Fascinating to ponder.

 

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A Place of Execution

Every once in while a book comes into my orbit that’s so well crafted that it leaves me buzzing. Sacred and Profane, Fingersmith and Past Caring spring to mind.

This week I’ve been awed by the skill of crime writer Val McDermid in A Place of Execution. Written in 1999 it’s not new but it’s only just come to my attention, recommended unreservedly by a friend – thanks, Barbara.

The main story is set in the early 60s in Derbyshire around the time when the Moors murderers were perpetrating their deadly attacks on children in the Manchester area. The historical context, together with the unembellished matter-of-fact account of the investigation seen through the eyes and mind of a young detective in charge of his first major case, gives a sense of real-life happening to this fiction which got me off to a promising start.

When thirteen-year-old Alison Carter goes missing from the tiny hamlet of Scardale there are those who believe the events are linked. Law graduate, fast-tracked-for-promotion, Inspector George Bennett is not among them. His every instinct tells him the squire’s step-daughter has been abducted and murdered by a local person. But gathering evidence in a close-knit in-bred community, hostile to anyone from outside its ranks, is an uphill struggle. Each fragment of evidence comes at a price.

PARTIAL SPOILER ALERT. If you plan to read this book you might want to skip the rest of this post. It doesn’t reveal the most important facts but it does indicate the progress of the investigation, trial, outcome and subsequent findings.

A compelling case builds as George is guided towards his goal:

– two people swear to seeing a man walking the fields when he claims he was elsewhere;

– a fragment of wool, a smear of blood, a duffle toggle, and trampled vegetation suggest a struggle in nearby woodland;

– a disdainful old woman points them in the direction of a disused mine-working long forgotten by the locals but recorded in a book in the squire’s library;

– torn woollen tights and semen-stained gym knickers found in that mine indicate rape;

– the squire’s wife finds a gun wrapped in a bloodied made-to-measure shirt hidden in a dark room, damning evidence of a terrible crime;

– photographs hidden in an underground safe give incontrovertible evidence of foul goings on in Alison’s bedroom.

George and his colleagues are so appalled by what they find, so convinced of the man’s guilt, that they pursue the criminal with all the resources at their disposal and at the expense of their own private lives. The fact that George is about to become a father for the first time adds zeal to his crusade. A compelling case is built for the murder of Alison Carter even in the absence of a body. But the rapist has powerful lawyers with formidable reputations on his defence team. George’s own motivation and integrity are dragged through the mire in the courts.

The evidence of the photographs, though, is powerful stuff; the jury are appalled by what they see and unanimous in their verdict. The first part of the book ends with a stroke-by-stroke account of the hanging of the perpetrator of this terrible violation and murder. As the man falls through the trapdoor and his neck is dislocated, George’s firstborn son enters the world. One life begins as another one ends.

But the reader is left with a sense of unease. Everything points to this man’s guilt but something isn’t right. The rest of the novel (146 of 549 pages) is devoted to events thirty-five years later. A journalist who grew up not far from Scardale and who was contemporaneous with Alison Carter, has finally persuaded George Bennett, now retired, to talk for the first time about his experience of the Carter case, for a book. He finds it unexpectedly cathartic. The manuscript is almost ready for submission to the publisher when George is persuaded to revisit Scardale. What he finds there so shocks him that he feels forced, without explanation, to withdraw permission for publication. So powerful is his reaction that he ends up in Intensive Care fighting for his life after a severe heart attack.

But the journalist is too close to the scoop of the century to back down so easily. She too visits Scardale. She too sees what George sees. What should she do? What will she do? If she agrees to withhold the book she will lose the opportunity of a lifetime; is she publishes she will ruin many other lives.

The truth about what actually happened in Scardale in 1963 is immensely more complex and unexpected and horrific than George ever dreamed of. Far more people suffered than he knew. But the fact that a man was hanged for a murder he did not commit because of his own actions will haunt him for the rest of his days.

This is a beautifully executed tour de force of a book with a subtlety and intricacy that mark McDermid out as a brilliant writer. I found it compelling reading and wanted to start all over again to seek out the cues I missed first time around. And it’s very rare for me to say that about any book.

 

 

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Reflections and resolutions

Phew! The last day of 2009 – time for a reflection or two.

One of the things that has touched me greatly this year has been the messages sent by readers. I acknowledged each one individually, but I want to thank you more publicly too.

Writing’s an essentially lonely occupation, and every time a new novel comes out, I get the heebie-jeebies. Is it any good? Will anyone buy it? Will anyone like it? March is fast approaching and I’m going through the same qualms with Remember Remember. Editing fiercely; hoping.

Just knowing real people have read my books, engaged with the characters, and formed an opinion is heartening; the personal touch so much more meaningful than sales figures. I particularly like to hear that people have lent them to friends – a much stronger affirmation than knowing X people have bought (but not necessarily read) them … although, if my publisher’s reading this – I am promoting sales, honestly!

To my shame I’ve been remiss myself in giving feedback to authors. However, there’s no mileage in regret, so I decided before 2009 ends to compile a list of ten books that come instantly to mind (without consulting my bookshelves); books that I’ve loved and recommended/lent to other people. My little tribute to some giants among writers, whom I should have contacted and didn’t. (I’ve deliberately left out the classics to make the choice more personal.)

In no particular order
Past Caring Robert Goddard
Sacred and Profane Marcelle Bernstein
Fingersmith Sarah Waters
We Need to Talk about Kevin Lionel Shriver
The Jigsaw Man Paul Britton
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime Mark Haddon
The Third Twin Ken Follett
Still Alice Lisa Genova
Take No Farewell Robert Goddard
Rebecca’s Tale Sally Beauman

I salute all these authors. And add to my New Year resolutions:
Be more active in acknowledging literary brilliance in future.

My very best wishes to you all for 2010 – whether or not you’ve contacted me! And happy reading!

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