Hazel McHaffie

World Book Day

The Couple Next Door

Did you know it’s World Book Day today – Thursday 5 March? Yep; a celebration of writing and reading. Hurrah!!

So which of the hundreds of books I have on my shelves shall I share with you on this auspicious day? Ahah. Time methinks to confess.

I am officially at odds with the establishment. That was confirmed when I read a highly acclaimed novel which I sent for on the grounds that a) it’s billed as a gripping thriller and b) it sounds very like my own latest novel, Killing me Gently. Indeed, the similarities were too striking to miss:
the genre: domestic thriller
a baby missing
a marriage in trouble
the mum struggling to cope
readers finding it unputdownable.

All comments applied to Shari Lapena‘s book, The Couple Next Door, which predates my (apparently) similar tale by three years, but which I’ve only just discovered. I had to check it out, then! A couple of train journeys this week gave me the perfect opportunity to savour it without too many distractions.

The basic storyline goes roughly like this. Anne Conti is struggling to cope with her new baby, Cora. She’s not going out to work so the confines of home and constant exposure to Cora’s fussing, grind her down. Her parents are fabulously wealthy. They disapproved of her marriage to impecunious Marco, but to allow their daughter to live in style, they initially gave him money to buy a beautiful house and start up his own business. Father and son-in-law frankly hate each other. Marco has recently suggested to Anne mortgaging their home to allow him to expand the enterprise.

Living next door is seductive Cynthia Stillwell and mousey husband Graham. They invite the Conti’s for a dinner party to celebrate Graham’s milestone birthday, but at the last minute the babysitter cancels. Cynthia is adamant: no babies at her parties. Anne says, OK, she won’t go then. But against her better judgement, Marco persuades her to leave Cora asleep in her own cot, taking a monitor with them so they can hear if she wakes, and taking it in turns to pop across every half an hour to check on her physically. Shortly after 1 o’clock they return together … to find the front door ajar, the security light unscrewed … and the baby missing.

Shades of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann way back in 2007 evoked, huh? Layers of guilt and reproach and suspicion.

As the facts of their lives unravel, it’s clear that Baby Cora, barely six months old, blonde hair, blue eyes, weighing about 16 pounds, is alone in being entirely above suspicion. Everyone else is harbouring murky secrets and hidden lives: Mum, Dad, Granny, Grandpa, the couple next door! Who can you trust? Nobody is telling the full truth here. Detective Rasbach has his work cut out. Fortunately he’s nobody’s fool.

There are plenty of glowing testimonials for The Couple Next Door from well respected writers and publications. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. It bears the sticker: The most talked-about thriller of the year. It has attracted over 6500 comments on Amazon. Wow! Success by anyone’s measure. However, in the safety of my personal blog, I have to confess to personal reservations … seriously big ones at that.

Fair enough, the slow release of information casting doubt on the honesty of everyone, is  a page-turning tactic. The intriguing technique of the unreliable narrator keeps the adrenaline flowing. The principal characters are not very likeable or sympathetic or three dimensional, but at least we’re rooting for that little baby … and the detective. However, for me the style of writing really did not appeal. It reminds me of the audio description that provides information in a television programme for the benefit of visually impaired people – wooden, staccato, clunky. Points of view shift and we’re told bluntly what characters are thinking. All markers for ‘telling’ instead of more subtle and intriguing ‘showing’. I’m frankly astonished it has achieved such status.

So, though I can envy the author her success, I don’t wish I’d written her book. And I’m relieved that Killing me Gently could certainly not be suspected of being a re-hash of The Couple Next Door. Phew!

But let’s hear it for good books everywhere on this special day.  Long may they bewitch and inform and console and nourish us.

 

 

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Calling all would-be crime writers

Anything that advocates books and reading gets my vote. And we writers are trained to look out for those anniversaries and special commemorative dates which might be useful hooks. Unsurprisingly, then, certain days this past week jumped out at me.

World Book Day was on 7 March, the day before International Women’s Day. Plenty of people and publications and organisations jumped on the bandwagon, with the usual plethora of articles and events. Quite rightly so. Universal appeal. Books open the mind … and transport … and educate … and improve the ability to empathise … and … but you know all that.

Did you know, though, how often The Big Issue extols the benefits of reading? Impressively often, actually. Over the years, as part of their mission to ‘dismantle poverty through creating opportunity‘, they’ve championed many causes: better literacy, keeping libraries open, tax freedoms for independent bookshops, reading lists, more book reviews, reading for pleasure for children, taking books into prisons … to name but a few. So, again unsurprisingly, this special edition devotes a large part of its pages to literary matters as its nod in the direction of the official World Book Day.

What’s more, this week they also launch a competition to find a new crime writer. Ambitious, huh? And no lightweight tokenism, either; there’s a two-book deal with HarperCollins for the winner – not to be sniffed at. They’re looking for ‘heart-stopping writing and nail-shredding suspense’. Any takers? Hats off to The Big Issue, I say. Most of us probably buy it to support their  efforts to drive social change, but it’s worth much more than a toss straight into the recycling box. As well as the competition details, for example, there’s a fascinating interview with Tim Waterstone who founded the biggest high street bookchain we know so well today. Now there’s a man who totally loves books! Even though he grew up in a 3-book household. Given his empire today he can afford to be generous, but nontheless, I like his healthy approach to the issue of bricks-and-mortar-shop versus online: ‘If you know what you want, you’re going to go to Amazon. I do it myself numerous times a year! But we all know online can’t replicate the same feeling of pleasure you get in a great bookshop.’ Well said, that man. And let’s support the independent bookstores in particular who don’t have all Waterstone’s advantages.

As for my own writing, well, I’m at the last-revisions-before proof-reading stage with Killing me Gently – when I’m not hurtling up and down the country, that is. Crazy month, chez nous. Must crack on …

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A tribute to my fellow authors

6 March was World Book Day so it’s fitting that this week I should share my admiration of great authors. The sheer imagination behind their work, the persistence and diligence that brings their hard work to fruition, their impressive ability to keep me glued to their books.

To celebrate, I temporarily called a halt on those dreaded ‘anorexia books’, turning instead to some real page turners to raise my spirits and put me in the mood for some serious plotting of my own. Ah yes, and I dug out some lovely merino wool I’ve been saving for the right occasion. Mmmmm. Bliss. Close the door; shut out the world.

Books and knittingFirst up was Diane Chamberlain’s, The Lost Daughter which tells the story of a woman who, when she was sixteen, helped in a kidnap which went disastrously wrong. The girl goes on to live an exemplary adult life, but always the shadow of her past lurks menacingly above her, and when her conscience finally gets the better of her, she must decide whether to keep quiet – and risk a man’s life; or to tell all – and risk destroying her own family. This is more than a tense will-she won’t-she kind of book, Chamberlain brings her customary psychological insight and social awareness to bear in creating believable characters who are dealing with extraordinary situations. What’s more, it has a happier ending than I was steeling myself for. A bonus!

Next came Tess Gerritsen’s Bloodstream. Just in the first few chapters we have the massacre of a family, a mysterious shooting in the woods, the discovery of a human femur, a man having an epileptic fit, a schoolboy running amok killing his teacher, a doctor with a haunted past, a policeman with a drunken wife, and skullduggery in the hospital labs. Phew! What links all these people? Holding all these disparate strands together is a masterly feat in itself. ‘Last week, Satan arrived in the buccolic town of Tranquillity, Maine …’ writes a local reporter. Guaranteed to stir up fear and trouble, you might think. But violence of a particularly vicious nature has erupted in this town, loving children are turning into ugly strangers – and history is repeating itself. Decades ago, other young people also turned into killers. Why? The new doctor in Tranquillity, Dr Claire Elliot, is in a race against time to uncover the reason before anyone else dies, and before she loses her only son, or her own life.

The knitting growsDeborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern was another intriguing read with it’s own hauntings. (Indeed, curiously enough, there were several common elements between it and Bloodstream.) Unsophisticated Eve falls in love with an older man, Dom, and their whirlwind romance leads them to a rundown but beautiful house in  Province. But as summer turns to autumn the house begins to reveal macabre secrets and troubling mysteries, and Dom grows increasingly distant. What exactly did happen to his beautiful first wife? – shades of Daphne du Maurier here. And what is this voluptuous scent that pervades the house? – vanilla with rose and the heart of ripe melons, held up by something sterner, a leather maybe, with a hint of wood smoke. Whose bones have been unearthed beneath the old swimming pool? Who is leaving a lighted lantern in the exact spot where lovers trysted in days of yore? And what is behind the mysterious hallucinations?

The jacket so farWhat a treat to be totally swallowed up in stories with complex plots that interweave time and place and people. Books that needed my full concentration to unravel and truly savour. The knitting grew at a terrific rate as you can see! And ideas for my own next novel flooded in – indeed so quickly that I was even forced to commit them to the computer during my reading sessions. I am rejuvenated and invigorated. And immensely grateful.

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