I would read anything you wrote…

FullSizeRenderUsually, when I’m looking for a new novel to read, I go by topic, setting and storyline. I might read some reviews from trusted sources, though they don’t necessarily sway me.

But there are just a few authors whose work I will read regardless of its plot. Just the byline is enough to get me in.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favourite authors right now, who have me at the mention of their name, and why I love their work:

Geraldine Brooks

This US-based Australian journalist-turned novelist and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize writes extraordinarily beautiful prose, meticulously researched but never slow or boring in its detail. She’s one of those writers who makes me sigh to myself and mutter, ‘Why would I ever bother to write’?

I can recommend March (2005), her story of the US Civil War experience of Mr March from the classic American children’s novel Little Women; and Year of Wonders (2001) set in the UK in 1666 during the bubonic plague.

Keith Donohue

When I read Donohue’s riveting novel The Stolen Child (2006), a modern take on the ancient tale of the changeling, I was astounded. For me, it was one of the most imaginative novels I had ever read. The story transports you to a parallel world where two realities can exist side by side.

His follow-up novel, Angels of Destruction (2009) is also intriguing, concerning the case of a child who turns up at a woman’s door claiming to be her daughter who went missing nine years before.

Angela Savage

OK, here’s a disclaimer: Savage is a friend of mine. But that’s not why I read her books. She and I got to know each other only after I started reading her novels and determined that I would read everything she wrote.

I’ve read and can recommend all three in her crime series featuring Jayne Keeny, PI, Behind the Night Bizarre (2006), The Half-Child (2010), and The Dying Beach (2013). If you like gritty crime thrillers with integrity, set in the fascinating culture of Thailand, these novels are for you.

Savage lived in South-East Asia herself for many years before returning to Australia, and this shows in her authentic descriptions. Her books are set in the near past, around the same time I was living in Thailand, so they’re of interest beyond their engaging plots, as well.

Paddy Richardson

I’ve discovered Richardson’s books this year, thanks to my blogosphere friend Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Richardson comes from the same part of New Zealand’s South Island as I do (Dunedin), which is what first peaked my interest. Once you start one of her crime novels, I assure you that it is very difficult to put it down or to think of much else.

I can recommend her fabulous series with TV journalist Rebecca Thorne as the protagonist, the latest of which is Cross Fingers (2013). While set in the present, the book has Thorne researching a cold case during the tumultuous events in NZ during the 1981 tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. This writer has an uncanny ability to put pace into her narrative, and to take the reader to the scene.

Incidentally, you won’t find a picture of Richardson’s book cover above, because I’ve read her books on my Kindle. But such is her skill, the medium on which you are reading is immaterial, because you are soon immersed in the story.

Mitch Albom

I resisted reading Albom’s books for ages, because everyone was reading them and raving about them. But they were right. When I finally took the plunge, I found them to be real page-turners. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (1997) didn’t even sound like my sort of book, being a sort-of modern day twist on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. But it’s fabulous, believe me—just read it.

What I like also about Albom’s books is that they’re short and easy to read. You can finish one within a few nights of bedtime reading. Tuesdays with Morrie (2003), about a young man who has the opportunity to glean the wisdom of his former professor as he is dying, is extraordinarily wonderful, too.

Kate Morton

The big, meaty, atmospheric historical novels by this Australian novelist are set in the UK among the castles, ruins and family secrets of bygone eras. She manages to get me in from the very first page of each of her novels.

The Shifting Fog (2006) is set in two time zones, 1999 and 1924, which is a plot device that always intrigues me. The story concerns a film director who is making a film about the suicide of a poet at a manor house in 1924, and who discovers that a housemaid from the time is still alive. So the film maker travels from the US to the UK to interview the 98-year-old. The plot involves a perfect Edwardian summer, a shocking secret and its revelation.

Equally riveting is The Forgotten Garden (2008), concerning a young woman who inherits a cottage with a secret garden on the Cornish coast, and discovers a mystery concerning a missing girl from nearly a century before.

Alexander McCall Smith

One of the world’s most prolific authors, I first came across McCall Smith when I read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), set in Gabarone, Botswana. There are now at least 15 in the series, of which I’ve read 12, and they are all delightful, particularly for their wonderful titles, including The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (a bit of an in-joke for readers). The series concerns the wonderful Precious Ramotswe, who sets up a PI agency with a small inheritance from her father.

The stories have been called ‘gentle’ and ‘delightful’, and that they are. However, I think they are deceptively simple: McCall Smith deals with some of the harshest and most difficult problems affecting the world today, and his novels always make me think. I’ve also read and loved several of his other series, including the Isabel Dalhousie, Professor Dr von Igelfeld and 44 Scotland St series (of which The Importance of Being Seven, pictured, is one), and have enjoyed them all. But No. 1 is his best.

How thrilled I was to discover that Ursula Bischoff, the writer who translated my own novel The Occidentals into German, was also McCall Smith’s translator for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

 

I have to read a lot for work, so for recreational reading, I have time for only about 20 books a year (sometimes more, depending on my workload). So, everything I read has to engage me, because reading time is so precious.

Agatha Christie and “the quiet moments of everyday life”

In her enormously entertaining self-titled autobiography, the 20th-century mystery writer Agatha Christie discusses a letter she rediscovered in old age that had been written to her by her father about Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Forgotten by Christie: Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Picture courtesy National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Forgotten by Christie: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Picture courtesy National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Young Agatha’s grandmother had arranged to take the six-year-old girl to the jubilee procession on June 22, celebrating 60 years of the Queen’s reign. Agatha’s father, who was away in the US at the time, remarks in the letter how lucky his daughter is to see “this wonderful show”, as he refers to it. “I know you will never forget it,” he adds.

Christie comments wryly: “My father lacked the gift of prophecy, because I have forgotten it. How maddening children are! When I look back to the past, what do I remember? Silly little things about local sewing-women, the bread twists I made in the kitchen, the smell of Colonel F.’s breath—and what do I forget? A spectacle that somebody paid a great deal of money for me to see and remember. I feel very angry with myself. What a horrible, ungrateful child!”

Mary_Cassatt_Young_Mother_Sewing

Remembered by Christie: sewing women. This painting, “Young Mother Sewing” (1900), is by the impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

She goes on to write much about memories from childhood that stuck most in her mind: a field of buttercups, the smell of lime trees and grass. The happiest memories, she says, “are almost always the quiet moments of everyday life”.

I agree with her: my most vivid memories are tiny snapshots, seemingly randomly selected from the millions that make up a life. I remember, for example, aged about 8 and going through what was then called a “tomboy” stage, running inside, highly excited, after playing “cowboys and Indians” (in our ignorant way then and meaning no disrespect, but emulating the movies of the day). My nana, who was visiting, exclaimed, “Gosh, you look exactly like a cowgirl!” I beamed with pride: it seemed like the most wonderful thing anyone had ever said to me.

Years before that, I remember the live televised coverage of the lunar landing in 1969, when the astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. It was extraordinary not just for the event itself, but for the amazing feat of broadcasting, which British broadcaster and science historian James Burke has called “the greatest media event of all time”.

In fact, I don’t actually remember the coverage itself very much because of something else that happened. My father must have got us all to sit in the living room and watch the event, but I didn’t understand why we had to sit so still or why it was important, even though it had been explained to me.

Suddenly, I thought of something more interesting to tell Dad, and, at what must have been a crucial part of the broadcast, I started yabbering on.

Uncharacteristically, he spoke very sharply to me, told me to keep quiet, and saying didn’t I realise this would be one of the most important events in history? I was so upset, I couldn’t speak for hours—upset and mystified as to why my lovely daddy had cut me off when he was usually so interested in what I had to say, why he would rather watch something on TV than listen to me. I was so upset, I didn’t really see or hear the event itself. I can still feel my hurt today, all these decades later. Funnily enough, when I mentioned it to my dad many years later, he didn’t remember me interrupting, but he vividly remembered watching the exciting telecast (grainy and in black and white as it was).

With thanks to the novelist Angela Savage, not only for urging me to read Agatha Christie’s autobiography, but for acquiring a copy of it for me. I’m 110 pages into the 551-page tome, and enjoying it immensely. Thanks again, Angela!

Writers on Writing #1: Angela Savage

I’ve always wondered why the most dreadful crime, murder, is attractive to audiences, whether readers or TV/film viewers. None of us would want to have to deal with a murder in our own family, yet so many of us love reading about it.

This carries over to real life stories as well. When I was at journalism school in New Zealand, I did some work experience at a radio station in Auckland. One morning, the news editor came in rubbing his hands in glee: “There’s nothing like a good homicide to start the day,” he said.

I love a good murder mystery on page and screen as much as anyone else, though I don’t like too much graphic description. I wouldn’t describe myself as a devotee of the murder mystery genre particularly: but when I looked at my book diary for last year, I discovered that 50% of the novels I read in 2013 were, in fact, murder mysteries.

One of the writers I follow is the Melbourne-based novelist Angela Savage, whose blog you can access here. I started reading her books when her first Jayne Keeney, P. I. novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, came out in 2006. Anyone who knows me also knows that reading books about Thailand is my passion (and I’ve also written two myself). When I heard that a novel set in Thailand had won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, I couldn’t wait for it to come out. It didn’t disappoint, and I have eagerly awaited each new book in the series since then. Now there are three, with the publication of The Half-Child (2010) and The Dying Beach (2013).

Last year, through the magic of social media, Angela and I became friends, and we’ve met several times to chat about reading, writing and publishing. We have also discovered that we have at least two other friends in common, and were even invited to the same New Year’s Eve party! Small world, indeed.
Angela kindly agreed to take time out from her extremely busy schedule to answer some questions for this blog. I think you’ll find her answers most interesting, even if you haven’t yet read her novels.

 Angela Savage.

Angela Savage.

1. Why are so many readers fascinated by the crime of murder?

Angela: “Agatha Christie suggests there is an instinctive human need that is satisfied by terror, and Stephen King calls fear the ‘finest emotion’. Murder has always been part of the great narratives, from the ancient Greek myths and Chinese ghost stories, to the Norse sagas and Shakespearean tragedies. In these forms as in crime fiction, we get to experience our fear of death—especially sudden and violent death—through the safety of stories.”

 

2. You are familiar with many parts of Asia, so why did you choose Thailand as the setting for your books?

“Of all the places I’ve lived in Asia, Bangkok is the only location I could feasibly base my expatriate private detective character. I needed a city large and liberal enough for a farang like Jayne Keeney to fly beneath the radar. This could never happen in communist countries like Laos or Vietnam, where I also lived; and Cambodia in the 1990s was simply too dangerous for a lone female PI of any nationality to hang out her shingle.”

Dyingbeach 3. Although Thailand is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, it is a more difficult location to use in novels—many more best sellers are set in other parts of Asia, such as China and Japan. Why is this?

“That’s a good question. It strikes me that both China and Japan were subjected at one time or another to occupation by Western powers, making them perhaps more ‘known’ to Western writers than Thailand, which has never been colonised by the West. But this is pure hypothesis on my part. I’d love to know others’ thoughts on this.”

4. This is one of the reasons I was so delighted when I heard an Australian novel set in Thailand had won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2004. What effect did this prize have on your life as a writer?

“The Victorian Premier’s Award proved to be my pathway to publication. A member of the judging panel was at the time a senior editor at Text Publishing and she made an offer on the manuscript following the awards night. It took 18 months and another four drafts, but the manuscript was eventually published as Behind the Night Bazaar in 2006. I’ve since published two more novels in the Jayne Keeney PI series, The Half-Child in 2010 and The Dying Beach in 2013.”

the-half-child5. Your books have a lot of integrity. You don’t buy into the usual stereotypes. There are no excuses for and no glamour in the drug or prostitution trades, for example, in your books.  Has your work for aid agencies been influential in the themes of your books?

“Thank you for those compliments, Caron. It means a lot to me as I my writing is motivated in large part by a desire to challenge the usual stereotypes. While mindful of debates about voice appropriation and writing about other cultures, I try through my writing to rise to the challenge Edward Said put forward in 1994’s Culture and Imperialism: ‘to think concretely sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others…not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how ‘our’ culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).’

“To answer your question, yes, my work for aid agencies has been influential in the themes of my books. In Behind the Night Bazaar, for example, I gave Jayne’s Canadian friend Didier my previous job as a HIV/AIDS educator. The Half-Child drew on the experience of expatriate volunteers I met in Asia who’d worked in local orphanages. And the environmental themes in The Dying Beach rely heavily on my partner’s experience working for an environmental advocacy organisation based in Thailand.

“But my interest in Asia and the politics that underpin my novels predate my career as an aid worker. Indeed, I was drawn to international development as a way to nurture those passions. Nowadays I nurture them through my writing.”

btnbazaar6. What can we expect next from Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel? Please tell me they get married!

“As if I’d let slip a spoiler like that! That said, I do have long-term plans for Jayne and Rajiv—which is ironic, seeing as how before I wrote him into The Half-Child, I told someone in response to an interview question that Jayne would never have a partner.”

7. Is there any question you wish interviewers would ask you, but they never do? (If there is, please write an answer to it, too!)

“Having just read Stephen King’s On Writing, I’m tempted to quote Amy Tan and say, ‘No one ever asks about the language.’ But that’s not entirely true. I do get asked about my use of Thai language and idioms. I was also asked recently about my favourite thing I’d written. I’m still searching for the answer to that one.

“I have to say you’ve asked some great questions in this interview, Caron, enabling me to touch on topics that I rarely get to talk about. Thanks for that.

“Last year I was on a panel at the Brisbane Writers Festival called ‘Scene of the Crime’, one of several similar sessions I’ve been part of over the years in which crime writers talk about place and setting in their work. The session chair kicked off with an excellent question about why it is we seem to talk about location in crime fiction more than any other genre. My response was: ‘Because it prevents us from having to talk about the crimes.’ Everyone nodded, then went back to talking about place and setting.

“To paraphrase Amy Tan, no one ever asks about the crimes.

“I would love to talk more in interviews and on panels about the crimes in crime fiction. Why do authors choose to write about specific crimes? How do their theories or perceptions of crime and criminality underpin their work? To what extent does the author see crime in terms of individual morality/psychology versus system failure?

“I definitely fall into the latter camp. I studied criminology as an undergraduate and came to understand crime in terms of various systems failure: in economics, education, mental health, etc. But given the popularity of serial killers  and psychotics in crime fiction, I suspect I’m in the minority in this regard. Still, I’d jump at the chance to have the debate.”