Andrea Levy Obituary

Andrea Levy

Arguably THE chronicler of the Windrush generation Andrea Levy has died today at the age of just 62. Her death from cancer is a shame to the literary community, who were indebted to Levy for showcasing the generation of Jamaican and Caribbean citizens who uprooted themselves to move to Britain and the challenges they faced.

Her most renowned novel is probably Small Island, the story of interracial relationships and wartime hardships among the Jamaican Windrush community during the late 1940s. The novel was a bestseller, and as a result was later serialised on by the BBC.

The BBC also serialised her her novel Long Song, the only one of her books not set in post-war Britain, but instead showing the final years of slavery in Jamaica, written as a memoir by a woman who grew up on as a slave on sugar plantation.

Although these two books are renowned by readers thanks to their TV adaptations, Levy’s other novels, as well as her short stories and essays, gained her acclaim long before these two. Her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin’, and her second, Never Far from Nowhere are both coming-of-age tales that showcase the difficulty of growing up in an alien country that, at the time, despised immigrants at the same time as it courted them.

Levy’s rise to prominence within the literary market was remarkable, working first as a costume designer, the co-founding a graphic design company, before realising that, although black, Caribbean writers have some prominence in other countries, in Britain their stories were not being told. Considering how entwined the UK’s history is with colonialism, immigration and racial tension, the market, even to this very day, remains predominantly white and male, and as such Levy set out to change this by making her voice heard and putting across the stories of the Windrush generation.

Her powerful, evocative and engaging work quickly gained both critical and commercial praise, with readers and reviewers alike devouring her novels. There are so many messages, from overarching themes on race and historical racial abuse through to smaller, more human touches that spark joy or sadness.

As the literary community mourns, now is the time to read or reread Andrea Levy’s work and see how important her messages are even in today’s society, where many cultures and races still face their own unique fights to be recognised and supported. These amazing books set the scene for a whole new way of thinking, and the fact that Levy will never write another makes the work she did create all the more important.


Merchandising Literature: Have We Gone Too Far?

Harry Potter Merchandise

At my day job (sadly I don’t get to review books all day, but there’s booze on the last Friday of the month so it’s still pretty decent) I sit next to a fabulous colleague who is obsessed with superhero movies. As a result, her desk is literally covered in Funko Pop vinyl figures, pictures and a range of other memorabilia.

One day, I decided to hit back, and went out to get myself a Funko Pop figurine. I’d literally never heard of them before the day my colleague decamped from her previous desk and moved her menagerie next to me. I’m not a big one on superheroes, so I decided that, since I’d recently been re-watching the Harry Potter films and was about to re-read the books, of which I had been a super fan as a kid, and remain in love with, that I’d get myself a Ginny Weasley one. She’s my favourite character in the books- my other colleague says she’s not cute but I don’t listen to her. I was utterly astonished, on entering the shop, by how many figurines there were, and also how many Lego sets, toys and posters there were for various book series as well as TV shows, films and even singers.

Despite this, I don’t personally believe that the merchandise is making people want to read. I’ve already written about why I think we should ignore the hype and marketing and focus on the Harry Potter books in a previous post, and I stand by that sentiment, as in my opinion the merchandise does nothing to encourage reading, and simply lines the pockets for whoever has the trademarks for the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Hunger Games characters, or the symbols and ideas from any number of books or series that people get obsessed with today.

My housemate, for example, is a big fan of the Harry Potter films, and enjoys playing the games on consoles and even has a house mug, but when I offered to lend him a copy of the first book after he confessed to never having read them, his reply was that he “doesn’t read books”. The same goes for another friend, who adores the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films but wouldn’t ever even think about reading them.

Fandoms, often online spaces where fans get together, can be great, as they encourage the reading of fan fiction and related articles, which drive fans of movies, TV shows and book series alike to read more. Reading more, of any form of literature, is vital for improving literacy and helping empower people to make informed decisions.

However, the merchandising that often comes about as a result of such fandoms just acts a marketing tool for firms to sell kids endless stuff. I understand that this is the marketing firm’s jobs, and that without the selling of this merchandise many films and books would be impossible to fund, but for the most part it does little or no good, in my opinion, to create obsession in books and films.

Instead, I think that writers should strive towards a greater focus on fan fiction, supporting readers to use their characters to craft their own stories. I myself got into writing initially by writing Henning Mankell fan fiction when I was younger, and it’s a great gateway into further reading and writing. It’s also not a field of endeavour that pays well, if at all, and as such it’s not often taken up by or encouraged by writers, but it should be, less as a means of making an actual living, and more as a way of honing the craft.

After all, bits of plastic, toys and posters aren’t going to stimulate fans intellectually, but writing and using an author’s creations to their own ends will. It also might just get them into reading more books by the same author, or by their contemporaries, which is never a bad thing.

Crime Fiction: It’s Not All About Sequence

folio society

When reading detective stories, or any kind of series featuring a recurring character or characters, it seems sensible to start from the beginning and work towards the end. But does it have to be that way?

This idea came into my mind recently when I was talking to a friend about lending her books for her holiday. She is going snowboarding and has a lot of gear to take on a small luggage allowance, and as such I was thinking of small, short books I could lend her (spoiler alert: she said no to all my mad offers).

I was desperately scouring my brain for short books, but the majority were Maigret novels (Simenon’s books are all around 200 pages in length), but I suddenly thought that she had never read the first in the series. Which got me thinking: is that really necessary?

After all, most crime fiction novels, whilst following a certain pattern with regards to characterisation, usually have stand-alone plots, and as such it doesn’t make sense that people feel the need to read them in order. Also, feeling the need to read books in a set order may put people off: for example, there are around 75 Maigret novels, and if you read them in order it would take you ages to get to a specific book you might have started specifically for. I myself haven’t read them in order and have lost no understanding or enjoyment because of it.

Another series I didn’t read in order was the Frank Merlin series by Mark Ellis, an exceptional historical crime series set in London. I actually read the third book, Merlin At War, first for a review, and loved it so much I went on Amazon and immediately ordered the first and second to fulfil my love for this dogged, roguish yet honourable detective. Had I felt the need to stick rigidly to the series I probably wouldn’t have bothered reviewing the third book and simply left the lot alone, which would have been a real shame.

In all, I think that whilst it is often advisable to start at the beginning, it doesn’t have to become your mantra. You can always go back to the start if you feel the need, but at the end of the day don’t restrict your reading for anything, not even the sense of order you feel when you read a series in sequence (I still remember finishing the Harry Potter books in sequence and feeling incredibly triumphant). Reading should always be a pleasure, not a chore, so you do you, and try to read as widely as possible!

Harry’s Quest Review: A Shockingly Good Thriller

Harrys Quest

Having interviewed Sydney based author and former police detective A. B. Patterson last year, I was pleased to be able to review the second in his series about his dogged private investigator Harry Kenmare, Harry’s Quest.

A private eye novel with real grit and drive, Harry’s Quest sees readers reunite with investigator Harry Kenmare as he seeks to right the world’s wrongs and achieve his revenge on a world that has taken a great deal from him. Drawing on Patterson’s experience as a policeman, the novel is gripping and features a host of memorable characters.

The sequel to Harry’s World, like its predecessor Harry’s Quest consists of five ‘parts’, which each act as a component part of the whole to create an interesting narrative. Gritty and spellbinding, the novel combines the same short, sharp sentence structure and witty dialogue that made the first novel so popular and adds an extra element of danger.

In this second outing for Harry Kenmare, the private detective is now inundated with work as the elite seek him out to do their dirty work. He uses these jobs to finance his real focus; revenge on those who have wronged him in the past.

Having assembled a team, Harry uses them to extract his revenge and get back at the monsters that preyed on him and those he loved. Packed with sex and violence, the novel gives an eye-opening view of the nastier side of human nature and the motives that bring out the worst in people; money, power and sex.

Ultimately, Harry’s Quest is another cracking example of author A.B. Patterson’s expert storytelling as he takes his hardboiled investigator for another spin and lets him loose on the elite and the scandalous. Balance is the key here; Patterson gets it just right, with enough gore, grime and gentile backstabbing to have the reader coming back for more.

Got The Cold Weather Blues? Great Books To Cheer You Up

cold reading

You may or may not have noticed, but pretty much everywhere it is freezing. And I mean proper cold, where even the air seems to be frozen. In the UK some lucky buggers even got snow (not the Midlands though, sadly).

For the sensible among you are tucked up safe and warm now is a great time to get some good reading in and power through some of the books you were given for Christmas but haven’t got round to yet.

If you’ve already powered through your Christmas present books, or just fancy a trip to your local bookshop, there are some great options to get you through this cold snap. You may have already seen my Top Five Books To Get You Through The Cold Weather, but alongside the classics there are some great new books on offer.

One book I would definitely recommend is reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. Whilst not everyone agrees with her husband’s policies or politics, it’s safe to say this is one of 2018’s greatest publications, and with millions of copies sold over Christmas it’s definitely a must-read. Normal People by Sally Rooney is a great new fiction book, which encompasses the rich tapestry of life and condenses it into an extraordinary love story.

For those who enjoy a classic but don’t fancy re-reading, there are plenty of authors reimaging old favourites, such as Sophie Hannah’s collection of Poirot novels or Ben Schott’s new Jeeves and Wooster novel Jeeves And The King Of Clubs.

Rereading is, on occasion, a good thing, and with a sequel coming up now is also a great time to revisits Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. If you’re into fantasy, there’s also a new George R.R. Martin novel out, Fire and Blood, which is another timely choice as the new series of Games of Thrones is due to air in April. There’s also the screenplay to The Crimes of Grindelwald if you’re a Harry Potter fan. I recently treated myself to The Cursed Child play script and was incredibly impressed, so Potter fans should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

In all, there’s loads of new books out there and plenty of classics to keep you going through the cold snap right through to summer, when you can laze around on a beach reading instead of having to snuggle up in a blanket at home!

The Top Five Best Martin Beck Novels To Give You A Glimpse Of The Founding-Father of Scandinavian Crime Fiction

martin beck

As I explore the upcoming novels of 2019 and the treats in store for the coming year I cannot help but noticing the changing trends in the literary market. A few years ago Scandinavian Crime Fiction was all the rage: today, British and American authors dominate the genre, with a number of Scandinavian authors among the few to be published in English and noted by the UK’s bookselling community.

This seems a shame, but I was heartened to see that some fondness for Scandinavian Crime Fiction remains, with fabled writers such as Jo Nesbo continuing to make their mark. As the New Year begins and the weather is freezing I have been re-reading some Scandinavian Crime Fiction classics, which bought me back to some of my old favourites.

Among these is the founding father of Scandinavian Crime Fiction, a Stockholm based detective named Martin Beck, the creation of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Their works spanned ten novels, each of which forms a chapter of his life. Dialogue plays a large part in each book, with whole chapters often dedicated to discussions between either Beck and his colleagues or his suspects. The way in which Beck interacts with the world around him and tries to find order in the chaos of the horrific crimes he investigates is similar to that of Maigret, Georges Simenon’s renowned Parisian inspector, and as such he’d make a great read for anyone who’s a fan of Simenon’s pipe-smoking, dour detective.

Additionally, for those who made it a New Years Resolution to check out a new series or revisit the beginnings of a genre, Martin Beck will be perfect. Whilst I appreciate that the ten novels are meant to be read in sequence, I personally very rarely follow this, and as such I feel some are simply better than others and worth reading first. If you like them you could always buy all ten and read them in sequence later!

5. Murder at the Savoy: The direct translation for this novel’s title is actually Police, Police, Mashed Potatoes!, which is part of the reason why I like it so much. It was also one of the first Martin Beck novels I ever read, and I am rather fond of it as a result. It is one of the more adventurous books in the series, following the investigation into the murder of a powerful businessman and ruthless arms dealer who is shot in a packed restaurant. With many enemies to sift through in order to find his killer Beck and his team have their work cut out, but the culprit turns out to be one of the least vicious and dastardly of all of the victim’s numerous unscrupulous associates, making for a great twist.

4. The Abominable Man: When a brutal and spiteful policeman is murdered in hospital Beck and his colleagues must explore the man’s past in order to understand how he came to be killed in such a violent and messy way. The ending is a great example of the authors’ chillingly brutal violent scenes, which are few and far between but are brilliantly choreographed to have the reader on tenterhooks throughout.

3. The Laughing Policeman: A classic case of a set of murders used to conceal one true killing, the novel centres around Beck’s hunt for the person who killed a colleague as part of a mass shooting. Having been shot on a bus Detective Åke Stenström’s death is treated as part of a mass shooting until Beck uncovers that he was in fact unofficially investigating a cold case in his spare time. An award-winning novel, this is one of the most renowned in the series and was even adapted into a comic book a few years ago.

2. Cop Killer: The return of a killer he previously convicted brings Martin Beck face-to-face with his past as he seeks to look beyond the obvious and find the true killer, whose identity is intrinsically linked to the murder of a policeman in an incident which is initially believed to be unrelated. A complicated yet less plodding mystery than others in the series, this is a great one to start with despite being 9th in the series.

1. Rosanna: The first book in the series is a great place to start, and in the Martin Beck series this has never been more true. Rosanna tells the story of a body pulled from a river and a desperate search, which ends up taking more than a year, for the perverted killer of a young American tourist who was taking a pleasure cruise through Sweden.

James Hayman Interview: “Writing was the one thing that came naturally to me”

james hayman

James Hayman, former advert writer turned bestselling author talks me through his books and how he draws on his previous role when writing them.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and thriller writing?

Before starting to write fiction I spent over thirty years writing advertising copy, mostly for television, for one of the world’s largest ad agencies. Writing TV advertising trains one to write fiction in a couple of ways. First, you have to write tightly. You can’t waste a word. After all, you can’t cram more than 120 words into a 60 second TV commercial but very often those words have to tell a complete story.

I’ve brought that discipline into my fiction. I try very hard never to use any words that don’t move the story ahead. Writing advertising is also a wonderful training ground for writing dialogue. Anyone who’s read any of my McCabe/Savage thrillers know that they I use a lot of dialogue to tell the tale. Finally, writing for television trains you to think cinematically. Capturing a scene as a camera would allows readers to actually “see” in their minds the scenes I am describing.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally?

Writing was the one thing that came naturally to me back when I was in school. After leaving university I looked for some job, any job that would pay me a living wage to do what I do best. As I said before, that turned out to be advertising. However, the whole time I worked in the ad business I had an itch to write fiction. After 30 years I finally got a chance to scratch that itch. My first thriller The Cutting quickly attracted one of New York’s top literary agents and she quickly sold it to one of the major publishing houses. The Cutting subsequently became a bestseller both in the US and the UK as well as several other countries. It is currently being translated by an Israeli publishing house into Hebrew.

Now, nine years after The Cutting there are six books in the McCabe/Savage series.

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

All six of my McCabe/Savage thrillers weave topics of social importance seamlessly into the story. For example, in my latest, A Fatal Obsession, I introduce readers to a villain who kidnaps a young actress who he brings to a remote house. Same old, same old? Not exactly. Turns out the so-called villain suffered multiple concussions as a teenager at the hands of an abusive father and his criminal actions are the result of an advanced case of CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. As you probably know CTE is a disease that afflicts the brains of many men ranging from professional football players who have suffered multiple concussions to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan whose brains were damaged by proximity to explosions. When the disease is not driving his actions, the villain turns out to be a loving and caring young man. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Kind of but not quite.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

There’s no way I could ever collaborate successfully with any other writer no matter how talented. My books grow organically out of my brain and out of my unique relationship with my characters. It’s no exaggeration to say Michael McCabe and Maggie Savage are the closest friends I have and I’m happy I get to spend a lot of time with them. I suppose in one sense you could say McCabe and Maggie are my best collaborators.

What do you like reading yourself and how does this influence your work?

I have pretty broad tastes in reading. Naturally I read a lot of both thrillers and what they call literary fiction. Among the Brits I particularly like are Kate Atkinson and Ian McEwen. I also read a fair amount of non-fiction. Most recently a fascinating biography of war correspondent Marie Colvin who worked for the Sunday Times in London. The title is In Extremis for those who’d like to dip into it.

What’s next for your writing? Are there any new releases or projects your doing in the future that you are particularly excited about?

I’m currently working on my first stand alone novel which is about a woman who is convinced her husband is planning to kill her. When that’s finished I may come back to McCabe and Savage. Or maybe I won’t

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

I’m currently reading a John Grisham book called The Reckoning. After that I’m not sure.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just to say thank you for liking my work enough to want to interview me.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, it’s been a pleasure.