Memoirs: The Truth Is Often Stranger Than Fiction

Michelle obama becoming

For Christmas, as some of my regular readers may know, I received Michelle Obama’s amazing memoir Becoming, which I only got around to reading recently. The book is spectacular in every way, detailing in elegant prose her personal rise from Chicago kid to hotshot city Lawyer, right the way through to becoming a pioneering First Lady of the United States of America.

Many of the passages in the book are truly incredible, including her detailed description of the presidential motorcade, which is something I cannot get over. The book got me thinking about how I need to read more memoirs and autobiographies; after all, some stories just cannot be made up.

Previously, I had only really read the autobiographies of comedians, and that of Dick Van Dyke (he met my nan so I wanted to know if she got a mention), mostly for the funny anecdotes and when I simply needed to read something that wasn’t crime fiction for a bit. However, over recent months I have begun to see the value in reading more non-fiction, in particular memoirs.

The same is true of my viewing habits; as previously I only watched films or TV series, with the occasional reality TV show (usually involving food) thrown in. My favourite genres are fantasy, thriller and crime, as I really love to escape reality and delve into something make-believe. However, recently I have been checking out a few documentaries on various topics, including an awesome one on Netflix about Canadian cat shows, and, on the other end of the spectrum, the disturbing true crime documentary Abducted in Plain Sight.

Viewing these documentaries and delving into Michelle Obama’s exceptional book have shown me that there is something in reading beyond my traditional scope, which is something I have been keen to rectify for a while now, and have even made into my New Years Resolution for 2019.

With this new focus in mind, I have a couple of great blog tour reviews coming up which are getting me reading some books that are out of my comfort zone but definitely well within my sphere of interest. The first is Rose McGowan’s memoir Brave, which I am incredibly excited to read as I am a massive fan of her ideas and her fierce commentary on how women are treated in today’s society. The second is A Perfect Explanation, a really awesome fictionalised account of the life of Enid Campbell, granddaughter of the 8th Duke of Argyll by Eleanor Anstruther. Both blog tour posts are coming in March, Brave on the 8th and A Perfect Explanation on the 11th, alongside The Widening Gyre by Michael R. Johnston, so watch this space!

Patricia Earnest Suter Interview: “True events are almost always my inspiration”

patricia suter

This week Patricia Earnest Suter, non-fiction writer and author of the fiction Dash One: Dark talks me through her work and how she came to start writing about an array of topics.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style.

My writing style is adaptable and casual. I have written primarily nonfiction, so far. In it, I exhaustively research the subject while taking care to not insert myself. An author’s beliefs or modern sensitivities should not influence historical narrative.

Currently, however, I am working on a science fiction tale. In both, I write casually as opposed to scholarly and prefer a friendly tone. The fictional work, Dash One: Dark has a little quirkiness too. Fiction allows the author to insert a little of themselves.

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

I graduated from the University of New Mexico with a BA (psychology/sociology) but my husband and I transferred to Europe before I developed any career footing. After my oldest was born, my mom and I spoke about the lack of interest kids had in genealogy and history.

Together we created Kids and Kin, a book designed with activities to get children involved in researching their family history. That was in the 1990s.

Later, Mom and Dad followed the grandchildren to Delaware, where we lived. I joined Earnest Archives and Library. We were approached and asked to write The Hanging of Susanna Cox: Pennsylvania’s Most Notorious Infanticide and the Legend That’s Kept It Alive.

As I researched Cox, I found records of Anton Probst’s horrific murders of the Dearing family in Philadelphia. I could not interest anyone in the story and dropped it and continued on to write about Pennsylvania German, Peter Montelius.

The Dearing’s story kept digging at me and I decided to finish it and self-publish. By then, my original idea changed. It was no longer a tale of murder but became a comparison of monsters. The Face of a Monster; America’s Frankenstein was born. After FOAM’s release, I began working on Dash One: Dark. Now, I have too many ideas and too many other stories to quit.

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

True events are almost always my inspiration. Even in Dash One: Dark, the science fiction aspect is based on real events. People never cease to amaze.

I am incredibly lucky, in that I have never suffered writer’s block. A difficult section might prove problematic but if I take a break and sleep on it, a solution will come to me (usually in the middle of the night).

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

I would love to say Mary Shelley. Was I correct about my few suppositions in FOAM? But I have long been fascinated with Ambrose Bierce. He had the acerbic tongue but was made of many layers. It would be fascinating to watch as they were revealed.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

You are going to regret having asked that question. Yes!!! Mom was well known in the field of Pennsylvania German fraktur (illuminated manuscripts). She wanted to finish her flagship book, Papers for Birth Dayes 3rd edition before she died. It wasn’t meant to be, so dad and I are finishing for her. Hopefully, we will have it completed by the end of 2018.

Nearly complete is Patent no. 1054 (working title only). It is a true story about the William Stoy family. They experienced changes met by the colonists and Americans. They faced the soul-searching experienced by people in an emerging country. The Stoy family challenged issues such as religion, women’s roles, immigration, and education. Meanwhile, Stoy held the “cure” for the bite of the mad dog. Even George Washington sent a servant to Stoy for aid. After William’s death, his wife Maria Stoy continued the family business in spite of challenges to the cure. Theirs was an incredible journey.

Dash One: Dark is now with several beta readers. Their responses have been terrific. I will fix any incongruities and soon begin looking for an agent. Dash One has huge potential as it provides a new look at a familiar concept. Its premise could continue for years without becoming boring and it will easily lend to a visual medium such as television or movie.

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

I have to be honest, a friend dragged me kicking and screaming to Twitter. I had been unable to figure it out but she got me to a point that I was able to navigate. Somewhat. I still do not know what I am doing half of the time.

As luck would have it, I stumbled into a writing group. Some use traditional publishers and others are independently published but I am having a fantastic time talking with them and then reading their work. It is like having additional insight from authors that have not been possible in the past.

Like, a professor asks, “What did Mary Shelley mean by this?” Anyone can take an educated guess, but no one knows the reality. In this case, talking with authors allows true engagement and introduces an entirely new reading experience. I have bunches of new works from new authors, and old favorites, that excite me.

Thanks for taking the time! You can find out more about Patricia HERE.


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!