Novelists are often advised to write a killer first line, a hook so powerful it'll drag the reader by the throat into the rest of the book. It's the old adage of making a good first impression, this time in literary form. Here's Stephen King's opinion on the subject: 'An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.' Hard to argue with that! As part of the 'Five' series, in this week's post I'm examining five great opening sentences from novels.
1. The Crow Road - Ian Banks (1992)
'It was the day my grandmother exploded.' Wow, what a kicker first line! Followed by: 'I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.' Not bad for a second line, either!
The rest of the book doesn't disappoint. I have a love/hate relationship with Iain Banks's novels, having loathed 'The Wasp Factory', been ambivalent about 'Stonemouth', and awed by 'The Crow Road'. The latter is the story of Prentice McHoan, who seeks answers about the disappearance of his uncle eight years ago.
The Crow Road is the name of the book Prentice's uncle, Rory, was writing when he vanished, and is also a metaphor for death. Along the way Prentice questions the existence of God and the afterlife, fuelled by sex, drink, and illegal substances. It's a great read!
2. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
'I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.' Well, that's intriguing! Right from the start, we're made aware that 'Middlesex' is a story of intergender life, if the title didn't make it obvious. But why did the protagonist's second birth take place in an emergency room? Jeffrey Eugenides's clever opening salvo makes me keen to discover more....
'Middlesex' is the story of Calliope Stephanides and her strange family secret. Calliope later becomes Cal, the narrator of the novel. He/she is an intersex individual raised as a girl, but who, hormonally speaking, is male. Growing up in 1970s Michigan, Cal/Calliope's story is set against a background detailing the experiences of Greek immigrants in the United States, and the fortunes of Detroit. 'Middlesex' won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book was also shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Dublin Literary Award.
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell (1949)
'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.' Regular readers of my blog will already know the high regard in which I hold this novel, ever since its story of dystopian tyranny stunned me when I read it as a teenager. And what a great opening line! Who wouldn't read that last word and think 'huh?'
From the start, Orwell makes us aware we're entering a strange and disturbing world, one that's familiar and at the same time different. A world in which the calendar months haven't changed, but the way we tell time has. We're all conversant with the twenty-four hour clock, yet the way Orwell uses it grabs our attention. By a simple word trick, he sets the scene for life on Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain. A world in which, to quote from the book, 'who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past'. Enter Winston Smith, whose job it is to rewrite the past, despite inwardly rebelling against life in totalitarian Britain.'1984' is a grim read in places, especially the interrogation scenes, but it's deservedly a classic.
4. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (1963)
'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.' In one sentence, Plath sets the scene: it's summer, it's 1953, our protagonist is in New York, and we already know she's confused.
'The Bell Jar' is not an easy read, being partly based on Plath's own experiences with mental illness. It's the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman who wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine. At first, she's delighted, believing she'll finally achieve her dream of becoming a writer. The fast pace of New York only serves to frighten her, though, and she has no idea what to do with her life. The only alternatives appear to be motherhood or a job as a stenographer, neither of which appeal. Gradually, Esther's life slides out of control. She spirals into depression, the bell jar of the book's title being a metaphor for her mental prison.
'The Bell Jar', Sylvia Plath's only novel, was originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath committed suicide shortly after the book's UK publication.
5. Earthly Powers - Anthony Burgess (1980)
'It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.' So much information wrapped up in one sentence! What strikes me the most is the word 'catamite', a word we seldom hear nowadays, meaning it's immediately attention grabbing. Then there's the fact our protagonist tells us he's eighty-one. Ageism is alive and well in our society; many people write off the elderly as being past sex, but this one clearly isn't. Throw religion into the mix in the shape of the visiting archbishop, and Burgess gives us a masterly opening to his novel.
'Earthly Powers' tells the story of Kenneth Toomey, a novelist who embarks on writing his memoirs. Toomey is also asked by the Archbishop of Malta to help with the canonisation of Carlo Campanati. Campanati uses his guile to rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church; Burgess uses him to illustrate the lust for power and what men will do to attain it. Power, sex and religion - the stage is set for a great read!
Do you have any favourite opening lines from novels?
Leave a comment and let me know!
Three stories woven into one
Nobody tells a story quite like Stephen King, who has rated 'Lisey's Story' (2006) his favourite novel that he's written. Before I discovered it on the library shelves, however, I'd not heard of it. No-one has yet made it into a film, and it doesn't seem as well known as other King novels such as 'Carrie', 'The Shining', etc. The novel delivers a powerful and engaging read, however, and is a typical Stephen King page-turner (all 664 of them - it's a long novel!) The plot involves three stories. One is that of Lisey herself, told in the present, interwoven with a second one, revealing her dead husband's life, as recalled by her. The third story is the one from the title, written by Scott for his wife. More about that later. Here's a brief plot summary.
Lisey Landon has been widowed for two years, following the sudden death of her husband, hugely successful Maine novelist Scott Landon. Although a devoted husband, Scott was a troubled man during his life, emotionally wrecked by his childhood and prone to drinking bouts. Despite the passing of time, Lisey is still unable to deal with his loss, as evidenced by her inability to clear out his study. Then an insane fan of Scott's begins to stalk her, demanding she hand over her dead husband's papers; in order to survive, Lisey has to follow the trail of clues left by her husband, who assists her in spirit form. Through Scott and Lisey we explore the fantastical world known as Boo'ya Moon, where Scott retreats during times of mental crisis. Boo'ya Moon is a magical realm of warmth, filled with hazy red light, birdsong and the scent of tropical flowers. Dangers lurk amongst the lush vegetation and bright colours, however. Monsters such as Scott's nemesis, the terrible piebald creature he dubs his 'long boy'. This 'long boy' appears to represent total insanity, something desperately feared by Scott, given his family history of mental illness. Despite its perils, however, it is Boo'ya Moon that eventually provides solutions to Lisey, in respect of her insane stalker and her grief over her husband's death.
A novel of contrasts and dualities
For me, the novel is one laden with dualities. The plot portrays many contrasts; good and evil, dark and light, night and day, safe and dangerous, madness and sanity. As for night and day, the difference between them plays an important role in Scott and Lisey's visits to Boo'ya Moon, a place that's safe during daylight hours, but in which unspeakable terrors lurk in the Fairy Forest at night. King stresses that Boo'ya Moon is not a place in which to linger too long; its beauty can be seductive and once enticed into its magic, its guests may lose all desire to leave, despite its perils. Another duality illustrated here; that of danger and safety.
Good and evil are demonstrated in Sparky Landon, Scott's father, a man tormented by what Scott terms 'bad-gunky', yet who, in his lucid moments, loves his two sons and endeavours to protect them during their childhood from the rampant family insanity. He doesn't entirely succeed; nobody could endure what Scott did and emerge mentally unscathed. Scott Landon comes from a family blighted by mental illness, which manifests itself as either the 'bad-gunky' of homicidal mania (Scott's brother and father) or as catatonia (Scott himself). Although a loving husband, the man is a dark, haunted individual in comparison with Lisey, who exudes strength and stability. Normally loquacious, Scott suffers bouts of catatonia, as does Lisey's sister, Amanda. The theme of family presents another duality, with Lisey's chaotic yet loving childhood, mostly female, a contrast to Scott's male-dominated and terror-filled one.
What does it mean to be a novelist? 'Lisey's Story' as metafiction
Let's turn now to another theme that's prevalent in the novel. 'Lisey's Story' is partly an examination of the craft of writing and what it means to be a author. King achieves some of this on a very practical level. Through Lisey and the descriptions of Scott's life, we get to see how a successful novelist works his craft, from the way his study is set up to the descriptions of his public speaking events. On a different level, King also offers one possible answer to the question all novelists get asked - 'where do you get your ideas from?' Scott Landon compares the mythical pool in Boo'ya Moon to a 'word pool' and credits it as the source of his creativity. Interesting, as the pool also has magical healing qualities. Does King mean that writing can be cathartic, a balm to minds in crisis? Possibly.
Then there's Boo'ya Moon itself. I interpret this magical realm as representing Scott's mental illness, or to be specific, the state of catatonia. Scott and Amanda are both catatonics who flee to Boo'ya Moon during mental breakdowns; both find peace and healing in this magical world. Is King saying that the source of creativity lies in madness? Or in a retreat from the realities of everyday life? Perhaps. Writing can spring from madness, but it can also present a catharsis for insanity. Another interesting duality!
Is the title of 'Lisey's Story' a misnomer?
A minor quibble now. For me, the title of the novel is something of a misnomer. The novel is far more concerned about Scott Landon's life rather than Lisey's; she plays a supporting role in her own story. Although we are given details of Lisey's life, throughout the book we discover much more about her husband's. Even when we finally read the story that Scott wrote for Lisey and hid for her in Boo'ya Moon, the 'Lisey's Story' of the title, we learn far more about him than we do his wife, as the missing pieces of his life slot into place. That aside, 'Lisey's Story' is a terrific fairground ride of a novel, told as only Stephen King can. Like many King offerings, it's densely plotted and, although long, it's never dull. From the stunning descriptions of Boo'ya Moon to those of Scott and Lisey's marriage, through the sub-plots of Amanda's mental illness and Lisey's stalking by the insane Jim Dooley, King sweeps us along in a epic story that enchants and intrigues. I heartily recommend this book.
Have you read 'Lisey's story'?
Did you love it or loathe it? What elements did you enjoy and why? Leave me a comment and let me know.
Here's the stunning cover for my next novel, 'Silent Winter'...
Isn't it gorgeous? 'Silent Winter' will be published on Thursday, December 5, 2019 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon in kindle format. The price will be just $0.99/£0.99 for the first week of sale before it rises to $3.99/$2.99. I'll be making the paperback version available for pre-order in November. Meanwhile, here's the link: Silent Winter, and here's what you can expect:
On an icy November night, Drew Blackmore is beaten unconscious, then abducted. He awakes to find himself in total darkness, naked and chained to the floor. Fed just enough to keep him alive, Drew is unable to identify his captor, or the reason for his incarceration. As reality fades, hallucinations take over. Can Drew escape his prison before madness claims him?
Meanwhile Drew's wife, Holly, despairing of ever seeing him again, turns to his brother for comfort. As the worst winter in decades sweeps the UK, she learns of Drew's tragic past. Could his disappearance be connected with that of a prostitute years before?
A story of how the mind responds to solitary confinement, 'Silent Winter' examines one man's desperate attempt to survive the unthinkable.
A collection of King's short stories and poetry
Over the years, I've come to admire Stephen King more and more, both for his prolific output and the amazing quality of his work. I've especially enjoyed his longer novels, such as '11.22.63', marvelling at how he maintains tension and interest for 700+ pages. I wasn't sure, therefore, what I'd think of King's short stories, although I suspect I could read his grocery list and find it enthralling!
I needn't have worried - I loved 'Full Dark, No Stars', a great collection and one that inspired me to try 'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams', published in November 2015. It's a collection of eighteen short stories and two poems. (Poetry isn't my thing - I started both poems and gave up, so perhaps I overstated my case when it comes to King's grocery list!) It's worth noting that not all the stories are new; some, such as 'Blockade Billy', have been published before, which may disappoint diehard fans expecting a completely fresh experience. They were all new to me, however, so no complaints here!
I love how King prefaces each story with an introduction, often revealing where he got his inspiration. As an author myself, it's fascinating to explore another wordsmith's process for transferring an idea from brain to page. 'Mile 81', for example, is a reworking of a story King wrote nearly forty years ago, resulting from his dislike of a particularly lonely stretch of road in Maine, familiar from his university days. For 'Batman and Robin Have an Altercation', he drew on a memory of a near-miss accident at a Sarasota intersection. The best introduction, however, is the one to the book itself. Here's a snippet from what King has to say: 'Here, sit down beside me. And do come a little closer, I don't bite. Except.... we've known each other for a very long time, and I suspect you know that's not entirely true.'
An impressive collection of wonderful quality
So what can the reader expect from 'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams'? Some of the stories, like 'Mile 81' and 'Bad Little Kid', are quintessentially Stephen King - a demonic flesh-eating car reminiscent of his novel 'Christine' in the first, an evil child in the second. Others, like 'The Little Green God of Agony', are more personal; in King's own words, a search for closure. The story resulted from the horrific traffic accident he suffered in 1999 that resulted in years of physiotherapy and learning to walk again.
In keeping with the personal theme, his preface to 'Afterlife', an examination of what might come after death, King admits to an increasing interest in the subject as he grows older. The story reflects his preoccupation but delivered with a humorous touch. What awaits Bill Andrews after his demise is not a date with St Peter but with a man in high-waisted trousers, who's none too pleased to see him...
My favourite is, I think, 'Ur', although it's a tough choice! 'Ur' deals with, of all things, a supernatural Kindle, which proves that a good author can weave a tale out of just about anything. Talking of which, the preface to 'Mr Yummy' intrigued me. I can't imagine telling Stephen King he wouldn't have anything new to say about AIDS! A friend of his did just that, with King, of course, proving him wrong with his wonderful story of a elderly gay man approaching his death in a care home.
What else gets the King touch? Marriage, in 'Premium Harmony', 'Under the Weather' and 'Morality'; human stupidity in 'Drunken Fireworks'; and a post-apocalyptic world in 'Summer Thunder', a moving tale of a man and his dog that incorporates King's love of motorcycles. 'Blockade Billy' is centred around baseball, but with a dark twist. I loved 'The Dune', a tale of supernatural writing and a study of a deeply unpleasant man. Stephen says the story has one of his favourite endings and I agree; it's a cracker!
An amazing talent, honed to a razor's edge
In short, there's something here for every King fan, whether old or new. This is an impressive collection of wonderful quality from a writer whose talent, after over forty years, has been honed to a razor's edge.
Warning! Contains spoilers regarding the plot of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'.
My fourth novel, 'The Second Captive', deals with the fascinating psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome. (More about what Stockholm syndrome entails later on.) Originally, I decided to blog about this as part of my 'Five' series, in which I examine five examples of anything fictional. No problem, I thought; I'll find the requisite number of novels about Stockholm syndrome and blog about them, and how they resemble or contrast with my own novel.
Except it wasn't that easy. Mainstream fiction about Stockholm syndrome seems thin on the ground. Oh, I came up with lots of books professing to examine Stockholm syndrome. On closer examination, though, they all centred on BDSM themes, leaning towards the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' type of fiction. That's definitely NOT what 'The Second Captive' is about! So much for my original idea! Then I remembered one of my favourite novels, a book that made a huge impact on me when I first read it. A novel of such stature that I don't need four others for this blog post. One with a strong theme of Stockholm syndrome. That novel is 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' by George Orwell.
What is Stockholm syndrome?
Before we examine 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' in more detail, let me explain what Stockholm syndrome is. For most of us, the concept is a weird one. How can someone profess to love the person who has captured them, held them against their will, even threatened them with death? The term originated after a bank robbery in Sweden in 1973, during which two robbers entered the Kreditbanken bank in Stockholm. A hostage situation ensued. For six days, the robbers held four people at gunpoint, locked in a bank vault, explosives strapped to their bodies, nooses around their necks. Bizarrely, upon their release, the hostages defended their captors; one set up a fund to cover their legal fees. Two of the women even became engaged to them. Thus the term "Stockholm syndrome" was coined.
Other notable victims of Stockholm syndrome include Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army but ended up joining their cause, and Natascha Kampusch, who wept when her abductor, Wolfgang Priklopil, committed suicide. So how does this strange psychological condition arise? Experts say at least three traits must be present: 1. A severely skewed power relationship between the individuals concerned. The captor decides what the hostage/prisoner can and cannot do. 2. The captor threatens the hostage/prisoner with physical harm or even death. 3. The hostage/prisoner holds a strong instinct for self-preservation. However, he believes he cannot escape and that survival is dependent upon the captor. Isolation from external points of contact enhances this viewpoint. Most of us have never been in such a desperate situation as the Kreditbanken hostages. If we endeavour to imagine what they endured, Stockholm syndrome seems less weird. If the only way to survive is to ally oneself with one's captor, is it not understandable that such feelings might deepen into something akin to love?
Losing my fictional innocence...
Let's turn now to 'Nineteen Eighty-Four.' I first read George Orwell's chilling novel in my teens, and since then I have been drawn back repeatedly to the book chosen by Time magazine as one of the best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Orwell's story of life under a harsh totalitarian regime made a huge impression on me, partly because personal freedom is something I value greatly, but also because the novel's ending stripped away my fictional innocence. I remember approaching the second half wondering how Orwell was going to arrange the happy finale I was certain was coming. The one in which the Party is overthrown, democracy is restored, and Winston and Julia are free to carry on their relationship. As the number of words left for me to read grew ever fewer, I became increasingly perplexed. How, I asked myself, can all this be resolved when the book is running out of pages? Then I read the last chapter, a stunning conclusion to an outstanding novel, one which shattered every one of my naïve notions.
A chilling dystopian nightmare of a world
'Nineteen Eighty-Four' is a perfect example of a dystopian novel. Set in a world where individualism is persecuted and labelled as 'thoughtcrime', it paints a bleak portrait of life under a harsh political system known as Ingsoc. The novel is based in the United Kingdom, now renamed 'Airstrip One', part of the superstate Oceania. Orwell describes a world of perpetual war, with Oceania always fighting one of the other two superstates, called Eurasia and Eastasia. Life is tough for the inhabitants of Airstrip One. The news is manipulated, citizens exist under constant surveillance, living conditions are squalid and there are shortages of basic necessities. Unless you're a member of the Inner Party, that is, the top 2% of the population who make up the ruling elite. For them, life is comfortable, prosperous, privileged. The rest of the country is split between the middle-class Outer Party members and the working-class 'proles', whom the Party largely ignores. At the very top of the system is Big Brother, around whom an immense personality cult has sprung up, even though it's unclear as to whether he actually exists.
No happy ending for this novel...
In this dystopian nightmare lives Winston Smith, an ageing Outer Party member, who works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting recent history to reflect the current Party stance. Outwardly, Winston toes the Party line, but inwardly he hates the system and Big Brother, striving to make contact with The Brotherhood, a shadowy organisation dedicated to overthrowing the Party.
Along the way he embarks on a passionate affair with a woman called Julia. They meet clandestinely in a squalid rented room, before being discovered and arrested. Winston undergoes a brutal ordeal of torture and interrogation, during which he encounters the chilling O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party and an interrogator at the Ministry of Love. O'Brien leads Winston's mind through the three stages of rehabilitation necessary for a good Party member: learning, understanding and acceptance. Then Winston is released, a free man. He slides into alcoholism, but also displays the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. Alone, downing gin at the Chestnut Tree Cafe, he's pleased he's achieved a victory over himself, ending his previous "stubborn, self-willed exile" from the love of Big Brother, a love he now returns.
An unequal balance of power
Let's look at how the relationship between Winston and O'Brien evinces the three key components of Stockholm syndrome. Firstly, the presence of a severely skewed power relationship. Tick number one. Winston Smith is a prisoner in the Ministry of Love, completely at O'Brien's mercy. Secondly, the threat of physical harm or death. O'Brien tortures Winston, including exposing him to his deepest, darkest fear - rats - in the dreaded Room 101. As for death, Winston's work at the Ministry of Truth has made him aware that Party opponents are routinely killed and written out of existence. Another tick here, then. Thirdly, Winston holds a strong instinct for self-preservation, evident in his love for Julia and his desire for a fairer world. Final tick.
Despite the fact he's his torturer, O'Brien positions himself as both a father figure and a friend to Winston. Even in the interrogation scenes, an intimacy flourishes between the two men, with O'Brien showing an uncanny ability to know what Winston is thinking. Even as he inflicts pain on his victim, he professes to be doing it for Winston's own good, to save and purify him. The ground has been prepared, therefore, ready for the seeds of Stockholm syndrome to germinate. And that's exactly what happens. By the end of the novel, Winston's capitulation is complete. Evidenced by the incredible closing paragraph, as Winston stares at a poster of Big Brother: "He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. " Powerful stuff!
Stockholm syndrome and my fourth novel
So how do I demonstrate Stockholm syndrome in 'The Second Captive'? Again, let's look at the three key components (without giving plot spoilers!)
1. There exists an unequal power relationship between my protagonist, the emotionally immature Beth Sutton, and Dominic Perdue, the man who abducts her and holds her captive by locking her in the basement of his house.
2. He mistreats her, demanding absolute compliance with his wishes. Whilst he's not a torturer like O'Brien, he does lead Beth to believe he's a killer. She fears her life may be in danger if she doesn't fall in with his wishes.
3. Beth is young, with a strong sense of self-preservation, demonstrated by her desperation to be reunited with her mother. Isolated as she is, though, the effects of Stockholm syndrome gradually creep up on her…
Here's a taster:
Beth Sutton is eighteen years old when Dominic Perdue abducts her. Held prisoner in a basement, she’s dependent upon him for food, clothes, her very existence. As the months pass, her hatred towards him changes to compassion. Beth never allows herself to forget, however, that her captor has killed another woman. She has evidence to prove it, as well as Dominic’s own admission of murder.
Then Beth escapes…
And discovers Dominic Perdue is not a man who lets go easily. Meanwhile, despite being reunited with her family, she spirals into self-destructive behaviour. Release from her prison isn’t enough, it seems. Can Beth also break free from the clutches of Stockholm syndrome?
A study of emotional dependency, 'The Second Captive' examines how the mind makes dark choices under duress.
Available from Amazon - click or tap the picture or this link: The Second Captive.
(Guest post by Samuel Marquis)
Readers should support authors of any stripe for only one reason: great writing
Years ago, when I was a literary neophyte and secretly harbored delusions of grandeur about the publishing industry, mega-author James Patterson gave me a blistering review for my Colorado-based earthquake thriller 'Blind Thrust'. The simple truth is I deserved it (he also gave me a glowing quote for my book 'The Coalition', but that’s another story). I fully deserved his ridicule for the first incarnation of 'Blind Thrust'—fully deserved to be flogged like an 18th century seaman in the Royal Navy—because my novel was, though I didn’t know it at the time, not up to industry standards in terms of the opening and overall plotting. It was not a bad novel; it just wasn’t sufficiently enticing to persuade someone to shell out $20 at Barnes and Noble or Tattered Cover. In other words, I didn’t give the creator of the Alec Cross Series and the biggest-selling author since the Precambrian Era sufficient justification to promote me or my writing because the book I was peddling was flawed, even though it was reasonably well written and seemed to me and my circle of reviewers at the time to be promising. In short, I had done the unspeakable thing that no storyteller—whether you are indie, traditional legacy, or a cave-painting Cro-Magnon at Lascaux—should ever do, and that is put out a story that isn’t quite ready for prime time. To my infinite chagrin, I had not earned the right for James Patterson to lend me his support for this particular novel.
So what did I do? I went back and rewrote the book. Literally salvaged the submerged wreckage and rewrote the whole bloody thing. Then I had it professionally edited. Then I rewrote it again and edited it some more until I had revised it at least a dozen times. The editorial process landed me an agent, who proceeded to give me more editorial input, but at this point they were only minor tweaks because the book was highly polished. And now, recently, I received a completely different response to this reconstituted prose that had once been considered slush pile fodder. And from a highly credible critic I might add, someone who knows a thing or two about the written word, as he has perused hundreds of thousands of pages of non-fiction and fiction alike in his lengthy career in politics and as a Homo sapien sapien: “Blind Thrust kept me up until 1 a.m. two nights in a row. I could not put it down. An intriguing mystery that intertwined geology, fracking, and places in Colorado that I know well. Great fun.” —Roy R. Romer, 39th Governor of Colorado
73 eager fans on four continents...
The quote, I might also add, was unsolicited. So, by a simple twist of fate, the three-term governor of the Centennial State and one-time chairman/co-chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Leadership Council, and National Committee, as well as the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign, got hold of an Advance Reading Copy of 'Blind Thrust', proceeded to read it cover to cover, and decided to give me a rave review (Okay, full disclosure, he snagged a copy of the ARC from his son, my friend Tim, that had been laying there on a table in Vail, but please note that the honorable Gov. Romer doesn’t know me from Donald Trump). What’s important about the episode is that a book that was once justifiably pilloried in its earliest incarnation had miraculously become so enthralling that a highly discriminating reader who presumably likes to go to bed early could not put it down and was forced to stay up late two nights in a row to finish the book. That same discriminating reader then proceeded to send me an unsolicited book blurb declaring before the entire world (or at least the 73 people from four continents, including my 94-year old Aunt Margaret, who will actually read my book): “I could not put it down.” The quote has made its way onto the front and back covers of Blind Thrust, which has now been released for the enjoyment of my 73 eager fans.
There is only one reason that any of this happened: the novel went from subpar, or just not good enough for publication, to something closer to superb, or at least good enough that it was deemed 'unputdownable' by an unbiased reviewer whose opinion actually matters.
Authors should hold readers hostage with their writing
So why should readers support indie and traditional legacy authors? For only one reason: good solid writing. Craftsmanship. Actual hard work, sacrifice, and talent coming together into an amalgam of significance.
Having gone through this experience, I realize now what the ultimate goal of a thriller writer should be: Make people stay up late at night against their will and not want to put the book down. Hold them hostage with your writing. Because they will only go against their will if the suspense is so gripping, the plot and characters so riveting and unpredictable that the story literally casts a temporary spell over them. Because the book you’ve penned—even if it’s not 'Moby Dick' or 'David Copperfield'—is quite good in its own unique way. And that is the only reason why readers should support authors, be they indie or traditional legacy authors or those fur-clad, cave-dwelling raconteurs at Lascaux. Because a work is actually really damned good.
Unfortunately, it is hard to make something hard to put down and make every page, indeed every line or paragraph, fume with tension. I know I have failed miserably in the past and I will no doubt fail again in the future. But ultimately quality and constant tension should always be the goal in a suspense novel. Nothing else should matter. We all have to write better and put forward the best material we can. Material that has been thoroughly vetted and edited and re-edited until we are bleary-eyed and brain-dead and so utterly preoccupied with making the thing good that our friends and significant others are convinced that we’ve taken a lover on the side. Ultimately, readers don’t care if you received your Creative Writing degree from Oxford or Yale, are a mega-best-seller, or are close friends with J.K Rowling or Lee Child. They just want a great story. Over and over again, every time out.
Readers will always support great writing. And they will stay up late at night to read it. But only if we writers put in the hard work and truly do our jobs. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.
More about Samuel Marquis
Samuel Marquis works by day as Vice-President – hydrogeology for an environmental consulting firm in Boulder, CO, and by night as writer of historical and modern suspense novels. He is the author of 'The Devil's Brigade, 'Blind Thrust' and many other novels, has published over 25 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals/books, and has served as an expert witness on multimillion dollar environmental cases.
He can be reached on his website at www.samuelmarquisbooks.com or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fiction writing as a catharsis?
Do novelists use their fiction as a catharsis for their personal issues? Since I began my writing journey, I’ve realised that many people believe they do. ‘I’m keen to read your books,’ someone once told me. ‘I’ll find out more about what makes you tick.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that was the essence of her words.
‘No, you won’t,’ was my inner response. Her comment got me thinking, however, so I mentioned the conversation to a fellow novelist. ‘A friend of mine believes fiction writers explore their issues via their writing,’ I told her. ‘I think that’s a huge overgeneralisation. I don’t.’ The reply was immediate, its tone dismissive. ‘Of course you do. Don’t all writers?’ I was flabbergasted.
It’s a view I strongly contest. Its proponent is, I believe, falsely extrapolating from her own circumstances. For her, writing is indeed a catharsis; she uses her work as a vehicle to explore her childhood issues. She’s not alone. Stephen King has said that he writes about what scares him as a way to exorcise his own demons, using fiction as an alternative to therapy. Fair enough, but for me, it seems a flawed assumption to say that all writers are the same.
We're not all tortured souls in need of therapy
The notion that authors use their novels as a catharsis for exploring their psyche seems a common one, though. Perhaps it comes back to our tendency to embrace one-size-fits-all stereotypes as a convenient, but lazy, way of interpreting the world. Once an image gets into the popular imagination, it sticks. Fiction writers? Aren't they all tortured souls who fuel their literary outpourings during the small hours via copious amounts of alcohol, in between lamenting the perils of writer’s block? Take Ernest Hemingway, right? Case closed.
The truth is, novelists are a diverse bunch. Sure, some will seek to explore personal issues via their fiction. Others won’t. There’s no cookie-cutter profile that fits all. I can best give my own position by saying that I’m a private person; the notion of exploring my psyche publicly via my novels fills me with horror. Writing is not, I repeat, not a catharsis for me. None of the terrible issues I inflict upon my long-suffering characters have ever happened in my life. I’ve never been kidnapped, violently raped, endured a psychotic sibling or absent parents. Phew, plenty of things there for which to be grateful!
My motivation for writing fiction is simple. I love being a novelist. OK, so my books fall into the psychological suspense category. That in itself says nothing about me. Yes, I’m fascinated by the workings of the human mind, but there aren’t many topics in which I’m not interested. Maybe some people will say 'Methinks the lady doth protest too much', but if that's you, then so be it. I can't change how you think, and besides, I'd rather be writing. My seventh novel beckons...
Novelist Iain Rob Wright's take on the subject
Other fiction writers agree with me. The British horror/thriller novelist Iain Rob Wright said on his blog: ‘Just because someone has read one of my books, does not mean they know a single thing about me. I write characters with views of their own. If one of my protagonists collects stamps, that does not mean that I do. The truth is that I would never make my own views entirely obvious through my work, because then I am not creating fiction, I am writing propaganda.’
My point exactly! So to readers of my books, of Iain’s books, to fiction readers in general, I’d say this. Read our novels because you enjoy them, not to discover more about us. Don’t think you can judge an author by his/her books. You can’t presume to know a novelist's motivation for writing, unless they’ve publicly stated it.
What do you think? Let me know!
I’d be interested to hear from other fiction writers. Is your work cathartic for you? If so, to what extent? Readers, do you make assumptions about an author based on what they write? Leave a comment and let me know!
So many books, so little time!
Once I used to reread favourite novels, happy to revisit those I'd enjoyed before. Sometimes I'm nostalgic for the times when I'd curl up with a treasured book to savour its magic again. Even though the story was no longer a mystery, I'd always catch nuances I'd missed before, making each reread a new take on the familiar. A long time has passed since I read the same title more than once, though. It's a trend that's set to continue.
Why? Well, thanks to changes in the publishing industry, we're spoiled for choice when it comes to fiction. Thousands of new novels are uploaded to Amazon every day. In addition, the new wave of self-publishing is creating new genres by merging existing ones. Which makes for fascinating choices! Fancy a science fiction romance? No problem. Want to add Vikings to the mix? Your wish is granted. There are novels about dragons in space, unicorns in ancient history, you name it. In addition, self-publishing has revitalised more than genres. Short stories and novellas are making a comeback, providing even more reading options. With such a cornucopia of material available, not to mention classic novels I've yet to read, I don't have time to pick up the same book twice. Not that I'm complaining, you understand!
I don't want old favourites to disappoint
Besides the plethora of new titles available, there's another reason I don't revisit past fictional adventures. A strong possibility exists that, after a gap of several decades, they'll disappoint. Take Iris Murdoch's 'The Sea, The Sea'. I first read this novel in my twenties, and I loved it. The character of Charles Arrowby, his selfishness, the way he blinds himself to the obvious, mesmerised me. The novel charts his reunion with his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch, whom he has not seen since his youth. Thanks to his reclusive life, he develops an obsession with her, despite the fact she now sports an old-lady moustache and doesn't return his interest. I've always been fascinated by human behaviour and foibles, and Charles's egotistic pursuit of the unfortunate Hartley, which involves her kidnap, makes wonderful reading.
Years ago, a friend and I discussed the novel, with her being as taken with 'The Sea, The Sea' as I was. Recently, however, Doran told me she'd reread the book. Had it reprised its magic for her? The answer is no. 'I've no idea why I liked it so much in the first place,' she said. Which makes me wary about rereading my old favourite. Disillusion can be a bitter pill. Isn't it better for 'The Sea, The Sea' to retain its place in my affections, rather than me risk tarnishing its memory?
Tastes and priorities change...
Perhaps this reflects the changes we all experience in life. Tastes and priorities alter. In my fifties, I'm very different to the woman I was in my twenties. Who wouldn't be? There's a good chance that Iris Murdoch's iconic book may not enchant me second time around. Take Thomas Hardy's wonderful novels, for example. As a teenager, I read every single title, relishing Hardy's biting examination of social injustices. I loathed the hypocritical Angel Clare in 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'; Michael Henchard's character in 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' appalled me. A man who scorned his bride-to-be for not being a virgin? A rogue who sells his wife at a country fair? Shame on both of them!
I also loved Hardy's lyrical descriptions of the Dorset countryside, for which his books are justly famous. An example: 'Here in the valley, the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere below is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes of that hue, whilst the horizon beyond is of deepest ultramarine.' (From 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles').
Nowadays I feel little desire to read any of his books again. For one thing, I'm less concerned with social commentary than I was. And whilst not denying the beauty of Hardy's prose, I'm now impatient with long-winded descriptive paragraphs. I prefer brisk action rather than eulogies about hedgerows. So I'll leave off revisiting Hardy, or any of the novelists who enchanted me as a younger woman. Time's a wastin', as they say. Instead, I'll choose something new to read.
What about you?
Do you like revisiting fictional favourites? Are there books that are timeless for you, providing enjoyment every time you read them? Or do you prefer to discover fresh treasures? Leave a comment and let me know!
A while back, I posted a review of 'The White Room' by bestselling thriller writer Martyn Waites. I'm delighted to welcome the man himself to my blog today. Here's our discussion:
Tell us about your novel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death.
Well, it’s something I’m particularly proud of. At first I thought I was just going to be writing a film tie-in which I thought would be fun because I hadn’t done anything like that before. Also I’m a huge Hammer Film fan and to have my name and Hammer on the spine of a book was enough for me, really. Plus it was a complete departure from anything I had written before. The opposite of my usual stuff, really.
But … then I was told this wasn’t just to coincide with the new film but was going to be the official sequel to the novel itself. And then I found myself in the papers answering questions. And then I realised I’d taken on quite a daunting task. But I wrote it and really enjoyed it. It’s different to the first one and different to the film as well. I saw it as my chance to use every gothic trope that I could think of, making homages to all the great writers and filmmakers who had so excited me. So Poe is in there, a bit of M R James, hopefully a bit of Terence Fisher . . . Great fun to write.
Has your early career as an actor helped you with your novel writing? Do you see yourself returning to acting in the future?
I don’t know. It’s probably a never say never thing. I have no plans to return to acting but I would listen to offers. However, I’ve been out of it for so long I doubt I’ll get any offers. Also, I used to love theatre; that was my real passion, more than TV or anything else. But the thought of committing myself to a long run now doesn’t really appeal. As to whether it’s helped in my writing: yes, I think so. I find creating characters for the page the same as creating them onstage. I use the same intuitive processes as I would as an actor. Find the voice, the look, the walk, etc. And also, I find dialogue very easy to write. I think that’s down to my actor background.
Will you venture into any other genres? If so, which ones?
I already have. I’ve ventured into music journalism. Great Lost Albums came out in 2014. It was a collaboration between myself, Mark Billingham, Stav Sherez and David Quantick. We spent years trying to track down albums that we had only heard whispers about, legendary albums that may never have even existed . . . No we didn’t. It was a comedy book. Mark and I were trying to entertain each other on a train one day when we were out on tour together. What would Morrissey’s great lost panto album sound like? What if Pete Townsend did a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind bingo caller called Bingo Wizard? What if Coldplay became IKEA’s resident house band? Those kinds of things. Just to entertain ourselves really. By the time we’d got back to London we thought we had a book there. So we roped in Stav, who is of course a brilliant crime novelist but also used to be a music journalist, and Dave Quantick who also used to be a music journalist but who’s now better known for writing for the BAFTA winning Harry Hill’s TV Burp, The Thick of It and the Emmy-winning Veep. Then it was just a question of coming up with fifty albums that made us all laugh. The book came out last autumn and despite being the funniest book ever written, kind of disappeared. So it was back to the day job.
You also write as Tania Carver. How different is that from being Martyn Waites?
Well, there’s the name for a start. It’s interesting. Tania (if I can refer to myself/herself in the third person) is different from Martyn. The books are slightly different. They’re all crime novels but with the Tanias there are changes of emphasis, there are scenes that I wouldn’t put in a Tania that I’d keep for a Martyn. And vice versa. I don’t actually know what the differences are but I can feel them when I’m writing. I guess it’s like how it must have been for Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. The same, but different. Flexing different muscles, playing different chords. That kind of thing. Or at least that’s how I think of it.
The other thing is writing under a female pseudonym. When the first Tania came out, The Surrogate, it was a massive bestseller, both here and internationally. I can remember standing in W H Smith where it was book of the week and watching people come in, pick it up and take it to the till. And of course I couldn’t say anything. Well, not without being forcibly ejected from the shop. I’ve got used to it now though. Tania is kind of my main writing at the moment. But doing things like Woman in Black and Great Lost Albums help to keep me and the series fresh.
Tell us how American crime fiction of the Nineties influenced your early work.
Wow, you’ve done your homework. Or you’ve heard me blathering on about this at great length, usually when I’ve had a drink. It was the late eighties and I was casting around for my ‘thing’. I was already acting and had what other people thought of as a promising career (which I think meant I was working and not unemployed). I loved reading and had tried everything but nothing seemed to stick, nothing spoke to me, moved me. Until I read Chandler. Then Hammett, then Ross MacDonald. Then James M Cain . . . and on and on. Actually this was in the mid-eighties when I was still at college. When I left I was still reading the old school stuff. I hated British crime writing at the time. Parochial, dull, boring. No connection with me or my life. Then I looked back at some of the neglected British writers like Ted Lewis, Gerald Kersh and, my favourite, Patrick Hamilton and wished we had people like that still writing.
So I had a look at some of the American writing that was starting to appear then. And it was a pretty fertile time for it. Like punk and new wave happened over here in the late seventies and revitalised the culture, in the late eighties the same thing happened with American crime fiction. I read Andrew Vachss and it was like someone hadn’t just opened the windows onto a world, they had blown the side of the house off. James Ellroy next, then James Lee Burke, James Crumley, Walter Mosely, Sara Paretsky . . . wow. On and on. And that was when I realised I had found my thing. They wrote about urban landscapes I could recognise, about lives and struggles I could relate to. It was real life reportage, spat back as literature. And I couldn’t get enough of it. And then I thought (because I was already telling myself I was going to write a novel), why don’t I do what they’re doing? Transpose it for the UK but bring that energy, that sense of engagement the politics, the anger with it? Yeah, why not? I realised that quite a few other British writers were having the same idea at the same time. It just took some of us longer to actually get into print. But they were my literary touchstones, the ones who inspired me.
You’ve held writing residences in prisons. Do you know if any of your students have published their work? How rewarding did you find encouraging offenders to write?
I don’t know if I’ve actually led anyone to be a writer. There were some who were definitely good enough but I don’t know if they have or not. I worked as a writer in residence in a young offenders institution for two and a half years. Then for another year in an adult prison. To be honest, I could write a book on it. It was the most unique experience. It was the most polarised environment I’ve ever worked in. One day you’d be feeling like you could touch the stars, the next like you wished you were shelf-stacking at Budgens. Successes were stratospheric, failures equally so in the wrong direction. It was an honour to try and use my skills to effect a positive change in someone’s life.
Tell us a little about the writing process for you. How long does an average novel take? How difficult (or not) are you to live with when creating a novel? Are you a planner or someone who writes by the seat of their pants?
So many questions in that one question . . . Okay, here goes. I can answer the second bit first. How difficult am I to live with when I’m writing? Very. I sometimes put off starting a book because I know that it’s going to change me. It’s like you can never switch off and your mind is always on the work. At my best I’m kind of semi-detached while I’m working. At worst I’m the kind of writer that people go and stay with their relatives rather than be with.
Do I plan or make it up? Kind of both, really. I know that sounds diametrically opposed, but it’s not. I usually start with an idea or an image. That then suggests questions to me. And it takes the course of the book for me to answer them. I usually say that the first hundred pages or so are like an audition. It’s me finding out who the characters are, why they’re there, what they sound like . . . all of that. And the ones with the most interesting voices are the ones I want to stick with. Then I can see a structure developing so I start to plan ahead a little. Maybe fifty or a hundred pages or so. Then after that, take stock and plan the next section. And so on.
As for how long it takes, I don’t know. I try and allow myself a year to write a novel but always hope it takes less than that and I can fit something else in as well. But it varies. The longest it took me to write a book was five years. The shortest, three months. There are no hard and fast rules. And I also feel when I sit down to start the next book that I’ve learned absolutely nothing for my previous books. A blank screen is always a blank screen. And it’s up to me to be as creative as possible in how I fill it.
Finally, tell us something weird and wonderful about yourself that your readers might not know.
To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything weird - and certainly nothing wonderful - about me. I kind of wear my passions on my sleeve so most people know my politics, my interests, all of that. I can’t really think of anything. I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, right back to 1963. I love my pulp fiction, my horror movies, my film noir, my comics . . . possibly the only thing that not many people know about me is that I like modelling. Not on the catwalk, obviously, but making models. I’ve got a scale replica of Frankenstein’s monster and the Bride of Frankenstein from the film of the same name to work on next. I’m looking forward to that. Once I’ve finished my Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde model, that is. I enjoy it. The solitude, the concentration. You can listen to music while you work, which I can’t while I’m writing. And it uses another part of my brain to the writing part, lets me flex some other mental muscles. Love it. I used to win competitions for it when I was little. And that’s something not many people know.
Thank you, Martyn! It's been a pleasure to talk with you.
My second novel, 'Sister, Psychopath', was inspired by a real-life crime. At a writing workshop, our facilitator told us about a murder carried out by a mentally disturbed woman. She fixated on a male colleague, a married man who had a young child. They were never lovers but her obsession with him steadily grew, so much so that she decided to murder his wife and child, believing she could then marry him. She went ahead and killed his family, but her daughter became suspicious and contacted the police. The woman was arrested and convicted, receiving a life sentence.
When I heard this, my curiosity was piqued. How would it feel, I wondered, to be that woman's daughter? To make such a terrible discovery about her mother? The point our facilitator was making was that true crime is often a great source of inspiration for fiction writers. In this instance, it certainly was for me. Out of this premise came the character of Megan Copeland in 'Sister, Psychopath'. I ended up taking the novel down a different path, away from Tilly Copeland's fixation on her boss, exploring instead the relationship between Megan and her sociopathic sister Chloe. However, I'll always be grateful to our workshop leader for sowing the seeds for my second novel.
My experience isn't unusual, of course. Many novels have been influenced by true-life crimes. In this week's blog post I'll continue my 'Five' series by giving some examples.
1. Psycho - Robert Bloch, 1959
Written in 1959 by Robert Bloch, Psycho was inspired by the real-life crime of Ed Gein, arrested in 1957 for the murders of two women in Wisconsin. When police searched his home, they found furniture and clothing made of skin and female body parts. Gein had raided graveyards to make a skin suit that he planned to wear while pretending to be his dead mother. Bloch's novel created the iconic character of motel owner Norman Bates, who murders his mother and takes on her personality. Even if they've not read the book, most people are familiar with the story from the famous Alfred Hitchcock film. Remember the shower scene?!
Here's the synopsis of the novel from Amazon: 'She was a fugitive, lost in a storm. That was when she saw the sign: motel - vacancy. The sign was unlit, the motel dark. She switched off the engine, and sat thinking, alone and frightened. She had nobody. The stolen money wouldn't help her, and Sam couldn't either, because she had taken the wrong turning; she was on a strange road. There was nothing she could do now - she had made her grave and she'd have to lie in it. She froze. Where had that come from? Grave. It was bed, not grave. She shivered in the cold car, surrounded by shadows. Then, without a sound, a dark shape emerged from the blackness and the car door opened. Psycho is not a tale for queasy stomachs or faint hearts. It is filled with horrifying suspense and the climax, instead of being a relief, will hit the reader with bone-shattering force.'
2. The Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris, 1988
The exploits of Ed Gein also served as the inspiration for Thomas Harris's 1998 novel The Silence of The Lambs. In the book, Gein morphs into a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, a man who kidnaps overweight women, starves them for a few days and then kills and skins them. Like Psycho, most people know the story even if they've not read the book. Who hasn't seen the film clip of Hannibal Lecter expressing his preference for Chianti to accompany a dish of human liver?!
Here's the Amazon synopsis of the novel: 'An FBI trainee. A psychopath locked up for unspeakable crimes. And a serial killer getting ever closer to his latest victim ... FBI rookie Clarice Starling turns to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, monster cannibal held in a hospital for the criminally insane, for insight into the deadly madman she must find. As Dr. Lecter invites her into the darkest chambers of his mind, he forces her to confront her own childhood demons as the price of understanding, an unspeakable tuition he exacts to teach her how the monster thinks. And time is running out . . .'
3. The Black Dahlia - James Ellroy, 1987
James Ellroy based The Black Dahlia on one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved crimes. In 1947, waitress Elizabeth Short’s body was found mutilated and dumped in a car park in Los Angeles. The murder horrified the public; newspapers weighed in by sensationalising the case, nicknaming the victim 'Black Dahlia' because she always wore black clothing. Ellroy's novel explores how the lives of the two detectives who investigate the case, Dwight Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, are destroyed by it. For Blanchard, the case revives memories of his sister Laurie, who vanished and was never found, fuelling his fears about what might have happened to her. Bleichert, however, develops an obsession with Black Dahlia, fancying himself in love and making connections between her troubled life and his own.
Here's the synopsis from Amazon: 'A neo-noir crime novel from the legendary crime novelist James Ellroy. Los Angeles, 15th January 1947: a beautiful young woman walked into the night and met her horrific destiny. Five days later, her tortured body was found drained of blood and cut in half. The newspapers called her 'The Black Dahlia'. Two cops are caught up in the investigation and embark on a hellish journey that takes them to the core of the dead girl's twisted life...'
4. We Need to Talk about Kevin - Lionel Shriver, 2003
Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin was inspired by the 1999 shootings in Colombine, USA. The Colorado town is where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve fellow students and a teacher at their high school. Shriver references the killings in her novel by making the Kevin of the title commit mass murder in a similar way. The book is structured in the form of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband Franklin Plaskett, in which she charts her cold relationship with their son Kevin. Her maternal indifference and occasional violence towards the boy may, she fears, have contributed to his sociopathic tendencies. In the book, Shriver examines the age-old question of nature versus nurture to determine why Kevin acts the way he does. Lacking normal emotions and the capacity for love, he is contemptuous and manipulative, reserving special hatred for his mother. He's certainly a hard character to like, let alone love.
Here's the synopsis from Amazon: 'Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who tried to befriend him. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband, Franklyn. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.'
5. Room - Emma Donoghue, 2010
Emma Donoghue wrote her acclaimed novel, Room, in 2010 after the Josef Fritzl case became news world-wide. In 2008, Elisabeth Fritzl, 42, told police she had been held captive by her father for twenty-four years in makeshift accommodation below the family home in Austria. Fritzl had raped her throughout that time and as a result she had given birth to seven children by him. Among them was five-year-old Felix, the inspiration for Donoghue’s Jack, held captive along with his mother in Room.
To me, Room is an incredible book. Emma Donoghue took a brave step in narrating its events from the perspective of a five-year-old boy and her gamble largely pays off. In places, it doesn't quite work - Jack sometimes acts with a maturity beyond such a young child's capabilities, but I still consider Room an excellent read. Had I written it, I'd have told the story from Ma's point of view, as I suspect many authors would have done. I admire Donoghue, therefore, for not taking the obvious route when writing the book. Her way is powerful because of course, Jack doesn't understand his situation, enhancing the suspense for the reader as the truth about Room is revealed. His childish perception also acts as a tool to inject humour into the narrative. It's gripping stuff! Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
'Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Jack lives with his Ma in Room. Room has a single locked door and a skylight, and it measures ten feet by ten feet. Jack loves watching TV but he knows that nothing he sees on the screen is truly real - only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there is a world outside. Devastating yet uplifting, Room by Emma Donoghue is a luminous portrait of a boundless maternal love. It has sold more than two million copies, was a number one bestseller and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Few books have reached modern classic status so swiftly.'
Bonus - a sixth book! This one's a true crime story...
Whilst it's not a novel but a true crime story, I wanted to include Death in Disguise: The Amazing True Story of the Chelsea Murders, by Gary Powell. I thought it would be interesting to add at least one real-life crime book to this blog post. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
Victorian Chelsea was a thriving commercial and residential development, known for its grand houses and pleasant garden squares. Violent crime was unheard of in this leafy suburb. The double murder of an elderly man of God and his faithful housekeeper in two ferocious, bloody attacks in May of 1870 therefore shook the residents of Chelsea to the core. This volume examines this extraordinary case, one which could have leapt straight from the pen of Agatha Christie herself: the solving of the case relied on the discovery of a packing box dripping with blood, and the capture of a mysterious French nephew. This volume, compiled by a former detective, looks at the facts: no direct evidence to place the suspect at either of the crime scenes; no weapon recovered; no motive substantiated. It lets you, the reader, decide: would you, on the evidence presented, have sent the same man to the gallows?
Sounds fascinating! If you're interested, here's the link to Gary's book on Amazon or you can click the image. Isn't that a fantastic cover, by the way?
Let's hear from you!
What novels based on real-life crimes have you enjoyed? Leave me a comment and let me know!