A list, a list! My top ten 2015 books

31 12 2015

OK, so I like lists. But part of the fun of book reviewing is being able to look back over what you’ve read in the course of a year, point and laugh at the turkeys, and purr over the gems.

There have been some stinkers for sure, and I shan’t be sorry when publishers get bored of the current fad of sticking ‘girl’ in a title (and no, I didn’t think much to either Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, and the continuation of the peerless Stieg Larsson series has the feel of The Girl Who Scraped the Bottom of the Barrel). But remembering the good stuff – especially when it’s from some of the smaller publishers who don’t get the attention they deserve – makes it all worthwhile.

Unusually for me, there are a couple of historicals in there. But Manda Scott’s Into the Fire, which entwines a modern French cop’s case with Joan of Arc, is seriously clever writing. And I loved the 1930s theatreland setting of Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn (not the actor!)

Anya Lipska’s Polish fixer series continues to be one of my favourites, as does Elly Griffiths’ archaeology series set in East Anglia. As for Phil Rickman and his Merrily Watkins books, there’s always an unseemly tussle between me and my co-editor Linda to see who gets to read the new one first! John Connolly, meanwhile, is simply pure class.

There are three debut novels up there – Paul Hardisty’s thriller for new publisher Orenda Books, set in the Yemen; former submariner JS Law writing about what he know (the claustrophobic world of submarines) and YA writer Annie Dalton moving into the crime field with a strong cast of out of the ordinary female characters.

Speaking of which, Judith Flanders’ A Bed of Scorpions staged a late run for a place in the top ten, just edging out Ian Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ One Under. I adored the second book in the series, set in the world of publishing and featuring a 40-something editor who’s never short of a snappy response.

So here are my top ten books of the year, in no particular order:

Into the Fire – Manda Scott (Bantam)

A Devil Under The Skin – Anya Lipska (The Friday Project)

Friends of the Dusk – Phil Rickman (Corvus)

The Ghost Fields – Elly Griffiths (Quercus)

Curtain Call – Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape)

The White Shepherd – Annie Dalton (Severn House)

Tenacity – JS Law (Headline)

The Abrupt Physics of Dying – Paul E Hardisty (Orenda Books)

A Song of Shadows – John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)

A Bed of Scorpions – Judith Flanders (Allison & Busby)


This is what sports journalism should be

15 03 2013

I don’t fangirl very often, but I’m willing to make an exception for the thoroughly awesome David Walsh.

For those of you who may have been on a desert island for a couple of years, he’s the guy who unmasked Lance Armstrong as a lying drugs cheat. And it’s taken nigh on 15 years for Walsh, chief sports writer on the Sunday Times, to have his suspicions confirmed for sure.

Those of us of a certain age will remember when the Sunday Times, with Harold Evans at the helm, was a true campaigning newspaper and uncovered the Thalidomide scandal. Forty (eek!) or so years on, they supported Walsh (being interviewed beforehand in the pic below by Will Carpenter, one of our final year journalism students) in his quest.

A quick-thinking Tweet from my colleague Mary Williams brought Walsh down to Portsmouth this month to speak at the Guildhall to nearly 700 people about the Armstrong story. And as he unfolded his gripping story, it reminded me again of how dire a lot of sports journalism really is.

will c and david w

Those of us who’ve worked as sports journalists will remember the endless loop of match previews, groin strains, match reports and signings rumours that never quite seem to make it. If it’s a quiet day, you might get to do a profile on the stalwart full-back or the groundsman who’s been with a club for 40 years. But sadly, few publications in these stripped to the bone staffing days have the resources to devote to investigative journalism. And even more sadly, your average sports reporter seems more interested in the minutiae of everyday life at Man Utd than anything outside of that safe routine cocoon.

And god knows, there are enough sporting stories out there that would merit a tenacious reporter being given six months to poke around to their heart’s content and then to file a blow your socks off exclusive.

Sadly, the best we seem to get in the name of sports reporting is yet another interview with Harry Redknapp while he’s sat in his car with the window wound down …

Maxine Clarke

19 12 2012

I was just thinking last night that I hadn’t updated this blog since last month when I addressed the thoroughly depressing topic of sockpuppet reviewers on Amazon. The piece mentioned two outstanding and honest reviewers who continued to post to that site.

And then I saw Karen Meek’s note on Twitter about the death of one of those reviewers. Maxine Clarke had been battling cancer for some time.

I regret that I never met Maxine in real life. But we’d chatted by email, on Facebook and on Twitter, and I loved our conversations. We had our media backgrounds in common as well as a passion for crime fiction, and would frequently bemoan declining writing standards in both fields! She wasn’t a great fan of Facebook, but would add typically astute comments to some of the discussions on my page.

Maxine was one of my favourite reviewers, and I enjoyed her blog, Petrona, thoroughly – there was always good conversation to be found there. She had a tremendous knowledge of crime fiction, and her reviews were always literate, honest and constructive. Everything she wrote radiated intelligence.

I remember a few months back discussing Tana French’s Broken Harbour with her. Maxine had loved it; I wasn’t so convinced, despite being a big fan of French. And I owe two great finds to Maxine’s enthusiasm – Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go, and David Belbin’s Sarah Bone series.

I’m going to miss her loads, as will the authors she championed and the readers who knew they could rely on her fair judgement.

Trust me, I’m a reviewer …

3 11 2012

If you’re a crime fiction fan who spends any time on social media, you’ve probably been scraping your jaw off the ground at the shenanigans over sock puppet reviews where a number of big – and not as big as they’d like to be – names have been posting negative reviews of other writers’ books under false names.

Enough has been written already on the whole nasty saga. What I want to do, though, is to offer up some suggestions on how readers can find reviewers they can trust …

The fake review saga has undermined any credibility that Amazon reviews had – and that wasn’t much to start with. I feel immensely sorry for honest and thoughtful reviewers like British reviewer Maxine Clarke and John L Murphy, an American academic, who both continue to push a rock uphill by posting their excellent reviews to Amazon.

My illusions were shattered early on in my career about reviewing – my mildly negative comment about the vegetarian food on a Rhine cruise for a travel piece was doctored so the travel editor would continue to get freebies.

I’ve stopped reviewing for two other magazines where even faintly negative comments were excised. And when I edited ReviewingtheEvidence, I suggested a very prolific reviewer (four or five reviews a week) might like to find another outlet for her efforts, as she never criticised anything. And those of you on the crime fiction scene will know of another ‘reviewer’ who appears to read hundreds of books a month and has never found one she doesn’t like.

So how do you find publications and reviewers to trust …?

Don’t assume that a newspaper reviewer is automatically going to be better than a blogger. Far too much newspaper reviewers are authors who may not be prepared to give an honest review. A writer/reviewer once told me that they never write even faintly negative reviews, as they don’t want to turn up at a convention and find they’re on a panel with someone whose book they once criticised. My view on this? Give up reviewing once you’re a published novelist –  it’s more honest and comfortable all round and stops any conflict of interest.

There are some very good bloggers out there, but you are generally safer with a specialist review site where there’s a range of reviewers. Certain bloggers have got onto the free book gravy train and they suddenly become terrified this will dry up if they write negative reviews. I can assure them this isn’t true. Most publicists and authors are realists and know that poor reviews are an occupational hazard. If a blogger gets grief from a self-published author (and believe me, this happens a lot), then more fool them for reviewing self-published books in the first place.

I don’t attend conventions and have only been to a couple of meet-and-greets – my choice, I hasten to add. I was taught by a very grumpy old-school newspaper editor who warned about getting too close to contacts. I know other very good reviewers disagree and think I’m being over-paranoid, but it means I feel more comfortable as a reviewer.

And check the following when you find a publication you like the look of:

  • Do they review a good range of books? If they only review cosies and you prefer noir, then it won’t be much help to you.
  • Do they criticise? You don’t want wall-to-wall hatchet jobs, but you do want thoughtful and constructive reviews. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time all round.
  • Do reviewers appear to use their own names? One UK site uses initials, which makes me wonder what the reviewers have to hide.
  • Who’s reviewing for them? You don’t have to be a journalist to be a good reviewer, but it’s useful to know what a reviewer’s background is (see my comments above on authors reviewing …)
  • Do they have a stated policy – or do you suspect they only review books they like and quietly forget the duds? RTE, for example, states explicitly that they won’t review self-published books. Some reviewers admit openly that they don’t review books they don’t like – which is pretty unhelpful.

Ultimately, my best advice is to read widely. You’ll find gems that way – both books and reviewers. And when you find a reviewer you can trust, stick to their coat-tails. Good reviewers should be prized above rubies!

In search of the true Olympics

25 07 2012

With only a matter of days to go, I’m still trying to get my head around what I feel about the Olympics. I’m a former sports reporter, the only sport I won’t watch is boxing and the thought of wall-to-wall coverage of a lot of my favourite sports sounds like heaven – yet, I declined to even try for Olympics tickets. And the more I see of all the corporate bullshitting (I don’t care for Pepsi, but I want one of their teeshirts now), the more I think I made the right decision.

So it was with impeccable timing that I started reading Matt Roebuck’s The Other Olympics. I’d met Matt at a conference last month and got talking to him about the book, which he’s recently published as an ebook (you’ll find it on Amazon).

Between May and December last year, Matt visited 13 international events, including the Small States of Europe Games, the World Transplant Games, the world Police and Fire Games, the Maccabiah Games, the Pan-Armenian Games, the International Children’s Games, the Inter-University Games, the Wheelchair and Amputee Games and the Arab Games

This wasn’t done as a press junket – this was blowing life savings in a search for the true spirit of the Olympics. And Matt has some vivid stories to tell about hauling down deserted European roads, standing around in obscure towns at all hours, sitting in grand isolation in a huge stadium in Qatar, or simply trying to explain to bemused athletes and administrators just why he’s there.

I rolled my eyes at the pompous gits on the Isle of Wight refusing him accreditation for the Island Games (if he’d been covering dog shit on pavements and street lighting, which is the usual standard of news on the island, he’d have been fine). This was eclipsed, though, by the most surreal exchanges with the organisers as he attempted to visit the Maccabiah Games in Vienna. But our man is nothing if not dogged, and his chatty style gets people talking to him …

His travels took him from Sharjah to Armenia to Qatar to the US. And on the way he met some intriguing people – a lot of women’s volleyball teams, a princess and one of my all-time heroes, the American athlete Tommie Smith (remember the iconic picture from the 1968 Olympics of Smith and John Carlos doing a Black Power salute on the medals podium).

At the end of the book Roebuck comments that he found the true spirit of the Olympics – but he also unearths the questions of amateurism, flags of convenience, commercial exploitation, transport and volunteers. And he says: “Olympism is not a brand to be controlled from the top down by its members and executives. Olymism grows from the grassroots, it grows from people. Sport is an expression of a society coming together for a purpose dictated by its surroundings.”

Doesn’t that sound just a tad familiar?

I give you fair warning that the book is self-published and would have benefited from an editor’s eye to tighten up the writing and to sort out some erratic formatting. But it’s depressing that a mainstream publisher didn’t snap The Other Olympics up, as it’s a very timely book with a lot to say.

All the pieces matter

13 12 2011

I have a proud boast of never walking out of anything – I’ve sat through bizarre Dutch films about serial killers, science fiction opera and one-man shows where you want to crawl under the seat and yibble to yourself in embarrassment.

The one thing that did have me disappearing to the bar at the interval and not coming back, though, was a masterclass by John Barton.  Yes, he may be a directing legend, and one of the RSC’s big names, but forsooth, he droneth on and on and on until both the actors and the audience had lost the will to live.

The Actors’ Temple, though, know how to run a masterclass. Their rehearsals for Hamlet were thrown open to anyone who fancied attending (I went twice – right at the start of the process in August when the company were using the eventual venue, and then a week before the opening night at the end of November when they’d taken over Bernard Miles’s former pride and joy, the Mermaid, which is now a corporate conference centre). And there are no passengers – anyone turning up found themselves invited to take part in the warm-up, and were liable to have questions fired at them throughout the day. I bet the school party that popped into the Mermaid for an hour will be hooked on the Bard for life. The rehearsals very much set the agenda for what was to come – be prepared to experiment, but never to lose sight of the text.

They’re an interesting bunch, the Actors’ Temple. The organisation was set up in 2003 by soldier-turned-actor Mark Wakeling and Ellie Zeegen. Their training methods are based on those of American actor and teacher Sanford Meisner, whose ethos was “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

They’ve now decided to branch out from actor training into film-making and staging plays. And if Hamlet is anything to go by, they’ve made a damn good decision.

You couldn’t get a greater contrast between Barton, the absent-minded professor type, and his Actors’ Temple counterpart Tom Radcliffe with his close-cropped hair, beard and tattoos, and deceptively casual manner. “I’m just here to kick arse,” he says cheerfully at one point. You only realise later just how much his ’give it a go and if it doesn’t work, never mind’ approach draws from the actors – much more so than Barton’s pedantic drilling and re-drilling of a sentence or even a word. The former social worker has an unerring ability to cut to the chase. When the actors are struggling with where to pitch a scene, he gets them to summarise the bare bones of what’s going on. And his inclusive approach leads to some very lively audience discussions, ranging from who believes in god (very few of those present) to how much loyalty is owed to the text and the playwright. The latter is sparked by the decision to dispense with the sailor in the scene where Horatio receives Hamlet’s letter, and instead to use Ophelia as the audience. It makes perfect sense, given Horatio has been the one to look out for her and to intercede on her behalf with Gertrude.

The audience become part of the process, too, when the cast take over the crypt of St Andrew church in Holborn for the actual performance. They’re moved around the dark tunnels of the catacombs and witness the ghost appearing on the battlements, become onlookers at the graveyard scene and are then inches away from the action in the final fight.

Radcliffe draws intelligent performances from his actors, which shine fresh light on a text that you might feel you know inside-out. And it really is a team performance, from the intelligence and authority of Claudius (Gary Condes) and Polonius (Ron Sudhir Scala), both of whom speak the verse with great power and precision, down to the exuberant young pups as the players. There are a couple of soap opera names in the cast – James Alexandrou from Eastenders and John Pickard from Hollyoaks, who turned in a very clearly delineated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the former on edge and spoiling for a fight, the latter more of a peacemaker.

It’s a dark, edgy production which makes exemplary use of the venue, with its low ceilings, tunnels and jagged holes in the wall. Candles, which throw out a faint aroma, provide most of the light. And the costumes are simple but striking – luscious colours for Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius, a Romany feel for the players, and the garb of a holy man for the all-seeing Horatio.

It’s fascinating to see what has survived from the early days of rehearsal, and what has changed right up the wire. The players still explode into the action in a riot of colour, noise and motion, although the idea of the ‘speak the speech I pray you’ scene being done around a table with the player queen reading the tarot cards for Hamlet while the player king tries to keep order amongst his riotous troupe hasn’t survived.

Also lost is an intriguing reading of the player king and queen’s speech to the court – done the first time around in an intense, unrecognisable language. No one at the time guessed what was going on – and me and my mate Linda were sworn to secrecy by Radcliffe when we begged him to tell us what was happening (it turned out that the players had the gift of foresight and realised that all those before them would soon be dead). Apparently only one or two cast members ever worked it out, so I assume the idea was ditched on the grounds the audience wouldn’t guess either.

In the week between the Mermaid rehearsal and the production opening, Laertes’s volume has been dialled down several notches, making his grief and anger more believable. And the scene between Hamlet and Gertrude in her bed chamber, with the attendant ghost, benefits from the crypt’s darkness – the stark lighting of the Mermaid, and the positioning of the actors had veered at times towards a happy families tableau.

Fortinbras falls foul of the need to get everyone home before midnight. It means, though, that we’re spared what Linda calls the ‘fuck me, they’re all dead’ exposition at the end!

The performance is truly anchored by Mark Wakeling’s Hamlet and Ellie Zeegen’s Ophelia. Wakeling, a former Coldstream Guards officer, is often cast as military men (you might know him as Captain Tom Ryan in Primeval, or as a British army officer in The Wind That Shakes the Barley). He brings a stillness and a blinding intelligence to the role – there’s no sign of the gauche student here. Zeegen speaks the verse beautifully and presents us with a breakdown that is absolutely heart-breaking.

The production oozes clarity and honesty, and benefits from the fact this company has trained together using a technique that strips away any artifice. And the claustrophobia of the inspired setting means that this Denmark truly is a prison.

What’s the difference between a journalist and a writer?

28 06 2011

So what’s the difference between a journalist and a writer? No, this isn’t a joke with a facetious punchline. The answer at the moment appears to be Johann Hari and the way he conducts his interviews.

I checked Hari’s background. My perception of him has been someone who waltzed into a job on the nationals straight from university and has spent much of his career writing well-crafted and thoughtful think pieces. I wasn’t far wrong – according to his website, his first job was a staff reporter on the New Statesman. He’s been a columnist on the Evening Standard and is a senior contributing editor to Attitude magazine. Apparently his commitment to the Independent is writing twice-weekly for them.

And there, I think, you have it. Hari is a writer and not a journalist – and I think there’s a key difference. He doesn’t get his hands dirty on the newsgathering beat or spend his time phoning around people for quotes. Instead, his output is think pieces and lengthy profiles. Sure, he’s working to deadlines, conducting interviews and doing research for the pieces. But it’s not something where nailing the killer quote is his main goal – his “intellectual portrait” line is the giveaway.

A profile interview is a moment in time. Sure, you can include other material from outside it – quotes from friends or enemies, plus things the interviewee has said in the past. But they’re outside of that interview bubble and need to be identified as such. What’s wrong with including ‘has said’ on a quote from the subject’s book, or even mentioning the book title?

As others have said, people change their minds about things. So passing a quote off from a book they may have written some years ago as sparkly-fresh from a new interview is very dodgy. And it’s not up to Hari to make the interviewee look good. If they’re grunty, uncooperative or inarticulate, the piece needs to reflect that.

It opens, too, that can of worms on journalism training. If Hari did one of the MA courses, he hasn’t mentioned it. So where did he learn his interviewing skills and law from? And it’s probably the safest bet in the universe that he can’t do shorthand.

I have a vested interest in flying the flag for journalism courses. And of course there are good journalists out there who haven’t been on a pre-entry or degree course. But students gain a hell of a lot of skills from three years on a degree course or an intensive year on an MA or PGDIP. They’re taught how to interview, they learn to write news stories, features and think pieces, they have to pass law exams – and they learn about journalism ethics.

Hari’s blithe admission – and inability to see he’s doing anything wrong – makes it difficult for those of us training young journalists. If I’d had a quid for every time I’ve told a student that no, you can’t lift quotes from elsewhere and that you should obtain them yourself, I’d be sunning myself someone rather more exotic than Portsmouth.

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that Hari has been behaving unethically or dishonestly. And I’m not sure it’s either churnalism and plagiarism. In a nutshell, it’s very poor practice – and absolutely no defence to say that others do it as well. And Hari might want to look to his interview skills if he’s not happy with the standard of quotes he’s obtaining in interviews.

The BBC’s despicable balancing act

29 12 2010

We’ve all done it as journalists . . . Deadline’s approaching and we’re desperate for a balancing quote, so we reach for the phone and call for rent-a-quote. These are the sort of folk who’d sell their grandmother for a brief mention in the Gornal Grunt, or a 30-second sound-bite on Radio Witless.

You’d hope, though, that the person interviewed would have some valid input into the story and some vague relevance to it. Not that that sort of thing obviously bothers the BBC.

Last night’s TV news carried the story about Elton John and David Furnish adopting a child. It pretty much washed over me, as I have almost zero interest in celebrities’ private lives – until Stephen Green was trotted out as the ‘balancing’ quote.

For those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with this objectionable character, I’ll let you go and Google him on the grounds I don’t want to give him and his thoroughy unpleasant organisation any more hits than necessary. Suffice it to say, he’s a fundamentalist Christian whose views have included the execution of gays and also comparing them to mass murderers.

I don’t generally complain to media organisations, having seen too many of the green ink brigade myself from the other side. But in this case I made an exception, as the whole thing smacked very heavily of BBC homophobia. And this is the organisation that recently commissioned a study of how GLBT people are represented on its programmes. Answer: Badly. And it’s also the organisation that invited a religious leader who has turned a blind eye to child abuse and who has compared atheists and humanists to Nazis to deliver its Christmas message.

My first thought with the Elton John story was whether the BBC would have interviewed someone espousing similar views but transferred to race? And secondly, did the story need balance? I don’t recall the other side of the coin being sought when David Miliband and his wife adopted children.

The BBC might want to look again at its policies on bias and objectivity on the grounds that this is the sort of ‘balance’ any media outlet certainly doesn’t need.

The most exclusive book launch ever

27 10 2010

Long ago and far away, one of the high spots of my year used to be the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. I’d skulk around the Town Hall towards the end of the summer, waiting for the brochure to be published. I’d then mortgage next door’s first-born to buy tickets. It wasn’t unusual for me to turn up at a dozen events.

Ironically, my ticket-buying decreased exponentially as my salary rose. An endless stream of politicians and celebrities seemed to outnumber the writers and actors we’d seen in the past. And I baulked at paying ten or 12 quid for 50 minutes of someone mentioning their book every 30 seconds. The final straw was the splicing together of a bloke who’d written a book on a plague in 19th century Hong Kong with some totally irrelevant woman from a drug company. And yes, guess who was sponsoring the event. Welcome to the corporate world of 21st century literary gatherings…

Last year I didn’t go to anything. This year I bought two tickets – and what good ‘uns they both were. Veteran TV comedy writers Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks (Birds of a Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart, The New Statesman) were first up and proved to be genial and chatty company as they talked about their move from television writing to the stage.

The high spot, though – and here I declare an interest for a very dear friend– was Chris Stevens and Fenella Fielding, one of the stars of my youth. Chris’s new book, Born Brilliant, was out the following day. It’s a biography of comedian Kenneth Williams, and Chris had access to hitherto unpublished papers.

Most people remember Fenella from the Carry On films (particularly Carry On Screaming and that classic line “Do you mind if I smoke?” Cue smoke rising from the settee). And yes, she still has that glorious, husky voice and gorgeously striking looks.

They proved to be a feisty double act, who dealt with great panache with some fairly hostile questions from the floor. Clearly some people don’t like to hear that their heroes might have had feet of clay . . .

The book signing afterwards proved to be good value. Fenella is clearly remembered fondly by fans, who queued up to bring her little gifts and to get scrapbooks of cuttings autographed.

Afterwards, the three of us retreated across the road for a pizza where we were royally entertained by Fenella’s no-nonsense stories and dry wit. As Chris said, it was the most exclusive and best book launch ever . . .

Buy the book. It’s a riveting read.

I am now a number . . .

16 10 2010

Quote of the week from one of my third years while we were discussing bad language and blithering idiots (amazing what topics we cover in Specialist Journalism): “On a scale of one to Tim Westwood, how big a c**t is s/he?”

And I am now officially no. 1457. Some of you might remember than I took a turn on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square last year as part of Antony Gormley’s One and Other project. The book’s out now, complete with pictures of all the participants. And I was delighted to see they’ve done a feature on Pauline Godfrey. I met her the following morning, just before she went up on the plinth, resplendent in the most gorgeous red polka-dot dress, to declare a republic!

More coming soon on the most exclusive book launch ever . . .