Booktalk


It’s that time of year again.

Halloween is not such a big deal here in Europe as it is in the States, but there is an interesting crossover. The day after October 31st is The Day of the Dead, celebrated in many cultures with a visit to the graveyard, to pay homage to our ancestors. People picnic in cemeteries, light candles and sing songs, including the dearly departed in the party.

Spooky stories and chills up the spine are on my mind.

Last night, Herr Husband and I watched Dressed To Kill, directed by Brian de Palma, starring Angie Dickinson and Michael Caine. Entertaining, definitely. Dated, absolutely. Scary, not in the slightest.

This weekend, I ticked two psychological thrillers off my TBR list, in which the protagonists are not monsters, but perfectly ‘normal’ high-achievers with an obsession. Both very scary.

A brilliant friend introduced me to the concept of All Hallows Read, via the fabulous Neil Gaiman. On Oct 31, we’ll be at our local bookshop introducing stories instead of sweeties and setting light to imaginations. The team pooled our scariest favourites and some have haunted me for days.

When I was little, a book scared me so much I asked my mother to get rid of it. She agreed, concerned at my extreme tearful reaction. Convinced it was still in the house, I searched everywhere until I found it in the attic. I smuggled it out of the house and threw it on the bonfire.

While I recall what disturbed me so deeply, I can’t remember the title. Since then, I prefer to read books that thrill and chill but just as I’d rather not see certain images on screen, I’d prefer not to admit certain concepts to my head.

My favourite spooky stories leave gaps – enough for you to get scared, but not scarred. A few examples:

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, by HP Lovecraft

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

What are yours?

 

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Utrecht 2007

“Howzit? You got here, then?”

“Yes, Joop. I got here. At last.”

“Uh oh. Delays?”

“Right now I’m in a taxi from the airport. Not only did we leave Jo’burg three hours late, but I missed the transfer in Frankfurt and now we’ve just circled Schiphol for forty-five minutes, waiting for a slot.”

Only an asshole like Joop would think it a good idea to whistle into a cell phone.

“Joop, listen. I need to take a shower and eat something. After that, I want to crash.”

“Shit, man. That’s all you want to do? Friday night is jol night, but if you’re creamed…?”

Creamed? Where the hell had this guy learnt his English?

“There’s just one other thing I need.”

“No sweat. An SMS is on its way with the number of that agency I mentioned. It’s not cheap but you can feel the quality.”

“I appreciate that. Meet me in the foyer at ten on Monday, OK?”

“Don’t wanna do anything tomorrow?”

“I got plans, Joop.”

“See you Monday then. Sweet dreams.”

Asshole.

He watched the scenery, such as it was. Grey, flat and bleak, with the occasional windmill to make sure you were paying attention. The hotel was a pleasant surprise. The first of the day. Street noise left behind, he glanced up at what looked like some kind of institution in its own grounds. Classy and quiet. His kind of place.

Goede avond en onthaal. Welcome to Utrecht, Sir. We have good news for you. You have an upgrade today, to one of our Empire Suites. Please follow the porter.”

A second pleasant surprise. Plenty of space, working area, two TVs, and most importantly, a vast bed. He palmed the kid a coin, who left him to explore the room in peace. Throwing off his coat, he sat on the bed. Heavy linen, an excess of pillows and a firm mattress, which would be seeing some action in the next few hours, if Joop wasn’t exaggerating about that agency. The bathroom was massive, well-furnished with towels and little bottles of wife-pleasing potions. He made a mental note to throw some into his case. And a wall of mirrors behind the bath. Better and better. His mood started to lift. There was a message on the flat screen at the foot of the bed.

Mr van der Veld

Welcome to Grand Hotel Karel V

We hope you enjoy your stay.

Flicking to Bloomberg, he started to undress, while checking the screen for any significant currency movements. As he kicked off his shoes, he noticed the ice bucket and chilled Krug Grande Cuvée. There was a card.

With compliments of D’Arcy Roth.

That explained the upgrade. Nice touch. Unnecessary, as there was no-one else in the running, but it certainly put their potential client in the right frame of mind. So, a shower, a glass of Krug, order room service and put a call through to this agency. All needs met.

As he unzipped his case to find his toiletries bag, he heard a discreet knock at the door. He frowned. Unexpected visitors, including hotel employees who wanted to ‘turn down’ his bed, were not welcome. He pulled open the door and his frown lifted. The neat grey suit, official clipboard and pulled-back sleek blonde hair told him she was a hotel employee. The pale skin, drawn over fine bones and high forehead, grey-blue eyes and cherub lips told him she was more than welcome. He checked the name badge. Annelise Visser.

“Good evening, Mr van der Veld. My name is Frau Visser and I …”

“Good evening, Annelise. Nice to meet you.” He offered his hand. A momentary flush before she recovered herself to shake it. He was well aware that conventions in the Netherlands dictate that one should use surnames in formal situations. He didn’t give a shit.

“I am the Senior Hospitality Director, sir. I am here to check that your suite is satisfactory.”

“The suite seems fine, Annelise, but I do have one concern.”

The smooth dome of her forehead contracted.

“A concern? What would that be, sir?”

“The champagne.” He pushed back the door and indicated the ice bucket. “Can I be sure this is top quality? You see, I’m used to drinking the best.”

“Sir, the champagne is a Krug Grande Cuvée, and was specifically selected by your company …” a glance at her clipboard. “D’Arcy Roth.”

“They are not yet my company, Annelise. They want me as their client. But if you’ll consent to taste the champagne with me, I guess we can agree that the suite is satisfactory.”

A proper blush now. He loved a blush on a blonde. Pink cheeks, pale skin reddened with warmth. He wanted to turn her over, pull down those panties and spank her right there. Raise some heat in those cheeks.

“Sir, I thank you, but I am on duty right now. Drinking alcohol would be inappropriate.”

“This is the hotel that ‘exceeds your expectations’, right?”

“Yes, but …” She laughed. “OK, I will taste the champagne. But then I am afraid I must go. I have to consider the needs of other guests.”

He didn’t reply, but gestured to the sofa. She sat, knees together, the grey skirt riding up slightly. The lamp behind her created a halo effect. An angel. He smiled as he twisted the cork. She was going nowhere. As the cork popped, he caught the overflow in a flute, with a loaded glance at her to see if she picked up on the image. She returned his smile, politely. He slid beside her and handed her a glass. Before he could propose a toast, she set her glass on the table.

“I’m sorry, sir. Champagne always gives me the hiccups. Would you mind if I take some water? I can get it.”

He placed a hand on her knee. “Sit still. You’re my guest.”

She jumped at the touch of his hand. And he still hadn’t made skin contact, as she wore pantyhose. He hated pantyhose.

In the mini-bar, there was an array of different waters. He grabbed a bottle of Evian and showed it to her. She nodded. Returning to his seat, he placed the water in front of her and raised his flute.

“To a very pleasant stay in Utrecht.”

She tipped her glass to his and looked at him. “To a pleasant stay in Utrecht.” She sipped at the fizz and closed her eyes. “Mmm. I don’t wish to prejudice your opinion, but in my view, that’s lovely.”

Her voice was soft, intimate and breathy. He wanted to hear her say those words again. Mmm, that’s lovely. Preferably as she drew her nails down his back. He hadn’t even registered the taste, but his glass was two-thirds empty.

“I don’t know, Annelise, the jury’s still out. Maybe the second glass will clinch it.” He refilled his and she didn’t stop him replacing the tiny sip she had taken. A good sign.

“Now, what time do you finish tonight, Annelise?” His tongue felt thick and his speech sounded slow.

She swallowed some water and caught a stray droplet with the tip of her tongue. Shit, he wasn’t sure if he could wait till later.

She avoided the question. “Why are you in Utrecht, Mr van der Veld? Is it just business, or pleasure?”

He took another slug and leaned towards her. He felt hot, horny and even a little drunk.

“Until five minutes ago, strictly business. But now, I’m not so sore.”

That struck him as funny, because he wasn’t sore at all. But he was as sure as he’d ever be. He started to laugh, but her eyes were looking into his, with intent. Was it too soon to …?

She smiled and reached for the bottle, refilling both glasses. Her voice was low, full of suggestion. He watched her lips.

“Have I satisfied your concerns regarding the champagne, sir?”

That was flirting. No doubt at all. His body felt warm and heavy and soft, with the exception of his cock, which hardened as she placed her hand on his thigh. She lifted the flute to his lips.

“Satisfy my champagne yet.” His lips buzzed and seemed to be slurring. It didn’t bother him. He felt euphoric, completely relaxed. This was turning out to be quite a hotel. Who needed an agency when room service was laid on? She dropped her gaze to his crotch and up to his eyes. Pupils dilated. She wanted him.

“I guess you wanted to freshen up before I arrived?”

He nodded, and managed to mumble the word, “Shower.”

“How about I run you a bath? More fun.”

No mistaking that. She moved to the wardrobe and opened the door. He tried to tell her the bathroom was behind the other door, but she’d already found it. He laughed again. You’d think the staff … He reached for his glass, barely able to lift it to his lips. His arms were leaden as hell and he felt fantastic. No idea if he’d be able to perform.

 

Here she comes. Pulling him to his feet, helping him undress, just like a nurse, what with the gloves and all. Easing him into the bath. Beautiful; soft hands, warm water. He sinks up to his chin, smiling. He can’t recall feeling better in his life.

She’s smiling too. And singing. He recognises the tune and tries to join in. He wants to touch her face but he can’t move. He’s happy, stroked and caressed by this beautiful woman.

The patterns are hypnotic. Crimson clouds twisting and swirling in the water. He watched as clear water loses the battle, dominated by red. She moves to the other side and turns his wrist, as if she’s trying to see what he has hidden in his hand. It’s funny and it makes him laugh. She’s not laughing. Her face is sharp with concentration as she draws the razor blade along his vein, from wrist to elbow. More red joins the fray, and the clear water doesn’t stand a chance. Now she smiles and puts the blade in his right hand. He can’t hold it and it falls into the redness. He watches it fall, helpless. He heaves his head up to look at her reflection in the mirror and attempts a smile.

It’s not working. He looks like an old dog with wind.

 

Behind Closed Doors is the first in The Beatrice Stubbs Series.

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(Yes, I usually only post once a fortnight. But yesterday was special.)

This piece comes about thanks to Helena Halme, an author friend who is trilingual and talented in every one of them.

Helena nudged me with a discovery – A Book and a Bottle

This is so perfect for your Beatrice Stubbs series!

I investigated. She was right. This initiative by Corney & Barrow with Damian Barr pair the right wine(s) with the perfect book.

Well, hello! Here are three reasons why I love the concept.

  • I have done a great deal of wine research and not just for personal consumption. Wine retailers, viniculturists and critics loaned me their expertise to ensure my wine references are accurate and pertinent.
  • Beatrice loves her food and wine, her neighbour is a wine merchant and one of the books is all about wine crime.
  • Our review site – Bookmuse – always suggests Ideal Accompaniments (food, drink, audio, ambience) along with our weekly book reviews.

So here are six books I can recommend with the perfect bottle to enhance your reading experience. Bottoms up!


Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat

Spirit of Lost Angels traces the journey of a bone angel talisman passed down through generations of women of L’Auberge des Anges. Amidst the tumult of revolutionary France, it is a testament to the courage of women facing tragedy, betrayal and insanity.

Best bottle: Fleurie, Domaine Lathuiliere Gravallon, Grand-Pré, 2015. Seasoned yet fresh, with some serious history.


Crimson Shore by Gillian E. Hamer

A half-naked woman dead in a ditch. A disappearing pathologist. A teenager run off the road. For a peaceful island, Anglesey is experiencing abnormal levels of crime. What’s the connection?

Best bottleRex Mundi Cuvée Cathare 2016 Full-bodied and rich, this is the Rolls-Royce experience and not for the faint-hearted.

 


Ghost Town by Catriona Troth

1981. Coventry, city of Two Tone and Ska, is riven with battles between skinheads and young Asians. They must take a stand. A stand that will cost lives.

Best bottle: A green wine from Portugal echoes human tensions but reminds us of communal celebration. Vinhos de Moncao Cepa Velha Vinho Verde Branco 2012.


The Rise of Zenobia by JD Smith

My name is Zabdas: once a slave; now a warrior, grandfather and servant. I call Syria home. I shall tell you the story of my Zenobia: Warrior Queen of Palmyra, Protector of the East, Conqueror of Desert Lands …

Best bottle: Muga Rosado 2016. It may look innocent, but do not underestimate something delicate that punches above its weight.


The Englishman by Helena Halme

Nordic Noir meets Scandinavian romance in this stylish 1980s love story.

Best bottle: Prosecco Romeo & Juliet. The effervescence of romance is light and inspiring.


And finally, one of my own.

Tread Softly by JJ Marsh.

“You don’t attract trouble. You go looking for it.” Beatrice is in the Basque Country and up to her neck in trouble and Rioja.

Best bottle: Beronia Blanco Viura 2015. A white Rioja. Once discovered, never forgotten.

 


 

Enjoy your wine/book adventuring and do come back with your own recommendations. Books plus bottles = bliss.

Chin, chin!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Today’s post comes as a result of an urgent request.

A reader Tweeted this:

With pen and pencil I sat down to suggest a few delights but found the list soon out of control. How to choose just six brilliant writers from all the wonders out there?

This particular reader discovered my books through the Smart Women promotion, thanks to other authors she enjoyed. I’ve never met her but I know she’s a jewellery designer and loves beautiful things, she’s an eclectic reader and appreciates well-wrought prose. Finally, when she finds an author she likes, she devours all their work.

So, here are six authors with a body of work to their name, all of whom I can personally recommend. I have also added an example of their writing to start the curious reader on a wonderful journey of words.

Jim Williams

A Renaissance man who apparently turns his hand to all kinds of genres with ease. His prose is witty, erudite and entertaining, sometimes subverting the style with a sly wink. A well-read man who writes well-worth reading books. Highly addictive.

His murder-mystery boxset is a great place to start.

 

Amanda Hodgkinson

A novelist with a poet’s soul, this author makes her words dance like butterflies. Her books are unconnected apart from the beauty of her prose, so start where you like, then relish her short story in the Grand Central collection.

Try 22 Britannia Road or Spilt Milk and you’ll be hypnotised.

Piers Alexander

If surround-sensory, rambunctious historical fiction is your thing, read this man. The Bitter Trade and Scatterwood would not be my traditional fare, but this is a writer who draws you into its world like Süskind’s Perfume.

You cannot stop and don’t want to.

Make your first encounter with Calumny Spinks in The Bitter Trade.

Louise O’Neill

Hardly a hidden gem. Louise is sparkling already, winning YA prizes, rave reviews and readers across the spectrum. Her voice is cool, sharp and simmering with anger against injustice, while remaining articulate and human.

All her work is worth reading but if you liked The Handmaid’s Tale, read Only Ever Yours.

Barbara Scott-Emmett

A writer so versatile and talented, you could spend months engrossed in her work. Crime, erotica, short stories and literary fiction, she messes with your mind in the best kind of way. If you like Euro Crime, get Don’t Look Down for Christmas.

Delirium: the Rimbaud Delusion is an absinthe dream.

 

Jane Davis

A recommendation for all those who don’t know her work, this is a writer with such delicacy of touch when exploring sensitive topics. I love all her books and give them as presents, especially for their glorious covers.

Pick up any one of them and you’ll fall in love, but A Funeral for an Owl is my No.1.

And if you’re still hungry for more, check out the selection over at Bookmuse. We publish two or three new reviews every Wednesday and even recommend the perfect food, drink and audio accompaniments.

Glass of wine, anyone?

 

A neat way to tip an author?

After spending a few enjoyable hours in a restaurant, we pay our bill and give a little thank-you via a tip. For the waiting staff, this can be as financially valuable and personally gratifying as the wage packet.

Authors love it when you buy their books. Of course they do! It pays the bills and feeds the dogs and gives them time to write more books. But a review lights a flame in an author’s heart.

You got it? We connected! We understand each other!

It makes an author’s day a little brighter.

For more than one reason.

Reason One: People often write to me via email or social media to let me know how much they like The Beatrice Stubbs Series. Here’s one from last week:

Binge reading! JJ Marsh/Beatrice Stubbs are FANTASTIC. They are almost impossible to put down. I started Book 1 on August 2 (thanks to Kindle) and am now half way through Book 6. They are the perfect antidote to the excessive heat – just lie on the sofa and read, read, read!!

It’s heartwarming to hear such a response. Authors love to receive such praise. Thank you so much!

Reason Two: Putting your thoughts in public – eg, Amazon, iBooks, etc – allows other people to discover the books and potentially enjoy them as much as you do. How many word-of-mouth recommendations have you enjoyed? I’ve discovered true gems thanks to tips from friends.

Spread the word. Pay it forward.

Reason Three: The more reviews a book or boxset gets, the more doors open. Take a look at this post by indiesunlimited to get a bit more background. Real live people with personal opinions make all the difference to writers. Your comments support the author with no cost other than a few moments of time.

Reason Four: If you’ve never written a review before, it’s not difficult. You can go the whole hog and do an in-depth analysis or just jot down a couple of lines about why you liked it. You might like this piece by Gillian Hamer, a seasoned reviewer, on how to avoid spoilers and focus on the potential reader.

http://amzn.to/1MxQcYy

Reviewers and recommenders are more valuable to authors than you can imagine.

So on behalf of all of us – Thank You!

 

A friend pointed me to a piece in The Guardian this week, alerting me to the fact my own creation, Beatrice Stubbs, was recommended in the comments. I was pleased to be mentioned and fascinated by the author’s choices.

Drawn like a magnet to lists, I started making one of my own. In doing so, it became clear that the kind of female crime fighter I prefer is a rounded, flawed human being whose greatest asset is her mind.

From The Guardian’s Top Ten, Smilla Jaspersen would have made my list too, as would Claire DeWitt, but here are ten more brilliant women battling injustice, roughly in order of when I discovered them.

Isabel Dalhousie by Alexander McCall Smith

His other heroine, Precious Ramotswe, is more popular, but I return to Isabel Dalhousie again and again.

The setting of Edinburgh, a eclectic collection of endearing characters, our heroine’s sharp self-awareness and the philosophical questioning of moral choices are exactly what I want to read.

Plus she’s an older woman, embracing the ageing process with good grace. No kick-boxing here.

 

Blanche White by Barbara Neely

An African-American maid/housekeeper who has a nose for mysteries, this character is also a social and political commentator on the unjust world in which she lives.

Her strength and intelligence reflect the author’s, a multi-talented mould-breaker who remains an inspiration. This little interview says it all. Wonderful precursor to The Help with layers of analysis couched in tales of mystery.

Harriet Vane by DL Sayers

I was introduced to Harriet by my Triskele colleague, Catriona Troth. ‘Your writing reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers’, she said. On hearing I’d not read any Sayers, she recommended Gaudy Night, and I’ve never looked back. There is something about The Golden Age of Crime I cannot resist. Plus Sayers, Marsh and Tey characters inhabit a world of steam trains and bicycles without a smartphone to be seen.

Lisbeth Salander by Stieg Larsson

Not a fan of excessive violence or torture in crime fiction, I avoided Larsson’s work for a long time. But when I did finally read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, I found his depiction of this unconventional personality and mind truly appealing. This character-driven element of his work led me to read more, mostly because of this girl.

Temperance Brennan by Kathy Reichs

Someone gave me a huge box of crime hardbacks as she was leaving the country. Most of them were so clichéd and graphic I gave up on them, with the exception of Val McDermid and Kathy Reichs. The latter introduced me to Tempe. She’s a forensic anthropologist, bilingual and professionally smart if not so much in her personal life. The author wears her expertise lightly, enabling her creation to be expert, flawed and politically astute. She’s also now the subject of a TV series called Bones.

Clarice Starling, by Thomas Harris

Harris is most famous for his unforgettable villain, Hannibal Lecter. But Clarice is a brilliant psychological portrait of a hard-working, vulnerable woman whose determination and persistence enable her to hunt down her man from the smallest of clues. She has a brain and uses all of it.

Ellen Kelly by Sheila Bugler

Sheila is a friend and colleague, whose work I admire enormously.

Like McCall Smith, her setting (South London) is vital, but it’s the damaged, struggling, personable character of Kelly that draws you into the story.

She’s a real woman with a high-pressure job, two kids, and more than one tragedy in her past. After three books, I feel I know this woman and care what happens next.

Start with Hunting Shadows, the first in the series.

 

Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich

Crime is rarely funny, but there is a place for dark, wry humour and Evanovich has it in spades. Dry, sassy, feisty and fierce, Stephanie is forced by financial circumstances into the risky profession of apprehension, or bounty hunting. The wit is sharp, the observations acute, the character and her relationships develop over the series. Plum ages well, like a good tequila.

Cassandra Reilly by Barbara Wilson.

Humour is another feature of this clever translator who odd-jobs as a private investigator is her wise-cracking wit and roving eye. Cassandra sticks in my mind as a powerful creation and a rare lesbian heroine in the genre. Like several other authors on this list, Wilson makes the most of her locations, which range from Barcelona to Venice to Transylvania. She really should be better known.

 

This is a personal list but I’d be keen to hear about other female sleuths I’ve not yet met. Any other smart, unconventional, thought-provoking recommendations warmly welcomed. Holidays are all about discovery.

 

 

I want to go to (back to) Portugal.

After spending four happy years living in the country, whenever I return my joy in the place and the people is undiminished.

To remind myself of its many wonders, I like to immerse myself in books about the place.

If you’re a Lusophile or willing to be converted, here are five portals to Portugal.

Sea of Straw

By Julia Sutton

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sea-Straw-Julia-Sutton-x/dp/099328633X

This is a love story between two people and one country.

Insights on the Salazar regime in such recent history come as a shock, yet the reader basks in the sensory, detailed settings, the gradual growth of our characters and an awareness of being given a Technicolor vision of a time, a place and a human bond.

 

Night Train to Lisbon

By Pascal Mercier

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Night-Train-Lisbon-Pascal-Mercier/dp/1843547139In Night Train, a chance meeting with a Portuguese woman on a bridge provokes Gregorius, a Swiss teacher of Classics, to follow his curiosity.

It leads him to a book, ‘Um Ourives das Palavras’ (A Goldsmith of Words), written by Amadeu de Prado.

In an uncharacteristic act of spontaneity, Gregorius walks away from his life and boards a night train to Lisbon, just to discover more about the author.

A treat for the mind. One of the best books I have read in a long time.‘ Isabel Allende.

 

 

 

The Book of Disquiet

By Fernando Pessoa

To understand the adventurous spirit balanced by introspective nature of the Portuguese, you have to read Pessoa.

His philosophical notes and nuances are by turn wry and melancholy, much like listening to a fadista. Beautiful, painful and the definition of saudades.

“the sort of book one makes friends with and cannot bear to be parted with”

 

 

 

 

The High Mountains of Portugal

By Yann Martel

“Lost in Portugal.
Lost to grief.
With nothing but a chimpanzee.

As ever, Yann Martel proves unpredictable in this odd combination of experiences, both human and animal.

Three short stories linked by theme and metaphor draw the reader into considering grief, meaning, history and the significance of communication.

 

 

 

Bad Apples

By JJ Marsh

I know, it’s one of mine. But this book represents thanks, beijinhos and abraços to Portugal. It’s crime, of the character-driven kind, and all about what makes this country and culture so exceptional. It also has francesinhas. Oh yes. Come to Portugal – you won’t forget it.

“Like the great wines that appear in its pages I suspect this gem of a series will only improve with age.”

 

 

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