The Appeal: A #secondthoughts book review

The Archers – ‘an everyday tale of country folk’ – first hit the radio waves on the 1st of January, 1951 (displacing Dick Barton – don’t get me started…about the only thing the two shows have in common is iconic theme tunes). In part, the show was developed as a way of getting Government information on best practice in farming out to the nation, but it was also important that the programme be entertaining. In both ambitions the show has been successful, as evidenced by the fact that the Archers is still going 60 years later, having racked up more than 19,500 episodes. The Archers is set in farming country: although not everyone in the show is a farmer, many of the characters are, and many more are dependent on the farms that surround the fictional village of Ambridge.

Why do I mention this? Well, I’ve just been reading ‘The Appeal’ by Janice Hallett, and the community at the heart of the book is reminiscent of the Archers. Here though, the focus is an amateur dramatics group although, as with the Archers, there is a distinct social hierarchy. The founders of the Fairway Players are labelled as the alpha family and social importance is defined by closeness to this family. They are very much in control of the group, and whilst there are open rehearsals for every play (essentially selected by the founders), it is a foregone conclusion that the matriarch of the alpha family will be the leading lady.

The cover states that there is one murder and 15 suspects, and invites the reader to work out whodunit. So far so good. The conceit here is that a QC* has instructed two of his pupils** to review documentation in preparation for an appeal on behalf of his client. He’s convinced his client is innocent (naturally), but wants fresh eyes to see if they can see what he can, or whether he’s seeing things that he wants to… Hence, the book unfolds as a series of recovered emails and text messages from some, but not all, of the people at the heart of the events. It is punctuated by WhatsApp conversations between the two pupils, and later on the QC joins in too. (This is played for comic effect with the obviously otherwise very capable QC struggling with the tech, and frequently having to dictate to his secretary what he wants to message to his pupils).

*For those unfamiliar with the British legal system, a QC = Queen’s Council, a senior lawyer, with certain privileges in a Court of Law. That’s the short version, anyway.

**Lawyer speak for a person who is in the last stage of qualifying to become a barrister.

This, then, in many ways, is an update on the classic Dorothy L. Sayers book ‘The Documents in the case’ – although this is not one that I’ve read, so I can’t draw any further comparisons, at the moment.

The Appeal has had some good PR and I freely admit that I picked it up based on the advertising – and the strap-line; the whole ‘story told through emails’ thing passed me by though.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their mysteries. Is it perfect? No. It’s a brilliant subversion of the form, but there are some niggles. The emails provided are from a relatively small pool of the characters – by no means are the full 15 suspects represented. That’s not necessarily a problem but there are some notable absences, and my feeling is this is simply to hide some of the characters from our view. It’s been suggested that Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction have become outdated; this may to some extent be true, even whilst these rules underpin pretty much all of the Golden Age Detective books. Still, the fundamental ethos here is playing fair with the reader, and I’m not sure that is really the case here – I could make some good guesses about the events, as they unfolded, but I felt that there was some information missing, not just that I’d been diverted away from what I needed to know.

There are very few sympathetic characters in the book, and arguably even the victim is not entirely likeable, although we don’t really get a good feel for them. When it came to the culprits, I would have been happy enough for most of the cast to go to jail…

In summary, if you’re looking for a sweet little old lady solving a crime in a country house, you will be disappointed. But if you’d like to something that’s a bit different, then this is definitely the book for you. The detective(s) are not the focus here, but rather a community of, perhaps not quite everyday country folk, but you might recognise some of your neighbours…and the dark underbelly is very much brought out into the light…

© 2022, David Jesson


#SecondThoughts: How to dress your characters

I’m worried that title gives you the wrong idea – I’m really not sitting down with paper cut-outs of my characters and playing dress up. Really, I’m not. Nor am I someone who’s overly focussed on clothes or fashion. Yet I find myself noting details of what people are wearing as I do my people watching.

And that got me to thinking…. presuming you describe your characters, does that include what they’re wearing?

When I’m noting clothing details, it’s about getting a picture of who the person might be. Are the clothes they’re wearing good quality or fast fashion? If branded, are they stylish or trendy? If casually dressed, is it business casual or just fell out of bed casual? Are they brazenly doing the walk of shame in last night’s party gear in the local coffee shop? And what could any of those choices tell me about who they are?

Let’s take me as an example. If a writer were to be observing me, what might they note? Well, that I have a clear preference for wearing black – I even wear it for weddings. What might that say about me? That I like to be able to throw on any item from my wardrobe and not worry about whether they match one another? That I believe in a capsule wardrobe and nothing is more capsule than black? That I wear black because I believe it’s slimming? That I wear black because it suits my colouring? That I’m a goth at heart? Clearly, the fact that I always wear black doesn’t tell the story by itself, but a writer could use that fact, along with other descriptive details, to create a picture. BTW, I wear black for all the reasons above, except I’m no goth 😉

What a person chooses to wear can tell us a tale. When I worked in advertising, a male colleague bemoaned the fact that he was expected to wear a suit, and that it was easier and cheaper for women in the same role to shop for a suitable wardrobe, as they could wear “whatever they liked”. While it is true that as an entry point into a working wardrobe, a suit can prove to be an expensive option, those women who also selected the suit option for their working wardrobe did so because they’d done the numbers and worked out they’d spend less on their working wardrobe in the long run. So, the choice could be a pragmatic one, but it could also be giving a message about who you are – or who you want to be seen as.

That advertising colleague chose to wear the traditional suit, shirt and tie combination. He was ambitious, but he also wanted to fit in and be accepted rather than rock the boat. Contrast that with a sales colleague who, while working in the hugely traditional print business, chose to wear beautifully cut black suits, occasionally with a shirt and tie, but more usually with a round-neck T-shirt, a polo neck, or a shirt with a Nehru collar. He had an Italian name and was half German, so maximising that fact via his clothing choices meant he remained instantly memorable – and it worked to his advantage.

How you chose to “dress” your characters can tell your readers something about your character’s personality, how they perceive themselves, even how they seek to portray themselves. It’s a useful tool and one you can have fun with – especially when you want to play against type.

Do you use clothing as a shorthand for telling your reader about your characters? What tips do you have for doing it effectively?

© Debra Carey, 2022

#Readers Resources: Read Across the UK – Part 3

Reading David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue had me fall back in love with our capital city again, so I’m going to focus on London for Part 3 of Read Across the UK.

A housing estate somewhere in London
Hello Mum is a short story from Booker prize-winning author Bernadine Evaristo and was the first work I read by Evaristo. A real gut-punch, written in the form of a letter from a 14 year old boy to his Mum. In actuality, it’s a series of conversational monologues from a boy to his mother explaining how it was he died outside a fish & chip shop at this tender age. The line that caught me was “I wanted you to know I hadn’t been mixed up in badness for a long time – just for twenty-five minutes of my fourteen years of life.” This is a quick and emotional read about London estate life and gang culture, and well worth everyone’s time at under 100 pages.

Mr Loverman is my second offering from Bernadine Evaristo on this list, but both these two books are marvellous and so London that I couldn’t not include them. Barry is an Antiguan immigrant living in Hackney with his highly religious wife Carmel. Barry is quite the dandy, in the way that only Caribbean men can be, and we get to see life in Hackney through his eyes and that of the love of his life – his best friend Morris. Barry brings the colour of Antigua to grey London town with his sharp tailored suits and natty hats. He is a traditional old fashioned Caribbean man with all the stereotypical bits, both good and bad, but still a character to adore. If you walk down Ridley Road today, you’ll see it’s still chock full of characters who’d give Barry a run for his money.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows from Balli Kaur Jaswal nicely combines a murder mystery with the lives of widows in the West London area of Southall. The widows are all illiterate, but oh my can they tell stories. This tale provides us a glimpse into the unenlightened side of a Sikh community. Famously one which revolves around temple and service, it is nevertheless still extremely patriarchal. The suffocating nature of life in some of our capital city’s ethnic communities is what comes through most strongly here.

Crystal Palace, SE19
Ordinary People from Diana Evans was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019 – yet what I enjoyed most when reading it related to the area in which it is based. “They lived near the park, where the transmitting tower loomed up towards the heavens like a lesser Eiffel, stern and metallic by day, red and lit up by night, overlooking the surrounding London boroughs and the home counties beyond, and harbouring in the green land at its feet the remains of the former glass kingdom” Crystal Palace, where the underground doesn’t go and you have to catch a train, is almost suburbia, not not quite. It’s more ethnic and interesting than proper suburbia “…. they had moved to the south for its creative energy and the charisma of its poverty” as befits being the chosen home of one of the central couples whose roots are in Jamaica and Nigeria. In truth, this book is a relatively ordinary story of relationships struggling after becoming parents, but the bits about Crystal Palace shine.

Highgate, N6
Her Fearful Symmetry from Audrey Niffenegger is yet another book where I found the location to be the winner. A ghost story where London’s Highgate Cemetery plays such a prominent part that it’s almost a character in itself. Female twins, a neighbour with OCD, and the lover of the dead woman (one half of another set of female twins), himself a tour guide at the Cemetery, are the other characters. This story is full of the type of gothic creepiness you’d not expect to find in a contemporary novel – and so is much like the iconic cemetery. Immediately I finished this, I added Highgate Cemetery to my wish list for a visit with my camera.

Although none of the last three were highly rated by me, they were all enjoyable reads with a real sense of place.

For my final two, I’m going back to London in Tudor times…

City of London
Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light – the famous Thomas Cromwell trilogy from Hilary Mantel gave us all a view not only of the machinations of Henry VIII’s court, but also of London at the time. Although the novels roamed far and wide across the country, both the court and Cromwell himself were largely based in London. Mantel’s descriptions brought much of the city to life for me, and I found myself absolutely fascinated by – in particular – Cromwell’s house at Austin Friars. I surely don’t need to add more about this marvellous trilogy, suffice it to say they’re well worth a read and that no-one should be put off by the first two being Booker Prize winners.

Inns of Temple
The Matthew Shardlake novels – Dissoluton, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation, Heartstone and Lamentation from the pen of C J Sansom are also primarily set in London, in the area around Chancery Lane. They are all fine examples of historical mysteries at the time of Henry VIII and Sansom’s provides wonderful descriptive passages of London, the Thames, the palaces, as well as the seedier parts of town. Each book also comes with a detailed map to enable you to both get your bearings and compare the then with the now. The central character, Matthew Sharkdale, works first for Thomas Cromwell, then Thomas Cranmer, Queen Catherine Parr and finally the Princess Elizabeth. The central characters of Sansom’s novels are well drawn and and hugely likeable, and the tales themselves move along at a cracking pace. These are eminently readable novels and I commend them to you – not just for their sense of time and place.

There were so many candidates for this section and it was an almost impossible task for me to whittle it down to these few. What would you add to a list of “must reads” based in London?

© Debra Carey, 2022

#FF Prompt: The Story – You’re going on holiday

Oh the Views!

Why oh why did I think it was a good idea to go on a holiday Gregory had arranged? OK, it was his turn to pick. And, yes, he’s always been a good sort about what other members of the gang have picked.

But still….

I am totally and utterly freaked out. We’re in one of those amazing modern structures that look like a spacecraft – except one that’s jutting out of a mountainside. There are windows everywhere so I can’t get away from that view. You know – the really scary straight down one. I don’t think I’ll dare have a drink, in case I lose my balance and fall against the glass.

I can hear Gregory inviting admiration from the gang for his amazing holiday selection, and most do sound genuinely enthusiastic. But there’s also a couple who’re somewhat less so.

Me? I pretended I needed to go to the loo urgently, so now I’m sat here in the safety of the only room without windows, too scared to leave.

Thank goodness I brought my Kindle. I grabbed the WiFi card in my room as soon as I saw it, and now I’m sat here, connected to the WiFi in the smallest room, wondering how many of the 14 days I can spend in bed with the curtains drawn.

Poor Gregory! It really is an inspired idea. My fault entirely that I never mentioned my terrible fear of heights….

© Debra Carey, 2022

#IWSG: Writing regrets

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.

January 5 question – What’s the one thing about your writing career you regret the most? Were you able to overcome it?

With a writing career still very much in its infancy, my greatest regret is not having made it more of a priority. It’s not something I have been able to overcome, nor can I even call it properly a work-in-progress…. yet.

The reasons for not having made it more of a priority are three-fold: the first is financial – in that I still need to earn a living to secure not only my current well-being but also my future retirement. The second is my tendency to people please. This results in my never-ending struggle with putting myself and my wants ahead of others, especially when there is no obvious financial benefit to doing so. The final one is my scattered focus. I have so many things I love to do and, having found them in my later years, am loathe to give any of them up. This, unsurprisingly, results in my trying to shoehorn things in, meaning much gets started and less gets finished, or finished to any acceptable standard.

It seems crazy that I’m in this position when I’m a life coach – a real example of physicians being unable to heal themselves 🙂 So I’m putting my money where my mouth is and have hired a life coach for myself for the next 6 months. I expect I’ll have to accept some tough truths, but am confident it will be worth it.

The awesome co-hosts for the January 5 posting of the IWSG are Erika Beebe, Olga Godim, Sandra Cox, Sarah Foster, and Chemist Ken – do take a moment to visit them.

While you’re here, can I tempt you with a #FlashFiction prompt?

Every month, we run a different #FF prompt and this month it’s You’re going on holiday.

If you’re inspired to give this a go, you can get full details here.

© Debra Carey, 2022

#FlashFiction: You’re going on holiday….

…. but where are you going? Not anywhere ordinary that’s where. No multi-level hotel or cottage on the beach will do. Pick somewhere odd, with someone unusual, somewhere wild & wacky – and tell us why you chose it, or how you came across it, or when you’re going (or when you went there), and what made it appeal to you? Will you holiday alone, a deux, en famille or in a crowd of mates?

So, any style, any genre, just nothing NSFW – otherwise feel free to branch out as you wish. Tell us your tale…

Word count: From a drabble to 1,000
Deadline: 2pm GMT on Sunday 9th January 2022

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.