#Writers Resources: A pondering on polders, or Location, Location, Location…

Back in 2016, I was lucky enough to be involved with a book sprint – the goal being to write a book in a weekend.  There were a dozen or so of us, gathered together in a computer suite at the University of Salford, a fringe event at a Science Festival.  It was great fun, and I would absolutely do it again, given the opportunity.  Not only was it a nice chunk of time to concentrate on writing, but there were some great conversations, one of which sort of has relevance to today’s post.  The thrust of the conversation was that scientists like lists, especially if we can produce some sort of graph to go with it…

Before we get to the list, I should probably explain what a polder is.  No, it’s not a pebble sized boulder.  A polder, by dictionary definition, is a low lying tract of land that has been reclaimed from the water – it’s perhaps unsurprising that the word polder is derived from the Dutch. But in literary terms, especially, but not exclusively, fantasy fiction, a polder represents a bordered piece of land which in some way exists apart. It has some of the characteristics of a Potterverse building that cannot be seen by muggles, or those who are not privy to the secret. Of itself, it is not a portal to somewhere else, but it may well protect a portal, or a portal may be required to reach it. A lot of polders are gardens, such as Tom Bombadil’s in the Lord of the Rings (but it is worth noting that Rivendell is not – a discussion for another day, perhaps). A polder could be a single room in a house or, as mentioned, a garden, or it could be a whole building, or a forest, a whole world, or a pocket dimension. The defining characteristic of a polder is that it is unchanging, except if it comes under attack from without… The creation of polders can be attributed, or not: for example in Good Omens, the Just William-esque juvenile lead creates a polder over a good chunk of the countryside. The angel Aziraphale (technically a Principality, “but people made jokes about that these days”) notes that “someone really loves this place”. Sometimes, a polder just is, such as Avalon.

One of the reasons that I like SF&F is that generally speaking it gives me license to make up the setting.  This can add some complexity to the world building (which can be both good and bad) but gives us the opportunity to create the landscape we want/need for the story.  The geography or, as it were, the ‘set’ for the story can give us an insight into the characters (221B Baker Street, for example) or can almost represent a character in its own right (Castle Gormenghast, perhaps, or the London of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World). 

Which brings us to the list…when it comes to writing, I think there are five kinds of setting, whether macro or micro, that we can think of:

  1. A real place.  I really struggle with this, because I worry that the locals are going to take offence, especially if you mention someone living at a particular, real address, or that there is going to be some kind of mistake, such as describing a character driving the wrong way down a one-way road.  This is perhaps less of an issue with an historical setting.
  2. A deliberate reimagining of a real landscape (see e.g. Carola Dunn’s Cornish Mysteries series, with an upfront statement that the stories, set in the 1970s, are set in a Cornwall remembered from youth, and adjusted to fit the narrative).
  3. A polder – a wrinkle in the landscape holding an entire setting for a story.  The Rotherweird Series, by Andrew Caldecott, incorporates almost a small county in such a wrinkle; a non-fantasy version arises in Simon Brett’s Feathering detective series – named for the village which sits in a polder on the South Coast of England just down (or perhaps up) the road from the very real Tarring.
  4. A real place, but a universe or two over. Arguably this describes any fictional setting, but this is perhaps a distinguishing feature of speculative fiction in general if not science fiction and fantasy specifically, and there are books such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” which are incredibly feasible, but aren’t our timeline.
  5. A completely made up setting. This could be another planet, or a country wedged into a familiar geography, such as with the Ruritanian Romances (exemplified by “The Prisoner of Zenda”). You might suggest that there is little difference between Ruritania and Fethering, at least in ‘a wedged into the local geography’ sense, and you may even be right.

So where does this get us? At the very least, it gives us an opportunity to order our thoughts, and that is never to be sneezed at. I think there are at least two other benefits though. Firstly, looking back over what other people have done, it gives us permission to play with the landscape as we wish to tell the story that we want to tell. If our story is contemporary then we may want to give the reader fair warning that we have made up the locale, or that we have taken liberties and that the setting is not to be found on an A-Z or OS map; sometimes this is even built into the story, and you can include the geography in the ‘names have been changed to protect the guilty’ rubric at the beginning of the book. Secondly, it gives us an opportunity to make a decision, and to act accordingly. Is the setting as much of a character as any of the protagonists? Do we need to develop the landscape and give it an arc, or will a simple pen-sketch suffice to get the message across? This my be an ongoing decision, depending upon where the story takes us, and of course not all stories take place in a single setting. The Brownstone of Nero Wolfe, 221b Baker Street, Castle Gormenghast – all these are integral to the story, in some cases an extension of the main character themselves. Other locations are less important – a meeting in diner, or a library, or a mad dash through a train station, probably don’t need a high level of detail.

Not everywhere needs to be a polder, mystical or otherwise, but they can be helpful, and aren’t restricted to Fantasy or Science Fiction genres.

So, do you have a favorite polder? Are there times when you’ve been frustrated when a writer got the the geography ‘wrong’? Who gets the evocation of the setting perfect every time?

#IWSG: Right Here, Right Now

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.


July 6 question – If you could live in any book world, which one would you choose?

What an interesting question! I’ve sat at my desk ever since reading it, going on a mental journey through those books I love, and those whose worlds I’ve returned to over & over again.

I read a lot of works by Commonwealth authors – stories based in India and West Africa where I spent my childhood. The Harry Potter books get re-read (or re-listened to, as one of the few fiction audible adaptations I love is Stephen Fry reading these familiar tales). Jodi Taylor’s St Mary’s series are a fun romp where they all live together as if in some form of grown-up boarding school. Both are based in a boarding school type environment which is yet another experience I’ve lived. I read a small number of science fiction and fantasy and I enjoy the reading experience and find the world building quite amazing. But none of these are the book world I’d choose.

My choice would be London – current day London. I love our capital city and, although I spent a few years living in London in my early 20s, there was so much I missed out on – live music and theatre, more glorious parks than you can shake a stick at, a wide-range of neighbourhoods filled with cultural experiences a-plenty, the tourist sights, the places at the end of the tube lines, even the outlying districts where you have to catch a train and yet it’s not the suburbs. I can never have too much of the river and, now a photographer, I’d love to walk the streets with my camera and snap, snap, snap away. If I could afford to, I’d live in London again in a heartbeat.

As a result, I enjoy reading the Cormoran Strike books of Robert Galbraith (or J K Rowling as he’s better known) because Strike’s offices are right in the heart of Soho, and the majority of the action takes place in central London. I also love Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series because London – the city itself – is as central a character as the protagonist, Peter Grant. There are many other books based in London which I’ve enjoyed, but I choose these for their feel of current day London, which is primarily what draws me back whenever a new one is in the series is released.

Did you choose a fantasy, historical or contemporary world – I’m looking forward to finding out!

The awesome co-hosts are J Lenni Dorner, Janet Alcorn, PJ Colando, Jenni Enzor, and Diane Burton – do take a moment to visit them.


© Debra Carey, 2022

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara: A #SecondThoughts book review

Much of what is known of Yanagihara relates to her day job as editor-in-chief of T – the New York Times style magazine, although a little more was gleaned via the interviews which followed the success of what has been described as the cultural phenomenon of her second novel. Interviews which were necessary as the ‘about the author’ section of that novel simply reads “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City”.


That cultural phenomenom was A Little Life. A book which divided people – a real Marmite book as we’d say here in the UK – people either adored it or hated it. I couldn’t blame those who hated it, for reading about self-harm and sexual abuse – especially the sexual abuse of a child – is not the way most people would chose to spend their time. It’s not how I’d chose to spend my time, yet I found it hard to put down. I am categorically not a fan of what is termed “misery memoirs” – avoiding them like the plague, yet I was blown away – absolutely convinced I’d read that year’s Booker winner. Sad to say, I was wrong.

At the time, I described it as the best book I’ve read for a long while, and I’ve not changed my mind nearly 7 years later. Despite the headlines being about his abuse and self-harm, the majority of the book tells the story of Jude’s adult relationships, where the focus is on friendship, love, kindness and acceptance.  But the big question it asks is whether the extent of a child’s suffering ever be healed by loving adult relationships? An emotional and moving tale, sad but beautiful, and one which brought me to tears more than once.  


I rarely pre-order books, but I did with Yanagihara’s next book To Paradise, rushing to finish what I was reading when it hit my Kindle on publication day. Written in three parts, each separated by 100 years, Parts 1 & 2 were full of promise.

Part 1 – set in the 1880s – is the story of rich and powerful family the Binghams, living in a grand house on Washington Square, New York, in a version of New York located in an enlightened group of states where the populace is free to partner with their preferred gender. The story focuses on indulged son David, torn between the nice man introduced to him with the aim of marriage, and the unsuitable man he falls in love with. Despite evidence that his lover is a fraudster, David chooses to follow him to California – located in the risky less enlightened states – to build a new life.

Part 2 – set in the 1980s – is the story of another David, a young Hawaiian paralegal in a relationship with a rich and powerful man called Charles, who now owns the house in Washington Square. This version of the 1980s also suffers from the impact of HIV/Aids – and the story of Charles and his friends living and dying, is played out against the story of David’s previous life and that of his estranged father in Hawaii.

Parts 1 and 2 only take up half the book, with Part 3 making up the significant portion. In Part 3, two stories are weaved together: Charlie, who survived a pandemic when a child, but was left with limited mental capacities by the medication which saved her life, and her grandfather Charles, seen via correspondence with his best friend some 50 years earlier. Set in the 2090s, Charlie and her husband live in a small apartment within the Washington Square house – once hers, now taken over by the state. In this dystopian future where harsh and brutal decisions were made to battle multiple pandemics, the government controls everything, up to and including choice of mate and fertility. Through Charles’s letters we see him drawn further away from scientist to government servant, and the impact that has on David – his son and Charlie’s father – an activist battling those choices. With a degree of inevitability, they come for Charles, so Charlie is left alone with the husband her grandfather selected for her. Unknown to her, Charles also begged his friend to get her out of New York and to safety – To Paradise.

Parts 1 and 2 flowed and worked well as standalone tales (which may or may not have been linked), but Part 3 felt more problematic, even as I read it. The story it told was a potentially powerful one, picking up many of the fears expressed during the current pandemic. But – and I hate to admit it – I skim read a lot of it, because the dystopian detail was so turgid and dense, it felt like we were being hit over the head with a sledgehammer to make sure we understood the point being made. I cried out for a damn good editor to have been let loose on it.

There were other oddities. The first being the use of the same names throughout. A hint perhaps to there being familial links – but it was never made clear, and so felt like a distraction. The second being that the idealised nature of the group of states was demonstrated by its widespread acceptance of sexual choice but, while that acceptance included Asian races, it still specifically excluded Blacks – and that left me wondering why, and what point, if any, was being made.

On a positive note, I really enjoyed learning about Hawaii – the life, the history, the art, the culture – and I got to wondering whether this had started out as a tale about Hawaii, and then got hijacked by the pandemic. If always intended as a pandemic tale, I shall mourn the book about Hawaii that I missed out on, for Yanagihara is surely well placed to have written one.

Yanagihara describes Hawaii as the ‘imaginary homeland’ for all Asian Americans. She has lived there, and her parents met there – her father a native of Hawaii, her mother brought up there after her birth in Seoul. Both parents are creative (they were illustrators when they met) but her father is also a haematologist, and the family travelled across the US with his work. Literature, design, art, culture – these are loves she inherited from her parents.

Parts 1 and 2 felt well on their way to 5 stars, until Part 3 hit. I’ve vacillated between 3 and 4 for the book, ending up on 4. I feel my expectations were set exceptionally high by her previous book, and I’d have probably given this a 4 if written by an author new to me. But, to be honest, I’m still vacillating….


© Debra Carey, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Causes or Passions colouring your writing

In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to prevent bits of yourself leaching into your writing, so why wouldn’t your causes or passions colour it too? As I see it, you can choose to make them the driving force of your story, or to simply be one aspect of it, or to form a background against which it’s told.

Let me start with an example of shared passion which colours our co-authored WIP The November Deadline, that of gender equality. It might be obvious why this would be a cause close to my heart, but it’s David whose the passionate STEMinist – advocating for greater opportunities and a more welcoming environment for women in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he was drawn to the Dvergar for their matriarchal structure and skills in this area. The obvious bonus being it provided us with a methodology to showcase non-typical – for the era – female characters in our WIP. The contrast between our Dvergar characters and those who do met the historical norms of the era, allowed this disparity to be heightened without any need for drum banging in our writing.


Moving on then to focus on how I’ve seen this done beautifully in my reading.

The Wayfarer’s series from Becky Chambers (which I highly commend to you by the way) comprises a quartet of books – The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, Record of a Spaceborn Few and The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – and is an excellent series of space opera, where individuals from a wide range of planets are drawn together, to work, to love, and to live. It’s not an unrealistically utopian world for there are – of course – conflicts, some of the global type, but more of the inter-personal kind. What I’ve especially enjoyed is the depiction of variances in culture, belief systems, physical needs, attitudes to things such as parenting, and gender. In the final book of the quartet, we meet a mother and child from a people where it’s standard practice for children to be gender neutral until they reach a certain age, at which point they get to choose which gender path they will follow thereafter. With Trans issues being a rather combative subject at present, this gentle depiction of a different way of looking at gender identity was both interesting and enjoyable.

James Baldwin as both a black man and a gay man, has written passionately on both these subjects. His stories ring loud of authenticity, of pain and suffering, of wrongs being done to. But he does this by placing at the heart of his stories, characters – people – who you believe and are drawn to and care about, so that what they endure – and why – is drawn even more sharply into focus.

In a recent piece about queer literature, a blogger I follow highlighted a series they’d enjoyed reading, because there was a story and a plotline with gay characters, but that the sexual preference of the characters wasn’t the story. One of the commenters expressed his agreement, stating that this was a more accurate depiction of his own life experience, and therefore felt more authentic.

I’d like to close this musing with the following observations I ‘ve taken from an article I read in The Bookseller (do read the entire article as it’s both interesting and amusing). Penned by author and blogger Ellen Hawley, it explains that Hawley doesn’t limit herself to writing solely lesbian characters or storylines because “It’s a big world out there. I can’t write it all, but I won’t limit myself more than I have to.” But what most interested me was this statement: “I want my work to find its way into the lesbian community…. But it’s easier to reach into the community if I publish in the mainstream, than it is to reach the larger world by publishing within the community.” This aligns with my view that, if a cause is important to you, it needs to reach the widest community and not just those who agree with you – so using it to colour your story, rather than noisily banging away at a drum, could be the most effective method for an author to achieve that aim.


© Debra Carey, 2022 (for the blog & images)
© The Bookseller & Ellen Hawley (for the extracts)

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

Utopia Avenue: a #SecondThoughts book review

If asked to name my favourite authors, David Mitchell’s name would appear – the author, I always stress, not the comedian. As someone whose preference is for literary fiction, Mitchell is a sound call having had 5 novels Booker Prize nominated – 3 longlisted and 2 shortlisted. But their subject matter is quite the mix, for you’ll find out & out fantasy, along with good old fashioned story telling, on top of simply beautiful writing.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but I was introduced to Mitchell via Cloud Atlas. A random paperback tucked in with a parental birthday gift of money, the choice of book based on a sibling’s suggestion, Cloud Atlas isn’t something either the parent or any of the siblings would read – but it’s an utterly me sort of book, and I loved it. I went back to his earlier offerings of Ghostwritten and Number 9 Dream, then bought (in hardback no less) his semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Bone Clocks and Slade House were each purchased and read upon release. So, when he released his latest novel Utopia Avenue back in the dark pandemic days of 2020, you’d have expected me to jump at it. But…. I read the blurb, and it just didn’t grab me. I have to acknowledge there is this problem for David Mitchell – a nice one to have, but a problem nevertheless – that his greatest work Cloud Atlas was so mind-bogglingly clever, that everything else can be seen to pale by comparison (a problem ably expressed by this Guardian reviewer‘s take on the new novel).

It’s now the final month of 2021 and I’ve finally purchased and read Utopia Avenue. Is is great? No, but it is good, possibly even very good. I absolutely raced through it, thoroughly enjoying the multiple point-of-view tale of the life and death of a new band during 1967 & 1968. I really liked the structure – the way each chapter was presented as a series of tracks, formed into three sections, each being one of their 3 albums. I don’t especially enjoy it when multiple POVs cover the same bit of the story, unless there is genuinely something new to learn from each viewpoint, but I do really like to hear the voices of the multiple protagonists – even the secondary ones – as is done here, and done well.

I was born in the late fifties and grew up in the third world, so my experience of that seminal time was very different. Viewing the centre of London through this book as a place where (relatively) ordinary people lived, was most enjoyable. It’s a part of London I know well – if from a later time – so joining each of the characters are they move from coffee shop or cafes, past book shops, from flats, to pubs and clubs, and to Soho offices, brought the area back to life.

Were there too many famous name-checks? Maybe. I feel fewer would’ve been better, but the music scene was probably like that back then. Some of the real life characters could’ve simply been described rather than name-checked, which could’ve made it a fun guessing game. For example, was it necessary to have name-checked David Bowie, when the description of  “an elegant odd-eyed gentleman in a trenchcoat” was enough for even me to identify him?

I wondered if – and how – Mitchell would link this novel to others he’s written, something he’s known for…. even though it was a while before I caught on to this practice 😉 Some links are subtle such as the band’s Canadian manager who appears briefly in The Bone Clocks, and the lead guitarist, Jesper, being descended from the titular character of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But the biggest overlap is when we re-visit the world of The Bone Clocks during the portion when Jesper’s psychosis causes a breakdown.

I often have problems with endings – but felt this was a good one, for a crash ‘n burn would’ve been too much of a cliché. So, while no Cloud Atlas, this was a most enjoyable read. Read it without heightened expectations, and I believe you could think so too.


© Debra Carey, 2021

#SecondThoughts: Blotto, Twinks and the new kind of book review

I’ve been becoming more disillusioned with ‘star’ reviews as time passes, so I thought I would pilot a new series here on Fiction Can Be Fun, drawing together approaches from several different sources. We’ll see how it goes: please do let me know if there is anything that you particularly like or dislike about the approach with a comment at the end. For the time-being, we’ll stick this under #secondthoughts, but if it looks like it’s a go-er, we’ll think again.

First up, Simon Brett’s Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King’s Daughter.

Simon Brett has a whopping 57 mystery books in four different series, plus a few other books (the most famous probably being the thriller A Shock To The System, with Michael Caine starring in the film adaptation). The longest running series is The Charles Paris Mysteries; the first of these was written in the mid-1970s. Bill Nighy plays the louche, alcoholic, shambolic, struggling actor, for whom the series is named, in a series of radio adaptions that were updated for the run that began in 1999. (They also had to make some changes to deal with continuity as the stories ended up being adapted out of order).

As I come to write this review, I realise that my experience of Simon Brett’s writing has mostly come from the radio adaptations with Bill Nighy, and from Brett’s series Foul Play, a panel game played by mystery writers. My only experience of actually reading his work is the first book in his Fethering series, which was a book club read. (Fethering is a fictional village on the south coast of Britain, just down the road from the very real Tarring. This probably tells you everything you need to know about Brett’s sense of humour). Brett has been on my TBR list for some time: I spotted Blotto and Twinks in the library recently, and I thought ‘why not?’

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter feels a lot like P.G. Wodehouse having a go at a Ruritanian novel, with a splash of Biggles, or something very much like. Blotto is the ‘spare’ in a ducal family, his elder brother Loofah having taken the seat when their father died sometime prior to the start of the book. Whilst Blotto is more athletic than Bertie Wooster, and very much more heroic, they have about the same capacity between the ears. His younger sister, Twinks, is the brains of the family, and in danger of turning into a Mary Sue type character. To Blotto’s relief, she’s more than happy to let him drive the car, even though she’s hopelessly modern and can change a tyre, something Blotto believes should be left to the working classes.

I read a comment recently about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories which suggested that the mystery was second to the interaction of the characters, particularly the badinage between Wolfe and his leg-man and general factotum Archie Goodwin. This just made me think I need to get back into reading Nero Wolfe stories, because it’s a while since I’ve done so. The reason for mentioning it is that this book is billed as a mystery too, but there’s very little of it, to my mind. Instead we have Blotto and Twinks, a miscellany of characters, including their dreadful mother (who is giving Loofah a hard time because he’s only given her granddaughters so far), and a rather heavy-handed Ruritanian king-in-exile setting.

You’re probably getting the impression that I didn’t like this book very much. There are indeed many things that I found it difficult to engage with, and if you’re selling a book on the one hand as a mystery and on the other on the basis of some loveable eccentric characters, then you want the mystery to be stimulating and the characters to be engaging. There are another nine books, so far, in the series, so maybe I’m being overly harsh in my assessment, or perhaps the books mellow with time, or perhaps you just need to be prepared that the book is not a full blooded (conscious choice of words there) mystery. I find it difficult to recommend this specific book to anyone, but if you enjoy your detective fiction then I would recommend the Fethering books, and I would definitely advise listening out for Bill Nighy as Charles Paris. If I manage to snag a book from that series I’ll keep you updated.

How about you? Have you read any of Simon Brett’s books before? What turns you off a book? What are your expectations for a mystery novel?

#A2Z Challenge: W for Whiskey

During 2018’s A-Z Challenge, we wrote the first draft of “The November Deadline” and to celebrate that this is now (finally) out with beta readers, we’ll be producing a daily piece of micro-fiction linked to it – some prequel, some containing a detail not included in the story, some snippets from sequels currently being written.


“It’s Merlin I feel sorry for, look you.” Tink spoke unguardedly, forgetting that there were guests. 

“Merlin?” Her ladyship prompted, topping up his whiskey and splash.

“Yes, poor blighter really got it in the neck.  One of my lot.  Was trying to make things better for people but over did it slightly.  Word got home and they came for him in the end.  Morgana was one of Queen Mab’s fixers.”

Isaac kept his head down and his ears open, trying to decide if he was the butt of an elaborate joke. Mike wondered whether the top up had been the right thing to do.

“And to add insult to injury, they tell all that nonsense about him.  I’d write a true account, so I would, but I think that might be breaking the terms of my parole, in spirit, if not in the letter.  Speaking of spirits though, top me up with some of that Kilbeggan, if you please, and we’ll drink a toast to my old friend Merlin.”


© 2021, David Jesson & Debra Carey

#ReadersResources: The Story Graph (or, is Goodreads dead?)

Back at the beginning of the year when Debs and I had our pow-wow about our plans for the blog, there’s one vital group of people that we overlooked: readers. We tend to assume that we’ve got them covered with at least 50% of our output, but given that we talk about writing quite a lot, and have a whole page devoted to helping writers with resources, our focus is perhaps not on the important people who complete the circle of life, as it pertains to writing. (And if you’re a reader whose just found us a result of this post, please take the time to have a look around and check out some of the stories; probably the easiest thing to do is take a look at the Index via the tab at the top of the page). This is clearly a massive oversight, as my writing, and I think Debs’ too, is shaped, to some extent, by our experience as readers. What we have read, the way we have read it, and our interaction with what other people think of what we have read, affect what we write. And whilst we both have TBR piles that are in danger of affecting local gravity, our choices of what to read next and what to add to the tottering Everests are are undoubtedly influenced by the recommendations of others.

Last year I commented on my fears that I was struggling to get through reading material, and that I might be doomed: how many books might I still be able to get through? Earlier this year, I followed that up with some thoughts on audiobooks. In 2019, I scraped through a 50-book target for the Goodreads challenge, thanks in no small part to audiobooks. This year, I’ve already reached my target and then some. It would be nice to think that there were some silver linings to Covid, but I think that it’s a coincidence and more to do with innate competitiveness, even if I’m just competing with myself. Still, more time spent gardening, listening to audiobooks, can’t have hurt. But that earlier post commented on a star-based review system and it’s limitations, and that’s probably relevant to what we’re thinking about here.

Recently I read an article from the New Statesman (I’m not sure how I came across it – it might have been one of those that pops up when you open a new tab in your browser), but it suggested that Goodreads might be bad for books. I certainly hadn’t realised that there was that much…background, shall we say, to Goodreads, and as a result there’s a certain temptation to just delete my account. Maybe I’ll just stop writing reviews – Goodreads may yet be a force for good from a writers perspective, but that’s a post for another day! From a reader’s perspective, is Goodreads still serving its core constituency? It’s tempting to use the ‘tail-wagging-the-dog’ analogy, but given that Goodreads is no longing curated by people who love reading, but is linked to a shop that wants us to buy what it sells (rather than what we want to buy), is it healthy to still engage with Goodreads? There appears to be little in the way of moderation, and I’ve heard some horror stories of various bullying tactics being deployed by aggressive reviewers. I’ve been luck not to see much of that myself, but it is something to think about.

The same New Statesman article pointed out how hard it is for alternatives to Goodreads to gain traction, and that in itself is a fascinating read, but it also gives a steer to an alternative that appears to be on track to becoming a viable alternative to Goodreads: plus points include a sensible way of reviewing books (where the star system is present but down-played) and more in the way of reading challenges than just ‘bosh through as many books as you can’. Another incredibly helpful feature when you are just getting started is that you can import your Goodreads records; there is an excellent guide on how to do this, and the whole process only took a few minutes.

The Story Graph is currently in beta, but already feels like it is doing a lot of things well and is building a vibrant and active community. In an ideal world (from my perspective) I would have been able to spend another few months having a play with the features and bedding in. Timeliness being of the essence, as they are launching a premium version, I thought I should just go ahead and give you my thoughts now – whilst I can’t recommend the Story Graph as strongly as I would like, due to my own lack of experience with the site, I can definitely suggest that you should get over there straight away and make your own decision. I’m unlikely to pay for the premium version – an ad free service is great, but I’m just not sure that I need the extra functionality right now, and whilst I would like to support an alternative to certain ubiquitous firms, that’s just not on the (bank)cards at the moment.

So, a question (or a few), to you with your Reader hat on: Are you happy with Goodreads? Why? Why not? What do you like about Goodreads? Have you had problems? Would you like an alternative?

If you do go and have a look at The Story Graph, do come back and tell us how you got on!

Happy reading!

(C) David Jesson, 2020