Change Starts One Book at a Time: A Love Letter to the British Public Libraries

The first thing that I did when I finally settled down in the UK was joining a public library. As I was only in the country for a few months, I didn’t bring any books with me, and I thought: What kind of life can one live without books? Not one worth living for me. So, I walked into the public library, asked a very lovely young woman – who would later become my friend – if I could join, and she gladly gave me my card. It must be said here that I didn’t get a regular card though. As I was a visitor, I could only borrow 3 books at the same time, which is actually the number of books I can borrow from my public library in Spain, so it didn’t bother me.

And then the hectic borrow started. I finally had access to an unbelievable amount of books, some of them recently released. In English. By women authors. There was even a crime section! I couldn’t believe it. I think that during the first weeks I just borrowed books to take a look at them. For the simple pleasure of having them in my nightstand, knowing that I could read them at any time. The massive borrowing became unproductive at one point. I read Ali Smith’s How to be Both and then I decided to borrow 3 more of her books. But did I really want to read more Ali Smith when I could read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff? Or Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman, which I had wanted to read since review copies started showing up on my Twitter feed? So, I made the decision to pace myself and just enjoy the book I was borrowing at the time. And just one at a time, please! OK, maybe two if they were different genres.

Thanks to the British Public Libraries I discovered that like many of you, I am a fan of Ali Smith’s work too. How to be Both was a profound reading, and it still haunts me weeks later. I also got the enjoy the latest in the Marnie Rome series, a personal favourite of mine, by Sarah Hilary. This one was extra special, as Sarah is a friend of Books & Reviews now, and the copy that I borrowed was a chunky and clearly very solicited hardback copy. I also discovered that I will always go for the hardback copy, until I realise that carrying my laptop, its charger, the phone, the mess of personal items that I usually need, my lunch, and a hardback copy was not the better ideas. I learned to find the beauty in battered paperbacks too.

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Bristol Public Library

But my British Public Library was not just a place to visit a few times a week. It also became my office. Thanks to hot-desking and the thousands of sockets available, I was able to spend my days reading and writing in a building that I now consider my second home. Public libraries in Spain are places were silent must be kept, and where eating and drinking is not compatible with reading and writing. Imagine my surprise when I found out not only that I could eat a few feet away from my laptop – we can discuss the benefits of getting some fresh air another day – but that there was also a cosy café where I could buy a hot cup of tea (milk and sugar, please).

As if it wasn’t enough, the Public Library that I visited also had a reading club that met weekly where we were provided with a short story and a poem that we read out loud and commented. The young woman who made my library card suggested I joined the group when I said I had just arrived to the city, I didn’t know anyone, and I needed some friends books to keep me company. There I met women all ages, some with very interesting backgrounds, and all of them with a love and a passion for reading that could rival my own. They made me feel at home by asking me questions about my favourite books, and they welcomed my sometimes inevitable gender and feminist criticism about the works we were reading.

I hope to see the women in my book club one last time before I leave, and I hope to spend as much time as I can at the Public Library. As I write this I only have one book with me, but I’m thinking whether I should borrow more in an effort to make the most of these last days(*) that also happen to be filled with friends and celebrations. But if I don’t, and if I only have time to finish reading my current book, this is my love letter to the British Public Libraries. This is also my plea to all you who live in the UK to visit your local public library today. Keep these wonderful havens open so that people of all races, genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and religions can visit them. Because change starts one book at a time.

(*) Barely two minutes after writing this post I borrowed 2 more books from the library that I won’ t probably finish reading in time to return them before I leave.

 

 

Quieter than Killing (Marnie Rome #4) by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary is back with another instalment in the acclaimed Marnie Rome series. If you have followed this blog for some time, you will know that I am a great fan of the series, but also of Sarah, who I met at CrimeFest15 and who is always open to discuss feminism, and women’s crime fiction with me. No wonder she is an active member of Killer Women, a wonderful organisation that aims to bring together women in crime fiction. Now that I live in England, I was lucky to borrow her latest book from the Public Library (more on my love for British public libraries soon).

Quieter than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Quieter than Killing take places nine months after [NAME OF PREVIOUS BOOK], with a cold English winter making things even more difficult for Marine and her team. This time, they are investigating a series of attack on random people in London. As they struggle to make the connections between the victims – different genders, different ages, different social classes – they come up with a theory: There’s a vigilante on the loose. Their approach to the crimes is not welcomed by DC Ferguson, the new glamorous DC that has come to temporarily replace Welland. As Marnie faces life without the unconditional support of her beloved boss, Noah worries about his little brother Sol, who has been missing for days, and the strange texts that someone following Dan, his boyfriend is texting him.

As usual, Hilary is a mastermind at mixing the main characters’ lives with their professional duties. The delicate balance and interweaving between private and professional has always been a trademark of the series, but the author has overdone herself in the fourth book in the series as Sol’s presence, and becomes more crucial in the crime narrative. Stephen, Marnie’s younger adopted brother and the killer of their parents makes an appearance as a secondary character after his main role in the previous book, and as he lets chaos unravel, Marnie wonders if everything was a game for him, and whether there might be some true to his words.

Walking is the repeated act of saving yourself from falling. Where had she read that? In one of those books Lexie, her therapist, gifted to her six years ago. Moving forward was momentum, you just had to keep doing it.

Back to the case, if the Marnie Rome series are known for their pace, Quieter than Killing is the perfect example of a page-turner. I loved the previous books, but I only gave them 4 star reviews at Goodreads. However, I read the latest in the series in less than 3 sittings and I found myself constant needing to return to the book, even after long days reading and writing for work. I was never bored, as the case and the characters picked my interest in many ways. Hilary keeps her trademark narrative device of including the victims’ perspective throughout the novel, but this time she also introduced two secondary female characters: DC Ferguson and professional mediator Zoe Marshall. Lorna Ferguson is a middle-aged woman who dresses sharply, owns a gold-rose MacBook, and works long hours at the precinct in Louboutins. Zoe Marshall is younger, and works with children involved in local gangs, and her aesthetics will appeal to the novel’s younger readers. It is thanks to them that the latest Marnie Rome will connect with a wider audience, but also with anyone looking for better representation of women in contemporary crime fiction.

At this year’s CrimeFest, Hilary confessed that she already knows how book 6 in the series will begin, which will make her readers write angry emails to her of the likes of ‘HOW DARE YOU’. It is not wonder the author is thinking ahead, as the Marnie Rome series are enjoying one of the healthiest, most steady-fast evolutions in contemporary crime fiction written by a woman. Serial crime fiction at its best.

More reviews:

More on Sarah Hilary:

How to be Both by Ali Smith

How to be Both by Ali Smith became an instant success after its publication 2014. Back then all I could see on my Twitter feeds was praise for an author that I had never Heard about. So, after seeing that her latest book Autumn has also been welcomed with equal enthusiast for people I trust, I decided to finally read How to be Both. I borrowed this book from the Bristol Central Library.

“Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were”.

How to be Both is a novel about fluidity and ambiguity. As the title suggests, a constant theme in both parts of the book is the characters’ ability to evade categories set by society and construct their identity all by themselves. Liminality, those spaces that are both and none at the same time, becomes key for George, an English teenager that has recently lost her mother, and Francescho, a Renaissance artist struggling to become a well-known painter.

The novel is all play, a game between Smith and the reader that will fascinate and surprise in equal measure. The book is divided in two halves, each of them dedicated to a different character. As a metaphysical experiment, there are two version of the book: One that present’s George story first, and another one that presents Francescho’s story first. No matter which, a quick look at Goodreads shows that readers prefer the first half no matter the edition they had. Not happy with this game, Smith also plays the reader for some pages until we discover that George is actually a young girl who is facing the rest of her life with her mother while trying to figure out who she is. As she explores sexual identity, female desire, and growing up, George presents us with a portrait of her mother as an inspiring woman obsessed with creativity and art. So much so, that she visits the same painting so often, George feels the need to visit too after her death.

That painting is no other than Francescho’s. But again, things are not what they seem, and Francescho is a young woman in disguise trying to become a painter in Renaissance Italy. Hidden under big clothes and a lot of banding is the body of a woman that defies social conventions and belongs to another time. As her male friends take her to brothels and her secret is discovered by the city’s prostitutes, she also discovers her sexuality letting her desire roam free in exchange for a drawing. It is in Francecho’s experience that Smith finally gets to fully develop the theme of ambiguity presenting the reader with very interesting questions about identity, how society plays an enormous role in how we define ourselves and the freedom that comes from liminality, ambiguity and letting yourself remain unlabeled while trying to experience life to the fullest.

“It was all : it was nothing : it was more than enough”

How to be Both is my first Ali Smith but it will not be the last. Reading such a complex work could be considered a difficult and daunting task, but Smith’s prose is so beautiful and perfectly constructed that reading just flows. I read this book while I was writing and editing, and I found myself constantly thinking about the story, and pulled to the book every night, no matter the hour.

Interview with Paula Hawkins for Crime Fiction Association

As many of you now know I am also a freelancer writer and an organiser for the Captivating Criminality 4 conference, an annual event organised by the Crime Fiction Association. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview writer Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) yet again for the Association’s blog and we discussed women, crime, and her latest novel Into the Water. To read the interview, click here.

News: Crime Fiction Conference and #PhDLife

As I said last week, big crime fiction news were to be released soon. So, here they are! I am very happy (and proud!) to be part of the Captivating Criminality Organising Team for our  2017 conference Crime Fiction: Detection, Public and Private, Past and Present. This event is part of an interantional effort by the Crime Fiction Association – led by Dr. Fiona Peters from Bath Spa University –  to fully incooporate crime fiction studies as valid and serious research in the Humanities. If you want to learn more, please click here to visit our website. You can also find us on Twitter @CrimeFic, and on Facebook Fb.me/crimefic.

Meanwhile, you can check the programme for our 2017 conference to see how people from all over the world are joining efforts to research crime fiction (*):

http://www.captivatingcriminalitynetwork.net/programme.html

(*) Please note that the programme is still under construction and may be subject to changes

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Getting to Know the Author: Sophie Hannah

One of my new tasks in my recent move to the UK is to help organise an event in which some crime fiction writers are involved (more information on the event soon!). As the crime fiction family is such a big and diverse one, I was not surprised to realise that I had never read anything about one of the women authors participating, but I was certainly curious about her work. In an effort to solve that gap in my reading history I have decided to do some research about the author and read at least one of her novels. Here’s Sophie Hannah:

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British novelist and poet Sophie Hannah was born in Manchester (England) in 1971 to an academic father and a writer mother. She went to study at the University of Manchester and saw her first book of poems published at the age of 24. She continued writing with critical acclaim, with her work usually compared to Wendy Cope’s and Lewis Carroll’s. Currently her poems are studied at A-Level in the UK.

Despite her skills as a poet, Hannah is more well-known for her novels, especially her crime novels. Her first psychological thriller Little Face was released in 2006, and since then she has written more than 12 crime fiction novels. These works feature detective Sam Waterhouse that the British press has already catalogued as a household name. However, I am currently reading book #5 in the series and although I feel I am missing out something regarding Sam and the police department the plot is easy to follow and I am really enjoying the story.

A Room Swept White

She has also worked prominently in the fight for crime fiction to be considered ‘serious’ literature, and she takes pride on being known as a crime writer. She has stated that Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell were some of her favourite writers growing up, and that they have inspired the writing she has been doing since she was a 6-year old. In a 2015 interview for The Guardian she openly discussed the necessity to reevaluate crime fiction:

There is still a great deal of snobbery about crime and thriller writing. There are people who think a crime novel can’t be proper literature, mainly because they are prejudiced against genre fiction and writing that is plot-based. Whether one ought to care about this, I’m not sure. Personally, I’ve always thought crime fiction is the best kind of literature. Done well and properly, there is no better kind of fiction. If other people can’t see that, then I think that’s a shame for them but I am not going to get angry about it.

Despite her success as a crime fiction writer Sophie Hannah success skyrocketed when she became the heir to Agatha Christie’s literary legacy. In 2014 she famously earned the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family and State to publish a new Poirot novel The Monogram Murders. The book received mainly positive reviews, with Laura Thompson from The Guardian highlighting that: “The first posthumous Hercule Poirot mystery impresses with its intricacy” and Alexander McCall Smith writing for the New York Times answering the general public’s fear: “Does Sophie Hannah’s Poirot live up to our expectations? Yes, he does, and markedly so”.

The Monogram Murders is based on a plot that Hannah had in mind but had not managed to include in any of her modern thrillers. However, when her agent approached her with the Christie State’s proposal to write a new Poirot novel, she realised that it was time to develop said plot. During an interview with Harper Collins Hannah addressed the controversy of bringing such a beloved character back to life. However, she stresses that Agatha Christie still is the best-selling writer of all time and the new Poirot novel is a way to let new generations discover Christie’s work. The novel was such a success that a second installment Closed Casket was published in September 2016.

Sophie Hannah is without a doubt one of the big names in contemporary crime fiction in the UK. Her works show a diverse range of skills, as well as a passion for literature. So much so, that Hannah was a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford between 1997 and 1999. Currently she is a Fellow Commoner at Lucy Cavendish College, and she lives in Cambridge with her husband, children and dog.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

When I first read that Paula Hawkins had a new novel coming out this year I freaked out. As you recall I loved The Girl on the Train, and I was immediately smitten with Hawkins on her first interview here as soon as she expressed her views on women and crime fiction. You can revisit the interview here. So, when I saw pictures of her new novel Into The Water to be published on the 2nd of May, I knew I had to get my hands on one. I also knew I would love it (spoiler alert: I was right!). Thanks to Paula and to Alison Barrow’s team for sending me one.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

‘Nel Abbott is dead’, she said.

‘They found her in the water.’

‘She jumped,’

Into the Water starts with the death of Nel Abbott in a small town in England. But she is not the protagonist of the story, as her identity is reconstructed throughout the novel by her estranged sister Jules who sees her return to their hometown to take her of Nel’s daughter Lena as her late sister’s last and darkest joke. However, Jules’ is not the only voice in the book. As it happened with The Girl on the Train, Hawkins creates a story from different points of view playing with the readers’ perception of the characters. If Rachel was a divorcee and an alcoholic, Nel is a hippie, an artist, a beautiful unmarried woman who leads a tranquil life with her daughter. Or isn’t she? Playing with social and gender prejudices, Hawkins makes the reader face long-held beliefs about women, knowledge and body issues. The background of Nel’s life is plagued by her obsession with the Drowning Pool, an enchanted part of the local river in which witch trials and sacrifices took place, holing a special attraction to the women of the town ever since.

With the reminiscence of witchery trials and the secret behind women’s knowledge in a 21st century story, Hawkins is brining back the social construction of women’s knowledge, as well as the sometimes trickery action of being defined by prejudices in a small town. Nel’s life constructs her as liminal in the white, middle-class and familiar environment of her hometown. Her beauty is considered dangerous. Her daughter is said to be following her steps. And the bond between them is strange to even the closest pair of mothers and daughters. And above all, she is obsessed with the Drowning Pool and the women who died there. So much so, that she is writing a book about them. A collective biography that aims to bring together the life and death of the women that jumped into the water, partially reproduced thanks to Jules in the book. Hence when Nel’s body is found in said drowning pool no one thinks twice about it, except her daughter. Was Nel the kind of woman who would jump? Who was Nel Abbott?

Like good English crime fiction, Into the Water is a crime novel and a character study. Like a Paula Hawkins book, the story forces readers to question the social construction of each of the characters’ identities, as well as their own definition of self. Confronted with the death of her sister, Jules sees herself become legal guardian to Nel’s daughter. But why were the Abbott sisters estranged in the first place? Lena is faced with her mother’s apparent suicide, but also with her best friend’s. What did the two women have in common? Detective Sean Townsend has seen enough death in the Drowning Pool of recently, will he able to solve the crime? These are only three of the several characters that construct the narrative and that faithfully reproduce the power of the community in the social construction of narratives.

I enjoyed The Girl on the Train a lot and I thought that from a feminist perspective the book has done a lot to question women’s representation in crime fiction. But Into The Water is even better, as Hawkins directly addresses the historical persecution of women’s knowledge and the agency that stemmed from it. However, those issues could easily become secondary for the general crime fiction reader, who will find a complex page-turner with a shocking ending. Totally recommended to all my readers here.