Tag Archives: reading

An Interview with Subtle Melodrama

This evening, I’m lucky enough to be welcoming to the blog Bethany from Subtle Melodrama, one of the darlings of the Scottish literary blog scene, Subtle Melodrama reviews the very best of literary fiction from around the world but with a particular focus on Scottish writing. If you haven’t visited her blog before, go now. We’ll wait.


Ready? Although we conducted this interview virtually, I like to imagine us chatting over rounds of Aviators in a small shanty bar downtown.  Rain pours down and the gutters are filled with colours from reflected neon. After sharing some truly scurrilous gossip about a writer we both know, Bethany waves a hand, indicating I should start my questions.

Me: How did you get started on your blog? What were your aims when you started?

B: The blog idea came about because I needed a place to rant and rave about the books that I read. Not too many of my friends read much, and I needed some way of chatting about the stories I loved, the characters I hated, etc. So the blog was born. I didn’t have any real aims, just maybe a hope that someone somewhere would read my reviews.

Me: How has the Subtle Melodrama blog changed since its inception? What have been some of the highlights of compiling your blog? 

B: It’s gotten so big! I never thought so many people would read it, or make comments. I have around 700 subscribers in all, and nearly 100,000 page views. It’s been running for two years now, and I’m just impressed it’s still alive. The biggest perk of doing a review blog is being given review copies by publishers. I frequently get sent books from Harper Perennial and Simon & Schuster, and I’ve reviewed several books for We Love This Book. It’s meant I’ve read a lot of books I might ordinarily never even have looked at, so expanding my literary horizons has been a real bonus too.

Me: What lies in Subtle Melodrama’s future?

B: To keep on going! Subtle Melodrama Book Reviews has moved from being just a blogspot to having its own .com domain. In the summer months (June- August) I’ll be running the Scottish Summer Reading Challenge, the idea being that readers explore Scottish literature. During that time, I’ll have Scottish writers talking about their favourite Scottish reads, and I hope that my little website will be able to promote all this Scottishness.

Me: What impact do you think Subtle Melodrama and book review blogs in general have on the book-buying public? Does genre make a difference to this?

B: The most flattering thing is to have someone tell you that they went out and actually bought a book based on your review. It’s happened to me several times, and mostly the reader has enjoyed the book. So blogs definitely have a little slice of influence. As far as genre is concerned, I think the job is much easier if you have a genre related blog, especially a young adult one. YA is all about hype, and blogs are essentially just hype, and teenage excitement can generate a lot of sales. YA blogs tend to have countdowns to the launch of the most recent book in a trilogy, they include trailers for new releases, and there are always giveaways. I’d like to think there’s a little bit of excitement at Subtle Melodrama too, but literary fiction readers don’t usually squeal quite so easily.

Me: What advice would you give to someone who wants to set up their own book review blog?

B: Just do it! Why not? But developing and networking does take time. Not only do I have to read the books, I have to write the review, I have to spread word of the review, and I have to somehow convince people that my words are worth reading. The offers from publishers, writers, and magazines to do reviews didn’t come from nowhere – some I had to chase, others wouldn’t have approached if they didn’t think anyone was listening/reading. So make sure you have the time to really invest in something proper, and enjoy it!

Me: Can you give us some recommendations of other review blogs you enjoy?

B: Journalist Ali George’s 12 Books in 12 Months is an insightful read, with fun musings and author interviews.


Schietree is a brilliant blog. Helen McClory is a writer living in Edinburgh, and her blog is probably one of the most exciting; I read it on a very frequent basis. She posts about the books she’s read, about her own writerly adventures, and is a fantastic photographer too. Never a dull moment there.


Robert Burdock has one of the busiest blogs out there. If there’s something exciting going on in the world of books, then it’s there on Rob Around Books. I have no idea how the man keeps up with it all, but it’s hugely useful and a great place to pick up some recommendations.

Me: Who are the authors you have most enjoyed blogging about?

B: The living ones! There’s nothing so brilliant as having an author thank me for a review. Robert Shearman, Alan Bissett, Doug Johnstone, have all been in touch after finding a review and expressed thanks. I might only be a teeny tiny part of the web but, as I said before, blogs get people chatting and, more importantly, buying and reading books. And though Thomas Hardy can’t ever thank me, I have a brilliant time using my internet space to declare his greatness.

A low black car purrs up and Bethany gets into it. A final wave and she is gone.  I get the attention of the barkeep and settle our bill before heading out into the night.

See, it’s not all pyjamas and coffee. Many thanks to Bethany from Subtle Melodrama for sharing her wit and wisdom .


The Sea Withdrew

Review: Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson

In common with every reviewer who writes about Kate Atkinson’s novels, I have a legal obligation to start this post by noting that she wrote literary fiction before she started writing crime fiction, and that her crime fiction isn’t really crime fiction because it uses the crime fiction genre  conventions in such clever, literary ways. What isn’t noted quite as often is the fact that her ostensibly literary fiction was riddled with mystery and acts of obfuscation and detection. What is Behind the Scenes of a Museum if it is not a whodunit?

Like all novels in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, Started Early, Took my Dog hangs on a central, surprising event. Like cracks spreading out across a pane of glass, the implications and effects of this incident fracture and distort the lives of the characters we meet. At first, the effect is almost impressionistic, the pace sedate. We have fragments of different points of view: an actress trying to hold on as dementia frays her mind; a security chief despairing behind her impassive façade; a middle-aged man lost in the turns of his life; flashbacks to other lives, other, seemingly random, events.  It is 60 pages in before we are even introduced our nominal sleuth, Brodie.

Jackson Brodie is an interesting protagonist who differs from so many other series protagonists in his ability to shift and change. We have the pleasure here of watching a man progress though the storms and calms of his life. I think middle age is one of the most difficult passages in a character’s life to evoke but with these novels, Atkinson manages it with sensitivity and startling verisimilitude.  Yet Brodie is more a man to whom things happen, and as such, he is often at the periphery of events in these novels, with other characters taking centre stage.  These stories are told through the eyes of many characters and always with compassion and a devastating understanding of what makes humans do the things they do, no matter how terrible.

In this extraordinary, terrible empathy, the novelist Atkinson is most like is Charles Dickens. And she is like him in other ways, too. She shares Dickens’ understanding that it is connections and intersections, coincidences really, that make up the narrative of our lives. It takes a brave writer, especially in this genre, to reflect this in her work. Humour, too, is another similarity. Atkinson’s work is unexpectedly very funny, from the broadest of slapstick to the bleakest of ironies.

One of her cleverest ironies in Started Early is the way plot is used in the novel – it manages to be both so tightly wrought that at the moment it all come together the reader suffers a delightful kind of literary whiplash and yet, this  seems almost incidental to what the novel is about. The comeuppance faced by the villains of this piece is almost an afterthought, a dénouement that oddly manages to both baffle and satisfy the narrative desires of the reader. But there is so much more here. This is a meditation on aging, of how time changes one, and like all Atkinson’s work, the inescapability of one’s past.

Reading Kate Atkinson’s work is always a bittersweet pleasure, quite apart from the ache at the heart of her novels.  Reading her work always leaves me midway between inspiration and despair. This is the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up.


Dead Cold

Review: Death in a Cold Climate by Barry Forshaw

I picked up Barry Forshaw’s guide to the seemingly endless slew of crime writing emerging from Sweden, Norway, Finland Denmark and Iceland in anticipation of a long and tedious train journey and I’m glad I did. Forshaw writes about his topic engagingly and with clear enthusiasm.

Forshaw takes a broadly geographical approach, exploring each country in turn. This pays dividend as this is a massively complex region with a dramatic mix of cultures; the crime writing echoes this. This more nuanced approach forces the reader to appreciate the diversity of the genre rather than regarding it as homogenous.

As a long-time fan of Scandinavian crime fiction there was nothing startlingly new here for me; this guide is written for those relatively fresh to the genre. I’m told that when I read or listen to something I’m familiar with or agree with, I unconsciously and vigorously nod my head so presumably I spent the journey shaking like a cat with ear mites. Never mind; at least no one sat beside me. Or anywhere near me.

A slight niggle was that the editing could have been a bit sharper – some redundancies and repetitions appear that really shouldn’t. You get the sense that there was a rush to get this book out before interest in this genre wanes.

I’m a complete list pervert so for me the best part of the book was the extensive bibliography detailing the output of the best and brightest crime writers to emerge from this region – I’m having to be physically restrained from buying all the books even as I type. I was familiar with the majority of them but it’s nice to be reminded of authors that I might have overlooked or forgotten. A few new to me authors piqued my interest, too, which is always exciting.

So overall, this is definitely worth investing in: a good overview of the subject with some interesting perspectives from publishers, academics and the authors themselves. The author writes with passion and knowledge.   Best of all, you are bound to find at least a few (dozen) suggestions for what to read next – the problem is deciding which book to choose.



Beginnings (2)

Review: Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

I stumbled across Will Thomas’ Some Danger Involved whilst searching for information on the lives of Jewish people in Victorian London – quite random I know but it turns out researching possible future novel projects is a lot more appealing than getting on with redrafting the current one. Anyway, allowing myself to be distracted from my distraction, I picked up this novel and emerged blinking some two hours later, having devoured the whole thing.

Some Danger Involved is the first novel in Thomas’ mystery series featuring the Scottish detective Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn.  We meet Llewelyn, our first person narrator, on the day he is hired by Barker. No sooner is he starting to get a handle on his mysterious employer than the pair are drawn into an investigation of a particularly gruesome murder in London’s Jewish community.

This is a steam-punk vision of Victorian London, full of exotics and absinthe, monocles and corsets, and overlaid with just a Patina of grime. It’s rather light on the real bone grinding filth and poverty that made up much of life in Victorian London but that’s fine and in keeping with the tone of the piece.  Oddly, despite the horrifying nature of the crime at the centre on this novel, it’s a relatively jovial read and we feel instinctively that good will prevails. If you want darker meat, can I suggest Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night or the even more salty The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray

Llewelyn is a satisfyingly stolid everyman, full of awe and indignation. He is an excellent contrast to the peculiar and mysterious Barker about whom we only discover fragments as the narrative unfolds. There is enough edge to both characters, however, to promise conflict and crises in future instalments.

The plot, too, works well with religious prejudice and sexual jealousy underpinning a satisfyingly traditional whodunit.

In his afterword, the author makes mild complaint about the ‘cosiness’ of historical mysteries especially those by women. Well, I’m not sure if Thomas fancies himself as some sort of Victorian Brett Easton Ellis or perhaps I’m just jaded but this seemed a fairly lightweight confection and I intend no insult by this. It’s a fun read that sets the narrative up nicely for further instalments. I look forward to them.

Heere be…

Review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

In the past, I’ve felt a slight reluctance to admitting to liking Terry Pratchett.  Something about the combination of fantasy and comedy always seemed so naff and so likely to attract the oddest of aficionados. I read once on the Guardian CiF section (such a warm and open hearted place!) that Pratchett novels are often found at the homes of serial killers.  But there comes a point in a reader’s life where you have to stop having the mindset of an angry and bitter 16 year old who only really likes 19th century Russian literature and open up to books that might be, y’know, fun. Either that, or become a literary critic.

Guards! Guards! is the first in the Pratchett’s rich and extraordinary Discworld series to feature centrally the City Watch Characters, Ank-Morpork’s beleaguered police force.  The other books are (in order): Men at Arms; Feet of Clay; Jingo; The Fifth Elephant; Night Watch; Thud!; and Snuff. It’s important to note that you certainly don’t need to read the other novels in the Discworld series to enjoy the City Watch books but it’s a more satisfying experience to read these ones in published order.

Captained by drunken and disillusioned Samuel Vimes, the Night Watch has been reduced to a token presence by the machinations of the Patrician and the City Guilds.  Vimes’ quiet despair is shattered by the arrival of two newcomers to the city: Carrot, a 6”4 dwarf, determined to become a successful and productive Watchman and, well, a dragon.

Like many of Pratchett’s books, reducing the plot to mere synopsis would do very little to encourage you to read the novel itself. Suffice it to say that the dragon is summoned to act as a WMD for a Freemason-esque sect intent on returning the city to a monarchy and that their plan succeeds beyond their wildest nightmares. The joy here is not so much in the story, though that most certainly satisfies as a ‘whodunnit’, but in the exuberant characterisation and the gleeful wit. A self-avowed mystery fan, Pratchett takes great delight in playing with the clichés and conventions of the crime genre, amongst many other things. Parody and allusion zing past at a startling rate and there is a definite need for a second, slower reading to pick up on all Pratchett is doing here. He is an astonishingly clever writer, yet rare perhaps for that breed, an incredibly human one at the same time.  Never do his insights into the human condition take the easy turn into misanthropy and there is always laughter here, even if it is laughter in the dark.

I prefer to listen to the Discworld novels and I can’t recommend highly enough Nigel Planer’s reading. A good narrator can do a lot with even mediocre material (the reverse is unfortunately also true) but here we have a perfect symbiosis. The cognoscenti will also be aware that Stephen Briggs is the usual narrator for Pratchett’s City Watch novels and whilst he does perhaps have the edge overall, Planer is wonderful here.

To those of you familiar with these novels, well, you already know but to those of you yet to sample Pratchett’s work, I envy you a little for the pleasures that lie ahead. Don’t be afraid. Yes, they’re funny, and yes, they’re fantasy but that doesn’t mean you have to start watching Babylon 5. Time to have a little fun.

Beginnings (1)

Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King

I started Laurie R King’s novel The Beekeeper’s Apprentice with more than a little apprehension. You see, Sherlock Holmes was my first detective love. My dad read me the stories and I would walk around my village with a tablespoon as a meerschaum searching for baddies. So I can be a bit protective of the canon. Much as I adore Martin Freeman and Stephan Moffat, Sherlock was a slightly uncomfortable experience. In its own right, it was enjoyable but as Holmes… it just hadn’t got the nuances quite right.

Plus The Beekeeper’s Apprentice seemed a bit high-concept for me. After too many American crime shows where, say,  the hero’s a FBI agent with a counting dog , I had decided that the fewer words needed to sum up a premise, the less I wanted to have anything to do with it. So ‘Sherlock Holmes is brought out of retirement by a feisty young American (and she’s a girl!)’ was not especially appealing.

But despite my resistance and the ever-so slightly clunky framing device at the start, I found myself drawn in.  It’s an immensely enjoyable novel, with all the simple satisfactions of a well-wrought, traditional mystery.

Mary, as a narrator, grates on some but I found her exuberance and arrogance entirely fitting for someone of her age, blessed with her gifts of intellect and aptitude. Passivity or self –effacement would have called Holmes’ previous companion too quickly into mind and it is clear from the start that Mary Russell is to be a foil for Sherlock, not a mere sidekick. Anything less abrasive would’ve made the whole confection rather too sickly for my tastes.

The characterisation of Holmes himself is well done too. He’s more richly characterised that in the Conan Doyle Stories, in the sense that he is more emotionally accessible to us as readers. This, however, is not a betrayal of the canon but the logical extension of having a narrator who can more clearly see the workings of his mind.

As is to be expected of an origins-type story, the first third of the novel is taken up with the burgeoning friendship between Holmes and Russell, and her induction into the ways of detection. Soon enough, however, (and it will be soon as the pacing is impeccable!) we are thrown into a full-throttle mystery plot that see our protagonists dodging bombs and tearing round Europe in their quest to hunt down a satisfyingly nefarious nemesis.  For all King’s novels are categorised as ‘cosy’ mysteries, there is a real sense of peril here, something that is too often missing from the work of authors who pride themselves on their edginess.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is conventional and perhaps even a little old-fashioned. But it is a well-crafted novel by a writer who knows and loves her source material. Unlike so many other Holmesian homages, it fits well with the original works, never seeking to undermine or mock. In its own right, it’s a cracking read and a lot of fun. On finishing it, I immediately looked up Laurie King’s website to see which book was next; what more do you want from a series opener?

Serial Killers

It may seem, in coming months, that I have an obsession with the first books in mystery series. And indeed, that may well be true. What’s not to love? There’s little more satisfying than a well-rounded origins story, with characters’ lives and histories trickling in like a morphine drip. There’s no commitment either: if things aren’t working out after a chapter or two, you can quietly close the covers without any weird misplaced guilt towards a well-loved character. The sense of hope, too, is enchanting, especially for an established series, where 5 or 6 or more novels beckon: a continent of fictional possibility.

I see no problem with the fact that I view crime novel series in two completely contradictory ways. I feel that decline and staleness are inevitable. In early books in a series, creative risk-taking is precluded until character and context are safely established. In later books, the author can grow so desperate for something fresh that insanity can set in and both reality and continuity are often discarded.   However, the crime narrative, in its modern form, has always tended towards the series or serial form, so this is nothing new; it’s no pernicious publishing scam to suck you in. And the most interesting writers can take characters and allow them to evolve (or more likely with crime protagonists, devolve) over the span of their series, a narrative scale outwith the purview of many novelists. The possibilities this can offer are very exciting.

As is so often the case it depends entirely on the writer. For every Patricia Cornwell, there’s a Lindsay Davis or a Henning Mankell. I know the kind of writer I’d rather be. Yes, I too am trying to write a crime novel and my hope is that my protagonist and I will share several adventures before we jump the shark. So I’m studying the field. Any recommendations of quality series or even just quality series openers are heartily welcomed – please comment below.