I’m always interested to know what other people are reading. Through word of mouth, I’ve often alighted on a really great book. When I wrote book reviews for the Cheltenham Standard I was reading a novel a week and this on top of editorial work. Fortunately, during that period, I built up a back log of reviews that allowed me to take almost three months off to write a novel (which appears in September 2016, more of this anon.) In the past, I’ve switched to reading historical fiction when I’m writing, but lately I’ve found, and I’m whispering this quietly, that I don’t read as much as I should. And I know I’m not alone.
Now I’m definitely not one of those writers who doesn’t read other people’s work at all. “Too busy writing,” I’ve been told by more than one author, which I find a little startling. Aside from the sheer joy of disappearing into someone else’s world, I like to see what the competition is up to. It also seems perverse to expect others to read your work if you don’t read theirs. Hey-ho. But I recognise only too well that at the end of a day of reading, writing and critiquing, I’m more tempted to reach for the remote than a book. Regular reading, for me, (not including stolen afternoons at weekends) belongs to the quiet space before I go to sleep. Forty minutes, tops. I’m a fast reader but even I know that isn’t enough. It also doesn’t take into account the times when I’m dead beat and simply need to crawl into bed and sleep. Combined with a recent house move, my reading has taken a slightly erratic turn. Yes, I read, but lately it’s been patchy and, hell, does it make me feel guilty. Such a betrayal of an author’s energy, passion and time, it’s criminal not to give a story a good level of attention, several chapters at a time rather than several pages. In this shameful vein, I read much of Sarah Hilary’s ‘No Other Darkness.’ To be fair, I got off to a flying start because there’s a strong hook. Half-way through, life intervened and, in the mid-section, I quickly cottoned on that one of the ‘shout lines’ was similar to a novel I’ve been hatching for the past twelve months. What to do? Ditch or continue?
It’s often said that there is nothing new under the sun when writing fiction, that there are seven basic plot lines and that writers craft variations on these. “It’s all down to the execution,” one eminent agent once told me. New writers can get terribly hung up on the fact that their stories might touch on similar storylines in other novels, the avoidance of this often cited as the reason for ‘I don’t read.’ But, actually, there is nothing to fear. For every writer is as different and original as the characters he or she creates; the way in which a tale is told unique to the brain behind it. I’m glad I continued with ‘No Other Darkness’ because actually it’s poles apart from the novel I envisage and it rates as one of the most intelligent novels of the year.
Straightaway, we are introduced to Fred and Archie, two little boys trapped in an underground bunker. Five years on, in a throat wrenching moment, their bodies are found. Enter DI Marnie Rome, and the reader is plunged into a full-on police investigation that delves into the murky world of ‘Preppers’. These are folk who, preparing for catastrophe, bunker down (literally) with supplies of food and water and other necessities of life in order to survive. But the story is so much more than this. Writing is superb, characterisation cracking, and Hilary’s grasp of dysfunctional psychology, including post partum psychosis, impressive. She really knows how to explore the darkest recesses of the human mind. There were moments when I felt sheer dread and terror. If you want to be scared, (let’s face it, most of us enjoy it if only vicariously) slip out and buy it. Again, in another soft whisper, if it’s not too early, you could put it on your Christmas wish list.