Books and me: On my shelves with Jordan Cleary

Jordan Cleary from Winchester Library tells us about his favourite Young Adult (YA) books, LGBTQ+ stories, and the importance of representation in our reading.

Where is your favourite place to read?

I don’t read as often as I would like, but when I do get a chance to read, I like to do it in what I call a reading nook. It’s actually just a chair in the guest bedroom next to a bookshelf, but I like to call it that so it sounds more elegant than it actually is. I’ve tried reading in bed before, but I just can’t get comfy. Whichever side I lean on, one of my arms goes dead, so I usually just go to the nook.

Before I worked at Winchester Library, I was at New Milton Library which meant an hour commute on the train every day. I used to get through so many books because there’s not much else to do on a train and it was a good amount of time to just sit down and get stuck in a book. Now I work in Winchester and my commute is about 5 minutes. It’s much more convenient for me but I do miss having that dedicated reading time.

How do you read?

In an ideal world I would read about 20 maybe 30 books a year. We don’t live in an ideal world, so I read roughly 5 books a year. I don’t like reading in small chunks, I like to have proper sessions where I can just get my head in a book. I don’t like dipping in and out of a story because I like to really spend some proper time with the plot and the characters. I usually finish a book in three or four sittings, so if I don’t think I have enough time to read, I just won’t. I have tried audiobooks before, but I always find myself having to skip back because I’ve lost track of what’s going on in the story. So, for me, it can end up being more stressful than just reading. I do always carry a book with me though in the hope that I might find an hour spare.

I personally would never dog-ear a book; I really like to treat my books with care. Though I did once have my collection of the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries by Robin Stevens displayed on a windowsill before I knew how badly books can be sun damaged. Each cover is a different bright colour, so they looked really nice all in a row on the windowsill. But the sun aged the paper and bleached all the colourful covers. Never again have I put a book on a windowsill. But I’m pragmatic in so far as, if you have bought a copy of your own book, I don’t care how you treat it. It sounds sentimental, but I actually think it’s really nice how we leave traces of ourselves in the books we read. Whether it’s a note in a margin, a coffee stain, or a folded page, the book can take on qualities of us and almost become a memory in itself.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve been getting into graphic novels a lot because that’s one of my stock areas at work and YA is one of the genres that I really love. I’m reading the Heartstopper series by Alice Oseman at the moment. It started off as a webcomic and is actually running as one still, but it became so popular that it began being published in volumes as a graphic novel. It’s a really sweet love story about two teenage boys in a British sixth form. There’s a lot of YA romance out there but I found Heartstopper quite different because it takes the story at quite a deliberate pace. I think where it started as a webcomic, the relationship is allowed the space and time to evolve in a far more realistic way. It also carries on after they fall in love as well and it’s really far more about their relationship after getting together which is quite rare in YA I think. It touches on a lot of different topics that are so important for us to learn from, from eating disorders and mental health, to homophobia, it’s the kind of book I wish I had as a teenager.

Reading patterns

My reading goes in cycles. I’d say I’m primarily a fan of fantasy, crime, and YA, though I do like natural science and true-crime books too. I picked up my interest in true crime mainly from my mum. Before I went to university, we would quite often stay up watching forensic documentaries and true crime stories. Right now in my genre cycle I’m in a YA phase, but I’ll probably come back to reading crime soon, it’s dependent on my mood.

I often check book blogs for recommendations, especially because I like LGBTQ+ novels and books that are quite off the beaten path. Although I don’t really believe we should pigeonhole a book based on its cover, it is often the first thing that jumps out at you about a book and covers often do a good job of telling you what kind of a read it’s going to be. If a crime novel has a dark, gritty aesthetic then you know that’s going to be quite a different book to the fluffy one next to it. It’s a good way to pick a book if you don’t have much time.

First loves, best loves

When I was younger my favourite author was Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series. They’re beautifully written, setting heavy novels and they have maps to help the world building in the front too; I love a good map in a book! Dragon Rider is another one of her novels that I loved when I was a bit younger. It’s about a boy trying to help a dragon find its home and they fly all over the world together, it’s very sweet and probably where my love of fantasy came from.

The lack of variety of books when I was growing up was a big problem in the early to mid-noughties. I grew up in a time where Section 28 was still enforced which meant that local authorities and government-maintained schools couldn’t promote or endorse LGBTQ+ content or represent those families. Even though it was repealed in 2003, it took quite a long time for schools, libraries, and councils to catch up and take up an equality angle. So, even in secondary school, I don’t remember being taught or shown stories that reflected me or others from the LGBTQ+ community. I’m sure they were out there somewhere if you knew where to look, but when you’re that age and coming out you don’t really know where to turn. I think unless those things are shown to you it’s quite easy to think that there are no books anywhere that actually represent who you are. But publishing houses are improving greatly at that and I think it’s great that schools and libraries are able to wholeheartedly promote these books and showcase these stories now. I didn’t have that growing up and it’s something that I feel like I really missed out on. I’m 26 now but I’m still reading a lot of YA fiction, I feel like I’m catching up on the books I would have read growing up if I had had the chance to.

Overlooked delights

I think children’s books are quite an odd genre because often it becomes dominated by celebrity authors who are marketed really well but aren’t necessarily popular for the quality of the books. I would really encourage people to explore some of the lesser-known children’s authors that are writing incredible books. The last children’s book I read was Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston. Many people may not have heard of him because he’s a debut novelist, but it’s a brilliant urban fantasy about the ‘bureau of supernatural affairs’. One of things I love about this book is that it features a black girl, Amari, as the main character. Too often when people of colour are included in books it’s as a supporting role. But Amari is prominently shown in centre stage of the front cover as the main character. It’s a children’s book, of course, so it doesn’t get too heavy, but it does touch on classism and bullying in a really interesting way and it explores that through some of the fantasy elements too. I would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for an alternative to Harry Potter.

Another I would recommend is Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series which is aimed more at young teens. It’s set in an alternate London where, because of something they call “the Problem”, ghosts appear at night and attack the living. Young people are the only ones able to sense the spirits so agencies are set up for them to investigate “the Problem” and fight the hauntings.

For me, I would like to get into horror. I don’t really enjoy horror films because I find them too scary, but I’d really like to try the book alternative. I’d love to read some of the classic horror novels like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Jordan Cleary is a Library Team Assistant at Winchester Library and the Vice Chair of Hampshire County Council’s LGBTQ+ Staff Network. Jordan was speaking with Isaac Fravashi.

Interview with Louise Doughty – author of Apple Tree Yard and Black Water

Louise Doughty, author of Apple Tree Yard joins us at Winchester Discovery Centre on March 29 to discuss her new book Black Water, with fellow authors Kate Hamer, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Girl in the Red Coat and Emma Flint, author of Little DeathsTickets are available now.

Black Water

John Harper is in hiding in a remote hut on a tropical island. As he lies awake at night, listening to the rain on the roof, he believes his life may be in danger. But he is less afraid of what is going to happen than of what he’s already done.

In a nearby town, he meets Rita, a woman with her own tragic history. They begin an affair, but can they offer each other redemption? Or do the ghosts of the past always catch up with us in the end?

Apple Tree Yard

Louise Doughty’s seventh novel Apple Tree Yard is about a woman who makes one rash choice that ends up putting her on trial at the Old Bailey for the most serious of crimes. But what is that choice and what’s the (real) place on the map in central London called ‘Apple Tree Yard’ got to do with it? Part-psychological thriller, part-personal morality tale and part-courtroom drama, Apple Tree Yard really will have you hooked from the very first page. Here to tell us more about it is the author, in conversation recently with her Faber editor, Sarah Savitt.

[SS] The novel’s prologue had me on the edge of my seat. At first Yvonne seems certain that she will be found innocent of murder, but when she realises the barrister knows about Apple Tree Yard, she fears she will lose everything and be sent to prison. Was the prologue the first scene you wrote? Could you talk a bit about how you began to write the novel, what the genesis of it was?

[LD] Yes, in this case, the prologue was the first thing I wrote. It came to me hard and fast, at around 10pm one evening, a time when I normally just want to watch the news with a camomile tea and think about going to bed. I had a sudden idea for a novel opening with a woman being caught out on the witness stand at the Old Bailey – and I went to my computer and wrote the whole scene at once. As soon as the barrister mentions Apple Tree Yard, the woman knows it’s all over; she is about to be exposed and her life will be destroyed.

At the time I wrote that scene, I didn’t know the details of what had let her to court but I did know what had happened in Apple Tree Yard, which is a real place – a small back alley in Westminster. I was actually planning on writing a completely different novel when I wrote that prologue, but once Apple Tree Yard came to me, I was possessed by it and couldn’t write anything else.

Part of your research for the novel involved sitting though a murder trial. Could you tell us a bit more about this experience and how it affected the writing of Apple Tree Yard?

I managed to get special permission from a judge to sit in the well of a court throughout a three-week murder trial at the Old Bailey. I was embedded with the prosecution team and sitting right behind treasury counsel: I had access to all the evidence, including the forensics, and every lunchtime and coffee break I was hanging out with the murder squad who had investigated the case.

At the beginning of the trial, I had the bones of my story and had written quite a lot, so at first I thought I was just after authentic description and detail – but the whole experience was so fascinating, the legal and moral issues involved, that even though I already had my story, much of what happened at the Old Bailey really informed my plot. I also managed to wangle my way into the cell area and the judge’s chambers. I love research and I’ve always enjoyed bluffing myself into areas I’m not supposed to go. I think I’m actually a frustrated spy.

Apple Tree Yard is on one level a novel about an affair – like so many well-loved classic novels, for example Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. What is your favourite novel of adultery? Does writing about an affair in 21st century Britain, where divorce is so commonplace, have a different charge to it?

Well of course what Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina have in common is they both commit suicide – the classic fate of the adulterous, disturbed or immoral woman – whereas my heroine ends up on trial at the Old Bailey for murder. I guess we can call that progress. I was very keen that Yvonne should not be a victim and not turn her anger in on herself – she’s a grown up woman, highly intelligent and organized, a top scientist. She indulges in one impetuous act and her whole life spins out of control, but she makes her own decisions and some of them are morally dubious. She’s a very 21st century heroine.

Hilary Mantel has said this novel is about ‘the fine line women walk’ and I think that’s very true. Writing about adultery nowadays is certainly different from the nineteenth century. In theory women have much more freedom but with that comes more responsibility – and there is still a strong sense that a woman’s morality is judged in terms of her sexual morality. Yvonne is a good person, who has worked hard at a responsible job and raised a family but that’s not the criteria she gets judged by when she steps out of line.

Yvonne meets X, the man she has an affair with, at the Houses of Parliament, while she is giving evidence to a Select Committee, and much of their relationship is conducted around Westminster. Could you talk about why you set the novel in this part of London?

I really enjoyed setting a novel in the areas of London that people associate with the power structures in our society; the Houses of Parliament and the general Westminster area, the Old Bailey. There does seem to be something about those high octane, self-important jobs that makes people more prone to the drama of an affair. X is a man who needs excitement; he’s addicted to it. Yvonne has been organized and conventional all her life, but when she is offered that kind of thrill, she accepts immediately, in a way that suggests she has always missed it without knowing it. And the environs of Westminster, the parks and cafes and alleyways, are a gift to any novelist – particularly if you’re writing a novel about secrets and power structures of different sorts and how they affect our personal relationships

I love that this novel is both a compulsive thriller and an examination of the values we live by. How important is plot to you as a writer, and as a reader? Where do you start when you’re writing – with theme or plot – or something else?

I always start with plot and that’s something I’m quite unapologetic about, although I occasionally get the feeling that some of our literary critics would like me to apologise for it a bit more. My first drafts are always very sketchy and, to be honest, quite badly written – I’m just getting through the mechanics of the story. But there’s nothing I love more than re-writing, adding layers, complexity, really tinkering with the prose and the imagery, weighing every adjective and comma and licking it into shape. That’s the bit where I feel like a writer.

Thematically, it’s common for me to work out what a novel is really about quite close to the end – sometimes I’ve stopped in the middle of meal with a fork halfway to my mouth (only when I’m on my own, you’ll be pleased to hear) and said to myself, ah, that’s what it’s about. There is also a difference between what a novel is ‘about’ in the public sense, what you’ll admit to, the line you’ll use to intrigue someone into reading it, and what it’s ‘about’ in terms of what was going on in your head and your heart as you were writing it. I rarely admit to the latter.

Yvonne’s experience of the working world and then the criminal justice system is a thought-provoking and sometimes shocking exploration of how women are viewed, valued and judged by our society, what they are allowed and expected to do, and what happens when they break the rules. Do you see Apple Tree Yard as a feminist novel? Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, and yes – of course yes. I actually think all my novels are political with a small p. I hope my viewpoint is hidden well behind character and story, but it’s always there. With Apple Tree Yard, the themes are more overt, because it has a woman character at the mercy of our criminal justice system. The more research I did, the more disheartened I became about how women are viewed within that system, whether as victims, witnesses or defendants. Stereotypical views of what makes a woman reliable, truthful, or conversely ‘bad’ still abound, and a woman is still seen through the distorting prism of her sexual history.

While I was at the Old Bailey, the Millie Dowler trial was going on in the next-door court and I saw her parents in the corridors from time to time. The way that family was treated in the witness box was appalling. The same summer, we had the Dominic Strauss Kahn case in New York and Kenneth Clarke’s comments on sexual assault on Radio Five Live. As Yvonne says in Apple Tree Yard at such times, it can become suddenly difficult to find your way around your own kitchen.

Yvonne was such a powerful character that I almost believed she existed by the end of the novel. How do you approach character when you’re writing a novel?

I tend to home in on the question: what makes this character different from me? That’s where the fertile ground is. In the case of Yvonne, it was important that she’s a scientist, a leading geneticist, a woman who has proved herself in very male, intellectual field. Creating her was something of a challenge when I only just managed to scrape an ‘E’ in O-level chemistry. I visited the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute outside Cambridge and had a tour of the premises and talked to Principal Investigators there, the people who run the labs. I even have a photo of me on the only occasion I will ever wear a lab coat. I took a geneticist involved in protein sequencing – Yvonne’s field – out to dinner, a woman who had been involved in naming genes as they were discovered during the early stages of the Human Genome Project. I read quite a few texts books where I scarcely understood a word.

What intrigued me, of course, was the human application of all this. There is so much about genetics that plugs into issues of personal morality: to what extent are we at the mercy of what we inherit and to what extent are we socially conditioned – and at one point does pure choice enter our lives? This isn’t a novel about science but it was very important to me that the main character was someone who has lived by science almost as a religion, as a way of making sense of her life: then something happens to her, a grand passion, that all her rationalities cannot explain.

I hope that readers will be sympathetic to Yvonne’s plight even as they are disturbed by her choices. In many ways, this novel is a plea for all of us to be less judgmental of other people but particularly of women who don’t necessarily fit the conventional idea of what a woman should be.

Thanks to faber.co.uk.

To get a copy of the Apple Tree Yard book or DVD from your library, see our catalogue listings.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

About the book

1961: On a sweltering summer’s day, while her family picnics by the stream on their Suffolk farm, sixteen-year-old Laurel hides out in her childhood tree house dreaming of a boy called Billy, a move to London, and the bright future she can’t wait to seize. But before the idyllic afternoon is over, Laurel will have witnessed a shocking crime that changes everything.

2011: Now a much-loved actress, Laurel finds herself overwhelmed by shades of the past. Haunted by memories, and the mystery of what she saw that day, she returns to her family home and begins to piece together a secret history. A tale of three strangers from vastly different worlds – Dorothy, Vivien and Jimmy – who are brought together by chance in wartime London and whose lives become fiercely and fatefully entwined.

Reviewed by Jeannie’s Friends

“The group preferred the second part to the first. They did not like back and forward in time”

star rating ** ½

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The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

About the book

THE FIRST SNOW WILL COME. A young boy wakes to find his mother missing. Their house is empty but outside in the garden he sees his mother’s favourite scarf – wrapped around the neck of a snowman. AND THEN HE WILL APPEAR AGAIN. As Harry Hole and his team begin their investigation they discover that an alarming number of wives and mothers have gone missing over the years. AND WHEN THE SNOW IS GONE… When a second woman disappears it seems that Harry’s worst suspicions are confirmed: for the first time in his career Harry finds himself confronted with a serial killer operating on his home turf. …HE WILL HAVE TAKEN SOMEONE ELSE.

Reviewed by Everton

“A gripping novel with some twists in the plot. Rather gruesome with graphic description and spine chilling flight through the night time forest. A thrilling climax with the hero prevailing yet again”

star rating ****

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Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson

About the book

Queenie Dove is a self-proclaimed genius when it comes to thieving and escape. Daring, clever and sexy, she ducked and dived through the streets of London from the East End through Soho to Mayfair, graduating from childhood shop-lifting to more glamorous crimes in the post-war decades. So was she wicked through and through, or more sinned against than sinning? Here she tells a vivacious tale of trickery and adventure, but one with more pain and heartbreak than its heroine cares to admit. Yes, luck often favoured her, but that is only part of the story.

 

Reviewed by Waterside WI Book Club

“Historically very interesting about the events of the sixties and wartime. Queenie was a very likeable character. A lovely style of writing.”

star rating ****

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Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon

About the book

Early one morning Guido Brunetti, Commissario of the Venice Police, confronts a grisly sight when the body of a young man is fished out of a fetid Venetian canal. All the clues point to a violent mugging, but for Brunetti, robbery seems altogether too convenient a motive. Then something very incriminating is discovered in the dead man’s flat – something which points to the existence of a high-level cabal – and Brunetti becomes convinced that somebody, somewhere, is taking great pains to provide a ready-made solution to the crime …

Reviewed by Bookends

“An easy read; varied opinions within the group as to the predictability of the plot; depth of characters. Informative in American / Italian relationships and disposal of toxic waste”

star rating **

 

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The Rage by Gene Kerrigan

About the book

Vincent Naylor, a professional thief, is fresh out of jail. His latest project, an armed robbery, is just days away. Bob Tidey, an honest, hardworking policeman, dedicated to public service, is about to commit perjury. Maura Coady, a retired nun living in a Dublin backstreet, is lost in bad memories and regrets. Then, she sees something that she can’t ignore, and makes a phone call that will unleash a storm of violence.

Reviewed by Museum

“A book full of Irish slang, describing crime in an Irish town as seen by young people at the turn of the century (2000 onwards) Disliked by women readers but perhaps would be more liked by young men

star rating *

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The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

About the book

When she’s not digging up bones or other ancient objects, quirky, tart-tongued archaeologist Ruth Galloway lives happily alone in a remote area called Saltmarsh near Norfolk, land that was sacred to its Iron Age inhabitants – not quite earth, not quite sea.  When a child’s bones are found on a desolate beach nearby, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls Galloway for help. Nelson thinks he has found the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing ten years ago. Since her disappearance he has been receiving bizarre letters about her, letters with references to ritual and sacrifice. The bones actually turn out to be two thousand years old, but Ruth is soon drawn into the Lucy Downey case and into the mind of the letter writer, who seems to have both archaeological knowledge and eerie psychic powers. Then another child goes missing and the hunt is on to find her. As the letter writer moves closer and the windswept Norfolk landscape exerts its power, Ruth finds herself in completely new territory – and in serious danger. THE CROSSING PLACES marks the beginning of a captivating crime series featuring an irresistible heroine.

Reviewed by U3A Group 2

“Good characterisations. Informative on archaeological subjects. Very readable and enjoyed by all”

star rating ****

 

Next of Kin by David Hosp

About the book

When Boston attorney Scott Finn agrees to defend the son of notorious mobster Eamonn McDougal, he knows he’s putting his reputation on the line. But he also knows he can use him as bait to reel in the prize catch. In a city where mob crime once ruled, a core of corruption, greed, lies and deceit still lingers. And it seems there are those in power who will stop at nothing to achieve what they want.

Finn, who grew up an orphan on the meanest streets in the city, is determined to solve the murder of the mother he never knew. In his search for the truth he uncovers a sinister trail of murder, betrayal and revenge borne by someone who could neither forgive nor forget.

But who can be trusted, and who can be believed? And can Finn find the answers before it’s too late?

Reviewed by Fareham Library 5.30

“We all enjoyed this book, although some people found it hard to get into at first (perhaps because this is book 5 of a series?) It was a satisfying story, where all the loose ends get tied up. The characters were interesting and diverse. Many of us would like to read more in the (Scott Finn) Series

star rating ***

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Past Caring by Robert Goddard

About the book

1910: Distinguished MP Edwin Strafford resigns at the pinnacle of his career, removing himself from the public eye. The woman he loves, and for whom he was willing to sacrifice everything, suddenly and coldly rejects him. All the reasons for his fall from grace are shrouded in darkness. Seventy years later, historian Martin Radford is down on his luck when a mysterious benefactor offers him the opportunity of a lifetime: to uncover what exactly happened to Edwin Strafford. But this apparent good fortune swiftly turns into a nightmare. Radford’s investigations trigger a violent series of events, which throw him straight into the path of those who believed they had escaped punishment for crimes long past but never paid for…

Reviewed by 2nd Fordingbridge U3A

“The group was totally divided by this book. Some loved it, some loathed it”

star rating ***

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