Adult review: In Bloom by C J Skuse

Genre: is serial killer black comedy a genre? If so: this is it!

Age range: definitely 18+ – graphic language, violence and sexual content are key features of this series.

I loved Sweet Pea and was very excited to read this sequel, which picks up the minute Sweet Pea leaves off. Consequently, it is very difficult to talk about without making spoilers for the first book. I will therefore assume you know the basics: Rhiannon is a serial killer, the novel is narrated in her highly engaging voice, including notes from her diary (I particularly love her lists of people she wants to get rid of). The tone is darkly comic and like the best comedians, Rhiannon often pulls you along noting things that you can easily agree with but, as she is a psychopath, she will then take a turn into grotesquesly violent territory where you or I would not have gone – which is a nice reassurance of our normality, perhaps.

If you haven’t read Sweet Pea, you should toddle off and do that now, and I’ll move on to In Bloom-specific points…

For much of this instalment, Rhiannon has the complication of being pregnant, living with her in-laws and being the girlfriend of a convicted killer to deal with, all of which make killing difficult in different ways. But don’t worry, her irreverent voice and her drives are still very much in evidence. If, like me, you found Sweet Pea hilarious and were weirdly rooting for Rhiannon, you will definitely enjoy In Bloom. (and PS, I saw C J Skuse say on Twitter that there is a third book to comes, as well as a TV series!!) So much Sweet Pea goodness to look forward to!

I very much enjoyed seeing Rhiannon negotiate and wriggle around the further limitations imposed by her chatty fetus, her nosey and well-meaning in-laws and the pressures of being recognised as the girlfriend of killer Craig. The idea of her trying to fit into a pre-natal group is, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking (serial killers have feelings too – and the ‘cliquiness’ of those groups was perfectly captured).

Overall, I obviously very much recommend this. The combination of genres is highly original and I think the use of humour will appeal to a lot of readers.  The pacing of the plot and control of tension in this second novel is well-judged and had me turning pages, but the novel’s real strength is in its characterisation and voice.

Thank you to HQ and to C J Skuse for providing a copy of In Bloom via NetGalley for review. Note that accepting a review copy never influences my expressed views and I only opt to review books I enjoy.

Reading Recommendations Slide 26: Revision Season Escapism 2 – Fantasy

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering three titles featuring fantasy worlds, all of which have at least one sequel to get stuck into (and the one that is ‘only’ a duology are classic fantasy big fat books, so plenty of reading there!

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 3 – Revision Season Escapism – Fantasy

The last theme posted was contemps not set in school for revision season. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Book Stocking Filler Recommendations

Want recommendations for book gifts that aren’t necessarily the obvious titles this year? Look no further. I’ve got kids, teens and adults covered here.

The Incredible Billy Wild by Joanna Nadin

Buy it for: any child (7+) who would enjoy this ‘championing the outsider’ story that takes on the cruelties of the dog racing world in a child-friendly way. Also features a class talent show, chaotic parenting and some top-class mayhem (as you might expect when hiding a greyhound from your family…)

The Circus by Olivia Levez

Buy it for: fans of contemporary YA who will enjoy the gritty realism as posh girl Willow is forced to learn hard lessons on the streets, contrasted against the lure of the circus glamour as she hunts for clues to her long lost mother. Atmospheric, gripping and heart-wrenching.

More of Me by Kathryn Evans

Buy it for: those who enjoy YA with a sci-fi element. This features 15-year-old Teva who appears normal to the outside world but hides a weird secret at home: each year on her birthday, she separates and leaves behind a copy of herself. This means that she lives with an array of different versions of herself, including Fourteen, who is upset with her for ‘taking’ her friends and boyfriend…

It Only Happens in the Movies by Holly Bourne

Buy it for: teen romance fans who may enjoy the gentle (maybe not always so gentle) takedown of romance culture in this brilliant novel which explores – through a great story – how abusive acts are packaged as ‘romantic’ in the media. (The author also works as a teen relationships advisor online and her other novels are equally thought-provoking and promote healthy relationships.)

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Buy it for: fantasy fans who will tear through this ensemble heist story set in a brilliantly realised fantasy universe (the Grishaverse – also featured in the trilogy opening with Shadow and Bone). Strong on diversity and suitable for a YA or adult reader, the story concludes in Crooked Kingdom if you want to be really generous and gift the whole thing.

Sweetpea by C J Skuse

Buy it for: anyone over 18 likely to sympathise with serial killer Rhiannon’s outlook on those who cross her by bruising her produce at the supermarket, getting in her way at work or generally being a creepy bloke. Do not buy for those offended by graphic language, sex or violence. Deliciously black humour.

If You Could See Me Now by Keris Stainton

Buy it for: those who like their romance served up with wryly feminist observational comedy. Sharp, witty and with a light touch. Poor Izzy is just trying to get by, but everything is going wrong and then she decides to go for the big pitch at work and grab a promotion. Of course, just then something awful happens…

Q and A with William Sutton, author of Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square

Today I’m very happy to bring you some fascinating insights into the work of William Sutton, author of the fabulous Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, a Victorian detective novel being published this week. If you’re in the London area, do take a look at the open invitation to the book launch below *sigh*. Maybe next time… Anyway, here’s what William had to say:

Why historical crime?

By mistake. I fell in love with the construction of subterranean London. The 1860s became my domain.

But in constructing my techno-thriller of the past, I discovered I could be blunter than I would be allowed to today. In a diseased society, if your friends went about cleansing it, how far would you support them?

Favourite fictional detectives?

I do like non-detectives detecting:

Oedipus the King, Sophocles
Porfyry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment (the original Columbo)
Inspector Cuff, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “I own that I made a mess of it. Not the first mess which has distinguished my professional career!”
Utterson, the lawyer, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial
Detective McDunn in Iain Banks’ Complicity
Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery (first mystery: is there even a mystery?)
Woody Allen in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (see Oedipus above)

Your writing process? I’d like to know about planning – were all the pieces in place before writing?

Every book is different, every story is different, as I scrabble to find new ways to annotate and organise the waves of ideas.

I take notes, write scenes on backs of envelopes, wake up in the night. Notebooks, pads. Now I’m using Evernote and Scrivener, which let me check and add to notes anywhere.

I write by hand in fountain pen in A4 notebooks at a desk with no computer. I just love turning the page, numbering the pages, the cartridges running out, the whole process. I’ve now started typing up on to typewriter (my mother’s, a 1958 Eaton). I know it sounds mad. But my last book I spent so long faffing around with computer files, it’s actually quicker to rewrite decisively, revising with care but without deleting and cut/pasting, then to type up finally on to computer.

I’ve used speech to text software to help me type up. I’ve used text to speech software to listen back to (a robotic reading of) what I’ve just written.

My acting teacher told me, “On n’est jamais trop aidé.” You can’t be helped too much: ie whatever helps, do it.

Could you give us a crash course in writing crime fiction?

1. Go with your instinct on what you want to happen and why it matters.
2. Gather ways it could have happened.
3. Split them up. Wilkie Colllins: “Make ’em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

Thanks to William for this little bit of insight. Fountain pen, eh? If this has whetted your appetite to hear more from him, check out the details for Thursday’s launch: