Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Holly Robinson

Novelist, journalist and celebrity ghost writer Holly Robinson is the author of several books, including The Gerbil farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir and the novels Beach Plum Island and Haven Lake. Her articles and essays appear frequently in The Huffington Post, More, Parents, Redbook and dozens of other newspapers and magazines. She and her husband have five children and a stubborn Pekingese. They divide their time between Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island, and are crazy enough to be fixing up old houses one shingle at a time in both places.

Recently I asked Robinson about what she was reading. Her reply:
As a child, I read any book that fell into my hands. Ours was a small town, with a library the size of a postage stamp, so my mother and grandfather—also avid readers—would troll flea markets for used paperbacks and bring them home. Often, these were mysteries that were completely inappropriate for a child, so naturally I loved them. In this way I developed a thirst for any book with a mystery at the heart of its plot—anything from psychological thrillers to detective fiction, from cozy mysteries to emotional family mysteries like my new book, Haven Lake, with cobwebbed skeletons tumbling out of every closet.

When I find an author I love, I often binge read, devouring the books in order. My latest find is Ann Cleeves. She has been around for a while and has a couple of different series. Currently I'm following in the footsteps of her Inspector Vera Stanhope, most recently in the novel Telling Tales.

What do I love about these novels? Nearly everything, but let's start with the character of Vera Stanhope. Vera is the sort of detective who gets on with things. She is bossy, overweight, has eczema, can't stand weak or egotistical people, mourns her lack of romantic possibilities, and follows her dead-on instincts. Oh, and she loves a whiskey or two at the end of a day.

I'm also impressed by the authority with which Cleeves writes about the legal system—she has worked as a probation officer—and by how cleverly she creates a wild assortment of quirky peripheral characters. Her characters are all multidimensional, believable and apt to be flawed. I hardly ever guess the murderer's identity because the plots and characters are so complex.

Perhaps Cleeves's greatest skill, though, is her ability to describe settings in ways that amplify the emotions in her books. Again, this might be due to her background—she has worked as a bird observatory cook, and was with the auxiliary coastguard before she started writing—but she has a real sense of the natural world and how it impacts people who have to cope with the whims of nature. Even the smallest weather details are written with care, in a way that lets us know that trouble is brewing, like these descriptions for Telling Tales:

“Outside it was still raining, but a persistent drizzle. He thought this part of the country had more shades of grey than anywhere he had ever been in the world.” p. 75

Or: “The quiet spell of weather was over. There was a piercing east wind and rain with shards of ice in it, sharp and grey as flint.” p. 184

Her descriptions also give us a strong sense of what life is like in marginal towns where the economy has tanked along with the weather. Here's a great example of that:

“The tide was out when they arrived at the river. There were acres of ridged sand and mud, which seemed to stretch almost all the way to the Lincolnshire coast. A cloud of small wading birds, gathered like insects into a swarm, rose in a cyclone above them then settled back onto the mud. The hull of a clinker-built boat rotted upturned on the shore. There was a rough car park containing a red telephone box, a notice board, which might once have given details of how to contact the coastguard but which had faded into illegibility, and a white wooden post with a lifebelt attached.” p. 275

Ann Cleeves makes me believe that evil lies in the hearts of even the most seemingly well-adjusted small town residents. I want to go along with Inspector Vera Stanhope as she finds out who did what, and why. Then I want to sit in the pub with her and raise a glass of whiskey to cheer her on for being fearless, clever, and apt as not to speak her mind.
Visit Holly Robinson's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Wishing Hill.

The Page 69 Test: Beach Plum Island.

Coffee with a Canine: Holly Robinson & Leo.

--Marshal Zeringue