In the second issue of every month, the “Friend” Book Page features our pick of the best new paperback fiction.
For the last wee while, our page has been edited by magazine journalist and fiction aficionado Karen Byrom. Karen was previously the Fiction Editor for our sister magazine, “My Weekly”.
I had a chat to Karen about her own background in reading and writing fiction.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background in fiction – writing and reviewing.
I’ve been an avid reader since I first learned my ABCs at the age of five, and always dreamed of a career in journalism.
I was lucky to land a job at DC Thomson in Dundee straight after I finished university. I spent over 30 years there as a magazine journalist, working across their women’s magazine titles, with a brief foray into a puzzle magazine!
While I worked on various fiction desks, reading and choosing stories, and working with writers to develop their serials, I didn’t do any fiction writing myself until twelve years ago, when I was asked for a “Jack Frost” story to fill a page in one of the Specials.
I loved writing it. And seeing it in print gave me the confidence to write more stories, which were published in “The People’s Friend” and “My Weekly”.
Four years ago, I picked up the threads of “My Weekly’s” long-running series “Life And The Wadhams”, and began writing new stories for this generation of readers. These now appears online every month.
As the Wadhams stories take place in real time, I’ve had to take up the COVID challenge, referencing the pandemic without letting it take over the story or detract from the readers’ desire for escapism in challenging times.
To me, that is what fiction is all about — a chance to shed your worries and immerse yourself in another world.
I began reviewing books as part of my job around six years ago, and loved it so much I decided to continue when I retired. I now review books for “The People’s Friend” and two other national publications, and you can also read reviews of books I’ve enjoyed at www.karensbookbag.co.uk.
Are your own tastes in reading as eclectic as the books you review, or do you have any favourite genres?
I used to be a one-trick pony!
As I grew up, I progressed from Enid Blyton school stories to Agatha Christie mysteries to Jean Plaidy historical novels to Catherine Cookson sagas to Stephen King horror tales, reading each author’s whole oeuvre before moving on. But now my reading tastes are definitely eclectic, and I think that’s thanks to reading for review.
I’ve had to pick up genres of books I wouldn’t normally have chosen and found, to my surprise, that I’ve really enjoyed them.
I’ll read anything from light romances to deep, dark thrillers. If I had to choose a favourite genre, I would say it’s historical fiction based on real events.
A book by a writer like Hilary Mantel, author of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, can keep me up reading well into the small hours. CJ Sansom, who writes historical detective stories is another favourite.
“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell, the story of Shakespeare’s lost son, was one of my stand-out reads this year. I also like quirky novels. “Daisy” by JP Henderson, which I reviewed for “The People’s Friend” earlier this year, was sublime.
Out of all the books that you’ve read, are there any that stick with you till this day?
Oh, definitely. “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving, which I read back in 1989 when it was first published, is the book I wish I hadn’t read so that I had the pleasure of looking forward to reading it for the first time!
It tells the story of two friends growing up in 1950s and 60s America, who face the prospect of being drafted into the Vietnamese war.
While his friend, John, is a typical lad, Owen believes he has a purpose in life, which drives all his actions. It’s a fantastic read — I’d recommend it to anyone.
My favourite comfort read is Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice”. I read it when I was 13, and must have reread it a dozen times. But it still strikes a chord every time.
Another book I often go back to is “The Eagle and The Raven” by Pauline Gedge, which I read in my 20s.
It explores the story of Boudicca, Caractacus and Cartimandua, the three native rulers who almost succeeded in driving the Romans from Briton back in the first century AD. It’s rich in history and atmosphere — an almost magical read!
How far into a book do you know whether you’ll like reading it or not? Do you have a “give it 100 pages” rule or do you always finish what you’ve started reading?
I used to think it was the law that once you started a book you had to finish it. But I’m afraid my time doesn’t allow for such indulgences now! I wouldn’t get as far as 100 pages if I wasn’t enjoying a book.
A book, like a short story, should grip you from the outset. This can be with a strong sympathetic main character, rich prose, or the promise of a cracking plot. Preferably all three!
I’ve given up on many a book, including some by once-favourite authors.
Having said that, I recently stuck with a book called “The Betrayals” by Bridget Collins, which was hard going for the first few chapters, then suddenly all fell into place beautifully. I did think of giving up on it, but obviously there was something in the first few chapters to keep me reading.
What I hate is when the first half of a book is brilliant, then the author literally loses the plot, and it becomes a hodge-podge of contrived writing. By then, I’m committed to finishing it, even if I’d rather not.
What advice would you give anyone looking to write for the magazine market?
Two things: know your market and know yourself. Don’t try to write stories you don’t believe in – if you’re not convinced, your reader won’t be either. So if your passion is sci-fi or horror, find a niche publication that will welcome your work.
When I’m writing a story for the magazine market, I always start with the characters. They have to be strong, sympathetic and believable. Your plot can be quirky, your setting unusual or fey, but if you don’t get the characters right, your story won’t work.
I also think it’s a good idea to join a writing group. This is difficult at the present moment, I know, but there are plenty on Facebook and online.
Fellow writers are generally very supportive, and will keep you right on the day-to-day demands of the magazine world. Editors can be very demanding, as I know from both sides of the fence . . .
Do you ever judge a book by its cover? Publishers are producing some beautiful editions these days.
I always judge a book by its cover as it’s the very first clue to its genre. Lots of scrolls and pretty flowers, birds and animals usually denote a historical story; a close-up of a beautiful face — as in Natasha Lester’s “A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald” — tells me to expect a romantic read with an intriguing plot; a more-cartoon scene of a couple in a scenic village promises me a light romance.
The one disadvantage to reading on Kindle, which I have to do at the moment as publishers can’t always get advance copies of the physical books out to me, is the lack of a lovely cover. But I always sneak a peek online to see what it is like.
Though I prefer a print book, I always say thank goodness for modern technology like this site. It allows me to interact with fellow book enthusiasts and share my joy in all the wonderful books that are currently being published.
Read my reviews and recommendations online at www.karensbookbag.co.uk.
Follow me on Twitter @karensbookbag
Follow me on Instagram @karensbookbag
For more from Features Ed Alex, read his blog here.
Take a look at some of the “Friend” team’s book reviews by clicking here.