The Rich & Judy Book Club: Summer 2017 Reads

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A Report on Novels and Marketing Strategies

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As a result of a week of work experience at HHB Agency, a literary agency based in Fitzrovia, this report focuses on the eight books listed as the current reads of Rich & Judy Book Club. The work experience took place in the week between the 1st and 5th of May, and even though the eight books were published in 2016, they are all part of the Summer 2017 selection. Rich and Judy Book Club is a well-known institution in Britain’s literary world. As an Italian student, I was initially unaware of the importance of their choices for the literary and publishing sector, therefore the report opens with an excerpt about Richard and Judy. It includes the history of the program, its impact on British culture, its evolution and collaboration with WHSmith and some examples of its influence on the literary industry.

In the second part of the report, the eight books of the list will be introduced and followed by a detailed analysis of every single novel, including the synopsis and some insights about genre, category and author. The books are Conclave by Robert Harris, The Trespasser by Tana French, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, I See You by Clare Mackintosh, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’ Farrell and Miss You by Kate Eberlen. The insights on these eight books are also based on the analysis of some articles or interviews on prestigious magazines or journals such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Independent. I have also watched some interviews to the authors and hopefully this research will be helpful in understanding the power of these novels and the reasons why they were chosen in the first place.

This part of the report also provides a description of the physical copy of every novel as a result of an evening spent at WHBSmith in Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford, and one at Stansted Airport, where I carefully touched every paperback, observing the packaging and graphic strategies used to make these books as much appealing as possible for the common readers.

The final section of the report regards the marketing strategies, the observation and research conducted around London to have a comprehension of how Rich and Judy’s choices impact the literary industry. Here, I try to draw some conclusions and how both the work experience and this research helped me being more aware of the literary and publishing sectors.

The Rich and Judy Book Club

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As an Italian girl, I did not know who Rich and Judy exactly were. At least, when Heather Holden-Brown mentioned them to me, I felt like I had heard their name, but I was totally unaware of their role in the British (and International) literary world.

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan are a married couple and they are both columnists and television presenters. They hosted This Morning from 1988 to 2001. The program would include celebrity interviews, cookery workshops and housekeeping tips, and they became so famous that the audience started to call the show Rich and Judy. This gave the name to their next show, which they hosted on Channel 4 from 2001 to 2008. In these years, they interviewed important British and International celebrities such as Bill and Hilary Clinton, J.K. Rowling, Tony Blair, Al Gore and many others.

Richard & Judy also launched two “clubs” and structured them similarly to the ones started by the American TV presenter Oprah Winfrey. Rich & Judy Wine Club and Rich & Judy Book Club were regular segments added to the show. The Book Club, born in 2004, had a huge impact on the reading habits of British people. The books that Rich and Judy selected, reviewed and discussed on the show, very often involving authors and guests, would generate an incredible chain of marketing campaigns and of course book sales. According to Richard and Judy website, the featured titles would increase sales by as much as 3,000 per cent over night, and they generated over £60 million in book sales. 

This led to a phenomenon that changed the literary world and still does, even if Rich & Judy Book Club is not broadcasted on television anymore. They have a fructuous collaboration with WHSmith, for which they select eight books every season. Unsurprisingly, The Guardian identified the couple as the most important people in publishing, and Graeme Neill of The Bookseller, who examined their impact on book sales, stated that a recommendation from Rich and Judy can really change the life of an author. This happened, among the many, to Julian Barnes, who was expected to sell 20,000 but shifted to 300,000 after Arthur and George was recommended on the club in 2006. The recommendation also helps the book being promoted in places where it would not normally arrive – such as important supermarkets as Tesco. And even if the literary world has expressed mixed opinions on the phenomenon, with authors pointing at the exclusively commercial aim of Rich and Judy’s choices, it is undeniable that their lists brought books to many different people, involving new readers that would not normally spend an afternoon choosing a book carefully from a bookshop.

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 Summer 2017 Book Club: The Books

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In the introduction to the Rich & Judy section on WHSmith website, a lot is promised about the new Summer 2017 Reads: the reviews of the books, interviews with the authors, preview chapters and bonus content from and about the writers. Interestingly enough, Rich and Judy seem keen on maintaining a good relationship with the audience, allowing them to vote their favourite book from the eight choices and to join the conversation on the books.

The first page includes a picture of the couple and the badge that is actually stuck on the chosen paperbacks displayed in the shops, which improve the sales in the shops. Then, the eight novels are listed, followed by the interviews and bonus content promised in the introduction.

This summer choice includes eight novels. The genres intertwine, but the list can be roughly described as made of two historical novels, four thrillers and two novels of women fiction. Of these eight, only three were written by very famous authors, and two where debuts. One author is American, five are British (one Northern Irish), one is Canadian, one is Irish.

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The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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The book opens with the protagonist’s dilemma on the strange behaviour of her neighbours. They have just invited her and her husband for dinner, but asked them not to bring their baby daughter as they cannot stand her crying. Even if the reason seems mundane, the protagonist finds it weird. The situation is already gripping: will the protagonist’s worst fears realise? The baby girl actually disappears, and the rest of the book is a crazy race in the discovery of who took her and why. After the great success of best-sellers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Lapena’s book is a thriller based on the reassuring four walls of ordinary people’s life. Lapena’s publisher defines the book as a perfect product in the lucrative domestic suspense market, based on “the emerging trend of women writers who have all turned to crime after originally writing either under other names and/or genres”. Alison Flood from The Guardian praises the present tense that conveys the anxiety and urgency of the first chapter, when the baby is gone and the police is called. This is Shari Lapena’s first success. She had a lot of refusals, but even when she made it to be published, her work did not gain the same success as The Couple Next Door. The Canadian website The Globe and Mail reported that Lapena’s current agent read her manuscript twelve hours after she sent it to her and called her back immediately. As agent Heller states that she refuses 499 out of every 500 submissions, this book took off as an exceptional thriller from the very beginning. The Toronto-based agent for several best-selling thriller novels said that she could not put the book down, and as she distributed to publishers, everyone was soon after the book. Described by many critics as relentless, the book was chosen by Rich and Judy and this meant an incredible increase in its popularity in Britain. The novel is also immensely famous in the United States and in Canada.

Shari Lapena is a former lawyer and English teacher. She revealed to The Globe and Mail that she did think about the premise without reflecting on the plot from the back end, but starting it all with a gripping starting situation, wondering how complicated that situation can be made and what are the different incidents that can be taken into consideration.

The book cover, as many current psychological thrillers, has just a hint of an illustration, with the title taking up most of the space. The cover of the English edition is glossy and the inside font is quite big. The blue of the cover hints at pain, coldness and mystery. The pages are not very thick. It does look like the majority of commercial thrillers on the market, and this may be a marketing strategy to make it look familiar for the usual commercial thrillers’ readers.

 

Title: The Couple Next Door

Author: Shari Lapena

Publishing House: Bantam Press

Publication Date: 16 July 2016

Page Count: 352

Genre: Psychological Thriller

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This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell

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Daniel Sullivan is from New York and works as a teacher of linguistic at University of Belfast. He had two failed marriages behind him before meeting Claudette, a famous actress who’s run away from the limelight to live in rural Ireland. In her interview with Rich and Judy, O’Farrell revealed that her inspiration for the book was drawn by seeing a famous Hollywood star pursued by paparazzi in Soho, London. Eventually, O’Farrell ended up in a ladies’ loo with the star, who confessed all her misery and desperation to the writer. 

The marriage between Daniel and Claudette gets complicated during his trip to America for his father’s birthday, when Daniel finds out something about a past girlfriend which will lead to a series of events that will put his marriage in jeopardy. It is a novel about love, secrets, geographical displacement and marriage, and the story leaps across multiple points of view, time frames, places. Hannah Beckermann from The Guardian defined This Must Be The Place as the best novel O’Farrell has even written, praising her skilfulness in shifting the points of view and comparing the book with the ones by Kate Atkins in terms of playfulness with structure, “while retaining the hallmark emotional insight for which O’Farrell has become renowned”.

The cover itself, which seems like a map where someone has scribbled the title of the book, suggests that the story will cross continents and deal with very diverse and distant characters. In an interview with Headline Books, Maggie O’Farrell said that the novel faces the question of what does it mean to belong to a place or a person in a world where it is so easy to move from a place to another and from a relationship to another, where different cultures intertwine everyday in the multiculturalism of our big cities.

Maggie O’Farrell is very famous in the UK and this is her seventh book. Her novels have all been incredibly successful and she has won many prestigious awards for her work. This Must Be The Place is a Sunday Times Best-Seller and was shortlisted for several prizes, such as the Costa Novel Award and the Irish Book Awards.

The book is quite big, with thick pages and a small font. The cover page is soft and the design is very detailed, with names on the maps suggesting the themes of traveling, identity, difficult choices and distance, very current themes in the multicultural world where we live.

 

Title: This Must Be The Place

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Publisher: Tinder Press

Publication Date: 16 May 2017

Page Count: 496

Genre: Literary Fiction / Women’s Fiction / Romance

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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

A new-born baby dies after a routine hospital procedure performed by an Afro-American nurse, who had been requested not to take care of the baby by his white supremacist parents. The novel is developed through the points of view of the father of the baby, the nurse and the nurse’s lawyer, who, interestingly enough, suggests her that raising the issue of race in her defence is not a winning strategy.

The novel’s themes of prejudice, justice and racism in the US are current for the times. As Judy states, they are more poignant than ever, in a time where Donald Trump racist policies are much discussed. The hook, the moral dilemma that Ruth has to face when the baby goes into cardiac distress and she hesitates before performing the procedure, catches the reader attention immediately. In an interview for Penguin Random House, the author described the long research she did before embarking in the difficult process of writing about race, especially in the case of writing in the Afro-American nurse’s point of view. The author attended social justice workshops and interviewed many women of colour, in order for her to have a clearer and more authentic idea of her character’s voice. Despite this, Lucy Scholes from The Independent stated that the novel did not make it “to capture the complexities of the political and social landscape it claims to portray”, suggesting that, perhaps, the author should have stuck to the white, middle-class lawyer’s consciousness alone, as it was, “unsurprisingly”, the most authentic and vivid. Nevertheless, the novel was #1 New York Times Bestseller and will be soon made into a major motion picture.

Jodi Picoult is a high-profile writer. She has written 23 novels that were translated in 34 languages and sold in 35 countries. Five of her books were made into movies, and they were all great successes. She is one of the three famous writers in the list of Rich & Judy. A close observation of the paperback at WHSmith (both in Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford and in Stansted Airport) provided me with details about the cover and the physical aspect of the book. The cover has a big, embossed title. There is no illustration, just some flamboyant colours in the background. Even if these features and the fancy font used for the title may suggest that the book is a romance novel or a romantic comedy, the contrast between the colours and the black, big title may represent the striking contraposition between white and Afro-American cultures. The pages of the book are thick, and the font of the whole book is very small. It seems a very high-quality product.

Title: Great Small Things

Author: Jodi Picoult

Publishing House: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date: 22 November 2016

Page Count: 512

Genre: Literary Fiction / Women Fiction

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I See You by Clare Mackintosh

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Part of the Top 10 of the Sunday Times, I See You is the second novel by author Clare Mackintosh. The book starts with the protagonist Zoe Walker seeing her pictures in the classified section of a newspaper in London. Even if puzzled, she thinks it is just a coincidence, a girl that looks like her, but from the next day on, she sees the same ad, with the same name and the pictures of different girls. And then another girl pictured in the same ad is robbed on the tube, and another is found murdered in a park. The paranoia fuelled by the ads and the pictures leads the protagonist to ask herself questions about someone actually watching her and other girls who commute and take the same route in London every day.

After The Girl On The Train, the condition of commuters and the anxiety of being watched or spied on, especially with the culture of social media and dating apps, has been largely explored in fiction and psychological thrillers. As The Couple Next Door, this psychological thriller does not start with some investigation, some murder or fraud, but it has its roots in the – apparently – reassuring every day life of ordinary people. Commuting is a chore that many people need to face everyday, and, in the claustrophobia of the tube in the rush our, the sensation of being watched by someone who is taking notes or pictures of us does not even cross our minds. But what if…? The trend of the psychological creepy thriller set in ordinary life scenarios that become suddenly creepy seems thriving. The book takes a more “classic turn” when the protagonist talks to the police and an investigation on the case is started and led by a female detective. Clare Mackintosh knows what she is talking about, as a retired police officer herself. Her first novel, I Let You Go, has seen off J.K. Rowling’s alter ego Robert Galbraith to win the Theakston Old Peculier as the best crime novel of the year. I See You is her second novel and has been largely praised by the critics. Janette Wolf from The Independent commented the impact of the book saying that the commuting to work will never be the same again after reading this book.

Clare Mackintosh is a British author from Bristol. She is very active on social media and likes to have a direct relationship with her readers. Her debut novel was chosen by Rich and Judy as well, and sold more than one million copies. I See You has been sold in 26 countries so far.

 

Title: I See You

Author: Clare Mackintosh

Publishing House: Berkeley Books

Publication Date: 28 July 2016

Page Number: 384

Genre: Psychological Thriller

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Conclave by Robert Harris

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The pope dies. In the hectic three days before the new most important spiritual figure in the world is elected, 118 cardinals prepare to vote. Their ambition is strong, and there are rivals and allies in this race to power. Rich and Judy’s review suggests a twist at the end, and this is not surprising, having seen Robert Harris’s previous successful novels. Conclave is a Sunday Times Best-Seller and it is a political thriller with suspense, historical and crime elements. Ian Sansom from The Guardian defined the book as “unputdownable”. Harris is a very famous British writer, and he started out as a political journalist. He wrote books about British politics and set novels in ancient Rome, always stressing on a very much important theme: the corruption of power.

Having known many powerful people, Harris knows how to make them look like ordinary flawed people acting on a much broader stage than many others, and still having to face the same delusions and minor dilemmas as everyone else. Every sequence of the book is accompanied by twists and complications. In an interview with Penguin Random House, Harris said that the whole ritual of electing a new pope, with the few men choosing the right candidate for the job, seemed the perfect story for him, the perfect narrative that would make a great novel. Even if God should guide the cardinals in voting the best candidate, there is a lot of politics involved in choosing the new pope, and Harris was fascinated by the dynamics of these last days before the decision. The ritual of locking themselves up, the limited time and limited number of characters were an opportunity, rather than a limitation, for the author.

Robert Harris was a political journalist before turning to fiction, and he had ten best-selling novels. He won the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and his book The Ghost was made into a movie directed by Roman Polanski. His novels are translated in 37 languages and he is part of the Royal Society of Literature. He is probably the most famous British author in the Rich and Judy 2017 Summer reads.

The cover of the book is very similar to the one of classic historical and political thrillers. It is glossy, with the illustration that suggests what is going to happen: a helicopter, product of human beings’ intelligence and ambition, flies around St. Peter, the symbol of spirituality and religion on earth. Therefore, the design is very catchy, and together with the title it immediately takes the reader inside the setting and story. The use of red and orange colours may hint of the passion of ambition and the complicated relationships between the cardinals. The title is very big, just like the font inside, and the pages are thin.

 

Title: Conclave

Author: Robert Harris

Publishing House: Hutchinson Press

Publication Date: 22 September 2016

Page Number: 287

Genre: Political Thriller

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Set in London and in Essex in 1893, the book is about the life of a widow who settles down in Essex after the death of her husband. She is a naturalist and does not believe in superstition and religion, so, when some rumours about a mythical serpent terrorizing the Blackwater estuary are spread, she is excited by the possibility that it may be a new species to discover. In her exploration, she is introduced to a vicar, and even if they do not agree on anything, their curiosity will bring them together in a relationship that will take unexpected turns and twists in the unfolding of the story.

This novel, the “most historical” one in the list, is a gothic Victorian tale that follows Sarah Perry’s success of her first book After Me Comes the Flood. The Essex Serpent is crammed with incidents and plot twists, and John Harrison from The Guardian said it is very difficult to stop reading and wondering what is going to happen next. He describes the serpent as “a trick of the light, a tale told to frighten children, a story sold to tourists; it’s an upwelling of individual or collective guilt, a blatant sexual symbol hauling itself like Bram Stoker’s White Worm out of the Blackwater estuary in convulsions of Victorian anxiety”.

The narrative shifts restlessly between the city and the marshes and touches the themes of relationships between governance and poverty. It faces the slum life, the privilege and the atmosphere of the late Victorian period, “with its fears for the present and curious faith in the future”.

Sarah Perry is a British author. She grew up in a Catholic family and had no access to contemporary art and literature until quite late in her life. She got a PhD in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University, where she wrote a thesis about gothic literature. The Essex Serpent is her second book and won the prestigious prize as the Waterstones’ Book of the Year in 2016. It was shortlisted for other many prestigious prizes. The element of romance, historical fiction and Victorian atmosphere all intertwine into an amazing narrative that brought the author to beat Beatrix Potter and J.K. Rowling in several awards.

The beautiful cover was designed by Peter Dyer and the design was inspired by William Morris’s work, and Lucy Scholes from The Independent described it as “a tantalizing taste of the equally sumptuous prose that lies within”. During my research ad WHSmith, I could noticed that the scales of the snake on the cover are iridescent and shimmering, making it even more eye-catching. The whole design of the cover suggests the setting and the historical, fantastic and naturalistic topics. The pages are very thick and the font inside is small.

 

Title: The Essex Serpent

Author: Sarah Perry

Publishing House: Serpent’s Tail

Publication Date: 27 May 2016

Page Number: 441

Genre: Historical Fiction

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 Miss You by Kate Eberlen

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Tess and Gus are meant to be. They may not know it – they meet fleetingly when they are both on holiday in Florence in 1997, at the age of eighteen, then they go back to England and back to reality, and both of them go on with their life. They face their difficulties and losses and their paths cross more than once for the next sixteen years. The reader goes on relentlessly, wondering if they will even meet again and realise that they are perfect for each other.

The book is about the impossibility of love, about distance, about the different chances in life than shape our future – as Rich wonders in his review of the book: are we really the masters of our path? In the increasingly connected world of the millennial generation, is it possible to miss the person that is right the one for you? What if a person that collided with you for just a few seconds was the one you should be with?

Miss You has already been translated in 26 languages and it is the first Eberlen publishes under that name, together with the first that actually brought her to success. Critics have compared this to the famous One Day by David Nicholls, which was a phenomenon in British publishing world, and many said that Miss You offers even more. Stephanie Cross from The Guardian defined it as a “wonderfully light romance”. Interviewed by The Bookseller, Kate Eberlen said that she has always been fascinated by “that idea of how many lives cross ours every day. I often think about it, particularly on holiday. When you are [on holiday] somewhere like Florence you’ll be doing the same route—almost—as other people. So you’ll have these lives that are just next to yours for a little bit and sometimes you’ll even pass them again, and at the end of the day you’re almost on smiling terms. Then you might—or you used to, before selfie sticks—say, ‘Do you mind taking a photo of me?’ So you’ll be in somebody’s life for just a moment.”

The structure of the novel was much praised. Eberlen did not plan the whole thing, but decided to write as much as she could about one character, then she would break and think what could be happening to the other, without planning the touches of one’s life in the one of the other’s. This brought to a great development of the plot. Being compared to One Day, Miss You physical aspect has for sure some elements of the romantic comedies or romantic dramas books: the big title, with the M and the Y of Miss You shaped as a heart and suggesting the themes of the book.

 

Title: Miss You

Author: Kate Eberlen

Publishing House: Mantle

Publication Date: 11 August 2016

Page Number: 464

Genre: Romance

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The Trespasser by Tana French 

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Antoinette Conway is a tough detective. She is part of the Murder Squad, who is very well-known by Tana French’s fans. She has written several thrillers about the Murder Squad, but now Anoinette knows that her role in the group is not the same anymore. She has partnered up with Stephen Moran, but the squad is planning to get rid of her.

The case she and Stephen deal with looks like a slam-dunk lovers’ tiff, but when Antoinette takes a look at the victim’s face, she realises she knows her. She has seen her somewhere, and what immediately crosses her mind is more shocking than what she expected. Since then, the two start investigating dark truths and paths that will lead to incredibly exciting plot twists. Alison Flood from The Guardian described the book as a “gnarly, absorbing read” and defined Tana French “one of the best thriller writers we have”.

Tana French is a very famous Irish novelist and theatrical actress, and her work won several prestigious prizes. The Independent defined her the First Lady of Irish Crime, “who very quietly has become a huge international name among crime fiction readers.” Her books are all part of the series of Dublin Murder Squad, and The Trespasser is the sixth.

Laura Miller from The New Yorker said that “most crime fiction is diverting; French’s is consuming”, stressing the social critique that Tana French manages to do in this book. Interestingly enough, each of the six Dublin Murder Squad novels is narrated from the point of view of a different detective, and this enables the readers to understand the perspective of the whole squad, with its issues and dramas.

The Trespasser sees the only female detective in the squad as the protagonist, and therefore also deals with the themes of misogyny and sexism, as she is the target of cruel jibes and jokes. She is of course not the first female detective in history, but the theme of sexism in professions that are normally associated to men is a much more discussed and current subject nowadays.

The cover is dark, with a big, bright title. The name of the author is also big – even if this is not common for thrillers – because the writer is a famous one, author of the five novels of the same series. A shunned person alone in the dark can be seen on the cover, suggesting the themes of loneliness and uneasiness, the same that the detective feels in the squad when the campaign to get rid of her squad.

 

Title: The Trespasser

Author: Tana French

Publishing House: Viking Penguin

Publication Date: 22 September 2016

Page Number: 449

Genre: Thriller

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Wandering around London after consulting the Rich and Judy list, it was very easy to see posters of the books everywhere in the city. The tube was scattered with posters of these books, which is quite interesting and very different from what happens normally in Italian cities, even in Rome and Milan.

I have also visited the WHSmith in Stratford and Stansted Airport, and there was a specific section for the books chosen by Rich and Judy. They were close to the ones that were in the list in the past seasons, but of course the central part was taken up by the current reads. They all have the badge of the Rich and Judy Book Club.

It is not easy to understand why these books were chosen. I am not an expert in publishing trends nor in Rich and Judy’s tastes – in fact, the work experience at HHB Agency gave me the opportunity to get to know this important part of British literary world for the first time. The eight books do not seem examples of sophisticated literary fiction, but are indeed commercial products that face important and current themes. Jodi Picoult built up an interesting plot around the issues of race in the US, and the election of Donald Trump made this subject more current than ever; The Couple Next Door and I See You take two ordinary setting of normal people’s life and turn them into a hell of suspense and mystery, touching the problems of technology and privacy. The issues of technology and connection are also faced in Miss You, under, of course, a romantic light. The Trespasser is a more classical thriller, but it does come after a successful series set, and Conclave and The Essex Serpent touch some themes that are still very current nowadays – the ambition of men, religion, superstition, power and privilege. Some of the authors are well-established and often very famous authors, but writers like Sarah Perry and Kate Eberlen are moving their first steps into the publishing world, which is a good message of hope for the aspiring writers.

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