RC: I’ve just finished the latest release, Here to Stay, by one of my favourite authors, Mark Edwards. I love how Mark takes ordinary situations that could happen to anyone, in-laws who outstay their welcome, noisy neighbours, being mugged on holiday, and turns them into nightmares. I relish good psychological thrillers like tasty meals, and Peter Swanson, Belinda Bauer, CJ Tudor and Caroline Kepnes are among my current raves.
TPQ: Best book you have ever read?
RC: Ah now, that’s like asking someone to choose their favourite child. But a few of the many that have stayed with me are Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, a haunting, lyrical evocation of the First World War which made me weep. I recently read Faulks’ Engleby, about a working-class guy who doesn’t fit in at Cambridge, but not for the reasons you’d imagine, and I was once again awed by his range and depth, and how he completely enters his character’s heads.
Other stand-outs for me are The Kite Runner by Afghan writer, Khalid Hosseini, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This last is a totally absorbing tale set during the 1967-70 Biafran War. My husband is Nigerian and we are both huge Adichie fans.
TPQ: A must-read before you die?
TPQ: A preference for fact or fiction?
RC: My heart goes with fiction, which has given me great joy all my life. I’m inspired that human beings can create these fabulous other worlds, and I also find comfort in the fact that pretty much whatever you’re going through, others have experienced and written about.
But as a former journalist turned law student, I read a lot of factual books, particularly about this part of the world. Two of the best are Ten Men Dead, on the hunger strike, by my former Guardian colleague, David Beresford, and Lethal Allies, a brilliant expose of security force collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, by my good friend, Anne Cadwallader. Both these books are meticulously researched and incredibly moving. Unquiet Graves, Sean Murray’s stunning documentary based on Lethal Allies, recently won a well-deserved Royal Television Society award.
I love many genres though, including short stories and poetry. I wrote my first Master’s thesis on Frank O’Connor, and Guests of the Nation is still a seminal piece. I’m a big Seamus Heaney fan, I heard him read as a school kid and was lucky to see him again a few years before he died, a local giant indeed. I also love the poetry of Rumi, it’s wonderful that a 13th century Sufi mystic can speak directly to me today.
TPQ: Favourite female author?
RC: Quite a few! Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies made me feel I was right there in Tudor times and her characterisation of Thomas Cromwell is phenomenal. Her short stories are also razor sharp, check out The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Two other dazzling writers are Helen Dunmore, sadly passed away now, and Kate Atkinson. Donna Tartt only writes a book every decade or so but they’re worth waiting for. Her debut, A Secret History, about a group of posh WASP kids at a New England boarding school and the repercussions of their actions, made a big impression on me and I also loved The Goldfinch. Back to psychological thrillers, the late great Ruth Rendell and PD James were absolute doyennes of that genre. I have read all their books and many of the plots stick in my mind years later.
TPQ: Favourite male author?
RC: Apart from the others I’ve already mentioned, Graham Greene. The End of the Affair is beyond heartbreaking. I also love his British diplomat abroad books, he has a wonderful sense of comedy, pathos, place and time. John Le Carre is up there too, he’s so clever and George Smiley is one of the best characters ever. Interestingly I’ve picked two former spies who became disillusioned with the British establishment but wrote novels full of juicy intrigue.
A Berlin Book Tower in memory of the Nazi book burning.
TPQ: First book you ever read?
RC: My mother was a primary school teacher who taught me to read and write as a toddler and I’ve had a book in my hand almost ever since. Both my parents also read to me a lot. First book was probably fairy tales, I had several volumes akin to the original Grimm brothers, quite weird and not at all Disney sweetness and light. My mother was also obsessed with the Tudors, so I grew up knowing everything about Henry V111 and Anne Boleyn. No wonder I’m so fascinated with crime and dark psychology. Back in olden times before the internet, we also had a marvellous atlas, which included lots of history and geology as well as maps. I used to spend hours poring over it, dreaming of all the countries I’d visit.
TPQ: Favourite childhood author?
RC: I loved The Chronicles of Narnia by Belfast author, CS Lewis. I totally believed there was a secret world through the back of the wardrobe and spent hours at night trying to catch my own bedroom furniture out. Now I’m at Queen’s University Belfast where we have the real Narnia wardrobe doors in the McClay library and I take great pleasure going through them to sit in the Lewis reading room.
TPQ: Any book you point blank refuse to read?
RC: When all the fuss began about Fifty Shades of Grey, I looked it up online and read a few pages, and I honestly thought it was a parody. But EL James is the one laughing now, all the way to the bank.
TPQ: Any author you point blank refuse to read?
RC: I picked up Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code at a holiday villa out of sheer boredom and left it down again for exactly the same reason. But like EL James, he’s a hugely popular multi-millionaire, and it would be very tedious if we all like the same books. And I certainly ain’t dissing popular writers. I greatly admire Stephen King, he’s a fantastically visual storyteller.
TPQ: Pick a book to give to somebody so that they would more fully understand you.
RC: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it in my early teens and instantly fell in love with Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama. The story is all the more poignantly seen through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout. I’ve always believed in standing up for truth and equality, it’s what inspired me to be a journalist and now to study law. Go Set a Watchman, controversially published after Lee’s death, is all the more thought-provoking because the young adult Scout still loves her father, who is a racist in this book.
TPQ: Last book you gave as a present?
TPQ: Book you would most like to see turned into a movie?
RC: I can think of some that shouldn’t have been, Fifty Shades, The Da Vinci Code, but also great movies of my favourite books. Gregory Peck is a brilliant Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, and who can forget Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece, The Shining, though author Stephen King apparently hates it. My first-mentioned author here, Mark Edwards’ books would make thrilling, edge-of-your-seat movies. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Netflix series of Caroline Kepnes creepy stalker novel, You. She plays that trick of making you like the psycho, Joe, even though you really, really shouldn’t. Maybe it’s because he runs a lovely bookshop. I’ve already read the sequel, Hidden Bodies, but I am eagerly awaiting its Boxing Day premiere.
⏭ Rosie Cowan is a former Guardian Ireland and crime correspondent, now doing a PhD in criminal law at Queen’s University Belfast.