Where did April go? Not much reading achieved this month as I was lucky enough to spend time with family, but still three excellent books to recommend.
Also, please drop by on the 17th May when I’ll be enjoying an author Heart-to-Heart with Australian author, Kelly Rimmer, when she reveals the real life events that inspired her historical fiction.
In the meantime, stay safe and happy reading!
AFTER THE FALL by CHARITY NORMAN
I’ve mentioned before that it was a friend who insisted I read Charity Norman, so I began with The Secrets of Strangers, which is fantastic, and knew I would read more. After the Fall opens with Martha McNamara and her family moving from England to New Zealand, where they long to embrace a healthy lifestyle and plan a fresh start. However, when five-year-old Finn falls from a balcony, we discover Martha is harbouring secrets and by weaving back and forth between the hospital and events leading to the accident, troubling truths are revealed.
There is lots about Norman’s writing style to enjoy, but I particularly liked the characterisation. Martha, Kit (Martha’s husband), Finn and Charlie (five-year-old twins) are all well rounded, but it was the dialogue between Martha and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Sacha, that particularly rang true. Set against remote sweeping vistas filled with mountains and sandy coves, the family explores, riding horses, but Norman also introduces us to the darker side of New Zealand life. One I hadn’t considered. Norman is a master of effortlessly intertwining the past and present, making this a deceptively easy read, but there is also plenty to consider, making it an excellent book club choice. For those interested in Maori traditions, the reader is treated to a sprinkling of folklore – just enough to make me want to learn more. After the Fall is a page-turning family drama, recommended for lovers of Diane Chamberlain, Kelly Rimmer and Jodi Picoult.
SHUGGIE BAIN by DOUGLAS STUART
The 1980s Glasgow that author, Douglas Stuart creates is a bleak one; a city of tenement schemes where men are out of work, women make do, and weans (children) roam the streets. The place we find young Hugh (Shuggie) Bain trying to make sense of the world, when the adults around him are kicking hard, desperate to stay afloat.
Shuggie adores his mum, Agnes, who in turn finds solace in cheap lager when her taxi-driver husband plays away during night shifts. As Agnes fantasises about a life beyond benefits and buying from a catalogue, young Shuggie fends off bullies who insist he’s ‘no right’.
Shuggie’s devotion to Agnes will break even the hardest of hearts, but the Glasgow humour that underpins scheme life lifts the tale, finding hope amongst the misery. Also, Stuart’s keen eye for the mannerisms of the women of the schemes, arms folded like car bumpers, make this a worthy Booker Prize winner. Shuggie Bain is about love, family, poverty, addiction, and dreams for something more – all beautifully, sensitivity drawn.
THE LITTLE PRINCE by ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY
The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry is a children’s classic I’ve heard recommended time and again and was delighted when it was suggested reading on a recent flash fiction course. First published in French in the 1940s, it’s known for its illustrations, also drawn by Saint-Exupéry, as much as it’s quirky hero – the little Prince. It’s a short book packed with wisdom, not only for children but for adults too… This is my secret. It’s very simple. Only the heart sees clearly. The eyes don’t see what’s important…
The Little Prince is a gentle allegory with a powerful message. One for lovers of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy.
I’m delighted to share the next in my series of author Heart-to-Hearts💗 that focus on women’s issue-led fiction. This month I’m thrilled to introduce New Zealand based author, Charity Norman. Charity has had not one but TWO of her novels selected as BBC Radio 2’s Book Club choices and her work is regularly described as brilliant book club fiction – exactly the kind of novels that Heart-to-Heart💗 readers love. So, let’s get started…
Welcome to an author Heart-to-Heart💗, Charity and as we get comfy would you like to share a little about yourself?
Thank you so much for inviting me along!
A little bit about myself … well, I’m the youngest of seven children, born in Uganda where my parents were missionaries (it’s a long story), raised in North Yorkshire and inner-city Birmingham. My parents had an open door to whoever arrived at our house, day or night, so while growing up I met a lot of people in crisis.
I’m a distant cousin of Virginia Woolf, but my childhood passion was Richard Adams’ Watership Down. I have a signed copy; my brother queued in the rain to get it. I was also obsessed with the Brontë sisters, another Yorkshire vicarage family. I hated school, so reading was my lifeline. My childhood ambition was to be a novelist, but first I spent some years travelling and working overseas, followed by fifteen more practising as a criminal and family barrister in York and Newcastle chambers. I met my husband, a New Zealander, in the Sahara. We moved here to New Zealand when our three children were quite small, and that’s when I finally began to write books.
I have three eccentric cats and am lucky enough to sing with a cathedral choir. In spare moments I love walking by the river, reading with a cup of coffee or glass of wine, hanging out with my (now adult) children and fish-and-chips on the beach.
Cats, walking, coffee, wine, family, fish and chips on the beach – we’re definitely going to get along.You write in my favourite genre, contemporary issue-driven family drama, and readers would love to hear more about your books and writing…
I find them difficult to categorise, so thank you for your help with that! They’re all quite different, exploring the chaos and colour of human life – from addiction to manslaughter to gender dysphoria, teenage parenthood to a doomsday cult. I’m fascinated by people’s stories, by what makes them tick. I draw on my background as a criminal and family barrister and mediator, and a volunteer telephone crisis listener, as well as more personal experiences. In the end, though, I’m just trying to tell a good story.
It’s always fantastic to discover an author has a tempting backlist! But let’s focus on your latest release. What inspired you to write The Secrets of Strangers? And what do readers love about the story?
The central action takes place in one day: a siege in a London café –the bystanders caught up in it, the police negotiator, the young gunman.
I used to live in Napier, a quiet seaside town. In 2009 a man called Jan Molenaar shot and – tragically – killed a police officer before barricading himself alone into his home. We own the house next door, and had chatted to Jan. Our place was taken over by armed defenders; later, we had to fix dozens of bullet holes in the walls and windows. For days, the town held its breath while negotiators tried to persuade Jan to give himself up. I remember the sound of the final shot, when he took his own life. I think he felt he had no other choice.
Years later I was in a café, telling this story to a friend, when it occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about the people around me. Any one of them might be at the end of their tether, might be about to do something catastrophic. That was when the idea came to me.
Although it’s often described as a thriller, the story is character-driven. Perhaps the most frequent comment is from readers who love Mutesi, a Rwandan nurse who escaped the genocide.
Mutesi is a fantastic character, but gosh, what a terrifying experience for your family!…The Secrets of Strangers was one of my favourite novels of last year but, when you find time to chill, which authors do you enjoy?
There are so many brilliant contemporary writers, but when the world seems upside-down I often go back to the classics. I keep audiobooks of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and others in my car; they’re my happy place, as is the world of P G Wodehouse. The 20th Century Irish writer Molly Keane is one of my heroines, especially her stunning novel Good Behaviour. Daphne Du Maurier is another: terrific storytelling, vivid but never self-conscious. I literally laugh myself to tears over Bill Bryson’s travel writing, and am always keen to read the next John Grisham. I read a wide range of non-fiction, for research or pleasure.
Can you tell us a little about what’s next?
I’ve just sent a draft to my editor, so am waiting with bitten fingernails! In this story, a woman returns to her childhood home under the Ruahine mountains in New Zealand, to care for her father who has Alzheimer’s. As his mind melts, she begins to glimpse appalling secrets. Perhaps some truths are best left buried?
Please save your finger nails! It sounds like another book club hit and I’m sure Heart-to-Heart💗 readers are looking forward to taking a literary trip to New Zealand. Thanks so much for making time to chat.
To discover more about Charity and her writing just follow the links below, but in the meantime, stay safe and happy reading!
It’s that’s time again, when I share a round-up of last month’s reading. As days brighten, I tend to pull away from dark, gothic reads and return to some of my favourite contemporary fiction writers – David Nicholls, Kate Hewitt and Catherine Miller. Whilst Kiley Reid’s debut was one that kept cropping up on my social media feeds, and a John Boyne novel always makes a brilliant book group choice.
Also, please drop by on the 19th April when I’ll be enjoying an author Heart-to-Heart with New Zealand based author, Charity Norman.
In the meantime, stay safe and happy reading!
SWEET SORROW by DAVID NICHOLLS
Where do I start with Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls, other than to say that if you have teenagers, know teenagers, have been a teenager, then this novel will speak to you. Or perhaps it is because I am currently separated from the young adults in my family, that I so enjoyed a reminder of how fabulously unpredictable life with teens can be! Back to SweetSorrow – which is a coming-of-age romance that is beautiful, funny, poignant, sad and a masterclass in how to write about the painful angst and joy of teenage life. Set in a small town in England in 1997, Charlie Lewis is sixteen, with a gang of male school friends who enjoy banter and illicit booze, but as his homelife begins to crumble, so Charlie’s exam chances take a parallel nose-dive and the long, hot summer after completing school stretches endlessly ahead of him.
Until an unexpected meeting with the enigmatic Fran Fisher, who lives on the other side of town, presents Charlie with possibilities previously unthinkable. The story revolves loosely around an am-dram production of Romeo and Juliet, focusing on Charlie’s gradual awakening to a life beyond the tight lines drawn by his school mates. In a recent interview, Nicholls revealed that the movie Gregory’s Girl was an influence when writing, and SweetSorrow has the same innocent, fumbling-for-adulthood feel. It’s both charming and utterly sad. Enjoy!
A HOPE FOR EMILY by KATE HEWITT
Kate Hewitt writes gut-tugging, heart-wrenching fiction and from the outset it was clear that A Hope for Emily was a page-turner I’d find hard to set down. Little Emily is only four years old but has sadly developed an undiagnosed degenerative illness that has left her in a coma. Her mum, Rachel devotes herself to Emily’s care, whilst dad, James makes every effort to be by Emily’s bedside when he can. But the strain of caring for a very poorly child is immense and when Emily’s condition deteriorates even further, James’s new wife, Eva is drawn further into the family circle.
A Hope for Emily explores the lengthens a mum will go to, in the belief she is doing what is best for her child. One aspect I found refreshing, was the relationship that develops between Rachel and Eva. Too often in the press and fiction, women are pitched against each other, and in A Hope for Emily it felt true that Eva would recognise a mum pushed to the limits and wish to help. Be prepared for a sad but utterly beautiful emotional read.
I’m excited to share Catherine Miller’s,The Missing Piece because it might be her best novel yet – and I’ve loved them all! Keisha Grant is a PHD student who has suffered in some way that impacts on her daily life. The anxiety she feels is palpable, as she focuses on work and the rituals that make her feel safe. But when she meets Clive, an elderly gentleman who agrees to participate in one of her PHD projects, she meets a kindred spirit in need of help and knows she can’t turn aside. A story of friendship and rebuilding trust, one of the main themes of the novel is about Broken Heart Syndrome, which I knew nothing about. There is something refreshing about the way the story is told and both Keisha and Clive felt like living, breathing people we might come across in everyday life. Although the story is a poignant one, there are also elements of romance and mystery woven through, and the kindness shown by Keisha friends, George and Tess, is a reminder of what’s good in the world. An enlightening, uplifting read.
SUCH A FUN AGE by KILEY REID
It was the cover blurb that attracted me to Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age. When white Alix Chamberlain finds herself in a tight spot, late on a Saturday evening, she calls her African American babysitter, Emira Tucker, to come help with her toddler daughter, Briar. But when Emira takes Briar to a local convenience store, the security guard suspects Emira of kidnap, a situation that rightly horrifies Alix, who sets out to make amends.
Such A Fun Age is written as a pacey page-turner and could be mistaken for a light, quick read, but probe deeper and the reader discovers it is really about class, race and privilege. Although the story is told from both Alix and Emira’s point of view, I was more interested in Emira’s world – her relationships with her boyfriend, her friends, little Briar; her struggles to pay rent; her worry that on her 25th birthday her name will be removed from her parents’ health insurance. And it was the voices of Emira, and Briar, who drew me in.
At times, I felt confused by Alix’s motives. I understood she wished to appear ‘woke’ and carried issues of guilt from her past, but I was still unsure why she became so obsessed with Emira, particularly when the Chamberlain’s lifestyle seemed hectic, juggling work and family time. Such a Fun Age is interesting as it focuses on ‘white saviourism’, but having spent the novel rooting for Emira, I couldn’t help but wish that she had learned to value herself more. Still, Such a Fun Age is a novel I will remember for its thought-provoking themes.
A LADDER TO THE SKY by JOHN BOYNE
It’s a while since I’ve read a slow-burning novel but A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne was my latest book group read and is a brilliant example of the genre. We discover from the cover blurb that young, handsome Maurice Swift is an author prepared to steal others’ stories to fuel his success. But just how far is he prepared to go for his art?- A fascinating topic for creatives to consider.
The literary world Boyne creates is fascinating, full of egos and back-stabbing. Very different from the supportive writing community I know and love! Initially, it was the European settings and Swift’s louche character that drew me in, but it was an incident midway through the novel that had me completely hooked.
Manipulative and totally lacking in empathy, Swift’s ambition knows no bounds, so that I found myself willing him to be outed and to receive the punishment he deserved. With themes of obsession and jealousy, this makes a fantastic book group read, with numerous moral issues that are ripe for discussion – who owns an individual’s story? When does someone’s story become fair game? Fiction versus fiction based on fact. How close to the truth should a novelist tread? When should a writer obtain permission to use someone’s story? A Ladder to the Sky considers the damage done when the search for inspiration trumps all.
I’m delighted to introduce the next in my series of author heart-to-hearts💗 that focus on women’s issue-led fiction. And we have something very apt today from Catherine Miller, as she explores Broken Heart Syndrome (a condition I knew nothing about) in The Missing Piece (read my 5 star review here). I am excited she has agreed to join us as, not only was another of Catherine’s novels, The Day That Changed Everything, recently nominated in the shorter romance novel category of the Romantic Novelists’ Association awards, but also Catherine’s journey to publication is an inspiring one. So let’s get started…
Welcome to an author heart-to-heart Catherine, and before we turn to your books and writing, would you mind sharing some of your journey to publication?
Thank you for having me, Rae! First, I’ll grab a cuppa as I’m also a mum to 7-year-old twins, so any moment for a sit down (especially over the last year) is a welcome one. I’ve always written, but even though my first novel attempts occurred in my teen years, as I’m dyslexic, I never felt I was capable enough. Instead, I trained as a physiotherapist, but ill-health (uveitis – an eye condition) brought that to an early end. As I couldn’t do the job I loved, I decided to follow the impossible dream of becoming a writer. Having the twins should have made that trickier, but I found it taught me to never waste ten minutes. I secured my first book deal when they were two and it’s been non-stop ever since.
I am genuinely in awe of all you have achieved, Catherine, whilst juggling being a mum too. We would love to hear more about your work…
My stories always tend to be idea-led so I’ll think of something and write a one-page synopsis. My agent and I will then discuss what I should write next. Most of my books are emotional women’s fiction, but I’ve also have two contemporary comedies published (The Gin Shack series). Currently I’m writing uplit emotion women’s fiction for Bookouture. It’s great having Hattie (my agent) to bounce my ideas off as she is good at pointing me in the right direction.
Fantastic news! We all need some uplifting reads at present… Let’s focus on your latest release. What inspired you to write The Missing Piece? And what do readers love about Keisha’s story?
The Missing Piece focusses on Broken Heart Syndrome. As I used to be a respiratory physiotherapist working in cardiology I was surprised to hear about a condition I’d not heard of and instantly thought there had to be a story in it. Without giving too much away, it ended up featuring my grandad’s allotment and I wrote it for my nan. It was a cathartic book to write, especially given the backdrop of the pandemic… sometimes we can’t fix hearts in real life, but we can in fiction so that’s what I set out to do. One of the latest review on Goodreads is from Christine Anson and it really summarises well what I hope to achieve with all my stories: I don’t know if I have ever read something so intricate and unique and I am a die hard reader. I love the story.
I know that as well as novel writing and being with the family, you also make time to support other authors by sharing reviews. Whose writing do you enjoy most?
I love reading and tend to switch genres from book to book. Some of my favourite books over the last year have been: Half A World Away by Mike Gayle, The Choice by Claire Wade, The Dead Wife by Sue Fortin, The Cottage of Curiosities by Celia Anderson, The Runes ofDestiny by Christina Courtenay, The Corset by Laura Purcell and the Mel Craig series by Betty Rowland. I manage to get through a lot more books now I enjoy audiobooks. If I had the chance, I’d read books all the time.
Agree, audiobooks are a brilliant way of powering through a to-be-read pile. Although after reading your recommendations, mine has just grown!… Can you share a little about what you are writing next?
If you can’t cross the threshold, is it ever possible to find love?
I pitched my next book prior to lockdown last year. It’s about Fiona who has agoraphobia and what she does when life comes and finds her. It’s been quite strange to end up writing the book in similar circumstances to how Fiona lives as a result of lockdown. I know there’s method acting, but I think this is my first true dose of method writing! Despite having to home school alongside a good percentage of my deadline time, I’ve somehow managed to finish the book and it’s due out in June. It’s another heart-warming read trying to find hope in the toughest of times.
Thank you so much for having me, Rae.
It’s been a pleasure, Catherine. Thank you for joining us and I’m pleased to learn we don’t have too long to wait for your next release, which sounds like another fantastic heart-to-heart💗 book. Also, thank you to the reading friends who have joined us.
To discover more about Catherine and her writing just follow the links below, but in the meantime, stay safe and happy reading!
The Missing Piece is available is in e-book and paperback editions. Buy here:
Spring has definitely sprung here in northern Scotland, as the days lengthen and the sun has reappeared. I was even lucky enough to spot a woodpecker scouting my garden. And given February is traditionally the month of romance, I’m pleased to share that all of this month’s reading have longing at their heart, albeit Lincoln in the Bardo focuses on paternal love.
Also, please drop by on the 15th March when I’ll be enjoying an author Heart-to-Heart with Catherine Miller, discussing her fascinating latest novel, The Missing Piece.
In the meantime, stay safe and happy reading!
THE BOATMAN’S WIFE by NOELLE HARRISON
Having been born and brought up within a fishing community and, at one time, been a fisherman’s wife, I was immediately drawn to Noelle Harrison’s, The Boatman’s Wife. Set against the rugged backdrops of both western Ireland and Maine, this is a dual timeline story that follows the journeys of Niamh and Lily, both strong, determined, passionate women drawn together by secrets.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Lily’s husband, Connor is lost in a fishing tragedy (as it’s in the blurb) and some of my favourite passages from the novel were set on the ocean. Noelle makes it easy for the reader to imagine tangled wind-tossed hair and the gritty feel of salt on skin. I was wholly swept away by this tender novel about risk taking, loss, young love, and eventually finding a way through the darkness again. To discover more about Noelle and her writing, just check out my new Heart-to-Heart author interview series here…
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by GEORGE SAUNDERS
One of the ways I’ve kept positive during lockdown is to set myself mini challenges, making sushi was one, reading the Man Booker Prize Winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was another. Based during the American Civil War, it focuses on President Lincoln and the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie. Newspapers reports of the time wrote of how President Lincoln returned to the crypt several times to hold his son’s body, and the reader is shown this through the eyes of the spirits who haunt the graveyard.
This makes Lincoln in the Bardo sound like a sad, desperate novel and nothing could be further from the truth as, as so often happens when surrounded by death, humour is used as a coping mechanism. For example, the residents of the cemetery refer to their coffins as ‘sick boxes’. Each character recounts scenes from his or her life, funny moments included. Saunders allows his imagination free rein as the novel tips into magical realism. I mentioned that I had set Lincoln in the Bardo as a challenge and for those not familiar with the work I’ll explain why. George Saunders is a well-respected and prolific short fiction writer, and Lincoln in the Bardo is structured in an unusual style. Several reviews have described the Booker winner as a series of footnotes, but what they failed to add is that they are the most wonderful, clever, beautifully crafted ‘foot-notes’. Although Lincoln in the Bardo is packaged as a novel, I recommend approaching reading it as if you were reading a Shakespearean play. Rich with characters and drama, I believe that soon students will study Lincoln in the Bardo as an examination text.
THE ESCAPE ARTIST by DIANE CHAMBERLAIN
Diane Chamberlain is the author that made me fall in love with issue-driven women’s fiction, about ordinary women digging deep to make necessary changes in their lives. So, imagine my excitement when I discovered one that I’d missed – The Escape Artist.
When Susanna Miller loses a custody battle, she flees from Boulder, Colorado with her eleven-month-old son, Tyler and heads for the anonymity of Annapolis, Maryland. She settles quickly into her new home but can’t foresee how soon she will be drawn into a mystery that means to save others she must let Tyler go. Filled with rounded characters, I particularly liked that Chamberlain also focused on Peggy’s story. (Peggy had an affair with Susanna’s husband and is Tyler’s prospective new mum). As a reader, this gave a more balanced view, and showed how the pain of both women was real.
I believe The Escape Artist was first published during the late 90s, and it was interesting to be reminded of how our lives were then – think phone books and word processing. There was one plot line that perhaps stretched the imagination a little, but by then I was so invested in Susanna’s story that I didn’t mind. Also, by that stage I was completely charmed by Susanna’s long-term friend, Linc Sebastian, and was willing them to get together again. Did they hook up? … Read The Escape Artist to find out.
ME WITHOUT YOU by KELLY RIMMER
Oh my word, Me Without You by Kelly Rimmer just sucked me in, wrung out my heart and may turn out to be my favourite romantic read of the year. Set in Australia, Callum Roberts and Lilah MacDonald meet on a ferry boat travelling across Sydney harbour, and although there is an immediate attraction, Lilah’s strong opinions on both food and the environment are at odds with Callum’s meat-loving, marketing executive lifestyle.
As well as being completely swept up in Callum and Lilah’s budding relationship, there were two other factors that made me love this novel. The first was the Australian setting. Rimmer’s writing makes it easy to feel the sea breeze, to experience the wonder of the Blue Mountains, to taste the juicy fruits picked from the farm. Also, over fifty percent of the story is told from Callum’s point of view, which I found both refreshing and deeply romantic. I highly, highly recommend Me Without You for fans of Jojo Moyes’ bestseller, Me Before You.
SUMMER by EDITH WHARTON
Summer by Edith Wharton may seem a strange novel for my book club to choose during a snowy February in northern Scotland, but the group longed for the promise of warmer days and Summer was an unanimous choice. It is a coming-of-age novel, first published in 1917, that follows Charity Royall as she experiences the thrillers and pains of first love, under the watchful eye of her guardian, Mr Royall, as well as the close-knit community of North Dormer. There is a sense of foreboding throughout, as the reader knows more than young Charity, no matter how worldly she believes herself to be.
But there is also mild humour, as Charity expresses her desire to break free from the constraints of small-town life. The glamour of large towns appeals, but she is also painfully conscious of all she does not know. There is one particularly excruciating scene when her guardian confronts her in public when, by today’s standards, all she was doing was enjoying a fun day out. If, like my book group, you wish to escape to a time of cycle rides and picnics, then I’d recommend reading Summer at any time of year.
The Snow Angel by Lulu Taylor is for readers who love dual timelines that are woven around old country houses, offering scope for family secrets to remain hidden for years. The novel opens in London in the early sixties, when Cressida Felbridge is cocooned by polite society, courting a family friend. However, when she attends a sitting for the artist Ralph Few their initial friendship deepens, and they are forced to escape to December House.
In the present day, Emily Conway is left bruised, both physically and mentally, after an awful accident that leaves the life of her husband in the balance. She grabs the opportunity to relocate with her children to December House, in the hope of rebuilding her life again. I love Lulu Taylor’s writing style and its sweeping family drama feel, and so wanted to give The Snow Angel 5 stars, but there were a couple of issues that jarred for me. The historical thread didn’t feel as if it were set in the 1960s. The narrow attitudes of Cressida’s father, her initial acceptance of her lot, the claustrophobic nature of the household, all felt as though it belonged at the turn of the last century. (Although I’m sure Taylor did her homework.) The second was the introduction of Emily’s brother Tom, and the issues he brought with him. I didn’t feel he was necessary to the story and was almost a distraction from the main plot. All that said, fans of Taylor’s won’t be disappointed, it is still a wonderfully immersive read. Also, please don’t be put off by the title or the snowy cover, the snow angel only plays a very small part in the story and I could just as happily read it in summer.
I’m delighted to introduce the first in a new series of author heart-to-hearts, focusing on women’s emotional fiction. Having recently read Noelle Harrison’s,The Boatman’s Wife (read my 5 star review here), I am thrilled that she agreed to join me today. So let’s get started…
Welcome to an author heart-to-heart Noelle, and as we settle in could you tell us a little about yourself?
I’ve always made-up stories. As a little girl I was quite happy in my own company, creating a cast of characters and acting out their dramas – usually orphanages were involved. I was obsessed with the book The Little Princess! I loved reading. It was my solace, and I would perch in a tree hidden away from the world reading for hours. It is still my top pastime. I never feel I have enough time to read all the books I want to.
I grew up the daughter of an Irish single mum. She was an incredible woman. She had trained as a dancer, was an accomplished pianist, sang, sculpted, spoke several languages she had just ‘picked up’, and was the only person I know who can complete The Sunday Times Cryptic Jumbo crossword in one day. She was a true Renaissance woman, yet she never went to school! When she had me and my brother on her own, my Mum decided she would give us a beautiful childhood in the countryside so she got a job as a cook / housekeeper. Yes, that’s right she was also an amazing cook! I grew up in grand houses in the home counties but always in the position of a servant. This fed my compulsion for observation, watching the dramas of others unfold as if a fly on the wall. I could become invisible!
I began writing plays when I was about 20. I put on my first play not long after I graduated with a degree in History of Art from London University. It was multi-media and about child abuse, which was pretty out there in 1990. I got quite a bit of hate directed at me for the play. But EVERY girl I knew at that time had experienced some kind of sexual abuse and I felt it needed talking about!
I had always dreamed of living in Ireland and the next year I made the move to Dublin. There were no jobs in Ireland at that time. In fact everyone was leaving Ireland to get work, but I have always enjoyed swimming against the current. I knew how to read Tarot Cards so I set up a market stall – Noelle de Mosa Tarot – and supported myself reading Tarot. I have continued to read Tarot Cards ever since. As the years have gone by, I have developed a way of using them in my writing to release deeper meaning. They fascinate me!
In Dublin I set up my theatre company Aurora, with a close friend. Over the next few years, I wrote and produced three plays. When I became pregnant with my son in 1997, I moved to rural Ireland and began writing novels. I have been writing novels ever since with the occasional play! I like to live in different places as I draw inspiration from my settings. From Ireland, I went to Norway and lived there for a few years. I came to Edinburgh in 2016, where I completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University which I adored. It was so great to be a student again!
Writing is my passion. I am never happier than when immersed in writing a novel. The times I find tough are when I have to do other things to pay the bills! Alongside my writing, I’ve also developed my love of teaching creative writing. Over the past twenty years I’ve worked with so many different groups from children in schools to the elderly, academic students to beginners. More recently I’ve combined my love of teaching creative writing, with my yoga practice. Training in Vinyasa, Restorative, Yin, and Menopause Yoga, I now teach yoga, meditation and journaling. I love how the practices of writing and yoga synthesise. I also enjoy collaborating with other creatives. Myself and the Scottish author Sandra Ireland have been running novel writing boot camps with a difference balancing masterclasses in skills with tools for self-care. I do believe this is so important for writers especially at the moment.
I’ve also received Creative Scotland funding to develop an interactive storytelling Tarot Deck called Dare to Be collaborating with writer Becky Sweeney. We are so excited about this.
The truth is I don’t have hobbies because I love my work so much it fills up most of my time either writing, teaching or practicing yoga. However, I do love walking in nature. I’ve found living in the city and not being able to get out into the wilds the biggest challenge of lockdown. But it has also been very interesting to see how one can bring a sense of space within limitations through mindfulness. Walking in the city by the canal and listening to birds, closing my eyes, feel the wind on my cheeks, smelling the damp earth, I can access the same sense of peace I get on my own in the country.
Gosh, what wonderfully varied experiences to draw on. We would love to hear more about your books and writing…
I have written ten novels and five plays. The underlying compulsion beneath all my stories is to create a mood, a feeling for the reader or audience to release their own emotions. I am fascinated by the idea of the novel cure. I think as society we underrate how stories, the lyricism of language can soothe us, and help us heal. This is why my early books explored stories of loss and redemption, family secrets, and landscapes which acted as characters themselves, and emotional barometers for the protagonists in my tales. I wanted to write about truths buried deep in all families and in our societies about adoption, unplanned pregnancies, mental health, and tragic miscommunications within families. At the same time, I wanted to uplift through stories of real love, and the beautiful tangle of relationships. My trilogy written under the pen name Evie Blake are literary erotica as I took my interest in the sensuality of language a step further.
In recent years, I’ve been very much drawn to writing more historical fiction, and in particular the stories of poor women, or outsiders who had no voice during the time they lived. I love blending genre between contemporary, historical and magical realism.
Interesting… as regular friends of the blog will know that I also love magical realism. But today we are focusing on your latest release, so what inspired you to write The Boatman’s Wife?
The Boatman’s Wife tells two parallel tales of Lily, living now in Maine in America, and Niamh, in Ireland in the nineties. Both are young women dealing with the consequences of secrets. What if the person closest to you was not who you thought they were?
A close friend of mine was widowed very young, and we talked a lot about her experience. I wanted to write a main character, Lily, who was a young widow, and the intensity of discovering her husband was not who she thought he was. At the same time, Niamh’s story touched upon a subject I have wanted to write about for a long time. Having lived in Ireland in the nineties I wanted to write a story which acknowledged the Troubles and its impact on border communities at that time. I wanted to show it was not a black and white issue and how it leeched into everyday domestic life. For Niamh she is the secret herself. How can she change the direction her life is going in? Keep this secret from her mother?
I’ve had some beautiful responses to The Boatman’s Wife and I am always so interested to see what readers like about the book. Some identify with Lily, and some with Niamh. It is a heart-breaking story ~ how can it not be? But it’s also intended to take the reader on a journey of healing with an ending of hope.
It’s a beautiful story, Noelle and several reading friends have already been in touch to say how much they enjoyed it. But which authors do you enjoy?
This is very hard to answer because I love so many books, and lots of different genres. I try not to limit my tastes and be prescriptive in my choices. My favourite novel of all time is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I could read that book again and again and marvel at her skill as a novelist. Of course, she was completely underrated at the time because of her gender.
I love reading thrillers to relax. Its not a genre I write myself and I am in awe of a compelling twisting plot. Of course, I adore all of Sandra Ireland’s books. Her latest Sight Unseen touches on a favourite theme of mine – witch hunts.
I also enjoy reading literary historical fiction with a touch of magic in them! I have just finished Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell which completely seduced me, as did Circe by Madeline Miller. Another recent favourite was The Familiars by Stacy Halls, and I am currently reading The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.
At the same time, I love reading contemporary fiction whether they deal with tough issues such as Sinead Moriarty’s brilliant Seven Letters which had me in tears the whole way through, or Monica McInerney’s heartwarming The Godmothers which has just come out.
Finally, my son as an avid Sci Fi reader has inspired me to explore this genre which has led me to discover some fabulous authors. I absolutely loved Laura Lam’s Goldilocks which came out earlier this year. Feminist sci-fi heist – what not to love? I also discovered a beautiful collection of Sci Fi stories by Chinese authors called Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, which has prompted me to read more work by these writers.
What a fantastic selection. I’m also a fan of Sandra Ireland’s and Sinead Moriarty’s writing, and have added several others to my to-be-read list! So, what’s next?
My next novel to be published by Bookouture is called Sea of Light and will be out later this year. It’s historical fiction, inspired by the true story of Norwegian women branded as Nazi collaborators at the end of the war. So many of these women were scapegoated, abused, and stripped of their citizenship to be left stateless often either pregnant or with young children. We hear many stories of resistance but not of collaboration and I wanted to explore this difficult and very hidden part of Norway’s history. Sea of Light tells the story of two sisters in Northern Norway– one a resistor and one a collaborator. It is also a love story. Are some secrets unforgiveable?
As well as Sea of Light, I am also currently adapting my play Witches’ Gets into a novel. This story is about the witch panic in Norway in 17thcentury. I am quite obsessed with the history of witch trials, so I am very excited to be working on this.
Finally, I am working on a series of short stories for my Dare to Be interactive Tarot Deck which I am creating with Becky Sweeney and our illustrator Nadja Andersson and designer Minnamari Helmisaari. This deck has a threefold function: for divination, storytelling and as creative prompts. The concept behind the deck is to tell stories of those who dared to be different in the past and now. So not just witches, but all outsiders whatever gender, whatever background. Some of the stories are inspired by real historical figures and some are fictional.
And of course, I have many more ideas brewing in pots on the back boiler, but that’s all I can reveal right now!
Thank you Noelle, I love a great witchy story too and The Sea of Light sounds like another excellent heart-to-heart book. Also thank you to the reading friends who have joined us.
To discover more about Noelle and her writing just follow the links below, but in the meantime, stay safe and happy reading!
The Boatman’s Wife is available is in e-book, print and audio editions. Buy here:
Writers are advised to read within their own genre, but also to read widely, and I think you’ll agree I have a real mix of books to share this month. Two book clubs reads, a twisty thriller, an uplifting generational novel, as well as a beautiful non-fiction offering.
Also, be sure to drop by on the 15th February when I’ll be enjoying an author Heart-to-Heart with Noelle Harrison, discussing her latest novel, The Boatman’s Wife.
In the meantime, stay safe and happy reading!
AMERICANAH by CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
I was delighted when my book group chose Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as their January read, as it’s a book that has been on my to-be-read pile for a while. The novel opens in military-ruled Nigeria, where Ifemelu and Obinze grow close at college, but their dream is to reach America and enjoy the opportunities they believe the West has to offer.
Americanah is an astute, perceptive novel filled with layers. It can be read as a straight-forward love story, about a young couple torn between their love for one another and their desire for what they hope might be a better life. But it is also as a feminist read, as Adichie exposes the sexism that, at times, accompanies racism. However, whichever theme speaks to the reader, it is impossible to read Americanah and not consider the impact of the clash of cultures. I found myself looking at America and London with new eyes, and surely that is part of the purpose of reading – to experience life afresh.
On a lighter note (and the serious messages are told with humour), I was intrigued by the focus on hair, and the time and effort and thought that went into hair braiding, the choice of relaxant, whether or not to opt for a natural style. I am glad this was chosen as a book group read, as it is a brilliant book to discuss. Also, several of my book group recommended Purple Hibiscus, which I hope to read soon.
THE CHALET by CATHERINE COOPER
It is a while since I’ve read a twisty whodunnit, but the alpine setting of Catherine Cooper’s thrilling debut was so appealing that I couldn’t resist. Two, not particularly likeable, self-absorbed couples find themselves snow-bound in a luxury chalet. However, when a body is found, secrets are uncovered and cracks in their relationships appear.
This is a dual timeline novel that flips back and forth over twenty years. There are a number of unexpected turns but also one major one that spins everything the reader thinks they know on its head. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, although the plot relies fairly heavily on coincidence, but the descriptions of the mountain setting make up for any weakness in the storyline.
As someone who learned to ski as a challenge for my fortieth birthday, the description of how it feels to be an adult learner were spot on. The fear of everything – the cable cars, the tows, the mountains. How clumsy all the kit feels – the boots, the skis, the poles, the layers upon layers of clothing. The tears! Cooper writes this brilliantly. A solid debut, and fast-paced, escapist read.
EUDORA HONEYSETT IS QUITE WELL, THANK YOU by ANNIE LYONS
I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of Annie Lyon’s, The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett (known as Eudora Honeysett is Quite Well, Thank You in the UK) in November’s Children in Read, raising money for the BBC Children in Need Appeal. The premise sounded heartening, perfect for a children’s charity auction.
Eudora Honeysett is eighty-five and done with living, determined to approach death on her own terms, until a new family move next door and she strikes up an unlikely friendship with ten-year-old, Rose. Their relationship is not without its teething difficulties, but the fun and novelty Rose sweeps into Eudora’s life is joyous. A reminder to keep embracing the new, whatever our age and circumstance. It’s a dual timeline novel, flicking back and forth between Eudora’s childhood during WW2 then young adulthood, and the present day. It is a gentle, uplifting read, and who doesn’t need one of those right now? Recommended for lovers of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.
BELOVED by TONI MORRISON
Beloved by Toni Morrison was my book group’s December read, but it didn’t fit with my Christmas book reviews, so I am sharing it now. It is the story of Sethe, a young woman who escapes the horrors of slavery, only to be confronted with demons of another kind. This was my most challenging read of 2020, in a number of ways. Firstly, Beloved has a complicated structure, so I was unsure for some time as to who Beloved was – a real child, a ghost? I was also confused by the grandmother being named Baby Suggs.
However, listening to Toni Morrison being interviewed by Harriet Gilbert on the BBC World Service, World Book Club podcast, helped me understand the novel better. It’s based on the true story of Margaret Garner, who, rather than allow her three children to be taken as slaves, bashed one on the head and slit the throat of another. The authorities wanted to try her for murder but that would have admitted that a slave woman had responsibility for her children, so instead she was charged with theft and sent back to her master. However, unsurprisingly he couldn’t get any work out of her, so he sent her down river (down the Mississippi). During that journey she jumped overboard with her baby twice and twice she was fished out. She survived, but sadly the baby drowned. Interestingly, in the novel, Morrison names the plantation owner, Mrs Garner.
When Morrison was asked why she gave the novel such a complex structure, she explained that we don’t stay in the present. When we are hanging out washing, doing the dishes, our minds wander. So, it felt a truer way to tell the story. Also, she likes books that you can read, then return to again and again to taste and chew. As to why the grandmother is named Baby Suggs, Morrison explained the act of naming and re-naming was a way of slaves to reclaim agency over their lives. Baby was what her husband called her, and Suggs was his surname. Beloved is a harrowing read that requires thought and patience from the reader. Now I understand the construct better, I know that at some point I will read it again.
FIFTY WORDS FOR SNOW by NANCY CAMPBELL
My final review for January is of a beautiful non-fiction Christmas gift – Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell, which seems appropriate as snow is forecast for northern Scotland for most of this week. Anyway, let’s take a moment to focus on that cover – isn’t it gorgeous? And inside, separating each definition, are soft-navy blue pages, each decorated with an individual intricate snowflake design. Even the font is a delicate blue. Can you tell I adore this book?
Campbell has collated a fascinating collection of words for snow from around the globe, but this isn’t a book just for wordsmiths or language geeks. There is something for everyone as she considers the origins of words through folklore, nature, climate change and the impact of snowy landscapes on the people who inhabit them. It was tricky deciding which word to share, but I think this may be my favourite – Hundslappadrífa, which is Icelandic for ‘snowflakes big as a dog’s paw’. Fifty Words for Snow would make a brilliant coffee table book, as it’s both pretty to look at and great to dip into. Equally, I learned a lot by reading it from cover to cover. One to curl up with, as winter re-fastens its grip.
From a beautifully sunny, but frosty, northern Scotland. And today is an exciting one, as it’s time for an update, with news to share with my blog readers…. But first, apologies for being a little late with this post, as last week I was over on the Novel Points of View blog where I was considering what the Netflix sensation, Bridgerton, teaches us about story. If Regency Romance is for you, then you may enjoy what I shared by following the link… (Bridgerton)
Also, during January I took time to reflect on the year gone, as well as setting goals for 2021. Last year, despite all the uncertainty and heartache in the world, it was a positive one for my writing. I was delighted to successfully launch of my website and blog, and am immensely grateful to everyone who follows, comments, tweets and shares. In addition, after completing a series of online flash fiction workshops, I was thrilled to have several pieces listed, with a couple to be included in anthologies.
MY NEXT ADVENTURE…
So what’s next… I plan on continuing to write flash fiction (a form I very much enjoy), but I have also returned to novel writing and plan on wrestling at least one of my works-in-progress into shape. I’m looking forward to the adventure and promise to keep readers informed on progress – all encouragement welcome!
EXCITING BLOG NEWS…
Now back to the blog… With a New Year comes fresh ideas and I’m delighted to announce that I have an exciting new series of Author Heart-to-Hearts 💗 that will be launched next month. My intention is to focus on women’s emotional fiction – the sort of family drama I love, concerning sisters and mothers, aunts and friends, (extra)ordinary women who struggle on through, stories that tug on the heartstrings. I hope to introduce favourite authors you already adore, as well as providing a platform for new writers to share their work. Prepare for your to-be-read list to grow!
MY FIRST AUTHOR HEART-TO-HEART 💗
To give you a flavour of the kind of novels I intend to feature, next month I will be enjoying a Heart-to-Heart with literary fiction author, Noelle Harrison, discussing writing, hobbies, ways to relax, as well as her latest release, The Boatman’s Wife.
So much as happened since the arrival of 2021, that December already feels a long way away! However, I hope the following wintery reads offer some escapism in a world that still feels far from certain. Please don’t be put off by Christmas covers, all the books highlighted would make equally great January reads. And of course I had to include a heart-tugging emotional family drama and this month’s comes from Kate Hewitt – the wonderful When You Were Mine.
Stay safe, until next time.
CHRISTMAS WISHES by SUE MOORCROFT
Having enjoyed darker stories in November, I was ready to read some Christmas romance and Sue Moorcroft’sChristmas Wishes, set in Stockholm, promised some armchair travel too.
Hannah Goodbody is a luxury goods retailer who is thrilled when Nico Pettersson, an old schoolmate, visits her shop in historic Gamla Stan, the bustling medieval part of Stockholm. From the outset, Hannah and Nico get along well. However, Hannah is already in a relationship, whilst Nico is run ragged juggling work as a marketing executive with his responsibilities as a single dad to two little girls.
As Stockholm is a city I have yet to visit, it was wonderful to escape to the wintery setting. Christmas Wishes is sprinkled with comforting Swedish traditions, fascinating locations, as well as tempting descriptions of seasonal food. So much so that I plan to bake Saffron buns! (Traditionally eaten on December 13th, St Lucia’s Day, celebrating the Festival of Light, in the spirit of Advent and Christmas).
Also, it was refreshing to discover the space given to Nico’s story – interesting to read from a single dad’s point of view. Sue Moorcroft never shies from gritty issues, even in Christmas fiction, and I found myself really rooting for Nico and the wonderful family he tries hard to stitch together. If you are searching for a feel-good festive read, set against a snowy backdrop, exploring family issues as well as romance, then it is all wrapped up beautifully in Christmas Wishes.
FESTIVE SPIRITS by KATE ATKINSON
Sometimes it can be hard to carve out reading time during December, but Kate Atkinson’sFestive Spirits is a wry, pocket-sized collection of only three short stories that will brighten any wintry day. Great to read with a coffee, or perhaps to give as a little gift. Atkinson’s writing is as sharp and juicy as a plump tangerine – ‘Beatrice, Maude and Millie – had been furious babies, red-faced, clutching their fists like tiny boxers, bellowing their way through the dark watches of the night. They hadn’t improved much since, whereas Ben was placid, contented, almost stupefied.’
Also, all author’s royalties and profits from the sale are donated to the Sightsavers charity.
THE SNOW SONG by SALLY GARDNER
December is traditionally a time for magic and fairy tales, and I couldn’t help but be drawn to The Snow Song by Sally Gardner. Just look at that stunning wintery cover!
Initially, I wasn’t certain whether this was a children’s book or one for adults, and on further investigation discovered that Sally Gardner is a best-selling, award-winning children’s author, which made perfect sense. However, soon it became clear that this is a feminist fairy tale that sweeps the listener to a snowy land filled with superstition and fear.
Set in an isolated village, where life is dictated by rules fashioned by men, life changes dramatically for Edith when she loses her voice. Once mute, the other women feel confident to confide their secrets, and as the snow begins to thaw, so the powerful patriarchy that governs the community begins to shake. The Snow Song includes all the elements required of a fable – Edith, the young heroine trapped at home with her alcoholic father; Demetrius, a mysterious traveller; the villainous butcher; the mountainous setting.
There is a lyrical quality to Amanda Bright’s narration that flowed well and felt right for a fable story. The combination of both voice and scene-setting is so vivid that it was easy to picture how the characters might look if it was adapted for stage. Hearing The Snow Song swept me back to the classroom and my favourite time of day, when the teacher would read before releasing us for home. One for lovers of magical realism or mystical tales. TheSnow Song reads like a modern-day classic.
A WINTER’S DREAM by SOPHIE CLAIRE
Normally, I read a book and then want to discover more about the author. However, when I noticed Sophie Claire
set herself a month of December challenges, otherwise known as a month of being brave – running 10k, learning to knit, making the 13 desserts of Christmas etc – challenging others to say ‘yes’ too, I had to read A Winter’s Dream.
Although this has a festive cover and Christmas does feature briefly, I recommend this as a January read, as its themes include confronting fears, shaking things up, trying something new. At the heart of the story is the romance between Liberty (a cautious homebody, happy to work in the local quilting emporium, selling threads and fabric) and Alex (a rather sexy professional French motorcyclist). If reading at present is all about escape, then Sophie Claire’s writing made it easy to journey to Liberty’s quaint woodland cottage and Alex’s friendly family Christmas in Provence. Both places I was more than happy to spend time.
I failed to set any December challenges, but Liberty’s (and Sophie’s) actions have inspired me to focus on what I can achieve in January – and the rest of the year.
WHEN YOU WERE MINE by KATE HEWITT
When You Were Mine by Kate Hewitt is a heart-tugging, page-turner that cements Hewitt as one of my favourite authors of emotional fiction. Beth is a single mother who, through a set of unfortunate circumstances, loses her son Dylan to the foster care system. Ally is a mother of well-rounded almost-grown teenagers who is keen to offer support, and to open her comfortable home to children in need. Dylan is a loving, shy little boy, who refuses to speak.
Told from alternating viewpoints, we see Beth’s struggle to regain the care of her son, whilst Ally discovers that the perfect home-life she has worked so hard to create may not be all that it seems. In the middle of it all is Dylan, who tries his best to do the right thing. Hewitt is a master of character development, and each character grows in a way that feels natural/realistic. I know nothing about the American care system, but the detail sounded authentic and we were offered just the right amount – enough to be interesting, without swamping the story. When You Were Mine explores a mother’s love (whether biologically connected or not) and how when things go wrong, everyone deserves the chance to make things right. One for lovers of family drama with a tender heart.
TOGETHER BY CHRISTMAS by KAREN SWAN
The covers of Karen Swan’s Christmas novels are like festive treats – hard to resist. However, don’t be fooled by the soft-glow cover image or even the romantic blurb. Yes, Together by Christmas is a traditional will they/ won’t they love story, BUT it also touches upon the horrors and longer-term consequences of war.
Lee Fitch is a successful celebrity photographer and devoted single mother, who finds it impossible to trust in romantic relationships. As we weave back and forth between Christmas in Amsterdam and events that took place years earlier, when Lee worked as a war photographer, we discover why. In addition, we are introduced to a cast of Lee’s friends who, as well as supporting Lee and her young son, are also interesting and fun, adding the lightness readers expect of a Christmas romance.
Amsterdam in December sounds magical with festivities beginning on the 5th December with the arrival of Sinterklaas, continuing on until Christmas Day. It was interesting to hear of the canals icing over and residents coming together to ice-skate and enjoy community time outside. With themes of trauma and forgiveness, there was no hint on the cover as to the true subject matter of Together By Christmas and, although that didn’t bother me, I feel it may be helpful for readers to be given a better flavour of the content. Perhaps it was felt that combining Christmas and PTSD may be a hard sell. That said, I very much enjoyed Together By Christmas and believe reading a Karen Swan novel may have become my newest Christmas tradition.
As we come to the end of a difficult year, I wanted to gift something to everyone who has read, followed, liked, shared, commented, encouraged and supported me (and my writing). Your friendship has been fantastic and helped me feel connected during these strange, worrying times.
As a thank you, I have written three Christmas haiku focusing on light, and hope they are enjoyed by everyone, but particularly bring comfort to those feeling lonely or finding this festive season a challenging one. Please feel free to share.
Wishing everyone a safe, healthy and happy Christmas,
Here in northern Scotland, we’ve enjoyed some beautiful frosty days but it has also grown darker and so it felt right to spend time exploring the spookier/ supernatural side of fiction, reading The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, The Mercies, as well as the Dark Stories collection.
Since travel is still out for most of us, I enjoyed escaping to the Finnish coastline with A Winter Book, and to Japan with The Phone Box at the Edge of the World. Both books are loosely based on fact.
And for a powerful, thought-provoking novel that stayed with me long after I had finished, checked out Home.
In December, I plan on indulging my love of festive reading and, given circumstances will be different this year, perhaps I will have more time than usual to relax with fantastic reads.
In the meantime, I hope you and yours stay safe and well.
THE PHONE BOX AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by LAURA IMAI MESSINA
The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World by Laura Imai Messina is one of the most original love stories I’ve enjoyed. Set in Japan in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 tsunami, Yui has lost both her mother and young daughter and, like many others, finds it impossible to move on. Then she learns of the wind phone, where people lift the receiver and talk, enabling the wind to carry their words to those who have gone before. It is there she meets Takeshi and her journey of hope begins.
I found it fascinating that the novel was inspired by a real wind phone, situated in Bell Gardia, northern Japan, established and maintained by a couple who opened their garden to the bereaved and now receive visitors from around the globe. Naturally, there is sadness and loss in a novel about grief, but there is also friendship and strength, courage and love. Poignant snippets of the everyday lives of both the deceased and those who remain are intermingled with the main plot, offering an interesting glimpse into modern Japanese culture.
In short, The Phone Box at the Edge of the World is balm for the soul – an enlightening, gentle love story, beautifully told.
Home by Amanda Berriman is perhaps the most powerful novel I’ve read this year. Told in the voice of four-year-old Jesika, we learn of life with her mum and baby brother in accommodation where paper peels from the walls and the landlord is quick to increase the rent.
There are a number of heart-breaking themes including poverty and homelessness, and (without creating any spoilers) one particular theme that I found exceptionally difficult to read. Using a child narrator, which does take a little getting used too, is a genius way of the author developing an even greater sense of dread. This is a well-crafted novel and I don’t wish to give the impression that Home is a miserable book. Jesika is a wonderful little girl and a character I will definitely remember. The community spirit and kindness shown, by both local shopkeepers and the owner of the laundrette, are an uplifting counter-balance to the problems the family face. Jesika’s innocent optimism is a reminder of why all children should be offered the very best start in life…
THE MERMAID AND MRS HANCOCK by IMOGEN HERMES GOWAR
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar was a complete joy to listen to on audiobook. It is 1785 and Jonah Hancock finds himself a widower, despairing when a sea captain sells his ship for a mermaid. However, London’s high society loves the quirky and curious, and soon the mermaid sweeps Mr Hancock to places he doesn’t usually frequent. Meanwhile, Angelica Neal is a courtesan conscious of the passage of time and anxious to find true love, before her beauty fades.
First off, as the story partially revolves around the goings-on in a house of dubious repute favoured by the city’s elite, it is a bit raunchy in places. However, it is also packed with fantastic wit and humour, like a fine soap opera. We are introduced to a wonderful cast of characters (think Dickensian in the way they leap off the page). As well as Jonah and Angelica Neal, we have Sukie (Mr Hancock’s reliable, resourceful niece), Mrs Chappell – the madame (whom I loved) and more.
The period detail is exquisite and brought the settings vividly alive – from the shipyards, to the coffee houses, the journeys by carriage, to the wild partying. I so want to give TheMermaid and Mrs Hancock five stars, but the plot did meander a little in places (although even then the descriptions were glorious, so I didn’t mind). If I could award it 4-and-three-quarter stars, then I would. A lively historical with a light touch of magical realism. Enjoy!
A WINTER BOOK by TOVE JANSSON
A Winter Book by Tove Jansson is a slightly odd, eclectic collection of short stories and snippets of correspondence. Better known as the Finnish author of the Moomins children’s book series, this is an adult collection.
Jansson appears to have led a warm but fairly isolated childhood, left to entertain herself whilst her artistic parents worked. (A little more digging told me that her family were extremely close and she had two younger brothers, who were artists too.) However, freedom seemed to suit her, as even as a child she appeared wary of others, happiest when surrounded by the sea and harsh coastal landscapes. Island life was her greatest inspiration. Jansson saw the world differently, and that is what makes A Winter Book so fascinating. She also appeared to drink a lot of madeira!
The first third of the book focuses on, who I assume to be, Jansson as a child. Whilst the final third follows a woman navigating old age. My favourite story was The Squirrel; her relationship with the animal was both funny and moving. The writing throughout is spare, almost simplistic, leaving her unusual perspective and calm wisdom to pull the reader in. In truth, A Winter Book isn’t particularly wintery, which was a slight disappointment. Rather, Jansson’s stories feel like a window into her mind, and the nosey part of me wanted to know more. I now wish to read The Summer Book.
THE MERCIES by KIRAN MILLWOOD HARGRAVE
Having been born and brought up in a Scottish fishing community, it was the premise for The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave that first attracted me to the audiobook. That, along with the fact that it is narrated by the extremely talented Jessie Buckley.
It is based around two historical facts. The first, a devastating storm that hit Finnmark on the Norwegian coast on Christmas Eve 1617, sweeping away 40 local fishermen from the tiny community of Vardø. As well as the influence of a Scot in directing King Christian in the horrific spate of witch trials of 1620.
I’m finding it hard to say more without with giving too much away, but I found it interesting that when the women first found themselves alone, they pulled together through necessity; completing jobs, like fishing, that their menfolk used to do. However, once outside influences were planted at the very heart of their community, the fragile solidarity they had built began to wither. From early on, there is a creeping sense of dread, that builds and builds and builds. But although the plot is truly shocking (particularly when we remember is it based on fact), I was just as fascinated by the way the women coped in such challenging circumstances, only to be swept up in a kind of group-think manic frenzy when a new leader appeared. It is said that we can learn from history, and although actual witch hunts no longer take place in Europe, perhaps, when at its worst, social media has become the modern-day witch hunter? The Mercies is a dark, fascinating read.
DARK STORIES by CAPITAL WRITERS
Dark Stories is a short collection of spooky tales by the quartet that is Capital Writers. As the title suggests all are atmospheric and are perfect to read as nights’ drawn in. Jennifer Young’s The Homecoming, Kate Blackadder’s Blaze of Glory and Anne Stenhouse’s The Cemetery House all contain a touch of the supernatural. Whilst Colour Blind by Jane Riddell is told from a child’s point of view and is more heart-warming than unnerving, but the Halloween setting continues the dark theme.
A anthology to be read in one sitting, with hot chocolate and the curtains shut tight, on a wintery evening.
It’s time for a quick personal update, sharing some fantastic flash fiction news. As a newbie to flash fiction, I was delighted to be longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Awards and then shortlisted in the Flash 500 competition.
And it really is all about flash fiction this month, as I am currently studying, and writing loads of fresh pieces, with the help of Susan Haigh and her brilliant online Flash Fiction workshop, via Dundee University’s Lifelong Learning programme.
However, a question I’ve been asked over the past few weeks is ‘What is flash fiction?’
WHAT IS FLASH FICTION?
There are several terms used to describe flash fiction – micro fiction, prose poetry and drabbles – are just a few.
But flash fiction is generally accepted as a piece of work that is less than 1000 words in length. In practice though, competitions usually specify entries of either 500, 300 or 250 words. Sounds easy, right? How hard can be it be to knock out a couple of paragraphs?
Well, I believe it’s much harder than most folks imagine. Remember, a writer must do everything within that narrow word count that a novelist performs with around 90,000 words, including –
World building – showing the reader where they are in terms of location, time period, weather etc.
An inciting incident – something must happen that forces change upon the protagonist (main character) near the beginning of the piece that jolts the reader, and makes them want to continue on.
Character development – the best way of ensuring readers continue to read is to create characters they find interesting/care about, even in a piece with only 100 words.
Selecting a great title – with so few words to play with, the title the writer chooses may be the phrase that catches the judge’s eye.
WHY DO I LOVE IT?
For me, it’s more than writing. It’s a mix of writing and a puzzle, as the writer must find the exact words to fit (no room for waffle).
Also, as a lover of beautiful language (remember my appreciation of Gothic fiction, which is brilliant at evoking the senses) it allows me to play with words. This doesn’t mean swallowing the dictionary and using lengthy, little known terms to impress. Rather, it’s being specific with word choice – Think huff, rather than breathe. The snow dusted, rather than the snow fell.
That said, flash fiction is a form that is also happy when a writer experiments. Many pieces will follow a traditional story structure with a definite beginning, middle and end; the protagonist ventures on an emotional (and sometimes physical) journey. Some will look more like lists, or prose poems, but, however they are structured, they should move the reader in some way by being funny, inspiring, thought-provoking, poignant… the list goes on.
One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that there is always room to learn, and this week I’m looking forward to discovering more about Novellas in Flash. Yes – that’s right. A novella (around 50,000 words) written in pieces of flash fiction. I’m a long way from even contemplating such a feat, but it’s important to discover and grow.
If you would like to read more flash fiction, my piece THE PROMISE OF SNOW will published in a Bath Flash Fiction anthology, due for release in December.
As the clocks went back here in Scotland, autumn tightened its grip and we battened down for the first couple of storms of the season. And although I love the restorative power of spending time surrounded by nature, the wild weather also gave me an excuse (who needs an excuse?) to snuggle up with some fantastic books.
I’d like to draw particular attention to You, Me, Everything by Catherine Isaac, which I was successful in bagging during last year’s Children in Read auction, which raises much needed funds for the BBC Children in Need campaign. If you are considering donating this year, then I’d encourage everyone to check out the wide selection of signed books up for grabs (remember Christmas is just around the corner) by simply following this link. The auction closes on 13th November, 2020.
Wherever you are in the world, I hope you and yours stay safe and well.
THE GOOD PEOPLE by HANNAH KENT
With nights’ drawing in and the spirit of Halloween upon us, it felt the perfect time to read Hannah Kent’s dark historical, The Good People. Based on a true story, Kent beckons the reader to early 1800s rural Ireland, where Nóra Leahy is not only consumed by grief at the recent loss of her husband, but also distraught that her four-year-old grandson, Micheál is not developing as expected. Folklore and superstition are a part of the fabric of daily life and when the true extent of Micheál’s disabilities become known throughout the valley, mutterings start, accusing him of causing the ills befalling Nóra’s neighbours. Loneliness and ignorance cause her grief to twist quickly into anger and fear. In desperation she turns to the local herbalist, Nance Roche, who uses rituals to appease the faeries (known as the Good People). With talk of changelings and individuals being swept, a sense of foreboding is present from the outset.
Part of the joy of listening to The Good People was the richness of language employed, as the dialect and turns of phrase rang so true. Kent is exceptionally skilled at portraying the poverty and anguish that led the two women to believe that their course of action was the right one. Caroline Lennon’s narration – her beautiful lilting Irish voice – was pure perfection. If you fancy curling up on a dark evening with a story that whisks you to a time when faeries were feared, then The Good People is a brilliant place to begin.
Today, I’m sharing a beautifully romantic novel, You, Me, Everything by Catherine Isaac, one I was lucky enough to win during last year’s Children in Read auction, raising much needed cash for BBC’s Children in Need. This year’s auction is OPEN and bids are welcomed until 13th November 2020, offering the chance to win signed books by our favourite authors.
Back to the novel, and sometimes a book cries out to be read at a certain time. Our youngest has returned to study in France and given You, Me, Everything is set in the gorgeous French countryside and is essentially about the importance of family and love, it helped me feel closer to him. (Weird but true!)
Student sweethearts, Jess and Adam, imagined growing old together, but an unplanned pregnancy places a strain on their relationship and Jess is devastated when they parted company. Since then, Jess has had sole care of their young son, William, whilst Adam has spent his time restoring a chateau in the Dordogne to its former glory and establishing a successful holiday business. But when life throws Jess a curve ball, it is time for Adam to connect fully with his son.
I loved this novel on so many levels. Isaac’s eye for seeing humour in everyday family life is fantastic. Whilst, without creating a spoiler, it also includes a serious, heart-breaking theme which is handled with warmth and sensitivity. Peppered with descriptions of delicious food, fine wine, family barbeques and sweeping vistas, it is escapist fiction with a huge heart. I cried buckets at the end. Prepare to want to move to France!
AMERICAN DIRT by JEANINE CUMMINS
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is the second book this month that I believe has been enhanced by listening on audiobook. I know there has been much discussion about this novel, in terms of cultural appropriation and who has the right to tell migrant stories, as well as the highly insensitive marketing that was employed when the novel was launched, but for the purpose of this review I plan on concentrating on the novel as a work of fiction.
Lydia Pérez and her family live a comfortable middle-class life in the Mexican coastal city of Acapulco, but when Lydia’s journalist husband investigates a dangerous drug cartel, the results are catastrophic. In fear for their lives, Lydia and her eight-year-old son, Luca begin the journey from Acapulco to el norte (the United States), joining other South American migrants attempting the same.
I found this to be a powerful novel, filled with truly shocking violence and unimaginable fear, but I was even more touched by the huge amount of compassion, generosity and kindness shown by the Mexican people to the migrants (not always Mexican but from other South American countries too), who offered both practical help, in the shape of food and shelter, as well emotional support by lending a listening ear. The descriptions of migrants attempting to board la bestia, the trains that travel north, is writing that will stay with me for a long time. It was also interesting to learn how the culture and landscape of the country changes as Lydia and Luca travelled north.
Some reviews describe American Dirt as being too melodramatic and not a true depiction of the migrant experience, but as a work of fiction that introduces readers to individuals who have families, lives, back stories and dreams that could be ours, it caused me to stop and think, and I hope to pay more attention to the plight and discrimination faced by real migrants, wherever they are journeying in the world. I encourage everyone to read American Dirt and decide for yourself.
PINE by FRANCINE TOON
As the nights lengthen, I enjoy including a touch of gothic in my reading choices, and when I discovered Francine’s Toon’s best-selling debut, Pine, is set near Dornoch, where I’d recently been glamping, then it had to be my next read. Pine opens with children guising (the Scottish word for trick or treating) at Halloween and the descriptions as they move from home to home were creepily unsettling, but also captured perfectly that nervous excitement felt as a child. I also loved the mention of Moray Firth Radio, the local radio station of my youth.
Lauren is ten and lives with her father, Niall, surrounded by thick forest, where the sense of eerie isolation is palpable. From the outset we know that her mum is missing and much of the novel revolves around the mystery of what has happened. Gossip and second-guessing are rife in the Highland community, and as Lauren searches for answers it becomes harder and harder for her to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. Toon began writing as a poet and her ability to infuse dread into the seemingly mundane is excellent. The cover blurb describes Pine as a thriller, however I found it to be more of a gothic slow burn. Read it if you dare!
THE BOOKSHOP by PENELOPE FITZGERALD
Although I was familiar with Penelope Fitzgerald’s name, I had never read her work, so when I came across a movie entitled The Bookshop based on one of her novels of the same name, I decided to give it a go. Set in 1959 in the coastal village of Hardborough, Florence Green, a widow with a small inheritance, decides to open a bookshop. But in so doing, she sets herself against Mrs Gamart, queen of the local arts’ scene, and a quiet battle duly ensues. Described as a classic, there is something comforting in the pettiness of small-town life, whilst the ironic humour reminded me of Muriel Spark – dry and pinpoint sharp. Given it is near Halloween, I should also mention that this is a touch of the supernatural in the story, although I felt that this strand was never fully explored. I’m sorry to say that, for me, the movie didn’t do the novel justice. It lacked the wit and subtle humour and played too much on the sadder themes. If you are feeling nostalgic and are in the mood for a gentle read, I recommend you give the book a try.
Autumn is a beautiful season here in Scotland with mellow misty mornings and golden fields neatly harvested. And though I adore getting out and about enjoying nature in all its glory, as the temperature drops and nights lengthen it is also the perfect time to cuddle up with a great read.
Today I have a fantastic crop of books to share, including heart-tugging family dramas (you know I love this genre) from Caroline Bond and Sadie Pearse, as well as an escapist romance from Elin Hilderbrand (the queen of beach reads) and a twisty psychological thriller from Louise Candlish. This month’s non-fiction read is The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, which was my book group choice and created lots of thought-provoking discussion. Finally, if you are in need of a humorous, feel-good read with a difference then I recommend checking out Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce.
Until next time… happy reading!
THE FORGOTTEN SISTER by CAROLINE BOND
Contemporary family drama is my go-to genre and Caroline’s Bond’s novels have been on my radar for a while, so I was delighted to spend time with The Forgotten Sister. Cassie Haines was adopted as an infant and at seventeen learns that the adoptive parents, she so adores, have lied. She embarks on a journey to reconnect with her birth family, which reveals unsettling truths about both the care system and neglect. A sense of menace builds throughout, as Cassie tries to do the right thing.
Initially, I found the story a little difficult to get into as it was partly told from the viewpoint of a baby, which felt strange and, in truth, pulled me out of the narrative. However, readers should stick with it, as once we hear more from Cassie’s parents the story takes flight. The relationships between Cassie and her sisters felt very realistic, with their characters honestly portrayed.
The Forgotten Sister is an emotional read with interesting insights into the adoption process that made me consider how making the right decision may not always be as clear as we imagine. A sensitively written exploration of a family’s response when young Cassie is torn between those she loves and the blood relations she longs to know better.
DEAR MRS BIRD by A J PEARCE
Set during the London blitz, Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce is full of plucky characters, determined to make the best of things, in a way that reminded me of books I read as a child.
Emmy Lake dreams of becoming a war correspondent but instead, through a series of misunderstandings, gains the post of assistant to the formidable Henrietta Bird, sorting letters destined for the problem page of Woman’s Friend.
During the first half of the novel, both Emmy and her best friend Bunty are relentlessly upbeat, showing great stoicism in the face of danger, offering a lesson in how camaraderie and community help bolster spirits during the very worst of times. (Perhaps an apt reminder that troubles are easier if ‘we all pull together’, something we need more than ever now!) The second section is more poignant and desperately sad in places, as Emmy’s impulsiveness leads to disaster. But on the whole the story races along at a jolly pace, making it impossible to write a review of Dear Mrs Bird without using the term uplifting.
Emmy’s voice reflects the language employed by upper middleclass girls of the day, using phrases like flim-flam, smashing, cut a dash and top drawer. She eats ginger biscuits. I understand this style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found the themes of friendship, grief and resilience particularly timely. I also appreciated how Emmy and Bunty used humour to boost morale.
THE SALT PATH by RAYNOR WINN
Part of the appeal of The Salt Path, a memoir by Raynor Winn, is the narrative voice, which feels as though the story is being told by a friend. When a business deal goes wrong, Winn and her husband, Moth lose not only their livelihood, but their beloved family home. Just when the couple imagine life can’t get much worse, Moth is diagnosed with a terminal illness. With options so severely limited, when lesser mortals may have opted to throw themselves on the charity of friends, the Winn’s chose to embark on a new challenge, walking the 630 miles of the South West (English) coastal path.
In the beginning, I struggled with The Salt Path because I felt overwhelmed by concern for poor Moth, who, on top of having to cope with severe pain and coming to terms with his terminal diagnosis, was battling the elements, day after day, as they trekked on. I kept wishing he could be at home with his feet up, enjoying a nice glass of red.
But this was a book group read so I continued on too and I’m glad I did because it provided a unique insight into the daily struggle of what it means to be hungry and homeless. Although I didn’t always understand the decisions the couple made, it was an interesting lesson in resolve and inner strength, companionship and love. Also, as someone born and brought up by the sea, Winn’s descriptions of the windswept rugged landscape were a treat for the senses. One for readers of nature writing and/or inspirational hiking adventures.
28 SUMMERS by ELIN HILDERBRAND
Following a recommendation by a good friend, I decided to cling to summer a little longer by reading Elin Hilderbrand’s heart-breaking romance, 28 Summers. Fans of Hilderbrand will know that all her books are set on scenic Nantucket Island, only one of the reasons I love her work so much. She offers us the tang of the harbour, barbeques on the beach, soft sand beneath our toes, as well as interesting, woman-next-door characters – who could resist?
Mallory Blessing’s one-weekend-a-year affair with Jake McCloud is a bittersweet exploration of how an unconventional relationship enriches their lives. I understand that a love story based on forbidden love may not be for everyone, and there are times when the reader is required to suspend disbelief that such a relationship would survive decades, but this grown-up escapist romance, set by the coast, was just what I needed. Perhaps it was the certainty of Mallory and Jake meeting over and over, year after year, that was comforting during such unsteady times. An engaging, feel-good read.
THE OTHER PASSENGER by LOUISE CANDLISH
Every now and then I crave a psychological thriller and Louise Candlish is one of those authors I would willing read without checking the blurb. The Other Passenger is a mix of relationship and psychological fiction, told with a wry dark humour that perfectly suits the protagonist, Jamie. As a forty-something barista living in London with his successful partner, Clare, he is at first uncertain when the couple be-friend Kit and Melia, neighbouring millennials, who live for the day, seemingly spending beyond their means.
Themes of money, entitlement, poverty and home ownership flow back and forth as the story twists and turns between timelines. None of the characters are particularly likeable but the strong narrative voice meant I was hooked. I listened with fascinated dread as Jamie’s comfortable life unravels as he commutes on a riverboat along the Thames. One for lovers of Liane Moriarty.
ONE OF THE FAMILY by SADIE PEARSE
For anyone who enjoys women’s emotional fiction and has yet to discover Sadie Pearse, then you are in for a treat. I loved her debut novel, This Child of Ours, and so couldn’t wait to start her latest release, One of the Family. Sam Jackson went missing as a teenager but eighteen years later gets in touch with her sister, Freya, requesting that Freya care for her young son, Dino. It quickly becomes apparent that Dino has endured a difficult childhood but Freya warms to the lad (as did I) and determines to help him in any way she can.
Filled with hope and family love, with forgiveness and ultimately how it is impossible to control how a heart feels, this is a moving story of a modern family changing shape to include others. I particularly enjoyed that though Freya and her partner were separated they remained loyal and loving, sharing the upbringing of their daughters – rather than the well-worn cliché of a couple at war. A gentle warning, tissues may be needed towards the end! One for lovers of Diane Chamberlain, Kate Hewitt and Amanda Prowse.
I have a confession to make – it’s not only books I love, but magazines too. So it was a fantastic surprise when this month’s copy of Writers’ Forum plopped on my doormat. Why? Not just because it was the first writing magazine I subscribed to, full of practical advice and inspirational articles, it was because several months ago I received a sad email explaining that due to the drop in supermarket sales Writers’ Forum must pause production.
And this wasn’t the only magazine I enjoyed that has been adversely affected by the ongoing pandemic. No1 magazine, Scotland’s glossy – think Hello set in Scotland, shining a spotlight on successful Scottish women, as well as promoting boutique hotels and luxury spa retreats (I love to dream) – announced it must close.
Unless you are a subscriber, then magazine purchases tend to be an impulse buy… a little treat for finishing the weekly shop. Or when heading to work, we might grab one to read over lunch.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
However, over the past months our habits have changed. Wearing a mask and keeping socially distant means we are less likely to dally in the supermarket. Instead, we de-bug our trolley… get what we need… and leave.
Also, many are still working from home. Here in Scotland, at the time of writing, this is still the norm – meaning we cobble together something from the fridge, rather than heading out to buy lunch.
SO WHY ARE MAGAZINE SALES SO IMPORTANT FOR WRITERS?
Well apart from the obvious, providing employment for journalists and columnists, many novelists enjoy their first taste of publication success by submitting short stories to the magazine market – for Prima, People’s Friend, Woman, the Yours Fiction special etc. Some writers simply prefer to create short fiction and continue to make their income from this source.
But it’s not just the direct impact of loss of income that affects writers when a magazine folds. Many women’s magazines contain weekly, monthly and seasonal book reviews. Some, like Goodhousekeeping, Woman and Home, and Yours Fiction run online book groups via Facebook, where readers meet and discuss their favourite reads. Whilst Platinum has introduced a book club with author Adele Parks at the helm.
As broadsheets reduce column space for book reviews, magazines are a vital way in a busy marketplace to help create a buzz around books. No1 Magazine recently introduced a book review section; what a shame that its final issue will be published on 17th September and another space for authors and publishers will disappear.
And it’s not just women’s magazines that support authors. Here is Scotland The Scots Magazine and Scottish Field do great work spotlighting writers too. And let’s not forget the inspiration a writer discovers when reading the personal stories, travel pieces, health columns etcetera. The benefits of magazines to authors and the bookish community go on and on.
So, let’s give a shout out to our favourite magazines in the comments below, showing them some love💗 and doing our little bit to help them survive.
One look at my August reads and you may be forgiven for assuming I’m obsessed with Tom Hanks. And perhaps I am – just a bit. I’ve loved his movies for years and found his warm, gravelly voice perfect for the narration of Ann Patchett’s, The Dutch House. Naturally, the next step was to try his debut short story collection, Uncommon Type.
Short stories have featured heavily this month, as I also enjoyed Jojo Moyes’ uplifting feel-good collection, Paris for One and Other Stories. PLUS fans of Moyes’ (and that’s everyone, right?) be sure to click on the link to her new FREE short story, Lou in Lockdown.
Until next time… I hope you enjoy!
THE DUTCH HOUSE by ANN PATCHETT
A novel written by best-selling author Ann Patchett, narrated by my favourite actor, Tom Hanks – who could resist such a stellar combo? From the outset the title sets us firmly within
the Dutch House, a sprawling, stately, slightly ghoulish mansion nestled in the suburbs of Philadelphia. But for young Danny Conroy and his elder sister Maeve, it is the place they grow up and call home. We then follow them through the next five decades, exploring their relationship with the property and why they find it impossible to let go. It’s a slow burn of a novel, examining sibling relationships and family ties, insecurities and resentments that linger long after childhood. It’s a family saga that weaves back and forth in time, until eventually we understand why the players play the parts they do. Hanks is superb as narrator, as he captures Danny’s personality perfectly. Let’s hope the duo of Patchett and Hanks get together again soon.
UNCOMMON TYPE by TOM HANKS – August 2020
It’s impossible to read Tom Hanks debut collection of short stories, Uncommon Type, without hearing his wonderful, rumbling voice. Before I started reading, I knew Hanks was an enthusiastic collector of typewriters, but what was a surprise was to discover how he weaves a reference to typewriters within each of his tales. In one or two of them, typewriters are central to the story, but most simply include a brief mention.
So, Tom Hanks is one of my favourite actors, but can he write? The short answer is ‘yes’. Perhaps unsurprisingly he is excellent at characterisation, focusing on everyday details that reveal so much. Dinner time with the Family Beuell was a show. Davey was in and out of his chair – the kid never sat through a meal. This is a gentle collection with a nostalgic feel, as Hanks looks back to when life seemed simpler. If I have one criticism – and I must clarify that I enjoy many, many American authors, as well as novels set in the States – however I found these stories peppered with references to particular American products, shops, television shows etc., which may resonate with an American reader, but as a Scot, at times, found they dragged me out of the narrative. That said, I loved the sneak peek into the issues Hanks chose to write about – mostly domestic, mostly warm, always entertaining.
THE HEART’S INVISBLE FURIES by JOHN BOYNE
The first fifty pages of The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne was so compelling that I wondered how he could keep up the pace for the next seven hundred – but he does. A word of caution though, as the coming-of-age tale of a homosexual man growing up in Catholic Ireland, the first half of the novel is dominated by sex. Boyne is particularly astute and empathic in drawing women, his characterisation is superb, but the plot isn’t perfect (there are a couple of rather convenient deaths). However, Boyne’s skill as a writer makes it easy to overlook the improbable and simple enjoy the experience of being swept along.
This may give the impression that this is an insubstantial read and nothing could be further from the truth, as we are confronted with the horrors that faced/face homosexual men, who simply want to love and be loved. The cover blurb describes The Heart’s Invisible Furies as a funny novel, and there are plenty humorous moments to savour, but it’s a dry wit, say in the style of John Irving’s, A Prayer for Owen Meany. This was a book group choice that made lively discussion. A moving, thought-provoking read.
PARIS FOR ONE and OTHER STORIES – by JOJO MOYES
Fans of Jojo Moyes bestselling Me Before You trilogy were recently treated to a follow-up short story entitled, Lou In Lockdown, available here. Not only is it timely, but Lou and her mum made me laugh so much that I was delighted when I remembered I had a copy of Moyes’ Paris for One and Other Stories on my bookshelf, waiting to be read. A warm hug of a collection, these stories were first made available on radio and in magazines, brought together to create an easy-to-read coffee break compendium.
Composed of nine short stories plus two that are bit longer (arguably novella in length) they are feel-good tales with a cast of relatable characters, focusing on the everyday issues that beset women, told with gentle humour. Not all are set in Paris, but those that are – Paris for One, and Honeymoon in Paris – were my favourites. Perhaps because I honeymooned in Paris too – although without the fictional drama! An uplifting read, perfect for dipping into when a pop of positivity is needed.
MY MOTHER’S CHOICE by ALI MERCER
When I heard Ali Mercer discuss My Mother’s Choice during a Bookouture Live Facebook event, I knew this would be my kind of read… Dani was only four years old when her mum, Laura, was lost in a mysterious accident. Now a teen, Dani is confused by the secrecy that surrounds her mum’s death and is determined to unearth the facts. The story begins in the present day, as Dani pieces together the puzzle of what led to her mum’s passing, flipping to a decade earlier, via extracts from Laura’s diary.
Part family drama, part mystery, the story begins slowly before the pace picks up, revealing several great twists. I found myself firmly on Dani’s side throughout, as she seemed a lonely, vulnerable, awkward teen who is desperate to learn more about her mum. Whilst the caring she shows her friend, Josie, felt both poignant and true.
The only character I didn’t warm to was Dani’s Aunt Carrie, as her coldness felt a touch overdone at times and I longed for her to change. Dani came across as a bright, well-adjusted young woman, who was perhaps wilful at times (a normal teen), and I wished Aunt Carrie would cut her some slack and show her real love. However, it was also Mercer’s skilled writing that meant I so wanted Dani to not only find peace but lasting happiness too. Described as one for fans of Kate Hewitt and Amanda Prowse, this was my first Ali Mercer novel and I look forward to reading more.
As someone who enjoys learning, one of the pleasures of writing is that there are so many styles to try. I have always been rather in awe of poets, and if I’m honest, was nervous of having a go. But during lockdown, I pulled on my big girl pants and faced my fear by completing Sandra Ireland’s fantastic Poetry Writing series of workshops, which I highly recommend.
And it was during one of those lessons that I fell in love with Haiku, the Japanese short form of poetry. For those not familiar with the term, Haiku is a structured style of poetry where the lines follow a 5/7/5 formation – five syllables, followed by seven syllables, followed by five syllables. The challenge lies in creating a vivid image with minimal words. Like completing sudoku or finishing a jigsaw puzzle, I find it mildly addictive. Traditionally, Haiku relates to the seasons and as I live in rural northern Scotland, I was free to observe nature in all its amazing glory during lockdown walks.
I’ve pulled together a small summer collection here and would be thrilled if you would share your own summer Haiku in the comments. And if you’ve never tried writing one, please take five minutes and give it a go.
For no reason whatsoever and by some complete fluke, my July reading round-up is filled with book titles beginning with THE! They are an eclectic selection including a literary novella, women’s commercial fiction (my go-to genre), as well as a humorous audiobook focusing on serious themes.
In addition, I was gifted a copy of Kate Weinberg’s debut, The Truants, in exchange for an honest review which will to be published soon by Scottish online magazine, The Wee Review. As ever, I would LOVE you to share your favourite reads in the comments.
Until next time… I hope you enjoy!
THE BEEKEEPER OF ALEPPO by CHRISTY LEFTERI
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri is the most moving novel I’ve read this year. When war destroys the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo, Nuri, a beekeeper, along with his wife Afra, set out on the treacherous journey through Turkey and Greece, searching for somewhere to call home.
And the reader journey’s too, leaving behind the bees and sweet-scented heather-covered hills of Syria, to experience the horrors and loss of the present day, as Nuri and Afra use every ounce of their reserve, enduring the pains and emotional indignity of life within refugee camps. Having worked with refugees in Athens, Christy Lefteri avoids addressing the political rights and wrongs of Nuri and Afra’s plight. Instead, she shines a lens on the desperate experiences of a couple caught up in the shocking turmoil of war.
But it’s also a tale filled with hope and small kindnesses, as Nuri and Afra seek safety and to be with the ones they love. It is not in the least surprising that this touching, important novel has become a book club favourite. One I urge everyone to read.
THE MOTHER I COULD HAVE BEEN by KERRY FISHER
Vicky Hall is twenty-one when she travels to Greece and falls pregnant with Theo. Estranged from her family, she vows to always be there for her son. But Vicky is insecure and life as a new mother is tricky, failing to work out as she planned.
Meanwhile, Caro is a grandmother desperate to see the grandchildren her daughter, India, is equally determined she will never share. The Mother I Could Have Been by Kerry Fisher is an exploration of the mother/daughter relationship and how easily words misconstrued lead to tension and heartbreak that last years.
Fisher is skilled at conjuring believable characters with snappy dialogue that rings true, and I immediately recognised and understood Caro, with her heart-wrenching story. However, at times, I became a little frustrated by Vicky and her reluctance to reach out to her vulnerable young son, who endures so much. Despite that, the two halves of the storyline blend expertly, creating a touching examination of family feuds, loss and forgiveness.
THE TRUANTS by KATE WEINBERG
From the outset, Kate Weinberg sets the tone in her tense campus debut, The Truants by remarking on the work of Agatha Christie. On arrival at an east Anglian university, determined to shake off the dull restrictions of home, Jess Walker is thrilled to be accepted by a smart bohemian set, equally resolved on breaking rules. At the same time, she quickly becomes infatuated with her charismatic English professor, Lorna Clay, who harbours a mysterious past, with links to her students that step beyond the professional.
Filled with fierce friendship, obsessive longing and sexual chemistry, the brooding atmosphere of the first half draws the reader in, as Weinberg nails moody, coming-of-age suspense. The plot tightens further as a love triangle emerges, jealousies bloom, and loyalty is tested.
The second section of the novel moves away from the oppressive claustrophobia of the campus setting, switching between South Africa and an unnamed isle off the coast of Sicily, adding layers of shimmering heat and isolation. However, on foreign soil the plot slows as the story shifts to focus on backstory and an explanation of events which, to be fair, Agatha Christie does too but a touch more succinctly, retaining tension until the final reveal. That said, The Truants is a clever, intriguing read with more than a nod to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. A strong, compelling debut, as well as a beautifully written whodunnit.
THE CARER by DEBORAH MOGGACH
Whilst on the lookout for something light-hearted to read, I heard Deborah Moggach interviewed and knew The Carer would hit the spot. Don’t be mistaken, The Carer focuses on serious themes – relationship break-ups, grief, the hard decisions that must be made when caring for an elderly parent – but topics that might seem grim are sprinkled with Moggach’s trademark dry humour.
The novel is split into three parts and I enjoyed the first and last sections best, when the reader follows sixty-year-old, self-absorbed siblings, Robert and Phoebe. Each is handling mid-life issues as best they can, whilst blaming the other for shirking familial responsibilities and at the same time watching with both relief and suspicion as Mandy, their father’s new down-to-earth carer, replaces them in his affections.
This is a warm domestic drama with several surprises and one major twist, but Moggach is an astute observer of class, and it is the superb characterisation, rather than the plot, that makes The Carer speed along.
THE CALL OF THE WILD by JACK LONDON
When I noticed The Call of the Wild by Jack London had been made into a movie starring Harrison Ford, I recalled reading it, and White Fang, at around the age of 11 or 12. First published in 1903, the reader roots for Buck the dog, as he is stolen from his comfortable domestic life to work the gold trails in the wilds of Alaska, facing down danger, loyal to those he loves. A classic novella, The Call of the Wild doesn’t shrink from the brutality of the Klondike life, but it is beautifully written and the ending so poignant that when Buck makes mistakes we can’t help but will him on. Will I be brave enough to watch the movie? – I’ll need tissues at the ready!
Writing a debut novel can be a lonely business – all the false starts, never-ending drafts, the rollercoaster as confidence grows then plummets again – so it was a real treat last weekend to feel part of the writing community, as the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) held their first online conference. This year is extra special for the RNA as it celebrates its 60th anniversary, and although many of the festivities have been postponed until next year, it was wonderful that the conference went ahead. I’ve attended several conferences over the years, where I learnt loads and made new friends, so would a virtual conference offer a similar experience? Would I finish the day happy, exhausted, my mind buzzing with ideas?
The short answer is YES! And to share ALL I learnt would take WAY too long, so I’ve summarised what I took away into 5 TOP TIPS (in no particular order!)
TIP 1 – The synopsis is a helpful resource, but the pitch is KEY
It MUST tell the reader what it’s about (sounds obvious but remember when a writer spends months amongst the weeds, it can be hard to step back and enjoy the wider view!)
It must include a compelling HOOK
The GENRE must be distinct, unambiguous, CRYSTAL CLEAR
Include examples of authors who write in a COMPARABLE STYLE (Be realistic here)
TIP 2 – Plunge your reader into your character’s world and SHOW what they are like through actions…
Bestselling author, Julie Cohen led an excellent, practical workshop on how to create characters out of thin air. As a writing tutor, her enthusiasm for the topic was infectious and this is one tip in a whole host she so generously shared. Her latest novel, Spirited, is a Woman & Home book of the month.
TIP 3 – Create A Habit (Write Every Day)
Being a fan of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, it was a real thrill to hear from podcast co-host, author and script writer, Mark Stay. Mark shared the eight and a half things he’s learnt in over three years of interviewing BESTSELLING authors but the one tip that ALL bestselling authors share is to WRITE EVERY DAY. And if that sounds impossible because of other commitments, Mark recommends setting aside 20 minutes EACH DAY to at least think about your novel.
TIP 4 – Add body language to create snappydialogue…
Historical romance author, Virginia Heath explained how body language (including facial expressions), pauses and internal thoughts are all ways a character communicates, adding meaning to what they say (or don’t say), in a session entitled The Dark Art ofSnappy Dialogue… Interesting to note that babies are fluent in body language from about four months old!
TIP 5 – Be CREATIVE when engaging with book bloggers
Julie Morris, who blogs at alittlebookproblem.co.uk explained that as book bloggers are readers on steroids, they should also be an author’s best friend… However, there are limits on a book blogger’s time (most blog as a hobby, fitting reading around family life and the day job) so they can’t review every book they are sent. But bloggers LOVE bookish content and there are a number of ways authors can help bloggers too…
Take part in a blog tour (Remember tours can be arranged for cover reveals, ebook publication, paperback publication, hardback publication etc…)
Offer to take part in interview slots
Guest posts are always welcomed
Offer Promotions and Giveaways
Volunteer to take part in Special Features (e.g. Julie’s Friday Night Drinks feature)
Consider Blog Takeovers (When an author takes over a book bloggers blog for the day)
Share extracts of your work
Offer exclusive content
Link a post with upcoming events
Invite a blogger onto your blog and interview them (remember they will re-blog and share)
Collaboration – put a series together with a group of author friends and approach a book blogger who may be happy to host
Before signing off, I would like to send huge congratulations to Linda Corbett in winning the Katie Fforde bursary 2020 and Celia Anderson on winning the Elizabeth Goudge trophy. I also send a heartfelt thank you to Alison May and all involved in the RNA in organising such a fantastic conference.
I’m delighted to share my second monthly reading round-up that includes books enjoyed as Ebooks, paperbacks, hardbacks and audio.
This month I have enjoyed two Zoom catch-ups with my book group, as well as a couple of great contemporary reads recommended by friends. I was also delighted to win a copy of Hazel Barkworth’s excellent debut, Heatstroke, courtesy of Curtis Brown Creative’s monthly Twitter competition – #WriteCBC. Please share your favourite June reads in the comments.
Until next time… I hope you enjoy!
WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD by E M FORSTER
My usual to-be-read pile consists of recently released novels, so it’s great when my book club chooses a classic such as E M Forster’s, Where Angels Fear to Tread. When Lilia Herriton affronts the sensibilities of her late husband’s Edwardian family by marrying an Italian, disaster is sure to ensue.
The Italian mountain setting and witty swipes at the ridiculousness of English society manners reminded me of Muriel Spark, except the humour was gentler and, dare I say, funnier. However, this is a tragic-comedy, so be prepared for disturbing twists too. Perhaps what will stay with me most were the double standards of the time. Actions deemed fine for men were regarded as immoral when untaken by women, by both the English and the Italian.
I enjoyed this short palate cleanser of a classic before I return to my favourite diet of new releases.
THE SECRETS OF STRANGERS by CHARITY NORMAN
A good friend (and excellent reading buddy) has encouraged me to try Charity Norman’s novels for some time, and it was her excited enthusiasm for The Secrets of Strangers that made it leap to the top of my must-read pile. Described as a gripping emotional drama, The Secrets of Strangers opens during an ordinary Monday morning in London, when a young man enters a café with a shotgun and five customers are taken hostage.
Charity’s writing is pacey, in the vein of Jodi Picoult, whilst the café’s customers are excellently drawn. It may sound clichéd but the vividness of each backstory, added to the realistic level of suspense, made it easy for the reader to feel trapped in that ordinary café on that dreary Monday morning too. That said, by the end of the novel the over-riding emotion that remained was one of hope…Thanks to my wonderful reading buddy, I’m looking forward to enjoying loads more interesting dramas from this author.
THE HYPNOTIST’S LOVE STORY by LIANE MORIARTY
Settling down to a new Liane Moriarty novel is like catching up with a good friend, listening to her gossip. We all need that now and again, right?… And again, The Hypnotist’s Love Story was a recommendation from a friend. Whilst dating in her thirties, Ellen meets Patrick who confesses he has a stalker, something Ellen is convinced she can handle, until the stalker’s identity is revealed. Although the beachfront setting appealed (I’m a fan of novels set on the coast) it was Ellen and her hypnotherapy business that kept me hooked. Would she use her skills for her own ends? Or stay firmly on the moral high ground? I love Liane Moriarty’s writing and longed to give this five stars, but the endings of the many sub-plots were tied up just a touch too conveniently and, in honesty, probably weren’t needed. But I still enjoyed it. Escapist fiction that is balm for the soul.
THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON by SARA COLLINS
Having heard Sara Collins speak so interestingly on the inspiration behind her character, Frannie Langton, I just had to try The Confessions of Frannie Langton on audiobook. What I need to make clear from the outset is that parts of this novel, set on a Jamaican slave plantation, focusing on the science of race, make for truly horrifying reading, but equally it is important that such a novel doesn’t shy from revealing the truth.
It’s a dark, gothic why-dunnit, as well as an unconventional-for-the-time romance, uncovering what happened in the months preceeding the murder of Frannie Langton’s employers, Mr & Mrs Benham. Frannie is an educated mulatto woman brought from Jamaica to work as maid, whom we know from the outset is accused of their murder. She is a woman ahead of her time, trapped, spirited – in the vein of Jane Eyre. A character to be reckoned with. One word of caution, although I loved the narrator’s voice, I did find the structure quite complex to follow on audiobook (details of what happened in Frannie’s early life are held back to aid the suspense), so would possibly recommend reading in print. Parts of this novel are incredibly sad and yet I would still urge you to make time to hear the story of Frannie Langton. This is not a book to be rushed.
HEATSTROKE by HAZEL BARKWORTH
It’s impossible to write a review of Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke without reverting to descriptors like searing and blistering, as the intensity of one white-hot summer shimmers as the backdrop for her atmospheric debut.
Rachel is Lily’s high school teacher. Rachel’s daughter, Mia, is Lily’s best friend. But who knows the truth when Lily goes missing? … Heatstroke pulses with the decadence of summer, the kind enjoyed by adolescents, when lust and fear circle like growing storm clouds. In Barkworth’s hands both emotions are beautifully evoked, as is the relationship between mother and daughter. Whilst Mia teeters on the cusp of womanhood, Rachel finds it impossible to fully let go. As each twist is revealed, Rachel melts in upon herself, the plot’s moral dilemmas holding the reader tight in its grip. Heatstroke is a tense psychological exploration of motherhood, teenage identity and consent that would make a great book club choice.
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by DELIA OWENS
There are perhaps one or two books each year that become favourite book group reads and it’s fair to say that Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens has already bagged that title for 2020. So, I was delighted when my book group chose it as their June pick. The story of Kya, the Marsh Girl, set in North Carolina, shimmers with descriptions of soaring seabirds, spindly insects, wild mushrooms, the salty wilderness that makes up the coastline, in such a graceful, poetic way that it’s as if the reader is right there, hitching a lift, gliding along with Kya in her father’s rusted boat.
Part murder mystery, part coming-of-age novel, Where The Crawdads Sing hits the perfect balance of introducing the reader to the wonders of the marsh, whilst keeping the story skimming along. A five-star read, it is also that rare thing, a novel I will read again, just for the sheer beauty of it.
TEN LITTLE WORDS by LEAH MERCER
‘I am always with you. I will always be here.’ The promise Jude Morgan repeats to her five-year-old daughter, Ella, before disappearing, leaving Ella to be brought up by her Aunt Carolyn. Ten Little Words by Leah Mercer is a family drama with a mystery at its centre, although it’s fair to say I guessed the ending quite early on. This didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel, although at times I found Ella’s impulsive actions puzzling, as at the beginning of the novel she is portrayed as a loner, content with her own company. This is a gentle read, following characters filled with pain who must reach out to find happiness.
For many this summer just won’t feel like summer without the excitement of attending at least one literary festival or bookish event. The thrill of meeting a much-loved author, the buzz of the bookshop, the chatter of bookworms filling tents and halls all gone…
Or perhaps not… as several festivals have taken the creative decision to offer bookish content for FREE online, whilst publishers rush to fill the yawning gap in the literary landscape. There are now loads of opportunities for those who already love literary festivals to grab their bookish hit. But more importantly, if you’ve never attended a book festival then now is a brilliant time to get closer (and support) those authors you love, by giving a bookish event a go.
Why not make an evening of it with you book group or reading buddies? Watch an author event online, then meet via Zoom (with coffee or wine) to discuss.
The following bookish events are all FREE. Also, please share in the comments if you discover more exciting bookish treats.
Stay safe and enjoy!
BOOKISH THINGS HAPPENING THIS WEEK
NOTTINGHAM, UNESCO CITY OF LITERATURE
(THURSDAY 25JUNE 2020)
Nottingham, Unesco’s City of Literature, is running a series of free events for both readers and writers. On Thursday 25th June at 7pm BST the Building a Better World with Wordsprogramme gets underway with #ReadingWomen – a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction with writer and founder of the prize, Kate Mosse in conversation with Tayari Jones (author of An American Marriage) and Ann Patchett (author of The Dutch House). More details available here.
WOW – WOMEN OF THE WORLD FESTIVAL
(SATURDAY 27 – SUNDAY 28 JUNE 2020)
WOW Global 24 is the Women of The World’s first FREE 24 hour online festival uniting women and girls across the world. With speakers including the former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, singer and activist, Annie Lennox and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, WOW Global 24 will run across all time zones, responding to the world’s current events, including racial injustice and the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on women and girls, particularly those already marginalised.
For those still craving the feel of a book festival then I recommend checking out MyVLF.com (My Virtual Literary Festival)) A free online community that hosts regular literary festival events complete with theatre and café.
Once logged in, past interviews are there to enjoy by writers including Adele Parks, Victoria Hislop, Elizabeth Buchan, Sara Collins and more.
Dates for your diary include an author panel with Sheila O’Flanagan, Beth O’Leary and Jill Mansell on 8th July. As well as a session with Dorothy Koomson on July 9th.
AT HOME WITH PENGUIN …
At Home With Penguin is described as a weekly peek into the homes of some of our most loved authors. Which self-respecting booknerd could resist that?
Penguin authors share how they’re spending their time, talk about the books they are turning to, and take questions from readers. It’s a great chance to connect with writers and fellow bookworms.
Interviews available now (for FREE) include chats with Lisa Jewell, Marian Keyes and Bernardine Evaristo.
A BOOKISH EVENT FOR YOUR DIARY
EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL
(15-31 AUGUST 2020)
Being Scottish, I had to finish with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Many will be disappointed that the physical gathering of authors and book lovers has been mothballed for now, BUT over 100 FREE events will be available online from 15-31 August, with sessions suitable for both adults and children. How fantastic is that? To find out more click here, or follow the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Twitter @edbookfest
And as promised, I plan to share a monthly reading round up that will include books enjoyed as Ebooks, paperbacks, hardbacks and audio.
This month was a little lighter on the reading front, as I’ve been spending time watching movies, playing board games and generally hanging out with family during lockdown. However, the novels I have read are all ones I’m thrilled to recommend.
Until next time… I hope you enjoy!
REDHEAD BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD by ANNE TYLER
For anyone struggling to read during the current pandemic crisis, I would recommend Anne Tyler’s Redhead By The Side Of The Road. It’s a short, engaging work with characters so real they feel like acquaintances. Micah Mortimer thrives on order and certainty, is borderline pernickety, and hapless with women – despite the unsought advice dispensed by his laidback sisters. When a teenager arrives on Micah’s doorstep, claiming to be his son, Micah’s life is at risk of being thrown into chaos. Tyler is the queen of creating characters with seemingly humdrum lives then shines a laser beam on them, making them shine. This is a gentle hug of a novella that pulls the reader briefly into Micah’s world, offering a snapshot, sharing the kind of warmth and wisdom needed during such uncertain times.
THE GIVER OF STARS by JOJO MOYES
One of the things I’m thankful for during lockdown is that I’ve read a stack of excellent novels and yet still Jojo Moyes, The Giver Of Stars stands out as a potential favourite book of the year. Not a surprise since her worldwide bestseller, Me Before You, remains firmly within my top five all-time favourite reads. However, The Giver of Stars is very different in that it’s historical fiction based loosely on fact, set in the rugged mountains of Eastern Kentucky. It follows Alice Van Cleve’s journey from her genteel life in England as she joins a group of female librarians, including her whip-smart friend Margery, who battle small town prejudice and the elements to deliver books on horseback. And what a courageous band they were! Their fortitude and the friendships forged – both apt during lockdown – are what will stay with me. I longed to join them riding their weekly routes and that’s saying something, as I’m nervous of horses! A solid five stars for the Giver of Stars.
THE DAY THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING by CATHERINE MILLER
I thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Miller’s first novels about octogenarian Olive Turner and her Gin Shack on The Beach, which were fun, uplifting reads, so I was delighted to discover Catherine’s latest novels are in my favourite genre, contemporary women’s emotional fiction… Following personal heartbreak, Tabitha sets out to build a new life for herself, which includes becoming a foster mum to teenage twins and a baby girl. The story is told as a dual timeline, flicking between the period that changed everything and the present day. I was particularly interested in reading about someone who is fostering as there are foster parents within my family and Catherine’s book shone a spotlight on just how tricky, but also rewarding, that experience can be. The Day That Changed Everything was peppered with wise little nuggets, many that felt very relevant for where we are today…Find hope. Search for it. And once you have it, never let go… I already have Catherine’s, 99 Days With You, on my to-be-read pile, which I hope to review soon.
YEAR OF WONDERS by GERALDINE BROOKS
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a novel some will find comfort in during these strange times and others may choose to avoid. I fall into the first category and was delighted when it was selected as my book group read, as I gained so much from reading this amazing account. Set during the English plague of 1666, it is based on the true story of the Derbyshire village of Eyam, who, lead by their minister, chose to quarantine in a bid to stop the spread of the disease. I longed to give Year of Wonders five stars, as the characterisation, descriptions of the village and village life are so beautifully rendered, but the last chapter of the novel was a tiny stretch too far for me. And so I would award Year of Wonders four and a half stars. Vividly imagined historical fiction based on fact.
BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN by DIANE CHAMBERLAIN
Technically I finished Big Lies In a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain at the end of April, but close friends know just how much I love her writing, so it’s a thrill to share that her latest novel has become my new favourite. A dual timeline set both in the present day and in North Carolina of the 1940s, when racial tensions remained high, it follows Morgan Christopher and Anna Dale, artists linked by an extraordinary mural. Unlike some dual timelines where one strand outshines the other, in Chamberlain’s expert hands they are equally weighted, both pointing towards a satisfying conclusion. My only disappointment was that Anna’s story felt so true that I was certain when I finished I would discover her character was based on a real artist! It’s a shiny five stars from me…
Hello! Thanks so much for popping by and helping me celebrate the launch of my blog. I’m excited to embark on this new adventure and plan on sharing loads of interesting reading and writing news, which I hope will be both entertaining and helpful.
Mid month, I’ll post about what is rocking my writing world … sharing courses I’ve discovered, favourite podcasts, author events on Facebook live, Twitter comps, my writing successes but also opening up about the frustrations of writing and living a creative life too.
As I’m passionate about supporting other authors, at the end of each month I’ll share a round up of my latest favourite reads, on Kindle, in paperback, in audio, all in bite-size reviews, easy to gulp down with your beverage of choice.
But most of all I’d love to hear from you… What you love to read… Where you are in your writing journey… What inspires you creatively?
As a little thank you for checking out my first post, I’ve shared one of my poems inspired by artist Frances Walker’s work entitled Raised Beach, Tiree. Check out her art work here. When considering the piece I realised that even though the raised beach wasn’t where I expected, it still offered shelter and was teaming with life… thoughts I hope offer comfort during these unsettling times.