RAE’S READING ROUND-UP FOR… JULY 2020

Hello reading friends!


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!

Rae x

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!

5 TIPS FROM THE ROMANTIC NOVELISTS’ ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE 2020

Hello lovely friends!

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

Therese Keating, Commissioning Editor at Bookouture explained that if an author pitches their novel well, then it shows they understand where their work sits in the market.

Here’s what she looks for in a GREAT PITCH –  

  • 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 snappy dialogue

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 of Snappy 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.

Until next time… happy writing!

RAE’S READING ROUND-UP FOR… JUNE 2020

Hello reading friends!

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.

FIVE FREE BOOKISH FESTIVALS TO ENJOY ONLINE…

Hello booklovers!

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 Words programme 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.

Available to watch live via thewowfoundation.com #WOWGlobal24 …

ONGOING BOOKISH EVENTS

MyVLF (MY VIRTUAL LITERARY FESTIVAL)

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

RAE’S READING ROUND-UP FOR… May 2020

Hello reading friends!

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…

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