The Books I Read this Summer...
What books did you enjoy reading over this lovely summer? Here is my list:
The Almost Wife by Jade Beer
I was lucky enough to have a preview of this heart-warming story back in the spring and I really enjoyed it. It’s all about the weddings of three brides to be – Jessie, Emily and Dolly - and also Helen, the owner of the bridal boutique from whom they are all getting the dresses of their dreams. So far, so romantic… But the title gives you a clue of the emotional content of this novel and the fact that the book holds a few surprises. One young woman does make it up the aisle – but learns an important lesson along the way - one doesn’t make it at all and one becomes an ‘almost-wife’ – you’ll have to read the book to find out why…
I’ve heard that the latest bookselling trend is towards uplifting novels with humour and heart and if so, this novel fits the bill. It is written with great fluency, warmth and good pace; the characters are well drawn and their voices are convincing. This story has plenty of fizz and sparkle – it will draw you in and keep you hooked. It will appeal to those who love fashion and glamour and romance, but it is thought-provoking too. Behind every wedding-dress is a personal story. And as the shout-line says: Sometimes, love just isn’t enough.
The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings
This story – most of which takes place in 1986 – is crammed with suspense and drama. It concerns two families who couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, we have a Cornish, working-class family struggling to make ends meet – the mother Angie, Granfer and Angie’s two teenagers Tamsyn and Jago. Their father Rob, a volunteer for the RNLA, tragically dies at sea while performing a rescue. This loss has affected the family deeply. Jago feels crushingly aware that he has not fulfilled his promise to look after his mother and sister, Angie is desperately lonely as she struggles to cope and Tamsyn has become obsessed with the Cliff House – the place she used to visit in secret with her father.
The other family are the Davenports from Holland Park, for whom the Cliff House is a holiday retreat. Tamsyn likes to spy on them. They are wealthy, stylish and appear to have it all. But naturally they are not as perfect as they seem. Max is a parent who shuts himself up in his study to write rather than deal with his family’s issues, his wife Eleanor is deeply troubled and alcohol dependent and their daughter Edie is rebellious, bored, disillusioned and vulnerable. Tamsyn befriends Edie, her mother works at the Cliff House as a cleaner and pretty soon the two families are enmeshed in a compelling drama. The story of 1986 is framed by an initially obscure present-day timeline which ultimately reveals what happened next.
I loved the descriptions of the Cornish coastline – the author’s passion for this landscape shines through. The relationships are subtly developed, the characters well-drawn and every voice (the story is told from the viewpoints of Tamsyn, Edie, Jago and Angie) is individual and convincing. Best of all is the unrelenting drama of the storyline – the pace is fast, the tension palpable. The Cliff House is a gripping read. Highly recommended.
Darling Blue by Tracy Rees
When you start reading a Tracy Rees novel you know you are going to be wrapped in warmth and come out smiling the other side! It is like the best kind of comforting hug – delicious to all the senses… So it is with Darling Blue.
The story takes place in the glorious 1920s – one of my favourite periods – and the Camberwell family are fortunate enough to live in a ritzy house in Richmond. There are no money worries. What’s more they all love one another – so what could possibly go wrong..?
At Blue Camberwell’s twenty-first birthday party the troubles begin when her father Kenneth rashly offers her hand in marriage to whoever can capture his daughter’s imagination in a letter. Blue is outraged. What century is her father living in? She is a thoroughly modern young woman with ambitions to be a writer – she has neither the time nor the inclination for romance. Or does she?
Meanwhile, we discover that another member of the family is deeply troubled by a tragedy that has occurred. What could it be? Can she recover from the trauma – or will it somehow once more rear its head and rip this perfect family apart?
Enter Delphine, a young woman of a quite different class who is trying to escape her violent husband. The family take her in (of course) but it may not be possible for Delphine to escape her past quite so easily.
I loved this book. Tracy Rees writes with such a natural fluency and this story is full of warm and wonderful characters who will stay in her readers’ hearts. Darling Blue has a charming fairy-tale quality – it is magical and yet it deals with subjects and troubles of the real world. Delightful!
The Man I Think I Know by Mike Gayle
This story is about what you find when you think you have lost everything – and it turns out to be quite a lot. It is also about second chances and friendship. James and Danny are from very different backgrounds but they are both very clever, both have attended one of the most prestigious schools in the UK and both were up for the biggest prize of all – though only one of them can win it… This is the point at which the prologue begins and ends.
We cut to James and then Danny – the book is written in dual viewpoint – at a later point in their lives. One has suffered ABI – acquired brain injury and is very different from the young man he once was, the other has suffered a deep personal tragedy. Against the odds, they become friends and this book is about that friendship.
Mike Gayle is expert at writing about relationships – and he writes about male friendship with his usual skill and sense of authenticity. His writing is full of humour with a conversational and accessible style, but the content is powerful and moving. Writing about a character with ABI could have become mushy but there’s no chance of that. Gayle must have done some good research – because this character is completely convincing and his life and problems are both detailed and insightful.
If you are looking for a book that is realistic and bitter-sweet, uplifting, romantic and poignant, look no further. Highly recommended.
Our house by Louise Candlish
Louise Candlish is one of my favourite authors and I’m delighted to say that ‘Our House’ is another joy. The house in question is special. But who does it actually belong to?
Fi Lawson lives in a desirable suburb of London with her two sons. She and her husband Bram have come to a co-parenting agreement which means that they continue to share the house and also a nearby flat when the other parent is in residence with the boys. This modern arrangement seems to be working out – until Fi comes home one day to find someone else moving into her home. It could be anyone’s worst nightmare. Her own things (and those of her family) have disappeared and the couple moving in are filling the house with their own possessions. What’s going on? Is this for real? Is it a crime? Or is she just going crazy?
All these things and more go through her head and provide the narrative tension that propels the story forward. It’s a wonderful premis. The plot gradually unfolds via a document written by Bram - wherever he may be – presented in parallel with Fi’s own ‘story’ of being a victim of house fraud. I didn’t much like either of the main characters and Fi’s new romance always felt rather staged and unreal, but this didn’t matter as there were so many twists and turns in the story I didn’t have time to worry about it. Well-written and as impossible to put down as any of Louise Candlish’s novels, the story fizzes with psychological drama and intrigue – right up to the final and shocking denouement. Highly recommended.
What Lies Within by Annabelle Thorpe
Annabelle Thorpe’s second novel is set in Marrakech and she captures the colours, scents, flavours and moods of Morocco brilliantly in this story of ex-pats making a new life in what is almost another world.
It’s not just a question of culture shock. Freya, Paul and Hamad are three close friends who met in Cambridge. It matters not that Hamad’s wealthy lifestyle is so different from theirs. Their friendship goes much deeper – or so they all thought.
Hamad comes up with a plan designed to delight his stylish French girlfriend Racine, whilst simultaneously helping Paul and Freya get their marriage back on track. He purchases three neighbouring houses that form a run down but glorious riad owned by an old and important Moroccan family, impervious to the bad feeling this will create in the community. He presents these to Racine. Paul will be the architect for the new project while Freya will write a biography of Hamad’s eccentric grandmother Dame Edith who also lives in the city.
But things do not turn out quite as he expected. Paul and Freya’s marriage – already fragile – seems to be in a worse state than ever, while the spirits of the riad (jinns) are increasingly unhappy about what is going on within. Someone has a secret. Someone is lying. Someone is being betrayed.
The story is fast-paced with a good balance of description and action. The characters are flawed and authentic. Morocco is depicted as it is – a maze of unknown pathways to be negotiated, a feast to delight the senses, a land of kindness, fascination, deception and intrigue. Holiday noir indeed. Highly recommended.
Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
It is not her most recent novel, but Gentlemen and Players is very cleverly structured and is a good example of why Joanne Harris is one of our most successful novelists writing today.
The story is set in and around a traditional boys’ public school where Latin is still taught by a master wearing a dusty black gown whose authority is unchallenged. The master in question is Roy Straitley, who provides one of the two narrative voices in the book. St Oswald’s is his life. His study at home is crammed with framed photographs of ‘his boys’ over the years and he is simply unable to imagine his life at the school ever coming to an end. But he is coming up to retirement age and changes are on their way. With the beginning of a new school year comes an extended Modern Languages Department which threatens to take over Straitley’s domain, a new head and some new teachers – one of whom is determined to destroy St Oswald’s.
This mystery character provides the other viewpoint of the novel. Through a child’s eyes we see a past where St Oswald’s was forbidden and yet highly desirable territory. We see the development of an obsession. We see a youthful tragedy and we hear the story of what happened next – with plenty of surprises along the way. But who will win this battle - which Harris describes and structures like a game of chess? Who will triumph? You will have to read this fascinating novel to find out.
A long summer full of warm days and balmy evenings... What can I say? It continues to be a joy. But it's also been a busy one.
In June I went to Florence with my daughter (the art... the buildings... the crowds...). OK, yes, and the occasional Aperol Spritz while you're about it, why not, when in Rome/ Florence and all that... I also finished the first draft and early revisions of next year's novel - 'The Lemon Tree Hotel' set in splendiferous Vernazza in the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera, no less, and in my own lovely West Bay in Dorset. I planned my annual writing holiday in Andalusia - it was our 8th year there, which says everything - and celebrated the paperback launch of 'Her Mother's Secret'.
When a new novel comes into the public domain it's always an exciting but scary time. So far, only your agent, editor and maybe the odd - hopefully not too odd - nearest and dearest have read it. What will the rest of your readers think? What will they say - to you, to Goodreads, to Amazon? A few excellent reviews can create healthy sales; equally a bad one can bring down your 'star rating'. Do we care? Damn right we do - this is our livlihood and our confidence we're discussing here. Don't readers know how fragile we are..??
I wouldn't wish to censor any reviewer. Most of us welcome constructive criticism (gnashes teeth quietly) and writers never stop learning. But when a 'review' doesn't even mention the content of your book and is all about not being able to download it from Amazon... That's more than questionable. And as for the personal comment about how many books I might be contracted to write per year and how I might feel the need to 'churn them out' - well, I'd better not even go there. But - writers work hard, you know? We've re-written this book a zillion times already. So, give us a break maybe?
Fortunately for me, HMS has been well-received and many people have said some lovely things about it (Thank you! I love you!)
July was a time for social media binge-ing, author events, editorial revisions for 'The Lemon Tree'. And... Our Writing Holiday! What bliss: another friendly, interesting group; another perfect week at the glorious Finca El Cerillo; another chance to talk writing with a group of like-minded people, to listen to and read their work in progress, to hear their frustrations and celebrate their successes. Roll on 2019.
Best of all this summer I've found time to read some fabulous books - which is my favourite thing to do. So, look out for my reviews on this Blog in a few weeks time. Before you ask, yes, they are mostly complimentary because if I don't like a book I won't review it (I probably won't even finish reading it). But they are always honest. And whatever you're doing this summer - reading or writing, or something completely different, savour every lovely moment.
Sense of Place
I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to do a couple of creative writing workshops recently in Dorchester and Bridport, focusing on Sense of Place. So, for this month’s blog I thought I’d set out a few of my thoughts on one aspect of how to use place in a story. Thanks to everyone who attended the workshops and to Dorset Writers Network for organising.
Deciding Where to Set the Story
* We’ve all heard the old chestnut ‘write about what you know’ (or ‘where’ you know in this case). I prefer ‘write about what or where you want to explore’. It’s more fun to research and learn at the same time, although it depends on time constraints too of course.
* If you write about a place that has an interesting history/ architecture/ culture/ food / geology etc, this can add more layers to your story – both literally and symbolically.
* Write about a place that resonates with your story, characters and themes (obvious but not always as obvious as you might think…)
* Devour books and films set in that place and try to find some more unusual facts, stories and myths attached to it.
* Go there for as long as you can and absorb all the flavours. Walk the walks. Take lots of photos, make lots of notes and do as much writing as you can in situ. (That’s the really fun bit)
* Consider using a fictional place – this could be within a real region for authenticity and yet you can make it your own.
We began the workshop with a visualisation exercise intended to develop a use of all the senses in writing and also to practise linking character and perspective with the environment. I used prompts and everyone went to different places… It’s also a good way to relax the body, release the mind and let creativity flow…
Two lovely groups made these workshops a really enjoyable experience for me. I look forward to more Dorset creative writing workshops in the future.
Winter Reading 2017
The Place We Met by Isabelle Broome
I was lucky enough to get to read Isabelle’s novel back in the summer, and a very lovely read it is too. The story centres around Taggie and Lucy, two warm, well-drawn and believable characters who share the narrative voice. Taggie is a few months into her job as a tour guide in Lake Como, rushed off her feet, and needing the distraction in order to forget why she left England. Lucy arrives at Lake Como with new boyfriend, Pete, and she wants everything to be perfect. But will it be? It seems not, when Pete turns out to have a few secrets of his own…
This is such an emotive story that is as heart-warming as the vin brulé these characters keep knocking back - and wonderfully romantic too. And as for Lake Como - the setting truly shimmers! Isabelle Broome captures that ambivalent sense of both a painful past and the hope of new beginnings, so perfect for New Year. I picked up the book and found it almost impossible to put down.
Another Woman’s Husband by Gill Paul
This is the first novel I have read by Gill and it won’t be the last. I was drawn in by the subject matter i.e. Wallis Simpson, a figure I’ve always been interested in. The story is written in dual narrative between Mary Kirk, long-time friend of Wallis who ended up marrying Edward Simpson, and Rachel, who runs a vintage clothes shop in Brighton. One timeline begins in 1911 when Mary and Wallis meet at summer camp and the other begins in 1997 when Rachel happens to be in Paris at the time of Princess Diana’s death.
I’m intrigued by the way real life historical figures can be mixed in with fictional ones in a story of this kind. And I’m pleased to say it really works. Gill Paul makes it quite clear in her historical afterword when and where she veers from ‘the truth’ and which sources she drew on for her story. If I have any criticism it’s the looseness of the connection between the two stories, but that was probably dictated by real-life circumstances too. The story is written with great fluency and skill and there is plenty of drama to pull the reader in and keep them wanting more. I enjoyed it immensely and at the same time I learnt a lot. A riveting read – highly recommended.
Then She was Gone by Lisa Jewell
Anyone who reads my blog will know that I love Lisa Jewell’s writing. I can devour one of her books very fast. This was no exception. The main protagonist is Laurel Mack. Close to the start we learn that Laurel’s daughter Ellie has disappeared ten years ago but she has never given up hope of finding her again, that Laurel’s relationship with her other daughter Hannah is troubled and that Laurel’s marriage to Paul has fallen apart. None of this comes as a surprise. When a mother loses a child, whatever the circumstances (and Ellie was a ‘golden’ child) her life is almost certain to entirely unravel. When Laurel meets the charming Floyd in a café, she starts to think that maybe she can move on. But then she meets his nine year-old daughter Poppy – who is the spitting image of Ellie – and all the questions and suspicions return to haunt her once again.
What is surprising, is that (apart from the main viewpoint sections from Laurel) part of the book is written in Ellie’s viewpoint and another part in the viewpoint of the perpetrator. Finally, we get still another viewpoint at the end of the book and the final piece of the puzzle slots into place. This creates a ‘then’ and ‘now’ structure, which works well IMO. There are no obvious cliffhangers – we know pretty soon what happened to Ellie, for example, but what we don’t know is exactly how it happened and why. It is the unravelling that Lisa Jewell does so well. It is impossible not to empathise with her characters; she writes with emotional honesty from each and every perspective and we believe in and feel for them all. And in this book there is less a sense of good and bad as many shades of grey. In this sense it is the story of a family and its journey and it is very real indeed. Highly recommended. Quite simply, I didn’t want to put the book down.
Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear
This novel - a debut by Frear - won Richard & Judy’s Search For a Bestseller competition this year, and it’s easy to see why. The writing is confident and there is a lot of depth to this crime novel. It is a straightforward police procedural, nicely complicated by a psychological twist. The protagonist Cat Kinsella is disillusioned and cynical and blunt to the point of rudeness, but she has a touching vulnerability and honesty about her which makes her a three-dimensional and interesting character. Did I like her? Well, not exactly, but I had great empathy… She was very well drawn.
The plot has some nice twists and turns but it was the relationships that fascinated me, especially that between Cat and her father, a bit of a charming rogue who has always been her hero – until she makes a startling discovery which haunts her still eighteen years later and which turns out to have a considerable bearing on the case she is currently working on…
The story isn’t predictable though. It’s nicely paced and gripping enough without contrivance or artifice. The writing felt honest and I didn’t feel tricked or manipulated – I liked that. Highly recommended.
After I’ve Gone by Linda Green
This book is cleverly structured and has a fascinating premis: supposing you see a future Facebook post on your timeline where a friend is paying tribute to you because you have died... What do you do? Do you believe what you are reading? Do you think it’s a hoax? Do you look for evidence and try to change the outcome? Linda Green’s main protagonist Jess does all these things and more. Not knowing the outcome provides the tension, as the reader is pulled into experiencing her unusual situation along with her.
When Jess meets Lee her life changes dramatically. Although feisty and funny, Jess has been badly affected by the death of her mother some years ago, and her life has not panned out quite as she once thought it would. Lee is successful, confident and wealthy and Jess relishes her new life – who wouldn’t? However, the chilling Facebook posts continue, and gradually Jess learns more about her possible future. But is it true? And the more she learns, the harder it seems to try to change things.
Linda Green’s writing is fast-paced and packed with tension; the characters are flawed, three-dimensional and interesting whilst a different perspective offers another view on events and provides balance. The subject matter is thought-provoking and serious issues are dealt with in a voice of authority. There is no full explanation given for what is happening. But if you can accept that premis, then this is an absorbing and compelling read.
The Hour Glass by Tracy Rees
Tracy Rees is the kind of author I look forward to reading. I know I’m in good hands, I can relax, enjoy the story, description and exploration of relationships and not worry about being on a rollercoaster of a thriller ride, because this is different – and I like it.
This delightful story centres around the relationship between mother and daughter – specifically Jasmine’s relationship with Nora, and is told primarily from the two perspectives, though neatly sandwiched by Gwennan, Jasmine’s mother, who has her own part to play. The present story of Nora is interspersed nicely with that of her mother at a younger age and there is plenty of drama and tension along the way. The landscape, which is pivotal to the action, is that of Tenby; this Welsh town is a charming character in its own right.
At 40, Nora’s life seems to be falling apart. Beset by anxiety, stressed by her job, she ‘loses’ her boyfriend and then resigns – drawn by ‘a vision’ to the seaside town of Tenby (go with it). The town itself and the colourful characters she meets there begin a healing process, which mirrors her mother’s experiences although Jasmine has experienced a different sort of pain and is not so keen to return.
I enjoyed the way Tracy Rees created two powerful and interweaving stories with Tenby at their heart. Both female protagonists are vulnerable and yet strong; the stories are told with emotion and sensitivity. A thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.
The Last Day by Claire Dyer
I love Claire Dyer’s writing. It is easy to see that she is also a poet as her prose style is spare and understated much like the style of literary writers such as Maggie O’Farrell. There is also however, a lot of building tension in this story, more than a touch of ‘domestic noir’ and a concept reminiscent of David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’.
When Boyd moves back into the house he once shared with his estranged wife Vita, he brings his beautiful young girlfriend Honey. This arrangement seems like the ideal solution for them all. But each one of them is keeping a secret and each one of them responds to the new living arrangement in a rather unexpected way.
The story is told from the viewpoints of these three. The book is sharply observed, cleverly constructed and exquisitely written. The relationships are poignant and each of the characters draws you in to their world. Emotionally intelligent and intense, I was completely hooked... Highly recommended.
Planning or Pantsing…
It’s a popular subject for discussion in the writing world – are you a planner or a pantser? Do you plan your novel to the nth detail or write organically, flying by the seat of your pants so to speak?
I’ve done both. I began as a pantser – I’d have an idea and then go with it. I didn’t much care whether it was even in the same genre as anything I’d written before, at first. I wrote it from the heart. Over the years though, I’ve changed. It could be the passing of the years, a question of confidence, or increased wisdom (hah) but whatever it is, I’m now a planner – still writing from the heart and enjoying it too.
So in the spirit of ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ – and who doesn’t like a list? – I thought I’d do one or four for writers on this subject.
Planning – ‘fors’
- It can help with ‘block’ and fear of the blank page.
- It will give you – at the very least – a skeleton to work on.
- You are less likely to get stuck at Chapter 5 and not know where to go next – just look at your plan and off you go.
- You can check out whether your narrative story arc works in terms of structure and dramatic tension i.e. you can become more of a technician.
- You will know whether you have enough material to craft into a novel or if you have to develop more.
- You avoid going off at a tangent and waffling because you know what you’re trying to achieve at every point in the story.
- You can work out the structure before you start including narrative voices.
- You can research before you start.
- You can develop all the characters before you start and get to know them.
- You can still allow yourself to go ‘off piste’ from time to time – if it will fit in with your story as a whole.
- It may be easier to re-focus on your novel after time away from it if there is also a detailed outline to refer to.
- You shouldn’t have too many (nasty) surprises.
- There’s likely to be less re-writing – at least from a structural point of view.
Planning – ‘againsts’
- You know already what is going to happen and some authors find it harder to write spontaneously when this is the case.
- You won’t have so many (nice) surprises.
- Planning can be boring when you can’t wait to start writing.
- It doesn’t feel so creative or spontaneous.
- You are not so open to new ideas.
Pantsing – ‘fors’
- There is a sense of freedom – you can go anywhere you choose and you are not restricted.
- You can develop your story as you go along – it will be organic and you feel open to new ideas.
- Your story will not feel stale before you have even begun – you will be itching to write it.
- You can start writing as soon as you want.
- You feel creative and spontaneous and this is rewarding.
- You are more in touch with your instincts and intuitions.
- There might be some delicious surprises along the way – it is the not knowing that delights you.
- You carry on writing because you want to know what’s going to happen…
Pantsing – ‘againsts’
- You may get stuck down a dark dead-end (plot-wise).
- This may put you off facing the blank page in the morning – it’s just too difficult to work out where you’re going and how to solve the problem.
- You may have to do a lot of structural editing to make sure the narrative arc and tension works well.
- You may get to the end and find that your novel is far too short or far too long.
- You may be faced with some nasty surprises – something might not work and you may have to go right back to the beginning to sort it.
- You may not know your characters well enough when you begin.
There are probably loads more ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ that I haven’t thought of. Why not drop me a line and we can add them to the list?
Philip Larkin worked with a knowledge of ending but not plot detail. He called it `the beginning, the muddle and the end'.
Raymond Chandler said `When things get sticky I just have a guy with a gun come into the room'
Chandler in particular must have been a pantser then…
Perhaps in the end every writer should just do it the way it works for her or him. There’s no right or wrong. Just books crafted in many different ways.
Summer Reading 2017
Is it still summer? Yes, I think so – some days anyway. Lots of people are going on holiday right now so here are some titles I’ve enjoyed over the past few months. Happy reading!
A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi
A great summer title to start with. As a lover of most things Italian, I fell in love with this book as soon as I saw the cover. Add to that the fact that the writer is a chef and a foodie and includes scrummy recipes in the book… What’s not to like? Venice is arguably the most romantic city in the world and this is one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read. Fernando sweeps Marlena off her feet (did I mention that this is autobiographical?) in a ‘love at first sight’ kind of a way which is almost impossible to believe – but we do (because like I said this story really happened!!). But he’s not your average sexy, attractive, tall, dark, lean and stylish Italian man (gasp) and this is where real life comes into the story to create a tale of utter tenderness. Everything is not perfect in this love story. Fernando has certain expectations and in trying to accommodate these and keep her man happy, Marlena almost loses herself and her own joy. However, this is a story of compromises and completeness, and without giving away too many spoilers, the reader will not be disappointed in how it all turns out. Like real life in fact, but with a twist. The writing is evocative and vivid in conjuring up the beautiful and magical city of Venice – Marlena de Blasi does not hold back with her descriptive prose. And neither did this reader. Although I did not go there this summer, the book made me fall in love with Venice all over again.
The Food of Love by Amanda Prowse
What impressed me most about this book, which I suppose would fit into the domestic noir genre – it’s not exactly a thriller nor a mystery but it’s domestic and it’s noir – was the thought-provoking subject matter and the way this is handled by Amanda Prowse. The subject matter is anorexia and the impact this disease can have on a family.
The story is told from the point of view of the mother, Freya, which means the impact is felt from her perspective too. This makes it all too powerful and compelling at times – to see one’s healthy and lovely daughter be brought to near death and total self-loathing must be soul-destroying. And how can Freya help? At times she feels hopeless and helpless but in fact this journey of her daughter’s is also her journey as she learns a lot about herself and her marriage along the way.
My only reservations about this book were an irritation with Freya and the motivation behind some of her decisions (will my daughter still love me if I make her go to hospital?) and the ending. Without giving away any spoilers, this didn’t feel quite right. It was almost as if the author was trying to make the book into a mystery with a certain ending without building the foundations for that. But these are minor quibbles.
I realise I’m not selling the book as a sunny and happy read. Well, it’s not. But if you are looking for a gripping and highly emotive story of our times about how one of the by-products of our society’s obsession with body image (IMO) can destroy lives and relationships, then look no further. This novel is so good that I think all girls should read it at the age of eleven. This book can achieve something.
Held to Ransom by Graham Dinton
This book is described as an ‘Oxford mystery’ which is perhaps a rather sedate and old-fashioned label for a book that is both refreshingly vivid in its writing and topical in its subject matter. It catches the attention from the first page and is fast-paced and gripping throughout with some good twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The plot-line is contemporary and relevant and issues concerning racism and refugees are handled with sensitivity although the author does not hesitate to give his characters strong voices which provide a well-rounded view and helps make the subject matter even more thought-provoking. Emma, the viewpoint character (a journalist) is warm, likeable, intelligent and yet fallible. I think that she will return in the next book of the series and she has all the qualities to enable her to develop still further. The setting of Oxford is another plus and Emma and the topical plot-line create a pleasant change from the usual Morse/ Lewis type mysteries. There is some teasing love interest which provides a good sub-plot and all the characters are authentic and well-drawn. Excellent structure and pace which is very impressive from such a new author as Graham Dinton. Highly recommended!
The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins
I was pulled into this noir thriller immediately – the viewpoint characters of Olivia and Vivien are both well-drawn and fascinating in their own way. Olivia is the daughter of a renowned scientist who made an important discovery about the dung beetle (it’s more interesting than it sounds…). Olivia is a celebrity too – a historian, author and media figure, she has just had her book published to great acclaim – this is the story of Annabel, a real life surgeon of the past with great achievements and a questionable history of her own. Olivia’s book is heavily based on Annabel’s diary. Vivien is the hard-working, dedicated researcher who helped Olivia with the book. She too is highly intelligent. But the relationship between Olivia and Vivien is not just professional and Vivien is not what she seems… Both women are complex and troubled and when they meet up on holiday in France, it cannot be coincidental and events begin to spiral out of control.
This is a clever book. It is layered with psychology, science, history and perceptive comments about feminism and what lengths intelligent women still sometimes have to go to in order to achieve equal rights and recognition. But it seems there is still always a price to pay.
The book is well written and utterly compelling. Personally, I felt that the ending could have had more impact, but this was the only flaw in an otherwise superlative read.
The Forget-me-not Flower Shop by Tracy Corbett
This is a delightful read. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Evie, creative florist extraordinaire who has escaped the confines of an obsessive relationship and is now off men and determined to make a success of her new venture in the Forget-me-not Flower Shop. Enter Scott, the knock ‘em dead plumber who comes to fix her boiler and who seems a bit of an Italian playboy type (albeit a very practical one). Evie is determined not to fall for him and when we get to hear Scott’s point of view we realise that he is equally determined not to fall for her. Scott has just as many reasons to be off women – an ex who let him down, a disabled mother to support, a sister who doesn’t want to know and who has made him guardian of her son so that she doesn’t have to look after him herself… It’s no wonder that they’re not interested in one another; there are far too many obstacles. Or are there??
What I loved about this novel is Tracy Corbett’s light and witty touch – which is why I wanted to give a quote for the book. It is a romantic comedy, but the author touches on thought-provoking subject matter too and there is a sense of a journey in the warm and likeable characters of both Scott and Evie. There are other characters that light up the journey too – Saffy the Goth shop assistant, Josh the undertaker and Marlon the rescue dog – to name but three. This book is fun - Tracy Corbett takes her reader on a memorable and highly entertaining emotional roller coaster ride. Highly recommended.
The Shadow Wife by Diane Chamberlain
Another excellent read from Diane Chamberlain which explores the subject of different kinds of healing. It is written in multi-viewpoint and in two main time frames and there is a fairly satisfying twist near the end - although I have to admit that I did guess this was coming, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel. In time frame 1 (past) twins Carlynn and Lisbeth have a privileged upbringing in a beautiful house overlooking the sea at Cypress Point in Monterey. But all is not perfect. The twins are treated differently by their mother who only wanted one child and who resents the pain daughter number 2 put her through as she was born. (I found this slightly difficult to believe but let it go!) It is then discovered that Twin 1 (Carlynn) has a gift of healing. The story follows the twins through their growing up and into their adult life up to and beyond Carlynn’s saving a baby - apparently stillborn - in a nearby hippie commune in 1967.
Timeframe 2 is the present when that baby (Joelle, now an adult) is stuck in a dilemma of her own. Her best friend Mara has suffered an aneurysm and is in a nursing home, brain-damaged and a shell of her former self and Joelle has fallen in love with Mara’s husband Liam. This is a moral dilemma which gets worse and which is heart-breaking for both Liam and Joelle. Joelle gets in touch with Carlynn to see if she can help heal Mara and thus the two stories and time frames merge with wonderful synchronicity.
This story was fascinating and held me in thrall even though there were a few places where I struggled to suspend disbelief. I liked the descriptions of the locale and adored the emotional turmoil so expertly invoked by this author. As always, intelligently written and highly recommended.
Another Little Theatre by the Sea
I was SO excited about going to see a performance of Tristan and Iseult at the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno. What could be more atmospheric? Kneehigh Theatre Company had received rave reviews for their production and I was desperate to visit Cornwall’s own Little Theatre by the Sea.
But. On Monday it rained and rained and rained. There were gales. There was more rain. Sadly, the performance was cancelled….
However, undeterred, we visited the Minack to find out more about this special theatre, braving rain and wind to see for ourselves, the amazing achievement by Rowena Cade.
Rowena Cade started building the theatre on the cliffs at the bottom of her garden in order to stage The Tempest back in 1932. (Monday’s weather conditions would have been perfect for this). A small group of players had already put on Midsummer Night’s Dream in a meadow at nearby Crean, but there was no seating and somewhere more permanent (and atmospheric) had to be found.
Rowena had the answer and she made it her life’s work. In the winter of 1931/2 she started building, helped by gardener Billy Rawlings. Between them they created a grassy stage lit up by batteries and car headlights; the audience had to clamber down a gorse-lined path and The Minack Theatre was born.
Over the years, Rowena continued to work on the theatre to improve the seating and stage, with the help of two gardeners. She even carried sand in bags on her back from Porthcurno beach up steep steps carved into the granite for the next day’s building – hands on even when she was in her eighties. What an incredible achievement and an amazing woman.
At the Minack – now run by a Trust which continues to improve the theatre in line with Rowena’s vision – you can visit an exhibition to learn more about the building of the theatre and Rowena Cade’s life. You can visit the café and you can walk around this amazing theatre space perched on the rocks above the wild Atlantic ocean.
I will be back to visit this wonderful Little Theatre by the Sea again very soon.
Give Bosa a Hug From Me
On this dull day in May, I’m thinking about Sardinia and looking forward to the paperback publication of Little Theatre by the Sea…..
Drum roll……. On June 1st I can’t wait to see the book with its luscious cover (thank you, QuercusBooks) in bookshops and supermarkets. I’ll be the one seen having a quick hug – with the book that is.
So, when I think about Sardinia where Little Theatre is mostly set – with a smattering of West Dorset of course, my home these days – I think about the warmth, the translucent sea in the secret little coves, and the delicious food. I want to go there – now!
And I think about Bosa. Bosa lies on the rugged west coast of the island of Sardinia and was the main inspiration for my fictional town of Deriu. It was founded by the Phoenicians, so it’s historic and also pretty, with mediaeval cobbled streets to wander, gorgeous pastel-painted houses on the river-bank and a colourful market. Bosa’s artisan traditions of gold-filigree jewellery and lace-making can still be seen – women sitting outside their houses doing embroidery and gold filigree jewellery being sold in the market.
And there’s more – you can walk through olive groves and blue jasmine up the winding stone steps to the Castello dei Malaspino, which offers spectacular views of the church of San Pietro, the Temo river valley and the red roofs of the Sa Costa quarter. Restoration in the 1970s has brought to light the most stunning cycle of Catalan school frescoes within the small fourteenth century Nostra Signora di Regnos Altos chapel. These frescoes are unexpected, vivid and truly beautiful to behold.
It’s also worth visiting the fascinating Casa Deriu for a touch of 1920s faded glamour, the marina to watch the boats come in, and of course one of the wonderful restaurants to be found in the town…
If you read Little Theatre by the Sea, I hope that you’ll be inspired to visit Sardinia, and especially the little town of Bosa. If you do, please give Bosa a hug from me.
Spring Reading 2017
We’ve had Easter and so now Spring is officially here. If reading is more your bag than eating chocolate (or if you like to do both simultaneously) here are some of my favourite reads for the season…
Another You by Jane Cable:
What struck me first about this book was the freshness of the writing and the author’s skill in conjuring up drama, mood and atmosphere from her setting. I am biased, because the setting happens to be in Dorset and by the sea (perfection as far as I’m concerned) in Studland Bay – an area of undeniable beauty. But the setting also has a darker history in connection with the way it was used during the second world war. It is this fact that Jane Cable uses as a lynch pin in her contemporary story, so that past meshes with present and echoes of the past reverberate through the story and provide both obstacles and resolution for the main character Marie. Marie is a chef, but although she is clearly a strong and interesting character, she continues to be bullied and put down by her ex-husband who shares ownership of the pub where they both still work. Add in a creative but rather troubled son leaving college and trying to find his own pathway in life and you get some interesting family tensions and conflict, as well as a perceptive depiction of a mother/son relationship. Apart from her failed marriage, Marie also has other ghosts to slay and her journey towards restoration of self-worth is thoroughly convincing. A haunting and thought-provoking story and an engaging read.
A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay
I am currently immersing myself in books set in France – especially Brittany – and this is one of my favourites. De Rosnay tells the story of brother and sister Antoine and Mélanie Rey who spent their childhood summers on the island of Noirmoutier with their family. Tragedy struck when their beautiful mother died and since then the family has never recovered. Their father has (unhappily) re-married, Antoine’s marriage has broken up and Mélanie is alone and unhappy. They return to the island for Mélanie’s birthday and memories are gradually uncovered which make them question the circumstances surrounding their mother’s death and indeed, her life. The ‘secret’ referred to in the title is the driving force of this novel, but what I enjoyed most was the accomplished style of De Rosnay’s writing and her well-observed portrait of a man in middle-age who is questioning his life for the first time. We often assume that people want to discover the truth about their past. But what if one would rather it is kept secret? What if that secret could hurt and make one doubt one’s own family and those we are closest to? Through her characters, De Rosnay explores this possibility. Ultimately this story is both poignant and moving. The author examines family relationships, and the issues of love and loss and how past can impact on present with an explorative and perceptive eye.
The Farm at the Edge of the World by Sarah Vaughan
Authentic, well-researched and wonderfully descriptive, this novel utterly transported me to Cornwall. (I like Cornwall a lot and am more than happy to go there anytime…) The story is told in two timelines by two narrators – Lucy and her grandmother Maggie. We are immediately drawn into Lucy’s story by dramatic events as problems in her marriage and at work emerge and we fully empathise with her need to return to her childhood home. So far, so good. At the same time the atmosphere of Cornwall during the war is gradually and atmospherically emerging through Maggie’s eyes…
Lucy returns to the Farm where the contemporary story continues to engage. Will she return to Matt and London? Will she manage to help her family and the farm survive their current financial crisis..? Sarah Vaughan keeps us guessing. For me, Maggie’s story was equally compelling, this farm girl who became an adult during the war years, who fell in love and regretted the subsequent loss for the rest of her life.
Sarah Vaughan writes with fluency, confidence and emotion. Her characters are warm, believable and fully drawn and her setting is described with both freshness and precision. I like that. I thoroughly enjoyed this engaging story of family relationships, love and loss. Highly recommended.
The Girl Before by JP Delaney
I have said before that I’m a bit bored with all these ‘girl’ titles but apparently, we’re not done with them yet. Even so, I couldn’t resist this one – it’s a good title and has some excellent reviews.
There is originality in this domestic noir. There’s an intriguing architect, a techno-minimalist house and there are a lot of pretty weird rules in the architect’s ongoing questionnaire. What are we to make of it all? Well, we have to read on to find out – the style is fast-paced and the tension gripping. I was drawn in by page 1 which is a pretty impressive feat.
The book alternates between the perspectives of Emma (Before) and Jane (After) who both rent the house. Because of the nature of the plot (both girls experience the same sorts of things e.g. falling in love with the architect Edward) there is an element of repetition at times, but equally this is chilling and helps build up the drama. I felt that there could have been deeper characterisation to convince the reader that they would fall for Edward despite what they have found out about his dead wife/ the previous tenant. Also, Edward himself is rather a stereotype (in the manner of Christian Grey). However, I was still gripped by this fluently written story and there is an excellent twist which I didn’t see coming.
The Returning Tide by Liz Fenwick
Stories about twins are always interesting – I always find it fascinating that there can be such closeness between two people and yet they must still have their own identities and dreams. Adele and Amelia are like this. They are separated by events during the second world war and ultimately experience an ultimate betrayal. Psychologically, it’s very powerful stuff.
I very much like the way Liz Fenwick writes – with lots of emotion and compassion, she creates a strong tension that keeps the story moving forward. The story is set in both past and present and in different viewpoints, thus it is multi-layered and complex. I enjoyed both settings – Cornwall and America (Cornwall the most) and Liz Fenwick’s descriptive writing is strong and builds a visual picture. Her portrayal of events during the second world war is poignant and at times heart-breaking. Past continues to haunt the present and as readers we totally believe in this.
Authentic and compelling, this story of love and betrayal explores some fascinating human relationships against the backdrop of World War II. I loved it.
The Thousand Lights Hotel by Emylia Hall
Having spent several glorious weeks on the island of Elba, it was an absolute thrill to discover that Emylia Hall’s new novel is set there. The story begins with sadness and with Kit’s journey as she travels to Elba, little knowing what she is looking for and what she will discover.
Valentino Colossimo is patron of the extraordinary Hotel Mille Luci on Elba and he has dedicated his life to the pursuit of happiness – the happiness of his guests, that is. The hotel is tranquil, restorative and magical – in fact, everything any guest could wish for and more, while the delicious food is prepared by the immensely lovable Oliviero. Together, they are a class act. But behind this façade of perfection, a darkness begins to unfold – the darkness of the past and what has been left behind.
Emylia Hall’s prose style shines from the page much like Valentino’s thousand lights. Her characters are warm and authentic and her story sweeps the reader through heart-break, tragedy, love and hope. I absolutely loved every second of the journey. Full of the flavours and fragrances of Italy comes a magical novel to touch the heart.
How Bosa became Deriu
Bosa is a delightful town on the west coast of Sardinia. I’d seen pictures and already half-fallen in love with its gorgeous pastel-painted houses lining the banks of the River Temo. When we arrived there, it didn’t disappoint. Bosa has a white-sand beach and vibrant marina, mediaeval cobbled streets and colourful markets. The old quarter is dominated by the rather haunting Castello dei Malaspino. The town seemed to have everything a novelist might want…
Originally founded by the Phoenicians, Bosa has strong artisan traditions of gold-filigree jewellery and lace-making and as we wandered the narrow cobblestone streets we saw women sitting outside their houses making lace just as they have done for centuries. There was a festa (there often is, apparently) and the old buildings were festooned with bunting and swathed with decorative fabric. I felt as though we had stepped into another world.
We walked through the olive groves and past scented blue jasmine up the winding stone steps to the castle, which offers spectacular views of the church of San Pietro, the Temo river valley and the red roofs of the Sa Costa quarter. And discovered something special… Within the tiny fourteenth century Nostra Signora di Regnos Altos chapel were a restored cycle of Catalan school frescoes – unexpected, vivid and truly beautiful to behold. It was a bit of a magical moment, to be honest.
There was no theatre in Bosa, which was great because it meant I could make one up. Easy peasy. Find the right kind of old building with peeling paintwork and a touch of faded glamour (probably an old chapel) shut the eyes, open the notebook and ecco! My Little Theatre by the Sea.
At Bosa’s exhibition centre of Casa Deriu we found an authentic reconstruction of a 1920s stylish Italian apartment included a cherry and olive wood parquet floor, majolica tiles from Ravenna, a frescoed vaulted ceiling and locally made lace curtains. It was so perfect. Aha, I thought. I name this town Deriu – and it is mine….
NB I wrote this article in reply to everyone who has asked me where they can find my fictional town of Deriu which features in Little Theatre by the Sea. It’s wonderful to be inspired by a real town such as Bosa in Sardinia, but hard to make it fit my story unless I ‘make it my own’. I hope this answers the question!
Whose Point of View? (Most of what matters…)
Viewpoint is a tricky beast. I like reading both single and multi-viewpoint novels. If an author has done her job, I’m happy. But when it comes to writing, I go for multi-viewpoint because it gives me the opportunity to tell it how it is – for him and for her and for him and for her… Everyone sees things differently and this is pretty fascinating, I find.
But. How many viewpoints should an author use? Is there a rule? (No – and if there was it would only exist to be broken…) Is there even a guideline? Well, I’d say that every story has a ‘right’ number. I’d also suggest that we can have too many. Too many viewpoints, like too many timelines could be sooo confusing. Instead of allowing a reader to empathise with a different perspective it could have the opposite effect and a reader might end up not empathising with anyone. The story might become too jumbled, too disparate, too unfocused.
So. Who should be a viewpoint character? Definitely the character whose story you’re telling. (Unless you are using omniscient narration and that’s a whole new subject!). And anyone else who might have a (albeit slight) story of their own which you (the author) fancy exploring. It could be a sub-plot of your main story or another angle/ aspect of your main plot. Question: What do you want your reader to know? Answer: If you want her to know what someone is thinking and feeling, then that someone has to become a viewpoint character. (You could use dialogue to express their feelings but do we always say exactly what we mean and feel...?)
And then. How to decide which character should be the viewpoint character in any specific scene? This is easier. Questions: Where do you want the emotional impact to lie? Whose thoughts and feelings, reactions and responses need to be experienced first-hand? Whose motivation should the reader be trying to understand? Answer: This will tell you who should be the viewpoint character.
So now we’ve made three big decisions, we should be ready to make the author-leap. Go. Leap into your viewpoint character’s head and heart. If you do that so completely that you even forget to have lunch, then you won’t be making any viewpoint ‘mistakes’ (like changing viewpoint in the middle of a scene). You are there, really there in their skin, and that, in the end, is most of what matters…
Winter Book Reviews 2016.
Is it just me or do lots of books with lots of stars end up being a bit disappointing? (No names mentioned). Well, it’s the end of November and time to think about items with lots of printed pages that can go into Christmas stockings and introduce the lucky recipients to the wonders of lots of different worlds. Here’s my latest recommended reading list of books which were not disappointing in the least…
I Found You by Lisa Jewell
Yes, it’s another gem from Lisa Jewell. (Apologies). Alice, a brave, blowsy and generous mother of three and shelterer of canines, finds a man on the beach. He is suffering from amnesia and she feels sorry for him and takes him in (did I mention she was brave and generous?). He seems like a nice guy and Alice is drawn to him, but she knows nothing about his real life – and at the moment neither does he. Gradually things come back to him. He could be married, he could (he thinks) have killed someone. Great... Both characters are warm, believable and rather lovely.
In scenario 2, Lily from the Ukraine reports her husband missing. She barely knows him (sounds familiar) and soon she finds out things she would really rather have not known at all. But where is he? Could he be the man on the beach - or is that way too obvious?
Enter scenario 3 (I love the structure of this book). This is a past story which introduces Gray and Kirsty (brother and sister) and a plot line which will reveal the truth. Lisa Jewell is very good at keeping her readers guessing, which makes this book as compelling as ever. Her characterisation as always is excellent and there is something about this brilliant novel which makes it impossible to forget. My favourite read of 2016. Highly recommended.
Falling by Julie Cohen
Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I’m a big JC fan. She’s just so good – there’s a natural quality about Julie’s writing that pulls you in and she tackles thought-provoking subjects too with great sensitivity. Looking at the cover of Falling I would have guessed this to be a fairly light romantic comedy, but of course it’s not. There is romance, there is love, but at the heart of this novel there are three women from three different generations all with a secret and all falling – in different ways (not just in love). That’s the concept and although it seems fairly simple, the writing is complex as ever. Usually I fall for a JC novel right from the start, but this one was a slow starter for me. I quite like that though. The author gradually develops the three characters of Honor (I adored Honor) Jo (slightly irritating, but maybe I was seeing her through Honor’s eyes) and Lydia (Cohen does teenager POVs very well). OK, there were a few slight implausibilities (the gorgeous neighbour next door for one) but who really cares? The three journeys were all very well handled, and so compelling to read. Julie Cohen has great insight as a writer. And at the end..? There was a tear. Yet another brilliant Julie Cohen book. How does she do it?? Highly recommended.
What Doesn’t Kill You by Laura James
This book is set in Dorset – it’s part of the Chesil Beach series, so I’m already hooked in by wanting to read more about my favourite landscape… But there’s a lot more to this book than first appears. This is a romance, yes, but it’s a dark one and while Griff and Evie battle to keep their relationship alive, other compelling issues are being played out; issues of abuse and self-harm, guilt and loss, which make for an intense and sometimes challenging reading experience. But these subjects are handled with compassion and integrity, and while the book is dark, it is also positive and uplifting too. As the title suggests: what doesn’t kill you makes you strong (and more interesting); this is also a story of survival.
Personally, I love multi-viewpoint novels as this allows the author (and reader) to get involved in different perspectives and can make a novel more complex and insightful (IMO). Laura James makes good use of this technique. I liked the character of ‘gruff Griff’, a man who wants to save others and his relationship with the woman he loves. Evie is torn by the secret she holds which creates such a wedge in her marriage and Tess is utterly believable. A great cast of characters and a compelling storyline. Well written and highly recommended.
The Sea Between Us by Emylia Hall
Have just realised how many of my favourite books feature the sea. Coincidence? Nah! Emylia Hall’s sea is in Cornwall, and an enchanting, atmospheric cove it is too, capturing all that is intriguing and beautiful about that county. When Robyn’s parents first move to Cornwall, she is not so sure, but she is soon seduced by surfing, almost drowns (but is saved by local boy Jago) and proceeds to fall in love with the place. And with Jago? Well, that would be telling.
I usually want a bit more from a book than romance, character journey and an atmospheric setting, but I’m happy to make an exception in this case, because the author is so good at those three elements. The drama and moodiness of Cornwall comes over in all its colours and textures in the richness and vibrancy of Emylia Hall’s prose, and the romance and emotion is well handled and doesn’t sink into cliché which is admirable. I found the characters authentic and likeable too and was especially impressed by the descriptions of Robyn’s artistic career. The story of their journeys is well-paced (and actually quite a relief after all the domestic noir I was reading this summer) with lots of twists and turns and obstacles, but perhaps the real star of this show is Cornwall. This book will make you want to go there – even in the winter! A lovely and very enjoyable read from an author who is completely new to me. I will be reading more. Highly recommended.
I hope you get at least one of these lovelies in your Christmas stocking… Enjoy! x
The Flavour of the Place
As I often say – it has to be done. Someone has to visit all these glorious and sometimes exotic locations in order to write about them, why not me? But it’s not all lolling about on the sand writing beach scenes into the latest novel, oh no. It can be walking the streets of Bristol in the rain in January (for Last Dance in Havana) or sleeping in a hotel foyer for a quick getaway during an earthquake in Mandalay (for Return to Mandalay). All hard work, but fortunately it has to be done. And this year it was the turn of...
Belle Ile en Mer. I wanted to write about France – I know parts of it very well and many a holiday has been spent touring the West Coast , the South West and the Dordogne in our camper van in years gone by. But I also wanted to write about an island. Small islands have a charm of their own. (I once spent several weeks on the magical island of Elba – not exiled like Napoleon, definitely there of my own accord.)
Islands fascinate me. Is there such a thing as an island mentality, an island person? People travel to islands in order to escape (sometimes). Other times they find islands so insular that they need to get away. Islands encourage strong communities; it’s not easy for an outsider to be accepted and this is one of the ideas I want to explore in my next novel. (Working title: Daughters of Belle-Ile). What happens when you live on an island and something bad happens there? Do you want to cover it up and get away? Will you ever be able to return? Or will your return end up being a journey you have to make in order to resolve other issues in your life?
I’m not going to blog about this new novel any more until I have written it! But I can tell you a bit about Belle Ile en Mer. It’s situated off the southern coast of Brittany and it’s stunning. When you arrive by ferry from Quiberon you come to Le Palais with its impressive old fort and picturesque harbour lined with ice cream parlours, bars and cafés. Hop on a bus to Sauzon; the pretty painted houses and Mediterranean vegetation will make you think you’re in Italy.
There are only four villages on the island, but they all have something interesting to boast of, whether it’s Sarah Bernhard’s famous retreat, an ancient church, the tallest of lighthouses or the prettiest bay on the island. But we only have ten days – and in that time I have some big decisions to make: where are my characters going to live, eat, work and play? Where is all the action going to happen? And I have to find a place where a tragedy might occur... (Fictional tragedy, that is).
There’s no substitute for staying in the place you’re going to write about and finding its flavour. In Sauzon we spotted a man in an orange sou’wester and a pink bowler hat sitting in the harbour eating oysters. (It could never go into the book if it hadn’t actually happened.) When you visit a place you can explore it; you will make startling discoveries, find material and layers for your story. In the place you are writing about you can breathe in the saltiness of the air and feel the breeze against your skin. You can smell the food cooking in people’s houses and you can touch the texture of the stone on the quayside. You can hear the dull clang of the church bell and the birdsong in the trees, see the harbour master, the fishermen and the oyster catchers, and sample the goods that you find in the local markets. I hope that the flavours of Belle Ile will eventually be part of the tapestry of the book and sewn within the characters who live there.
It’s early days. But I have a full notebook and 600 photographs. It’s time for the real work to begin...
Summer Book Reviews
There’s no better time to indulge in some me-time-with-a-book-time. Summer in the UK may not have been (so far) all it should be in the weather department, but the books have made up for it. Read and enjoy. Here goes. Honest reviews and subjective opinions.
The Swimming Pool by Louise Candlish
This is certainly a book to plunge into (sorry). Seriously, it’s a good title and the cover and blurb also draw you in. Louise Candlish is great on characterisation and here she gives us an ‘ordinary’ married couple – who prove to be not ordinary at all - and a glamorous set who – surprise, surprise – are not what we think they are either. (Louise Candlish’s speciality). But the great thing is that these characters – not to forget the sulky teenagers, damaged and otherwise – are all as authentic as they come. We are in the viewpoint of Nat the narrator: flawed, self deprecating, often making the wrong decisions, and we are invited to get under her skin. It’s not always a comfortable place to be but we can’t wait to pick the book up and be there again. That’s the skill. I love this author. The plot has plenty of twists and turns and although in the proof I read there is a bit of a cheat in the beginning, I can easily forgive that because the rest of the book is so brilliant. The relationships are complex and the characters interesting. The tension never lets up and it was almost impossible to stop reading. For me, this is Louise Candlish’s most accomplished novel to date. I loved it.
Disclaimer by Renee Knight
Mmmm – more juicy domestic noir and how I love it! An original premis for this one: woman starts reading a book and discovers it’s about her. Whoah... What makes this more chilling is that it concerns her ‘darkest secret’ and so of course she fears the consequences of people finding out. This is another real page-turner and again, the writing is extremely good. This author is skilled at building atmosphere, menace and tension. This makes the novel so gripping that it’s almost unfair to criticise it, but since this is an honest review I will say that firstly I found Catherine’s husband’s reactions unbelievable and secondly I guessed (most of) the ending (however, this may be because I read so much of this genre...). Regarding my first criticism, I can see why this has to be the case – otherwise the truth will be revealed too soon. And actually Renee Knight did get away with it by the way she handled the relationship at the end of the book – I won’t say more than that otherwise it would be a spoiler. As with most of this genre, many of the characters are not particularly likeable. The male characters especially were all unredeemable but the main character Catherine does become nicer as the book progresses. However, it almost doesn’t matter. What I especially like about this book is that it includes some thought provoking (as well as dark) subject matter which is extremely well handled. And when we finally know everything, it all makes perfect sense. Finally, there is an extremely good twist right at the end which is nothing less than brilliant. Highly recommended.
Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
I read this one because I find the ‘what if..?’ premis interesting (think Sliding Doors) and because the book had good reviews. And I came to the conclusion that Laura Barnett is an excellent writer and that for me, this book didn’t quite work. The ‘what if...?’ premis is handled by giving the reader different versions of a story which starts and ends in the same place but which goes and gets there in different ways. So far, so clever. So Eva meets Jim and either does or doesn’t get involved with him at this moment, and then... Well, it’s complicated. While I can read three different stories at the same time, I found it impossible to believe in them simultaneously. I would start getting into one and then heigh ho be abruptly uprooted and dragged back to a different version. Also the versions are pretty fragmented so there isn’t much time to get fully involved before back you go. This may be a flaw in this reader. I know it’s fiction, obviously, but I do like to get involved. Other readers are, I’m sure, better with the whole ‘literary suspension of disbelief this is fiction don’t forget’ thing than I am. The result was that I almost stopped caring what happened. The book was still interesting, but a bit of a ‘so what’ exercise. I continued reading though because I loved Laura Barnett’s prose. I’d still recommend the book – but with the proviso that it will only suit certain readers. You have been warned!
The People We Were Before by Annabelle Thorpe
This book made me desperate to visit Croatia. The place is beautiful, clearly (there is some vivid description) and it has a fascinating history. Annabelle Thorpe has obviously done her research, but it never feels forced. It is just there. The book is written with integrity and authenticity. The characters are warm, flawed and believable. The relationships are complex and multi-layered. The story follows Miro’s journey from the age of eight which began with tragedy and sees him move fom Knin to the Dalmation Coast. Life is good, but there are dark times ahead for Yugoslavia and this is subtly foreshadowed in the text. War is destructive in more ways than one and Miro’s personal life falls apart as he becomes an international war photographer and survives experiences that change him forever. The story is well told, emotional and sweeping. It totally drew me into this world and I was sad when I had to leave it at the end of the book. Highly recommended. I will go there at the first opportunity. And very pleasant to get away from domestic noir and books with the word ‘girl’ in them for a change.
Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Yeah. So. Everyone’s talking about it, most people have read it; this novel has been the huge best-seller of the year. Why? For starters, it’s well-written – which always helps. It’s appealing to people who travel on a train – probably most of us from time to time. And it was published on the marketing back of another hugely popular novel and film in the same genre – Gone Girl (this ‘girl’ in the title thing has been such a marketing success). Finally, Hawkins collided with the genre of domestic noir at possibly the height of its popularity.
I enjoyed it – a lot. This book is a real page turner (just as Stephen King says) and it’s cleverly constructed in terms of time lines, reveals, plot twists and turns. The main character Rachel is not likeable – but that doesn’t matter too much in this genre, as I keep saying but not quite believing – but there is plenty of motivation given for her behaviour. Ultimately, we have sympathy for her. We can see how events happened as they did. Rachel may have made bad decisions, but she is a flawed and real character whom we believe in. All the narrators are interesting and there is strong characterisation from Hawkins all round – the reader has no idea who to trust! This is a dark and gritty read, but utterly compelling. And hurrah! I didn’t guess the ending.
My Map of You by Isabelle Broom
Isabelle Broome’s gorgeous debut novel is set in Greece, on the island of Zakynthos, a place the author knows well. And it shows – as does her love for the landscape, the people, the culture which are described in sensual detail. The narrative follows Holly who, we learn, has had a difficult childhood with an alcoholic mother who tragically, has now died. Even more of a tragedy perhaps is that Holly has repressed her good memories of the mother she loved and finds it difficult to be herself – even with her boyfriend Rupert. But what is the truth behind her mother’s sad story? This is what Holly sets out discover, with the help of a map drawn by her mother and her aunt when both were young and living on Zakynthos and with the more up close and personal help of the fascinating Aidan, neighbour and potential new love interest. This is an escapist novel and a perfect holiday read, but there are darker messages hidden behind the sparky and entertaining prose. This is a novel about loss as well as discovery, about family relationships and of course about love. Holly’s journey is about finding out the truth about herself as much as it is about discovering the secret that ripped her family apart on the Greek island they all think of as home. Highly recommended.
Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris
What a gripping and unsettling read... When we first meet Jack and Grace in this psychological thriller we know there is something not quite right about them – everything is too perfect. And then there is the title. What really happens ‘behind closed doors’? The author gradually lets us know the history by using a clever timeline technique which is also quite simple: ‘past’ and ‘present’. We can see how the situation came about and the scene in which Grace and her sister Millie meet Jack is charmingly depicted, but... I have to admit some problems with the premis. I don’t want to give away too much, but surely it must have been possible to do something... There is a lot in this novel which I found over theatrical in hindsight, but at the time of reading, I just went along with it, so gripped was I! I found myself questioning some of Grace’s decisions though, especially where Millie was concerned; it seemed to me that she let things go too far. Despite this, the book had me totally absorbed. The author writes ‘chilling’ very well indeed and has used just the right amount of ‘fear factor’ (IMO – others may disagree as this is a disturbing storyline). The characters are well developed, the tension is sizzling and the ending is superb. One of the best of its kind.
The Girls by Lisa Jewell
Lisa Jewell is a very talented writer. I am in awe. I discovered her through Ralph’s Party some years ago and feel that her writing has matured and is getting better and better – especially now that she is tackling domestic noir!
'The Girls' is set in a terrace of houses and flats in London which has become a community since the residents share a communal walled garden of many parts. This provides an illusion of safety for the children and teenagers who play there, but also provides freedom and has a claustrophobic feel about it too - it's a place of secrets, both past and present. The story starts dramatically with Grace being found unconscious in the garden on her 13th birthday; Lisa Jewell then goes back in time to when Grace’s family came to live in the terrace and she proceeds to fill in all the gaps in that clever way she has. The relationships between the characters are beautifully tangled and complex; there are plenty of surprises along the way.
I just love Lisa Jewell’s style of writing. She draws you into the story with excellent characterisation and great subtlety. Pretty soon I was utterly gripped by the story. I have to say that I wasn’t bowled over by the ending – this was partly because I guessed it early on – but I still loved the book. Highly recommended.
While my Eyes were Closed by Linda Green
There is an excellent synchronicity of structure in this book which I admired and which lifted the story into ‘special’ for me. The title gives us the premis. It is the story of a family trying to deal with the fall-out following the abduction of their four year old daughter Ella. The reactions are believable and moving; the characterisation deep and strong. I felt for them all – from Chloe, who is nursing a secret hurt of her own to Lisa, Ella’s mother, who feels the burden of guilt.
Unlike many stories of this kind, we are told early on where Ella is and what has happened to her, through the viewpoint of the abductor. Rather than deflating the tension, this gives the author the opportunity to develop the story of Muriel and her family and make us see things from her authentic if rather twisted POV. Interesting...
It’s necessary to delve deep into the characters of this story because the plot is simple – and none the worse for it. I have three minor quibbles. The first is the over-use of dialect, especially ‘like’ at the end of sentences in dialogue, which I found irritating. The second is that I would have loved more sense of place. Third – would a mother take her eyes off her four year old daughter for so long when in a public place? However, these did not mar my enjoyment of a well written and excellent novel.
So lay back on that lounger when you have a spare minute and enjoy...
Everybody’s Going to Havana
First Obama, then the Rolling Stones, then Chanel. It seems that everybody who’s anybody is going to Havana. And who can blame them? It’s hot and colourful with music and dancing in every restaurant and bar. Best of all, there is a new sense of freedom and liberation about the place, last witnessed there in 1959.
Cuba has been stranded in a political, economic and cultural limbo for decades thanks to the Revolution for Independence and Freedom which led to the US breaking ties with the country, with resultant trade restrictions, embargoes and less access to certain basic goods and technologies. But are the Cuban people welcoming the USA back into the fold?
Some and some, I would say. I’m no expert, but research for Last Dance in Havana led me to ask the question of tour guides and taxi drivers, waiters and buskers, during my visit to Cuba last year. And everyone had something different to say.
Some Cubans continue to support the Castro regime. They proudly cite Cuba's excellent health service and efficient education system, undeniably a stark contrast to the era of 1920 - 1950s when Havana was used as a playground by rich Americans. Those were days of extreme poverty for many Cubans and Fidel Castro’s determination to change this state of affairs can be seen in the continuing existence of ‘supply shops’ which ensure everyone has sufficient food to live on - just.
But that isn’t the end of the story. How frustrating must it be not to be able to travel freely, not having access to the Internet, being unable to earn a decent living wage?
So it’s hardly surprising that many Cubans will welcome Obama, Mick Jagger and Chanel’s catwalk with open arms. Everyone should visit Cuba if they can. Do it while classic American cars still line the streets of Havana and before there is a McDonalds on every corner. Cuba is still set in a kind of magical and musical time warp. But I suspect that it won’t be there for long.
American Classic Cars in Havana
The American Classic cars that line the streets of Havana have to be seen to be believed. Done up and dolled up they are used to whisk tourists around the sights of the city, while the rather less polished have become the traditional taxi. And there are plenty of surprises in store. In Vinales a taxi driver stopped three times on the way to our hotel to pick up extra passengers who squashed in beside us, and in Cienfuegos another driver started his taxi with a machete. Yes, really. A machete. (That had to go into Last Dance in Havana of course... My copyeditor queried it, but how could I take it out?) It is not unusual to see a broken down car being fixed in the middle of a main road (see this pic taken on the Malecon, the main seafront promenade in Havana). And everyone will join in...
American Classic Cars may have the spare parts of a Russian car (thanks to the embargo, US spare parts have been mostly unobtainable) and they may have black plastic on the side windows and a very loud home made sound system. They may be plastered with family pictures and the leather seats may be ripped and torn. But thanks to Cuban ingenuity ('necessity is the mother of invention' is a phrase that must have been coined for the Cuban community) the glamour of the Classic American car lives on in Cuba.
Research can be such fun sometimes...
Spring Book Reviews 2016.
Some of my reading this spring has made me focus on what readers want from a book – and you can see why below. You only have to read a few book reviews to see how readers disagree. It’s interesting, but it does make you wonder why... Genre is a factor, of course. There will always be certain expectations. I’ve never been one for science fiction for example, and if I read a thriller I do want it to be exciting. But aside from the obvious, different considerations are also more or less important for different readers. I will only really enjoy a book if I feel it is well written. For others, a twisting plot, an unusual subject, characters they can identify with may be more important. What’s great though is that this only confirms how individual we all are. And fortunately, there are lots of books around for us all to enjoy...
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
For some reason this book passed me by when it first came out in 2012 and now that it’s being made into a film (congrats, Jojo!) I thought it was about time that I read it. Well. It’s very good! Jojo Moyes conveys such warmth in her writing – she is so good on characterisation; Louisa for example is flawed, interesting, caring and slightly damaged. We warm to her immediately because she is quirky and yet ordinary, intelligent and yet unassuming and wonderfully unaware of her own qualities. Will is also damaged of course and our hearts go out to this prickly, perceptive, dignified man – such a lovely hero. The other characters may not be quite so important to the main story but they are all precisely drawn and bristle with individuality. Secondly, Moyes’ dialogue is excellent. It is easy to believe in the banter between Will and Louisa; the formal conversations between Camilla and Louisa; the sisterly battles of Louisa and Katrina et al. The book isn’t formulaic by any means but it still possesses a win win recipe. At least one character journey, a moral, a poignancy, bitter-sweet humour and a concept that is about as thought provoking as they come in this genre. I was especially interested in reading that Jojo Moyes didn’t decide how the book was to end until she’d virtually written the penultimate chapter. All I can say is – she made the right decision. A great love story. An excellent and heart-warming read.
How I Lost You by Jenny Blackhurst
I love a bit of domestic noir and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular at the moment. Essential ingredients: suspense, pace, twists and turns, unputdownability. And for me it has to be very well written too. As readers we don’t have to like all the characters (think Gone Girl) but we do have to understand where they are coming from – otherwise known as empathy. A lot of the books in this genre take what seem to be ordinary people/families/ situations/ relationships and then proceed to give them a sharp twist. Maybe there’s a terrible secret or fear in someone’s past, maybe someone is not who they appear to be (this is a popular one). I was looking forward to reading How I Lost You but sadly it nearly lost me near the start. I simply didn’t believe in the main character of Susan. She had clearly been through a harrowing experience (being accused of murdering her son and subsequently jailed) but although we were being told how she felt, I wasn’t quite feeling it. She irritated me. She came across as stupid sometimes, and the situations she was placed in often felt contrived. I also found the writing style lacked sharpness. However, because the book was fast paced and had lots of tension and unanswered questions, I felt compelled to continue reading. (And let me tell you, I often don’t continue reading! Life’s too short to read a bad book...). So. I ended up feeling a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. When I finished the novel I looked at some other reviews and it was interesting to see that many readers loved this book but an equal number had voiced concerns similar to my own. I suppose this tells us that you can’t please everybody all the time. Or can you? I enjoyed reading this novel but I felt frustrated. I kept feeling that it could and should have been better.
The Bones of You by Debbie Howells
In contrast, The Bones of You – also domestic noir, also about seemingly ordinary people, also crammed with suspense – was, for me, a delight. I loved the delicate structure of the book, the use of gardening and the seasons, the complex relationships between the characters, the voice of the narrator Kate and the way the poetic voice of Rosie was woven into the narrative. The characters in this book went on a journey and had a learning experience which was thought provoking and informative for the reader. They always seemed authentic and I could believe in them even when they were a tad irritating (a bit like real life really). Faithful to its genre, there were also twists and turns in this captivating novel and it was hard to put down. When I finished reading, again, I checked out other reviews, and interestingly again I found ambivalence and criticisms. Some people were making good points, but I had been so involved in the story I hadn’t noticed the flaws in authenticity and hadn’t really cared. This book had a lot of depth and the writing carried me through as much as the story. Highly recommended!
First Sighting of 'Last Dance'.
And here it is...
Rosanna’s Winter Book Reviews 2015/6
(Historical fiction – war, post-war and 1960s)
Brides of War by June Tate
When you put yourself in the hands of this author, you know that you are with someone you can trust. June Tate is a proficient storyteller who will take you through the events in her characters’ lives with wit and warmth. In this novel, we follow the stories of Gracie and Valerie, two GI brides who meet on the ship going out to America after the war and who are both determined to make a success of their new lives. But the truth is that many such marriages were not huge successes; there was much against GIs and their sweethearts who came from such different cultures and backgrounds and who often barely knew one another when they fell in love in the middle of war torn Britain and got married quickly, not knowing what the future might bring. The book works well because the two girls are from very different backgrounds and they have married very different men, so whilst Valerie remains in New York with her up and coming successful business man of a husband, Gracie travels to Colorado to be with Jeff. Both women feel initially isolated however, living so far from home and both women have difficult decisions to make, because neither man is quite what he seems.
The author crosses from one story to the other, maintaining a fast pace and shifting narratives with consummate ease so that the reader is barely aware of how she has done it; we are thus quickly drawn into both stories simultaneously and empathise fully with both women. Later, their stories collide once more when the two women meet up again, helping one other in their time of need. Both characters develop well throughout the novel to become strong, independent women and the author creates an authentic post war atmosphere with lots of interesting detail. As always, June Tate is easy to read and fluent in style. She takes you on her journey and you are surprised when you finally put the book down and you are there. I picked this book up at every opportunity in order to read more about the Brides of War and loved every moment. Highly recommended.
Ridley Road by Jo Bloom
I was looking forward to reading this novel as I’m interested in the 1960s as a period of recent(ish) history and I did enjoy this aspect of the book immensely. Jo Bloom captures the feel of the ‘60s in her descriptions of the streets of London, the fashions (especially the hair styles) and the music. We are introduced to Vivien the narrator as she moves to London from Manchester following the death of her father. She is a talented young hair stylist who wants to make her mark in the big city, but she is also on a mission – to find a man called Jack Fox. Vivien met Jack when he visited their home some months ago and they had a brief but intense affair. Vivien has no idea why Jack has not got in touch since his return to London, but she is determined to find out. To say more would be a spoiler, but the plot itself is intriguing, centring around the growing fascist movement of the time with demonstrations against the Jews, all taking place around Ridley Road. I hadn’t known the extent of this – and I do like to feel that I have learnt something from a book, so I found this fascinating. I was slightly disappointed by the more personal story of Jack and Vivien; this seemed lacking in depth at times and I was also disappointed by the ending which seemed to take little note of Vivien’s original ambitions. We like to think of the 1960s as a time when women were able to become more independent and successful. However, I like Jo Bloom’s spare and concise style of writing and would definitely recommend this book – particularly for readers interested in the 1960s.
A Brief Affair by Margaret Leroy
I was expecting a saga and a light read – what I got was something gritty, atmospheric, authentic and extremely moving written in fresh and evocative language. Margaret Leroy is so skilled at conjuring atmosphere through detailed description that whilst reading this book you will suspend all disbelief and be in London during the Blitz. The story is about widowed Livia Ripley’s attempt to bring up her daughters Polly and Eliza in some semblance of normality, whilst developing her own career and sense of identity as a photographer, surviving the blitz and learning a bit more about men and relationships along the way. As the raids intensify, Livia volunteers to be a warden at the invitation of the enigmatic Justin Connelly, who is a wonderfully unusual ‘hero’. Through Justin, Livia experiences the true reality and despair of war, and discovers a strength she never knew she had and the ability to finally forgive herself for what has happened in the past. Livia develops beautifully as a character and is both complex and totally believable. As the blurb suggests, this book is reminiscent of the classic Brief Encounter . I also hugely enjoyed Leroy’s characterisation and the gradual development of both family and romantic relationships in this novel; the relationship between mother and daughters particularly, is portrayed with great sensitivity and perception. Margaret Leroy has constructed a powerful and compelling picture of a family struggling to survive in London at war. Highly recommended. I loved it.
Rosanna’s Autumn Book Reviews
I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
This novel has been the subject of much praise and discussion, particularly with regard to its plot twist(s) which apparently led to Judy Finnigan’s comment about it having one of the best twists she has ever read. Hence the book’s meteoric rise up the book charts. But it should be there anyway – it’s a great and gripping read, compelling from first to last. If I had to quibble I would say that I preferred the ‘Jenna in Wales’ story to the police procedural. But having said that, the characters of Ray and Kate provided an effective counterpoint to the main plot with stories which were also relevant and interesting if slightly predictable. Jenna however comprised much more fascinating shades of grey. At times I wanted her to fight back and be stronger, but it was easy to see how she had lost sight of her strength – this was very convincing. Clare Mackintosh tackles this thought provoking subject with sensitivity and perception. I also loved the characters Jenna meets in Wales – Bethan, Patrick and Iestyn. A good mixture! I don’t want to give away any spoilers about this psychological thriller, so I will just say that if you like a compelling plot with lots of unpredictable twists and turns, then this is for you. It’s a five star read.
The Lie by CL Taylor
Another slice of domestic noir... I love this genre. The Lie is about a woman who is not who she says she is. Five years ago she changed her identity and this gives CL Taylor her structure for the book. For me, it works well. The chapters switch between the main character’s horrifying experiences while on holiday in Nepal with three girlfriends and what is happening in the present day. Both timeframes are compelling because it seems the past has returned to haunt the present and it is time for Emma/ Jane to solve the past mystery. The story is told in first person narrative from her point of view and she seems likeable – it is rather confusing then when her friends begin to treat her so badly...
That aside, the plot is believable and Emma’s not knowing who she can trust is one of the aspects that give the storyline so much sense of menace. The cult they meet up with in Nepal is also very creepily believable and sinister. The Lie makes you think too about how far we can trust those whom we are close to. Another gripping read by CL Taylor. I will be looking out for her next book.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters. I love her quietly compelling writing, her attention to detail, her gradual builds and the way she presents a slow but simmering passion. This book is set in 1920s London and as always, her research is both impeccable and unobtrusive. Frances Wray lives here with her mother; the pair are still grieving for Frances’s brothers killed in the Great War and are impoverished by Frances’s late father’s debts. Frances’s life appears unsettled and empty – following her one past romantic loss, she has become resigned to the life she leads. And so the stage is set for the entrance of a couple from another social world, lodgers no less, from a ‘lower class’, Lillian and Leonard Barber who bring a certain modernity into the genteel household and who prove to unsettle Frances still further, although in different ways. My only criticism of this atmospheric and beautifully written book is that the story sags slightly in places and feels a touch repetitive. It seemed a little too long and the ending too drawn out. But it feels harsh to criticise such a brilliant author. It’s not Fingersmith, but it’s still a fabulous read.
A Single Breath by Lucy Clarke
This is the first novel I’ve read by this author and it impressed me with its clever construction, fresh use of language and fast pace. From the onset, it delivers drama – we are introduced to Jackson, who is in love with his wife but who nevertheless disappears early one morning whilst fishing on a wild Dorset coastline. The author then uses the primary narrative voice (of his wife Eva) to explore the story of their relationship and also of his past as Eva goes to Tasmania to meet Jackson’s family and friends in her quest to find out more. Here, I loved the descriptions of landscape and especially Eva’s discovery of the free dive experience which felt very authentic and liberating and helped balance some of the (albeit necessary) dark emotions on the page. To say more about the plot would be to give too much away, but the story fizzes with drama and it is confidently told. And the ending – thankfully – does not disappoint. A neatly structured and compelling read.
The Sudden Departure of the Frasers by Louise Candlish
As always, Louise Candlish’s writing has good pace and balance and her characters are strong and uncompromising. She draws the reader into the story with consummate ease. In this novel, she uses two female narrators. Amber Fraser was, this narrator admits from the start a ‘wild child’ with rough beginnings but she has since married well (the ‘silver fox’ Jeremy, older than Amber, self-confident and successful) and tried to leave her past life behind her. The couple move into a ‘perfect’ suburban house and Amber proceeds to charm the neighbours. But for some reason they leave this ‘forever’ house a short time later and disappear. Why? As we read on, we gradually discover the answer. The second narrator, Christy, is the woman who (with her husband Joe) buys the house they cannot afford at a ridiculously low price because the Frasers do not want it anymore. They try to fit in with a neighbourhood still smarting over the mysterious events surrounding the sudden departure of the Frasers. Made redundant, Christy makes it her business to find out what really happened, but in the process, hers and Joe’s lives become affected by turmoil of their own. It was hard to put this book down. Neither of the female characters were particularly likeable and Christy’s story felt slightly unfinished, but the novel remained a fascinating read. Louise Candlish is excellent at exploring psychological drama as she allows the story to gradually unfold - and her characterisation is spot on. Thoroughly engaging.
Creative Writing in Bridport
You'd be forgiven for getting confused. We have an Open Book event, we have Page to Screen, we have the Bridport Prize (literary) and we have Bridport Literary Festival... Is it any wonder that this town attracts writers of all genres and styles? (We like to think we're a creative lot here in Bridport.)
So last night it was the turn of the Open Book Event organised magnificently by Frances Colville, which kicked off with a short story slam at the gorgeously atmospheric Beach & Barnicott on South Street, just opposite Bucky Doo Square. There were three judges (Nick Macey, manager of Waterstones Bookshop, Gail Aldwin, short story writer and myself) one MC (novelist Laura James) and lots of writers - so names had to go into a hat.
We eventually heard 12 stories of up to 5 minutes long with due judgerly deliberation after each section. There was fantasy and there was satire, there was comedy and there was pathos, there was excellent presentation all round as twelve writers had their names plucked from the hat, came to the stage and gave it their all.
Us judges were struck by the variety and range of the writing, the confidence of delivery and the multitude of voices we heard in those 12 short stories. It's always hard to judge. Do you focus on technical merit over story and content or is a story which makes you laugh better than one that makes you sad? Do you forgive changes of viewpoint and weak endings or do these writerly crimes disqualify their authors from success? Well, yes and no. Ultimately, a good short story in a slam is one which engages the listener from beginning to end, which has a point and which uses language well. If a writer can be original and if a concept can be fresh; if a writer can make us laugh or cry or take us on a compelling journey - all the better.
The winner was Rob Casey with a sharply observed character sketch in eleven (thirteen actually, but he ran out of time) parts entitled Life of Guy. He was (unlike this cliché) a breath of fresh air.
The event raised £100 for Word for the Wounded. Prizes were kindly donated by Waterstones and Hive Beach Café and contributing businesses also included Beach & Barnicott and the Bridport Arts Centre.
Keep writing in Bridport. We love to listen...
Writing at Finca el Cerrillo - 2015
Writing Holiday or Writing Retreat? It’s hard to say, as this was both. For some, it’s a chance to escape from distractions at home in order to focus on a writing project; for some it’s a chance to be surrounded by other writing minds in order to get feedback, find new ideas and a springboard from which to launch a new short story, novel or poem. For others it’s a chance to relax, chill, reflect, and enjoy the excellent food, the Spanish vibe, the sun and the pool...
From the start I told the group that the amount of time they spent on individual writing was entirely their decision – this isn’t the place for hassling people to write or providing deadlines; it’s far too chilled for that. But everyone did write. And as usual we ended up with an eclectic mix which included autobiography, children’s writing, a historical novel, travel writing, fiction based on true events, and lots more besides.
This year we welcomed three new writers to the group and they fitted in with ease. It’s always great to see familiar faces but we need some fresh faces too – that’s always the best mix. We had morning writing sessions in the cool, white workshop and late afternoon feedback sessions under the carob tree on the terrace. We had a meeting in the tree house Gordon has built inside an olive tree (yes, really) and one to ones in one of the shady chill out areas with stunning mountain views. On our day off some of us went to Competa for lunch and on Saturday we went to the market there. We had evening meals there twice (all included in the price of the package) memorably at Oscars, from where we went on to watch some traditional flamenco dancing, and once at the nearer village of Canillas. The rest of the time we ate at the finca (where the food is wonderful, but I must stop going on about the food). Because we were there to write and write we did. It was wonderful. Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen.
Great Summer Reading: Rosanna’s Reviews
I recently read an article about negative criticism, and how authors feel about bad reviews. Terrible, obviously. But this is the real world and it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will love what we write. Thankfully, readers are all different and what one reader loves, another may loathe. Should such bad reviews be posted in the first place though? Probably not if they’re unfair or nasty. But everyone is entitled to their opinion. If the reviewer is a real person who has read the book then I guess they are entitled to their voice. On the other hand, reviewers should remember that (most) authors work very hard and it can be heartbreaking to feel that someone is destroying that with one thoughtless review. For myself, I try to give an honest opinion of a book and some idea of genre and style within a short and subjective review. I try to appreciate the positives over the negatives, but if I haven’t liked the ending for example or the way a book is structured, I will say. If I love it, I will also say.
As a writer I expect a mix of reviews. But I am thrilled by the good ones. It’s amazing when readers love one of your novels and post a review about it. Constructive reviews are good too. How else can we try to do better? And so...
Amy Snow by Tracy Rees
Amy Snow is a character who captures the reader’s imagination immediately. We are drawn to her and her situation; found naked in the snow as a newborn, she is taken in but not fully accepted by the grand Vennaway family and she proceeds to go on a long journey, aided and abetted by her great friend Aurelia. Tracy Rees tells Amy’s story with great wit and imagination. Her writing is fresh and original while the mysteries of how Amy came into the world and what happened to Aurelia are gradually revealed through the ‘treasure hunt’ and rites of passage that readers embark on along with Amy. The world of the 1830s and 1840s with its class system and balance of power is delicately and authentically drawn and is thoroughly convincing. A delightful novel.
The Italian Wife by Kate Furnivall
I read this novel while I was in Naples – how perfect was that? Because Kate Furnivall writes with all the senses as she captures the tastes and flavours of Italy – the landscape, the food, the architecture. The book begins with drama. Architect Isabella Berotti is drinking coffee in the town square of Bellina – the striking new town she has helped to build in 1932 when Mussolini’s power was at its strongest – when she is approached by a woman she has never met. The woman simply asks Isabella if she will watch her daughter for a moment. It seems an innocent request – but it begins a chain of dramatic events which take Isabella back to face the demons of her past as she discovers that some secrets are more dangerous than she could ever have imagined. The drama in this novel is compelling and it is historically fascinating too. Sweeping, sensual and overwhelmingly romantic, I would certainly recommend this novel for a cracking escapist read.
The State We’re In by Adele Parks
I like Adele Parks’s style of writing – she’s such a talented author. But I have to admit that I struggled a bit with this novel, at least at the start. I got confused with all the different viewpoints and characters and had to keep going back to check who was who and how they were connected. In a way this is the point of this book – random connections (which unfortunately tends to mean coincidences) and different perspectives on the same situation. Which actually I find fascinating. Because of this and because of the skill of the writing, I enjoyed the book, especially once I got past the first third and understood who everyone was. OK, the main character of Jo is annoying at times – but you can see how she got to be how she is, and this is a lesson on parenting as much as anything else. The character of Dean was very well drawn. Eddie was unredeemingly selfish and this was stressed throughout so it was pretty hard to empathise with him. Clara seemed too good to be true so it was a relief when she decided to ‘come clean’ and be true to herself, though the ending of her story was disappointing. One would hope that it is not too late (in your fifties) to start a new life following a life-changing event/ decision. Ah well. I have to admit that although I enjoyed reading and was gripped at times, I was disappointed by the ending of the main story too. I remain however an Adele Parks fan.
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies
Another romance, another exotic location and thankfully much more to it than that. (I can talk, eh?) In this latest novel – her second – Dinah Jefferies explores the theme of white prejudice in colonial Ceylon, but also the struggles between internal indigenous races and some of the problems that can occur between a husband and wife. The life of a tea planter’s wife sounds easy going on many levels, but Gwen is young, naive and has to contend with a difficult sister in law, a moody husband, a woman who may still be in love with that husband, and a native household who like to go their own way. Gwen is an authentic character – she has both strengths and vulnerabilities – and is soon put into a position that would test even the strongest woman. It is how she deals with this as a mother and wife, how she finds out what she needs to know about the secrets of the past and how the fortunes of the tea planter changed in the 1920s and 30s (on a more worldly level) which are at the core of this authentically written and vividly descriptive novel.
Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey
Gosh. I fell rather in love with both the heroes of this novel – both in the contemporary story (Will) and in the past story too (Dan). Especially Dan. Do men like this really exist???
OK, on to the book. It’s written using letters as you might expect. The past story seems to be the heart of the novel and it unfolds using both Stella’s viewpoint and the letters written to her by Dan. Stella is slightly irritating but very much an authentic woman of her time; even so, I couldn’t quite see why someone as amazing as Dan would be so smitten with her... The past story is sad, poignant, believable and frustrating, all at the same time, which testifies to Iona Grey’s skill as a novelist. Her research is also in evidence (in a good way) and the wartime setting is detailed and authentic. The present story is necessary because of the way the story is structured, but for me, it didn’t have the same strength and poignancy. (Perhaps that would have been too much?). Jess was again not as lovable as Will, but together they got nicely involved with the past story which did take up most of the book.
This book was beautifully written. Definitely one that I will be recommending.
Rosanna Ley June 2015.
Dear Saffron Trail
Well, we’ve come to publication day at last and you know what this means. It’s been a long road. It started at the beginning of June 2013 when I first decided I wanted to write about saffron – I didn’t even know the most mysterious and exotic spice of them all came from a crocus at that point. The trail continued through the initial ideas – deciding I wanted to explore female friendship and the father/ son relationship for example - and early bits of research. (I couldn’t concentrate on you properly at that stage as I was still working on your older sibling doing revisions on ‘Return to Mandalay’). You were there though nevertheless. Growing.
But the first real spark came when I went to Morocco. In order to write about it, any setting has to draw you in, make you fascinated by the culture, the history, the landscape - and I was. The maze of the Marrakech medina seemed to echo the tangled relationships that were already forming in my head and which would become the main contemporary plot of the novel, whilst the hippie laid-back atmosphere of Essaouira fitted in perfectly with my emerging ideas for the 1960s sub plot. The saffron farm in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains had the tranquillity I’d hoped for and the visit to the waterfall gave me a new idea about transformations...
And so the writing began. It was October 2013 by now. More research came up – about the Vietnam War, about Bridport when the GIs came to town in World War 2, about Moroccan design, architecture and cuisine... But throughout, saffron remained the most important element in the book. I got in touch with Dr Sally Francis who runs the Norfolk Saffron Farm http://www.norfolksaffron.co.uk/ and I started doing my own cooking with saffron. Meanwhile the story - your story - began to take shape.
Suddenly it was late spring 2014. How did that happen? The first draft was completed, the cover had been chosen, the stories were interwoven, and it was time to send you off to lovely agent and lovely editor in the hope that they liked you. The revisions were done in the summer, the copy editing and proof reading in the autumn. By then I was working on the next novel, but you refused to be forgotten. And the following spring the pre-publication publicity work began... It was March 2015 and you were about to come into the world.
And now here we are. It’s May. We’ve had your launch party in Bridport, we’ve had your publication day celebrations in London and it’s time for us to say goodbye. You’ll always be close to my heart but you belong to the readers now. Thank you. Good luck. Have fun. I hope you are everything I wanted you to be.
Love from Rosanna xxx
Three great books that I have read in the past few months and enjoyed... Happy Spring Reading!
We are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
It’s always refreshing to read a surprising book and this is one! It’s also thought-provoking and tackles a big subject: is it ethical to use animals in experimentation for either medical research or to increase our knowledge of their behaviour? Furthermore, is it ethical to use certain means to try and stop such research? Whilst most commentary on this subject focuses on the psychological effects on the animals, this story focuses on the psychological effects on the human beings involved in the experiment. Karen Joy Fowler uses a first person narrator and a ‘journal style’ conversational approach which makes the subject personal and accessible. As a child, Rosemary the narrator never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has protected herself with silence. What happened to make her this way? Naturally, the reader wants to find out. I also liked the way in which the author plays with structure and tells the reader why. She starts with the middle and works backwards and then forwards; backwards and then forwards until (somehow) the end. This sounds confusing but it isn’t. The technique ensures in fact that we see the personal relationships first, before we understand the background, underlining which is the most important for the author. Brilliant characterisation and an interesting and multi-layered read. Highly recommended.
The Accident by CL Taylor
This story has a forceful beginning which draws the reader in; indeed the author makes good use of narrative tension throughout. If you are looking for suspense along the lines of novels such as ‘Gone Girl’ then this is one for you. Various plot steps and new disclosures increase the pace and drama of the story and underlying the developing narrative lays the secret held by Charlotte, the subject of ‘The Accident’, the girl in a coma. The contemporary story hinges on this, whilst also charting the former life and relationships of Charlotte’s mother, the narrator, Sue, which have led to her current mental and emotional fragility. The author uses a dual narrative structure with a twenty year lapse between the two, using Sue’s diaries from the 1990s to parallel the reading of Charlotte’s diary in present time, to provide some insight into what has happened to her daughter. The reader travels the journey of discovery alongside Sue, whom I found slightly implausible and irritating at times. Nevertheless, the exploration of the abusive relationship she suffered is penetrating and authentic and the excellence of the pace and tension creates great suspense. The core of this story is as compelling as they come and this reader was gripped and had to read on!
Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
I thought at first that this book had no connection to what I was writing (my book is set in Cuba and Bristol, this one in North Carolina) but the main theme of this novel is power and the abuse of that power, with reference to poor families - often black - working for a wealthy landowner on a tobacco plantation, to so called ‘modern marriages’ of the 1960s and last but not least to the Eugenics programme of sterilisation which was used by North Carolina’s welfare state at that time. This theme of power and abuse very much echoes one of my own current themes, so I read the book with particular interest.
Diane Chamberlain takes the viewpoint of two women who seem to be very different – certainly in the circumstances of their lives – but who in fact have life stories with many parallels. Perhaps because of this, and because of their needs and situations, they gradually form a close bond. Fifteen-year-old Ivy – an epileptic herself - cares for her aging grandmother, struggles with the mental illness of her older sister, and looks after her young nephew in a household battling to survive. Jane Forrester, an inexperienced social worker and newly married to a successful doctor, becomes emotionally involved with her clients' lives and risks losing everything as she discovers the dark secrets that have been kept hidden on the tobacco farm.
What I loved most about the book was the close attention to detail – especially in the description of the minutiae of their lives – and the skilled way in which the author gradually reveals the background of their stories. Plus, the plot-line is intensely gripping; you simply have to know what will happen to them both. My one criticism would be the slight sentimentality of the ending – this felt less than authentic; certainly not likely – but having said that, there is a part of me that likes to have all the ends tied! However, the writing is fluid and compelling and the characterisation excellent. Highly recommended.
Summer Adventure event at Hillingdon Libraries on Wednesday 9th May 7.30 pm - 9 pm. at Winston Churchill Theatre, Pinn Way, HA4 7QL Ruislip with me and Jo Thomas. There will be pink gin, books and plenty of fun as we plan our next holidays..... This is a freee event! Book at your local library, call 01895 558184 or email email@example.com
I will be talking to Darren Northeast at Westbourne BookBinge on Saturday 28th April at 2 p.m. We will be discussing my books, landscpae, the writing process and lots more. For tickets go to: https://www.tickettailor.com/events/westbournebookbinge
I am thrilled to have been asked to be the special guest at Bridport Book Festival on Saturday 7th April. For more details please see: https://tinyurl.com/yc5taxyu
I will be leading an additional session on the subject of 'Sense of Place' at the Chapel in the Garden, Bridport on February 3rd 2018 10 a.m. -12. Further details can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/y95yxmp9
I will be workshopping 'a sense of place' at Waterstones, Dorchester on Sunday 5th November 1.30 - 3.30. I'm really looking forward to this event. For tickets please book here: https://tinyurl.com/y95yxmp9
Having completed most of the work on my new book, I am happy to share the title and setting with you... the title is 'Her Mother's Secret' and the setting is Belle-Ile- En-Mer just off the coast of Brittany, France. It's a gorgeous little island and the story is a bit of a mystery centred around two mothers and two daughters. I loved writing it... It will be published in Spring 2018 - date to be confirmed.
I am delighted to tell you that Little Theatre by the Sea is currently available for just 99p on Kindle! Got to be a bargain!! http://amzn.to/2sGiyca
I am thrilled to be doing an afternoon tea event with Hillingdon Libraries on Tuesday 4th July with the lovely Isabelle Broom author of Then, Now, Always. See: http://bit.ly/2qnAcmn for details - and apparently it's not afternoon tea, it's a glass of bubbly instead - sounds good to me...
I'm coming to Waterstones, Dorchester on Thursday 29th June at 7 pm to chat with Liz Fenwick author of The Returning Tide. This is a free event and signed books will also be available!
I will be at Waterstones, Yeovil at 7pm Monday 26th June for a talk and discussion. The event costs £3 but this is redeemable against the price of a copy of Little Theatre by the Sea!
I will be signing copies of Little Theatre by the Sea at Bridport Waterstones on Saturday June 10th 10-12 a.m. Do come along to say hello!
Look out for copies of Little Theatre on London underground on June 1st...
Drum roll......... Little Theatre by the Sea is out in paperback on June 1st!
Thrilled that Bay of Secrets has been picked for I heart Romance promotion. This is also a bargain alert as the book is now available to buy for just 99p!!! http://amzn.to/2ljpWJY
March 15th 2017 at 1.45p.m. I will be on a panel at the London Book Fair with C L Taylor and Jonathan Telfer, editor of Writing Magazine. Will you be there??
2017 finds me deep in the waters of my WIP (working title 'Daughters of Belle Ile'). Hoping to finish the first draft by the end of March!