Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld – review

Published by Borough Press

Publication date – 21 April 2016

Source – gift review copy

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“The Bennet sisters have been summoned from New York City.

Liz and Jane are good daughters. They’ve come home to suburban Cincinnati to get their mother to stop feeding their father steak as he recovers from heart surgery, to tidy up the crumbling Tudor-style family home, and to wrench their three sisters from their various states of arrested development.

Once they are under the same roof, old patterns return fast. Soon enough they are being berated for their single status, their only respite the early morning runs they escape on together. For two successful women in their late thirties, it really is too much to bear. That is, until the Lucas family’s BBQ throws them in the way of some eligible single men . . .

Chip Bingley is not only a charming doctor, he’s a reality TV star too. But Chip’s friend, haughty neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, can barely stomach Cincinnati or its inhabitants. Jane is entranced by Chip; Liz, sceptical of Darcy. As Liz is consumed by her father’s mounting medical bills, her wayward sisters and Cousin Willie trying to stick his tongue down her throat, it isn’t only the local chilli that will leave a bad aftertaste.

But where there are hearts that beat and mothers that push, the mysterious course of love will resolve itself in the most entertaining and unlikely of ways. And from the hand of Curtis Sittenfeld, Pride & Prejudice is catapulted into our modern world singing out with hilarity and truth.”

Mr Bennet has had a heart attack so Lizzy and her elder sister Jane return to the family home in Cincinnati. There she finds her younger sisters caught up in a Crossfit health craze, but doing little to provide for themselves. Her middle sister Mary is doing yet another degree, and again failing to work in the process. As for Lizzy’s mother, it would appear she is busy trying to match make Jane with Chip Bingley, Doctor and star of Eligible, a reality TV series. But with Chip comes his best friend Darcy. A man Lizzy can’t help but loathe….

Eligible is the latest instalment in Borough Press’ The Austen Project, which sees each of Jane Austen’s novels reimagined in the modern day by a litany of well known and well respected novelists. This time it’s the turn of Pride and Prejudice which has emerged as Eligible under the pen of Curtis Sittenfeld.

Lots of things are different in the novel. Lizzy and Jane are older and absent from the family home, though both still have their rent paid for by Mr Bennet. Lady Catherine De Bourgh for example is now a rather pleasant aged feminist, rather than the snobby harridan in the original. George Wickham has a different name and role in the story and there are new characters, for example Ham, who take over pivotal roles in the narrative. There are some things that haven’t changed. The younger Bennet sisters are highly annoying, spoilt and often down-right rude. Mrs Bennet is still highly strung, but now exhibits not so latent racist, bigoted views with undercurrents of anti-Semitism and a side helping of shopping addiction. She is still obsessed with getting her daughters married off. Mr Bennet is still slightly absent and amuses himself with the foibles of his wife and children, and seemingly abdicates responsibility for finances to the detriment of the family.

I had issues with the book. I was unsure at first if I was enjoying it. I found Lizzy to be annoying, more so than in Pride and Prejudice (in which she tends to be more sanctimonious than annoying) for example and Willie Collins not nearly as sycophantic and obsequious as the original Mr Collins and therefore a little harder to dislike and I did spend some time wondering how the story was going to retain the key points of the original when it appeared to be deviating.  Despite being aware of how the story would play out the book seems to draw you in, compelling you to read despite being aware of the origins of the story and making the inevitable comparisons. I read 300 pages in one evening (don’t be phased by its 510 pages for it is surprisingly easy to read), so drawn in by the story was I, helped by the short chapters that lend themselves to the justification of ‘just one more…’ I realised that I was enjoying the novel, wrapped up in the modern day lives of the Bennets of Cincinnati. It was interesting to see how Curtis Sittenfeld would make all the storyline of Pride and Prejudice fit into the modern day and the scenario she had opened with. It is a novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously and it would appear that the author had fun imagining the Bennets in the 21st Century.

There are inevitably going to be comparisons with the original. Pride and Prejudice is a classic for many reasons. It was an insight into the social norms and idiosyncrasies of the time, of societal standings and ridiculing the prejudices and norms of the time. In some instances Eligible does the same, dealing as it does racial and sexual issues, with the invasion of reality TV, of the trashy television, the desire for publicity and the media’s intrusion into our daily lives. It is done perhaps with a tongue more firmly in cheek and a little more modern comedy, though Jane Austen was not adverse to wit in her novels.

This is my first encounter with Curtis Sittenfeld’s novels. I’m now keen to see what her other novels contain.

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Lyn G Farrell – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Lyn G Farrell to the blog. Lyn is the author of The Wacky Man, which was published by Legend Press on 2 May 2016.

Lyn kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about The Wacky Man 

Amanda is an intelligent, articulate teenager fighting to overcome the violence and abuse that has consumed her childhood. When the reader first meets her, she is fifteen and holed up in her bedroom, having cut herself off from the outside world. The novel is a raw, no holds barred, depiction of what it feels like to be a battered child and the lifelong consequences of it.

2. What inspired the book? 

It’s autobiographically inspired. I wanted to write something that would make the reader feel what it is like to inhabit the dangerous and horrifying world Amanda is trapped in. I had a passion to increase understanding of what life is like for such kids and a passion for fiction. The idea for this book just haunted me until I finally got it written down.

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?  

To start with I was very much ‘sit down and see where the words take you’. However, that led to seven years of trial and error with my writing before the final three years of writing the actual novel. I didn’t do any creative writing course so just wrote and rewrote until my writing began to take shape. After publication I took the UEA Intermediate Writing course which opened my eyes to the fundamentals of writing. So I’m trying the ‘plan, plan, plan’ method for my second novel. My notes are still all over the place so I’ll never be perfect at organisation. 

4. What did you discover about the process of creating a novel that surprised you? 

Some of the characters started resolving plot problems in ways I wouldn’t have thought about! It was as if they were telling me ‘Do you really think somebody like me would do that? I’d do it this way’. I often found that as I was just falling asleep, something I’d struggled with all day would offer a solution. I can’t say I was always grateful as I had to sit up, grab my note pad or phone and start scribbling/typing things down, usually leading to an hour or more of extra work when I was really in need of sleep. 

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I don’t have a lot of spare time at the moment so other things, like reading, studying Tibetan and my allotment are all dreadfully neglected. Just recently I got away from it all at a Buddhist centre in County Cavan in Ireland. I’m not Buddhist but was made really welcome and I slept like a log each night and then wrote in the day. We even got chance to speak Tibetan with the Rinpoche though I couldn’t understand that much! I heartily recommend a holiday like this, make sure you check it out properly – the UK unfortunately has some dodgy places purporting to be Buddhist.

6. You were the winner of the Luke Bitmead Bursery for 2015. What is the bursary and what did it mean for you to win?

Legend Press say it best:

“The Luke Bitmead Bursary is an annual award set up to support and encourage the work of fledgling novel writers. It includes prize money and a publication deal with Legend Press.”

It’s given me a wonderful opportunity to work as a writer. I’m building new author networks and friendships and learning a whole raft of new skills every day thanks to the wonderful team at Legend. Elaine, Luke’s mother is now a close friend and so supportive of my work.  The Luke Bitmead Bursary has done all that for me and the prize just keeps giving. I was recently long listed for the Guardian’s Not the Booker – without the award behind me, that would never have happened. I’m also delighted to announce that I’ve got an author talk at my home borough’s literature festival and will be at the Ilkley Literature fringe festival. Amazing.

7. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

I’ll need a long book in this case so I’ll choose Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. As a novel in seven volumes, it certainly fits that description! I’ve got it on my Kindle and have read about three pages so it should keep me amused for some time. And it’s meant to be the definitive modern novel so it would be good for me in a technical sense too. 

8. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer? 

What’s your favourite Tibetan word?

This changes all the time, when I find out new words that make me laugh, but at the moment it’s Ngo-Tsa.  It means ‘shy’ and translates as ‘Hot face’ which I think describes it perfectly.

Thanks very much for answering my questions and for appearing on my blog.

About the book:

The winner of the 2015 Luke Bitmead Bursary

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“My new shrink asks me, ‘What things do you remember about being very young?’ It’s like looking into a murky river, I say. Memories flash near the surface like fish coming up for flies. The past peeps out, startles me, and then is gone…

Amanda secludes herself in her bedroom, no longer willing to face the outside world. Gradually, she pieces together the story of her life: her brothers have had to abandon her, her mother scarcely talks to her, and the Wacky Man could return any day to burn the house down. Just like he promised.

As her family disintegrates, Amanda hopes for a better future, a way out from the violence and fear that has consumed her childhood. But can she cling to her sanity, before insanity itself is her only means of escape?”

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Under the Reader’s Radar – celebrating the quiet novel

There are thousands upon thousands of books published each year. Only a small percentage of those make it to the best-seller list. That doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t worthy of reading. It may be that they are written by self-published authors who don’t have the marketing knowledge or a small independent publisher who doesn’t have the marketing budget to spread the word. Even the larger publishing houses have a limited marketing and publicity budget so can’t promote all the novels they publish to an equal degree.

I’m part of a wonderful online community called Book Connectors where bloggers, reviewers and authors can discuss all things book related. During one of the threads there was mention of ‘quiet’ books, the ones that miss out on the big publicity push. It was agreed that it was such a shame that certain books weren’t as widely read, as the reading public were missing out on hidden gems. So that sparked a germ of an idea and I decided to do a series of posts highlight titles that myself and other bloggers and authors feel may have gone under the reader’s radar. (That was the working title for this series of posts and as inspiration hasn’t struck me with anything better, its the one I’m going with for now).

So in each post I’ll aim to highlight a couple of titles that may have been missed from your reading awareness. Hopefully you’ll discover a treat or two. And please do let me know if you have any books you’d like to suggest.

The first suggestion this week comes from author Tara Lyons. She has suggested Beyond Reasonable Doubt by Linda Prather, which was self published via Amazon.

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“Assistant DA, Jenna James took an oath to uphold the law, administer justice, deter crime and ensure the safety of the community. Her job isn’t easy, but it has always been black and white—criminals versus victims. Now she is the victim, and the very system she’s fought to uphold is suddenly corrupt, the lines between good and bad are blurred and her world has turned upside down. She’s always known that world existed—a world of power so immense that a single phone call can result in people disappearing or political offices being vacated, a world where doctors are available at a moment’s notice. She’s never been part of that world—never wanted to be. The body count is rising, and unless she finds proof beyond a reasonable doubt against a corrupt former federal judge, and a notorious criminal defense attorney, it will continue.”

Here’s what Tara had to say about it:

“I loved the short, sharp chapters and devoured this book. It kept my interest, and I thoroughly enjoyed the main character being a DA and finding out about crimes from her point of view. The author obviously knows her stuff!”

Tara’s novel, In the Shadows was published on 17 March 2016

The second suggestion is from author Lyn G Farrell. Lyn has suggested We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, (the edition shown is published by Penguin).

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“A seminal work of dystopian fiction that foreshadowed the worst excesses of Soviet Russia, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is a powerfully inventive vision that has influenced writers from George Orwell to Ayn Rand. This Penguin Classics edition is translated from the Russian with an introduction by Clarence Brown.

In a glass-enclosed city of absolute straight lines, ruled over by the all-powerful ‘Benefactor’, the citizens of the totalitarian society of OneState live out lives devoid of passion and creativity – until D-503, a mathematician who dreams in numbers, makes a discovery: he has an individual soul. Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, We is the classic dystopian novel and was the forerunner of works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It was suppressed for many years in Russia and remains a resounding cry for individual freedom, yet is also a powerful, exciting and vivid work of science fiction.

Clarence Brown’s brilliant translation is based on the corrected text of the novel, first published in Russia in 1988 after more than sixty years’ suppression.

Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) was a naval engineer by profession and writer by vocation, who made himself an enemy of the Tsarist government by being a Bolshevik, and an enemy of the Soviet government by insisting that human beings have absolute creative freedom. He wrote short stories, plays and essays, but his masterpiece is We, written in 1920-21 and soon thereafter translated into most of the languages of the world. It first appeared in Russia only in 1988.”
Read more on the Penguin website.

Here’s what she has to say:

“I’m choosing this book because it slipped under my radar for years….The astonishing book that gave both Orwell and Huxley inspiration for their own dystopian novels. Well written, well plotted, keeps you rapt from start to finish. What gives it, for me, the status of ‘one of the best books I’ve read’ is that it could have been written today, so well imagined is the world that the author creates. I can still, to this day, see the buildings and the way people interacted with each other, in my mind. A book that can transcend the decades and seem contemporary is a work of genius.
A terrifying tale of utter powerlessness and submission to a brutal ruling class. One of my favourite ever novels.”  

Lyn won the Luke Bitmead bursary for her novel The Wacky Man, which was published by Legend Press on 2 May 2016 and was recently long-listed for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

So there we have it, two more novels that have passed me by but have now made it onto my radar. Have you read either of these? What are you thoughts on today’s suggestions? Do let me know if you have a book to shout about.

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Alan Jones – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Alan Jones to the blog. Alan is the author of The Cabinet Maker and Blue Wicked and his latest novel, Bloq, was published on 1 April 2016.

Alan kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about Bloq. 

Bloq is a very dark and gritty story about a father’s love for his daughter and the lengths to which he is willing to go to find her when she goes missing in London. Although it is a crime novel, it packs a fairly big emotional punch between the covers. From the moment Bill’s daughter doesn’t get off the train he waits in for in Glasgow’s Central station, his life changes forever as his search for her takes him down to London, losing his friends, family and ultimately his job. He discovers a world he didn’t know existed, and gets drawn into a nightmare of drugs and sleaze that takes him to the edge of despair, not knowing if he will ever see her again.

2. Where did the inspiration come from for the book?

About ten years ago, I talked to someone whose teenage kid had gone missing, and I was horrified how it took over the life of this person. The incident hung about in the back of my mind for a few years. I’d started my third book, which had stalled a little, when a rough plot for Bloq started to seep in to my thoughts. I tried writing the two books in parallel but that didn’t work, and eventually Bloq took over and I shelved the other story. I will probably revive it again at some point, but in retrospect, I think it needs another angle to it to really make it good enough to publish.

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?  

I’m a bit of both. I start with a loose general plan, not necessarily knowing how I’m going to get from one pivotal point to the next. I also work with a timeline which I fill in as I write – it helps me avoid glaring timing errors and the nearer I get to the end of the book, the closer the timeline gets to be a synopsis of the story, in time order, while the book may jump back and forward as the story is told from different character’s viewpoints. 

However, as I write, quite often the story takes legs of its own, leading me down directions which I hadn’t really planned on. Sometimes getting those meanderings to fit into the story can be a challenge, but they are usually when I write most naturally, so I try and go with them.

4. What did you discover about the process of creating a novel that surprised you? 

Simply that I could do it. It took a while to get going with my first book – I didn’t have the confidence to believe I could write, so often I’d come up against a problem and stop for months at a time. Once I got to about half way through my first book, it all seemed to click and I finished the book in one big push.. 

I was also surprised how rapidly the words appeared on paper when I was in the mood. This especially happens towards the end of a book when all the timing and structure issues have sorted themselves out, and I’m just telling the story by immersing myself in how I imagine the characters would think, feel and speak..

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?  

I make furniture. (It was the Inspiration for my first book, The Cabinetmaker). I sail a 40 year old yacht in the Irish Sea and up the West coast of Scotland as far as the Hebrides. It always needs a lot of maintenance which keeps me busy. I do quite a bit of cooking and I just gave up playing football last year when my crocked ankle finally told me that I was too old to try and compete with the young bucks.

I love reading, although I find that I have a lot less time for it since I started writing. When I can, I also love to watch films.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?  

Probably Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, but Leon Uris’s Mila 18 and James Clavell’s Shogun would be close behind. They’re all very different, but I find myself going back to them every so often. Trainspotting because Irvine Welsh captures the humour and the tragedy of the drug scene in Scotland, and his use of language is second to none. Mila 18 is a very clever take on the uprising in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, and Shogun is a long book which keeps you hooked for all its 900 odd pages, cleverly mixing history with characters you can really bond with.

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During the Q&As and interviews you’ve done before what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?  

I wish I’d been asked what it’s like to be a best-selling author.

Sadly, at this point, my answer would have to be that I don’t know! But one day…

About the book:

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“A gritty crime thriller. Glasgow man Bill Ingram waits in the city’s Central Station to meet his daughter, returning home from London for Christmas. When the last train pulls in, and she doesn’t get off it, he makes a desperate overnight dash to find out why. His search for her takes over his life, costing him his job and, as he withdraws from home, family and friends, he finds himself alone, despairing of ever seeing her again.”

(image and synopsis from Amazon)

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Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah – review

Published by Harper Collins

Publication date 6 September 2016

Source – review copy

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“Hercule Poirot returns in another brilliant murder mystery that can only be solved by the eponymous Belgian detective and his ‘little grey cells’.

What I intend to say to you will come as a shock . . .’

Lady Athelinda Playford has planned a house party at her mansion in Clonakilty, County Cork, but it is no ordinary gathering. As guests arrive, Lady Playford summons her lawyer to make an urgent change to her will one she intends to announce at dinner that night. She has decided to cut off her two children without a penny and leave her fortune to someone who has only weeks to live . . .

Among Lady Playford’s guests are two men she has never met the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard. Neither knows why he has been invited . . . until Poirot starts to wonder if Lady Playford expects a murderer to strike. But why does she seem so determined to provoke, in the presence of a possible killer?

When the crime is committed in spite of Poirot’s best efforts to stop it, and the victim is not who he expected it to be, will he be able to find the culprit and solve the mystery?

Following the phenomenal global success of The Monogram Murders, which was published to critical acclaim following a co-ordinated international launch in September 2014, international best-selling crime writer Sophie Hannah has been commissioned by Agatha Christie Limited to pen a second fully-authorised Poirot novel. The new book marks the centenary of the creation of Christie’s world-famous detective Hercule Poirot, introduced in her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles.”

Inspector Edward Catchpool has been summoned to the house of famous children’s novelist Lady Athelinda Playford’s home in Clonakilty, Cork. Also attending the gathering is the inimitable Hercule Poirot. But this is no ordinary gathering for Lady Athelinda has decided to change her will, disinheriting her two children and leaving her estate to someone who only has weeks to live. Poirot believes that he and Catchpool have been invited to prevent a murder. But why is Lady Athelinda determinded to provoke a possible killer? And when the murderer does strike can Poirot discover the motive behind Lady Playford’s actions regarding her will, and deduce who the killer is?

I’ll start out by saying that I haven’t read Sophie Hannah before, either her own creations or The Monogram Murders that first resurrected Poirot, so I went into the book with no expectations. Following in the footsteps of the doyenne  of crime fiction is always going to be difficult, perhaps more so, when you are already a highly regarded crime writer yourself.

It has been many, many years since I have read an Agatha Christie novel. I have, of course, watched various incarnations of her famous Belgian detective and these have somewhat skewed what I know to be my deep love of the written originals. I did try, however, to ensure this didn’t taint my thoughts regarding this book.

I felt that Poirot didn’t appear as much as I would have perhaps liked. He seemed more distant and often didn’t appear in the story for chapters at a time. Catchpool  features more heavily, understandable perhaps as he narrates the story.  I was soon transported back to the 1920s. The scenes where Poirot featured were treats, just perhaps not as generous as I would have liked. He was partly the Poirot that remains in my imagination, considered, cryptic and clever. I would have simply hoped for him to feature a little more so that his character didn’t appear as fleeting and sometimes lacking in dimension as I found him. As for Catchpool, I thoroughly enjoyed his character. He had a realistic and lovely relationship with Poirot, being both maddened by him and intrigued. There seemed a genuine fondness for his Belgian friend, together with the exasperation and feeling of being in Poirot’s wake that seems an inevitable part of knowing the detective. As for the other guests and residents of the house, many of them are not particularly likeable, with many far from hiding their frustrating character traits and in fact revelling in them. Even the butler Haddon is a contradiction to the usual butler, who has reached the stage where he would rather say nothing to any question, than provide the wrong answer. Some of the time I thought that I was not enjoying this story, as Poirot disappeared again, or one of the characters was being confusedly annoying. But then I realised I was actually enjoying the story, despite the issues I had with it. It was engaging and entertaining and the motive and dénouement was very well played out.

Part of the fun for me with crime fiction is trying to work out who committed the crime so I had a jolly old time discounting suspects and giving random motives to others as I read. I finally figured out the perpetrator about midway through the book. I could therefore sit back and enjoy Poirot exercise those famous grey cells to deduce why the dastardly deed had been committed and by whom. There was the inevitable gathering of the suspects, the circling of the room giving possible reasons why each character could be the murderer, then discounting them before moving on. This is the part where Poirot comes into his own, explaining his methodology, discussing the minutia of the case before the big reveal.

I was curious to see how someone follows in the footsteps of one the crime writing greats and now my curiosity has been sated. This was an enjoyable read, and it was lovely to re-engage with Poirot, in a new reimagined setting. Agatha Christie’s estate would only allow the return of the Belgian detective by someone with the suitable skill and flair to retain that character that is beloved by many. I think their faith in Sophie Hannah has been repaid in that she retains the spirit of Christie. She has certainly reignited my love of Christie’s work and made me want to go back and read her novels again. As for Sophie Hannah’s novels, now I’ve read one, I’ll have to try more of her book featuring her own characters in the future.

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Sharon Maas – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Sharon Maas to the blog. Sharon is the author of Of Marriageable Age, The Small Fortune’s of Dorothea Q and the Amazon best selling The Secret Life of Winne Cox and her latest novel, The Sugar Planter’s Daughter was published by Bookouture on 11 July 2016.

Sharon kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about The Sugar Planter’s Daughter.

The Sugar Planter’s Daughter is Book Two of a trilogy called The Quint Chronicles. It continues the story of Winnie Cox, the daughter a British planter family in British Guiana who breaks loose from her privileged roots to fall in love with, and then marry, a black man from a poor area. Determined to make the marriage work, Winnie willingly eschews the trappings of her background and adapts to a simpler life; she supports her husband in the struggle for freedom of the oppressed underclass. Her younger sister, Yoyo, however, is both hostile and jealous; for in spite of her lowered status, Winnie seems to have the very things that Yoyo lacks: a loving husband, and sons. As Winnie’s family grows, so does Yoyo’s ire, and when she finally strikes she leaves deep wounds behind her. Wounds that can never be healed.

2. What inspired the book and the Quint Chronicles?  

Winnie’s story is actually based on my grandmother, who was also a white woman who married a black man in the very early 20th century. It was her wedding photo that made me start wondering about the circumstances, and how difficult it must have been back then. An aunt gave me the bare bones of Granny’s life (like Winnie, she had eight sons and yearned for a daughter) and I simply filled in the gaps with my imagination.

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel? 

I don’t plan at all! In this case, I did know the bare bones, as it was based on a true story, but I have been known to sit down at a blank screen and write a novel from scratch, not having a single idea of where it would take me. It’s not as crazy as it seems; there is a method to this kind of writing and over the years I’ve become more fluent at it. With The Sugar Planter’s Wife, I vaguely knew eher the story would go but had no outline written down. I just sat down and started writing. The first draft took exactly three months to write (1st October to 31st December 2015) and it was the first time I ever felt confident enough to send in a first draft to my editor. It needed very little revision: just the filling out of certain scenes, and clarification where motives of the characters were unclear.

4. What did you discover about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?

The reason I started novel-writing so late in life (late forties) is because I honestly thought it was a difficult process that needed a lot of planning and plotting, and I knew I would never be able to do that. It’s just out of character. After reading a book that told me that stories are created in the subconscious mind, and that it was possible to learn to access this part of myself, that I had my lightbulb moment. Suddenly, I knew I could write, and a few years later I finished a novel that was published by HarperCollins.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all? 

I have a full-time job, and a second weekend-job, so there really isn’t much free time; what time I do have I spend reading or on the Internet (yes I am addicted!) I love nature – it relaxes me, brings me back to myself. And I love travelling. I go to India once a year where I stay at an Ashram and practice meditation. I also go to my home country of Guyana when I can.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be? 

The One Book of my life is definitely the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. I’ve read various versions of it countless times, written my own version, and still haven’t read it in its entirety – it’s the longest epic in the world! So I would read that, and maybe learn Sanskrit to read it in the original… now there’s a lifelong task!

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

The question is: How would you cast a movie of the Quint Chronicles?

I would answer thus:

Archie Cox: Benedict Cumberbatch

Winnie Cox: (a young) Helena Bonham Carter (the way she was in A Room with a View). Or a young Kate Winslet.

George Quint: (a young) Denzel Washington

Yoyo Cox: (a young) Kristin Scott Thomas 

Ruth Birnbaum: Meryl Streep

Thomas: (a young) Leonardo DiCaprio, or Brad Pitt

Uncle Jim: (an older, living) Robin Williams. So sad he can’t make it.

Auntie Dolly:  Whoopie Goldberg

I think it would make a great movie, or two movies!

About the book:

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A breathtaking and unforgettable story of a woman torn between her family and the man she loves.

1912, British Guiana, South America: Winnie Cox is about to marry George Quint, the love of her life. Born into a life of luxury and privilege on her father’s sugar plantation, Winnie has turned against her family by choosing to be with George – a poor black postman from the slums.

Winnie may be living in poverty, but she’s got what sister Johanna doesn’t have: a loving husband and a beautiful family. And despite Johanna running her family’s sugar plantation, Winnie will always be their mother’s favourite daughter, a bitter pill for Johanna to swallow.

Then Winnie’s son falls ill and she must travel to Venezuela desperate for a cure. With her sister away, Johanna finds herself increasingly drawn to George. But he only has eyes for Winnie. Johanna, stung by the rejection and the fragile state of her own marriage, is out for revenge – no matter how devastating the consequences.

A compelling and evocative story of betrayal, temptation and buried secrets that will captivate fans of Dinah Jefferies and Kate Furnivall.

(Image and synopsis from Amazon)

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An Octopus in my Ouzo by Jennifer Barclay – Review

Published by Summersdale

Publication date – 12 April 2016

Source – review copy

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“Escape to the sunlight and colour of a wild island in the south Aegean.

When Jennifer moves alone into the Honey Factory on a tiny Greek island, bringing a laptop, her hiking boots and plans for a peaceful life, she has no idea what surprises are in store.

Diving into an exciting new life with a fisherman, she learns something every day. Joining the dancing at local festivals and helping at a café on the beach, surviving winter storms and finding a canine companion, she is faced with both challenges and rewards, and discovers that to become an island woman she must live small and think big.”

I read this book as part of the #travelbookclub on Twitter. Run by Emily-Ann Elliot (@grownupgapyear) it’s a fun way of reading fiction and non fiction that covers the world.

Jennifer Barclay moved to the small Greek island of Tilos unexpectedly alone after the breakdown of a relationship. Leaving the security of an employed position to a freelance role and the uncertainties of income she is determined to make a new home in Greece, and to embrace what her new life holds.

The book follows the cycle of the year and as it does we see how much Jennifer Barclay embraces and what she learns from her experiences. When the yearly events roll round again, she is involved in a more engaged way, armed with the understanding of the customs and beliefs of the islanders.

There are anecdotes about the everyday, walks taken, food eaten. (Be warned, this book will make you feel hungry! Food is discussed in great detail, with some dishes sounding mouth watering, others perhaps a little too adventurous for my palette.) These are interspersed with details about the history of the island (where the first bones of European Elephants were found for example), and local customs. We read about the author’s tentative steps to ingratiate herself into island life, attending dance classes, celebrating name days and teaching the local children English. There are also more personal details shared, the trials of dating a local when the language barrier can cause difficulties, and the heartbreak and pain of trying for a baby. This balance between the geographical and autobiographical creates a rounded book, it ensures that the descriptions and detail are not dry and the reader becomes more attached to Tilos. I could almost imagine myself there and made me day dream of travelling or living abroad.

There is a wonderful charm to the story and I found it a fascinating insight into island life. I would imagine that had she moved to a major city, Jennifer Barclay’s memoirs would have been dramatically different. There are no doubt differences between island and mainland life. There are the difficulties in sourcing items, shown by the fact that the islanders very rarely threw anything away. There is also the chance to ‘be lost’ in a big city, to not be able to be as involved in local life and customs, whereas on Tilos it appeared that it would have been more difficult to not be involved. Because it is set on an island I don’t think the book would give a rounded view of what it is like to live in Greece. It does however give a marvellous insight into what life is like in a small community, especially when you are keen to be involved in that community.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and my vicarious visit to Tilos. I hope that Jennifer Barclay writes more about her Greek adventures.

My thanks to the publisher for my copy of the book.

 

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Under the Reader’s Radar – celebrating the quiet novel

There are thousands upon thousands of books published each year. Only a small percentage of those make it to the best-seller list. That doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t worthy of reading. It may be that they are written by self-published authors who don’t have the marketing knowledge or a small independent publisher who doesn’t have the marketing budget to spread the word. Even the larger publishing houses have a limited marketing and publicity budget so can’t promote all the novels they publish to an equal degree.

I’m part of a wonderful online community called Book Connectors where bloggers, reviewers and authors can discuss all things book related. During one of the threads there was mention of ‘quiet’ books, the ones that miss out on the big publicity push. It was agreed that it was such a shame that certain books weren’t as widely read, as the reading public were missing out on hidden gems. So that sparked a germ of an idea and I decided to do a series of posts highlight titles that myself and other bloggers and authors feel may have gone under the reader’s radar. (That was the working title for this series of posts and as inspiration hasn’t struck me with anything better, its the one I’m going with for now).

So in each post I’ll aim to highlight a couple of titles that may have been missed from your reading awareness. Hopefully you’ll discover a treat or two. And please do let me know if you have any books you’d like to suggest.

The first suggestion this week comes from blogger Christina Philippou. Christina has picked Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey, published by Bloomsbury.

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“‘An astonishing memoir’ Sonali Deraniyagala, author of Wave’Oh, what can I not do, in my dreams. In my dreams I travel on trains and climb mountains, I play concerts and swim rivers, I carry important documents on vital missions, I attend meetings which become song-and-dance routines. My body lies boxed in darkness, but beneath my closed eyelids there is colour, sound and movement, in glorious contrast to the day; mad movies projected nightly in the private theatre of my skull.’ Anna Lyndsey was living a normal life. She enjoyed her job; she was ambitious; she was falling in love. Then the unthinkable happened.It began with a burning sensation on her face when she was exposed to computer screens and fluorescent lighting. Then the burning spread and the problematic light sources proliferated. Now her extreme sensitivity to light in all forms means she must spend much of her life in total darkness. During the best times, she can venture cautiously outside at dusk and dawn, avoiding high-strength streetlamps. During the worst, she must spend months in a darkened room, listening to audiobooks, inventing word-games and fighting to keep despair at bay. Told with great beauty, humour and honesty, Girl in the Dark is the astonishing and uplifting account of Anna’s descent into the depths of her extraordinary illness. It is the story of how, through her determination to make her impossible life possible and with the love of those around her, she has managed to find light in even the darkest of places.”

See more on the Bloomsbury website.

This is what Christina had to say:

“I’m not normally one for memoirs, but this book is an exquisitely written, beautifully structured, heart-wrenching-yet-hopeful masterpiece…..I got lost in the prose, in the way one does with good thrillers, and often found myself blinking up at the light, having been transported into a darkened hell….”

You can read Christina’s full review here.

Girl in the Dark has over 30 five star reviews on Amazon.

The second choice today comes from Eve Seymour, author of Beautiful Losers. Eve’s suggestion for a novel not to be missed is Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, published by Bloomsbury.

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“In 1954 a fisherman is found dead in the nets of his boat, and a local Japanese-American man is charged with his murder. In the course of his trial, it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than one man’s guilt. For on San Piedro, memories grow as thickly as cedar trees and the fields of ripe strawberries – memories of a charmed love affair between a white boy and a Japanese girl; memories of land desired, paid for, and lost. Above all, San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbours watched.”

See more on the Bloomsbury website.

Here’s what Eve had to say about it:

“It’s one of those classic stories within a story.  There are big themes of love and death and racism.  With a slow burn narrative, it made quite an impression on me at the time.  I thought it beautifully crafted and it certainly inspired me to want to write.” 

Snow Falling on Cedars won the PEN/Faulkner award and has over 50 five star reviews on Amazon.

So there we have it, two more books that I’ll admit had passed me by. Have you read either of them? Do let me know if you have a book you think should make it onto readers radars.

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Marie Campbell – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome author Marie Campbell to the blog. Marie’s novel, Baby, was published on 14 July 2016 by The Conrad Press.

Marie kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about Baby.

Baby is a psychological thriller, based in Edinburgh, where I live. In it, Michael Stanton, goes to work one day and doesn’t come back. Everyone thinks his pregnant girlfriend, Jill, should accept that he has left her. But she just won’t believe that Michael would walk away from her and their unborn child. Increasingly desperate and alone, she is determined to find him. 

What Jill doesn’t know is that Michael’s beautiful ex, Anna, wants him back, and won’t take no for an answer. And it isn’t just him she wants…

2.  What inspired the story?

Before I wrote Baby, I wrote many short stories, and they all tended to have a dark side. Baby is no different, and in it I considered what would happen if someone believed they had an absolute right to have something, and what they would do to get it.

3. What have you learnt about the publishing process that surprised you? Is there anything you would have done differently?

I think the biggest shock was the length of the road to publication. I started writing Baby on a writing course, when I was at home with my baby son. In March 2014, when he was three, I thought my book was complete. I knew finding an agent, and then a publisher, was not a task for the faint-hearted, but I hadn’t realized quite how difficult it would be. I armed myself with a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and worked through the list of agents. After six long months, I was thrilled when James Essinger of Canterbury Literary Agency agreed to represent me. And then we began the process of tweaking, deleting and adding new chapters. Honing the book until it was as good as it could be, and then looking for a publisher… 

Marketing has also been a huge learning curve for me, and it’s only by chance that I came across the fabulous blogging community via a Facebook group called Book Connectors. Some days I feel as I spend far too many hours on social media, or updating my website, when I could be spending the time, well, writing. There’s nothing I would have done differently though – every step has been a thrill in its own way. Receiving an email from a reader telling me they’d stayed up all night to finish my book was the best reward ever.

4. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?

Well, so far, I’ve only written the one novel, and it took me around a year to have a completed, very rough, first draft. As I said in my previous answer, getting from there to publication has taken a long time, but I really wanted the book to be as good as I could make it, so the time taken wasn’t a huge issue for me. 

As for planning or just going for it – I do a bit of both. I always carry a notebook, and jot down random thought and ideas all of the time. I like to get the story down without much planning (although I do keep detailed notes about each character) and then go back and work through that first rough draft in detail, making sure the story flows and recording what should happen in each chapter. 

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?  

I run a freelance proofreading business from home, and that, together with taking care of my five-year-old son, takes up most of my time. My son is particularly fond of the parks, castles and beaches in Edinburgh and the surrounding area (as am I), so we spend many hours exploring and generally running wild (that’s mainly him – I’m the red-faced one in pursuit). I love to eat out, or stay home and binge-watch boxsets (I particularly like a prison-based drama) with a large G&T. I also love to read, and do so whenever and wherever I can. And my partner and I have just given in to the relentless requests for a pet, so I’m guessing our new puppy will also be keeping me pretty busy!

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be? 

This is a very difficult question, and in all honesty, I can’t bear the thought of it – please don’t make me answer…

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. What question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?  

Ooh this is a tricky one. I’m so grateful to all of the bloggers and reviewers who have kindly given me space on their blogs, and I’m always happy to answer whatever questions they like to ask. I suppose one question that people often ask me, particularly because my stories are quite dark, is where my ideas some from. I’d just like to reiterate that everything I write is made up and I’ve neither instigated nor experienced any of the significant things that happen to my characters. Yet.

Thanks for answering my questions and appearing on the blog.

An absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

About the author:

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I was born in Hetton-le-Hole, in the north-east of England, in 1972. Growing up, I spent many hours reading and writing stories and can still recall the pride when, aged eight, my story was chosen by the primary school teacher to be backed in cardboard and put on display.

Fast-forward several years, via an abandoned teaching degree, many years as a civil servant and a new baby; driven by a lifelong passion for words, I embarked on an online writing course. I wrote many, many short stories, and then I decided to write a book.

Over the years, I’ve written everything from reports to magazine articles, blogs to short stories. I write mostly at the kitchen table, picking up a pen, thinking, ‘What if…’ and seeing where the story takes me.  When I’m not writing or looking after my son, I run a freelance proofreading business Marie Campbell – Proofreading. I also love to read and do so wherever and whenever I can.

Find me:
 
Websites: 

About the book:

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“When Michael Stanton goes to work one day and doesn’t come back, everyone – friends, family and the police – thinks his pregnant girlfriend Jill should accept he’s left her. After all, he’s done it before.
But Jill just won’t believe that Michael would walk away from her and their unborn child. Increasingly desperate and alone, she’s determined to find him.
Just where is Michael?
What Jill doesn’t know is that his beautiful ex, Anna, wants him back, and won’t take no for an answer. And it isn’t just him she wants…
In a maze of captivity, sexual tension and dark desire, Michael battles with his feelings. Does he really want his normal life back, or could there be a future with the woman who terrifies, controls and fascinates him?
Baby is a compelling, sexy, disturbing and unforgettable thriller.”

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The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders – Review

Published by Bloomsbury

Publication date – 25 July 2016

Source – review copy

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“Mrs Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an Archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs Rodd to investigate the background of an ‘unsuitable’ woman his son intends to marry – a match he is determined to prevent. In the guise of governess, she travels to the family seat, Wishtide, deep in the frozen Lincolnshire countryside, where she soon discovers that the Calderstones have more to hide than most. As their secrets unfold, the case takes an unpleasant turn when a man is found dead outside a tavern. Mrs Rodd’s keen eyes and astute wits are taxed as never before in her search for the truth – which carries her from elite drawing rooms to London’s notorious inns and its steaming laundry houses. Dickensian in its scope and characters, The Secrets of Wishtide brings nineteenth century society vividly to life and illuminates the effect of Victorian morality on women’s lives. Introducing an irresistible new detective, the first book in the Laetitia Rodd Mystery series will enthral and delight.”

See more on the Bloomsbury website.

Laetitia Rodd has been engaged to investigate the background of a woman by Sir James Calderstone. Sir James’ son wants to marry Helen Orme and Sir James believes her to be hiding her true background and to therefore be unsuitable for his son. Disguised as a governess, Letty travels to the home of the Calderstones. There she discovers that it is not just Helen Orme who has secrets to hide. When a man is murdered outside a tavern Letty must investigate before the wrong person is tried for murder.

This is what I would call a ‘gentle’ crime novel, or perhaps what would be called a ‘cosy’ mystery. It is not gritty or bleak but there is violence, though not as dressed or detailed as may be the case in the gritter novels of the genre. There is a warmth to the story telling, lent by both the historical era the book is set in and with the warmth of the characters. Letty’s investigations come at a time before DNA and fingerprints, before evidence collection and photographs were used to identify criminals. The tools available to Letty was her inquisitive nature and intellect, which she uses to brilliant effect.

I was thoroughly charmed by this story, caught up in the first few pages. Letty is a delightful character, a mix of reserved widow, truly mourning the loss of her beloved husband Matt, and a modern forward thinking woman who doesn’t believe her status as a woman should prevent her from her investigative role. She is aware of her faults and embraces instances where her own prejudices have perhaps misled her. She has a lovely relationship with Mrs Bentley, her landlady, often taking charge to ensure the other woman’s health is maintained but there is genuine affection and caring working relationship between the two. Fred, Letty’s brother is funny and engaging, bouncing off the page as a larger than life character who feeds Letty’s investigative desires well. Inspector Blackbeard is the perfect foil for Letty. He is methodical, consistent and not compelled by violent emotions, preferring to find evidence rather than work on emotional instinct. However the relationship between the two thaws and the different investigative tactics work well together.

The story is engaging, starting out with an investigation into the true nature of a woman’s background and resulting in murder, which Letty must investigate before the wrong person is tried for murder. I had figured out the perpetrator about half way through the book but it was enjoyable to read how Letty, Fred and Blackbeard would uncover the truth, given they only had questioning and intuition to aid their investigations. There were times I felt the story was a little long, partly because I had figured out the perpetrator and wanted Letty to twig too, but the story played out well.

The story also focusses on the position women held in 19th Century life. The main theme of this is the double standards towards the actions of women. For example, a woman’s position regarding property or that a man was allowed to have a mistress, in fact it was almost expected, yet for a woman to commit adultery meant the worst of sins. Similarly, should a woman run away with a man and not marry she lost her position in society for ever. A man could continue to hold his head high. These issues aren’t dealt with in a dry or lecturing manner. They are dealt with in a manner that would be expected from a woman of the time, that is with quiet outrage and reluctant acceptance.

In summary, an engaging, entertaining read. I enjoyed this introduction to Laetitia Rodd immensely and am very much looking forward to the next book in the series. If you enjoy historical crime novels, with engaging characters and a softer, cosier edge then this one is perfect to curl up with.

My thanks to the publishers for my review copy of the book.

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