Book review: Yours Cheerfully

This moving yet laugh-out-loud wartime sequel to Dear Mrs Bird is the tonic we need this year.

Having devoured Dear Mrs Bird in a single sitting, I was over the moon to be given the opportunity to review the sequel, Yours Cheerfully, and even more delighted that it proved such a worthy successor.

It’s 1941 and Emmeline “Emmy” Lake, a journalist at Woman’s Friend has moved on from the agony aunt pages to tackle wartime advice. With her boyfriend, Charles, fighting on the front line and her best friend, Bunty, injured and having lost her fiancé in the Blitz, Emmy is determined to do her bit.

When the Ministry of Information asks for help from women’s magazines to recruit women workers to the war effort, Emmy sees a chance to make a real difference and further her career in the process. But the truth is more complex than she first imagines and Emmy soon finds herself embroiled in a much larger political issue that touches the lives of her friends and leads her to some difficult decisions.

AJ Pearce delivers in every respect. The writing has that same quality that has you laughing out loud one moment and then all but moved to tears the next. It was wonderful to be back in Emmy’s world and to see the development in her relationships at work and at home. As before, Pearce brings the period to life, with research that is clearly thorough but never heavygoing, and a narrative that is warm and uplifting, but not twee or sugar-coated.

Comparisons to Call the Midwife are apt, because, like the series, the book manages to be an absolute tonic, whilst covering the hard-hitting issues of the day. In this case, the issues are still our issues now – namely the struggle for many women in balancing work and childcare (where there are no workplace provisions for the latter) and the inbuilt discrimination against women at work to which many are wilfully blind.

I loved this book and will definitely be shouting about it to anyone who’ll listen!

Thank you to AJ Pearce, Pan Macmillan, and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Watching from the Dark

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Readers of the Richard & Judy book club pick, ‘She Lies in Wait’, have come to expect a fast pace, intricate, meticulous plotting and nuanced, compelling characters from Gytha Lodge. The second in the DCI Jonah Sheens series, ‘Watching from the Dark’ certainly does not disappoint.

Aidan Poole logs on to Skype to chat to his girlfriend, Zoe Swardadine. But he doesn’t expect to see a stranger enter her flat. To hear a desperate struggle and then a dreadful silence. Aidan is desperate to find out what has become of Zoe, so why is he hesitant to contact the police?

The book switches deftly between the present-day investigation and the run-up to Zoe’s murder, as well as furthering the stories of Jonah’s likeable team – not least the magnetic Lightman and the vulnerable but smart Hanson.

It’s ideal for the hardened thriller reader, with twists and tangles aplenty to keep you guessing and a complex cast of characters, each with their own secrets to hide.

With thanks to Gytha Lodge and publishers, Michael Joseph, for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

We grieve because we love: why the end is so much harder than ‘The End’

I’ve never actually typed ‘The End’ on a manuscript. Maybe it feels too much like tempting fate to me, especially on a troubled first draft. Like, the more pronounced my certainty and celebration, the more work there will be to do when the edits come back.

‘Finishing’ this time (oh God, I typed it) was harder than before. There was a brief sense of accomplishment, but it didn’t feel enough to justify the amount of work I’d put into the manuscript, and then a terrible sense of loss and dread swept in, and I can’t remember feeling to such an extent before.

I’ve been trying to work out why. What it might mean about my manuscript, or my writing.

It feels a lot like grief.

I’ve lost a world that grew around me and people I had come to love. And of course, I’ve surrendered that perfect vision of what it might have been, if only I were Julie Cohen or Maggie O’Farrell or Sarah Waters.

Not to mention I’ve spent too long in its company now, and as we all know from months of lockdown, that’s an uncomfortable feeling to have about a loved one.

We need a break, me and my manuscript, but that break is going to change us. It has to be read now, and all its faults exposed. (I’m so very aware of its many faults, I had to stop myself listing them point by point in a caveat to my agent.) It’s no longer my own, and that’s not only a letting go, but a letting in… It’s dangerous and scary and exposing.

But there’s more this time around. We’re all already grieving right now, aren’t we? So this is grief on top of grief. This time, when the world I’d written went ‘pop’, my escape hatch closed. I’ve lost the land at the top of the ladder I could climb when the news was all too much.

When you’re grieving, it’s tempting to try and seek out that intimacy in any way you can, knowing (but wanting to forget, each time grief strikes) that it will never be the same.

Starting a new project now is ill-advised. I’m tired. Burnt out. Other responsibilities are calling.

Besides, it won’t be the same. It mightn’t be less, but it won’t be those characters, that world. I dreamed of them. I breathed them. They fed me lines. In the shower, in the car, at the school gates. Anywhere I couldn’t easily write them down, the little bastards.

Now I’ll have to find new loves, write them wrong, dig my way out of one plothole and into the next. Rewrite, rehash, replot, rethink. Relive the frustration and then, with any luck, the limerence.

And then, when I’m finding my way with them, it’ll be time to revisit the old and I’ll rush back to that world I knew so well, with open arms and renewed energy.

Straighten the timeline, bend the arc, drop a hint.

Shift their table into the kitchen.

Make it rain.

Saying goodbye is hard. Starting again is harder. But I love it, all of it. And we grieve only because we love.

Book review: All in Her Head

All in her head

At first glance, Alison has a simple life. She works in a library and returns to her tranquil flat. But something is very wrong. Alison believes that her husband, Jack, is stalking her, leaving messages in her flat and tracking her down at the library. What did he do and why did he leave? And who is the woman who keeps talking to Alison in the cafeteria? Where does Alison remember her from, and how is she involved with Jack?

I have followed Nikki’s journey to publication with interest, and have heard a lot about this book, but happily not enough to have anticipated the ending.

It’s everything you want from a psychological thriller: it’s cleverly plotted, engaging and creates tension and an atmosphere of foreboding right from the outset. What’s more, it has an incredible twist that pulls the rug from under your feet and sends the story hurtling in a new direction, towards a satisfying and heart-warming conclusion. Like all the best twists, the clues are there on reflection, but the answer is well-hidden until the big reveal. I’m willing to bet not many readers will see it coming.

Nikki demonstrates her mastery of both characterisation and plotting in her debut. She weaves the story together from Jack’s perspective as well as Alison’s, and both characters are well-rounded and sympathetic but also compelling and complex.

It’s difficult to maintain so much mystery whilst giving the reader enough to keep track of what’s going on, but Nikki’s handling of the narrative makes it look easy and keeps the pages turning.

Don’t miss this incredible book – and keep an eye out for Nikki Smith in future!

With thanks to Nikki Smith, publishers Orion and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Missing Pieces

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What if the one thing that kept you together was breaking you apart?

Exploring family and love, grief and guilt, Missing Pieces follows two generations of the Sadler family, who are torn apart by the tragic death of a child. Grieving for her daughter, Linda becomes distanced from her husband, Tom, elder daughter, Esme, and even from her unborn baby. The second half of the book, set twenty-five years later, follows that baby, Bea, as she navigates not only the challenges of her family’s past, but also difficult questions about her own future.

So, it’s a book of two halves. In the first, everything slides off the rails and nothing is airbrushed. The repercussions of Phoebe’s death – and Linda’s anger at the injustice of it – is palpable from her clandestine drinking, to the breakdown of her relationships with the rest of her family. In the second, those old scars are very much present, but the unravelling of the past brings some kind of healing.

Missing Pieces is not a noisy, showy book. The tone suits the subject matter – it’s eloquent and raw, unassuming and unflinching. There is no schmaltz or melodrama – the author remains true to the characters and the threads of their relationships are woven realistically and sensitively throughout the story.

The characters’ attempts to scrabble together the ‘Missing Pieces’ are realistic and human – there is no tying everything neatly with a bow, no attempt to paper over the cracks. This is what makes the book beautiful – melancholy and thoughtful, without being bleak. Devastating and yet hopeful. Intense without being overwhelming. And compelling reading.

I follow Laura Pearson on Twitter and was inspired by her personal story and the challenges she overcame to write her debut, Missing Pieces. I certainly look forward to reading more from Laura.

Thank you to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read Missing Pieces in exchange for an honest review. You can purchase your copy here.

Image reproduced with permission. Design by Heike Schuessler: @heikeschuessler

Book review: Big Little Lies

With a large cast of primary school parents, a suspicious death and a dénouement that explores domestic abuse, Liane Moriarty’s HBO hit is a page-turner with a big message.

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Big Little Lies was published in 2014 – one in a string of hits for Australian author, Liane Moriarty. This was the first book to make it to Hollywood, however, with HBO turning it into a series starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley.

I enjoyed ‘The Husband’s Secret’ (published the year prior) and this is the second book of hers I read whilst writing my first book, and seeking to discover how well-known authors were handling infidelity storylines. Contrary to billing, it’s ‘The Husband’s Secret’ which tackles infidelity head-on (and for my money, it’s a more engaging and meaningful read), but this story has much to recommend it too.

It’s the start of term at Pirriwee Public School, and Jane has recently moved to the area with her son, Ziggy, to start afresh. She quickly makes friends with the outspoken Madeline and glamorous Celeste, whose children will also be in Ziggy’s class.

At a fundraiser, someone dies, but we don’t know who or how – and we won’t find out the details until the dénouement. The creative stalling for time (as the individual stories unfold), combined with Moriarty’s knowing humour which rings throughout, keeps you turning pages, until the ending delivers a sobering reality, handling domestic abuse with sensitivity and a depth you might not expect from the tone of the story.

Moriarty manages a large cast of characters with aplomb. We meet them along with Jane, and her mnemonics help bookmark the players enough to keep a handle on who’s who. With a cast this big, it’s difficult to work with subtle character traits, so it’s more of a case of planting a flag and differentiating – creating enough contrast to avoid confusion. Cameos from police interviews – which ostensibly offer tidbits of information about the murder – actually serve to re-establish minor characters whose motivations will be important later, and who risk getting lost along the way.

Because of the simplicity and accessibility of the prose, it’s a case of art concealing art – a lesson in authorial plate-spinning. And a few clatter. Jane, highly anxious and inclined to dwell on the past, suddenly becomes an optimist. And if you’re going to have a catchphrase that sticks out like a sore thumb (‘Oh, calamity’), you want to make sure one character keeps a tight grip on it. But none of these spoil the read, because there is a sense of ‘knowing what you’re in for’, when it comes to this author.

As with other Moriarty reads, I couldn’t help but feel that she had something on the tip of her tongue and that it was never quite said, until the end, where it was announced with a drum roll and cymbal clash, and lost its nuance in all the noise.

But maybe that’s genre preference, above anything else.

In short? It’s a good read – a page-turner that mixes complex social issues with light, airy prose. And sometimes that’s exactly the read you need.

‘Set out early’ published at The Same

I’m delighted that my flash fiction, ‘Set out early‘ is over at The Same today.

This piece is really special to me. Like all ideas worth their salt, this one came to me when I was driving on the motorway and had no way to record it. It came fully formed – the meadow, the characters, the heavy, vital moment they find themselves in.

You can read it here: https://thesame.blog/2018/03/19/issue-7-3-fiction/

I truly hope you enjoy it – do let me know what you think!

You can find more of my published short fiction listed here.

Book review: The End We Start From

Hailed as the first novel about motherhood and climate change, The End We Start From is a mysterious, tender and uplifting work – a short book that leaves you wanting more. 

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I had the pleasure of hearing Megan Hunter speak at the Cambridge Literary Festival last year, and couldn’t resist the boldly original premise of this book…

As a woman’s waters break, London is drenched by floods and finds itself in the grip of an environmental crisis. As she comes to terms with new motherhood, her family also face a fight for survival.

The title is taken from T.S. Eliot and if this doesn’t tip you off that the author is a poet, the narrative style will. The prose is rich and sparing – it dances lightly along a couple of lines at a time and the characters are referred to only by their initials. Whilst the reader may crave more detail about the violence and anarchy which threaten the safety of mother and baby Z, the blank space on the page speaks volumes, serving only to increase the menace.

“Home is another word that has lost itself,” says the woman. As their support structures disintegrate piece by piece, mother and child drift untethered and itinerant, and the story swims forward from point to point too. Again, the narrative nods at the reader’s questions, but doesn’t answer. The effect is to focus our attention as much on the inner story – the concerns of mother and child, the fluidity of time with a new-born, the ebbing and flowing sense of self, the milestones – as on events unfolding in the outside world. It is what Margaret Atwood refers to as ‘herstory’ versus history. We are confronted with how little we understand of nature – the forces that shape our world and act on our bodies.

Babies, we’re reminded, need very few of the trappings of modern life. It is the intensity with which they take what they need from their mother that can leave us flailing in the water.

As mother and child each find their feet in a new and different world, the narrative carries a message of hope and comfort: that all we can do is embrace the unknown and trust in our deliverance.

Book review: The Summer Book

There’s nothing like a cold snap to make you yearn for summer, crank up the Beach Boys and imagine the orange warmth of the sun kissing your eyelids. 

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Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is just the remedy. Indeed, the popularity of the book in Scandinavia, says Esther Freud in her foreword, owes much to ‘the allure of summer itself for those people who spend so much of the year in the dark’.

Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, wrote the book in 1972, the year after her own mother died, and the book borrows characters and memories from the author’s life.

A touching yet understated novella, it shrugs off delineations of genre (combining adventure, humour, biography and philosophy) and just keeps you coming back for more.

Sophia spends her summers with her father and grandmother on a tiny, remote island in the Gulf of Finland. She has just lost her mother and – although the story is positive and life-affirming – loss is ubiquitous. Whilst Grandmother has no objection to her swearing, she won’t allow the child to call her ‘Mama’.

There is no plot, in the traditional sense. Time is elastic, but nevertheless linear. Presented as one summer, the chapters stretch into many, with friends and others drawing into focus and then disappearing into the shadows without explanation.

In the absence of traditional plot points, the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is the narrative’s primary driving-force. Grandmother is terse, yet fiercely kind and protective. Determined to foster Sophia’s independence without crushing her spirit or cutting short her childhood, she is equal parts delight and frustration at the absolutes which govern the young girl’s thinking. Sophia, too, insists upon pulling ties that bind them, then returning for comfort when bowled over by adult emotions.

Like the push and pull of its characters, the prose vacillates too – by turns, sparse and crisp, then gentle and meandering. One of the delights of the book is that conversations between the two are as likely to end abruptly in childish frustration as they are to unfold into profound philosophical discussions.

We are different creatures in the summer, Jansson reminds us. We stretch our minds and bodies towards nature. And while Sophia grows and explores, Grandmother’s physical decline is becoming ever more apparent.

The island – a character in its own right in this work – is developing too. We are reminded that a space that feels small to the point of claustrophobia for adults, is perfect for an exploring child, whose imagination and adventures expand it.

The island is ravaged by storms which blow over by dawn, like the characters’ arguments. Moss, trampled by summer guests, never comes back. New neighbours bring new customs and erode the old ways of life. Each change threatens to upset the delicate balance and uproot Grandmother. It is Sophia, with her youthful openness to possibility, who is able to usher in an acceptance of new ways of living on the island.

Humorous, wise and thoughtful, The Summer Book is a breath of fresh air in the truest sense, and a little taste of the trickling, pebble-strewn pleasures of summer in the midst of an unrelentingly cold winter.

Me, myself and I… 5 tips for writing in first person multiple POV (points of view)

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When telling a story from multiple points of view (i.e. from the perspective of different characters), you’ve got a number of options, including first and third person. In first person multiple, you have a number of viewpoints, each beginning “I…”. In third multiple, you might be following just as many character threads, but the story is told “he…” or “she…” instead.

Writing in first person multi is… an interesting choice. It tends to raises eyebrows, at least among fellow authors. (I’m rather of the view that readers in general don’t care as much, unless the chosen style works well with the read.) Third multi is certainly more common, and probably throws out fewer challenges, especially for a writer starting out.

So why choose first? And if you’ve decided to embark on a project in first multiple, what should you look out for?

1. Where are you going with this – think about what you’re trying to do with your story and see what fits.

Some argue that first person can take you closer inside the character’s head. I’m not sure that’s true (see Emma Darwin’s great post on psychic distance). My choice to use first person for my novel, Unsteady Souls, was more about the relationship between the character and the reader. I wanted to tell a story from three viewpoints that would gain empathy for all three main characters. Given the (often questionable and morally reprehensible) things the characters say and do, I wanted to create the idea of a conversation with a confidante. I couldn’t help but feel that an account written in first person would read more sympathetically.

If you’re unsure what fits your project, try writing your first chapter (or few chapters) each way and see what feels comfortable. What are the limitations of each? When the words are flowing, do you find yourself defaulting to one or the other? Why do you think that is? It may seem time-consuming to write both ways, but it’s a considerably smaller investment than having to rewrite a whole project if you choose the wrong one for your needs…

2. Building blocks – consider the structure of your story in terms of viewpoints

Using first person precludes an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, you can’t have a viewpoint character who knows the whole story, how everyone else is thinking, feeling etc. So you need to decide who takes which scene. Generally, I kept to the rule that the character with the highest stakes in a chapter or scene would get the viewpoint. For the most part, that was apparent, but sometimes it meant trial and error, and changing things around to see what worked.

Once you’ve got an idea of who has which scenes, think about how this fits with scene and sequel (see K.M. Weiland’s How to structure your novel for great help on this much overlooked topic). If one character has a dramatic event, and another takes the aftermath, that can give you the opportunity to let us into another character’s view of the same event, without having to repeat on the timeline.

3. Voice, voice, voice – be prepared to put in the work

Voice is perhaps the biggest challenge for first person multiple POV. Your character’s voice is his or her lens on the world. To be believable, and interesting, each character needs a distinct – and relatively consistent – voice.

As well as the larger, more obvious factors which can differentiate individuals (such as gender, age, cultural heritage, dialect, class and level of education), there are more subtle markers, such as attitudes, values and interests, which can shape the way they think, speak and behave.

What do they do for a living? How does their experience affect how they see the world? What are their interests – what do they read, what kind of films they do watch? Do they have a primarily optimistic or pessimistic outlook? Are they introverted or extroverted? A worrier or fairly relaxed? Funny or morose?

If one character is artistic and ephemeral, perhaps they might describe a dress as “floating chiffon, ruby red and bejewelled with sequins”. If another is more practical and down-to-earth, perhaps it’s just “a glittery red dress – the kind that sparkles under a spotlight”.

When it comes to speech, do they speak quickly or slowly? In long rambling sentences or short, choppy soundbites? Are they fairly considered in their speech or do they tend to blurt the first thing that comes to mind? Do they use slang or swear a lot? Even if dialect is the same, choice of words and turn of phrase can (and should) differ. One character might say “kept schtum” whilst another says “remained silent”. Remember this applies to dialogue between your characters too, regardless of which viewpoint the chapter is in.

The acid test? You should be able to look at a chapter at random and determine, without too much difficulty, whose viewpoint you’re in.

If you can’t, it might be that the voices aren’t distinct enough, and usually that means that you don’t yet know your characters well enough, or you’re allowing your authorial voice to intrude and cramp your characters’ style – well, styles.

That said, whilst a viewpoint is unlikely to change beyond recognition, the voice can develop as the characters go through their character arc. For example, your heroine might sound less confident when disaster strikes, and more definite when she comes through her trials. But in order to sound like parts of the same whole, hints of that character need to be present – and consistent – throughout.

It comes down to knowing your characters well – fleshing out who they are, what their backstory is and where they’re headed. Depending on how you write, sometimes it may take the first draft to find this out.

4. Acting out – think about how your characters’ actions support characterisation and viewpoint.

The same rule applies to a character’s actions. What are their foibles or mannerisms? Do they click their fingers idly when they’re bored or play with their hair when they’re thinking? In the character’s own viewpoint, this might not be mentioned much, apart from the odd action beat. Perhaps it’s an unconscious habit and, for the most part, he doesn’t realise he’s doing it. From the viewpoint of his love interest, it might be a gesture that she observes in minute detail. For his arch-rival – the antagonist – perhaps it’s a tell.

5. Telling lies how reliable are your narrators?

In first person multiple POV, narrators are always unreliable – think of eyewitness testimony, for example. If there’s no omniscient voice, there’s no possibility of an unbiased version of events. And that lets you play havoc with the reader. That’s not to say you can’t do in close third person, of course, but I think the effect is more immediate in first. There’s no one to contradict or filter their story, perhaps until you hear the same event from another viewpoint later on. In the bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins uses unreliable narrators to great effect, disorientating the reader and keeping back the truth until the final pages.

How are you finding it?

Have you embarked on writing in first person multiple? Do you have any experiences, challenges or tips to share? Feel free to let me know in the comments.