Six weeks & counting…

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Island Life, Word Bird & Process

‘Six’ weeks isn’t strictly true. It’s six minus three days – a lot of traditionally published books come out on a Thursday but as Sunday is ‘traditionally’ my social media day, for the next few weeks, technically I shall mostly be lying…

My Snow Sisters are waiting in the wings… The cover reveal is so close I can smell it…

“With a flourish she opened the lid, to reveal a sewing box lined with brittle blue paper… In each of the sections lay a collection of sewing aids…”  
    
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Six weeks to publication!
21 September 2017.
From Honno – the Welsh Women’s Press

 

Early morning bird dances

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

This weekend I visited a dear friend I haven’t seen for years.

Waking early,  dressing & wandering in the dewy garden by myself, slowly, committing it to memory, without the camera this time. Accompanied by the most patient of dogs, dogged in her belief that at some point I will come to my senses & finally throw the ball.

Meandering back, sitting on the patio, writing down my impressions.

Another island, this one made of calm delight held between curtains of trees which part here & there to reveal a sliver of estuary. The cry of a young kite – early morning indignant on his favourite high branch, waiting for a parent to bring breakfast. Faint thunder & a slight fall of rain – there is shelter & another place to sit & still observe.

Everywhere, there are flowers. My friend, who lays her passion on this garden, told me she has moved to ‘paradise.’ (She smiled when she said this, slightly mocking herself for a moment’s fancy.) She’s right though – paradise is here on earth, in an abundance of wild beauty made of trees & butterflies & the sound of water. Paradise is the scent of morning rain & small birds feeding; a pile of seasoned logs ready for autumn drawing-in evenings. It’s in the air, in each sweet bloom & I look out toward the sea & breathe it in…

On a whim, the young kite calls, swoops, joyfully showing off: across my line of sight, up into another tree, making me wait. Because it will be worth it & he has dancy words for me. Up again & round in a drifting circle. I watch him against clotted cloud chasing blue, my breath caught.

As he lands again I tuck the moment away, along with a stolen sweet-pea flower & a feather, between the pages of my notebook, for a pressed & tangible memory…

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Countdown to publication – Snow Sisters

It’s seven weeks until my second novel, Snow Sisters, is published by Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. With the lovely cover still under wraps, here’s a taster…

Verity and Meredith live with their fragile mother, Allegra in an old house overlooking the west Wales coast. Gull House is their haven. It also groans with the weight of its dark past. When Meredith discovers an old sewing box in an attic and a collection of hand-stitched red flannel hearts, she unwittingly wakes up the ghost of Angharad, a Victorian child-woman harbouring a horrific secret. As Angharad gradually reveals her story to Meredith, her more pragmatic sister remains sceptical until Verity sees the ghost for herself on the eve of an unseasonal April snowstorm. Forced by Allegra to abandon Gull House for London, Meredith struggles. Still haunted by Angharad and her unfinished story, hurt by what she sees as Verity’s acquiescence to their mother’s selfishness, Meredith drifts into a world of her own. And Verity isn’t sure she will be able to save her…

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Not nepotism

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Last year it was loudly promulgated, by the few who can never resist, that nominations for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize were largely the result of in-house publishing/author nepotism. There’s a trickle this year too and it’s silly. Occasional irresponsible lapses notwithstanding, the idea that I would nominate a book by one of my sister Honno authors just because she’s published by Honno makes me itch.

I nominated Not Thomas by Sara Gethin before I realised other people had. As a single nomination secures a place on the NTBP longlist and other people had already picked everyone else on my list I tried to ‘cancel’ my vote (you can’t delete it), spread my net wider and nominate See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt and The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engels both of which I adored. (I don’t know either of these authors so no one can accuse me of bias.)

In truth, I wouldn’t care if they did. Not Thomas was top of my list purely because it’s a beautiful book: an extraordinary story which deserves to win prizes. There was no partiality. I simply love the book and I’m proud to be published by a press with such discerning taste!

not thomas

My list of possible nominations included Su Bristow’s exquisite Sealskin
and Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech, both published by Orenda Books a publishing house for which I have a huge regard. Each of these authors has endorsed my forthcoming novel, Snow Sisters. Does that make my choices in some way reciprocal back-scratching? The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull was on my list too – she gave me a wonderful quote for my first novel, Ghostbird. Does that constitute some form of sycophantic favouritism? Not in my view. All it means is I’m fortunate to know a bunch of brilliant, generous writers!

Pish and twaddle, frankly. And all things in my world being eminently equal – the very best of luck to everyone nominated for this fun prize. In particular, my favourites!

Book review – The House with Old Furniture

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The House with Old furniture is a recent release by Helen Lewis from Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. I only review books I like a lot. I like this book a lot & make no apology for promoting a debut novel from my own publisher.

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This is an accomplished debut – the writing flows and the narrative never lets up. It’s a pretty book too – each chapter heading is decorated with facsimiles of old recipe books and an old-fashioned font. Sadly, that’s as far as the pretty goes.

Do we go mad or are we driven mad? In The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis the question is moot.

Evie and Finn are instantly placed: each one grieving for the loss of Jesse – a son and brother respectively. Killed in a shocking gang-related incident, Jesse’s ghost follows his distraught mother and lost little brother as they are forced into moving from London to Wales by his father, Andrew, easily the most arrogant and obnoxious character I’ve encountered in a very long time.

Evie is utterly broken by her son’s death, grieving almost to the point of inarticulacy, but even when she does speak, no one listens. No one listens to Finn either. As they attempt to settle into Pengarrow, an ancient house in Wales, it slowly dawns on Evie that Alys, the woman cooking in the kitchen, isn’t quite who she first appears to be. Evie finds common cause with ephemeral Alys, the author of an old book filled with recipes, reminders and remedies; notes, letters and clues. A book containing her life. Alys also has a son, fearful Nye who reminds both Evie and Finn of Jesse. The unfolding horror of the parallel ghost story slinks like a snake between the cracks of Evie’s grief-stricken mind and Finn’s growing confusion.

Vile, weak Andrew and his monstrous parents make Evie’s life hell on earth. Isolated in more than her desperate sorrow she is ‘unincluded’ rendering her inadequate and a target for people who ought to be caring for her but who have shocking agendas of their own.

If Andrew is the nastiest character I’ve ever encountered, Evie has to be the most tragic: poor, sad Evie, left with ‘all the things I should’ve thrown out and nothing we really need.’ Ten year-old Finn will break your heart; Evie will take the pieces and crush them. The ending is a stunner. It’s brutal and even though it left a space I didn’t know how to fill, and at first I thought I didn’t like that, after a few days I realised what makes this book special is the author’s absolute and unequivocal honesty. Which meant I could decide that after all, I loved it.

As Evie says, close to the end, when she and Alys raise a glass, “Now you’re talking; dirty, lying, scheming, cheating bastards…”

Interview with Judith Barrow

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

As part of her series of Author & Poet Interviews for the upcoming Narberth Book Fair, one of the events organisers, the wondrous Judith Barrow, invited me. Having failed at the re-blogging, I’ve copied it.

Our author today is the ever ebullient and friendly fellow Honno author, Carol Lovekin.

Carol Lovekin

Let’s start by you telling us why you write, please, Carol.

Because I can’t play the piano is the glib answer. The truth is simpler: I love it. I’m me when I write. The person it took me years to become. And reading books made me want to write them. I can’t say I have huge ambitions (other than winning the Bailey’s Women’s Prize, obvs.) I write because it makes me happy.

What do you love most about the writing process?
The unfolding of the story. How it emerges as a spark, a ‘What if?’ moment and unfolds into an outline and a plot. I love the way characters make themselves known to me. It’s like meeting new friends, people I had no idea existed. And I’m addicted to editing.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I’m a lark and awake with the birds. I often handwrite in bed over a cup of tea. Random ideas, scenes and vignettes for my current story, for the next one and quite often the one I’m planning down the line. Each story has its own notebook. My aim is to be at my desk, working on my current story no later than ten o’clock. If I’m feeling particularly creative – down and deep with my story – it’s often a lot earlier. Word count is of no concern to me – showing up is what matters.

What do you think makes a good story?
Characters who endear themselves to me on the first page; perhaps shock me. So long as they make me want to find out more. A quality writing style that draws me in. I don’t mind simple stories – a sense of place is as important to me as a convoluted plot. That said, I’m a sucker for a twist that takes my breath away.

How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
Two. (The ones in the metaphorical dusty drawer don’t count.) Asking me to pick a favourite is a borderline Sophie’s Choice scenario, Judith! Ghostbird because it was the book that validated me as a writer. Snow Sisters because it proves I’m not a one-trick pony!

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I love this cover

What genre do you consider your books? Have you considered writing in another genre?
I call them ghost stories laced with magic; contemporary fiction with a trace of mystery. My mentor, the lovely Janet Thomas, says they are family stories (with magic.) Which I guess is as good a description as any since, magical edges notwithstanding, they are firmly rooted in family relationships. I feel as if I’ve found my niche as a writer and have no plans to write in any other genre.

Could you tell us a bit about your most recent book and why it is a must-read?
Snow Sisters explores what can happen when an act of kindness, enacted by a child, offers the hope of redemption to a tragic ghost with a horrific secret. It’s also a story of love, exploring the ties that bind sisters. And the tragic ones that can destroy mothers and daughters.

In three words, can you describe your latest book?
Ghostly. Quirky. Welsh.

Does your book have a lesson? Moral?
I don’t trust morality! Perhaps: Listen to your grandmother for she is wiser than Yoda?

Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reins of the story?
Regularly. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s some kind of Literary Law. At some point characters are required to run off into the wild wordy wood and we have no choice but to follow, more often than not without our breadcrumbs.

Do you have any hidden or uncommon talents?
I’m a trained ballet dancer.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Although I begin at the beginning, within less time than it takes for me to say, ‘Oh look, shiny!’ I’m off to the middle (anywhere, frankly) and I can be gone some time. I write entire scenes in isolation slotting them into the narrative as I go.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I read, swim and walk. After writing and reading, swimming is the best thing ever. Each week I discuss writing with my talented friend and co-conspirator, Janey. We are the sole members of the smallest writing group in Wales.

What is the most amusing thing that has ever happened to you? Not particularly to do with your writing.
Meeting Margaret Atwood in the eighties made me smile for a week.

Give us a random fact about yourself.
I don’t like even numbers.

That was fun! Thanks, Judith!

Maria In The Moon

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Lately I seem to be reading the delicious kind of books I can’t resist reviewing here. This morning I finished reading Maria In The Moon by Louise Beech & the review has pretty much written itself.

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Catherine-Maria Hope is a woman with many faces. A face reflected in a cracked mirror creating a myriad versions: Catherine, Katrina, Pure Mary, Catherine-Maria: a woman on the edge, in a ripped red dress, circling her past (& the locked up memory of her ninth year) like an inebriated woman on a dodgy night out. Catherine has been on a few of those. Her memory is pretty good for such occasions & she has the art of self-sabotage honed to within an inch of its life. It is only the year she was nine she can’t remember.

From the beginning, this new book from the immaculate Louise Beech (How To Be Brave, The Mountain In My Shoe) has a far darker edge. The air of expectancy is freighted with an undercurrent of something unpleasant & deeply disturbing. Catherine’s voice is fierce & weighted with words she can only half recall. (‘It’s not love unless it hurts…’)

While her house is being renovated following the devastating floods in Hull of 2007, Catherine, a veteran of Crisis Call volunteering, starts work on a phone line dedicated to supporting flood victims. The lives of the other volunteers & the callers soon become entwined with hers. And her relationship with her mother, their alienation from one another, lies at the heart of the story. A heavy secret, which neither of them remembers, has insinuated itself over the years until there seems to be no hope of reconciliation. What the author does so imaginatively, so perceptively, is examine this relationship & find a way for Catherine & her mother to ‘choose the best words.’ (Even in the debris of their mutual antipathy there is humour. Catherine’s mother has a way of dealing with her daughter’s foul language which is genuinely funny.)

Flawed & feisty, Catherine Hope makes it impossible not to care. Her emotions are cloaked & at the same time, movingly raw. We are witnesses to her first person narrative & it is our privilege. As the hints nudge at her memory, they alert us too and yet when it comes, the shock of the final twist is a knock-out blow which will leave you reeling.

As someone who worked for years as a Samaritan volunteer, I must commend Louise Beech on her faithful portrayal of this kind of counselling. It’s spot on. Maria In The Moon is spot on in so many ways. It’s a psychological thriller and a sideways love-story. It is impossible not to love Catherine-Maria Hope. In the moon or feet on the ground, being sick in a sink or dancing in a red dress in the rain, she will catch you unawares. After you turn the last page you will still sense her, & the echo of yet another woman’s story: a story of loss & courage & hope.

My blog, my rules. A million stars to enhance the moon.

My sincere thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the ARC.

Maria In The Moon will be published on 30 September. It is available for pre-order here.

 

The spaces in between

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

In that order, oh yes, it’s an Island Life morning & no mistake. The earlier mist has lifted a bit although it remains Avalonian & suitably mysterious. I can hear a bird too, see the swifts feeding on the wing. And there is always the process…

I suspect I may have used my title before: the spaces in between are familiar to writers. With one book finished (as in – being scrutinised by copy editors, proofreaders et al ) & the scent of launch day not as far away as I imagine, there is a temptation to tread water. Think about guest posts & the answers to questions I haven’t yet been asked. Faff a bit in pictorial procrastination. (Good eh?) I’m a collector of images & always on the look out for unusual ones. I don’t need much of an excuse to play…

“I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.”

Thus spake the glorious Anaïs Nin.

anais nin

For stars, read words & you have it. (I’m guessing that’s what she meant.) I am being pulled by my words. But which story do I choose? For I do have choices: a completed (four drafts in) of one & the exciting draft zero of another. Perhaps I ought to toss a coin. Either way, the space must be filled. I’m restless & not writing isn’t an option.

Not enough stars

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

It isn’t my habit to regularly post book reviews. I’m a writer not a book blogger. Every now & then a special book comes my way & it becomes a pleasure to share my thoughts about it here.

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin is such a book.

Unquestionably, unless you are made of stone, this book will make you cry. It will snag the edge of your heart, lodge in your throat & reduce you to tears. It’s a dark story with a paradoxically light centre which is one of its myriad graces. The story of the little boy who is ‘Not Thomas’ – if only the lady would listen – is by turn heart-rending & ultimately hopeful.

Tomos’ plight is shocking & in our so-called civilized society, no child should have to deal with the things this brave little five-year-old endures. As the story opens, Tomos is hiding, because that’s what his young, damaged, vulnerable mother has told him to do. The lady is coming & he knows not to open the door. As it unfolds, other, more sinister people come & still, Tomos tries not to open the door.

He is a neglected child (surely the worst kind of abuse since it is so easily remedied) & his predicament is shameful. And yet, in spite of her apparent deafness to her child’s plight, we can’t help but sympathise with Tomas’ mother, the way we give thanks for Miss – who does listen.

The beauty of this book lies in the gorgeous, deceptively simple prose. Told from the viewpoint of Tomos, Sara Gethin perfectly describes him – describes him telling the reader who he is, how he feels, what he fears. She does so in language which is both childlike & never childish. It possesses a naive maturity which draws you in. I read it in one sitting, unable to set it aside, mesmerised by the poignancy & tragedy of Tomos’ young life, the lyrical prose & the hope which held me rapt – like my now & then actual caught breath – to the end.

The author exposes the frailties of a social services system which is sometimes less than fit for purpose without ever apportioning blame. She is without rancour, pragmatic & honest in her fictional assessment & thus she reveals the limitless humanity of the book. Hers & ours, which is the reason why, when we read this book, we weep.

Not Thomas is a book which must surely win prizes.

It is available directly from the publisher, Honno or Amazon & selected bookshops.

not thomas

You can read more about Sara & her writing here.

Losing the plot

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Recently, I checked out a self-published book only to be put off by basic grammatical errors in the first paragraph. Now I’m not saying traditionally published books escape unsullied by error. Of course they don’t – by & large though it’s unwitting, more proofreading slippage than lazy editorial faux pas. The latter grates & guarantees I won’t buy the book.

Moving onwards & a little bit sideways, I’m prompted to another of my ‘we all need an objective editor’ rants. Sloppy, basic editing apart – for which there is little excuse, frankly – I’m thinking more about content & the shape of the story on the page.

The other day I outlined the plot of what I hope will be my third book to my mentor: aka Yoda (only far prettier.) She listened attentively, asked for the odd bit of clarification & I thought to myself, ‘Hello! This is going well!’  She then proceeded to turn my plot on its head & ruin my reveal! (I know – some people?) It was however another one of those magical moments of instant recognition & I ticked the proverbial box.

This is what great editors do – they read between our lines & find the version of the story we’re meant to be writing. It isn’t the wrong story. Not unlike Eric, in The Morecambe & Wise Show, when he played delicious musical mind games with a bemused Andre Previn – I have the right words, but not necessarily in the right order.

As usual – & any self-aware writer will get this – I’m too close to the story not to miss the occasional crucial signpost. I have to take that reveal & do something smarter with it. And how clever the alternative! How simple.

My words birds like a nice tune & do send me some lovely ones. They approve the new plot. It’s still made of the same notes – I’ve just played with the order a bit. It’s all about perception. And tempo. About setting things on fire a bit.

Piano

As for any errors – well yes – at this stage (draft zero) loads of them. But once I get to my first, proper one & begin sorting the sonatas from the scherzos so to speak, I can pretty much guarantee I’ll at least have my singular & my plural sorted.