“I used to look at all these daft girls, marrying the first fellow they thought they could live with. And I suppose I was waiting for the fellow I couldn’t live without” –Nora Doyle 1917-2007
Well folks, Valentine’s Day, universally recognised as a celebration of romance and love, is just around the corner. So, with that in mind, my book choice this month makes for the perfect read, not to mention a great gift idea.
Covering a multitude of famous women, including queens, writers, artists and politicians from 1399 up to WWI, this beautiful volume begins with a brief history of each letter writer, reminding us of not just the era they lived in but also the social restrictions they often encountered and how “affairs of the heart could irrevocably alter the course of woman’s life in a way they did not a man’s”. Take, for instance, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letter to her beloved, whom she was planning to elope with against her father’s wishes, “I tremble for what we are doing. Are you sure you will love me forever? Shall we never repent? I fear, and I hope”. Her fear is obvious and her anxiety palpable, almost jumping off the page. However, like so many other heart-felt letters in this lovely collection, there are also examples of passionate longing and desire, while others still reveal true heartbreak and despair. Particularly Queen Victoria’s letter to the King of the Belgians shortly after the death of her beloved Albert, “My life as a happy one is ended! The world is gone for me!” Yet, the common thread throughout this book reveals women of great emotional strength whose belief in love is unwavering.
This beautiful hardback edition of Love Letters of Great Women is the companion to Love Letters of Great Men and a must read for hopeless romantics and history lovers alike.A delightful compendium that also serves as a timely reminder (especially in this digital age of quick-fire texting and emailing, no longer given to letter writing by hand) of just how beautiful the written word is. And how, in the wonderful words of writer Phyllis Grissim-Theroux, “to send a letter is a good way to go somewhere, without moving anything but your heart”.
Happy New Year everyone! Fingers crossed it’s a good one. I thought I’d start this year with a Q&A, and this month I’m honoured to be chatting to the lovely Louise Beech, author of six novels and her, hopefully, soon to be released memoir, Daffodils. I recently read, and highly recommend Louise’s 4th novel, The Lion Tamer Who Lost; a heartfelt love story with a twist, set in Zimbabwe and Hull. Read my review here.
Welcome Louise, thanks for chatting to me today. Can you tell everyone a bit about yourself?
Hello, Eva. So lovely of you to ask me here for this festive Q&A! Well … about me? Isn’t that always a hard one? I live in East Yorkshire (Yorkshire girl born and bred) with my husband; our two grown children have flown the nest now. Before lockdown, I worked as a theatre usher (which I love, because I get to see all the shows!) and I am of course also a writer. I’m passionate about the arts, about supporting writers, and do my best always to give back if I can. For example, I’m part of the Women of Words, which is a group of four women who host monthly open mic events where women can perform (often for the first time) in a safe and supportive space.
Did you always want to be a writer, and if so, what writers have inspired you?
Oh yes, absolutely. When I was as young as three, I recall being in the back of the car, looking out at the treetops and sky and clouds, making up stories in my head. As soon as I could write, I wrote them down, filling exercise books. As a kid, I loved Judy Blume and Paul Zindel. Then when I read Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews aged 15, I knew I wanted to write something like that. In later years, the book that finally made me sit down and write my first proper novel (which was actually Maria in the Moon) was John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It was … stunning. It moved me beyond words. The writing was magic. And I started my own first within days. Now, there are so many authors I admire; Marcus Zusak, Liz Nugent, Margaret Atwood…
I understand that your debut novel, How To Brave, was based on true events. Without giving too much of the story away, can you elaborate?
It was about my grandad, a merchant seaman who was lost at sea during the Second World War. Colin’s ship sank in the middle of the South Atlantic Sea in 1943. Fourteen men managed to get to a lifeboat. Fifty days later, only two were left. It’s an incredible story of bravery, one that I shared with my seven-year-old daughter after she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and refused her injections. Each day we shared a bit of the story, so it distracted her, and I could administer the much-needed insulin. We both became brave, in essence, because of Grandad Colin’s bravery. And I knew this needed to be explored in a novel. So, that story became the central plot of How to be Brave, my debut.
I believe you’ve recently finished writing a memoir? What inspired you to write it now, and how did it differ from writing fiction?
I began my memoir on 11th November 2019, the day my mum had her leg amputated. This followed a tragic suicide attempt nine months earlier, when she jumped from the Humber Bridge. By a miracle she survived, but with terrible injuries. On the morning of the jump, I was delayed by some beautiful early daffodils on a walk by the river … otherwise, I might have been there at the same time as she was. These daffodils haunted me. So that became my title: Daffodils. I’d always known I’d write a memoir because I had a tumultuous childhood, with time in care, and very unstable parents, but this seemed the perfect time. I wrote it during lockdown.
Wow, I can only imagine how hard that must have been for you and your family. However, I can also see why you then felt inspired to write your memoir and how, perhaps in some small way, it may have even helped you? They do say writing can be quite cathartic, after all. I sincerely hope your mum is doing better now.
And finally, the question I love to ask all writers! For anyone thinking of becoming a writer, what advice would you offer?
The main thing is never give up. You WILL experience many rejections and setbacks. The journey is likely to be long. But every single writer who has a book in a shop didn’t give up. Learn your craft well. Take on criticism. Read lots. Follow other authors and see what they advise. And follow your instinct with regards your voice. Only you can tell your story the way it should be told. Never forget that.
‘Be careful what you wish for, you’ll probably get it.’ –Proverb
My first book review this year is the wonderful, The Lion Tamer Who Lost, by the lovely Louise Beech. Written in the third person, this is an inspiring, albeit tragic love story set in the searing heat of Zimbabwe alongside the grey skies of Hull (England). Two distinct but contrasting landscapes. Both beautiful in their own way, but both harbingers of secrets, including some, as the story unfolds, better left unsaid. However, such secrets serve as a reminder of the yin and yang of life, and of what the harshness and tenderness of being human teaches us.
The two main protagonists are Andrew and Ben. Andrew is a writer, an occupation the author uses to tell a story within a story (mise en abyme), with each chapter beginning with an excerpt from Andrew’s book, which I found both clever and intriguing. Andrew, we learn, made a childhood wish, which he keeps in a silver box. However, when his wish eventually comes true, it isn’t in the way he’d hoped. Ben, on the other hand, is a student. Noticeably younger and less mature than Andrew, he nurtures a childhood dream to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve. But when Ben’s dream comes true, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined.
The Lion Tamer Who Lost is a sensitively written, thought provoking, emotive love story with a twist. Both the major and minor characters are well drawn and believable and, like most of us, are all wonderfully flawed and beautifully human, including Ben’s Dad, whom I really didn’t warm to at first, but later changed my mind. Although complex at times, ultimately, this is a simple story of love and loss, of courage and despair and a timely reminder of both the fragility and strength of life. A book I highly recommend.
You can find The Lion Tamer Who Lost here on Amazon
Lauren stared at the crackling fire, comforted by the rhythmic rise and fall of its amber flames. She sighed. Jamie was upstairs cleaning his teeth and Matt was outside securing the horses for the night. Christmas was less than a week away and Jamie had been asking questions. Said the kids at school had been saying things about Santa, questioning his existence. Concerned, Lauren and Matt had talked. Matt suggested it was time to come clean. Lauren agreed. However, watching her son, who had now swooped into the living room, dressing gown flapping behind him like Superman’s cape, she wasn’t so sure; felt overcome with sadness. Thorax tightening, she swallowed the plumb now lodged in her throat and smiled. Jamie grinned back, pointing to her mobile, now busily buzzing on the coffee table.
‘It’s Dad,’ he said, picking it up and passing it to her, Matt’s cheery smile filling the screen.
‘Hey,’ said Lauren, putting the phone to her ear. ‘Everything OK?’
Matt sounded concerned, explained how; about to lock up for the night, he’d come across a small deer.
‘He’s injured,’ Matt continued. ‘So I could do with your help to get him inside. He’ll freeze out here, otherwise.’
Lauren and Jamie shrugged on their coats and raced outside to help. Next to the stable door appeared to be a small deer with a broken leg. Trembling, it stared at them through huge frightened eyes; kept making a strange bleating noise every time Matt tried to approach it.
‘Here, let me,’ said Lauren. Jamie watched in awe as his mother got down on her hands and knees and crawled towards the little deer until, eventually, it allowed her to stroke him. ‘There, there,’ she whispered. ‘We only want to help.’
Between the three of them they carefully carried him into the stable and made him comfy for the night. The following day the vet visited, said the deer’s leg was sprained, but not broken. She strapped it up and under her guidance, Matt, Lauren and Jamie nursed the little deer back to health. Jamie loved looking after him, and the little deer loved letting him. Plus, the only time Santa was mentioned again was when Jamie pointed to a shiny silver bell hanging from a collar around the deer’s neck, saying, ‘I think he belongs to Santa.’
On Christmas Eve it was time to set the little deer free. Jamie knew it was the right thing to do, but still, it wasn’t easy. However, wiping his tears with one hand and waving with the other, Jamie watched how, with one last glance back, his friend disappeared into the woods behind their house.
On Christmas Day, stuffed from eating Christmas dinner, huddled on the sofa next to the twinkling Christmas tree, Lauren and Matt asked their son what his favourite gift was.
‘The silver bell at the bottom of my stocking,’ he replied, without hesitation.
‘That was so sweet of you to do that,’ Lauren whispered to Matt.
Matt frowned. ‘Wasn’t me… I thought you’d put it there.’
“Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent.”
Well folks, we’re well into December. The final month of what can only be described as an interesting year! However, before we say goodbye and good riddance to 2020 let’s not forget, for those of us that celebrate it, Christmas is fast approaching. Therefore, this month, unlike previous years when I’ve read and reviewed some very lovely Christmas themed stories, I thought I’d take a look at something different. Something simple yet poignant, and something that, if you’re looking for gift ideas for the book lovers in your life––whatever the age of the recipient––might just be the perfect solution because, unlike most books, this one is both ageless and timeless.
As the title suggests, this beautifully illustrated hardback is a tale about a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse, with the author and artist being one and the same. For younger readers it’s easy to follow the journey of these four very different friends, sometimes across great mountainous landscapes or beneath vast star-studded skies. While at other times they venture into the darkness, or attempt to navigate the clouds, and at others still, the focus is on the simple joy of eating cake. For older readers, however, I see this more as a collection of unassuming, yet inspiring quotes. Especially during moments of uncertainty and self-doubt, particularly during these troubled and ambiguous times, reminding us that, no matter how dire or dark things might seem, when observed through the eyes of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, we know there is always love, hope, and friendship.
Five Big Stars from me!
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Merry Christmas everyone, and remember, “Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses”.
I can safely say this cookbook is, without a doubt, unlike any other I have read or reviewed before. Written by Ariyan Arslan, better known by the stage name Action Bronson––an American rapper, writer, chef, and television presenter—this unique cookbook was a birthday gift to my son from my daughter, partly inspired by his love of rap music but mostly because of his recent interest in cooking. He was thrilled when he received it and immediately took to the kitchen to try his hand at one of the recipes, which I have to say looked and smelled remarkably good.
Born to an American Jewish mother and an Albanian Muslim father, Bronson—described in the foreword as a “dude that looks like a cross between Godzilla, a handsome 1950s movie star from Europe, and a cult Mexican wrestler”—grew up in a small two-bedroomed apartment in Queens, New York, with his parents and grandparents. Home life, he says, was hectic, but always filled with love and the smell of good cooking. His grandmother, or nonna, who the book is dedicated to, would often bake three times a day, and it’s clear her love of food rubbed off on her grandson.
However, unlike standard cookbooks, this one is not just a compilation of illustrated recipes, of which there are a number, ranging from bagels to pizza, burgers to opihi, and bebidas to coffee cake, it is also jam-packed with pages of Bronson’s tours and travel, as well as some of his favourite eateries, both locally and around the world. But be warned… if you’re looking for healthy food, you won’t find it here. These recipes are all about flavour. Sprinkled with wit, swearing, and humorous back-stories (as well as a whole page dedicated to toothpicks), this colourful culinary journal is the perfect gift for all rap music and foodie enthusiasts alike.
My book review this month, The Lies We Hide (which you can read here) is written by one of my favourite authors, Susie Lynes. It is both an emotional and moving story, exploring the fall-out of domestic abuse and the far-reaching effect it often has on all those involved. It is also, Susie explained, her sixth published novel, but was in fact the first book she ever wrote, making it very close to her heart. Here we find out why… and get to know her a little better…
Welcome Susie, thanks for chatting to me today. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself – I understand you used to work as a producer for the BBC?
I used to be a radio programme producer for the BBC in Scotland. I started by making five-minute features and progressed to producing a weekly magazine show. I left the BBC when I moved to Rome with my husband, Paul, and two kids, Alistair and Maddie. We lived there for five years before moving to Teddington. By this time we had our third child, Francesca. After settling the troops, I did a creative writing course at my local adult college then an MA in creative writing and went on to teach creative writing at Richmond Adult Community College. I wrote four novels before I broke through with my debut, Valentina.
Did you always want to be a writer, and if so what writers have inspired you?
Nothing in my working-class upbringing would have led me to aspire to writing novels; I would have felt embarrassed even mentioning it. Becoming an author is something that has happened on the side, while no one was looking. I just kept plugging away, returning always to the fact that I loved doing it. I have been inspired by many writers – Pat Barker, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Gillian Flynn, Patricia Highsmith, Hilary Mantel, Barbara Vine and Sarah Waters are but a few.
How does the discipline of writing compare to teaching it?
I used to get so nervous before teaching that all I could eat beforehand was cake but there was no choice as to whether or not I turned up. When I teach, the discipline required is more along the lines of keeping the classes focussed and varied. I do get nervous before I sit and write sometimes, particularly if it’s a new project. The discipline consists of making myself sit at the desk, even if I’m not in the mood. It can take over an hour to get in the zone. I work best in solitude because I am naturally quite gregarious. I leave my phone in another room!
Do you believe taking a Masters in Creative Writing helped you? Is it a path to writing you would recommend to others?
It helped me personally because I struggled with confidence, especially after having children and leaving my career to live in Italy. But the MA gave me more than validation. I learnt the craft and even now I am quite a technical writer. I would recommend an MA to anyone as a worthwhile journey to take for its own sake but not as a way of getting published. It’s not necessary.
I’ve now read three of your novels and I’ve loved them all! But for me, The Lies We Hide was particularly good. Why is this story so close to your heart?
Thank you! The Lies We Hide is my only non-thriller so perhaps there was more latitude, more depth. It is close to my heart because it is pulled from my roots. When I spent a day in Lancaster prison for research, I found I didn’t need to change anything about my character Graham because I went to school with boys like him. TLWH is the first book I ever wrote and I was grateful to Bookouture for publishing it for me. The final version benefitted from all the elements of craft I’d learnt over the years through writing thrillers.
And finally, the question I love to ask all writers! For anyone thinking of becoming a writer, what advice would you offer?
Write every day. Set yourself a time and don’t agree to anything else at that time. Write before you do your chores because they will always get done while your writing will not. Take it seriously. You don’t have to tell anyone you’re taking it seriously; this can be your secret. Only do it if, when you sit down to write, you ‘awake’ hours later with no awareness of time passing. If you never get around to doing it, it could be that writing is not for you. It’s not for everyone, and there is no shame in that. Try and hold onto the fact that being rubbish or thinking you’re rubbish is part of the process. Ask yourself: do I enjoy it? If the answer is yes, carry on. The rest is vanity, after all.
If you’d like to know more about Susie, you can find her and her books at the following:
“The truth can set you free, or make you a prisoner”
Susie Lynes is fast becoming my “go to” author for a guaranteed page turning read. The Lies We Hide, the third book I’ve read by this brilliant writer, didn’t disappoint.
Years ago, I worked for a short time at a Women’s Refuge, covering their ‘out of hours’ phone rota on a voluntary basis when I left, which I continued to do for a number of years. It was a sobering experience and one of the main reasons that drew me to this story. The author’s note explains how the seeds for this cautionary tale were sown way back in the 80s when she was a reporter for the BBC and was given an assignment to look into domestic violence. She visited a refuge to interview two women who had fled the abuse of their husbands. One of them explained how her husband had held her under the bathwater, and how she was convinced she was going to die. She vowed to herself, if she survived, she’d leave that night, which she did, taking her two young sons with her. This in turn inspired the author to write The Lies We Hide.
Listed as psychological Literary Fiction, this is a family drama narrated through four main voices, namely Carol, her two children Graham and Nicola, and Richard, a prison chaplain. As stories go it is an uncomfortable read. However, it is written with such compassion and authenticity it’s difficult to put down. This in part is because, rather than just focussing on the day-to-day fear of living with an abusive partner, which the author does chillingly brilliant at times – “his anger [she thinks] will write itself on her body later, invisible ink that reveals its black message by degrees” – she also pans back, showing us the much wider picture. Including the terrible decisions that those affected by domestic violence sometimes choose, or feel forced to make.
When confronted with long-term domestic violence, whether directly on the receiving end of it or simply witnessing and/or hearing it on a day-to-day basis, everyone copes and reacts differently. Carol, an abused wife, will do anything to protect her children. Whereas Graham, Carol’s son becomes, “silent, since speaking was difficult; violent, since no one speaks out against a fist; mean, since kindness got you nowhere”. Later, Graham finds himself in prison for murder, but eventually finds redemption by confessing to Richard, a voluntary chaplain who, it turns out, is struggling with his own demons. Then there is Nicola, Graham’s sister and Carol’s studious daughter. Nicola is younger than her brother, and is therefore less exposed and somewhat shielded from her father’s violence. She chooses a different path to Graham and makes her escape through hard work and education. However, when her mother passes away, Nicola discovers the true extent of the sacrifices made on her behalf. The lengths her mother and brother went to to protect her, enabling her to become the successful city lawyer she eventually becomes – which in part is influenced by her brother’s incarceration.
“Less buying, more doing, less wanting, more enjoying.”
I can’t stand unnecessary waste, or littering, especially plastic. An invention I both love and loathe in equal measure. Cheap and durable it is believed that 8.3 billion metric tonnes of the stuff has been produced during the last 70 years alone, 79 percent of which has been thrown away either into landfill sites or the general environment, including 8 million tonnes into our oceans every year. Estimates suggest that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our seas and 99 percent of all seabirds will have consumed some. For this reason alone I believe we owe it to our planet to act and think a little greener, but not just with plastic but all aspects of our daily life.
Live Green is a handy sized and thoughtful collection of 52 tips, one for each week of the year, offering ideas about the changes we can make to our home and lifestyle including the reduction and recycling of plastic. It looks at things like cleaning products and the advantages of making your own, and the benefit of mindful shopping and eating green. It also addresses personal care, including how to create a capsule wardrobe and buying vintage, plus some helpful advice on hair care, cosmetics and beauty routines.
With a fab section at the back containing useful links to other green sources of information and helpful recipe ideas (including a great sloe gin, and a rather lovely sea salt and lemon and lavender body scrub) scattered throughout, Live Greenis an easy to read and beautifully illustrated guide to help start you on your way to a more healthy and eco friendly lifestyle.
“The crash at the bottom of the stairs woke me instantly… I didn’t want to move. I couldn’t, I was paralysed with fear. I had always accepted the verbal abuse that was thrown at me. I could take that. It was the physical abuse that filled me with shame.”
Dead Inside is the debut novel of award winning blogger, and writer, Noelle Holten, and the first in her DC Maggie Jamieson Police Procedural series. Written in the third person (except the prologue), the central theme of this story is domestic abuse, a subject matter the writer handles with great sensitivity and professionalism. The cast of characters is large, so it’s important to keep up with who’s who; otherwise you run the risk of becoming a little confused. However, the chapters are short and snappy, making it easy to read as well as adding to the pace of the storyline.
Some reviewers have said there is one main protagonist in this killer thriller, however, I’d argue there are two. The first is Lucy Sherwood who, based on Noelle’s own career experience, is a probation officer. In her professional life, Lucy comes across as a tough, no nonsense individual: a given for a probation officer dealing with offenders who have abused their partners, which is also rather ironic when juxtaposed to Lucy’s private life. The second protagonist in this story is DC Maggie Jamieson who, like Lucy, is a strong individual, the right balance of firm but fair, and it’s her job to solve the recent murder of a man connected to a domestic abuse case.
However, when a second body turns up, followed by a third, and the discovery of a connection between the said individuals in that all three men had either been previously charged, or linked to separate domestic abuse cases, it quickly becomes apparent there’s a serial killer on the loose.
With the clock ticking will DC Maggie Jamieson and her team find their suspect? I suggest you buy the book and find out!
A fab debut and a great start to a new series.
For buying links, or if you’d like to know a little more about Noelle, clickherewhere you can read my brilliant Q&A with her, including a fascinating insight into her former career as a Senior Probation Officer, as well as a wealth of knowledge and advice on blogging and writing… which I strongly urge you to take a look at.