July, 2011


28
Jul 11

‘Lessons in Laughing Out Loud’, by Rowan Coleman

‘Lessons in laughing out loud’ by Rowan Coleman is one of those books which ticks all the boxes, combining a clever mix of wry humour, raw honesty, brilliantly imagined characters, romance and a little bit of magic. I couldn’t put it down and read it in a matter of days (which is no mean feat with young children demanding your attention 24/7), but I digress……

Willow Briars is a size 18, divorced thirty-something whose life seems to be going nowhere, fast. Preferring to spend a night in watching a movie in her bra, with a bottle of wine for company, Willow’s social life isn’t exactly sparkling either. Her self-confidence is at an all time low and her life mainly revolves around keeping her terrifyingly ruthless boss happy and trying to suppress her feelings for her good friend Daniel. Willow reminds me a little of Bridget Jones, Ugly Betty and a voluptuous Sophie Dahl all rolled into one.

From the very start of the novel, we understand that Willow’s life has taken a very different path to that of her size 10, happily married mum of two, twin sister, Holly, but we’re left guessing as to why and this is just one of many clever plotting devices which keeps us reading to the end.

When Willow’s boss (a brilliant character who truly rivals the horror of Miranda Priestly in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’) asks her to hide a young actress in her apartment until a PR storm surrounding her affair with an A-List Hollywood star dies down, Willow’s life is thrown into turmoil. Things get even more complicated when Willow’s fifteen-year-old step-daughter Chloe arrives on her doorstep announcing that she is pregnant and has left home. The ensuing dilemma Willow faces and the dynamic between the three women in one small apartment is played out brilliantly. There are some touching scenes between Willow and Chloe as they gradually let their guards down and open up to each other about their lives before and after Willow’s divorce from Chloe’s father.

In the middle of her crisis, Willow discovers a junk shop in a hidden alleyway and leaves with a pair of shoes and a fur coat which seem to have called out to her, her life starts to turn around. When she wears these items, she feels better about herself, and people start to notice; the love interests of Daniel, ‘Serious James’ and her ex-husband, Sam, included.

With the help of her shoes, as Willow’s confidence rises, so does her sense of purpose and with her sister Holly’s help, Willow returns to visits her estranged mother at the family home and finally faces up to the dark and shocking secret of her childhood; a process she realises she has to go through in order to enjoy her life again – and to be able to laugh out loud.

This is a terrific read which never stops throwing up surprises, crackling dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments. Rowan also isn’t afraid to tug at the heart-strings and there are plenty of scenes where the reader will be hard-pressed not to empathise with Willow and wish for a happy ending for her.

I would highly recommend this book – it is a wonderfully engaging, well plotted and brilliantly delivered tale of hope and courage. Oh, and after reading it, you will, undoubtedly, all want a pair of Willow’s ‘magic’ shoes.

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Rowan Coleman grew up in Hertfordshire secretly longing to be a writer despite battling with dyslexia.  After graduating from university she worked in bookselling and publishing for seven years before winning Company Magazine Young Writer of the Year in 2001.  Her first novel ‘Growing Up Twice’ was published in 2002.

Rowan has gone on to write eleven novels for women, including the bestselling ‘The Accidental Mother, The Baby Group’ and ‘The Accidental Wife‘ and eight novels for children and teens including the paranormal adventure novels Nearly Departed and Immortal Remains under the name Rook Hastings. Her books are published around the world. She now lives in Hertfordshire with her family and standard Poodle, Polly.

When did you start writing – and why?

I’ve always been a story teller, as my mother would tell you, I often came home from school with tall tales. But being an undiagnosed dyslexic for most of my childhood meant I didn’t really have the tools to write confidently until I was in my early twenties, and then it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to spend a few hours writing, when ever I had time.

What is the best part of  life as a writer?

You do get to go to some wonderful parties, most recently I was a beautiful party at Kensington Roof gardens sipping champagne amongst the real live flamingos and celebrity spotting. For me, the most exciting part about being a writer is actually seeing your book in the shops. That thrill never goes away.

And the hardest part?

There is a lot of solitude, so you have to be good at being on your own. And you have to be very resistant to knock backs and rejection. For every success you experience there will be at least five failures, and if you can’t take it on the chin, get up, dust yourself down and start again, then you shouldn’t try and be a writer. A tough skin is essential.

Which three words would best describe your writing style?

Engaging, Emotional, Unexpected.

Other than your own novels, which book would you love to have written?

Oh, where do I start? I’ll stick to my own genre to narrow the field down and say anything by Marian Keyes, she blends humour, romance, darkness and emotion with the finest of touches.

If you could choose a celebrity to play any of the characters in your latest novel, which celebrity and which character would it be, and why?

Brilliant question, we writers think about this all the time. Willow, my lead character if one of a set of twins, which might prove tricky to cast because although they are identical, Willow is a size 18 and her sister is a 10. In my head she is very much like Jo Joyner (Tanya Branning in Eastenders) to look at, but a little fuller figured and a bit posher.

Do you base your characters on people you know, or are they a figment of your imagination?

Its really a blend of both. Although we don’t look alike physically, Willow is like me in many respects, she is perhaps the most personal character I’ve written since my first novel. On the whole though, my characters tend to come mostly out of my imagination so fully formed I feel like I know them. I do sometimes base the way they look on someone I know or admire, particularly the romantic leads…. it helps with the kissing scenes!

Does the junk shop in Bleeding Heart Yard really exist? If so, are the shoes still there?!

No, sorry. It doesn’t exist and neither does that particular Bleeding Heart Yard – although there is at least one in London, I saw it from a taxi which is where I got the name. The shoes are a figment of my imagination entirely, I didn’t even try and find a picture to describe, I wanted them to be what ever the reader imagined them. I would really like a pair though…

Have you ever spotted anyone famous reading your novels?

A long time ago someone told me they saw Amanda Holden reading The Accidental Mother, which made me wish she’d buy the films rights because she’d be perfect as the lead character, Sophie. But then she got Britain’s Got Talent and that never happened! I can tell you I’ve sent it out to a few famous ladies, in the hopes they might read it….but we’ll have to watch this space. If I hear anything I’ll let you know.

Are you working on your next novel and if so, can you tell us anything about it?!

I am beavering away on it at the moment, its about a woman called Rose who has fled her marriage and run away to Cumbria, to her estranged father who she hasn’t seen for over twenty years. I still need a title for it though, I’m thinking of running a competition on my facebook page if inspiration doesn’t strike me soon!

What are you reading at the moment?

I can’t read anything until I’ve finished this book, I always worry I’ll accidentally mix up plots, but first on my pile is ‘The Hand that First Held Mine’ by Maggie O’Farrell.

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‘Lessons in laughing out loud’ is published by Arrow Books. Find out about Rowan and her other books on her website or Facebook page or say hello on Twitter @rowancoleman

With thanks to Marissa at Random House for arranging my review copy and to the lovely Rowan for taking the time to answer all my questions!


13
Jul 11

Summer of Love, by Katie Fforde

Grab a glass of chilled white wine, find an English cottage garden to relax in (preferably your own) and enjoy reading reading this lovely, lovely book.

‘Summer of Love’ is, quite possibly, the perfect summer read. Set in a quiet, rural community and with plenty of cups of tea, homemade cakes and clinking of wine glasses thrown in for good measure it really is a book to savour.

The main character Sian, is a thirty-something single mum. She has recently moved from the city to the English countryside to find a better school for her little boy Rory and a new life for herself and her furniture restoration business. From the very first lines of the book when Sian’s neighbour Fiona, a stalwart widow and divorcee in her fifties, welcomes her to the village with a jam jar full of flowers, a bottle of wine and a no-nonsense attitude to life, you know you are in for a treat.

Although on the outside her new life appears idyllic, Sian is anxious – about how Rory will fit in at his new school, about the annoying Melissa who is trying to buy the house she is now renting, and about her feelings for Richard – perfect husband material, if only she could make herself fall in love with him. And then, to complicate matters even further, Fiona’s son Angus arrives back from his latest travels and sends Sian into a spin – Sian has met ‘Gus’ before: he is the father of her son.

From this point in the book, we are taken on a delightful romantic romp through the English countryside as Sian and Gus try to deny their inevitable feelings for each other while Sian tries to discover her true feelings for dependable Richard. When Sian mistakenly assumes Gus is sleeping with the dreadful Melissa, she finally decides to make a go of things with Richard and his huge mansion. Unknown to Sian, Gus is left devastated.

The characters in ‘Summer of Love’ are brilliantly written – they are ‘real’ people who are easy to identify with and to like instantly. There are so many books written with characters who are  far-fetched and stretch our realms of belief and reality, but there is something very compelling about Katie’s characters who have real problems like what underwear is appropriate for a dinner date which may lead to something else or whether to have white or red with dinner! Her characters have problems and make mistakes and sort it all out over the kitchen table with a mug of tea and/or a bottle of wine.

Katie’s trademark wry humour is present throughout the book and there are some laugh out loud scenes with the sub-plot of Fiona and her disastrous attempts at internet dating. The scene in the garden centre when she is trying to escape from creepy Evan is comedy gold. Fiona’s romantic liaisons with book shop owner James are excellently written and portray a more mature woman’s outlook on romantic encounters brilliantly.

There is plenty to keep the reader guessing throughout the book as we are never entirely sure what Gus’s intentions are or what Melissa is really up to or whether Sian will ever tell Gus that Rory is his son.

This is far from just a breezy summer read. It is a well-crafted, intelligently written book which delivers a satisfying, happy ending. I would definitely recommend this book for the beach, although I can’t help feeling it would be best enjoyed lazing around in a sunlit garden with the bees buzzing around and fairy lights in the trees at dusk.

This is a book you will be recommending to your sisters, friends, aunts and mum so get the kettle on, cut an extra large slice of cake, put your feet up and start reading.

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I spoke to Katie about ‘Summer of Love’ and her writing life.

When did you start writing – and why? I started writing when my youngest daughter was two.  I had wanted to write for a while but had assumed I’d have to wait until my children were bigger.  My mother had other ideas and gave me a writing kit for Christmas.  Paper, dictionaries, Tippex, it was all packed into a box file.  I started in the new year.

With so many successful titles behind you, how do you keep yourself motivated to write – do you ever struggle to come up with ideas, or does it all come naturally? Keeping motivated isn’t often a problem.  I love my work and so far, fingers crossed, I have lots more books I want to write.  That said, we all have days when we don’t want to work.  Usually when I’ve got started I wonder why I messed around so long.

What is the most amusing comment you’ve ever received about one of your novels? I can’t think of anything particularly funny but someone did once accuse me of stalking her and writing her life, although she knew we’d never met.

Yikes! So, what is the best part of life as a writer – or is it really a terribly lonely existence in a fusty old attic with cold cups of coffee for company? The best part is meeting readers at events and festivals – although it’s more fun than glam.  The loneliness of writers has been hugely helped by Twitter and organisations like the RNA (Romantic Novelists Association) which has newsgroups for writers so you don’t feel so alone.

What is the strangest ‘research’ experience you’ve ever had for a book? Going on a Ray Mears bushcraft course for ‘Summer of Love’ was definitely the strangest thing I’ve done to research a book.  I also went up in a helicopter which I knew would terrify me – it did!  I was going to make a heroine a bee keeper, but when I went with a friend to look at his bees, that scared me too.  I made my heroine’s friend the apiarist.

Which three words best describe your writing style? Quirky, upbeat, romantic.  Very hard to think how to describe my writing in just three words!

Other than your own novels, which book would you love to have written? I’d love to have written a really sweeping novel, with a heartbreaking romance (but happy ending) that everyone would remember.  I don’t think I’ll ever manage it though.  I’d be very happy to have written any of Georgette Heyer’s novels.

Have you ever spotted anyone famous reading one of your novels? I have never spotted anyone, famous or otherwise, reading my books, although my friends tell me they have.  I long to see someone reading one!  I would most like to see a celebrity who wants to star in a book reading one, so they could get it made into a TV programme.

Are you working on your next novel and if so, can you tell us anything about it? I am working on my next novel.  It’s based round a television cookery competition.

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Thank you to Katie for her time in answering my questions. ‘Summer of Love’ is published by Century priced £14.99’. You can contact Katie at www.katiefforde.com or on Twitter @KatieFforde


7
Jul 11

The Ghost of Lily Painter, by Caitlin Davies

‘The Ghost of Lily Painter’ is a new novel from author Caitlin Davies. It has been described as a ‘Mr Whicher’ style hit by The Independent on Sunday and with the combination of ghost story and historical references, is a book which will appeal to Sarah Waters fans.

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As soon as I saw the cover of this book I knew I was going to like it; the haunting pencil drawing of the terraced house and the Edwardian woman and the sepia colouring all suggested a sense of intrigue and history; I was not disappointed.

The story centres around Annie Sweet and her daughter Molly who move into an old house in Stanley Road, Holloway, London. When Annie’s marriage to her husband Ben falls apart, she is left to bring up her daughter alone and throws herself headlong into her obsession about finding out more about the house which she feels has ‘chosen her’ and the people who used to live there.  Told through the wonderfully executed characters of an Edwardian Inspector writing a journal, his lodger Lily Painter and modern-day Annie, the  ‘first person’ narrative is engaging and adds great authenticity to the historical elements of the novel.

The novel moves easily through Edwardian London, modern day London and wartime London – spanning 100 years in total. While occasionally novels which are as ambitious in their time-span can confuse and lose the reader, this certainly doesn’t. It has been excellently researched and plotted with a richness of detail which immediately immerses you into the relevant period of time.

From the very beginning, I was fascinated by the character of Lily Painter, who is introduced in the first chapter as a ghost describing the scenes she is watching in a family house; the occupants unaware of her presence. It’s an intriguing hook and although the novel is based on the disturbing true story of two ‘baby farmers’ (women who took young unmarried mother’s into their home with the promise of a better life for their babies) who were hanged for their crimes of infanticide, the author manages to blend fact and fiction seamlessly and handles the subject skilfully – retaining a necessary degree of suspense and shock, without making it too disturbing to read.

‘The Ghost of Lily Painter’ is the sort of book you can’t put down. Whether you pack it in your bag for the beach or keep it for a rainy Sunday snuggled up on the sofa, you will rip through this to find out the real truth about Lily Painter and her family and to see whether, through Annie’s investigations, Lily’s ghost will ever be able to rest. If you live in an old house, I guarantee you will pay more attention to those creaks on the stairs and draughts of cold air after reading this!

I haven’t read Cailtin’s previous novels but will definitely check them out and will absolutely be keeping an eye out  for her next novel which will be in a similar style.

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The author, Caitlin Davies is the daughter of writers Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies who is probably best known for his biography of ‘The Beatles’. Her previous novels include the memoir ‘Place of Reeds’, and novels  ’Black Mulberries’ and ‘Friends Like Us.’ She lives in north London with her daughter Ruby and I spoke to her about the book and her writing life.

‘The Ghost of Lily Painter’ is based on true events. How did you discover the story and how did you go about the research?

Three years ago I moved into a new home, a small terraced house in Holloway, north London.  For some reason, from the moment I saw the house, I wondered who had lived there before me. Then one night I looked up my address on the 1901 online census and up popped a three-page list of all the former inhabitants. The census only gave the bare bones – names, ages, occupations – and I wanted to find out more about how these people would have lived in the early 1900s.

One day I was reading about nearby Holloway Prison when I stumbled across a brief paragraph on all the women who had been executed there, including Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the baby farmers. I’d never heard the term baby farmer and so I set about trying to find more. I read the transcripts of their trial at the Old Bailey, plus lots of Edwardian newspaper reports on their arrest and execution, as well as some more scholarly works on infanticide. I also interviewed a retired policewoman and a criminologist, and re-traced the baby farmers’ steps, visiting all the places they’d lived and worked. At the end of my research something spooky happened, when a woman contacted me out of the blue to say Amelia Sach was her great grandmother’s sister!

Was it particularly difficult to research a topic as sensitive as baby farming?

Yes it was harrowing because you’re reading about women who killed – or who were charged with killing – children. I thought about writing a non-fiction book, but decided that would be too upsetting. So I invented a fictional character who would turn to the baby farmers for help.

What appeals to you about the periods of history you cover in the book, particularly Edwardian London?

It wasn’t a conscious choice. I’d found the former inhabitants of my house on the 1901 census. Sach and Walters were arrested in 1902, so it seemed natural to set at least some of the novel in Edwardian London. While it was hard finding out about the lives of ordinary people, I was struck by the amount of entertainment on offer at the time, and that’s why I made my heroine a music hall singer.

With both your parents being successful writers, do you think it was inevitable that you would become an author too? How did you start out?

I’m often asked about a ‘writing gene’ but I don’t know if there is one! Having parents who are writers doesn’t mean you’ll become one, but then again I have always wanted to write. When I was 11, I secretly entered a magazine competition, I say secretly because writing was something I always did but didn’t necessarily talk about.

I finished my first complete novel at 19, and despite my parents being writers, I had no idea what to do with it, so I made a pile of books I’d enjoyed reading, and sent it off to a handful of publishers. Surprise! They all sent it straight back. So then I wrote another novel. And another. Then I got a great agent and she’s stuck with me ever since.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of being an author?

I don’t know where to begin! Having ideas and then the luxury to develop them. Each day being different from the next. Being my own boss. Being able to work around my daughter’s school hours. Someone reading your book and saying they stayed up to 3am to finish it. You can’t get better than that….

If you could have written any book (other than your own), which would it be, and why?

There are a few children’s books I’d liked to have written, the ones that I never minded reading over and over again at bed time, like Where the Wild Things Are, The Tiger who Came to Tea, and Not Now Bernard. There’s something hypnotic and bizarre about these books.

What three words would best describe your writing style?

Easy to read. (Does that count as three words?!)

It does! I think ‘compelling, haunting and authentic’ would sum up ‘Lily Painter’. So, what’s next for you? Can we expect more in the style of ‘The Ghost of Lily Painter’?

Next is a novel about a woman who discovers a family secret and instead of immersing herself in research, she’s hell bent on revenge. The style is similar, with different time frames and different voices, but this one is a bit ‘darker’.

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Thank you to Caitlin for her time and for sharing her insights into this fascinating book and also to Marissa Cox at Random House for sending me a review copy. You can contact Caitlin on Twitter @CaitlinDavies2

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