My March Books

I absolutely definitely do not have time to write this blog post! We are off to France for a week on Saturday, and I have a lot to do to get ready. It is a home exchange holiday, so in addition to all the usual pre-holiday prep of packing and so on, we also have to leave the house in tip-top condition for our guest family. And, of course, the children need feeding, watering and entertaining as usual. Just to make life even more fun, our drinking water went off this morning, and so I spent quite a lot of time I definitely did not have boiling and cooling water, and organising an emergency plumber. And then a lady from First Utility called to have a matey chat about my kilowatt unit costs and how I could be reducing them. It felt too important to hang up, but wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending 20 minutes of Sophia’s precious nap time!

However. If I don’t write my March books up today, then it won’t happen until mid-April, so I have despatched Anna to tidy her bedroom (possibly for ‘tidy’ read ‘curl up on her bean-bag and listen to her Paddington CD), and Sophia is in her cot. The chatting and burbling indicate that she is in no way asleep, but I am choosing to ignore that for the time being and call it nap-time. So, March books here we go.

March booksCasting Off  and All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

It feels like a long time since I finished the final two novels in Howard’s amazing family saga, right back at the very beginning of March. Having absolutely loved the first three in the series, these two definitely did not disappoint. We follow the lives of the Cazalets into the social change and economic uncertainty of the years immediately following the Second World War. The characters whom we met as children are now grown up, many of them with children of their own. The intimacy of the writing is such that every turn of the plot feels like news or gossip about old friends. “Ooh, Polly’s had twins!” or “Thank goodness Hugh has met someone else at last.” or “I always thought that Wills was probably gay”. I absolutely loved, loved, loved these books, and know that I will return to them again and again.

A Summer at Sea by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is one of my top go-to authors for romantic escapism and comfort reading. I can also report *gets ready to boast* that she is an absolutely delightful person. I met her at the Romantic Novelists Association awards when my own book, Two for Joy was short-listed for Contemporary Novel of the Year a couple of years ago. Sadly I didn’t win, but it was fantastic to meet Katie, and she was kind enough to say that she had really enjoyed my books, which was a fantastic compliment. Anyway, a new Katie Fforde is always cause for celebration, and although I buy most of my books in our fantastic local Waterstone’s, when I saw this on special offer in Sainsbury’s as I did the weekly food shop one rainy Monday morning I just couldn’t resist.

Emily, the central protagonist, is a midwife – a career I seriously considered myself for a while – so it was particularly interesting for me. As always, Fforde has obviously done her research very thoroughly. Throw in some beautiful Scottish Highlands scenery, a heavily pregnant best friend and a ruggedly handsome Scottish doctor, and you’ve got a total feel-good read which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I understand very well just how much effort goes into writing a book, and it feels downright churlish to publicly tear all that to pieces because it doesn’t meet your personal taste. I would never say I enjoyed something I didn’t, but prefer to operate on the principle of ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. In this case, though, the author has been dead for many years, and so is unlikely to be hurt by my saying that this was one book I just couldn’t finish. I got about half way through, but found both characters and plot so implausible I was actually looking for excuses not t0 read! I decided enough was enough, and just skim-read to the end to discover whodunnit. I won’t be counting the book as one of my 52, but I have included it here for completeness.

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster

After not enjoying Murder of a Lady I was looking for something to really get my teeth into, when this book by Margaret Forster caught my eye on a display in Waterstone’s. I still had book tokens from my birthday, so was able to treat myself, and I’m really glad I did.

The book does what it says on the tin. It is an account by Forster of every house she lived in during her nearly 80 years. She was born in a  two-up, two-down council house in Carlisle, and ended up with two homes, one in affluent Dartmouth Park on the borders of Hampstead Heath in London, and a holiday home in the Lake District. The book covers the personal – the story of her family, education, marriage, children, career and the illness which ultimately killed her, and the socio-political – how our homes and what we expect from them has changed over the course of the 20th and early 21st century.

Forster’s personality shines through her vivid descriptions, and so it was particularly poignant reading it just a few weeks after she died. The enormous importance and significance of ‘home’ to her is also something I feel very strongly myself, and so there was that fantastic chord of recognition which is one of the chief pleasures of reading.

Death in Devon by Ian Sansom

I wasn’t sure if I was going to love or hate this book before I read it.  It is the second in a new series of detective fiction set in the 1930s. They are a very deliberate ironic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novels I love so much, and at first I wasn’t sure if I would find the satire annoying. In the end, I didn’t. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that it was an affectionate, ironic satire, rather than a biting attack, and I enjoyed it. The narrator, a Spanish Civil War veteran, is highly likeable, and the plot was cleverly thought out, with a shock ending in the best tradition of Golden Age fiction. I will definitely be looking out for more books in this series.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

I had a bit of a Wodehouse-fest last month when I wasn’t well. Thankfully I haven’t had tonsillitis this month, but we did have an evening with a financial advisor talking about life insurance. The intellectual effort of trying to bend my mind around figures and statistics and probabilities and the pros and cons of different models, combined with the existential horror of contemplating a scenario where I am a widow with two young children, or my babies have been left motherless or orphaned meant that by the time our (very nice, helpful, friendly and intelligent) financial advisor left, I was in no fit state for anything but a mug of hot Ribena, bed and an instalment of Jeeves and Wooster. That made everything ok again.

 

 

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Eleventh Day of Advent: Writing

Two For JoyOkay, so I know reading has already featured in this series, and now we’ve got writing, but I can faithfully promise that ‘rithmetic will not be making an appearance. Maths does not, never has and, I suspect, will never make me happy. Although I can’t say that any more, because apparently lots of children develop a negative attitude to maths because they’ve picked it up from their parents. And the reason that Britain is not so Great in international league tables is that it is socially acceptable, almost desirable, to be rubbish at maths. Educated, middle-class women like me, who might be embarrassed to say they couldn’t spell properly, or hadn’t read a book for five years, take a perverse pride in announcing that they can’t add up. So, I’m trying not to do that in front of Anna, but on this blog, which Anna is not going to be reading any time soon, I admit that maths do not get on. However, I digress.

The enjoyment I get from writing has been my most significant self discovery of the past few years. I have written at length on this blog, and elsewhere, as to how my need to reclaim some time and mental space for myself from the ups and downs of life as a fulltime mum led to me writing my first novel, Two for JoyI am still astonished, thrilled and, to be honest, bloody proud of myself that it got published. Not only that, but I went on to write a second novel, To Have and to Hold and a seasonal e-novella, On the Third Day of Christmas. Yay me! As I talked about in my social media post, some of the pleasure I get out of writing To Have covermy novels and my blog is the knowledge that my words are being read, my ideas are going out into the world and, hopefully, providing other people with enjoyment, interest or amusement. But it’s not just that. Simply the act of writing, sitting down with just my thoughts and my beloved Macbook, and creating something that wasn’t there before, and would never have existed without me, is exhilarating and uplifting. When I’ve had the chance of a few uninterrupted hours writing I get a real high. It’s harder to describe than it probably should be for a writer, but the best analogy I can come up with is that it is the mental equivalent of a spa.

Before it closed (sob, sob) my husband had treated me to a few different days at the Covent Garden Spa. I would swim a few leisurely lengths, relax in the delicious warmth of the jacuzzi, have a massage and stretch out on the loungers with a trashy magazine or a friend to gossip with, and it was sheer bliss. Muscles I didn’t know I had would stretch and relax. Heaven. Just writing this is making me long for a spa day! But a good writing session really does produce those feelings in my mind. To be honest, it is less good for my body – hours hunched over a laptop tend leads to cramped aching shoulders, stiff on the third day of christmas coverfingers and sore blurry eyes. But it’s worth it for the mental uplift.

I may not have gone further than my dining room table, or a local cafe, but writing, like reading, gives me an enormous sense of intellectual freedom and potential. It is also the chance to do something of my own in the world, rather than seeing myself only in relation to my family, much as I love them.

On the Third Day of Christmas

I’ve blogged before about my frustrations with pregnancy tiredness and lassitude, and nowhere has that been more true than with regard to my writing. I launched my second book, To Have and to Hold in June – luckily this was all finished, bar a few edits, before the blue line in the pregnancy test appeared – and would have hoped that five months later my third book would be well under way. It hasn’t quite worked like that. For a start there have been many days when my body saw me sitting down as a cue for instant, overwhelming sleep, and so I could virtuously settle myself down with my laptop only to wake two hours later with keyboard imprints on my face. And then there was the problem of what to write

The book I started, with a plot which had been spinning around in my head for a long time, focussed on three couples experiencing the miseries of fertility problems and miscarriage. It’s a subject close to my heart, and in large part I think I had planned the book as catharsis; a way of coming to terms with the babies I had lost, and coping with the fact that my much-wanted second child might never be born. When I was lucky enough to become pregnant, this subject suddenly felt far too loaded. I struggled on for a few chapters, but always ended up depressed, anxious, in tears or, frequently, all three. The combination of hormones, my ongoing anxiety that this is indeed too good to be true, and that something will go wrong with my pregnancy, and an emotive storyline proved too much for me. I decided to shelve that project, at least for the time being. The characters are still in my mind, and I have a feeling that I’ll come back to them one day, but now is not the time.

on the third day of christmas coverSo, if not that, then what? Almost without thinking about it I decided that a short story would be the perfect project and, as Toby and Julia, the lead characters from my first book Two for Joy are very close to my heart, it seemed natural to return to them. At the beginning of Two for Joy they are both thirty, and the reader discovers that they have been friends since meeting at university 12 years earlier. There are a few hints and flashbacks throughout Two for Joy, but the entire time I was writing it I felt that I knew Toby and Julia’s back story, just as clearly as I know my own or that of my friends. And so I wrote it down. As readers we share Julia’s trip down memory lane as she reflects on the Christmas she has just spent with Toby, and what it might mean in the context of 12 years of their friendship and romantic near-misses. The result is a short story/novella called On the Third Day of Christmas which will be published as an e-book on 4 December 2014 (coincidentally just a few days away from my due date!), and is available to pre-order now. I hope it will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Two for Joy, but it is also a stand-alone story.

As for Book Three, well, I do have a new idea I’m working on, but there’s absolutely no way that the book is going to beat the baby. And although it’s nearly six years ago, I do seem to remember that life with a newborn isn’t exactly conducive to literary endeavour. Or getting dressed, washing your hair, brushing your teeth, leaving the house etc etc. So I am going to award myself a few months of maternity leave from writing, although I will continue to blog when time and sleep levels permit. When I emerge from the fog of the early stages it will be brilliant to have something all lined up and ready to work on. I definitely found that having one child increased my motivation, efficiency and productivity, so am hoping that a second baby will have a similar effect. In which case I could be looking at a third book by my baby’s first birthday. Watch this space…

To Have and to Hold

To Have coverMy second novel, To Have and to Hold, is going to be published as an e-book in less than 2 weeks, on 8 May, and then in paperback on June 19. That’s both incredibly exciting – it feels as though having a second book in print might just give me membership of the elusive Proper Author club, but also rather scary because it means I’m about to embark upon the part of my job I like least – actually trying to persuade people to go out and buy the book!

Of course, that’s not entirely, or even primarily my responsibility (thank goodness). There’s a fantastic team of creative, talented and enthusiastic professionals at Hodder who do all the hard work, but I do have to do my share of sidling into local bookshops and murmuring inaudibly “Hi, my name’s Helen, I’ve umm, written an, erm, book, and it’s erm, well, coming out quite soon. Is there any chance, I mean I know there probably isn’t, and you’re busy and umm well, don’t worry about it…” at which point they probably look slightly bemused and point out that they don’t actually work there, and I go even redder in the face, and turn tail and run. Or something like that.

In all seriousness, I do find the publicity part incredibly shy-making, even though it’s integral to the whole process – after all, there’s not much point me writing if no-one ever reads what I’ve written. Many geniuses are never discovered in their own lifetime, but a) I am not anything remotely approaching a genius, and b) I have very little interest in post-humous success, but a strong desire for people to read and hopefully enjoy what I’ve written right now. And then, you know, tell me. Needy, me?

At one point it seemed as though getting published would be the pinnacle of success and achievement, but, as with many things in life, when you reach what you thought was the pinnacle it turns out to be a mere plateau, and you can see the summit still way, way out of reach above you. This time last year, in my naivety, I had no idea that even getting stocked in a big bookshop like Waterstones, or a supermarket, was so hard. But thinking about it, it makes sense. There are hundreds of books published each year in my genre alone, there is no physical way they could all get shelf space.

Of course, e-books have changed things slightly, but even these sales depend on people knowing about it in the first place. Which is where that much talked about ‘word of mouth’ comes in. So, here’s my plea – if you enjoyed Two for Joy, or like reading my blog, then please, pretty please, do tell people about it, tell them about To Have and to Hold coming out, post a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

And, just to whet your appetite for To Have and to Hold, here is the cover blurb created by my fabulous editor:

From the outside, Ella has the happy marriage, the cute kids and the comfortable home – inside, she craves something more. But giving in to temptation will stir up a whole heap of trouble . . .

Imogen’s relationship with Pete was once fun and carefree but since they’ve become parents, everything is different. Then an accident provides the catalyst for a life-changing decision.

Fifteen-year-old Phoebe is miserable at home and at school. And now her dad, who was always her ally, seems completely distracted by something – or someone. Maybe it’s time Phoebe took a stand, and took control of her own life.

As Ella, Imogen and Phoebe contemplate taking the biggest risk of their lives, marriages, families and friendships hang in the balance. Should they take the leap, or will they risk losing everything?

 

A romantic evening

I may have mentioned a while ago that I was lucky enough to have Two for Joy shortlisted for the RNA Contemporary Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Monday just gone was the big night where we discovered who had won in each category (Contemporary, Historical, Comedy, Young Adult and Epic), and who had won the overall Romantic Novel of the Year Award.

This meant a big glitzy award ceremony in Central London, of the kind I’ve never been to before. Just planning what to wear was exciting – I don’t have many chances to dress up like that. In the end I settled on a black silk dress which I’ve had for years. It’s slightly fifties style with a very full circular skirt, the top layer of which is sheer, floaty tulle. I felt pretty sure that I’ve read numerous magazine articles over the years assuring me that you can’t go wrong with an LBD. I also have a narrow, emerald green belt which looked good with it, and I successfully (miraculously) bid for a  pair of patent leather high heels on Ebay in the exact matching shade of green. My final bargain was a £3 necklace, from the BHS sale of all places, a Y shaped one with delicate pale green crystal flowers and leaves which looked perfect in the deep v-neck of the dress.

One of the casualties of my post-child life is time to get ready. I remember as a teenager that the getting ready was the best bit of a night out. My group of friends would all get together, usually at Julie’s house, and we’d do each other’s make-up and borrow each other’s clothes while singing along to the radio and gossiping about who might pull who. It’s been a while since I did that, but until Anna was born I used to enjoy a long soak in the bath, carefully blow-drying my hair, painting my nails, experimenting with make-up before I went out. Now, not only do I not go out that often, but when I do I normally have to get ready in about ten minutes flat while simultaneously reading Anna her bedtime story and feeding the cats.

I was determined that this time it would be different. The event started at 6pm, and I’d arranged for my friend (thank you Haf!) to pick Anna up from school and give her tea. I’d booked an appointment for 3pm to have my hair blow dried, and then I could spend an hour or so pampering and preening and trying out my new Benefits make-up. Ha ha ha.

The day didn’t start particularly well when I came home after the school run and supermarket shop to find Percy (the black catten) playing with a dead mouse in the hall. I’m not unaccustomed to dead mouse disposal, but am a little out of practice, and Percy wasn’t particularly keen to relinquish his new toy. Playing tug of war with a dead mouse is pretty grim. And then afterwards I noticed that our mail on the doormat was rather bloodstained. I picked it up gingerly and contemplated throwing it straight out, but then noticed one of the items was a new cheque book, so that had to be de-enveloped and disinfected. I then felt rather unsettled because I wasn’t sure whether this had been a visitor mouse, an outdoor mouse or, most disconcerting possibility, a resident mouse. I had to go on mouse patrol, Dettol spray in hand, checking for ‘signs’ as the disposal people euphemistically call them. They mean droppings. When they say have you noticed any signs, they mean check behind your fridge and along the worktops for mouse poo. Thankfully there were no ‘signs’ on Monday, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this was a one-off mouse, and that his fate will filter down the mouse rumour mill to deter others. In medieval times traitors’ severed heads were stuck on spikes over the gate into the town as a dire warning. Maybe that’s what I should have done with our dead mouse…

Anyway, after this I wasn’t feeling particularly glamorous, so I decided to go for a walk and have lunch in a cafe to try and recover my equilibrium. It was while checking my emails that I saw the one from my publicist checking that I was ok to be at the venue for 4.30pm for photos and interviews before the main event. Arrgghh! Given that, a) This was the first I’d heard of a 4.30pm start, b) It was now 2.30pm and I was in jeans and a possibly-mouse-bloodstained-tshirt with unwashed hair and no make up, and c) It would take me an hour to get to the venue, I could say with a fair amount of confidence that a 4.30pm arrival was not going to be ok.

Feeling rather stressed I quickly got in touch with the event organisers and explained there’d obviously been a mix up, and managed to get my deadline moved to 5.15pm. I then raced home and got ready in the twenty minutes I had to spare before my hair appointment. I then painted my nails while my hair was dried, and booked a taxi to take me straight from the hairdressers to the station. And made it just on (the revised) time.

I’d been so stressed by the time problem that at least I’d forgotten to be nervous, which is probably just as well. Suddenly I was plunged into a very glitzy, chandelier bedecked room, with views over the river and the London Eye, and uncomfortably aware that I knew no-one. Within seconds I was having my photo taken with the other shortlistees, including Lisa Jewell, who is one of my alltime favourite authors. Afterwards I got chatting to her, and Jenny Colgan (as you do) and was completely charmed by how lovely, and nice and normal they were. And how patient they were with my starstruck babbling. Over the course of the evening I also chatted to Veronica Henry, Chris Manby, Katie Fforde and lots of other lovely and talented writers. And drank quite a few glasses of bubbly.

I didn’t win the award. Veronica Henry won both my category and the overall award with the fabulous A Night on the Orient Express. I’m thrilled that a book I really love won, and, cliche though it may be, just felt so honoured to have been there, to have been shortlisted, to be a part of it all. And in one of the best bits of the evening, I discovered that if you want to turn a roomful of (mainly) female authors who are (mainly) over thirty into what seems like a group of ten year old girls at a One Direction concert, then you need to give Helen Fielding a lifetime achievement award and let her make a speech. She’s just as funny as you would expect, and hearing her talk really was the icing on the cake of an amazing evening for me.