My Big Books of 2017

As the year draws to a close, it’s traditional for me to consider the books I’ve most enjoyed in the past twelve months. I don’t like using ‘best’, because this is a personal list and my preferred reading tends to reflect my emotional state as much as, if not more than, anything.

2017 has been a tough year, both personally and professionally – it’s been pretty shitty politically and economically, too, in my opinion. On the home front, to name but one challenge, there was a horrendous run-in with Southern Rail and Ginger1, my eldest boy. Professionally, while Skin Deep has been incredibly well-received (reviews were beyond my wildest hopes and dreams – thank you, dear readers) sales are, to coin a publishing cliché, disappointing.

So, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me – or you – that the majority of the books I’ve enjoyed the most this year are dark in tone and subject matter. The up-lit star might have been rising across the publishing landscape, but not in my house! Here’s my list of the novels (yes, they’re all novels this year) that have impressed me the most:

IMG_3650Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall – this isn’t out till Spring 2018 but I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy. A stunning exploration of obsessive love which delves deep into the twisted heart of a secretive, sexually charged relationship and the aftermath of its breakdown. One of the most compelling and psychologically complex thrillers I’ve read in a very long time – and its commentary on our current world is perceptive and terrifying in equal measure. I have no doubt this will be one of the most talked about psych thrillers of 2018. Breathtaking.

The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins – a celebrated academic and TV presenter – a woman who ‘has it all’ writes a memoir about a long-lost heroine, reluctantly enlisting the aid of a socially inept housekeeper. It’s a novel about ambition, privilege, morality and dung beetles. Fabulous.

The Muse by Jessie Burton – I adored The Miniaturist and I’m fascinated by the Spanish civil war and art so this was near enough a sure thing. That said, I preferred Burton’s debut, but her second offering is wonderful story, set across two time-frames, about hidden treasures, faking it, love and identity.

IMG_3651Ivy and Abe by Elizabeth Enfield – another one not released until 2018 (February) which I read this year. A story of love and quantum physics, it’s beautiful, sad and clever. We meet the eponymous protagonists over the course of 70 years in 11 different realities, or universes. Fans of The Versions of Us (like me) and Life After Life should enjoy it. Gorgeous.

Lie with Me by Sabine Durrant – with a lying, narcissistic literary novelist at its heart and a supporting cast of unlikable metropolitan-elite types, this is a gripping and clever psychological thriller about a missing child and the dangers of little lies. Durrant’s brilliance lies in her ability to evoke sympathy for her male lead, Paul.

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel – it’s not a spoiler to reveal that this is a tale of incest (we know within the first 20 pages, if not earlier) set in the American mid-West. It’s a subject matter many will find distasteful, but Engel writes beautifully and sensitively. This incredible work has shades of Rebecca and reminded me in tone and in the portrayal of small town America and its inhabitants of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects – a much stronger book than her more successful Gone Girl, in my humble opinion.

That’s it. My to-read tower remains in danger of toppling and with lots of wonderful books scheduled for 2018 – including one by my good friend, Kate Helm (I can’t wait!) – I only hope I have enough time to write!

Merry Christmas one and all – here’s to the New Year!

IMG_3649

Laura x

 

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Good times, bad times, good memories, good lessons

This post’s title paraphrases an anonymous quote: Good times become good memories and bad times become good lessons

Across the media there’s been much talk of the terrible events of 2016 – and the terribleness of some depends upon which way you voted, though it’s fair to say most people I know, myself included, were crushed by the June result here and the November one across the pond.

Today as I dragged out my new diary – sniffed it, enjoyed the crisp, as yet unsullied pages – and transferred important information across (like all those passwords we’re not supposed to write down!) my Facebook timeline was dotted with posts celebrating Good Things of the past twelve months.

Traditionally, I have penned a review of my year here but had not felt inclined to do so for 2016 till now. The positivity on social media reminded me that I, too, have had as many good moments as difficult, if not more, and in the spirit of #lovenothate #beattheblues #hopenothate here’s my list:

Giinger2's fabulous locks

Giinger2’s fabulous locks

Ginger1 turned 18 and what a fine young man he is. Some might say my job is done, though I can’t agree. Parenting is for life.

Ginger2 turned 13 and he is shaping up nicely. And growing the finest head of hair I can think of.

I published my third novel – thanks are due to my publisher Accent Press and to all the book shops, bloggers, readers and fellow authors who supported it along its way. Bless you all.

I wrote a radio play after attending a script writing course led by Sue Teddern. It was brilliant to take on a fresh challenge and make new friends along the way. Whether or not the play is ever produced doesn’t matter (much!); the process was priceless.

I began a new novel – abandoned it and began again. Another lesson and reminder that no matter where you are in the journey there’s always something new to be learnt or discovered.Redemption Song Final

A conference I helped to organise and run – The Beach Hut Writing Academy’s From Inspiration to Publication – was a sell-out success. So much so that we’re running another in 2017.

I took part in a number of fantastic literary events – including City Reads, part of the Brighton Festival.

I was a writer-in-residence for Little Green Pig’s pop-up gallery in the summer and subsequently have been running workshops for the organisation which offers creative writing and storytelling workshops to children and young people in Brighton & Hove. A fabulous charity.

2016-08-30-09-20-40The BigFella and I made it through another year together – that’s 25 in total since we first met – and we love each other as much, perhaps more, than we ever have.

We enjoyed a great holiday in Cornwall with my lovely sister-in-law in August.

My parents are healthy and living well at a time when so many friends are facing/have faced the loss of theirs.

I witnessed friends fall in love, marry, have children, be published for the first time.

There is more love and hope in the world than hate and despair. The bad shit is given so much more air time because it is rare – at least here. We are truly blessed. Winners of the lottery of life.

Be thankful, be content. Know that every small act of compassion and kindness is meaningful. As my lovely grandma used to say: From small acorns…

Happy New Year!

 

2016: Brilliant books, according to me

In common with many people, 2016 has been a tricky and often difficult year for me but the pleasure and stimulation (intellectual, emotional and creative) I receive from reading has remained constant. Thank goodness for books. Beautiful books.

Since I began this blog in 2010 it has become customary to share my favourite reads as the year draws to its close. They are not necessarily works first published in the year; they are not necessarily prize winners (though sometimes they are) and they come from a wide range of genres. I’m an eclectic reader and it’s a very personal list. The following impressed me enormously. In no particular order:

Fiction

Bashed up proof copy. BigFella read & also loved. And dropped it in the bath.This Must Be The Place, Maggie O’Farrell

A huge canvas; an intimate and expansive examination of a marriage.  Quite simply genius.

 

Animals, Emma Jane Unsworthimg_2608

A tale of two not-quite-ready-to-be-grown-up 30somethings, this book made me laugh and cry in recognition. Unsworth writes with enormous wit and compassion, and an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of female friendship. Brilliant.

img_2614The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett

With its satisfyingly complex structure this novel explores three possible outcomes of the lives of two Cambridge undergraduates who meet – or not – in the 1950s. Spanning 50 years, it is involving, rich and clever.

 

We Go Around in the Night and Are Consumed by Fire, Jules Grantimg_2609

One of the reasons I love this novel is because it vividly portrays a world I hitherto knew little about: the female criminal gangs of contemporary Manchester. The voices of gang leader, Donna, and her lover’s daughter Ror, are raw and, surprisingly, poetic. Stunning.

img_2615Summertime, Vanessa Lafaye

A historical love story centred around a true event, a hurricane, in 1930s Florida. The veterans’ tale is a shocking and shameful blemish on American history, brought vividly and compassionately to life. Thrilling and sad.

 

Stargazing, Kate Glanvilleimg_2616

A warm and touching family drama exploring serious issues like family breakup, domestic abuse and falling for the right person. Moving.

img_2612Sandlands, Rosy Thorton

A collection of sixteen diverse tales set in and around one coastal village in Suffolk.  Poignant, unsettling and often extremely funny. Magical.

 

 

Wake, Anna Hopeimg_2613

There are many books covering the Great War but few are as powerful and memorable as this one. Pegged to the search for the Unknown Soldier Wake covers three women’s stories.  Unforgettable.

51d7b-eedl-_sx318_bo1204203200_Where Love Lies, Julie Cohen

This has all the fabulous Cohen trademarks: warmth, insight, tenderness, and it really stands out. It was shamefully overlooked on its release in my humble opinion. I suspect this is because the hook is impossible to talk about without spoilers. Suffice to say: read it. It’s wonderful. Poignant and tender.

 

Non-fiction

The Outrun, Amy Liptrotimg_2606

A searing, honest, unsentimental account of one woman’s recovery from alcoholism and the transformative power of nature and home. I want to visit remote Scottish islands (despite the brutal weather) after reading this book. Outstanding.

img_2611Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit

Solnit’s history of activism and social change over the past 50 years (first published in 2005 – revised and updated in 2016) is as important now as it ever was. A case for hope, arguably we need it now more than ever.

 

There we have it. Now it only remains for me to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Let’s hope 2017 is a good one.

Laura x

The Joy of Creation – and the seventh day

Back in late June I had a whole bundle of good intentions for the summer. The most important of these was to complete the first draft of my WIP; I was 30k words in. Now, I have 35k. You don’t need to be good at maths (I’m rubbish) to see that I failed to meet my objective in spectacular style. 5,000 words? A figure I would commonly knock up in less than seven days.

The Family LineThings went pear-shaped from the off. The EU referendum result rocked me to an extent and depth I was utterly unprepared for. For weeks, I could think of nothing else and fed my addiction by reading everything I encountered on social media: articles, debates, the numerous passionate conversations between friends and colleagues, and, sadly, the trolls. Struggling with despair, a ‘what’s the point, we’re all going to hell in a handcart’ attitude, I did manage the edits on the revised edition of my debut, renamed The Family Line. Which was just as well: it had a July publication date.

Then Ginger1 went away. For a month. A whole month. One child lighter I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to catch up. Wrong. Instead I fretted about him constantly, using up precious emotional and mental energy. I couldn’t focus.

Late July and Ginger2 finished school for the summer. A week later and his older brother returned home safe and sound – if grubby; he’d been living in a tent for the duration. Now the long break has never been an easy time in which to write, as many mothers know, but I have plodded on in the past, albeit at a reduced pace: I worked in the mornings and we played in the afternoons. It didn’t pan out that way. I did try. Time and again I sat at my pc and typed a few measly sentences, before admitting that I wasn’t getting anywhere, fast. And for days, and weeks, one question plagued me: What on earth is going on? Have I lost my passion? Will I never complete a novel again?

In the past seven years I have written six (and a bit – there’s that third of the WIP) novels, a number of short stories, and a radio play. The shorts and five of the novels have been published – the sixth is scheduled for release in June 2017 – with all the attendant promotional activity. The radio play is almost ready for submission. Whether or not it is ever produced remains to be seen. On top of this I have continued to teach, mentor and work as an editor.

Prussia Cove, Cornwall

Prussia Cove, Cornwall

In August we went away for our family holiday. This year to Cornwall, to the most southerly point of Britain: the Lizard.  On this holiday, where we walked and sailed and mostly admired the stunning beauty of the Cornish coastline (though the Helford Passage is worth a visit too) I realised that I needed to stop beating myself up. That my sub-conscious had been at work. I’m tired. I needed to take stock, step back, refill the well.

So, aside from a stint as a writer-in-residence for Little Green Pig (that’s a story for another time…) August and this first two weeks of September has passed without writing and little social media activity and – shockingly to me – it’s been OK. Really, really OK. Great, even.

2016-08-30-09-20-40

The Little Green Pig pop-up in Brighton

I’ve read a lot – both fiction and non-fiction – rediscovering my love of writing from across the pond. American literature was a strand of my degree but in recent years I’ve read British works almost exclusively, feeling the need to keep up with trends.

I’ve swam almost every day, in the sea mostly – how lucky I am to live in Brighton; I’ve hung out with much neglected, and extremely tolerant, family and friends, realising in particular that my boys are growing up fast and it won’t be too long before they’re gone. Ten years from now, I won’t regret having written five rather than eight or nine novels, but I will regret not having spent more time with my children. A novelist friend said exactly the same thing.

At the weekend I was at a character masterclass run by The Beach Hut Writing Academy, tutored by clinical psychologist Dr Sam Fraser and thriller writer Rebecca Whitney. It was a fascinating and inspiring day. I came away buzzing with ideas and during one particular  exercise I discovered what the heart of my story was – and it wasn’t what I’d thought it was! The whole thing needs a re-write.

And here I am, ready to face the autumn, to enjoy reconnecting with my craft, a rewrite, my characters and their stories, to reconnect more fully with online friends (I am fortunate to have many astoundingly wonderful online mates) and I’ve learned the importance of taking a break, stepping away and reassessing.

A writing life is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to pace ourselves.

Creation is a marvellous thing and regardless of whether or not you believe in the Christian creation story (I don’t) the significance of the seventh day should not be underestimated.

Laura x

Imposter syndrome

One of the more interesting responses to the Chris Bryant v James Blunt brouhaha comes from novelist Sarah Perry in the Independent. She argues, convincingly, that Blunt misunderstands the relationship between wealth and privilege and artistic success. You can read her article here.

I posted a link on Facebook and Twitter and had such interesting conversations I wanted to blog about it. You can read the dialogue here.

2015-01-21 15.30.22Like Perry, my origins are not discernible in my accent (I don’t have one, pretty much) and like her, I find publishing events ‘alarming’ and bluntly – pun intended – scary. My shadow self is terrified that I’m about to be found out – imposter in these posh circles that I am. My stepfather was a steel worker and a mechanic and my mother has held a variety of jobs, all low-paid and low-skilled, and I went to Manchester Metropolitan University, so like Perry, I’m never in danger of bumping into friends of the family in the industry I now work in.

However, I recognise how fortunate I have been. I’m tenacious – irritatingly so, some would say – I’ve worked hard, I have some talent (or so I’m told) and I have also had some luck. Without this, it unlikely that I would have ‘made it’ *hear me snorting*

Of course, the core of the debate surrounds funding for the arts and without such support there are voices that will simply go unheard. The same is true of further education. Over the past fortnight, I have spoken at events at the University of Hertfordshire and at Kingston University.  At both, the students were warm and receptive – an absolute pleasure to speak with. At Kingston, I appeared with author Sharon Zink, a fellow resident of Brighton, and it was reassuring to take to the lectern with someone I knew, because, guess what, I was very nervous. Imposter syndrome again.

During the Q & A, an audience member pointed out that neither of us had studied creative writing, that neither of us had an MA, nor a BA, in the discipline. (I’ve not got an MA in anything; Sharon has a PhD – she’s a clever clogs J) The observation wasn’t meant in a derogatory manner and it led to an interesting discussion on the value of degrees in creative writing, but it reminded me that once upon a time I had wanted to study for a creative writing MA, and guess what, I couldn’t afford it. Going to my parents for help wasn’t an option. Instead, and this is what I told our audience, I read everything I could about craft – books, articles, magazines, anything and everything. I continued to read voraciously and I wrote. A lot. And, as I’ve said, I got lucky. However, I know a couple of writers for whom an MA was invaluable, priceless, 100% necessary in building confidence as much as working on craft and without it, they doubt they would ever have had the confidence to submit work. And what a shame that would have been.

Life is unfair, no doubt. But I believe in equality of opportunity and believe that as an advanced, civilised society we must do everything within our power to at least attempt to level the playing field, in the arts, as in other areas of society. Diversity is enriching – for all.

Here endeth the rant.

The Healing Properties of Writing by Claire Hutton

One of the early skills we learn is how to write, and writing can be used as a means of self-expression. Writing can release emotion, allow us to explore it in a variety of situations, creating distance, freedom and clarity. People find that by tapping into their inner creativity through writing, whether it be completely escapism based, or working through events from their past, it can help with self-development. All over the world, there are movements that champion this method of self-exploration, groups that facilitate creative writing. Projects such as My Heroines (of which Laura is a founding member and workshop leader) which provides an outlet for self-development for women in which they can explore their creativity through storytelling, creative writing and drama.

Art and Literature as means of Therapy

Many of us have heard of Art Therapy – where patients use art, drawings and sculpting to express themselves and heal. This contemporary form of recovery has been recognised as a form of alternative and holistic therapy. People have long kept diaries and journals and found that writing things down does alleviate pain and suffering in some way. Now, there is exploration into the prospects of writing as a form of therapy too. In the 1960s a psychologist from New York called Dr. Ira Progoff offered workshops integrating the use of journals to record thoughts and feelings, and found this helped patients to better understand themselves.

Writing in Order To Heal

A recent review from Psychology Today agreed that writing could also be used as an excellent therapeutic tool. The article by Adrian Furnham, Ph.D discussed how memoirs have been written and shared as a way of healing a traumatic past and entertaining people in the process. And memoirs can inspire others. Through literature, a healing experience for others is passed on. Writing can help people struggling with all kinds of issues. People with addiction issues who attend twelve-step programs find that writing is a huge part of the healing experience throughout. Drugabuse.com details how “Twelve-step programs have been around the longest and have demonstrated a great deal of success”. Here writing is used is as a way of working through the steps and seeing in black and white the issues that have contributed to abusive behaviours.

The Importance of Writing for Learning

Some of the best literature has stemmed from diary writing, autobiography and memoirs. The Diary of Anne Frank is a striking account and a prominent and crucial piece of historical literature. There have been other famous memoirs, such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors, which have shaped many people’s lives and provided catharsis for the authors.

An article earlier this year from the Huffington Post detailed how writing a memoir could actually make you happier. The article went on to suggest that although the author didn’t like to admit it, she did find writing therapeutic. Memoir writing, she discussed, became a process that allowed her to connect with her authentic, true self and get in touch with her own vulnerability.

The fantastic thing about writing is that anyone can do it. Most people have had very interesting lives and when recounting experiences, it becomes evident how these experiences have shaped them into the person they are. It does not matter f this material is only destined for the author’s eyes only.

Therefore, it seems that both writing and reading literature demonstrates healing properties.  It is helpful to acknowledge what a great source of help memoir can be in overcoming trauma, aiding self-development and providing information and enjoyment for people from all walks of life.

 

 

A rare review – Housewife with a Half-Life by A.B. Wells

My title is misleading because I review frequently; I mean only that it’s rare for me to post reviews here. You can check out my others on Amazon and Good Reads. I’m posting this one because I’ve admired the ‘other’ writer in A.B. Wells for many years (Alison Wells writes fine short stories and flash fictions, with novels currently out on submission) and also because Alison (aka A.B.) self-published Housewife with a Half-Life and I wanted to offer my support. To do my bit to spread the word. Self-publishing is not for the faint-hearted and the major problem authors face is how to be heard above the noise. This is my shout-out. A.B. deserves to be read, as does her alter ego Alison.

Here’s the review I posted on Amazon and Good Reads:

aw-hwah-cover-front-midFirst off, it took me a long time to read this book. Not because I didn’t enjoy it – on the contrary I enjoyed it very much – but because I bought an e-book copy when it was on special offer and therefore had to read it on my iPad. My youngest son constantly nicks the tablet and so I’ve had to grapple with him in order that I might finish this intelligent, intriguing and often hilarious book.

The second thing to make transparent is that this is not my usual reading material; I’m more of a women’s, literary, historical with some psychological thrillers thrown in type reader. I’ve not read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for example, so I have few points of reference for this kind of off-the-wall fiction. For this reason I’ve given four stars, though I was tempted to award five. I am familiar with the ‘other’ writer in AB Wells – Alison Wells – and have long admired her thoughtful, exquisite prose, and this crafts(wo)manship is evident in this book. It’s well written, but I’d have expected no less.

Given how late to the party I am there’s little point running over the plot, suffice to say it’s fun and quirky and rattles along at a healthy pace. Susan, the housewife of the title, is engaging and utterly believable and as a wife and mother myself I empathised with the ‘half- life’ she feels is her existence. All the characters  – even alien Fairly Dave – are fully imagined and serve clear functions in the story. There are laugh out loud moments as well as plenty that will raise a wry smile.

For me, what sets this book apart and makes it well worth a look at, even if it’s not your usual reading material, is the way that Wells injects scientific theories and observations into what is, at first glance, a light-hearted, fantastical romp of a journey of self-discovery. Give it go; I dare you. I bet you won’t regret it.

To find out more about Alison Wells and her fantastic work visit her blog here.