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The Girl in the Red Coat – book review

You know how sometimes the voice just leaps off the page and grabs you in certain books? That’s what happened to me on the first page of The Girl In the Red Coat.

I’d mentally bookmarked this book as one to read after The Observer picked the author, Kate Hamer, as one of their New Faces of Fiction 2015 back in early January, and on Twitter there was a real buzz about it. But when it came to it, I had a curious sense of resistance. Another book about a missing child.

But this book is nothing like I thought. It is so much more.

The Girl in the Red Coat is the story of Beth, a single mother, and her eight year old daughter, Carmel. She has a fractious relationship with her ex, Paul, who has a new partner Lucy. Having had sporadic contact, he suddenly appears after five months to take Carmel out. In addition, Beth no longer speaks to her parents and Carmel doesn’t see them any more, but we don’t know why. These fractured relationships Hamer describes are so convincing and well drawn. There is none of the ‘perfect lives are shattered’ theme here.

On the day Carmel goes missing, Beth wants her to stay close, Carmel feels tied to her, straining at the leash. Dressed in a red coat, she keeps an eye out for that flash of scarlet as she browses the bookstall at a story teller’s fair. We know it is coming, because we have been told from the start, but the whole sequence detailing when she actually disappears, is brilliantly written, capturing that rising tide of hysterical panic, when time seems to slow down. The circumstances in which she is abducted are chillingly plausible; she is taken by a man posing as her estranged grandfather, pretending her mother has had an accident who says he will drive her to the hospital.

The narrative is split between Beth’s point of view and Carmel’s and this, for me, is where the real strength of the book lies. I think you know when a child narrator’s voice is authentic or not and this one was utterly captivating. The ways she sees the world, the similes she uses, are all just perfect. When she finds comfort in the familiarity of the 57 Varieties label on a can of baked beans in her strange and bewildering new surroundings, I was floored for a moment.

Beth and Carmel go on their separate journeys both literally and emotionally and yet neither, particularly Carmel, took the journey I was expecting. The passage of time is beautifully rendered. It was hard not to just rush to the end to see how it resolved.

That push-me-pull-you mother and daughter relationship is beautifully expressed throughout, capturing all its nuances and complexities, something I find endlessly fascinating. I remember vividly feeling like Carmel (and getting lost for hours and hours at Badminton Horse Trials when I got to be driven round the grounds in a police car ) and also now with my own daughter who has had a succession of red coats because she wanted to be like Little Red Riding Hood and I wanted to be able to spot her on the far side of the park. The time I lost her on Witterings Beach is still the longest twenty minutes of my life. It’s that universal struggle of how you balance keeping them safe with not letting anxiety rule your life. And moreover, theirs.

There is so much to think about in this book, the way different people handle grief differently, the apportioning of blame, the way friends rally round, or say stupid but well intentioned things, about moving on and not moving on. What we will, if we were parted, remember of each other.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for my review copy.

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Still Alice by Lisa Genova – book review

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I’ve been consciously shying away from books and films with the subject of Alzheimer’s since the end of last Summer, when my father passed away from the disease. Whether it was selfish or self preservation I’m not sure because before that moment I had greedily read everything I could on the subject in an effort to understand what was happening. I read non fiction such as Where Do Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything by Sally Magnusson, novels such as Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. The disease took him on a long, slow, inexorable descent, horrible to witness, so I opted to try and forget.

With all the publicity surrounding the film Still Alice, crowned by Julianne Moore’s Oscar win on Sunday (an actor I have long admired) I felt ready to read the book upon which the film is based.

Still Alice, by author Lisa Genova, is the story of Dr Alice Howland, a well liked and respected Harvard professor who has a doctorate in psychology, with specific expertise in linguistics. She loves her job; her identity is bound up in it. Coupled with this she has a husband, John, who has an equally demanding career, and three grown up children. One day, during a lecture with the audience waiting expectantly, she is totally flummoxed when she cannot think of a particular word.

A few more instances of unsettling memory lapses occur but still she puts it down to stress, being busy, to possible menopausal symptoms or lack of sleep.

Next, more frightening, is when she is out for her usual run, in a place not a mile from her home where she runs every day and in a place where she has lived for twenty five years, she suddenly has no idea where she is. It is not so much she is lost, as she feels totally disoriented. Like a panic attack, this sense of uneasy disconnected dread is described so well.

After a complete and through series of MRIs and tests and assessments (which Genova says in the author’s notes that she truncated out of necessity otherwise the book would have run to many more pages) she is given the totally shattering diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. She is just fifty years old.

At first she cannot believe it and rages and rails against it, keeping it secret from her colleagues. (They begin to think she has a substance abuse problem). She experiences a sense of shame and growing isolation. In an affecting scene, which brought back vivid personal memories, she visits a dementia unit which is likely to be her future. There is no one at all her age. She tries to find a support group but there is nothing for people with early on-set Alzheimer’s sufferers, so she sets one up herself.

There are some blackly comic episodes where Alice ransacks the entire house, even reduced to spilling and rummaging through the contents of a bin on the floor, looking for something – only she cannot remember what it is she is looking for, or find the noun to tell her husband what it is, and another where she surprises her neighbour by appearing in her kitchen, thinking it is her own.

The spark for the idea for the book came from Genova’s grandmother who had Alzheimer’s in her eighties but it made her think what it would be like to actually know you had it – before the disease really takes hold, when you are still able to understand, or have periods of lucidity. The real strength in the book is remaining with Alice’s viewpoint. We are always in her head.  She is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator. Her doctor gives her a series of questions to answer ; where does she live, how many children does she have etc. It is the reader who sees she can no longer answer them, when she calls her daughter ‘the actress’ instead of by her name, Lydia, when she can hear conversations going on around her but only loosely realise they are about her.

Actual people who are going through this have vouched for its veracity – surely the highest compliment there is. People with early on-set Alzheimer’s are nowhere to be seen in the media or discussion, and Genova says she wanted to give this invisible group a voice. I came away with a renewed sense of the importance to treat people living with dementia with care and sensitivity – that they are not a bunch of symptoms, to be hidden away in care homes. Its message is that whatever ravages the disease takes on the brain, that the essence of the person – their soul, their spirit, their ‘me – ness’ – whatever you want to call it – remains intact.

Although Still Alice was unbearably bleakly sad, it was also life affirming. When everything is systematically stripped away, what is left is her emotional connections with her family. What remains is love.

I know I will see the film and cry for the fictional Alice, for all the real ‘Alice’s, for all the families going through it, for my Dad.

Shining a light on it can only help.

 

 

 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for my review copy.

Q&A with author Lizzie Enfield

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I’m delighted to welcome author Lizzie Enfield on to my blog on the publication day of her third novel ‘Living With It.’

Living With It is a thought provoking novel that takes the MMR controversy as its springboard, and explores the devastating repercussions of one decision taken many years before. A group of longstanding friends go away on holiday to France together; Ben and Maggie and their nine month old baby Iris, Isobel, her husband Ben and their three children, one of whom has been exposed to the measles virus. Baby Iris becomes ill and as a result, is left profoundly deaf. Isobel has not had any of her children vaccinated and when she discovers what has happened to Iris, she is wrought with guilt. The situation is further complicated by Isobel and Ben having a shared romantic history. The story deals with the complicated emotional fall out; divided marital loyalties, the apportioning of blame and guilt and the damage wrought on all their interlocking friendships.

What research did you do for Living With It? Do you tend to research before beginning your first draft or as and when needed? Was there one thing that jumped out at you and made the story come alive?

I did a little research into deafness and its causes and effects but not too much as I did not want the story to be dictated by what I knew but rather by the emotions and actions of the characters. For me what made the story come alive is the central dilemma the characters face i.e. what if a decision you had made years ago, in good faith, comes back to haunt you in ways you had never envisaged.

Your dialogue is very realistic in that in that I think most couples will recognise those underlying tensions and simmering resentments (!). You have an excellent ear for the things that are left unsaid versus the things that are said. Do you find dialogue easy? Do you have anything specific you do to get the voice of a character down on the page and differentiate it from another?

Thank you! I talk a lot so I suppose dialogue comes easily and I used to work in radio so tend to listen out for people and the way that they talk. I think you have to get quite far inside the heads of characters to differentiate their speech, so that it comes from the heart rather than the mouth and will therefore me unique to them rather than generic.

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I think you have captured perfectly the tensions of going away with a group of friends – even friends you have known and loved for years. All the little differences in bedtime routines, discipline which are heightened by being in close proximity. I know my husband and I have whispered conspiratorially to each other once in the privacy of our room ‘I can’t believe they do that!’ and I’m sure they have said the same about us. But is there anything that would be a deal breaker for you which would mean the end of the friendship?

I hate falling out with people. Some friendships you simply grow out of but it would take something quite extreme for me to fall out with a close friend and would almost definitely involve deliberate harm to one of my children.

One of my children was born at the height of the MMR controversy and all my ante natal class could talk about was the (now discredited) Dr Andrew Wakefield report and we were very anxious. What gave you the initial idea? Did you experience something similar?

My middle child was born in the middle of it and I found the decision very difficult but I also grew up knowing someone who had become deaf as a result of measles and my mother had a friend whose baby had died from it. So I was aware of the risks but also the responsibilities parents of healthy children have to the wider community to provide herd immunity by getting their children vaccinated.

Some children are not healthy enough to be immunised and are at greater risk of the diseases than others. The rest of us are, I think, obliged to think very seriously about the potential consequences of not doing so, although I do fully understand the fears that crowd in on you when something might affect your own child. It’s very hard to always act “in the greater public good” when you feel your own family might be compromised in some way. We are all human and we all want to protect are nearest and dearest.

If you found yourself in the same situation as Ben and Maggie, would you have taken legal action against Isobel?

I tend towards the least stressful path and I think by deciding to pursue that route, Ben puts his own family under increased strain at what already is a difficult time. So, no. I don’t think I would but you never know how you will behave in a certain situation until you are in it. I think I’d be very angry and anger is a powerful emotion. I found, as I wrote the book that the things I thought I saw clearly became less clear and the way I imagined I might act in similar situations less obvious too.

Do you have a writing routine? A specific type of notebook or pen? A set time of day? A target word count? Do you think these things matter or are they just distractions?

I think if you are to get anything done it is important to find time each day or week to write and write. I used to get up early but have become less disciplined and find it hard to write when I have a lot of work on. But when I am in the swing of things, I try to write for at least an hour four times a week. I write on a computer but I always carry a notebook and when I am writing it’s also important to find time to think. It’s not good just sitting down without having some idea of what I want to do. The best place is usually the bath and then bed and by the time I wake up, if I’ve put my mind to the next chapter or whatever I am writing, there are usually enough seeds to get started.

Living With It is published today by Myriad Editions

Her by Harriet Lane – Review

Every time I walk past the Wolseley in Piccadilly, I try to peer in, fully expecting to see Frances consoling Polly – two of the characters from Harriet Lane’s first novel Alys Always. I have had dreams about the Kytes’ house, Nevers, she created, so vividly did she depict it.

I was lucky enough to hear Harriet reading at the Bookish Supper Society last year and in the questions afterwards she was asked what her next book was going to be about. She only gave us a tantalising couple of sentences – it was called Her and was about two women. It was about jealousy and obsession; two of my favourite subjects. The suspense has been killing me.

Emma is mother to three year old Christopher and is pregnant with her second. She has given up her job in television to stay at home. Lane expertly captures that essential contradiction of motherhood: how that fierce love and protectiveness for your baby/child can co-exist with the sense of one’s own identity and needs being erased, especially in the early years. Emma is feeling particularly flustered and weighed down by the hum drum monotony of her life when she loses her wallet and a woman, Nina, finds it and kindly returns it to her.

Nina is, in Emma’s eyes, everything she is not. A painter by profession and on her second marriage with a seventeen year old stepdaughter, she oozes poise and privilege. Emma’s husband teases her about what on earth could a woman like that, want to be friends with her for? But Emma is flattered by the attention.

The idea to tell the same incidents from each woman’s respective viewpoints is inspired. Far from being repetitive, it makes for a really queasy, unsettling experience. Things that seemed mundane and innocuous (Emma returning to a tidied up house after Nina has been babysitting, a baby’s crying curtailing a dinner party) are given a whole new chilling slant once you read what really happened.

Very slowly, with Lane masterfully laying subtle clues, it becomes clear that Nina has an ulterior motive for her apparent friendliness and that something else altogether is going on. But what possible grudge could she have? And how far will she take it?

Her is one of those books you really can’t say too much about without giving things away but I devoured it, greedily, in two sittings.

And I was absolutely reeling by the end.

Her by Harriet Lane is published today by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane review

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Last year I visited a country house in Somerset owned by the National Trust. As the guide showed us round the hushed rooms, swaddled in brocade and watched over by imposing oil paintings, she whispered that the last descendant still had small quarters in the house and, if we were lucky, we might see her wandering the grounds.

I was fascinated not so much by the oak lined library and the Chinoiserie and the other spoils from a Grand Tour, but by the juxtaposition of the everyday objects alongside. A Jamie Oliver cookbook mingled in with the green leather tomes, a copy of a recent Radio Times left open in a drawing room fenced off by red velvet ropes. What a peculiar trade off to have visitors traipsing round your ancestral home – and you can only come down when they have all gone for the day. To me, the whole house had an air of melancholy, and when I read further about the history of the family it became clear why – the house was mired in grief.

I was reminded of all this when reading Black Lake by Johanna Lane which tells the story of a family, the Campbells, who for generations have lived in a rambling estate called Dulough on the windswept Irish coast. They can no longer afford the upkeep of the house and grounds which needs constant repairs and so they have to move out to a small, dank and depressing cottage in the grounds, and let the tourists come.

The novel opens with the wife Marianne holed up in the ballroom, with her twelve year old daughter, Katherine, with the housekeeper leaving hot water outside and plates of food for her outside the door. Katherine thinks they are playing a game and it is only when they have been locked in there for a month and she hears her father smashing the crockery and sobbing outside the door, that she realises they are not. The mother refuses to answer the door and it is clear that something terrible has happened.

The narrative then reverses to the events of the previous Spring when the son, eight year old, Philip is rudely woken up by the removal men taking his bed. I loved the chapters seen through Philip’s eyes the most. Lane is very good at capturing the preoccupations and sensitivities of a child, who doesn’t really understand what is going on in the adult world. The narrative jumps around with each of the characters telling their part of the story until it is gradually revealed what has happened to cause his mother’s breakdown and the fracturing of the family.

The prose and the pace is languorous, sometimes perhaps just a little too languorous, but it is one of those beautifully haunting books focusing on the interior life of the characters. It is about all the things left unsaid, the hurts and misunderstandings and lack of communication. The landscape is beautifully drawn too – conveying both its oppressive nature and raw beauty. If, like me, you like books steeped in atmosphere and slow reveals, then you will love Black Lake. The cover is also exquisite – Tinder Press always seem to have the best covers.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane is published by Tinder Press

This book was kindly sent to me as part of the Bookbridgr scheme.

Introducing the WoMentoring Project

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When you’re starting out as a writer, or have been plodding along for a while, it can be hard to write in a vacuum. Friends nod and ask how it’s coming along and are you really still working on it? You long for someone who knows, who’s been there already, to tell you where you’re going wrong. To share any nuggets of wisdom that they have gleaned from their own writing journey. Maybe just to champion you or give you a pep talk.

There’s a TON of information on writing and publishing out there, and a veritable explosion of masterclasses , MA’s, residential courses and seminars, and they all have their part to play, but many of them are prohibitively expensive for many people. Whether it’s actually true or not, the whole business can appear, to those on the outside looking in, to be a closed shop.

This is where the idea of the WoMentoring Project comes in – a brand new, entirely free mentoring system exclusively for women writers. It’s open to any genre, to women of all ages and from diverse backgrounds.

The initial idea was born out of a conversation on Twitter started by novelist Kerry Hudson (author of the award winning Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float before He Stole my Ma and the upcoming Thirst). She was at once flooded with offers of help from published authors eager to offer their advice, alongside editors, literary agents, illustrators, non-fiction writers, both in the UK and the States. It’s underpinned by the ethos of paying it forward – helping others along the path as once others helped you. I love that.

The list the women who have volunteered is like a roll-call of the industry. Just to single out a few there are authors such as Shelley Harris (Jubilee) and Emylia Hall (The Book of Summers and A Heart Bent Out of Shape ) and editors such as Francesca Main, the Editorial Director of Picador, and Jo Unwin from the Jo Unwin Literary Agency who said,

I wanted to get involved with this project because I’d like to help authors feel that whoever they are, and wherever they come from, they have a right to be heard.

Prospective mentees are asked to submit a 1,000 word writing sample and 500 words on why they feel they would benefit from a mentor.

If you would like to know more and details of how to apply, visit their website The WoMentoring Project. Even if you don’t think you’re eligible, tell other women about it who may benefit. Pass it on.

Follow them on Twitter @WoMentoringP

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Original artwork by Sally Jane Thompson – one of the mentors

What I learnt on a 10 week writing course

I’ve just finished a ten week writing course at The Writers Room in Brighton.

I signed up as a Christmas present to myself. For ages I’d been looking longingly at Arvon Courses, retreats, masterclasses etc, but at this point in time, I needed something local, something that I could fit in around my job and family. The fact it was being run by two authors, Araminta Hall and Lizzie Enfield, whose work I had already read and admired or seen speaking at events, was a factor. The idea of sitting in a wooden shed at the bottom of a garden with a cosy woodburner, eating cake, clinched it.

Personally, I wanted to go because I have been working on the same idea for a long time now and could no longer see where I’m going with it. I’m used to working by myself and generating ideas and thinking about angles (I’ve been freelance for over a decade) but I had showed hardly anyone at all this particular story. I had been writing in a vacuum and whilst my friends are clamouring to read it, it was other writers I needed to talk to.

As soon as we started, I knew I’d picked the right course. It was small. It was not in any way intimidating. I hadn’t really thought about whether we were going to be asked to actually write stuff on the spot to a prompt so when they asked us to, I doubted whether I could. Writing from the viewpoint of an object in the room, or making up dialogue from something we’d done that day, doing an exercise about show versus tell, was actually quite freeing rather than frightening. I was impressed that the tutors did the exercises too – I thought it might just be the class. Another thing that was good was that they didn’t doggedly stick to a rigid programme; if we were all asking questions about structure or dialogue, the following week’s class would address that. Over the ten weeks, we covered research, dialogue, plot versus structure, show don’t tell, characterisation, openings, and lots more.

The feedback I received on my WIP was invaluable. They immediately picked up on the way I was using plot devices and that the beginning was totally in the wrong place. They taught me the value of withholding information, and that if you know something isn’t right and are hoping the reader won’t notice, that they will. They helped me with the (dreaded) synopsis. We took it in turns to circulate extracts of what we were working on and received feedback from the group which was really useful. Above all, I think it was so helpful being able to talk to other people who ‘got it.’

What I have come out with is some new friends. The rest of the group were lovely and we have already been out socially and have lots of plans for more.  I have a much clearer direction of where I am going. I have learnt the importance of carving out time.

The course is suitable for all types of writers – novelists, non-fiction writers, short story writers, bloggers, people who have just always wanted to write and are starting out to those who are already immersed in something but would like to learn more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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