Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Uggie, the Artist: My Story - the perfect Christmas present

Paul O’Grady’s face was a picture when he saw the Jack Russell trot smartly into the studio. The wonderful O’Grady looked like he wanted to tuck the terrier under his jacket and smuggle him home.

The adorable little dog was Uggie, taking centre-stage on Graham Norton’s TV show to promote his newly-published memoirs. O'Grady was another of Norton's guests, along with Robbie Williams, Darcey Bussell and Felix Baumgarter.

Uggie, the Artist: My Story tells the tale of Uggie’s rise from abandoned puppy to Hollywood superstar. The book relates how he was discovered by his now owner and trainer Omar Von Muller and got his big break in the film Water for Elephants, starring alongside Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Then came The Artist – and mega-stardom.

The book is selling like hot cakes right now and I’m thrilled because one of my closest friends helped Uggie to tell (I mean woof) his story.

Wendy Holden is a brilliant writer, whose 25 books include A Lotus Grows in the Mud, Goldie Hawn’s memoir, and Lady Blue Eyes, the autobiography of Frank Sinatra’s widow Barbara. She was so entranced by Uggie after seeing him in The Artist that she contacted Von Muller and suggested writing the book. The rest, as they say, is history.

As Wendy told USA Today: “There’s just something about Uggie. He was born to be a star. The fact he ended up being a dog is sort of by-the-by…”

So if you’re after a Christmas present for dog-loving friends, then Uggie, the Artist: My Story is just perfect. Look out for the Uggie the Artist app too.

PS. Going back to Paul O’Grady, he told chat show host Graham Norton that he loves dogs so much so that when he filmed For the Love of Dogs, his series about Battersea Dogs Home, he insisted on a ultra-strict clause being inserted in his contract.

“Under no circumstances was I allowed to go home with anything – two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, anything. I knew it would be fatal,” says O’Grady.

It didn’t work, of course. At the end of filming O’Grady broke his own self-imposed rule and ended up adopting a chihuahua/Jack Russell cross called Eddie…

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Parties - from Gloria Gaynor to electrofunk

I’ve never seen my best friend look quite so stunned. It was her birthday and instead of walking into Carluccio’s for a quiet dinner with her husband she was greeted instead by a noisy crowd of family and friends. “I had no idea,” she kept saying over and over again – completely staggered that we’d pitched up from all over the place to celebrate her big day.

For some reason I’ve been to lots of birthday parties recently. Some have been very posh – one was in a marquee, complete with speeches and a fancy menu – while my favourite was held at a working-men’s club in Lancashire, with hot pot and mash and a live band.

But right now I’m agonising over my daughter’s 21st and my son’s 18th.  They want to throw a joint bash but can’t decide on the venue, let alone the music (electrofunk or blues) or the guest list. But one thing I do know is that it will be very different to my own 21st, a very sedate affair in Dorset. My dad ordered a keg of beer, we played Gloria Gaynor nonstop on my mum’s old tape recorder and most of my friends slept under the stars.

The one thing I won’t be doing is consulting Pippa Middleton’s new book for party tips. The Duchess of Cambridge's younger sister has come in for a lot of stick following the publication of Celebrate, which she was paid £400,000 to write. I haven’t got a copy but I sneaked a look at Waterstone’s and while the photography (by David Loftus) is stunning, the words leave a lot to be desired. I don’t want to be mean, because Pippa sounds lovely, but they’re along the lines of “tea bags should go in a teapot, rather than individually in mugs” and “flowers are a traditional Valentine’s token and red roses are the classic symbol of romance.”

No wonder a spoof Twitter account called @Pippatips has attracted 9,000 followers. Recent @Pippatips tweets include “a good way to keep warm when heading out into the cold weather is to wear winter clothing like jumpers and coats and hats” and “save time by doing things more quickly.” Take a look – it’s hilarious.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Friday book review - The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

I do love Marian Keyes’s books. Her latest, The Mystery of Mercy Close, proves yet again that Keyes is in a league of her own. Even when she’s writing about hard-hitting subjects like depression and bankruptcy, as she is here, she’s perceptive and funny, moving and wise.

The novel’s heroine is Helen Walsh, the youngest and stroppiest of Mammy Walsh’s five daughters. Older sisters Claire, Rachel, Maggie and Anna have all starred in earlier Keyes novels, so this time round it’s Helen’s turn in the spotlight.

After spells as a make-up artist and the “world’s worst waitress,” Helen has now trained as a private investigator and set up her own business. But with the credit crunch at its height, her work has dried up, her flat has been repossessed and she’s had to move back in with her parents. Most worrying of all, she’s sinking into the depression that has plagued her on and off throughout her life.

Helen explains her situation in her own inimitable way: “…when the crash hit, I was one of the first things to go,” she says. “Private investigators are luxury items and the It bags and I came out of things very badly.”

But out of the blue her conman ex-boyfriend asks her to track down a missing musician. Wayne Diffney, the “wacky one” from boyband Laddz, has gone missing just five days before the group’s sell-out comeback show.

Helen isn’t keen on getting involved with her shady ex-lover a second time, especially as she’s got charismatic copper Artie Devlin in her life, but she reluctantly agrees.

The sharp-tongued Helen, with her “shovel list” of things she hates - dogs, doctors’ receptionists and the smell of fried eggs (I’m with her there) - and her love of Scandinavian box sets and cheese and coleslaw sandwiches, is one of Keyes’s most memorable creations. I hope she gets to star in another novel. And soon…

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph, £18.99)

Saturday, 29 September 2012

JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy - the verdict

In an interview with The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead last weekend, JK Rowling said: “I just needed to write this book. I like it a lot, I’m proud of it, and that counts for me.”

Well, I think she’s right to be proud of The Casual Vacancy, and I said as much when I reviewed it for the Daily Express this week. Even though Rowling’s first book for adults features “teenage sex, drug addiction, swearing and scenes that would make Harry Potter blush,” I called it “a highly readable morality tale for our times.”

The book’s been out for two days now and everyone I know is desperate to read it. My husband’s visiting my daughter in Paris this weekend and the first thing she asked him to bring from the UK was a prized copy of The Casual Vacancy. “I’m going to stay in all weekend and read it,” she said happily. “I can’t wait.” Her excitement took me back to the old days, when we used to drive to the old Borders shop in Oxford and queue at midnight for each newly published Harry Potter story.

I’ve been stunned by the vitriol that JK Rowling has attracted in some quarters this week. The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani judged her book to be “willfully banal” and “depressingly clichéd” and said it read like “an odd mash-up of a dark soap opera like Peyton Place.” And writing in the Daily Mail, Jan Moir acidly declared that it was “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat.”

I completely disagree with both of them. The Casual Vacancy isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a gripping story. I read it in one go, barely glancing up to make a cup of tea or switch the lights on as dusk fell. Yes, the themes are dark, most of the characters are unlikeable and Rowling’s style is workmanlike rather than literary, but she is a brilliant storyteller. There was no way in a million years that I could have stopped reading this book. In my newspaper review I gave it four out of five stars and I stand by every word.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Street Cat Named Bob - the most cheering book I've read in ages

If you’re fed up with the lashing rain or feeling sad about your empty nest (sob), then I’ve just discovered the perfect book to restore your spirits.

You may have heard of James Bowen and his adorable ginger cat Bob already. The pair are a big hit on YouTube, have appeared on Radio 4’s Saturday Live and have been profiled by loads of newspapers. Bob is probably the most famous cat in London.

Now James’s book about how he and Bob found each other is out in paperback and it’s the most uplifting story I’ve read in ages. Subtitled How One Man and His Cat Found Hope on the Streets, it's a special book – even for people like me who haven't even got a cat. I tore through A Street Cat Named Bob in a few hours and it cheered me up no end as I sat in a claustrophobic Oxford waiting room.

The tale began in 2007, when James found an injured stray tom curled up on a doormat in the hallway of his block of flats in Tottenham, north London.

For days James resisted the temptation to take the green-eyed cat home with him. As he says: “…the last thing I needed right now was the extra responsibility of a cat. I was a failed musician and recovering drug addict living a hand-to-mouth existence in sheltered accommodation. Taking responsibility for myself was hard enough.”

But eventually he gave in and gave the cat a home. He named him Bob, after a character in Twin Peaks, lovingly nursed him back to health and even took him busking. The pair were soon inseparable and became a familiar sight around the streets of Covent Garden and Islington. Sometimes Bob pads alongside James on a lead, sometimes he drapes himself across James’s shoulders.

In one interview James said that Bob had saved his life. At the time he thought his remark was a bit “crass” but in the book he admits that the cat really did transform everything. Bob  helped him get his life back on track and as he declares in his acknowledgements: “Everyone deserves a friend like Bob. I have been very fortunate indeed to have found one…”

PS. James is currently working on a children’s edition of his book. Bob: No Ordinary Cat is due out in the spring.

A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen (Hodder, £7.99)

Sunday, 23 September 2012

School Ties - a new novella set in a school

Downthorpe Hall is a posh boarding school in the wilds of the Oxfordshire countryside.

Fresh from working in an inner-city comprehensive, Will Hughes has just been appointed as the new head. He knows there will be a host of challenges ahead. Tricky parents, rebellious teenagers and teachers who will fight his attempts to reform the school.

He doesn't expect a battle for his heart.

But when he meets two women - the fiercely ambitious deputy head and a brilliantly smart science teacher - Will realises that the ties at Downthorpe are not just the kind you wear around your neck.

What follows is a tangle of competing ambitions and desires that leave Will bemused - and could force him to choose between the job he has always wanted and the woman of his dreams.

That’s the blurb for my new novella School Ties, a romantic e-book set in a school.

From Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers to Jilly Cooper’s Wicked!, I’ve always thought boarding schools provide brilliant settings for novels. So when Endeavour Press asked me to write one, I jumped at the chance. It’s out this month and I’d love to know what you think…

School Ties by Emma Lee-Potter (Endeavour Press, £1.99)

Friday, 13 July 2012

Friday book review - Tuesday's Gone by Nicci French

My son gazed out of the car window and sighed. “If it doesn’t stop raining soon I’m going to leave Oxford and go and live somewhere hot,” he said.

I could understand his frustration. He’s just taken up road biking with a vengeance and five miles out of Oxford, lashed by wind and rain, his bike had suffered a flat tyre. He didn‘t have a puncture kit or bike pump so he did the next best thing and rang and asked me to collect him. No problem, except it was rush hour and by the time I got there he was dejected and completely drenched.

With rain forecast for the next few days (probably the next few months) I reckon there’s only one thing for it. Don’t emigrate, just batten down the hatches and get reading. As the rain pelted down, I curled up on my sofa and whizzed through Nicci French’s new novel in one go.

I’ve blogged about my admiration for Nicci French before. Nicci French is actually two writers - Suffolk-based husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who turn out cracking psychological thrillers. They have now launched a new eight-book crime series featuring a psychotherapist called Frieda Klein and I’m completely hooked.

The second in the series, Tuesday’s Gone, is out next week, and it’s even better than the first, Blue Monday. I’m very squeamish and the opening scene, where a social worker discovers a rotting, naked corpse in a delapidated Deptford flat, stopped me in my tracks. But I was so desperate to discover who he was and why on earth the confused woman living there kept trying to serve him afternoon tea that even if I’d wanted to, I simply couldn’t stop reading.

The copper leading the police investigation, DCI Karlsson (no one ever uses his first name), calls in Frieda Klein to help him get to the bottom of it all. And the deeper Frieda digs, the murkier the story gets.

Frieda is an intriguing character, with a complicated family history, an on-off lover and a fondness for walking the streets of London in the dead of night.

But after reading Tuesday's Gone I feel I’m getting to know her better. And with a plot that kept me on the edge of my seat and the promise of six more to come, all I can say is “ roll on book three…”

Tuesday's Gone by Nicci French (Michael Joseph, £12.99)

Friday, 6 July 2012

Friday book review - Cox by Kate Lace

My desk is piled high with review books right now. But there’s one particular novel that catches everyone’s attention. It’s Cox, Kate Lace’s latest book, which as well as the saucy title has an even saucier cover and strapline. Most important of all though, it’s a cracking story that deserves to fly off the shelves.

Fabulous magazine wittily called the book “Jilly Cooper in a boat,” and it’s the perfect description. If you like Cooper’s Riders, then you’ll love this tale of two rival rowers battling for a place in the London 2012 team.

One is the dark, brooding Dan (my favourite) while the other is the rich, arrogant Rollo (who I suspect Kate Lace secretly prefers). The pair went to the same posh school, though Dan’s mum was the dinner lady, while Rollo’s parents own a Downton Abbey-like pile with a tree-lined drive, lake, stables and scores of ancestral portraits. Dan and Rollo both won coveted places at Oxford, are both brilliant rowers and are now in fierce competition on the river too (though Rollo has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve to foil Dan).

Just to complicate matters further, they’re both keen on the same girl – Amy, a petite physiotherapist who works at Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital and is a rowing cox in her spare time. Misunderstandings galore, Lycra-clad men, thrilling races and loads of steamy sex scenes (starting on page one) make for a fun summer read – or to quote Fabulous again, an “oar-some” one.

Cox by Kate Lace (Arrow, £6.99)

Friday, 29 June 2012

Friday book review - Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid

From the first haunting line – “They tried to make me go to my sister’s funeral today” – to the shocking denouement, Black Heart Blue is one of those books that you simply have to keep reading.

I tore through Louisa Reid’s debut novel in one sitting, horrified by the cruelty that twin sisters Hephzibah and Rebecca are forced to endure at the hands of their parents, and moved by their brave attempts to find freedom.

Black Heart Blue is billed as a young adult (YA) novel but I reckon teenagers and adults alike will be gripped by the story. Reid, an English teacher at a girls’ school in Cambridge, wrote it in five months and has produced an absorbing, pacy tale about horrific family secrets and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Hephzi and Rebecca are 16 when the novel begins. After a lifetime of being educated at home and not allowed to mix with other children, they’ve persuaded their father, an outwardly respectable vicar, to let them go to sixth-form college.  But while Hephzi is beautiful, daring and determined to lead a normal life with her friends, Rebecca, who’s been disfigured since birth, is very much in her shadow. Until, that is, Rebecca loses her twin in terrible circumstances and starts fighting back.   

The novel shifts back and forth in time as the two girls take it in turns to tell their stories, buttit’s so skilfully done that the narrative never loses its way. This gritty, dark tale isn’t for the faint-hearted but it’s astonishingly, breathtakingly good.

Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid (Penguin, £6.99)

Friday, 15 June 2012

Friday book review - I Heart London by Lindsey Kelk

I sometimes wonder if I’m too old to be reading Lindsey Kelk’s I Heart books. They’re all about a chaotic 20-something called Angela Clark who flees to New York after discovering her boyfriend in flagrante with his mistress at her best friend’s wedding.

But former children’s book editor Kelk has a hilarious turn of phrase and a writing style that whizzes along at top speed. I read her first book, I Heart New York, before I’d ever visited the city and her enthusiasm for the Big Apple made me want to jump on a transatlantic flight plane straight away. The irrepressible Angela is an endearing character too, a sort of junior Bridget Jones, only without Mark Darcy and the big knickers, who puts the drizzle, warm beer and bad memories of London behind her and starts an exciting new life.

Now the fifth in the series, I Heart London, is out (Kelk cleverly brings new readers up to speed with the story so you don’t need to have read the earlier ones to enjoy it). It opens in New York but quickly sees the newly-engaged Angela summoned back to the UK by her very bossy mum, who’s desperate to meet her rock musician fiancé.

Kelk herself lives in New York these days and clearly loves it, apart from missing sherbert fountains, London and drinking gin and elderflower cocktails with her pals. But she regularly flits between the US and the UK and in her new book she makes Angela’s return to London authentic and real. From her first sight of the Thames from the plane (“the opening titles of EastEnders”) to her excitement at being able to buy Percy Pigs sweets at M&S, she’s clearly writing from the heart.

Publishing house Harper recently signed up three more books from Kelk, so I’ll be interested to see what she comes up with next. But if you’re looking for a great summer read that’s light as the summer breeze (I know, what summer?), then try I Heart London

PS. For more information on I Heart London and some great ideas about places to visit in London take a look at the I Heart London website, from bars and clubs to clothes and accessories.  

I Heart London by Lindsey Kelk (Harper, £7.99)

Monday, 11 June 2012

Interview with Kate Lace - author of Cox

The writer Kate Lace (aka Catherine Jones) is a great friend of mine. We met years ago at a drinks party thrown by Piatkus Books (who’d just published our first novels). We talked 19 to the dozen all evening, and 15 years later, we do exactly the same every time we meet.

Kate has now written 14 novels (including The Chalet Girl and Gypsy Wedding) and two non-fiction books. She’s a former chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, a quiz supremo and the best company I know. Her latest book, Cox, is a scintillating summer read about two rival rowers and is out on July 5 (review coming next month). The book promises “hot men in Lycra, thrilling races and plenty of steamy sex” – and yes, it delivers all three in classic Kate Lace style.

Kate kindly agreed to talk to House With No Name about writing, her favourite books and Cox.

Did you write as a child and did you always want to write novels?

Kate: Absolutely not! Never had any idea I could write and thought all creative writing at school was intensely boring and pointless. I did keep an excruciatingly awful teenage diary, which thankfully got lost in a house move.

You were a captain in the army before becoming a novelist. Did your army training give you the discipline to write?

Kate: I don’t know about the army giving me discipline but it gave me a huge fund of experiences and stories. I lived in loads of different places, including Cyprus and Germany and I learned how to do a bunch of weird and wonderful things from firing a heavy artillery piece to flying gliders. But I’ve always been quite self-disciplined. I was a terrible swot at school so parking my bum on a chair and just doing the work is something I’ve always be able to do.

Your first novel, Army Wives, was published in 1998. Can you tell me about the road to publication?

Kate: Actually, Army Wives was my third book although it was my first novel. I co-wrote my first book, about being a career officer’s wife, with a fellow army wife. For a self-published book, before the days of viral-marketing, Kindle and the internet, it did extraordinarily well. My co-author and I then co-edited a book all about getting on in other professions. It was all going terribly well but then the army posted her husband to Alabama and mine to Northern Ireland, and that was the end of that. So I decided to write a novel about army wives. It took me over a year to write and almost another two to find a publisher, but in this industry, luck plays an awfully big part. My book just happened to land up with an independent publisher starting a new mass-market paperback line. Right desk, right day, right book. 

Your new book, Cox, is a brilliant portrayal of the rowing world. How did you go about researching the novel?

Kate: Again, luck played a huge role. I’m friends with a family whose son rowed for Cambridge and I also happened to know a whole heap of army rowers. And even luckier, one guy used to cox for the army eight and is now a rowing coach. Between them they managed to straighten me out about the wonderful world of rowing. I expect I’ve still managed to get stuff wrong – but if I have, it wasn’t their fault

Cox has got a racy title and an even racier cover. What reaction have you had so far?

Kate: My mother is scandalised. (Wait till she reads it!) Almost everyone else thinks the whole thing is a hoot and most of my female friends seem to spend a rather long time staring at the cover model. I can’t imagine why. But I think I am sensationally lucky to have such a fab cover. I absolutely adore it.

How and where do you write?

Kate: It depends how hard I’m finding the writing. On days when it isn’t going well, the gardening beckons, the ironing pile looks inviting, I’ll even resort to housework. But on really good days I start at about nine and work through to five quite easily with just the odd pitstop for food, tea, emails and Twitter. When I have a deadline I try to do a minimum of at least 1,000 words a day and hope to achieve 1,500. My writing space is a revoltingly messy study – it’s total chaos – but I look out of a big window on to the front garden so I can see what’s going on. Now the kids are grown up I’m quite often alone in the house, which is bliss. When I started my first novel, I was having to move house six times in five years, with three children under five.  Life is much calmer these days.

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right  now? 

Kate: Yes, write it, put it in a drawer for several months, leave it completely alone and then read it. All the continuity errors, all those cups of coffee, pointless conversations, boring bits, plot flaws will shout at you.

What is your favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Kate: Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. There are some spooky similarities with my upbringing (mainly a totally barking family background) and it makes me laugh and cry. If I ever get picked for Desert Island Discs, that’s my choice. As for inspirational novelists – I am totally in awe of Jojo Moyes.

Cox by Kate Lace (Arrow, £6.99)

Sunday, 10 June 2012

A country wedding in Dorset

Whenever someone asks me where I come from I look vague and say I’m not sure. My father was in the RAF when I was little and we moved house so many times I lost count. Actually, thinking back, nowhere really felt like home till we arrived in Dorset when I was 11.

This weekend we were invited to a wedding in the wilds of Dorset and as we drove through country lanes filled with cow parsley, foxgloves and buttercups, it suddenly struck me that if I come from anywhere at all, it’s there.

Once we’d passed the suburban sprawl of Bournemouth, where I went to school, every village signpost brought memories of the past flooding back. The pub where we had lunch with my mother every Saturday for years, the fields where we’d picnic, the beach I took my husband to the first time he visited our house, the hill my children used to roll down, laughing hysterically as they gathered speed and ending up in a heap at the bottom.

The other striking thing about Dorset is the weather. The sky was a murky shade of grey when we left Oxford at the crack of dawn but when we arrived in Dorset, the clouds lifted and the sun came out. The fields were so lush and green after last week’s torrential rain that the landscape looked like something straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel. Speaking of which, I’ve just heard that Radio 4 is recording a new version of my favourite Hardy book, Far From the Madding Crowd, to be broadcast in the autumn.

Finally we arrived at Minterne House in the village of Minterne Magna, where the wedding was held.  A stunning Edwardian manor house that’s been used for scores of films (Far From the Madding Crowd among them), it was the perfect setting for such a happy day. A choir from nearby Beaminster sang, the bride and groom made their vows beneath a painting of the Battle of Trafalgar and when it was all over they roared off down the drive in the bridegroom’s gleaming classic Morgan. In his book, England’s Thousand Best Houses, Simon Jenkins called Minterne House “a corner of paradise” – and he was right.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Friday book review - Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace

Jason Priestley (the disillusioned teacher and struggling freelance journalist, not the star of Beverly Hills 90210) is standing on a London street one evening when a girl drops half her belongings as she gets into a cab. He helps her to pick them up, but before he knows it the taxi roars off and she’s gone. Then it dawns on him that she’s left something behind – a small disposable camera.

Writer and broadcaster Danny Wallace has come up with a sensational starting point for his debut novel. It grabbed my attention immediately and I was desperate to discover what happened to the pair.

But oddly enough, even though I couldn’t wait to find out if Jason tracked the girl down or not, I wasn’t quite as gripped by Charlotte Street as I’d thought. The problem could well be that I expected too much. One critic has predicted that Charlotte Street will be this year’s One Day, while another marked it out as his top tip for 2012.

Even so, it’s an entertaining read and Wallace’s portrayal of 21st century London is spot on. As Jason hares around the capital (and on a jaunt up north) trying to discover who the girl is, I felt I was on the trail with him. Not only that, Wallace’s supporting characters are an eclectic and wonderfully portrayed mix – including Dev, Jason’s over-excitable, computer game-obsessed flatmate, Sarah, his slightly po-faced ex-girlfriend, and Abbey, a young singer who causes havoc at Sarah’s engagement party.

Charlotte Street would make a great movie and I’m not surprised that Working Title has snapped up the film rights. This is a fun, feel-good story, with a self-deprecating, likeable hero and an intriguing storyline. It augers well for Wallace’s next novel.

Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace (Ebury Press, £12.99)

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Famous Five's Sapphire Jubilee

The Queen isn’t the only one celebrating a major anniversary this year. The Famous Five are too. Did you know that Enid Blyton’s classic stories of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and George’s mongrel Timmy have been entrancing generations of children for a magnificent 70 years?

I was one of them. I loved Enid Blyton books so much that every Saturday morning I’d spend the whole of my two shillings and sixpence a week pocket money on a new story. Some weeks I’d go for a Malory Towers or St Clare’s tale, but more often than not it would be the Famous Five.

The first story to be published was Five on a Treasure Island, which came out in 1942. It was one of my absolute favourites - so much so that I recently downloaded it as an audiobook to listen to in the car. And guess what? I was as captivated as ever. The story sounds ridiculously old-fashioned, with children who spend their days swimming at a Dorset cove, taking Timmy for long walks and solving the mystery of an ancient shipwreck, but it’s still completely gripping.

These days some critics knock Enid Blyton for her simplistic language, while others accuse her of being elitist, racist and sexist. I know prissy Anne and her fondness for party frocks and dolls are a bit hard to take but the best thing about Blyton was that she could spin a great yarn. The fact that her stories have sold a mega 600 million copies is proof of that.

What struck me as I listened to Five on a Treasure Island was the freedom children used to have. Julian, Dick, Anne and George are all aged between 11 and 13 but they leave the house after breakfast and don’t come back till tea-time. They’re allowed to row out to Kirrin Island by themselves and camp there alone for two whole days.    

To mark the 70th anniversary, Hodder Children's Books have reissued five Famous Five stories, complete with drawings by some of the best children’s illustrators around, like Quentin Blake and Emma Chichester Clark. Not only that, from this month (June) you can download the Famous Five Adventure Trail, which takes you to some of the Dorset locations that feature in the Famous Five books. I’m half tempted to try it myself…

PS. Did you know that a 70th anniversary is a sapphire jubilee? No, me neither.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Interview with Jane Lovering - author of Please Don't Stop the Music

Jane Lovering is a literary tour de force. A mother of five, she works as a science technician at a north Yorkshire secondary school and has written a string of romantic comedies. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, she recently scooped the Romantic Novel of the Year award for Please Don’t Stop the Music, her first novel to be published in the UK. It’s been shortlisted for the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance too, which will be announced on June 12. Jane’s been writing for 25 years and her next novel, Vampire State of Mind, is out in August, so I jumped at the chance to ask about her work.

You've said it took 25 years to get published. Can you talk about the road to publication?

Jane: I wrote rather sporadically in the early years, convinced my genius would somehow be recognised. When this failed to happen, I worked my way up to entering competitions and had a few successes. I wrote several truly awful novels, the details of which I have removed from my memory and submitted these to publishers, with predictable results. Eventually, however, I decided to sign up for a creative writing degree, where I was introduced to the Romantic Novelists’ Association, which I joined on the New Writers’ Scheme.

How did you come up with the idea for Please Don’t Stop the Music?

Jane: I was at an RNA convention, listening to a publisher talk about requirements for heroes in the line of books she published. She was talking about heroes being allowed, these days, to have a “darker" side, not having to be picture-perfect. I had a blinding flash of light (although that could have been the excessive alcohol consumption the night before) and thought “I know who he is.  I know what he’s been through.” My own financial situation was (and continues to be) somewhat precarious, so the impecunious existence of my heroine was a natural thing to write about.  I always hated reading about Mr Perfect falling in love with Miss Perfect and living happily ever after – so I decided to redress the balance in favour of the rest of the human race.

The novel is a captivating mix of comedy and quite a dark storyline. How do you weave these two elements together?

Jane: I think comedy is a natural counterpoint to darkness. The comedy makes the darkness somehow easier to relate to. It is only by laughing at truly terrible situations that humans can survive them, after all. The humour in the novel is mainly conversational, witty come-backs - all those comments that you wish you’d made at the time (the ones you only come up with in the middle of the night), and observational.  I think I might be a frustrated stand-up comedian.

You work as a school science technician. How do you combine your job and family life with writing novels?

Jane: Firstly, I trained my children to believe that dust is a natural substance, that clothes are meant to be wrinkly, cooked food is black and tastes of charcoal and if you can see the carpet under the dog hair you are doing something wrong.  This helps greatly. I work from 8.30 until 12.30 at school. This is a “proper job,” which gives me something respectable to say when people ask what I do for a living. Being a writer isn’t what I do, it’s what I am.  It does mean getting up early to make sure the dogs are walked, chickens are fed and let out and everybody is up, dressed and pointing in the right direction by 8am, though.  When I get in from work I walk the dogs again, rummage feebly in the freezer for something suitable to burn for dinner, perform such tasks as prevent the environmental health office descending, and then sit at my laptop from 1.30 until called upon to fetch, carry or ferry children.  If I am deep in editing or first-draft territory I will write again once everyone is fed, until bedtime – with a break to walk the dogs again, because they are demanding little so-and-sos, feed the cats, and lock the chickens away.

Are you a very disciplined writer? How and where do you write?

Jane: For one so lackadaisical about housework, I am quite disciplined in my writing. I work in my bedroom (where there are no distractions in the form of Jeremy Kyle and cake) on my laptop.  Usually sitting in bed, because the heating in this house is a bit hit and miss, and for nine months of the year I am FREEZING, so I have the duvet up to my chin and the mouse under the covers with me. Sometimes I pile a cat or two on as well, but they often try to sit on the laptop and have to be ejected. I don’t believe in setting myself targets. I am easily enough discouraged as it is, and if I missed my target I should be convinced that it was hardly worth getting on with the project at all, and spend the next six months on the sofa with a pile of walnut whips and Good Housekeeping. 

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right now?

Jane: Write it. Finish it. Then put it in a cupboard, and get on with the next one. Eventually, round about the six-month mark, curiosity will get the better of you and you will pull that first novel out of storage and re-read it. If, after those six months, you still think it’s a good story, make the changes you will certainly find necessary, put it away for another month, then re-read. Repeat as necessary until you cannot find anything more to change, or you are making changes for the sake of it, then send it out. Then forget it. Write another one. If, as often happens, after those six months you feel you have written the biggest pile of poo ever to fall upon the planet, put it away again. The next one will be better. And the next.

What is your own favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Jane: I have too many favourites.  There is no one ultimate novel, although, if cast away on a desert island, I should probably ask for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to come with me.  Zaphod Beeblebrox is my all time hero, beta male, largely insane and completely amoral, my kinda guy. So I’d have to say that Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have been huge influences on me, although in the romantic comedy field it’s been mostly Jenny Colgan and Marian Keyes. In the interests of full disclosure, I also love Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series, Jasper Fforde and Diana Wynne-Jones.

Please Don’t Stop the Music by Jane Lovering (Choc Lit, £7.99)

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Interview with Liz Fenwick - author of The Cornish House

Liz Fenwick’s path to publication sounds like a dream come true. She sent her debut novel out on a grey February day, not knowing what to expect, and by the end of the week it has been snapped up by Carole Blake, one of the top agents in the business. But as Liz explained to me, writing The Cornish House, her captivating tale of a rambling manor house and the family secrets it holds, took grit, determination and years of hard work.

The Cornish House is your debut novel. Can you tell me a little about the road to publication and how you got a publishing deal?

Liz: To make a long story short – in 2004 I promised myself I would begin to write fiction again. After writing seven books (not counting rewrites) and receiving encouraging rejections I finally felt that I had brought The Cornish House up to a level where I felt that it was as good as I could make it. So on a Monday in February, I sent it to four agents who had been encouraging me in my journey. By noon I had my first request for the full manuscript. I nearly fell over. On Saturday Carole Blake got in touch and said she loved it and would love to represent me. I was over the moon. Things moved swiftly from there. The first sale was to Holland, then the two-book deal with Orion in the UK and it went to auction in Germany. That was so exciting. Recently the book sold to Portugal. It’s all so unreal in a way – you dream about something all your life and finally you put the work in to make it happen and then it does…

How did you come up with the idea for The Cornish House?

Liz: This is the third novel I’d written (currently working on my eighth) and from the book before (August Rock) there was this rather dishy love interest named Mark and he kept pestering me for a story of his own. How could I refuse? That was part of it, but one day a few years ago several roads were closed and we detoured down a lane I hadn’t been on in ages and I saw The Cornish House. This is a house that I had always loved and been intrigued by. Then I had a discussion with a teenager going through that awful stage when they can only see their own point of view… Suddenly the story began to take shape….

Trevenen, the house at the heart of The Cornish House, sounds gorgeous. Does it actually exist?

Liz: Yes and no. The real house is different from Trevenen. In the writing of the book it grew and developed. I spent hours on the layout, which required a lot of internet searching of properties and floor plans…such a hard task. So Trevenen is my idea of the ideal house, but based on the house that captured my heart from the moment I saw it nestled into a fold in the land off a remote lane. That house is truly The Cornish House, and as such is rather special and its location is a secret…

The relationship between Maddie, the heroine of the novel, and her step-daughter Hannah, is incredibly tricky. How did you go about making it so convincing?

Liz: Probably because I’m a mother of teenagers…thankfully mine aren’t as spiky as Hannah. But I loved both these broken characters and I think that helps keep it “real” on the page because they were and are still very “real” in my head.

You divide your time between Dubai, Cornwall and London. How do you manage to write novels when you travel so much?

Liz: I can work on a plane or anywhere. Because I began writing fiction again when the kids were still fairly small, I can tune out the world and tune into my writing.

What are the best things about living in Cornwall?

Liz: The people, the scenery, the fresh fish, and my house…

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right now?

Liz: Be professional, be persistent and write the book of your heart.  It’s so tempting when you want your words to be read to follow the latest trend, but trends change as soon as you are aware of them. Write the book of your heart and with luck it will hit the right trend and you will have been true to yourself.

What is your own favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Liz: This is such a tough question…there are so many favourites. I love Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer. It was the first one of hers that I read and her books were where I escaped to during my teenage years. A more recent favourite was Leo the African by Amin Maalouf. This showed me the history of an area through a very personal story and has the best opening line ever. In a way all writers who have completed a book inspire me. That is the toughest thing – to complete a book and then accept that you will have to rewrite it in some way at least once or in my case many many more times. But during my “apprenticeship” in the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme I was lucky enough to watch Katie Fforde in action. She is my inspiration. She is such a professional in how she goes about all aspects of her work as a writer. She makes it look easy and I’m now learning how hard it all is…

Can you tell us a little bit about your second novel – August Rock? And when will it be published?

Liz: August Rock existed before The Cornish House. I’m now on my 27th rewrite and it’s a story I still love. It’s about Jude, who suddenly wakes up to the fact that she is following life by other people’s design and not her own. She flees her wedding and ends up taking a position as a research assistant to a garden historian on a Cornish estate. When the historian dies and his son arrives to sell the estate, she finds out that she has fallen in love for the first time - not with a person but a place. She has to save Pengarrock and find out who she really is and what she really wants. And oh, there’s a wonderful thirteen year old Victorian boy called Toby. I can’t seem to keep away from teenagers… It will be out in the spring of 2013.

The Cornish House by Liz Fenwick (Orion, £12.99)
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