Reading these books taught me valuable lessons – #BookLoversDay

It’s Book Lovers Day! I’m always reading and there have been many, many books I’ve enjoyed but sometimes I’m lucky enough to take something from them that stays with me. These books have all taught me a valuable lesson and I’m grateful to have read them.

 

The Famous Five by Enid Blyton

At primary school I devoured books at such an alarming rate, I was given permission to take more than the allocated one book per child home each week. Long after I should have been asleep I was reading Enid Blyton books by torchlight under my covers, and The Famous Five was my favourite series. It was these books that ignited my interest in mysteries. Who was the baddie? Why did they do it? Would the gang figure it out in time? Always, one of them would be in peril towards the end and my heart would pound and I couldn’t rest until good triumphed over evil. These books taught me that I wanted to be a writer although at that young age I didn’t just want to be a writer. I wanted to be Enid Blyton.

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart

This was my favourite read of 2016. The story of Alex and Jody who have lost the ability to communicate with each other is beautifully written. Alex’s attempts to forge a relationship with his autistic son, Sam are genuinely moving. Alex finds Sam playing Minecraft and realises the structure and format of the game bring a confidence to Sam he hasn’t seen before,  Alex too becomes engrossed in the game and his confidence as a father blossoms. I loved this story so much I felt lost when I’d finished it. As well as educating me that games such as Minecraft have a purpose in todays’ society (I’m a mum of three boys) it also made me question the sort of writer I want to be and the genre I want to write in. I’ve written three psychological thrillers now and although I’ve plans for a few more yet, it’s commercial family dramas I am always drawn to as a reader and this book inspired me to want to experiment with different styles and structures of novels.

 

Charlie Brown by Charles M. Shulz

I adore all things Snoopy but Charlie Brown is a bit of a hero of mine and the Peanuts books are still something I dip into today. Charlie Brown never gave up. Despite the gazillion times Lucy pulled the football away when he went to kick it, he never lost the hope that this time it might be different. This time he might be successful. If I have a down day and am not feeling as positive as usual I flick through a Peanuts book and take heart from Charlie Brown’s determination to never stop trying.

 

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Absolutely my favourite read of 2015. A gorgeously written book of Maud, who finds a note in her pocket – Elizabeth is missing – and her endeavours to track down her best friend. Sadly dementia has touched my family and the glimpse Elizabeth gives into the mind of a dementia sufferer through Maud, and the impact on her family and carers is insightful and sensitively handled. I found this book more educational than a lot of the nonfiction material I had read. Story wise, love and thought is poured into every beautifully constructed sentence. I was lucky enough to hear the author, Emma talk at Foyles and to learn she spent five years crafting this exceptional debut really brought home to me that there is no standard time it should take to write a novel. It’s hard sometimes not to compare yourself to other writers who seem to effortlessly produce a new book every few months (although rationally I know books are NEVER effortlessly produced). This taught me that some books just can’t be rushed and need to be rewritten many times throughout the editing process and boy was it worth the wait.

 

every dayEvery Day is Wonderful by Fredric Fewings

This beautiful children’s pocketbook was bought for me by my grandparents when I was at primary school, and it is one of my most treasured possessions. I was always a very thoughtful child and this book, stuffed full of inspirational snippets and gorgeously illustrated, invited me to actively seek the good and positive in each and every day.

‘So look for Beauty everywhere,

And practice Goodness, too,

For wonders have their origins,

In the heart of you!’

 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Still at primary school, still reading Enid Blyton over and over I found a worn copy of Little Women in our garage and although I thought it looked a little boring, I had nothing else to read on that day and decided to give it a go. Jo March became my heroine. I rooted for all the sisters, cried buckets when Beth died and felt emotionally drained when I’d finished it. Books up until that point had been full of excitement and adventure. All boarding schools, mysteries and magic trees.

Little Women made me feel something different. Really feel. And that was the moment I started to work my way through the classics wondering who wrote these stories? How did they become writers? It seemed so far out of reach but the spark was there for me, which smoldered away for the next thirty-five years, and I vowed that if I ever wrote a book it would be an emotionally moving one but still retain the mystery element I’d first fallen in love with. My debut, The Sister, was that book.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I used to read anything and everything I could get my hands on but a few years ago, without knowing, I became stuck in a genre rut. Always heading to the same section of the library and the bookshop.  A friend recommended this story to me and told me it was a young adult novel and I told her I would read it but I secretly didn’t think I would. Frustrated she lent me her copy and said I had to read it straight away and so I sat down, and didn’t move again until I’d finished and I’ve read it many times since. A big lesson for me on book snobbery and I’ll never fall into the genre trap again.

 

I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I’d become familiar with Maya Angelou and her background as a civil rights activist and was interested to read more about this woman who had empowered so many. At that point to me there was a clear divide between fiction and non-fiction styles of writing, so although I expected to be educated I didn’t expect to be enthralled by her style of writing. Early on there’s a sentence which reads: ‘If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.’ I remember stopping and rereading that sentence over and over, thinking about the power of language and that was the first time I ever realised what was meant by ‘voice.’

 

The Stand by Stephen King

As a teenager I was a real horror fan. The scarier the better. I’d read a fair few Stephen King books before stumbling across the massive publication that is The Stand and I curled up in my chair and waited to feel the creeping sense of unease I usually felt with his novels. What I didn’t expected was to be so moved I cried many times during this story and to this day it is still one of my favourites. This book taught me you can’t always pigeon hole a story. When I started writing psychological thrillers I wanted that emotional punch. I wanted to make readers cry. All three of my books feature an emotional thread alongside the tension and fear and I love picking bits out of different genres and blending them together.

 

Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside by Judy Carne

Judy Carne was the star of the 60’s American TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in and the wife of Burt Reynolds. She was also my mum’s cousin. When Judy returned to our home town in Northamptonshire from Hollywood regaling us with tales of the rich and famous I was enthralled by the glitz and glamour of her life.

Reading her biography however, painted a very different picture. She had a real struggle and a phenomenal journey  to achieve what she achieved through real hardship. I’d always thought my town was ordinary and by default I was never destined to be anything other than the secretary I was when I left school. Judy inspired me to never lose sight of my dreams or give up and made me realise that ordinary people can live extraordinary lives if they only believe they can.

 

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson

At one time I had bookshelves full of self-help titles. Newly disabled, and at a real low, I was constantly searching for the one thing that could make a difference. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff was that book. Broken down into ultra short chapters, it’s easy to dip in and out of and to implicate into everyday life. Formerly a teacher of Mindfulness, this book was one I would often recommend to my coaching clients.

 

Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters

When I began writing The Sister I heard about the WoMentoring Project, founded by Kerry Hudson, offering mentors to upcoming female talent. On the list of mentors was Louise Walters and I’d just finished her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase and was captivated by her voice and beautiful story. It took ages, and a fair few glasses of wine before I felt brave enough to apply to the project and I was thrilled when Louise became my mentor.

I wrote the first ten thousand words of my novel and Louise replied, in a very gentle way, that although my style of writing was lovely the story didn’t flow like a novel at all.  I deleted the words but before starting again I wanted to reread a book I’d loved, but with a critical eye. A writer’s eye. To try to learn where I went wrong. Louise’s book was the obvious choice and I reread making careful notes. How did characters develop? How does her story arc work? It was a pleasure to reread her gorgeous story, her writing is exceptional, and I learned such a lot about how to structure a novel.

 

The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell (To be released November 2017)

My list wouldn’t be complete with what has been my favourite read of 2017 so far. This beautifully constructed debut tells the story of two sisters, Filipino maids Dolly and Tala. It’s set in Singapore and is based, in part, on Fiona’s experience of living there. I was horrified at the treatment maids receive often at the hands of British ex-pats and I couldn’t believe this was set in modern day. This story could have been depressing but Fiona has sensitively weaved through humour and some really heartwarming moments. As a teacher of mindfulness for years I would make sure I regularly carried out random acts of kindness. Since I’ve been so busy writing this had lapsed a little. Reading how such small things made an enormous difference to the life of these maids inspired me to restart paying it forward wherever I can. Be kind where possible. It’s always possible.

The writing I’m most proud of – #MentalHealth

Recently I was asked in an interview if I have a piece of writing I’m really proud of and I didn’t have to fumble around for an answer.

I’m massively proud of my three novels, of course, but writing the Mindfulness course for Teamwork Trust was such a privilege and a real heart and soul project for me. It’s no secret that my mobility was severely impaired after an accident which resulted in clinical depression. Learning Mindfulness and later, after years of practice, subsequently completing my Mindfulness teacher training was really my salvation. Learning the tools to enable me to take charge of my own mental health was invaluable and something I feel passionate about passing on.

Budget cuts are rife, many mental health services disappearing. Charities such as Teamwork Trust go some way towards bridging the void that has been left. It frightens me to think where some service users would be without access to counselling and wellbeing programmes. During my time teaching this course (now expertly delivered by Tim Elliston Holistics) I heard stories which were harrowing and heart-warming; triumph over tragedy.

It was a privilege to attend a charity event last Friday and celebrate with them their success in securing Local Sustainability Funding, the only organisation in Northamptonshire to do so. It was inspiring and impressive hearing how they will implement this funding to continue to run and enhance their programmes for vulnerable adults.

Teamwork are always seeking volunteers. If you’ve a small (or large) amount of time to spare each month you really could make a huge difference in supporting vulnerable people in achieving their goals. Alternatively there’s lots of opportunities for donating or fundraising if you fancy a skydive or running a marathon?

Mental health services are vital. Please pay if forward if you can, when you can. You never know when you or your loved ones might be the one in need.

One year published, 750,000 sales – what’s it really been like?

 

Exactly a year ago was a dream-come-true- kind of day. I remember snapping awake, brushing the sleep out of my eyes, instantly my stomach swirling with excitement and nerves. It was publication day for my debut novel The Sister which was already receiving rave reviews and flying up the charts. I had a fabulous publisher and a contract to write two more novels. My lifelong ambition was realised as I smiled for the camera and held my paperback tightly in my hand like the precious gift it was. It stands to reason I lived happily ever after, right?

Yes. But it took a while.

Initially it was the cause of much excitement to type my name into Amazon and see my book spring onto my screen but still I didn’t feel like a writer. I was so thankful to have a deal but part of me thought it must be a mistake, it couldn’t possibly last. I clung on to my old job title when introducing myself to new people, feeling like a fraud somehow. The picture-perfect vision in my head of novelists lounging in a field of sunflowers, shielded from the blistering sun under a parasol, jotting down a few words when inspiration hit, partaking in cream teas when it didn’t, was not how it was at all. Working as an author has proved to be many things; sometimes exhilarating and satisfying, sometimes, if I’m being honest, isolating and lonely, and always, always extremely hard work. It’s far more involved than I first thought. The time invested in promoting my books both here and internationally (my titles have now been sold for translation to fifteen territories), interviews, social media, blogging, events, replying to reader emails (often the highlight of my day), mentoring female writers (which I offer free through The WoMentoring Project), and of course, juggling writing new stories whilst taking the previous book through the editing process

After The Sister I was nominated for the Goodreads Debut Author of 2016 and then came publication of The Gift. With both my first two books reaching No. 1 in the UK and abroad came a shift in my thinking. Although I still felt like an impostor, afraid it would all disappear in an instant, no longer did I mutter when someone asked what I did for a living. I admitted to being a writer albeit before looking at my shoes and hurriedly changing the subject. Yet, I didn’t quite feel like an author but it was progress of sorts.

It’s been a whirlwind year and often chaotic and I’ve learned a big lesson in time management, in finding that all important balance between work/family life.

The Sister was nominated for a CWA Dagger Award and amazingly after 12 months it is still sitting comfortably in the top 100 in psychological fiction, as is The Gift and now it has been joined by The Surrogate, my forthcoming novel, which is currently available to pre order and will be released in September. I’m so excited about this book, my best so far I think, already it’s made the Top 10 in psychological thrillers and the Top 50 in the overall UK chart.

Last week my publishers told me I had achieved 750,000 English language sales (more if you take into account sales in other territories) and the thought of three quarters of a million people reading my books caused another shift in my thinking. At a barbecue last weekend someone asked what I did for a living and for the first time ever I said ‘I’m an author,’ and I didn’t even look at my shoes.

Finally, an author. I’m living my dream and with a head full of stories there is honestly nothing else I’d rather be doing. Every day I think how lucky I am – I’m so grateful for this opportunity.

 

 

NHS Cuts, Disability Benefits & Me

 

A drastic change in my health around ten years ago sent me spiralling along a path of limited mobility and chronic pain. Raw and reeling, my mental health plummeted and subsequently I plunged into clinical depression. It was a dark time which left me feeling unable to care for myself, or my three children.

My local hospital didn’t know how best to help me and so came a frustrating and emotionally draining year of researching treatments that might help me (I found one) and then trying to get my local authority to fund it as it was outside of my local town (eventually they did).

For around the past eight years, every now and then,  I’ve undergone this quick, simple but life-changing procedure and I am so thankful for the NHS for the time and care I have been privileged enough to receive so far. Alongside this I have paid for my own physio (I didn’t get long on the NHS lists) and I’ve done everything I can possibly do to take responsibility for, and improve my health. Today, I can potter around the house, drive, nip into shops, go for short walks, my pain levels have drastically reduced and my quality of life has greatly improved. I feel like a real hands-on mum again. I no longer need to take daily medication which had been causing me horrendous side effects. Although I still use crutches sometimes and my wheelchair for days out, when I think back to ten years ago when I was unable to stand unaided or get myself in and out of the bath, my life is unrecognisable. For that I am very grateful.

Returning to the hospital last Thursday I was shocked and dismayed to be told, through no fault of the team, that due to NHS funding cuts the hospital would no longer be offering this treatment.

This post isn’t a self-pitying one – government cuts have affected most of us in one shape or form- but rather a way to unpick the tangle of emotions I am feeling right now.

Today, thanks to the improvements to my health I can work full-time. I don’t claim disability benefits, there isn’t enough to go around and there are people worse off than me, that I know. I am in the fortunate position where I work from home, make my own hours. I can change positions if my pain gets overwhelming, I can go for a lie-down when I’m feeling exhausted, I can even skip the odd day and stay in bed during bad flare ups. This I could not do in an office but I worry now, that without this relatively simple treatment, my mobility will likely decline again, my pain increase, my mental health suffer and the thought of losing my financial independence if I am no longer capable of working is a frightening thought indeed.

Slashing funding and impacting upon people’s health will surely cost more in long run; potentially driving people out of work, onto benefits, increasing the need for medication, pain killers, anti-depressants, the already flooded waiting lists for counselling will creak under the strain, and then of course there is the need to treat the often horrific side-effects these drugs can cause.

And this is what I am struggling to make sense of. The logic behind it all.

I really don’t know what the answer is. I don’t feel I am more entitled than anyone else. All I do know is at the moment, my world, the world, seems a scary and uncertain place.

Flash Fiction – We stand together

Image © J Hardy Carroll

 

My feet crunch on broken glass, tears rising quickly.

‘Why…’ I begin, but the choke in my throat holds back the rest of my words.

Afternoon sunshine streams through the window, the upended tables and chairs brushed bronze, shards of glass glint gold.

The air is heavy with dust. With loss. But underneath there is something else. Love. We fall silently into our roles, a human chain, stronger together, clearing out the rubble. At first I think nothing is salvageable but then I realise there is. Amongst the splinters of wood, the twisted metal, it is there. A tiny kernel of hope.

We stand together.

 

‘We stand together’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 word story challenge inspired by a photo prompt. This week’s prompt is topical as we all try to make sense of the senseless. My heartfelt condolences for everyone affected by the atrocities in Manchester.

Join in with the challenge over at host Rochelle’s blog here.

Kindness is contagious – Be a carrier #NationalKindnessDay

When my boys were small we would start each day sitting at around the kitchen table and over breakfast we would each list 3 things we were grateful for. We also kept a notebook and after school we would discuss as a family ways in which we had been kind and jot them down. On days where they were feeling low, too much homework, squabbles with friends, lost PE kits, we would read back through the book and would feel uplifted. Of course true acts of kindness aren’t contrived, and shouldn’t be carried out in the hope of ‘getting something back.’ But after a while of consciously practicing kindness and gratitude it becomes second nature and my children have grown to be compassionate, appreciative and positive.

Never underestimate the transformation a simple act of kindness can have on someone’s day. When was the last time you smiled at a stranger? Let someone go in the queue in front of you? Praised good service?

Studies have shown people who mindfully practice kindness and gratitude have improved mental and physical health, stronger immune systems, reduced stress and depression, are happier and cope better with difficult situations.

In honour of National Kindness Day, The Diana Award are inviting people to carry out a random act of kindness today and share it on their website. Will you take part?

 

My first school visit – 250 kids – what could possibly go wrong?

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Last week I was writing when my phone flashed with an incoming call – my son’s primary school – and my heart stuttered as I thought of all the things that might be wrong.

‘Will you come into school on World Book Day and talk to the kids about writing? Just Years 5 & 6. Only around 250 children.’

Only?!? 250!?! I’ve never given a talk before and instantly I felt sick, dizzy, afraid. Options pin-balled around my mind. I could hang up, pretend they had the wrong number, put on an accent and say I can’t speak English. So many words formed on my tongue, but I thought about the amazing assemblies I’ve seen there over the years. How brave the children are to stand up in front of the school and act and sing, and of all of the words that formed on my tongue, the one that came out was yes. The children can’t all enjoy performing and yet they do it anyway. What sort of example would I set to my son if I didn’t at least try?

Yesterday, it was a different story. Riddled with doubt I spoke my lovely friend Victoria who told me to imagine I was speaking to one little girl. The little girl who loved to read. Loved to write. Who wanted nothing more than to be an author. The little girl I once was who had her dreams crushed when the career advisor said writing was neither a ‘proper or viable career choice.’ And a quiet determination grew inside. If in some small way I could inspire one child to follow their dreams it would be worth any amount of anxiety I might feel.

img_9444This morning I stood in front of a sea of expectant faces. I locked eyes with my son. He’d been so excited I was visiting and I wanted to make him proud, not faint/vomit/cry and so I ignored the notes I’d made and I spoke from the heart. I spoke of my passion for writing, my love for my characters, how I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. I spoke of my belief that we can all be who we want to be, if only we dare to dream and never stop trying.

I asked the children questions. They asked me questions. Some had written them down, complete with illustrations. Most loved to read, to write, to fabricate stories and many of them dream of being authors and seeing that raw hope, that ambition, that certainty, I am sure they can do anything they set their minds to.

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It was a real privilege meeting these children and I came away hopeful, and inspired, and itching to write. It was such an enriching experience. I learned a lot about them, but I also learned a lot about me.