Book Review – The Swap – Fiona Mitchell

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Ever since I read The Maid’s Room, which I gushed about here, I’ve been waiting eagerly for Fiona Mitchell’s second book, The Swap.

And oh how it was worth the wait! Fiona has crafted an emotive and credible read centred around Tess who, during her IVF treatment, had her embryo mistakenly swapped for a stranger’s. For two years Tess and Annie, the other woman, have been unknowingly raising each other’s children.

Tess has never bonded with her son, Freddie, so when she meets Annie’s daughter, Willow, she’s determined she and Annie swap their children back. But Annie won’t let go of Willow without a fight.

Harrowing in parts, but uplifting in others, Fiona keeps the pace constant, never letting the story become pulled down by legal jargon, although it is obvious she’s carried out much research. For the last half an hour of reading, I was literally holding my breath. How could this story ever reach a satisfying conclusion, given its challenging subject matter? You’ll have to read it to find out but I thought the ending was absolutely perfect.

The Swap is deeply moving and beautifully written.  Although we’re only in January this will likely be my top read for 2019. I can’t recommend it enough. Due for publication in April – you can pre-order a copy here.

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Rest, relaxation & 3 great reads

Last month I coped with my son leaving home by sending him off to uni with 3 important things (you can read that post here). I spent the first few days of his absence drifting sadly around the house. It was when I lit a candle in his bedroom I knew I had to get out and do something productive so I dashed to Asda to stock up on chocolate. When I arrived I reminded myself how well I was doing on my sugar free diet, how much better I felt and so instead of a bar of dairy milk I headed into the in-store travel agent and bought a holiday to Lanzarote instead (and it was fun explaining that impromptu purchase to my husband).

Days later myself, my youngest son and my husband were on a beach. It was an odd sensation, trying to relax. It was the first time, in a long time, I hadn’t had a looming deadline from my publisher. I deliberately hadn’t packed my laptop, instead I’d taken a stack of books and I intended to read *whispers* for pleasure.

Historically I used to read a couple of novels a week but in the last few years I’ve been so busy writing my own books there’s been little time for reading. On the occasions I’ve managed to snatch precious minutes from my day, I’ve ended up reading one of the huge pile of proofs in my study awaiting quotes which all tend to be psychological thrillers as that’s the genre I write in. On my break, I was determined to read something different, and I did.

The One With Hidden Depths – First on my list was Graham Norton’s cozy crime debut ‘Holding.’ I’ve long been a huge Graham Norton fan. I pre-ordered this the second it was announced but I’ve been putting off reading it because… if I’m honest, because I thought it might not be very good. Sorry Graham. 

I dove into the pages expecting them to be peppered with brash humour, outrageous jokes, which I wasn’t sure how would translate into a novel, but what I found was a gentle story set in rural Ireland, sensitively written by someone who knew his characters inside out. The gradual unfurling is slow but I like that in a story. There’s a depth to the characterisation you rarely find in debuts. So much so I googled whether Graham had a ghost writer, apparently he didn’t. There’s a vulnerability surrounding the small community featured in this story, that doesn’t come from the characters alone. I’ve since bought Graham’s second novel ‘A Keeper’ and I won’t leave it too long before I read it.

The Chilling One – Next up was ‘The Taking of Annie Thorne’ by C.J. Tudor. As a teenager I was a real horror buff and a big fan of Stephen King but as I’ve got older I’ve… I’ve grown into a bit of a wuss  I suppose and so I tend to shy away from the genre. That said when Steven King recommends a writer you sit up and listen and that, along with the fabulous cover, swayed me into putting on my big girl pants and diving in. Goodness. This book is creepy. Right from the start a sense of unease settled over me, despite my brilliant backdrop of blue skies and golden sands. This story is so atmospheric with a refreshingly unique voice. I do love it when I start off loathing a character but the writer gradually draws me in until I’m rooting for them. I’m glad I didn’t read this alone at night, but I’m so very glad I read it. 

The Weepy One – A writer friend of mine recommended ‘Bitter’ by Francesca Jakobi to me and told me I’d love it, and she was right. I find it utterly fascinating when a story is based on some semblance of truth and this one, based on Francesca’s grandmother, drew me in completely. It could have been hard to picture a time when divorce was scandalous and single parent families an oddity but thanks to the evocative writing I was right there with the beautifully crafted characters, living out their obsessions with them. This book is thoughtful, heartbreaking and utterly compelling. I am desperate to know what happened after the final pages. 

Aside from reading, it was a fabulous holiday which kicked off to a thrilling start when we popped into WH Smith’s at the airport and found ‘The Surrogate‘ on the shelves. Once we’d arrived, we hired a car but didn’t explore this gorgeous island nearly enough which is a good reason to return (although we did stumble across a fabulous bookshop who stocked ‘The Sister‘ – hurrah!) What we did do in-between reading was wade into the sea to feed the flurry of fish with cooked vegetables we saved from lunch.

We also went sea trekking for the first time. Walking around the ocean bed while hooked up to air was an odd but amazing experience and a privilege to be up close to so many sea creatures in their natural habitat. 

Evenings found us at a beach bar, sipping cocktails and watching the sun set.

It was while gazing out to sea I had an idea for a romantic novel I felt ridiculously excited about but within 48 hours of being back in the UK I’d (fictionally) killed someone. I feel relaxed, refreshed and ready to put the finishing touches to my fifth psychological thriller, and as for writing romance? Maybe one day…

 

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.