The one thing I loathe about Christmas has taught me this…

There are rolls of sparkly wrapping paper stacked in the corner of my bedroom, a bag of silver bows, shiny red tags. Today, the first of the gifts I ordered from Amazon arrived and I had a fleeting thought I should wrap up the presents as I buy them, before dismissing it instantly. It’s my least favourite job. There’s never enough room cramped around the table and my back screams with pain if I’m hunched on the floor. No matter how careful I am, I can never, ever, locate the end of the Sellotape and making anything beyond a square shape look enticing is far outside my very limited capabilities.

With a sinking feeling, I totted up the amount of presents I’ve yet to buy, calculating the amount I’ll have to wrap, until a slow and sickening dawning crept over me.

Yet again, there will be less under the tree than last year.

The children are older, two of them adults now, and the enormous pile of plastic, noisy, toys we used to accumulate are long gone. Instead, a sleek gift-wrapped gadget or two will replace all the smaller, cheaper presents, they’d shake and sniff, hazarding wild guesses before excitedly tearing off the paper to see if they were right.

It’s not only my growing family responsible for diminishing the pile of presents under our tree, there’s the inevitable, heart-wrenching loss we’ve experienced. One less person to buy for. One empty space at our dining table. One less cracker to pull. And suddenly having lots to wrap doesn’t feel like the worst thing, having nothing to wrap does.

Tonight I shall pour a glass of red wine before sliding off the plastic coating from my rolls of paper and think how grateful I am to still have people I love to buy gifts for, and the money to buy them, and you never know, my most loathed job, might just become my favourite.

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THIS is what inspired my new novel… Guest post by Rebecca Stonehill

 

I’m a huge fan of Rebecca Stonehill’s beautiful writing so when she contacted me to tell me she was releasing a new novel I was super excited. Today I welcome Rebecca onto my blog where she’ll share the inspiration behind her new release, the fabulously titled ‘The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale’. Over to you, Rebecca!

 

The setting often comes first for me: with my first novel, The Poet’s Wife, I was inspired by my time spent in Granada, southern Spain; The Girl and the Sunbird I knew would be my ‘Nairobi’ novel as this is where I live and I wanted to wind back the clock to find out what it was like in its beginnings as a town.

As for my third novel, The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale (to be published 11 November 2017), the setting was again integral, but this time, not because I’d ever been there. As a child, one of my favourite pastimes was to heave down one of the heavy albums from my mother’s bookshelf in her bedroom, filled to bursting with photographs. I loved the photos of past family holidays, and my aunts and uncles when they were younger. But, more than any other, there was an album I returned to again and again.

It was from my mother’s travels from around 1967-1968, a period when she hitchhiked from England down to Greece, worked as an au pair in Athens and then travelled on to a tiny village set in a bay in Southern Crete named Matala, a place she found hard to leave. As a child, I was captivated by these sepia-toned photographs. A handful of scantily clad travellers clustered around a series of sandstone caves they slept in. The odd flag flapped outside a cave opening in the breeze and travellers squint into the camera against the fierce Cretan sunlight above a beautiful, deserted beach.

I desperately wanted to go there but, even more importantly, the seed was planted: one day I would set a story there. I had no idea what form this journey would take, but it didn’t matter; this would come in time.

Matala and those photographs from the late 1960’s have never left me. It is only in the past couple of years though that I’ve had the opportunity to develop and mould the story into what it has become. My protagonist is Jim, a handsome, arrogant but troubled eighteen year old from Twickenham who hitchhikes to Matala in 1967 in search of fun, and to escape his repressed parents. What I didn’t want, though, was for this to be simply a 1960’s coming of age story. I knew very little about what happened in Crete during WW2 but, researching it more, a story of how to link the two periods slowly emerged.

I finally made it to Matala during the late summer of 2016, with my mother as well as her sister and friends who also spent time in the caves. It is now a resort and much has changed from those days of long ago. Tourists pay money to visit the caves where the ‘hippies’ once stayed and, going much further back, where people from the Neolithic period buried their dead. But the spirit of Matala remains: a place of freedom, of gently lapping waves and, if you take the time to sit with a coffee and piece of backlava with one of the locals, of numerous stories.

The one I have chosen to tell follows Jim through Europe down to Matala. At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father.

Taking in the counter-culture of the 1960’s, the clash of relationships between the WW2 generation and their children, the baby boomers, this is a novel about secrets from the past finally surfacing, the healing of trauma and the power of forgiveness.

I’m looking forward to seeing this book out in the world after brewing for more than thirty years!

In Matala, Crete, September 2016 with my mother, cousin, auntie and their friend who they were in Matala with in the Sixties.

 

 

 The caves in Matala in which travellers once slept in, the inspiration for my novel.

 

That sounds wonderful, Rebecca. Thanks so much for sharing the story behind the story. Wishing you the best of luck. 

 

Rebecca can be contacted through her website, on Twitter, or via Facebook. You can sign up to Rebcca’s mailing list here.

You can buy The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale via Amazon US or Amazon UK. Here’s the blurb: –

A compelling page turner of a buried past resurfacing, set against a backdrop of the 1960’s youth culture and war torn Crete.

1967. Handsome but troubled, Jim is almost 18 and he lives and breathes girls, trad jazz, Eel Pie Island and his best friend, Charles. One night, he hears rumours of a community of young people living in caves in Matala, Crete. Determined to escape his odious, bully of a father and repressed mother, Jim hitchhikes through Europe down to Matala. At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father.

Taking in the counter-culture of the 1960’s, the clash of relationships between the WW2 generation and their children, the baby boomers, this is a novel about secrets from the past finally surfacing, the healing of trauma and the power of forgiveness.

 

 

A day in the life of…Book blogger Joanne Robertson

 

Getting to know book bloggers have been one of the highlights of being published. To meet like-minded people with a passion for stories is a dream come true. Today I’m SO excited to welcome Joanne Robertson whose own blog, My Chestnut Reading Tree is one of my favourites. How do you fit in all the reading you do, Joanne?

I’m an early riser but not by choice! The Grumpy Scotsman always kisses me goodbye when he leaves for work at 0530 bringing me a cup of tea in bed (weak, black and no sugar!) so then I’m awake and straight away I’m on social media sites! I check Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and then I’m straight into WordPress sharing any posts that my fellow bloggers have posted since the previous evening. Then by 7 I’m up to get showered and ready for the day ahead. By 7.30 I’m waiting for the grandchildren to arrive. It depends which day of the week it is as to how many I’m looking after but I look after all 4 of them while their mummies (my 3 gorgeous daughters!) go to work. They range from 6 years to 10 months and I absolutely adore every single one of them! So after cuddles I then give them breakfast before depositing them at school/nursery then back home for 9.

Most mornings I’m free to do some work on my blog (Baby tv and naps for the 10 month old if I have her for a couple of hours!) I blog most days and my posts go live around 8 each morning. So once home I will then share that post in a multitude of FB groups, catch up on Twitter and do another WordPress sharing session. Then I check my emails and this can take a while as I respond to review and blog tour requests that have come in since the day before. I check publication dates and pop reviews on Amazon etc and share reviews again of any books out that day.I am obsessed with my blog and love raving about the many brilliant books I get sent to read and review. I’ve always loved reading so I’m so ecstatic to have finally found my niche in life. Since starting to blog 18 months ago I’ve achieved over 6,000 followers across my sites plus I’m an Amazon top 500 reviewer and Goodreads top 100 reviewer so I work hard to maintain those!

At 12 I’m childfree so I go off to work. Although I’m not really childfree, as I work at my local primary school as a “midday assistant” which I absolutely love! By half 1 I’m home again and have a quick lunch. If I’m childfree I will do either work on my eBay business selling preloved children’s clothing, do some housework or I will read for an hour or so. If I have my grandson then he needs a nap so it’s into the pushchair for him, dog on lead, audio book on my iPhone and we go for a lovely long walk. I live in a gorgeous little village in Cheshire where everyone knows everyone so we often stop to chat to people! My postman arrives after lunch as well so if I have book post I take some pics for Instagram and make sure their publication dates are logged in my diary.

Then it’s school finishing time so everyone is back to Nana’s house for homework, playtime and tea until all the mummies come to collect them and I reach for a large G&T and some Twiglets!! Until recently we had one daughter and one grandchild living with us but now it’s back to just me and the Grumpy Scotsman again which is weird! He loves it but I miss the hustle and bustle of busy family life. After I cook us a meal, he’s off to walk the dog while I sit to write reviews and do another catch up on the social media side. The other wonderful thing about blogging is the friendships I have made and it’s in the evening that I like to catch up with those friends too. I’m not a huge tv watcher but I do like a good crime drama so I will watch if there’s one on with a cuppa (I’ve given up coffee this year due to palpitations!) and a Twirl! But by 10pm I’m ready for bed! Unfortunately my brain isn’t and I don’t sleep very well so normally this is when I do most of my reading. I read on my kindle at night so as not to disturb the Grumpy Scotsman who is snoring within 2 minutes of his head hitting the pillow. I have always been a fast reader and I can read a book a night, usually dropping off around 12 although I’m often awake till 2 in which case there’s a very cold cup of tea waiting for me the next morning when I

Family & books. I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy after reading this. Thanks so much, Joanne. You can find Joanne’s fabulous blog here and follow her on Twitter here

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.

A writer, a mum & the end of an era. What now?

 

Nineteen years.

That’s how long I’ve been doing the primary school run for.

Nineteen years ago my eldest son was in his first year of ‘little’ school and now my youngest son is finishing his final year. A full circle.

Nineteen years of spelling test practice, egg and spoon races, school discos, times tables pinned to the fridge, Christmas concerts with homemade costumes. Nineteen years of knowing all the kids in the school, calling the teachers by their first names, school trips, fun facts and endless questions about stuff they’ve learned over dinner. (Yesterday Finley watched a birth video and that was enough to put everyone off their lasagne).

It’s been an emotional week for me. The end of an era. Primary has been part of my life for almost half of my life and I’ve been building up to today’s leaving assembly with a mixture of denial and apprehension thinking ‘what now?’ My children are growing up, forging their place in the world and admittedly I’ve worried whether that place will still have room for me.

I’ve watched Finley’s two brothers transition into adulthood with a sense of amazement and awe. Knowing I’ve raised such well-rounded young men is a constant source of pride and wonder and I know it’s Finley’s time to gain some independence. Dip his toe into the world. It’s been hard not to feel anxious about him making this leap to ‘big’ school, unfairly assuming he must feel the same sense of creeping dread I do.

Today, I sat in the school hall that always smells of rubber and disinfectant for the last time. Cramped on one of the uncomfortable orange plastic chairs which are too big for kids and too small for adults, trying desperately to keep my emotions inside.

The children were called to the front one by one and presented with a book. Behind them a screen showed their image with two speech bubbles, one saying what they wanted to be when they grow up; the other saying who has most inspired them in the world. Finley’s photo flashed up and I leaned forward, straining to read the words that had come from his heart. “When I grow up I want to be an author of fictional stories.” The walls of my throat constricted as I swallowed hard. The next speech bubble stated “I am most inspired by my mum who is a brilliant bestselling author.” And this was my undoing. Tears streamed unchecked down my cheeks as I fumbled for tissues in my bag.

With a rush of relief I realised that Finley is excited for the future and it was only then I could look at today as a beginning rather than an end. Secure in the knowledge that whatever the next stage brings we will face it, as we always do. As a family. With love.