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.

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 – Buttercups

Image courtesy of Jennifer Pendergast

 

You loved playing dress up, twirling in my far-too-large wedding dress until your heel caught in the lace and you tumbled onto the dried grass.

‘Mummy.’ Your lip trembled and I plucked a buttercup, shining gold in the sun, telling you it was a magic flower. All was well in your small world once more.

I blink. Somehow time has slipped passed. Weeks, months, years.

You rush towards me. This time it’s a gown and mortar board that swamps your still-small frame.

‘Mum!’ You’re nervous. I push a buttercup into your hand.

‘Collect your degree, darling.’

Your world is larger now, but I’m still here. Always.

 

‘Buttercups’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 word story challenge inspired by a photo prompt. Hosted by Rochelle

 

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. 

How? A Mother’s Tale.

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How can I love you more?

I gazed in wonder at your ten tiny fingers, your ten tiny toes and I knew that I was hopelessly, irrevocably lost.

How can I love you more?

Your first smile made my heart swell, your first illness sliced me to the core.

How can I love you more?

The memory of your first day at school etched forever on my mind as your tiny hand slipped from mine and you took the first faltering steps towards independence.

How can I love you more?

Standing tall, and proud on your first day at work, no longer a boy but a man.

How can I love you more?

It is incomprehensible that I could and yet with every second, every minute, every hour, I do.

 

This post was written for the Saturday Streams of Consciousness challenge hosted by Linda G. Hill. Write the first thing that comes to mind following a prompt and post. No editing allowed. This week’s prompt was ‘begin your post with how.’

Flash Fiction – Letting Go

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Image courtesy of Liz Young

 

I paint on the smile that won’t reach my eyes and smooth my dress as though that will suddenly make me lose 10lbs. Today I want to be sparkling. Beautiful. Brilliant.

The church is full. The bride is young, thin, radiant. As full of hope as I once was. I bite back tears. I won’t cry. I won’t.

You’re so handsome as you walk down the aisle. I try to catch your eye but I’m invisible to you now. But I’m still your mum and I cling to that thought as tightly as you once clung to my hand.

Be happy, my love.

 

‘Letting Go’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 word story challenge, inspired by a photo prompt. Thanks to Rochelle for hosting – you can check out the other entries, or join in, here.