Today I’m hosting the blog tour for JM Monaco’s how We Remember, a debut novel of dark family secrets and their after effects.
Jo O’Brien, Irish-American professor of Art History living and working in London, returns home after her mother’s death and, in the process of clearing out her mother’s diary and papers, is reminded of an incident from her teenage years which stirs up all kinds of memories. Family secrets come to the fore, as the three family remaining family members deal with a history of addiction, mental ill health, and bitter confrontations.
Jo is a well written character and the book is shaped around her. She’s not always likeable and she makes a lot of mistakes, but all this makes her recognisable and realistic. What a mess her family life is. But this is not a plot-based book, instead it’s a snapshot of what happens when the stories we tell ourselves in order to make it through the day all start to unravel.
Some passages are hard to read. Jo’s account of the incident in her mother’s diary, a sexual assault by her uncle, made me bite my lip but even worse were the recriminations from her own family members that Jo, a teenage girl, had been ‘asking for it’. And the family dependence on alcohol, the accounts of depression that devastated their family life but was never really treated are heartbreaking.
Despite this, I wouldn’t want you thinking it’s a dreary or sad read. It’s frank, realistic and has passages of tenderness and love that show you that we’re all just trying as hard as we can, sometimes against the odds.
It’s a sure-footed debut and worthy of critical and popular acclaim.
Phew! What a title! Your Second Life is a French phenomenon. Published three years ago, word spread and it’s now a bestseller, staying in the French top ten for over a year, despite its terrible title. Now it’s coming to England.
It’s rather cute to look at, a small hardback with a Tiffany blue cover and the title in red. ‘The novel that made 2 million people happy!’ reads the strapline.
Your Second Life is about Camille, a normal working mother who, like all of us, is trying to juggle her life and finding it hard. She doesn’t like her job, her work colleagues laugh at her, she’s lost connection with her husband and she spends time shouting at her son and hating herself for doing so. Her self esteem is rock bottom and, when she has a tyre blow out one night in a rain storm, she seeks help in a nearby house to call a mechanic and finds much more.
Claude, an older handsome Frenchman, is inside the house and as Camille breaks down from stress he comes to her rescue.
“You’re probably suffering from a kind of acute routinitis.”
“Acute routinitis. It’s a sickness of the soul that affects more and more people in the world, especially in the West. The symptoms are almost always the same: a lack of motivation; chronic dissatisfaction; feeling you’ve lost your way in life; finding it hard to feel happy even though you have more than enough material goods; disenchantment; world-weariness…”
“But… how do you know all this?”
“I’m a routinologist.”
I admit, this made me laugh. For we’re all Camille, aren’t we? Claude goes on to help Camille reconnect with her life and her sense of self. From here the novel is basically a self-help book, with Claude offering tips on how to make time for what’s important and discard negative energy. I’ve read business books with narratives before so it’s a tried and trusted technique and works nicely here too. (Claude would, I’m sure, tell me that my dislike of the title is part of my negative energy and I should change it. Yeah, maybe…)
The feminist in me did bristle at parts of the book, some of which I think might be a reflection of French culture, but nevertheless. Camille is encouraged to see herself as both the problem and the solution, taking her frustrations with her husband, son and patronising rude workmates and changing her ways in order to get them change theirs. At no point is she allowed to suggest to her husband that he might do some housework, to make her feel better, for example even as the new Camille, she’s still putting herself down for not doing some cleaning, and she’s really pleased when she has time to make dinner. When she and Claude tackle her self esteem and negative body image, she rates her success by how many compliments she gets from men, with no other real benchmark.
Of course, nothing in the book says you have to follow the same path or rate your own self improvement in the same way as Camille. So yes, I’m going to rate my own body image in how I feel about it, thanks very much. The techniques suggested by Claude are all listed in the back of the book to help offer advice or guidance on what you might like to tackle – most of them are really simple, things like using positive notebooks, making collages of people you admire, mindfulness, taking small steps, and so on.
As you can imagine, there’s little tension in the book as you know Camille will work her problems out but I liked the ending – a neat wrap up and continuation. We can all help each other.
Whatever you might think about self-help books, taking some time to be mindful or appreciating the small things, staying positive and taking small steps towards new habits are all good things to try and a reminder like this is helpful to all of us. After all, we’ve all been Camille, we’re all struggling from time to time. Using Your Second Life can help you take stock – it’s a fun read with a little lesson within.
Five or six years ago I walked through Nottingham’s Old Market Square. It was near Christmas, dark overhead but the Christmas market was in full swing, including the annual ice rink. The scene gave me a ‘what if?’ moment and I turned it into a story.
I wrote and edited and wrote and tinkered, made it longer, cut it down and was finally happy enough to submit it. It didn’t get very far – it was too simple, not enough of a twist at the end, not dark enough for many magazines. I forgot all about it and moved on.
A year ago, we woke to the awful pictures of Grenfell Tower, the smoking black horror dominating the news and the skyline. And a little project was born. Watching the news were people who decided to help, who knew that the trauma experienced by residents of Grenfell and the local area would be incredibly difficult to recover from without support. A fundraising project could ensure that a trauma charity could come in and provide support to the families and help them process their experience.
Twenty Four Stories is a book for Grenfell Tower – a story for every storey – funded by a crowd of generous souls, edited by Kathy Burke and published by Unbound. Twelve of the stories are by established writers, twelve of them are by us amateurs.
I saw a call for submissions on Twitter.
I dug my story out. I polished it and I submitted it. 500 other people did the same.
A year after Grenfell, our book will be published. Twenty-four stories of hope, unity, community and love, all of them chosen to be positive and uplifting. I’m so proud to be a part of this, so pleased that my little story is helping play its part. There is so much crap out there, so many horror stories, so many people willing to be negative or criticise or dismiss. Sometimes a small gesture, a story, a smile, a kind word is all that’s needed. That’s what this book is about.
When scholars explore the decline of modern civilisation they will cite two causes. The first is the invention of the motorcar. The second is the decline of letter writing. A good letter is a gift but a good correspondence is an art form. You can find insight, honesty, and character in a good correspondence.
This is why I love epistolary novels. And why I love Anne Youngson’s debut, an epistolary novel of searing truth and beauty.
Meet Me At The Museum is about Tina Hopgood, a Norfolk-based farmer’s wife who, along with a group of her teenage friends, wrote to a Danish professor on the discovery of Tollund Man, and had him dedicate his book to them. Years later, Tina has reason to evaluate her life and writes again to the professor via the Silkeborg Museum, to ask if he thinks she should visit, if she has wasted her potential; in short, if she is special. The professor is dead but Tina receives a reply from the museum’s curator, Anders Larsen, a man who also has reason to evaluate his life, and so a correspondence begins.
Much has been made of Youngson’s age, a refreshing 70-years old, when discussing this debut and the novel too, features protagonists that are older than many we often see. Tina and Anders discuss their families, their failures, their losses, their children and their wider interests, as well as talking of Tollund man and the nature of digging up or replanting and their connection to the world. They are both given to reflection and regret and the correspondence soon grows into an intimacy neither perhaps experiences elsewhere.
Real life must intrude, into correspondence as in all else, and Anders’ daughter provides some plot developments. But then Tina writes that she will correspond no further, leaving Anders to wonder what has happened to her.
This is a lovely novel and although there was quite a lot of discussion of ancient graves and funeral rituals for my liking, these parts were easily moved on, leaving the reader to dwell instead on the voices. Several points while reading I was tempted to join in the correspondence, telling them of my own experiences related to the subject.While there may have been other ways to tell this story, I believe none would have been so effective, the epistolary form giving Tina and Anders the intimacy they crave while retaining a distance, and this juxtaposition is essential to the feel of the novel. An old fashioned way of telling (although they do switch to email halfway through) an ageless story – about connection and significance, about belonging and love.
Meet Me At the Museum by Anne Youngson is published by Doubleday on 17 May. With thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.
Today I’m really pleased to be joined by Fiona Mitchell, whose novel The Maid’s Room, has just come out in paperback. The story of two sisters, Dolly and Tala, Filipino maids to the privileged community in Singapore, The Maid’s Room is a sometimes shocking, sometimes funny account of the hidden lives of others and how much we need to connect with each other. While Dolly and Tala are struggling looking after others and making enough money to send home to their own children, Jules, a newcomer to Singapore, has her own difficulties among the expat community.
Fiona, thanks so much for answering my questions. I really enjoyed the book and thought the issues it covers are so pertinent today. There is the danger that exploitation like this is hidden in plain sight; that if you don’t think about the reality of the lives of others around you, then it doesn’t exist.
Let’s start off by asking about how you came to write The Maid’s Room?
I moved to Singapore in 2009 where lots of people employ live-in domestic helpers. When an estate agent showed us around a flat, she pointed to a 12ft by 5ft bomb shelter and said, “your maid will sleep in here.” When I mentioned the lack of windows, she said, “they don’t need things like that.” This attitude abounded. I met people who confiscated their maids’ passports and issued curfews. And it wasn’t as if domestic helpers were protected by the law; back then, they didn’t even have a legal right to one day off per week. When I spoke to domestic helpers, their reality was even more upsetting – every woman had a story to tell, and only being given rice to eat was the most common one. I was a freelance journalist, and at first I thought I’d write a feature, but the issue felt much bigger than a few thousand words, and I started to wonder whether writing a novel could be the way to go.
The two maid characters, Dolly and Tala, are beautifully written and each is flawed and as open to exploiting their situations as they are being exploited. I liked that Dolly, as the submissive and calm sister in the face of abuse, is as able to pick up some benefits for what she has to put up with in her own quiet way, as much as the outspoken Tala. How did you work out the characters of the sisters when you were writing the book?
Tala’s character came easily to me and she was my favourite character to write. She was based on a domestic helper I got to know with a massive personality, although the woman I knew wasn’t nearly as bolshy as Tala. Dolly was much more difficult to write; it took me lots of drafts to capture her voice. In early drafts the sisters were just close friends, but somehow that didn’t work. When I decided to make them sisters, Dolly’s character fell into place.
A lot of the conflict comes from the two blogs – Vanda with her ‘rules’ for maids, and Tala’s Maidhacker. Has the internet made this kind of thing easier to uncover or is it a handy plot device (or a bit of both)?
The idea for the Vanda blog came from a blog that was running when I was living in Singapore. This anonymous blogger actually wrote a series of rules on how to treat domestic helpers – it was clear she saw domestic helpers as somehow inferior to her, and it appalled me. I wrote to her to complain, but of course she didn’t put my comment up, so Tala taking matters into her own hands and writing her own blog was me wanting to shift the power away from people like Vanda.
It must have been difficult to ensure that the rich white characters, especially Amber, didn’t come across as cliched and two dimensional in their awful behaviour towards the maids. How aware were you as you wrote, that on some level readers would need to sympathise with some of the women so it wasn’t just a maids vs employers story?
I was very much reflecting what was around me, and although I experienced people treating domestic helpers badly, I only made friends with people who respected the women. From that point of view, there was always going to be a Jules in my book. I knew that for the book to be compelling, I’d need to have sympathetic characters, albeit hugely flawed ones. But to be honest, I didn’t consciously think about making the expat characters sympathetic, the balance just arrived naturally.
There is a secondary plot through the book about motherhood, about losing children, keeping children and risks to motherhood – for all four of the main female characters. I especially related to this line: ‘…no amount of watching other people’s grief had taken hers away, and hers was nothing compared to such things.’ This idea that unless we’re really suffering somehow our pain is invalid, and yet all these women have experienced loss in different ways and each is as valid as the others. Was writing the book cathartic for you, working through your own grief?
I was really down when I found out I would never have a second child, and I felt incredibly guilty about my unhappiness. It was overwhelming at times and it was this emotion that kickstarted me to write a book. Every time I sat in front of my computer and typed, it brought me a kind of peace. That first draft was quite depressing, but as I came to terms with my situation, the book gained more light and laughs.
Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed reading the book and having the chance to ask you about the book.
The Maid’s Room is published by Hodder and Stoughton today and retails at 8.99. Thanks so much to the publishers for my review copy.
Louise Walters’ third book turns out to be her first. When I finished reading this, I tweeted her to say how much I enjoyed it and she replied to say it’s been sitting in a drawer for 10 years. Would that we all had novels of such quality in our drawers!
The Road to California is the name of Joanna’s quilting business. She sews beautiful quilts to earn a living, recycling vintage material from charity shops. The business is named after a quilting pattern but also has relevance for Joanna, who is sheltering secrets her son Ryan knows nothing of.
The book opens with Ryan at school, teased and bullied until one day he snaps, punches his bully and is suspended. A further incident at school later sees him accidentally punch his bully’s girlfriend and Ryan is excluded from school.
His mother, not knowing what else to do, suggests two things. One is to homeschool Ryan for a while and she joins forces with flower child Sharon and her children at a weekly study group. And she also makes a call for help. Into their lives rides Lex, a motorcyclist, glamorous and wealthy. Lex and Ryan hit it off immediately, and the reader (and then Ryan) soon suspect he is Ryan’s father.
Ryan, away from school, starts to blossom, reading a lot and practising the writing his old teacher told him he had a talent for. He also starts to study with the bully he punched from school, an unlikely friendship but a rewarding one. Relationships bloom between the three of them but then tragedy strikes.
This is a character-led novel, beautifully written, and full of normal flawed people just trying to get on with life the best way they can. The relationships are excellently portrayed, and it’s an absorbing mature read. As with a patchwork quilt, there are lovely details on the smallest parts that combine to make a stunning whole. I loved how the characters interacted, how Walters manages to illustrate how the mistakes we make can lead to the memories we rely on later. It’s a lovely novel and I wholly recommend it!
Walters is the author of two previous books, Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase and her self-published follow up novel, A Life Between Us. The Road to California is also published on her own imprint and is easily her best yet. It is released in paperback on 1 March. Thanks to Louise Walters for my advance copy via Netgalley.
Today I welcome Andrew Crofts onto the blog as part of the blog tour for his new paperback title: Secrets of the Italian Gardener.
You may have read Andrew Crofts before, without knowing it. He’s a ghost writer. I’m always impressed by the idea of ghost writers, putting all that work in and not getting the credit. I think the attraction comes from the lingering idea of writers being dreamy inspired types, rather than thinking about it as an actual job.
Secrets of the Italian Gardener is Crofts as himself, although his main character is, you guessed it, a ghost writer. And the main question behind the plot is a simple one – what would make someone ghostwrite the story of a dictator? Would that make you complicit in their crimes? Do you need to be emotionally invested in your subject to be able to write about them?
‘Secrets’ is a novella, a slim 145 pages with the most gorgeous cover. It tells the story of a ghost writer trying to cobble together enough details of a Middle Eastern dictator, in order to write his biography. To do so, once in a while he is granted a few moments with Mo, the dictator, in his palace – a character we rarely meet but who in my mind became a mixture of Saddam Hussain and Colonel Gaddafi. The ghost has little to do with the rest of his time but brood on personal matters, and talk to the Italian gardener Lou.
We know fairly early on, that the ghost (who I think is unnamed – I’ve just scoured the text for his name. I don’t think I noticed this before – it’s written in the first person so it’s not immediately obvious) has had something awful happen at home and is separate from his wife and daughter. We can only speculate on what would drive someone to leave home and family to talk to a dictator about his life choices. And there is a safety, a cushioning, to the job. Not only is the ghost cushioned from facing whatever his reality at home is, but safe within the palace walls, all the inhabitants are shielded from the realities faced by the citizens outside, and further abroad.
A showdown is inevitable and comes in the form of a revolution, like the Arab Spring. We witness the downfall of a dictator and get a glimpse into who holds the real power in a society different to our own – a novella of political intrigue then. But it’s also a portrait of a marriage and how two people try to hold themselves together when faced with great tragedy. Finally it’s a question of ethics. Where do you draw the line, what’s your breaking point and how much are you willing to sacrifice your principles when you need to?
Some writers could, and would, make this into a longer thriller; a full novel of excitement and intrigue. But it’s not really necessary. There’s enough backstory and context laid out for you to imagine the rest and what you get here is a tightly plotted story with enough moments of reflection to provide clarity and depth of character. The result is still exciting but retains an air of realism (and cynicism, may I suggest?) about how the world really works. It doesn’t resort to cheap tricks for entertainment and is therefore unlikely to star Tom Cruise in any film adaptation. I say this as a good thing.
Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us still sits on my TBR pile but I was interested in the idea of her second novel, especially when it was announced that Kathryn Williams would be providing an accompanying soundtrack.
Greatest Hits is the story of Cass Wheeler, a retired folk-pop singer-songwriter from the 1970s who takes a day to listen to her back catalogue and choose 16 songs to represent her life and work. As she does so, the story of her life emerges and we find out more about why each was written and what Cass has gone through to get to where she is, isolated and alone, but about to emerge with an album of new material.
Each chapter starts with a song and charts a part of Cass’s life, from her entrance into the world as the daughter of a vicar who christens her Maria because he feels she should, leaving Cassandra as her middle name. Cass’s mother has depression and leaves her husband and daughter to run away to Canada when Cass is a young girl. This act changes Cass’s life – emotionally in ways she takes years to recover from, and physically as she moves from her devastated father to live with her aunt and uncle. It is there that she takes her first real steps to a musical career.
Told purely from Cass’s point of view, the book is nevertheless a clear-eyed account of the mistakes we make as we get through life, and is unskimping on the details – the drug taking, drinking, domestic abuse. This is a novel about consequences, how we live with them, and about the elusive second chance.
Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett is published on 15 June 2017 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Novellas still seem rare but are often intriguing. There is much in the 170 pages of The End We Start From that could have been fleshed out and given more detail but I’m not sure the end result would have been as powerful.
All you need to know is that an enormous flood has wiped out London and much of England. No why, when or how. While some preparations were in place, the devastation was still hard to manage. The narrator and heroine of this book, unnamed, flees with her husband and newborn son (also unnamed, in fact characters are only referred to by their first initial in this book) to Scotland to his parents’ home. When a further family tragedy takes place the three of them up and leave again, to a refugee camp but the husband runs away, unable to cope.
Unnamed and baby leave the camp and sail to an island commune where they are safe for a while but reports of the mainland leave her feeling she must return and try to find her husband.
So far, so post-apocalyptic, but what grounds the story and makes it both powerful and relevant is the part of the narrative about the new baby. Interspersed with the devastation and fear are her experiences of new motherhood, so normal and down to earth and relatable. These serve to make us realise how and why life goes on, that for every tragedy, every natural disaster or war or attack, humans endure through devastation, panic and heartbreak.
In a world that seems every day to turn its back ever harder on those fleeing war zones and all kinds of horror, it is perhaps more important than ever that books like The End We Start From are published, and to provide a searing glimpse of “there but for the grace…” that we seem to so badly need. An excellent debut.
I came to the second novel by Louise Walters with some anticipation, having enjoyed her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase very much. This second book is being self-published by Walters, an act of independence to be admired.
A Life Between Us is set in the present day and features Tina, a lonely housewife, avid reader, compulsive overeater and bereaved twin. Tina is still grieving – her twin Meg, we know, died in childhood in an incident that Tina blames herself for. When Meg asks Tina to avenge her, we are plunged back into the past and the story of Tina’s aunt Lucia.
The narrative switches between the past, as we begin to find out more about Lucia, and the present, as Tina starts to follow her husband’s advice to get out more, joins a reading group and makes a friend.
Walters has written of a lovely, engaging, ordinary woman who has very little idea of how she is struggling, and her hapless husband who is equally stuck in different ways. (I mean it as a good thing when I describe Tina as ordinary – the kind of person we could all meet.) Walters is excellent at portraying an isolated woman, as she showed in her debut novel, and here she describes Tina’s attempts to make sense of her world with a strong sense of pathos. She has also written a real *SPOILER ALERT – KIND OF* nasty piece of work in Lucia, someone whose first scene as a child displays some of the mean spirit she will continue throughout. The mean streak is not really explained, as some authors might do, and this is refreshing. She just is.
This is less a whodunnit, despite Meg’s urging for revenge, and more an examination of how we deal with grief and loss. A confident and assured novel.
A Life Between Us is published on 27 March by Troubador Press. You can buy a copy here.