Tag Archives: fiction

Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

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

Review: The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

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.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter is published on 18 May 2017 by Macmillan

Review: A Life Between Us by Louise Walters

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. 

To read: 2017

My ‘to read’ list currently looks like this:

20170122_210529

Every New Year I resolve to read more non-fiction, so am feeling pleased that I’ve already put a history book on my reads of January list. Four biographies on this list, a book of essays and a book about sport is a good start. I also resolved this year to read more diverse voices so have rushed out to buy Homegoing, and added the Anam and the Hamid to the list as a start, as well as The Good Immigrant. It’s not brilliant but it’s a start.

Last year my to read blog post contained at least six books which I didn’t read so technically I should add those to the list too. Once I’ve checked what they are.

This is just the start.

A Whitelaw Christmas Carol

December 1932

“Mum says don’t forget Christmas dinner,” said Daniel as he left The Whitelaw that afternoon, having safely delivered the account books. “Any time, she said, but we’ll probably eat about two or three-ish.”

“I already told her there was no need,” said Tip. “I’ll be perfectly fine by myself. I’m not a charity case.”

“She said you’d say that,” Daniel grinned. “I’m to tell you to not be silly, Ebenezer, we want to see you.” He did an impression of his mother as he did so, the tone stern but affectionate. He nodded at Tip as he went out the door and repeated, “Dinner at two,” as he went through it. Tip sat back at his desk and considered how much the boy resembled his father George, Tip’s business partner. He smiled and shook his head, returning to that evening’s performance.

Christmas Eve was always fun at a variety theatre. The atmosphere being festive anyway, the performers would rouse themselves at the prospect of an extra day off to pull something special out for the short time they had on stage. For many of the audience, this was the beginning of their seasonal celebrations, and they were ready to shout, laugh, howl or whatever the occasion demanded. Money may be short in these hard times but somehow this just made the wintry celebration more important. Performances had to be perfect. Lew, the stage manager, would manage – he always did – but Tip liked to be on hand, just in case.

A hectic night, full of laughter, applause and rushing about, and it was past midnight when Tip made his final round of the theatre, making sure as he always did that it was left ship shape. Folding back a corner of a loose poster, picking up a dropped ticket stub, needlessly rearranging something in a dressing room, it was part of his daily ritual. He left by the stage door, bidding a goodnight to the theatre’s mouser, Tilley.

It was a clear night, with a bite to the air. There would be a frost tomorrow. Across the city the bells that, at midnight, had rung in the special day had finished and churchgoers were all on their way home. Despite this, he met no one as he strolled through the dark streets.

On one dark corner, he heard a mewing noise. It sounded familiar and for a moment he thought maybe Tilley had followed him home. “Don’t be silly,” he said to himself and carried on but the noise came again, louder this time and with a piercing tone that made him realise it wasn’t a cat. He headed down the alleyway to see. Was there something at the end?

The nearby church struck one. As it did so, Tip saw the shape huddled in the corner. He reached a hand down to touch it.

A man had curled up against the wall, to find some shelter in the bitter air. He was wrapped in a black woollen hooded cloak and as Tip shook his shoulder, the man’s hood dropped back revealing his face. He was dead but in his arms was a tiny baby, an angelic mix of blonde curls and blue eyes. She looked up at him, as if expecting something.

“Bloody hell,” said Tip. “The ghosts of Christmas past and future, together.” He sighed and rubbed a weary hand over his eyes before he picked her up, checked her over and went to find a police station.

The policeman on the front desk didn’t seem surprised at Tip’s story.

“That’s the second this week,” he said. “Bitter cold it is, and with folk not having much, it’s not uncommon. Now I’ll have to get a few details and then I’ll let you get on your merry way this Christmas Eve. How did you find the gent?”

“I heard the baby crying and went to investigate. The man had already passed on,” said Tip.

“The gentleman was dead to begin with,” said the policeman winking at Tip. Tip rolled his eyes and inwardly cursed Dickens.

“What will happen to the girl?” he said.

“We’ll take her along to the orphanage in a bit,” said the policeman. “While we see if there’s any other kin.”

“No.”

“Sir?”

“Could I take her? Just for now? Those places are dreadful, no place for her,” he said. “Come on, constable, think what day it is. I’ll give you my address and,” he said thinking of Charlotte’s invitation, “I’ll be here tomorrow. We’ll take care of her.” He wrote the addresses down on a scrap of paper and held it out. The policeman hesitated.

“It’s not procedure…” he started to say but something stopped him going any further and he reached out for the paper. “Get on with you then,” he said. “Quickly.”

Tip took the girl and headed home to his tiny flat. As he walked in the door, the rashness of his decision struck him. An orphanage couldn’t be worse than this dingy hole he called home. But he looked at her and resolved to make the best of it. He lay her in a drawer from the chest that stood to one side of the room, with an old jumper as her mattress. Arms freed, he set about lighting the fire to banish the cold and damp from the place. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done this; he’d just have to hope the chimney wasn’t blocked. His usual routine was to come home from the theatre, grab a drink if he fancied one but many nights he simply fell into bed, washing and changing clothes the following morning before heading back into the theatre. The Whitelaw was more his home than here. Hell, even the café around the corner where he got his breakfast was more home than here.

He went into the kitchen and found some bread and cheese and a glass of wine for himself and then heated up some milk on the stove. Improvising, he dripped this into the baby’s mouth with a teaspoon, the process taking a while but she drank it down, all the while staring at him with her big blue eyes.

When she’d finished, he wrapped her up in her blanket and cuddled her for a while. She fell asleep emitting only occasional snores. At four o’clock, by the ding of his carriage clock, he placed her back down in the drawer, curled under a blanket on the sofa and watched the fire die down. His thoughts were of times past, absent friends and old lost love.

She woke him at seven precisely, the mewling noise the closest she got to crying. The fug of sleep lay on his eyes, and he couldn’t remember where he was or what he was or what that noise was but she was persistent, and she was joined by the Christmas bells outside.

“Good morning, little one,” said Tip, sounding merrier than he felt. And yet there was something about her presence that made his spirit cheer, even as he relit the fire and let the warmth spread through the small room.

He picked her up and prepared the milk as he had last night, taking her to the window to look at the festive day outside. Frost sparkled on the window, and had sprinkled the trees and fallen leaves with a sparkling dust that glittered in the morning sun.

“A beautiful day!” said Tip, turning to look at his rooms. “And a dismal room. We can’t spend Christmas here, you and I. Thank heavens for Charlotte.”

He wrapped her in the jumper she’d laid on all night, had a quick change himself and the two of them headed out of the door.

Tip stopped off to pick up some wine, mince pies and small gifts and with these tucked in a bag over one arm and the baby under the other, he hailed a cab to Dulwich. Ringing the doorbell at number 28 Woodwarde Road, he stood back and burst into song as the door opened.

“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!”

Daniel stood behind the door, and smiled and beckoned them inside. Charlotte appeared in the hallway, wiping her hands on her apron. A not unpleasant bread-like smell filled the house, mixed faintly with the greenery hung in a wreath on the door.

“Tip, how lovely to see you!” She reached in for a hug and a kiss but stopped as she spotted what he was carrying. “Tip? Who’s this?”

“Temporary guest,” he said and began to explain the previous night. As he spoke Charlotte reached instinctively for the child, her face transformed from the swollen disfigured sight she had hidden from the world these last two years, and instead shone with joy at the child. Both Tip and George, her husband, who stood in the doorway to the living room, noted her brief return to the Charlotte of old.

“Oh Tip, how awful! Is she alright? Not hurt? But how have you been feeding her?”

“Teaspoon. She’s drunk enough. She seems absolutely fine, a lovely calm little thing.”

“Daniel, run next door and see if Mrs Barclay can spare a bottle for us. Tip, come through, sit down, you must be worn out. Can I get you anything?”

“I’m fine, thank you Charlotte.”

“Nonsense. A drink? Have you had breakfast? We’ve some sausage left over from ours. I can fry it up, make you a sandwich?”

“That would be lovely. But what I’d really like is a cup of tea.”

“I’ll get it,” said George. Charlotte was reluctant to put the baby down. She wasn’t too besotted to note Tip’s tiredness in sitting down on the sofa nor spot the dark circles beneath his eyes. But he was determined to be sociable and, once his breakfast was eaten, he and the boys sat and played games on the floor. Charlotte had fed the baby again with the bottle this time, bathed and changed her with the help of the kind lady next door who had provided some spare clothes and napkins. Now the child sat on the floor, watching and laughing at the men and boys who entertained her with their singing and nonsense.

“What do you think her name is?” asked Charlotte as they sat at lunch. The turkey was dry, the sprouts were soft and the potatoes were a little too well done, but if you covered it with enough gravy it was at least edible which wasn’t always the case with Charlotte’s cooking. The baby was asleep on the sofa.

“Now, don’t go down that path,” said George. “It will be harder for you to part with her if you start giving her names or imagining a fate.”

“I hadn’t…” Charlotte started to say when she was interrupted by the doorbell. George got up to answer it and found a rotund bearded policeman on the doorstep.

“Good afternoon sir,” he said with a beaming smile. “And a Merry Christmas to you! Are you Mr Harding by any chance?”

“I’m not,” said George. “But he’s through here. Come in, officer.” The policeman stepped through the door, bringing a burst of fresh crisp air to the house. George led him through to the living room and indicated the baby, still asleep on the sofa. “You’re here about her, I suppose?” he said.

“That’s right sir,” said the policeman. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your lunch ma’am,” he said to Charlotte.

“No matter,” she murmured. “Have you found her family?”

“We have yes. The gentleman you found her with last night was her father, I’m afraid to say. Her mother seems to have passed away, records suggest in childbirth, and the gentleman was taking her to his parents, who live in Buckinghamshire. He was having trouble making ends meet, having lost his job and couldn’t look after her very well. There’s no evidence to suggest any foul play, just a poor man and a cold night.”

Tip looked down at the child and remembered how the man’s arm was curled protectively around her, wrapped up in whatever he’d been able to find. The child was loved. He shook his head.

“What happens now?” he asked.

“The man’s parents are happy to take the child in,” said the policeman. “They’re travelling down to collect her, should be here later today. I’ve come to take her back with me so they can take her home.”

“What are their circumstances?” asked Charlotte. “Can we do anything to help?”

“They’re managing, respectable enough by all accounts,” said the policeman. “Just the son who’d fallen on hard times. Happens to many these days.”

“Well, could we send a gift?” Charlotte cast about for something to include with the baby. For a moment her eyes settled on the plate of mince pies on the table.

“Not anything you’ve cooked, Ma,” said Daniel.

“They’ve suffered enough,” joked George. He winked at his wife. “Sorry love.” She made a face in reply and moved to the fireplace instead, gathering down some of the greenery hanging there. With a few deft twists she made it into a bouquet and tied some bon bons from the tree onto the branches.

“Here,” she said, holding it out to the policeman, who was still beaming at them. “And would you like a mince pie, officer? They’re not as bad as you may have been led to suggest.”

“Thank you ma’am, that would be kind,” he replied and twinkled his thanks as he ate it down. Gathering the baby in one enormous hand, and the bouquet in the other he was about to make his way to the door when he turned. “Would you like to say your goodbyes?” he said, and there was something about his face which seemed older and more worn than when he’d walked inside earlier. The afternoon sky was darkening and the crisp day was fading.

Charlotte bent her head over the baby’s and kissed it. “Stay safe, little one,” she whispered. “Thank you for your visit.”

Tip was scribbling a note in his notebook and, when he was done, he ripped it out and tucked it into the baby’s jumper. “Keep this safe for her, when she’s grown,” he said to the policeman. The man nodded.

“Thank you for your help and cooperation, Mr Harding,” he said. “It was much appreciated, I’m sure. A merry Christmas to you all!” And with that, he and the baby faded into the night, leaving nothing behind them but the faint jingle of bells.

Tip and the family gathered at the front door to watch the departure and Tip felt Charlotte suppress a sob.

“That poor darling,” she said. “God bless her.”

It was left to Tip to provide the inevitable reply.

“God bless us, every one.”

Review – NottWords workshop with Lara Elena Donnelly

There’s something decadent about knocking off work early to go to a writing workshop. And so it is with a light heart that I bid my work colleagues a good weekend and appear at the door to Nottingham Writers’ Studio on Friday afternoon for Lara Elena Donnelly’s workshop Who is your City?

Lara starts us with some inspiration from fiction and offers a way to find your city – real or imagined – before letting us loose describing our world. First, find your mood. Then map the geography. Finally look at the detail. Who is in your city? What do they do? Where do they do it? Most importantly, why do they do it?

Details aren’t always going to make it into your book (though I’ve read several authors who’ve never heard that piece of advice…) but help to cement your world in your mind and make it more convincing.

Listening to Lara speak, I apply her words to my half written novel. I like the idea of starting with the mood or atmosphere first, why do I want the book to be centered around this place? It’s the sense of space, the freedom of anonymity it gives, while being conveniently located. I remember the elation I felt when I sat in Dulwich Park a few months ago on a fact finding mission and I try to capture that – the place, the way I suddenly spotted my characters there, everyone slotted into a role, going about their fictional business but still pointing out all the blanks I hadn’t considered yet.

We are few but we are ambitious. World building seems to come easily to those in the room who read or write science fiction or fantasy novels, but the principles of the workshop apply to all writing and, while we started out with something based in reality, I’m not sure any of us ended up there.

The workshop can be found at Lara’s blog – give it a go, it’s really useful for world building of all kinds. You never know you might end up somewhere completely different…