Tag Archives: Reading

Review: Turning for Home by Barney Norris

This is a slow read. And, for anyone reading advice about writing books that show and don’t tell, it breaks all the rules. Told in the first person by two alternating points of view, Robert and his granddaughter Kate, Turning for Home is nonetheless a fascinating account of the interior world.

So what’s it about? It’s about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, about the effect we can have on other people, about loss, mental illness and it’s about not eating.

Robert is a retired member of British Intelligence who worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He is celebrating his 80th birthday when a former contact comes to see him at home to ask about a new investigation the British government are carrying out following a series of interviews of former combatants on both sides – a project undertaken by Boston College. The interviews brought out more secrets than anyone wished and there is danger of trouble stirring up again. Both men are afraid of repercussions, bother personally and politically.

Among the party guests is Kate, Robert’s granddaughter, who is recovering from a near death experience following an eating disorder. Kate is Robert’s ally, and he enlists her help to have his meeting uninterrupted. In return, he has always stood by her in her difficult relationship with her mother, a relationship seen by Kate as a possible trigger for her mental disorders. The two characters narrate the events of the party day to us, reminiscing over the past and recapping difficult decisions, painful memories and explaining slowly how they came to this point.

The book was inspired, if that’s the word, by the idea of eating – or, more accurately, not eating – as an act of control by the desperate, as a political act and as a personal one. It’s a loose thread but enough to hold the novel together and is thought provoking without the author hitting the reader over the head to make his point.

Both characters are real – grubby, sometimes mistaken, pig headed but ultimately loving and supportive to each other. I especially liked Kate and it can be the case that male characters mess up writing women, but Kate is perfectly done.

It’s a slow read and I think some may be tempted to give up before finishing, but I recommend sticking with it. It’s absorbing and rewarding in ways few books are these days, not an awful lot happens and yet we cover a lot of ground. It’s also worth saving it for a few days when you can devote a chunk of time to each chapter, rather than fleeting pages on the bus or whatever. It’s an intelligent book and asks questions of its readers.

Turning for Home is published on 11 January by Transworld.

My thanks to the publishers for my free copy via Netgalley for review purposes.

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon

So you may remember Joanna Cannon’s debut The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, did STORMING things last year so there’s been quite a lot of anticipation for her follow up book.

three things about elsieLet’s start with how it looks. Covers are important. This has Battenberg cake on it. And jigsaws. Look at that. Already you’re interested, right?

Goats and Sheep was all about friendship and small mysteries and things that happen to you that seem unremarkable in the wider world but have a massive effect on you and hey, so is this. But where Goats and Sheep featured two little girls, this focuses in on an old lady called Florence who lives in sheltered accommodation and doesn’t like it very much.

Florence is a bit of a trouble maker, but once in a while you can see her heart is in the right place. The story opens as she has fallen in her flat and she lies on the floor and spots the mess under the dresser, and starts to tell her story. An unmarried woman with no children, we could assume she has had a dull life, but when an old man turns up at the sheltered accommodation, she is convinced he is not who he says he is, but instead a shadowy figure from her past.

Florence is accompanied everywhere by Elsie, her best friend, and soon also by another resident, Jack, who helps Florence to solve the mystery. Along the way, we come across a supporting cast of characters, some sad, some apparently busybodies, some just witnesses flitting in and out of lives, but all important in their way.

The story was apparently inspired by Joanna Cannon’s work with older people as part of her day job, and serves as a reminder that everyone is someone, and no matter how we may dismiss them, old people have as much right to exist and be haunted by the past and have their own opinions and quirks as much as anyone else.

It’s a lovely story, and I think will put a lot of people in mind of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ although I think I prefer this as there was something about Florence (and especially Jack who I loved as a character) that stuck with me more. However, expect to hear the two books discussed in the same breath. Florence is an engaging narrator for all her foibles, and her unreliability is as much of her charm as anything else.

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon is published on 11 January 2018. Thank you to Netgalley for the free review copy.

Books of the Year 2017

I’m sorry, OK? Blogging fell by the wayside in the second half of 2017. I have no real excuse except that life generally happened and I wasn’t there to make time for blogging. Which was a real shame because I read some cracking books in the second half of the year.

In total (and I’m still reading some so it’s an incomplete total) I read 83 books this year. Except I didn’t because I didn’t finish reading 7 of those. So I completed reading 76 books this year and I have 3 on the go at the moment.

Of the 84, 61 were by women authors, 22 by men and 1 was an anthology of essays by a range of authors. There were 15 non-fiction books which is probably the highest number of non-fiction I’ve read since graduating.

Before I do my top 5 of the year, a few honourable mentions:

Richard Russo – Everybody’s Fool

A follow up to one of my favourite books of all time, Everybody’s Fool is set in the cold fictional town of North Bath, USA but the focus shifts from Donald Sullivan to his nemesis, policeman Doug Raymer instead. There are perhaps fewer belly laughs this time around, but this is a poignant and at times funny book, well worthy of a place on your shelf. Plus I was thrilled to be able to see Richard Russo talk about this earlier in the year at Damian Barr’s Literary Salon at The Savoy in London.

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From

A novella about the forthcoming apocalypse and how that chimes with the experiences of new motherhood. London is under water and our nameless heroine and her new baby travel north to try and escape the floods. Not a wasted word, it’s unsettling but with moments of great insight and emotional depth.

And now… *drum roll*

2017-12-22 12.13.41In no particular order… My top 5 books of this year. This is my top 5 reads, not just new books, although most of these are published this year, there is one classic which I’d never got round to before.

Mary Beard – Women and Power

A short treatise on the history of men telling women to shut up, from a wonderful classicist. This examines the history of women’s silence, and how silence has meant a loss of power, influence, wealth and respect in public and private life. This is a short but powerful book and asks some tough questions, meaning to provoke debate and stir up conversation, instead of providing all the answers. A great read from a great woman.

Sarah Winman – Tin Man

A lovely and unusual book about grief, and about male friendships, and love and closed emotions. I know this has made a lot of end of year lists and it’s a quiet book, striking a note as you read and leaving you gladdened that you made time for it. Listen to the blurb: ‘It begins with a painting won in a raffle: fifteen sunflowers, hung on the wall by a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things.’ I really recommend reading this.

Tor Udall – A Thousand Paper Birds

My favourite book of the year. Another book about grief, and especially about how men handle grief, and the loss of a loved one. This is another quiet book, full of everyday beauty, but each of the characters is so well portrayed, so flawed and clueless as they navigate the world that you can’t help but be drawn into their struggles. The book concerns the death of Audrey, wife to Jonah, friend (and more?) to Harry. Her death leaves both men devastated but there’s more – for in Kew Gardens, where much of the book is set, sits Chloe, an artist who folds paper birds, and there in Kew runs Milly, a little girl roaming freely among the plants. These lives are intertwined and we can only guess at how as we read. This is emotionally piercing, at times heartbreaking, and in other places an utterly beautiful read. Buy it for everyone you know.

Maggie O’Farrell – I Am, I Am, I Am

Boy, this was a tough read. Devised by O’Farrell as comfort for her daughter who was dreadfully ill, she describes her own brushes with death, to lessen the fear and to bring death into the everyday. Some of the accounts are more tenuous than others but many are real enough, and some are genuinely harrowing. I was emotionally wrung out by the end of reading this, but it’s a beautiful book and thought provoking both about death, and how we handle life.

Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own

This could have been written this year. It’s still so relevant, especially if you’ve read the Beard book, above. Again concerned with the silencing of women, Woolf examines the unsung, using the analogy of Shakespeare’s sister (not the pop group). Famously, she says in this that to write a woman needs two things, a private income and a room of one’s own and goes on to examine why. But there is hope for those of us who have neither and Woolf above all things advocates just pegging away at this, at writing despite the odds, that if we do keep at it, we will raise Shakespeare’s sister and give her voice, that all work is worthwhile if it gives voice to women’s thoughts.

That’s it for 2017! I’ve accumulated a lot of advance copies for books coming out in 2018 so there will be more reviews next year, and I will commence the year with the new Joanna Cannon book, Three Things about Elsie, which is published on 11 January and splendid.

Until then, a very Merry Christmas to book lovers everywhere.

The Upstairs Room – Kate Murray-Browne

This is, primarily, a book about the housing crisis. Don’t let that put you off – but most of the characters are, in one way or another, affected by the current housing situation. It’s not an obvious theme for a spooky tale (I’m resisting calling this an out and out ghost story) but it’s also a portrait of a marriage, and an observation on the flighty nature of employment.

Sound too much? It’s mostly deftly juggled by Murray-Browne, though her characters are at times more annoying than they need to be. The main one, Eleanor, a working mother with two small girls moves into a Victorian house in need of renovation with her husband Richard. Richard is, without a doubt, one of the worst men I’ve ever read. He has already taken on a number of projects throughout their married life, and the house is his latest, while he also works part time and studies for an MA.

Eleanor has her doubts about the house, nothing that she can put down to anything more than a gut feeling but as they try to settle in, they find the upstairs room which is full of foreboding, strange leftover objects and scribblings on the wall from ‘Emily.’ Eleanor’s foreboding turn more serious later when the house starts to make her physically ill and has a detrimental effect on their daughter Rosie.

Eleanor isn’t immediately likeable but I felt for her so much as the book went on. Richard, despite seeing her illness, is still wedded to the renovation and overrides her objections. To pay for the renovations they take a lodger, Zoe, who is at a loose end in her career and her life, having broken up with her boyfriend and walked out of a job. She too is difficult to like, but if you wanted to look at representations of women acting like men – especially when it comes to fear of commitment – then Zoe is perfectly true to life. Her main concern is having regular sex, but she also feels the strange atmosphere of the house and starts to spend more time elsewhere.

I liked that it wasn’t too over the top at the end and I wasn’t sure how much I’d really been affected by it – until I had a sleepless night after I’d finished it. Somehow, it will get under your skin.

The Upstairs Room is published on 27 July by Macmillan.

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

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: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us still sits on my TBR pile but I jumped at the chance of reading this because I LOVE the idea of a book with an accompanying soundtrack. There aren’t many books that do this; there are variations, obviously, such as playlists featuring songs mentioned in all the Rebus books, for example, and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music has an accompanying CD. Greatest Hits, however, has an accompanying soundtrack that was written especially for the book –  performed by the lovely Kathryn Williams – and I’m looking forward to hearing the songs when my pre-order arrives.

Greatest Hits is the story of Cass Wheeler, a retired folk-pop singer from the 1970s who sits one day and evaluates her life while choosing her favourite songs from her back catalogue. Each chapter starts with the lyrics to the song and tells of a period in Cass’s life starting with her childhood as the daughter of a vicar whose mother suffered from depression and PND and then ran away to Canada with another man. The fallout from this changed Cass’s life, emotionally and practically, as she moved to live with her uncle and aunt.

We know from the present-day parts of the book that Cass has undergone some kind of tragedy that has meant she retreated from the world and that she is about to re-emerge with some new material. The details of this are made clear as the book progresses, in heartbreaking fashion.

Told purely from Cass’s point of view, Greatest Hits is nevertheless a clear-eyed account of mistakes made – and is unskimping on details, including drugs and domestic abuse -and about consequences and how to live with them. If this sounds pretty depressing, don’t depair – it’s a really enjoyable read.

Thanks to NetGalley for their advance copy. Greatest Hits is published on 15 June 2017 and the accompanying CD by Kathryn Williams is also available on that date.

Bringing back the bodies… *

I was delving into the BBC’s website the other day and came across one of my favourite authors, Barbara Trapido, on the Book Club programme. She and the audience were discussing The Travelling Hornplayer. Trapido has written seven novels and four of them are linked. By linked, I mean that characters return and live on in different stories. They’re not sequels exactly, or at least not in the standard way that we expect, if only because I’m not sure if Trapido envisioned writing them all like that when she started out. From the way she describes it on the programme, it sounds a more organic process, that by thinking about a situation she also considers “Who do we know that would do this?” and sometimes that answer is a character that already lives in her head, or on her pages.

I have a complicated relationship with sequels, in that I find most of them invariably spoil the original for me. Jo’s Boys and Little Men, for example, are awful, and EM Forster wrote a brief sequel to A Room With a View, included in my paperback version as an extra ‘treat’ for the reader (every reader except me that is.) Successful sequels, when done well, can bring more to the originals, can enhance and continue the characters and answer some of the readers’ questions. The best example of this I can think of are the sequels to Rebecca – Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill and Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman. They both continue the best aspects of the original while staying true to it (for example, neither of them name the main character, indeed I doubt any reader would find a name satisfactory).

Series are different, since they aren’t sequels in the true sense. But you can still find yourself disconcerted if the author does something unexpected. I still haven’t finished Michael Tolliver Lives just because I was so thrown by the sudden switch to the first person narrative after six books told in the third person.

Trapido’s approach is rather fun. Having just dug my copy of The Travelling Hornplayer out, I found a family tree and connections map that I must have drawn years ago when I first read the books.

2017-05-12-14-18-49.jpgIsn’t it sweet? But complicated and messy in a way that suggests that a) I’m rubbish at drawing family trees or b) Trapido ended up with a set of coincidences that are as messy as life itself.

With these interactions between books, Trapido says in Book Club that she was reprimanded and “not forgiven” by some readers who didn’t like the direction that character had taken. I do understand this. My favourite Trapido book is her debut Brother of the More Famous Jack, and I love the main character Katherine so much that I am disappointed by her overbearing smothering (yet completely understandable) mothering of her second child Stella, which has such damaging consequences later. All of this comes out in The Travelling Hornplayer where, it also transpires that Katherine’s husband Jonathan has been having affairs. Of course he has. I forgive Jonathan’s transgression because it’s in character but I have trouble reconciling myself to him and his family isolating Katherine – although she chooses to travel to Ireland with him at the end of BOTMFJ, she has had a shocking bereavement and a spell of mental illness and the last thing she needs is to be alone with a baby while he writes books and philanders. Her concentration on the baby is understandable but I wonder if she would have been like this had she had a closer physical network of family and friends nearby who could have helped and lessened the focus.

What makes people feel resentful about characters changing in this way is that when you read, you accompany people through their story and, in many cases, get to a happy ending.  A later volume means you’re not allowed to let them go on living happily ever after. As a reader, you’re powerless to stop the mistakes they make and this can be worse when you thought you got safely with them to the end of their first book.

As a writer though, there is an attraction to this approach. Getting to know a character can often mean that you think of them in certain situations, so why not put them through the wringer all over again? The convenience of having a ready-made philanderer on hand must have been helpful and gives you a chance to pop back and say hello to those you haven’t quite done with.

This makes it sound like the answer for a lazy writer and that’s not the case at all. Trapido’s books are intricate weavings of characters and situations, with literary references thrown into the mix. If you’ve not read her before, why not give her a try? You won’t regret it.

*with apologies to Hilary Mantel

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

If you haven’t seen any of the pre-publication hype over this book, then you may have been living in a cave for the last few months. It’s been hyped. And so I will start by boldly stating: it is well worth the hype.

There’s a good chance that, even if you know nothing else about Lizzie Borden, you have heard the children’s rhyme she inspired: ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks, When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.’ Lizzie was tried, and acquitted, of the murder of her father and step-mother – though the acquittal was mainly on the basis that women didn’t do things like that. No one else was ever charged. It is still a mystery.

A great basis, then, for a novel. Schmidt has done her research into the crime and the time and the place and it is skilfully woven into this beauty of a book. Told from the point of view of Lizzie and her sister Emma, who was away from the family home at the time of the crime, as well as two non-family members, the maid Bridget and a further potential suspect Benjamin, you get to walk around the Borden household and try to work out what could have happened. At times the narrative is confusing, especially where Lizzie is concerned, a reflection of her tangled statements to the police. You are left wondering if she is traumatised and upset or really cunning. The other characters are more lucid in comparison and their voices help to bring a context to the family, the killings, and the town they took place in.

This is a visceral book. You might expect that from a book about a double axe murder, but it’s not just from the descriptions of the grisly deaths. Vomit features heavily, as does sweat and a general sense of unwashed bodies. Mr Borden kept the house locked and the windows closed, he didn’t have an indoor toilet plumbed in and so the household all had slops pails to empty each morning. All of this features in the book and makes the reader start to itch, feeling the fetid atmosphere of the house, you can almost smell it. The publicity features flies hovering and buzzing around and the air must have been thick with them.

Fluids. Stench. Dirt. Festering. You get the picture. This is not a happy house. Even the scene where the maid is cleaning has no effect. The oppressive atmosphere builds and at times you may have to put the book down because it gets so creepy. But not for long because you HAVE to know what happens next.

As you can see, I loved this – a really riveting read and a strong sense of atmosphere.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt is published by Tinder Press on 2 May 2017. Thanks to Tinder Books and Georgina Moore for the proof copy that enabled me to write this review.

April reading round up

I feel perhaps I should change the target for my reading challenge this year, I’m well over halfway towards it already. I didn’t expect to get through so many books this year and still manage to keep up with writing every day but it turns out a healthier eating and exercise regime can have unexpected benefits with sleep quality too. *turns into health bore* Sorry.

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

I really enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s previous book, and this got so many great reviews that I nearly wasn’t disciplined enough to wait for the paperback. However, I’m glad I did – because I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it lacked a certain something for me. Obviously the subject matter was dark, and realistic, and impressively low-key – so many lesser authors could’ve made a meal of the revelations, but still. I’m going to hang onto it for a while because I think a re-read may yield more.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

I heard Hamid interviewed on Radio 4 the other week and realised I’d not read his best-known book. How I enjoyed it, once I’d got used to the style. The style is, I think, the best thing about it but its honesty about the politics was refreshing and full of things observers felt perhaps they couldn’t say in the time following 9/11.

The Last Days of Leda Grey – Essie Fox

A journalist finds a copy of a beautiful 1930s silent film star in a shop in a coastal town and sets off to find the star, now a reclusive old lady living in the ruins of a house on the cliffs. His interviews aim to find the truth about her life. I don’t want to go into more detail without giving away the plot but I found it unsettling, immersive, creepy and melancholy. I really enjoyed this!

The Comfort of Others – Kay Langdale

I interviewed Kay Langdale for an earlier post – check it out here if you’re interested

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

Non fiction of the month is a running book that came into my mind when I was out for a run myself. I’ve never read any of Murakami’s novels – I find the cult of him rather offputting and really should get over myself – but I enjoyed this wander around his mind and a lot of what he said resonated with me. The comments about training yourself as a runner and writer make sense, and if I can get myself to run 10k within a matter of weeks, why do I not apply the same techniques to writing with more discipline? While I writer every day, the amounts vary and the results are less obvious – I have a feeling this is more to do with self doubt than anything else. I do like that he doesn’t really think of anything while he runs, because neither do I but I think people often assume that you do.

Guernica – Dave Boling

I know very little about the Spanish Civil War so my non-fiction aims now include Antony Beevor’s book about it – there is so much literature based around the conflict. This was an interesting book and I think it probably benefited from me not having much knowledge of the war. The first half of the book is mainly to immerse the reader in the town of Guernica and some of the families within. There are brief cameos from Picasso and the German bomber in charge of the attack. The characters are perhaps a little one-dimensional but I didn’t think I mind this, until the main attack occurred and then I found that I wasn’t as upset at what happened as I might have been in the hands of a better author. The other problem with Guernica is that of course, there was no real revenge or conclusion to the atrocity, so the author has to manufacture a slightly contrived ending in order to bring about an end to the story. But having said all that, I still found this an interesting read and it will spur me onto find out more.

Hold Back the Stars – Katie Khan

I rarely read sci fi but I enjoyed this very much indeed. The opening chapter is astonishing, and draws you right in, hand in heart. This is a love story between Carys and Max and we find them floating in space further away from their spaceship, and with only 90 minutes worth of air left. In that time, we learn about how they met and why they’re floating in space. It turns out there’s been a massive war that has destroyed the USA and the Middle East, and much of the remaining world has joined together in a utopian system which forbids people to form close relationships until they’re over 35. And the asteroid belt has moved closer to Earth and prevented humans from exploring space any further. As you can imagine, there is a lot to cover in the book, and Khan intersperses the countdown of air chapters with the backstory with ease.

The Lauras – Sara Taylor

I thought Taylor’s first book was good but not completely enjoyable. This was different. Told in the first person by Alex, a teenager of indeterminate gender, as their mother leaves their father and goes on a road trip, just the two of them, to clear up loose ends. Alex’s mum spent her youth in foster homes and broken homes and has gone through all kinds of unpleasantness, but made friends – many of them called Laura – and promises along the way. The two of them have to stop every so often for Alex to go to school and for the mum to make some money by waitressing but essentially make their way across the US and finally up to Canada to find one of The Lauras. Along the way, Alex starts to grow up, find out more about what kind of person they want to be. It’s an occasionally bleak, but always absorbing read.

Standard Deviation – Katherine Heiny

If you ever wanted to read a book that talked about the phrase, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” this is it. Heiny’s first novel is a very funny story of a marriage, told from the point of view of Graham, the husband. His second wife Audra is unlike anyone I would ever want to meet in real life, and there are moments when Graham appears to feel the same. Through a string of awkward encounters at parties, with his first wife, with friends and odd acquaintances, Graham and Audra look after their son, who has Asperger’s and try and get through life as best they can. It’s insightful, bitchy, wickedly funny and a really good read.

The Comfort of Others: Q&A with Kay Langdale

I’m so pleased to welcome Kay Langdale to the blog today, to answer questions about her most recent book, The Comfort of Others.

CoverMinnie and her sister Clara are two elderly spinsters living in an old house in the middle of a housing estate.  They have an ordered lifestyle, trying where they can to stop decay in the house, and living quietly together. One day Minnie starts to write again in her childhood diary, finally ready to record the unspoken sadness at the heart of the sisters’ existence.

In the house opposite them, lives Max and his mother. Max has never known his father and is happy with his life until his mother gets a new boyfriend. Confused and feeling rejected, he starts to use his mother’s old Dictaphone as a diary.

The two characters become unlikely friends and their stories intertwine, each influencing the other in ways they didn’t expect. And as they do so, the ghosts of the past and the challenges of the present weave together to make an enthralling read.

I should start the Q&A by saying how much I enjoyed the book – I raced through it, reading it very quickly. It’s absorbing, moving and there’s some lovely humour and humanity in it.

Kay Langdale © John Cairns
Kay Langdale Photo credit: John Cairns

What made you decide on a diary format?

I felt that the diary format allowed me to get under the skin of the characters better, especially Minnie. Her reticence meant that she would not have chosen to talk directly with anyone about what happened to her, and so allowing her to write it down felt like the most authentic means of capturing it. With Max, the Dictaphone allowed uninhibited chatting which felt somehow more age appropriate. At the beginning he says that he feels like a reporter, and so it allows him an emotional freedom to explore what’s happening to him.

The book hinges around the idea of an estate sold off with new houses surrounding a large manor house – Minnie is hemmed in. Where did this idea come from? Is the house based on anywhere in particular?

I drove past a large house once that had been similarly surrounded by an estate, and I was very struck by how it looked as if it was marooned in its own space like a vast sea creature. I felt the idea worked on multiple levels; life is going on beyond the house while Minnie is ‘encased’ within it, and also the estate has erased the parkland but it’s all still there in Minnie’s mind. It allowed the past spaces to still have a physical, ghostly presence.

The book is made up of tiny details and there’s a theme of ‘noticing’ things, overlooking people as they go about their lives. You seem to celebrate the beauty in the everyday – do you see this as part of the writer’s job?

Yes, most definitely. I also think the small things often communicate the most. So often, it is a small detail about someone’s life that tells us the truth of that life. I think that the home, and the daily round, are sacred spaces.

I loved Max’s humour – he was such an enjoyable narrator – the book has such distinctive character voices, Minnie being more formal. How did you ensure the voices were so distinctive while you were writing them? Did you write large parts in each voice and then divide them up for the smaller chapters?

I confess to hopping between them. I had a very strong sense of them as characters right from the beginning and so moving between their voices wasn’t difficult. The first time we see Minnie is the image I first had of her; waiting, hands clasped, by the bay window. Minnie’s most difficult scenes I wrote in one section, mostly because it was such an immersive piece of writing. I also listened to the Bach Goldberg sonata piece Minnie refers to – over and over while I wrote – which was a way of steeping me in Minnie’s experience. (It’s the version played very slowly by Glenn Gould and is for, me, the musical heart map of the book.)

Minnie’s formal style makes the two shocking scenes almost more shocking and sad because of the matter of fact way she relates them. Yet in some ways her sister Clara seems more repressed of the two elderly women. Was this something you consciously wanted to explore? Minnie’s experiences as a young girl, and then as a palliative nurse, make her more alive and attuned to the importance of showing kindness while we learn little of Clara and how she feels.

You are absolutely right. It was completely my intention that Clara remained ‘unexplained’. The things we know about her – that she painted a watercolour, that she sat on a bench with a boy, that a Latin teacher phoned her – is all reported by Minnie. We only see Clara through the prism of Minnie. We always see Clara behaving responsibly –as first born children often do – and conducting herself just as her mother would like. The only time Clara indirectly communicates is when she plays the piano at two key moments in the novel.

I saw Minnie and Clara’s relationship to each other like a duet, but we can only hear one voice. It was my intention that the reader has to piece together Clara’s story for themselves – to imagine how it was for her. I’m quite interested in one day writing Clara’s version. Perhaps she was not always as stultified as Minnie perceived.

The other thing I loved was a small detail about Max’s friend Eddie who has special needs. Max’s friendship with him is important to both of the boys but it’s not made a big deal of in the book. I liked how Max was able to connect with ‘outsiders’ but how he just sees them as other people – his innocence is refreshing and ideal. Was this a conscious decision to reflect something about Max or did you want to include a different character who was just part of the landscape?

It was both. I wanted Max’s world to be less confined that Minnie’s, and I thought it was important – and realistic – that he would have school friends and experiences outside of his home and Rosemount. But, the fact that Max is so intuitive about Eddie’s needs was important in the way I was trying to build his character. For Max, the quality of love is a little unreliable and as such he is watchful and alert. He is quick to sense other’s discomfort or disquietude. However, his natural warmth and sunniness means he is also quick to provide an antidote to it. With Eddie, he works within what makes Eddie comfortable. It’s that innate sweetness which I think Minnie senses in him, which is why she allows herself to begin the friendship.

Thank you for such interesting and insightful questions – I’ve loved answering them.

There we go! Thank you so much to Kay Langdale for answering my questions. The Comfort of Others is available now in paperback, priced at £8.99.

My thanks to Hodder Books for sending me a free copy to prepare the questions