Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Misplaced Orcas and Worrying Bears

I was back with the so very lovely three presenters, Sue, Tina and June on their Girls Around Town show on Radio Newark last Sunday. We were talking Glass Houses - in theory - but we managed to start with silky soft voices which can't be raised, close encounters with stray orcas in Canada, aka killer whales, and beautiful bears foraging in barren undergrowth with their families which, although incredibly fascinating and the babies so gorgeously cute, were quite heart-breaking in their efforts to find an alternative to the salmon stock depleted by the 'wrong' type of farming. 

And then we went for coffee and cakes, OK, scones. But scones from Strays Coffee Shop in Newark which are very good indeed.

No, it is work, honestly...

With grateful thanks to Raymond Ip
for the photographs.
If you'd like to know what we did when the orcas got a little close, you can listen to the podcast here

And I do talk about Glass Houses and my Work In Progress: In The Taxi, or rather, what happened that windy night in Birmingham in November 2013...

If you'd like to find out more about the threats to survival of ocean salmon and the knock-on effect for the environment, it's explained well here.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Watch My Lips!

Hearing is not one of my strengths. I may have mentioned it before and it was certainly the subject of this post, when I spoke about the best Christmas present for people hard of hearing, and this one, written that glorious day when I became the relieved owner of my state of the art, blue tooth hearing aids. It was the day I realised that the seatbelt makes a noise when you pull it across your chest, that footsteps are audible and that when a car sounds terrifyingly close, it's probably happily zooming down an adjacent street, you've just got used to the level of engine sound which sends the message to your brain not to attempt to cross that road if you want to reach the other side.

I've also spoken about the glorious age of hearing technology in which we live and how I should be reprimanded when I moan about the negative impact of phones on our lives because, for me, the good side to the little beauties: messaging, emailing, social media and not least, bitmojis, as recently introduced to me by my eldest, far outweighs the negative effect they have on sociability and community. 
Who needs to hear when
you've got this up your sleeve?

Nonetheless, I can't pretend I am always upbeat about my lack of hearing. Being unable to participate in conversations when the environment is too much even for my amazing aids, or when, horror of horrors, they break (they are very tiny and packed with very clever technology so alas, they do need a little tlc fairly regularly) or somebody goes from whisper to full-on shout, accompanied by pained expression, with no warning of the escalation to come, so I just want to slink away, and when I'm struggling to work - then it gets me down.

Enter: a lipreading course.

Finally, after nine months on the waiting list, my first class was today. I was ridiculously excited about the life-changing, or at least, life-improving, potential for this. But I was also nervous. The stakes were high. I'd been told the art of lipreading is tricky and at the very least, I'd need to dedicate a year to this new skill, probably more. I was, and am, prepared for that. If it works it will be hours enormously well spent. But with such high hopes, I knew I'd be disappointed crushed if ten minutes in I had that sinking feeling that this might not be the miracle I'd hoped it could be. I'd also missed the first week of the course due to holiday and if I've got to be a newbie, I'd rather be a newbie amongst newbies.

So, after following Maps on foot to a street I already know but 'just to be sure' (I never learn), I made only two wrong turns and was still outside the classroom ten minutes early. Ten minutes early for me, is half an hour in punctual people's worlds. I was quite proud of myself; the extra ten minutes would allow time for me to meet the teacher, make payment and apologise in person for missing the first week. Not so, my class is full of punctual people. Only two students arrived after me and one of those had been stuck on a five mile stretch of the A1 for two hours. No matter, everybody smiled kindly, the teacher welcomed me several times and I settled myself in, making my first mistake before the lesson had officially started, by answering the teacher whilst rummaging in my bag. You'd think I'd know better. She asked the question again, and I realised the teacher's hearing was even worse than mine.

Quickly, I began to realise that I'd entered a meeting room unlike any other I'd ever been in. Everybody waits to speak; no two people speak at one time. If somebody doesn't hear, their neighbour softly taps them on the arm and repeats it to them, and everybody is quiet while they do. Nobody worries about saying 'pardon' – none of the 'two pardon lives' here, where instead of the third 'pardon' it's preferable to simply nod or shake the head (a scrutiny of the speaker's facial expression is a fairly reliable guide to which way to go), allowing the two or more of you to move smoothly away from the troublesomely awkward conversation – no, here, you can pardon all you like. No background radio, no noisy fans and the blinds, crucially, were drawn. I joke that if I could carry out my life in the soundproofed booth of the audiologist's testing centre, I wouldn't need hearing aids, and this room came a very close second to that. I should add that once comfortable, I found myself discretely checking out everybody's hearing aids – which is tricky as they're so tiny these days – so, let it never be said that I don't know how to party.

On with the lesson and we talked about barriers to effective lipreading and how to get around them, practised comprehension of a passage about the history of London's coffee houses with the teacher soundlessly mouthing each short sentence – I understood enough to know that it wasn't Starbucks who started it all - and practised the number six (it's the hardest to spot) as well as the 'ff' sound.

In short, in no particular order, this is what I learnt:
  • If I really concentrate, focus, clear my mind of the other rubbish, I can already understand a fair bit.
  • Ask your friends if they'll kindly let you sit with your back to the window in a restaurant so that you don’t have to wrestle with the light casting shadows over their faces.
  • 'Coffee' is easily mixed up with toffee, fluffy, muffly, wavy, banoffee, lovely and jiffy – but surprisingly not so much in context – which is comforting to know.
  • 'Coffee' looks very different to 'tea' and so you won't end up with the wrong drink, even if you can't catch who's paying.
  • Our teacher developed almost total deafness over the course of twenty years and communicated well through lipreading, until she had a cochlear implant a few years ago. It's wonderful to know she could manage but lipreading doesn't help you hear the birds or music, does it? This is one of those occasions where you have to love technology.
  • The first coffee houses grew up in London in the 1600s and by the 18th century, there were over 3,000 of them.
  • If you feel able, ask the person with whom you're speaking to remove sunglasses, a hat, hair over the eyes, perhaps their hand in front of their face, as these all affect your ability to lip read.
  • Charles 2nd didn’t like coffee houses because politicians gave away all their secrets chatting in them.
  • The art of understanding the spoken word through reading lips is written, 'lipreading' as opposed to, 'lip reading'.
  • Artificial light is better for lipreading than natural light.
  • Women didn't like coffee houses because the, 'new-fangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called "coffee" had transformed their industrious, virile men into unfruitful, babbling layabouts who idled away their time in coffee houses', or so said the Women's Petition in 1674. It made no difference and yes, that section was written down for us. Try me again in a couple of years on that one.
  • Certain people are easier to lipread than others.
  • I am by far the worst in the class. This is good because the others have been coming for months if not years and thus proof that it is possible to learn this stuff.
  • If you've been all-consumed with getting out of the door on time for your class and have thus forgotten about breakfast, none of the other students, nor the teacher, will hear your stomach rumbling and crashing around. 

So, did I enjoy my first class? Certainly. Will I be going back? Absolutely. Will I develop the skill to read what people are saying on the other side of the room?

Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it…??

Monday, 7 August 2017

It's the Timing

When I see that someone has a bucket list, my heart sinks.

It isn't that I don’t think a bucket list is a great idea, a positive goal, a healthy outlook, a wholesome, exciting way to spend time, and money, even. No, it's because nine times out of ten, the person who's written the bucket list has been given a horrendous medical diagnosis and my heart goes out to them.

The bucket list is great, it's the diagnosis I have a problem with.

So I say, go ahead, absolutely, have a bucket list! Fill it with things you'd like to do ranging from reading a book a week, to crossing Niagara Falls on a zip wire, if that's an ambition. No combinations of zip wires and waterfalls for me, by the way, I like to keep a foot or a wheel in contact with the ground at all times, don't care for pursuits which are too heavily dependent on the peaks and troughs of the environment. This might sound a little narrow minded but it is based on the experience of too many hospitals in too many countries, not to mention a few, but memorable, excursions over tiny ridges in howling gales when, I'm pleased to say, we've survived, only for my husband to say, 'When you look back though, it was a great buzz wasn't it?' And for me to smile sweetly and say, 'No, it wasn't.' Anyway, that's me, I digress. Bucket lists are about our own personal dreams and goals and my only problem with them is this.

It's the timing.

It's human nature. I get it. But all these things people say are true - we really don’t know what's around the corner. Disease is mostly indiscriminate. We've seen it in the news. From the most celebrated celebrities to our mum or our neighbour or our best friend, people get poorly. We could all get poorly at any time. One day you're at work, next day your meeting with your GP or the consultant to be told the results. And then it starts: the rest of your life. A different life. It doesn't have to be any less rich, truly. But it may be shorter than you had dared to hope it might be.

So why, at this point, do we strangely complicated species we call human beings, why only now do we first write the bucket list of things we need to do before we die? When time is shortened, when ill health may cut our income, when our weeks are punctuated with hospital visits and, let's be honest, the side effects of the treatments might not always make us inclined to climb Kilimanjaro, rather watch a day of films instead – which, by the way, if I had a bucket list, would be right up the top. I've never done it. I'd like to do it once.

I think we wait because we're generally selfless beings. We grow up with this admirable notion that we shouldn't put ourselves first. Everyone and everything (including cleaning the bathroom, paying the bills, watering the garden and that pesky thing called work… and that's before we even begin to consider our commitments to our loved ones) should be prioritised above our own wishes. We hope that one day we'll have more time, and then we'll have the luxury of putting ourselves first.

Being selfless is a wonderful trait. I'll go further and say that I'm not drawn to selfish people. Even a hefty dose of hedonism I struggle with a little, when family and friends are left at home, missing out to provide for the hedonist among them.

But since when is doing something you enjoy actually selfish? So long as it doesn't negatively impact on anyone else, I say it's nothing more than living a fulfilling life and rejoicing that you have life. I'd even go so far as to say that far from being selfish, living our lives to the full is being grateful for the gift of life and not taking it for granted. It would be rude not to…

So have a bucket list! Keep it with you, prioritise it, tick things off and add new items to it. Make it personal. Make it full of the things you want to do, not the things you feel you should do. But do it now!

Because none of us know what's around the corner.

I'm Going to be Here

I'm looking forward to being involved in Feva, the Knaresborough Arts Festival 2017, in its 21st year, on Tuesday 15th August at 7pm. Please join us for a Q&A and book signing, or rather, a big chat with a spot of wine. 
I sincerely love meeting and chatting with readers so do please come and say hello if you live anywhere in or close to these northern climes. 

And I had a great time here...
Many thanks to the multi-talented computer fixer, dad extraordinaire, all round funny guy, chef and photographer, Stuart Lawrence, for the photos from Newark Lit Fest in July. I had a giggle chatting with Cathy Bramley and Eve Makis to the lovely Tina Bettison and a lively, engaged and very knowledgeable audience. Thanks so much to all who attended.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


I had a scan coming up. I couldn't settle. I had acute scanxiety and thus it was a good job that 1. I'm not trying to hold down a job where I need to focus for a time span longer than four seconds and 2. I have a deadline for the first draft of my next novel in six small months. It's only a deadline to myself but it's a deadline I'm determined not to miss, nonetheless. A writing deadline is the best therapy. Writing is the singular thing in life where I totally focus and my mind doesn't wander. I don't half-heartedly plan the weekend whilst abstractedly pushing the mouse around the mouse mat, or fold clothes whilst stirring a sauce, the phone wedged under my chin. I am your archetypal multi-tasker (even though I truly believe that single tasking reaps way more satisfying results once you call time on the day's to-do's) except when I write.

No, when I write, I vacate my study in favour of the location of my characters and it's just me and them with varying degrees of excitement (they're behaving themselves, writing their own story and I'm enjoying it) or despair (they know what they want to do but just can't quite make it stick). My characters' world is not foolproof, but it is the closest I get from scanxiety.

I tell myself it's ridiculous. Having a scan doesn’t actually change anything in itself. There's nothing to say the cancer has grown, or moved, or is causing problems. I'm not in pain, in fact, my biggest ailments are through the side effects of the medicines striving to keep the cancer small, not from anything the cancer itself is doing.

As far as I knew.

And I guess that's the nub of scanxiety. It's amazingly easy to keep distracted, to enjoy life, make the most of not having so much work to do, say yes to coffees and not feel *too* guilty about going on holiday what seems like once a month at the moment. It's amazingly easy to feel that everything's fine, at least in this new world I've entered. Except, of course, when there's a scan in the near distance and you know it might rock your world, just when you were getting used to the new place. However much you rationalise that it's as likely that the cancer has shrunk with the change of treatments than grown, there's always the chance that the pictures, the meetings the experts have, the summaries your oncologist makes, might make it official that you've stepped a little further towards the place you don’t want to go.

And so, I could only hope, keep busy, and keep increasing the wordcount.

And now? The scan has been and gone and so has the follow up appointment with the oncologist. I didn’t post originally because I didn't want to pass on my stress but now that I've had the most fantastic news, I want to shout it from the roof tops: there is no change, not a glimmer, not a speck, no microscopic growth. We've had a tear, a drop of prosecco, a poignant lunch and now I'm back to the scribbling.

We live to enjoy another day. Life is good and I hope it's the same for you.  

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Something from Nothing...

Just a few...
I'd love to say that over the past few weeks of testing my children through their extraordinary stack of home-made flash cards for their A-levels and Year 12 revision, that I've learnt much about their subjects ranging from Klingon (sorry, I mean, Physics) to m=squarerootof 94061tothepowerof9-[c/theta&delta]minussomethingelseendingin'ta', to post-modernists and naturalists and how they disagree. No, I can't pretend I've learnt a single scrap of new stuff but admit that it's nice to finally be able to help my children with their school work for the first time since they were about three.

Nonetheless, this plunge into the most enormously far removed world of writing I usually frequent, has reminded me of a question which has spun around my mind for as long as I can remember. It's a strange question in itself for someone with such a blatant disinterest in science which lasted the entire extent of my school days - and some. It took me into my forties to generate anything like enthusiasm for understanding 'how it all works' and I blame my head-long collision into cancer for that as I do like to understand at least some of what they tell me.

You can't make stars from nothing.
So, the question is this: just where did the first cell come from? Yes, I know, the algae thing and the Big Bang and blackness and that Stephen Hawking stuff. But it's not that. It's the before the before, the very start, the absolute nothingness - where did that come from? How can something form from nothingness, how can nothing end up in a big bang? How was the ‘nothingness' formed? 

No one has ever answered that for me and although I believe in God the Spirit which guides us and *can* make us do the right thing, I don’t personally believe in God the Creator and certainly not as creator of the universe. But I admit that the theory of something forming from nothing, the scientific theory, isn't any more plausible to me.  

Is there anyone out there who actually feels confident that they can explain how nothing came from nothing? Or is this a question which is just too big even for the most brilliant of minds? 

Your thoughts are most welcome and meanwhile, I'd love to hear your questions, the ones you've never had answered - not that I'll be able to answer them, of course. Meanwhile, it's back to fictitious worlds and oddball characters for me. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

Naked Chance

I'm head down in The Taxi Ride, the current name for the first draft of my next novel which I wouldn't embed too firmly in your consciousness as it will last oh, anything from a week to a month based on my other working titles. They've ranged from The Tree House to Thrown Together to Lack of Charge and have all been summarily discarded already.

That isn't to say I'm not having great fun writing the story. In fact, my biggest frustration at the moment, due to my - albeit much pared down - work commitments, teens, exams and flashcards, the odd compulsion to hoover the house, catching up on a few years' of missed coffees with friends and family (that's important, right?) and err, going on holiday (I'll stop now before you craft the Voodoo doll) is that I can't spend every single minute on it. But that's first drafts for you. It's the wonderfully hedonistic feeling when the story flies from your fingers and the characters write themselves.

Fortunately, the book reviewer and popular blogger, Rachel Gilbey, kindly came to my blogging rescue and asked me to guest post in her Chances Fortnight. This is where writers talk about chances they've taken in their lives. Somehow my mind rushed to Ilse, the mother of adorable Andreas, the then seven year old German boy I was tasked to look after when I was an Au-pair. When Ilse chose to talk about her 'alternative' kind of holiday hours after we first met and when we were still using pictures to communicate as neither could speak the other person's language, aged 18 and not particularly worldly-wise, it was clear to me that my year off in Germany was going to be anything but dull.

We're also offering two signed copies of Glass Houses and details of how to enter the competition follow. The competition closes on 26 June. 

I hope you enjoy the read and good luck!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Entering a New World

The fear of the return of cancer is a most unwelcome, uninvited guest for anyone who's stared down this heinous disease in the past. Nonetheless, over the last three years since diagnosis, I've taken solace in the fact that my cancer, of the grade three variety, with its particularly nasty and fast working cells, was deemed to have been caught early. I tweaked my diet, got more sleep, kept up the sport, never missed a tablet and wished on every wishbone - this is one of those occasions where I can fully justify use of the word literally - literally ever since.

Still, it wasn't ridiculous to think that some of those irksome cancer cells might have put two fingers up to chemo, broken through the formidable defence of my lymph system (even when only three of my eighteen removed lymph nodes showed any sign of cancer having ever darkened their doors, it's that sneaky) and skirted past the barricade of white blood cells into the red stuff. They might have faced up to a year of infusions of Herceptin, and miraculously found the oestrogen they needed to breed, despite its big switch off by my daily dose of Tamoxibollox, sorry, Tamoxifen when my own body was struggling to find any oestrogen anywhere, and was clearly missing it so.

Nonetheless, when I celebrated my three year Cancerversary at Christmas, I was in a good place. I was working hard and enjoying it. Chemo brain mixed with Menopausal Mindmush was finally beating some sort of retreat - or perhaps I was learning to deal with it - either way, it had become less galling and a little more bearable. And I was finally tolerating Tamoxifen and an Easter 2016 hysterectomy a little better. I'd had two books published, one of which was a direct result of having cancer, and I had another novel in its infancy. Indeed the horrors of that initial diagnosis seemed oceans away from the babbling brook of my current life and I was daring to think that I might just be OK.

It was a new year and I had pins and needles in my hands. I wasn’t worried but my wonderfully caring husband is very good at pushing me to the doctor for anything unexplained.

The doctors also weren’t worried. But it wasn't Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and it wasn’t a side effect of Tamoxifen. Because it was unexplained, I was sent for an MRI scan to rule out disc degeneration in my neck.

After the 9.00am scan I skipped away from the hospital towards the gym, with my hospital take-out coffee, ticking off overdue errands as I went, sun on my face (no, really) snowdrops lining the path (yep, those too). Much as I adore teaching, I was thoroughly enjoying my cheeky morning off work.

Of course, I didn't know then that I was skipping into a new world. A suburb of Cancerville I'd had no interest in ever joining.

It was 3pm on Tuesday 13 March, the day after my MRI scan. I was at my desk preparing lessons, the hubbie was downstairs also working and our children were still at school. The phone rang. 'Doctor,' it flashed up. (And, 'This no. for appts,' because I have an inability to store a phone number without a story to accompany it.)

I'd had three MRI scans before this one for cancer related suspicions and all had been fine. Those results took a good two weeks to arrive in the post. The 'Doctor. This no. for appts,' only hours after the scan, made me brace myself to be told that I did indeed have a slipped disc. My poor friend has had two. The pain is horrendous and both times she had to have a scary, thankfully successful, operation to sort them out. A slipped disk also meant no running and with an acute addiction to putting one foot in front of the other, particularly over wooded paths lined with bluebells, I didn't relish this either.
A slipped disc was not the cause of my pins and needles which remain unexplained but unimportant. Another day I might have been relieved to rule this out. But I know people's voices when they have bad news. I think we can all hear the almost imperceptible sigh at the back of the throat, the intake of breath, the invisible, 'but' before the unfortunate person with the news shifts into the right position to get to the point of the call.

Fast forward three weeks, a bone scan, blood tests and a CT scan and there I am in the second appointment in my life where I shake and shiver as I grip my husband's hand, finding myself simultaneously watching over this poor couple in the oncologist's office who are being told that it's cancer. This time, it's secondary breast cancer in my bones.

I've entered a new world. My family have entered a new world and I wish we hadn't. I'm scared and I'm sad. But you know, I'm surprisingly not unhappy and I'm certainly not pessimistic about the future. Secondary breast cancer bone mets is not currently curable but it is treatable, often for a long, long time and it's getting longer. And the longer the wonderful medical people can keep us alive, the more time we have for them to discover something else around that corner.

I first blogged about cancer only two weeks after my initial diagnosis. This time it's taken me two months to come to the decision to post. I guess I needed to get my own head around it first, but there are two other reasons why it has taken me this long. The first is a concern that I would terrify people with a similar diagnosis of primary cancer to mine who'd previously taken comfort in me being a 'good stat', that I was one of the many to have a primary diagnosis and emerge a little battle weary, but otherwise 'free' of cancer and happy and healthy - as I certainly was, am, in fact. For the record, I feel great.

If you are in this group of readers, please try not to worry. I was just unlucky. Many more people with my original diagnosis won't go on to develop secondaries, than will. On a day years ago when I was all consumed by The Fear, I remember my oncologist saying that it takes time for us to learn to trust our bodies again, but time does work. He said that many more people with primary breast cancer don’t go on to develop secondaries than do. Please, if you take only one thing from this post, take that!

The second reason is related. I only ever wanted to blog about cancer in a hopefully informative, but certainly positive, way. I hoped I could calm a few nerves and put a metaphorical arm around the shoulders of patients and their loved ones who were a step further back on the rocky path of cancer, than I was. I desperately didn’t want to upset or spread fear.

But here's the thing. I feel I have to write because, once again, I think my experience might be helpful, calming even. All the time I feared secondary cancer which was, aside from my family contracting cancer, my worst fear, I would never have thought I'd have anything positive to say about it, nor that there could be any silver linings. And yet, in this relatively small time frame, I have found what others with secondary cancer already knew: I have discovered that I can still function, still be happy, laugh, joke, work and seriously play and this is what I want to tell you about.

And I will. But not today because this post is too long, even by my standards (!) Today, I'll simply say, please don't worry, I have no intention of going anywhere any time soon. I have way too many things to do and life to live, and you know, modern medicine is on my side. Today, I'll just say thank you. Thank you to everyone who has already given me so much love and support. I feel truly blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life. And as I ended my first ever post about cancer the same is true now as then: It's really hard to feel down when so many people are showering you with love and caring. Love really is what makes the world go round, or should be anyway.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Lost Edit

I'm not prone to losing things – words perhaps, marbles certainly, but not actual 'things'. I'm far too obsessed with time wasting to be able to cope with 'looking'. Tick, tock, that clock goes, tick tock, another few seconds of valuable life spent in the futile search for a key, only to be repeated tomorrow. Nope, that's not for me. My key goes in my bag, maximum time spent on life – I quote (yes, I'm a joy to live with.) But sometimes, very occasionally, I lose something. Properly lose it – not, in the car, under a pile of papers, in a different bag, under a cushion, absent mindedly placed in the fridge instead of the cleaning cupboard, kind of losing it. No, proper losing, the, I am going mad type of losing.

The object in question? Half a ream of paper. The half is filled with scribbles and post-its and ticks and smiley faces. I have lost an edit, or more precisely, half an edit. The half with all the comments I haven't yet typed up onto the document, the half I've pored over for hours, the half which will have to be entirely re-done.

It isn't even my own writing. Although I'd like to be clear at this point, just in case the writer in question is reading this, the edit never left the house. It will appear again, of course, just as soon as I have re-scribbled the final remark which brings me back to the point when the edit first disappeared.

Meanwhile, I am cutting my losses and moving into damage limitation phase. The search has been officially curtailed at two hours and fifty minutes*. I have printed out a new hard copy but, ever the optimist, I will start from where I left off, kidding myself that the fairly-elves will flutter by, wink as they drop the offending missing extract into my lap and whisper, 'Hey, we enjoyed that,' moments before I finally admit defeat and re-commence editing the fated first half.  

*Now, when I say, two hours and fifty minutes, it isn't strictly accurate. Yes, my Saturday morning slipped between 10am and almost 1pm and I am no further on with this editing task, and a whole lot further behind. However, a few choice items did appear as I threw my study upside down and it would be a little misleading to pretend a few moments hadn't been spent marvelling in them. There's the photo – I have so few – of my half-brother and half-sister from over twenty years ago. One of them may have recently celebrated their 30th birthday, but I still think they're cute. And oh, how proud were we all of that snowman, standing almost up to my knees.

Next up were four packs of pen refills which had slipped inside a ruled notepad. I thought I'd bought a lot lately, but assumed I'd been working hard. There were the inevitable coins (although disappointingly, no notes, not even in the pockets of coats I found myself looking through which would barely hold a folded sheet of A4, let alone 250 of them) and a girl can never have too many emery boards, hand lotions and cuticle softeners, uncurled paperclips (it's a dreadful habit, along with chewing my nails when I'm really concentrating) hair bobbles, old diary pages (now shredded) new books - ahem – which I'd forgotten about (do NOT tell the hubbie or the authors) and chargers. I'd had a big cull in the summer, clearly not big enough.

And then I found this. I didn't find it exactly, everything in its place, of course, but I had forgotten it was there. There were letters from my school friends when I'd taken a 'year out' in Germany as an au-pair and they'd gone to uni while I was seriously questioning what I'd done. It's hard living with a non-English speaking family when, A-level in German notwithstanding, you're barely able to say your name let alone ask for theirs. Suffice it to say, the disconcerting beginning had been all but forgotten but thank you Helen and Rachel for cheering me up in the early days.

I did a couple of seasons of tour guiding 'in Europe' in my early twenties. (I wrote about life as a tour guide with no sense of direction, here) and some of the American holiday makers sent me beautiful, long and lyrical thank you letters after their trips. They were a short story in themselves, and remain mementos of a by-gone age I've long since discarded. I'm glad I kept them. Although incredibly touched by their efforts, I'm sure I didn't appreciate back then how precious they would grow to be over time.

There were even some letters to myself. I wrote a diary from the age of 13 which was wonderfully cathartic. I wrote it until, aged 23, I had a Forrest Gump moment, deciding that my diary and I had been through a decade of loves and loss together but suddenly, I didn’t want to write it anymore. And I never did. But sometimes, very occasionally, I'd write a letter to myself instead. They were how I found some calm in a few iconic moments in my early adult years.

I was flicking through some of these letters when I found a scribbled note on Mr Men headed paper which looked like a letter but was merely a few rushed bullet points. They were based on an exasperating experience I had getting back from Birmingham train station one day, and the people I'd met along the way. Those notes were all I had of an idea for a novel.

Until today.

I have since written over a thousand words and am seriously considering bringing the current manuscript I'm working on to an abrupt halt and working on this instead. My instinct is telling me to do this and my instinct told me to stop what I was writing once before and write Glass Houses in its place…

I shall leave it there for now but let's just say, far from a lost morning searching for my lost edit, my Saturday is turning out to be very fruitful indeed.

Although, forgive me, if I have just one more look in the 'edit in progress drawer.'

*Update* I scribbled this blog post down a few weeks ago. The edit is now done and submitted. The Lost Edit has still not returned. Meanwhile, there is a fault on my phone line and, unrelated apparently, we lost Wi-Fi for three days and four nights and all that precious time saved in not searching for missing keys was lost in a whiff of 'one-more-go-trouble-shooting'. Forget fairies, we have Gremlins. Or perhaps, ghosts. Maybe my 1890s house is creaking in protest against our technological world. I don't blame it. But that's another story.

What is another story, is that the Birmingham inspired novel has become all-consuming and I now have 15,000 words of the first draft under my belt. I cannot tell you how happy I am that the Gremlins stole my work that fateful Saturday. 

Thursday, 9 March 2017

'Free' Books

I'm not sure how I feel about books being 'bought' for free, zilch, gratis on Amazon (or anywhere). I feel for the authors who have put their heart, soul and billions of hours into writing the book in the first place, not to mention into finding a publisher. And let's not forget them. Trust me, it's not long lunches and sparkly launches (at least not every day), my publisher is the person who emails me latest at night and if my work account pings at me at the weekend, it's most likely to be the irrepressible and fiercely devoted, seven-day-a-week working, Matthew Smith of Urbane Publications.

The argument is that free reads increase readership and the more people shout about the book, the more copies it will sell overall. If I'm anything to go by, I should also add that much as we'd all love our books to be in the front window of Waterstones – not that I'm complaining about Glass Houses being on a shelf much further back, you understand – being a bestseller is not the only or even the principal driver of becoming an author, it's the urge to tell a story. If that story is being read for free, that has to be better than it not being read at all, doesn't it?

I also acknowledge that freebies are standard practice for most organisations, particularly new ones, which is what every book is when it's published; it's a new business all in itself. Money-off vouchers encourage us to try new products, free test-runs allow us to try before we buy. When a book can be read for free, however, it just feels a little like a clothing company giving away the whole suit including design, fitting, tailoring and yes, we'll throw in free delivery, instead of offering a free tie, or a restaurant giving away the whole meal, rather than a drink and an enthusiastic welcome.

So, I remain undecided on whether it's a good thing or not for a book to be 'sold' for free and I'd welcome your thoughts.
Meanwhile, I don’t see a system changing anytime soon and for the next few hours only, Glass Houses is free on Kindle. I can't pretend it isn't exciting seeing the cover of my book at #2 in free Kindle bestsellers in Psychological Fiction and #6 in Contemporary Women's Fiction, so lovely to think people are interested in my story. 

It would be even better to think that some of the people who downloaded Glass Houses went on to read the book and that they were delighted they had. And, if those people felt inclined to leave a review, well, that would make me very happy indeed😊 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Phone in the Back

I'm not an evangelical do-gooder. I don't think my way is the only way to live. I don't even think my way is the best way to live (although it works for me).

But there is something I want to say.

After the research I did for Glass Houses, after thinking about both the lives of my characters and the stories of real people involved in life-changing incidents - victims and perpetrators, their friends and their families - I put my phone in the back of the car when I drive.

Because it takes a perfect storm for an accident to happen, and a perfect storm can happen to anyone, at any time, and without warning. And that perfect storm can change everybody's life forever.

The law is changing today. The punishments are harsher for using the phone while driving.

The greatest punishment however, is to kill someone from behind the wheel.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The One-in-a-Million Boy

Come join us!  
Because I should be writing (my September deadline for the first draft of my next novel is steaming towards us), editing (a wonderful 50,000 word project) and preparing for this talk on Friday... 

...not to mention more sock drawer tidying (although I have now progressed onto the vegetable-cum-non-wine-alcoholic-beverages cupboard, thanks to hubbie who has even crafted us a new shelf) my blog hasn't managed to clamber up my priority list this week. But that's OK, because I really want to shout out about this book. It's a life-affirming read, amusing in a dark humour kind of way and terribly sad in places. I read it last summer and still remember it clearly. Just wish I could have met the son and given him a hug. Although, he was 11, so he probably wouldn't have much wanted that... 
This is quite unlike any book I've read recently. It isn't so much that the story is unusual - it's been compared to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and I can see the similarities - but it's more the angle from which the story is told. The motivation for 104 year old Lithuanian born, Ona Vitkus, to pack up her bags in search of an entry from 'yours truly' to sit proudly in the Guinness Book of Records, is an 11 year old boy. A record promises a certificate, respect and immortality, after all, and who wouldn’t want that?
Alas, we never meet the boy during his lifetime because he has unexpectedly died whilst riding his bike.
His death is ever present, however, in the hearts and behaviours of the three particular characters he has left behind. The strain on his divorced parents: his mother, Belle, attempting to exist while mourning and father, Quinn, attempting to deal with his guilt, is palpable from the start and I was under no illusions that unconventional beginning aside, this was going to be an emotional ride.  
Before his death the boy, who isn't named (and my only gripe with the novel would be that I spent the first half thinking that I must have missed his name) had been visiting Ona on a Saturday morning to do odd jobs for her. Although dragged there initially by his scout leader, the boy carried out the tasks impeccably. Granted, we suspect that this level of perfection may have originally been more about his obsessive attention to detail, something which we glean has lost him a few friends over the years, than a love to help. As we progress through the chapters told from feisty Ona and droll, but guilt-stricken Quinn's perspective however, we learn that the boy was a very likeable soul and his affection for the slightly cantankerous old lady, was genuine. When not only Quinn but also the wife from whom he's been divorced (not once but twice) decide to accompany Ona on this quest for a World Record you know you're in for a bumpy ride.
Quinn is a fairly successful jobbing musician, never short of work, certainly. We learn through Ona's conversation with Quinn as he fulfils the odd-job slot left vacant by his deceased son, that his son felt him to be a very good musician. But Quinn's dedication to his trade is a thorn in his side after his son's death. As far as Quinn is concerned, he wasn't there for him. And of course, living with this once it cannot be rectified is heart-wrenching. Equally as difficult is realising that so distant were the pair, that Quinn doesn't always feel grief for his son. Finding himself learning about his own offspring through time spent with Ona is also difficult to palate. Quinn is confused and flawed and I warmed to him immediately. Just thinking about him and his journey of self-discovery brings a lump to my throat. But it's not all tugs and heart-strings, Quinn's resigned, off-the-wall mode of communication frequently made me laugh out loud.
Ex-wife, Belle is also hurting, prone to sharp retorts and cutting put-downs which upset Quinn more than she may realise, but she has her own issues. After all, she is in a position none of us could bear to be in. Although less likeable at the beginning, she is an equally well-drawn character.
And then there's the writing. This is a book where I was torn between reading on because it's one of those paradoxical stories which is slow moving in essence but also a page turner, and flitting back to re-read a passage of such skilful, evocative writing. It's a traditional style of narrative: pithy comment told through intricate observation of people and behaviours. But using Ona's amusing and often irritated recorded answers to the boy's questions - the easiest way, he'd decided, to chronicle Ona's life-story - not to mention the lists of Guinness Book of Records stats and facts speckling the plot as a constant reminder of the boy's presence, it's an original style of writing, too.
On the surface the story is Ona's. It's about her escape from the shackles of her age after the realisation has been thrust upon her that she has been waiting to die since she was ninety - and yet she's still here. But it's as much a story about the deceased boy and his troubled parents and what they can all learn from each other. And let's not forget the amusing spectacle of the motley crew as they engage in their quest to see Ona in the record books. It's a good romp and a very thoughtful one.
This story gave me goose bumps, brought sobs and smiles and was one of those reminders that whilst humans can be so complex, they are generally rather lovely underneath.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood, published by Headline Review. RRP £7.99 (paperback).

Friday, 27 January 2017


I'm over at Chat About Books today, chatting with the lovely Kerry Parsons about books and stuff: character names, new endings and why I'll be inviting Kizzy from The Diddakoi for a coffee some time soon…Please pop over and say hello!

Meanwhile, a reminder of my two events over the next few days. You are, as always, so very welcome to join me - either on the airwaves this Sunday, 29th January, with Girls Around Town on Newark Radio...

...or for a Q&A and general chit chat at Harrogate Library on 10th February. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Holey socks!

If I've been a little quiet of late, it's because I've been somewhat distracted by my sock drawer.

No, really.  

I read this book. I read it because I thought it was time I read some non-fiction again, of the self-help variety, as I hadn't reviewed anything like that for a while. I didn't know this little gem would take my chaotic life of good intentions and shake and twist and blast it into a more coherent form. It's not a perfect re-make but it's a feel-good, de-stressing step in the good intentioned right direction. 

Confused? Here's a review of the book which is setting me on the straight and orderly narrow. And I'm enjoying the ride. How about you? Have you had any similarly unexpected revelations?

Start With Your Sock Drawer by Vicky Silverthorn
Published by Sphere. Paperback and eBook
I'm not one for New Year's Resolutions. I like wholesale life changes as much as the next person, but September is my time for this. Mid-winter, I prefer to enjoy the hibernation.

That isn't to say that I don't like a good tidy up post January 6th: throwing away the stress of a busy few months with the detritus of this well-wrapped Christmas. And with the New Year also comes the perennial inclination to conquer the to-do list. For this year (and every year) my work load will be better managed, my to-do list more realistic, my working day, my evenings, my weekend less manic.
I know that sorting through the evidence of years now past will also help clear some clutter from my mind, not to mention free up some time no longer spent rummaging for essential items but lacking the time to finish the job, makes me uninclined to start.

If this is a scenario you recognise, let me introduce, 'Start With Your Sock Drawer'. It's a guide to de-cluttering our homes and our minds, one sock at a time.

Author, Vicky Silverthorn, has had an interesting life. Starting out as a nanny, she quickly learnt the virtues of orderly systems. Next, she became PA to professional golfers and then to footballers, travelling with them to exotic places, to manage their array of effects and engagements with immaculate organisation. Latterly, she found herself PA to Lily Allen and toured the world with her, priding herself on knowing where to find items as small as a hair pin at a moment's notice. 
Now, in her capacity as 'professional organiser' she sees her job as helping ordinary people to take back control of their lives and headspace – and that is where this book comes in. Sprinkled with quotes such as, '…The clutter around my flat was stopping me from being able to wind down after a day at work…' Silverthorn explains first why a de-cluttered lifestyle is beneficial and then how everyone, even the most time-poor, even those living in the smallest space, can do it. 

Depositing the entire contents of your wardrobe into a Mount Vesuvius on the floor to be sorted tomorrow, however, is not what she advises. It may feel like a step in the right direction but as soon as you've allocated something 'more important' to the time-slot and thus pushed the clothes into the corner of the room, you've simply added further clutter to a cluttered life. It's another stress, even though we might not realise it at the time. I know, because before I read this book, I'd done it.
Silverthorn's mantra is not to take the clothes out of the wardrobe, (the toys out of the cupboard the books from the shelves…) until you have the time to sort through, keep only the items you are honestly ever going to wear again and replace the remainder in a much more ordered, appealing, accessible space.

I like order. I think it saves time and time-saving measures are next to godliness in my mind. So I appreciate the sentiment of arranging our socks, crockery and toys like a well-kept library. Jade jumper for work? In the non-black work section. Favourite pink socks for the gym? Right there at the front of the drawer (Silverthorn will tell you that most oft used goes at the front) in between the red and white. Before Start With Your Sock Drawer, however, achieving this Utopia of order was the stuff of dreams. How could I possibly prioritise my socks over my filing, my tax return, and the day job?

Start with your sock drawer, Silverthorn says. And once you've thrown away all the odd socks which will never be reunited with their partner, have holes which won't be darned or orange splashes which you really can't abide, move on to your handbag, your jewellery, your ornaments and so it goes on.

Because it does.

Once you start, even for this sentimental hoarder, it's infectious. Removing the mess in our environment, really does de-clutter our brains. When our house becomes less of a walking to-do list, when we can find what we need with minimal effort, we're less stressed. We have more time and we're nicer to be around.

I didn't agree with every suggestion. We should throw away all our unused chargers and pc connectors, for example, because the chances are, they won't ever be needed again. And that's true. They take up space and add clutter to our lives. Agreed. And if the worst case scenario happens and we need a lead, well we can always pop out and buy a new one for a few pounds, which is well worth it for a de-cluttered mind.


If I'd thrown away something I later needed and not only that, had to spend the time I'd saved through living in a less cluttered world, trawling the internet or driving to a shop (I live in a little village, no shops selling chargers anywhere near me) to spend precious time and money on something I'd thrown away, it would take me days to get over the regret. But I did find the general ethos and many of the initiatives utterly inspiring.

The chapters on 'letting go' were particularly interesting. Why do we hold on to the bequeathed beige corduroy sofa with its threadbare cushions and sunken seats which has never fitted in size or period on that far wall in our mauve painted living room? Do we really need all those chipped mugs, just in case the entire street descends on the house, all demanding tea in the exact same moment? And then there's the pristine exercise bike which embodies all our good intentions, right there, guiltily occupying the corner of the kitchen - when really, the only function it's ever going to perform is to provide something else to wipe down and walk around. Better to give it away to someone who will use it and you feel the rush of endorphins that way, instead.

And if you're panicking that the pursuit of perfection will simply add stress rather than take it away, don't. The emphasis in this book is in removing clutter and mess to achieve a more useable and accessible life style. It's about achieving a beneficial order we can maintain, rather than show home status. Phew. As Silverthorn says, it isn't rocket science. But sometimes we all need somebody to tell us that something is a really good idea.

So, have I de-cluttered my to-do list, freed up some time with more orderly spaces? Do you know, after years of trying, I think I have. Would I recommend, Start With Your Sock Drawer? Absolutely. But once you've finished with the book, you have to give it away, that's the deal.

Meanwhile, I'm back on the Glass Houses trail and have a couple of events coming up. I'd love you to join me if you can.