Blog Tour: The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh #BookReview

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It’s 2006 in the fictional East London borough of Leytonstow. The UK’s pub smoking ban is about to happen, and thirty-eight-and-a-half year old John Torrington, a mopper and trolley collector at his local DIY store, is secretly in love with the stylish, beautiful, and middle-class barmaid Lois. John and his hapless, strange, and down-on-their-luck friends, Gabby Longfeather and Glyn Hopkins, live in Clements Markham House – a semi-derelict Edwardian villa divided into unsanitary bedsits, and (mis)managed by the shrewd, Dickensian business man, Mr Kapoor.

When Mr Kapoor, in a bizarre and criminal fluke, makes him fabulously credit-worthy, John surprises his friends and colleagues alike by announcing he will organise an amazing ‘urban love revolution’, aka the Dig Street Festival. But when he discovers dark secrets at the DIY store, and Mr Kapoor’s ruthless gentrification scheme for Clements Markham House, John’s plans take several unexpected and worrisome turns…

Funny, original, philosophical, and unexpectedly moving, The Dig Street Festival takes a long, hard, satirical look at modern British life, and asks of us all, how can we be better people?

It is my turn on the blog tour today for The Dig Street Festival, the debut novel by Chris Walsh. My thanks to Emma Welton of damp pebbles blog tours for giving me a place on the tour and to the publisher for my digital copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

Let’s get this out in the open right from the off. This book is bonkers. Totally off the wall, a crazy ride, bizarre characters and a series of increasingly unlikely and out of control events might make you think this book is not the one for you. Do not be fooled. In the midst of all the mayhem and madness, at the very heart of this book, is a core of charm and delight that runs through it like words through a stick of Blackpool Rock and it makes this book one of the warmest, funniest and sweetest reads I have picked up this year so far.

At the centre of the book is John Torrington, a man who has found himself on the fringes of life, largely ignored by almost everyone and scratching away an existence on the margins of society. By day he collects trolleys and mops floors at his local DIY superstore, at night he lives in a rundown building full of sad bedsits, inhabited by other lonely, forgotten men, mooning after the bright, young barmaid in his local pub, reading secondhand stories about Scott of the Antarctic and scratching away at his poetry (mainly haikus) and his unfinished novel. A less prepossessing character to carry a book it would be hard to imagine, but John has hidden depths, or so he likes to believe. Almost everyone, except his equally strange friends, Gabby and Glyn, disagree.

I absolutely adored every single character in this book. This author had created some of the most memorable people you will every meet in a novel, and then placed them in equally memorable situations and watched what they do. (I say watched, because it is very clear to me from reading this that each of the people in this book have very individual minds of their own and have done their own, quite bizarre things on the page which I am sure the author had little if any control over in the end.) There are some really memorable scenes in the novel – the one involving the journey to the DIY store on Gabby’s first day at work is a particular standout (parts of which made my slightly gyp to be honest) – and many real laugh-out-loud moments. You can’t imagine a group of people who get into so many mad scrapes as this trio, but in the context of this novel you can completely believe they are happening, and it is quite a ride to take with them.

At the same time, there is so much tenderness within this book. The relationship between the three men is oddly touching. They all look out for each other and clearly care for one another in a way that most of us would be lucky to find in this life. This care extends from their small trio to the other hopeless residents of Clements Markham House, despite the fact they are largely unpleasant, ungrateful and undeserving. John Torrington has a big, soft heart, and lavishes his care around, even to his bullying, sadistic boss, OCD-impaired supervisor and any other waif and stray he comes across in life. But his own vulnerability is really thrown into sharp relief in his relationship with Lois, much younger than him and way out of his league both in terms of social status and intellect. Despite this fact, we long for her to see the qualities he has lurking beneath us outwardly awkward facade and give him a chance.

This book is a really different read, but all the more appealing for that. My favourite thing about blogging is coming across these hidden gems of books that are outside the mainstream and outside your reading comfort zone. It is within these novels that we find something new and exciting, that speaks to us of things we may never have considered before and takes us places we have never been. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Funny and moving.

The Dig Street Festival is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

Make sure you check out the rest of the tour:

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About the Author

Chris Walsh

Chris Walsh grew up in Middlesbrough and now lives in Kent. He writes both fiction and non-fiction, an example of which you can read here in May 2020’s Moxy Magazine.

​Chris’s debut novel The Dig Street Festival will be published by Louise Walters Books in April 2021.

​Chris’s favourite novel is Stoner by John Williams and his favourite novella is The Death of Ivan Illyich by Leo Tolstoy. His top poet is Philip Larkin. He is also a fan of Spike Milligan.

Connect with Chris:

Twitter: @WalshWrites

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Guest Post: Forget Russia by L. Bordetsky-Williams #GuestPost #Extract

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“Your problem is you have a Russian soul,” Anna’s mother tells her.

In 1980, Anna is a naïve UConn senior studying abroad in Moscow at the height of the Cold War—and a second-generation Russian Jew raised on a calamitous family history of abandonment, Czarist-era pogroms, and Soviet-style terror. As Anna dodges date rapists, KGB agents, and smooth-talking black marketeers while navigating an alien culture for the first time, she must come to terms with the aspects of the past that haunt her own life.

With its intricate insight into the everyday rhythms of an almost forgotten way of life in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Forget Russia is a disquieting multi-generational epic about coming of age, forgotten history, and the loss of innocence in all of its forms.  

Today I am delighted to be sharing on the blog, not only a guest post by L. Bordetsky-Williams on the story behind her book, Forget Russia, but also an excerpt from the book as well. Without further ado, I will hand over to Lisa.

A Story of Love, Murder, Betrayal, and Revolution by L. Bordetsky-Williams

Forget Russia tells the story of three generations of Russian Jews, journeying back and forth from America to Russia, during the course of the twentieth century. From before the 1917 Revolution to Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, this is a tale of unlikely heroes and the loss of innocence.  A significant portion of the novel focuses on an American Russian-Jewish family that returns to Leningrad in 1931, in a type of reverse migration, to build the Bolshevik Revolution. Forget Russia is a story of revolution, betrayal, murder, and love.

In 1980, at the height of the cold war, and the Iran hostage crisis, I had the opportunity to study Russian language for a semester at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. This experience not only changed my life but it influenced the course of my life. I met many of the religious and dissident-type Jews of the Soviet Union.  Some of them were Refuseniks, people whose exit visas had been denied, and others said they could never leave because one of their parents had a “secret job,” which would prevent them from ever getting an exit visa.  Those Refuseniks had lost their jobs and were having a very difficult time just surviving.  Many of those young Soviet Jews were the grandchildren of the Bolsheviks.  Their ancestors had believed in the ideals of the 1917 Revolution and had flourished until Stalin had them put to death or exiled to labor camps during the height of the purges of 1936-1938. They had inherited a legacy of terror and fear. I have never forgotten them and the time we spent together.

About a year before I went to the Soviet Union, I was having lunch at my grandmother’s apartment, and she told me her mother died on a boat in Russia.  She was a woman who did not speak much, but when she did speak her words always contained great meaning. I probed more into her story with my family and discovered from my uncle that my great-grandmother had been raped and murdered. This information simply stunned me. I didn’t understand why no one had ever told me this. My grandmother had suffered from depression, and I then knew why.  As an old woman, when she was ill, I once heard her cry for her mother and that absolutely broke my heart.

When I studied Russian language, she began to sing me songs of her girlhood—songs of unrequited love that made me feel she must be trying to tell me something about her own life experiences. I wanted to grasp how such a horrific act of violence would affect the subsequent lives of women in a family.  This is a very large question, but it was one of the questions that prompted me to write Forget Russia.

I also was aware that my grandparents, both Russian Jewish immigrants, had returned to the Soviet Union in 1931, during the height of the Depression.  My grandfather was a carpenter, who longed to return and build the revolution.  He sold everything and borrowed money for the ship so his two small children, my mother and aunt, ages five and three, and my grandmother, could take an arduous journey back to Leningrad. They only stayed nine months.  If they had stayed any longer, they would have lost their American citizenship and never could have gotten out. 

On some level, my book looks at the nature of destiny—as I met these young Soviet Jews, I saw what my own life might have been if my ancestors had made other decisions.  I began to see how interdependent our lives were despite our apparent differences. I also wanted to understand how this initial trauma affected the subsequent generations of women in the family.

I did a tremendous amount of research for the novel over a number of years. I read accounts of American Russian Jews, who, just like my grandparents, went to the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. They were heartbreaking accounts of Americans who couldn’t leave the Soviet Union once the purges reached a peak in 1936-38. Many were imprisoned and exiled to labor camps. Many did not survive. I had the opportunity to interview a few American Jews from Russia who went to the Soviet Union with their parents in the 1930’s and managed to return to this country. I also read accounts of other Americans who went to the Soviet Union in hopes of getting work since there was very little work in America at the height of the Depression. I also researched a great deal about the Ukraine during the Civil War following the Russian Revolution.

I was surprised to find out that the Americans were originally very welcome in the Soviet Union.  Ford Motor Company even had a plant in Nizhni Novgorod, which encouraged many unemployed Americans to settle in the Soviet Union.  In the beginning, it sounded like it could have been quite exciting for a young person to be there. There was even a baseball team set up!  However, that all changed drastically when Stalin’s purges swept the country in 1936-38. The dream turned into a nightmare. These stranded Americans got no support from the American government as well. They were truly alone.

I also discovered that the Ukraine was very unstable during the Civil War that occurred after the Revolution.  Anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalists controlled the Ukraine, and at other times the White army retained controlled, but once the Red army re-established rule, the retreating and defeated armies went into Jewish shtetls and massacred many Jews.  My poor grandmother was just a teenager when her mother was raped and murdered in one of these pogroms. 

In Forget Russia, when Anna, the granddaughter, comes back to the Soviet Union in 1980, she falls in love with a young Soviet Jew, who helps her make sense of her grandparents’ return to the country fifty years earlier.  Both characters must contend with the violence and enduring loss passed down to them from their ancestors. 

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Extract from Forget Russia by L. Bordetsky-Williams

A week later, on a day in late October when most leaves had fallen to the ground, Iosif took me to the zagorod. The land rested in brown, golden and yellow colors, and the homes were the way I imagined them to be, with white paint embroidering the outside of delicately carved windows. A short distance from the train station, we found a cement path leading us into a darkening forest.

“These are real Russian woods,” Iosif said and placed his arm through mine as we stepped through thickets of light layered trees; shadows receded and cobwebbed mists opened onto the path leading us to his grandfather’s old apartment.

“Anichka, I have to say your Russian has gotten much better.”

“It’s still pretty bad.” Dried mud clung to my brown leather boots. I gazed up at him, at his thin and lanky body, at his face that seemed young and old simultaneously.

“No, it’s better.” His praise meant more to me than I could say. Iosif was definitely the smartest person I had ever met.

“In Russian class, we’re learning when to raise our voices higher, like at the end of a question. But when else do you do it?”

I didn’t expect Iosif to start laughing. “I don’t know. I never thought about any of this.”

“Depending on what you want to say, you’re supposed to raise your voice a little or a lot.”

“Really?” He stopped for just a moment, wrapped his arm around me. I leaned my head onto his shoulder.

“Now you tell me something. What do Americans talk about when they get together? Is it only about business?”

“No.” I was the one laughing this time.

“Well, then, what is it?”

“I don’t know. Movies, music, TV, maybe a book. The usual stuff, the election, the world.”

“Do you ever tell any jokes?”

“Of course, we do.”

“I see.” We walked in silence for a while. As we got deeper into the forest, Iosif’s mood changed.

“In the countryside, there’s hardly any food. Only bread and grains. Some sausage maybe and cabbage,” he whispered. Iosif pushed away the strands of wind-blown hair from his face. “Tell me, do you know what a propiska is?”

I didn’t have a clue.

“You must understand this if you’re going to know anything about our country,” he said, slightly impatient or impassioned. I wasn’t sure. “Propiska is a pass. We’re actually supposed to carry it around with us at all times, but most don’t. But if I want to go any great distance outside of Moscow, I must report where I’m going and get permission. Понимаешь?

“Yes,” I said, though I didn’t. I only knew there was a humming in my arm linked through his.

“Can you imagine? If I want to go to Leningrad, I can’t just pick up and go. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“I understand,” I said in my limited Russian, then switched to English.

“Well, now I have a question for you.” The rows of trees obscured my view of the sky, the afternoon light slipping away.

“Okay, then. Go ahead.”

“When your parents separated, did they fight a lot about money?”

“Money?” Iosif paused. “Why money? They didn’t have any to fight about. Why do you ask?”

“Because money was all my parents fought about.”

“What can I say. America is a sick place,” he said as he stepped into the moist dirt covered with yellow leaves. The soil smelled of rain from yesterday—the thin boughs of trees opened into a path of green and brown for us to follow. All of my life I had been waiting to be here. I leaned once more into Iosif’s arm, felt his cotton jacket against my face.

He led us out of the woods, away from the scent of pine and nettle everywhere. We found another cement path taking us to a brown brick apartment building that stood all by itself, surrounded only by grass.

“Years ago, my grandfather used to come here a lot—to think, to work. But that was all before he lost his memory.”

“When did that happen?”

“The last ten years, I would say. It was gradual. But it’s probably better he forgets the past as far as I’m concerned.” I remembered the soft and feathery feel of his grandfather’s hand when I saw him at Iosif’s apartment, his thick furry eyebrows, that dreamy, faraway look to his face.

We walked up several flights of dingy stairs until we came out into a dark corridor. I followed alongside Iosif, seeking the evening light. Inside the apartment, volumes and volumes of Tolstoy’s books filled up most of the shelves lining the walls.

“How did your grandfather get all these books? I’ve never seen anything like this”

“I can’t tell you that. But this is everything Tolstoy ever wrote.”

More secrets. I was growing used to it, little by little. So much could not be said or shared.I wanted to know but would not ask again.

Thank you, Lisa, for preparing the guest post for us and allowing me to share the extract. If the above has whetted your appetite for the book, Forget Russia is out now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

L Bordetsky-Williams

L. BORDETSKY-WILLIAMS is the author of Forget Russia, published by Tailwinds Press, December 2020. She has also published the memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf (Hamilton Books, 2005, http://www.letterstovirginiawoolf.com); The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf (Greenwood Press, 2000); and three poetry chapbooks (The Eighth Phrase (Porkbelly Press 2014), Sky Studies (Finishing Line Press 2014), and In the Early Morning Calling (Finishing Line Press, 2018)). She was a student in Moscow at the Pushkin Institute in 1980. Presently, she is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey and lives in New York City.

Connect with Lisa:

Website: https://www.forgetrussia.com/

Facebook: Forget Russia, A Novel

Twitter: @BordetskyL

Instagram: @forgetrussia

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Book Review: Whisper of the Lotus by Gabrielle Yetter #BookReview

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Sometimes you have to go a long way from home to come full circle back to discover what was right in front of you..

Charlotte’s mundane, dead-end life lacked excitement. She never imagined that sitting on a plane to Cambodia, struggling with her fear of flying, would lead to her being befriended by Rashid, an old man whose tragic secret would take her on a mystery tour of discovery.

In a land of golden temples, orange-clad monks, and smiling people, Charlotte discovers nothing is as she’d expected. She also never imagined the journey would take her back to the night when her father walked out on the family.

And who was Rashid? Was he just a kindly old man, or was there something deeper sewn into the exquisite fabric of his life?

I received a digital copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review, for which she has my thanks. I have reviewed the book honestly and impartially.

I am partial to a book that takes me to another country, especially one that I have never visited in person. Cambodia is a place that is at the top of my bucket list so, until I can get there in reality, I was really looking forward to being transported there between the pages of this book. The author certainly managed to do that in Whisper of the Lotus. The book is filled with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and people of Cambodia and really brought the place to life in a way that only someone who is very familiar with the country really could.

Charlotte is a person who doesn’t really have a life of her own. After her parents split up, she has been left at home looking after her mother – a woman consumed by bitterness and self-pity – by a mixture of guilt and fear. Her best friend Roxy went off travelling and found a new life in Cambodia, so Charlotte decides to take a long-desired holiday to visit her out there. Charlotte is afraid of flying, afraid of travelling alone, afraid of anything different, so this is a big deal for her. She is befriended on the flight by an elderly man who calms her down with words of wisdom, and that encounter sets her the path of a mystery when she lands in Cambodia that will change everything for her.

This is a really unusual book which crosses a number of genres. Part travel novel, part mystery, part supernatural, part exploration of Buddhism, part family saga, there is a lot that will appeal to many different people here, and it will probably be like nothing you have read before. The author explores the relationship between Charlotte and her mother and how that has impacted her life, and between Charlotte and her friend Roxy and how the differences between the two illuminate the changes that Charlotte needs to make to her life to make her happy. The book takes us on an exploration of Cambodia that is enriching and delightful for anyone who is interested in life in other parts of the world, and her writing here is rich and detailed and full of affection and admiration for the country and its people. 

I found the discussion of Buddhist principles through Charlotte’s learning of them particularly fascinating, as it something I have always had a mild interest in but never particularly pursued beyond that, so learning a little more was enlightening and made me think I might look into it a bit further. Charlotte begins down the path of seeing how it could help her move on in her life, although it is clearly not an easy path because she seems to forget what has been taught as soon as she gets into a difficult situation! I think this indicates it is something that takes a lot of time and dedication to explore and cannot turn things around overnight.

I did have a couple of issues with the book, which came mainly from the character of Charlotte. I did find her a hard person to warm to at times. She is quite whiny and addicted to her victimhood (as Roxy points out!) and very quick to fly of the handle if she thinks anyone is telling her something she doesn’t want to hear. I appreciate that her character needs to be like that at the beginning so she can move on from it through the book as she learns and grows, but I didn’t feel like she had got there by the end; she still seemed to be quite self-centred at the conclusion. Normally this might be quite fatal for my enjoyment of a book, but the rest of it was written so beautifully and was so entertaining that I was able to get past it. She is not a character I could ever love though.

The supernatural element of the book created some moments of beauty and interest, and I enjoyed it, although I think some people might find it too unbelievable and coincidental to swallow. It is definitely a book that requires the reader to suspend their disbelief. The book is a languid and leisurely feast for all the senses, that doesn’t rush but takes a slow and circuitous route to its conclusion. It is not without flaw, and won’t appeal to everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it for anyone looking for something that little bit out of the ordinary.

Whisper of the Lotus is out now in ebook and paperback and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Gabrielle Yetter has lived in India, Bahrain, South Africa, Cambodia, England and the USA. She worked as a journalist in South Africa, owned a dining guide in San Diego, wrote a cookbook about traditional Cambodian desserts and freelanced for publications and online sites in the US, The Netherlands, South Africa, and Southeast Asia.

In 2010, she and her husband, Skip, sold their home in the US, quit their jobs, gave away most of their possessions, and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia.

In June 2015, she co-authored Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure, with Skip. In May 2016, she published her first children’s picture book, Ogden, The Fish Who Couldn’t Swim Straight followed by Martha The Blue Sheep in 2017.

She lives in Eastbourne, England and her first novel, Whisper of the Lotus, was released in November 2020.

Connect with Gabrielle:

Website: http://www.gabrielleyetter.com/

Facebook: Gabrielle Yetter

Twitter: @gabster2

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Book Review: Backstories by Simon Van Der Velde #BookReview

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CAN YOU FIND THE FAMOUS PERSON HIDDEN IN EVERY STORY?

Dreamers, singers, heroes and killers, they can dazzle with their beauty or their talent or their unmitigated evil, yet inside themselves, they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth?

It’s publication day for Backstories by Simon Van Der Velde, a unique and novel collection of stories that are a mysterious peep inside the lives of some people you might think you know. But can you work out who they are? Happy publication day, Simon, and thank you for providing me with a digital copy of the book for the purposes of review. I have reviewed the book honestly and impartially.

When Simon approached me about reviewing this book, I can say I was intrigued. It is a concept I haven’t come across before – a collection of stories about the early lives of famous or infamous people, revealing clues about who they are, and little known facts about their early lives, but leaving the reader to try and guess who the author might be talking about. A curious but fascinating mix of fact and fiction, it was definitely something I needed to take a look at.

The book comprises fourteen short stories, giving us a snapshot in time in the lives of well known or notorious characters who will be familiar to most of us, but maybe not in the ways portrayed here. An interesting mix of fact woven into fiction, the author writes as if he is telling a story, and it is for the reader to dig beneath the prose to find out who is hiding behind the mask, and possibly find out things about popular figures we never knew before. This was certainly true for me. Whilst I am sure I worked out who each story was talking about, there were certainly some facts in there that I hadn’t known before, and sent me scuttling to the internet in search of confirmation that the author hadn’t made the basic facts up. The story, Banjo Boy, in particular had me saying, ‘Well, I never knew that about him before!’ From this perspective alone, it is a fascinating book to pick up.

The collection of characters that Simon chooses to explore is a curious one. Some I can understand why he wanted to discuss, a couple were less obvious, and a couple of them made me incredibly uncomfortable. Simon really gets under the skin and into the minds of the people he is talking about, and this is disturbing in the case of a couple of the less savoury characters. Being able to stir an emotion in the reader is the sign of a good writer; this is no less true when the emotion stirred is disquiet. I’m not sure I want to be in the skin of some of these people.

This is a book that is good for dipping in and out of, rather than reading through in one go, and would make a great topic of discussion between friends. I have already seen a fellow blogger saying she can’t work out who one of the subjects is and, since I think I know, I will reach out and see if she agrees with my theory later. Some of them are more obvious than others and, I think some of them will be easier to suss out for people of my generation than younger folk. It is a concept that played out well against my expectations and I applaud the author for achieving something new and interesting.

Backstories is available in all formats from today and you can buy a copy here.

And, if you need any additional reason to buy the book, beyond my review above, Simon is donating 30% of all profits from Backstories to Stop Hate UK, The North East Autism Society and Friends of the Earth.

About the Author

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Simon Van der Velde has worked variously as a barman, labourer, teacher, caterer and lawyer, as well as travelling throughout Europe and South America collecting characters and insights for his award-winning stories. Since completing a creative writing M.A. (with distinction)

in 2010, Simon’s work has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards including; The Yeovil Literary Prize, (twice), The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Luke Bitmead Bursary, The Frome Short- story Prize, The Harry Bowling Prize, The Henshaw Press Short Story Competition and The National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Competition – establishing him as one of the UK’s foremost short-story writers.

Simon now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, with his wife, Nicola, their labradoodle, Barney and two tyrannical children.

Connect with Simon:

Website: https://www.simonvandervelde.com/

Facebook: Simon Van Der Velde

Twitter: @SimonVdWriter

Instagram: @simonvdvwriter

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Top Twelve Books of 2020

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Yes, you heard correctly. This year I am allowing myself twelve books in my round up of my favourite reads of the year. I was really struggling to narrow it down any more and, given how much of a trial this year has been already, I decided not to tax myself further.

I have read 185 books this year at the time of writing this post, and so many of them have been marvellous and could have made a ‘best of’ list. However, there is limited space and time for recommendations, so these are the ones I would push most heavily, were my arm to be twisted. I do want to thank the authors of all the books I have enjoyed in 2020 though, you should know that your work has been the one steady point of sanity in a world gone mad and I am so grateful for each and every word.

These books weren’t all written in 2020, but they were ones I read for the first time this year. You can find my detailed reviews of the books by clicking on the links in the titles (except the Steve Cavanagh one. I’ve only just finished that and haven’t had chance to review it on the blog yet. Sorry, Steve!)

12. The Lido by Libby Page

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11. Beast by Matt Wesolowski 

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10. Spirited by Julie Cohen

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9. Fifty-Fifty by Steve Cavanagh

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8. I Am Dust by Louise Beech

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7. The Cactus by Sarah Haywood

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6. The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

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5. Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

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4. More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran

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3. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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2. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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1. Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies by The Secret Barrister

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So that’s it, my top reads of 2020. Please do let me know what you think. Did you love or loathe any of these books? Are any of them on your 2021 TBR? What was your book of 2020? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Looking forward to lots more great reading in 2021, and wishing all of my readers a very, very Happy New Year.

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Book Review: More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran

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A decade ago, Caitlin Moran thought she had it all figured out. Her instant bestseller How to Be a Woman was a game-changing take on feminism, the patriarchy, and the general ‘hoo-ha’ of becoming a woman. Back then, she firmly believed ‘the difficult bit’ was over, and her forties were going to be a doddle.

If only she had known: when middle age arrives, a whole new bunch of tough questions need answering. Why isn’t there such a thing as a ‘Mum Bod’? How did sex get boring? What are men really thinking? Where did all that stuff in the kitchen drawers come from? Can feminists have Botox? Why has wine turned against you? How can you tell the difference between a Teenage Micro-Breakdown, and The Real Thing? Has feminism gone too far? And, as always, WHO’S LOOKING AFTER THE CHILDREN?

Now with ageing parents, teenage daughters, a bigger bum and a To-Do list without end, Caitlin Moran is back with More Than A Woman: a guide to growing older, a manifesto for change, and a celebration of all those middle-aged women who keep the world turning.

It’s taken me ages to get round to writing this review, I finished the book weeks ago. I’m not sure why, I think I’ve been worried that I can’t do justice to how I feel about More Than A Woman within the confines of a blog post. I’d actually like to read it again and try and distill my thoughts a bit more but there isn’t time so I’m going in, for better or worse. Sometimes it’s harder to write a review of a book you loved passionately than it is a book you felt lukewarm about.

Caitlin’s previous book, How To Be A Woman, made me snort a copious quantity of hot tea down my nose on a crowded train back in 2011, which was both painful and embarrassing, so I approached this book with some caution. More Than A Woman has the same mixture of humour, brutal honesty, searing insight and pathos as the last one, but this time Caitlin has grown up, hit middle age and is sharing that experience with us, no holds barred and, just like last time, I recognised so much of my own life and experience between the pages.

Caitlin and I are of an age so, although much of our life experiences have been very different, the basic building blocks of being a forty-something woman in modern Britain are universal. Relationships, children, body issues, emotions – they work pretty much the same for all of us, and acknowledging this is a fundamental way of allowing us to empathise with and support our fellow women, and this is one of the great joys of this book. It’s like having a slightly drunken chat with your best mate, the one where you have imbibed just enough to bring down any nicety barriers, the woman is someone you have known so long that she is privy to all your embarrassing secrets and you can just lay it all out on the table for dissection. Catharsis for when you are struggling.

That’s what this book is. Catharsis. A sharing of pain and problems so that you don’t feel so alone, or abnormal, in the things that bother you from day to day. Caitlin is painfully blunt, she doesn’t hold back on telling it like it is, warts and all, and it is a beautiful thing to read. Every worry you ever had about your life is set out here and she shouts, ‘Look, me too, this is normal, YOU are normal!’ It is so comforting. It allows you to laugh at yourself, and put some things into perspective. It’s not the end of the world, we’re all going through it, and survive. Like the last book, she has such a skill in expressing things in a way that just make them hilarious, I found myself laughing out loud in many places. Luckily, I’ve learnt not to read her books in public any more. See, I’m growing and learning too, there are some benefits to ageing.

That’s not to say this book is all fun and jolly japes. She addresses some very serious issues too, the care of ageing parents, struggles with parenting. The chapters dealing with her daughter’s anorexia are heart-wrenching. There were points where I was in tears and my soul was cracking in sympathy with what she was going through, because I can all too clearly imagine how I would feel in that situation. That is the genius of this book, and Caitlin’s writing in particular. It is just so true, all of it, and she is not afraid to put it out there for us all to see. Her writing is really brave and insightful and comforting. I really, really loved this book and will be keeping it on the shelf next to How To Be A Woman, ready to dip into next time I need a friend. Especially important in this year when our real support network of friends have been out of reach in real life much of the time.

This is a book I would like to gift every woman of my age, because I want them all to read it and realise that we have much more in common that we have differences and it is really important for us to be there to support one another. You never know what the next woman is going through, and hiding under the cheerful and competent facade we often plaster on for the rest of the world. Maybe she needs a friend. A pat on the arm. A squeeze of understanding. That simple act can make the difference between surviving and going under. I know I couldn’t get through without the amazing female friends I have, this book is friendship between two shiny covers.

More Than A Woman is out now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Caitlin Moran became a columnist at The Times at eighteen and has gone on to be named Columnist of the Year six times. At one point, she was also Interviewer and Critic of the Year – which is good going for someone who still regularly mistypes ‘the’ as ‘hte’.

Her multi-award winning bestseller How to Be a Woman has been published in 28 countries, and won the British Book Awards’ Book of the Year 2011. Her two volumes of collected journalism, Moranthology and Moranifesto, were Sunday Times bestsellers.

Her first novel, How to Build a Girl, debuted at Number One, and is currently being adapted as a film. Bloody hell, that’s actually quite impressive.

Connect with Caitlin:

Website: https://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk/

Twitter: @caitlinmoran

Instagram: @mscaitlinmoran

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Introducing ‘Romancing The Romance Authors’

Romancing The Romance Authors

I just wanted to put up a quick post to trail a new feature that is starting on the blog next week which I am really excited about, and I hope you, my dear readers, will be too.

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It is called Romancing The Romance Authors and it’s an interview feature where I will be chatting with current members of the Romantic Novelists’ Association about the hows, whys and wherefores of their writing, and hopefully getting some tips on how to write romance from the professionals. I hope it will be fun and be enlightening for any other lovers of romantic fiction and budding romance writers out there too.

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The RNA is an organisation that is important to me, as an aspiring romance writer and lover of romantic fiction. It fosters and promotes the writing of romance, particularly through the mentoring of the New Writers’ Scheme, so I am excited to be able to give something back to the people who have been so encouraging and supportive of me in my writing efforts by shining a spotlight on their work, and maybe learning a little something along the way.

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To begin with, this feature will appear every other Tuesday, beginning on 1st September with author of Art and Soul, Claire Huston. Who knows, if it goes well and proves popular, I may extend to other genres. Cross-examining The Crime Authors, maybe? Studying The Historical Authors? (That one needs a catchier title.)

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There are unlimited possibilities and I am excited to see how it goes.

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Join me here next week for the first instalment.

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Book Review: Realityland – True-Life Adventures of Walt Disney World by David Koenig #freereading

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The first-ever in-depth, unauthorized look at the creation and operation of the world’s most popular vacation destination.

Step backstage and witness: Walt’s original plans for Disney World and how his dreams completely changed in the hands of his successors… His undercover agents who secretly bought 44 square miles of swamps… The chaotic construction and frantic first years of the Magic Kingdom… The underground caverns that wind beneath the theme park… Disney’s unconventional, initially disastrous foray into operating its own hotels… The behind-the-scenes machinations that led to EPCOT Center… How safety and security are maintained on property at all costs… The tumultuous change of leadership that turned the cherished Ways of Walt upside down.

Anyone who knows me knows I have a bit of an obsession with Disney, and with the Disney theme parks in particular. I first went to Walt Disney World in 1998, when I was 26 (we never travelled abroad when I was child, my mother hates to fly, my first foreign escapade was aged 15 on a school trip to France) and I fell in love with the place immediately. But, as well as being magical, I was fascinated by how the whole place had been created and was run, how they had managed to make it so self-contained, so separate from the outside world, so that the illusion could be maintained throughout. A few years later, when we visited Disneyland in California, I became even more fascinated by the difference between what Disney had achieved in Orlando compared to Anaheim.

I have been back to Florida countless times in the past 22 years, and it is even more fantastic when you see it through your children’s eyes. My two girls have grown up with it and they, along with my three step-daughters who first visited seven years ago, and even my big, beefy, cynical Irishman are also enchanted with the place. That takes somewhere special. But none of them are as obsessed with the machinery behind the Mouse the way I am.

Here is my shelf of non-fiction books about the Disney company and Walt Disney World (I’ve got a couple more that are too tall for this shelf and are elsewhere, plus a couple of digital ones as well.) They cover everything from theme park design to how Disney train their staff in customer service, boardroom battles for control of the Disney empire, to stories from ex-cast members and maps of the parks, and they are all fascinating. I’m always on the look out for more too, so if any of you have any recommendations, let me know.

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Since we weren’t going to get a holiday abroad this year due to Covid, and my planning for our next Florida trip is also on hold while the uncertainty around  the pandemic lingers, I decided to take a virtual trip there through one of my favourite books about the creation of the Florida theme park, Realityland by David Koenig. This book is a really comprehensive guide to how the idea for the second park in Florida was conceived, how Walt and his team went about acquiring the land and building the park, to how it has developed over the years (although it only goes up to the mid-90s. Any chance of an updated and extended version covering to the present day, David? I would buy it!)

For any of you who don’t know much about Walt Disney World, but are interested in how something as huge as the Florida park came about, this book is a fascinating read. It tells you how Walt wanted to make sure his park was not eventually surrounded by uncontrolled building of cheap motels, restaurants and gift shops as in Anaheim which spoiled the Disney illusion. How they bought the land in secret, and negotiated with the local government for unprecedented control over everything, including drainage, fire and policing. How they turned 40+ square miles of Florida swamp into what is there today, even after the tragic death of Walt before it was completed, and how they tried to be true to Walt’s vision for EPCOT and whether they succeeded.

It would be hard to see how any book on the subject could be more comprehensive than this one, and yet it is still very easy to read and approachable, if you are interested in the topic. And the story of how this amazing and impressive place was built, is maintained and continues to grow and delight people the world over is quite remarkable when you take a step back and look at it. Regardless of whether you love Disney or loathe it, you have to give them credit for what they have created, from Walt’s original and extraordinary vision to what stands there today, which even he probably could not have foreseen. And it all started with a Mouse.

Realityland is out now and you can buy a copy here (although, being an old book it’s quite expensive!)

About the Author

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David Koenig is chief editor for Costa Mesa, Ca.-based 526 Media Group. He received his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton, and has become arguably the theme park industry’s best-known “outsider,” after penning such best-sellers as Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland, Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks, and Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World. He is also an original contributor to MousePlanet.com.He lives with his wife Laura and children Zachary and Rebecca in Aliso Viejo, Ca.

Connect with David:

Twitter: @davidkoenig

Instagram: @davidgkoenig

Spotlight: 200 Foot Game by Kathy Obuszewski

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Fate threw them together, the world is trying its best to tear them apart.

A car accident isn’t a great place to meet a woman, right?
Right. I knew that. Besides, she’s older than me.
But when we met again at my star player’s party, who am I to say no to destiny?
She’s the fire to my ice and I want to hold onto her forever.
Cancer is trying to tell me I can’t.

I’m shining the spotlight today on the latest release in the Cleveland Sound series by Kathy Obuszewski, 200 Foot Game. Perfect for any fans of a sports-centred romance, it is a book that you might need a box of tissues at hand for as you read!

The book is available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited, along with the first book in the series, Deking The PuckKathy is also the author of The Sound of Christmas, also available on Kindle Unlimited, and will be releasing another book in early October.

If you would like to get hold of a copy of 200 Foot Game, you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Kathy is a passionate hockey fan. She plays, she watches and dreams of it, so she decided to start writing hockey romances.

You can find out more about Kathy by following her social media:

Website: https://kathyobuszewski.com

Facebook: Kathy Obuszewski

Instagram: @kathyobuszewski

Guest Post: 10:59 by N.R. Baker

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A deadly virus. An over-populated world. An impossible decision.

If you held the lives of those around you in your hands, who would you save? And could you live, knowing you had sentenced others to certain death?

Louis Crawford is a boy with a unique ability: to see through the noise to the problems and solutions that others are blind to. When asked to come up with an idea that will change the world, his answer is both shocking and simple. And it is a solution that will change everything, forever.

Louis finds himself thrust into the middle of an organisation that has the power to save the world. But are its motives pure? And can he live with the price that humanity must pay?

The clock is ticking to the end of the world; and we’re already at 10:59.

I am delighted to be featuring 10:59 by N.R. Baker on the blog today to celebrate its publication. Described as “the most important book you’ll read this year. An apocalyptic thriller with a difference, it will have you questioning everything – and everyone – you thought you knew,” it is a book I am really excited about reading. In the meantime, I have a fascinating Q&A that the author did for her publisher to share with you.

Q&A with Niki Baker for Burning Chair Publishing

Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you start writing and why?

I can’t remember starting to write. When my parents moved house and cleared their loft, they discovered some of my early works, written when I was five or six years old. The stories were brief and terrible, but they prove that I’ve always been fascinated with the art of using words to paint pictures.

With no spoilers, tell us a bit about 10:59 and what prompted you to write it.

10:59 is the story of Louis (‘with a wiss, not a wee’): a teenager who has a seemingly unique ability to see things that are invisible to others. When he’s asked to come up with an idea that will change the world, his answer is both shocking and simple. Louis finds himself thrust into the heart of an organisation that has the power to save a planet on the brink of destruction. With time running out, Louis must decide whether his employer’s motives are pure. And he will face an impossible dilemma about the devastating price that humanity must pay for its own salvation.

I was prompted to write 10:59 by what I see happening in the world. I wanted to explore a deliberately controversial scenario based on the facts of our increasingly dystopian existence. I’ve never seen myself as an eco-warrior, nor do I own a soapbox or have a habit of wearing socks with sandals, but I started with the conviction that Louis’s story needed to be told – and told in a way that would be entertaining and accessible for young adults as well as adult readers. In the course of all my research for the book, that conviction has turned into a passionate desire to get people thinking and talking about the greatest taboo of our time.

How did you come up with the inspiration for the story?

Readers will make assumptions about my inspiration for the novel because it features a deadly virus, when in fact I wrote the book two years before the coronavirus pandemic. I had no idea how topical and scary that aspect would turn out to be.

Is Louis-with-a-wiss – the main character in 10:59 – based on anyone you know?

Not directly. Louis wandered into my imagination and introduced himself, and then we got to know each other as I wrote the story. I recognise some of myself in him, and there were a number of scenes where I thought about how my son Connor would react in the same situation, which helped me make sure that Louis’s responses and actions felt real. I think Louis and Connor would get along with each other pretty well.

Tell us about your writing routine and where you tend to write.

What routine? I’m happy to say that my life is a little… unconventional. I’m lucky enough to be able to step outside what most people regard as normal routines, and that means I generally eat when I’m hungry, sleep when I’m tired, and write when I’m inspired. I write at my desk, which was situated in Oxfordshire while I wrote the first draft of 10:59. The desk and I have now relocated to France.

How did you find the editing and publication process? (Don’t worry about hurting our feelings – we’ve got thick skins…!)

Very slow, very challenging, and thoroughly rewarding. Writing a full-length novel in the first place is hard, but it’s just the start. Seeing a book all the way through to publication is definitely not for the faint-hearted or the impatient! But at this end of the process I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed it, and I’m proud to be a Burning Chair author. I’m confident that my book is the one I wanted to write and it’s ready to be unleashed on the world. Whether the world is ready for 10:59 remains to be seen, but the feedback from advance readers has been brilliant, so that’s incredibly exciting.

10:59 is a hard-hitting story which includes a number of characters who will stop at nothing to save a world on the brink of irreversible and cataclysmic change. And we’ll be honest it often hits painfully close to home! If you had a magic wand, what one action would you get everyone to take to save the world?

I can’t put it more eloquently than David Attenborough did when he said, “Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, it’s time we controlled the population to allow the survival of the environment.”

What’s next in the pipeline for you?

My pipeline is positively bulging with ideas and half-written stories, which may sound uncomfortable but of course it’s a great affliction for a writer to have. The story I’ve been developing recently starts with the main character falling through the floor of a cave and then… well, you’ll have to wait and see.

QUICK FIRE ROUND (One word answer):

Plotter or pantser?

Pantser.

Pen or keyboard?

Keyboard.

Character or plot?

Plot.

Early bird or night owl?

Owl.

Crossword or Sudoko?

Crossword.

Asking questions or answering questions?

Asking.

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Happy publication day, Niki, I look forward to reading the book for myself soon.

If you would like to get a copy of 10:59 for yourself, it is out today as an ebook and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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N R Baker loves exploring the world and also the power of words. She spent much of her childhood up a tree in Somerset with her head in a book, either lost in the worlds created by authors like C.S. Lewis, or writing truly awful tales of her own. Since then she has earned recognition for her travel writing, poetry, lyrics, flash fiction and short stories. 10:59 is her first full-length novel. She lives in rural France.

Connect with Niki:

Website: http://nrbakerwriter.com

Facebook: N R Baker Writer

Twitter: @NRBakerWriter