Desert Island Children’s Books… A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce

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This month’s pick for the children’s book I would take to my island is probably going to be a surprising one because it is not the best-loved book by this author. Philippa Pearce is most well-known as the author of Tom’s Midnight Garden but the book of hers which I have chosen is A Dog So Small.

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Young Ben Blewitt is desperate for a dog. He’s picked out the biggest and best dogs from the books in the library – and he just knows he’s going to get one for his birthday. Ben is excited when the big day arrives, but he receives a picture of a dog instead of a real one! But the imagination can be a powerful thing, and when Ben puts his to work, his adventures really begin!

This is the story of a young boy who longs for a dog to be his friend. Ben is the middle child in his family of five. With two older sisters and two younger brothers, Ben doesn’t really fit in with either group and would love a dog to alleviate his loneliness. But, living in a small house in south London with six other people, it just isn’t possible. His only contact with dogs is when he visits his grandparents in the country. However, Ben’s hopes are raised when his grandfather hints that they may give him a dog for his birthday.

On the day, he is disappointed when only a picture of a tiny dog is delivered. However, after his initial disappointment, Ben becomes intrigued by the image of the tiny dog that his great-uncle brought back from Mexico. As he learns more and more about the chihuahua embroidered in the picture, his imagination begins to imbue the dog with life until it becomes more real to him than what surrounds him in real life. As Ben is consumed by his imaginary life, things in the real world take a terrible turn, but then finds sometimes dreams come true in unexpected ways.

The story really captures the power of a child’s dreams, and the disappointment that needs to be faced when the reality which manifests doesn’t match the fantasy. This author really understands the emotions of a child and is adept at expressing them on the page. When I was young and read this book. I could relate to what Ben was feeling and all the range of emotions he went through, and the book is still powerful even now when I went back to it. The way he feels loneliness and isolation in the midst of a big family, and the comfort and love animals can bring is a universal experience that many people share. The thing children want most is to be understood, and this book can make a child feel that way, which is a real skill in an author.

A very unique story that I can still see why I loved as a child.

You can buy a copy of A Dog So Small here.

About the Author

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Philippa Pearce spent her childhood in Cambridgeshire and was the youngest of four children of a flour-miller. The village, the river, and the countryside in which she lived appear more or less plainly in Minnow on the Say and Tom’s Midnight Garden.

She later went on to study English and History at Cambridge University. She worked for the BBC as a scriptwriter and producer, and then in publishing as an editor. She wrote many books including the Modern Classic, Tom’s Midnight Garden, for which she won the Carnegie Medal. She was also awarded an OBE for services to Children’s Literature.

Sadly, Philippa died in 2006, at the age of 86.

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Friday Night Drinks with… Elizabeth Baines

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Tonight I am joined for Friday Night Drinks by a very welcome guest, author… Elizabeth Baines.

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Elizabeth, thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

Thank you for inviting me, Julie! Prosecco for me, please! My favourite! But actually, drinking a fizzy wine still seems like a tremendous luxury to me. When I was a child no one drank wine in our family, and sparkling wine was unheard of – champagne, which of course we had heard of, was for the remote upper classes. When I read about wine in books – it seemed to appear a lot in books! – I used to imagine it must be like ambrosia, the food of the gods, tasting something like honey. So I was pretty shocked when I tried my first sip of wine – it seemed so bitter! Needless to say, I developed a taste for it in the end, and Prosecco now feels a bit like a fulfilment of my childhood imaginings.

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That’s a lovely attitude to have, a real ‘revelling in the moment.’ I will join you in a glass of prosecco, cheers! If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

I’d probably take you to The Art of Tea in Didsbury where I live. It’s a café bar a bit like the brown bars in Amsterdam, all old and odd furniture, and a totally relaxed atmosphere. It’s where a lot of South Manchester writers go to sit with a coffee or a wine and read or work on their laptops. We could have some of the great home-cooked fusion food and then while away the rest of the evening there talking about our writing and the books we’ve read.

Perfect. If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

That’s a difficult one. I’d like to say Emily Bronte, because I so love Wuthering Heights and it’s been such an influence on my own writing, and I’d really love to know what she was like in life, but I suspect that she’d be too introverted and it might be torture for her. Someone else who has been another influence is Kurt Vonnegut. I did once attend a talk he gave, and I’m sure he’d be a wonderful drinks companion – so wise and down-to-earth and approachable, especially about writing. (You can see in which ways these two writers have influenced me in a series of short videos I made about books with connections to my latest, Astral Travel. 

So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

Well, I’ve had a bit of breather from writing, what with lockdown, when I found I just couldn’t write at all, as I think you found to some extent? Everything seemed on hold – including the inside of my head, as well as the very real lockdown postponement of the publication of my novel Astral Travel. That novel has finally come out, though, and I’ve been preoccupied with its publication. Recently, though, I’ve written a couple of short stories, and have enough now for a new collection, so I’m thinking towards getting that together. I’ve always written short stories, but I began this latest series with a particularly urgent sense of the things around us in the world affecting our individual and private lives, so I think they will cohere around this theme.

What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

Oh, nothing can beat that very first acceptance of a short story!! I was so thrilled, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone, my friends and family! I’d wanted to be writer from a very early age. Books were my refuge as a child, and when I was eight, because of an essay I’d written, my teacher stood me up in front of the class and told everyone that I would be a writer when I grew up. Rather mean on the rest of the kids, but after that I did feel basically destined to be a writer. And when that first short story got accepted by a highly respected literary magazine, I suddenly felt that that was what I had become – I felt I’d moved from one state into another. My biggest challenge I think was when my early publisher was bought up by one of the big conglomerates who promptly remaindered the list I was on, causing my editor to leave – an experience for writers that I know has been all too common. I was suddenly out in the wilderness, and it was a long haul back to get to being published again. I began to feel as if I was no longer a writer. I plugged the gap by writing plays for radio and theatre, and ended up with a prizewinning radio career, and for a while was known chiefly as a dramatist, until the wonderful Salt began publishing my fiction again.

What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, its just us talking after all!

Well, I’ve won prizes for playwriting and for short stories, but it would be nice to win a big novel prize, mainly because that brings you more readers. Lots of readers for my work, that’s what I want – that wonderful communication with others that you can get through the written page.

What are have planned that you are really excited about?

I have a new novel idea brewing, and it’s just the best thing, isn’t it, to have that secret world in your head, like another dimension or parallel world that you keep dipping excitedly back into. I won’t say what it is exactly: it’s the private, secretive daydreaming aspect of it that nurtures it, I find, keeps it simmering…

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

I love Greece and the Greek islands. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Mediterranean from the top of a Greek cliff. I was a student and I’d been reading Greek literature in translation and Homer’s constant references to the ‘wine-dark sea’, but I could never have been prepared for the density of blue. I thought when I saw it that I understood why Homer called it that, but I read recently that it may have been because the Ancient Greeks didn’t actually have a word for blue and possibly therefore couldn’t actually see it as such! But I’m also completely attached to Wales where I was born and where I spend some part of every year, and actually do a lot of writing, because for me it’s the best place to write. I have that hireath, the Welsh word that means not just homesickness, but a kind of deep longing for the place you have left. In recent years I’ve been visiting cities I’d read about in books but could only envisage – Berlin, Prague, Belgrade, Amsterdam and Vienna – and being surprised or moved by the differences or sameness in comparison to my previous ideas of them.  One place I haven’t been to yet but really want to go to is Budapest.

Hopefully you will get there soon. I loved it when I visited, although was many years ago when I was a student. Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

I have big feet! Every other woman in my family has the daintiest of feet, but mine are whoppers by comparison. At least they keep me standing steady on the ground!

Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?

It’s hard to pick one out, but one of my favourites is Austerlitz by W G Sebald which deals with the emotional effect on protagonist Austerlitz of the terrible upheavals in Europe in the early-mid twentieth century. It’s particularly important to me because my own latest, Astral Travel, shares its preoccupation with what happens when you try to wipe the past, but because of its wide historical reach I think Austerlitz would be significant for everyone. 

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In 1939, five-year-old Jacques Austerlitz is sent to England on a Kindertransport and placed with foster parents. This childless couple promptly erase from the boy all knowledge of his identity and he grows up ignorant of his past.

Later in life, after a career as an architectural historian, Austerlitz – having avoided all clues that might point to his origin – finds the past returning to haunt him and he is forced to explore what happened fifty years before. 

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

The best way to make sure I pace myself is to keep remembering that a hangover means losing a day’s writing. Wish I knew a cure, but I don’t, so I try to avoid it!

After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

Writing, reading, and a walk in the country or travelling to visit my relatives for a day – the most wonderful thing after lockdown and a whole eighteen months or so of not being able to see them.

Elizabeth, thank you so much for chatting with me this evening, I have enjoyed myself very much.

Astral Travel, Elizabeth’s latest novel, is the story of Jo Jackson’s search to uncover the truth about her late father, a complicated man, broody and sometimes violent but also capable of great charm. He is surrounded by mystery: he doesn’t talk about his Irish past, and Jo’s mother’s romantic stories about her early life with him contrast strongly with Jo’s difficult experience of him. It is when Jo finally uncovers a huge buried secret that she can begin piecing it all together and understand her father and why he treated her so harshly. Astral Travel is a novel about the way that the sexual, cultural and religious prejudices of the past can seep to affect lives in the present. It is also about the slippery nature of storytelling, but also its redemptive power. Amy Ridell, writing for Bookmunch called it ‘one of the most memorable and brilliant books I’ve read this year’, and Ailsa Cox said in Litro, ‘By the time I’d finished this wonderful novel I was hoping for a sequel, or even a series.’ You can buy a copy here.

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Astral Travel, about a charismatic but troubled Irishman and his effect on his family, explores the way that the secrets forged by cultural, religious and sexual prejudice can reverberate down the generations. It’s also about telling stories, and the fact that the tales we tell about ourselves can profoundly affect the lives of others.

In a framing narration that exposes the slippery and contingent nature of story, an adult daughter, brought up on romantic lore about her now dead father but having experienced him very differently, tells how she tried to write about him, only to come up against too many mysteries and clashing versions of the family’s past. Yet when a buried truth emerges, the mysteries can be solved, and, via storytelling’s power of empathy, she finally makes sense of it all.

Elizabeth discusses its influences on her YouTube channel here. 

Elizabeth Baines is the author of two previous novels, The Birth Machine and Too Many Magpies, and two collections of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World and Used to Be, all available from Salt. She has written prizewinning drama for radio and has written, produced and acted in her own plays for fringe theatre. She has also been a secondary school teacher. She lives with her husband in Manchester where she brought up her two now grown sons.

You can connect with Elizabeth further on her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Friday Night Drinks with… Rebecca Stonehill

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I am delighted to welcome my latest guest to the blog for Friday Night Drinks and I’m really looking forward to relaxing and chatting about writing and books over drinks with author… Rebecca Stonehill.

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Rebecca. welcome to A Little Book Problem and thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

I’m drinking an IPA craft beer with a small bowl of Bombay mix to accompany it. This mix has such a Friday-night feeling for me, welcoming in the weekend!

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If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

I’m a huge fan of live events, whether it’s live music, theatre or slam poetry as nothing beats actually being in a room with performers. So I’d see what’s on in my local area, find a great event, grab a drink from the bar and settle in for the evening.

If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

Cerys Matthews, former singer of Catatonia and host of brilliant Sunday morning Radio 6 show. I’ve been listening to this show for so many years that Cerys feels like a friend. She has a brilliant sense of humour and a fabulously eclectic, wide-ranging taste in music, guests, poetry and recipes.

The Dalai Lama. I can quite safely say he wouldn’t be drinking! But that’s not a problem. Again, he has such a great sense of humour, it’s so playful and cheeky. Despite all the hardships he has endured during the course of his lifetime, I find his attitude, complete lack of judgement and joyfulness so inspiring.

So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

I’ve finished writing my fourth historical fiction novel, The River Days of Rosie Crow, and it’s currently out on submission whilst I seek agent representation. Although I’ve had three novels published before, I didn’t need an agent for my original publisher. We amicably parted company after my second book as, although they helped me to get started as an author, I think it’s really important that the vision for books, design, distribution etc aligns. So I’m back to the beginning in some ways! But I really believe in this fourth book I’ve written and I’m very determined, so I know I’ll get there.

What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

The publication of my first novel, The Poet’s Wife, has been my proudest moment. Between starting to write and the book’s publication was a whopping ten years! It took so long because I had three children during that time and there was a lot of stopping and starting. It also went through several drafts and, like every writer, I had to get to grips with the realities of rejection.

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My biggest challenge was the steep learning curve of self-publishing my third novel, The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale. It really was a full-time job, finding the right editors, formatters, designers, working out all the software and trying to get my head around marketing. I got there in the end, but it really was not a straight-forward journey. People sometimes say, oh it’s so easy to self-publish, you just upload it to KDP on Amazon. Fine, if you are prepared to go for minimum effort and take one of Amazon’s ready-made covers. But to make your book really professional, it needs way more input than that.

I think it is a brave thing to do, self-publish, and deserves more credit than it gets, especially when the authors take as much trouble with it as you clearly have. What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, it’s just us talking after all!

To have my books in a bookshop. I’m a simple soul really! I cannot think of anything I would find more gratifying to walk into my local bookshop and see one of my books sitting there. I think I actually might faint with excitement.

What have you planned that you are really excited about?

A two-week holiday to Wales with my family in August. As we’ve all been so cooped up for so long, this really does feel beyond exciting. We are staying in two different Air B n B’s, one in rural central Wales and the other on the south coast and I just can’t wait to have different views, different walks and different experiences. I think we all need that so much.

Oh, holidays, how we have missed you! I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

One of my favourite places is Granada in the south of Spain. I lived there for two years in my early twenties and set my first novel there, The Poet’s Wife. I love the way the old part of the city spills down the hillside and how the ancient Moorish palace is framed by mountains. It really is very picturesque. On the other end of the city scale, I adore wild and remote places and have always been attracted by the vastness of the Canadian wilderness, though I’ve never been there. One day, I’d love to take a road trip around Canada, also going to Prince Edward Island where my favourite childhood book, Anne of Green Gables, is set.

That is one of my bucket list trips too. Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

I’ve had a significant issue with chronic insomnia for fifteen years, without fail the greatest challenge of my life. I’m currently writing a memoir about it.

Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?

That is such a hard question! I’m going to go for a book I read this year that I absolutely adored and think everybody should read – Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. It follows the lives of twelve mostly black and British women across time and space. Slowly, we come to see how their lives interconnect and I loved the boldness and energy of this fabulous, unique book.

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This is Britain as you’ve never read it.
This is Britain as it has never been told.

From Newcastle to Cornwall, from the birth of the twentieth century to the teens of the twenty-first, Girl, Woman, Other follows a cast of twelve characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last hundred years. They’re each looking for something – a shared past, an unexpected future, a place to call home, somewhere to fit in, a lover, a missed mother, a lost father, even just a touch of hope . . .

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

I have to be honest and say I’m really not a big drinker these days! When I was younger I used to pride myself on the fact that no matter how much I’d had to drink, I’d never get a hangover (?), but these days it doesn’t take much for me to feel completely hideous in the morning. That’s age for you! So, the failsafe plan is to stop when it’s sensible (or try) and drink plenty of water before I go to bed and a slice of lemon in hot water for the morning.

After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

I love spending as much time as possible outside, whatever time of year it is. So a walk with my family would definitely be on the agenda. There are so many wonderful places to walk in Norfolk where I live, whether it’s at the coast, through woodland, heath, broads or marshes. I will probably spend some time on our allotment as well as taking time to prepare delicious food and – of course – lots of reading.

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Rebecca, thank you so much for chatting with me this evening, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Rebecca was inspired to write her third novel, The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale, as a result of her mother’s travels in the 1960’s. As a child, she used to adore looking at her photographs of her time spent abroad, particularly the period she spent living with a community of young travellers in some caves in Matala, Crete! Whilst not at all biographical, this story in inspired by Matala’s stunning setting. You can buy a copy of the book here.

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1967. Handsome but troubled, Jim is almost 18 and he lives and breathes girls, trad jazz, Eel Pie Island and his best friend, Charles. One night, he hears rumours of a community of young people living in caves in Matala, Crete. Determined to escape his odious, bully of a father and repressed mother, Jim hitchhikes through Europe down to Matala. At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father.

Rebecca Stonehill is the author of The Poet’s Wife, The Girl and the Sunbird and The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale.

She is from London but currently lives in Nairobi in an old wooden cottage with her husband and three children. She dreamed of being an author from a very young age when she used to spy on people Harriet-the-Spy-style from under beds and up trees, scribbling down notes about them for use in future stories.

She loves reading, travelling, yoga, photography and spending time with her family and has so many stories jumbling around in her head that sometimes she feels overwhelmed by not being able to get them all out in time!

You can find out more about Rebecca and her writing via her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Pearl by John Steinbeck; Narrated by Hector Elizondo #Audiobook

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‘In the town they tell the story of the great pearl – how it was found and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind.’

The Pearlis Steinbeck’s heartbreaking short parable about wealth and the darkness and evil it can instill in even the most generous of men’s hearts.

Category 13 in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge is ‘Read a book with less than 100 pages.’ John Steinbeck’s classic, coming in at a mere 96 pages, falls cleanly within this remit. (Yes, I am now doing the categories completely out of order and have yet to review books to fit categories 7, 11 and 12. They are coming, I promise.)

I haven’t read any Steinbeck novels since school, and I am wondering why because The Pearl is so stunning, in both the writing and the story itself, that I now feel like I need to go and pick up more of his work.

This is the story of Kino, his wife Juana and their baby Coyotito who live a hand-to-mouth on the shores of the Gulf until Kino, a fisherman, finds a huge and exquisite pearl that he believes will elevate his family from the cycle of poverty which traps them. He longs for opportunity and education for their son, so that he will not be prey to being kept down by their fear and lack of knowledge. However, greed and envy, the determination of those above to keep them down and the fear of the unknown of those around them, conspire to rob Kino of his dreams.

The writing is beautiful from the very first page. It is not flowery, but powerful, with the descriptions of the simple life of the fisher folk bringing their world to stark life. Their fear and panic when misfortune befalls their child, their rage when they know they are being manipulated and robbed by lack any ability to prevent it, the unfairness of their situation burns brightly on the page through Steinbeck’s prose, and leaps from their into the soul of the reader. I felt their pain very keenly and deeply, and was left with lasting pain on their behalf long after the book was finished.

Despite this being a very short book, Steinbeck manages to explore in detail the themes of evil in the hearts of man. How one person’s good fortune inspires darkness in the hearts and minds of others, and how difficult it is for people to break out from under the yoke of poverty when to do so does not serve the people who benefit from exploiting them. If this book does not make you angry, I would be very surprised.

This book is a shining example of how to write. Not a word is wasted, and the picture is painted in the reader’s mind’s eye with clarity and intensity. It is both inspiring and daunting to read as a writer, demonstrating what lofty heights are possible and making one despair of ever getting anywhere close to them.

The Pearl is out now in all formats and you can get a copy here.

About the Author

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John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author and the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature winner “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters.”

During his writing career, he authored 33 books, with one book coauthored alongside Edward Ricketts, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. He is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas The Red Pony (1933) and Of Mice and Men (1937). The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies.

Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley and the California Coast Ranges region. His works frequently explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everyman protagonists.

Blog Tour: This Much Huxley Knows by Gail Aldwin #BookReview

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I’m seven years old and I’ve never had a best mate. Trouble is, no one gets my jokes. And Breaks-it isn’t helping. Ha! You get it, don’t you? Brexit means everyone’s falling out and breaking up.

Huxley is growing up in the suburbs of London at a time of community tensions. To make matters worse, a gang of youths is targeting isolated residents. When Leonard, an elderly newcomer chats with Huxley, his parents are suspicious. But Huxley is lonely and thinks Leonard is too. Can they become friends?

Funny and compassionate, this contemporary novel for adults explores issues of belonging, friendship and what it means to trust.

I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for This Much Huxley Knows by Gail Aldwin. My thanks to Gail for asking me to take part in the tour and for providing me with a digital copy of the book for the purposes of review. As always, I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

This Much Huxley Knows is a very unusual but brilliantly crafted novel of observation on life, society and relationships, as seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, which lends it refreshing honesty on the subject. Huxley experiences things without filter and, whilst he can’t always interpret everything he sees or hears, his bluntness in describing his experiences gives a brutal candour to events that enlightens and delights the adult reader that this book is aimed at.

Huxley is an awkward child, slightly out of kilter with his peers and starting to understand that he is not quite in sync with everyone around him, leading to a sense of loneliness and isolation that is quite heart-breaking to read. He longs to have a best friend, and his keen understanding that his closest friend might only be friends with him because their mums are close, is painful to read of. Whilst being noisy, disruptive and sometimes disobedient, Huxley has a good heart, and recognises his own feelings of isolation reflected in others – his neighbour Mrs Vartan, classmate Samira and neighbourhood outcast, Leonard. This sense of comradeship leads Huxley to reach out in friendship in ways that the adults surrounding him don’t understand and thus, causes alarm, but we wonder in the end who is most accurate in their assessment of others, the cynical adults or the open-minded and open- hearted little boy.

The author has done a quite astounding job of placing herself firmly in the shoes of this small child. Written in the first person entirely from Huxley’s perspective, I completely believed in Huxley’s voice throughout, and it felt totally authentic. The way he hears things but can’t quite interpret them, his natural curiosity, his obsession with crafting his trademark brand of ‘joke’ in every sentence and with Thomas the Tank Engine, were all immediately recognisable as the way children behave. The adults’ lack of awareness of how much Huxley is taking in and processing to begin with, and how he gradually makes them see him and take him seriously I recognised from my own parenting experience – children are like tiny sponges made up of big ears and nosiness – and Gail just brought the real experience of childhood to the page and used it to shine a light on human behaviour in a way that is frighteningly illuminating.

Huxley is a totally lovable character that I defy anyone not to adore by the end and the story is both painful and uplifting at the same time. Full of the genuine confusion, pain, joy and wonder of growing up, and an excoriating insight into the mistakes and follies of adults, this book is really unlike anything you have read before and I absolutely loved it. It has left me with a really warm glow and a feeling of satisfaction and I can’t recommend it highly enough for something quite out of the norm but hugely rewarding.

This Much Huxley Knows will be published in ebook and paperback formats on 8 July and you can preorder a copy here.

Please make sure you check out the upcoming stops on the tour for alternative reviews:

THIS MUCH HUXLEY KNOW blog tour

About the Author

1. Gail Aldwin H&S

Novelist, poet and scriptwriter, Gail Aldwin’s debut coming-of-age novel The String Games was a finalist in The People’s Book Prize and the DLF Writing Prize 2020. Following a stint as a university lecturer, Gail’s children’s picture book Pandemonium was published. Gail loves to appear at national and international literary and fringe festivals. Prior to Covid-19, she volunteered at Bidibidi in Uganda, the second largest refugee settlement in the world. When she’s not gallivanting around, Gail writes at her home overlooking water meadows in Dorset.

Connect with Gail:

Website: https://gailaldwin.com/

Facebook: Gail Aldwin

Twitter: @gailaldwin

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Friday Night Drinks with… Jason Graff

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Well, this has been a long old week for me and I am absolutely ready to kick back and relax this weekend. Let’s start off having Friday Night Drinks with another fabulous guest, shall we? This week I am joined by author…. Jason Graff.

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Jason, welcome to the blog and thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

Monsho, an excellent malt whiskey from Japan.

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If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

Since I now live in Texas, I believe I am required by law to take out of town guests to a BBQ joint.

Great, I love BBQ but my only experience of Texas so far was making a connection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. So many Stetsons! If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

Who wouldn’t love to drink with Dorothy Parker and Richard Pryor?

Who indeed? So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

I started writing poetry in high school, partly to get girls, partly because I was bored with my actual homework. I don’t think I really needed it to go anywhere outside of taking me outside of myself.

What has been your proudest moment since you started writing/blogging and what has been your biggest challenge?

My proudest moment was when my wife went public on Facebook and called me her favorite writer. My biggest challenge so far has been attracting anything that might be thought of as an audience.

What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, its just us talking after all!

I would’ve had a few by this point so I’ll say the Nobel Prize. It’s a big one, plus it’d be a great excuse to get over to Sweden. 

If you are going to dream, you might as well dream big, I say! What are have planned that you are really excited about?

My next book Merely Average Lovers about a romancing conman.

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

I lived in Boston for 15 years and think of it very fondly. At the top of my bucket list, it’s a stretch but I’d like to live long enough to get to be a great grandfather.

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I love Boston. I got stranded there once at the end of a holiday by a hurricane and had to stay three extra days, it was no hardship! Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

I can touch my tongue to my nose (see above!)

Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas is one I’ve been recommending for the last couple of years. It really blew me away. Textured and funny and tragic, it’s a beautiful book about redemption and thwarted dreams and longing and all the other bitter sweet stuff that makes us keep trying. 

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He loses everything. In front of everyone.

Where does he go from here?

Daniel Kelly, a talented young swimmer, has one chance to escape his working-class upbringing. His astonishing ability in the pool should drive him to fame and fortune, as well as his revenge on the rich boys at the private school to which he has won a sports scholarship. Everything Danny has ever done, every sacrifice his family has ever made, has been in pursuit of his dream. But when he melts down at his first big international championship and comes only fifth, he begins to destroy everything he has fought for and turn on everyone around him.

Tender and savage, Barracuda is a novel about dreams and disillusionment, friendship and family. As Daniel Kelly loses everything, he learns what it means to be a good person – and what it takes to become one.

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

First of all, there is no such thing as a failsafe. I’ve tried a lot of things but since you insist I provide advice on this topic I would say, if your legs’re steady enough, a nice hot shower.

After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

Hanging out with my wife and son. 

Jason, thanks for drinking with me this evening, it’s been a blast.

Jason’s latest book, heckler, about lives colliding in a failing hotel is out now from Unsolicited Press, and you can buy a copy here.

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Three men seeking forgiveness pass through The Shelby Hotel as part of their painful journey. While the family that runs it must contend with ghosts who won’t leave.

Jason Graff’s debut novel Stray Our Pieces, published by Waldorf Publishing in the fall of 2019, concerns a woman extricating herself from motherhood. In early 2020, heckler, about lives colliding at a struggling hotel, was released by Unsolicited Press. He lives in Richardson, TX, with his wife and their son.

You can connect further with Jason via Facebook and Twitter.

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett #BookReview

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The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

I am so behind with the reading and reviews for this challenge but I am determined to catch up! So today I am reviewing the book I chose for the eighth category in the challenge, ‘Read a book by a BAME author’ and the book I have chosen is one of the top books from 2020, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

(For those with very eagle eyes, I have missed out category seven, I know. I had to stop reading the book I chose for that category part way through because of the demands of blog tour books and haven’t had chance to go back to it yet. It’s coming soon, I promise!)

This book is an eye-opening exploration of what it meant to grow up in the segregated south of the US in the 1950s and the practice of ‘passing,’ where light-skinned people of colour would pass themselves off as white to avoid the stigma and hardship inflicted on their community. The lengths that people would go to, the sacrifices they were prepared to make, and the consequences of these decisions that echo down the generations are all addressed in this novel with tenderness, understanding and compassion in a book that is beautiful and illuminating but deeply melancholy to read.

Desiree and Stella Vignes are identical twins growing up in the small Southern town of Mallard, where being a light-skinned person of colour is revered and those with darker-skin are shunned. Both sisters leave the town for New Orleans, but then their paths diverge. Desiree later returns to Mallard with her daughter, who has very dark skin, whilst Stella lives as a white woman, having to hide her real self from everyone around her, including her own daughter. However, order is disrupted and secrets come to light when the cousins unexpectedly meet.

This book examines in detail the idea of transformation. Aside from Stella, there are other characters in the book who start off as one thing and, through determination and force of will, morph and mould themselves into something different, all for different reasons. The author looks at how these metamorphoses are viewed by the people around them, and how being true to yourself, your identity, ambitions and desires, can alienate you from the people you love. Are these sacrifices worth it? Which course has made the person happiest in the end? What does it mean to really be true to oneself? How does it feel to hate the body you were born in? To be persecuted for merely being who you are?

The author’s writing is absolutely stunning, and I thought she explored every facet of the story and the themes with real care and deep thought, which provoked the same reaction in me, as the reader. The book is s slow, gentle but demanding read, not one which is full of action and startling event. It is entirely character-focused, which I loved but I know does not appeal to everyone. The themes addressed are complex, sometime controversial and make for an uneasy emotional reaction. It was a book that left me examining my thoughts and feelings on the issues for a long while afterwards, and I know it is a book that will linger in the back of my mind for a long while, and one I will probably return to soon. I listened to it as an audiobook – the narrator did a great job – and I fully intend to return to it again in physical format to see if there is more I can get from it.

I understand fully why this book has been the hit it has and why it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize For Fiction. A memorable and accomplished novel that really rewards and provoked the reader.

The Vanishing Half is out now in all formats and you can find your copy here or at all good book shops.

About the Author

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Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller, and her second novel The Vanishing Half was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and in 2021, she was chosen as one of Time’s Next 100 Influential People. Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

Connect with Brit:

Website: https://britbennett.com/

Facebook: Brit Bennett Writes

Twitter: @britrbennett

Instagram: @britrbennett

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Guest Post: Layers: A Collection of Short Stories by Zuzanne Belec

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Eight short stories on the power of the human spirit.

Layers is a debut collection of imaginative short stories celebrating life and the human spirit despite the ever-present spectre of melancholy in our lives today. With their distinctive blend of wit and humour, they light up any underlying darkness. From the Americas to India, from Africa to Europe, and through a range of genres, voices and styles, layers are unraveled, revealing the textures and contrasts of old and new in the environments and cultures of today’s fast-paced world. With vivid descriptions, we are drawn into enchanting worlds with characters that leap off the page, leaving the reader lingering long after the pages have been read.

  • In The Christmas Charge: Instead of enjoying their Christmas preparing eggnog cream pie and sipping sherry by the fireside, three batty grannies go on an African safari. At this stage of wisdom in their lives, nothing can go wrong. Right?
  • In Paths Taken: When her grandmother ‘kills’ a man on a busy town square, Hecate is forced to face her worst fears and use her own unsettling powers to help her. But where will these new paths take her?
  • In White Noise: All Earl needs to do is hand his work over to his successor. But is it that easy to let go? And where does one hide from one’s inner noise when things go wrong?
  • In The Old Man and the Donkey: Deep in northern Portugal, an old man and his donkey go about their lonely routine. When an unexpected visitor shows up, everyone is given a new chance of happiness. But have they all been stubbornly avoiding it for too long?
  • In The Arctic Haze: Since he was little, bad luck has stuck to George’s soles like clingy dog mess. Some of us are luckier. Or are we really?
  • In Penny’s Purple Robot: A loving father exceeds himself to make his daughter happy after her mother passes away. But can he force himself to face a brutal truth?
  • In Mothers: Deep in Africa, a desperate mother accepts her own fate, but refuses to face an even harsher reality. Mothers will do anything for their young. And things may not be as they seem.
  • In Yeehaw: Running from their regular lives, Sam and Patsy end up in an artificial town – Yeehaw Theme Park. Will they find their true selves in this synthetic world?

If you like a minimalist and dark, yet humorous look at the contrasts we face in the world today, you will enjoy this collection of mixed-genre stories. 

Today I am delighted to welcome to the blog, Zuzanne Belec, who has very kindly written a guest post for me on the writing process behind her debut collection of short stories, Layers.

Now, over to Zuzanne for her guest post:

My writing process by Zuzanne Belec

How I began writing

To keep a very long story short: mine is not one of wanting to write ever since I was little. I’d always thought that writing was a gift allocated only to the gods. Also, times were busy, so there was no room for any creativity whatsoever (nor even for reading, besides the obligatory academic material).

And now suddenly I am a published author of Layers: A Collection of Short Stories. How could that happen when I hardly knew what creativity was? I haven’t a clue. All I can determine is that the creative energy must’ve been accumulating somewhere within me all those years, only to let off a major creative blast once the tornado that’s life had settled down. And what a mess this blast left behind – I had the urge to delve deep into creativity of all sorts and I didn’t know why, I didn’t know how. But I took it slowly, step by step and patiently learned the craft of writing over the years. And gradually that mess transformed into what is a published book today (which is not doing too shabbily in the reviews department either). See? Anything’s possible!

What inspires me

Among the creative splotches to clean up from the ceiling after that blast was the question of ‘what to write.’ I had no clue either. This is the point, perhaps, when my upbringing in the African bush came to the fore: I used that survival instinct and put to work all the senses to really ‘see’ the details of my surroundings, I began listening to the noise outside, the noise inside of me, and also to my creative urges. That’s when all the people and places I’d visited really began to ‘speak’ to me.  They showed me their hearts – both their joys and their tribulations. That is what inspires me the most, and which forms the basis for most of my stories: the contrasts and dynamics between nature, cultures and societies today. I especially enjoy taking a minimalist and, where possible, a humorous look at some of these dark realities.

We have a lot to learn from one another still, no matter whether we’re educated/uneducated, rich/poor, male/female/other, black/white, animal/human…  So here’s a big thank you to the people and places that have inspired me, and will still inspire me!

What I write

I admit that I began writing short stories because they said it’s the quickest way to learn the craft. Specifically contemporary mixed-genre stories – the best way to learn the genres! As difficult as writing short stories has turned out to be though, I really enjoy writing them. And the upside: I can get a lot more stories written in the time I have left.

Either way though, I like to keep my stories short. And I like to keep my stories simple.

Short because life is short. Because when it’s our time to go, we won’t go remembering the entire duration of our life. We will remember the short bits.  So, in this light, that’s what I try to capture in my short stories: small, memorable bits of life lived.

And simple because when it’s our time to go, we won’t be pondering all the detailed complexities of our lives – we will remember the simple things. And so, in this light too, my short stories attempt to reflect just that: simple, wonderful bits of life lived.   

All in all, it is just as Ali Smith says, “short stories consume you faster...” I like that brevity and impact.

I am trying my hand at the long form too, but I’m pretty hopeless at that still. I’m finding it very difficult to stay focused when I reach the more ‘long-winded’ filler, sections. Maybe I have a short attention span, I don’t know. Perhaps one day I’ll manage it though.  I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I still have some writing to do before I reach those 10 000 hours anyway…!

My writing process:

First thing every morning, after having my cup of tea, I do my morning pages (which I started doing about a decade ago after reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way). I owe a lot to them because I know that all those morning pages written over the years are what allowed me to connect with my creative side. Full stop. This ritual still yields surprises, with valuable ideas and insights still popping up every now and then. This is my favourite part of the day.

Once I have a story idea, this is how I develop it into a story: I determine the ‘why’ of the story using Jennie Nash’s excellent Author Accelerator method. Once I have this deep and solid foundation to build my story on, my next step is doing my character profiles. I use the OneStop writing tool for this. Then, with characters brought to life as deep as I can, I plot my story out using the GetPlottr visualization tool to make sure all my timelines, ages, dates, sequences, etc. correspond. Then I finally get down and write the actual story using that fabulous Scrivener.  See? Tools! Maybe one day, when I have more books behind me, I won’t need those tools to help me along my newbie path, but for now they’re a life saver!

Who are my favourite authors?

I still have many to catch up on, but a few of my favourites so far are George Saunders (mainly his excellent non-fiction), Theodor Seuss Geisel, Roald Dahl, Marina Lewycka, Niklos Kazantzakis, Terry Pratchett …. Oh, and Czech author Evzen Bocek, who is author of the hilarious Aristokratka series (unfortunately not translated into English yet).

Thank you for having me on, Julie, and giving me the opportunity to connect with your audience. And thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to check out this post. 

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On 3-5 May, 2021, Zuzanne’s highly rated collection of short stories, Layers, will be available to download for FREE on Amazon.  To get your eight short stories on the power of the human spirit during this period, please click here: https://books2read.com/u/4A77zd

To subscribe to her newsletter, get access to her members-only Zuu Zone, and receive a FREE download of her short story The UnAdorned – a warm, modern tale of ancient good, set in modern India – you can click here: https://zuzannebelec.com/books-and-signup/

About the Author

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Zuzanne is a writer, poet and translator who survived growing up with large critters in Africa.  She has two beautiful daughters, and now lives in the heart of Europe with her very patient partner.

Connect with Zuzanne:

Website: https://zuzannebelec.com

Twitter: @ZuzanneBelec  

Instagram: @zuzannebelec 

Pinterest: Zuzanne Belec

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Blog Tour: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint #BookReview

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Today, I am thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Ariadne by Jennifer Saint. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for allowing me to take part and to the publisher for my digital copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

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‘My story would not be one of death and suffering and sacrifice, I would take my place in the songs that would be sung about Theseus; the princess who saved him and ended the monstrosity that blighted Crete’

As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.

When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.

In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?

Ariadne gives a voice to the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, and speaks to their strength in the face of angry, petulant Gods. Beautifully written and completely immersive, this is an exceptional debut novel.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Greek myths and legends, a love which I seem to have passed on to my eldest daughter who reads every book of Greek mythology she can get her hands on and will, no doubt, pinch this now I have finished it. But most of the accounts I read when I was younger were all about the heroic feats of Greek heroes, and the temptations and misdoings of women, trying to impede the men, lead them astray, or were there simply to be rescued. How refreshing it has been to see the recent spate of books telling these stories from the female perspective, and Ariadne is the latest book to be added to this canon.

Here, Jennifer Saint has retold the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, but switching the perspective to that of the other central character in the story, Ariadne, whose contribution to the legend is essential but usually downplayed. In addition, this story goes beyond the simple story of Theseus slaying the Minotaur and takes us from Ariadne’s childhood in Crete, all the way to her marriage and motherhood, and encompasses the parallel story of her sister, Phaedra.

The author has placed herself firmly into the shoes of the two women featured in this book and imagined their lives in a way that translates quite startlingly on to the page in a way that will drag you back to the era and the palace of Knossos, to become totally immersed in what was happening. Imagine being brought up in the court of a stern and ruthless king, granddaughter of a god, sister to a monster, waiting to be used as a bargaining chip in the endless struggle for power. This is where this book takes us, and it doesn’t take much of a leap for the reader to feel what these girls must have been going through.

For this is a book that examines and laments the lot of women in Ancient Greece. Devoid of power, useful only insofar as men wanted them for their beauty and graces, at the mercy of those same virtues when some capricious god’s eye landed on them and decided to use them for their sport, and then to bear the brunt of the fallout of that sport. This is the underlying theme of the novel, how the women suffered and were punished for the misbehaviour and misdeeds, ambition and cruelty of the men – be they mortal or immortal – and what little ability they had to protect themselves.

Ariadne is a woman brought up under the shadow of a curse brought upon her family because of the behaviour of men – her father Minos and the god, Poseidon – but laid upon her mother who ended up birthing the monstrous Minotaur. She is aware from a young age how vulnerable women are, and how little agency they have, but she internally rails against this powerlessness, becoming slightly obsessed with Medusa, how she was treated, and the way she refused to take her punishment calmly. It ends up being no surprise when she rebels against the tyranny of her father and helps Theseus, only to be betrayed by Theseus soon after. Ariadne tries throughout her life to look out for herself, ever aware, ever reminding herself that all men, whether god or mortal, are the same and cannot be trusted.

The writing here is stunning, beautiful, rich, evocative and immersive. The book really brings Ancient Greece to life and gives us the characters we know from the myths as 3D, fully rounded people to whom it is very easy to relate. Such is the power of the writing that the book left me distraught and enraged on behalf of these women, so abused and mistreated and so unable to do anything about it, despite the internal strength they have, their intelligence and their awareness of their fragile situations. If this book doesn’t stir your internal feminist to roar, nothing will. A fabulous piece of work.

Ariadne is out now in hardback and ebook formats and will be out as an audiobook on 10 May and you can buy a copy here.

Make sure you follow the rest of the tour by visiting the blogs detailed below:

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About the Author

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Due to a lifelong fascination with Ancient Greek mythology, Jennifer Saint read Classical Studies at King’s College, London. She spent the next thirteen years as an English teacher, sharing a love of literature and creative writing with her students. ARIADNE is her first novel and she is working on another retelling of ancient myth for her second.

Connect with Jennifer:

Website: https://www.jennifersaint.com/

Facebook: Jennifer Saint Author

Twitter: @jennysaint

Instagram: @jennifer.saint.author

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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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