Desert Island Children’s Books: What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

CHILDREN'S

It’s time for my second pick of books I loved as a child and would want to take with me to a desert island for repeated readings. This month my chosen book is What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge.

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Katy has grand plans to be beautiful, graceful and ladylike … one day! But for now she has hair that is always tangled, bootlaces undone, a torn dress and she doesn’t care about being ‘good’.

With a wild imagination and high spirits, she is always up to mischief, but there never has been a heroine as lovable as Katy. Then a terrible accident happens and it takes all her courage – and hard-learned patience – to keep her dreams alive.

Next to Jo March from Little Women, Katy Carr was my favourite heroine growing up. A messy tomboy, she had a vivid imagination which she used to create stories and games for her gaggle of younger siblings, who all run riot over the Carr home and garden, much to the exasperation of prim Aunt Izzie.

I absolutely loved Katy and the Carr children, and was fascinated by their life and games. I wished we had a spiked pole to climb to a hidden den in the loft (although I didn’t think their special drink of ‘weak vinegar and water’ sounded like much of a treat!), and amazing swing that soared to the rafters of the woodshed, and a beautiful, woodland ‘Paradise’ to explore. It all sounded so idyllic.

Of course, Katy then has a terrible accident and is confined to bed which, for an active teenager, is torture and she has to learn hard lessons of patience and forbearance. But, with the guidance of saintly Cousin Helen, she soon becomes good and wise and a confidante and role model for all her siblings. This is the part of the book where it gets a bit preachy, in the same way that Little Women does, with lots of morals about being good and allowing God to guide you and virtue will be rewarded. This is no surprise, as Susan Coolidge wrote What Katy Did only a few years after the success of Little Women and at the request of her publisher, who was hoping to emulate that success. These were themes that were popular in Victorian children’s literature, which would grate with youngsters today, but did not remotely put me off as a child.

Going back to read this now, I can still see why I loved it so much when I was younger. I still enjoyed all the parts that were my favourites as a young girl – the picnics, the games, the Christmas presents (I still covet Elsie’s writing desk), the Valentines cards, the food and drink. All of these things would delight any child. My Macmillan Collector’s Library edition contains an introduction by Jacqueline Wilson, who was also a fan of the book and has written a modern retelling of the story called simply, KatyI agree with most of what she says about What Katy Did in her opening chapter, except that she lost interest in Katy when she started to grow up. I didn’t. I loved the sequels, What Katy Did At School and What Katy Did Next just as much as the first book.

I haven’t managed to persuade either of my daughters to embrace Katy as I did, even in the modern retelling by Jacqueline Wilson, and even though my eldest daughter is name Katie, a moniker I have loved since first reading these books. I think I can understand why, the world has moved on too far since then, but I love her still and plan on reading the sequels as well some time this year.

You can buy a copy of What Katy Did here.

About the Author

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Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (January 29, 1835 – April 9, 1905) was an American children’s author who wrote under the pen name Susan Coolidge.

Woolsey was born on January 29, 1835 into the wealthy, influential New England Dwight family, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father was John Mumford Woolsey (1796–1870) and her mother Jane Andrews, and author and poet Gamel Woolsey was her niece. She spent much of her childhood in New Haven Connecticut after her family moved there in 1852.[1]

Woolsey worked as a nurse during the American Civil War (1861–1865), after which she started to write. She never married, and resided at her family home in Newport, Rhode Island, until her death. She edited The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delaney (1879) and The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney (1880).

She is best known for her classic children’s novel What Katy Did (1872). The fictional Carr family was modelled after her own, with Katy Carr inspired by Woolsey herself. The brothers and sisters were modelled on her four younger siblings

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Desert Island Books with… Lizzie Lamb

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Today’s literary castaway, stranded on a deserted beach with only five books and one luxury item to keep her company, is author, Lizzie Lamb. Let’s see what she has chosen from all the books even written as the ones she would like to be stuck with indefinitely, shall we?

Book One – Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

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Hero Wantage is desperate to change her fate.

When the dashing Lord Sherry proposes out of the blue, Hero is overjoyed – she’ll escape a life as a governess and, once they wed, he can finally claim his inheritance.

But as Hero attempts to social climb in glamorous London society, Sherry is concerned that her naivety will ruin them both and takes drastic action.

The chaos that follows will push friendships – and hearts – to breaking point.

Before Pride and Prejudice hit our screens, Georgette Heyer was my go-to author for Regency romances. I bought my copy of Friday’s Child for 3/6 (17p) back in 1965 and it was passed round the sixth form as we laughed at the antics of the characters and relived their adventures. The characters and historical background of ‘the ton’ and the slang which Heyer has down to a tee are what make the novel for me. Especially Ferdy who believes he is being stalked by a Greek because he’s told that one day he will ‘meet his ‘Nemesis’. Also, who could resist unsophisticated Hero Wantage who agrees to enter a marriage of convenience with Regency Buck Lord Sheringham whom she’s secretly loved all her life. And, as is the way with these things, she reforms him and don’t they say reformed rakes make the best husbands? I used to re-read this book when I was feeling down or recovering from the flu etc. so it’s practically falling apart. I could buy a new copy, but where’s the fun in that? I’ve never tired of it so I guess it belongs on my desert island with me. Through its pages I can dance a cotillion, ride in a curricle accompanied by my Tiger and become the toast of the Bath.

Quite simply – Bridgerton, without the sex.

Book Two – Emily by Jilly Cooper 

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If Emily hadn’t gone to Annie Richmond’s party, she would never have met the impossible irresistible Rory Balniel – never have married him and been carried off to the wild Scottish island of Irasa to live in his ancestral home along with his eccentric mother, Coco, and the dog, Walter Scott.

She’d never have met the wild and mysterious Marina, a wraith from Rory’s past, nor her brother, the disagreeable Finn Maclean; never have spent a night in a haunted highland castle, or been caught stealing roses in a see-through nightie…

Yes, it all started at Annie Richmond’s party.

As a writer of romantic comedy, how could I leave Jilly Cooper behind on the sinking ship? Just as I’d finished reading all the Georgette Heyers and ploughed my way through historical novels thick enough to be used as doorstops, I discovered Jilly. Emily was her first romance and, back in the day before Amazon was a blot on the horizon, word of it spread via my book-devouring besties. As a newlywed, impoverished probationary teacher trying to renovate a wreck of a house after of a long day at the chalk face I needed light relief. Jilly provided just that. She described a world of fashionable parties in Chelsea, wild Scottish islands, highland estates, hasty marriages to impossible, irresistible heroes, glamorous ex-girlfriends determined to break up Emily and her new husband Rory Balniel. There’s plenty of hilarious escapades and Jilly’s delicious puns to keep me  turning the pages. There’s even a serpent in Eden in the form of Finn Maclean who threatens to wreck Emily’s happiness. The icing on the cake? I met Jilly three years ago at an RNA party and she was everything I hoped she’d be. She kissed me, called me Darling Lizzie and thanked ME for buying her books and remaining a loyal fan over the years. She’s the ideal companion for a desert island but if I can’t take her, I’ll take Emily along instead.

Book Three – Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson

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Our neighbours divide into the haves … and the have yachts.

Meet Mimi and Clare, two married women making the most of their Notting Hill postcode. New best friends, and close neighbours, that doesn’t stop them being rivals, in fact it compels it. Both are aspiring Notting Hill Mummies (Clare needs the baby, Mimi needs the six figure income) and, keeping up with all the area’s fads, fashions and fabulousness is a full-time job.

But the arrival of sexy billionaire Si in their exclusive communal garden strains loyalty to friends, family, spouse and feng-shui guru alike … and only one of them can win.

But who will that be? Clare or Mimi? Are they friends, or just…neighbours?

I adored the movie Notting Hill (1999) so when Rachel Johnson wrote Notting Hell I bought it straight away. It bridged the gap between one Jilly Cooper bonk buster and the next and, inadvertently, provided me with the inspiration for the opening scenes of my rom com – Tall, Dark and Kilted. The novel gave me an insight into the lives of those who shared upmarket communal gardens surrounded by three story houses in sugar almond colours. For that alone I’m taking it along with me to my desert island. In 2006, the year I took early retirement from teaching to concentrate on my writing, I bought a ticket which permitted me to enter the private Notting Hill gardens (including the one where the movie was filmed) and provided me with invaluable research material. There’s also a twist in the tail which I’ll pretend I don’t see coming. As for the novel, I’ve forgotten most of the shenanigans so it’ll be fun to reacquaint myself with Yummy Mummies, high achievers who shopped in Westbourne Road, midnight rendezvous in the bosky gardens, and the secrets the residents are hiding behind their shuttered windows. I’d love another chance to look round those gardens . . . maybe I will once I’ve been rescued from my desert island.

Book Four – Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford 

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The Mitford family is one of the century’s most enigmatic, made notorious by Nancy’s novels, Diana’s marriage to Sir Oswald Mosley, Unity’s infatuation with Hitler, Debo’s marriage to a duke and Jessica’s passionate commitment to communism.

Hons and Rebels is an enchanting and deeply absorbing memoir of an isolated and eccentric upbringing which conceals beneath its witty, light-hearted surface much wisdom and depth of feeling.

I was first attracted to this novel because I’d read about the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Deborah, Diana, Unity, Pamela and Jessica and their brother Tom in a Sunday Times colour supplement and was intrigued to learn more about the eccentric family. Jessica’s sisters (Diana and Unity) and her parents supported Hitler, Diana and her husband Oswald Mosley were gaoled for their support of the fascist cause while Jessica married her cousin Esmond, fought in the Spanish Civil War, joined the communist party and went to live in America. But Hons and Rebels it isn’t a heavy political treatise, it tells the story of a vanished way of life and reads less like an autobiography and more like a family saga. When I read it on my desert island I’ll be whisked away from the South Seas (that’s where I choose to be shipwrecked) to the misty Cotswolds, an ancient manor house, quaint towns and villages and experience once again the feeling of standing on the threshold of time (1939) aware of what lay ahead, even if the Mitfords didn’t.

Book Five – The Flight of the Heron (Trilogy) by D.K. Broster

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It is 1745, and the Jacobite rebellion is on the rise.

Ewen Cameron, a principled young Scottish Highlander, is destined and honoured to serve Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young Pretender, and to help the ‘rightful King’ ascend to the British throne.

Major Keith Windham is a career soldier with the English Army – seemingly the antithesis of Ewen. He is jaded, worldly and loyal to the Crown but, ultimately, an outsider.

Their fates are linked inextricably when a highland prophecy tells Ewen that the flight of a heron will predict five meetings with an Englishman who will cause him much harm but also render a great service.     

Ewen is sceptical, but the prophecy proves true when he meets Englishman Keith Windham – and a gripping tale of adventure, danger and true and lasting friendship is set into motion.

Both are men who are willing to die for their honour and their beliefs. Each is on an opposing side. But who will emerge the victor?

My last choice is a bit of a cheat because it’s part of a trilogy: The Flight of the Heron, The Gleam in the North and The Dark Mile. It is the haunting, romantic story of the men and women who, in 1745, joined Bonnie Prince Charlie after he raised his standard at Glenfinnan. A few years ago I visited Glenfinnan and looked towards the valley now spanned by the famous Harry Potter Bridge (aka the Glenfinnan viaduct) where  in 1745 Cameron of Locheil led five hundred clansmen through the valley, pipes playing and banners waving to pledge themselves to the Jacobite cause. In many way the book was a forerunner for Highlander, Braveheart and Outlander, but in my opinion it surpasses them all in depth and historical scope. It was also the first time I’d encountered Scots Gaelic and I learned some of the phrases by heart.  My copy has nine-hundred-and-fifty-five pages, so I won’t be stuck for reading material. There’s also a romance running through the trilogy, as does the unlikely friendship between Ewan Cameron and Major Wyndham, an officer in King George’s army. 

The books I’ve chosen show my love of history, comedy, romance and an interest in worlds/times other than my own. When I left teaching everyone thought I would write children’s books. Not so . . . However –  my latest novel, Harper’s Highland Fling, published November 2020 features a headmistress who . . .Well, I’ll let the blurb do the talking for me.

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Finally, I would take a machete with me to build shelter, fend off wild animals and make myself clothes out of large (!) flat leaves of plants I find growing in the jungle.

About Lizzie Lamb

Lizzie Lamb

After teaching her 1000th pupil and working as a deputy head teacher in a large primary school, Lizzie decided to pursue her first love: writing. She joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme, wrote Tall, Dark and Kilted (2012), quickly followed by Boot Camp Bride. She went on to publish Scotch on the Rocks, which achieved Best Seller status within two weeks of appearing on Amazon and her next novel, Girl in the Castle, reached #3 in the Amazon charts. Lizzie is a founder member of indie publishing group – New Romantics Press, and has hosted author events at Aspinall, St Pancras and Waterstones, Kensington, talking about the research which underpins her novels. Lizzie romance Take Me, I’m Yours, set in Wisconsin, also achieved BEST SELLER status >travel>USA. Her latest novel – Harper’s Highland Fling – has been declared her ‘best one yet’ by readers and reviewers. In it, two warring guardians are forced to join forces and set off in hot pursuit of a runaway niece and son. She has further Scottish-themed romances planned and spends most of the summer touring the Scottish Highlands researching men in kilts. As for the years she spent as a teacher, they haven’t quite gone to waste as she is building a reputation as a go-to speaker on indie publishing, and how to plan, write, and publish your debut novel.

Lizzie lives in Leicestershire (UK) with her husband, David.

She loves to hear from readers, so do get in touch . . .

You can read an extract of Lizzie’s latest novel, Harper’s Highland Fling here and the book is available in ebook and paperback format here.

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After a gruelling academic year, head teacher Harper MacDonald is looking forward to a summer holiday trekking in Nepal.

However, her plans are scuppered when wayward niece, Ariel, leaves a note announcing that she’s running away with a boy called Pen. The only clue to their whereabouts is a footnote: I’ll be in Scotland.

Cue a case of mistaken identity when Harper confronts the boy’s father – Rocco Penhaligon, and accuses him of cradle snatching her niece and ruining her future. At loggerheads, Harper and Rocco set off in hot pursuit of the teenagers, but the canny youngsters are always one step ahead. And, in a neat twist, it is the adults who end up in trouble, not the savvy teenagers.

Fasten your seatbelt for the road trip of your life! It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Connect with Lizzie:

Website: https://lizzielamb.co.uk/

Facebook: Lizzie Lamb Writer

Twitter: @lizzie_lamb

Instagram: @lizzielambwriter

Pinterest: Lizzie Lamb

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Desert Island Books with… Christina Courtenay

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It’s time for me to send another unsuspecting character off to my lovely but deserted island, with only five books and one luxury item to keep them company. This week I have packed off author Christina Courtenay, let’s see what she has chosen to take with her.

Thank you so much for inviting me, Julie! I have to say that it’s incredibly difficult to choose just five books to take with me, but I have gone with my absolute all-time favourites and they should keep me going for a long time on that desert island!  I’m rather hoping the island is in the Outer Hebrides or somewhere equally chilly, as I’m not a huge fan of hot weather, although I suppose if I’m surrounded by a tropical ocean I can always cool off easily enough 😊

Book One – Cotillion by Georgette Heyer

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Kitty Charing’s life-changing inheritance comes with a catch.

Her eccentric and childless guardian, Mr. Penicuik, is leaving Kitty all of his vast fortune – but with one condition. She must marry one of his five grand-nephews.

However, Kitty’s clear favourite – the rakish Jack Westruther – doesn’t appear at all interested in the arrangement. To make Jack jealous, Kitty impulsively convinces his cousin, the kind-hearted and chivalrous Freddy Standen, to enter into a pretend engagement.

But the more time she spends with Freddy, the more Kitty wonders whether Jack is the right choice after all…

This is my ultimate comfort read and my absolute favourite Heyer book. I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but I enjoy it just as much each time. In this story she turns her usual alpha male hero plot on its head and instead it’s the unlikely Freddy Standen who gets to be the true hero. At first, the reader can’t possibly imagine it, but as the story progresses, he proves to have hidden strengths. The humour in this book is also second to none – definitely Heyer at her very best! I’ll never tire of reading this and it will cheer me up if I’m feeling down.

Book Two – Midnight is a Lonely Place by Barbara Erskine

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After a broken love affair, biographer Kate Kennedy retires to a remote cottage on the wild Essex coast to work on her new book, until her landlord’s daughter uncovers a Roman site nearby and long-buried passions are unleashed…

In her lonely cottage, Kate is terrorized by mysterious forces. What do these ghosts want? Should the truth about the violent events of long ago be exposed or remain concealed? Kate must struggle for her life against earthbound spirits and ancient curses as hate, jealousy, revenge and passion do battle across the centuries…

I might have to read this one in broad daylight, even if I’m totally alone on that island, as it scares me half to death each time, but it’s one of the most perfect timeslip stories I’ve ever read. The ghostly phenomena are chilling and feel incredibly real – I always imagine myself in that remote place being haunted by a long-dead Roman hellbent on revenge. The romance is poignant and there is something so satisfying in finding that good triumphs over evil – I love that!

Book Three – The Winter Sea (aka Sophia’s Secret) by Susanna Kearsley

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A hauntingly beautiful tale of love that transcends time: an American writer travels to Scotland to craft a novel about the Jacobite Rebellion, only to discover her own ancestral memories of that torrid moment in Scottish history…

In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown. When young Sophia Paterson travels to Slains Castle by the sea, she finds herself in the midst of the dangerous intrigue.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of that historic Scottish castle, she starts to write. But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be the only living person who knows the truth–the ultimate betrayal–that happened all those years ago.

This is another absolutely perfect timeslip story, although a lot less terrifying. It’s a wonderful, gentle read that just sweeps you along and it’s the only book in the last twenty years to have made me cry (in a good way) when I read the ending. It is set during the beginning of the Jacobite rebellions, an era that fascinates me, and it’s so incredibly emotional and romantic. I could reread this forever and still never get enough of it!

Book Four – Brother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters

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The cloistered walls of Shrewsbury Abbey have always protected Brother Cadfael from the raging Civil War. But when fighting escalates between Empress Maud and King Stephen, the war takes a deadly step closer to him.

Taken prisoner in the battle for Maud’s land is Olivier de Bretagne, Brother Cadfael’s own son- born as a result of a brief encounter thirty years earlier. Now Brother Cadfael resolves to plead for his son’s release at a peace conference scheduled to take place in Coventry; but there is no sign of Olivier there.

After much soul searching, Cadfael makes the difficult decision to break his monastic vows, leaving Coventry without permission- because he knows he must do everything in his power to find his son.

The twentieth and final instalment in Ms Peters’ series about the clever thirteenth century monk was everything I had hoped it would be. Having followed him through the entire series, and knowing that he had loose ends to tie up, I’d hoped that would happen in this story and I wasn’t disappointed. There is something incredibly satisfying in taking a long journey with a character and then leaving them exactly at a point in their lives where you know they’ll be ok. Whenever I finish this, I give a happy sigh and the characters stay in my mind for a long time.

Book Five – Shadow of the Moon by M M Kaye

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Shadow of the Moon is the story of Winter de Ballesteros, a beautiful English heiress who has come to India to be married. It is also the tale of Captain Alex Randall, her escort and protector, who knows that Winter’s husband to be has become a debauched wreck of a man.

When India bursts into flaming hatreds and bitter bloodshed during the dark days of the Mutiny, Alex and Winter are thrown unwillingly together in the brutal and urgent struggle for survival.

I think this can only be described as an epic historical, set against the backdrop of colonial India during the Mutiny. It is thrilling, exciting and wonderfully romantic, and the heroine is one of the strongest I’ve ever encountered (plus I love her name – Winter). I love history and you certainly get to really live through it vicariously here. Although it’s a very long book, it keeps me spellbound every time I pick it up. It will definitely help to pass the time on my remote island!

My luxury item

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A Swiss Army knife (or other similar multi-purpose tool) – the largest one available – would probably come in very handy for building, cutting and cooking etc. They seem to contain just about every imaginable tool all cleverly tucked in.

About Christine Courtenay

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Christina Courtenay writes historical romance, time slip and time travel stories, and lives in Herefordshire (near the Welsh border) in the UK. Although born in England, she has a Swedish mother and was brought up in Sweden – hence her abiding interest in the Vikings. Christina is a former chairman of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association and has won several awards, including the RoNA for Best Historical Romantic Novel twice with Highland Storms (2012) and The Gilded Fan (2014).  The Runes of Destiny (time travel published by Headline 10th December 2020) is her latest novel. Christina is a keen amateur genealogist and loves history and archaeology (the armchair variety).

Christina’s latest book is The Runes of Destiny, a Viking time travel story published by Headline Review which you can buy here.

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Separated by time. Brought together by fate.

‘Linnea felt a shiver travel the length of her spine. It hadn’t been a joke – the runes really had shown her destiny.’

Indulging her fascination for the Viking language and losing herself in an archaeological dig is just what Linnea Berger needs after her recent trauma. Uncovering an exquisite brooch, she blacks out reading the runic inscription, only to come to, surrounded by men in Viking costume, who seem to take re-enactment very seriously.

Lost and confused, Linnea finds herself in the power of Hrafn, a Viking warrior who claims her as his thrall and takes her on a treacherous journey across the seas to sell her for profit. Setting sail, she confronts the unthinkable: she has travelled back to the ninth century.

Linnea is determined to find a way back to her own time, but there’s a connection forming with Hrafn. Can she resist the call of the runes and accept her destiny lies here …

Connect with Christina:

Website: http://www.christinacourtenay.com

Facebook: Christina Courtenay Author

Twitter: @PiaCCourtenay

Instagram: @ChristinaCourtenayAuthor

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Book Review: We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker

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Thirty years ago, Vincent King became a killer.

Now, he’s been released from prison and is back in his hometown of Cape Haven, California. Not everyone is pleased to see him. Like Star Radley, his ex-girlfriend, and sister of the girl he killed.

Duchess Radley, Star’s thirteen-year-old daughter, is part-carer, part-protector to her younger brother, Robin – and to her deeply troubled mother. But in trying to protect Star, Duchess inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will have tragic consequences not only for her family, but also the whole town.

Murder, revenge, retribution.

How far can we run from the past, when the past seems doomed to repeat itself?

How to begin to review this book? I don’t know how I’m going to do it justice, to be honest. It was my first read of the year, and I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to write this review for almost three weeks. There is so much I want to convey about my feelings, and not the words to do it adequately. Still, I can put it off no longer, so here we go.

This book is ostensibly a thriller, spanning a period of decades, and it works extremely well purely on that level. Thirty years ago a murder shook a small town to its foundations and had lasting consequences for everyone closely connected with the case, and down into the next generation. It has robbed Duchess Radley and her brother of a stable family life, and of police chief, Walk, of his best friend and peace of mind. And now the man convicted of the crime is about to be released from prison and return to Cape Haven. This is the catalyst for massive upheaval in the community and a new spate of disturbances that affect all the main players all over again to devastating effect.

The plot of the thriller is complex and surprising, with twists and turns you will not see coming, but it offers more than a straight forward mystery. We are shown the wider consequences of crime, the cause and effect, the life-altering repercussions it has for so many people, not just the victim and perpetrator. How it changes people, rips apart families, ripples through a community as a whole, and is felt for many, many years after the events took place. It is such a considered approach to telling the story of crime that you have to admire the author’s skill, and it rewards the reader with a more cerebral experience than you might usually expect. It will provoke a lot of ruminating on the nature and consequences of both crime and the way we punish criminals in anyone who chooses to take a considered approach.

But this book is so much more than a simple thriller, and it is in the development and examination of the characters that the true beauty and appeal of this book lies. Chris Whitaker has created real people here who will not only get under your skin, but also into your heart and will haunt your thoughts for days, even weeks, after you have finished the novel.

The story is told by two people. The first is the police chief, Walk. As a boy, he was best friends with the person accused of killing Sissy Radley. Thirty years later, he is the chief of police in Cape Haven, faced with having to integrate a murderer back into the life of a town that doesn’t want him, look out for his great friend, Star Radley, when her sister’s killer is released, all the while not being able to reconcile the idea that his childhood friend is a murderer. This is a man at war with himself, torn between his job and firm sense of justice and responsibility to the town, and ingrained loyalty to his childhood companions. Walk’s struggle permeates every page of the book. We watch as the battling sides of his conscience inform his actions, and the impact that has on other players in the story. We ask ourselves constantly is he is doing the right thing. What would we do in his position? Is life always as black and white as we comfortably view it from a distance? Of course, it isn’t and we live that struggle through Walk’s eyes throughout the book. It is such a clever and impelling mechanism for conveying ideas and issues for the reader to grapple with.

The other narrator is Duchess Radley, niece of the murder victim and a girl whose life has been shaped entirely by events that pre-dated her birth and over which she has no control. The murder of her aunt has made her who she is, pre-ordained her circumstances and opportunities, even though she never knew her, and it is monstrously unfair.

Duchess Radley is the most extraordinary character I have ever come across in a novel. I can’t think of another who has affected me so profoundly as she has. She has completely wormed her way into my psyche to the point where I was feeling every single emotion she was going through. As a consequence, parts of this book almost cracked my heart in two. We get to see what has created this  bravado shell she puts up against a world that has been against her since the day she was born, but we also get to see the terrified child underneath, the beautiful love she has for the little brother she protects like a fierce momma bear, and her longing for someone to take her burdens from her shoulders, but her suspicion of a world, and people, who have failed her at every turn before. It is so beautiful and honest but totally soul-destroying at the same time. No child should be in this position, the world asks too much of her, and yet her resilience is amazing. We know there are children in the world suffering in similar ways, and it is shameful. The author has created in Duchess one of the most perfect and memorable and truly successful characters that has every really lived on the page and I know she will stay with me for a long, long time.

This is a book, ultimately, about love and loss and consequence. About family and friendship and the bonds we build with people throughout our lives in different ways, and how strong those bonds can be in the face of adversity. And about sacrifice. About what we are prepared to give up to protect the people we love most in the world and allow them to thrive, no matter what the personal cost to ourselves. It is the most extraordinary feat of novel-writing and I urge everyone to pick up a copy as soon as you can. You won’t find a much more rewarding and moving reading experience anywhere.

We Begin At The End is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Chris Whitaker is the award winning author of Tall Oaks and All The Wicked Girls. Both books were published to widespread critical acclaim, with Tall Oaks going on to win the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.

His latest novel, We Begin At The End, is available now.

Chris lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and two young sons.

Connect with Chris:

Website: https://chriswhitaker.com/

Twitter: @WhittyAuthor

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Desert Island Books with… Diane Chandler

Desert Island Books

Welcome to my first guest Desert Island Books feature of 2021 and I am delighted to have stranded author Diane Chandler on my remote island today. Im hoping it’s a bit warmer there than it is here at the moment!

First of all, let me congratulate you on being crowned an RNA Media Start of 2020! What a wonderful accolade. On reading your blog, I was astounded that you read nearly 200 books last year, many of them as part of your book blogging role. The blogging community provide such an incredible support in nurturing newly published books which is so appreciated. 

And thank you too for inviting me to share my five favourite books. I don’t get through half as many as you each year, Julie, but still it’s so hard to choose when you’re an avid reader, isn’t it? For a big birthday a few years back, a friend gifted me this oil painting of the spines of my favourite books. It hangs proudly in my kitchen and I often find myself gazing at it and diving back into all those fabulous reads. Now, some years on, there would be another 20 to add to these, but I’ll happily choose a few books from this painting to read over and over again on my sunny desert island.

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Book One – The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguru

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In the summer of 1956, Stevens, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the countryside and into his past . . .

A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House, of lost causes and lost love.

On arrival in the tropics (where I hope my island would be) I’d like to settle down on the sand and begin with what I call a ‘quiet’ novel. Set in the late 1930s, The Remains of the Day is about a head butler, Stevens, who proudly presides over his staff at a lavish English country house and serves his master, Lord Darlington, with an unquestioning loyalty. One might even say with a certain blindness, as war gathers on the fringes of their languid existence. When Miss Kenton arrives as the chief housekeeper, she and Stevens develop a professional friendship, which he treats with the utmost propriety. And in so doing, he misses out on love. Some twenty years later, he takes a drive to visit Miss Kenton who has moved across the country and yet still carries a torch for him, and once again he fails to seize the opportunity for love which is staring him in the face. 

The writing is sumptuous, slowly drawing readers in and moving us deeply. Very little happens, and yet everything is happening inside the hearts and minds of the characters. And, astoundingly, the author’s mother tongue is Japanese. I teach creative writing alongside my publisher, Stephanie Zia, and we stress the importance of a character’s journey; that there should be some change within them by the novel’s end. Yet Stevens is a character who does not change – and that is the very point with this novel, leaving the reader with a lingering sense of what might have been.

Book Two – The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver 

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This story is told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959.

They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it – from garden seeds to Scripture – is calamitously transformed on African soil.

Having gazed out to sea for a while to let that novel settle, eventually I would shuffle up against a palm tree, and be ready to tackle my next choice. The Poisonwood Bible is about an American family of four daughters who move to Africa, swept along to another continent without choice by their missionary father, who is working to convert African souls to Christianity. This ignorant man is totally oblivious to the culture and values of the African villagers, and there are many entertaining moments where they exhibit their superior intelligence. The mother, meanwhile, tries her best to cushion the existence of her daughters against the harsh conditions in which they find themselves (including the odd deadly snake or two…) For me, this was a wonderfully emotional read. I used to work in overseas aid, including a stint on the Africa desk and always love to read books set in Africa. Moreover, increasingly in the publishing world I hear that, ‘the only goal for an author is to create emotion in their reader’ and boy does this book do that. It’s a little hard to get into, as one of the daughters has developed her own special language and it is she we meet first, but we soon get used to her code.

The opening line of the novel is also a gem. At our creative writing workshops we often study the opening lines of novels – that all-important first hook. The Poisonwood Bible opens with the line, ‘Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.’ A mysterious opening if ever there was one! I would definitely be reading this book again and again… and hoping there were no snakes sharing my desert island with me!

Book Three – We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

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Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of a boy named Kevin who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who had tried to befriend him.

Now, two years after her son’s horrific rampage, Eva comes to terms with her role as Kevin’s mother in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband Franklyn about their son’s upbringing. Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about motherhood. How much is her fault?

In Lionel Shriver’s hands this sensational, chilling and memorable story of a woman who raised a monster becomes a metaphor for the larger tragedy – the tragedy of a country where everything works, nobody starves, and anything can be bought but a sense of purpose.

I think I’d be ready then to speed up the pace and danger somewhat, and would turn to this novel about a mother and her son, Kevin, who carries out a mass murder at his American high school. We follow their journey from his birth to imprisonment. Not only is it brilliantly written – the language, the pace, the structure – but its theme of nature or nurture; whether her son Kevin was born evil or whether he became bad as he grew up, is explored in fascinating and forensic depth. I read it just after I’d had my daughter and was struggling to cope at home – and it blew me away. Well, you bring yourself to a novel, don’t you? And I brought myself to this one as a fragile new mother, wanting only the best for my baby and devoting all my days to her needs (albeit struggling with that). And I concluded that the mother in this novel was ultimately a bad mother; that she lacked empathy and, above all, generosity of spirit towards her son. 

Some years later, I came to the book again during a creative writing class, where we deconstructed it, chapter by chapter, to explore how Lionel Shriver had built this amazing novel. And once again, I found myself completely absorbed and oblivious to the author’s techniques, simply sucked in by her story-telling. As a writer, you tend to vaguely deconstruct novels as you read – what was their purpose with such and such a chapter? How did they move the plot or character forward? But I’m sure I could read this novel again and again and still be unaware of the stupendous ending I’m about to come upon. Interestingly, Lionel Shriver was not a mother herself when she penned it, which makes it a stunning feat of imagination too. At my book club, recently, we were discussing American Dirt, including the controversy of ‘cultural appropriation’ surrounding it. (American author, Jeannie Cummins’ first person protagonist is a Mexican woman escaping to the USA, and many Latinx people criticised her for audaciously believing she understood what it was to be a Mexican.) We all agreed that so many books would not be here without such incredible stretches of imagination – including We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Book Four – The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink

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For 15-year-old Michael Berg, a chance meeting with an older woman leads to far more than he ever imagined. The woman in question is Hanna, and before long they embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. For Hanna is not all she seems.

Years later, as a law student observing a trial in Germany, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna. The woman he had loved is a criminal. Much about her behaviour during the trial does not make sense. But then suddenly, and terribly, it does – Hanna is not only obliged to answer for a horrible crime, she is also desperately concealing an even deeper secret.

After a calming walk around the island, I‘d be ready to settle down again for something ‘quiet’. When I was a student of modern languages many decades ago, I spent a summer living in West Berlin. This was when the Berlin Wall was still standing – and indeed a period of tension between East and West. I absolutely loved living and working in such an exciting city and since then have been a sucker for any novel set in post-war Germany. Especially an exquisite love story. The Reader is such a love story – but with an incredible twist. Set just after the second world war, it’s about a fifteen-year old boy who is seduced by a voluptuous German woman in her thirties. They spend the summer making glorious love in her apartment, after which the boy reads to her – novels, poetry, anything beautiful – because, as it transpires, she cannot read. And then suddenly the woman disappears. One day the boy arrives at her flat to find it vacant and emptied of all her possessions. Many years later, during the infamous Nazi War Trials, the boy is a law student and taken to watch one of the criminal trials by his tutor. There, in the dock, is the woman. To say more would be too much of a spoiler – perhaps I’ve gone too far already ☺ but this is a sumptuous novel of huge depth. Translated from the German. 

Book Five – Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

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1910. Amiens, Northern France. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in the French city to stay with the Azaire family. He falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle and the two enter a tempestuous love affair. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters.

With his love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front and enters the unimaginable dark world beneath the trenches of No Man’s Land. From award-winning writer Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is an exceptionally moving and unforgettable portrait of the ruthlessness of war and the indestructability of love.

I first read Birdsong when I was in my twenties and caught up in the excitement of living abroad in Brussels, with the emphasis firmly on fun. By day, I worked as a political lobbyist, by night, I partied – and at the weekends we would head off to Paris, or Amsterdam for all that these cities had to offer. Such a hedonistic and carefree existence. And then I read Birdsong. The opening chapters are about an equally carefree young man, Stephen, who arrives in Amiens with his job and lodges with a well-to-do family. He begins a torrid affair with the unhappily married wife, a tale of lust and burning love which we readers experience in all its sizzling detail. And then, World War One breaks out, and Stephen finds himself recruited to the trenches, going over the top, firing and being fired at. 

And this change in his fortunes was something of an epiphany for me and my callow self. To think that all those doddery old men, who paraded or were pushed in wheelchairs at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, were once vivacious young men, alive with lust and vigour. My respect for the whole world grew – and I too grew up. It is this juxtaposition in the novel that has always stayed with me. I’m actually not very good at re-reading novels, because I remember them well and there is no discovery second-time around, but this is one I have returned to. Perhaps, in fact, this is my favourite novel of all.  

My luxury item

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Well, my gorgeous ragdoll cat, George, is one of my special comforts in life, but I see he’s not allowed. So I’d opt for my laptop and indulge in my passion of writing. After all that heavy reading I’d need to laugh at George’s @catsdoingbooks antics on Instagram too. But I guess there’d have to be some power source to charge it, so maybe that’s a naughty choice too…?!

About Diane Chandler

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Diane Chandler’s first novel, The Road to Donetsk, draws on her experience of managing overseas aid programmes, and won the People’s Book Prize. Her second, Moondance, tackles the emotional impact of IVF fertility treatment on a loving couple. Only Human, her third novel, is about a woman struggling to find meaning in life after her husband cheats on her and her only daughter is about to fly the nest. Diane co-runs Creative Writing Workshops London with Stephanie Zia of Blackbird Digital Books, and also coaches aspiring writers. She is the host of http://www.Chiswickbuzz.net Book Club, Words with Wine in W4

Diane also co-runs Creative Writing Workshops London and they have just devised a host of new online workshops, on topics from eg. the use of colour, texture, sounds/smells/taste, to eg. voice, self-editing and getting published. They also continue with our workshops for beginners – on character, plot, dialogue and setting. Each stand-alone session costs £20. Small, safe groups of max 6 participants – and nobody has to read out unless they wish to. More details at their website.

Although Diane loves to read literary fiction, her three novels are commercial women’s fiction and the latest, Only Human, came out in September 2020 during a lucky lull in the pandemic. Published by Blackbird Books, it is set in West London and is about a middle-aged woman, Anna, who gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mum. Her daughter is now chopping at the apron strings and she’s just discovered that her husband of 20 years is having an affair. What should she do next with her life? You can buy a copy of the book here.

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The Bonds are, seemingly, a tight family unit, until one fateful summer when the temptations of lust and love come for them all…

Tiger mum Anna, who gave up her career to build the perfect home life in London’s leafy Chiswick, is shocked to the core when she discovers that her husband of 20 years is having an affair.

Her daughter meanwhile is transforming into a tricky teen chopping at the apron strings.

Then Jack walks into their lives. Sophie’s first boyfriend is a breath of fresh air for the whole family and Anna gradually discovers new purpose for herself.

But when yet more deceit creeps in, tensions soar.

Anna is propelled through a tangled web of secrets and lies towards a devastating climax.

Connect with Diane:

Website: https://www.dianechandlerauthor.com

Facebook: Diane Chandler Author

Twitter: @Dchandlerauthor

Instagram: @dianechandlerauthor

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Desert Island Children’s Books

CHILDREN'S

Last year I had such fun listing and re-reading the twelve books that I would take with me to a desert island that it spawned a whole new guest blog feature and, I have decided to do it all over again this year, but with children’s books. Yes, this is nothing more than a thinly disguised excuse to read my childhood favourites over the course of the year, and I am totally unapologetic for that. In these turbulent times, what could be more natural and comforting than to retreat to the warmth of the books that saw you safely through childhood?

The premise is the same as last year. I will be revealing and reviewing the twelve children’s books that I would take with me, should I be stranded alone forever on a desert island. One per month throughout the coming year. I’ll tell you what it is I particularly love about them; why they are the books that I read over and over again as a child, and why they still speak to me as an adult, and what I continue to love about them.

I will be reading one of my twelve picks per month and reviewing it on the last day of the month but, like last year, I am trailing the twelve by listing the thirteen books that almost, but didn’t quite, make the final cut. Some of my all-time favourites, that I would be loathe to leave behind but had to sacrifice to make room for the top dozen.

Let’s kick off shall we.

Pony Club Camp by Josephine Pullein-Thompson

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The last glorious swansong of the West Barsetshire Pony Club sees the Major run a camp for the Pony Club members.

Noel and Henry have now left school and have returned as instructors to deal with the loose and the runaway, and that’s just the ponies. The Pony Club members are even worse. 

As a pony-mad girl in the early eighties, the books written by the Pullein-Thompson sisters were a staple of my childhood library, and Pony Club Camp was my absolute favourite. This story of camping with ponies, doing horseback treasure hunts and gymkhanas, was aspirational and the day I finally went to Pony Club Camp myself was a dream come true, even though it wasn’t quite as chaotic as the one in the book!

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

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The Borrowers live in the secret places of quiet old houses; behind the mantelpiece, inside the harpsichord, under the kitchen clock. They own nothing, borrow everything, and think that human beings were invented just to do the dirty work. Arrietty’s father, Pod, was an expert Borrower. He could scale curtains using a hatpin, and bring back a doll’s teacup without breaking it. Girls weren’t supposed to go borrowing but as Arrietty was an only child her father broke the rule, and then something happened which changed their lives. She made friends with the human boy living in the house…

Normally the idea of unseen creatures living in the corners of your house would be a plot line to scare a child rigid, but the story of Pod, Homily and little Arriety who live under the floorboards and exist by ‘borrowing’ human items to adapt for for their own use is just charming. I was fascinating by the clever way they adapt our huge items for their tiny lives. I loved all five books in the series, but the first time you meet them is always the most memorable.

Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley

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Milly-Molly-Mandy lives in a tiny village in the heart of the countryside, where life is full of everyday adventures! Join the little girl in the candy-striped dress as she goes blackberry picking, gets ready to throw a party for her friends and goes to her village fete – whatever Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends are up to, you’re sure to have fun when they’re around.

I’m not really sure what the appeal of the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories was to me as a child because, looking back, she didn’t do anything hugely exciting. Her life was fairly ordinary and simple, you wouldn’t think that they held as much appeal as stories that whisked a child away somewhere magical, but I loved them nonetheless. Maybe their appeal was their simplicity and innocence, it was like having a friend sleeping over in your bedroom every night. Plus, it was like a collection of short stories, perfect for early readers to master their reading independence.

Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John

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Lucien’s teasing of Dani leads to an accident with far-reaching consequences. Annette is intent on revenge and does all she can to make life a misery for Lucien. His only friend is the old man up the mountain who recognises his skill in carving wood and gives him new hope. Set in Switzerland this story of Annett, Lucien and Dani has caught the imagination of countless children.

My sister borrowed this book from our school library and somehow it never got returned; I still have the school copy to this day (sorry, St. Mary’s School!) This was my first experience of a book taking me away to a different country with its strange customs (I know it’s only Switzerland, not Swaziland, but we never travelled abroad when I was a child, Switzerland seemed exotic!) I was particularly obsessed with the children getting gingerbread bears from the church Christmas Tree as a gift and coveted the one with the twisted nose.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

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The Wild Wood seems a terrifying place to Mole, until one day he pokes his nose out of his burrow and finds it’s full of friends. He meets brave Ratty, kind old Badger and the rascally Mr Toad, and together they go adventuring . . .

But the Wild Wood doesn’t just contain friends, there are also the sinister weasels and stoats, and they capture Toad Hall when Mr Toad is in jail. How will he escape? And can the friends fight together to save Toad Hall?

I don’t think I need to explain why I loved this charming story of animals acting like people; nervous Mole, adventurous Rat, sensible Badger and the bumptious Mr. Toad. I think I strongly related to Mole as a child, which is why I particularly relished his growing bravery and friendships.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar And Six More by Roald Dahl

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WHAT if you stumbled upon a boy who could talk to animals?

WHY is a hitchhiker both a saviour and a threat?

HOW can a man see without using his eyes?

SEVEN EXTRAORDINARY TALES OF MAGIC, MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE.

I remember us studying The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar in English at junior school, and I fell in love with Dahl’s more adult, dark storytelling and was eager to read the rest of the short stories in this volume. My first exploration of stories that were slightly less wholesome and cartoonish than what I read at home, a stepping stone to the world of grown up literature.

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

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‘If we were in a book it would be an enchanted castle – certain to be’

When Jerry, Jimmy and Kathleen are forced to spend their entire summer at school they don’t imagine they will have a particularly interesting time. But that’s before they stumble upon a mysterious castle set in beautiful, abandoned gardens. Could this really be an enchanted castle? Don’t be a duffer, there’s no such thing. But with the air thick with magic, the sun blazing down, and a maze hiding a sleeping girl at its centre, the holidays might just be looking up…

This is probably the least well-known of this author’s books but it was my absolute favourite. Absolute pure magic for a child to read, a proper childhood fairytale that you really wish you could be in yourself as a reader.

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster

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A trustee of the John Grier orphanage has offered to send Judy Abbott to college. The only requirements are that she must write to him every month and that she can never know who he is.

Judy’s life at college is a whirlwind of friends, classes, parties and a growing friendship with the handsome Jervis Pendleton. With so much happening in her life, Judy can scarcely stop writing to ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’, or wondering who her mysterious benefactor is…

I was given this book by my mum, for whom it was a childhood favourite, and I think this is why I have such fond memories of it, it was something I shared with her and we could discuss together, rather than books I read which she never had. One of my first experiences of the joy of books being enhanced by sharing your love of them with other people. I’ve experienced that the other way since with my own children, and it is a joy that can’t be over-stated.

The Tree That Sat Down/The Stream That Stood Still/The Mountain of Magic by Beverley Nicholls

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Deep in the enchanted forest Judy helps her granny run The Shop Under the Willow Tree. They sell all sorts of wonderful things, such as boxes of beautiful dreams carefully tied up with green ribbon.

But then Sam and the charming Miss Smith, a witch in disguise, open a rival business. The newcomers are not only cheating their customers, but also plotting to destroy Granny’s shop.

Can Judy save the wood from their wickedness?

I was actually introduced to this series via the third book, which I received as a Sunday School prize when I was nine, but as soon as I finished it I pestered my parents to get me books one and two. This series still has the most terrifyingly evil pair of villains ever written in children’s literature. When I was a pre-teen, they scared me silly.

Trebizon by Anne Digby

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New girl Rebecca Mason arrives at Trebizon, the famous boarding school, after everyone else has already made friends. Lonely and anxious to prove herself, Rebecca writes something for the school magazine that unexpectedly triggers a row and half the school turns against her. Luckily, she discovers she has friends after all, the best friends any new girl could hope for.

I was introduced to the Trebizon books by my friend, Lisa, and soon fell in love with this school series. I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, and Anne Digby’s Trebizon series were a more mature version. Set in a Cornish boarding school, they dealt with slightly more adult topics across the fourteen books and they were a firm favourite.

Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold by Terry Brooks

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Landover was a genuine magic kingdom, complete with fairy folk and wizardry, just as the advertisement had promised. But after he purchased it for a million dollars, Ben Holiday discovered that there were a few details the ad had failed to mention…

Such as the fact that the kingdom is falling into ruin. The barons refuse to recognize a king and taxes haven’t been collected for years. The dragon, Strabo, is laying waste to the countryside, while the evil witch, Nightshade, is plotting to destroy no less than everything. And if that weren’t enough for a prospective king to deal with, Ben soon learns that the Iron Mark, terrible lord of the demons, has challenged all pretenders to the throne of Landover to a duel to the death – a duel no mere mortal can hope to win.

But Ben Holiday has one human trait that even magic can’t overcome. Ben Holiday is stubborn.

Terry Brooks is much better known for his Shannara series of fantasy books, but I fell completely in love with the Landover series, of which Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold is the first book, when I first read them. The story of a man disillusioned with the modern world who buys a magic kingdom, believing it to be an elaborate hoax, only to find it is real but very far from a magical fantasy realm, is just bewitching. I’ve just discovered there is a sixth book in the series which I’ve never read, so I guess I’ll be revisiting these from the beginning at some point this year.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

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For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different.

Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason.

Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams!

The only reason this book is on the runner-up list and not top of the master list, is that this was one of the books on my main Desert Island Books list last year. One of my favourite books of all time, you can read my review of this book from last year here.

The Ship of Adventure by Enid Blyton

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An amazing voyage around the beautiful Greek islands becomes an exciting quest to find the lost treasure of the Andra!

Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann, Jack and Kiki the parrot are plunged into a search for hidden riches – with some ruthless villains hot on their trail! Will they find the treasure before it’s too late?

Really, this is just representative of all of Enid Blyton’s books. I grew up with her, and her books guided me through all of my early reading experiences. Starting off with her collections of fairy stories and Mr Pinkwhistle (how was this ever allowed?), through the Faraway Tree books and the Magic Wishing Chair to The Secret Seven and the Mystery series, I loved them all and devoured every one. The Famous Five were my absolute favourites, and they will be making an appearance in the final twelve, but a special mention has to go to the Adventure series, and this book in particular, which I think was the best. I know she is problematic and very unfashionable, but she is the cornerstone of my love of reading and I still have all of my Enid Blyton books, because they hold huge sentimental value for me.

So, those are the thirteen childhood favourites that are close to my heart but didn’t quite make the final twelve. Join me on 31st January to see the first one that forms part of the twelve childhood favourites that I would take to my desert island.

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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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Desert Island Books: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Desert Island Books

Following on from my earlier post, I now have my twelfth and final, personal Desert Island Book. If I am ever pressed to nominate my favourite book of all time, this is my choice. The book is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

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When sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen, she decides her only choice is to descend upon relatives in deepest Sussex.

At the aptly-named Cold Comfort Farm, she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who has kept to her bedroom for the last twenty years.

But Flora loves nothing better than to organise other people. Armed with common sense and a strong will, she resolves to take each of the family in hand. A hilarious and ruthless parody of rural melodramas and purple prose, Cold Comfort Farm is one of the best-loved comic novels of all time.

Why do I love this book so much? Oh, for so many reasons. Firstly, its protagonist is one of my two favourite heroines in English Literature (the other, in case you are wondering, is Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing) and the one to whom I most closely relate. In fact, if those who know me had to pick out a character from literature that I most resemble, it would be Flora Poste. Flora hates messes, as I do, and she loves to organise people, as I do. Bossy, you say? I don’t think so, just sure in her own rightness, and there is nothing wrong with that! Sadly, I don’t think I am as chic, crafty or quick-witted as Flora turns out to be in this book, but one can dream.

Secondly, the cast of characters in this book are perfectly drawn, and every one is delightful, in their own peculiar way. Morose cousin Judith, over-sexed Seth, faux-hippy Elfine, fire-and-brimstone preacher Amos, Flora’s sensible friend Mrs Smiling who collects brassieres as a hobby, fecund maid Miriam; every one of them is pitch-perfect. Best of all is Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was a tiny tot, and has used the trauma as an excuse to rule the family with an iron fist ever since. After all, ‘there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm,’ and nothing can ever be allowed to change that, especially not Robert Poste’s child. The standoff between young but wily Flora and stubborn Great Aunt Ada is one of the greatest battle of wills ever written, and it is a joy to read.

The book is just beautifully pitched and executed in every single respect. Apart from the characterisations, the pastiche of romantic but doom-laden writing of other authors of the time is a wicked delight to read – I defy you to read her deliberately purple prose and not giggle – and the way she leaves some of the biggest mysteries of the book unanswered, to be speculated over and debated down the years, is just brilliant. There are a million tiny and subtle comments, asides, observations and conversations to delight over. The part where Flora is explaining the process and merits of the use of birth control to the randy serving girl, who then repeats it to her mother, is a perfect example, and one of my favourites. Over and above all else, this book is hilarious, sharply witty and oh-so-clever. I delight in every reading anew, and this is why it would accompany me to my desert island. It is a book that never fails to cheer my soul.

I am a person who does not often watch TV or movie adaptations of my favourite books, because I have too often been disappointed. I haven’t watched recent adaptations of Little Women or Anne of Green Gables for this reason. This being said, the version of Cold Comfort Farm starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora, Joanna Lumley as Mrs Smiling and Rufus Sewell as Seth is absolutely brilliant. It really portrays the story and the characters exactly as I imagine them, and it maybe the only adaptation of one of my favourite books that I love as much as the novel itself, so if you don’t have time to read it, maybe give it a watch instead. I am sure you will end up loving it as much as I do.

Cold Comfort Farm is available to buy in all formats here.

About the Authors

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Stella Gibbons is best known for her comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm. A witty parody of the pastoral fiction written by authors such as D H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb, it won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais in 1933 and established her literary reputation. Gibbons also wrote 22 other novels, including Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1940) and Starlight (1967), as well as three volumes of short stories and four poetry collections. She died in 1989, aged 87.

Desert Island Books with… Nicola Pryce

Desert Island Books

For my last guest edition of Desert Island Books for 2020, I am delighted to welcome to the blog, author Nicola Pryce. Let’s see what literary choices she has made to accompany her.

Judging by lockdown, Julie, I’m not going to be any good on this desert island of yours, so I’m going for four books with uplifting characters who would be good company if I start to wobble. The fifth is a fascinating 1950’s classic which I think would benefit from repeated readings. Interestingly, three of the books are ones I’ve recently read – not the books I first thought I would choose. Maybe that has something to do with 2020 ending and the importance of embracing the new.    

Book One – The World of Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne

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Meet the best bear in all the world for the first time in Winnie-the-Pooh, where he gets into a tight place, nearly catches a Woozle and heads off on an ‘expotition’ to the North Pole with the other animals. The adventures continue in The House at Pooh Corner, where Pooh meets the irrepressible Tigger for the first time, learns to play Poohsticks and sets a trap for a Heffalump.

This all-time favourite classic, the go-to, warm, uplifting, laugh out-loud, sad, poignant, comforting book from my childhood has to take first place. Akin to my security blanket, it will remind me of my childhood, my children, and my grandchildren. I almost know it by heart and can still quite easily become tearful reading it. Uplifting and caring, it will definitely keep me buoyant.

Book Two – The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

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In affairs of the heart the race is not necessarily won by the swift or the fair.

Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.

I’ve chosen this beautifully written novel, published in 1954, because it evokes such complex emotions. Set in the country houses of the privileged upper-class, it is the story of how a dispirited young wife, Imogen – a once glamorous, almost trophy wife – watches her older barrister husband, Evelyn Gresham, fall under the spell of a middle-aged, rather masculine, country neighbour, Blanche Silcox. Downtrodden, sensitive, and lacking in confidence, Imogen slowly watches her marriage unravel, yet by the end of the book we are left wondering who of the two women is the tortoise, and who the hare.

I loved this book and believe it will stand the test of being re-read… and re-read …

Book Three – The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

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Just days after Raynor learns that Moth, her husband of 32 years, is terminally ill, their home is taken away and they lose their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall.

Carrying only the essentials for survival on their backs, they live wild in the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea and sky. Yet through every step, every encounter and every test along the way, their walk becomes a remarkable journey.

The Salt Path is an honest and life-affirming true story of coming to terms with grief and the healing power of the natural world. Ultimately, it is a portrayal of home, and how it can be lost, rebuilt and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.

This inspirational memoir will be just what I need if I’m missing home comforts. It’s a humbling read of a worst-case scenario – financial ruin and the diagnosis of a terminal illness. Gaynor and her husband, Moth, face homelessness. Penniless, they buy inadequate camping gear and begin their long-distance walk along the South West Coast Path, facing what the sea and sky throws at them. Their courage and inner strength see them stumble through each day until an unexpected door opens and they find their hardship has helped to heal them. Definitely one to read for courage and endurance.

Book Four – The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

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The greatest love story is the one you least expect . . .

Alice Wright doesn’t love her new American husband.

Nor her domineering father-in-law or the judgmental townsfolk of Baileyville, Kentucky.

Stifled and misunderstood, she yearns for escape and finds it in defiant Margery O’Hare and the sisterhood bringing books to the isolated and vulnerable.

But when her father-in-law and the town turn against them, Alice fears the freedom, friendship and the new love she’s found will be lost . . .

Here’s another book full of endurance and fighting spirit for my stay on the island. If I think I have it hard, then reading this book will remind me others have had it just as bad. I loved this book. Based in the 1930’s on the true horseback library, it tells the story of a group of resilient women in Kentucky who start a library and deliver books on horseback to the isolated women living in the wilderness. The freezing mountains, appalling conditions, and treacherous paths they take are brilliantly evoked, and the undercurrents running through this book make it multi-layered and hard to put down. Definitely a book about endurance and resilience.

Book Five – Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

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Some say the river drowned her…Some say it brought her back to life

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open and in steps an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.

Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

And who does the little girl belong to?

My book of 2020 – a cracker of a read. Set on the River Thames in late 1800’s it is full of the stories weaved by the communities living along the water’s edge. Packed with menace, it has a sinister mystery at its heart, but also a wonderfully warm and touching love story. I’ve chosen to take this with me because of the rhythm of the story telling. It’s beautifully written, evocative, and packed with lovely characters – especially Robert Armstrong whose warmth and humanity is just the inspiration I will need to keep me going on this desert island.

My luxury item

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A solar- powered laptop, please Julie, so I can write. It would be terrible to have ideas for a novel and not be able to get the book down!

About Nicola Pryce

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Nicola Pryce trained as a nurse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. She loves literature and history and has an Open University degree in Humanities. She is a qualified adult literacy support volunteer and lives with her husband in the Blackdown Hills in Somerset. She and her husband love sailing and together they sail the south coast of Cornwall in search of adventure. If she isn’t writing or gardening, you’ll find her scrubbing decks somewhere.

Pengelly’s Daughter is her first novel, then The Captain’s Girl, The Cornish Dressmaker, and The Cornish Lady. A Cornish Betrothal was published in November.

Nicola is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and The Historical Writers’ Association.

Nicola’s latest book, A Cornish Betrothal, is the fifth book in her series set in eighteenth-century Cornwall, and you can buy a copy here.

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Cornwall, 1798.

Eighteen months have passed since Midshipman Edmund Melville was declared missing, presumed dead, and Amelia Carew has mended her heart and fallen in love with a young physician, Luke Bohenna. But, on her twenty-fifth birthday, Amelia suddenly receives a letter from Edmund announcing his imminent return. In a state of shock, devastated that she now loves Luke so passionately, she is torn between the two.

When Edmund returns, it is clear that his time away has changed him – he wears scars both mental and physical. Amelia, however, is determined to nurse him back to health and honour his heroic actions in the Navy by renouncing Luke.

But soon, Amelia begins to question what really happened to Edmund while he was missing. As the threads of truth slip through her fingers, she doesn’t know who to turn to: Edmund, or Luke?

Connect with Nicola:

Website: http://nicolapryce.co.uk

Facebook: Nicola Pryce Author

Twitter: @NPryce_Author

Pinterest: Nicola Pryce Author

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Friday Night Drinks with… Annette Revitt

FRIDAY NIGHT DRINKS

It’s almost Christmas and it is the last Friday Night Drinks of 2020! Joining me for a festive virtual drink this evening (is there any other kind in the world currently?) is blogger at Good Books Come To Those who ReadAnnette Revitt.

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

Thanks for inviting me! My drink of choice – definitely a gin and tonic! If I could choose the gin then it would have to be a gin called Wicked Wolf, it is distilled on Exmoor and its one of my favourites.

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I love gin but I’ve not come across this brand, I will have to give it a try. 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?

The venue would have to be somewhere we could eat and drink so how about a little tapas restaurant in Exeter, it has a lovely atmosphere, where we can sit and relax, listen to the live music, drink gin, eat Tapas and chat the night away. 

Perfect, I so miss going out for dinner with friends! 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?

The first person I would choose would be Beatrix Potter, she was as we all know her a writer and illustrator of children’s books, the most famous being Peter Rabbit, but she was so much more than that, she was also a natural scientist, conservationist and an early supporter of the National Trust. As a woman of the Victorian era she struggled to have her work recognised and I believe that it was only in the more recent years that some of her studies have been taken seriously. For me she is a truly inspirational lady, who I think I would enjoy chatting to about books, flowers, the lake district and her love of Herdwick sheep.

The second person I would choose to join us is inspired by my love of horses – Monty Roberts. He is an American horse trainer who promotes and uses his techniques of natural horsemanship. He has written several books, and was encouraged by the Queen to write his first book “The Man Who Listens To Horses”, after she saw him demonstrate his work with some of her horses. I have read “The Man Who Listens To Horses” and have used his techniques with success myself on some difficult/nervous youngsters, I believe there is still a lot I could learn from Monty and would love an evening chatting.

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?

Back in July, my husband finally persuaded me to start my own book blog. I was very sceptical about the whole blog thing to start with, partly as I had no idea what I was doing and just seemed to be making it up as I went along! Secondly, I couldn’t get my head round why people would want to read anything I posted. But here we are five months later, with a steady stream of readers. So, I guess I’m doing something right!

Where do I want it to go? That’s a good question, I have never really given much thought to where I would like this all to lead! I just love reading and I hope that my blog helps others on their book journey’s. On my blog journey so far, I’ve met (virtually!) some really friendly, helpful people, if that continues and people are enjoying my blog and finding it useful then that’s enough for me to start with. 

I also enrolled in a proofreading course that I started in September. I’m hoping that It will expand my knowledge and help with blog writing, maybe even allow me to start proofreading from home.

Exciting times! What has been your proudest moment since you started blogging and what has been your biggest challenge?

My proudest moment so far would have to be plucking up the courage to start the blog in the first place, it took my husband quite a while to talk me into it, but to be honest, now I’ve started I’m really enjoying it. I’m overwhelmed by the number of authors and publishers that have been in contact since seeing my blog requesting reviews, I never thought for a minute that my blog/ review would be of interest to anyone. The biggest challenge I have come across so far was when I lost my reading mojo, I know it happens to us all from time to time but it felt so much harder to break when I was relying on it to provide reviews for my blog.

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 love to be able to make a living out of blogging, reviewing, maybe proofreading. I love reading so anything book related would work for me!

What are have planned that you are really excited about?

It’s really hard to plan anything in this current world with Covid lingering in the background. So, the only thing planned is that I am expecting my second child in April 2021, so that’s pretty exciting. 

Oh, how lovely, congratulations! 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?

My favourite place abroad would have to be Hawaii. My husband and I went to Big island as part of our honeymoon. It had such a variety of landscapes from pretty beaches to barren volcanic areas to the green expanse of countryside. If you ever go, I would recommend a visit to a place called Waimea, it’s an area known for its cattle ranches, we had one of the best burgers I have ever tasted there. Our trip to Hawaii was a trip of a lifetime.

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If we are talking about the UK then it’s a tough one between the Lake District as it is such a picturesque area, that I’ve now visited three times or Wales, which is a beautiful part of the country, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve visited. My husband proposed at the top of Sugarloaf mountain in Brecon Beacons, so Wales holds lots of fantastic memories.

On my bucket list of places to visit, well, Iceland is on there for the Northern lights, I would love to see more of the UK, places like Scotland and Yorkshire. We were due to stay in a lovely cottage in the Yorkshire countryside but our holiday was cancelled due to the first Covid lockdown so it’s back on the list of places to visit in the future. Hopefully we will get there soon.

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Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

For anyone who knows me it won’t be surprising or a secret, but I have a love of horses, I have done ever since I was a child. Before moving to Devon in 1999, I attended Berkshire College of Agriculture and completed my national diploma in horse studies. Up until about 10 years ago I used to compete regularly in showjumping, cross country and showing. I enjoyed re-schooling ex racehorses and also used to breed welsh section B ponies. Due to work commitments and family life, I cut it all back and now only have two horses, an ex-racehorse and a welsh pony that I bred. 

I love horses too, we have three ponies here at the moment. 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’?

This is such a hard question as I have come across so many talented authors and brilliant books, but what about The Hoarder by Jess Kidd? I received this book from a book subscription my husband bought for me as a birthday present, not an author I had come across before and probably not one I would have picked up off a shelf to read but I thoroughly enjoyed it. This book has a bit of everything so would cater for someone who enjoys crime, magical realism and a hint of romance.

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Unintentional psychic Maud Drennan arrives to look after Cathal Flood, a belligerent man hiding in his filthy, cat-filled home.

Her job is simple: clear the rubbish, take care of the patient. But the once-grand house has more to reveal than simply its rooms. There is a secret here, and whether she likes it or not, Maud may be the one to finally uncover what has previously been kept hidden . . .

If you fancy reading my review you will find it here

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 hate hangovers, which is why I suggested eating whilst we are drinking! I find that this always helps to prevent a hangover, that and having a jug of water on the table to keep hydrated. I also try not to mix my drinks and when I get home, I always sit down with a nice cuppa tea before heading to bed.

If all that fails, then lots of painkillers, cups of tea and a good old roast dinner the next day should fix it.

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

If the hangover stayed away and the weather was good then I would head to Dartmoor national park with a picnic for a nice walk with my husband, daughter and some friends. On the way home we would grab some fish and chips and find a nice place to sit, eat and enjoy. If the weather was rubbish then it would have to be a roast at home, with board games and maybe a bit of reading time.

Annette, thanks for joining me, it’s been a pleasure. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.

Annette lives in Devon, UK. She has what she calls an ‘addiction’ – the love of books.! It’s not just the reading that excites her, it’s the thrill of hearing the book you have been waiting for in a series is finally being released or stumbling across a bargain secondhand book that just has to come home with you. It’s the swapping with friends and family and reading other people’s reviews as we all interpret books differently. Annette likes to write a short review of every book she reads in the hope it helps other book lovers on their journeys. It was because of this that her husband nagged her to set up a blog. So, in July 2020 that’s what she did! Annette’s blog is full of book reviews and anything book related that takes her fancy. When not blogging or reading she spends time with her two horses, enjoys walking especially on Dartmoor National Park, trips to the beach and spending time with friends and family.

To find out more about Annette visit her blog, Good books come to those who read, you will also find her on Facebook and Pinterest.

May I take this opportunity to wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas, whatever the situation is where you are. I hope you find peace and happiness over the holidays and look forward to a better year in 2021 for all of us.

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