Desert Island Books with… Mick Arnold

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Today’s strandee will be better equipped to deal with isolation on my desert island than many, I think, as he has certain useful practical skills. However, he will still need intellectual and emotional stimulation, so let’s see what books he is taking with him to provide that. He is author… Mick Arnold.

Book One – The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

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This is a story of many different things.

Of a terrible war and an occupied land

Of the Balicki children who are determined to survive

Of a dangerous journey from war-torn Poland to Switzerland

Of a paper knife that gives them the courage to carry on when nearly all hope is lost.

The Silver Sword is the first adult novel I recall reading, and it’s stuck with me ever since. First published in 1956, this is the deceptively simple story of how a group of Polish children traipses across war-torn Europe in search of their father, picking up a troubled stray boy along the way. None older than 16, this is such a moving story which kept me guessing right until the end. For a novel seemingly aimed towards what would now be called the YA audience, this is such a powerful story full of the best and worst of humanity during the terrible conflict, which was World War 2.

Book Two – Guards! Guards! By Sir Terry Pratchett

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‘It was the usual Ankh-Morpork mob in times of crisis; half of them were here to complain, a quarter of them were here to watch the other half, and the remainder were here to rob, importune or sell hotdogs to the rest.’

Insurrection is in the air in the city of Ankh-Morpork. The Haves and Have-Nots are about to fall out all over again.

Captain Sam Vimes of the city’s ramshackle Night Watch is used to this. It’s enough to drive a man to drink. Well, to drink more. But this time, something is different – the Have-Nots have found the key to a dormant, lethal weapon that even they don’t fully understand, and they’re about to unleash a campaign of terror on the city.

Time for Captain Vimes to sober up.

I was already a huge fan of the work of Terry Pratchett by the time this novel came out. It didn’t need it, but I knew I had to read this novel as soon as read the tag – Captain Sam Vimes is searching for a dragon he believes could help him with his enquires. Who wouldn’t want to read on to find out what happens? Pratchett’s creation of the Discworld surpasses that of Tolkein’s Middle Earth – or at least it does in my opinion. To this day, if I need to cheer myself up, I’ll pick up a Discworld novel and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Guards! Guards!; and I never get tired of it. Pratchett creates such vivid pictures of each and every character, no matter how minor they are to the plot, which means I always find something new each time I read the book.

Book Three – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling

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‘Welcome to the Knight Bus, emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard. Just stick out your wand hand, step on board and we can take you anywhere you want to go.’

When the Knight Bus crashes through the darkness and screeches to a halt in front of him, it’s the start of another far from ordinary year at Hogwarts for Harry Potter. Sirius Black, escaped mass-murderer and follower of Lord Voldemort, is on the run – and they say he is coming after Harry. In his first ever Divination class, Professor Trelawney sees an omen of death in Harry’s tea leaves… But perhaps most terrifying of all are the Dementors patrolling the school grounds, with their soul-sucking kiss…

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. IMHO, the novel in the series which transformed it from purely a children’s series and into the worldwide phenomenon it became for all ages.  Barely giving you a chance to catch your breath, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a roller coaster of a story, full of mystery and suspense, and more action than you could shake a stick at. This is still one of my favourite reads when I need to relax my mind.

Book Four – Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

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Rumour has it Artemis Fowl is responsible for every major crime of the new century.

Just twelve years old and already he’s a criminal genius, plotting to restore his family’s fortune with a spot of corruption and kidnapping.

Kidnapping a fairy for ransom, to be precise.

Artemis Fowl has discovered a world below ground of armed and dangerous – and extremely high-tech – fairies. But he may have underestimated their powers. They will fight back. Is the boy about to trigger a cross-species war?

Let the misadventure begin.

I know it may seem that I’ve picked a lot of non-adult books, but just because a book is written with one audience in mind, doesn’t mean it can’t appeal to another. Think an evil twelve-year old James Bond, but with magic and fairies! This book takes you from Vietnam to the city of Haven inside the Earth, via Ireland.  Forget the awful Disney film, this is a rock ‘n’ roller of  book which will make you believe in fairies.

Book Five – The Christmas Promise by Sue Moorcroft

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On a snowy December evening, Sam Jermyn steps into the life of bespoke hat maker Ava. Sparks fly, and not necessarily the good ones.

Times are tough for Ava – she’s struggling to make ends meet, her ex-boyfriend is a bully, and worst of all, it’s nearly Christmas.

So when Sam commissions Ava to make a hat for someone special, she makes a promise that will change her life. She just doesn’t know it yet…

I am a huge fan of Christmas romance and they don’t come any better than this novel. Sue Moorcroft is one of my favourite authors and this is one of her best. A story about someone who hates the Christmas period, this hits all the right spots. Laugh-out loud one minute, pass-me-the- tissues, the next. Forget watching The Sound of Music this coming yuletide, treat yourself to a copy of The Christmas Promise and learn why you should love Christmas.

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I’m going to be practical for my one item. For me, it’s essential, especially as it’s a desert island. I must have a good-sized hat. I burn in the sun easily, so I’d need something like a fedora to protect the back of my neck and the top of my head.

About the Author

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Mick is a hopeless romantic who was born in England and spent fifteen years roaming around the world in the pay of HM Queen Elizabeth II in the Royal Air Force before putting down roots and realizing how much he missed the travel. He’s replaced it somewhat with his writing, including reviewing books and supporting fellow saga and romance authors in promoting their novels.

He’s the proud keeper of two cats bent on world domination, is mad on the music of the Beach Boys, and enjoys the theatre and humoring his Manchester United-supporting wife. Finally, and most importantly, Mick is a full member of the Romantic Novelists Association. Wild Blue Yonder is the second novel in his Broken Wings series and he is very proud to be a part of the Vintage Rose Garden at The Wild Rose Press.

Mick’s latest book, Wild Blue Yonder, is available here.

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Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Doris Winter is accused of stealing a valuable item from a famous Hollywood movie star, now a Captain in the US Army Air Corps, after a dance at the air base in England where he’s stationed. Gathering her close friends together, she’s determined to clear her name.

Ruth’s POW son suffers a life-changing injury just as her own cottage takes damage in an air raid and Penny’s estranged little sister unexpectedly turns up, having run away from school. Together with the ongoing thefts of items of clothing and surprise personal revelations, these all threaten to hamper their investigation.

In spite of the worsening war situation, they must band together to rise above their troubles and prove love and friendship is worth fighting for.

Connect with Mick:

Facebook: M W Arnold Author

Twitter: @mick859

Instagram: @mick859

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The 2021 Romantic Novel Award Winners Interviews with…. Shirley Mann

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Today, my series of interviews with the winners of the Romantic Novel Awards 2021 continues with Shirley Mann, winner of the Romantic Saga Award with her novel, Bobby’s War.

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Shirley, congratulations on winning the Romantic Saga Award in the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards 2021 with your novel Bobby’s War. You appeared totally shocked to have won this award on the night. Were you really as surprised as you seemed? Has it sunk in yet?

It’s so lovely of you to ask me to appear on your blog, Julie, thank you. 

Oh dear, it showed did it? I was completely stunned. After all, this is only my second novel and I had been prepared to dine out forever on being nominated but once I checked the rest of the terrifyingly successful authors on the shortlist, I thought, oh well, I’ll just pour myself a G and T and enjoy the evening. In fact, it was only five minutes beforehand that someone suggested we should all have a list of thank yous ready, just in case, so I’d scribbled some on the edge of the newspaper next to me. I could hardly get a coherent word out, so those notes saved the day. And as far as it sinking in, nah!

Bobby’s War is only your second novel. What does it mean to you to have won this award so early on in your career? What affect do you think it will have on your future career? What reaction have you had to your win so far?

Future career? Oh help, I have no idea. I’m so new to all this that I’m sort of muddling along but believe me, I’m loving being able to add ‘award-winning author’ to every possible communication I send out! It’s huge kudos and I had no idea how much it would propel me into the spotlight. I’d love to be able to say that I have a plan for my future career, but that might be a complete exaggeration. I wrote one book just to see whether I could and somehow, I now have a contract for four. If I think too far ahead, it leads to panic, so I try to stick with the present and leave the future to sort itself out. I was taught by my parents that to succeed, you have to learn to fail so I’ve probably gone through life not being scared to fail and that has helped because, frankly, what can possibly go wrong?

You mentioned in your acceptance speech that you didn’t start writing until you were 60 years old, which gives me hope as a still-aspiring writer at the age of 49 that I haven’t left it too late. What made you start on the road to publication at that age?

Oh, you’re a mere youngster! This is my third career and I certainly didn’t think it through but I know I couldn’t have written a novel while I was working so I don’t know you authors like you do it. I worked firstly as a journalist, mainly for the BBC and between that and bringing up a family, there was hardly enough time to read a novel, let alone write one. Then, at 46, I set up my own media company doing PR and making films for environmental organisations like Natural England and the National Heritage Lottery Fund. That was fun but then I was beginning to feel a little too old to be climbing over fences in fields lugging huge camera equipment with me so I thought, OK, let’s try that novel, but I really didn’t think it would lead to a third career. However, I think it’s really important never to feel it’s too late and certainly, the wonderful women I interview for my books make me feel like a spry youngster!

I know your parents’ love story inspired your writing. Can you expand on that a little for me and tell us how the idea for Bobby’s War came about?

The last three years of my mum’s life were a little difficult and we struggled to remember the slightly Irish woman who used to dance around the kitchen so just before she died, I asked her more and more about her time in the WAAFs and watched her eyes light up as she remembered the seismic change in the life of an ordinary 19-year-old from Manchester. These girls were expected to just take over from their mums and suddenly, they were thrust into a world where there was terror, yes, but also excitement and new experiences and they found they were more capable than they- or anyone else- expected. Unable to ask my mum any more questions, I raced around the country to talk to servicewomen already in their late 80s and 90s. They inspired me so much, I then felt a huge responsibility to tell their stories. Once I’d heard about the Air Transport Auxiliary pilots, there was no going back. I was so in awe of what they had achieved- they flew everything from Spitfires to huge bombers on their own, without radios, radar or navigation equipment. They used a ruler and a compass, for heavens sake! I couldn’t believe it when Mary Ellis invited me to her home on the Isle of Wight to interview her. It was an amazing experience and gave me the confidence to tackle ‘Bobby’s War’ but believe me, she was so competent and in control, I knew I was going to have to make my heroine have just a few more frailties than she had. I felt I was in the presence of the head girl! She died at the age of 101 just a few weeks later and I am so grateful I met her, she really was an inspiration. 

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Your books are all about strong, independent women stepping out of their comfort zones when it counts. What is it about these women that ignites your desire to tell their stories?

I am a product of the 70s when we ditched our bras and thought we could change the world but once I started to meet these self-effacing women from the war era, I realised we were too late; it had already been done, it was just that none of these 90-year-olds thought to mention it. We hear so much about the heroic exploits of men, but these WAAFs, ATA pilots and Land Army girls (and-plot spoiler-maybe a female police officer for book 4) didn’t just break glass ceilings, they smashed them. But they didn’t all start off strong and I particularly wanted to depict real women, so Lily is strong but a bit dizzy, Bobby is terrifyingly capable with planes but rubbish with people and Hannah is shy and has to find her own strengths while hunting rats, being knee deep in mud and coming across men who see her as an easy target. Having been privileged enough to meet so many real servicewomen from the war, I now feel a moral duty to take readers into their worlds and talk about everything from how they managed with Eau de Cologne instead of shampoo, made skirts without pleats to save material and lived on a diet of reconstituted eggs-even periods were a challenge. At a time when we’ve been complaining that we can’t go out for a meal or travel abroad on holiday, their stories have been timely reminders of how lucky our generation has been.

We spoke briefly about our mutual love of the Isle of Man and your upcoming research trip there. How much research goes in to your books, what is your research process and how long does the research for one book take?

Oh the beloved research! A source of love and hate in my life. My background as a journalist means I panic if I haven’t got a safety blanket of facts, so I go to ridiculous lengths to check things. I once spent two days trying to find out whether ginger was available to make biscuits in 1942 before I realised I could make them garibaldi biscuits! I start off by getting a feel for where I am setting the book, preferably by travelling there and just walking around or even taking a trip on Google Earth. Then I immerse myself in any personal memories, either in books or in person, that will take me into that world, then I start to write, making endless notes in the side column for things I need to check later. But the part I love the best is real people’s stories- the ones that aren’t in the history books, like the fact that they all carried round an old penny piece to use as a plug for basins because all the rubber had gone to the war effort. As soon as Lockdown eased, I raced to Salhouse in Norfolk and accosted every local I came across. From that  trip, I found out about the buses on a Sunday in 1943 to Norwich from a lovely 95 year old called Joyce then I went into the station in Norwich and asked about trains from Norwich to Manchester. The girl behind the counter told me it depended on the time. You should have seen her face when I told her – 1943.  I love the research, to be honest, sometimes, I’m in danger of forgetting to write, but it is nice when you’re not feeling very inspired to have something you can do that makes you feel you are ‘doing the book’ and research is never wasted, in fact, the problem is you need to do so much research for one single throwaway line. But I live in fear of people finding something anachronistic or just plain wrong in my books so I do everything I can to get it right. 

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I’m sure mention of your trip to the Isle of Man will have piqued your readers’ curiosity about what they can expect in your next book? Any sneaky clues as to what you have coming up?

The next book to be published will actually be ‘Hannah’s War’ about a Land Army girl and that’s out as an ebook in October with the paperback following in March next year but for Book 4, I’ve been on tenterhooks waiting to see whether the Isle of Man government would let travellers in and as I’m double-jabbed, I have just discovered I can travel, so I’m off there this week. I love writing books about areas of the war people don’t know about and as soon as I discovered the Isle of Man had internment camps where they put everyone they didn’t know what to do with, I was intrigued. The island became a melting pot of Nazis, Jews, Conscientious Objectors, Fascist Mosley supporters and prostitutes all having to learn to live together. Yep, you’re right, I couldn’t wait to write that one. The trouble was, I wanted to write about a Queen Alexandra nurse but then, after several months of working out my plot, I found out there weren’t any on the island so I went into a blind panic until I discovered there were women police officers- really unusual at the time. Phew!  

My parents spent time in the IOM when my dad retired and they are both buried there so I have a huge affection for it and having started with their wartime romance, I feel I’ve come full circle by placing my next book there. I just hope the next book and all my books to justice to my parents’ legacy and that of all those wonderful women who were kind enough to share their stories with me.

Shirley, thank you for being so generous with your time, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this interview and hearing your stories.

Shirley’s award-winning novel, Bobby’s War is available now and you can buy a copy here.

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On the ground, the crowd of men stood with their mouths agape, watching the wings soar into the air, the tail kept impressively steady and the small plane with a woman at the controls disappearing into the May sunshine

It’s 1942 and Bobby Hollis has joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in a team known as the ‘glamour girls’ – amazing women who pilot aircraft all around the country.

Bobby always wanted to escape life on the family farm and the ATA seemed like the perfect opportunity for her. But there’s always something standing in her way. Like a demanding father, who wants to marry her off to a rich man. And the family secrets that threaten to engulf everything.

As Bobby navigates her way through life, and love, she has to learn that controlling a huge, four-engined bomber might just be easier than controlling her own life . . .

About the Author

Shirley is a journalist who has spent her life juggling various careers in writing, broadcasting and lecturing, none of which had a regular contract, salary or pension. She started working as a reporter for a local newspaper in Chester, then went through a panoply of equally unknown publications until she started work for the BBC, where she moved through radio to television as a reporter, presenter and producer. She then set up her own media company with lecturing as a sideline, producing short films for environmental organisations. 

The fact that she is now, apparently, an author, has taken her by complete surprise, particularly as the first book, ‘Lily’s War’, took six years to write and would have been consigned to a drawer if it had not been for a foot operation that forced her to sit and be bored for weeks, reaching back into that drawer for something to do. Her compulsive need to talk to strangers led to a random chat with an agent at a writers’ conference and somehow, as a result of that, she got a four-book deal with Zaffre at Bonnier Books. Her first two books, ‘Lily’s War’ about a WAAF in Bomber Command and ‘Bobby’s War’ about an ATA pilot have now been published. Her third book, ‘Hannah’s War’ is about a Land Army girl is out in October as an e book and in paperback early next year and the fourth is based around the internment camp for women in the Isle of Man and will be published the year after. 

She lives with her husband in a gorgeous market town on the edge of the Derbyshire Peak District, heading off regularly with her camper van and her bike. She has two grown up daughters, one of whom failed to listen to her mother and works in television and the other works in the environmental sector. 

Connect with Shirley:

Website/Blog: https://shirleymannauthor.home.blog/

Facebook: Shirley Mann Author

Twitter: @shirleymann07

Instagram: @shirleymann2600

 

Don’t forget, entries for the 2022 Romantic Novel Awards are now open and you can find details of how to enter on the Romantic Novelists’ Association website.

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Introducing The Romantic Novel Awards Interview Series

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For fans of romantic novels and industry insiders, The Romantic Novel Awards are the highlight of the year, where the best writing in the genre is celebrated and rewarded. The entry period for the 2022 awards is now open, closing on 30 September 2021.

To celebrate the awards, and in anticipation of next year’s ceremony, I am delighted to be bringing you a series of interviews with the winners of The Romantic Novel Awards 2021, where we will be discussing their writing, their careers, their views on what makes for an award-winning romance novel, and what winning this award meant to them.

The interviews will be running weekly every Thursday, beginning Thursday, 8 July and going right through until the beginning of September. The interviewees are:

The Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel Award Winner – Clare Pooley for The Authenticity ProjectBantam Press

The Libertà Books Shorter Romantic Novel Award – Kate Hardy for A Will, a Wish and a Wedding, Mills & Boon True Love

The Romantic Saga Award – Shirley Mann for Bobby’s War, Zaffre, Bonnier Books UK

The Romantic Comedy Novel Award – Carole Matthews for Sunny Days and Sea Breezes, Sphere, Little, Brown

The Jackie Collins Romantic Thriller Award – Louise Douglas forThe House by the Sea, Boldwood Books

The Fantasy Romantic Novel Award – Christina Courtenay for Echoes of the Runes, Headline Review

The Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award – Milly Johnson for My One True North, Simon & Schuster

The Goldsboro Books Historical Romantic Novel Award – Catherine Tinley for Rags-to-Riches Wife, Mills & Boon Historical

The Sapere Books Popular Romantic Fiction Award – Julie Houston for Sing Me a Secret, Aria, Head of Zeus

I’m really excited to share these interviews with you, I know you will enjoy reading them as much I have enjoyed doing them, so I hope you will join me and my guests over the coming weeks in this celebration of romantic fiction.

For more information about the awards, please visit the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards page.

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Romancing The Romance Authors with… Jean Fullerton

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I am very excited today to be discussing romance writing with RNA stalwart, doyenne of the East End saga and all-round fabulous lady, Jean Fullerton.

Tell me a bit about the type of books you write and where you are in your publishing journey.

Well, firstly thank you for asking me to be a guest on your blog, Julie. I write family sagas and all seventeen of them are set in the overcrowded and impoverished streets surrounding the London Docks in the East End, where I come from.

Why romance?

I’ve devoured historical romance ever since I was a teenager so when I started writing there was no question that I would write anything other than historical romance. 

What inspires your stories?

All sorts of things but mainly the vibrant working-class area where I was born and raised and my large and boisterous East End family.  

Who are your favourite romance authors, past and/or present?

Although Katherine by Anya Seton is as old as I am, it and she are still my favourite book and author. I also like her books the Winthrop Woman, Avalon and Green Darkness. I like historical romance which is accurate, so I also read Elizabeth Chadwick and Nicola Cornick but as long as it’s a good story I’m happy to read it.    

If you had to pick one romance novel for me to read, which one would you recommend?

I’m afraid it would have to be Katherine by Anya Seton as it was the book that started me on this incredible journey. The prose is somewhat old-fashioned, but the story is cracking and so romantic. 

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Katherine comes to the court of Edward III at the age of fifteen. The naïve convent-educated orphan of a penniless knight is dazzled by the jousts and the entertainments of court.

Nevertheless, Katherine is beautiful, and she turns the head of the King’s favourite son, John of Gaunt. But he is married, and she is soon to be betrothed.

A few years later their paths cross again and this time their passion for each other cannot be denied or suppressed. Katherine becomes the prince’s mistress, and discovers an extraordinary world of power, pleasure and passion.

Which romantic hero or heroine would you choose to spend your perfect romantic weekend with? Where would you go and what would you do?

Well firstly as I am the heroine in all my books it’s only the hero we have to worry about. I’d take Patrick Nolan from my Nolan Family Victorian series, who looks remarkably like Aidan Turner.  We’d go to a castle somewhere, but I couldn’t possibly tell you what we’d do as my husband might read this blog.  

What is your favourite thing about being a member of the RNA? What do you think you have gained from membership?

Oh, where do I start? Firstly, as an unpublished author it gave me access to the world of publishing, which I had no knowledge of. It helped me hone my craft via the wonderful New Writers’ Scheme. It’s given me a great deal of fun at the meetings and conferences but without a doubt the greatest thing it’s given me is wonderful writer friends.  

What one piece of advice or tip would you give to new writers starting out in the romance genre?

Set yourself a daily or weekly target and get the words down. Don’t worry if they aren’t quite right you can always go back and fix that. Learn your craft. Writing an 80000 + word book is not easy so stick at it.

Tell us about your most recent novel.

My latest novel A Ration Book Daughter is the fifth in my WW2 Ration Book series but can be read as a standalone novel. You can buy a copy here, along with the previous books in the series.

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In the darkest days of the Blitz, love is more important than ever.

Cathy Brogan was a happy, blushing bride when Britain went to war with Germany three years ago. But her youthful dreams were crushed by her violent husband Stanley’s involvement with the fascist black-shirts, and even when he’s conscripted to fight she knows it’s only a brief respite – divorce is not an option. Cathy, a true Brogan daughter, stays strong for her beloved little son Peter.

When a telegram arrives declaring that her husband is missing in action, Cathy can finally allow herself to hope – she only has to wait 6 months before she is legally a widow and can move on with her life. In the meantime, she has to keep Peter safe and fed. So she advertises for a lodger, and Sergeant Archie McIntosh of the Royal Engineers’ Bomb Disposal Squad turns up. He is kind, clever and thoughtful; their mutual attraction is instant. But with Stanley’s fate still unclear, and the Blitz raging on over London’s East End, will Cathy ever have the love she deserves? 

Where can readers find out more about you and your East End books.

On my website which has them all listed, and if readers subscribe to my monthly newsletter not only do they receive a free short story but also have a chance to win advance copies of my books and other prizes.

About the Author

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Born and bred in East London Jean was a District Nurse by trade, serving for five years as NHS manager with responsibility for six community clinics and 200+ staff and finished her twenty-five-year nursing career as a senior lecture in Health and Nursing Studies in a London University.

She joined the NWS 2003 and became a full member in 2006 after winning the Harry Bowling Prize. She had published seventeen sagas over three series, all set in East London and has books with both Orion and Atlantic.

An experiences public speaker with hundreds of WI and women’s club talks under her belt, Jean has been an enrichment speaker and writing workshop leader on cruise ships for the past fifteen years.

A Ration Book Daughter out now in supermarkets, bookshops, Kindle and audio.  

Connect with Jean:

Website: http://jeanfullerton.com/

Facebook: Jean Fullerton

Twitter:  @JeanFullerton_

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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: The Quarry Girl – How I Build A Story by Tania Crosse #guestpost

QUARRY GIRL cover

August 1883. The future for Ling Southcott, a quarryman’s daughter, seems to be already mapped. Marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Barney, a cluster of children, a life contained to the hamlet of Foggintor Quarry. For Ling, with her sharp, enquiring mind and love of books, it is an accepted, if unwelcome fate.

But then the new Princetown Railway opens across Dartmoor, connecting her remote hamlet to the neighbouring town of Tavistock, and even Plymouth.

SUDDENLY THE WORLD IS AT HER FINGERTIPS

Then Ling is rescued from a fatal blow. Her rescuer is handsome young medical student Elliott Franfield.

Elliott, man of education, is so different from her unambitious Barney. Almost against her will, Ling feels her eyes open to what life could have in store.

WILL LING CHANGE HER DESTINY? OR WILL SHE LET OPPORTUNITY SLIP THROUGH HER FINGERS?

(This book was originally published as A Dream Rides By.)

Today I am delighted to welcome to the blog, saga author Tania Crosse, to talk to me about her books and how she goes about building a story, with special reference to her book, The Quarry Girl. I’m going to hand over to Tania and her guest post now.

How I Build a Story by award winning author Tania Crosse

As an author, I’m often asked where I get my ideas from. Well, I suppose it comes down to being blessed with a naturally fertile imagination. A book always starts with inspiration of some sort, of course, but then the process of building the story kicks in. Being a writer of historical fiction/sagas, I like to put my characters in a specific historical situation and see how they cope with the difficulties that the era presents.

I’m particularly known for my Devonshire series, which covers from the Victorian period up to 1950s and is set on the western side of Dartmoor and the surrounding area. It’s a region I know well, and its fascinating history has provided me with a wealth of inspiration. Drive across Dartmoor today, and most visitors will appreciate the savage beauty of the windswept uplands and magnificent granite outcrops or tors. They will stop to take photographs of the few wild ponies that survive, smile at the scattering of hardy sheep and perhaps be wary of a herd of cows. All very picturesque on a summer’s day in the comfort of a modern car. But just think what it would have been like to scrape a living from the moor in the past and survive the depths of winter with no mod cons!

Dartmoor was far more intensely farmed in the past, but she also has a hidden history of industry. Particularly during the Nineteenth Century, the moor was dotted with mines and quarries, some larger concerns than others. There was even a gunpowder factory, and railways appeared. Not forgetting, of course, the infamous Dartmoor Prison. All fantastic inspiration for a novel.

Take, for instance, the gunpowder factory. What explosive situations that could lead to, if you’ll excuse the pun! I married that with the history of the prison in Victorian times for what has recently been republished as The Gunpowder Girl. (Also released in audio on 1st March.) However, to illustrate how I build a story, I’m going to use A Dream Rides By, recently re-released as The Quarry Girl.

Foggintor Quarry, a couple of miles west of Princetown, is a massive, mysterious and magical place. It’s also high up on the moor and utterly exposed to all the weather can throw at it. The workers didn’t travel in from cosy towns. They lived with their families in a little community at this remote spot in a square of one up, one down cottages, the ruins of which can be seen today. From one corner projects a small square, the remaining foundations of what was the chapel-cum-school.

Now, sagas are meant to be tough and gritty, so that box is already ticked. A strong, spirited, intelligent heroine is also a prerequisite, so she’s going to be the school assistant. The heroine always needs a foil of some sort, usually of a contrasting personality. This can often be a friend or an older person, but in this case, I decided to make this character her younger sister. Blighted by measles as a toddler, she is left hard of hearing and a little on the vulnerable side, shall we say, far too trusting and needing her elder sister’s protection.

Naturally, they live with their quarryman father and their mother. At a time when the only form of transport for the poor is shanks’s pony, they’re unlikely to have much contact with the outside world. As a consequence, the heroine is promised to her childhood sweetheart, also a young quarryman, of course. He is kind and hard-working, but unambitious. And herein lies the greatest element of any story but particularly of saga, inner conflict.

Though she loves him dearly, the heroine’s enquiring mind and knowledge gained through reading lead her to yearn to experience the outside world. Not necessarily to travel far, but at least to share an interest beyond the world of quarrying stone, an interest that’s beyond her intended’s intellectual sphere. So how will that come about?

Well, in 1883, the Princetown Steam Railway opened, passing by the end of the quarry. Constructed mainly to serve the prison and the local quarries, it was also to provide a passenger service. I saw this as the heroine’s path to the outside world. At the official opening of the railway, I invent a dramatic incident whereby she meets a young doctor, and he is to provide her inner conflict. I won’t give away any of the story, but you can see how she is going to be torn between her solid childhood sweetheart and the higher intellectual plane of this new acquaintance.

Quarrying is a dangerous occupation, especially so in a time when there were no health and safety regulations. I discovered that there was a particular way in which quarrymen buried their dead, so it was a must to have a fatal accident at the quarry, but it had to involve the heroine in some way, and add to her anguish and, in this case, her feelings of guilt.

So, I think you can see how I’m building up the story from historical fact. Something else that is integral to life at such a remote location is the weather. I had always planned to use the 1891 Great Blizzard in which the Princetown train famously got stuck in snowdrifts on the moor for five days. What a gift for a writer over a hundred years later! I turned it into a major turning point in the heroine’s life.

I remember my original agent, the late Dorothy Lumley, saying to me that I should always have someone working against the heroine in addition to the historical circumstances. While trying to dream up another storyline to fill this gap, the answer suddenly came to me when I was considering how I could work in the Great Flood of 1890. I decided to bring in the younger sister here, and link her with the black sheep of the community, another young quarryman who nobody likes. By giving the sister a story of her own and weaving it around the main action, it opened up a whole new prospect for the entire book, making everything gel together. That is something I always strive to do, have one or more sub plots that spiral around the principal thread, which gives a strength and richness to the novel.

When searching for inspiration for the personal stories of the characters, I sometimes draw on my own life experiences, and in some cases, those of my parents. The principal story in my 1945 London-set novel, The Street of Broken Dreams that won Saga of the Year in the 2020 Awards of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, was actually adapted from a wartime experience of my mother’s. Fortunately, what happened to her was nothing like what happens to my heroine, but there again, I built up layer upon layer to achieve all the necessary ingredients of a multi-faceted saga.

Street of Broken Dreams - cover

Summer 1945. The nation rejoices as the Second World War comes to an end but Banbury Street matriarch, Eva Parker, foresees trouble ahead.

Whilst her daughter, Mildred, awaits the return of her fiancé from overseas duty, doubts begin to seep into her mind about how little she knows of the man she has promised to marry. Or are her affections being drawn elsewhere?

Meanwhile, new neighbour, dancer Cissie Cresswell, hides a terrible secret. The end of the conflict will bring her no release from the horrific night that destroyed her life. Can she ever find her way back?

Under Eva’s stalwart care, can the two young women unite to face the doubt and uncertainty of the future?

One thing I haven’t mentioned that you might find interesting is that I have a strange gift for seeing characters that appear to me in flash visions, usually quite unexpectedly. It first happened when I visited Morwellham Quay, the famous Victorian copper port in Devon that’s been a living history museum since 1970s. I saw a young cooper in Victorian workman’s clothes during a demonstration in the cooperage. I assumed he was a member of the costumed staff, but a second later, he’d disappeared and yet there was nowhere he could have disappeared to! This happened a few more times with other visions, and there I had the characters for a book on a plate. I built them up into a story in much the same way as I’ve described above, and it became my debut release, Morwellham’s Child, that’s soon to be re-released as The Harbour Master’s Daughter. The same sort of thing happened to me after a break from writing for personal reasons, when I really was going to call it a day. Winston Churchill no less spoke to me in a vision during a visit to Chartwell. It sparked such an interest in the Churchills’ private lives that it inspired what became Nobody’s Girl and its sequel, A Place to Call Home, and re-started my career.

Well, I hope the above has given you a little insight into how I build up my novels. I could go on about characterisation and all characters needing to be not black or white but somewhere in between, natural dialogue, avoiding long descriptions but picking out one or two relevant details to capture the essence of a scene, the list goes on. But I do hope I’ve managed to explain just some of the elements that go into the mix, and who knows, it might help you to build a story of your own!

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Thank you for giving us that fascinating peak into how your sagas are built up, Tania. I am not sure I would be quite as calm as you about having such vivid visions!

If hearing Tania talk about her work has piqued your interest in any of her books, I have included all the relevant purchase links in her piece above and her author bio below, so you can just click through.

About the Author

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Tania Crosse was born in London and lived in Banbury Street, Battersea, the setting of her two latest novels, The Candle Factory Girl and The Street of Broken Dreams. Later, the family moved to Surrey where her love of the countryside took root. She  wanted to be an author since she was a child, but having graduated with a degree in French Literature, she did not have time to indulge her passion for writing until her own family had grown up. She eventually began penning historical novels set on her beloved Dartmoor. After completing her Devonshire series, which is currently being re-published by Joffe Books, she took her writing career in a new direction with four Twentieth Century sagas set in London and the south east, which were published by Aria Fiction. She was thrilled when the last of these, The Street of Broken Dreams, won Best Saga of the Year in the Romantic Novelists’ Association 2020 Awards. Tania and her husband have lived in a small village on the Hampshire/Berkshire border since 1976. They have three grown-up children, two grandchildren and a variety of grand-dogs! Tania’s interests, apart from reading and writing, of course, are dance, gardening and rambling, especially on Dartmoor, naturally!

Connect with Tania:

Website: www.tania-crosse.co.uk

Facebook: Tania Crosse Author

Twitter: @TaniaCrosse

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