My Review of Smash all the Windows by Jane Davis

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Maggie’s chest rises and falls. Orange buoys, the shape and size of hay bales, move to the same rhythm. There is something bovine about them, but also something desperately sad. At any other time she wouldn’t feel foolish mentioning this to Jules who, she thinks, would dismiss nothing.  

With an impressive array of research at her disposal, a full cast of true-to-life Londoners and a fascinating and timely premise, Davis casts a spell over her readers.

The families of those who were killed in the St Botolph and Billingsgate station disaster have become accustomed to defending their loved ones. For over thirteen years they were told that the victims were responsible for their own tragic deaths but, with London Underground consistently running over capacity and the severe overcrowding that’s resulted from it, the families refused to believe the verdict of the initial public inquiry. With opinion against them, however, it was difficult to know what to do. That was, until gentle-natured law student Eric took an almost obsessive interest in the case. Eric’s certainty that the evidence doesn’t match up leads him to spend all his waking hours investigating. But when his hard work finally pays off and a second inquest declares that the commuters were not responsible, it doesn’t bring about the closure the families expected.

Told through the eyes of the families of the survivors, their grief, anger, frustration and attempts at reconciliation are brought vividly to life. Davis does an excellent job of depicting modern-day, multicultural London, and her diverse cast of characters reflects this. The story is inspired by the Hillsborough tragedy, where 96 Liverpool football fans lost their lives in a crush in 1989, and is highly relevant given their families long battle for justice. Davis’s exploration of personal grief and public tragedy is sensitively rendered and deeply empathetic. Although literary fiction, the novel reads almost like a thriller. Smash all the Windows is an engrossing, addictive novel. I look forward to reading more of Jane Davis’s work in future.

Smash all the Windows  is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smash-all-Windows-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B079MBP3WD/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Smash-all-Windows-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B079MBP3WD/

You can read more about the novel on Jane’s website: https://jane-davis.co.uk/books/smash-all-the-windows/

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My Review of Violet by Leslie Tate, the third book in his Lavender Blues: Three Shades of Love trilogy

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They picked at the contents, one by one. The nuts came in all sizes; they were whole, lightly roasted and unsalted. Dipping and munching, they shared what they had.

When fifty-year-old café owner Beth Jarvis, divorced and with children, finds herself on a blind date, she wonders what it is she’s doing. Due to her nervousness she’s arrived at the restaurant far too early and now can only watch and wait while other diners arrive,  staring at the door, wondering when—and if—James will show up. Biding her time, Beth sips her wine as she sifts through the letters he’s sent her. Will the real-life version of James be as good-natured and charming?

After James arrives, they share stories over a platter of Indian food. Later that night, Beth is, quite literally, swept off her feet as they dance.  Not wanting the evening to end, they draw it out for as long as possible. When it finally comes time for them to part, they promise to meet again, and soon.

As Beth and James are getting to know each other, they realise that they share very different pasts. James was raised in Chester-le-Street, in Durham, to working class parents. His father worked on the railways and considered himself a revolutionary, of sorts. Later James moved to London, where he married and had children. He works as a gardener and prides himself on seeing the beauty in life. Beth, on the other hand, had an almost idyllic rural childhood, and later married a minister with whom she has two daughters. Her gentle, caring nature means she follows her heart. While this tendency has led her into James’ arms, it’s also meant that she’s sometimes been taken unawares in life. How Beth and James come together as a couple is the focus of the story.

Violet is an empathetic and skilfully crafted exploration of modern day love. It is also a study in character, and the ways in which a character changes, and is changed by, their experience of relationships. The story is written in a non-linear fashion, moving backward and forward through time, showing Beth from different angles and points in her personal history. The narrative is experimental in style, with some sections written in text-speak and including the letters James and Beth shared. This challenged my perceptions, making me pay closer attention to the writing.  Tate’s in-depth exploration of Beth’s character allowed me to draw my own conclusions about her past and present. This made for an enjoyable and refreshing reading experience.

Violet is the third in Tate’s Lavender Blues trilogy, exploring three generations of the Lavender family and their experiences of love in its many forms. The novel stands alone—indeed, I have yet to read the first two books. The first two books are Purple and Blue. You can read about them here: https://leslietate.com/lavender-blues-three-shades-of-love/

Violet is available to purchase from Leslie Tate’s website: https://leslietate.com/shop/violet/

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Violet-Lavender-Blues-Three-Shades-ebook/dp/B07BNR37XK/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Violet-Lavender-Blues-Three-Shades-ebook/dp/B07BNR37XK/

My Review of The Tides Between, a coming-of-age, historical novel by Elizabeth Jane Corbett

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“Elffin, Gwyddno and Taliesin, that’s the way it works, isn’t it? Each of us in every character, the stories shifting and changing as we learn to see differently.”

The year is 1841 and fifteen-year-old Bridie Stewart is emigrating from England to Port Phillip, Australia with her ma, her stepfather Alf Bustle and a book of magical Welsh fairy tales her dad told her before his sudden passing 18 months previously. With her ma pregnant and a new life ahead of them, Bridie’s ma and Alf want her to forget her childhood and grow up. Most of all, they want her to give up on the memory she has of her father as a kind-hearted, misunderstood dreamer. In order to appease them, Bridie has to hide her notebook, the last tangible object on earth she has to remind her of her father.

When it’s discovered, Alf insists that she use the notebook not to write down further stories but to make a record of their ocean crossing. Bridie feels angry and hurt. Luckily, Bridie has become friends with a young Welsh couple, Rhys and Siân, who share her love of stories and who help Bridie feel less isolated on the ship. Rhys is a dreamer, like her dad was, and Siân’s daintiness and mysterious ways remind Bridie of a fairy. But will their mythical ballads, music and storytelling be enough to help Bridie discover her own truth about what happened with her dad?

Corbett’s portrayal of life between decks for the English and Welsh emigrants was realistic and empathetic. She does not shy away from showing readers the harshness of her characters’ lives or the ocean crossing but nor does she allow for this aspect of their experience to dominate. The Tides Between is an enchanting novel, filled with Welsh myths and the magic of possibility.

The Tides Between is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tides-Between-Elizabeth-Jane-Corbett-ebook/dp/B077SS6847/ 

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Tides-Between-Elizabeth-Jane-Corbett-ebook/dp/B077SS6847/

To find out more about The Tides Between and Eliizabeth Jane Corbett’s writing, visit: elizabethjanecorbett.com

My review of Sealskin, by Su Bristow

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‘And the thing is, Donald, I’ll never know if it was the best way or not, do you see? You choose your path, and then you have to walk it, all the way. We all do.’

Donald is a gentle and lonely young man living with his mother in a tiny, close-knit fishing village off the west coast of Scotland. Struggling to eke out a living for the two of them, he fishes, keeps crab pots and helps his Uncle Hugh when necessary. Unable to relate to his cousins or to the other villagers, Donald takes joy in nature and being on his own.

When he goes out to check his crab pots late one night, he witnesses something magical. Seized by the beauty of this spectacle, Donald acts out of character and does something unthinkable. Afterward, filled with remorse, Donald hopes to make up for his actions. But it’s too late. He will have to live with his deed for the rest of his life. How he manages the aftermath will make all the difference.

I enjoyed this story, which is based on the legend of the selkies, one of my all-time favourite myths (for more on selkies see my review of this series). Bristow’s exploration of Donald’s character was skilful and refreshing—while Donald does something terrible, the writing is never heavy-handed or judgmental. Bristow shows her characters, presents the dilemma and lets the action play out naturally—no easy feat! Her writing is poignant and evocative of the harsh but magnificent landscape of the west coast of Scotland, an area I was lucky enough to visit last year. This is a beautifully-written and memorable novel, which I hope to reread someday.

Sealskin is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US and all good bookstores.

Why do I write? A guest post by Rebecca Stonehill

Today, as part of the #AlfredNightingale blog tour, I’m featuring a thoughtful guest post by Rebecca Stonehill on why she writes. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Rebecca. 

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You know that feeling of complete helplessness after you’ve watched the news? Watching reams of people leaving war-torn Syria, or the latest terrorist attack in a crowded market, or corrupt dictatorships making its own people suffer? Feeling deeply saddened, but not knowing what you can do about it, that the only option is to continue and make the most of our own lives?

I go through all of the above, as almost everyone does. And then, as somebody working in the creative arts, I interpret and personalize situations such as these. Toni Morrison, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist once said of the artist’s task in troubled times: ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work.’ I couldn’t agree more. It’s an unspoken pact I have with myself, to respond to difficult situations with writing. People have sometimes asked me, How can such a cheerful person like you base your novels in such un-cheerful settings?  (Think: The Spanish Civil War in The Poet’s Wife, Prejudice and Mau Mau Emergency in The Girl and the Sunbird and the Battle of Crete in The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale.) The truth is, if I didn’t write my way through such difficult scenarios, I’m not sure I would write at all.

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But that doesn’t mean that all this is simple catharsis; I know there are other people out there who feel the same as me and are deeply disturbed by what we as a race do to one another and what we are doing to our beautiful planet. I completely understand why people both write and read chick lit or light romances, so we can remove ourselves from the sober realities that surround us and indulge in some much-needed escapism. This is a hard written art form to do well. Often I wish I could write these stories, but I find that I can’t and that whenever I’ve tried, I’ve failed.

Everybody says I was a serious little girl, reserving my smile for only a few; that child who listened intently, but never put her hand up in class. I’m far less serious these days and love nothing more than a good laugh with friends and family. And yet, that serious child lives on in me. She is the reader who would like to but can’t read anything lighthearted, and she is the writer who returns again and again to mine the depths of human despair in her stories.

Thankfully, there’s a flipside to all this. And that flipside incorporates those stories of courage, resilience and beauty in the face of human suffering. We are a strange, remarkable species – capable of so much destruction and hatred and yet, we also know how to love unconditionally and to be the harbingers of great compassion, generosity and joy.

Through my writing, I try hard to make sense of this complicated world and understand why things have happened. Even more importantly, I look for and create stories of hope, that beautiful little word that allows us to press on through the direst of situations. I am so inspired by tales of courage and resilience and, in many ways, my writing bears testament to the spirit of human bravery.

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Author EB White said that a writer ‘must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.’

If I can do any of the above, in any small way, then I believe I have achieved what I set out to do. Where all this will lead me, I don’t yet know. But I have a thousand and one stories bottled up inside me, so the real question is this: where will my need to make sense of the world take me and which story will be released next?

Rebecca Stonehill is from London but currently lives in Nairobi in an old wooden cottage surrounded by banana trees and tropical birds. The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale, now available, is her third novel. Her other books, The Poet’s Wife and The Girl and the Sunbird, were published in 2014 and 2016.

Rebecca loves to connect with readers and can be contacted on her Facebook page: Rebecca Stonehill books, via twitter: @bexstonehill and through her website: www.rebeccastonehill.com. If you would like to be kept updated with her writing projects, please do sign up here: http://rebeccastonehill.com/signup

BLOG TOUR

My Review of Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin

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‘She doesn’t get it, does she?’ Meredith leaned on the windowsill. ‘Why do you love snow, Verity?’

‘It’s like friendly rain; softer and kinder.’

‘Good answer.’

‘Why do you love it?’

The light from the window turned Meredith’s hair to coral candyfloss. ‘Snow makes me brave. When it snows, the sad part of me goes away.’

Meredith and Verity Pryce live in the beautiful Welsh countryside, at Gull House, which belongs to their grandmother, Mared. They live with their eccentric and erratic mother, Allegra, and Angharad, the ghost of a girl who lived 100 years ago. Meredith discovered Angharad’s presence when sifting through an abandoned sewing box in their disused attic. But, rather than tell their mother about Angharad—she would only overdramatise it and scare the ghost away—or their sensible grandmother, the girls decide to investigate her presence on their own. Through their communications with Angharad, they begin to learn more about her life, and to draw conclusions about their own.

Allegra has told the education board that she’s home-schooling her daughters, but other than a few books sent through the post, no lessons are provided. Verity would love nothing more than to go to school, and so spends her time reading at the library, where a whole new world is opened to her. But Meredith doesn’t mind staying home—her imagination more than compensates for what she doesn’t know. Despite the girls’ best efforts to escape their mother, Allegra’s unreliable behaviour and continued hurt and resentment over the loss of the girls’ father, continues to dominate their lives.

When Allegra gets it into her head that her paintings might make it big in London, the girls have no choice but to go along with it. The ever-helpful Verity tries her best to change their mother’s mind, for Meredith’s sake, but isn’t able to. Their arrival in London ushers in a new period in the girls’ lives, but how each manages to cope with this change will have the biggest impact yet, on their lives and on their friendship.

Having read and loved Lovekin’s first novel, Ghostbird, I had high expectations of Snow Sisters. I was not disappointed. As with Ghostbird, the story Lovekin tells is poignant, enchanting and insightful.  Lovekin powerfully conveys the ways in which women and girls internalise their experiences until they become a part of their psychological make-up. Lovekin’s prose is crisp, clear and beautiful. Her stunning evocation of the Welsh landscape and the magic of childhood makes this a novel to be savoured, slowly over time, and reread, for its many layers of meaning.

Snow Sisters was published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press on 21st September 2017.

You can purchase Snow Sisters from Honno: http://www.honno.co.uk/

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Snow-Sisters-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B074WGLLGQ/

Amazon U.S.: https://www.amazon.com/Snow-Sisters-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B074WGLLGQ/

With thanks to Honno for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

You can follow the Snow Sisters Blog tour here:

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About Carol Lovekin:

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Author photograph copyright Janey Stevens

Carol Lovekin has Irish blood and a Welsh heart. She was born in Warwickshire and has lived in Wales since 1979, settling in Lampeter eleven years ago. A feminist, she finds fiction the perfect vehicle for telling women’s collective stories. Her books also reflect her love of the landscape and mythology of her adopted home.

Snow Sisters is her second novel. Her first, Ghostbird, is also published by Honno.

Visit Carol’s website: https://carollovekinauthor.com/

Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/carollovekin

Find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009564096097

Where She Will Shine by Sylvia Anderson

Today I’m featuring Fiona Maclean who writes under the pen name of Sylvia Anderson. Her first novel, Where She Will Shine, was self-published in April. Here’s the blurb:

Where She Will Shine is a contemporary literary work of fiction which concerns the life of a student, Mary MacDonald, in 1960s Scotland. It is a vibrant tale full of contrasts, colour and excitement. When Mary leaves the croft for the “big city” of Glasgow she meets individuals who will change her life forever. Her life is lonely and raw at the start until she meets David Cochrane, who has a life hidden from his mother, but Mary falls in love with him – her first “real love”. 

In the late sixties, the Beatles were in full swing and dance halls were popular as meeting places for young people. It was the generation of full employment and the post war “baby boomers” had a satisfying life. The characters in the book, however, battle with issues which were as topical then as they are now – coming of age, student life, parenthood, rape and homosexuality.

Fiona has written a lovely post about her inspiration for writing Where She Will Shine and, also, her characters. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Fiona.

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“My inspiration for my work, Where She Will Shine, came from a visit to a First World War Monument in Perth, Scotland.  The brave war heroes remembered, sacrificed their lives so that the youth of today could shine and make the world a better place.

I enjoyed my student years, for it was a world that my parents had not had the chance to experience.  I’m a ‘Baby Boomer’ and echoes of the war years were still around whilst I grew up – poor housing; austerity; rationing.  I wrote the novel for folk in a similar position, who cherished the chance to ‘shine’ and for others to see inside the emotional head of a first-year student in 1968.

Life could be tough for my eighteen-year-old protagonist, Mary, but it is never as hard as the life of Alice, the waif she befriends in Glasgow and whom she helps to move on and make her life a success.

Mary was an only child – when I think about it, my best friend when I was growing up was an only child and I did envy her having her parents all to herself – I was one of five.  She had a totally different life to mine with extremely caring parents who catered to her every need – be it the beautiful food she ate; her immaculate school uniforms and shoes (mine were hand me downs) or lovely skating dresses (we met at the local ice rink).

I have met poor teenagers like Alice in my work as an Occupational Therapist and always felt pity.  Despite Alice’s brave and gauche front, she longs to be looked after by ‘proper’ parents like Ruaridh and Mhairi.  In the end, this happens to her and she has a good life after a deprived and unsupported beginning.

I have never lived on the west coast of Scotland but have had many holidays there.  It is my favourite place in the whole of Scotland.  Breathtakingly beautiful white beaches and mountains covered with beautiful flowers, make it a place to relax and enjoy nature.  Mary belonged to such a place and it gave her, ‘an ache in her heart’ when she thought of it.  One can imagine the change in her lifestyle when she arrived in Glasgow in 1968 into a student world of riot; the end of the Vietnam War; an intolerance of everything ‘old’ and conmen and women (Jimmy and Yvonne) on every street corner. 

Where She Will Shine is my first novel. I enjoyed writing it and was greatly motivated by ‘The Writing Classes,’ which I joined when I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2014.  My tutor, Anne Hamilton, was particularly inspiring.  This was a great experience for the other writers commented on everything one wrote and I looked forward to every Monday, for a new exercise.  Kuala Lumpur is a city of very poor and very rich, like most cities in Asia.  I communicated largely with other ex-patriot wives who had gone out there with their partners to support them.  In the sunshine, every day we would walk and talk in the KLCC Park under the Petronas Towers.  It was a magical time and amongst the ex-pat women (forty-four of them), I had understanding, tolerant friends.  I miss them!”

Many thanks for that, Fiona. It’s always delightful to hear about the success of new writers, especially fellow alumni of writingclasses. I’m looking forward to reading Where She Will Shine!

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Where She Will Shine is available as an ebook from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Where-Will-Shine-Sylvia-Anderson-ebook/dp/B06Y98WTQ4

 

My review of Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

 

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‘You know more about magic then you let on, don’t you?’

‘Magic’s easy. It’s real life that’s complicated.’

Hopkins women have always been secretive and, at present, there are three of them. Lilwen Hopkins is a Hopkins by blood, unlike her sister-in-law, Violet, who only came to the village in order to marry Lilwen’s brother, Teilo. Violet and Teilo’s 14-year-old daughter, Cadi, spends all her time trying to discover her family’s deepest, best kept and most frustrating secret–what happened to her father and youngest sister, of whom there are not even photographs. While Lilwen lives alone in the small cottage, Violet and Cadi live next door to her in the big one. Yet although the three women live in close proximity, each is a world unto herself, even Cadi keeps her own confidences, not wanting to share everything with her mother and aunt.

Lilwen was raised in the village under her mother, Gwenllian’s, guidance and is therefore familiar with all the old ways—how to keep a trailing jasmine alive in a climate ill-suited to it, what herbs act as the best salves for cuts and bruises and, most importantly, how to make herself invisible in order to ‘see’ others better. Yet although her ways are rooted in tradition, Lilwen is grounded in the present and spends much of her time looking after Cadi, as she’s done since Cadi was born. For Violet, her past is as important as—if not more important than—her present. Violet is largely absent from everyday life, doing only what is necessary to get from one day to another, unable to bear the pain of her past. It’s Violet’s silence, and Lilwen’s complicity in keeping Violet’s secrets, which brings about Cadi’s irrepressible desire to discover what happened to her family, a desire which, ultimately, leads Cadi to do things she wouldn’t otherwise do.

Lovekin’s story contains elements of magical realism and, in many ways, resembles a fairy tale. She uses stunning sensory detail to transport her readers to the small village in Wales where the story takes place. I could smell the over perfumed roses cut through with the occasional burst of meadowsweet, feel the wild winds and wet, hot August downpours, see the mysterious feathers and leaves which sometimes littered Cadi’s bedroom floor and, most importantly, empathise with her characters.  In addition to this, Lovekin challenges the traditional notion of family—Violet, Cadi and Lilwen are very much a family, yet they are all women and none of them spends their time pining after men, nor do they define themselves in relation to men. I found this depiction to be refreshing as there are many families who consist entirely of women, for varying reasons. Lovekin’s writing shines with the difficult magic of female camaraderie, and with real magic as well, which is why when the Not the Booker shortlisting vote came around, I voted for Ghostbird.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Carol Lovekin’s stories in future.

Ghostbird is published by Honno Women’s Press and is available direct from them: http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?ISBN=9781909983397

You can also order it from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghostbird-Carol-Lovekin/dp/190998339X/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Ghostbird-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B01AOMVP2U/

Follow Carol’s blog to learn more about her writing and inspiration: https://carollovekinauthor.com/ 

Like her page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Carol-Lovekin-1006022299431923/

See what she’s up to on Twitter: @carollovekin

 

 

 

 

My review of Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

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At that, the crease smoothed away and she smiled at him. ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re still appalling know-it-alls. We dig things up, but then we photograph and catalogue, record and document, and as often as not we put things back. It’s not the finds so much as the findings. Not the objects but the stories they tell.’

Sandlands is a collection of sixteen linked short stories, all taking place in and around the small coastal village of Blaxhall in an area known as the Sandlings in Suffolk, England. Life and death, past and present, overlap in these stories, coming full circle. The victories, losses and betrayals of past generations come back to haunt the present, forever imprinted upon both the physical landscape as well as the realm of memory and imagination.

In ‘Nightingale’s Return,’ birdsong fills the air as a recently retired clerk travels from his native Italy to visit the farm in Suffolk where his father worked as a prisoner of war during World War Two. In ‘Mad Maudlin,’ one of the more unsettling stories in the collection, a pub lodger stays up late to compare old video footage of the pub from decades before. ‘Silver Studded Blues’ is a story of regeneration and renewal and the surprises which nature sometimes brings, wrapped up in the story of a man who has spent his entire life in (nearly) the same place.

Thornton’s stories are quiet, delicate and full of wonder. They slowly weave their way into your heart, where they remain.  They are poignant, poetic, lush with the landscape, wildlife and history of Blaxhall and beautifully written but, above all, they are perfect. By perfect I mean perfectly composed—each word earns its place, and then some. Each character, each setting, each paragraph hearkens back to another, lending a satisfying, almost musical, quality of resonance within the stories and, indeed, within the collection.

As I read, I found myself turning each story over, wondering what had really happened. This wasn’t because the writing was unclear at any point but more a result of the writer wanting the reader to make his or her own mind up as to what had occurred. Thornton’s stories are multi-layered and nuanced in such a way that they lend themselves to varying interpretations, a feature I very much enjoyed.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Thornton’s work and, perhaps, even visiting the Sandlings someday.

Sandlands is published by Sandstone Press and is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B017KU9E9K/ 

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Sandlands-Rosy-Thornton-ebook/dp/B017KU9E9K/

You can follow Rosy Thornton on Twitter: @rosy_thornton

Visit her website: http://rosythornton.com/

 

Interview with Emma Claire Sweeney, author of Owl Song at Dawn

Today I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented Emma Claire Sweeney to my blog as the final stop on the Owl Song at Dawn blog tour. Owl Song at Dawn is Emma’s debut novel and was inspired by her sister who has cerebral palsy and autism. The novel was published on the 1st July by Legend Press.

My review follows the interview.

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Welcome, Emma! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your novel.

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photo  taken by Rosalind Hobley

Firstly, could you please describe the story for readers?

Maeve Maloney is a force to be reckoned with. Despite nearing eighty, she keeps Sea View Lodge just as her parents did during Morecambe’s 1950s heyday. But now only her employees and regular guests recognise the tenderness and heartbreak hidden beneath her spikiness.

Until, that is, Vincent shows up. Vincent is the last person Maeve wants to see. He is the only man alive to have known her twin sister, Edie. The nightingale to Maeve’s crow, the dawn to Maeve’s dusk, Edie would have set her sights on the stage all things being equal. But, from birth, things never were.

If only Maeve could confront the secret past she shares with Vincent, she might finally see what it means to love and be loved, a lesson that her exuberant yet inexplicable twin may have been trying to teach her all along.

What is it that makes this story unique?

Owl Song at Dawn explores the UK’s hidden history of learning disability from the 1930s to the present day – a subject very close to my heart since my sister has cerebral palsy and autism. Few novels enter this territory, and, those that do, tend to perpetuate the myth that learning disability leads irrevocably to family breakdown.

What motivated you to write this novel?

I have yet to come across a novel that offers a place for my kind of family: one that has largely succeeded in lovingly accommodating learning disability. And yet, such families are – and always have been – typical.

Novels, I believe, can subvert misconceptions. I wanted to challenge the assumption that a sibling must inevitably resent her sister or brother with learning disabilities; that the life of someone with learning disabilities must be overwhelmingly bleak; that families who raise their disabled child at home are somehow saintly in their powers of endurance. I wanted to celebrate people of all sorts of abilities and call into question what our society tends to value. 

When did this story begin, for you as the writer?

Inspired by William Horwood’s wonderful novel, Skallagrigg, my first ever secondary school creative writing assignment was about a girl trying to decipher a phrase that her sister kept repeating indistinctly.

Over a decade later, when I was studying on the University of East Anglia’s MA course, I found myself gravitating again to this subject during timed creative writing exercises even though I was working on a novel about an entirely unrelated subject.    

Keenly aware that I was in the early days of studying my craft and alert to the importance of a sensitive representation of learning disability, throughout my twenties I wrote about other subjects. And yet, I never doubted that my pen would one day return to this.

What challenges did you encounter while writing the novel?

I wanted Edie, the twin who is diagnosed back in the 1930s as ‘severely subnormal’ to narrate in the first-person, answering back stereotypes with candour, authenticity and verve. And this is where I came unstuck. Initially, I imposed certain limitations on myself – Edie’s voice would only be in the present tense, for instance – in my attempts to capture her apparent inarticulacy on the page.

Although early readers praised the energy of such excerpts, I knew deep down that there was a falsehood at their heart. The rules I imposed on myself threatened to alert the reader to the artifice of Edie’s voice rather than providing the intimate empathetic experience I’d so confidently set out to offer. What’s more, there was a childishness to these sections that undermined my desire to subvert the persistent popular perception of people with learning disabilities as infantile.

How could I convey a certain type of inarticulacy, distinct from the language (or lack of it) in early childhood that would nonetheless demonstrate full access to emotion and the experience of being human?

The answer was close to home. I began transcribing all the things my sister said to me during our nightly phone-calls. In my revised novel, I have attempted to capture something of Lou’s inventive phrases and melodic use of language in the voice of Edie, my character with learning disabilities. Of course, I have simultaneously adapted it for the character who was born in the 1930s in Morecambe and whose seminal life experiences are radically different from Lou’s.

One of my favourite things about this novel is that it not only features disabled characters, but it contains a number of them—in fact, the story is reliant on them, as are the other ‘able’ characters. Could you talk a little about what went into your decision to create a positive story with disability at its centre?

People with learning disabilities and those who love them often know lots of other people with learning disabilities too. I felt that an authentic representation would explore this sense of identity.

When I moved to the town where I now live, it took me a while to feel at home. My first real sense of community came when I was awarded an Arts Council sponsored writing residency at Sunnyside Rural Trust – a social enterprise that offers work experience to adults with autism and learning disabilities. The people there welcomed me into their world with such generosity and warmth that I was struck by the inadequacy of the term ‘disability’. Here were a group of people with all sorts of abilities that demand to be celebrated.    

There are very few characters like Edie, Len and Steph in literature. Why do you think this is and what can be done to remedy it?

I’ll be candid! I suspect that publishers shy away from acquiring books about people with learning disabilities – especially those novels that question misconceptions. We have a problem in the UK with the literary industry showing little faith in readers.

Publishing is chronically undiverse – white, middle-class, Oxbridge, metropolitan – and the gatekeepers are often subconsciously attracted to characters and scenarios that are close to home. But I think that readers are far cannier: we want to read about all sorts of people and enter into all sorts of new worlds – whether they be refreshingly new or reassuringly familiar.    

Your novel not only includes a rich cast of disabled characters, but also features characters who are elderly. Both of these groups are often neglected in mainstream fiction. What advice would you give to writers who wish to expand their character range to include more diverse characters?

Just do it! If the world you are representing would contain all sorts of different characters, then it is only right to render this on the page. But you must do it with authenticity. Work out both the stereotypes and the overly politically correct versions and then try to avoid either extreme. Immerse yourself in the worlds about which you write.

Edie, and those like Edie, aren’t always able to communicate their experiences in the same way as others. Unfortunately, because of the society we live in, this means that they are often excluded. In your opinion, what can be done to create a more inclusive and welcoming society, and what can individuals do to help foster a culture of positivity towards difference?

We need to start focusing on what people can do and less on what they can’t. If we really began to value a wider range of skills, we could increase the shameful rates of paid employment among people with learning disability in the UK (currently 6.6%) and we would see a much-needed fall in rates of disability hate crime (which rose by 41% last year).

I hugely admire my sister’s capacity for happiness – a skill far beyond the reaches of most classrooms. At parties, she is always the first on the dancefloor, giving the rest of us permission to shed our inhibitions by dragging us in her wake. The best way to foster inclusivity is to discard any anxiety or embarrassment and interact with people of all sorts of abilities, learning to value all they have to give. 

Could you talk us through your journey to publication? Was it difficult to find a publisher for the novel, given its themes and characters?

The journey to publication began with relative ease when I was signed by Veronique Baxter at David Higham Associates. I had long admired her, since she represents Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says It Loud) and Edward Hogan (The Hunger Trace) – two authors whose representations of disability I hold in extremely high regard. Early readers likened Owl Song at Dawn to novels by Maggie O’Farrell, and I was hugely complimented by the comparison. Naively, I assumed that publishers were hungry for books like this that bridge the literary/commercial divide. But editor after editor came back to us saying that they could not work out how to market this book.

I think they were put off by the combination of a cast of characters with disabilities, the northern setting, and the elderly protagonist. Ironically, if I had written a high literary novel, representing a bleaker narrative of disability, it might have been easier to get it published. Certainly, a more commercial novel that repeated well-worn stereotypes would have fared better.

I did work on the novel with an editor from one of the big publishers but she ended up getting cold feet. But this redraft meant that the novel was pretty much ready to print when my tenacious agent sent it to the wonderfully risk-taking team at independent publisher, Legend Press.

Can we expect another novel from you?

So long as I can get it published! I’ve completed the research for The Sister Who Throws Scissors – a novel that will bring together both my fascination with female novelists and my interest in disability. I discovered that the sister of one of my favourite authors was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’ and written out of the family history. The Sister Who Throws Scissors will be narrated by her. 

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or your writing?

My next book will be a non-fiction book on female literary friendship, which I am co-writing with my own writer friend, Emily Midorikawa. A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf will come out in autumn 2017 with Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA.  

Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us today! Best of luck with Owl Song at Dawn and with all your writing!

Readers can obtain Owl Song at Dawn from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney/dp/1785079670/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney-ebook/dp/B015H5RQZY/

Owl Song at Dawn has been selected for Books etc. book club, so, until the end of July, the paperback is half price through them: http://www.booksetc.co.uk/features/view/1676-the-books-etc-club-july

Visit Emma’s blog: www.emmaclairesweeney.com

Follow her on Twitter: @emmacsweeney

Catch up with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emmaclairesweeney/

My review of Owl Song at Dawn

I want to tell him that I need you to sit beside me in the pew, your head resting on my shoulder, the scent of Pears soap on your skin.

Vince Roper and Maeve Maloney’s shared youth frames the budding romance of their twilight years. But, while light-hearted in places, this is not your typical romance novel. Instead, it’s a novel about love—the love we seek, the love we share and the different forms this love may take, or not take, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Set against the once-glamorous backdrop of Morecambe in its heyday, Sweeney skilfully compares Morecambe’s glory days to Maeve’s own.

For Vince and Maeve, it was their shared love of Maeve’s twin, Edie, which brought them together. Edie was an enigma to Maeve. While similar in some ways, in others they couldn’t have been more different. While Maeve expected to obtain a degree, to travel, to marry and to have children, Edie’s life would never contain these pleasurable pursuits due to what her unhelpful physicians termed her ‘severe sub normality,’ and a society which seemed to be set against her unique abilities from the start. In modern-day terms, Edie was affected by  cerebral palsy with associated epilepsy resulting in frequent grand mal seizures, which sometimes put her life at risk. She was also autistic.

Their parents, already living under the constant fear that their beloved daughter might be taken from them, decide against medical treatment and instead choose to raise Edie at home (the story takes place in the 1930s, when the forced extermination of the disabled was taking place in Germany and eugenics was popular in Britain and America). This decision results in a close bond amongst the family and especially between Maeve and Edie, who is particularly loving and affectionate.

With not a word out of place, Sweeney tells her story with poetry (quite literally in the scenes where Edie speaks), poignancy, grace and an uplifting humour. Her characters make for a refreshing change as many of them are learning disabled. But Sweeney doesn’t make the mistake of treating her characters as poor, defenceless victims worthy of pity who sit helplessly on the side-lines while the other ‘real’ characters get on with the action. Instead, her disabled characters are central to the story. For without Maeve’s sister Edie, there would be no story. Without the help and companionship of Len and Steph (both of whom are learning disabled and who help to run Sea View Lodge), Maeve Maloney’s life would be joyless and she would not be able to keep up with her work. Sweeney’s novel demonstrates the importance of diversity and the pleasure which can be achieved when we embrace and celebrate our differences.

Owl Song at Dawn is a novel unlike any other I’ve ever read. Striking in its subtlety, nuance and depth, this is a novel to cherish. I shall look forward to re-reading this for years to come and uncovering new layers with each reading. I strongly encourage you to read this for yourself and see what you make of this ground-breaking new title.

Owl Song at Dawn blog tour