Sunday, 15 December 2013

Stepping outside my reading comfort zone: the Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014

I'd never thought of making a reading resolution before, but I'm planning to for 2014. This will be the year I step out of my reading comfort zone and discover the thrills of new genres including the medical thriller and cosy mystery fiction.

Don't ask me what those two are - I'd never even heard of them before today. But I know a woman who has. Shelleyrae Cusbert, who reads a book a day and blogs about her reading habit at Book'd Out, is hosting The Eclectic Reader Challenge (ERC) for 2014. The ERC invites participants to read up to 12 different books from 12 distinct categories by 31st December 2014.

You can read your selected titles in any order and at your own pace, but you must complete the challenge by the end of 2014.

Here are the categories:

1.  Award winning
2.  True crime (non-fiction)
3.  Romantic comedy
4.  Alternate history fiction
5.  Graphic novel
6.  Cosy mystery fiction
7.  Gothic fiction
8.  War/military fiction
9.  Anthology
10. Medical thriller fiction
11. Travel (non-fiction)
12. Published in 2014.

So that's my reading resolution for 2014. Fancy joining me? Head over to Book'd Out for more details - and do let me know how your reading year goes.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

What the paper said: the New Zealand Herald reviews Burned

This time three years ago, I was invited to represent Holidays with Kids magazine on a cruise aboard the Ms. Volendam. I spent eight days aboard the 61,214-ton luxury cruise ship and have to say I had a ball. The food was fantastic, the scenery spectacular (we cruised through the Milford Sound) and I loved that we were able to spot wildlife (dolphins, whales and albatross) as the ship went on its way. There were just a few journalists on that press trip and in between port visits, briefings from the captain and touring the kitchens, we could often be found sitting by the pool, playing Scrabble, chatting and working our way through the cocktail list. 

I also spent a fair few hours squirrelled away in my cabin editing the manuscript of my novel. Its working title was Snap, Crackle, Pop and I was delighted to have a few days away from business as usual in Sydney so I could work on it.

Fast forward three years and Snap, Crackle, Pop is now Burned. When I heard it would be published in New Zealand, I got in touch with Shandelle Battersby who works at the NZ Herald and was one of the other journalists on the Ms Volendam. I asked if she thought anyone at the paper would like to review it - she said she could do it herself.

I don't think it's appeared on-line yet, but this is what Shandelle wrote in her Chick Lit column:

"Noah, a boy who dreams of one day being an astronaut, is the central character in [Burned] this excellent debut novel by Persephone Nicholas, who dives back and forwards in time between England and Australia with the skill of someone who has been writing books for years.  
Noah and his mother Kate are rebuilding their lives after the death of Kate’s estranged husband when Noah gets caught up in a horrible crime that has far-reaching effects. To say any more would spoil the story, but I recommend this cracking read, which crosses several genres so should entertain almost everybody."

Fantastic review of Burned in The New Zealand Herald last month

If you'd like to read more from Shandelle, you can find her work here.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

New reads down under: 5 great Australian books

Dad and me in Canada, winter of '64

In a few weeks' time my dad will be flying to Sydney and coming to visit us for the first time. I couldn't be more excited. In between planning excursions, jotting down meal ideas and making up his room, I've also been thinking about books he might enjoy.

Growing up in the UK I didn’t come across a lot of Australian writing and I suspect my dad won't have either. So there's plenty to catch up on. When I arrived here nearly a decade ago, reading taught me about the history, heritage and culture of this beautiful land and I loved discovering new authors and fresh voices who showed me things I would never have discovered for myself.

I still have lots more reading to do. Great books are published faster than I can read them, but here are five I particularly enjoyed:

Breath by Tim Winton
It’s been a long time since I read it, but I still remember this story about a young boy, ‘Pikelet’ who lives near Perth and keeps dangerous company. This is a scary book for mothers of boys, but it’s also astutely observed, elegantly written and taught me a good deal about the perilous beauty of our waters.

The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
Reading Conway’s memoir dispelled any romantic fantasies I may have had about life on a rural property. She lived and worked on her family’s 32,000-acre sheep farm in the Australian outback until her father drowned when she was 11. Reading Conway’s descriptions of the impact of a three-year drought on the land, the animals and her family was an education in itself.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
This Australian classic is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about Australian history and its colonisation by the British. Grenville’s fictional account of an early 19th century Englishman, William Thornton, transported to Australia for theft, was inspired by her research into her ancestor Solomon Wiseman. It’s a gripping, confronting read that helps illuminate a dark topic.

Kate Grenville's The Secret River: a confronting read

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Set in the fictitious regional mining town of Corrigan, Jasper Jones perfectly conveys the smouldering heat of a long Australian summer when there’s nothing much to do in the school holidays except play cricket, hang out with your mates – and discover the terrible secret behind a young girl’s death. As funny as it is dark, Jasper Jones is like a little time capsule; a 1960’s summer perfectly preserved for its readers.

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman
This book is set on a remote island, Janus Rock, off Western Australia in 1926. It's the story of Tom Sherbourne, a young lighthouse keeper and his wife Isabel who live a quiet life until a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant. I absolutely loved this book (read my review here) and urge you to read it for yourself immediately.

These are just five of my favourite Australian books. I know there are many more out there waiting to be discovered. I'd love to hear which ones you recommend...

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Guest post: Who'd have thought I'd read this book: The Son by Philipp Meyer

Who'd have thought Jane Riley would read this book?

Today's post is by guest blogger Jane Riley. Jane is a freelance writer who also owns online design store, Who'd Have Thought? Take it away, Jane!

I heard Tim Winton speak recently, as part of the promotional tour for his new book, Eyrie. One of the comments he made struck me as the key to successful writing:

'Readers these days are bombarded by the now. You have to hook them immediately and make them want to not only sit down with your book, but stay with it to the very end. It is the immediacy of the writing, the skill of throwing the reader in the deep end that makes you want to keep on reading.'

So when I sat down with American novelist Philipp Meyer’s latest book, The Son, it was with an element of trepidation. Despite having read – and enjoyed - his first, highly applauded book, American Rust, I wasn’t sure if The Son would keep me page-turning because not everything about it appealed.

At 561 pages and the size of a brick it is the sort of book I would normally shun for something less hefty and, therefore, less time-consuming to read. Then there’s its premise: a violent cowboy and Indian family saga are words that describe books I usually never read. So why did I?

Meyer got me hooked on the first sentence:

‘It was prophesied I would live to see 100 and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it.’ It is the start of a multi-generational, multi viewpoint historical epic that spans from the Comanche raids of the mid-1800s to the oil boom of the 20th century. It transports you to the arid Texan plains back when the frontier was made from grit, spilt blood and a hell of a lot of tenacity. It was true survival of the fittest. And many didn’t.

I may have had to skim over several pages of brutal violence - ‘The only problem was keeping your scalp attached,’ says Eli at the end of chapter one – but I was swept along by the individual stories Meyer tells and the history he recreates so vividly and accurately from extensive research.

I was there when Eli loses his family and is kidnapped by the Comanches only to rise within their ranks. I was there when Jeanne fought against chauvinism and societal norms to head the family’s oil business. I was there when Peter rejects his father and runs away with a Mexican girl.

Like Winton, Meyer puts the reader in the heart of the action. He saddles you up and takes you along for the ride through 100 years of a part of American history you probably knew little about. Sometimes it’s a gallop, sometimes a canter, but never in nearly 600 pages do you ever trot, let alone stop.
It's a testament to Meyer’s writing skill that he can sustain us, the readers, in such a way for such a long time.

And you know what? I gobbled it all up – at times reading late into the night. So, I would like to rephrase the book’s premise and call it a rollicking good literary ride that takes you to a place you’re glad you can now only read about.

I didn’t want it to end. Who’d have thought?

Jane Riley is a Sydney-based freelance writer and owner of online design store,  Who'd Have Thought? which showcases unique gifts and homewares from around the world. The theme: creative reinventions and design innovations; the idea: to make you think, 'who'd have thought?' She also writes a blog which features interviews with artists and creatives and other quirky and interesting stuff going on in the world. 

Photograph of Jane Riley by Hannah Riley.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Ignorance vs. bliss: Would you want to know if your spouse had an affair?

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway wed in September 1921
When I started thinking about packing for our holiday in Fiji last month, there were two items top of my packing list: a new swimsuit and a great read. It took a few hours to track down some swimmers I could bear to wear in public, but finding the perfect book took only a few seconds.

Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, the factional story of Ernest Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, was already waiting for me on my bookshelves. A good friend gave me the book a while ago and I'd put it aside until I knew I would have a good chunk of time to devote to it.

I loved the book instantly. I don't know that much about Hemingway's work, but I didn't need to. The Paris Wife is a compelling tale of two young people navigating their way through marriage and life in post-war Paris. As a writer it was fascinating to read about the early years of Hemingway's career. Hadley describes his passion for writing brilliantly:
"His ambitions for his writing were fierce and all encompassing. He had writing the way other people had religion..."
It's widely known that Hemingway was a womaniser and eventually, like his father, brother and sister, committed suicide, but the early years of the marriage were happy. The Hemingways didn't have a lot of money compared to some of their peers, but still managed to spend a lot of time traveling around Europe rubbing shoulders with the literary glitterati of the time.

Hadley warns us in the prologue to: 'Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything.' And come along she does, insinuating herself into the lives of the Hemingways and eventually causing the break up of their marriage. It's frustrating and heartbreaking to see Hadley aware of what's happening and struggling to break free from the awful ménage a trois her marriage has become. As a reader, I wanted her to fight harder, but she explains why she can't:
"There are some who said I should have fought harder or longer than I did for my marriage, but in the end fighting for a love that was already gone felt like trying to live in the ruins of a lost city. I couldn't bear it and so I backed away..."
Reading The Paris Wife, it's easy to empathise with Hadley who knows her marriage is under threat, but isn't sure how to protect it. Nola Duncan, joint author with Libby Harkness of The Widow, faced a very different challenge. Happily married for 30 years, she thought her husband Michael was the perfect man - until clearing out his office on the anniversary of his death, she discovered 741 love letters between Michael and his lover, proof of his passionate six-year affair with a woman 23 years his junior.

 Nola Duncan's husband took his secret to the grave
It's hard to imagine how shocked and betrayed Nola must have felt. Her story asks many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions: why did he keep the letters? Can a man love two women at once? And how could Nola not have known?

I don't pretend to have any of the answers. But the question that is haunting me now is whose shoes I would prefer to walk in - Hadley's or Nola's? If your husband has an affair is it better to know or not?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A gift of a book: M L Stedman's The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans: a gift of a book

I was given The Light Between Oceans last February, but somehow didn't get around to reading it until August. What a treat I missed! I absolutely loved this book; it's a beautifully written, old-fashioned story but the dilemma at its heart is as agonising today as it would have been in April 1926, the starting point of the story.

The Light Between Oceans was published in 2012 and there is already a movie in the making. I guess I'm a little late to the party on this one. But, in case you haven't read it, here are the reasons I loved it and if you haven't done so already, please do.

1.  The simplicity of the story: A young lighthouse keeper, Tom Sherbourne, and his wife Isabel  live on a remote island known as Janus Rock off Western Australia. They yearn for children but Isabel suffers several miscarriages and the last, when she is seven months' pregnant, leaves her suicidal. Two weeks later a boat carrying a dead man and a crying baby washes ashore. Isabel sees the child as a gift from God and persuades Tom, against his better judgement, that they should keep the baby. The Light Between Oceans unravels the consequences of that decision and the paths Tom and Isabel's lives take, for better and for worse, after making it.

2.  Its classic qualities: Yes, I know that sex sells. And so do vampires, werewolves and zombies apparently. Personally I find it more than a little depressing that so many bestsellers are little more than the reading equivalent of junk food. The Light Between Oceans is more nourishing fare. I've described it as old-fashioned, but perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as timeless. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it a decade ago and could reread it with pleasure in ten years' time. 

3.  M L Stedman's prose is a pleasure to read: There are many memorable passages in the book, but every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter is beautifully crafted. 
"He traced the constellations as they slid their way across the roof of the world from dusk till dawn. The precision of it, the quiet orderliness of the stars, gave him a sense of freedom. There was nothing he was going through that the stars had not seen before, somewhere, some time on this earth. Given enough time, their memory would close over his life like healing a wound. All would be forgotten, all suffering erased."
Read this book to find out what happens to the Sherbournes; to learn more about the art of story-telling; or simply for the love of fine writing, but please do read it - and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

September's must-read: Everything to Live For by Turia Pitt & Libby Harkness

Destined to be a best seller: Everything to Live For
A few months ago, before Burned was even in the bookshops, I was invited to talk at a meeting of freelance writers in Sydney. The meeting took place in Glebe, an area I don't know well, so I was delighted when another writer suggested we travel together.

Her name was Libby Harkness. As we traveled across this beautiful city by car, ferry and bus, we had plenty of time to talk. And talk we did. Libby told me about her life as a ghost writer; about the stories she had told and those yet to come. At the time she'd just finished working on Turia Pitt's story, Everything to Live For. Most people in Australia know Turia, if not by name then through the now iconic images of this former model wearing a mask. Here's her story in a nutshell:
"In September 2011, Turia Pitt, a beautiful 25-year-old mining engineer working her dream job in the far north of Western Australia, entered an ultra-marathon race that would change her life forever. Trapped by a fire in a gorge in the remote Kimberly region, Turia and five other competitors had nowhere to run. Turia escaped with catastrophic burns to 65 per cent of her body. Everything to Live For is the story of one young woman's survival against extraordinary odds, a testament to the human spirit."
Libby explained to me that writing Everything to Live For presented several challenges: "First, as a ghostwriter writing in the first person, I have to capture that person’s voice; but I didn’t know what Turia’s voice was like before she was burnt. The burns altered her mouth and the tight grafted skin on her face plus the black face mask she wore, all  affected the way she spoke. Second, she was still very fragile when I first started interviewing her and tired easily so it was difficult to push for more information; this related to the third difficulty – that she remembered very little after she was burnt and during the long wait for rescue. Then she spent weeks in an induced coma.

“I made a decision to limit her voice to two parts of the book – the four chapters in 'My Life Before' and four chapters in 'My Life After'. The rest of the book I wrote from my research into everything that had happened. I interviewed everyone I could that had been involved: other survivors, family, friends, her surgeons. I even flew over the Kimberley region in a helicopter with the pilot who had performed her heroic rescue and landed in the valley below the escarpment that the survivors had scaled when trying to escape the fire. I felt the outback heat and could only imagine how terrifying it must have been to be there in the face of the raging fire that day.

“By the time the book got to editing stage, Turia was much stronger and was able to add much more to her voice and describe her own feelings during her long rehabilitation. I have written many books but never one like this before. It was a challenging process and... ultimately very rewarding. And Turia loves the book.”

Libby Harkness says writing Turia Pitt's story was challenging but rewarding
The book isn't due to be published until 3rd September but is in the bookshops now and selling fast. Interest in it book has no doubt been fuelled by 60 Minutes; in last week's programme Turia took off her mask and revealed her face to the world.

After 16 surgeries and nearly two years of treatment, her medical bills have topped $2 million. Race organisers, Racing the Planet, have not contributed a cent to these costs and are still promoting marathon events in Asia, Africa and South America for 2014.

Turia's story is a terrible one. Nobody should have to go through the things she has. But if she is brave enough to share it, I think we should be brave enough to read it. What do you think?

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Feel the fear and read it anyway: Bruce McCabe's Skinjob

Skinjob: a must-read for 2013?

I'm finding nothing more tiresome at the moment than coverage of next month's Federal election. So the other morning when my lovely husband brought me a cup of tea and the iPad so I could read the Sydney Morning Herald in bed, I quickly flicked past the front page.

It wasn't long before I happened across the entertainment section where I read about Bruce McCabe, author of new techno-thriller, Skinjob. McCabe has recently been discovered by Christopher Little (J. K. Rowling's former agent) and is poised for literary fame and fortune.

According to the SMH, McCabe's debut novel is one to watch. "Set in Silicon Valley, the futuristic techno-thriller follows a mass murder investigation by an FBI agent with a lie detector. The plot explores the future of technology, religion, politics and sexuality."

Reading the Herald's account of the book, I wasn't sure it would be one for me, but I was impressed by the fact that Little had emailed McCabe to ask if he could represent him.

Fast forward a few hours and I head over to Berkelouw Books in Balgowlah to celebrate National Bookshop Day. There are a few other authors there too, including - to my surprise - McCabe. At first I don't recognise him because he looks like a normal guy - nothing like the moody gun for hire in his publicity shots - but the copy of Skinjob under his arm gives him away and we chat for a while. I discover he's an innovation expert; advising governments and corporates on how technology will shape our futures. In short, I realise that Skinjob may be fiction, but a good deal of it is based on fact.

Bruce McCabe, author of Skinjob: normal guy or gun for hire?

Having spoken to McCabe I decide I must read the book. The first chapter is chilling (you can read it here) and I know I'm in for a hell of a ride. Skinjob is set to be the must-read thriller of 2013. Read it and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A Girl Called Jack: recipes from the breadline:

Jack Monroe's new cook book: A Girl Called Jack will be published early in 2014

Once upon a time I used to read cook books for pleasure. Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall... I devoured their books and their recipes too. These days my cook books languish on their shelf - like most mums I spend a lot of time thinking about food, shopping for and preparing it, but I haven't bought a new cook book for at least five years. This week though, I'll be making an exception and pre-ordering Jack Monroe's Girl Called Jack from Amazon. In case you haven't heard of her, Jack Monroe is, according to The Guardian, a '25 year old mum, prodigious blogger, austerity cook extraordinaire and breadline veteran.'

Her most famous blog post, Hunger Hurts written a year ago, describes her life at an all-time low - when she was unemployed, hungry and unable to feed her young son:
"This morning, small boy had one of the last Weetabix, mashed with water, with a glass of tap water to wash it down with. ‘Where’s Mummy's breakfast?’ he asks, big blue eyes and two year old concern. I tell him I’m not hungry, but the rumblings of my stomach call me a liar. But these are the things that we do."
Reading Monroe's blog about life in 'austerity Britain' brings tears to your eyes. The silver lining is her grit, determination and culinary creativity. Having determined to feed herself and her child on a budget of just £6 (around AU$10) per week, Monroe shares her 'Below The Line' budget recipes with her readers. Her recipes are a gift - who would complain about eating Brie and Bacon Risotto (26p per portion) or Creamy Salmon Pasta with a Chilli Lemon Kick (27p per portion). I don't think it would be possible to recreate Monroe's recipes quite so cheaply in Australia but they sound so good I'd be willing to give it a try.

A respected and talented blogger, Monroe has a job with her local newspaper now. Her book deal with Penguin is in the bag and things are definitely looking up. Her own life is in the ascendant, but Monroe
hasn't forgotten those who are still living below the line. She's an ambassador for Child Poverty Action Group, writing and raising money for Oxfam, and meeting with British Government advisers to tell them it's unacceptable that half a million people in the UK are relying on food handouts

Twelve months ago, Monroe says she 'was angry about my personal circumstances. Now I’m angry about everyone else’s.'

Most people's reaction on reading about Monroe will be ‘what can I do to help?’ Here's her answer:
"Donate something to your local food bank. Tins, nappies, baby formula, UHT milk, cereals, toiletries, pasta, rice, tinned fruit and vegetables… Volunteer at a children’s centre or a play group – I found the ‘free’ things to do with Small Boy were literally a lifeline to me when I had nothing to do in my day, no money, nothing to look forward to. Visit your local volunteer centre and see how you can help, someone, somewhere. Donate old clothes, shoes and blankets to your local homeless shelter. Don’t step over people in the street – give them the £3 you might have spent on a latte."
And if you have £12.99 to spare, why not buy her book?

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The book that divided our book group: Close my Eyes by Sophie McKenzie

Sophie McKenzie's Close my Eyes: Did you love it or loathe it?
It was book group at my place this morning. On the menu: coffee, blueberry muffins and Sophie McKenzie's Close my Eyes. It's the story of a novelist who is struggling to cope with life after her baby was stillborn eight years ago and then hears out of the blue that her child didn't die, but was stolen. It's a gripping tale with plenty of action (but happily not much gore) and the plot keeps you guessing until the very last page. Reading a female-centric thriller is refreshing and the book's ending is truly chilling. I actually thought it was the best part of the book and would have started reading the sequel straight away if there was one. 

Most of the women in our group loved it. One of us just couldn't get into it and had given up - but she went away from the group thinking she would try again. 

What I liked less, and this is a common criticism of thrillers of course, is that I found the characters in the book two-dimensional and couldn't engage with any of them. I kept reading because I really wanted to know how the story panned out but, to be honest, I didn't really care about any of the people in the story - even the heroine. That surprised me because, as a writer and mother myself, I fully expected to empathise with her.

Having said that, if you like a good psychological thriller, I'd recommend this book. It's original, gripping while you're reading it and haunts you afterwards. Read it and see for yourself. I'd love to hear what you think...

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Walking on the (literary) dark side

A. M. Homes: is the truth darker than her fiction?

A. M. Homes prize-winning novel May We Be Forgiven is ‘breathtakingly dark’ according to Mark Brown, art correspondent for the The Guardian. I haven’t read it yet but, according to Brown, May We Be Forgiven: ‘has a devastating car crash, adultery and a murder within the space of the first 14 pages.’ Does that sound like too much? I, for one, don’t think so.

I’ve never been a fan of horror movies or thrillers. I don’t like to see blood spill or heads roll; I get frustrated with whodunnits because I’m more interested in the whydunnit. Yet I’m tempted to the dark side when reading – and writing – because books help us explore and interpret that darkness. Many great novels, Emma Donoghue’s Room or Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, for example, don’t just have a dark side, but were in fact inspired by heinous human deeds. We all know life can be cruel, so why wouldn’t we expect or want our literature to reflect that? These books have the potential to shine a light into the darkness and help us understand the incomprehensible. The best novels give us both light and shade, the light all the more lovely in contrast to the gloom.

My own novel Burned has been described as dark. To start with I was surprised, I thought I’d written a book celebrating the transforming power of parental love. Now, on reflection, I’m pleased to hear that adjective applied to my writing. Not so long ago I was browsing The Reading Chronicle online and read that someone had committed the very crime that lies at the heart of my book. So to anyone who says they aren’t comfortable with dark novels, I’d simply say: ‘don’t read them.’ But don’t kid yourself: the truth, if I may rephrase an old saying, is darker than fiction.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The reading forecast: 5 great wet weather reads

What's the reading forecast?

It's wet and wild here in Sydney. Frankly, I just want to hibernate. The only good thing about being forced to stay indoors is the extra guilt-free reading time it brings. Fortunately, I've got several books on my to-read list and, as soon as my work is done, I'll be curling up with a hot water bottle and one of these:

1. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
All I know about Hosseini's new book is that, like his previous novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it begins in Afghanistan. I loved both these books so that's enough for me. I'll let you know how I get on.

2. Close My Eyes by Sophie McKenzie
Described as a 'riveting psychological thriller about a grieving mother who finds out years after her daughter's death that her child may still be alive,' this book intrigues me for several reasons. The book's subject matter, of course, sounds gripping and I'm sure it will be beautifully written too; McKenzie is a very successful journalist turned author. Who knows, I might even pick up a few tips from her.

3. The Twins by Saskia Sarginson
I lived and worked in London in the '80's. Sarginson did too - she was the editor of Company, a glossy magazine for young women; while I was in PR, trying to garner publicity in magazines such as hers. I didn't really know her, but I did recognise her name when I saw it on the front cover of The Twins. I heard she excelled in her MA in creative writing and am sure this book, probably just the first from this talented Brit, will be a joy to read.

4. The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman
I was given this book a little while ago and haven't yet gotten around to reading it, possibly because I know I'm going to love it and don't want to fritter it away in 10-minute breaks between jobs. It's described as 'a mesmerising novel of loyalty, love and unbearable choices.' I know it will be one to savour.

Andy Mulligan's The Boy with Two Heads: a book worth sharing?
5. The Boy with Two Heads by Andy Mulligan
I love reading to my two boys and am always on the look out for the next book we can share. The book blurb says: 'How would you feel if you woke up and found another head growing out of your neck? ... a living, breathing, talking head with a rude, sharp tongue and an evil sense of humour. It knows all your darkest thoughts and it's not afraid to say what it thinks.' It sounds like the old Richard E. Grant movie, How to Get Ahead in Advertising - reinterpreted for kids. That's fine with us. It's a great idea for a story and somehow I think Mulligan's version might be even more entertaining.

What's on your to-read list this winter?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Nigella and Charles: is this their final chapter?

Nigella Lawson: time for a fresh start?

Dark, voluptuous and a great cook, Nigella Lawson is everything I'm not and I like her all the more for it. We don't hear too much about her in Sydney but when we do, she reminds me of my life in London. 

My husband and I were given How to Eat as a wedding present and I bought How to be a Domestic Goddess when I was pregnant with my first son. I loved her elegant and rather camp writing style as much as I loved her recipes. She was part of London weekends too. When The Times  plopped through the letterbox each Saturday morning, I would go straight to the magazine. For her column about beauty and make-up (wittier and more intelligent than you might think) and her first husband, John Diamond's column about his battle with oral cancer. Reading them both was a Saturday morning ritual and I joined the nation in mourning when John died. More than a decade later, I still have Nigella's books on a shelf in my kitchen and dip into them regularly, especially when I'm planning on baking.

She hasn't been much on my radar over the last few years. Those Twinings ads are enough to make me want to give up tea altogether and I haven't bought any of her recent books. But I couldn't have been more horrified to see her on the news this week, with her husband, Charles Saatchi's hands around her throat. I read that Saatchi has now been cautioned by police yet, bizarrely, he claims no real harm has been done:

"Nigella's tears were because we both hate arguing, not because she had been hurt."

If that's what he thinks, Saatchi evidently knows more about fiction than the rest of us. I was relieved to hear that Nigella and her children from her first marriage had left the family home. I hope they don't return. Nigella has already lost her mother, Vanessa; her sister, Thomasina; and her first husband, John. After so much sadness in her life, I'd like to think her story will have a happy ending. After what's unfolded this week, Saatchi is no hero in my book. I hope to God, he isn't in hers.

What do you think?

Friday, 7 June 2013

The wonder of Wonder: 5 reasons I love this book

May was madness in our house. The combination of a well-above average number of writing projects, the kids' school and sports commitments, the impending publication of Burned and all of us bar the dog falling sick, meant my stress levels were at an all-time high. Trying to squeeze more productive hours out of each day, I got up too early, went to bed too late, and ditched every task I deemed 'non-essential'. Sadly, reading was one of the casualties.

So it has taken me weeks to read R. J. Palacio's Wonder. I read the last few pages this morning and am so glad I did. It's one of the best books I've read in ages. Here's why:

1. It's a simple story, beautifully told. The language is restrained, understated and all the more powerful for it. Here's the most famous example:
'My name is August. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.' 
2. The story allows us to inhabit the minds of kids and adults. As we follow August's journey through fifth grade, we see his story from several points of view. It's a great technique and skillfully used here - all our questions are answered but with the lightest of touches.

3. It's an elegantly structured book - the story arc follows the school year and each bite-sized chapter leaves you wanting more.

4. Its simplicity is deceptive. As I say, in many ways Wonder is a simple tale, but it does pose bigger questions. 'Which side of the fence would I be on in this situation?' for starters.

5. Wonder is, without question, a great read for adults or kids. Better still you can enjoy it together - I'm going to start it with my boys tonight.

There is so much I can learn from this book, as a writer and as a human being. I saw on Twitter that Wonder is being made into a movie. I'll be first in the queue.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Shouty Dad starts a new chapter

Don't ask me to look after your avocado
I was never too keen on Friends Reunited. Of course, it's always lovely when people first get in touch; the first email or two can be quite exciting. But once you're past the catch-up phase and have relived a few great memories in old stomping grounds, you usually realise why you lost touch in the first place - you simply don't have anything in common any more and you have to let the friendship die all over again...

But then along came Twitter, a much better way to look up auld acquaintance and see if a connection can be dusted down and made good again. And that's how Shouty Dad and I rekindled our friendship. Once upon a time were both reading English at Sussex Uni in the UK. We moved in different circles and didn't see each other all that much, but we did get on well and I'm not sure why we eventually lost touch. It might have been because he got married or perhaps it was because I killed his avocado plant while he went traveling. Either way, our paths diverged for a decade or two.

By the time we bumped into each other again on Twitter, I'd moved to Australia. But I was delighted to run into him online and greatly enjoy reading his dry, witty blog about family life:

When Burned was picked up by Random House, I thought about asking Shouty if he'd like to read it. Of course, I valued his opinion, he's no mean writer himself, but I knew things could be a little awkward if he didn't like it. As it happens I needn't have worried. Here's his review:

'An act of revolting violence done to a homeless man lies at the heart of this stunning debut novel. 
As the impact of the attack ripples out - the apparent pointlessness of the brutality making it seem all the more plausible - Persephone Nicholas picks apart with forensic skill the lives of those affected. 
In a gripping story that switches seamlessly between characters, countries and the passing of time, she focuses on Noah Daniels, a young lad who witnesses the attack.

As he falls under police suspicion, Noah’s innocent and gentle life begins to fall apart - and in one of the book’s many subtle echoes, he too becomes violent, lashing out against those closest to him.

Burned is thoroughly absorbing, its writing mature and assured, especially so for a first novel. There's not a misplaced or superfluous word throughout, and Nicholas keeps the story bowling along with short chapters and frequent changes of location between Sydney and England.

Her characters are totally believable - especially slimy Rich, Noah's feckless dad - and she gets inside the head of young people and adults alike with convincing accuracy.

Long after you’ve finished the last page, the personalities and places stay in your mind. You won’t visit Salisbury again without being reminded of the nasty underbelly present even in England’s prettiest city. Nor will you pass a homeless man without thinking that he, too, once had a different life.

This powerful book by a new writer with a glittering future deserves to be read.'
Burned will be out on Amazon kindle on May 29 and in print from August. I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Who the hell is Ida Pollock?

Loving these vintage covers..

If you'd asked me a few weeks ago what I thought of Ida Pollock, I would probably have said: 'Who the hell is Ida Pollock?

I'd never heard of her until I read Simon de Bruxelles' recent piece in The Times. Not surprising perhaps given she has numerous noms de plume and began her writing career more than 90 years ago. The surprising thing is that she's still going. Yes, at 105, Ida Pollock, who started writing at the age of 14 and already has 123 novels under her belt, is publishing two more this year.

Her stories are romances - she's written 70 books just for Mills & Boon - and may not be everyone's cup of tea but I for one admire Ida. Here's why:

1. She knew what she wanted to do from an early age - and did it.
2. She's found her niche and made herself at home there.
3. Her output is prodigious - she focuses on the job and gets it done.
4. Her books are romantic escapism pure and simple.  Ida says she loves writing them and I'm sure her readers enjoy them all the more because she does.
5. There's not a butt plug in sight.

Ida is an inspiration. When she turned 105 last month, The Romantic Novelists' Association (which she founded) made her their honorary vice president.

I'd like to add my best wishes too. Ida Pollock, Rose Burghley, Mary Whistler, Marguerite Bell, Joan Allen - whoever you are, I salute you. Many happy returns.

Who's inspiring you this week? I'd love to know...

Saturday, 4 May 2013

4 must-read books for mums

Mum and me in 1963

Becoming a mother changes your life unimaginably. Almost from the moment of conception it feels as though your life and your body are no longer your own. When you're pregnant, near strangers feel free to ask you the most intimate questions. Once your child is born, you can forget ever having any privacy again.

In my mothers' group in London, most of us were having our babies fairly late. We were all comfortably off, professional women used to running our own shows. All the more shocking then to discover at noon that, having been up since 5am you still hadn't managed to brush your teeth.

I remember my friend Mary's story of how, having (mistakenly) thought she'd finally got her baby into a routine, she decided to shave her legs while he slept. Of course, the baby woke up before she'd even finished the first leg, so she didn't managed to get to the second one. And as for her teeth...

Then there was my lovely friend Anthea who, pinned to the sofa for hours while her newborn suckled, was reduced to eating five bananas in one sitting - she was starving, didn't dare disturb her tiny babe and the bananas were all that was within reach.

My boys are growing up now and those baby days are a distant memory. But it's not overstating it to say that motherhood changes your life forever. I'm not one for commercial celebrations but I do think it's important to remember your mum who, however much she wanted a baby, didn't quite know what she was getting herself into.

There are many great books about the parent/child relationship. Here are my favourites. That's not to say you won't enjoy them if you don't have kids, it's just that having been there, you'll appreciate them all the more.

1. Room by Emma Donoghue
A beautiful, inspiring, book. Ma, the heroine of this story, is strong, creative and sets new standards in parenting. Read it and weep.

2. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
One for parents of teenage boys. Charlie and Jeffrey's exchanges make me snort with laughter. How could you not love a book that poses the question: "Would you rather wear a hat made of spiders or have penises for fingers?" I'm still mulling that one over.

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
This book scared the bejeezus out of me. Brilliant nonetheless and I reckon every parent should read it. Excellent choice for book clubs - you won't be able to stop talking about it.

4. Burned by me
It's hard for me to sum up Burned in a sentence or two, so I hope you won't mind me borrowing what my publisher, Random House, says: "When a tragic event occurs in a quiet town in England, no one could predict just how it would ripple through the four people from opposite sides of the world who physically and emotionally collide in this multi-faceted tale.'

I can say that the two events that have inspired my writing the most are moving to Australia and becoming a mother. Burned celebrates them both.

On that note, I wish my mum, Mollie Thorrowgood, and every other mother on the planet, a very happy Mother's Day on 12th May.

Friday, 19 April 2013

When fashion is the f-word

I live in the house of testosterone. I have two very boysy boys, a super-sporty husband, even our guinea pigs are male. That's not to say I don't like it. I've often thought that one of the advantages of having children of the opposite gender to my own, is the opportunity to experience vicariously life as a young boy. Of course, there's a lot of chat about food, football and farting and most of the time I'm fine with that. But I do sometimes crave a little more talk about female things; fashion is pretty much the f-word in our house.

So imagine my delight when I came across David Walliams' The boy in the dress at my local library - and my kids wanted to read it. Of course, it helped that they'd just read Walliams' Billionaire Boy - a story about a lad whose family makes a stash off the butt of a product called Bumfresh.

The blurb for The boy in the dress says the story: "is about a boy named Dennis. He lives in a boring house in a boring street in a boring town, and he doesn't have much to look forward to."

In truth, we found Dennis anything but boring. He's an ace football player, has a great sense of humour  - and misses his mum. When she walked out on the family Dennis's dad burned all the photographs of her. Dennis manages to rescue a solitary photo from the flames:
"One solitary photograph escaped the flames, dancing up into the air from the heat of the fire, before floating through the smoke and onto the hedge. As dusk fell, Dennis snuck out and retrieved the photo. It was charred and blackened around the edges and at first his heart sank, but when he turned it to the light he saw that the image was as bright and clear as ever.
"It showed a joyful scene: a younger John and Dennis with Mum at the beach, Mum wearing a lovely yellow dress with flowers on it. Dennis loved that dress; it was full of colour and life, and soft to the touch. When Mum put it on it meant that summer had arrived."
I wouldn't dream of spoiling the story for you, but I loved this book. It's sad, funny and heart-warming - but written with the lightest of touches. When I realised David Walliams is best-known for his work on the multi-award winning TV show Little Brittain, I was surprised. Don't let it put you off. This is a smart, sensitive book that made me, and my boys, laugh out loud. Quentin Blake's illustrations are the icing on the cake.

Whether you live in Testosterone Towers or on Oestrogen St, this is a great book to read with primary-school-age kids. I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

5 great reasons to join a book group

Nobody could accuse me of being a party animal. I like getting dressed up, love drinking champagne but want to be home in bed by 10 and can turn into a very grumpy pumpkin if I'm not. So imagine my joy at being invited to a book club that meets during the day, over coffee and cake, where no-one is competing to prove how young at heart and groovy they are by staying out past their bedtime.

My book club read: not your average thriller

I had a great morning with my fellow book clubbers and am already looking forward to our next meet. I've been a member of book groups in London and in Sydney and this morning reminded me why joining one is such a smart thing to do:

1. It encourages you to read
This sounds like a no-brainer but life is so busy that it can be all too easy to let the joy of reading pass us by. Being a member of a book club makes it more likely you will embed this simple pleasure in your routine.

2.  You'll read books you might not otherwise have considered
This can be a disadvantage as well as an advantage. I bitterly resent the claim on my time if I feel I 'have' to finish something I'm not enjoying and might otherwise put down. On the plus side, and this happens much more often, I read something I wouldn't have chosen myself, and am all the better for it.

3. You get more out of the book
Knowing you'll be sharing your thoughts and opinions usually makes you consider them more carefully. This analysis, no matter how casual, can enhance your understanding of the book and make you appreciate it more. Listening to other people's opinions can also help you see things you hadn't noticed yourself, another plus.

4.  It's a great way to build friendships
It might be counter intuitive but joining a group where you know only one or two people can be best.  Meeting new people is always a bonus and you're likely to get more from your reading if you're sharing  ideas and views with people who have a different perspective.

5.  You understand readers better
This one is probably just for writers. Now that I'm writing fiction, I'm very keen to understand what other readers are looking for. Not just what they love but also what turns them off about a book. It might make for challenging listening but I really want to know what makes a reading audience tick.

How about you? Are you in a book group? And what do you love/hate about it?

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Fancy a roll in the hay?

Pigs might fly

We're in Sydney and it's Easter, so where else would I find myself but the Sydney Royal Easter Show? I read the show programme with my kids and we made a list of the things we wanted to see. The Supercoat Flyball Challenge (a kind of mini doggy Olympics), carnivorous plant show judging and diving pigs (I kid you not) were top of the page.

As we drove out to Sydney Olympic Park our hopes were high. My boys wondered if they'd get to shear a sheep or milk a cow. I pondered the fact that rural romance is one of the fastest growing genres in Australian fiction and my thoughts turned to fit young farmers with tanned biceps and strong thighs striding around in butt-hugging denims and plaid shirts...

Dear reader, I could not have been more disappointed. My farmer fantasies may have come straight out of Aussie TV show, The Farmer Wants a Wife, but most of the guys at the show would have been more at home on The Biggest Loser - and clearly knew more about cheese dogs than sheep dogs. Now I'm no country gal, but I know a good thing when I see one - and an enormous, bread crumbed, cheesy phallus, deep fried and smothered in ketchup is not one of them.

So if you're a city chick looking for rural romance, I'd say don't bother heading out to the Easter Show. You might be better off staying at home with Rachael Treasure's 50 Bales of Hay. Publishers HarperCollins say Treasure's collection of 12 short stories 'will have you clamouring for a stock whip, a saddle and a jackaroo' and is 'guaranteed to get your tractor revving.' It's also supposed to be very funny.

Laughter and chocolate are famously two of the best aphrodisiacs, so why not grab 50 Bales and a Lindt bunny and have yourself a very happy Easter...

Tales of lust in the dust

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Remembering Lisa Lynch

It's been nearly nine years since I moved to Sydney and most of the time there's not much I miss about the UK apart from family and friends. Unlike many of the expats I meet, I don't miss Marks & Spencer's ready meals or pine for the Great British pub. What I miss are the newspapers - The Times on Saturdays and Sundays, The Guardian on weekdays and The Daily Telegraph whenever I visit my parents.

Lisa Lynch: Gone but not forgotten

Sometimes when I'm stuck with whatever I'm writing or have a few minutes to fill, I'll click through to the online versions of the British papers and see what's happening 17,000 kilometres away in the motherland. That's how I happened across the obituary of one Lisa Lynch on The Guardian's website. I didn't know her but she looked way too young to be the subject of an obituary. I looked at her blog to find out more. This is what I read:

"Lisa Lynch studied journalism with a view to one day editing Smash Hits. But then something called the internet happened, and as kids stopped cutting song lyrics out of magazines and started downloading them instead, Lisa found herself writing about wallpaper instead of Westlife. At the age of 28, while editing her second interiors title, Lisa discovered a lump in her breast - a lump that spawned not just cancer, but a blog, a book and a writing career. Talk about milking it."

Lisa also had a separate blog about her battle with cancer.  It's brilliantly written, very honest and funny - and  hearbreakingly sad to read.

I said that I was reading her  obituary so you know how Lisa's story ended. She was just 33 when she died, not from cancer of the breast but from the cancer that spread to her bones and her brain. Like I say, I didn't know Lisa but I wish I had. I read her blog and will read her book, The C-Word, too

Lisa Lynch, great writer, great girl, great loss to the world, you will be missed.  

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Do you remember The Thompson Twins?

Iconic 80's Brit band the Thompson Twins had big hair and stony faces, quite at odds with their upbeat brand of pop music. (Remember "Hold me now' or 'Love on my side'?)  They were a household name in the UK when I was at uni but I had all but forgotten them by the time I moved to Sydney. Until I met one, that is. Standing on the sidelines at a kids' soccer game one Saturday morning, I started talking to the dad next to me. I didn't know him but he turned out to be Michael White, Thompson Twin turned author with some 38 books to his name.

The Thompson Twins - back in the day
A few weeks later I interviewed him for The Australian and we talked about his writing career. He told me that when he's in the middle of a book he doesn't like to read novels because the voices of the characters in the book he's reading compete with those of the characters he's creating.

I didn't think about his remark again until I was writing Burned and discovered exactly what he meant.  I still read, of course, but it was much more important to me to read non-fiction, especially newspapers. The little filler stories in newspapers often give fascinating glimpses into the lives of others, into situations too bizarre to be dreamed up, into characters we might never otherwise encounter. They can provide inspiration for plot points, character development and more besides.

So for the last couple of years, I haven't read as much as I would like. But now Burned is in the capable hands of my editors at Random House and we're counting down to publication on June 3rd, I'm hungry for all the books I've missed. Here are just a couple I'm planning to tuck into very soon:

Wonder by R J Palacio.  Beautiful cover, intriguing blurb: 'My name is August. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.' Can't wait to read this and have already bought two more copies as birthday presents for friends.

Love this cover

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. So much has already been written/said about this quirky rom com that I feel I need hardly say more. Interestingly, the Penguin website promises: "It will make you want to drink cocktails." Never has a book tempted me more.

Keen for a cocktail?

It's autumn in Sydney and the soccer season is almost upon us. This year as I rug up on the sidelines, I won't be wondering where the coffee cart is or even pondering the off-side rule. I'll be looking around at the other parents and wondering how many of them were big in the 80's.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The best companion

I'm a blogging virgin. I've posted a few words on other websites it's true, but this is my first date with my very own blog. So please be gentle with me...

Having been persuaded by my old friend, Shouty Dad, that I should start a blog, the big question was what to call it. As usual, I was paralysed by the fear of not getting it right. To start with I liked friends with words, but realised Google would probably auto-correct anyone searching for my blog and redirect them to words with friends. And then they'd get so engrossed in a game of WWF they'd forget they were ever even looking for this blog in the first place. I went round and round in circles, trying to find something simple and easy to remember, that wouldn't get old too soon.

The week wore on and I started writing a story for Rendezvous en France magazine about  plans to commemorate the centenary of the Great War in 2014. It reminded me of reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, a book given to me by my mum several decades ago which moved me more than any other I have read. It's been 20 or so years since I read Testament but I still remember sitting on a bench in a lush little garden in Ubud discovering the terrible personal sacrifices and tragedies behind the famously bloody battles of WWI.

I was in Bali with my then boyfriend. It wasn't a serious relationship and we were often irritated by each other. One thing he found particularly galling was the fact that I was more interested in Vera Brittain's book than I was in him. I would sit and read in silence, a huge lump in my throat and salty tears dripping from my cheeks. I guess it wasn't what he'd come away with me for and perhaps I should have been sorry. Truth is, I remember thinking at the time that if he'd asked me to choose - 'the book or me' - I would have chosen the book. No question.

So that's where the name of the blog comes from.  Sometimes there is simply no better companion than a good book.