Why I No Longer Dislike Book Clubs 

Book groups have never really agreed with me as I’m obsessed by mainly reading slow-burning, suspenseful novels. Think The Push by Ashley Audrain; Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins. Ask me to stray away from that kind of story and I can get a little tetchy — at least I used to.  

Nine months ago, the fantastic charity that is Crossroads Care Richmond and Kingston upon Thames – which I have been volunteering for from the beginning of the first Covid lockdown until now – asked myself and Melinda McHugh, their Media and Communications Officer, to set up a book club for the unpaid Carers that they support in the community. We agreed.  

I have to confess, I’ve been in book groups before and have never been very committed to them — I was too busy reading books of my own choosing. The one good thing about any of the book groups I had been a part of in the past though was that they had been food for thought for characters in my novels. 

But this book group — the Carers Book Group — has turned out to be different to the book groups I have attended in the past. It’s there to bring like-minded people together, develop friendships and importantly give Carers a much-needed break. We started small – just four of us — and due to lockdown, our meetings took place over Zoom at first. We laughed, we discussed, we spoke over one another sometimes, such as Zoom is, but nobody dominated.  

And then finally, we met in person. We got together in the charity’s office in Teddington after hours where a Crossroads therapist gave us head massages while we put the fiction world to rights. What a relief it was to be in a room with people.  

Next came a pub meet-up with a new member. We talked feel-good fiction. We talked Matt Haig. We like Matt Haig. We decided we very much like ‘dippable’ fiction – the type of stories that you can simply read a few pages of, then put down without feeling as if you’ve lost the plot. 

And so we have carried on, our number increasing a little bit more, but still we are a small unit. Quite often we read books that tend to veer away from what I might ordinarily read, but instead of feeling tetchy, I feel inspired. I am reading more widely than I used to and often I have two books on the go at the same time.  

I like watching our group of quietly invincible Carers taking time out and talking books. I like that friendships are building. I like listening to the chat and the laughs. I am not collecting personalities for anything I might write in the future (I promise), I’m just, for the first time in my life, enjoying being part of a book group. 

So thank you, ladies of the Crossroads Care Richmond and Kingston Carers Book Group. What fun it is to be one of your number. 

Book Review – The Asylum by Karen Coles

The Asylum is published today, but I was lucky enough to read it several weeks ago. It hooked me from beginning to end.

The author, Karen Coles, really has achieved something extraordinary here. Her main protagonist, Maud, is incarcerated in an asylum and put through all sorts of gruelling ‘treatments’ including being force-fed and not being allowed outside. An institution that is supposed to treat mental illness ends up exacerbating it – and Maud becomes prone to violence, slipping between fantasy and reality.

It is not easy to depict madness without alienating the reader, but Coles navigates this brilliantly – not once did I feel confused by what was going on inside Maud’s head yet the questions over what exactly had happened to this young woman kept on mounting.

Enter one pioneering Doctor Dimmond who is carrying out research into the new treatment of hypnosis. At every turn his superior, the malevolent Womack (with his waxed moustache), tries to thwart the treatment, but on Dimmond presses. We also slip back in time to atmospheric scenes, heavy with tension, where we get to experience just who Maud was before she became a patient.

It is not all doom and gloom though – in the present, Maud can be funny and spirited, while in the past we learn that she was once a woman who dared to be different. If this was her downfall in this patriarchal society then, could it also be her salvation? A haunting heart-breaker of a novel — can someone turn it into a Netflix series please?

The Surprising Benefits of Volunteering

For the past months, I’ve been volunteering as a delivery driver for Crossroads Care Richmond and Kingston which supports carers in the community. During the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the charity expanded its remit temporarily and started looking after other people too – anyone who was shielding and unable to go out and pick up their medication and shopping. 

I’ve started this blog post a couple of times now, but each attempt sounded so worthy that I ended up throwing them into the bin. My contribution has been small really in comparison to the other volunteers in the team. I’ve been doing one or two days a week whereas there are women and men who’ve been delivering food and medicine to people all day, every day for months. Then there are the two incredible women who took many of the hundreds of phone calls that deluged the charity office as the pandemic took hold. They set up filing and computer systems; they got to know every single client by name and by need. It is a strange sign of the times that it was only yesterday that I saw the full face of one of those women because every time I have been in the office she has been so diligently wearing her face mask. 

I have answered phones and listened to people with no one else to talk to, so that the sheer relief of chatting had made them cry. I have delivered food bank parcels and medicine. I have stood outside a block of flats talking to a man suffering from dementia who could not remember how many children he had. When I asked him whether he needed me to guide him back into his flat, he snapped: ‘I’m not that bad!’

There are many other moments that I will carry with me too. Chatting to a couple in their 90s with their arms around each other at their front door; two proposals of marriage from a grumpy old man. Whenever anyone says, ‘you’re so good to be working for a local charity,’ to be honest, I feel a little bit fraudulent – you see, I’m getting far more back than I am putting in.

I have been freelance for many years now, first as a feature writer then as a novel writer and editor of books, but how I have missed people. Through volunteering I have got people back.

Volunteering has given me something entirely unexpected too. Meeting so many people is stimulating in a way that sitting at a desk on my own just isn’t, so now when I do sit down to write, ideas for stories keep dropping into my head.

I had thought I’d only be volunteering during lockdown, but working for Crossroads Care has been so rewarding that I’m not planning to hang up my lanyard any time soon.

 

Book Review: Little Disasters by Sarah Vaughan⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

An unputdownable novel. It centres around four strong characters who really lift off the page – Liz, Jess, Charlotte and Mel. They have all been friends since they were part of the same ante-natal group prior to having their firstborns. When paediatrician Liz treats Jess’ third child for a serious head injury, Liz has no choice but to pick up the phone to social services. Jess insists it was an accident, but not all is as it seems and a police investigation ensues.

I had a strong suspicion about part of the story, but that made this novel even more compelling for me as I waited for the truth to come out. And then came a shock that I really wasn’t expecting. This is a well-observed and feverish read – brilliantly written – yet another winner for the massively talented Sarah Vaughan.

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Little Disasters is available to buy at online bookshops including HIVE and Amazon.

Step Away From Your First Chapter

A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my third novel. It was a rough old thing, scribbled with question marks, tenses kept switching and there was an occasional foray into first person even though I’m writing in third. My first chapter, though, was pristine. I had spent many hours gazing at it, tucking in its saggy bits, titivating it until it was so tight, it could hardly move.

It had taken me a long time to complete this first draft – not just because of the day job, but because every time I opened the draft, I’d re-read that first chapter and edit it some more. I was all but whispering ‘my precious,’ at it. Certainly I had begun to view it through a vaseline lens. ‘God, this is good,’ I thought. And then I’d get to tidying it some more.

Of course, a first chapter is important. It’s your chance to hook your reader into your story, so it should contain some suggestion of the action that’s about to unfold in your novel; perhaps it’ll show some central dilemma. My first chapter did just that.

The problem was I’d become stranded there. Instead of moving on and finishing the first draft by which time I would have come to know my characters and the way they speak, I wasted time re-reading my first chapter and marvelling over its supposed perfection. What a deluded procrastinator I was.

When I was about 10,000 words into this first draft, I gave it to a couple of people to read and they both agreed it was ‘overwritten’. I wasn’t letting loose enough; it was a bit staid.

That’s because I had no idea who the character was; I had not found the character’s true voice. Despite drama and a few clever sentences, the pages were pretty much empty.

As soon as I finished my first draft, I started to write my second draft, and the first thing to be booted out was that first chapter. I retained some of the essence of it, but there was a new voice, new thoughts – it now feels much freer and more authentic. 

So step away from that first chapter. Don’t waste time editing it to within an inch of its life. And a warning: the addiction clearly runs deep because even though I’m well into my second draft, the pull to keep re-reading that first chapter remains strong.

 

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – A Review

Outstanding and utterly original, this book examines every facet of what it is to be a black woman in Britain – and oh, how glorious it is. I didn’t start out by feeling like that, however. Never have I been so put off by an opening chapter only to fall so completely head over heels in love with the rest of the narrative. The problem was that initially I found the lack of punctuation difficult to navigate. I’ve read books like this before, ones making statements about how they are not going to be constrained by form. It’s going to be worthy and self-conscious, I thought, a feeling compounded by the fact that the first character that Bernardine Evaristo visits is Amma – who was my least favourite character. I kept the faith though and carried on, and as soon as I arrived in the next chapter, I was won over. I didn’t even notice the lack of punctuation then because the prose flowed like a poem.

In some ways this a book that should not work; aside from the punctuation, it is all told. Bernardine Evaristo brings us a series of talking heads who report what has happened to them rather than plunging us into scenes. Writers are often instructed to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ because so few writers can tell well. Bernardine Evaristo is a supremo at telling. This combined with the way she weaves her story back and forth through time are just a few of the reasons that this is a truly original novel, a real literary great.

The characters get better and better – each has a distinct voice which doesn’t so much as lift off the page as pole-vaults off it. Through them, we get to experience every facet of human emotion – the harrowing aftermath of rape, the way a mother refuses to let her child drown under the weight of mental health problems, an enthusiastic young teacher ground down after years of the relentless ungratefulness of her pupils who she constantly tries to mould better futures for. But this is no depressing novel, it is uplifting, beautiful and the humour is abundant and effortless. A wonderful moment was Hattie’s failure to grasp her grandchild’s non-binary status, calling her friends ‘those non binding people’ yet she has huge love for her grandchild and her friends nonetheless.

I read this book on my Kindle, but will be buying the paperback as soon as it comes out. It should be required reading in schools, but perhaps that might take some of the joy out of it. I can certainly see it spawning a thousand English Literature degree theses. A book that deserves to be pushed into the hands of everyone, it feels like its pages contain the whole world.

Girl, Woman, Other is published by Penguin. The paperback is released on 5th March.
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Review by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, and The Maid’s Room both published by Hodder & Stoughton.

#BlogTour – #BookReview of #TheSwap by Fiona Mitchell @FionaMoMitchell @JennyPlatt90 @HodderBooks

I am delighted by book blogger Cal Turner’s brilliantly considered review of The Swap which has just been released in paperback: (my Tuesday is well and truly made). Big thank you, Cal!

Cal Turner Reviews

I’m thrilled to welcome you today to my stop on the Hodder & Stoughton blog tour for the emotive and thought provoking novel The Swap by Fiona Mitchell. Thank you to Jenny Platt for the invitation and to Hodder & Stoughton for giving me the opportunity to read this fascinating book.

About the book:

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What would you do if you found out your child wasn’t yours?

Two women. Two children.

But whose is whose?

When two strangers, Tess and Annie, undergo IVF at an American clinic, their embryos are mixed up and each woman gives birth to the wrong child. And whilst they are ignorant to this fact something has always felt a bit ‘off’ in regards to their children.

The women only discover the devastating error three years later, after one of them is involved in an accident.

Tess will do anything in her power to swap the…

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Does Writing Books Get Any Easier?

With two books under my belt, I had imagined that I would sail through writing book three, but no. Each book I have written has arrived differently.  I was absolutely obsessed by writing The Maid’s Room, but even though I wrote every day, still my first draft took about two years. I wrote the first draft of The Swap in a speedy four months, but this book, oh this book – well, it has hiccupped out of me in fits and starts.

My attention span has taken flight out of the window along with the birds wheeling through the sky. I have made tea (a lot of it); I have eaten cheese (a lot of it); I have distracted myself with Twitter. So far, so first draft. But what has been different this time is that I now have regular work which keeps me much busier (and happier) than I have been over the past years. I am freelancing as an editor and reader for editorial consultancies and literary agents which I absolutely adore. Editing is much more fun for me than writing a first draft, and when I’m editing there is much less eating of cheese, no Twitter and no wailing of, ‘I’m not sure I can do this!’

A few days each month though, I have managed to eke out time to write this first draft. But because I’ve been fitting it around my editorial work, it has taken me months to get to that daydreamy state where your fingers keep on typing as the words fall into your head.

It’s hard to have a job and to write; it must be even more difficult to have a full-on, full- time job and write.

I know I’ve found it hard. Somehow though, I have pushed through and today reached my golden number of 50,000 words.

Golden because last year, I wrote first drafts of two new books, both of which I abandoned at the 48,000-word stage. Those two novels have loomed in my corners this whole year – will that happen again? I thought. Will this work?

I still don’t know whether this book will work, but 50,000 words feels like a milestone to climb upon and breathe a sigh of relief. There have been killed-off characters, abandoned careers and thousands of shitty, discarded words, but something is forming with rough edges and messy bits. And if things don’t quite hang together properly yet, maybe, just maybe, they will. It’s been a long time coming, but right now, the first draft doesn’t seem like such a bad place to be.

The Swap is on The Motherload’s May Bookshelf

I’m so blown away that brilliant blogzine The Motherload has chosen The Swap (only 99p on Kindle) as one of its reads for May.

Author and journalist Laura Pearson has written a stunning review of my second book for the website too:

The idea of babies being swapped at the hospital is tried and tested. It’s been a Coronation Street storyline, it’s been an American teen drama and it’s been in the papers. But Fiona Mitchell’s is the first story I’ve seen that takes this idea and moves it back a step. The Swap is about two embryos being accidentally switched during IVF treatment. So that the babies these mothers give birth to are not, biologically, theirs. This raises all manner of questions about what makes you a mother. Is it the egg? Is it the carrying and giving birth? Is it the raising?…….

For the rest of the review and for other fab reading choices, visit The Motherload.

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Nobody’s Wife by Laura Pearson

Book Review: Nobody’s Wife by Laura Pearson

I adored this story about two close sisters, Emily and Josephine, and the infidelity that threatens to tear them apart. On the face of it, Emily appears to be happy with novelist husband Michael, but when Jack, Josephine’s new boyfriend, enters their lives, everything seems set to fall apart. Emily and Jack begin a love affair, taking risks that had me on the edge of my seat, wondering whether this was the moment they would be found out. The foreshadowing is marvellous, the passion intense and the tension just builds and builds. Michael is a gorgeous character and I felt so cross with Emily and Jack for betraying him. Jack, on the other hand, is rather dislikable – selfish and pretentious – but for me this just added to the reasons to keep on reading. And boy did I read quickly – in a matter of hours – that’s a measure of how much I enjoyed this exhilarating book. Although devastating things happen, the tone is light and it is so easy to read. I liked that there are no neat endings here – the book is fluid and the writing beautiful. Nobody’s Wife is a complete contrast to Pearson’s debut, but every bit as good.

 

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Nobody’s Wife is published by Agora Books on 28th March 2019.

Review by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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