The Boy Made of Snow by Chloe Mayer

An enchanting and devastating book that will make your throat seize up with dread. There’s a German POW working in the woods in rural Kent during World War Two – cutting down trees for fuel for the villagers. Friendly and with something of the forbidden about him, he’s an intriguing addition to the village where nine-year-old Daniel and his repressed mother Annabel don’t quite fit in. But just what does Hans want from the unsuspecting pair?

The story doesn’t pick up pace until about 80 pages in, but it is well worth the wait because what unfolds next is so compelling, mind-blowing even, that you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough. Tension builds as it becomes increasingly likely that Annabel and Daniel’s fragile lives are about to shatter into pieces, but not in any of the ways that you might expect. Twisty and beautifully written, with intelligent observations – take note of the Home Guard with their jobsworthy puffed-up pride for instance – The Boy Made of Snow is a remarkable read. And since this is Mayer’s debut, it is just the beginning.

 

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The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

The Lion Tamer Who Lost is set in two places: Zimbabwe in the present, where a traumatised Ben is working in a lion sanctuary bonding with an orphaned lion to enable her to be released once again into the wild; and England in the past, where Ben meets and falls in love with Andrew.

Beech sets up the love story quietly and convincingly, with Ben’s reluctance to tell his bigoted dad about his homosexuality. And then – bang – something astonishing and completely unexpected happens to Ben and Andrew. This is where the narrative really gathers pace. I had read patiently until that point then I raced my way to the end. The book digs deep emotionally, but is funny and feel-good too. I enjoyed it immensely – and what a treat, as I have the entire Beech back catalogue to work my way through now. Maria in the Moon – here I come.

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What Does a Three-star Book Review Actually Mean?

I don’t dread reading reviews of my book as much as I thought I might before I got published. But then maybe that’s because The Maid’s Room is a few weeks into paperback publication. I know there are readers out there who love it (thank you, lovely readers – I appreciate all of you) and this makes the inevitable fact that some people don’t and won’t like my book easier to bear.

But there’s a kind of review that leaves me flat – the oh-so-beige three-star review.

According to Goodreads, the three-star review means, ‘liked it.’ Not a horrendous verdict then. But log onto the WHSmith website, and you’ll find three stars mean ‘average.’ On Wordery, a three is a mere ‘acceptable.’ Oh.

To many of us – readers and authors alike – Goodreads stars equate with school grades:

5 stars = A.

4 stars = B.

3 stars = C.

2 stars =D.

And 1 star = someone who’s very cross indeed.

If you look more closely at three-star reviews, you’ll notice that they’re sometimes attached to opinions that are polar opposites.

Rick from Petersfield might say, ‘I can’t believe the publisher has charged £7 for this muck,’ and then award three stars. While Sal from Worcester ‘liked it a lot’, such a lot in fact that she mentions the number 3.95 in her review, then lights it up with three stars only. Oh go on, Sal, couldn’t you have rounded up and given a four?

For me, a three is a book that I liked in places, but there were a few things that weren’t quite right about it. Maybe I couldn’t quite lose myself in the narrative and was always aware of the book in my hands and the words on the page.

But if a Goodreads three means, ‘liked it,’ perhaps it’s higher than a grade C. A B- possibly? And though the pushiest of parents might disagree, a B- isn’t too shabby at all.

I think I might have just made peace with three stars. I felt a bit mean giving them out – but now I don’t feel quite so bad.

What does a three-star review mean to you, readers and writers?  I’d love to know.

Photo by Paul Bergmeir on Unsplash

 

How Friendship Helps You Write Books

A dear friend gave this canvas to me last week. It is a painting of the cover of my novel, The Maid’s Room. My friend, Paola, didn’t just pop down to Snappy Snaps and copy the cover onto a canvas, she took weeks to paint it, and what’s even more remarkable is that she’s never painted a canvas before.

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She watched YouTube videos on how to paint a canvas; she made regular visits to an art shop to match each of the cover’s colours; and she repainted parts numerous times to get the picture exactly right. It’s an extraordinary gift and a symbol of true friendship.

It was thanks to my friends that I carried on writing my first book, even when trying to get published seemed like a fool’s errand. My friends listened to me complain and snivel as rejection after rejection plopped into my email inbox. My friends made me laugh. They kept on regaling me with their own stories, and they made their way into my books, my friends – funny moments they shared, their burning questions about the state of the world, their interactions with people.

The Maid’s Room and my next book called The Swap, which is published in April next year, both ask the question, what is family? – if it’s broken, if it’s small, if it doesn’t exist at all. Sometimes people tilt their heads and look sorry for me when I tell them I don’t have any siblings – my daughter doesn’t either – but for me, friends are family. They’re the ones that connect, that get you, and they can inspire you to do all sorts of things you thought you might not be capable of.

So here’s to discovering talents you didn’t know you had, to art, and to books, and to friendship. Oh, and now seems like just the right time to stop faffing around and write the acknowledgements page for my next book.

The Best Thing about Being Published

The very best thing about being published is seeing my book in libraries across the world. I’ve glimpsed it on library shelves in Australia and South Africa, and this latest picture comes from a reader in South Devon who loved The Maid’s Room so much she donated it to her local library.kfZ_FxWt.jpg-large

It’s a fantastic feeling knowing my book will be borrowed by people who might love it, and if they don’t – they can simply return it and borrow something else.

I’ve written lots about where the idea for The Maid’s Room came from, the anger that made me write, but its true beginnings came from going to libraries. My mum and dad took me to our local library regularly when I was a child. It was a place to be free, sitting in the alcoves reading, and selecting dozens of books to take home. It was here that I caught not just the reading bug, but the writing one too – if Jilly Cooper could do it, if Judy Blume could, maybe I could too. I buried my head inside books and when I emerged, I’d scribble poems, diary entries, plays.

I kept on going back to the library for more. I found ideas, information, glorious escapism, the belief that things could be different. I cried, I fell in love; I found empathy, nuance, and kindness.

When I left home, the vast library at Sussex University became my frequent haunt – struggling through literary theory, becoming addicted to Toni Morrison, smoking in the basement cafe.

After university, my library visits stopped altogether. I didn’t have that much money, so I didn’t buy that all that many books. No surprises then that my early twenties were an unhappy time in my life – I read little, and as a result stopped looking outwards so much; I became self-obsessed.

Things changed when I became a journalist – writing almost every day and journeys to work filled by reading. When my daughter was born, I joined a library again, helping to build her imagination and keeping mine alive.  It was good, essential even, to get out of the house and be among books and people.

When I moved to Singapore in 2009, and decided that this was it, no more messing around, I really was going to write a book, Queenstown Public Library gave me wings. I put so many empty slots into that creative writing shelf on the second floor. I checked them all out – Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies;  90 days to Your Novel – (hell, it took me a lot longer than that).

After years of false dawns and endless perseverance, Hodder & Stoughton published my book in November last year. My childhood library – Barham Park – gets a mention in my acknowledgements. Like so many libraries, the council closed it down, but thanks to a group of a determined campaigners, another library has opened nearby, albeit one run by volunteers.

When I saw The Maid’s Room in my local library for the first time recently – cover facing outwards, not just the spine – I was giddy with excitement. People might actually borrow it, I thought; they might experience disgust, empathy, love, the idea that things can change. I stood there for a while just staring at my book. And when I returned a few days later, someone had taken it out. To see my book in the library was wonderful, but to see it gone better still.

6 Reasons Why I Stop Reading Novels

I give up on books if they’re too hardgoing. There was a time when I’d persevere. I did an English Literature degree and wouldn’t have got through Tristram Shandy or Ulysses without a bucketload of stoicism. But now I’m done with difficult.

My most recent read is a bestseller; copies of it are piled on tables all over Waterstones, and this is the worst part, someone recommended it to me – always a guilt inducer that, but 150 pages into it, I’m bailing out.

I have a short attention span. I’m easily bored. If a television series doesn’t suck me in from the get-go, I switch off. Conversations about the weather make me zone out, and as for books – there’s a pile of them that I’m taking to the local charity bookshop because they just didn’t do it for me. Page 150 is my benchmark. If nothing’s happened by then, count me gone.

Reading is an intensely personal thing, of course. One of my favourite authors, for instance, five-starred my latest abandoned read on Goodreads. And a close author friend of mine couldn’t stand one of my favourite books. But as I start writing another novel, I wanted to figure out why I give up reading certain books.

So here they are – six reasons why I end up a quitter

1 Lack of action

I need something to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I love patient books like Stoner, but if the book meanders without any sense of purpose, to me it’s the equivalent of downing a couple of diazepam – except that’d probably be slightly more enjoyable. Slow books make me grumpy. They make me say things like, ‘Christ, why won’t somebody die or something?’ If there’s no action, for the sake of my sanity, I just have to give up.

2 Dull characters

The most memorable books are ones with emotionally deep characters. I’m name dropping Olive Kitteridge all over the place at the moment. What a woman. I want to connect with a character. I don’t necessarily need to like her, but I do need to understand her. And if she or he makes me groan with boredom, well, it’s time to call it a day.

3 Outlandish plot

Weird shit happens, doesn’t it? Life is full of coincidences/ gifts from the gods – and I do like to stretch my imagination, but ask me to stretch it too far and my elastic tends to break. That’s probably why I’m not a massive fan of psychological thrillers, but then that’s just me. I like a fantastic story with a hint of truth to it.

4 Too many characters

When there’s a cast of characters so big that I have to jot them all down on a piece of paper, they quite often get diluted and dull because of it. A smaller cast with more emotional depth and I’m one happy page-turner.

5 Lacklustre voice

Sometimes I just don’t connect with the voice. Perhaps I find it a bit old-fashioned or riddled with cliche or maybe it’s trying to be too clever for its own good. Sometimes it’s chemistry – a voice just doesn’t jive with me.

6 Tension vacuum

I like a book with mood, a beautiful bit of description so we are know where we’re at (but not too much description or I’ll Zzzzzzz). Simplicity is key to begin with, a steady thickening of the plot. Oh, and make sure I know that the stakes are high, give me the sense that something’s at risk and I’ll stick around.

So 4,000 words into writing my new novel and I’m remembering just what a huge ask all of this is. But I’m up for the challenge. (Gets out INTO the Woods – How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke and furrows brow……

(Image courtesy of Unsplash)

Trying to Write Like Your Favourite Author? Just DON’T do it

I tried quite hard to be Evie Wyld for a while. Instead of becoming a contender for the Betty Trask Award, what I ended up with was the sleepy novel equivalent of downing half a bottle of whisky with your Nytol. In a word, it was crap.

The husband falling asleep with an early draft of it on top of his face, and a successful novelist friend of mine saying, ‘The thing is, I really preferred your other book,’ failed to convince me that something was wrong. I carried on buffeting my female protagonist with dramatic gale-force winds and filling my hero’s mouth with histrionic piffle.

But finally I realised why, when I spoke about that book, all my friends tried to change the subject, and I went back to book one – the one set in motion by reading a Maggie O’Farrell book. The one that had ground to a halt because it wasn’t quite Maggie O’Farrell enough.

I ripped the whole thing up and started again and this time my head didn’t scream. ‘For God’s sake, it’s a lesser Anita Shreve.’ The words, ‘You’re not good enough to be the next Kate Atkinson’ didn’t repeat like a CD with a scratch down its centre. No, I just wrote.

Somewhere along the line, I’d shaken off the need to try and be a writer other than myself, and I ended up writing my heart across 330 pages. I think I might just have found my own writing style now. It can take years to find it, but let’s be honest, even when you do find it, it’s a slippery thing. Sometimes it turns up to do the hours; other times it slides through your fingers.

My short story collection this year is a case in point. It’s been a neglected thing – what with trying to find an agent and all – but I did complete two shorts. One didn’t work out – I loved the concept and the twist, but the voice was too weak, too damn depressing. And my other story did work out, I guess. Sea Gift is a contender in this year’s Bristol Prize.

But the point is, writing without constraint, without thinking ‘I need to be as good as ……..[insert name of favourite author here], well, it’s full of possibilities and sometimes gleans grand results.

So as I stare at the blank page again – I’m about to start writing another book – I’m going to remind myself of this and take another gamble.

What’s the Best Book You’ve Ever Read?

It’s a question to induce frown lines.

How can you choose your number one when every book gives you such different things? It might be a beautifully drawn character, a killer twist, or a pace that turns you into a bionic reader. Picking your dream book is a task that demands you dig deep.

On Saturday, I asked my sunny New Yorker friend Gerry to do just that.

She fanned her fingers through the air, and widened her sparkly blue shadowed eyes. She was about to impart something important.

‘It has to be If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor,’ she said.

This was a recommendation I couldn’t forget. I typed the title into my iPhone and the next day, hunted the book down.

I Tweeted my little find a few hours ago and was met by a swathe of appreciation for it. It’s going to be a good’un, I reckon.

By asking the question – what’s your best book ever? – you’re bound to end up with great recommendations.

Here’s mine: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It’s an epic story about the biblical character Dinah and is laced with betrayal, infertility, love. I’m not a massive fan of historical fiction, so I wouldn’t have gone for it ordinarily, but a friend gave me my first copy, telling me I just had to read it. It delivers on every count – the writing is enchanting, the landscape vivid and the characters richly drawn. I’ve read it three times and don’t rule out reading it another three. I’ve bought it God knows how many times for loads of friends – because frankly it’s the perfect gift for a friend.

Have you got a number one book? If so, I’d love to add your picks to my list of unbeige books to be read.

Do you finish books you hate?

When I read, I want a story to open up a space in my chest for someone to dance in. I want intensity. I want to feel, to believe. Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns both did the job.

But sometimes a book doesn’t slice my loaf – there are seven of those piled up beside my bed with an empty mug perched on top like an amateur art installation. ‘I’ll come back to you,’ I think. (I lie.)

It’s not like any of those books are rubbish, they’re just not doing it for me.

A couple of weeks ago, an editor asked me: ‘Do you read as reader or as a writer?’

And something has switched over the past year because I now read as a writer. I take notes, and analyse clues and complicated plots.

That’s turned me into even more of a quitter of books I don’t really like. I want to be inspired after all. Reading has become study. Rather than watching a magician do tricks, I’m leaning over to the side, having a good old nosey at where she’s stuffed her ace of clubs.

But I could learn something from my bedside pile. Just what is it that’s not working for me? Is the main character too much of a snooty toff to identify with? Or is it that the plot is too slow, the characters too passive?

Pressing on with a book that makes you groan for all the wrong reasons can pay dividends. I gave up with We Need to Talk About Kevin 100 pages in, but I returned to it a year later, and what a punch-to-the-gut read it was. Similarly, I toiled over the opening chapters of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but stuck with Dorrigo Evans to the bitter, beautiful end.

I had to exercise patience with both books, and boy was it worth it. I felt, I believed. Someone salsa-ed inside my ribcage.

So – oh go on then – I’m going back to my bedside pile.

What kind of reader are you – a quitter or a plough-on-until-the-ender?