My Book Problem

This summer we had the hall painted, which meant that the enormous pile of books that are stacked on the wardrobe on the landing, from head height up to the ceiling had to come down.  I’d say, roughly, around five hundred seriously dusty books.  Hmmm, actually maybe more…possibly twice that.  And this is just the overflow stack.  The bookcases in every room are already rammed, the shelves in the loos teetering, plus the towering piles next to each side of our bed.

So I’ve had to take stock, which is not easy.  You see, if I can remember a detail from a book – like a character, or an atmosphere or setting, or even just a good line of dialogue – it’s like they’re part of me.  They’re my friends and it pains me to get rid of them, even though I’ll shortly be taking boxes and boxes of them to charity. 

I’m a writer, primarily because I like writing, but also because I love books.  For me, there is simply no better form of escapism. I can’t be doing with electronic books, or taking a tablet to bed. No, I need a physical book, where I fold over the corner of the page before I go to sleep, or leave it splayed on the sand next to my beach towel.  Books whose pages get slightly crinkly with moisture as I gallop through them whilst reading in the bath.  Books that have red wine, or gravy splattered on them as I’ve stood by the stove stirring a pot. 

I’m not a deliberate book hoarder.  If I read a book and love it, I pass it on immediately to a friend with strict instructions for them to read it.  I often end up missing the book so much, though, that I buy another copy of the book, just to have it.

Keeping books I love isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, it’s just after thirty odd years of collecting books, the problem is sheer volume.  And it doesn’t help that I’m married to a man who is exactly the same.

Problem one is of course, of my own making.  I’m talking about all of my own books and the ones I’ve written with Emlyn.  This is not meant as a humble brag, or even a brag, but as an author, it feels immoral to throw one’s own books away.  Do I need two Polish copies of A Twist Of Fate? Can I even read the title? No, but even so.  Someone, somewhere in another country, speaking another language I’ll never understand actually read the words I wrote.  It’s a fact that doesn’t get less amazing with time. 

Then there are the books of friends who are authors.  There are a lot of them, many of them personally signed at launches.  I have to keep those out of sheer solidarity with our fellow scribes.  I’ve been dusting off rare proofs, celebrating the life of these books that went out into the world, full of potential and hope.

Also in the collection are dozens that I’ve been carting around since university.  Ones that I think make me look clever – like Milton’s Paradise Lost, a battered set of Thomas Hardys, (plus the books I actually read, rather than swatted up on the Lett’s notes), the Edith Whartons and George Elliots. 

Then there’s all the  non-fiction books  –  on all sorts of eclectic subjects, from health, to all the history of various wars, out of date travel guides, to obscure books we’ve used for research – The Mabinogion anyone?  Oh, and let’s not forget the books we’ve inherited – like my father-in-law’s grandmother’s set of embroidery books.  What to do with them?  They’re so pretty – all embossed in gold.

I think the book problem would be easier to deal with if I didn’t keep buying new books, but I can’t help myself.  Bookshops are like sweet shops for me.  I just can’t resist. 

So recently I’ve tried a new tack.  I’ve decided that I’ll try and re-read books I’ve forgotten about.  Earlier this summer, on my first post lock-down trip to the very brilliant City Books in Hove, I bought a copy of The Magus, by John Fowles.   Admittedly, this was a first stumbling block in the new strategy.  I knew I had it somewhere in ‘the pile’, but who knew where, so I treated myself to a new copy.

Back in the late eighties, when I first read The Magus, it was incredibly popular and I remember loving it, but couldn’t remember very much about it.  It turned out to be a good summer holiday book – the setting is a sun-soaked Greek island. It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an arrogant young graduate who sets off to teach in the island’s school where he comes across a private estate, ‘Bourani’.  He soon meets its owner, the bonkers-rich recluse, Maurice Conchis. 

The Magus of the title – it was revealed about half way through – refers to a tarot card which represents a magician, and soon Conchis is conjuring up some weird mind-games that keep Nicholas – and the reader – guessing as to his purpose. The plot gets thicker and twistier. About three quarters of the way through, I nearly gave up, but I persevered and in the end, I did feel the re-read was worth it.  It’s a keeper.

Ah, but, damn it, I’m trying to create space.  So I have a copy going spare.  It’s a bit sandy, but any takers?

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Lessons of Lockdown

Sometimes, people ask me, ‘how do you write?’ This is in an interesting question, particularly as lock down has shed some light on the matter.

The truth is, I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about my writing process.  I’d like to tell you that I have a writing shed, filled with colour-coordinated shelves of erudite books, framed motivational quotes from literary greats and healthy pot plants.   I’d like to tell you that I squirrel myself away in this tasteful, Instagram-worthy shed for up to eight hours a day and write at least a thousand words in a stint.  I’m thoughtful, considered, committed.  A ‘proper’ writer.

But no.  That’s not me.  I write in my ‘study’ – which is basically the boot room by our back door.  The dog comes in and out relentlessly, as do the kids.  It’s messy, noisy and it’s where I spend most of my days faffing amongst teetering piles of paperwork, trainers and anything that’s been brought in from the garden in a hurry – usually piles of yet-to-be-folded washing, chair cushions, trowels and bags of compost, plus a skateboard I constantly trip over.

In this space, I spend a lot of time doing almost anything to avoid actually writing.  I dither and procrastinate, until (usually about thirty minutes before I have to leave the house, for a school run or social appointment) a tiny snippet of conversation will appear in my mind.  I chink of light into a scene.  Then I will sit and hastily clatter out a thousand words. 

This has always seemed to me to be a terribly shoddy way of working, even though I’ve come more and more to trust the power of my subconscious mind.

I’ve always felt embarrassed – guilty even – because writing is the thing I love doing most.  I’m utterly in love with writing…still, after a quarter of a century doing it for a living.  Surely I should treat it with more respect?  Give myself over more completely?

I’ve always thought that the problem was time.  If only I had more time to write. If only I didn’t have such a busy life and didn’t stack up my life with commitments, then my productivity would go through the roof. 

But in these past three months in lock down, this is what I’ve learnt: That the absolute opposite is true.  OK, so factoring in the issue of us being in the middle of a global pandemic and the stress that it entails (not to mention having three hungry teenagers roaming freely through my workspace),  there’s been no excuse not to work.  There’s been time.  Oodles of time to write, but my productivity has nose-dived.

A friend told me about something Elizabeth Gilbert said.  I can’t find her exact quote, but the gist is that you should treat writing like it’s an illicit lover.  That it’s best to write in snatched, pressurised moments. Write as if you’re being pressed up against a wall having a furtive snog at a dinner party.

And that’s so true.  I’ve realised that I do my best work under pressure. That my mind is firing when I’m busy.  That between phone calls, lunches, shopping, booking holidays, seeing friends, those are the snatched moments where the scenes bursts forth. Without the pressure of normal everyday life, I can’t find my writing mojo.

I’m delighted that now lock-down is going to ease, it won’t be long before I can start to make arrangements (although I know this will annoy the hell out of my husband, who loves being a hermit writer). 

With time being filled again, there’s even the possibility that my long lock-down ‘to-do’ list might finally happen.  One item has already been scratched out, though.  I’m not going to be building a writing shed anytime soon.  I’ll spend the money I’ll save on lunch.  

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The Death Of A Tree

The Death Of A Tree

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Today is a sad day. Today the apple tree in the garden of my childhood home was chopped down, then chipped and removed from the premises – all before 8am.

Or so I heard. I wasn’t there. But if I had been there, what would I have done? Put a hand on the familiar, gnarled knotty trunk, perhaps? Thank the old tree for its service? Hugged it? Yes, I wish I’d had the chance to hug it.

My parents moved to their Victorian semi in 1972 when I was three years old. One of my first memories is of the day we moved in, the mustard swirling carpet, the grubby ceiling tiles. I can recall Nanna plugging in a sparky electric kettle in the corner of the kitchen to make the first of what would be many tens of thousands of cups of tea to be drunk there.

Over the years, the house got decorated and made into a home by our parents, the ceiling tiles replaced by snazzy artex, William Morris print curtains in the lounge, but it was the kitchen that was – and still is – the heart of it.

I can picture my mother by the sink now, apron on looking through the north facing windows at the garage, bemoaning her lack of a view, telling my sister and I to always get a view when we had houses of our own. The garden itself, though, was lovely and made up for the view of the garage. A thick line of fir trees along the back masked the fence that backed onto a school playground and slap bang in the middle of the L-shape of grass, the apple tree, taking up most of the space.

It was already mature by the time we moved in and it always gave me a sense of a link back to previous owners of the house. Its solidity seemed to suggest that the garden was, and always had been, its domain.

It punctuated our year, the buds in May the first indication of summer, and heralding the dusting off of the garden chairs. In the summer, we’d lunch looking at it, play badminton next to it, jumping up to get the shuttlecock from its leafy branches. When we lost all the shuttlecocks, we’d use the hard little apple buds instead. In 1977 when we all went mad for the Queen’s silver jubilee, my June birthday party was a summer fete in the garden, the games laid out in the shade of the tree, red white and blue bunting fluttering from the branches. On my twenty-first birthday, I lay on a tartan rug beneath it and drank champagne, dreaming grand dreams of my future from the security of its shade.

As children, we climbed it constantly. I can picture my sister standing in the crook of the main branch, her flared jeans flapping above me as she reached down to hoist me up in a shower of white and pink blossom. At one point there was a rope ladder up to the main branch. When we had children of our own, they climbed it too and played confetti beneath the boughs.

When the apple tree produced fruit – often in abundant amounts – not one of its green and red treasure was wasted. My parents decreed that every windfall should be collected, regardless of how close they had fallen to the dog poo that Whisky, our characterful West Highland Terrier had left.

I remember standing on a stool to reach the metal sink full of water where the windfalls bobbed or sunk, worms and grubs floating on the top, as we cut out the bruises and holes, salvaging the good bits to be stored in freezer bags in the chest freezer.   The apple tree provided the only ‘proper’ desserts we got in our house. On weekdays, Mum would stew some apples and serve it with the zingy yoghurt she made from the mysterious culture she kept in a jar shrouded in a muslin cloth. Sometimes she’d bake them with raisins and brown sugar in the centre, the skins crinkly, the flesh molten hot. On Sundays, I’d help make the apples into a crumble, sometimes with blackberries from the lane and Dad would crack open a carton of Ideal milk.

Our family’s obsession with the apples didn’t stop there. Throughout the seventies and eighties, there were demi-johns in the back kitchen bubbling away, full of Dad’s apple wine. Undrinkable stuff that got everyone plastered at our teen parties. His experiments with the many ways of using the apples kept coming. When Mum became too infirm to cook, he took it upon himself to make apple soup, which both he and mum assured us was delicious – a culinary experience that has gone down in family folklore with my kids.

In autumn, once all the apples were bagged up in the freezer, Dad, ever practical cut off the shoots, or ‘soldiers’, as we always called them. One year, he tied a bunch of them together to make a broom. It became the staple Halloween prop for a decade. We were always the hosts of the big neighbourhood Halloween party and of course the apples were the central point. Not the windfalls, but the good ones that we saved for bobbing. The fun was to bury our faces in plates full of Smarties in flour and then to kneel by the half-barrel full of water, hands behind our back, trying to skewer the apples with our wonky teeth.

In winter, the apple tree’s branches collected peaks of snow and we had snowball fights under it and admired the robin above us. When Whisky finally died, we dug a big hole under the apple tree to bury him. It was the first time I’d ever seen Dad cry.

The apple tree was also the frame for our family photos. Grainy black and white group shots of uncles in flares, my Nanna in the Lloyd loom chair looking serene, my sister’s wedding portraits all set against the its leafy backdrop. Then there was the time when I missed my junior school photograph day and Mum dressed me up in my ironed uniform on a Saturday and sat me beneath the tree for a photoshoot which the dog wanted to join in too.

When Granny died and Grandpa left South Wales to come and live with us for his final years, our neighbour, an artist painted him in a chair beneath the apple tree. And when my sister and I had babies of our own, five beautiful girls between us, we photographed them in pretty dresses in the crook of the tree. Beloved images that our Mum cherished right to the end when she was bed-bound with Parkinson’s disease.

But now its gone. Dad has been worried about the tree’s health and a tree surgeon stuck an instrument into its trunk and discovered that it was rotten nearly all the way through. In danger of falling on the house, it had to go.

My sister sent me a picture of sad pile of sawdust that Dad had forwarded and I have to admit that I shed a tear. Because losing a tree that you’ve loved all your life is a little bit heart-breaking. A sad reminder that nothing – however seemingly solid – is permanent.

RIP apple tree.

 

 

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Remembering sunny days in Paris

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I’m extremely excited to be sharing the new jacket for The Hidden Wife, which is out in ebook in June and hits the shops in August.  It’s the second in my Stitch In Time trilogy and follows on from The Runaway Daughter.

Evoking Paris in 1928, the era of jazz, fashion, flapper girls and all the fun that went with it was an absolute joy.

I’ve always been in love with Paris, ever since I went there as a teenager and spent ten days one summer wandering around with a boyfriend, soaking in all the sights.  Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight In Paris’ only made me want to write about it more, so I was delighted to be able to set a book there.

This time I roped in my three girls and Emlyn for a research trip. We had so much fun going to the Sacre Couer and Dreyfus, the fabric emporium nearby, which features in the book.  This street is where I chose Vita and Nancy to have their fictional apartment, run by the fearsome consierge, Madame Vertbois.

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My girls at Le Sacre Coeur.

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After her ill-fated fling with Fletch, the sexy trumpeter, Vita has lunch in the famous Cafe de Flore, where we had a sensationally expensive salad for lunch.

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And Les Deux Margots gets a mention too, when Vita and Nancy are exploring the sights of Paris.

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We went to Le Galleries Lafeyette, where Vita goes to buy Marianne a dress and to try on perfume.  As mentioned in the book, I found out a wonderful french word: ‘Sillage’. It refers to how much of your essence you leave behind.  I tried on a particularly pungent perfume and I can tell you, there was plenty of sillage for the rest of the day. Here’s the wonderful dome inside, and the stunning view from the roof.

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As mentioned in the book, we had to try the famous Macrons from Laduree…

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…and chocolate eclairs from Stohrer – all in the name of research!  Tough, huh!

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And here I am at the famous Folies Bergere, where The Hidden Wife starts.

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There were all the other sights, too.  I had to include the splendour of Notre Dame (pictured here in all its glory, just weeks before the devastating fire)

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and the Eiffel Tower, of course gets its own romantic scene.

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In these strange times of lockdown, I do feel lucky to be a writer and to have a world to escape to of my own.  But, oh, how I miss those sunny days in Paris, when we could just mooch around without a care in the world.

If you want to escape to Paris too, The Hidden Wife is out in ebook on 25th June and in UK shops in August.

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New Year, New Book

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It’s so exciting to kick off 2019 with a new book.  I’m delighted to be writing the second in my Stitch In Time Trilogy for Pan Mac.  The first, The Runaway Daughter’ is out in July and I had so much fun writing it, I’m thrilled to be cracking on with the story.  This time, the action is all set in Paris, so I’m having a wonderful time revelling in the hey-day of La Folies Bergere and the Moulin Rouge, when Paris was full of writers, artists and Jazz Musicians.  Just the distraction I need on these cold January days.

 

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The ‘C’ Word

OK, I know it’s November, but we can’t miss it. Christmas is everywhere.  Are you, like me starting to feel overwhelmed by the thought of presents.  Well, here’s one solution…

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Do you remember reading ‘The Night Before Christmas’ when you were a kid?  It’s always been one of my favourite poems and I’ve read it to our own girls over the years.  I like that warm, fuzzy feeling I get at the end of it, when Santa has been to visit and has disappeared off into the night.

Well, here’s our much more realistic modern take on it – hopefully with the Christmas sentiment still intact…just.  ‘Twas The Fight Before Christmas is our latest parody and hits the shops this month.

We had an absolute hoot writing it. (Obviously none of our own family members – or those of our friends make and appearance AT ALL!)  It’s about Christmas Eve day and the mayhem at the Jones household when all the extended family turn up for the festivities. There are so many issues – Aunty Sue and Uncle Bob are post divorce, Uncle Trev on the lagers and Gran and Grandad attempting to micro manage everyone…oh, and let’s not forget that Mum’s internet shopping still hasn’t arrived.  It’s no wonder that a massive scrap breaks out.

Come and see our new Parody Central page for further updates.  Facebook https://www.facebook.com/parodycentralbooks/

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THE GIRL FROM LACE ISLAND

So here we are again – publication week.  It´s always a terrifying time for an author and after so many books, it never gets any easier, I can tell you. Which is why it´s so fabulous to get my first review.  This one from the lovely Laura Lockington.

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Oh my goodness! This has to be the perfect beach read. Sophisticated, glamorous, romantic and gripping. And with a rather beautiful cover that you won’t mind being seen with. There are two women, decades apart, their lives tangled with love and betrayal that are unknowingly linked through a tiny exotic island off the coast of India. In 1989, Leila who has known nothing but happiness on Lace Island, helping her mother keep her high flying glamorous guests happy is sent to boarding school in cold grey England. That’s when her troubles really start. Then, in 2016 we meet Jess who dreams of far off places and keeps a tattered poster on her wall of a beach with white sand, blue seas and palm trees. After the death of her best friend she finally gets her dream job as cabin crew, perhaps taking her to those places that she has only ever seen in pictures before. But then she meets the seemingly perfect Blaise, who captures her heart in a whirlwind relationship that catapults her into the world of the unscrupulous super rich. The two women meet up years later under extraordinary circumstances. I defy anyone not to enjoy this epic tale; it will have you reaching for your cold drink under the sun umbrella and slathering suntan lotion on whilst turning the pages. This is a big hearted book that leaves you walking on sunshine.

Joanna Rees will be appearing at The Bookish Supper Salon on September 14 . Tickets from Tabl.com

Read more at: http://brightonandhoveindependent.co.uk/girl-lace-island-joanna-rees/

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So This Is What Happened

If I wasn’t a writer, I wonder what path my life would have taken.  I often think that my dream career would be in radio.  It’s so much fun chatting to people and hearing about their lives.

Which is why I’m delighted to be continuing my guest appearances as an interviewer on Radio Gorgeous. This week I’m talking to the lovely Laurel Lefkow.  She’s curating a fantastic story-telling event in the Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham.  I went along to meet her and to hear some of the stories and came away enthralled by the power of story telling.  Here’s my piece for Radio Gorgeous.

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The Beach Hut Writing Academy

 

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I’m very proud to be taking part in this fabulous writing event this Saturday, March 12th.

It’s a full-day conference for new & experienced writers, run by the Beach Hut Writing Academy Conference and taking place in the gorgeous Brighton sea front Angel House.

There’ll be plenty going on, including workshops and lunch with bestselling authors, screenwriters, agents and editors, all sharing their insider secrets. Emlyn and I will be chatting about writing together and how to make a career out of writing.

The conference is currently SOLD OUT, but you can join the waiting list for last minute tickets here.

Hope to see you there.

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Emerging from its chrysalis at last

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Today is publication day.  ‘The Very Hungover Caterpillar’ hits the shops and Emlyn and I had a cheeky breakfast to celebrate.  This morning, we were hungover free, I’m pleased to report, but it’s that time of year when the calendar starts to get full of events, parties and dinners.  I always think I won’t drink too much, but I invariably do.  So after years of experience, here’s my top ten tips to surviving the party season.

 

1.  Accept in advance that you’re in it from early December for the entire duration.   There’s no point in fighting it. You’ll finally get to collapse on Boxing Day. Be strong!
2.  A five pm powernap does wonders to restore a flagging spirit.  Insist on forty-five minutes of shut eye and you’ll be fresh as a daisy and ready to party on.
3.  To avoid illness, never party three nights in a row. Lock in rest days and evenings in your schedule.  You may find yourself filling them up (and they may well turn out to be the best party nights of all), but at least try to book in some sofa down-time.
4. Be a social butterfly, then you can flit between parties, or even slope off home.  In order not to get caught out, make it a rule never send emails or engage in social media after dark.
5. Girls:  Invest in those padded party insoles for your high heels and a pair of folding ballet pumps for when the night ends.  It’s amazing that you can dance all night in heels, but the second you have to stagger to the night bus or the last train, you can’t actually walk.
6. Become an account holder at a reputable cab firm now in November, or even better, stash your company’s account details in your phone so you can always get a cab home.
7.  Do all your Christmas shopping online early and get it delivered to somewhere where someone will be in to take the packages.  Keep a list in a safe place, reminding yourself of who gets what.  Share this list with your partner to avoid doubling up.  Don’t leave present buying until the last minute, when you’re frazzled and stressed out and always buy multiple ‘joke’ presents just in case, as you’ll always need them for the relative and friend you forgot, or the office secret santa.
8.  Make sure you you’re stocked up on bread, cheese and supernoodles for  the 2 a.m munchies.  Then, just before you go to bed drink as much water as you can possibly keep down.
9.  Perfect your own tailored hangover cure.  In this house, we favour Berocca, plus a massive fry up.  For those who know Brighton, only a Billie’s Cafe plate of hash will do.
10.  When all else fails, a hair of the dog does work wonders.  Try a Pickleback – one shot of Irish whiskey with one shot of pickle juice as a chaser.  It’s revoltingly harsh, but remember: you’ll be on the wagon in January.
Cheers!

 

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