Category Archives: Jo Rees

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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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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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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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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Gorgeous Gossip

 

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Things have rather Dark & Stormy around here with Emlyn, Julia and Ray’s new Crime Festival, which was a storming success.  There were sell out events all-round with a brilliant turn from Brighton’s own Peter James as well as a ‘Spies Fact or Fiction’ event in the Dome with Dame Stella Rimmington and Liam Fox amongst the other distinguished guests, not to mention the rocking launch party. I was lucky enough to make my radio presenting debut recording for the brilliant Radio Gorgeous and spoke to Julia Crouch and Candida Lacey about why Brighton and crime go together like Fish and Chips.  Here I am on Gorgeous Gossip.

http://radiogorgeous.com/podcasts/author-joanna-rees-reports-from-dark-stormy-crime-festival-on-gorgeous-gossip/

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‘A Twist Of Fate’ is out now!

It’s August, and ‘A Twist Of Fate’ my latest novel hits the shelves.  Hooray.  I’m very excited that it’s finally out.  That said, it’s always a bit strange around the time of publication, as there’s a big build-up and then nothing actually happens.  It feels like one of my babies is starting school and I can’t help pacing anxiously, waiting to hear news – whether someone’s spotted someone buying a copy in Asda, or if there’s been a nice review, or, most importantly, if anyone’s actually reading it.

 

Fortunately, publication week has started off well with a fabulous 5 star review in Heat.  This is what they had to say:

 

‘It’s 1971, and in a snowy forest two baby girls are handed over to East German gangsters.  One is sent to an orphanage on the Polish border where she can be certain of hard work, hunger and abuse; the other is sold to a moneyed American couple and destined for a life of mega-privelege in the West.  For more than 40 years, their paths cross without either one ever knowing the truth about their start in life.

 

It’s perfect beach-bag fodder, with drama on just about every page.  As the girls grow up, they face and endless stream of betrayals and tragedies, and even the occasional good day. It’s classic Jackie Collins territory, by which we mean it’s freakin’ ace.  Evil stepbrothers!  Double-crossing, drug-dealing hookers!  Secret babies!  Yachts!  Blackmail!  It’s got the lot.

 

Pack it in your hand luggage and expect to spend a day of your summer hols reading…and refusing all food, drink and conversation.’

 

Even better, my fabulous publishers, Macmillan have hooked up with Champneys for an amazing promotion, where you can win a luxury two night spa break, with loads of treatments in a Champneys resort.

 

Plus, there’s loads of samplers available in Champneys spas and resorts.  If anyone is in Brighton on 28th August, I’ll be in Champneys doing a special event at 6pm, so come along.

 

Here’s the details of the CHAMPNEYS COMPETITION, which I urge you to enter:

 

 

Details of my event: http://www.champneys.com/Day-Spas/Event

Click on the cover above to order or click HERE

Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.

 

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Why work-at-home parents work much longer hours than those in regular jobs

Despite the revolution that the internet has brought about, allowing so many of us to work at home, let’s be honest – culturally, we’re not all quite there yet on how it should work.  How many times to you hear people say, ‘Yes, but I work one day a week at home’ in that apologetic tone, as if they think everyone else suspects them of being a slacker?  If you work at home all the time, then the chances are you feel like you have to prove yourself to everyone else all the time, too.   Nobody ever says to the work-at-home parent, ‘Oh my God!  You must be frazzled.  You must work so hard.’

But that’s the truth. Whilst working at home gives welcome flexibility to many careers and allows many women like me to work after having children, those of us bashing away at our laptops in the kitchen, or trying to make a call in the freezing loft-conversion study, are actually working much longer hours than we would do if we commuted to an office.

The work guilt seems to be much stronger in the work-at-home parent (although this might be termed a work ethic).  We work through lunch because breaks don’t really exist.  And if you do happen to make a sandwich in the kitchen, it also involves clearing up breakfast and unpacking the dishwasher.  There’s no leisurely company expenses lunches in swanky restaurants, or an hour of mooching around the posh shops, or gym-trips like my friends in offices have.  I found myself snarling at a friend who was flying business class to New York, but happened to have conveniently booked a ‘me-time’ day on the company either side of her actual meeting.

OK, so it’s not all easy for her.  She might get the glory of being a career girl in a highly paid job, but she also has to pay a nanny most of her salary to pick up her kids and help with their homework.  But the trade-off for working at home and actually being there for your kids is not that easy either because quite often you neither do your job in the most effective way possible, nor parent terribly well.

You can always tell the work-at-home parents because they turn up consistently late to the school gates with a five-mile stare, and the anxious frown of someone who hasn’t even got half way through today’s to-do list.   As a writer, I’ve often just got into my flow by the time I have to leave for the school run, and having just written a murder or a sex scene suddenly find myself presented with a painted egg-box, or a handful of gluey pictures to inspect from my five-year-old and have to react appropriately. It’s jarring to say the least.

The problem too is that, with your home as your work environment, there’s no switch off and work seeps into home-life no matter how much you don’t want it to.   The amount of times I spend shushing my children as I try to write a pitch, or burn the teatime fish-fingers whilst I’m on a call to my agent, or am furiously mouthing for the kids to creep quietly through my study to the garden, when all they want to do is play, are too many to count.  With no shut off comes no planned down time and work seeps into evenings, weekends and even holidays.

People with office-based careers seem to earn automatic respect and many do, I’m sure, work long hours and find it depressing that they’re not at home.  But they also get the camaraderie of work colleagues and the mental switch off of walking out of the house to a new – and probably cleaner – environment for the day.

As more and more women change their careers to opt for working at home, I would caution them to check over the fence to really make sure that the grass is greener on the other side.  Because they might just find themselves in their kitchen at lunchtime in their tracksuit bottoms, mourning for their powersuits and Pret-A-Manger.

My new novel ‘A Twist Of Fate’ is published by Macmillan 2nd August. Perfect holiday reading. Order now.

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Kids can write brilliantly too

I can’t believe it’s come around so fast, but it was World Book Day yesterday and I was in at the kid’s school volunteering to teach years one two and three.  It was so much fun.  I brainstormed a whole fairy story with each group, so that the children came up with a heroine, a baddie, a hero, a trap, a daring rescue and a happy ever after.  Then they each did an illustration of part of their story, so that by the end of the session they’d created a whole fairy tale book.

 

I was amazed and surprised by their suggestions and how quickly they could subvert the fairy story clichés into something new and whacky and how each fairy story ended up being completely different, even though I was guiding them with a formula.

 

Our need for exploring conflict and resolution seems to be ingrained at a very fundamental level.  Even by the age of five, children have a very clear sense of right and wrong, goodies and baddies and how female heroines have to use their wit and ingenuity to get out of a scrape.

 

What I found amazing – and a clear indication of real progress from when I was growing up – was the resolution of each story.  Left to their own devices these young children all wanted a romantic resolution.  But rather than a bossy knight on a white horse charging up, taking over, scooping up the heroine and taking her to a life of bliss – over which she’s had no say, they all naturally chose to have the heroine finding love with someone realistic who was right underneath her nose the whole time.

 

What was most interesting though, was that in each case and with each group, the love resolution was not the end – and this was very much prompted by the kids and not by me.  Their stories all ended when the heroine either got her own back on her oppressors in a very public and satisfying way – pop-star Polly in New York winning a talent contest and thus a recording contract, thereby totally rubbing her mean, ugly sisters’ noses in it.

 

Or when, having won back her magic shell necklace and escaped an underwater cage, mermaid Lucy returns to coral castle to find that the elderly king is so impressed with her  bravery and courage in defeating Snap the evil seahorse, that he decides to abdicate the thrown and make Lucy queen.  At which point, she throws a rocking party for the whole kingdom …obviously.

 

I came away, as I always do from teaching children, enriched and a little humbled.  It seems to me that many grown up writers could benefit by a refresher course with small children in the fundamentals of story-telling.

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New Year…New Me

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Well, Happy New Year lovely people who visit my blog.  It’s a bit late now, isn’t it?  There was that moment in early December, when it was safe to say ‘Happy Christmas’ and now seven weeks later, we’re just about over saying ‘Happy New Year’ at the start of every conversation.

That said, my little one is still on a loop of Christmas carols which she’s been singing since mid-November.  It didn’t help that the middle one got an electric keyboard for her birthday and the very first thing that got played was ‘Away In A Manger’ in burp sound effects.  This has progressed to ‘Deck The Halls’ in creaky door and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ in farts.  Seven generations of synthesizer technology and that’s the result.

Anyway, officially, we’re into the most depressing weekend of the year, so they say.  The week before payday in January, when everyone is skint and have that tense shouldered wince of  having just read their credit card statements for December.

This is also the week where the new year’s resolutions are largely forgotten or blamed on an alcohol-fuzzy New Year’s Eve’s rush of misplaced conviction. That said, Emlyn made a resolution to go vegetarian for the month of January and so far it’s been easy peasy.  We’ve cooked amazing food from Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall’s Veg book and haven’t missed meat at all (although I do confess to snaffling a bit of the kids’ chicken kievs and carbonara sauce behind his back).  But I have to say, being a vegetarian is much cheaper than I’d realized and I’m eating a lot more healthily.

I think, though, that on the resolution front, boys are much better at sticking to them than girls.  We set ourselves up for failure far too readily.  As usual, I went on my obligatory January diet, reading cover-to-cover a new fad diet book whilst polishing off the last of the Quality Street on the sofa.  It was all with the goal of my photoshoot this week for new author pictures.  I needn’t have bothered.  According to the adorable photographer, Alex James, he can airbrush out wrinkles, bags and double-chins.  Genius.

I’m not one to defend airbrushing, but to be fair, I think writers need it more than most professionals.  We’re shut up for most of the year in our cold, lonely studies and then bam! You get the call and you have to scrub up.  Think about it.  There’s always been models-turned-actress, actress-turned-novelist, but you don’t ever get novelist-turned- model, do you?

So inevitably, there is confusion when you meet real live authors in the flesh.  This happened when I went to a book launch last week of  Louise Voss and Mark Edwards’ ‘Catch Your Death’.  It was a great launch, but full of squinting authors trying to make each other out from our Twitter avatars.

I think someone should produce badges with one’s Twitter Avatar on them.  Maybe there’ll even be a craze in the future of throwing parties for one’s Twitter followers.

Anyway, on that note, I’m pleased to announce that my Twitter name has changed to @joannareesbooks, if anyone is interested.  On account of the fact that I’ve finished the final final copy edit of the newly named, ‘A Twist Of Fate’ which will be out in August under my new official author name of Joanna Rees (which, coincidentally, is my actual name).

And yes, I am embracing Twitter. It’s crazy not to.  Authors have more power than ever to self-publish, but also to promote their books through the web.  The wonderful Ben Hatch goes from strength to strength with his brilliant book, ‘Are We Nearly There Yet’ which he’s successfully self-promoted on Twitter.  And why not?

Louise and Mark are shining examples of how to get a publishing deal with a main stream publisher, after getting ‘Catch Your Death’ to number one on Amazon.  Good for them, I say.

Exciting times for us authors.  It might be the most depressing week of the year, but I reckon 2012 is looking good.

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