Writing my next novel

IMG_0175I’ll be hard at work on my new novel over the next few months, so I won’t be posting on this blog for a while. I’ll be back in the spring, by which time the grapevine will look like this.

I love blogging – it’s great to have the freedom to write about whatever catches your fancy – and I look forward to getting back to it in due course. Thank you all so much for reading and so long for now. xx

What I read in 2015: Ferrante, Patrick Gale and plenty more…

Patrick Gale

with Patrick Gale at North Cornwall Book Festival. Photo: Dan Hall

2015 was my year of reading Patrick Gale. I read a few more of his novels as prep for interviewing him at North Cornwall Book Festival (lucky me): Little Bits of Baby, Rough Music and A Perfectly Good Man. I also looked back over his 2015 bestseller A Place Called Winter and was knocked out by it a second time, having first read a proof copy last year (yup – lucky me again).

Patrick Gale's novels

This was also the year I caught Ferrante fever – I read the first of the Neapolitan novels and know I’m in for a treat with the rest. Like Ferrante’s legions of other fans, I was drawn in and hooked fast by her brilliant depiction of the novel’s central female friendship, in all its ambiguous tenderness and competitiveness.

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It’s been a year for going along to literary events and coming back with books. I stocked up at North Cornwall Book Festival, which has dominated my reading in recent months – the tent may be down, the sand long since shaken out of our suitcases, but NCBF lives on… It was great to see Jenny Balfour Paul, Patricia Duncker and M J Carter speaking about their books, and an even more lasting pleasure to read them (Deeper than Indigo, Sophie and the Sibyl and The Strangler Vine, which I’m reading at the moment. All brilliant.)

books from North Cornwall Book Festival

Another star of the festival was Neel Mukherjee, whose novel The Lives of Others I read last year, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (Here’s what I read in 2014.)

The Lives of Others

On a blazing autumn day in October I went to see Patrick Gale and Polly Samson in conversation at Henley Literary Festival – a startlingly steamy event (for an afternoon in a sedate town hall.) Polly’s new book, The Kindness, is a cleverly constructed tale of love, deception and thwarted paternity, due out in paperback in March.

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Back in June, I spent a gloriously sunny evening in the courtyard garden of Mostly Books in Abingdon, listening to Laura Barnett talk about her twisty-turny, three-layered what-if narrative The Versions of Us. I also went along to see honorary Abingdon author Rebecca Wait (The Followers – a vivid and terrifying account of life as a teen inside a cult) at a panel event at Blackwell’s Oxford discussing whether novels can teach empathy.

In April, I went to Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where I missed out on Lee Child’s event but spotted him looking conspicuously tall and charismatic outside Jaffe and Neale. I saw Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive – advice and insights on recovering from depression) in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love – a memoir about her brother, who was left in a permanent vegetative state after a car accident, and the impact this had on the family: an unsparingly honest book that is as warm and tender as it is painful). I also saw Hannah Beckerman, Clare Mackintosh and Rowan Coleman speaking about mothers in fiction – and Richard and Judy!

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This was the year I discovered Molesworth, which I have been dipping into from time to time over the festive season. Whether you’re looking for eternal verities or merely hunting for something to cheer you up before you go back to work, you may find what you seek in the comprehensively misspelled collected works of this 1950s schoolboy… Turn to Gerald Scarfe’s illustrations of types of teacher and parent, or the sketch of a manager, and you’ll see what I mean.

Also, if you’re in need of amusement and haven’t yet discovered Nina Stibbe, it’s time to get your hands on Love, Nina and Man at the Helm. (You will never see turkey mince in the same way again.) I am very much looking forward to seeing Love, Nina on the telly (Nick Hornby has adapted it – Helena Bonham-Carter is in it). I’ll also be looking out for Patrick Gale’s two-part TV drama, Man in an Orange Shirt in 2016. (And when is Poldark back on? Really really soon I hope. January is loooooong.)

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I’ve read proof copies of two novels that are due out in 2016 (lucky me again): Sarah Duguid’s debut Look At Me, a sharp and suspenseful tale of sibling rivalry, and Monica Wood’s big-hearted One in a Million Boy. This is about an elderly woman trying to survive her way into the record books, a jobbing musician trying to compensate for his failings as a father, and the charming and unusual boy of the title, whose sudden disappearance draws together those he has left behind. Two to look out for!

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So what will I be reading in 2016? Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes is waiting, along with Patrick Gale’s A Sweet Obscurity and Friendly Fire, and I’d like to read more Penelope Fitzgerald – this year I read Offshore and as I’m working my way through in chronological order it’ll be Human Voices next.

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Also, I’ve lined up the autobiographies of Bob Evans and Roger Vadim (research – I’ve read both before), along with Eve Chase’s Black Rabbit Hall and the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. Also on my wishlist: Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault.

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I expect (and hope) I’ll discover many more new books and new authors. There are always surprises in the book store…

A big thank you to all the readers of this blog – here’s to happy reading and good times in 2016!

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At North Cornwall Book Festival. Photo: Dan Hall

What I read in 2015… the list

So here’s that rather long list of what I read in 2015, in approximately reverse order.

One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood

Deeper than Indigo by Jenny Balfour Paul

Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid

Rough Music, A Perfectly Good Man, Little Bits of Baby by Patrick Gale

The Kindness by Polly Samson

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (‘I know I’m damaged. As I’ve walked through fire, bits of me have burnt off – but I accept that.’)

Diana by R F Delderfield (not for the first time!)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. (‘Lila no. To go out with her on Sunday became a permanent point of tension. If someone looked at her she returned the look’)

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. (‘All those brave people who seem to do things solo actually have people in the background who love them or at least like them’)

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

The Followers by Rebecca Wait

How to be Both by Ali Smith

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (along with er 478,884 others, or thereabouts)

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Runaway Wife by Rowan Coleman

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Eloise by Judy Finnigan

Chocolate Wishes by Trisha Ashley

The Story of You by Katy Regan

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore

The Butterfly Box by Santa Montefiore

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Her by Harriet Lane (a wonderfully effective and chilling conjuring up of pure malice)

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (warmly discussed at my work book club – my daughter was also a fan)

The Love of My Life by Louise Douglas

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Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

Daughter by Jane Shemilt

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking

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Kramer vs Kramer by Avery Corman

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And also in 2015…

I taught my first creative writing workshop (at North Cornwall Book Festival).

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Photo: Dan Hall

I wrote… More to follow in 2016…

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North Cornwall Book Festival, Pasties & Cake.

it was lovely to read this write-up about North Cornwall Book Festival!

b.d.hawkey

IMG_0423I believe to be a great writer one has to read a lot and be willing to learn from others. Book festivals are a great way to meet fellow readers and writers. The North Cornwall Book Festival, which this year was held entirely in the small parish of St.Endellion, was no exception. Although it ran for three days at the end of October, I was only able to attend the final day. However, I couldn’t have picked a better day, the autumn sun was shining, the people (both authors and visitors) were friendly, and the pasties and cake for sale were delicious.

For those who have never been to a book festival before, it is open to all who have an interest in reading IMG_0427and/or writing. It usually involves a variety of presentations, workshops, interviews, readings and book signings by authors, with the aim of fostering a love of literature…

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Alison Mercer on writing Romantic Fiction

It’s true – I love Cornwall even in the rain. And I am still a fan of Mary Stewart!

North Cornwall Book Festival 2015

by Charlotte Sabin


“What do we mean by Romance? Do we mean love stories? Because love stories exist in all kinds of genres.”

Alison Mercer

Alison Mercer is a fan of Cornwall (as she explained this to me, rain hammered against the windows of our farmhouse green room – so she’s being serious). We are very glad to have her here all weekend, delighting audiences with a talk as well as a workshop on writing romantic fiction.

This trip down for the North Cornwall Book Festival is all research material for her next novel, set partially in Cornwall. “The Saturday Mother” follows a mother’s relationship with her daughter under the strain of divorce, and a custody battle won by her ex-husband. Writing in the daughter’s voice was a fantastic experience, Alison explains – but she’s not tempted by writing YA just yet, love stories got her enticed into books in the…

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Handling Romance with Alison Mercer

I really enjoyed leading this workshop at North Cornwall Book Festival – good times all round!

North Cornwall Book Festival 2015

by Elisabeth Strasser @LPenkiller


This morning everybody interested in improving romance in their stories gathered in the cosy atmosphere of the Stone Barn with tea, cake and sweets at the North Cornwall Book Festival. Alison Mercer is well prepared with an outline of her workshop. I recognise The Hero’s Journey on her handout, which is a great tool for structure in storytelling derived from ancient myths.

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In the introduction round it becomes clear that there is a good mix of participants with various backgrounds. Self-published authors sit next to traditionally published authors. Some are working on their first novel while others have sent in manuscripts and been rejected. Alison Mercer, the author of Stop the Clock and After I left You encourages everyone, saying “it happens to everybody.” It is important for every writer to have the ability to get through rejection and “soldier on”, comforting words to hear from…

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Why I love Cornwall

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My abiding memory of my first trip to Cornwall, aged four, is of walking back from the beach in an odd assortment of clothes and no knickers. I’d been swept out to sea; well, that was my impression of the experience, but really, I’d been knocked off my feet by a wave. Everyone I was with donated something for me to put on, but underwear I had to do without.

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My seven-year-old son, who has autism, had a similar wardrobe crisis recently following a too-close encounter with the sea. This was at St Ives, and it was beautiful – the sea and the sky were an extraordinary translucent blue (half-an-hour later, the mist rolled in and it all vanished). We were just about to leave when he fell over on the wet sand and soaked his top and trousers. A rescue party scaled the cliffs in search of a new outfit from a charity shop, duly returning with a surfer-dude shorts and hoodie look; in the meantime, he circled the sand in his anorak and a pair of slightly damp, and therefore transparent, white pants.

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I’m told that the Anglo-Saxons regarded today, the 7th November, as the beginning of winter. It’s been so windy and foggy and murky in Oxfordshire over the last few days, it’s hard to believe that not so long ago the children really were paddling in the sea.

Our half-term trip to Cornwall was the very first family holiday the four of us have ever had. Given my son’s autism, a holiday has always seemed more likely to be an ordeal than a treat. So it was the most amazing feeling to look out of the train window and see an alien landscape – rugged, with unfamiliar trees and a haze of mist being sucked up towards the sun. The mist cleared as we approached Penzance and we saw the sea. The light was unmistakably different to home – more vivid: it was as if we’d stepped out of a Constable or a Reynolds and into a Cezanne.

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We stayed in the family room at the youth hostel in Penzance – run by lovely people (the breakfast is very good too). But our stay was really made special by friends who live nearby and who took care of us, showing us round, feeding us and providing our boy with the perfect sofa for his afternoon nap.

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And now I’ve finally been to St Ives! Years ago, when I was a rookie reporter, I went to a Sunday afternoon cake and gin party where a Canadian artist told us she’d gone on her own to St Ives by train – perhaps as a cure for a broken heart, or maybe just to dispel the blues. I’ve wanted to go there myself ever since. I wasn’t sure what our son would make of  Tate St Ives, but actually he really loved the kids’ activities – lots of torches and lenses to play with.

Last time I went to Cornwall was for the July 1999 solar eclipse (ultimately an eerie experience – I won’t forget the strange cold rush of wind along the grass when the sun went dark). That was the trip that inspired the visits to Cornwall in my first novel, Stop the Clock. I still have, somewhere, the Perranporth Yard of Ale award I won on a previous Cornish holiday, in 1991.

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Still on my Cornwall hitlist: Mousehole, the Eden Project, Lands’ End, the North Cornwall Book Festival (I hoped to make it this time round but it was too much to fit in), and much more… I’m also sorry I didn’t make it to the Edge of the World bookshop in Penzance and St Ives Bookseller – maybe next time!

To wind up with a mini-listicle, here are some Cornwall-set novels I’ve read and loved down the years:

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale, which is set mainly in Penzance. I read this recently and came away with the feeling that I’d been somewhere full of light.

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The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley. One of the many things I love about this book is that Calypso marries for money and then falls in love, and firmly refuses to come to a bad end. I’m also a big fan of Patrick Marnham’s biography of Mary Wesley, Wild Mary – recommended reading for writers, especially women writers, along with Hermione Lee’s life of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I took with me on my most recent trip to Cornwall and will be very sorry to finish. Though I am also very happy to have got to the bit of the story where, late in life, she wins through to find a wide and admiring readership.

Out of various Daphne du Maurier possibilities – Frenchman’s Creek.

The first few Poldark novels. They’re adapting them for telly again, so the books are set to have a second lease of life. I did feel for Demelza, battling it out against Elizabeth, the perfect, unobtainable first love.

Susan Howatch’s Penmarric. I read this as a teenager and it made a big impression, prompting me to attempt a family saga of my own. My opening line, written from the point of view of the hapless Casanova heir of the country estate, was: ‘I made the same mistake with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her, and then I fell in love with somebody else.’ I never finished it.

If anyone has any other recommendations for Cornwall reading or places to go, let me know!

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my Books Are My Bag bag came too, along with my son’s autism awareness bear and Hermione Lee’s life of Penelope Fitzgerald

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