Author Introductions #18: Nicky Black

Morning!

Today, I’m writing to you from my office in Bath which will soon be replaced with an office in Northumberland, now that we’re making the Big Move North. I’m so excited about returning to the countryside where I grew up and looking forward to introducing my son to all the best beaches (there are so many to choose from) in time for Christmas. But, if there’s one person I don’t have to convince when it comes to the beauty of the North-East, it’s lovely fellow author and friend Nicky Doherty, one half of the bestselling writing duo that comprises Nicky Black.

14440769_10153882538581629_47232356134959017_n

Nicky Doherty, one half of bestselling writing duo Nicky Black.

Nicky Black is a collaboration between two friends, Nicky and Julie, who have known each other for around twenty years. They both had careers in urban regeneration back in the 90s, working at the heart of disadvantaged communities in the North East of England. During that time, they experienced the real grit and struggle of peoples’ everyday lives, as well as their humour and determination to lead a happy existence, whatever that meant to them.

Julie has had a career as a script writer, and Nicky has transformed two of Julie’s early scripts into novels. The first is called ‘The Prodigal,’ and the second is a work in progress called ‘Tommy Collins,’ which will be released in the Spring of 2018. To find out a little more about this dynamic duo, I asked Nicky to answer a few short questions which she kindly agreed to do. Here goes…

  1. Tell us a little about yourself – don’t be shy!

I’ve been enjoying reading these interviews with some fabulous authors, so delighted to be here.

I was born and brought up in Alnwick, Northumberland, a very beautiful place that I didn’t appreciate at the time. When I’d finished my degree, I moved back to Newcastle and worked in urban regeneration for twelve years. Then I thought I’d give London a go for six months when my contract was up and ended up staying fourteen years. The last couple of years there weren’t very happy ones for me, so I ditched it all last summer and moved back up north. I also turn fifty this year which I can hardly believe. I’m officially middle-aged and the healthiest and happiest I’ve been in years!

[Blogger’s Note: I don’t think any of us can believe that you turn fifty this year, Nicky. What’s your secret?!]

  1. How about your latest book – what can readers look forward to when they pick it up?

Well, my latest book is a couple of years old now – I’ve been working on the second one since August last year. In the first book, The Prodigal, readers can expect quite a moving story, although it’s set amidst a fairly gritty backdrop of urban decay. Whilst it’s a crime novel, at its heart is a love story between a detective, Lee Jamieson, and Nicola Kelly, who is questioning her loyalty to her violent, drug-dealing husband now she has small children. Needless to say, it’s not an easy ride for either of them. I’ll leave it there as I don’t want to give away the plot…

book covers

The next one, Tommy Collins, is set on the same fictional council estate ten years earlier in 1989, and is about a young man who organises raves. It’s his escape, and he gets the chance to organise a massive party, make some serious cash and leave his life of poverty behind. Only, he borrows money from the wrong man. The Detective Chief Inspector, Peach, is a dream to write.

  1. Who is your hero in real life and in fiction?

Annie Lennox. I’ve always been fascinated by her: her voice, song-writing, her effortless androgyny, her dedication to making the world a better place. She’s fierce yet gentle. I can’t explain it, but that voice stops me in my tracks every time I hear it even after all these years. It may sound weirdo stalkerish, but I can’t imagine my life without her music. She also delivers the best “huh!” in pop, in my opinion.

Fiction – I had to look at my bookshelves to answer this one, but it didn’t take long. I’m going to say Heathcliff. He’s just so tortured. I know he’s a cruel character and doesn’t behave in any way heroically, but man, he breaks my heart. And he comes good in the end like all the best heroes.

  1. Who are your three favourite writers – and why?

Roddy Doyle. Funny, moving, gritty – three of my favourite things in any drama. He has this ability to capture mood, emotion and place without describing it in any great detail. It’s all in the dialogue. The Woman Who Walked into Doors is my favourite book of all time, A Star called Henry a close second. I met him recently and he signed my dog-eared copy of The Woman Who Walked into Doors. I’m well chuffed.

Donna Tartt – in contrast to Roddy Doyle, she describes places and people in such detail and with such elegance, I’m in awe. Perfect dialogue, too, and the stories are gripping as hell. The Goldfinch blew me away.

Hmmm. This is hard. I think I’ll say Pat Barker, though I haven’t read anything by her for a while (must rectify that). The Regeneration trilogy is so evocative and sad, but there’s always a message of hope in her books. And she’s a Geordie which is always a winner J. Oh, Catherine Cookson – what a storyteller. (There’s too many, I’ll stop now…).

  1. When you’re not writing, what is your favourite way to spend your time?

I’d like to say something cultural or healthy, but I binge watch TV I’m afraid. Once I’m into a programme, I’m addicted and have to get through it as quickly as possible. At the moment, it’s Suits for entertainment value, and Mindhunter for pure drama and a banging 70s sound track. When I’m not working, writing or binge watching, I love a good night out on the town.

  1. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Deciding to change my life and following through (that bit’s important), despite how difficult it all was. I left my job, a relationship that made me unhappy and my life in London to start afresh and give myself space to write. Happiness and a life not bogged down in stress and mistrust can’t be bought. I’m lucky that I have a great family, no mortgage, no kids, so it was achievable. I haven’t achieved what I ultimately want yet, but I’m working on it. I have a plan, and I like that.

  1. What was your favourite book as a child?

Easy. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I love a rebel, especially one who goes on such a journey of self-discovery. I can’t remember how many times I finished it and went right back to the beginning again.

  1. Have you read any books recently that have really captured your imagination?

The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman. It’s not easy to pull of time-travel and make it plausible. That takes some imagination; I loved it.

  1. If the Prime Minister knocked at your front door and asked to borrow a book, which one would you recommend they read?

Anything by Michael Morpurgo or Joyce Stranger, since she seems to think animals can’t feel pain or emotion. Even if they didn’t, we feel pain and emotion for them, and that should be enough.

  1. Finally, if you could be any character from a movie, which would it be?

Louise, from Thelma and Louise! Not that I want to shoot anyone or drive off a cliff, but I admire her loyalty, her badass independence and her bravery. And I love Susan Sarandon.  She can do no wrong in my eyes.

Thank you for having me, Louise, and best of luck with Dark Skies – looking forward to another fix of Ryan!

…Thanks, Nicky! Love your answers and, as a big fan of The Prodigal, I am already looking forward to reading your next book when it comes out. I admire your decision to change the things that weren’t working in your life and strive for a better happiness – that’s a decision I also took a few years ago. You only get the one life, so we might as well use it wisely! For now, I’m off to listen to some Annie Lennox and plot the next DCI Ryan book…

Wishing you all a wonderful week ahead!

LJ x

Author Introductions #10: Victoria Connelly

Good morning!

Monday passed by in what can only be described as a whirlwind of colour and sound, so I am writing to you today, instead! How was your weekend? Mine was spent on the Helford Estuary in Cornwall with my husband and son, exploring the South West Coastal Path, clambering over rocks searching for crabs (we found one, eventually, much to my son’s delight) and generally communing with Nature. For the bibliophiles amongst us, Helford is an area made famous by Daphne du Maurier and I was quite excited to ramble around Frenchman’s Creek to see what had inspired the book of the same name. The entire area is beautiful, peaceful and atmospheric when the mist rolls in from the sea, so it wasn’t hard to find inspiration there.

For now, it’s time to make my next Author Introduction, and I’m delighted to welcome Victoria Connelly to the blog. She is the bestselling author of over thirty titles – her first novel, Flights of Angels, was made into a film and another book of hers, The Runaway Actress, was nominated for best romantic comedy of the year. She lives in rural Suffolk with her artist husband, a springer spaniel and a flock of ex-battery hens.

Victoria Connelly author photo 2016

Bestselling romantic novelist Victoria Connelly

I was fortunate to meet Victoria and her husband at the London Book Fair last year and found that we share a love of setting and an appreciation of the English countryside! Let’s find out a little more about this lovely lady…

  1. Tell us a little about yourself – don’t be shy!

I’ve been writing novels since I was 14. I used to pass my first attempt under the desk during maths lessons for my friends to read! I typed it on a manual typewriter with a bottle of Tipex at the ready. But it took me many years to become a published author. I’d say about 70% of my time revolves around stories: writing them, reading them and watching them. I am a little bit obsessed!

I also adore animals and have a garden full of ex-battery hens who I name after characters from literature. We recently rehomed a flock named after Shakespearean heroines: Beatrice, Rosalind, Hermia and Viola. They are a daily joy and often sneak into the house in search of treats.

  1. How about your latest book – what can readers look forward to when they pick it up?

Natural Born Readers is out today! It’s the third in my Book Lovers series about the Nightingale family who run three bookshops in the small market town of Castle Clare in Suffolk. It’s a warm-hearted story about childhood sweethearts, Ben and Bryony, and what happened when Ben unexpectedly left town six years ago and the ensuing turmoil caused by his return.

Natural Born Readers Cover MEDIUM WEB.jpg

  1. Who is your hero in real life and in fiction?

My real life hero is my husband, of course! He’s been there since my earliest days of submitting novels. He’s propped me up through the long years of rejection and walks the dog when I’m in the midst of a first draft. He also formats all my indie published books and does a lot of the techie stuff and marketing. What a hero! In fiction, I’d have to say Mr Darcy because Jane Austen’s wonderful hero inspired my Austen Addict series of six books.

  1. Who are your three favourite writers – and why?

H E Bates, Miss Read and Rosamunde Pilcher. I return to their books time and time again. They are gentle, warm-hearted reads with vivid settings, beautiful emotive writing and characters you wished were real.

  1. When you’re not writing, what is your favourite way to spend your time?

I love pottering around our garden. We have about a third of an acre with a greenhouse, lots of raised beds full of fruit and veg and a long meadow, so there’s always something to do. I also love a day out with my husband and dog – tootling around the beautiful Suffolk countryside, going for a walk and enjoying a bag of chips by the sea.

  1. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Getting published and staying published! Honestly, I had years of rejections and I’ve been through a lot of agents. My first book was turned down by over a hundred publishers worldwide, but was then bought in a bidding war between five German publishers and made into a film. I think my greatest achievement is my ability to keep writing. I now have over thirty titles out there – a wonderful mix of traditionally published and indie published – novels, novellas, short stories, non-fiction and children’s books. I just can’t stop writing!

  1. What was your favourite book as a child?

Five go to Smuggler’s Top by Enid Blyton – I did love the Famous Five! I used to make up my own adventures for them, but this one was my favourite – it’s full of fun and intrigue and has a really great twist.

  1. Have you read any books recently that have really captured your imagination?

I loved Leah Mercer’s Who We Were Before – a deeply moving story about a couple who have drifted apart after a terrible accident. Lisa Jewell’s I Saw You kept me hooked too. I also adored Debbie Macomber’s Sweet Tomorrows – the final part of her five-book Rose Harbour series. It was so thoroughly heartwarming and the emotion and satisfaction of that journey for the characters will live with me for a long time.

  1. If the Prime Minister knocked at your front door and asked to borrow a book, which one would you recommend they read?

It would have to be my favourite book The Darling Buds of May by H E Bates for its sheer joy. I think the PM could do with a little dose of joy and it’s a lovely gentle reminder of how we are all responsible for each other and that a little compassion can go a long way.

  1. Finally, if you could be any character from a movie, which would it be?

I think it would be Lucy Honeychurch from A Room with a View. She is beautiful, talented and compassionate, and she goes through such a fascinating journey of self-discovery. And who wouldn’t want to be kissed in the hills above Florence to that ravishing Puccini soundtrack?

…I think we can all agree on that! (Ahh, Florence…)

Many thanks to Victoria for sharing her life and experiences with us – for the budding writers out there, it’s encouraging to hear that a little perseverance can go a long way and that there is more than one road to success!

On that topic, if anyone would like to find out more about writing, self-publishing or about the DCI Ryan books, I’ll be attending the Althorp Literary Festival from 5th to 8th October. There will be an Amazon Academy panel each day of the festival, where I’ll be a panellist alongside some wonderful authors who have chosen to self-publish some or all of their books (including Mel Sherratt, Dave Leadbeater and Mark Dawson). Each of us have different stories to share with you about our roads to becoming an author but we’re friendly folk and it’s a great opportunity to come along and ask the burning questions! I’ll also be taking part in a separate ‘Women in Crime’ panel with the lovely Louise Jensen (bestselling author of The Secret, The Gift and The Surrogate), where we’ll be having a good old natter about crime writing in general.

Hope to see some of you there!

Have a lovely week,

LJ x

Author Introductions #5: Jan Brigden

Good morning, folks!

I hope you all had a wonderful weekend! I spent part of mine visiting some old haunts in London, where I lived for over a decade in my younger days. This time, I was there to raise a toast to a very good friend of mine who is moving back to his home town of Manchester after living and working in the capital for a long time. Coincidentally, we are also planning a move back to my home county of Northumberland and so it feels a little bit like the start of a new chapter, with many of my friends reaching a stage in life where they have grown tired of City living and want to move somewhere a little less frenetic, while others are expecting babies or getting married. It’s all happening!

For now, Monday has rolled around once again and that can mean only one thing – our next Author Introduction! This week, I’m delighted to introduce you to Jan Brigden, who signed with Choc Lit after winning their ‘Search for a Star’ competition in 2014-15 with her debut, As Weekends Go, an uplifting contemporary fiction novel. She had been writing for pleasure from a very young age; short stories for classmates at school, odes for workmates and fun quizzes for family and friends before progressing to write her novel, the idea for which came from a script she composed as part of a creative writing course assignment set by The Writers Bureau. Following a lot of secret plotting, research and feigning passion for customer accounts she was supposed to be reconciling during the day job, the chance finally came for her to put pen to paper.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Jan Brigden, who writes contemporary fiction

 

I had the pleasure of meeting Jan briefly at a blogger / author meet-up last year in London and, after a spate of crime and thriller authors, it’s great to hear from somebody who writes a completely different genre. To find out a little more about this impressive lady, I asked Jan a few short questions which she has kindly answered…

  1. Tell us a little about yourself – don’t be shy!

I live in South East London with my husband Dave and a motley crew of cuddly toys. I’m a home bird really and come from a close family. I enjoy long walks and Pilates (now I’ve mastered the breathing routine!). I’m quite a spiritual person and have a keen interest in Mindfulness and Meditation.  I love reading – anything from JK Rowling to John Grisham. I also love days out/weekends away with my husband, holidays when we’re lucky. In my twenties I worked a season in southern Spain, an area I’m very familiar with and adore, and witnessed enough eye-popping shenanigans to fill another book. I blog about bookish things, news roundups, lifestyle/fun stuff and I’m also one eighth of group blog The Romaniacs . We all met via the Romantic Novelist Association’s New Writers’ scheme and two years ago proudly received the RNA Industry Media Award and even got a mention in The Bookseller.

  1. How about your latest book – what can readers look forward to when they pick it up?

As Weekends Go, my debut novel, follows two couples and their eventful weekend clash of agendas, involving a girls’ only trip to York, a Brighton sales conference and a Spanish stag do. The story mainly follows undervalued wife Rebecca (in York with her best friend Abi) whose embarrassing yet poignant encounter with gorgeous, non-stereotypical footballer, Alex Heath, highlights the respect that’s leached out of her marriage, leaving her facing some harsh home truths. The inspiration for Alex Heath came from having met a few players over the years, a couple of them so far removed from the flash bad boy stereotype we often read about in the press, (often justified, I hasten to add!) that it made me wonder how they cope with being pre-judged. This sparked the challenge to create a footballer who could hopefully buck the preconceived assumptions about him and endear himself to the reader. I enjoy reading multi viewpoint stories so it seemed natural to write one. I loved the idea of dipping in and out of each destination and set of shenanigans as the weekend progressed and then dealing with the fallout. It’s a book about respect, self-worth, denial and the power and unpredictability of our emotions. Dramatic, uplifting escapism with a few laughs along the way.

AWG 3D

 

  1. Who is your hero in real life and in fiction?

In real life, my husband Dave for his unwavering love, support, encouragement and laughs galore. When I was writing As Weekends Go he embraced a myriad of roles; sounding-board, tantrum-dodger and Chief Cuddler, all without complaint. A top hero in every way. In fiction, George Bailey in It’s A wonderful Life. An honest, generous, caring sweetheart of a man.

  1. Who are your three favourite writers – and why?

Hard to choose only three but if pressed I’d say Lisa Jewell – her modern day observations are fantastic.  Maggie O’Farrell for her ability to portray such raw emotion through her characters. Maeve Binchy for the warmth and spirit of her larger than life characters.

  1. When you’re not writing, what is your favourite way to spend your time?

Primarily with my husband and my family or good friends. Reading, walking, Pilates for my dodgy shoulder.

  1. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Other than my strong, loving marriage, it would be writing As Weekends Go and seeing it published.

  1. What was your favourite book as a child?

Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree – I read it every night and thought of Silky & Moonface as firm friends.

  1. Have you read any books recently that have really captured your imagination?

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle which explores how in dwelling on the past or worrying too much about the future, we miss out on the benefits of appreciating the here and now. It really made me think.

  1. If the Prime Minister knocked at your front door and asked to borrow a book, which one would you recommend they read?

Probably one of my Bill Bryson Travelogues.  Guaranteed belly-laughs as some of those politicians look as if they could do with cheering up. More seriously though, it would also give a healthy reminder through Bryson’s genius observations of ‘real life’ and all its trials and tribulations from the trivial to the frustrating to the hilarious, the hurdles people face in life that some of our politicians appear to have no appreciation of.

  1. Finally, if you could be any character from a movie, which would it be?

Oh, that’s easy – Sandy from Grease. My favourite film. To dance with John Travolta, plus the great setting and era and the songs, a feel good fest throughout. I love the way Sandy transforms and grows in confidence. Not sure I’d suit a pair of leathers like she does, but hey ho! Love it!

…Thanks Jan! Who doesn’t love a bit of Grease? I was always more of a fan of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever but, either way, his hips don’t lie!

And on that uplifting thought, I’ll wish you all a happy and healthy week!

LJ x

 

International Literacy Day

According to the National Literacy Trust, around 5.2 million (16%) of adults in the U.K. are ‘functionally illiterate’. This means that their literacy level is at, or below that expected of an eleven-year-old. In practical terms, this means that people falling within that demographic find many areas of employment are not open to them. Similarly, they might struggle to help their children with homework and reading stories, or even everyday tasks. Of that 5.2 million, over a million have a literacy level well below that expected of an eleven-year-old.

Low literacy doesn’t just undermine personal confidence, it undermines the ability to progress in the workplace. When this is extrapolated into the millions, it is easy to see how low literacy levels can undermine U.K. competitiveness as a whole and throws up a major obstacle to the creation of a fairer society.

Against this backdrop, I find myself very irritated by some of the comments I hear and read online about the utility of certain ‘types’ of book. Literary works – which are, by the way, still a matter of opinion – are heralded by some as the only valuable contribution to the body of literature in society today. To them, I say…

Don’t be such a snob.

All reading is good reading. If it takes Fifty Shades to ignite a passion for the written word, then so be it. What’s wrong with a bit of saucy fun, anyway? Climb down from that windy ivory tower and take a look around. We have enough class division in our society without using books as another form of ammunition by which to draw a line in the sand. Those who already love a good book and, more importantly, have been fortunate enough to learn how to read in the first place, do not need anybody to tell them what they should or shouldn’t like. Those who have not been so fortunate as to develop literacy skills, for a number of reasons, do not need anybody to make the world of reading even more alien than it already is.

As a personal anecdote, my grandfather (who sadly died in 2003) was born into a poor family in the North-East, one of eight children, amidst the destruction of WW2. His school was bombed and he was only given a patchy formal education until the age of eleven, when he went out to work. It was a similar story to many of his friends. Despite this disadvantage, he went on to become a successful self-made man, a great reader and avid fan of philosophy and politics. To this day, I have never met anybody as well or widely read as he was. I remember his determined, lifelong approach to self-education as an example of the extraordinary tenacity of the human spirit. I wonder what he would think about the fact his granddaughter has written four novels! There are no barriers except the ones we create, for ourselves and for others.

LJ x

About time…

Hello!

It’s been busy in the life of LJ Ross (as always) what with completing Angel (Book 4 of the DCI Ryan Mysteries) and preparing for its general release, alongside all the usual travel and life events! Most notably, my son turned three recently and I was struck forcibly by the passage of time – as I am whenever I need to buy him a bigger pair of shoes. How quickly life storms ahead, twisting and changing before our very eyes.

Ethan's 3rd birthday.jpg

I wonder how different the world will be by the time he is grown; I remember things like ‘floppy discs’ and ‘cassette players’ whereas these will probably sound like weird and wonderful oddities to his technologically-advanced mind. I have always thought of life as a continuous cycle, never something that stands still. Moments cannot be captured like butterflies or created into a frieze, immortalised so that we can relive them time and again. But they can be remembered and that’s what I try to focus on.

The knowledge that life is so short, combined with a personal philosophy that does not include any religious deity or notion of an afterlife, has led me to adopt what I hope is a very proactive approach rooted in the here and now. My friends and family have remarked that I ‘never sit still’ or that I am ‘always on the go’ and it’s true: I find it hard to relax and do nothing. It feels like such a waste. But that’s where reading has been such a wonderful gift. It is one of the few times when I can feel my mind and body switching off, so thank you to all of the wonderful authors who have provided me with so many hours of enjoyment.

The nagging feeling that life is passing swiftly was what actively propelled me to change career. I enjoyed my life as a lawyer but I was acutely conscious that something was missing, something unfulfilled. Idealistic notions of ‘making a difference’ didn’t prepare me for the simple fact that life isn’t fair; people aren’t equal; democracy doesn’t always work and human nature is sometimes depressingly predictable. Don’t get me wrong – I have infinite faith in the resilience of the human condition, but I wasn’t prepared to waste the rest of my life trying to prove the point.

I firmly believe that people are capable of being many things over the course of a lifetime. There is no Orwellian dictator who hands out professions at birth and expects us to stick to them, so it falls upon us to reach out and grasp the life we want to lead. There may be challenges: personal, professional, financial, health-wise… but success will taste all the sweeter once these have been overcome.

It’s all about taking the first step. Blink and you’ll find that three years have passed!

Have a great weekend 🙂

LJ x

BREAKING NEWS!

Sycamore Gap Facebook Banner

Background photo (c) Roger Clegg Photography

Hold on to your hats, folks, because DCI Ryan is BACK!

That’s right. Set a reminder on your ‘phone, shove a post-it on the fridge, sky-write it (maybe a bit much) but the sequel, ‘Sycamore Gap’, is very nearly here, available to buy on Amazon from 12th September.

Ryan and Phillips are back, and this time, it’s Geordie.

x

The Coffee Shop Tour: Bar Azita

 

Welcome back, caffeine lovers! 

Yesterday, I managed to escape the confines of my house (where I have been nursing my son, who’s been ill for the past week) for an hour’s respite. I decided to grab the laptop and hotfoot it to Bar Azita for some daytime tapas and an Americano. It’s a cheerful family-run place in the centre of Harpenden, Hertfordshire. The staff are friendly, the food is great and the coffee is… Well, OK, it’s kinda average but it does the job. 

The atmosphere in this little place makes up for any coffee deficiency, since it’s airy and upbeat. It’s usually packed out seven nights a week thanks to the food and the excellent cocktail menu, but it also makes for a writer’s haven during the day. 

Sadly, after my research into forensic entomology, I wasn’t able to do justice to their aubergine and hummus, but such is life. I’ve been polishing the first few chapters of Sycamore Gap and this new adventure in the life of DCI Ryan will require more of a scientific outlook. 

For those who may be interested, Sycamore Gap is the name given to a particular part of Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland. As the name suggests, there is a large, iconic sycamore tree nestled in the u-dip of the landscape. (Put another way, it’s the tree that Kevin Costner sat under while he was dressed up as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves). It’s a striking part of the landscape up there, old and beautiful. Here’s a link, if you ever fancy a visit: Hadrian’s Wall.

 

Let’s catch up…

My 18-month-old son was teething over the past week or so and although I won’t bore those of the non-parental persuasion with the details, suffice to say that this Mamma hasn’t been getting much sleep. That being the case, World Book Day and International Women’s Day were on my radar, but didn’t get quite the attention they deserved.

Let’s catch up!

World Book Day

As you may have guessed, I love books. I always have. Books of all genres, shapes and sizes. I like some of the heavy stuff, but I don’t turn my nose up at a good holiday read, either. Any writer who is able to transport me into their story, regardless of where I am or the kind of day I have had, is worthy of applause. In a world where the literacy rates, even in the developed world, aren’t what they should be (100%, in case there was doubt) then I think it is foolish to get finicky about the type of reading that people choose to do in their free time. Any reading is good reading.

That said, I do have some favourites…

 

Classic children’s story

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or indeed its prequel The Silmarillion and sequels The Lord of the Rings were utterly and completely absorbing to me as a child. I know that fantasy books containing weird short people with hairy feet aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but, for me, Tolkien unlocked the door to a world of imagination.

Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty is another classic. Ostensibly following the lifespan of the horse, it is a moving portrayal of socio-economic hardship and human nature, beautifully depicted.

Adult classic

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a long-time favourite of mine. For quite a short book, it packs a solid punch, covering social conditions and developing romance without the twee-ness of Austen (sorry, Austen lovers).

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a wonderfully dark love story. I mean, the man has an insane wife locked in his attic. He’s older. He’s brooding. He’s Mr Rochester. Need I say more?

Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is a brilliant adventure. Actually, I enjoyed The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, by the same author, but at a push this one comes out on top. It has a bit of everything: suspense, jealousy, intrigue, revenge, deceit, love… The metamorphosis of Edmond Dantes into the Count of Monte Cristo is a timeless story.

Favourite all-round story

This is very difficult, not least given some of the contenders above. It comes down to the book which really swept me away aged eleven, listening to Michael Jackson on my Walkman while I read it (yes, back in the days of the cassette tape). That story is The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye. Set in the last days of the Raj, it is an epic tale of love and adventure, but also of the fundamental nature of identity. Her descriptive passages are breathtaking; whenever I read it, I feel that I am truly stepping into India, that I can see it and feel it and smell it. The passages are incredibly authentic, too, given the fact that Kaye spoke many of the varied Indian dialects and could therefore infuse her work with an accuracy which might otherwise have eluded her. Completely absorbing, but a commitment to read at nearly 1000 pages.

Other game-changers

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is an eye-opening tale of murder, told from the perspective of the perpetrator. It is a fantastic portrayal of the psychology and forces which might compel a person to kill, set against a backdrop of impoverished Russia. I am a big fan of Russian literature, in general, but this is one of my favourites.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, tells the story of Winston Smith, a civil servant tasked with perpetuating the propaganda of the regime by falsifying records and literature so that it appears that the government is always right. He begins a revolt, which ultimately leads to his arrest, torture and conversion. I won’t spoil this dystopian classic for those who haven’t yet read it, but there is a scene involving rats which will stay with me for a long, long time…

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The main themes are racial injustice, loss of innocence and courage and compassion in the face of both of those struggles. The film, with Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch, is also one of my favourite movies, although make sure you have tissues to hand.

Great bath-time reads, accompanied by a glass of wine and some chocolate

Alright, so the following might be what they call ‘chick-lit’, but you know what? It’s GREAT chick-lit!

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Oh, come on, you know you love it! What’s not to love in reading about the ups and downs of a hapless British thirty-something with a crush on Mr Darcy?

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. Lovely bittersweet romance telling the tale of Noah and Allie, who fell passionately in love one summer but, owing to her parents’ disapproval, separated for 14 years. They meet again, on the cusp of her marrying another man, but realise that despite their differences they are meant to be together. The narrator pauses in telling the story to explain that he is reading to his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease and that he is also chronically ill. It becomes clear that they are Noah and Allie, but he has changed the names in the story to protect her. Heart-wrenching stuff!

And finally…

Any crime fiction (I mean that, I’ll read most crime novels out of curiosity alone) and anything by Nora Roberts. I am unrepentant about this: Nora is bloody brilliant at what she does and what a businesswoman, she is, too. I’ve had many enjoyable hours reading books like The Reef and Public Secrets, so go forth and discover this New York Times bestselling author, if you haven’t already.

International Women’s Day (IWD)

I appreciate the need for an annual day to celebrate women and push for those causes which affect women the most, whether domestically or abroad, but part of me is always a little sad that we need such a reminder. It is a reminder that there is still so much work to do, even in a developed country such as the United Kingdom. It saddens me that there are women who have suffered terrible injustice, abuse and ridicule on a wide-ranging scale, whether it be sexism at work, inadequate maternity services, unequal pay, domestic violence or otherwise. I mourn the fact that there are young girls who feel their best aspiration in life is to become part of a reality TV show, rather than taking their rightful place in careers better suited to their individual skills or intelligence. I’m not saying that everybody needs, or wants, to be bankers and doctors and lawyers, but if they do, the opportunities should be there on an equal basis.

IWD reminds me that, due to an accident of birth, I was born into a family which was loving and supportive, with a strong female role model who would definitely not have tolerated casual sexism either at work or at home. I learned from that and am equally intolerant of the peculiar blend of indulgent condescension that some men harbour towards women. Not all men, I hasten to add, but there is a definite undercurrent in our society which fosters an assumption in some men that they are the superior sex.

Sad, I know. Delusional? Definitely.

The way I see it, gender differences are a good thing and we shouldn’t need to ascribe to some ready-made idea of what is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. If my son wants to be a male ballerina, I won’t so much as blink an eyelid, except to ask him what colour leotard I need to buy him. Likewise, there’s no need for a woman to adopt masculine attributes in order to be accepted and successful in the workplace, or at least there shouldn’t be a need for it. Femininity is strength. It should not be a war between the sexes, just an acceptance that we are on an equal playing field where the attributes of both genders are appreciated in equal measure.

Above all else, we are more than our gender. We are individual, every one of us.

I could write and write about this topic, but that’s enough for now. You get the general gist.

Now, I’m off to think about murder and mayhem…

‘Til next time

x

NYC and Coupled Smugness…

It’s been a busy start to the New Year and I don’t know about you, but I’m fairly shocked at the idea of it being mid-February already. How did that happen?

If you’re anything like me, you will have made numerous promises to yourself to take it easy and enjoy quiet time, following which you will have ignored these statements entirely and proceeded to run around like a headless chicken trying to be all things to all people at all times. The up-side is that I’ve enjoyed some pretty decent nights out culminating in what can only be described as a decadent, ‘party like it’s 1999’, alcohol-fuelled whirlwind trip to NYC last week with some of our oldest friends. In my defence, this particular brand of guilt-free hedonism was long overdue following a period of hard work and intense parenting as my son enters the dreaded ‘terrible twos’ phase of his young life. My birthday was the perfect opportunity for his doting grandparents to step in and give his long-suffering mum and dad a chance to remember what a full night’s sleep feels like, in a fancy hotel, followed by breakfast mimosas and a wander through Central Park, amongst other things…

Central Park on a wintry Sunday morning

Central Park on a wintry Sunday morning

So, here we are again, refreshed, recharged and ready to hit the ground running. Next on the annual calendar of Hallmark events is obviously Valentine’s Day tomorrow. What do people think about this, I ask myself? Firstly, this has to be one of the most obvious times in which hypocrisy can be liberally applied depending on one’s own circumstances. Being happily married and in a long-term relationship with Mr Ross for the past ten years, I am the perfect example of what I like to call ‘coupled smugness’ which means that we can snub our noses at Valentine’s Day and tell ourselves obnoxious things, including but not limited to:

  • “Every day is Valentine’s Day with you, darling!”
  • “No amount of cards, sonnets or flowers could adequately express my undying devotion to you, my love!”
  • “Every day I love you more and more!”

Et cetera, et cetera… any of the above can be punctuated with Spandeau Ballet’s seminal work, True, for added effect.

In reality, whilst the underlying sentiment may indeed be true of all the above (haha…aha ha) in reality it is the little things which make all the difference to everyday happiness. Good communication; doing a crappy job for the other person when you know they hate doing it themselves; changing stinky nappies when the other person looks like they’re ready to expire from the last one…the list is endless. Still, if the mood strikes you, Valentine’s Day is a good reminder to take the opportunity and tell your better half all the nice things you usually forget to say.

Now, for the other side of the fence. Calling all singles out there! How incredibly annoying is Valentine’s Day? Every shop window plastered in red hearts, every restaurant hiking up their prices and every table at that restaurant taken up by smarmy couples mooning over each other. Nauseating, simply nauseating. I’m pretty sure that I ranted – at length – about Valentine’s Day being a pointless date on the calendar designed to fuel card sales for large companies wishing to profit from people’s gullibility when I was single. That is all still true! Rock on, my single friends! The amount of pressure that such a splashy event places on people to conform to the rest of society and find someone – anyone – by Valentine’s, just so that you can sit and eat pasta with them and not feel left out is ridiculous. Real and lasting happiness with another person doesn’t depend on some man-made date, or indeed any deadline. Equally, personal happiness is not dependent on being with another person. There’s a certain satisfaction to be found in the knowledge that you went it alone and didn’t settle for, or stay in, a relationship which wouldn’t make you happy. See my previous post on calculated change: the same applies here. When you find the right person, it’s fantastic, but if you never find, or haven’t yet found the right person but are happy in your own skin, that’s fantastic too.

This can now be followed up by Chaka Khan’s inimitable work, I’m Every Woman.

Til next time….

x