Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood (short story collection)
The Cloisters by Katy Hays
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (audiobook)
The Silence Project by Carole Hailey
Scary Smart by Mo Gawdat (non-fiction)
Why We Dream by Alice Robb (non-fiction)
Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
The Book Share by Phaedre Patrick
I was lucky enough to get tickets to see Margaret Atwood in Liverpool in March. She is such an inspiration, and I could have listened to her all night! Intelligent, passionate and funny. One of my favourite actresses, Maxine Peake, also performed one of her short stories which was wonderful.
The trip sparked a binge read of Margaret Atwood’s books. I am (slowly) reading Burning Questions, a collection of essays, but this month I also read Oryx and Crake, Old Babes in the Wood (a short story collection) and listened to The Year of the Flood on audiobook. I am particularly enjoying the Maddadam trilogy and finding it more accessible than The Handmaid’s Tale which I read a long time ago.
Another highlight this month was The Cloisters by Katy Hays. A young academic spends her summer interning at a secret museum in the heart of New York with a medieval garden and enigmatic colleagues. I loved the setting of this book – it was like stepping back in time. The comparisons to The Secret History by Donna Tartt are well deserved.
The Silence Project by Carole Hailey was also a brilliant read. It’s written like a memoir and sometimes it felt like you were reading real events. Narrated by her daughter, a middle-aged woman vows to stay silent and listen more which spirals into a global movement with tragic and alarming consequences. I loved all the moral dilemmas this book raised.
I read Scary Smart for research, and it really opened my eyes to the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. There is lots in the news about it at the moment so I would recommend this book if you’re interested in the subject. I wasn’t 100% sold on the solutions offered in this book, however.
Finally, Blood and Sugar is another recommended read. It’s a historical thriller set in the 1780s. It is highly immersive and very detailed. I really enjoyed the book, but I did find it quite complicated towards the end and it was hard to keep track of who all the characters were and how they related to each other. I am looking forward to reading the next in the series.
I binge read my way through August with a total of 14 books! I read:
The Idea of You by Robinne Lee
The Truth about Lisa Jewell by Will Brooker
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins
The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
An Unfamiliar Landscape by Amanda Huggins (short story collection – proof)
The Drift by C J Tudor (proof)
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
What I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
Both of You by Adele Parks
Magpie by Elizabeth Day
The Secrets of the Storm Forest: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency #3 by L D Lapinski
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary
The Idea of You was a Richard and Judy pick and a fun read. It’s a romance between a woman in her late 30s and a member of a boyband with all the trials and tribulations of a relationship under the spotlight.
The Truth about Lisa Jewell is a non-fiction book charting a year in the life of bestselling author, Lisa Jewell. I enjoyed the insight into her writing process and her moments of doubt and triumph. This book would particularly appeal to writers.
The Mermaid of Black Conch was a beautifully written story which stayed with me long after I finished it. I enjoyed the different voices in this book and the way it explores themes of misogyny and colonialism through a traditional mermaid tale.
An Unfamiliar Landscape was a review copy of Amanda Huggins’ latest collection of short stories. Huggins’ atmospheric and evocative prose has the power to transport you to places all over the globe while tunnelling deep into your soul. The tiniest details make the greatest impact as Huggins explores grief, relationships and self-discovery. A masterclass in short form fiction.
C J Tudor is one of my favourite writers so I practically mugged her at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival for a proof of her latest novel, The Drift, which will be out in January 2023. This is quite a departure for C J Tudor in terms of genre but has the same page-turning element of her other books, with a clever twist.
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas was recommended to me by author Abby Davies, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I have also bought the workbook that goes with it and am making my way through it. Maas dissects every aspect of what makes a novel become a bestseller and encourages you to dedicate yourself to improving your own writing. Following all the advice in this book will be hard work, but I think it will be worth it! Definitely one I will be rereading many times.
Magpie by Elizabeth Day was one of the best books I read this month. It’s very well written and very dark. I loved the twist and the conclusion. It was a very accomplished thriller, and I am looking forward to reading her other books.
I’m really pleased that I have read Half of a Yellow Sun because I didn’t know much about the civil war in Nigeria in the 1960s. It was a very distressing read at times and I struggled with it for that reason, but I was glad I persevered. I loved the characters who will stay with me for a very long time.
After that I needed a lighter read, and I really enjoyed The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary. Imagine spending a long car journey to a wedding with your ex! That’s the situation Addie and Dylan find themselves in this romantic comedy.
Amanda and I first met at a local writing group. She’s been so supportive to me over the years and is a brilliant writer! She writes novellas, short stories, flash fiction and poetry.
Please introduce yourself and your published works
Hi Sarah, thanks for inviting me over – I’m honoured that you’ve asked me to be your first interviewee!
I’m an author and travel writer currently based in West Yorkshire. I was brought up on the North Yorkshire coast and after living in London in the 1990s I headed back north and ended up ten miles from Leeds.
I’ve published two novellas, Crossing the Lines and All Our Squandered Beauty, and four collections of short stories and poetry. Both novellas won the Saboteur Award for Best Novella, in 2021 and 2022 respectively, and my poetry chapbook, The Collective Nouns for Birds, also won a Saboteur Award in 2020.
All Our Squandered Beauty is a coming of age novel set mainly on the Yorkshire coast, and was developed from the title story of my first short story collection, Separated From the Sea.
The blurb: Kara’s father died at sea – or did he? She has spent her teenage years struggling with grief and searching for answers. When she accepts her art tutor’s offer to attend a summer school on a Greek island, she discovers once again that everything is not what it seems, and on her return she faces several uncomfortable truths. Could Jake, a local trawlerman, be the key to uncovering the past, and will Kara embrace the possibilities her future offers or turn back to the sea?
My second novella, Crossing the Lines, was based on my story ‘Red’ which was a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award in 2018.
The blurb: When Sherman Rook walks into the Jupiter diner, Mollie’s mama is instantly smitten. Despite her daughter’s reluctance, they leave the New Jersey shore behind and move to his isolated farmstead over a thousand miles west. Fifteen-year-old Mollie distracts herself from Rook’s cruelty by befriending a stray dog she names Hal, but when Rook crosses a final line Mollie realises that sometimes we must leave behind those we love in order to save ourselves. With only $20 to her name, she sets out from Oakridge Farm, relying on luck and the kindness of strangers as she makes her way back home across five state lines.
When did you start writing? Can you tell me about your journey to publication?
I was around eight when I had the not-very-original idea for my first ‘novel’, an equestrian tale called Silver Brumby which I wrote by hand in a spiral bound notebook with a shiny red cover. My first writing success was with a love poem written to George Best when I was eleven. It won third prize in my grammar school’s literary competition. I’d like to say I never looked back, but shortly after writing a lot of angst-ridden sixth form poetry, I put my literary ambitions aside for quite a long time.
Around ten years ago I started writing again with serious intent – travel articles at first. I sent a piece to The Telegraph every week until they accepted one! I had further success with my non-fiction in the years that followed, including winning the British Guild of Travel Writers New Travel Writer of the Year Award in 2014, and being shortlisted twice for the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer Award. Then fiction – or more specifically, short stories – captured my attention, and I soon started submitting and entering awards, and went on an Arvon course to try and hone my craft. I achieved quite a lot of success in competitions, and had a short collection of flash pieces published by Chapeltown Books. I then submitted my first full-length collection, Separated From the Sea, to a few indie publishers. I got some great feedback from one or two, but I knew in my heart it needed more work. After a lot more editing, I sent it under a pseudonym to Retreat West Books and it was accepted. They then went on to publish my second collection,Scratched Enamel Heart.
Around that time I’d also completed All Our Squandered Beauty and had my first poetry chapbook published by Maytree Press. Suddenly it was all happening!. I was then on the hunt for a new publisher, as Retreat West decided not to continue commissioning new books due to financial and time constraints. I submitted to around half a dozen indie presses before Victorina Press accepted my novella, and they have since published Crossing the Lines as well.
What were the pivotal moments so far in your writing career and what you have learned from them?
Having a piece of travel writing published in The Telegraph was a pivotal moment for me – it gave me the confidence to keep going. Then when I started writing fiction I sent the very first short story I completed, ‘All Stations to Edgware’, to Jo Derrick at the Yellow Room magazine. To my surprise, it was accepted, and Jo said some lovely things about my writing which really encouraged me. I think these small affirmations are really significant when you start out – it’s important to know you’re heading in the right direction. That said, it’s just as crucial to learn to accept rejections with grace, and I’ve had far more of those!
Being shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award was a real biggie – I can still remember my shock and disbelief when the email arrived. It was such a great night at the awards – I was a runner-up rather than the outright winner, but I still got to add the iconic Costa sticker to the cover of Scratched Enamel Heart! And I have learned that these are the things which grab the attention of bookshops when you haven’t got a mainstream publisher behind you.
Seeing my name on the cover of a book for the first time was also a real pivotal moment – I think that’s when I finally gave myself permission to call myself a writer.
But something else that felt really important to me was the first time a reader got in touch to say my writing had made them cry and that they were worried about what happened to my characters after the story ended! When someone thinks of your characters as real people then you know you’ve done the job you set out to do.
Who are your favourite authors?
I have so many, it’s hard to know where to start. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my all time favourite authors, and The Remains of the Day is certainly in my top five favourite novels – the story of a life sacrificed to duty; beautifully written and heartbreaking. Other all-time favourite books include Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Siege by Helen Dunmore, and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. More recently I’ve loved Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami and The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. And this year’s favourite novel so far is Trespasses by Louise Kennedy – intense, honest and heart-wrenching. But these are just off the top of my head today – tomorrow you’d get different answers!
I read a lot of travel writing too – I love Dervla Murphy, Alex Kerr and Pico Iyer in particular – and I really enjoy short story collections. When I’ve finished a novel I often pass it on, however I usually keep short story collections and return to them over the years in the same way that I do with poetry. I have countless favourites, many by established authors, but also a growing number by emerging short story writers. The collections on my shelves include books by William Trevor, Lucy Caldwell, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, A L Kennedy, Wells Tower, Miranda July, K J Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Haruki Murakami, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, Angela Readman, and A M Homes.
I’m a huge fan of Japanese writing — novels, novellas and short stories. Japanese literature is often poetic, quiet, unhurried, and that way of writing suits the short story form. Sparing and effective use of language, subtlety and nuance, a certain elusiveness, all demand that the stories are read slowly, and that they are re-read and savoured. These are the qualities that draw me back again and again, and the tales of yearning and loss, of not quite belonging, all resonate with the themes I explore in my own fiction. I admire Murakami’s short stories, and really enjoyed his collection, Men Without Women. Murakami is renowned for his surreal writing, yet I prefer his stories when he writes of single men and smoky bars, lonely hearts and enigmatic women. I also love the short stories and novels of Yoko Ogawa. Like Murakami, her writing is often surreal, and can be unsettling and even grotesque. She is adept at self-observation and dissecting women’s roles in Japanese society. Taeko Kono explored women’s roles too, burrowing deep beneath the routines of daily life to reveal a disturbing underbelly — and who could resist a collection called Toddler Hunting and Other Stories?
What advice would you give to other people wanting to write?
I would never offer up sweeping statements like “write every day even if you’re not inspired”, as people can feel so pressured by this type of advice that it can end up hindering instead of helping. That said, you do need to actually write – your novel or poem is no good in your head!
What I would say – because I’ve been around the block a few times! – is only write if you really love doing it and would be diminished by not writing. Fame and riches are hard to come by and are not the best motivator.
Network: talk to other writers at events and festivals, join a writing group. It’s a lonely business, and your partner will soon get tired of your writing babble.
Never expect friends and family to read your stuff – they probably won’t.
When you start out, submit to lots of places at once – that way you’re not waiting on tenterhooks for one response. When a rejection hits it won’t feel as bad if you’ve got another ten other pieces out there. I think this actually matters less when you’ve had a few things published and have become accepting of the high rejection rate!
Finally, what are you working on now?
I’ve just sent the final edits of my poetry collection, Talk to Me about When We Were Perfect, to the publisher. It’s out next March with Victorina Press, so that’s exciting. And before that, I have a short story collection out in October, An Unfamiliar Landscape, which was commissioned by Valley Press last year.
So now I’m moving on to the next book, which is a collection of all my stories set in or about Japan, with accompanying essays on Japan, poems, and journal entries from my travels. A lot of it is already written and/or previously published, but I’m working on three new stories for the collection, and now have the pleasant task of going through all my Japan journals to select some excerpts. That will be out in early 2024, and the working title is The Shadow Architect.
But there’s a new novella bubbling under too…
Thanks Amanda! You can catch up with Amanda’s latest news on her website:
The Family Tree is a story of love, loss and family. Amjad is a single dad raising his children with the help (and interference) of their grandmother. The opening chapter is particularly poignant as Amjad cradles his baby daughter, overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility of looking after two young children while struggling with his grief.
The novel then follows the family over the next 20 years as the children grow up and become young adults, navigating the complexities of race, religion and family in a West Yorkshire city. I have worked in Bradford for nearly the entire time covered in this book, so I knew a lot of the locations and events, and I enjoyed reading about them from a different perspective. I loved the way the storylines were weaved together, and I was rooting for all the characters. Recommended.
Call of the Penguins is the sequel to Away with the Penguins which I thoroughly enjoyed last year. Octogenarian Veronica McCreedy is now the star of a TV documentary and travels to the Falklands with her charming co-host, nine-year-old Daisy. There are relationship problems between Terry and Veronica’s grandson Patrick to sort out and a journey into the past as he searches for more information about his father. I can’t get enough of this series. I hope there’s another book on the way!
The Survivors is set in a coastal town in Tasmania and Harper’s descriptions of the windswept coastline are superb. A body is found on the beach and links are soon drawn to a teenaged girl who went missing years ago. Everyone in the town has something to hide, including Keiran who has recently returned to help his parents move house. This is a classic whodunnit, but while I enjoyed the mystery, it was the setting that really made this book for me.
I think I have read A Discovery of Witches at least 10 times now! For me, it’s very much a comfort read, an escape from the real world and into one dominated by witches, vampires and daemons. The first of a trilogy, A Discovery of Witches takes us to Oxford, rural France and the Highlands of Scotland all from the perspective of ‘creatures’ who live in plain sight. I think what I love about this series is that it is unashamedly academic – there are so many details of history, genetics, religion and science that are weaved together in this parallel universe.
Another book I read was The 5AM Club by Robin Sharma but I think I need a separate blog post for that! I will see if I can stick with it for a bit longer first.