A big welcome to Emma Healey and the blog tour for her latest novel, Whistle in the Dark which was released by Viking on 10th January.
Jen has finally got her daughter home.
But why does fifteen-year-old Lana still feel lost?
When Lana goes missing for four desperate days and returns refusing to speak of what happened, Jen fears the very worst. She thinks she’s failed as a mother, that her daughter is beyond reach and that she must do something – anything – to bring her back.
The family returns to London where everyone but Jen seems happy to carry on as normal. Jen’s husband Hugh thinks she’s going crazy – and their eldest daughter Meg is tired of Lana getting all the attention. But Jen knows Lana has changed, and can’t understand why.
Does the answer lie in those four missing days?
And how can Jen find out?
I have reviewed the novel below but first, here is an extract. I hope you enjoy.
***** beginning of extract.*****
‘This has been the worst week of my life,’ Jen said. Not what she had planned to say to her fifteen-year-old daughter after an ordeal that had actually covered four days.
‘Hi, Mum.’ Lana’s voice emerged from blue-tinged lips.
Jen could only snatch a hug, a press of her cheek against Lana’s ‒ soft and pale as a mushroom ‒ while the paramedics slammed the ambulance doors and wheeled Lana into the hospital. There was a gash on the ashen head, a scrape on the tender jaw, she was thin and cold and wrapped in tin foil, she smelled soggy and earthy and unclean, but it was okay: she was here, she was safe, she was alive. Nothing else mattered.
Cigarette smoke drifted over from the collection of dressing-gowned, IV‑attached witnesses huddled under the covered entrance, and a man’s voice came with it.
‘What’s going off? Is that the lass from London?’
‘Turned up, then,’ another voice answered. ‘Heard it said on the news.’
So the press had been told already. Jen supposed that was a good thing: they could cancel the search, stop asking the public to keep their eyes open, to report possible sightings, to contact the police if they had information. It was a happy ending to the story. Not the ending anyone had been expecting.
The call had come less than an hour ago, Hugh, wrapped in a hotel towel, just out of the shower (because it was important to keep going), Jen not dressed and unshowered (because she wasn’t convinced by Hugh’s argument). They had never given up hope, that’s what she would say in the weeks to come, talking to friends and relatives, but really her hope, that flimsy Meccano construction, had shaken its bolts loose and collapsed within minutes of finding Lana missing.
Even driving to the hospital, Jen had been full of doubt, assuming there’d been a mistake, imagining a different girl would meet them there, or a lifeless body. The liaison officer had tried to calm her with details: a farmer had spotted a teenager on sheep-grazing land, he’d identified her from the news and called the police, she was wearing the clothes Jen had guessed she’d be wearing, she’d been well enough to drink a cup of hot, sweet tea, well enough to speak, and had definitely answered to the name Lana.by
Happy Monday all. I’ve got a cover reveal today… The Talisman – Molly’s Story by Eliza J. Scott.
Molly’s dream of taking over her childhood home at Withrin Hill Farm with husband Pip and their three children has finally come true. And, as they settle into the stunning Georgian farmhouse, with their plans to diversify into glamping nicely taking shape, the family couldn’t be happier.
But tragedy suddenly strikes, and Molly’s world is turned upside down.
Heartbroken and devastated, she struggles to face each day. True to form, her fiercely loyal best friends, Kitty and Violet, rally round offering love and support, but Molly doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to smile again. Until the day a tall, dark stranger with twinkly eyes arrives…
Follow Molly’s story in book 2 of the Life on the Moors Series set in Lytell Stangdale, a picture-perfect village in the heart of the North Yorkshire Moors, where life is anything but quiet.
A heart-warming story of love, friendship and hope.
OK, so here comes the cover. Drum roll………by
Hi Jenni, thank you for joining me today. Your novel is called The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker. Can you tell me about it and what inspired the story?
You are very welcome – it’s lovely to be here. Your virtual sofa is very comfy!
Hmm… how to sum up my book. I guess The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker is a heart-warming story with a variety of themes. I set out to write a romance but the book became so much more and, in a way, is two love stories; Lucy and George, but also Lucy and Brenda. It was the powerful intergenerational friendship between these two women and how they deal very differently with Brenda’s dementia diagnosis, that became the central theme. For the romance, I was initially inspired by a locket of my mother’s and my working title was Lucy’s Locket until it was picked up by the publisher. This mysterious piece of jewellery leads to lots of mishaps and comedy moments for Lucy but also makes her reassess her romantic options in life. It was a fun book to write.
What’s your typical writing day like? Do you need coffee? Silence?
I weave my writing around part-time work, care for my mum and the hectic taxi service I appear to be running for my four teenage sons. My most productive times are during the school day – when the house is silent, and evenings – when it is not. I also work at the weekends when I can. I’ve developed a cunning strategy that involves wearing enormous headphones as a signal that I’m writing. If there is a lot of noise, I play music (I have a playlist of familiar songs so I’m not distracted by them) but I also cheat and pretend I’ve got music on so the boys leave me alone. It’s coffee during the day, and wine or tonic water at night – although the wine is only for weekends. Interestingly, some of the best comedy scenes have been wine-fuelled.
The other thing I do, to combat the isolation and to spur me on, is to meet up with my writing buddy, Clare Marchant, in our “virtual” office. It means we check in throughout the day with wordcounts and this accountability helps us both to focus. I do hate it when she leaves the virtual biscuit tin empty though…
Do you have a certain place you like to write?
I have an office – which is actually a desk in the corridor between the living room and the downstairs loo. I’m lucky to have this permanent space as a lot of writers work on the kitchen table or on their laps. It’s a total mess, like Lucy’s desk, but it’s mine. I have two screens set up (invaluable for editing) so it’s tricky for me to move. Research and planning I can do anywhere.
What’s your writing process like from planning to editing?
Planning – ha ha ha. You are funny. I am such a pantser and every time I begin a new novel I’m determined to plan. My second book for Avon (out next summer) was the first time I’d had to write a synopsis before writing the book and boy was that hard – but I did it. I’d like to get better at planning, but my brain doesn’t work that way and I’m what I like to call “an onion writer” – I write in layers. I get a rough first draft down and then I go over and over and over it, perfecting, editing, adding description etc. until I’m happy. Luckily, I love editing and always see it as an opportunity to make the story even better. Some of my best ideas come right at the end of the process and then I have to go back and weave it all in. I honestly don’t know how people plan.by
It’s Friday which means it’s time to start writing some fiction.
Fiction Friday is our weekly writing prompt. The aim is to write for a minimum of five minutes and then keep going for as long as you can. Once you’ve finished, don’t edit, just post in the comments box below.
Turn on the radio and make a note of the first three songs you hear.
These are now the three themes that will make up your story.
Combine them all together, including any characters mentioned in the song. So for example, you have to include Loretta if you hear Get Back by the Beatles.by
I am happy to be welcoming Zoe May to Novel Kicks today and the blog tour for her novel, When Polly Met Olly.
Polly might spend her days searching for eligible matches for her elite list of clients at her New York dating agency, but her own love life is starting to go up in smoke.
Even worse, she can’t stop thinking about the very person she’s meant to be setting her latest client up with… surely it can’t get any worse!
But then Polly bumps into oh-so-handsome Olly, who heads up a rival agency, and realizes that perhaps all really is fair in love and dating war…
I have reviewed the book below but first, Zoe and HQ have shared an extract today.
***** beginning of extract*****
Surely, I’m not qualified to be a matchmaker?!
You’d think getting a job at a dating agency might actually require you to have found love, or at least be good at dating, but apparently not. I’ve been single for three years and I haven’t had a date for six months, yet I’m pretty sure I’m nailing this interview.
‘So, what kind of message would you send Erica?’ Derek asks, handing me a print-out showing a dating profile of a pretty, tanned brunette. Derek is the boss of To the Moon & Back dating agency, although with his nicotine-stained teeth, lurid purple shirt stretching over his giant pot belly and cramped city office, he’s not exactly what I imagine when I think of Cupid.
What kind of message would I sent Erica? When Derek says ‘you’, he doesn’t mean me, as in Polly Wood. He means me pretending to be 34-year-old bachelor Andy Graham, because that’s what my job as a matchmaker would involve. While Andy, and the rest of the busy singletons on the agency’s books, are out earning the big bucks, too busy to trawl internet dating sites looking for love, I’ll be sitting here with Derek, firing off messages on their behalf in the hope of clinching dates. It’s a little morally questionable I suppose, since the women will be chatting to me beforehand, and will no doubt become enamoured with my witty repartee and effortless charm, but to be honest, I haven’t really given the moral side of it much thought. According to Derek, it’s what all dating agencies do, and anyway, ethics somehow stop being so important when you really need cash.
I try to put myself in the mindset of Andy, while thinking up a message for Erica. I only know about him from reading a form he’s supposedly filled in, which Derek gave me to study five minutes earlier. According to the form, Andy is an ex-army officer turned property surveyor. He grew up in a small town in Ohio where his family still reside. His younger brother, aged 31, has already settled down with a wife and three kids, and reading in between the lines, I get the impression that Andy feels he’s beginning to lag behind. He works long hours, reads Second World War history books in his spare time, enjoys visiting aviation museums and likes to play tennis at the weekends. Oh, and he has a penchant for Thai food.by
Hello Rachel. Thank you for joining me today. Can you tell me a little about your debut novel, The Twisted Tree?
Hi, thank you so much for having me.
The story is about a girl called Martha who can tell things about people just by touching their clothes, as if their thoughts and emotions have been absorbed into the material. It started the day she fell from the tree at her grandma’s cabin in Norway. The day she became blind in one eye.
Determined to find out why she has this strange ability, Martha returns to Norway, hoping that her grandma can give her answers. But when she gets there, she finds her grandma is dead and a peculiar boy is hiding out in her cabin. From then on, things start to get spooky!
What inspired you to write it?
The book is based on Norse mythology, in particular the story of Odin hanging from the world tree, Yggdrasil, and finding the runes in the well.
As I began to research the myths, I came across the Norns, three mythical women who dwell in Yggdrasil and weave fate. In Viking culture, magic was the preserve of women and associated with their work, predominantly spinning and weaving. Odin’s wife Frigg was a practitioner of magic and a weaver (of clouds), and is often depicted at a spinning wheel.
Putting the two ideas together – weaving cloth and magical ability, I came up with the idea of being able to tell things about people by touching their clothes. It was then a journey of discovery for me to figure out why my main character had this gift.
Which came first: character, theme, setting, etc?
I started out with the genre I wanted to write (a ghost story) and a theme that interested me (darkness) and brainstormed ideas from there. This led to me wanting to write about a blind/partially sighted character – which later happened to work beautifully with Norse mythology.
The story takes place in winter in the Lofoten Islands, when there is near-permanent darkness. The theme also influenced Martha’s character arc. She refuses to ‘see’ the truth about her mother and grandmother’s relationship, and her journey is about finding the courage to accept the darkness within her / the parts of herself that she doesn’t like.
The theme came first, but the story only clicked into place once I decided to use Norse myth.
What was your writing process like?
Once I was confident I had a ‘high concept’ idea and a strong character arc, I worked out a rough outline. That makes it sound like the process was straightforward, but I took numerous wrong turns and introduced and abandoned many story elements along the way.
How do you work: music or silence?
I prefer to write to music, or if there’s a really great storm outside, the howl of the wind.
There were a few pieces of music I listened to on a loop while writing The Twisted Tree, most of them by the Norwegian band Wardruna. If I’m working on a particularly scary scene, I will listen to a horror movie soundtrack and also light candles and burn incense – which has the added advantage of warning everyone in the house not to disturb me!by
A land under occupation. A legendary sword. A young man’s journey to find his destiny.
Aren has lived by the rules all his life. He’s never questioned it; that’s just the way things are. But then his father is executed for treason, and he and his best friend Cade are thrown into a prison mine, doomed to work until they drop. Unless they can somehow break free . . .
But what lies beyond the prison walls is more terrifying still. Rescued by a man who hates him yet is oath-bound to protect him, pursued by inhuman forces, Aren slowly accepts that everything he knew about his world was a lie. The rules are not there to protect him, or his people, but to enslave them. A revolution is brewing, and Aren is being drawn into it, whether he likes it or not.
The key to the revolution is the Ember Blade. The sword of kings, the Excalibur of his people. Only with the Ember Blade in hand can their people be inspired to rise up . . . but it’s locked in an impenetrable vault in the most heavily guarded fortress in the land.
All they have to do now is steal it . . .
Set in fantasy world with echoes of our own, The Ember Blade is part of the Darkwater Legacy and is one of the most enjoyable pieces of fantasy writing I have had the pleasure to read in some time. The story centres around Aren, a young man living in a country under occupation.
Raised to believe that the occupiers, the Krodans, are superior and that he should emulate them, he is in for a rude awakening when his Father’s past catches up with him.
He finds himself with a band of rebels seeking to regain control of their country’s most sacred relic; The Ember Blade.by
Today in the writing room, I wanted to look at showing and telling.
As I am trying to write my first novel, I am finding out the hard way that it is very easy to tell and not show. It’s a very quick trap to fall into.
Convert the following sentences into something that is showing action rather than just telling.
She felt tired.
He came home drunk.
He loved her.
They hated each other.by
Hi Peter, thank you for joining me on Novel Kicks. When did you start writing?
I have been writing since I was seven years old – my original ambition was to be a scriptwriter. I find the world we live in very interesting and I enjoy observing human behaviour, and that’s really my approach. I’m constantly taking note of what’s happening around me as you never know where you might find inspiration for a character or piece of plot.
How did you get your big break?
My first ‘break’ was at age seventeen, when I won a national short story competition run by the BBC and got to read my story out on air. It was hugely exciting! However, my first professional writing job came along a few years later whilst I was living in Toronto and working on a children’s television series called Polka Dot Door. I was a gopher – it was my job to basically run errands. One day we were due to film an episode, but the writer hadn’t turned in the script. The producer asked if I could write one there and then, and I said ‘okay!’
How much research do you do for each novel?
My novels tend to be very research-driven. I first had the seed of an idea for Absolute Proof when I received a mysterious call from someone claiming to have proof of the existence of god – just like Ross does – thirty years ago. In the decades that followed I did a great deal of research, ranging from speaking to religious leaders about the consequences absolute proof would have for believers, to living as a monk for five days in the extraordinary monastic commune of Mount Athos. It’s been an extraordinary journey!
Who inspires you?
When I was 14, I read Graeme Greene’s Brighton Rock, and it totally changed my life. It’s the book that made me realise I wanted to be a writer, and also the reason that my Roy Grace series is based in Brighton. Greene has a way of describing characters, in just a few sentences, which makes you feel you know them inside out, and his sense of “place” is almost palpable. Brighton Rock is for me an almost perfect novel. It has one of the most gripping opening lines ever written too – ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.’
What advice would you give to new and aspiring writers?
Reading extensively and intelligently is the most important thing – read books that have done well in the genre you want to write in and analyse what you like about the author’s style. Once you’ve started writing, make time to write every single day. Find a comfortable number of words to do each day and stick to that number. I am comfortable with 1,000 words. For some it might be 500, 200 or even 2,000 – as long as you are consistent, the number doesn’t matter.
And you must love your characters – or no one else will!
Happy New Year everyone!
I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and a fantastic New Year. 2019 has arrived. I will now spend at least the next month incorrectly writing 2018 instead of 2019.
I had a very lovely and quiet Christmas with family and friends. One of the things I love most around this time of year is that it’s an opportunity to start again; new challenges, new goals and a brand-new slate. I am in the middle of setting my new writing goals for the year and I endeavour to gain more ground with this than I did last year (I hope.)
One of the things that I did manage to do before midnight on 31st December was to finish my Goodreads reading challenge and believe me I did cut it fine. I think I had about an hour to go.
I like challenges like this because these days, with things like Netflix and the Internet, it’s very easy for me to slip into a routine where I will just sit and watch telly. Therefore things like the Goodreads challenge will mean I will decide to read a book rather than box set a TV series. I blame Netflix for my dry reading spells last year.
My challenge in 2018 was 52 books; roughly one a week. I felt that this was doable. However, it’s amazing how quickly life can get in the way and I realise that I did go little chunks of time without reading which is something that I want to change this year. Therefore, because I never learn, my target for this year is 54 books.
The good thing about the Goodreads challenge is that you can set your own goals.by
I am excited to be picking the first Novel Kicks book club for 2019 and it’s a great one (in my humble opinion.)
I have chosen ‘I Invited Her In’ by Adele Parks.
I am looking forward to discussing this book and I hope you join me in the comments below. You can take part from the comfort of your own armchair.
As usual, I have posted a question to kick things off.
About I Invited Her In:
‘I invited her in… and she took everything.’
When Mel hears from a long-lost friend in need of help, she doesn’t hesitate to invite her to stay. Mel and Abi were best friends back in the day, sharing the highs and lows of student life, until Mel’s unplanned pregnancy made her drop out of her studies.
Now, seventeen years later, Mel and Abi’s lives couldn’t be more different. Mel is happily married, having raised her son on her own before meeting her husband, Ben. Now they share gorgeous girls and have a chaotic but happy family home, with three children.
Abi, meanwhile, followed her lover to LA for a glamorous life of parties, celebrity and indulgence. Everything was perfect, until she discovered her partner had been cheating on her. Seventeen years wasted, and nothing to show for it. So what Abi needs now is a true friend to lean on, to share her grief over a glass of wine, and to have some time to heal. And what better place than Mel’s house, with her lovely kids, and supportive husband…by
Hi Gila, thank you for joining me today. Your novel is called Passport Control. Can you tell me about it and what inspired the story?
Passport Control is a coming of age novel about a twenty year old Canadian girl who feels forced to leave the home she shares with her father and, in her desire for revenge, goes to the one place he’s kept a secret all of his life, his home country Israel. Other than odds and ends, she doesn’t know anything about his past life there.
She finds herself in a dormitory with a range of Israelis from Jewish to Arab and struggles to navigate her way through the politics and culture around her. Along the road she falls in love, encounters murder, and discovers a shocking family secret.
The story was originally a short story written in a creative writing class with author Steve Stern. It was inspired by my own experience coming to Haifa University around the same age as my heroine, Miriam Gil and similarly struggling to navigate my various roommates, who all came from different cultures and backgrounds. At least that was the initial kernel behind my twelve-page short story. It evolved over time into a father-daughter story, and a family betrayal story with a side order of romance.
What’s your typical writing day like? Do you need coffee? Silence? Do you have a certain place you like to write?
I have five children between the ages of 11 and 20. So my writing day has evolved over time with the ages of my children.
In the early days, I used to type a lot one-handed while nursing and later had to be done by 1 p.m. when nursery school closed.
Now, I have a lot more quiet during the day–which is vital for me to write–and yes, rivers of coffee. I write in my converted bomb shelter adjacent to the front door, so my writing is punctuated all day with, “Mom, is there any food?” as the kids come and go and the snoring of my dog.
What’s your writing process like from planning to editing?
My writing process has changed a lot over the years. I am much more of a planner these days.
I try to write at least two sentences for each chapter that explain the point of each one. At a certain point, I just write and usually the first three or four chapters are the first to go later on as I “write myself into the story.” But not always. Each novel is its own journey.
I don’t wait for perfection if that’s what you mean. You just have to dive in.
What’s your favourite word and why?
My favorite word is balagan. That’s a Hebrew word with no single English translation.
It means mess, disorder, confusion but also problem and difficulty.
So, you could say, “today was a balagan,” or “my thoughts are a balagan” or “your room is a balagan!”
Try it! It’s a fun word to say.
Which song best describes you?
“Shout” by Tears for Fears.
What elements do you think make up a good novel?
Great novels are written by authors who excel at location in time and space.
If you feel as if you are really in Elizabethan England or in South Africa during Apartheid, or in downtown Toronto…you’ve got the elements of a great novel. I can’t think of a time when someone told me they loved a short story or novel and couldn’t tell me exactly where and when it was taking place.
Full disclosure: I teach an online Setting & Description course and I can’t believe how many new writers send me first drafts that take place Anywhere / Anytime. It’s not as intuitive as you might think.by
Happy New Year everyone.
It’s lovely to be welcoming back Bella Osborne to Novel Kicks (we’ve missed you,) and the blog tour for the first part in a four-part serial, Wildflower Park: Build Me Up Buttercup.
Life’s not always a walk in the park…Escape the everyday with Part One of a brand-new four-part serial from the author of Coming Home to Ottercombe Bay.
Anna thought she’d found The One… until he broke off their engagement exactly one year before their wedding day. Now faced with a different type of countdown, Anna moves into her own place on the edge of the gorgeous Wildflower Park, hoping that a bit of greenery and a fresh start will do her the world of good.
With a little help from her good friend Sophie, a no-nonsense rescue cat and an attractive new work colleague, Anna is doing well moving on with her life… until her ex fiancé is hired into her team at work. But that proves to be the least of her worries, because she’s been swept off her feet by someone she really shouldn’t be falling for…
As much as she needs a new beginning, can Anna overcome her the difficulties in her past that prevent her from moving forward?
I have reviewed the novel below but first, Bella and Avon have shared an extract from part one of Wildflower Park: Build me up Buttercup. Enjoy.
***** beginning of extract*****
Seven o’clock came and Anna checked her mobile. She wanted this to be over. She wanted Liam to come in, take his things and go with as little small talk as possible. She was moving on with her life and this was a key milestone along her journey. The knock on the door made her jump and she shook her head at her own silliness.
‘Hi,’ she said, opening the door. Liam appeared relaxed and casual, the polar opposite of how she was feeling. ‘Come in.’
They walked through to the lounge and Anna pointed at the box of random items. ‘Here you go. I think that’s everything.’
‘This is nice,’ said Liam, having a good gawp around the room.
‘Thanks,’ said Anna. She wanted to pick the box up and thrust it at him but she wouldn’t be so rude.
‘So,’ said Liam, rubbing his hand across his chin. ‘Have you been okay?’
‘Yes, terrific, thanks.’ She said it too enthusiastically and Liam looked a little taken aback. Or was that hurt?
‘Oh, that’s good.’ He pursed his lips. Liam wasn’t paying attention; he was still inspecting the room and it annoyed her.
She wondered why he wasn’t just taking the box and leaving. He sat down on the sofa. Her sofa. Anna folded her arms. ‘Did you want a coffee or something?’ she asked out of politeness, which irritated her further. She was so British.
He smiled and she wondered why. ‘A coffee would be great – or something stronger. Have you still got the bottle of Châteauneuf you took?’
***** end of extract*****Continue reading by
A lovely Christmas welcome to Francesca Hornak and the blog tour for her latest novel, Seven Days of Us.
It’s Christmas, and the Birch family is gathering for the first time in years.
Olivia, the eldest daughter, has returned from treating an epidemic abroad and must go into quarantine for seven days. Her mother has decided it’s the perfect opportunity to spend some ‘special time’ together. Her youngest sister wholeheartedly disagrees. Her father isn’t allowed an opinion.
When no one can leave the house, seven days for the Birches feels like an eternity.
Especially when they’re all harbouring secrets. One of whom is about to come knocking at their door…
I have one copy of Seven Days of Us to give away (details on how to enter at the bottom of the post but first, Francesca has shared an extract with us today. Enjoy!
***** beginning of extract.*****
17 November 2016
Cape Beach, Monrovia, Liberia, 1.03 a.m.
. . .
Olivia knows what they are doing is stupid. If seen, they will be sent home – possibly to a tribunal. Never mind that to touch him could be life threatening. But who will see them? The beach is deserted and so dark she can just see a few feet into the inky sea. The only sound is the swooshing drag of the waves. She is acutely aware of the tiny gap between their elbows, as they walk down to the surf. She wants to say, ‘We shouldn’t do this,’ except they haven’t done anything. They still haven’t broken the No- Touch rule.
The evening had begun in the beach bar, with bottled beers and then heady rum and Cokes. They had sat under its corrugated iron roof for hours, a sputtering hurricane lamp between them, as the sky flared bronze. They had talked about going home for Christmas in five weeks, and how they both wanted to come back to Liberia. She told him about Abu, the little boy she had treated and then sobbed for on this beach the day he died. And then they’d talked about where they’d grown up, and gone to medical school, and their families. His home in Ireland sounded so unlike hers. He was the first to go to university, and to travel. She tried to explain how medicine represented a rebellion of sorts to her parents, and his eyes widened – as they had when she confessed to volunteering at Christmas, to avoid her family. She had noticed his eyes when they first met at the treatment centre – they were all you could see, after all, behind the visor. They were grey-green, like the sea in Norfolk, with such dark lashes he might have been wearing make-up. She kept looking at his hands, as he picked the label on his beer. Like hers, they were rough from being dunked in chlorine. She wanted to take one and turn it over in her palm.
By the time the bar closed the stars were out, spilt sugar across the sky. The night air was weightless against her bare arms. ‘Will we walk?’ said Sean, standing up. Usually she stood eye to eye with men, but he was a head taller than her. And then there was a second, lit by the hurricane lamp, when they looked straight at each other, and something swooped in her insides.
Now, ankle deep in the surf, their sides are nearly touching. Phosphorescence glimmers in the foam. She loses her footing as a wave breaks over their calves, and he turns so that she half-falls into him. His hands reach to steady her and then circle around her waist. She turns in his arms to face him, feeling his palms on the small of her back. The inches between his mouth and hers ache to be crossed. And as he lowers his head, and she feels his lips graze hers, she knows this is the stupidest thing she has ever done.
The Buffalo Hotel, Monrovia, Liberia, 2.50 p.m.
Sipping bottled water to quell her stomach (why did she have that last drink?), Olivia waits to Skype her family. It is strange to be in a hotel lobby, a little bastion of plumbing and wi-fi – though there is no air-con, just a fan to dispel the clingy heat. And even here there is a sense of danger, and caution. In the bathrooms are posters headed SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF HAAG VIRUS, with little cartoons of people vomiting. The barman dropped her change into her palm without contact – guessing, rightly, that most white faces in Monrovia are here for the epidemic, to help with ‘Dis Haag Bisniss’. Another aid worker paces the lobby, talking loudly on an iPhone about ‘the crisis’ and ‘supplies’ and then hammering his MacBook Air with undue industry. He’s wearing a Haag Response T-shirt and expensive-looking sunglasses, and has a deep tan. He’s probably with one of the big NGOs, thinks Olivia. He doesn’t look like he’d ever brave the Haag Treatment Centre or a PPE suit – not like Sean. Last night keeps replaying in her mind. She can’t wait to see Sean on shift later, to savour the tension of No-Touch, of their nascent secret. Anticipation drowns out the voice telling her to stop, now, before it goes further. It’s too late to go back anyway.
Olivia realises she is daydreaming – it’s five past three and her family will be waiting. She puts the call through and suddenly, magically, there they are crammed onto her screen. She can see that they’re in the kitchen at Gloucester Terrace, and that they have propped a laptop up on the island. Perhaps it’s her hangover, but this little window onto Camden seems so unlikely as to be laughable. She looks past their faces to the duck-egg cupboards and gleaming coffee machine. It all looks absurdly clean and cosy.
Her mother, Emma, cranes towards the screen like a besotted fan, touching the glass as if Olivia herself might be just behind it. Perhaps she, too, can’t fathom how a little rectangle of Africa has appeared in her kitchen. Olivia’s father, Andrew, offers an awkward wave-salute, a brief smile replaced by narrowed eyes as he listens without speaking. He keeps pushing his silver mane back from his face (Olivia’s own face, in male form), frowning and nodding – but he is looking past her, at the Buffalo Hotel. Her mother’s large hazel eyes look slightly wild, as she fires off chirpy enquiries. She wants to know about the food, the weather, the showers, anything – it seems – to avoid hearing about Haag. There is a lag between her voice and lips, so that Olivia’s answers keep tripping over Emma’s next question.
Her sister Phoebe hovers behind their parents, holding Cocoa the cat like a shield. She is wearing layered vests that Olivia guesses are her gym look, showing off neat little biceps. At one point, she glances at her watch. Olivia tries to tell them about the cockerel that got into the most infectious ward and had to be stoned to death, but her mother is gabbling: ‘Have a word with Phoebs!’ and pushing Phoebe centre stage. ‘Hi,’ says Phoebe sweetly, smiling her wide, photogenic smile, and making Cocoa wave his paw.
Olivia can’t think of anything to say – she is too aware that she and her sister rarely speak on the phone. Then she remembers that Phoebe has just had her birthday (is she now twenty-eight or -nine? She must be twenty-nine because Olivia is thirty-two), but before she can apologise for not getting in touch, Phoebe’s face stretches into a grotesque swirl, like Munch’s Scream. ‘Olivia? Wivvy? Wiv?’ she hears her mother say, before the call cuts off completely. She tries to redial, but the connection is lost.
. 1 .
17 December 2016
The Study, 34 Gloucester Terrace, Camden, 4.05 p.m.
. . .
Subject: copy 27th dec
From: Andrew Birch <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 17/12/2016 16:05
To: Croft, Ian <email@example.com>
Copy below. If this one goes without me seeing a proof, I will be spitting blood.
The Perch, Wingham, Berkshire
By the time you read this, my family and I will be under house arrest. Or, more accurately, Haag arrest. On the 23rd my daughter Olivia, a doctor and serial foreign-aid worker, will return from treating the Haag epidemic in Liberia – plunging us, her family, into a seven-day quarantine. For exactly one week we are to avoid all contact with the out- side world, and may only leave the house in an emergency. Should anyone make the mistake of breaking and entering, he or she will be obliged to stay with us, until our quaran- tine is up. Preparations are already underway for what has become known, in the Birch household, as Groundhaag Week. Waitrose and Amazon will deliver what may well be Britain’s most comprehensive Christmas shop. How many loo rolls does a family of four need over a week? Will 2 kg of porridge oats be sufficient? Should we finally get round to Spiral, or attempt The Missing? The Matriarch has been compiling reading lists, playlists, de-cluttering lists and wish lists, ahead of lockdown. Not being a clan that does things by halves, we are decamping from Camden to our house in deepest, darkest Norfolk, the better to appreciate our near- solitary confinement. Spare a thought for millennial Phoebe, who now faces a week of patchy wi-fi.
Of course, every Christmas is a quarantine of sorts. The out-of-office is set, shops lie dormant, and friends migrate to the miserable towns from whence they came. Bored spouses cringe at the other’s every cough (January is the divorce lawyer’s busy month – go figure). In this, the most wonderful time of the year, food is the saviour. It is food that oils the wheels between deaf aunt and mute teenager. It is food that fills the cracks between siblings with cinnamon-scented nostalgia. And it is food that gives the guilt-ridden mother purpose, reviving Christmases past with that holy trinity of turkey, gravy and cranberry. This is why restaurants shouldn’t attempt Christmas food. The very reason we go out, at this time of year, is to escape the suffocating vapour of roasting meat and maternal fretting. Abominations like bread sauce have no place on a menu.
The Perch, Wingham, has not cottoned onto this. Thus, it has chosen to herald its opening with an ‘alternative festive menu’ (again, nobody wants alternative Christmas food). Like all provincial gastropubs, its decor draws extensively on the houmous section of the Farrow & Ball colour chart. Service was smilingly haphazard. Bread with ‘Christmas spiced butter’ was good, and warm, though we could have done without the butter, which came in a sinister petri dish and was a worrying brown. We started with a plate of perfectly acceptable, richly peaty smoked salmon, the alternative element being provided by a forlorn sprig of rosemary. The Matriarch made the mistake of ordering lemon sole – a flap of briny irrelevance. My turkey curry was a curious puddle of yellow, cumin-heavy slop, whose purpose seemed to be to smuggle four stringy nuggets past the eater, incognito. We finished with an unremarkable cheese- board and mincemeat crème brûlée which The Matriarch declared tooth-achingly sweet, yet wolfed down nonetheless. Do not be disheartened, residents of Wingham. My hunch is that you, and your gilet-clad neighbours, will relish the chance to alternate your festive menu. We Birches must embrace a week of turkey sandwiches. Wish us luck
Andrew sat back and paused before sending the column to Ian Croft – his least favourite sub-editor at The World. The Perch hadn’t been bad, considering its location. It had actually been quite cosy, in a parochial sort of way. He might even have enjoyed the night in the chintzy room upstairs, with its trouser press and travel kettle, if he and Emma still enjoyed hotels in that way. He remembered the owners, an eager, perspiring couple, coming out to shake his hand and talk about ‘seasonality’ and their ‘ethos’, and considered modifying the lemon sole comment. Then he left it. People in Berkshire didn’t read The World. Anyway, all publicity, et cetera.Read moreby
The tree is up and decorated, Christmas lights have taken over my house and the Christmas novels and mugs have come out.
As my favourite time of year approaches, I, like everyone else am Christmas shopping. I want to continue my tradition of doing a ‘book lovers’ gift guide (a writing themed one will come later in the week.)
If you’re still looking for a gift for the bookworm in your life, I hope the suggestions below may prove to be the perfect present.
First of all, for anyone you know (or for yourself as it is Christmas gift buying law that you should buy a present for yourself,) that is a fan of Twilight. It’s been ten years since the first film was released and to mark this occasion, a 11 DVD box set has been released (or 6 discs if you prefer Bluray.)
The Twilight Complete Collection 10th Anniversary Special edition includes the four movies and their bonus content. It also includes an additional three hours of bonus content including ‘Twilight Tour: Ten years on’ which is a tour around the filming locations with a cast member. As well as this, there are cast interviews, a red carpet feature and a talk with Stephanie Meyer.
It is the perfect Christmas present for any Twilight fan.
(The Twilight Complete Collection 10th Anniversary Special edition is out now on DVD and Bluray.)
I had a chance to briefly visit the British Library recently. Having never been before, I absolutely fell in love with the building. Having a look at their shop online, they have many things that would make perfect gifts for readers.
One thing I did pick up on my visit was The Christmas Card Crime. It is a collection of stories that explores the darker side of the festive season (I love this cover too.)
Other products include homeware and stationery. Letters To My Future Self caught my eye. This is a great idea and would make a lovely stocking filler.