Book Review: Christmas At Hope Cottage.

ChristmasathopecottageIf Lily Graham ever fancies a break from writing contemporary fiction (and I hope she doesn’t) I think she’d make a brilliant food writer – as highlighted in her latest book, Christmas At Hope Cottage.

I guess when your main character does it for a living you also need to know your stuff but it’s more than just dropping the odd technical term in, she makes food seem magical.

That’s just one of the things I enjoyed about this book, which I found very hard to put down.

Here’s the blurb:

When thirty-year-old food writer Emma Halloway gets dumped then knocked off her bike, she’s broken in more ways than one, and returns to her family’s cosy cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. Emma hasn’t been back in some time, running from her crazy relatives and her childhood sweetheart, Jack Allen.

Emma’s grandmother is determined to bake her back to health and happiness, as the Halloways have done for generations. Surrounded by old friends and warm cinnamon buns, Emma starts to believe in her family’s special talents for healing again. But then in walks Jack with his sparkling hazel eyes, stirring up the family feud between them.

As the twinkly lights are strung between the streetlamps, Emma remembers just why she fell for Jack in the first place… and why a Halloway should never date an Allen.

The infuriating new lodger, Sandro, doesn’t believe anyone should have to choose between love and family. With a little bit of Christmas magic, can Emma and Jack find a way to be together, or will Emma find herself heartbroken once more?

Poor Emma, it never rains but it pours. I don’t want to give anything away but she has more than just broken bones to contend with. I did find keeping up with where she was in the healing process a little confusing at times – although I was quickly distracted from pondering her injuries by her wonderfully eccentric family. They don’t live an easy life but it is a purposeful one, full of love and laughter.

The story switches between past and present with ease and you get a real sense of why Emma is the way she is. There are some darker moments in this book but it’s all the better for them.

Lily very cleverly steers you in different directions and just when you think you know how you want things to play out, she inserts a little doubt here and there and you change your mind. Thankfully, in the end, it all works out just as it should (or at least just as I felt it should).

Format: Kindle.

Price: £1.99.

My rating: Four stars.

With thanks to Bookouture for the ARC (via NetGalley) in return for an honest review.

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Book Review: Sleigh Rides And Silver Bells At The Christmas Fair.

SleighridesIf you haven’t read any of Heidi Swain’s books before, Sleigh Rides And Silver Bells At The Christmas Fair is the perfect place to start but if you’re already a fan, I predict it will quickly become your new favourite.

As I was reading, it reminded me of something but for ages I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that was – and then it came to me, Jane Eyre.

Not so much the plot – although there are some similarities. Thankfully there’s no Bertha Mason in the attic, although there is something surprising up there, but the two main characters do come of age in one way and the heroine, Anna, is all on her own.

However, it was more Anna’s voice. She seems quite uptight and authoritative but underneath there’s a layer of vulnerability that I instantly warmed to.

Here’s the blurb:

When Anna takes on the role of companion to the owner of Wynthorpe Hall, on the outskirts of Wynbridge, she has no idea that her life is set to change beyond all recognition.

A confirmed ‘bah humbug’ when it comes to Christmas, Anna is amazed to find herself quickly immersed in the eccentric household, and when youngest son Jamie unexpectedly arrives home it soon becomes obvious that her personal feelings are going all out to compromise her professional persona.

Jamie, struggling to come to terms with life back in the Fens, makes a pact with Anna – she has to teach him to fall back in love with Wynthorpe Hall, while he helps her fall back in love with Christmas. But will it all prove too much for Anna, or can the family of Wynthorpe Hall warm her heart once and for all…?

It’s lovely to see the relationship between Anna and the hero, Jamie, unfold. Their chemistry is evident from the start but there are all sorts of things that stand in the way, not least that he is her employers’ son and she has a rule about mixing business with pleasure.

The supporting cast are fabulous and only added to my enjoyment. I loved learning the back stories of various family/employees as well as the healing magic that seems to happen at the hall.

The fictional town of Wynbridge is the backbone of Heidi’s books and while Wynthorpe Hall is out in the sticks, Anna makes multiple visits and it seems especially lovely at Christmas time (some of the stars of previous books also make welcome cameos). She even takes a trip into Norwich and, maybe it’s because I’m a local, but it made me smile to read about a place I had visited earlier in the day.

In fact, the only bad thing about this book is that I raced through it and it was over too quickly.

More please!

Format: Kindle.

Price: 99p:

My rating: Five stars.

If you’re interested, you can find out more about Heidi from my Behind The Book interview here.

A Look Behind The Book With Isabella Davidson.

IsabellaDavidsonPhoto2For years she wrote the popular but very much anonymous blog, Notting Hill Yummy Mummy, which gave a rather tongue in cheek peek at the glamorous, competitive and often bizarre world of the super rich of west London.

That changed when her first book, The Beta Mum: Adventures In Alpha Land, came out and she had to reveal herself as Isabella Davidson – not just to her readership but also to her neighbours and the school gate mums she sometimes wrote about.

In my latest Behind The Book post I was thrilled to be able to ask Isabella about what it was like to be thrust into the spotlight in such a big way (she was featured in the Times and other newspapers as well as on TV and radio) together with picking up some tips for bloggers hoping to become authors.

When did you start writing? Was it with the blog or even before that? Was it your dream to eventually publish a book?

I have always written, ever since I was a child, whether short stories in class or in my diary. I also took a creative writing class during university but having my work read and critiqued in class when I was 18 was quite hard to take in. Then, I went back to writing when I started my blog, which was a fun and creative outlet for me at the time, but my dream was always to write and publish a book.

Would you say blogging helped you, aside from subject matter, with your book?

Blogging has been a huge help for many reasons. Firstly, it forces you to write even when you don’t want to, but it also helps you hone your craft. As they say, the more you write, the better you get at it, so writing blogs is a way of writing which contributes to your writing skills. Of course, when people complimented me on my writing, it gave me confidence to think that perhaps I could write a book. And having a ready audience helps. You know that at least a few people will read your book!

You gave up your anonymity when you published your novel. What was that like? Was it a big decision to take? Was there any fallout for you?

It was a big decision to come out in the open. Originally, I wanted to publish my book under a pseudonym and keep the blog anonymous. But when the Times asked to interview me, I didn’t have much choice, because they wanted pictures of me (a massive two page insert of me in my house!) so I asked my husband if he was ok with it, and when he said ok, that was the end of my anonymity. Mostly, people have been very supportive and encouraging of my book, but they also said I was very brave. I am sure a lot of people have been talking about me and my book when I’m not there. There has been some fallout, but truthfully, not with any of my friends, who all know who I am and know that it was a bit of fun. It’s mostly people who don’t know me that have taken their distance, or people who are scared that I am going to write about them or expose their life or lifestyles. I keep it all anonymous and tongue and cheek and it’s not meant to be taken very seriously, but I understand that not everyone will be happy with what I have done.

Not only did your book get a lot of publicity when it was launched but so did you. I’ve seen some beautiful photos of you reclining on a lovely white sofa. Was that difficult to deal with, especially having been anonymous? Had you expected it? And did you get any help with managing it?

I knew that when the Times article came out, it would cause a stir, I just didn’t know how much. From there, I went on to be interviewed by The Daily Mail and went on TV and radio, but it was an intense period of time. I was being interviewed on a regular basis and it takes time and effort to prepare for the interviews and to look ‘good’ and to be ‘on’ all the time. It was quite draining. I didn’t get help with how to answer controversial questions I was asked, but I did in the end get some help with the PR because I couldn’t do it on my own. It was a lot of work. I am glad the publicity has died down somewhat and I can go back to my normal life without having people coming up to me and saying they saw me in the papers. In the process, I realised that I am a lot more private than I thought. I thought I would enjoy all the attention but after I while, all I wanted was some peace and quiet.

image1Your fabulous book follows the story of Sophie Bennett who arrives in London fresh from Canada and is thrown into the outrageous, entertaining but also sometimes quite cruel world of the Alpha Mums. I felt genuinely sorry for Sophie but by the end of the book I also (surprisingly) had some sympathy with the Alpha Mums. I think it would have been easy just to cast them as the bad guys and leave it at that but you made them very 3D. Was that important to you? 

Yes, it was important that I make them realistic too. I didn’t want my readers to think all these mums are horrid and evil, because for the most part they aren’t. There are a few exceptions like Kelly, that really exist, but most of the mums are absolutely lovely and nice. But there would be no story if everyone was nice! So I had to pile on the horridness. There is a lot of competition though, and that’s just very true in London in general or any big city. New York is 100 times worst. I also believe that most people are 3D characters and have reasons for acting certain ways, whether because they are unhappy or insecure or just negative people, so I try to understand the motivations behind people and try to have empathy towards everyone.

How much of the story was autobiographical? Is it really like that? And which side are you on?

Everyone thinks the story is autobiographical, but it’s not. People come up to me thinking I am like Sophie and are almost disappointed that I’m not. I am not Sophie in many ways, she is shy and reserved and that’s certainly not how my friends would describe me. I have lived in London for 15 years so that’s also very different. I used the set up of Sophie moving to London to really show an outsider’s point of view of London. I am probably more Alpha than Beta in the end as well… But I’d like the Alphas to be kinder to each other and not to take it all too seriously. Some parts of the book are influenced by real events that have happened to me or to people that I know, but mostly it is all fiction and fictionalised. The plot and all the characters are fiction and not based on any particular person.

Can you talk about how you were published? Did you submit to agents/publishers or were you discovered? What was the process like? How was it seeing a copy of your book in the shops for the first time?

My road to publishing in the end was very much my own path. I was first approached by an agent through my blog, (but he turned it down later) so that’s when I started thinking seriously about writing a novel. I then went on the Faber Academy novel writing course and wrote my novel that year. I did approach several agents and publishers, but after a few months, I decided to do it on my own terms and sent my manuscript to Silverwood, which is an independent self-funded publisher that I found through another writer who had done the Faber course as well. These days, there is more than one way to get your book published and I didn’t want to wait one and a half years to see if I could get a traditional publishing deal. Luckily, I already had a platform and visibility through the blog, which got me the Times interview. In the end, for me, I just wanted to see and feel my book in my hands, which was a wonderful thing. And having it all over the Notting Hill Bookshop window was pretty cool. I couldn’t have asked for a better place for it. But doing it on your own is so much work, so you need time and dedication and determination to get your book out there. Neither path is easy, but as they say in writing, you need perseverance.

You have lots of strings to your bow but I know you worked a medical doctor for a long time. Would you ever write about your experiences of that profession, either as a book or for newspapers and magazines?

Interestingly, I don’t have a need to write about medicine or being a doctor. When I was a doctor, I did quite a bit of medical research writing but for my fiction writing, I want to create a world outside of medicine. I can’t see myself blending those two worlds, which for me is a serious world (medicine) and a creative world (writing). I would love to write a book about Vietnam one day though (I am half Vietnamese).

How do you find time to write along with family life and all the many other things you have on your plate?

That’s a good question. When I was writing my novel, I dedicated that year to writing and said ‘no’ to coffee mornings, lunches, events and working out and spent my days between school drop offs and pick ups writing. Also, I need the mental space to get involved in my story and in my characters, so it is usually a solitary time for me. I didn’t do much blogging during that time. Then after the book was published it was about doing interviews, being on social media and doing blogger outreach and interviews, so it’s been a lot less about writing recently. Right now, I’m also enjoying doing book events, I had a book reading and signing last week and I have another one next week – and that’s also quite time consuming! But you have to find time and to prioritise if you want to write a novel. That meant while the kids were at school, after they went to bed, and sometimes when we were on holiday.

Is there another book in the pipeline? Can you talk about what you’re working on now?

I am not quite ready for my next book yet. I still need to digest this one and still need to do a bit of work with this one. There is a potential project with this book that is rather quite exciting, and if it took off, it would take up most of my time for the next year or so. But the chances that it will happen is 1/1000 or less so I think I can still keep dreaming. It’s always good to have a dream and a goal though, so that keeps me going.

Any tips for fellow bloggers interested in writing a book?

My writing tutor told me that the most important thing was ‘tenacity.’ As a writer, you have to have so much perseverance, dedication and determination. Of course talent helps, but what sets a writer apart is their hard work: to sit on that chair and write every day, to finish that book, to edit, edit, edit, to send it to agents and publishers, to accept rejection and to just keep going until one day you may get to see your book on a bookshelf in a bookstore. It is incredibly hard work, but to succeed, you need to work harder than anyone else and never give up.

Isabella quote

Oh, and luck really helps too, but unfortunately I can’t help you with that! What you can do though is to keep going…

 ~

Many thanks to Isabella for answering my (often very long) questions. It’s great to find out more about her and her book. I think she handled her new found fame much better than I would have done. I can’t wait to see if her exciting project comes off, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

You can read my review and an excerpt of The Beta Mum: Adventures In Alpha Land here. You can also follow more of Isabella’s adventures via her blog, on Twitter and, of course, you can buy her book via Amazon in paperback or for Kindle here.

I’ll have two more Behind The Book guests next month. Don’t forget you can now follow After The Rain on Facebook so you need never miss a post.