The Sea Between Us by Emylia Hall

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I am hugely indebted to Bookbridgr and Ella Bowman at Headline for a review copy of Emylia Hall’s ‘The Sea Between Us’ in return for an honest review. It was published by Headline Review on 27th August 2015.

Robyn and her parents move to Cornwall where the enigmatic Jago rescues Robyn from near death when her first attempt at surfing goes horribly wrong. This incident forms a bond between them that will endure. However, not having declared their love for each other, even to themselves, the years pass and they go their separate ways, but fate hasn’t entirely finished with them.

This is a lovely story. It is divided along the lines of the tides from ‘Spindrift’ to ‘Spring Tide’ and the lyrical writing reflects the ebb and flow of the sea. The storytelling is completely satisfying as Robyn’s life changes and develops so that it is never entirely certain that her happiness can last. Her own experiences affect and alter her perception of her parents’ lives too.

Underlying the story is an incredible exploration of memory and fate and we see how a missed comment, letter or opportunity can change the whole course if our lives. It is a salutary lesson in making the most of opportunities as they arise.

The characters are warm and human so that it is impossible not to care about them as you read. I’m sure I would have fallen for Denny too! The emotions conveyed are stunning and so much is expressed through creativity with Jago’s wood working and Robyn’s paintings that it made me want to visit a gallery and buy a piece of their work to try to retain the closeness I felt when reading the book. The title has multiple interpretations, from the physical separation of the Atlantic to a shared love of a single place and the sea becomes a character in its own right.

I thoroughly enjoyed Emylia Hall’s ‘The Sea Between Us’ and found it pulled at my emotions the way the moon pulls at the tides. It is a gorgeous book.

Hello, Goodbye, And Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith

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My very grateful thanks to Frances Gough at Headline for providing an advanced reader copy of Jennifer E. Smith’s ‘Hello, Goodbye, And Everything In Between’ in return for an honest review. It is published by Headline in paperback and e-book on 1st September 2015.

Aiden and Clare have been dating for two years at high school. Now it is the eve of when they will go their separate ways to universities on opposite American coasts. They have twelve hours before they will split up in which to recall their first hello, say a final goodbye and remember everything in between.

I read the two pages of the prologue to ‘Hello, Goodbye, And Everything In Between’ and thought I had the measure of it – a quick, simple read that would be rather predictable, saccharine  and cheesy for a teenage audience. By the end of the first chapter I was in tears and I cried my way through the whole of the rest of the story in one go. I really did not want to stop reading this delightful romance.

It’s difficult to articulate why this simple premise of a story – two teenagers breaking up because a long distance university relationship will be too difficult to maintain – affected me so emotionally, but I was incredibly touched by it. Perhaps it took me back to my own first teenage love. There is a sweetness and underlying sadness from the first page that would melt the heart of the most cynical reader.

There’s a natural flow and rhythm to the writing that draws you in and makes you feel as if you are Aiden or Clare rather than reading about them so that their emotions become your own. Jennifer E. Smith conveys brilliantly the relationships between young people, both as lovers and friends, as well as those relationships between parents and children. She doesn’t miss a beat in the storytelling and the dialogue is perfect. Descriptions really help create a sense of wistfulness and place so that it is easy to imagine Clare and Aiden as they spend their last hours together.

The story is structured around different times over a 12 hour period and as the clock ticked away I really wanted them to have a happy ever after ending, but you’ll have to read it for yourself to see if that is the case.

I think anyone who has truly loved another person and thought they might lose them will devour ‘Hello, Goodbye, And Everything In Between’ as will those who enjoyed ‘The Fault In Our Stars’. Jennifer E. Smith’s book deserves movie treatment just as much. I thought it was wonderful.

The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

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I’m really thrilled to be able to share my review of ‘The A-Z of You and Me’ by James Hannah, and even more so because it’s out on my wedding anniversary on 27th August 2015, published by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Books.

Ivo is forty. He’s also in a hospice waiting to die. He has a wonderful carer Sheila who suggests he thinks of a different part of his body for each letter of the alphabet and tries to make up a story or memory about it to help him pass the time. Reluctant at first, Ivo gets involved and as he does so, the memories, and regrets, flood back.

This is one of those posts that is almost impossible to write without feeling you’ve done a disservice to the book or undersold it in some way. I absolutely devoured it in one day and by the end I was truly heartbroken. I found it really moving to have Ivo’s first person male viewpoint and his honest perspective of what it is like to edge towards death. The description of the hospice helped restore my faith in humanity and end of life care. Whilst the theme is quite bleak, there is also humour to be found which makes for an even more satisfying read.

Without spoiling the plot, there were three huge jolts for me like being hit in the solar plexus, the first delivered by Amber and I simply wasn’t expecting her revelation as I’d been so focused on the desperate sadness of Ivo’s self-destruction.  I found myself almost holding my breath as I read and I had to keep pausing to let what I’d just read sink in before I could go on.

Each character is just like someone we all know and I absolutely hated Mal for the majority of the book. Much of the wonderful character development comes through totally skilful dialogue. Speech is natural and convincing so I felt as if I were eavesdropping on their conversations. Similarly effective is the structure which is often fragmented, perfectly reflecting Ivo’s memories and emotions.

As the alphabet moves from A to Z it is impossible not to want to stop reading to prevent what feels as if it will be the inevitable, whilst at the same time being desperate to know what finally happens.

‘The A-Z of You and Me’ positively thrums with love, humanity and emotion. Anyone reading James Hannah’s book and remaining unmoved is simply not human. It is one of my stand out books of the year.

James Hannah (c) Claire Cousin 1

You can find out more about James Hannah on his website and follow him on Twitter

Around the World with Elisabeth Gifford

The Around The World Book Trip is a partnership between TripFiction and #BookConnectors ~ bloggers and authors, travelling the world, through fiction.

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TripFiction (http://www.tripfiction.com/) was created to make it easy to match a location with a book and help you select good literature that is most pertinent and relevant to your trip. A resource for armchair and actual travellers, it is a unique way of exploring a place through the eyes of an author. We blog, and chat books and travel across social media, and love to meet authors and bloggers as we take our literary journey.

Book Connectors was created as a place on Facebook for bloggers, authors and small publishers to share their news. We encourage book promotions; information about competitions and giveaways; news of events, including launch events, signings, talks or courses. Talk about new signings, about film deals …. anything really.

Book Connectors is  a friendly group, there are no rules or guidelines – just be polite and respectful to each other. Find us here: 

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We are starting in the UK in Scotland.

My guest on the blog is Elisabeth Gifford whose books are set in the Scottish islands.

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Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She has published the biography of a couple who rescue abandoned orphans in China. She has two novels out with Corvus Atlantic, ‘Secrets of the Sea House’ and ‘Return to Fourwinds’ and is writing a third which will be a novelisation of true events in Warsaw during WW2. She and her husband, a Scot and a cartoonist and illustrator, live in Kingston upon Thames.

Here Elisabeth tells us how she feels about Harris, its people and culture and the inspiration for ‘Secrets of the Sea House’.

‘Secrets of the Sea House’ is set in the Hebrides on Harris, one of the most remote parts of Scotland. Even when you have crossed the long bridge from the mainland over to Skye and then made the long drive to the far side of the island to Uig harbour, you still have a good hour and a half at sea on a CalMac Ferry before you get to Harris. For me, Harris begins on the ferry, the smudge of purple across the sea turning to land, fish and chips in the café and hearing snatches of Gaelic from nearby tables, hoping to spot dolphins or basking sharks as you pass tiny volcanic islands. The ferry docks in Tarbert, a town that would be called a village anywhere else, the boat standing as tall as the buildings.

We always feel a mounting excitement driving across Harris towards the first view of Luskentyre estuary, white and turquoise in the sun. Beyond are agate mountains, the wild and isolated bays of Huishinish and some serious hiking out into otherwise inaccessible hills and coastline. Today, we head down the west coast to Borve and a string of breath-taking white beaches, windswept and empty for most of the year except for gangs of bandit sheep. The unique Machair soil along the west coast is incredibly fertile, peat mixed with Atlantic shell sand, giving a thick pelt of wildflowers in summer, or barley and potato rigs if the land is still cultivated. After the clearances, the villages were left to sheep, but in a low light you can still see the lines of raised potato beds that corrugate the once populated grassy sweeps. It was while reading about the clearances that the voice of Moira began to speak up. She had a lot to say.

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You pass through Scarista village with manse and church where spine tingling Gaelic psalming is still sung at Gaelic services. The Manse is now a bijou hotel where we have had some magical meals overlooking the sea. Reverend Alexander came from trips to the Huntley museum with its glass jar specimens in Glasgow and from visits to Edinburgh where Darwin first explored his theories of evolution. I saw Alexander living in the Manse, facing out to the Atlantic, and far too handsome for his own good.

Down in Northton village at the end of Scarista bay, Bill and Christine Lawson run Seallam, a genealogy tracing service for the many descendants of the clearance diaspora. Bill and Christine also stage fascinating exhibitions about Harris and St Kilda and run a far too tempting bookshop.

At the foot of the island Strond has ethereal views across to the Uists. Gaelic folk singer Julie Fowlis is from Uist and she sang some of the old Uist songs about sea people for the launch of ‘Secrets of the Sea House’ in Glasgow.

Facing towards Skye, on a peninsula of the greenest of hills, is the tiny Rodel Cathedral. Inside are carvings of medieval knights and ancient birlinn boats built according to the island’s Viking heritage. Most high points on the island still carry a Viking name, from a time when they were used by incoming invaders as navigation points.

Turning northwards along the east coat you join the narrow and twisting golden road, named for the colour of the peat moors in winter, and because it cost the council so much to build back in the thirties. Here the landscape is very different.  Gneiss rock – the oldest in Britain – lies exposed by weather in sheets of silver grey. To your right, the Minch glints silver and blue according to the weather. The bays are often filled with sleeping seals and you’ll find several cafes and artists’ studios tucked away.

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Minch Light by Willie Fulton

We head for a very special place, the Drinishader gallery of William and Moira Fulton who paint the ever- changing moods and colours of Harris and St Kilda. The Fulton’s art gallery was once a cottage for holiday lets. We were so lucky to stay there on our first visit to Harris and returned there several times for a family holiday that was part adventure and part spiritual restoration as we sailed on the Minch, drank peaty whisky overlooking the sea, read by the fire or surfed over on the west side beaches. Willie and Moira told us wonderful stories about their life in a Hebridean village over the past few decades, and gave permission to use some of those village stories as an inspiration for the book. I wanted to try and capture that moment in the island’s history when crofting was still a mainstay of island life.

Time, of course, never stands still. Willie knew we would cry a bit when he told us he was going to convert the cottage to an art gallery. Of course there are other wonderful cottages for holiday lets on Harris, we’ve stayed in so many, but none will ever have the magic of that walk ‘home’ along to Willie’s gallery in Drinishader. If you are in Harris, do the walk from the gate by the sea to the gallery and you’ll understand.

Because Harris and Lewis are so remote they remain one of the UK’s last strongholds of Scots Gaelic. They welcome incomers who want to make a life in the islands, but retain their Gaelic culture of deep crofting and fishing roots, of rugged self-sufficiency, of spirituality and kindness. We loved hearing some great Gaelic and Celtic bands and singers at the Hebridean Celtic Festival in Lewis, and loved almost as much its designated porridge van, and the fried Haggis and chips.

The best compliment I can get is when people who know Harris tell me that the book reflects the islands, or that reading it feels as if they were really there. It’s my attempt to hold on to a very special place and its history, so it can be passed on – and treasured. The Hebrides’ unique culture is vibrant but fragile. The islands face pressure from from overseas, automated fish farm corporations that employ no locals, and who risk spoiling the pristine water in the bays with effluent. There’s inevitably pressure from wealthy retirees who want to plonk a loud holiday house in the middle of a very special landscape, sometimes contributing little to the island economy and its Gaelic speaking families. Tweed weaving is coming back, a new whisky distillery is planned, but the islands need a louder voice to protect livelihoods and prevent the slipping away of a unique heritage.

Mill race stones, ancient dwellings, rusting tractors, all get left where they fell for years, for decades and for centuries in Harris, giving a feeling of continuity and active history. In Lewis, the atmospheric Callanish standing stones are as old as Stonehenge.

There’s a rich heritage of island literature also. After finding his book on Selkie myths and mermaid sightings in a Harris gift shop, I met with Gaelic historian and seaman John MacAulay. He gave permission for me to base the novel on his research into the history that lies behind the mysterious sea people legends that are so prevalent in Scotland and the Isles. A few years later, it was the most tremendous pleasure to visit the arts centre in Stornoway for the Hebridean book festival and give a joint talk with John MacAulay about The Sea House and the true history behind the selkies.

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I would like to thank Elisabeth for such an inspiring guest post. I now want to visit Harris for myself.

However, even if I haven’t been to Harris, I have read ‘Secrets of the Sea House’ which was shortlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association’s Debut Crown For Best First Historical Novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here are my thoughts:

On the Scottish island of Harris, Ruth and Michael have bought the dilapidated Sea House in the hope of creating a bed and breakfast they can run with the help of Michael’s brother Jamie and Jamie’s girlfriend Leaf. However, both the Sea House and Ruth have secrets to uncover leading them back into the past and the life of Reverend Alexander Ferguson over a century before in the 1860s.

I thought ‘Secrets of the Sea House’ was a wonderful narrative. Based around the legends of the sea folk, Elisabeth Gifford leads the reader back and forth in time like the waves of the sea itself. The writing is hypnotic.

With several narrators, including Ruth, Alexander and his servant Moira, each has a distinct voice adding layer upon layer of understanding and depth to the story. Articles from newspapers, stories within stories and letters give detail and colour to make for a hugely satisfying read.

All the characters are complex and real and the reader learns to uncover and accept the past in tune with Ruth’s own discoveries. The echoes of the past reverberate through the decades so all the way through I wondered whether history would repeat itself as Ruth’s depression seems to mirror that of her mother.

One of the most beautiful elements for me is the way in which Elisabeth Gifford creates a sense of place. Her descriptions are beautiful and it is so easy to get an image of Scotland and its islands from her writing.

‘Secrets of the Sea House’ is meticulously researched and raises several philosophical questions about how we deal with our past, with mental illness, our beliefs and our roles in life. However, above all else it is a mesmerising and thoroughly entertaining read. I loved it.

Secrets of the Sea house

‘Secrets of the Sea House’ is published by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books and can be bought here along with Elisabeth’s other books.

I’m reading ‘Return to Fourwinds’ next.

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You can follow Elisabeth on Facebook on her website and on Twitter

The Morning After Memoirs by Kate Michaels

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I am grateful to Laura Stevens at Ago Publishing for providing a copy of ‘the Morning After Memoirs’ by Kate Michaels in return for an honest review. It was published on 14th July 2015.

When Jess wakes up on New Year’s Day not knowing quite where she is and lying next to a man she realises is Not-Ben, her world is about to implode. Her boyfriend Ben leaves her, her friends can’t fix her and her parents don’t seem to care, although they do offer a studio in their garage as a place to live. It’s up to 29 year old Jess to get her own life back in order. The trouble is, Jess is her own worst enemy and as she approaches her 30th birthday, finding an appropriate man seems ever more impossible.

‘The Morning After Memoirs’ is a quick, fun and enjoyable read. It will appeal to those who enjoy a sassy protagonist who tries (usually unsuccessfully) to find a sexual partner. It reminded me of the original Bridget Jones book in lots of ways.

I found the pace fast and the writing witty and entertaining, but after a while it became rather repetitive. There was an established cycle of Jess getting drunk, trying to find someone to have sex with and then realising that they were not the right man after all so that I found myself wanting more variety in the action and more development of character.

It might be the formatting of an e-book, or for effect in injecting pace, but I prefer direct speech set out with new lines for new speakers so that it is easier to follow conversations, rather than in continuous prose within paragraphs.

I did enjoy the read as it is fun and entertaining, but think ‘The Morning After Memoirs’ would be better suited for those who love reality television programmes like TOWIE and who perhaps are a younger demographic than me!

My Everything by Katie Marsh

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I am enormously grateful to Emma Knight at Hodder for my advanced reader copy of ‘My Everything’ by Katie Marsh in return for an honest review. ‘My Everything’ is published by Hodder in paperback on 27th August 2015.

Trapped in a marriage that is no longer working, Hannah is about to tell Tom she is leaving him to teach in Tanzania, but just as she is to do so, 32 year old Tom suffers a life changing stroke and their lives immediately take a course they could not have imagined.

I’m always somewhat sceptical when books are described as ‘heartwarming’, but ‘My Everything’ fits that epithet perfectly. I thought it was a gorgeous read, packing an emotional punch without being contrived or sugary. It had me in floods of tears by the end. I found it a realistic portrayal of how life can turn suddenly and I totally empathised with the characters of Tom and Hannah as my own husband had a mini-stroke at a relatively young age too – though I wasn’t planning on leaving him at the time!

Katie Marsh translates the frustrations and feelings of guilt, anger, bitterness and hope of stroke victims and their families so well whilst at the same time creating a narrative that flows and develops perfectly, drawing in the reader to experience those feelings too. I think the reduced number of characters helps this intimacy, giving readers a chance to know them fully. It took me a long time to feel positively towards Tom’s sister Julie, for example, but as her character was revealed and expanded so too were my sympathies. At times I was so immersed in the emotion of the text that I forgot I was reading a work of fiction.

‘My Everything’ is a lovely story, but it also reminds us to make the most of our lives, to live our dreams and remind ourselves frequently of who we really are. I’d recommend it as a read for anyone who loves someone, and, more importantly, to anyone who thinks perhaps they no longer love someone. Reading ‘My Everything’ might just change your perception of what you really want in life. I can’t praise it highly enough.

Roof Top Book Club

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It was lovely to be able to attend the first ever Roof Top Book Club (@RoofTopBookclub) on Wednesday 19th August with support from Team Bookends (@TeamBookends) and James Villa Holidays (@jamesvillasuk).

Many of the hard working publicists were there making sure we all had a really good evening. The audience comprised fans, other authors (like @LaurieEllingham) and bloggers so there was plenty of talk about books!

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The stars of the show were three wonderful authors Tasmina Perry, Stella Newman and Jo Thomas who entertained us with some very revealing stories concerning food, mime artists and three legged cats.

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We heard about their writing routines, their holiday packing tips, which of their characters they might like to murder and what we can see coming up in the future. They graciously chatted to us all individually too, signing books for us.

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Their latest books are brilliant:

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The Olive Branch

With nibbles, goody bags and cocktails it was a perfect evening.

Meet Jo Thomas on Facebook

Follow Stella Newman’s blog

See Tasmina’s website