Introducing A Painter in Penang by Clare Flynn

I have quite a bit going on in my life at the moment and had intended to take a complete 10 day break from blogging, but when I heard that Love Books Group was holding a one day blog blitz for lovely Clare Flynn’s brand new book, A Painter in Penang, I knew I had to participate. Clare was last on the Linda’s Book Bag earlier in the year when she was celebrating The Pearl of Penang‘s publication. You can read what happened on that occasion here.

Having stayed in with me to chat about The Alien Corn in a post you can see here, Clare also featured on the blog when she wrote a fabulous guest post about the North South divide when The Green Ribbons was published. You can see that post here.

Clare’s A Painter in Penang was published on 6th October 2020 and is available for purchase here.

A Painter in Penang

Sixteen-year-old Jasmine Barrington hates everything about living in Kenya and longs to return to the island of Penang in British colonial Malaya where she was born. Expulsion from her Nairobi convent school offers a welcome escape – the chance to stay with her parents’ friends, Mary and Reggie Hyde-Underwood on their Penang rubber estate.

But this is 1948 and communist insurgents are embarking on a reign of terror in what becomes the Malayan Emergency. Jasmine unearths a shocking secret as her own life is put in danger. Throughout the turmoil, her one constant is her passion for painting.

From the international best-selling and award-winning author of The Pearl of Penang, this is a dramatic coming of age story, set against the backdrop of a tropical paradise torn apart by civil war.

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I miss travel so much and having been through Nairobi several times and having been to Penang relatively recently I have a feeling that A Painter in Penang might be just teh book to transport me back!

About Clare Flynn

Historical novelist Clare Flynn is a former global marketing director and business owner. She now lives in Eastbourne on the south coast of England and most of her time these days is spent writing her novels – when she’s not gazing out of her windows at the sea.

Clare is the author of eleven novels and a short story collection. Her books deal with displacement – her characters are wrenched away from their comfortable existences and forced to face new challenges – often in outposts of an empire which largely disappeared after WW2.

Clare’s novels often feature places she knows well and she does extensive research to build the period and geographic flavour of her books. A Greater World – 1920s Australia; Kurinji Flowers – pre-Independence India; Letters from a Patchwork Quilt – nineteenth century industrial England and the USA; The Green Ribbons – the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century in rural England, The Chalky Sea – World War II England (and Canada) and its sequels The Alien Corn and The Frozen River – post WW2 Canada. She has also published a collection of short stories – both historical and contemporary, A Fine Pair of Shoes and Other Stories.

Fluent in Italian, she loves spending time in Italy. In her spare time she likes to quilt, paint and travel as often and as widely as possible. She is an active member of the Historical Novel Society, the Romantic Novelists Association, The Society of Authors, NINC and the Alliance of Independent Authors.

For more information about Clare, visit her website, where you will find a free copy of Clare’s exclusive short story collection, A Fine Pair of Shoes, follow her on Twitter @clarefly and find her on Facebook.

The Deepings Literary Festival Presents November Nights

As regular Linda’s Book Bag readers know, I’m lucky enough to be involved with The Deepings Literary Festival and you can see what happened to me last year here. Following a very successful Read Dating in Bourne early in 2020 we should have had a second event in May at Deeping Community Library this year but unsurprisingly Covid 19 had other ideas! You can read all about the authors we had lined up and find out about their books here.

In spite of international events we are very much still here and planning for our next festival in 2021 which is due to take place from 28th April to 2nd May where we have a proposed line up that so far includes, amongst others, R.C.Bridgestock, Clara Barley, William Shaw, John Marrs, Jane E. James, Pam Rhodes, Milly Johnson, Ian Macmillan, Dorothy Koomson, Francis Pryor and Adam Croft. Whilst we hope this may be a real festival we have plans in place for a virtual event if need be!

Before then, however, we are delighted to offer three brilliant free events in our November Nights:

November Nights

A series of free online events over three Saturday evenings in November are set to be a trail blazer for the 2021 Deepings Literary Festival. We have a trio of best selling authors lined up to talk about their latest work and answer your questions too!

Join us in a Zoom conversation with Louise Doughty, Alison Bruce and Elly Griffiths where you’ll have the opportunity to hear the authors read from their books and participate in a question and answer session.

You’ll find all three events here

Saturday 14th November 6.30PM-7.30PM: Louise Doughty

Saturday 21st November 2020 6.30-7.30PM: Alison Bruce

Saturday 28th November 2020 6.30-7.30PM: Elly Griffiths

Saturday 14th November 6.30PM-7.30PM: Louise Doughty

A previous Deepings Literary Festival sell-out speaker, author Louise Doughty is a critic and cultural commentator for both UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly on the BBC. Her work has been translated into thirty languages. She lives in London.

Louise’s Black Water, was published in 2016 to critical acclaim in the UK and US, where it was nominated as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her seventh, bestseller Apple Tree Yard, was adapted as a four-part drama for BBC One. Her sixth novel, Whatever You Love, was nominated for the Costa Novel Award and the Orange Prize for fiction and she has been nominated for many other awards including the Sunday Times Short Story Prize.

Her ninth book, Platform Seven, is set on Peterborough Station.

Saturday 21st November 2020 6.30-7.30PM: Alison Bruce

A wonderful Deepings Literary Festival supporter, Alison Bruce is the author of eight crime novels and two non-fiction titles. Her first novel, Cambridge Blue (2008), described by Publishers Weekly as an ‘assured debut’ introduced both detective, DC Gary Goodhew, and her trademark Cambridge setting. She went on to write six further novels in the DC Goodhew series before writing the psychological thriller I Did It for Us.

Her work has attracted both critical acclaim and a loyal readership. In 2013 and 2016 Alison was short-listed for the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library Award.

The other books in the DC Goodhew series are The Siren (2010), The Calling (2011), The Silence (2012), The Backs (2013), The Promise (2016) and Cambridge Black (2017). Other works include two true crime books and a selection of short stories.

Alison is the patron of Lakenheath Library in Suffolk. She teaches creative writing and has completed a BSc in Crime and Investigation at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. She has two children, Lana and Dean, and five cats (Ben, Zorro, Chile, Zenith and Solo). In her spare time she is a rock ‘n’ roll DJ.

Her new novel, The Moment Before Impact, will be published in March 2021.

Saturday 28th November 2020 6.30-7.30PM: Elly Griffiths

The Deepings Literary Festival is delighted to welcome their newly announced Patron, award winning and best-selling author, Elly Griffiths, to November Nights.

Elly Griffiths worked in publishing before becoming a full-time writer. She lives near Brighton with her husband, an archaeologist, and their two grown children.

Her series of Dr Ruth Galloway novels, featuring a forensic archaeologist, are set in Norfolk and regularly hit the Sunday Times top ten in hardback and paperback. The series has won the CWA Dagger in the Library and has been shortlisted three times for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. There are twelve books in the series so far with number thirteen,  The Night Hawk, out on 4th February 2021.

Her Brighton-based mystery series set in the 1950s and 1960s is inspired partly by her grandfather’s life on the stage and the war magician Jasper Maskelyne, who claimed to have spent the war creating large scale illusions to misdirect the enemy. One of the two leading characters in the series Max Mephisto is based on Maskelyne.

In 2017 she was the Programming Chair of Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Festival in Harrogate, the oldest and best-established crime fiction festival in the UK.

In 2018 Elly wrote her first standalone novel The Stranger Diaries. The novel was a top 10 paperback bestseller, selected for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club and as a summer 2019 Richard and Judy book.

In 2019 Elly published her first children’s book in spring 2019 to great reviews with a second recently published.

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We really excited to welcome such hugely talented authors and hope you’ll be able to join us in November. We’d love your questions for Louise, Alison and Elly too so that the event really belongs to readers. If you’d like to leave a question in the comments here you would be very welcome and they can be emailed to the festival after you’ve signed up to the event. Don’t forget to sign up here. See you in November!

A Publication Day Extract from Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad

I can’t believe it’s two and a half years since Dan Klefstad featured on Linda’s Book Bag. Then I interviewed Dan about his first novel, Shepherd and the Professor. You can read that interview here. Dan’s latest book, Fiona’s Guardians, is out today and I’m delighted he has allowed me to feature an extract from the beginning of the book.

Published today, 2nd October 2020, Fiona’s Guardians is available for purchase here.

Fiona’s Guardians

When a vampire seduces you, death is minutes away. When she hires you, you’ll soon wish you were dead.

It’s a truth known to every guardian who worked for Fiona, including Daniel. Aside from managing the day to day chores and keeping her protected, he manages an investment portfolio to buy stolen blood from hospital workers. The 250-year-old Fiona needs 10 pints of human blood every night. As a result of this, Daniel and Fiona are always on the lookout for police, but fail to notice their gradual encirclement by Mors Strigae, an ancient order of monks dedicated to the extermination of vampires. Gone for a century, the monks start a new war when they destroy Fiona’s sire. This time, her vampire family is pushed to the edge of extinction — and the humans who serve them are hunted and executed.

After 35 years, what keeps him loyal? And will he ever be allowed to leave?

An Extract from Fiona’s Guardians

MESSAGE FROM FIONA

Hello mortal. I’m touched by your interest in those who work for me and those who used to. A handful truly deserve to be remembered in a book that never goes out of print. Their loyalty and talent are the reason I’ve existed for two and a half centuries. A few, however, earned the painful and premature deaths detailed in these pages. For me, loyalty comes first and must be constant. That’s not to say a partnership with me can’t end in mutual agreement. It just never happened before. Still, I may allow my current guardian to retire. After serving longer than any other, he might well live his remaining years in a manner of his choosing. This would create an opportunity for another to earn his substantial salary and benefits. But a warning is in order: The work is as relentless and unsparing as my hunger, and everyone I employed has murdered at least once on my behalf. Not that this is the preferred option. There are other, less extreme ways to obtain blood for me, and Daniel built a robust network that can be handed off to a successor. He’s in the car now, looking at his watch, wondering when we can go home to his decanter of scotch. From what I see, nothing in your cabinet would satisfy him so, rest assured, I won’t leave with any of your bottles.

I see you’ve been reading job postings. Do not ask if I offer a retirement plan. In truth, I’ve never understood the concept. Each evening I awake knowing I’m the chief executive for extending my life, so ceasing work would amount to suicide. But this is what Daniel wants, and I owe him for that time he saved me from dying. It’s in the book.

My favorite chapters feature Agripina, the one who created me. Driven by hunger, she brought me to the edge of death but changed her mind when I started turning blue. She claimed she saw something worth preserving: a simple, unselfish nature that disappeared when she opened a vein for me. Since that moment, the only feeling I’ve known, besides adoration for her, is a craving that never ceases. That is, until the instant I tasted regret – the perpetual pain of guilt — at not being with her when our enemies reappeared. They’re in here, too. And so is my revenge.

Go ahead, indulge your curiosity. When you finish reading, I’ll visit again and make myself visible. You’ll find me sitting in that chair over there, and we can talk about your future.

Until then,
F. 

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I don’t know about you, but I find that really creepy. If you’d like to see Dan read from the opening of Fiona’s Guardians click here.

About Dan Klefstad

danauthor

Dan Klefstad is a writer and broadcaster. He works on WNIJ providing the latest news, weather and other information, with the goal of seamlessly weaving this content into NPR’s Morning Edition.

Dan is especially interested in literature from the WNIJ area, and interviews writers for Morning Edition and records them reading excerpts.

You can follow Dan on Twitter @danklefstad and find him on Facebook. You’ll find much more on Dan’s YouTube channel here.

The Stolen Sisters by Louise Jensen

My enormous thanks to Isabel Smith at Harper Collins for inviting me to be part of the launch celebrations for Louise Jensen’s The Stolen Sisters and for sending me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Louise is a very welcome author on Linda’s Book Bag and has featured here several times. Most recently I stayed in with Louise writing under her pseudonym Amelia Henley to celebrate the publication of The Life We Almost Had in a post you can read here. I also reviewed The Life We Almost Had here.

I reviewed Louise’s The Family here and it was one of my books of the year last year.

The Stolen Sisters is published today, 1st October 2020, by Harper Collins imprint HQ and is available for purchase through the links here.

The Stolen Sisters

Sisterhood binds them. Trauma defines them. Will secrets tear them apart?

Leah’s perfect marriage isn’t what it seems but the biggest lie of all is that she’s learned to live with what happened all those years ago. Marie drinks a bit too much to help her forget. And Carly has never forgiven herself for not keeping them safe.

Twenty years ago the Sinclair sisters were taken. But what came after their return was far worse. Can a family ever recover, especially when not everyone is telling the truth…?

My Review of The Stolen Sisters

Childhood experiences affect adult lives.

Oh my word! I so enjoyed The Stolen Sisters. It’s an absolute corker of a read that I simply couldn’t tear myself away from.

At the beginning I wasn’t sure I’d appreciate a narrative that had three sister perspectives as well as George’s because I often find I need to concentrate too hard to follow multiple voices. However, such is the skill of Louise Jensen’s writing that I had no difficulty in not just following, but relishing immensely, the interweaving narratives. Indeed, I thought Louise Jensen’s plotting in The Stolen Sisters was magnificent. It’s a real masterclass for all aspiring thriller writers and thoroughly exciting for readers. The then and now structure, and the different character perspectives, all add up to a roller-coaster read that I found completely mesmerising. With some chapters only a few lines long, the pace is dramatic and I lost count of the number of times my reader expectations were inverted or confounded so that I found myself exclaiming aloud. Frequently my heart was thumping as the tension mounted. Each chapter ends dramatically so that I had no autonomy over my responses. I simply had to read on.

The Sinclair sisters are clear and distinct characters in spite of Leah and Marie being twins. I thought the way their shared experience affected then differently was utterly brilliant and the manner in which Louise Jensen uncovers the reasons for their differences is genius. I can’t explain more because that would be to give plot spoilers but I would say that readers should be prepared to be jolted out of their beliefs and to discover new things as they read.

Aside from a being a brilliant, fast paced thriller, The Stolen Sisters is a humane and sensitive insight into families, relationships, guilt, mental health, love and fear so that it is a multi-layered and wonderfully textured read. Louise Jensen presents both the prosaic and the unusual in tandem, and weaves a narrative that is compelling, affecting and riveting. There are elements that readers will recognise as well as aspects they may never have heard of before. Again, I don’t want to explain too much as it will spoil the read, but I felt I understood Carly, Leah, Marie and George perfectly by the end.

I realise that this review of The Stolen Sisters is somewhat inadequate and vague, but I really don’t want to undermine any other readers’ enjoyment and entertainment by saying too much. For me the novel was the perfect blend of threat, emotion, resolution and understanding. Louise Jensen is fast becoming one of my favourite writers because not only does she produce fiction with immense skill, she does so with heart and soul too. I thought The Stolen Sisters was superb. I loved every moment of reading it and cannot recommend it highly enough.

About Louise Jensen

Louise Jensen

Louise Jensen has sold over a million English language copies of her International No. 1 psychological thrillers The SisterThe GiftThe Surrogate, The Date and The Family. Her novels have also been translated into twenty-five languages, as well as featuring on the USA Today and Wall Street Journal Bestseller’s List. Louise’s sixth thriller, The Stolen Sisters is published on 1st October by Harper Collins.

The Sister was nominated for the Goodreads Debut of 2016 Award. The Date was nominated for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize 2018. The Surrogate has been nominated for the best Polish thriller of 2018. The Gift has been optioned for a TV film.

Louise lives with her husband, children, madcap dog and a rather naughty cat in Northamptonshire. She loves to hear from readers and writers.

You can find out more by visiting Louise’s website, finding her on Facebook and following her on Twitter @Fab_fiction.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

Is Everything We Write A Coming-Of-Age Story?: A Guest Post by Leslie Tate, Author of Love’s Register

It’s a while since Leslie Tate last featured on Linda’s Book Bag when he was celebrating his book Violet in a post you can read here. When Blue was published Leslie provided another superb piece and I reviewed his story Cross-Dressing from Heaven’s Rage. You’ll find that blog post here.

Leslie’s latest book, Love’s Register, will be published in October and you can pre-order a signed copy here.

Love’s Register

Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations.

Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair.

Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.

IS EVERYTHING WE WRITE A COMING-OF-AGE STORY?

A Guest Post by Leslie Tate

Books come out of mindsets. In the case of my new novel, Love’s Register, I grew up as an author while writing it.

When I started, I believed I was producing something spectacular that would make my name and stand the test of time. Now, after 14 years of revision and republishing, I realise that achieving either is beside the point. A book follows its own logic; the writer’s task is to see it through.

I was fortunate to be published by small presses. It allowed me to find my feet as a writer, and at first the book grew as three separate novels. It also meant I escaped the standard big-five ‘heavy edit’ (see here). But by the final version, I’d recast everything while adding new characters and storylines.

My original mindset 14 years ago was youthfully naïve. I believed that the ‘literary coaching industry’ had neutered our writing, focusing on crime, the teen-talk book, historical commentaries or the stripped-down dirty realist story. By way of contrast, my ‘60s book, Aphrodite’s Children, was going to use complex, lyrical language in order to dramatize the hidden psychology of the era. I imagined I was saying yah boo sucks to fashion and genre.

But I was also over-cautious, inserting repeat phrases and labouring time/place shifts, covering the jumps with too many connecting phrases. Later, with more confidence, I learned to cut from scene to scene and take out all redundancies. The rule is: say it once then move on. And when the story fires up, it’s better to burn up than fade away. Too much signposting what’s happening and ‘keeping the reader onside’ doesn’t work.

My next step was Frontliners, a story about open relationships and left-wing politics in the 80s/90s. This was written by my ‘teenage’ self, so it needed less mirror-gazing, more character in action.

I was lucky enough to be able to rewrite both books – republished as Purple and Blue – adding in links between characters and stylistic experiments. When I finally wrote Violet, the third in the trilogy, my mindset had become ‘adult’ and closed off, i.e. I believed my task was done.

I’d made myself into one of those grownups who say “I don’t do that” or ‘That’s not for me.” I was climbing into a space of my own and drawing up the ladder behind me. But really, I was blocking. When I looked again, I was shocked at how much cutting and reshaping my novels needed. There was plenty to fix, lots to expand on.

The child got the better of me and I started rewriting again. I had to dig deep and question every word but in the end I was lucky enough to find a publisher, TSLBooks, willing to go for it. So I had my third and final shot at writing the big novel that says something about who we are. It came out at 226,000 words with cross-referenced backstories, several protagonists and sections spanning four generations. It also examined creativity, resistance, psychological learning and how we tell the stories that direct us.

Perhaps all novel writing is a coming-of-age story. It’s certainly a trial and error thing. In the process of writing and promoting our work we may find ourselves in a room on our own or bigging ourselves up in a bargain basement.  Some authors learn the ‘rules’, others go it alone, many give up. If the main myth of our times is the rise and fall of the wunderkind, then we’re all individualists on mission impossible.  For me, to record that journey may be risky and the mindset complex but what counts is the person we become – and the qualities that brings to a book.

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That’s fascinating Leslie. Thank you so much for the insight into your writing life. I have a feeling we all need to remember the child latent within us on occasion and not only in writing.

About Leslie Tate

jEMMA leslie-6

(Photo by Jemma Driver)

Leslie Tate is an ex-student of the UEA Creative Writing Course, and the author of six novels. Leslie’s website offers book and personal information plus weekly interviews with creative and community-involved people.

To find out more about Leslie, visit his website, find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @LSTateAuthor.

A Publication Day Extract from The Entitled by Nancy Boyarsky

I can’t believe it’s almost two years to the day that I stayed in with Nancy Boyarsky to chat all about her novel Liar Liar. You can see that event here. Today I’m delighted to host an extract from Nancy’s latest book in her P.I. Nicole Graves series, The Entitled.

Published today, 29th September 2020, by Light Messages Publishing, The Entitled is available for purchase through the links here.

The Entitled

P.I. Nicole Graves’ latest assignment sends her to London to retrieve Abigail Fletcher, a 17-year-old in a study abroad program at the prestigious King’s College in London. The assignment sounds simple enough. But Abigail’s return is put on indefinite hold when she’s charged with the murder of her boyfriend, a former student at King’s.

Nicole believes Abigail has been framed, but the victim’s tight-knit circle of friends and relatives are most unwilling to talk to an American detective. Further complicating the case, is Abigail’s defiant and uncooperative demeanor. As evidence stacks up against Abigail, Nicole discovers that she herself has become the next target.

Nicole’s first solo case abroad as a private detective has just turned a lot more deadly than she ever anticipated.

An Extract from The Entitled

Nicole gave her name and explained that she was a P.I. hired by Abigail’s parents to bring the girl back to L.A. When she was done, she repeated her question. “What does this murder have to do with Abigail?”

“We don’t know that it does,” Norton said. “Miss Fletcher was acquainted with the victim. She was caught on CCTV entering his building around the time of his death. An earlier video showed her having an altercation with him on the street. We found Mr. Malouf’s mobile near his body and called the last number he’d dialed, which was Miss Fletcher’s. We’re hoping she can help us with our inquiries. We also need her fingerprints.”

“Fingerprints?” Nicole didn’t like the sound of this. “Why?”

“To eliminate her as a suspect.”

“Is she a suspect?” Nicole said.

“We are just beginning our investigation,” he said stiffly. “At this point, everyone is a suspect.”

Abigail was sitting motionless on the chair where they’d seated her. She looked completely gob smacked. To Nicole, it was unthinkable that this young girl—spoiled as she was— wascapable of murder. But she hardly knew Abigail and had no idea what she was capable of. It was already apparent she had a bad temper.

“How was he killed?” Nicole said.

“I’m not at liberty to say.” Norton seemed impatient to move on. “We’re here because we need Miss Fletcher to come to the station and answer a few questions.”

“Come to the station?” Nicole said. “Look at her! This poor girl was savagely beaten last night, and she’s under the care of a doctor. He’s supposed to stop by this morning to look at her again. In addition to that, she’s in shock because she just learned that her boyfriend is dead. Why can’t you question her later, when she’s recovered a bit?”

Norton didn’t answer. He was giving the room a closer look. Nicole wondered if he’d even heard her. Just then, he spotted the blood-stained coat draped over the end of the couch and paused. “Hello,” he said, like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. “What do we have here?” Nicole instantly regretted that she’d neglected to fold the coat lining-side-out after showing it to the doctor.

Norton pulled a pair of latex gloves out of his pocket, put them on, and picked up the coat for closer inspection. “Who does this belong to?”

Nicole hesitated, realizing how this would look. But there was no denying whose coat it was. “It’s Abigail’s. As I told you, she was attacked last night,” she said. “Surely you noticed her swollen eye. The doctor thought she might have had a nosebleed.”

Norton reached into the closet for a clean laundry bag—he seemed quite familiar with the hotel’s amenities—and put the coat inside. “Follow us downstairs,” he said. “We’ll take you to the station.”

“What about her injuries?”

Norton turned to Abigail. “Are you in need of medical attention? We can take you to A&E before you come to the station.”

“I’m fine,” Abigail said. “I’m not going to the hospital, and I’m not going to any police station either. We have other plans.”

“I’m afraid you haven’t a choice, Miss Fletcher,” he said. “In a murder investigation, we have the right to bring you to the station and question you.”

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Now isn’t that intriguing? The Entitled sounds a cracker!

About Nancy Boyarsky

Nancy Boyarsky is the bestselling author of the award-winning Nicole Graves Mysteries, of which The Entitled is the fifth in the series. The Entitled is on Apple Books list of most anticipated fall books of 2020. Nancy’s first mystery, The Swap, won a gold medal in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards.

Before turning to mysteries, Nancy coauthored Backroom Politics, a New York Times notable book, with her husband, Bill Boyarsky. She has written several textbooks on the justice system as well as articles for publications including the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and McCall’s. She also contributed to political anthologies, including In the Running, about women’s political campaigns. In addition to her writing career, she was communications director for political affairs for ARCO.

You can find out more about Nancy by visiting her website, or finding her on Facebook.

The Italian Girls by Debbie Rix

My enormous thanks to Sarah Hardy at Books on the Bright Side publicity for inviting me to participate in the launch celebrations of The Italian Girls by Debbie Rix. It’s a privilege to help start off the tour today by sharing my review.

The Italian Girls is published today, 28th September 2020, by Bookouture and is available for purchase here.

The Italian Girls

The sun hung low in the sky, casting pink light all over the city. A faint breeze blew over the rooftops, as flocks of starlings swirled above her, swooping and diving in unison. It seemed unimaginable that, even now, German soldiers were marching along the streets below. It was time, she decided, for direct action. It was time to fight back.

Each morning Livia Moretti makes her way from an apartment overlooking Florence’s famous Duomo to a nearby café, where she drinks espresso and reads the newspaper. To the crowds of tourists who pass by, snapping selfies, nothing about Livia will be memorable. She is simply an old lady. They walk on without knowing the part she played in ensuring the future of this beautiful city. And to Livia now, those dark days feel very far away too.

But today, when she opens the paper, she sees a name she has not heard for a long time. A name that will bring memories flooding back of Nazi troops marching through the city and the dangers she faced as a young woman, carrying out secret missions for the resistance.

Isabella Bellucci.

A siren of the silver screen, Isabella cultivated all the right connections to ensure her rise to stardom. But when Rome falls to the Nazis, Isabella is suddenly faced with the choice between protecting herself, and all she has worked for, or sacrificing everything to save the man she loves.

As the war rages across Europe, a terrible misunderstanding causes the fates of Isabella and Livia to become forever intertwined. And each woman must decide what they’re willing to risk, to protect the ones they hold dear from a brutal enemy.

Inspired by the incredible true stories of two women in wartime Italy, this is a heart-wrenching and unforgettable tale of love, resistance, betrayal and hope. Fans of Kate Furnivall, Fiona Valpy and My Name is Eva will be absolutely gripped by this sweeping Second World War novel.

My Review of The Italian Girls

Isabella and Livia’s lives are inextricably linked.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Italian Girls because it is a sweeping, historical tale with credible, vibrant characters written by Debbie Rix with panache and authenticity.

I confess that I’m rather more hazy about Italy’s role in WW2 than I should be and what I so enjoyed about The Italian Girls was the level of historical detail and accuracy that truly brought the narrative to life. Here is a story that gives the reader a real insight into the lives of ordinary people like Livia and her family as well as the more glamorous aspects pertaining to Isabella, as Debbie Rix skilfully illustrates how everyone was affected by events and had a role to play. I found Isabella more difficult to empathise with and yet it was she who had my greatest sympathy in the closing pages of the novel. I found myself so drawn in to her story that my views and feelings were altered by my reading.

I think what is so powerful about The Italian Girls is that whilst there are Counts and officers, lawyers and doctors, housewives and students, each character, no matter how fleeting or important, feels like someone who could have existed. Several times I found myself wondering how I might have behaved had I found myself in their circumstances. This extra layer of interest was fascinating. I love a book that makes me question my own values and potential in the way The Italian Girls does.

I thoroughly appreciated the quality of the writing too. Whilst I’m not usually a fan of dual narratives, I thought the balance between Livia and Isabella, Florence and Rome was extremely well achieved so that the book flowed perfectly. The poetic nature of some of the descriptions and Debbie Rix’s ability to suggest some of the more cruel elements rather than giving all the gory details thoroughly appealed to my reader taste and I found the plot both captivating and exciting. There’s an intriguing sense of menace as well as hope as both Livia and Isabella strive to come to terms with the changes in their lives that I found captivating.

I found the themes really engaging. Obviously war is at the forefront, driving the narrative, but its the exploration of loyalty and betrayal, trust and fear, love and passion, friends and family that makes The Italian Girls such a brilliant book. I was filled with admiration for Livia and her father particularly.

I haven’t read Debbie Rix before and I rather think I have been missing out if The Italian Girls is indicative of her atmospheric and engaging writing. I really, really enjoyed this book and recommend it most highly.

About Debbie Rix

Debbie Rix has had a long career in journalism, including working as a presenter for the BBC. Her first novel, The Girl with Emerald Eyes was set around the building of the tower of Pisa and she has since released Daughters of the Silk Road and The Silk Weaver’s Wife. Debbie writes heartbreaking historical novels about love, tragedy and secrets.

For more information about Debbie, visit her website, find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @debbierix.

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Two Besides by Alan Bennett

Having taught Alan Bennett’s original Talking Heads to an adult A’Level group at the local college many years ago I have a soft spot for these fabulous works and couldn’t believe it when I heard two new pieces had been written. My enormous thanks to Anna-Marie Fitzgerald at Profile Books for sending me a copy of Alan Bennett’s Two Besides in return for an honest review. I was thrilled to receive it and am still looking forward to finding time to watch the BBC Talking Heads series which was broadcast earlier this year.

Published by Faber and Profile Books on 1st October 2020, Two Besides is available for pre-order online and in all good bookshops, including through the links here.

Two Besides

‘Given the opportunity to revisit the characters from Talking Heads I’ve added a couple more, both of them ordinary women whom life takes by surprise. They just about end up on top and go on, but without quite knowing how. Still, they’re in good company, and at least they’ve made it into print.’

Alan Bennett’s twelve Talking Heads are acknowledged masterworks by one of our most highly acclaimed writers. Some thirty years after the original sixBennett has written Two Besides, a pair of monologues. Each, in its way, is a devastating portrait of grief. In An Ordinary Woman, a mother suffers the inevitable consequences when she makes life intolerable for herself and her family by falling for her own flesh and blood; while The Shrine tells the story behind a makeshift roadside shrine, introducing us to Lorna, bearing witness in her high-vis jacket, the bereft partner of a dedicated biker with a surprising private life.

The two new Talking Heads were recorded for the BBC during the exceptional circumstances of coronavirus lockdown in the spring of 2020, directed by Nicholas Hytner and performed by Sarah Lancashire and Monica Dolan.

The book contains a substantial preface by Nicholas Hytner and an introduction to each, by Alan Bennett.

My Review of Two Besides

Two new ‘Talking Heads’.

What an absolute gem of a book. I loved every moment of reading Two Besides. Before I review properly, I would say I think it best to read An Ordinary Woman and The Shrine before reading the introduction by Nicholas Hytner as he refers to them in his piece and it might colour the reading experience.

The introductory Talking Heads – How They Happened by Nicholas Hytner is absolutely fascinating. I still haven’t got round to watching the series produced for the BBC, although I have them recorded, but this introduction has made me desperate to find the time. I was completely absorbed in the production process of a Covid world with everything from casting to sound, make up and music explained clearly and interestingly. There’s a reverence and affection for Alan Bennett’s writing and skill that shines through the pages too which gives a real warmth to the book.

However, excellent introduction aside, it is, of course, Alan Bennett’s utter brilliance as a writer that makes these two new narratives in Two Besides so compelling. His distinctive authorial voice, his ability to look into the very soul of his characters, his sublime use of sentence variety and structure gives an authentic cadence that places the reader in intimate contact with the characters. It is as if they are speaking directly to you, making the reader as much part of the story as they are.

In both An Ordinary Woman and The Shrine we have universal and identifiable themes of love and desire, moral acceptability and abhorrence, a sense of self and otherness that rings with emotion so that whilst characters may behave badly or foolishly, they have our utmost sympathy. Both Gwen and Lorna could so easily be a member of our families, a neighbour or a friend. I read both An Ordinary Woman and The Shrine desperate for Gwen and Lorna to triumph.

In Two Besides Alan Bennett writes with a raw understanding of humanity that is astounding. I think any reader picking up Two Besides and not feeling emotionally affected by its contents must be almost inhuman. I loved this book unreservedly.

About Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett has been a leading dramatist since Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His works for stage and screen include Talking Heads, Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, A Question of Attribution, The Madness of George III, an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, The History Boys, The Habit of Art, People, Hymn, Cocktail Sticks and Allelujah! His collections of prose are Writing Home, Untold Stories (PEN/Ackerley Prize, 2006) and Keeping On, Keeping On. Six Poets contains Bennett’s selection of English verse, accompanied by his commentary. His recent fiction includes The Uncommon Reader and Smut: Two Unseemly Stories.

Scruff by Alice Bowsher

A little while ago a surprise parcel of children’s books arrived from lovely Lefki at Cicada Books and today I’m reviewing the first – Scruff by Alice Bowsher.

Scruff is available for purchase here.

Scruff

I wanted a dog… This one was perfect! Nobody wanted him because he looked scruffy…. but I m a scruffy guy so that suited me just fine.

After picking out the scruffiest dog at the pound, the narrator is surprised to find that Scruff isn’t what he initially seemed. He doesn’t want to catch sticks… or roll in the mud or swim in the pond. What could be the problem? It turns out that Scruff just loves being pampered!

So the narrator goes along with it. They wash, brush, trim and polish together, until they are anything but scruffy! In their newly groomed state they go to the dog show… and win the prize for the dog that looks most like its owner!

A funny story that is sure to charm dog-mad little ones and their parents.

My Review of Scruff

Scruff and his owner need a haircut.

I always like to comment on the physical properties of children’s books and Alice Bowsher’s Scruff is robust and durable with a cover that would easily wipe clean from sticky fingers, making it ideal for home or school use. The illustrations are naive in style, appealing to young children, whilst being entertaining and supportive of the text, helping language acquisition, as well as being funny. I loved the fact that Scruff’s owner is not Caucasian as this helps celebrate diversity and shows young children that people of all ethnicities have status.  The majority of the other people in the book are multi-cultural in appearance too.

There’s a smashing story in Scruff that celebrates being different and helps children explore how we judge (quite literally) by appearances. Scruff does not behave like ‘normal’ dogs and I very much liked the concept of being individual because too frequently children are expected to behave as an homogeneous mass. The ending to the story shows clearly that we all have a talent for something even if it isn’t necessarily what we set out to do so that children can learn to accept themselves and find their own winning ways.

Scruff is an entertaining and informative book that could lead to all kinds of further child development as well as being enjoyed just as a story. I could envisage counting the dogs and owners at the dog show, looking for pictures of animals that look like people and finding out about them, talking about how to look after pets, producing artwork of pets and animals and so on. Scruff is a small book that packs a punch.

About Alice Bowsher

Alice Bowsher is an illustrator based in south-east London who has worked on numerous projects.

For more information, visit Alice’s website. You can follow Alice on Twitter @abowsh.

Penguin Beach by Lawrence Prestidge

My enormous thanks to Jade Callaway for offering me a copy of children’s book Penguin Beach by Lawrence Prestidge in return for an honest review which I am delighted to share today.

Penguin Beach is published by Matador Children’s Books and is available for purchase through the links here.

Penguin Beach

Clyde loves being a penguin! He’s the star of the show at London Zoo’s Penguin Beach, delighting visitors every day. From the way he waddles, to his tuxedo-like feathers, no one can resist the loveable charms of Clyde the penguin. That is, until Diego, a new penguin from Spain, arrives. Why do the visitors love his back-flips and leaps so much? And why are the other penguins so impressed by him?

Clyde must come up with a plan to drive Diego out and claim the top spot again. This is his beach. This is his spotlight. However, his mischievous plans have gone too far and Diego may be in danger. Clyde and his penguin friends go on a mission to find Diego.

Will they find him, or will the pythons, gorillas and a trio of ‘bad guys’ get in their way?

My Review of Penguin Beach

A new penguin in the zoo might just cause a few problems!

I’m going to begin by mentioning a tiny negative that I want to get out of the way before my review proper. There are a couple of cultural references, such as a mention of Downton Abbey, in Penguin Beach that I think will be lost on its readership as they would be too young to have encountered them. Having said that, we older readers who might be sharing the book with a young person will enjoy them and I certainly found myself sniggering.

Penguin Beach is really fun with a fast paced, dynamic plot that romps along. There’s humour, peril and drama as animals and humans clash and interact. The illustrations are excellent and not only give great visual appeal, but they will help support less confident independent readers, as will the short chapters, because not only do they add to the pace, but they mean a young reader can have the satisfaction of reading a complete section independently. The language is so expertly used by Lawrence Prestidge in Penguin Beach because where more challenging words are used, their context makes them understandable so that children will enjoy a story and learn at the same time.

However, it is the combination of character and theme that makes Penguin Beach such a success. With gender, race and implied sexuality cleverly woven into the narrative, children will recognise, either overtly or subliminally, characters they are aware of in their own lives so that they can explore issues and reach an understanding without even realising they are doing so as they are entertained. The bullying snake Cuddles is dealt with through others supporting one another, the outsider Taddy simply wants to find friends and have someone notice her, the human bully Benjamin is shown to be a completely different person when faced with his mum, Clyde behaves unkindly and badly when he feels his role is being threatened and so on. What Lawrence Prestidge does so well is to exemplify why people (or in this case animals) behave the way they do and to show that it is possible to change and to create friendships even with those who seems to threaten us or who are very different from us. The major theme of family is just lovely too.

I really enjoyed Penguin Beach and whilst Miles’ routine in Primates Got Talent might not be the kind of act I’d like to see to much of (you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is…), I can envisage children being absolutely delighted with it. Penguin Beach is enormously entertaining, accessible and the kind of book that even reluctant readers will enjoy.

About Lawrence Prestidge

Lawrence Prestidge is a popular children’s author originally from Oxfordshire, best known for his children’s novel Terror at the Sweet Shop. Educated at the University of Bedfordshire, Lawrence has previously worked with Disney as well as theatres across London. Lawrence visits many different Primary and Secondary schools throughout the year and travels all around the country doing so. He is the author of four children’s books. Lawrence has spoke candidly on BBC Radio stations about how his love of writing helped him deal with depression.
You can find out more by visiting Lawrence’s website. You’ll also follow Lawrence on Twitter @LPrestidge7, and find him on Facebook or Instagram.