Thursday, 31 May 2012

Debut novelist Madeline Miller wins 2012 Orange Prize

A more than worthy winner – original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her.”

Those were the words of Joanna Trollope, chair of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction judges, last night when she announced this year’s winner – Madeline Miller.

American writer and Latin teacher Miller won the £30,000 prize for The Song of Achilles, the debut novel she spent ten years working on. A captivating, lyrical book, it takes the legendary love affair of Achilles and his best friend Patroclus and brings it alive for a 21st century audience. It’s a sparkling novel that, as Trollope remarked, will appeal to readers of all ages. And not only that, it undoubtedly fulfils the Orange Prize criteria of excellence, originality and accessibility.

When Trollope announced the six shortlisted novels for the award back in March, she referred to their “remarkable quality and variety.” I’ve read all of them now and she’s right. The judges apparently spent three hours deliberating on who should win and it was only at midnight on Monday that they finally came to their decision.

I loved Miller’s novel but if I’m honest I loved two of the other contenders more - The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I first came across Enright’s book when it was Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and her smooth, elegant prose stopped me in my tracks. The novel chronicles a love affair that wrecks two Dublin marriages and is a stunning read.

Meanwhile Patchett’s book is the compelling story of a doctor sent to the Amazonian jungle to investigate the death of a colleague. An intoxicating blend of cutting-edge science and the closely guarded secrets of the rainforest’s remotest tribes, it’s a magnificent read by a writer at the height of her powers.

It will be interesting to follow the next chapter in the award’s history. This is the final year of Orange’s sponsorship of the prize (co-founder Kate Mosse hopes to announce a new sponsor later this summer) so it will have a new name next year. But one thing’s for sure. If this year’s stellar shortlist is anything to go by, women writers are a force to be reckoned with right now.

The other three novels shortlisted for the Orange Prize were Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan and Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Interview with Liz Fenwick - author of The Cornish House

Liz Fenwick’s path to publication sounds like a dream come true. She sent her debut novel out on a grey February day, not knowing what to expect, and by the end of the week it has been snapped up by Carole Blake, one of the top agents in the business. But as Liz explained to me, writing The Cornish House, her captivating tale of a rambling manor house and the family secrets it holds, took grit, determination and years of hard work.

The Cornish House is your debut novel. Can you tell me a little about the road to publication and how you got a publishing deal?

Liz: To make a long story short – in 2004 I promised myself I would begin to write fiction again. After writing seven books (not counting rewrites) and receiving encouraging rejections I finally felt that I had brought The Cornish House up to a level where I felt that it was as good as I could make it. So on a Monday in February, I sent it to four agents who had been encouraging me in my journey. By noon I had my first request for the full manuscript. I nearly fell over. On Saturday Carole Blake got in touch and said she loved it and would love to represent me. I was over the moon. Things moved swiftly from there. The first sale was to Holland, then the two-book deal with Orion in the UK and it went to auction in Germany. That was so exciting. Recently the book sold to Portugal. It’s all so unreal in a way – you dream about something all your life and finally you put the work in to make it happen and then it does…

How did you come up with the idea for The Cornish House?

Liz: This is the third novel I’d written (currently working on my eighth) and from the book before (August Rock) there was this rather dishy love interest named Mark and he kept pestering me for a story of his own. How could I refuse? That was part of it, but one day a few years ago several roads were closed and we detoured down a lane I hadn’t been on in ages and I saw The Cornish House. This is a house that I had always loved and been intrigued by. Then I had a discussion with a teenager going through that awful stage when they can only see their own point of view… Suddenly the story began to take shape….

Trevenen, the house at the heart of The Cornish House, sounds gorgeous. Does it actually exist?

Liz: Yes and no. The real house is different from Trevenen. In the writing of the book it grew and developed. I spent hours on the layout, which required a lot of internet searching of properties and floor plans…such a hard task. So Trevenen is my idea of the ideal house, but based on the house that captured my heart from the moment I saw it nestled into a fold in the land off a remote lane. That house is truly The Cornish House, and as such is rather special and its location is a secret…

The relationship between Maddie, the heroine of the novel, and her step-daughter Hannah, is incredibly tricky. How did you go about making it so convincing?

Liz: Probably because I’m a mother of teenagers…thankfully mine aren’t as spiky as Hannah. But I loved both these broken characters and I think that helps keep it “real” on the page because they were and are still very “real” in my head.

You divide your time between Dubai, Cornwall and London. How do you manage to write novels when you travel so much?

Liz: I can work on a plane or anywhere. Because I began writing fiction again when the kids were still fairly small, I can tune out the world and tune into my writing.

What are the best things about living in Cornwall?

Liz: The people, the scenery, the fresh fish, and my house…

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right now?

Liz: Be professional, be persistent and write the book of your heart.  It’s so tempting when you want your words to be read to follow the latest trend, but trends change as soon as you are aware of them. Write the book of your heart and with luck it will hit the right trend and you will have been true to yourself.

What is your own favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Liz: This is such a tough question…there are so many favourites. I love Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer. It was the first one of hers that I read and her books were where I escaped to during my teenage years. A more recent favourite was Leo the African by Amin Maalouf. This showed me the history of an area through a very personal story and has the best opening line ever. In a way all writers who have completed a book inspire me. That is the toughest thing – to complete a book and then accept that you will have to rewrite it in some way at least once or in my case many many more times. But during my “apprenticeship” in the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme I was lucky enough to watch Katie Fforde in action. She is my inspiration. She is such a professional in how she goes about all aspects of her work as a writer. She makes it look easy and I’m now learning how hard it all is…

Can you tell us a little bit about your second novel – August Rock? And when will it be published?

Liz: August Rock existed before The Cornish House. I’m now on my 27th rewrite and it’s a story I still love. It’s about Jude, who suddenly wakes up to the fact that she is following life by other people’s design and not her own. She flees her wedding and ends up taking a position as a research assistant to a garden historian on a Cornish estate. When the historian dies and his son arrives to sell the estate, she finds out that she has fallen in love for the first time - not with a person but a place. She has to save Pengarrock and find out who she really is and what she really wants. And oh, there’s a wonderful thirteen year old Victorian boy called Toby. I can’t seem to keep away from teenagers… It will be out in the spring of 2013.

The Cornish House by Liz Fenwick (Orion, £12.99)

Monday, 28 May 2012

From Wham! to physics O level - seven random facts

Along with a flying visit home from my daughter and a half-price Frappucino at Starbucks, the best thing to happen this weekend was receiving a Versatile Blogger Award from Rebecca Leith.

Rebecca Leith’s Blog is an irresistible mix of interviews, commentaries and reports on everything from the Olympic Torch to Friday 13th.  My favourite post of all was the one where her lovely mum, the writer Anita Burgh, interviewed Bex herself. What a great idea.

Anyway, a big thank you to Bex for nominating me. I wasn’t sure what to do next so I’m following Bex’s instructions to the letter.

“Thank the person who gave you this award, and include a link to their blog,” she told me. “Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers you've recently discovered or follow regularly - I'd pick blogs or bloggers that are excellent! If it's a bit of a task to list 15, and I don't want you to feel being nominated is a burden, but mention as many as you can – eight or ten is fine. List them, and you might like to include a link to the sites, and let them know that you've nominated them. And then tell the person who nominated you seven things about yourself.”

And here are seven random facts about me:

I once interviewed George Michael in a white towelling dressing gown (him, not me!) I was a feature writer for Woman’s Own at the time and he was one half of Wham! When I hurried into the Midland Hotel in Manchester, the tour manager told me George was in the gym and I should interview him there!

I’m a serial mover. My dad was in the RAF and I changed schools eight times. The moving habit has clearly stuck because me and my husband have moved ten times since we got married. Places where we've lived include London, Lancashire, France, North Yorkshire,  Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire.

My blog’s called House With No Name because the tumbledown farmhouse in France that I bought on a whim doesn’t have a name. “How does the postman know where to deliver letters?” we asked the elderly vendor. “He just does…” she said, mystified that we were mystified.

I failed physics O level.

I was once the world’s worst au pair. I couldn’t cook, couldn’t make beds with hospital corners and had never changed a nappy in my life.

When we were little my sister and I had our own dinghy. We once nearly crashed into a tanker in Poole Harbour. We heard a loud booming sound and looked round to see this massive monstrosity sailing straight at us.

I hate eggs. 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Twitter - and Sarah Duncan's writing blog

If you’re a writer in the first stages of your career – or any stage in your career, in fact – then Sarah Duncan’s blog is a must read. The author of five novels (including the highly-praised Kissing Mr Wrong), Sarah is also a creative writing lecturer and the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Bath.

I’m a big fan of her blog, which covers everything from characterisation and dialogue to writing a synopsis (or not, as the case may be) and finding an agent. Yesterday’s post, as thought-provoking as ever, examined the thorny question of networking for writers – and more especially, the dos and don’ts of Twitter.

Sarah smartly compared Twitter to a drinks party. “ At this party it's socially acceptable to eavesdrop on conversations and join in if you've something to say even if you don't know the people talking, but generally the party operates on the usual lines,” she wrote. “Only the most socially inept people bang on about themselves all the time, conversations are about give and take, and no one likes being sold things at a social event.”

I reckon Sarah’s drinks party analogy sums up the best and the worst of Twitter. The most entertaining people on Twitter hardly ever mention their books or articles or blogs (mind you, many of them are such superstars they don’t have to), while the most annoying people never blooming shut up about themselves.

Actually, the best things about Twitter are the friends you make. I’ve chatted to lots of people on Twitter so often that I forget I’ve never actually set eyes on them in real life. I met a couple of writers at the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s summer party recently and it felt like I’d known them forever.

Oh, and when it comes to singing Twitter’s praises, my biggest treat of the week resulted from a tweet. Quod, my favourite Oxford restaurant, recently ran a competition to win lunch for two. I retweeted the competition - and guess what?  I won! So thank you, Quod, for a fantastic lunch. It was the perfect end to my week on Twitter. 

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sweltering in the sunshine, revision and The Great Gatsby

Phew, what a scorcher… I’ve wanted to write those words ever since my newspaper days. 

But deep down I wish the azure blue skies and sweltering heat hadn't arrived quite yet. Why? Because every teenager I know is revising for exams right now. And while the papers are full of annoying articles declaring that A levels and GCSEs have been dumbed down (not true, they’re just different), a generation of 16 to 18 year olds are stuck indoors trying to memorise endless quotes from Of Mice and Men. They look pale and stressed and keep muttering anxiously about the scores of exams ahead.

Funnily, enough, the year I took my A levels was a scorcher too. But I didn’t treat them half so seriously as today’s teenagers. Actually, I spent the entire summer lying on a Dorset riverbank sunbathing with friends and reading old copies of Jackie magazine.

But on the up side, teenagers are definitely less sartorially challenged in the sun than grown-ups. I hate my scary white legs and avoid baring them for as long as possible. Even though the sun’s been shining for a few days it’s been a real wrench to discard my habitual black tights and hunt out the fake tan. A London friend told me that on the first day of the heat wave a fellow passenger eyed her thick tights with disdain. “I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and tell her it wasn’t my fault I left for work before the weather changed,” she said. I had much the same feeling today when my daughter arrived home and eyed my blotchy orange ankles. “It's amazing how easy it is to forget to fake tan your feet,” she said.

PS. My son’s just made me watch the trailer for the remake of The Great Gatsby. I adored the novel (did it for A level, in fact) and swooned at Robert Redford in the original movie, so wasn’t that interested. But just take a look. I reckon it’s going to be the movie of the year…

Friday, 25 May 2012

Friday Book Review - The Life of Stephen Lawrence by Verna Allette Wilkins

“He was a wonderful son and a shining example of what any parent would want in a child. I miss him with a passion. Hopefully now he can rest in peace.”

Those are the moving words of Doreen Lawrence, whose 18 year old son Stephen was brutally murdered while he waited at a south east London bus-stop one evening in April 1993.

They’re featured in a sensitive and moving children’s book about the tragedy, which has just been updated following the January 2012 conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for Stephen Lawrence’s murder. As author Verna Allette Wilkins writes: “The police are still working on the case as they believe that there were other men involved in Stephen’s death. These men have yet to be brought to justice.”

Even though The Life of Stephen Lawrence is aimed at nine to 11 year olds, I reckon everyone should read it.  As well as highlighting his senseless murder and the findings of the Macpherson Report, which contained 70 recommendations for changes needed in the police force, justice system and society to ensure “zero tolerance” for racism, it lists the powerful legacy he has left behind. There’s the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, launched by Doreen and Neville Lawrence to ensure future generations of young people enjoy the opportunities denied to their son, the annual Stephen Lawrence Memorial Lecture and the Stephen Lawrence 18:18 campaign, which helps disadvantaged youngsters access jobs in the law, media and other fields which are difficult to get into.

But as well as numerous ideas for discussion and debate, this quiet, dignified book really does celebrate Stephen’s life. It vividly portrays an impressive young man who was a brilliant runner, a talented artist and had ambitions to become an architect. He was a real self starter who’d done work experience at a firm of architects, got work as an extra on the film For Queen and Country and designed and sold T-shirts featuring famous rappers.

As Mr Gladwell, his teacher at junior school, said: “Stephen was a good lad. We must make sure that we help all our children learn to live in peace. What happened to Stephen must never happen again.”   

The Life of Stephen Lawrence by Verna Allette Wilkins (Tamarind, £4.99)

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Download Olympic Flames for free!

The crowd roared with delight as the chestnut stallion soared gracefully through the air. The fence was more than one and a half metres high, but the rider and horse made the jump look effortless. When the duo touched the ground on the other side, there was a swell of applause from the spectators packed into the stand. The rider, resplendent in a navy blue show jacket and skin-tight white breeches, ignored it all, set on taking the next thirteen jumps with similar ease.

Jack Stone’s jaw tensed as he watched. Stylish, brave and fast - this was a competitor he was going to have to go hell for leather to beat.

Up until now, he’d reckoned he stood a good chance of a gold medal. After all, the American showjumping team had won the last two Olympic titles. Not only that, they had left nothing to chance in their preparations for London 2012. They had been training in the US for months on end, and had only flown into London a week ago. But watching riders of this quality made him uneasy. Only for a second, though – Jack wasn’t the type to be racked by self-doubt. But even so, he felt a flicker of irritation that when it came to technique and speed, the European teams so often had the edge.

These are the opening paragraphs of my new ebook, Olympic Flames. If you’d like to read more you can download the novella for free on Amazon on May 23 and 24. I’d love to know what you think!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The UK's favourite books - but are they yours?

I nearly fell off my chair when I read this morning’s report in Stylist magazine about the UK’s favourite books. My friend Constance clearly did too. “If The Da Vinci Code is really one of the UK’s best-loved books then I’m emigrating,” she tweeted. Her reaction reminded me of Salman Rushdie, who in 2005 described it as "a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name."

But sure enough, Dan Brown’s cryptic thriller was top of the list, followed by The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis, 1984 by George Orwell, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and then JRR Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

Following hot on their heels came another classic from Tolkein, The Hobbit, then The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Charotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and in tenth place, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but apart from Jane Eyre, none of the others would make my top ten. Off the top of my head, I started compiling my favourite books. Let me know your most-loved novels, but here's my current list:

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
2. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
3. Germinal by Emile Zola
4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
6. A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow
7. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
8. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
9. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
10. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

PS. The survey, carried out by eye health supplement company ICaps, polled more than 1,000 adults across the UK.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Where I discover I'm not as vain as I thought

From bulk orders of REN's Hydra-Calm Global Protection Day Cream to eyebrow shaping, I’m as vain as the next person. Or so I thought. Until I read about the new FaceTime facelift.

Apparently Skype phone calls and video networking have made us all hyper-critical of the way we look onscreen. As you’re chatting away you suddenly notice the alarming new wrinkles round your eyes and your jowly chin. I hate looking at myself onscreen so much that I slnk lower and lower in my chair or lie through my teeth and pretend I can’t get the video to work.

But amazingly, an American plastic surgeon called Robert Sigal has devised a cosmetic procedure to make people look younger when they’re video-calling. After loads of patients told him they loathe the way they look on video he’s developed a technique that involves making incisions in the creases around the ears and “repositioning” (sounds painful) the muscle bands in the neck. Most of his clients are women aged 45 to 55 – all prepared to pay a cool $10,000 to have it done.

Like most US trends it’s sure to pop up on this side of the Atlantic some time soon. But I’ve got a cheaper and far less alarming suggestion.  Use the landline…

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Spirit of Summer Fair - the place for teabags and deckchairs

A stylish T-shirt from Me & Em, a couple of pretty notebooks and some heavenly green teabags from Teapigs. My daughter’s been working at the  Spirit of Summer Fair at London's Olympia this week and when I popped in to see her en route to the RNA awards I swore I wouldn’t buy anything. But the stalls were so enticing that within the first five minutes I’d snapped up all the items above. My only excuse was that apart from the teabags, everything I bought was a birthday present.

The best discovery was a gorgeous company called Thornback & Peel, who sell the prettiest table linen, cushions, stationery and even deckchairs – all covered in quirky screen prints, like the 19th century wood engravings of pigeons and jellies in the picture above.

The company was started by florist Juliet Thornback and theatre designer Delia Peel and their work is inspired by an eclectic mix of Victoriana, Mrs Beeton's household management, Mr McGregor’s garden, 17th century microscope imagery of the natural world, Norfolk and Devon. See, I said the designs were quirky.

If you like the look of Thornback & Peel's designs, they’re opening a Jubilee pop up shop in London later this month. Open from May 29 to 31 at 7 Rugby Street, Bloomsbury, they’ll be giving away a free Union flag handkerchief with every purchase. I might see you there…

Friday, 18 May 2012

Jane Lovering wins Romantic Novel of the Year award

Glamour, champagne, pink balloons and sky-high heels – all the hallmarks of a fabulous Romantic Novelists’ Association party were firmly in evidence last night.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the RNA’s summer bash in London, where Sky News presenter Kay Burley was on hand to present the prestigious Romantic Novel of the Year award.

Kay, whose second book, Betrayal, is out next week, wore a chic, sleeveless dress and confessed that she was still learning her craft as a novelist. “Romance is so difficult to write,” she said, “especially if you have a teenage son who is embarrassed at everything you do.” She added that romantic fiction is one of the biggest-selling genres today and the minute she got home she was going to get all five shortlisted romantic novels on her Kindle. “It’s no surprise my name isn’t on the shortlist,” she quipped. “But there’s always next year.”

Kay whizzed through the five contenders – Christina Courtenay, Katie Fforde, Caroline Green, Jane Lovering and Rosie Thomas - at top speed and then declared the winner. It was debut author Jane Lovering, for Please Don’t Stop the Music. I reviewed Jane’s novel a week or so ago and it’s a pacy, snappily-written novel that boasts some great laugh-out-loud moments and some dark moments too. I warmed to Jane immediately when she scooped RNA’s romantic comedy novel prize a couple of months back and declared: “It’s taken me 25 years of writing to publish a book. If I can do it, anybody can. So go for it, girls!”

But no one looked more stunned than Jane (above) last night when she was announced as the Romantic Novel of the Year winner and Kay Burley presented her with her prize – a large glass trophy.

“Oh my God,” said Jane shakily, her bright red hair gleaming under the lights. “Don’t give me a big glass bowl. Me and a big glass bowl aren’t a good idea. If anyone had told me ten years ago in the middle of single parenthood and small children that I was going to win this award I would have wet myself. Quite frankly I still might!’”

Last night was a double celebration for Jane, a mother of five who works part-time as a science technician at a North Yorkshire secondary school. It was her daughter’s 16th birthday the same day and she was there to see her mum’s fantastic win. She must have been SO proud…

PS. As well as the Romantic Novel of the Year award, the party also saw the presentation of the RNA’s annual prize for the best in new writing. This year’s Joan Hessayon New Writers’ Scheme Award went to Evonne Wareham for Never Coming Home.  

Please Don’t Stop the Music by Jane Lovering (Choc Lit, £7.99)
Never Coming Home by Evonne Wareham (Choc Lit, £7.99)

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Novel writing - getting the dialogue right

As a journalist, I spend my days interviewing people and reporting what they say. Maybe I’m kidding myself but I reckon I’ve got a good ear for dialogue – and for an authentic-sounding quote.

But writing novels is far harder. For a start, you’ve invented the characters yourself (unless you’re writing a Hilary Mantel type tome, of course) - so you have to invent convincing dialogue for them too. And bearing in mind that we all speak completely differently, you have to invent different-sounding dialogue for every character, young and old. Joanna Trollope’s a brilliant writer but I always think her characters sound too alike when they speak.

I tried to bear all this in mind when I wrote my new novella, Olympic Flames – and having straight-talking, nearly grown-up children helped a lot. When one of my younger characters described a girl as being “a slip of a thing,” my daughter was on the phone in a trice. “I’ve asked all my flatmates and none of us know what on earth you mean,” she told me. The phrase “getting in a lather” met a similar fate. “No one uses that,” she said. “It should be ‘stressed out.’” And as for “playing gooseberry,” my son rolled his eyes in despair and instructed me to change it to “being a third wheel” – immediately.

So getting your characters’ language and tone right is crucial. But then again you don’t want to go too far and sound as though you’re trying to turn into a hip twenty-something. Not that I ever was a hip twenty-something, sadly.

Actually, all this talk about dialogue reminds me of my first novel, Hard Copy. It was set in the newspaper world, complete with tight deadlines, stressed-out (see, I’m learning) reporters and demanding bosses. One day my copy editor rang me. “There’s a slight problem with the language,” she said. My heart sank, thinking of the smattering of swear words I’d put into the novel to make the news room sound authentic. “Why, is it too bad?” I asked. “No, she laughed. “It’s not bad enough…”

Olympic Flames by Emma Lee-Potter (Endeavour Press, £1.99)
PS. With every room in the house bursting at the seams with books, I've just got a Kindle. I think it could change my life - or at least lead to a much tidier office!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Olympic Flames - a novel about show jumping, London 2012 and old flames

My first novel took nine months to write and another year to publish. How times have changed. I’ve just written my first ebook and a week after the publishers gave it the thumbs-up it was available for download on Amazon, iTunes and more.

I loved every minute of writing Olympic Flames. A novella, it’s set in the world of showjumping (or jumping, as it’s called at the Olympics) and is the story of Mimi Carter, the youngest member of the British jumping team for London 2012. Mimi is a brilliant rider who’s had to claw her way to the top. She’s desperate to win an Olympic gold medal in front of her home crowd, but when an enigmatic old flame arrives back on the scene, can she put her feelings to one side and realise her dream?

That’s the essence of the story so I hope readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. 

I had a few childhood riding lessons when my family lived in Epsom (just down the road from the Derby racecourse in fact) and I was completely useless. But in the past couple of months I’ve become gripped by the equestrian world.  Did you know, for instance, that the three equestrian disciplines - jumping, dressage and eventing - are the only Olympic sports where men and women compete against each other on equal terms? That the Olympic equestrian events will take place in Greenwich Park, right next to the elegant stone façade of the National Maritime Museum? And that the temporary stables will be home to 200 horses for the duration of the Olympics?  

I never thought I’d say this but I’ve become so engrossed that I can’t wait to see the Olympic equestrian events on TV. At this rate I’m going to end up booking my first riding lesson in years…

Olympic Flames by Emma Lee-Potter (Endeavour Press, £1.99)

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The coffee shop conquerors

It wouldn’t have been my top priority as an academic study but two US professors have put “coffee shop conquerors” under the spotlight. You know, the customers who sit in Costa and Starbucks for hours on end, tapping away at their laptops, hogging tables designed for four and glaring at people who politely ask “is this chair taken?” Or in US academic-speak, “communicate to other customers that intrusion is not welcome.” 

The professors’ report claims that thanks to the free WiFi on offer in most coffee shops, more and more workers are using them as satellite offices. They spread their papers across tables, talk loudly on mobile phones and pore over their MacBooks as if their lives depended on it. They send out subliminal messages saying “don’t interrupt me, I’m a very busy person,” and worse still, they make a single skinny latte last all afternoon.

It’s a trend that’s prevalent in the UK as well as the US – though in Oxford right now you’re more likely to stumble across bleary-eyed students revising for exams than budding entrepreneurs in sharply cut business suits.

Actually, on the subject of coffee shops, the thing that most irritates me is the decision by Starbucks to try and learn their customers’ names. I’m all for being friendly but as long as I get a decent flat white coffee and some peace and quiet to read my book I don’t care what the staff in my local Starbucks call me.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Friday book review - The New Jumper by Oliver Jeffers

Fashionistas who like to follow the crowd should read the latest book by super-talented artist Oliver Jeffers. They'd definitely learn a thing or two about having the courage to strike out and do something different.

The New Jumper is the first in Jeffers's new series about the Hueys, a group of characters who are all the same. They look the same, think the same and do the same things. Until one extraordinary day one of them decides to knit himself a new jumper. How on earth will the rest of the Hueys react? The Hueys’ name, incidentally, was inspired by Jeffers’s grandfather, who could never remember the names of his many grandchildren – so called all of them Huey.

In a nutshell, The New Jumper is a story about individuality. Even though the book is aimed at small children I’ve shown the book to several teenagers (the age when peer pressure to wear certain labels and listen to certain music really kicks in). And funnily enough, it has struck a chord with them all.

Jeffers, who grew up in Belfast but now lives in New York, certainly follows his own advice. His quirkily-illustrated books are totally different to most of the other children’s picture books on the market – and deserve the critical acclaim they’ve had.

I’ve been a fan of Jeffers’s work for a while. His books are perfect for the under-fives but his thought-provoking take on life appeals to older children too. His first story, Lost and Found, won a Nestle Children’s Book Prize Gold Award, but my favourite is Stuck, the zany tale of a little boy called Floyd. When Floyd gets his kite stuck in a tree, he tries to dislodge it by throwing everything he can think of – from the kitchen sink to a passing milkman. Take a look if you get the chance – it’s one of those books that brings a smile to everyone’s face.

The New Jumper by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins Children’s Books, £10.99)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Mascara, blueberry muffins and Jilly Cooper

Even though it was my number one ambition in life, I didn’t start writing my first novel till my thirties. But that’s late these days. I’m gripped by the story of 20 year old Samantha Shannon, whose sci-fi series has just been snapped up by Bloomsbury for a six-figure sum.

But now I come to think of it, my daughter and her pals self-published their own book at the tender age of 17. In between studying for exams they wrote a guide covering everything a 21st Century teenage girl needs to know about fashion, beauty, parties, schoolwork, health and saving money. I found my copy the other day and realised it contains quite a lot that a middle-aged mum needs to know – tips on applying mascara, the best vintage shops in Oxford and a divine recipe for blueberry muffins.

They also hit on the idea of asking a handful of celebrities for their top tips for teenagers. Lovely Jilly Cooper wrote straight back saying: “Don’t be too sad, because love is so excruciatingly painful at your age and I just want to say, if it really hurts you, you will get over it. When I was your age I found huge comfort in reading poetry. It seemed to mirror my sufferings and anguishes and longings and made me feel I wasn’t alone and that I would get over my unhappiness.”

Meanwhile TV chef and supermodel Sophie Dahl told them: “Always, always, always wash your face before you go to bed if you're wearing make-up. Otherwise you wake up like an old harridan. I use very basic stuff, cold cream and rose water without alcohol from the chemist.”

Their book is out of print now but it contains some pithy advice for teenagers embarking on exams. “It’s really easy to get stressed out by your friends during the exam period,” they wrote. “Everyone always exaggerates how little or how much revision they have done, so try not to take notice of other people when they talk about it.”

At their age I was gauche, unsophisticated and not half so smart (and no, I haven't changed much). I certainly didn’t know how to cope with exam stress, open a bank account or use a pair of hair straighteners. And with that in mind, I’m off to buy that rose water...

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The annual French exchange

As the exam season kicks in with a vengeance, my student daughter hit on a brilliant idea to revise for her impending French oral. She and her flatmate booked a budget flight to Lyon and spent two days immersed in speaking French. It was a far better (and more fun) idea than the usual method of improving teenagers’ language skills – the dreaded French exchange.

Apart from my schoolfriend Sarah, who became lifelong pals with the French girl she exchanged with, I’ve never come across a success story.

When I was 16, I swapped with a sweet French girl called Marie-Line who lived in a fishing village on the Normandy coast. I was desperately homesick, barely uttered a word of French and had nightmares for weeks after walking into the basement and discovering a massive tank of crabs, fish and other creatures from the ocean swimming around – the results of her father’s latest fishing trip.

My daughter did a French exchange at the age of 12, which was far too young. It came about after a French business contact of my husband’s suggested it – and we reckoned it would be churlish to refuse.

When Jean-Paul delivered his daughter Sabine to our house she was clearly appalled by the whole idea. She loathed the food I cooked, couldn’t understand a word I said in either French or English and spent the week buying up her body weight in sweets. It wasn’t her fault at all that she hated the whole experience but it certainly didn’t do anything for the entente cordiale. Worse still, when her father politely rang the following week to thank us for having Sabine to stay, he added: “Oh, and I hope you didn’t let her eat any sweets. I forgot to tell you that she isn’t allowed them at home.”

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Texting etiquette

My English teacher at secondary school was a stickler for doing things by the book. She was called Miss Milner and she spent hours drumming letter-writing etiquette into my class. In fact she was so thorough that all these years later I’m certain none of us ever use “yours sincerely” when it should be “yours faithfully” – and vice versa.

But after reading in today’s Mail on Sunday that texts and emails sent between David Cameron and former News International boss Rebekah Brooks will be revealed at the Leveson Inquiry this week, I’ve been wondering about text and email etiquette.

“Hi” is the universal form of address these days – and that’s fine. But what do you say when you sign off? It’s easy if you’re emailing family and friends but I’m less sure about work contacts, editors, my children’s teachers… “Yours sincerely” is ridiculously pompous, “kindest regards” doesn’t sound quite right to me and “love” is way too forward. In the end I usually settle for “best wishes” - slightly feeble, but I can’t think of anything better.

And that’s not the only conundrum. What about xs? I sign off text messages and emails to virtually everyone I know with an x or two. And when it’s my family I just hit the x button so they get a random number of xxxxxxxxxxxs.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned but it doesn’t feel right in a work context (I’m terrified, incidentally, that one day I’ll forget who I’m emailing and send an editor a long stream of xxxxxs by mistake!)

PS. How impressive is Samantha Shannon? The 20 year old Oxford undergraduate (above) has combined studying for her English degree with writing a series of futuristic adventure novels. Now she’s landed a six-figure book deal with Bloomsbury, the publisher of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, with the first novel due out in September 2013.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Competitive tiredness - who is the most exhausted?

Did you know there’s a new syndrome called “competitive tiredness?” Apparently loads of us spend our lives bickering about who is the most tired. Well, in our house my husband reckons he’s in pole position because he works killer hours at the office. My children are revising for exams so they’re exhausted and I think I’ve got a claim because I’ve got a mass of deadlines piling up.

But perhaps the answer to the conundrum is to copy the example of two close friends. With four children – aged ten, seven, five and nine months – and a hi-tech business they run together, Charlie and Anna swapped roles for a week to see who had the most demanding life.

Anna took sole charge of the office for five days while Charlie ran around after the children. He got up in the night to see to the baby, organised the school run and did the shopping, cooking and cleaning. She worked 12-hour days at the office before coming home to four boisterous children at night.

It was a real eye-opener for both of them. Charlie couldn’t believe how shattering the constant broken nights were and Anna groaned with exhaustion when he handed over the baby the instant she walked through the door in the evening. But they both said they’d do it again like a shot and reckon we should all give it a go. The only trouble is that I wouldn’t be much cop at running my husband’s business and he'd be hopeless at reviewing books. Perhaps it’s best to stick to the day job. What do you think?

PS. Lunch at the pub is a brilliant way to recover from a bout of competitive tiredness. The picture above shows the village of Farnborough in north Oxfordshire, home to one of my favourite pubs. A glass of wine, delicious lunch and good company - my perfect spring Saturday.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Friday book review - The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Peter Carey is a writer’s writer. He has won the Booker Prize twice and combines beautifully written prose with originality and emotional complexity.

That’s my opinion, anyway. Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, has received mixed reviews, but I loved it.

The story begins in London, on a blisteringly hot spring day in 2010. Catherine Gehrig, a museum conservator and horologist, has just received devastating news. Her married lover, the man she’s adored for 13 years, has dropped dead from a heart attack on the tube.

The clandestine nature of their affair means Catherine must grieve by herself and can’t even go to his funeral. The added irony is that while her job is all about intricacy and precision, in private she’s a complete mess. She drinks too much, takes too many pills and becomes ever so slightly unhinged.

Worried by the fragile state she’s in, Catherine’s boss gives her a secret project. He asks her to reconstruct an extraordinary clockwork duck commissioned by a 19th century Englishman as a “magical amusement” for his frail, consumptive son.

Even though she’s grief-stricken, Catherine becomes obsessed with the quest to rebuild the mechanical bird - and keen to discover why the child’s father went to such lengths to keep his promise to his son. Along the way, she starts to reflect on the mysteries of life and death and how the miracles of human invention often go catastrophically awry.

Set 150 years apart, these are the two intertwining strands at the heart of The Chemistry of Tears. A tender novel of secrets, love, grief and heartache, it’s ingenious, thought provoking and gloriously eccentric.

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber, £17.99)

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Do you ever leave work at 5.30pm?

Working late last night, I finished the piece I was writing and keen to get it out of the way, clicked send. I was stunned ten minutes later to get a reply from the person who’d commissioned the article. It was 10pm!

Whatever happened to the far-flung days when we’d all finish work at 5.30pm and skip merrily out of the office, safe in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be back at our desks until the next morning? We sometimes went wild and stopped for a drink on the way home, or heaven forbid, went to the cinema. Now, with emails, mobile phones and loads of us working from home, work is a rolling 24-hour enterprise. It’s so extreme in the newspaper world these days that friends of mine work from 8am to 9pm, and are still expected to be on call right round the clock.

That’s why an interview I read with Facebook COO (chief operating officer) Sheryl Sandberg this morning was like a breath of fresh air. In a recent video interview, she relates how she walks out of the office at 5.30pm on the dot every day - so she can have dinner with her children at 6pm. She admits that telling people she was working shorter hours to spend time with her family was a challenge at first but now she’s quite open about it.

“I was showing everyone I worked for that I worked just as hard,” she says. “I was getting up earlier to make sure they saw my emails at 5:30am, staying up later to make sure they saw my emails late. But now I’m much more confident in where I am and so I’m able to say ‘hey! I am leaving work at 5:30.’ And I say it very publicly, both internally and externally.”

As a famous businesswoman at the top of her field, Sheryl Sandberg can call the shots more than the rest of us, but I definitely think she’s on to something.

PS. BT has put its iconic red phone boxes up for sale at an eye-watering £2,000 per box. I don’t know about you, but I’d far prefer one like this chic green one – spotted at Bicester Village the other day…

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Just William - and how to succeed

School heads are a redoubtable breed. I’ve met loads in my time and most of them have bowled me over with their enthusiasm, clear-sighted focus and commitment to education.

On one occasion I interviewed the super-inspiring head of a girls’ school. She wore leopard-print stilettos, knew every girl in the school by name and when she spotted a pupil using her mobile phone during school hours (strictly forbidden) showed her supreme displeasure by raising an eyebrow just ever so slightly. She was one of the most impressive people I’d met in a long time.

But quite apart from the shoes and the raised eyebrows, the thing that’s stuck in my mind ever since is the advice she gave to her pupils.

“If you want to do something then set your mind to it and make it happen,” she told them. “Think ‘I can and I will succeed.’”

The idea sounded like Just William’s arch enemy Violet Elizabeth Bott (“I’ll thcream and thcream ‘till I’m thick”) stamping her foot to get her own way but I reckon there’s something in it. So here are  my aims and objectives for the day. I’m going to write two articles, finish my new e-book, research a press release and book my car in for a service.

Will the plan work? Hmmm, I’m not so sure…
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