Book review: Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I requested an ARC of this book from Netgalley because I loved The Interpreter of Maladies.
This book follows a year in the life of a nameless narrator. She talks about the places she goes, the people she knows. No one has names, we only see what these people are to her.
The book is a series of vignettes, where we see the world through one woman. We get a sense of who she is – bookish, melancholy, lonely, not entirely likeable (but interesting enough to make you want to keep reading). There is a story of sorts, but mostly it’s about us getting to know and understand the narrator. The language is sparse and deployed with precision so that you get a great sense of place and personality with minimal description.
It’s a thought provoking book. I enjoyed it.

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Book Review: The Lost Girls of Foxfield hall by Jessica Thorne

The Lost Girls of Foxfield Hall is a dual timeline story with part of it set in the present day, where Megan is trying to restore the overgrown maze behind the hall, and the other part set in WW2 where Eleanor is trying to take picture of the Green Lady (the ghost at the heart of the maze). The maze is dark and magical and one day Megan and Eleanor meet. When Megan later discovers that Eleanor went missing, just days after the time when she’d seen her, Megan has to unravel the mystery of what happened so that she can have a hope of stopping it from harming Eleanor. But she’s messing with forces that are far, far older and far, far more dangerous than she realises.

The mystery was gripping. Megan is a great character and her preoccupation with her own brothers disappearance (he’s MIA from a more modern war) feed into her need to save Eleanor from disappearing. There is a gentle romance between Megan and Nora, but the main thrust of the book is about saving Eleanor.
I found the book tense and a little bit frightening in places (in a good fantasy scary kind of way). But then, I find corn dollies very creepy at the best of times. It reminded me a little of books like The Children of Green Knowe and The Dark is Rising, which I loved reading as a child. I’d almost forgotten how much I loved that kind of real world/ magic blend.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I’d love to read more of this sort of thing.
I got beta read an early version of this book and then re-read a review copy from Netgalley.

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Book review: Home on Folly Farm by Jane Lovering

I’m a fan of Jane Lovering’s books, so when I spotted this on Netgalley, I immediately requested it.
Dora is a sheep farmer working the family farm in the North York Moors. She works hard and is scraping by. Everything changes when her spoiled sister and her equally spoiled son come to stay, bringing the son’s tutor with them. If all that weren’t enough, the tutor reminds Dora of someone she knew from her teens, where things happened that she’d really rather not remember.

There’s a lot about sheep in this story – because they occupy Dora’s thoughts a lot. The romance is slow burn and understated. The story is more like a family drama where Dora redefines her relationships with various members of her family and in doing so, finally works out her place in the family.
Nat is a nice hero, kind and dependable. The change in the relationship between the two sisters and the way the teenaged nephew changes from self obsessed YouTuber with ‘almost a thousand followers’ to a young man (and carer for two lambs) is lovely.

There’s a great car chase through the Vale of Pickering, which made me laugh a lot.

I found this book heartwarming and funny. Thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

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What’s the difference between a manuscript critique and a beta read?

text reads: beta read or manuscript critique? which one do you need?

A few months ago, I wrote a thread on Twitter about how beta reading a book differed from a manuscript critique. It just so happened that I’d read three manuscripts that week. Two were books by established writers, which I was beta reading and one was a manuscript by a new writer, for which I was doing a critique/assessment report.

The two experiences were very different. The two beta reads I read quickly – reading them as a story and making the odd note to myself as if I came across something that needed attention. They were both authors I enjoyed reading (and in one case I’d read the whole of the series up to that point, so I could point out any series inconsistencies because I’d enjoyed the other books and remembered things from them).
The other was a newer writer, so needed a lot more notes. My notes ranged from small things like incorrect usage of words or minor instances of head hopping to bigger structural issues.
I wrote up all three sets of notes over a weekend. The beta reads took me about 30 mins each to check notes and write up. The critique took me several hours. The other main difference is that I would charge for the critique, but the beta read was for free (those authors would do the same for mine another time).

All this got me thinking about the time a newish author asked for a sample edit of one chapter (which I did). They then asked for a full manuscript critique. But a few days later, they cancelled because they didn’t want to pay for ‘a very expensive beta read’. I didn’t argue at the time – I hadn’t started work on it – but there is a big difference between a beta read and a critique.

Notes on a beta Read

When I beta read for a writer who knows what they’re doing, my notes tend to be short – ‘needs more tension here’ or ‘this subplot doesn’t tie in’, ‘the ending doesn’t work’. I’m telling them what’s wrong, but I can trust that they will know how to fix it.
Similarly, that’s the sort of note I get from my beta readers. I have rewritten an entire 20K ending based on ‘this ending doesn’t work’. They only had to tell me what was not working. I would then do the work to figure out how to change it. This is the sort of editorial note you’d get from a structural editor in a publishing house.

Notes on a manuscript critique

My notes on manuscript critiques for newer writers run to several pages because ‘this doesn’t work’ is a useless note to give someone who doesn’t know what to do to fix it. I have to unpick WHY things don’t work (sometimes it’s easy to work out, because it’s a beginner mistake I’ve seen before, sometimes it’s not). I have to explain my observations. I have to suggest ways they could fix it. I have to be careful to tell them exactly what is wrong, but not tell them exactly, word for word, how to fix it – because that interferes with their voice and if there’s one thing we’ve heard from editors it is that they don’t want critique services to interfere with the voice of a writer

You need notes that are specific to that book and where the author is in their journey. If their 100K book only has 70K of story in it, you need to work out what that core story is and tell them which bits to cut (and maybe explain story structure). If their book is too short, you have to give them guidance as to where to expand it. You can’t say ‘add a subplot’. You have to suggest places in the book where a potential subplot might be hiding. Sometimes this means reading the manuscript several times.

And THEN, you need to go through and work out if you’re hitting the right balance in your feedback. Too negative and you risk putting the writer off writing. I remember all too well the pain/horror of my first manuscript critique. But once I’d stopped crying and eating all the chocolate I could find, I realised that they had a point. I made the changes they suggested and it improved the book. But that was only because I was in the right frame of mind to accept the criticism that I’d asked for. If I’d been earlier in my writing journey, I might have given up. I’d hate for that to happen.

On the other hand, if you’re too positive, you risk giving the writer a false sense of safety. They will think you’re a lovely person, but the report won’t help them improve their book or get closer to finding a publisher. Plus, I feel that telling people what they want to hear rather than doing what they paid you to do is ethically dubious … even if it is nicer.

So you have to read an re-read the wording of the feedback, all the while thinking ‘is this too harsh? Is this sugar coating it?’.

Reading a manuscript that needs a lot of work is not fun. It’s time consuming and it’s hard work. (And I should be spending that time writing!)
So yeah. A manuscript critique is different to a beta read. One is work. The other is fun.

Which is why we charge for the one that is hard work [and take great care about whom we extend the beta reading offers to!].

In case you hadn’t already guessed, I do manuscript critiques and mentoring. Details are under the Resources for Writers tab, or just click here to go to the manuscript critiques page.

Book Review: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic (Practical Magic #1)

The Owens sisters come from a long line of witches. The both try to escape their prescribed fate by rejecting it. Gillian runs away with a man. Sally takes her two daughters and leaves to forge a ‘normal’ life. But normal doesn’t last.
I felt desperately sad for Sally. In all honesty, Sally and her younger daughter were the only two characters I really liked. That isn’t to say the others weren’t compelling -they were. This is a book about families and sisters and magic.
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up this book. I’m very glad I did.

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Book Review: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

The Guest List by Lucy Foley
The Guest List by Lucy Foley

A wedding on a remote (and pretty scarily atmospheric) island off the coast of Ireland. A murder.
The book is structured so that we don’t know who had been murdered or how at the start of the book. We see the revelation of the murder and then we see the days leading up to the murder through the eyes of various people.
It’s wonderfully done. Clues are revealed about the problems and preoccupations of the various people in the wedding party until they all coalesce at the end to reveal the victim and the murderer. I really enjoyed reading this book. Gripping.

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Book review: Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Dash & Lily's Book of DaresDash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn

I watched the Netflix show and immediately went out and got the book to read. So when I read it the characters in my head looked like the actors in the show.

This book is very Christmassy. Lily loves Christmas. Dash … does not. I loved the contrast between Lily’s upbeat and family orientated voice and Dash’s deeply cynical (snarly?) voice. When Dash finds a red notebook in his favourite bookstore he and Lily begin a correspondence that relies on notes left in the red notebook.
This is such a fun romp through Christmas-decked New York. I loved it.

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Silly Lego photos

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I like to take silly Lego photos. Since I don’t have a new Christmas novella out this year and I feel I should do something, I thought I’d collect 24 vaguely Christmassy images and make an advent calendar of them.

I’ll post one each day on the Facebook and on Twitter. I’ll post the first one on the 1st of Dec tomorrow.

Book Review: Miracle on Christmas Street by Annie O’Neil

Miracle on Christmas StreetMiracle on Christmas Street by Annie O'Neil

Jess has left her much loved job because of a cheese-sandwich related disaster and has moved to Boughton just before Christmas. As she moves into her new house on Christmas Street, she discovers that the street has a living advent calendar – where each of the 24 houses in the close hosts one evening event in the run up to Christmas day. Everyone joins in, apart from the grumpy old man at number 24.

This is a charming story, where you get to know the residents in the street at the same time as Jess does. It’s women’s fiction rather than romance, but there is a strong romantic thread in it. The ending was just lovely.

It’s choc full of Christmassy things. I want one of Rex and Kai’s wreaths. They sound wonderful.

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