Book review: The Bookbinders Daughter by Jessica Thorne

I read an ARC of this book via Netgalley (Thank you, Bookouture for letting me read it).
First of all – it’s a book about a magic library. How could you resist that!

Sophie is in a very controlling relationship with a scumbag, when she’s offered a job at the mysterious Ayredale library … where her parents both worked … until her mum disappeared. She leaves the scumbag and goes to the library, which feels like something more than just a place where old books are kept and repaired. Plus, everyone is acting so weird that she can’t trust ANYBODY. Possibly not even her childhood friend and very attractive bloke, Will.
There is a thread of mystery that winds its way through the story. I found reading this book completely immersive, which is something that hasn’t happened in a long time (Yay! Magic Library!). This is a story about magic and primordial inspiration. The love of books, especially old books, is threaded through the entire story. I loved that. There’s quite a lot about looking after books and working in libraries, which I enjoyed.

This is a lovely, magical read. I recommend it. Especially if you like old books and brooding, slight Gothic, libraries.

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Book review: A Midwinter Match by Jane Lovering

Ruby and Zac both work as counsellors in job centres. When two branches are combined, one of them is going to lose their job. They end up sharing an office and competing for the the same job. Ruby is doing her best to keep her Generalised Anxiety Disorder a secret and to keep up a smiling face. Zac seems to completely at ease with the world. At least that’s how it looks until Ruby starts to realise that he has secrets of his own.

I liked Ruby and her struggle with anxiety. I can relate. [The is an on-page panic attack, which was handled very well]. I really liked the mental health representation. Zac is a really nice guy – Caring in every sense of the word. The secondary characters are fun too. Especially Priya – the gay best friend, who has a confectionery drawer in her desk.

Despite the serious topics that it deals with, this book is very funny in places and made me laugh out loud a few times. It’s Christmassy, but with the usual realism that you’d expect from Jane Lovering’s books.

I got a review copy from the publishers via Netgalley. Thank you!
As always, a disclaimer – I know the author in real life, but I’ve been a fan of her books since before I met her.

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Book review: Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

Book cover for Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake

I requested this book from Netgalley because I’d read Boyfriend Material last year and really enjoyed it. I was not disappointed.

Rosaline Palmer is a single mum who feels like she’s failed at life – even though she’s being a great mum to an awesome kid. On a whim, she enters Bake Expectations (which is GBBO by another name, really). The story charts her journey from being a shy and timorous newbie to a confident amateur baker, which her love life charting a course alongside the competition.

I enjoyed this book immensely and it made me chuckle out loud several times. It deals with some darker subjects (like sexual assault) as well – I particularly liked the way Rosaline dealt with the perpetrator of the assault when they called in the middle of the night to beg forgiveness. (It’s very hard to talk about this without giving spoilers – so you’re just going to have to read it yourself to find out what I’m on about).

All in all, it’s a good fun book. There’s a lot of cake in it (yay). There’s even a few recipies, written in character, at the end.

Thank you Netgalley and the publisher for the review copy.

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Book review: Isn’t it Bromantic by Lyssa Kay Adams

Cover of Isn’t It Bromantic by Lyssa Kay Adams

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this book for ages. Every time I logged into Netgalley, I’d check to see if it was on. If you’re not familiar, The Bromance Book Club is a bunch of guys who meet to read and discuss romance novels in an attempt to become better husbands and lovers. I love these books (and I really wish I’d come up with this concept!)

Vlad is my favourite of the bros. He started off as the comic relief – ‘The Russian’, with his terrible gut problems, readily dished out hugs, and strong dedication to running for the grand gesture – so it’s lovely to see him turn into a fully developed character with his own story.

I love a beta hero and Vlad is just adorable – okay, he’s alpha on the outside (he is a pro hockey player after all!) but he’s a big softie on the inside. Vlad has been married to Elena for six years, but they both think it’s a sham marriage. Mostly this is because they don’t seem to be able to talk to each other. They both clearly care for each other, but they’re both stubborn in their own way.

I liked that Elena was prickly and defensive, but with good reason. Her responses to Claud of the ‘Loners’ were a delight.

This is probably my favourite of the Book club books. I really enjoyed it.
Thank you Netgalley an the publisher for the review copy.

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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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Masterclass.com Annual Pass for writers – a review

Masterclass for Writers – is an annual pass worth it?

I’m coming to the end of a Masterclass annual pass that I bought last year and I’ve been meaning to review the classes I took. So here they are. Note, the links to Masterclass are NOT affiliate links (I applied, they rejected my application!). I really enjoyed the courses, so I thought I’d share. The links to Amazon are affiliate links and if you click through, I get a few pence (but it doesn’t cost you anything extra).

First of all, what is Masterclass.com? – it is a streaming service, where you can take courses, delivered by celebrity experts, on a variety of creative subjects. If you’re wanting to learn welding or difficult maths, they (probably) won’t help you. But if you want to learn about the more creative side of things, it’s bang on target.

Each course is about 4 to six hours long, delivered in bite size ‘lessons’ that range in length from about 4 minutes to about 25 minutes. I used to watch them while having lunch, when a half an hour lesson is exactly the right length. You can watch the lessons at 1.5 speed or double speed, if that’s what works for you. 

The courses are delivered by celebrity experts. They are famous for doing what they do. It’s probably worth noting that they are not necessarily experts at teaching what they do. I found that some were brilliant and I took away a lot of notes. Others, not so much. All of them were inspiring.

The cost is £170 ($180) for an annual pass – there is a payment plan too. Or you could buy a single class for £90/ $90. If you’re going to do more than one class, it’s well worth getting the annual pass. 

By the way, the default is for the annual subscription to auto renew after one year. There is a cancel button on your account profile. You can ask them to send you a reminder 30 days before it auto renews. Or,  you could buy yourself an annual pass as a gift voucher (which will last 365 days from the day you activate it, rather than the day you paid for it) and that will just run out after a year. If I were to get another annual pass, I’ll probably do that, because I’m forgetful.

I’ll start with the various writers’ classes that I took.

Neil Gaiman – Masterclass on the Art of Storytelling

This was the reason I signed up for the Masterclass annual pass. I find Neil Gaiman’s work completely immersive and I’m in awe of the way he thinks. The Masterclass is fun. He talks about his process and a little bit about how he works up his ideas. The class reinforces the fact that only Neil Gaiman can write like Neil Gaiman (which is fair). I didn’t take many notes, but the course was inspiring in some undefinable way.

Dan Brown – Masterclass on writing Thrillers

I’ve read a few of Dan Brown’s books and I find them very compelling. I wanted to learn how to write books that had a page turning quality. Did he teach that? Well, yes, he did. I have pages and pages of notes from this class. He talks about the tools and techniques of writing. He talks about suspense and how he creates it. I may not agree with some of them (e.g. as a reader, I hate it when a character notices something that surprises them but doesn’t tell the reader what it is), but I now know what they are and I can think about how to adapt them for my own storytelling. Highly recommend this one. 9 pages of notes

David Baldacci – Masterclass on Mystery and Thriller Writing

I haven’t read anything by David Baldacci (partly because I thought it might be too violent for my tastes), but now I really want to read one. He talks about the tools used to add suspense. He also talks about character development in long running series. His section about the business of being a writer is brilliant. Another one that I highly recommend. 2 pages of notes, but lots of overlap with Dan Brown.

Shonda Rhimes – Masterclass on Writing for Television

This is about writing for television, which is a completely different skill set to writing novels, but it is about storytelling in long arcs. Once again, I haven’t seen any of the shows (I watched a few clips on YouTube to familiarise myself with the characters – besides which, everyone knows what Gray’s Anatomy is about, right?). 

My favourite take away from this one was that your characters have to happen to things and remember that actors need screen time.

 I learned a lot about the 5 acts of a television show and about mapping A, B and C storylines in one hour long episode. I also learned about the stages involved in getting a TV show produced. I didn’t know any of this stuff (arguably, I don’t need to know any of it), so it was an eye opening set of lessons. At the end, there is a workshop where Shonda takes a script from one of her episodes (the Papa Pope episode in Scandal) and breaks it down into acts with a group. I found this really interesting. You got to see the structure of the episode emerge on a whiteboard. Amazing. 12 pages of notes.

Completely unrelated, I loved her outfits.

David Sedaris – Masterclass on Storytelling and Humour

This one should have been right up my street. I love listening to David Sedaris (I feel his voice and speaking style really adds to experience). The masterclass is good in that he tells you what he does. Like Neil Gaiman, it’s more inspiring than educational. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish this course. 5 lines of notes.

Aaron Sorkin – Masterclass on Screenwriting

I have not seen The West Wing (well, I’ve seen two episodes), but I love Studio 60. There was a wealth of interesting and useful stuff in this class. There are a few table reads, where he talks some students through their pilot episodes. This was really interesting because you got to see the questions he asked of them when he heard their opening scenes. Towards the end, they break a new fantasy episode of The West Wing. Seeing the mechanics of how they build the story from the ground up was eye opening. Highly recommended. 8 pages of notes.

Margaret Attwood – Masterclass on Creative Writing

I have only read one of her books (The Blind Assassin) and I really enjoyed that. I also like that she’s a literary fiction author who writes science fiction and doesn’t talk down to genre fiction. [In fact, she addresses this directly at one point – literary and genre are marketing distinctions. It’s not for the writer to worry about. Just write the best book you can]. I listened to most of this one night lying down in a dark room because I had a migraine, so I didn’t take notes (although, I did have an idea in the middle of and had to find a piece of paper to write it down). I’d say this was an inspiring and practical guide to being a novelist. If you’re familiar with story, you’ll know most of it. If you’re new, it’s brilliant.

Mira Nair – Masterclass on  Independent filmmaking

Okay, another one that doesn’t have that much to do with writing, but I love her work (especially Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, both of which gave me the confidence to write This Stolen Life). This is about storytelling in a different medium. The people aspect of directing was fascinating, especially the practical scene where she pretty much pulls a super emotional performance out of an actor. Really interesting. 4 pages of notes

James Patterson – Masterclass on Writing

I wasn’t intending to watch this – I’ve read a couple of JP’s books but wouldn’t consider myself a fan. I caught a short part of one and found him, as a person, incredibly engaging. Seriously, he is so easy to listen to! 

This is another nuts and bolts course. Very solid with useful takeaways. I genuinely enjoyed all of it! 2 pages of notes. 

Other random courses that I took (you know, for fun):

Steve Martin – Masterclass on Comedy

Another one that’s inspiring. There are some great anecdotes, but not much that you can apply directly. But then again, I’m not a standup comedian, so maybe I missed some stuff. No notes.

Sara Blakely  – the founder of Spanx – Masterclass on Self-made Entrepreneurship

I wanted to watch this because my day job is university tech transfer – taking new inventions and working out where the market is. I wanted to find out how someone took one good idea and turned it into a global empire. Sara has a level of hustle that I don’t think I could manage. By the end of the class, I was properly in awe of her. I genuinely enjoyed this. It’s got nothing to do with writing, however, so YMMV. 11 pages of notes

Chris Voss – Masterclass on Negotiation

I stumbled across this one by accident. I watched one episode and was hooked. It’s very compelling. I’m not sure I’d manage to apply most of these techniques (I guess I’d have to practice a lot), but at least now I’d recognise a negotiation technique when it’s being used on me. I don’t mean that it would put me off, people being engaged and willing to negotiate without being antagonistic can only be a good thing. Anyway, fascinating stuff. 

As you can see, there’s a huge variety of famous people that you can take lessons from. Each class comes with a workbook, which has exercises and notes that follow on from the classes. You can download these as PDFs to work through later.

I’ve only looked at the classes that  interested me as a writer. There’s classes on science (Chris Hadfield! Neil Degrasse Tyson!), cooking, game design, economic theory, magic … with more being added on a regular basis. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably something in there of interest. 

As a writer, I think what you get out of it might depend on where you are in your writing journey. If you’re quite new, you’ll find TONS of useful stuff – absolutely bucketloads of it. If you’ve been writing for a while and know the basic things about storytelling,  you’ll pick up a few nuggets here and there. I enjoyed seeing how the best people work. I really enjoyed learning about writing for screen, which is not something I do. I picked up some interesting techniques that will help me when I think about story for the next book. 

Is there a ‘best’ way to do a Masterclass?

I tended to watch the lessons one after the other, making notes if I felt I needed to remember something. It was a sort of binge watch. I’m not sure it was the best way to get value from them. On the one hand, the information pours in (and I like that), on the other hand, there isn’t time to fully absorb. I think it might be better to watch each lesson, then do the exercises. I also didn’t engage as much as I could have in the forums. If I’d had more time on a daily basis, I would have, because with forums you tend to get more out of them if you participate regularly. 

Some of the tutors do ‘office hours’ – where you can email them a question and they will send a reply within a day or two. 

I really enjoyed my year of doing Masterclass lessons. I could have done many more courses, but I had to do inconvenient things like sleeping and feeding the kids. Still, I like to think I got my money’s worth.

Have you tried Masterclass.com? Which ones did you do?

Book Review: A Seagull Summer by Jane Lovering

A Seagull Summer
A Seagull Summer by Jane Lovering

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leah is in Dorset collecting seaweed samples for her research. She’s socially awkward and possibly not neurotypical. She’s really, really bad at talking to people.
Brendon is a Australian tourist who is visiting the area trying to find out what happened to his great-grandfather. He has absolutely no problem talking to people. He’s the ray of sunshine that Leah is not.
Brendon is terrified of seagulls. Roger is a hand-reared seagull who has taken a shine to Leah.
Leah is a person with a lot of baggage and the reasons why she is like she is are revealed slowly as the story progresses. The supporting characters are realistic (and sometimes funny) as they always are in Jane Lovering’s books.
There were some very dramatic parts and some bits that made me laugh out loud. I really enjoyed reading this book.
I received a review copy of this book from Netgalley.

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Book review: Get a Life Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Get a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters, #1)Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. I loved how measured Chloe was and how her disability was depicted – not just how she felt, but how she adapted everything to live her life. I loved the family dynamic between the sisters too.
Red is a big scary tattooed biker dude, but is an artist at heart. I liked how his experience of an abusive relationship was portrayed because ‘abuse’ covers so much more than one person beating up another.

Warm, witty and funny. I had fun reading this.

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RoNA Awards 2020

At the start of this week, I went to the RoNA Awards 2020. As you probably know, my novel A Convenient Marriage, written as Jeevani Charika, was shortlisted for the Contemporary Romantic Fiction Novel award. Since it was a very Sri Lankan book that was nominated, I wore a sari and the bling.

Bella Osborne, me, Jules Wake, Sophie Kinsella, Sue Moorcroft, Victoria Walters and Carole Matthews

I didn’t win (sob), but I had a great time. It really helped that I had enjoyed the book that DID win (A Summer to Remember by Sue Moorcroft – which I’ve reviewed here). My friend Jenni Fletcher also won her category with Miss Amelia’s Mistletoe Marquess – which I’m reading at the moment.

Cover showing brown henna patterned hands, making a heart shape

It was a lovely ceremony. I was on the same table as Anton Du Beke off the telly, who was unfailingly charming. Milly Johnson, who got an Outstanding Acheivement award, gave the most amazing speech that moved us all to tears. You can see the full speech on YouTube.

I’m back at home now and glad to be back. Now I need to get on with writing the next book.