Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

Beside Myself

Ellie and Helen are twins, and decide to play a game. They switch places, exchanging their clothes and hairstyles, to see if anyone can tell the difference. The game is going brilliantly, until Ellie refuses to switch back.

Helen finds herself in a waking nightmare- all her belongings, her friends, the special preference her mother has for her- they belong to Ellie now. And nobody will believe the truth. She is driven to delinquency, while Ellie becomes a star pupil and the most loved twin. 25 years later, Helen has lost sight of who she is and fallen into a deep depression. Until a phone call pulls her back into the past, and forces her to face Ellie, the sister who stole her identity.

This is a dark and ominous novel, appproaching an idea that I haven’t seen explored before. Can you imagine having your identity stolen by the person closest to you? Being unrecognisable to your own mother? The situation is unthinkable and this is what makes the book so gripping. Forced to be someone else, Helen begins to lose herself. Ann Morgan makes Helen real, forcing us into her world and into her mental illness. She writes so convincingly that parts of the book actually made me feel depressed, but please don’t let this put you off. The author places us in the minds of her characters- if that’s not a sign of a good writer, then I don’t know what is.

“Sometimes I think I have made it up. Days come where it feels like the whole thing is a story inside my head and there was never any swap and any game.”

Beside Myself is a phsycological thriller that has the reader following Helen’s story on tenterhooks. The way the author highlights the difference between what people see in a mentally ill person and who they really are was an eye-opener for me. Helen has so much emotion and inner torment, she is desperate for help, yet none of this can be seen from the outside. The books leads us through the events that have broken this person, that have led her to the deepest state of depression, and we see that it is the actions of others that have made her this way, not her own mistakes. It explores the stigma that goes with mental illness, the lack of empathy often shown towards people who suffer from it, and was truly heartbreaking.

The characters of this book come alive on the page, and we can observe how they grow, see what changes and influences them. Helen and Ellie are at once very different from and similar to each other- I have loved and hated both of them at different times.The strong point in this novel is definitely its characterization.

Beside Myself is a story about personal identity, relationships and mental illness. It reminds us of the powerlessness we feel in childhood, of what it is like to be patronised, to be treated like a liar. It’s about a child who feels unloved. But it is also a story of hope. It’s a story that says that your identity can never really be taken away, because the true you will shine through the mask. You will always be you and you cannot pretend to be somebody else, because the essence of who you are, the traits you were born with, the things you love, can never truly be hidden.

Beside Myself will be released on January 14 2016. You can pre-order a copy here.

Image Credits: Bloomsbury Publishing

The Good Neighbour by Beth Miller

Typewritered The Good Neigbour Beth Miller

Although The Good Neigbour is not the sort of genre I usually read, I thought I’d give it a go, and I’m glad I did.

Minette is a new mother whose neighbour Cath and her two children have just moved in next door. Cath and Minette become firm friends, and Cath seems like the perfect mother, handling a handicapped son and young daughter while particpating in the triathlon for charity and being on the run from an abusive husband. Cath is reluctant to speak about her past, and Minette puts it down to painful memories. But when she witnesses something she shouldn’t, she finds herself having to choose between her friend and her own conscience.

This book was gripping, with a fast paced plot line and authentic characters. It’s easy to read but keeps you on your toes, with several plot twists that slowly reveal a shocking secret.

The novel is told from three points of view: Minette, Cath, and Cath’s son Davey. This was intelligently done because it allowed me relate with all the characters and get into their heads, experiencing their inner battles with them. Even villains are the heroes of their own stories, and although some of the characters in this book are not always “the good guys”, it was interesting to know the motivations and decisions behind their actions.

Those who read my reviews know that I enjoy writing that is poetic, with long, flowery descriptions. Beth’s writing isn’t like this, but it is clear, straight-forward and to the point, which is exactly what is needed for such a fast moving plot line.

The Good Neighbour is a real page turner and I would recommend.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels Leslie Parry review Typewritered

The Church of Marvels was an enchanting read, following four people whose lives become beautifully intertwined. Twins Belle and Odile grew up in a circus, Church of Marvels, alongside a pair of tigers and a group of people with extraordinary talents. At the opening of the book, they have just watched it burn down, their mother and friends inside. Belle vanishes and Odile is desperate to find her. Sylvan is a night soiler whose life changes when he finds a newborn baby girl in the privies he cleans. Alphie, a former prostitute, wakes up in a living nightmare- she has arrived at an asylum for the insane with no recollection of how she got there.

The story is set in 1890’s Manhattan but it seems like a fantasy world of Parry’s own making. Her depiction of knife swallowing, underground rooms where orphaned children perform plays, opium dens where people of all backgrounds lie high in the dark and fights that are treated like spectacles in an abandoned pier come together to create a novel full of colour. Featuring an incredibly unexpected plot twist, it is about finding the marvellous in the ordinary, pulling together the themes of kindness, suffering, the love between mother and child and prejudice towards those who are different. The author slowly releases hints throught the plot to allow the reader to discover the secrets that lie in the hearts of these spellbinding characters.

“We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be. This, she said, is the tiger in the grass. It’s the wonder that hides in plain sight, the secret life that flourishes just beyond the screen. For you are not showing them a hoax or a trick, just a new way of seeing what’s already in front of them. This, she told me, is your mark on the world. This is the story that you tell.”


Thoughts on ‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman Typewritered

This post contains spoilers.

I was thrilled when the news came out that Harper Lee had written a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird and that it was going to be published. I was even more thrilled and intrigued when I learned that this sequel was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird but had been abandoned on advice from the publisher in a favour of a new manuscript starring younger versions of Lee’s characters. So Jean Louise the adult had existed before Jean Louise the child. Interesting.

I was relieved to read that Jean Louise the adult was just as plucky and fierce as her younger self. Obviously, it is difficult to read the sequel of such a famous piece of literature without having expectations. I loved the book and couldn’t put it down, although it wasn’t a thrilling page-turner like the first. The plot seems to waver in the second half and is replaced by Jean Louise’s train of thought, her inner turmoils and long interior monologues. It became a little less about action and more a debate, Jean Louise’s witty and sacrcastic reactions to the subject of racism, and to the fact that as she becomes an adult she is realising that the people she loves are a lot less accepting than she previously believed.

After  closing the book, I realised it’s not about who is racist and who is not. It’s about Jean Louise becoming her own person, and Atticus, who she puts at the same moral level as God, becoming human, with fault, fears, regrets and weaknesses. It turns out that the famous Atticus supports white supremacy. Atticus, who has always taught his children to be kind and fair, who always stood for justice, is joining white supremist groups and expressing his opposition to having black people in government. In To Kill a Mockingbird, he defended a black man against his white accusers, and although Atticus is a kind man, we realise that Scout’s childhood adoration of him depicted him as liberal, egalitarian non-racist man, when actually in defending this black man he was simply doing his job as a lawyer and making sure justice was served.

Although he is not a violent racist, Atticus is a man of his time. What he really is a white southern man raised during a time when black people were surpressed and whose father fought for the confederate side in the Civil War. Atticus is on the side of the law and will defend whoever is right, black or white, but ultimately sees black people as a threat to society. His ignorance creates the desire in him to “preserve” southern society because his view is and has always been that black people are not “ready” to take on the freedoms being offered to them. Another era of reconstruction was upon the South at this time and people feared how much their society was to change yet again faced with black empowerment, 100 years after slavery had been abolished.

Although I loved Atticus less for it, I am glad Harper Lee have him a daughter who inherited the better parts of him. Scout is not a racist, because her father never taught her to differentiate between black or white. Jean Louise is effectively “colour blind.” This suggests that Jean Louise’s children’s generation should have all trace of racism squashed out of them, if their parents had been raised the same ways as Atticus raised his daughter. We know, of course, that in real life this was not the case.

This was a beautiful, albeit different novel which gave insight to life in the postbellum South. It was one that made me think, and I loved going back to long-loved characters. I will never be able to read To Kill a Mockingbird in the same way ever again, but I think the way Atticus’s whole character in that first novel is actually just his child’s perception of him is genius. Harper Lee strikes again.

Interview with Rebecca Mascull- Song of the Sea Maid

image1 (1)After reading Song of the Sea Maid, (I loved it so much I reviewed it) I was impatient to discuss the book with the author, Rebecca Mascull. Rebecca is also the writer behind The Visitors, which we talked about here . She is currently working on her third novel.

You started with the idea of a female scientist breaking society’s conventions by travelling unaccompanied for research; where did you go from there?

In this novel, I wanted to explore the notion that some people in the past may have had revolutionary scientific ideas and yet they had no power or voice within society to make those ideas heard. Thus, making my scientist female and also destitute – with no home, no capital, no connections – would place her in a very disadvantaged position within 18th-century society. I researched the Enlightenment and the kind of ideas that were going around at the time and I wanted to place her at the centre of that and yet, at the same time, be very isolated and unable to share her ideas with many people. I wanted to put lots of obstacles in her path and see how she negotiated them.

Dawnay is an intriguing character. Is she entirely fictional or did you borrow her from a history book? 

Thank you! I am glad you find her interesting. There are elements of her that have been influenced by female scientists of her day. If you want to read further, you should try ‘Hypatia’s Heritage’ by Margaret Alic. This fascinating book details the huge range of female scientists that there have been from antiquity. I read about how female scientists had to work doubly hard to demand the right to learn in the first place, let alone practise science. A good example of this is Sophie Germain, who battled with her parents to let her learn mathematics. So, Dawnay has elements of many of these trailblazers in her, yet I’d say in herself she is purely fictional.

Who arrived first in your mind: Dawnay the intelligent urchin-child or Dawnay the female scientist?

I knew that I wanted to write about the female scientist and I wanted it to be a kind of bildungsroman, looking at what formative experiences she would need to go through in order to create a scientist and also how her scientific mind would manifest itself in her early years. As I said above, I wanted her to start with nothing, so I thought the orphanage would be a good place for her to begin, particularly as the setting up of asylums and orphanages by benefactors was a bit of a fashion in the 18th-century, so it fit nicely with the times too. I visited the Coram Foundling Museum and learned about their daily routines – some of this material finds its way into Dawnay’s asylum, yet in some ways her experience is a little harsher. But, orphans being taught how to read and not how to write is absolutely accurate, and I felt how frustrating it would have been for children, yet also particularly for one with an enquiring mind like Dawnay’s. So I knew she would have to do something about that and circumvent it. And so she does!

Song of the Sea Maid has strong feminist themes- was this your intention from the start? 

Honestly, it wasn’t. I can see now the book is finished and I’ve heard it called a feminist story, that obviously it has those elements. But I didn’t set out to prove a point. I just wanted to place someone with no power in that setting and see how they got on. I like writing from the female point of view at the moment – in future I might try the male point of view as well – but it suits me right now to write from the female perspective. Once it was written, I realised that there were parallels with modern day struggles for girls to be educated in various places around the world, so in that way it is a timeless – or timely! – theme. I am particularly interested in characters who are determined to achieve a goal – male or female, doesn’t matter to me necessarily – but I want to see how they cope with the obstacles put in their way. I also like to explore the idea of what is lost along the way, what is sacrificed by people who are so single-minded. And so, with Dawnay, I realised that one of her tests must be to learn to value others and love itself as highly as she does her scientific quest. This could be true of a man or a woman. However, during my reading into the research surrounding early humans, I felt that there was a stark gender bias, not only in the interpretation of what has been found but also general public understanding of early humans. So, I felt it was a topic ripe for looking at with a female eye.

Did you visit the places Dawnay visits in the book yourself, and do you think it is possible for a writer to create an authentic story set in a place he/she has never visited?

I did visit London and went to the Foundling Museum as I said, and also to Dr Johnson’s House, to get the feel of an 18th-century London townhouse. I also visited Fairfax House in York, which was similar, and Burton Constable Hall near Hull, which has a scientific collection (that I will talk about in question 7!) As for Dawnay’s further travels, I have been to Portugal and Spain – albeit 20 years ago – and travelled in that area quite a bit. I remember going to visit ancient caves in northern Spain and seeing prehistoric handprints, which has always stayed with me. The details of the landscape, flora and fauna of the Berlengas Islands and of Menorca in that period I have built up a picture of from my research.

I do believe it is possible for a writer to create an authentic story about almost anything, as long as their research is thorough. It is not possible for every writer to visit every place they may want to write about. You have to do your best, use first person accounts and triple check all your facts. After that, it is up to you and your imagination. But after all, we are talking about fiction and at some point the reader has to trust the writer and willingly suspend their disbelief, or not. Of course, if you are writing historical fiction, you don’t have a time machine! So your re-creation of a setting from the past may well be helped by visiting that setting in the present day, but the atmosphere, the sounds, smells and sights are going to be highly reliant on both research and imagination. I would say, though, that if you can visit helpful settings then you should, as it can give you marvellous details you may not glean from only reading.

Can you talk to me about the research for this book? What did you have to look into and how long did it take? Where do you find the beautiful details like what people ate and what sort of strange objects Dawnay’s benefactor’s rooms would contain? The Petrified Tongues of Sea Monsters come to mind!

The research took about a year, but I was still looking things up as I was writing and the first draft took about eight months to complete. The main editing process took a further seven months or so. So there was a lot of work to be done! I talk about my research process here, in this Periscope video for Hachette’s #WhereIWrite:

Specifically, I visited Burton Constable Hall near Hull, as I’d heard they had a scientific collection from the 18th-century. And they certainly did! They had a full cabinet of curiosities – a room, actually – with glass cabinets and drawers stuffed with every kind of curious object an 18th-century naturalist could desire. Almost all of the details of Mr Woods’s collection comes from there. The fascinating thing, of course, is that in that age they didn’t always know what they were looking at, thus, a narwhal tusk is labelled as a unicorn horn! There were all sorts of weird pictures in books of mermaids and dragons and suchlike. So it was such an interesting period where myth and science collided. When I visited Fairfax House in York, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen looking at old menus from the 18th-century, in order to find out what kind of thing Mr Woods’s cook would be preparing. I had to find out the exact date when broccoli first started to be eaten in England, for example! For Portugal and Menorca, I had to rely on historical research – but I was lucky enough that my assistant editor Francine Toon grew up in Portugal, so she was able to verify some of the local delicacies.

Was there something in particular that drew you to the 18th century? I know from your Pinterest account that you stick pictures of the period you are writing about on your walls-what did that look like during the writing of Song of the Sea Maid? Did you do anything else to immerse yourself in the period/setting?

I chose the 18th-century because I wanted it to be a good long time before the developments surrounding Darwin’s theories. I wanted to imagine the scientific period in which religion, superstition and myth all overlapped with scientific investigation. Of course, the 18th-century was the period of the Enlightenment, yet people were still highly superstitious and of course many were deeply religious, so it became a kind of battlefield of the mind. I felt all in all it was the perfect stage for Dawnay’s ideas.

I do create picture walls for every novel I write- the cupboard doors in my study are covered in photocopies and printouts of the period and the particular topics involved in the novel. So, for Sea Maid this included a wide variety of 18th-century images, such as clothes, interiors and travel; also, photographs I took of the cabinet of curiosities; images from the age of sail; cave art, pictures of foreign settings etc. When I walk into my study to begin my day’s writing, I will often stand and stare at the images to try and transport myself into that world and shut out the modern world. It works pretty well! I also read a lot of fiction and non-fiction that was written in the 18th-century – such as Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne etc – and I really did start to think in 18th-century prose!

Do you research to add authenticity to pre-conceived ideas or do you also get ideas from what you read during research?

I think it’s a mixture of both. I start off with an outline of the story, but once I start researching the period and the necessary topics I do find myself discovering things I knew nothing about and these do often send the plot in directions I hadn’t imagined. But that’s fine! And all part of the process and the fun of writing.

What is your favourite part of the novel and which bit did you enjoy writing the most? 

I was writing most of this novel in the wintertime, and although I am more of an autumn person than I am of summer – I hate really hot weather – I did find myself really enjoying the bits in Portugal and Menorca, especially when she was paddling or wading in the Mediterranean, whilst the rain was coursing down my windowpane. It was perfect escapism in that way.

What is your advice to writers of historical fiction?

I’d say be as thorough as you can and always check your facts from more than one source. What I’ve found reading historical accounts is that so many are biased, either knowingly or unknowingly. I remember researching the Warsaw ghetto for a project once and finding that the accounts by Catholic Poles and Jewish Poles were quite different in their focus and interpretation of events and I learnt to seek a range of sources for any one fact. I think if you do that, you’ve covered yourself from a purist’s point of view and then within that – because you are after all writing fiction – you can have some leeway to invent. I like to think that I write within real history yet I place a fictional character within it and watch them move through it. I’m also a great believer that just because something has not been discovered yet, that doesn’t mean it never will. Nobody knows everything and when I see reviews that say, “That would never happen!”, I do think that in general it’s quite a presumptuous statement. For example, if you know nothing about the hidden history of female scientists you might say about this book, Well, she would never be able to travel abroad on her own or even learn to study science in the first place or be taken seriously by any men in that period. But my extensive research proves all of that wrong, and what’s more, I read about women travelling the globe on ships alone that got into far more dramatic scrapes than my heroine or even those who travelled and studied and came to no harm whatsoever. Truth really is stranger than fiction!

I’m not saying novelists don’t make mistakes – they do, all the time – but what counts for me is that the period is generally authentic and that the reader is convinced enough to have a willing suspension of disbelief. Having said that, there is always going to be someone who says they know more than you do. But perhaps the next time anyone finds themselves saying, That would never happen!, perhaps they should spend some time doing some pretty thorough research first…These days, I’ve learnt to write a detailed Author’s Note at the back of the book, which will hopefully answer some of the reader’s questions that may have been raised in their minds. Then if they want to go and research further, all the better! I’m all for learning, however it comes.

What can we expect next from you? 

I’m currently working on book 3 for Hodder and Stoughton. I can’t say much about it, but it is set in the Edwardian period and it begins just down the road from me, in Cleethorpes! Lovely place, if you’ve never visited!

Thanks Rebecca for another fascinating chat!