Best Books of 2015

This has been my first year of blogging and it’s really changed the way I read. I’ve read more, for a starter – partly because I wanted to have enough to blog about, and partly because I’ve been introduced to so many amazing new books.

I was a little torn when writing this as a lot of the amazing books I read this year weren’t published into 2015, but I decided to make this post about books that were published this year – sorry to some of the incredible books that missed out because they were published earlier!

So in no particular order, here are my top 10 reads of 2015:

10

The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

21936988

Aside from having the most beautiful book cover in the world, this book had a wonderfully crafted fantasy land that just made me want to read more – good job the sequel is out early next year!

9

All of the Above by James Dawson

cover71836-medium

This book just spoke to me in the way it dealt with love and relationships and sexuality: it’s about who you love, not what gender they are.

8

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson

23346317

This tale of deception is the perfect historical read and I couldn’t get through it fast enough. Everything about the characters was just perfect.

7

Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

23357071

This book kicked off my obsession with the Red Eye series and is by far the scariest thing I read in 2015.

6

Me & Mr J by Rachel McIntyre

23368733

This tale of inappropriate love and horrific bullying was a perfect read – so much so I even got my youngest sister reading it (and these days she only reads Geek Girl).

5

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

18692431

I read this book in a day and was left reeling by it. Expect massive plot twists and extreme emotions in this incredible debut.

4

Darkmere by Helen Maslin

25209891

This book was creepy as hell and one of the best dual narrative books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a brilliant debut and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

3

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

23058402

This book tackled a subject I’ve not really read about before, and it was incredibly emotional and eye opening. As well as being a great read, I think you can learn a lot from it.

2

Seed by Lisa Heathfield

23711685

This book broke my heart a little, and contained some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read. The sequel can’t come soon enough.

1

Asking for It by Louise O’Neill

25255576

This one gave me so many (mostly horrible) emotions and left me stunned after. I think it’s a really important teenage read and if you haven’t read it yet then get on it!

2015 has been such a great year for reading and I can’t wait to see what 2016 brings!

Book Review: Vendetta (Catherine Doyle)

Publisher: Chicken House

Pages: 352

Release Date: February 24th 2015

Summary:

When it comes to revenge, love is a dangerous complication.With a fierce rivalry raging between two warring families, falling in love is the deadliest thing Sophie could do. An epic debut set outside modern-day Chicago.

When five brothers move into the abandoned mansion in her neighbourhood, Sophie Gracewell’s life changes forever. Irresistibly drawn to bad boy Nicoli, Sophie finds herself falling into a criminal underworld governed by powerful families. As the boys’ dark secrets begin to come to light, Sophie is confronted with stinging truths about her own family, too. She must choose between two warring dynasties – the one she was born into, and the one she is falling in love with. When she does, blood will spill and hearts will break.

Review:

I won this book in a competition by Sally at The Dark Dictator so massive thanks to her for the copy 🙂

This book was just wonderful. It was so easy to read, each sitting I just didn’t want to put it down (and this was during a bit of a reading slump so that’s impressive!) It felt very much like a modern day Romeo and Juliet – girl meets boy, boy and girl’s families are at war, chaos ensues. As a Shakespeare fan this works great for me: if you’re not then don’t be put off. It doesn’t follow the exact plot of the star-crossed lovers, plus it’s all very modern, full of mafia men, guns and danger.

Our narrator, Sophie, is a perfectly written protagonist – she’s smart and funny, vulnerable but able to look after herself, and just read like a real person. On reflection, I did see her getting ‘rescued’ by the male characters a little too often for my liking, but there were plenty of other times when she was busy standing on her own two feet just fine. I was worried there was a little hint of Twilight about the story, but even if there are similarities, it’s so well written and has such well rounded characters that it doesn’t really matter.

The idea of four young, sexy Italian men moving into the neighbourhood is probably enough to make most teens swoon (and some of us not-so-teens!) and the descriptions of the brothers were brilliant. They all had very distinct personalities and didn’t just feel like a bunch of eye candy. If one of them did, for me it was Nic, which is a shame as he is supposed to be our Romeo. I just found myself much more interested in the relationship between Sophie and Luca – I saw a lot more tension and sparks there.

The book moves quickly from action to action, building up to a climax that had me reading far too fast just so I could finish and see what happened (seriously, I should probably read the last few chapters again because I skim read it really fast). There were some funny moments, some very romantic moments and the whole thing was on enjoyable and exciting ride. I’m very much looking forward to the next installation, which is coming very soon!

4

If you enjoyed this, you might like The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

IT’S CHRISTMAASSS!!

Well, nearly anyway 😉

I’m writing this early on Christmas eve. I’ve finished work for the year (which is a massive relief, having not had a real holiday since last December) and am excited to go spend some time with my family. I thought I’d share a few of my favourite Christmas traditions/what makes Christmas so special for me.

  • Christmas has pretty much stayed the same for me since I was a kid. I’ve spent the majority of them with my mom and step-dad and sisters, with the exception of a few years when I was younger and we alternated Christmas with my dad (best thing about divorced parents = 2 Christmases!)

  • We don’t go anywhere or do anything or see anyone on Christmas – it’s just us ‘immediate family’ – basically those who live in the house/me and my sister now we’ve moved out. I know for some people Christmas means big family gatherings but that’s never how we’ve done it. Boxing Day is for seeing people, Christmas is just for us.

  • Right from the first Christmas I can remember we’ve had ‘bed presents’. They were exciting as kids but now I see how smart my mom was being too. When my older sister and I were young, we’d wake up Christmas morning with a video on our beds – it was the only present we were allowed to open without our parents there. The bed presents kept us quiet as we could go downstairs and watch a film until it was a reasonable time to wake our parents up. And this still happens every year – only with DVDs now, obviously!

  • Me and my three sisters all have beautiful stockings that our auntie made us and I love seeing them all laid out. They’re all very different, but very special as Auntie Astrid sewed them herself and cross stitched our names on them – I’m hoping she’ll make one for baby when it’s born next year too.

  • My favourite thing about Christmas is hard to pick out. I love the atmosphere, I love the food, and I love having some time to just relax and be with family.

I promised my little sisters that I’d come home for Christmas until I had a child of my own, so that means this is my last Christmas with them. I’m going to enjoy every second of it as my last ‘childish’ Christmas, and I’m really looking forward to celebrating next year with just me, Nathan and our baby 🙂

Work and Pregnancy

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time and I’m finally getting round to it now. Apologies and all for the delay, but maybe once you’ve read you’ll understand where all my time has been going!

I was pretty nervy about telling work I was pregnant. At the time my job was temporary. I took it last year as a six month temp contract, and it just kept getting extended. I fitted in well with the team, worked hard and knew I was needed, so never really worried about being let off. But once a baby was thrown into the equation, it did start to worry me.

Because I worked through an agency, I had to do the ‘telling work I’m pregnant’ thing twice – once with my agent and then again with my boss. The agent was pretty nice about it and explained how things would work with antenatal appointments and such, but she did sound a little annoyed to me (though that could all be in my head). I was worried that the news would just be a burden to employers, which is understandable but hey, these things happen.

I was even more worried about telling my actual boss. I shouldn’t have been, because she’s only ever been lovely and supportive, but I’m a worrier so that’s all I do! She’d arranged a private one-to-one for us one day so I was going to tell her then, which is when she dropped her own bombshell first – there was another job opening in a different department which she thought I should go for. It would be full time, permanent work, much better money and did I want to go for it?

As you can imagine, my initial reaction was OMGyespleaseIwouldloveto (I kind of fell into the temping thing and it’s not the best of careers in my opinion – too much instability/uncertainty for my liking). But then, of course, I had to tell her my own news, and I was pretty sure that was going to ruin everything. Who wants to hire someone who’s planning to take a six month baby-holiday soon?

Well, my new boss did, apparently 🙂

I was lucky in that she was very keen to have me, and thought the work I could do between then (September) and my maternity leave (February) was worth any kind of hassle that might occur during the months I was off. It showed a lot of faith in me and I’m really grateful that I got the opportunity. It’s a relief to have a secure job, especially with a baby on the way.

The only problem really was that Nathan and I had just moved house to be nearer his job, which means I’ve been commuting for between 4 and 5 hours a day (hence where all my time goes – on trains and buses!) The plan before was to stick it out until the baby arrived, and then find a new job after maternity – with childcare and travel costs, my temp wage just wasn’t going to cut it. But this new job threw a bit of a spanner in the works.

So now I’m learning to drive, in the hopes that this will make the travelling a bit easier. I’m hoping once I’m not so worn out by the pregnancy things will be a little easier too – it’s hard enough being pregnant and tired all the time, but when you’re up before 5 every day and not sleeping through the night as it is, it definitely takes it toll.

I find I can’t do much when travelling except read, and often not even that (travel time is often nap time now!) This is why my blogging has been a bit more sporadic of late, and why I’ve barely even looked at my WIP (a fact that makes me feel both guilty and sad)

I keep reminding myself that it’s just for a few more weeks really, what with Christmas and some other holiday time to take as well. We have some plans for the future that I won’t mention here just yet, but hopefully when I return to work near the end of next year, things will be a little easier, I’ll be travelling less, and I’ll have a lot more time for blogging and writing 🙂

Book Review: The Jewel (Amy Ewing)

Publisher: Walker Books

Pages: 368

Release Date: September 4th 2014

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Today is my last day as Violet Lasting. Tomorrow I become Lot 197.”

The Jewel is a shocking and compelling new YA series from debut author, Amy Ewing.

Sold for six million diamantes, Violet is now Surrogate of the House of the Lake in the centre of the Lone City, the Jewel. Her sole purpose is to produce a healthy heir for the Duchess – a woman Violet fears and despises.

Violet is trapped in a living death, her name and body no longer her own. She fights to hold on to her own identity and sanity, uncertain of the fate of her friends, isolated and at the mercy of the Duchess.

Review:

I’ve had my eye on this book for a while, and when someone tipped me off that it was going for free on iTunes I snapped it right up.

The book was actually everything I hoped for. It reminded me a lot of what I wanted The Selection to be. While I did enjoy The Selection, it was a bit of a light and fluffy read – while enjoyable, it didn’t have the depth it needed to really pull the story line off. There were much darker elements to this book and it came off really well.

Violet isn’t your badass, warrior kind of hero but she has her own kind of strength and rebels in the small ways that she can – defacing a painting, looking out for her friends, falling in love. While she isn’t leading any kind of revolution at the moment, it does feel like she could be heading that way.

I guess there were a few elements of inst-love in Violet’s relationship, but I could kind of understand it too – for someone who’s been isolated from men her whole life and been brought up just to carry someone else’s child, I understood that she could quite easily fall for the first man she meets who shows the slightest bit of interest in her. Ash is a little bland as a character really, but the similarities in his lifestyle compared to Violet’s makes things a little more interesting.

In this book, Violet is very much a puppet to those around her, whether she is doing the bidding of the Duchess who owns her, or that of Lucas, who promises he can free her. I’m hoping that she’ll come into her own even more as the series progresses. I’d love for the darker elements of the story: the rights of the surrogates, being impregnated then giving up your child, and what happens after the surrogates give birth, will be explored more in the next book.

4

Guest Post – Helen Maslin: My Journey to Publication

Today on the blog, Helen Maslin talks about her journey to publication with her debut YA book Darkmere. Welcome Helen!

My Journey to Publication began when I joined a creative writing group which met in a pub at the end of the road. It was really good fun. Some of the other members were extremely talented – such as the lovely Kate Riordan who landed a deal with Penguin around the same time I was offered a contract with Chicken House. Knowing I would have to read something aloud to writers who were so good forced me to get better quickly!

One group member – a retired PE teacher, was deeply disapproving of any swearing or sexual references in our writing. Of course this prompted other members to read out increasingly obscene stories while the rest of us tried hard not to giggle. One week, I worked hard on a story featuring a trans character without considering what this particular woman might make of it. When I finished reading, I looked up to see that she’d gone puce! She broke into a furious lecture – in front of everyone else – in which she pointed out that she was here to learn how to write and I’d wasted her time and money. She ended by slamming a pile of thick text books about grammar down on the pub table. I can remember staring at those books during the silence that followed and thinking: ‘Don’t cry…remember you’re a grown-up…don’t cry…don’t cry…’

Later of course, I stopped feeling upset and felt angry instead. I was angry that I hadn’t told her how rude she was. Angry that hundreds of schoolgirls must’ve had to turn to her for their PSHE advice. And angry that she’d said my writing was worthless – and there was nothing I could say or do to disprove this. Apart from get it published. Negative criticism can be as useful as encouragement when it come to spurring you on – I probably should’ve thanked her in the acknowledgements.

‘My firm belief: anger and spite are the best writing motivators. I can’t do what? *middle finger* Watch me.’ (Patrick Ness on Twitter)

One person, I did thank in the acknowledgements was the tutor of the writing group – Judith Green, who was brilliantly inspiring. She told me I didn’t need anyone’s permission to be a writer, I was allowed to simply go and do it. (Secretly, I took this as her permission to go and be a writer.) So it was a very proud moment when I finally posted a shiny copy of my debut to her.

My first attempt was rejected, as most first novels are. In fact, I had to force myself to send it to a reasonable number of agents (13), because I knew after the first few rejection letters, it simply wasn’t good enough. I was disappointed of course, but I’d learnt so much from it I was already eager to move on and write the next story. It wasn’t worthless – it taught me that I could keep going until I’d written a full-length book. I just needed to think up an actual, you know – plot, for the next one.

It took me another a year, but I enjoyed it. I knew my writing was improving and I knew I would eventually finish it. This time, I was braver with my subject matter. I set some chapters in the past and tried to come up with historical details. I added a ghostly element, an ancient curse – oh, and even some murders. I had fun!

‘Enjoying the actual writing is the thing. If you do that, then you’ve won.’

 

That’s a quote from writer Rachel Ward during a Twitter chat the other night. She was responding to questions about the negative aspects of being published. She’s right too. Enjoying the writing is the only thing that matters in the end.

On the other hand, the submissions process was a lot less fun the second time round. The first time I’d tried it, I blithely expected my terrible first novel to be snapped up simply because I’d written so many words. I’d bought the Artists and Writers Yearbook (2012) and spent a fortune on stamps, giant envelopes and rubber bands for my paper submissions – mostly because it made me feel like a real writer. The second time, I was more practical. Paper submissions were on the way out and I really didn’t need another Yearbook, so I didn’t spend any money. And this time I steeled myself for the rejections that were the likeliest outcome.

I sent another thirteen submissions out – a few at a time – by email and then I waited. Most aspiring writers will be familiar with The Wait. I started a new book, redecorated the house, baked cakes, took up painting, sewing, volunteering at my children’s school – anything I could think of to distract me from The Dreaded Wait. Some rejections came quickly; others took longer and made me wonder if an agent had been considering me. And all the time the hope gradually seeped out of me like I had a slow puncture.

Of course I got the ‘Didn’t love it enough’s, the ‘Not quite right for our list’s and the ‘Not taking on anything new right now’s…and then after almost two months… ‘I really like your writing and it would be great to read the entire manuscript’.

Wait – what?

The email was from Rowan Lawton of FurnissLawton. A real, live agent, who liked my writing. I was thrilled, but I tried very hard not to get too excited. After all, I had writing-group friends who’d got to this stage and been turned down – it was still the likeliest outcome. I spent the following month checking the email on my phone to make sure I hadn’t imagined it, and murmuring ‘Wow!’ very quietly when it was still there. After a week or two my children were pleading with me to stop with all the ‘Wowing!’

The next email from Rowan asked whether I had submitted to any other agents…which seemed promising and of course, started up all the “Wowing!” again.

The following month, she sent me pages of detailed editing suggestions which seemed totally OBVIOUS the moment I read them. (Although I knew perfectly well I’d never have figured any of them out without someone pointing me in the right direction.) I set to work on the edits and two months later Rowan invited me to her offices in Kew for coffee. Hurrah! After a mere nine months – agent achievement unlocked!

That wasn’t the end of the edits, though – there were plenty more for me to wade through before Rowan began submitting the manuscript to publishers. At the end of 2013, she called to ask if I’d like to go to Frome to meet the Chicken House team and maybe pick up a little feedback on my MS.

To be honest, I can’t remember much about it. I was too weirded-out on excitement and nerves. My impression of the Chicken House offices is that they were bright and homely and mis-matched and arty – with piles of books and box-files everywhere. And everyone was so nice.

We talked about books and writing and publishing. And Barry Cunningham gave me a copy of Chamber of Secrets dedicated to my ten-year-old son and signed by boy wizard himself (Barry is one of only three people who can legally sign things with Harry potter’s signature – the other two being JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe). Do you see what I mean about the niceness?

I got The Call on Friday 7th February 2014… My agent said, ‘Can you speak? I have news.’

She told me she’d received an offer from Chicken House and used words like ‘contract’ and ‘foreign rights’ and ‘your editor’, but I don’t think I took much of it in. Over the top of her voice, I kept thinking ‘You’re a writer…an actual writer…this is what you do now…you can tell people and everything…’

I wanted to tell my husband – as if telling someone else would make it feel real. But he was in a meeting at work and couldn’t take my call. In the end I sent him a text message – ‘Have got book deal. Am author.’

But it didn’t feel real for a long time.

Sometimes, it still doesn’t.

In June of 2014 my contract arrived and my husband took a photo of me signing it. After I posted it on Twitter, my editor Rachel Leyshon took a photo of Barry signing it when it reached the Chicken House offices.

DSC06528

photo (4)

Being an author turned out to mostly involve editing, editing and more editing. There were structural edits, line edits, copy edits and edits I’ve probably forgotten about. When my story had been changed – almost beyond recognition – I edited some more. So I burst out laughing (hysterically) when it still received a review on Amazon recently that read: ‘I am only giving it four stars as I felt it could have done with a sharper editing hand.’

Not that I can complain – I’ve been very lucky with reviews, both on Amazon and Goodreads. And some of the comments on various book blogs have made me teary with gratitude. Those reviews have made up for any number of rejection letters. They’ve made me grin soppily for hours – days even. They’ve made me want to track down each reviewer and hug them. My earliest and nicest reviews came from Morag and Lorna Haddow. From Michelle Toy, Sally B and Michelle Moore. Seriously, bloggers are some of the loveliest, most generous people in the world – and they make writers feel as if having a book out there isn’t so scary after all.

Darkmere was published on 6th August 2015 and real people began to tell me they’d bought it. Or read it. Or even enjoyed it. Twitter friends sent me pictures of Darkmere on the shelves of their local bookshops. I had a launch party and signed copies – which felt so weird. But good weird. Very good weird!

From early cover designs…

B0Is1BxCYAAc_I6

…to finished book.

FullSizeRender (1)

And – of course – I want to do it again. I want to hear my children say ‘My mum’s a writer,’ rather than ‘My mum wrote a book once.’

I know that it’s possible to be published now – truly, anyone can do it!

Perhaps the hardest thing about writing a second book is that knowledge that real people will definitely see the results of those terrible early drafts one day.

But I’ve printed out the best bits of my most inspiring emails or reviews and hung them in tiny frames in a corner of the attic where I write. Hopefully, I’ll get to add more frames one day…

IMG_0927

Book Review: Darkmere (Helen Maslin)

Publisher: Chicken House

Pages: 368

Release Date: August 6th 2015

Summary (from Goodreads):

A castle. A curse. A dangerous summer.

Leo has invited Kate and a few friends to spend the summer at his inheritance, Darkmere Castle: as wild and remote as it is beautiful. Kate thinks it will be the perfect place for her and Leo to get together – but instead, she’s drawn into the dark story of a young nineteenth-century bride who haunts the tunnels and towers of the house. And whose curse now hangs over them all.

Review:

I’ve been waiting for ages to read this book and finally caved in and bought it (I was trying to be good and save money but once again my reading urges got the better of me). I’ve followed Helen Maslin on Twitter for a while and heard a lot about the book and knew it sounded right up my street. After meeting her at the last #UKYAExtravaganza I couldn’t resist buying it any longer.

A word of warning: I wouldn’t recommend reading this alone if you’re easily scared! I was about half way through and reading it at home on my own and every little sound made me jump. We have a creaky old house, which doesn’t help, and when someone knocked on the door I’m pretty sure my heart stopped!

This is a dual narrative book, which I’m sometimes wary of: I always find that I prefer one to the other and just want to skip ahead to their bits. This wasn’t the case in this book though: both character’s stories were really compelling, and while I might get to the end of a Kate chapter and want to carry on reading her, I’d be sucked into Elinor’s story after a few short sentences.

Elinor’s story was really sad. I felt so badly for the two sisters who so disappointed their unsympathetic mother, and it was horrible to see their relationship fall apart. Elinor’s story came with a real sense of being trapped: in the castle, in her room, in an awful marriage. It reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper in some ways, which is one of my favourite stories. There was also some awful pregnancy/childbirth bits which made me sad/scared and should have come with a warning for a pregnant woman!

Kate’s story, on the other hand, was more relatable. We’ve all been there, trying to fit in with a new group of people, not able to really be yourself or truly relax around them. I felt Kate’s anxiety, especially around Leo. While I liked him instinctively at first, it soon faded as the castle brought out another side to him – I didn’t feel it changed him so much as revealed his true, rather manipulative self.

The book was full of surprises and never quite went where I expected it to. Both narratives are accompanied by a heavy sense of dread: you know it’s building up to something awful and the tension is almost unbearable. The Gothic setting of the castle only adds to this – you’re screaming at them in your head to get out of there but at the same time want to stick around and see what happens.

This book had me gripped and on the edge of my seat for the entire, creepy journey. I’m a big fan of the horror stories that are becoming popular in YA at the moment, and this sits among the best of them. I can’t wait to see what Helen Maslin has for us next!

Copy of an art exhibit

Check out my guest post from Darkmere author Helen Maslin