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Where do you stand on the body
image debate?

Yesterday saw the Victoria’s Secret 2018 Fashion Show play out in New York at Pier 94. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that it’s a much-anticipated global event that in recent times has been held in Shanghai, London, Miami and Los Angeles.

The models who walk for Victoria’s Secret are widely acknowledged to be the cream of the industry; they are also some of the most vilified women on the planet. Why? For having the temerity to be some of the most beautiful.

This morning I caught an item on breakfast television about body image that used the VS show as a peg. Engaged in the debate were two equally gorgeous and slender women; one for and one against the continued use of stereotypical pin-thin models for this kind of production. The piece also featured two attractive and much curvier women, gussied up to look like VS ‘Angels’: ie, wearing incredibly sexy lingerie, skyscraper heels and expansive feather wings.

They looked great; smokin’ hot, in fact. But should they have walked the runway in New York yesterday, in line with the Hadid sisters, Megan Williams, Candice Swanepoel, Ella Hosk and veteran Angel, Adriana Lima? Well, no – not in my opinion. Clothes simply lay better on very slender women. It’s not fair, but it is so and trying to shoehorn bigger ‘normal’ women into these garments does not present them at their very glamourous best.

Unrelated to VS but pertinent to the wider debate, I saw a post on Twitter this morning. It was from a sportswear brand that has recently branched into Shape-Wear; or for the uninitiated, stretchy underwear that sucks everything in and smooths everything out. In the photograph, it looked so pretty, that I found myself clicking the link to check it out. But OMG; the vitriol that this promo inspired was off the hook! Hundreds of tweets, many peppered with expletives, attacking the brand for its misogyny and fat-shaming. Calm down, peeps; it’s just a big pair of drawers. If you don’t like them, don’t buy them. Simple as.

Because here’s the thing: being offended by the way the fashion industry represents women is utterly pointless. It is what it is. Woman of all shapes, sizes, ages, cultures and colours can be (and are) beautiful, but VS is not just selling frilly bras and pants; above all, it’s selling fantasy. And to most people, the ethereal creatures that stalk the catwalk are exactly that.

Personally, I don’t want to see normal, bigger, human women representing VS. Should I be offended because I’m in my late fifties and the oldest woman on the runway was Adriana Lima, walking for the last time, at age 37? I am not offended, and neither should you be.

I’m appalled by so many aspects of modern living – we live in an imperfect world – but skinny models with long legs, shiny hair and great teeth isn’t one of them.

 

Book Review: Lies Between Us by Ronnie Turner

I’ve just finished and thoroughly enjoyed Ronnie Turner’s debut ‘Lies Between Us’ – if enjoyed is quite the right word for something so utterly macabre.

Personally, I like my psychological thrillers like my favourite chocolate; dark, bitter, well-crafted and satisfying. Conversely if you’re looking for a safe, predictable read – don’t even go there. Lies Between Us tackles some grim themes; infant death and child abduction to name a couple. But ultimately, this is a tale of obsession, narrated by three separate and very different characters: John, a successful author and devoted father, Maisie an ICU Nurse who cares deeply for her patients but hides her own pain and Miller, a weird and misunderstood kid, with a terrifying inner dialogue.

The plot flows between three timelines and I’d advise paying attention to these as you go along. At the heart of it sits the abduction of Bonnie, six-year-old daughter of John and his pregnant wife, Jules. Whilst there is no shortage of missing-child-thrillers (I’ve read four or five this year alone), the author manages to provide a fresh take.

I loved Ronnie Turner’s visceral writing style which raises no flags that Lies Between Us is her debut, and the pace was exactly what I wanted.

I enjoyed every riveting mile of the journey, but this is where I must fess up and say I was confused by the final destination. There are several big reveals, including how the characters’ lives are connected – which was brilliant – but beyond that I’m torn between several interpretations. This is a book that will stay with you, long after you’ve snapped the pages shut and I highly recommend it.

 

 

Book Review : The Gift
by Louise Jensen

The story is written in the first person from the point of view of Jenna, a young woman who has suffered heart failure and who’s been given a second crack at life with a donor heart. Jenna’s new heart previously belonged to Callie and, overwhelmed with gratitude, Jenna meets Callie’s family, with whom she feels a strong connection.

Jenna starts to feel mentally and physically different, and we soon learn that she is experiencing ‘Cellular Memory’; a condition that means she is affected first hand by Callie’s thoughts and emotions.

Callie’s family are grief stricken but cagey about the circumstances of their daughter’s death – as is Nathan, her devoted boyfriend. Callie is attracted to Nathan (are they her own feelings or Callie’s coming through?). And where is Sophie in all this? Grief stricken and gone to ground over her big sister’s death – or is Sophie too in imminent danger?

Determined to uncover the truth, Jenna turns detective, putting herself in mortal danger, sure that no one (not even her therapist) will help or even believe her.

Attracted by over 700 reviews I bought The Gift expecting a pacey thriller; overall, I was not disappointed although I found one or two segments repetitive and a little plodding. I also got a bit lost with some of the female characters as there are great many ‘bit parts’ (Jenna’s friends and colleagues at the vets’ for instance). During the last third of the book, the pace quickens, and I was keen to find out how poor Callie died and where her kid sister had disappeared to. There are some excellent twists which I won’t spoil here but personally I found the ending too neatly ribbon-tied to be credible. Then again, most books would be dull as ditch water without a little poetic licence and fantasy.

 

A moving story

So, I’ve neglected my writing for months…lost my mojo with it, so to speak. It happens sometimes – often for no good reason – but in this instance it’s because I’ve just gone through a difficult relocation.

Anyone who knows me is probably aware that I have moved around.  A lot. Gypsy blood, itchy-feet, wanderlust, stupidity – call it what you will but this latest move, from West Malling, Kent to Chichester, West Sussex adds up to my sixth move in the last dozen years – and all bought and sold, none of your footloose rentals for the boyf and I; oh no – that would be far too easy. I can’t understand why the Chancellor hasn’t sent us birthday or Christmas cards recently – you’d think we’d be his best friends with all the stamp duty we’ve paid. Oh god, I feel sick now. But I digress…

So. Moving then. Why do we do it? Good question. And one I have asked myself a thousand times since we left Kings Hill six weeks ago. The warm, comforting, slouchy familiarity; the ease of communication with good neighbours – many of whom became sincere friends – has been replaced by a hyper-attentive, watchful hope, as I search nameless faces with one thought – could you be a friend?

Thing is, wherever you go, most people are decent enough.  Open, kind, receptive. I mean, not everyone – I didn’t move to Disneyland or anything…although come to think of it, Disneyland has some pretty rotten apples so scratch that comparison, but you get my drift.

Being a serial mover, this is all familiar territory to me – that ‘ick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I walk around the local park with Brodie, hoping that people will think we’re worthy of a wave and a hello and eventually maybe a coffee, or a glass of wine.  It’s early days, but the signs are good. I’m a friendly person, which surely must count for something, no?

As sad as we were to leave behind our friends in Kings Hill (understatement of the year, I wept buckets in my last week there), we came to the cathedral City of Chichester because we liked the buzz and the giddying array of shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as the galleries, and the fabulous theatre (which I’m told acts as a crash-test for many West End shows).  It’s close to the majestic South Downs national park and the sunny South Coast is nearby.  I’ll probably swerve Bogner because it’s busy and commercial, but I’ve already fallen for Selsey East Beach (a rustic, quirky version of the Hamptons), posh West Wittering, and lovely Pagham.  The former has been a source of joy and happiness as all three of us have swum in the sea there; Brodie’s little paws scooping like billy-o when I thought he was afraid of water brought tears to my eyes.

The house we’ve bought is a whole other subject. It’s big, detached, and surprisingly dated and rundown for its tender teenage years.  But like people, houses respond to love and attention, and Mark and I intend to lavish both upon it.

On that note, I’ll close on a story that a lovely friend whom I don’t see anymore (because I moved away) told me (Nigel: I’ve always remembered this tale, as I remember you – with affection).

Two travellers arrived in a new town…

…and came upon a local farmer. The first said, ‘I’ve come a long way, tell me, what are the people like here?’

‘What were they like in the place you’ve come from?’ the farmer said, answering a question with a question.

‘Oh, they were a bad lot. Mean, rude and selfish – lazy too. I was glad to leave them behind.’

‘Interesting,’ replied the farmer, ‘I’m afraid you’ll find them just the same here.’

Gutted, the traveller trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.

A while later, the second traveller came along, and waylaid the farmer;

‘What are the people like here?’ he asked.

‘What were they like where you’ve travelled from?’ replied the farmer once more.

‘Oh, they were lovely; kind, honest and friendly. I was sad to leave them behind.’

‘Well, fear not,’ the farmer said, ‘you’ll find they’re just the same here.’

Wishing you all an awesome August – wherever you are in the world.

 

 

Book Review : The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Cherry Radford

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is the third novel by Sussex writer Cherry Radford but an enjoyable first for me. I did not know what to expect but was initially attracted by the excellent reviews. The title may have a ring of historical romance to it, but I’m delighted to say that LHKD is a contemporary tale set against a backdrop of social media, long-distance love and secrets from the past.

Set in East Sussex and Madrid, the story centres on Imogen, who is exiled in a relative’s lighthouse, where she’s gone to lick her wounds after a painful divorce – and Santi, a beautiful and talented Flamenco guitarist, soap-star and would-be serious actor whom she meets online. We see their relationship develop, from it’s tentative, spiky inception on Twitter to it’s moving conclusion almost a year later. The two initially develop an online friendship, but things move up a gear when Santi finds himself in the running for the lead role in a high-profile movie – and needs to improve his English, fast. Enter Imogen, who with the benefit of good, general Spanish becomes Santi’s teacher.

Early on, much is made of the language barrier – and some oops moments guaranteed to make readers smile. But there’s more to LHKD than international romance and the well-drawn, authentic landscapes of Beachy Head and Madrid, and mystery lovers will appreciate the beautifully dovetailed second tier of the novel: the disappearance of Imogen’s father, the lighthouse keeper, who drowned when she was a child. Presented with a drip-feed of her father’s diaries by her aunt, Imogen finally unveils the shocking truth about his disappearance.

LHKD is engrossing and elegantly written. I preferred the chapters set in Madrid and particularly loved the character of Santi (and having lived in Spain for a year in my youth, I could hear his voice perfectly). There were times when I questioned why such a fabulous stallion of a man, with his pick of Spanish MAWs would be interested in the fragile, ‘melocoton-haired’ English mare; but it is Imogen’s very novelty that initially attracts, and eventually mellows and matures Santi.

Readers who like a quirky, romantic thriller will not be disappointed.

 

Rolling Stones No Filter, London Stadium, 22nd May 2018

Last night, I looked into Mick Jagger’s eyes and saw fire. No, I wasn’t dreaming (although I have dreamt about most members of the Rolling Stones, and even all at once, but I digress). In the real world, I was privileged to see the Stones play the London Stadium and it was quite a homecoming.

Last September, I caught the Italian leg of the Stones’ No Filter Tour in Lucca and was euphoric to get a second bite of this luscious cherry at the start of their UK tour. So I thought I knew what I was getting. Well I did, and I didn’t. One thing evident from the opening chords of Street Fighting Man was that the Rolling Stones are fresher, rested and rearing to go. Their playing was tighter, their energy higher and the happy vibes on stage were off the hook.

The set list has the same components, but in a different running order (which confused the faithful as we stood hooting in the fading light in anticipation of Sympathy for the Devil) and as with the 2017 European dates, each city gets its own track, voted for on social media some 48 before. In the case of The London Stadium, this was Under my Thumb.

Thanks to superior (read more expensive) tickets we had a much better view and were closer to the stage in London than in Lucca and despite the capacity crowd of around 80,000 there was an intimacy which is hard to describe….I dunno, maybe the people at the back and up in the gods would disagree; there was also a poignancy about seeing the boys in their home town.

So, to the music: Street Fighting Man was swiftly followed by It’s Only Rock & Roll (which naturally sparked a mass singalong) then into Tumbling Dice and Paint it Black before entering the Blues zone with Ride em on Down. Under My Thumb followed before a change of tempo with Fool to Cry.

Without naming the whole set list, I’ll just say that no Stones fan would have been disappointed. It was all there – including a grandiose ten-minute version of Midnight Rambler when the lid blew off and stayed off – through Start Me Up, Jumping Jack Flash and Brown Sugar, ending in the ultimate encore with Gimme Shelter and Satisfaction.

I defy any Stones fan present to be disappointed; the love in the room could have powered the national grid.

And that’s the thing about the Stones. The fire still burns; I saw it raging in the eyes of Mick Jagger, less than ten metres away. These guys love what they do more than life itself – and we love them for it. When it comes to performing live, nobody can touch the Stones and every gig is a life affirming celebration. Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie and their extended musical family are a total inspiration – and long may that continue.

*Photographic images my own

Book Review: Her Secret by Kelly Florentia

Her Secret is Kelly Florentia’s second novel featuring the life and times of Louboutin-loving 40-something girl about town, Audrey Fox.

Having enormously enjoyed my first encounter with Audrey in No Way Back, I was excited to hear of the sequel and it did not disappoint.

We return to North London to find Audrey newly married and looking forward to moving into a fabulous new des-res in swanky Highgate Village. But all in the garden is not rosy and from the get go, we have an uncomfortable sense that something is amiss with the dashing Daniel.
As with the first book, Her Secret is bursting with lively characters in the shape of Audrey’s wonderful friends; Tina, Rowan and Louise, colleague and confidante, Fearne, and sister-in-law (and harassed mum) Vicky, all keep us intrigued and entertained.  But there are villains, too, upping the suspense quota and enriching this multi-layered plot.  You’ll get no spoilers from me, but the last third of the book sees a quickening of pace that makes it unputdownable.

I should point out that whilst Her Secret is a great standalone novel, I highly recommend reading No Way Back first to fully appreciate the twists and turns of the plot and the depth and complexity of some of the relationships. Tip : Remember that Daniel was not Audrey’s first big love…

I loved Her Secret and am hoping there’ll be a third novel in the series so it’s a no-brainer 5-Stars from me.

 

 

No Likey, No Writey?

Fiction writing is a funny pastime. You invent a load of imaginary friends, living pretend lives in made up circumstances. That alone is counter intuitive because all our lives we’re told to TELL THE TRUTH. “Did you break your brother’s toy, hmm? Mummy won’t be cross, because it’s more important to be honest”, is a lesson that stays with most of us for life (politicians, actors and psychopaths notwithstanding).

Then one day, you start writing a novel, and this comes with a different kind of truth. The truth of integrity and authenticity; realism = good, phoniness = bad, and readers can smell the difference a mile away.

Not surprising then that when it comes to writing fiction, most authors’ main characters are shot-through with a big dollop of themselves. Seeking Eden, my debut novel published by Urbane, was told from the viewpoint of four different characters and there’s a part of me in all of them– not least the two men.  In the case of Seeking Eden, I genuinely liked all my characters, even bad-boy Ben Wilde, because despite his ego being the size of Pluto, there’s an honesty and a sweetness that appeals. He’s sexy too – and without wanting to give too much away, love makes him a better person by the end of the book.

In the sequel, Eden Interrupted, I am facing a fresh challenge. In true sequel-style, the familiar meets the brand new, with old characters rubbing up against new, and this time there’s a snake in paradise; someone not wired like the rest of us whom we recognise as a villain at an early stage.

In movies, TV soaps and dramas, we love to hate the baddie; in literature too – who could fail to be transfixed by Amy in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl? Personally, I was mesmerised by her every ghastly move.

As for the creation of someone utterly unlikeable…well it’s a new one on me. I’m currently at the editing and fine-tuning stage (I hope – my publisher may tell me otherwise!) and I am being careful not to make him into a pantomime villain, because I, and more importantly, future readers still need to connect with him and understand why he is as he is and does what he does – which is not to excuse some of his chilling and wholly unpalatable actions.

So there’s no ‘No Likey, No Writey’ for me – it’s more a case of ‘Nasty Man, Reveal Yourself’.

Seeking Eden is available now on Amazon, Book Etc and in many bookshops. The sequel, Eden Interrupted is due for publication in Spring 2019 by Urbane Publications.

 

 

Book Review : Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

Maria in the Moon is like one of those magic eye pictures popular in the 90s: It takes a while to see what you are looking at, but once you do, you’ll never see just a row of dots again.  It’s a clumsy analogy and I’m certain that Louise Beech, the eminently gifted author of this dark tale, could conjure a far better one.

I was attracted to this novel by its excellent reviews (many of them detailed) and I’d read the blurb so I sort of knew what I was getting and was excited by it.  I also figured out the theme and where it was all heading at an early stage, but as Maria in the Moon is not a whodunit, for me at least, this did not spoil the journey.

The premise of the book is that thirty-something Catherine Hope spends her time helping others to forget her own problems; if only she could remember what they are.  Because Catherine cannot recall the year she was nine years old.  Soon after volunteering at a Flood Crisis centre, she begins to experience broken sleep, night terrors and visions.  The book is a slow reveal of what happened to her that year and it is hard-hitting stuff.

The characterisation is brilliant – I felt I knew this woman; a misfit given to mood swings and self-sabotage, the reader feels keenly that Catherine is hanging on to sanity by her fingernails.  Other characters provide light relief, like flatmate ‘fluffy’ Fern – femme fatale and rookie columnist for a national newspaper, the vacuous and petulant Celine, Catherine’s step sister, and kind, caring Christopher, mentor, colleague and potential love-interest at the crisis centre.  Catherine’s cold and critical mother made my blood boil and her eternal grieving for her dead father made me weep.

Louise Beech’s writing style reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s in that she evokes a tide of emotion without mawkishness or cliché, and her prose is modern and fluid.

Maria in the Moon is moving and thought provoking throughout.  It’s an excellent, if uncomfortable read, and I highly recommend it.

 

Guard your writing time with your life

If you’re reading this in January, Happy New Year to you – I hope 2018 is the year your wishes come true. If you’re reading this retrospectively, you’ve probably already broken most of your resolutions and have slipped seamlessly back into normality.

In our house, on January 1st, no sooner had we vacuumed up the pine needles and put the fairy lights back in the loft (which is always a huge relief), Mark and I sat down with a (soft) drink to talk about the coming year and our hopes for it. Neither of us go in for the ‘give up smoking/drinking/ sugar’ style resolution, although we do practise dry January, and a short-term embargo on cake and chocolate to off-set the Christmas binge that inevitably takes place every year – oh, and we don’t smoke anyway. Nevertheless, there are things we both want to do differently in 2018 – subtle things, which will be life enhancing IF we manage to stick to them. I won’t bore you with our domestic Wishlist; like everyone, we have our hopes and dreams, but for me, one very important resolution is to PROTECT MY WRITING TIME, which frequently gets sabotaged. And the worse thing is – I let this happen. Because something always seems to get in the way of me dashing out that sparkling new chapter and instead, I’m lucky if I can eek out 500 words in one hit. I am a slave to distractions.

For example, we want to sell our house – so guess who gets to facilitate most of the various upgrades and improvements to make it more marketable – not to mention the frenzy of cleaning every time a potential buyer wants to look around. And yes, I willingly do all the cooking, food shopping, laundry and dog walking – because that is my role as I no longer work outside the house.

And do I decline when lovely friends invite me out for coffee/lunch/walks? I do not. Why? Because I am genetically incapable of saying NO THANK YOU – I MUST FINISH CHAPTER FORTY. Or, NO THANKS, I’M STRUGGLING WITH THE ACTIONS OF XYZ CHARACTER. And so off I go, to while away another hour or three, on another day when my novel does not progress.
So why do I find it so hard to focus on my second novel? My Debut, Seeking Eden, took a year to write, then a further six months to edit and polish. Number Two has already taken fifteen months to come up with a not-yet completed first draft.

My supportive and very patient publisher, Matthew at Urbane, may well be reading this. Sorry, boss. I am on it. So, the only New Year’s resolution that counts this year is to PROTECT MY WRITING TIME. There, I’ve said it. Again, and on record. Pass me another slice of chocolate cake, someone…