Monthly Archives: October 2016

Great Opening Paragraph 90… ‘Queen Camilla’ #amwriting #FirstPara

Sue Townsend“Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, stood smoking a cheap cigarette on the back doorstep of Number Sixteen Hell Close. It was a cold afternoon in late summer. Occasionally she turned to watch her husband, Charles, the Prince of Wales, clattering the luncheon pots in the red washing-up bowl he’d bought on impulse that morning from the ‘Everything A Pound’ shop. He had borne the bowl home and presented it to her as though it were a precious religious artefact plundered from a sacked city.”
‘Queen Camilla’ by Sue Townsend 

Try one of these 1st paras & discover a new author:-
In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote 
The Collector’ by John Fowles 
Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov 

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Does this make you want more? QUEEN CAMILLA by Sue Townsend #books via @SandraDanby

Book review: The Nationalist

Campbell HartAn explosion, on Remembrance Sunday. The culprit: an elderly man, a veteran, wearing a suicide vest. Scottish nationalism, the treatment of veterans and policing in Scotland are the drivers of this narrative.

This story hits the ground running and doesn’t stop. It’s a while since I read Wilderness, the first in Campbell Hart’s series about Glasgow detective John Arbogast. The Nationalist was just the tonic after a tiring week, I needed to relax into a book which moved fast and didn’t demand much from me. This took me for a ride and finishes at a sprint as the end game approaches. Right up until the end, I didn’t know how it would finish.

Arbogast is at times an unsympathetic character, his relationship with Rose, DCI Rosalind Ying, gets complicated and he retreats to alcohol. This gets him into trouble, trouble he cannot have foreseen would link him to the Remembrance Sunday terrorist attack. As pieces are pulled together, Hart keeps the mystery going until the end whilst weaving in the complicated politics in Scottish policing, resentments, ambition and dislike.

Visit Campbell Hart’s website.
Read my review of Wilderness, the first Arbogast book.
3rd in the Arbogast series, Referendum, will be reviewed here soon.

If you like ‘The Nationalist’, try these other crime novels:-
‘Due Diligence’ by DJ Harrison
‘No Other Darkness’ by Sarah Hilary
‘Dead Simple’ by Peter James

‘The Nationalist’ by Campbell Hart, #2Arbogast [UK: Campbell Hart] Buy at Amazon

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THE NATIONALIST by @elharto #bookreview via @SandraDanby

Book review: Early Warning

Jane SmileyIt opens with a funeral, Frank Langdon, the patriarch. A funeral is a great introduction to the characters, a reminder of Some Luck, the first part of this trilogy. This, the second instalment by Jane Smiley of the life of Frank and Rosanna Langdon’s family, focuses on their children and grandchildren. And it is a sprawling family. Not just who they are but WHO they are, their relationships, their quirks, their oddities.

Jane Smiley is an excellent observer of human behaviour, she reminds me of Jane Austen’s interpretation of family connections, secrets, tensions and disguised emotions. And it is all written in such an unassuming, subtle way. The death of a parent is a landmark in anyone’s life, a reminder of mortality, and in this book we see the maturing of the five Langdon children – ambitious, tricksy Frank; farmer Joe; home-maker Lilian; academic Henry; and youngest Claire.

Smiley has a way of writing these characters from birth to maturity, through changing times, the social and political upheavals of Sixties and Seventies America, without losing the essence of personality. And what a cast it is to handle. Not once did I lose the thread of who was who, except with the appearance towards the end of a character called Charlie. I examined the family tree at the front of the book, no Charlie. The mystery is answered at the end, and sets up part three of the trilogy, Golden Age.

Frank and Andy’s troubled marriage produces troubled children: Janet who becomes entwined in a dodgy religious sect, argumentative twins Michael and Ritchie. Joe has to manage not only the family farm but also the additional land inherited by his wife. The Cold War affects grain prices and he considers whether to borrow money to plant seed when the crop may not earn enough to fulfil the loan. Lillian and Arthur’s son Tim goes off to Vietnam, meanwhile Arthur continues to cope with the emotional stress of his Government intelligence job and what comes with it, the prior knowledge of horrible secrets, dirty tricks and bribes. Henry confronts his sexuality, but will he tell his conservative family? Claire, the youngest, marries a doctor who wants to control her life, and that of their sons, in a protective instinct which becomes overwhelming.

It is impossible to summarize a plot which strides the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Civil Rights movement and AIDS, but Smiley handles the transition – with one year for each chapter – with ease.

This is a big book [over 700 pages] but few big books are this easy and pleasurable to read. Jane Smiley has already won the Pulitzer, with this trilogy she enters the territory of ‘greatest living’ American author.

Here’s my review of Some Luck, first of the trilogy.
If you like ‘Early Warning’, try these other ‘big’ American novels:-
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler
‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

‘Early Warning’ by Jane Smiley, LastHundredYears#2 [UK: Mantle] Buy at Amazon

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EARLY WARNING by Jane Smiley @MantleBooks #bookreview via @SandraDanby

My Porridge & Cream read: Claire Dyer

Today I’m delighted to welcome poet and romance novelist Claire Dyer.

“My Porridge & Cream book is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows.

I read this book when it was first published and return to it for a multitude of reasons. I guess the main one, however, is that it’s essentially about good people and reading it reminds me that there’s more goodness in the world than sometimes is apparent. Claire DyerThe novel is set in 1946 and tells the story of author Juliet Ashton who stumbles into a correspondence with Dawsey Adams of Guersney. In this respect it reminds me of 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (another favourite).

Dawsey is a member of The Guersney Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and, as letters fly back and forward between them, other members of the Society and Juliet’s friends and admirers in England, much is revealed about these good-hearted people and the lives of those who lived in Guernsey under German Occupation.

On the surface it’s a light-hearted and easy read. The letters are jaunty, wry and funny and the correspondents nearly always put a positive spin on their hardships and heartaches, but underneath there are dark threads: threads about loss, sacrifice, grief and impossible love. Despite this, this is a book where these losses, sacrifices, grief and love prevail and rise triumphant.

There is much I learn each time I read it about how goodness can endure and also how it is often what we say between the lines that matters most.

I believe it’s due to be made into a film and I will be first in line at the cinema to see it and will keep re-reading the novel at regular intervals because it gives me a warm glow each time I do.”

Claire Dyer’s Bio
Claire DyerA novelist and poet from Reading, UK, Claire’s poetry collections, Eleven Rooms and Interference Effects are published by Two Rivers Press. Her novels, The Moment and The Perfect Affair, and short story Falling for Gatsby, are published by Quercus. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London and is a regular guest on BBC Radio Berkshire’s Radio Reads with Bill Buckley. Claire also teaches creative writing at literary and writers’ festivals and for Bracknell & Wokingham College and runs Fresh Eyes, an editorial and critiquing service.

Claire Dyer’s links
Read more about Claire’s books at her website.
Follow her on Twitter at @ClaireDyer1


Reviews of Claire Dyer’s books 
Interference Effects (poetry, Two Rivers Press): ‘This collection flickers with language as quick as the fish that swim in the poems, as the butterfly whose “light interference” is as real as it is suggestive, as illusory as it is sensuous. Meaning turns in a flick of a word, a phrase, an image, the familiar made strange: family love, sexual love, grief are turning silvers in darkness, the other side of the ordinary.’ — GILLIAN CLARKE
Claire DyerThe Perfect Affair (fiction, Quercus): ‘An exquisitely written, emotional book about impossible love and the moments that make like beautiful.’ – JULIE COHEN
Porridge & Cream


What is a ‘Porridge & Cream’ book? It’s the book you turn to when you need a familiar read, when you are tired, ill, or out-of-sorts, where you know the story and love it. Where reading it is like slipping on your oldest, scruffiest slippers after walking for miles. Where does the name ‘Porridge & Cream’ come from? Cat Deerborn is a character in Susan Hill’s ‘Simon Serrailler’ detective series. Cat is a hard-worked GP, a widow with two children and she struggles from day-to-day. One night, after a particularly difficult day, she needs something familiar to read. From her bookshelf she selects ‘Love in A Cold Climate’ by Nancy Mitford. Do you have a favourite read which you return to again and again? If so, please send me a message via the contact form here.


Discover the ‘Porridge & Cream’ books of these authors:-
Judith Field
Rhoda Baxter
Jane Lambert

Claire Dyer


‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows [UK: Bloomsbury]

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Why does @ClaireDyer1 love THE GUERNSEY LITERARY & POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY? via @SandraDanby

Book review: A Mother’s Secret

Renita D’SilvaWhat a tangled web some families weave. A Mother’s Secret by Renita D’Silva is a fragrant tale of mothers and daughters stretching from England to India. Gaddehalli is a tiny village in Goa but I could smell the spices, hear the wind in the trees, and see the buffalos in the fields as if I was there.

This novel about identity starts with a young girl, Durga, who must stay with her grandmother in Gaddehalli after an accident to her parents. The ruined mansion where she lives, which is avoided by the locals as haunted and full of bad luck, is the centre of this story. The modern-day strand follows Jaya, a young mother in England mourning the loss of her baby son and whose mother Sudha has recently died. Sudha was an emotionally-withdrawn mother, but when Jaya discovers some of her mother’s hidden possessions, including diaries, she pieces together the story of Sudha’s early life. Jaya is looking for the identity of her own father; she finds so much more.

From the beginning, it is a guessing game: how is the story of Durga connected to Kali, Jaya and Sudha? Halfway through, all my ideas of the twist had been proven wrong and I was wondering if the storylines would come together. At times I got the girls confused, but I read the second half of the novel quicker than the first and the twist, when it came, was a big surprise. A clever novel about families and how the important, simple things in life can sometimes be forgotten because of pride, selfishness or shame.

Read more about Renita D’Silva’s books here.

If you like ‘A Mother’s Secret’, try these other novels set in India:-
‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy
‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushie
‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

‘A Mother’s Secret’ by Renita D’Silva [UK: Bookouture] Buy at Amazon

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The scents of India: A MOTHER’S SECRET by @RenitaDSilva #bookreview via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Blood Atonement’ by @danwaddell

Dan Waddell A fascinating mixture of modern crime novel and family history research, Blood Atonement takes Nigel Barnes from London to the USA as he races against time to find answers for Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster.

Foster’s first case after returning to work following injuries sustained in The Blood Detective [first in this genealogical crime series] is a dead actress and her missing daughter. Links to the actress’s past, mystery about her family and unanswered questions, lead Foster to call in the help of genealogist Nigel Barnes. Both men are strong characters who walk off the page, both loners of a kind, both lonely in love.

This is a fast-moving mystery revolving around what happened to Horton and Sarah Rowley, who we know from flashbacks were teenage sweethearts planning to run away, but who only appear in records in the UK from 1891. Before that, they cease to exist. Where did they come from, and why were they running? Simply because their parents disapproved of the marriage, or something more sinister? And what has this to do with the dead actress found lying face down on her lawn in London? As he searches for the missing 14-year old, Foster finds chilling parallels with Leonie, another 14-year old who disappeared three years earlier and has never been found. As links to a cult are uncovered, attention focuses back on Sarah and Horton.

A satisfying well-written plot which manages to slip in a little history too.

Read my review of the first in the series, The Blood Detective.

If you like ‘Blood Atonement’, try these:-
‘In the Blood’ by Steve Robinson
‘Hiding the Past’ by Nathan Dylan Goodwin
‘Blood Atonement’ by Dan Waddell, #2 Nigel Barnes [UK: Penguin] Buy at Amazon

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BLOOD ATONEMENT by @danwaddell #bookreview via @SandraDanby #genealogy

Book review: Nutshell

Ian McEwanI can see Nutshell by Ian McEwan occupying many inches of column space this autumn. Where to start? You must have heard by now that this is the one about the foetus who overhears his mother Trudy and her lover, her brother-in-law Claude, planning to murder Trudy’s husband and father of the narrator.

It is both ingenious and awkward. At one moment I would chuckle at the audacity of the unborn narrator and his take on life, the next I was hit by a brick wall – how would a foetus know that? He is an incredibly sophisticated, philosophical, well-educated foetus. I’m sure I missed loads of literary references. McEwan covers this off very early by saying his mother, Trudy, listens to Radio 4 documentaries by day and mind-improving podcasts by night. I know the reader is expected to suspend disbelief, as we do in the theatre, the fourth wall and all that; but in Nutshell the fourth wall is more a flimsy partition.

Is it too clever? Perhaps. But the author is Ian McEwan whose books I love, so I was prepared to indulge him. At the back of my mind all the way through was, in this foetus an unreliable narrator? After all, he is blind, can’t touch or smell. He doesn’t know everything, although he talks as if he can. He can hear and taste – primarily his mother’s imbibing of red wine. But his take on life is limited and he is not privy to the workings of Trudy’s mind.

For many it will be a Marmite book, a love/hate thing. For me, the narrator’s voice got more sophisticated and all-seeing as the story went on and it began to grate. I read on because I wanted to know who died in the end.

I enjoyed The Children Act more, but they are very different books. Click here to read my review of The Children Act.

If you like ‘Nutshell’, try these novels with unusual narrators:-
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ by Mark Haddon
‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold
‘Black Beauty’ by Anna Sewell

‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan [UK: Jonathan Cape] Buy at Amazon

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The most unusual narrator: NUTSHELL by Ian McEwan @JonathanCape #bookreview via @Sandra Danby

Book review: Himself

Jess KiddI loved this book from the first page. It defies pigeonholing: at once a literary crime thriller, a fond comic tale of an Irish village, an investigation of long-buried secrets of murder and illegitimacy. Jess Kidd is a refreshing new voice, I don’t remember enjoying a debut novel this much since Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites though the two books are completely different.

In 1976 Mahony walks into the village of Mulderrig, seeking the truth of his birth twenty-six years earlier. From the forest around the village, and the houses within it, the dead walk out to greet him. They are a silent cast throughout the book, do they hold the answer to the mystery?

Kidd has created a village which feels alive, filled by a cast of characters so clearly drawn, and which swirls between the horrific beating of a nurse, downright nastiness, belly laughs and hallucinogenic drugs. The cast includes a pinched, controlling priest; a wizened old actress who organizes the village play from her wheelchair; a bogeyman who reputedly lives in the forest; and a pub landlord who tries to court the Widow Farelly, a nurse who has the sourest disposition visible to everyone except him. Mahony grew up in a Dublin orphanage, knowing only that he was left there as a baby with a letter marked ‘For when the child is grown’. What he reads in this letter sends him to Mulderrig to find out what happened to his mother, Orla, in 1950.

Did she disappear, running away to a better life, as most of the villagers tell him; or was she murdered? And why was she so hated by her neighbours?

As Mahony, Bridget Doosey, Shauna Burke and the indefatigable Mrs Cauley investigate his origins, the true nastiness of the village emerges.

If you like ‘Himself’, try these other Irish authors:-
‘A History of Loneliness’ by John Boyne
‘Ghost Moth’ by Michele Forbes
‘Butterfly Barn’ by Karen Power
‘Himself’ by Jess Kidd [UK: Canongate] Buy at Amazon

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A book which defies pigeonholing: HIMSELF by @JessKiddHerself #bookreview via @SandraDanby

A poem to read in the bath… ‘Japanese Maple’

Most of us came to Australian broadcaster Clive James via his witty television programmes and writings. In recent years he has turned again to poetry. It is four years now since he was diagnosed with ‘the lot’: with leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure. Now his poetry is full of dying – reflections on life and death – and the poems are beautiful and incredibly moving.


[photo: Rex Features]

‘Japanese Maple’ is about a tree, given to him by his daughter, and how witnessing the tree change through autumn signals a change for him. I defy you to listen to this, and not have moist eyes.

Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to reproduce the poem in full, but please search it out in an anthology or at your local library.

‘Japanese Maple’
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Click here to listen to Clive James read ‘Japanese Maple’ for the BBC.
For recent poems by Clive James, visit his website here.
Listen here to Clive James talk about ‘taking life slowly’ [Interview: Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme]



Sentenced to Life’ by Clive James [UK: Picador]

Read these other excerpts and find a new poet to love:-
‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney
‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost
‘My Heart Leaps Up’ by William Wordsworth

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A poem to think about: JAPANESE MAPLE by Clive James #poetry via @SandraDanby