All The Water In The World by Karen Raney

Published by Two Roads

Thank you to Jahan Hussain for kindly sending me a copy of this book.

For a first novel this is pretty darn good. Maddy is 16 and just like any other girl her age, she has crushes, great friends, fun times and is close to her mum. She also has cancer. Maddy has no relationship with her father, he wanted a career, not children but following some encouragement from her grandfather she makes contact with him and the pair develop a secretive email relationship.

What I liked about this book is the alternate points of view. The story is told from the perspective of Maddy and her mother, Eve. Whilst Maddy wants to experience everything life has to offer, at the heart of each decision she makes is her illness. Maddy is a strong and quite profound character and has been written so well that you connect with her on every level. She is kind and emits a lovely warmth and tenderness that the bond between reader and character becomes quite strong. On the other hand, Eve feels guilty and is vulnerable to Maddy’s illness, she is trying her best to come to terms with everything and is coping the best she can but she can be quite a prickly person. The bond between mother and daughter is very close knit and between them they get by. For Maddy, she wants to experience life in that moment, life is to short to hold grudges and not have fun.

This is a very tender, thought provoking read that has the ability to break your heart. It deals adeptly with love, friendship, pain and grief. Karen Raney has written such a wonderful book that will stay with you long after you have finished it.

I was very lucky to take part in a Q&A session with Karen Raney and you can read her thoughts below.

  1. Where did the inspiration come from for the book?

The storyline of this book was built from scene to scene rather than being planned in advance.  It began with a woman’s thoughts while looking at a lake.  That woman became Eve.  As I felt my way toward who she was and what had happened to her, her daughter Maddy emerged as a distinct character. I became so engrossed in Maddy’s story that I abandoned Eve, for long enough that I considered dropping the mother’s voice and confining the point of view to the daughter.  But when I did return to Eve, I knew the two-voiced structure was important to what I wanted to do. 

Maddy and Eve were characters I quickly found that I could speak through. I was once a teenage girl. I am now the mother of a teenage girl.  And a close friend of mine had gone through the experience of having a seriously ill child.  These were the wellsprings of the novel. I am fascinated by the way young people both accommodate and resist their parents’ world.  Maddy has to take control and pull away from her mother at a time when she is increasingly dependent on her.  She does this by finding love and keeping secrets. For Eve, the crisis re-shapes every relationship in her life.

2. How difficult was it to write about a 16-year-old with cancer?

During the writing itself, the effort to get the scenes to work shielded me from the emotional impact of the subject to some extent.  It was when I re-read it later that it could upset me, almost as though it had been written by someone else. 

I think the key is to be close but not too close, both inside and outside of the emotion.  Actors and musicians do this all the time.  They are able to access extreme emotional states while remaining detached enough to practice their craft and render the emotions for others.  

To write this novel, I drew on my experience and fears as a mother, but I never equated Maddy with my own daughter who was roughly Maddy’s age at the time. I saw them as entirely separate people.  I could never have written the book otherwise.  In the same way, my friend’s tragedy gave me the courage to write about something I had not experienced, as well as the drive to understand it, but the story is not my friend’s story and I never perceived it as such.  

3. How would you describe Maddy?

Maddy is someone whose world is opening up just as it is in danger of closing down. Her illness intensifies all the usual concerns and challenges faced by someone her age.  She is a deep-thinking teenager with artistic drive who is forced to grow up fast.  For me, Maddy’s voice is a mix of wisdom and naivete, seriousness and wit, frailty and determination.

  1. The book is very moving, how do you switch off when you’re not writing?

I play the piano, which is a wonderful way of getting out of my head and into a medium other than words.  Apart from that, job and family keep me absorbed when I’m not writing. 

  1. What challenges did you face when writing the book?

Partway through the novel, I remember feeling I had to be careful with the character of Eve. Because she is in the mother role like myself, I worried about making her voice too close to my own.  But at the same time, because I’ve never been through what Eve goes through, and elements of her prickly character and her life as a single mother are alien to me, I wasn’t sure if she was plausible.  Plausibility is important to me on many levels.  With Maddy, it was a question of making her inner voice sophisticated enough to articulate complex thoughts, while still being the voice of a sixteen-year old.

One of the challenges was writing about something so extreme and emotive that I myself had not been through.  Not only did I worry about getting it wrong, but I worried that I had no right to write the book in the first place.  Although the story is not my friend’s story and the characters are not her family, I was concerned that she would feel I was exploiting her tragedy for my own ends.  Happily, when she read it she felt that that I had given her something rather than taking something away. 

  1. What message would you like your readers to take away from reading the book?

I tend not to think in terms of messages, as a novel is so complex.  I would be happy if readers of All the Water in the World ended up feeling things that perhaps they hadn’t felt before, or understanding something new about parenthood, childhood, families, loss, music or the consolations of art.

  1. What other authors do you admire/take inspiration from?

I often find myself gravitating to American writers, though I have made my home in England.  I also love short fiction. This may be related to the fact that I am a visual artist.  In a painting, as in a short story, shape and structure are paramount, and all the parts are more or less visible at once.  I am a fan of the short stories of George Saunders, Edith Pearlman, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Stafford, Tobias Wolff, Frank O’Connor, V.S. Prichett, Colm Toibin, David Malouf and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie.

  1. I note that you were a nurse and art student prior to writing, so, what made you become a writer? 

I have always written, from when I was a child, with greater or lesser intensity at different times in my life.  As I went down various career paths, working as a nurse, a painter, an editor, a teacher and academic, fiction writing was always a constant in the background.  I guess now is the right time to bring it to the foreground.

  1. How long did it take to write the book?

Four years and four months, with a full time job and a family.

  1. What tips would you give to someone wanting to take up writing?

My five top tips are as follows: 

1) Write to find something out. If you follow your genuine curiosity about the world and other people, your writing will surprise you and carry the freshness and authenticity of a search.

3) Keep a notebook.  Carry it with you.  Put whatever interests you in it – thoughts, overheard conversations, descriptions of people and places, ideas for stories, reactions to books you read. Once you start writing a story, you will find that magically everything you see and hear seems relevant to what you’re writing.  Use the notebook to collect any offerings from the world that might be of use to the story.  As you get deeper into the writing, this notebook will also catch the edits and corrections your unconscious mind comes up with while you are doing other things. 

3. Show your work to other trusted people. Your perception of your own writing is distorted by everything you know about the characters and places you’re writing about.  What you think you have written is not necessarily what is on the page. When the time is right, you need to check and make sure that what’s needed to bring the story alive for readers is there in the words themselves.

4. Choose who you show it to and when.  There are times when you need to be immersed in what you’re writing and let it spill out without judging.  If you share it too early, this can de-rail you before you’ve had a chance to explore the depths of your story in private. Then there are times when you need to step back and look at what you’ve written with a cool, external eye, as though it had been written by someone else, and the best way to do this at first is to use the eyes of other trusted people. Knowing when to work in private and when to reveal your writing to others is something you learn through experience.

5) Write by re-writing. It is through re-writing that you find out what you want to say. American author George Saunders talks about the discontent with a story that ‘urges it on to higher ground.’  I believe it is in the writer’s effort to resolve a sentence or a story structurally, that deeper meanings take shape.

Many thanks to Karen Raney for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly.

The Other People by C.J. Tudor

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph

When I read the synopsis for The Other People and knowing the writing talents of C.J. Tudor I just knew this was going to be something really special.

Gabe is on his way home one evening when he spots the face of a little girl appear at the rear window of the rusty old car in front, his little girl. But why would his five year old daughter Izzy be in that car? Was he certain it was her? Or, was it just someone who looked similar? He follows his instinct and attempts to chase the car down but it is long gone, it is only when he rings home to check she is safe does the full horror start to unfold. Gabe spends the next three years driving up and down the same stretch of motorway hoping to see the car, and his little girl, again. Everyone believes that Izzy is dead, the police accused him of her murder and are still convinced she is dead. But, he is certain he saw her that evening and is unwilling to give up on her until he knows for certain, one way or another. Also driving up and down the motorway is Fran and her daughter Alice. Fran knows what happened to Izzy and her mum that fateful night and she knows that if they stop running the repercussions for them both will be catastrophic. But who is she running from and will they catch up with her?

As the story unravels the tension builds, there are plenty of twists and turns and the author certainly knows how to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, I actually had to cover the last few lines of each chapter up so I didn’t skip ahead and ruin it for myself!!

The story is well paced and well thought out it takes on a new direction pretty much every chapter. Some of the characters are fascinating, especially The Samaritan whose identity remains a closely guarded secret until the end. In fact, even at the very end you are still discovering the answers to long held secrets. There is also a supernatural element to the story, which for me, added another level of mystery, it didn’t detract to much from the main plot and I enjoyed that different slant that it offered.

I would most definitely recommend this book. If you like a thrilling page turner then you won’t find one better than this, I loved it for the very fact that it kept me gripped from the first page until the very last.

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Published by Manilla Press on 6th February 2020

Firstly, I was so pleased to receive a copy of this book as one of the #FWordsHavePower winners, so thank you to the publisher for that.

I just know that come 31st December 2020 this book will be included in my ‘Top 5 books of the year’ it may even sit at number 1, it is that good!

I have certainly made no secret of the fact that The Familiars was my favourite book of 2019 and Stacey Halls has managed to produce another masterpiece. Set in London 1754, Bess Bright returns to The Foundling Hospital to reclaim the daughter she had left there six years before only to find that someone has already claimed her as their own, they knew her number and her token. Naturally, Bess is left reeling at this news but she is determined to find her young daughter and the person responsible for taking her regardless of what this may mean.

I really don’t want to give too much away as you need to experience this book as it happens as the story telling is exquisite. Some how Stacey has the ability to put the reader in amongst the action and I honestly felt I was stood in the Foundling Hospital with Bess and the other unfortunate women having to hand over their babies. I could feel the desperation and I could feel them clinging to their babies until the very last second as they unwillingly handed them over. The characters are so different from one another, each written perfectly with their own distinct traits so that you identify with them immediately as the story shifts. There are times when the story carries you with it, when Bess is attempting to flee I found I was running beside her through the streets of London holding my breath and willing her on. I felt so involved with the story.

As a fellow Lancastrian I was immediately drawn to Stacey’s work primarily because The Familiars is based not far from where I live and when I discovered her second book was to be set in London I thought to myself that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. But, to put it simply, The Foundling is bloody brilliant and I can’t find a single fault with it. It is a superbly written story of family, love, society and betrayal.

I don’t give many books five stars but this one most definitely gets the full set!!!

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Published by Century on 23rd January 2020

Firstly, it seems an age since I received this from the publisher and I have been desperate to share my thoughts on it for a good while now! Also, what a stunning cover, I think we need to take a moment to just appreciate this beauty.

Ok, now I have fan-girled over the cover I can begin. This is such a delightful and wonderful story that reimagines the life of Jane Austen and the relationship with her sister Cassandra and their relationship with their loved ones. Cassandra is now an elderly lady and is on a mission to intercept some of Jane’s letters that were written to their dear find Eliza, she fears there may be material amongst them that could tarnish the impeccable reputation of her sister. The book is split across different time periods of Jane’s life, it is mainly set in Kintbury in 1840 with Cassandra looking back over Jane’s life starting in 1795 in Steventon up to her early death in Winchester in 1817. All the places are in there, Steventon, Chawton, Bath, and Winchester and the lovely moments when Jane is reading to her family in the evenings from her latest novel. It is then that it hit me of the enormity of Jane’s talent and yet here she is living a normal life worrying about how they will cope when her father passes away.

There are funny parts, sad parts and parts that bring home just how much single women in Georgian/early victorian times were reliant on the males of the family to support them and the true fear this brought to them. A special mention must go to the impeccable writing of Jane’s death scene, I can quite honestly say I had a tear in my eye and I had to take a moment to reflect on what I had read.

I have to admit to not knowing the finer details of Jane’s life and I know many of you are avid devotees to Jane so I can’t sit here and say this is a faithful representation of Jane’s character, but, what I will say is that it is an excellent book that astutley looks at Jane’s life through the eyes of her sister. The writing is clever and the story throughly enjoyable and I feel the life and legacy of Jane Austen is safe in the very accomplished hands of Gill Hornby.

Many thanks to Laura Brooke for very kindly sending me a copy for review.

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

Published by Picador in May 2019

Julia Armfield is a writer with an exceptional talent for creating stories that are capable of making you feel uncomfortable and on edge whilst at the same time leaving you in awe at the very beauty of her words. This collection of haunting short stories explores many themes including love, loss, family and friendship and it has the ability to make you sit up and take really notice of what you’re actually reading. It is one of those books that stays with you days after you have finished reading it.

This is Julia’s first collection and I have to honestly say there was not one story that lets the collection down, they are all strong in their own way, yes, there were some I preferred over others but that does not mean to say any of them were not worthy to be included in the book. The stories are an exploration of raw human nature in both a physical and emotional sense and are an excellent showcase for strong and powerful female lead characters, each at a different stage of life.

Each story has its merits to recommend it as the best in the book and that is something everyone will differ on, for me it was Formerly Feral, the story of a young teenage girl whose parents have recently divorced, her sister has left the family home with their mother whilst she stays with her father. Between them they come to an awkward agreement on their living situation and they rub along together as best they can. But, he remarries the woman across the road, the woman with a pet wolf, and they both move in. As they all adjust to life together the bonds of love grow between the young girl and her new family.

Another cracker is The Great Awake which I will not go into much here but it is an amazing concept that really got me thinking on a whole new level. It also explores love and friendship and what we are willing to do for our loved ones.

This book is totally unique and unlike anything I have ever read before and I cannot wait to read more from Julia in the future.

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Published by HarperCollins on 9th January 2020

I must confess that historical fiction, particularly Tudor historical fiction, was my first reading love. But after what felt like a lifetime of reading about Henry VIII and his family I drifted away from them. When I noticed this book was due to be published I felt the time was right to delve back in to some Tudor reading. The Lady of the Ravens is set right at the beginning of the Tudor reign, Henry VII has just ascended the throne and in order to strengthen his claim to the throne of England he has married Elizabeth of York, daughter to King Edward IV.

The story centres around Joan Vaux, she is a friend and member of the new Queen’s household as well as being a favourite of Margaret Beaufort, The King’s Mother. On a visit to the Tower of London, Joan encounters the dark mysterious ravens and from then on she takes a personal interest in their welfare, particularly when she learns the archers use them as target practice. Despite being adamant she would never marry Joan accepts the proposal of Sir Richard Guildford who just so happens to live at the Tower as part of the King’s armouries. We follow Joan as she is promoted to the rank of lady of the bedchamber and through married life and motherhood and as she continues to protect the ravens, knowing that should they leave the Tower of London, the monarchy will fall.

This is a well researched story and a really enjoyable read. It was nice to be back in the familiar world of the Tudor’s and as always Hickson does not let you down when you are looking for a bit of historical fiction.

The Women at Hitler's Table by Rosella Postorino translated by Leah Janeczko

Published by Harper Collins on 14th November 2019

This is not a book that I would have picked up off the shelves in a bookshop but Rebecca Bryant from Harper Collins kindly asked me to take a look at it and I am so glad I did as it was a true eye opener.

It is inspired by the story of Margot Wölk, she was one of the women chosen to become one of Hitler’s food tasters and the only one to survive the war. Set in East Prussia in 1943, twenty-six year old Rosa Sauer has lost both parents and is living with her in laws in the country whilst her husband is away fighting on the front line.

As the tide begins to turn in the war, Hitler becomes increasingly paranoid that his enemies are beginning to close in on him and Rosa soon finds herself conscripted alongside nine other local women to act as his food tasters at his secret headquarters in the Wolfsshanze. Tensions between the women begin to grow as hunger and fear take a hold of them, some relish the task of being useful to Hitler, others are terrified that each meal could lead to an agonising death.

This is a story that tells of some of the horrors of war, these women were ordinary citizens who were plucked to perform a thankless task. It is a story of courage, friendship and survival that will break your heart as you inevitably put yourself in Rosa’s shoes. As she faces the SS alone, Rosa’s courage knows no bounds as she is faced with the possibility that every morsel of food could kill her. It gives an excellent view point of another aspect of the war that up until I read this book did not know existed and the ordinary people that found themselves facing uncertainty on a daily basis. The stories of these women needs to be read and appreciated, Rosa does survive the war but her story and the stories of the remaining nine women is compelling.

I am so glad I was given the opportunity to read this novel as it opened my eyes to the sacrifices that were made on a daily basis by the ordinary people.