just saying...

So many  'ifs' here, but I'll continue anyway. The Housekeeper, my second novel, will be published on February 28,  and if you buy it and if you like it, you might want to suggest it to your book club. Just a thought!

If that's the case, and I hope that it is, here are some book club questions.

1. For much of the novel, Anne has a naive view of her employers, Rob and Emma, and family life at their home, Wycombe Lodge. What events in her life may have caused this?

2. What is the role of memory in the novel? How does Anne's lack of knowledge about her early childhood affect her hopes and fears?

3. How do modern psychological theories fit into the story?

4. What is the importance of social media in the novel?  What are its advantages and disadvantages?

5. Why is Elizabeth Beeton something of a heroine to Anne?

6. Discuss the importance of Jake, Lily, and the family dog, Siggy, in the story. What role does each of them play?

7. Discuss the importance of Jake, Lily and Siggy the dog in the story? What role does each of them play?

8. What is the most pivotal point in the novel?

9. How important are  inanimate factors - the weather, the house, the River Thames - in the telling of the story?

Reading and re-reading

I flicked through a book last night. Actually, it was my book, The Housekeeper, which will be published in February. 

While I cringed at certain sections, (quite a few actually, but I'm told most people who write books do a lot of cringing when reading their own work) what struck me most was how I agonised over such simple things. Why, for example, did I spend most of a whole morning trying to work out a way to say that a month had passed?

Maybe I was trying to be original and write an attention-grabbing sentence, the likes of which had never been written before about the passage of time. But nothing sprang to mind and I ended up writing,  " ... A month passed..." 

One word for every hour passed, a new definition of slow. I should have gone with my instinct and just wrote down what happened. Who knows what I might have written during all that wasted time?

 I spent many more hours trying to think up different words for said, as in he said or she said. Replied? Murmured? Whispered? Mumbled? And then I came across Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing. Number Three, or it might have been Four, stated that "said" was just fine, all of the time. And while we were at it, we could cut out all mentions of "suddenly." 

OK. Got it. I'm going to try that next time.  I'm going to try to focus on the story,  and the people and the ideas and not obsess about the little words. I've decided that they can look after themselves.

My best books of the year

2016 is nearing its end, and about time. We need a rest. As a friend noted not so long ago, news cycles became five-minute affairs. It was hard to finish a cup of coffee without a monumental something or other beginning or ending.

 So I needed the respite of a good book more than ever. But I don’t know how writers and critics can discipline themselves and choose just three or four favourites. I seem to have so many, and all for different reasons.

Some, but not all, include Emma Cline’s The Girls. I’ve got a signed hardback on a side table and months after finishing it, I still open a page at random and marvel at her writing…”the nothing jump of soda in my throat…”

There was Sweet Caress, by William Boyd, one of my favourite authors. I had to ration my reading time on that one, because I didn’t want it to end. Ditto Exposure by Helen Dunmore, although I confess that I cheated a bit. I gave up the rationing approach altogether with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. Self discipline has never been my strong point.

So then there were glorious uninterrupted hours with The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain and Nutmeg, by Ian McEwan. Both were short novels, with many ideas to contemplate. Much, much longer was A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.  Fifty pages in, I stopped wondering how she managed to write something so wonderful in just 18 months and started to set an early morning alarm so I could get a chapter or two in before the day began. I should have adopted this approach with Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, so engrossing that I missed my bus the other day.

My list could go on and on – Robert Harris’ Conclave, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and so many others. But then there would be no room for the novels I find myself reading pretty much every year – The Great Gatsby, and always something by Edith Wharton, John Le Carre, Paul Theroux and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

And there is always a novel that someone recommends, that I’ve never heard of, and love immediately. This year, it was The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd, a Scottish writer who died in 1998. It’s set in Japan in the early 1900s and it’s exquisite. Read it and see for yourself.

Why I'm looking forward to winter

Winter is the most creative season. Really. Summer is too hot. Spring is too giddy. And autumn is, well, too autumnal.

But the minute the clocks change, I start thinking. Not that I don’t think at any other time. I just don’t think as constructively or as clearly as I do when it’s cold outside.

Writing goes well with grey skies, freezing rain and fog. There’s time to order your thoughts, to sit down at your desk or the kitchen table and turn on your computer; to try harder and fail better as Samuel Beckett once said.

Writing doesn’t go well with summer. All that sun on the head fries your ideas before they’ve had time to filter down to your fingertips and onto the page. And spring is too full of life to want to stay inside for too long.

So winter it is. And when things don’t work, which is more often than not, I can walk about and stamp my feet then head back to my desk with renewed energy.

    Lighting Out

    I finally did it. On my last morning in the house where we’d lived for more than 15 years, I woke early and listened to the birdsong outside my window. Listen carefully, I told myself. Listen to that cheerful trill, to that companionable calling and cooing and the rustling of the pigeons in the trees. You will never lie in bed and hear that again.
    Downstairs, I looked out my kitchen window, to the hill and beyond. I watched the sun break through the dawn haze, and the sheep ambling about the field. You will never stand at this window and see this again, I told myself. Remember it.
    I walked around the garden. I had placed every single one of these plants into the soil – dug literally hundreds of holes and forked in the compost, then pressing the earth back around the roots and watering them in. I’d watched roses and peonies and lavender and lilies and foxgloves and delphiniums burst into bloom each year. I’d picked their flowers and marvelled at their beauty and their scent. Could anything be more joyous than a garden?
    I took some photographs and sent them to my children; images of ancient roses and majestic foxgloves with the rolling Somerset landscape behind them. Nothing like that in Australia, where my son lives, or Nepal, home for my daughter these days. And then I packed the last of my things into the car and drove up the lane, away from my old life and towards my new one. Wish me luck, I whispered to myself.