Saturday, 10 December 2016

Close To Home .....J Carmen Smith

As a book reviewer I have made contact with authors from all across the globe and feel immensely privileged to be able to share some amazing work. However, there is always something rather special when a book comes to my attention which has been written by an author in my part of the North of England. So with this in mind I have great pleasure in featuring some of those authors who are literally close to my home. Over the next few Saturdays, and hopefully beyond, I will be sharing the work of a very talented bunch of Northern authors and discovering just what being a Northerner means to them both in terms of inspiration and also in their writing.

Today I'm delighted to welcome Northern writer

J Carmen Smith 

Talking about how her Spanish grandmother influenced her north of England roots

I know why my Spanish grandmother left her home in Santiago de Compostela, but not why she chose to emigrate to Liverpool, England, rather than Spanish-speaking Argentina, the direction many of her fellow emigrants chose. Whatever her reasons, I am grateful for her choice – otherwise I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale!

Micaela arrived in Liverpool in 1904. Looking at photographs of the city taken at the time, I wonder what her reactions were. She was 27 years of age, widowed, and had left behind parents, grandparents, and younger siblings, to make a new life in a city whose language and culture were completely alien to her. Looking at Liverpool’s magnificent – and world-renowned – waterfront now, I have to remind myself that when Micaela arrived the Three Graces were yet to be built and it would be many years before the awe-inspiring Anglican Cathedral would dominate the skyline. The concept of an ‘Anglican’ Cathedral would also be beyond her understanding and she would not live to see the Metropolitan Cathedral rise at the opposite end of Hope Street. 

Growing up knowing very little of my Spanish grandmother’s life before she arrived in Liverpool, it has taken me sixteen years to piece together Micaela’s story. Over many visits to Santiago de Compostela I have traced the houses she lived in; the churches where she and other members of her family were baptised and married; the shop where her grandfather had his hatter’s business; even the building where her artist father exhibited his paintings in the 1920s. Micaela would still recognise the city streets, except for the traffic; the houses she lived in would be just as familiar. This is not the case in Liverpool, where in the aftermath of bombs, bulldozers and modern planning, the city she lived in until her death in 1950 has changed beyond recognition. 

This is a recent photograph of the house in Santiago de Compostela where my grandmother was born in 1887 – the one with the two balconies. Of course it must have been updated internally, but the structure looks as sound today as it would have been over a century ago.

This is a recent photograph of the church – the San Pedro Apostol – where many of my ancestors were baptised and/or married:

In contrast, the church in Liverpool where my grandmother married my grandfather, a Spanish seaman, in 1907, was bomb damaged in 1941, rebuilt in the 1950s, closed in 2001 due to diminishing congregations, and finally demolished in 2004.

A photograph of Micaela and José taken after their marriage

It seems ironic that the places connected with Micaela’s life in Spain still exist, but not those in Liverpool. Contrast the street where my grandmother was born, with the one where my mother was born in October 1908; this photo was probably taken in the 1930s.

And this is a recent photograph:

The street name is still there, but most of the street has been demolished. It is one of the few areas where the original cobbles remain and I couldn’t resist walking on them – following in my grandmother’s footsteps!

A couple years ago, the Hispanic Liverpool Project was formed by Dr Kirsty Hooper, at that time head of Hispanic Studies at The University of Liverpool. The aim of this project is to ‘gather, preserve and share the forgotten stories of Liverpool’s Hispanic community’. Becoming a member of that community, meeting others with a similar background to mine, sharing family histories, enjoying social occasions, heritage walks, etc, has become an important part of my life. It has given me an insight into my Spanish roots and into the tightly-knit community of Spanish immigrants who made Liverpool their home.

Although I now live 20 miles outside Liverpool, I still have strong connections with the city and visit regularly. Great changes have taken place even in my lifetime, some for the better – of course slum housing needed to be swept away – some to be regretted, we have lost too many architectural gems in the name of progress. However, I like to think that my grandmother would have appreciated the vast improvement to the Albert Dock area, a big tourist attraction, and also the attractive Liverpool 1 shopping complex. She would still recognise St George’s Hall, the Walker Art Gallery, the World Museum and The Central Library, an area which still takes my breath away however often I visit. The river may be less crowded with ships than it was in her day but it is just as vibrant – and you can still catch a ‘Ferry Across the Mersey’!

My book Chasing Shadows is testament to the fact that my heritage is deeply rooted in two very different, magnificent, northern cities.

What a fascinating story !

Huge thanks to J Carmen Smith for her guest post about how she came to have her northern roots in the city of Liverpool and how her grandparents were such a wonderful inspiration for her book Chasing Shadows.

Thanks also to Ian at Corazon Books for his help and enthusiasm for my Close to Home Project.

Hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I have.. 

Coming Next Week :  Ian Skillicorn from Corazon Books will be talking about

Northern Writer : Naomi Jacobs


Friday, 9 December 2016

Review ~ The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir by Lesley Allen


The Blurb..

Abandoned by her mother as a baby, Biddy lives in her own little world, happy to pass her time watching the birds - until Alison Fleming joins her school.

Popular and beautiful, but with a dangerous, malevolent streak, Alison quickly secures the admiration of her fellow students. All except one. And Alison doesn't take kindly to people who don't fit her mould . . .

A story of abuse and survival, of falling down and of starting again, and of one woman's battle to learn to love herself for who she is, The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir is Lesley Allen’s startlingly honest debut novel, perfect for fans of Rowan Coleman and Julie Cohen.

My thoughts..

Reading as many books as I do, invariably I get a feeling that some books are going to be rather more special than others, and that was entirely the case with The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir.

Being caught up in the story of how Biddy Weir was cast aside and ostracised by her peers gives a whole new meaning to the phrase being 'immersed' in a story. There is no other way but to read this in one sitting, and that's just what I did, setting aside a quiet afternoon, I rolled with the story, completely at one with Biddy, and more than a little bothered by just how the story was opening up.

To say more would be to do this book a grave injustice, as it should be read with no preconceived notions, but I absolutely guarantee that by the end of the first chapter you too will be immersed and, if you are anything like me, you won't let up until Biddy's sad and sorrowful story is told.

It's a very clever author who can get so immersed in the psyche of a character that it becomes so totally believable that as the story progresses it becomes more and more difficult to read without a whopping big lump in your throat. Biddy's story broke my heart into a million pieces, I wanted to wrap her is one of my home made blankets, I wanted to cherish and protect her and keep her safe from harm and more than anything else I wanted to stop the bullies saying that she was a weirdo.

There are a few select books in my arsenal of books that everyone should read and Lesley Allen's debut novel , The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir is one of them.

Best read with... a man size box of tissues and comforting packet of Kimberley biscuits..

About the author

Lesley Allen lives in Bangor, County Down. She is a freelance copywriter and the press officer and assistant programme developer for Open House Festival. Lesley is previous recipient of the James Kilfedder Memorial Bursary, and two Support for the Individual Artist Art’s Council Awards. She was named as one of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s 2016 Artist Career Enhancement Scheme (ACES) recipients for literature. She will be using the award to complete her second book.

Find her on Facebook

Follow on Twitter @Lesley_Allen_

Read an interview with the author by clicking here 

Huge thanks to Emily at Bonnier Zaffre for sending out a copy of this book to me


Thursday, 8 December 2016

Review ~ Christmas at Lilac Cottage

Christmas Read

White Cliff Bay #1

The book blurb..

Penny Meadows loves her cosy cottage with its stunning views over the snow topped town of White Cliff Bay, but not even the roaring log fire can keep her heart from feeling frozen.

That is until dashing Henry and his daughter Daisy arrive for the festive season. And between decking the halls and baking mince pies, penny realises there is more to Henry than meets the eye.

With sleigh bells ringing and fairy lights twinkling, the Christmas ball is in full swing.

Will Penny be able to melt the ice and allow love into her heart? 

And will she finally have the perfect Christmas she's been dreaming of?

My thoughts..

On a cold and frosty day I decided to curl up in my favourite chair with a cup of hot chocolate and lost myself in the sugary goodness of Christmas at Lilac Cottage.

Penny Meadows is a trained ice sculptor whose world is sometimes as frosty as the ice blocks she so beautifully carves. Seemingly content with only the company of her aging dog Bernard she appears to be something of a lonely figure. Sure, she has good friends in the small community of White Cliff Bay, but since a failed relationship left her bruised she seems happy to live her life fairly solitary, that is, until the charming Henry and his teenage daughter Daisy come to rent the annex attached to her home at Lilac Cottage.

What then follows is an appealing story which looks at the trials and tribulations of relationships, not just between men and women, but also about fathers and daughters. The author writes well, and with wit and warmth she allows her characters to really come alive on the page.  The inevitable attraction between Henry and Penny is handled really nicely and there are some lovely light touches which show that the path of true love never runs smoothly. The inclusion of teenager Daisy into the mix gives the book an altogether different dynamic and alters the tone of the story, and gives an altogether different perspective on how adult relationships develop when there are teenagers to consider.

I really enjoyed this light and easy to read Christmas story and will certainly be returning to White Cliff Bay again.

Best Read with...Smooth and velvety hot chocolate and one of Holly's mince pie cakes...

More about the Author can be found by clicking here

Follow on Twitter @hollymartin00

My thanks to Emily at Bonnier Zaffre for my review copy of Christmas at Lilac Cottage

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The author in my spotlight is ...Joanna Hickson

I am delighted to welcome back to the blog 

 Today Joanna is talking to us about her latest historical novel

The First of the Tudors - Published December 2016

Jasper Tudor, son of Queen Catherine and her second husband, Owen Tudor, has grown up far from the intrigue of the royal court. But after he and his brother Edmund are summoned to London, their half-brother, King Henry VI, takes a keen interest in their future.

Bestowing Earldoms on them both, Henry also gives them the wardship of the young heiress Margaret Beaufort. Although she is still a child, Jasper becomes devoted to her and is devastated when Henry arranges her betrothal to Edmund. 

He seeks solace in his estates and in the arms of Jane Hywel, a young Welsh woman who offers him something more meaningful than a dynastic marriage. But passion turns to jeopardy for them both as the Wars of the Roses wreak havoc on the realm. Loyal brother to a fragile king and his domineering queen, Marguerite of Anjou, Jasper must draw on all his guile and courage to preserve their throne – and the Tudor destiny…

Hi Joanna, Jasper Tudor is the main protagonist in First of the Tudors; tell us about him and why you decided to tell his story.

First of the Tudors is not a sequel to my previous novels The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride but it may be seen as a logical development from them. It was always my intention to explore the Tudor dynasty from its very roots and with it, to portray the progression of English history through the fifteenth century and the Wars of the Roses. 

It is an extraordinary fact that the name Tudor was unknown in England before 1450 and yet thirty-five years later there was a man of that name on the English throne. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly a young soldier was enlisted in Lord Hungerford’s retinue for Henry V’s expedition to France in 1415 under the name Owen ap Meredith ap Tudur, naming his father and grandfather in the Welsh patronymic form of identification. Later English scribes shortened the name to Owen Tudor but it might easily have been shortened to Owen Meredith, with historic consequences! Secondly, this same Owen Tudor later became a servant in the household of the child-king Henry VI and well known to his young mother, Queen Catherine de Valois, widow of King Henry V, the celebrated victor of the Battle of Agincourt. So began arguably the most intriguing and romantic ‘misalliance’ of medieval history and one that gave birth to at least four children. Jasper was the second child of this union and the one who was responsible for ensuring the destiny of the Tudor dynasty. Just the name Jasper, unusual and probably unique among the nobility of the time, would have been enough to intrigue me but add that to the dramatic events surrounding his see-saw life, his own clandestine romance and his unswerving loyalty to his unfortunate half-brother King Henry VI and I believe you have an irresistible narrative.

In this novel Jasper spends time in Wales. In researching the book did you walk in his footsteps, to the places he once visited and did you have a favourite place?

I certainly did visit most of the places he frequented but I’m not sure that I could choose one favourite. After his half-brother the king made him Earl of Pembroke, Jasper made a home for himself at Pembroke Castle in the far west of Wales and of course I went there. It is an enormous, sprawling fortress, established soon after the Norman Conquest and developed and extended over the next four hundred years by its various owners, including Jasper himself. History records it as the birthplace of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, and tradition put his birth in a particular tower that is presently named after him. However, I begged to differ for very good reasons, which you will find in the novel and which may have turned out to be justified. I am saying no more for fear of spoilers!

In contrast a significant portion of the first part of the novel takes place on a farm situated on the shores of Tremadog Bay, just north of present-day Barmouth and while there is a lovely old mansion called Cors-y-Gedol on the site of this farm today, I used another, older farmhouse up in Snowdonia called Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant as the blueprint for my setting. It belongs to the National Trust now so can be visited by the general public and gives a really good idea of the harsh life and unremitting toil of the farming families of that time. If I had to I would probably cite this as my favourite and most inspirational place on my Jasper research list.

I enjoyed reading of Jasper’s connection with his sister-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, but his relationship with Jane Hywel is quite special. How did you bring her character to life with so little documented information about her?

This is where my preferred description of what I write as ‘creative history’ rather than ‘historical fiction’ comes into play. I do extensive research on the characters I choose to bring to life but some of them require more creation than others! There is no doubt that a woman called Jane Hywel did exist and was well known to Margaret Beaufort, who employed her to run the nursery of her baby grandson Prince Henry, later to become King Henry VIII. From that miniscule mention in a historical source however I have created a whole and, I hope, believable character in Jane (or Sian), distantly related to Jasper through her father Hywel Fychan, another minor character only briefly mentioned in history, and in The Tudor Bride, as a Welsh cousin brought into Queen Catherine’s household by Owen Tudor. I do this because I don’t want to concentrate entirely on the court and nobility but there is little record of the actions of commoners in historical sources, for the very good reason that they were mostly illiterate and therefore left no written material. I want all medieval life to be in my novels, not just the part of it that we glean from letters, chronicles and court and parliamentary rolls.

Mixing historical fact with fiction must be quite a challenge. How do you get the balance right without compromising on authenticity?

If I do get the balance right it’s because I try to put myself in the positions in which I put my characters. I guess that’s what all writers do, whether they’re writing contemporary or historical fiction. Of course for the latter it means you must immerse yourself in the life of the times in which your tale is set and that means making sure that you know the differences between life as it was led then and as we lead it now. So in my imagination I spend a lot of time in the fifteenth century, dressing as they do, eating as they do and thinking as they do, whether they be nobles or nobodies. It’s fun when the characters take you over and tell you what they would do next in the situation you have put them in!

Whilst you are writing you must live with your characters.

 Yes. (See above!)

How do you feel about them when the book is finished?

 Bereft – that’s why I keep dragging back characters from my previous books into those that follow.

Are they what you expected them to be?

No because they keep going in directions I didn’t expect them too and improving the story in the process. And do you have a favourite character? I think it’s always the one I am writing about at the time and as I am continuing the Tudor story in my next novel I can stay with my present favourite for a while, which is Jasper of course! Although another character is beginning to take over as I progress through the century... No prizes for guessing who that is! Also I think I will always love Mette, the narrator of my first two novels – and readers will soon find that she makes a guest appearance in First of the Tudors.

What can we expect next from you?

See the previous answer. More Tudors, more lives and more drama of the 15thC.

More about Joanna can be found by clicking here

Find on Facebook 

Follow on Twitter @joannahickson

My thanks to Joanna for her insightful answers to my questions. Joanna, it's been a pleasure to have you spend time with us today.

Thanks also to Jaime at Harper Collins for her help with this interview.


Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Review ~ Christmas at the Cat Cafe by Melissa Daley

The blurb..

Christmas at the Cat Cafe is the wonderfully festive sequel to Melissa Daley's uplifting tale, Molly and the Cat Cafe.

The Costwolds' town of Stourton-on-the-Hill has its very own cat café. Resident cat Molly, and her kittens, live here in feline paradise, while owner Debbie serves the locals home-made goodies. But even in the most idyllic surroundings, things don't always go to plan . . .

When Debbie's heartbroken sister Linda arrives at the café, Debbie insists she move in. But Linda is not alone, and the cats are devastated with the arrival of Linda's dog, Beau. Sadly, Beau's arrival is not the only bombshell - now Molly's home is also under threat when a rival cat moves in on her turf.

With Christmas approaching, Molly is unsettled, barely roused by the promise of tinsel to play with. Fearing for her feline family she hopelessly stares out of the café window searching for an answer. Only a Christmas miracle could bring everyone together.

My thoughts..

Well after a review yesterday about a dog named Bertie it was only fair to Jaffa to review a story today about a cat named Molly.  So here's himself making sure I didn't renege on the deal... 

Molly the cat shares her life with her five kittens and her owner Debbie who all live together in the delightful Cotswold town of Stourton-on-the-Hill. Together they run the idyllically named Cat Cafe where tea and biscuits are dispensed with love and wisdom. When Debbie's's erratic sister, Linda arrives complete with her dog, Beau, in tow, well, you can imagine just how the dynamics of the cat cafe changes overnight.

What then follows is a delightful tale of how two very different sisters try to come to terms with each other's lives, whilst at the same time, the menagerie of animals who must now all live together under the same roof also need to try to get along as best they can. However, for Molly and her family of kittens this is never going to be easy and with Christmas looming and their comfortable home under threat, a Christmas miracle is going to be needed if they are all to stay together.

The author has written a lovely story with a real Christmas feel to it which I am sure will delight animal lovers. The cat cafe is one of those places where you really wish you could visit and Molly is the purrfect protagonist and wonderful at recounting the story in her own inimitable style.

It also warrants a mention that the book is delightfully presented with a festive cover that really  cries out "open me" and that each delightful chapter of the book is headed by a purrfect black and white line drawing of a cat. I think my favourite has to be the cat with the pot of tea !

This was my first visit to the Cat Cafe and I am sure that it won't be my last. I am hopeful that this talented writer will bring us more of Molly's adventures in future stories.

Best Read With...A Feline Fancy and  Pot of Earl Grey tea..

About the Author

Melissa Daley lives in Hertfordshire with her two cats, two children and one husband. One of her cats, Nancy, has a writing pedigree of her own and can be found on Facebook as Nancy Harpenden-Cat. Melissa was inspired by the Cotswolds town of Stow-on-the-Wold, which provides the backdrop for Melissa's novels.

Melissa Daley talks to Jaffareadstoo about Christmas at the Cat Cafe 

*The Kindle edition of Christmas at the Cat Cafe  is currently on a 99p promotion on Amazon UK

My thanks to Jess at Pan Macmillan for sending  me and Jaffa a review copy of this book.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Review ~ Bertie's Gift by Hannah Coates

I am delighted to feature the first of my Christmas Reads


A bit of book blurb..

This is the heart-warming, inspirational story of one cheeky little dog and his beloved sister, two grumpy cats, and a family at Christmas. Bertie is alone, devastated after his beloved sister and fellow beagle Molly is adopted, leaving him behind. When Bertie is taken in by the Green family, it seems he's finally found a place to call home...Yet Bertie swiftly realises that the kind and loving Green family is in crisis. After a tragedy two years ago, they've never recovered - and as Christmas approaches, grief is pulling them apart. Never has a four-legged friend been more in need - and brave, warm-hearted Bertie must rise to the challenge. Can he enlist the help of hostile felines Kitty and Rico to help him find Molly - and can bring the Green family back together again, all in time for Christmas?

Here are my thoughts..

After the initial few pages I completely forgot that I was reading this book from a dog's perspective. Of course, I had to hide the fact that this was a book about a D.O.G - Jaffa isn't over enamoured of his canine compatriots. But as ever, I have  a cunning plan and a nifty little book bag to hide the book from Jaffa's suspicious cat's eyes.

It must be said that I fell in love with Bertie from the beginning of this charming story which shares all that's good, and sometimes, bad about pet ownership.

The story starts off quite grim with Bertie and his sister Molly sharing a rather unpleasant existence with a number of other dogs and living with an owner who, since his wife died, can't really be bothered about any of them. When the dogs are taken to an animal shelter to be re-homed you can't help but form an emotional attachment to this brave little Beagle who cares so much for his sister Molly that you feel the loss when they are separated and taken away to live with  new people.

The story is warm and compassionate and sensitively portrays the world from Bertie’s unique perspective so that we get a distinctively canine view of the world with all its inherent dangers and complications. Bertie is such a lovely exuberant character that it’s hard not to fall completely in love with him. His liveliness is quite infectious and the goodness of his spirit not only helps to heal a fractured family and restore hope to a sad little boy, but also shows the power of friendship, the value of loyalty and the overwhelming bond of love which exists between pets and their owners.

However, much as I loved Bertie the Beagle, I was especially drawn towards  the two dastardly felines, Kitty and Rico, who show that cats are shrewd operators when it comes to the small matter of surveillance.

Bertie's Gift is a lovely heartwarming Christmas Read, just perfect reading for all animals lovers be they canine or feline..

Best Read with ...A spiced gingerbread latte and a delicious bite of stollen, heavy on the marzipan..

Follow on  the author on Twitter @BertiesGift

My thanks to Rosie at  the Hodder Press Office for my review copy of Bertie's Gift

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Sunday WW1 Remembered ~ The Sun Will Always Shine by John R McKay

Catching up with my November Remembrance Read

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

 A bit of blurb

Set before and during the First World War, The Sun Will Always Shine tells the story of Harry and Charlie Davenport, two brothers who live and work on a farm in Lancashire, England with their domineering father, timid mother and younger sister, Lucy.

The brothers believe that their father's increasing brutality needs to be stepped and strong action is needed to protect their family. But with war approaching they come to realise that theses actions will have terrible consequences upon the very people they have sworn to protect. As suspicion grows ever stronger, could the trenches of the Western Front provide an escape for them, before their secret is revealed and their world is ripped apart.

My thoughts..

When the First World War broke out in 1914 for many of the young soldiers who enlisted it was the opportunity of lifetime. For some it was a time to see a different part of the world and a time for adventure, but one wonders just how many young men were escaping a life that had been made intolerable by cruelty and poverty.

The story starts in 1914 when we are introduced to the Davenport family who eke out a living on their farm in rural Lancashire. Brothers Harry and Charlie are very much at the behest of their violent and domineering father, but when a family tragedy forces Charlie to make a difficult decision, it is left to older brother Harry to keep the farm and the family secure.

What then follows is an interesting and well developed story which considers all the difficulties of living through a challenging time. The author paints a realistic picture of what it was like to be a soldier in WW1, whilst at the same time creates a believable world for those who were left behind. Time and place are perfectly captured and throughout the story there are some very poignant relationship issues which are described in sympathetic detail.

I enjoyed the setting; Lancashire and my home town of Wigan play an important role in the novel both in terms of the landscape and in the warm personalities of those characters who flit into and out of the story. The places mentioned in the novel had a very familiar feel to them and I enjoyed seeing how places I know well fitted into the story.

In The Sun Will Always Shine, the author has succeeded in bringing together a story which shows both the best and also the worst of human nature. The First World War is obviously a subject the author feels passionately about and therefore writes with great conviction and enthusiasm about a very evocative time in our history.

Best Read With ..A crusty loaf from Traynor's bakery and a strong brew of old fashioned, Lancashire tea..

About the Author

Visit the author on his Website

Find on Facebook

Follow on Twitter @JohnMcKay68

Read an interview with the author here