Monday, 29 February 2016

At the Edge of the Orchard

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
Published by The Borough Press
8th March 2016
Hardback Edition

What happens when you can’t run any further from your past?

Ohio, 1838. James and Sadie Goodenough have settled in the Black Swamp, planting apple trees to claim the land as their own. Life is harsh in the swamp, and as fever picks off their children, husband and wife take solace in separate comforts. James patiently grows his sweet-tasting ‘eaters’ while Sadie gets drunk on applejack made fresh from ‘spitters’. Their fighting takes its toll on all of the Goodenoughs – a battle that will resonate over the years and across America.

Fifteen years later their youngest son, Robert, is drifting through Gold Rush California and haunted by the broken family he fled years earlier. Memories stick to him where mud once did. When he finds steady work for a plant collector, peace seems finally to be within reach. But the past is never really past, and one day Robert is forced to confront the brutal reason he left behind everything he loved.

I’ve not read a novel by Tracy Chevalier in quite a while, so when I was asked if I’d take part in the blog tour for The Edge of the Orchard I jumped at the chance, even more so when I saw the gorgeous artwork for the book’s cover.
This is another historical piece of writing, but this time set in America during the 1800s.  It follows the Goodenough family as they initially move from Connecticut to Ohio, bringing with them species of apple trees to start their new life on unchartered lands.  It’s not as easy as it may seem to make a new beginning from nothing, and soon Sadie and James are on opposite sides, one wanting to grow apples to eat, and the other wanting to grow apples purely for making applejack to drink and their feud continues to grow over the years they are living in the Black Swamp.  Swamp fever slowly picks off their children one by one and life is hard, brightened briefly only by the arrival of John Chapman with his delivery of new saplings and seeds in order to help the Goodenough’s plant enough trees in order to be able to claim the land as their own.  One feud too many though sees the family torn apart in a way no one could predict, and son Robert moves west, along with millions of other Americans prospecting for gold.

We join Robert some fifteen years later as he moves from job to job, never satisfied, never fulfilled by the work, or the land surrounding him.  One day he comes across a group of trees that he has never seen before.  They are larger in all dimensions that any he has ever come across, and in this moment he meets the man who will ultimately change the destiny of his life – William Lobb.  Robert becomes a collector of seeds, a man who will help to bring new species overseas to wealthy clients in England who wish to grow new trees on their estates.  As we journey west with Robert, we meet a whole host of other characters who will play vital parts in his life, and also catch up with some of those he thought he had left behind in Ohio.

This is a great book.  It’s amusing at times, and at others, very moving.  The characters come to life on the page and you can really feel the hardships of life in the American Midwest for those homesteaders.  I loved the fact that some of these characters really did exist and that I had had the privilege to read about their achievements from so long ago.  The artwork of the book pulled me in initially but soon the Goodenough family had me gripped to every page.  At the Edge of the Orchard is a mesmerising read by an established author who stories keep on getting better in my opinion.

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Friday, 19 February 2016

In Conversation with Rebecca Mascull for Song of the Sea Maid blog tour

Today on the blog, I’m lucky enough to be taking part in the tour for Song of the Sea Maid, the second novel by author Rebecca Mascull.  Rebecca also chatted to me when her first book The Visitors was published in 2014   and you can read her interview with me here.  So, for now, let’s chat again….

What came first in Song of the Sea Maid - the story idea, or Dawnay as a character?
That's a really interesting question. One never knows what will come first, but in this case it was the idea behind the story. I was walking through Oxford in my twenties, looking at all the beautiful old buildings in the college sector, when it suddenly occurred to me that all the history books that get written are indeed that - written - and written by fallible humans who are liable to get things wrong and at least be biased. It was a revelation to me, as I'd not really considered before that books might contain versions of truth. I just assumed that if it were published in a book it must be true. Then, it occurred to me that history itself - or what we're taught happened - would be biased according to whose version you heard or who you asked. I realised that there must be lots of people out there throughout history who had something to say but were never heard. Over many years - and mixed with my life-long fascination with science - this became the seed for Song of the Sea Maid i.e. what if a lone voice in ages past came up with a brilliant scientific idea but that person was lowly in society - a nobody? Would they ever be heard? Thus, Dawnay Price came to life! She was a poor orphan and female to boot and in C18th society, she really was a nobody. Once I started researching into the lives and minds of scientists, Dawnay's character started to form and then she started talking to me. And then we were off...

What research did you do as it's a very historical novel?

Oh, all sorts! It all starts with reading. I start reading around the topic, looking at the era itself i.e. C18th society, streets, clothes, transport, food, attitudes etc. Also, topics associated with the story, in this case: orphanages, evolutionary theories, female scientists of the period, the Seven Years' War etc. I also read texts written during that period e.g. novels and essays by Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding - this helps me get the feel for the language of the time, the lilt of their sentences and typical vocabulary. I watch films set during the period and documentaries on the subjects e.g. I watched loads of programmes on early humans and palaeontology. I also visit locations, such as Dr. Johnson's House, an C18th town house in London, in order to get a visual and spacial sense of the period. It all takes a good year or more. There's a lot to do! But it is endlessly interesting.

The Square Staircase at Dr Johnson's House

Did the story end up where you thought it would?

With this novel, yes, it mostly did. My first novel The Visitors ended up a bit differently than planned, in particular, the central romance which didn't end up as I'd planned at all! That was a case where the characters decided what they were going to do and I had to go along with it! You have to listen to your characters, I feel, as they know who they are and you're just finding out, like getting to know someone you've just met. With Sea Maid, I knew more or less where she was going to go and what she was going to do. I think she was so determined, she basically told me that was that and she set out to do it. I didn't predict everything she'd feel though, and that was surprising, the way she responded to love, for example. So, your characters do have the knack of surprising you and it's all part of the lovely process of writing fiction.

As some of the story is set overseas, was it written on location or through your imagination?

I have visited Portugal and Spain in my twenties and spent quite a bit of time travelling around the Iberian Peninsula. I have quite vivid memories of my time there and much fondness. Obviously, I was writing about it from 250 years before, so much of it was based on research into the period e.g. Lisbon in the 1750s. There was a lot of trade between Britain and Portugal in the C18th, so luckily there are plenty of English-language accounts of Lisbon from that time, so I was able to read those and base my characters firmly within that setting. However, the mood and atmosphere of the places were very much based on the feelings I had of being there in my twenties, and I absolutely adored it, and so writing those sections was just a joy. I was drafting through the winter months, so It was delightful to go into my study, with the winter winds battering the window, and in my mind and on my computer I was paddling around in the azure shallows of the Mediterranean or looking across the bay of a Portuguese island. Lovely.

The Berlengas Islands, Portugal

What's next?
I'm currently finishing off the first draft of Book 3 for Hodder. If I get it in on time (fingers crossed!), then it'll be coming out in April 2017. It's set during the Edwardian period and begins in 1909 just down the road from where I live, in Cleethorpes. It's about another determined young woman, but a much quieter, watchful one this time, who wants to do something rather unusual...More details when I've finished it!

Thanks so much for your questions, Georgina! And for letting me visit your blog again. :-)

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Woman who Ran

The Woman who Ran by Sam Baker
Published by Harper Collins
28th January 2016
Paperback Edition

How do you escape what you can’t remember?

She can run. But can she hide?
Helen Graham is a new arrival in a tiny Yorkshire village, renting dilapidated Wildfell Hall. The villagers are intensely curious – what makes her so jumpy and
why is she so evasive?

Their interest is Helen’s worst nightmare. Looking over her shoulder every day, she tries to piece together her past before it can catch up with her.

With everything she knows in fragments, from her marriage to her career as a war photographer, how can she work out who to trust and what to believe? Most days she can barely remember who she is…

The latest novel from former editor of Red magazine, Sam Baker, takes a more gritty approach from her previous novels, and I wholeheartedly approve of it.  This novel is loosely based around the classic book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte and tells the story of photographer Helen Graham who having arrived in Yorkshire in order to rest and recuperate, finds herself the centre of all village gossip.

The story weaves back and forth through Helen’s life, from her early photography days to her relationship with the seemingly charismatic Art and then her hurried departure from a burning apartment building in France with what appears to be the body of her husband trapped in the ruins as the building fills with smoke.  Though what caused her to turn and run that night, and what leaves her forever looking over her shoulder now, no one really knows.

Newly retired jounalist Gil Markham isn’t one for gossip, or so he claims.  He now plans to take life easy, spend time with his daughters and their grandchildren, and move away from the general hustle and bustle of the working world he used to be a part of.  However old habits die hard and soon, like all of the other villagers, he too is wondering what the story behind the elusive Mademoiselle Graham actually is.  Has Helen found the perfect retreat, or by moving to such a remote location, has she actually put herself in more danger?

I really enjoyed the book and also the way it flitted forwards and back.  The tales of working on the front line as a female war photographer sounded authentic and as a character, I admired Helen.  Did I find it totally plausible that she would rent the seemingly spooky sounding Wildfell Hall when she is actually worried about her own safety, I’m still not 100% convinced, but then that’s my own opinion, as that house is not somewhere I would have chosen to live in on my own, but for Helen maybe it’s not as weird.  Would she have been safer in a larger city where she could have disappeared amongst the many, who knows?  Regardless of this, The Woman who Ran is a tense thriller that’s worthy of a read.

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Published by The Borough Press
28th January 201
Hardback Edition


Mrs Creasy is missing and The Avenue is alive with whispers. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands.

And as the cul-de-sac starts giving up its secrets, the amateur detectives will find much more than they imagined…

Right, let’s start this review with a spoiler alert – there are no goats or sheep in this book at all, so if you are expecting a tale of farmyard animals, then I expect you will be solely disappointed.  What you are left with, are metaphorical goats and sheep of the kind that the Bible tells us about, and our two central characters, ten year olds Grace and Tilly are on the hunt to find them.

Set in 1976, Joanna Cannon’s debut novel carries you away to that summer of relentless heat, when everyone sat around watching the sky, hoping that today would be the day that it rained but of course, it never was.  Grace and Tilly are best friends and as the summer holidays begin and their neighbour Mrs Creasy goes missing, they decide that they will try to find out what happened to her.  Unbeknown to them however, the street upon which they live, has secrets of its own, and as questions begin to be asked by all and sundry, the neighbours themselves have to keep each other in check to make sure that what happened in the past, remains in the past.

Will Mrs Creasy return to the fold though, or will Grace and Tilly discover that there are more goats than sheep than they were originally led to believe.  This is a great story of community and friendship, and a tale of childhood innocence.  It also examines just what can happen when a community decides to come together, with sometimes devastating consequences.

I loved this book, it was a real breath of fresh air, and it was great to be transported back to the days of my early childhood, when technology was at a minimum and where all neighbours knew and spoke to each other daily.  There are some very funny moments, especially when the new residents of The Avenue arrive, and also some sad moments of reflection too.  I predict that The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is going to be much talked about in 2016.

Happy Reading

Miss Chapter x