Brideshead Revamp


I was sent an email today from the lovely author (and mentor of mine and founder/patron of Words for the Wounded) Margaret Graham, telling me I had a review in the Daily Mail for ‘Bright Stars’. So of course, I Googled and found the review by novelist Wendy Holden who likened it to Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’. (And I dashed out and bought a copy for my mum.)

The comparison, of course, thrilled me as ‘Brideshead Revisited’ is one of my top ten novels and the TV production one of the best ever. I even blogged about campus novels a few months ago and had to include Brideshead. Just because.

So if you were ever a student, if you are a student, if you’d like to be a student, if you remember the 80s, or if you don’t, or if you weren’t even born, you can download Bright Stars for £2.79 and see if the comparison rings true. Is Cameron a modern day Charles Ryder, in a kilt rather than tweeds? Is Tommo anything like Sebastian Flyte, with an electric guitar rather than a teddy bear?


‘…from balls and Bollinger to sweaty discos and the Nelson Mandela Bar.’

Read more:

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Author Interview: Sophie Duffy


Sophie Duffy lives in Devon, and became a writer after taking a creative writing evening class and then a Creative Writing MA. Her first novel published was The Generation Game in 2011, which has won several prizes. She also published This Holey Life in 2012. Bright Stars is her third novel and follows the life of Cameron Spark as he struggles both to move on from and to accept traumatic events in his past. Sophie is also involved with CreativeWritingMatters, a writing school in Exeter. We send Rachel Stubbs to find out more…

Your website says that you studied your MA at Lancaster University. Are any parts of Bright Stars that are based on your own experiences there?

I studied for my MA at Lancaster University by distance learning from 2002-2004 but I was an English undergrad there from 1986 to 1989 and that is where the inspiration came for Bright Stars

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You are all Bright Stars!




As the 2015 draws to a close, I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who read ‘Bright Stars’, to all those who came to the launch, to everyone involved in the publishing of it, to all those who took the time to post reviews, to everyone for their support. I hope it won’t be too long before the next one is finished… Please be kind, 2016, to all of us.

P.S. ‘Bright Stars’ is on sale on Amazon as part of the 12 Days of Kindle until January 5th at 99p.

Moving House, Letting Go, and What to do with the Cat’s Ashes.

View from the Shoffice
View from the Shoffice

Moving house would make the most laid back of people score high on a stressometer. I am not the most laid back of people. If Jeremy Vine was recording me right now he would be getting very excited. In fact he would most possibly be exhibiting signs of stress too. Wakeful nights, palpitations, tears, are just some of my symptoms. You don’t really want to know the other ones.

In two days we are moving out of the house we have lived in for ten years. During that time a lot has happened:

We had one mega extension and the worst cowboy builders.

Our three children have had their teenage reign here and several rites of passages – some that we know about, some that I suspect we don’t.

Our dog Millie gave birth to seven Tibetan Terrier puppies (one sadly didn’t make it) right where I am sitting now. We kept one of the puppies, Susan, and she is sitting on my feet as I write this.


My husband has had three jobs and a year of no job. He now works in London.

My three novels were written here and the most recent Bright Stars was written in my beloved room of my own, a.k.a. the shoffice (shed/office).

I am learning to let go. I’ve had to de-clutter on a massive scale, prioritising pieces of the children’s work, pictures, clay diva lamps (there were eight of those and I could only relinquish the one that was furry). We gave our family tent to Calaid and have had numerous trips to the tip and charity shops. (The dartboard went to the tip but came back again. Just in case I take it up as a hobby.)

DS1 went to university in September. All the way from Devon to London, to SOAS, to study Japanese and Linguistics. He is a hoarder and I have had to deal respectfully with his collection of Manga books, Pokemon cards and every single train ticket he has ever bought.

DS2 who is on his (second) gap year has had to be held at gunpoint to clear his room. He’s done very well at the eleventh hour, but is hanging onto the pretty much complete collection of Harry Potter lego that we bought so that one day he might sell it on eBay.

DD1 has deforested her room and we can now see the carpet which had to be replaced a year ago as you could still smell the bottle of vinegar she spilt during her ‘shop’ years. ‘I’m going minimalist in my new room, Mum,’ she said. ‘We’ll see,’ I thought.

And what about the stuff I left behind at my mum’s when I left for university in 1986? She gave it back to me when I got married and it has stayed in a box. The box has followed us from house to house and I look in it every time we move. And every time we move, I think about getting rid, but I can’t quite do it yet. Though I did make some progress: I binned the legless Sindy doll with the bouffant 70s hair and the normal sized boobs.

There are some things that cannot be taken to the tip or recycled. Memories. And the bodies buried in the garden (two guinea pigs and one puppy under the cherry tree). The cat’s ashes are coming with us.

Cherry Tree
Cherry Tree

See you on the other side.

RIP Buzz
RIP Buzz

Review of Secret of the Song

Secret of the Song
by Cathie Hartigan


‘Why don’t you marry Jon, Mummy?’ Mollie, Queen of Barbie-land, and resplendent in her twinkly pyjamas, sat up in bed glaring at me. ‘Then he’d be here all the time, and you wouldn’t need so many minutes on your phone.’
‘That’s absolutely the worst reason to get married I’ve ever heard.’ I kissed my magenta monster goodnight. ‘Now lie down and go to sleep.’

Published by CreativeWritingMatters
October 2015

When a song by the mad composer, Carlo Gesualdo, is discovered in Exeter Museum, trouble descends on the group asked to sing it. Lisa is full of enthusiasm at first, but she soon becomes convinced the song is cursed. Can Lisa find out what mystery lies behind the discordant harmonies? Will she solve the song’s secret before her relationship with Jon breaks for good and harm befalls them all?

In Renaissance Naples, young Silvia Albana is seamstress and close confidant of Don Gesualdo’s wife. When Donna Maria begins an affair, Silvia knows that death is the only outcome. But who exactly will die? And where is Silvia’s own lover? Why is he not there to help her?


‘Secret of the Song’ was a complete revelation to me. With its two distinct time frames and a potentially cursed piece of music that connects them, I had no idea how the novel would pan out. But there was no time to think about this as I was completely hooked from the start. This is a great example of the time slip genre.

‘Secret of the Song’ could also be classed as a crossover read, accessible to both young adult and adult readers alike. Its two protagonists – a young seamstress from Renaissance Naples, and a contemporary thirty-something Exeter musician – are both well-drawn characters who share the simple dream of being happy and in charge of their own destiny. This is a book that plunges you into a dark and mysterious 15th century Italy, but pulls you back to modern day Britain with its equally compelling story. Mystery, murder, music, lust, love and longing weave the two threads together.

I particularly liked Sylvia, the Italian – she is flawed but strong and talented and I think teenage readers will relate to her. She reminds me of the heroines of Tracy Chevalier’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’. A young woman who has no power but who uses her wits to avoid becoming a victim of circumstance and class.

The theme of music is cleverly woven throughout the dual narratives. With its different tones and shades of light and dark, this novel is like an opera, both dramatic and intensely human. The beautifully realised settings, in time and place, paint a vivid background against which the action plays out.

Dual narratives are very hard to pull off as often one of the stories is more powerful or emotionally charged than the other. But Cathie Hartigan uses great skill to achieve a fine balancing act between the two and to give the reader a deeply satisfying read. The entwined narratives zip along with two equally compelling voices and I felt I knew both leading characters so well by the end of the novel.

And such a charming portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship between Lisa and her ten year old, Mollie…

‘Secret of the Song’ is perfect for fans of Tracy Chevalier, Sally Vickers, Kate Morton and Daphne du Maurier with its attention to the smallest of details and its sweeping emotions that cross all barriers of time, background and culture. A read that will keep you in its grip until the last page.

First published on Serendipity Reviews on 3rd November 2015

No One Should Have No One This Christmas

It’s that time of year again. The John Lewis Christmas advert has been released and, as usual, it is very sweet. But this year JL has teamed up with Age UK to raise awareness, and hopefully money, for the charity’s aim to alleviate loneliness which can be a real issue for older people. Especially at Christmas time, a time for family and friendship.

Christmas is bitter sweet for me. I love all things Christmassy – the tree, the tinsel, the carols, the food, oh my goodness, the food. I love being with children as it is so magical seeing the awe and wonder through their eyes and remembering how it was in my own childhood. Except we lost my dad a few days after Christmas in 1978, when I was ten. So the shadow of that loss hangs over us but only in the wasteland between Boxing Day and New Year. Christmas itself is usually jolly and it’s the one time we get together as a family and play games.

Christmas is the worst time to be on your own. Or to feel on your own. I am grateful to Dad that he waited until after christmas – I don’t know what that would have cost him. I can only imagine and I try not to dwell on that because it is too heart-breaking. But I do believe that knowing someone is a phone call away with a listening ear and a sympathetic voice, could make all the difference for someone suffering in silence, for whatever reason.

Shoeboxes, community lunches, carol services – these all have a part to play in keeping the black dog at bay. As do charities like the Samaritans and Age UK. Well done, John Lewis for highlighting this.

No one should have no one this Christmas.


7 of my Favourite Sounds

Good writing emotionally connects with its reader. Using the senses is one of the ways to do this. How things look, sound, taste, smell and feel can trigger a whole range of memories and associations and thereby heighten emotion.

Last night, I was thinking about some of my favourite sounds. Here are seven of them.


1. A dog sigh of content when they are curled up asleep.

2. The peal of church bells on a summer’s evening, drifting up the hill to our house.

3. The kettle boiling. Anytime.

4. A tambourine. Much underrated musical instrument but when it is played it elevates a piece of music to another dimension.

5. Uncontrollable laughter – nothing quite like it to lift the spirits.

6. The pop and fizz of an opened bottle of Champagne. Anytime.

7. Coins chinking in my grandpa’s trouser pocket. I can still hear that sound all these years later.

What are yours?

Something Only We Know
by Kate Long


There are five members of our family: Mum, Dad, my sister Helen and me. And then there’s Helen’s anorexia.

Published by Simon and Schuster in August 2015
Pages – 448


Sometimes a secret is too big to hide.

Jen is a trainee journalist working on Chester’s local paper, dreaming of something bigger. Her sister, Helen, is beautiful but damaged, and hides a secret that has affected the whole family, one they cannot escape but one she is trying to move on from.

As Helen learns to become a whole person once again, her family struggles with the past, and how they will move forward together. And Jen realises that the one person she needs to help her through is the one person she cannot have – Helen’s boyfriend, Ned…

Reviewed by Sophie Duffy in Serendipity Reviews on 14th September 2015

As a novelist who writes about family life, I always look forward to Kate Long’s novels. And her latest, Something Only We Know, is a belter. It’s about a family who are on the edge, waiting for the fallout of the older daughter’s anorexia some years earlier. Is Helen getting ill again? Is she eating? Is she lying? These are all questions that Helen’s younger sister, Jen has to keep asking herself. Meanwhile, the family tiptoe around each other in ways that reflect their weaknesses and agendas. The family dynamics are so complex but Long dramatises the relationships and reveals her characters with subtlety, empathy and a deftness of touch.

Jen, the younger sister, is the narrator of the novel. She’s in her early 20s, a trainee journalist on a local paper, still living at home as her job does not pay. Jen is so well-drawn I felt I could completely inhabit her head, that I could understand her frustrations and struggles – though her political activist boyfriend (who doesn’t want a proper job) is far too good for her.

Helen also lives at home, despite being 30. She has been over-protected by her mother who constantly fears she will slip back into the eating disorder of her teenage years which were dark times for everyone. Helen has built herself a complex set of rules and rituals of day-to-day living to which the rest of the family must comply.

Something Only We Know is written with great sensitivity and emotion. As always, Long’s characters are multi-layered and totally believable. You get cross with them but you also cheer them on. The story with its ups and downs is ultimately one of hope and love.

I heartily recommend this one.

Campus/academic novels

I’ve always been drawn to campus novels, ever since reading ‘Brideshead Revisited’ during the summer of ’86 before I went to Lancaster University. I know Brideshead is not technically a campus or academic novel, but the most vivid part for many people, including myself, is the Oxford section where Charles meets Sebastian. So romantic and sweet and full of adolescent yearning.

In my first year as an English undergrad we studied post-war novels which included David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go and Kinsgley Amis’ Lucky Jim. These were perfect choices for this time of my life – funny, clever, satirical, experimental. And I found one of my favourite genres. I love that David Lodge was Professor of English at Birmingham at that time (aka Rummidge). It all felt connected.

Now, as DS1 prepares to go to SOAS, and as I await the publication of my third novel in a month’s time, I see more connections. Bright Stars could be called a campus novel in that it is partly set at Lancaster University in the 80s (yes, it is fiction, really). And Lancaster University is most definitely a campus, stuck on a hill off the M6, three miles from town. Thinking about Bright Stars and my experiences of academic life, I have been drawn back to the campus novel. Here’s my top ten.

1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954). Still makes me laugh. A comic book is so rare and this one is full of charm and embarrassment and is quintessentially British.

2. Nice Work by David Lodge (1988).


I could have chosen any one of Lodge’s books but I went for Nice Work partly because of the TV adaptation and Warren Clarke’s portrayal of Vic Wilcox. A changing places of industry and university with a nod to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

3. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson. This is the third of Atkinson’s novels and fantastic reading for anyone who has ever studied Creative Writing.

4. Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. Fabulous coming-of-age novel with more than a nod to television which is always fine by me. Funny and poignant.

5. Less than Angels by Barbara Pym. I could have chosen several of Miss Pym’s novels but went for this one, about anthropologists. Brilliant observations. Classic Pym.

6. Possession by AS Byatt. Not technically a campus novel but certainly set in an academic world. Multi-layered using different narrative devices.

7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Just because.

8. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury. A contemporary of David Lodge and also a fine example of the narrative technique of staying on the surface. Cutting satire of 70s academia.

9. Mary Swann by Carol Shields. Thought I should cross the pond, to Canada. I read this last year for the first time and was hooked. Such a clever use of subtle satire.

10. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. And south to the USA. A stunning portrayal of a post-grad love triangle, including a vivid account of the effects of bi-polar disorder. Wonderful characterisation.

I could add many more. What would be in your list?

Mabel, Mr Clarke, a dead scorpion and some fleas.


July 17th 1900

My dearest Mother

It is only just 9 o’clock. I have had a long morning already as I was up at 6. Mr Clarke has gone away today and he had to start from here at 6.30 to pick up the coach at Madampe. He has been here nearly a week and it has been quite exciting having someone else in the house for so long. I rather dreaded his coming as I thought he would grumble at things and make everyone miserable but he has been awfully nice. Of course he found a lot of things were wrong and has made a good many alterations, but he says that most of the mistakes George has made have been through ignorance and also through not liking to alter things from the way Mr Harbor had been doing them. You see, at Veyangoda, George did not have very much to do with the actual desiccating (that means drying) as Mr Maxfield was mainly responsible for it, but here he is responsible for everything that goes on, as Mr Van Dort has had very little experience. Also Mr Clarke says that Mr Maxfield has been making a lot of mistakes so that a great deal that George has learnt from him has been wrong.

Mr Clarke was a manager of a mill for five years and is very well up in everything. He thinks that things ought to go very well here now that he has told George where he was wrong. He found things very much worse at Veyangoda. Mr Harbor seems to have been sleeping all day and Mr Maxfield had got miserable about things going wrong and took no more interest in his work. I am awfully glad Mr Clarke has been as George has been worrying so over his work lately. The stuff was packed up here looking as he thought quite all right and when it got to London it was rotten, or yellow, or damp, and as he couldn’t find out the reason why, it was beginning to get on his nerves and every letter of complaint that came made him worse.

But Mr Clarke has roused him up and given him so much more confidence in himself. From what Mr Clarke has said to me, I think they have a fairly good opinion of George in London and that is why they sent him here instead of Mr Harbor, as he says that being such an out of the way place and too far from Colombo to get much supervision, they must have someone here they can absolutely trust.

I was rather afraid he might think that being married might make George neglect his work but he told me that he thought it was a very good thing he was married as he could see that having no society of any kind, he would never get his thoughts off his work and would soon get into a morbid condition, while he told me that if I was any good I ought to be able to amuse him and keep him cheerful.

He was rather a beautiful person and said straight out what he thought but I liked him and he has been very nice to me and sent all his spare time with me. He wanted to get off by the P&O Peninsular on Thursday but he does not think he will be able to manage it as that will only give him one clear day in Colombo and he has a good deal to do besides going over once more to Veyangoda. So he will have to wait till the next P&O on the 2nd as he has a return ticket. They want him back in London as he is their buyer or seller or something, and an important person. But you must be quite tired of all this business, it is not very interesting.

I am afraid we shall have to give up all hope of going to Colombo for Race Week as it would be rather silly for George to leave before they have quite got used to all the alterations in the work and things are going quite satisfactorily. It is very difficult to drill new ideas into natives’ minds and is a matter of time. I should not like them in London to think that George did not take enough interest in his work and I’m sure they would think so if he were to leave so soon. Of course it so horribly disappointing and it would have done George good but I think when his mind is more at rest he will soon pick up again and I am so ridiculously well that I can’t pretend I want a change.

I have been studying the almanac and you ought to get this on the 6th or 7th so it will be just in time for your birthday. Many Happy Returns and much love from us and I wish I could give you a big kiss. I am going to send you the scorpion as a birthday present and I hope you will appreciate its beauties. But I am afraid it won’t get off this afternoon as George can’t find a proper thing to pack it in. It must be in spirits of wine or it would arrive in a high condition. He will have more time to see about it in a day or two. He says he has felt very mean all this week wearing his stud every night without having written to thank you both for it. But he really has not had a moment to spare with Mr Clarke always with him and so much to think about, so you must not expect your letter till you see it.

Our plants have not been doing very well and Mr Clarke says it is because they were standing on the cement floor of the veranda which stuck cold to them so now I have had them put on bricks. They don’t look elegant but I hope they will grow better. We have not got very many, mostly ferns, and some big round leafed things of the arum family only no flowers, and some begonias, foliage ones, which do very well in Ceylon. I want to get hold of some good palms but it is rather difficult here. The vegetation is not a bit what I expected it to be like. I thought it would be much more tropical and luxuriant instead of which it is very Englishy. Of course in the jungles and up country it is more like that but on the whole Ceylon is not a fertile island. The teak trees are rather fine just now as they are covered with blossom. They are rather like Spanish Chestnuts, and so is the blossom only it is a pale yellowy green, and as the leaves are very dark green, it shows up awfully well.

You know the Boy went down with us to Colombo and we expected him to come back on the Tuesday that we did. However, he never appeared so we wrote to ask why and it appears he had rheumatism which he said he caught in the boat and he did not return till last Saturday. I enclose a rather beautiful letter which George had from him explaining why he had not come. Luckily Solomon can cook very well otherwise we should have been in a hole with Mr Clarke here. He does not understand much about waiting but he got along very well and was very proud of himself.

Breakfast time, so I must shut up. The puppies are getting on all right but have many fleas so have to be kept at a distance.

Lots of love to all and many kisses for the 8th, from your loving Mab.