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?

Review: The Sudden Departure of the Frasers


The Sudden Departure of the Frasers by Louise Candlish

My name is Amber Fraser. I’ve just moved in at Number 40, Lime Park Road. You’ll come to think of me as a loving wife, a thoughtful neighbour and a trusted friend.
This is a lie.

When Christy and Joe Davenport are handed the keys to Number 40 on picture-perfect Lime Park Road, Christy knows it should be a dream come true. How strange though that the house was on the market for such a low price. That the previous owners, the Frasers, had renovated the entire property yet moved out within a year. That none of the neighbours will talk to Christy.

As her curiosity begins to give way to obsession, Christy finds herself drawn deeper into the mystery of the house’s previous occupants – and the dark and shocking secret that tore the street apart . . .

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers has been labeled as a modern day ‘Rear Window’ and this is true to a certain extent as the character of Christy becomes obsessed with her neighbours and watches them, spies on them, through her window.

The novel is told in a dual narrative, switching between Christie’s third person voice and Amber’s first person ‘confession’. One of the drawbacks of two narrators is that one can be more compelling than the other but I felt that both voices were equally engaging, handled with great skill by Candlish. Amber is the more exciting character, complex and deceptive, but Christy is also intriguing as she is drawn in such a way that we begin to doubt her reliability. This is a novel about the truths we tell ourselves to justify our own actions and the actions of those around us and both these women make the reader question what is fact and what is fiction.

It’s also a novel about our desires to ‘better’ ourselves, wanting more, and living beyond your means, borrowing too much. Does it bring happiness? Or pressure? What if it all comes crashing down? A fable for modern times if ever there was one.

I was utterly captivated by this novel and read it in two days, despite its 500 page length. It’s the tension that keeps the narrative drive going and the need to discover why the Frasers left. I did begin to pick the mystery apart but sometimes knowing what is going to happen, makes the reading all the more full of tension as you wait for the inevitable. And there was an extra revelation at the end…

The writing is clear and crisp and Candlish has a deftness of touch. I will definitely be reading her backlist but will have to make sure to free up blocks of time if her other novels are anything as gripping as this one.

My latest novel, Bright Stars, is published in October.


This review first appeared on Serendipity Reviews on Friday 14th August 2015

Memory Lane


We’re moving house in a few weeks if all goes to plan. So this has forced us to have a sort out. Yesterday, it was the garage – which has never seen a car in the ten years we have lived here. It has seen a few teenage parties, band practice, workout sessions, but mainly junk. But what is junk? After all, one person’s junk is another one’s treasure.

I admit to being a bit of a hoarder but I am determined to be more ruthless with what I save, especially when it comes to our children’s pictures and writing. The plan is to take a photo of most of their canon and to keep a few select pieces. As an early years teacher and as a writer I particularly love their collection of emerging writing and I know that they learned to write in a holistic way, without Letterland or other such contrived schemes. (Child-friendly phonics? I don’t think so. There’s no such thing. Even ‘phonic’ is spelt with a ‘p’ for goodness sake.)

It worked for them. One son is about to go to SOAS (University of London) to study Japanese and Linguistics. The other son is off to Brighton University to study History and Politics (this from a little boy who had to start school a month after he turned four, who could barely sit still in a chair, let alone hold a pencil). 16 year old daughter hopes to do Creative Writing A Level next term – if her GCSEs allow (deep breath for Thursday).

This was going to be a post about memories and how we hold onto them, rather than a rant about how children best learn to read and write (more ‘Not Now Bernards’ and less ‘Biff, Chip and Whatnots’, please). And I know the most important thing is for children to live in a print-rich environment, to see their parents reading and writing – and this isn’t always possible if parents have had a bad experience of education themselves. (Even shopping lists and magazines help.) And it is vital to show your children that what they produce is valuable. When they come home from pre-school with a soggy, sticky picture, put it up on the fridge or the wall. Date it. Catalogue it somehow, even if it’s by taking a photo.

My dear dad (God rest him) did this very thing. I brought home my very first painting from nursery school – a blobby mess of reds and yellows. He framed it for me and it hung on the wall of my bedroom until I left home. It ended up in the garage and I found it yesterday. The frame is broken. The colours have faded. But as soon as I saw it, I was a three year old again. I could smell the poster paint. I could remember what it felt like to wield a squishy paint brush. And I remember that my parents valued what I had produced. I only wish Dad could have been here to see me get my O level results, my A levels and degrees. And how I wish he could be here when my third novel is published in October. (And that goes for both my brothers’ achievements and all 12 grandchildren. And the great grandchild that is on ‘its’ way.)

I am taking my picture to be framed and I don’t care what the framer says when they see my work of art. It was good enough for Dad to hang on the wall and that’s what matters.

Bright Stars, published by Legend Press October 1st 2015
Bright Stars, published by Legend Press October 1st 2015

The one where George commits murder

Croquet, not tennis
Croquet, not tennis

July 10th 1900

Dearest Tommie

We’ve got three puppies! Such duckies, so fat, their bodies all much too heavy for their little legs at present and they can only sprawl. They were born last Saturday week while we were in Colombo, and the way in which Gretchen was prancing in excitement and importance when we arrived on Tuesday was too funny. She led me to the box where they were with an air as much as to say, ‘you can’t beat that!’. She had six but one died soon after it was born and George drowned two as five would have been too many for her to bring up. We have kept two black ones like her, and one brown, we hope they will take mostly after their mother, and not after their Pariah father. I have never seen much of tiny pups before and I am always watching these, they are so sweet crawling about their box. Their eyes are not opened yet but I suppose they ought to be today or tomorrow.

Thank you very much for sending the puzzle. I haven’t had time to do it much yet as I have been fairly busy. I have just begun the white silk blouse. I think I shall make it with a big collar arrangement, but have not quite decided.

Mr Clarke did not come after all as he could not get away but he is coming tomorrow. Mr Marshall just came down for the night with the money. We could not bring it as the banks were closed on Monday. He is such a jolly fellow, it is nice to have him in the house. I shall be glad when Mr Clarke has been and gone, as it is hanging over George and he is still rather seedy so things worry him more*. He has had two more attacks since we came back, one on Tuesday night and Wednesday, which I think was the result of the jolting in the coach which is enough to turn anybody’s stomach. He was very seedy on Wednesday and I kept him in bed till tea time and only gave him spoon food, then on Friday he seemed quite all right so began taking the Kepler but I suppose his tummy was still weak and it proved too much for it. He was very bad in the night and just lay on the sofa all the next day, quite worn out. However, he is much better now and I am dieting him and giving him little odd things so he will soon get his strength up again. I hope he will be able to take the Kepler presently if he begins very gradually, but it is beastly and I am quite sure would turn me up.

I am glad you beat Bessie but very sorry you and she lost the doubles. I am not keen on playing with Bessie myself; I never feel she is to be depended on. You know we played with each other too much, it has put us off playing with other girls. I like your frocks enormously, the holland is sweet, so cool looking. I am going to wear my black skirt and the lace bodice every night now, as the skirt is too shabby to hoard up any longer and I might just as well wear it as anything else and it is nice and cool. Mosquitos don’t worry me much now so I shan’t mind not having my arms quite covered up. I could not have borne it when I first moved out here. I really must be noticeably fatter as a man whom George introduced to me in Colombo did not recognise me the other day at the G.O.H. It was when I was having dinner by myself and I kept wondering why this creature stared at me, and the next night he saw George and I together and told him afterwards that he did not know it was me. He supposed it was because I was fatter. He was only introduced to me in the lift so he could not have had a very good view of me and I did not remember him in the least. Certainly my things have seemed tighter but I thought I had swelled with the heat and they had shrunk with the washing.

We have had such jolly breezes lately, and as the wind comes straight from the sea only 3 miles away, it is nice and fresh and has made my cheeks quite decently rosy again. They had got a little tallowy with the heat.

Fancy your having another pupil! I am very glad if it does not mean much more work, that is the only drawback. I hope you will have had a nice time at Lewes. I wonder if you will see the old lady with the nose again. I had not realised that the fete was so close. It seems only the other day that you were shivering with cold. I wish we had seasons here. It would be much nicer than everlasting summer. How I do hope you have won something in the tournament. It will be sickening if you don’t.

George, I think, is wrestling with a letter to the kids. It was quite his own idea and I have encouraged it, but I thought he seemed a trifle worried when the time came to write it. I must go down and see how he is getting on, so good bye.

Love and kisses to everybody

from Mab

*But still able to murder puppies

Such Stuff as Dreams are made on


I’ve been thinking about dreams lately. I can usually piece together why I dream what I dream but sometimes they come right out of the blue. Last week I dreamt I was a surrogate mother for my niece (I have ten nieces so I won’t say which one). I am 47 and had a hysterectomy a few years ago, so I was a strange choice. But it felt so real. I wanted to keep the baby and breastfeed it (‘it’ was genderless) but it was taken away in a cruel way.

Why did I dream this? Because my children are growing up? Two have been travelling and are off to university in September. The youngest is off to sixth form college. Times are changing in our household and my place is less certain in the world as I know it. I suppose the dream was about letting go.

When the children were small – we had three children under the age of 4 at one point – I used to have vivid dreams about leaving one of them at home. Or one of them falling off a high building. I know this was a mother’s insecurities about taking good care of her children. But they were utterly terrifying.

I still dream sometimes that I am late for school – not as a pupil but as a teacher. There’s a class of 30 plus five year olds waiting for me, rioting on the carpet, and a fuming head teacher. Oh the shame.

I used to have the wobbly teeth dream a lot. I thought this was because of the heavy orthodontic treatment I had gone through but have since learnt that this is a common dream for people going through a big life event.

I try to avoid conflict in my daily life but I have huge rows in my dreams and have to work hard not to carry on my frustrations with the person in question when I wake up. But worse than these rows are the dreams of execution – my execution. I have a recurring dream where I have killed someone by mistake. I am on the verge of being hung but, thankfully, it never actually happens. I suppose this would be called a nightmare and it’s a relief to wake up after one of those.

On the other end of the spectrum, I very occasionally dream of my dad and it’s always hard waking up and realising it was all a dream. But lovely while it lasts.

Dreams are a difficult subject for writers to deal with as they can be cliched or a weak narrative device. Who can ever get over Pamela Ewing’s dream where she wakes up to find Bobby in the shower. This really made it tough for viewers to suspend their disbelief and it was downhill all the way for ‘Dallas’ after that. So you won’t find a dream in my novels and I will not be that person who bores you with their nightly wonders. But do let me know if you have any good ones.