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2023 Reading and Writing Challenge Reviews 2/12

Writing Challenge

Progress towards writing goals:

  • Hit 45,000 words on Avonstow Book 2

  • Literary Festival successfully launched and completed

  • First school workshop ran well

  • Blythewode back story re-worked

  • Writer in Residence role developing nicely with future projects planned

Reading Challenge

  • 1 book from my Kindle list

  • 1 book from my bookshelf list

  • 4 books from my 'to buy' list

  • 3 books from my library list

  • 3 books from my audiobook list

As I suspected might happen, this month has been pretty lean in terms of books removed from the reading challenge list. However, this isn't because I've not done any reading - I've done far more than I expected to - it's more to do with the fact that I've been largely reading books for research purposes. I knew that with a combination of the paid work piling up, running the Literary Festival and a school holiday thrown in, February wasn't going to be a good month in terms of writing, so I decided to put my extra reading time to good use and read the books I needed to for background information for the book. I've learnt loads about Brightlingsea and the surrounding area and not only is the World War Two part of the book coming together nicely, but I've also found that without me putting too much effort into thinking about it, Book 3 is also starting to take shape. It does mean that I keep having to re-write bits of Book 2, but it never feels like wasted writing time because I'm simply moving plot lines around to make the series as a whole work better.

This month I also joined another writing group - it was completely accidental and spontaneous, but I'm looking forward to seeing where that takes me, as it has a completely different focus to anything I'm currently doing.

It's also been fantastic this month to see our Literary Festival happening. There seems to be a real buzz around Brightlingsea at the moment, thanks largely to the fact that as well as our own social media promotions, the Winterfest team have helped massively by giving us a publicity boost and I've gone from fretting that nobody was going to turn up to any of the events, to facing the fact that all the workshops were either full, or approaching capacity and at the Book Launch, there were a lot of faces I didn't know - gratifying and scary all at the same time!

My proudest moment of the whole festival was, I think, gathering ideas from a group of children and turning them into something resembling a story, within 45 minutes. Every child was mentioned and I managed to get all of their ideas into the plot! It was silly and the kids loved it (as, I think, did the parents judging by the laughter.) The accompanying artwork they produced was equally wonderful and they should be very proud of what they achieved.

It was also brilliant to run the first of our workshops for our local primary school. It was all based around the Brightlingsea Harpy and I even got to hold her for a while. She's approximately 2000 years old and she was in my hand! Anyone who knows me will understand why this was such a big deal for me.



More Front-Line Essex – Michael Foley (Read for research. Lots of information about the various soldiers who were based around Essex from the time of Napoleon to World War Two. It was fascinating to find out more history about the various places I’ve lived in and to see how much the county has changed over the last two hundred years.)

The Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea Railway – Paul Brown (Read for research. Detailed and fascinating account of the history of the Crab and Winkle line. I learnt so much from it and it sparked some ideas for the book series as well.)

The Girls Who Went To War – Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi (Read for research. Tells the story of three girls who joined the different services and of their wartime experiences. Learnt quite a bit about life in the forces for women and it definitely served its purpose in terms of research!)

Liquid Assets The Lidos and Open Air Swimming Pools of Britain – Janet Smith (Read for research. Thoroughly enjoyed learning about the history of UK Lidos, but reading of their downfall made me sad. Apart from Blackpool’s one. That made me angry.)

The Woman Who Would Be King – Kara Cooney (Lots of conjecture, but its educated conjecture and identified as such by the author, who is more used to working with cold hard facts. Fascinating insight into the life of the first female Pharaoh. Yet again, it shows how women had to compromise and battle their way to the top – she did everything right and yet her successor still saw fit to attempt to erase her from history. Humph.)

Double Cross – Ben MacIntyre (Read for research. Read it because I needed to, however, it was an utterly absorbing and fascinating book. Highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in WW2 and will now be looking out for his book on the Mincemeat Operation.)

Surrounded By Idiots – Thomas Erikson (Audiobook. Got this originally to help with character development in my books, but ended up finding it a really useful book in its own right. I was definitely able to identify the different ‘colour traits’ in members of my own family – including myself – and it explains a lot about why people react so differently to the same stimulus/situation. Well worth a read if you ever come into contact with people you just don’t ‘get’.)

Operation Mincemeat – Ben Macintyre (Read this using the excuse of ‘it’s research’. It’s not really. Well, maybe a little bit. It was also a good excuse to watch Colin Firth in a uniform, but we won’t go into that! The book was excellent and even though it’s non-fiction, Macintyre makes the characters leap off the page and I was surprised, having seen the film first, by how closely it stuck to the book. Elements I was convinced had been inserted for the purpose of ‘sexing the film up’ turned out to be true! Well worth a read if you’re interested in this period of history.)

Wingspan: A History of R.A.F. Debden – Keith Braybrooke (Another one I read for research. Only a slim volume but packed full of useful information that allowed me to change one character’s job and write more convincingly about another.)

Historical Fiction

Rizzio – Denise Mina (Audiobook. Snapshot scenes of the events of the last few days of David Rizzio’s life. Emotional and stirring re-telling of a familiar story, which made it seem a much more personal tale. Very short but well worth listening to/reading.)

Loving Sabotage – Amélie Nothomb (Memoir disguised as fiction about growing up in 1970s China as the child of a diplomat. Interesting to see how different childhood was in those days and how cruel children can be. Her life experiences are very different to mine – I don’t ever remember the kind of playground dynamics that she described – but what I found most interesting was her assertion at the end of the book that the main antagonist had attempted to contact her to ‘set a few things straight’. It just goes to show how different recollections of the same events can be.)

Mrs England – Stacey Halls (Excellent read. No family is ever quite as it appears to the outside world and although I picked that fact up far quicker than the narrator did, it was nevertheless interesting to watch her understanding develop and the plot unfold. There was a slight unexpected turn at the end, which I absolutely loved, because it would have been too easy for the story to go in the direction I had expected it to. Ms Hall’s way worked far better as well!)

Penknife – Jim Westover (Set in Brightlingsea in the 1980s, this read more like a memoir than a work of fiction, but I love picturing the town as it was 40 years ago.)


All We Left Unsaid – Natalie K. Martin (The story of two sisters whose relationship falls apart. Their lives take them on different paths, only for Ivy to die unexpectedly, leaving Jess with the guilt of never having reconciled with her. However, the story is not depressing. It’s beautifully poignant, but is ultimately a celebration of life.)

The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World – Laura Imai Messina (Another intriguing concept for a book, particularly as it’s based on a real place. I love the idea behind this and the story that is woven around it really brings it to life. I remember working with someone who had a relative who had died in the Boxing Day tsunami and listening to him talk about how devastating it had been for his family, so this was very much in my mind when I was reading the book.)

Overgrown – Betsy Price (Not as funny as it was marketed as, but nonetheless, an interesting insight into the mind of a menopausal woman. There is much I have still to experience, but many of the symptoms are, I’m sad to say, things I’m starting to recognise in myself.)

Found In a Bookshop - Stephanie Butland (Read for review. Set during the Covid pandemic lockdown, it draws together the stories of a disparate group of people and brought back many memories - some good, some bad - of life in lockdown. Also sheds a light on some of the consequences of being in lockdown for those who did not have the comfort of having a loving family around them during that time.) Full review to follow in April


Bluebell Season At The Potting Shed – Jenny Kane (Full review to come next month, once the book is published. Fans will not be disappointed though, it’s a cracking follow up to Frost Falls At The Potting Shed.)


The Drowning Hour – SK Tremayne (Book group pick. Tense thriller set in Essex. Very similar themes to The Ice Twins which I reviewed towards the end of last year – both are set on a deserted island where the inhabitants are isolated from everything and feature power cuts and storms. Different plotlines, but if you read and enjoyed one, you’ll enjoy the other.)

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Too gentle in tone to be a proper thriller, but just as compelling as one! This story is inspired by, but not based upon, the real-life disappearance of some lamplighters towards the end of the 19th century. It tells the story of the unexplained disappearance of three men and that of the women they leave behind. Whilst the ending doesn’t come as a surprise, given the reader knows from the beginning that all three men vanish without a trace, I wasn’t sure quite which of the intertwined narrative threads would be the one that led to the disappearance.)


The Man With The Golden Gun – Ian Fleming (Audiobook. I’m pretty sure I’ve read most of the James Bond books and thought this was one I’d read, but if I have, I didn’t remember it! Vastly different from the film, even down to the description of Scaramanga and his accent, but I couldn’t help still picturing Christopher Lee in the role. None of the puns from the films and much darker in tone, particularly the beginning, but excellent nonetheless.)


The Complete Edgar Allen Poe Part 2 – Edgar Allan Poe (Still finding this to be of massively varying quality. Fewer ‘good’ stories in the second part than in the first and the longer ones tend to get tedious because they’re so wordy I was getting frustrated with the story not going anywhere.)

Magical Realism

A Day Like This – Kelley McNeil (I thought I’d worked out what was going on with this by the halfway point, but then it took a turn for the different. Interesting principle that the plot is founded on. Not sure it’s believable, but it’s intriguing and worthy of further consideration, I think.)

Coming Of Age

An Experiment In Leisure – Anna Glendenning (a husband recommended book after he’d heard it being discussed on Radio 4. Well written but I found it confusing most of the time – it’s stream of consciousness, which I don’t get on well with – and consequently I never really engaged properly with the characters. I felt a passing interest in their lives rather than being completely absorbed in their world.)


Murder At Waldenmere Lake – Michelle Salter (Requested this for review thinking it was the first in a series. It’s not. It’s the 2nd. The first however, is on Prime Reading. I loved this one so much that I immediately read the first one. Although it works well as a standalone book, I think it’s more poignant if you read the 1st one beforehand. This is definitely a series I’ll be coming back to.)

A Three Dog Problem – SJ Bennett (The second of her HM The Queen as a detective books. This was particularly poignant, reading it after the death of The Queen, but I absolutely love this series and genuinely can’t wait for book 4 to be released. They are light-hearted and fun and I would love it if this was actually what life in the Royal Family was actually like. It would be easy to caricature them, but these books don’t do that and along with Alan Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’ are wonderful tributes to the fascination with and appeal of Her Majesty.)

Death At Crookham Hall – Michelle Salter (the 1st in the Iris Woodmore series. Picked this up to fill in the gaps after reading the 2nd book. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Good, solid, cosy crime – 1920s female detective. My favourite kind!)


Complete Poems – Edgar Allan Poe (One or two were okay, the rest, not so much. Definitely not a Poe devotee.)

Book Of The Month?

I've read such a mix of fiction and non-fiction this month that I decided to choose one book from each group. In the non-fiction category, I loved learning about the Lidos that used to cover this country and 'Double Cross' was so helpful in terms of my research. However, the book I enjoyed most was 'Operation Mincemeat'. In terms of fiction, again, there were a number of books that I could have argued a case for. However, if I look at this purely in terms of sheer enjoyment, it has to be 'A Three Dog Problem'. I could quite happily have carried on reading that for several more days!

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