Friday, 28 April 2017

Book Review - Limelight by Emily Organ

I have been a fan of Emily's writing since I read Runaway Girl so I was thrilled to win a copy of her latest on Facebook. There was a moment of trepidation when I worried that I wouldn't like it as much as the Runaway Girl Series but I shouldn't have worried. I loved it and was totally captivated by the story and the characters.

I was intrigued by the blurb: London 1883. Actress Lizzie Dixie drowned in the River Thames. So how was she murdered five years later in Highgate Cemetery? Intrepid Fleet Street reporter Penny Green was a friend of Lizzie's and Scotland Yard needs her help. Does Penny unwittingly hold clues to Lizzie's mysterious death? Penny must work with Inspector James Blakely to investigate the worlds of theatre, showmen and politicians to uncover the truth.
Well what's not to love there? A good old fashioned whodunit set in Victorian London with a female protagonist to boot. I was sold. But this is much more than a whodunit. Emily Organ skilfully weaves her way through Victorian London, populating her story with wonderful characters who I really cared about. Her descriptions of the places were so detailed and well researched that I instantly felt myself there, wiping the smut from my glasses along with Penny. Sights, sounds and smells are all evoked to paint a kaleidoscopic picture of Victorian London. The descriptions of the corsets made me smile - how did women function all trussed up like that?

We are immersed in a variety of different worlds, from theatre to circus to politics to the police force and of course journalism. Each world is made real through the inclusion of small yet telling details. For example, as the world of journalism begins to modernise Miss Welton, the editor's secretary, is given a typewriter which she stumbles to use. Strange to think that over the next few decades this machine would revolutionise the workplace, especially for women. Emily Organ is so adept at adding these tiny details which bring the whole scene to life. I shouldn't have been surprised by this as she does it so well in the Runaway Girl Series too.

For me a great story stands or falls on its characters. If I don't feel some emotional investment in them then I struggle to enjoy a book fully. Thankfully there are enough rich, rounded characters here to keep even the pickiest reader happy. I adored Penny's landlady Mrs Garnett waging her war against bicycles in the hallway and unsuitable gentlemen callers; Edgar Fish, a rival journalist with a shockingly paternalistic view of women provided some lovely comic moments; and I was bowled over by the handsome Inspector James Blakely, I so hope he returns in the next book! But the stand out character is of course Penny Green, a modern woman trapped in Victorian corsets. I loved her feistiness, her determination and her bravery. She's a true heroine and keeps the story moving with her investigative skill, thirst for a decent story and dogged determination.

I am so glad that Limelight is only the first of a series starring Penny Green. She is too good a character to lose after only one story and I for one am waiting with baited breath for the next instalment. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Positive Writer Contest

I am participating in the Writing Contest: You Deserve To Be Inspired by Positive Writer . This is my entry.

Several years ago I started to feel hollow. Let me explain. I was working as a teacher in a secondary school and had always enjoyed my job. I loved interacting with the students and watching their progress. My colleagues were lovely, supportive people and we had a lot of laughs together. I was beginning to take on some pastoral responsibility and liked helping students with their problems. Then one day a new member of staff started who had seniority over my pastoral area. And that's when my problems began.

He was a bully. He took great pleasure in undermining those over whom he had authority. He belittled your efforts and rejoiced when you failed. Slowly and without my even noticing he eroded my confidence in my ability and sucked all the joy out of my working life. I began to dread Monday morning and my health began to suffer. Eventually I had to stay away from work with anxiety related health problems and it became obvious that I would struggle to stay teaching at that school. Eventually the anxiety, depression and associated problems led to me abandoning teaching all together.

Now I know what you're thinking: isn't this supposed to be inspiring and positive? This just sounds like a load of doom and gloom. Well, in a way that time was filled with doom and gloom. But what I want to share is that there can be a positive outcome from even the darkest time.

I left teaching, which was sad as I loved to teach. But other avenues opened up for me. After many years of procrastinating I embraced the writer within me and am now beginning to submit work and enter writing contests. I have gained a whole new set of friends who write and their friendship and support has lifted me through some tough times. And above all I am happier in my own skin. I took some counselling and discovered things about myself and my past which allowed me to rebuild my confidence. I still have the occasional wobble but I have the tools to deal with it and move forward.

The most positive thing I learned from that experience is that bullies never really win. I went through a difficult time and emerged on the other side happier and more peaceful than I used to be. And the bully? Eventually he was found out and lost his position. I don't celebrate that but it gives me a sense of satisfaction that I rose and he fell.

And that is surely the most positive thing of all.


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

What is a 'normal' birth?

Yesterday I was attending a clinic at my local hospital and during the course of the morning I was asked about the birth of my child. The doctor asked me if I had a 'normal' birth or a section. I answered and more questions followed about my health.

It was only when I was on the bus coming home that I realised what she had said. My son's birth was 'normal' rather than a section which implied that any birth that was not vaginal was abnormal. I didn't think about this sooner because I was a little nervous about the procedure I was about to have. But later it struck me how inappropriate a word 'normal was in these circumstances. I imagined myself in the position of a woman who had delivered her child by section and how upsetting it would be to have that child's birth referred to, however obliquely as 'abnormal' or 'not normal'. I'm not trying to paint a negative picture of the doctor, she was kind, gentle and caring, nor of the nursing staff who were there, also kind and caring. I'm just shocked how a casual phrase, said without malice or judgement, could have a negative effect on any woman.

I know we all have our own tale to tell about our children's birth, that some of us had overwhelmingly positive experiences and some had not such good experiences. I have heard and read stories which have been so sad and upsetting that they have reduced me to tears. And yet we all gave birth to the babies we love, who grow into the people we love. Nobody should be made to feel that their experience of birth was less than 'normal'.

I have been lucky enough to 'meet' on the Internet some wonderful, powerful advocates for celebrating women's experience of birth and child rearing. I think particularly of Elena at and Teika at . These women are such strong voices for mothers everywhere that I brought them to mind when I realised what had been said and the implications of those words. So I would like to say sorry to all mothers, whatever their birth experiences, for not challenging what the doctor said. I am sorry that I let something so casual yet so potentially hurtful pass by without comment. I will email the hospital and point out what was said and how I feel it was inappropriate. With luck they will address the issue and no other woman will have to decide whether her birth story was 'normal' or not. Because all that matters is that we have a positive birth experience, whatever type of delivery it was. 

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Book Review - The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The premise of this book is simple: an ocean liner sinks and 39 people huddle in a lifeboat waiting to be saved. Through the testimony of Grace Winter we follow their journey and share in their experiences over 3 weeks at sea.

Except that it's not that simple. Grace is an extremely unreliable narrator and we learn to question everything she tells us, both about what happens to her and her fellow passengers in the lifeboat and about her life before she boarded the ship.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is undoubtedly well written and yet there was some spark missing. Many of the characters in the story are fleeting and brief, either dying before we really get to know them or playing a small part so we never get to see them as fully rounded characters. Some of them are not even given names. But I suppose that is part of the unreliable nature of Grace's recollections, some passengers making a greater impression on her than others.

Grace Winter is the central character and I found her a rather cold person. I started off sympathising with her and her situation but as the story unfolded I was struck by how selfish and self-centred she was. Her role as the unreliable narrator also made me question everything she said and I started to dislike her the more the narrative unfolded. There are few likable characters in the novel, even pathetic Mary-Ann who I rather liked starts to become annoying. Mrs Grant and Hannah act as contrasts to the other female characters as they start to take control away from the men in the boat. Strong women like this are usually my favourite types of characters but here I found them to be most unpleasant.

I also felt somewhat unsatisfied by the ending. As I found Grace a difficult character to like I wanted her to pay the price of her actions in the way other characters did. She seemed to get away with things too much for my liking! 

As a story of endurance and survival I liked The Lifeboat. The descriptions of the conditions in the boat, the struggle to survive and the changing nature of the Atlantic Ocean were wonderful and evocative. Something about the ending felt a little rushed as the narrative jumped from 2 weeks in the boat to the rescue after 3 weeks rather abruptly. I understand why this was done but it felt a little clumsy to me.

I certainly enjoyed this debut novel from Charlotte Rogan and will look out for more from her in the future. Definitely worth a read, in my humble opinion.