Q&A: The Circumstantial Enemy by John R. Bell

When an author contacts you about reviewing their book, it’s disappointing to have to decline the opportunity because of your already huge review pile.  Such is the case when John R. Bell contacted me about his historical fiction novel, The Circumstantial Enemy.    However, just because my review pile is approaching mountainous proportions doesn’t mean I should hide interesting sounding books from followers of my blog.

I’m pleased to say, John agreed to answer some questions about The Circumstantial Enemy, the inspiration for the book and his own very personal writing journey.   If it sparks your interest, you can find the relevant purchase links below.

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The Circumstantial EnemyAbout the Book

When Croatia becomes a Nazi puppet state in 1941, carefree young pilot Tony Babic finds himself forcibly aligned with Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Unbeknownst to Tony, his sweetheart Katarina and best friend Goran have taken the side of the opposing communist partisans. The threesome are soon to discover that love and friendship will not circumvent this war’s ideals.

Downed by the Allies in the Adriatic Sea, Tony survives a harrowing convalescence in deplorable Italian hospitals and North African detention stockades. His next destination is Camp Graham in Illinois, one of four hundred prisoner of war camps on American soil. But with the demise of the Third Reich, repatriation presents a new challenge. What kind of life awaits Tony under communist rule? Will he be persecuted as an enemy of the state for taking the side of Hitler? And then there is Katarina; in letters she confesses her love, but not her deceit… Does her heart still belong to him?

Format: eBook (326 pp.)                   Publisher: Endeavour Press
Published: 12th October 2017          Genre: Historical Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk  ǀ  Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Circumstantial Enemy on Goodreads

Interview: John R. Bell, author of The Circumstantial Enemy  

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Circumstantial Enemy?

The book is a historical fiction thriller set in Croatia, Russia, and America between 1941 and 1953. It chronicles the trials and capers of a young pilot who is forcibly aligned with Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Unbeknownst to him, his sweetheart and best friend have taken the side of the opposing communist partisans. The threesome soon discover that love and friendship cannot circumvent the ideals of this war. I’d summarize the novel as an energetic journey to freedom through minefields of hatred, betrayal, lust, and revenge. A story about the strength of the human spirit, and the power of friendship, love, and forgiveness.

What is the relevance of the book’s title?

The title represents the protagonist’s predicament. By being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is caught on the wrong side of the war, becoming the enemy of several in his struggle to survive. There is also a twist to the title; The Circumstantial Enemy happens to be written by a circumstantial author.  I characterize myself that way because I’d never felt a burning desire to write a book.

What changed your mind?

One potent statement from my daughter. Seventeen years ago she said, “If you don’t write it, Grandad’s story will be lost forever.” I’ll never forget the yearning in her eyes. Though in good health, Grandad was 80 years old at the time and he wasn’t about to be the first human being to live forever.   The family had heard his tales over and over again – trials and tribulations of a young WWII Croatian pilot.  I also had to admit that preserving Grandad’s captivating story for his descendants was incredibly compelling. So began my journey as an author.

How did you go about your research for the book?

Thrilled by the opportunity, Grandad agreed to a host of interviews. I was no longer a passive listener. Rather, I treated our exchange as might a journalist – probing for details and questioning events that seemed overstated. The most interesting revelation was his frankness. He soon forgot the recorder was on, revealing more than ever before – some of it both shocking and disturbing. Between the sessions, I checked his facts to ensure the timelines were correct and life in POW camps on US soil were as he described. Simultaneously, I was reading relevant non-fiction books to better understand time, place, and prisoner predicament.

I understand you initially chronicled your Grandad’s story in the form of a biography.  What made you decide to transform it into a work of fiction?

When I began writing, I found myself thinking as might a novelist – the notion that fiction hinges on the characters and what they want. Grandad’s motivation was freedom from repression. A year later, I had completed his biography. With enough copies printed for the family and a few generations to come, I thought I was done as an author. Not so. I’d been infected by that burning desire to write.  I went on to compose business-related blogs about leadership, strategy, and branding. Three years and a hundred blogs later, I thought back to Grandad’s story. There was so much to it. So much that had never been told before. I wondered if I could dramatize that fascinating journey to freedom and redemption into a thrilling novel.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered when writing The Circumstantial Enemy?

A couple of thousand words of fiction later, I realized my naivety; I was in over my head, but that didn’t snuff my inspiration. I didn’t write another word for a year – reading every self-help book I could get my hands on regarding the writing of fiction.  Following the conventional process of research, writing, editing, rewriting (ad nauseam), and seeking an agent and/or publisher, The Circumstantial Enemy was released eight years later.

What are you working on next?

I’m already working on the plot for a prequel and a sequel.


John R BellAbout the Author

John Richard Bell was born in Chigwell, UK and now resides in Vancouver, Canada. Before becoming an author of business books and historical fiction, he was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a global strategy consultant. A prolific blogger, John’s musings on strategy, leadership and branding have appeared in various journals such as Fortune, Forbes and ceoafterlife.com

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Q&A: The Fragile Thread of Hope by Pankaj Giri

I’m so grateful to Pankaj Giri for sending me a review copy of his book, The Fragile Thread of Hope, which I’m looking forward to reading soon.  You can read an extract from the book here.   I’m delighted that Pankaj has spared time from his writing and blogging – not to mention reading enthusiastic reviews of his book – to answer some questions about the inspiration for The Fragile Thread of Hope and his very personal writing journey.

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TheFragileThreadofHopeAbout the Book

In the autumn of 2012, destiny wreaks havoc on two unsuspecting people – Soham and Fiona.  Although his devastating past involving his brother still haunted him, Soham had established a promising career for himself in Bangalore.  After a difficult childhood, Fiona’s fortunes had finally taken a turn for the better. She had married her beloved, and her life was as perfect as she had ever imagined it to be.  But when tragedy strikes them yet again, their fundamentally fragile lives threaten to fall apart.  Can Fiona and Soham overcome their grief? Will the overwhelming pain destroy their lives?

Praise for The Fragile Thread of Hope

Pankaj’s characters certainly evoke sympathy and throw light on important social issues. A good read.” (Chitra Divakaruni, award-winning bestselling author of The Palace of Illusions)

“An epic tale of love, loss, hope and faith that will remain with you long after the final page. With its lovely characters and beautiful prose, it ranks right up there with my favourites.” (Renita D’Silva, award-nominated bestselling author of The Forgotten Daughter)

“A literary masterpiece!” (Keshav Aneel, bestselling author of Promise Me A Million Times)

Format: eBook (408 pp.)                          Publisher:
Published: 29th October 2017                 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk  ǀ Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme


Find The Fragile Thread of Hope on Goodreads

Interview with Pankaj Giri, author of The Fragile Thread of Hope

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Fragile Thread of Hope?

The Fragile Thread of Hope is an emotional, inspirational fiction about love, loss, family, and finding hope in the darkest of times. Seasoned with the flavours of exotic Nepalese traditions and set in the picturesque Indian hill station, Gangtok, it explores the themes of spirituality, faith, alcoholism, love, and guilt while navigating the complex maze of family relationships.  Inspirational and heart-wrenchingly intimate, it urges you to wonder – does hope stand a chance in this travesty called life?

What was the inspiration for the book?

After my father’s sudden death, an avalanche of feelings passed through me. I realized how shocking death could be and how life can snatch people from you when you believe that they will always be with you. I realized that you shouldn’t take anyone for granted. Then, as I read other books like The Kite Runner and The Lowland, a plot began forming in my mind. I felt like weaving a story based on love, loss, and family relationships. Gradually, the characters developed in my mind, and scenes began taking shape and haunting me. After a few weeks, the characters began putting pressure on me, as if prodding me to bring them to life on the canvas of my novel. Then, as I finally obliged, The Fragile Thread of Hope was born.

You’ve previously co-authored a book (Friendship Love and Killer Escapades, with Apoorv Wanikar).  What was the most useful thing you learnt from that experience?

With Friendship Love and Killer Escapades, I stepped into the challenging yet intriguing world of literature. At that time, I had not read many books and, frankly speaking, I didn’t even know how to write a book. I was in a hurry to publish, and in that process, I ended up making a lot of mistakes. And then when the brutally honest reviews started pouring in, the harsh realization kicked in – I needed to make a lot more effort to actually write a decent book. Thereafter, I worked very hard on my language and writing skills and read many critically acclaimed books. Slowly, in time, I began understanding the properties that a good book should possess. I used that knowledge and experience while writing The Fragile Thread of Hope, and I feel that I have managed to write a decent book this time.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered when writing The Fragile Thread of Hope?

One of the biggest challenges that I felt while writing The Fragile Thread of Hope is to make sure that I managed to bring out the right emotions in the reader at the right places. That is because I have read scenes in many books where the author wants the reader to feel a certain emotion, and I felt a contradictory emotion. I wanted to avoid that as much as possible, and I felt extremely satisfied when recently one esteemed blogger specifically mentioned that she felt the right emotions at the right places.

The second biggest challenge I faced was to reduce the ‘cheesiness’ in romantic scenes. I needed to keep the romance intact and yet trim the corny factor. I had to edit and rewrite many dialogues and paragraphs several times to try achieving that. I can’t say that I have been 100% successful, but I have tried my best to do it.

The third biggest challenge was to maintain an acceptable balance while describing ambiance and emotions. You want readers to be able to feel as if they are sensually (via sights, sounds, smells) in the scene, but you don’t want to bore them with excessive description as well. You want the readers to feel the character’s emotions, but you don’t want it to be repetitive as well. My beta readers and editors helped me, but somewhere you need to draw a line and decide that a particular line(s) has to go. It is a tough task and thus one of the biggest challenges while writing a novel.

At what point did you decide on the structure of the book, with the stories of the two main characters running in parallel and only converging towards the end of the book?

I decided the structure at the very beginning itself.

Reviewers have praised the way the book brings alive the cultural traditions of Nepal.  Was this something that was important to you?

GangtokThis was certainly important to me. I wanted my book not only to be a relatable tale of love, loss, family, and hope but also to showcase the exotic yet rich Nepali culture and traditions to readers all over the world.

I wanted them to get a glimpse of my native place Sikkim – a beautiful hilly state in Northeast India – as well.

On your blog you describe yourself as ‘an author by chance’.  Why do you say that?

Thank you for noticing that :).

I am an author by chance because I never ever dreamt of being an author. I was a software engineer working in Bangalore, and I didn’t even use to read much, let alone writing. However, after my father passed away, I had to leave my promising job and relocate to my native place, Gangtok. I did manage to somehow find a decent government job and settle down there….but lost in the dark lanes of despair, I was facing difficulty in moving on. Then, one day my mother suggested to me – why don’t you start writing? She reminded me how I used to write articles for my school magazine during my childhood. The thought stuck with me, and I decided to try it out. Strangely, almost immediately, I fell in love with writing. The rest is history.

On your blog you also publish book reviews.  What has it been like being on the receiving end of reviews of your own book?

It is exciting as well as scary. It is easy to express your honest views about other books, but when it comes to your own, you do get nervous. However, I don’t mind honest reviews, even if they are a bit critical at times. It’s not that I don’t feel bad after reading a harsh review, but after some time I go through it once again rationally and try my best to find out areas of improvement and work on them. Critical reviews are necessary for a writer who wants to improve, but I have seen some commercially successful writers who shy away from negative reviews. Due to that, they keep making the same mistakes and thus keep getting negative reviews, despite the commercial success of the book. That is something I like to avoid, so I take negative reviews in the right spirit.

Which other writers do you admire?

Khaled Hosseini for his simple yet lyrical voice and the way his stories can wrench your heart.  Renita D’Silva for her humility and kindness despite being a fabulous, accomplished, and critically acclaimed author. A Daughter’s Courage, her latest novel, is the best book I have ever read. I cherish our friendship and adore her brilliant, descriptive writing.  Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni for her mastery of poetic prose. She is also such a kind-hearted person, and I’m blessed to know her.

What are you working on next?

I have a couple of stories floating in my brain, but there is nothing concrete yet. I will take time, and unless I find a powerful story, I won’t even think of sitting down to write.

Pankaj GiriAbout the Author

Pankaj Giri was born and brought up in Gangtok, Sikkim – a picturesque hill station in India. He began his writing career in 2015 by co-authoring a book – Friendship Love and Killer Escapades (FLAKE). Learning from experience and the constructive criticism that he got for his first book, he has now written a new novel, The Fragile Thread of Hope, a mainstream literary fiction dealing with love, loss, and family relationships. He is currently working in the government sector in Sikkim. He likes to kill time by listening to progressive metal music and watching cricket.

Connect with Pankaj

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Q&A: Getting Home by Wolfe Butler

When an author contacts you about reviewing their book and the description sounds intriguing, it’s frustrating to know it’s going to be several months before you’ll be able to  read and review their book.  Such is the case when Wolfe Butler contacted me about his novel, Getting Home.    However, although it’s going to be a while until I get to read it, that doesn’t mean I should hide it away from followers of my blog who may not have such large review piles as me.

I’m pleased to say, Wolfe has agreed to answer some questions about Getting Home, including the inspiration for the book and his own very personal writing journey.  If it sparks your interest in the book, you can find purchase links below.

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Getting HomeAbout the Book

Dealing with a past he cannot remember, a future he is not sure he wants and questioning everything from his sanity to his sexuality, Tom Jacobs feels ever more certain that the only solution is to end it all. A high level career, a perfect marriage, a power family – from the outside Tom seems to have everything he could want. Yet, try as he will, he cannot seem to escape a constant need to run. Plagued with nightmares and an ever increasing need to control his life with alcohol, Tom is spinning out of control. What begins as a mission to end it all becomes a twenty year journey to the life he was meant to live. With unexpected turns, heartbreaking revelations and unlikely allies Tom is finally on the road that leads to Getting Home.

Format: eBook, paperback (218 pp.)      Publisher:
Published: 9th November 2017                Genre: Literary Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ  Amazon.com ǀ Author Website
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Getting Home on Goodreads

Interview with Wolfe Butler, author of Getting Home

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about Getting Home?

Getting Home is the story of Tom Jacobs and his journey of self-discovery. When we first meet Tom, he is from an affluent family, has a perfect girlfriend he intends to marry and a career that men twice his age are still fighting for. Not everything is as it seems, though, and Tom is fighting internal monsters that are threatening to break out. The internal battle becomes so overwhelming that Tom decides his only option is to leave everything behind.

What was the inspiration for the book?

I have agonized over this question. I started Getting Home over fifteen years ago. I remember deciding that rainy August afternoon that I was going to start writing again. What become the Prologue for the book was really just stream-of-consciousness writing. After a few minutes, as happens so frequently with authors, a small voice started to speak in the back of my mind. Tom Jacobs was born and told me his story.

Getting Home is your first published novel.  Can you tell us a bit about your writing journey?

There is so much to be said here. While I have always loved writing, I never really felt that I would be willing to put anything out for others to judge. Getting Home became my therapy. I lost the love of my life during the journey. Tom and his battles became the way I learned to deal with all the painful emotions that were eating away at me. There was also a certain amount of liberation of being able to do anything with Tom’s world with no real-world consequences. It really helped me make a lot of important life choices.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered when writing the book?

Self-doubt was number one. I would sit down and write a few chapters and be so excited about the story. Then the doubt would set in. I would tell myself it was terrible, and no one would ever want to read it. Inevitably, I would shelve it until inspiration hit again a year or two later. [Cathy: I reckon many authors will identify with this.]

What advice would you offer to writers working on their own first novel?

Just. Keep. Writing. I could kick myself for not writing Tom’s whole journey when I first started the book. But then again, it would likely be a very different book because my life experience over the fifteen years is largely what shaped Tom’s story.

I read a quote recently from Stephen King, “Write a page a day, only 300 words, and in a year, you have written a novel.” Simple words but profound. I think especially as new writers we are overwhelmed by the scope of 80,000-100,000 words or more. Break it down and commit to 300 per day. Likely you will write more than 300 and be done in no time.

Your bio photo shows a figure with a suitcase.  Is travel an important element of your inspiration for writing?

First, I must admit, the picture is not me. Rather it is a stock image. I currently do not have any quality pictures of me. I do not like to be photographed, but I am working on it and hope to post some soon. I chose that picture for my profile because it fits the character of Tom Jacobs and his journey.

I do love to travel, though my greatest inspirations always seem to come from everyday life. The overly well-dressed man at the coffee shop. The tired mom in the grocery store with four small children. The obnoxious loud mouth at the end of the bar. There are characters everywhere. People inspire me more than anything.

On your blog you’ve recently started to publish book reviews.  How do you view the prospect of being on the receiving end of reviews of your own book?

Honestly, it terrifies me, but with an odd excited terror, like riding a roller coaster or going through a haunted house. I know not everyone will love Getting Home the way I do. I do not think it is perfect, but I finally pushed myself into publishing so I would stop working on it and move forward. My only hope is that the bad reviews will come with some clear direction as to why the reviewer hated the book. I want this to be a growing experience. Just saying, “It stinks!” or worse does not help anyone.

Do you think the story of Tom Jacobs, the protagonist of your novel, would have been different if he’d followed the advice of one of your own ‘Life Lessons’, namely to fill one’s life with positive people?

I believe sometimes in our lives we choose our journeys and sometimes our journeys choose us. Tom was destined to ultimately live the life he ended up with. There was someone waiting for him that needed him. Readers will understand when they read the book. No, I think no matter what pithy advice Tom may have been given, even if he tried to apply it, he still would have done the same things.

Which other writers do you admire or enjoy reading?

Wow, this could be a long answer. Michael Crichton is probably my favourite, if I had to choose just one. He was one of the greats that we lost much too soon. His book, Sphere, has been a favourite for decades. I also have great admiration for Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks. Dan Brown really knows how to build anticipation and play out action in a way that keeps you turning pages. Nicholas Sparks knows how to make you feel emotions and fall in love. Jane Austen, though that may be a little cliché, is my other favourite. Pride and Prejudice is a masterpiece and the only book I have read many times. Of course, it also helps that it was the favourite of my wife.

What are you working on next?

I have six works going right now. The two I am most excited about are quite different. The first is a science fiction tale of a man who wakes up in a professed paradise but with no memories leading up to that day. He starts to have vivid dreams that make him doubt which is reality, the daily life or the dreams.  The other is more of a romance but also dealing with memory loss. This time it is a woman who wakes up in a large estate house, badly injured and with no memories. I am not far along with this one, but I already know that nothing is as it seems. I do, however, have the draft opening chapter for this one posted on my blog.

About the AuthorWolfe Butler

Wolfe writes: ‘My name is Wolfe Butler. I have been an avid reader and writer most of my life. Like so many other writers, I did not believe in myself enough to think that I could make a living as a writer, so I pursued a professional career in financial services. Twenty years later and I am not as young as I once was, but I am taking the time to pursue my passion and really give writing a chance.’

Connect with Wolfe

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Blog Tour/Q&A: The Runaway Wife by Rosie Clarke

The Runaway Wife - Blog Tour banner

I’m delighted to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for Rosie Clarke’s latest historical novel, The Runaway Wife.  Rosie is pretty much an unstoppable force when it comes to writing, having written around 100 books under different pen names.  Therefore, I’m so pleased she’s taken a temporary break to give us an insight into how she comes up with the ideas for her books and how she lets her characters tell their stories.

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Love, marriage, obsession, betrayal and treachery in 1920s London –  a powerful and gritty saga perfect for fans of Kitty Neale, Josephine Cox and Rosie Goodwin.

The hedonism of London in the roaring ’20s is a world away from Annabel Tarleton’s ordinary country existence. Until a chance meeting with the charming Richard Fortescue at a society ball changes her life for ever. Swept off her feet by the dashing Richard, and his renowned fortune, Annabel soon realises that all that glitters isn’t gold. Her bid for freedom has come at a terrible price and she finds herself trapped inside a marriage that behind closed doors is cruel and brutal.

Annabel has no choice but to flee, and will do everything to save herself, and her unborn baby, from destitution. But the very rich and very powerful expect to get what they want – and Richard wants only one thing – Annabel…

Format: ebook (255 pp.)                    Publisher: Aria Fiction
Published: 1st February 2018          Genre: Historical Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk  ǀ  Kobo ǀ iBooks ǀ Google Play
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Runaway Wife on Goodreads

Interview with Rosie Clarke, author of The Runaway Wife

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Runaway Wife?

Annabel is her mother’s daughter.  Taught to expect to marry well and to be a credit to her name, but that isn’t the reason she allows her mother to bully her.  Underneath her meekness, Annabel is brave and she seeks to protect those she loves: her younger sister and her brother, who is older but has to carry so much of the burden of a struggling estate and his mother’s displeasure.  When she is finally pushed into a marriage with a man who is as cruel as he is rich, a girl like that will break all the rules.

What was the inspiration for the book?

I never know why I write a particular book.  Usually there isn’t any particular reference point that turns a light bulb on and makes me think I’ll write about this or that.  However, things drip feed into your subconscious and perhaps I’d been watching or reading about abusive men.  I wanted a story that I could connect up with Jessie’s Promise without being a sequel to her story and Annabel just suddenly took root.  Once her mother started nagging I knew she had to make an unhappy marriage and Richard immediately strutted centre stage.  He was so damned sure of himself and so careless of others that I knew he had to be really nasty.

The book involves the portrayal of an abusive marriage.  Were there scenes you found difficult to write?

No, I enjoyed writing them.  Once I’m into Annabel’s character I’m feeling her misery and I wanted to hit back so I needed to really feel how she felt.  It was so difficult for her to think of actually walking out of her marriage so she tried other methods first until she understood that he might kill her in one of his rages and then she had to go.

How did you approach the research for the book? Do you enjoy the process of research?

I don’t do hours and hours of research.  I did this once for a period I didn’t know and it came out like a history lesson and I had to rewrite the whole thing.  I always know a bit about what I am writing and then when I need specific details I research that in books, internet and watch TV programmes set in the period if I can.  Watching the period you need is great, though it only gives you the feel and you still have to research dates and details.

The Runaway Wife is set in the 1920s. What do you think is the key to creating an authentic picture of a particular historical period?

First ask your characters to come and once they do you know where they belong.  All my books are character led and then I paint a picture in words of their surroundings.  Annabel is very much a young woman of the thirties, smart, intelligent but still chained by her mother’s old-fashioned ideas and strictures.  Only when she breaks free from her mother’s domination can she be herself. So once you know that you research that period and blend it into the story.

All your books are set in the first half of the 20th century.  What is it that attracts you to this period?

For my sagas I tend to write mostly about the period I know more about but I’ve also written other periods under other names, historical, twenties, all sorts.

You’ve written over one hundred books under a number of different pen names.  Where do you get all your ideas?

It is like a train station.  I have to use the signals to keep some of them waiting while the others are in the station.  New ideas come all the time.  [Cathy: I love that way of describing it!]

Do you have a special place to write or any writing rituals?

I have my study, which has all my printers, computers and books together and is very comfortable.

Which other writers do you admire or enjoy reading?

Oh, so many.  I love Georgette Heyer but I also love Matthew Harffy’s work, which is Saxons fighting in early Britain.  I’m just reading a good Viking trilogy, and I also enjoy Sarah Flint’s thrillers.  I like family sagas, though I try not to read these all the time because I don’t want to cross threads with my own work.

What are you working on next?

At the moment I’ve just started a standalone Christmas book but I am also thinking about the next in the Mulberry Lane series.  Thank you for having me on your blog and I hope your readers enjoy my answers, and try my books.

Clarke_RosieAbout the Author

Rosie Clarke was born in Swindon, but moved to Ely in Cambridgeshire at the age of nine. She started writing in 1976, combining this with helping her husband run his antiques shop. In 2004, Rosie was the well-deserved winner of the RNA Romance Award and the Betty Neels Trophy.

Rosie also writes as Anne Herries and Cathy Sharp.

Connect with Rosie

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Blog Tour: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

Miss Boston and Miss H Blog Tour

I’m thrilled to be hosting today’s stop on the blog tour for Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik, published in paperback today.  Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves was one of my favourite books of 2017 and, since I read it, I haven’t stopped recommending it to other people.   I included the hardcover version in my list of favourite book covers and in my wishlist of novels I’d like to see make The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction longlist.  You get the picture; I’m a fan of this book!

I’m absolutely delighted to share with you my Q&A with Rachel in which she talks about the inspiration for the book, her research process and a serendipitous meeting!  Absolutely fascinating.

You can also read my review of Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves and find out just why I loved it so much.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves PbackAbout the Book

When Rene Hargreaves is billeted to Starlight Farm as a Land Girl, far from the city where she grew up, she finds farmer Elsie Boston and her country ways strange at first. Yet over the days and months Rene and Elsie come to understand and depend on each other. Soon they can no longer imagine a life apart.

But a visitor from Rene’s past threatens the life they have built together, a life that has always kept others at a careful distance. Soon they are involved in a war of their own that endangers everything and will finally expose them to the nation’s press and the full force of the law.

Format: Paperback (288 pp.)                                  Publisher: Penguin
Published in paperback: 1st February 2017      Genre: Historical Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk  ǀ  Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves on Goodreads

Interview with Rachel Malik, author of Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is inspired by your own family history.  When did you first learn about the story of your grandmother?

My mum told me about Rene (Hargreaves) when I was in my late twenties – a long time ago. Rene had left her and the family home in Manchester when she was a little girl and never returned. She also told me that Rene had got caught up in a murder trial many years later when she was living in Cornwall – she didn’t know much more than that. I had quite recently started an academic job and I remember thinking that I should try and find out more about the trial – I definitely had my researcher’s hat (or nose) on.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing the book?

I think the biggest challenge was working out exactly what I was writing – and that took time. When I first started researching the story, I don’t think I knew I was going to write anything.  I wrote notes about what I discovered, as I might about anything else I might read. I quickly became interested in how the press represented Rene and Elsie; there was definite sympathy but also a rather prurient interest in how they lived and looked. My notes started to turn into an essay at that point. As I started to find out more about the places where they lived, I began to think I should write a piece of creative non-fiction about how I tried to track Rene and Elsie down. And then one day, an incredibly strong image of them came into my head. There they were in the little kitchen at Wheal Rock in Cornwall – where much of the novel is set. And I think I realised then that I was starting to write a novel.

One reviewer has remarked that in the book there is ‘much left unsaid, and unexplored’.  This seems particularly true of the relationship between Rene and Elsie.  Was this deliberate on your part?

Yes, very deliberate.  There are a number of reasons. I wanted readers to get to know Rene and Elsie and feel close to them but I also wanted them kept slightly at a distance – just as Rene and Elsie keep other people at a distance. They become so close that they make their own universe but, as in many relationships, there are important things they don’t know about each other and don’t share. Rene and Elsie are not very ‘talky’ about their feelings; Elsie in particular isn’t somebody who talks much at all.  When Rene wants to tell Elsie her secret, she writes it in the form of a letter – that’s quite understandable I think for modern readers. But Elsie doesn’t say ‘I understand’ or ‘I won’t judge you’.  She tells a story about a comparable situation to reassure Rene.  I don’t think they’re longing for a language of feeling. This is their language and it works well for them – most of the time. There’s also the question of their sexuality. To me, it’s clear that theirs is a sexual relationship but that’s only a part of who they are and when the world judges them later in the novel, it isn’t only their sexuality that is presumed and judged.

The English countryside features strongly in the book.  How did you go about recreating the landscape of the 1940s and 1950s?

Yes, the countryside is incredibly important and because Rene and Elsie have to keep moving in the second part of the novel, some places had to be registered very quickly, lightly.  Some of the places in the book are well-known (the White Horse of Uffington for instance), some are tourist areas: the Lake District and Cornwall. Some aspects of these places have changed very little if at all – geography, geology – but others clearly had.  I didn’t want to create a ‘general’ English countryside of the period, but a countryside from various points of view, in particular Rene and Elsie’s. The countryside they see is attuned to boundaries and ownership, land-use and agricultural work and the possibilities of the long walks they love.  I read a lot: history but also fiction, memoirs, poetry; I also looked at old photographs and films.

How did you approach the research for the book? Do you enjoy the process of research?

I wasn’t as organised as I could have been.  I got a lot from the trial documents I read at the National Archives in Kew. That and the press coverage of the trial – local and national – were my main sources for Rene and Elsie.  Together this allowed me to plot a rough chronology but there were big gaps.  All I knew about Elsie was that she came from a large family (the 1911 census) and that she’d been born in Willesden – on the outskirts of London in the early 20th century. I found and read lots of other things as I went along.  Some things are just luck.  I read Akenfield by Ronald Blythe on a friend’s recommendation. It’s an oral history of a village in Suffolk from the early 20th century to the sixties – the book’s mood had a huge impact on me. I visited the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading which has some wonderful material about farming in the 1930s and 40s – I love research but it’s very easy to get distracted. I spent way too long deciding on the names of the Starlight cows after looking through their milking records!

What was the most surprising fact you came across during your research?

It wasn’t a fact but a living person! I was in Fowey at the festival there and I decided to go and see the village where Rene and Elsie lived (Rosenys in the novel).  When I arrived there was nobody about, I didn’t have a clue where Wheal Rock was.  A red car pulled up in the car park and when a woman got out I took my courage in both hands and asked if she knew anything about Rene Hargreaves and Wheal Rock. Before I knew it I was sitting in her kitchen with a coffee. It turned out that her grandmother had known Rene quite well and wrote to her in prison and sent her cigarettes.

What do you think is the key to creating an authentic picture of a particular historical period?

I’m not sure there’s a single key; writers are trying to achieve different things. Some want to transport you (I had that feeling in Wolf Hall or in a different way when I read the Poldark saga) – you’re almost behind the curtain listening. In my case, I needed to show how life was changing in the countryside over a twenty-year period (and there are flashbacks to much further back). I didn’t want readers to become too immersed in one particular historical moment, I wanted them to travel through this changing world with Rene and Elsie. Because of that I created a kind of shorthand to signal particular moment: the wartime information posters they adapt for themselves, the 1950s adverts that Rene has a problem identifying with and so on. I only hope that it works

Although you have written articles, essays and reviews, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is your first published novel.  What advice would you offer to writers working on their own first novel?

I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask, seeing as it has taken me so long to do it! Writers work in such different ways so what works for me may not work for other people or for me – next time. Here goes:

  • Count all the work you do on your novel as work: thinking, reading, brooding, plotting and re-plotting, writing, editing. Don’t fetishize writing as the only work that counts.
  • Ignore all the people who say you must write this many words per day, every day or that they work 16 hours a day. If you pause for just a moment to think about it, this excludes so many people: parents, women particularly, but anyone with caring responsibilities, anyone who needs to earn money…
  • Try to do some work on your novel as often as you can – even if it’s a few minutes thinking about a setting on the bus. It keeps your ideas moving, developing. And, if you’re anxious like me, it helps keeps the worry a little more in control.

Which other writers do you admire?

There are so many and I keep adding to it. A lot of 19th writing, especially George Eliot and Emile Zola. The first half of the twentieth century has so many brilliant writers, at the moment it’s Jean Rhys and Katherine Mansfield.  I’ve been lucky enough to discover both Shirley Jackson and Barbara Comyns over the last year and they’re definitely in! Sybille Bedford, whom I wish people read and wrote about more. I’m also very keen on recent and contemporary Irish writing: Anne Enright, John McGahern and Colm Tóibín.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on another novel. I’m a bit superstitious about saying much about what I’m doing but it’s set in the 1920s and 1930s in Northern Italy…

My Review

The story is based on the life of Rachel Malik’s own grandmother but, as she states, the book is a fiction and not a speculation and it should be read as such’.  The author’s writing style has a rhythmic, almost poetic quality: ‘For they were all gone: two sisters married and third moved away; three brothers, dead such a long time ago – their names engraved on the memorial to prove it; her mother and her father as well’.  I quickly became immersed in the story and totally engaged with the two main characters, Rene and Elsie.

From the start, Elsie is an enigmatic character, cherishing her solitude and resisting intrusion from neighbours, seeing this as ‘encroachment’. At the same time, she has a ‘lonely power’ that proves strangely attractive to Rene: ‘Elsie wasn’t quite like other people, but that didn’t matter to Rene’.   Elsie’s strangeness is communicated in small ways, such as by gestures. When Rene first arrives at Starlight Farm: ‘She had offered her hand to Elsie, and Elsie had reached out hers but it wasn’t a greeting – Elsie had reached out as if she were trapped and needed to be pulled out, pulled free’. Gradually, they find each meets a kind of need in the other – Elsie, for companionship and a conduit to the outside world, and Rene, for refuge from her past: ‘Elsie knew that Rene fitted. A stranger to be sure, but one who didn’t make her feel strange.’

The development of Elsie and Rene’s relationship over time is tenderly observed without explicitly stating its nature.  Instead their growing mutual dependence is indicated by small things, like shared evenings listening to radio plays or the way they address each other: ‘A “we” was creeping into their talk, sometimes an “us”‘.  Eventually, Rene shares more details about her own history and the choices she has made. The war brings tumultuous change but also new beginnings for the pair. Then a figure from Rene’s past disrupts their way of life and brings with it grave consequences that puts their life together under an unwelcome and potentially life-changing spotlight.

This book is probably not everyone’s cup of tea (although there is plenty of tea drinking in it) but I absolutely fell in love with it.  I received an advance review copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Penguin Books UK, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Moving, tender, engaging

Try something similar… Mussolini’s Island by Sarah Day or Shelter by Sarah Franklin  (click on titles to read my review)

Rachel MalikAbout the Author

Rachel Malik was born in London in 1965 of mixed English and Pakistani parentage.  She studied English at Cambridge and Linguistics at Strathcylde.  For many years, Rachel taught English Literature at Middlesex University.  Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is her first novel, and is based on the extraordinary experiences of her grandmother.

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Miss B & Miss H PB2
‘If the weather was fine, they would make the long-delayed trip to Gunwalloe – on the scooter – Elsie had agreed.’ (p.180)