Christmas

Perfect Books for Christmas Reading #Christmas #ChristmasReading #ChristmasBooks #FridayReads

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I love Christmas. At least some of it. I love being at home with my family, snuggling up on the sofa and watching movies, walking the dogs and coming home to a glass of mulled wine and a good book. And there are some books that seem just perfect for Christmas. These are my recommendations for a cosy evening (or afternoon, or all day!) by a warm fire.

‘The Toymakers’ by Robert Dinsdale

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I read this last week in a remote cottage in Wales while the rain poured down and the wind howled round us. We had a gorgeous wood-burner and plenty of wine, and I felt really Christmassy. It’s a gorgeous book – atmospheric, magical, heartfelt and beautifully written.

‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey

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I read this quite a while ago but I can still recall how beautiful it was. The prose is so evocative, it sums up the cold and wildness of Alaska perfectly. And the fairy tale winding through makes it an ideal day for a cold winter’s night in front of a fire.

‘Dear Thief’ by Samantha Harvey

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A quiet but stunningly beautiful narrative, this novel is an honest portrayal of betrayal, anger and friendship, raw in places but so well-crafted. One of my favourite books.

‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter

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Vivid, magical, beautiful – this is truly a classic. The writing is assured, clever without being pretentious, lyrical in places. It’s a book I’ll remember for a long time – unforgettable, colourful, and chaotic. A masterpiece.

‘Winter’ by Ali Smith

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Another book that I read in Wales last week and it was very suited to the pouring rain and howling wind! Review coming soon, but goodness, what an unusual book. I won’t try to explain it because it kind of defies explanation, but it’s witty and clever and insightful. And very, very different.

Happy reading and happy holidays!

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‘The Toymakers’ by Robert Dinsdale #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

Toymakers

Waterstones   Amazon.co.uk

Do you remember when you believed in magic?

An enchanting, magical novel set in a mysterious toyshop – perfect for fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Stephanie Garber’s Caraval by way of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist

It is 1917, and while war wages across Europe, in the heart of London, there is a place of hope and enchantment.

The Emporium sells toys that capture the imagination of children and adults alike: patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy boxes that are bigger on the inside, soldiers that can fight battles of their own. Into this family business comes young Cathy Wray, running away from a shameful past. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own.

But Cathy is about to discover that the Emporium has secrets of its own…

Fifteen-year-old Cathy, pregnant and in danger of having to give away her baby, runs away to London and secures a job in Papa Jack’s Emporium.

The emporium isn’t just any old toy shop. Open only for winter, the toys use the magic of imagination, the innocence and magic of childhood, to create patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy soldiers that really fight, Wendy houses that are as big inside as they seemed to be when you were little.

Cathy soon becomes an essential part of the emporium, safe, happy and loved. But war is looming and the repercussions of a sibling rivalry put that happiness and safety at risk.

This is such a beautiful book. The writing is truly lovely, absolutely magical in places and it really is the perfect book to sink into on a winter’s afternoon. The magic is presented in such a way that it seems totally believable, and the dark threads of war, violence, jealousy and cruelty are wound through so skilfully, that this is much more than a fantasy.

Cathy is a lovely main character and her relationships with Kaspar, Emil, Papa Jack and Martha are a real highlight of the book – as is lovely Sirius, the patchwork dog. If you think you can’t cry over a toy, think again!

Perfect for Christmas, and one of my books of the year.

5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

 

Merry Christmas!

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As 2016 draws to a close (thank god – what a crap year it’s been) just a quick post to say thank you to all the people who visit this blog, who take the time to read and comment and whose support and friendship mean a great deal to me.

The amount of views and new followers I’ve had this year has been amazing, and it’s been a joy to meet new people, to connect with other writers and bloggers, and to read and share books. It’s lovely to know there are like-minded souls out there, near and far.

Because the world is crappy right now, and sometimes the hate and the intolerance and the bigotry and the unfairness of it all can seem overwhelming. But looking at a wonderful painting, hearing a favourite song, escaping into a beautiful film and sinking into a good book, all these things make life a bit better. So thank you to all those authors who have shared their books with me this year, and to all the writers I’ve worked with. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege.

I wish you all a happy and peaceful holiday.

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Christmas is Coming….

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Christmas is fast approaching and, if you’re anything like me, you probably haven’t got all your Christmas pressies sorted out yet. Well, if you’re looking for a last minute gift and don’t want to brave the shops (and really, who does?) there’s still time to order The Black Hours and have it delivered in time for Christmas. Or you can download the eBook instantly. It has seven 5* reviews on amazon.co.uk so it’s got to be better than a lot of other last minute presents. And if you’re still not tempted here’s an extract to whet your appetite.

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The Black Hours

Chapter 1

Alice pulled her cloak tightly around her as she pushed her way through the crowds. The gruesome shadow of the gallows loomed ahead, five rope nooses creaking in the bitter wind that whipped through Halstead’s bustling square. She wanted only to escape these people who knocked against her, surrounding her with their noise and smells. It had been a hard two days walk from Coggeshall in the biting cold and she was looking forward to the warmth and refreshment she would no doubt receive in Hannah’s home.

Around her vendors called their wares, children laughed or cried in excitement; women giggled and gossiped with each other, their breath cloudy in the freezing air, pausing now and then to slap their unruly offspring. Men told raucous jokes and drank toasts of warm ale, their voices rising above the howl of the wind.

‘It’ll be a good one today.’

‘That it will. Wish I’d got here earlier. Might’ve got a seat inside.’

Alice swallowed, her heart beating faster. This was not an execution then; indeed the accused had not yet stood trial. The nooses swayed as she passed by the gallows. Alice shivered as she imagined the poor souls that would soon dangle from those cruel ropes. She quickened her step, filled with a need to get to the safety and quiet of Hannah’s cottage.

She had not been to Halstead since the previous summer. The months since had been full of worry. Her father, Samuel, had taken ill, gripped by a cough that left him gasping for breath, his eyes wide with a fear that turned Alice cold. The harsh, long winter had only made him worse, and Alice and her grandmother Maggie were becoming desperate. Although skilled in the use of herbs and plants, nothing Maggie had given to Samuel had made a difference. Eventually they had been left with no choice but to seek the help of Hannah Woodbury, an old friend of her grandmother’s. Maggie had known the wise woman nearly all her life, and had a high regard for her ability to cure ailments when all other remedies had failed. However, the two women had not been in contact for the past year. Alice had thought it was because of an argument, but as Maggie had packed her a basket of food to take on her journey, her eyes had been fearful.

‘Take care when you get to Halstead, Alice. Mind you speak to no-one. The fewer people that know you seek Hannah, the better.’

Alice had looked at her grandmother questioningly. Maggie had hesitated, then pursed her lips.

‘These are difficult times, Alice. There is so much suspicion.’

A series of wracking coughs from the bundle of blankets in the corner of the cottage had sent Maggie rushing to Samuel’s side. Despite her fear, Alice had smiled at her grandmother. She had to do something to help her father.

‘I will be fine, Grandmother. Do not worry. Besides, if Hannah knows how to help Father, then I have no choice.’

Now, as she finally made her way out of the crowds, Alice felt that fear again. She took a small, overgrown path that was sheltered from the icy wind by a row of scrabbling crab apple trees. The ground was slippery underfoot, the mud frozen around clusters of sharp stones that Alice could feel through the thin soles of her boots. The bare branches of dogwood and hawthorn snagged in her skirts, catching on her cloak as she left the noise of the square further behind. Hannah liked to keep a distance from others, choosing to live in a tiny cottage on the edge of some scrubland on the very outskirts of the town. Alice could understand why. More than once the old woman had been blamed for the bad luck, bad weather and disease that periodically caused death and destruction among the townsfolk. But Alice was sure that whenever those same people needed something, some curative for an affliction, a draught of herbs to see off an infection, or a potion to restore or relieve, they would turn to Hannah, conveniently forgetting the names they had whispered as she had passed them in the street, or the doors they had slammed in her face when times were hard and she was in need herself. And Alice was sure that Maggie had suffered the same way, though she tried to hide it, knew that it worried her as she watched Alice grow and learn about the powers of the plants that grew around them.

It was silent as she walked on, the cold having driven any creatures to ground. All Alice could hear was her own footsteps as her boots struck the solid earth and the relentless whistle of the wind. The path became more and more overgrown, and she was forced to push her way through the branches, the sleeve of her cloak wrapped over her hand to protect her from the thorns. It was as if no-one had passed this way for weeks. Through the silence came the distant sound of knocking. Alice paused for a moment, the cold catching at her throat, and listened carefully. There was definitely some sort of rhythmic thumping ahead of her. Puzzled, she pushed on, the noise becoming louder with each step. At last the branches grew thinner and she eventually stepped free; Hannah’s cottage standing alone in front of her.

It looked more run down than she remembered; the thatch was patchy in places, ivy straggled thin woody stems across the grimy walls and the door swung haphazardly on its hinges. This explained the knocking then, the door thumping back and forth in the wind. It was not like Hannah to leave her home open like this, vulnerable not only to the cold winds. No smoke billowed from the chimney either. Surely Hannah was at home? After all, she would not be in the town; she was not one to attend such horrible gatherings. Apprehension gripped Alice – no smoke meant no fire in the grate; perhaps Hannah was ill?

Cautiously she approached the cottage, her breathing heavy, fear combined with the cold clutching at her chest with each intake. The door continued to bang. As she drew nearer, Alice saw that only one hinge held the heavy door to the frame; the other was twisted, hanging from a single rusty nail. A boot-sized dent had caused the lower half of the door to buckle, the wood broken and splintering at the edges. Tentatively, Alice pushed against the upper half and the door flew inwards, into the darkness beyond. For a second Alice was taken aback by the stench. The air was musty despite the cold and was under laid by a fetidness that enveloped her, a closeness that made it even harder to breathe. It was as if a brimming pot had been left to stand for days. But Hannah was clean, scrupulous even, despite her poverty. Perhaps she was ill then, or worse.

‘Hannah, Hannah, are you there?’

Alice’s voice sounded too loud in the silence. There was no reply, only the howl of the wind in her ears.

‘Hannah, it’s Alice. Alice Pendle.’

Still silence. Grasping her cloak tighter, Alice stepped over the threshold. It was dark inside the cottage, no candle was lit, and the odour was stronger. Wrinkling her nose, Alice waited for her eyes to adjust. The door slammed behind her and then continued its banging, the hinge creaking in time. She turned and wedged her basket in the gap, relishing the quiet for a moment. Once used to the dimness, Alice could see that the room was in turmoil. Furniture was overturned and smashed. Jars lay broken on the floor. A few scraps of what looked like Hannah’s clothing were piled on the hearth, charred and singed. Someone had tried to start a fire with them – but who would do such a thing? Alice picked up a handful of the blackened remains, shaking her head in confusion, suddenly very afraid. Something dreadful had happened here.

Want to read more? Find The Black Hours here.

The Worst Witch?

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I can hardly believe that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ celebrates it’s 75th anniversary this year. It seems pretty amazing that this wonderful film that can still entertain and enthrall is that old! I loved watching it as a child and it always reminds me of sitting in the front room at Christmas, a pile of Quality Street wrappers next to me (we only ever had these at Christmas – now you can get them all year. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing), the multi-coloured lights of our silver tinsel Christmas tree twinkling away. And being absolutely terrified. The Wicked Witch of the West and her troupe of flying monkeys scared the proverbial out of me. It’s not a cliché to say that I spent most of the film hiding behind a cushion (a bright orange fluffy one if you must know – this was the seventies after all). But I have to admit I much preferred watching her to her sickly sweet counterpart Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. I wonder sometimes if watching that film sowed a seed for my later fascination with witches and those on the edges of society. She truly was the embodiment of a dangerous wicked woman after all. And in celebration of her 75 years as the most terrifying witch ever to grace the big and small screen here are the best of the rest:

The Grand High Witch – Roald Dahl’s The Witches

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Scary in the book, terrifying on screen, The Grand High Witch is ‘the most evil woman in creation’. The book is awesome and deserves its longevity; Anjelica Houston, in the film, is amazing and terrifying and horrible, beautiful and alluring then dreadfully grotesque.

The Wicked Queen – Disney’s Snow White

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I didn’t watch this film as a child. The only Disney film I saw then was Dumbo and that scarred me. I watched this with my daughter when she was four. I was terrified.  She wasn’t. The scene in which she plummets to her death is horrible – how is this a children’s film? Oh yeah – my daughter wasn’t scared.

The White Witch – Chronicles of Narnia

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Loved ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ when I was a child. Loved the film as an adult too. Tilda Swinton played it perfectly, menacing, malevolent and definitely icy.

Endora – Bewitched

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I loved this show. But watching it now I can’t help getting irritated at the lovely Samantha, patronised as she is by the ridiculous Darren. So it’s Samantha’s mother, Endora, who makes it on to my list. Wish she could have made Darren vanish.

Minnie Castevet – Rosemary’s Baby

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Horrible, horrible, horrible. I watched this film when I was twelve. Probably shouldn’t have.

Bellatrix Lestrange – Harry Potter

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I’ll hold my hand up and admit that I’m not really a huge fan of Harry Potter. But I do love Helena Bonham Carter. IMHO she outshines absolutely everyone else in whatever film it was she was in (I only remember her and a brief appearance by Robert Pattinson in one of them– sorry).

Who’s your favourite?