Hazel McHaffie

Linda Gillard

Experience and empathy

They say no experience is wasted on a writer, and there’s certainly an element of truth in this. But as a writer, it’s important to recognise that reaction to events and happenings varies hugely, a universal response should not be assumed (goodness, I sound positively Jane Austen-y!!).

I’ve been very conscious of that reality this year. Let me explain.

In June I was told I had cancer.  Hmmm.I needed immediate treatment. OK.
The tumour was removed within twenty-four hours of diagnosis. Wow! Impressive or what?
The Director in charge of the whole department rang himself to give me the results and talk me through the proposed action and answer my questions. Hello?! I’m even more impressed. What did I do to deserve this?
I was given a number to ring any time. Is this really the cash-strapped, people-poor NHS?
A wonderfully warm, secure and seamless blanket of care, kindness and support, was thrown around me by a dedicated and highly skilled multidisciplinary team of professionals. There are no words to do justice to the fantastic, way-beyond-the-call-of-duty service I received.

A couple of times I did protest mildly that my circumstances didn’t warrant such a massive response; I was fine with this. My protestations were politely but firmly quashed. I was assured my circumstances – and I – did justify all this expertise and compassion. Why? Because apparently the majority of people are shocked and traumatised by this particular diagnosis. They need kid-glove treatment. So the team routinely start from that base line.

Why then am I different? It’s not an act. It’s not bravery. Not even a consequence of my faith. Nor does it stem from naivety. Two of my brothers have had cancer and been through much worse times than me; bearing the scars and after-effects still today years later. Two of my sisters-in-law sadly could not be saved and I watched their terminal decline with enormous sadness. Over the years many dear friends with cancer have suffered, died, some shockingly young, leaving children behind. And in my professional life as a health care professional I’ve seen up close and personal, enormous grief, loss and pain attached to experience of this disease.

OK, I may be calm about this diagnosis for myself, but I’m pretty sure that I’d have been far more traumatised if it had related to my children or grandchildren – young, with their lives ahead of them. I’ve had a brilliant innings, beyond the biblical allotted span. Even if this thing has already done its insidious evil work and will eventually beat me, I can’t complain. So I’ve been somewhat bemused by all the messages of concern and comfort and reassurance sent to me during and since my two surgeries.  However, they tell me a lot about the fear this illness engenders even today when medical advances have changed the prognoses in many types of malignancy dramatically. Now that I’m back on my feet readjusting to life, I get exclamations – almost accusations! – of doubt as to the genuineness of my energy and normality. Some well-meaning people want to force me backwards into a ‘fragile invalid’ box. Clearly I don’t conform to their conceptions of a cancer patient.

Linda Gillard, who is herself an author, and who’s been a terrific support to me in that context, has made me think again, though. She had treatment for breast cancer five years ago which has left her with chronic pain and disability. It has radically affected her writing career as well as her quality of life. Indeed her whole experience has been in a different league from mine. Sharing her thoughts on social media recently, she described her reality.

I went from diagnosis to mastectomy in less than 3 weeks. 5 years on, I still haven’t made my peace with what happened, I still feel traumatised, I still don’t have my life back because cancer left me disabled with chronic pain which apparently will never go away.

This post isn’t meant to be a self-pitying whinge, it’s a plea for greater understanding of PTSD. For some people who survive cancer, that survival comes at a terrible cost and the nightmare – mainly fear of recurrence – persists long after eyelashes and pubic hair have grown back. In my case the fear was/is not of death, but of further chemotherapy (and for those who sailed through chemotherapy, well, I’m very happy for you, but you probably didn’t have breast cancer chemo, which I’m reliably informed is The Worst.)

But it was the best of times, the worst of times… I’ve never known such compassion, from my inspiring surgeon (“If you’re going to get breast cancer, this is the kind to have”), to my oncologist who seemed as dismayed as I was that my neuropathic pain wouldn’t go away, to the magnificent nurses in the Macmillan suite who – almost apologeticaly – pumped cherry-coloured poison into my veins and checked on me every few minutes to see how I was coping. (Thank you, Norma! You will have forgotten me, but I will never forget you or your professional kindness.)

Her eloquent and courageous confidences have given others permission to share their abiding worries and traumas. Which all helps me to recognise that I am the one who is most out of sync here. And it’s reinforced the importance of reading, reading, reading; listening, listening, listening some more, in order to gain real empathy with those who are challenged by the issues I explore in my books.

I was reminded in some small way of Sabine Dardenne, a twelve year old Belgian girl who was kidnapped by a psychopath and subjected to the most appalling and degrading abuse. When she was discovered after eighty days incarcerated in a filthy ‘hell hole’, everyone expected her to be severely traumatised and in need of sensitive psychiatric help. Instead all she wanted was to get back to normality.

The general view was that I was ill. I was probably in shock, but I wasn’t ill. When talking about me, people would say, ‘She’s got her feet on the ground,’ and that’s probably true. You can’t rewrite history, and I know I can never wipe out what happened, but the best medicine is just to get on with your life and sort it out yourself. At the time, no one understood that …
In fact, my parents and my sisters were the ones who needed a psychiatrist, not me: all of them ended up having years of therapy, so they were the last people I could confide in.

Sabine is one truly remarkable girl whose story (told with help from translators in I Choose to Live) makes humbling and impressive reading. I am certainly not in her league but I do understand where she’s coming from.

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Guest interview: Linda Gillard

This week I’m bringing you my very first author interview on this blog.

Linda GillardLinda Gillard has just published her seventh novel – the fourth one she’s produced independently, and she’s achieving considerable success going solo. She first contacted me after I’d reviewed one of her books (A Lifetime Burning) and I’ve since benefited greatly from her generously shared experience of independent publishing. She’s one of those people who uses hard experiences positively, and I’m a great admirer of her personal courage as well as her writing, which is why I’ve chosen her as my debut guest author. Here she is talking to me about various aspects of her life and writing.

HMcH. Linda, you’ve had a number of varied careers before becoming a full time novelist actress, journalist, primary school teacher. You’ve also known personal difficulties – mental illness, cancer. All experiences are valuable to authors, but how have your previous lives influenced your writing, would you say? 

 LG. I think my previous lives taught me to communicate effectively, using the minimum number of words. As a columnist I knew my features would be cut from the bottom up by sub-editors, so I learned to thwart them by writing to a word count. As an actress I learned how much can be conveyed in good dialogue and how eloquent silence can be. As a teacher and journalist, I learned it was essential to grab people’s attention. I think my previous jobs also taught me not to judge. That’s useful for a writer.

My ill health has made me look – at times desperately – for the positives. Perhaps that’s why I’m able to tackle some tough subjects without losing my readers.

HMcH. I personally like the heft you give several of your books by tackling weighty issues like mental illness, loss, social isolation. But what steps do you take to stop them deterring your readers?

LG. I send my characters to some very dark places, but I give them a torch and I make sure there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.

HMcH. A remote bolthole to escape to? Sounds like a writer’s dream! But you’ve actually lived in desolate spots. Does isolation really help creativity? 

LG. It did for me. Or perhaps I should say, it helped with productivity. I lived on Skye for six years – alone for two of them – and produced four novels in that period. Silence is very important to me. I need to be able to hear my imaginary friends talking! I now live in a village near Inverness which is even quieter than my old home on Skye, but I don’t get so much uninterrupted time. I think that’s the key thing: being able to daydream without thoughts being interrupted. To think up a book, I need to get into a meditative state where I can enter an imaginary world and keep asking ‘What if…?’

HMcH. One of the best accolades readers can give is that one’s books are unputdownable. Yours are. What elements in your writing do you think create this quality?  

LG. Thank you, Hazel. I’d given a lot of thought to this, even before I started writing. I first asked the question when I read Margaret Forster’s novels in the ’80s and ’90s. I noticed that if I glanced at p1 of a Forster novel, I couldn’t stop reading. Somehow she made it impossible for me to stop. (If you want to see what I mean, start reading Shadow Baby.) Forster writes commercial literary fiction, so the hook wasn’t action or sensation. I realised it was all to do with style, not content. Forster never wrote a boring sentence, nor an inelegant one. She made her novels really easy to read – so easy, I didn’t think about putting the kettle on or emptying the washing machine, I just kept reading. That’s what makes a book ‘unputdownable’. It’s not just wanting to know what happens next. I edit and polish until my sentences flow. I cut every word that isn’t earning its keep.

But something else that might contribute to the ‘unputdownable’ quality of my books is the fact that I rarely know what’s going to happen when I’m writing and I never know how a book will end. Writing fiction for me is a process of investigation, excavation even. I really want to know what happens next and I’m writing to find out. Maybe some of that curiosity and urgency conveys itself to the reader.

HMcH. I wouldn’t describe your books as romances in the usual sense but, I think I’m right in saying, they all have a romantic element. Some reviewers get sniffy about this kind of tangential reliance on crowd-pleasers. How would you reply to them? 

LG. As I would like to reply to readers who leave me 1-star reviews: ‘I wasn’t writing for you.’

HMcH. Some of your books include ghosts; several of them revolve around haunted (in a looser ‘troubled’ sense) characters. Are these aspects allegorical or simply a plot choice?  

CauldstaneLG. Ghosts or the concept of imaginary people appear in all my books, but I think what’s happened over the years is my interest in the paranormal has moved to the forefront of the story. But the ghosts can also be allegorical. Cauldstane (my latest novel) is my fictional response to my experience of breast cancer – it’s about fear and conquering fear. The malevolent ghost who affects (and infects) an entire family is for me a personification of cancer. Using a ghost as a plot device allowed me to write about my own ghastly experience without scaring off the reader – and that’s important. My first duty is to entertain. Unless I entertain, I’ll have no opportunity to debate or educate.

HMcH. Publishing can be a rather fraught business. You’ve tried several avenues, including latterly, self-publishing. Now you’ve done it, would you stay independent? 

LG. Yes. I can’t imagine any circumstances now where I’d accept a traditional publishing deal. As an indie I’m now earning a decent living from my writing (something I never did when I was traditionally published), but that’s because I keep most of what I earn. To be sure, I’m weary of doing all my own editing, marketing, sales monitoring, etc., but my aim is to earn enough to pay an assistant to do the bits I don’t want to do.

Traditional publishing was coming between my books and their readers. Editors said my novels were ‘unmarketable’. Well, maybe they are, but I don’t market my novels, I market myself. ‘Linda Gillard’ is a brand now. My readers are buying a voice. They expect believable characters and a good yarn. They know I’ll be dealing with something I care about passionately, but the genre – and a lot else besides – might come as a surprise. They don’t mind. They trust me now not to let them down. This is a great privilege for a writer. It means I have the opportunity to experiment in a way that wouldn’t be possible if I were traditionally published.

HMcH. Thank you so much, Linda. And I wish you every success with your new book, Cauldstane, and improved health from here on.

For more information about Linda and her novels visit her website or her Amazon page.

(NB. The links are mine to enable you to find out more about what she says if you feel so inclined; Linda doesn’t talk in weblinks!)

 

 

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Books, lists and preparations

Yesss! I had no less than three good excuses for sitting down for hours with a book In December, when I really should have been busy ticking things off the to-do list glaring at me from my desk. Three cast iron excuses to boot. 1. I’d just had a wisdom tooth extracted, and was under instruction to take things easy for a couple of days. 2. The roads were treacherous with snow and ice making it inadvisable to venture out. 3. The author of the said book is Linda Gillard, and after the year she’s had, I was keen to review her book before Christmas. Which reminds me … 4. The book’s set at Christmas time so the mood was exactly right for reading it in December.

House of SilenceHouse of Silence is Linda’s fourth novel, and although it once again features mental illness and dysfunctional families, it’s otherwise very different from the three earlier ones I’ve read. Good start. As you know, I’m somewhat allergic to formulaic writing.

Gwen Rowland is a wardrobe assistant for film and television productions. She’s good at it too. But she’s alone in the world.

Aunt Sam did booze, Sasha did drugs, and my Uncle Frank did men – boys if he could get them. This unholy trinity went down like ninepins in the ’90s, martyrs to over-indulgence. All three died tragically young of, respectfully, cirrhosis of the liver, a drugs overdose and AIDS … My mother, fond as she was of cliches, would have said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And Sasha did.

Since the death of her mother, Gwen has dreaded Christmas with its appalling memories, and essential loneliness. So she finds it hard to understand why actor-boyfriend Alfie Donovan is reluctant to take her to Norfolk for his family celebrations. He has no choice but to go; it’s his duty to visit his mother and sisters. But why isn’t he appreciative of the richness of his own privilege – not just relatives, but a stately Elizabethan-manor-house home, and celebrity? Why isn’t he keen to share it?

Eventually Gwen wangles an invitation, though Alfie predicts it’ll be her ‘second-worst Christmas‘ ever. She warms instantly to the practical but eccentric sister Viv, and the scatty but creative Hattie, who still live at Creake Hall, but she grows increasingly disturbed by the changes in Alfie. Where is the family affection? What has made Rachel Holbrook, renowned children’s author, and their mother, hide in her room, granting only occasional audiences to visitors? Who is the mysterious gardener, Marek Zbydniewski, who sees right into Gwen’s soul? And what exactly is Hattie trying to tell her?

The cold and cavernous house is full of photographs and portraits, but they aren’t what they purport to be either. The sisters offer explanations for some of the discrepancies, but Gwen is growing increasingly mistrustful of everything about this family. Things just don’t add up. Who are they? And what secrets are they concealing? As she works on one of Hattie’s unfinished patchwork quilts, Gwen unravels more confusion and mystery that take her into a labyrinth of such complexity that the reader has to keep readjusting his or her own compass.

We’ve come to expect richness and depth in her characters from this author, who combines a light touch with thorough attention to detail. This time the layers of authenticity come from psychology, quilting, gardening, writing, acting, music. And although the underlying tale takes us into dark places of the mind, there’s plenty of light and shade, with eccentricities and humour providing the contrast and lifting the spirits.

So, the verdict? I enjoyed the book greatly. No difficulty sitting tight for a day and a half. Although, to be ultra-pernickety, I confess I’d personally have preferred a less tidied-up ending, and far fewer exclamation marks …! Sorry, Linda, but your prose is strong enough not to need them.

OK, review posted, now I can get back to that to-do list.

Decorate the house …decorated fireplaceWrap parcels …parcelsBake cakes … mull wine … Relax! I’m not going to bore you with humdrum domesticity. No, only wish you all peace and happiness whatever the season means to you.

 

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Enterprise writ large

I’m always intrigued by initiatives that create unusual opportunities. And impressed by people who have the vision to see the opportunities in the first place. Two experiences this week warmed the cockles of my heart – whatever cockles are …?

On Saturday I was visiting the Pitlochry area – spectacularly beautiful scenery, as you can see. (SORRY the images in this post were mistakenly deleted and I don’t now have the originals.) And it was there that a secondhand book shop caught my fancy – on the railway station! How cunning is that for an idea? A lovely warm haven from the snell winds that whistle through these open stations. And what an Aladdin’s cave it proved to be with the books all carefully and methodically shelved, and a welcoming cosiness that just enveloped you from the outset. You really wouldn’t care how late the train was here – indeed you’d more likely be so absorbed you’d miss it! On this occasion I had the advantage of visiting in the car, so no problem lugging away my purchases, because of course, I had to support such a brilliant enterprise generously, didn’t I? Anyone got a shoehorn to lever this latest batch of books into my book shelves?

The second notable experience started on Monday with a request for a book review. It came from an author who’s gritty determination to succeed drives her beyond all the obstacles that life throws at her. Lesser mortals might indulge in a spot of lying in a darkened room, bemoaning their lot, leaving all non-essential activity for another year. Not Linda Gillard. She’s already battled mental illness, but this year she’s been through all the mental and physical anguish of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer (documented on her author Facebook pages.) And yet she’s somehow found the energy to promote her own ebooks, House of Silenceso successfully indeed that her latest one, House of Silence, has been selected by Amazon UK for their Top 10 “Best of 2011” in the Indy Author category. Impressive or what? I’m so thrilled for her. This kind of exceptional grit and determination deserves reward. And I’ll certainly be reviewing her book in due course. I’ve read and commented on three of her earlier ones already, so I have high hopes of a great read.

She makes me feel lazy! So what have I been doing this week? Nothing as spectacular as Linda that’s for sure – mainly beavering away at a children’s story and a couple of life-histories; and filling rucksacks for  the charity Mary’s Meals; and making costumes for the annual Christmas play for my grandchildren. And no, before you ask, I haven’t given up on my current novel, Over My Dead Body. The first full draft is completed, but I know it needs two things: added depth with stronger subplots; and tightening up of the writing. I recognise that, but I can’t correct it at the moment. I need to distance myself a bit from it; I’m still too close to the action. It takes a ruthless detachment to home in on the faults, weed out the indulgent phrases, the grammatical anomalies, and the inconsistencies. Which reminds me …

Did you watch the programme about Ian Rankin this week? I was amazed to hear that his editor still does major hatchet jobs on his final drafts. Not just picking up on minor typos but suggesting radical changes to plots and characters. Hello? Somehow I expected a writer of his stature to have learned every trick in the book, and to be his own harshest critic. What do I know?

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Take it as read

It takes a while to catch up with news after a break away, but in this week’s trawl, two headlines in particular caught my attention.

The first was this one: Take it as read – good fiction teaches us how to be human beings, a thoughtful article by Graeme Archer in The Daily Telegraph, where he said:

‘… it’s not the novels where one sees oneself in a character that matter: it’s the ones where you learn to see properly, from the perspective of another. If we don’t see people properly, then we can never empathise with them, and if we can’t empathise with others then we’re not properly human. No matter how socially awkward you are, a great novel will train you to do this.’

Very much the premise upon which I write my own novels.

Indeed, I was thinking about this a lot while I was on holiday in Italy. I took the trusty Kindle well-loaded and managed to read two and a half novels in airports and trains and planes and odd moments of inactivity: Untying the Knot Emotional GeologyEmotional Geology and Untying the Knot both by Linda Gillard, and A Sister’s Gift by Giselle Green. Through these tales I was taken into the lives and minds of characters grappling with mental illness, obsessive personalities, infertility, conflicted family relationships, surrogate pregnancy. Easy reads all (as befits a holiday break), but it’s fair to say they enriched my understanding of the challenges and thinking of other people in these situations. I shan’t ever experience most of these things personally, but I’d like to think I’d have empathy enough should I come into contact with those for whom these things are a lived reality.

The second headline was attached to an article my daughter cut out of the newspaper for me: ‘Why did my brother die in agony?’, subheaded: ‘Terminally ill patients are suffering slow and painful deaths because doctors dare not fall foul of the law against assisted suicide.’  Yep, it instantly grabbed me by the throat, as she knew it would.

Well-known cookery expert, Prue Leith, was describing her brother David’s terminal battle with excruciatingly painful cancer of the bones. When the morphine was doing its job, he was pain-free, joking, and sharing quality time with his wife and four children. But the dosage of morphine was sufficient for only three hours out of every four for which it was prescribed. For that fourth hour he was in agony. The solution seems obvious and simple, doesn’t it? Naturally enough, various relatives appealed, nay, ‘pleaded’, for help. The answer though was what shocked me: the nurses ‘couldn’t’ give any more pain relief. They sympathised, even told the family they would personally be willing to increase the dose, but they were powerless to do so; the law precluded it. They also said, no one admitted these situations existed. (By this time I was at fever pitch!)

Now, of course, no one with warm blood coursing through their veins could fail to be moved by the obvious distress the Leith family all suffered. But the story left me personally feeling frustrated and vexed. This man clearly needed more medication. And it can, it really can be given without breaking the law. Palliative medicine is an extremely well developed discipline; dedicated teams of experts in pain management are fully empowered to administer effective measures (drugs and others treatments) in these circumstances, to ensure ongoing comfort and dignity and a peaceful death. Which they are able to do in all except a limited number of situations. And by Prue’s own admission, David’s pain came into the category of controllable by morphine.

Both the subheading and Prue’s concluding message – ‘The present state of affairs is monstrous. With 80 percent of the population in favour of assisted dying, what are they waiting for?’ – missed the point. It wasn’t assisted death this man needed, it was legal and legitimate, adequate pain relief.

There are indeed exceptional cases where the laws relating to assisted dying need to be challenged (I’ve discussed them at length on this blog in the past), but this is not one of them. Instead of saying they couldn’t give adequate medication, those staff caring for David should have been calling for a man/woman who could. Let’s not confuse the two issues.

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A Lifetime Burning

January was a cracker of a month as far as books were concerned for me this year. And in their different ways they’ve contributed greatly to my own writing (a novel about organ donation) which has taken off again now that other deadlines have been met. The one I want to tell you about this week has given me the courage to take risks. It breaks all sorts of ‘rules’ about writing but nonetheless – or is it as a result? – garners praise.

It’s thanks to bloggers Stuck-in-a-Book and Cornflower that I heard about  A Lifetime BurningA Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard in the first place. Then the blurb about it took me hotfoot to Amazon to buy it.

‘Flora Dunbar is dead. But it isn’t over.

The spectre at Flora’s funeral is Flora herself, unobserved by her grieving family and the four men who loved her. Looking back over a turbulent lifetime, Flora recalls an eccentric childhood lived in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a handsome clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brought her Theo, the son she couldn’t love; middle age, when she finally found brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin…’

The Kindle version was only 88p! Positively scandalous for a novel as good as this one.

The prologue is narrated by Flora, a tortured soul, reflecting on her life after her death. There’s no carefully paced introduction of each new character to avoid confusion; the entire cast are there in one fell swoop – at Flora’s funeral.  And the author even gives away key elements of the coming plot right at the outset. You are left in no doubt: this is going to be an uncomfortable read.

‘Theodora Dunbar, matriarch, known always as Dora, is ninety-three. Only my mother could manage to look commanding in a wheelchair … Dora’s wheelchair is manoeuvred by one of her grandsons, Colin. My ex-lover. My nephew. My brother Rory’s son – like Rory, but much darker …

Theo. My son. At thirty-four, a few months older than Colin, taller, fairer, finer-featured and always said to favour me. Everyone agreed Theo’s Apollonian good looks owed little to Hugh. Theo is a Dunbar through and through …

My niece Charlotte is not present. She is on the other side of the globe, the distance she thought necessary to put between herself and my son …

Grace hated me. I can’t say I blamed her. She had good reason. Several, in fact. But if you asked my gracious sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, relieved him of the burden of his virginity, chewed him up and spat him out on the admittedly sizeable scrap-heap marked ‘Flora’s ex-lovers’. That’s what Grace would say. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.’

But far from stealing the coming thunder prematurely, this tantalising glimpse into a complex family structure where nothing is as it seems, and where powerful emotions and talents lead to complicated and unlawful liaisons, serves as an irresistible promise of the haunting and disturbing story to come. And the book certainly lives up to that promise.

It’s well written as well as cleverly constructed. Flora’s posthumous revelations interwoven with third person narrative keep the story spinning along. The setting spans six decades – from the 1940s to 2000, and the story dots backwards and forwards in time. Initially I found this disconcerting. You’re just getting involved with the twins as children when the fifty-eight year old Flora interrupts. You’re sympathising with Dora’s struggles with her toddler twins when the scene flashes forwards a generation to her daughter’s confused feelings for her son. But once you get to know the characters, you start to appreciate how effectively and subtly the author is steering you towards an understanding of the ‘why’, as well as the ‘how’, of the Dunbar family shenanigans. This has to be a fiendishly difficult kind of writing to pull off successfully; in the case of A Lifetime Burning it’s a brilliant accomplishment.

The Dunbar characters are fully rounded, fallible, and utterly believable. They’re often objectionable and their behaviour leaves you torn between all sorts of emotions – incredulity, acceptance, revulsion, pity, sympathy, dismay, admiration, disgust. At once gripping and disturbing. And the title is perfect (shame it’s been used by several other authors though).

Gillard weaves apparently effortlessly between a wide range of subjects too – music, literature, Shakespeare, gardening, acting, horticulture, wildlife. A master of each.

To date the book’s got 28 comments on Amazon all with a 5 star rating! I too am lost in admiration of this writer’s skill. I’ve downloaded two more of her novels but am loathe to start reading them just yet in case they don’t reach this incredibly high standard. Could they?

And there’s a wee postscript … I reviewed this book on Goodreads this week and to my delight the author herself saw it and contacted me, so we’ve now established several links and I was able to tell her that this post was coming. An unexpected bonus. I should post more reviews obviously.

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