Writing update: One Scheme of Happiness

cover image AmazonOne week tomorrow my debut novel will be published. It’s been a long wait, but finally the day is nearly here – Thursday February 27th. I can’t believe how great an experience it has been with Retreat West Books who’ve supported me all the way from first meeting to discuss the book through the whole editing process to choosing the cover and promoting the novel via social media.

Some initial reviews have already come back and I’m happy to say they’re very positive.  It’s odd enough knowing friends and family are reading your work … What I hadn’t expected was how unnerving it is to let your novel loose into the world for strangers to read. But that makes enthusiastic comments even more welcome! Here are a couple…

Emma Rowson @rowsonemma1 :

Manipulation seeps from every pore of this novel, its domestic, small Northern town backdrop featuring the ever-present lighthouse, a veneer of normality against a complicated woman and her scheme to recapture the happiness she feels she is owed. An exceptionally beautifully written book – One Scheme of Happiness is without doubt an early contender for my Top Reads of 2020.

Amanda Huggins @troutiemcfish :

The novel explores what happens when someone will do almost anything to get the thing they think they want. What appears to be a straightforward love triangle turns out to be something much more complex and much less predictable – no one is who they first appear to be – and Helen’s life spins out of control as she begins to self-destruct.

One Scheme of Happiness draws you in from the start and doesn’t let you go. A confident and accomplished debut.

Thank you so much for such great reviews!



The Collective Nouns for Birds: a review

The Collective Noun for Birds Amanda Huggins

In this beautiful, very accomplished first poetry collection, Amanda Huggins demonstrates a range of concerns, from growing up to love and loss all interlinked by the sea.  Whatever theme she is examining her language is precise and evocative with no word wasted.

Out Chasing Boys focuses on that innocent time of adolescence when ‘we revered those rake-limbed lads / … as though they were gods’, and in The New Knowing there’s the sense of expectancy and hope which is so acute at that age, when the narrator and her friend know that ‘life will be good and worth the wait.’ Again, in Dizzy With It, she evokes an intense feeling of life opening up to all kinds of possibilities – if they practise playing their instruments enough she and her friend are convinced they could become rock stars, while the reader is aware of the limitations life imposes.

The theme of loss is palpable in a poignant poem, The Names of Seaweed and Collective Nouns for Birds, where lists of impossible-sounding seaweeds and birds are used to remember a father who worked at sea and obviously loved language, in the poem ‘drowning with the names still on his tongue’. In another poem the possible loss of a partner is skilfully evoked in one precise image: ‘four small nails… ‘ which have been left on the kitchen table are ‘weightless, featherlight, yet sharp as loss’. This precise use of imagery is a strength that is evident throughout the collection – in Scars, a list of ordinary childhood scars is suddenly shifted into altogether more sinister territory when the most recent mark on the skin is ‘a square of flesh / incised, removed and cauterised / … I watch it fade with hope.’ Here the subtle play on words suggests both the fading of the scar and the fading of hope.

All I Can Offer paints a double image of the sea as a force of change where ‘jewels of clouded sea glass’ offer hope that grief will fade while at the same time, knowing that we have no control over it ‘wrestling in vain with restless tides’; a lovely line where the sibilance echoes the sound of the sea itself. Later in the collection a poem about the death of a cat at the vets is delicate and moving: ‘So brief a life, so brief a death.’

While the dominant theme of this collection may be loss, there are also moments of wry humour – old ways of living are mourned when people from the city buy second homes by the sea and ‘paint over the past / with Farrow and Ball’. Or the poet recalls a relationship that came to nothing when she meets an old boyfriend, Chris Clarke-with-an-e, at a wedding whose ‘kisses stung my lips / with the tang of sherbet lemons’. In a poem which reminded me strongly of Helen Dunmore’s posthumously published collection, Inside the Wave, Amanda Huggins uses her mother’s love of changing light to pinpoint a sense of mourning, travelling from a memory of saving insects from drowning in a pond in Italy, to imagining how her mother would, if she were there, talk of ‘the gold-green light of an English afternoon’.

The Collective Nouns for Birds is a very accessible and enjoyable poetry collection which will also withstand several re-readings. Amanda Huggins’ poems are technically proficient, sensitive and full of pathos. A strong first collection.


Writing update: One Scheme of Happiness


cover image Amazon

Well… it’s a long time since I’ve posted anything here. Mainly because I’ve been in the middle of moving house… downsizing from a massive Edwardian semi with far too many bedrooms and bathrooms to a cosy 2 bed flat. Two weeks before Christmas is an extremely mad time of the year to move, and there was so much to get rid of, but it’s done and I love it.

The main news is that my novel, One Scheme of Happiness will be published next month so I’ve been redrafting and editing to get it ready for publication. I can’t believe it’s finally going to happen. So ridiculously excited! 27 February is the big day when it will be available to order online from the publisher, Retreat West Books or from bookshops. Of course there are always the usual tax-dodging suspects… which you’ll only turn to as a last resort.

Many thanks to the amazing team at Retreat West who are taking such care of me and my story. I couldn’t wish for a better experience for my first novel.

Writing update

Counting down to next February 2020 when my book One Scheme of Happiness is due to be published… Only four months and not so long ago it was 18 months and felt so far in the future it would almost never happen. Like a small child waiting for Christmas, the days and weeks stretched ahead over an impossibly long time.

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So, to whet your appetite and satisfy your curiosity, sign up to get updates from my publisher, Retreat West. I’m thrilled to be working with Amanda Saint who set Retreat West up in 2012. As well as finding out about the latest projects and books there are writing competitions, writing advice and much more!

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The Dutch House – a review

The Dutch House

Certainly the best novel I’ve read this year. Profound, moving and thought-provoking, this is Ann Patchett’s masterpiece.

The Dutch House is an exploration of family that raises important questions about how far anyone can ever come to terms with early trauma. In a cast of vividly memorable characters it is also the descriptions of the house itself that stayed with me. There are echoes of Scott Fitzgerald in the achingly sad image of a brother and sister constantly returning to sit in a car so they can look through the gates of what used to be their family home.

Highly recommended.

The Song of Peterloo – review

The song of peterlooYou may not have heard of the Peterloo massacre but it’s a piece of political and social history that deserves to be remembered. 2019 marks 200 years since unarmed mill workers in Manchester, protesting against poor and dangerous working conditions and demanding representation in parliament, were killed and injured by an unstable and ill-led militia, fresh from the Napoleonic wars. Following the Battle of Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated it became known as the Peterloo massacre, and, although the government of the day was more than satisfied that order had been re-established, it was the start of a movement against political corruption and led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian.

Carolyn O’Brien’s dramatic and engaging historical novel takes the events that led up to the 16th August, 1819 but keeps her focus on one young mill worker, Nancy Kay. Deserted by her drunk husband, she works in the mill and looks after an ailing mother as well as bringing up her ‘delicate’ son, Walter. When a child is maimed in a factory accident, the reader is drawn into a world of cruelty, inequality and the sheer will to survive. The story is told from a variety of points of view: Nancy’s friend, Mary who always looks out for Nancy and her family; the reforming mill owner, Samson, recently released from the army who sets up a school for child-workers and Joseph, who falls for Nancy but is morally unscrupulous. Nancy herself is a feisty, strong heroine gradually becoming more radicalised as working conditions deteriorate and food is scarce. She wants to protect her family and the only way she can do this is by joining others who want reform.

It’s clear from the beginning that in spite of the workers’ determination to be peaceful events will end in tragedy, but strong, imaginative writing with voices and dialects across the social classes keeps the reader intrigued and engaged. We want to know what will happen to Nancy and her hopes for change.

I particularly admire Carolyn O’Brien’s choice to give us an unconventional character in Nancy’s son, Walter. In spite of his unusual behaviour he is always loved and protected by his family, and Nancy demonstrates ways of keeping him calm and happy in impossibly difficult situations where they are threatened with increasing poverty and starvation. Nowadays he would be described as being on the autistic spectrum.

The tragedy of Peterloo still reverberates today when our political freedoms are once again under threat. I haven’t seen Mike Leigh’s 2018 film, Peterloo, but this compelling novel has made me want to know more about an almost forgotten chapter in history that should be part of the school curriculum. The courage of ordinary workers like Nancy should be remembered. The Song of Peterloo resonates long after you finish reading it.



Writing update

This editing malarkey is a fascinating process. My lovely publisher has given me an editorial report so I know what needs to go, what needs to be improved and what (gulp!) extra chapters need to be written… But it’s not the straightforward process I was imagining (call me naive or what). Really it’s more: add a bit of this, tone down that and start that bit from the beginning. Kind of organic- the way most British towns have grown, rather than planned from the beginning. On the positive I guess I won’t end up with Milton Keynes.