Book Review: The Lost Girls of Foxfield hall by Jessica Thorne

The Lost Girls of Foxfield Hall is a dual timeline story with part of it set in the present day, where Megan is trying to restore the overgrown maze behind the hall, and the other part set in WW2 where Eleanor is trying to take picture of the Green Lady (the ghost at the heart of the maze). The maze is dark and magical and one day Megan and Eleanor meet. When Megan later discovers that Eleanor went missing, just days after the time when she’d seen her, Megan has to unravel the mystery of what happened so that she can have a hope of stopping it from harming Eleanor. But she’s messing with forces that are far, far older and far, far more dangerous than she realises.

The mystery was gripping. Megan is a great character and her preoccupation with her own brothers disappearance (he’s MIA from a more modern war) feed into her need to save Eleanor from disappearing. There is a gentle romance between Megan and Nora, but the main thrust of the book is about saving Eleanor.
I found the book tense and a little bit frightening in places (in a good fantasy scary kind of way). But then, I find corn dollies very creepy at the best of times. It reminded me a little of books like The Children of Green Knowe and The Dark is Rising, which I loved reading as a child. I’d almost forgotten how much I loved that kind of real world/ magic blend.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I’d love to read more of this sort of thing.
I got beta read an early version of this book and then re-read a review copy from Netgalley.

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Masterclass.com for writers – a review

Masterclass for Writers – is an annual pass worth it?

I’m coming to the end of a Masterclass annual pass that I bought last year and I’ve been meaning to review the classes I took. So here they are. Note, the links to Masterclass are NOT affiliate links (I applied, they rejected my application!). I really enjoyed the courses, so I thought I’d share. The links to Amazon are affiliate links and if you click through, I get a few pence (but it doesn’t cost you anything extra).

First of all, what is Masterclass.com? – it is a streaming service, where you can take courses, delivered by celebrity experts, on a variety of creative subjects. If you’re wanting to learn welding or difficult maths, they (probably) won’t help you. But if you want to learn about the more creative side of things, it’s bang on target.

Each course is about 4 to six hours long, delivered in bite size ‘lessons’ that range in length from about 4 minutes to about 25 minutes. I used to watch them while having lunch, when a half an hour lesson is exactly the right length. You can watch the lessons at 1.5 speed or double speed, if that’s what works for you. 

The courses are delivered by celebrity experts. They are famous for doing what they do. It’s probably worth noting that they are not necessarily experts at teaching what they do. I found that some were brilliant and I took away a lot of notes. Others, not so much. All of them were inspiring.

The cost is £170 ($180) for an annual pass – there is a payment plan too. Or you could buy a single class for £90/ $90. If you’re going to do more than one class, it’s well worth getting the annual pass. 

By the way, the default is for the annual subscription to auto renew after one year. There is a cancel button on your account profile. You can ask them to send you a reminder 30 days before it auto renews. Or,  you could buy yourself an annual pass as a gift voucher (which will last 365 days from the day you activate it, rather than the day you paid for it) and that will just run out after a year. If I were to get another annual pass, I’ll probably do that, because I’m forgetful.

I’ll start with the various writers’ classes that I took.

Neil Gaiman – Masterclass on the Art of Storytelling

This was the reason I signed up for the Masterclass annual pass. I find Neil Gaiman’s work completely immersive and I’m in awe of the way he thinks. The Masterclass is fun. He talks about his process and a little bit about how he works up his ideas. The class reinforces the fact that only Neil Gaiman can write like Neil Gaiman (which is fair). I didn’t take many notes, but the course was inspiring in some undefinable way.

Dan Brown – Masterclass on writing Thrillers

I’ve read a few of Dan Brown’s books and I find them very compelling. I wanted to learn how to write books that had a page turning quality. Did he teach that? Well, yes, he did. I have pages and pages of notes from this class. He talks about the tools and techniques of writing. He talks about suspense and how he creates it. I may not agree with some of them (e.g. as a reader, I hate it when a character notices something that surprises them but doesn’t tell the reader what it is), but I now know what they are and I can think about how to adapt them for my own storytelling. Highly recommend this one. 9 pages of notes

David Baldacci – Masterclass on Mystery and Thriller Writing

I haven’t read anything by David Baldacci (partly because I thought it might be too violent for my tastes), but now I really want to read one. He talks about the tools used to add suspense. He also talks about character development in long running series. His section about the business of being a writer is brilliant. Another one that I highly recommend. 2 pages of notes, but lots of overlap with Dan Brown.

Shonda Rhimes – Masterclass on Writing for Television

This is about writing for television, which is a completely different skill set to writing novels, but it is about storytelling in long arcs. Once again, I haven’t seen any of the shows (I watched a few clips on YouTube to familiarise myself with the characters – besides which, everyone knows what Gray’s Anatomy is about, right?). 

My favourite take away from this one was that your characters have to happen to things and remember that actors need screen time.

 I learned a lot about the 5 acts of a television show and about mapping A, B and C storylines in one hour long episode. I also learned about the stages involved in getting a TV show produced. I didn’t know any of this stuff (arguably, I don’t need to know any of it), so it was an eye opening set of lessons. At the end, there is a workshop where Shonda takes a script from one of her episodes (the Papa Pope episode in Scandal) and breaks it down into acts with a group. I found this really interesting. You got to see the structure of the episode emerge on a whiteboard. Amazing. 12 pages of notes.

Completely unrelated, I loved her outfits.

David Sedaris – Masterclass on Storytelling and Humour

This one should have been right up my street. I love listening to David Sedaris (I feel his voice and speaking style really adds to experience). The masterclass is good in that he tells you what he does. Like Neil Gaiman, it’s more inspiring than educational. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish this course. 5 lines of notes.

Aaron Sorkin – Masterclass on Screenwriting

I have not seen The West Wing (well, I’ve seen two episodes), but I love Studio 60. There was a wealth of interesting and useful stuff in this class. There are a few table reads, where he talks some students through their pilot episodes. This was really interesting because you got to see the questions he asked of them when he heard their opening scenes. Towards the end, they break a new fantasy episode of The West Wing. Seeing the mechanics of how they build the story from the ground up was eye opening. Highly recommended. 8 pages of notes.

Margaret Attwood – Masterclass on Creative Writing

I have only read one of her books (The Blind Assassin) and I really enjoyed that. I also like that she’s a literary fiction author who writes science fiction and doesn’t talk down to genre fiction. [In fact, she addresses this directly at one point – literary and genre are marketing distinctions. It’s not for the writer to worry about. Just write the best book you can]. I listened to most of this one night lying down in a dark room because I had a migraine, so I didn’t take notes (although, I did have an idea in the middle of and had to find a piece of paper to write it down). I’d say this was an inspiring and practical guide to being a novelist. If you’re familiar with story, you’ll know most of it. If you’re new, it’s brilliant.

Mira Nair – Masterclass on  Independent filmmaking

Okay, another one that doesn’t have that much to do with writing, but I love her work (especially Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, both of which gave me the confidence to write This Stolen Life). This is about storytelling in a different medium. The people aspect of directing was fascinating, especially the practical scene where she pretty much pulls a super emotional performance out of an actor. Really interesting. 4 pages of notes

James Patterson – Masterclass on Writing

I wasn’t intending to watch this – I’ve read a couple of JP’s books but wouldn’t consider myself a fan. I caught a short part of one and found him, as a person, incredibly engaging. Seriously, he is so easy to listen to! 

This is another nuts and bolts course. Very solid with useful takeaways. I genuinely enjoyed all of it! 2 pages of notes. 

Other random courses that I took (you know, for fun):

Steve Martin – Masterclass on Comedy

Another one that’s inspiring. There are some great anecdotes, but not much that you can apply directly. But then again, I’m not a standup comedian, so maybe I missed some stuff. No notes.

Sara Blakely  – the founder of Spanx – Masterclass on Self-made Entrepreneurship

I wanted to watch this because my day job is university tech transfer – taking new inventions and working out where the market is. I wanted to find out how someone took one good idea and turned it into a global empire. Sara has a level of hustle that I don’t think I could manage. By the end of the class, I was properly in awe of her. I genuinely enjoyed this. It’s got nothing to do with writing, however, so YMMV. 11 pages of notes

Chris Voss – Masterclass on Negotiation

I stumbled across this one by accident. I watched one episode and was hooked. It’s very compelling. I’m not sure I’d manage to apply most of these techniques (I guess I’d have to practice a lot), but at least now I’d recognise a negotiation technique when it’s being used on me. I don’t mean that it would put me off, people being engaged and willing to negotiate without being antagonistic can only be a good thing. Anyway, fascinating stuff. 

As you can see, there’s a huge variety of famous people that you can take lessons from. Each class comes with a workbook, which has exercises and notes that follow on from the classes. You can download these as PDFs to work through later.

I’ve only looked at the classes that  interested me as a writer. There’s classes on science (Chris Hadfield! Neil Degrasse Tyson!), cooking, game design, economic theory, magic … with more being added on a regular basis. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably something in there of interest. 

As a writer, I think what you get out of it might depend on where you are in your writing journey. If you’re quite new, you’ll find TONS of useful stuff – absolutely bucketloads of it. If you’ve been writing for a while and know the basic things about storytelling,  you’ll pick up a few nuggets here and there. I enjoyed seeing how the best people work. I really enjoyed learning about writing for screen, which is not something I do. I picked up some interesting techniques that will help me when I think about story for the next book. 

Is there a ‘best’ way to do a Masterclass?

I tended to watch the lessons one after the other, making notes if I felt I needed to remember something. It was a sort of binge watch. I’m not sure it was the best way to get value from them. On the one hand, the information pours in (and I like that), on the other hand, there isn’t time to fully absorb. I think it might be better to watch each lesson, then do the exercises. I also didn’t engage as much as I could have in the forums. If I’d had more time on a daily basis, I would have, because with forums you tend to get more out of them if you participate regularly. 

Some of the tutors do ‘office hours’ – where you can email them a question and they will send a reply within a day or two. 

I really enjoyed my year of doing Masterclass lessons. I could have done many more courses, but I had to do inconvenient things like sleeping and feeding the kids. Still, I like to think I got my money’s worth.

Have you tried Masterclass.com? Which ones did you do?

Book Review: A Seagull Summer by Jane Lovering

A Seagull Summer
A Seagull Summer by Jane Lovering

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leah is in Dorset collecting seaweed samples for her research. She’s socially awkward and possibly not neurotypical. She’s really, really bad at talking to people.
Brendon is a Australian tourist who is visiting the area trying to find out what happened to his great-grandfather. He has absolutely no problem talking to people. He’s the ray of sunshine that Leah is not.
Brendon is terrified of seagulls. Roger is a hand-reared seagull who has taken a shine to Leah.
Leah is a person with a lot of baggage and the reasons why she is like she is are revealed slowly as the story progresses. The supporting characters are realistic (and sometimes funny) as they always are in Jane Lovering’s books.
There were some very dramatic parts and some bits that made me laugh out loud. I really enjoyed reading this book.
I received a review copy of this book from Netgalley.

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Book review: Get a Life Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Get a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters, #1)Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. I loved how measured Chloe was and how her disability was depicted – not just how she felt, but how she adapted everything to live her life. I loved the family dynamic between the sisters too.
Red is a big scary tattooed biker dude, but is an artist at heart. I liked how his experience of an abusive relationship was portrayed because ‘abuse’ covers so much more than one person beating up another.

Warm, witty and funny. I had fun reading this.

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RoNA Awards 2020

At the start of this week, I went to the RoNA Awards 2020. As you probably know, my novel A Convenient Marriage, written as Jeevani Charika, was shortlisted for the Contemporary Romantic Fiction Novel award. Since it was a very Sri Lankan book that was nominated, I wore a sari and the bling.

Bella Osborne, me, Jules Wake, Sophie Kinsella, Sue Moorcroft, Victoria Walters and Carole Matthews

I didn’t win (sob), but I had a great time. It really helped that I had enjoyed the book that DID win (A Summer to Remember by Sue Moorcroft – which I’ve reviewed here). My friend Jenni Fletcher also won her category with Miss Amelia’s Mistletoe Marquess – which I’m reading at the moment.

Cover showing brown henna patterned hands, making a heart shape

It was a lovely ceremony. I was on the same table as Anton Du Beke off the telly, who was unfailingly charming. Milly Johnson, who got an Outstanding Acheivement award, gave the most amazing speech that moved us all to tears. You can see the full speech on YouTube.

I’m back at home now and glad to be back. Now I need to get on with writing the next book.

A Convenient Marriage – the book that took 17 years to get to you

Cover showing brown henna patterned hands, making a heart shape

A Convenient Marriage is published by Hera Books today. This book was about seventeen years in the making. I wrote a Twitter thread on it a few weeks ago, which people seemed to like, so I’ve expanded on it here.

Cover showing brown henna patterned hands, making a heart shape

Every writing career starts with one big idea. My big idea was about an arranged marriage between two people who would never be able to fall in love with each other. I had the idea in my early twenties, when my friends from Sri Lanka were getting married and a friend from Oxford told me a story about a man who was in love with another man, but couldn’t leave his wife because he was scared he’d lose his kids (this was the late 90s).

When I was a grad student, I tried to do a bit of creative writing for fun. Gimhana arrived fully formed in the middle of writing exercise, ice clinking in his whiskey tumbler. Chaya, with her weird tics and alphabetised medicine cabinet, turned up soon after.  

They were two Sri Lankans living in England, who couldn’t fall in love with someone ‘suitable’ and ended up married to each other. The story was of their marriage. Of course, I couldn’t write it then, because I was writing a thesis, but it grew in my head.

In 2002, I handed in my thesis and got a job. Now that I have my evenings back, I took a creative writing evening class. My project was this book. I started a folder on my computer called The Novel… because I thought there would only be one book!

2003 and 2006 I learned my craft writing short stories. They were not GOOD short stories, because they were really slice of life vignettes, but they taught me to write. Later, in another creative writing class, I met two like minded people and we formed a critique group. 2000 words had to be produced two weeks out of every three. Accountability is key. 

The book was written in evenings and weekends. I edited it and sent it to agents (by post!). I got a lot of nice rejections. Just as I was about to give up, I got one that said ‘the writing is good, but I don’t know where I’d sell this’ (Thank you to the late Dorothy Lumley, whose handwritten note kept me going).

2006/7 I found the RNA and joined the New Writer’s Scheme. I sent the book in. I got a three page review back (thanks Sue Moorcroft) telling me I needed to work on structure. She also told me I was trying too hard to write a serious book when I had a comedic voice crying to be let out and suggested I tried writing something for fun. 

I bought books on plot and structure. So many. I wrote a book for fun. I had a blast writing it and the enjoyment shows in the writing. This book was Girl On The Run. It was published under the name Rhoda Baxter in 2012 (it was first published by Uncial Press, as Patently in Love and later by Choc Lit). I wrote ten other books (12, if you count unpublished ones). Every so often, I’d edit book 1.

In 2018, I signed a two book deal with Hera Books. The first book was This Stolen Life, A Convenient Marriage was the second. 

2019, I did a major rewrite. I took lots of scenes out in order to keep the story moving.  It went from being single POV book to dual POV. It was also no longer a romance, but women’s fiction with two love stories in it. I’d never written a gay POV character before, so I found someone to beta read (thank you Liam Livings!). Liam’s notes made Gimhana shine. He suggested giving Gimhana a secret pleasure, which gave me an excuse to write about Jem and the Holograms, yay! 

In the editing stage, Keshini Naidoo’s notes suggested that I put back some of the scenes I’d taken out (it was a super fast edit, because all the extra stuff was already written). Reading it through at proof stage, I still love the characters and story. 

November 2019 – A Convenient Marriage is now out. It has taken nearly 17 years from start to finish. If there’s a lesson in this, it’s ‘never give up on a project you believe in’. 

This is the book of my heart. I hope you like it.

Cover Reveal for A Convenient Marriage

Book cover for A Convenient Marriage. Red background, hands with henna patterns, A South Asian couple in silhouette.

My new book A Convenient Marriage (written as Jeevani Charika) is coming out on the 14th of November. I started writing this book in 2002/2003. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, so I’m very excited about it.

Here’s the blurb:

It was the perfect marriage… until they fell in love.

Chaya is a young woman torn between her duty to family and her life in the UK. While her traditional Sri Lankan parents want her to settle down into marriage, what they don’t know is that Chaya has turned away the one true love of her life, Noah, terrified of their disapproval.

Gimhana is hiding his sexuality from his family. It’s easy enough to pretend he’s straight when he lives half a world away in the UK. But it’s getting harder and harder to turn down the potential brides his parents keep finding for him.

When Chaya and Gimhana meet, a marriage of convenience seems like the perfect solution to their problems. Together they have everything – friendship, stability and their parents’ approval. But when both Chaya and Gimhana find themselves falling in love outside of their marriage, they’re left with an impossible decision – risk everything they’ve built together, or finally follow their heart?

One Night In Shining Armour – new short story

Last year, while I was in the midst of writing A Convenient Marriage (more on that soon, I promise), I decided I needed a break, so I wrote a very silly short story about a hero who was shorter than the heroine. It’s a friends to lovers story which involves an office costume party, a wardrobe malfunction and some truly terrible knight puns.

An early reviewer called it a ‘romance canape’. I like that description.

If you want to check it out it’s 99p at all good ebook retailers. Why not have a quick read to cheer up your lunch break.

This Stolen Life is on the Not The Booker longlist

Eeep! This Stolen Life (written as my alter ego Jeevani Charika) is on the longlist for the Not The Booker. Every year, alongside the Booker Prize, The Guardian newspaper runs a parallel competition, where the books are nominated by readers. It’s not so much a competition as a bit of fun and a chance to make some noise about your favourite books.

The longlist is whittled down to a shortlist by popular vote. So if you’ve read This Stolen Life, I’d love to have one of your two votes. Voting closes on the 5th of August, which is really very soon!

Here’s the link: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2019/jul/29/not-the-booker-longlist-vote-now-to-decide-the-2019-shortlist

If not, I’d appreciate a review left on your favourite book shop/ ebook shop site.

Have a great weekend!

Rhoda