WHAT MAKES A GOOD BOOK CLUB READ?


I was thrilled to see The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood on this list of best book club reads which appears in today’s Woman and Home magazine. There are some cracking books on this list – I’ve read 12 of them. Oddly enough, only two of were for my book club, although there are others on the list that we’ve all read independently and so we’ve talked about them anyway.

So what makes a good book club read? This is what Woman and Home has to say:  ‘A great book club book is one That you don’t simply read and then place back on your shelf to gather dust, but thrust into the hands of your friends and family, urging them that they must read it, too, because you are absolutely desperate to talk about it with someone. These are the stories that lend themselves perfectly to being the very best book club books.’

I would agree with most of that, and I certainly hope that it’s the reason The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood often comes up as a great book club read. But I think another important factor is that  there needs to be something a little unusual, possibly even controversial about the book; something that’s going to spark a good discussion.

In my opinion, great book club book is not necessarily one that everyone has loved. It’s great to read a book that everyone loves, but it’s no good if you then just have another glass of wine,and says, ‘Cheers, great book, we’re all agreed.’

The discussions

There are seven of us in our book club, and while there certainly have been books we’ve all loved and have had great discussions about – Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus springs to mind, also, The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. There have also been books that we’ve felt to be deeply flawed but which we’ve still enjoyed reading, and which have sparked long and interesting discussions.  Then there are the books we disagreed on, the ‘I loved it’ versus the ‘I couldn’t even finish it’ books.  It is perhaps these books that have sparked some of the longest and most stimulating discussions!

Once, we even had reasonably interesting (though obviously fairly short) discussion about a book we all hated so much we actually sacked it off before we even met for book club!  The very fact that we broke the ‘no discussion before the meeting’ rule is an indication of how much we hated this book. And no,  I’m not going to name it, because why would you?

our book club

A few other details about our book club: we usually meet in pubs so that no-one Feels they have to ‘host’ the meeting. Although we do meeting each other’s houses from time to time – if it’s tricky for someone to get out, for example, or special occasions such as Christmas or someone’s birthday. At the moment, of course, we are meeting virtually, through Skype. It’s still fun, and we still drink wine ( of course) but it’s not quite the same.

We take it in turns to choose the books, and we always supply a choice of three or four. Then everyone votes, and we go for the favorite.

I am enormously flattered that all of my books have been considered good ‘bookclub books’,  with  The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood perhaps being the most discussed, and The Things We Never Said  coming a close second.

I love hearing from book clubs who discussed my books – especially if they really liked them! I’ve also loved being invited To come along to book clubs and give a talk/answer questions about my books. Obviously, this was back in the days when we didn’t have to socially distance – let’s hope those days return very soon!

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think makes a great book club book!

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, Please have a good look around my website

 

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 4

In Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m re-posting the 4-part piece I wrote leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood   last year. It’s about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the fourth and final post . To read from the start, just scroll down for parts one, two and three.

Moving from psychosis to depression

After breaking down in front of the health visitor, I was diagnosed with PND, but I was still breastfeeding so I didn’t want to take anti-depressants, and by that time, the really scary symptoms had gone anyway. My GP was wonderful, and when I told her how frequently Emma was waking, she said, ‘The first thing we need to do is to get you a good night’s sleep.’ She prescribed something to help Emma sleep for longer. I’m sure this would be frowned upon today, but it was a turning point for me. That night, Emma slept for six hours, and when I woke I leapt out of bed and rushed to her room, convinced she must have died in the night!

When my son James was born two years later, I had a brief resurgence of the PND, and I became paranoid about nuclear war again, but I didn’t have those other symptoms that made me fear I was losing my mind. There are very few photographs of me as a new mother, and I can’t remember why – maybe I just didn’t want to be seen.

One of the very few photos of me as a new mum. This was James’ christening

Post-natal mental health issues are still not talked about enough, and back then they were barely talked about at all, which is probably why I’d never even heard of postpartum psychosis. I was vaguely aware of postnatal depression, but I knew little about it and felt slightly ashamed when I was diagnosed – other women had ‘baby blues‘ and got over it within a few days, so why was I so weak? I was embarrassed. I told no one except my sister and my husband, and ten years later, he tried to use it against me during our divorce, bringing it up as ‘evidence’ that the reason I’d taken the children and left him was that I was ‘mad’ (I left because of his controlling behavior and emotional abuse).

Trying to raise awareness

Much later still, I was happily remarried and making a new life. I trained as a magazine journalist, specialising in health and parenting and contributing regularly to women’s magazines, and the parenting and baby mags. I placed features on many different topics, but I couldn’t get anyone to take a piece on postnatal depression. It was important, I argued, to raise awareness. If new parents and their families recognised the symptoms of PND and the circumstances that might lead to it, there would be more chance of the mums receiving support and treatment.

A common response was, ‘we don’t want to frighten new mums’. I understood that, but it was my contention that if women were more prepared for the possibility that the first weeks of motherhood may not be as joyous as they’d been led to expect, they might actually feel less frightened by and ashamed of what was happening to them. I believed – still believe now – that the enormity of childbirth and the impact of new motherhood is massively underestimated. Not only does your body go through a major trauma, often resulting in minor or even serious injury, but there is also a major emotional upheaval and a dramatic change in lifestyle.

Too tired to smile

Back in the 80s when I gave birth, and even in the early 2000s when I was in magazine journalism, the baby books and magazines didn’t prepare women for any of this. The mum and baby shots you’d find in their pages were likely to make you feel inadequate and guilty. In those first weeks I barely had the energy to shower, let alone do my hair and makeup. The mums and babies in the photos were serene and smiling, but my baby seemed to cry all the time and I was way too tired to smile.

How different are things today?

I often wonder what would have happened if I’d given birth in the age of the Internet and social media. Maybe I would have Googled ‘hallucinations’ or ‘I can’t sleep because I’m scared my baby might die’ and found that I wasn’t the only one. Maybe things would have been easier if I could have chatted online with another mum at four in the morning when my baby wouldn’t stop crying and I was on my knees through lack of sleep. As it was, my best friend, who also had a young baby, lived too far away for me to get to easily. We’d talk on the phone, but during the day when things didn’t seem as bad anyway. Today, I’m guessing I would go on social media in the middle of the night to see who else was up, to compare notes and understand that I wasn’t alone.

Or maybe it would have been just as bad. Maybe Facebook would have shown me even more photos of perfect mothers and smiling babies than the magazines did. I’ve heard so many young mums today saying their friends seem to cope better than they do. Is it more likely to make you feel inadequate if the perfect mums in the photos are your friends? Maybe you’re even less likely to confide in them if they’re regularly posting photographic evidence of their maternal brilliance.

What if, behind those Facebook posts, some of those mums are really crying and desperate but afraid to say so because they think they’re the only ones?

Spread the word!

I truly think we can go some way towards improving the situation for new parents by talking more about the possibility that things won’t be as wonderful as they may have hoped, at least, not for the first few weeks. Both parents may struggle to cope with sleep deprivation and the change in lifestyle. New mothers may even develop a postnatal mental illness which could be mild, moderate, or even severe.

I still don’t understand why it’s such a taboo – talking about it doesn’t make it happen. It’s so important to recognise the possibility, and if you spot the symptoms, to get help, whether it’s for yourself, or for someone else.

I hope you’ve found these posts interesting and even helpful. I also hope you’ll read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood which, while inspired and informed by my own experience, is a fictional story about people who never existed. Maybe stories are one more way we can make it easier to talk about these issues.

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

To discover more about Postpartum Psychosis and how to get help, contact  Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP)  

To learn more about me and my books, please visit my website

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 2

In Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m re-posting this 4-part blog, which I wrote last year leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood 

I’m talking here about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the second post (scroll down for part one) 

the birth

The birth wasn’t especially traumatic, but nor was it easy. My pregnancy had been fairly straightforward, and the baby was planned and wanted by both myself and my then husband. I was a young mum, even by 1980s standards, giving birth three weeks after my 22nd birthday. When I was admitted to the labour ward a week before my due date, the first thing they asked me was, ‘What’s your pain threshold?’ Reassuring, huh? I’d been mildly apprehensive, like any first-time mum, but once I was in hospital, my anxiety levels rose rapidly. There was a fuss about my small stature and size 4 feet, the implication being that I might struggle to deliver vaginally, and apart from a lovely student midwife who held my hand when things got tough, the staff seemed brusque and unfriendly. I remember actually apologising for being small!

Epidurals were new and scary back then, so I had gas and air, which made me feel sick, and pethidine, which made me high, quite literally – I had an out of body experience where I was floating near the ceiling, watching what was going on below.

Despite all the mutterings about a caesarean, I delivered vaginally after 16 hours, but the second stage was painful and protracted, and despite having an episiotomy, I ended up with 2nd and 3rd degree tears. But when I held my new baby daughter in my arms, I was euphoric. ‘Hello,’ I said. She looked right into my eyes, and I knew that she knew me.

After they delivered the placenta, they wheeled me away to be stitched. As I lay on my back with my legs in stirrups, drifting in and out of consciousness, I could hear the doctor chatting to my husband about the snooker while he stitched me. I became tearful, angry with both of them but too exhausted and vulnerable to speak. How could they be so inappropriate? How could they trivialise this profound thing I’d just done? I’d grown a whole new human and pushed her out of my body, and they were talking about the sodding snooker!

First Days

I was in hospital for six days, but even when I was discharged, my stitches were still so painful that I could only walk using tiny, careful steps. I’d watch people walking up and down the ward, genuinely wondering if I’d ever walk normally again.

The first couple of weeks were dominated by sleeplessness, exhaustion and pain – pain from my stitches, and also from breast-feeding with sore, cracked nipples. The health visitor told me it was like breaking in a new pair of shoes – I’m sure she thought I should just ‘woman-up’.

Emma cried a lot and refused to settle unless I fed her. I was breast-feeding exclusively, and breast pumps weren’t in common use, so it was all down to me. My mum and mother-in-law helped out occasionally, but both had full-time jobs, and also, my then husband wasn’t keen on having other people around, especially people who might notice he wasn’t pulling his weight. He’d take her out in the pram sometimes and change the odd nappy, but he was by no means a hands-on dad, and anyway, he only had a week off work (no paternity leave back then) and he worked nights, so I coped alone at night, and during most of the day while he slept.

The nightmares

I’d only been home a few days when I began to feel strange. It started with the nightmares. The worst one (which I had several times in different forms) was where I’d found my newborn baby in pieces on the doorstep. There was no blood, it was just that her tiny, perfect form had come apart, ‘broken’ into a dozen or so pieces. With the skewed logic of dreams, I started calmly collecting up the parts and putting them in a shoebox with the idea that if I took it to the hospital, they’d put her back together. But as I began to dwell on my incompetence at having broken my new baby, the true horror of the situation dawned on me and I’d wake up sobbing.

I became afraid to sleep. I had dreams that were haunted by images of random blue-grey bodies with head or limbs detached. I called them ‘my mutilation dreams’, and they began to spill over into daylight, especially when I looked out of the window towards the wooded area beyond our garden, where I’d watch the crows coming and going. I started to ‘see’ bodies – blue-ish corpses hanging from the trees. I’d stare at them to confirm what I was seeing, then I’d blink and they were gone. 

The only person I told about this was my sister. She says now that she knew there was ‘something odd’ about me at the time, but she was even younger than me – just 19 – and she had no idea what to do about it.

Part three tomorrow!

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 1

 

This week, 4th-10th May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, so I’m reposting this piece, which I wrote last year.

If you’ve read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, you’ll know that I have a special interest in maternal mental health. My kids are in their 30s now, but I went through a tough time during those first weeks of motherhood, especially after my first child was born. I was so terrified that my baby would be taken away if anyone suspected I wasn’t coping that I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through, and it was only when I interviewed a perinatal psychiatrist as part of my research for this book that it became clear that I’d suffered from postpartum psychosis, albeit in relatively mild form.

My memories of those early weeks are still painfully vivid. Not only of crippling exhaustion, but of nightmares, fleeting hallucinations, paranoid anxiety and delusional thinking. I was desperate for sleep, yet unable to give into it because I was terrified my daughter would die while I slept. I wasn’t sure if was going mad or if I was simply exhausted, but I knew my ability to cope was at fault. After all, other women managed…

Me with Emma the day after she was born

The experience has haunted me ever since, and if you’re one of my regular readers, you will know that all my books touch on postnatal depression or the difficulties of early motherhood in some form. But my most recent novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, is perhaps the book I’ve been wanting to write ever since I became a mother, and as this is Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I thought I might share my own experience and talk a little about how I came to write  the novel. There’s too much to say in one blog post, so I’m going to split it into four consecutive posts.

Cornelia Blackwood started as a short story called When the Bough Breaks around fifteen years ago. I was working as a magazine journalist and I’d been trying to to convince the magazines I wrote for regularly that they should run something on postnatal depression, or perhaps on the effects of sleep deprivation and lifestyle change on new mothers. They weren’t interested, so I thought I’d try exploring it in fiction. The short story worked well, but I wanted to go deeper with a novel, and this novel is perhaps the closest I’ve come to saying what I want to say about how, for some women, the experience of early motherhood can be difficult, exhausting, frightening, and traumatic. In some cases, that manifests as postnatal depression or even psychosis. For many women, the glowing and serene new mums that smile out from the pages of the baby magazines represent their own experience, and for them, I am truly happy.

But for some women – more than you may think – new motherhood is not a rose-tinted time that glows brightly in the memory, rather it is dark and frightening and bathed in shadows.

This is post one of four, so tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how it was for me in those first few weeks. (You’ll need to scroll up for part two!)

If you, or someone you know is struggling, you can find sources of support through  Maternal Mental Health Alliance 

THE WRITING LIFE – authors in lockdown

I’m shocked to see how long it’s been since my last post! What happens to the time? Anyway, the idea for this post came from something Northumberland libraries are doing to help promote reading and keep the connection with readers during lockdown. They asked authors what we’re reading and how we’re coping.  I’ve used my response as the basis for this post. 

 

Just because they’re pretty…

LET’S START WITH MY FAVORITE SUBJECT – BOOKS!

Some of my friends are struggling to read at the moment but I’m finding it easier to read than to write. It’s also the best possible activity to take my mind off what’s going on outside the front door. Since lockdown started, I’ve read six novels  and I’m halfway through another. I usually read roughly a book a week, so this is very slightly more than usual for me.

MY Lockdown reading

The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley. This has a clever premise (strangers getting to know each other through a notebook in which they’re encouraged to write their own truths). A light, easy read, and very charming.

My One True North, by Milly Johnson. I don’t read a lot of romance, but I fell in love with Milly’s writing a few years ago. Her books just get better and better, and this was an absolute delight, beautifully written and thoroughly uplifting – perfect lockdown reading. I loved it so much I felt genuinely sad when I finished it.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. This was our bookclub choice. We usually meet in pubs, but now it’s Skype with wine and crisps. Five of us loved it, the other two liked it, but it was a winner overall.

Heat stroke, by Hazel  Barkworth. This one’s out at the end of May. A heady, claustrophobic (in a good way) novel about the tensions between a mother and her teenage daughter when the daughters friend goes missing.

The Man on the Street, by Trevor Wood. I’m not a huge crime fan, but I really enjoyed this one. It had great character depth, and I loved the main character – an ex-military policeman who finds himself homeless and unwittingly witnesses a crime.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid.  This month’s book club read – I’d been meaning to read this for ages, and after I bought a new copy, I discovered I already had one on my shelves! This went down well – two of us liked it, the other five loved it.

The Covenant, by Thorne Moore.  I’m halfway through this historical drama, and I’m loving it so far. It’s a prequel to one of the author’s earlier novels, and it’s out this summer.. 

So that’s my lockdown reading so far. Next on my list is The Cazelet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I’ve been meaning to read these for ages, too – heard so many wonderful things about this author.  Hilary Mantel wrote an excellent piece about her recently in the Guardian. You can read it here: Elizabeth Jane Howard

How am I coping in general?

Well, it’s horrible this, isn’t it? I think we’re all a bit jittery. Like many others, I’m missing my friends and my family. Part of my writing life involves meeting other authors in coffee shops, either for writing sessions or just to chat about our writing projects. Although I quite like my own company, I also love being with others, so social distancing is hard. 

For the first few weeks, I was listening obsessively to news bulletins and press briefings, but I’ve slowed down on that now, and I’m careful what I read on social media. The outpourings of political rage, the horror stories and the tragic personal stories of loss and grief are quite a strain on my mental health, and there are days when I simply don’t feel strong enough. I’m allowing myself to admit that now.

In many ways I’m lucky – my kids are grown-up,  so no homeschooling or stir-crazy teens to deal with. My husband and I are used to working at home, and we quite like each other. We have a lab/collie cross called Norman, who keeps us company and joins us on our daily exercise.

Norman among the daffs

 

Norman nestling in the wild garlic

Writing

Workwise, it’s hard to concentrate. I’m in the process of working on an outline for my fifth novel, but one minute, I’m worried that it seems disrespectful to be making up stories while so many people are suffering, then the next minute, I’m thinking, we need stories now more than ever! Then there’s the financial aspect – we’re all suffering a massive drop in print sales at the moment, although hopefully, our e-book sales will do slightly better. Many of us supplement our income by running workshops or doing events, but of course, all of these have been cancelled.  I’m still mentoring, but it’s online or phone tutorials instead of the lovely face-to-face meetings. When I can’t concentrate on work at all, I bake, which is fine, but then I eat the stuff I baked, which is not.  And don’t even get me started on wine o’clock…

So, that’s how this author is coping. I’m a bit fed up, but I’m thankful to not be working on the front line, and I am profoundly grateful to those who are. 

How are you coping? Are you reading more or less than usual? If you’re an author,  how is this affecting your work?

*EDITED 2nd May  It seems the 99p deal has ended – sorry, peeps. I never know when these deals are going to start, or when they’re going to end. Ah well. It’s 3.99 now, so still half the price of a physical book (but obviously not as good as 99p!)

Let’s all try to find something to smile about,  and remember, there are always stories. Let’s take one day at a time, blow a big fat raspberry at Covid19, and settle down with a good book..On which topic, if I may be so bold, how about The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood?

Read some of the reviews here

Buy the e-book here

For more about me and my books, please visit  my website