A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

Holly Jackson, A Good Girl’s Guide to murder, Paperback, 448 pages, Waterstones, £6.49

Holly Jackson’s debut novel is stirring things up in YA Fiction. Holly’s debut is about Pippa Fitz-Amobi, a grade-A student, who is trying to prove a previous student’s innocence in a murder trial, as her independent project for university. Soon Pippa begins learning more about the truths that lie just at her doorstep.

The format of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder is very playful for the reader as they are shown snippets of Pippa’s investigation. This itself allows the reader to feel like they are solving the case with Pippa.

The structure of the novel is split into three parts, however, the pace appears to become much more steady as a result. Part 1 seemed initially set up to introduce the characters, however if this was it’s primary focus, it could be questioned as to whether the pace needs to be a touch faster.

When conflict occurs, the readers gain an insight into the characters’ strength and flaws. This act in itself makes them more realistic and relatable to the reader. It is this particular element that seemed to be missing at the beginning of the novel.

Jackson’s characters overall however, are striking and very easy to picture in your mind. Furthermore when her characters are faced with conflict, in parts two and three, they become as believable as your best friend.

Although I was not entirely gripped from the beginning, I would still recommend her books to teens looking for excitement and adventure. As a teenager, I know I would’ve loved this book. Holly’s writing is well thought-out, clear, funny and imaginative – everything sixteen year old me would have devoured in a book.

Winding down for Writers

Anyone else struggling with work life balance?

This beautiful balance is sometimes really tricky to achieve and has become even more difficult when working remotely.

Thankfully, I found something that works for me and hopefully it’ll work for you too!

Stick to your timings – whether you work 9-5 or you spend each morning on your writing, make the time for it. Then, once that time has hit, stop working and start living. Admittedly this seems a little cut throat at times BUT it can be effective.

Create a commute – once you’ve finished work, go for a walk around the block. This will be a way for your mind to wind down, reflect on the day and to prepare yourself for home life. This worked so well for me during lockdown, definitely worth trying!

Create a list! – After work we can sometimes have work preying on our minds. Oh I forgot to photocopy that, argh I meant to write 20 pages instead of ten! Writing a list will allow you to express these worries and begin to consider how to tackle them. Once you know how, you’ll find yourself at ease and will allow yourself to relax whilst enjoying your home life.

You’ve probably came across some of these ideas before, and that’s absolutely fine… but did you try any? If not then now’s the time, but don’t worry… it’s better to be late than never.

Give these ago for a full week and see if any of them significantly impact your work life balance.

If you have your work life balance down and you’re just being curious, don’t be selfish! Share your great ideas! Drop your comments below for any other work life hacks for others to use!

Shiver by Allie Reynolds

Shiver by Allie Reynolds, Headline Publishing, Hardback, 421 pages, Waterstones, £12.99

They don’t know what I did. And I intend to keep it that way.

Allie Reynolds’ debut novel Shiver has kicked up a storm that readers didn’t even knew they wanted – until now. Failed ex-athlete Milla Anderson attends a ten year reunion, in the hopes that she can rekindle some of her friendships she longed for, off the slopes. However with Saskia still missing, presumed dead, and an ice breaker to set the tone, Milla soon realises that this isn’t the type of reunion that she’d hoped for.

Characterisation

Shiver is the type of novel that runs away with its characters. Each character, whether likeable or not, has a distinct way of acting and speaking. The reader can also relate to each character, which can be tricky to do. At the beginning of the novel Reynolds pulls her readers straight into Milla’s thoughts and allows the reader to become emotionally attached to the circle of friends, up on the mountain. This connection only gets stronger, the more you find out about them. The characters in this novel have been so well thought out, that it hurts that they’re not real in the first place. Wanting the characters to be real, just goes to show how developed these characters actually are. I cannot imagine the time and effort that has gone into the characterisation, in order to get them to this standard.

Setting

Although the characters could be anywhere, the thought of isolating a circle of friends in such stark conditions reminds me of the sublime. Whilst the mountains are mesmerising and the snowfall magical, there’s also the risk of an avalanche, hidden cliff drops and sharp ice that could do some damage. Now, stop the cable cars, remove their phones and disconnect the electricity. What are you left with? Survival instincts.

Experience

Before reading Shiver, the most I knew about snowboarding was from the game SSX Tricky. Thankfully I didn’t need to know much about snowboarding as Allie Reynolds guided me through the snowboarding jargon. Reynolds was previously ranked in the top ten for UK Snowboarding. Not only did her knowledge help me understand the tricks of snowboarding, it also highlighted the difficulty in the tricks – yes, I’m looking at you, Crippler. This is the first novel that I’ve been able to read, knowing that the author has experience in subject that would normally just be research. This really made a difference as it allows the reader to be immersed in Milla’s experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed Shiver. It was the characterisation and the setting that kept me turning the pages. It could be argued that this novel may peak the interest of Ruth Ware readers, however this novel itself has more grit within. I was initially apprehensive about reading this as I’d just finished reading a novel in a similar setting. How wrong I was. They were completely different in plot and perspective. In all honesty, I preferred Shiver out of the two and the other was written by an author I read constantly. It looks like I may have found a new author to watch out for.

After all, what’s life without a little competition?

The Flip Side by James Bailey

James Bailey, The Flip Side, Paperback, 358 pages, Waterstones, £7.99

Who says you can’t leave love to chance?

The Flip Side begins straight in the disaster zone for Josh. It’s New Year’s Eve and Josh has thought long and hard about proposing to his girlfriend Jade. However it’s only when Josh is left single, with no job or home to go to, that we really begin to go on this heads-or-tails journey. Every choice he makes from this point onwards will be made through the flip of a coin. The Flip Side follows Josh’s journey of finding his confidence and the right girl, in this life-changing year.

Narrative

Interestingly this is the first rom-com I’ve read with a male author. It’s therefore no surprise to be told that it’s written from a male’s perspective. This has quite a different approach to what is normally considered as a rom-com. The reader may find it unusual to hear about Josh’s feeling towards #Sunflowergirl as the readers of rom-com never really see this type of story from a male’s point of view. It really did make me wonder what goes on in the mind of male characters from other books I’ve read!

Pace and Structure

At the beginning of this book, the pace was really fast. It was gripping as you could see the story developing rapidly and it was flooded with humour. At times, the pace did seem to slow a little and I began to feel that the driving force for the remainder of the plot felt more like a to-do list.

Some of the scenes didn’t seem realistic to me which made me question the characters’ choices. I really liked reading about Josh and his #sunflowergirl however I would’ve liked the book to contain more of this at times. Their conversations were so interesting that it made me question why we had to wait so long to finally reach this point. I was initially reading this book in the hope that I would see their relationship blossom. However the novel’s focus tended to be more on finding #sunflowergirl rather than their relationship.

I did enjoy this book and found it a pleasant read but it wasn’t the book I thought I’d picked up. I wanted to know more about Josh’s relationship with #sunflowergirl, the types of problems they’d faced and how they felt about the coin toss. For me though, I felt that it ended a little too quickly as I felt like I was just starting to get to know #sunflowergirl. It was as if she wasn’t considered a main character to the novel and I would’ve liked her to be.

I would still recommend this book to my friends and family but perhaps with a bit more insight into the structure of the novel.

The First Line

First lines matter. Whether they are in a blog post, a newsletter or a novel, the first line is crucial.

Whilst you’re in the editing phase of your writing, it can be easily forgotten to revise your first line. The first line will have different purposes in various texts but there is one thing it needs to be. Good.

Your first line, if writing for a newsletter or a blog, must intrigue your reader and invite them to read more. Your purpose here is to keep them reading right until the very end. A great way to revise your first line is to read your writing as a reader. Would you be interested? Would it stop you scrolling? What could you add to the line to make it more gripping? If you’re still unsure, it could be worth letting someone read the first line to give you another point of view. They may even see something that you didn’t.

If however you are revising a first line of a novel, the aim and purpose of your writing may be different. Your goal, as a writer, is to lose your readers in your novel. Allow your readers to become invested in your characters and don’t settle for anything less. Although you still need to grip the reader with your opening lines, you have a variety of techniques open to you. Here are a few that you may wish to try:

Surprise the reader

This type of hook causes the reader to raise questions or surprises them by catching them off guard. A great example of this is from Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit: ‘It was a pleasure to burn’. The concept that some would like the feeling of burning seems very unusual. The sentence itself could also suggest that someone likes the action of burning something. As your mind begins to question alternatives, it has sparked the interest of the reader to keep reading. 

Begin with dialogue

This can also have a similar effect on the reader as it can catch the reader off guard. An example of this can be seen in the opening lines of Rose Macauley’s, The Towers of Trezibond: ‘”Take my camel dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass’. The animal itself may surprise the reader in this sentence, as well as Aunt Dot’s previous actions. Using dialogue in your first line brings your readers straight into the action and provides them with wanting to figure out what is happening and why.

Setting the Mood and Atmosphere

Although this technique may seem simple, it can be really effective when used correctly. Louise Erdrich does this beautifully in Tracks: ‘We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.’ In this first sentence Louise Erdrich has managed to set the sombre mood perfectly by using the setting to help set the tone and atmosphere. This technique can work really well with the show don’t tell principle, as the sentence has given its readers an insight to what is to come.

Another suggestion could also be to revise what you like to read yourself. If you love a particular author like Lee Child or John Grisham, look at how they start their first lines. How did they interest you? Why did you want to read on? This technique also works if you are wanting to write a blog post or newsletter. If you follow several blogs, which article did you really enjoy and how did it start?

Once you have tried a few of these techniques, reflect on your work and see if any of them work for you. Remember the best way to get your writing noticed is to make your writing the best it can possibly be.

Follow me on Instagram @cbarkerwriting for writing tips on a daily basis.

Before the Coffee gets Cold

Before the Coffee gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, 213 pages, paperback, Picador, £7.49.

If you could go back, who would you want to meet?

Kawaguchi’s novel takes its readers on a journey through time and how a brief encounter can make a massive difference. 

Although this book was originally a play, the simple setting of the cafe doesn’t remind me of this fact. Instead I feel that the setting of this novel provides its readers with a sense of community. This is further evident in the structure of the novel.

Structure

Before the Coffee gets Cold is split into 4 sections. These could be perceived as chapters or they could be split into 4 short stories. Although I would normally prefer to see these as chapters, I found it much easier to see these sections as short stories as each section is over 50 pages. Interestingly, the way in which all of the stories are connected reminds me of Love Actually. Each have a different perspective of love and can be viewed as separate stories or as one. This is a similar structure to Kawaguchi’s novel. 

Time travel with a difference

The subject that ties his stories together is the element of time-travel. The rules are always the same, yet the reader is given a different experience, each time they follow someone into the past or future. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel as each person who uses the seat to transport them to wherever they like, are relatable and have different reasonings for using the seat. I also love how the same characters are used in each story, only with a different focus. This allows the readers to form an attachment with each character and really emphasise the feeling of belonging within a community. 

TV Adaptation

After reading this book, I might even try and track down the play as I’m intrigued to see what it would look like in the mode in which it was originally written. This book also has another in its series, Before the Coffee gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe. Although this book was originally written as a play, the trailer for the film can be watched here.

I strongly encourage you to read this. It may only be a small novel but it’s rich in dialogue, lyrical to read and will leave you feeling thankful for your own community that you surround yourself in. 

Why So Many Writers Struggle With Character Development

I used to think I knew how to develop my characters. Writing character profiles was the way to do it. Before I would begin writing, I knew what my characters looked like, their hobbies, where they lived – I even knew their favourite food. However after reflecting on these profiles, I cannot help but ask, how have these profiles helped me? In all honestly – they didn’t. Not only was I stuck with two-dimensional characters, I had also sucked all of the fun out of my writing.

E.L Doctorow describes writing as, ‘it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ What struck me the most about this advice is how it appeals to character development. By completing character profiles in-depth, I knew the full route of my novel which in turn, made it seem boring. It has been suggested that to understand how your characters will react to certain events, they must be placed directly into them. How else would we know if our characters are truly brave? It is for this reason that I believe that only when we have finished writing a novel, that we gain a stronger understanding of our characters.

Sometimes when we really search deep for our characters, it can leave the writer vulnerable and open to criticism. It could therefore be argued that as a writer, we know how in-depth we need to be but scarcely do it out of fear of failure. Remember writers, ‘failure is the ingredient you have to have,’ argues Howard Jacobson and rightly so. How else would we know if our writing is good or bad? We need to be able to push past the failures in order to achieve success.

Judy Blume explains how significant a character is to a plot as they are inseparable. ‘Without a clear sense of who a character is […] the reader will be unable to appreciate the significance of your events, and your story will have no impact.’ With the understanding of how important characterisation is, it is no wonder that writers may struggle to leave themselves vulnerable on the page. It is however something that we all must do to develop our writing. So next time you find yourself feeling vulnerable within your writing, remind yourself that you’re growing as a writer.

One by One by Ruth Ware

One by One by Ruth Ware, Hardback (signed), 352 pages, Waterstones, £12.99

One by One is a cosy novel, perfect for those winter nights. The novel begins by following two characters and their journeys that bring them to the luxury cabin, in St. Antoine. After an avalanche cuts the guests off from the village below, it’s not soon after when guests keep disappearing one by one.

POV

Interestingly Ruth Ware uses several perspectives in One by One. Readers follow the perspective of Erin, the chalet host and Liz, a shareholder in a tech company. Having two perspectives is a new structure for Ware’s novels. However, these perspectives are vital to the plot and the development of her characters. Both perspectives are needed to demonstrate a staff’s point of view, as well as a guest in the lodge. As the novel unfolds and clues are given to the reader, he dual perspectives are used at times to compliment the plot twists. This is certainly a new technique that Ware has explored well within her writing of One by One.

Characterisation

Although Ware writes crime novels, I cannot help but acknowledge that my favourite characters hers are humorous. My favourite character in this novel was Danny. His passion and personality are clearly shown through his actions and dialogue. Danny adds a humorous touch to even the darkest of scenes. At times he can be relatable and sometimes acts like he is projecting the readers thoughts onto the page. Perhaps this is why his character is so amusing…

Location and Setting

A significant detail that continues to be shown in all of Ware’s novels, is her use of setting. Whether it’s Northumbrian forests, a stately home or the French Alps, Ware always uses her setting carefully and strategically. The Earth’s elements always seem to provide good ground for a crime novel and what better setting for One by One than the French Alps? Furthermore with the use of skiing jargon and a little bit of French sprinkled in, emphasises the research that has been taken to deliver such mesmerising landscapes and scenes.

As winter still settles amongst us and many of us are working from home, what could feel better than reading a novel with people stranded in one cabin that are beginning to get a little cabin fever.

Whether you find this read as escapism or as relatable is entirely up to you…

Papier Diary Review

Last week I was so pleased to see a smart stripy parcel slip through my letter box. The packaging itself looks as good as the designs for your stationery. As I began to open the parcel I could feel the enjoyment and anticipation of seeing my personalised design. The little note from Papier is also a nice touch and gives your parcel a more personal appeal.

Although there was no paperback option for my diary, I absolutely love my hardback diary. The matt finish allows the design to speak for itself. The perfect bound makes for a crisp book and allows for a ribbon bookmark to be placed in the diary.

As a writer who primarily uses lined paper, I was anxious at first to write on plain paper. However after really looking at the space given and the type of notes I wish to include within my diary, I don’t think that the blank pages will be a problem.

Each month begins with your goals for the month, a to-do list, important dates and a wish list. This is really handy if you need to see quickly whether it is going to be a hard or busy month. This check up page is also great to spur on your motivation for finishing projects or training for a sport event.

At the beginning of the diary, there is a month to view, for the full year. This makes it incredibly easy to see birthdays, big events and deadlines, without flicking through each page.

At the very end of the diary there are also some lined pages for you to use as you wish.

Although Papier’s diaries have a lot to offer, it has to be personalisation and their designs that I love the most about Papier. I know so many people who have either a name that is spelt slightly different or that have a different cultural name (either from Europe or further afield) that find it difficult to find personalised items. Papier however removes this worry and allows personalisation to anyone who wishes to acquire it.

I also love the design of my diary and I mean love! I am so pleased that Papier give credit to the artists as it allows you to look further into the artist who created your design. My design is by Rachael Cocker and is called Blooms of Joy. After surviving two national lockdowns in the midst of a pandemic, a Bloom of Joy is exactly what I need.

Since the beginning of lockdown I have began writing letters to friends and close relatives to help combat loneliness during this challenging time. Lets hope that they like Papier as much as I do! To have a look at all of their designs visit: www.papier.com and find your own personalised diary for the new year!

My Top 5 Christmas Book Buys!

If this pandemic has taught us anything this year, its that we all love reading. This could be a psychological thriller, a goofy romance or even a self-help book. Whatever style or genre you are wanting to read, you will always find something. However as there are so many books to choose from, I have whittled my favourites down to a top 5 to help you find the perfect gift for someone this year. There is something so exciting about receiving a book. We all know the shape, yet with so many titles on our ‘to be read’ pile, we still don’t really know what we will get. Here are my top 5 to unwrap this year.

Thriller – One by One by Ruth Ware

What could be better than a psychological thriller located in a snowy setting at Christmas? Ruth Ware has brought a murder mystery concept into the 21st century by the use of realistic – and at times, relatable – settings with current motives. One by One takes place in a lodge that is extremely secluded. It could be perceived as tranquil. However with only a cable car to leave or escape the lodge, the characters begin to think it is anything but peaceful. As killings become more and more frequent, the serenity of the lodge begins to feel like a prison. Who will survive as the characters disappear one by one?

Romance – The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

If crime and murder isn’t your thing, then have a fling with The Flatshare. The Flatshare is about two young professionals that share a flat but never really see each other due to work commitments. This book was my favourite read in lockdown as it made me laugh and smile when times were hard. Please note that is not the type of book that I would normally read and yet, I am now anticipating the release of her latest novel, The Road Trip, out in 2021. A perfect book to lift your mood and to laugh when times are challenging.

Check out my full review of this book here

Classic – Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

How many times have you heard – but have you read the book?- when a film comes out? Yes, very often and why does this get asked? The book is better. Admittedly, the latest adaptation of Rebecca on Netflix is good but at times I found the film slow and it missed a few scenes that the book had solidified in my mind. Yes, readers, I wanted to see the garden at Manderley! The book on the other hand is not slow in the slightest. The novel is an exciting read and is filled with tension and suspense between the main characters, right up to the very end. If you are looking for a classic this Christmas, I would definitely recommend this novel. Who knew a young woman living in Cornwall could have such a dark mind that could write with such suspense! A much welcomed break from Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen.

See my full review here

Non-fiction – The Little book of Clarity by Jamie Smart

This is hands down, one of my favourite books that not only made me realise how people perceive the world, but how non-fiction can be engaging and impactful. Jamie explores clarity in this book in relation to all aspects of an individual’s life. The outward-in method that he discusses really makes you think about your own choices and your own happiness. This book is, as you may have guessed, short, clear and concise. A short but memorable read.

Read my full review here

Self-help – Get Your Sh*t Together by Sarah Knight

I too wish I was Sarah Knight, living in the Caribbean and writing books as my profession. Who knows, after reading this book, maybe I will. Get Your Sh*t Together, provides its readers with a little tough love, followed by fantastic strategies that can be applied to all aspects of your life – be it relationships, health or work. Sarah Knight has tried to make the subject comical as it does touch on some serious and quite scary topics. However after reflecting on this book and attempting to actually get your sh*t together, you will begin to realise that this book does exactly what it sets out do. A great gift and motivator to making your dreams become a reality.

Although I have so many other great books I wish I could include, the books above have to be my top 5. Feel free to read any additional reviews I have written on these books to help you make your mind up with which to put on your own ‘to be read’ list. If however you are still wanting some book inspiration, I have provided you with a few more noteworthy reads. Who knows, you may even want to gift one to yourself.

Recommended Reads

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

Write Yourself Happy by Megan Hayes

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton