The Watcher and The Friend – published on June 11th!

What I've been reading recently is endless proofs of my first novel for children, "The Watcher and The Friend". And finally, publication day is approaching, with June 11th confirmed as the official launch date. It's a very exciting prospect and one for which I must offer some thanks to those who have played a big part in the book's journey. Firstly to Richard Mayers, whose patience and support were so important during the editing process. His skill and experience in suggesting changes were invaluable. Next, to my beta readers who generously gave their time to read an early version of the story. Once again, their perceptive comments, and their enthusiasm for the book, gave me extra impetus to complete the project. Finally, I must thank the students of Mayfield Grammar School in Gravesend, who were the unwitting participants in the book's first public outing. This is the time for my confession, as I…

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“It was the day that my Grandmother had a cup of tea” – In Praise of the Slow Start.

Earlier this year, the best-selling British crime author, Mark Billingham (left), caused a little controversy at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival when he said that if a novel does not grip him after twenty pages he “throws it away angrily”. He reckons that he does this with 50% of the books he starts to read. “Life’s too short,” he says, “and there are so many great books out there.” This is an opinion that has divided readers, but it’s one that will be familiar to anybody who has tried to submit a manuscript to publishers or agents, and it’s very much in line with their thinking. You know the drill: submission guidelines that specify the first three chapters in the initial submission. The publishing and self-publishing industry is a growth area of one thing above all else. And its not new novelists. No, it’s companies largely inhabited by people who have fallen foul…

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The Mercies

I’d seen this book here, there and everywhere over the last year or so. At first, I lumped it in with that slew of novels, all with a similar style of colourful, swirling patterns on the cover and a one-word title, that were so much in vogue in the last year or so. You know the ones I mean – The Familiars, The Foundling, The Binding, The Corset. I tried all of those, having a love of the gothic, but didn’t finish any of them. I found them pale imitations of the real thing, compared to, say, one of the early Sarah Waters books. The other thing that put me off trying this one, for quite a long time, was Millwood Hargrave's children’s novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars. Despite it’s wonderful title (a title that, incidentally, put paid to my own novel, The Girl with Stars in her Hair) I found…

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Wolves in Winter -The Watcher and The Friend and the Joan Aiken legacy, Part 2

Standing on the shoulders of giants In the first part of this blog, I wrote about my serendipitous discovery, over many years, as a teacher and a parent, of Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles. Here, I’m going to look at the links between her wonderful books and my own children’s debut, “The Watcher and The Friend”. It wasn’t until much later, after my book was written, that I realised the connection. Even when my editor had explicitly asked me about the inspiration, and the books I would compare it with, I did not come up with “Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. Budding writers will be familiar with this part of the process. Agents are thinking about selling, marketing, promoting. And that leads them to think about genre. What other books is your book like, so we can directly appeal to lovers of those books in the hope that they will give your book a…

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More Sorrow than Bliss

A review of "Sorrow and Bliss" by Meg Mason Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints. It's targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have…

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Wolves in Winter – Joan Aiken’s enduring legacy, part 1.

Right at the beginning of my first job as an English teacher, in South London in 1983, I was shown where the Department book cupboard was and told to have a rummage. This was cutting edge preparation back in the Eighties, when it was assumed that new teachers might have some ideas of their own about what to teach and how to teach it. I can still remember using that oh so familiar standard issue ILEA master key to gain entrance to this Aladdin’s cave of treasures. A gloomy, cavernous store hung with the smell of dust, chalk and cleaning fluids, it revealed its secrets fitfully as the neon strip light coughed into life, taking several pings before flooding the area with dazzling white light. I shut the door behind me. In the glare, the rows and piles of books covered all four walls and most of the floor. Later in my career,…

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Saltwater – Jessica Andrews

This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values. Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is…

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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

"Small pleasures - the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer.........." It's not until ten pages before the end that we get this list of small pleasures, the consolations of a life of duty and frustration and narrow horizons in a 1950's London suburb. And by the time we stumble across it, it seems not as pinched or pathetic as it might to our jaded and pampered twenty-first century eyes. Rather, these are the well-deserved daily rewards of an admirable character, who has the misfortine to live as a single, professional woman with no emotional sustenance in a man's world.…

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The Reverend Silas Cummerbund asks a question…

The Reverend Silas Cummerbund, vicar of the parish of Runswick, Yngerlande in the year 1795, found himself baffled by the one question he couldn't answer. See if you can help him, by reading "The Watcher and The Friend", the thrilling new fantasy adventure by R J Barron, set in the wild and wonderful North Yorkshire moors and coast, and the beautiful Georgian city of York..

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Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

This book looked right up my street – an affectionate memoir of a group of seventeen-year old friends in Glasgow, forever bonded by their shared experience of growing up together as a band of brothers with their love of music holding them together. Then add to the mix a fast forward to contemporary Britain to see how they have fared in the intervening thirty-five years. It’s structured in two halves -then and now-  and it’s almost brilliant. Almost, but not quite. The first half, an evocative portrait of a group of friends on a mythical weekender to Manchester for a festival, with the obsession of the possibility of catching a glimpse of Morrisey in a club, is beautifully done. Anyone who experienced the salvation provided by a like-minded group of anti-establishment friends at that age, with the same passions, the same obsessions, the same devotions, will read this with a tear in their…

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Where the Crawdads Sing – Warning! Lukewarm review on the way.

Last summer's literary sensation is just a Netfix mini-series in waiting. Twitter has been agog all year, or so it seems, about this book from first time novelist, Delia Owens. It firmly established itself as the book to read this year, and in normal summers, it would have furnished many a beach bag as the go-to holiday read. I was intrigued. Could it really be that good? Or was it just the latest example of marketing triumphing over substance? There was only one way to settle it and, firmly behind the curve, I bought it and settled down with a raised eyebrow, waiting to be convinced. Unfortunately, dear reader, I was not. Convinced that is. There is a lot to admire and enjoy about it. I finished it in three days, for a start. So, yes, it’s a page turner, and in my book, that is a powerful attraction. It’s an often under-appreciated…

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