Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Stories You Tell by Kristen Lepionka

The Stories You TellA 3 A.M. phone call is never good news…

Private investigator Roxane Weary receives a panicked call from her brother, Andrew: his one-time fling, Addison, who turned up at his apartment the night before – drunk, bloodied and hysterical – has gone missing.

As police suspicion quickly falls on her brother, Roxane knows she is the only person who believes him. She just has to figure out what happened. Through tracking Addison’s digital footprint she goes deeper and deeper into the events preceding her disappearance. 

But, as Roxane struggles to distinguish the truth from the stories told online, the case takes another dramatic turn.

Having read and very much enjoyed Kristen Lepionka’s previous Roxane Weary novel, What You Want To See, I was beyond happy to be asked to take part in the blog tour for her latest book, The Stories You Tell.

Roxane Weary is back, still self-deprecating, still drinking slightly more than is good for her, and still full of the kind of observational snark that had me sniggering every other page. Whether it’s berating her younger brother Andrew, sparring with stubborn detectives on a case, or interrogating an erring husband, Roxane is pure, relatable sass and I absolutely love being in her company.

After her previous misadventures nearly got both her and her on-off girlfriend killed, Roxane is keeping a low profile, at least until her brother calls her at 3 a.m. saying that his hysterical one-time fling just ran out of his apartment and vanished into the night. Much as Roxane wants to believe that Addison’s disappearance isn’t anything sinister, she just can’t shake the fact that there’s more to it than meets the eye. Like the fact that the nightclub where Addison worked has mysteriously closed down and the owner is nowhere to be found. And is it really coincidental that a cop that was trying to contact Addison was found dead on the same night as she went AWOL? Sure enough, there’s more to Addison’s strange behaviour than meets the eye and Roxane is soon entangled in a web of deceit, entrapment, and online dating.

Lepionka writes with a real eye for detail and a masterful control of pace. Although there are a number of strands at the beginning of the novel, she weaves them all together into a tightly-knitted conclusion that feels immensely satisfying. And, although this is the third novel in the Roxane Weary series, Lepionka also does a fantastic job of catching new readers up with the key figures in Roxane’s life, whilst providing enough character development to allow returning fans to relish the developments in her personal and family life.

The Stories You Tell is an excellent addition to Lepionka’s award-winning series. In Roxane Weary she has a relatable main character who manages to combine the world-weary traditional PI image with the smarts and sass of a young woman who feels right at home in the twenty-first century. Contemporary, sharp, and fast-paced, this is a novel sure to delight fans both old and new, and marks out Lepionka as a crime writing talent who is going from strength to strength with each book.

The Stories You Tell by Kirsten Lepionka is published by Faber & Faber on 18 July 2019 and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

My thanks go to Lauren Nicoll from Faber for providing me with a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. The blog tour continues until 19 July so do check out the other stops along the way for more reviews and content!

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Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Expectation by Anna Hope

Expectation CoverHannah, Cate and Lissa are young, vibrant and inseparable. Living on the edge of a common in East London, their shared world is ablaze with art and activism, romance and revelry – and the promise of everything to come.

They are electric. They are the best of friends.

Ten years on, they are not where they hoped to be. Amidst flailing careers and faltering marriages, each hungers for what the others have.

And each wrestles with the same question: what does it take to lead a meaningful life?

Expectation is a novel that asks one important question: what happened to the person you were supposed to become?

It’s a question that certainly resonated with me and will, I think, resonate with many other readers too. We all have those regrets about roads not taken, and the occasional self-doubt about whether we’ve failed to live up to youthful dreams. Certainly, the three women at the heart of Expectation are asking this question.

For Hannah, successful at work and married to her sweetheart, life doesn’t feel complete without a baby – the one thing that, no matter how hard she tries or how much money they spend, she doesn’t seem to be able to have.

Spirited Lissa feels she has failed to live up to her both her mother’s expectations and her early artistic promise. Single, living in a tiny flat, and forced to star in degrading advertising commercials, all her hopes now rest on putting in a star turn in a play with a demanding director.

New mum Cate knows that she should be happy. With a supportive husband, a hands-on mother-in-law, and a beautiful baby, life should be golden. But she can’t shake the memories of an old love affair, and of the freedom she had when life was just a little less complicated.

As the novel moves between the perspectives of the three women, flitting between their carefree younger selves and the troubles of their adult lives, it becomes a study in the messy, complicated business of living. Placing female friendship under the microscope, it examines the shifting nature of friendship and explores how young women navigate their way into adulthood.

Beautifully written, I was struck by how incredibly real Hannah, Lissa and Cate felt. They are complicated in their reality, neither wholly likeable nor wholly unlikeable. Poor choices are made, crossed words are spoken, and desires and dreams are left at the wayside. But they are are all devastatingly real. And the exploration of the space between their expectations and their reality is both honest and relatable, considering relationships, motherhood, ambitions, and the age-old question of whether women really can have it all.

The changing perspectives gave me a real sense of all the characters and there’s nothing one-dimensional about them, although I would have like to get to know some of the secondary characters more such as Hannah’s husband Nathan, or Cate’s mother-in-law. Hope keeps her focus on her main characters, however, and this does make the book a more intense read. I became so absorbed in the lives of these women, even though I found some of them quite difficult to like. Despite this, however, I felt invested in their lives and wanted them to find that balance between what they hoped their lives would become and the lived experiences they found themselves realising.

Observant and accomplished, Expectation is a bittersweet novel of female experience. Unfolding through betrayal and heartbreak, the lives of Hannah, Lissa and Cate form a compelling narrative that is told in luscious, luminous prose. In its depiction of the ups and downs of everyday life, Hope’s writing is reminiscent of Sally Rooney at her best, and of Diane Evans’ brilliantly observed Ordinary People, and is perfect for fans seeking their next lyrical literary read.

Expectation by Anna Hope is published in by Doubleday in hardback and ebook and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 18 July 2019 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

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Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Nanny at Number 43 by Nicola Cassidy

Nanny Cover FinalWanted, a respectable woman to care for a motherless child. 

When William D. Thomas’s wife dies in childbirth, he places an advertisement in his local newspaper seeking a nanny for his newborn child.

He is thankful when an experienced nanny arrives at 43 Laurence Street and takes over from his frazzled housekeeper Mrs McHugh.

Mrs McHugh confides in her bedridden friend Betty, who has a bird’s-eye view of all the happenings on Laurence Street, that the Nanny is not all she seems. Betty begins her own investigation into the mysterious woman.

When the bodies of twin babies are discovered buried in a back garden, by a family who have moved from their tenement home into a country cottage, a police investigation begins.

But it is Betty who holds the key to discovering who the Nanny really is … and the reason she came to 43 Laurence Street.

Some books hook you from the very first page and The Nanny at Number 43 is definitely one of them!

Opening with the grisly discovery of two small bodies buried in a suitcase in the back garden of a well-to-do suburban house, the novel quickly descends into a dark tale of death and revenge as a mysterious – and seemingly respectable – young woman arrives at 43 Laurence Street to care for a newly orphaned baby. As the new nanny’s relationship with the newly widowed Mr Thomas begins to develop beyond that of employer and employee, housekeeper Mrs McHugh begins to suspect that all may not be as it seems with the young woman.

Who is the mysterious nanny? What connection does she have with the disturbing secret, buried in a Dublin garden? And why does she seem so familiar with the streets and dockyards of Drogheda? As the story unfolds, dark secrets and forgotten memories are uncovered that may prove deadly for the occupants of Number 43.

The Nanny at Number 43 is a fast-paced historical novel that grabbed me from the very first page. Flitting between different voices and timelines, it weaves together past and present mysteries into an assured and compelling tale. Cassidy is particularly adept at writing fallible and even unlikeable characters. The occasional chapters from the nanny’s point of view are genuinely chilling, and there is another voice within the book that, if anything, is even more sinister.

It’s not all unlikeable figures and dark deeds here though. The loyal and hard-working Mrs McHugh is a warm character, and I really felt for her as the events of the book unfolded. Her bedridden friend Betty, who lives across the road from Number 43 and has a birds-eye view of the comings and goings of Laurence Street, is another charming character who is filled with wry observations. And widower Mr Thomas is a portrait of grief, struggling to cope with his newborn daughter and vulnerable to the machinations the charming young woman who has entered his home. Whilst they don’t always make the wisest – or the nicest – choices, I could understand what motivated these characters and they all felt like real people.

The historical setting is also well-realised, with the sights and sounds of late nineteenth-century Drogheda coming to life on the page. There’s a real sense of the dockyard community, and of the precarious nature of a life lived just on the edge of poverty – one or two unfortunate events and you could slip from working respectability to the stigma of the workhouse in a matter of weeks. Whilst there’s no justifying the actions of some of the characters in the book, Cassidy has done an excellent job of revealing the society and the circumstances that lie behind their actions.

Perfect for fans of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and The Good People, The Nanny at Number 43 is an accomplished historical novel that blends elements of crime fiction with a compelling domestic drama. With both convincing characters and a well-realised historical setting, it is also sure to appeal to fans of novels such as Elizabeth Haynes’ The Murder of Harriet Monkton and Anna Mazzola’s The Story Keeper.

The Nanny at Number 43 by Nicola Cassidy is published by Poolbeg Press and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

My thanks go to the author and publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this tour. The blog tour continues until 16 July 2019 so do check out the other stops along the way for further reviews and content!

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Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!!! Train Man by Andrew Mulligan

Train Man CoverMichael is a broken man. He’s waiting for the 09.46 to Gloucester, so as to reach Crewe for 11.22: the platforms are long at Crewe, and he can walk easily into the path of a high-speed train to London.

He’s planned it all: a net of tangerines (for when the refreshments trolley is cancelled), and a juice carton, full of neat whisky. To make identification swift, he has taped his last credit card to the inside of his shoe.

What Michael hasn’t factored in is a twelve-minute delay, which risks him missing his connection, and making new ones. He longs to silence the voices in his own head: ex-girlfriends, colleagues, and the memories from his schooldays, decades old. They all torment him. What Michael needs is somebody to listen.

A last, lonely journey becomes a lesson in the power of human connection, proving that no matter how bad things seem, it’s never too late to get back on track. 

Journeys intersect. People find hope when and where they least expect it. A missed connection needn’t be a disaster: it could just save your life.

Train Man has been called a “profoundly affecting” and “beautiful story” by Ruth Jones (author of Never Greener) and I am delighted to welcome the author, Andrew Mulligan, to The Shelf today to discuss the process of writing difficult topics and creating realistic characters, and the importance of making human connections.


Hi Andrew and welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books. First things first, can you please tell us a little about your debut novel Train Man?

It’s my first adult novel – I’ve written several children’s books, but TRAIN MAN was an opportunity to do something different, and peer into an altogether darker place.  A man is on his way to kill himself, having decided life can only get worse. He’s in good health physically, but feels the demons have him cornered – I mean that metaphorically, as this is not a fantasy novel. He meets people who confirm these feelings, and people who challenge them: his journey ends up being extraordinary.

Train Man deals with some very difficult topics, including depression, suicide, and the effects of poverty. How did you go about ensuring that these topics were handled sensitively, and were you every worried about using the book to discuss these issues? Or did you always see the book as a way of widening the conversation around mental health?

The book is a novel, and first and foremost it obeys the general rules of fiction. Characters come to life through their fears and objectives, and we have a rising sense of jeopardy as those with whom we empathise suffer. The issues raised are not handled sensitively, nor is there any conversation about mental health: the book is about people trapped, the way we all feel trapped at least some of the time.

Your main character, Michael, has his life altered by a chance encounter at a train station. Why did you choose to make train stations and journeys such a central part of the novel? Do you think there is something about these transient places that encourage us to reflect on life and on the journeys we undertake through it?

The railway is an obvious metaphor, with its connections and delays – the beautiful combination of meticulous planning and total coincidence. I spend a lot of time on trains, and – yes – the rhythms do encourage introspection of a kind. You’re in a tin, looking out at the unfurling world. You’re making progress, whilst still – and if there isn’t some barbarian shouting into a phone you can actually think. In fact, you have time to think. You may even find yourself attempting conversation, lifting the blinds, peering into someone else’s world. And it’s amazing what people carry with them, as it were.

Train Man is a testament to the power of human interaction and the kindness of strangers. Was this something that you deliberately wanted to bring out in the book, or did that aspect come about whilst you were writing the novel?

I’ve never been able to write dark, miserable novels that confirm our fear that life is terrible. For many of us, life is a constant adventure, even if there is much to get dismayed and angry about. The book isn’t about the kindness of strangers, though, for many of the strangers are quite ruthless. My hero meets people locked in their own egotism, playing their self-promoting little games – the book is about non-conversation and concealment, as much as it deals in revelation. Ultimately, the human contact is positive – but most of us know that to be the case. A chance encounter with a smiling check-out operator in Tesco’s really can change the day. It’s quite frightening how vulnerable many of us are to those tiny intersections.

Given the intense nature of the subject matter, I imagine Train Man was sometimes a difficult book to write? Can you tell us a little more about your writing process and how you managed to balance Michael’s dark mental state with an overall message about the importance of human connection and a sense of hope?

It wasn’t a difficult book to write, because the mix of live-action and reminiscence always seemed very real. I became very attached to my characters, very quickly – and I find my writing degenerates fast if I’m not enjoying the writing process. I usually look forward to getting back to the laptop. In any case, Michael is like most of us: he wants to be cheerful. He knows he’s lucky, if only because he has his health. He’s not in a war-zone. But those things fail to mean anything when all you can think about is your failure to connect, and the absence of meaningful structure. The wind is in his house, and he can only see failure. He can only focus on the pain he’s experienced and the pain he’s inflicted, and I wanted to release him from that. I never doubted that he would be released.

Are there any books that inspired Train Man? Or books and authors that you think anyone who enjoys your novel should seek out?

Train Man was to be a radio play, because all I could hear were the voices. I wanted the babble of non-communication, and I was reading a lot of Anne Tyler as I wrote it: nobody writes real dialogue quite like Anne Tyler, and I kept ‘An Accidental Tourist’ beside me – an outstanding book about a man unaware he’s having a breakdown.

And finally, what is next for Andrew Mulligan? Is there another novel in the works that you can tell us about?

I’m working on the next children’s book, plus a commission for Radio 4. The next adult novel is nearly done, but it’s become demented. I listen to the news too much, and the insanity has found its way into the characters. They’re doing and saying terrible things right now, and I don’t seem able to stop them – so I fear it won’t be ready for some time.


Thank you so much to Andrew for taking the time to answer my questions and discuss Train Man!

Train Man by Andrew Mulligan is published by Chatto & Windus and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon.

You can read reviews and find out more about the book on the other blog tour stops, so do go and check those out! And many thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this tour.

Train Man Blog Tour Poster

 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

The Red Word Cover“The myths don’t have a clue what to do with women. They have nothing to say about us whatsoever. We need to build our own mythology.”

When university student Karen wakes up after a fraternity party on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in anti-frat activism on campus. One frat house, GBC, is especially notorious, with several brothers named on a list of date rapists by female students.

Despite continuing to party at GBC and even dating one of the brothers, Karen is seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women. As she finds herself caught between two increasingly polarised camps, her feminist housemates believe they have hit on the perfect way to bring down the fraternity and expose rape culture…but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price. 

As you can probably guess from the striking and provocative cover, The Red Word is a bold, dark examination of rape culture, campus politics, and the dangers that lurk at the depths of fiercely held ideology.

I’ll start by saying that this isn’t a novel for sensitive readers. Featuring scenes and discussions of sexual violence, The Red Word is a no hold’s barred account unafraid to hold a lens up to both classical and contemporary culture in order to be both provoke and disturb. I thought it was masterful, thought-provoking stuff and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I turned the final page.

With echoes of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (one of my all-time favourite books), the novel opens with university undergraduate Karen waking up on a lawn after a wild frat party at the notorious GBC. The lawn belongs to Raghurst and the four women who inhabit the house – Dyann, Marie-Jeanne, Steph and Charla – are radical feminists, inspired by the teachings of their lecturer Dr Sylvia Esterhazy.

Entranced by the girls’ polemical ideology, Karen signs up for Dr Esterhazy’s class on ‘Women and Myth’ and becomes involved with the Dyann and Steph’s work at the campus Women’s Centre, where a ‘Wall of Shame’ has been established to expose sexual violence on campus. At the same time though, she is dating the increasingly needy and controlling Mike – a fraternity brother at GBC – and enjoys the parties and privilege that comes with being a fraternity girlfriend. As the novel progresses, Karen walks an increasingly fine line between her ideals and her reality, and between the discussion of radical action and the consequences of its implementation.

There’s so much going on in The Red Word that, at times, it’s an exhausting read. Like Tartt, Henstra has used classical myth as a touchstone and Karen’s story is interlaced with references to mythology, from chapter titles made up of Greek words to echoes of the tragic tale of Helen of Troy, who Karen is trying to write about for Dr Esterhazy’s class. For the most part, this adds to the structure of the book. I particularly liked how that the novel invokes the chorus calls to classical muses, evoking epic poetry and inviting the reader into the novel, as well as the way in which the chapter headings subtly foreshadowed events to come.

At times, however, I did feel that the classical illusions became a little laboured, especially towards the novel’s conclusion and in the sections of the book that are more overtly allegorical of the Trojan War mythology. And I’m not 100% convinced that Dr Esterhazy was a completely necessary character. Unlike in Tartt’s The Secret History, her influence appears much more benign and, at times, it felt as if she had been catapulted into a scene to add exposition or act as a deus ex machina, her teachings moving the plot along in a slightly artificial way.

Structuring and concluding a novel of this sort was always going to be a complex job, however. The Red Word is not a book that provides easy answers or leaves you with a sense that all is well with the world. Instead, it asks numerous questions, presents its arguments and then leaves you to think through the complexities involved. Unlike The Secret History, this is not a classical tragedy. Instead, we are in the realm of Epic, with its shades of the fantastical and its uneven narrative, swinging between the comic, the tragic and the mundane as it depicts the travails of everyday life. As such, Henstra has done a fine job of bringing the many strands of her narrative together to form a coherent whole.

She’s also created a cast of compelling and realistic characters who populate a world that seems both monstrous and terrifyingly real. And, as with reality, the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour are all too blurred. Without giving any spoilers here, there are some shocks in store for the reader and, by the novel’s end, it was increasingly difficult to distinguish who (if anyone) held the moral high ground.

Although not without its faults, The Red Word is an extremely accomplished and compelling novel. It shocked, disturbed, and amused me in equal measures. Like Jo Baker’s The Body Lies, which I reviewed last week, it gave me the rage in all the right ways. And, most importantly, it encouraged me to think – to unpick the tangled knots of mortality that Henstra has woven into the fabric of her narrative. Make no mistake, The Red Word is a complex book and, as such, requires a complex response of its reader. But it is a deeply worthwhile and extremely rewarding read for those that take up the challenge. Definitely a novel that merits repeated reading, and intense discussion with friends, this is a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the final page.

The Red Word by Sarah Henstra is published by Tramp Press in trade paperback and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this blog tour. The tour continues until July 6 2019 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

The Red Word BT Poster

Blog Tours · Reviews

The Body Lies by Jo Baker

The Body Lies CoverWhen a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start away from the big city and the scene of a violent assault she’s desperate to forget. But despite the distractions of a new life and single motherhood, her nerves continue to jangle.

To make matters worse, a vicious debate about violence against women inflames the tensions and mounting rivalries in her creative writing group.

When a troubled student starts sending chapters from his novel that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the professor recognises herself as the main character in his book – and he has written her horrific fate.

 The Body Lies is one of those brilliant books that gave me the rage in all the right ways. Like Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power, it is a searing indictment of contemporary sexual politics.

Jo Baker has written a deeply troubling and important novel that deftly explores consent, power and entitlement, examining how multiple pressures and societal judgement often combine to subjugate female voices and deny the truth of many women’s lived experiences.

Her narrator, a young writer who has been a victim of a violent assault, is hoping for a fresh start in the countryside and accepts a post as a creative writing tutor at a remote university. Her arrival there is far from easy however and she is soon overloaded with additional responsibilities and unsupported within an increasingly toxic managerial environment. Meanwhile her relationship with her husband, still living and working in the city, is becoming increasingly distanced and fragmented whilst one of her students, a troubled young man, is writing disturbing fiction that seems to be about her.

What struck me the most about the situation that the novel’s protagonist finds herself in is how everyday it is – it could happen to any of us. The vulnerability that is inherent in everyday female experience and the resultant threat of sexual violence and societal judgement is ever-present throughout the novel.

It is telling that, by turning a blind eye to her predicament, or excoriating her in order to protect their own reputations, the people who should have supported Baker’s narrator the most are the ones who leave her isolated and at risk. Most striking to me was the reaction of a male colleague, and apparent friend, who, on hearing that Baker’s young protagonist faces disciplinary action over her ‘relationship’ with her troubled student, immediately thinks of his own feelings towards her and accuses him of leading him on.

Later in the book there is a line about “giving up” that felt like punch to the gut. It’s almost a blink and you’ll miss it moment, the narrator reflecting on the events that have led her to that point only because she has been directly asked about them by a sympathetic police officer. But that line encapsulates so much about the way in which violent men are often excused of their actions, whilst the women they assault are judged for them.

As you can probably tell, this is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Whilst never gratuitous in its violence, amidst Baker’s accomplished and lyrical prose there is an undercurrent of menace in The Body Lies that is never far from the surface. And, given the nature of the subject matter, the book comes with trigger warnings for sexual assault and violence. That said, I feel that The Body Lies is a deeply important book and deserves to be widely read, although its content may well unsettle and trouble readers. But, for me anyway, it was a good kind of troubling.

As I said at the start of this review, The Body Lies gave me the rage in a good way. As with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, everything that happens within this novel could happen. It shouldn’t but it could. The Body Lies is a book that wrests back control of that narrative, casting an unflinching spotlight on the way women are forced to navigate the world and the gaze that falls upon them as they do. It is a raw and challenging novel that deserves to be widely read by anyone seeking to confront this imbalance and make a difference to that lived experience.

The Body Lies by Jo Baker is published by Doubleday and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers, including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. The tour continues until 28 June 2019 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and other content!

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Author Q&A

AUTHOR Q&A!! Back to Reality by Mark Stay and Mark Oliver

Back to Reality CoverWrong time, wrong place, wrong body…

Jo’s world is about to change forever, and it’s about time

Her marriage is on auto-pilot, daughter hates her, job sucks and it’s not even Tuesday.

As Jo’s life implodes, a freak event hurls her back through time and space to ‘90s Los Angeles where, in a parallel universe, she’s about to hit the big time as a rock star.

Jo has to choose between her dreams and her family in an adventure that propels her from London to Hollywood then Glastonbury, the world’s greatest music festival.

In her desperate quest, Jo encounters a disgraced guru, a movie star with a fetish for double-decker buses, and the biggest pop star in the world… who just happens to want to kill her.

Back to Reality is the brainchild of author and screenwriter Mark Stay and fellow Brit and inspirational non-fiction author, Mark Desvaux (who writes fiction as Mark Oliver). I’m delighted to welcome both authors to The Shelf today to tell us a little more about their bestselling book, and the unusual genesis for it!


Welcome both! First things first, can you tell us a little bit about Back to Reality?

MARK S: It’s a fun, pacy, page-turning read about second chances. Our protagonist Jo is forty-two, stuck in a rut, humiliated and facing the sack when a Back-to-the-Future-meets-Freaky-Friday body swap event happens and hurls her back to nineties where she becomes her twenty-four-year-old self on the verge of rock stardom. And there’s a funny bit with a cow.

Back to Reality has a rather unusual genesis as it is the result of your participation in The Bestseller Experiment podcast. Can you tell us a little about the podcast, and how the writing of Back to Reality came out of that?

MARK S: I wrote a movie called Robot Overlords, and then wrote the novelisation, and lots of old friends got in touch and one of them was Mark Desvaux. He told me that he had always wanted to write a novel but he had never got beyond twenty-thousand words. Well, one thing led to another and suddenly we’re running a weekly podcast and writing a novel together! The challenge was to write, edit and publish a novel in twelve months and get a Kindle bestseller flag. More importantly, we challenged our listeners to beat us to it and many of them did! In fact, this week one of our listeners, Lorna Cook, hit the overall number one spot on the UK Kindle chart with her debut novel. It’s been amazing watching our listeners’ careers jump into orbit.

How did you find the experience of co-writing Back to Reality and did you feel that this changed the eventual feel and style of the book in any way?

MARK D: Co-writing is a completely different experience to writing solo. It has incredible challenges but also incredible benefits. We pretty much plotted out the whole novel upfront – 50,000 words! – but it helped us know which way the story was going, and probably prevented some pretty interesting debates down the road. The best part about working together was when we were bouncing ideas off each other. It is one thing to play with an idea in your head, but it’s great fun throwing it out there and then hearing the other person run with it and up the stakes even further. It is definitely a case of the sum of the parts…

We had so much fun coming up with challenges for Jo, our protagonist, and it was often the throwaway comment that suddenly stuck and became a huge part of the story. I highly recommend for every author to try it, as it takes you outside your comfort zone and you also learn a huge amount form each other.

MARK S: I’ve co-written screenplays before, but filmmaking is such a co-operative experience that you expect to work with other writers, actors, directors. But when I write a novel, it’s my happy place. I can write at my own pace and have complete control and chop and change as I like. So having someone else write a novel with me was hard work! The advantage, however, was it became the book that never slept. Mr. D is in Canada and I’m in the UK, so I would write in the day, hand it over to Mr. D to work on, and then I would wake to find a ton of changes and notes. It was like having an editor sending you corrections every day. It certainly kept me on my toes.

Back to Reality is a heart-warming and funny story that centres around a woman who finds herself hurtled back in time and into a parallel universe, and it very much fits the current trend for ‘up-lit’! What made you choose that particular idea when you set out to write a bestseller? Was it a result of your own styles and previous writing experience, the podcast research, industry knowledge?

MARK D: I love stories that inspire. I think part of the reason why Up-Lit is so popular right now is it counters all the challenges we see every day in media headlines. As I have spent many years coaching,  giving seminars and radio getting people to think about what is really important in their life, I really wanted to make sure the book had that feel-good factor. Like life, it’s is not all plain sailing though – Jo is really put through the wringer!

As two long-time married family men with incredible wives, the book is also a tribute to sacrifices Mums have to make. Looking back, this unconscious choice that developed as a core theme in the book was even more pertinent when I discovered my wife, and Mum of our three children, was diagnosed with terminal cancer just a few months into the project.

MARK S: We put together a spreadsheet of all the things we liked, including music, books, films, and we discovered the common threads in our lives. Music was big, as was Douglas Adams and Back to the Future, hence the rock n roll/time travel themes in the book. If you listen to the earlier episodes of the podcast we did briefly consider writing a Gone Girl/Girl On The Train-style thriller, which would undoubtedly have been a bigger seller, but we’re not big fans of that genre and I think the readers would have seen through that. It was important that the book be a reflection of us and be truthful. And the theme of second chances really resonated with our listeners who are all writers — many with families and jobs — all looking to achieve their dream of writing and publishing a book. We wanted it to be a positive book that readers would recommend to their friends.

In The Bestseller Experiment, you speak to authors, readers and publishers about the key things that go into making a bestselling novel. As Back to Reality has become a Kindle bestseller, clearly the advice worked! What would be your top take-away tips for anyone looking to emulate your success?

MARK S: There are no hard and fast rules, but there are common principles that will help you become a more successful writer. Treat it like a job. The write-every-day thing doesn’t work for everyone, but you do have to put the hours in one way or another. You have to be diligent and persistent. Yes, there will be rejections and bad reviews, but the writers who fail are the ones who give up.

And we found that building a community of writers — like our fantastic listener base — really helps. That doesn’t mean you have to be going to swanky launch parties in London, but you should get to know your local booksellers and librarians — they will have tons of contacts — and go to local writers’ groups and festivals. You will find your peers and you will help one another as you rise together (and then you start getting invited to their swanky launch parties in London!).

How did you go about publicising Back to Reality and turning it from a published book into a bestseller? And has promoting the recently released paperback edition differed in any way from publicising the e-book?

MARK S: We built a small army of beta-readers from our listeners. We had hired an editor and a copy-editor for the bulk of the edit, but we also wanted the listeners to take ownership of the novel and give us their feedback and it was invaluable. We popped a Google doc online and they left us hundreds of notes. It was amazing. It also meant that we had them shouting about the book on social media on our launch day, and that was crucial in getting us those bestseller flags. Since then we’ve dabbled in Amazon, Bookbub and Facebook ads with varying degrees of success. We’ve been very honest about the ups and downs on the podcast, and our listeners — many of whom are published now — have been doing the same.

The paperback gave us another excuse to make a noise and it’s lovely to have a physical book to show people. Marketing the paperback has been more difficult as print costs mean we can’t compete on price with larger publishers, but we’ve had some great support from the likes of The Book Depository and we’ll keep plugging away at festivals and conventions. Next up is the audiobook edition… and we’ve been tinkering with a screenplay…

Has the experience of taking part in The Bestseller Experiment, and the subsequent writing of Back to Reality, altered your writing going forward? And, if so, how?

MARK D: In every way! Our eyes have been well and truly opened by the incredible authors we have interviewed. At last count, they have collectively sold over 350m books between them, so it is the highest level of advice you can probably get. It has been an honour to deep dive with them and we are constantly humbled by their stories of early failures and persistence. It is a good reminder to us all to never give up.

MARK S: I learn something every week on the podcast. It’s like a never-ending creative writing course. It’s helped me find the balance between writing for myself and writing for the reader and keeping them on the hook. I’m a much-improved writer because of the podcast.

Now that Back to Reality is out in the world, what is next for The Bestseller Experiment? Will there be another bestseller forthcoming from the podcast? Or are you both now working on individual projects?

MARK D:  As usual, I have 101 writing projects I want to get stuck into… On my list right now is a non-fiction book on which takes a very different approach to dealing Cancer and a Children’s Picture book called The Marshmallow Bear. I am also busy promoting the book my wife left my children called “The Very Last Monster Book” which has been really well received and apparently was the top-selling children’s hardback in Canada over Christmas

MARK S: People keep asking for a sequel, but Jo’s story is done and we’re happy with it. I published my fantasy novel The End of Magic this year, and I’m also working on new TV and film projects, and I’ve just finished a draft of a new magical fantasy series called The Witches of Woodville. I’m a busy boy!


Thank you so much to both authors for answering my questions about Back to Reality and The Bestseller Experiment.

The novel is definitely a feel-good read that is perfect for summer, and the podcast has had some fabulous guests including (but not limited to!) Joanna Harris, Ben Aaronovitch, and Michelle Paver so makes for a great bookish listen.

Back to Reality by Mark Stay and Mark Oliver is available now in ebook and paperback from all good booksellers and online retailers including Amazon, Book Depository, and Waterstones.

You can find out more about The Bestseller Experiment on the project website, and the podcast is available to download on all good streaming and podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts. 

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