Book Review: The Girl in the Red Coat

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The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer, tells the story of Beth and her daughter Carmel who is abducted when she is eight years old by an elderly man claiming he is her estranged grandfather. Beth is recently divorced from Carmel’s father, Paul, who left them for his girlfriend, Lucy. Where Beth is bohemian in dress and behaviour Lucy is chic and conventional. Sometimes Carmel would prefer if her mother were more ordinary. She resents that she feels constantly watched and constrained. Beth is doing her best but still suffers the aftershocks of the failure of her marriage. She seeks comfort from like-minded friends. She has not spoken to her parents in years.

Beth is naturally devastated when her daughter vanishes whilst on a rare day out together. The subsequent chapters told from Beth’s point of view cover the shock of loss, the need to keep searching, and then the painful coming to terms and finding a way to survive.

The chapters told from Carmel’s point of view are disturbing due to the situation in which she finds herself. Lies have been told to keep her from trying to return home. She is confused and unhappy but children have little control when the adults caring for them make decisions. She longs for love but can see no practical escape from the circumstances imposed.

Carmel has a gift which I felt was a weakness in the plot. Whilst I accept that there are happenings in the world than cannot yet be rationally explained this was a struggle to go along with. The attempts to monetise what she could do were plausible, but by making her abilities apparently real my engagement with the tale was weakened.

The writing is polished and I wanted to know the outcome so read on. I found the denouement something of an anti-climax. It was not that it was difficult to believe events could be concluded in this way but rather that it felt abrupt. I was looking for more nuance and depth.

I know that many other readers have adored this book so perhaps my expectations were too high. It is not one that I can recommend.

Book Review: Multitudes

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Multitudes, by Lucy Caldwell, is a collection of eleven short stories set in Belfast. As a native of the city and a fan of the short story form I approached this book with high expectations. I was not disappointed.

Several of the stories are told from the point of view of a child and the author has captured both the voice and the conflict of feelings at each age perfectly. It is easy to forget how torrid growing up can be: the desperate loneliness, being unable to articulate feelings, the fear of rejection by peers, of disappointing parents. These stories encompass the pain and pleasure of childhood social success and the damage this can cause.

My favourite story in the collection was ‘Through the Wardrobe’, a moving account of a young child uncomfortable in their own skin:

“You are sad. You’re only six years old but you feel sad a lot of the time, a tightness in your chest that you don’t have words for. Your mum says you’re a sensitive child […] she’ll stay till you fall asleep, you’re safe and nothing can hurt you. But it’s not outside you’re scared of. It’s something inside, and you can’t explain it”

Relationships are explored throughout: the pain of parenthood, the pain of being thirteen and friendless is a world that demands all fit in, the conflict when desire clashes with parental expectations.

In ‘Poison’ a pupil is attracted to her teacher with all the intensity that being fifteen entails. In ‘Here We Are’ two pupils find a love that will not be tolerated in a church lead community.

The writing is breathtaking, taut and rich in imagery. Each character demands empathy, even those imprisoned by their upbringing and beliefs.

I urge you to seek out this book. It is a fabulous work, fulfilling and rewarding to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

Top 10 western/crime books and films that inspired The Long Count

JM Gulvin

Today I am delighted to be hosting a guest post by JM Gulvin, author of ‘The Long Count’. This book is the first in a new crime series featuring Texas Ranger John Quarrie. I review the book here.

As part of the blog tour, JM has provided a list of his top ten western/crime books and films that inspired The Long Count.

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10) IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD

The sixth book in the Dave Robichaux series, but the first James Lee Burke crime novel I read. Set in Louisiana it features the New Iberia detective on the trail of a serial killer, while a Hollywood film about the civil war evokes ghosts of the real dead. Not for everyone but the great thing about James Lee Burke is he’s never bound by what’s expected. He started life as a literary writer and, of course, it shows.

9) HORSEMAN, PASS BY

The book was written by Larry McMurtry, set in Texas in the fifties it deals with a dying ranch and a dying rancher. A tough but sensitive family story about the passing of one generation to the next, it was filmed in black and white as HUD, starring Paul Newman.

8) SHUTTER ISLAND

Perhaps a little far-fetched given one inmate is allowed the run of a mental asylum in 1950’s America, but brilliant just the same. The story of a man who killed his wife, he’s facing a lobotomy only we don’t know that and neither does he. Dennis Lehane wrote the book and Martin Scorsese made the movie.

7) THE HUNTER/POINT BLANK

The book was called THE HUNTER written in 1963 by Donald E. Westlake about a criminal called Walker seeking revenge on a fellow gang member who double crossed then shot him and left him for dead. It was filmed by John Boorman as POINT BLANK and starred Lee Marvin. Both the book and film are perfect examples of neo-noir. The film was remade later as PAYBACK starring Mel Gibson but it’s not a patch on the original.

6) LONESOME DOVE

This is a sprawling novel by Larry McMurtry. He’s a native of Texas and owns a bookshop in the small town of Archer City. It’s an epic western about the first cattle drive from the tiny town of Lonesone Dove, Texas all the way to Montana and features two of the best western characters ever created: Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call of the Texas Rangers. It was filmed for TV starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones.

5) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

This is one of those rare pieces where the book and movie are almost identical. The book is tough, brutal and uncompromising, as is the film. It’s depiction of how Texas was changing in the eighties is brilliant, a local man gets caught in a drugs war and suffers the consequences at the hands of one of the most ruthless assassins ever to grace a page.

Book by Cormac McCarthy – Film by Joel & Ethan Coen

4) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

The book was written by Ron Hansen and (as with “No Country”) book and film are pretty much the same. Hansen is a hugely underrated and immensely talented writer. The film stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. Affleck’s performance as Bob Ford who shot Jesse James in the back when he was 34 years old, is astounding. One scene is worth the whole movie alone, where a fearful Garret Dellahunt encounters the vengeful Jesse. It reeks of unspoken fear. The voice over from Hugh Ross captures the atmosphere exactly and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is brilliant.

3) LONE STAR

No book only a film. Made in 1996, it’s set in a small town close to the Texas/Mexican border. Three stories all rolled into one, the main thread is the murderous exploits of an old sheriff called Buddy Deeds as discovered by the current sheriff, his son. The ending comes from nowhere and by the time it’s over you feel you’ve witnessed something very special indeed.

2) COOGANS’ BLUFF

A Clint Eastwood classic movie made in 1969 about a deputy sheriff from New Mexico who goes to New York to bring home suspect James Ringerman, only Ringerman gets away. A chase through the city, it’s simple but brilliant fare and if anyone wants to get an idea of how John Q might appear, look no further than this.

1) ALL THE PRETTY HORSES

The first novel I read by Cormac McCarthy. 1930’s Texas and a way of life is dying away. Two young cowboys leave Texas and go in search of that same life south of the border in Mexico. John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, they cross the Rio Grande on horseback and what follows is a spectacular adventure, both beautiful and brutal. The book put McCarthy on the map at the age of 59. It’s a love story, an adventure, a coming of age; but it’s the sheer quality of the writing that will leave you breathless and wanting more.

They made a film starring Matt Damon but I’d avoid that altogether and just read the book. It’s followed by THE CROSSING which is arguably better but it was reading ALL THE PRETTY HORSES that set me on my way.

LONGCOUNT_blog   The Long Count

The Long Count is published by Faber & Faber and is available to buy now.

Book Review: The Long Count

The Long Count

The Long Count, by JM Gulvin, is the first in a new series of thrillers featuring Texan Ranger, John Q. The voice in the story telling is very much that of a modern day Texas Cowboy, laid back and fearless with a down to earth and gritty determination.

John Q is a veteran of the Korean War. He is famed for his gunslinging, for having the ability to draw and shoot before his adversary has time to pull the trigger on a threatening weapon. He is also a widower and loving father, a loyal friend who calmly counters the racism inherent in his state by deeds more than words.

Set in the 1960s, when Americans were starting to protest their involvement in the Vietnam War, the book opens with a vicious assault at a lonely railway station. John Q is enjoying a sunny Memorial Day by the river with his friend, Pious, and son, James. They make a gruesome discovery but before this can be dealt with John Q is called across state to investigate the railway station attack.

The assailant is making his way elsewhere, calmly removing those who get in his way. John Q is soon on his tail but with no apparent motive can only follow the bodies left in the attacker’s wake.

Due to proximity, the ranger is first to respond when an apparent suicide is called in. The local law enforcement officers declare it an open and shut case but John Q has other views. When the suicide’s son, Isaac, hears this he gets in touch. Isaac cannot believe that his father, a commensurate soldier from a family of valiant fighters, would ever take his own life.

Isaac tells John Q that he has just returned from his third tour of duty in Vietnam. Not only has he to cope with his father’s death but also the disappearance of his twin brother, Ishmael, who is unaccounted for following a devastating fire at the Trinity Asylum where he was being held. It emerges that Ishmael was the victim of ill conceived treatment by the recently appointed psychiatrist at this institution, but the doctor is determined to carry out his own investigations rather than allow the police to become involved.

The plot twists and turns as links between these events emerge. John Q remains one step behind the killer as the body count rises. An agitated Isaac takes matters into his own hands.

A skilfully written thriller although I did find the teasing out of the denouement a little overdone. I understand the desire to provide a concluding twist, and I had not guessed every detail. My impatience with the number of cliffhanger chapter endings before the final reveal coloured my satisfaction, neat though the ending was.

This is still a worthwhile read. The Texan voice is authentic and adds a welcome variation to the thriller genre. John Q is a fine creation and I will be looking out for the next book in this series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

Book Review: Lord of the Flies

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Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, tells the tale of a group of young boys stranded on a desert island. With fine weather and a plentiful supply of fresh fruit and water they initially relish the freedom from adult control and enjoy their tranquil surroundings. A leader, Ralph, is elected from among the older boys and basic rules are agreed. Shelter must be constructed and a fire lit in an attempt to attract the attention of a passing ship. They wish to be rescued.

As time passes it becomes clear that teamwork is required if tasks are to be completed but the boys are easily distracted. They start each assignment with gusto but are soon drawn into games with their peers. Thoughtlessness results in a large swathe of forest being set alight. One young boy vanishes.

Ralph is frustrated by the other’s inattention, especially to the fire that should be their beacon. Another of the older boys, Jack, believes that hunting for meat is more important and starts to challenge Ralph’s authority. Meanwhile the younger boys are suffering nightmares, spreading fear of monsters.

When Jack succeeds in organising a group sufficiently to kill a pig he expects to be lauded. Instead his achievement is overshadowed by Ralph’s anger at inattention to the fire which was not burning when a ship was spotted on the distant horizon. There is a schism between the boys that will lead to tragedy. The order brought to the island by a lifetime of following rules starts to break down.

“Roger stooped, picked up a stone, aimed, and threw it at Henry – threw it to miss. […] there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.”

The monsters exist but not in the forms dreamed of. They are a thirst for power, a demand for validation, a freedom to indulge the worst aspects of human nature. The boys have been raised to obey, often by coercion. With just a few exceptions, they follow the pack.

As would be expected from a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature the writing flows. The story has a breadth and depth belied by its length. The tension builds towards the denouement, disaster inevitable. It was challenging to read.

Although this story is of a group of young boys it is an allegory for society. Dictators come to power by sewing seeds of fear and then promising a solution in exchange for loyalty. There will always be those hungry for power, unwilling to work for the benefit of wider society. History teaches that they will not be daunted by morality, that they will do whatever it takes to mould the world around their greed and selfish desires.

This book is my March read for the 2016 Classics Challenge.

Book Review: The Travelers

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The Travelers, by Chris Pavone, is a slickly constructed spy thriller that grabs the reader’s attention from the off and doesn’t let go. It is a book that deserves the much overused accolade, unputdownable. From first page to last it did not disappoint.

The protagonist is a thirty-something American journalist, Will Rhodes, who travels the world for a prestigious travel magazine. He and his wife, Chloe, are trying for a baby without success. Little about their marriage seems to be going right. The house they inherited is all but condemned as unfit for habitation and their debts are mounting. His constant travel limits Will’s ability to try to put things right.

On a trip to France he meets a beautiful Australian just starting out in journalism. Will struggles to resist her charms. He soon discovers that she is not not what she seems, becoming embroiled in something he does not understand but which promises to ease his financial worries. The deeper he goes into this murky world the higher the cost to both his personal safety and his peace of mind. He is lying to his wife and she knows something is wrong.

Chloe also has secrets. So does Will’s boss at the magazine, a long time friend. It is unclear who each of these people is working for.

The plot twists and turns as Will’s involvement threatens to unravel decades of undercover operations thereby putting him in danger. Somewhere a secretive surveillance centre is keeping track of every phone call, credit card transaction and travel detail. Assignations are monitored and security cameras studied, but who is watching who and why?

The splash of glamour, the lure of lucre and the idea that undesirables can be disposed of are all present and correct but this is still a tense and compelling read. Somehow the author takes all the familiar tropes and injects them with vitality.

Well written, entertaining escapism. As close to an all action movie as a book can get.

This review is a stop on The Travelers Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

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My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

Author Interview: Helen Fitzgerald

hele full length black top 2016 credit Ria FitzGerald

What if the worst thing you did went viral?

Today I am delighted to welcome Helen Fitzgerald to my blog. Last week saw the publication of her twelfth novel, ‘Viral’, which I reviewed here. The novel’s memorable opening line has merited some discussion. Readers of the book will form their own views about the behaviour of the various characters, something that I would like to think is also being debated by book groups and friends. I wanted to know what the author hoped to achieve in writing about such a fascinating and timely subject.

1. First of all, that opening line. It fits the story, and there are far more shocking events explored in later pages. Are you concerned that it will detract from discussion about what follows?

What opening line? I have no idea what you mean…

Viral is about a young woman who finds that she has suddenly been defined by one stupid act – defined, punished, and ruined: on a worldwide scale. The line is a statement by my character Su – she’s saying Oh my God, this is what happened; this is who I am now. She is in shock, and I feel it makes sense that the reader should feel her shock. The line is the inciting incident and the problem that drives the story to its end. Can she shed this world-wide shaming and redefine herself? I guess I’d be worried if I didn’t feel confident about all the lines that follow. I loved writing Viral. I’m really proud of it all the way to the end.

 2. Have you had any negative reaction to the way you have portrayed young women going abroad for drink, drugs and no ties sex? Do some of your readers object to having to accept that this happens, that it is the public sharing without consent that is offensive?

Not yet, but I’m ready for it! I hope readers will see that misogyny, online abuse, and slut-shaming are the problems here; not young women.

 3. Viral is your twelfth book. As a writer, do you have different expectations compared to how you felt when your first novel was published, or your third?

Yes, when my first was published, I expected to retire to Italy with my millions. Now, I just hope I can write another one.

4. I have read the term ‘breakout’ from others who have read early releases of this book. Does this cause you excitement or concern?

I love my writing career as it is. I’m not under too much pressure. I write what I want, when I want. People don’t take unexpected selfies with me on a bad hair day. So I don’t feel the need to break out. If I sold millions, I’d have to retire to Italy after all, and I don’t want to anymore. I’m happy where I am.

5. And finally, do you have any concerns about the direction discussion about this book may take at author events?

I quite enjoy making people feel uncomfortable – most of my books are about subjects that should unnerve you – so I’m not concerned at all. I’m looking forward to debates, difficult questions, being forced to think harder about certain things… bring it on!

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Thank you Helen for taking the time to answer my questions. Now I need to find out if you will be attending any events near to me!

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‘Viral’ is published by Faber and Faber, and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Viral

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Viral, by Helen Fitzgerald, explores the impact on a family of public humiliation. In a world where image capture is ubiquitous and data can be shared around the world in an instant, it ponders the potential fallout of behaving in a manner that society finds unacceptable. There are those who seek attention on social media, who value high numbers of followers, views and likes. The proliferation of cameras means that privacy is now a rarity. Other’s missteps are regarded as legitimate entertainment with little regard for the effect such sharing will have on the individuals concerned.

The opening line sets the tone. I was concerned that this was merely a shock tactic but the author is savvy enough to build upon the more nuanced aspects of reactions triggered in order to retain the reader’s attention. Many of the subsequent events played out are equally appalling. The double standards highlighted are more powerful for the subtlety with which they are presented.

Four teenage girls go on holiday to Magaluf where they drink heavily, party and seek no ties sex with like minded boys. Leah did not want her virginal, studious, sober, sister to be there but their mother would not countenance this as an option. Sensible Su was to keep Leah in check. Their mother did not appreciate that Leah was the one wielding the sibling power.

On the morning that the girls are due to leave their holiday apartment, Su wakes to discover that a video of her performing sex acts on a circle of boys in a nightclub has been shared on the internet and gone viral. Grabbing just a few possessions she flees leaving Leah to return to their parents’ home without her. Su hopes that if she lies low attention will wane. The views of the video keep climbing. The press becomes involved.

The girls’ parents are distraught. Father wishes to diffuse the situation without truly understanding how to make this happen. Mother desires revenge, to burden the perpetrators with as much pain as her beloved family are suffering. She struggles to come to terms with the lack of protection her profession, the law, offers for victims of this very modern problem.

As Su tries to work through in her own mind what has happened, and to evade the good intentions of her family, Leah steps up to support their parents who are falling apart. The author cleverly shows just how devastating society’s condemnation can be. This is a loving and supportive family but it is made up of individuals. The world outside their walls is eager to feed on details of their history, to judge and to condemn.

The action never stops. The pain that this family has to go through is exacerbated by their inability to control what is happening and the stress this puts them under. It is not just the teenagers who behave foolishly. The reader knows that attempts to fight back are high risk but it is hard not to empathise with the parents’ need to act rather than passively accept a situation they would never have envisaged, a situation which appears to have broken the lives they worked so hard to achieve.

The denouement is neatly executed. It did not leave me feeling satisfied but, under the circumstances, perhaps nothing could. The story vividly paints the imperfect world in which we live.

This is a fascinating subject and the author tackles it with aplomb. The tale is terrifying in its realism with whatever literary licence taken never detracting from the knowledge that this type of nightmare could happen. There must be few who have never done anything foolish. It would be good to think that the thoughts and discussion this book will provoke may trigger a kinder reaction to the next image or video that is shared without consent.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber. 

Author Interview: Elli Woollard

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Elli Woollard writes picture books for young children, poems for the young at heart, and other things, most of them silly. I first discovered her work when I chanced across a poem about cheese on her blog. Finding her in this way was quite ironic as, apparently, she dislikes cheese.

She does, however, like words and is very clever in the way she uses them. Her blog is aptly named Taking Words for a Stroll, and on it she publishes her original poems. Although a great many of these are just for fun, sometimes she will be inspired to write about a serious subject. Her light touch can convey a message with a hefty impact.

She uses her words deftly and they invariably make me smile. I cheered when I read that she is having her first book published later this year as more people will now read her work. In our far too serious lives, getting people to smile and cheer has got to be a good thing.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Elli Woollard.

Oo, thank you! This is my first ever author interview, so it’s all very exciting!

Where do you typically write?

That depends what you mean by ‘writing’. I do most of my actual typing on my computer, which sits on my kitchen table, along with lots of other mess (at the moment I can see a jar of mayonnaise, a bottle of ketchup, a toy train, a newspaper, a clothes peg, some candles, and lots and lots of crumbs). But most of my ideas I ‘write’ in my head before setting down. The inside of my head is just as messy as my table, but without quite so much ketchup. I get ideas at all times and in all places, but they have an annoying habit of popping into my head really late at night when I should be fast asleep. It’s very inconsiderate of them.

Tell us about your writing process.

A lot of my stories and poems begin with a certain phrase appearing in my head out of nowhere. On my blog I describe my work as ‘taking words for a stroll’ (after the artist Paul Klee’s idea of ‘taking lines for a walk’), as what I often do is start with a phrase and then see where it takes me. It’s a bit like having a dog though; I’m not always sure whether I’m taking the words for a walk, or if they’re taking me. At least they don’t leave hairs on the sofa.

I love words and the way they sound, so as well as walking with the words I play with them. I juggle them, try to fit them together like jigsaw puzzles. There’s something about writing in verse that’s immensely satisfying in this respect (especially as I’m extremely clumsy and can’t do actual juggling for toffee).

Tell us about your publishing experience.

I actually wrote my first picture book aged four, and still have a copy. It’s a tragic little tale of how I was trying to teach my best friend to ride a tricycle, but she fell off and cracked her head open. I think I probably wrote it because my friend could ride a tricycle and I couldn’t, and I was very, very jealous!

Beyond that I’ve been hugely lucky. I started off writing just poems, around two years ago, but soon realised that it’s very difficult to break into the market as an unknown children’s poet; there’s not a big demand for children’s poetry, and publishing companies don’t want to take the risk. I’ve also noticed that most established children’s poets seem to have beards, which sort of rules me out.

So that’s when I started writing picture books in verse too. My first attempts were fairly dire, but I received some brilliant advice from a couple of published authors, and eventually started submitting to publishers. One of my stories caught the attention of a publisher, and on the back of that I was able to get an agent. I didn’t know much about Eve White when I signed with her, but I did know that she represented Andy Stanton (author of the Mr Gum books, possibly among the most snortle-inducing books in the universe) so I knew I was in good hands. Eve and her assistant are not only brilliant as agents but are also two of the loveliest people I know, so I’ve really struck gold there.

I don’t think I’m allowed to reveal all my publishing news yet, but what I can say is that I’ve got three books coming out with Faber, about a rather hapless old wizard called Woozy whose spells keep going wrong (aimed at the 4+ age group) and a picture book coming out with Nosy Crow. The first Woozy book is out in October this year; the others come out in 2015. None of them feature children falling off their tricycles and smashing their heads in, although there are some in which children very nearly get eaten.

In what ways do you promote your work?

When I first started writing poems I just kept them on my computer for my own private consumption, and didn’t mean to share them at all. But then my youngest son spilled water all over my laptop, the computer suffered a fast but painful death, and suddenly all my hard work was gone. That’s when I started putting the poems up on a blog, so even if one of my children (I’ve got four) trained a hosepipe on my computer at least my work would still be there.

For me my blog is a little bit like an artist’s sketchbook; it shows what I’m working on, rather than anything particularly polished. According to my daughter my website is rubbish, so I will get a more professional-looking one for my published books.

I post links to my blog on Twitter, otherwise known as the Bane of My Life, because messing about on Twitter is an endless source of distraoo, that was an interesting tweet! I really am terrible. I guess my publishers will have publicity plans too. I hate blowing my own trumpet (my metaphorical trumpet just makes farty noises at the moment), but I think it’s something all authors have to get used to.

What are some of your current projects?

At the moment I’m just having fun scribbling poems, but I’ve also got a couple of story ideas in my head, waiting to be committed to my computer.

Where can my readers find you?

Follow Elli on Twitter (@Elli_fant)

Follow her blog on WordPress Taking Words for a Stroll | Original poems for the young at heart.

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Elli Woollard grew up in London, where she attended a large comprehensive school and wrote silly poems when she was supposed to be learning about Wordsworth. She spent half of her childhood playing the piano and the other half reading anything she could lay her hands on (in particular she loved reading the dictionary, she was possibly a little weird), and these twin interests in music and literature inspired her love of verse. She even came eventually to almost appreciate Wordsworth.

After degrees in social anthropology from Cambridge and SOAS her itchy feet got the better of her and she moved out to Thailand, where she lived for six years. She has worked variously as a teacher of English as a foreign language, a translator (from Thai), a copywriter and an editorial assistant for an academic publisher. She now lives back in London with her four children, her husband and various pets, including a cat that doesn’t seem to realise that it officially belongs to someone two blocks away.

When she is not writing, reading or herding children she plays the piano and sings. The neighbours haven’t yet complained.

Her first book, Woozy the Wizard: A Spell to Get Well, is published by Faber in October 2014.