Come in from the cold…

In weather like this, we want nothing more than to find a good bookshop and stay there for a few hours. So, we thought the time had come to share some of our personal favourites. Which are yours?

1. Waterstones on PiccadillyWaterstones Piccadilly

Yes, that’s right – our first choice is the biggest bookshop in Europe. But with good reason. Emma used to work here, and can vouch for the cosiness of the first floor (the fiction floor – naturally) from 7am to 10pm. It used to be Simpson’s, the department store that Are You Being Served? was based in, and retains the original lifts (which is why they’re so temperamental). The staircase is a thing to behold, and there are so many snug corners to sit in and floors to explore that you could spend a whole day in here. Which Emma still does, even though she’s not paid to anymore.

2. Skoob in Russell Square

Russell Square is the most gorgeous place to just hang out. The Brunswick Centre houses the Renoir cinema (part of the Curzon chain – renovation has been going on for ages, but we are assured it will be worth it), is flocked by grassy squares and is, most importantly, home to Skoob (books, backwards). Descend the precarious metal stair case at the back of the Brunswick centre to find yourself in a treasure trove of second hand wonders. They have an entire section dedicated to those classic orange Penguins (and green, and blue). One to visit on pay day.

3. Richard Way in Henley-on-Thames

richard way

We sort of feel that we don’t need to do anything for this shop but show you a picture – which we have, right – as it’s the sort of shop that is so quintessentially British that it’s could be straight out of a film set. But it’s not. You will find something for everyone, book lover or not, in this ever changing second hand book shop. Pop in after strolling along the river and browsing antiques shops in picturesque Henley.

Daunt Books Hampstead4. Daunts in Hampstead

Most would go for Daunts in Marylebone, but we’re of the opinion that nothing is better after a long walk on the Heath than a trip to a Good Bookshop before retreating to a snug pub with your new reads. Beautifully curated and always with an eclectic choice of books on display, you’re bound to find something a little bit different here.

5. Foyles on Charing Cross RoadThe new Foyles at 107 Charing Cross Road

The new Foyles premises make for a light, airy and delectable book shop. The old shop was a warren of shelves and floors – it felt like there was always some gem around the corner that you’d stumble upon. Now, you’re bound to spend the same number of hours there, but this time not because you’re lost, but because you simply don’t want to leave. Put aside an afternoon and go to explore.

spa room6. Mr B’s Emporium in Bath

Another where it feels like the pictures say it all. They offer a reading spa service, whereby you get to chat with one of their team over a cup of tea, who will then introduce you to a ‘tower’ of books to peruse with more tea and cake. All in a room that will make book lovers swoon. On top of that, they put on brilliant events. And if you’re just there to browse, you’re also in for a treat – like wandering round a town-house full of books. Bliss.

Writer’s Room Envy by Donald Hounam

I’m a big believer in envy. Particularly class envy. And writer’s room envy.

A few years back, The Guardian’s Saturday Review used to run a small piece called Where I Write. Every week this would feature a photograph of a writer’s workroom, and list its contents: the comfortable chair, the computers, the shelves of awards…

Impressive. Although not half as impressive as Terry Pratchett’s set-up, displayed during a BBC documentary about his struggle with Alzheimer’s. Huge twin monitors, like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise…

Not just impressed. Green with envy.

It’s nearly nine years since I knocked up my first notes on Gifted; in Microsoft Word, on a Hewlett-Packard laptop that’s now hosting a colony of woodlice under a wardrobe in the back

Subsequently, when one of the perks of the day job turned out to be a 17-inch MacBook Pro, I treated myself to Keith Blount’s excellent Scrivener software and mangled the story on an uncomfortable chair at a small table in a corner of the living room of a cramped, one-bedroom flat.

The Pro was a fine machine, but with one significant drawback: it weighed a ton. When I couldn’t work at home, I used to drag it around various local branches of the Caffè Nero. And when Irealised that I was doing my back in, I printed up an outline of what I’d assembled so far, and hand-wrote most of the rest of the book in a series of WH Smith school exercise books. On the three days a week that I worked in central London, I’d stumble out early and get in an hour or so before hitting the office. Other days, I’d traipse up to the high street and scribble away.

My point is, I think, that this must be pretty much the way most speculative novels and screenplays are written: in whatever space and through whatever medium is available; on the fly; on the sufferance of nearest and dearest; and in any free time that can be found between professional and personal commitments. It’s a messy, incoherent business; and it’s very easy to lose track of what you’re doing.

Desk 2 (2)In particular, the material can end up splattered all over the landscape. In my case, there were fragments in all shapes and sizes of notebook, and in files (“Gifted-v07-Jan2010-use-THIS-one”) scattered around several computers. I remember whiling away many happy hours flipping between different versions of the same text, wondering which (if any) was canonical…

At some point I decided that the Pro was, literally, too much to bear, and I lashed out some of my own hard-earned cash on a refurbished MacBook Air. This was a howling success: compact and light enough to drag around with me and still run Scrivener.

Eventually the book was done. And after we moved out of London and got ourselves a little more space, the writer’s room envy has receded.

I don’t have to hog the front room any more. I have a proper desk and a comfy chair. But I still find myself hopping between notebooks, computers, scraps of paper and the margins of newspapers. I can’t honestly say that it makes sense. It’s at least partly driven by the delusion that the grass is always greener elsewhere: that there’s another way of working — a special pen, a clever piece of software — that will magically cause everything to fall into place.

Fat chance.

In Gifted, my protagonist, teenage wizard Frank Sampson, is visited in his studio by his Master, Matthew Le Geyt:

He takes off this expensive-looking grey coat and he’s wearing this even more expensive-looking suit underneath it. He’s about to drape the coat over the back of a chair when he hesitates, runs one finger along the wood and peers distastefully at a smear of chalk dust. He sniffs the air suspiciously and looks round.

‘My God, this place is a mess!’

‘I’ve been busy.’

‘So I see.’ He doesn’t sound angry, just amused in a despairing sort of way. He’s at the bench, with the coat over his arm, staring down at the remains of the cat.

‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘I’m relieved that I don’t have to deal with this sort of business any more.’

Me, I’d rather get my hands dirty. I dread going post-peak.

Matthew sighs. ‘I never understood how you could be so disorganised, Frank, yet such a brilliant sorcerer.’

Frank’s brilliance is an author’s compensatory fantasy and a sort of genre necessity: I feel I have to big up my hero.Desk 1

But the mess…?

Let’s face it, I’m simply chaotic. Receipts, bank statements, cables, pens, notebooks, spare buttons (no idea what for), computers…

I could pretend it’s constructive chaos; but who’s kidding who?

Every time I clear space to work by pushing stuff aside, I tell myself that once Gifted is out and once I’ve bunged off a second draft of the sequel, Pariah, to the grown-ups, I’ll get it all tidied up.

Some hope.

I work like this because… actually, I don’t for the life of me know why. Every year or so, when it all finally gets too much to bear, I settle down and spend as long as it takes sorting through it all. The result is a spookily clear desk and an enormous sense of clarity and liberation.

But maybe I just don’t feel comfortable with clarity. Maybe I need the padding.


Donald Hounam’s novel Gifted is out today, published by Random House Children’s Publishers. We’ve got three copies to give away over on Twitter (@CBBookGroup). 

Book of the Month: Famous Five Ships in Literature

Our book of the month, The Ship by Antonia Honeywell, carries on a great tradition of stories set (or partly set!) at sea. Inspired by this, we’ve picked out three unforgettable ships (and two boats!) from literature. Let us know at @CBBookGroup if you can think of any that we’ve missed, we know there’s a few!

The Demeter, Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

The newspaper articles that report the shipwreck of the Demeter, the hapless Russian schooner that brought Dracula from Transylvania to the shores of Whitby, describe one of the most harrowing scenes of Bram Stoker’s horror novel.  The portrayal of the dead ship’s captain lashed to the wheel, and the recounting of the captain’s log that follows, give readers several of the most powerful and frightful scenes in literature – responsible for keeping at least one of the @CBBookGroup team awake all night!

Noah's ArkNoah’s Ark, Book of Genesis

In a story familiar to many from pre-school, the Ark is built by Noah to save his family and, famously, two each of all the world’s animals from the onset of a great global flood.  One of several ancient flood myths, (find out more in Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah), the Genesis story encapsulates the idea that a great ship can offer both safety and hope at a time of great disaster – a theme also explored in Antonia Honeywell’s novel.

Life of PiLifeboat, Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)

When the Tsimtsum sinks, the sole survivor, Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, takes refuge aboard one of the stricken freighter’s lifeboats.  Accompanied by a hyena, an injured zebra, and an orangutan, the lifeboat is at first an uneasy refuge, but as hunger sets in and a surprise stowaway reveals himself (no spoilers!) Pi’s remarkable sea voyage becomes ever more perilous. One of the great shipwreck narratives, Yann Martel’s novel has been a reading group favourite since publication in 2001 and inspired one of the most visually stunning films of recent years.

Moby_Dick_p510_illustrationThe Pequod, Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is rich with stories of life at sea and the Pequod, the doomed whaling ship of the vengeful Captain Ahab, is symbolic of humanity’s fragility against the great natural power of the ocean. The novel’s climactic encounter, as Ahab chases down a final encounter with the famous white whale, makes for heart-quickening reading and reflects the fears of sailors at a time when sea travel was frequently treacherous.


Boat, The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont (2013)

“Sailing is the art of asking questions,” we’re told in this gorgeous novel. The Starboard Sea is set in an elite boarding school in New England, right on the coast, in 1987. Jason, our troubled protagonist, has a deep love of sailing (and this book has some of the most beautiful passages of writing about sailing that you’ll read anywhere) – of being on the open sea, and taking part in competitions. But sailing has let him down. Being aboard a boat resulted in a tragedy that he is struggling to get over. And that is what this book is about. Grounded, as it were, in sailing, this book is one to read for the visceral sensation of being aboard a boat.

The Ship will be published in hardback and ebook on February 19th, by W&N. To find out more about Antonia, visit her website, or follow her on Twitter at @antonia_writes.

Book of the Month: Curtis Brown Creative blog from Anna Davis

This week’s Book of the Month blog comes from Anna Davis of Curtis Brown Creative.  Anna first met Antonia Honeywell, author of The Ship, in 2011 when she joined the writing school’s inaugural novel-writing course.  Lalla, our narrator, embarks on an incredible journey in The Ship, and, as Anna reveals below, the author has been on a remarkable writing voyage of her own.

The ShipAnna Davis, founder and Managing Director of Curtis Brown Creative

Anna Davis“Antonia Honeywell was one of the students on our very first Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course back in 2011 – and what a memorable bunch they were. Antonia’s course mates included Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist), Catherine Chanter (The Well) and some further brilliant writers who I’m sure will be following them into print very soon. So – yes – a smart, focused, talented group – but I can honestly say that none of them – and in fact none of the students who’ve been through our doors since – is more deserving of publication than the wonderful Antonia.

The Ship is a strange, intense, haunting book. It messes with your head, just as the voyage of the great white liner at the heart of the story messes with the mind of the young heroine, Lalla. Antonia deftly manages that very clever trick of making the reader believe completely in the frightening darkly-skewed near-future she has created by peopling it with characters who are utterly real – their emotional complexity vividly wrought, their fears painted large; and by writing her story so very very beautifully.

Antonia is a fab writer. But the other thing about her that I will never forget is her ferocious determination. We’ve never had a student graft harder! While other students struggled to find time to keep up with the course work, Antonia whopped its ass, and somehow managed to find time to read all of the books that co-tutor Jake Arnott and I had ever written, plus the novels by all our visiting speakers, and even the novels written by my (then) husband. And all of this in spite of the fact that she was pretty damn busy at home with her 4 children who – at that time – were all under the age of six. I recall the occasion when, rather than miss the session led by Jojo Moyes and Sheila Crowley, Antonia staggered into class straight from having laser eye surgery, wearing big Jackie-O sunglasses, barely able to see.

But in another memorable session – the class where we gave advice to students on how to write letters to agents – Antonia (usually armour-clad) broke down in tears when it came to reading out her letter. She had worked so very hard on earlier novels and pitched them to so very many agents who’d turned her down or failed to find her a publisher, that she found herself completely overwhelmed and daunted at the thought of starting the pitching process all over again.

It was a momentary wobble though – a small sign that even our hardest working, most determined, most passionate student is in fact human like the rest of us. Two years later, Antonia had finished The Ship, rewritten it several times and landed an uber-agent – CB’s joint CEO Jonny Geller. Her book deal with Weidenfeld & Nicolson followed shortly thereafter, and now we will sit back and watch what comes next …”

To find out more about Curtis Brown Creative and our novel-writing courses, check out Ship will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on Thursday 19th February 2015.

Escape in a Book: Give Away Week

‘A significant pattern change in the weather is on the cards for the UK, with much colder conditions set to develop through the weekend and into next week.’
So said The Weather Network on Friday, marking this week as Extremely Chilly. Not only that- January really is upon us, it’s becoming less and less acceptable to reminisce about Christmas and I for one have already forgotten my New Year Resolution (something to do with ‘chocolate’ and ‘less’). What do we recommend to get out of this slump? Well, books, of course. The power of a good novel to transport you to foreign shores is the perfect antidote to the January blues, and we’ve selected some favourites to give away to you this week on Twitter.
All you have to do is tell us your favourite novel set abroad to win one of the books we’ll be tweeting about this week. Here’s a taster of some to look out for…

The Australian island of Janus Rock is where secrets are created in this heart-wrenching novel.

Sticky, sweltering Mallorca is the backdrop for this highly charged story.









Tasmania and Antarctica are the locations in this atmospheric book.

Lake Como. Enough said.









Our protagonist runs away to Ireland in this novel of secrets uncovered…

Sark, a tiny Channel Island, sets the scene for this sweeping, gorgeous novel.









Travel in time as well as location in Santa’s latest novel.

Windswept Norway may be as cold as here, but this novel will sweep you away.









Paris, Germany, Russia- WWII takes us around Europe in this stunning novel.

Australia is the setting for the wonderful Jojo’s Silver Bay.

Book of the Month: Editor Blog from Arzu Tahsin

This month we’re reading The Ship by Antonia Honeywell.  We’ve already heard from the author in last week’s Book of the Month blog and today the editor, Arzu Tahsin of Weidenfeld & Nicolson reveals more about the story behind the story.

The Ship

Arzu Tahsin, Deputy Publishing Director at Weidenfeld & Nicolson

“A young woman wonders whether the ship her father has procured to carry her family away to safety while London is in collapse, is a myth. Can this vessel of hope really exist? And how soon can they board it?

These are the thoughts racing through Lalla’s mind in the  opening paragraphs of Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship. I was immediately enchanted by Lalla and then intrigued as to what might be going on in this other London. A London very similar to my own, housing the British Museum, Hyde Park and Covent Garden tube, yet viewed through the author’s devastating and dystopian lens.

Just like in the film Bladerunner I could recognise the setting; technology and communication are different, but not that different. London’s great parks and galleries now house the dispossessed and desperate. The British Museum no longer showcases its most valuable treasures and a network of danger lurks underground.

The financial world is in melt down, again, a scenario we can well imagine and the army patrols the streets, trying to maintain some order in the madness, and often shooting to kill.

What stood out for me in Antonia’s novel were the very human choices that had to be made to survive life in this new order. The very notion of staying human has become the greatest of ambitions. But Lalla’s father, a visionary wheeler-dealer, wants to save his family and so choses five hundred worthy people to flee this broken city on a vast ship.

Lalla is faced with the challenge of growing up in an artificial environment created by her father and sustained by his legion of five hundred followers. But escaping is one thing, and  survival quite another. Food is plentiful but other things are severely lacking, like answers to Lalla’s increasingly urgent questions. Where is this ship headed and why will no one tell her what exactly is going on?

The Ship shows a young woman questioning her past, her present and her future as she begins to realise that her Father’s ‘Ark’ is not all that it seems… As things take a sinister turn Lalla realises she must grow up and that is not so easy when the adults around her seem to have left all their humanity on dry land.”

Arzu’s question for readers: “What would you do if you were Lalla? Do you think she’s over-reacting or not vocal enough?”

The Ship will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on Thursday 19th February 2015.   To find out how you can enter our competition to win a pre-publication copy of the novel, and to win membership of our book group for January, just check our earlier blog here.

Featured Book: Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Today we’re celebrating publication day for Alice and the Fly, the brilliant debut from James Rice. We’re delighted to be able to give away a copy of the book in today’s Twitter competition, but first why not find out more about James’s novel in this blog from the editor, Kate Howard.

Alice and the FlyKate Howard, Associate Publisher at Hodder & Stoughton

kate-howard“On the 15th January 2015 Hodder & Stoughton publish Alice and the Fly by James Rice. It is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve read in a long while, and I can’t wait for it to be introduced to UK readers.

It’s a dark, funny and uncompromisingly honest novel about how phobias and obsessions can upend your life. Some of the stories in the book are partly based on memories from the author’s childhood – he was a teenage recluse much like his protagonist Greg. Thankfully, the harder hitting scenes are entirely from his imagination.

As well as writing, James Rice is also a bookseller for Waterstones in Southport, and it’s been wonderful seeing the praise flood in for his first novel from fellow booksellers, bloggers, reviewers and other authors. Helen Walsh, author of The Lemon Grove, says it’s ‘one of the most stunning debuts I’ve read in a long time. The talent behind it is huge.’

If you get a chance to read this special debut, I do hope you love it as much as I do.”

Alice and the Fly is now available in hardback and ebook from Hodder & Stoughton. You can follow James Rice on Twitter at @James_D_Rice

For your chance to win a copy of Alice and the Fly, simply visit our Curtis Brown Book Group Twitter page on Thursday 15th January and retweet any of our publication day tweets about the book.  As usual, this competition is open to UK residents only and entries will close at 23:59 today.