Navigate / search

The Lonely Fajita: Q&A with author Abigail Mann

Welcome Abigail. First of all, congratulations on being runner-up in the inaugural 2019 CWIP Prize for an Unpublished Novel but also Happiest of Publication Days to you! The Lonely Fajita is out as an ebook today with audiobook and paperback following later this year.

You’ve had quite a year. Can you give us an idea of what it’s been like? Is it everything you imagined it would be, or have there been any surprises along the way?

Oh man, it has been full of wonderful surprises! Every time my inbox has pinged with A Good Email, I’ve spent the next few hours wondering if I’ll receive a follow-up saying ‘Sorry, wrong person!’ Ever since I was long-listed for the CWIP Prize, I’ve felt like my approach to writing has been turbo-charged. Each week that has gone by, I’ve felt more and more confident about calling myself an author and feeling part of the comedy scene. The community of supportive readers and writers that I’ve found in the past year has been unexpectedly lovely – everyone seems to cheerlead everyone else and upholds the idea that there’s room at the table for everyone.

How/when did you first hear about the Comedy Women in Print prize?

I know the exact time and date I found out about it, because I took a screenshot of a tweet announcing that the prize was open for entries and half thought: ‘hmmm, that seems like a good fit. I’ll come back to that!’ November 16th 2018, at 3:48pm in the afternoon!

Did you use the prize as a deadline to finish writing The Lonely Fajita or did you decide to write the book so that you could enter? 

Yes, I did! I spent a year planning a historical novel set in the late Georgian period, but when I came to write it, nothing happened – it was like wading through treacle trying to get the words down. I asked my mum what kind of book she could imagine me writing and she said ‘something comedy-ish,’ so I plotted a new idea and planned to finish my first draft in time to submit it into the CWIP Prize. Luckily, the first submission was only the first three chapters, so I furiously spent the next month polishing the whole manuscript just in case I was asked for the rest. Without the deadline, I think I would have spent the best part of two years dipping in and out of it, umm-ing and ahh-ing.

Can you tell us what The Lonely Fajita is about in one or two sentences?

*clears throat*

The Lonely Fajita is a feel-good story about when Tinder and geriatric love collide. It follows the story of Elissa, who moves in with sweary pensioner Annie after signing up to a live-in home companionship scheme. After a strained start, the two women develop an unlikely friendship and where they teach each other how to how to find a less isolated way to live.

Which character arrived first – Elissa or Annie, or a different one altogether?

Elissa came first, and like a lot of protagonists, she’s 30% me, 30% people I know, and the rest made up. I wanted to explore how someone like Elissa, who often second guesses herself, would fare when thrown together with Annie, who is forthright and infuriatingly stubborn. They both had a clear sense of direction, so writing scenes where they were both together came easily, like commentating a tennis match. Read more

Book Review: The Lonely Fajita by Abigail Mann

It’s publication day for Abigail Mann’s debut novel, which was runner-up in the Comedy Women in Print Prize 2019: The Lonely Fajita is a story about how finding yourself with nowhere else to go just might lead you to the very place you need to be.

It’s Elissa’s birthday, but her boyfriend hasn’t really noticed – and she’s accidentally scheduled herself a cervical smear instead of celebration drinks. Great.

Then there’s her borderline-psychotic boss, the fact she’s not making but losing money at work, and her sinking feeling she’s about to be dumped.

But Elissa will soon find out that being single doesn’t have to be lonely… And with a little help from her friends, even a girl with minus £1,000 in her account can have a lot of fun.

When we first meet Elissa, she’s not exactly living the dream in London; her accommodation arrangements are precarious, her boyfriend isn’t being very attentive, and her job doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere close to a living wage, let alone any kind of job security.

I wasn’t sure about Elissa at first but to be fair, she’s nowhere near her best and is drifting towards becoming The Lonely Fajita of the title. But I liked her voice from the outset and there were glimmers of hope in the character’s use of humour, which hinted at someone with more spirit and fight in them, and friends Maggie and Suki, who are there for her when she needs them, pushing her out of her comfort zone every time it looks as if she’s retreating into her duvet cocoon.

It’s when the crunch point comes and Elissa is forced into making a move she initially views as an admission of failure that the pace really starts to pick up, the humour comes into its own and the story changes tack from where I thought it was headed. And I love when a book and its characters surprise me in this way with a shift in direction, bringing with it a whole new energy.

One of The Lonely Fajita‘s strengths comes from the brilliant community of characters which Abigail Mann creates around her main character Elissa. They carry you through the book until Elissa starts to find her way. And here they come in the form of antagonistic housemates and a motley crew of work colleagues to real families and neighbours separated by misunderstandings, as well as emotional and geographical distance. My personal favourites were Maggie and Suki, as mentioned above, together with Annie, George and Rodney. And I did take a perverse pleasure every time cringeworthy Craig crept onto the scene. Read more

Book Review: Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

Born Survivors tells the story of three remarkable young women whose lives were first diminished, and then devastated, when the Nazis swept through Eastern Europe intent upon their annihilation, but which they somehow found the resilience to outlast and survive.

Among millions of Holocaust victims sent to Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1944, Priska, Rachel, and Anka each passed through its infamous gates with a secret. Strangers to each other, they were newly pregnant.

Born Survivors follows the mothers’ incredible journey – first to Auschwitz; then to a German slave labour camp; and finally, as the Allies closed in, their hellish 17-day train journey with thousands of other prisoners to the Mauthausen death camp in Austria.

While Priska, Rachel and Anka all make the journey from Auschwitz to Mauthausen, these women start out as strangers to each other and remain so even once the war is over. They may have been aware that there were other (expectant) mothers on their transport but they weren’t about to seek each other out and bond over their shared status when its very existence was the difference between life and death.

Wendy Holden sets herself a difficult task in telling all three stories in one book but it’s something I think she manages to do extremely well. Some readers may not like the repetition that arises from the commonalities within their stories but I believe it’s there for a reason, and had the desired effect on me.

Taking each woman in turn, Holden first details what their lives and those of their families would have been like from a time when the Nazis were still only considered to be a German problem, right up until each woman’s arrival at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

These opening sections are longer than others in the book but vitally important for two reasons: they helped me build a picture of the women’s lives before the Nazis took control, the individual hopes and dreams of the young women, their aspirations, and their family’s place within their local community and society as a whole; and then I watched as the Nazis came in and introduced each new restriction which systematically dismantled and destroyed all of that. It was truly chilling.

Read more

Book Review: Part of the Family by Charlotte Philby

Charlotte Philby found the inspiration behind her debut novel in a question that arose from her grandfather’s notorious defection to Russia in 1963: what kind of person walks out on their family?

On the surface, Anna Witherall has the perfect life. Married to her university boyfriend David, she has an enviable job, beautiful home, and gorgeous three-year-old twin daughters, Stella and Rose. Their competent and capable nanny, Maria, is practically part of the family.

But beneath the veneer of success and happiness, Anna is hiding a dark secret, one that threatens to unravel everything she has worked so hard to create. Only one thing is certain: to protect her children, she must betray them.

Charlotte Philby recruits a young woman as her spy in Part of the Family, exploring the relationships she has, how the lines blur between what is real and what might be role-play, or even manipulative behaviour, on someone else’s part. When that woman becomes a mother, she examines whether maternal instincts automatically kick in, especially where childbirth and the postpartum period aren’t easy. She also considers the decision to break ties and whether it’s any more difficult for a mother to leave her children than it is for a father to walk out on his family.

The actual business interests that form the subject of the espionage were a little sketchy and confusing at times but this didn’t bother me too much because I found them to be of secondary interest to the web of relationships around Anna, who is at the heart of the novel.

This is where Part of the Family works particularly well and comes into its own. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to untangle all the relationships and work out who was playing it straight, who was not to be trusted or potentially spying on someone else or possibly even playing a double game, who might be paranoid or controlling, or who might simply be concerned for the children of the house and/or someone else’s welfare.

It’s difficult to work out if or how far Anna goes native, to what extent she makes conscious decisions affecting her life, and how much she remembers she has been recruited for a specific purpose. It’s also hard to gauge how much others suspect or know what she’s doing, who for and why. It was satisfying to see how it all unravels by the end. Part of the Family is an edgy family drama with its tangle of relationships unspooling in a clammy climate of deception and mistrust.

Part of the Family by Charlotte Philby is published by The Borough Press, a Harper Collins imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook, in hardback (as The Most Difficult Thing) and paperback. It’s the May 2020 Thriller of the Month in Waterstones Books of the Month. You can also find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. For more information on Charlotte Philby and her work, visit her Author Website or find her on Twitter.  

My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley. This is a repost of my review of the hardback to reflect the change in title for the paperback edition.

Book Review: Keep Him Close by Emily Koch

Emily Koch’s second novel Keep Him Close focuses on mother-son relationships and the dynamic between two women as they try to unravel what happened on a night out which goes very badly wrong.

Alice’s son is dead. Indigo’s son is accused of murder.

Indigo is determined to prove her beloved Kane is innocent. Searching for evidence, she is helped by a kind stranger who takes an interest in her situation. Little does she know that her new friend has her own agenda.

Alice can’t tell Indigo who she really is. She wants to understand why her son was killed – and she needs to make sure that Indigo’s efforts to free Kane don’t put her remaining family at risk. But how long will it take for Indigo to discover her identity? And what other secrets will come out as she digs deeper?

Having loved Emily Koch’s debut, If I Die Before I Wake, I was keen to read more from her, and Keep Him Close didn’t disappoint.

Koch again limits her cast of characters to a small group and manages to ramp up a similar sense of jeopardy, with time running out to find answers to the core mystery. The action’s not restricted to a hospital room, as it was in Koch’s debut though, and this allows her characters more freedom to move around Bristol and beyond, propelling the action forward and making this novel feel less claustrophobic than its predecessor.

While the complexity of the mother-son relationships here is fascinating, it’s the dynamic between the two mothers, Alice and Indigo, each coping in her own way with the aftermath of that fateful night out their sons went on, which is key to what makes the book work so incredibly well.

Their unequal relationship serves to provide a unique perspective on Alice; we see her character and behaviour through Indigo’s eyes before she discovers who Alice actually is, and attaches any prejudice or pre-conceived ideas which we might have about her. Read more

Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea is about people, exiled not once but twice, who are determined to survive and even thrive in their adopted countries, and what home signifies.

Victor Dalmau is a young doctor when he is caught up in the Spanish Civil War, a tragedy that leaves his life – and the fate of his country – forever changed. Together with his sister-in-law, the pianist Roser, he is forced out of his beloved Barcelona and into exile.

When opportunity to seek refuge arises, they board a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to Chile, the promised ‘long petal of sea and wine and snow’. There, they find themselves enmeshed in a rich web of characters who come together in love and tragedy over the course of four generations, destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world.

Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, commissioned the SS Winnipeg to bring 2,000 exiles from the Spanish Civil War to new lives in South America shortly before the Second World War.

Allende remembers hearing the story as a child but it was only years later, when she met one of its passengers, Victor, that she felt compelled to tell their story. Both he and Allende were political refugees and it’s perhaps this, the fact that she’s no stranger to exile and displacement herself, which makes the resulting novel a far more intimate and compassionate story than its sweeping scope suggests.

Victor Dalmau’s namesake provided the inspiration and background but these characters are very much Allende’s own creation; complex creatures who come alive on the page with all their resilience, flaws and redeeming qualities.

Their journeys show what a wrench it is to leave everything behind, not knowing if they will ever see their homeland or friends and family again, the conditions they endure along the way and how little they have to establish themselves with in their adopted countries, where their status will always be ‘other’.

It’s such an involving narrative, I felt as if Allende were confiding in me. She drew me into these people’s lives and relationships; I watched, even championed them on each time they rebuilt and redefined home.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende is published by Bloomsbury and is available now as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it instead from Hive where each purchase you make helps to support your local independent bookshop. For more on Isabel Allende and her writing, check out her Author Website, find her Facebook Page or follow her on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher and LoveReading for providing me with a review copy. 

Why I’m Supporting Quick Reads 2020

Nut Press is proud to support Quick Reads

Quick Reads first launched in 2006 and is a project run by The Reading Agency. Working together with top authors, it produces six books each year; short books with simple vocabulary that help ease you into reading for pleasure or help you rediscover your love of books.

In Wales, four books are produced each year – two in English and two in Welsh, in an initiative run by the Welsh Books Council and supported by the Welsh Assembly. The books for this year are due to be published next month. 

If you’re an EFL/ESL teacher, they’re invaluable teaching aids and great books to use with intermediate students who want to read books in English but find a full-length novel daunting. Quick Reads help to bridge the gap between reading passages and text for comprehension and meaning in students’ text books and attempting to read a full-length novel for pleasure, but which also helps expand their vocabulary and language skills.   

The beauty of a Quick Reads book is that vocabulary is pitched at the right level for an intermediate learner and the length means they are likely to be able to finish reading the book within the framework of a one or two-week course. And the fact that they can finish one or more over the length of a summer course gives the students a real sense of achievement and boosts confidence in their ability. 

At one point, it didn’t look as if there would be a Quick Reads 2020. But then author JoJo Moyes stepped in to save the initiative, putting in her own money to keep it going for the next three years. I’m really happy that it is continuing and hope that people continue to support it. I know I will be using this year’s books with students and encouraging others to do so, having seen how excited past students have been to finish a book without constantly having to refer to a dictionary or an electronic translation tool. Quick Reads may be short and look like very slight books but they have been invaluable to me and my students and do wonders for making them more confident readers in English. 

Quick Reads books are available in all good bookshops, online retailers and at your local library. For more on this year’s titles, check out Quick Reads 2020, and for more information on the scheme, have a look at the resources available on the Reading Agency website.W

#Giveaway & Book Review: The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

JP Delaney’s novel The Perfect Wife is an unnerving, skewed story of grief, our obsession with perfection and that with work, AI and our digital footprints, relationship double standards, and conflicting child-rearing approaches.

Abbie wakes in a hospital bed with no memory of how she got there. The man by her side explains that he’s her husband. He’s a titan of the tech world, the founder of one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative startups. He tells Abbie she’s a gifted artist, a doting mother to their young son, and the perfect wife. 

Five years ago, she suffered a terrible accident. Her return from the abyss is a miracle of science, a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that has taken him half a decade to achieve. 

But as Abbie pieces together memories of her marriage, she begins questioning her husband’s motives – and his version of events. Can she trust him when he says he wants them to be together for ever? And what really happened to her, half a decade ago?

JP Delaney takes us to Silicon Valley in his latest novel and where better to explore the line between what’s human and what machines are capable of, where machine learning can help improve our understanding of ourselves and where it falls short. It’s the perfect technology sandbox for a writer who is adept at exposing what lies behind the perfect facades we think we see, and for delving into the darkest corners of our minds and behaviour.

JP Delaney shows us how quickly lines (and boundaries) can blur and where difficulties in not only navigating, but also in regulating the use of AI and controlling our social media footprint may lie. He highlights how blinkered grief, work and obsession can make us, how dangerous they can be when they run (almost) unchecked. He also pits two parents against each other, each with a differing view on how to raise their autistic child and some scenes dealing with controversial teaching methods made for especially uncomfortable reading, which I’ve no doubt was intended. Read more

Book Review: Nine Elms by Robert Bryndza

Nine Elms is the first in a brand new series from Robert Bryndza featuring a former police detective who solved a career-defining case only to have it drastically alter her life.

Kate Marshall was a promising young police detective when she caught the notorious Nine Elms serial killer. But her greatest victory suddenly became a nightmare.

Fifteen years after those catastrophic, career-ending events, a copycat killer has taken up the Nine Elms mantle, continuing the ghastly work of his idol.

Enlisting her brilliant research assistant, Tristan Harper, Kate draws on her prodigious and long-neglected skills as an investigator to catch a new monster. But there’s much more than her reputation on the line: Kate was the original killer’s intended fifth victim . . . and his successor means to finish the job.

Robert Bryndza cleverly chooses to open Nine Elms by first going back fifteen years and showing us how the end game to that altogether life-changing case played out. In visiting the crime scene of the killer’s most recent victim and the scenes which follow, we not only get a sense of the brutal crimes committed but we also see Kate Marshall as she then was, how she uncovers who the killer is and the way she interacts with him in those critical moments immediately after making her discovery. These are key to helping us understand just how much she has had to give up and how greatly the case impacted upon her life and career.

I was intrigued as to how Kate was going to investigate the copycat killings since she’s no longer in the police force but a request for a second opinion from a guest lecturer on her course and a plea for help in a cold case from the parents of a missing girl provide Kate and her research assistant Tristan with a seemingly innocuous and credible way in to begin their investigations.

I would have liked to have known a little bit more about Tristan in this first book but hope to discover more about him as the series continues. The relationship between him and Kate could be interesting, too. Kate clearly trusts and values him enough to open up to him and involve him so closely in the investigations and, while I think she asks a lot of him, she does check in with him periodically to make sure he’s okay with what they’re doing and wants to continue. Crucially, she also has his back when his research position looks like being compromised. Read more

Book Review: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

I hadn’t come across Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist before it was shortlisted together with three other books for the Sunday Times / Young Writer of the Year Award. For me, it’s a perfect example of how valuable this prize is in championing talented and exciting new voices while also broadening their prospective reader base. I’m thrilled to have discovered this book and its author when I did.

When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world.

This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist shares some common ground with Raymond Antrobus’ poetry collection, The Perseverance, also shortlisted for the same prize. Both it and some of the poems in The Perseverance give a voice to their author’s generation’s experience of having grown up between the parents’ two distinct cultures which are Brazilian British and Jamaican British, respectively.

Stubborn Archivist bursts onto the page with an urgency which immediately grabbed my attention; the style felt like that of a stranger’s hurried confessional, where they’re confiding in you because they know you’ll go your separate ways afterwards. It almost felt as if I had picked up a notebook or journal someone had left on a train, looked to see whose it was and started reading it anyway, when I couldn’t find any identifiers. And then before I knew it, I was too far down the rabbit hole to put it back down where I had found it.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler doesn’t confine the telling of her story to a straight narrative but instead launches into fragments of dialogue or prose-poetry before bringing in more conventional and longer prose sections that we expect to form a novel. Yet even when using these, she often does away with standard punctuation, and gives her story the white space it needs, switching back and forth between much shorter passages of text as and when the story requires. Read more

%d bloggers like this: