Amanda Jennings, Mona Lisa, the Universe, and Fishfingers…

Today I’m excited to welcome a writer who’s currently taking the literary world by storm with her incredible third book, psychological thriller In Her Wake – the lovely, quirky, talented Amanda Jennings.  Though until recently we’d only communicated via modern missive – Twitter, Facebook – her warm personality shone between the lines.  And when we finally met physically, at her recent book launch, it was like meeting an old friend.  So hello lovely lady, welcome.  Let’s start gently shall we, as all good relationships should.  A nice easy question for you.  Something light to warm us up.  Tell me, what’s the meaning of life and does the size of the universe scare you?


AMANDA – What a question to kick off with! Right, I’ll pour myself a gin and then get to answering it… I was one of those children plagued by the Big Questions. I would lie and worry about what would happen if you got in a space ship and just kept flying in a straight line. What would you happen when you reached the ‘edge’ of Everything. I remember being momentarily calmed when somebody showed me that thing with a strip of paper that you put a twist in and then trace your finger around it and your finger arrives back where it started. The person who showed me this said this was what the Universe was like, that if you kept going you would eventually end up where you started. But the more I thought about it, the more I struggled to envisage it in three dimensions, so the headaches soon started up again.

Now I am a little more sanguine about it all. I know that it’s just too much for us to understand, but am reassured that Science is in charge and, like when we found out the world wasn’t flat, one day, in the distant future, we will have the answer and know what the Universe really looks like.

The meaning of life? Better pour myself another gin…

I am a big believer in life being given meaning with the relationships you make and with the attitude you harness when it comes to Nature and the animals we share our space with. When we’re gone we will be held in the hearts and minds of those we touched. Heaven, for me, is being held fondly in the memory of people I’ve encountered. I read something once that said something along the lines of trying to leave any person you meet just a wee bit happier than when you bumped into them and that if everybody did that the world would gradually become a more wonderful place. Far too idealistic, I know, but it stuck with me. I have no truck with unkindness. I am not a believer in the ‘saying it how it is’ school of thought (or lack of thought). Kindness, compassion, understanding, these are human qualities I aspire to, and I believe that spreading a little bit of joy in the short time we have on the planet is what it means to live. This, and a jolly good dance and a great kiss.

I should follow this up with a really important, deep question for you, now shouldn’t I…

So, tell me, Louise, if you had a superpower for a day, what would it be and why?

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Before I answer your question I have to say that I’m totally with you on being a kid plagued by the Big Questions.  (Might need to also pour the gin here.  What time is it?  Oh, after 9am.  That’s fine.)

I can clearly remember being in the school canteen, aged perhaps six, wearing a paper headband with colourful tassels stuck to it (we’d made them in class, though I don’t recall why) and being worried about the size of the universe.  I couldn’t imagine eternity.  It hurt my brain too much.  But I was worried that one small flaw or thing going wrong might unravel everything and end the world, like if one tassel had come off my headdress it wouldn’t be quite how it should be.

Oooh superpowers?  My instinctive and immediate response was to have the ability to read minds, but then I realised I really wouldn’t want to know.  I’m way too sensitive.  Then my nice side kicked in and I thought I’d love the power to heal, maybe by touch, but it just doesn’t seem quite right to have such a messiah-like quality.  What the hell – I wish I could get my thoughts on paper (or screen) just by thinking them!  Bypass the time consuming act of typing (I’m a two fingers girl, utterly pathetic!) and so write novels by the power of thought!

Since I’ve magically got us on to writing – which I happen to think is a superpower in itself, one with the power to heal and change the world – tell me what was the first thing you ever wrote?  Not as part of your education, but creatively, artistically, by choice?


AMANDA – *Drifts off into dream world* Gosh, sorry, got distracted for a moment thinking about the power to write novels straight from the head. Mind you, for me, it would just be a load of rambling nonsense magicked onto the page, and probably far too many pages to wrestle with! I always wanted to talk to animals. I had this fantasy that if I could tell a wild horse that I wasn’t going to hurt her I could just jump on to her back, knot my fingers into her mane, and gallop along the beach through the shallows with no bridle or saddle and, of course, hair flowing and stirring background music playing…

The first thing I wrote? Well, like many fledgling authors I did spend a lot of my childhood making tiny books, illustrated stories about naughty elves and magic doorways, which was cut to size and crookedly stapled together. As a teen a dallied with poetry and forced myself to write ‘meaningful’ diary entries, but diary-keeping wasn’t a passion of mine, so it was very sporadic and fabulously self-absorbed, as you would expect from an idealistic fifteen year old. But the first piece of writing that made me think ‘my goodness, I love writing’ was a short story I wrote in the middle of the night at university. I used to get up sometimes and paint if I couldn’t sleep, but this time, not sure why, I picked up a pen and paper. It was all about people staring at the narrator, she wished they would leave her alone, or look at her for something other than her looks and her fame, and that when they looked they weren’t really looking, not at her, not the real her. At the end of the story it’s revealed that the narrator is the Mona Lisa. I imagine if I read it back now I’d be horrified by it, but at the time it was a piece of writing that took me to that special place where time flies past and you aren’t aware of it. There was a bit of fire in the belly.

Speaking of the first thing we write, I’d love to know how things are coming along with your next book. As you know, I adored How to be Brave, and was transfixed by your writing, and I’m extremely excited to find out more about your next one. Did you struggle with the infamous ‘second album syndrome’?


I absolutely agree that in having the power to get novels straight from the head onto paper (or screen) it could be messy.  But I’d have so much fun editing that raw creation, shaping it into something special.

I so see you on a wild horse.  I bet you do have that power, secretly, you just don’t know it….

Oh gosh, I too wrote little notebooks full of stories and pictures.  There was always a contents page, a proper ‘posh’ prologue, and usually some sort of afterword too.  As a young teenager I wrote two full novels – one in first person present tense after my English teacher said it just wasn’t ‘done’.  It’s dangerous to tell me you shouldn’t do something, or that it’s not possible.  I just see that as a challenge.  I wish I still had those novels.  One of them made my friend cry and I absolutely knew this was what I wanted to do – not make people cry, you understand, but get a reaction to my writing.  Make readers feel something.  Also, writing is the most joyful thing in the world.  Can never imagine not doing it.

Oooh, the next book?  Well, The Mountain in my Shoe kind of existed before How to be Brave.  I had already written a first draft about three years ago.  But it’s changed a lot since then because I’ve learned so much more, both by reading and writing, and also by living.  Because isn’t living the most important part?  So yes, I’m still experiencing the dreaded ’second album syndrome’ in that I’m terrified it won’t be as ‘good’ as How to be Brave, which I’m so proud has received some great feedback.  The Mountain in my Shoe was inspired by my time volunteering with children in the care system.  Many of these children have a Lifebook.  This is a book where all the carers, absent parents, foster parents and social workers write up that child’s history so that when they’ve grown up they know what happened in their childhood.  I always thought what an amazing way that would be to tell a story.  So a Lifebook forms one of three narratives in the novel, alongside that of Bernadette whose husband has gone missing on the very night she planned to leave him, and that of ten-year-old Conor who has also disappeared.

Shall I let you into a secret about both books?  The titles in both cases are an actual phrase that a child in the novel says.  It wasn’t intentional.  It just happened that each child said something profound that I loved.

Tell me – do you think you’ve written your best work yet?  Do you feel there’s an even greater novel waiting for you – if that’s possible after In Her Wake, which I have a limited edition hardcopy of, signed with boobs drawn in, much to the chagrin of our lovely publisher Orenda Books!  Is there an idea for something you haven’t written yet that both terrifies and excites you?


AMANDA – That’s so interesting about The Mountain in My Shoe, because it’s the same thing as In Her Wake. In Her Wake, was about seven years ago, called The Merrymaid and I. It’s the book that attracted my agent, but sadly we couldn’t find a home for it. But when I finished my second book I kept thinking about The Merrymaid and went back to it. I did exactly what you describe, rethought and rewrote it using the knowledge that I gained from the books I’d published. I’m so glad it wasn’t published back then.

I am in love with the idea of there being The One book I have to write, that I was born to write, and I’d like to think I will keep improving my writing and my storytelling. I think I’d like to write a sweeping, literary, duel timeframe book set in a culturally diverse place during one of the wars. My mother’s best friend, who I spent a lot of time with growing up, is Iranian and her father was a General who had to escape the regime. The way she described Persian culture and history when I was younger was intoxicating, and the feasts she would prepare were so exotic and delicious. So perhaps a book that has connections to 1950s Persia in some way. But having said all this, there’s a big part of me that would love to write a dystopian, post-apocalyptic book in which I could really let my imagination run free!

Is there something, other than writing, that frees your creativity and imagination, Louise?

Amanda Jennings

I do think a lot of first novels aren’t first novels; they’re simply the first novel that was lucky enough to be published.  I really did get a strong feeling when writing How to be Brave that it would be the one.  The first novel I wrote (as an adult) is the one that got me an agent back in 2012, that sadly she – like your agent – couldn’t sell.  Then she retired.  That book too (called Maria in the Moon) is very different now and means a lot to me, so will hopefully be my third.  I’m so glad you went back to The Merrymaid and I (ha, such a quirky title!) and that we got have In Her Wake.

I agree with you that it might be exciting to write something completely out of my comfort zone.  I really fancy writing some erotica – something beautiful and literary, but absolutely filthy.  One day I’d love to write my memoir to, but very sadly my parents will have to be gone for me to do that.

Every single thing I try and think of that frees my creativity and mind comes down to writing.  I’ve written plays, short stories, the odd poem, newspaper columns, essays, travel pieces, diaries….  Ahhh, I LOVE to travel.  I’ve written some of my best things when away.  If money permitted, I’d go everywhere in the world.  I love being on the sea, or near the sea.  That frees my creativity most of all.  But then it’s my ancestry, isn’t it?

Okay my lovely Amanda, one more question for the cheap seats in the back.  Fishfingers or Viennetta?


AMANDA – I have a sweet tooth (I love Viennetta, did you see the YouTube video of them being made in the Vignette factory?! Incredible) but on this occasion, and only if I’m allowed sliced white bread, butter and tomato ketchup, I’m going with a four-fishfinger sandwich!

It’s been lovey to chat. Thank you smooch for having me!



Hahaha – I did write a slightly erotic short story called Notes from the Night which won the Glass Woman Prize and I’m sure it wants to be a bigger thing!  (Oooerrr missus.)  Who knows?

Viennetta for me all the way.  Half a one if I can get away with it.

No, thank you, Amanda.  I’ve had a blast.  Can’t wait for our next physical event together, which is May 12th in London everyone, for the Orenda Roadshow.  You bring the fishfingers and I’ll bring the Viennetta….


Bloggers’ Perfect Books…

Book Bloggers can quite literally make or break writers – mostly they make them as they’re such a lovely lot.  They often reveal – via their passion for all things literary – little gems of novels we’ve never heard of, great big fat magical debuts we’re curious about, and old favourites just when we need reminding.  So I decided to ask a few of them what, in an absolutely perfect world, they want from a book.  And if they could think of any books that actually achieved this, well, even better.  Feel free to sniff around their incredible blogs too, as I’ve included those for your pleasure.  Enjoy!


Victoria Goldman


I love books that enable me to get inside the characters’ heads. I want to feel their pain, grief, anger, excitement and laughter, not just read about their emotions. This doesn’t mean I have to like the characters, but I want to believe in them as if they’re ‘real’ people.

If it’s crime, action or a psychological thriller, I want to gasp out loud, my heart to race and my head to spin. Two books that have recently intrigued me from beginning to end are All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker (out in July) and Sarah Hilary’s Tastes Like Fear.

Ideally I want to learn something when I read too, about the location or background to the story, for example. That’s why I love the Dark Iceland series by Ragnar Jonassen, who writes vivid descriptions of the setting, as well as fascinating plots. Snowblind is the first book in the series.

And finally I also love beautiful writing that leads me to read the book again and again. These books tend be those that have touched me in some way, so that I’m thinking about them long after I’ve read the final page (and I’ve usually shed some tears at some point too). One book that’s left me feeling this way recently is In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings, which is simply stunning – I’ve read it twice so far.

 Visit Victoria’s Website


Leah Moyse


I like that total absorption you can get from a book. In a short space of time you can travel to so many places and times. I like a book that takes me away from day to day life and offers me something exciting. I also like characters that are challenging, that make me think and generally those characters would be the ones that I intensely dislike. In summary, I like a book that is a total escape, doesn’t have to be all beaches and margheritas though. I generally favour crime and thrillers. As somebody told me, life can’t be a wedding every day.

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Christina Philippou


In an absolutely perfect world, I would want all of the below from a book:

– Something that makes me see things from a different perspective, be it a different point of view on a well-versed subject, or a completely new combination of topics that I’d never thought about together before.

– A sense of adventure. This doesn’t necessarily mean action, or travel, but more of a sense of being drawn into the book’s world, where things happen in a way I want to follow the protagonists on their (emotional or actual) journey.

– Pace. I like my reads to be pacy. Again, this doesn’t mean that they have to be action-packed, just that the reading has to flow quickly, whether it’s plot-based or character-based.

– Flawed characters. Nobody’s perfect, so I don’t expect my protagonists to be. In fact, there’s something exquisitely hopeful about things working out for the worst and most baggage-laden of characters.

– Tension. I want to keep turning the pages, and constant tension is key to this, whether it’s because of circumstances or relationships.

– Surprises, but not too many surprises. I like to have a bit of mystery involved, but am not too keen when characters I’ve invested a lot in emotionally end up dead (George RR Martin, I’m looking at you)

– A hopeful yet open ending. It doesn’t have to be happy, and I don’t like perfect bows and cherries on top because life doesn’t work like that, but I also don’t want to finish a book and feel both spent and miserable.

– Beautiful writing. This is a tough one to describe, but it includes evocative, original, and thought-provoking phrases and sentences and similes and metaphors at the right place and in amounts that are ‘just right’ for the type of book.

And here’s a diverse selection of some of the ones that gave this to me:

– Bedlam by BA Morton : A crime thriller written in both 1st and 3rd person, with twisted plotting and characters, this makes you question your sanity (as well as the protagonists’).

– The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton : Mystery encased in setting and a masterful approach to ‘peeling back the layers’ to reveal the characters and history beneath.

– The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp : One of my favourite stories as a child, still perfect on re-reading, this narration is a great play on reader prejudices.

– The Corpse Role by Keith Nixon : Two crimes, committed a few years’ apart, told from different perspectives, making you question your expectations.

– You Think You Know Me by Clare Chase : Romance, suspense and the thing that makes it unique – an interesting exploration of friendship and relationships.

– Half Bad by Sally Green : Brilliant and thought-provoking fantasy/adventure, with a lot of tough subjects approached from a young adult perspective.

– The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon : Raw coming-of-age that brings teenage girl self-confidence issues and first love to life with dark realism and pace.

Visit Christina’s Website


Emma Smith


Important things for me generally are around the protagonist. If the main character is a woman she would be a strong feminist who doesn’t need to fall in love or get married to be happy. She should not need a man to define her, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be any romance. I love reading about strong characters (both men and women) who are determined to stick by their beliefs and I guess be someone to admire. Character driven literary fiction is a big hit with me as it helps explore and understand others. You really bond with the character and feel emotional about the story. You celebrate their successes and really feel their failures.

I find that historical fiction appeals to me more because it comes from a time of greater inequality and I enjoy reading about people who are looking for some kind of change in the world. The other genre that works well is dystopian fiction as the central characters are fighting to survive.

Two books I would recommend are:

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale envelops you in Harry’s emotions; the hard graft and loneliness of starting afresh, the love for his neighbours, disgrace, disappointment, betrayal, loyalty, pride, the devastation of war….  Review of A Place called Winter

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is uncomfortable, hard hitting and funny all at the same time. It makes a very difficult message come across with ease.  Review of The Help

Visit Emma’s Website


Sandra Foy


I want a book to take me out of my comfort zone, I want to feel things that I haven’t felt before, to be challenged. The most recent book that did that to me was The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, which was a book that was populated by good people making bad decisions and their tragic repercussions. This book consumed me because I could put myself in each characters position and see how they made their mistakes and why. It left me drained and thinking about it for days after and that’s what I look for in a book. Having said that it doesn’t have to be all sadness and hard to bear, The One-In-A-Million Boy by Monica Wood is filled with themes of grief, loneliness and old age, yet it is written with such a deftness of touch and humour that it is ultimately uplifting and filled with hope. So I suppose I want my emotions engaged by full characters (good and bad).

I also like a strong sense of place, whether that’s somewhere exotic or Bolton on a rainy night I don’t care but I want to feel the place and a good writer can do that.

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Poppy Peacock


I see books as an extra food group… they are vital ingredients to work my mind and nourish my soul.

I always want a good story… that’s the staple part of my book diet: well prepared – well seasoned – the fresher the better – in mint condition – and plated up with style; no missing ingredients or unsuitable added extras and definitely not rehashed lukewarmed leftovers cobbled together or smothered in sauce to hide flaws within…

But then depending on time, place, mood I want different dishes & flavours: the thrill of new experiences or the comfort of resonating ones;  ones that exercise my ability to laugh, to gasp, to cry… to imagine.

What books gave that and why?

 Skipped this as it would be like a War and Peace post… too many to mention!

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Anne Williams

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It’s that “in a perfect world” part of your question that’s been giving me the most difficulty – and only because it’s probably at the core of why I read. Because life is so rarely perfect.  Even when there’s nothing majorly dreadful going on, there are still those little niggles, the ones that get ten times worse when you wake up at 3am and can’t go back to sleep, or those really silly ones like how to get the burnt food off the saucepan or where you put your Matalan card. So I read in order to live in someone else’s world for a while.

Their world doesn’t have to be perfect – in fact they’re often in a considerably worse state than I am – but I love that total escape you get with the very best books, those books where you feel a wrench when they finish, the ones that leave you with a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. That “other world” can be created by so many different kinds of books – I don’t want a fantasy world, not even a different time or country, just a totally different place I can live in for a while before closing the covers with a sigh and getting on with the washing up.

I know some bloggers like to escape through chick lit, thrillers, the historical detail or the beauty of some literary fiction – but I’ve never really stuck to a particular genre. There have been some really breathtaking reads across the board this year and last, but I’m going to pick out the one perfect example of a book that gave me everything I wanted – if I don’t, I’m in danger of picking a list of thirty. It has to be Letters To The Lost by Iona Grey, the book that made me cry with big sobs when I finished it because everything had been so totally perfect, and that made me cry again but with joy when everyone agreed with me and it recently won the RoNA Romantic Novel of the Year. I loved it so much I wish I had a way of wiping my memory and enjoying it again for the very first time – such a special book, that totally sums up why I love to read.

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Beth Webb


I want a book to take me into its world so completely, I forget what is ‘real’. EG: ‘A Gathering Light’ by Jennifer Donnelly and ‘Spindle’s End’ by Robin McKinely. Why do these work for me? I guess the characters were so believable I sort of ‘became’ them in my head – and my heart.

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Shaz Goodwin


I want a book to hook in my emotions and provide an escape from everyday life.  I want to believe that I’m living the life of the characters and that this is my world, no matter the genre. I’d like to have new experiences but also for collective experiences to be shared so that I know I’m not alone in my thoughts and emotions.

Recent books that I was emotionally invested in, identifying strongly with the characters and walking hand in hand with the leads.

Flawed by Cecelia Ahern

The Speed of Darkness (Chronoptika Quartet) by Catherine Fisher

The Silver Tide by Jen Williams

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

The Last Kiss Goodbye by Tasmina Perry

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup

The Birthday That Changed Everything by Debbie Johnson

Visit Shaz’s Website


Linda Hill


What I want from a book depends on my reading mood. I love a cracking plot with lots of twists and turns that makes me think ‘Oh. I wasn’t expecting that.’ I enjoy being taken out of my usual sphere of experience into a world I wouldn’t otherwise inhabit. Sometimes I want a light romance that I know will end happily and not take too long to read.

But what I really want from a book is an emotional pull. I want writing that touches my soul and often makes me sob. It’s about recognising humanity in others, about feeling their pain and their joy and achieving a cathartic moment.

There are many books that have given me that feeling  – including your own How to be Brave but I’m selecting just three that have stayed with me every moment since I read them.

The first book I ever read that gave me that feeling was Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I read it in the glorious carefree teen time between O and A’levels (showing my age here) and I empathised so much with poor Tess’s suffering. It was the first time I’d heard quoted ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ and the first time I think I really understood the vagaries of life and the uncertainties humans face. It was a coming of age moment I suppose. If it hadn’t been for the impact of Tess I don’t think I’d have gone on to do an English degree and teach English for a career. You could say I owe my entire adult life to that one emotional response to a book.

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men also has this effect. The intense loneliness of all the characters and their unachievable dreams make me feel for them intensely. I must have read this novella around twenty times for teaching purposes and I still can’t read the ending without a tear in my eye. Reading it aloud with students used to be so embarrassing as I couldn’t get to the end without a catch in my voice and a tear rolling down my cheek. I recently went with my book group to see a screening of the National Theatre version starring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd and if you’d looked along the row you’d have seen 12 middle aged and elderly ladies all reaching for their tissues. There’s true universal suffering in Steinbeck’s words.

However, the more recent book that has really impacted on me because of its emotional pull is Lindsay Hawdon’s Jakob’s Colours. I can’t stop thinking about it. I think I began to cry quite early on and simply sobbed my way through the rest of the story. I reviewed it on my blog here Jakob’s Colours. There is something about the quality of writing, the sense of colour, the hope amidst the suffering, that resonates with me completely. I think the author Lindsay Hawdon is beginning to wonder if she has a stalker as I keep mentioning how wonderful Jakob’s Colours is all over social media. Lindsay was kind enough to grant me an interview for the first anniversary of my blog earlier this year and which you can read here too Interview Lindsay Hawden. My signed paperback with me quoted in it is one of my most prized possessions.

And to finish – and I know this is a fourth book when I said I was going to mention three – lest you believe I’m totally miserable and morose, I’d just like to mention The Finding of Martha Lost by Caroline Wallace. I adored this read as you can tell from my review The Finding of Martha Lost and it did make me cry, but this time with sheer, unadulterated joy. I found it utterly uplifting and heartwarming. It’s not a book I’ll be parting with.

Visit Linda’s Website


Liz  Barnsley


I want to feel something. Strongly. Be that any one of a range of emotions from sad to happy to angry. Book that achieved that? Well, How to be Brave of course! But The Dark Inside particularly because it just had that indefinable *something*. Anything John Connolly writes usually gets me – Girls on Fire this year I had all the feels for.

Visit Liz’s Website

Finally, my ship…

Like main character Grandad Colin in 1943, How to be Brave is crossing the ocean today. I hope it fairs a bit better on its journey than he did. Right now, seventy-three years ago, he was about halfway through his lifeboat ordeal, with another month until rescue. Daffodils and lighter evenings were brightening home while he and his sea brothers drifted in unbearable heat. The book he inspired has a much shorter and easier trip to reach foreign shores.


On this wonderful spring day How to be Brave is officially released in America and Canada. I feel very distant from it in some ways but extremely close in others. Even though nothing will physically happen to me today, I feel like I’m standing on a pier waving off my baby, my debut, my book.

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I love the US and have visited there numerous times over the years, most recently to New York last year. Apparently if you make it there you can make it anywhere. Does this go for books? We will see. I took my original very first copy of the novel there with me so she has had a little taster of far flung places already. Canada holds a special place in my heart too, even though I’ve not yet visited. My cousins are Canadian and my lovely publisher – Karen Sullivan who made my dream come true – hails from there also.

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At the top of the world with daughter Katy (New York)

So How to be Brave is being shipped now farther afield, across water. Back when I was receiving rejection after rejection for the book my husband said quite profoundly to me, “That rejection wasn’t your ship. Your ship is still coming. I know it.” And just as it did for Colin after a long time on the ocean, it did for me after a long time on a sea of words, thanks to Orenda Books.

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My very first copy of How to be Brave against the morning skyline

Now my book belongs to the world. Bon Voyage!

Buy How to be Brave here (USA)

Buy How to be Brave here (Canada)