1988. 12-year-old Harper Richardson's parents are divorced. Her mum got custody of her, the Mini, and five hundred tins of baked beans. Her dad got a mouldering cottage in a Midlands backwater village and default membership of the Lone Rangers single parents' club. Harper got questionable dress sense, a zest for life, two gerbils, and her Chambers dictionary, and the responsibility of fixing her parents' broken hearts ....
Set against a backdrop of high hairdos and higher interest rates, pop music and pubertym divorce and death, What a Way to Go is a warm, wise and witty tale of one girl tackling the business of growing up while those around her try not to fall apart.
What A Way To Go by Julia Forster was published by Atlantic on 7 January, I'm really happy to welcome you to my spot on the Blog Tour for this funny and quirky debut novel.
You'll find my thoughts on the book, a guest post from the author, entitled 'Mail Order Queen', and a chance to win a signed copy of What A Way To Go. Entry is simple, just complete the competition widget at the end of this post.
What A Way To Go is a beautiful and vivid homage to the 1980s. Julia Forster introduces the reader to Harper and her broken-up, on the edge, very nearly mad, family.
Although Harper is just twelve-years-old, she has more sense than most of the other adults in the book. She's kooky and funny and smart, she's also a young girl - almost woman, who is dealing with the break up of her parents' marriage. Nowadays, that's not unusual, but back in the late 80s it was still quite rare to have divorced parents.
Julia Forster writes Harper's story with such authenticity, and although I was much older than Harper in 1988, I recognised so many of her experiences, I too lived in a small village in the East Midlands, just like Harper's Dad and the setting felt so familiar to me, with the elderly neighbours and the village fairs and the feeling of boredom and freedom combined. And, coincidentally, there was also a mental hospital nearby, that I saw everyday from my bedroom window. Harper's attempts to ensure that everyone around her is OK are at times very funny, but also allow the reader to see straight into her soul. She's a fixer; whether it is being the only person who talks to the 'strange' elderly lady, or the attempts to find new love for both of her parents, or even allowing her wannabe Vidal Sassoon babysitter to practice on her hair.
Although this is a joyous and quite innocent look at a young girl growing up, it also deals with some very emotional and important issues. Harper takes these in her stride, the adults in her life seem to see her as one of them, rarely hiding the current dramas from her, but it is the slow reveal of events years ago that is so cleverly done, and that create a depth to this novel.
Harper and her supporting cast of wonderfully created characters are captivating from the first paragraph and this author has carefully and skilfully developed them all, incorporating humour and high spirits with affection and emotion.
What A Way To Go is an accomplished debut from an author who I am sure we will be seeing lots more of.
I'm delighted to welcome Julia Forster to Random Things today, she's put together a wonderful guest post for us to enjoy:
Mail Order Queen
It was during the final day of my studies for a Master's degree that I had an idea for a novel. I scribbled it on the back of my A5 diary for 2001. It would follow the story of two friends: Sebastian, an eight year-old boy struggling with dyslexia and Page, an up-town, ten year-old girl. They both lived in Manhattan's Upper West Side, but would move with their families to swanky apartments in Venice. A field trip was clearly required. With my last £300, I booked a flight to JFK, pounded the streets of New York City for five days and fell in love. Well, who wouldn't?
Boomeranging back to my Mum's house, a few days later, I now had the full whack of a £2000 overdraft. I also had a few more letters after my name; I was well on the way to being able to make quite a good anagram out of it, actually. But the gravity of the situation was this: while I may have had an exotic concept for a book in my head, the novel was clearly not going to earn any royalties whilst it was still a fiction between my ears. I had to get a job. And quickly.
The next day I drove to Bath, pressed the buzzer at the door of a children's picture book publishers, placed my CV on the manager's wooden desk and smiled. While I was getting back into the car, my phone rang. I had a job: for the next year I was coronated as the Queen of Mail Order.
It was my job to draft the copy for the mail order catalogues which advertised children's board books, picture books and anthologies. I'd also liaise with the designer, source thousands of names and addresses and manage their mailing across the UK. Not only that, but I was the person who took the order for the books when the phone rang. I was a walking closed loop system. I saw ISBNs and expiry dates in my sleep.
Many years later when I wrote my debut novel What A Way To Go, I gave one of the main characters the job of writing catalogue copy for an advertising agency. Mary is a single Mum living in the East Midlands with a part-time job, depression and a rented house which is being sold from under her feet. Far less exotic than the book set in America and Italy, but by the time I began to write What A Way To Go I had been in the school of hard knocks for more than a decade.
Rather than exploring foreign landscapes, I had travelled full circle and was more intrigued by far smaller and more intimate canvases. In What A Way To Go, I dug into the emotional and internal landscapes of underdog characters, those who are battling against the odds.
In the novel, we see the story unfold from the point of view of twelve year-old straight-talking Harper. It felt fitting that it should be this young and ebullient protagonist who emboldens her mother to go for a new job. To finish with, here are the two of them in a scene where the odds begin to stack in Mary's favour:
'I've been offered a promotion,' Mum says. 'Staff copywriter. Full time.'
'That's brilliant Mum! Congratulations.'
'I'm not going to take it, Harper. I don't think I'm clever enough. Then there's fitting in my OU course which I'm already behind on. And then there's you. It would be longer hours, H, and I struggle to keep up with all the laundry, gardening and cleaning ....'
I'm not about to offer to do all four of these things, but I can make my own raspberry jam sandwiches for my packed lunch, I tell her. I don't need looking after any. Plus Mum's always telling me not to be 'crippled by self-doubt', and that I should 'feel free to be my own person'.
Mum's not convinced.
'What's more important?' I ask. 'Keeping your job of keeping on top of the housework?'
'It's not even our house, Harper.'
Thinking on my feet now I say, 'Ah, but that's why you should take it. You'd get a pay rise?'
'Well, then,' I say, 'Neg-o-tiate.'
Mum laughs, but I'm deadly serious.
What a great guest post; my thanks to Julia for writing this for us. I'd also like to thank Sophie Lambert at Conville & Walsh, Diana Morgan at Ruth Killick Publicity and Atlantic Books for sending my copy for review, and for inviting me to take part in this Blog Tour.
You can win a copy of What A Way To Go, signed by Julia Forster. Entry is open to UK readers only by filling out the competition widget below.
A Signed Copy of What A Way To Go by Julia Forster
Julia studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick and has a Master's in Creative Writing from St Andrews. While at Warwick, she was awarded the Derek Walcott prize for creative writing. She works in publishing, but has also been a magician's assistant in Brooklyn, a nanny in Milan and a waitress in Chartres.
Julia now lives in Machynlleth, mid-Wales with her husband and two children.
Find out more about Julia and her writing at her website www.julia-forster.com
Follow her on Twitter @WriterForster