‘I really enjoyed I Stopped Time – I read it on my Kindle in Canada – loved it! I chose it for my book club and 12 of us spent 4 hours discussing questions from the back of the book – along with single motherhood/women working/photography/Shere – in fact lots of issues. It was the best meet-up we’ve ever had.’ Joanne Downs, Surrey
‘Hi Jane, just to let you know I shared I Stopped Time at my Historical Novel Society Book Club last night, where we were looking at the use of costume in historical novels. I read aloud the passage in which Ma describes to Lottie how she rescued her from the lightning strike, featuring the costumes affected by the rain. The way you weave the costumes into the story, rather than talking about dress for its own sake, was much appreciated.’ Debbie Young
‘By the end of the book, I had become quite an admirer of Lottie Pye and her ardent refusal to be cowed by the inequities of her time. A life well worth exploring and another book destined for my ‘favourites shelf’, in the sure knowledge that there is more to be wrung from this excellent novel.’ BurfoBookish
Questions for book clubs
To help keep your discussion flowing, I’ve put together some downloadable PDFs, which you can easily print out and share. That leaves you to focus on the important matters of the day. As one of Jami Attenberg characters says in her novel The Middlesteins: “What’s the point of having a book club if you don’t get to eat brownies and drink wine?”
Questions for Small Eden – content coming soon
Issues for book club discussions
My main source of inspiration was the cottage I have called home for the past twenty-one years. When we moved into the cottage, the vendors told us that it had been the gatehouse for an estate, and this was certainly the received wisdom, but it didn’t feel right. We consulted a local historian, who was intrigued enough by what he saw to begin researching the history of the cottage. What he had to tell us was far more interesting. It was built (as far as he was able to ascertain) as the ticket office for pleasure gardens which opened at the turn of the century and had closed by 1923. What led a man to embark on such an endeavour after the last of London’s pleasure gardens had failed isn’t written in any history books. The little we know comes from Ordnance Survey maps, census records and a reproduction of a woodcut which hangs in our hall, depicting Edwardian ladies playing a game of doubles on a tennis court, just in front of our cottage.
My instinct was that something from his past was driving him. Of course, had our research been more successful, there would have been no story to write.
The opening hits hard, as Robert loses his two young sons to illness and suppresses his grief and guilt under a veneer appropriate to the stiff-upper-lip setting of Victorian England. ‘What we don’t talk about’ defines his marriage and dictates his relationship with his two daughters – at the start of the novel. The different timelines quickly come together to show numerous inter-connected people who care about each other but are at odds, and we understand why.
As well as capturing the social history of the period, Jane Davis gives a fascinating insight into the Pleasure Gardens and opium growing of Carshalton, when it was a rural village rather than an expensive London suburb. Who’d have thought! And yet, so it was.
Although Robert’s loss is at the heart of the novel, and the reader lives his feelings, my favourite character was Hettie, his mother. Named after the mountain where her mother met her father, and which killed him two years later, she dreads risks. When she heads for Scotland to face the mountain, I was rooting for her all the way, and when she comes back, changed, she is an embarrassment in ways that show up the superficial values of the kind of Christians who guard their high-ranking pew, jealously. Wonderful Hettie!
I had to know what happened and yet dreaded finding out as, like Thomas Hardy, Jane Davis shows the fatal consequences of chance and choices for her characters, people I cared deeply about. But ‘fatal’ does not always mean tragic. Fate also brings people together in love and healing, and the author never lets us guess beforehand when we will cry and when we will celebrate. I did both. The highs and lows of this novel wrung me out as much as those three hankies.
Jane Davis writes life as it is, not as we want it to be, and her beautiful story-telling reminded me that those who feel ‘the itch’, whether to climb mountains or grow roses or start their lives over, draw strength from those with the courage to just be there, supporting their adventurers, whatever the outcome.
Review by Jean Gill, Historical Fiction Author
Universal link for Small Eden (all formats) coming soon.
Questions for At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock
Issues for book club discussions
Post war Britain; British class system protecting the upper classes and failing to protect the vulnerable; limited life choices for women; double standards between men and women; what happens when women don’t meet societal expectations; women who leave their children; spousal abuse; coercive control; capital punishment and the abolitionist movement; women who kill; the role of the media; press harassment; Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Great Britain to be hanged; crimes of passion; female friendship and solidarity.
‘I am still wondering what I would do if I were any of her three main characters as each one is dragged into problems of others’ making. These 1950’s women live in a man’s world and the period background is so authentic you are shocked when Big Ben doesn’t bong at nine o’clock.’ Jean Gill, author
Half-truths & White Lies questions the influence of the people who are missing from our lives. It examines the thin line between love and friendship, looking at our complex emotional needs. It also explores how one woman’s life is dictated by her desire for children, whilst another’s is shaped by her decision not to have them. (less)
Andrea’s parents called one of their daughters pretty, the other clever. How do the sisters react to each other given these ‘labels’?
I’m fascinated by the psychology of families, and in particular the effect that labelling has on children. In the case of Andrea – the pretty one – she wasn’t brought up to expect to have a career. At the same time, she was concerned that her window of opportunity was limited because her looks would fade. In Faye’s case (she was ‘the clever one’), she felt that being pretty was valued by her parents more highly than intelligence. She grew up in the shadow of her perfect sister, who was wheeled out for visitors, while she felt that she was hidden away.
‘I just love a family secrets story and this is a corker – the revelations keep on coming.’ Marjorette
‘Jane Davis’ debut novel was chosen as one of our book club reads and certainly raised much discussion and debate involving relationships and the adoption system in the 1970s, which is always a sure sign that people liked it!’ Mrs N Howarth
‘Half-truths and White Lies centres around the lives of Andrea, Tom, Laura, Pete and Faye, their relationships, their love for one another, the mistakes they make and the secrets they keep. It’s a story about love, loss and forgiveness.’ BuffyBoo
‘Just like a fly on the wall you get to observe family life from different perspectives, enjoy the little witticisms about its routine and simplicity, and personally identify with the all too familiar nuisances of a family’s relationships.’ Lilian Hammond
Issues for book club discussions
Near-death experiences; survivor syndrome; medical explanation or miracle; harassment by the press; the dynamics of a marriage under pressure; religious visions; the Great Storm of 1987
Rocket fuel for book clubs!
It’s fair to say it’s a book about conflicts. We have a father who claims that God answered his prayers for his daughter and hails her survival and subsequent recovery a miracle. We have a mother who was present when the ambulances took her daughter away and knows with absolute certainty that it was men who saved her. Can a marriage survive those differences in opinion? And then there is Judy who has to make sense of why she survived a near-death experience and its terrifying side-effects.
‘I would strongly recommend this book to all book clubs. I think you’ll find that the discussion following the reading will be intriguing. The concepts, ideas and prose found in These Fragile Things will stick with you for a long time.’ Compulsion Reads
‘The book takes on some pretty big issues and presents them carefully. As a result of Judy’s accident, the lives of her parents are never going to be the same again, and this ‘changeability’ of the fragile human psyche, to me, was what this book was all about. The frustrating reality of how one small decision can lead to catastrophe, and catastrophe can lead off into an unknown that overtakes your life, and there’s no going back.’ Geoffrey West
‘This novel will be about different things depending on who is reading it: about the internal pressures on a family in a crisis; a meditation on how teenagers and their parents negotiate changes brought on by growing up; about the difference between religion and faith and the sheer power of belief. Whatever you take away though, this book will make you think.’ Evie Woolmore
Dual timeline. Edwardian Brighton. Pioneers of photography. The role of women during the war. Mothers who leave. Abandonment. British class system. Changing social attitudes during the 20th century. Inter-generational friendship. Deathbed confessions. Identity. Loyalty. Duty. Loss.
Photography has always been a passion of mine and I knew that I wanted to write about its pioneers. Then, my grandmother died on the day before her 100th birthday. I decided (a) that the book should span an entire century and (b) it should be about an extraordinary woman. I called her Lottie Pye.
Read more about my influences here.
‘This novel recreates the wartime period in emotional detail; in attitudes to parentless children, unmarried mothers, work and respectability – or lack of. The reader starts wondering how a mother could have left her baby to grow up with such a hole in his life and heart. By the end, we understand, having followed the same journey as her son does, but with the benefit of Lottie’s first-person viewpoint, not just boxes of photographs.’ Jean Gill, author
‘I love books that teach me something, and the insights into photography here are a delight.’ JJ Marsh, author
‘Covering a period of over 100 years it is an interesting insight into changing social mores and the gradual change in the roles of men and women and even sexual orientation and disability.’ Mrs J Richmond
‘Really enjoyed this as our recent “book club” read. I liked the jump between Lottie’s story through the years and James ‘ story in current times. I quickly made my mind up that Lottie was a bit of a flibberty-gibbet having left James as a toddler. As the story progresses you are made aware that this is not the case. What a shame the characters didn’t meet again!’ Lakeland Lass
Knife crime. Youth gangs. Child neglect. British education system. At risk students. Child Protection Laws. Missing teenagers. Bird-watching. Would you have the courage to risk your career to save a child?
My inspiration: What kind of boy would it take to make two teachers put their jobs on the line?
‘A Funeral for an Owl absolutely nails the moral dilemmas we live with in a modern society that is supposed to protect the most vulnerable. If you found a child shivering in the street, hungry, cold and afraid to go home, what would you do?’ Book Witch
‘I loved this book for being very much a unique vision of childhood interactive experiences. Jane Davis is not afraid to say how she sees into our present world, its problems and its compromises, its sorrows and occasionally its happiness.’ Mari Howard
‘I initially purchased this book because it involved teachers and their relationships with students. What I didn’t expect was to be gripped so thoroughly. The characters are painfully human, with their flaws and insecurities exposed, some blatant, others as we peel away the layers. This book, made me laugh and cry, it made me happy, exasperated, intrigued, angry, sad and more. Beautifully written.’ C Colburn
‘A story set in an inner city and depicting the hard life that many young people find themselves born into and how hard it is to escape from it. Not just a comment on social values, but an exciting tale of three people struggling with right and wrong.’ Joan Fallon
Accidental pregnancy. Single motherhood. Sacrifices of motherhood. Novels set in London. Novels about ballet. The psychological impact of how enforced retirement affects someone who feels that she was born to dance. (‘If I can’t dance, who am I?’) How far would a mother go to provide for her child? The links between ballet and prostitution. ‘Immoral earnings’. Tax evasion and financial crime.
Tell me a little about your research for An Unchoreographed Life.
There were several areas: motherhood, ballet, prostitution and financial crime.
I researched developmental stages for six to eight year olds, but was reliant on my beta readers’ comments on whether the mother and daughter relationship had an authentic feel about it. Some thought that my child-character Belinda was too old for her age, some that she was too young. Some thought that my mother, Alison, was utterly irresponsible and deserved to have her child taken away from her, others that they would do everything that she did for their children and more. And so I concluded I’d written something that would invite debate.
I took six years of lessons in a freezing cold church hall! Added to this, I read Meredith Daneman’s insightful biography of Margot Fonteyn. But one thing Margot Fonteyn didn’t do was retire. And so for the psychological impact of how an enforced retirement affects someone who feels that she was born to dance, I referred to personal accounts on the internet. All described an identity crisis. That question: If I can’t dance, then who am I?
Links between ballet and prostitution are well-documented. In recent years, former solo ballerina Anastasia Volochkova accused the Bolshoi Ballet’s management of turning the theatre into a ‘giant brothel’. “The girls were forced to go along to grand dinners and given advance warning that afterwards they would be expected to go to bed [with guests] and have sex. When the girls asked: ‘What happens if we refuse?’ they were told that they would not go on tour or even perform at the Bolshoi Theatre,” she told Russian News Service.
This may sound shocking to our refined twenty-first century ears, but, it’s worth bearing in mind that, as recently as 1905, the Encyclopaedia Britannica still defined ballet as ‘lewd, obscene dancing.’ It is only recently that its stars have achieved a reputation for untouchability and for being, as dancer and choreographer Frederick Ashton put it, ‘sacred beings’.
Added to the mix, I was gripped by a 2008 court case, when, in an interesting twist, it was ruled that a prostitute had been living off the immoral earnings of one of her clients. Salacious headlines focused on the prostitute’s replies when she was asked to justify her charge of £20,000 a week. But the case also challenged perceptions of who was likely to be a prostitute. The answer turned out to be that she might well be the ordinary middle-aged housewife who lives next door.
I used the internet extensively to source personal accounts, diaries, blogs and newspaper reports. How did sex-workers come to the attention of the police and social services? What were the main reasons they ended up in court? (The answer was generally tax evasion and financial crime, things I knew about from my day job.) How did sex workers view their clients? How did this perception change if they retired? I also consulted The English Collective of Prostitutes, who kindly allowed me to quote them in my fictional newspaper article.
The grain of a story
And then I began to imagine what life was like for the child of a prostitute. There was nowhere I could research that hidden subject. And it is always the thing that eludes you that becomes the story.
‘A really thought-provoking read which made me think about the lengths we go to for our children and whether we always make the right decisions.’ Mrs Fiona H O’Malley
‘The story is told from the point of view of its two main characters, Alison, the single mother who is also a former prima ballerina, and her daughter Belinda. Both characters felt very real to me. Belinda is only six years old at the start of the story and yet, as the story begins, told from her point of view, the author deftly and realistically describes life from the point of view of a six year old and how confusing it is for her. It made me see things clearly as a six year old might, which I thought was brilliantly done.
Alison, meanwhile, is also sensitively portrayed. As someone whose dreams have been thwarted and who feels remote from society around her, she’s turned to prostitution as a means to support her child – yet I thought that the author did a brilliant job of staying neutral on the whole issue, without preaching about it either way. We’re just presented with Alison as simply a person who is struggling to cope and as the novel progresses, she becomes more and more sympathetic.’ A Jane Austen Fan
Our relationship with material possessions. Who are we if we own nothing? Life-changing events. Discovery that life is not as we thought. Family secrets. Mothers who can’t love. Post natal depression. Child-free by choice. Forgotten women in history.
I wanted to explore the question, ‘If we are who we own, who are we when we have nothing?’ Parker J. Palmer described identity as ‘an ever-evolving core within which our genetics, culture, loved ones, those we cared for, people who have harmed us and people we have harmed, the deeds done (good and ill) to self and others, experiences lived, and choices made come together to form who we are at this moment.’
Then, six months into the writing, my sister and her husband lost their house and most of what they owned to the winter floods of 2013. What had been an imagined scenario became only too real…
Read the full interview on Alison Morton’s Writing Blog.
‘This book raises important questions which we can all relate to. How much are we defined by what we own? Does what we own make us who we are? How would you react if you were to lose everything you have? Would you still know who you are?’ Herts Bookworm
‘We like to think we’re more than the material stuff we own. But, honestly, if we lost all our belongings, from the contents of that odds-and-ends drawer in the kitchen, to our most precious heirlooms in a house fire, along with the loss of our home, wouldn’t that be up there as one of the most awful experiences we could suffer? And wouldn’t it affect more than just our material world? And it’s this theme of loss that Jane Davis explores in this novel. ‘ Angelica Reads
‘When a life-hanging event shakes the very foundations you yourself are built on sometimes there are skeletons found buried in the basement. It is up to you how you deal with the fallout. Do you get help or try and bumble through pretending everything is ok? In realising that you are not ok, you may start to notice that others are also not so ok. In learning to forgive yourself, you may also have to forgive others.’ Sue
Watch a video of Jane reading Chapter One at Waterstones in London’s Covent Garden
Poetry and protest. How childhood illness influences creativity. The plight of the atomic veterans. #MeToo.
More kindling to fire your book club meeting
The link between poetry and activism is long-standing. Read about poets who are/were literary activists here.
Read about poems of protest and revolution here.
My guest post on Authors Electric: How childhood illness can shape adult creativity
Watch British Movietone footage from CND’s march to Aldermaston
My guest post on Pills and Pillowtalk. Rebel with a cause: the plight of the atomic veterans
‘It took me back to a time when people still protested against wrongdoing. When they still cared about what governments did to their people, to the world. It’s not to say that we don’t care now, but there is a certain silent resignation in our generation – as if it doesn’t really matter what we do or say, they will still do what they’re going to do, so there’s no point for us to even speak up.’ Evilena (Read full review here.)
‘Lucy Forrester is a poet. That means by definition that she uses her words to express all the emotions she’s feeling, be they personal or be they political. In fact, she’s something of a rebel, but one with a cause she’s not willing to give up; the threat of the nuclear armament policies, in her own country of England as well as across the globe. The problem with Lucy is that if she’s going to use her poems to get her message across, she needs an audience, and one that is as wide as possible. ‘ The Chocolate Lady (Read full review here.)
‘The issue of the veterans who were forced to witness nuclear explosions, with horrific after-effects passing through generations, will be the one thing that stays with me from this book. Not just a story but a lesson about the human race.’ Julie Cordiner
‘What I love about Jane’s books are that you not only get thoroughly engrossed in the characters, there is also always something to learn, in this case, about the early days of the CND movement and what happened to the people caught up in the testing. Although I grew up with constant news reports on TV of the CND marches/demonstrations, I never really gave it much thought. Jane’s research on this opened my eyes to it.’ Karen Begg
‘I found this book utterly absorbing. It’s the story of one Lucy Forrester as she deals with childhood adversity, including polio, and emerges as a feted poet and activist for a truly worthwhile cause. Irritating as Lucy can sometimes be, she is a rounded complex character, and her life and work perfectly capture bohemian London and the people who wander through it. It’s fiction, but there’s plenty of history and truth, as in the very best fiction. Thus author Jane Davis has written another little masterpiece.’ Linda Carol
Issues to super-charge your book club discussions
Smash all the Windows isn’t just a disaster story. It’s an aftermath story. A story about living through and with trauma; about resilience and hope. It’s about never giving up. About scars. It’s also about the power of art. How it brings people together. Gives them meaning.
Keywords: Second inquest. Fight for justice. Victim-blaming. Who are the victims? Who are the heroes? Herd mentality. Bereavement. Loss of a child. How do we deal with grief? Art in fiction. The healing power of art.
The novel began with outrage. I was infuriated by the press’s reaction to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at family members as they emerged from the courtroom. It was put them that, now that it was all over, they could get on with their lives. ‘What lives?’ I yelled at the television.
For those who don’t know about Hillsborough, a crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. A single lie was told about the cause of the disaster: In that moment, Liverpool fans became scapegoats. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set straight.
Elizabeth Strout tells her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful.’ But none of us exists in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members as they struggled with the question was raw. And so combining two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – I created a fictional disaster.
The previous year, en route to a Covent Garden book-reading, I’d suffered a fall. The escalator I normally use was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was much steeper, but I was totally unprepared for its speed. When I pushed my suitcase full of books in front of me, I was dragged off-balance. Fortunately, no one was directly in front. I escaped relatively unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.
‘Mostly the book made me think; it felt particularly relevant given the recent spate of UK events that occurred or were reported over on the past few years – I’ve been very fortunate and never been personally impacted by loss of anyone close, so when something such as Grenfell happens, I can only imagine.’ Dawn Gill
‘The centre of this book is a tragedy of the type fortunately most of us will only ever read about or watch in horror on news reports. Fifteen years ago at a fictional tube station St Botolph and Old Billingsgate, a crush occurs. It starts on an escalator and fifty-eight people lose their lives. Their loved ones go through an inquest and a class action before the most recent, second inquest which rules that the victims weren’t at fault. The reader learns about some of the victims through their relatives who have never given up trying to ensure that a similar incident never occurs again.’ Cleopatra Pullen
‘Each one of the victims in this story comes from his or her own separate family – a diverse spread of backgrounds, ages and cultures – yet their sudden tragic ends, and the struggle for recognition and justice, brings these families together, culminating in a joint cathartic event that brings healing like nothing else could. The victims move from the mere name and number given by the authorities to human beings with their own special story and a lasting impact on their world.’ Trevor Stubbs
Just for fun
The Mission.org has compiled a list of what they believe to have been the best book clubs of all time. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein got together at Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company!)
Kicking off with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Goodreads has a list of novels which feature fictional book clubs.