Author feature, with review: Looking For Lucy by Julie Houston

By | April 7, 2016

Clementine needs to find Lucy before it’s all too late. She also knows bringing up a child on your own down on Emerald Street where the street walkers ply their trade isn’t easy, even when your daughter’s as adorable as four-year-old Allegra. So when Peter Broadbent, wealthy, kind and possessed of the most beautiful house Clementine has ever seen, proposes, it seems almost too good to be true. It is…

You know the way that – just sometimes – things are meant to be? When author Julie Houston contacted me asking if I’d like to read and review her latest book Looking For Lucy – published today for kindle – she caught me at that lucky moment when I was working out what I needed to read next and when. The Yorkshire connection caught my eye, and the fact that her agent is an Anne Williams too, and Julie has long been a member of my “favourite authors that I’ve never read” club with both the earlier Midhope novels – Goodness, Grace and Me and The One Saving Grace – already on my kindle. So I said yes – and I’m so glad I did, because I really, really enjoyed it.

Review to follow below, but first I’m really thrilled to welcome author Julie Houston as my guest on Being Anne…

Hello Julie, and welcome to Being Anne – would you like to introduce yourself?

Hi Anne, thanks for having me on your blog. I’m a writer, mum, teacher and magistrate from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire where I live with my husband, son and daughter (both at Newcastle University) and dog named Lincoln. I’ve lived in New Zealand and worked on kibbutzim in Israel and teach a couple of days a week. Being a voracious reader from a very young child (I’d be found at parties behind the sofa immersed in the party-giver’s books) I always wanted to write one of my own. I was lucky to be taken on by literary agent Anne Williams (it’s very strange having two Anne Williams in my writing life!!) from KHLA literary agency in Bristol and London, and Anne and I have worked together with White Glove to produce and publish all three books.

So, Looking For Lucy is the third Midhope novel – how about setting the scene? Maybe a little about the first two books, and how this one links with them?

Goodness Grace and Me and The One Saving Grace are both about Harriet and Grace, but can very much be read as stand alone novels. They live in Midhope (which I suppose is Huddersfield) and the books are based on the relationship between these two adult women after they meet as eleven-year-olds at grammar school.  The books are classed as Romantic Comedies although I prefer to see them as Contemporary Women’s fiction – and certainly not chick lit. As well as being funny books, I’ve broached deeper issues such as infidelity, bolshy teenagers, unplanned pregnancy and postnatal depression and hopefully dealt with them in a sensitive as well as humorous way.

Looking For Lucy is still set in Midhope but this is Clementine’s story and her search for Lucy. Harriet and Grace are in there because Clementine and her mate, Izzy, meet up with them at a dinner party and they become involved in what is going on in Clementine’s life. Looking For Lucy is very much a standalone novel but people who have read it say they loved meeting up with Harriet and Grace once more. (I always loved Rupert Campbell Black’s reappearances in Jilly Cooper novels!)

And this is a teeny bit darker than the first two books?

I would say so – but only a little. With Looking For Lucy I have written about some aspects of drugs and prostitution. At the end of the day I wanted to raise the question as to whether prostitution exists solely on the streets. Where does marrying a rich man who one doesn’t love or even fancy fit into the general definition of what prostitution actually is?

If someone picks up Looking For Lucy and knows nothing about Harriet and Grace, or what happened in Harvey Nicks’ men’s knicker department, will that be a problem?

Absolutely not. Looking For Lucy is Clementine’s story. Harriet and Grace just happen to be along for the ride!!

Given the subject matter, I’d love you to share some of your research stories… 

Because I was writing about some aspects of the lives of sex workers I really wanted to talk face to face with the girls in the know. As a magistrate I’d come across the girls after they’d been arrested for loitering and always thought it ridiculous meting out any form of punishment the guidelines insisted upon. Luckily, selling sex for money is no longer a criminal offence – it is the johns, the punters, who can be arrested for loitering and paying for sex. If it were up to me I’d totally legalise prostitution. Anyway, I digress. A friend of a friend sent me a phone number of a couple of girls who were willing to chat to me. We met outside Costa in the red light district of Huddersfield and talked and talked over hot chocolate (“with cream and marshmallows please”) and I came away humbled as well as in possession of an up to date price list! My thanks go to M for sharing aspects of her life, particularly as we both realised, almost straight away, I’d taught her as a nine-year-old!

As a result of my chat with M my intention is to become involved with a voluntary organization called SWEET which aims to work with people who are specifically at risk of becoming involved in sex work, or who have previous connections with the industry. SWEET workers also give training to people working with clients in the sex industry and try to raise awareness of issues surrounding it, and volunteers are needed to help with everything from making drinks, to listening to clients, to handing out condoms and up to date lists of which clients should be avoided.

I’m really intrigued that you called the setting Midhope – did you think calling it Huddersfield might put people off? 

I’m not sure why to be honest. I wanted somewhere that people would know the geography of. Because Huddersfield is almost bang in the middle of Manchester and Leeds I invented the town of Midhope and constantly refer to it being near to both the cities of Leeds and Manchester.

Many of your reviews stress how funny your first two books were. When you have a new book coming out, do you ever worry that your humour might not work? Do you try it out on someone?

I tend to find humour in most everyday situations and a lot of what I’ve written has actually happened in real life. In Goodness Grace and Me, Harriet and Nick come home to find the babysitter at it on the Persian rug with her boyfriend. This actually happened to friends of mine. When the wife gently asked if said babysitter was practising safe sex, she was assured that all was fine as they’d used food wrap. When I was told this story I imagined tin foil rather than the cling film actually used, hence Harriet’s words: 

“Food wrap? He’d actually wrapped his dick in food wrap? For one awful moment I had a vision of his willy basting in tinfoil like a barbecued sausage until I realised she must mean cling film.”

Children are brilliant at being unintentionally funny. A teacher told me the other day of a six-year-old who, when explaining about nutrition and the dangers of fizzy drinks, had written “… and too much cock is bad for everyone…!” My daughter has just shown me a video her friend took of us dancing Gagnam style around the kitchen. Ridiculous stuff but which I find hugely funny. So when I think I’ve dried up of funny things to write, a new day dawns with more funny things to report. I do try them out on the family or at dinner parties and if people find them as funny as I do I will definitely store them up to be brought out at a later date!

This whole series sounds simply perfect for a TV drama – do you have any aspirations to be the next Kay Mellor or Sally Wainwright?

There is a lovely lady called Jenny Jones who lives in Leeds and who enjoys my books and who is determined they will make TV drama one day. She even has actors lined up! I was in a shop in Hampstead in London last November after seeing my agent and got talking to a woman about clothes and shopping. All turns out she is a film producer – she worked with Huddersfield author Derek Longden on his best selling Wide-Eyed And Legless turning it into a BBC drama with Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent. Anyway, she asked if she could see the draft of Looking For Lucy and my agent has sent it to her. Fingers crossed.

The wonderfully gifted Sally Wainright lives and writes only a few miles from here – some of Happy Valley was filmed just down the road – so if you are reading this, Sally, I’m yours!!! When I was writing Looking For Lucy I always had in mind the extremely attractive actress Charlotte Riley – Tom Hardy’s wife. I am a total Peaky Blinders fan and I always picture Charlotte Riley when I picture Clementine. So, Charlotte and Sally, if you are reading this…!

And how about you – did you always want to be a writer? And, when the moment came, did you just sit at the keyboard and write?

I always loved writing stories at school and won my first writing (actually my only!) competition when I was seven. Ask any writer and they will always say they wish they’d started writing sooner and I’m no different. I’d had Harriet’s story in my head for a while and I suddenly started writing it all down in an airport in Tunisia when my plane was delayed. I write straight on to the computer unless I’m on holiday when I fill notebooks (OK – notebook – I’m easily distracted by bronzed lovelies and cocktails) before writing up on the computer.

What does a writing day look like for you? How do you fit it around your life?

I’m a lark and like to write early rather than later. On a good writing day I’ll be at the computer for six am and write for a couple of hours before going for a swim or run. Then it’s breakfast with the crossword before a few more hours writing. Then a walk with the dog to clear my head and, if I’m really on a roll, a few more hours after that. I’ve been teaching three days a week since Christmas (back down to two now) so holidays and weekends and days off are writing days.

What part of the writing and publishing process do you enjoy the most? And what are the difficult bits?

I’ll start with the most difficult: starting a new novel. I’ll do anything to avoid it – clean the loo, twitter, ebay, ancestry – anything to put off committing that first sentence to paper. The best bits are when you can’t NOT write. When you have to get up at five in the morning to carry on where you left off because if you don’t you’ll just burst! I love suddenly having a brainwave re a story line that changes the whole direction of the book. In Looking For Lucy there’s a bit of a twist in the tail  – which took even me by surprise in the middle of swimming my thirty lengths – and I just love moments like that. I love the people I’ve met through my writing – people like the man from USA who wrote “West Yorkshire, wherever it is, seems a hell of a fun place to be…” 

So what writers do you admire? if someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you like them to mention?

When my agent, Anne, took me on she called me “a Northern Catherine Alliott” which was great as I love her books. I think the greatest compliment was when someone wrote of my books “Jilly Cooper meets Leanne Moriarty…”. I devoured Jilly Cooper’s early stuff – not so sure about her later novels – and discovered Leanne Moriarty in my local library long before anyone had read The Husband’s Secret. If I aspire to write like anyone it’s probably Leanne.

And what makes you laugh?

Any silly everyday situation; things kids say, videos my daughter is always showing me of cats and dogs doing ridiculous things; one particular scene in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby which was so ridiculous I literally couldn’t breathe with laughter, homemade clips my daughter makes of me dancing, unaware, in the kitchen… the list is endless.

Julie, thank you – I love that interview! So, what do you think – did I love Looking For Lucy too?

My review

The description of this book was so intriguing. I knew there would be humour, and there was throughout – I can sometimes be a bit picky about what I find funny, but it was always quite perfectly judged, mostly gentle, sometimes really laugh-out-loud, all wonderfully done. There’s a fair bit of seriousness too – it doesn’t pull many punches in its depiction of the realities of prostitution and the impact of drugs or the general squalor of the backstreets of a Yorkshire city. But it never ever gets really “heavy” – as with the humour, it’s quite perfectly balanced. The big question around whether marrying money could be seen as only a whisper away from selling it on the streets is there and clear, but in the background and never pushed.

The characterisation in this book is so excellent. I loved Clementine from the moment I met her, picking up the used condom in her Emerald Street back yard as the pit bull next door throws itself against the fence. She’s doing everything she can to be a good mother to little Allegra – not much money, but oodles of love – and when Peter appears with his offer to take her away from all that, and offer them a different life… well, you would, wouldn’t you? Shame about his passion for historical reenactment though – it’s not often you come across Oliver Cromwell in a modern novel. And as the story unfolds, maybe it’s a shame about some of the other parts of his life too.

Peter is particularly vividly drawn – but so are the book’s other leading men, Rafe and David, sure to get you a little hot under the collar. And I loved the female friends in this book, and the way that friendship is depicted with its support and shared secrets. The children too are excellent – Allegra, young Max, bolshie and very real teenager Sophie. And George the dog will most certainly have a place in your heart. And I haven’t mentioned Lucy, have I, and where she fits in? Ah well – you’ll need to read the book…

Some of the set pieces are wonderful – little scenes you can see quite clearly in your head and which would work so perfectly in a TV dramatisation, whether it’s Sarah (in a second storyline) having her car lifted off the plinth of a bollard by some passing rugby players or the really wonderful one involving a horse in trouble and one of the main characters stripped down to her bra. 

The writing is excellent – whether it’s the great dialogue, peppered with a real Yorkshire flavour, wonderfully real conversations, or the vivid descriptions of the countryside, beautiful homes (and the not so beautiful), the back streets or simply the food. The plotting equally so, with its secrets and well-timed revelations and all its twists and turns – perfectly paced, with brilliant timing. And – although you don’t, by any means, need to be local to enjoy it – for me there was something rather lovely about reading a book set against a backdrop I recognised – a restaurant in Ilkley, a girls’ night out in Leeds, shopping in the Trinity Centre, the shopping village outside York (even Wetherby gets a few mentions).

Do I agree with the Jilly Cooper meets Leanne Moriarty description? Most definitely. Catherine Alliott? Maybe, but with a definite Yorkshire accent. It also greatly reminded me of early Veronica Henry – remember Honeycote? – and that’s meant as a great compliment, because I love her writing. Don’t be concerned for one moment that Looking For Lucy is described as Book 3 of the Midhope novels – it’s very much a stand-alone. But if you don’t want to go back and read the first two books after enjoying this one, I’ll be amazed – I’m certainly going to. I’m delighted to have added another author to my personal “must read” list – this book was just wonderful.

Looking for Lucy is Julie Houston’s third novel. Goodness, Grace and Me reached #1 in Amazon UK’s Top 100 for Humour in 2014 and The One Saving Grace reached #1 in Amazon UK’s Top 100 for Humour in 2015 as well as #2 overall in Amazon Australia’s bestselling chart.

Julie has an excellent website where you can find out more about her and her books: you can also follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook

3 thoughts on “Author feature, with review: Looking For Lucy by Julie Houston

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