What People Are Saying About The Leaden Heart (And Some Thoughts Of My Own)

Last night I was in a library talking to people about The Leaden Heart. I was happy to do it – and not just because it’s one of my favourite libraries, the one I used all through my childhood.

I’m proud of it. It’s out there with my name on it. Months of work and thought went into the writing. I want people to read it.

One gentleman said he thought it was the best of my books, with strong parallel stories and very tight plotting. That last bit, if it’s there, is more good luck that planning. I don’t plot. My characters lead the stories. The most I do is nudge them.

This morning I’ve been thinking about what he said. It chimes with the reviews the book has received. I’m gratified. I honestly believe that with The Tin God, my writing moved up a notch. That’s something every writer wants, to make each book better than the last. We learn, we strive to improve. It’s there too in The Hanging Psalm and now this. And having gone through the publisher’s edit for The Hocus Girl, which appears this autumn, I feel it’s also in that.

But I’m glad others see it. More than people may really know.

Thanks to all who’ve read the book. I’d love it if all of you did, whether it’s buying a hardback or ebook. And if you leave a review, may your soul be blessed.

Meanwhile, a look at some of those reviews might sway you.

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On Sale! On Sale!

Apologies to those outside the UK, but it’s out of my hands…

For those of you who do live in the UK, though, Amazon currently has the hardback of The Tin God for £4.30. That’s actually £6 cheaper than I can buy it with an author discount from my publisher. The Kindle ebook is £4.14.

I don’t generally advise people to buy fromAmazon, but this is too hard to refuse. Go here for all the details (and I hope one or two of you will buy).

Not only that, but the Kindle version of The Crooked Spire is currently 99p – right here.

Thanks.

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Finding The Leaden Heart – The Tin God

Tom Harper is returning very soon – just over a month from now – but it’s impossible for me to look ahead to The Leaden Heart without glancing back at The Tin God.

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I’m immensely proud of this book, not only for what it is, but the things it spawned. It celebrated real history, women being able to vote and stand as candidates in some local elections, an event that was the first real step on the road to the democracy we understand these days. And Annabelle Harper was at the heart of it, running to be a Poor Law Guardian for the Sheepscar ward. She was one of seven working-class women around the city running to be Guardians.

But there was a man who would do anything to keep women out of politics. Anything at all.

That didn’t stop Annabelle giving speeches – like this one.

The clues the man left at every scene were snippets of folk songs, so Harper consulted a local song collector, a real name named Frank Kidson. Out of this book came this article I wrote on the man:

And, of course, a playlist of music he’d collected that featured in the book.

For once, Annabelle really did take centre stage, even if it was Tom and his men who had to solve the crime. She had to try and be fearless, not easy when someone was trying to kill you.

The book was launched at an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote. I was incredibly proud to be involved with it, celebrating those Victorian Leeds woman who were working for the vote and women’s rights before the Suffragettes appeared in 1903. I was even more proud that Annabelle had her own board as part of it. From fiction, she’d stepped directly into Leeds history. She’d have been over the moon.

That launch even sparked a film of its own, a glorious mystery from film maker Daisy Cale.

The book was a gift. It came to me in a flash when a historian friend – who actually curated The Vote exhibition – said ‘Why doesn’t Annabelle run for office?’ After that it was all so clear.

I did my only blog tour for the book, and it received some glowing reviews – and even a wonderful review in the Morning Star. These are some snippets or click here to read more.

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It left me with a problem, however. How do I top it? Can I top it?

The Leaden Heart is my attempt at doing just that. You’ll be the only ones who can judge whether I succeed. And you can do it soon – even pre-order the book…

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Finding The Leaden Heart – Skin Like Silver

It’s interesting to revisit the Tom Harper series of books leading up to the publication of the seventh, The Leaden Heart, on March 29 (obligatory self-promotion inserted). I’ve found myself think deeply about them and understanding things that hadn’t always made sense to me before.

Writing Skin Like Silver, I knew the books were taking a turn, and that Annabelle Harper was fighting her way forward to become a more important character, someone more than Tom’s assertive, gobby wife. And she succeeded. She became involved with one of the growing issues of the 1890s – suffragism. This was before woman had any representation at all, even on the local level (that would start in 1894), and a full decade before the Suffragettes formed.

The idea of women standing up was at the heart of the novel, but somehow or other, Annabelle’s involvement with the Suffragist movement, becoming a speaker, grew into a central idea. I thought of it as her book, and perhaps it was, although that would change (if anything really is Annabelle’s book, it’s The Tin God. But more of that next week).

Skin Like Silver did make me understand how important she could be in the series, and that the idea of family needed a greater and greater role. Well, I had no choice. Annabelle demanded it. And with this much of the complexion of the series changed. While it didn’t become about her – although she’s figured strongly in the books since, the series has turned more into the chronicle of a family in late Victorian/Edwardian times as much a series of crime novels.

It was a sign that Annabelle was carrying everything before her that she was there for the book launch at the Leeds Library, giving one of the Suffragist speeches she makes in the book. A surprise for the audience, too, when she appeared out of the darkness. Actor Carolyn Eden did a remarkable job (as she has several times with Annabelle), inhabiting the character.

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Very likely all crime writers believe the same, but I realised that the Tom Harper novels were more than just murder mysteries. It sounds pretentious, and God knows I want them to entertain, but I wanted them to be more. Windows into how people lived and struggled. What Leeds was like back then.

I’m still trying. And here’s me rabbiting on about the book just before the launch.

I still love this book. It feels bigger than its pages, somehow. With the writing of it, the entire series pivoted. I’m still a little astonished by that. It proves writers are conduits. The words flow through us, rather than being formed by us. And that’s a piece of magic I don’t want to investigate too closely in case I jinx it.

Thank You

It’s almost four weeks since The Hanging Psalm was published, three since the launch event. The conventional wisdom is that there’s a two-week window after publication in which to make a splash about a book, something that can be especially important with a new series.

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I’m perhaps luckier than most; with a gap between UK and US publications, I have two of those windows. That said, one isn’t any easier than the other. So many books appear these days, from traditional publishers and independents, that it’s hard to be heard above the noise.

Reviews help. They help beyond compare, especially in these days when we’re all online. But still, the most important is word of mouth. I don’t expect everyone to like my books. Historical crime is niche enough. Leeds historical crime is an even smaller niche. and I certainly don’t expect everyone to like all my books (although I can live in hope).

But, if you do like one, please tell your friends. Ask your local library to stock a copy – most library services will order the book if they don’t already have it. Like every other author, I love people taking my books out of the library. They’re such a vital community resource and they need to be used as much as possible. Read all you want and it costs you nothing. What could be better than that?

There’s also a bonus for writers. Not only do we receive the royalty when the service buys a copy, we receive a small amount whenever someone borrows one of our books, whether a physical or ebook copy. Win-win, truly.

Yes, I want to sell books. I want people to read what I write. That’s why it’s out there. But I depend on people like you. Without you, it all falls apart very quickly.

So I thank you for all you’ve done, and hope I can keep you entertained and make you think for quite a few years yet.

One final thing. If you’re in the UK and haven’t read The Tin God yet (I’m immensely proud of that book, and of Annabelle Harper in it), the hardback is currently £10.07 on Amazon (sorry, US readers). Not my favourite retailer, but if you’re looking to give the feminist in your life a Christmas gift, well…this would definitely fit the ball. Maybe you can see the printing sell out – that would be a great present for me.

But whatever happens, thank you all.

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How Do I Rate My Books?

As you hopefully know, I have a new book coming out next week (it called The Hanging Psalm, in case you weren’t aware). Take a big breath time, it’s the start of a new series, and my publisher has just accepted the follow-up, which will be appearing in a year’s time (I know, it’s hard to think that far in advance).

When something like that happens, though, I tend to look at those titles on my bookshelf with my name on them and have a think about them. It’s very rare for me to go back and re-read any. Certainly not for pleasure; I might have forgotten the details of the plots, but not the months of work that went into each one. If you’re a writer, by the time you’ve written something, revised it, gone through the publisher’s edits and then the proofs, you’re pretty much sick of seeing it.

But I have a surprising number of books out there. Quite often it astonishes me, makes me wonder just how that happened. And it makes me wonder what I think of them in retrospect. So, it’s time for an honest assessment.

 

I started out with the Richard Nottingham books. The Broken Token took several years to see the light of day. It was finished in 2006 and finally appeared four years later. In my memory, it’s curiously poetic, as is most of the series, a style that seemed to fit the character and the times – Leeds in the 1730s, for those who don’t know. Cold Cruel Winter was named one of the Mysteries of the Year by Library Journal, something that floored me. It’s a book that came from a single fact – the trial transcripts of executed men were sometimes bound in their skin. What crime writer wouldn’t relish doing something with that? And it was where I began to explore the grey area between right and wrong. The third book, The Constant Lovers, has its points, but taking Richard out of Leeds, even if it’s just into the surrounding villages, was probably a misstep. It diffused the focus. Leeds, tight and dense, is his milieu, and he’s been back in there ever since. The standout in the series for me, though, will always be At the Dying of the Year. It was the hardest to write, the one that cut deepest into me and left me depressed for a while afterwards. But the emotions are very raw and real on every page. Even thinking about it now, I can still feel them. Returning to Richard after a few years with Free from All Danger felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’d originally intended eight books in the series. That was number seven, but it left him at the end with some share of happiness, and God knows he deserves that.

I do have a soft spot for the pair of novels featuring Lottie Armstrong (Modern Crimes and The Year of the Gun). She’s so vibrant and alive, both as a young woman and in her forties. It’s impossible not to like her. The problem is that I painted myself into a corner; it’s impossible to ever bring her back, although she seems quite happy to leave things as they are. In different ways, I’m hugely proud of them both, and particularly of Lottie. I still feel she might pop in for a cup of tea and a natter.

The Dan Markham books (Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing) book came after re-reading Chandler once again and wondering what a private detective novel set in the North of England would be like. I found my answers. The original is the better book, harder and more real, and it spawned a play, to my astonishment. The second certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite catch the pizazz of the first.

Then there are the anomalies – a three-book series set in medieval Chesterfield. The first came as a literal flash on inspiration, the others were harder work, and the difference shows. I lived down by there for a few years, I like the town itself and I think that shows. There’s also a pair of books set in Seattle in the 1980s and ‘90s that hardly anyone knows about – they’re only available on ebook and audiobook. But I spent twenty years in that city, a big chunk of my life, and I loved it. I was involved in music as a journalist (still am, to a small degree), and the novels, still crime, are part of that passion. You know what? I still really believe in them. They’re pretty accurate snapshots of a time and place, and the scenes that developed in the town – the way music itself was a village in a booming city.

The Dead on Leave, with Leeds in the 1930s of the Depression, was a book born out of anger at the politics around and how they seem to be a rehash of that period. It’s a one-off, it has to be, but I do like it a lot – more time might change my view, but honestly, I hope not.

And that brings me to Tom and Annabelle Harper. I’m not quite sure why, but I feel that they’re maybe my biggest achievement to date. That’s a surprise to me, given that I swore I’d never write a book set in Victorian times. Yet, in some ways they feel like the most satisfying. More complex, yet even more character-driven. And I think someone like Annabelle is the biggest gift anyone can be given. She’s not the focus of the novels, but she walks right off the page, into life. I didn’t create here – she was there, waiting for me. And what feel like the best books in the series are the ones that involve her more, in an organic way: Skin Like Silver and The Tin God. Not every book works as well as I’d hoped; in Two Bronze Pennies I don’t think I achieved what I set out to do. My ambition was greater than my skill. But maybe I’m getting there. The next book in the series, The Leaden Heart, takes place in 1899, the close of a century, and I feel I’m starting to do all my characters real justice. I’m currently working on one set in 1908, so the 20th century is already here, and I still want to take them to the end of World War I, a natural closing point for the series. I feel that I’m creating not only good crime novels, and I strive to make each one quite different, but also a portrait of a family in changing times – and also a more complete picture of Leeds.

And that’s always been the subtext, although it took me a long time to realise it. Leeds is the constant, the character always in the background, changing its shape and its character a little in each era. And I’m trying to portray that, to take the readers there, on its streets, with their smells and noises. I’m hoping to have a novel set in every decade from 1890s-1950s (maybe even the ‘60s, if inspiration arrives), to show how the place changed.

In a way, the nearest I’ve come to running after the character that is Leeds and its essence is a collection of short stories, Leeds, the Biography, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s based on anecdotes, snippets of history, and folk tales, and runs from 360 CE to 1963. For the most part, they’re light tales. But one has resonance – Little Alice Musgrove. That still stands as a good story (you can probably find it online)

But with The Hanging Psalm, out next week, I’m going back to an unexplored place, Leeds in the 1820s, when the Industrial Revolution was still quite new. The Regency, although there’s very little gentility to it; better to describe it as Regency Noir. The book is still too fresh for me to asses it fairly. But I do know how electric it felt to write. So I’m hopeful it will stand the test of time in my mind…and in the meantime, I hope you’ll buy it (definitely buy it if you can!) or borrow it from the library and enjoy it.

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The Tin God Launch – The Film

I know many of you don’t live in Leeds, so there was no chance of you attending the full launch of The Tin God on Saturday. And for some who do live here, well, it was a hot, sunny weekend, a Bank Holiday; there were other commitments.

I asked a young filmmaker who’s won awards for her work to document the event.

She came up with an absolutely wonderful piece of work, and I’m grateful.

 

There’s also a full report on the event that you can read right here, and it’s an absolute cracker!

How Annabelle Changed Me

A couple of things have surprised me about The Tin God. Of course, I’m over the moon about the reviews it’s being receiving, far better than I could ever have expected.

I set out to write a crime novel, a continuation of the Tom Harper series. And really, that’s what I did. But what people seem to see as the heart of the book is Annabelle’s fight to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian. That astonished me, but also gladdened my heart. It’s important, it’s vital, and it means, perhaps, that I’ve written something that reaches out beyond genre to deal with something bigger. As a writer, I don’t think you can ever aim to do that. If it happens, it’s serendipity.

The book has also changed me a little, made me more aware, more vocal on issues. And since I completed it, I’ve been assisting the curator of an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote, about the Leeds Victorian women who worked for equality and the Parliamentary franchise, perfectly apt for the centenary of some women receiving the vote. Most of these figures are unknown, written out of suffrage history, and they deserve so much more than that. The exhibition runs for the month of May in Room 700 at Leeds Central Library, and there will be a website with all the information.

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I’m very, very proud to be involved with this. I feel I’m contributing something to the history of my city. Happy, too, as the official launch for The Tin God takes place during the exhibition. And especially because Annabelle has her own board there as part of it all, melding fact and fiction. Emblematic of the working-class women who were involved in the long struggle. She’s become a part of history in a very tangible way, and I suspect that somewhere, she’s beaming with pride, although she’d never admit it.

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On that note, I’ll give you a little from one of her election speeches, and hope it makes you want to buy the book. If you’re anywhere close to Leeds on Saturday, May 5, between 1-2 pm, come to the launch. There may well be more than you expect – and you’ll have the opportunity to see an important exhibition.

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This takes place after someone has set fire to a hall when Annabelle is set to give a speech. Instead, she addresses the crowd out on the street.

‘This happened because someone is scared of women. Not just as Poor Law Guardians or on School Boards. He’s afraid of women. Frightened of half the population. What is there to worry him? Do you know? Because I’m blowed if I do. Just three years ago there were fewer than two hundred women as Poor Law Guardians in the whole of England. Two hundred out of a total of thirty thousand. It’s not exactly taking this over, is it? We want to increase that number here. People believe we should. Important people. The Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, thinks there should be more of us. I’ll tell you what the Secretary of State for India said: “No Board of Guardians is properly constituted when it is composed entirely of men. Having regard to the fact that so large a proportion of the population of our workhouses are women and children, it seems vital to me that women should take their part in Poor Law administration.” Even the men at the top of government and the church think we belong. The one who set fire to this place – to your hall – he’s swimming against history. Women are running for the offices they can hold, and some of them are going to be elected. If not this time, then next, or the one after. We’ve started and we’re not going to stop. That tide he’s swimming against, it’s going to drown him.’ Harper watched as she looked around the faces, her breath steaming in the air. She was smiling. ‘I’ll tell you something else. You vote for me, and you can help send him packing. More importantly, you’ll be electing someone who wants to help the poor, not punish them. You there, John Winters, Frank Hepworth, Catherine Simms. You all know me. You know where I live. Maybe the Temperance people might not like the landlady of a public house holding office. Yes,’ she told them, ‘I’ve heard that grumble. But you know that when I start something, I do it properly.’ She paused and drew in a breath, straightening her back so she seemed taller. ‘You’re ratepayers. You can vote. I’m asking you to put your X next to my name. Thank you.’

And remember. vote for Annabelle Harper!

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Looking Ahead For Tom And Annabelle Harper?

It’s ironic, really. I always swore I’d never write a crime novel set in Victorian times. There era was overdone, with Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins – even Dickens – and all who’ve followed in their footsteps. And now I have six of them out there, plus a seventh just completed.

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It still makes me shake my head. Especially the reviews that have come in so far for The Tin God. I’ve created something that people seem to love…

Actually, it all began with a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw, the Leeds artist. A woman standing by the canal, holding a bundle. The water is almost empty because of a strike, the smoky skyline of Leeds tries to peer through behind her. She’s alone, just staring.

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She was Annabelle. That’s how she came into my life. It simply grew from there. A short story at first. Then, after reading about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890, a novel. An event where the strikers won in three days, even as the Council Gas Committee imported strikebreakers? I had to commemorate that.

So Annabelle came back. She told me all about it and introduced me to her husband, Detective Inspector Tom Harper and his assistant, Sergeant Billy Reed. Out of that arrived Gods of Gold.

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The books are unashamedly political. No apologies for that. But they’re also crime novels, the two intertwined in a heart around Leeds. The newest, The Tin God, is the most political of all, and one where Annabelle finally takes centre stage.

In fact, she doesn’t, although the plot revolves around her bid (along with six other women) to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897. Trying to stop the man who doesn’t want women in politics is the core. But the heart, the linchpin, is Annabelle trying to win in the Sheepscar Ward.

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The Tin God was a book that seemed to write itself. I was simply the conduit. And over the last few years, Annabelle (in particular) and Tom have become every bit as real to me as friends I meet. I know them, and they know me. They’re family, in a way.

I’d like to say that I have plans for them, but the truth is, they have plans for me. To tell their story to the end of the Great War. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. But I’d like to do it. Although the books themselves aren’t planned out, I know what happens in their lives, and in their daughter Mary’s, too.

The book I’ve just finished writing will actually be my last Victorian (assuming my publisher likes it, of course). No, I’m giving nothing away about it, except it’s set in 1899. If another follows, that will be after 1901, and we’ll be into the Edwardian and George V eras. There’s plenty of Leeds material – the 1908 Suffragette ‘riot,’ the start of the war, news from the Somme in 1916, the Leeds Convention of 1917, and finally, finally, the Armistice a year later.

That will prove interesting. I’d certainly never imagined writing an Edwardian crime novel. Or even given a second through to George V. But I have a strong impression that Annabelle and Tom will guide me through it all.

In the meantime, I’d be very grateful if you read The Tin God. And the other books in the series.

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The Real Annabelle Harpers

The Tin God has finally appeared in print, and damn, the reviews have made my heart soar.  As a number of the writers have mentioned, the central figure of book is Annabelle Harper, a working-class woman running to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897.

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“I absolutely adored this book, right from the very first chapter. I loved the setting, I loved the characters, and I loved the gritty feel of Victorian police work. But more than anything, I was in love with the plucky and persistent Annabelle Harper, and with all the women like her who moved mountains with regards to women’s rights today… the show was definitely stolen by one, little, pub-owning woman who had the nerve to run in an election.”

“Nickson drops us straight onto the streets of his beloved Leeds. We smell the stench of the factories, hear the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the cobbles, curse when the soot from the chimneys blackens the garments on our washing lines and – most tellingly – we feel the pangs of hunger gnawing at the bellies of the impoverished.”

A change in local government law three years before made it possible for someone like her to run for office. But were there really working-class women in Leeds fighting for equality and representation?

Of course there were.

Three years before Annabelle’s campaign, a woman named Mrs. Eliza Dickenson of 4, School Street in Stourton, a miner’s wife “much involved in the recent colliery strike,” received the second-highest number of votes in her ward and was elected as a Poor Law Guardian for the Rothwell Ward. A perfect example. That same year, Mrs. Woodock of Beeston Road, very close to the Hunslet workhouse, was also elected, for the East Ward.

Mrs. Ann Ellis was a power-loom weaver from Batley (not Leeds, but close). Along with two icons of the 19th century Leeds Suffrage movement, she arranged protests against the Factory Acts that were intended to limit the ability of women, especially married women, to work. Mrs. Ellis was instrumental in setting up branches of the Women’s Trade Union League across West Yorkshire, and in 1875 led a six-week strike of women weavers in Dewsbury.

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Mrs. Ann Ellis, standing

The most famous example, perhaps, is Mary Gawthorpe. She grew up in Meanwood, the daughter of a factory foreman (and Tory election agent) and a textile worker. A bright child, Mary won a scholarship to secondary school. But as that only covered the school fees – secondary education wasn’t free at that time – her father refused to let her take, and she became a pupil-teacher at her primary school, teaching younger children in the day and receiving her own lessons in the evening and on Saturday. When she qualified, a little before her 21st birthday, she moved her mother and siblings over to Hunslet to take them away from her abusive father.

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By that time she was already becoming active in the Labour Party, the National Union of Teachers, and was a member of the Leeds Suffrage Society, quickly developing a reputation as a public speaker. Labour’s inaction over women receiving the vote took her to the WSPU, and more militant action. In 1909 she was severely beaten after heckling Churchill at a meeting. Six months later she was assaulted again, and a judge threw out the case when she tried to press charges against her attackers. The accumulated injuries made it impossible for her to continue with her work.

These are just a very few examples. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, more. Not just in Leeds, but everywhere. Your town, your city almost certainly had one or two. Ordinary women, without wealth or status or privilege, who felt compelled to act, to do something. They’re the real heroines.

I love Annabelle dearly. To me, she’s completely alive. But a part of me knows that to some degree that I’m the one who controls her destiny. She’s emblematic of the real women who truly did risk everything for equality. I hope you’ll support her in her campaign to be elected.

When I sat down to start The Tin God, I was there to tell a crime story. That’s what I hope I’ve done. But, in my head, it’s become something bigger, a book that opens a window on a time when women were pushing and struggling to become accepted as full citizens, even if there was little prospect of success. I feel as if I’ve tapped into something bigger – but I may be entirely delusional on that. Of course, I’d love for you to buy a copy of the book. But if you can’t, please order it from the library, and if they don’t have it, ask them to buy a copy. Not just because it’s my book, but because it might give a little understanding of what all those real Annabelle Harpers had to endure. And please, honour those who really did put it all on the line. They were the pioneers. They deserve it.