Friday, 23 March 2018

Story of a Novel: The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat

 The Silent Kookaburra began its life as Hosing Venetian Blinds, over ten years before it was finally published. So, why did I write it and why did it take so long to see the light of day?

Basically, it was a nostalgic trip down the Memory Lane of my childhood growing up in 1970s Wollongong, New South Wales.

I wrote Hosing Venetian Blinds, then rewrote it over and over, but for reasons unknown to me, I could not “get it right”. Or as “right” as a novel ever will be. More and more dissatisfied with each draft, on I slogged until one wintery afternoon in 2007, when a phone call interrupted my writing.

It was the Gendarmes of Grenoble informing me that my husband had suffered a nasty heart attack on the ski slopes and wasn’t expected to survive. Well, that was all I needed to completely abandon the novel. Onto a hard disk it went, with the vow that it would never see the light of day.

Luckily my husband made a complete recovery and eventually I began writing again. But still I couldn’t face rewriting Hosing Venetian Blinds; couldn’t stop equating the novel with that awful period of my life.

The Bone Angel Trilogy Boxset
 So for the next few years I plunged into a French historical fiction trilogy: The Bone Angel : Three heart-wrenching adventures of three midwife-healers during the Black Plague (Blood Rose Angel), French Revolution (Spirit of Lost Angels) and Nazi-occupied France (Wolfsangel).

Once the third story was published I began taking peeks at Hosing Venetian Blinds again. Then I reread it closely and voilà, immediately saw what I thought was “wrong” with the story. I rewrote, and published it, within a year.

Even though the book tackles some very dark and disturbing topics, it was fun travelling back to my childhood and teen years, seeing my friends, revisiting those familiar places, most notably the beach.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo
 The city has changed a lot since the 70s, but I’m still fond of Wollongong, and love going back there on my yearly pilgrimage home to Australia (I have lived in France for the past 25 years).

Fortunately for me, my childhood wasn’t burdened with the same terrible dramas as my fictional character, Tanya. However, I could readily identify with her, as that was the case for some people I knew.

Wollongong has a large European migrant community, attracted to the area post WW2 with the offer of work at the Port Kembla Steelworks, which, at that time, was the backbone of Wollongong.

One of my very first jobs, at age fourteen, was distributing grocery store pamphlets into letter boxes in this area. Not the long-term career I envisaged, but it earned me enough to buy my first car at age seventeen –– and my independence –– the day I got my licence. So, at five am every weekday, my lovely father would help me distribute these advertising pamphlets into the letterboxes of Cringila, and this cosmopolitan community piqued my interest. I wanted to know more about them; where they came from, what their lives were like. That prompted me to include the Italian migrant aspect of The Silent Kookaburra.

So why this title, when the kookaburra is anything but silent? Well, that’s just it: what might happen if your friendly backyard kookaburra does fall silent?

I’m pleased that The Silent Kookaburra has been well-received by readers and garnered some lovely reviews, and very glad I stuck with it to the bitter end! I’m currently working on the next novel, also set in 1970s Wollongong. And there will hopefully be a third in this new trilogy of standalone novels.

Extract from The Silent Kookaburra...

Chapter 1


Knuckles blanch, distend as my hand curves around the yellowed newspaper pages and my gaze hooks onto the headlines.

HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY. January 26th, 1973. 165-year anniversary of convict ships arriving in Sydney.

Happy? What a cruel joke for that summer. The bleakest, most grievous, of my life.

I can’t believe my grandmother kept such a reminder of the tragedy which flayed the core of our lives; of that harrowing time my cursed memory refuses to entirely banish.

Shaky hands disturb dust motes, billowing as I place the heat-brittled newspaper back into Nanna Purvis’s box.

I try not to look at the headline but my gaze keeps flickering back, bold letters more callous as I remember all I’d yearned for back then, at eleven years old, was the simplest of things: a happy family. How elusive that happiness had proved.

I won’t think about it anymore. I mustn’t, can’t! But as much as I wrench away my mind, it strains back to my childhood.

Of course fragments of those years have always been clear, though much of my past is an uncharted desert –– vast, arid, untamed.

Psychology studies taught me this is how the memory magician works: vivid recall of unimportant details while the consequential parts –– those protective breaches of conscious recollection –– are mined with filmy chasms.

I swipe the sweat from my brow, push the window further open.

Outside, the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean is still a pale glow but already it has baked the ground a crusty brown. Shelley’s gum tree is alive with cackling kookaburras, rainbow lorikeets shrieking and swinging like crazy acrobats, eucalyptus leaves twisted edge-on to avoid the withering rays.

But back in my childhood bedroom, behind Gumtree Cottage’s convict-built walls, the air is even hotter, and foetid with weeks of closure following my parents’ deaths.

Disheartened by the stack of cardboard boxes still to sift through, uneasy about what other memories their contents might unearth, I rest back on a jumble of moth-frayed cushions.

I close my eyes to try and escape the torment, but there is no reprieve. And, along with my grandmother’s newspaper clipping, I swear I hear, in the rise and dump of its swell, the sea pulling me back to that blistering summer of over forty years ago.

Amazon Reviews:

Compelling psychological drama that delves into the dark heart of family secrets. Chris Curran, author of Amazon bestseller, Mindsight.

An amazing domestic thriller with a gripping storyline, vivid dialogue, a palpable sense of place and time, and a compelling cast of characters that I can't get out of my head. Carol Cooper, Contemporary Women's Fiction author.

I have to say this was one of the most compelling reads I have read. Carol Ravensdale, reader.

... nothing better than a good twist or two in a plot, but this was a first for me - one final hammer dropping on the very last page that made my jaw drop! Cindy Taylor, BookBlogger.

... as well-written psychological thrillers often do, it makes you question everything you thinkyou know, culminating in a true twist of an ending that both shocks and makes you ask "Why didn't I figure this out sooner?" Courtney J. Hall, historical fiction, romance and contemporary author.

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Friday, 16 March 2018

Thinking of Forming an Author Collective?

A group of authors keen on self-publishing and forming an author collective, recently asked Team Triskele for some tips. Here are our (collective!) answers:

JJ Marsh, JD Smith, Gillian Hamer, Catriona Troth, Liza Perrat

Intro by JJ Marsh & Gillian Hamer

Before answering these astute and vitally important questions, we need to state right from the start that we don't know all the answers. Many collectives we've spoken to have fallen at financial or personality hurdles while we've managed to survive and thrive. We're not quite sure how, as we've had a fair few scrapes and stumbles along the road.

One thing we knew from the off is that we liked each other's writing and respected one another's critical perspective. But whether that would make us good business partners was anyone's guess. Triskele came into being as an act of trust - three independent partners, working together, sharing costs and maintaining individual rights.

Now we are bigger and more experienced, we are an officially registered company with a bank account and administration system. But more important than all of that, we're friends, fellow writers and a well-honed editorial team.

Did you set a maximum number of members of the co-operative at the start? If so, how many?

Liza Perrat
LP: No we didn't. We started off as three members from an online writing group, hence the origin of our 3-sided Triskele logo. It wasn't planned as such, more like an organic gathering of like-minded authors, all at a similar stage of the writing process and wanting to self-publish to the highest possible standard, and to help each other reach that goal. Very soon after, we welcomed two more members, whose work we also admired, and who had similar passions and goals. Personally, I think five is a perfect number. Enough people to take up the slack when someone is "out of order" for whatever reason. And that means four fresh pairs of eyes on each manuscript too, which I believe is a good number for an overall critique, and not too many that you end up with too many conflicting opinions.

How do you deal with approaches from writers who want to join your collective?  

JDS: Currently we aren't actively open for submissions to join our collective. Mainly because we work well as a small team and have built up a huge amount of trust between us when it comes to advice and critiquing, and we don't want to spoil that balance. However we do encourage other authors who like the idea of a collective to create their own, find a bunch of friendly writery folk you get on with, whose work you admire and whose opinions you value and support one another. Writing doesn't have to be solitary and the support of a good network of friends who share the same passion as you makes for a great team.

Did you sign up for a fixed duration, or can members leave when they wish, subject to removing the imprint name from their books? 

JD Smith
JDS: It's not something we've ever really discussed. We've all been part of the collective for a long time, when we published our first books. There's certainly no fixed duration, but of course any books published outside of the collective wouldn't feature our logo, for example. I personally published a book on cover design which doesn't fit the Triskele Books brand, so I did that as a standalone project and it doesn't carry the Triskele logo. Even so, my fellow members supported and helped me in its creation.

Do you put the collective’s name on the books, e.g. spine, title page, copyright page? 

JDS: We put the name/logo on our title page, spine, back of the book and then we also have a joint mailing list which we encourage readers to sign up to in the back of all of our books.

Did you formulate a written agreement? Including which points?

LP: We have no written agreement as such. At the beginning, we had many Skype chats (since we live in different countries), and several face-to-face meetings to define our goals and working methods. This is revisited and overhauled from time to time, or if a problem arises.

How do Triskele manage their joint funding? What rules and regs do they have in place to make it run smoothly?

Gillian Hamer
GH: Well, I am chief treasurer or top accountant or head of finance or what you will! Basically I just oversee the financial aspects of anything we arrange - be that physical launches or online competition, I just make sure the books balance. I pay the bills as they come in and ensure I send out invoices when required. I keep records of everything and share them with the other members so everything is transparent and I hope to think by now they trust me enough that they rarely bother checking!

I guess that in relation to charges, such as web hosting, website design, promotions, ISBNs UK, etc, a member is in charge of all financial transactions, like in an association? Keeping accounts and such?

GH: Part of my role as detailed above is to keep the bank account in the black, and to ensure we have enough in the kitty to pay for the yearly fees that roll round. If we need extra funds, say to hire a venue for a physical launch in London, then every member involved in that particular event will all contribute equally. We are a Limited Company in the UK now, so I do use my book keeping skills from my day job to ensure we keep everything legal and above board.

How do you ensure everyone abides by the rules and pulls their weight?

Catriona Troth
CT: I am not sure if I'd say that we have rules, exactly. But we do expect everyone to pull their weight. We have a pretty regular pattern of things we are each expected to contribute to, and a work plan (refreshed weekly) that sets out what's expected to go into each of those slots. Nominally, once every five weeks, when our turn rolls round, is when we make sure we have completed everything we are supposed to have done. In practice, most of us probably do those things as and when we can fit them in.

That workplan is checked regularly, and if there are gaps that need to be filled, we get a nudge. Then at least once a year we do a big review of how everything has been going - if people have any ideas how things could be done better, or if anyone is struggling to cope. And we adjust accordingly.

How do you manage dispute resolution, in the event of a disagreement?

CT: Perhaps because our joint financial commitment is minimal, we have been fortunate not to have any really serious disputes. But of course we have disagreements.  The key is keeping channels of communication open, and talking things out, not bottling them up.

How do you split group responsibilities (website, FB page, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest...?)

GH: So, my other badge as well as finance is social media. I run the Facebook and Twitter accounts which are regularly updated daily or weekly. If I'm away or extra busy, someone else will always step in and help out. Other members take up the slack with Instagram and Pinterest when we have something to promote, and we all try to share our posts as much as possible. We took this approach as it got a bit confusing at times, not knowing who was posting what and when, so now if anyone has anything they want putting out on Triskele channels we share it internally first to keep things clean and ensure we don't duplicate posts.

What joint marketing activities do you carry out?

CT: We have the Triskele website and blog, which we use, among other things, as a showcase for our work. This year, for example, we have having a once a month feature on the blog focusing on one of our books in particular and talking about the inspiration behind it.

In addition to that, most years we try and do one Big Thing, where we are not necessarily pushing our own books, but promoting the Triskele name. We have run three so-called 'Indie Author Fairs' - pop-up bookshops where indie authors could come and sell their books directly to readers. The last of those was combined with a one-day Lit Fest, where panels of authors writing in different genres discussed their work. And this year we are running the second of two competitions to win a year's mentoring, with the aim of taking a finished manuscript and making it publication-ready, with editing, proofreading, page-setting, cover design etc. Our first winner went through the process, decided to try for an agent and got one in a matter of days!

What do you do about marketing when there are gaps in releases?

JJ Marsh
JJ: We try to keep a bubbling profile, publishing a blogpost per week under the Triskele name. We also publish articles on Words with JAM magazine for writers and reviews on Bookmuse for readers. Aside from individual promotions and advertising, we watch out for opportunities and alert one another. We all jump in and trumpet a member's new release and usually have a physical event each year to promote all our releases and drink Prosecco. Every week, one of us is on duty, stoking the fires.

In addition to a Triskele website, what other joint social media platforms would you recommend? 

JJ: We have a Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Pinterest presence in addition to the content delivery above. Others have had success with LinkedIn or Instagram - whatever feels right for you.

How do you co-ordinate your public face, i.e. website, blog, FB/Twitter, etc. Do you use a schedule? And perhaps use a shared Dropbox folder to share documents between all members?  
GH: I may have covered this in my previous answer, but we mostly use our private Facebook group for internal chats and shares, or we add things to our weekly round up emails, and edit them via Google. Nothing goes public until it gets the thumbs up! Website updates are agreed internally and then either myself or Jane will add new books or information as needed.

Indie Author Fair

Has your collective free short story anthology been a good draw and created traffic to your site with resulting sales?

JJ: Our three collaborative publications - A Time and Place boxset, A Taste of Triskele short stories and recipes, plus our collaborative non-fiction book A Pathway to Publication - all earn us a steady trickle of income. On top of that we use an Amazon affiliate code to bring in regular pennies. The great thing about the boxset and story collection is they don't need any maintenance. I'd be hard pushed to define which of our myriad funnels brings most traffic to our site, but people do come.

Self-publishing: A number of people mentioned that they’d find really useful a step by step guide to what needs to be done and by when, when you are self-publishing. 

JJ: Pick up A Pathway to Self-Publishing. You can get it for free by signing up to our newsletter. It covers everything we've learned and is constantly updated. Or poke about on our website and find many useful articles on your particular interest. Or join The Alliance of Independent Authors. Do Joanna Penn's Author 101 or David Gaughran's Let's Get Digital. 
There's so much information but all of it is constantly changing. This is one of the biggest advantages of operating as a collective - five minds watching, testing, learning, writing, reading and communicating.

Team Triskele colours

Final point: When we started publishing as a collective, it was almost unheard of. So we sought out other collectives to interview, compare notes and learn from each other. You can find all our interviews here and we would be so very pleased if you came back to tell us about your successes.

Thanks for the smart questions!
Jill, Gilly, Liza, Jane and Kat

Friday, 9 March 2018

Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain?

Dave Morris, author of Can You Brexit without Breaking Britain?, talks to JJ Marsh about the book, the concept and the collaboration.

Hi Dave and thanks for talking to us. For those unfamiliar with the format, could you briefly explain how an interactive gamebook works?

The reader takes the role of the prime minister, it’s all told in second person, and the choices you make take you to different numbered sections. “If you want to explore a free trade agreement, turn to 123. If you propose to stay in a customs union, turn to 456,” and so on.

The creative process is really just what any writer does as they construct a story. You imagine the things the characters might do and what the consequences will be, the only difference being that in a gamebook you don’t prune away all the other branches of the story tree.

Of course, the choices you give the reader have to be interesting. Not just “what do you have for breakfast?” Well, actually that is one of the choices in the book, but it’s a subtext for a more important question about international trade. And as the reader picks from all the options, they’re effectively creating their own unique story as they go.

I’m guessing the genesis of this was a combination of passionate views on the handling of Brexit and the right combination of your and Jamie’s skills.

We do both feel very strongly about it, although as a matter of fact we don’t share the same views about either the EU or UK politics. I found I kept getting sucked into arguments on Facebook that were just a waste of time, so one day I logged out of social media and decided, okay, let’s channel all this passion into a book.

Jamie and I both used to write choose-your-own-adventure style gamebooks at the start of our careers, and we’ve also spent a lot of our careers working in the computer games business. I was a mentor in the American Film Institute’s digital content lab, which explored ways to connect emotion, storytelling and interactivity. So pulling all those strands together for this project made perfect sense.

Didn’t it seem like a daunting task?

Fortunately I go into every book with rose-tinted specs and the feeling that I can fly. I thought this one might take four or five months at most. By the time I realized the real scale of the work I was, like Macbeth, stepped so far in blood (or in this case in IMF reports and select committee transcripts) that I figured I may as well keep slogging through to the other shore.

Tell us about how you and Jamie work together.

I started out by designing a modular structure so that each of the ten major topics (trade, defence, the NHS, immigration, etc) could in theory be written by a different author. Jamie took a couple of those modules, but more than shouldering part of the work he came up with the voice of the book. If it had been left to me it would have been accurate and informative, which hopefully it still is, but Jamie has a great sense of humour (he won the Roald Dahl Award a few years back) and he found a way to keep it funny and entertaining at the same time. 

Jamie Thompson

Apart from posing the puzzle of trying to extricate the UK from the EU (or not), this book entertains the reader with acerbic political satire. It looks effortless but the knowledge behind such choices and wit must be considerable.

It maybe says a lot that the first comparison I reached for was Macbeth. Every day I was looking at as many diverse sources on each topic as I could find, loading it all into my head, reading reports and economic models and what politicians had actually said again and again until the pieces of the jigsaw started to fit. They say you really have to understand something to explain it simply. I did the heavy lifting so the reader doesn’t have to.

The humour and insights have quite rightly been compared to The Thick of It and Yes, Minister, both of which place the real power in the hands of ear-whisperers – the civil servants and government advisors. As authors, the information you choose to give the PM casts you in that role, wouldn’t you say?

Where is the real power? Sir Humphrey would be holding his head at the prospect of a government issuing endless mission statements and no plan, but his position these days has been usurped by special advisors whose loyalty is to the party (or more often just to individuals) rather than to the country.

What the reader will soon discover is that you can’t just point yourself at a goal. You have to contend with other elements in the party who will block whatever you try to do unless you can find ways to accommodate or outmanoeuvre them. In order to win, you have to stay in power – which incidentally explains a lot that’s happened since June 2016.

The issue of the referendum has caused much polarity of opinion. What kind of reader is this book aimed at?

Lots of people really want to understand Brexit for themselves but they feel overwhelmed. Who can blame them? One politician says one thing, another is wheeled out to say the opposite. The debate soon becomes abstract and confusing.

Yet there is a truth to be found, and people care about their future, so the point of the book is to give them a way of really getting to grips with the reality of Brexit. Then they can discuss it and make an informed decision. Democracy needs this. We can't just switch off such a vitally important issue because we’re bored.

Is your aim to change minds?

We want to open minds. In the book there are ways to achieve a successful Brexit or to reverse it. But not every goal can be achieved, and you can’t get anywhere without a plan. There are trade-offs. Compromises must be made. That’s how the real world works.

What I hope is that everyone who reads it will discover how to better examine and articulate their views, and to appreciate where they might make common ground with the half of the electorate who went the other way on 23 June. We need more tolerance, and we need everybody to open their eyes about what negotiating Britain’s new relationship with the EU will involve. I want to see an end to all the “enemies of the people” invective and to help restore some of that famous British common sense.

Obviously the advantage of your publishing now is that it’s extremely topical, but with the ground shifting every day, are you concerned the book will date? Or does that not matter?

The book I’m currently reading is Graves’s Goodbye To All That, and I’m getting pretty steamed up about the botched military planning on the Somme a hundred years ago, so I don’t think these things suddenly cease to matter. There are lessons to be learned for the future. People are always going to want to look back and see what we could have done differently.

Added to which, Brexit isn’t going to stop affecting us on 29 March 2019. Even ten years on we’ll still be feeling the effects of decisions being taken now. The generation who by then will have grown up in post-Brexit Britain and Europe will want to understand it for themselves.

Have you sent a copy to Theresa May? Or across the Camden/Islington border to Boris Johnson?

I have a friend who knows Boris Johnson and offered to pass on a copy. I think he really ought to read it, but I see no sign that he’s been too bothered about details or planning up to now. If he changes his mind he can always let me know, and I’ll happily deliver a signed copy to the Commons. I’d like to send one to every MP, actually, as I genuinely do feel it’s a case of, “If you only read one book about Brexit, make it this one.”

About Dave Morris

I'm equally drawn to both stories and equations, to both literature and science. Over the years I've written novels, textbooks, comics, gamebooks and television shows and I've designed videogames, boardgames and role-playing games. And co-authored a paper on the propagation of light delivered to the Institute of Physics. What can I say? I thrive on variety and I'm always looking for a fresh challenge!

Friday, 2 March 2018

BOOK CLUB: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant has a routine. She travels to work by bus, keeps her head down in her accountancy job, eats the same meal deal alone in the staffroom while doing the crossword and doesn’t talk to anyone from Friday night (when she buys two bottles of vodka to get her through the weekend) till Monday morning.

She’s built a bubble around herself and avoids contact with other people while at the same time being desperately lonely. Then an incident in the street draws her reluctantly into the lives of strangers.

Here Gillian Hamer (GH) and JJ Marsh (JJ) discuss their thoughts on the book.

How did you react to the character of Eleanor?

(GH)   I think I went through a wide range of feelings and there were tears as well as laughter. At first I found her awkwardness funny, then quirky, then endearing, then sympathetic and finally understanding. It wasn't long before I found I could second guess things from her perspective which meant the author had achieved what she set out to do and connected the reader with her character.

(JJ) I'd agree with that. You find yourself 'becoming' Eleanor, but not without a huge amount of wincing on the way. I read something in the news this week that one of the factors used to measure human happiness is one's connection to your community. Real interactions, on the surface meaningless, reinforce that you are part of something. By around the middle of the book, I was struck by how much has been written about various human social disorders, but so little about the simple fact of being lonely.

The perspective is tightly contained within Eleanor’s point-of-view of the world, allowing the reader both insights and distance. How well do you feel that worked? 

(JJ) The clash between the reader's understanding of social morés and Eleanor's is where the laughter, awkwardness and self-awareness happens in this book. When she asks Raymond for the money for his Guinness stopped me in my tracks. It's like being a foreigner in a culture you just don't understand. The other area I felt worked well was her obsession with the musician. She allows the reader droplets of information which we can decode, but Eleanor cannot. I came out of this book feeling slightly ashamed of myself and determined to make fewer assumptions.

(GH)  Really well and from a writer's perspective it can't have been easy to achieve. Like I said, I quickly saw through Eleanor's eyes and judged the world as she did. Her distaste at poor hygiene or text speak became natural as that is what we came to expect; her reliance on alcohol and the normality of this to her told us so much with about her inner pain without having to explain. But we were also given a glimpse at how the outside world viewed Eleanor through things like interaction (or lack of) with her work colleagues and her sessions with her counsellor which finally opened her up to the real world. In terms of distance, there is a clever balance. Societies' general contempt for mental health issues come under the spotlight here, and it can make for uncomfortable reading which is no bad thing.

Due to her profound isolation from the world, her encounters with the general public range from hilarious to cringeworthy. Which moments stand out for you?

(GH)  Oh there were some laugh aloud moments. One that had me in giggles was the description of Eleanor's first introduction to dancing the YMCA. There was no telling - all showing - and it was hilarious. Another was her first visit to a beauty salon and her first bikini wax - I think you can most likely fill in the gaps there. A cringeworthy moment was when she began to attend parties with Raymond and realised from a previous faux-pas that it's polite to take gifts even when the host says not to - so took what she thought would be most useful - a packet of cheese slices and half a bottle of vodka. As ridiculous as that would sound to anyone who hasn't read the book, to those of us who know Eleanor it's completely understandable.

(JJ) The bikini wax had me in fits too. As did the discussion of a suitable drink with the barman. But I found her interactions with the owner of the corner shop quite touching. Most of all, I found her snobbish judgementalism - the root of which we grow to appreciate - so entertaining. "I often find those most likely to wear sports clothing are those least likely to practise it." She's not quite the 'idiot savant', but her observations veer close to the bone.

Eleanor may be the central focus but many of the minor characters played key roles. Which of the supporting cast did you love or hate?

(GH) Raymond and his mother stood out for me. His mother in particular seemed to touch Eleanor in a way that confused her to begin with but then opened her up to most of the journey that followed. Such a simple gesture as making a cup of tea, and not having to ask how she took it, showed a caring side of motherhood that Eleanor had never experienced. Raymond was a perfect friend for Eleanor. His character came through right from their initial encounter with the elderly Sammy and his accident in the street. Raymond came along at a time in Eleanor's life when loneliness was finally having a profound effect on her even though she had spent so many years telling herself and everyone else that she was 'completely fine.' The way Raymond handled Eleanor through her meltdown was testament to his character. He bought her flowers for the first time in her life, he did her laundry, got her shopping in - all things that no one had ever done for her before.

As a complete antithesis, if there was ever a character worth hating in a novel, it was Eleanor's birth mother. Even without knowing the real depths of her depravity for most of the book, by the time we came to the big reveal we already detested her with a passion. It was testament to Eleanor that she had survived to see her thirtieth birthday - not just physically but mentally too. This was a woman who had no business terming herself as a mother to anyone and how she manipulated and terrified Eleanor from afar was awful to read.

(JJ)  Oh her mother was a monster all right. But part of me felt Eleanor's relationship with her was something like 'better the devil you know'. Her own willingness to accept that bullying behaviour spoke volumes about her not being anywhere near 'completely fine'.
The takedown of the musician really entertained me - hung by his own petard, or in this case, his own Tweets.
Whereas her boss, Sammy and his family, Raymond and his mum showed all those little kindnesses that allowed Eleanor to develop the smallest of bonds. I found the scene in the hairdresser quite emotional.
One other moment that struck me was when as a child, she went to a friend's house for tea. Served classic 'kid food', she is appalled. The friend's mother asks what they normally have for tea, to which she rattles off an absurd list of pretentious delicacies. My heart broke for her. Through no fault of her own, she has become insufferable.

The contemporary story is woven through with revelations about Eleanor’s past, building to a climatic end. Did it come as a shock or had you guessed? 

(JJ)  The clues had pretty much spelt it out for me so there was an odd mixture of vindication and horror at realising what had happened. Somehow, the reader comes to terms with the past at the same time as Eleanor. We have to face those formative events with her in order to see a future.

(GH)  Without giving away the ending, I had mostly guessed where the story of Eleanor's past was leading us. I guessed there was a sibling involved but hadn't expected the final twist. It was like the missing piece of a jigsaw for me and suddenly everything made sense.

What was your take on the pace of Eleanor’s development?

(GH)   I think it was pretty dramatic considering she'd spent twenty years in some kind of self-imposed stagnation. But it was getting a taste of life and love - Sammy's family, her work promotion, meeting Raymond and her feelings for the musician - that combined and speeded up her development. But then the author cleverly chose to start the story at a point in her life when Eleanor was desperate for change - whether she'd acknowledged that herself or not.

(JJ) Pace was the one thing about this book I didn't enjoy. For me, there was a circularity of hints and allusions to the past which began to drag. Whereas the steady luring of Eleanor for her solitary life moved as slowly as it must. Gilly, you're right in saying she was ready for a change, but I was a wee bit frustrated that it took so long to draw back the curtain after so many clues.

The novel is Honeyman’s debut and Reese Witherspoon has bought the film rights. How do you think the book will transfer to screen?

(GH)  I am not totally sure and do have reservations. I guess it will depend on the skill of the director and producer. As so much is seen internally from Eleanor's perspective, I feel it will be a hard task to get the viewer onside as easily as the reader. But Hollywood clearly sees potential so let's hope they do the book justice.

(JJ) Well, it's all going to depend on who they cast as Eleanor. Her personality is what drives this book and no matter how anti-social or misfit her behaviour, the viewers needs to be on her side. The readers have long since been lured in. I think if they don't add too much syrup, this could be a very enjoyable movie.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Story of a Novel: Ghost Town by Catriona Troth

It’s no secret that Ghost Town had one of the longest gestations in literary history. But what inspired me to write it and why did it take me so long to finish it?

The ruined cathedral of St Michael's - Coventry's symbol of reconciliation

Back in 1981, I was a post-graduate student at the University of Warwick. I could not help but be aware, through that spring and summer, that tensions were building between local skinheads and the then relatively new British Asian community. There was an undercurrent of violence in the air and a sense that something was about to boil over.

Years later, I had an idea for a story that seemed to fit perfectly with this background. As I began my research, I uncovered a story that was both darker and more shocking than what I remembered – but also profoundly hopeful. A story which – while still talked about in Coventry – itself is virtually unknown outside the city.

What I had remembered simply as ‘rising tensions’ had in fact included firebomb attacks, an assault on a young girl as she minded her family’s shop, and two racially motivated murders – one of a young student and one of a doctor. The murder of the student galvanised the Asian community in to action. A series of protest marches were held – the last and biggest of which was met by a phalanx of skinheads giving Nazi salutes in the middle of the town centre, backed by senior members of Far Right groups like the National Front and the British Movement. Fights broke out between skinheads and Asian youths that were broken up by a charge of mounted police. And always in the shadows, grey men from Far Right, fanning the flames of hatred.

Audio Extract from Ghost Town, describing the day a protest march exploded into violence

A collections of photographs from the Coventry Telegraph showing the real life protest march in May 1981

Members of the Specials and the Selecter outide the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in 2014

This was a time when Coventry identified with Two Tone and Ska the way Liverpool identified with the Beatles. Bands like The Specials  and the Selector had been writing music with an explicitly anti-racist message. So when the band heard what had happened, the Specials' immediate response was to organise a Concert for Racial Harmony.

Photographs from The Specials' Concert for Racial Harmony 

Although everyone feared that would became a flash point for further violence, it didn’t. Within a couple of weeks, riots had kicked off in cities across the UK, starting in Southall. But Coventry remained one of the few major cities the riots never reached. It was as if the city paused, took stock and listened to its own conscience. The Specials and the other bands at the Concert for Racial Harmony bore witness to a different kind of future.


My first draft came relatively fast. Allowing for the fact I was working and bringing up two small children, a year wasn’t a bad effort. I had the bones of a story not a million miles from the final plot of Ghost Town. But I knew some of it was built on pretty shaky ground.

In autumn 2001, I took myself back up to Coventry and immersed myself in the archive of the Coventry Evening Telegraph. That was when I finally understood the enormity of what had happened in the city in the spring and summer of 1981.

Part of Coventry's 'Concrete Jungle'

The next draft of Ghost Town came very slowly. I became passionate about telling the story of what happened in Coventry that summer. I was soaking up a lot of research, reading books, trawling the internet, understanding a lot of things I hadn’t understood before. The story was fleshing out, but something wasn’t right. My female lead no longer fitted the book. So I took the drastic decision to rip her out and look for a new lead.

That was when, luckily or unluckily, depending on your point of view, I lost my job. I had a year unemployed and I spent it feverishly finishing Ghost Town, with its new female lead. By the time I started work again, I had a completed manuscript.

I proofread it, parcelled up a few chapters, and started sending it round to agents. According to my records, I had an encouraging number of people asking for the full MS. But that was all. I got busy with my new job, and the manuscript languished – until I discovered online critique groups.

Hugely excited, I posted a few chapters. The initial response was scathing, to say the least. I felt like giving up. I remember telling someone that, if I had to rewrite this book one more time, I thought my ears would bleed. “Then let them bleed,” they said, “if that’s what it takes.”

Finally, I started to find people who seemed to ‘get’ my story. They were critical, sometimes harshly so. But their criticism was constructive. One of the most painful things was that, chapter after chapter, I was told that my new female lead, the one for whom I had ripped the whole book apart, was ‘cold’ and ‘unsympathetic’. I can’t tell you how many tears I shed, until at last I reached a point where people started to connect with her.

And well, there were a few more iterations after that. Some savage cutting of an overly long manuscript, courtesy of the sharp editing scalpel of Amanda Hodgkinson. A wonderfully sensitive reader, Sudha Buchar, helped me avoid more than one pitfall with the British Asian characters in the book. Finally, the MS went through the hands of a copy editor and proof reader. And Ghost Town was published with Triskele Books, with the gorgeous cover designed by Jane Dixon Smith.

And that is how a series of events that made a deep impression on me back in the summer of 1981 found their way onto the page in November 2013.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Marketing A Book - Ten Ways to Learn How

At Triskele Books, we've spent a lot of time and money on learning how to market our books. And as a collective, we share everything we learn with each other. So today, we're sharing with you. Here are ten of the books, sites, resources and courses that we've found most useful.

Your First 1000 Copies by Tim Grahl
A great place to start, especially if the word marketing brings you out in a rash. Solid, helpful advice and a wise approach to the author-marketing mindset.

Let's Get Visible by David Gaughran
The partner volume to Let's Get Digital (also recommended), Gaughran understands the workings of the Kindle store better than most and offers practical, clear advice on how to use it.

Write. Publish. Repeat by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant
This is a broader look at building a career from your writing, with a focus on craft as well as marketing.

How To Market a Book by Joanna Penn
Distilling her own experience and advice into one book, which is easy to read and useful for authors at every stage of the publishing process, Joanna is an inspiration.

How To Get Your Self Published Book Into Bookstores by Debbie Young
IN her typically approachable and friendly style, ALLi Publications Manager Debbie Young covers all the angles and some you hadn't even considered.


Mark Dawson's Self Publishing Formula
Mark and his team offer lots of free advice via podcasts and resource books, plus some powerful paid courses that have transformed many writers' careers.

Dave Chesson's Free AMS Ads Course
Very useful 5-day course aimed at digging into the nuts and bolts of Amazon Marketing Services.

Your First 10K Readers by Nick Stephenson
All kinds of helpful advice with a particular focus on growing a mailing list, Nick's blog and videos are an essential part of any author's marketing toolbox.

Anne R Allen's blog with Ruth Harris.
The pair are focused largely on craft, but have some excellent and easily digestible tips on marketing and self promotion.

Jane Friedman is always at the cutting edge of changes in the publishing world and offers weekly updates and insights into what's afoot. A must read.

Friday, 9 February 2018

What Are You Reading (2) ... and is it romantic?

By Gillian Hamer

So, February is the month of love. Ho-hum. Or so we are told. But in the spirit of all things romantic, in the second of our What Are You Reading articles we touch on love stories in all their guises.

In the hope of discovering a few more masterpieces, or at least adding to our ‘to be read’ pile, Triskele members share our current reads with you - and ask for your latest hot reads in exchange. Please join in the discussion and let's spread the word about some of the great books out there - whether classics or latest finds.

FEBRUARY - What are you reading?


The Lost Son of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith

Not a romance in the true sense of the word, but plenty of love features in this true and tragic story of an unmarried mother whose son was forcibly adopted (stolen and sold) from Ireland in the mid-1950s.
The story follows firstly her atrocious experience with the nuns in the Irish convent, then the son's life adopted life in the USA, where he becomes a high-level Republican worker for Pres Reagan. His search for his mother and her search for him expose the crimes of the Catholic Church concerning forced adoptions. This books certainly pulled on my heartstrings far more than a classic tale of romance.


The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory.

The title says it all and the cover is very pink ... It follows Elizabeth I as she finally ascends the English throne, with many pushing for her marriage to secure the future of England. Her eye is on Robert Dudley, but as always, everyone at court is jostling for power and there are enemies in every corner.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Again, not a traditional romance, but there is love in there, mostly of the 'unrequited', 'unexpected' and 'search for unconditional' varieties. This is a cleverly written novel from the perspective of a character who sees the world through very different eyes than most, and survives each day the only way she knows how ... because no one has ever shown Eleanor Oliphant how to live rather than simply survive. When the layers of her life are slowly revealed, the reader is dragged through every emotion possible.
Romance? Possibly not. But Valentines is probably a good time to read it to help you appreciate the good things in life.


Mythos by Stephen Fry.

Mythos is a retelling of some Greek myths by Stephen Fry and it is most definitely romantic.
Fry’s urbane tones shine through as he tells legendary tales of passion and drama, and reveals all kinds of quite interesting facts in his footnotes.
Entertaining, educational and filled with genuine love for a good story.


Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

Sofia Khan is a totally recognisable, flawed, modern young woman. She wears skinny jeans, smokes, swears, has issues with deadlines and agonises about getting fat while scoffing muffins and lemon puffs. So far, so Bridget Jones. On the other hand, she wears a hijab, doesn’t drink alcohol, prays five times a day and has no intention of having sex before marriage. And Sofia and her friends have to deal with things Bridget could never have imagined - from Muslim speed dating, to deciding whether it’s okay to become a polygamous second wife. As for emotional blackmail, Muslim aunties take it to new heights.

But Sofia Khan has something BJD never quite achieved – a sense of real heart. Do not expect this to end with Sofia ripping off her hijab and going on a binge. Nor with her settling down to be a ‘traditional’ submissive wife. This is about how you can be modern, independent, strong-minded – and still a faithful Muslim. Something most Muslim women have always known; Malik is just letting the rest of us in on the secret.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Story of a Novel: The Charter by Gillian E. Hamer

By Gillian E. Hamer

I’ve told the story of the birth - or maybe that should be the inception - of The Charter a few times now, and it means as much to me today as it did at the start of my writing career. This novel sums up everything I am passionate about. It stems from my love of history, adventure and tales told by local folks that fire up my imagination.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first learned of the wreck of The Royal Charter off the coast of Anglesey in the great storm of 1859 claiming the loss of over eight hundred lives. But I think I was around eleven years old when the press were full of stories of gold bullion being recovered from the wreck by local divers after a winter storm, and an influx over several months the following summer of modern day treasure hunters.

One weekend, armed with a second hand metal detector, our family headed to a local beach, Red Wharf Bay and I can still remember the burst of excitement each time I found a penny in the sand – only to find out later that a relative had buried them for me to find!
The small Welsh island of Anglesey has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and even now it still often surprises me with its beauty or stories of the past. I find Neolithic burial mounds I’ve not known existed, or, as happened on this latest New Year holiday, discovered a new beach I’ve never previously visited.

There are hundreds of shipwrecks around the Anglesey coast, some you can see at low tide or even visit in estuary mud banks. But there was something about the story of The Royal Charter that touched my soul. It could have been the mystery around the missing Australian gold, or the fact Charles Dickens was so moved by the disaster he visited and wrote about it in his novel The Uncommercial Traveller. Or it could have been the visits I made as a child to the old churchyard in Llanallgo Church, where many of the dead are buried, and there now stands the anchor from the wreck along with a memorial to the missing.

But when I sat down and started to write novels, there was always one story I would want to retell in my own style. And to this day I’m so proud to say that the prologue of this book managed to secure me two literary agents.

And so The Charter became, if not the first novel I wrote, the first I published in June 2012. The audio version has become one of my best sellers, and even today sales of the book remain steady and more popular than others in the U.S.

All my novels are set on and around Anglesey and the North Wales coast and I have notebooks of stories, ideas, local tales and research that I hope one day will make their way in books in their own right – but I doubt any will mean quite as much to me as The Charter.


October 26 1859

How can it be?

I stand on the edge of a high cliff. Holding back hair that whips across my face, I shield my eyes and squint through the stinging wind. Lifeless bodies dash against the rocks beneath me.

The ship disappears beneath the surface, battered by one huge wave after another. Rain mixes with tears that burn my eyes, and I feel as if I have woken from a nightmare of such terror my whole world has become horribly distorted. I know the sea. I have lived with the ocean all my life. I have been raised to respect Mother Nature, and to underestimate at my peril the power of the ocean. But I have never witnessed such a storm as this.

How can it be?
I have no memory of reaching this cliff. The last thing I remember is being wrapped in mother’s arms on the rolling deck as my da strapped a belt around my waist.

“Women and children first,” he said. “Now, hush! You keep your hand on this belt; it’s all we own in the world, my angel. My precious angel. You keep it safe for Da. And you take good care of your mam. I’ll see you on the other side.”
Cold lips press into my cheek. Calloused palms cup my face for the merest of seconds. The other side of where? I want to ask. But he’s gone and the ship is lurching violently beneath my feet.

“Da! Help … help me!”

A sound like a gunshot rips through the air.

“Port anchor’s let go!” someone shouts. “Sweet Lord! Brace the yeards, lads, starboard won’t take the strain, else!”

I bury my head in my mother’s bosom; she wraps her shawl around me. The shrieking wind carries away the sounds of crying children, sobbing women, men barking orders. I cover my ears as strong hands lift me, push me towards the lifeboat. I grasp my mother’s hand tighter.


"Starboard anchor’s gone! We’re heading for the rocks! Get Captain Taylor!”

Seconds later, a ripping noise shakes the whole ship. The wooden deck shudders, and the bow gives out a loud moan. The ship tilts and I lose my footing, screaming as I slide towards the inky blackness, pulled by the weight of the leather pockets about my waist.

Water engulfs me.
Coldness engulfs me.
Darkness engulfs me.

How can it be?
I watch from the cliff edge as a pale dawn breaks. No golden rising sun, no blue skies, no welcoming warmth – just a gradual fading of blackness into misty grey.

The Royal Charter – the steamship that has carried my family from Hobson’s Bay, Australia to a ‘better life’ in England – is still being pounded by the storm. With every massive wave that crashes over her, I expect the ship to disappear, but after each surge of the tide she reappears as if trapped by the jagged rocks and unable to find release.

Bodies pulled and tossed by the furious tide, pushed inland one minute and dragged back into the white foam the next. Men I’d seen issuing orders; women I’d spoken to; children I’d spent many hours with over the past weeks. I close my ears to the screams and cries that circle my head like squawking gulls.

I stand there for seconds, minutes, hours, days … I know not.

The spray of the ocean is on my face. I hear the roar in my ears. I taste the salt on my lips.

But I know it cannot be. I know this cannot be real.

The truth hits me. Bile fills my mouth; I double over and retch.

When I straighten, I stand in silence and calmness. The storm still rages all around me, but I am protected. As if in the eye of the hurricane, my own space is quiet and still.

The answer is suddenly clear.

My name is Angelina Stewart.

I am eleven years old.

And I am dead.

The legend of The Royal Charter is almost as famous as the story of the dead girl who wanders the cliffs at Point Lynas – a victim of the 1859 shipwreck.
After more than a decade away, Sarah Morton must return to her childhood home in Anglesey to bury her father. It’s her chance to say goodbye, and good riddance, to her past.
Yet her father leaves her a legacy. A letter. And a safe full of documents about the ancient shipwreck.
The Royal Charter had been carrying gold. Huge amounts of it. And her father’s death suddenly looks like murder.
Determined to discover the truth, Sarah is dragged into a dangerous journey, discovering she and the girl on the cliffs have more in common than she could ever believe.
Set along the dramatic and dangerous Anglesey coastline, The Charter is a story of greed and forgiveness – when the treasures of the past evoke the crimes of today.

Amazon Reviews

5.0 out of 5 stars Story telling at it's best, 11 Jun 2012
By pigginhell
… If I was one of these obsessive types who orders my library in genre order, I would not know where to put this one. Crime novel? Ghost Story? Historic Account? Adventure Story? It doesn't matter. It all works beautifully together. The elements, as diverse as they seem, sometimes just fit, which of course is down to old fashioned, damn good story telling.

5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it..., 23 Sep 2012
By jaffareadstoo (England)
… It's not often that a book comes along which covers all your favourite genres in one fell swoop, but… The Charter is definitely one such book. Gillian Hamer writes with the passion of one who knows Anglesey well, and with great skill and imagination has turned this passion into a cracking good story.

 5.0 out of 5 stars Wild and spooky Wales, 19 July 2012
By Cathy "cathyagain"
… A GOOD story well told is always great to read, and this one cracks along with atmosphere. The setting is wild Wales, the coast of Anglesey.
Author Gillian Hamer has a way of gripping readers that goes beyond the twists of her plot. Her writing is superb. This is five-star stuff.

5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Book With A Wonderful Blend Of Genres, 18 July 2012
By M. Stork (North Yorkshire, England)  
… the drama and beauty of the writer's descriptions of the rugged Welsh coast. The descriptions were so breathtakingly beautiful I felt I was there, and could hear the waves crashing against the shore. The characters are wonderful … the pace was perfect

If you'd like to read The Charter for yourself please CLICK HERE.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Triskele Books - Time and Place

Triskele Books is an author collective spread over three countries and two time zones. So it's no surprise that all Triskele novels have a strong sense of time and place.

Gillian E Hamer’s books are set in North Wales. She has written three novels which blend modern crime, ancient history and an otherworldly element. Currently she is working on the fourth in the Gold Detective series.

JJ Marsh writes contemporary European crime. The Beatrice Stubbs series explores ethics, politics and blood – from Zurich to Brampford Speke.

Liza Perrat’s historical fiction novels are set in rural France against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Second World War, from the perspective of two extraordinary women. Her Australian psychological thriller, The Silent Kookaburra, was published in 2017.

Catriona Troth’s novella, Gift of the Raven, takes place in Canada in the 1970s while her novel Ghost Town tackles the themes of race and identity in 1980s Coventry.

JD Smith’s retelling of the Tristan and Iseult legend brings ancient Ireland and Cornwall vividly to life. The Overlord series takes the reader back to 3rd Century Syria to tell the story of Zenobia, Warrior Queen of Palmyra.
Here they explain how their collective operates.

How does an author collective differ from a small press?

Jill (JJ): It’s very similar to a small press, but the crucial difference is our independence. Legally, we wanted to retain our own rights, so we chose not to create a publishing house. Instead, we just act like one. We’re a group of people who can edit, proof, consult, advise, co-promote and market on a shared platform. Each of us works as an independent entity but we all benefit from mutual support. Financially, we contribute equally to any costs incurred, such as webhosting, print materials, etc, but each of us keeps the profits from our own books.

What factors triggered each of you to go indie?

Liza: We’d met each other via an online writing group, and found ourselves in a similar situation: Gillian and I both had agents, but they couldn’t find our books a home. Jill stopped trying the trad route after an agent called her work too cerebral. Catriona was left dangling by a publisher for two years, until she wrote them a rejection letter. And Jane (JD) loved the freedom of creativity found by going indie.

We got together and discussed our options. Going the independent route, as a team, felt more manageable. We established ideals: high quality writing and professional presentation, and committed ourselves to publishing the books we wanted to write, not what the market dictated.

How did your publishing cooperative come together, and what made you decide to establish it? How many of you are there?

Catriona: I began reading about author collectives in the States. And I thought this has to be the way forward, the power in working together. So four years ago, the original members of Triskele met in London to decide if the idea really had legs. Turns out it did. Five of them.

What elements of the publishing process are done collectively? How do you handle the finances, such as royalties and so on?

: We critique, edit and proof each other’s drafts before they go for professional proofreadings. If needed we all give advice on cover design too.

Finances have been relatively simple. We all keep our own royalties from sales of our own books. If we choose to market or advertise Triskele collectively, we all contribute equal shares. And for joint ventures, like The Triskele Trail, we divide initial outlay and profits go into our Triskele bank account to cover future overheads like webhosting, print materials, advertising etc.

Where does the Triskele name come from? Does a Triskele book have an identifiable style that sets it apart?

Jane (JD)
: The name came from the Celtic symbol of the triskele, which shows three independent circles joining to form something greater than its parts. It represents the concept of our collective – authorial independence balanced by mutual support. Going it alone, together.

Triskele books are top quality – they must be well-written, tell a good story and contain a strong sense of place, which is Triskele’s USP. They’re also thoroughly edited, proofread, carefully typeset and have a professional cover.

What about the design aspects? Do you share a designer? And do you try and go for a shared look or feel?

: We’re lucky enough to have talented designer JD Smith on the team, so yes, we all use the same designer. We don’t go for a shared look since we range across different genres, but we try to harmonise all our visual material.

You are located in three different countries. How do you manage the communication issue?

: We have our own Facebook private page, for everyday communication and we also use email and Skype. We communicate every day but only meet physically three or four times a year. But when we do, it’s brilliant fun!

What do you see as the key benefits of being in a collective? Any disadvantages? What advice would you give someone thinking of doing the same?

: Two huge advantages! Firstly, you are not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. These days, it can be pretty hard to keep thinking of new and original things to say, so you don’t become one of those awful people on social media who just keeps bleating, ‘buy my book, buy my book!’ Being part of a group means you can take turns spreading the word in your own style.

The second advantage is having someone to answer questions and give advice. Among the five of us, someone will have had the same problem and know a solution.

Disadvantages? The classic downside of being a team player – if you mess up, it’s not just yourself you’re letting down. That adds a lot of pressure. But the flipside is the others are there to catch you if you fall.

My advice would be to learn from those who’ve gone before, then find the path that’s right for you. There’s no one way to do this.

How do you know whether an author is a good ‘fit’ for Triskele Books? Are you actively seeking new members?

: Writing good books is a given. We as a group need to ‘fit’. When working so closely as a team, it’s important everyone pulls their weight and believes in the collective as a whole. We share experiences, snippets of information, the highs and lows, opportunities for genres, news stories relevant to an author’s theme, place or period. We’re really supportive of each other and the group.

We’re not seeking new members at the moment, no. We seem to have found the right balance.

What are your plans for the future?

: Every six months, we stop and evaluate where we’re going. What’s working, what needs to be improved, and how best to move forward. We just launched The Big 5 Competition, in which someone will win a year's mentoring from us. Other than that, we're all writing new books and finding more ways to connect good books to discerning readers.

A Time and a Place is a boxset of seven novels by the Triskele authors and associates. Grab it now at the bargain price of £7.99.

Friday, 12 January 2018

BOOK CLUB: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

“Calcutta ... Our Star in the East. We’d built this city ... where previously there had only been jungle and thatch. We’d paid our price in blood and now, we proclaimed, Calcutta was a British city. Five minutes here would tell you it was no such thing. But that didn’t mean it was Indian.”

A Rising Man is grounded in a very specific time and place: Calcutta, 1919. This is a time, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when the “Quit India” movement was beginning to gain momentum. When calls for violent uprising were clashing with Gandhi’s approach of non-violent noncooperation. When the British were doubling down on their control with an oppressive set of laws called the Rowlatt Acts.

And in the midst of this, a senior British civil servant is found murdered in the ‘wrong’ part of town, with piece of paper stuffed in his mouth inscribed with a subversive slogan.

A Rising Man is the first book in a planned series and Mukerjee introduces two main characters: Captain Sam Wyndham, scarred from his experiences in the trenches and the death of his wife, and newly arrived in India and Detective Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, known (because British tongues can’t manage anything too complicated) as Surrender-Not.

Here Gillian E Hamer, JJ Marsh and Catriona Troth talk about how the book affected them. Please join in in the comments section below!

How do these two characters work as a pairing? And what do you think of Mukherjee’s choice to make the outsider, Sam, his point of view character?

(GEH) I loved both characters! In a kind of Morse and Lewis vibe they worked off each other really well, with touches of humour and subtle sarcasm as they grew to know each other. Both were professional, and yet the reader knew early on that Banerjee was always going to be the unsung hero that saved the day. I think Wyndham knew that Banerjee was going to be a life-long partner, and that his local knowledge and expertise would always make an outsider’s job easier.

I think having Wyndham as the central character worked really well because we saw Calcutta through his eyes, and the highs and lows of the city resonated with us from his British perspective which we understand as Westerners ourselves.

(JJ) They are the classic team. Initially awkward, rubbing each other up the wrong way on occasion but both have much to offer and by dint of mutual respect - one assumed, one earned - they achieve a harmony and understanding I would happily read and enjoy as it develops.

Sam as POV is vital to my own appreciation of this book and this time. He's cognisant but not comfortable with the assumption of British superiority and challenges the status quo as who might have been a 'modern man' for the times.

(CT) I fell in love with both of these characters at first sight, and that affection has only deepened with reading the second book in the series (A Necessary Evil). Surrender-not's wry sense of humour and his patient tolerance of Sam is irresistible. He's one of those apparently secondary characters that actually give the book its heart and soul.

I think that Mukherjee's choice of Sam as the point of view character firstly gives him an 'all access pass' that simply wouldn't be possible for Surrender-not, given the restriction imposed by social hierarchies. Sam will also notice things that a local would simply take for granted, which gives us a eyes and ears in this unfamiliar world.

Mukherjee takes you down into the streets of Calcutta, from the stinking gullees of Black Town and the opium dens of Tiretta Bazaar, to the poky guesthouses for the itinerant British, where “the mores of Bengal were exported to the heat of Bengal,” the maroon-painted colonial neo-classic buildings of the Imperial civil service and the exclusive clubs of the rich.

Does Mukherjee successfully evoke Calcutta in the early 20th C for you? Any descriptions that particularly strike you?

(GEH) Yes, I thought the sense of location was excellent. I loved how we discovered the city through an outsider’s eyes as Wyndham was clearly unprepared for Calcutta. I thought it was a very clever tool to use Annie Grant as our guide to the city, and I particularly liked the descriptions of the glitz and glamour of the bars and hotels they frequented being next door to some of the poorest slums. The contrast is meant to shock us and it does. And yet her explanation of how these stark differences were normal to the locals and how the different colours and castes were treated within the complicated layers of society was well researched by the author but came across very naturally.

(JJ) 100%. Not that I'd know, but his sense of alienation, endangerment and sheer confusion at this indescribable city thrusts the reader right into the middle of the heat, traffic and politics. The opium den is a curtain drawn back on a twilight environment, but I found dinners at the boarding house grimly familiar and entertaining in a gritted-teeth fashion.

(CT) I thought the detail was extraordinary, without ever being heavy handed. I had a film playing in my head the whole time I was reading - in full technicolour and surround-sound.

This is a world of strict hierarchies, where everyone is kept firmly in their place. How did Mukherjee convey the manners of the period?

(GEH) I may have touched on this a little in the previous answer as Annie Grant was a very clever character as she saw things from both sides, and understood how these barriers worked. She was mixed race and gave a no nonsense account of how it had become accepted that English men brought over to run the country would consort with local women, but how the children of those unions were never fully accepted into society. The author showed through Annie his real feelings about society at that time, but didn’t shy away from the brutal manner of the period in either tone or language. We also saw the complex hierarchies of the police and military and who has the power and makes the decisions. I found this extremely interesting and liked the fact that the central characters did their best to stay true to their values.

(JJ) That is one element of the book which made me continually uncomfortable. The privilege and entitlement of the British colonials made my toes curl, even with the historical perspective. Mukherjee uses his brush lightly, embedding the appalling injustice and arrogance as part of the scenery. The caste system also has a walk-on role, but is still significant. I found the social strictures artificial and outdated yet evidently functional.

(CT) I agree with Jill that it can make for very uncomfortable reading - and so it should! To give just one excruciating example, Surrender-not  - a police sergeant - is forced to wait outside a club when Sam goes inside to interview someone because of a sign that declares ‘No dogs or Indians beyond this point.'

We tend to view this period from the point of view of the British Raj (through stories such as The Far Pavilions or The Jewel in the Crown). Was there anything about the different slant that Mukherjee brings to the story that surprised you or made you change your view of the British role in India?

(GEH) Yes, you’re right. Anything I’ve read or watched on TV has always been from an English perspective, along with a rallying cry for the might of the empire! Here the author makes you think about the real people of India, who watched as their city exploded into a kind of London suburb before their eyes. Some, like Banerjee, were able to find a foothold within the new regime, whereas many were simply left behind and forgotten. I think the treatment of these people by the British, particularly the police and military, was the most shocking for me.

(JJ) The articulate, wholly justified and determined rebellion against British rule from a complex and divided society is something I appreciated learning more about, especially the nuances of political and geographical reactions. Mukherjee keeps our attention on the plot narrative while providing an informed and opposite-of-airbrushed context. Learning by stealth.

(CT) I knew a little bit about the later stages of India's struggle for independence, but this early period was new territory for me. The sheer brutality used in suppressing the Free India movement  and the contempt shown for the legitimate aspirations of the Indian people was a sharp jolt to the conscience.

For all the seriousness of the underlying themes, A Rising Man is rich with humour (particularly in the relationship between Sam and Surrender-not). What was your favourite moment of humour?

(GEH)   I think it was the subtle sarcasm and the way Banerjee gently mocked Wyndham without him even sometimes being aware he was the centre of attention. Along with the mutual respect, I liked the fact there was often a glint in the eye of one or other of the characters. One moment that sticks in my mind was how Banerjee tried to protect his boss when they were forced to visit the local brothel in the course of their enquiries.

(JJ) Sam and Surrender-Not have so many whipsmart interactions but the one that stuck with me is when Surrender-Not explains his nickname. It's a moment which encapsulates the whole book for me. Intelligence, underestimation, gentle criticism, humour and yet still the nickname sticks.

(CT) There is such a warm humour in the interaction between Sam and Surrender-not that it's hard to pick out individual moments. Also, it's a while since I read A Rising Man, and it was a library copy, so I can't refer back! I do know that my absolutely favourite interaction between Sam and Surrender-not came in A Necessary Evil. (You can read about it in my interview with Abir Mukherjee.)

Is Mukerjee successful in blending the Crime and Historical Fiction genres? Is Crime Fiction a good way of exploring a less-well-known time and place like this?

(GEH) I thought it was a perfect blend to be honest, but then I am a fan of mixed genre books – particularly crime and historical which I’ve written myself. You have the excitement of the murder enquiry, and yet learn so much about the period, and in this case the country, where the story is located. It adds another level of interest for me, as I love reading both genres anyway. This is the first book I’ve read in the series, or by this author in fact, but I’m already looking forward to rejoining Sam and Banerjee on another case in the future.

(JJ) This blend is a new one for me and I confess I tend to study periods of history and politics without the distraction of narrative. However, I found this book a compelling read for the tension of plot and drama, whilst absorbing the hintergrund as think-about-that-later. That said, the time and place, not to mention characters, have stuck in my mind far more powerfully than the story. I'll be reading much more Mukherjee in future.

(CT) I think it works extremely well. What better way to examine any society than through the often cynical eyes of a policemen? And having the main plot of the book revolve around solving a crime distracts us from the fact that we are actually absorbing a fascinating history lesson!