Friday, 5 March 2021

Raven McAllan – Love by the Stroke of Midnight

This week, prolific author Raven McAllan joins my lockdown book blog with a special guest post that gives us a peek into the world of writing hot romance – one of several genres of highly commercial fiction she has established herself in.

First, Raven introduces herself and her writing process, then she tells us a list of Ten Things about herself and her new novel Love by the Stroke of Midnight. Set in Scotland at Samhain when the veil between this world and the spirit one is at its thinnest, this feelgood novel is romantic and witty, and quite a bit hotter than the Scotland we think we know and love. Warning – you might need to switch the aircon on before you read the extract! 

Love by the Stroke of Midnight

Raven Rambles on life and writing

When I was asked to write a blog, and I decided I’d do ten things about me and my writing process, I honestly didn’t think how hard it would be to find ten things that I thought were interesting.

After all, if I say my writing works better with coffee, biscuits and chocolate, that doing the ironing or changing the bedding is good—and justified—procrastination isn’t very exciting. It happens, but…you get the gist.

So, I sat down (with wine and chocolate…after all it was six pm) and had a think.

And realised that once we’ve moved house, my writing process will change.

I say will because we (the lovely husband and I) have been in rented accommodation whilst our new house is being built.

Whereas I used to write in my study overlooking the lawn, and a Scottish forest, the last few months it’s been at a table by the window, overlooking the garden of our rental near the Yorkshire coast. I’ve swapped seeing red squirrels for grey ones, woodpeckers for ringed doves, and sparrows for…sparrows. Oh and lots of seagulls.

Soon I’ll be writing in my new study, overlooking a new garden with fields beyond it.

I hope my creative juices still flow. (Urgh, that sounds nasty, but you know what I mean)

It’s not been east living out of boxes and inevitably things I could have done with are in storage. Mind you I made sure I had the basics. No not the biscuits and chocolate (I bought those from the local shop) but some reference books, plenty of notebooks (I’m a sucker for a nice notebook) pens, pencils, and coloured markers. Oh, and some books I’d earmarked to read for relaxation. And my eReader of course. What did I do before eReaders? (Filled a suitcase with books when I went on holiday and shoved half my clothes in the lovely husband’s suitcase).

None of which is really about my writing processes and my new book. 

However, ten true things...

Raven McAllan in Vietnam

1    I can write anywhere, and block noises, people and activity out. I used to get a lot of writing done on a long haul flight. The only interruptions are food, drink, and the inevitable…oohh, what are you writing.

2    I type two fingered.

3    I love research, but oh how easy it is to get distracted and end up with a lot of interesting facts, none of which relate to what I’m supposed to be researching.

4    Raven (and my other two alter egos Kera Faire, for darker romance, and Katy Lilley for romcom) were chosen, not because I didn’t want to use my own name, but because they help me get into the mind set for what I’m writing. Plus a Raven is the bringer of news and I saw one just before I got my first acceptance, and McAllan is a play on probably the best whisky in the world.

Raven McAllan writing as Kera Faire
5    I set a lot of books in Scotland, a, because it’s a great place to set stories that want atmosphere and, okay, midges and or rain in them.

6    The island where Love by the Stroke of Midnight is set, is based on an island on a loch near where we lived.

7   I have a great friend who is Wiccan and who helps me to get details about Samhain and other Wiccan and paranormal things correct.

8    Marcail is a Scots version of Margaret, which means Pearl and is important to the story.

9    Paden means royal.

10   The story mentions Wanaka in New Zealand where we were lucky enough to have a fabulous holiday, just before lockdown. The second book, which I’m half way through is Marcail’s brother, Baird’s story, and…*wink* well, you’ll need to wait and see.

 

Love By The Stroke of Midnight (Totally Bound publishing)

Blurb

History, family, fate. Accept it or deny it at your will.

The day you discover your boyfriend is using you as a free meal ticket—and a way to save his money—is the day you say bye-bye.

Marcail Drummond does better than that.

She sells up, plans the rest of her life and heads north. It’s time to go home, to a castle on an island in a Scottish loch, and face up to the fact she’s not quite the same as the rest of her family. They can see the past—and the future—and hear others. Heal the sick and help the broken-hearted.

She can’t.

After all, talking to yourself isn’t the same thing, even if one of the voices in your head is male and argues a lot.

As far as Marcail is concerned, it’s just her way of amusing herself.

To Paden, it’s more than that.

To him, it’s a matter of life and death.

 

A wee tease…

Marcail Drummond staggered out of bed, tired and sated, and wished she could sleep for a few hours more. As it wasn’t going to happen, she turned to speak to the man who had shared her night to…to what?

To see no second indent in the pillows. No crumpled sheets except where she’d slept—or not slept, as the case may be.

In fact no sign of any occupant—except herself.

She surely hadn’t imagined the night she’d just had? The sinfully sexy, hot, male, aroused body next to hers. The way his hands had caressed her so skilfully and held her close when she flew over the edge and into one of the best climaxes ever. How he’d gradually inched inside her, almost reverently, until she’d tightened herself around him and begged… “Please fill me now…please.” And he’d obliged so they could move together.

Then another climax, this time as he also came hard and fast, and the long gradual coming down to earth, held close and cherished.

The soft words in her ear… “Mo ghaol, it’s been oh so long…”

Marcail blinked. Had she dreamed it all, or…or what?

There couldn’t be any other explanation—could there?

Somewhat disgruntled, she stood up and stretched.

Boy she ached. Ached in places she hadn’t known it was possible. If that was what happened after an erotic dream, she wasn’t sure she’d have another one in a hurry.

“I’m here when you need me.”

That was the last thing she wanted. She had enough to worry about, without him niggling her. It was bad enough to know his voice was in her head—whoever he was—but surely he wasn’t in her dreams as well?

“You know I’m yours, however, wherever and…”

“Enough.” She put her hands to her hot cheeks. “Go away and let me get on in peace.”

“As ever, I’ll do your bidding.”

That’ll be the day. Marcail muttered under her breath, stripped the bed, got washed and dressed and headed out. She hadn’t the time to argue with herself, voices, or the man in the moon. Dammit, she hadn’t even seen his face.

“You’ll know me.”

Also from Raven McAllan

 

You can find me here…

my web (which includes my blog)

evernightpublishing

totallybound

www.twitter.com/ravenmcallan

https://www.facebook.com/KatyLilley.Author/

https://www.facebook.com/ravenmcallanandkerafaire/

Thanks so much for letting me pop by and ramble on,

Happy reading,

Love Raven xx 

 Raven McAllan writing as Katy Lilley

Friday, 26 February 2021

Brian Pendreigh - The Man in the Seventh Row

Why are we so obsessed with stars and the movies? It’s normal for children to play cowboys and Indians, but when does imagination stop?


I’m delighted to welcome Brian Pendreigh to this week’s lockdown book blog to talk about his engrossing novel which I thoroughly enjoyed - The Man in the Seventh Row and Related Stories of the Human Condition.

The Man in the Seventh Row

Extract

In ‘The Magnificent Seven’ Brynner and McQueen achieved immortality. They are Akira Kurosawa’s samurai knights relocated in the American West, with guns and horses and wistful talk of Dodge and Tombstone in the days before they became civilised. They are the embodiment of the legend, the myth, of the Wild West in corporeal form – not the way it was, but the way it should have been. … Most of all they are a couple of boys playing at cowboys and Indians. … They are gone now, but their ghosts illuminate the Chinese Theatre. Cinema is the gateway to immortality, the door to another dimension, to another state of being, another plane, life after death. Brynner and McQueen are dead, but every night, somewhere in the world, they still ride the range with the others in the Magnificent Seven.

Review

Roy Batty is obsessed with the movies. Since the age of four, he’s been mesmerised by the beam of light travelling across the darkened auditorium over the heads of the audience and exploding into life in glorious technicolour on the screen. Every year on family holidays to North Berwick, Roy has immersed himself in fantasy worlds. Westerns are the best. He imagines riding the prairie, shoot-outs at the OK corral, tipping his cowboy hat up off his face with one finger.

This is the background to Brian Pendreigh’s The Man in the Seventh Row. Roy Batty chooses to sit in the seventh row of any cinema he attends, whether that’s in one of the many picture houses in Edinburgh, or on those childhood seaside holidays, or, in adulthood, when he seizes the opportunity to live and work in Arizona and LA to be at the epicentre of the film world he adores.

The novel was originally subtitled ‘The Movie Lover’s Novel’, and this remains an excellent description. Brian Pendreigh weaves his story of Roy Batty the boy growing to manhood through the plots and storylines – the grand epic sweeps – of the blockbuster movies of the era. Sometimes the two are so tightly meshed it’s hard to separate real from imaginary.

What happens when you’re so obsessed that you begin to see your own features replacing the faces of the actors on the screen? Is it obsession? Or is Roy losing his grip on reality? This is the puzzle and the real plot in The Man in the Seventh Row, as the clues the author has seeded amongst all the film references and descriptions gradually grow in relevance and burst into life in a vivid flowering I can’t possibly mention because it would be the spoiler of all spoilers. Just trust me – the revelation is worth it. In a truly cinematic moment, it brings everything into focus and imbues this intelligent and often laugh-out-loud funny book with solid depth and resonance way beyond the make-believe movie world we’ve been caught up in. Layer upon layer. Because this book, too, is a work of fiction. Throughout, there’s a sense of loss at cinema closures – an era ending – and a yearning for worlds we just can’t have. 

The Man in the Seventh Row was lauded loudly by some of the giants of cinema, literature and the media when it came out with Blasted Heath almost a decade ago – Barry Norman, no less, Ian Rankin, Andrew Marr and others. Pendreigh has revived the novel by adding three related stories that stand alone yet also act as codas, intriguing us with further layers to ponder about Roy, about our grasp on reality, and that strange dream world of the movies that has such a grip on us.

Author Brian Pendreigh

Q&A

CMcK: Brian, thanks so much for joining me on my blog to talk about The Man in the Seventh Row, which stopped me with the popcorn half-way to my mouth. You have lots of non-fiction books about the movies to your name. I’d love to know a bit about that first, and what enticed you turn to fiction.

BP: The first two books were quiz books. My family always did quizzes. Back in the 1980s my uncle Jim Brunton and I both entered a primetime quiz show called Superscot without either knowing the other had entered. We both reached the final. We had a couple of months between recording and broadcast and multiple bulging notebooks of Scottish facts. I saw a chance to put them to good use, set up a deal with Lomond Books. The Scottish Quizbook came out the day after broadcast and we did a signing at Stockbridge Bookshop, with queues in the street. It made the Scottish bestsellers list.

I was originally a news journalist, but eventually specialised in film. My first film book was On Location: The Film Fan's Guide to Britain and Ireland. There was a gap in the market for an anecdotal guide for the general public and it was the first book of its type. I did a biography of Mel Gibson, having met him during Braveheart, and one on Ewan McGregor, which even got translated in Japanese.

However I always wanted to write a novel and I began work on The Man in the Seventh Row about 30 years ago. I always thought William Wallace was a great subject for a film and the origins of my novel, with its Wallace film references, predate Braveheart, a film on which I was involved from the writer's original idea to the actual Oscars. I was at Mel's party afterwards, but that is a whole other story. 

CMcK: Wow! That’s quite a story! When I write fiction, I imagine myself in the role of my characters, much as Roy Batty transposes himself into the characters on the screen. So I have to ask, do you get into the role of Roy Batty? And Yul Brynner? Where do you find your storylines and characters?

BP: Obviously some of the stories in the book are straight lifts from my childhood. I always say the incidental stuff is biographical, the major incidents are not - I have never been sucked into the movies, not literally. It was my intention to produce a book that would meld fact and fiction, memoir and magical realism, that would shift in tone and that ultimately would transcend the confines of the traditional novel, beginning with one set of characters in a novel-length story and end with another set in a different, but related story. 

CMcK: Your evocation of family holidays in small Scottish resorts utterly absorbed me and had me recollecting ways of life I’d completely forgotten. Yet one of the most immersive passages of your book is when teenager Roy challenges himself to take the dangerous route up The Law hill. I was Roy Batty while reading that, sharing that sensation of stinging fingertips. Why was it important to you to show Roy conquering the hill in the ‘real’ world?

BP: Well spotted. Firstly, this account is a genuine memory, which may explain why the passage is particularly convincing. Secondly, although these are literal roots – the words "root" and "roots" occur no fewer than ten times in that passage – I would be happy if readers were to conclude there may be a metaphor or two in there somewhere. I think a lot of it is of course subconscious. 

Getting to grips with hills and roots

CMcK: Did you ever consider writing this as a film script?

BP: No. I did some freelance work as a script consultant and did write a screenplay for a thriller and got as far as having an agent, a producer, casting talk and offices in Leith before it fell through. Film is like that. And TMITSR would be a huge challenge, not just in terms of technology, but in terms of legal rights to muck about with classic movies. When the original version came out I had an inquiry from an English producer, which came to nothing, and someone from Spielberg's company expressed interest, as in "That sounds interesting," nothing more. If anyone were to go anywhere with this in terms of film I reckon it could be Tarantino, though I do not know how you would accommodate the layers and nuances. The book Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece, the film is a confusing mess. It is not something I am pursuing.

CMcK: It’s nice to know books can still do things films can’t! What’s next for you and your writing? Where can we find out more about you and your work, and buy a copy of your books?

BP:  The next book is an update of The Legend of the Planet of the Apes, which I was asked to do specifically for the Brazilian market. It is currently being translated into Portuguese. It seems I am big in Brazil. I have no more plans for books. But then I always say that. I thoroughly enjoyed trawling through archives and pulling material together for The Times on Cinema, which is my only other book still currently in print. I am easily found on Google, Facebook and other social media under my own name. There is only one Brian Pendreigh. The book is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook, as an ebook from Kobo, Smashwords etc, and as a paperback from Waterstones. It is in stock at Topping and Co and several other independent bookshops. Normally you would be able to order it from any bookshop in the UK, but I am not sure at present. And of course there is always eBay for everything old and new.

CMcK: Thanks, Brian! And thanks for supplying this link.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-Seventh-Row-Related-Condition/dp/B08J16N97R

 

 

 

 

Friday, 19 February 2021

Fiona Glass - December Roses

This week on my lockdown book blog, I have my first encounter with a genre I didn’t even know existed and get a chance to quiz accomplished author Fiona Glass. 

December Roses

Extract

…the doctor was still watching him in an I’m waiting kind of way. He took a breath. ‘It was in a bar, sir. In Belfast, coming up to a year ago. We got a call. There’d been a coded warning to one of the papers – usual thing, time and place, not much more. Our unit was on duty, we went in mob-handed to get as many of the kids out as we could…’ His throat felt raw. This was the killer part. He paused, and licked his lips. ‘Bastards set the thing off early, while we were still inside. They knew. They must have known…’

The swirling grey clouds threatened to part and suck him in. He focussed on the hygiene notices on the wall, forcing himself to read them and stay alert. Always wash your hands… never re-use equipment or supplies. ‘It was right before Christmas and the place was rammed. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the screams. And all the lights went off and it was dark, and full of dust and smoke. Felt like I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to get out, to get more of the kids out, but I got thrown against the wall and something heavy fell on my leg and I couldn’t move.’ Never share needles, even with your friends. The place was on fire, sir, and I couldn’t get out. All I could do was lie there and listen to the screams as civilians – kids – died and the flames spread closer and closer…’ His voice broke on a half-sob. ‘Sorry, sir.’

‘That’s all right, my boy.’ Latimer’s voice came from a great distance but sounded kinder than it had. ‘I’m sorry to have to put you through that but I had to be sure.’

Review 

It’s the early nineties and Sergeant Nat Brook has spent months in hospital undergoing treatment for the physical and emotional trauma of being caught in a Belfast bomb blast.

Nat is transferred to an army rehab facility in the heart of the English countryside. The former Frogmorton mansion is austere, but he begins to find solace in its overgrown garden and wider estate. While efforts to rehabilitate his badly mangled leg have some success, his psychological scarring takes longer to deal with, partly because he’s reluctant to admit his sexuality. Being openly gay would mean instant dismissal from the army, which is the only family he has, given his parents threw him out.

Fiona Glass creates a completely credible character and situation – gripping, down to earth, a man crushed and needing recovery – and then with admirable aptitude with pace and plot, she arouses the reader’s curiosity further by introducing another thread. When Sergeant Nat Brook randomly follows an overgrown path and stumbles into an area of diffused sunlight, manicured lawns, statuettes and fountains, is he hallucinating? This special place exists one day, but it eludes him the next. Is this a sign of his increasing mental instability, like former army mate Jazz? Or something else entirely? And what about the equally elusive Richie, the undeniably physical twenty-something who leads Nat to those secluded places under the apple trees and inside the red and gold Chinese pagoda?

December Roses held my attention from start to finish. In Nat Brook, Fiona Glass has created a three-dimensional and convincing main character – sometimes irritable, barely containing pent-up anger, sometimes physically and emotionally vulnerable – who matters to us as we’re reading and in the quiet moments after we’ve set down the book.  As events move forward, the reader inhabits Nat’s world, intrigued and curious, eagerly following clues to unlock the puzzle of the garden and Richie. Is he real? Can their relationship work? Where will Nat go, when he heals – in or out of the army?

Fiona Glass

Q&A

CMcK: Fiona, welcome to my lockdown book blog. I have so many questions to ask you! But first, with the news this week that the army is being called on to recompense soldiers dismissed because of their sexuality, it seems incredibly topical. What drew you to this subject matter?

FG: Thank you for having me, and for letting me do what all writers enjoy most, which is witter on about myself. Yes, I spotted that story and thought how topical it was – I might have to blog about it myself! I’m racking my brains a bit about what inspired the original story that led to December Roses, because I first wrote it way back in the late 1990s. I seem to remember seeing a photograph of one of my favourite actors at the time dressed in a paratrooper’s uniform for one of his roles. He was quite probably bisexual, and I remember wondering why it was that a bi man could portray a soldier but not serve as one. This was at a time when it was still illegal to serve in the armed forces if you were gay, which always struck me as illogical and deeply unfair. I think the story, and later the novel, grew out of that – and a recent (at the time) trip to Biddulph Grange gardens in Staffordshire, which the National Trust were in the process of restoring, gave me inspiration for the setting.

CMcK: Gay paranormal romance. When I heard that label, I thought it sounded very niche. But your story is universal in its appeal. Beautifully written – expertly crafted in terms of plot and pace. What attracts you to this genre?

FG: Thank you for your kind words – I’m blushing! I guess I’ve always been interested in things I’ll never experience for myself, and I also have a strong belief in equality and the right to relationships irrespective of gender. And although gay romance might sound niche it’s actually incredibly popular, not just with gay men but with people of all genders and from all walks of life. I first got involved in writing it back in the 1990s and not only wrote a great many short stories, plus a handful of longer works, but also ran an online gay romance magazine called Forbidden Fruit for about eight years. It started small but with the help of like-minded friends I grew it until it became something of a success. I even had gay men commenting that they could get porn anywhere but had never been able to access romantic stories before, so I’m really proud of the achievement.

CMcK: Oh wow – that’s lovely!

FG: I wandered away from the genre for several years as I felt I was getting stale, but have recently dug out some of my back catalogue and am re-editing, rewriting, or using it to inspire new books. And really enjoying it, actually!

CMcK: Tell me about your other writing – and what’s in the pipeline.

FG: Most of my work involves history, the paranormal, and romance, in varying (and varyingly weird!) combinations. I currently have three more books available. Two of them are also gay romance: Echoes of Blood, which is a dark vampire tale set in modern-day Liverpool but involving New Romantics and a missing Roman legion; and Just Visiting, a time-travel romance about a man’s struggle against bullying and discrimination. The third, Got Ghosts? is a paranormal romp set in a haunted manor house, where a TV crew filming for a popular show disturb something they really shouldn’t and all hell breaks loose. I’m also close to finishing the first draft of a brand new book set on an archaeological dig, featuring a lost priory, a ghostly presence, a gold cross and something unexpected lurking under the cloisters! If I can finish and edit that, I’m hoping to publish it later this year. I’m a bit ‘seat of the pants’ when it comes to writing, so after that, who knows?

CMcK: You’re so prolific! Enviable! Last question – where can we find out more about you and where can we buy your books?

FG: If you’ll forgive the pun I tend to haunt the internet so you can find me in all sorts of places. First of all there’s my website (http://www.fiona-glass.com) which is where I list all my books and stories, as well as information about myself, my writing, and any bits of news. Then there’s my blog (https://fionaglass.wordpress.com/) where I rabbit on about trips out, gardening, history, various TV and book reviews, and my own writing; and my new Dreamwidth account (https://fionaglass.dreamwidth.org/) where I’m posting snippets and samples of my work. And of course you can always find me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/fiona.glass.33) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/F_Glass_Author). All my books are available on Amazon (you can find my author page at https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B009E93MJ4); December Roses, Echoes of Blood and Just Visiting are also free on Kindle Unlimited. You can also buy Got Ghosts? directly from the publisher, Fox Spirit Books (https://www.foxspirit.co.uk/).

CMcK: Thank you so much for joining me on the blog!

FG: Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, 12 February 2021

Gillean Somerville-Arjat - Uncle George and the Cacti

This week, I meet a master of the craft of short story writing - author Gillean Somerville-Arjat - and chat with her about her collection Uncle George and the Cacti 
 

Review and extracts

Here’s a really satisfying collection of short stories – mellow, sonorous and rhythmic in language, heady with sensory observation and insights. Gillean’s narrative voice has warmth and conviction. It’s inclusive, holding the reader with security and confidence. Her stories are multi-layered, deeply knowing about the conflicts and quandaries of human life, and never cosy. They wrap themselves around you. Set in locations as diverse as the Lisbon, Morocco, and the rocky edge of a mountain in the Scottish Highlands, they are utterly convincing in their evocation of place and time.

Take this extract from ‘Poetry in Lisbon’ as an example –

there were days when the Tagus gleamed blue and sparkled in the sunlight. On one of those, they’d crammed themselves into a tram that carried them up the narrow winding streets to the Alfama district with its precipitous staircases and winding alleyways. Lisbon had retained its old trams. In contrast to the smooth-gliding modern ones, they rattled like bustling yellow beetles, wobbling up the steep slopes, wheezing, clattering, clanging, delighted tourists filling every available space. (p.25)

Gillean’s characters appraise their lives against these backgrounds, pre-occupied, looking for work, tending vegetable gardens or climbing rocky paths. Sometimes the author and her characters grapple with questions of politics – the legacy of the bank crash, passions on both sides of the Scottish independence debate, the harsh realities facing migrants into Europe.

Sometimes they’re contemplating age and the prospect of loss – or its immediate impact. In ‘Poetry in Lisbon’, a woman evaluates her past while being moved by a connection with a young poet in the present. It’s wistful and poignant, but life-affirming. There are stories of the dispossessed. Some retell Ancient Greek myths. Some have streaks of irony and humour, while others employ high-end elements of the crime genre to create richly satisfying studies of human motivation, most notably ‘It Is the Cause’.

‘Interlude in Venice’ is a longer story in three parts. Set in an earlier era, it features an adolescent girl whose future is precarious after her father dies when loading building stones into his canal boat. Her future is taken out of her hands by family members who aim to provide for her in a way that’ll keep her off the streets, albeit not that far away from them. With its different take on the idea of the painter and his muse, this story of disappointment, powerlessness, learning from lived experience and moving forward sees the young woman reclaim her right to decide her own destiny, and gives the reader a very satisfying ending.

In ‘Under His Skin’, a young man ruminates on his life, feeling sour, disillusioned, angry. School didn’t work for him. He remembers sharpening a pencil. Once he lifted up the basket and tipped it out over his head. That got a big laugh. No. School was a joke. What did he have to show for it? A few Foundy Standard grades, that’s what. And where did that get you? Fucking nowhere is where. Packing meat. On the dole, is where. (p.145) Now, he’s fixated on a slouchy old man he resents so much he resolves to find what the reader dreads might be the worst possible escape route from his disempowered life.

I took notes while reading this book. When I came to the title story of the collection, the only comment I jotted down was, ‘Awww beautiful. Perfect.’

It’s the quiet, internal shift in the thought-processes of the characters that is most gratifying in these fictions: that subtle realisation and resolution that are typical of the absorbing, deep-dreaming quality of Gillean’s writing. These are stories that reward close reading. Uncle George and the Cacti is a collection to linger over and return to.

 

Gillean Somerville-Arjat

Q&A

CMcK: Hello Gillean. I’m so glad to have you as part of my lockdown book blog project. Uncle George and the Cacti is a truly mesmerising collection of short stories. Tell me something about the background to it.

GS-A: Thank you very much, Carol, for giving me an opportunity to talk a little about my collection. The stories were all written after I retired, now over a decade ago. I had had the odd story, the odd poem, the odd article published years before, but with a living to earn found it difficult to combine writing with the demands of secondary school teaching. Some people seem to have the energy to do both, but I couldn’t. I joined the Edinburgh Writers’ Club, which has an annual programme of talks, workshops and competitions, and a lively writing group at the Scottish National Gallery where we combined looking at paintings and subsequently writing about them and critiquing each other’s work. I also heard about Crime and Publishment, which you know about, a group which, aside from pandemics, hosts an annual crime writing weekend for keen crime writers near Gretna in the Scottish Borders. I’ve attended three of those. All these, combined with reading a shelfload of books about writing, meant that I eventually accumulated a number of stories that I felt had enough merit to publish. But I’m getting on now, agewise. I didn’t feel I had the time to send the script out to publishers and wait for rejections. Short stories don’t sell as well as novels, unless you’re an established name, and publishing is a commercial business. So, with the help of some friends and a day session at the Amazon Academy in Glasgow, I decided to self-publish and although selling myself seems to be a gene I lack it’s a decision I don’t regret.

 

CMcK: You have stories set in Morocco, Spain, Lisbon, Crete – and Scotland. How did these places come to feature in your stories?

GS-A: The only location I haven’t visited among these is Crete. My impression of it derives from my classical education at school, where I studied both Latin and Greek, and was fascinated by the old myths and legends. It’s on my bucket list though. However, nearly forty years ago I went on holiday to Morocco in an open-sided truck with a group of like-minded young professionals. We toured the country from Ceuta in the north to Zagora in the south, taking in the cities of Fes and Marrakech en route. We camped mostly, but in the cities we stayed in hotels. It was a memorable trip and in Fes I met this guy who made an impression. I went back, we became friends and a few years later I brought him to Scotland and we got married. We still are, happily. During that time we spent a few weeks almost every year visiting his family and so I got to know the culture pretty well. One of his sisters is settled in the south of France in a small village between Nîmes and Avignon. She now has a grown up family dispersed around France. Later another sister settled in a seaside resort in Spain, just an hour by train north of Barcelona. These have been great places to combine family visiting with going on holiday. We have also visited Portugal twice on holiday, once to the Algarve and once to Lisbon, where I did meet the young poet who features in my story, although in reality we simply said hello and I asked him about his writing. The story is otherwise a fiction. I visited Venice many, many years ago, but that story was actually inspired by a small, possibly unfinished, watercolour by J M W Turner of his hotel room in Venice that featured in a 2009 exhibition 'Turner in Italy' in the Scottish National Gallery.

 

CMcK: I’ve spoken about the quiet internal shift in the characters’ consciousness at the end of many of your stories here. Yet there’s a fair bit of action, too, including crime. What’s important to you when you set out to write?

GS-A: That’s an interesting question. I don’t have a formula. Each story is different and they just seem to evolve. I start with a character or two in a setting and then something happens to trigger a change, or a revelation or a shift in perspective. Often it arises from personal experience. I’m not really attracted to fast-paced, high octane action, or torture, or putting someone through serious pain, one reason I don’t think I could ever be a proper crime writer in the contemporary sense. I’m more interested in motive and psychology. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a detective. Later I would have liked to study psychology, but I wasn’t good at maths. I got a lot of psychology from studying literature though. I love the great 19th century novels, English, French and Russian.

 

CMcK: What’s next for you in your writing? And where can we buy Uncle George and the Cacti?

GS-A: Uncle George and the Cacti is available on Amazon, either as an ebook or in a printed version. I’m really pleased with the cover of the print version which was designed by a young Indonesian artist I found by chance on Fiverr. I liked what she had showcased of her work and she was so nice and helpful to deal with. As for what’s next? I’m still working on a crime novel, which has gone through several rewrites since I first had an idea for it back in 2013. I got stuck about two thirds of the way through. I know what the ending is to be, but it’s going to involve a change in tone from the first two thirds and I’m having difficulty getting into the zone to complete it. I just have to concentrate and avoid distractions for a bit. I also write a regular fortnightly column for the online Scottish Review and hope to continue writing short stories.


 

Friday, 5 February 2021

Lorraine Johnston - Later Tartan Gator


I’m always interested in hearing about people’s motivation to write. That’s why I was particularly happy to chat with children’s author Lorraine Johnston for this week’s Lockdown Book Blog.

 

Read more about Lorraine's books on her website

Meeting Lorraine 

I end the video call still laughing. Desperate for a coffee after an hour and a half of chat, but still laughing. Lorraine Johnston seems to have a bottomless Santa sack of entertaining anecdotes, yet she doesn’t shy away from the serious side of life. There’s something about her that compels – and merits – attention. She has an indefatigable joie de vivre and a quiet confidence that comes through in real life interactions and very much so in everything she writes.

Lorraine is the author of four picture books. Two are already published and the third and fourth are due for release soon. Later Tartan Gator originally appeared in 2013 in New Orleans, where it’s set. A new ‘Special Edition’ has recently been re-written and a small print run of 500 copies was produced last August. It’s available in various local shops and is selling well through her website, with some copies even travelling back to New Orleans.  A story about an alligator living in the city’s Audubon Zoo, who has a colourful reaction to something he’s eaten, Later Tartan Gator is witty and charming. It features adorable characters, affectionately illustrated, and is an excellent demonstration that diversity can be the norm in picture book publishing. £1 for every copy of the new UK edition is donated to Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance

Two years ago, Lorraine wrote – and gifted – a story called Whit of Whiteley’s Wood. Illustrated by Mandy Sinclair, it again features absolutely endearing characters. What seems at first glance a simple story about a young owl who takes a tumble while learning to fly soon materialises as a storyline that shows kindness, friendship, teamwork, and empathy. It’s light-hearted but full of love and engenders and encourages resilience. Don’t take my word for it. Lorraine reads the story on Youtube here Astonishingly, Lorraine has gifted 100% of proceeds to Whiteleys Retreat in Ayrshire – a charity that provides free therapeutic short breaks for children, young people and their families with cancer and life altering illnesses.  

Lorraine conceives each storyline, writes it, finds wonderful illustrators, and oversees each production. She has successfully placed her books in shops and has particularly appreciated the support in sales at the wonderful Foggie Toddle Books in Wigtown.

Forthcoming soon is a new adventure picture book featuring a Scottish mole. 

MacMoley Collectible 
available from www.heartfeltbyliz.com


‘MacMoley Moves Home’ is illustrated by Jane Cornwell and – again – Lorraine has arranged for £1 from each book sold to go to charity. This time, for the Scottish Wildlife Trust.  You can even purchase a limited edition ‘MacMoley Collectible’ hand made by celebrated Textile Artist and felt maker Liz Gaffney

I'm really curious as to what makes Lorraine so committed to charitable giving through her work. It’s a question I determine to ask her.

Lorraine Johnston

Q&A

CMcK: Hi Lorraine – thanks for joining my book blog. You began writing for children just over a decade ago. Tell me a bit about your life before then.

LJ: Wow, where has the time gone? Before picking up my pencil, I was more familiar with wearing my hard hat, doing inspections at construction sites and donning a uniform and being a volunteer first aid officer at the weekend during public events. I wore many hats through my career: trainer, advisor, inspector, advocate, guest speaker and implementer. My areas of expertise were in childcare, social care, accident management and triage and Health and Safety: jobs where I was always responsible for the wellbeing of others.

CMcK: You had a life-changing event which was a turning point for you. What happened?

LJ: We all receive gifts from time to time, that, well, aren’t our cup of tea. On my 40th birthday, I got an early morning eye twitch, that developed into complex symptoms that I suspected were neurological. By the time we were having a special birthday dinner, I knew that it was the first day of a different life and that something serious was unfolding. I was soon diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. A most unwelcomed gift for a 40th birthday.

CMcK: Indeed! You supported charities during your working life, financially and through practical volunteering. Your diagnosis changed that. It could have robbed you of it. You made sure it didn’t. Why is writing so important to you?

LJ: Having MS is the hardest thing I’ve had to learn to live with. It grounded me, literally. Losing my career and active lifestyle to a very sedentary and painful one, that cruelly allows plenty of time to fester. It was important that I adapted my expectations accordingly. My mobility, concentration and constant neuropathic pain is truly debilitating. I see my options as having two choices. Concentrate on all the negatives and rue the activities I cannot do or do the best with what I CAN do. Writing has allowed me to avoid festering. It makes me feel like I am being useful by supporting the charities through my books. It gives me a sense of purpose, and everyone needs that. It’s also such tremendous fun.

CMcK: My grandchildren loved Whit of Whiteleys Wood, and the ‘gator in Later Tartan Gator. I know for sure they’re going to adore MacMoley. Where does your inspiration for these stories – for these loveable characters – come from?

LJ: Having worked in childcare for 13 years and being such a child at heart, my imagination was always full of ideas. I was taking pain medication for years that dampened the pain a little but dampened my clarity of thoughts and drive, even more. Before I wrote Whit of Whiteleys Wood, I was having such problems with the nasty side-effects of the medication, that I decided to come off them. The result is, I’m in more pain however, I feel more like my old self. Ideas are constantly popping in and out and I just have to be careful to use a few minutes here and there, to write them down. I can’t stand for very long. I can’t walk for very far. I can’t sit for too long. So my new life is scheduled around moving when I can, writing when I can and staying as healthy and independent for as long as I can.


CMcK: I’d describe you as fearless and indomitable in spirit, with a warm heart. Others have said you’re an inspiration. Have you considered writing your life story?

LJ: I’m a bit uncomfortable with being called ‘inspirational’ which does seem to come up quite a lot. And here is why: when I was a working mum, in a full-time career and did some voluntary work once or twice a month, during the weekends, I also gave a little of my salary to charity via direct debit, however, no one needed to know. I didn’t shout it from the rooftops. It’s just something I’ve always done since I worked my first job. Now that I write, you have to shout about it and ‘show off’ your latest project, otherwise you won’t sell any books and raise awareness or donations for your chosen charities. This oxymoron of mixed feelings about just helping out quietly without fuss and making a lovely huge fuss about a children’s book, is still new territory for me. As for writing my life story, I better do things that are worth reading about first, and I’m still very much trying to ‘write a happier ending’ to my own story so far, through my children’s stories.

CMcK: Do you have any plans in foot for more children’s books that you can tell us about?

LJ: Oh my goodness yes. The less mobile I become as the MS progresses, the more stories I will have to write. I have loads and feel like the lid of my imagination has been opened. After ‘MacMoley Moves Home’, will be ‘Walter’s Wonky Web’ and I also have a ‘big book project’ which I can’t discuss, which is hugely exciting.

CMcK: Something for us to look forward to! Thanks for coming on the blog and telling us about your writing motivation and journey.

 

You can read more about Lorraine’s books on her website  where there are links to buy direct.

Follow her on Twitter @WriterLorraineJ

Lorraine described her diagnosis and journey forward very movingly in a recent post for the website Alliance which you can read here.

 

 

Friday, 29 January 2021

F J Curlew - The Unravelling of Maria

Welcome to week four of my lockdown book blog. Today, we're heading to Scotland's east coast and Estonia with F J Curlew thanks to her latest novel The Unravelling of Maria. 


First, what a blurb!

Lovers separated by the Iron Curtain.

Two women whose paths should never have crossed.

A remarkable journey that changes all of their lives.

Maria's history is a lie. Washed up on the shores of Sweden in 1944, with no memory, she was forced to create her own. Nearly half a century later she still has no idea of her true identity.

Jaak fights for Estonia's independence, refusing to accept the death of his fiancée Maarja, whose ship was sunk as she fled across the Baltic Sea to escape the Soviet invasion.

Angie knows exactly who she is. A drug addict. A waste of space. Life is just about getting by.

A chance meeting in Edinburgh's Cancer Centre is the catalyst for something very different.

Sometimes all you need is someone who listens.


Review

The Unravelling of Maria opens with an elderly woman making a frantic, rather manic night-time escape from a hated institution. She’s planned it meticulously, conditioning herself over months by counting steps and pacing the grounds till she’s ready, but she hasn’t factored in heavy rain and darkness. She hasn’t factored in bitter cold, and the danger she might fall in a sodden and muddy roadside ditch. It’s in the extremes of this episode that the reader first meets Maria, and wonders – who is this woman? Has she lost her mind? Will she be able to survive?

Angie is the polar opposite of the elderly woman she first meets in an Edinburgh cancer clinic.  That woman’s dress, manners and diction set her apart from the ordinary people there. She’s obviously an aristocrat. But Angie feels a class apart as well. Junkie, prostitute, abandoned as a child, abused and battered – Angie’s had to deal with it all.

From the random chance of sitting together when they’re anxious about diagnosis and treatment, these two women bond, gradually overcoming mutual reservations and drawing strengths from each other. And as their relationship develops, we learn something of Maria’s surprising backstory. At least, the part she knows. Because Maria has no recollection of the first two decades of her life. This is where the novel’s title makes us really think. What exactly is unravelling?

I absolutely loved this book. At times upbeat, at times pained, it’s the perfect blend of adventure and emotion, of harsh life conditions meets fellow-feeling, companionship and security. And love.

There’s a third character in the story. Through following Jaak’s experiences over the decades, we unpack a grisly history of war-time abuses, Siberian labour camps and the struggle for Estonian independence. Fiona Curlew has us follow each character’s inner voice to experience first-hand their traumas and their triumphs.

It’s a big job, dove-tailing all the time-frames, backstories and desires, with all those aches, dreams and losses, but Curlew does this with assuredness. More than that, she has the reader willing her characters on. I found myself earnestly yearning everything would work out for them with each new risk they took, and with each new adversity they encountered.

Does it all work out in the end? You’ll have to read the book to find out. You’ll be so glad you did. 

Author F J Curlew

 

Q & A

I could hardly wait to chat with F J Curlew to find out more about The Unravelling of Maria.

CMcK: Thanks for joining my lockdown book blog, Fiona. I thoroughly enjoyed your novel. The two women main characters are so different from one another in terms of their histories. What inspired you to write about them, and to unite them in one story?

FJC: Thank you for having me Carol!  I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. I’ll be honest, the characters took a very long time to show themselves. I had spent fifteen years teaching in international schools, predominantly in Eastern Europe. Seven of those years were spent in Estonia. Over that time my love for the little country flourished as I learned of their struggle, their resilience, their love of nature, and how song helped to keep their culture alive. Their hope alive. I knew that it was something I wanted to write about, but how? I wrote and rewrote, wrote and deleted. It just wasn’t coming to me. I began to despair and gave up for a while, focusing instead on writing a different book. When that was finished I tried again. Nope! I wrote another book. Perhaps now? Finally, Maria and Jaak said hello and began telling me their stories. But it wasn’t enough. Finally, Angie dropped into the cancer centre and from then on it just flowed. I hadn’t planned to have two such diverse characters interacting with each other, but they clicked and I loved writing them.

CMcK: Both main settings are lovingly depicted, and there’s a subtle hint that spending time in these calm, natural environments is good for the characters’ healing. Is writing about the natural world something you enjoy? How important were the wide beaches of East Lothian and Pärnu to your characters, and to you?

FJC: Absolutely essential! I love nature and it plays an important role in all of my books. One of my readers described my writing as, “Human experience impacted upon by political situation, interwoven with a love of nature.” That pretty much sums it up perfectly! I also accredit my own survival to being fortunate enough to have beauty right on my doorstep. Places to breathe, to recharge, to recover. Many hours have been spent strolling along Scottish and Estonian beaches contemplating life. I lent Maria that bit of me.

CMcK: Maria and Angie have very different living conditions when they meet. Both have suffered terrible constraints emotionally and physically. While Maria’s story is the primary one in the novel, Angie’s is pretty gritty and harrowing. Which was more difficult to write?

FJC: Without doubt, Angie’s. She had so many challenges to face and as I wrote I didn’t know if she was going to pull through. The idea of her was based on a young woman I met in the 1980’s. Her life was harrowing, heart-breaking, made even more so by the anger in her and the dismissiveness which she cast at the world, masking what was really going on; hiding her true feelings. Maria, on the other hand, always has a positivity to her which made it easy to be inside her head. Angie’s? No. Not so much. It was quite a scary place to be!

CMcK: I’ve said there are three main characters in the book, but actually there are four. One who gives and receives unconditional love. Tell me about Albie!

FJC: All of my books have dogs in them. I can’t help myself. What’s a life without a dog in it? My second book, Dan Knew, is the story of 15 years of my life and travels, told through the eyes and in the voice of one of my rescued Ukrainian street dogs. So, yes, Maria had to have a dog. Something feisty and full of character. I observe people all of the time (if only they knew!) and on my daily dog walk there are a couple of Border Terriers who were the inspiration behind Albie. I won’t say that I stalked them but, well, I sort of did!

CMcK: It’s been so interesting hearing about your writing. Where can we buy The Unravelling of Maria and find out more about you and your other novels? What’s next for you?

FJC: The Unravelling of Maria is available through Amazon and The Book Depository. I am hoping to expand on that in the near future. You can of course check out my website for updates, or follow me on Twitter. Novel number 5 is just beginning to show itself to me, I think! It might be a thriller. It might be a love story. It’ll probably be both. As always, I’ll know once the characters show themselves to me and are telling me their stories. Not quite there yet!

CMcK: Thank you, Fiona!

Check out F J Curlew's author website at https://bit.ly/3okI3MV.

She’s on Twitter @FJCurlew

Her books are available here https://amzn.to/333mCr2