Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Writing round-up

In my experience, writers suffer nightmarish levels of Imposter Syndrome. When I was a child growing up in Glasgow, in Scotland, this syndrome hadn't really been named, but was an overbearing presence in phrases like 'Who do you think you are? The Queen of Sheba?' and 'Don't get above yourself!' and even 'I kent his faither.' Working class children like me were conditioned from infancy to know their place and never aspire to anything beyond that.

A big part of being a writer is imagining other lives - lives beyond the narrow constraints we and/or wider society set ourselves. And if we want our writing to be published, we have to resist Imposter Syndrome.

With that in mind 😀I'm going to tell you that 2021 was quite a good year for my writing. Wait! No, 2021 was a good year. I didn't win prizes; I wasn't lauded around the world. But I did have a good handful of publications - individual stories and poems - in a range of quality magazines and anthologies, and that makes me feel my writing efforts are worthwhile.


Poetry Scotland #102, Break in Case of Silence (NWS 39), Ghosts of the Night Shift, Wee Dreich #5, Gutter 23

While I'm pleased with all of these publications, I'm particularly happy that - after at least a dozen attempts - I've finally had a short story accepted for the very prestigious New Writing Scotland. Published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, this annual volume is the pinnacle for short fiction, poetry and other forms of writing.

Not only that, but the story itself - Her Body was an Aviary - is one that I'd sought a home for sixteen times before it was accepted. It's a story I've always believed in, but it obviously needed editorial distance to fully draw out its strengths. And, given there's always a subjective element to choosing items for publication, it must have needed to find the right editors, too!

Of course, I sent out far more than five items (well, six poems and two short stories). In the year, I sent out thirty-five submissions. So that's a hit rate of one in seven, or 14%. The year before that, my hit rate was about 10%. That's a lot of 'no thank you' to bolster the Imposter Syndrome, but according to Keysha Whitaker, who wrote about her study of this for US magazine The Writer in 2016, 5% acceptance is the average, with a range between 2% and 22.5%. So, hey, rejection is normal, and we should celebrate our successes without allowing ourselves to wilt under the stern gaze of Imposter Syndrome.

Incidentally, if you want to learn more about the origins of the term 'Imposter Syndrome', this link takes you to a paper written by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes, the psychologists who coined it. 

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Linda Cracknell - The Other Side of Stone

I’m delighted to welcome to my blog this week author Linda Cracknell, a prize-winning writer of intense and beguiling prose. I’ve long been an admirer of Linda’s work and was eager to read her latest book.

The Other Side of Stone
pictured with Glen Lyon Tweed

The Other Side of Stone, published by Taproot Press, is a collection of linked stories centring on an old stone-built weaving mill in rural Perthshire.  Over the course of two centuries, the stories follow the creation and eventual decay of the building and the industry, and the impact this has on the people connected with it. Each story is self-contained, but together they build into a rich and coherent whole – layered like storeys in the building itself. This is an awesome achievement and a thoroughly satisfying experience for the reader.

In the opening story, Stone Curse, an old journeyman stone-mason inscribes the foundation stone for the radical new water-powered mill. His focus is on his work and the immediate surroundings of his workshop. It’s about the hard rock and the ‘fleabite’ of an indentation each strike of his chisel makes on it, putting into context our puny human concerns. The language is distilled and concentrated, deep with meaning. Indeed, even the word ‘strike’ becomes a recurrent motif in the collection. On the main face of the stone, he is carving the date – 1831. On the reverse, to be hidden away, he chips out an effigy of a woman. While the reader is drawn to the stone-mason – perhaps because of the affectionate way he describes a tiny visiting bird – this image he’s struck into the hard stone is his way of imprisoning the rule-breaking woman, and I would say this social mistrust of non-compliant womanhood and this need to restrict and restrain is central to The Other Side of Stone.

Look at Linda’s descriptive powers, right from the opening paragraph, describing that wee bird!

Some days it’s just the wee fellow who watches me. I see him through the hazel-arch of the workshop when I turn my head, and he’s there when I take my tools out to the forge to be licked sharp in the flames. He perches on the top of the rubble pile, or on a post, and observes. A smart-looker he is, with his white collar and chestnut stomach. Out of his dark face comes a scolding cry when there’s someone coming. He’s an unquiet bird then, with his ‘clack-clack-clack’, for all as if he’s bashing two stones together. … And the fellow’s my friend is he not? He’s my steady companion, watching me force the chisel upon the rock that’s so brute-hard my scours and drafts will be there to see for centuries to come.’

Linda takes us ranging back and forward over the years from 1831 to 2019, tuning in to the deepest concerns of workers and mill owners and others connected to the building throughout the phases of its origin, heyday and decline. What impresses me so much about Linda’s work – over and above the immense skills with language and observation – is that she rapidly establishes the feel of each era, with all its political considerations and pressures.

One storyline is returned to several times, weaving its way through the others. Set in 1913, it follows a young married woman who’s committed to achieving workers’ rights and women’s suffrage. She remembers May Day celebrations in Glasgow when her husband was a Union man and they were full of optimism, believing in unity and solidarity among the workers – until he accepted a promoted post in Perthshire. All like one big family, so we were … and Miss Sylvia Pankhurst herself up there, saying that the cooperative commonwealth will only happen if women as well as men manage it. (p.58) Catharine describes how alien she feels in this rural village, especially now he’s turned his back on their beliefs, in the words I’m like a flower grown from a seed that’s blown in from foreign parts’ (p.60) She has vision and ambition, and yearns to train as a nurse, but this is all in question. Will her husband sign the letter giving his permission?

Author Linda Cracknell  (Photo by Robin Dance)

Q&A

CMcK: Hello Linda, and welcome to my book blog! I have long been an admirer of your writing. Loved your short stories, of course, and your novel Call of the Undertow. Your creative non-fiction collection Doubling Back: Ten paths trodden in memory is another of my favourites. Before we get on to talk about The Other Side of Stone, let me ask – do you have a favourite form? How do you decide what form to write? What’s your process?

LC: Hi Carol, and many thanks for having me along. My process seems to be quite chaotic and hard to predict! The Other Side of Stone is my fifth book but there was no direct route or clarity as it developed. I usually start with character and place, and perhaps a ‘what if?’ train of thought or a particularly illuminated moment (which is likely to end up as a short story). I started writing short stories in the late 1980s after which I had two collections published. I love the economy and the elliptical nature of that form, but agree with Richard Ford when he calls it the 'high wire act of literature', because one tiny slip and the whole thing fails. The novel form is more forgiving.

As a new writer, there was quite a bit of pressure to produce a novel in order to be taken seriously, and it was setting out to write a novel in 2001 and then a few years later abandoning it that provided the foundation stones for this most recently published book. Although that first novel didn't ever quite work, when my explorations of an area around Dunnet Bay in Caithness offered up a story arising from an underlying folktale, it definitely had to be novel-length and Call of the Undertow (2013) was the result. Since then I've written another novel, currently looking for a publisher, set between the Scottish Highlands and the limestone sierras of south-eastern Spain in a story of mountains and suppressed memory. And I also write essays. Doubling Back: Ten paths trodden in memory (2014), was a linked collection of these, exploring place and memory through repeated footfall on paths. That also took its time to arrive at a final form.

In answer to your question I think the form probably asserts itself gradually as I write. Somehow, 20 years after setting out to write my first novel, I've ended up with this hybrid work of fiction which may be a novella or may be linked short stories, but definitely isn't a novel!

https://www.lindacracknell.com/mybooks-buyhere.asp

CMcK: So, The Other Side of Stone – it’s breathtakingly beautiful prose, deeply evocative of place and the tangible, physical world. Tell me how it came about, and something about your themes.

LC: The original novel I started writing in 2001 included two storylines which survived into 'Stone' but are now given very different weights. The major story is now a minor one and vice versa. In the act of abandoning the project I seem to have found the liberty to do as I pleased without the crippling self-consciousness which can come with anticipating publication. I returned over the years to the research and imaginative work I had done on the setting of the Perthshire woollen Mill. What was particularly compelling to me in what remained was the story of Catharine in 1913-14, a frustrated suffragette who arrives with her new husband, a weaver, in the small Perthshire village and finds herself increasingly isolated by her radicalism. The original novel also focused on the early years of this century when the building was being converted into flats by an ambitious young architect, and was somehow being dogged by the past. Around these two strands I gradually picked up other periods of the building’s history which interested me and wrote occasional new stories which used that background. I never imagined it would be published as one coherent work until last year I pasted them all into one document and added a final, more recent story which helped it all add up. It was a gamble that I could trust the reader to bridge the gaps not just within the stories themselves but between them. It seems to have paid off.

The strongest themes in my writing are usually place and memory, and that's certainly the case here with layers of history even within the stone itself. I like to think that the mill becomes a character itself through the different faces it shows in different periods. Beyond this, the overriding theme of the book has turned out to be the agency of women, and the struggle for this freedom as well as the potency of the local landscape and the effect of industrialisation on rural areas. I never set out to write to themes but let them emerge out of preoccupations with the setting and characters I've chosen.

https://taprootpressuk.co.uk/our-books/
Photo courtesy Robin Dance

CMcK: I really enjoyed that you’d tuned your ear to different styles of language for the different stories. So, in the 1913 episodes, you use quite a lot of Scots words and syntax – like a natural! And in the 2019 story, the teenager’s language is very much of our time. Was this a conscious decision or did it come about intuitively? Is it an essential part of creating characters?

LC: I'd say probably the latter, that the language must be an aspect of character. Catharine basically speaks monologues to the building itself, so it had to suggest the syntax of a Paisley cotton mill lass. Although it's not my own language, I did enjoy evoking it. And in 2019 Jade’s manner of speech, as a young carer who has failed in her formal education, needed to reflect her great weariness as well as background and the age in which she lives. It had to at least suggest authentic teenager.

CMcK: As well as being a versatile and accomplished published author, you’re an inspirational creative writing tutor. Where can we learn more about you and your writing, and buy copies of your books?

LC: I love teaching and encouraging others to write. The maxim I work by is Susan Sontag's: 'Love words, agonise over sentences, and pay attention to the world.' It works. I also like to get people outside and moving as part of the writing process. Over the period of the pandemic it has been quite difficult to continue with workshops, some of which are residential, but hopefully such things will gradually come back. I have found that as long as they're not too long, workshops on Zoom over a period of time can work very well and can defeat geography. I'm currently writer in residence for the Birnam Book Festival and will soon be running a course with them.

I have a regular newsletter in which such workshops as well as writing tips, various extras, and news of my own books can be found. Anyone can sign up through my website at this link: https://www.lindacracknell.com/feedback.asp

The Other Side of Stone (after a surprise sell-out of the hardback!) is now available as a paperback for £9.99 and can be ordered either directly from the Taproot Press website with no postage to pay https://taprootpressuk.co.uk/our-books/ , or ask your local independent bookshop to order it in for you. Call of the Undertow is available from my website as a special edition hardback and each of my other books is in print. As they've been with different publishers one of whom went into liquidation, they are available in slightly different ways. You can learn how here:  https://www.lindacracknell.com/mybooks-buyhere.asp

For anyone who’d like to hear more about The Other Side of Stone, here’s Birnam Book Festival’s event in which I discuss it with Jane Archer. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=190050849708686

Thank you, Carol, for inviting me to participate in your wonderful blog. And thanks to your readers who have got this far!

CMcK: My pleasure, Linda!

Author Linda Cracknell  (Photo by Robin Dance)

               

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Moira McPartlin - Before Now: memoir of a toerag


This week, I'm joined by the talented and versatile author, Moira McPartlin, whose new novel is published on 31 May 2021. It's super. Go on - treat yourself! Read on for a taster and to learn how Before Now came about.

Before Now: memoir of a toerag

Review 

The best kind of fiction is the kind you lose yourself in: the kind that sweeps aside your ongoing ordinary thoughts; the kind with a personality so absorbing you forget you’re supposed to take the dog a walk or wash the dishes. This is the kind Moira McPartlin writes. We’ve seen this in her novels The Incomers, and the Sun Song Trilogy, and here it is again in the glowing Before Now: memoir of a toerag.

A novel set in a Fife village in the 1990s, Before Now is a story told by teenager Gavin. He’s taken a risk that’s led to an accident, meaning he’s now immobilised in bed in his grandmother’s house for three months while he recovers. His mother has presented him with a notebook and told him to pass his time by writing about some of the high jinks and scrapes he’s had over the years.

Gavin is initially reluctant. A big, physically confident lad who’s been able to turn a van on a penny since the age of thirteen, he’s not at all into schooling, but she persuades him this could help him achieve his ambition of passing the theory part of the driving test. Just write, she says. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar. And, freed from the constraints of having to write in perfect English, Gavin finds his voice.

It’s a voice that liberates him – and unlocks, for a literary world, a teenage toerag’s dreams and reality. It does so through shrewd and skilful writing. The book is written in Fife dialect, but the author has taken pains to make this ‘non-standard’ English straightforward for non-Fifers to follow. In fact, after a paragraph or two, Gavin’s Fife accent became the soundtrack to my day. Like birds singing in the trees or the chuckling of the local burn, the rhythm and timbre of Gavin’s voice was an ear-worm I thoroughly enjoyed. Add to this some hilarious, vivid one-liners, e.g. Janey from The Valley ‘hud a clout like a miner’s shovel’.

Through Gavin’s stories, by turn laugh-out-loud funny and close to heart-breaking, we learn what it’s like to be a ‘daft laddie’ growing up in a small town devastated by the collapse of the coalmining industry. Whether he’s telling us about how they welcomed Tilly the dug into their lives, or the many times his long-suffering mother got called to the school about her two boys’ bad behaviour, or meeting many other characters, we get to know the real Gavin, who loves his mum and even his brother, and wants to move forward and live a good life. Moira's happy for me to post a couple of extracts. The first gives an idea of the trickier aspects to Gavin's life. The second is very different!

Moira McPartlin
 

Extract p. 41-2

The next day Chuddy an the gang ur wantin tae gan tae the chip shop near the swimmin baths, ah walk thum halfway doon the road then peel aff.

‘Ah’m away tae see ma da.’ Ah buys two cornbeef rolls fae the corner shop, wan fur him an wan fur me hopin he might buy sum juice cos ah’m now aw oot eh cash. Ah kent where he steyed coz ah hud swung roond there a couple eh times just tae check ah hud the right street. … Ah chapped. Thir wis nae answer. The door hud gless an a letter box. Ah peered through the gless but it wis too frostit tae see. Ah keeked through the letter box. The hoose reeked eh fags an soor milk.

‘Da, ur ye in?’ Nae answer. Ah wondered if he wis hidin, but the hoose felt empty, ah could tell. Ah shoved the cornbeef roll through the letter box an dragged ma erse back tae the skill.

Extract (p.81-2 )

So we dae. Efter huvin tae wait in a queue again fur ages we gets oan. ‘Just relax,’ ah telt her, but when we reached the board – fuck me – dis she no faa aff again. An this time ah keep gaun. Ah hear her shoutin.

‘No Gavin, it’s too misty.’

But ah ignored her. An then when ah get aff at the top, thick mist mobbed me an ah cannae remember where Tommy an Janey hud taken me that wis sae guid. So ah ski tae the top eh a run an it wis like ah sheer cliffside.

‘Whit’s this?’ ah asks sum bloke that wis starin doon at it an aw.

‘Black run. Don’t go down that son, unless you’re really good.’

So ah gan along a wee bit mair an thir wis this fence that hus ribbons oan it an a couple eh wee guys, wee-er than me, scoot past an doon. They disappear intae the mist. An it didnae scan too bad. So ah stertit doon an fuck me it got steeper. Ah gans cross weys an faa ower, ah gets masel up, turned an ski cross weys again but every time ah tried tae turn roond ah faa ower an thir wis guys scootin past aw the time, twistin this wey an that an straight doon. How dae they dae that? Ah just huv tae keep at it – cross, faa, turn. Cross, faa, turn an eventually the mist cleared an ah spied the café an Maw standin ootside watchin. Cross, faa, turn. It stertit tae flatten oot an ah hud a great run doon tae where Maw stood.

‘That wis great,’ says I. An in a wey it wis.

‘Oh Gavin. Ah’ve been worried sick. Ah got the staff tae radio the top tae look out for you but they couldn’t find you.’ She pointit at the slope ah’ve just come doon. ‘That’s a competition run.’

‘Aye? Think ah could dae competitions?’

‘Gavin, you were on yer bum most of the way.’

‘Best wey tae learn,’ ah chirps.

Efter that she niver took me unless Janey wis there but it wisnae that often coz skiin is dear.


Q&A

CMcK: Hello Moira and welcome to my book blog! Thank you for giving me advance sighting of Before Now. I adored it. My imagination bloomed with Gavin’s personality and his stories, told in a voice that completely captivates the reader. Why did you choose to write it in Fife dialect? And how difficult was that to maintain in this era of autocorrect?

MMcP: Thank you, Carol, for this fantastic review and these great questions. I love writing in dialect. It comes easily to me and I know, from the comments I received about my first novel The Incomers, that readers love to read it. I also perform early episodes of Before Now at open mic nights – the audience always enjoy them and I have great fun slipping back to the accent of my childhood.

Having said all that, the editing of a whole novel in Fife dialect was a nightmare. When I wrote the first draft I was not consistent with my choice of spelling and needed to revise it after the fact. This was difficult and time consuming. Many eyes have seen this novel and each time I look at it I still find tiny mistakes.

CMcK: There’s a gradual awakening in the novel, isn’t there, when Gavin is in that bed for three months and takes stock of his life. He says ‘Ma life’s been a bit chaotic up tae now. Sumthin hus tae change.’ (p. 75) Where did you get the idea of writing about this character, that location, and that time? And using what Gavin comes to see as that ‘catalyst’ of the accident?

MMcP: I have been working on Before Now for many years. It began as a couple of short stories. At that time I was reading reams of teenage fiction and I was bored with reading about middle class kids, whose teenage angst was very bland and their main worries were about their exams and being popular. My two boys were never academic and had a quite different life to the kids I was reading about, so I took a couple of incidents from their lives and fictionalised them. Once I created the characters of Sam and Gavin I found I could take it further because I know many children just like them. But I still had a series of shorts stories. I had to have some device to pull them all together and provide Gavin with a reason to tell his stories in the first place.  This was done by giving Gavin an accident and confining him in a space. I seem to do that a lot in my books. In Ways of the Doomed, book one of my Sun Song Trilogy, the main character is also confined.

I chose the 1990s because this is when my kids grew up and it seemed easier to do that because I can remember the toys and clothes they wore.

In terms of location, I am keen to show life in semi-rural Fife. Most novels I read in this genre have urban or West of Scotland locations. I feel Fife deserves its own stories. The location of Ashlee is a small village just along the road from Hollyburn, my village from The Incomers. Again, it was easier to fictionalise villages that are familiar to me in my own life. This is very much a novel of ‘write what you know.’

CMcK: With the book being written in first person, the characters are only seen through Gavin’s eyes, and through dialogue. It amused me no end to read Gavin’s opinions of his mother – that long-suffering, hard-working, dedicated, ambitious woman. He wasn’t pleased when her new job took her to Denmark for a couple of months when he was seventeen, meaning she wasn’t there to cook for him and do his washing! I loved the way you presented the understated grief, frustration and anxiety of the mother. She’d been through hard times! Many women writers might have sought to tell the story from the mother’s point of view. Why did you choose not to?

MMcP: When I first started writing Before Now I only wanted to write different teenage stories. I created the character of Gavin and his voice is so strong, and he is such a natural storyteller I had no choice but to let him tell the tales. When I showed the first couple of stories to my critique group they picked up on the fact that Maw’s story was also coming through. It was a bit of an ‘ah, ha’ moment. Suddenly the book became an adult novel and the tone changed. Once I realised that I could tell more than one story through Gavin’s point of view I worked hard to weave them in but keep it understated.

CMcK: Where can we buy your books and read more about you and your writing?

MMcP: You can buy Before Now, in paperback or Ebook from Amazon or you can buy signed copies from my website www.moiramcpartlin.com My website also has lots of information on all my other novels and some previously published short stories and poems.

CMcK: Thank you so much for joining me on my blog to talk about Before Now and your other writing! 

Before Now

 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Lockdown Book Blog finale

Over the last three months, I’ve been writing weekly book reviews on this blog and sharing them on social media. Now spring's here, today’s post takes a final walk through the project.
 

Lockdown Isolation

My experience of lockdown started in October, when a rule change meant we were to stay local. My family is scattered across five local authority areas, so this meant no contact apart from through the godsend that is telecommunications. (Thank you, Skype and Whatsapp!)

Normal routines were cancelled. No babysitting, no gym, no Fitsteps, no Ramblers. Just empty days. I needed a project. First, I dug out all my leftover wool. Over the next two months I crocheted two very simple round blankets (andblogged about it). But two blankets were enough!

What Next?

I’ve always been involved with books and writing. My first career was as a librarian, during which time I regularly wrote book reviews for the local paper. Years later, after I’d left my library days behind and had established myself as a writer and creative writing teacher, I wrote reviews for London-based UK reading charity Booktrust and for the Inverness-based literary magazine Northwords Now. I was part of the people’s reading panel and jury for the first and second Guardian First Book Award competitions. The Glasgow panel met in Borders Book Shop. We read and discussed the six short-listed books, then had a jolly to London for the award ceremony. In 1999, the winner was Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, about the conflict in Rwanda. In 2000, Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth won the prize https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/07/guardian-first-book-award-all-the-winners  

In autumn 2020, I was a volunteer reader for the Highland Book Prize, the winner of which will be announced at the Ullapool Book Festival in May. Here’s the shortlist http://www.highlandbookprize.org.uk/2020-shortlist/

So, with my ongoing interest in books and reviewing, what better occupation through the cold and dark of winter than reading books and blogging about them? But what books would I review? 

Incunabulum

What Books To Review?

I’m what’s called a ‘hybrid’ author. I co-wrote Eileen Munro’s memoir As I Lay Me Down To Sleep, which was published in 2008 and became a Scottish bestseller. The ebook version still sells over a thousand copies a year. https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/1060956/carol-mckay.html My short fiction and poetry are widely published and have won awards, but despite this, I haven’t found publishers for my novels. This is a cause of enormous frustration. And life is short. So I decided to self-publish my novel Incunabulum, which is set in Scotland in the aftermath of a cataclysmic pandemic. My husband Keith (He Who Is Tech-savvy) published it for me through his imprint PotHole Press. It was well received and had generous reviews, including this one on Northwords Now and subsequently one by Gillean Somerville-Arjat in her column in the Scottish Review.

Second Chances

Self-published and indie

There can be many reasons why people go down the self-publishing route. It’s gruelling, approaching agent after agent, or publisher after publisher, waiting months for a response that may never arrive. And if an agent says no, does it mean the book is no good, or just not to their taste? Or not what they think the market is looking for at this moment? Professional publishers have to make a living, and so do agents, so if they think your book won’t sell enough copies, they won’t invest their time and money in it. Obviously. It doesn’t mean your book is badly written. Just not sufficiently commercial. Or not transformative or ground-breaking enough to win prizes, which of course would make the book commercially successful.

Some writers decide from the outset to self-publish. They go into the process with their eyes open, seeing their work as a commercial brand and cutting out the middle people. And some just want to document their life experience and leave their writing as a legacy for their children, thereby also making their individual contribution to human culture.

Self-publishing – ‘privately printed’ – has a long tradition. Beatrix Potter, Ezra Pound, WH Auden all did it, and others were like Robert Burns. He couldn't afford to pay the costs, so his Kilmarnock edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scots Dialect was privately printed thanks to 18th century version of crowdfunding (‘subscription’). https://www.electricscotland.com/familytree/frank/burns_lives152.htm




My Lockdown Book Blog Authors

One problem with self-publishing is visibility. It’s hard to bring your work to the attention of readers when you don’t have a team behind you. So I decided to focus my lockdown book blog on works that were self-published. I posted on Facebook and soon had a dozen authors getting in touch. They’d give me a copy of their book and in return I would do a blog post which we could share. With there being twelve (plus me), there could be a snowball effect in terms of promotion. It’s said you have to see something seven times before it pierces your consciousness enough for you to truly notice it. The more we could bring the books to people’s attention the better. Without irritating them! I did have another few people approach me to review their books, but I really couldn’t fit any more in. So, we were all set! Twelve authors – twelve weeks.

    

So How Did It Go?

The entire project has been really worthwhile – for me, at least! I hope so for the authors, too. Sales may not have rocketed, but each week my blog had an average of 80 – 85 hits. That’s people clicking through via links on social media to read the blog post. I counted that average after removing the two big hitters – one of which reached 250. That result came about because the author played a major part of a big, new writers' group on social media, she reckoned.

  

Seeing other authors' techniques in marketing was truly interesting. I didn't apply myself sufficiently to learn Canva (for promotional graphics) and I didn't master hashtags, though I recommend both. But I did investigate them (for next time?) and I did find out about the existence of a self-publishing and marketing platform called Blurb. Above all, from this small sample, I discovered that sometimes it matters if you network a lot, but sometimes it doesn't matter a jot. What seems most effective is having depth of contact with individuals, rather than a froth of marketing confetti.



 
       

I chose to disregard some presentational issues as self-publishers don’t have a team of editors behind them. At the outset, I told the authors I would only review their books if I felt they merited at least three stars (out of five), and I’m happy to say they all did - and some far more! Each had something unique to say. All had plausible plots, sympathetic characterisation, and expressed something fresh and original – even those that were written to conform to genre conventions, such as crime novels.

I reviewed picture books and one aimed at young adults. I reviewed collections of short stories. I even – and this was a first for me – dabbled with erotic and gay paranormal fiction.

I may have spent three months in a comfy seat, but each and every one of these books took me travelling. Whether that was to the towns and villages of Ghana or the giddying steel and concrete canyons of New York, whether it was Estonia’s shoreline or the one at Portobello, I enjoyed the journey and the experience. Through these books, I’ve been to New Orleans, the Scottish highlands and islands, the tourist streets of Lisbon, a mysterious English garden, family houses in Cheltenham and California’s movie capital, LA. And I couldn’t forget Glasgow’s very own downtown Saltmarket.

  


Thanks

So, my sincere thanks go to authors Aaron Mullins, Jacqueline SmithEmily Donoho, Fiona Curlew, Lorraine Johnston, GilleanSomerville-Arjat, Fiona Glass, Brian Pendreigh, Raven McAllan, Lea Taylor, PatFeehan and Sandra Davies

Do scroll through my previous blog posts to read about them.


 




Friday, 26 March 2021

Sandra Davies - Drink with a Dead Man

A labyrinthine novel about the sex-trade and its devious and self-serving financial backers, Sandra Davies’ Drink with a Dead Man is also about the fractures and bonds between long-time friends weighed down with guilty secrets. If you relish whodunnits and whydunnits, and tangled plot puzzles to unravel, this is definitely a novel for you.

Welcome to my final lockdown book blog! 

Drink with a Dead Man

Extract

Exiting the county, his train having slowed to cross the Tweed at Berwick via the multi-arched bridge, Del texted Arch: Northumberland St available to stay in?

Arch’s reply was immediate: Suite reserved @Howard. King St. ABCD Mathers @9

Del checked the hotel. Five stars, discreet. Looked good. He checked again, asking whether Arch really meant ABCD? Meant all of them?

Arch succinctly did.

And yes, on arrival the hotel as pleasing as its website.

Less pleasing, because incomprehensible, was the envelope handed to him as he checked in. It contained a half sheet of paper on which had been typed an address in Portobello.

First thought, it had come from Arch, surely the only person who knew his whereabouts? Then, re-reading, it occurred to him Arch had likely booked the others in here as well. Though didn’t Baz live in Edinburgh? Possibly his was the Portobello address. No idea – obviously! – where Chris was travelling from.

Arch was no longer responding to messages.

(p.201)

Review

Kit Talamantes is ultra-cool, ultra-confident, ultra-handsome: a ladies man through and through. The novel opens with a scene from his very comfortable life in Spain, which an anonymously sent sliver of newsprint threatens to disrupt. The newsprint – an announcement of a forthcoming wedding – forces him to jettison the idyll of the artificial identity he has created for himself and head back to England to work out who knows his secret.

What follows is a standard police procedural yet so much more. Drink with a Dead Man drops the reader into the centre of a pre-existing web of intrigue and a complex network of friendships with overlapping layers and subtleties. Over the course of the first few chapters, we become acquainted with a group of characters who shared a house at university, despite being from very different social circumstances. We pick up hints about their very human mix of trust and mistrust of each other, tolerance and intolerance, love and understanding. Well over a decade later they’re established in their careers – the upper class male model, the earthy Scots ex-navy man, the earnest and loyal journalist, the morally questionable Kit Talamantes, and – oh yes, Lucy, the high-class call girl, who selected them as housemates and for whom they played a not-unwilling part in her self-directed apprenticeship. 

Not having read the earlier books in the series meant I had to work quite hard at the beginning to commit to memory everyone in this big cast of characters. The author also has a certain syntactical style I learned to tune my ear to. The intrigue soon had its hooks in me and I grew more and more eager to unravel all the clues as to who had done what to whom. And why. Drink with a Dead Man is undoubtedly a novel on the dark side. It features blackmail, double-dealing, the sex-trade and other forms of devious criminality. It also centres on a murder. Actually, two murders.

Thematically dark, but it's hallmarked by sensitive character profiling which ensures we care about these characters. Sandra Davies' writing demonstrates her enormous empathy and understanding in the way she presents the spoken – and most particularly the unspoken – communication between the core characters and their interpretation of others’ inner turmoil. This was evident in the police interrogation scenes, marking them out, for me, as far from genre convention stereotyped.

As Sir Walter Scott put it, ‘O what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive.’ In Drink with a Dead Man, Sandra Davies sets her readers a multi-stranded puzzle that has us craving to untangle the knots, and ultimately finding the satisfaction of doing so. 

Author Sandra Davies
Q&A

CMcK: Hello Sandra. Thank you so much for joining me on my lockdown book blog. I’m full of admiration! My first question has to be – how on earth do you manage to dream up such multi-layered plots? Seriously – do you have a big white-board or computer file? How do you keep track of everything and judge how to drip-feed enough information to keep your readers’ brains whizzing?

SD: Thank you Carol – I'm delighted to be here for my first-ever independent review.  Plotting is something I really struggle with because I do rely to a large extent on my characters telling me what next. A timeline is essential, and it does help to have the previous one unpublished so I can make retrospective tweaks. Sympathetic and eagle-eyed beta readers are worth their weight in gold.

CMcK: This is the fourth novel you’ve written featuring a central cast of characters. Where did this idea spring from?

SD:  'Step so grave', the first in the series, used plotlines and characters generated via an online challenge to supply an imaginary blurb to match a weekly-posted photograph of a book cover. Trying to stuff a cast of 40+ into half a dozen plots explains why it took eight years to knock it into shape. I then needed to write 'Longest shadows reach' to discover why there'd been a seventeen-year stand-off between Luke Darbyshere and Baz Rose. 'Commission & omission' examines what came next.

CMcK: That's fascinating. You must have got to know your main characters really well over the series. It strikes me that you keep a central core and then introduce new characters for each new storyline. Was this something you planned, or did it come about organically? I felt a strong connection to Baz and Arch, and also to Fran and Luke. Do you ever hanker after new storylines, leaving your central characters behind?   

SD: Having a free-standing story around which the doings of Luke and Baz intertwine is essential if I want each book to appear fresh, and work as a stand-alone. 'Drink with a dead man' is Arch's first appearance, but I've made room for him in 'Snap is not a children's game' by killing off one of my long-standing characters. I suspect the sixth – 20K in, plenty relationships and a murder victim, but no idea how she died – will be the last, which saddens me, especially as I've currently no replacement for them.

CMcK: What’s been most influential for you in your development as a writer? And who are your favourite authors?

SD: The encouragement of my peers, and copious amounts of reading! (I average 170 books a year) There are so many variations of excellence in crime writing, especially Scottish, Irish and Australian, that I couldn't choose even a dozen representatives, but Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series will always be tops.

CMcK: Final question – where can we learn more about you and your writing?

SD: I have a blog: http://sandra-linesofcommunication.blogspot.com/  and a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/sandradavieswriter. My books are available from Blurb https://www.blurb.co.uk/user/SandraDavies?profile_preview=true. And you can also find me on https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1226042.Sandra_Davies 

I'm not on Amazon because I prefer to support Drake the bookshop, my local independent.

Sandra will gladly send a pdf of 'Step so grave' to everyone who requests one via this blog, so get in touch! 

Back cover text for 'Drink with a dead man'

Eight years ago Kit Talamantes faked his own death. When he receives notification of a wedding which cannot be allowed to proceed he has no choice but to return to England to correct mistakes made in his previous life. But who has summoned him? And why?

Similarly unexpectedly Edinburgh crime reporter Baz Rose hears of a proposed, and potentially problematic, reunion for four ex-uni friends who fled apart on graduation.

DI Luke Darbyshere receives a tip-off more interesting for its provenance than its content. In pursuing that he finds himself in professional conflict with the woman who, having given him six months to convince her they should marry, is struggling to solve a murder.

And Drew Bishop is determined on revenge.



 

 

Friday, 19 March 2021

Pat Feehan - Lucky Larry

Hapless Larry McAllister likes the quiet life. He’s fed up being the butt of his boss’s wrath and his wife’s ire. And that’s before the Glasgow hardmen get to him. To cap it all, he’s even getting hassled by the cops. Will Larry’s luck ever change?

On this penultimate week of my lockdown book blog, I’ve been reading and thoroughly enjoying Pat Feehan’s Glasgow-based crime novel Lucky Larry.

Lucky Larry
Extract

Larry sat open-mouthed. Could this be happening? The wheel game was obviously roulette. Arthur’s mum had wanted her son to play roulette and some card games. With her criminal background she’d clearly realised the money-spinning potential of her son’s unusual talents. But before she could put it to the test, she had died and now Larry could take on the role.

…Arthur saw it as a game, a game that he and his mother had wanted to play but that he never got the chance to try out. Well, Larry was the man who could take care of that. He realised his biscuit was still dipped in his tea. He attempted to raise it to his mouth but it collapsed into the cup in a soggy mess.

With a few encouraging nods and prompts from Larry, Arthur told him about his mum’s plan for the casino.

‘She thought we could make money because I’m good at numbers.’

Larry couldn’t believe his luck but did his best not to look too interested. ‘She was right. You definitely have a talent.’ He took a sip of his tea. ‘But casinos are big noisy places. You might feel a bit out of place there.’

Arthur looked anxious … Eventually, he blurted out the words Larry was waiting for. ‘Do you think you could take me to the casino?’

…An hour later Larry sat in a daze as he made his way home on the underground. He touched his hand to his jacket, opened it slightly and peered down into the large, inside pocket. There, peeping out at him, was the green jade Buddha. Larry’s luck was finally changing.

Review

Lucky Larry is a thoroughly enjoyable crime novel set in Glasgow. The mean streets may have long gone, but vestiges remain and Larry has to negotiate his way through.

Larry lost his job in the whisky bond after a case or two of malt disappeared, but his brother-in-law has given him a chance in his pet shop. Larry loathes it. The shop stinks, it’s always dead and he doesn’t know how his brother-in-law makes any money. Maybe that’s why he regularly goes ‘away on a wee bit of business’. Larry’s taking advantage of his absence to have a quick fag break at the shop back door when he realises a rabbit has escaped from the cage and is hopping off down the lane. As he tries to recapture it, Larry witnesses the local betting shop owner being beaten up and slashed by three vicious hardmen. When the same man is murdered two days later, the police want to know all about it.

Throughout this story, Larry gingerly picks his way with his wits through a landscape governed and controlled by two sets of hardmen. The first set is Eddie Black and his henchmen – organised crime heavies with interests in people trafficking, drugs and who knows what else. Happy to use violence to exert their authority. The other people that make Larry sweat and tremble when they push open the pet shop door are DS McNally and his sidekick DC Wallace.

All Larry wants is a bit of peace and quiet to be able to go for a pint now and then, as well as a bit of extra cash so he can treat his two kids whom he adores and who adore him in return. So, while he’s trying to keep everybody happy and off his back – the bad guys, the good guys, his wife who hen-pecks him and his brother-in-law who so disdains him – Larry is looking for a small-scale side-line of his own.

Maybe it’s strange to describe a crime novel as ‘thoroughly enjoyable’. Maybe ‘gripping’, ‘tense’, ‘edge of the seat’ and other epithets come to mind more frequently for this genre. There are plenty of tense moments in this novel, yet Pat Feehan has a gift for creating a character who would get a piece at any door. Translation – Larry’s really likeable. Even though he's thinking about cheating vulnerable Arthur now his mother’s died and left him on his own, and left a flat full of classy ornaments like that jade Buddha, which is so incredibly like the one that went missing from the Art Galleries.

Pat Feehan dovetails all the plot elements of this glorious tale into one great fit that’s wholly satisfying. He gives a nod to the conventions of the genre, situating and settling this story in the heart of Glasgow noir. At the same time, he maintains his own clear brand through characters that are surely going to become standards, and he does it with lively and one hundred percent engaging wit and humour.    

Author Pat Feehan

Q&A

CMcK: Pat, thank you so much for joining my blog to talk about your writing. I so enjoyed eavesdropping on Larry’s life! He’s totally three-dimensional, with so many contradictory, human, qualities. Despite his faults, he endeared himself to me. How did this fictional character introduce himself to you, the author?

PF: Hi Carol. I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for inviting me to be part of this. I wanted to write about a character who was a bit of a ‘chancer’, not averse to bending the rules but not fundamentally bad. I also wanted him to be slightly comic, with things rarely working out for him. I drew on similar characters from fiction and from people I’ve met in Glasgow. I’ve had many a pint and many a conversation with guys like Larry over the years.

CMcK: I felt as if I'd met Larry before, too! He's a brilliant character. What made you become a crime writer?

PF: I started writing eight years ago after signing up for creative writing classes.  I’ve always enjoyed reading various genres including non-fiction, but recently crime has been my favourite. So that seemed a natural choice. Crime fiction gives the reader, and the writer, the chance to experience the darker side of humanity, but from a safe distance. I think that’s a big part of its appeal. I also like crime writing that uses dark humour and was keen to try that out. However, I do enjoy writing in other genres and formats and one of my (non-crime) short stories was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Trust competition and appears in their anthology: https://www.storyawards.org/shortstoryfinalists2020

CMcK: This is your second novel, after Snap Judgement. Is there a third planned? Will we meet up with Larry again?

PF: I’ve just started sketching some scenes for a third novel. At the moment, Larry doesn’t feature in it. But it’s early days and you can never predict what Larry will get up to next! People have reacted very positively to Larry so we may well see more of his adventures.

CMcK: I'll look out for that! What took you down the self-publishing route?

PF: At each stage of my writing I’ve been finding out what I’m good at and what else I could try. The creative writing class focused on short fiction, I got positive feedback and people encouraged me to try a novel. One of the things I enjoy about writing is that you don’t need a complicated infrastructure: pen and paper, or a computer, and your imagination. There’s a great sense of independence. Once I’d decided to write a novel, I wanted people to be able to read it. I would have found it incredibly frustrating if I’d had to depend on someone else to give it the okay, especially if that took a long time, or never. So, self-publishing continued that sense of independence, giving me control over how and when my book would be available to readers and that was very liberating. 

Pat's first novel, Snap Judgement

CMcK: Are you in any writers’ groups?

PF: I’m in three groups and so get a wide range of support: tips on market opportunities or competitions, workshops with more experienced writers, sharing work-in-progress with other writers on a regular basis.  Getting feedback from other writers is incredibly valuable. But I also enjoy giving feedback, I think when you read and comment on someone else’s writing you learn so much that helps your own writing.

CMcK: Absolutely! Now, where can we find more information about you and your writing?

PF: I don’t have a website, though it’s on my ‘to do’ list. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and have an author page on Amazon.

https://www.facebook.com/pat.feehan.731/

https://twitter.com/pat_feehan

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pat-Feehan/e/B07LDD4HJF?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000

CMcK: That's great! Thanks so much for joining me on my blog.

 

Friday, 12 March 2021

L Taylor - The House Beside the Cherry Tree

There are many different ways to be a mother. This way might not be the best.


I’m grateful to L Taylor – Lea – for an advance copy of her novel, which is being published by Scaramouche Press on March 21st 2021

The House Beside the Cherry Tree  

Extract

I would have given anything to sit at the big kitchen table nursing a strong cup of tea while Mum busied herself at the stove. … Without fail she dragged whatever problem that bothered me out into the open. … Together we’d scrutinise it and winkle out a solution with pointed questions, encouragement, reassurance and all topped off with a warm embrace. She was completely at my disposal, just like she was for all of the family.

And Dad, I couldn’t think of Mum without thinking of Dad. I could be stilled by his calming presence. There he’d be, sitting in ‘his’ chair in the corner of the kitchen, engrossed in The Times, muttering disgruntlements at the articles behind the pages. Identifying Dad’s moods was like reading semaphore. It was all in the way he held the paper. High signalled that he didn’t want to be bothered, half-mast meant he was listening in to what was going on, lowered meant that more than likely he was snoozing or very close to it. If only I had heeded his warnings. ‘Be careful with that one son – she’s not right.’ (p.218)

Review

The strapline for this novel is 'Motherhood doesn't come easy' - something this novel illustrates very well.

The year is 1959. Diane is a bright young thing – the light in her parents’ eyes, given the best of education, passionate about theatre, music and the arts – but just one clumsy fumble with local lad Richard has her unintentionally ‘in the family way’. Life as she knows it collapses. All her dreams for the future disintegrate. Her mother calls her a guttersnipe whore who’s brought disgrace on the family. It’s sobering to remember the attitudes towards single motherhood in those days, and Lea Taylor’s novel brings this smack into the present with her visceral portrayal of Diane’s abject humiliation and shame. Loss of dreams is a key motif throughout this novel, as both Diane and Richard are shoe-horned into doing what society expects of them. It’s a life that suits neither of them. A life that stifles and represses them. The tree in the garden that’s planted as such a sign of hope has the briefest of flowering seasons before the rot sets in.

The House Beside the Cherry Tree takes a brutal look at morality and convention in 1960s and 1970s Britain, but more fundamentally it looks at the impact on a woman’s mental health and the consequences for the child born into this dysfunctional family unit. By allowing each of the three main characters – Diane, Richard and their daughter Frankie – to tell their story in alternating chapters, we learn the harrowing details as experienced by each of them. There’s no doubt this is a challenging read. But there is lightness in it, too, in the love Frankie experiences from her temporary foster mother, in the boundless affection both Diane and Frankie have for the family dog, and in friendships that each of the main characters benefits from. Some interactions within the story are completely transformative, and this is where we find the joy in the novel. The House Beside the Cherry Tree conveys a message about the negativity and sterility of societal pressures on people, and the horrendous mental health treatments of the 1960s, but ultimately it’s a novel about the need for resilience and hope. 

The online launch for The House Beside the Cherry Tree is on Sunday 21st March 2021. Attendance is free! To book a place, go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/143121282609

Author L. Taylor

Q&A

CMcK: Hello Lea – thanks for joining me on my lockdown book blogging project, and for giving me advanced sighting of your novel. It’s due to be published very close to Mother’s Day, so I think I probably expected a sweet and cosy read. It’s anything but! Don’t get me wrong – it’s very readable! I was quickly drawn in. That cover image – all pink blossom and prettiness – is lovely, but you give us a very clear hint in the fracture in the wording of the title. Tell me about the background to writing this book. Where did the idea come from? What motivated you to write about this era?

LT: Hello Carol, firstly, thank you for inviting me to join your blogging project. It really is a pleasure.

The idea for the book came from a number of sources really.  Firstly, though, my mother suffered from mental ill-health in the 60’s when I was a child and I recall all the stigma associated with that, her preoccupation with anyone knowing, like it was a dirty secret. That in and of itself did cause issues within the family. So, I was curious about how mental health was viewed in that era but also, following the adage ‘write what you know,’ I put a little of my own experiences into the novel. Secondly a good friend of mine is a therapist and I recall the two of us discussing how a lot of her clients’ problems stemmed from how they had been mothered.

Setting the novel in the 60’s and 70’s gave me ample opportunity to consider both women’s rights and how little freedom they had back then– but also how people with mental health were medically treated.  Having done the research I had more than enough to write the book.

CMcK: One of the most gruelling aspects for me was your portrayal of mental health treatments in the 1960s. And the impact by extension on poor Frankie, who suffers terrible neglect and abuse. I don’t want to give the story away, but can you tell me something about this? Why was it important to you to write about this?

LT: Mental ill-health isn’t pretty and certainly back in the 60’s little was known about how to treat it. Being mentally ill then was both stigmatising, isolating and frightening, there were no holistic person-centred approaches. People with mental health issues were given either heavy duty medication or ECT (electro convulsive treatment). I didn’t want to put a sticking plaster on the story and paint a fluffly unrealistic picture of someone having a bit of a rough time. If it’s happening in a family unit everyone suffers. This isn’t an isolated situation relating to the 60’s and 70’s. It still happens today but fortunately there are far more checks and balances in place to help a struggling family. My years as a Community Worker have also shown me the uglier sides of mental health and its impact on family life.

CMcK: I couldn’t make my mind up about Richard. We hear so much negativity about him from Diane. And I started off loving Diane then gradually distanced myself from her, which is exactly what happened in the story – her family and friends abandoned her. As for Frankie – I think she was my favourite character, and I’d like to follow her to see how she gets on in her life after such a tough and loveless start. You created them all – is it possible for you to have a favourite? And might we meet up with Frankie again?

LT: Ha ha, yes, Frankie is spirited isn’t she and I’ll admit I enjoyed writing her the most.  Yes, we will be seeing more of Frankie.  I’m currently plotting the sequel, Frankie’s coming of age story. The working title is ‘Blossoms on the wind.’

CMcK: This is your first novel, but you’ve been in the writing business a good while, with an admirable track record. And you’re a storyteller, too. Tell me about your previous work and how you’ve found the expansion into long-form fiction.

LT: Storytelling and writing you would think are very similar creatures but actually they are entirely different crafts. With storytelling you are painting the picture through spoken word – you are telling the audience so that they can see the story in the mind’s eye and can use a number of different ways to enhance the story through tone, pace, gesture, facial expression and change of voice.  With writing it’s all down to what you write and how you show the story. Again, tone, pace and all the other subtle writing devices come into play but are used in a very different manner to storytelling. The expansion into long form fiction has been a huge learning curve. I’ve had to learn not to condense into short form writing but to expand and really drill down. But I have loved the process and as with storytelling, I have found my happy place writing.

CMcK: Where can we find out more about you and your writing?

LT: Through my publisher’s Facebook and Twitter pages;

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/scaramouchepressscotland/

Twitter: Scaramouche Press (@ScaramoucheP)

My own website: https://awaywithstories.co.uk

Twitter: Lea Taylor -author@leataylor5783

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lea.taylor.54

CMcK: Thanks so much for coming on my blog. All best wishes with your new book!

Other titles by Lea Taylor