Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In Conversation with John R. McKay

By Gillian Hamer


Hello, John, tell us a little about you and your writing.

I live with my wife, Dawn, in the North West of England in a town called Wigan which is between Manchester and Liverpool. I have two daughters, Jessica and Sophie. I served in the Royal Air Force for seven years before working for seventeen years at the control room of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

I have always been interested in literature and modern history. When I was in the military, I spent time in northern Europe around the battleground areas of the First World War, and this generated a keen interest in that period of history. I also became fascinated with the Second World War and read many books, both factual and fictional based around that period.

When I decided to give writing a go, I used this interest and the knowledge I had gathered over the years to form the basis of my work. There are so many stories to be told about this period and when researching my second novel, ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ I came across little known incidents that I managed to incorporate into the story.

I normally tend to stick to this genre, but I have dabbled in contemporary fiction also, for my novel ‘Mosquitoes’, which tells the story of a man who cannot deal with major changes to his life which results in a nervous breakdown. This is a black comedy of sorts and I had a lot of fun writing it, as the research was quite minimal and it was completed in a very short time.

I am always looking for new ideas to write about and my latest novel, ‘The Worst Journey In The World’, originated at a presentation I attended at my local museum, which my ex-high school English teacher had arranged. There I met a gentleman by the name of Bill Halliwell who gave an excellent talk about his life in the Royal Navy during the war and his voyages escorting merchant ships to the Soviet Union. I interviewed him a couple of times and he also gave me lot of reference material. I would never have written this novel if it hadn’t been for him.

Where do you find your plot ideas?


I like my novels to have some substance to them rather than just a story about ‘what happens’. I like to use events that actually happened and then put my characters into them and develop how they think and feel, and how this determines their ultimate fate. I always need a plot before I start and this usually comes about when I carry out the research for the novel. For example, for ‘The Worst Journey In The World’ I knew I wanted to write about the Arctic Convoys and so decided to base the central character around a young man from Liverpool. As my family are from that region, I knew a little of what was happening in the city around that time and so was able to bring that into the story to develop the character.

Sometimes sub-plots develop themselves. What I mean by this is that I could be writing a piece of dialogue and by changing the response of one of the characters, it can give me another idea of ‘somewhere else to go’ within the novel. This then gets my creative juices flowing and before you know it, I have a new sub-plot or maybe even a complete change in direction to where I originally intended. In a pivotal scene in ‘The Sun Will Always Shine’ I was about to write an important sentence but then suddenly thought ‘what if I flip this around?… what if I write the total opposite of what I intended?… where would that lead?’ I was bold and did it, and it changed the whole direction of the book, which I believe made the whole thing better and a book that I am very proud of.


Any other genres you fancy trying one day?


I love watching science fiction films but have never read any books of that genre, oddly enough (apart from a short Edgar Rice Burroughs novella when I was younger). I think there is so much you could do with science fiction as you can pretty much make it up as you go along. If you want to create a character with two heads who can read people's thoughts then you can have one and nobody will think you odd for doing so. I might give this some thought in the future but will probably stick to what I know for the time being.


Research – which camp are you? Love or loathe?


I love it. I see research as a part of the whole project and enjoy it almost as much as the writing process. First I get a basic idea or theme for a story, then I think about the plot and how to develop that idea. Next I look to research the parts that I don’t know about. I like my novels to be as historically accurate as possible right down to what the characters would have eaten and especially getting dates right. Sometimes research can lead to new ideas to include within the plot. For Marco’s story in ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ he was originally going to be an officer in the Italian army. However, once I became aware of what happened in Rome during the Nazi occupation, my whole original idea for him was scrapped completely and instead he became an Italian priest.
I have read so many great books for the novel I have just started and broadening my knowledge on the subject has been a great experience.


What’s the best thing about being a writer?


The sense of achievement when you write the words ‘The End’ at the bottom of the first draft. The sense of self-pride is unbelievable and I remember dancing around my living room when it first happened. ‘Look at me’, I thought. ‘I’ve written a book… I’ve actually written a book!’ However, it took many, many edits before I was happy with the final product.


And the worst?


Reading the first draft and realising it’s probably a load of old tosh! The editing process is not half as enjoyable as writing it fresh. I also find the promotion and marketing of my work a bit of a challenge.


I’ve read two of your books now, both with war themes, why does that period of history interest you?


When I was a young boy I watched many old black and white war films on the TV and with my father’s tales of what he got up to when he served in the British Army, my interest in military history developed. I also used to like reading the old ‘Commando’ and ‘Battle’ comic books and this also added to my interest.

I am also totally fascinated with how Germany allowed the Nazis to take over their country and how they caused such utter devastation and horror throughout Europe, particularly when it all happened not long before I was born. It all seems so unreal.

I still believe that there are stories to be told from that period of history and have tried to pay homage to some of those involved. This is why I was so happy to meet Mr Halliwell and write a novel based on his experiences during the Arctic Convoys of World War Two.

(I have also very recently visited Auschwitz/Birkenau and even though I have read so much about what happened there, it now just seems like they were just words on paper. You have to actually be there, to see it, to have a full appreciation of the magnitude of the horrors that happened in those places. I had a small scene there in ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ and am pleased that I got that part historically accurate.)


Which 3 books would you take to a desert island?


It is very difficult to choose only three books to take with me but I have finally narrowed it down to the following three.


Les Miserables by Victor Hugo - probably the best piece of literature I have ever read. I read the unabridged version a few years ago and once you get used to the ‘style’ of the writing it was very hard to put down. Very moving story and just utterly brilliant. No other way to describe it!

The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - again a wonderfully written book. Set in Barcelona (the home of Zafon) it tells the story of a father who takes his young son to the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ where he is allowed to pick any book he wishes to take away with him. It then follows what happens when he tries to find out about the writer of the book he has chosen. Not long after reading it I had a trip to Barcelona and visited all the locations of the book. It has to be one of my all time favourites and I have read it more than once, which is not something I normally do. No doubt I will revisit it again in the future.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks - probably the most beautiful book ever to be written about war. I am a huge fan of Faulks but this has to be his finest work and will no doubt be regarded as a classic in years to come.


What are your future writing plans?


I have just started writing my sixth novel which is as yet untitled. This book will be linked to ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ and will tell the story of the fifth child from the boat and what happened to him during the war and beyond. Not wishing to give any spoilers away, I have again gone into extensive research to ensure that the historical aspects of the story are correct.

I also have ideas for two more novels, one being another historical fiction story set around a Spitfire squadron during the Battle of Britain and the other a contemporary spy thriller.

However, once my current project is finished I am thinking of adapting one of my novels, the World War One drama ‘The Sun Will Always Shine’ into a screenplay. This is something new to me and so I will have to make sure that I know what I’m doing before I begin.


What important piece of advice do you live by now that you wish you had known before your debut novel was published?


I suppose it would be not to get too downhearted when you hit a mental block. When writing my first novel, I remember sitting there for ages looking at my computer screen, typing a paragraph then immediately deleting the lot… over and over again. I got to the point where I thought, ‘What’s the point? I can’t do this!’.

I realise now that I have to be in the mood to write. Some say that you should ‘write your way through’ writers’ block but I believe the opposite works for me. If I don’t feel it, then I don’t bother. I put the computer away and go and do something else. By writing rubbish it only makes me worse. However, I look back at my first book and see that, yes, in fact I can do this. I’ve done it before after all.

Eventually, sometimes in the middle of the night or when I least expect it, a phrase, or a bit of dialogue will hit me and then I will write it down quickly before it leaves my head. Before you know it, I am back at the computer, my mojo has returned and all is well again!










Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Long Road to Publication - Part 4



By Andy Smith

All quiet on the western front at the moment as I am in ‘waiting to hear back from agents’ mode. Again. Had some rejections, sent it off to some others, still waiting to hear back from others. Have also sent it off to some publishers. Yes, there are still some who will accept un-agented submissions, but it takes them just as long to get back to you.

At this point we should insert Standard Rant Number 642, including “why does it take so long?”, “every agent and publisher wants things in a slightly different format”, “the whole process is completely demoralising”, etc. I doubt there’s much I could add which everyone in the same boat hasn’t already thought!

I’ve also been looking at some of the submissions I sent off a while back (before the First Page competition). I can see that some of my earlier submissions are basically not as good as the things I’m sending out now, in terms of the cover letter, the synopsis and getting the novel as polished as it can be.

The obvious question is: “If what you’re sending now is better than what you sent originally, how come you’re still not getting anywhere?” To which I would reply that I’m getting more agents considering what I send now rather than rejecting me out of hand, and some agents are asking to see the whole MS; but that still doesn’t properly answer the question. (Doesn’t answer it for me either.)

There might be a bit of a problem with running out of agents who deal in the sort of stuff I’m writing. I started off sending it to those agents who I thought were most likely to be interested, but that means they got the not-so-good submission. Now I’ve refined and improved everything, I’m having to send it off to agents who might not be into my sort of writing. So they get this wonderful submission which isn’t really for them.

Obviously my current situation doesn’t put me in any position to comment, but I’m going to anyway. I’ve seen lots of articles and posts saying things like ‘when you’ve got your novel finished, don’t submit it straight away. Leave it for a while. Then go back to it, re-edit it, get it proof read, re-edit it again; and make sure it’s as good as it can be.’ I think I would add ‘make sure the rest of your submission package is as good as it can be too.’ We live and learn.

I will press on. Having realised that I may have shot myself in the foot early on, I’m still hoping to find an agent who does appreciate what I’m writing, and will also get the benefit of the new improved submission. We shall see.


WWJ NOTE: Andy has agreed to let The WWJ Clinic look at and suggest improvements to his cover letter and synopsis - stand by for next time.






Wednesday, 11 April 2018

A Day in the Life of ... A Proofreader

Next in our series of nosing into the life of a publishing professional, Julia Gibbs shares the secrets of a proofreader.

If you’re thinking of engaging a proofreader to work on your book, or you’ve seen one advertising their services, do you wonder what they do, and how they do it? Sometimes people think we’re like school teachers, marking work out of 10, with critical comments in the margins. But we’re not – we know that everyone, including us, needs a proofreader for their written work, and we're not going to make you stand in the corner for making too many typos! We love what we do, whatever genre the book we’re currently working on, and we take pride in giving your work that final polish.

I started working as a proofreader simply because I find the English language (and what I know of one or two others!) absolutely fascinating. If you have a minute, let me share with you what a normal working day might be for me.

7am: Get up, make cup of tea, look at emails. At least 90 minutes of my regular day is admin – sending work to clients, answering queries from possible new clients, scheduling future work, advertising my services and clients’ books on Twitter. It’s not until around 9am that I can start on whatever book I’m currently working on. I’m not going to tell you I must have classical music playing in the background or fresh flowers on my desk, etc – I don’t need anything apart from my laptop, in fact when I’m working I shut out everything else. I can work on a train or in a bus station waiting room.

10am: I try, at least 4 days a week, to go to my local dance school, where I attend Fitsteps and ballet classes. This is essential because my work is sedentary – not only is it not healthy for me to sit on the sofa practically all day, but also I find I work better if I take a breather.

1pm – stop for lunch. I give myself a proper lunch hour like I had when I worked in an office, although unlike when I worked in an office, I watch TV! At the moment I’m hooked on Homicide Hunter and White Collar.

2pm (latest) – back to work! I pretty much work through until 5.15pm. It’s a fact that you can’t concentrate for more than 90 minutes, so it’s important to know when the brain needs a break. I’ll either get up and do something like hoovering or putting the washing on, or phone my writer sister (author Terry Tyler, https://twitter.com/TerryTyler4); mind you, when I do this she normally effectively tells me to clear off because she’s redrafting/on a creative roll/in the throes of working out plot points etc. I should know better, I know what authors are like!

5.15 pm – Everything stops for Pointless on BBC1. Having been a big fan of this programme for ages, I was lucky enough to appear on it a couple of years ago. Here’s the link to my blog post with all the inside info on what it’s like behind the scenes, for fellow aficionados!

https://juliaproofreader.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/lights-camera-action-my-appearance-on-bbc1s-pointless/

8pm – after dinner, if I’m spending the evening on my own, I will usually work for at least another hour. I go to bed no later than 10.30pm, because I’m by nature a morning person and like to hit the ground running early.

The books I work on vary enormously. There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t make mistakes (this includes me – imagine how circumspect I have to be in my Twitter or Facebook posts!)

The reason for this is that when we read our own work, we see what we expect to see. Unless we are reading slowly and really concentrating on a sentence of, for example, 10 words, we only actually read the 1st, 5th and 10th word, and our brain fills in the blanks to make sense of it.

In an average book of, say, 80,000 words I can find anything from 400 to 10,000 corrections that need making. The advantage of hiring a proofreader to look at your work is that they are a fresh pair of eyes, and have no preconceived ideas about what you’ve written.

What I love about being a proofreader:

· Never knowing what book I’m going to discover next

· The challenge of finding errors and explaining what I’ve changed and why

· Occasional hilarious typos – I wrote a blog post about this https://juliaproofreader.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/10-funniest-typos-and-a-couple-more/


· Sometimes actually meeting the people I work for and with – a bit of a shock to those of us who work from home, alone on their computer. I have a tendency to overcompensate for the declining sartorial standards this involves, by getting all gussied up like the Duchess of Windsor if I ever go to meet clients – as in this photo of me preparing to address Wokingham Writers’ Group! See photo, me with the lovely Rosie Amber, who oversees an enormously successful review team - https://rosieamber.wordpress.com/

· Pretty much everything really

I’d like to thank all of my clients, past present and future, for making my waking hours so varied and interesting. I never know what world I’m going to step into next.

Julia Gibbs

T: https://twitter.com/ProofreadJulia

F: https://www.facebook.com/ProofreaderJulia/

E: juliaproofreader@gmail.com

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Unsilenced - In Conversation with Preti Taneja

Preti Taneja - photo by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
We That Are Young is a darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story of King Lear to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Preti Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

We That Are Young has been longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Here, Catriona Troth talks to the author, Preti Taneja, about the writing of the book.


Hi, Preti. Thank you for talking to Words with Jam. You have a background is in film-making, and We That Are Young is a very visual book. Can you tell us first about your work with Ben Crowe at ERA Films? And how would you say that film-making has influenced your writing?

ERA Films was Ben’s idea - he’s a self-taught filmmaker from Whitely Bay, in the North East and he’s from a family of grassroots educators and political activists in Labour and the Co-op party. He began the collective in 2008 because he could see that small and medium sized NGOs and education organisations could use film for advocacy, but didn’t always have the in-house knowledge or capacity. We had worked together on his first short fiction film, the man who met himself, and I’d always worked in the charity sector – first at Children’s Express, (now called Headliners) training young people from disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK and Northern Ireland in media skills, where I made participatory films, and then as a journalist and editor for an NGO. One of our first commissions as ERA Films had us following the journey of books donated by publishers in the UK to libraries in Kenya, including one in a vast slum that provided a safe space for children of all communities during violent clashes in the 2009 elections. I was always a writer first but maybe filmmaking as a practice and with its own ethics made me want to write about, and in the style of the powerful, persuasive and all consuming nature of visual media, with its influence on our perceptions of the world.

It was to India that you turned for this novel based on Shakespeare’s play. Why King Lear and
why this very specific point in modern Indian history? 


I was born in the UK – my parents came here in the late 1960s and the state classifies me as ‘British Asian (Indian)’. I grew up on the white side of a small town in Hertfordshire. I did Shakespeare at school, and at home we had this other life: language, attitudes to family and money were different to my friends’. We had Indian family in different parts of the UK and went to India for holidays to see family as well. Sometimes it felt like navigating many worlds and trying to pass in each one; like putting on a uniform or costume according to what place I was in or language I was speaking. I always wanted to be a mix of all my identities, in any way I chose to express that. Don’t we all? I remember challenging my school uniform policy to be able to wear a navy blue salwar kameez instead of skirt, and having fights over being allowed to wear denim at home. They were small battles then, but they meant a lot.
Shakespeare was part of the Empire’s arsenal of cultural colonialism; Empire is at the root of why Asians live in the UK. Bringing Lear to bear on India is my way of bringing those two sides together and showing what comes out now: hybridity of people, language, attitudes. It’s a critique of how dominance impacts all of us, but out of that a literature can emerge and grow. I’m writing from the UK about India – both are part of who I am; and that can stand alongside writing about diaspora experience, alongside Indian writing from India. It’s a hybrid literature in response to UK/Indian colonial history. It’s made through syntax, aural puns, language, play between myths: by bringing different perspectives and identities together in one story. 


Once you’ve read the book, the pairing of Lear with modern India seems pre-ordained. But I am sure a great deal of craft went into making it look so inevitable. Can you tell us something about the process of creating that fit?

I’ve always read a lot about India in fiction and non fiction I got in India and in the UK, as well as different magazines and so on, online. All of that went towards my research. Some of the novel is based on childhood impressions of Delhi – a certain critique of nostalgia is there. I went to Delhi and Kashmir in 2012 to work specifically on the novel, and that involved going to as many marches and slum areas as I could to meet people, and to as many elite events as I could wangle invites into. I eavesdropped, I interviewed people in hotels at all levels of society. In Kashmir, people shared their homes and took me around some of the parts of the city hardest hit by the long conflict, which began with Partition in 1947. Everyone I spoke to was so generous with their insights. I was also able to pick up books in Srinagar I couldn’t get anywhere else, and all that went into the novel. It took about seven full drafts and infinite work on each sentence until I ran out of time and had to give the manuscript up to the publisher – about two weeks before it was actually published!


The novel format gives you space to explore the points of view of the five members of the younger generation. To begin with the novel gives a voice to, and elicits sympathy for, Gargi and Radha and Jivan – the counterparts to Shakespeare’s villains, Goneril, Regan and Edmund. But then, superficially, the narrative appears to turn against the two women in particular. Did you intend this as a way of showing how society turns on women as soon as they begin to exercise power or agency?

You’ve put it so well – that the narrative turns against the women. I wanted to tell to the story as a social tragedy, impacting all of us. You’re right - I wanted to stick to seeing the horror of patriarchal capitalism, and neo-colonialism, and the price it exacts against those trying to simultaneously conform and to escape. I couldn’t change Shakespeare’s ending – how could I when in 2012 we could see where we were heading: that there was a rise of toxic masculinity in power, and of religious fascism across the world? My experience of being silenced and watching my mother’s struggle, and my grandmother’s pain from her losses in Partition went into my decisions about the ending too.

As women we can exercise power and we have agency; some do that by fighting for space and then replicating existing structural violence and racial or class discrimination when they get through. The real threat in Lear is the idea we can join together and not do that. That sisterhood across all of that is actually possible. It’s the most terrifying thing to Lear. And so he perpetrates a ‘divide and rule’ strategy on his daughters at the beginning of the play. In the novel they are always trying to reach each other - the social world prevents them. To me, that’s where the real struggle is. There’s an awesome power rising in the world now, calling out misogyny and sexual violence – I hope the choices I make at the end of the novel – showing the danger rising – fuel readers to action, towards that.


Clever and unexpected to have Bapuji’s mother, Nanu, take on the role of Lear’s Fool – the one person who can speak truth to him. How did that choice come about?

I was actually worried it would be too obvious! Indian grandmothers are the centre of many families – and yet remain curiously invisible within and outside the home. They are expected to be the carriers of culture, expected to pass down morality in traditional families – and police other women’s moral goodness. But without any economic or reproductive value they are treated as beings to respect, then ignore. She’s the only character who could speak to the patriarch that way; he has to seem to listen, at least.


The one character you did dispose of from the play was the King of France. Did you ever toy with the idea of keeping him in the narrative, or was it always clear that he needed to go, in order to give Sita (Cordelia) autonomy and a voice of her own.

Yes, there is an early draft in which the King of France and Duke of Burgundy make an appearance. In that, Jivan watches the love test from the bunker in real time hours after he arrives in Delhi. But structurally that wasn’t working – and then Sita developed into more of an activist and the myth of her sexuality, the other characters’ fear of it; became more powerful to explore and the suitors had to go.


The Company is surely richer and more powerful than any actual company or family. Is that intended as a metaphor for the role of private wealth and power – in India and in the world at large?

It’s so fascinating to me that in the UK some readers have found the wealth outlandish – when all you have to do is think about the Ambani family, the Tata family – they are just as wealthy and have a much bigger reach than my Company – because they own international interests in petroleum, steel and manufacturing; they influence and work within political and cultural elites across the world, from the USA to the UK and Russia. The level of wealth implied in We That Are Young is real and exists – but I actually held back quite a lot – you know – there’s no gold plated elevators etc - remember Nigel Farage at Trump Towers? Except for Jivan– he’s the character who provides the Western gaze – I didn’t want the text to gawp at this wealth because it’s written from insider points of view. The metaphor of the Company is easy to track back to Empire, the British East India Company. Here it is in its latest iteration – capitalism unchecked in its power to own everything and everyone; (the word also has theatre references) so in that sense it’s a comment on the rich owning the rest of us, it’s a comment on freedom.


You keep many of the iconic plot points from King Lear – e.g. the chaining up of Kent, the blinding of Gloucester. How did you manage to use them in such a way that they retain their shock value?

It took a lot of drafts to get away from Shakespeare’s text, and yet stay near enough to suggest how that influence operates in culture. With the violence, I think it’s about building enough of a world around the characters so those moments seem organic. It’s a brutal society. Radha for example – she’s violent because she’s learned to be from her husband and father and ‘Uncle’ – she’s learned violence to survive. And she’s had great violence done to her.

The real social world seems a violent place to me though it certainly contains absolute kindness and community. What we see on the outside – who we think we know, and how people behave – what shocks us about others, and what we are capable of ourselves – and what the roots of that are in our literature, culture and mythology – that’s what I wanted to explore. 

I loved the ‘take it or leave it’ way you sprinkled the text with untranslated Hindi and other languages. Were you ever tempted to go soft on your monoglot readers and offer in-text translations or a glossary, or did you always intend them to make to work at it?

Explanations wouldn’t work in a world where multilingual Indian characters are speaking to each other and I had to be true to that. The main languages in the novel are Sanskrit, Hindi, English, Hinglish and Napurthali (which is made up). I love that you use the word ‘monoglot’ rather than ‘English’ or ‘Western’ like some have – because of course a lot of ‘English’ and ‘Western’ readers are Hindi speakers too. Lots of monoglot readers have told me, like you, that they love this aspect of the book because its so immersive, and others who speak both languages have said how glad they are to see it written like this, the way they speak, without that sense of having to explain themselves.

I’m OK with readers having to ‘work at it’ and it certainly was a political and aesthetic decision. There are so many registers of language in English – for example – a kind of dialect code that if you don’t know it, you won’t get it. I’ve had to navigate that all my life. We all do. Language and the way we use it makes us both familiar and strange to each other, and we have to be alive to that hybridity – it’s exciting and I think not knowing makes us honestly more equal.

Doubt - especially about what we think we know is fundamental to my work. That’s what I want to get to on the page and into the reading experience. Self-doubt is such a powerful emotion since it’s based in fear of our own mortality. We have to embrace it – it makes us braver, more willing and able to work things out for ourselves and find empathy for what we don’t understand.


In addition to your writing and film making, you are also the founder of Visual Verse – can you tell us a bit more about that?

Kristen Harrison and I started Visual Verse in 2013 – she knew I needed a project to get me out of a creative slump. She runs The Curved House, a small publishing and digital media company; she came up with the concept and brought in the wonderful designer Mr Pete Lewis who contributed his skills for free. Visual Verse is an ekphrastic writing prompt site – people submit 50-500 words, written in the space of an hour, in response to an image we post. We change the image each month, and kick start things with three or four pieces by lead writers I commission beforehand. Then we open it up to the public – and that means writers from all over the world. We read every submission, and post the ones we like best: we run it around our jobs, we publish writers of all ages and backgrounds, and it’s totally free. It’s four years old now and it’s gone from 30 subs a month to over 250. We’ve had kids, written books, changed countries, had health issues, got dogs, lost them – and yet it keeps going – because the community of writers is so fantastic. We publish big names, emerging voices and first-timers together. The site makes me happy every day! 

You must be still in a whirl of activity round the publishing of We That Are Young. But do you know where you might venture next?

It’s been brilliant to publish We That Are Young with such an avant garde press in the UK as Galley Beggar Press. The book has now been picked up by some incredible editors and publishers in different parts of the world. The next thing is going to be set in the UK; that’s all I can say. I’m very glad to be working on it while We That Are Young makes it’s voyage out.

Thank you, Preti.

Thank you!

You can read Catriona Troth’s review of  We That Are Young on Bookmuse here.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

60 Seconds with CS Wilde


By JJ Marsh

C.S. Wilde wrote her first fantasy novel when she was eight. That book was absolutely terrible, but her mother told her it was awesome, so she kept writing.
Now a grown-up (though many will beg to differ), C. S. Wilde writes about fantastic worlds, love stories larger than life and epic battles.
She also, quite obviously, sucks at writing an author bio. She finds it awkward that she must write this in the third person, and hopes you won't notice.

Which work most influenced you when growing up?

I’d say one book and one author come to mind. The book would be “The Golden Beetle”, a Brazilian mystery for teens that I read when I was twelve. It was my absolute favourite book. Then there was the entire work of Machado de Assis, one of the most brilliant Brazilian authors who has ever lived. To this day, no one knows if Capitú really cheated on Bentinho, and I remember having these heated discussions with my friends at school, because we simply couldn’t reach a consensus. To incite that kind of reaction on your readers even 100 years after your death? It’s something pretty awesome, and also, what I really strive to do as an author.

Where do you write?

In my office at home.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your creative life?

My mom, because she was a journalist and she encouraged me to write.

How far are you influenced by other media, such as music or fine art?

I’m extremely influenced by movies and series. It’s why my writing has a very descriptive, and yet, fast-pace to it. It’s all about painting pictures, creating impact, and moving on.

Do you have a phrase that you most overuse?

In writing? I’d say it depends. I use way too many shrugs, rolls of eyes, and shakes of heads. A lot of likes and justs. In From the Stars, I used a lot of “I have a bad feeling about this”, but that was a homage to Star Wars.

In real life, I say, “Say whaaaaa?” pretty much all the time. It’s become my trademark. Also, “I can’t even”, because I just love it.

Which writers do you enjoy?

Patrick Rothfuss, Oscar Wilde, R. Lee Smith, Sara J. Maas, Junot Díaz, and so many more I can’t count.

Why do you write in your particular genre(s)?

I love action and romance. Paranormal/Sci-fi Romance are perfect genres for that kind of story. Though I do plan on writing an epic Fantasy at some point.

What makes you laugh?

Farts.

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?


Hmm, not that I know of.

Which book did you expect to like/hate and found it quite the opposite?

I really wasn’t planning on enjoying Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence, but it was pretty awesome.

Which book has impressed you most this year?

The Land of the Beautiful Dead by R. Lee Smith

Would you share what you’re working on next?

It’s a paranormal romance featuring angels and demons. I’m working on book 2 right now. It’s been such a fun ride. These will be my longest books to date, because they have pretty heavy themes, and I put my characters through a LOT so they can find the truth about themselves—and they won’t always like what they find. Also, I have way too much material to work with.

Can I interest you in some canapés, and a small excerpt?

It’s nice when it’s in the quiet of their homes or in the hospital," the Angel of Death said. "Right now, I’m present in hearings for thousands of souls. Some happen in dark alleys, some underwater, some with too much blood, and some in a gripping cold, like yours, Sella.” The creature shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s nice when they pass in the warmth of a bed.”

“It was quite cold that day,” Sella muttered, her stomach churning.

She hated remembering her death. She wasn’t certain about what had killed her; either the freezing cold or the strike to the head. Maybe, both.

What’s the best way of spending a Sunday morning?


Eating pancakes and watching The Grand Tour. Sweet.





A Courtroom of Ashes: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01E9F2C02

Thursday, 22 March 2018

A Day in the Life of ... A Book Blogger

By Jo Barton 

In 2011 I took a leap of faith and entered the world of book blogging. With no technical knowledge of where to start, or indeed of how maintain a website, I enthusiastically signed up to a free blogging platform which had a simple interface and good graphics. However, having the website wasn’t enough, my blog needed a name and so with the help of Jaffa, my glorious ginger cat, Jaffareadstoo was born. Initially my blog was simply a place to add my thoughts and when I started to tentatively add my book reviews, I did so safe in the knowledge that no-one would read them.

I’m not a professional book reviewer and even though, at the time, I was reviewing books for an independent book magazine, initially my views on Jaffareadstoo were just for my own pleasure. Then something quite remarkable started to happen, Jaffa sprinkled his magic book dust and soon my blog viewing numbers started to rise quite steadily. People were actually stopping by to read my reviews. I was absolutely astonished and utterly delighted. Jaffareadstoo’s reputation grew rapidly and when we started to be approached by authors and publishers who liked what we did and who asked if they could be a guest on the blog or who wanted us to read and review their books or take part in organised blog tours, well of course, Jaffa and I were delighted to help out.

When I was asked to describe a day in the life of a book blogger, I had to really stop and think about what I did and realised just how much time I spend in the book blogging world.

My day starts at around eight in the morning when I log onto Jaffareadstoo. I try to have a blog post every day and schedule posts at least a week in advance but there are usually last minute changes to be made and always reviews to be written. Writing book reviews doesn’t always come easily, I always seem to have my best ideas late at night or when shopping in the supermarket, so I always have a notebook and pencil to hand to jot down my thoughts. I spend a long time preparing reviews and always strive to give a balanced and thoughtful appraisal, spoiler free, of course.

Putting blog posts together takes time and patience, and by trial and lots of errors, I have found what works and what doesn’t, and hope that each blog post looks as good as I can make it. Once I am good to go, I share my blog links on social media. I have a successful Twitter account with an active and increasing following and I also have a dedicated Jaffareadstoo Facebook page.

I am always delighted to be invited to take part in organised blog tours as they are a really fun activity and I enjoy being able help to promote books in such a positive way. Blog tours give me the opportunity to share exclusive extracts, Q&As with the author or to offer a copy of the book in an enticing giveaway. Blog Tours usually generate a great deal of social media interest and it’s a wonderful informal way to interact with authors, readers and, of course, other book bloggers.

I find that it helps to be organised and I have a comprehensive monthly reading plan plus several book diaries so that I don’t miss deadlines or book publication dates. However, I use the term 'organised' rather loosely, as I can, and do juggle books around to suit my reading mood.

Once my blog post for the day goes live, I then spend quality time online, interacting with other bloggers on social media. I belong to a couple of really good Facebook groups, A Bunch of Book Bloggers and Book Connectors, whose support and encouragement is invaluable.

Tackling emails is usually a big part of my morning as my inbox is always full to overflowing!! I enjoy receiving book review requests from any and every one, from independent authors to big name publishers. I try to respond to all review requests but there is a limit to my time and I simply can’t read everything. I do have a comprehensive review policy which explains quite clearly the type of genre which doesn’t suit my personal reading taste.


Of course in order to review, first I must read, and I have an eclectic taste in books and can’t imagine a day where I don’t have a least a couple of books on the go. With Jaffa curled up nearby and armed with copious amounts of my favourite Darjeeling tea, I read in the afternoons and late into the evening and can comfortably read an average length novel in a day.

Seven years, and over 2000 blog posts later, Jaffareadstoo continues to survive and thrive in a competitive world. Being a book blogger is an absolute joy and it’s always a real privilege and such an honour when an author trusts their work with me.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Jhalak Prize 2018


By Catriona Troth

It has once again been my complete pleasure to read all six of the books from the Jhalak Prize shortlist (and as many as I could from the longlist). 

As I read through the list, I kept thinking I had found the book that could not possibly be beaten – only to find another equally as powerful. So many of these books punched me in the gut, I cannot imagine how the judges (Sunny Singh, Catherine Johnson, Tanya Byrne, Vera Chok and Noo Saro-Wiwa) are going to pick an eventual winner. Whoever it is, they will deserve all possible plaudits.

The winner will be announced on Thursday 15th but on the eve on the announcement, here is my review of this year’s amazing nominees.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

In a series of eloquently argued chapters, Eddo-Lodge addresses (among other things) the erasure of Black Britons from British history, the nature of White Privilege, the failure of White Feminism to engage with issues of racism, the often overlooked intersections of race with class – and what white people should be doing to tackle racism.

I want to put this book into the hands of every good-hearted, liberal-minded white person I know and say, ‘please read this; please try and understand. We are all complicit, but we don’t have to be.’

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

When I Hit You, Or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

I climb into the incredible sadness of silence. Wrap its slowness around my shoulders, conceal its shame within the folds of my sari.

A fictionalised account of domestic violence and rape within a marriage, told through many different lenses. It begins with the mother recounting, over and over, the state of her daughter’s feet when she fled home. It covers letters written to imaginary lovers, and deleted before her husband can come home and read them. It goes through story boards of films she will make of her experiences, before dropping, intermittently into unvarnished accounts of a classic pattern of domestic abuse – control, isolation, verbal abuse, physical, sexual, and finally death threats.

Victims of abuse are often confronted with the question, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ Kandasamy takes you so deep inside her narrator’s head you are forced to acknowledge the funnelling of her choices into just one, narrow conduit.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

The Island At the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

There are some places you would not want to go. Even if I told you that we have oceans filled with sea turtles and dolphins, or forests lush with parrots that call through air thick with warmth. Nobody comes here because they want to. The island of no return.

From 1906 to 1998, Culion became with world’s biggest leper colony. In the early part of the 20th C, thousands of those touched by the disease were forcibly transported to the island, their healthy children taken from them by government authorities to avoid further contamination. This is a story of cruelty promulgated by arrogant authorities believing they know best and failing utterly to see the subjects of their experiments as whole people. A story of love and trust, hope and reconciliation, told in language that is both simple and utterly poetic.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam’s novel contains images of such lyricism they feel almost like the creations of a magical realist – beginning with scale models of two of the world’s most famous mosques, which in the winter form cosy work cabins for two architects and in summer are winched up into the rafters out of the way. But the novel is rooted firmly – and grimly – in reality.

The Golden Legend examines religious extremism, intolerance, the concept of blasphemy, and the consequences of India and Pakistan’s long tug of war over Kashmir. Its portrayal of modern day Pakistan is brutal – a searing indictment of the ever-narrowing definition of ‘purity’ applied to determine who belongs in ‘The Land of the Pure’ – first rooting out Hindus and Sikhs, then all-but eliminating other minority religions, and now turning equally ruthlessly on sects within Islam. But just as importantly, The Golden Legend holds up a mirror to Britain and the USA, warning them of the consequences path they have both embarked on, of narrowing what it means to be British or American.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

Once Upon a Time in the East by Xialou Guo

A memoir of growing up in China, of peasant existence in the 1970s, and the immense changes that have swept over China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is also the story of a struggle to develop an identity and a creative voice, first in a collective society, and then later, marooned and isolated as an immigrant in a foreign country.

Fascinating as Guo’s account of her life in China is, it is her struggle to find a creative voice in a strange country and in an unknown tongue that I found most absorbing. It always seems extraordinary to us stubbornly monoglot Anglophones when someone expresses themselves creatively in a language they did not grow up with. But the gulf that Guo had to cross was far more than merely linguistic. It required an entirely new mode of thinking.

“How could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first person singular all the time? The habitual use of ‘I’ requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities.”

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

Kumakanda by Kayo Chingonyi

The title of Kayo Chingonyi’s debut book of poetry, Kumukanda, refers to the initiation rites that young boys of the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people in north western Zambia must pass through to be considered a man. As the author says, ‘This book approximates such rites of passage in the absence of my original culture.’

The book begins with poems about growing up in south London and a ‘white flight’ town outside London, about his relationship with music and rap and how that helped forge his identity. But Chingonyi moves on from that. His poems address casual racism, colonialism, the reduction of Africa to the single image of a dying child. A whole group of poems deal with the loss, at a young age, of both his father and his mother.

These are poems that combine lyrical beauty with razor-sharp political commentary. Chingonyi said, in an interview with the ICA Bulletin in 2016, that one of his aims in writing is to “chip away at the motion that whiteness is the normative unmediated position from which all other subjectivities deviate.” Which makes him a perfect fit for the Jhalak Prize shortlist.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse


And also from the shortlist:

 We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

A darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so, so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

Come All You Little Persons by John Agard

The first test for a picture book is how it reads out loud. And, as you would expect from a poet like Agard, Come All You Little Persons has the rhythm that makes that a joy. The second test is whether is stands being read again and again, with enough to hold the interest of both adult and child. Come All You Little Persons passes that test with flying colours.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse

 Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari

Two very different young girls, both facing massive life changes, are eased into their new Secondary School by the wonderful Grace Nuala and her messy colourful art house. Written in clear, simple English and beautifully illustrated by Jane Ray, this would suit young readers struggling with anxiety or those learning about refugees. But equally, it would be an excellent book for slightly older children learning English as an additional language. Worry Angels is full of warmth and empathy and above all, hope.

Catriona Troth’s full review on BookMuse