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"The Stillman" by Tom McCulloch

The StillmanThe Stillman, it has deep roots, way back to childhood.  Some of those memories are so vivid, ticker-taping out of the past; the feared but apparently health-giving spoon of cod liver oil coming towards me, cycling no hands down a hill and falling off and breaking my arm…  And many of them involve books. Reading Jack Higgins in an abandoned sheep shelter as the rain hammered down, hours spent leafing through my parents’ books. They had lots, crammed into sagging MFI bookshelves. Hugh MacDiarmid nudging (probably picking a fight with) Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Norman Mailer squeezing beside Neil Gunn, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck... Most mysterious of all was the row of red leather bound volumes with names I couldn’t pronounce; Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Pushkin. 

They seemed to show a way, those writers. And not just them. My father and papa wrote.  I was hugely proud to read a short story my papa had published, a clever tale about a would-be shop burglar spooked in the night by the life-size cardboard cut-out of a person. So it seemed natural to pick up a pencil and start writing. I chose an easy way in, sequels to other peoples’ books, Eric Morecambe’s The Vampire’s Revenge and Force 10 from Navarone by Alistair MacLean.   Alas, these must remain lost classics. I only managed a few hundred words. When you’re 13, playing football is a powerful counter-current. A few years later it was Iain Banks who made me take writing more seriously. I identified with him. He wrote books the way I wanted to.  He too came from small-town Scotland. 

That Highland upbringing led to lifelong pre-occupations; place, identity and exile, themes running through The Stillman. I’ve long since been away and I’m still unsure if the distance allows or obscures reliable interpretation. You gain perspective by being away but you lose something at the same time, the day to day connections. Or the viewpoint becomes skewed. That’s where nostalgia is born and nostalgia can be treacherous. When you leave a place you have to be careful with the stories you tell others, and yourself, about where you’ve come from. But if you don’t stray too far from familiarity you have to remain open to the world, those other viewpoints. There are attractions and pitfalls in each perspective and The Stillman is a little bit about that, the search for the middle way.

I’m working on a new novel which builds on these themes, looking at the experience of an incomer to a place that has a very fixed idea of itself. What are the limits to belonging, in that context? What will he never be able, or allowed, to overcome? Yet all wrapped up in a decent story, of course.  The boy who spent most of his childhood reading knew that a story wasn’t worth much if he couldn’t lose himself in it.

-- Tom McCulloch

Get The Stillman on Kindle | Paperback

"Habits of the House" by Fay Weldon

Habits of the HouseMostly I write novels about contemporary life; the changing relationships between the sexes in a fast moving society. The Love and Inheritance Trilogy I’ve just finished is my first venture into historical fiction--though in the 70s, and with the help of innumerable BBC researchers I wrote some of the original episodes of Upstairs Downstairs. This time I've had to do my own research; but what fun it's been--thanks to the Internet. All the information one could possibly want--like how many people you could get into a cabriolet and what was Edward VII's favourite dish, at the click of a mouse. And how rich and energetic with new ideas the turn of the previous century was – how luscious the fabrics, glittery the jewels, passionate the illicit love and indigestible the food, how gossipy and dangerous the servants! Anyway it's all here in the three novels – Habits of the House, Long Live the King, and The New Countess. My grandmother had servants in a big house, my mother was a servant in one, so I know what it's like on either side of the class divide.

I've written more than thirty novels in as many years, and am a confessed writeoholic: still writing the novel I want to read, but have never quite found – though the required word, the exact phrase needed, does seem to come much easier with practice. I hope I have not sacrificed quality to quantity. I certainly try not to. When I’m not writing I’m teaching creative writing, currently at Bath Spa University. You can’t teach people what to write, but you can help them express what they want to say clearly and effectively and mostly, how not to be boring.

So many people want to write novels these days that it sometimes seems to me that writers begin to outnumber readers. At least nowadays the opportunities for publication are much greater than they were, thanks to the e-book. We can reckon available readership in millions not just in thousands. And long-established writers like me see their back list (once likely to disappear because of simple shortage of shelf-space in the bookshops) in circulation again and rejoice.

After the trilogy I am back writing short stories again, though their length seems to be creeping up – I am currently writing a novella, and wondering just how the emergence of the Kindle will with time alter the nature of what people write – just as did the switch from the monastery’s illuminated manuscript to Caxton’s printing press. Brevity does seem to suit the Kindle. Short sentences, short paragraphs, lots of action: the novella rather than the novel? We will see.

-- Fay Weldon

Get Habits of the House on Kindle | Hardcover

"The Night Guest" by Fiona McFarlane

The Night GuestAt the age of six, I seemed to know what a novel was, because I wrote one. It took me an entire afternoon. It was eleven chapters long; one of the chapters was made up entirely of a list of provisions to be taken on a long journey (mostly chocolate). I also seemed to know, probably from reading fairytales, that my narrative required an opening catastrophe: I killed off my main characters' mother on the first page, which my own mother found, shall we say, mildly alarming.

The surviving versions of this masterpiece are typed copies which, unfortunately, corrected my spelling, and as a result make me seem like a particularly obnoxious prodigy, when in fact I was just engaged in a kind of joyful playacting (I do remember thinking a whole afternoon was a very long time to spend writing a book).

Other writer friends of mine have also revealed the plots of their childhood 'novels' to me, and they are all thrilling, and all violent, which I suppose isn't surprising, since the instinct for story is an early one and almost all the stories we hear as children, from Rock-a-Bye-Baby to Little Red Riding Hood, are terrifying. But they're a safe kind of terrifying because we hear them from the comfort of our beds, or a library, or a classroom--and by 'we' I mean lucky children, as I was, for whom beds and schools are safe.

When I wrote my real first novel The Night Guest, I wanted to return to this scene of safe childhood fear: the excitement and the terror of it. My main character, Ruth, is an elderly widow who wakes, on the first page, thinking she can hear a tiger prowling through her lounge room. The tiger comes straight out of children's books and nursery rhymes. At one point, Ruth connects him to the classic nursery tiger: Shere Khan of The Jungle Book. I also had in mind The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which is such a strange book, so matter-of-fact and at the same time so absurd, in which the threat from the tiger isn't its jaws and claws but the fact that father might be without his supper. This is the kind of ordinary haunting I wanted to create, and this is why Ruth's response to her tiger vacillates between delight and fear. Her fear is, for much of the book, the nursery variety; she has to talk herself into it. Her delight feels like childhood: a sense of looming significance, as if something extraordinary is always about to happen. And something extraordinary is about to happen--but Ruth's nursery isn't safe. It's not safe at all.

--Fiona McFarlane

Get The Night Guest: Kindle | Hardcover

"Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts" by Mary Gibson

Custard Tarts and Broken HeartsI was born in Bermondsey and was inspired to use it as the backdrop for my novel when I realized that the once tight knit community I grew up in had vanished forever.

You never know what you've got till it's gone; so goes the saying, but I think that sometimes you can know what you've got just at the point of losing it. When they were in their seventies my parents were part of a reminiscence group called 'Bermondsey Memories' and one day a group of academics came to their house conducting a study about building 'communities' in the modern world. They were looking for answers in the history of Bermondsey: the village-like, working class, riverside area in the heart of London. But all my parents could tell them were that times were hard in those days, growing up between the wars, and people naturally helped each other. Ironically, the very things that had potentially caused most misery in the lives of Bermondsey people: the poverty, poor housing, lack of health care, had proved to be the source of their community spirit. But when your birthplace becomes the subject of an academic study, you know it is fast fading into history and I wanted to capture that lost world before it was totally forgotten.

Although Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts is a work of fiction, I've drawn on many of my parents and grandparents stories of their lives in Bermondsey for inspiration. Especially my grandmother who started work as a powder packer in Pearce Duffs custard factory before World War 1 and worked there for most of her life. The Bermondsey women's strike of 1911 gave me the starting point for the story, when I realized that my grandmother would have been one of the thousands of strikers who walked out of the factories, dressed in their Sunday best, one sweltering day in what became known as the 'Summer of Unrest'. The ending was inspired by my grandfather's experiences in the Royal Field Artillery during World War I. Although reticent about the war, he always said how deeply affected he'd been by the plight of the war horses he rode and I've woven this into the novel's conclusion.

But at heart this is Nellie and Sam's story; from unpromising beginnings their relationship blossoms amongst loss and poverty and survives the inhumanities of war. It seems fitting that the story of the 'custard tarts' and their men who marched away will be published for the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

--Mary Gibson

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"Crash Into You" by Katie McGarry

Crash Into You_B00CMOXV0S300A high school teacher once told me that we're defined by who we associate with. Granted, the reason she told me this was because she had called into question who I had been "associating" with. Namely a certain guy.

I rolled my eyes and muttered a, "Whatever", but a sinking sensation had already grabbed hold of me and weighed me down as I walked the empty hallway. The advice had come from someone I respected, someone who often went out of her way to help me. Was she right?

I'm older and have the gift of looking back on my life with a retrospective point of view. Was she right? Probably. Did I listen? When did I listen to anyone? But her words always stuck with me…even in my writing.

We are defined, even if it is in small ways, by who we associate with. Because of that I pay very close attention to the secondary characters in my novels.

My debut Young Adult novel, Pushing the Limits, followed the lives of Echo and Noah. Two teenagers dealing with deep emotional wounds. Their friends greatly influenced how they talked, how they reacted, and how Echo and Noah perceived and treated each other.

Now, each of my characters are strong enough to be individuals and thankfully, make their decisions based on their own mindsets, but it would be a lie to say that at points they weren't influenced by a negative comment from a friend or by helpful advice.

In order for Echo and Noah's story to really come to life, my secondary characters had to be real, living breathing people in my head. One of these characters was Isaiah, the foster-brother Noah shared a basement living space with.

Isaiah was a fascinating and complex character. He was Noah's best friend and, in a way, Noah's only family. He was in love with Beth--the niece of his foster parents, and Noah's non-blood sister. Only Beth wasn't in love with him.

Isaiah grew up in foster care and had very few people that he trusted or cared about and was loyal to a chosen few. In Pushing the Limits, he encouraged Noah to pursue Echo even when he couldn't take his own advice when it came to Beth. In Beth's novel, Dare You To, Isaiah finally followed his heart only to have it handed back to him.

Isaiah was a secondary character who played the role of non-blood brother, best friend, a warm body for comfort, the ultimate advice giver, but someone unable to wrap his fingers around his own dreams.

In my third novel, Crash Into You, Isaiah is the main character and Beth and Noah become the backdrop of his world. In this book, you'll see how Beth and Noah's choices have and will affect Isaiah's life and his decisions. More important, you'll get to see if Isaiah is able to reach his happily ever after. I promise it is a journey worth taking with him.

Get Crash Into You: Kindle | Paperback

"The Parisian Christmas Bake-Off" by Jenny Oliver

The Parisian Christmas Bake OffFor as long as I can remember I've been obsessed with Christmas. From getting up at five am and pleading with my parents to wake up to my ten--year--old self putting on an apron, squeezing through the gaps of people wearing crushed velvet and smelling of Chanel No 5 to serve drinks.

And every year there was a family chocolate Christmas cake fashioned into the shape of a little house. Chocolate buttons lined the butter cream roof and flake chimney. Around the edge were a motley assortment of Christmas decorations that had accumulated over the years--a skiing Santa, a snowman with a glass of champagne, a doll's house Christmas tree and a one--legged robin. They were/are terrible but no one has the heart to throw them away. It used to be my mum, who would ice the cake, but gradually the job fell to my sister, never to me--I don't think I could be trusted with the masterpiece.

It was this cake that was the inspiration behind writing a Christmas book and my inner wish that one day, I might possibly be the one to ice that cake. In The Parisian Christmas Bake Off, Rachel, has locked away her love of baking since the loss of her mother. When her friends send her to Paris to take part in a competition to become a master baker's apprentice that not only her passion for baking is reignited but the memories of her past are finally allowed to come to the surface.

Rachel, unlike me, loathes Christmas. I always want everyone to find Christmas magical--but when something awful has happened it's an impossibility. And I wanted to look at how the original traditions, sometimes too bittersweet to contemplate, can be exchanged for new traditions that would allow someone, in this case Rachel, to move on with their life. Taking her out of her comfort zone where she's in complete control and placing her somewhere as stunning, elegant and awe--inspiring as Paris in the winter seemed one way of showing her a different view--to show the many facets of the time of year that can be beautiful without being Christmassy. And then it was about sparking her competitive instinct--forcing her to acknowledge her fears and finally do something not only for the memory of her mum but for herself--the coating of snow and twinkling fairy lights just became the icing on the cake.

These are the things I can't wait for this festive season:

  • Chestnuts that I leave in the oven too long and are either too hot, or too burnt to eat
  • My tree that always seems too fat and too short
  • Scoring the competitive Christmas supermarket adverts
  • Wrapping up to go to Oxford Street--imagining it all exciting and bustling with people--and then having to go home because it's just too manic and busy
  • My once yearly ice--skating
  • Watching my sister ice that cake. (Maybe this year we'll buy a new robin...)
  • Not buying a new robin--I feel bad for the one-legged one already!

Get The Parisian Christmas Bake-Off: Kindle

"My Very Merry Celebrity Christmas" By Carole Matthews

Calling Mrs ChristmasIn Calling Mrs Christmas, Cassie Smith sets up her own business as a Christmas planner creating the perfect Christmas for her diverse range of clients. It got me wondering, if money was no object, who would I get to organise my ideal Christmas for me and my family?

Right at the beginning of December, I'd ask Kirstie Allsopp to decorate the house for me from top to bottom. Every year, from about August onwards, I bring more and more Christmas bling home-- much to the despair of my partner, Lovely Kev. We have two trees, a dozen sets of lights and a mountain of sparkly tat. I'm sure Kirstie would make it look very Christmassy.Then I think it would have to be Nigella Lawson, the ultimate domestic goddess, who'd come to cook my Christmas lunch. Gordon's a bit too sweary, Jamie's a bit bish-bash-bosh. Plus her recipes are so very indulgent and Christmas day has to be the day of the year for forgetting to count the calories.

I'd have to invite the lovely Michael Bublé along to sing us some Christmas songs to get us in the mood. I have to stop myself from listening to his Christmas album all year round. I love him singing 'Santa Baby', so perhaps he could do a special rendition just for me. And if Colin Farrell wouldn't mind stocking the bar and making us some cocktails, I'm sure that we wouldn't run out of Christmas spirit either.

Perhaps Mary Berry could bake my mince pies for me instead of Mr Kipling. I love baking but I've never found the perfect mince pie recipe and I'm always disappointed with my own. So maybe Mary could give me a few tips. I'd like Delia Smith to rustle up my Christmas cake. You can't go wrong with Delia. I use her classic cake recipe every year and it hasn't failed me yet. I think it's the half a bottle of brandy that goes into it. Shame I'm the only one in the house who likes Christmas cake!

I'd like Michael McIntyre or Peter Kay to come round and tell our cracker jokes and to entertain us for a little while.

Anthea Turner proved very capable with a j cloth in the house on Celebrity Big Brother, so I could draft her in to do the tidying up afterwards while we put our feet up in a turkey coma.

At the moment, I have a cardboard cut-out of The Queen living in my conservatory. We bought her for the Diamond Jubilee for £29.99 and she's been here ever since. So this year we wouldn't have to settle down in front of the telly for the Queen's speech after lunch; she could do it here for us.

I think it sounds like a plan! Perhaps I should think about Calling Mrs Christmas myself to set it all up for me. Merry Christmas, everyone!

--Carole Matthews

Get Calling Mrs Christmas: Kindle | Paperback

"Yours is Mine" by Amy Bird

Your is MineWhat if, while you are reading this, someone is busy stealing your identity? What if they're looking at every last post you've put on Facebook, every post here on Kindle, each little tweet on Twitter? With a view to taking it all away from you.

I'm not talking corporate-profiling conspiracy theories. I love the internet, digital, whatever you want to call this brave new world of ours and--as an author with the new digital imprint Carina UK--I relish my online existence. No, I'm talking an individual on a mission to take over their target's life, using social networks as their tool.

For Kate in Yours is Mine, my psychological thriller about two women who exchange identities, masquerading as each other, the online world poses a threat. She just doesn't know it.

Kate's view is that no-one can steal her identity if she just puts her emotions online. Those emotions are mostly her grief over losing her father, and her sense of loss as her military husband sets sail.

Then she is approached by Anna, a girl who claims to be a PhD student conducting research into identity and property. Anna offers Kate the chance to live a cool London life for three months to get her spark back, and she will live Kate's life in return. She tells Kate it will only be temporary. As Kate puts it, if it's an identity theft scheme, it's the most blatant one ever--so it must be legit. Kate takes Anna at face value and signs up. More fool her.

It's of course trite now to say that people you meet online may not be who you think they are. In Yours is Mine, Anna is what she says she is: a 28-year-old woman who lives in London. It's her motivation that differs from how she portrays it. This is a theme that Lottie Moggach also explores in her thriller about online introductions and assumed identities, Kiss Me First. We're beyond the stage of pretending to be something we're not. It's more about how much of ourselves we reveal.

Where does this leave us with relationships conducted online? I message daily with my fellow Carina UK authors--from the bestsellers Sarah Painter and Annie Lyons, to soon-to-be-published Helen Phifer. We've all bonded about our writing journeys. We've read each other's work. Some of us have even met in person. We know that we are all 'real'.

But every one of us has something about ourselves that we don't share online, I'm sure. A secret self that we don’t reveal. For Kate, her problem is she shares all and she willingly hands it over to someone else, someone who knows exactly how to manipulate it for her own gain.

What results is a battle by Kate to get her life back. There is one prize that Anna particularly wants--the only question is whether Kate will be equal to the fight to reclaim it.

--Amy Bird

Get Yours is Mine: Kindle

"Under A Silent Moon" by Elizabeth Haynes

Under A Silent MoonThis is the book I always wanted to write--which, given that this is my fourth published novel, might sound a little strange. In fact the draft of Under a Silent Moon was written a long time before Into the Darkest Corner, which was my first published book. Why, then did it take so long to finish?

The structure of the book provides a clue: this is technically a challenge beyond anything I've attempted before, namely to try and bring to life a murder investigation in which the reader can play a part. The story of the deaths of two women, the free-spirited Polly and her troubled neighbour, Barbara, is told through multiple narrative strands, both from the team charged with investigating the case and the friends and family of the women themselves. Alongside the story, the book contains witness statements, emails, texts, forensic reports and analysis, meaning that the reader has access to the same source documentation as the Major Crime Team and in theory, can unravel the case as they do.

This additional material serves to both enlighten and obscure: there are clues, but in the same way that real investigators have to sift through useless material in order to identify the facts which will unravel a case, it requires some consideration to see what's what. One of the challenges of writing a book like this was to make sure that it's possible to enjoy it without getting distracted by this additional 'paperwork'--because let's face it, we read books for fun.

Having worked for the police for seven years, it felt like the right time to write a proper procedural thriller, to try and find that delicate balance between portraying an investigation as it would actually happen and keeping it thrilling. Accuracy is important to me. Knowing a little about the workings of the criminal justice system, there have been times that I've wanted to throw a book down in protest as yet another detective takes the time to explain to a witness (who, you never know, might actually turn out to be a suspect) what's going on with the investigation--thereby rendering the likelihood of a successful prosecution almost nil. Investigators simply don't tell people things. They don't even tell each other things, unless they have to.

In real crime, there is always a Senior Investigating Officer in charge of the investigation. Their role is very different to that portrayed in traditional crime fiction--they are leading a team, of which every member plays a vital part. The deaths of Polly and Barbara, then are investigated not exclusively by my newly-promoted DCI, Louisa Smith but by the officers she works closely with, and for whom she has a duty of care. The goal is different. In fiction the goal is for the mystery to be solved, for there to be a sense of resolution and hopefully justice served. In real investigations, the goal is a successful prosecution: that the offender is taken to court and convicted. In order to achieve this, rules and procedures must be followed without exception at every stage.

Within these tantalising spaces separating fact from fiction, the struggle between accuracy and artistic licence takes place--and this is the writing challenge I've always wanted to tackle. I hope you enjoy it.

--Elizabeth Haynes

Get "Under a Silent Moon": Kindle | Paperback

"Ostrich" by Matt Greene

OstrichWhen being chased by a bear it’s comforting to know that you needn’t outrun it. Instead, all you have to do is outrun the slowest camper. This, I believe, is the reason so many writers choose to write from the perspective of children, rather than, say, Nobel-winning astrophysicists. The world is a large and scary place (in the analogy it’s the bear (and ‘outrunning’ is understanding (and I suppose the writer is the Scout leader))) and it has a funny way of making more sense at 13 than it does at 28. Looking back, this is my impression of adolescence: that I got the world a lot better than it got me. Writing from a child’s eye view might seem like the easy option (you don’t have to learn astrophysics) but it’s also the only way I know to talk about the world with any degree of certainty. This is what I found when I sat down to write Ostrich, my first novel, narrated by Alex, a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, who, in addition to dealing with everything this entails, is preparing to undergo brain surgery. Through Alex I could present a worldview. Unlike my own it was confident and all-encompassing--and, most important, it was no less valid for the falsehoods on which it was based. I found it hugely liberating to see the world again from the back of the school bus. And it seems I wasn’t the only one. Here are five of my favourite young narrators:

1) Hal--Infinite Jest--David Foster Wallace

Lexical genius, tennis prodigy and drug addict Hal Incandenza may only narrate one chapter of DFW’s plus size masterpiece but it’s the first and, arguably, best. When he tells us that he has opinions, which (for reasons way too complex to summarise) he’s unable to express, Hal ironically enough gives voice to an entire age range.

2) Oskar--Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close--Jonathan Safran Foer

The definitive 9/11 novel and a stinging rebuke to any writer who ever denounced adverbs, ELAIC introduces us to Oskar, through whom Safran Foer brilliantly captures a child’s capacity to substitute trivia for self-knowledge. 

3) Berie--Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?--Lorrie Moore

Technically Lorrie Moore’s second novel is narrated through recollection but it remains the ultimate study of teenage friendship, which, like first love, provides the yardstick against which all future relationships must be measured.

4) Frank--The Wasp Factory--Iain Banks

16 year-old Frank has killed three people. It was a phase he was going through. So begins one of the braver coming-of-age stories you’ll ever read. Not so much remorseful as (very) mildly embarrassed, Frank encapsulates the view that the first 18 years of your life are somehow non-canonical.

5) Vernon--Vernon God Little--DBC Pierre

Vernon Little is a man beholden (get it?) to no-one. Falsely suspected of a high school massacre, he heads for the Mexican border. Less a study of tragedy than alienation VGL proves how lonely it can be to live your life at odds with the prevailing paradigms--or, as Vernon prefers, powerdimes.

 

Ostrich has been shortlisted for Round III of Amazon Rising Stars 2013

Get Ostrich: Kindle | Hardcover