Antonia Honeywell on The Ship + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

The Ship blog tour banner

It’s paperback publication day for another of my books of 2015 today, The Ship by Antonia Honeywell. I’m delighted to have Antonia on the blog discussing The Ship and her first year as a published writer. I’ve reposted my original review below and W&N have kindly given me a copy for one of you to win. Details of how to enter are at the bottom of the post. But first, it’s over to Antonia.

Antonia Honeywell copyright Chris Honeywell

A number of reviewers have described Lalla as ‘unlikeable’. I’m fascinated by this as I think the idea that characters are unlikeable is inextricably tied to society’s idea of how females should act. Do you think Lalla’s unlikeable?

No, I don’t.


There’s a longer answer, of course which goes something like this: Right up until the day she turns sixteen, Lalla is sheltered to an incredible extent. Her parents make sure that she has food; they try and educate her; most significantly for Lalla, though, they don’t allow her any contact with other people. Other wealthy families have left London; the Pauls have elected to stay and follow another path, and Lalla’s crippling loneliness is part of the price. She’s given no choice. There are other people in London. Lalla’s mother, Anna, often visits the community that’s established itself in the British Museum. Her father, Michael, is often away, doing the deals by which he stocks the ship. He’s worked for the military government. And yet neither of them ever folds Lalla into these interactions. They won’t even take her to the holding centre, where the people of the ship are gathered prior to their departure.

Now I’m not saying that it’s easy to arrange playdates in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. I am saying that Lalla’s never given the chance to form relationships of her own. Every experience she has is moderated by her parents. And her parents go to great lengths to make sure that, once on board the ship, Lalla will be surrounded by people whose world view agrees with theirs.

So when Lalla begins to ask questions, there is no one to help her. Every single person on the ship – however kind they are – has a vested interest in keeping Lalla from growing up. Her developing awareness is constantly held in check. There is only one path laid out for her, and not only must she follow it, but she has to be grateful, too. Because the whole thing was done for her.

Historically, men and women have both been subject to a level of societal expectation. I’d argue that, for men, those expectations have included far more opportunity. To men, the education, the adventure, the pioneering. To women, the domestic and the drudgery. Princes fight dragons; princesses are bestowed as a reward. And gratitude for thrown crumbs is part of the women’s package.

To me, Lalla is heroic for questioning, then standing against, the consequences of a choice she was given no part in making. She has to find the courage to reject a gift that was been procured for her at great trouble and expense. And she has to trust her own instinct when not one single person around her supports or encourages her to do so. To those who find it hard to like her, I’d say only this: I’m doing this for you is the lie abusers have told their victims throughout history.

Who are your favourite female protagonists and did any of them inspire the creation of Lalla?

There are so many. Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, forging her own path at huge personal cost. Lucy Snowe from Villette, learning that love lies not in being absorbed by another, but in working alongside them. The heroines of Kate Chopin and Sarah Grand, showing the price of standing against a society that dictates who and what you must be. Emily, the young girl in Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, rebelling and needing approval all at the same time. And Angela Carter’s women – particularly the twins in Wise Children and the fairytale characters of The Bloody Chamber – laughing and having sex and bleeding and suffering and being shamelessly fabulous. Sometimes all at the same time. They’re all there in Lalla. If it’s anything at all, The Ship is the story of Lalla coming to realise this for herself.

There’s been a change to the cover for the paperback, particularly in terms of the colour scheme. Can you tell us about the process of deciding on a cover?

The hardback cover went through three or four drafts, each very different. The first draft showed the prow of the ship with a tiny figure on the stern, all in greys and yellows. One draft had a series of stylised waves in front of a London skyline; another a sunset. The publisher proposes the images; they then go to agent and author, and a dialogue ensues. The final cover brought together the best features of all the drafts – the figure of Lalla looking back at London brought a real human interest to an already powerful image, particularly once we started taking chunks out of the London landmarks. The paperback design brings out the more lyrical aspects of the novel; I particularly love the flock of birds escaping the constraints of the image of St Paul’s cathedral.

I love both the covers. The hardback is brighter and bolder; the paperback more impressionistic and reflective.

You’re an avid reader and I know you read many books listed for prizes. What impact do you think this has on your writing?

Yes – I’m really looking forward to shadowing the Baileys prize with you and the others again this year. I know there’s at least one book we’re going to have an extremely robust discussion about. The reason I read so many prize listed books is that I don’t feel I can argue strongly for the books I love unless I’ve read all the others. The disadvantage to this, of course, is that it takes a great deal of reading time. Since I’ve been published, I find myself less and less aware of the books that aren’t being pushed by their publishers. I tend to read all the proofs I’m sent (I don’t get sent as many as you!) – and that, of course, means I’m automatically reading books that are getting support. I’m finding that the publishing industry tends to focus lots of attention on just a few new titles – so I end up reading those. Some are wonderful, some less so, but I need to give more time to seeking out the excellent writing that’s happening under the radar. There’s a lot of it.

Reading’s always gone hand in hand with writing for me. I find inspiration, challenge and pure entertainment in the books I read. If I don’t read, I can’t write – it really is as simple as that.

What’s been the best thing about your first year as a published author?

Without a doubt, the people I’ve met as a direct result of publication. People who take the time to organise events. The bloggers – like you – who’ve been kind enough to give The Ship their energy and attention, and with whom I’ve enjoyed brilliant book discussions. Other writers, both published and aspiring. The booksellers. And above all, the readers – anyone who finds themselves lost in a book, whether that’s The Ship or anything else. Readers are the reason that writers are able to do what they do, and I’m grateful to every single one of them.

The Ship PB

I don’t have any answers, Lalla. Only questions. That’s how you learn.

We’re in the future but not so far into the future that the world’s unrecognisable:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear…Across the country, people lost their homes, the supermarkets emptied and the population stood, stunned and helpless, in the streets. My father watched the riots and the looting, the disasters and the forced evictions on every possible channel; he had the computer, his phone and his tablet and juggled them constantly, prowling about the flat and never seeming to sleep. The government resigned, and then came the tanks, and the troops with their terrible guns. My father vanished. Oxford Street burned for three weeks, and I watched the orange skies from the circle of my mother’s arms, weeping for him.

Our narrator is Lalage, who turns sixteen in the opening pages of the novel. Her father, Michael Paul, returns soon after his disappearance having sold his invention, the Dove, to the military government. The Dove registers people’s ‘screens’ (tablets) and they’re given an identity card with their screen address encoded, traceable by satellite. Important information is communicated via screen so those registered ‘got the information they needed to survive’.

The Dove makes Michael Paul a very rich man. As the world disintegrates, he uses that money to build a ship; a future for Lalla (as her father calls her), a safe haven.

On Lalage’s birthday, her father brings her a diamond he’s swapped for a tin of peaches. As St. James’ Park is bombed, eradicating those attempting to build an alternative society outside government control, Lalage’s parents argue about whether it’s time to move onto the ship. When Lalage’s mother hears a scream on the street, she moves to the window and is shot. The only place with the equipment and expertise to save her is the ship; they leave immediately.

The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. At her first meal, Lalage is served chicken and pineapple cake. She hasn’t tasted chicken in five years and has never seen pineapple before. Her father presents her with a screen and reveals it contains photographs of exhibits from every museum and art gallery. She begins to get to know the people on board and realises that they’ve been chosen by her father to be part of his dream. But Lalage isn’t clear as to exactly what that dream is; where is the ship going and what are her father’s intentions?

The doctor was right; I had never felt pain. I had never felt loss, or hunger, or genuine fear either. My parents protected me so well from what the world had become that I had no means to navigate it. They had surrounded me, made their plans to keep me safe, made sure that my only compass through life was my own experience of it. And it wasn’t enough. How could it have been? A lifetime ago, the sun had set in front of the infirmary door. Soon, it would rise on the other side of the ship. Already the sky was imperceptibly lighter, like a screen that has just been turned off. And as the light grew clearer and brighter, I realised that my parents had been wrong. That, far from being the pivot around which the world turned, I was smaller than a mote of dust, less significant than a gnat.

While Lalage’s mother has tried to show her the realities of the world she’s been living in, both she and Michael Paul have protected her from any real experience of them. It means she’s naïve and initially, unquestioning. It takes the first traumatic event on the ship to make her realise this, after which, she begins to listen to the stories of those around her and slowly begins to wonder what other people want from life and ultimately what she wants.

Although set in the future, The Ship reflects the time we’re living in. It raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It also prods at religion and asks why people value it despite its failure to deliver any concrete solutions. As Lalage questions her father’s motives, the reader questions what led to them, particularly as the stories of the characters on the ship are revealed.

The novel’s tightly plotted with a number of surprising twists. Occasionally, Lalage’s naivety means the reader realises the twist before Lalla does. When this happens, the dramatic irony serves to heighten the tension as you wonder what her reaction will be when the truth is revealed to her.

The Ship has the language and ideas of a literary novel, combined with the pacing and twists of a thriller. It’s an impressive debut.


As I mentioned W&N have kindly provided a copy for one of you to win. All you need to do is leave a comment below saying who your favourite female protagonist is. Entries are open until 5pm (UK) Sunday 12th March. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.

Huge thanks to Antonia Honeywell for the interview and to W&N for the giveaway.

I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry:

1 – Janet Emson
2 – Cathy746Books
3 – Elle
4 – Sarah
5 – Laura
6 – Rebecca Foster
7 – CPhillipou123
8 – Sophie Glorita
9 – Sakura
10 – Amy
11 – Matthewclarkleech
12 – Claire Davies

And the random number generator says:

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Congratulations to Sakura – check your email for what to do next – and thanks to everyone else who entered.


Young Writer of the Year Award Shortlist Event + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.


Photograph by Chris Bone

On a grey, dreary Saturday afternoon in London I’ve been told to look for a yellow door. This particular yellow door is the entrance to The Groucho Club, legendary hang-out of the likes of Noel Gallagher, Alex James and Lily Allen. Unfortunately, I don’t spy anyone looking remotely famous on the way up to the second floor where the event I’m here for is taking place.

I’m here for a bloggers’ event for the Young Writer of the Year Award, the shortlist for which was announced last week. The shortlisted writers – Ben Fergusson, Sarah Howe, Sara Taylor and Sunjeev Sahota – are all here as are some of my favourite bloggers – Eric from Lonesome Reader, Erica from The Book Shop Around the Corner and Clare from A Little Blog of Books. We get time to talk to the writers as well as Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of the Sunday Times before the more formal part of the event takes place.


L-R: Sunjeev Sahota, Sara Taylor, Sarah Howe, Ben Fergusson, Andrew Holgate

Each of the four writers are introduced and read a two-minute extract from their books. These are The Spring of Kasper Meier, a (literary?) thriller by Ben Fergusson; Loop of Jade, a poetry collection by Sarah Howe; The Shorea fragmented novel/interlinked short story collection by Sara Taylor, and The Year of the Runaways, a literary novel by Sunjeev Sahota. Andrew Hogan describes it as ‘the strongest shortlist we’ve ever had’. He also comments on the variety of forms/genres that make up the shortlist. As he’s talking about this, I notice that the list is balanced in terms of gender and writers of colour to white writers. Well done the (all white) judging panel of Andrew Holgate, Peter Kemp and Sarah Waters. [After the readings, I was discussing this with a couple of people when Andrew Holgate overheard me and came over. The judges hadn’t even thought about it, he says. It’s interesting that this is the case and makes me wonder what was submitted and whether the shortlist is a reflection of a pool of young, diverse writers or whether the best books rose to the top of a sea of white men. Either way, this is a good thing.]

Because this blog’s all about women writers, I’m only going to discuss Sarah Howe and Sara Taylor’s books. However, I do urge you to read the other books too. I haven’t read The Spring of Kasper Meier yet but it sounds fantastic and is set in Berlin, one of my favourite cities, and The Year of the Runaways, which you’re probably already aware of as it was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize this year, is wonderful and set in the city I live in (Sahota lives here too).


The writers read in alphabetical order, so Sarah Howe’s the first of the two women with her Forward Prize and T.S. Eliot Prize shortlisted collection Loop of Jade. She begins by talking about China’s one child policy which, as you probably know, has recently been altered to allow people to have two children. Howe tells us that one of the results of the policy is that 30 million children and women are missing and her own mother was one of those missing children. Midwives used to have a box of ashes next to the birthing bed so a baby girl could be smothered quickly after birth. She uses this fact to introduce her poem ‘Tame’ which begins:

‘It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.’

This is the tale of the woodsman’s daughter. Born with a box
of ashes set beside the bed,
in case.

Howe doesn’t read the poem, she performs it. It’s a joy to watch and listen to her.


Sara Taylor reads the opening of her Bailey’s longlisted, Guardian First Book Award shortlisted The Shore. It begins with news of a murder breaking and the narrator of this chapter, Chloe, hearing the chatter in the local shop. She ends with:

“And that ain’t even the half of it.” The lady leans in close, but her whisper is almost as loud as her talking voice. “They done cut his thang clean off!”

Andrew Holgate begins the Q&A by saying he thinks that all four books are very bold, very ambitious and they all take risks. He says that Howe’s book took eight years to write and encompasses a variety of styles. Is there freedom in that risk?

Howe says, ‘I think risk is a really interesting lens to look at that.’ She says the poem the collection takes its title from has very bare, cut down, fragmented prose sections. With them she was trying to give the barest testimony of what happened to her mother, or at least her understanding of what happened to her mother. These sections are interspersed with high flourishes of Chinese myth. She structured the poem this way as she wanted to square her mother’s upbringing with Chinese myth. She said it was a difficult thing to do because her mum ‘is a real person’ and she was terrified of what her parents would think. She says there’s gaps in her history, some of which are because she doesn’t know her whole history and some are because her mother doesn’t want her to talk about them. She says that the collection’s an elliptic telling of her mother’s story and there are revelations towards the end of the book. ‘I like the idea that mine might be the thriller!’ she says.

Howe was inspired by Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes. She’s wearing a necklace, the pendant part of which is the loop of jade from the collection’s title. It was given to her by her mother but was actually a present from the woman who adopted Howe’s mother. It’s a bracelet for toddlers, the idea being that when a toddler falls over, the bracelet will shatter and save the child from harm. She tells us that they think the woman who took her mother in did so because she was also a lost girl.

Sara Taylor says she took the risk of writing The Shore because she was coming to the end of university and ‘I was tired of doing what people wanted me to do’. She wanted to know what ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ means. ‘The risk was I couldn’t not take that risk.’

She wrote the book without a plan beginning with the first story which led her to write the mother’s story and then to where her husband was from and what happened to her parents. She says her agent was the first person to mention creating a family tree for the book to her but she says it’s more a wreath than a tree.

They’re asked if there’s anything they felt they weren’t able to write and has having some early success trapped them or given them greater freedom?

Howe says, ‘It’s actually a strange notion that people are reading it.’ She says when she was writing in a darkened room at 2am, she lulled herself into the illusion that no one would ever see them. She conceived of herself as a poet’s poet so finds it extraordinary that the book’s reaching beyond the poetry world to a wider audience.

Taylor says she avoided ‘wonderful, horrifying family secrets’. They’re in the second book though! She says she won’t be pigeonholed because she can’t write another fractured novel without a break. ‘I do wonder what the world’s going to make of the next novel.’ [How keen am I to read it right now?]

Hogan rounds off the Q&A by saying he revived the prize along with Caroline Michel, CEO of PFD Literary Agency, because he became aware that lots of potential young British writers were no longer writing books but going into film, digital media and television instead. He asks the shortlisted writers if they’re tempted by other media?

Sara Taylor says she’s seen many writers make that choice as its a tangental necessity to building a career. It’s easier to do a screenplay, magazine copy or other shorter forms instead. They’re ‘more zeitgeisty’.

Well, thank goodness these writers did write books because they’re great. If you want to hear more from them and previous winners Adam Foulds, Andrew Cowan and Helen Simpson, there’s a free shortlist event at Foyles – including beer and pizza! – on Monday 23rd November. The details for which are here.

If you’d like to read some of the books, I have a copy of Loop of Jade and a copy of The Shore by Sara Taylor to give away. To enter, leave a comment below stating which book you’d like to win (you can enter both draws if you wish). I’ll accept worldwide entries. The competition closes at 5pm UK on Wednesday 18th November after which the winners will be drawn at random.

The winners:

I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry so for The Shore that’s:

1 – Niall McArdle
2 – snoakes7001
3 – jenniferheidi
4 – isabellisima
5 – Helen Lloyd
6 – Claire Stokes
7 – Naomi
8 – Candyfloss
9 – Sheridarby
10 – Erdeaka
11 – Helen Jones
12 – isis1981uk
13 – Keith Hunt
14 – Victoria Prince
15 – Karen Richards
16 – schietree

and the winner is…

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Congratulations, Naomi!




And for Loop of Jade:

1 – snoakes7001
2 – Cathy746books
3 – jenniferheidi
4 – Marianthi
5 – Amy Pirt
6 – Elle
7 – Candyfloss
8 – bellarah
9 – isis1981uk
10 – Victoria Prince
11 – Helen S
12 – schietree

and the winner is…

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Congratulations, Elle!




Winners check your emails for what to do next. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

Thanks to the Young Writer of the Year Award for the prizes.


WIN A Signed Copy Of Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Giveaway now closed.

I know lots of you love Margaret Atwood’s work so I’ve teamed up with Virago Books, publisher of books by women and a perfect match for this blog, to bring you a Margaret Atwood competition. There are nine competitions running on nine blogs across this week and next and each have a prize bundle which includes a signed copy of Margaret Atwood’s short story collection Stone Mattress, published in paperback last week, and something related to one of the stories from the collection.

I chose ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ which means my prize bundle includes a nail varnish set. Why? Because it’s a story about a story about a sentient hand (no, that isn’t a typo); nail varnish is brilliant, and, having spent many a half hour painting my male friends’ fingernails in my parents’ kitchen, I don’t consider it a gendered prize.

To whet your appetite, here’s the opening:

The Dead Hand Loves You started as a joke. Or more like a dare. He should have been more careful about it, but the fact was he’d been blowing a fair amount of dope around that time and drinking too much inferior-grade booze, so he hadn’t been fully responsible. He shouldn’t be held responsible. He shouldn’t be held to the terms of the fucking contract. That’s what had shackled his ankles: the contract.

And he can never get rid of that contract, because there wasn’t any drop-dead date on it. He should have included a good-only-until clause, like milk cartons, like tubs of yoghurt, like mayonnaise jars; but what did he know about contracts back then? He’d been twenty-two.

He’d needed the money.

If you want to be in with a chance to win, all you need to do is leave a comment below before 4pm UK time on Friday 2nd October. A winner will be chosen via random number generator soon after the closing time and the winner notified by email. UK only, this time, I’m afraid. Good luck!

Stone Mattress avatar - large - NAOMI

And if you fancy a personalised Stone Mattress ebadge, like mine above, then head over to the Virago site where they’re giving them away.

I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry so, for example, Cleo is #1, Jaime Walker #15, Georgina #28 and lindarumsey #46. And the random number generator says…

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 16.01.13

Congratulations, Rhoda K! Check your email for information as to what to do next.

Thanks to all of you for entering. There are eight more opportunities to win across eight more blogs. Information on the Virago website as to the blogs and the additional prizes.

Thanks to Virago for the prize.

To Kill a Mockingbird [Re]Read + Giveaway

Giveaway now closed. 


In anticipation of the publication of Harper Lee’s prequel/sequel Go Set a Watchman on the 14th July, the publisher William Heinemann has launched a ten day reading challenge. The idea’s simple: between May 21st and 31st, you re-read, or indeed read, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’m taking part for two reasons: one, it’s years since I last read To Kill a Mockingbird and two, it makes perfect sense to me to re-read it before Go Set a Watchman arrives so I can see how the two work together.

During the ten days, the publishers are releasing lots of material around To Kill a Mockingbird, they’ll be asking you to share photos of your well-loved copies of the book and they’ll be hosting competitions to win copies of Go Set A Watchman to be sent out to lucky recipients as soon as the book is published in July. All this is happening across their Go Set a Watchman channels on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

Like many people, I first read To Kill a Mockingbird at school: it was one of my GCSE texts. I remember loving it and, as a consequence of growing up in a small, predominantly white town in the north of England, feeling that I’d been made to consider issues I probably hadn’t thought about before.

The edition we read at school had this cover:

Apologies for the quality of the image, it took me ages to find a photograph of that cover. So long, in fact, I started to think I’d imagined it.

I bought my own copy and re-read it at some point in my twenties. I wanted to read it as an adult and see if it was as powerful as I remembered it being. It must have been because I wrote a short story of my own based on the character of Boo Radley.


Now, I have a copy of the latest edition, which has the cover I think I like most out of the three.


And not only do I have a copy, but you could have one too! (That was smooth, right?) Thanks to William Heinemann, I have three copies to give away to UK based readers. If haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird before, you don’t own a copy or you fancy one of the gorgeous new editions to join in the reread, all you need to do is leave a comment below before 2pm tomorrow (Friday 22nd May). Winners will be drawn at random after the closing time and notified as soon as possible.

Thanks to William Heinemann for the giveaway.

Giveaway winner:

As usual, I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry:

1 – Carys
2 – Nordie
3 – PoppyPeacockPens
4 – Bev
5 – Crimeworm
6 – Lisa Farrell
7 – Vanessa Matthews
8 – Susan Chafer
9 – Swazi
10 – Charlottetobitt
11 – Bookboodle
12 – Claire
13 – Marian Fievez
14 – George Worboys Wright
15 – Helen
16 – Heaven Ali
17 – Natalie Crossan
18 – Elle
19 – Kim Neville
20 – Sally Collingwood
21 – Clairew137
22 – mrsredwhite214
23 – Ali Archer
24 – Teresa S
25 – Lindasbookbag

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The winners are Natalie Crossan, Sally Collingwood and Kim Neville. Congratulations all. Check your emails for what to do next. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

Interview with Sandra Newman, author of The Country of Ice Cream Star + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

If you were following my Bailey’s Prize longlist reading, you’ll know there was one book on the list that I thought was extraordinary. That book was The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. (Click on the title to read my review.) The novel’s narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star in the Nighted States. White people have died out from a disease called WAKS and the remaining black people have truncated lives, contracting posies and dying when they’re eighteen or nineteen. As the novel begins, Ice Cream Star’s brother has the disease and when she discovers there might be a cure, she sets out to find it.

Two things make the novel quite different from your average slice of literary fiction. The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is that the world of the novel is peopled almost entirely with black characters. The second is that Newman’s written the whole book in a futuristic version of African American Vernacular English.

After I’d finished reading the book, I spent days thinking about it so I was absolutely thrilled when Sandra Newman agreed to answer some questions about the writing of it. If all this makes you want to read the book – and I so hope it does – there’s a chance to win one of five copies after the interview.

Where did the initial idea for The Country of Ice Cream Star come from?

I started writing the book in a period when I was struggling with bereavement; three of my closest friends had died. Two were male friends, who had been like brothers to me for years, so Ice Cream’s relationship with her brother comes directly from that feeling of loss. And the whole idea of the book – which is kind of a Gilgamesh story about someone who can’t accept mortality, and goes forth to defeat Death – comes from my inability to accept the death of these friends. I wanted to write a book in which you could have that feeling, and do something about it, and ultimately win.

So I came up with the world in which everyone dies of a disease when they’re still teenagers, and the heroine who refuses to accept that, and goes on a quest to find a cure for the disease.

How did you go about creating the voice of Ice Cream Star (and the groups who live in Massa) and how did you sustain that for an entire novel?

I didn’t initially intend to write the book in an invented patois. But when I started to write the book, it had to be set in a future world, and I wanted to the voice to feel absolutely real. I’ve always been the kind of writer (and reader) who needs a story to be completely convincing. When I was writing the book in standard English, I just couldn’t believe in it. A hundred years had passed. Obviously English would have changed in that time, especially if there were no schools and no media, and the language was only being spoken by children and teenagers.

So from there, the language ended up being informed by African-American English. I’ve given a lot of reasons for this, but the bottom line is just that it’s my favorite English, and probably objectively the best English going. It also gave me not only a model for innovation in the vocabulary, but a starting point for innovation in the grammar. And finally, most people are familiar with it to some degree, so readers have a starting point for understanding it.

Once I had the flavor of African-American speech in the language (and don’t get me wrong – it’s not African-American Vernacular English as spoken now, but it’s obviously strongly influenced by it) it felt like the characters should be black. Or, put another way, why shouldn’t they be black? I mean, it became a choice to make them anything but black.

And then, as soon as I thought of them as black, the book came to life in the most incredible and inexplicable way. It began to write itself. I don’t know why this is, since the book isn’t about race – or it’s only very occasionally, tangentially, about race. It just suddenly felt like a real world I had discovered, rather than an imaginary world I was inventing. Everything fell into place.

I was very aware that this was a controversial thing to do, as a white person. I thought about it a lot, and questioned my position, and etc But after a while, I couldn’t really help writing the book that way because it worked. Also, the characters very quickly became real people to me, who demanded to be written about as they were.

Sustaining it for an entire novel was time-consuming, but incredibly rewarding. In fact, I now find it a little sad writing in normal English, because it’s just not possible to be as inventive. And, just as with any foreign language, there are words in Sengle English for which there are no exact equivalents in contemporary English, so I sometimes end up feeling like my normal speech is an inadequate translation.

Did anyone try and dissuade you from writing the book in dialect? I’m thinking particularly from a commercial standpoint. I assume most readers of literary fiction are Standard English speakers so it deliberately distances, if not alienates, them. It would also create an interesting challenge for translators if it were to be translated into other languages.

There were two people who tried to dissuade me. One was a wonderful friend of mine, who had originally suggested that I try to write a young adult novel (he’s a YA author) as a way of possibly making more money from my writing. He was worried about me because I was always so broke. And, to help me do this, he put me together with his agent, who handles YA, and is very, very successful; the kind of person who does million-dollar deals.

So the agent was very excited about the concept of The Country of Ice Cream Star as a young adult book. (It ended up not really being a young adult book, but at that time it was only 30 pages long, and after all, the heroine is fifteen.) He was not, however, excited about trying to sell a book in an invented patois. And my friend, who had been so concerned about my finances, gently tried to get me to see the possibilities of writing the book in standard English. He told me confidentially that the agent had mentioned the sum of $400,000 as what he thought he could get for the book, if it were only written in standard English.

Well, I said no. Which is kind of startling to me, looking back. And I hadn’t yet shown the book to anyone else, so I had no idea if anyone else would want it.

So I ended up selling the book with another agent (the wonderful and brilliant Victoria Hobbs) for a healthy amount, but not for anything like $400,000. I mean, I think it’s a much, much better book than it would have been in standard English. It couldn’t have been anything like as beautiful.

There’s a great statement that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter for a while now: ‘@fqubed: Dystopian lit is: “what if the government got so powerful that all the bad stuff that’s already happening ALSO HAPPENED TO WHITE PEOPLE?” ‘ You’ve taken that to its extreme in that the white people have been wiped out in the USA. What do you want people to take away from the book in terms of the current situation with regards to race?

Well, there are two answers to that question. As far as people of color are concerned, I just hope they like the book. I mean, I hope black readers can get some pleasure from a fictional America where the norm is to be black, and everyone’s black and it isn’t even an issue, regardless of the fact that the book was written by a white person. But do I have anything to tell them about the current situation with regards to race? I highly doubt it.

As far as white people are concerned, I hope it’s somehow a little mind-altering to spend time in that world where it’s the norm to be black, and virtually all the people – brilliant and stupid, selfish and altruistic, brave and cowardly, whatever and whatever – are black. You know, a world where black = human, and that’s the end of the story.

I do find that often in contemporary narratives, the blackness of a character ends up being their chief feature. Their story is about blackness, and even when the intention is completely good, well, these are human beings with an infinite range of complexity. Black lives are not just about race relations.

But it’s still hard to successfully market a book about (or by) a black person unless it’s about slavery or the Civil Rights movement or (in recent years) microaggressions. This is all about white audiences, of course, and their expectations. I don’t mean to demonize white audiences; but, that’s the history we’ve all grown up with. So I hope that after reading my novel, it might become more possible for some white readers to pick up a book by Jesmyn Ward or Percival Everett and be thinking, “Wow, this looks like a great book,” instead of, “Maybe I should read a book by a black person.”

Still, I don’t think there’s all that much that you can do with one novel. You just add your grain of sand to the gigantic pile of grains of sand that make up a culture, and hope to God you’re adding it in the right place.

Religious and political corruption is rife in the novel; was this intended to reflect current society? Regardless of the make-up of a society do you think there will always be someone who takes power and misuses it?

It was really just intended to reflect any society. So far, we haven’t created a society which is free from power relations, and the abuse of power relations. So, in The Country of Ice Cream Star, we see a series of different societies, and while some are much more corrupt than others, they’re all subject to human frailty. And because human frailty tends to take on similar forms throughout history, there are inevitably echoes of current society.

I was also trying to depict a heroine who is sharp enough to see the hypocrisy and corruption around her, and doesn’t waste time being upset by it, but just tries to use whatever she can to change things for the better. So she’ll work with the corrupt leader or she’ll work with the misguided zealot; she’s just trying to save her people by any means necessary. That was important to me because I was thinking about what makes someone a hero. I think this might be the most important trait in a hero, that willingness to see the evil in the world and just use it like any other tool to eradicate some of the evil in the world.

Ice Cream Star is a very different hero from the likes of recent dystopian protagonists – Katniss Everdeen, Beatrice Prior, Cassia Reyes, for example. There’s a physical and emotional maturity to her that you might not expect in a fifteen-year-old. Is that just a reflection of the situation she’s in or is there also a link to people currently coming-of-age in difficult circumstances?

I think it’s actually a trait of a lot of teenagers. Ice Cream is really childish one moment, and incredibly mature and savvy the next. At that age, a lot of people – especially very smart people – are like that. She’s also lived with a lot of responsibility from a very young age, so she naturally takes up new responsibilities without thinking about it. You can think of that as difficult circumstances, but it’s also an opportunity. I think contemporary teenagers don’t get to show what they could potentially do, if they were allowed to have adult responsibilities.

In the Middle Ages and earlier, it was not uncommon for teenagers to lead men in war (the most notable example being Alexander the Great). And in our grandparents’ generation, it was unremarkable for people to marry and become parents at eighteen. Obviously, sometimes this ended in disaster. But sometimes it ended with the conquest of Asia, or with our parents (in those case where our parents turned out be well-adjusted happy people).

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction?

It just feels incredibly lucky. I mean, I personally love The Country of Ice Cream Star. I think it’s the best book ever, and I can’t help doubting the judgment of anyone who doesn’t love it as I do.

But there are many truly great books that never get longlisted for anything. Judges are human beings, so they have limited time and their own personal likes and dislikes which inevitably affect their choices. And. in my view, should affect their choices, or else what are we even talking about? Virginia Woolf, for instance, was offered the chance to publish Ulysses, and turned it down.

Maybe that’s a little off the point (the point being that I was incredibly, jumping-up-and-down, happy when I got the news) but I know so many struggling (and deserving) authors who just can’t catch a break. So I always think of them whenever I have a piece of luck. (Keeping in mind, of course, that The Country of Ice Cream Star is still literally the best book ever.)

What are you working on now? Can you tell us anything about it?

I’m primarily working on a sequel to The Country of Ice Cream Star, which is partly because the story isn’t properly finished (which you can kind of tell from the ending) and partly because I love Ice Cream and her world too much to let go of it.

But I often work on two projects at one time, so I’m also trying to cook up another book to work on. I haven’t settled on anything quite yet, and the possible books are really various: there’s a post-apocalyptic novel about a ballet company; a contemporary novel about a friendship; a non-fiction book about sexual assault; a non-fiction book about math. My real problem is that I would like to write all these books immediately, and occasionally I lose all sense of time and think I can do exactly that.

And, of course, there are other days when I want to just get a job selling soft drinks on the beach. But I’d probably be terrible at that, anyway. I’d just keep getting distracted and giving people the wrong change.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Since I’ve already mentioned Jesmyn Ward, I’ll start with her. She won the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones, and she’s still, in my opinion, under-rated. Or at least, under-read.

Then there’s George Eliot, whose books I just read again and again.

I read all of the historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett, while writing The Country of Ice Cream Star, and there’s really nothing else like them.

And, to throw in a science fiction writer, since I am part of that fandom, I’m a huge fan of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon). It’s sort of a hobby of mine to find ways of making people read her truly astonishing alien-life-form love story Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.


A huge thank you to Sandra Newman for the interview. How thrilled am I that there’s going to be a sequel?

If you’d like to find out for yourselves why I’m so enamoured of this book, Vintage have kindly given me FIVE copies to give away. All you need to do is leave a comment below, begging me to release them from my grasp! I kid. Leave a comment below and I’ll enter you into the draw. Worldwide entries are welcome. The competition will close at 5pm (UK time) on Friday 1st May. Winners will be chosen at random and informed as soon as possible after entries close.

Giveaway winners

As usual, I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry, as follows:

1 – Snoakes
2 – Marina Sofia
3 – Claire Fuller
4 – Helen
5 – Lisa Farrell
6 – Kath
7 – Nina Pottell
8 – Paola Ruocco
9 – Jennie Finch
10 – Alison Layland
11 – Rebecca Foster
12 – k
13 – Chyma
14 – Elle
15 – Aisling Gheal
16 – Lydia Syson
17 – Alice
18 – Debbie Rodgers
19 – Naomi
20 – Crimeworm
21 – JAD
22 – Katie
23 – Claire Thinking
24 – Zarina
25 – Judith
26 – Liz Smith
27 – Tina M Holmes
28 – Greythorne
29 – allyblue22
30 – Cathy746Books

And the winners are…

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Congratulations Marina Sofia, k, Nina Pottell, Tina M Holmes and Alice. Check your emails. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent + guest post + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

Today’s post has got it all: my review of The Crooked House; a guest post from Christobel Kent about her literary influences; the opening of the novel, and a chance to win a signed copy of the book.

The Crooked House

Alone in the bed Alison sat bolt upright. She had trained herself not to gasp when that happened, long before she woke next to anyone, long before there was anyone to ask her what had scared her. But she couldn’t stop the jerk upwards, as if she had to break through the surface, as if water was closing over her.

Thirteen years previously Alison was Esme. She lived in a house referred to as Crooked House because it tilted on unsteady foundations. She lived there with her family – mum and dad, older brother, Joe, and twin sisters, Letty and Mads. That was until they were brutally murdered as she hid in a cupboard. Her father, alive by a thread, was found guilty after evidence proved he was the last to die. Esme had arrived home early from her friend Gina’s unbeknown to the rest of the household, it was assumed that this was why she survived.

She’s gone on to reinvent herself and is now living in London, working at a publishing house and in a relationship with a history academic called Paul. No one knows her background, she has a short, fabricated tale if anyone asks.

When the novel begins, Paul receives a wedding invitation to the nuptials of an old friend of his, Morgan Carter. Alison’s met her briefly and didn’t get on with her. She’s not invited to the wedding. Paul sorts that though and then there’s a bigger issue to contend with: the wedding’s taking place in Saltleigh, the town where Esme grew up. To make matters worse, Paul’s decided it would be nice for them to make a holiday of it and he’s booked them five nights in a local hotel.

As soon as they arrive, Alison knows she’s going to have to confront her past – both the events of that night and the locals who have plenty of secrets to tell about her family. The local police officer who worked on Esme’s case puts it well:

‘Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with this place, something in the soil, salt or something that stops things growing straight, it’s land where it should all be sea, I don’t know…’ She broke off, feeling his eyes on her, his alarm. She took a breath. ‘You saw those kids we brought in, they’d been chucking breeze blocks off the bridge, just for the hell of it. You might see them running about on a football field, or ten years on chatting some girl up in a bar – they’d give you a cheeky smile, charm you. You can’t see it from the outside but they’re poisoned.

There’s three things I want from any crime novel, whether it be a detective novel or a psychological thriller: I want to be gripped by it, I want to be misled – I want to be wrong about who I think’s responsible again and again, and I want it to do something slightly different to your average crime novel. I’m very demanding but Kent does all three brilliantly in The Crooked House. The plot’s impeccably woven with reveal after reveal and the events of that evening are buried under a whole load of cover-ups. What I found most interesting though is she uses the murders and events that led up to them to look at women and, more specifically, whether a woman who has children could be capable of killing someone else’s child. Gripping and compelling, I highly recommend it.

Christobel Kent

I’m delighted to welcome Christobel Kent to the blog to talk about her literary influences:

When you think about literary influences the only way to avoid sounding crazily hubristic is to divide them, straight away, into two categories. In the first, let’s say unattainable, category would be the writers who first make you see what writing can do, in the hands of a genius (which you are not). These would be, in my case, the likes of Tolstoy (for humane intelligence, for characterisation, for his feel for the earth and landscape), James Joyce (for poetry, for daring, for sheer swashbuckling bravado and courage), John Updike (for exquisite style, for conveying what it is to be human and alive, at the most intimate molecular level), and Raymond Chandler, naturally, for wit and insouciance, for creating as perfect a private eye as ever lived (and thereby awarding himself a get out of jail free card, plot wise) and as marvellously, vividly evocative a noir landscape as the earth holds. These are the writers who first make you want to be a writer yourself, and in the same breath inform you that it is never going to happen.

It takes a while to get around this problem: the problem of whether there is any point in writing your novel if however long you stick at it you’re never going to be Tolstoy. You have to get older and wiser and less ambitious, and you have to read lots of novelists who are not Tolstoy but who can tell a story, whose unashamed ambition is to have readers on the edge of their seats and who invest their work with everything they’ve got.

Namely category two (and Raymond Chandler sits squarely in the overlap of my Venn diagram): writers who can show you how it’s done. In my case these are the entertainers who’ve chosen what is considered by some to be a lower form of art, the genre writers, the genres in my case being jointly the psychological thriller and the detective novel (I’ve written both) the study and enjoyment of which has taught me anything I know about technique, pacing, plot, style, tone and characterisation. The first crime writers I loved were Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith, perhaps as un-alike as two novelists could be but who between them teach that the genre that has room both for a bleak nihilist and a romantic Dante scholar is a capacious and elastic one, that brilliant crime novels just like all the other kind run on good characterisation, and that crime writing is a suitable job for a woman. Barbara Vine, who crossed over from the strict puzzle-solving school of crime writing as Ruth Rendell to something more expansive and atmospheric was another influence, and Henning Mankell, whose leisurely and idiosyncratic unfolding of plot combined with a remarkable feel for the quiet grey flatlands of southern Sweden and the limpid light of the far northern summers, and the gentle, insistent melancholy of his hero all inform us that Chandler is not dead.

It can take a while (I was forty before I began to write) but if you read widely and attentively in both these categories, if you allow your edges to be rubbed off and you keep your eyes and ears open eventually the way will open ahead of you, and it will become clear that there are after all ways of following in the footsteps of the great writers without imitating them or believing that you can rival them.


Thirteen Years Ago

When it starts again she is face down on her bed with her hands over her ears and she feels it more than hears it. A vibration through the mattress, through the flowered duvet, through the damp pillow she’s buried her face in. It comes up from below, through the house’s lower three storeys. BOOM. She feels it in her throat.

Wait, listen: one, two, three. BOOM.

Is this how it begins?

Leaning on the shelf over the desk, wooden letters spelling her name jitter against the wall. They were a present on her seventh birthday, jigsawn by Dad, E.S.M.E. The family’d just moved in, unloading their stuff outside this house they called the crooked house, she and Joe, as the sun went down over the dark marsh inland. Creek House to Crooked House, after the tilt to its roofline, its foundations unsteady in the mud, out on its own in the dusk. Mum was gigantic with the twins, a Zeppelin staggering inside with bags in each hand. We need more space now, is how they told her and Joe they were moving. It was seven years ago, seven plus seven. Now she’s fourteen, nearly. Fourteen next week.

Ah, go on, Gina had said. Just down it. Then, changing tack, You can give it me back, then.

Esme’s been back an hour. She isn’t even sure Joe saw her pass the sitting-room door, jammed back on the sofa and frowning under his headphones: since he hit sixteen he’s stopped looking anyone in the eye. The girls, a two-headed caterpillar in an old sleeping bag on the floor, wriggled back from in front of the TV, twisting to see her. Letty’s lolling head, the pirate gap between Mads’s front teeth as she grins up at her, knowing. She mouths something. Boyfriend. Esme turns her face away and stomps past.

Mum opening the kitchen door a crack, leaning back from the counter to see who it is. Frowning like she can’t place her, she gets like that a lot these days. What are you doing back? Esme doesn’t answer: she is taking the stairs three at a time, raging.

Outside the dark presses on the window, the squat power station stands on the horizon, the church out on the spit that looks no bigger than a shed from here, the village lights distant. Make all the noise you like out here, Dad’s always saying, no one can hear.

Hands over your ears and never tell.

On the bed she lies very still, willing it to go, to leave the house. Whatever it is.

Her hands were already over her ears, before it started. Why? The boom expands in her head and she can’t even remember now. All she knows is, she was standing at the window, now she’s on the bed.

She grapples with detail. She heard a car. There were voices below in the yard and, after, noises downstairs. Something scraping across the floor, a low voice muttering and she didn’t want to deal with it, with his questions; she flung herself down on the bed and the tears began to leak into the pillow. She would have put on her music but she didn’t want him to know she was back.

Now. A sound, a human sound, just barely: a wounded shout, a gasp, trying to climb to a scream that just stops, vanishes. And in the silence after it she hears breathing, heavy and ragged; up through three storeys and a closed door, it is as if the house is breathing. And Esme is off the bed, scrabbling for a place to hide.

On the marsh behind the house there are the remains of an old hut with a little rotted jetty. The tide is beginning to come up, gurgling in its channels, trickling across the mud that stretches inland, flooding the clumps of samphire and marsh grass and the buried timbers. Behind her the house stands crooked in the wind freshening off the estuary.

The lights of the police cars come slowly, bumping down the long track, an ambulance, the cab lit. It is three in the morning but the inky dark is already leaching to grey behind the church on the spit. One of the coldest June nights on record, and it takes them a while to find her. She doesn’t make a sound.

If that’s made you desperate to read the book, all you have to do to be in with a chance of winning a signed copy is leave a comment below before 5pm (UK) Monday 27th April. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.

Thanks to Christobel Kent for the guest post and to Little, Brown for the review and giveaway copies.

Giveaway Winners

As usual, I’ve assigned everyone a number in order of entry:

1 – Anne Bradley
2 – Cate
3 – Snoakes
4 – Col
5 – Cathy746Books
6 – Helen Clayton
7 – Tina Holmes
8 – Elle
9 – Poppy Peacockpens
10 – uneabeillelecture
11 – crimeworm
12 – Teresa Majury

And the winner is:

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Congratulations Cate. Check your email. Thanks to everyone else for entering and to Little, Brown for the prize.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Giveaway: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Giveaway now closed.

As you know, the shortlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced last Monday evening. Before that happened, the people behind the Bailey’s Prize contacted me (along with other bloggers and book clubs) to see if I wanted to help involve more people in reading the shortlisted books. Of course I did! On Friday, the package below arrived at my house and that meant I had five copies of The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters to give away to five of you.


I’m sure most of you are familiar with Sarah Waters. She’s written six books and won a host of awards as well as having been shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Fiction Prize three times. To tell you more about The Paying Guests, I’ve republished my review below, underneath which are the details of how you can win a copy.

London, 1922. The city is trying to rebuild itself after the war – not just in terms of the buildings but also its people: those who have been to war and returned injured and scarred – physically and mentally; those who made decisions that otherwise would have been considered rash; those who now find themselves in financial difficulties.

Frances Wray, 26, and her mother live in Champion Hill. Following the death of Frances’ father and her brother during the war, they fall into the latter of the categories listed above. In order to try and prevent them losing their family home, they decide to take some lodgers. As the novel begins, they are waiting for Mr and Mrs Barber to arrive. When they do, Frances helps with unloading the van:

Over his shoulder Frances caught a glimpse of what was inside it: a mess of bursting suitcases, a tangle of chair and table legs, bundle after bundle of bedding and rugs, a portable gramophone, a wicker birdcage, a bronze-effect ashtray on a marble stand…The thought that all these items were about to be brought into her home – and that this couple, who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger, and brasher, were going to bring them, and set them out, and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as though she was opening up the house to thieves and invaders.

The couple are part of the ‘clerk class’, he works for an insurance company, she, of course, stays at home and decorates their rooms with exotic ornaments and paraphernalia.

At first, Frances seems to see Mr Barber more often – when he is smoking in the back garden, or on his way to or from it. She fears he is teasing her when he speaks to her and quite often his words seem to contain an innuendo. For his part, he seems to have Frances pigeonholed as a stereotypical spinster.

Frances, however, we learn by increments, is a passionate woman – I use the word in both its senses. She was part of the suffrage movement, which was how she met her friend Christina, whom she visits regularly throughout the novel, and also how she came to be arrested. She’s also passionate about the upkeep of her and her mother’s house, which she has taken on since the servants had to be dismissed when they could no longer afford them. She has no qualms about cleaning, even though her mother despairs, and rejects her mother’s call to get Mr Barber when a mouse is found, catching and disposing of it herself.

Eventually, helped by a visit from Mrs Barber’s mother, sisters and nieces and nephews, Frances and Mrs Barber – Lillian – begin a friendship. It is a friendship that will transform both of them in unexpected ways.

‘…”Forgive me, Mrs Barber. I don’t mean to be mysterious. I don’t mean to be maudlin, either. All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that this life, the life I have now, it isn’t – “ It isn’t the life I was meant to have. It isn’t the life I want! “It isn’t the life I thought I would have,’ she finished.

The Paying Guests considers ideas of class, money, passion, marriage, the aftermath of war, morality and justice. Many of these themes are, of course, significant today and Waters’ treatment of morality and justice, in particular, is challenging and thought-provoking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I suspect partly because I knew so little about it and I’ve tried to avoid saying too much about the plot here for that reason. It also contains some of Waters’ trademark twists – and they’re delicious!

Waters’ writing is clear and concise. Her style is fluent and so easy to read; I think sometimes the work that goes into creating something so consistently readable is underestimated. Here the writing allows you to become absorbed in Frances’ world, in London in 1922 and not once are you jolted out of it.

The Paying Guests is vintage Waters and spending a few hours in her carefully crafted world will not disappoint.

To win: All you need to do is leave a comment below saying why you’d like to read the book and follow the Bailey’s Prize on either Twitter or Facebook to join in the conversation. The giveaway is UK only and entries will close at 4pm on Friday 24th April. Five winners will be selected at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.

Thanks to the Bailey’s Prize for the giveaway.

Giveaway winners

As I usually do, I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry. They are:

1 – Charleyface
2 – Louise Walters
3 – Janet Emson
4 – Alice
5 – Annecdotist
6 – Claire Fuller
7 – CherieSherrie
8 – Cath Barton
9 – HeavenAli
10 – Alison P
11 – Jessica
12 – Blogaboutwriting
13 – Teresa Majury
14 – Crimeworm
15 – CarolineC
16 – Jenny Ashcroft
17 – Catherine Miller
18 – Jim
19 – Kath
20 – Karen Goldup
21 – Elliemcc11
22 – Janine Phillips

And the winners are:

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Congratulations to Annecdotist, Louise Walters, Catherine Miller, Kath and Janine Phillips. Check your emails. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

The Hourglass Factory – Lucy Ribchester + Q&A + giveaway

Giveway now closed.

Ebony checked the binding on her legs, squeezed a handful of flesh into a more comfortable position, ran a thumb over the sailor’s knots she had tied, and wedged the wooden bar of the trapeze between the hollows of her feet. Annie passed her the banner and she bit its silk, and grimaced as its slippery perfume coated her teeth. She had done higher leaps than this and had felt sick before each of them too. But this time they both had Holloway to look forward to.

Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, and Annie Evans, seamstress, are set to make the front pages of the newspapers for their stunt in front of H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister. But it is April 14th 1912 and the Titanic is about to sink.

Six months later, we meet Frankie George, trouser suit wearing reporter for the London Evening Gazette. Sick of her only journalistic action being the column, ‘Conversations from the Boudoir’, she writes for the Ladies’ Page with rumoured former courtesan, Twinkle, she repeatedly asks her boss to give her juicier assignments. He tells her he wants her to do a profile of Ebony Diamond. Teddy Hawkins, a reporter who frequently gets the front page tells her:

‘There’s a suffragette performing at the Coliseum tomorrow night, an acrobat. Ebony Diamond. Know her?…None of us have a damned clue who she is. That’s why he wanted you in.’ He skimmed a glance down her trouser suit. ‘You’ll know a thing or two about suffragettes, won’t you?’

Unfortunately for Frankie, the only connection she has to the suffragettes is the Punch style cartoon she drew, published in the London Evening Gazette satirising force-feeding and the social class of the women in the movement. When she finds Ebony at the corset makers who provide her costumes, Frankie’s name is recognised, associated with the cartoon and she is given short shrift. Although not before Frankie has witnessed Ebony argue with Olivier Smythe, the shop’s owner, about a woman – ‘She’s up there, isn’t she?’ – and throw a large silver brooch with a gold pattern carved on it at him.

That evening, Oliver Smythe and a woman mistakenly identified as Ebony Diamond – she’s wearing one of Ebony’s corsets – are murdered. The following evening, Ebony disappears in the middle of her act at the Coliseum while Frankie watches. Ignoring her boss, Frankie sets out to investigate.

She’s not the only one doing so though. This is a murder investigation and the police are involved. They’re also not very big fans of the suffragettes, a movement of which Ebony and Annie were members.

Detective Inspector Frederick Primrose leads the investigation. He’s been placed in charge of the branch allocated to deal with suffragettes after an incident during the Black Friday demonstrations, November 1910.

Primrose, one of the hundreds of uniformed sergeants drafted in that cold afternoon, had found [May Billinghurst] abandoned in an alleyway with the wheels ripped off her wicker bath chair, and kindly escorted her home in a police car. Only afterwards his Super had told him she had been ramming the lines of police horses with her chair, making them rear. ‘A vicious piece of dynamite,’ the Super had said, ‘who would endanger lives as readily as she would butter toast.’ The wheels had been removed by another officer.

There’s plenty of conflict between Primrose and the other officers – superior or not – and it’s not going to make the investigation easy for him.

The Hourglass Factory is a tale of murder, subversion, class and the fight for equality. Set against a backdrop of the suffragette movement and a significant period of change, the novel covers a number of ideas and themes without ever relinquishing the plot. There are a number of threads to the story and there was a point when I wondered whether Ribchester could bring them all to a conclusion, but she does, skilfully so, making the book a satisfying page-turner with some serious points to make. A most enjoyable read.

I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Lucy Ribchester to the blog to talk about The Hourglass Factory.

Where did the idea for The Hourglass Factory come from?

It started out life as a very garbled post-modernist play, because that was the way I was intending to roll in my mid-twenties. I knew I wanted to write something about suffragettes and corsets after making the connection that music hall’s heyday was round about the same time the women’s movement gathered momentum. The two ideas of feminine boldness, the savvy showgirl and the militant suffragette, were very intriguing to me. I was still trying to grapple with how a woman can be both feminine and feminist – thus the corset interest – and alongside that the conflicts of women adopting more masculine clothing and mannerisms versus celebrating the ideal of ‘womanliness’.

This is all making it sound a lot cleverer than it is…All the ideas for storyline threads came together in a little melting pot, the play didn’t work out, and I remembered a very important fact, which is that I love reading murder mysteries and thrillers. I also wanted to create something that was fun to read and would give me the ability to share some of the suffragette stories I had come across, and hopefully pique an interest in readers to find out more about the women’s movement. So I set out to write the book that I wanted to read and anything that interested me popped up in it.

Some of the ideas in the book – feminism, class, the role of the media, issues surrounding gender identity – are current hot topics; was it your intention to write a historical novel that linked with the time we’re living in?

Not at all, not consciously anyway. It’s very interesting to see that those are the hot topics that have flared up recently. I guess they must have been flying round the minds of my generation – many of whom are now writing the news – five years ago when I wrote the first draft. I think I always set out to try and explore ways of emancipation and finding freedom; different ways of being ‘a woman’, and on the flip side of that different ways of performing the role of ‘man’, which in a way haven’t really changed much over the past 100 years. We still have very clear delineations and expectations for each gender, which part of me thinks is absolutely wrong, but another part thinks is a beautiful thing, so long as those different roles are kept as equals and there is ample room for crossover.

As for class, I’m not sure. I come from a very long and distinguished line of domestic servants, who, in the Edwardian era, wouldn’t have had the time or wherewithal to write, so maybe that has something to do with it. The other strands just came from bits of historical research that sparked my imagination. I do have a soft spot for (and a horror of) the seedy romance of the tabloid newspaper, so that was always going to end up in the book. Also female misogyny in the media is as fascinating as it is repugnant and that’s definitely something that’s still around today, and that I wanted to play around with parallels for.

Edwardian London feels very real in the novel – its sights, its sounds, its smells – how did you make bring it to life?

Thank you! Plain old common theft. I rifled through books written during the period – The Man Who Was Thursday, The Four Just Men, The Secret Agent, Vita Sackville West’s amazing The Edwardians (written later but based on her experiences), guides to newspaper making, a brilliant 1902 autobiog of a female journalist named Elizabeth Banks, newspaper articles in the Colindale archives, and history books – all the while sneaking little details off their pages to save for later. Sometimes I was very brazen and stole a whole real-life incident – as is the case with the suffragette courtroom riot, nicked from (but credited to at the back) a police memoir by William Thomas Ewens.

I also tried to pay attention to the techniques other historical writers use. Sarah Waters uses food so brilliantly in Fingersmith – the brandy flip! The pig’s head! Mrs Sucksby’s little rattling gin spoon – so through a combination of theft of artefacts and attempts to mimic other writers’ techniques you try to collage together a picture.

The book has a number of plot strands that you weave together to bring the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion; how did you go about writing something so intricate and ensuring it would be successful for the reader?

I’m so chuffed to bits that you think so. What a lovely comment. I can’t however take full credit for that. The book went through several rounds of edits before it even went on submission. One of the pieces of feedback I’d had from a couple of agents was that there were simply too many threads being told from too many characters’ points of view. There were prison wardresses, suffragettes, matrons all having part of the tale told through their eyes. One of the agents who represents me at L&R, Daisy Parente, had a brilliant idea for addressing this: cut the points of view down to two and develop Primrose as a secondary storyteller, giving all the extra scenes to him.

It was a ton of work but I loved the idea so was really happy to go for it. Then Clare Hey at Simon & Schuster was brilliant at making me see where the narrative needed to be streamlined down and where things needed better explanation. So it really is a complete team effort creating a book.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Ah-ha! A fabulous question. Most of my favourite writers are women, so I was actually a bit surprised when the ReadWomen2014 hashtag came about. But then this year I’ve paid more attention to things like award shortlists and it does seem like there is still disparity that needs to be addressed…

But here we go, top 5: Anaïs Nin, Angela Carter, Agatha Christie, Sarah Waters, and this year I discovered Caroline Kepnes. She’s only written one book so far, called YOU, but when her next one comes out I’m going to be like a greyhound out the traps to get hold of it. I also have a very soft spot for Lynda La Plante because DCI Jane Tennison is one of the most heroic women in fiction. I love my mentor Linda Cracknell’s writing and Beatrice Colin’s conjuring of place and time, and Sarah Hall’s short stories are just astonishing. Sorry that’s 9. Maths not my strong point.

Thanks to Lucy for such fantastic responses.

If that’s whetted your appetite for this fantastic book, Simon & Schuster have kindly provided five copies of The Hourglass Factory for you lovely lot to win. I’m afraid the giveaway’s UK only. All you need to do to enter is leave a comment below. Competition closes at 5pm UK time, Sunday 18th January. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

I’ve allocated everyone who entered a number in order of entry:

1 – Cath Martin
2 – ellieaiyana
3 – Lyndsey Jenkins
4 – Helen Stanton
5 – tizzief
6 – lachouett
7 – Jess Gofton
8 – Fran Roberts
9 – Helen
10 – Wendy S
11 – Kate Terence
12 – Val Frenett
13 – meganlilli
14 – Rebecca Foster
15 – carmenhaselup
16 – Jacqueline Bunn
17 – readingwithtea
18 – sarahcretch
19 – Elle
20 – Tara
21 – Cathy746Books
22 – Kate
23 – thefemalescriblerian
24 – CPhilippou123
25 – heavenali
26 – Amy Pirt
27 – Ann Bradley
28 – Markie
29 – Katie Skeoch
30 – Debra Brown/
31 – Poppypeacockpens
32 – Maria P
33 – Cleopatralovesbooks
34 – Jennifer Laird
35 – Helen MacKinven
36 – jayandrew25
37 – Ashley Sheets
38 – Tracey S. Rosenberg

And the random number generator says:

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Congratulations poppypeacockpens, Markie, Rebecca Foster, Cath Martin and carmenhaselup. Check your emails. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy and the giveaway.

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall + Q&A + Giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

Two women. Two countries. Two wars.

The Repercussions tells the stories of Jo and Elizabeth. Jo is recently returned from Afghanistan where she’s been working as a photographer, shooting aspects of the war. She’s living in her great-aunt Edith’s flat in Brighton which she’s inherited and trying to come to terms with everything that’s happened through writing to her ex-girlfriend, Susie.

All I had to do was put on my coat and walk out of the door, but I couldn’t.

And you know why not? Because I was scared.

I know it doesn’t make sense – Josephine Sinclair, award-winning war photographer, unable to leave the house? I’ve spent the last fifteen years going to the worst places on earth, places where to be afraid is to stay alive, where fear is the only reaction that makes sense. When I’m there, I can take it. I’ve run past snipers, bent double, trying not to get hit. I’ve slept in trenches next to soldiers not knowing if we’ll make it through the night. I’ve walked along roads stuffed with mines, step after cautious step, praying to God or whatever higher power might be out there that I don’t disturb one. Each time I deal with the fear, manage it so I can function. But today – a perfectly lovely day in Brighton – I couldn’t do it.

Slowly, Jo reveals her experiences of Afghanistan. This latest trip was different. For the first time, she went as a freelance photographer, able to choose the photographs she took and the story she told. Enlisting Rashida, the daughter of a friend’s colleague and recent journalism graduate, to take her to places she might not otherwise have access to, Jo begins to explore, looking at what the war means to ordinary people. Soon she has her angle:

While we waited for our food we looked through the photos I’d taken so far.

“I’m pleased with them,” I said. “But have you noticed? Something’s missing.”

Rashida frowned. “I don’t see – “

“There’s no women in them. They’re just not there. I’d like to speak to some ordinary women, the ones we see shopping in the bazaar.”

Rashida isn’t sure that the women will want to speak to Jo or have their photographs taken but they do accompany a midwife on a visit to a compound on the edge of town. There, they meet a group of women – four families, nine wives – who spend their days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and looking after the children. When Jo asks what the men do, it takes Rashida a while to translate what the women have said:

“They beat us and they fuck us,” Rashida said. “That’s what they were saying. That’s all.”

From then, Jo is determined to tell the hidden stories of these women, which she does through her photography. Jo’s got a hidden story to tell too though.

The other story in the novel, that of Elizabeth, is told through her diary entries. At the end of the first chapter, Jo finds Elizabeth’s diary in an old wooden box, left by her great-aunt. She shares the diary with Susie and, therefore, us.

Elizabeth has taken a position working at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which has been turned into a military hospital. It is 1914. The soldiers she will be taking care of are Indian men who’ve been fighting for the British. Her fiancé, Robert, is an officer in the Indian Army, so Elizabeth feels this will help her to understand his work. However, she finds that the job’s not as she expected it to be:

The Colonel frowned, and said that it had been decided that no nursing was to be carried out by Englishwomen…He looked at me from under his great white eyebrows and said it would be improper. When I asked why, he harrumphed again and said that in India, Englishwomen never nursed the native population because it wouldn’t do to be do so “intimately involved”, and so the Queen’s Nurses would act in a supervisory capacity only, working with the orderlies to “maintain the highest standards”.

She finds herself working alongside ‘almost a Doctor’, Hari Mitra, from whom she begins to learn about India and its culture, as well as about Hari himself. She’s keen to discover the realities of war too and asks questions about the patients, as well as insisting that Robert not censor things in his letters and on his occasional visits home.

The novel’s told in alternating chapters between the two women. Both women’s stories are told in first person, present tense to another reader, allowing them to be open and honest. Hall explores hidden stories – those of the women in Afghanistan; those of the Indians and Mitra in particular; those of the women who work in war zones.

The Repercussions is a brave and powerful book. I had so many thoughts and questions on finishing it that I asked Catherine Hall if she’d be happy to answer them for me. You can read her brilliant responses below.

For a number of reasons, The Repercussions seems like a very brave book to me, why did you choose to write about the war in Afghanistan and particularly the women and their treatment?

I’ve been interested in that particular war/invasion/occupation – and the choice of word here is important – since I worked at the Refugee Council and came into contact with Afghan refugees. Afghanistan has such a long history of being invaded and occupied, and of resistance. The British alone have been involved in war four times with Afghanistan since 1839, which I find fascinating. And there was a link to the patients at the Brighton Pavilion – a lot of them were from the North-Western Frontier which bordered British India with Afghanistan – army officials tended to recruit men from mountainous regions with a history of conflict. A soldier from that region might very well fight for Britain in the Flanders trenches and then, once discharged from the army, go back to Afghanistan and fight against the British.

I wanted to write about women in Afghanistan because I think they have had, and continue to have, a particularly hard time. Life is incredibly difficult for war widows, who, without a man, don’t really have a way of earning a living, and it’s also difficult for many women who do still have a husband. Levels of domestic violence are extreme, with many women suffering particularly harsh, imaginatively sadistic and vicious treatment. I think that when people are put in a situation of terrible violence and hardship for so long, brutality becomes in some way normalised. I think as well that there are many men who feel absolutely powerless and take it out on their women. I wanted to look at how domestic violence can be just as much a problem as the direct violence of war, and at how the two are linked.

But I didn’t just want to just portray Afghan women as simply submissive and oppressed. Of course, of them are, but there are also women parliamentarians, NGO workers, journalists, all trying to rebuild their country. Rashida is a young Afghan woman who’s just trained as a journalist and is employed as a fixer/translator in Kabul by my main character, Jo. She’s not able to be quite as independent as Jo, but she has many more chances in life than the women that she and Jo take pictures of, who’ve suffered terrible violence at the hands of their husbands and families.

There’s a point towards the end of the novel where Jo comments that the latest of Elizabeth’s diary entries is ‘a bit too close for comfort’; did you always intended there to be parallels between the two stories?

Yes. I wanted the two stories to be separate but to inform each other. Partly I wanted to look at the contrasting experiences of women in war, looking at how things have changed, or not, and what that means. Jo is an independent woman who spends her life travelling from conflict to conflict but she’s paid the price – her girlfriend has left her and she’s full of guilt. Elizabeth, a hundred years before, is doing the only job available to women at that time – nursing – and she isn’t even allowed to do that because of the authorities’ fear of sexual relations between Indians and white women. She’s deeply affected by issues of reputation and her fiancee’s ideas of what’s appropriate. She’s pretty feisty though, and I like to think that if she were living in Jo’s time she’d have been doing something similar. I wanted to look at how circumstances and society shape what is possible and what isn’t.

Both Jo’s letters to her former partner, Susie, and Elizabeth’s diary entries are written in present tense, why did you decide to write both sections in the same tense?

I think that writing in the present tense provides a sense of immediacy, a sense of things unfolding as you read them. I wanted both characters not to know what was going to happen next, for them both to be finding themselves as they went along, if that makes sense. I also wanted them both to have an equal weighting in terms of authenticity, and that meant having them both speak in the first person and in the present tense.

There’s a comment in the acknowledgements of the book about you being steered away from ‘unsuitable titles’. How did you arrive at ‘The Repercussions’?

I never expect my books to have the same title when they’re finished as when I was writing them. All three of them have changed in the editing process. While I was writing this one, it was called The Afghan Bug, but neither my agent nor my publisher liked that and so I had to come up with something different. So then it was a case of sitting down and thinking of what might work, looking at the themes of the book and trying to come up with something that would represent both stories. The steering away from unsuitable titles came from a conversation with a friend. I was a pretty depressed at the time, and suggested ‘In Memoriam’, to which he gently pointed out that a cover with that title and my name would look like my tombstone…

The Repercussions works, I think, because the book is about the effects of war, both on those living through it and those who report on it. What happens when the war is over, or when, as a soldier or a reporter or a medical helper you’ve come home? You might not still be in immediate danger but the impact is there, and can last for a very long time. Jo, whether she’ll admit it or not, is suffering some sort of trauma, the patients in the Pavilion Hospital are suffering from shell-shock, and Robert, Elizabeth’s fiancee, has been deeply affected by his time in the trenches, and is a changed person because of it.

There’s been a focus on diversity in books recently; The Repercussions is diverse both in terms of race and of sexuality, how conscious were you of making choices about the diversity of your characters?

It wasn’t a conscious choice, in that I wasn’t thinking about diversity per se. As a lesbian, I like to write books that feature gay characters, and this book was no different. I didn’t want that to be the main focus of the book – Jo is a lesbian but her sexuality isn’t the main point. I think when gay characters can feature in novels not only in coming out stories, then we’re making progress. In terms of race, well, the story of the Indian soldiers at the Brighton Pavilion was based on fact. I consciously decided not to write from the perspective of an Indian soldier because that felt too far away from who I am, and almost presumptuous, but I did very deliberately decide to explore the issues of race and the complicated history and attitudes between India and Britain via the character of Hari, the medical student who’s been studying at Oxford and has a tendency to rile the authorities because of his refusal to be subservient and toe the line. It was all very well, it seemed, to have Indians as cannon fodder in the trenches but quite another to have an educated Indian doing the work of a doctor. I also wanted to look at the complicated attitude towards Indians and white women that I mentioned before – British nurses weren’t actually allowed to nurse the Indians because of the authorities’ anxiety about sexual relations between them – so they were only allowed to work in a supervisory capacity, and were removed from the Pavilion altogether in June 1915, under mysterious circumstances. I chose Hari’s name as a nod to A Passage to India, which is of course all about that complicated attitude towards interracial relationships.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

I have so many. The first adult fiction I read was chosen at random from my mother’s bookshelves. Luckily she has great taste. One of the first novels I picked, when I was 13, was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, with her glorious protagonist Isadora Wing. It introduced me to so many concepts, from psychoanalysis and feminism to the Zipless Fuck. It changed my life. Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook came soon after, introducing me to other complex thinking about race and class and politics. The novels of Jean Rhys, so beautifully written, with their quietly desperate, fragile, but ultimately strong female protagonists led to my fascination with Paris in the 1920s. Her very spare, precise way of writing definitely informed the way I write. Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson made me think differently about the power of language and imagination and what words could do. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala inspired me to go to India, aged 18. I vastly admire Sarah Waters, partly for putting lesbians into literary, commercial fiction, and partly for her brilliance of her historical fiction, and Rose Tremain, who has an enormous range of subjects and style. I think Ali Smith is an amazing writer, who pushes the boundaries of what the novel is.

Newer writers that I’m loving at the moment are Evie Wyld, with All the Birds, Singing, Kerry Hudson, with Thirst, and Jessie Burton, with The Miniaturist.


Thanks to Catherine for such detailed and interesting responses.

Catherine’s publisher, Alma Books, has kindly sent me three copies of The Repercussions to give away to you lovely lot. All you need to do to enter is leave a comment below. As always, I’m happy to accept worldwide entries. Competition closes at 7pm UK time, Sunday 30th November. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.


Thanks to Catherine Hall for the interview and to  Alma Books for the review copy and the giveway copies.

Giveaway winners:

I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of comments:

1 – Diana McDougall
2 – Eva Holland
3 – Sarah Noakes
4 – Susan Osborne
5 – Marina Sofia
6 – Helen Stanton
7 – Claire Stokes
8 – Rebecca Foster
9 – Poppy Peacockpens
10 – Annecdotist
11 – Erdeaka
12 – Realthog
13 – Martha Gifford
14 – Ruth F Hunt
15 – JacquiWine
16 – Ann Bradley
17 – Sharanya
18 – Lynn Kanter

And the random number generator says:

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Congratulations Diana, Jacqui and Ruth. Check your email. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

Jacqui has joined the TBR20 Project (see here if you want to know more) so has asked for her copy to be redrawn. The random number generator says:

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Congratulations Eva, check your email.