An exhibition in a museum in Saint-Martins-en-Haut, a neighbouring village, gave me the idea to base the second novel of the trilogy, Wolfsangel, around the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation during WW2.
I realised that this region, like many others in France, was a hotbed of French resistance. During my research, I was fortunate to speak with several members of the Resistance, who were only too happy to relive their days of fighting for the liberation of their country.
But for further information, I consulted both fiction and non-fiction books on the subject.
Here are six of my favourites, four non-fiction and two fiction works, with Goodreads links:
Lucie Aubrac (1912-2007), of Catholic and peasant background, was a history teacher in Lyon, married to Jewish engineer, Raymond Aubrac, when WW2 broke out.
The couple soon joined the Resistance movement in opposition to the Nazis and their collaborators, and Outwitting the Gestapo is Lucie’s harrowing account of her participation: of the months when, heavily-pregnant, she planned and took part in raids to free comrades—including her husband, under Nazi death sentence—from Montluc, the prison of Klaus Barbie, infamous Butcher of Lyon.
Her book was also the basis for the 1997 French movie, Lucie Aubrac, which I greatly enjoyed.
Agnès Humbert was an art historian in Paris during the German occupation in 1940. Stirred to action by the atrocities she witnessed, she joined forces with several colleagues to form an organized resistance.
In fact, their newsletter, Résistance, gave the French Resistance its name. During their struggle for freedom, the members of Humbert’s group were betrayed to the Gestapo; Humbert herself was imprisoned.
In immediate, electrifying detail, Humbert describes her resistance against the Nazis, her time in prison, and the horrors she endured in a string of German labor camps, always retaining — in spite of everything — hope for herself, for her friends, and for humanity.
The Silence of the Sea, written in Nazi-occupied France, is an intensely dramatic story of an old Frenchman and his niece, and of the German officer billeted in their house. Both the story, and the circumstances of its publication, bear eloquent witness to the triumph of the mind of man over terrible circumstances.
The identity of the author, “Vercors” is unknown, though he was undoubtedly one of that large number of French men of letters who, like the old man in “The Silence of the Sea”, refused to compromise with the Nazis in any way.
This novel, written in mortal peril, published clandestinely in France and smuggled to freedom, is a real victory for the human spirit, showing that humans have cared enough for things of the mind to risk their lives to breach the impenetrable wall of silence the Nazis built around France.
On a cold, moonlit night in January 1944, Anne-Marie Walters, just twenty years old, parachuted into southwest France to work with the Resistance in preparation for the long-awaited Allied invasion.
The daughter of a British father and a French mother, she was to act as a courier for George Starr, head of the “Wheelwright” circuit of the Special Operations Executive. Over the next seven months, Walters crisscrossed the region, carrying messages, delivering explosives, arranging the escape of downed airmen, and receiving parachute drops of arms and personnel in the dead of night, living in constant fear of capture and torture by the Gestapo.
Then, on the very eve of liberation, she was sent off on foot over the Pyrenees to Spain, carrying urgent dispatches for London. It is a tale of high adventure, comradeship and kindness, of betrayals and appalling atrocities, and of the often unremarked courage of many ordinary French men and women who risked their lives to help drive German armies from French soil. And through it all shines her quiet courage, a keen sense of humor and, above all, her pure zest for life.
A haunting and powerful book written by one of the daughters of Irène Némirovsky, author of Suite Française. Némirovsky and her husband died in Nazi concentration camps, but their daughters were hidden and escaped death.
In this story, Elisabeth Gille gives a fictionalized account of when, as five-year old Lea Levy, she was hidden away by the nuns of a Bordeaux convent when the Nazis deported her parents.
But there is no happy ending for her after the fall of Nazi Germany, which is what makes this book so powerful, to see the pain and suffering for the Jews that came after liberation.
Charlotte Gray is the story of a young Scottish woman who becomes caught up in the effort to liberate Occupied France from the Nazis while pursuing a perilous mission of her own.
In blacked-out, wartime London, Charlotte Gray develops a dangerous passion for a battle-weary RAF pilot, and when he fails to return from a daring flight into France she is determined to find him.
In the service of the Resistance, she travels to the village of Lavaurette, dyeing her hair and changing her name to conceal her identity. Here she will come face-to-face with the harrowing truth of what took place during Europe’s darkest years, and will confront a terrifying secret that threatens to cast its shadow over the remainder of her days.
“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
For someone like me, born in Wales who spent formative years in Africa and Asia, continental Europe has a attraction like nowhere else. There lies history, romance, culture and stories. It has a wealth of geographical attractions such as Portuguese beaches, Swiss mountains, Italian lakes and French vineyards. But my passion is for the cities.
Amsterdam in January: discarded Christmas trees beside canals; bikes, bridges and gables. Madrid at Easter: dramatic daytime parades, roasted garlic and parties that start at midnight. Porto at São João: everyone out with squeaky hammers, eating sardines and watching fireworks. Stuttgart in the autumn: beer in open squares at communal tables, with new friends and brass bands. Pardubice in winter: frozen lakes, steaming saunas, freezing attics and extremely strong cheese. Naples in July: ripe tomatoes, brown skin, tiny trucks and the sensory overload of the harbour.
Each has an atmosphere all its own and I never tire of exploring their present - in person - and past through literature.
I’ve chosen six books to transport you to another time and place while relaxing into the story. If you have any novel ways of exploring a city, I’d love to know.
Delft 1660s: Girl with a Pearl Earring – Tracy Chevalier
As delicate as a work of art, the book explores the complex relationships of the Vermeer household. The artist who has come to represent the Dutch Golden Age completed only two to three paintings a year, putting the household economy under pressure. When Griet, the new maid, seems to inspire the master, tensions build between his wife, his mother-in-law and the observant Griet. Delft’s canals, markets and Calvinist culture all spring to life on the page, creating a beautiful background to what might have been.
Paris 1785: Pure – Andrew Miller
Jean-Baptiste Baratte is summoned from the quiet town of Bellême to Paris, to complete a rather unusual task. He is to clear the cemetery of Les Innocents. Miller describes the city of Paris, the cemetery and its long-dead inhabitants, the local people and his own arc of change with such graceful sensory evocation, I was reminded of Suskind’s Perfume. The characters are fascinating, all portrayed through Baratte’s perceptions and prejudices. But it’s the setting that makes you feel you’ve been in another world, another time, another place and experienced it so vividly that you put it down feeling a little disorientated to find yourself on the bus.
Barcelona 1945: The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is where ten-year-old Daniel encounters The Shadow of the Wind. He is charged with protecting that copy as the only one in existence. The book enthralls him and he wants to find out more about the author. But Julián Carax is dead and Daniel’s commitment to the book is attracting enemies. Not least a mysterious man seeking out all Carax’s work with the aim of total eradication. Barcelona through the eyes of a child in a country under a different kind of shadow.
Naples 1950s: My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
On the surface, this is a coming-of-age novel set in a poor, violent suburb of Naples. Yet it has depths of love, beauty, politics, social observation, spite, generosity and anger all rendered in sparkling prose. The reader is immersed in this Southern Italian environment, narrated by Elena Greco, whose entire story of her growth and development into her late teens is refracted through the lens of comparison. Ferrante’s cast of characters is broad and its hierarchy rigid. Brutal threats between neighbours, families, lovers are rarely idle and an undercurrent of honour, vengeance and blood runs just below the surface. Passions and dramas abound on the small stage of their little community, set against a greater backdrop of the recent war, political extremism and the importance of having the right connections.
Lisbon 1960s/1970s/now: Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier
A chance meeting with a Portuguese woman on a bridge in Bern provokes Gregorius, a Swiss teacher of Classics, to follow his curiosity. It leads him to a book, ‘Um Ourives das Palavras’ (A Goldsmith of Words), written by Amadeu de Prado. In an uncharacteristic act of spontaneity, Gregorius walks away from his life and boards a night train to Lisbon, just to discover more about the author. He discovers the city as a stranger and the language through sheer determination, constantly learning the harsh truths about the recent dictatorship and effects on its people.
Moscow early 2000s: Snowdrops – AD Miller
The eponymous snowdrop refers to a body buried under the winter snow which only comes to light in the thaw. The image is relevant both literally and metaphorically to AD Miller’s Moscow tale of corruption and moral erosion. The book is ostensibly a letter from Nick to his fiancée, cleaning the slate by confessing his past. He was working as a lawyer in Moscow, where he met Masha and Katya, and so began his decay. The author uses the setting of wintry Moscow, and the period just before the credit crunch, to great reflective effect. Nick’s moral choices are underpinned by a sense of ‘Right here, right now, this is just how it works’. But one day, the snow will melt …
JJ Marsh is the author of The Beatrice Stubbs Series. Each book is more than a heart-racing crime novel; it's a European adventure. From the snow-capped peaks of Switzerland to a deserted Welsh beach or golden vineyards in the Basque country of Spain; each story is immersed in the landscape, culture, cuisine, architecture and personality of its location. http://beatrice-stubbs.com/
A friend once told me I could write, and so I did. The Rise of Zenobia wasn't the first novel I wrote, nor the first I published, but it was one of my earliest pieces of work and was put through its paces on various peer review sites before finally being enshrined on the page.
The stories of lesser known heroes have always intrigued me. There are many reasons they are untold, barely noted in the tombs of history, a footnote here and there.
Zenobia was one.
Popular in the Arab world, she was lesser known to westerners. I first read about her in Antiona Fraser's Warrior Queen, giving me an insight into the life of this remarkable woman, who rose from the daughter of a merchant to marry the King of Palmyra, capital of Syria, and an important city on the eastern caravan route.
Two things struck me about Zenobia. First was that she led one of the most threatening rebellions ever faced by the Roman Empire, yet it remained largely untold. The Empire relied heavily on Egypt for it's source of grain, with a third of the Empire's consumption coming from the land of the pyramids alone. Cut off, the Empire would starve.
The second was the country in which she rose to a hugely influential position. It was a vast contrast to the middle east today; war torn, religious conflict and oppressive toward woman. In the third century Zenobia was not only given a voice, she held command over armies and was worshiped as a god. Further still was the descriptions of many religions living peacefully, side by side, with citizens choosing who they worshiped, many praying to several gods. Indeed Zenobia herself courted both Jews and Christians to name but two in a bid to secure friendship and support. These details fascinated me when in so many other areas of history you read of seemingly constant religious conflict, where religion is the reason for the story, the cause of war, the very character of conflict. Here was a story where religion was barely a player. An so I embarked on a mission to write a story where religion is constantly referenced, but it is the colour of the sea or the shape of the moon or the smell of spice. Not the cause or the reason for the characters' motives and interaction.
The first draft of The Rise of Zenobia took years to complete and many rewrites, particularly of the first chapter, in a bid to introduce the characters that would see them live through several volumes of the series. The research was unending and still is. Little is known of Syria in the third century. Like the dark ages of Britain very little historical documentation existing and what does is unreliable.
I left it too late to visit Syria to do any on the ground research. My children were babies when I first started writing and by the time I had the time and resources to make the venture war was, in real life as well as my book, tearing the country apart.
From the clothes to the armour I made educated guesses. Syria was a client kingdom of the Roman Empire and would be heavily influenced by the language, customs and dress. But it was also close to Egypt and in perpetual war with Persia, so everything I imagined for the land ruled by my heroine would be a mixture of them all in a bid to demonstrate local and political influence.
We walked a long line of tents, taller than ours, but still the soldiers stooped in and out. We paused outside one, six soldiers standing sentry, and I felt a flutter of apprehension, our mission riding on the next few moments; our second and last chance.
We ducked inside. Gallienus sat behind a table as Valerian had sat behind a desk in Rome, the tent otherwise bare. They were different in approach. Valerian did not wish to see us, made no pretence at humouring us, and believed what he had wanted to believe, what his own commanders told him. Gallienus sat with a serenity I had not imagined a man of war to emanate. Scars marred his face, cutting through a short beard, no thicker than my own. He stood up and genially gestured we take chairs opposite him. An aide stood to one side, four soldiers lining the walls, and the soldier who had come for us sat down at one end of the table.
‘My sincere apologies,’ the emperor said. ‘You caught me on a long march home. I am not entirely sure who it is I address,’ he smiled, eyes flicking between Zenobia and myself.
‘We are honoured to be in your presence, Caesar. I am Zenobia Zabdilas, consul of Palmyra, and this is my personal guard and cousin, Zabdas. We were sent to Rome on behalf of King Odenathus …’
‘Of Syria?’ Gallienus interrupted.
Gallienus relaxed into his seat and traced a wide scar close to his ear.
‘But you are not in Rome. You are west of Rome, seeking an audience with me.’
The man sitting at the end of the table gave a low snigger and leaned forward on the table.
Gallienus appeared amused as he waited for a response.
Zenobia remained unmoved.
‘Indeed, Caesar. I am here to plead for reinforcements …’
‘Wait a moment,’ Gallienus said, and my patience tore. ‘Two questions. Firstly, why come to me? My father is at this very moment in Rome. Surely he could have listened to your plea?’
Zenobia did not hesitate. ‘We have pleaded with your father already, but alas to no avail. Roman commanders report that the east can hold for now, as it always has, against the Persian invaders. He makes his decision based on this.’
Gallienus closed his eyes momentarily.
‘I see. And so you have come to me in the hope that my opinion might differ?’
Gallienus chuckled, and the man at the end of the table laughed, too.
‘I admire your honesty.’
‘You had a second question?’ she said.
Gallienus tilted his head and studied Zenobia.
‘Why would a woman come with only three soldiers and a guide? Surely you travelled from Syria with a larger escort?’
Zenobia shrugged off her cloak.
‘We came with an escort of more than a hundred men. Our leader and company felt we had done all we could having spoken with your father.’
The emperor’s smile evaporated.
‘I see. This man, this leader with whom you came, he thinks my father holds imperium, hmm?’
Zenobia said nothing. Clever, I thought. She touched on delicate matters.
After a while Gallienus said, ‘What makes you think my answer will differ from my co-emperor’s?’
‘You are a lord of war,’ Zenobia replied. ‘You know enough to understand and sympathise with Odenathus’ position and the problems he faces. The Persians threaten Syria, but it is also under invasion from many other tribes, including the Tanukh.’ She leaned forward and they held one another’s gaze with ease. ‘My king has held the Syrian frontier — your frontier — for many years with success. But our enemies become more powerful, and yet the legions in Syria remain the same. It has become increasingly difficult to continue to maintain control. Numerous cities have been lost. My own father led men to the Euphrates two years ago. He came out of retirement to protect the Empire.’
My mind was filled with Julius, whether he still held the southern frontier, and if he were dead or alive. I felt the draw of home, a heavy pull in my stomach. I craved, then, to return to Palmyra.
‘My father will have seen your problems in the east as part of a greater problem, as part of the Empire’s problems; something that weighs heavily on us both. When he and I became colleagues, Rome was close to collapse; it still is. Maintaining and securing the frontiers is a huge problem. A massive undertaking. If Valerian Caesar thinks you can hold, he makes his decision based on how much pressure he is under elsewhere.’ Gallienus barely looked at me as he spoke, eyes fixed intently on Zenobia. ‘It is an easy choice to make, when the people whose lives are immediately at risk are not people you know, when there are enemies closer to home. Believe me, I understand the troubles your country faces, and I have a great deal of respect for Odenathus. He is an incredibly loyal man.’
‘He is the best of men,’ Zenobia replied. ‘You could not wish for a more trustworthy ruler to a client kingdom.’
A mild hint that Odenathus could turn against Rome without notice was not lost on the younger emperor.
‘You can leave us now, Posthumus,’ Gallienus said to the man sat at the end of the table.
‘Caesar,’ Posthumus acknowledged.
He bowed and stooped out of the tent. Only the guards, Zenobia, Gallienus and I remained.
‘I understand,’ he said. ‘Odenathus has my full support in all matters, but whether it is physically possible to push more legions to Syria’s frontier is another problem entirely. That may be difficult to accept, but it is also quite probably the case. I know my own men are stretched.’
‘Give me a day,’ Zenobia challenged, ‘and I will change your mind.’
Gallienus grinned, boyish and amused. He rose from his seat, took Zenobia’s hand and assisted her to her feet.
‘I have no doubt you would try. Your escort waits for you in Rome?’
‘They are camped on the outskirts of the city.’
‘Then you can travel back with me. And you can have two days to plead your case.’
Hope gripped once more.
"If you're a fan of historical fiction and like Douglas Jackson, Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow - then you will adore this novel. The Rise of Zenobia is the first in the series and I can't wait to read more from this talented author."
"I do love a warrior queen! Boudica is perhaps the best known of all but this is a tale told of another, Zenobia, who also went up against the might of Rome. An intriguing and atmospheric insight into a part of history I knew very little about. It is very well written but easy to follow too - no mean feat considering all the unusual place and character names. Set in ancient Palmyra (modern-day Syria) the descriptions throughout, of the people, the places, are particularly vivid, transporting you to a bygone age. Packed to the hilt with tension and adventure, it kept me spellbound. Thankfully, as part of a trilogy, there is more to come!"
It has taken conviction to right the wrongs. It will take courage to learn how to live again. For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives. If only it were that simple.
Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a highly charged work of metafiction, a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.
All the members of Triskele Books have long been fans of Jane Davis's books and there was no doubt we'd read her latest novel. Here, Gillian Hamer, Catriona Troth and Liza Perrat respond to JJ Marsh's questions about Smash all the Windows.
JJ: The first thing that struck me about the book was the structure. The book starts with the coroner's verdict. Then it moves back in time to before the disaster happened and to the aftermath. How did the fact that we know what happened in the end affect your experience of the story?
CT: A chronological telling, with the focus on a sequence of events, would have made the book more like a disaster movie. By telling the story in the way she did, Davis ensured that the focus was on the impact of the events on the lives of the characters. LP: For me, the coroner's verdict was not the crux of this story; it was rather an exploration of the effects of the disaster on the different people involved. Therefore, my story experience was in no way affected by this beginning. GH: Yes, I agree with Kat, it changed the tone of the book completely because we already knew the people were without fault and helped us focus on the character's stories rather than the guilty or not guilty issue.
JJ: Davis employs a large cast of characters, and as a result, many different points-of-view. What do you see as the advantages of that?
CT: There are so many different human responses to grief, loss and trauma. The multiple points of view of the families of the dead - all written in that close third person point of view that makes the reader inhabit the characters skin - allow us to explore and understand a huge range of those responses. LP: Yes, I agree with Kat and as such, each individual reader will certainly be able to identify with at least one of these characters. GH: I think it gave the book a much more rounded and balanced feel, each character had their own story, their own baggage, their own guilt and their own way of coping with their grief.
JJ: Was there a single character you identified with more than most?
CT: Probably Gina. I have been through the phase of having two embattled teenage kids in the house. It's all two easy to imagine what it would be like to have that life cut short - to have everything frozen in a bad moment that you would otherwise have lived through and grown out of. (I've also been a London commuter through two pregnancies, so I had a lot of empathy for Cassie too.) LP: I identified with many of the characters, but mostly, I'd say, with Jules. I found it amazing the way he could sift through the physical and literal rubble, and create something beautiful and evocative. GH: I think I connected most with Maggie. I've walked streets and drove to places just to evoke memories and remember what it was like to be there with a loved one I've lost. And I felt a great deal of empathy both for her loss and what she went through trying to defend her daughter's name.
JJ: I was impressed by the way the author made a completely fictional disaster feel so convincing. What were the elements that contributed to its believability?
CT Again, this has something to do with points of view. By showing it to us through the several pairs of eyes, Davis allows us to see it evolve as in a four dimensional reconstruction. But it is also to do with carefully chosen details that would conjure up the Tube to anyone familiar with travelling on it. LP: I think it was entirely believable as I could truly envisage this kind of disaster occurring. Coupled with the fact that we have actually experienced just these kind of disasters in real life. GH: There was something of the tragic events of Hillsborough that echoed through my mind as I read this book, and because we know these awful, life-changing events can happen, and that miscarriages of justice aren't as rare as they should be, it added to the whole believability factor that the author created.
JJ: The novel is full of powerfully affecting moments. Are there any that particularly stood out for you?
CT: Very difficult to pick just one. The opening of Ollie's room, Eric's breakdown, Helene finding her role - they were all deeply moving. But I think the opening of the exhibition stands out for me, for all the reasons I explain below. LP: For me it would have to be when Ollie's room was finally opened. GH: Again, Maggie coping with her inner grief stood out for me because it felt so real. Gina's battle with her emotions and coming to terms with her son's death in gradual stages was also very powerful.
JJ: There is a sense of closure for some of those left behind at Jules Roche's exhibition, Objets. Why does an artistic representation of people's pain and grief have such an effect?
CT: Visual art, like poetry, distills emotion down to its essence, so it connects directly with our own emotional centres. The descriptions of art pieces probably shouldn't, in theory, be quite so powerful. But I was blown away by Davis's description of the different pieces in Objets. Envisaging each of those art works was a tour de force in itself. Not to give too much away, but crib was an especially stunning concept. I think Davis may be a visual artist manque! LP: I think because, as each of us is an individual, each person views, loves, hates and/or appreciates, art in completely entirely ways. Just as it is with each individual's perception of pain and grief. GH: I felt the exhibition acted as a form of closure because it brought everyone together in a 'beautiful' way - rather than in a courtroom. It's difficult not to give the plot away but the objects themselves had real meaning too that seemed to heal those left to cope with the aftermath.
JJ: Jane Davis recently wrote a guest blog for us on the ghosts of fictional characters. This book is shadowed with the spectres of lost individuals, even those not yet born. Yet it did not make me melancholy, instilling if anything a feeling of reverence. What was your feeling when you finished Smash All The Windows?
CT: I think there was an immense feeling of hope, as if Jules has allowed the bereaved - those with whom we have shared this journey at least - to reconnect with those they have lost. This wasn't an anodyne 'everything's all right now' ending - more that each of the characters could now begin a healing process that had been denied them for years. LP: It definitely left me with hope too; that the characters had been able to acknowledge their grief and could thus continue their lives on a more hopeful and peaceful, arc. GH: A feeling of closure, not just in the book but in the journey of the characters. The victims' voices had been loud and clear in the earlier sections and flashbacks, and it was as if they had finally fallen silent. I felt sure that the bereaved would now be taking the first small steps towards the rest of their lives with the acceptance that they could never change what had happened but could finally start to learn how to live with it.
Spring is in the air … Goodbye winter blues and hello daffodils, frolicking lambs and budding hedgerows. Yes, at last spring is here!
And it’s April’s turn to offer up a smorgasbord of literary delights.
In the hope of discovering a few more masterpieces, or at least adding to our ‘to be read’ pile, Triskele members share our current reads with you - and ask for your latest hot reads in exchange. Please join in the discussion and let's spread the word about some of the great books out there - whether classics or latest finds.
APRIL - What are you reading?
This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
I found This Must be the Place an entertaining love story, spanning continents and expertly delving into a complicated family and marriage with its own web of intrigue, humour and affection. It wasn’t my favourite of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels though, as I found there was a few too many characters to identify with, and the story lacked a bit of focus. As always, though, her wonderful, lyrical prose carried me effortlessly to the end of the story.
When I Hit You, or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kendasamy.
This is a story of domestic violence and rape within a short-lived marriage, told through the many lenses of a writer’s mind. It begins with the mother recounting, over and over, the state of her daughter’s feet when she fled home. It covers letters written to imaginary lovers, and deleted before her husband can come home and read them. It goes through story boards of films she will make of her experience, before dropping, intermittently into unvarnished accounts of a classic pattern of domestic abuse – control, isolation, verbal abuse, physical, sexual, and finally death threats. When the narrator finally escapes and speaks about what has happened to her, she faces the shaming women in her position so often meet. Why did she not run away? Why did she stay if things were as bad as she says? How much of this was really not consensual? Kandasamy answers these questions squarely within the narrative, taking you so deep inside her narrator’s head you are forced to understand, to acknowledge the funnelling of her choices into one, narrow conduit. There is poetry in this prose, and a humour so dark it’s like pepper on the tongue. An unforgettable read.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
I have a real affinity for war-time novels, if well written you always come away learning much and feeling the power of the human spirit. And never more so than in this book. Based on the true story of concentration camp survivor, Lale Sokolov and Gita, the woman who became his wife. The style of POV worked wonderfully well in that we were hit in the face with some of the worst atrocities ever known, but it was beautifully balanced by the power of love and the human stories going on within these terrible camps. Lale’s strength and courage take the reader through every known emotion and I would recommend anyone with a love of historical fiction to read this book.
Der Som Ger Sig In I Leken (rough translation - Playing with Fire)
This novel, by Luna Miller, is the Swedish original and I'm reading the soon-to-be-published English translation, by Aidan Isherwood.
It's set in Stockholm and the atmosphere is rooted in the Swedish capital, so you get a real feeling of the different areas and kinds of people who frequent them. This is a crime novel with a difference. Retired surgeon Gunvor Ström may be in her sixties, her hands might be too shaky to continue performing operations and her body complains every time she works out. But her mind is as sharp as ever. She’s curious, intelligent and experienced – perfect qualities for a private detective.
As the agency’s rookie, she gets a surveillance job. A straightforward case, they said. A domestic. Suspicions of infidelity. Follow the husband. But when the husband is attacked and viciously beaten, his wife calls off the assignment. Too late. Gunvor wants to know what happened. The agency aren’t paying her, but her free time is her own business.
After intervening in an incident of bullying, Gunvor finds herself with two unlikely allies. David is a young, jobless waster who hangs about Fruängen tube station. 19-year-old Elin is shy and introverted, after spending too long in her bedroom hiding from her parents’ fights.
Who’s going to notice two young people and an innocent-looking elderly lady strolling the Stockholm streets? Turns out they're not quite as forgettable as they think. And we all know what happens when you play with fire.
Story ideas can come from the slightest of impulses. Previous books originated from moral outrage, a magazine article, or a half-remembered story from my childhood. The trigger for Tread Softlywas different.
This was personal. This was wine.
In 2010, the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France was rocked to its roots by The Red Bicyclette Affair. Several French winemakers were found guilty of selling premium and pricey ‘Pinot Noir’ to a well-known American distributor which was actually a blend of far cheaper Merlot and Shiraz. A €7m fraud and national shame.
Reputations collapsed, viniculturists were jailed and everyone involved (and there were plenty) paid hefty fines for the deception. Yet a certain amount of glee remained at fooling the Americans.
The story intrigued me so I dug deeper. French inspectors and accountants noticed more Pinot Noir was being exported than the region could actually produce. The numbers didn’t add up and they investigated. Bean-counters and bureaucrats spotted what was going on and raised the alarm.
For the price of a coffee and a croissant, a local wine dealer allowed me to pick his brains. His generosity and expert knowledge gave me enough material for a whole series of books on wine fraud, but I stuck to my initial idea.
What if someone simply performing due diligence pulls a loose thread and unravels a story of corruption woven through every level of society? What happens to the whistleblower?
Once the wine fraud plot took shape, it was a matter of where to set it. Rioja country, in northern Spain, had everything I needed, including some old friends who knew the area and its eponymous export well.
Another element I couldn’t ignore was the Basque Country’s fierce individualism and particular language which is quite different from the classic Spanish Castillian. But far more importantly, the region is known as the gourmet capital of Europe.
With a set of individualistic characters passionate about wine and food, where else?
My insider contacts told me about the growing success of white Rioja, lesser-known delicate cousin to the famous full-bodied red. Like any committed author, I did my research, even taking a trip to San Sebastian and Vitoria to sample their delights for myself. This enabled me to build on the plot and characters with authentic tastes, scents, sounds, textures and visual detail to transport the reader to an autumnal Spanish vineyard or pintxos bar.
I consider it a great compliment that the comment I get most frequently from readers and reviewers is ‘Don’t read this on an empty stomach’. Author Annemarie Neary agrees. “Read this, and you'll be desperate for a seat on a Vitoria balcony with a glass of white Rioja, a plate of pintxos and the next Beatrice Stubbs to accompany them.”
At least ninety percent of the men in the bar watched Ana walk to their table. Some even tore their eyes away from the football. She ignored them and sat with her back to the window. She hoicked one foot up to rest on the opposite knee and dropped her voice.
“Enrique’s a good guy. And when it comes to the food and drink of the region, he’ll talk the ears off you.”
“Sounds like we might get along. Although I do wish you’d warn me as to my undercover roles a bit earlier. Acting’s never been my strong point,”said Beatrice.
“But asking questions and eating will give you no bother. Here he comes.”
Enrique joined them with a tray bearing glasses, two carafes of wine; one white, one red, and a selection of tiny canapés.
Beatrice smiled. “Ana tells me you are an expert on local dishes.”
“Not an expert. The expert. I know the best restaurants in San Sebastian, the best wines from the Rioja and the best recipes from Bilbao to Vitoria. What do you want to know?”
Ana’s expression was pleasantly enquiring and innocent, a match for Enrique’s. Beatrice was on her own. Enrique opened his hands, offering his knowledge to her on a plate.
“Well, for a start, can you tell me what these are?” she said, pointing to the little snacks on the tray.
“Good question. Let me introduce you to some of our local delicacies. Salt cod croquettes with nuts. You will love them. Tell me you are not vegetarian.”
Even if Beatrice had been a committed vegan, the hostile expression on Enrique’s face would have forced her to lie. As it was, she shook her head.
“No, I will eat anything.”
Enrique’s approval spread across his face. “Good. British and Americans with their fussy intolerances ...” He waved a hand in front of his face, rolled his eyes and then pointed at a terracotta dish. “This is beautiful. Prawn and bacon topped with a home-made vinaigrette. And Txalupa; mushrooms and cream, covered with cheese in a pastry boat. And the speciality of the house, our secret tuna mix topped with anchovy and chives. Try, please. These are for you.”
Adrian Harvey of Harvey’s Wine Emporium suggests the perfect wine to complement your read:
"There are myriad possibilities for a book about wine crime. I chose the obvious white Rioja, of course, but a particularly special bottle. I also recommend a passionate, beautiful rosé from Turkey. It’s bold and dry like the exceptional character of Luz."
Marques de Murrieta, Capellanía Reserva, Rioja 2012. The classic white with a soul of a red. Oaky and complex, one could grow dizzy on the bouquet alone. Subtle, surprising and the perfect companion to lighter dishes and bold flavours, this is grace in a glass.
Büyülübag, Iris Rosé 2015. An island vinery in Turkey produces this bone-dry rosé from the Adakarasi grape. Sharp and berry-fruit layers give this delicate blush a confident and delightful structure. Savour every sip and never, ever underestimate a rosé.
Amazon Reviews:“The novel oozes atmosphere and JJ Marsh captures the sights, sounds and richness of Spain in all its glory. I literally salivated as I read the descriptions of food and wine. JJ Marsh is an extremely talented author and this is a wonderful novel.”
“The research that must have gone into this is breath-taking. The eloquent descriptions of the Rioja region made me want to visit immediately. The images of the local food and wine, were sumptuous. The characters as always were authentic and solid. I love them all and can picture each one. The simple beauty of Ana, the very suave Jaime. Aguirre, charismatic and calculating, all exquisitely crafted.” "There are moments of farce and irony, there are scenes of friendship, tenderness and total exasperation - and underlying it all a story of corruption, brutality, manipulation and oppression with all the elements you'd expect to find in a good thriller, including a truly chilling villain.”
St Mary’s Church in Beddington is normally bolted during the week, but on my mother-in-law’s tenth anniversary, I found the doors unlocked, and so I stepped inside and lit a candle.
But at the same time as thinking how much Maureen would have liked the building (pointing out that the vicar would never have agreed to play ‘Fat-Bottomed Girls’ at her funeral, as hers did), I was aware of two other presences: Jim and Aimee.
Who are Jim and Aimee? They’re old friends of mine.
There’s something transportative about living in the same neighbourhood all of your life; walking around familiar geography, knee-deep in the history of the place. And superimposed over a street map carried both inside and outside your head (the housing estate that now stands on the site of your old high school), are important milestones. When you learned to ride a bike. Your first kiss. The first flat you owned. But when I started setting fiction within my personal geography, I added an additional strata.
Let me explain. In Smash all the Windows, my character Maggie takes several walks. I work in the City of London so I’m familiar with its streets, so familiar that I was afraid I might neglect the detail. As research for my novel, I walked her routes – from Tower Hill, down the Thames riverside path, over London Bridge, through Borough Market and along Bankside to Tate Modern. I made notes about all of the sights and sounds, notes that made it onto the pages of my book. But now, when I take the same walk, I think, ‘Here’s where Maggie saw the starling’, and ‘Here’s where Maggie bought her copy of the Big Issue’. Her presence is real. Particular locations are now imbued with a certain energy. And by some definitions, such a presence might be called a ghost.
In fact, ghosts are frequent visitors in my daily life. I might park in Shere at the beginning of my favourite walks in the Surrey Hills, and see Sir James Hastings crossing the square from his home, past the war memorial, to the pub he drank in, his elderly German Shepherd called Isambard in tow. (I Stopped Time). I take a short cut through Honeywood Walk in Carshalton and see the tree that caused the collapse of the wall that Judy Jones was buried under (These Fragile Things). I cross the small wooden bridge at the foot of the waterfall in Grove Park and Aimee swirls round, elbows on the rail. (A Funeral for an Owl). I come across a lone stag when out walking in Richmond Park, and somehow it is the stag that blocked Alison’s path, looking her straight in the eye (An Unchoreographed Life).
We live with our characters so long, they’re kin to us. In a way, we know them better than friends and family, because we’ve seen through their eyes and know their every thought. Every single one of these things was a memory of my own, a memory that I’ve since given to a character, and in editing my novels – that constant re-reading – I’ve made the memories more theirs than mine. You might even say that I’m the intruder. Perhaps, inadvertently, I’ve become the ghost.
Publication Details, Smash all the Windows:
It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.
It will take courage to learn how to live again.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
Smash all the Windows will be released on 12 April, but you can pre-order it now for the special price of 99p/99c (Price increases to £1.99 on 12 March. Price on publication will be £3.99).
From 13 February to 10 March, US readers can also enter a Goodreads Giveaway for a chance to win one of 100 eBooks.
About Jane Davis
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
In July 1940, Gwen Collingwood drops her husband at the railway station, knowing she may never see him again. Two days later her humdrum world is torn apart when the sleepy English seaside town where she lives is subjected to the first of many heavy bombing attacks.
In Ontario, Canada, Jim Armstrong is debating whether to volunteer. His decision becomes clear when he uncovers the secret his fiancée has been keeping from him. A few weeks later he is on a ship bound for England.
Gwen is forced to confront the truth she has concealed about her past and her own feelings. Jim battles with a bewildering and hostile world far removed from the cosy life of his Canadian farm. War brings horror and loss to each of them – can it also bring change and salvation?
Much of the novel switches back and forth between two separate POV - from Canada/ Aldershot (Jim's story) and the Eastbourne thread (Gwen's story). How did this work for you?
(GH) I found the alternating chapters really easy to follow and the author did well to give each character their own style and voice. I felt it was a given that the two threads would eventually come together, and it was one reason I found myself hooked, waiting for that to happen. I liked how these two characters were literally worlds apart and yet ultimately shared so many similarities. It was very well plotted and that made the story effortless to read.
(JJ) Agreed. Jim's story was such a world away from Gwen's that you are curious to see what will happen when their worlds collide. One thing I found interesting is that when they meet, neither is the person we knew at the outset. War has changed them both. Thus we meet two new formed individuals with personal pain and and history, adapting to a new environment.
Both of the lead characters (Jim and Gwen) had hidden secrets and baggage they carried with them - did you enjoy how this helped develop them into much more layered characters?
(GH) I think it's wonderful when you get to know a really complex character, but are also shown enough of the back story that you understand them. We saw how Jim's secular world was shattered and with Gwen, although we didn't witness the trauma of her past, we knew through her interaction with her husband, Roger, that she was carrying the weight of many issues. The repercussions of both incidents played through over and again with both characters throughout the book and made them much more believable and rounded.
(JJ) The circumstances of war force characters to change and drop much of their cultural conditioning. That can be cruel and unfair, but with these people, adversity offers opportunity. This goes for the entire cast, who adapt to love, loss and moments of tenderness under bombardment. Jim has a bruised innocence whereas Gwen's stoicism is classic stiff upper lip. The almost incredible meeting of wounded optimists is deeply touching.
Pauline was an interesting character and cleverly thought out by the author as a way of contrasting Gwen's personality. What did you think about their relationship?
(JJ) She could have so easily been a 'device' but in these hands, she comes alive. Her gutsy and brave attitude to her circumstances gave her daughters something to hold on to. Her interaction with Gwen reminded me of Sarah Waters's book, The Paying Guests. The typically distant classes are housed under one roof and learn understanding from each other. Attitudes to children, to sex and to manners become more about practicality than 'what the neighbours think'.
(GH) Pauline was a delight, a real breath of fresh air, who despite her own tragedy, blew in through Gwen's life and completely changed her perspective of everything - love, life, loss and finally Pauline learnt Gwen acceptance. Their friendship was a real joy and opened Gwen up to become the woman we see at the end of the book. It was a friendship based on mutual need, but although Gwen seemed to give more to Pauline in terms of material help, it was Pauline's spirit and generosity that was the biggest gift.
I thought Jim was a really strong character, some of his internal thoughts were very in depth - one line I highlighted - "they had stolen his future and tainted his past, but the present would be his alone." What moment did you feel he had finally shaken off his past and started to live?
(GH) I think his acknowledgement of his feelings for Gwen and yet his understanding that he could not plan a future with her showed that he was finally coming to understand not everything in life was quite so black and white. His relationship with his brother, Walt, even while over in the U.K. had stopped him moving on, but at the end of the book he seemed to have accepted that sometimes you had to do what was the right thing at the time.
(JJ) For me, Jim is still on that journey, processing everything he's experienced. He's still in the oven, not yet baked. Old-fashioned honour is one thing, but flying across the ocean to fight a war is another. At the heart of this guy is a very brave person carrying a wound. He'll carry a lot more by the end of this novel and the way he deals with them make him the person he is. He hasn't yet shaken off his past but he can certainly see a future.
What were the main changes you saw in Gwen's personality and how did the author show this?
(GH) Oh, there was so many changes in Gwen! When she acknowledged that while she hated the fighting, she actually had enjoyed the person she had become in the war was a real eye opener for her. Finally, after mundane years where suicide had often been in her mind, she had a purpose and that drove her finally let go and live. Remembering her abject horror on seeing Pauline kissing one of the Canadian soldiers, you would hardly believe where she allowed her own feelings to take her a short time later. I can imagine WWII reshaped many women like Gwen and this felt totally real to me.
(JJ) Sex. Gwen's relationship with Roger was practical and unsatisfactory in every sense. When she begins to see other women enjoy and take pleasure from sex, it shocks and surprises her. This rang true as so many of my grandparents' generation 'lay back and thought of England'. Her gradual awakening to sex as mutual satisfaction and in combination with that, a consciousness of her own power, comes as an incredible liberation. Sex and sexuality have changed her forever.
The use of location is a main focus for Triskele Books, how did the authors descriptions of war ravaged Eastbourne work for you?
(GH) I really enjoyed it and thought the author did a superb job of bringing the location to life. It's clear it's an area the author knows well, and it must have been fascinating trying to make as many details as accurate as possible. I thought some of the best parts were the times when the bombs weren't dropping and life could begin to get back to normal, and people could take strolls along the promenade and children could play in the parks. The setting of the house on the hill giving views across the town and across the ocean - a real vantage point - was a clever device.
(JJ) All the locations felt vibrant, not just Eastbourne. The impact the war had on daily life is everywhere, from rationing to propaganda, and the reminder of Eastbourne's natural beauty brings the destruction into sharp relief. Flynn seems to be a sensory writer, giving the reader a fuller picture of the sights, sounds, smells, feelings and tastes of a world in a state of flux.
Research is a minefield in the genre of historical fiction, how do you feel the author handled it here?
(JJ) Impressively well. Not only the detail of wartime facts and figures, but period detail like manners and behaviour, the increased sense of social position and even the fashions of the day appeared accurate and plausible. So much so that combined with the sensory touches, it was like watching a BBC period drama - everything fitted perfectly.
(GH) As mentioned above, it must have taken a lot of hard work to get this story to flow so effortlessly. The details of the battles, planes, the dates and times of bombing and the routines in the army barracks at Aldershot all felt completely believable to me. There were no massive dumps of information that slowed the pace of the story, it was all cleverly woven into the narrative so it became part of the book.
What were your feelings at the end of the book towards Jim and Gwen?
(GH) My predominant feeling was one of hope. I hope they both get the happiness they deserve in peace time. But then this is fiction, and it wouldn't make much of a story if they all did get to live happy ever after!
(JJ) My prevailing feeling was one of curiosity. By the end, we feel we know what could happen next, but as Gilly says, stories never run smoothly. I want to see what they do with the gifts and knowledge they have gained in The Chalky Sea and how it will affect their futures.
'The Canadians' series continues with The Alien Corn - will you read it and what are your hopes for the characters in the next book?
(GH) Yes, definitely. I'm just interested to see where the story goes next. If Jim returns home to his farm and how he'll handle the past. And if Gwen can finally accept Roger as a proper husband. The war has changed them as people so it will be really interesting to see how they adapt.
(JJ) Of course I'll read it. I know Jim will do the right thing by Joan, but is it the right thing for both of them? And what of Gwen now she's sexually awoken? Her marriage is going to change for sure. And will this be a fondly remembered wartime romance or something neither of them can get over?
The Silent Kookaburra began its life as Hosing Venetian Blinds, over ten years before it was finally published. So, why did I write it and why did it take so long to see the light of day?
Basically, it was a nostalgic trip down the Memory Lane of my childhood growing up in 1970s Wollongong, New South Wales.
I wrote Hosing Venetian Blinds, then rewrote it over and over, but for reasons unknown to me, I could not “get it right”. Or as “right” as a novel ever will be. More and more dissatisfied with each draft, on I slogged until one wintery afternoon in 2007, when a phone call interrupted my writing.
It was the Gendarmes of Grenoble informing me that my husband had suffered a nasty heart attack on the ski slopes and wasn’t expected to survive. Well, that was all I needed to completely abandon the novel. Onto a hard disk it went, with the vow that it would never see the light of day.
Luckily my husband made a complete recovery and eventually I began writing again. But still I couldn’t face rewriting Hosing Venetian Blinds; couldn’t stop equating the novel with that awful period of my life.
The Bone Angel Trilogy Boxset
So for the next few years I plunged into a French historical fiction trilogy: The Bone Angel : Three heart-wrenching adventures of three midwife-healers during the Black Plague (Blood Rose Angel), French Revolution (Spirit of Lost Angels) and Nazi-occupied France (Wolfsangel).
Once the third story was published I began taking peeks at Hosing Venetian Blinds again. Then I reread it closely and voilà, immediately saw what I thought was “wrong” with the story. I rewrote, and published it, within a year.
Even though the book tackles some very dark and disturbing topics, it was fun travelling back to my childhood and teen years, seeing my friends, revisiting those familiar places, most notably the beach.
The city has changed a lot since the 70s, but I’m still fond of Wollongong, and love going back there on my yearly pilgrimage home to Australia (I have lived in France for the past 25 years).
Fortunately for me, my childhood wasn’t burdened with the same terrible dramas as my fictional character, Tanya. However, I could readily identify with her, as that was the case for some people I knew.
Wollongong has a large European migrant community, attracted to the area post WW2 with the offer of work at the Port Kembla Steelworks, which, at that time, was the backbone of Wollongong.
One of my very first jobs, at age fourteen, was distributing grocery store pamphlets into letter boxes in this area. Not the long-term career I envisaged, but it earned me enough to buy my first car at age seventeen –– and my independence –– the day I got my licence. So, at five am every weekday, my lovely father would help me distribute these advertising pamphlets into the letterboxes of Cringila, and this cosmopolitan community piqued my interest. I wanted to know more about them; where they came from, what their lives were like. That prompted me to include the Italian migrant aspect of The Silent Kookaburra.
So why this title, when the kookaburra is anything but silent? Well, that’s just it: what might happen if your friendly backyard kookaburra does fall silent?
I’m pleased that The Silent Kookaburra has been well-received by readers and garnered some lovely reviews, and very glad I stuck with it to the bitter end! I’m currently working on the next novel, also set in 1970s Wollongong. And there will hopefully be a third in this new trilogy of standalone novels.
Extract from The Silent Kookaburra... Chapter 1
Knuckles blanch, distend as my hand curves around the yellowed newspaper pages and my gaze hooks onto the headlines.
HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY. January 26th, 1973. 165-year anniversary of convict ships arriving in Sydney.
Happy? What a cruel joke for that summer. The bleakest, most grievous, of my life.
I can’t believe my grandmother kept such a reminder of the tragedy which flayed the core of our lives; of that harrowing time my cursed memory refuses to entirely banish.
Shaky hands disturb dust motes, billowing as I place the heat-brittled newspaper back into Nanna Purvis’s box.
I try not to look at the headline but my gaze keeps flickering back, bold letters more callous as I remember all I’d yearned for back then, at eleven years old, was the simplest of things: a happy family. How elusive that happiness had proved.
I won’t think about it anymore. I mustn’t, can’t! But as much as I wrench away my mind, it strains back to my childhood.
Of course fragments of those years have always been clear, though much of my past is an uncharted desert –– vast, arid, untamed.
Psychology studies taught me this is how the memory magician works: vivid recall of unimportant details while the consequential parts –– those protective breaches of conscious recollection –– are mined with filmy chasms.
I swipe the sweat from my brow, push the window further open.
Outside, the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean is still a pale glow but already it has baked the ground a crusty brown. Shelley’s gum tree is alive with cackling kookaburras, rainbow lorikeets shrieking and swinging like crazy acrobats, eucalyptus leaves twisted edge-on to avoid the withering rays.
But back in my childhood bedroom, behind Gumtree Cottage’s convict-built walls, the air is even hotter, and foetid with weeks of closure following my parents’ deaths.
Disheartened by the stack of cardboard boxes still to sift through, uneasy about what other memories their contents might unearth, I rest back on a jumble of moth-frayed cushions.
I close my eyes to try and escape the torment, but there is no reprieve. And, along with my grandmother’s newspaper clipping, I swear I hear, in the rise and dump of its swell, the sea pulling me back to that blistering summer of over forty years ago.
Compelling psychological drama that delves into the dark heart of family secrets. Chris Curran, author of Amazon bestseller, Mindsight.
An amazing domestic thriller with a gripping storyline, vivid dialogue, a palpable sense of place and time, and a compelling cast of characters that I can't get out of my head. Carol Cooper, Contemporary Women's Fiction author.
I have to say this was one of the most compelling reads I have read. Carol Ravensdale, reader.
... nothing better than a good twist or two in a plot, but this was a first for me - one final hammer dropping on the very last page that made my jaw drop! Cindy Taylor, BookBlogger.
... as well-written psychological thrillers often do, it makes you question everything you thinkyou know, culminating in a true twist of an ending that both shocks and makes you ask "Why didn't I figure this out sooner?" Courtney J. Hall, historical fiction, romance and contemporary author.
Before answering these astute and vitally important questions, we need to state right from the start that we don't know all the answers. Many collectives we've spoken to have fallen at financial or personality hurdles while we've managed to survive and thrive. We're not quite sure how, as we've had a fair few scrapes and stumbles along the road.
One thing we knew from the off is that we liked each other's writing and respected one another's critical perspective. But whether that would make us good business partners was anyone's guess. Triskele came into being as an act of trust - three independent partners, working together, sharing costs and maintaining individual rights.
Now we are bigger and more experienced, we are an officially registered company with a bank account and administration system. But more important than all of that, we're friends, fellow writers and a well-honed editorial team.
Did you set a maximum number of members of the co-operative at the start? If so, how many?
LP: No we didn't. We started off as three members from an online writing group, hence the origin of our 3-sided Triskele logo. It wasn't planned as such, more like an organic gathering of like-minded authors, all at a similar stage of the writing process and wanting to self-publish to the highest possible standard, and to help each other reach that goal. Very soon after, we welcomed two more members, whose work we also admired, and who had similar passions and goals. Personally, I think five is a perfect number. Enough people to take up the slack when someone is "out of order" for whatever reason. And that means four fresh pairs of eyes on each manuscript too, which I believe is a good number for an overall critique, and not too many that you end up with too many conflicting opinions.
How do you deal with approaches from writers who want to join your collective?
JDS: Currently we aren't actively open for submissions to join our collective. Mainly because we work well as a small team and have built up a huge amount of trust between us when it comes to advice and critiquing, and we don't want to spoil that balance. However we do encourage other authors who like the idea of a collective to create their own, find a bunch of friendly writery folk you get on with, whose work you admire and whose opinions you value and support one another. Writing doesn't have to be solitary and the support of a good network of friends who share the same passion as you makes for a great team.
Did you sign up for a fixed duration, or can members leave when they wish, subject to removing the imprint name from their books?
JDS: It's not something we've ever really discussed. We've all been part of the collective for a long time, when we published our first books. There's certainly no fixed duration, but of course any books published outside of the collective wouldn't feature our logo, for example. I personally published a book on cover design which doesn't fit the Triskele Books brand, so I did that as a standalone project and it doesn't carry the Triskele logo. Even so, my fellow members supported and helped me in its creation.
Do you put the collective’s name on the books, e.g. spine, title page, copyright page?
JDS: We put the name/logo on our title page, spine, back of the book and then we also have a joint mailing list which we encourage readers to sign up to in the back of all of our books.
Did you formulate a written agreement? Including which points?
LP: We have no written agreement as such. At the beginning, we had many Skype chats (since we live in different countries), and several face-to-face meetings to define our goals and working methods. This is revisited and overhauled from time to time, or if a problem arises.
How do Triskele manage their joint funding? What rules and regs do they have in place to make it run smoothly?
GH: Well, I am chief treasurer or top accountant or head of finance or what you will! Basically I just oversee the financial aspects of anything we arrange - be that physical launches or online competition, I just make sure the books balance. I pay the bills as they come in and ensure I send out invoices when required. I keep records of everything and share them with the other members so everything is transparent and I hope to think by now they trust me enough that they rarely bother checking!
I guess that in relation to charges, such as web hosting, website design, promotions, ISBNs UK, etc, a member is in charge of all financial transactions, like in an association? Keeping accounts and such?
GH: Part of my role as detailed above is to keep the bank account in the black, and to ensure we have enough in the kitty to pay for the yearly fees that roll round. If we need extra funds, say to hire a venue for a physical launch in London, then every member involved in that particular event will all contribute equally. We are a Limited Company in the UK now, so I do use my book keeping skills from my day job to ensure we keep everything legal and above board.
How do you ensure everyone abides by the rules and pulls their weight?
CT: I am not sure if I'd say that we have rules, exactly. But we do expect everyone to pull their weight. We have a pretty regular pattern of things we are each expected to contribute to, and a work plan (refreshed weekly) that sets out what's expected to go into each of those slots. Nominally, once every five weeks, when our turn rolls round, is when we make sure we have completed everything we are supposed to have done. In practice, most of us probably do those things as and when we can fit them in.
That workplan is checked regularly, and if there are gaps that need to be filled, we get a nudge. Then at least once a year we do a big review of how everything has been going - if people have any ideas how things could be done better, or if anyone is struggling to cope. And we adjust accordingly.
How do you manage dispute resolution, in the event of a disagreement? CT: Perhaps because our joint financial commitment is minimal, we have been fortunate not to have any really serious disputes. But of course we have disagreements. The key is keeping channels of communication open, and talking things out, not bottling them up.
How do you split group responsibilities (website, FB page, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest...?)
GH: So, my other badge as well as finance is social media. I run the Facebook and Twitter accounts which are regularly updated daily or weekly. If I'm away or extra busy, someone else will always step in and help out. Other members take up the slack with Instagram and Pinterest when we have something to promote, and we all try to share our posts as much as possible. We took this approach as it got a bit confusing at times, not knowing who was posting what and when, so now if anyone has anything they want putting out on Triskele channels we share it internally first to keep things clean and ensure we don't duplicate posts.
What joint marketing activities do you carry out? CT: We have the Triskele website and blog, which we use, among other things, as a showcase for our work. This year, for example, we have having a once a month feature on the blog focusing on one of our books in particular and talking about the inspiration behind it.
In addition to that, most years we try and do one Big Thing, where we are not necessarily pushing our own books, but promoting the Triskele name. We have run three so-called 'Indie Author Fairs' - pop-up bookshops where indie authors could come and sell their books directly to readers. The last of those was combined with a one-day Lit Fest, where panels of authors writing in different genres discussed their work. And this year we are running the second of two competitions to win a year's mentoring, with the aim of taking a finished manuscript and making it publication-ready, with editing, proofreading, page-setting, cover design etc. Our first winner went through the process, decided to try for an agent and got one in a matter of days!
What do you do about marketing when there are gaps in releases?
JJ: We try to keep a bubbling profile, publishing a blogpost per week under the Triskele name. We also publish articles on Words with JAM magazine for writers and reviews on Bookmuse for readers. Aside from individual promotions and advertising, we watch out for opportunities and alert one another. We all jump in and trumpet a member's new release and usually have a physical event each year to promote all our releases and drink Prosecco. Every week, one of us is on duty, stoking the fires.
In addition to a Triskele website, what other joint social media platforms would you recommend?
JJ: We have a Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Pinterest presencein addition to the content delivery above. Others have had success with LinkedIn or Instagram - whatever feels right for you.
How do you co-ordinate your public face, i.e. website, blog, FB/Twitter, etc. Do you use a schedule? And perhaps use a shared Dropbox folder to share documents between all members? GH: I may have covered this in my previous answer, but we mostly use our private Facebook group for internal chats and shares, or we add things to our weekly round up emails, and edit them via Google. Nothing goes public until it gets the thumbs up! Website updates are agreed internally and then either myself or Jane will add new books or information as needed.
Indie Author Fair
Has your collective free short story anthology been a good draw and created traffic to your site with resulting sales?
JJ: Our three collaborative publications - A Time and Place boxset, A Taste of Triskele short stories and recipes, plus our collaborative non-fiction book A Pathway to Publication - all earn us a steady trickle of income. On top of that we use an Amazon affiliate code to bring in regular pennies. The great thing about the boxset and story collection is they don't need any maintenance. I'd be hard pushed to define which of our myriad funnels brings most traffic to our site, but people do come.
Self-publishing: A number of people mentioned that they’d find really useful a step by step guide to what needs to be done and by when, when you are self-publishing.
JJ: Pick up A Pathway to Self-Publishing. You can get it for free by signing up to our newsletter. It covers everything we've learned and is constantly updated. Or poke about on our website and find many useful articles on your particular interest. Or join The Alliance of Independent Authors. Do Joanna Penn's Author 101 or David Gaughran's Let's Get Digital. There's so much information but all of it is constantly changing. This is one of the biggest advantages of operating as a collective - five minds watching, testing, learning, writing, reading and communicating.
Team Triskele colours
Final point: When we started publishing as a collective, it was almost unheard of. So we sought out other collectives to interview, compare notes and learn from each other. You can find all our interviews here and we would be so very pleased if you came back to tell us about your successes. Thanks for the smart questions! Jill, Gilly, Liza, Jane and Kat