The mystery behind Murder on the Minneapolis

by Anita Davison

As a reader, I have always loved the cosy mystery genre, the Agatha Christie style gatherings of genteel characters among whom one, or maybe more, turn out to be the villain(s). I like the easy to read formula which works without taking the reader into too many dark corners. Psychological thrillers are compelling but there will always be a place for the lighter crime story where the threads are neatly tied; the villain is revealed, justice prevails and everyone gets what they deserve. Maybe because it’s so different to real life, which is often inconclusive and messy.

When I decided to write a cosy mystery, I wanted to set it in the Edwardian age, mainly because this was a time of great change and also because there are vast amounts of documented and photographic evidence available to help give the novel an authentic atmosphere. I chose the location to be one of the steamships, which became all the rage during the late nineteenth century. The SS Minneapolis, built in Belfast, and was commissioned in the 1890s by the American Atlantic Transport Line. Along with their sister ships, she was a luxurious, seagoing palace designed to ferry first class passengers only between New York and London before the First World War.

The SS Minneapolis left New York on her maiden voyage in April 1900, which is not strictly Edwardian as Queen Victoria died in 1901 – but close enough as her influence had been usurped by the Prince of Wales by then. At 600 feet long and with a passenger complement of under a hundred, I imagined my characters wouldn’t get lost in a vast, floating city.

                       SS Minneapolis

The murder plot was inspired while researching the skyline passengers would see as they sailed up the Hudson into the Atlantic. I came across a report in the New York Times dated December 1899, whose bold headline announced ‘BRIDEGROOM ***** DEAD’. With journalistic straightforwardness, the report said a businessman had died unexpectedly within a week of his secret wedding. The details were brief and factual, with no speculation as to what had led up to the death, or the effect on his bereft bride.

This lack of back story prompted me to invent a scenario as to the possible circumstances of this tragedy, if there was one. My cosy mystery plotline, complete with villain, red herrings and solution was all there in that one, short news clipping. I have not produced it here as I’d like to avoid leaving little for the reader to work out for themselves – which is surely half the fun of this genre.

I was still unsure as to who my sleuth would be. A Poirot type character or a Miss Marple? Or neither? Then, while searching through Victorian photographs in a local antique shop, I came across a gentle-faced girl with light eyes, her hair upswept into a soft bun, and her slender neck encased in a delicate lace collar. Instantly, I knew this girl would be my investigator and gave her the name Flora Maguire. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy the photograph as it was part of a much larger collection, but she’s lodged comfortably inside my head and resides there quite happily.

Flora is an English governess; intelligent, educated, and a striking woman, though her station in life means that her intellect is often overlooked. She’s observant, but not too forward as she is used to keeping to the background.

When a man dies on board ship, Flora isn’t satisfied with the opinions of the crew and ship’s doctor, so she embarks on a personal mission to solve the mystery before the ship reaches England.

I felt Flora needed a confidant on this voyage, a young man to talk out her theories with, but who would also make her rethink her conclusions.  He needed to be attractive, kind and somewhat enigmatic, after all, any one of the passengers could be a killer. Whether their friendship would progress is unclear as he is from a different class, something which would have been a real barrier in the year 1900.

Amongst the usual complement of shipboard characters is one who appears almost as interested in the death on board as Flora, but whether or not he is a villain is not evident.

Flora’s story was fun to write, but more challenging than I imagined when it came to feeding clues and red herrings into the plot without giving too much away. If the outcome is too predictable, the reader will become bored and if too convoluted, they will become frustrated and give up.

I have heard of strange coincidences cropping up during the course of research. Thus far this has not happened to me – except in this case. During the WW1 Centenary celebrations of last summer, I discovered that all the ‘Minne’ class steamships of the Atlantic Transport Line were used as troopships. At the same time, I was also researching my paternal grandfather’s and great uncle’s service records, discovering they both served in the same regiment. The battalion in which my great uncle served was transported to the Western Front in October 1914 on the SS Minneapolis, and took part in the Battle of Ypres. My grandfather survived the war, but my eighteen-year-old great uncle was killed in France in June 1915.

This was something I was unaware of until then, more than a year after I went looking for a steamship on which to base my murder mystery.  Research, mystical connection or simply coincidence?

Murder on the Minneapolis by Anita Davison will be published by Robert Hale on 30 June

Wendy Perriam: ‘Mother’s Day – And we’re all awash with schmaltz’

Wendy Perriam on mothers in fiction.

‘“Mothers are angels in human form, divinities on earth”; “God moulded my mother’s heart from gold and put shining stars in her eyes”. Such tributes paid to mothers online are surely only fitting for unbelievable paragons like Marmee in Little Women. Most psychologists agree that the mother/child relationship, and especially the mother/daughter relationship, is often intractable and fraught. According to research, women only finally appreciate their mothers after 183 rows and 164 door-slammings. (Don’t ask me how they record such things!) And serious mother/child disruptions are all too familiar in literature, from Ancient Greece to modern times – think Oedipus, Medea, Hamlet, Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, or Lolita’s mother who puts her own sexual satisfaction above the safety of her daughter. And most crass and vile of all mothers must surely be Matilda’s, depicted by Roald Dahl as neglectful, idiotic and tyrannically abusive.

Even some of my close friends are in constant daily conflict with their daughters, or despairing of children who seem distant, recalcitrant or downright bolshie. So we’re faced with a dichotomy: angelic mothers, on the one hand, hymned and praised in treacly Mother’s Day cards and, on the other, the unwelcome truth of slammed doors and family rifts. Last year, I asked my Creative Writing students to write a one-page study of their mothers and was shocked by the number of callous harridans who nagged and scolded from those pages.

And, when it comes to me and mothers, I didn’t have the best start in the world! Born in the middle of the war to a highly anxious mum, who already had an underweight toddler, born prematurely and still giving much cause for anxiety, the last thing she wanted was another child. And who can blame her, with my Dad away, bombs raining down on the family home, and us forced to sleep in the cramped and smelly air-raid shelter under the dining-room table?

Even my actual birth was far from serene. Mum’s labour started in the middle of a horror film, precipitating a mad dash from cinema to hospital, where I emerged in an undignified rush, sickly-yellow from jaundice. One look at my ghastly hue and satanically dark hair was enough to convince my parents to change my name from Angela to Wendy – I was clearly more devil than angel. But, since Wendy isn’t a Saint’s name, the nuns who schooled me from age 4 to age 21 disapproved of it intensely.

Those same nuns constituted a whole troupe of alternative “mothers”– scary forbidding figures with, apparently, no hair and no discernible bodies, just long black gliding robes. Nor could one expect much mercy, let alone mothering, from such strict, judgemental disciplinarians, who regarded touch as dangerous and pleasure as a one-way ticket to Hell. My schoolgirl diaries record how often we were told we were “vegetables”, “hopeless failures” and “miserable worms”, who would never amount to anything.

9780709093862So perhaps it’s little wonder that my latest short-story collection has Bad Mothers in the title. However, I didn’t consciously set out to write about mothers, good or bad, and it was only when I re-read the whole collection that I realized how many bad mothers feature in the stories. The thing about short stories is that they require much less pre-planning and structuring than novels, and seem to arise spontaneously, often prompted by childhood experiences. And, certainly, as a child, I was in frequent trouble both from my mother and the nuns. The latter eventually expelled me and told me I was in the devil’s power – the most frightening moment of my life, since Satan seemed totally real and terrifyingly evil.

In the story A Cuppa and a Biscuit, I recreate a younger version of my troubled schoolgirl self and re-enact her dread of Hell and damnation – still with me at the age of 74! This story is based on a real-life incident, when I was told by Reverend Mother (the most daunting of all mothers) not to keep fainting at Holy Mass. But how could I stop what she called “this pernicious habit”, when it seemed to happen automatically and I’d find myself blacking out and slumping to the floor? Truth to tell, I was probably just weak and hungry, since we girls ate nothing from early supper to post-Mass breakfast the next day.

However, as a counterbalance to punitive Reverend Mothers and cantankerously critical real mothers, there are some benign and gentle mothers in my new short-story collection. The title-story, Mouse, for example, features a kind and decent mother, whose only fault is her fear of mice. (This is an extremely common phobia, judging by the statistics, so I hope musophobics readers aren’t unduly alarmed by the book-jacket!) And Debs’ Mum in Presents is genuinely loving and caring, a supportive figure who cooks her daughter proper porridge in the morning; has her supper waiting when she returns knackered after work; makes her a hot-water-bottle if her period-pain is bad; sews new eyes on her old, balding teddy bear, and offers to make her curtains if and when she moves away from home. And the reason Debs doesn’t move, despite her desire for her own flat, is because of the very strength and solidity of that love, which she now sees as a precious gift – a gift of time, effort and devotion

And talking of gifts, I hope that, despite its title, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers will make an apt and unusual present for Mother’s Day. After all, if a few of the mothers prove alarming, the brilliant lovers may well compensate!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here 

Dylan Thomas, Sunset Boulevard and the Beatles: inspiring Three Strange Angels

by Laura Kalpakian

One of the pleasures of being a novelist is to be able to build an entire book from a wisp, a particle otherwise insignificant, an anecdote that lodges in the brain, rather like the grit that eventually becomes a pearl. Three Strange Angels is that sort of novel.

My first London agency was a venerable firm, founded in about 1919 and boasting a list of authors that dazzled me. By association, I liked to think, my work was included in this stellar company. I lived in England, off and on, Oxford and Cambridge, throughout the 80s, and when I first went to the literary agency’s Mayfair offices, I was delighted to step back in time. Amid an ambience of ramshackle tradition, typewriters clacked away, the air hung heavy with cigarette smoke, and manuscripts lolled off every shelf. In an arc across a high wall were a galaxy of author photos, literary sophisticates mostly from the 1930s and 40s. My own agent in this firm was new, a young woman around my age, and we became (and remain) fast friends. The head of the firm was a man of my parents’ generation, dapper, convivial, charming.

One summer afternoon he took the two of us out to lunch at a posh Mayfair restaurant. He was treated like royalty; the drinks kept coming, the service was impeccable, the conversation funny and anecdotal. He told a story about their client Dylan Thomas (no less!) and Thomas’s sad, sudden demise at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. At that time, 1953, this now-distinguished head of the agency was a young man, a junior partner. The firm sent him as their (and the family’s) emissary to New York to escort the poet’s body home to England. This was the era of ocean liners. On that voyage, on learning that the young literary agent was associated with the much-mourned poet, other travelers feted him, fed him, bought him drinks to salute the sadness they felt for the late, lamented Dylan Thomas. The experience made him understand the power of poetry.

After that lunch, on my way back to Cambridge, as the train whistled and rocked, I kept thinking, there’s a novel there

And now, some thirty years later, and spun far from that morselette of anecdote, Three Strange Angels comes to print. I didn’t actually start writing the book until about 2010 when the central character, Quentin, emerged in my imagination: a young man with all his tickets punched, his future foreordained. Francis Carson’s death would draw Quentin into the unexpected orbit of the fascinating widow, Claire Carson, a displaced American. The task of escorting the late Francis Carson’s body home from Los Angeles would change Quentin forever.  As I wrote and read and researched over the years, the central thematics emerged: the tension between Austerity and Desire. For a young Londoner in 1950 to step into Los Angeles would have been a total, cosmic shock to the system.

Gigi Fischer – clever, sassy, shallow – nicely embodies that cosmic shock. The formidable cookery writer, Louisa Partridge, offers Quentin insight, sophistication he could never have come to on his own. And Claire Carson offers him love, the great love of his life for which he was willing to imperil everything. The book’s title, from the D. H. Lawrence poem ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’ (fittingly) came to me years after. I have always loved that line about the three strange angels knocking at the door, and the urgent admonition “Admit them, admit them.”

I filled Three Strange Angels with elements that have been important, even crucial to my own life. Books, of course. Reading. Especially novels.  Music of all sorts. I am especially fond of old, early recordings that hiss and rasp and the singer’s voice wavers up from the past. And films. In my research I sat spellbound through Sunset Boulevard (1950) and a lot of British films from and of that era as well. And then, just before I wrote the (sort of) last draft, I went to the library and spent days with the whirring microfilm machine and reading the London Times, beginning in January 1950, when the novel opens, to have a sense of the world in which Quentin Castle would have actually moved and lived and had his being.

Quentin Castle’s England was indeed pinched and austere. The war, though it ended five years before, was everywhere apparent in still-uncleared rubble; incalculable losses hung over everyone, as Robert’s death remains a vivid loss for Quentin. Rationing didn’t end till 1954; the winters were bitter and coal shortages kept people hunkered in their overcoats. Americans, who did not live with the war on their soil, nor with daily privations, had no understanding of England’s post-war suffering. And frankly (as the novel makes clear) wanted none.

In Britain the grim fifties ground on, and then, as the decade turned, the Beatles emerged!  Boyish, cheeky, energetic, incredibly talented, and tons of fun (A Hard Day’s Night is one of my favorite movies) the Beatles and the rock scene they inspired in the early sixties seemed to wake Britain up. The old post-war pall lifted, and England was suddenly chic, mod, even enviable. Three Strange Angels ends at this bright moment, June 1965, when Quentin, at age forty, prosperous, professionally acclaimed for his astute literary taste, sits at his desk and once again, risks everything for love.

Three Strange Angels will be published by Robert Hale in March 2015.

Wendy Perriam: ‘All set for Valentine’s Day!’

Wendy Perriam talks to us about Valentine’s Day and romance in her recent works.

‘Brilliant lovers sound just the ticket for Valentine’s Day! If we’re lucky enough to have one in our life, we can expect a profusion of hearts, flowers and chocolates on 14 February – and of course fireworks in the sack!

9780709093862But, in my new short-story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, romantic relationships don’t always pan out quite so well. Even in the story Unbelievably Wonderful – again a title promising rapture all the way – Frances can only respond to her, yes, truly brilliant lover, Duncan, by pretending he’s someone completely and utterly different: her first teenage love, Josh, whom she’s never forgotten and regrets ever having left. So, in her mind she changes the tall, distinguished wealthy, high-powered Duncan into small, shabby, impoverished Josh – and, against all the odds, it does result in a “unbelievably wonderful” sexual encounter.

Another story, Venus, also takes an unexpected turn. Although Poppy is turned on, at first, by Leon’s erotic expertise, when he actually undresses she’s devastated by the sight of his spindly, withered body. Only then does she realize the full implications of the 60-year age-gap between them – something she’s chosen to ignore on account of his fame and distinction. But no amount of distinction can transform him into a virile young stud, so, appalled, she flees from his bed, while he, for his part, reacts with surprising venom.

As a writer, I’ve always been more interested in unworkable couplings and tempestuous liaisons than in quiet, contented relationships. After all, Cupid carries two different sorts of arrows: sharp ones of pure gold, which fill a person struck by them with uncontrollable desire, and blunt, lead-tipped ones that wound their victims with an overwhelming feeling of aversion. And I’m very much aware that, beneath the showy petals of Valentine’s Day red roses, lie sharp and dangerous thorns, and that even the most luscious of chocolates can sate and glut and stale.

None of the stories in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers actually takes place on Valentine’s Day, but I’ve included it in earlier books. For instance, the two protagonists in my novel, The Stillness The Dancing, find themselves, on 14 February, staying on a remote Scottish Island, where David is researching the life of a seventh-century Celtic Saint. He suggests they mark the occasion by re-enacting the ancient Roman Festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on the same date as Valentine’s Day and thus claimed by some authorities to be historically linked with it.

So, after beating the bounds of the island and singing to a tame seal, the couple return to their windswept cottage for a ritual meal symbolizing fertility and fruitfulness. Yet, when they go upstairs for their first attempt at sex, it all goes disastrously wrong, & Morna lies miserable and frustrated, secretly enraged by the Catholic conditioning that has taught them both that sex is sinful and an instant passport to Hell.  Suddenly, though, she explodes in a wild tirade against nuns, priests, Popes and all those prissy celibates whose teachings have restricted her life and David’s so severely.  And the tirade itself finally ignites his passion, thus saving their offbeat Valentine’s Day!

In another novel, Second Skin, newly widowed Catherine has arranged to meet the handsome but troubled poet, Will, for a meal on Valentine’s Day. When she arrives, attired in her best but worryingly late, she finds him shabbily dressed, frozen stiff and distinctly grumpy – hardly a good start to the evening. And further problems and jealousies erupt during what she hoped would be a romantic dinner. In fact, it’s only when she actually takes the initiative and demands a kiss from the unforthcoming poet that, again, all is eventually resolved, since fortunately he obliges with full, red-blooded exuberance.

So what of my own Valentine’s Day this year? At the ripe old age of 74, I can hardly expect a passionate encounter, except perhaps in fantasy – one of the main resources for any writer. But I won’t be alone in my celibacy. According to recent research, 79% of us Brits would rather have a good night’s sleep than have sex with our partners, and more than one in five women would prefer to kiss goodbye to their sex-lives than have to give up chocolate. In fact, 33% of females obsess about chocolate during the day, compared with only 18% who fantasize about sex.

Beetles and gastropods, however, put us humans to shame. Recently, I was researching the sex-lives of lowly creatures (don’t ask why!), and it appears that the sex-crazed ladybird can mate for up to nine hours every day, and garden-snails aren’t far behind. The latter rub and bite each other in untiring sexual marathons, lustfully waving their eye-stalks, and even firing mucous love-darts at each other.

So perhaps I was mistaken in not including a ladybird or a snail or two in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers. Nonetheless, Cupid’s love-darts are certainly present in the book, so I hope it will make an appropriately diverting gift for Valentine’s Day. If nothing else, it will undoubtedly last longer than chocolates or red roses!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

The immortality of Sherlock Holmes, and why he lives on

Jeremy Kingston

What marks out Sherlock Holmes as different from all other fictional characters is his inexhaustible capacity for inspiring new adventures.  Favourite characters from other books – notably those by Jane Austen and Dickens – have appeared in sequels and prequels and sexed-up adaptations, but almost without exception they are set in the time when the characters first made their appearance.  With Holmes it is very different. Arthur Conan Doyle may have brought him out of retirement to break up a German spy ring in 1914, but a quarter of a century later he was battling the Nazis in a popular series of movies. Basil Rathbone played him as an athletic man in middle age though, logically, he should then have been pushing ninety.

The modern BBC adaptation, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

The modern BBC adaptation, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

The jump across time-space is even more striking in the ongoing TV series Sherlock where Benedict Cumberbatch’s urbane Holmes and Martin Freeman’s steely Watson race through the streets of an up-to-the-minute city dominated by the London Eye.  Here, the vital clue is likely to be found on the screen of a mobile.  Doyle’s Holmes would not have told Inspector Lestrade to ‘piss off’, nor would the original Watson have called Holmes, even if genially, an idiot.  These are the heroes of an absolutely contemporary crime thriller.

The pace of the action is far faster than in its predecessors but Holmes and Watson, while different in so many ways, are somehow still the same, because what is significant about them has to stay the same. No one in the history of the world has ever been as observant as Holmes, or been able to draw such perfectly exact conclusions from what he observes.  He is human but also superhuman, and it is this shifting combination that helps to bring about the rich range of performances from the many actors who have brought him to life on stage and screen, from Robert Downey Jr. to Cumberbatch. He is impossibly perfect but this does not make him perfect. He has his faults, loads of them; the Cumberbatch version admits he is a sociopath; he is a bully, rude, impatient and totally fascinating. For someone to possess such failings and yet be on the side of good – and successful in making the good side win – gives him his heroic stature.  We want to believe in the existence of such a person, even while we know it to be impossible. It is what tempts countless writers to put him in new situations, set either in the Victorian age or today.

Dr Watson is the loyal companion.  At first he was the amazed onlooker, knowledgeable in his own field but panting to keep up with the quicksilver deductions of his friend.  Over time he lost some of his stolid nature but continued to be what could be called ‘the typical Englishman.’  But as the English type changed, so has Watson. At the start of Sherlock he has returned from fighting in Afghanistan – just as in his very first appearance in the 1880s – but this time he admits that he was thrilled to be in the excitement of battle.  His character has become close to Holmes in craving excitement to stave off the boredom of a quiet life.

This film adaptation, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, was released in 2011.

Because so many variations can be played on the theme of their fight against crime, there seems no reason why writers will ever stop finding them an inspiration.  Their opponents can be of all kinds and the struggle set almost anywhere. Even back in the period when they first appeared, which is where I set my own version, Sherlock Holmes and a Scandal in Batavia. Mine is the London, the Camargue and the Cannes of the 1880s. As in so many of the Doyle originals, the fate of nations hangs upon the outcome and royal families are involved.

I was spurred into writing it by some curious events in my own life; just like Holmes, my father retired to Eastbourne after living in Crowborough – where Conan Doyle lived – and became a bee-keeper. I could have started the adventure without any explanation of how Dr Watson’s manuscript had suddenly emerged but I was keen to make it all feel as real and seemingly truthful as possible, and the Eastbourne-Crowborough connection offered a way of doing so – helped by imagining a solicitor in whose vaults the manuscript had long been interred.

Where the writers of Sherlock must have found great fun slipping some original incidents, neatly disguised, into their plots, I greatly enjoyed doing the same, the intention being to suggest that my Dr Watson is writing what truly happened but which he had to disguise for publication. The story of Holmes and Watson will never be done. They are men for all seasons.

Sherlock Holmes and a Scandal in Batavia by Jeremy Kingston will be published by Robert Hale in July 2015.

Wendy Perriam: ‘My new short story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is published today!’

Wendy tells us about her latest collection.

9780709093862‘The title may seem a tad blatant but, in my 35 years as a writer, I’ve been continually fascinated by the key influence parents exert over their children’s future development and life-chances, and also by the power of sex to enrich and exhilarate. Yet I’m equally aware of the darker side of sex, which, if violent or exploitative, can damage and debase. Taught by the Reverend Mother of my convent boarding-school that one single act of incontinence could land me in hellfire for all eternity, I was conscious from a tender age of the dramatic dangers of “the world, the flesh and the devil”.

Bad mothers certainly feature in this collection – negative, critical, or cantankerous – but I wanted to balance them with some positive, upbeat element – hence the lovers, who, although by no means all ‘brilliant’, engage in enough passionate and transformative sex to justify the adjective. However, there are also more troubling liaisons, for instance, an 82-year-old professor’s attempt to seduce a post-graduate student 60 years his junior. The encounter begins promisingly enough, as the Prof runs through his repertoire of erotic expertise but, when it comes to the crunch, he proves just too offputtingly ancient and the girl flees his bed in panic and disgust.

Another, much younger lover – a data analyst obsessed with numbers, algorithms and mathematical formulae – seems incapable of sexual spontaneity, adhering to a rigid sexual system, as if his every timetabled move is dictated by a dispassionate cyber-brain.

But many of my characters lack any kind of lover: essentially lonely souls, such as 93-year-old widow Primrose, divorcee Sarah, or single, childless Ellen. Yet, each of the three achieves redemption and reprieve – another recurring theme in my work. The basic notion of redemption was instilled in me, very early on, as a Roman Catholic child and I found it appealingly compassionate in that every person on earth can be saved, so long as they seek forgiveness. Of course, redemption for my fictional characters is rarely a religious matter; indeed, is sometimes achieved through bizarrely secular means – in businesswoman Helen’s case, a self-indulgent glut of marshmallows, or, for shy loner Ken, a home-made Christmas pudding – but the basic concept holds good, in that it remains a regenerative and liberating force.

As always, many of the stories sprang from personal experience: the fake gold ring I was offered in a scam; my encounter with a colony of mice at Clapham Common tube station; the bridal couple I saw posing for photos in the Lost Property Office, of all places; my horror as a pious child when I fainted during Holy Mass and believed I was plunging into Hell.

And that terrifying incident brings me back to mothers and lovers. Reverend Mother, who deplored my habitual fainting and refused to call me Wendy on the grounds it wasn’t a Saint’s name, was undoubtedly a ‘bad mother’. Yet I sought solace in God the Father, whom I regarded as a lover, in the sense of a powerful, life-enhancing Presence, demanding worship and surrender.

Oppressive mothers and unobtainable fathers have characterized much of my work since my first novel in 1980, along with Catholicism, of course, which has left indelible traces in the fibre of my being, like letters lingering in a stick of rock until the very last lick. And, in many of my books, I explore the struggle between rebellion and submission, and the drive for self-fulfilment in conflict with the pernicious lure of self-destruction. All these themes recur in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, yet, in the interests of fairness, I’ve also included a few good mothers in the stories, as well as some downright crappy lovers. Take your pick!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

Wendy Perriam tells us what Christmas means to her and her characters

Dear Father Christmas, what I’d really like for Christmas is some joy …..

9780709093862No, not the anguished plea of an unhappy child, but a letter from 55-year-old Ken, posted in the big red mail-box in Santa’s Grotto at his local shopping centre. Ken, the protagonist of the second story in my new short-story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is struck by the rarity of joy in his life, almost non-existent since his childhood. Yet the story ends on Christmas Day with him in euphoric mood, relishing the best Christmas dinner he’s ever experienced to date.

The short-story form itself could be described as joyous, in that it is so much less laborious than novel-writing. All these 15 new stories came easily and effortlessly, prompted by some small incident or even an offhand remark – the dismissive “Just yourself?”, for instance, with which I was greeted by the snooty manager when entering a restaurant on my own. Before I’d even glanced at the menu, a story took shape in my mind: unmarried, childless Ellen, receiving the same grudging welcome – and on her 40th birthday, of all days – feels unloved, unwanted and an all-too-obvious failure. Yet, by the end of the story, she, too, is considerably more upbeat and even has a ring on her finger!

Yet Christmas can be a challenging and lonely time for those without families or loved ones. The widowed, childless Primrose in my story, Lost, dreads what she sees as the “long, benighted days of the so-called Festive Season” and has to draw up a plan to make Christmas Day more endurable: a nice boiled egg for breakfast, a short walk to the Common, then back for the Queen’s Speech, a couple of mince pies, and an evening watching television – hardly very exciting, but at least it fills the empty hours.

And in Magical Numbers, young bride-to-be Lynne lands up in hospital in mid-December, with a badly broken leg, and faces the prospect of a pain-ridden, immobile Christmas in a ward full of elderly invalids. However, in her case, her spirits are high, because something magical has just occurred in that very hospital bed: “serendipitously, and in the nick of time, she has managed to “escape an onerous life-sentence”.

I personally detest Christmas, with its fake good cheer, the increasingly crowded shops and increasingly irritable shoppers, and the obligation to spend, spend, spend, cook, cook, cook, and tirelessly celebrate this season of hype and hysteria. I may sound like a Scrooge, but when Christmas catalogues begin arriving as early as July, one gets heartily sick of glitter, baubles, reindeer, robins, recorded carols in the supermarkets, and all the razzle-dazzle rest of it, by the time Christmas Day actually arrives.

However, on 14 January, when Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is officially published, I’ll be truly celebrating – not just the new book, but the fact that the days are getting longer, the mornings lighter, the first snowdrops are in bloom, and Christmas is over for another 345 days!

Bad Mothers Brilliant lovers will be published on 14 January. Pre-order your copy here.

New fiction: Love and Freindship (sic): And Other Delusions by Beth Andrews

9780719813856Love and Freindship was written when Jane Austen was just 14, and foreshadows the conflict between moral obligation and individual desire which animates Austen’s mature comedic efforts such as Sense and Sensibility. Now updated in this sparkling satire by Beth Andrews, the story follows Isabel and her daughter Marianne when they attend the theatre in Bury St Edmunds and encounter Isabel’s old friend, Laura Lindsay, who gives her journal to Marianne to read. It is a revelation to the younger woman as she reads of one hilarious madcap romantic escapade after another.

There is love at first sight, marriage the same day, the befriending of another young woman as romantic as Laura herself, exaggerated sentiment and complete disregard for the feelings of others. Havoc inevitably ensues. This is Jane Austen retold but retaining her huge capacity for laughter and enjoyment of the absurd. The book includes the Jane Austen’s version of Love and Freindship
– complete with uncorrected spelling.

Love and Freindship is published on October 31st. Author Beth Andrews discusses how she updated Austen’s original text:

“Re-writing Jane Austen seems a bit like attempting ‘to gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet.’  Still, fools and writers (surely members of the same species) tend to rush in where angels would hesitate to set foot.  The variations on Pride and Prejudice, and Austen’s five other adult novels, are Legion.  Nobody seemed to think that Love and Freindship was worthy of similar mistreatment, but I was determined to rectify this glaring omission.

Although the heroine of this novella is unique in the Austen canon, in that she has learned absolutely nothing at the end of her story, I felt that even a third-rate novelist like myself could improve things by introducing a sub-plot in which a minor character does actually learn a thing or two.  I also recklessly abandoned the creaky epistolary style of the original, threw in references to other Austen works and even a mild joke borrowed from one of my own books, added a host of anachronisms, and committed various other atrocities such as inventing a very different ending.   The kitchen sink may be missing, but not much else.

At this point, I considered my work accomplished.  It may lack the classic melodrama of Jane Eyrehead, with its delectable madwoman in the attic (though Laura might well have evolved into such a character); nor is it explicit enough to be mistaken for a more modern masterpiece like 500 Shades of Puce.  However, in its own small way, I feel it has made a considerable contribution to the moral and intellectual decline of the present generation, and may well serve as a prime example of the nadir of artistic achievement at which Western Civilization has finally arrived.  This may seem like an idle boast to many, but the current trend in self-promotion makes outrageous hyperbole a virtual necessity (please note that I have deliberately changed the names of the last two novels mentioned above, for the simple reason that I felt like it.).”

Historical fiction, and why it grips us so…

By Sandra Heath Wilson

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that . . . . Well, the famous Jane Austen opening line is one of the most memorable of all time, and not only in historical fiction, which is what Pride and Prejudice has now become. It was, of course, current when written.

To me, it is a truth universally acknowledged that once an author becomes enthralled by the past, whether a person, famous event or quarrel, or something as fascinatingly complicated as the Wars of the Roses and the machinations in Renaissance Florence, it’s very difficult indeed to change genre.

The past beguiles us, and leaves us with so many intriguing puzzles that weaving one’s fictional plot through the known facts can be very rewarding. Whether you’re a gifted writer of thought-provoking books, as is Hilary Mantel, or a teller of tales, like me, the passion is the same. I am entranced by the Plantagenets. The thought of all that pageantry, bloodshed, dangerous love, wicked plotting and heinous treason fires me with interest. I’m alight with it. The colour, fashions and romance join in, and everything melds into a wonderful microcosm that is contained within the pages of a novel. Begin to read, and you’re carried back into those hazardous times, you meet the kings, queens and nobles, you accompany them on their adventures, into battle . . . and into love.

Richard III's skeletal remains discovered under a car park inspired a wave of Plantagenet fiction.

The discovery of Richard III’s remains inspired a wave of Plantagenet fiction.

I do not suggest for a moment that Hilary Mantel approaches her works in the same way, but this is how I write, and my Cicely trilogy is the result of that imagined time-travelling excitement. My characters—both real and fictional—are there, in the thick of it. I’m there too, and so are my readers, being part of everything. We can’t possibly know what those real people said and did in private, so when they slip away secretly from the floodlit stage into the novel’s shadows, it will be for purposes that the author has invented.

This is where fiction blends with fact. The imagined events are woven intricately through the cloth of truth by the storyteller, and the result is a tale of what might have happened. Not what did. Provided the author makes sure the reader is never deceived into thinking the book tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then the world of imagination awaits.

The discovery of Richard III’s remains in Leicester has made him the most talked-of King of England, at once notorious and tragic, and the TV serialization of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen sparked a lot more interest in his life. An antidote to Shakespeare’s monster. I first became fascinated by Richard back in the very early 1970s, when I read a little detective novel called The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Tey was clearly convinced Richard had been lied about throughout history, and her detective hero set about getting to the truth. His conclusion was that Richard was a good man and king who had been betrayed at the Battle of Bosworth.

There has been a huge increase in fiction and non-fiction about this last Plantagenet monarch, and judging by reviews at Amazon and similar sites, the trend is set to continue. The market is there, and publishers have responded, although whether individual publishers are presenting their fiction titles in the most advantageous way is another matter. Some do, some don’t.

6a010536b33b69970b01a73dbf3ee3970d-400wi  The Dance of Love  9781910208069  9781910208052

Historical fiction from Buried River Press

In these days of increasing self-publishing, traditional publishers need to be one step ahead. Their clout is their distribution, marketing, production, well-honed editing and, of course, their reputation. Their authors expect their support and advertising, but with the Internet and social media, have to do a lot of self-publicizing as well. It’s up to all concerned to tap into the growing, hungry market, which does await its next meal! Thus it is even more incumbent upon publishers to do all they can to see their books do as well as possible.

Richard III and the Wars of the Roses may be almost fashionable now, but other figures and periods have just as strong a grip on the imagination of writers and readers alike. The Tudors, the Romans, Roundheads and Cavaliers, the Regency, the Victorians, Edwardians, the Roaring Twenties and the two World Wars. I’m sure I’ve missed many more that cry out to be mentioned, but the point is that the past — even the recent past— bewitches us.

This Victorian novel by Michael Faber (2002, Canongate) was adapted as a BBC series in 2011.

Will this continue? Mediaeval storytellers entertained with tales of King Arthur and his knights, who inhabited a glorious, golden age that should be emulated in the mediaeval present, and since then every age has produced stories that look back longingly at what has been lost. So yes, historical fiction is going to continue to be popular. It may ebb occasionally, but the tide always comes in again and often stays high for a long time. Richard III may be the man of the moment, but if the remains of King Harold are discovered, as is expected, then there could be a trend towards Saxon/Norman-set novels. Ditto King Alfred, or even King John, should his lost treasure be found in the Wash. Publishers have to be ready to second-guess what will take off next—as will authors—and those with this prescience will steal a march on the rest.

A time machine is something for which many of us long, to go back to witness it all. But in the meantime, there are novels, where our imagination, not the skills of a film or TV director, or even Shakespeare, gets to work and recreates it all. For writer and reader alike, historical fiction is a wonderful escape from present woes.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers and the reading public are enthralled by centuries gone by, and I for one do not think it will ever change. Authors and publishers need to be on their toes to satisfy demand.

Ladies Who Launch

The Dance of Love book launch by Angela Young

(C) Veronika Hyks

(C) Veronika Hyks

Last Thursday my second novel, THE DANCE of LOVE, just published by Buried River Press, was launched from the Barnes Bookshop (which is owned and run by a wonderfully enthusiastic bookseller, Isla Dawes). May the book travel far and wide, gathering readers as it goes. It certainly had a good send-off.

One friend, in her enthusiasm, arrived on Monday and couldn’t understand why the bookshop was closed, but she returned on the right night along with many others. Gill Jackson, MD of Robert Hale, said lovely things about the book (thank you, Gill) and I’d told Isla I thought we’d be about sixty-five people but then, or so I’m told, 10% of invitees to any party never turn up and that turned out to be the case – some were stuck in the traffic jam from hell (I mean from Hammersmith) – but others brought unexpected but exceedingly welcome extra friends, so we ended up with the number of friends I’d thought might come, despite the traffic gods.

My nephews and nieces poured wine, or elderflower, and they’d read the book, bless them, so they promoted as they poured. At least five people said they’d recommend the novel to their book groups (Isla tempted them by offering a 10% discount to anyone buying six or more copies at the same time – and that goes for any book for book groups, not just mine! If you don’t live near Barnes you can order online, here, but speak to Isla first about the discount if you’d like it).

It was a very happy, joyful family occasion. All my family were there because my two younger sisters managed to smuggle my American sister into the country for the launch, which was a gorgeous surprise.

The family of people each book needs to begin its journey out into the world of readers was there: my agent, Heather Holden-Brown; one of the book’s two editors, Celia Hayley; Gill Jackson, representing all at Buried River Press who designed, typeset and printed the book; the book’s promotional filmmaker, Jim Burge, and so many others, too numerous to mention, except for my long-suffering partner, Peter Wise, who listens to me on the bad writing days when I tell him I’ll never write another word, ever again, and then he makes me laugh and so I find my way back to my writing desk. On the morning of the launch, he told me I’d become the latest member of an exceedingly exclusive club called Ladies Who Launch.

And the family of readers, without whom no book lives long, was there in force. So many of them bought the book that Isla sold the fifty copies she’d ordered, long before either Gill or I stood up to say a single word. And one of the last guests to leave said he’d been practising his dance-of-love steps: he waltzed home down Church Road.

So, may The DANCE of LOVE waltz out into the world and stay there, merrily, for a long time to come.