Sunday, 15 February 2015


International Authors: Universal Themes

While mainstream publishing plays safe with predictable stories and heroines who repeat the same familiar tropes, where are today’s most ground-breaking authors? The answer is that they are self-publishing. Now, seven of the most prominent female entrepreneurial authors have brought their work together in a limited edition compilation of novels: Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.

The project is the brainchild of Jessica Bell, an Australian writer living in Athens, Greece. A literary author and the Founder/Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Jessica wanted to showcase the most exciting fiction being released by authors who are in full charge of their own creative decisions. “I couldn’t imagine collaborating with a finer group of writers,” Jessica said. “The authors in this box set are at the very top of their game.”  

The collection will be published in e-book format on February 20 (pre-orders from January 12) and available for just 90 days.

The box set introduces a diverse cast of characters: A woman accused of killing her tyrannical father who is determined to reveal the truth. A bookish and freshly orphaned young woman seeks to escape the shadow of her infamous mother—a radical lesbian poet—by fleeing her hometown. A bereaved biographer who travels to war-ravaged Croatia to research the life of a celebrity artist. A gifted musician who is forced by injury to stop playing the piano and fears her life may be over. An undercover journalist after a by-line, not a boyfriend, who unexpectedly has to choose between her comfortable life and a bumpy road that could lead to happiness. A former ballerina who turns to prostitution to support her daughter, and the wife of a drug lord who attempts to relinquish her lust for sharp objects and blood to raise a respectable son.

Jane Davis said, “This set of thought-provoking novels showcases genre-busting fiction across the full spectrum from light (although never frothy) to darker, more haunting reads that delve into deeper psychological territory.”

But regardless of setting, regardless of whether the women are mothers, daughters, friends or lovers, the themes are universal: euthanasia, prostitution, gender anomalies, regression therapy, obesity, drug abuse, revenge, betrayal, sex, lust, suicide and murder. Their authors have not shied away from the big issues. Some have asked big questions.

Orna Ross (founder-director of The Alliance of Independent Authors, named by The Bookseller as one of the 100 most influential people in publishing) selected Blue Mercy, a complex tale of betrayal, revenge, suspense, murder mystery - and surprise.

Joni Rodgers (NYT bestselling author) returned to her debut Crazy for Trying,  a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Discover Award finalist. 

The stories behind some of the stories in Outside the Box

Carol Cooper on One Night at the Jacaranda:

One Night at the Jacaranda is the first novel I’ve created that got as far as the hands of readers. There’ve been other efforts: a coming-of-age novel set in Cambridge, a children’s story about a stray dog, a novel about a teenager coping with disability, and the chronicle of a female surgeon in training. She never reached the top as she spent too much time horizontal (like the manuscript, still languishing in a drawer somewhere).
Now I see that I was trying to fit into particular places on bookshelves. By contrast, One Night at the Jacaranda, although it’s contemporary women’s fiction, doesn’t nestle quite as neatly into a genre.
The idea came to me out of the blue. I was on a flight to the USA, on my way to my father’s funeral. As I sat sipping a much-needed gin and tonic, the idea for a story about a group of single Londoners popped into my head. There’d be a struggling journalist, a lonely lawyer, a newly single mother of four daring to date again.
I covered paper napkins with scrawled notes which eventually developed into the novel. Finally I’d embarked on creating the kind of book I’d want to read for pleasure. I wasn’t thinking about marketing angles. I just wrote.
All the characters are made up. I don’t know where ex-con Dan came from, and I’m glad I never had an au pair as manipulative as Dorottya, but some of the influences are obvious. Although the stressed doctor in my story is male, he takes on many of the frustrations I face in my day job. Ditto the single mother, the freelance journalist, and the young man diagnosed with cancer are all people I relate to.
I like to pretend that the story has nothing to do with my father. For one thing, it would have been far too racy for him. He’d have choked on a Harrogate toffee by page four.
Yet things fall into place when a parent dies, so his influence is there. The deeper message of One Night at the Jacaranda is that the characters can’t find happiness with someone else until they confront who they themselves really are.
Over the years I’d authored and co-authored many non-fiction books. The leap to writing fiction required new skills. But it was refreshing to write what I wanted to write, without worrying about word counts or thinking of appropriate illustrations. My experience in journalism shows, I think, in my short scenes, cutting from one character to the next.
Medicine has a huge impact on my fiction. You can’t put your patients in a book, but doctoring teaches you to observe. It’s no surprise that many great writers have been doctors. While I can’t pretend to be in the same league as Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, AJ Cronin, Khaled Hosseini or Abraham Varghese, I’m grateful that my work brings me into contact with such a wide range of people and situations.

Roz Morris on My Memories of a Future Life

'I was always fascinated by tales of regression to past lives,' says the author Roz Morris. ‘I thought, what if instead of going to the past, someone went to a future life? Who would do that? Why? What would they find?
‘Another longtime interest was the world of the classical musician. Musical scores are exacting and dictatorial - you play a note for perhaps a sixth of a second and not only that, there are instructions for how to feel - expressivo, amoroso. It's as if you don't play a piece of classical music; you channel the spirit of the composer.
‘I became fascinated by a character who routinely opened her entire soul to the most emotional communications of classical composers. And I thought, what if she couldn’t do it any more? And then, what if I threw her together with someone who could trap the part of her that responded so completely to music?’

Jane Davis on An Unchoreographed Life

I was gripped by a 2008 court case, when, in an interesting twist, it was ruled that a prostitute had been living off the immoral earnings of one of her clients. Salacious headlines focused on the prostitute’s replies when she was asked to justify her charge of £20,000 a week. But the case also challenged perceptions of who was likely to be a prostitute. The answer turned out to be that she might well be the ordinary middle-aged woman with the husband and two teenage children who lives next door.
Whilst I was writing the novel, it became especially relevant when change to the laws governing prostitution were proposed and became headline news.
I grew up within the footprint of Nelson’s paradise estate. The story of his mistress, Emma Hamilton, has always fascinated me. Born into extreme poverty and forced to resort to prostitution, she later became a muse for artists such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds and a fashionista by bucking the tight-laced trends of the day. Cast aside by an aristocratic lover, she went on to marry his uncle. Completely self-educated, Emma continually reinvented herself, mixing in diplomatic circles and becoming confidante of both Marie Antoinette and the Queen of Naples.
But Emma’s story is unusual. I had a clear understanding that, had I been born in another age, the chances were that, living in London, I would have been either a domestic servant or a prostitute - but quite possibly, both. Prior to 1823, domestics under the age of sixteen didn’t receive a salary. They worked a sixteen-hour day in return for ‘bed and board’, a very generous description of what was actually on offer. And, in return, when they reached the age of sixteen, they were cast out onto the streets. 
During my research, I used the Internet extensively to source personal accounts, diaries, blogs and newspaper reports. How did sex-workers come to the attention of the police and social services? What were the main reasons they ended up in court? (The answer was generally tax evasion and financial crime, things I knew about from my day job.) How did sex workers see themselves? How did they view their clients? How did this perception change if they stopped? I also consulted The English Collective of Prostitutes, who very kindly allowed me to quote them in my fictional newspaper article.  
And then I began to imagine what life was like for the child of a prostitute. There was nowhere I could research that hidden subject. And it is always the thing that eludes you that becomes the story.

Kathleen Jones on The Centauress

The Centauress was inspired by a meeting with an extraordinary Italian sculptor who was officially female, but was very open about the fact that she was a hermaphrodite. She appeared to revel in her dual sexuality, although there was an underlying note of tragedy in the stories she told about her life. I began to wonder what it must be like to be born without any specific gender identity and what it might mean for relationships.  Almost by accident, I was present when she was being interviewed for her biography and there were a lot of discussions about the ethical questions her life story raised; how much the biographer should tell and how to protect the people she’d shared her life with.
When she died, her story wouldn’t let me go. Meeting her had changed my life – as she had changed many people’s lives, not always for the better. Fictional episodes started writing themselves in my head, often centred around one of her reminiscences.  I kept thinking ‘what if?’ and gradually the novel began to take shape. Fiction can often be closer to the emotional truth of something than factual biography.
The Centauress is set in Istria – a very beautiful part of Croatia that used to belong to Italy and has the turbulent historical background I needed for the novel. The family of my main character, Zenobia, has been torn apart by conflict. Living in Europe means living every day with echoes of a violent, recent past; sharing your village or street with people who may have betrayed your relatives, or be relatives of someone your family also betrayed. Just below my house in Italy, at the bottom of the olive grove, is a memorial to six young boys who were dragged from their houses and shot, only a year before I was born.
 As a biographer myself, I’ve often felt uncomfortable ‘eavesdropping’ on the most intimate moments of someone’s life, so it’s not surprising that my narrator, Alex, became a biographer researching the life story of celebrity artist Zenobia de Branganza, who is the Centauress of the story. Alex has to struggle with the problems of her subject’s desire for honesty and the wishes of friends and family not to have their lives exposed. Alex has her own private tragedies, because the novel is also about surviving some of the worst things that can happen to you. It’s this knowledge that enables Zenobia to trust Alex with her most intimate revelations.  And the message she gives to Alex is that it is possible to heal and that you must always be ready to accept happiness and love when it comes your way.

If you were Queen of Publishing for a day, what’s one thing you’d change about the industry as a whole?
Orna: The reason I love self-publishing so much is that it’s democratising and it encourages diversity. Readers and writers together are now creating new genres and books that London and Manhattan would never have published. If I were Queen of Publishing for a day, I’d make it much more diverse. I’d love to see a greater variety of voices at every level of the industry.
Jessica: That’s a tough one. Can it stop being such a popularity contest and get back to its roots? Focus on the writing, not how many followers the author has on Twitter? In an ideal world...
Roz: I would ask for more literary awards to open up to new writers. Not just to indies, but to all the new talent that comes along. Too many literary awards are given on the basis of pre-existing fame. If those authors genuinely wrote the best book of the year, then they deserve the prize, but otherwise we should give awards to the genuinely surprising, interesting and wonderful - not the usual suspects. Sometimes the best book has been written by Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes or Neil Gaiman - but sometimes it’s been written by someone relatively unknown. And those are the books that awards should be finding for us.
Carol: Although it should be obvious that there’s more than one way to publish quality books, some people in both camps sadly take up entrenched positions. Those in traditional publishing especially tend to snipe at the other side, and the antagonism does nobody any favours. We shouldn’t be at war, because in the end it’s all about the reader. I’d like to bring in a lot more enlightenment and a bit more peace, but I may need more than a day to achieve it.
Kathleen: I’d ban accountants from the commissioning meeting! Books should be accepted on literary value alone; it’s the only way to get a quality product. Readers quickly tire of being sold ‘the next best thing’. They want variety, good stories, original, surprising prose - they deserve the best, not some publicist’s idea of what they can be conned into thinking is the best. Not only that, but many of the books they buy purporting to be written by celebrities are in fact written by someone else - usually a professional writer whose own work has been rejected but who needs the money. To pass off a book in that way is fraudulent - at best a con trick. We need to take the fake out of the fiction industry and writers need to be free to write the books they want to write and readers want to read.
Jane: The options for those wishing to publish are now wider than ever before, so I don’t think it’s the publishing industry I would change. It is the perception of publishing and the value that we place on books and art that I’d like to target. This year, I’ve been out speaking to librarians and booksellers trying to encourage them to stock – and read – more indie titles. If Andrew Lownie’s prediction is right, over 75% of books will be self-published by the year 2020. Any outlet that refuses to stock indie titles will be doing readers an enormous disservice by restricting choice. The other thing I’d like to be able to do is to get out there and sell my books for the listed price. I hear parents talk about spending £120 on trainers for their children - something that will be outgrown in 6 months. People will fork out over £50 to see a band play, they’ll happily pay £2.45 for a coffee or £3.60 for a pint of beer, and yet they throw up their hands in horror at the idea of paying £8.99 for a paperback. Is the real issue that readers’ needs are not being catered for? £8.99 may seem a lot of money for something you don’t enjoy. I found the results that Kobo have collated about books readers give up on half way through very telling, with The Goldfinch and Twelve Years a Slave topping the list (the books readers were told they should be reading), whilst the book they were most likely to finish? Casey Kelleher's self-published thriller Rotten to the Core
Joni: Oh, Lord, I’d tell everyone to take the day off and read a book. That’s the single most important thing writers can do—for ourselves and for the book culture at large—but we leave ourselves so little time for it.

Saturday, 17 January 2015


Today I have the honour of being the guest of fellow Crooked Cat author Nancy Jardine, talking about writing, reading, and books in general.  Hop over to her blog and take a peek!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

AND THE EARTH MOVED - a guest post by Zanna Mackenzie

Once again I have the pleasure of welcoming fellow-scribe Zanna Mackenzie to my blog.  Zanna has just released the first in a series of cosy crime novels.

I had the pleasure of reading a preview copy of And The Earth Moved - and it did not disappoint.  If you like your mystery novels spiced up with a little romance, you will love this.

Over to you, Zanna - can you tell us a little more about the book?

When celebrities need a crime solving quickly and discreetly they call in the specialists, the Celebrity Crimes Investigation Agency , otherwise known as the CCIA…

One desperate phone call is all it takes to turn Amber’s day from boring to completely crazy.

The call? Her old university boyfriend Ennis, now a heartthrob actor, begs for Amber’s help.  His brother Joel is dead, and Ennis has to discover the truth about his death before the world’s media hear about it and batter his door down demanding answers.

The CCIA has already assigned its top agent, Charlie Huxton, to the case.

Amber’s mission?  Ennis doesn’t trust a stranger to keep quiet, so he pleads with Amber to shadow and help Charlie throughout the investigation. Ennis was her first love and she still has a soft spot for him – how can she refuse?

Scarily out of her depth Amber knows she needs to somehow get Charlie on side with her involvement in the case – and fast.  But once she's plunged into the world of crime, Amber finds herself battling something darker and far more dangerous than she’d imagined – and it has nothing to do with the equally scary chemistry fizzing between her and Charlie.

Will Charlie agree to work with her to find out how and why Joel died?

Can she help uncover the truth before word gets out and an already distraught Ennis is hounded by story-hungry journalists?

Just as importantly, can she keep her sanity and still be alive when the mystery is finally solved?

Find the book on Amazon UK

Find the book on Amazon USA

You can read Zanna's own blog here.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015


Christmas with the Crooked Cats, our seasonal serving of poetry, short stories and non-fiction pieces, continues on Facebook until January 9th.  Thank you, dear readers, for all your support and kind words throughout this farrago of festivities and frolics.  You will doubtless be relieved to hear that this is my last contribution.

Today (January 6th) is traditionally the twelfth day of Christmas, and also the day when the Christmas tree is put away for another year.  

Christmas may be a time for giving, but some people - even with the very best of intentions - can go overboard with the gifts...


On the twelfth day of Christmas
it's time to put away the decorations, 

along with all the presents.

Twelve Drummers,
all making a terrible noise,
but it wasn’t quite loud enough to drown out

Twenty-two Pipers
(some with bagpipes, others with Pan Pipes,
and one weirdo dressed entirely in red and yellow)
all getting in the way of

Thirty Lords,
leaping around as though someone had laced their underpants with itching powder,
and chasing round after

Thirty-six Dancing Ladies.
One for each Lord,
plus six who seemed to prefer the company of

Forty Milkmaids,
each with her own highly-productive cow.
I don’t think the milkman will ever forgive me
for cancelling my daily order.
I used to be one of his best customers.

Forty-two Swans.
Goodness knows what I’m going to do with them.
They’re protected, aren’t they?
And don’t they all belong to the Crown?
I suppose I could always despatch them to Buckingham Palace
and let HM deal with them.

Forty-two Geese,
on the other hand,
all producing a regular supply of fresh eggs,
might give me some small income
(especially if I can manage to undercut the local deli).

Forty Gold Rings.
Lovely idea,
but unfortunately none of them fit.
At least I can put those on eBay.

Thirty-six Calling Birds.
I think I’ll have to take these to the park,
release them,
and just hope that they don’t have a homing instinct.

Thirty French Hens.
See Forty-two Geese, above.

Twenty-two Turtle Doves.
See Thirty-Six Calling Birds, above.

Twelve Partridges.
I wonder if the local poultry & game shop might be interested?

Twelve Pear Trees.
I don’t even like pears,
even when they aren’t covered in partridge-droppings.

What on earth 

could the Significant Other 
have possibly been thinking?

Now – where's the Yellow Pages?
I need a cleaning firm
which specialises in shifting cow-dung
and bird-poo...

Thursday, 1 January 2015


I've lost count of which day it is of Christmas with the Crooked Cats, but I do know that it's Day One of a brand new year.  May I take this opportunity to wish you all the very best for 2015.  May it bring everything you have ever dreamed of.  Apart from that nightmare about being molested by a giant mutant earwig.  

In the meantime, I hope you have more success than this:


Each year in December I say the New Year
will, for me, be a brand new beginning,
but years of experience make it quite clear
that whatever I try, I’m not winning.

Three years last December I promised myself
that I’d try to be kind and forbearing,
but when that old biddy barged into the queue
it was all I could do to stop swearing.

Two years last December I made a firm vow
that I’d concentrate more on my writing,
but as the rejections which flowed in implied,
it needs to be made more exciting.

A year last December I firmly resolved
that I’d lose weight and get myself fitter,
but less than a week without chocolate or chips
left me ravenous, twitchy and bitter.

Last year in December I vowed to cut down
(I don’t smoke, so that bit wasn’t hard),
but when the champagne toasted in the New Year
it caught me completely off guard.

With so many failures, I know very well
that my will-power just goes to the wall,
so on this occasion I’ve firmly resolved
to make no resolutions at all.             


Tuesday, 23 December 2014


It's my turn again for a piece for Christmas with the Crooked Cats.  This is a piece in more ways than one.  It is The Piece Of Cod Which Passeth All Understanding.

Some years ago my dear friend Dina Da Silva told me about how Christmas is celebrated in her native Portugal.  The main Christmas meal (called a consoada in Portuguese) takes place on the evening of Christmas Eve, and it is a dish centred on bacalhau – Portuguese salt cod. 

Bacalhau is one of Portugal's principal foods, and it is said that there are more than 365 different ways of cooking it - that's at least one for every day of the year, including leap years.  But 24th December has its own special dish: Bacalhau da Consoada (Christmas Eve Cod).

To serve four people, you will need:

4-5 pieces of dried, salted cod.  This has to be rehydrated at least 24 hours in advance, with frequent changes of water.  You can order salt cod from any good fishmonger, but if you can't get hold of it you can use fresh cod fillets. Completely cover them with coarse sea salt, leave them for exactly ten minutes, then rinse off the excess salt.  This fish will take less time to cook than the dried sort.           

1 kg boiling potatoes, peeled and cut lengthwise into halves or quarters (depending on the size)

1 large cabbage, shredded.  Ideally this should be Portuguese cabbage, but you can substitute a good Savoy cabbage (such as January King) or curly kale.

4 fresh eggs

A tin of cooked chickpeas.

4 cloves of garlic

A few sprigs of fresh parsley

A little salt

To serve:

Extra virgin olive oil
White wine vinegar
Fresh bread
Salt and freshly-milled white pepper

First, finely chop the garlic and parsley, put into a small bowl, and set aside.

Put the potatoes into a very large pan (or two medium-sized pans), cover with plenty of cold water, add a dash of salt, and bring to the boil.  Then add the fish, the eggs (still in their shells) and the cabbage.  If you are dividing the ingredients between two pans, make sure there is some fish in both of them, as you will need the flavour of the cod to penetrate the dish.

Heat up the chickpeas separately in a small pan.  When the potatoes are cooked, take out the eggs, peel them and cut them in half, then drain everything and place on a large warmed platter.  Drain the chickpeas and put them in a separate bowl, and bring everything to the table with the olive oil, white wine vinegar, bread, and the parsley and garlic.

To serve, put some cod, potatoes, cabbage, chickpeas and half an egg on to a warmed plate.  Sprinkle with some garlic and parsley (be warned: if you go to Midnight Mass afterwards you will stink out the church!), drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar and freshly-milled white pepper, grab your fork, and enjoy!

Tomorrow evening, as shoes are placed in chimneys in anticipation of a visit from O Pai de Natal, this dish will be made and eaten in homes all over Portugal.  After the main course the children will go and play and work themselves up into a state of excited exhaustion.  The table will be cleared and then laid with a wonderful range of desserts, including arroz doce (Portuguese sweet rice pudding), chocolate mousse, and pain perdu.  The rest of the evening will be spent eating desserts, talking, and finding a way of distracting the children so that Santa can come and deliver his goodies.  Gifts are opened as the clock strikes midnight.

Special thanks to Dina Da Silva for her help in producing this article.  Muito obrigada, Dina, e feliz Natal!

Saturday, 13 December 2014


Today is Day Fourteen of Christmas with the Crooked Cats.  It is also the feast of Santa Lucia, which has great significance in Sweden.  The date of the feast falls very close to the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year - and many believe that as the name "Lucia" means "light", the saint signifies light and hope in the darkness of a cold northern winter.

The original Lucia was born in the late third century AD in Syracuse, Sicily, at a time when Christians were forced to hide in the depths of the catacombs in order to avoid persecution.  Lucia secretly brought food to them, and to light her way through the darkness underground, she wore a crown of candles on her head so that both her hands would be free to carry the food.  The tradition of this candle crown lives on, in the way in which Lucia is commemorated today in homes and churches all over Sweden.

In the morning of December 13th the eldest daughter of the house dresses as Lucia, in a long white gown tied around the waist with a red ribbon (symbolising the saint's martyrdom).  On her head she wears a crown of fresh greenery and lighted candles. Traditionally these are real candles, but the safety-conscious might prefer to use battery-powered ones.

If "Lucia" has younger siblings these may be her attendants.  Her sisters will wear white robes with tinsel tied around their waists and heads, whilst her brothers will wear white robes and cone hats decorated with stars.  Each will carry a single candle.

The children sing the traditional Sankta Lucia song as they serve their parents a festive breakfast consisting of coffee or mulled wine, together with special buns called Lussekatter.  One of the legends of Saint Lucia is that she was blinded but her eyesight was miraculously restored, and she is often portrayed in art with her eyes on a plate.  The shape of the buns, and the stragegically-placed currants used to decorate them, represent Lucia's eyes.

If you'd like to try making some Lussekatter, here is a simple recipe.  To make twelve buns, you will need:

300 ml whole milk
1 pack (0.5g) saffron
75g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
500g strong white bread flour
100g golden caster sugar
1 sachet (7g) fast-acting yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten, plus a little extra for glaze
a little oil
24 currants

Put the milk into a small pan and heat gently until it starts to steam.  Use a pestle and mortar to grind the saffron strands into a powder, and add this to the pan of milk along with the butter.  Swirl the mixture around until the butter has melted, then set aside and leave to cool until it is lukewarm to the touch.

In a large bowl mix together the flour, caster sugar, salt and yeast.  Make a well in the middle of the dry mixture, and pour in the milk mixture and the beaten egg.  Mix together to form a sticky dough, then turn out on to a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic (this will take about ten minutes).  Put the dough into a lightly-oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film, then leave the bowl in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough has doubled in size.

Knock back the dough and divide it into twelve equal portions.  Keep the pieces covered with oiled cling film whilst you make the rolls - this will stop the dough from drying out. Take each piece of dough in turn and roll it out into a 30cm-long strand.  Roll up one end into the middle, turn it over and roll the other end into the middle, forming the dough into an S-shape.  Put all the buns on to a large parchment-lined baking tray, lightly cover with oiled cling film, then leave them to prove until they are almost doubled in size.  In the meantime, heat the oven to 200C (180C if you have a fan oven) or Gas Mark 6.

When the buns are ready to bake, remove the cling film, brush them with beaten egg, and press a currant into the centre of each spiral.  Put the tray in the oven and bake for around 15 minutes.  Allow to cool before serving.  The buns are best eaten on the day they are made.

For a light-hearted but informative piece about the Lucia celebrations, take a look at this.