Late last year I was invited to join the shortlisting panel for the 2022 Best First Novel Award, the UK’s longest-running prize for debut fiction. It has been a delight as well as a significant burden of reading. Over the next few weeks I’m going to highlight some BFNA gems by authors that are, by definition, little known. This won’t be the long-list (pictured below) since in the nature of panel discussions not all the books I thought worthy made the cut. However they resonated with me enough to want to share them.

The Best First Novel Award for debut fiction

First, the award. Inaugurated in 1954, the £2,500 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award is almost the oldest literary prize in Britain. Each publisher may submit two works of debut fiction, so between us the panel had about ninety novels to read. This year’s winner guest adjudicator was Alex Wheatle, who selected the winner from the panel’s shortlist:

Yvonne Bailey-Smith, The Day I Fell off My Island (Myriad Editions)

A.K. Blakemore, The Manningtree Witches (Granta Books)

Catherine Menon, Fragile Monsters (Viking)

Lucy Jago, A Net for Small Fishes (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Melody Razak, Moth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Tish Delaney, Before My Actual Heart Breaks (Hutchinson Heinemann)

And the winner was: Tish Delaney, Before My Actual Heart Breaks

Delaney cover

I hadn’t expected to like this one so much; the context made me nervous. It’s a 25 year drama through the eyes of one woman in an intensely Republican, Catholic family near Omagh. It shows I should read outside my comfort zone more.

We follow the woman from her childhood with an emotionally abusive mother through to empty-nester, and it takes place almost entirely within the scattered farming community of one remote valley. It’s a story of love; parental, sibling, and amorous, and it hinges on communication and mis-communication, with heavy doses of Catholic morality, guilt, and hypocrisy.

I truly engaged with this story. The language is straightforward, unflowery, and only lightly sprinkled with Irish vernacular. The mother’s abuse sets the context for much that happens later, including a disastrous adolescence. By then I wanted to stand in the girl’s way shouting ‘don’t do that’. Before she is long into her marriage I was just as keen to slap some sense into her, but then we would not have a story. For a while it is a sharp portrait of a woman so wrapped around her own wounds that she does not realise that silence can cut deeper than words.

There’s a rich cast of characters, all well drawn, and enough humour to lift what could be a depressing tale. The reader ends up laughing, loving, and shouting with them all as if we were part of the ‘craic’. Brilliant.

 

One that also deserved to win: Lucy Jago, A Net for Small Fishes

Jago cover

A Net for Small Fishes centres on the relationship between Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, and Mrs Anne Turner in the period before and after the ‘Overbury Scandal’ of the early 17th century. Theirs was was an unlikely friendship; a daughter of one of the noblest families in England who is enduring a forced marriage, and a commoner fourteen years her senior, the widow of a doctor. They are united only in their Catholicism. The countess lives in a world of political intrigue at the corrupt, despotic court of James I and VI where huge extravagance and debt are normal. The widow clings to her gentility on the brink of destitution, but becomes useful as a trusted go-between and confidante. In time, their friendship develops into something akin to love, but as ‘Frankie’ places ever greater demands on Anne, and the mighty Howards’ grip on power loosens, that love it tested.
A Net for Small Fishes is historical fiction of a very high calibre, one of those rare books where the boundary between meticulously researched history and the writer’s imagination is invisible. I would rank this alongside Hilary Mantel for its ability to immerse the reader in the stinking reality of an era, and with Sarah Waters for its portrayal of friendship between two women.
The Overbury Scandal and its aftermath are matters of historical record. Jago brings fleshes out the historical characters with motivations and emotion; they take life. Anne Turner ‘tells’ her own story as a woman we know is condemned to die. It is worth resisting the urge to research the historical record to discover the conclusion.

More to come

Next week, two more brilliant examples of debut fiction:
Oana Aristide, Under the Blue, (Serpent’s Tail – Profile)
A K Blakemore, The Manningtree Witches, Granta Books

 

DRACA: IN SUPPORT OF COMBAT STRESS

CHALFONT ST GILES AND JORDANS LITERARY FESTIVAL

SATURDAY 15TH MAY, 5PM, ONLINE

‘A war-damaged veteran on a mission to self-destruct. A yachtswoman who risks everything to pull him back. And between them, an old boat with attitude in a page-turner that will leave salt on your lips and a bruise on your heart.’

Draca was due to launch last year at the Chalfont St Giles & Jordans Literary Festival, until covid forced its cancellation. This year the organisers have invited me back to talk about Draca, the story behind the book, and my partnership with the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress. 

With social distancing rules still in force, all the festival’s presentations this year will be online. The upside is that we are no longer be constrained by the capacity of the lovely 17th century Friends’ Meeting House in Jordans. The downside is that I will not be able to offer you hospitality afterwards.

The talk will last for about 40 minutes plus Q&A, and is ticketed. If you would like to join me online please click here to buy a ticket (£5). All my speaker fees go directly to Combat Stress. 

HOW ARE WE DOING?

I’m often asked me how Draca is faring. The short answer is that until I receive a royalty statement, I don’t know. November’s royalties, of which a little over £600 went to Combat Stress, only covered receipts preceding the launch. The lack of bookshops, libraries, and speaking engagements since then won’t have helped sales, but I can say is that Draca is collecting a gratifying number of brilliant reviews.

In July and August last year Draca was also selected for the online book club The Pigeonhole, and I had the pleasure of seeing the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reactions of nearly 200 readers around the globe as they read and discussed each daily instalment. The Pigeonhole themselves commented ‘we love discovering gems like this’, and I honestly don’t know the club reader who said it was ‘the best book I’ve ever read’.

More details about Draca and an extract are here.

JOIN ME AT THE LITERARY FESTIVAL

I’ll share more on 15th May. I hope to see you there. Once again click here to buy a ticket.

It’s great to discover Draca is being well received by lovers of nautical fiction. It has been reviewed in the December 2020 issue of Yachting Monthly. Rather nicely, I think.

Draca review in Yachting Monthly

For more information about Draca, including other reviews and extracts, click here.

Draca is available via all good bookshops, or via Amazon here.

The online book club The Pigeonhole has selected Draca for serialisation, and it is wonderful to see the reactions around the world. The current episode includes the first of several sailing scenes. The graphic of Draca’s sail plan and internal layout in the print book and ebook’s front matter has not been included in The Pigeonhole’s online version, so I’m including it here for ease of reference. I have asked The Pigeonhole to add it to their site.

Anyone wishing to join the online group (who seem to be having a lot of fun with the book) should go here. There are nearly 200 people reading it at the moment but there is space for more.

Draca sail plan and internal layout

Draca on The PigeonholeI’m delighted to say that the online book club The Pigeonhole has selected Draca for serialisation commencing Sunday 26th July. They will release Draca in ten daily episodes ending on Tuesday 4th August. So if you’re not already enjoying the book, why not read it with a strictly-limited group of bookish people? What’s more, it’s free to join.

So how does The Pigeonhole work?

The Pigeonhole say:

‘We work with publishers to bring their users the best in modern fiction, from bestselling authors like Ken Follett to new voices. Our serialisations enable readers to interact with authors and other readers inside the book as they read and comment in real-time. Launched in September 2014, The Pigeonhole was nominated for the Digital Innovation Awards at the London Book Fair, and Future Book’s Digital Campaign of the Year. The Bookseller magazine named Pigeonhole’s founding editor Anna Jean Hughes as a Rising Star of the publishing industry.’

The Pigeonhole release selected books in daily serialisations called ‘staves’ to strictly limited numbers of readers, free of charge. They do invite you to leave a review at the end. You can read more about The Pigeonhole here.

Want to join in?

In the three days since The Pigeonhole selected Draca, take-up has been strong. Less than half the available slots remain. If you’d like to grab one while you can, you can sign up to Draca on The Pigeonhole here  and I look forward to ‘seeing’ you during the serialisation. Remember, it is free of charge.

Can’t wait?

If you want to know more about Draca, there’s a synopsis and extracts here. If you’d like your own copy to read, you’ll find it on Amazon Kindle here, Amazon paperback here, and through all good bookshops.

Enjoy!

The guys at the books podcast We’d Like A Word are making quite a name for themselves. Previous guests have included Graham Norton and Anthony Horowitz. I’m honoured to follow in their footsteps. In their mid June broadcast I shared the spotlight with General Sir Peter Wall, the President of Combat Stress. Combat Stress is the premier charity for veterans with complex mental health issues such as PTSD.

Paul Waters and Stevyn Colgan, the show’s producers, had chosen a theme of ‘should trauma influence stories’. Sounds heavy, doesn’t it? Just follow the links below and listen; we laughed. A lot.

We started by talking about Draca, my novel about broken relationships and misunderstandings where one character is a veteran with PTSD. General Wall has read the book and had some wonderfully enthusiastic words to say about it. Paul asked how much trauma can, or should, shape a story. That’s a serious question which prompted serious discussion, but which morphed into reminiscences of Armed Forces life and became just a little explosive. Best line of the broadcast came from Paul Waters, after one anecdote from General Wall: “Just think how far your career might have gone if you hadn’t been caught!”

Where to listen

The podcast is in three parts. Choose any of these links to listen:  Apple Podcasts  Google Podcasts  Spotify  Anchor FM

Sir Peter Wall and Combat Stress

Sir Peter Wall was Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the British Army, until 2014. If you’d like to know more about Combat Stress and their outstanding work with veterans, their web site is here.

Draca

There’s more information about Draca, including extracts, on this site here. For Draca’s Amazon pages, go here for paperback and here for Kindle. At the time of writing, one month from launch, it is scoring a very gratifying 4.6 ex 5 with 20 five star reviews. Draca is also available via Waterstones, Foyles, and all good bookshops.

 

 

Cover to Draca, a 'really cracking read'.Draca’s launch was supposed to happen today. Tonight I expected to be sipping a celebratory champagne, basking in the glory of the first reviews. After all, all Draca’s wonderful supporters were going to have their copies early, weren’t they?

Enter Corona-chaos. I.E: Publishers, printers, distributors, and logistics companies all working with reduced staff on socially-distanced shifts. Massive dependency on Amazon, since bookshops and libraries are shut. Amazon working to priorities as arcane as their algorithms. End result:

  1. Initial print run reaches publisher. Stacks of paperbacks. Yay! But too late for early copies to reach supporters before release day.
  2. Publisher can’t get stock to Amazon. Decides to postpone launch.
  3. Delaying Draca’s launch on release day proves to be technically impossible.
  4. Publisher releases Draca anyway. Amazon will sell Kindle copies but are ‘Out of Stock’ on paperback. They probably won’t receive/accept stock into their system until early-mid June. [Don’t ask. I have. I still don’t understand.]

The way around Corona-chaos:

So here, lovely people, is how to acquire a print copy of Draca during Corona-chaos:

Go to the publisher, Unbound, here. For £9.99 they will ship you a copy, just like Amazon. They will even cover the cost of UK postage. For £4.99 they will also sell you an ebook or Kindle version if that’s what you want.

OR

Message me. Contact me via the web site. Email me, whatever is easiest. I am assured that a stack of copies is on its way, so when that arrives I will send you a signed copy, with a dedication if you wish, for £10 via PayPal. Just add your desired dedication to the PayPal message. And yes, I too will cover UK postage. While stacks last, as they say.

Simples.

For more information about Draca, including extracts, click here. No less an authority than General Sir Peter Wall calls it ‘a really cracking read’. Remember half the royalties go to the veteran’s charity Combat Stress.

 

 

Let me introduce you to ’George’. She’s a key character in my novel Draca, with almost 2/5 of the story in her ‘voice’. In a previous post I introduced Jack, the flawed hero of Afghanistan. George is a feisty orphan – with – attitude. She’s made her own way from care homes to be manageress of the local boatyard. As I crafted the book, George acquired a tough, shoulders-back manner that hid her vulnerabilities. By the time I had finished writing the book I think I was a little in love with her.

George is also a very competent yachtswoman. I’m an indifferent sailor, so writing credible storm scenes required a lot of research and imagination. That must have paid off; a former Yachtsman of the Year gave me an excellent quote for the cover.  ‘A cracking, believable yarn made even more authentic by the wonderfully descriptive sailing scenes...’

Here’s George at Jack’s grandfather’s funeral, observing his dysfunctional family and showing that ‘attitude’.

Orphan – with – attitude at Eddie’s funeral

George could learn a lot from watching people. At first, everyone looked the same. All in black, all with that funeral look as if they wore a passport photograph where their faces should be. She could make out the Ahlquist crowd, all hugs and kisses except Jack, and then there was an older man and two women who stood a bit apart, both more smartly dressed than the rest, and the only women in hats. A husband, wife and daughter, at a guess. The man was a short, lean, military type who stood very square. When people came up to the older woman, she offered her hand palm-down, fingers drooping, as if she expected them to go down on one knee and kiss it. No one stayed with them, and the three kept to themselves as if they knew it was pointless to try to talk. 

Jack moved between them and the rest, half belonging to both groups, neither oil nor water, looking stressed. Like all the men he was sweating in his dark suit, with spots of damp staining his shirt across his chest. The younger woman must be his wife, so the military man and the duchess were the in-laws, and the families didn’t get on. 

Jack waved when he saw George. Nothing too enthusiastic, but enough for her to wander over and say hello. She was ready for the mother-in-law’s fingers. If you slide your hand under that kind of regal greeting, then grip and twist, you can turn it into a proper handshake. The duchess didn’t like that. She didn’t like George’s looks, either. The duchess was tall enough for her eyes to be at the level of George’s hair, and George saw her wince. So what? George liked orange. It’s a strong colour, and it was only a streak. While Jack fumbled the introductions the woman’s eyes dropped so she was looking down her nose at George’s skirt, and her mouth pursed into a tight, wrinkly, cat’s–arse circle of disapproval. Maybe yellow was a bit bright for a funeral, but there wasn’t much call for dark, smart stuff in a boatyard. At least George had put a decent jacket over it, and she bet the duchess couldn’t tell that the jacket came from a charity shop.

Draca

Draca, described as ‘a really cracking read’ by General Sir Peter Wall, will be released by Unbound on 14th May 2020. Half the royalties will flow to the veterans’ charity Combat Stress. Click here for more details of the book, including stunning early reviews.

If you’d like to order the book there are links to many retailers including Waterstones and Foyles here. Just click the ‘buy’ link.

If you’d like to go directly to Amazon UK, the paperback is here and Kindle here.

Tomorrow

There’s another character with his own version of events to tell as the story unfolds. Jack’s father is a dominating, controlling presence, and just because he’s opinionated doesn’t mean he’s always wrong. You’ll meet him next.

 

As VE Day approaches I’ve been reading the diaries my father kept as a prisoner or war. In early May 1945 he was in a work group in the Austrian Tirol. British forces were close, but the country in between was occupied by heavily-armed SS troops. Although there had been a local capitulation on 2nd May, locals said the SS wanted to fight on.

For Dad the final days of the war held jubilation, high drama, and needless tragedy. In previous posts I have described the murder of the SS officer’s family near my father’s camp, and the bizarre circumstances of the surrender of the Hungarian division. It was a Hungarian officer who told Dad that British troops had reached Lienz, just 20 miles away. The officer agreed to drive Dad and another sergeant there, through SS ‘bandit country’.

First contact

Fortunately the road to Lienz proved clear. Dad’s description of contact with Allied troops is unemotional: ‘on the outskirts of Lienz we ran into a British patrol [and] we found ourselves in the thrilling company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.’ He’d known 3 years in captivity, escaped once, and endured punishment beatings and a mock execution as a result. He’d known such starvation that he wrote of one camp ‘we marched in as soldiers, we crawled out as animals’. And yet his first contact with free British forces earns only the label ‘thrilling company’.

The local situation was still volatile. In London, crowds packed the Mall to cheer the King and Queen. In Lienz ‘the night was marked by a good deal of shooting; not rapid fire, but well within view a number of houses or other buildings were burning fiercely.’  The Argylls promised to send transport to extract all the British prisoners of war, so after a celebratory beer the two British sergeants returned to their camp. It must have seemed strange to be chauffeured by a newly-surrendered Hungarian officer.

The good doctor

The entry for Dad’s last night in a prisoner of war camp shows more warmth, but surprisingly it is for the local Austrian population. In particular the local doctor had not only cared for their ailments but found other ways of alleviating their situation, frequently at great personal risk. Perhaps a dozen of the British PoWs gathered in his home that night for a farewell bottle, staying until several were incapable of climbing back up the hill to the ‘Lager’. Dad wrote ‘he was a brave and charming man, and I honour his memory.’

I suspect that ‘fraternisation’ stretched way beyond the doctor’s kindness. When the promised transport arrived the following day, ‘leave-taking was a wretched business, everyone seemed sorry to lose us, and all the women and girls were crying. And so we said “Auf Wiedersehen” and not good-bye, and if ever the opportunity occurs I shall most certainly return.’

Return, and afterwards

Dad reached home in June 1945. His own parents had suffered, in a different way; Dad was an only child, and comrades in his unit had seen his truck hit by tank fire in 1942, during the retreat to El Alamein. My grandparents received the dreaded telegram ‘Missing, Believed Killed’. They endured six months of uncertainty before they knew he was alive and a prisoner of war.

I always thought it strange that Dad talked so warmly of Austria, the country of his later imprisonment. Perhaps it came from the deep camaraderie of that work group, which endured for decades afterwards. Perhaps it was the warmth of a local, rural community largely untouched by Nazi politics. The Tirol had been kind, but I think some of his earlier experiences as a prisoner damaged him. His generation, though, did their best to pull themselves together and get on with life.

Dad lived to be 93. One of his fellow escapees in Italy, a man who stood beside him facing the firing squad in that mock execution, was Best Man at his wedding. They became lifelong friends.

Posted on VE Day, 2020, in honour to all those who served in that war, and those who waited.

 

My last post told how I’ve been reading my father’s prisoner of war diaries in the run-up to VE Day. See here for how he came to be a PoW, and the needless tragedy of the SS officer’s family. In May 1945 Dad was in a small labour camp in the Austrian Tirol. German forces south of the Alps capitulated on 2nd May, and the camp was then unguarded. On 6 or 7 May, Dad and two other sergeants set out on a reconnaissance. By the end of the day they were very drunk, and saying ‘they’ll never believe this back home’.

The Hungarian Division

On the road below the camp two officers in a German staff car stopped the three sergeants before they could hide. One officer asked “You are British?” then “You will get in, please.” They were driven some distance up a well-wooded valley, through a major encampment. The car stopped at a large building that was apparently the officers’ mess. A senior officer explained, in German, that they were what remained of a Hungarian division. They had been fighting on the Eastern Front, where Russian troops were exacting a terrible revenge on captured Hungarian soldiers. Soon the three would meet their General, who would explain why they were there. The officer stood at Dad’s shoulder and translated his General’s words into German, their only common language. Here’s how Dad described the events that followed.

Diary, 6-7 May 1945

‘By the time [the General] came in his officers had arranged themselves into two ranks.. we all stood firmly to attention.

From the moment the general started to speak I felt desperately sorry for him. For him this was deadly serious: he delivered his words as if they might be the last act of his service. [He was] tall, slim, greying at the temples, looking tired and care-worn. He should not have been doing this in front of three lowly sergeants who were no more than prisoners in his own war, but to a high officer of at least equivalent rank. He went on ‘I promised to deliver this valiant unit into the hands of the first British or American forces into whose hands we chanced to fall…’

There was no pleasure whatsoever for him in this. He concluded ‘therefore by virtue of the powers vested in me as commander of this division, and with the full consent of my officers, I surrender to you myself, my officers, and all the men, vehicles and equipment of this division.’ He stepped forward and pinned a medal with a maroon ribbon on my chest. His officers applauded loudly; we were just thoroughly dumbfounded.’

A party followed. After three years without alcohol, the impact was immediate. As they staggered out into the sunlight, a drunken Hungarian Captain put his arm around Dad’s shoulders, waved a bottle of vodka around the lines of tents and vehicles, and said (still in German) “Ish all yoursh. Take wha’ you want.”

They took his staff car.

A sad aftermath

I believe they crashed the staff car on the way back. When the hangover faded Dad found himself, as a sergeant prisoner of war, nominally in charge of a Hungarian division. Law and order was breaking down locally, and British troops were still about 25 miles away. Well-armed SS troops choked the roads and towns in between, and at least some of them wanted to fight on. Tomorrow I’ll describe how Dad’s war ended.

I am again indebted to my brother for his meticulous work transcribing our father’s prisoner of war diaries  and reminiscences.

Dad always felt bad about the Hungarian soldiers. In a few days contact he found them to be professional, and in his limited experience honourable men who had surrendered in good faith. They were briefly his responsibility. Thanks to an agreement between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, the Hungarians became prisoners of the Russians, and all disappeared into Stalin’s gulags. As Dad later wrote;

‘It is not the sort of thing one easily forgets, and it has troubled my conscience to this day.’

Tomorrow, VE Day: contact!