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
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
More to come
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.
For more information about Draca, including other reviews and extracts, click here.
Draca is available via all good bookshops, or via Amazon here.
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
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.
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.
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:
- Initial print run reaches publisher. Stacks of paperbacks. Yay! But too late for early copies to reach supporters before release day.
- Publisher can’t get stock to Amazon. Decides to postpone launch.
- Delaying Draca’s launch on release day proves to be technically impossible.
- 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.
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.
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.
The wait is nearly over. Draca, which a former Chief of the General Staff describes as a ‘really cracking read’, will be released on 14th May, and can now be ordered online. Details below.
About the book
Draca pivots around the tensions between three characters;
- a war-damaged veteran who tries to rebuild his life by restoring a vintage sailing boat, but seems to be on a mission to self-destruct,
- his overbearing father, who pushes him ever closer to the edge,
- and a yachtswoman who gives everything she has to pull him back.
All author royalties are shared equally with the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.
‘A really cracking read about a soldier who attacks his battlefield demons through his passion for sailing – and sadly still needs help’. (General Sir Peter Wall)
‘Tension release, fear, laughter, fear, lust, so you don’t notice the tightening of the noose … the story sucks you in and won’t let go.’ (Susie Wilde, Author of Sea Paths and Obsidian)
‘A terrific and compelling story which highlights mental and physical challenges that many who have served will recognise.’ (General Sir Nick Parker)
‘A cracking, believable yarn made even more authentic by the wonderfully descriptive sailing scenes – and by falling in love with the true heroine, the Bristol Channel pilot cutter Draca.’ (Ewen Southby-Tailyour OBE, former Yachtsman of the Year)
Draca is available in the UK via all good bookshops with an online ordering facility, incuding Waterstones, Foyles, Apple Books, Kobo, Hive, and, of course, Amazon; click here for a paperback and here for a Kindle edition.
For those who like to support independent bookshops, there are two fine examples near my home:
Over the next few days I shall be posting excerpts from Draca and introducing you to each of the key characters.
Meanwhile, stay safe in these troubled times. Escape to a different world; read a book.
Draca is going to print. A book that has been seven years in the creation is about to be reality, with a release date of 14th May. Many of the conventional aspects of a book launch have necessarily been cancelled during the pandemic, but I could send out review copies. I’ve been stunned by the reactions.
From Combat Stress:
Combat stress is the veterans’ mental health charity. They will receive half the royalties. Their President, General Sir Peter Wall, describes Draca as ‘A really cracking read about a soldier who attacks his battlefield demons through his passion for sailing – and sadly still needs help.’
From a fellow author:
Suzie Wilde, the author of Sea Paths and Obsidian, enthused ‘tension, release, fear, laughter, fear, lust, so you don’t notice the tightening of the noose … the story sucks you in and won’t let go.’
From the Armed Forces:
I served for nearly eleven years in the armed forces, but never saw action, yet the protagonist is a war-damaged veteran of Afghanistan. So it was with some diffidence that I approached General Sir Nick Parker to take a look. Sir Nick was Commander British Forces Afghanistan in 2010, and he says it’s ‘a terrific and compelling story which highlights mental and physical challenges that many who have served will recognise.’
And from a distinguished sailor:
Those who know me also know I am an occasional and inexperienced sailor. I have sailed very enjoyably with a hugely more competent friend, but I was a little nervous about the authenticity of some sailing scenes. The book, after all, pivots around a very idiosyncratic, vintage pilot cutter. It was an area, like combat, where I had to rely on research and imagination rather than personal experience. Then Ewen Southby-Tailyour OBE, a former Yachtsman of the Year, told me he’d lived on a Bristol Channel pilot cutter. He reassured me that Draca is ‘a cracking, believable yarn made even more authentic by the wonderfully descriptive sailing scenes – and by falling in love with the true heroine, the Bristol Channel pilot cutter Draca.’
A ‘book launch’ with no bookshops
Draca is sailing out into a strange world where no physical bookshops are open, and no libraries, so the book launch I was planning can’t happen. All authors with books coming out during these stressful times have had their wings clipped, but with a little help, I think Draca is reaching flying speed.
Draca will be released by Unbound on 14th May 2020, ISBN: 978-1-78965-105-8, and will be available to pre-order shortly. Further details to follow on this site and on my Amazon author page. You’ll find a synopsis of the book, including extracts, here.
Cover reveal! Unbound’s wonderful production team have created stunning artwork for Draca, which will be released on 14th May. I think it captures the mood of the book perfectly. They’ve also created a very accurate picture of a Bristol Channel pilot cutter, which plays such an important part in the book that the boat becomes a character.
And the all-important back-cover description? Read on…
DRACA WAS A VINTAGE SAILING CUTTER, OLD EDDIE’S PRIDE AND JOY. BUT NOW SHE’S BEACHED, HER VARNISH PEELING. SHE’S DYING, JUST LIKE EDDIE.
Eddie leaves Draca to his grandson Jack, a legacy that’s the final wedge between Jack and his father. Yet for Jack, the old boat is a lifeline. Medically discharged from the Marines, with his marriage on the rocks, the damaged veteran finds new purpose; Draca will sail again. Wonderful therapy for a wounded hero, people say.
Young Georgia ‘George’ Fenton, who runs the boatyard, has doubts. She saw changes in Old Eddie that were more sinister even than cancer. And by the time Draca tastes the sea again, the man she dares to love is going the same way. To George, Jack’s ‘purpose’ has become ‘possession’; the boat owns the man and her flawed hero is on a mission to self-destruct. As his controlling and disinherited father pushes him closer to the edge, she gives all she has to hold him back.
And between them all, there’s an old boat with dark secrets, and perhaps a mind of its own.
Intrigued? If you’d like a longer synopsis, you’ll find it here. There are extracts here and here, and lots more about the book at Unbound. And I’d love to point you towards a url where you can place pre-orders, but for now, let me simply share the joy of a brief well executed by the publisher.
Thanks to the support of around 250 enthusiasts, Draca has achieved crowdfunding success. We’ve reached the threshold of pre-orders when Unbound starts the publishing cycle. Each of those 250 believed in the project enough to pledge money towards a book that didn’t exist, and which would never have existed without them.
Draca will now enter the long cycle of editing, copy editing, cover design, and typesetting. The current forecast is for general release in June 2020.
However I have been invited to speak at the Chalfont St Giles Literary Festival on 21 May 2020. It’s too good an opportunity not to factor into launch plans, so Unbound will try to ensure that pre-release copies are available ready for that date.
Meanwhile the supporters’ list will remain open during the initial editing phases. Anyone wishing to pre-order a copy can do so here. As from now, the royalties will be mounting up for the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.
Huge thanks to all those who’ve carried Draca to this crucial stage. You have truly earned your place inside the covers.
As anyone who has read Saxon’s Bane knows, I like to write stories where worlds collide. Not, I hasten to add, in the astronomical sense; I don’t write Science Fiction, but I do like the past to echo in the present. Even better, to play on it in a way that has the reader wondering if there is more in today’s world than can be explained by science.
Weaving the past into the present
In a previous post I described how the initial idea for Draca came at anchor in a friend’s boat, watching the ebbing tide reveal the bones of dead ships. What else did the silt’s ancient layers conceal? After all, Guthrum’s Viking army wreaked bloody havoc in that very harbour during their war with Alfred. There’s a contemporary, 9th Century poem by Torbjøn Hornklov which evokes the moment when the dragon ships surged out of the mist:
Ships came from east-way,
All eager for battle,
With grim gaping heads
And rich carved prows.
They carried a host of warriors,
With white shields
And spears from the Westlands
And Celt-wrought swords.
The berserks were roaring
(For this was their battle),
The wolf-coated warriors howling,
And the irons clattering.
But how might such a moment impact the present? Weaving history into a contemporary novel is tricky. In Saxon’s Bane I set whole chapters in the Saxon era. In Draca I took a more subtle approach, revealing the past through the contents of an old man’s bookshelf; his diaries, his obsessive research into his own Danish heritage, and his copies of the ancient sagas. If the tidal scour revealed a Viking artefact, he’d probably keep it. His diaries could reveal his mental disintegration, until he dies raving that he ‘tried to give it back’.
The joys of research
Researching a book can be wonderfully diverting. It sucks time as you wade through bogs of facts. Whole days sink without trace. That old man dies in the first chapter and it’s his legacy that triggers events. Still, just populating his bookshelf mired me very happily in perhaps a month of reading ancient history. I could use almost none of it. All for a book set in the present day.
There are a few exceptions. A dictionary of Old Norse taught me obscure words that became chapter titles; (Chapter 1: Arfræningr, one stripped of his inheritance). Snorri Sturluson’s 13th Century Heimskringla taught me the lilt and vocabulary of Old Norse, even in translation. It taught me enough to ‘book-end’ chapters with short extracts from a Viking saga.
So readers of Draca will find slices of history framing a modern tale; slices that tighten the tension as the ancient and brutal past starts to resonate ever more loudly in the present. Next year, after publication, you’ll be able to tell me if it worked. For now, here’s how that back story begins.
From the saga of King Guthrum, c.875AD
That winter King Guthrum laid down a mighty dragonhead ship for his son Jarl Harald, whom he loved and honoured most of all. Of oak did he build it, cut finely that it might bend with the sea, with benches of pine for twenty oars on the one hand and twenty on the other. The fittings were splendid, as befits a great jarl, and a richly carved strake rose to a wondrous dragonhead at the prow. As was the custom, this could be taken down, like the helm of a warrior, lest it offend the landvættir, the land spirits.
Then Guthrum and Harald made sacrifice in this wise: Harald took a stallion that he loved, and calmed the beast, covering its eyes that it might not see whence the blow would come. Then they took their axes and struck; Harald between the stallion’s eyes, and Guthrum at its neck such that the sound of the blows was one, and none could tell who made the killing wound. So mightily did Guthrum wield his axe that the stallion’s head was wholly struck off, and the wise ones said that the fall of the blood was good, for the dragonhead tasted blood before ever a bowl was brought to its mouth.
Then Harald knew that the gods would sail with them, and would find them even in the furthest reaches of the sea, for the dragonhead was truly consecrated to the Æsir.
Draca is available to pre-order through Unbound here. It’s £10 for an ebook and from £15 for a paperback. The names of all supporters at this pre-publication phase will be included in the book. Half of all royalties will be donated to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.
Research and inspiration behind the book
Draca, the novel, is now sailing towards its pre-orders target with publisher Unbound. The eponymous Draca is a classic sailing boat, central to the plot. Those who know me well have asked how a landlubber like me could write the maritime passages. After all, ten years ago the only thing I could remember about sailing was a bushy-bearded instructor bellowing at me. I think he was saying “when you see the seagulls walking, it’s time to go about.”
Confession time. In a previous post I described how the idea for the book was born, anchored in a natural harbour on England’s South coast. The next time I sailed, with the same friend, the concepts for the book had formed to the point where we’d divert our course, on entering a harbour, to take a closer look at any classic sailing boats nearby. Old boats seem to have more personality, and I needed to find a type that was probably pre-war, and of a size that could just about be sailed single-handed if the skipper was fit and knew his stuff. Yet it was online research led me to Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters, the model for Draca.
Pilot Cutters – hard working, classic sailing boats
Pilot cutters were built to wait for ships to arrive off a port; pilots earned good money guiding vessels into harbour. With the pilot there’d be a mate, a seaman, and perhaps a boy. Cutters were robust enough to wait offshore in all weathers, perhaps for weeks. They had neither the belly of a fisherman nor the sleek lines of a racing yacht, but they needed speed. The first cutter to hail and offer their services would get the job. The cutter would follow the ship into harbour, recover their pilot, and go back to sea until the next ship. Sailing cutters fell out of use after telegraphy meant a ship could signal ahead. By then a steam powered launch could rendezvous faster, and against the wind.
A Yachtsman’s Log
Then I discovered ‘A Yachtsman’s Log’, written by Frank Carr for a readership with salt water in their veins. It’s a fascinating insight into sailing his cutter, the Cariad, in a technologically simpler time. No radar, no echo sounders, not even simple mechanical tools like winches to hoist sails. It was a time when fog at sea meant true blindness, navigating by dead reckoning among the tides and rocks, with the unseen bells of buoys to guide you if you were lucky. There are passages that are quaint by today’s standards; picture four men, after a sailing trip, taking the cutter’s dinghy up the Thames to work in the City, all shielding their starched collars from the wilting spray with their bowler hats.
But one of those men also wrote about life-threatening crises at sea with self-deprecating charm. Frank Carr was very much a certain type of Englishman from that age of sea power and Empire.
So if anyone questions how a pilot cutter handles in a storm, I have it, chapter and verse. And if anyone says it’s impossible for a boat to even survive a particular situation, then I beg to differ. A plucky chap called Frank Carr left me his log. And he’s certainly not one to boast.
Links and further reading
A Yachtsman’s Log by Frank G G Carr was published by Lovat Dickins and Thompson in 1935. You can see his boat the Cariad, now restored, at http://www.cariad.org
Draca is a novel about a war-damaged Royal Marine who rebuilds his life by restoring an old sailing boat. For a synopsis, click here and for an extract, click here . It will be published by Unbound when the level of pre-orders passes their threshold. We’re already over 70% there. After publication, half the royalties will go to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.
Please support Draca here. Pre-orders are £10 for an ebook and from £15 for a paperback, and all supporters’ names appear in every edition.
Thank you. You’ll be helping me to help those whose wounds are more than physical.