Saturday, 31 December 2016

A good read ...

A bit of utterly shameless self-promotion at the turn of the year!
If you are looking for something to read, (and maybe feeling a bit broke after Christmas)
then why not try one of the three anthologies we published this year - all currently
available as eBooks from Amazon at the bargain price of 99p! 
If you fancy something a little spooky, then GHOSTS ELECTRIC will help
to raise the hairs on the back of your neck ...
... while ANOTHER FLASH IN THE PEN has a variety of tales to suit a wide variety of tastes ...
 ... and SPARKS 3 is our third annual round-up of our favourite blogs ...

(They are all also available as paperbacks if you prefer)

And Happy New Year to all our readers!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

To The New Year! N M Browne

Ethel Louvain Andrews 1914 -2016
So this is the fag end of the year and what a year it has been: so many deaths of notables, so many political catastrophes. I am not optimistic about world peace, the economy or the publishing industry. It is too easy to be depressed. Tomorrow I will travel to my grandmother's funeral. Perhaps it is perverse to draw solace from that, but I do. She died at 102 having endured two world wars, the deaths of two husbands, a brother, a sister and a daughter and still she went down fighting. I'm very sad of course because I loved her dearly, but I am all too aware of my privilege. I knew my great-grandmother, who didn't die until I was sixteen, and I had my grandmother as a wise and witty presence in my life until my own middle age. Perhaps my generation of women in the UK is uniquely privileged in that we have not yet experienced the kind of massive loss of life that dogged my grandmother's generation. We have the privilege of grieving for Bowie and Cohen and all those many others because for us death is not an every day fact of our living. Relatively few of us get to the end of every day grateful for our continued survival. I find this oddly comforting.
So maybe we live on the end of the precipice: global warning may get us yet or Trump may push the button. I write dystopian fiction and it is not beyond my imagination to see this Christmas as our last. If that's the way it is going to be let's live as if this year is the only year we will ever have. Let's write every book as if it is the only chance we'll ever have to say what we most want to say. Let's hug our loved ones close; delight in every sunset and celebrate every dawn. Every generation has feared the end times. What fuels art but rebellious joy in the face of fear and desperation.
And yet my grandmother made it to 102. Let's live each day as joyously as if it is our last and as hopefully as if we have a hundred years still in us. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Knickers and Tinsel by Enid Richemont

So yet another Autumn dies in blazes of glory, and now, coming up to the Winter Solstice, humanity in my Northern hemisphere, in desperation for light, constructs its own glory, with candles and glitter, tinsel,  sparkles and Christmas trees, fires in the hearth, warmth, presents, mince pies and the Christmas cake replica of that frozen world, that Ice Age we're all trying to magic out.

The early Christians were clever to choose this time of year to celebrate Christ's birth which is almost certainly dateless - who was around to record the birth of an unknown peasant's infant in a manger of all places? There were records of births, though - the Romans liked to keep tallies and there were taxes to pay, just like now - money to be made even out of the poor and needy. Linking a new religion with the dark, dying year, and the Roman festival of Saturnalia - over-spending, over-eating, and lots of pretty lights - had to be a win-win situation, and boy, did it win!

 The same basic human feelings have also inspired Hanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, and also Diwali. People protest against darkness. Bad things can happen to you in the dark, and if all you really know comes from your local 'holy' men, then Spring itself may never come again. Yet only in real darkness, can we begin to comprehend where we are in the only universe we're really familiar with, and it's the only context in which I'd use that unlovely Americanism 'awesome', because Space (or whatever you choose to call it) is just that - awe-inspiring and scary. We are very, very small, but we are also 'awesome'.
From the Infinite to knickers - yes, knickers, because in one of my 80s incarnations I pitched a design for knickers - a new knicker concept - to the Dior company. I'd always made stuff, and having briefly encountered lined couture trousers, I came up with the idea of a trousers 'petticoat' - a lining you just pulled on, like knickers, but which went all the way down to your ankles, and yes, it worked - it even had a write-up in The Times, and I have a close friend in America who still wears them. Writers have many faces.

So from knickers to Saturnalia (well, why not?) and all those glorious sunsets in between,
 I hope you've all had a fantastic Christmas, and will have an amazing, but above all, peaceful 2017.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Sacked by a Glove Puppet - Andrew Crofts


Everyone around the boardroom table was entirely in agreement; at no stage and no time was anyone allowed to admit out loud or in writing that our celebrity was not a real person. Never mind that the celebrity in question was made of felt, this was the merchandising business, there had to be rules. The lawyers insisted.

My job, as the chosen ghostwriter, was to produce an autobiography which would fill in this celebrity’s back story, his early life before he found fame, and exactly what happened to him in the “wilderness years” before his comeback as a potentially money-making merchandising vehicle. There were many careers resting on the outcome of this exercise, most of them sitting round that table in their shirt-sleeves – brainstorming and sipping mineral water.

I had been hired by the distinguished publisher who had agreed to bring the eventual book out under his distinguished imprint. It was a nice job for both of us. For me it felt a bit like being given a licence to write fiction, (although of course it wasn’t fiction because the lawyers said so and the story must therefore be spoken of at all times as non-fiction, even though I was going to be making it up).

One of the golden rules of writing both fiction and non-fiction must be to be fundamentally truthful in your writing, and if you aren’t going to be truthful then you’d better be as entertaining as hell. But of course "truthful" was the option to go for here, because the lawyers said so.  

Our hero had found fame in the seventies and we all know how badly celebrities were allowed to behave in those days. Now, it seemed to me, was the time for him to ’fess up to every little indiscretion, (this was before the really heinous and unamusing revelations of the period started to emerge). I was also sure readers would understand exactly why he went off the rails during the wilderness years – wouldn’t everyone if subjected to the pressures of sudden fame and fortune?  To hold on to the readers’ sympathies I felt we must come clean about the addictions and the dodgy business deals that he had become involved in during those years at the same time as dropping the names of all the celebrities he had mingled with.

Once the manuscript was finished and both the distinguished publisher and I were happy that we had done full justice to the whole Greek tragedy of this celebrity’s rise and fall and resurrection, there was another meeting in the same boardroom. We arrived, feeling extremely pleased with ourselves, but now the men and women in shirtsleeves were no longer smiling. The celebrity, apparently, was not happy with the way he had come across. The ghost was going to have to be replaced by someone who understood what was expected of them.

“The thing we have to remember,” the distinguished publisher sighed as we stood on the street outside, forlornly scouring the horizon for a taxi to whisk us away from the scene of our humiliation, “is that nobody around that table has ever commissioned anything bigger than a fridge magnet.”

I felt better for his wise words.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Setting a Story at Shambala Junction: Dipika Mukherjee talks about mining memories of long train journeys

One of the nicest perks about being a writer is that it is a great excuse to travel, all in the guise of research. Although Shambala Junction is an imaginary place, writing the novel took me on lovely long train journeys through India.

Shambala Junction begins with a rather jinxed train journey for the protagonist, Iris, an Indian-American young woman visiting India with her new fiancée. I mined the memories of my own childhood, especially the wonderful nostalgia of long train journeys from New Delhi Station to Howrah in Kolkata, to write Iris’s wide-eyed enchantment with the ubiquitous details of Indian life. Every summer, when the heat drove Delhiites to cooler cities, my family would board the Rajhdhani Express, for a 24 hour journey with a long halt at Mughal Serai. Mughal Serai in my childhood had makeshift stalls selling colourful wooden dolls; although, it is almost impossible to find these artisans at railway stations anymore, Aman’s stall is inspired by my vivid memories:
He had an array of colorful wooden dolls spread out in front of him on a pushcart: there were dolls with turbans and flared coats playing flutes and dholaks; there were men riding horses with colorful stirrups and dazzling sword-sheaths; there were dancers dancing with the left leg slightly on tiptoe, caught in mid-swirl in the disarray of flouncing skirts.
Iris was enchanted. She had once owned a dancing doll just like that one, a beloved painted wooden thing with a crack in the veiled head, a gift from some unremembered relative in her childhood.

I started writing this novel after being enraged at the tone of an article about “baby shopping” which was about international adoptions fuelling child-trafficking in India. This is a global problem, not just limited to India, and the trafficking moves from one impoverished country to another as the authorities start clamping down on severe irregularities I wanted the western world to realize that we are all complicit in this, especially by pretending that if poor children are placed in affluent homes it makes the world a better place. I wrote the first draft in about three months in Amsterdam, then I edited this novel over four years, toning down the rage and making the characters blossom into real people. A novel like this taught me that there are far too many victims in these stories to be a novel about the East vs West or the Consumerist North vs Impoverished South. This story needed nuanced characters, and I was very aware of how easy it was for me, as an author, to have them climb onto soapboxes.

So this story shifted, from being based in New Delhi, to an imaginary Shambala Junction, loosely based on Gaya. Gaya is an ancient city and a deeply spiritual place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It has a real hill where the Buddha preached the Fire Sermon and a Mahabodhi temple, and these feature in the novel as well. At the same time, Gaya is also within the state of Bihar, which was at that time considered one of the most badly governed, lawless and corrupt states in India. I travelled to Gaya alone to get a sense of the place and visited the Mahabodhi temple, with its most international gathering of Buddhist pilgrims from all around the world alongside general tourists like me.

I also visited the cave with an emaciated Buddha figure; an image rarely portrayed in Buddhist iconography, yet the rigors of attaining Nirvana would certainly have necessitated this condition. It was a startling image; a reminder of the frailty and mortality of all human condition.
The hill where Buddha preached the Fire Sermon was quite a trek, and in the novel, I transmute my experience into the voice of Emily, a Canadian woman wanting to adopt an Indian girl-child:
Emily raised her head. She could see the motley group of children heading for the next tourist bus pulling in. They had no time for play; it was work for them as long as tourists like her showed up. She felt her eyes prickle; so many children with miserable lives. Too many children who could not be adopted into better lives.
Beside a square white enclosure it was all brown on the hill. The rough-hewn rocks scattered on the dusty ground made room for brown shoots to limply wave in the wind. Her skin tingled with a tragic epiphany; on this hill, pregnant with religious history, she could see absolutely no signs of life.

Unlike Emily, my trip to Gaya left me with a very happy memory. During my visit to the Mahabodhi temple, as I sat under the Bodhi tree meditating with other people at the site where the Buddha had attained Nirvana, a stray leaf twirled down from the green canopy of the Bodhi Pallanka overhead and fell into my lap. That dried leaf is now framed and hangs in my home in Chicago; I like to think that the Buddha approved this story much before it found a publisher or won a prize.

Happy Holidays everyone and may 2017 be filled with travel and adventure!

This post was first published at Sky Light Rain 

Shambala Junction won the Virginia Prize for Fiction in the UK and was launched on Nov 23, 2016, at a lovely ceremony at Richmond (where the Woolfs had their Hogarth Press and the Bloomsbury group met). This book will be available is North America in April 2017. Read a review here.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Ghosts of Christmas Past - by Susan Price

My mother loved Christmas.


You know who he is - illustrated by T Nast (Public Domain Review)

     She was born in 1929, the youngest of six children. Every year, at Christmas, she told us about Christmas when she'd been a child.
     The Christmas, for instance when, coming down in the morning, she found a monkey in the kitchen. One of her three older brothers had somehow acquired it at the Christmas Wake (a fair.) Christmas spirit had probably been strong in the brother, if not the monkey. What happened to the monkey? As with many of my mother's stories, I don't know. I can't remember her ever telling me that. Perhaps she didn't know herself. I can't imagine the monkey remaining a member of the household for very long after my grandmother saw it.

Every Christmas without fail, we heard about the big white enamelled bucket. It had a lid. It was a lidded big white enamel bucket.
     For most of the year the big white enamelled bucket with a lid was for fetching water from the pump in the yard and storing it in the house. But at Christmas, it was used for storing nuts instead. What was done with the water over Christmas? Were people pushed out into the freezing slippery yard with jugs and basins? Again, I was never told. But at Christmas, for sure, that big white enamelled bucket with the lid was filled to overflowing with monkey-nuts, walnuts, cobnuts and brazils, all of them still in their shells. The nutcrackers lay on the top, nestling into the nuts, ready for use. I think it was the great quantity of that luxury, nuts, that impressed my mother.

Walnuts were, by the way, fun for all the family.  Carefully shell two walnuts so you have four perfect half-shells. Scrape them out and make them smooth. Scoop up a passing cat. (There were always a few cats about in my mother's house. There was one which my mother strongly resented because it could open the back door when she was still too short to reach the latch. On returning from school to an empty house, she used to have to wait in the yard until the cat chose to saunter home and let her in. Despite this, she was a great cat-lover in later life.)
     Anyroad, the cat and the walnut shells. Fit a half-shell onto each of its paws, then put the cat down on the bare stone flags or tiles. There were no carpets in my mother's home. The cat finds itself tap-dancing. Never having heard a sound from its own feet before, it attempts to escape the clatter, only to tap louder. The more frantically the cat tries to escape the noise, the louder the clatter of walnut shells on stone becomes.
     This was more fun for my mother's brothers, admittedly, than for the cat. But they had to make their own entertainment in those days.
     Another use for walnut shells. Mum taught us how to make little boats out of the half-shells. Fitted with matchstick masts and paper sails, they formed a flotilla in a bowl of water.
     And corks. Most bottles in her childhood had real corks, and more corks were pulled at Christmas than at any other time. These were turned into horses, to stand about on the bowl's shore, admiring the boats. The horses' legs were matchsticks, and a head and neck were cut out of card. A slit in the end of the cork allowed the cardboard head to be slotted into place. Tails and manes could be made from bits of old wool. You could blacken the end of the matchsticks to make hooves and draw in eyes and mouths. You could even make them saddles and reins.
Walnuts, wikimedia

     My mother, as the youngest of six, considered herself spoiled but Christmas in the 1930s was still for most people, as it had been for centuries, a brief time of treats in a year of penny-pinching and making-do. Another of my mother's memories was of how an apple was a thing to be cherished and hoarded for days. She polished it on her sleeve, sniffed it, imagining how it would taste. She showed it off and would have all the other children in the street following her about and trying to become her bestest friend, in the hope that, when she finally ate the apple, they might be allowed to have the core.

      At Christmas she looked forward to having a rare tangerine in the toe of her stocking - and this was one of her old socks, not a novelty gift-bag. The stocking would hold a sugar mouse too, and some nuts and raisins.
tangerine: Wikimedia
     My grandmother spread the cost of Christmas over many weeks. After all, she had six sugar mice and six tangerines to buy. She bought white mice for the boys and pink ones for the girls from their corner shop (which was a house with its front room turned into a shop. The counter was a sideboard.)
     My mother told me of the ingenious way that my grandmother and other women stretched their money. Twenty of them met, every week, in the local pub. The landlady of the pub, who they obviously trusted, acted as treasurer. Each woman put a shilling (5p) into a big jar. For the first week, nothing was paid out, but a time-table was drawn up for twenty weeks ahead. Each woman drew one of these weeks out of a hat.
     The next week, they again put in a shilling, so the jar held 40 shillings or two pounds. The woman who had drawn the first week was given twenty shillings, or one pound, from the jar.
     The next week, they all put in another shilling and the woman who'd drawn the second week was given a pound - and so on. This 'Inflation Calculator' reckons that £1 in 1935 would have been worth about £50 today, whereas the shilling each woman put in was worth about £2-50.
     This ingenious system allowed the women to budget ahead. This week and next week, they were hard-up - ah, but the week after that they would have a whole pound to play with. They could delay large purchases, like coal, until 'their week.' They also made arrangements between each other. If one woman desperately needed the money that week and another could wait, they swopped weeks. When  it was their week to receive a pound, they often asked to be given only 19/- (the /- meant 'shilling') and so covered their payment into the pool.

But I was telling you about sugar mice. After Christmas, my mother said, she and the brothers nearest her in age hid their stockings from the others. The utmost ingenuity and enterprise had to be used because if one of them found the stockings belonging to the others, they would eat the sugar-mouse, raisins, nuts and all while hoping that the others hadn't found their special, secret, undetectable hiding-place. (You hoarded your own sugar mouse, licking it and nibbling it to make it last. But if you found a mouse belonging to someone else, you gobbled as much as you could before you were discovered.)
     The two oldest sisters never bothered to hide their stockings. Since their mother worked long hours, these two acted as mothers to the rest and it was considered bad form to gnaw their mice when they hadn't even hidden them. (The oldest brother's stocking was also safe. He worked in a steel-mill, flinging and catching bolts of white-hot iron with a pair of long tongs. Nobody was going to nick his sugar-mouse.)

     Mom was usually given a 'Wonder Book' for Christmas too: a large, hard-backed book, full of stories, puzzles, things to make, and experiments to try. They were often beautifully illustrated. My mother loved and treasured hers but one day, when she was twelve, returned home from school to find that her mother had given all of them away, together with many of her toys because 'she was too old for things like that now.'
     This was one reason why my mother bought us so many books, including second-hand copies of her old wonder-books, and why she would never, never even consider throwing or giving away anything that belonged to us without our permission. I don't think she ever forgave my grandmother for giving away her things.
     (To speak in my grandmother's defense: She had herself started work at 10, so perhaps 12 did seem 'too old' for toys to her. Also, she never understood why anyone would waste their time reading. She spent Christmas at our house once, in her old age and stared for a long time at the floor-to-ceiling books before shaking her head and saying, "But what use am they?" We were without answer. To us, it was like asking what use the floor or walls were.)

My mother copied her mother in this much: she started buying for Christmas in August. Gifts would be stashed away in the bottom of her wardrobe or on top of it. Bottles of booze and ingredients for baking would be packed onto the back pantry shelf. The chest at the bottom of the hall would be slowly filled with nets of nuts, bags of crisps, packets of biscuits and sweets. She never allowed for the fact that she had, not six children, but only three (four when my youngest brother arrived.) We would be eating 'Christmas treats' until Easter.
     In the week running up to Christmas, she would organise us as hands for her mincepie factory. She would make the pastry. One of us would grease tins. Another would cut out pastry circles. A third would fill the pies. The one who'd been greasing tins would then go to the other end of the line and stick on lids. Milk and egg was brushed on. Sugar was sprinkled. Mother operated the oven, putting tray after tray in, and bringing out sweet, spicy mincepies in batches of twelve.

Nightcomers by Susan Price
We always had a Christmas tree and Mom would tell us how, when she'd been a child, they had a 'bush' not a tree. This was a construction of coat-hangers or wooden rods, fastened together to make a cross. It was covered with greenery or tinsel and hung from the ceiling. Glass ornaments, holly or mistletoe could be added, according to taste. Later, I saw presenters on Blue Peter making them and calling them 'Christmas crowns.' They weren't crowns. They were bushes.
     Many of the ornaments we hung on our tree had a long history and stories attached. For instance, in the 'trimmings-box' we had some bits of blackened string with odd little wormy bits dangling from them. My mother told us that this had once been tinsel. When new it had been as bright and shiny as the glittering tinsel we enjoyed, but it had tarnished and turned black. We still hung it on our tree, in memory of Christmases past.
     My mother's memories of Christmas and my own inspired my story 'The Christmas Trees' which, if you're still in the mood for Christmas, you can read here.

     It's the gentlest and most nostalgic story in my collection, Nightcomers: Eight Stories of the Uncanny.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Happy Christmas Eve! by Jo Carroll

You know how everything happens at once sometimes? Of course you do. It's Christmas Eve, and if you've five minutes to read blogs, I'm impressed.

And Life doesn't stop because it's Christmas. People get ill, babies arrive, kids fall off their bikes, grandmas complain about their knees in the cold. The weather can be kind, or angry, or simply perverse. Central heating breaks down. Many are working their socks off so that others can spend the time with their families. Some young people have exams when they go back to school.

You get the idea. So it was a pretty silly time for me to launch a novel. But having spent forever researching and writing and editing and generally faffing about every word, it is now Finished!

So why not wait until the New Year to launch it? Because I'm off to Malawi for six weeks in January, and who knows what will fill my hours when I get back. So it was publish now and be damned.

Of course you don't have time to fill your kindle today. But - in a day or two when you are too full to move and everyone else in the house is falling over in front of a film you've seen ten times before -  maybe you have time and headspace for a tale of a woman who left the wilds of Ireland during the potato famine, and ended her days in the wilds of New Zealand. What took her so far? And why?

Then you can pop across to Amazon and buy it here.

And if you want to read more of my stuff, you can find it at

Friday, 23 December 2016

Lev Butts' Christmas Wish List

When I was a kid, this was my favorite time of year. Not really Christmas, per se, but the weeks leading up to it. I loved the TV specials, especially A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman. I also liked the Rankin-Bass stop-motion specials, but they often scared the hell out of me (especially the Abominable Snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). I loved the sappy smell of the Christmas tree, and I especially loved the electric candles my parents put in the windows every year (they provided a better than excellent light by which I could read in bed without anyone paying heed to the brightness in the room).

Seriously, these things could light up a bedroom like St. Patrick's Cathedral.

My favorite bit, though, was none of these things. It wasn't the opening of presents either: After all, by noon, that joy was spent to be replaced by having to clean up the piles of wrapping paper and then go to some relative's house for dinner. No, my favorite part of the Christmas season was when the J.C. Penney Big Book Catalog and the Sears and Roebuck Wish Book came in the mail.

These things were the size of all seven Harry Potter books stacked end-to-end and a good half of the pages were devoted to just toys. Here, take a look:

I spent a portion of every day after Thanksgiving with a big red pen circling all the toys I wanted for Christmas and then trying to find the best place in the house to nonchalantly leave the catalog for my parents to happen upon and find inspiration for my gifts.

Now that I am grown, of course, much of Christmas has lost its glamour. I know the truth of Santa, I don't need fake candles to read at night, and anything I want now, I pretty much have to buy myself, and I can as long as the money is there. It is incredibly hard to surprise myself with a gift.

Also, I don't know whether or not Wish Books are even mailed out any more. I do know, though, that the Internet has its own equivalent in the thousands upon thousands of "The Best Gifts for Your _____" lists that appear all over Facebook this time of year. These are generally tailored for a specific audience so I tend to get lists like "The Best Gifts for Men" & "What She Wants for Christmas" (because apparently strict gender roles are alive and well in my virtual social circle).

I also get lists for gifts for writers, which almost always consist of things no writer really wants. They are generally overpriced cheap little barely writing-related gadgets, like the literary equivalent of a Sharper Image Catalog. Seriously look at this one. It includes such things as Aqua Notes, for when you just have to finish your magnum opus in the shower; a space-age pen, for when you are writing in zero gravity; and an various pins and buttons with "writerly" quotes, because nothing gets your creative juices flowing like reading TGIF flair. For Scribe's sake, the list even includes a participation trophy, because if a a writer needs anything its a cheap-ass piece of plastic to reinforce his/her already crippling self-doubt and to make matters worse, it's no longer even available for purchase anyway!

At least it has just enough room to house the rest of my dignity.
My point here, is these things are lists written for writers by people who clearly don't write, which makes about as much sense as allowing people who don't teach decide what's best for schools.

Oh wait... yeah... never mind
So I'm going to do us all a favor and give you three perfect gift ideas for the writer in your life.

A Publishing Contract

While the goal of writing is not really to get rich quickly or easily (only folks who've never written believe there is anything quick or easy about it), most writers are at least interested in eventually publishing their work when they are done. At least this is true of any writer on this blog, which was created at least in part to provide publicity for our work.

Unfortunately, it's the publishing bit that causes most of us the most trouble. Writing is mostly an introspective art, meaning many (but by no means all) of us are fairly introverted. Putting our manuscripts out there for scrutiny by a publishing house can be a stressful process. Once we receive our first rejections, the whole process becomes even more anxiety-ridden.

You really want to make that writer in your life happy? Buy a major publishing house; then purchase their manuscript. I guarantee you, if you approach them on Christmas morning with a contract from Random House and a huge signing bonus, you need never buy them another tacky tie or ugly sweater again.

A Pulitzer

Most writers also crave recognition of their talents (again, the ones who make their work public, that is. The hermits aren't reading this anyway, so won't likely contradict me). Consider nominating your favorite writer's work for a regionally sponsored award, an award open to self-published books, or even an IPPY.

Or you can go all out...

If the purchase price of a publishing house is a bit steep for this economic landscape, perhaps a bribe or two of the Pulitzer committee may be more affordable. Rather than throwing money away on the aforementioned nonexistent participation trophy, consider getting your loved one a real prize. Imagine your beloved writer's face when they unwrap that gold medallion and the check for $10,000!

If you really want to go all out, consider a Nobel!


Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like the inhibition-stilling ambrosia of one's favorite alcoholic beverage. Similarly, nothing accentuates the success of a publishing contract or the receiving of an award like the euphoria-inducing ambrosia of one's favorite alcoholic beverage. Conversely, nothing silences the nagging self-doubt, feelings of rejection, or smothering sense of failure like the pain-numbing ambrosia of one's favorite alcoholic beverage.

Best. Tree. Ever.
I hope this, by no means comprehensive, list of gift ideas helps you with your shopping this year. I also hope you all enjoy the holidays, and that the next year is a damn sight better than the one we're wrapping up.

On a completely unrelated note, I really like it when I find a nice bottle of Merlot, Seagram's Gin, or Maker's Mark Whiskey waiting for me in my house at 265 East Johnson Street, Temple, GA, USA.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Changes are lightsome, Ali Bacon takes a long hard look at some cherished Christmas traditions.

Christmas is all about tradition, isn’t it?  And ever since I had to give in to my in-laws’ edict that presents were opened after lunch (outrageous!) I’ve clung on for dear life to the remnants of my Yuletide habits.  So on Christmas Eve, while the family settled down to Cool Runnings or Home Alone, I’d be in spendid isolation in the kitchen, soaking up the traditional beauty of Carols from Kings - most likely with my hand up a turkey's backside. Yes, for me Hark the Herald is synonymous with an oniony tear in my eye. Oh well, it's traditional.

Long before Christmas Eve, I'd be chuntering on about how the sideboard was constantly littered with bits of tin-foil and cardboard, and how advent calendars were meant to be about the nativity. When we got more space I insisted on only ever having a calendar WITHOUT CHOCOLATE (not an easy thing to find let me tell you.) Selection boxes on the other hand were fine. We had them every year. They were traditional.

One pudding fits all
But this year something odd has come over me. It began with the Christmas pud. Having decided to buy one (my recipe always yields enough mixture for two large puds and a bit left over for the food-bank - except they prefer toiletries or tinned stuff) I went online to check out which were the best buys.
To my disgust, the top choice on the first site I visited was an M&S chocolate and orange version. I rejected this straight away and went off in search of something full-on fruity. But somehow that choc-orange pudding stayed in my mind. How many of our company of eight really liked the brandy-soaked version? And a non-traditional dessert would take away the need  to provide the ‘alternative pudding for fuss-pots’ which takes up space in the fridge and hardly ever gets eaten. Then there was that M&S voucher hiding in my handbag. Before you could say ‘citrus sauce included’ the deed was done.

A little bit of chocolate does no harm 
And this pesky pudding proved to be just the beginning. After buying an advent calendar for our (non-resident) daughter I hinted there was a chocolatey gap on our own sideboard. 

‘But you don’t like advent calendars,’ said Mr B.
'Actually, I said. exercising my full female prerogative, 'I think I have changed my mind'. 

And you know it is quite fun to dig out a smidgeon of chocolate as you count down the days.

What next, a blow-up Santa?

So was that the end of my Yuletide volte-face? No, not a bit of it. Since we moved ten years ago to our newish estate we’ve grown reluctantly accustomed to the December blingfest:  the garish lights,  the blow-up/collapsing Santas, the oddly illuminated hedges and gables. Some of them we pause to admire for their relative tastefulness. But have lights ourselves? Good grief, what an idea! Yes, that’s our house over there, the one in Stygian gloom. Outside lights are so not our thing.
But this year I found myself curiously uplifted by the appearance of the twinkly season and dispirited by our dark door.
So it was highly gratifying to drive our daughter home a couple of nights ago and have her practically jump out of her seat as we rounded the corner – Mum, you have lights!!
I have to say it’s a very modest affair, but everybody has to start somewhere.

So what does this teach me about tradition?
Lesson One:  Not all traditions are good traditions. Selection boxes were designed for the post-rationing decade. They had everybody itching to open them before breakfast and thoroughly nauseous by mid-day. We are no longer chocolate-deprived, we do not need them. 

Lesson Two: Traditions aren't set in stone. For our (grown-up) kids, Christmas isn’t Christmas without at least one viewing of The Snowman. But there will come a time when their own off-spring adopt something else as a Christmas favourite. Thinking back to Meet the Kids with Jimmy Savile (ouch) I have to concede that changes like this can be a good thing.  

And finally: All traditions have to start somewhere. This is particularly true of recipes. Where did my Mum find that (pre-Delia) chocolate rum flan recipe which became a Boxing Day staple for at least ten years? Then there was my my mother-in-law’s cranberry stuffing ball recipe, de rigeur for a more recent decade. But hey, they were both very fiddly to make and we have moved on. This year I’m working on a knock-em dead pre-dinner cocktail involving amaretto, cherries and gin.

Traditional? It will be.

Cheers, everyone, and I hope you all make at least one new tradition this Christmas!

There's more about Ali here or at

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Ten best things about being an author in 2016 - Katherine Roberts

Today is the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year for those of us who live the northern hemisphere - a time for reflection, fire ceremonies involving holly and mistletoe, and other pagan traditions now more commonly associated with Christmas. However you celebrate this time of year, it is also when newspapers start printing their 'best of year' lists. Not to be outdone, here is my author 'best of' 2016 (which might seem small and insignificant compared to everyone else's multi-book advances from major publishers, no. 1 best-selling supermarket titles, and research trips around the world on elephant-back, but then I am only 5' 4").

Empire of the Hare

1. Inspired by Brexit, I have republished my Library of Avalon Geoffrey Ashe Prize shortlisted story about Queen Boudicca's rebellion Empire of the Hare on my signature list for older readers. The publishing process took 12 hours rather than 12 months so if you're curious to know what Brexit looked like in the 1st century AD, you can download it today for just 99p... it might make you grateful we live in the 21st!

2. Since I've reverted the rights from its original publisher, my Alexander the Great epic I am the Great Horse is now back in print (on demand) with a bright new cover I designed myself:

I am the Great Horse

3. I am (still) an award-winning author. I've got the little black-and-silver butterfly 'book' to prove it, presented to me in London by Jacqueline Wilson for my debut novel Song Quest way back in 2000, before the days of ebooks, when authors had publishers and were paid advances because their words took so long to reach readers. Every solstice, I polish the silver stars in the hope a writing genie might appear and make me rich and famous like all the other authors in the world.

Branford Boase Award

4. Angels are speaking to me (one of my 2016 projects - don't worry, I've not come over all Joan of Arc just yet).

Jacob wrestling with the Angel
by Gustave Doré (1832-1883).

5. I won the premium bonds!!! Yes, really, a whole £25!!!! I spent it on a steam train ride to Agatha Christie's holiday home on the River Dart and used her typewriter, which (interestingly) did not have an exclamation mark:

'Agatha' Roberts at the National Trust's Greenway

6. I conquered Createspace (see 1) and used it to publish a brand new sequel to my popular witchy teen title Spellfall, only 15 years late:

Spell Spring
7. Some people have even bought a copy.

8. The Great Pyramid Robbery earned me almost £1,000 in photocopying fees via ALCS (Authors' Licencing and Collecting Society - well worth joining if you are not already a member!). Thank you, whichever school/college out there is still using this book - it's next on my list for a print-on-demand edition, I promise.

9. I spent a glorious November weekend with a group of authors at a nature reserve in the Chew Valley, where we walked in the golden woodland discussing creativity and took part in a fire ceremony to burn our writing demons... you should have heard them scream. (The demons, not the authors.)

10. I have a cat to keep me sane - though not too sane. Everyone knows you need a dog for that.

Author Survival Shelf.

Wishing you a peaceful winter solstice, and hope to see you all after Christmas (by which time I will definitely be rich and famous like all the other authors in the world).

Find out more about Katherine Roberts and her books at

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Moving on by Sandra Horn

We are moving towards the year’s turning. Time to look back – and forward. I don’t want to dwell on world events in 2016 or I might sink into irrecoverable gloom, so I’ll keep it personal and writing-focussed.
     I’m still surprised to find that Including my first, Tattybogle, I’ve written 14 picture books and 7 storybooks. That’s over 21 years, though, so not exactly a fast production line. It’s been a lot of fun, with occasional bumps along the way.
     The first (bump) was the icy reception by the Andersen Press team at the Carnegie/Greenaway awards, when Tattybogle was shortlisted. By the most incredible and unfortunate coincidence, another Sandra Horn had just produced a book. Andersen  had an option on my next book and they thought I had violated it. I had no idea what they were talking about until I went into Waterstones and saw ‘Kofi and the Butterflies’ by Sandra Horn. A lovely story, although not one I would have written.
     I became Sandra Ann Horn from then on, but the butterflies continued to haunt me for years. I remember arriving for a storytelling session at a library in the Welsh valleys and finding the whole place decorated with butterflies, which were also on the bookmarks a librarian had designed. They were mortified and I was mortified for them. All that loving work and they couldn’t possibly have known. Are there any more books by Sandra Horn or Sandra Ann Horn in the Andersen catalogue? No. But they licensed the paperback of Tattybogle to Hodder, which was great and I went on to have other things published by them. And a few other publishers. Then Tattybogle, The Moon Thieves and Babushka were all transformed into musicals by the amazing Ruth Kenward at Starshine Music and that has led to all sorts of delights including a trip to South Korea and many visits to watch the shows.  All good! Earnings approaching zero, but a great deal of enjoyment.
     Then came the scary step of taking early retirement and setting up the Clucket Press to produce The Mud Maid and The Giant for the Lost Gardens of Heligan, with illustrator Karen Popham.  That’s been great and we’ve now handed over production to the Heligan team.
The Mud Maid by Sandra Horn

The Giant by Sandra Horn
As time went on and rights reverted, we re-published some of the picture books and storybooks, as ebooks and/or paperbacks. All good! The only downside, before print-on-demand, was having to buy vast quantities of the books in order to keep unit costs low. We had boxes of books everywhere for years, and one particularly tricky day when 12,000 (three different books) arrived all at once. Now, they have reduced in number and are all in my study rather than all over the house.  The trouble is, I can hardly move and sales are slow, so HUGE decisions: 1,000 are going to Book Aid after Christmas and possibly more, and the Clucket Press is winding down. There are two, possibly three, books on the stocks, probably all destined for PoD rather than print runs, and that will be it. 

Rainbow by Sandra Horn
The Silkie paperback




It’s mostly a relief. No regrets – or almost none. The Hare and the Moon, Bad Dog!, Brian the dragon, Doris the Hen and Big Dog Ben, the cloud-chasing pigs and the Clockmouse  now won’t see the light of day, which is the sad bit of it. For the rest, it’s time to move on. I’m hoping to find a publisher for ‘Mister Nobody the musical’ and I’m going to try to be a poet. Maybe I’ll even finish my YA novel and see if it gets any takers.  The New Year is full of possibilities. May it be peaceful, healthy and happy - and creative – for you all!