Friday, 23 June 2017

BOOK CLUB: The Humans by Matt Haig

By Gillian Hamer

This month on Triskele Book Club we discuss The Humans by Matt Haig.

About the book: After an 'incident' one wet Friday night where Professor Andrew Martin is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, he is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confound him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he's a dog.

About the author: Matt Haig is a British author for children and adults. His memoir Reasons to Stay Alive was a number one bestseller, staying in the British top ten for 46 weeks. His children's book A Boy Called Christmas was a runaway hit and is translated in over 25 languages. It is being made into a film by Studio Canal and The Guardian called it an 'instant classic'. His novels for adults include the award-winning The Radleys and The Humans. The Guardian summed up his writing as 'funny, clever and quite, quite lovely' by The Times and the New York Times called him 'a writer of great talent'.

Here, Triskele collegues Gill Hamer, Jill Marsh, Liza Perrat and Catriona Troth discuss. 

Did you have any preconceptions about book before you read it?

(GH) Possibly I thought it was more super-natural and so had chosen not to read it earlier because I'm not a huge fan of that genre. Whereas in fact, there is very little about space travel or aliens in the book. Quite a lot about mathematics though!

(JJ) I've read other books by Haig, so expected a mixture of insights, humour and philosophical ponderings. I wasn't disappointed.

(CT) Hard to remember now what my preconceptions were, as it is almost four years since I read it. But I do remember a feeling that the book took me by surprise.

(LP) I didn't really fancy it as I thought it would be too paranormal and fantasy for my tastes. How wrong I was; this book couldn't be more grounded in reality.

The author relies on a wide range of emotions here, added with a light touch, and some parts were moving. How do you think the author handled this?

(GH) One thing I found particularly clever was the gradual 'humanising' of Andrew Martin and his first taste of the human emotion 'love' - which was completely unknown to him. As a being whose only knowledge of humanity came from a back issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, I did think it very believable how the small, almost unseen, steps led him on a totally unexpected journey. Also, seeing the world through eyes of a stranger was quite satisfying - the good things and bad.

(JJ) The light touch leaves room for the reader to fill the gaps with their own experiences. Just as any outsider enters a culture and makes observations on what is different, it focuses attention on habits and behaviours that we take for granted and don't even think about analysing. The touch may be light, but it goes deep when we start to think about how we treat 'aliens' in our environment.

(CT) I've described before it as a concerto in three movements, with each movement having a very different feel. In the first movement, we have advanced-alien-adapting-to-being-in-a-human-body, making foolish mistakes (what is the point of wearing clothes, anyway?) and seeing us at our worst. It has the slightly sniggery, adolescent tone of a Simon Pegg / Nick Frost movie. That light-hearted tone nevertheless allows Haig to sneak in a few serious comments about the human condition. The second movement hits a deeper note. ‘Andrew’ begins to discover some of the more worthwhile things about human beings (like Emily Dickinson). This section is tender, almost lyrical in tone. The third movement, when ‘Andrew’ has to make choices between the interests of his own people and the interests of humans, is shockingly different, sometimes violent. And then there is a coda, which I won’t spoil by saying anything except that it strikes a different note yet again.

(LP) I think it was his light and humorous touch that was so successful in exploring such a wide range of emotions. Issues were never pushed down your throat, or in your face. In fact, you barely knew what he was getting at, until after the event. Then there was the "ah ha" moment, so to speak.

Other than ET, I can't think of too many aliens who have got me emotional! It can't have been an easy task to write an alien character but the author made it look easy. How did you feel about the use of characterisation?

(GH) I'll be honest, I thought the 'wooden' style of the alien character's dialogue might annoy me early on in the book, but I think I must have mellowed just as the character did, because after a while, it seemed perfectly natural. I did relate to Andrew and empathised with him as he faced the conflict of interest that led to the big decision he made. The supporting cast were great, solid and real, especially Gulliver as the confused teenager, and of course, Newton the dog.

(JJ) I'd agree with the term 'mellowed'. The changes the characters undergo are gradual and incremental, and the reader adjusts alongside them. It's something I recognise in people who've lived in other countries for a while. The adaptation changes one's personality, sometimes to the extent that returning 'home' is as much of a shock as leaving in the first place.

(CT) I can think of quite a few aliens that have made me emotional over the years [Alien Nation, District 9, Defiance...] But yes, certainly, the middle section of the book was very moving. Imagine encountering the idea of love for the first time, not as a hormone-fuelled teenager, but as a mature adult. Having all the intensity and freshness of adolescent experience, while still being able to appreciate the subtleties of grown-up, married love.

(LP) I too, cannot get emotional over aliens, but I did start empathising with Andrew as soon as the author "humanised" him, with the human emotion of love. I felt the author created very real people in the other characters too, especially the dog!

There were some laugh aloud moments. What sticks in your mind as the funniest section?

(GH) I thought the opening scenes, with the Cambridge professor wandering the streets naked were particularly funny. And at the opposite end of the scale, when Andrew admitted his adultery, totally unaware of the impact his words were having, were also humorous - but not for him!

(JJ) Yes, that was entertaining, especially in his attempts to respond in kind to outraged motorists. I also found his realisation about Martin's various relationships very funny, as he tried to work out exactly what was going on from interpreting human behaviour.

(CT) I loved innocence of the narrator when he first arrived on Earth, with absolutely no idea why he was utterly failing in his mission objective to ‘just blend in.’ It reminded me of the Petit Nicolas books by René Goscinny (better known for Asterix).

(LP) Yes, I agree, a particularly humorous moment was when Andrew admitted his adultery in all innocence, to his wife and could not understand her terrible reaction.

One thing I found appealing, was how the author cleverly used a stranger (or alien) to point out the negatives about what it is to be human. I thought this was very smart. What insights did you find the cleverest?

(GH) I think Gulliver finding the strength to face down his bullies was a very strong storyline. I like how the author showed that you didn't need super powers to make a difference.

(JJ) Probably the essence of how much time we waste on the insignificant and how little we spend on appreciating the truly valuable.

(CT) I think the overall sense that we humans could be better versions of ourselves if we would just let the scales fall from our eyes and see things with fresh vision was what made the deepest impression.

(LP) That most of us never take the time to "really smell the flowers"; that we don't live for the moment. 

Overall, what most appealed to you about the book?

(GH) Probably the clever insights into humanity that as humans we fail to notice. Much of the time it was as much to do with what the author didn't say, as what he did. To see the world through the eyes of a stranger has a way of putting things into perspective, and I think the author used this approach really well. I certainly came away from the book with lots of ideas.

(JJ) The biggest impact for me was applying the same light-hearted points about acceptance, repulsion and confusion regarding social codes to real situations, such as the refugee crisis. It makes us ask ourselves, what does it mean to be human?

(CT) That change of key from the crudely funny to the tenderly lyrical was so well handled and crept up so unexpectedly.

(LP) The author's excellent insight into the human race: the good, the bad and the ugly. All seen through the eyes of an alien and thus, objective and totally believable.

Despite the humour of the story, the author also uses the book to put across the importance of a range of issues from climate change to bullying. Do you think this was an important part of the book?

(GH) I felt this was the author's main purpose in writing the book, but it wasn't done in a patronising way, and it certainly wasn't rammed down the reader's throats either. It was more of an explanation of where we're heading and the changes we need to make now if we want to make a difference. I take my hat off to the author for being brave enough to write the book for that reason - and for keeping the book so entertaining too.

(JJ) Very much so. It would have been easy to skirt such issues and keep this full of laughs. I admire Haig's willingness to tackle tough subjects and point out the responsibilities of the individual. It's a thoughtful story which doesn't patronise, as Gilly says, but does insist you think.

(CT) I think the book was trying to get a handle on what it means to be human in the 21st Century, and that also means getting to grips with the problems humans have created in the last two million years, and how we might go about solving them. That sounds ambitious, but humour is an excellent way of making us stop and think about these things.

(LP) Like Gillian, I feel this was the author's point of writing this story. However, he did it in such a quirky and clever way, we don't reallly notice it.  

Have you read any other Matt Haig books? If so, how did this compare?

(GH)  I've read The Radleys a few years back and I have Reasons To Stay Alive on my Kindle. I really like the competent fluidity of his writing, and the fact he's never afraid to push boundaries or write about controversial issues. I like authors that break rules, and I think Matt Haig is a rule breaker!

(JJ) Yes, several. As a writer, Haig has a very vulnerable style, an honesty and openness which doesn't hide behind cynicism or sarcasm. This, perversely, is powerful and affecting. I like his writing and share many of his concerns, so always enjoy his books.

(CT) No, I haven’t. (So many books to read – so little time!)

(LP) No. As Kat says above, so many good books, so little time!

Who should read this book? What readers would it appeal too?

(GH)  Anyone! I think from YA readers to contemporary readers, those who like humour to those who appreciate reading about humanity would enjoy this book. If you don't think you would - why not break the rules and give it a try!

(JJ) The Humans would appeal to anyone from eight upwards. I also think more disaffected readers would enjoy this. It isn't preachy, it breaks a few taboos, it's funny and it's accessible. I'd give it to anyone, confident they'd come away from it with a smile on their face.

(CT) If you’ve enjoyed books like André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs that use a non-human perspective to make us think about what it means to be human, then this is for you. And if you haven’t read anything like that before, then this is a damn good place to start.

(LP) Anyone with an open mind, willing to look at themselves, and hummankind, realistically.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Post Launch Showcase: JD Smith, The Rebel Queen

What is it?

The Rebel Queen is the fourth book in the Overlord series, chronicling the life of the 3rd century Queen of Palmyra, Zenobia.

Who will enjoy it?

Fans of Bernard Cornwell, Michelle Moran and Maurice Druon. The Overlord series has also be likened to a 'real life Game of Thrones'.

When and where is it set?
The main action is based in Roman Syria at a time when the Empire was close to collapse. The Palmyrene army was the only thing standing in the face of Persian invasion.

Where should I read it?

By the fireside with a glass of smooth red.

Why should I read the fourth in the series first?

Although they do flow in a chronological timeline, you can read the books in any order, each one with its own beginning, middle and end.

How will I feel at the end?

Probably sad. This volume is effectively the beginning of the end. After all, by the time you've finished this book you'll be 2/3rds of the way to finishing Zenobia's tale.

Extract from The Rebel Queen

Beside me, Zenobia parried and sliced with the rest of us. I saw now how hard she had trained in the years of peace. I knew her to practice with the men, I spent hours with her myself going over and over the best positions to attack and defend, but never before had I seen the bloodthirst take hold and watch her face a true enemy in battle instead of our training arena. The muscles on her arms gleamed with sweat, her face hard in concentration, and she wielded her sword as well as any man. She had been in battle before, but this was the first time I witnessed her clash, one on one with the enemy, instead of standing back from the front line, her position a political one, a child in her belly and no wish to risk the life of an unborn heir to Palmyra’s thrown.

Something had changed.

Her position was still a political one, I acknowledged as I parried again and again, watching over Zenobia as much as myself. She fought with the men because she claimed to be one of them. They exulted in seeing her in their lines, unafraid of death. An equal. She had the strength of youth but also the muscle only age rather than training can build. Twenty-five years old and there was no stopping her.

She killed.

I saw it out of the corner of my eye, the slice that shed a man of his life, ripping through muscle and cracking against bone.

Order your copy here

To the world of all things design and literary I'm JD Smith, to everyone else I'm just plain Jane. I'd like to think I'm not too plain - I love books and stories after all.

I am the author of several historical fiction novels, a member of the Triskele Books collective, editor of the writers' ezine Words with JAM, and the readers' review site Bookmuse.

I am also an award-winning book cover designer. I love books, both the physical and the words contained within. I'd like to think it was no surprise that I ended up immersing myself in the world of book design rather than marketing materials for corporate companies, but in many ways it was.

My office door is always open if you wish to join me for a cup of tea.

I love cake. Just in case you were wondering.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Highlights from the Launch Party

On Saturday 3 June, Triskele Books returned to The English Restaurant in Spitalfields for our third book launch at this venue. This time, we brought some friends.

L-R: Catriona Troth, JD Smith, Gillian Hamer, JJ Marsh, Jessica Bell, Alison Morton

The celebrations were for six books: Sacred Lake by Gillian Hamer, Bad Apples by JJ Marsh, The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat and The Rebel Queen by JD Smith (Triskele Books) with Dear Reflection by Jessica Bell and Retalio by Alison Morton, two of our favourite friends and ALLies.

Readings, interviews, photographs, chats, fizz and food, it was all a good book launch should be and we want to do it all over again. Here are a few shots of the event:
The guests

The authors

The party

Guests were challenged to match the ideal accompaniments to each book. How would you do?
  • Ice cold Gin & Tonic with a twist of lime service with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sorbet.
  • Ale, red wine and ginger cake sat around a fire pit on a summer's night.
  • A Virgin Mary, while listening to PJ Harvey in a cafe in Santorini.
  • Wiener Schnitzel followed by strong coffee with French brandy, to the sounds of Bach's Toccata.
  • Grilled sardines, coffee with a shot of aguardente and the theme from La Lettre. 

  • Retalio
  • Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel
  • Sacred Lake
  • The Rebel Queen
  • Bad Apples

The Winner - Roz Morris with prize and goody bag

And we finally got to meet our Big 5 Competition winner in person! Sophie Wellstood came along to celebrate with us. If all goes to plan, she'll soon be having a launch party of her own.

Triskele Books with Sophie Wellstood

Thank you to all our guests for coming along to support us and roll on next time!

Photos courtesy of Erika Bach, Jane Davis, Ellen Durkin and Roz Morris 

Friday, 26 May 2017

Book Launch Preview #4 - Alison Morton and Retalio

What is it about? 

RETALIO is a classic tale of resistance and resilience. An exiled Aurelia Mitela leads an army of the dispossessed to liberate their beloved Roma Nova from the brutal tyranny of usurper Caius Tellus, her personal nemesis.

Who would enjoy it?

Anybody who likes adventure, a political and military thriller with a dollop of feminism, a tough heroine who melts in the arms of her lover but leads a nation of exiles against an amoral power-grabber, feats of high courage and low betrayals, and the odd bit of banter.

When is it set?

Early 1980s, in an alternative timeline

Where do you want to take us?

To Central Europe, to a 20th century remnant of the Roman Empire where values, beliefs and principles are tied to a resolute and determined response to threats to survival.

Why should we read this, the last in a trilogy, first?

Each story is a complete and standalone adventure. It won’t spoil your enjoyment of RETALIO if you haven’t read AURELIA and INSURRECTIO, the first and second books in this second trilogy, but if you do read them you’ll discover how Caius has damaged Aurelia and why he hates her so much.

How did you get the idea and will there be more?

A bad film, triggering an idea from a book read fifteen years previously and fuelled by a proto-feminist question from an eleven year old crouched over a Roman mosaic.

Yes, a novella is half written, then comes a collection of short stories. Still in the thought pipeline is the story set at the end of the 4th century – the foundation of Roma Nova.


‘Surely you don’t want to go on this routine exercise now?’

Volusenia was trying to sound reasonable. It didn’t suit her. We walked on towards the back garden wall. The sun was warm for October with not even a light breeze to dilute it. The parkland was green and lush again, having recovered from the hot summer. Its softness was a complete contrast with the brutal place we were planning to go.

‘It makes no difference,’ I said. ‘If it’s as routine as you say, then how can it be risky?’

‘I’m so fed up of trying to explain to you that I’m almost ready to let you go and Mercury take the consequences!’

‘Look, this is an important intelligence gathering mission with specific targets. You say you can get me into the palace. Well, who better to find the evidence we want on Caius? I’ve handled more government paperwork than you’ve been on exercises.’ Volusenia went to speak, but I continued. ‘Yes, I have. I’m uniquely placed to identify exactly what we need to show the international community and tighten the rather pathetic sanctions currently existing against Caius.’

She was silent for a few moments then glanced up at me. ‘Your daughter’s baby is only a few weeks old. Don’t you want to go to the EUS and see her?’

‘I’ve already spoken to Marina and her husband. They completely support my decision to remain here.’ I tilted my chin up at Volusenia. My heart had been wrenched at that decision but, strangely, it was Marina who had been most insistent during our last telephone call.

‘I am only one daughter, Mama. You must stay for all daughters of Roma Nova, including the imperatrix. Silvia needs you more than ever.’ She’d gulped, then said, ‘I have some friends here now and William is taking the best care of me. I want my child to be able to come back to a free Roma Nova, not be condemned to be an exile.’

I could hardly reply, my throat had tightened so much; then transatlantic static had ended our call.

Alison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

The first five books have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices.  AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April 2017.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing.

Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

Social media links
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site:
Twitter: @alison_morton

Buying link for RETALIO (multiple retailers/formats):

RETALIO book trailer:

Friday, 19 May 2017

Booklaunch Preview # 3 - JJ Marsh & Bad Apples

What is it?

A standalone crime novel in The Beatrice Stubbs Series, the sixth and last.
Murder at a crime conference, inevitable family fireworks and all the prime ingredients for a rollercoaster adventure - Francis Guenette, author of The Crater Lake Series

Who will enjoy it?

Those who like their crime “with a lighter, less gruesome touch” (Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller)

When is it set?

It takes place in modern-day Portugal in the heat of summer, taking in Porto, Lisbon, the national park of Gerês and a quick dash to Paris.

Where should I read it?

In the garden in a hammock or lazing on the beach with a glass of vinho verde.

Why read the last in the series first?

You can read them in any order. Each is a mystery in its own right but all the books add a piece of the puzzle that is Beatrice herself.

How will I feel at the end?

Deeply satisfied, I hope, and perhaps a tiny bit peckish.

Extract from Bad Apples

A car collected her from Aeroporto Francisco Sà Carneiro and drove her north. She gazed out at the terracotta roofs, window shutters, dusty summer foliage and roadside hoardings with a familiar sense of excitement. She was back on mainland Europe, where things are just a little different and always unpredictable.

The taxi crossed various bodies of water, each reflecting the afternoon sunshine and deep blue sky as they entered the natural park and drew nearer to their destination. Buildings became scarce and the terrain grew more mountainous and verdant. If a moose or a wolf came strolling out of the forest, Beatrice wouldn’t have been in the least surprised.

Low sun hit the fields surrounding Gerês College of Hospitality as the car rumbled up the drive to the grand-looking castle. The facade was slightly marred by damage to the uppermost stonework, where part of the crenellations had crumbled, leaving a gap resembling a missing tooth. Red and white plastic tape secured the area but added nothing to the charm of the building.

She tipped the driver and pulled her suitcase after her into an equally impressive portico. The porch was lined by blue and white tiles depicting scenes of country life, reminding her of her mother’s willow pattern crockery.

Order your copy here

Writer, journalist, teacher, actor, director and cultural trainer, Jill has lived and worked all over Europe. Now based in Switzerland, Jill is a founder member of Triskele Books, European correspondent for Words with JAM magazine, co-edits Swiss literary hub The Woolf and is a reviewer for Bookmuse.
Author of the Beatrice Stubbs series: Behind Closed Doors, Raw Material, Tread Softly, Cold Pressed, Human Rites  and Bad Apples. Short-story collection Appearances Greeting a Point of View is available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Twitter: @JJMarsh1

Friday, 12 May 2017

Book Launch Preview # 2 - Gillian E Hamer & Sacred Lake

What is it?

A standalone crime novel which is the third in The Gold Detective Series

Who will enjoy it?

Those who like crime with an edge. I call it Anglesey Noir. Or ‘Hamer is Anglesey’s answer to Ian Rankin’ – Amazon reviewer.

When is it set?

Two murders, four decades apart, all centred around a sacred lake with a long history of Druid activity on the beautiful island of Anglesey.

Where should I read it?

Set in mid-winter, so curled up in bed, with a mug of hot chocolate and a pack of digestives.

Why do you write crime fiction?

Because I have read crime fiction all my life and I love the genre. From Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie strong, female writers have influenced my writing.

How many books will there be in the series?

I have six stories in my head, so I’m planning six books. But let’s see where the characters take us …

Extract from Sacred Lake

JANUARY 1st 1977

I jump the gate and run for my life. Lungs on fire, legs pounding, I zig-zag through a misty tunnel of high hedgerows and out onto a road. I stumble along the centre white line, unbalanced and disorientated, one way, then the other, praying to see a car. The road is an empty black strip disappearing into the distance. Which way? I stop, hands on knees, panting, head turning, back and forth. Come on, which way!

A muffled cough spurs me onwards. The road leaves me too exposed. I leap a ditch, heading for the cover of trees, and the distant lights of houses beyond. Willing my legs to move, not to fail me now. Breath swirls around me as I stumble like a blind man, crashing into unseen obstacles but not daring to slow my pace. Slipping, sliding, arms wind-milling.

My toe snags a tree root and I hit the frozen ground. Air escapes with a whoosh, and I bite back a cry, the tang of rusted iron filling my mouth. My eyes flood with tears that bring a little warmth to my cheeks, and I strain to see and hear in the dark silence.

I need a second to catch my breath and refocus. I cannot believe this has happened. My life has turned on its head, and I’ve looked death in the face, all since the chimes of midnight brought in the new year a few short hours ago. But we both knew. All our plans for a bright, new future were ripped into shreds, scattered to the four corners, the second we heard his voice and knew he’d found our secret place.

Footsteps thud to a halt and I’m alert again. Close. He is close. Heavy breathing and the acrid scent of him on the wind. A dog barks, excited and keen. A man’s angry retort as he struggles to control the beast. On hands and knees I crawl, belly flat to the ground. Slimy leaves heed my progress, smooth and glistening like a slug’s trail as I slip silently across the forest floor. Pine needles pluck at my clothes, animals scurry from my path.

And then I am in a clearing. I gasp. A sparkling expanse, like a ballroom of crystal, a dance floor of diamonds, spreads before me. On the furthest side, a high bank of stones edges the silver oasis, and beyond that the spray and crash of the ocean.

I step forwards, arms outstretched to keep my balance. Ice. A huge sheet of ice. I take a tentative step, then another, sliding my feet across the surface in tiny, baby steps, a novice ice-skater among a more confident crowd.

A twig snaps behind me and I come to my senses. I can hear, almost feel, his breath on the back of my neck. I try to run but lose traction with each stride, a picture of Bambi, on ice, my sister’s favourite cartoon, spirals into my brain. Torch beams glitter and dance between my feet. He is closer. A man’s voice penetrates the darkness, words snatched away with the breeze.

Then a cracking noise. Hard and sharp, like a pencil snapped in two.

To be continued ......

Order your copy HERE

Friday, 5 May 2017

Book Launch Preview #1 - Jessica Bell & Dear Reflection

What are some topics that are dealt with in Dear Reflection

Growing up with musicians for parents
Dealing with non-clinical depression
Dealing with a parent with an iatrogenic illness (chronic pain, panic attacks, addiction, drug withdrawal, depression and anxiety)
Bullying, losing one’s virginity to rape and its emotional effects
Teenage/Young adult binge-drinking
Self-destructive behaviour as a means of escape
Music / Performing live / Songwriting

Who might be interested in reading Dear Reflection?

People who have cared for sick parents as children and are forced into an adult role very early in life.

When is the book set?

Primarily in the 80s and 90s.

Where is the book set?

In three places:

Melbourne, Australia

Ithaca, Greece

Athens, Greece

Why did you write this memoir?

Though there are many reasons, one of them was to expose childhood wounds and show that healing is possible.

How did it feel to design your own book cover?

Amazing! And it was absolute fate to find that photograph of myself, at the last minute, too. I discovered it in one my old photo albums while I was gathering photos for my social media promo. I really didn’t plan it. (You can go on Facebook and search for #DearReflectionFlashback to see my promo efforts so far.)

Extract from Dear Reflection

I needed to pee. It was 1985, and I was four. It would be the first time I remember running from emotional struggle by doing something stupid.

My heart beat in my throat, and I trembled in the darkness of my peach-coloured bedroom at 80 Edwin Street, Heidelberg Heights, in Melbourne, Australia­—the red brick house with the crooked mailbox and untamed pink and orange rose bushes I shared with my parents until I turned twenty.

I opened my bedroom door a teeny-tiny crack. The freezing air from the corridor slipped through and gave me goose bumps. I imagined the icy cold floor stinging my feet as I navigated the hall, the kitchen, the glasshouse, past the piano, to get to the toilet, and then slamming the glossy pink door to stop the Heidel Monsters from getting in.

I decided against it and pissed in the corner of my bedroom.

I watched the pee soak into the fibres of the mud-stained ash-grey carpet, then wiped my chishy with the corner of a pillow and placed it on top of the smelly puddle. I returned to bed and wrapped myself in my feather down doona, shivering until I warmed.

The next day, when my mother, Erika Bach, and stepfather, Demetri Vlass, were preoccupied with recording their song ideas onto their four-track mixer in the music room, they didn’t notice a thing. I realized how much I could get away with without anyone ever knowing how I truly felt.

It was a triumph.

A miracle.

My bedroom door wasn’t transparent, and my mother didn’t really ‘have eyes in the back of her head.’ There was no real reason to hide other than my own irrational fear of feeling something that could potentially be a challenge to deal with. But it felt powerful to hide. The thrill of obtaining such privacy would soon develop into a cold, selfish, heartless reflection I believed protected me.

She persuaded me to run.

Her voice grew more authoritative until she became ‘another me’—a decision maker who knew ‘best.’

She didn’t.

Order the book HERE

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Footsore Research for Historical Novels

“If I die doing this, she’ll kill me.”

By Piers Alexander
“It’s set in 1692, is it? Errr… you must have done a lot of research. Did you?”

This is not an uncommon conversational gambit for historical authors to have to deal with. Hopefully, the answer’s yes: the writers I know spend hundreds if not thousands of hours poring through academic texts and maps, visiting museums, and talking to historians. Readers love discovering new historical nooks and crannies (and they hate it if you misrepresent a subject they know well), so sleeves must be rolled up.

Then there’s character research: spending time locked inside a Moleskine diary, nattering away to your fictional friends, listening to them tell you what they want, what they did, and what they really want to be.

Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they don’t know what they want, and it isn’t until the fifth draft that you catch them out, and have to rewrite the first three (bloody) chapters. Usually it’s a perspicacious editor or friendly reader who spots the incongruity, and forces you to go back to your character’s childhood, and realise that the premature death of their father has created a tyrant complex that can only be resolved with an act of brutal betrayal. [For example. That may be a plot spoiler for Scatterwood. Or not.]

And then there’s Footsore Research, my favourite bit. It involves getting on a train, or a plane, or a boat, and heading out to the novel’s location to walk in my characters’ footsteps, visit local museums, follow my nose into unnecessarily stressful situations, smell the air and taste the food.

Which is probably why I chose to set Scatterwood in Jamaica. Ian Fleming, Jimmy Cliff, Blue Mountain coffee, the spooky appeal of Port Royal (once the Sodom of the Caribbean, home to Henry Morgan and the Golden Age pirates)… I’d been thinking about it for seven years by the time I got out there.

The rules of Footsore Research are:

1. If your main character is on foot, you’re on foot

My protagonist, Calumny Spinks, is forced into indentured servitude and marched from Port Royal across the Blue Mountains to a sugar plantation on the north side of Jamaica. And if I hadn’t followed him, I might not have discovered the rufous-throated solitaire, a ventriloquial bird whose spooky whistling is like the whispers of the dead. I recorded it for you. I was completely alone on the mountain (one of the sub-rules of Footsore Research is, “Always go on a massive hike just before sundown. What could possibly go wrong?”)

I did get a puncture high up on the shoulder of Blue Mountain Peak, and remembered that I’d promised my wife Rebecca that I wouldn’t do anything stupid or on my own. Luckily a friendly family rushed out of their houses, changed the tyre for me and waved me off.

2. Talk to strangers

I’m not sure I’ve gleaned any particular plot points or historical nuggets that have made it into any manuscript from doing this, but I’ve had some hilarious conversations, and made a friend or two, by doing this.

One of my favourite memories of Jamaica is being flagged down - by scrawny elderly gentlemen, by schoolkids tramping up a steep road to get home from school, by ladies going to work in Kingston - with a yell of, “Whitey! I’m beggin’ a ride!”

Again, I’m not sure it was entirely what I agreed with Rebecca, but it did give me a feeling not far from Calumny’s experience of Jamaica: he’s forced to depend on complete strangers for his survival, and to protect his family.

3. If you’ve invented a location, find a real one that matches it. Follow your nose

Ahhh… this is the best rule. It took me up a long broken trail, past “Closed to the Public” signs, to discover an abandoned fortified plantation house. It led me to gap-toothed farmer Ivan, who gently shook me down for a thousand J-dollars in exchange for letting me visit the beach beyond his land, which so closely resembled the ship-wrecking Naggle Bay that I’d imagined that I could hardly bear to leave it.

And it took me away from the official tour of Reach Falls, and into the lower levels of the river, where I gave my worldly goods to a young fellow called Jonai, who showed me the caves that escaped slaves used to hide in. I swam through the pools with an increasing sense of contentment… until he showed me the underwater tunnel.

“Just dive in there, man. Swim towards the light. You’ll find the cave.”


“Yeah man. It’s easy!”

I looked at the underwater tunnel. It was about four feet down, and about two feet across, and it reminded me of (a) the Shawshank Redemption, and (b) that bit in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen where the kids are crawling through a narrow tunnel and discover too late that it’s flooded, and they can’t turn around.

I thought about my promise to Rebecca. If I die here, she’ll kill me.

“Sorry, man,” I said, my voice a little shrill over the pounding of the nearby waterfall. “I just won’t do it.”

“Yeah man,” said Jonai. Leaving my phone and car keys on the side of the river, he jumped into the pool, joined me in the cave and dived through the tunnel. That’s it, I thought, forgetting my promise again, if he can do it…

I banged my head a little on the tunnel. It was shorter than I’d feared. We emerged in a cave behind a waterfall, which shimmered softly in the dapple-light. We laughed. He plunged through the cascade. I took a microsecond to imagine myself as a runaway bondsman hiding from a search party, tucked in my chin, and threw myself into the thudding waters.

Piers Alexander’s debut novel, The Bitter Trade, won TLC’s Pen Factor, a Global Ebook Award and the Historical Novel Society’s Editor’s Choice (Indie Review). Both The Bitter Trade and Scatterwood were selected by WHSmith for their Fresh Talent list. Piers is also a serial media entrepreneur, and he lives in London with the singer-songwriter and author Rebecca Promitzer.


Friday, 14 April 2017

BOOK CLUB: The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross

The winner of the inaugural Jhalak Prize for books written by British BAME authors was the debut crime novel, The Bone Readers, by Granadan born author, Jacob Ross.

The Bone Readers is the first of four planned novels set on the tiny fictional Caribbean island of Camaho and featuring the police detective Michael 'Digger' Digson and his unconventional partner, Miss Stanislaus.

In this month's Triskele Book Club, Catriona Troth talks to four authors about their response to The Bone Readers: Michelle Innis, Kit Habianic, JJ Marsh and Gillian E Hamer, 

If you have read The Bone Readers too, please feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section below.

Unlike a conventionally structured crime novel, The Bone Readers doesn’t begin in media res, nor does it take place within a conventionally tight timeframe. Instead, it takes place over several years, tracking Digger’s career from his unconventional recruitment into the police force by the ageing, rum-soaked Chilman, via his training in forensics in London, to the confrontation that may finally solve both mysteries. What did you think of Ross’s unconventional structure?

(MI) Crime Fiction is not a genre that I would usually read. I’m more inclined to watch a crime drama on TV or in film. Having said that, I found Ross’s unconventional structure refreshing. I liked the fact that when we meet Michael ‘Digger’ Digson he is yet to be recruited into the police force. I enjoyed discovering his world and the world in which he operates. I relished in discovering his character and the way in which his character develops throughout the story. Ross develops a plausible plot, with plenty of elements of fine crime fiction and intriguing, well rounded, believable characters that by their very presence in the narrative cause the reader to care about them, rooting for them or railing against them to the very last page. Digger follows in the footsteps of the detective as a flawed hero, searching for love having been abandoned by someone important in his early life through circumstances beyond his control. As Digger is engaged in looking for the murderer he is also on a journey of self-discovery. Ross manages to create and convey a seamless marriage between the literary novel and crime fiction. 

(KH) The Bone Readers is not structured like a conventional crime novel, perhaps because it isn’t a conventional crime novel. It’s about Digger’s quest to fight crime and solve murders. But it’s more about his quest for truth and justice, about dragging dark truths into the open, to force a society to acknowledge facts it prefers to ignore. And about unpacking the secrets of Digger’s own past. The structure works well, to that end. It’s a whodunit but also a whydunit. And, of course, there are three more Camaho books to come…

(JJ) To me, it didn’t feel that unconventional. The development was chronological if more circular than linear. Returning to the unresolved issues, both present and past, felt natural and one informed the other. Also the character arc was intriguing in itself.

(GEH) Different! I thought the novel was an exceptional read, so it clearly didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it. However, I remember as I read having a slight sense of frustration that we (the reader) weren’t part of his UK visit or how we might have understood his exceptional talent at forensics had we been involved in that stage of his training. It felt as if the author might have scaled down the novel from a much-longer version, and when his publisher gave him an acceptable word count, he set about extracting the salient points that kept the story moving. I like the idea that the structure is something different, that rules are sometimes there to be broken, and as long as you deliver a cracking novel that everyone is talking about, as here, then I applaud Jacob Ross!

Two cold cases twist and turn through the pages of The Bone Readers. Michael ‘Digger’ Digson needs to find the truth behind the death of his mother, killed when he was a young boy. And his boss, Detective Superintendent Chilman, is obsessed with the case of Nathan, a young man who disappeared and whose mother is convinced he was murdered. Without giving too much away, only one of those cases is fully resolved by the end of the book. Did that work for you?

(MI) I found that the rich world of the island of Camaho and its inhabitants that Ross builds throughout the novel is just the beginning of a world I would love to dive headfirst into again and again. To keep on discovering its hidden secrets and to have Digger and his unconventional sidekick, the enigmatic Miss Stanisluas, uncover the perpetrators of unsolved crimes with their unparalleled detective skills. The fact that only one of the cases Digger is investigating is solved by the end of the novel left me with the savouring promise that this will continue in a sequel. Digger has begun to unearth something and you know that he’s not going to stop until he finds all the answers. The well-constructed plot didn’t distract from the fact that only one of the cases was resolved. It’s important that this particular case is resolved in the present. The reader instinctively knows that the other case goes even deeper into the transgressions of the powers of government and this is something that will take time and the inner strength and resolve of our detective Digger Digson.

(KH) That’s a brave choice, but one that works. For me, one of the many strengths of the book is Digger’s hinterland; the unresolved issues of his losses, his search for understanding but also for his own identity. Because the novel ends with those issues left untied, you put the book down, wanting more.

(JJ) I think there is a kind of resolution in a way, if only in the form of acceptance. There may not have been justice in both cases, but there is knowledge. Ross leaves certain things open but gives the reader confidence in the future.

(GEH) I’m not sure why the author decided to leave question marks over Digger’s mother, but I’m hoping it’s because he intends to follow on with a second book with the same lead character, and that it becomes a central thread we return to again. Otherwise, yes, it’s a bit frustrating that he went part of the way to finding the truth but didn’t find all the answers.

If Digger reads bones, then his unofficial partner, Miss Stanislaus, reads people. How do these two compare with other, classic detective partners?

(KH) This is an intriguing one. Miss K Stanislaus is a reader of people. Digger is a searcher of facts. Given her shrewdness, I wondered why Miss Stanislaus isn’t harder on Digger – and more hostile to him, given the abuse she’s suffered and given the way Digger treats women. She seems to decide very early that he’s one of the good guys, when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. I would have loved her to give him a far harder time, to puncture his swagger. And for him to have had to work a lot harder to impress her. For a little more heat to the spark.

(JJ) They work brilliantly. The rough edges between them create all kinds of interesting dynamics and they balance out well. Neither is always in the know, they take turns at leading, unlike the classic detective and sidekick. They need each other’s skills and experience. It’s a likeable if quirky relationship.

(GEH) I think both characters are unique, and I hope their first date goes well, and they end up married and live happily ever after! I can’t think of another detective thriller with this balance, although television dramas such as Silent Witness touch on the subject, and author, Tess Gerritsen, uses a forensic expert as a lead character. If I could pick on one thing that I felt could have been explained more, it would be how and why these two people, both from impoverished backgrounds, came about having these gifts? Was there one particular incident in their lives? How did they discover their talents? I found this a little frustrating and would have liked to nose around in their lives a little more because they were both such fascinating individuals. But as I said, this is a partnership that can run and run, and I hope it does.

“Missa Digga, it look to me like everyone on Camaho searching for somebody.” What does this quote from Miss Stanislaus tell us about what Ross is trying to say?

(MI) I think that Ross is alluding to the fact that there is always a relationship that remains unresolved, whether that is with another person or oneself. Also, that people are constantly trying to rediscover, renegotiate and redefine their own reality with the reality that is presented to them by the wider world.

(KH) The book explores wider themes of searching; to reveal the secrets every character hides, for truths about the past, for identity and a sense of belonging. Camaho is a fractured society, scarred by abuses of power, and secrets and broken family ties. Digger and Miss Stanislaus have a shared experience of abandonment and abuse, in a society where deracination seems to be the norm, in which old wounds refuse to heal.

(JJ) Apart from the fragile nature of life and relationships, some people do find what they’re looking for. I took a hint of positivity from this, combined with what she says in the the previous chapter: “Den we go take some breeze, remind weself dat life not bad.” Another quote I noted was from Digger: “What happened between humans frightened me.” And yet he engages with people and manages to affect lives for the better.

(GEH) I took the quote to be a cultural reference, that it wasn’t a happy place to be born. There were many disparaging comments throughout the book about Camaho men, their treatment of women, and the implication they were known for abandoning their off-spring. I can imagine that as families were forced apart and lives became more entangled, people were often searching for the truth of their past. It felt to me that although it was a small community it was often a lonely place to live.

The multiple strands of the book play on themes of sexual violence, sexual exploitation, gender power struggles and corruption. How successful do you think Ross was in balancing these themes in Digger’s own life and in the case he is trying to solve? Is Digger breaking the cycle of male violence or repeating it?

(MI) Ross endeavours to show that Digger is perhaps an exception to the rule. He knows that his father has abused his position of power in relation to his mother and he hates his father for this misuse of male privilege and power. Digger is fully aware of how difficult it is to survive as a woman in a male dominated world through the death of his mother and the life his grandmother lived. He is also aware through his relationship with his grandmother that women are strong, intelligent and worthy of respect. Ross does not shy away from the reality of women’s lives in relation to the men they share their lives with. Digger is always shown to have a choice. Does he take advantage of Dessie or does he help her? Does he further exploit Lonnie or does he try to save her? Does he take advantage of the feelings Pet has for him? Does he treat Ms Stanislaus’ intelligence with the respect that it deserves or does he use his position to put her down? Through his choices he endeavours to break the cycle.

(KH) Yes, I came away from the book wondering that. Digger seems to have cast himself as a righter of wrongs against women. He was raised – and perhaps feels abandoned by – strong women. But his treatment of women undermines his credibility. Digger surrounds himself with women, but there’s something acquisitive about this. In a society where women seem to be treated like currency, is gathering strong, beautiful, gifted women a game of one-upmanship, not a declaration of equality? Does Digger respect Dessie and Lonnie, Pet and Adora? Are they more than conquests of prestige?

(JJ) To contradict what I said above, the scale of what women and good men have to contend with seemed intimidating and enough to make one give up. Yet Digger does not, and takes his knowledge of how society works to make it work for him. I’m thinking of the Dessie storyline.

(GEH) I think Digger is determined to break the chain. He’s shown through his actions, with Lonnie, Dessie and protecting Miss Stanislaus from the law after the death of Bello, that he’s a guy who will stand up for female rights. I think Ross goes out of his way to show this – thinking about his visit to Dessie’s family and his reaction to Malan’s treatment of Lonnie. He’s a good guy and wants to see change in the male dominated world he’s come from and I believe he will go out of his way to help achieve that.

The women in the book are tough, shrewd, emotionally intelligent and sassy. Yet they are trapped by male prejudice, male violence and the male stranglehold on power. Many carry scars from the sexual violence they have experienced. What did you think of Ross’s portrayal of these flawed female characters?

(MI) It’s important to portray women as three dimensional characters. Ross shows a real empathy for the women presented in his novel. These women are survivors. They’ve survived and will continue to survive against the odds of living in a patriarchal society dominated by male prejudice and violence. They bind communities together, support each other, and share each other’s losses and pain. I’m looking forward to see how Ross further develops the character of Miss Stanislaus throughout the quartet as she is thus far the strongest female character in the novel.   

(KH) The power of The Bone Readers lies in its flawed, powerful female characters, nearly all of them challenging the status quo, overtly or covertly. The novel springs to life when Miss Stanislaus walks in with her yellow dress and ladylike hat and handbag and shrewd eyes. Miss Stanislaus is the quiet witness who makes it possible for all those other stories to be heard. Men don’t come off well at all in the book, based on their treatment of women and children. Miss Stanislaus is an unlikely avenger, with her soft voice and genteel dress sense. That voice and those actions give the book its soul and heart.

(JJ) The women characters come across as nuanced and varied in the way they deal with their status and treatment. His portrayal of the complex dance women must perform is fascinating. Characters such as Adora, the Mother, Pet and Lisa, Dessie and Lonnie demonstrate skill and subtlety in how they use their strength. Stand up but don’t rock the boat.

(GEH) I think Ross seems to have a point to prove, but did he overdo it a little … maybe. Lonnie and Dessie felt similar to me in many ways, and then Miss Stanislaus’s own background went down a similar route. But that was as you say the central theme, the author had a point to make, and he made it well – I found all of the characters believable and felt sympathy for their situations.

British and American authors writing about the Caribbean usually portray it as a sort of paradise. Ross belongs to a new breed of Caribbean writers (Marlon James, Kei Millar, Ezekel Alan) who are exposing a darker, often more brutal side of the islands. How do books like these affect your image of the Caribbean and what do you think motivates these authors to write in this way?

(MI) Camaho is not the world portrayed by the likes of Sandal’s beach resorts, with tanned bodies, clear blue skies, a beautiful green sea and long iced drinks. It is an island inhabited by real people living real lives with all its inconsistencies, injustices and brutality. The island in this respect is not unlike any other town, city or village to be found throughout the world. The fact that this generation of Caribbean male writers have decided to portray the violence perpetrated against women and the LGBT community in their writing is indicative of the imperative conversation which articulates the way in which some men are questioning the patriarchal status quo they have inherited.

(JJ) I’d guess their motivation seems to stem from a wish to show the whole picture, that of poverty, crime, injustice and cultural conventions which forms a darker part of the reality. Seeing just one aspect of a country depicted in order to attract tourism must give writers the urge to look under stones.

(GEH) I like the dark theme, it suits the crime genre, and I thought the lack of ‘stunning sunsets’ or ‘wide expanse of white sand’ was refreshing. We get a sense of place, but not the cliched version. I think we may be aware of drugs and gangs and the under belly of the Caribbean, but here we got to see real life, behind the travel brochure image, and that has to be a brilliant start for any true-life crime novel. Why? I don’t know that it’s probably a choice the author’s consciously take, more that they have a story they want to tell and a way they need to tell it.

This month, Triskele authors JJ Marsh and Gillian E Hamer have been joined by two other authors. Michelle Innis is a playwright, on of the founders of Pitch Lake Productions and author of She Called Me Mother.  Kit Habianic is the author of Until Our Blood Is Dry.

You can read Triskele's interview with Kit Habianic here, and Catriona Troth's interview with Michelle Innis in Words with Jam here.