Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Imogen Hermes Gowar studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History at UEA’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts before going on to work in museums. She began to write small pieces of fiction inspired by the artefacts she worked with and around, and in 2013 won the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship to study for an MA in Creative Writing at UEA.

She won the Curtis Brown Prize for her dissertation, which grew into a novel titled The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. An early draft was a finalist in the MsLexia First Novel Competition 2015, and it was also one of three entries shortlisted for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award.

Imogen lives, works, and walks around south-east London – an area whose history she takes a keen interest in – and her first novel, The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock, will be published 25th January, 2018. You can read an extract here.

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost.

Where will their ambitions lead? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

[A] beautifully written debut. By turns bawdy, witty and moving, this is a glorious romp through Georgian London. - The Bookseller

In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.

Absolutely delighted to welcome debut novelist Imogen to Greenacre Writers and wish her well with the novel which is already causing a storm months before it is published.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

It’s a cliche, but, I’ve always written. When I was eight or nine I got wise to the fact that publishers put their address in the front of their books, so I secretly sent Walker Books a story I had written. I got a lovely personal rejection letter describing my work as ‘very sweet’, which disgruntled me greatly.

I was aware quite young that writing wasn’t a ‘job’, and put it on the back burner until my mid-twenties, when I signed up for a creative writing evening class. I’d graduated into the credit crunch in 2009 - I was really lucky to get waged work in the museum sector, but it was a slog. Allowing myself to take writing seriously was really a form of self-care: I desperately needed intellectual stimulation and a sense of accomplishment, which I wasn’t getting at work. My tutor, Katy Darby, encouraged me to apply to the Prose Creative Writing MA at UEA, and with her reference I won a scholarship to go in 2013. I started writing The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock for my dissertation there, and something about it felt so different from the other novels I’d struggled with. It wasn’t all plain sailing - I sometimes found it a huge struggle to keep writing, and there were a lot of rejections - but eventually the manuscript was a finalist for both the MsLexia First Novel Award and the Deborah Rogers Award. I got my agent around May 2016, and the novel sold to Harvill Secker soon after that.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I think it’s a lot about being observant and sensitive. Reading, watching, listening, before parsing what you’ve gleaned into your own words. My favourite part is the sense of other worlds opening up around me, whether in the research or the writing stage.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Absolutely - this is one of the primary reasons I write. Creating characters and making them move convincingly through their world is always an exercise in empathy (at least in my own practice): the more flawed they are the better, for me. There is one character in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock who is almost objectively dislikeable, but the longer I wrote her the more respect and affection I had for her, and when I finished the book she was the character I found it hardest to let go of.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I think it’s important to acknowledge that eighteenth century London was not entirely populated by straight white men, and in my writing I want to place value on all sorts of people’s lives. On the other hand, there are stories I don’t think I have a right to tell. There are many people better equipped than I to give voice to a great host of experiences: I stick to what feels right to me.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

A very remote and well-insulated cottage in North Yorkshire, somewhere like Malham, with no space for anybody to visit me. I’d have a woodburning stove and a big desk, and write while the wind screeched outside. I spent my childhood on a North Yorkshire hillside, and my heart is still there.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

The Giant O’Brien by Hilary Mantel. I’m sure everyone names Mantel, but I admire this novel particularly because it is so brief, so pungent, so moving.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Only to keep going. Even if you only get to write for an hour a week. Even if it looks like a dead loss. Give yourself permission to be a writer, and when you get knocked down, get back up.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

My next novel is set in a completely different era from The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, but I think it twins with it in some odd ways. I’ll let my readers be the judge of that though!

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Asterix! I was very interested in history and desperate for anything that made it alive and textured and funny.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is published by Harvill Secker.

Follow Imogen on Twitter: @girlhermes

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay

Review by Greenacre Writer Vasundra Jackison

If you have ever wondered what makes people risk their lives by crossing treacherous seas in overcrowded, dangerous boats, and how people- smugglers prey on desperate souls fleeing from war-torn countries, this is the book for you. Gulwali Passarley describes why he had to escape from Afghanistan as a frightened 12 year-old boy and how he survived 12 months of horrifying hardships before reaching safety in Britain.

I have heard somewhere that drowning is a peaceful death. Whoever said that hasn’t watched grown men soil themselves with fear aboard an overcrowded, broken down boat in the middle of a raging Mediterranean storm.

In 2006, his father and grandfather were suspected of being Taliban sympathisers and killed by US troops. Gulwali and his brother were then pursued by the Taliban to join them for revenge killings and by the US troops to become spies. His mother made the agonising decision to send them away.

Be brave. This is for your own good………………However bad it gets, don’t come back.

Gulwali had no idea what horrors lay ahead of him. Nor did he know anything of the outside world. He begged his mother to let him stay. But his fate was sealed. He was in the hands of ruthless and pitiless smugglers who treated the poor, miserable exiles with cruelty and contempt.

There’s a checkpoint coming up, you stupid little fool. Get off my train.

Terrified, Gulwali had to jump off a speeding train at that point in Bulgaria. He was imprisoned three times during the journey, where conditions were unspeakably vile.

Zig zagging across eight countries, enduring hunger, deportation, humiliation, cruelty and extreme despair, it is a wonder the boy made it to safety.

So many times on that awful journey I nearly didn’t make it……coming so close to drowning in Greece, on those endless treks without food or water when my young exhausted body wanted to give up and fade into blackness.

Gulwali experienced brutality not only from the smugglers, but from police officers too.

In Turkey…………..they walked me up another two flights until we stood at the very top of the stairwell. There they spun me around, and while I was still fighting for balance, shoved me backwards.

Here and there, the story does have characters that show some kindness. Some good people living in the mountains and certain fellow migrants do try to look out for him.

There are also some fascinating insights into the mindset of boys growing up in the closed world of a male-dominated culture. Gulwali does not think his sisters should go to school because they should be at home, cooking and cleaning. He feels strongly that women should always be covered, and is shocked when he sees the open faces of women in Turkey and Europe. But he grows up fast as he journeys towards safety.

When he finally reaches Britain, he has to battle with the authorities to gain recognition as a minor refugee, deserving of safe shelter, foster care and education. Eventually, Gulwali is granted asylum status. After graduating from university and winning many awards, he has become a vocal champion of democracy. He works tirelessly to highlight the horrors experienced by migrants and refugee children all over the globe. He plans to return to Afghanistan to help others when it is safe to do so.

As you read this story, you will feel sad, horrified, afraid, and angry. But you will also be amazed at the courage shown by Gulwali. This is an emotional read, but fascinating and powerful. It is beautifully written in a very easy flow style. An immensely rewarding read.

Thank you to Gulwali for the review copy.

The Lightless Sky is published by Atlantic Books

Follow Gulwali on Twitter: GulwaliP

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Quieter than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Greenacre Writer, Rosie Canning is thrilled to be part of the
QUIETER THAN KILLING blog tour over on

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Conversation with Carol Lovekin

Photo courtesy of Janey Stevens
Carol Lovekin has Irish blood and a Welsh heart. She was born in Warwickshire and has lived in Wales since 1979. 

Her books reflect her love of the landscape and mythology of her adopted home. Her first, Ghostbird, was published by Honno (March 2016).

Carol’s second novel Snow Sisters is also published by Honno (September 2017).

Two sisters, their grandmother’s old house and Angharad, the girl who cannot leave…

Verity and Meredith Pryce live with their fragile mother, Allegra, in an old house overlooking the west Wales coast. Gull House is their haven. It also groans with the weight of its dark past. 

When Meredith discovers an old sewing box in a disused attic and a collection of hand-stitched red flannel hearts, she unwittingly wakes up the ghost of Angharad, a Victorian child-woman harbouring a horrific secret. 

As Angharad gradually reveals her story to Meredith, her more pragmatic sister Verity remains sceptical until she sees the ghost for herself on the eve of an unseasonal April snowstorm.

Forced by Allegra to abandon Gull House for London, Meredith struggles.

Still haunted by Angharad and her unfinished story, hurt by what she sees as Verity’s acquiescence to their mother’s selfishness, Meredith drifts into a world of her own. And Verity isn’t sure she will be able to save her…

We would like to thank Carol for taking part in our conversation and wish her lots of success with Snow Sisters.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

Is it too much of a cliché to say, I’ve always written, one way or another? I think most writers say it because by and large it’s true. That said, I’m not one of those who claim to have written her first novel at the age of five. (I wrote mine when I was in my thirties. It’s dreadful – don’t ask.)

I was a good deal older than most writers are when they begin their careers. In my late 50’s I started taking my writing seriously and began Ghostbird, although it took me years to complete. When I submitted the first fifty pages as part of Honno’s ‘Meet the Editor’ scheme, I was fortunate to be mentored by Janet Thomas. I owe a good deal of my small success to Janet’s kindness and professionalism.

In the world of small press traditional publishing you have to be patient. The process unfolds like slow cloud across the moon. Both my patience and hard work were finally rewarded. Honno offered me a deal and in March 2016 Ghostbird was published.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

This is an unusual question and one I don’t think I’ve ever been asked. Thank you! If I have a role it is to be authentic and write from my heart. Interesting fiction pushes the envelope. I see it as the perfect vehicle for re-telling women’s stories, in particular, myths and legends featuring patriarchal attitudes. I enjoy re-claiming them: giving women from legend and folklore their voice in modern settings, and through the lives of modern-day characters.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

When I began writing Ghostbird I didn’t like Violet, Cadi’s mother, at all. I found her unremittingly miserable. As she allowed me access to her heart, I began to empathise with her and came to realise how desperate her pain was and more importantly, where it came from. I decided that if I didn’t love her, I couldn’t expect my reader to. In Snow Sisters, I feared I was doing it again and creating another less than likeable mother. This time, in Allegra, I conjured a monster. It took a while for me to understand her too, her motives and her past. This is the thing about authentic characters. They’re like real people: they have a backstory which shapes them and it’s the author’s job to dig around and discover the truth.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

Gay people are as diverse as anyone; putting them in books can be divisive! When I realised Lili, in Ghostbird, was a lesbian, I immediately knew I didn’t want the fact that she was gay to be a thing. It didn’t need explaining – I wanted it to be a seamless aspect of the narrative, the fact of her. Creating a gay character in Snow Sisters was more deliberate. Why not carry on claiming a corner of fiction for lesbians? Mine are intended to be as incidental as they are real and relevant.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Jo March from Little Women. I wanted to be her. She was the Victorian era (albeit in America) equivalent of a tomboy: a rebel and a girl who liked to write. And I fell in love with Jane Eyre too, at a very early age. I still read the book each year. Jane’s character appeals to me because she’s loyal. And like Jo March, she fights her corner.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I don’t want to go anywhere else to write! When I moved into my flat, eleven years ago, for the first time in my writing life I was able to have a study. It changed things for me on a fundamental level, coinciding pretty much with my decision to take my writing seriously and write to be published. It's my haven and I love it.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

To Kill a Mockingbird: in my view, an almost perfect novel. I couldn’t have written it though as it isn’t my experience and I don’t have Harper Lee’s skill. Virginia Woolf is my favourite author but I couldn’t have written her books either. They are hers and I think it’s a little presumptuous to image I could write as well as any of my literary idols. (Had I written To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway mind, I would have made sure I used more paragraphs!)

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Read! Read everything, and do it the way Francine Prose suggests: ‘like a writer…’ in other words, critically. And get on with the writing. No one is going to do it for you. Find the hunger. Without it, you won’t make it. Never use the word ‘aspiring’ about yourself. If you are writing: unpolished, unfinished or unpublished, you are a writer. And most important of all, never give up. I am the living proof that it’s never too late!

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I have two novels in the pipeline. One is another ghost story with sisters – books about siblings have always fascinated me. Although the other one is also rooted in the Welsh landscape, it’s something of a departure featuring as it does a much older main protagonist. No ghost, no sisters and a sideways take on the selkie myth… 

Follow Carol on Twitter: @carollovekin

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Story We All Know by Caleb Femi


Young People’s Laureate for London announces new Outer London tour and launches specially commissioned poem for National Poetry Day

Spread the Word’s Young People’s Laureate for London Caleb Femi will launch a specially commissioned poem and announce his 2017 tour of Outer London Boroughs on #NationalPoetryDay [Thursday 28 September].

The poem - The Story We All Know - was inspired and influenced by conversations held with 13 to 25 year olds in libraries in the Outer London Boroughs of Bexley, Croydon, Newham, Merton and Barking and Dagenham. Filmed in black and white, the moving one minute 30 second poem highlights the challenges facing young people such as isolation, crime, depression and disengagement.

Caleb Femi, Spread the Word Young People’s Laureate for London, said: “The poem - #TheStoryWeAllKnow - was inspired by the diverse young people I met in libraries, and maps out some of the issues they felt were affecting them. It calls for a collaborative effort to be made by institutions, like local libraries, to work with young people to help them change the narrative which misrepresents them.”

In response, Spread the Word, Caleb Femi and established poets will tour with The Poetry Takeaway throughout October in the five boroughs to broaden the reach of the programme to engage up to 1000 young people. The mobile ‘takeaway van’ will park in different locations, including schools, youth clubs, town squares and local libraries. Young people will be encouraged to participate in poetry activities and fresh new writing.

They will also have the opportunity to take part in co-creation sessions at participating libraries as well as poetry workshops with the Young People’s Laureate for London and poets Raymond Antrobus, Laurie Bolger, Dan Simpson, Laila Sumpton and Paula Varjak. Workshops on beatboxing with UK Champion Grace Savage and tips on how to set up their own poetry events or collectives with Danny Tsu and Shaniqua Benjamin are also planned. Open mic spots will be hosted by each library, giving young people the chance to perform their poems alongside Caleb Femi. 

Calem added: “I am really looking forward to seeing the creativity and talent that shines forth from the young people during the tour. I hope that through our workshops, events and partnership with local libraries, we are able to encourage young people to see poetry as a viable way of expressing themselves and engaging with the social and even political conversations of our day.”

The Young People’s Laureate for London Tour will run from 24th to 28th October 2017.

The role aims to:
  • Raise the visibility of poetry in the capital nationally and internationally;
  • Engage and inspire London’s young people with poetry (aged 13-25) through the issues that affect them;
  • Support the development of London’s talented young poets (18-25 year olds) in a tangible way.

The Young People’s Laureate for London Tour 2017-2018 is a partnership project between Spread the Word and the Association of London Chief Librarians. A two year programme, it will take place in 10 Outer London library services with a focus on areas of low engagement in the arts by young people. Participating libraries are: Barking and Dagenham, Bexley, Croydon, Merton and Newham in 2017, and Brent, Bromley, Hounslow, Redbridge and Sutton in 2018.

The Young People’s Laureate Tour is supported through funding from Arts Council England.

Young People’s Laureate for London Tour 2017 dates:

Tuesday 24 Oct - Bexley Central Library
Wednesday 25 Oct - Beckton Globe Library
Thursday 26 Oct - Barking Learning Centre
Friday 27 Oct - Croydon Central Library
Saturday 28 Oct - Mitcham Library

Official hashtag: #changethestory

Follow Caleb Femi on Twitter: @CalebFemi5
Follow Spread the Word on Twitter: @STWevents
Follow WordsOfColour on Twitter: @WordsOfColour
Follow Society of Chief Librarians on Twitter: @UKSCL

If you would like to interview Caleb Femi, or any of the participating poets and performers involved in the tour, contact Joy Francis E: T: 0771 382 7372.

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Dry by Jane Harper

Review by Greenacre Writer Vasundra Jackison

Three people in the Hadler family are brutally murdered in a drought-ridden town in Australia, and policeman Aaron Falk is forced to return home to find the killer. This is a crime novel that will enthral you from start to finish, leaving you haunted by what you have learnt. The small community is filled with suspicion, resentment and distrust.

'Everyone is so angry……and this heat makes everything worse'

People believe Luke Hadler butchered his own wife and child before committing suicide. But Falk has his doubts, especially as he grew up with Luke and shared too many secrets with him. Ghosts from the past rise up to torment him. He has to face up to his own dubious actions following another traumatic event which took place twenty years previously.

'Luke lied. You lied'

As Falk digs deeper into the tragic deaths, he meets old friends and enemies who lead him to constantly changing possibilities. The reader is kept guessing as the action builds up to a height then drops down suddenly and unexpectedly. Memories of childhood jealousies and petty cruelties come flooding back, and Falk begins to wonder if his friend could have carried out such a heinous crime. But there are others who hated both Luke and Falk.

'The neighbour’s an aggressive old bastard. No love lost for Luke….Not at all keen to assist the police with their inquiries'

All the characters seem to have secrets that slowly unravel as the story unfolds. Falk uncovers many lies and some heart-breaking truths before he realises what really happened on that fateful day.

The heat and dust of the Australian outback is almost palpable. You can sense the vast, empty landscape with open sky and no one around.

'The space was the thing that hit them first. There was so much of it. There was enough to drown in. To look out and see not another soul between you and the horizon can be a disturbing sight.'

This gripping murder mystery will keep you sitting on the edge of your seat. The story moves at a fast pace, with tension mounting as the plot thickens. The author holds the suspense throughout the novel. A thoroughly exciting and compelling read.

Follow Jane Harper on Twitter: @janeharperautho

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal

Review by  Greenacre Writer Carol Sampson

Although an early riser Nora Watts is still uneasy when the phone rings at 5am.

I am immediately on guard because everyone knows that nothing good ever happens this early. Not with a phone call, anyway. You never get word that a wealthy relative has passed and is leaving you his inheritance before 9 a.m. It’s fortunate, then, that I’m already awake and on my second cup of coffee, so I’m at least moderately prepared.”

The call is from Everett Walsh, who wants to meet with her about a missing girl she may know something about. She has never heard of him and is unsure whether she wishes to meet with him, despite that being part of her job: finding missing people. Unable to fathom what she could possibly know about this missing girl she decides to meet with him.

His desperation is so fresh and raw I can almost taste it.

On meeting with Everett and Lynn Walsh, Nora discovers the missing girl is the one she gave up for adoption fifteen years ago. The Walsh’s have named her Bronwyn. Bonnie. Bonnie has been missing for two weeks and they hoped she had contacted Nora, her birth mother, whose details Bonnie discovered when she saw her original birth certificate along with the amended one issued on adoption.

The police are not seriously looking for Bonnie as she has a recent history of running away. She also stole $1,000 from her parents before she left. Despite this, Everett Walsh does not believe Bonnie has disappeared voluntarily. Nora knows from personal experience the treatment given to those who are deemed troublesome or, like her and Bonnie, of mixed race - “my skin is not light or dark, just something muddy and in between”. She is very aware that the plights of these young women are often overlooked.

As Nora begins to investigate the disappearance of her daughter she learns that it is not just her and the Everetts looking for Bonnie and Nora becomes embroiled in a dangerous web of lies and violence as she begins to uncover the truth. As memories surface she is forced to face events of her harrowing past; events she spent a long time coming to terms with.

The story begins in the seedier side of Vancouver – a place where those who have never visited cannot imagine – and the reader is then taken on a journey through the snow-capped mountains of Kelowna to ski resorts where the wealthy holiday and have their every needs met. The contrast between Nora’s life and those she is involved with could not be starker.

Eyes Like Mine is a gritty and addictive thriller told in first person narrative by Nora Watts. The story is as much about Nora as it is the mystery. Her character is fully developed and engaging and the story explores how Nora deals with life after the fallout of a terrible experience. She is quirky, unconventional, extremely flawed and not always likeable. That said, she is compulsive.

Sheena Kamal’s experiences as a journalist have provided the background for the book and the formation of Nora’s character, resulting in this feisty and compelling thriller. Kamal observed that the crimes against women, such as rape and abuse, were often dismissed by police – sometimes pushing the blame on the victims - and the story raises the moral question of how society treats people who are disadvantaged, different or just do not conform.

As Nora so aptly explains:

There’s a whole highway in the north of the province stained by the tears of indigenous girls and women who aren’t blond enough to matter.

Eyes Like Mine is the first novel in a proposed trilogy and I very much look forward to reading the next book.

Eyes like Mine is published by Bonnier

Follow Sheena on Twitter: @sheena_kamal