Archive for the ‘Two Ravens Press’ Category

Wednesday 10.08.2011

You’d think with the 17 day extravaganza that is the Edinburgh Book Festival only 3 days away that I would be happy waiting until Saturday to drive into Edinburgh.  Not so.  There are too many roadworks on my access routes to Edinburgh this summer.  I needed a dry run.  What I got was a very wet run.

Venue: Blackwell’s on South Bridge which claims to be Edinburgh’s oldest bookshop (does anyone know when it was established?).  Event: Lee Wanner who has compiled a series of interviews with 9 contemporary Scottish crime novelists is being interviewed by Paul Johnston, one of the authors Lee Wanner interviews in the book.  To add further intrigue:  Lee Wanner is German. He speaks English with a very strong Irish accent.  He is studying for a PhD in Crime Fiction.  Paul Johnston is Scottish. He lives on a Greek island.  He has written 12 published crime novels and now finds himself studying for a PhD in Creative Writing. 

Here’s the two of them plotting what turned out in parts to be an academic and very literary session on crime fiction. 

The discussion included tropes in crime fiction, unreliable narration, intertextuality, literary antecedents including the anti-establishmentarianism of Arthur Conan-Doyle, subversion …..

and a sparring match between interviewers.  Paul Johnston, veteran interviewer of 200 Edinburgh Book Festival events and Lee Wanner, new kid on the block, whose book includes an appendix on how to conduct a dead sharp interview.  The tenor of the session was set with Wanner insisting on German punctuality at the start and pulling Johnston up whenever there was a chink in his interviewing technique.  That’s right, Paul, ask and question and answer it yourself.  Q:  Do you think there’s a unique angle in Scottish Crime Writing?  A.  Yes, absolutely. (Pause) And that, Paul, is the danger of asking a closed question.

To be fair Johnston was in informal,  conversational mode and he took the ribbing with good grace.  Neither was Wanner being malicious.  He has a lot to thank Johnston for. 

A 3-hour interview with Johnston in the (in)famous Oxford Bar over a number of pints sowed the seeds of his book.  To that interview have been added 8 more, authors from across the spectrum of Scottish Crime Writing.  Here’s the full line-up:  Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Karen Campbell, Neil Forsyth, Christopher Brookmyre, Paul Johnston, Alice Thompson, Allan Guthrie, Louise Welsh.  It’s fascinating and revealing reading.  Is there such a thing as Tartan Noir?  What is noir? – there are as many answers to that as there are interviews in the book!  What is it that makes Scottish Crime Writing unique? Is it possible for a cop to have a happy home life?  Why is Rebus divorced?  (The answer will surprise you.)  How graphicaly should violence be depicted?  (Paul Johnston goes existential in response.)    Why is Karen Campbell unhappy that her first novel was categorised as crime fiction?  Why is the literary author Louise Welsh delighted that her novels are found on the crime shelves? How passionate are the authors about the quality of their writing? Stuart McBride waxes metaphorical on this arguing that crime fiction is not the burger van to literary fiction’s 5-star restaurant, despite the impression that John Banville’s (aka Benjamin Black’s) careless attitude to writing crime fiction might give.

Indeed Mr Banville doesn’t cut a popular figure in these pages, which is ironic because his blurb proclaims Wanner the perfect interrogator.   So there you go.   If you enjoy crime fiction, you’ll really enjoy this.  There’s no requirement to be Scottish.


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I do splurge at literary festivals (it’s near enough the only time I’m in a bookshop) and then the books take their chances amongst the TBR mountains at home.  With the 2010 AyeWrite festival (and more impulse buys)  only a month away, I thought it was time to pick up some of those neglected literary festival purchases.

Enter The Credit Draper, purchased at AyeWrite 2009 because it was published by Scottish publishers Two Ravens Press, whose fiction catalogue I “follow”.  The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous because the book is reissued today by Five Leaves Publications.

First question: what is a credit draper? Turns out it’s a tinker,  a travelling salesman and this draper’s route is in the Western Highlands of Scotland.  But I’m running ahead of myself.  Let’s go back to the beginning, or rather 1911.

12-year old Avram when threatened with conscription into the Russian Army is shipped to Scotland by his mother where he is adopted by the Kahn family, part of the tightly-knit Jewish community in the Glasgow Gorbals.  The story follows the trials and tribulations of  this young non-English speaking Jewish lad as he assimilates with varying degrees of success into both Jewish and Scottish communities.  When he discovers his talent for football and his ambition to play for Celtic, the scene is set for conflict because football games are played on a Saturday, the sabbath, the day of rest.

Avram is sent to the Highlands to become a credit draper, an apprentice to his Uncle Mendel, a gambling whiskey lover yet paradoxically an staunch Orthodox Jew.   Yet Avram has determined to set aside his Jewry and it’s during his time in the Highlands that he grows to manhood, realises some deeply cherished ambitions and achieves a measure of success.  Yet the control he has over his life is an illusion – those Jewish/Scottish tensions are about to resurface in an unexpected and controversial ending.  (And a brave move for a debut novelist.)

The move to the Highlands also allows Simons to explore the duality of Scotland’s urban and rural communities.

I’ve never read a novel that explores Jewishness in such detail and I found it fascinating.  Also the idea of Scotland, particularly the tenement flats in Glasgow,  as a haven for the persecuted race was new to me.  The following, admittedly jaundiced view of Jacob Stein, the Mr Big of the Jewish community,  struck a chord:

There is so much hatred between the Protestants and the Catholics … And when they are not hating each other, they continue to hate the English.  Hah! What a wonderful city Glasgow is.  No-one has any hatred left over for us Jews.

Can national differences be overcome? Speaking of emigration

The Scots.  They never seemed to return.  They went to far-flung places like Canada and New Zealand and India and there they stayed. They colonized, they set down roots, they established their church, they taught people their proud ways they sang their songs that seemed to long for the return they would never make. they lived life in straight lines …. The Jews …trod lightly on the land.  Their suitcases were always packed.  Their return tickets were forever hidden under the matresses.  They kept their songs unto themselves.  The Jews were forever moving in circles.

The figure of Uncle Mendel is where circular Jew meets linear Scot.  What does it says that he’his personality is somewhat shambolic.

Other characters are symbolic too.  Avram shares his adolescent home with Celia and Nathan.  The latter is a sickly invalid who is thought to be a lamed vav, one of the 36 righteous men who bear all the sins and sorrows of the world.  He is bed-ridden during the years of World War One recovering only when peace is declared.  Celia is a bit of mystery.  Arguably Avram’s first love, she rejects him as he leaves for the Highlands and remains off-page until the closing chapters.  Throughout the novel we hear of her political activism – she becomes a suffragette – but these details are deliberate teasers, a signpost to Simons’s recently published 2nd novel, The Liberation of Celia Kahn.

I’m actually quite pleased that I left The Credit Draper on the shelf for so long.  Waiting two years to discover the impact on that ending on the characters would have driven me frantic.   So novel #2 will be read in the next couple of weeks.  I’m interested in watching Simons’s development as a writer.  Will the occasional overwritten phrase be eliminated? (Since when did horses have clawing hooves?) Will he have ironed out the flaws in pacing? (The final denouement is too sudden.)  Of course, I’m very curious to see how he handles the feminine point of view and female preoccupations.  Celia, my dear, your reader awaits.

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Graham Urquhart and his  daughter take a trip to the recycle bins.  Instead of returning home, he steals a car and they take a drive around London.  As he deals with the various demands of his precocious daughter and ruminates on his past and his present, it becomes increasingly clear that his future and that of his family is in doubt.  Not only due to warfare on the domestic front.  Something apocalyptic is in the air.

What begins with a mundane domestic argument ends in  flight from a lion prowling in the middle of London Zoo.  (Read revenge of the plastic lion?)  Safety is found on an island in one of the animal enclosures …. or is it?  The key lies in a sinister childhood reminiscence,  located at the exact centre of the novella (nice touch). 

The ending is as ambiguous as the body of the novella.  Why are there no consequences to the car theft?  What exactly is the father thinking when instead of rushing to safety, he determinedly pursues the opposite course?  At what point does he / the action become unhinged?

The easy prose is belied by an insidious undercurrent.  On turning the final page, I discover I’m further out to sea than expected.  Not entirely lost, treading water.  It will take a second reading to get me back to shore.

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Some people read Hesperus Press, others Pushkin Press, NYRB and others are making their way through the Bloomsbury Group titles.  Add to that list novels published by Two Ravens Press and you’ve got me.  In fact, I’ve resolved to read all 6 of their 2010 fiction list! The thing is you never know what you’re going to get with a Two Ravens Press title – apart from a quality read.  The diversity in the styles of the titles I’ve read to date is extraordinary  and Miss Thing, title #1 for 2010, is nothing like anything I’ve read from them before for it’s an anti-novel of sorts.

The teenager on the cover is Andromeda, 16, left to fend for herself in a large apartment in New York. Her mother recently committed suicide by throwing herself out of one of the windows. Which makes it all the more inexplicable that gran is too busy leading her own life to take better care of her traumatised grandaughter. And so Andromeda begins a downward spiral which involves – well, lots of things I’m not going to disclose – but crucial to the plot is her projecting her need for love onto her not-next-door-but-across-the-courtyard neighbour, Sam. As in all good movies, their eyes met as they looked through each other’s window.

He too is a lost soul, enduring a miserable marriage. In fact, he’s married to an estate agent who’s incensed that Andromeda is allowed to stay in that huge apartment on her own. It’s prime estate and she would like to sell it (naturally). In fact, she begins a campaign to get Andromeda evicted and while she’s at that she evicts Sam from the marital home as well.

The narrative drive is driven by the question will the two not-love but lust-birds end up together? Yet don’t for one minute believe that this is a traditional love story. The signals are all in the telling. There are a number of narrators – Andromeda, Sam and Andromeda’s homeless friend, Frederico. The book is constructed from the writings of each character – we are told the materials on which each individual entry is written. These range from an artist’s sketchpad, a Mead notebook to hotel stationery or a card with a picture of two labradors on the front. . It’s almost as in Chassler is highlighting her debut novel as an exercise in writing – which I suppose it was. It’s a conceit entirely in line with the general quirkiness of the book and it may well irritate some readers, but not me.

Other things did though. Bad language for starters. Fortunately the authenticity of the narrative voices made me forget about that after a while. Neither am I sure about the ending which could be deemed insensitive, even though fully in keeping with the general unconventionality of the novel. While I can reconcile most things that grated, for the record, I’m not at all appreciative of the negative connotations given to my favourite colour, purple!

Another extremely rare phenonmenon – despite not feeling drawn to a single character – yes, not one – Chassler kept me reading to the end. In fact, I’d venture to say that the most fascinating character between these pages is Andromeda’s dead mother. Not just as a splattered corpse on the tarmac in a did she jump or was she pushed way, but as a human being. Andromeda’s memories bring her to life as does the sardonic voice of her poetry, a segment of which begins each chapter.

There’s only one safe summary of this book – it’s unpredictable. There is a happy ending, but I guarantee, not the one you’re thinking of!

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Suyahl Saadi (courtesy TwoRavensPress)

Suhayl Saadi (courtesy TwoRavensPress)

Suhayl Saadi does nothing by halves.  First he writes a 680-page behemoth of a novel, Joseph’s Box, then he promotes it by creating an amazing website.  He’s a  busy man as you will see in the following interview regarding his appearance at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.

LS: How did you become part of the 2009 Programme?

SS: My publisher, Two Ravens Press, informed the EIBF (I think that’s how it happened, but I may be wong!) of the impending publication of my new novel, ‘Joseph’s Box’. It was originally scheduled for publication in October 2009, but when the EIBF expressed an interest in scheduling an event in August, the publication date was brought forward. I appeared at the EIBF from 1999-2006, inclusive, so it was lovely to return this year.

LS: If you’re part of a double-bill, what do you think of the book you’re paired with? Is there an obvious connection?

SS: Yes, and refreshingly not because the other author, Rana Dasgupta, was of South Asian origin! Both Joseph’s Box and Solo deal with, among other things, regions and states of being which might be termed, liminal. They also delve into aspects of memory, remembered stories, contested histories, the dead, etc.

LS: How did you prepare for the EIBF event? Have you obsessed about your ticket sales?

SS: I always rehearse for readings, perhaps 14-20 times beforehand, once a day, every day. I have found that most EIBF events – not just mine! –  tend to be sold-out, so I never worry about ticket sales.

LS: It’s the morning of your event – what happened beforehand? Are there any rituals to be followed before you step on the stage?

SS: Ha! I was at work all morning and typically it was – how shall I put it – a particularly challenging morning. Nonetheless, I am a professional and so as far as possible I tend to try and make sure that I’m not too tired or stressed with other matters before a reading, in fact, being bloody-minded, I refuse to allow anything really bother me – a 40-mile train journey or a medium-length walk is a good way of relaxing in these circumstances! I also tend not to talk too much beforehand, to keep my powder dry, as it were. One strong coffee, three deep breaths… and I’m on!

LS: How did the event go?

Well, thanks.

LS: How did you choose which extract to read?

It’s a section of this 680-page novel which to some extent is self-contained. Also, it’s passionate and intense and that kind of style suits my vigorous and emotive reading technique. I am not a ‘Home Counties’ writer, and I am not a ‘Home Counties’ reader, either. It is set in Sicily, which I think audiences might find interesting.

LS:  Which was the best question and why?

SS: Someone asked about how a novel comes together structurally, how much does one have to plan ahead, etc. It’s always quite difficult for me remember exactly how I came to think about a particular strand in a book, but talking – a little – about it can help me codify my own ideas – rationalisations, possibly – in relation to thse dynamics.

LS: Book-signing – love it or hate it?

SS: Love it! The more, the better!

LS: What did you do after the book-signing?

I had to rush to do a photo-session with the EIBF’s photographer and an interview on-site at the EIBF for a podcast. Then I had another event at the EIBF. Phew! But enjoyable!

LS: How do you feel about book festivals in general? The EIBF in particular? Do you consider it part of the day job that you signed up to when you became an author?

SS: I enjoy participating in literary festivals. You get to meet other authors, some of whom you may never have met before, and also readers, likewise! There are often synchronicities between books/events. Also, lots and lots of tempting books. The EBIF is a superb lit-fest – the welcome, the events, the setting, the audiences, etc. Yes, it’s part of the civil life of a literate society, to talk about words and their power and meaning in relation to the world. One can get too much of it, though and it’s important to remember that the core duties of the job are about sitting alone, conjuring-up worlds from sand. I have another day-job, and because of multifactorial economic, historical, artistic and societal aetiologies, I will never be able to just be a writer, so being a writer for half-a-day again is a vignette from the long struggle that is the exploration of the true measure of my potential and of my ability to elucidate truth.

LS: Did you / Are you going to attend any other events?

SS: No. I didn’t have time. I work full time.

LS: Have you ever done a blog tour?  If yes, how does it compare to meeting the readers in the flesh?

SS: No, but I’d like to, especially given the circumstantial limitations now on my ability to travel. I have undertaken sporadic e-mail interviews with arts magazines over the years – Spike Magazine and 3AM, for instance. I think both are fun – meeting readers in the flesh and discoursing with – or simply coming across – their blog personae.

LS:  Thanks Suhayl.  I have yet to open Joseph’s Box but I’ve been following the pre-publication activity  at Two Raven’s Press:  excitement on reading the manuscript, panic at bringing forward the release date to tie in with the EIBF and finally delight at Boyd Tonkin’s review in the Independent.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster in itself and one, I suspect, that mirrors the ride that will accompany a reading of your novel.

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Regi Claire and Leila (Copyright Scotsman Publishing Limited)

Regi Claire and Leila (Copyright Scotsman Publishing Limited)

I am so happy that Regi Claire agreed to this interview.   Because her events were  on those days that I stupidly agreed to work!   Her anthology of short stories, Fighting It, inspired by a recent battle with cancer, was published by Two Ravens Press earlier this year.  There is a very personal account of her illness on the Vulpes Libris blog.  Today, however, we are concentrating on more positive things, delighted that Regi is now well and can present at the EIBF 2009 where she was sharing the stage with Andrea McNicoll, whose novel Moonshine In The Morning  won the 2009 Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust First Novel Award (formerly known as the Scottish Council Award!).

LS: How did you become part of the 2009 Programme?

RC:  It’s a simple story.  I was invited by the organisers.

LS: If you’re part of a double-bill, what do you think of the book you’re paired with?

RC:  Moonshine in the Morning, by Andrea McNicoll, provides an interesting glimpse of village life in Thailand, focusing on ‘ordinary’ people. Similarly, the stories in my new book, Fighting It, are mostly set abroad (Switzerland, where I grew up, France, the Canaries, the Middle East) and they all give voice to men and women who seem otherwise condemned to suffer in silence.

LS: How did you prepare for the EIBF event? Have you obsessed about your ticket sales?

RC:  I had two events this year.

For the Amnesty reading, I very slightly edited the texts (a prose letter and two poems) that I’d been given, then practised reading them several times. I always prepare a lot more when it comes to performing other people’s work as I am keenly aware of my responsibility towards them.

For the reading with Andrea, I knew I’d have to edit the story I’d chosen so it would fit the time slot of 15 to 20 minutes. I started preparing the day before the gig, cutting quite a bit and rewriting a few sentences, reading the text back to myself in a whisper, then performing it aloud – a couple of times to myself and once more to my husband, Ron Butlin, and our dog. I did some final editing on the bus to and from an evening event, then fine-tuned the story one last time in bed, after midnight.

I don’t think it’s worth spending time (and energy!) worrying about sales.

LS: It’s the morning of your event – what happened beforehand? Are there any rituals to be followed before you step on the stage?

RC:  A mad dash as usual. For my own event (at 10.15 am): getting up too late, then running to the bus stop, putting on the earrings and final touches of makeup on the bus while scan-reading the story one last time, then another sprint from the bus stop in George Street to the authors’ yurt.

Can going for a quick pee and brushing my hair be called rituals?

LS: How did the events go?

RC:  Both events went really well. Pretty much a full house each time, and lots of books sold.

The Amnesty reading was very moving as, thanks to the charity ‘The Medical Foundation for the Care and Resettlement of the Victims of Torture’, the authors of the texts were present and introduced themselves to the audience before we read (‘we’ being Moris Fahri, Otto de Kat, Ron Butlin, and myself). One young man, from Iran, struck us all as exceptionally gifted, and I’m quite sure we’ll hear more of him. His pen name is ‘Dusk’.

The event with Andrea worked very well as we seemed to complement each other perfectly, with respect to both our work and our style of performance. The literary agent Jenny Brown was excellent at introducing us and then chairing the Q and A session. So, only happy memories!

LS: How did you choose which extract to read?

RC: I chose a story that was listener-friendly – with dialogue, vivid descriptions and action – fun to perform and which I hadn’t read at a venue in Edinburgh before.

LS: Book-signing – love it or hate it?

RC: I enjoy interacting with my readers, and find it a rather humbling experience. I always make sure to have a quick word with them rather than just sign their books like a machine.

LS: What did you do after the book-signing?

RC: My husband and a very good Swiss friend of mine went back to the authors’ yurt for a chat with Andrea and Jenny, and a celebratory drink with some other writer friends (even though it wasn’t quite lunchtime yet…).

LS: How do you feel about book festivals in general? The EIBF in particular?

RC:  I love book festivals, both as a performer and as a reader. They provide a wonderful opportunity for authors to meet their audience as well as fellow authors. Having lived in Scotland for the past 16 years, I’ve got to know many of the writers based here, but the EIBF (with its magic authors’ yurt) has allowed me to make the acquaintance of authors from (much) further afield, which has been really exciting. This time round, we made friends with a writer from New York, George Dawes Greene, who set up ‘The Moth’. We ended up going out for dinner with him and some friends three evenings in a week.

LS: Did you attend any other book festival events?

RC: Yes, quite a few. My husband’s events, of course, but also several others. So far Margaret Drabble, Ian Rankin, A L Kennedy, Alasdair Gray, (The European premiere of) The Moth, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes (the latter was held during a power failure, which meant that the chairman, judges and winners had to speak/read by torchlight, without mikes – quite an experience!). I enjoyed them all and hope to have learned from each of them in a different way. And I’m looking forward to hearing Dubravka Ugresic, Frank Gardner and Margaret Atwood over the coming days.

LS:  Thanks, Regi.  Would you mind telling me (in comments) the title of the story you read?  I’ll be reading your anthology during my Short Story September and I’d like to relive the atmosphere in the Spiegeltent at Charlotte Square.


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The Edinburgh book festival progamme has arrived.  The wishlist drawn up. Budget finalised. Everything in place for the assault on the internet  the day tickets go on sale. (Tuesday 22.6.2009) It would be if I hadn’t been called away on business next week.  Irony of ironies – I’m spending 3 days at a computer conference with no personal access to the web or the EBF box office.  The phone lines will be jammed for days – I’ll have no chance of getting through in my 30-minute lunch break.  Time to call in the business continuity plan – more commonly known as paper and pen.  I shall submit a paper order by snail mail and hope that the box office processes it before all the tickets have been snaffled by the online EBF ticket-buying junkies.  You know and I know who you are and, though I am snarling,  please don’t take offense.  It’s just that my stress levels are high!

Cue peptalk.

The Voice of Reason

Lizzy, you’re a punter.  Your stress levels are miniscule compared to

a) those who have been organising the Edinburgh Book Festival for the last 12-months

b) publishers who have brought forward publication to coincide with the EBF.

Lizzy Siddal



That’s true.   I was talking to Sharon Blackie and David Knowles of Two Ravens Press when in Ullapool a few weeks back.   I asked them about an average day on their book-publishing, sheep-rearing, poultry-breeding croft on the shores of Loch Broom.  Days which start  at the ungodly hour of 4:50 am to feed the poultry.  In  lambing season (as it was then) the next task is to check the welfare of  the lambs and the remaining expecting mothers.  Once the dog, the gorgeous, lovable,  Frodo,  has been walked,  the two humans can sit down to “porridge and battle plans” at 8:00 a.m.  Of course, that was then.  I see from their croft-related blog Tales from Green Willow Croft that they’ve now added an apiary.  I do wonder how Frodo’s coping with all those bees around his snout.  Should he be in need of a rescuer …..

The Voice of Reason

Lizzy, you’re digressing.  This is not a dog blog.

Lizzy Siddal


So it’s now 8:00 am at Green Willow Croft and thoughts are turning to literature.  Sharon is a third of way through writing her second novel for which she has received an arts council bursary.  It must be finished by October.  “It will be”, she said, unphased by yet another deadline.   When not writing her novel, she turns her attention to the TRP prose catalogue – editing, copy editing, designing covers, marketing.  David, whose own poetry collection, Meeting the Jet Man, was recently shortlisted for the Scottish Arts Council of the Year award, reviews  poetry submissions and looks after the business arm: accounts, production problems, supply chains, online orders.    The hitches are numerous.  The trials and tribulations of a small Scottish publisher often documented on the Two Raven’s Press Blog.

Out of the blue a call comes from the EBF inviting a TRP author to present.  The catch is that publication of the novel, originally scheduled for October, must be brought forward by 2 months to take advantage of the opportunities this presents.  It’s not some  novella-like creation either – only the longest novel TRP have published, an epic of risk-taking proportions, 262,000 words, a novel that larger publishers have decided is too long for the contemporary market.

Little of the pre-publication work was done at the time, but the TRP team of two went into action to edit, typeset, copyedit and proof this work in the space of about 6 weeks.  Fortunately the novel already met TRP exacting standards for literary fiction.  The author understoods the TRP ethos.  (David described the relationship between TRP and their authors as “getting married with sales targets”).    Amazingly everything got completed in the new timeframe .  Sharon has read the book multiple times, David once.   All that remained was the jacket design and production of the finished article.  Distribution of review copies and voila!  After compressing what normally takes 12 weeks into half the time, the publishers can now sit back and take a well-earned break for, oh let’s be generous given that there is a lamb due to be born at any moment and an adorable dog demanding more exercise, a whole 10 minutes!

Sharon Blackie and David Knowles

Sharon Blackie and David Knowles

The novel, Joseph’s Box by Suhayl Saadi, will be published on July 31st but is now available directly from Two Raven’s Press website.   More details on the novel at http://www.josephsbox.co.uk

As a reader, all I need to do is order it to read before the event at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 27 August.  Suhayl Saadi is, according to Sharon “an excellent book festival performer”.  A must-see event then …. assuming the EBF box office processes my paper application before all tickets are gone.



The Voice of Reason

Lizzy, you’re winding yourself up again.  Go read a book and remember you don’t have to publish it.  Even better why not de-stress with a dog. Your adorable pooch,  Pina,  awaits.  Just look at the smile on her face!

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