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Read All About It: 'No Certain Home' by Marlene Lee

Posted on April 19, 2016 by Yen-Yen Lu

In 1928, American journalist and activist Agnes Smedley left the United States for Shanghai. Rising quickly and travelling widely, she soon became the top correspondent on the Chinese Civil War for the Western world. 

Author Marlene Lee explores Smedley's life in her new novel No Certain Home, published by Holland House this month. She focuses on her experiences throughout her time in Northwest China; it is believed that she was the only Westerner living amongst the Chinese Red Army.

I spoke to the author about her process of writing this novel.

Tell me about Agnes Smedley and why she interests you. 

Like Agnes, I feel like an outsider and can identify with her.  She interests me because she turned her personal weaknesses and unfavorable circumstances into useful work wherever she was.  Her limited education (she dropped out of school at age 10) only spurred her to educate herself informally all of her life and to become a world-class journalist in demand not only for her writings but for her speeches about twentieth-century China.  Her challenges to the status quo were sufficient to attract the interest of the American FBI and, earlier, British intelligence.  All of this from the daughter of a Missouri tenant farmer/alcoholic coal miner!  Agnes Smedley never forgot her origins among the underprivileged.

How did your research influence your writing?

My research, both reading and travel, allowed me to see Agnes in context.  Because I visited Milan (Missouri), Trinidad (Colorado), Tempe (Arizona), San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Berlin, Truro (Denmark), and Shanghai, Xian, and Yen'an in China, I could write scenes that brought the facts of her life into vivid, fictional reality.  She lived so many lives in so many locations! Following her through research was a breathtaking experience for me and put me in touch with the world, both outer and inner, that she inhabited.

What are your hopes for the book?

I'd like for readers to appreciate Agnes Smedley.  She has almost been forgotten, and she deserves to be remembered because of her progressive activities furthering social and gender justice.  Maybe readers of No Certain Home will think harder about how we view the weak and the poor among us.  I'd like for people to know more about China's history, too.  And I want people to enjoy Agnes' personality as well as the book itself!

No Certain Home is available now on our website.

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How to get from a cardboard box in a tiny Cardiganshire village to Waterstones Book of the month - in a week

Posted on March 29, 2016 by Yen-Yen Lu

The gothic The Shadow of Nanteos, published by Y Lolfa last year, soared to success in book awards and reviews in an exceptionally short amount of time. Here, author Jane Blank discusses her experience of her novel's success. 

My second novel  was launched at the Georgian mansion and hotel Plas Nanteos on the second of October 2015. The following week it had been picked by Waterstones to be their Wales November Book of the Month.

During that magical month I was invited to signings in bookshops all over Wales, asked to read in London and appeared on S4C. The novel was reviewed extensively in the press and featured several times on national radio.  The book had to go into a second print run after only two weeks.  Bookings from libraries, book groups, festivals and media interviews keep coming in and now stretch as far as October 2016.

Before publication the book was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society Awards 2015 – but I don’t feel shy about telling you this. It doesn’t even feel like boasting. It feels like a miracle: like something that needs to be shared with all the hard-working writers who, like me, have slogged for years, staring into a black hole.

Yes, it’s a good read, but that is not what has made this novel, rather than my first and rather than all the thousands of other small press or self-published gems, a success.

There are many elements that have come together to make the difference; some are a result of deliberate decisions by those involved with the production. The most important factors though are what I call ‘the goodness of fortune’. It is these that have made the most difference. Let me explain:

As I started writing the book, the beautiful Georgian mansion of Nanteos was a building site – now it is a Country House Hotel, visited by Prince Charles, with its own helicopter landing site. This was not my doing but has meant that I have the most wonderful companion marketing and perpetual sales outlet. I made sure to include the hotel name in my title. (My rule for writers: find a ‘hook’ for future sales). Wherever my book goes, the hotel is publicised: whoever visits the hotel (in person or online) is exposed to my book.

Personal circumstances led to the BBC’s Robert Peston being kind enough to read the manuscript. His strapline made a whole world of difference to how people regarded both the book and, to be honest, me.

It’s a genre novel: historical, romantic, gothic. We released it at the right time: before Halloween and in time to create some excitement going into the first Christmas.

Very importantly, I think, I approached a respected local press (Y Lolfa). The book, based as it is in a real location that can be visited and is, in itself, famous, has worked extremely well. People are buying the book as they’re interested in the locale – a market that can be expertly mined by a local press.

The house is notorious as one of the most haunted locations in Wales. I picked the real historical figure of Elizabeth Powell, the ‘Grey Lady’ of the mansion, as my heroine, thus harnessing an existing interest. Luck also brought huge coverage of the house when The Holy Grail/ Nanteos Cup was stolen and featured on Crimewatch. The Grail is important to my story and, though thankfully the relic has now been recovered, the publicity did me no harm at all.

Last of all, working as hard after the book’s publication as before it, is essential. I’ve said yes to every opportunity – from 10 ‘take no prisoners’ readers in a tin hut near Machynlleth to bookings at major literary festivals.  It hangs on a thread – but if the book is not just about you, if it can ride on other interests/ places /passions, it might just win through.

Look out for Jane Blank's tour dates on our website, Twitter, and Facebook, coming soon!

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Read All About It: 'Before and After' by Edith Morley

Posted on March 11, 2016 by Yen-Yen Lu

We celebrated International Women's Day this week to commemorate the achievements of women in history and in contemporary culture. It would be impossible to leave out one of this week's most exciting new titles, Before and After from Two Rivers Press, a memoir of Edith Morley, the first female professor in the UK.

Since childhood she 'hated being a girl'; understandable, considering the fact that she grew up in late Victorian era. She was aware of the restrictions put on her simply from 'being a girl' and made every effort to break through them, from defying her father's wishes and attending school rather than being educated at home, to her later life when she overcame many different obstacles as she navigated through a male-dominated environment of Edwardian academia. She was appointed Professor of English Language at Reading in 1908.

I spoke to Sally Mortimore and Barbara Morris (editor) of Two Rivers Press about the book and of the significance of Morley's achievements and what they mean today.

What stands out to you about Before and After, and what will stand out to readers?

The restrictions placed on girls and women in the early part of the 20th Century, though we read about them, are hard to take on board until you read a first hand account from an intelligent and energetic, personable woman. Edith's memoir makes you wish you could have invited her to dinner. Such was her range of knowledge and pursuits, her clear  interest in others and her pragmatism, it's easy to imagine late night conversations full of laughter and name dropping! Her memoir is easy to read and resonant of a life-affirming personality. She is honest about the challenges she faced, about her own personal weaknesses and about the people she came into contact with. The result is the reader's opportunity to go back in time, experience the events that made our lives what they are today and make a commitment to future generations to live our ordinary lives as if they matter.

What makes Edith Morley an important figure, in her time and ours?

Edith Morley was an ordinary woman. Ordinary in that her circumstances and upbringing were typical of many women of her time. But she possessed extraordinary determination and energy which she used to change the course of her life and the lives of many women following in her footsteps. Although her personal achievement was tarnished by the attitude of her peers to the women in leadership positions, nevertheless, the status she did manage to attain paved the way for future female academics of all ranks to fulfill their potential.

What would you most want this book to achieve?

Huge sales! But also an understanding amongst women today that the path we tread was laid by some unassuming but determined women, many of whom are not noticed by history, but whose legacy was hugely significant. We can but aim to do likewise.

Before and After is available to order on our website, along with many other titles from Two Rivers Press

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Inpress Celebrates World Book Day

Posted on March 03, 2016 by Rebecca Robinson
The Inpress office today celebrated World Book Day, with varying levels of zeal. Sophie came dressed as the bear from I Want My Hat Back, a charming story about a millinophilic beast who uses murderous force to regain stolen property. She said, "I love this book. I have read it many, many, many times to my little girl and it never fails to entertain both of us. So much drama packed into so few pages and with so few words. It’s a piece of pure genius." You can tell by the far-away look in her eyes that she's recalling fond memories.
 
 
Yen-Yen came as Serena from Gossip Girl, the character from the book not the TV show, although it wouldn't matter either way because we're not in the business of policing how people choose to express themselves. She said, “Gossip Girl was one of my favourite series to read (and watch) when I was at school. I found it so easy to relate to the characters, except my wardrobe was not filled with designer dresses, my classmates were much kinder, and sadly, the fictional Nate Archibald was not my boyfriend.” One day, Yen-Yen!
 
 
I (Rebecca) came as Cassandra from I Capture the Castle, which may not look like much of a costume but I am very much the casual end of business casual on any normal work day. Despite encouragement from Sophie, I'm not currently on the roof reading poetry naked, but there's still time. It's not just my favourite children's book, it's one of my favourite books of all time.
 
 
Emily's impressive costume was a real labour of love, and although she had been up toiling late into the night to get it ready she still managed to find the strength to share a few words about her favourite childhood book, "Willy and Hugh was a big favourite of mine when I was young, so much so I’ve lent it to Sophie’s little girl to enjoy. It still says ‘This Book Belongs to Emily Tate’ in the front though! It’s a lovely story with morals galore, of how a small and shy chimp (Willy) makes friends with a big, but polite, gorilla (Hugh). Here is me dressed (with no expense spared) as Buster Nose – not my favourite character, but a very aptly named ape who attempts to come between the unlikely new friends."
 
 

Happy World Book Day everyone!

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Between Stations - Andy Willoughby

Posted on February 22, 2016 by Yen-Yen Lu

Poet Andy Willoughby finds himself transported on a mock epic, high-octane locomotive beat journey from his native post-industrial Teesside to deepest Siberia and back again.

With an improvised soundtrack of half-forgotten Irish Catholic hymns, Fenno-Ugrian magic chants, Russian folk tales and a battered old Bob Dylan cassette, Between Stations ricochets between present and past with a raggletaggle bunch of Finnish fellow-travelling poets and the hallucinatory shades of Blake, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein and Mandelstam on a ramshackle quest for the Golden Woman of Khanty Mansiysk.

Available on our website.

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