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Musical Mystery Tour (Part II)

Welcome to part two of our Headline authors’ guide to the music that inspires their them. This time it’s the turn of Sheila O’Flanagan and James Forrester to tell us about the music that has influenced their writing.

Sheila O’Flanagan

When I was a child my parents decided that I should learn to play the piano. My music teacher was a slightly eccentric older woman (why this is so often the case with music teachers I don’t know!) but she was also patient and understanding. She led me from mangling a few easy pieces through to playing some of the loveliest works for piano by Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart, and she instilled in me a real love of classical music. When I hear them now, I’m transported – not to the dusty room where she taught – but to the open meadows or crashing seas or quiet countryside that they always evoked in me.

Music has a way of reaching inside us and gripping our emotions in a very immediate way. It can be restful or rousing, mournful or merry, but it’s a medium that always grabs our senses and engulfs us.

Some writers like to have music playing while they work but for me it tends to be a distraction because I drift off into the music rather than concentrating on the work in hand. Yet one of my books, Anyone But Him, has a central character who is a music teacher (not, however, eccentric) and whenever I wrote scenes in which she was involved it felt right to have something playing in the background. And as I did this, the music and the chapters seemed to grow together so that, in the end, each chapter began to reflect the piece I had been listening to at the time.

Some of them are romantic and dreamy – my favourite is Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ with which the book ends; others, like Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, are more sombre, but all are pieces that I really love.

Anyone But Him isn’t the only book in which music plays a part. My very first novel, Dreaming of a Stranger, has chapters headed by hit songs of the seventies, eighties and nineties – the decades in which the book is set. Even seeing titles like ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Listen To Your Heart’ has the power to send me hurtling back to the time when I made similar mistakes to my heroine but managed to overcome them.

Music accompanies us on our journey through life. It marks our highs and our lows. It enriches it beyond measure. We would be lost without it.

Sheila’s new novel, Better Together, is out in Hardback, July 5th.

James Forrester

One of the downsides of being a writer is the restriction on listening to and playing music. Music is such a big part of my life that there are times when I resent having to sit in silence at a computer and not play out a few ideas on a guitar, or listen to new albums, or enlarge my knowledge of the classical repertoire. I’ve written in the past about the value of music in inspiring a piece of writing: to describe a medieval battle you need to prepare for several days; then, when ready, sit down with all the sources you need open at the right page, drink half a bottle of wine while listening to Verdi’s ‘Requiem’, and then you’re ready to charge into battle yourself.

One piece of music that inspired a part of The Final Sacrament, the third book in my Clarenceus trilogy, is ‘Man with a Harmonica’ by Ennio Morricone, from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I’m a great fan of the Spaghetti Western, and this film and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are undoubtedly the best two film soundtracks of any Westerns. Harmonica is an unnamed character in the film, played by Charles Bronson, and there is a great line spoken by Cheyenne (Jason Robards), after hearing him play his harmonica: ‘So you know how to play. But do you know how to shoot?’ Later in the film we see Cheyenne spying on Harmonica and watching as he despatches a couple of desperados, and he mutters under his breath, ‘So he can shoot too.’ I had Clarenceux make a similar comment to John Greystoke in the book, as a small homage to Sergio Leone. The main reason for this piece being associated with The Final Sacrament, however, is that I was listening to it one morning and the dramatic chord (at 3.29 in this version) struck me as the perfect accompaniment to the denouement, where Clarenceux  is walking into Thames Abbey, watched by a hundred or so of Walsingham’s men, with the knowledge that he is going to destroy the place and everything in it, and very probably himself. This music was therefore very much in my mind when I came to write that scene.

Another piece of music that I will always associate with The Final Sacrament is an English folk song that I know from a piece of sheet music someone gave me about six years ago. It was written at roughly the same time as the novel is set, in the mid sixteenth century, and was first published in 1611. It is about self-sacrifice, love and loyalty, and tallies so well with the themes of the book that I have one of my characters, a boy called Fyndern Catesby, sing it in the story, and reproduce the words in the text. Until asked to do this exercise I’d never heard anyone else sing it; but there is a version by Pater, Paul and Mary that has some similarity with the way I play it on guitar.

The fun-for-all-the-family listening for the last few years has been the remarkable Mexican guitar duo, Rodrigo y Gabriela. In February this year we all went to see them at Brixton Academy. For my children (aged 13, 11 and 9), it was their first proper London concert. ‘Diablo Rojo’ is one of my favourites – it is regular listening at mealtimes when I cook (cooking and listening to exciting music is the ideal way to stop thinking about history and writing). This is a live-on-TV version – although everything they do is ‘live’; there would be no point in trying to record them separately.

James’s new novel, The Final Sacrament, is out in hardback, August 16th.

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The 4th of July

It’s a fractious time in the good ol’ U S of A. An economic downturn and the wages of two wars have saddled us with enough baggage to weigh anyone down, and as we rumble toward a presidential election, the splits grow wide and raw. My dad says he’s never seen the country so divided. And my dad is really old.

As the 4th of July approaches, bringing our Independence Day celebration, I am finding all the infighting and campaign ads oddly hopeful. The thing about America is this: our unity is our diversity.

It sounds trite, glib. It’s not. It’s the essence of who we are. By European standards, we’re a country without a history. We lack an ethnic uniform. Walk around the hinterlands of Texas and you’re going to hear a lot of Spanish. French in the Cajun bayous. German among the ‘plain folk’ in Pennsylvania. Try to back a definition of what it means to be American into a corner, and it’ll juke left and slip right past you.

There is no America, and that means nobody can ever be un-American.

The 4th of July makes me think about that. I was raised without the holiday. My parents were urbane intellectuals, children of the 60s. To them, waving a flag and lauding your country was to deny the role we’d played in the horrors they’d just seen unfolding in Vietnam. The 4th of July wasn’t something ‘our sort of people’ did.

As an adult, I wasn’t interested in being anybody’s sort of people. I joined the military myself. I even celebrated the holiday in a warzone, holding a sparkler outside the US Embassy in Baghdad in the summer of 2006 before in-direct fire forced us inside. While the detonations rattled the roof, I swelled with pride at the sight of the fireworks bursting over Washington, DC over the satellite TV, showering the city with color. I walked the spectrum that my parents never did, seeing the holiday as both a nationalist glossing over of America’s past mistakes and a joyous celebration of everything wonderful this country stands for: liberty, stick-to-itiveness, optimism in the face of overwhelming odds.

The truth is that, in America, there is room for both those perspectives, and all the shades between. That’s the point. More importantly, the American tapestry embraces individual complexity as well. Americans can observe the 4th with mixed feelings, they can be conflicted about the meaning of the holiday. There’s room for that too.

I wrote CONTROL POINT over many 4ths of July. The protagonist of the book, Oscar Britton, is a highly conflicted man, facing tough choices that raise the very same questions of morality, duty and what it means to be a citizen of this country. In a way, his turmoil is a distinctly American story. That questing conflict is as American as apple pie.

The 4th reminds me of that. Our national seal reads: ‘E PLURIBUS UNUM’. Out of many, one. There is no America. We are, when you think about it, everyone and everything. We are a true immigrant nation: a sea of cultures, languages, cuisines, dress codes, senses of humor. We blend and borrow and fold in on ourselves. From that pluribus, we get a Frankenstein unum that has, thus far, been pretty damned amazing.

But it’s not just food and clothes and language. We are a cauldron of ideas. We are white-water rapids of perspective and beliefs. Not only as a society, but in each individual. Our divisions are the tinctures of strength. The fabled ‘American Exceptionalism’ can be found as much there as anywhere.

This 4th, as with every 4th, that gives me hope.

Posted by Myke Cole, author of CONTROL POINT (paperback available 16/08/2012)


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Thessalonian Adventures

From the moment I first heard that Victoria Hislop’s new book was going to be set in Thessaloniki I could barely contain my excitement. As a huge fan of The Island and The Return (and as someone who is slightly obsessed with Greece) I was thrilled to hear that her next book was going to be set in Greece again. Even more exciting was the fact that it was going to be set in Thessaloniki, which is where I spent a semester studying while at university. Needless to say, when the first proofs of The Thread came in I swiftly devoured it. And, of course, The Thread does not disappoint; Victoria’s imagery and vivid descriptions bring the streets and the people of Thessaloniki to life. I love how the turbulent history of the city is interwoven with the story of two people who fall in love after the city throws their lives together.

So when the prospect of accompanying Victoria to Thessaloniki arose I jumped at the chance. Although Thessaloniki is Greece’s second city, it is definitely not as well known or as frequently visited as Athens or the many islands surrounding Greece. Consequently flights to Thessaloniki are not very regular and Victoria and I had no choice but to take a 6am flight from Gatwick. Bleary eyed and still half asleep we began the morning with much-needed coffee while discussing Homeland and a recent publishing phenomenon (the subject of which I never thought I would be sitting in an airport at 5am discussing). We went on to discuss Victoria’s hectic itinerary for the next week in Greece (which made us even more tired) – set to include becoming an ambassador for the city of Thessaloniki, a TED talk, as well as many other talks and lectures around the country.

Victoria is interviewed by Eva Kousiopoulou

Fresh off the plane, Victoria had a TV interview with the main Thessalonian station ERT3. It was my first experience of the scale of Victoria’s fame in Greece. Within minutes of arriving I was taking a picture of Victoria and the producer on his phone – clearly an exciting moment for him! It was pretty cool to be in the studio, although it was all in Greek so I had no idea what was going on. However, it was great to see the wonderful trailer by Beau Merchant being aired on Greek television.

As soon as we had finished at the television studio, we had to race to the Public book store where the event was to take place and where Victoria had a press interview scheduled. The event space in the store is absolutely amazing; when they were building the store they discovered ancient ruins so these are incorporated into the store. A big section of the floor is see-through and you can see the remains below. Victoria was then interviewed by Eva Kousiopoulou, a Thessalonian TV and Radio journalist, in front of a very enthusiastic audience. Eva had done her research and they had a wonderful interview with lots of laughs from the crowd. Victoria did a reading from the English edition of her book which was then followed by a signing. She took the time to speak to each person in turn, pose for photos and sign books both in Greek and in English. After that it was time for more interviews with the press until finally everyone had left and then, dinner!

The people from the Public store took us to a gorgeous, traditional Greek restaurant in the old part of town. Victoria wasn’t the only celebrity there – the band Death in Vegas were also visiting. We didn’t know who they were although we had noticed them on our flight that morning as they looked noticeably rock band-esque. The food was delicious. We had an authentic Greek dining experience – they generously ordered a big selection of everything and we all got to try some wonderful Greek dishes including some favorites – as well as some new dishes that they introduced us to. As we discussed Greek history it was evident that Victoria knew more about Greek history than any of the Greeks did! There were also several different suggestions of places in Greece that Victoria should set her next book. After eating our fill, Victoria and I began to fade, I think the Greeks were disappointed but in our defense we had been up since 3am that morning!

Victoria signs books for some eager fans

Very reluctantly I returned home the next day. I left Victoria to continue her journey to almost every part of the country – quite simply, everyone wants a piece of Victoria! The Thread was received with great fanfare and enthusiasm on first-format publication and the paperback is sure to be a bestseller also. Not only is the book so closely tied to this wonderful country but so too is Victoria, and the reception she receives there is truly marvellous to see.

Posted by Bríd Enright, Sales

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Far From Utopia: The Love Of Dystopia

It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that Hunger-Games fever – and a love of all things dystopian – has gripped the nation. If you’re not faced with the sight of books baring the all-too-familiar grey tie, it’s more than likely that your tube journey will be populated with numerous commuters reading The Hunger Games. The love of the dystopian is by no means new. In fact, it is over 60 years since the publication of George Orwell’s seminal 1984 and it is as widely read and studied today as ever. But why has the genre seen such overwhelming growth in popularity now? Why has The Hunger Games trilogy so captured the imagination of young readers and adults alike?

The success of The Hunger Games began with the readers at whom it was initially targeted, young adults, and this is due in no small part to the powerful protagonist at its heart, Katniss. It is easy to see why she has become a poster-girl for teenage independence, a symbol of youthful power and resilience. Faced with seemingly insurmountable adversity, her endurance and bravery are impressive indeed and even more so for readers of her age, for whom she provides an obvious role model. Her struggle for survival is universal and has been depicted countless times; it is mankind’s greatest test writ large. This time, however, it is a teenager who offers hope in a time of moral turpitude and her strength is undeniably compelling.

Although confined within the constraints of the game itself, Katniss is able to exert control over her performance, ignoring the advice of her elders before entering the game and defiantly undermining the gamemakers’ control at every opportunity. For modern-day teenagers, eager to be released from the shackles of parental and societal restriction, these worlds offer a unique opportunity to imagine themselves autonomous, even in this most bleak of environments. Like Katniss and her fellow dystopian inhabitants, teenagers today are faced with a future determined by the decisions of their elders. Ultimately, these fictions offer hope; the hope that they, like Katniss, will not be found wanting when faced with considerable adversity and challenge.

However, it is not Katniss alone who has determined the success of The Hunger Games. Much has been said of Suzanne Collins’ strikingly vivid world creation and it is certainly true that Panem has captured the imaginations of readers of all ages. With nods to the world we inhabit, Katniss’ world is inescapably unsettling. It is, like ours, a world of self creation. Katniss is constantly aware of the public’s perception of her, carefully crafting her persona throughout. In a time of Facebook/Twitter domination and internet avatars aplenty this is something we can all relate to. Readers of The Hunger Games may well tweet about their love of the book, keen to add this to the intangible perception others glean of them from the internet. Just as Katniss manipulates the audience’s understanding of her personality, her experience of the game and her motivation, so too do we all create an identity for ourselves in the online landscape.

The similarities between Panem and the modern world may be unnerving but so too are the differences comforting. Regardless of the problems we see around us, we are safely removed from times as hard as those depicted in the world of the games. It serves, instead, as a snapshot of what might be. Whilst we can, for the moment, revel in complacency that our youth are not selected at random to compete in a fight to the death, we can only hope that the similarities we recognise and the degeneration depicted serve as warnings that are heeded, not ignored.

With the release of the remaining Hunger Games films and with a bevy of dystopian novels to come – including Headline’s very own Pure – it doesn’t look like we’ll be finding a literary utopia any time soon…

Posted by Frankie Gray, Editorial

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Announcing Tinder Press!

It is no ordinary day here at Headline Towers, for it is the day that we finally announced the arrival of our new imprint, Tinder Press. Here’s the press release in full:

Headline Publishing Group is delighted to announce the launch of a new imprint, Tinder Press.

Tinder Press is to be a distinct imprint publishing 10–12 titles a year, standing alongside Headline’s existing imprints. Tinder Press is created to build on recent Headline successes, for example Maggie O’Farrell’s Costa Novel Award winning THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE,Sarah Winman’s Galaxy National Book Award winning  WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT, and  Andrea Levy’s Man Booker prize shortlisted THE LONG SONG.  The imprint will be steered byMary-Anne Harrington, Fiction Publisher, andLeah Woodburn, Associate Publisher, who have a remit to publish extraordinary stories from original voices: books that inspire a  passionate response and will stand the test of time.

Mary-Anne Harringtonsaid: ‘Tinder Press is conceived as first and foremost a fiction imprint, supported by a dedicated in-house team in sales, publicity and marketing: the same team that made WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT or Eowyn Ivey’s THE SNOW CHILD absolutely unmissable.  The time seemed right to grow our literary fiction publishing, giving a small number of titles additional space and the special attention they require to enable them to flourish.  We know how to create a real community around our books: it’s a wonderful marriage of new media and old-fashioned enthusiasm.’

Leah Woodburn said: ‘It’s important to us that Tinder Press provides a tailored publishing service, which will mean carving out a unique position on the list for each of our authors, and reaching out as directly as possible to booksellers and to readers alike.  We want Tinder Press books to be books to treasure – books you will want to keep – and our production values will reflect this.  We will produce beautiful hardbacks and innovative e-books for first format, followed by paperbacks with strong mass-market appeal.’

Jane Morpeth said: ‘I am very proud of what Headline has achieved over the years of publishing brilliant books, such as Andrea Levy’s SMALL ISLAND, that not only win critical acclaim but reach out to the widest of markets. And I am very excited by the prospect of expanding the range of our publishing with this new imprint.’

The Tinder Press list will launch in spring 2013 and will include playwright Peggy Riley’s AMITY AND SORROW, an extraordinary debut about sisters in an end-of-the-world cult, run by their father; THE YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS by Anton DiSclafani, a lush first novel of Southern decorum, family secrets and girls’ school rituals; Michel Rostain’s THE SON, a bestseller in his native France, and winner of the Prix Goncourt Debut Novel award; SNAPPER, Brian Kimberling’s heartfelt and humorous first novel about love and birdwatching in rural Indiana, which was awarded the Janklow and Nesbit Bath Spa Prize; and Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth novel, the story of four eventful days in the life of an Irish family in the heatwave of 1976.

It’s a hugely exciting endeavour for us, and we can’t wait to tell you more about the fantastic books we’ll be publishing – do keep an eye out for them here. And, despite the fact that we’re not launching till next year, we’re already chattering away: do follow us on Twitter @TinderPress, have a peek at our website: www.tinderpress.co.uk/, and, lo! we’re even on Pintrest: pinterest.com/tinderpress/

The stories are coming…

Posted by Leah Woodburn, Editorial 

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Musical Mystery Tour

We all have that moment at one time or another when a piece of music comes on in the background and you have to stop what you’re doing and just listen. This is a regular occurrence for me on Friday afternoons as fellow Headliner Bríd launches into a rendition of an eighties classic and I stop what I’m doing and wonder why cats are fighting with dentists’ drills in the office.

But for a writer such songs can be a powerful influence on shaping their novels. So turn the volume up to eleven and find out which tracks struck a chord with our authors.


Morgan McCarthy

Several songs inspired me while I was writing The Other Half of Me. I can’t actually listen to music when I write – I just tune it out – but I did listen to songs around that time that perfectly evoked the mood I was trying to capture. There’s an immediacy in sound that gets straight to your own feelings and, accordingly, the feelings of a novel. If I had to pick one song from that time that stands out, I’d choose Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Runaway’. It’s a painfully beautiful tune, the poignant notes of the piano ringing like drops of water against a crystal glass. The simple lyrics of the song: ‘I was feeling sad. Can’t help looking back. Highways flew by…’ and the subsequent refrain ‘Run, run away, no sense of time’, capture the state of mind of the hero of my book, Jonathan; both the song and his narrative suffused with a sense of absence and grief, the overwhelming wish to return to a time that is lost.


Steven Dunne

Music and musicians play a pivotal role in Deity because the novel is about the dark influences that can impose themselves on young people as they are growing up. Deity is about the self-destructive urges that attract teenagers, sometimes fatally, and the iconic figures that can induce the young to act against their own health and self-interest, even from beyond the grave.

Before being overwhelmed by the fame that led to his suicide in 1994, Kurt Cobain revitalised rock in the early nineties with his band Nirvana and the album Nevermind. Its seminal anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit is a beautiful play on words worthy of the greatest writers.

Equally, the beautiful Jim Morrison of sixties band The Doors, who died aged 27 in Paris in 1971, was more than just an iconic and charismatic singer. He was a poet who liked to explore the dark side of the happy clappy decade of sixties free love in songs like ‘Riders On the Storm’. His extraordinary and hallucinatory lyrics, influenced by his extensive drug use, would grace any anthology.

Morrissey from The Smiths is another who is more than just a musician. He was a thorn in the side of Thatcherite Britain in the 1980s, vilified by his detractors for tackling taboo issues in his songs, yet worshipped by his fans for the same reason. ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ is not just one of the greatest love songs ever written, it is a homage to the death-wish anxiety of troubled youth, seeking acceptance and emotional comfort. Love or death – no compromise.


Emylia Hall

 I love listening to music as I write, although I’m constantly fiddling with the volume so that my imagination feeds off the sound but the lyrics don’t interrupt my thought patterns. I played a lot of Beth Orton throughout the writing of The Book of Summers, and ‘Sweetest Decline’ hits all the right notes – it’s beautiful and melancholic, and the lyrics weave perfectly with the story I’ve written… listen and you’ll see what I mean.

The other song I must mention is ‘Here Comes The Sun’, specifically a version I came across on You Tube, where Paul Simon sings with Crosby and Nash as backing. They’re old boys up on stage, grey haired and soulful, and this makes it David Lowe’s song. When they sing ‘Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter/ Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here/ Here comes the sun/ Here comes the sun, and I say/ It’s all right’ I think of Erzsi and her father in their Devon cottage, all of the good intentions and the sadness of things not said. Tears every time!


Posted by Richard Roper, Editorial

@richardroper @EmyliaHall @ReaperSteven @MorganMcAuthor 

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Writer on a Train

As a full time writer working from the home I share with three men, I can find plenty to distract me from my daily 2000 words. Before you get excited about this in a 50 Shades sort of way, the three men I live with are one husband and two sons (the daughter is largely away at Uni), and the distractions are of the domestic kind – exciting things like washing crispy sheets, scraping crud off floors and searching for all the forks which have mysteriously disappeared.

So, quite a lot of the time, I go elsewhere to write. I love coffee bars, so long as they’re not too noisy or crowded. Hotel lobbies are good, too. I even rented a small cottage for a week so that I could really just crack on alone. But the place I like writing best of all, if the conditions are right, is on a train.

I often sneak in a bit of work on my usual once or twice a week Brighton to London Victoria journey. But it can often be a bit crowded, with people reading over my shoulder, which is most off-putting.

However, I once had to do a day trip from the Edinburgh Festival to London and back again, and East Coast had a deal on first class tickets. ‘Why not?’ I thought. I had a deadline on some editing, so I thought I’d treat myself. Besides, first class includes all the food and drink you can put inside yourself, so I figured if I ate and drank all the way down and up, I had a bargain on my hands.

I did the best work of my life on that train (I also put on about seven pounds, but that’s another story).  The spacious seats! The power sockets! The free wi-fi! The inspiring view!

I happened to mention this to my publicist, Sam Eades, and, as is so often her way, she Had An Idea.

‘Why not be writer in residence on a train?’ she said.

Julia Crouch, proud Writer in Residence

I liked that Idea.

The next thing I knew I was sipping green tea (complimentary, of course) in the psychedelically carpeted first class lounge at the fabulous new Kings Cross Station, waiting to board the late afternoon direct train to Harrogate, guest of East Coast Rail and Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (or ‘Harrogate’ as it’s known in crime writing circles). I had my special, crime-writer’s red scarf on, and the brief to write a short story on my journey.

The trip didn’t disappoint. It was as comfortable and spacious as the Edinburgh jaunt and on my journey up and down (broken by an overnight stay in Harrogate and bolstered by a box of Betty’s baked treats from the Festival ladies), I managed to complete five thousand words of a short story. It’s called ‘Strangeness on a Train’, and it’s shortly to be published as an e-story and a real world sampler which will be available at ‘Harrogate’. And all the while I was fed, wined and watered by the charmingly attentive stewards.

I didn’t just write though. A train is an ideal environment for the essential nosey part of a writer’s work as well. I struck up a conversation with the man opposite me who COMMUTES EVERY DAY between London and Harrogate because he hates the South. The man across the aisle filled sheet after sheet with mind maps of extraordinary beauty and from the window I saw an abandoned basket sitting in the middle of a vast field, a lone teenage boy crying on a bike in a concrete underpass and a house that I think must be the setting for my next novel. 

To cap it all, on the way back, lovely Paul, East Coast Rail PR, jumped on the train at Leeds with a photographer and I was papped until Wakefield. As a bit of a showoff and ex-thesp I secretly love all that. Now I know how Angelina Jolie must feel.

My one complaint is that this First Class travel has completely spoiled Standard for me. So please buy my books. I have a newly expensive lifestyle to maintain.

Posted by Julia Crouch, whose latest book,  Every Vow You Break, is out now

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A Recipe for Love

It may be apparent from this blog that Headliners are quite fond of baking cakes, but what might not be apparent is that we’re even better at eating the end result. Usain Bolt would be quaking in his trainers if he saw how quickly people move when an email goes round about leftover cake in the kitchen.

A few pages in to Sasha Wagstaff’s latest novel Recipe For Love (out this week) I was literally salivating over the description of a Sicilian Nut and Chocolate Cake. The novel tells the story of food journalist Cassia who travels to Sorrento to interview reclusive chef Rocco Disanti, although Rocco isn’t terribly keen on being interviewed and Cassia has her own wedding plans to attend to, cue lots of resulting drama and romance with an enticing cast of characters in London and Italy.

Sasha is obviously hugely passionate about both Italy and food, and when I’d read the following description of this cake on the tube home I promptly sent her an email to see if it was a real recipe:

‘Torta alla noce e cioccolato is a deliciously rich Sicilian cake with nuts and chocolate, it has a luscious, buttery pastry base that melts in the mouth and a fluffy, vanilla-drenched sponge layer that oozes flavour. But the real surprise is the unctuous, wickedly indulgent chocolate sauce layer sandwiched cheekily between the cake and the pie shell…the rich sauce simply oozes decadence and its scrummy, bitter-sweet taste combination is utterly, utterly sinful. Trust me, readers; this is a sensual experience not to be missed.’

Anyway, I was super-pleased to discover from Sasha that it is a real recipe, one that she has adapted over the years to make her own. I’m going to post it here because I’m a rubbish baker, and I’m really hoping that someone will make this and send me a sample. If you keep an eye on Headline’s women’s fiction Facebook site In My Handbag I’ve asked for suggestions of other people’s ‘recipes for love’ that might also fit the bill (although they will have to do very well to match this).

Sicilian Nut and Chocolate Cake Recipe (Torta Siciliana alla Noce e Cioccolato)

The Pastry:
• 350 g/12 oz plain flour
• 100 g/4 oz unsalted butter
• 3 tbsp cold water
• 1 tsp salt

The Chocolate sauce:
• 50 g/2 oz dark chocolate
• 100 g/4 oz caster sugar
• 50 g/2 oz unsalted butter
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• 120 ml water

The Cake:
• 275 g/10 oz self-raising flour (sieved)
• 1 tsp baking powder
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 120 ml/4 fl oz milk
• 1 egg
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• 150 g/5 oz unsalted butter
• 150 g/5 oz caster sugar
• 100 g/4 oz chopped nuts of your choice (almonds work well)


Make the pastry by placing the flour and salt in a bowl. Using your fingertips, rub the butter in until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to form a firm dough.
1. Gently knead into a ball. Wrap the dough in greaseproof paper and chill for at least 15-20 minutes.
2. In the meantime, make the sauce. Place a saucepan on a gentle heat and add the chocolate and water. Stir until the chocolate has melted.
3. Add the sugar, stirring constantly, and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat immediately, add the butter and vanilla and stir until well blended. Set aside to cool.
4. Roll the pastry on a lightly floured board to fit a 23 cm/9 in pie dish. Line the dish with the pastry, letting it hang 2.5 cm/1 in over the rim.
5. Turn the edge of the pastry under to make a high, fluted rim. Make the cake by placing the butter in a mixing bowl with the sugar and beat together until light and fluffy.
6. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, milk, egg and vanilla essence and beat thoroughly. Transfer to the pastry-lined pie dish.
7. Pour over the chocolate sauce and sprinkle with the chopped nuts. Bake in a preheated oven at 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 for 50-55 minutes.
8. When the cake is cooked the sauce will form a crisp layer between the cake and pie shell.

Posted by Helena Towers, Publicity

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The Comeback of Erotica

The ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon is currently taking the world by storm. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard of EL James’ erotica trilogy, featuring the enigmatic Christian Grey and his unconventional, not-exactly-vanilla relationship with heroine Anastasia Steele. The three books in the series – Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, are at the top of the charts, ahead of The Hunger Games trilogy, and at the time of writing have sold over 121,000  copies, with that number rising fast. Suddenly, everyone knows what BDSM stands for, and people in the office are making casual jokes about safewords and ‘hard limits’. It seems that spanking really has become the new mainstream.

Intriguingly, the popularity of the Grey series has sparked a new, almost universal, interest in erotica; particularly in the world of publishing. Whilst erotica has historically dipped in and out of fashion (I think that as long as there’s sex and publishing, it’ll always exist in some form or another), it hasn’t been top of commissioners’ lists over the last few years. Popular imprint Black Lace and its more ‘hardcore’ sister imprint Nexus ran successfully for years, before shutting in down in 2009, much to the horror of erotica writers and enthusiasts everywhere. Accent Press has successfully maintained its Xcite imprint, and has capitalized on the fact that erotica lends itself well to ereaders – when you’re reading on the tube, a black-leather-clad, whip-brandishing dominatrix on the jacket doesn’t lend quite the same anonymity as an ereader. However, in the wake of Fifty Shades, publisher Ebury has announced that Black Lace will be up and running again shortly, HarperCollins are launching a new digital erotica imprint, and the MD of Accent Press has said that they’ve noticed a sharp upturn in sales. This sudden zeitgeist for the erotic has taken everyone by surprise.

I have always been a fan of erotica. Before you think of me as a trench-coat-wearing weirdo, hear out the reasons why. The majority of erotica writers are female – in a world where porn films are mainstream and easily available, and scantily-clad women jump out at us from posters, music videos and adverts in a garish parody of sexiness, it’s important that women (and men) have an outlet for exploring sexual scenarios in ways which can be fun, silly, romantic, kinky or fantastical, but where the author has control and the freedom to create a type of sex which isn’t circumscribed and limited by the narrow vision of sexuality we are exposed to daily by our media.  (NB: I am not referring to any erotica which is degrading to women and which involves any unsavoury elements; this sort of writing shouldn’t even be termed as ‘erotica’.) I primarily champion it because, although a genre in itself, it spans other genres too. Whilst it’s a challenge to make the sex scenes themselves diverse and satisfying (and I think Fifty Shades should be praised for the fact it each sex scene has something different about it), the fact that the action can take place anytime, anywhere, with anyone, means that there’s scope for a wider range of settings, periods, and characters than in any other genre. Erotica lends itself well to historical settings, as well as dark, gothic and esoteric fantasy (think seductive vampires and gothic 15th-century mansions filled with shivering young maidens waiting to be ravished, etc) – but it doesn’t stop there. A British spy thriller? Why not add some hanky-panky on a high-speed car chase? If we can ‘mash up’ zombies with Jane Austen, then why not add in some sex scenes, too? (That last one’s a joke… but hey, it could work.)

So, why has the Grey series, in particular, been so popular? I think it’s because it’s not just straight erotica – more than anything, it’s a love story. A slew of sex scenes aren’t enough to capture the reader’s interest – what James has done is set up an exciting, titillating yet believable dynamic between two sparky and engaging characters who are both flawed, yet eminently likeable. Christian’s BDSM predilections certainly give things a kinkier twist, but I think it’s the emotional link between Ana and Christian which pulls everything together and sucks the reader in. More erotica should be written like this – with such a spark and connection between the characters that the build-up of sexual tension is more sexy than the physical action itself. After all, your imagination is your most potent sexual tool, isn’t it? And James captures the imagination.

A quick note on feminism: I think of myself as a proud feminist, reading and writing in a landscape post-books by legends such as Caitlin Moran and Natasha Walter (amongst others). Whilst some feminists may speak out against porn, I don’t think there’s anything demeaning to feminism about erotica; rather, I think the two go hand-in-hand, partly for the reasons mentioned above, and partly because, historically, feminists have not been seen as sexy – and what better way for women to overturn that idea and reclaim their sexiness than by writing exciting, shocking stories which celebrate women’s (and men’s) sexuality, and which are genuinely titillating (rather than the vacant and, frankly, depressing sex acted out in porn films).

Lastly – and excitingly – Headline has recently acquired the ‘Valentina’ series, by Anonymous. This trilogy of quality erotic novels is inspired by the iconic erotic graphic novel series by the Italian artist Crepax, which made a huge and controversial splash in the 1970s. Valentina is a memorable and highly sexual figure, and I look forward to the series flying the erotica flag for Headline.

And so, to the resurgence in the popularity of erotica, I say: long may it continue!

Posted by Emily Kitchin, Editorial

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