Author Focus

Building Characters—one funeral at a time @barbtaub #wwwblogs

A fabulous guest post from writer Barb Taub today – enjoy!

I don’t know. What do you think about during funerals?

I suppose you could think about your own life, and whether this many people would ever gather in one place just to say such nice things about you. But I’m a writer, so for me funerals are ALL about the character. What went into making that person who they ended up becoming? What kind of main character did their story have?

The last two funerals I attended were for the first two people I met after moving into the tiny village in the north of England. They had already been friends for decades (the phrase “partners in crime” came up often) when I met Margaret and Marion my first morning in the Castle. I’d arrived from the States the night before, and only had time to learn one thing about castle life—the meaning of stone cold—before collapsing in a jetlag coma.

durham-brancepeth-castle

Our home-sweet-castle home in the north of England. (We were in the rear tower)

I’ve always thought that our friendship was based on the purest of human emotions: pity. First I met Margaret, who must have taken one look at me, gaping up at thousand-year-old walls, and still wearing what I’d slept in—which was, basically, everything I could pull from my suitcase, as explained here— and felt sorry for me. She introduced herself as my landlady, the owner of the castle, and informed me that it was Wednesday—which, to be honest, I couldn’t have sworn to. With Wednesdayness established between us, she took me to my first Village Coffee.

There Margaret introduced me to a lady with an accent so posh it could probably etch glass and a surprisingly wicked look in her eye. American wannabe-writer Barb, meet doctor/intellectual/PhD/90+ year old character Marion. And my life in the tiny, perfect village in the North of England officially began.

1545114_10152518184399692_350813276_nI couldn’t begin to list all the experiences the two of them introduced me to over the next several years. First, there was the Village itself. With no actual commercial entities—not even a pub!—entertainment was homemade and varied. But no matter the event, there were two things you could count on—there would be raffle tickets to buy (lots), and there would be alcohol to consume (more than lots). There were gala reenactments of the Queen’s Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, Progressive Suppers (which involved the entire village getting progressively sloshed), garden club “walks” (see progressive supper results), dance/casino/quiz/archives/garden show/you-name-it nights, and of course, the Christmas Show.

Castle gatesBut that was only the beginning. As owner of a medieval castle, Margaret belonged to something that probably had an impressive title, but which I called Castle Club. In England, you often drive past tall stone walls and lines of trees with the occasional crest-topped gates. Well, she took me inside some of those gates, up the long drives, and into the castles and stately homes you couldn’t even see from the road.

[Digression: In my family, what’s going into my will is more of a threat. (As in, “Okay, kids: last one to call me on Mother’s Day goes in my will for that Elvis on velvet painting from Great-Aunt Mo.) So it was an amazing window on a new world for an American from the suburbs to hear people debate the best way to install a roof that will last for centuries because you don’t really own the place; you’re only borrowing it from your great-great-grandchildren.]

photo (1)

Ceilidh in her Castle

Then there was their generosity. Both Marion and Margaret raised charity to an art form, and invited me along. In the name of their favorite causes, I got to help with this proper victorian tea party, a ceilidh dinner dance, castle tours, and so much more.

And they showed me the England they loved, which most Americans never see. When I told Margaret that I’d never been to the Cotswolds, she joined me as my guide in a week-long driving tour which culminated (I’m so not making this up!) in joining Prince Charles at his home for tea.

Although Marion’s sight was going and her memory wasn’t what it used to be, she also happily accompanied me on jaunts all over the county. We even took a memorable road trip to the Royal Heritage Society gardens at Harlow Carr, where she took an unholy glee in informing the ticket collectors that she had a life-membership (fact) which entitled her to take guests in at no charge, including afternoon tea (not even close to fact). They meekly ushered us in. And no outing was complete without stopping for lunch where Dr. Marion would ignore all of her health restrictions to inform me that I wanted to have a drink and a sweet, to which she would of course join me.

Admiral Roebuck: With all due respect, M, I think you don't have the balls for this job. M: Perhaps. But the advantage is, I don't have to think with them ...

Admiral Roebuck: With all due respect, M, I think you don’t have the balls for this job. M (Densch): Perhaps. But the advantage is, I don’t have to think with them … [Image Credit: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) ]

Decades of friendship notwithstanding, their disagreements were the stuff of Village legend, as Rock debated Hard Place in the most polite of Oxbridge accents. Of course, their eccentricities were legion, as the Villagers dodging bicycle or electric-scooter mounted octogenarians could attest. They gardened with passionate intensity, took care of those in need both across the street and across the globe, and taught misplaced Americans to speak a version of British that hasn’t really been used for half a century. (They would “spend a penny” when they went to the loo, price things in crowns, and institute a cone of silence while they listened to The Cricket on the radio.) They were the kind of British women who show up in movies and books, indomitable and secure in themselves—characters like Hepburn’s Rosie in The African Queen and Judi Dench’s M in the Bond films.

Captain: "Who are you?" Rosie: "Miss Rose Sayre." Captain: "English?" Rosie: "Of course." [Image Credit: The African Queen, John Huston's 1951 film starring Hepburn and Bogart] https://youtu.be/gc9QYyzw9VA?t=1h38m14s

Captain: “Who are you?”
Rosie: “Miss Rose Sayre.”
Captain: “English?”
Rosie: “Of course.”
[Image Credit: The African Queen, 1951]

 

At each of their funerals, I joined crowds who gathered to remember and share stories about these two remarkable characters. They told of amazing generosity and hilarious eccentricity. Some shared Margaret’s triumph over severe physical limitations that were supposed to end her life as a child, only to have her stubbornly confound every imposed limit. Some talked about her charming, eccentrically-English husband, who I never met because he died just as they bought the castle, leaving his relatively young widow to raise their large family and run their company.

Celebrating Marion's 93rd birthday with a champagne tea and proper cake.

The two old friends celebrating Marion’s 93rd birthday with a champagne tea and proper cake.

I heard about Marion, daughter of a Nobel Prize scientist who had “Sir” before his name. She went to medical school as a young woman, and then served as the only doctor for over 160,000 people in what was then Tanganyika. Along with her delight in forbidden alcohol and sweets, Marion particularly loved her birthday. As we celebrated the day she turned 93, I asked Marion to tell me about her favorite birthday ever. “Considering the alternative,” she told me, “every birthday I make it to is the best one ever.” So of course, I asked for her secret to a long happy ever after. She answered right away. “Have a lot of friends who remember you even when you can’t remember their names.” A few minutes later she added, “Don’t say no to sweets.” And finally, “Don’t look back.”

For me, Margaret and Marion will always be the ones who introduced an American stranger to England—village, castle, estates, country, and even future king. As a writer, I got to view characters and settings I could never have imagined. As a friend, I’ll miss them every day.


Note from Barb:

For a look at characters I’ve built, check out my newest book. Now available for presale on Amazon, ROUND TRIP FARE will be released on 7 April, 2016.

Round_Trip_Fare-Barb_Taub-1563x2500ROUND TRIP FARE by Barb Taub

Is it wrong that shooting people is just so much easier than making decisions? Carey Parker’s to-do list is already long enough: find her brother and sister, rescue her roommate, save Null City, and castrate her ex-boyfriend. Preferably with a dull-edged garden tool. A rusty one.

Round Trip Fare RWA Contest Finalist 2015

Genre:

Urban Fantasy (with romance, humor, a sentient train, and a great dog)

Pre-order here: Amazon 

 

Barb pix 300 dpiBarb Taub:

In halcyon days BC (before children), Barb wrote a humor column for several Midwest newspapers. With the arrival of Child #4, she veered toward the dark side and an HR career. Following a daring daytime escape to England, she’s lived in a medieval castle and a hobbit house with her prince-of-a-guy and the World’s Most Spoiled AussieDog. Now all her days are Saturdays, and she spends them traveling around the world, plus consulting with her daughter on Marvel heroes, Null City, and translating from British to American.

Blog | Facebook | Twitter: @barbtaub

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‘Round Trip Fare’ by Barb Taub – preorder now available @barbtaub

Round Trip Fare, the newest book in Barb Taub’s Null City series, is now available for preorder from Amazon.

**Although a sequel to Book 1 (One Way Fare), this is the stand alone story of twins Carey and Connor Parker.


 

Round Trip Fare
by Barb Taub

Round_Trip_Fare-Barb_Taub-1563x2500

Available now for pre-order from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Is it wrong that shooting people is just so much easier than making decisions? Carey wonders— and not for the first time. But the Agency claims this will be an easy one. A quick pickup of a missing teen and she won’t even have to shoot anybody. Probably.

Carey knows superpowers suck, her own included. From childhood she’s only had two options. She can take the Metro train to Null City and a normal life. After one day there, imps become baristas, and hellhounds become poodles. Demons settle down, join the PTA, and worry about their taxes. Or she can master the powers of her warrior gift and fight a war she can’t win, in a world where she never learned how to lose.

And then there is… him. For the past two months, a dark stranger has persistently edged his way onto the mental game board behind her eyelids. Well, whatever trouble he’s selling, Carey Parker is not buying. Her to-do list is already long enough: find her brother and sister, rescue her roommate, save Null City, and castrate her ex-boyfriend. Preferably with a dull-edged garden tool. A rusty one.

She just has a few details to work out first. Her parents have been killed, her brother and sister targeted, and the newest leader of the angels trying to destroy Null City might be the one person she loves most in the world. And her sexy new partner’s gift lets him predict deaths. Hers.


 

  • TITLE: Round Trip Fare
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy (okay and there is humor, romance, a sentient train, a great dog, and bunch of other stuff—but Amazon only gives you a couple of words to pick genre, so…)
  • Series: Null City [NOTE: prequel One Way Fare is now available FREE from Barnes & Noble and Kobo, and the kindle version directly from Barb) but this book works as standalone.
  • Release date: 7 April, 2016

Contact & Buy Links

Blog | Facebook | Twitter: @barbtaub | Goodreads | Amazon US | Amazon UK


 

Barb pix 300 dpiBarb Taub:

In halcyon days BC (before children), Barb wrote a humor column for several Midwest newspapers. With the arrival of Child #4, she veered toward the dark side and an HR career. Following a daring daytime escape to England, she’s lived in a medieval castle and a hobbit house with her prince-of-a-guy and the World’s Most Spoiled AussieDog. Now all her days are Saturdays, and she spends them traveling around the world, plus consulting with her daughter on Marvel heroes, Null City, and translating from British to American.


 

Excerpt: ROUND TRIP FARE

Round Trip Fare RWA Contest Finalist 2015Was it wrong that shooting people was so much easier than finishing up the humanities requirements for her criminal justice degree? Carey Parker sipped her coffee and—not for the first time—wondered about herself. But the Agency said this would be an easy one. A quick pickup and she wouldn’t even have to shoot anybody. Probably.

There were two distinct advantages to her corner table at the rear of the self-consciously artistic coffee shop on the edge of Seattle’s eclectic Fremont district. Nobody could see her screen, and—infinitely more important—she had sole possession of the outlet currently charging both iPad and phone. She checked her iPad’s video screen to make sure the blonde teen she was tracking still had no idea she was being studied. Well, okay—studied along with the research materials for Carey’s overdue Humanities 201 essay. “Discuss the relationship of capitalism and patriarchal post constructivist theory. Provide data and cite literature supporting your thesis.” She squinted at the assignment, minimized to parallel the video window, and cringed.

Enlarging the video, Carey automatically evaluated her target. The teenager was a few inches under Carey’s own five-five. But where Carey’s cargo pants and hoodie hid a leanly muscled frame and a surprising number of weapons, the other girl’s designer Goth outfit made the most of her soft curves. Plus that pink streak in the younger girl’s hair was a little too shiny, her dark eyeliner a bit too creamy, while her wannabe goth leather jacket, fitted black T-shirt, and long dark skirt screamed Nordstrom personal shopper and Daddy’s credit card.

A lifetime of training—three years at the Academy, four more in the field—and they send me after Goth-Barbie. Carey sighed. Is it even worth it? But a flash memory—her guardian Harry’s blood-drenched golden hair, the almost-forgotten faces of her murdered parents, her missing brother and sister—stopped her. If she had a prayer of finding Gaby and Connor, she couldn’t afford to give up the all-important info access the Agency jobs provided. And then there was…him. For the past two months, the dark stranger had persistently edged his way onto the mental game board behind her eyelids where her harmonia gift visualized connections only she could view. Whatever trouble Mr. Six-Feet-Plus of arrogance is selling, I’m sure not buying.

“Excuse me. Do you need both outlets?”

Carey looked up to see the blonde standing in front of her, expectantly holding up her power cord. “Yes.” She returned her focus to the iPad screen, ignoring the muttered “bitch” as the girl went over to try her smile on the men two tables over. Her reversed video window showed the younger girl breathlessly thanking the man who leaped to free up an outlet for her. As she leaned over their table, the men’s eyes lit with appreciation for the way she maximized scoop-neck T-shirt, youth, and the best technology the foundations industry had to offer. Guess there’s all kinds of ways to say thank you.

Shrugging, Carey returned to her own essay assignment. Her business partner, Marley, was pushing her to finish the degree that would let them bill the Agency at a higher rate. But at twenty-four Carey felt a generation older than her fellow students. With her erratic hours, she had to take classes offering online options whenever possible, so she was currently sentenced to Humanities 201: Postmodernist Applications for Economic Themes in Literature.

“What took you so long? I’ve been waiting here for ages.”

At the sex-kitten whine, Carey’s eyes flicked back to the little video window to see the other girl pouting up at a new arrival. But her complaints didn’t stop her from giving the young man—a boy, really, although Marley’s data sheet said he was nineteen—a thorough tonsil cleaning. Pulling away, he threw himself into a dramatic slouch across the next chair, giving Carey her first good look at him. He was thin, but more like an adolescent whose slender arms and legs had yet to develop a man’s solid outlines. His pale fallen-angel face sulked behind long hair too carefully slashed and tossed over one eye to be accidental. He looked, Carey thought, beautiful and brooding and more than a little stupid. Score!

Pretending to check her phone, Carey took a quick picture of the boy and texted it along with the address of the coffee shop. It had only been a few days since he’d left home and stopped showing up at his classes or part-time job. Too little time for the police to be concerned, but long enough for his frantic parents to agree to her search fee. Setting the phone aside, she adjusted her video window to give him a critical once-over. But he didn’t seem any more pale or unhealthy than would be explained by devotion to the laptop he was even now pulling out and opening.

“Get me a coffee?” He didn’t look up from his laptop as he spoke. The girl pouted again but bounced off. Returning with a cup for each of them, she leaned forward to lay a gentle hand on his arm. “Is your poem cycle done yet?” The boy shook his head impatiently, fingers tapping at his laptop’s keyboard. She smiled. “Don’t worry. Now that I’m here, it will go so much better.” He blinked, and shivered. She breathed in and smiled again. His typing increased, his face intent on the screen.

Carey flipped the cover down on her iPad, rewound its power cable as well as the one for her phone, and stored them in their specially padded—okay, armored—case. The Apple people had been incredibly nice about that last bullet incident, but she could just hear Marley explaining, again, how their little company couldn’t afford to keep buying her new iPads. Setting the case into the backpack hanging behind her corner chair, Carey leaned both elbows on the table, peering over the brim of her raised coffee cup. Excellent coffee, she decided. Wonder if they roast it themselves?

Finally the two men, the only other customers in the secluded rear room, stood up and left. She took a final look around at the coffee shop’s rear seating area—one door, no windows or other access—and left to talk to the barista in the front room of the coffee shop. Twenty dollars later, Carey taped a handwritten sign—“Rear room reserved for private meeting”—to the outside of the door. Stepping back inside the room, empty now except for the younger couple, she closed the door behind her and stopped in front of the boy.

“Your mother is worried about you, Will.” His automatic sneer came a fraction too late to cover his stunned expression. Before he could speak, she turned to the girl. “It’s time to go, Leigh Ann.”

“The name is Leannán.”

Carey laughed. “Well, Leannán Sí…” She pronounced each Gaelic syllable with exaggerated care, L’ann-AN Shee. “Since you refuse to honor the Accords Agreement, the Council feels it’s time for you to go to Null City. Let’s go. I have a class this afternoon, and I don’t want to be late again.”

The boy started to stand, trying to look tough, but only managing to achieve the ferocity of a puppy protecting his favorite chew toy. “We don’t have to go anywhere with you. Get your stuff, Leigh Ann. We’re outta here.”

“Actually.” Carey’s voice was quiet. “You’re half right.” Her hand shot out and pressed his stomach. “You don’t need to go with me.” His breath whooshed out, and all three looked down at the tiny needle as she pulled her hand back. A moment later, his legs buckled, and Carey guided his falling body back down to his chair. He slumped there, head hanging awkwardly.

Leigh Ann stared from Will to Carey, eyes round. “Is he…?”

“He’s fine.” Carey turned to the girl and pointed to her corner table. “Sit. And don’t even think about talking.”

Carey checked the boy’s pulse and nodded to herself in relief. As a young witch, her friend Claire’s sleep spells wore off pretty quickly because she had to boil down the spelled water to make it take effect so fast. He’d probably just wake up with a hell of a headache. She arranged his head on his arms as if he was taking a quick nap in front of his laptop. In an afterthought, she picked up his fedora from the floor and pulled it onto his head, hiding his face.

Returning to the scowling girl at her table, she took a small book of forms from her backpack and started filling out the top page.

“You can’t just—” Leigh Ann sputtered.

Without looking up Carey showed her the hand. “What did I tell you not to do?” The girl fidgeted for another minute as Carey frowned at the form in front of her. Finally she looked up. “How old are you again?”

“Nineteen. And I don’t…”

Carey shook a warning finger without looking up. “I hate these Accords forms. You have to make sure you fill in every last blank or those badgers in accounting will hold up your check.” She made a final note, put the notebook away, and pulled out her phone to check the time. “They should be here by now. Must be that damn bridge traffic.”

“Who?”

Carey jerked her head toward the next table. “Sleeping Beauty’s parents. I’ve found it best to collect my fee on the spot. People’s memories tend to…fade…otherwise.”

“Wait.” Leigh Ann sounded indignant. “You were hired to find Will?”

“Nah, he was just a bonus. One of his friends told the Agency that he’d disappeared with a Leannán Sí. I used him to find you because I have an authorized ARC warrant for you.”

“ARC?”

“Accords Recovery and Capture.” When the girl still looked confused, Carey sighed. “Amateurs. I’m an Accords Warden licensed for paranormal recoveries, and I’m serving an ARC warrant in your name. That reminds me.” She rooted through the pocket of her backpack for the laminated card and set her phone camera to video. Centering the camera view screen on Leigh Ann’s face, she pushed record, and began to read the card. “By the authority of Accords Agency warrant number 110309A57, I charge you, Leigh Ann—” Pausing, she looked over to the form she’d filled out before returning to the card. “—Leigh Ann Shay, a practicing Leannán Sí, to accompany me to the Council Headquarters. If you request a hearing, you are entitled to representation. Otherwise, you are sentenced to five years of Null City residency without an amnesty day. This recovery and your rights are specified in Amendment 3, sections 7-18 of the Accords Agreement of 1998. The current time is 15:57 on March 7, 2011. Carey Parker, Accords Adjunct Warden License 07823 class 3, submitting authorized Accords Recovery and Capture statement.” She turned off the camera and played back the recording. Satisfied, she uploaded it to Agency servers, put her phone and the card back into her backpack, and faced the girl.

Leigh Ann looked uncertain. “Null City?”

Carey looked at her curiously. “You don’t know about the City?”

“Yeah, and I know about the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny too. Come on. You really believe there’s a city you get to on a magic train, and after a day there you become a normal human?”

“Since my family founded it, yeah. I kinda do believe it.” She leaned back in her chair to consider the teenager in front of her. “You could have killed that boy, Leigh Ann. What could be worth his death?”

The girl widened soft blue eyes at her. “I’m a Leannán Sí. He’s a writer, and I would have given him an intense, brilliantly inspired life of creating masterpieces. So what if it would have been a short one? It’s got to be better to go as a blazing star than stay as a…” Her voice trailed off as a snore filtered from beneath the fedora.

“Did you give him a choice? Did you say to him, ‘Will, I’ll be your muse and give you lots of coffee-shop kissing although the actual sex won’t be that great, and there’s the whole die young thing… But you won’t mind because it will all be for your Art’?”

Leigh Ann frowned. “The sex wouldn’t have been that bad.”

Carey snorted. “And actually, that masterpiece he was producing?” She reached over to snag Will’s computer and pulled it around to face Leigh Ann. “First thing I did was put a keystroke tracker onto his laptop. And believe me, reading that drivel was almost as bad as my humanities essay. He copied most of it from last month’s Poetry!Slam online. Here’s what he was actually writing.” She selected Recent Documents on the laptop and opened the top file listed.

The younger girl’s eyes widened. “Fanfiction?” She peered at the screen and looked like she might be sick. “One Direction fanfiction?”

“Nothing wrong with fanfiction.” Carey raised an eyebrow. “We’ve all done it. But Will’s was…” She shuddered. “Really, really bad.” She looked curiously at the younger girl and waved at the snoring boy. “Why did you do it?”

Leigh Ann looked down at her clasped hands. “My parents were killed just before the war ended. When Haven and Gifts signed the Accords in 1995, I was sent to live with my father’s cousins. They had a little apple orchard up on the Olympic Peninsula, and there wasn’t much money. Everyone had to work pretty hard all the time, just to get food to eat and a few clothes. But I knew there was something different inside me. Something that would inspire beauty and genius and glorious creativity.”

Carey stared at her. “Well, that’s an entire pickup truck full of prime-quality manure.”

“Was it the farm?” Leigh Ann frowned. “The orphan bit?

Author Focus – Bev Spicer @BevSpice

bev christmas 2014

I’m very pleased to have novelist Bev Spicer on the blog today. I have read three of Bev’s books and enjoyed all of them very much. My reviews are here:

The Undertaker’s Son

Angels

My Grandfather’s Eyes

Bev’s new novel ‘What I Did Not Say’ is out now and you can read an excerpt on her blog.

full size Jpeg what I did not say kindle

You can also connect with Bev on Twitter.

Tell me a little about your writing history/background. What inspired you to write?

I’m not someone who can say I always wanted to write. I did enjoy project work at school and also wrote short stories to terrify my sisters (they liked end-of-the-world scenarios – the scarier the better!). But it was only when I moved to France in 2008 and couldn’t get a teaching post at La Rochelle University, that I decided to try writing. My first attempt was called ‘A Taste of Lemons’ and was the story of a girl trapped in two parallel universes. I believed it was brilliant but was sensible enough to listen to criticism (it hurt – the first book is a labour of love). Thank goodness I didn’t publish it. I might go back to it one of these days and give it a ruthless edit.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

I can never stick to a plan. Rather, I have an idea centred around one or more characters. So the problem for me is balancing the freedom to invent and the discipline necessary to produce a plot that has integrity. Endings are the most interesting part of writing, for me. I love the subtle balance required to give the reader just enough to bring everything together.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Writing is like anything else in life: you learn how to do it by doing it! Advice rarely makes sense unless you have experience and can relate to what people are trying to tell you. And if you have experience you know that your writing can always be improved. When I started writing I had tunnel vision. I was unable to take criticism well. The thrill of creating something just took me over. I suppose I would say that it’s better to keep moving forward and at the same time be prepared to go back and edit work as you improve as a writer. And listen to criticism – it really does help to have other writers give you feedback on your writing. The negative stuff is usually more helpful than the praise, even if it is poorly delivered or downright brutal there will be truth in it. I put a YA novel on a writers’ website in order to get feedback before I published. A couple of people said nice things about it and offered constructive criticism. One person slammed it in an angry tirade of abuse. He hated it and told me exactly why. I must admit, I was shocked. My first reaction was to dismiss what he said, but I didn’t publish and still haven’t. The book is verbose at times; the fear in the first chapter is over-stated. It will be a better book because of the hefty dose of criticism it received on a public forum for authors. I must say though, that I try to give criticism as kindly as I can – you have to KNOW that you are trusted.

And of course it’s important to read, read, read.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just published my new novel ‘What I Did Not Say’.

Jessica Morley is on her way to meet with a man she hasn’t seen for fifteen years. In her bag there is a package she must deliver. As she travels south, she remembers Jack Banford, a boy who captured her imagination as a child and made her believe in a future that could never happen. Now it is time for her to set the record straight and finally put the past behind her. ‘What I Did Not Say’ is a story of loyalty, cruelty, and love at all costs.

Who is your favourite author and what is it that you love about their work?

I must say that I enjoy a lot of different authors. If I had to choose one, it would be Margaret Atwood. When I read ‘Cat’s Eye’ I was thrilled and terrified. She captures the venomous nature of childhood friendships and is a master of conveying mood.

Who would you choose to have over for dinner and why?

I’m going off piste on this one… Someone who can cook, obviously. Probably Jamie Oliver because he’s fun, friendly and doesn’t make a fuss. He’s made a huge difference to society’s attitudes to food and nutrition too.

Desert Island Books – what five books would you choose to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

‘The Nation’s Favourite Poems’ (BBC) – I have two copies to dip in to, ‘Oryx and Crake’ (Margaret Atwood) – I have to move on from ‘Cat’s Eye’, ‘Ghost Story’ (Peter Straub) – it’s terrifying, something by Shakespeare – probably ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ (I’d learn all parts and perform the whole thing on the beach), and I know this will sound pretentious but I learned Latin at school and I enjoy a good challenge so I’d take ‘The Iliad’ and work out a translation – after all, I’d have plenty of time and no one to tell me I was wrong.

Tell us something unusual about yourself.

I don’t know whether it’s unusual, but I love astronomy and astrophysics. Can’t get enough of ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’, ‘Does God Play Dice?’ or quantum theory in general. Oops! I’d need more than five books on my desert island…unless there were multiple universes.

Oh, and I spent most of my weekends as a teenager with my father on a Welsh mountain learning to fly gliders. Cold, wet, and wonderful.

Find a copy of Bev’s latest book here.

#RBRT Author Interview and Review: Hilary Custance Green

hilary            rosie3

I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing ‘Border Line’ for Rosie Amber’s book review team. It’s an unusual and thought provoking book and I’m delighted to welcome Hilary to the blog today to find out a little more about her and her writing.

Tell me a little about your writing history/background. What inspired you to write?

As a child, I saw myself as a poet (like my grandmother), but reading the best poets, made me disenchanted with my efforts. I became a sculptor and many years later a research scientist. Then there was a moment in my forties, when my back was bad from my sculpture days, and I thought, what can I go on doing until I fall off the twig? Writing. Novels don’t have to be brilliantly written to give people pleasure. I’ll learn.

How did you come up with the title of your novel? 

Aaargh! Titles are serious angst territory. I had a working title of Across the Border, but when it came to submitting to agents, I changed the title many times. I tried surveys and no one agreed. I would have loved to title it Before I Sleep (from the Frost poem… but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep), but everyone else has used this title many times. Border Line is my husband’s suggestion and incorporates the Slovenian trek with the mental instability, but there are too many other books with the same title.

Who is your favourite/least favourite character in your novel?

I grew fond of them all in the end. Perhaps Imogen was most comfortable for me to inhabit. Ben was horribly slippery, so I let him become slippery on the page, if that makes sense.

What was the hardest part of writing for you? Were there any particular issues or hiccups when writing your novel?’

The hardest part was deciding to write in the first person, which I had not tried before. It seemed to be the only way to give the story immediacy without revealing the outcomes. I also had ethical issues over the subject matter. I did not want to write something that a vulnerable person would interpret as an encouragement to suicide, yet I believe passionately in choice over the issue of dying. When I have had feedback, I notice that people’s life experience has a direct effect on their reaction to the book.

What are you working on now? 

I have two projects. The one nearing completion is a non-fiction account of the experiences of Far Eastern POWs and their families back in Britain. I have hundreds of letters between my parents and between my mother and the wives, mothers and grandparents of the families left in silence when their men were captured. I also have my father’s memoirs of being a prisoner and building the Burma-Siam Railroad. My second project is fiction. It is about Jeannie, a successful middle-aged woman in the classical music business, with a confusing past and a tendency to land in trouble-spots and her biographer, a young man with spinal injuries.

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

Don’t stop.

Which writer would you choose as a mentor (alive or dead)? 

George Eliot. All the things I struggle with, she does so well.

Who is your favourite author and what is it that you love about their work?

Mary Renault, Jospehine Tey, Michael Frayn, Richards Powers. They all move me by writing about what it feels like to be human and they tell us of people bravely facing what the world throws at them.

Tell me something unusual about yourself.

I used to be a dab hand at welding. Since Christmas I have concluded that a onesie is ideal sleepwear.

You can find Hilary on her blog

on her website

on Twitter

and on Facebook

border line ebook

Border Line – extract

I am in my right mind.

It seems important to mention this because I sense my right mind slipping away – a sea-change over which I have little control. Before this goes too far, I need to record a transformation of a different kind; one as joyful as the distant sail to a castaway. Somewhere, no doubt, a butterfly flapped its wings to kick-start events. For me, the beginning is a freezing April night when the enchantment to come is way beyond the horizon.

Devon – Day nought

The smoothness of the mouse under my hand is comforting. When I turn it over, its crimson underside glows like a living organism – an illusion of heat. I look up at the screen again and there’s a pop-up message blinking at me. It says:

<Before you make any final decisions, please contact Daniel, I may be able to help you.>

My hand jerks away in case I respond by mistake. There’s an address, an email and a phone number. No purple flashing banners or suggestive graphics and the wording quite restrained; yet I feel exposed, watched from inside the screen. I hit the close button and breathe more easily.

The whole village is asleep. I’m sitting in Dad’s old wicker chair looking up Dignitas on the internet. If I have a choice, then dying in a dignified manner with someone at least within earshot would be better than vomiting alone in my bedroom. Having no visible illness or injury I don’t qualify for Dignitas, but I have to start somewhere. The founder has written an essay on why we should be able to choose when we die. Many people make failed attempts and end up injured or in mental homes. I worry about that.

The heating went off hours ago; my nightwear is poor cover and the weave of the chair is printing on my skin. I should go to bed.

I’m not as alone as I thought in wanting to opt out, though apparently seventy per cent of people who get a green light from the Dignitas clinic never actually take it up. Some who get as far as Switzerland change their minds at the last minute and come home.

I wish I owned slippers. I could fetch a pair of socks, but I daren’t stop now. There’s a Pied Piper drawing me on from website to website. I can’t help believing there is help or an answer somewhere out there.

<Before you make any final decisions, please contact Daniel, I may be able to help you.>

Again? I scrunch myself in the chair so I can hold my feet in my hands and rest my chin on my knees. This way the cold has fewer entry points as I watch the screen. The message blinks, but doesn’t move. Who is Daniel? Is he offering a quicker route? Is he hoping to cure me of my foolish intentions? Perhaps he’s religious. Most likely he wants to relieve me of my money and leave me washed up and still alive.

Of course he could be – no, he’s likely to be – something rather more sinister. I dream up a sadist with a taste for human flesh. I’ve given him my home address and here he is on my doorstep. I’m several minutes into this scenario before I stop myself. Feeling shaky and foolish, I’m a finger click away from the close button. Yet this Daniel is the only person in the world who knows that I want out, and he sounds… well his words are not unkind or unbelieving.

My Review

This book starts with a really intriguing and almost shocking opener – Grace is searching the internet for ways to kill herself. So we begin our journey with her and several other like-minded souls as they travel through Slovenia on one of the strangest ‘holidays’ I’ve ever encountered.

During her internet search, Grace, who at thirty-five certainly has a lot of years left to her, finds Daniel – a tour operator with a difference. Every year, Daniel takes a select few on a last trip, through the beautiful towns and countryside of Slovenia, until they reach the border – where they must decide whether to live or die.

Grace’s fellow travellers are an appealing and intriguing bunch, each extremely well-crafted and believable. At various points they give their reasons for wanting to die, some heart-breaking, some frustrating. I won’t give details here as these stories are a poignant part of the book that the reader needs to discover for themselves; suffice to say though that I wanted to shake Anita, hug Vicky and scream at Adam.

The subject matter is incredibly unusual and the book could be maudlin and depressing. However, the writer paints such a beautiful picture of Slovenia, with lovely descriptions that seem built on either experience or extremely thorough research, and most of her characters are so warm and real that rather than sadness, this book left me feeling uplifted. It was a really sympathetic look at why people despair of life, and how events and circumstances affect people in different ways.

My only criticism is that some of the stories weren’t developed quite enough to give solid reasons for some of the characters’ decisions to end it all – I’m thinking of Lyndsay in particular. I would also have liked Ben’s character and to have been developed further – I wasn’t quite sure what the brought to the story. I also wasn’t convinced that the epilogue was needed.

Don’t be put off by the subject matter – do give this thoughtful, though-provoking book a read. I thoroughly recommend it and will be reading more of the author’s work.

4 stars

Find a copy here (UK) and here (US)

#RBRT ‘Dark Water’ by Jan Ruth

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I loved Jan Ruth’s ‘Wild Water’, the first book in this series (you can read my review and interview with Jan here) and was really looking forward to re-joining Jack Redman and following more of his trials and tribulations. I had high hopes, and I wasn’t disappointed.

dark water

The story begins with Jack once again trying to please everybody, to do the right thing, and failing. Torn between being with Anna, whose independent nature prevents her from committing, and trying to do the right thing for his children, Jack unwillingly creates a situation that jeopardises his happiness and his future. And to make things worse, daughter Chelsey’s real father arrives on the scene. Unstable and disturbed, Simon Banks poses a real threat and this storyline gives a much darker thread to the story that prevents this (as does the skilful writing) from being chick lit or light romance. There are dark, threatening twists and turns that add another layer and that, in my opinion, make this novel far more accomplished and more interesting than ‘Wild Water’, as good as that is. That said, there is still plenty of humour and lots of lovely lighter moments that make this a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Once again, the characters are believable, empathetic and well-drawn and the settings and events bring a realism to the narrative that anchor the story in both time and place. This is a great read, a lovely way to escape on a miserable post-Christmas chilly evening and is definitely recommended.

gold star

Buy a copy here

Author Focus – Jackie McLean

I first connected with Jackie Mclean on a writers’ site when she was working her detective novel ‘Toxic’. I was impressed by her writing then and I’m thrilled that she has now been published by ThunderPoint Publishing. I’m also thrilled to welcome her to the blog for my first post of 2015.

ToxicFCPrint

On the morning of December 4th 1984, municipal workers in Bhopal, India, were clearing some 4,000 dead bodies and thousands of animal carcasses from the streets following the world’s worst industrial accident.

 The toxic cloud that caused the massive death toll formed when water poured into a tank of improperly stored methyl isocyanate (MIC).

 It doesn’t look dangerous. And you can’t smell it until it’s too late.

You can only hope it’s not sitting around anywhere near you . . .

In the Scottish university city of Dundee, life and all its complications are proceeding much the same as usual.

The recklessly brilliant DI Donna Davenport, struggling to hide a secret from police colleagues and get over the break-up with her partner, has been suspended from duty for a fiery and inappropriate outburst to the press.

DI Evanton, an old-fashioned, hard-living misogynistic copper has been newly demoted for thumping a suspect, and transferred to Dundee with a final warning ringing in his ears and a reputation that precedes him.

And in the peaceful, rolling Tayside farmland a deadly store of MIC, the toxin that devastated Bhopal, is being illegally stored by a criminal gang smuggling the valuable substance necessary for making cheap pesticides.

An anonymous tip-off starts a desperate search for the MIC that is complicated by the uneasy partnership between Davenport and Evanton and their growing mistrust of each others actions.

Compelling and authentic, Toxic is a tense and fast paced crime thriller.

 JackiePress

Tell me a little about your writing history/background. What inspired you to write?

Like most writers, I’ve always written – I need to. My partner Allison says she can always tell when I’ve been writing, as I have my buzz!

Lots of report-writing at work meant I lost the creative writing thing for a while, but it never really went away.  Now when I write fiction I can only do so by hand or on a typewriter – I wish I could write straight onto the screen, but I must associate it purely with non-fiction, which is really annoying, as it’s double the work.

Who is your favourite/least favourite character in ‘Toxic’?

Donna is definitely my favourite character.  She gets away with all the things I’d never have the nerve to do.  I’ve got a soft spot for Natesh, too, and in an early draft where I killed him off, I cried while I wrote.

What was the hardest part of writing ‘Toxic’? 

One of the hardest things was keeping on top of the story’s timeline.  I ended up with the floor of my study completely covered in index cards.  It’s surprisingly easy to forget where you are in a story and to make a plot boob, where something happens that would be impossible with the other events that have happened, or you imagine to have happened.  My head’s in the clouds a lot of the time, so keeping a steady steer on the timing of things was hard.

What are you working on now? 

I’m half way through ‘search.com’, which is the sequel to Toxic.  In my mind, it’s a trilogy (the third book, Reformed, is in sketchy outline). But I’m also part way through a PhD, and finding the time to write is tricky, but I’m starting to get a routine going with it.

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

It depends if you’re writing for pleasure or for money.  If it’s for pleasure, then just enjoy the wonder of writing whatever you want.  There’s nothing quite so therapeutic.  If you’re writing for money, I’d say study your market and pay close attention to what’s expected in your line of writing.  I’d originally written Toxic with no particular aim in mind – it was just a story I wanted to write.  Then when I thought about doing something with it, it came as a bit of a shock to me to learn about how rigidly-drawn the rules of fiction marketing are.  Until that point, I’d never thought about the concept of genre, but from then on I re-drafted Toxic to resemble more closely a crime novel.  I’m fairly business oriented, and am under no illusion that you’re likely to get anywhere by ignoring the rules.

What book are you reading at the moment? 

 Modelling and Quantitative Methods in Fisheries.  Really.  But I’ve just finished I Am Pilgrim, which was great.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that you love about their work? 

I’m constantly amazed at coming across new fantastic authors all the time.  But my favourite is Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe). Her books are sheer Southern comfort, and I always feel somewhere to belong in the settings she writes.  Her characters are wonderfully crafted, and you just can’t help being drawn into their lives.  Well, I can’t, anyway.  A few years back I had a really terrible cough, and was up all night for several nights in a row.  Allison went out in the early hours and bought me a copy of Fried Green Tomatoes.  I got so engrossed in it, my cough subsided and I conked off to sleep at the end of the book.  It’s a tonic.

The desert island question if you could only ever read/own five books, what would you choose? Why?

Only five?  This is an anxiety-inducing question, as I’m an avid reader of everything.  But ones I would absolutely have to have…

Watership Down, Richard Adams – this is my all-time favourite book in the whole world.  I read it at least once every year.  It’s just lovely.

The Red Tent, Anita Diamant – I’m fascinated by the historical period this is written in, and it’s so well done.

Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan – timeless and instructive.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, Fannie Flagg – obviously.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver – everyone should read this book.  It has important things to say about how our food is produced, and certainly made me change my shopping habits.

Tell us something unusual about yourself.

I once got arrested in Paris under newly-introduced terrorism laws.  Oh yes.  It was a joy.  I am always getting mistaken for dodgy characters and can have a hard time at airports.  I’m too scared to ask.  Perhaps it’s the beard…

My Review

I love a good detective novel but I haven’t read any for a while because I’ve found that the plots and characters have become too stereotypical. ‘Toxic’ however, while still a gripping, intriguing page turner of a story, breaks the mould with its background story of the Bhopal chemical disaster, its realistic characters and procedures and the fabulous lead, Donna Davenport.

This is a fast-paced story that doesn’t neglect character development – a difficult thing to pull off, but Jackie McLean does this skilfully. It’s an impressive debut and, if you like this genre or if you just want a gripping story to hold your attention, then this is an author and a novel that are definitely worth checking out.

gold star

Buy a copy here

Author focus – Elizabeth Hein

rosie3                           Elizabeth book cover

I reviewed Elizabeth’s book ‘How to Climb the Eiffel Tower’ for Rosie Amber’s blog.  The book follows the story of Lara as she undergoes treatment for cancer – I lost my mum to cancer so I was worried that I would find the book upsetting, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was surprised to feel so uplifted – this was a book that, while telling it like it is, wasn’t depressing or maudlin in any way. I’m delighted to have Elizabeth as a guest on the blog to find out more about her, her writing, and what inspired her to write.

Tell me a little about your writing history. 

I was an avid reader long before I ever put pen to paper. As a kid, I spent my afternoons reading in my room. My parents tell me that I have been making up elaborate stories since I was a little girl. When I saw a person in the grocery store buying five gallons of vinegar and a box of trash bags, I would tell my mom an elaborate story about a lady who was pickling her giant vegetables while they were still on the vine. Thank goodness, my parents had the patience to let me rattle on all the time.

It wasn’t until after I had been diagnosed with cancer in 2002 that I started to start writing my stories down. My experiences with cancer treatment taught me that life is too short to waste time doing anything that is not your passion. Once I decided to write, I jumped headlong into learning as much as possible about the craft of writing. The stories were always there, the techniques needed to be practiced.

How did you come up with the title of your book?

I had a terrible time coming up with a name for my latest book. I brainstormed dozens of bad names that were too esoteric or plain old boring. When I sent the manuscript to Light Messages Publishing, I made it clear to my editor that I needed help with the name. She sent me several perfectly good possibilities before we agreed on How To Climb The Eiffel Tower. Once I heard that title, I knew it was the right one. The two main characters talk about climbing the Eiffel Tower in the first scenes of the book and the idea of travelling to Paris comes up several times in the novel. Also, like healing from a traumatic experience, climbing the Eiffel Tower is difficult, but worth it.

Who is your favourite/least favourite character in your book?

Although I love Lara and Jane, the two main characters in How To Climb The Eiffel Tower, my favourite character is Nurse Rosaria. She is a kind woman who is firm with Lara when she needs firm reassurance and soft with her when Lara is afraid. Rosaria only appears in a few scenes in the book, however I wrote pages and pages of backstory on her. She lived a fascinating life before she ever meets Lara. Only a few paragraphs of that life made it into the book, but I feel it was important to do all the pre-writing work of knowing Rosaria so well.

What was the hardest part of writing the novel? 

I would have to say the hardest part of writing this book was the process of learning how to write a book. This book took me eight years to write because, not only did I have to develop the story and characters, I had to make all the usual mistakes a new writer makes. That took at least four years in and of itself. Also, it was difficult to separate my experiences as a cancer patient from Lara and Jane’s experiences. At one point, I had to put the manuscript aside and write another book. That book turned out to be Overlook, a fun book about a how a slightly unbalanced woman deals with her cheating husband. Starting fresh with different characters and different themes helped me regain my perspective on Lara and Jane. When I returned to How To Climb The Eiffel Tower, I could incorporate the humour and hope that I knew it needed.

What are you working on now? 

My writing life is a bit scattered right now. I’m hoping to finish up the sequel to my first book, Overlook, so it can be released next fall. I am also working on a mystery series about two friends who travel the world, a historical novel revolving the concept of beauty, and another women’s fiction novel set on Cape Cod. I am not sure which piece will get to publication first.

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

Don’t give up. Keep showing up at the keyboard every day and you will eventually get results. Writing is not a pursuit for the faint of heart. An author spends years tapping out draft after draft of a novel, will invariably receive a multitude of rejections, and is at the mercy of a changeable publishing industry. It helps to have a stubborn streak.

Also, don’t go it alone. Find some writer friends, either in real life or on the internet, and work together. The road to publication can be a long rough ride, so bring snacks and a friend.

Which writer would you choose as a mentor? 

Wow, this is a tough question. I admire many authors for so many different reasons. I guess if I had to choose just one, it would be Ruth Rendell. She has written in several different genres, yet still has a distinctive voice. She can plumb the deep dark places in her characters’ minds without making them caricatures of themselves, and she has continued to write excellent books over many decades.

What book are you reading at the moment? 

I am always reading several books at a time. Right now for my craft book, I am reading Now Write! Mysteries edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson. It is a series of essays from successful mystery and thriller writers on different aspects of writing. I am also reading The Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable, The Stories We Tell by Patti Callahan Henry, and If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that you love about their work? 

Right now, my favourite author is Mary Doria Russell. When I read her first book, The Sparrow, it changed the way I looked at speculative fiction. If you are not familiar with the book, it is the story of a group of Jesuits and civilians that travel to another planet and questions traditional concepts of right and wrong. Each of her books is different the last. She has written about the Middle East after WWI, Jews escaping through the mountains of Italy in WWII, and has lately been writing about the American West. I admire her writing style and her ability to write about different historical eras so well.

Tell me something unusual about yourself.

Before I decided to become an author, I ran a small drapery design business out of the storage room in my attic. I loved playing with fabric and solving my clients decorating problems. I specialized in making expensive looking drapes on a shoestring budget. Some of the knowledge I developed about colour theory and fabric shows up in my novels. Colour subtly effects how people think and feel. Colour is a theme that runs throughout How To Climb The Eiffel Tower.

Elizabeth author pic

Author Elizabeth Hein

Elizabeth Hein grew up in Massachusetts within an extended family of storytellers. In 2002, Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer. During her extensive treatment, she met dozens of other cancer patients and developed close relationships with several of them. These friendships were the inspiration for How To Climb The Eiffel Tower. She learned that a cancer diagnosis is a life changing experience, yet it does not necessarily change a life for the worse. Prior to the new book’s publication, Elizabeth was invited to attend the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) conference.

Elizabeth Hein writes women’s fiction with a bit of an edge. Her novels explore the role of friendship in the lives of adult women and themes of identity. Her first novel, Overlook, spotlighted a housewife dealing with a cheating husband and the pressures of keeping up appearances. Elizabeth has published several short stories and is currently writing a novella and beginning to write a historical family saga about how love and identity effect four generations of women. She and her husband now live in Durham, North Carolina.

Connect with Elizabeth:

Elizabethhein.com

scribbling in the storage room

Twitter

How to Climb the Eiffel Tower

Lara Blaine believes that she can hide from her past by clinging to a rigid routine of work and exercise. She endures her self-imposed isolation until a cancer diagnosis cracks her hard exterior. Lara’s journey through cancer treatment should be the worst year of her life. Instead, it is the year that she learns how to live. She befriends Jane, another cancer patient who teaches her how to be powerful even in the face of death. Accepting help from the people around her allows Lara to confront the past and discover that she is not alone in the world. With the support of her new friends, Lara gains the courage to love and embrace life. Like climbing the Eiffel Tower, the year Lara meets Jane is tough, painful, and totally worth it.

Excerpt:

Ellery Cancer Center protruded from the hospital’s facade like a glass tumor. The night before, a Kafkaesque voicemail told me to report to the reception lobby by 7:00 for my 9:00 appointment. I left the house at 6:00 sharp even though the hospital was twenty minutes away. An appointment with some strange specialist wasn’t going to make me deviate from my routine.

My footsteps echoing through the brightly tiled lobby accented the nervous murmuring of the people waiting in line as I strode past them to the reception desk. The receptionist didn’t even look up when I said, “Blaine. Lara Blaine. I have a 9:00 with Dr. Lander.” She robotically found my file in the tall stack to her left, handed me the itinerary clipped to the front, and moved my file to the short stack to her right. My itinerary said to report to the red waiting room by 8:00.

I stood to the side of the room and watched people until I understood that the lines of multicolored tiles in the lobby’s floor were not decorative. They were paths to the color- coded areas of the Cancer Center. I followed the line of red tiles from the reception desk to the red waiting room. A clot of people sat on crimson and burgundy couches clutching their itineraries. I sat just inside the doorway and watched as people disappeared one by one through the slick red doors at the far end of the room. No one came back. An hour later, it was my turn. On the other side of the red doors, an old man with hairy knuckles checked my name against his orders then jabbed a needle in my arm. We didn’t say a word to each other. I liked that.

The next stop on my itinerary was the green waiting room. A line of green tiles in the floor led me back to the lobby and up two flights of stairs to another room with worry worn carpeting and faded couches sagging under the weight of their occupants’ despair, but all in green. I’d roamed the Ellery Cancer Center for nearly an hour and had yet to speak to a soul. I slipped into the crowded room, commandeered the pea green love seat in the corner, and opened my dog- eared copy of Great Expectations. I held the tattered pages in front of my face, yet couldn’t read. I watched the elderly couple across from me over the top of the book.

I don’t belong here. I’m not like these people. I’m young.

I crossed one leg over the other and clenched my thighs together. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just a false positive. I’m fine.

The elderly man’s hand shook as he lifted a cup of tea to his wife’s lips. The limp paper label dangling over the edge of the foam cup taunted me. I should have been researching the effect of the recent earthquake in Northern China on the green tea crop for my boss’s presentation the following week, not sitting in that waiting room. This is such a waste of time. So what if I have weird periods? Doesn’t everyone?

I turned away from the old people and focused on the normal looking woman in a black suit slowly making her way down the corridor. I assumed she was a doctor or pharmaceutical salesperson until she stopped in the doorway to hack into a tissue. She saw me looking at her and lurched over. “May I sit with you?” I expected the woman’s voice to be as smooth as her grey silk blouse, but it sounded as scratchy as wool against bare skin. I moved my battered leather backpack to let her sit down.

“Jane Babcock-Roberts.”
“Lara Blaine,” I replied with a curt nod.
“I think you sprinted past me on the stairwell earlier,” Jane sighed. “I used to be able to run up stairs like that.”
“I’m good at stairs. I climb the Eiffel Tower every Tuesday.” Jane dabbed perspiration from her upper lip with a clean tissue and tucked it in her sleeve. “I climbed the Eiffel Tower once. What a view, huh?”

“I haven’t actually been to Paris,” I replied. “It’s a setting on the stair stepper at my gym.”

“That doesn’t sound nearly as fun.” Jane flipped her long silver-blonde hair over her shoulder. “And there wouldn’t be any croissants when you finished.”

My Review

Lara Is 29 and lives a solitary, friendless life, working, going to the gym and eating takeout every night. Then she is diagnosed with cervical cancer and her life is changed, but in surprisingly positive ways.

This book is harrowing at times, as Lara’s background story is revealed and the reasons for her fear of people become clear. But watching her finally make friends and finally live is really rewarding and a pleasure to read.

Her relationship with Jane is a stand out of the story and the kindness of Vanessa is heart-warming. But this book isn’t soppy or sentimental; neither is it preachy. It is simply a tale of a lost, lonely girl who learns to live when confronted by her mortality.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the recounting of Lara’s dreams, although I can see why they are included. This was my only issue with the book. Aside from this, this is definitely worth a read and I recommend it.

4 stars

Buy a copy:

Amazon UK

Amazon.com 

And watch the trailer

Null City – meet the Krampus (and help animals this Christmas!)

Don’t forget that you can still buy Barb Taub’s Null City books and help animals this Christmas. You can read my interview with Barb here. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Barb back to learn a little about the villain of ‘Don’t Touch’ – the Krampus. And a very seasonal villain he is too. Over to Barb:

Krampus and Saint Nicholas visit a Viennese home in 1896

Krampus and Saint Nicholas visit a Viennese home in 1896

Christmas in Austria is not for the faint hearted. While a familiar St. Nicholas does make the rounds, in many Germanic traditions he’s accompanied by a terrifying beast called the Krampus whose job is to punish – and even take away – naughty children. With his curling horns, long red tongue, and tail, the Krampus is enough to chill any heart.

As the villain of Don’t Touch, the Krampus is a monster who literally feasts on the fear and terror he inspires in children. The demon who threatens Stefan and Lette is a cornered beast, an anachronism whose ever-diminishing influence only makes him more desperately dangerous.

The other inspiration for this story is the image of Rapunzel. But in Don’t Touch, Lette isn’t the helpless girl awaiting rescue by her prince. Instead, I go back to the origins of the folk story in sources such as Giambattista Basile’s Tale of Tales  from 1616, where she is actually the hero who rescues herself and her children, and then saves her lover. Like her earliest predecessors, Lette is a tough, self-reliant young woman who tells her would-be prince, “If I need rescuing, I’ll do it myself.”

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Hope flares each morning in the tiny flash of a second before Lette touches that first thing. And destroys it. Her online journal spans a decade, beginning with the day a thirteen-year-old inherits an extreme form of the family “gift.” Every day whatever she touches converts into something new: bunnies, bubbles, bombs, and everything in between. Lette’s search for a cure leads her to Stefan, whose fairy-tale looks hide a monstrous legacy, and to Rag, an arrogant, crabby ex-angel with boundary issues. The three face an army led by St. Nicholas’ legendary dark shadow, the Krampus, who feeds on children’s fear. But it’s their own inner demons they must defeat first.

My final message in Don’t Touch is that we build our own towers. They can provide safety; they can even be gorgeous and appealing, but if they keep us from truly living our lives or cut us off from others, they are still our prisons. I think that’s one of the things I love the most about the holiday season. No matter how often we hear them, those messages of peace and goodwill just keep reminding us of our connections to each other. More sophisticated folk can turn up noses at the consumerism and the crowds, but I believe the reason we all come back for more every year is that basic gift of hope and belief.

It’s that belief that inspires my holiday appeal to you. In most of my stories, an animal companion plays a prominent role—from George, the grumpy cat in Don’t Touch to Bygul, the bitchy feline goddess of Payback is a Witch. My own life has been immeasurably enriched by my dog Peri who came from a shelter in eastern Washington State, and by the friends (feline, canine, and the occasional rodent) rescued by the dedicated members of many shelters.

In thanks, therefore, I will donate all royalties on sales between now and January 1, 2015 from Don’t Touch as well as the newly released set (Payback is a Witch and Just For The Spell Of It) to the following wonderful organizations:

  • USANo Kill Advocacy Center. Headed up by Nathan Winograd, the No Kill Advocacy Center movement is revolutionizing shelters across America.
  • United KingdomDogsTrust. Active since 1891, this no-kill shelter rehomed almost 15,000 dogs last year.

As a special incentive, both Don’t Touch and the brand new release set, Tales From Null City (containing Payback is a Witch and Just For The Spell Of It), will be listed at the sale price of $0.99 in the USA, and £0.77 in the UK.

Both make wonderful holiday reads, while at the same time supporting the work of the no-kill shelter movement. Please help ensure that animals are not left unsheltered during the very difficult winter months to come. To help, please order a book by selecting one of the following links:

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Claire Danielsen is a young witch whose goddess is house cat of unusual size. Peter Oshiro is a Warden policing a delicate truce between those who are human and those who… aren’t. It just would have been nice if someone told them the angels were all on the other side.

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Liam is an ungodly soccer-playing card sharp on a mission from God. Eirie is a beautiful punk fairy princess with her own daytime radio talk show. They’ve worked cases for the Accords Agency before, but with war between realms looming and her baby sister as the bargaining chip, partnering just got personal.

Contact Barb: blog | twitter | facebook

‘Null City’ stories – great reads that help animals too!

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I’m so pleased to have the lovely writer and blogger Barb Taub on my blog today to tell you about herself, and about the wonderful way she is raising funds for animals this holiday season. Barb says:

In honor of this holiday season, my publisher, Hartwood Publishing, is offering a special gift package of my urban fantasy Null City stories. Not only are they releasing the two newest stories as a $0.99 set called Tales From Null City, but my holiday-themed Don’t Touch will also be available at the sale price of $0.99. (£0.72 in UK)

In most of my stories, an animal companion plays a prominent role—from George, the grumpy cat in Don’t Touch, to Bygul, the bitchy feline goddess of Payback is a Witch. My own life has been immeasurably enriched by my dog Peri who came from a shelter in eastern Washington State, and by the friends (feline, canine, and the occasional rodent) who have joined our family over the years after being rescued by the dedicated members of many shelters.

 In thanks, therefore, all royalties from sales between now and January 1, 2015 from Don’t Touch as well as the newly released set (Payback is a Witch and Just for the Spell of It) will be donated to the following wonderful organizations:

 USA: No Kill Advocacy Center. Headed up by Nathan Winograd, the No Kill Advocacy Center movement is revolutionizing shelters across America.

United Kingdom: DogsTrust. Active since 1891, this no-kill shelter rehomed almost 15,000 dogs last year.

 As the owner of two dogs myself, I can’t think of a better cause. Our dogs are definitely part of our family. We lost our gorgeous cocker spaniel Honey over a year ago and still miss her every day.

Honey

Honey

We rescued kind-of-labrador Daisy two days before the breeder was going to shoot her – she has turned into the most gentle, calm, beautiful dog you could wish for. The latest addition is a beautiful cocker spaniel, Belle (for my daughter’s 16th birthday – although she seems to forget the puppy is hers when it’s pouring with rain or she’s peed on the floor – the dog not my daughter).

Daisy and Belle 'Because the cat's bed is so much more comfortable than our own!'

Daisy and Belle
‘Because the cat’s bed is so much more comfortable than our own!’

Our dogs (and our rescue cat Milo) have and had wonderful lives, and wonderful Christmases. It would be lovely to help other animals to have just a little bit of that love.

Anyway, enough about my dogs (yes, I am slightly obsessed with them) – I’m sure you’d love to know more about Barb and her books:

Barb and her dog Peri

Barb and her dog Peri

Tell me a little about your writing history/background. What inspired you to write?

Writing is verbal alchemy, so it’s my happy place, where I’m the sorceress who converts the dross of unused disk space into a whole world of golden prose. (Of course, that only lasts until I type the words “The End”. Then, into the happy place’s den comes Doubt, the sorceress’ embarrassing, obnoxious brother-in-law who sits on the couch drinking her beer, making body noises, and dropping offhand remarks about how the sorceress should keep her day job.) 

How did you come up with the title of your series?

My daughter and I have this tiny little life-altering addiction to superhero movies. One night we started talking about superheroes with awkward powers. Let’s say you are the Man of Steel, but you don’t dare have sex with Lois Lane because your Little Man of Steel would probably split her in two. (And we’re not even going to discuss the havoc your Swimmers of Steel could wreck on Woman of Pasta…)

 The point is that when you think about it, most people with special powers would be lining up to get rid of them and get their normal lives back. That’s where Null City comes in. After one day there, those with extra gifts turn into their closest human counterparts. Imps, for example, become baristas. (Of course, they’re now ex-PhD candidates in literature or classics who claim to be experts on third-world coffee blends and obscure world music groups. But hey – there is only so close to human that hellspawn can get…)

 So the idea of Null City is that it takes our fantasy worlds and turns them into normal life. My daughter Hannah (aka obsessive cowriter) and I talked about Null City for her last year of high school. The one thing we couldn’t figure out was who the villain would be, when everyone is a hero. The problem with heroes, though, is that they don’t all have the same goals. What if each group – angels, superheroes, and just plain humans – is willing to do whatever it takes to make their right thing happen? So Hannah headed off to University in Scotland and I headed to my computer. One year and many hours of video chats later, the first Null City book, One Way Fare, was published by Taliesin (now Hartwood). Its backstory is the founding of Null City. In the second book, Don’t Touch, the backstory is the Metro train, Null City’s connection with the outside world.

 What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Editing. I tell the words I’m cutting that it’s not them, it’s me. They are perfect, beautiful jewels and I’m going to place them in a special file (“Dead Kittens”) until I can come up with exactly the right place for them to shine when the day comes for me to use them again. [NOTE: any woman who has old bridesmaids dresses in the back of her closet because she was told she could “cut them off and wear them to parties later” will understand how I can say this with perfect sincerity…]

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing up Book three, Round Trip Fare, which explores what happens when saving Null City means destroying the ones you love.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

As a reader, nothing pulls me out of a story faster than seeing spelling and grammar errors. As a book reviewer, I’ve gotten to the point were I won’t look at something unless it’s been professionally edited. Their are so many people who seem to think they’re words are so perfect, there unwilling to consider what a good editor can bring. (See? I could barely stand to write that, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to read it.)

Who is your favourite author and what is it that you love about their work?

That changes constantly. When I have the flu, it’s an old friend like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series because it’s so soothing to grow up and old along with Anne. For fun I love the humour and breezy read of Molly Harper’s southern vampires. And the writing team behind Ilona Andrews simply could release the updated Muncie Indiana phone book and I’d have it on my preorder list. 

Who would you choose to have over for dinner and why?

I usually answer this with a lofty and intellectual dinner party list. But maybe because it’s the holidays, I have to admit the truth. I’m looking forward to holiday dinner with my family. Because we’re all writers, the conversation is usually amazing. My husband is a theoretical economist, one daughter is a human rights attorney who does commentary for Vox, another daughter is a humourist who writes for Funny or Die, and the youngest is my co-author on the first Null City book and my toughest critic.

Desert Island Books – what five books would you choose to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

  • The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Extreme Edition by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (I figure it will be comforting on that island to know I don’t have to survive a Turkish prison, take a bullet, stop a stampeding elephant, etc. But if it came up, I’d be prepared…)  
  • Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Because Armageddon just never gets old.)
  • Three really fat blank books for the screenplay(s). (Let’s face it—desert island stranding has best seller all over it…)

Thanks Barb for taking the time to visit my blog- I’ll be welcoming Barb again on Friday when she’ll be telling me all about the villain of ‘Don’t Touch’ – the Krampus. In the meantime, do check out this very special offer, remember all royalties from sales between now and January 1, 2015 from Don’t Touch as well as the newly released set (Payback is a Witch and Just for the Spell of It) will be donated to No Kill Advocacy Center and DogsTrust.

‘An Englishwoman’s Guide to the Cowboy’ by June Kearns – More Than a Romance

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I discovered June Kearns’ books through the lovely Rosie Amber’s blog when I reviewed ‘The 20’s Girl, the Ghost and All That Jazz’ (see my review here). I enjoyed it so much that I had to read ‘An Englishwoman’s Guide to the Cowboy’. Hope you enjoy my review and the extract from the book that follows. You can read my interview with June here.

Review

This is a lovely book, thoroughly enjoyable, well written and with a cast of characters that you’ll love and hate!

Annie Haddon is dragged to the American west by her horrible aunt and vile cousin. Bullied and brow beaten, and threatened with marriage to a man she finds revolting, Annie is resigned to a miserable life as she travels by stagecoach  across the hot, dusty plains. But a hold-up sees her rescued by the handsome and dangerous Colt McCall and Annie is led into a series of mishaps, dangers and adventures.

Feisty but not perfect, Annie is a character that it’s easy to identify with. I so wanted her to escape the clutches of her horrible family and find the happiness she deserved.

June Kearns has once again invented a strong yet vulnerable main character, a leading man that you’ll fall in love with and a romance that is anything but soppy. And the social constraints that point to nothing but a life of misery for a girl who has so much to her and so much to give are a poignant reminder of how many women were denied happiness because they didn’t fit in with society’s idea of normal.

Highly recommended.

gold star

Extract

Annie’s  eyes  probed  the  shadows. Even  with  the  moon  up, it  was  hard  to  see  more  than  a  few  feet. Dark  shapes  and  silhouettes, all  perfectly  still. Trees, rocks, scrub. She  sensed  life  but  could  see  no  movement, nothing  to  suggest  they  were  not  entirely  alone. It  was  eerily  quiet.

    ‘Are  those  Red  Indians  still  behind us?’

    McCall  didn’t  answer  straight  away. Then, ‘Yep. Right  on  our  tails.’

    ‘I  can’t  see  any  sign  of  them.’

    ‘You  can’t  hear  them  either, but  they’re  there.’

    ‘Why  don’t  they  say  what  they  want?’

    A  careless  shrug. ‘They’ll  get  around  to  it, eventually. Right  now, they’ve  got  everything  their  way, they’re  in  no  hurry.’

    ‘Can’t  you  just … parley  with  them  or  something? Ask  them  to … go  away?’

    ‘You  mean  offer  a  handful  of  beads  and  greetings  from  the  Great  White  Queen? England  Rules,’ he  drawled, as  the  colour  rose  in  Annie’s  face  again. ‘I  wouldn’t  count  on  conversation  if  I  were  you. I  don’t  think  that’s  what  they  have  in  mind.’

    ‘Why  don’t  we  go  on, then?’ she  said. ‘Now  that  it’s  dark. I’m  feeling  much  better. Couldn’t  we  creep  away  while  they’re  not  looking?’

    A  faint  snort. ‘Comanche  are  always  looking. We’re  not  creeping  anywhere, we’ll  hole  up  here.’

    ‘Hole?’ she  said. ‘Up?’

    ‘Make  camp. Sleep, rest  the  horse.’

    ‘Here?’ Staring  blankly  round, Annie  stiffened. ‘In  the  open?’ Her  voice  rose  sharply. ‘Together?’

    ‘Good  water, some  shelter. What  more  do  you  want?’

    Doors, she  thought. With  locks. Walls. Privacy! She  was  covered  in  confusion.

    ‘You  can  rest  easy.’  McCall’s  mouth  twitched. Clearly  he  had  managed  to  add  mind-reading  to  his  list  of  talents. ‘I  never  move  in  on  a  woman  without  a  clear  invitation. No  matter  how  alluring.’

    Oh, ho. Annie’s  eyes  rolled. Very  funny. She  didn’t  need  mirrors  to  know  that  she  looked  a  fright. Face  scorched  by  wind  and  sun, hair  a  wayward  red  bush  down  her  back. Probably  blood-shot  eyes  and  a  coated  tongue, as  well.

    But  men  like  McCall  had  never  shown  the  slightest  interest  in  her  before, even  when  she’d  been  well-dressed, nicely  shod  and  prettily  groomed. Why  would  things  alter  now?

    He  passed  her  a  blanket, then  stretched  out  full-length, propping  his  head  on  his  saddle.

    ‘Are  you  sleeping  there?’  She  shot  him  a  startled, side-ways  look.

    ‘Yep.’ He  tilted  his  hat  over  his  eyes. ‘This  is  as  private  as  it  gets. Just  you, me  and  the  lone  prair-ree.’

    ‘But … what  about  those  Comanche?’      

    ‘Whatever  they’re  planning, they  won’t  come  in  tonight. They  rarely  risk  dying  in  the  dark. Think  their  souls  might  lose  their  way.’

    In  spite  of  everything, Annie  felt  stirrings  of  interest. Hadn’t  she  yearned  for  travel  and  adventure? Epic  journeys  to  far-flung  parts  with  an  elderly  female  relative  as chaperon? Well, here  she  was. Another  dream  shattered.

    It  was  some  time  before  she  could  settle  down. So  many  strange  and  unfamiliar  sounds. The  whisper  of  water, wind  in  the  cottonwoods. Rustlings, night  noises. Birds – a  covert glance  at  McCall – and  beasts.

    Had  the  man  no  consideration? Couldn’t  he  climb a  tree, sleep  in  that?

    A  harsh  wail  echoed  a  way  off. Annie  sat  up  sharply. ‘Mr  McCall!’

    He  didn’t  stir.

    ‘Was  that  a  wolf? A  coyote?’

    ‘I  sure  hope  so.’ The  drawl  drifted  up  from  beneath  the  brim  of  his  hat.

    That  was  it? No  reassurances, no  sleep  well? No  keeping  watch?  ‘But,’ she  said, breathing  hard, ‘what  if –’

    ‘I  sleep  with  one  eye  open. Try  it  yourself.’

    Hauling  the  blanket  up  round  her  ears, she  lay  down  in  semblance  of  sleep. Eyes though, were  wide, fixed  on  black  velvet  sky  and  a  million  stars  over  her  head.

    ‘If  you  need  anything,’ he  said, the  amusement  clear  in  his  voice. ‘I’m  only  six  inches  away.’

    Annie  lay  stiff  as  a  board. The  lamb  stretched  out  next  to  the  lion. But  would  the  lion  be  licking  his  lips  in  the  morning? 

You can buy a copy here (UK) and here (US)

June is on Twitter: @june_kearns

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and at: www.junekearns.com

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