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The Perfect Moment


 

Turning 60…

We sit on the patio, eager to grab some sunshine and warmth. My birthday is nearly upon me and, as is usual around this day, I have been feeling moody and grumpy — and, most of all, I have been wondering where time can possibly be going to, and seemingly always with such indecent haste. And… and is it still stepping on the accelerator…?!? More…?!? Honestly! What does it want? Light speed…? Hasn’t it got enough already…?

And why can’t it for once be kind a bit, take its time a bit, give people a bit of a breather…?

Oh, the things I come up with! The very concept of time taking its time… Imagine such a thing!

Maybe time taking its time, or stopping for a bit of a breather, would be as preposterous as expecting… expecting what? Anything, really. I don’t honestly know. The absurdity of possibility and impossibility, of life and the preordained, and Fate and Destiny. Of compliance and deviation. I don’t know what I expect.

But what would it be like, to live without a concept of time or, in any case, this concept of time we have devised? Would we still turn a year older every year? How would we set milestones? Can we even imagine any other concept of time than one based on the light/dark cycle of our planet? And if time ran differently, would life, things, run differently too? And would turning sixty still feel as much of a drain as it does?

So, there.

I’m entering my 60th year of life. It is a sobering thought. From now on, I am officially classified as an old person, with whatever perks may come from that milestone, and all the damn disadvantages. Ask my knees and my fingers, and they’ll tell you all about it.

But what if we don’t feel anywhere near enough our age?

It strikes me that we — I! — have to live our lives the way we want to live our lives. As we go by, we have to make decisions constantly about what the next step will be and how we want to take it, and into our decision-making process come to bear whatever factors we allow to come to bear. Which is, in the end, something Mr Light and I have very seldomly done.

I look at the sky beyond the tall canopies of next door’s cypresses. It reminds me so much of Portugal. Any afternoon in my childhood, really, with the breeze softly shaking whispers out of the trees, children noises in the background, adults scolding, a radio somewhere in the village, birdsong, the wood pigeons c’rroo-c’rroo-cooing their conversations and love declarations from their perching branches, the nest Mrs She-Pigeon has built, this time, hidden away inside the canopies. There will be no pigeon fledglings chirping and trilling on our chimney, this year.

And then, suddenly, there’s this moment of absolute silence, and it — it is just like magic. Magic, magic, magic. The perfect moment in time.

For a moment there are no babies crying in the playground, no parents scolding, no children shouting, no music from next door, no bees or wasps, no hornets, no bird singing, no pigeons on the cypresses, no background white noise of the rustle of woody branches, soft leaves. Nothing. It’s uncanny. Eerie. Just a magical moment of complete suspension, and the brief eternity of a moment’s silence.

— Ssssh… — Mr Light admonishes me. — Listen…

— Silence, yes. — I tell him with a nod, and smile.

I swear… Time has just given me my birthday wish, and it just stopped, it just stood still, for me, for as long as it could. Just to tell me that it can happen, it can be done.

Nose up in the air, my right hand distractedly caressing Ginger curled up on the chair next to me, Mr Light holding my left hand, my eyes close to better enjoy my special moment and this gift of Time’s. This is bliss.

And then, just as suddenly as it stopped, everything starts all over again: pigeons, kids, angry parents, the thomp-thomp-thomp of someone’s stereo’s bass, the buzzing, the murmuring of the trees and the singing of the birds. I open my eyes and find Mr Light observing me, between quizzical and confounded (I’d say round about four-tenths to six).

— Penny for ’em, honey.

— What?

— Your thoughts. Wherever you were. You seemed a million miles away, suddenly.

— Oh, those. And no, just your impression. I was right here, in the patio, with you. Savouring the moment.

— And?

— Wouldn’t swap it for the world. But I was thinking…

— Uh-oh! Here it comes.

I smile. Of course he knows me.

— I was thinking about age, and time, and growing old, and…

— And…

— And I want to grow old disgracefully. I want to be a edgy grandma. With colour-streaked hair and outlandish clothes. I want to wear ripped jeans, flip-flops showing my tootsies and bright colours and whatever else I dream of, and big earrings and many and strange necklaces. I want to know what’s going on, and experience it. I want my outside to look like my inside. Without owing anyone any explanations, or whatever. Do a ‘like it or lump it’ finger in the air thing, you know?

He knows.

— I gather you’re talking about…

— Yes. I know you will love it. But also…

— Oh…?

— Oh yes. — And I nod. A nod which is a bit like a Jack-in-the-Box’s, to emphasise the point.  — Also has a very precise idea of what I should be like…

He looks at me, now the full ten-tenths on the perplexed.

— And all this, because?

 — Oh, I don’t know… Because… All this because I am entering my sixtieth year of life, honey. Sixty, can you believe it? And I feel like I haven’t lived. Oh, I’ve lived alright, and I’ve aged, and sometimes I feel old too, but I haven’t lived my life, on my own terms…

Silence.

— Oh, I don’t expect you to understand… — I add.

I don’t expect you to understand‘, I tell him, unabashedly, brazenly, just like that, as if I did not know all about him too, and when all I really meant was ‘I hope you still have no idea what I’m talking about’. Because I do so hope he hasn’t got there yet. Here where I am now. I do so hope…

— Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. — He says, and looks straight in to my eyes.

Is that a bit of sadness too? A bit of nostalgia for what could have been? Nobody prepared us for life. They kept telling us how to live our lives, which meant living them to their own ideals, to the ideas they had of how lives should be lived, in so many ways living their own lives vicariously through us. Oh, we weren’t the only ones, no! But we were soft, weak, the two of us, and in all our rebellion we were meek and we did not know how to fight to win, and come out at the other end doing our own thing. We grew old, without living.

And I do — I do so want to grow old ‘disgracefully’. Do things that are not exactly my age, and when whoever says whatever they say about it, just tell them it’s not them, it’s me. My head, my hair, my toes, my body, my life, me. I want to wear strappy vests, semi-sheer muslin skirts and bias cut floaty tunics and dresses. Despite the lumps and bumps, the sagging, the wrinkling, the bulging. And if a man ever tells me again “nice dress, shame about the body”, ask him if he’s looked closely at his dick lately. I want to wear my hair plain white as it is, without hiding its shade in shame for it betraying my real age, without having to endure weeks of pressure to dye it back to my ‘other’, my ‘real’ colour; and I want to put streaky bits in it in bright, weird colours, as if I were a daydreaming teen again. I want to wear white all over, like my own natural hair now is, wear it top to toe, like you were told you should never ever do  past a certain age. And I want to wear my own, clashing or not, colour-combinations. In colours just as bright as the streaks in my white hair will be. Those very colours you were told were not ‘de bon ton’ and strictly a no-no. And I want to wear clashing fabrics. Ditto. And punk earrings and necklaces. Ditto. And red lipstick, ditto (well, maybe not that one, but you get my drift).

And every time they disapprove of my choices, of my looks, of me, I’ll tell them it’s not them, it’s me, not their body, mine, not their choices, mine. Me, mine, my. Life, choice, decision. My pleasure and glory, and — or! — my blame and shame. No one else’s.

And whenever they poke fun at me, that I’m regressing to a second girlhood and a brand new ‘ignorance of youth’ phase, I’ll tell them that they’re probably just jealous and spiteful. That probably they only wish they too had had, or ever will have, the gumption to be like me. To be. To just live.

As the years have passed relentlessly and I near this milestone in my life, I realise more and more that, of so much living my life as others thought I ought to live, I may have almost forgotten who I really am, what I’m like, what I like and what I want. And as the milestone approaches and I become an officially ‘old person’, I feel it’s about time I decided I’m just going to grow old outrageously, on my own terms, ‘disgracefully’ to their eyes in all likelihood. I’ve decided I’ll finally be the myself I almost forgot I was. Because no more. No more. No more.

Mr Light opens up in laughter and twinkling eyes, his hand still grabbing mine. I can see the pleasure and the mirth on his face, his amused expression, the way he looks at me. And even Ginger raises his sleepy head and chirps, to join in with our laughter.

— That’s more like my girl… — He comments, and the cat concurs with a very loud purr.

And all I can say is, Amen to that.

 

 

 

camp’s over…


 

Phew, have I been busy this month!

I mean, it’s not as if I did not expect to be busy this April, even a bit, erm, well, somewhat busier than usual. After all, I did register for #CampNaNoWriMo and set myself a target of 25,000 of the frequently elusive little buggers we trade in. I thought it would be a perfectly attainable goal while still attending to all my other usual daily grind, and still keep up with reading and reviewing — and, most important of all, sleeping.

In my bid to came to my decision more or less scientifically, I had looked at last November, earnestly, quizzically: it’s true that I had very little sleep, and that did next to nothing else, but I had managed to come up with over the required 50,000 words… So, can you follow my reasoning? Halve the goal, and the time you save will allow you to do half  of the everything-else you would otherwise neglect… plus sleep, and if you sleep then work will be, will come easier, be it with words or not. It was a done deal, I had told myself.

And it is obviously dangerous when I try to make my minimally scientific, fact-based decisions. As dangerous as it is when I tell myself, matter-of-factly, with one of those of my rare bouts f finality, that anything would be a done deal. Run from me, people, run, run and hide in the desert. A ‘done deal’ apparently equals woman-on-a-mission. Or maybe it’s just the way Muse has of taking revenge. Because what Muse likes best is to take revenge: whenever I set high goals, and whenever I set low goals. Or, indeed, when I purposely set no goal at all. She’s like that, the little so-and-so.

Thus revenge she took. She hit me hard this time, and I could just not shake her. Ask Mr Cat-Herder and my GP about the unyielding solidity of my neck, shoulders and shoulder-blades, the painful inflammation and swelling on my knuckles. Ask Marmie Cat about his Love & Fuss and Lap Withdrawal Syndrome (quite acute, this time). Ask my pillows what I’ve been up to, sitting up against them, laptop balanced on my lap and Philips arm, Mr Cat-Herder gently snoring beside me, his arm hugging my thigh for lack of the rest of me. But this month I came up with roughly 100,000 words, of which I registered over 75,000. Than you Muse, for punishing the excesses of my irreverent and totally unintentional arrogance.

Of course, of those 100,000 words not all are good. In fact, I only registered 70-odd thousand because while casting my eyes over the manuscript as I set the compilation going on Scrivener, I found bits that quite literally set my tummy churning, and I promptly removed them there and then. I hate bad prose, especially if it is my own. It died an instant and irrevocable death, there and then. I’m sorry for all those poor words, but such is, erm — such are, however, the pitfalls of being prime matter and tools for wordsmiths.

Now I’ve got gaps. I’ve also spotted a couple of things that could fit in differently in the structure, and so before I fill in those gaps, or as I am filing them in, I shall be playing around with the different “scenes” a bit, just to see how things look. Sometimes it is good to have choices…

§

Writing is a permanent learning process. One of the things I learned from writing this manuscript, after struggling with the rewriting of my roman-à-clef since last November, is that my thing is indeed creative non-writing.

Whether this is so because it is what I’ve been writing for so long, or because it is actually a question of preference, as for instance preferring above all other ice creams that lush fig ice cream from the little square stall in Portimão where you could also buy homemade fresh full cream ice cream — I don’t know.

The other thing I learned is that I probably will not be able to write any decent fiction until I rake out of my past all that I’ve got to write about — and figure out how to write about those things. Before I can write anything else, it seems that I’ve got to sort out this memoir book, one way or another, editing all I’ve got written down, writing what’s still unsaid, untold. Only then do I apparently stand a chance to turn my words and thoughts to writing something else, to write about different things, in a different way.

But what I need to keep telling myself is that writing is a learning process. I’ve trained myself to write creative non-fiction; I am still training myself, always training myself. It’s an on-going process — I’d even call it a continuous learning process. I enjoy reading longform, creative non-fiction essays and articles. I enjoy picking them apart, see how their writers went about structuring them, what tricks from fiction writing they used, imagine how it could have been differently done, what other tricks I could use in their shoes.

As I’m training myself to write creative non-fiction, I know I can train myself to write other genres. I’ve got stories inside me. All I need to do is tell my imagination I no longer wish to keep it fettered and on a too short a leash. Tell my imagination that birds exist to fly.

In the meantime, I’m leaving you with an excerpt of one the texts I wrote during camp — actually, the very last text I wrote. It’s part of a chapter called Music.

During camp I used the Scrivener software, adapting the ‘fiction novel with parts’ template to my needs, using scenes as episodes or fragments thereof, and chapters as full memories/collections of related memories. It worked a treat, and this time I never even needed to design a timeline.

I’d love to know what you think about it.

early morning breakfast

We’re sitting having breakfast. Croissants – magnificent, buttery but flaky, puffed up, toasty, baked just right and with just the right balance of airiness and substance – with Seville Orange marmalade and black, fragrant Colombia coffee, a fresh cafetière that Philip has just brewed. The croissants are also fresh, he just burst back in from his trip to the local with two paper bags full of them. Life is good. We sit together and eat our favourite breakfast together and chat together. The television is on, as usual of a Saturday morning, loosely on the background, also with the morning’s freshest news.
And here we are, then, sevenish a.m. and sitting eating brekkie together and getting incensed about the apparently cretinous attitudes of Alfie’s father, the exploitation made of this child’s suffering for interests and ends totally alien to his needs, getting all muddled up with our mixed feelings, how dare the state, aliens to the family, people from outer space, anybody at all, how dare anybody at all presume they have the right to supersede a parent’s authority and decision over the life and treatment of their own child, their own blood and flesh, that piece of themselves torn and molded into a new life? How dare? How dare the lobbies, the pro-lifers, the Catholics, the church, the spurious “Alfie’s Army”? And how dare Italy? How dare the Vatican themselves? And how dare the parents? After all they’ve been through? After all they’ve seen their child going through? Don’t they see? Haven’t they been told the ins and outs of what is going on, the science of it, the medical facts and probable outcomes? Don’t they know what the future holds? Don’t they know? Don’t they believe? Don’t they understand the science? Don’t they understand science? And if we cry and suffer, in our love for animals, to see one suffering as much as Alfie’s suffering, and think that it is a mercy to let them go or to help them go and spare them any more suffering, why can’t we just extend that courtesy to our most loved human people?
— ‘Well, euthanasia is not yet legal…’
— ‘I know. And I’m not talking of euthanasia. Who would make such a decision, ever, especially about a little child…? I’m talking about applying the legal medical procedures available to us, once a medical scientific assessment of future, long-term life inviability has been made…’
— ‘Switching the machines off…’
— ‘Switching the machines off. Withdrawal of life support.”
— ‘Because in the end the only thing keeping him alive are all the machines he’s hooked up to.’
— ‘Exactly. And for how long will the child be there, hooked up to machines to keep him alive, to extend his life, suffering for nothing?
— ‘But we don’t know that it’s suffering.’
— ‘My point precisely. We don’t know if he’s suffering. Or how much he is suffering. We don’t know anything, except that his brain is being progressively destroyed, that he’s being kept alive and fed by machines, and there will be no reprieve, no miracle bringing him back to life. What happens when more of his brain systems fail? Hook him up to a dialysis machine? What about feeding him, when his digestive system collapses? Hook him to intravenous feeds…? For how long do they want to keep the child alive like that? It’s…’
And I falter. I was going to say grotesque, but I shrug away from the word. Maybe it is too much of a hyperbole, even for me, Hyperbole Girl. Inhumane, unconscionable, maybe those are more along the line of what’s applicable here. But what I cannot shrug from is that I feel the whole affair has been worse than grotesque. Treating our animal companions more compassionately than we treat human life feels just as grotesque. I’m thinking of Dad, yes, but I’m also thinking of myself when my end nears — because becoming a hospital-beached cyborg is the last thing I’d want.
— ‘I watched my dad dying, just like that… that’s what they did… what happened to him… and…’ — My voice becomes thin and small, shivering, strangled. My throat closes up. There’s heat behind my eyes, a light shower threatening up front. And there’s a vacuum growing in my chest, where air should be. How pathetic can I be? Still like this, after twenty-odd years? Or it it some sort of time-dislocated self-pity? I shut up. My father thing? It was grotesque. Overwhelming, demolishing, life-tainting. Haunting. Philip knows.

. . .

Thus we sit, eat, watch, debate. We share. Information, opinions, Saturday, the weekend, the moment, life. I argue with the telly. My voice raises. He laughs. Philip laughs, gently.
Always.
I’m always arguing with the telling, as if that would somehow go through somewhere and make a difference, change the world to a better thing, a better place. And he always laughs, gently, lovingly. I think he genuinely finds it endearing that I care so much about things that I actually argue with inanimate objects, that I need this little exercise in complete futility to settle myself at ease with the fact that there’s absolutely nothing little minions like me, us, can do about any of it, for the simple fact that democracy isn’t working, and Democracy, our Democracy, the real one, never really came, never really happened.
And the news change. New news that is old news. We still get incensed, though.
We get incensed about the government minister who’s been digging herself deeper and deeper into the shit. Or rather, the cabinet minister who is just being buried deeper and deeper in the shit. She didn’t know immigration controls were subject to targets, Amber Rudd didn’t. Oh, she knew there were some targets, but the targets she knew about were strictly administrative and just for internal management. Oh, but she didn’t know about them being applied like this. Or like that. Or that they existed for this. Or for that. And then again. Yes, she knew about targets, but they were not to be used against long term foreign residents. And all over again. And then the civil service shrugging blame away from their pristine shoulders, oh, but we sent the minister a memo about it, so she knew about the existence of the targets. And I tell Philip what I think — that Amber Rudd is much more competent than the prime minister she seemingly made her life mission and sole ambition to shield from the shit that same PM throws straight into the fan. But that I am very very sorry, but the narrative the public are being supplied is that a minister allows the civil service to devise and implement crucially important policy behind her back and without hers or Parliamentary consent, that she is sent a memo she doesn’t read, and that she knows bugger all about what is going on in her ministry. She’s for the sack and public ignominy, for whichever reason: either because she is too damn spaced out and incompetent, or because she’s just too damn competent for Conservative comfort, and therefore is up for assassination and consequently the sack plus party, as well as public, ignominy and neutralisation. Yeah. Incompetent bigots shall rule this country, the future. They will, all right.
— ‘Yeah, so that Gavin Williamson can become prime minister…’
I laugh, uncomfortably, a little nervously. Every time I have to think about Williamson, I do. He frightens me. But I also laugh at this…association by contiguity…?
— ‘So that Gavin Williamson can become whatever he’s set on becoming. He’s certainly got the right attitude…’ — I agree, my head bobbing up and down, my hands wrapped around the residual warmth of my coffee mug, now almost empty. Just like my trust on the political system we have. But I carry on. — ‘Probably, so that the future can be in the hands of Williamson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the likes of them… A scary future.’
— ‘A scary future indeed…’
— ‘And one of the reasons why I don’t want to stay here any more, even if I’m allowed to… Why I don’t want to be here for our future, not any more, do you understand?’
Phil understands. More than that, he feels just the way I do. We want a red government. We think the country needs another period like the post-war reconstruction period, driven by a series of minimally stable Labour governments, because only a series of stable Labour governments can redeliver what will pull us out of this society-murdering collective shit we’re in now. Only one such government can redeliver a national health system, a national education system, regulation of this rampant capitalism. And we both know that, as things stand, as this country has become, we stand no chances in hell of that happening. Not until people’s connection to all this materialism is again severed, and solidarity sprouts again from the cracks in society’s floor.
— ‘And I tell you something else, about this Amber Rudd thing. If someone like me, with such and innate and visceral hatred of the Tory Party in general and what they represent, can see a modicum of talent and competence in Amber Rudd, so can her party — She’s up for assassination, that’s what, and that’s why the civil service are now jumping on the wagon too…’
Because of course all this is not about the Windrush generation, or any immigration injustices committed by the current powers that be. This is all about Brexit, nothing less, nothing more. Rudd discredited and gone is one less Remainer in the cabinet. And Philip knows this as well as I do.

. . . 

The news wander from here to there on the T.V., the country, the midlands, the West Midlands, our poor and maligned Midlands, this dark and rough, ruddy place nobody wants to come to or remain in, save for those who are born here, who are, more often than not, stuck here for life, their immobility dictated by the lack of opportunities dictated by their roots as their accents attest to. The weather. Other news. The world, briefly. Everything and anything, any whatever. We’re no longer listening, the talking box is just there as background, maybe as unconscious reminder, as we dive into this, our own land, another moment of this “ourselves territory”, made of smiles and light touching of hands and cheeks and talk and silences and a myriad other Saturday early morning complicities and coffee and croissants with bittersweet orange marmalade, that there’s something else out there that surrounds us and which we belong to, for better or worse. And then Abba come on the news. And I don’t know whether to rejoice or commiserate. For the news, and for Abba coming on the news. I tell Philip that.
And thus I jump to the news of Abba in the very same instant he does, with the same apparent gusto as he does. Here we go. And we land somewhere else.
— ‘Everybody likes Abba, one way or another. Even the people who don’t like Abba like Abba!’ — I tell him. And I pour myself my second, prevaricating cup. I’ll make up for it on another occasion, I tell myself. During the week. Two coffee-free days, just to please my doctor. But this is life that needs to be lived as it should be. As it must be. We’re here. Now. Together.
— ‘As long as they stick to one of their songs of the old times…’
— ‘But that’s exactly my point, hon! Do you really want to hear any of their songs murdered by their ruined voices? Like Roger Daltrey a few weeks back? Or that Simple Minds bloke, what’s his name? Or Bonnie Tyler? Or any other of the good oldies that have made a recent come back and murdered their old songs…? Those songs we’ve been carrying with us…? No! As long as they write and compose new material, and leave the good old goldies well alone! They mean too much for at least one whole generation!’
Phil laughs again. And in the end he agrees.
We don’t want to have the memory of a song that we loved, that meant something to us when we were growing up, when we were young, erased by a pensioned need for increased royalties or for renewed ego massaging, and replaced by any, seemingly arbitrary, unwarranted, indelible screeching. Let go of our youth, our young adulthood. Stop pulling and scratching at it. It’s ours. Don’t violate it, don’t damage it for us.
We want our memories inviolable. Perennial and permanent, forever ours, immutably.
As if to make the point, or as if he had remembered something out of the blue, Philip stands up and clambers up to the part of our shelves where we have the stereo and all our music, and starts rummaging around my stash of old vinyl. They’re all up on the top shelves, where I had to move them in my last ditch and desperate bid to save them from certain death at the claws of my beautiful Black Babies. They, for some reason, loved any opportunity that would come their way to scratch at them, in beautifully extended, long poses, as if practicing Pilates. The Boys don’t seem to have any interest in them; wood is more their thing, stray little prats that they are — oh, so true, you can take the cat out of the stay, but you can never take the stray out of the cat! — and thus my beautiful, diligently and laboriously antique-stained pine shelves are the thing currently under attack. Them, and the hardwood window frames. Because, yeah, well, isn’t it? And the alternative is not something we would willingly contemplate. But back to Philip’s rummaging of my vinyl.
— What’re you looking for…?
I knew I didn’t have any Abba, them being sort-of one of my secret guilty pleasures and, therefore it being far too naff for me to be seen buying their records — apart of course from a generalised lack of ‘the readies’ with which to by all the music I fancied, guilty pleasures or not, which meant whatever money I could allocate to music buying would have to go to my absolute first choices… and not something to shake my booty at. Besides, there was hardly the space in my bedroom to swing half a dead cat, let alone set me off dancing, and the living room, were it big enough too, would still have been strictly out of bounds for such unwholesome and ridiculous displays of mine.
Suddenly my mind was somewhere else, again trawling through time, as I watched Philip go through the records on the very top shelf, one by one.
— ‘Aha! Here it is. I knew I’d had it. Here, take this. Let’s see if there’s anything else… I can’t remember exactly…’
No, neither can I. But here it is now. In my hand.
— ‘I didn’t know we had any Abba records. When did you buy this?’
— ‘When you were at your Mom’s. In a charity shop. Good find, wasn’t it…?”
I marvel at my guy. This vinyl thing is supposed to be one of my obsessions, which I seemingly have mostly neglected and due mostly to my usual suspect, I.e., this perennial lack of the wherewithal which seems to be another recurrent theme in my life. And, frankly, mostly because I haven’t been as mobile as I used to, and trawling through charity shops is now a pastime I’ve had to consign firmly into my past. Another of my guilty pleasures that’s gone.
So, what does this guy of mine do exactly when I abandon him to a life of singleness and chaos to go look after my Mom when she comes out of hospital…? He takes it up. He buys Abba, Elton John, Beatles, Billy Joel, George Michael, whatever he can find. I had noticed the top shelf a bit fuller when I came back home, and both shelves slightly disarranged, but I had put it down to Philip’s record listening while I had been away, which he had shared with me over our nightly hour-long conversations. After all, he’s not exactly the tidiest of men.
Philip steps down to floor level, his face in that wide open smile of his, so much of the little mischievous boy still shining through, despite the years and the barrage of knocks that’s been our life. I love it when he smiles like that. That’s what I wanted this early retirement thing for, be it voluntary or otherwise Brexit-prompted, so that we could hold hands and smile like that while we still have the legs and the gumption to live a little bit of life.
Next thing I see Philip is setting the record to play. I am still half inspecting the sleeve, half watching him from under my eyelashes, half wondering whether I should indulge another trip to the past, half trying to resist the pull from my memories whatever else I think of doing right there and then. And I smile, a cheeky, cat-who-got-the-cream-and-wants-more smile. I smile at him, and he smiles back and swiftly resumes his place next to me on the living room settee, and retrieves his half-abandoned croissant and mug of coffee from the tray on the coffee table. To me, this man’s still the most handsomest of blokes, even though he needs to lose that damn pot belly of his and have a haircut. But then, so do I. And still, we both count ourselves as the luckiest people on Earth for having found each other. Weird, that, or what?

 

 

book review: The Good Liar ~ by Catherine McKenzie, 5* review plus bonus author article


Hello everyone!

Another day, another week, and, while we’re all waiting for winter to retreat and spring finally to hit us with its waves of pleasantness, here I am again with a brand new review, this time of Catherine McKenzie’s latest book, The Good Liar, which is being marketed as a GoodReads “Hottest Thriller of 2018” selection for fans of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (Booklist), and one you’re likely to devour in one sitting (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Before I start, however, I have a couple of things I have to confess. Truth is, I had never read anything by Catherine McKenzie before. Unforgivable omission, I know. And I only became fully aware of her new book as something other than a vaguely potential read when I was contacted about my missing review by lovely Denelle Catlett, PR Manager for Lake Union Publishing. Then I remembered where I’d seen the book, and why I had requested it in the first place. It was definitely something I had very much wanted to read, for a host of reasons I will get into in a little while.

In her email, Denelle urged me to download my copy before the title archived on April 17th, which I did, with the promise that I’d read and review the title by that date. And all just because Denelle was so absolutely lovely on our exchange of emails that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, well, I am absolutely overworked and falling asleep on the job. Literally, miserably falling asleep on the job. I kid you not. And then again, when am I ever not behind on my reviews?

Erm… Hmm. Rods and backs. Not a comfortable conversation right now. Quick change of subject, then. So.

That The Good Liar caught my attention when I first came across it on the Goodreads 40 of the Hottest Mysteries & Thrillers of 2018, is all down to my lingering habit of going through hot lists, comparing the titles that “made it” there to those that made it into my own pile of to-be-read titles, and then going through the synopses for those I do not have bookmarked. The Good Liar was one such later addition to my list, on the strength of its synopsis alone, and the questions I instantly had about it.

To begin with, the book deals with a terrible explosion that rips apart a whole residential building, killing most of its inhabitants. It echoed of 9/11, somehow, and I was curious to see how the author treated this thorny issue. Then, the story of that explosion, the moments leading to it, and its aftermath, was being told from the perspectives of three women survivors, a year on from the terrible event that tore their lives apart. I am an addict for stories told from multiple perspectives, so this was a cert for me.

And finally, the book’s themes revolve around issues of perspective, and of truth and lies — which I’ve also got a very soft spot for — and who is telling which, hiding what. Because, erm, have I mentioned the synopsis also quotes secrets being kept by all three female narrators…? Well. There you go. All in all, this seemed a book written for me, and I had hurried to request it. Now that it was here, I couldn’t wait to devour it. I decided to put aside that difficult galley I was having trouble gelling with, and indulge myself in something I knew I would very likely love to read. Not a difficult choice, wouldn’t you agree?

However, just before I move on to the business of introducing you to Catherine McKenzie and her work, and to my review of her title, I’d like to rather publicly thank Denelle Catlett; we further exchanged emails, as I requested a press pack, and Denelle was swift in sending it to me. It’s been a real pleasure dealing with her, and I hope to have plenty more opportunities in the future to do so.

Also, my thanks to Lake Union Publishing for the opportunity to read this title, and for their ready assistance to help me make my blog post as good as I can possibly make it.

And now, courtesy of Lake Union Publishing, here’s Catherine McKenzie telling us all about writing The Good Liar, and the issues she had to confront all the way from germ-of-an-idea to finished draft. It is one of the best pieces about the writing process I have read lately, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Catherine McKenzie: Theft by Finding

I’m not the first to say it, but being a writer can sometimes be a peculiar profession. The things one Googles, for instance (it’s research, NSA!), and the thoughts that can creep into your head at the worst moments while you’re in the middle of living. Or worse, when others are in the middle of dying.

Years and years ago an idea popped into my head. It was an interesting idea—to me at least—and we writers guard our interesting ideas. They don’t happen every day, you know, so when they do, it can be an exciting moment. Only this idea — what if someone used a national tragedy to disappear — came to me on day two or three of the 9/11 coverage, when family members began pinning pictures of the missing to that chain link fence. You know the one. You were probably watching that same coverage and thinking how sad it was, because it was sad. I was thinking it that too, but there was also that nagging thought, prompted by one of those weird little life coincidences that happens sometimes, because someone close to me stood on the top of the World Trade Center two weeks before the bombing. Or, at least, that’s where he told me he was going to be. How did I know? How did anyone know? And then there were all the people being interviewed who were supposed to be on this plane or that… Ack, what the hell was wrong with me?

The moment passed, but the thought lingered. I mean, it must’ve happened sometime in the course of history, right? I couldn’t be the only one who thought this way? And if I was, what did it say about me?

No writer should ask themselves that question, let me tell you.

Years later, I heard a story on the news about a man who’d abandoned his family and then returned twenty years later. I don’t remember all the details, now, but that sparked something, too. It reminded me of my earlier thought and added others. It was sticky, that story, it stuck with me. Because: who would do such a thing? But also: how did they get away with it? Could I write about that? Where did that story go?

I like to tell myself that these types of questions are one of the things that make writers writers. You take something from life—maybe yours, maybe someone else’s—and you make it into art. It’s what painters do—freezing a face on a frame forever (who is Mona Lisa, anyway?). Do they think they’re nuts? Well, Van Gogh for sure, he was crazy, but in general, no. Still, though…

Then I was watching a documentary about a high school football team. They had an historic season, went right to the State finals and won. But the filmmaker couldn’t have known that when he started production or pitched the idea or raised the money. Nor could he have know about the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who would turn his life around. Or the kid from the right side of the tracks who’d descend into drugs. But he was there to tell a story, so he was hoping these sorts of things would happen—he must’ve been. And I thought that this was maybe worse: following someone’s life hoping something bad would happen was definitely worse than simply taking a leap from a real event into my imagination.

Right?

It’s so hard to know. I have a book coming out (The Good Liar, April 3). And every major thread in that book is somehow connected to 9/11 because the genesis of the idea for each of its threads is something connected to that event and its aftermath. When I first pitched the idea to my agent, she was worried it was exploitative of 9/11. I protested. What about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close? What about The Goldfinch? Not that I was in the same league as those writers, but surely, it had been enough time for someone to write about something similar?

We bandied back and forth about it. I didn’t want to exploit the survivors and families of the victims. But I also didn’t want to abandon this idea. Is that the definition of exploitation? Probably somewhere. Probably yes.

So I made changes. I set the book in Chicago. I made the tragedy an accident, and I tried not to steal imagery from that fateful day. And then I made it, in part about a film. One of the main characters is shooting a documentary set a year after a large gas explosion tears down a building. He’s following several families who lost people in the tragedy. That’s right; I put the exploiter right there in my story to distract from what I was doing. It’s something I often do. If I name a flaw, you might not notice the flaw.

That’s the theory, anyway.

I can see all the flaws in my work. And though writing is an act of faith—an act of hubris, even—there’s also a vampiric quality to it. When my husband was reading a late draft, I heard him laugh. When I asked him why he was laughing, he mentioned a characteristic of a character that shared something with him. I hadn’t even remembered that I put that in there, and that’s part of the trouble with writing. When you think of that perfect line, or that perfect description, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s memory or talent that’s showing up on the page. (Like that line right there. I think I made it up, but just in case, I’m pointing it out.)

Publishing a book is an odd experience. I wrote The Good Liar in 2016, and then edited it in the first half of 2017. It was “done” six months ago. And so now it sits in the hands of a few readers who get early copies, their reviews coming in a couple at a time on blogs and Goodreads. Every time someone mentions a “9/11-like event” I hold my breath. Is this the review that’s going to call me out? Tell me I didn’t do my research? That I’m profiting off of someone else’s pain?

Life is pain. I do know I stole that—from The Princess Bride to be exact. And writing is pain too, the cataloguing of it, the transposing. Does it make a difference if it’s mine or someone else’s? Of course I get that it does, but in the selfish way of writers. By this I mean: the characters in the book are mine, “people” I invented. If you think they could be real—if you “like” them or don’t, for example—I win. I did my job. Once the book is done, I release them and then they are free to do what they want out in the world. They can make you feel good or bad or angry or sad or nothing at all.

And me? I’m pointing out my flaws.

About Catherine McKenzie:

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine is a partner in a litigation boutique in Montreal, where she was born and raised. Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN, HIDDEN, SMOKE and FRACTURED, are bestsellers and have been translated into numerous languages, including French, German, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Slovakian and Czech. SMOKE was named one of the Top 100 Books in 2015 by Amazon and one of the Best Books of October 2015 by Goodreads. FRACTURED was named one of the Best Books of October 2016 by Goodreads.

Catherine’s first book writing as Julie Apple (the protagonist in FRACTURED), THE MURDER GAME, was released in November, 2016. SPIN has been optioned for a television series. A short film of ARRANGED was made in 2014 and won a Canadian National Screen Institute Award. Catherine was on set while they filmed it. It was one of the highlights of her writing life.

Catherine’s next novel, THE GOOD LIAR, will be published on April 3, 2018.

An avid skier and runner, Catherine climbed the Grand Teton in 2014.

And if you want to know how she has time to do all that, the answer is: robots.

Visit her online at www.catherinemckenzie.com, on her author page on Facebook , and on Twitter and Instagram at @CEMckenzie1

about The Good Liar:

 

The Good Liar by Catherine McKenzie has published on April 3rd on the US (Hardcover US$ 14.95 Paperback US$ 10.99 Kindle US$ 4.29 ), Canada (Hardcover CND$ 28.75 Paperback CND$ 21.87), and the UK (Hardcover £16.43 Paperback £4.99 Kindle £4.99).

……..

and now, for my humble part on this blog post…

copy for all editions, all countries

This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, Lake Union Publishing, for review consideration. My review is also being published to NetGalley, GoodReads,  Amazon, LinkedIn, and my other social media accounts.

the synopsis:

Can you hide a secret with the whole world watching? 

When an explosion rips apart a Chicago building, the lives of three women are forever altered. 

A year later, Cecily is in mourning. She was supposed to be in the building that day. Instead, she stood on the street and witnessed it going down, with her husband and best friend inside. Kate, now living thousands of miles away, fled the disaster and is hoping that her past won’t catch up with her. And Franny, a young woman in search of her birth mother, watched the horror unfold on the morning news, knowing that the woman she was so desperate to reconnect with was in the building.

Now, despite the marks left by the tragedy, they all seem safe. But as its anniversary dominates the media, the memories of that terrifying morning become dangerous triggers. All these women are guarding important secrets. Just how far will they go to keep them?

advance praise:

“With twists and turns, the lives of three women intersect in the most unexpected ways during the aftermath of a tragedy. Thought-provoking, suspenseful, and mysterious, The Good Liar is a true page-turner that explores the ways stories are connected and created, and what can be hidden underneath. This is a book you won’t be able to put down!” ~ Megan Miranda (All the Missing GirlsThe Perfect Stranger)

“A riveting story that revolves around the aftermath of a national tragedy: three women, three separate yet deftly intertwined lives. I adored the look at the story behind the story, the background lives of the women we so often see in the news. The twists are shocking, the characters are well drawn but unpredictable, and the conclusion is as poignant as it is surprising. The Good Liar is thrilling, captivating, and not to be missed!” ~ Kate Moretti (The Vanishing YearThe Blackbird Season)

“Lines will be crossed and secrets revealed when tragedy intersects three women in The Good Liar, a guilty pleasure you won’t be able to put down until the very last page. A must read!” ~ Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke (The Good Widow)

“For many years, Catherine McKenzie has been writing some of the best thrillers around. She’s outdone herself with The Good Liar, the powerful and heartbreaking story of the painful aftermath of a national tragedy. It’s sharply written with engaging characters and twists and surprises up until the very last page. A smart, fast-paced, and riveting thriller!” —David Bell (Bring Her Home)

“In her latest, Catherine McKenzie continues to prove she’s a master at crafting psychological thrillers. In The Good Liar, we follow three women—Cecily, Kate, and Franny—in the aftermath of a horrific tragedy through their web of lies, secrets, and deceit. The story is layered with superb twists and expert pacing, deftly building in suspense until its stunner of an ending. A compulsive read that kept me guessing!” ~ Kerry Lonsdale (Everything We Left Behind and Everything We Keep)

“In The Good Liar, the lives of three women become entangled in a single tragedy. With her compelling characters, whip-smart dialogue and edge-of-your-seat pacing, McKenzie asks how well we know those around us—even the people we love the most.” ~ Paula Treick DeBoard (Here We Lie, The Drowning Girls)

“Put The Good Liar at the top of your summer must-read list. Catherine McKenzie isn’t just a talented storyteller; she has a knack for asking the questions every woman secretly asks, and answering with a story that expresses our collective dreams and fears. The Good Liar brilliantly weaves three stories about regular women coping with the aftermath of a tragedy. But this book is far more than a first-rate page turner; it’s an exploration of the cost of keeping secrets, how the bonds between women both chafe and comfort, and how in the midst of the terror and beauty that is life, we find grace.” ~ Allison Leotta (The Last Good Girl)

“Catherine McKenzie has done it again with her latest novel, The Good Liar. In yet another page-turner, three women, linked by trauma, transform from images seen through the camera’s lens into human and relatable characters as their layered lives come into focus. As you settle in for this tense and compelling ride, you’ll start to question who ‘the good liar’ really is—Cecily, Kate, witnesses, the media, friends, family, or maybe even Catherine McKenzie herself.” ~ Emily Bleeker (Wreckage, When I’m Gone)

the review:

I was curious to find out how Catherine McKenzie had addressed that massive white elephant in the room: the maybe-a-bit-too-close-for-comfort similarity to a real life, truly catastrophic event such as 9/11 was not so long ago.

There were of course issues of good taste and decorum, but also the question of how moral it is for a writer to make use of (= exploit?) such historical events, and real life details, as their inspiration, when they are still so recent and alive in people’s memories, and especially when faced with the reality of survivors and the family members of victims from the disaster, and their still raw grief. It would take a special sensibility to pull it off, I told myself, so let’s see what Ms McKenzie did of it.

And then I received the press pack from the publishers, and read the above author’s article. Being a writer myself, I recognised Catherine McKenzie’s words and fully identified with them. Writers have to make choices which often may no be very popular, or ideas that might prove most difficult, or even impossible, to pull off successfully. We question our judgement permanently.

I loved Catherine McKenzie’s choice of departing premise for this book; to put it simply:

“The idea for this novel has been percolating in McKenzie’s mind for years and began with this thought: What if someone used a national tragedy to run away from their life? Later, she discovered stories about people faking their way into tragedies. And finally, she learned of a 9/11 widow whose divorce was about to be finalized right before the towers fell. From there, she thought what-if, and began writing THE GOOD LIAR. An irresistible look at ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”

Half way through it, I already knew I loved how Catherine McKenzie went about telling her story. It begins by being a story of possibilities — yes, catastrophic events happen. People are caught in them, and their aftermath. Suffering of some degree is inevitable. When these things happen, the frontier between the private and the public becomes, seemingly also inevitably in our day and age, blurred. The media and the public at large suddenly feel an entitlement to to your grief, an ownership of you and your story. And in the middle of all the horror, there will always be someone ready to take advantage, in any way they can, from some aspect of it. And this is the story Catherine McKenzie tells, very skilfully and with sensitivity, without once blurring the lines between a 9/11-type reality and her fictional universe.

The main characters, the three women around which the action centres, are all well drawn and fleshed out, very believable — very real and alive. They are three women caught out by the events and by their own lives, and the lies they are all living in, and who try to resolve the conflicts they’re caught in in the only way they can or know best.

Cecily, the main character, chooses to come clean, and thereby wiping her own slate clean. She’s a very likeable character, and we understand why she did what she did. We get to see inside her head and her heart, and decide from very early on that, whatever she’s trying to keep away from the public eye, it is not criminal or strenuously morally reprehensible. We forgive her lie of omission, because we understand it. We love her.

Kaytlin is a damaged woman, unable to deal with her past, with her damage, or with her present. She is a profoundly troubled and unhappy person, as a woman, as  a wife, as a mother. She once again succumbs to her unresolved mental health problem and, having miraculous escaped with her life, in an act of folly she decides to disappear in the aftermath of the building explosion.  Thus she places herself in a situation from which there is no come back, but which she tells herself is for the better and an act of real love. We understand her, but deplore her choice of action.

And Franny… well, while one feels slightly sorry for Franny for having been so blatantly rejected, we cannot possible like her, not even before we learn the full extent of her actions. She’s the little sociopath in the basket, ruining everybody else’s apples. And she’s so well designed as a character that we absolutely hate her, and take everything she says with a tonne of pinches of salt. And then we understand that it all goes far deeper, and she is a full blown psychopath. We can’t spare a single thought for her.

But I do urge you to seriously think about this book as your next read. It’s psychological and suspenseful, and pulls you in from the beginning. You’re left hanging there, knowing there is something below the surface, and you try to figure those undercurrents out, but there’s so much to consider. And you have to keep reading, just so you finally see your suspicions confirmed… or be completely bowled over by the last twist in the narrative.

the verdict:

Great commuting literature, but watch out for you stop. Moreover, it leaves you wanting to get to know everything about Catherine McKenzie’s writing. The question now is, which of her titles do I pick up next…?

Genre pegging: General Fiction / Women’s Fiction 
Verdict: a perfectly riveting, thought-provoking read
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
Shelves:
general fiction; thrillers;  

 

book review: All The Beautiful Girls ~ by Elizabeth J. Church

Cover for all UK editions & US paperback edition

This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, HarperCollins / 4th Estate Books. This review is also being published to NetGalley, GoodReads, Amazon, LinkedIn, and all my social media accounts.

the synopsis:

The dazzling, powerful story of a gutsy showgirl who tries to conquer her past amongst the glamour of 1960s Las Vegas – finding unexpected fortune, friendship and love.

Cover for US hardcover edition

In the summer of 1968, Ruby Wilde is the toast of Las Vegas. Showgirl of the Year, in her feathers and rhinestones, five-inch heels and sky-high headdresses, she mesmerises audiences from the Tropicana to the Stardust. Ratpackers and movie stars, gamblers and astronauts vie for her attention and shower her with gifts.

But not so long ago Ruby Wilde was Lily Decker from Kansas: an orphaned girl determined to dance her way out of her troubled past. When she was eight years old, Lily survived the car crash that killed her parents and sister. Raised by an aunt who took too little interest in her and an uncle who took too much, dancing was her solace, and her escape. When a mysterious benefactor pays for her to attend a local dance academy, Lily’s talent becomes her ticket to a new life.

Now, as Ruby Wilde, the ultimate Sin City success story, she discovers that the glare of the spotlight cannot banish the shadows that haunt her. As the years pass and Ruby continues to search for freedom, for love and, most importantly, herself, she must learn the difference between what glitters and what is truly gold.

advance praise:

‘A gorgeously written novel with the bite of a gin martini, All the Beautiful Girls goes beyond the splashy, gaudy dazzle of Las Vegas in the sixties to reveal the beating heart beneath the glamorous façade of a showgirl with big ambitions.’ ~ Sara Gruen

‘A heartbreaking story, passionately told’ ~ Ellen Feldman

‘A brave and powerful novel … With heart-wrenching immediacy and gorgeous prose, author Elizabeth Church examines the often desperate choices women must confront, and the secrets they must protect’ ~ Lauren Belfer

”A beautifully rendered tale of personal redemption filled with friendship, loss, extravagant furs, and feathery headdresses’ ~ Kirkus

‘A beautifully written and thoughtful novel with strong themes of love, trust, guilt, family and friendship’ ~ Historical Novel Review

‘An exquisitely crafted novel of love discovered and friendship found. No one captures the exuberant passions and inner struggles of women like Elizabeth Church’ ~ Martha Hall Kelly

‘The show girl’s life is fascinating but so, too, is the interior struggle of a young woman battling demons that dog her every step. Church has given us a true heroine, both flawed and beautiful, who rises even as she falls’ ~ Juliette Fay

‘Elizabeth J Church has brought that era to life with this book. It’s full of high kicking glamour, there’s love and there’s loss. It’s a book that celebrates friendship and the strength that we find from it’ ~ Emma, Bedford Waterstones

“Delightful . . . Church’s appreciation of language is apparent as she masterfully creates pictures with words.” ~ Associated Press

a bonus feature:

Listen to excerpts of the novel read by Katherine Fenton, courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers:

the review:

Lily Decker loses her parents and big sister to a traffic accident when she is just eight years old, and is sent to live with her mother’s sister, an embittered and stern woman who, unlike Lily’s mother, is unable to understand much more beyond her life of blue-collar strife, or to give the little girl the love she needs; and her husband, who soon also begins sexually abusing the little girl. The only measure of control she seems to be able to assert in her life is self-harm.

Riddled with guilt for the accident that killed the little girl’s family, test pilot Sterling, starts sending her books and taking an active interest in the her education, which includes paying for her dancing lessons once the girl tells him that dancing is the only thing that makes her happy. Lily forges herself into a determined and gritty person, who dreams but of escaping Kansas and the dreariness of her life and family.

Advised by an ill-informed dance teacher, as soon as she reaches 18 Lily escapes to Vegas, where she is told she stands a better chance at making it as a dancer. On her way there, she re-invents herself as Ruby Wilde. Failing at all the auditions and unable to make it as a dancer, Ruby eventually takes a job as a casino showgirl, which was the very last thing she wanted to do but enables her not just to become the toast of the town but to quickly amass considerable savings.

While admittedly Ruby makes for an interesting heroine, she does not seem to be that bright a spark, especially considering how well read she’s supposed to be and the valuable and wise life advice she gets from her benefactor. She ends up falling in love with the wrong man and being trapped in an abusing relationship, which ends with her love interest leaving her pregnant and stealing all she has. Simultaneously, Lily/Ruby seems to keep abreast of what is going on in the wider world, namely the assassination of Martin Luther King, nuclear testing in Nevada and the Vietnam War protests (the main events and strife of late 1960s America), and she seemingly develops an acute social conscience.

All The Beautiful Girls is quite an interesting novel, ultimately exploring love, loss and friendship, even though it follows a series of quite common formulas and prescriptions: a girl who manages to prise herself out of her life of hardship and abuse through sheer grit and determination alone, who dreams of making a life of affluence for herself, but who eventually finds out that nothing can erase the scars left by her childhood trauma. It is set in the 1950s and 1960s, in Kansas, Las Vegas, and then Albuquerque, and is structured in three parts.

The first part is set in Kansas and concerns Lily’s childhood and teenager years; it depicts her life with her aunt and uncle, and contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse. The central part, which is I think the most interesting and what makes this book such a successful one, is set in Las Vegas and concerns Lily’s years as Ruby: it depicts the whole, often surreal Las Vegas environment and culture, with all its glitz and glamour, its excesses — beginning with the outlandish and over-the-top costumes and the girls wardrobes — its sexism and exploitation, and its proud and complete alienation from real life.

The third part provides us with the resolution of the novel’s conflict and the heroine’s redemption, with Lily shedding her skin as Ruby and learning how to accept herself and how to reconstruct herself and her life. After the Las Vegas chapters, and however necessary we understand it to be both in terms of the girl’s and the novel’s development, this third part feels almost anti-climatic and quite flat and — well, a bit meh.

the verdict:

There are echoes of past literary best sellers in this novel (which reminds us for instance of a Hollywood-set Valley of the Dolls, however in a much milder, less scandalous version). But there is also something else in All The Beautiful Girls that grabs your attention and prompts you to keep reading. It is a beautifully written book, and Elizabeth J. Church’s mastery, passion and enjoyment of language is fully evident: I don’t think I have ever highlighted so many passages and turns of phrase in a book before, bits that I want to revisit and enjoy again and again. There is also an accuracy of historical detail that is to be praised and which, together with Church’s amazing gift with words, elevate this book from simply yet another chick-lit read to a good woman’s lit book to have around, or to dive into when you need a good, hopeful, girly story to cheer you up.

Genre pegging: General Fiction/Women’s Fiction
Verdict: a recommended example of good old Women’s Fiction
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
Shelves:
Women’s Fiction

 

 

blog tour: book review & excerpt of Jessica Strawser’s new novel, Not That I Could Tell


U.K. Kindle & paperback cover

This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, Hodder & Stoughton. The present review is also being published to my accounts on NetGalley, GoodReads, Amazon, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media . 

I’m delighted to be taking part, this morning, in the blog tour for Jessica Strawser’s second novel, Not That I Could Tell, which was published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK on the 5th of this month (Kindle, £6.99 and paperback, £14.99), and is being marketed as a general fiction title. On the U.S., the hardcover was published on March 27th ($26.99, St. Martin’s Press), but the novel is being marketed as women’s fiction.

Courtesy of the publishers, I am bringing you an excerpt which, though small, is very mysterious and intriguing and will, I am sure, go a long way in spicing up your curiosity about this novel. My own contribution to the blog tour will be, as usual, my full review of the title.

U.S. Hardback cover

the synopsis:

Ever wonder what your friends really think of you?

Drinks in hand, a group of neighbourhood women gather around a fire pit to enjoy a rare child-less Saturday night. Giddy with freedom, they drink too much, share secrets they wish, perhaps, they hadn’t, and enjoy getting to know each other better.

The single newcomer. The imperfect mom. The new-born parents. The military wife. The almost divorcee.

Come Monday morning, one of them is gone.

As a police investigation launches, the women will band together and ask whether they should have noticed that something was amiss.

But how well can you really know your neighbours, when appearances can be so deceiving?

the excerpt:

the review:

Not That I Could Tell takes us to a close-knit neighbourhood in small-town America, in the town of Yellow Springs in Ohio, to the kind of street where everyone knows (or thinks they know) pretty much everybody else and the sum of each other’s lives. It is a Saturday night in September, and several women decide to spend a well deserved night of relaxation away from their husbands and children. Armed with their child monitors, glass of wine in hand, they get together around the fire pit in the back garden of one of their houses, getting to know each other and, in particular, the new arrival to the street, a woman who has only recently bought a house there.

Sitting around the fire, the women enjoy their rare night of freedom, drinking a glass of wine and exchanging stories and confidences. At the end of the night they return home, and by next morning they realise they can hardly remember how they got there, or indeed most of the fireside evening, and what they cannot remember seems to be as mortifying as what they can. Tellingly, perhaps, neither can they  remember having drunk all that much. Such things however are, if not to be expected at least not unheard of, and life resumes as sleepily as usual for the street’s inhabitants in general, and the five women in particular.  Nothing seems to have changed — until, that is, one of the women and her children are discovered missing.

Overnight, the lives of the street’s inhabitants are catapulted into a cycle of constant upheaval and uncertainty. As the neighbourhood reels from the shock, the police seem to trundle along a not very successful investigation, and the media seem to rejoice in the confusion they create. As the weeks progress without either a body being found, or the woman and her children located safe and sound, no one and nothing is left untouched; and one by one the women are forced to re-examine the ties that bind them to one another, how well they know themselves, and how much exactly they know about each other’s lives.

the verdict:

I wish I could say I enjoyed this book more than I have. Although Strawser’s style is quite fluid and proficient, and the novel is very well written, I feel the plot has let it down somewhat. In fact, after about 20 pages or so, I knew exactly what had happened to Kirsten and her children, and how the novel would be ending; the ‘twists and turns’ the author introduces along the way were unfortunately not enough to make me cast enough doubt on the outcome. And even though I felt that at times certain details were almost too contrived, I believe that on the balance they contributed positively to the development of the story-line.

The characters are well fleshed out and on the whole quite believable, even slightly dopey Lizzy who seems only too happy to be taken in by handsome doctor Paul, soon-to-be ex-husband of the missing woman — and this despite the veritable cacophony of alarm bells she seems so intent on ignoring. Even giving her due discount for being on the rebound (from what was to all effects a non-relationship) and perhaps somewhat inexperienced, I spent half the novel wanting to shake some sense into her.  Seriously, Lizzy? Seriously?

My main bone of contention though is with the UK publishers and their marketing people, and their view of which genre this book should be ascribed to. I agree that it is too light and straightforward for literary fiction, and similarly too light and nowhere near suspenseful enough to be classed as a mystery/suspense read, while any elements that could have made it a thriller are simply not marked enough. But surely its subject-matter, as well as the treatment thereof, make it undeniably fall under Women’s Fiction…?

Apart from that, all well and good, I should say. I’m shelving it as Women’s Lit, because it is where I believe it belongs. And it is as women’s lit that I am rating it four, wholly deserved, lovely little hearts.

Therefore, and if women’s fiction is your cup of tea, or if you’re looking for something on the general cross-section between general fiction and a thriller, a light-enough though serious-enough kind of novel talking about mysterious happenings and women’s lives and which can keep you company during your week’s holiday, I daresay this is the book you’re looking for — so look no further: now that you’ve found it, go grab your own copy. Mine’s already taken.

Genre pegging: General Fiction
Verdict: recommended
Rating: ♥♥♥♥
Shelves:
Women’s Fiction 

and where else to follow this blog tour:

Jessica Strawser's Not That I Could Tell Blog tour poster

Book Review: Serenity Engulfed by Craig A. Hart

So. Yesterday was launch day for Craig A. Hart’s new Shelby Alexander thriller, Serenity Engulfed, which we marked with a lengthy feature post including one fab interview with this author.

Today, I’m starting a cycle of reviews of Craig’s two thrillers series, The Shelby Alexander Thrillers Series, and the SpyCo Series — with a review of his latest book. Here it is.

 

Edition details:

  • File Size: 2680 KB
  • Print Length: 190 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1986153517
  • Publisher: Northern Lake Publishing (April 3, 2018)
  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B07B4Y76HC

the synopsis:

When Shelby’s daughter, Leslie, fails to show up at his cabin for her long-planned visit to northern Michigan, he’s concerned, but makes excuses.

When her car is found abandoned by the side of a tree-lined highway, he fears the worst.

When her cellphone appears on his front porch, he knows something terrible has happened and that he is to blame.

Enlisting the help of the new county sheriff, Shelby launches a search for Leslie, all the while dealing with a prostitute in fear for her life, a sexy writer interested in writing his life story, and the long-banished ghosts of his own past.

Familiar enemies resurface in this blazing new thriller that finds Shelby racing against time to save the most important person in his life: his own child.

the review:

Honestly, if I were Leslie, Shelby Alexander’s daughter, I would revoke paternity rights so fast Shelby wouldn’t know what hit him. Or anybody else, for that matter. Just as long as there would be some strange light, Men In Black style, and the whole world would just forget, instantly, collectively, irrevocably, that Alexander had ever been, for the flimsiest of moments, my father… Especially now, that she has a baby girl to think about. Honestly, if I were her, I would want my distance from him — as in, possibly, the Antipodeans, thank you very much.

And yes, I do know he just bursts in there practically everywhere, in a flurry of punches and bullets, together with his best mate Mack, setting the world alight until he finds and rescues her again. And I do know he, for all intents and purposes and as far as we can see, loves her dearly, and would never ever let her down again. And no, I do not think I’m being unfair on Alexander. Just think of the girl for a minute, and forget all about Alexander in Tom Selleck’s alluring skin, and the Shelby Alexander thrillers becoming something as visually and narratively satisfying, and as thoroughly aesthetically pleasing as Jesse Stone… Just put that aside for a sec, will you, and think of the poor girl…

There. Now you get exactly what I mean. Forever in the path of danger. And I’m not talking an uneven stone on the pavement. I’m talking about being kidnapped, caged, chained, shot at, manhandled, you name it. And whatever her faults, listen, she deserves so much better than becoming the currency of choice whenever any of the scum of the earth her father is so intent on cleaning from the face of Serenity, decides to have a go at exerting revenge for being hard done by by Shelby Alexander.

But anyway. Where else would we find the conflict at the source of our little instalments of simple pleasure? Because the fact is that Shelby Alexander is a cool dude, and he doesn’t give a damn about many things on this earth, and therefore to have him spring into action, and have enough to tell about, it has to be something that gets directly through his skin — and that is first and foremost his daughter. Poor, poor girl. She’s it, the permanent target, a walking bullseye for Serenity worst lowlifes. But how lucky the rest of us — because her misfortune is nothing if not our little literary fix, our shot of amusement.

This time, Hart has the infamous Ellises, the scum of what one could easily think of as otherwise near-paradisiac Serenity, back on the scene, the sociopathic Scott Ellis having been granted early release by a somewhat misguided parole board. Back on the scene are also arch-villain Darkmore, who defines himself to Leslie as her worst nightmare, and Grant Bachmann, he of Sid Bachmann descent, Shelby’s very own worst nightmare.

On Shelby’s side and apart from Mack there are still Quinn Edwards, who has now managed to sell the idea of a book on Alexander’s exploits to her publisher, a now estranged Carly pursuing her new life in New York, and a brand new Sheriff, Angela Hammer, who soon proves herself to be on the right side of Shelby’s fence, and ‘one hell of a woman’. And because good things reportedly come in threes, there’s also Katherine, a… erm… aesthetically pleasing lass right back from Shelby’s old school days — the chemistry promises, more than the dynamics with Angela, she of the growing hammer fame, who in any case is a member of the law — and, get ready for this, a cat.

Yes, ladies and gents, a cat. And what a cat! A cat that may or may not have a connection to Odawa lore and to the old Odawa man who taught Shelby most of what he knows. This, well, this promises. There’s all to look forward in the next instalment of Serenity troubles. And besides, I know Jesse Stone’s borrowed dog looked pretty much like him, only proving the old western lore that human and pet grow to resemble each other, but honestly, could you ever imagine a feline of Selleck’s quality with anything other than a cat companion…? My point, precisely. So there you go.

And then, when we think it’s all winding down towards those narratively fatidic words, The End, the cat goes and saves Shelby Alexander’s life… Craig, when’s the next instalment coming out? Can you make it pretty soon pretty please, and a wee bit longer (say, something like another 75 pages…?) Thank you.

the verdict:

I love the Shelby Alexander thrillers. They are simple, uncomplicated little stories that keep you entertained. To begin with, I love Shelby Alexander, the imperfect hero, the exasperating character who seems as lifelike as flesh — who, well, just like its maker I can only imagine as lifelike as Tom Selleck’s Jesse Stone — and who, apart from his propensity to being easily found by violence and misadventure, is comfortably familiar, expectedly complex, unexpectedly vulnerable… Alexander is “the hero next door”, and we can but love him.

Craig’s prose is straight forward, his plots are inventive yet simple — actually, it is Craig’s storytelling simplicity, coupled with a quiet cinematic quality of his books’ action, that is his greatest asset and the series best selling point, together with the reason why we so readily grab one of these books to keep us company during a commuter journey, or an evening by the fireplace when there’s no Jesse Stone in the box (because, well, Jesse Stone has everything Craig’s prose has, but it does have Selleck, which Craig’s unfortunately does not, not yet, and I do love my cherries).

Genre pegging: thriller
Verdict: recommended, perfect keep-me-company reading
Rating: ♥♥♥♥½
Shelves:
mystery & thrillers; “indies”

Interviewing the Author Craig A. Hart on the launch day of his new title, Serenity Engulfed

 


 

It is with immense pleasure that I bring to you today my next feature post on another indie author, whose work I have been closely following for a while now — in fact, since he published his first Shelby Alexander thriller series book, back in 2016. His name is Craig A. Hart, and it’s been a thrill for me to witness Craig mature and develop in his career as a writer. There have been 11 novels published in the meantime, between his Alexander and his SpyCo series (the latter which he has been co-writing with Scott J. Varengo since book 2), with another one scheduled to come out in the next couple of months.

I asked Craig to supply me with a little bio of his (and maybe a little bit more, just to sate our terrible, cat-like curiosity), and to my dismay he was quite circumspect about himself and his achievements. Not that I don’t understand him perfectly — writing about ourselves is mostly akin to torture… Without much further ado, therefore, here is Craig together with what he had to say about himself:

Craig A. Hart is the stay-at-home father of twin boys, his most important job. Secondly, he is the author of the Shelby Alexander Thriller Series and the SpyCo Novella Series. A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Craig lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

Not that much to go on, is there? I agree. As with all our favourite authors, we wish to know more than this. And you almost despair when you realise that you will not be able to glean any new details from his Amazon author page, from his Twitter profile, or from his Facebook group page, which you definitely must join. Nor, I have to say, will you get any further satisfaction from Craig’s website, which reads exactly the same as he sent us — but which you absolutely must  visit, and especially subscribe to.

If you happen to be a bookworm and find yourself in GoodReads, then here’s Craig’s GoodReads author page — where you can finally find out a bit more about him. This is where we learn, for instance, that he is not just a writer, but also an editor, which goes a long way to explain how and why his ARCs are so clean and perfect first time round, and no trouble to read.

We also learn that he worked as editor-in-chief for the Rusty Nail literary magazine, as a manager for Sweatshoppe Media, and also as director for Northern Illinois Radio Information Service, which he describes as “an outreach that brought daily news and information to the visually impaired“.

So, what else do we find out from his GoodReads page? Quite a lot, actually. Here’s what he tells us on his profile:

He has been published in The Orange Room Review, Voices, The Stray Branch, Red Poppy Review, The Mindful Word, Inclement, Right Hand Pointing, 7×20 Magazine, and others. 

In 2015, Kindle Press published his novel Becoming Moon. NPR affiliate Northern Public Radio featured Becoming Moon in their Winter Book Series, and it won Best Novel of Summer 2015 from Pinnacle Awards. 

Besides his award-winning novel, Craig is the author of The Writer’s Tune-Up Manual, The Busy Writer, and The Girl Who Read Hemingway. 

He is also the author of the new Shelby Alexander Thriller Series. The first in the series, Serenity, released October 31, 2016. 

A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Craig lives in Iowa City, Iowa with his wife, sons, and two cats. 

(Ahah, a cat person!!! I knew it! I knew it! I just knew it!)

Ah-erm. Back on topic, then.

So, how can I improve on all I’ve managed to uncover about Craig A. Hart, the author? Quite a lot, actually. Over two years of emails, newsletters and media presence, I’ve learnt that Craig is a devoted husband and father, proud of his family and willing to share his pics with his reader team. In them, Craig and his wife are always looking happy and serene — and smiling.

He reads avidly and across the spectrum, and is no strange to that rarefied book space called a library, that fewer and fewer people seem to cherish these days. We have the pics to prove it, too. He always replies to his emails, which is great, and he is always very polite, and appreciative of your input.

He’s been self-publishing for most of his author journey, ever since Kindle Press published Becoming Moon in 2015. Recently, Craig set up and launched his own publishing company, Northern Lake Publishing LLC, which is currently accepting submissions of manuscripts in popular genres.

But it’s in between the lines that you catch a glimpse of his writer’s soul. I was particularly taken by the questions and answers he has on his GoodReads profile, in which I think can be glimpsed a bit of what I call a “writer’s soul”, and I wanted to leave them here, properly linked to, for all who don’t have a GoodReads profile (more recent first):

How do you deal with writer’s block?
Booze. No, seriously…okay, yeah…it’s booze.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?
There aren’t that many things I love about being a writer. It’s hard work–the hardest I’ve ever done — and it’s lonely. Working to get rid of those demons is tough. On the other hand, those moments when things come together on the page yields a euphoria that is impossible to beat with any other high. That’s what I live for as a writer.

What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Buckle in for the long haul. Overnight success is for the movies (or maybe the book you’re writing). If you’re meant to be a writer, you’ll write. You won’t be able to help yourself. And if you’re one of those people, then don’t let anything or anyone tell you otherwise.

How do you get inspired to write?
I read. Writers should read at least as much as they write. Reading is indispensable for a writer. A writer who doesn’t read…well, don’t get me started.

Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?
Becoming Moon has its roots in my own experience. It is not a memoir, but elements of the plot, particularly Part Two, are heavily influenced by my own life.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a novel that, while not a sequel to Becoming Moon, is a variation on the themes of repressed desires, coming of age, and struggling to be oneself against the establishment.

§

As far as getting to know your authors goes, then, I have of course submitted Craig to my 39 Questions, which he answered with his usual candidness (though he seems to have chosen to leave two of them out). One answer however made me laugh aloud, in a mix of pleasure and surprise: that to question number eighteen, one where he describes Tom Selleck, and most particularly his rendition of Jesse Stone, as the best fit for Shelby Alexander. Thinking about it later, I asked myself why I’d been so taken aback by Craig’s reply. I again remembered this group conversation we had had about Craig’s (and Craig’s and Scott’s) characters, and which actors did we their readers saw playing them in hypothetical screen dramatisations of the books, and Craig’s and mine choices had matched almost perfectly…

It’s time to leave you with Craig’s interview, then. I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did, and that this feature article will spice up your curiosity and appetite for his books. Of which, by the way, a new one is being launched today (Serenity Engulfed, number five in The Shelby Alexander Thriller Series), and can be grabbed right now at the special price of £0.99/$1.39 in Amazon.

And while you are there, do not forget to pick up a box set of his first three SpyCo novels, Assignment: Adventure, for free, while the box set of  books 1-4 of The Shelby Alexander Thriller Series retails for £3.53 /$4.99. The first Shelby Alexander thriller, Serenity, and the first SpyCo, Assignment: Athens, are also free, both in the UK and the US — you might want to stock up for the coming holidays, that is, of course, if you can stand to wait that long to read Craig’s books

All right — here are, finally,

The 39 Questions

Craig, first of all, hello, and please let me welcome you to the scribbles, with a great big thank you for agreeing to participate on this new adventure of mine, and mostly for answering my very many questions as candidly and extensively as you have. I absolutely love your replies, and am particularly happy and proud of this interview, so I hope you’re just as happy as I am.

1. So, to begin with, could I ask you about your reading habits? Would you say you too are infected with the reading virus and, if so, how old were you when it first struck?

Oh, yes. I definitely have the reading virus and have since I was quite young. Some of my earliest and fondest memories were formed at the library, where I was known by the librarians as “the kid who checked out a stack of books taller than he was.” Granted, I was short for my age, but still…

2. Which is the first book you remember reading, and how old were you?

That’s difficult to say, because they kind of run together in those early memories. One book I remembering reading early–probably because I read it over and over–was Garrison’s Gorillas and the Fear Formula, which was a book related to the 1960s TV show. I’m not sure where I got it or why I loved it so much, but I treasured it. And now that I’m thinking about it, I wish I still had it!

3. How much, and what, do you read? What are your favourite genre(s)/authors/books?

I don’t read as much as I’d like, but I always have two or three books going. I read pretty widely, but I find myself gravitating most often to non-fiction. It really is an art to tell a true story in a way that reads like a novel–I’d like to try it one day.

5. How do you read? Do you read as a reader, for the pleasure and entertainment of it? Or do you read like a writer, dissecting scenes, plot, character, action, pace, language, everything…?

I try to read as a reader, because that’s a lot more fun. But I do sometimes find myself questioning what I’m reading. I dislike that, because it gets in the way of the enjoyment and it’s not something I do purposefully. I suppose after years of writing and editing, it becomes inescapable. So I try to turn that part of my brain off when I read, and if the book is decent, that can often work.

>6. I recently read a book that left me breathless and wishing I had written it myself, and feeling that nothing I will ever write can ever be as good as that. Have you ever felt like that with a book you read, and which is the book you wish you had written?

Definitely. I remember reading a biography of Vladimir Horowitz that detailed one of his Carnegie Hall performances, one that was so spectacular that students of music left the venue vowing to go home and burn their own pianos. I do sometimes feel that way, feeling that I will never write a book as good as what I just read and should just quit now. That biography is one example–it reads like novel. Another book would be In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

7. Which kinds of fictional villains do you love to hate the most? Who are your favourite fictional villain and villainess?

I enjoy villains with a story of their own, who aren’t simply evil for evil’s sake. The reason for their evilness can be twisted, of course, but it should at least make sense to the villain. My award for villain would probably go to Humbert Humbert, from Nabokov’s Lolita.

8. What about heroes, what type of hero/heroine is your favourite? Who are your favourite fictional hero and heroine, then?

Those with flaws. Those who occasionally mess up and fail. The infallible hero/heroine isn’t very compelling to me. That’s why Kryptonite came along–because the Superman creators realized it was become dull to have a hero without a weakness–no real drama in that. If I had to choose one, I suppose I’d go with Sherlock Holmes.

10. Do you tend to read more eBooks or printed ones? And what do you read the most, traditional publishing house, independent publisher, small press, self-published?

I love print. I know that’s very old-fashioned of me, but I love the feel, smell, and appearance of a printed book. I appreciate the innovation and practicality of ebooks, though. I mean, why carry one book when you can carry your entire library with you? So I’ve been forcing myself to embrace the brave new world of ebooks. And I don’t pay much attention to the publisher. If a book looks good and grabs my attention, I’ll read it.

11. What title(s) do you have on your bedside table (and on your fireside one, and your desk, and in your handbag) right now?

I have The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison, The Stranger by Albert Camus, and Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz.

12. Do you have a favourite quote about reading, and would you share it with us?

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” – Ernest Hemingway

13. Let’s talk about the “writing bug”, then. How old were you when you started writing? Did you always know you would become a writer? If not, when did you decide you’d become one?

I don’t remember exactly. I know I was writing pretty early, because I still have some little books I wrote on my mom’s typewriter. I’d fold paper to make the pages and then staple them together, and draw covers in pencil. My mom would pay me $5 for every book. I think I wrote four or five of those. They’re…hilarious, to say the least. I always sort of hoped to be a writer, but it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I began pursuing the reality of that. Until then, it was more of a “wouldn’t that be cool” idea.

14. Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated or favourite place (a desk, a study, a garden chair, maybe?) and could you describe it for us?

My ideal place is in my downstairs office, where I have all my paraphernalia and knick-knack stuff. Unfortunately, my current life as a stay-at-home dad doesn’t allow me to write there nearly as much as I’d like. So I’ve had to learn to write wherever I happen to be. For example, right now as I write this, I am sitting in a recliner in the main downstairs room watching my three-year-old twins pretend to be characters from the kids’ TV show PJ Masks.

15. Do you journal/keep a diary? What about a notebook, do you have one that you take everywhere you go? What do you write in it?

I don’t keep a journal, but I wish I did. And I used to carry a notebook around when I went places, but now I don’t go many places. And when I do, the twins are with me and I’m usually too busy making sure they don’t escape from me in a parking lot to think about plot points. When I did carry a notebook, I would write down random thoughts, snatches of conversation I overheard, ideas, anything I thought might come in handy in a book. I anticipate carrying a notebook again one day, and while I’m at it, I want to start journaling.

16. So, how do you go about constructing your book’s reality? Are you a thorough planner, before you start writing our book? Or are you a “pantser”? Perhaps even a bit of both? Does it ever happen to you that one of your characters just suddenly decides to do their own thing?

I’m mostly a pantser. I do outline, but I do it after the fact. In other words, I outline what I’ve already written. This helps me stay on track without sacrificing a lot of creative impulse, and lets me look back at a glance whenever I have a question about timeline or pacing. And, yes, occasionally there will be a rogue character who decides they know better than I do. Heck, sometimes a character will invent themselves and decided to not only insert themselves into a story, but take it over. Very rude, that, but it happens–and I have yet to hear a character apologize when it does occur.

17. How do you create your characters? Are there “real life doubles” for them? I know we sort of talked about this before, but I’m particularly curious about Shelby Alexander, the intrepid sleuth of your Serenity series, though I equally like the set of spies of your Spyco series, so… will you tell me about them all?

I don’t think I’ve ever taken a character wholesale from real life. Mostly they are composites of several people or have a grain of truth and I’ve made up the rest. Shelby is interesting in that I made him up as a reaction to the norms in thrillers today–namely the ex-Navy SEAL with six-pack abs. I wanted a different sort of character, one perhaps more people could identify with. As I’ve written more about him, he has adopted many characteristics of various people I’ve known, not to mention some of my own quirks. I like to think of him as me at that age, minus the deadly right hook and penchant for trouble–I was never a boxer and am far too lazy to run around getting into gunfights.

18. Again, we sort of talked about this (or something quite close to this) before, but for everyone else’s benefit, if there was to be a movie or two made of your books, and you were to have a say in it, who would you like to see being cast as your main characters?

I could see Tom Selleck playing Shelby. He was great as Jesse Stone, and that’s pretty close to the way I’d seem him playing Shelby as well.

19. Where do the ideas for your books come from? Is any of it based on a true event, a piece of news maybe, a film, a book or books you read? What about the Spyco series, which are I believe a collaboration with Scott Varengo — how does your collaboration work plot-wise (and characterisation-wise, and everything else-wise?)

I’ve been asked quite a bit where my ideas come from and so have had a lot of time and opportunities to think about it. But I still don’t know. Occasionally, a certain thing will spark the process–a news story, for example–but more often it’s something much smaller. Something as tiny as a raindrop can spark an idea. The other week I took my twins to my parents’ house. It was raining that day–or had just finished raining–and as we walked up to the door, I heard the water running down the spout and splashing on the flagstone. That sound immediately threw me into a story in my head about a man in solitary confinement who had no window or clock, no way to tell the passage of time. But he could hear the water dripping every time it rained, so he began using that as a reference point. As in, “He knew only that it had been two rains since he last ate.” That’s the way the ideas usually happen for me. A quick flash in the pan. I suppose it’s just the way my brain works.

With the SpyCo stuff, it’s much the same. It’s not uncommon for one of us to message the other and say something like, “Omg, listen to this…” and tell the idea. Then we’ll go back and forth a couple of times with thoughts to see if it will fit into the story, which it usually does, and then it’s off to the races. It would be very difficult to co-write with most people, I think, but we’ve been fortunate in the sense that we think very much alike and are also flexible and easygoing–at least with each other. This makes the process not only workable, but fun as well.

20. How much is there of you in your main characters? And which of them do you identify most with?

Perhaps I should be ashamed to say that I seep into most of my main characters to one extent or another. I probably identify most with the main character in my book Becoming Moon. That is a highly personal book, and semi-autobiographical (with some important exceptions). I’d tell you the character’s name, but I never name him in the book.

21. How much research did you do for either of your two series, and what kind, where, how, when? How easy, or how difficult, was it to find the info you needed?

The Shelby series is pretty easy, because it’s set in Michigan, and that’s where I grew up. I know it pretty well. I do look up specifics now and then, but it’s usually a simply process. The SpyCo series is another matter, because it takes place around the world. While I place to circle the globe at some point, I haven’t yet, so research is important. Scott and I both do research for those books, often going so far as to fire up Google Earth and virtually “walk” the routes our characters take in the story.

22. How easy or how difficult is it for you to write about your book’s themes? Do you see yourself, fr instance, ever going into some real hard and dark, or graphic stuff? (Some Scandi-style, hard-core noir, maybe?)

I’m drawn to dark themes. Neither Shelby nor SpyCo gets that dark (with some specific exceptions), because I’m writing for market with those and that’s not the audience I’ve found for them. But I do see myself exploring darker subjects in a darker style at some point.

23. Do you think the author knows everything there is to know about her/his characters and their life? How much do you know about your characters?

I don’t know about “everything.” I will say that with every new book, I learn something new about the characters. Sometimes they surprise me with a piece of their story. In Serenity Engulfed, for example, we/I discovered a piece of Shelby’s childhood that had not yet been touched on, and which has not yet been fully revealed. I can also see, though, if a writer has written, say, a thirty book series on a character(s), that they’d have to know them pretty well by that time. I feel like I’m still getting acquainted with mine.

24. Which of your fictional heroes/villains did you enjoy writing the most, and why? Are those your two favourite characters in your own fiction?

Shelby is my favorite hero to write, because he so easy. That’s not to say it’s easy to write books that he’s in, but he as a character is easy. Dialogue flows–it’s like he’s actually speaking and I’m just taking dictation. For villains–I really enjoyed writing the character of Smith in Serenity Stalked. Speaking of dark, that book has a couple of dark spots. I delve into Smith’s past a bit and take a look at why he’s the way he is. My two overall favorite characters, though, would be Shelby and Mack.

25. Is there another sequel in the works, for either series? I hope you’re telling me that there’s another Assignment sequel coming up soon, somehow restoring my very own order of things, but if not, what else is in the forge? (And why the back-flipping kitties are you not, then?!?) How far are you into writing your next title, then, and when can we expect it to hit the shelves?

Yes, there is another book for both series coming up. Serenity Engulfed is coming April 3 and Assignment: London is scheduled for May 1. I’d very much like to put out two more Assignment books this summer (in addition to London), with perhaps another Serenity late summer or early fall (but don’t hold me to that last part).

26. Of all your titles so far, which is your favourite one? Which was the one that gave you more pleasure, and the one you found the hardest to write?

Becoming Moon was by far the hardest to write, probably because it was the most personal. It’s also probably my favorite, for that very reason. Besides that one, though, I suppose the first Serenity is number one. It marked a turning point in my writing career, plus it’s a fun book.

27. For the benefit of any learning writers among us, could you describe your creative process? (how you pick an idea, develop it, draw your characters, plot the action, etc.?)

Once I have some ideas, I generally choose the one that excites me the most or the one that simply won’t leave me along (often those two are the same). Then I simply begin writing. Once I have a scene or two down, then I begin giving more thought to the future of the story and start fleshing out characters and their motivations. I try to plot action like a film, try to give it the same rhythm, and build the action throughout. A sense of timing in fiction is, I think, an art in itself. I’m not totally sure it can be taught, but it can certainly be honed. And there are even charts online you can get to see if you’re pacing according to a classic story structure. Not a bad idea, if you are a writer who struggles that that aspect. Then once you get a feel for it, you can improvise.

29. Finally, what’s your favourite quote about writing?

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” – Hemingway

30. Here are the quintessential questions, then — first one: why do you write?

I don’t know how not to write. I do know that I’m miserable when I’m not writing, so maybe I write not to be miserable. Other than that, it is simply an inexorable pull that I feel each and every day.

31. How long have you been writing?

I don’t know exactly, but 25 years would be a close guess.

32: What was the very first thing you wrote which made you stop and look at it, and think: “wow, yes, this could be something”?

I wrote a story in my teens set in the Middle Ages. It was the best thing I’d written to that point (I read it over a few weeks ago and it’s not great) and I thought it might get accepted. I sent it out and it was rejected, but it came back with a handwritten note from the editor, which was a great sign back when people actually mailed physical manuscripts. So, even though it was disappointing to be rejected (and there were many, many more), I was still encouraged to continue.

33. So, how did you come to writing? Did you take the academic path, or is it just something you discovered you were good at, and decided to pursue?

Both, actually. I’ve taken college courses that were useful, but it was mostly my autodidactical approach that shaped my writing. This is not a reproach of formal learning, mind you, only to say that it will take you only so far in a field like creative writing.

34. What kind of thing do you prefer to write, and how did you come to choose your genre(s)?

I enjoy writing stories that examine the dark, gritty side of humanity. And I’d like to write more of that. I write thrillers now because I’ve always enjoyed the action and fun inherent in the genre. It’s what I started writing when I first tried the writing path, and now that I’ve returned to it, I find it is even more fun now than it was then. And it also has room for that dark, gritty stuff if the writer so chooses.

35. Do you write full time? What’s your usual writing routine? How long does it usually take you to produce a title, from concept to first draft, and then through revisions to publishing?

My full-time job is as a stay-at-home parent to my twins. Writing is a side gig. I usually write during their nap or after they go to bed. And on the weekends my wife often takes them off my hands so I can write. On average, I try to finish a book in three months from first draft to publishing. I don’t revise all that much, because I write pretty cleanly and often edit as I go. I know most writing coaches advise against that, but it works for me.

36. The “writing life”, as it is — is that something you recommend? Which aspects of the writer’s life do you enjoy the most (apart from writing, of course!), and which are you not so keen on?

I do not recommend it and one should only do it if they can’t do anything else. It’s a tough market, the pay is uncertain, and the odds are against success. I consider myself fortunate to have the platform that I do, because the truth is that for over twenty years, there was next to nothing in terms of recognition or interest. It takes a long time to learn the craft of writing–I’m still learning. I know there are examples of “overnight success,” but most of the time those successes were many years in the making.

37. You are what goes by the name of an “independent author”, i.e., an author who did you choose the traditional path to publication. And if you didn’t… why not? Why did you choose self-publishing, and would you do it all over again?

I’d like to preface this answer by saying that were I offered a lucrative contract by a traditional publisher, I would probably take it. Having said that, I very much enjoy doing it on my own. Going with a traditional publisher comes at a cost. You lose control of the work, in many cases, not mention the lion’s share of the profit. It’s not uncommon for publishers to pay 10-15% royalty on sales, which isn’t great when you consider the 70% that KDP (Amazon’s publishing platform) will pay. Granted, you have to sell books to make money, and that’s where most authors stumble. Seventy percent of zero is, well, zero, after all. But if you have a market, you can do just as well and even much better going it alone or with a hybrid. The downside is that there are many unscrupulous entities out there who have no issue taking advantage of authors. Always check into the history of a publisher before signing anything away. And better yet, keep your rights to yourself.

38. Traditional publishers are often perceived as the gatekeepers as far as quality of literary output is concerned, with indies and self-pub’ed authors seen as offering less literary worth, and therefore less value for money. Tell me about your take on this issue of trad vs indie publishing, gatekeeping, and quality standards and literary worth.

Traditional publishers have a stake in the failure of indies, simply because of revenue. There is are limited dollars available, after all. To be fair, however, we have to look at the history of independent publishing. It used to be largely the case that those who self-published did so because they couldn’t get a traditional contract (there were exceptions, of course). With the publishing revolution, however, that changed. Now authors can produce books on par with the quality of those put out by the traditional publishers. This does not mean that they also do, though, and that’s where the stigma remains. Independent authors have a responsibility to put out the best product they can. Just because one CAN publish, doesn’t mean one SHOULD publish.

39. Last “quintessential” question, then: I know you have just launched your own publishing company, which is great, and that you are planning a very busy summer of 2018 — but where do you see yourself as a writer, but also as the head of your own publishing business, in the long term?

I will always be first and foremost a writer. And I hope very much that I will always think of the writer’s interests in any author that I publish.

And last but by no means least, and because I’m sure everyone is just dying to know, which of these do you prefer?

Coffee, or tea? Tea
Cheesecake, or blueberry muffins? Cheesecake
Turquoise, or aqua green? Aqua green
iolets, or jonquils? Violets
Mountain, or the sea? The sea
Music, or theatre? Theatre
Cats or Dogs? Cats

Craig A. Hart’s social media & links:

Website
Facebook
Twitter

Craig’s Bibliography & where to find his books for sale
(please note, active links to Amazon; the links provided by the author are to Amazon.com)

Becoming Moon, Kindle Press – 2015 – Literary Fiction; Northern Lake Publishing – 2018 – Thriller (new edition)

The Shelby Alexander Series

  1. Serenity, Amazon Digital Services – 2016 – Thriller
  2. Serenity StalkedSweatshoppe Publications – 2017 – Thriller
  3. Serenity Avenged, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  4. Serenity Submerged, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  5. Serenity Engulfed, Northern Lake Publishing – 2018 – Thriller

The SpyCo Series

  1. Assignment: Athens, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  2. Assignment: Paris, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  3. Assignment: Istanbul, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  4. Assignment: Sydney, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  5. Assignment: Alaska, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  6. Assignment: Dublin, Amazon Digital Services – 2018 – Thriller

Collections

  1. The Shelby Alexander Series 1-4
  2. Assignment: Adventure, Books 1-3
  3. Assignment: Danger, Books 4-6

Interviewing the Author Craig A. Hart on the launch day of his new title, Serenity Engulfed, plus my review!

 


 

It is with immense pleasure that I bring to you today my next feature post on another indie author, whose work I have been closely following for a while now — in fact, since he published his first Shelby Alexander thriller series book, back in 2016. His name is Craig A. Hart, and it’s been a thrill for me to witness Craig mature and develop in his career as a writer. There have been 11 novels published in the meantime, between his Alexander and his SpyCo series (the latter which he has been co-writing with Scott J. Varengo since book 2), with another one scheduled to come out in the next couple of months.

I asked Craig to supply me with a little bio of his (and maybe a little bit more, just to sate out terrible, cat-like curiosity), and to my dismay he was quite circumspect about himself and his achievements. Not that I don’t understand him perfectly — writing about ourselves is mostly akin to torture… Without much further ado, therefore, here is Craig together with what he had to say about himself:

Craig A. Hart is the stay-at-home father of twin boys, his most important job. Secondly, he is the author of the Shelby Alexander Thriller Series and the SpyCo Novella Series. A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Craig lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

Not that much to go on, is there? I agree. As with all our favourite authors, we wish to know more than this. And you almost despair when you realise that you will not be able to glean any new details from his Amazon author page, from his Twitter profile, or from his Facebook group page, which you definitely must join. Nor, I have to say, will you get any further satisfaction from Craig’s website, which reads exactly the same as he sent us — but which you absolutely must  visit, and especially subscribe to.

If you happen to be a bookworm and find yourself in GoodReads, then here’s Craig’s GoodReads author page — where you can finally find out a bit more about him. This is where we learn, for instance, that he is not just a writer, but also an editor, which goes a long way to explain how and why his ARCs are so clean and perfect first time round, and no trouble to read.

We also learn that he worked as editor-in-chief for the Rusty Nail literary magazine magazine, as a manager for Sweatshoppe Media, and also as director for Northern Illinois Radio Information Service, which he describes as “an outreach that brought daily news and information to the visually impaired“.

So, what else do we find out from his GoodReads page? Quite a lot, actually. Here’s what he tells us on his profile:

He has been published in The Orange Room Review, Voices, The Stray Branch, Red Poppy Review, The Mindful Word, Inclement, Right Hand Pointing, 7×20 Magazine, and others. 

In 2015, Kindle Press published his novel Becoming Moon. NPR affiliate Northern Public Radio featured Becoming Moon in their Winter Book Series, and it won Best Novel of Summer 2015 from Pinnacle Awards. 

Besides his award-winning novel, Craig is the author of The Writer’s Tune-Up Manual, The Busy Writer, and The Girl Who Read Hemingway. 

He is also the author of the new Shelby Alexander Thriller Series. The first in the series, Serenity, released October 31, 2016. 

A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Craig lives in Iowa City, Iowa with his wife, sons, and two cats. 

(Ahah, a cat person!!! I knew it! I knew it! I just knew it!)

Ah-erm. Back on topic, then.

So, how can I improve on all I’ve managed to uncover about Craig A. Hart, the author? Quite a lot, actually. Over two years of emails, newsletters and media presence, I’ve learnt that Craig is a devoted husband and father, proud of his family and willing to share his pics with his reader team. In them, Craig and his wife are always looking happy and serene — and smiling.

He reads avidly and across the spectrum, and is no strange to that rarefied book space called a library, that fewer and fewer people seem to cherish these days. We have the pics to prove it, too. He always replies to his emails, which is great, and he is always very polite, and appreciative of your input.

He’s been self-publishing for most of his author journey, ever since Kindle Press published Becoming Moon in 2015. Recently, Craig set up and launched his own publishing company, Northern Lake Publishing LLC, which is currently accepting submissions of manuscripts in popular genres.

But it’s in between the lines that you catch a glimpse of his writer’s soul. I was particularly taken by the questions and answers he has on his GoodReads profile, in which I think can be glimpsed a bit of what I call a “writer’s soul”, and I wanted to leave them here, properly linked to, for all who don’t have a GoodReads profile (more recent first):

How do you deal with writer’s block?
Booze. No, seriously…okay, yeah…it’s booze.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?
There aren’t that many things I love about being a writer. It’s hard work–the hardest I’ve ever done — and it’s lonely. Working to get rid of those demons is tough. On the other hand, those moments when things come together on the page yields a euphoria that is impossible to beat with any other high. That’s what I live for as a writer.

What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Buckle in for the long haul. Overnight success is for the movies (or maybe the book you’re writing). If you’re meant to be a writer, you’ll write. You won’t be able to help yourself. And if you’re one of those people, then don’t let anything or anyone tell you otherwise.

How do you get inspired to write?
I read. Writers should read at least as much as they write. Reading is indispensable for a writer. A writer who doesn’t read…well, don’t get me started.

Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?
Becoming Moon has its roots in my own experience. It is not a memoir, but elements of the plot, particularly Part Two, are heavily influenced by my own life.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a novel that, while not a sequel to Becoming Moon, is a variation on the themes of repressed desires, coming of age, and struggling to be oneself against the establishment.

§

As far as getting to know your authors goes, then, I have of course submitted Craig to my 39 Questions, which he answered with his usual candidness (though he seems to have chosen to leave two of them out). One answer however made me laugh aloud, in a mix of pleasure and surprise: that to question number eighteen, one where he describes Tom Selleck, and most particularly his rendition of Jesse Stone, as the best fit for Shelby Alexander. Thinking about it later, I asked myself why I’d been so taken aback by Craig’s reply. I again remembered this group conversation we had had about Craig’s (and Craig’s and Scott’s) characters, and which actors did we their readers saw playing them in hypothetical screen dramatisations of the books, and Craig’s and mine choices had matched almost perfectly…

It’s time to leave you with Craig’s interview, then. I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did, and that this feature article will spice up your curiosity and appetite for his books. Of which, by the way, a new one is being launched today (Serenity Engulfed, number five in The Shelby Alexander Thriller Series), and can be grabbed right now at the special price of £0.99/$1.39 in Amazon.

And while you are there, do not forget to pick up a box set of his first three SpyCo novels, Assignment: Adventure, for free, while the box set of  books 1-4 of The Shelby Alexander Thriller Series retails for £3.53 /$4.99. The first Shelby Alexander thriller, Serenity, and the first SpyCo, Assignment: Athens, are also free, both in the UK and the US — you might want to stock up for the coming holidays, that is, of course, if you can stand to wait that long to read Craig’s books

All right — here are, finally,

The 39 Questions

Craig, first of all, hello, and please let me welcome you to the scribbles, with a great big thank you for agreeing to participate on this new adventure of mine, and mostly for answering my very many questions as candidly and extensively as you have. I absolutely love your replies, and am particularly happy and proud of this interview, so I hope you’re just as happy as I am.

1. So, to begin with, could I ask you about your reading habits? Would you say you too are infected with the reading virus and, if so, how old were you when it first struck?

Oh, yes. I definitely have the reading virus and have since I was quite young. Some of my earliest and fondest memories were formed at the library, where I was known by the librarians as “the kid who checked out a stack of books taller than he was.” Granted, I was short for my age, but still…

2. Which is the first book you remember reading, and how old were you?

That’s difficult to say, because they kind of run together in those early memories. One book I remembering reading early–probably because I read it over and over–was Garrison’s Gorillas and the Fear Formula, which was a book related to the 1960s TV show. I’m not sure where I got it or why I loved it so much, but I treasured it. And now that I’m thinking about it, I wish I still had it!

3. How much, and what, do you read? What are your favourite genre(s)/authors/books?

I don’t read as much as I’d like, but I always have two or three books going. I read pretty widely, but I find myself gravitating most often to non-fiction. It really is an art to tell a true story in a way that reads like a novel–I’d like to try it one day.

5. How do you read? Do you read as a reader, for the pleasure and entertainment of it? Or do you read like a writer, dissecting scenes, plot, character, action, pace, language, everything…?

I try to read as a reader, because that’s a lot more fun. But I do sometimes find myself questioning what I’m reading. I dislike that, because it gets in the way of the enjoyment and it’s not something I do purposefully. I suppose after years of writing and editing, it becomes inescapable. So I try to turn that part of my brain off when I read, and if the book is decent, that can often work.

>6. I recently read a book that left me breathless and wishing I had written it myself, and feeling that nothing I will ever write can ever be as good as that. Have you ever felt like that with a book you read, and which is the book you wish you had written?

Definitely. I remember reading a biography of Vladimir Horowitz that detailed one of his Carnegie Hall performances, one that was so spectacular that students of music left the venue vowing to go home and burn their own pianos. I do sometimes feel that way, feeling that I will never write a book as good as what I just read and should just quit now. That biography is one example–it reads like novel. Another book would be In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

7. Which kinds of fictional villains do you love to hate the most? Who are your favourite fictional villain and villainess?

I enjoy villains with a story of their own, who aren’t simply evil for evil’s sake. The reason for their evilness can be twisted, of course, but it should at least make sense to the villain. My award for villain would probably go to Humbert Humbert, from Nabokov’s Lolita.

8. What about heroes, what type of hero/heroine is your favourite? Who are your favourite fictional hero and heroine, then?

Those with flaws. Those who occasionally mess up and fail. The infallible hero/heroine isn’t very compelling to me. That’s why Kryptonite came along–because the Superman creators realized it was become dull to have a hero without a weakness–no real drama in that. If I had to choose one, I suppose I’d go with Sherlock Holmes.

10. Do you tend to read more eBooks or printed ones? And what do you read the most, traditional publishing house, independent publisher, small press, self-published?

I love print. I know that’s very old-fashioned of me, but I love the feel, smell, and appearance of a printed book. I appreciate the innovation and practicality of ebooks, though. I mean, why carry one book when you can carry your entire library with you? So I’ve been forcing myself to embrace the brave new world of ebooks. And I don’t pay much attention to the publisher. If a book looks good and grabs my attention, I’ll read it.

11. What title(s) do you have on your bedside table (and on your fireside one, and your desk, and in your handbag) right now?

I have The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison, The Stranger by Albert Camus, and Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz.

12. Do you have a favourite quote about reading, and would you share it with us?

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” – Ernest Hemingway

13. Let’s talk about the “writing bug”, then. How old were you when you started writing? Did you always know you would become a writer? If not, when did you decide you’d become one?

I don’t remember exactly. I know I was writing pretty early, because I still have some little books I wrote on my mom’s typewriter. I’d fold paper to make the pages and then staple them together, and draw covers in pencil. My mom would pay me $5 for every book. I think I wrote four or five of those. They’re…hilarious, to say the least. I always sort of hoped to be a writer, but it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I began pursuing the reality of that. Until then, it was more of a “wouldn’t that be cool” idea.

14. Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated or favourite place (a desk, a study, a garden chair, maybe?) and could you describe it for us?

My ideal place is in my downstairs office, where I have all my paraphernalia and knick-knack stuff. Unfortunately, my current life as a stay-at-home dad doesn’t allow me to write there nearly as much as I’d like. So I’ve had to learn to write wherever I happen to be. For example, right now as I write this, I am sitting in a recliner in the main downstairs room watching my three-year-old twins pretend to be characters from the kids’ TV show PJ Masks.

15. Do you journal/keep a diary? What about a notebook, do you have one that you take everywhere you go? What do you write in it?

I don’t keep a journal, but I wish I did. And I used to carry a notebook around when I went places, but now I don’t go many places. And when I do, the twins are with me and I’m usually too busy making sure they don’t escape from me in a parking lot to think about plot points. When I did carry a notebook, I would write down random thoughts, snatches of conversation I overheard, ideas, anything I thought might come in handy in a book. I anticipate carrying a notebook again one day, and while I’m at it, I want to start journaling.

16. So, how do you go about constructing your book’s reality? Are you a thorough planner, before you start writing our book? Or are you a “pantser”? Perhaps even a bit of both? Does it ever happen to you that one of your characters just suddenly decides to do their own thing?

I’m mostly a pantser. I do outline, but I do it after the fact. In other words, I outline what I’ve already written. This helps me stay on track without sacrificing a lot of creative impulse, and lets me look back at a glance whenever I have a question about timeline or pacing. And, yes, occasionally there will be a rogue character who decides they know better than I do. Heck, sometimes a character will invent themselves and decided to not only insert themselves into a story, but take it over. Very rude, that, but it happens–and I have yet to hear a character apologize when it does occur.

17. How do you create your characters? Are there “real life doubles” for them? I know we sort of talked about this before, but I’m particularly curious about Shelby Alexander, the intrepid sleuth of your Serenity series, though I equally like the set of spies of your Spyco series, so… will you tell me about them all?

I don’t think I’ve ever taken a character wholesale from real life. Mostly they are composites of several people or have a grain of truth and I’ve made up the rest. Shelby is interesting in that I made him up as a reaction to the norms in thrillers today–namely the ex-Navy SEAL with six-pack abs. I wanted a different sort of character, one perhaps more people could identify with. As I’ve written more about him, he has adopted many characteristics of various people I’ve known, not to mention some of my own quirks. I like to think of him as me at that age, minus the deadly right hook and penchant for trouble–I was never a boxer and am far too lazy to run around getting into gunfights.

18. Again, we sort of talked about this (or something quite close to this) before, but for everyone else’s benefit, if there was to be a movie or two made of your books, and you were to have a say in it, who would you like to see being cast as your main characters?

I could see Tom Selleck playing Shelby. He was great as Jesse Stone, and that’s pretty close to the way I’d seem him playing Shelby as well.

19. Where do the ideas for your books come from? Is any of it based on a true event, a piece of news maybe, a film, a book or books you read? What about the Spyco series, which are I believe a collaboration with Scott Varengo — how does your collaboration work plot-wise (and characterisation-wise, and everything else-wise?)

I’ve been asked quite a bit where my ideas come from and so have had a lot of time and opportunities to think about it. But I still don’t know. Occasionally, a certain thing will spark the process–a news story, for example–but more often it’s something much smaller. Something as tiny as a raindrop can spark an idea. The other week I took my twins to my parents’ house. It was raining that day–or had just finished raining–and as we walked up to the door, I heard the water running down the spout and splashing on the flagstone. That sound immediately threw me into a story in my head about a man in solitary confinement who had no window or clock, no way to tell the passage of time. But he could hear the water dripping every time it rained, so he began using that as a reference point. As in, “He knew only that it had been two rains since he last ate.” That’s the way the ideas usually happen for me. A quick flash in the pan. I suppose it’s just the way my brain works.

With the SpyCo stuff, it’s much the same. It’s not uncommon for one of us to message the other and say something like, “Omg, listen to this…” and tell the idea. Then we’ll go back and forth a couple of times with thoughts to see if it will fit into the story, which it usually does, and then it’s off to the races. It would be very difficult to co-write with most people, I think, but we’ve been fortunate in the sense that we think very much alike and are also flexible and easygoing–at least with each other. This makes the process not only workable, but fun as well.

20. How much is there of you in your main characters? And which of them do you identify most with?

Perhaps I should be ashamed to say that I seep into most of my main characters to one extent or another. I probably identify most with the main character in my book Becoming Moon. That is a highly personal book, and semi-autobiographical (with some important exceptions). I’d tell you the character’s name, but I never name him in the book.

21. How much research did you do for either of your two series, and what kind, where, how, when? How easy, or how difficult, was it to find the info you needed?

The Shelby series is pretty easy, because it’s set in Michigan, and that’s where I grew up. I know it pretty well. I do look up specifics now and then, but it’s usually a simply process. The SpyCo series is another matter, because it takes place around the world. While I place to circle the globe at some point, I haven’t yet, so research is important. Scott and I both do research for those books, often going so far as to fire up Google Earth and virtually “walk” the routes our characters take in the story.

22. How easy or how difficult is it for you to write about your book’s themes? Do you see yourself, fr instance, ever going into some real hard and dark, or graphic stuff? (Some Scandi-style, hard-core noir, maybe?)

I’m drawn to dark themes. Neither Shelby nor SpyCo gets that dark (with some specific exceptions), because I’m writing for market with those and that’s not the audience I’ve found for them. But I do see myself exploring darker subjects in a darker style at some point.

23. Do you think the author knows everything there is to know about her/his characters and their life? How much do you know about your characters?

I don’t know about “everything.” I will say that with every new book, I learn something new about the characters. Sometimes they surprise me with a piece of their story. In Serenity Engulfed, for example, we/I discovered a piece of Shelby’s childhood that had not yet been touched on, and which has not yet been fully revealed. I can also see, though, if a writer has written, say, a thirty book series on a character(s), that they’d have to know them pretty well by that time. I feel like I’m still getting acquainted with mine.

24. Which of your fictional heroes/villains did you enjoy writing the most, and why? Are those your two favourite characters in your own fiction?

Shelby is my favorite hero to write, because he so easy. That’s not to say it’s easy to write books that he’s in, but he as a character is easy. Dialogue flows–it’s like he’s actually speaking and I’m just taking dictation. For villains–I really enjoyed writing the character of Smith in Serenity Stalked. Speaking of dark, that book has a couple of dark spots. I delve into Smith’s past a bit and take a look at why he’s the way he is. My two overall favorite characters, though, would be Shelby and Mack.

25. Is there another sequel in the works, for either series? I hope you’re telling me that there’s another Assignment sequel coming up soon, somehow restoring my very own order of things, but if not, what else is in the forge? (And why the back-flipping kitties are you not, then?!?) How far are you into writing your next title, then, and when can we expect it to hit the shelves?

Yes, there is another book for both series coming up. Serenity Engulfed is coming April 3 and Assignment: London is scheduled for May 1. I’d very much like to put out two more Assignment books this summer (in addition to London), with perhaps another Serenity late summer or early fall (but don’t hold me to that last part).

26. Of all your titles so far, which is your favourite one? Which was the one that gave you more pleasure, and the one you found the hardest to write?

Becoming Moon was by far the hardest to write, probably because it was the most personal. It’s also probably my favorite, for that very reason. Besides that one, though, I suppose the first Serenity is number one. It marked a turning point in my writing career, plus it’s a fun book.

27. For the benefit of any learning writers among us, could you describe your creative process? (how you pick an idea, develop it, draw your characters, plot the action, etc.?)

Once I have some ideas, I generally choose the one that excites me the most or the one that simply won’t leave me along (often those two are the same). Then I simply begin writing. Once I have a scene or two down, then I begin giving more thought to the future of the story and start fleshing out characters and their motivations. I try to plot action like a film, try to give it the same rhythm, and build the action throughout. A sense of timing in fiction is, I think, an art in itself. I’m not totally sure it can be taught, but it can certainly be honed. And there are even charts online you can get to see if you’re pacing according to a classic story structure. Not a bad idea, if you are a writer who struggles that that aspect. Then once you get a feel for it, you can improvise.

29. Finally, what’s your favourite quote about writing?

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” – Hemingway

30. Here are the quintessential questions, then — first one: why do you write?

I don’t know how not to write. I do know that I’m miserable when I’m not writing, so maybe I write not to be miserable. Other than that, it is simply an inexorable pull that I feel each and every day.

31. How long have you been writing?

I don’t know exactly, but 25 years would be a close guess.

32: What was the very first thing you wrote which made you stop and look at it, and think: “wow, yes, this could be something”?

I wrote a story in my teens set in the Middle Ages. It was the best thing I’d written to that point (I read it over a few weeks ago and it’s not great) and I thought it might get accepted. I sent it out and it was rejected, but it came back with a handwritten note from the editor, which was a great sign back when people actually mailed physical manuscripts. So, even though it was disappointing to be rejected (and there were many, many more), I was still encouraged to continue.

33. So, how did you come to writing? Did you take the academic path, or is it just something you discovered you were good at, and decided to pursue?

Both, actually. I’ve taken college courses that were useful, but it was mostly my autodidactical approach that shaped my writing. This is not a reproach of formal learning, mind you, only to say that it will take you only so far in a field like creative writing.

34. What kind of thing do you prefer to write, and how did you come to choose your genre(s)?

I enjoy writing stories that examine the dark, gritty side of humanity. And I’d like to write more of that. I write thrillers now because I’ve always enjoyed the action and fun inherent in the genre. It’s what I started writing when I first tried the writing path, and now that I’ve returned to it, I find it is even more fun now than it was then. And it also has room for that dark, gritty stuff if the writer so chooses.

35. Do you write full time? What’s your usual writing routine? How long does it usually take you to produce a title, from concept to first draft, and then through revisions to publishing?

My full-time job is as a stay-at-home parent to my twins. Writing is a side gig. I usually write during their nap or after they go to bed. And on the weekends my wife often takes them off my hands so I can write. On average, I try to finish a book in three months from first draft to publishing. I don’t revise all that much, because I write pretty cleanly and often edit as I go. I know most writing coaches advise against that, but it works for me.

36. The “writing life”, as it is — is that something you recommend? Which aspects of the writer’s life do you enjoy the most (apart from writing, of course!), and which are you not so keen on?

I do not recommend it and one should only do it if they can’t do anything else. It’s a tough market, the pay is uncertain, and the odds are against success. I consider myself fortunate to have the platform that I do, because the truth is that for over twenty years, there was next to nothing in terms of recognition or interest. It takes a long time to learn the craft of writing–I’m still learning. I know there are examples of “overnight success,” but most of the time those successes were many years in the making.

37. You are what goes by the name of an “independent author”, i.e., an author who did not choose the traditional path to publication. And if you didn’t… why not? Why did you choose self-publishing, and would you do it all over again?

I’d like to preface this answer by saying that were I offered a lucrative contract by a traditional publisher, I would probably take it. Having said that, I very much enjoy doing it on my own. Going with a traditional publisher comes at a cost. You lose control of the work, in many cases, not mention the lion’s share of the profit. It’s not uncommon for publishers to pay 10-15% royalty on sales, which isn’t great when you consider the 70% that KDP (Amazon’s publishing platform) will pay. Granted, you have to sell books to make money, and that’s where most authors stumble. Seventy percent of zero is, well, zero, after all. But if you have a market, you can do just as well and even much better going it alone or with a hybrid. The downside is that there are many unscrupulous entities out there who have no issue taking advantage of authors. Always check into the history of a publisher before signing anything away. And better yet, keep your rights to yourself.

38. Traditional publishers are often perceived as the gatekeepers as far as quality of literary output is concerned, with indies and self-pub’ed authors seen as offering less literary worth, and therefore less value for money. Tell me about your take on this issue of trad vs indie publishing, gatekeeping, and quality standards and literary worth.

Traditional publishers have a stake in the failure of indies, simply because of revenue. There is are limited dollars available, after all. To be fair, however, we have to look at the history of independent publishing. It used to be largely the case that those who self-published did so because they couldn’t get a traditional contract (there were exceptions, of course). With the publishing revolution, however, that changed. Now authors can produce books on par with the quality of those put out by the traditional publishers. This does not mean that they also do, though, and that’s where the stigma remains. Independent authors have a responsibility to put out the best product they can. Just because one CAN publish, doesn’t mean one SHOULD publish.

39. Last “quintessential” question, then: I know you have just launched your own publishing company, which is great, and that you are planning a very busy summer of 2018 — but where do you see yourself as a writer, but also as the head of your own publishing business, in the long term?

I will always be first and foremost a writer. And I hope very much that I will always think of the writer’s interests in any author that I publish.

And last but by no means least, and because I’m sure everyone is just dying to know, which of these do you prefer?

Coffee, or tea? Tea
Cheesecake, or blueberry muffins? Cheesecake
Turquoise, or aqua green? Aqua green
iolets, or jonquils? Violets
Mountain, or the sea? The sea
Music, or theatre? Theatre
Cats or Dogs? Cats

Craig A. Hart’s social media & links:

Website
Facebook
Twitter

Craig’s Bibliography & where to find his books for sale
(please note, active links to Amazon; the links provided by the author are to Amazon.com)

Becoming Moon, Kindle Press – 2015 – Literary Fiction; Northern Lake Publishing – 2018 – Thriller (new edition)

The Shelby Alexander Series

  1. Serenity, Amazon Digital Services – 2016 – Thriller
  2. Serenity StalkedSweatshoppe Publications – 2017 – Thriller
  3. Serenity Avenged, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  4. Serenity Submerged, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  5. Serenity Engulfed, Northern Lake Publishing – 2018 – Thriller

The SpyCo Series

  1. Assignment: Athens, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  2. Assignment: Paris, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  3. Assignment: Istanbul, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  4. Assignment: Sydney, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  5. Assignment: Alaska, Amazon Digital Services – 2017 – Thriller
  6. Assignment: Dublin, Amazon Digital Services – 2018 – Thriller

Collections

  1. The Shelby Alexander Series 1-4
  2. Assignment: Adventure, Books 1-3
  3. Assignment: Danger, Books 4-6

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Finally, here’s Craig A. Hart’s new Shelby Alexander thriller, Serenity Engulfed, together with my review:

 

Edition details:

  • File Size: 2680 KB
  • Print Length: 190 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1986153517
  • Publisher: Northern Lake Publishing (April 3, 2018)
  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B07B4Y76HC

the synopsis:

When Shelby’s daughter, Leslie, fails to show up at his cabin for her long-planned visit to northern Michigan, he’s concerned, but makes excuses.

When her car is found abandoned by the side of a tree-lined highway, he fears the worst.

When her cellphone appears on his front porch, he knows something terrible has happened and that he is to blame.

Enlisting the help of the new county sheriff, Shelby launches a search for Leslie, all the while dealing with a prostitute in fear for her life, a sexy writer interested in writing his life story, and the long-banished ghosts of his own past.

Familiar enemies resurface in this blazing new thriller that finds Shelby racing against time to save the most important person in his life: his own child.

the review:

Honestly, if I were Leslie, Shelby Alexander’s daughter, I would revoke paternity rights so fast Shelby wouldn’t know what hit him. Or anybody else, for that matter. Just as long as there would be some strange light, Men In Black style, and the whole world would just forget, instantly, collectively, irrevocably, that Alexander had ever been, for the flimsiest of moments, my father… Especially now, that she has a baby girl to think about. Honestly, if I were her, I would want my distance from him — as in, possibly, the Antipodeans, thank you very much.

And yes, I do know he just bursts in there practically everywhere, in a flurry of punches and bullets, together with his best mate Mack, setting the world alight until he finds and rescues her again. And I do know he, for all intents and purposes and as far as we can see, loves her dearly, and would never ever let her down again. And no, I do not think I’m being unfair on Alexander. Just think of the girl for a minute, and forget all about Alexander in Tom Selleck’s alluring skin, and the Shelby Alexander thrillers becoming something as visually and narratively satisfying, and as thoroughly aesthetically pleasing as Jesse Stone… Just put that aside for a sec, will you, and think of the poor girl…

There. Now you get exactly what I mean. Forever in the path of danger. And I’m not talking an uneven stone on the pavement. I’m talking about being kidnapped, caged, chained, shot at, manhandled, you name it. And whatever her faults, listen, she deserves so much better than becoming the currency of choice whenever any of the scum of the earth her father is so intent on cleaning from the face of Serenity, decides to have a go at exerting revenge for being hard done by by Shelby Alexander.

But anyway. Where else would we find the conflict at the source of our little instalments of simple pleasure? Because the fact is that Shelby Alexander is a cool dude, and he doesn’t give a damn about many things on this earth, and therefore to have him spring into action, and have enough to tell about, it has to be something that gets directly through his skin — and that is first and foremost his daughter. Poor, poor girl. She’s it, the permanent target, a walking bullseye for Serenity worst lowlifes. But how lucky the rest of us — because her misfortune is nothing if not our little literary fix, our shot of amusement.

This time, Hart has the infamous Ellises, the scum of what one could easily think of as otherwise near-paradisiac Serenity, back on the scene, the sociopathic Scott Ellis having been granted early release by a somewhat misguided parole board. Back on the scene are also arch-villain Darkmore, who defines himself to Leslie as her worst nightmare, and Grant Bachmann, he of Sid Bachmann descent, Shelby’s very own worst nightmare.

On Shelby’s side and apart from Mack there are still Quinn Edwards, who has now managed to sell the idea of a book on Alexander’s exploits to her publisher, a now estranged Carly pursuing her new life in New York, and a brand new Sheriff, Angela Hammer, who soon proves herself to be on the right side of Shelby’s fence, and ‘one hell of a woman’. And because good things reportedly come in threes, there’s also Katherine, a… erm… aesthetically pleasing lass right back from Shelby’s old school days — the chemistry promises, more than the dynamics with Angela, she of the growing hammer fame, who in any case is a member of the law — and, get ready for this, a cat.

Yes, ladies and gents, a cat. And what a cat! A cat that may or may not have a connection to Odawa lore and to the old Odawa man who taught Shelby most of what he knows. This, well, this promises. There’s all to look forward in the next instalment of Serenity troubles. And besides, I know Jesse Stone’s borrowed dog looked pretty much like him, only proving the old western lore that human and pet grow to resemble each other, but honestly, could you ever imagine a feline of Selleck’s quality with anything other than a cat companion…? My point, precisely. So there you go.

And then, when we think it’s all winding down towards those narratively fatidic words, The End, the cat goes and saves Shelby Alexander’s life… Craig, when’s the next instalment coming out? Can you make it pretty soon pretty please, and a wee bit longer (say, something like another 75 pages…?) Thank you.

the verdict:

I love the Shelby Alexander thrillers. They are simple, uncomplicated little stories that keep you entertained. To begin with, I love Shelby Alexander, the imperfect hero, the exasperating character who seems as lifelike as flesh — who, well, just like its maker I can only imagine as lifelike as Tom Selleck’s Jesse Stone — and who, apart from his propensity to being easily found by violence and misadventure, is comfortably familiar, expectedly complex, unexpectedly vulnerable… Alexander is “the hero next door”, and we can but love him.

Craig’s prose is straight forward, his plots are inventive yet simple — actually, it is Craig’s storytelling simplicity, coupled with a quiet cinematic quality of his books’ action, that is his greatest asset and the series best selling point, together with the reason why we so readily grab one of these books to keep us company during a commuter journey, or an evening by the fireplace when there’s no Jesse Stone in the box (because, well, Jesse Stone has everything Craig’s prose has, but it does have Selleck, which Craig’s unfortunately does not, not yet, and I do love my cherries).

Genre pegging: thriller
Verdict: recommended, perfect keep-me-company reading
Rating: ♥♥♥♥½
Shelves:
mystery & thrillers; “indies”

book review: How I Lose You by Kate McNaughton

400 pages, hardcover £16.99 

This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, Transworld / Doubleday (Random House UK), via NetGalley. This review is also being published on NetGalley, GoodReads, LinkedIn, Amazon UK, and my social media accounts. Acceptance of a copy for review is not binding.

the synopsis:

When Eva and Adam fall into bed one Friday night, tired and happy after drinks with friends, they have their whole lives ahead of them. But their story ends on page twelve.

That’s no reason to stop reading though, because How I Lose You is a story told backwards – and it’s all the more warm, tender and moving because we know it is going to be interrupted. It’s a story Eva thought she knew – but as you and she will discover, it’s not just the ending of the story that she got wrong.

advance praise:

“Intriguing, poignant and totally absorbing. I had no idea where it was going, but found it thoroughly addictive. A masterful exploration of grief, relationships and the secrets that we keep from those closest to us. I loved it.” ~ Ruth Hogan

“McNaughton is a profoundly tender storyteller. A truly moving book about love, humanity and sadness, laced with wit – compelling reading for anyone who needs to find a light in the dark” ~ Daisy Buchanan

“Pulls you into its thrall from the very first pages. A book I’ll press into the hands of my friends, urging them to read it” ~ Kerry Hudson

“Intensely moving” ~ Katie Khan

“Superb – so confident and deft and skilfully written” ~ Louise O’Neill

the review:

The advance praise for this novel seems to have been quite universally, overwhelmingly positive — and quite deservedly so. It also seems to exhaust most of the adjectives I would want to describe this book and my impressions of it in my review.

The fact is, How I Lose You is an intensely moving and thoroughly captivating and immersive book. It is “Intriguing, poignant and totally absorbing”, as Ruth Hogan describes it. It is intense and moving, powerful and masterful, compelling and addictive and tender and sad and at the same time witty and sensible, and deft and pacy, and confidently and skilfully written.

It is also, and most of all, an extremely beautiful story, albeit a rather sad and tragic one, told in a rich, lyrical and intimate voice which pulls the unwitting reader into the heart of the narrative straight from the beginning, and holds them there, breathless and enthralled. We identify with Eva, the main character of the story; we commiserate with her; we feel her immense pain and grief; we feel her loss, her emptiness, her devastation. We feel her doubts, her longing, her frustration, each of her tentative steps, her hesitations.

Structurally, the story is told retrospectively by Eva, starting on the eve of Adam’s death and ending the very moment their love story starts, i.e., on the evening when they kiss for the first time. There are also a series of flashbacks along the way, which help contextualize events as we become acquainted with Eva and Adam’s story.

You’d be wrong to think that this is just another love story, though, as How I Lose You is much more than that. It is a masterful reflection on, and exploration of, the devastation of loss and the emptiness it leaves behind, gnawing away inside you; and also on the nature of grief itself. At the same time, the story explores the nature of relationships, how much we share and  how much we hide from each other — even those closer to us — and whether we ever really know those around us, including those we love the dearest.

I am completely bowled over by this novel, and especially by the fact that this is a debut novel, such is its level of proficiency and accomplishment. In fact, if I were to set verisimilitude as the litmus test for quality in fiction, McNaughton’s prose would take an unchallenged first prize. Her linguistic mastery and the narrative format of choice come together to give the story a feeling of authenticity akin to that we usually associate with memoirs and autobiographies; and, several times as I was reading it, I had to remind myself that How I Lose You is but a work of fiction: that’s how real this narrative feels, and such is Kate McNaughton’s mastery as a storyteller.

the verdict:

This is a rich and poetic, beautiful, beautifully written book, poignant and heart-wrenching but  thoroughly captivating and immersive. I do not frequently find books that engage me to the degree McNaughton’s debut novel managed to, and I am very happy I had the opportunity to read it. I can safely say that I recommend it wholeheartedly — and that it’ll be joining that other pearl of my last twelve months of reading, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, on the shelf reserved for my very favouritest books.

Genre pegging: Literary Fiction / Science Fiction & Fantasy
Verdict: a rich and poetic, poignant and thoroughly immersive read
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
Shelves:
literary fiction; my favouritest books;


Tell No Lies by Lisa Hartley: book excerpt

 


 

Enfield police station reminded Caelan of a model a child had made by sticking cardboard boxes together. One shoebox on the bottom with two more piled on top. The small car park in front of the building was almost full, and she had to make several attempts at manoeuvring into a space. As she slammed her door, another vehicle entered the car park, reversing neatly into the last available parking spot. Caelan paused as she recognised the vehicle.

‘Hello, stranger,’ she called as the driver emerged. Tim Achebe was a few years older than Caelan – she guessed mid-thirties. There weren’t many black police officers in the country who held a rank above that of inspector, but Achebe had risen to DCI in record time, and was widely tipped as a future Commissioner. She had first met him a few days ago, though with all that had happened, it felt longer.

Achebe grinned at her. ‘Morning. We meet again.’ He pointed to her battered face, wincing. ‘Looks nasty. How are you feeling?’

‘I’ve been better.’

‘But you’re here.’

‘No point sitting around feeling sorry for myself.’ She didn’t add that she had nowhere to go except a hotel, even if she had wanted to take some time off to recuperate.

‘No one could blame you, not after Nasenby, and…’ He paused. ‘You know.’

After she had discovered that Nicky, her colleague and former lover, whom she’d believed she’d seen killed, was still alive and had been hiding in a safe house. Caelan didn’t trust herself to reply, and was thankful when Achebe didn’t push for a response.

As they crossed the car park together, Caelan said, ‘I wasn’t sure who would be here.’

‘One of my DIs has been involved, but she’s off sick – had a car accident on her way home last night.’

‘Shit. Is she okay?’

He held the door of the station open for her. ‘Yes, thankfully. I spoke to her husband. Cuts and bruises.’

Caelan nodded, hesitating just inside the door. ‘Who are we here to see?’

Achebe glanced around, lowered his voice. ‘This is an Organised Crime Partnership operation.’

‘We’re working with the NCA?’

‘Yeah. They’ve been sniffing around in Edmonton for a while, but haven’t got very far.’

‘Edmonton?’ Caelan ran through the possibilities, didn’t like any of them. Though she wasn’t an expert, she knew of several gangs in the area, and anything linked to their activities could be dangerous. What was she walking into here?

‘We’re meeting with a couple of NCA officers, and… I understand you’ve been told about Nicky Sturgess?’ Achebe glanced at her, then averted his gaze.

Caelan stepped closer to him. ‘Did you know?’

Achebe raised his head. ‘That she was alive, in hiding? No. I had no idea.’

She nodded, believing him. ‘Who’s questioning Michael?’

‘Nasenby? I don’t know. Still can’t believe he was behind it all, to be honest.’

Caelan managed a short laugh, but it was an effort. ‘You can’t have been as surprised as I was. I thought I knew him.’

‘Did he do that to your face?’ Achebe touched his own cheek with a fingertip.

‘Yeah. He didn’t take kindly to being accused of murder. Several murders.’

‘Including that of a ten-year-old child.’ Achebe’s face was blank, his voice little more than a whisper. Caelan touched his arm.

‘We couldn’t have known, Tim.’

Achebe rubbed his eyes. ‘Just makes me sick to think of him sitting there, watching us run around trying to figure out what had happened, all the time knowing he’d done it. Enjoying watching us struggle.’

‘You think that’s what he was doing?’

‘Fuck, I don’t know. He was so… smooth, you know? Self-assured. But he had to know the truth would come out eventually.’

‘I don’t think he did. I think he believed he’d get away with it, even while I was listing all the evidence we had.’

‘Arrogant prick.’

Caelan laughed. ‘I think that’s what he thought of you.’

Achebe’s eyes opened wide. ‘Bloody cheek.’

‘Detective Small, DCI Achebe?’

The voice came from behind them. Caelan turned, looked at the man who had spoken. Stepping forward, he held out his hand, smiling at her. ‘I’m Spencer Reid, NCA. It’s good to meet you. I’ve heard… Well, I’ve heard about you.’

Caelan shook his hand, stepped away as he turned to greet Achebe. She hadn’t worked with the National Crime Agency before, though she had been involved in a couple of joint operations with the organisation it had replaced. The NCA existed to bring to justice serious and organised criminals, including those involved in drug trafficking, the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, and money laundering. Its representatives worked in partnership with other organisations in the UK and internationally. Caelan wondered what they wanted with her.

Reid gestured towards the door he had emerged from. ‘We’re through there.’

 


 

my first guest on The “Indies” Corner: John Hindmarsh answers The 39 Questions

 


 

Today is a double special day ~ it’s not just the day The “Indies” Corner first goes live, but the day I introduce you to my very first guest, writer John Hindmarsh, an Australian-born writer of thrillers and sci-fi, who used to be an ICT consultant and who just may have been around the globe more than once in his lifetime…

Between long-term and short-term assignments, John tells me he has worked in about a dozen different countries worldwide, and visited another dozen or so as a tourist. The list of countries he’s been to is truly enviable, and includes such places as Amsterdam, Istanbul, Singapore, Bangkok, Moscow, Athens, Copenhagen…

In the last five years of his career, John sub-contracted with IBM, working with banking clients at a senior level. He has now settled in the California mountains, in the company of his Japanese American wife. And John added about himself:

“[I s]topped all that [sub-contracting] at the end of 2012. I turned 79 at the beginning of this month [Feb]. I have a serious although stable health problem [a form of leukemia] diagnosed a year ago – I’m apparently too old for the typical cures. I like hiking, kayaking and skiing. I’m focused on writing aggressively! What more can I say? :-)”

John released his first book, Broken Glassin 2011. Since then, many more titles have followed, and John is currently working on his 10th title, the 3rd volume in his Annihilation series. You can follow John on Twitter, where he indefatigably tweets about his books and promotions under the handle @john_hindmarsh, or through his webpage, which can be found at www.JohnHindmarsh.com .

§

The first book I read of John’s was Shen Ark: Departure, and I absolutely loved it. It is a very funny and addictive space opera, where the main characters are rats who suffer a mutation and evolve, within a few rat generations, to become highly capable, sentient and technological creatures.

By the time I had finished it, all I wanted was more of the same (yes, give me anthropomorphised animal characters anytime, and I’ll coo like an amorous spring woodpigeon). However, as I looked John’s bibliography up, I did not find more of Shen Ark, but I did find Broken Glass, the first of John’s The Glass Complex Trilogy. Its synopsis intrigued me enough to prompt me to buy a copy… and the rest is history.

I am currently reading Body Shop, which is currently still at release price of $0.99 / £0.99, and will be reviewed here on Tuesday, followed by Mark One on Thursday, and then by Broken Glass next Saturday.

Here’s John’s bibliography to date:

The Glass Complex Series
Broken Glass, Self-published, 2011, Science Fiction [space opera]
Fracture Lines, Self-published, 2016, Science Fiction [space opera]
Diamond Cut, Self-published, 2017, Science Fiction [space opera]

Shen Ark: Departure, self-published, 2013, Science Fiction [space opera]

Mark Midway Series
Mark One, self-published, 2013, technothriller
Mark Two, self-published, 2014, technothriller
Mark Three, self-published, 2014, technothriller
Mark Four, self-published, 2016, technothriller

Annihilation Series
The Darwin Project, self published, 2017, technothriller
Body Shop, self published, 2018, technothriller

 


The 39 Questions

 

Hi John!

It is a real pleasure to welcome you to the scribbles.

Before we start, I’d also like to thank you not just for being here, but for taking the time and having the patience to answer my many questions.

So — to begin with: could I ask you about your reading habits? Would you say you too are infected with the reading virus and, if so, how old were you when it first struck?

Thank you. I’m totally infected; since about ten years old.

Which is the first book you remember reading, and how old were you?

An encyclopedia; I was ten.

How much, and what, do you read? What are your favourite genre(s) / authors / books?

Thrillers and SF, with an occasional foray into fantasy.

Do you have any books that you return to over and over again? If so, which are they?

I’ll occasionally re-read all the books I have of a writer, mainly to re-assess writing style.

How do you read? Do you read as a reader, for the pleasure and entertainment of it? Or do you read like a writer, dissecting scenes, plot, character, action, pace, language, everything…?

I used to read as a reader and now it’s totally chaotic.

I recently read a book that left me breathless and wishing I had written it myself, and feeling that nothing I will ever write can ever be as good as that. Have you ever felt like that with a book you read, and which is the book you wish you had written?

Not sure I can properly respond. There are writers I admire for the quality of the world/universe they have created and characters they have created – Cherryh, Modesitt, Butcher, Child, Anderle, Dawson — the list goes on.

Which kinds of fictional villains do you love to hate the most? Who are your favourite fictional villain and villainess?

You mean in addition to Moriarty?

What about heroes, what type of hero/heroine is your favourite? Who are your favourite fictional hero and heroine, then?

Smiley [le Carre’s spy novels], the unnamed protagonist in Len Deighton’s novels, Bren Cameron in Cherryh’s Foreigner series, Jack Reacher [Child], Honor Harrington [Weber], …

If you were a fictional character, what sort of character would you like to be, and what genre would you hope to be written into? And who by?

Me and by me. :-) I wrote myself into my first book, and no one has ever commented on what is an anomaly. I’ll expand the concept in a later book. So a background character, with control.

Do you tend to read more eBooks or printed ones? And what do you read the most, traditional publishing house, independent publisher, small press, self-published?

More ebooks although I buy an occasional hardcover when a favorite author [traditional press] releases a new book.

What title(s) do you have on your bedside table (and on your fireside one, and your desk, and in your handbag) right now?

Um – I don’t have a handbag. I have hundreds on my Kindle in both my genres. I have Artemis by Andy Weir [waiting to be read] and Origin by Dan Brown [just read], both hard cover sitting on my coffee table and bedside.

Do you have a favourite quote about reading, and would you share it with us?

Let’s talk about the “writing bug”, then. How old were you when you started writing? Did you always know you would become a writer? If not, when did you decide you’d become one?

About 12 when I first wrote a SF story. I was raised on a farm in very rural Australia and writing was not a trade one followed. So after years of not writing I released my first book in 2011. I will release book #10 in the next 7 – 10 days.

Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated or favourite place (a desk, a study, a garden chair, maybe?) and could you describe it for us?

A study looking out onto about 30 pine trees sometimes all snow-covered; there are 20+ trees in our backyard. I am not a Starbucks writer – no appeal.

Do you journal/keep a diary? What about a notebook, do you have one that you take everywhere you go? What do you write in it?

No.

So, how do you go about constructing your book’s reality? Are you a thorough planner, before you start writing our book? Or are you a “pantser”? Perhaps even a bit of both? Does it ever happen to you that one of your characters just suddenly decides to do their own thing?

I’ll typically have a story idea in mind for years. My current series [Annihilation – technothriller], for example, was triggered in 2014 by a quotation from a speech by Elon Musk – about artificial intelligence. I’ve had a SF story bubbling around for ten years. A thriller series for about three years. A standalone story for fifteen years. At first I was a total pantser. I now try to outline – but that makes life boring. Often a character grabs the story and away it goes.

How do you create your characters? Are there real life doubles for them?

I develop them to suit the story; no real life analogues.

If there was to be a movie made of your book, and you were to have a say in it, who would you like to see being cast as your main characters?

Hugh Jackman, Samuel Jackson, Vin Diesel, Tom Hanks, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson… Depends which book/series, I suppose.

Where did the idea for your book come from? Was any of it based on a true event, a piece of news maybe, a film, a book you read?

I have this muse who sits on my shoulder and fills my mind with strange ideas. And then beats me with a baseball bat if I ignore her. It hurts…

How much is there of you in your main character?

Minor aspects I suppose are inevitable.

How much research did you do for this book, and what kind, where, how? How easy, or how difficult, was it?

Current series – more than usual – super intelligence. Generally I have a lot of experience I can weave into stories – well, apart from murdering people, I suppose.

How easy or how difficult was it for you to write about your book’s themes?

Not sure of the question.

Do you think the author knows everything there is to know about her/his characters and their life? How much do you know about your characters?

Which of your fictional heroes/villains did you enjoy writing the most, and why? Are those your two favourite characters in your own fiction?

I think I enjoy each key protagonist at the time. One of the alien characters – antagonist – in The Glass Complex series was a delight to write. Killed him off, though. My editor was sad.

Is there a sequel in the works? If not, what else is in the forge? And how far are you into writing your new title, and when can we expect it to hit the shelves?

Book #2 of the current series is up for release end of Feb, I have books 3 and 4 in mind and will write them as quickly as I can – rate to be determined. I have at least 4 – 7 books I could write this year without reaching deeply into my ideas.

Of all your titles so far, which is your favourite one? Which was the one that gave you more pleasure, and the one you found the hardest to write?

Probably my first book – Broken Glass. Released in 2011 and reached best-seller status [i.e., reached the top paid 100 and flagged by Amazon as a Best Seller] on Amazon US and UK in 2017.

For the benefit of any learning writers among us, could you describe your creative process? (how you pick an idea, develop it, draw your characters, plot the action, etc.?)

I suspect this process is unique to each author. I’ll develop an idea that includes a concept, a protagonist, antagonist, challenges, and an ending. I try to provide thrills/page turning urges along the way. Plus breadcrumbs to link each book in a series.

If one of your characters were to become a writer, what advice would you have for them?

Write more books – you need books to market. Ignore the naysayers. Write more books – the writing part of the brain is like muscle – the more you write, the fitter it gets.

Finally, what’s your favourite quote about writing?

Write more books. [Didn’t we have that question already?] LOL

Here are the quintessential questions, then — first one: why do you write?

I cannot not write. I would probably be unbearable to live with if I couldn’t be creative, preferably with words.

How long have you been writing?

Since 2013 as a serious writer. Since I was 12 as a wannabe writer.

What was the very first thing you wrote which made you stop and look at it, and think: “wow, yes, this could be something”?

Broken Glass.

So, how did you come to writing? Did you take the academic path, or is it just something you discovered you were good at, and decided to pursue?

Not the academic path. I couldn’t constrain the urge to write. Don’t know yet if I’m any good.

What kind of thing do you prefer to write, and how did you come to choose your genre(s)?

I write in genres that appeal to me – Thrillers and Science Fiction [space opera].

Do you write full time? What’s your usual writing routine?

Yes. I had interruptions to my routine through 2017 and am trying for a more disciplined approach for 2018. Target is 3,000 words a day, 5 days a week.

The “writing life”, as it is — is that something you recommend? Which aspects of the writer’s life do you enjoy the most (apart from writing, of course!), and which are you not so keen on?

Recommend – only if you seriously want to be a writer. The less enjoyable aspects are the non-writing parts [e.g., marketing].

Who are you signed with (or not)? Why did you choose the traditional path to publication? And if you didn’t… why not?

The thought of hawking my work to numerous agents and then hawking same to publishers and when/if successful, waiting 18 or more months for the book to reach a reseller – no way. I can complete a book, work through the edits, get a cover [and influence the design], format it as an ebook, and the time delay between completing the edit corrections and uploading the book to Amazon is about seven days. Also, I’m an alpha type – I like to be in control.

Ninth “quintessential” question, now: where do you see yourself as a writer, in the long term?

Successful? With 20 plus books published [currently 10]. And continuing to write.

And last but by no means least, which of these do you prefer? [

Coffee, or tea? Coffee
Cheesecake, or blueberry muffins? Blueberry muffins
Turquoise, or aqua green? Turquoise
Violets, or jonquils? Violets
Mountain, or the sea? Mountain
Music, or theatre? Music

Once again, John, thank you so much for agreeing to appear on the scribbles, and I’ll meet you here again on Tuesday, for my first review of one of your titles, Body Shop!

 


 

And here you are: John Hindmarsh, talking about books, reading, writing, being a writer, and being himself.

I’ll be back on Tuesday, with my review of Body Shop, and a teeny weeny excerpt just to further spice your curiosity about this author.

Until Tuesday, then!