Saturday, 25 February 2017

Review: The Tenderness of Wolves

The Tenderness of WolvesThe Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked up ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ for no better reason than that I’d just read Maggie Stiefvater’s superb shifter novel, Shiver, and had wolves on the brain. I’d vaguely heard of it some years back when it won the Costa Book of the Year Award, but I had no idea what to expect. If I’d even bothered to read the blurb I might never have tried it – I’m not always a huge fan of historical fiction and the first line of the blurb is ‘1867, Canada’ – so it’s a good thing I grabbed a copy on impulse on the way out of the shop and didn’t look properly.
Though neither the setting nor the style is what I would have chosen, they both drew me in immediately. The wild, frozen north is the perfect setting for an inexplicable murder, and the lawlessness of the environment paves the way for one of the most dramatic murder investigation stories I have ever read.
The dead man, Jammet, owned a bone tablet, marked with mysterious carvings, which may or may not have been valuable, which may have been the motive for his murder, but is now nowhere to be found. The story blends multiple viewpoints, including one of the company men assigned to the investigation of French hunter Laurent Jammet’s murder, and the adoptive mother of one of the main suspects, young Francis, who inexplicably fled the small town of Caulfield in the wake of Jammet’s violent death.
Stef Penney manages the complex pattern of the narrative seemingly effortlessly, and intertwines the various threads of the investigation with a number of superb character studies and even several hints of romance. ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ is a brilliant story, dazzlingly told, the kind of book that leaves after-images on the mental retina for days to come.

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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Crash: Chapter One

A while ago I introduced one of my favourite characters to the world on my friend Angela's blog, and a lot of people have asked me when they'll get to read more about him.  Since I can't imagine Jason's genre-defying novel ever getting picked up by a traditional publisher, I thought it might be fun to give him some space on my blog instead.  So here's the first chapter of Jason's story, 'The Crash'.   Pop back next week for the next instalment, or follow my blog to make sure you don't miss one. 

The clocks had just changed but Jason Jackson-Jones hadn't bothered to switch his watch or alarm clock.  Consequently, he arrived at work an hour early, as he would continue to do for another week or more.  An extra hour in the workday never hurt anyone. 
As he sat down at his desk opposite the dark window, he simultaneously turned on his computer and switched his phone off divert.  The two movements, one with each hand, were made with the smoothness of long practice.  As the computer went through its start-up ritual, Jason ignored the images moving on the screen before him.  His mind was already on the work of the week and the images conjured by the messages he heard.
Two had been left late on Friday by fellow auto-industry executives even more dedicated than himself - or, more likely, ones so dedicated to appearing hard-working that they were willing to interrupt their family dinners to place calls from their mobiles to others' office phones to create the illusion of dedication.  After all, both had his mobile number and were well aware that his Blackberry linked into the most state-of-the-art sound system and hands-free kit that his local Audi dealership could afford.  They could have called him on his commute out of Sheffield to his Peak District home, but they had chosen not to. 
It was all about playing the game, and Jason was an expert at the game.  It was what had brought him to the peak of his profession; at forty-two he was ten-year Managing Director of Triple J Auto Parts and the youngest ever chair of the Auto Part Manufacturers’ Association.  It was the reason his top floor office, in which he sat on this dark autumn morning, was the largest in the building and the most luxurious even when compared to those of his older colleagues on the committee of APMA.   He didn't even need to walk the shop floor to check on the progress of the latest batch of part manufacture.  He could just switch the display on screen, as he did now, to any of the seventeen cameras that monitored security and productivity.  He even had an information assistant whose job was solely to keep the two dozen process spreadsheets up to date in case he should need to know exactly how many hinges, springs or sockets were already stacked in boxes in the shipping area, how many in progress, and how many yet to be begun.  And if the latter number exceeded the former, it was a fair bet there would be letters issued by the end of the day, and the company's Office Manager-cum-HR person would be calling the agency for a fresh batch of temps.
Jason was, he considered, a tough man but a fair one.  His staff were paid the going rate and although he expected total dedication to the work in hand, he gave nothing less himself.  By the time the night shift left and the receptionist came on duty at eight thirty, he'd already returned the two calls on his answerphone, although only one of them had resulted in a conversation with a human being.  Slack, some of his colleagues.  Of course, Hudson might have been on his way to a meeting, but then why wasn't his office phone diverting to his mobile?  Time was money, and in an industry where margins had been shaved to the bone, you didn't waste a penny, or an instant. 
At eight thirty and some five seconds, Jason put a call through to Donna, on reception.  The CCTV camera trained on the foyer showed the pretty blond settling her handbag on the back of her chair and reaching for her coffee mug.  Coffee could wait.  Jason needed an answer now.
"Good morning, Triple J Auto Parts, how may I help?" Donna greeted him, having obviously not noticed that the red light for Jason's office line was illuminated. 
"Where's Lucy?" he asked.
"I haven't seen her," Donna stated the obvious.  "I'll check my messages now.  If she hasn't phoned in, I'll chase her up and get back to you."
"By quarter to," Jason specified.  "I've got the Japs in at nine, but they'll be early."
"OK.  I'll get on to it straight...” Jason put the phone down while Donna was still wittering. 
Where was Lucy?  The girl wasn't really up to the job, but she was the least flaky assistant he'd had for a while, and at least she normally turned up on time.  But not today.  Surely she couldn't have gone through the whole of Sunday without noticing the clocks had changed. Could she?  He mentally reviewed what he knew of the freckled redhead, and concluded that it was unlikely, but possible.  The alternative was that she'd rung in sick before eight thirty and Donna would relay the message once she'd checked her phone.  The CCTV camera on reception showed him that she was doing so now.  Good.  She could get herself a coffee while she was getting refreshments for him and his nine o'clock visitors.  Unless of course Lucy turned up by then, in which case he'd have her get everyone's drinks, including Donna's, as a reprimand for her lateness.
His phone calls for the moment completed, he clicked into his Inbox, deleted thirty or so industry newsletters and filed another five for later reading.  As he began the serious business of answering supplier and customer emails, his computer gave an irritated bing, and a small envelope flashed up the 'you have mail' icon.  He signed off the email he was writing and clicked on the envelope. 
He saw that it was from 'Reception' and sighed.  Why was Donna wasting time typing when she could have just picked up the phone?
The subject line read, 'Re: Lucy.'  There was his answer.  The girl was afraid he'd shoot the messenger when she came to explain the absence of his P.A.  When would the agency manage to find him a girl with backbone?
There was a message on my phone, the email read.  Lucy is not coming in due to illness this week, and she's handing in her resignation, which is a week's notice because she is still in her probationery period
Jason swore, not particularly quietly.  Lucy wasn't perfect, but she was useful, and he could ill afford the time to look for a replacement.  Maybe he'd have Donna do that.  It would serve her right for chickening out of giving him the bad news verbally.   And for forgetting there was such a thing as a spell-checker.
Jason hit last number redial, and Donna answered instantly.  Clearly, she'd been waiting for his call.
"What can I do for you?" she asked this time.
"Find me a P.A."
"Do you want me to ring FasTemps?"
"They're expensive," Jason snapped.
"Perfectoffice?"
"The last girl they sent was wearing ripped jeans and had a nose ring.  No, FasTemps will do.  Usual contract."
It was a sad reflection on the state of the labour market, Jason thought, that this had happened so often that even Dozy Donna knew the drill.  Unemployment had never been higher, but that didn't make it any easier to get and keep decent staff. 
As if to reinforce his impression, there was a timid tap at the door of his inner office, and the sandy head of his Engineering Manager, Nick, appeared around the sturdy oak door.
"Lucy wasn't at her desk, so I didn't know whether to interrupt you or not."  Nick always sounded nervous and breathless, but he seemed to be halfway reasonable at keeping to production schedules, so Jason kept him on. 
"You're here now.  You might as well come in.  But make it quick.  I've got a nine o'clock with the Japs."
Nick came in and perched on the edge of the big leather sofa. 
"It's about the steel sheet we're getting from Metalworx."
"What about it?"
Nick twisted his fingers nervously and didn't answer for a moment.
"It's not good enough quality.  It's OK for the CX40s, but our failure rates for CX85s are creeping up."
"So get onto the suppliers."
"I've tried but it's within the grade we're paying for.  If we want better, we'd have to go to premium, and we can't afford that.  It'd be cheaper just to keep them for the 40s and go elsewhere for the 85s."
"We've got a solus deal for a reason.  It's cheaper, it's more efficient, and it keeps them loyal.  If they want to keep the deal, they need to sort out the quality.   End of."  Jason pulled his chair closer to his desk and put his hand on the mouse, signalling the end of the meeting. 
"Jesus," Nick said quietly, almost to himself. 
Jason ignored him and started skimming the seventeen emails that had come in while he was dealing with his receptionist and Engineering Manager.  As he clicked on one and waited for it to open, he looked up.  Nick was still there.
"What's the problem?" Jason asked.
"I can't do this.  I've had an offer from my old boss to go back to the forge.  I wasn't going to - the money's not great - but this is ridiculous.  You expect me to work miracles on quality, but without letting the price rise by a penny.  It's just not possible.  Something has to give.  If you can't get real, then I'm out of here.  Take this as my notice, and I'll put it in writing when I get back to my desk."
Nick stood and left with a weary sigh.
Jason leaned back in his chair and picked up his phone.
"Donna?" he interrupted her polite greeting.  "Get me an Engineering Manager.  As soon as.  And have security escort Nick out.  He's on garden leave, banned from the factory, as of now."
"Uh, OK."  Donna put the phone down without asking what Nick had done to deserve his fate, but Jason wasn't fooled by her apparent innocence.  The news would be all over the company in half an hour, if that, accompanied by a rash of speculation.  That was how Jason liked it.  Feed the rumour mill, and keep them on their toes.  It wasn't likely that anyone would believe Nick's protestation that he'd jumped rather than being pushed.  Not when he was escorted from the building by the two burly bruisers in black Belstaffs that Jason's CCTV display already showed converging on the production corridor.
The thought gave Jason a feeling of power.  The feeling behind it, the slight fear that after all Nick had somehow got the better of him, he shoved aside. 
Time to call Hudson again. 
This time, Hudson was in his office, and made feeble protestations about not having heard the message Jason had left.  But Jason was able to get his agreement, as he'd known he would, to the changes Jason had proposed to the APMA constitution.  Which meant that Jason had his majority.
He smiled as he put the phone down.  It was no sooner at rest in its cradle than it rang again.  He snatched it up.
"Hello?"  No need to identify himself.  Everybody knew.  Anyway, it was only Donna again.
"Your visitors are in reception."
"Good.  Get them teas or coffees.  And one for me - black coffee, two sugars.  What's happening with the P.A.?"
"They said they'd send somebody by ten o'clock.  Do you want them to call back once they have a name?"
"No.  I don't want to be interrupted in this meeting.  Whoever they send will have to do.  We'll get an ad out for someone permanent this afternoon."
"OK."
Jason hung up.
He stood up, massaged his aching shoulders for an all-too-short moment, and then tugged on his jacket ready to head for the boardroom.  If he was lucky, his visitors and his coffee would be waiting for him there.
As he passed, he surveyed the lightening view from the window and let his mind review the day so far.  His P.A. and Engineering Manager gone in one morning.  Surely the day had to get better from here on in.  If only the agency could manage, for once, to send someone good – or, failing that, at least someone who could read and write, and didn’t think it was appropriate to come to the office dressed like a refugee from one of his teenage daughter’s favourite bands.  

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Book Review: The Chemist

The ChemistThe Chemist by Stephenie Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was quite a departure for Stephenie Meyer - a thriller / romantic suspense novel in the vein of Nora Roberts' The Witness, but a bit darker, more intense, and more technical. She's certainly done her research, and her literary writing background shows in a few wonderfully lyrical and thoughtful speeches, but the driving force behind this book is the relentlessly cruel and complex plot that drives the heroine (she of many identities, including Alex and The Chemist) into the arms of her unlikely but wonderful hero. Unputdownable.

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

My 2017 Inspirations

In some previous years I’ve blogged at the end of the year about my favourite books of the year.  Last year, for various reasons, I didn’t quite get around to it, so instead I sat down at the start of 2017 to think about what I’d read (and watched and listened to) in 2016 that I thought would continue to interest and inspire me in the coming year. 
My first inspiring choice is Mimi Thebo.  Mimi was one of my tutors on the MA course at Bath Spa University.  I’ve written before about the haiku exercise she gave us as part of the Exploration and Experiment module of the course, and since leaving Bath I’ve followed her career with interest.  She’s a perfect example of what she teaches: her oeuvre includes adult novels (Welcome to Eudora recalls such beautiful American authors as Fannie Flagg, Patricia Gaffney and Barbara Kingsolver), children’s stories (Walker Books) and everything in between. 
Dreaming the Bear, released in 2016, may possibly be my favourite book of hers so far.  The heroine Darcy moves to Yellowstone Park with her family and suffers from an illness which becomes even more debilitating in the cold climate.  Lonely and fed up, she starts going for long walks, and when the snow becomes too much for her one day she holes up in a cave, where she finds a sleeping bear.  Soon reality and dreams become bewilderingly intertwined and the bear becomes the centre of a complicated journey back to wholeness.  Beautifully written and inspiringly put together, I read this soon after Maggie Stiefvater’s equally powerful and poetic shifter story Shiver and I’m at a loss to know why Dreaming the Bear isn’t at least as well-known. 
Mimi has inspired me to rediscover my joy in all kinds of writing.  Since I’ve had limited time to write lately, I’ve mostly focused on my romantic fiction for the last few years.  While I love romance, and will probably always write it (even my sci-fi story, ‘The Robot Who Smoked’, collected in Stories from the World of Tomorrow ended up having a relationship component), I also love reading YA books, sci-fi, fantasy, crime and thrillers.  Not to mention non-fiction (mostly about business and personal development).  And they say you should write what you love to read, so look out for more variety in my future writing projects. 
This idea gained ground as a result of reading Write, Publish, Repeat by Johnny B Truant and Sean Platt.  The book was a recommendation from one of my other 2017 inspirations, Joanna Penn (more about her later), and in it the authors talk about how they refuse to be corralled into a single genre.  They have built a brand on ridiculous unpredictability, arguing that there are enough readers who like good writing across a number of genres to build a successful following without sticking to one type of story.  And since I’m one of those readers, I wholeheartedly agree. 
This year, it’s going to be all about exploring and experimenting with multiple styles and genres.  Joanna Penn is a shining example of how to manage multiple strands of writing – her non-fiction writing advice site, The Creative Penn, is one of my go-to sources of writing advice on the web, and includes many excellent articles and podcasts.  That led me to reading her first ARKANE thriller, which has a bit of a Dan Brown feel, but wasn’t quite my cup of tea.  I didn’t read any of her fiction for ages, but then in 2016 I stumbled across her London Psychic series and was absolutely blown away by her beautiful, damaged heroine and hero, Jamie and Blake.  I’m not sure whether I’m meant to or not, but in my head I see Jamie played by Olivia Coleman.  Possibly that’s because the stories have the same sort of fully imagined world as Broadchurch – there’s so much more to them than just a murder mystery.
Another of my writing inspirations is Kate Johnson – I’ve followed her career with interest (and a certain amount of envy) since I first met her at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference some years ago.  Kate was one of a number of new(ish) authors I met there who were publishing in e-book form, back before most of the reading public had the faintest idea what this e-book idea was all about and she boldly went where very few writers had gone before to develop a thriving e-book led writing career.  
At the time Kate was writing madcap spy adventures featuring what she described as Britain’s female answer to James Bond, Sophie Green.  Given Sophie’s general ineptitude, I thought ‘the female answer to Johnny English’ might be nearer the mark, but I certainly enjoyed her adventures. 
Since then Kate has published a whole selection of books, of which until very recently my favourites were The Untied Kingdom (romance set in an alternative version of Britain, complete with one of my favourite heroes, the dashing Captain Harker) and Impossible Things (fantasy romance, complete with one of my favourite heroines, Ishtar). 
I have a new favourite now: Max Seventeen combines the madcap brilliance of a Sophie Green adventure with a deep space setting and some serious issues-based writing, all while relentlessly challenging gender stereotypes.  Witness the original strapline for the book, which if I remember correctly was ‘She needed a hero, so that’s what she became’. 
Never mind the Science Council or whoever it is spending all that money on trying to increase the number of girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics careers (or whatever this week’s acronym is). They should just give every girl a copy of Max Seventeen and let them get on with it. 
While I’m on the girl power theme, I have to mention two women who have inspired me enormously, both with a musical connection.  The first is another writer, Katy Lovell, who in not much over a year has gone from book blogger and aspiring writer to the author of a hugely successful romantic short story series, the Meet Cutes (of which my favourite is, not surprisingly, The Boy in the Bookshop) and a full-length novel, The Singalong Society for Singletons.  I was ridiculously excited about Singalong because I love stories about music (I’ve written two, Desperate Bid and The Santa Next Door, as well as one about dancing).  Musicals are a big thing in our house, so I loved reading about how they changed Monique’s life.

My second musical inspiration is the lovely Rachael Wooding, a hugely talented singer who could have faded into obscurity after leaving the West End stage to have her first child, but instead fought her way back into the limelight on national television by entering Britain’s Got Talent, where she narrowly missed out on a place in the final. 
But what I loved even more than Rachael's faultless rendition of ‘With You’ was her powerful but understated performance as Carole, the social worker who hates Christmas, in little-known musical Another Night Before Christmas. The play took place at the tiny, adorable Bridge House Theatre and Rachael starred alongside the equally brilliant George Maguire.  I’m sure many West End performers would have turned up their noses at performing to such a tiny audience in a blacked out room above a pub, but Rachael and George were pure professionals and gave the performance their all, which at such close range was truly dazzling!  And, to prove that if you remain open to opportunities, you never know what will come along, this year Rachael will be hitting the road again as half of a job-share taking the lead in Wonderland.  Can’t wait!
That’s it for my girl power choices, because my last two inspirations are about as laddish as they come.  For some reason I’ve been craving gritty detective dramas and thrillers (like J F Penn’s London Psychics) and the two other series that have really kept me gripped with their strong characterisation and their twists and turns are Andy Maslen’s Gabriel Wolfe thrillers and Damien Boyd’s Nick Dixon books.  One day I’d love to write a series half as gripping!
Oh, and then of course I have to add one bonus book pick from last year, a series I came to ridiculously late in the day – Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books.  Pure joy, and I can only fantasise about creating a world half as complex, beautiful and richly imagined.
Those are my 2017 inspirations – I’d love to hear about yours!  



Saturday, 7 January 2017

My Strictly Journey

I wonder how often those words have been uttered over the course of the 13 years that Strictly Come Dancing has been aired? The celebrities who speak them are usually referring to the intense roller-coaster ride of a single series, but those of us who have been fans from the start have travelled a much longer and more rambling route. When the show started in May 2004 I was an English graduate, ballroom dance lover and aspiring writer in my late twenties, living near London and working in market research.  Over the years, my Strictly journey and my writing journey have become intricately entwined, thanks to an idea I had as soon as I heard that there was going to be a competitive dancing show on TV again for the first time since Come Dancing hung up its dancing shoes.   I’d noticed at university that the dancing world was something of a hotbed of gossip and romance, and thought it would be fun to combine a dancing show with something more relationship-focused – think ‘Strictly meets Blind Date’.  And so Couples, the fictional show at the heart of my first full-length book, was born.

If I recall correctly, the first draft of my novel based around the fictional show – the book which later became Perfect Partners - was written in the summer of 2004, but at that point I thought Strictly would be a nine days’ wonder and the market for a ballroom dancing book limited, and I chalked the novel up to experience and moved on.  I’d enjoyed writing about dancing, though, and in 2005-6, when I went to Bath to study for my MA in Creative Writing, and Strictly was back on our screens and gaining more of a mainstream following, I started to think there might be potential for the book after all.  As part of my MA I began work on the sequel, with a working title of A Step in the Right Direction. At the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference that year I pitched the concept to an editor from Mills and Boon, who was intrigued, and so I sent a draft of Perfect Partners off for their consideration and went back to work on my dissertation – 30,000 words of Step accompanied by a critical commentary.

When I’d submitted my final coursework, I went off to Australia for a fabulous three-month road trip, so I missed watching Strictly live that year, but my best friend was kind enough to record every single episode on video so that I could watch them on my return.  By the end of the series, I still hadn’t heard anything from Mills and Boon, so once again, the novel went back in my desk drawer.  And there it remained while the real world took over and I moved to Yorkshire, worked in a host of temporary office jobs, spent a spell as English Coach for a secondary school in an ex-mining village, and generally tried to figure out what I was doing with my life.  I carried on writing and in 2010 I achieved ‘published author’ status according to the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s rules, by selling my first novella, Desperate Bid, to US-based e-publisher The Wild Rose Press.  But I still didn’t have a published paperback I could hold in my hands. 

Then in 2012 I picked up a copy of Writing Magazine and read about a new romance publisher called Crimson Romance setting up in America.  I’d already seen enough publishers come and go to be slightly suspicious of new ventures, but this one had the backing of Adams Media, the publishers behind the phenomenally successful Chicken Soup for the Soul books, so I thought they might be worth a shot.  I dug out my dancing book, polished it up and sent it off.  To my delight, Crimson Romance accepted it.  I had to do some edits and fill in a long form about what I wanted on the cover – I could link to photos that had inspired me, so I sent a link to the photo gallery on Anton and Erin’s website. I loved the cover that came back, and by the time 2013’s Strictly season began I finally held my paperback in my hands and felt like a ‘real writer.’ 

Showing off on the Strictly set at Wembley
But while I remained a fan of Strictly, and even got to watch an episode being filmed at Wembley, I wasn’t actually doing a lot of dancing myself.  Every year, during the Strictly season, I’d see adverts for dancing weekends with the stars of Strictly, but since my husband isn’t a dancer, we always ended up with other holiday plans.  But this year, he spotted an advert for a Donahey’s dance weekend with Anton and Erin which included lessons for absolute beginners, and suggested booking.  So, in May, I’ll experience another first in my Strictly journey – meeting the stars who inspired the characters of Redmond and Lisa in my book Perfect Partners. Who knows, perhaps the experience will even encourage me to return to work on the long-abandoned sequel!



If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read Perfect Partners for free.  Otherwise, the cheapest way to get your hands on it is as part of the Spotlight on Love or Perfect Game bundle.  Click here for my Amazon.com and here for my AmazonUK page. 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Flash Fiction: Saving Time

This tiny story was inspired by an exercise set at Doncaster Writers' Group.  The story had to include a man, a young girl, a mother, a bench, an ice cream, a bank and a coat. The image is supplied by Pixabay and the protagonists' names may bear a certain resemblance to minor characters in a popular kids' story involving wizards. But hey, didn't TS Eliot say that all good writing is borrowing?  Or something like that?  

James stepped off the bus and frowned at the view.  Outside the bank, there was no cash machine or security screen.  The staff were all dressed in olde-worlde clothes.  He dropped onto the bus stop bench and looked around.
A girl walked past eating an ice-cream.  She was wrapped in a short, mint-green trenchcoat.  He'd seen one like it before, tattered and moth-eaten at the back of his mother's wardrobe when he and his sister had cleared her house out for her move into the home.
"Lily," he called, not really believing himself, but she turned her head towards him, squinted in concentration, then walked over to the bench and sat down beside him.
He didn't know what to say.
"Where am I?" he asked finally.
"Brighton."  Well, obviously.
"I mean.. when?"
"Tuesday morning."
"OK, I mean... this is going to sound crazy, but what year is this?"
"1963."
"I'm dreaming, right?  I must be.  I tripped, getting off the bus, and hit my head."
"I can pinch you, if you like," Lily suggested.
James was saved from needing to reply by a sudden scream.  Everyone turned towards the bank.
A masked man brandished a gun at the cashier, then turned to spray bullets wildly.  James dived for cover, sweeping Lily to the floor along with him.
Then everything went black.
When he came to, his head pounded as he sat up and looked around.  There was the cash machine, the security screens were back in place and the cashiers wore modern uniforms.
"What happened?" James asked.
"You tripped getting off the bus." An elderly lady fussed around him. "Do you need a doctor?"
James remembered a newspaper clipping he'd seen when they cleared out his Mum's house.  She had indeed narrowly avoided injury in a bank robbery during her youth.  And she'd never again seen the man who saved her.  But if he told anybody about his experience, they'd only think he'd been hallucinating.  
"No, I'm fine," he said.  The afternoon's events would remain his secret.  Or perhaps he'd share them with his Mum next time he went to visit the home.    

If you enjoy realism with a quirky paranormal twist, why not download a sample of my girl-meets-genie romance, Djinn and Tonic?

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Review: House of Secrets by Lynda Stacey

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the launch party of local author Lynda Stacey's debut novel, House of Secrets.  It was a lovely night (with an incredible book-cover cake - I definitely want one of those one day!) and a few days later I had time, while travelling, to start reading House of Secrets. Naturally, once I'd started, I raced through the book in no time, but it's taken me a bit longer to get around to working out how to explain its charm.  Here's my attempt...


House of SecretsHouse of Secrets by Lynda Stacey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Choc Lit books, and House of Secrets is a great example of what Choc Lit do best: love stories with an added dimension.

At one level, House of Secrets is a classic love triangle: Maddie is fleeing Liam, whose love for her has tipped over into a frightening obsession, when she meets Christopher Lawless, nicknamed Bandit. Maddie is a clever, capable woman whose confidence has temporarily been damaged by an abusive relationship - a familiar character type from so many stories, not least Carole Matthews' delightful A Place to Call Home, which I read just before House of Secrets. Liam, the obsessive ex-boyfriend, could have come out of any number of domestic noir novels. Bandit is the ever-popular ex-Marine, rough and ready, and with plenty of his own demons to fight, but with a soft streak a mile wide when it comes to Maddie's adorable daughter Poppy.

If you think these characters sound a touch predictable, you'd be right, but it's the warmth with which they are drawn that makes them stand out, and I'm sure that's a big part of why this book won Choc Lit's Search for a Star competition. The other outstanding feature of House of Secrets is, of course, the house of the title: Wrea Head Hall, the beautiful country house hotel which brings Maddie and Bandit together in an exploration of past secrets which turn out to have a touching relevance to the present day.

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I wanted to finish off by sharing a photo of me and hubby at Wrea Head Hall itself - yes, it's a real place, just outside Scarborough, and we've been there once for afternoon tea - but I couldn't find one.  Guess we'll just have to go again, then!  In the meantime, you can check the hotel out here; http://www.wreaheadhall.co.uk/ and read more about Lynda on her website here: https://lyndastacey2912.wordpress.com/


Thursday, 23 June 2016

A Poem for Referendum Day

I haven't been around much lately.  The real world has rather taken over from writing for a while, but here's one thing I have written which seems apt for today:

It Isn’t You

Of course I don’t mean you.  You are a product of the Empire
With no memory of a home outside these Isles.
Your stories and your smiles are in my earliest memories
You’re British through and through
And if we had to vote for you
To leave or to remain,
Despite your birthplace and the colour of your skin,
I’m sure that anyone would vote you ‘in’. 

I don’t mean you, I mean those others who
Like the Loch Ness Monster, I have never seen,
But must exist because the Daily Mail and facebook tell us so.
No, they should go, the lazy slobs
Who waste our benefits; the greedy ones who take our jobs.

I don’t mean you, my friend, whose thirty years of Yorkshire overlaid
On native Michigan have not yet made
You local in some Donny eyes – or ears –
Your fair skin and your perfect English do not stoke our fears,
And though it’s cost the NHS to help you through,
You’ve given too – so much, despite your pain.
No, you remain.

And no, I don’t mean you,
The tired-eyed, kind-smiled doctor who
Listened to my chest late after work, the time I coughed up blood
And reassured, in English broken as the tiny tube 
That caused the flood of red which scared me so, 
That it was nothing serious.
You’re surely one of us.
I wouldn’t make you go.
It isn’t you I mean. 

“It isn’t you, it is those others” is an easy thing to say to you,
But each of my others is someone’s father, friend or healer too,
And if I cannot choose on birthplace, accent or the colour of their skin
Which are the lucky few who should get in,
Then what gives anyone the right to judge a person’s value or their pain?

Whose place is it to say which wounded souls remain? 

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Writer Wednesday takeover - Angela Wren interviews me


It's all about fantasy today.  So wishes can come true and authors can be anything they want to be!  And I am Angela Wren and I am temporarily taking charge of Stephanie's blog so that I can interview her about her writing and her wonderful book 'Djinn and Tonic'.

AW  What is your current release?

SC Djinn and Tonic is a fun, fairy-tale inspired romance novella involving a photographer and a genie.  Sal is determined to win a photography award for an atmospheric photoshoot, but her wish for the perfect model is more effective than she expects –  she inadvertently conjures up Ashtad, who’s not only tall, dark and handsome, but also a genie.  Sal can have everything she’s ever dreamed of but, as in all the best fairy tales, she soon learns to be careful what she wishes for…

AW   What first got you into writing and why?

SC I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write.  My first love was poetry, but as a child I also used to make up long, rambling tales starring me and my friends, and loosely inspired by the adventures of the Famous Five.  I loved (and still love) writing because of how the imagination can take us to all kinds of places that we’d never go in reality, and open up the most amazing adventures.  It’s like having the opportunity to live dozens of different lives, instead of being limited to one.  

AW  You write Romance novels.  Is it all imagination or do you also undertake research?

SC I like to write about settings and situations that feel a little familiar in some way, as it makes them easier to imagine.  For example, at university I was a keen ballroom dancer, and I was fascinated by the romantic and dramatic potential of the competitive dancing world, so I used it as the setting for my first full-length book, Perfect Partners.  My starting point may be real, but then I’ll add large doses of imagination – such as the Strictly Come Dancing meets Blind Date TV show which brings Redmond and Lisa back together in Perfect Partners – and I’ll also research specific details to add depth to the story. 

I had to do some interesting research for ‘Music to Her Ears’, my contribution to the Modern Magic anthology – my story was a quirky take on Goldilocks, with Goldie gatecrashing the mansion of three famous musician brothers, so I had to read up about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, including comparing journey times between London and New York by commercial and private jet. 

AW  Have you ever had to write a scene that was especially difficult and how did you do it?

SC I can’t think of a specific one, perhaps because every scene has its own challenges.  In general, I think I struggle more with overall structure than with individual scenes.  I was going to say, the hardest thing is often knowing where to start a story, but then I remembered that I also often find it hard to wrap the plot up neatly.  Oh, and saggy middles are always a struggle.  So no, I wouldn’t say there was one particular scene. 

AW  Famous authors, such as Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas, had a special space for writing.  Do you have a writing ‘shed’?

SC No.  I mostly write on a mini laptop so my writing is very portable.  I sometimes write at home, either at the dining table or on the sofa, but in the summer I also enjoy taking my writing outdoors, and I quite enjoy writing in coffee shops, although I can be distracted by people-watching.  Just now I’m writing on a train, but my dream writing spot would be curled up on a sofa in a conservatory overlooking the sea.   

AW  Finally, if you had a whole afternoon to yourself and could choose to spend it with anyone, living or dead or a character from a book.  Who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?

SC That’s a tricky one!  There are a lot of people I’d like to meet, but at the moment, with all the publicity surrounding the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the discovery of another first folio, I’d go for the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon.  I’d like to settle once and for all the question of whether he wrote all the plays attributed to him, or whether Bacon or someone else was involved… although I don’t suppose Shakespeare would want to give up the credit for his famous plays, and you can never quite trust a fiction writer to give you true answers, so maybe we’d still never know. 

Thanks, Angela, for visiting today and for some fascinating questions.  Thanks also for having me to visit on your blog, James and Me.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Writer Wednesday Interview and GIVEAWAY with Elizabeth Meyette

Celebrate the Audiobook Edition of The Cavanaugh House with this Giveaway


GIVEAWAY ALERT: Enter to win a $25 Amazon Gift Card below!


Welcome, Elizabeth!  When and how did you first become interested in writing?

I was smitten with writing from the time I could hold a pencil and scrawl nonsense scribbles on paper. Mrs. McGrath, my third grade teacher, told me I was a very good writer and that affirmation launched my love of words. My first poem was published when I was a high school sophomore, and I wrote for our high school newspaper. I majored in English and minored in Journalism in college, and I wrote for my college paper. On a dare, I wrote a romance novel. Eventually, it became my first published book.


'The Cavanaugh House' isn't a traditional romance - what makes it different?

One convention of a traditional romance is scenes that alternate between the heroine’s and hero’s point of view. The Cavanaugh House is told in limited omniscient point of view through my heroine Jesse. So the only way we know what Joe, the hero, is thinking is through his words or Jesse’s observations of his facial expression or body language. Other than POV, it’s a pretty conventional romance—they meet and fall in love, there are complications, they are separated, they reunite, a happily ever after ending.


It's just been released as an audiobook - what is it like hearing your story read?  Does it sound as you imagined?

As I began to listen to Amy McFadden narrate my story, I got teary-eyed. It was overwhelming. Those were my words! Someone was reading my words! My husband Rich walked in and gave me a hug—he totally gets it. Amy warned me that my characters would not sound like they had in my head all the time I was writing the book, and I was grateful that she said that. But even though some of them didn’t sound like I’d imagined, Amy nailed it, especially with Jesse. I was thrilled.


Who are your favorite romantic authors?

My older sister introduced me to Victoria Holt and her gothic novels when I was in high school. I devoured them all. Of course, now I read Nora Roberts and Diana Gabaldon. I’ve been reading romances by authors I’ve come to be friends with, but I’m afraid if I only name a couple I will miss someone J. I especially love historical romance and romantic suspense. Oh, and Shakespeare—there’s lots of romance in his works LOL.


Which other genres do you like to read?

I have to admit that I like some romance in any genre I read. Mystery is my favorite, so I love Janet Evanovich and Patricia Cornwell. I’ve read every mystery Agatha Christie wrote, and love Sherlock Holmes and other British mysteries. I also like paranormal, fantasy and some sci-fi. I used to teach high school English, so of course I love the American classics. To Kill a Mockingbird is my all time favorite, but I love The Great Gatsby, Dandelion Wine, even The Grapes of Wrath!


Janet Evanovich always makes me smile, and I love a good mystery too.  To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book as well - I so admire Harper Lee's writing.  Speaking of writing, what’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?

HOKBIS. Hands on Keyboard; Butt in Seat. There is no other way for this to happen, my friend.


The Cavanaugh House excerpt:

This house held secrets.  Secrets that wafted through rotting window sashes on the winter wind.  Secrets that spiders wove into webs anchored between the ceiling and walls. Secrets that scuttled on the feet of cockroaches across stained kitchen linoleum and scurried into its cracks. Secrets that peered from holes in the baseboard from glinting mouse eyes. This house held the secrets close to its bosom where they had slept for decades. No one had disturbed these secrets in all the years the house sat decaying from neglect. There was no reason to, and there was no desire.

The Cavanaugh House blurb:

When Jesse Graham unlocks the door to the deserted house she inherited from her Aunt Helen, she doesn’t realize she’s unlocking secrets that had lain dormant for years. Reeling from a broken engagement to acclaimed musician Robert Cronmiller, Jesse wants to leave the city where her name is linked to his in all the society pages. Her best friend Maggie, aka Sister Angelina, convinces her to take a job at a private girls’ school in the pastoral Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Anticipating a quiet, revitalizing life in her aunt’s deserted house, Jesse is instead thrown into a maze of danger. Questions about her aunt’s death lead Jesse to investigate events surrounding it and the people involved, but she uncovers a web of deceit that reaches far beyond the occurrences of over two decades earlier. Still dejected from her broken engagement, Jesse finds it difficult to trust anyone, even her self-absorbed mother. Joe Riley is irresistible, but secrets obstruct involvement with him until Jesse can solve the secrets of the Cavanaugh House. Someone doesn’t want those secrets unearthed and will stop at nothing, even murder, to keep them hidden.


Where can readers find you and your books? 

Thank you for inviting me to your lovely blog today, Stephanie. Readers can find me and my books at the following:

In the UK:


In the US:



My audiobook version of The Cavanaugh House is available on:






I love visits, and you can find me at








Enter the Giveaway for a $25 Amazon Gift Card! Click here: GIVEAWAY