Thursday, June 28, 2012

#opinion Releasing my inner cow

If this bugs you,
then too bad. :D

This morning I got an e-mail from some chick who wants to sell me lead pig and zinc ingots. Apparently she specialises in metal. There’s a nasty little voice in the back of my mind that urges me to send her the response that has helped me avoid getting any more Nigerian scam artists – a copy/ paste of the Nine Satanic Statements as per the Church of Satan website. I can’t think of anything more contentious with which to respond to folks I’m assuming are basically your average Joe who’s looking to find a way to make a quick buck.

And I’m not making this stuff up. I haven’t had any letters from anyone wishing to deposit money in my bank account for more than a year now. I’m starting to think I need to apply the same tactic to the folks who keep telling me I’ve won the UK Lottery. No. Really.

But getting back to Yolanda from China who wants me to buy her metal: I responded to her e-mail and enquired whether she had any progressive funeral, sludge or doom metal, since those are the only types of metal in which I’m really interested. But no black metal, thank you.

I’m not all that into the way Danny Filth sings. He sounds like he’s gargling razor blades. I don’t have much of a taste for the Norwegian bands either.

In my opinion, black metal is just a bunch of long-haired dudes wearing too-tight leather trousers who run around in pine forests looking for trolls.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have this colleague, the kind I’m sure many of us have. I have come to the conclusion that she’s not really bright because she keeps mailing me Bible verses with those little motivationals and cutesy pictures of flowers and butterflies and little fuzzy lambs and praying hands and other vomitous stuff. She also gave me a pink floral print shopping bag for my birthday. I think she’s trying to tell me something.

To be honest, I’d be happier if she just ignored me like I try to ignore her in the hopes that she’ll go away and leave me alone.

Numerous times I’ve asked her to stop including me in the mails she sends to everyone in the building. But yeah, I guess I should start copy/pasting the Nine Satanic Statements to her, too. It worked on the Nigerians and the Arab spammers. I’m sure it’s going to work on her. I’m dead certain she’s already including me in her daily prayers. My supervisor told me making little voodoo dolls to pin to my cubicle might be a wee bit inappropriate. She might have a point.

On the bright side, I can hit the delete button with these annoying e-mails, happy for once that these idiots aren’t killing trees. Not like those bulky sweepstakes letters my parents used to get in the mail that usually required a lifetime subscription to condensed books packages. With all the different envelopes for replies, you needed to complete an undergraduate course in logistics to figure out how to respond.

But let’s not get started on our friends who forward every last conspiracy theory to all and sundry in their address book; like the woman who got parasites in her breast from some larvae she picked up her bra in the Bahamas or some weird gangster initiation ritual involving flashing lights late at night. Or our old favourites of “forward this mail and Bill Gates will donate 5c to little Jenny who’s dying of cancer”.

They’re the same people who’ll turn around and say is run by a government agency in cahoots with the Bavarian Illuminati*, and is trying to suppress all the conspiracy theories because they must be true because they can’t be disproved. These are also the same people who believe the moon landings were fake, and the US government is in regular contact with space aliens.

I sometimes despair for the human race, but as that wonderful cliché goes, there’s a sucker born every minute. I’m sure there are stats for the percentage of people who buy into some of these scams or mindlessly forward junk mail.

Don’t get me started on Facebook. Cute pictures of cats I can deal with (hey, I’m a big fan of Basement Cat, OK?), but my new rule is that each slacktivist who pastes images of mutilated rhinos, starving dogs or abused children on their timeline is unfriended.

Does that make me a cow? If so, then hear me say “moo”.

This column originally appeared in the Sunday Independent Life supplement, June 24, 2012.

* Yes, I am a paid-up member of the Bavarian Illuminati. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#Review: Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine

Title: Mechanique
Author: Genevieve Valentine
Publisher: Prime Books, 2011
Buy link

Sometimes stories exist that hit all of my buttons at the same time, and Mechanique is one of those rare finds for 2012 that really succeeded in keeping me glued to my ereader. Where do I start? Perhaps with my love for travellers. I watched both seasons of Carnivale a few years ago and that really captured my imagination. The concept of a group of misfits journeying together who somehow succeed in being a family. Then of course, Genevieve Valentine plays with a concept that is near and dear to my heart—that of a post-apocalyptic society. On top of that she adds magic that is never truly full explained and garnishes with a clockwork theme.

The result: beauty and a macabre yet gorgeous mutilation of art that left me breathless.

I’ll add a short warning here: I don’t think this novel is going to appeal to a broad base of readers. It jumps in point of view, sometimes first person, sometimes second and sometimes third, but somehow Valentine gets it all to hang together in a rich tapestry of imagery and text. That being said, once I got used to her style, I immediately plunged right into the narrative.

And there’s a lot going on here. Superficially Mechanique tells the story of the Circus Tresaulti that somehow exists outside of time as it travels from one ruined city to the next. The circus’s mistress, Boss, has the ability to defy death in her creations, her performers, who are modified and, in many cases “accept the bones” that set them apart from ordinary folk. A threat arises from the outside in the form of the government man, who sees the circus as an opportunity to create soldiers to aid him in his programme of world domination.

But within the circus there is tension too, particularly with regard to a pair of mechanical wings that two main characters both strive to. There’s more to this device that meets the eye, however, and I found the love/hate relationship between Bird and Stenos to be one of the pivotal story arcs within the novel.

Most of the story is told by Little George, Boss’s assistant, and his naïveté adds a freshness to the milieu. He is the glue that somehow holds all the others together, from the phlegmatic Ayar to the seemingly malicious Elena.

I can probably end this review with a whole bunch of superlatives. I’m not going to. All I can say is that if you’re looking for a mythical, multi-layered work of literary fantasy, then Mechanique is a welcome diversion from reality that will stay with you for a very long time, its characters enigmatic and unforgettable. Valentine has a fan for life.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ensemble brings vintage cinema to life

Sonja Ruppersberg and Paul Blom,
picture: Thomas Dorman
Lovers of vintage black-and-white cinema should perk up when they hear of a Makabra Ensemble performance nearby. The brainchild of Paul Blom and Sonja Ruppersberg, both of the industrial metal band Terminatryx, in collaboration with violin maestro Matthijs van Dijk, as well as Simon Ratcliffe and Sean Ou Tim, both of Lark, the ensemble breathes new life into classics.

What started in 2005 with a soundtrack for The Phantom of the Opera (1925) at the annual SA HorrorFest has resulted in several performances over the years, with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu, Häxan, Maciste in Hell, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Blom elaborates: "We love movies of all types and respect cinema history. We wanted to include unique elements to our HorrorFest film festival over the Halloween season and we juggled many ideas around to make it more than |just a regular film festival, but rather and event.

"Before sound was introduced to film in the late 1920s, the viewing experience was enhanced with organ, piano and other instruments. We decided to bring that era back, but with a modern twist. So when we kicked off the first HorrorFest in 2005, we made a point of introducing this as a permanent fixture, breathe new life into landmark silent horror/thriller films, and give viewers the chance to see |these timeless movies on the big screen again, with a diverse new soundtrack."

Although Blom would have preferred a full orchestra, he says he tasked Van Dijk to contribute initially, and he brought in a few of his UCT graduate friends to form a string ensemble when they provided the soundtrack for The Phantom of the Opera.

It was in 2006, that the first expansive Makabra Ensemble components came together with Nosferatu. Blom elaborates: "For this, Sonja and I approached Van Dijk again, as well as Ratcliffe and Ou Tim to take it into a new realm with a wide range of instruments, diversifying it from just strings. Francois Blom from Voice of Destruction and Kobus was also a part of this performance. It was recorded live and released on DVD with its new soundtrack on the first Terminatryx DVD. We did Phantom again in 2010 as the official Makabra Ensemble."

Since those first performances, the initial ensemble members have remained consistent, but Blom adds: "From time to time special guests are incorporated, such as The Crackpot Realist, Max Starcke and others, but this is the core group. The name only got introduced around 2008 as we needed a moniker to encapsulate it (instead of listing everyone's names and their band affiliations."

Simon Ratcliffe, Paul Blom, Sonja Ruppersberg,
Sean Ou Tim, Matthijs van Dijk, picture: Ronnie Belcher
Because these movies are in the public domain - unless they've been remastered with new soundtracks - screening these old versions doesn't have legal ramifications, Blom says. All that remains is to find a way to bring the musicians together without the benefit of an existing score.
"Sonja and I systematically log each film's scenes - with its relevant time-code for each portion -  then we allocate an even distribution of these to everyone," says Blom. "Sometimes we spot a section we think someone in particular can tackle well. With everyone's unique musical style and approach to the moods of the scenes, we |let everyone do their thing with no prescriptions, resulting in an amazingly diverse soundtrack collaboration, which gels well. On the night of the performance, each musician does their thing with everyone free to add improvisational enhancements where they see fit, resulting in a fresh spontaneity added to the well-planned scores."

Because ensemble members' schedules are hectic, it's difficult for them to get together and do a full rehearsal before a show. "The first time we really get to hear what everyone got up to is during the soundcheck before the show, where we try to run through as much of the movie as possible and iron out all the technical bits and pieces.

Says Blom: "But we have great support from people like Paul Bothner Music, Ratcliffe's Sound & Motion studio crew and Point Blanc Event Tech Solutions. With so many different instruments and channels being used, it is quite an endeavour, but luckily we've learned to spot a glitch and someone will quickly jump in for an improvisational fill. At times we get to do a pre- and sometimes post-show at Sound & Motion Studios as a special White Room Session."

Those who've attended Makabra shows will know what to expect, but Blom says those who have not are in for an amazing audio-visual treat, with a fusion of historical movie-making with modern music, the live environment adding new life to the experience.

"Audience members get so wrapped up in the movie and forget we're sitting underneath the screen, while others love to watch what the musicians are doing. Then some are torn between keeping an eye on the screen and on the musicians."

This year the Makabra Ensemble are breaking away from their traditional fare of horror and thriller movies for the SA HorrorFest to offer their first sci-fi/futuristic soundtrack for Metropolis, in time for the Celludroid festival.

Blom says: "Metropolis remains such an incredible film-making accomplishment and with a new live soundtrack, this experience is bound to be an exceptional one. While we cannot speak for everyone, we expect the soundtrack to be another great fusion of organic and electronic music, with expected tricks up some sleeves."

The Celludroid Sci-Fi/Anime/ Fantasy Film Festival takes place from June 29 to July 5 at the Labia Theatre, 68 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town. See or
Email Celludroid or the Makabra Ensemble at

This editorial originally appeared in the Sunday Independent Life supplement on June 24, 2012.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Keir with Pippa Jay

Today I welcome a fellow Lyrical Press over, Pippa Jay, who's celebrating the release of her novel, Keir. Welcome Pippa,

ND: Tell us a little bit more about Keirlan and his background? If you had to pick an actor to play him in the film of your movie, who'd you choose? What sort of powers does he have?

PJ: Keirlan was born into the most powerful family in his medieval-level society and a priviledged childhood - the first son of the city's military commander. But his freakish appearance soon led to rumours of a curse on the ruling family, and his father eventaully took terrible steps to remove him. When we first meet Keir he's waiting for death to end his misery - a life as an outcast, feared and abused. Even though he's never hurt anyone or shown any signs of the demonic nature he's accused of, he believes he deserves such hatred. He's given up. And then he meets Quin...

His powers don't develop until after Quin rescues him, and then run wild, further convincing his that his own people were right from the start - he is some kind of demon. But the truth horrifies him more. He's telepathic, can open gateways through time and space, and throws telekinetic bolts hard enough to knock someone off their feet. All things no normal human being should be able to do.

And only one actor? Hmmm, my BFF and I actually discussed a short list of four actors that we thought would fit the part. But I have to go with Aidan Turner (from the UK's Being Human and currently being filmed as one of the dwarves in The Hobbit).  

ND: Tell us more about Quin and her mission? What is she searching for? How do her powers work, and how does her encounter with Keir affect her?

PJ: Quin is a young woman born in our time - 21st century Earth - but an encounter with an alien being has gifted her with a collection of strange powers that transport her far from her own world. She's been searching through time and space for this creature in the hope of finding an old friend lost with it. After reading the legend of the Blue Demon of Adalucien, she believed it to be the alien she sought and the only clue to her friend's whereabouts...but instead she find Keir. She starts off feeling sorry for him as a fellow prisoner, one obviously hurt or sick, but the first time they touch something passes between them. There's a strange connection she can't ignore. As a telepath herself, she doesn't come across that kind of affinity in another human very often, and his plight touches her heart. She sees him as a lost soul in need of saving. Her power are the same as Keir's, another fact that convinces her they have a common bond.

ND: You classify this novel as sweet romance, but what are some of the other elements that you bring into it? Are there any books or movies that have been particularly influential on your writing career?

PJ: Well, it has strong elements of scifi and time-travel, although the medieval theme at the start might seem more fantasy. I like to blend the two. I think that probably comes from reading a lot of Anne McCaffrey as a teenager, and now Jaine Fenn and Linnea Sinclair. Films like Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal and the original Star Wars films were huge early influences, although I based some of Keir's character on Sir Ulric (Heath Ledger) from A Knight's Tale. I'm torn between a love of fantasy and science fiction, but it gives me the best of both worlds.

ND: Here's a question I love asking authors. Do you have a particular soundtrack you listen to while writing? If so, does your choice of music affect your writing or vice versa? Were there particular songs or artists you listened to while writing this particular story? 

PJ: Oh, definitely! With Keir I rediscovered a band that I'd liked a few years previously - The Rasmus - and I listened to their music nonstop while writing, particularly the album Black Roses. A lot of the overall darkness of the story is down to the feel of their music, and I don't think it would have been the same without them. So they get a mention in my acknowledgments. :) s

ND: Lastly, are there any writing projects you're currently working on that you care to spill the beans about?

PJ: I'm working on the sequel to Keir, as well as another science fiction romance called Tethered. I also have a YA scifi novella that still needs a little tweaking before submission, and a short scifi story that I plan to self-publish - one of Quin's earlier adventures. Keir's sequel is set a year after the first book, and I've found myself writing out the events of that year even though I doubt I'll ever try to publish it. Somehow my muse felt that needed writing.

Facebook:  Keir - Beyond Redemption (book page) and Pippa Jay (profile) 

Keir - a science-fiction romance available from Lyrical Press Inc

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

#review Sea of Trees by Robert James Russell

Title: Sea of Trees
Author: Robert James Russell
Publisher: Winter Goose Publishing, 2012
Buy link

First off, this was definitely a pleasant surprise to read a novella with absolutely no expectations—just to ease into it and *really* enjoy the story. Sea of Trees is a minimalist examination of mankind’s relationship with suicide, with particular emphasis on the phenomena surrounding Aokigahara Forest on the slopes of Mount Fuji in Japan.

I’d heard of the “suicide forest” but had never read up much about it until I read Sea of Trees and to know that this place really exists, chills and fascinates by equal measure. I dare you to go look it up. It’s fascinating—absolutely totally fascinating. Macabre, yes, I admit it, but definitely a rich topic for conversation that is soaked in monomyths.

Bill, the narrator, accompanies his girlfriend, Junko, into the forest seemingly so that she can lay her dead sister’s memory to rest. But the journey into this primordial wilderness unlocks a darkness Bill is not prepared for. Those of you who are familiar with the writings of Joseph Campbell will see correspondences with the Hero’s Journey.

Complementing the primary story arc are a selection of vignettes, of the lives of those who have sought out Aokigahara in order to seek solace in death. Chilling, these nevertheless carry with a ring of authenticity Russell executes masterfully.

Perhaps this novella resonated with me due to my own brushes with suicide, but in any case, Russell deals sensitively with the topic, exploring mankind’s fascination with death. Especially for those who realise that the ones desiring death literally feel there is no other way to resolve their situation. I cannot underscore how much I absolutely *love* this novella. Russell’s definitely made it to my list of rare finds for 2012. If you’re looking for a tale that will chill you, give you pause for thought and immerse you in a vivid world existing beneath a gloomy forest canopy, then go read this novella.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Jane Austen... Meet Vera Nazarian

A goodly while back I reviewed one of Vera Nazarian's anthologies, so when the chance cropped up to read one of her novels, I jumped at it. Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons was available as a free download on Amazon recently, and the story so intrigued me, I absolutely had to have Vera over.

ND: Welcome, Vera, and where did your love affair with Austen's writing begin? What attracts you to the Regency era?

VN: I’ve been reading world classics in my native Russian as soon as I learned to read, around the age of 5, starting with the Greek myths. I honestly don’t remember reading kids books at that point as much as the grownup classics. Yeah, I was a weird kid.

Jane Austen came much later, long after I learned English and we immigrated to the United States. I first read Pride and Prejudice as a high school assignment and then saw the wonderful BBC miniseries starring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie, and together with four other girlfriends we formed the P&P club where every lunch period we watched the movie and became the Bennet sisters and dreamed about Mr. Darcy. I wrote the story of the Five School Girls and the P&P Club here.

Writing in the worlds of Regency is a natural outgrowth of my love of historical romance, and I am drawn to the elegance, the beauty of manners and so-called traditional graces of ages past. This is an artificial construct of course, and the ugly underbelly of the period (and any other historical period) is not accurately reflected in most original or modern Regency romantic works which emphasize the gentility of the upper classes in favor of reality. But it is a fairytale mentality of sorts. And, coming to write in the period, and especially in the worlds of Jane Austen, as a fantasy author first and foremost, a fairytale mentality works great for me.

What also works is the fact that my own natural writing is stylized and “bookish,” my core English assimilated and learned from reading 18th and 19th century literature. As a result, for me, dropping into Austen’s vocabulary and sentence structure is like coming home.

ND: How do you approach a mash-up? And how do you ensure that you remain true to the existing style?

VN: Writing a mash-up well is truly difficult, I’ve come to appreciate. Unlike original writing, you are constantly in “edit” mode (as opposed to “create” mode). It is slow-going. And working that way can make your head explode.

In a nutshell, I am faced with an already near-perfect work of literature and my task is to expand it—like a folded silk fan unfurling—with additional material that a) fits the existing storyline without changing the basic plot, and b) adds a new dimension to the story that takes it into the realm of the fantastic.

My process includes several edit passes, done in random order, depending on the work. First, I decide upon various insertion points into which the major new scenes will go that will add the supernatural motif and secondary stories. Second, I do a stylistic pass where I condense some of the more verbose passages and modernize it a bit for clarity and for length.  I make a pass where I add in small supernatural details practically everywhere along the way, and that means everywhere I can, not just the major pivotal scenes. Finally I do a cohesion pass that allows me to integrate everything better, and make it as seamless as possible.

When it’s over, not a single sentence has been left unturned, so that what you think might be original Austen, is usually not. And I remain true to style by echoing the sentence structure, and the complex compound clauses, and using the kind of inverted word order and other quirks of the period, to match the original.

But I don’t stop there. There are also the Scholarly Footnotes which differ from book to book, and add a completely other layer of silliness. Truly, they must be seen to be understood. Then there are the Appendices. Again, they must be seen, because there are no words (in some cases literally, since they are pictures). And did I mention the interior illustrations? Yup, as an artist, I do my own. Finally, the back cover includes very special fake blurbs written by Regency “contemporaries” to express their delight or more often displeasure at the novel. Ahem!

After my first foray into this unique genre with Mansfield Park and Mummies, I realized very quickly that I don’t write monster mash-ups, but fantasy mash-ups, with the distinction being that I aim to incorporate wonder, supernatural elements, wit and comedy, almost entirely lacking in gore or brute force shock value. Far from trying to bash the reader on the head with zombie blood and guts and nastiness, I aim to make the reader giggle at the droll delightful silliness, and general absurdity. And then there’s the Brighton Duck.

As a result, my Supernatural Jane Austen Series was born, and I will be putting my very special brand of silliness and fantasy mash-up treatment on every single Austen novel in the coming months.

ND: For those authors who’re interested in attempting this sort of thing themselves, what are some of the legal implications?

VN: None—Jane Austen is entirely in the public domain, so you can do whatever you like with her work (but please be gentle and respectful).

The same goes for much of classic world literature, which is in the public domain for the most part—but always check first and never assume something is in the public domain in your country, especially in case of literature in translation, because in some cases there are copyrighted modern translations involved where the living translator holds copyright. A good place to start looking is Project Gutenberg online.

Also, the laws of copyright vary from country to country. And there are weird exceptions to “normal” public domain rules, such as in the unusual case of the estate of Peter Pan. To be safe, do your research, preferably with a knowledgeable copyright lawyer.
ND: Obviously research plays a big part of the story. Are there any resources you found particularly useful?

VN: The primary research should be your familiarity with the original classic author’s personal style, and hopefully, years of absorbing it. That means, closely read the work you plan to mash-up and read the author’s other works. Then, read their contemporaries. Some of this research may already be things you know because you love digging around in history, and you have soaked up the social mores like a sponge. Use Google and Wikipedia as starting points, but expand to real third party historical accounts and scholarly work about the period, and be familiar with the slang and everyday life habits of the time, as much as possible.

And if you think that’s nuts, then you really don’t have any idea how difficult it is to write a good mash-up. If the intention is to make a quick buck, and just do a Frankenstein patchwork job of sticking in zombies in every other sentence, then I really don’t have much to say, except “sure, knock yourself out.” It might be crudely funny and it might even work for you (kind of like whoopee cushions work for some people), but it’s not what I write. Yes, I am a mash-up “snob.”

ND: What was your favourite scene to write, and why? Likewise, the most difficult, and how did you get past it?

VN: My favorite scenes either make me laugh uncontrollably, or tug at my heart.

In Mansfield Park and Mummies that included the mummy resurrection scene, Fanny’s debut ball, Fanny and Mary Crawford’s encounter, the Portsmouth scenes at the docks, the scarab invasion scene, the meaningful ending, and various other spots where I introduced some hilarity and supernatural mayhem. I cannot say more for fear of giving it all away.

In Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons, I think my favorite scenes were with the dragons, the “secret clues,” and also the various bumbling angel incidents, the legion, the nephilim “temperature control,” and anything where John Thorpe got to show off his grandiose stupidity.

In Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret (which is coming soon), I had tons of fun with the initial full moon transformation scene, the mayhem at the Netherfield Ball, and all mentions of Mr. Collins and his obsession with Australian flora and fauna. And, in all three books, there is of course the Brighton Duck.

The parts I found most difficult were the subtle ones where I mostly did not add significant new material but reworked the prose to add in minor details. Those are always the tough parts, while scenes with lots of new material are always easy and fun.

ND: Do you think the monster mash-up genre still has some energy in it? What are the hallmarks of great mash-ups? And the bad?

VN: Sure it does, but as I said above, I don’t write the monster mash-up so much as the fantasy mash-up. And I give it my all.

For as long a people treat the genre as an easy cash cow and churn out shoddy “Frankenstein monsters” instead of books—Frankenstein in the sense of the poor monster being put together from crude bits of many other literary “bodies,” sewn with hardly any cohesion, and with all the seams showing—the genre might dwindle and eventually die off as a poor fad. But if authors decide it is worthy of respect and take up the torch to do it the right way, I think we might be in for a long and healthy stretch of quality books.

Remember, not all mash-ups are created equal—each one must be examined on its own merits, and it all depends on each individual author’s respectful treatment of the source material, final intent (shock value versus delight in the work for its own sake), and level of craft as a writer.

A good mash-up is carefully and lovingly constructed, shows much respect for and understanding of the original work and no seams, and uses the new additions and supernatural or other elements so that they make perfect sense in the new and expanded storyline (think of that silk fan that opens up to show a marvelous new scene). Anachronisms are employed smartly so that they actually fit into the framework.

A poorly done mash-up is a one-trick pony. The new and original text is poorly integrated, and the additions do not advance a secondary new plot or even make sense in the original plot. Granted, humor is a difficult thing and not every joke pleases everyone, but if the author puts their heart into it, it will ring true to at least some people—the right readers, those who are your intended audience—and that’s all anyone can hope for with any work of literature.

ND: For those about to embark on a Regency education, which are the top three novels you recommend, in order of preference?

VN: A tough question, with so much to choose from. I would say, read Pride and Prejudice or anything else by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, any book by Georgette Heyer (my favorite is Lord Henry), and then go on to Mary Jo Putney, Mary Balogh, and check out The Beau Monde as a great resource on all things Regency. For a fun look at what kind of stories are a staple of this genre, read my Austen Authors blog post on Regency Romance Tropes.

Vera in short:
Death by milkshake? 
Milkshake, not so much… but death by fancy European pastries, yes!

Favourite holiday destination? 
A bookstore!

What scares you?
A closed mind.

Which book do you keep returning for comfort reading? 
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

If you weren't an author, what would you be? 
A full-time artist.

Official website
Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons
Supernatural Jane Austen Series
Austen Authors

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Goats... Not the world's easiest models

Oi! Where's the treat!
I have cool friends. Like HJ and Tani, whom I've known for almost a decade now. HJ is a photographer, and I'm very grateful that he agreed to help me create cover art for a novel I'm working on for one of my authors. One of the exciting parts of the publishing industry is cover design. Considering that I studied illustration and graphic design, I've come to the conclusion that I should roll up my sleeves and start getting my hands dirty again.

After all, I have tons of great concepts.

The idea for this story is to get a close-up image of a goat's eye. Now, the easy thing would be to go onto a spot like deviantArt and see whether there's existing art. Or even see what images are available at Wiki Commons. But I want something that's unique. Also, I'm lucky I know a lot of really creative people.

Being a photographer means not being averse to heights.
HJ is also someone who's always up for a challenge, and let me tell you, getting a goat to stand still long enough to get close enough to take a photo of its eye is... It's fun. To put it mildly.

But we got a bunch of goat pics, and there are a few that look like they'll be do-able. I'll be posting updates as I go along, because I think it's quite cool to show how the process works. My next step will be to run the raw thumbnail images past the author then chat to him with regard to the colour scheme.

I'll be doing all the retouching myself (time to dust off my PhotoShop skills). But yeah, we got out and took some shots. Now the real fun starts.

Many thanks must go to Lesley at Imhoff Farm's Blue Water Cafe for giving permission to photograph the goats. And go check out HJ's photography here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Your novel, in 50 words... or thereabouts

I had to write a blurb of 50 words for Inkarna today for a bit of promo I'm doing. Well, it was an interesting little challenge, and this is what I came up with:
Death is not the end when your enemies can hunt you down throughout eternity. Elizabeth Rae Perry underestimated the dangers associated with immortality when she joined an ancient Egyptian reincarnation cult. And, as one of the magic-wielding Inkarna, she’s about to discover exactly how wrong things can go.

So, I know a bunch of you following my updates are authors yourselves. I'm opening my comments section for you to post your novel's title, a buy link and a 50-word summary. But your summary has to be 50 words or slightly under, okay?

Have fun, and spread this link.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

#review The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Title: The World Without Us
Author: Alan Weisman
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007

Every once in a while I encounter a book so important I feel it should be turned into required reading for everyone. This is one of those books. In answer to the question, “What would happen to the world if humanity were to disappear”, Weisman takes us on an exploration of the planet and the pressures under which its ecologies exist all thanks to our species.

This book was recommended as part of my research for a novel I’m writing, but I very quickly forgot this was supposed to be research, and got sucked into the somewhat depressing realisation of exactly how badly the human races has mucked up the planet.

Weisman has taken a very broad view, speaking to a vast collection of scientists and discussing how such magnificent cities such as New York would handle even a few years of neglect, down to the European and American forests, and how quickly these would reclaim the land. Very soon readers realise that mankind’s physical imprint in concrete and metal wouldn’t last very long and, in fact, would fall down and be covered in soil within a few hundred years.

Not so impermanent, however, are our plastics. From the tiny specks ingested by molluscs to the giant patches of plastic garbage floating in our seas, these man-made substances don’t just conveniently go away. Many have a long-term impact on the environment.

Equally frightening is the issue of our nuclear reactors. Even one the size of Chernobyl has had a disastrous impact on the landscape. Now imagine all the world’s reactors melting down within a short space of time. Not a pretty picture.

Weisman also looks at megafaunal extinctions in a way I hadn’t previously considered, and gives a clue as to why Africa still has its megafauna largely intact. For now. He also suggests why ancient South American civilisations faded—a dire warning to contemporary society with its love of bling.

Not only does he look toward the earth, but Weisman also casts his eye toward space, discussing a number of the probes that have been sent out, and also the probability of any sign of us being discovered by possible sentients in the galaxy and beyond.

Weisman ends this account with a visit to the coral reefs, and with more than enough disquieting observations that all point accusatory fingers back at us and the way we’ve ruined this planet.

These are just a few of the topics upon which Weisman touches, but I stepped away from this book with a new appreciation for exactly how impermanent mankind is. If we were to somehow succeed in wiping ourselves out, life will go on without us. An important fact we need to understand is that life on this planet is dynamic. Nothing stays the same. At times in the past there have been great extinctions, from which a diverse multitude of living organisms rebounded. If we were to be the catalyst for another extinction (which is not unlikely) life would find a way to adapt and, eventually, once again proliferate.

Our time, as a species, is so incredibly brief compared to what has passed, and possibly that which is yet still to come to pass once we’ve gone the way of the dinosaurs. All this will end. But we, as a species, need to come to our senses, and fast, lest we hit our evolutionary dead end far sooner than intended.

Monday, June 11, 2012

#guest "How Much Is Too Much?" with Jenna Jaxon

Everyone always says, “Sex sells.” Well, as far as I’ve been able to tell, they’re right. Just look at Fifty Shades of Gray. And I’ve done my share of sexy, erotic, you-can-hear-the-panting-coming-out-of-the-pages scenes, where you hope your computer screen or Kindle won’t melt.

But is that always the right decision? Does every book--contemporary, historical, paranormal--need to have a fair amount of sex in order to be marketable?

I sure hope not. Because the many of the historicals I’ve written so far (published and unpublished) have had one or two sex scenes at most. One, my short Victorian, has no sex, though it’s implied at one point. Does this mean my little short story won’t sell? Au contraire. It’s doing better than the two erotic novellas I’ve got out.

So how much is too much? And how do you know?

For me, it’s all in how the story is plotted out. If the internal issues between hero and heroine are the major conflict keeping them apart, then likely there isn’t going to be sex until near the end of the book. I’ve got a couple like that. If the heroine doesn’t like the hero very well, or she likes him but thinks he’s done something bad, or she’s physically unable to be with him, then to keep your plot going you will have to withhold sex from them until late in the novel.

Usually, I know how many love scenes are going to be needed in a book when I start. With my current WIP 7 Days of Seduction, that was easy to figure--seven days and at least once a day (some times multiple times in a day). With Hog Wild I had three “little pigs” or “hogs,” so again, pretty easy to figure out. An historical romance that’s actually out on submission now, As Long As You’re Mine, had more sex scenes than I’d ever put in a novel before. But making love to the heroine was how the hero was trying to make her fall in love with him. And even I thought there were too many of them in it, but then I found a place that needed another scene and lo and behold, another sex scene appeared.  I wouldn’t have thought so, but the book is stronger for that new scene.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the almost sexless books. Where the love scenes are delayed until the last third of the book. One such is my soon to be released novel Only Scandal Will Do. Due to the circumstances of their meeting, Katarina dislikes and distrusts Duncan, even after they are married. During the course of the book there are some great kissing scenes, but no steamy sex scenes until close to the end. I was concerned about this as I was writing it. I even considered putting a sex scene early in the book, to facilitate a later plot development, but I just couldn’t do that. It would have been wrong for this book. And I’m just hoping my readers will agree that delayed gratification and lots of sexual tension are almost as good as the spicy lay.

How have you coped with when to insert or delete a sex scene from a work? Do you agonize over it, or do you know instinctively what works and what will not?

Here’s the blurb and excerpt for Only Scandal Will Do, releasing July 23, 2012.

He has the woman of his dreams, but what price will he have to pay to win her heart?

Kidnapped and sold at auction in a London brothel, Lady Katarina Fitzwilliam squelches an undeniable attraction to the masked stranger who purchased her, pits her wits against him, and escapes him and the scandal that would ruin her life.

Unable to resist temptation in a London brothel, Duncan Ferrers, Marquess of Dalbury, purchases a fiery beauty. She claims she's a lady, but how can she be?

No lady of his acquaintance in polite society is anything like her. Then he discovers she is who she says, and that this latest romp has compromised her reputation. He knows how that is. One more scandal and he'll be cast out of London society, but he needs a wife who'll provide an heir to carry on his illustrious family's name. He seeks out Katarina, intending only to scotch the scandal, but instead finds his heart ensnared. He's betting their future he'll capture her heart, but does he have what it takes to win the wager?

WARNING: A blade-wielding heroine who crosses swords with a master of sensuality.

Excerpt for Only Scandal Will Do:
“I assure you, there was never a night like that before.” Lord Dalbury spoke quietly, and Katarina sensed a tension in him. “I had never done such a thing before. Never participated in such an auction. Never tried to take a woman unwillingly to my bed.” He stopped speaking. Just stopped. Then his breath hissed as though he’d slowly released it.

“I cannot find the words to tell you how deeply I regret I was not a better man that night.” He paused, and she held still and waited. “What I tried to do was madness, without thought, without honor. I do not even have an excuse other than my base desires, and that your abundant charms overwhelmed me.” His face was shadowy in the scarce light of the sickle moon, but he sounded contrite. “I have no right to ask for your forgiveness. I have no right to expect it. But I would ask you to allow me to attempt to remedy the situation.”

Kat shook her head slowly. “What on earth do you believe you could do, Lord Dalbury, that could even come close to a remedy for the terror and humiliation you put me through? Do you think now that I have met you, heard your feeble attempts at an apology, and rejected them, the memory of that night will magically disappear?” She fought to control her anger, though she yearned to blast him with it. “What magic potion would you have me take that would erase the memory of you pinning me to the bed? Because if you have such an elixir, then yes, I will gladly take it from you and obliterate you absolutely and irrevocably.”

He stood silent at her words, then said simply, “I have only myself to offer, my lady.”

“You would have me kill you, my lord? In that, too, I agree I would oblige you, but not at the cost of my own life. I understand the English law punishes those who do murder quite severely.” Kat was astonished when he lurched backward, as from a blow.

“No, my lady, I would not have you kill me,” he said, sounding grimly amused. “Though indeed that would probably give you most satisfaction. I meant I would have you marry me.”

His words surprised a laugh out of her. “Marry you?” The laughter grew. “I see, my lord, you think me both a whore and a fool.”

“I think you are neither, Lady Katarina.”

“Then you are the fool to believe I would put such a man as you in control of every aspect of my life.” That he thought she would even entertain the suggestion was insulting.

The pale moonlight shadowed his face, but she could read displeasure there just the same. “You judge me solely on one act that, I assure you, was grossly out of character for me. You cannot possibly know what kind of husband I would be.”

“And never will, Lord Dalbury. I can swear to you that I would not marry you if I were in Hell and you were my only hope of Heaven.”

He inclined his head toward her, a faint smile touching his lips. “I believe you made a similar claim about dancing with me, Lady Katarina. Yet we have indeed enjoyed a dance together despite your words.” His tone was soft, the sensuous, cajoling one he had used to seduce her that night in the House of Pleasure.
Kat trembled, recalling the incredible sensations of his hands, his mouth on her body. Damn. He could not do this to her again. Not just with his voice.

“Is there nothing that would entice you to leave your Hell for my Heaven?”

She struggled to answer, opened her lips to deny it, only to find her mouth completely sealed by his.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

#review The Forever Girl by Rebecca Hamilton

Title: The Forever Girl
Author: Rebecca Hamilton
Publisher: Immortal Ink Publishing, LLC, 2012
Amazon buy link

What a refreshing story so far as the traditional fare in paranormal romance goes. And for once a heroine who isn’t simply a damsel in distress, but who takes her fate into her own hands. Sophia offers readers a fascinating character who, quite clearly, is knowledgeable in her field of expertise. And hell, it’s great to see a main character who is a witch who doesn’t just click her fingers to bend reality to her will.

Although Hamilton treats the standard tropes of shapeshifters and vampires, she does a good job establishing an alternative history. In my opinion, her milieu is a lot more interesting than its closest literary relative, which is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight universe.

Those who enjoyed the type of dynamics they found with Bella/Edward, will most likely latch onto the Sophia/Charles dynamics, and there are some pretty scenes that are well described. One of my favourite lines from Charles is: “You must understand: immortality is not an escape from death. It’s an accumulation of loss.”

All this being said, however, I do have some issues with the novel. First off, there were often moments where I’d have liked characters’ motivations to be expressed better. Sometimes some pretty crazy stuff happens, and Sophia takes these occurrences almost too calmly. Pacing also needed a bit of attention. Quite a bit of time is compressed in the novel, which is often tricky to keep the narrative flowing, and there are occasions when the story flags. By contrast, in some of the scenes where a lot of action suddenly takes place, Hamilton writes too quickly, and I had to sometimes go back to reread a few paragraphs to let things sink in. A little more layering would have helped. In addition, I feel there are story arcs which are very promising (for instance the crazy religious fundamentalist lady and Sophia’s best friend) which could have been elaborated on.

Often I felt the story was headed in a particular direction, only to have that potential plot fizzle out when it could have been used to ramp up tension. Only one serious factual glitch caught my eye: the case of a photograph taken of people who supposedly died in the 1600s. Daguerreotypes were only really in common use in the mid-1800s, so unless this was a bit of supernatural tech unique to The Forever Girl universe, chances were extremely slim of such an artefact existing. I also felt the convenient availability of silver doorknobs at the local small-town hardware store to stretch reality just a wee bit for a too-convenient plot angle. But hey, maybe that’s me, and I’m not always a fan of characters having things too easy.

All the flaws notwithstanding, this is still a very promising story I’d happily recommend above traditionally published mainstream offerings in the same genre. (And some of these authors honestly did make me want to throw the book across the train.) Hamilton writes with a fresh voice, bringing her unique spin to a genre that is often highly reliant on derivative works.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Guest post with Carolyn McCullough

Today I welcome Carolyn McCullough, who's taking the helm here at my blog to celebrate her latest release. Welcome, lady.

* * * *

In the Appalachian mountains after World War I, a young woman discovers that dreams might be more than imagination, dragons might still live in the night sky and evil has many faces and many forms.

Mariposa is a story about a young witch whose life changes as she confronts secrets, magic and a hidden world of shifters and dragons and her own past.

What was the inspiration that started you writing this time period?

I got to thinking of my grandmother, who grew up during this time period, and the stories she used to tell. She wasn't born in the Appalachians, but I've lived in the South for almost fifty years, so it's become my default location. The early twentieth century has always fascinated me; it was a major turning point in history for women. And communications were still primitive enough that I thought witchery and strange creatures could survive and even thrive in remote communities.

Did you have to do a lot of research to get the feeling?

Actually, when I stop to think on it, I did. I have another story perculating that takes place in the same time period, so there was research on clothing, electricity, foodstuff sold in stores, even some politics. I wanted to feel comfortable in that time period, to the point where I only needed a mention of a certain something. If a reader was suspicious, they could google and find out I was right.  :-)

Why a dragon in the Appalachians?

Why not? All mountains conjure up visions of dragons for me.  In Song of Life, there wasn't a real dragon, but Cas dreamed of them and visualized the mountains as dragons petrified by time. It's always been a fantasy of mine.

There's two animals in the story: Grey Malkin a cat and Horace, a stubborn ass. There's a sense of humor with them both. Are you an animal person? How did they come into it and make such an indelible mark?

I guess I just like to be different. Heh. No really, some authors make use of dogs, but since Mari was a witch and cats are the usual witch's familiar, it just happened. Thinking up Grey Malkin's name sealed the deal. He had to stay.

As for Horace, I'm a great believer in comic relief in my stories. Not slapstick necessarily, although Horace came perilously close to it, but something to relieve the tension just a bit. Might be a bit of dialogue, might be a mule taking offence at a bit of magic.

Torrin is an enigma in the story. A dragon who might be a man, might be a dream and might be Mariposa's soul mate. What or who was the inspiration behind him?

Well, he was supposed to be an alpha. I suspect he ended up a beta, but it doesn't matter because I really like him. I have a soft spot for betas. I think Torrin is a combination of both

The evil that comes in this book is multi faceted yet is encompassed in one man. What was your impetus in making the evil embodied in a human?

Don't know that I had one.  Didn't want any gods or other superhuman entities and really what can be more evil than a human gone bad? Humanity has dibs on cruelty and sheer evil. Seemed only fit that a human cause all the problems in my story.

What are the dragons that you've read who inspired you?

The first dragons I can remember reading were Ann McCaffrey's, beginning with The Dragonriders of Pern. God, I wanted one for myself! They seemed the perfect companions, although I had trouble at that early age wrapping my mind around the mating process ....

Patricia Briggs' dragons in the Hurog series.

The dragon legend involved with King Arthur fascinated me too. I've always preferred European dragons over the Chinese variety for some reason, but hey, a dragon is a dragon and I wouldn't say no to any of them.

Carolyn's website.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

#drabble Headstones

A metallic rasp draws my gaze upward. A pied crow lurches in the pine’s boughs, its beady eyes glittering, small chips of onyx set among plush feathers.

All details are sharp where I stand among the granite headstones. The markers are polished to a high sheen and I can’t help but wonder who rests here, beyond caring. Some sort of barrier is pierced and the sense of vertigo makes me stumble. What must it be to just not be, to not know anymore?

It’s then that I realise these stones are laid not for the dead but for the living.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Unraveling Midnight with Stephanie Beck

Today I welcome fellow Lyrical Press author Stephanie Beck. But firstly I must apologise 'cos this post was supposed to go live yesterday, but I had a small case of chaos. So, without further ado, here's Stephanie for a bit of Q&A about her latest Lyrical Press release, Unraveling Midnight.

ND: Knitting? I'm assuming you knit. How did werewolves get tangled in the yarn of your plot for Unraveling Midnight?

SB: I do knit. I also crochet--which comes up in the story as well. My leading lady, Lucy, owns a knitting shop in Unraveling Midnight. When my leading man's (or werewolf in this case) daughter wants to learn, Scott goes along and does his best to pay attention while eyeing up the lovely Lucy.

ND: This is the dream question for most authors... If you could cast the film that goes with your novel, who'd be your lead actors?

SB: I don't watch enough tv or movies to answer this one well! My favorite TV show is The Big Bang Theory...and none of those boys would work for Scott. I do really like Jake Johnson (Nick from New Girl) and think he'd be really great for Scott. And hell, Zoey Deschenell is so darn cute, she'd be an awesome Lucy.

ND: Was there any particular scene that leaps out at you where you feel your characters really come into their own? Any choice passages you'd like to quote at readers?

SB: Yes! There is a badass scene I love, probably because I like to choreograph fight scenes (I'm a black belt in tae kwon do and helped plan fight scenes in drama in school).

There was no time to yell for Scott and if whoever was at the door actually came in, the kids were only a room away. Her breath caught in her chest and she looked for some kind of weapon. Knives would have been the logical answer, but the first thing she saw was her new knitting tote. She’d only just bought the needles. They’d been wicked expensive, but she’d looked at them as an investment and when she pulled them from the tote, she was grateful for their length and unrelenting points. 

The knob on the door turned in earnest, her heartbeats marking the moments in suspended time. No one was supposed to be coming. Scott had made it very clear that he was a lone wolf and had to take special care with his kids. Whoever was entering wasn’t welcome.

“Lucy? Are you up?”

The sound of Jessie’s voice did what nothing else could have done when it came as the door opened. Spurred on by the feral need to protect the child, Lucy launched at the dark figure entering in the house, slashing blindly with the heavy needles. Lucy continued to stab at him despite his yelling. Jessie screamed and within moments, the kitchen exploded into a frenzy. It wasn’t safe yet, her mind shouted as she kept striking out. The intruder was a threat to her family, her pups, her mate. There was no way in hell she was going to let him hurt them.

ND: On the other end of the scale, were there any scenes you found especially difficult to write?

SB: I think the scene where Lucy tries to give Scott an 'out' was the most difficult because it went against what I would do. Still, it had to be done and he made the right decision.

ND: And now for something a little more general. When you choose a romance novel to read, what do you look for in a story?

SB: I prefer an 'us against the world' approach to romance. I don't like a ton of infighting and I really don't buy the enemies turned lovers forever type story. I want to read a love story and when I'm done I want to think, 'Gee, I bet they are the old couple in the nursing home who still gaze at each other and smile.'

Short and nasty:
Have you ever written real people into your stories? 
Yep, most mother-in-law characters I write are horrible people. It's for a reason.
What song do you sing in the shower? 
The 5 little ducks song, very dramatically with lots of vibratto.
Concoct your death by milkshake
Peanut butter and Nuttella with french vanilla ice cream, whole milk, fresh whip cream, mini chocolate chips and three cherry.
Your dream holiday destination?
If I weren't such a stunted adult I'd say something like Ireland or Italy, but I'm just a big kid and want to go to Disneyworld for a few weeks.
What did you want to be one day when you grew up?
President. I'd be freaking amazing.

Buy Unraveling Midnight here.
Follow Stephanie on Facebook or Twitter or go check out her website.