My review of Sealskin, by Su Bristow

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‘And the thing is, Donald, I’ll never know if it was the best way or not, do you see? You choose your path, and then you have to walk it, all the way. We all do.’

Donald is a gentle and lonely young man living with his mother in a tiny, close-knit fishing village off the west coast of Scotland. Struggling to eke out a living for the two of them, he fishes, keeps crab pots and helps his Uncle Hugh when necessary. Unable to relate to his cousins or to the other villagers, Donald takes joy in nature and being on his own.

When he goes out to check his crab pots late one night, he witnesses something magical. Seized by the beauty of this spectacle, Donald acts out of character and does something unthinkable. Afterward, filled with remorse, Donald hopes to make up for his actions. But it’s too late. He will have to live with his deed for the rest of his life. How he manages the aftermath will make all the difference.

I enjoyed this story, which is based on the legend of the selkies, one of my all-time favourite myths (for more on selkies see my review of this series). Bristow’s exploration of Donald’s character was skilful and refreshing—while Donald does something terrible, the writing is never heavy-handed or judgmental. Bristow shows her characters, presents the dilemma and lets the action play out naturally—no easy feat! Her writing is poignant and evocative of the harsh but magnificent landscape of the west coast of Scotland, an area I was lucky enough to visit last year. This is a beautifully-written and memorable novel, which I hope to reread someday.

Sealskin is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US and all good bookstores.

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My Review of The Adventures of Shifting Jack: New Friends, by Denise Ersalahi Erguler

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…the prophecy began ringing in Militis’ ears: the most gifted will rule next, one to guard and protect, one to rule, both bound by blood. None shall stand in their way, they will suffer great injustices, great grievance. But they shall rise in times of peril. Shifters will unite.

Jack and Lily Legend live in North Cyprus, with their mother, Linda, and their father, Militis. On the surface, they look like any other family, but beneath their ordinary veneer, they are avian shapeshifters with a mission to help protect animals and the environment.

When Jack and Lily decide to take a boat ride one afternoon with their teacher, Mr Gardener, Lily discovers dead fish floating on the surface of the sea. Hoping to practice her magical, healing powers, Lily leans in for a closer look. Just as she does, the boat rocks, knocking her overboard. Lily gasps for breath and tries to reach the surface of the water but becomes entangled with a giant squid. Unable to free herself, a friendly dolphin comes to her assistance. What Lily discovers next will come as a huge surprise.

A richly imaginative fantasy adventure for children, The Adventures of Shifting Jack: New Friends features the familiar Jack and Lily Legend from book 1 in the series, The Adventures of Shifting Jack: A New Home. This is a delightful story underpinned by an educational message about the importance of taking care of nature and each other. Children will enjoy getting to know Jack and Lily Legend and all their friends, both old and new. Adults will also enjoy this tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie between adults and children set in the unique location of North Cyprus.

The Adventures of Shifting Jack: New Friends is the second, and final, book in the Shifting Jack series. Although the books would, ideally, be read in order, each can equally be enjoyed on its own. For more about The Adventures of Shifting Jack: A New Home, see my interview with Denise about the book, published last year. At the end of the interview, you’ll find my review of book 1.

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For those that read that interview, you’ll know that at the time of writing The Adventures of Shifting Jack: New Friends, Denise was battling a rare form of brain cancer. Sadly, she lost that fight in January of this year.

The Adventures of Shifting Jack: New Friends is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Shifting-Jack-New-Friends-ebook/dp/B0771N81BF/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Shifting-Jack-New-Friends-ebook/dp/B0771N81BF/

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About the Author

The Adventures of Shifting Jack: New Friends has been published posthumously. Author Denise Ersalahi Erguler fought a courageous battle with a rare form of brain cancer for 13 months. This, the second in the series of Shifting Jack books, was written after Denise was diagnosed in December 2015 and bears testament to her courage, determination and great story-telling ability. Denise leaves behind a husband, Olkan, and two young children, who inspired her to write her children’s books.

Denise Ersalahi Erguler was born and raised in Hackney, London and moved to North Cyprus in 1994 with her family where she studied Interior Design at a local university for four years. She then pursued a career in this field in London working for various designer companies at the peak of the industry. In 2005 setup her own interior design company.

In 2007, Denise left her successful business in London behind and moved back to North Cyprus to help grow her family business, Mermaid Fabrics of London in Kyrenia. This decision was made upon the belief that she would be closer to home and family for support in bringing up her child in a safe environment.

Denise began writing in 2010. In her stories, she used real life characters and stories evolving around her to build her fantasy world giving us the opportunity to share her dream world.

Also by Denise:

The Adventure of Shifting Jack: A New Home, which won the Children’s book award at the Radio WORKS Author Awards, London, December 2016.

The Essence, an adult Sci-fi novel.

 

Why do I write? A guest post by Rebecca Stonehill

Today, as part of the #AlfredNightingale blog tour, I’m featuring a thoughtful guest post by Rebecca Stonehill on why she writes. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Rebecca. 

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You know that feeling of complete helplessness after you’ve watched the news? Watching reams of people leaving war-torn Syria, or the latest terrorist attack in a crowded market, or corrupt dictatorships making its own people suffer? Feeling deeply saddened, but not knowing what you can do about it, that the only option is to continue and make the most of our own lives?

I go through all of the above, as almost everyone does. And then, as somebody working in the creative arts, I interpret and personalize situations such as these. Toni Morrison, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist once said of the artist’s task in troubled times: ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work.’ I couldn’t agree more. It’s an unspoken pact I have with myself, to respond to difficult situations with writing. People have sometimes asked me, How can such a cheerful person like you base your novels in such un-cheerful settings?  (Think: The Spanish Civil War in The Poet’s Wife, Prejudice and Mau Mau Emergency in The Girl and the Sunbird and the Battle of Crete in The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale.) The truth is, if I didn’t write my way through such difficult scenarios, I’m not sure I would write at all.

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But that doesn’t mean that all this is simple catharsis; I know there are other people out there who feel the same as me and are deeply disturbed by what we as a race do to one another and what we are doing to our beautiful planet. I completely understand why people both write and read chick lit or light romances, so we can remove ourselves from the sober realities that surround us and indulge in some much-needed escapism. This is a hard written art form to do well. Often I wish I could write these stories, but I find that I can’t and that whenever I’ve tried, I’ve failed.

Everybody says I was a serious little girl, reserving my smile for only a few; that child who listened intently, but never put her hand up in class. I’m far less serious these days and love nothing more than a good laugh with friends and family. And yet, that serious child lives on in me. She is the reader who would like to but can’t read anything lighthearted, and she is the writer who returns again and again to mine the depths of human despair in her stories.

Thankfully, there’s a flipside to all this. And that flipside incorporates those stories of courage, resilience and beauty in the face of human suffering. We are a strange, remarkable species – capable of so much destruction and hatred and yet, we also know how to love unconditionally and to be the harbingers of great compassion, generosity and joy.

Through my writing, I try hard to make sense of this complicated world and understand why things have happened. Even more importantly, I look for and create stories of hope, that beautiful little word that allows us to press on through the direst of situations. I am so inspired by tales of courage and resilience and, in many ways, my writing bears testament to the spirit of human bravery.

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Author EB White said that a writer ‘must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.’

If I can do any of the above, in any small way, then I believe I have achieved what I set out to do. Where all this will lead me, I don’t yet know. But I have a thousand and one stories bottled up inside me, so the real question is this: where will my need to make sense of the world take me and which story will be released next?

Rebecca Stonehill is from London but currently lives in Nairobi in an old wooden cottage surrounded by banana trees and tropical birds. The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale, now available, is her third novel. Her other books, The Poet’s Wife and The Girl and the Sunbird, were published in 2014 and 2016.

Rebecca loves to connect with readers and can be contacted on her Facebook page: Rebecca Stonehill books, via twitter: @bexstonehill and through her website: www.rebeccastonehill.com. If you would like to be kept updated with her writing projects, please do sign up here: http://rebeccastonehill.com/signup

BLOG TOUR

My Review of Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin

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‘She doesn’t get it, does she?’ Meredith leaned on the windowsill. ‘Why do you love snow, Verity?’

‘It’s like friendly rain; softer and kinder.’

‘Good answer.’

‘Why do you love it?’

The light from the window turned Meredith’s hair to coral candyfloss. ‘Snow makes me brave. When it snows, the sad part of me goes away.’

Meredith and Verity Pryce live in the beautiful Welsh countryside, at Gull House, which belongs to their grandmother, Mared. They live with their eccentric and erratic mother, Allegra, and Angharad, the ghost of a girl who lived 100 years ago. Meredith discovered Angharad’s presence when sifting through an abandoned sewing box in their disused attic. But, rather than tell their mother about Angharad—she would only overdramatise it and scare the ghost away—or their sensible grandmother, the girls decide to investigate her presence on their own. Through their communications with Angharad, they begin to learn more about her life, and to draw conclusions about their own.

Allegra has told the education board that she’s home-schooling her daughters, but other than a few books sent through the post, no lessons are provided. Verity would love nothing more than to go to school, and so spends her time reading at the library, where a whole new world is opened to her. But Meredith doesn’t mind staying home—her imagination more than compensates for what she doesn’t know. Despite the girls’ best efforts to escape their mother, Allegra’s unreliable behaviour and continued hurt and resentment over the loss of the girls’ father, continues to dominate their lives.

When Allegra gets it into her head that her paintings might make it big in London, the girls have no choice but to go along with it. The ever-helpful Verity tries her best to change their mother’s mind, for Meredith’s sake, but isn’t able to. Their arrival in London ushers in a new period in the girls’ lives, but how each manages to cope with this change will have the biggest impact yet, on their lives and on their friendship.

Having read and loved Lovekin’s first novel, Ghostbird, I had high expectations of Snow Sisters. I was not disappointed. As with Ghostbird, the story Lovekin tells is poignant, enchanting and insightful.  Lovekin powerfully conveys the ways in which women and girls internalise their experiences until they become a part of their psychological make-up. Lovekin’s prose is crisp, clear and beautiful. Her stunning evocation of the Welsh landscape and the magic of childhood makes this a novel to be savoured, slowly over time, and reread, for its many layers of meaning.

Snow Sisters was published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press on 21st September 2017.

You can purchase Snow Sisters from Honno: http://www.honno.co.uk/

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Snow-Sisters-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B074WGLLGQ/

Amazon U.S.: https://www.amazon.com/Snow-Sisters-Carol-Lovekin-ebook/dp/B074WGLLGQ/

With thanks to Honno for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

You can follow the Snow Sisters Blog tour here:

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About Carol Lovekin:

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Author photograph copyright Janey Stevens

Carol Lovekin has Irish blood and a Welsh heart. She was born in Warwickshire and has lived in Wales since 1979, settling in Lampeter eleven years ago. A feminist, she finds fiction the perfect vehicle for telling women’s collective stories. Her books also reflect her love of the landscape and mythology of her adopted home.

Snow Sisters is her second novel. Her first, Ghostbird, is also published by Honno.

Visit Carol’s website: https://carollovekinauthor.com/

Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/carollovekin

Find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009564096097

My review of Love Unlimited

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Love Unlimited is an intriguing anthology of short fiction with an uplifting concept at its heart. Although love is the theme, the love featured in these stories isn’t purely romantic. Where it is romantic, it’s rarely the traditional boy-meets-girl love story. There are stories about the love a parent feels for a child, ambiguous love, the rediscovery of love following loss and the way loneliness and a sense of compassion can bring about a different kind of love, amongst many others.

While not all of the stories were to my taste, and there were places where I felt the writing could have been stronger, I found the general message of the collection to be commendable. Featuring stories by eleven different authors, the anthology includes a range of writing styles. What I enjoyed most about this collection was its sheer diversity. The characters featured in the stories span cultures, generations, abilities and sexual orientations. It’s rare to see so many diverse characters in one place and this alone makes the collection worth reading.

A few of the stories which I particularly enjoyed, include:

Summer Healing by Kelly Cain: When budding law school student Hayleigh Malone returns home for the summer holidays in order to visit her ill grandfather in hospital, she’s surprised to find herself falling in love with his nurse, whose political opinions are very different from her own. Cain’s story shows how irrational love can be at times, while also showing how it can be used to bridge people of different opinions and backgrounds.

I liked that the author showed how current political movements in the States affect real people and their relationships. Hayleigh’s interest in, and involvement with, the Black Lives Matter protests was pleasing to see, as movements such as these aren’t included often enough in contemporary fiction.

In Her Space by Geralyn Corcillo: When a sixty-four year old librarian discovers a young man living under her house, she isn’t quite sure what to do. She’s always worked hard to remain unnoticed and has lived alone for most of her life. When she discovers that the man has been going through her trash and eating the fruit from the trees in her yard, she decides to help. Through opening herself up to his presence, she begins to learn to accept her own.

The story skilfully navigates the gulf between our perceptions of ourselves and the truth. Love, empathy and kindness are shown to be powerful tools to connect with others and promote healing.

The Shining Girl by Anne Hamilton: Pale-skinned and blue-eyed Caroline has survived a devastating cyclone in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. On her flight home to London, England, she ponders her options going forward. The experience has made her view her life—and the man she loves—in a new light. But, having lost so much already, will she be able to recover that which is most important to her?

The Shining Girl won first prize in the New Asian Writing (NAW) Short Story Competition 2016, and it’s easy to see why. With beautifully written prose and deftly handled subject matter, the story explores the magic inherent in our lives and relationships. I also enjoyed her vivid descriptions of India.

You can purchase Love Unlimited  from: https://books2read.com/loveunlimited

On Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36096719-love-unlimited

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The Battle of the Birds: Guest Post and Cover Reveal by Virginia King

Today I’m welcoming Virginia King to talk about how she chose the title and cover for her latest book. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Virginia.

Many authors say that in the process of creating a book, the writing is the easy part. It’s choosing titles and covers where the real work begins.

Title Torture

I was writing a collection of stories re-imagined from the folktales that inspired the modern prequel to my mystery series, Laying Ghosts.

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A strange message. A deserted beach house. A shocking incident from the past …

When a text message from a long lost friend lures Selkie Moon to Crystal Cottage, the chilling events from a house-party four years earlier wrap her in ghostly fingers and turn her life upside-down.

The folktales form a standalone collection but also a companion to Laying Ghosts. I was going through the usual torture of choosing a title when my mystery author friend Ellen Seltz offered to help. She asked for details of the stories in the collection. One involves the 250-year-old murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’. Ellen found a phrase in the following stanza from the original ballad:

He pierced her body till the blood it did flow,

Then into the grave her body did throw.

He covered her body, then home he did run,

Leaving none but birds her death to mourn.

Ellen suggested None but Birds for the title of the collection and I was thrilled. It had the right amount of mystery and suspense, while hinting at the dark themes in the stories. But because the collection is a companion to Laying Ghosts, I settled on a variation that gives both titles a similar word pattern: Leaving Birds.

Yay, I had my title. Hurdle one vaulted – with panache. Next came the cover. That should be easy given I had my subject on a plate: birds. Then followed the battle of the birds!

Photos or Illustrations?

Covers guide readers to the genre of the book. All the books in my Selkie Moon Series contain mystical clues inspired by folklore, but the mysteries are modern so the covers are a compilation of photographic elements to reflect this. Leaving Birds is not strictly part of the series and it’s a mix of traditional and modern stories, more closely linked to folklore. Should I use an illustrative style of cover so that the reader would recognise the ‘folktale’ genre?

Conducting a Cover Poll

To get other opinions, I polled the subscribers to my Myth Mystery & Mayhem newsletter. Showing them the following two stock images, I asked: Do you prefer a photographic or illustrative cover for Leaving Birds, a folktale companion for Laying Ghosts? These images are samples of two different styles of cover, not the final cover. The theme of the collection is the loneliness of death, and the cover will be black and white.

Bird Cover Concepts

How Readers Voted

The almost 100 votes were 65/35 in favour of the photographic image. Then I worried that the pop of red had skewed the vote. If I’d removed it from the illustrative cover, the samples would have been more equal. But the red had an unexpected role to play.

Photographic voters liked:

  • Herons, because they’re regal and mystical
  • The drama of the spooky mood
  • The sense of eeriness and mystery
  • Imagining a great black bird surveying a graveyard
  • The single bird and lack of colour being barren and solitary like death
  • Crows, because they’re linked to death

Illustrative voters liked:

  • Hummingbirds!
  • The pop of red against the stark background
  • The colourful bird suggesting a ray of hope in the loneliness
  • The bird’s wings suggesting a soul soaring away
  • The handwriting feeling personal, dated and creepy
  • The celebration of a life departed instead of the gloominess of death

Taking Care with Stock Images

The two concepts are both stock images which could be used as they are. But Joel Friedlander from The Book Designer says that a good cover is not just a stock image with titles added. It is the compilation of images and graphic effects that create a design. Also, if you use a stock image as it is, you’re likely to see it on other covers.

Playing with Cover Concepts

Taking into account the mood of the folktale collection and the feedback from readers, I briefed my cover designer. We tried a different photo of a lonely bird – a seagull on a chimney – as well as the original heron image. And we blended some handwriting into the background like the illustrative sample.

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As much as I loved the lonely seagull in the stock photo, when I saw it as a cover it just didn’t evoke the powerful mood created by the hunched heron. The handwriting also didn’t fit as well with the gull. The battle of the birds was over. We had a winner. And although I was committed to a black and white cover as a companion to Laying Ghosts, I asked my designer to try out some red on the handwriting – for that pop of colour some of my readers had liked in the illustrative sample.

Cover Reveal: Leaving Birds

Here’s the final cover of Leaving Birds, a standalone collection of creepy folktales with adult themes, and a companion to the modern ghost story Laying Ghosts.

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Leaving Birds contains:

  • ‘The Woman with Hair of Gold’ – retold from a Russian folktale
  • ‘Peig’s Place’ – a modern ghost story re-imagined from an Irish folktale
  • ‘Polly’s Folly’ – the possibly true events behind the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’
  • ‘Serendipity Rules’ – the newspaper report that inspired the plot of Laying Ghosts

If you like to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of books and how they’re written, Leaving Birds also contains insights into how each story inspired the writing of Laying Ghosts.

Laying Ghosts is available:

Leaving Birds is available:

Follow Virginia on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/selkiemoonmysteries

Virginia King FB Nomad Portrait

 

In the Selkie Moon Mystery Series, Virginia King gets to explore far-flung places full of secrets where Selkie delves into psychological clues tangled up in the local mythology.

Before Selkie Moon invaded her life, Virginia was a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, the author of over 50 children’s books, an audio-book producer, a workshop presenter and a prize-winning publisher. These days she lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband, where she disappears each day into Selkie Moon’s latest mystery. Bliss.