nineladiesNine Ladies Dancing by Cat Lavoie is a complete delight!

It’s everything you want from a Christmas novella – a seasonal setting (the office party in this case), charming and quirky characters, a handful of mishaps but a happy ending. The bonus is that the writing is sparkling and witty. The author comes up with some wonderful words – adorkable and Quinn-tervention (they’ll make sense when you read the book!) – and gives us, I suspect, an insight into her own creative process when Casey, the heroine, who is a closet would-be novelist, talks about how her characters ‘take on a life of their own … and move on to another story’!

This is a little gem of a Christmas book and your twelve days of Christmas just won’t be complete if you don’t read it.

Available as an ebook from all the Amazons for 99 cents or as a Kindle Unlimited book to ‘borrow’.

frenchguesthouseReturn to the Little French Guesthouse by Helen Pollard (Bookouture) is the second book in the La Cour des Roses series. I hadn’t read the first book in the series, but it didn’t take long to work out who was who and what was going on. (However, a quick ‘story so far’ by way of introduction would have saved a bit of head scratching! But that’s only a minor thing.)

This books weaves together engaging personal relationships with the details and atmosphere of life in France. As someone who’s run a gîte for ten years, this appealed very strongly to me. The author shows what this way of making a living is actually like i.e. not the bed (or cours!) of roses so many think it is. Exactly as in this book, there are demanding guests, unfounded expectations and one-sided reviews to contend with. And that’s on a good day…

The characters are many and varied in the novel, all of them fascinating and rounded. Our heroine, Emmie, is very attractive and realistic: she’s strong but has her vulnerabilities, is kind and caring, and is friendly and enthusiastic but sometimes tries too hard. We’re quickly on her side and want to see her succeed in the hospitality/hostility trade she’s attempting to make her way in. But when you’re up against the likes of Geoffrey Turner, the blogger/reviewer, and Julia Cooper, the guest who wants everything and then a whole lot more, well, it’s not an easy ride.

The novel announces on the title page that it is ‘A feel good read to make you smile’ and it certainly does that. It’s a beautifully written, thoroughly readable and entertaining book.

knitted-toys-coverKnitted toys tend to get rather a bad press. People think old fashioned and twee, but they can be every bit as good as any other toy, and often much longer-lasting. More than twenty years on, toys I knitted for my two eldest kids are still going strong, and still get the odd cuddle!

This collection, Knitted Toys: 20 cute and colourful projects, by Jody Long is modern and fun, and illustrates everything that’s good about knitted toys. Namely, they’re child friendly, they’re versatile in that you can use your own or the recipient’s favourite combinations of colours for them, they’re appealing and (mostly) washable, and they’re timeless.

Jody Long gives us a wonderful selection: transport (aeroplane and fire truck), creepy crawlies (caterpillar, ladybug, bee), animals and birds (duck, hedgehog, bear, mouse, rabbit, pig, puppy, snake), sea creatures (octopus, fish, starfish), teddy bears, dolls and some squishy balls. If that isn’t an impressive array of patterns, then I don’t know what is! And you get more than that in that the author gives a range of accessories for many of the patterns. For example, Henry the Hedgehog comes along with a patch of grass and flowers, a toadstool and a ladybug, and Percy the Pig has a bib, a spoon and a cherry-covered cake to eat. There are also food bowls, a bucket of flowers and a hot water bottle, to name but a few more. I think these are a wonderful fun feature.

One of my favourite toys in Knitted Toys is Ruby the Russian Doll. She’s beautiful and unusual, and such a clever idea. I also particularly like Rio the Fish with the very effective scales.

The instructions are clear and easy to follow, and the illustrations are inspiring and helpful. The book comes with all the basic know-how you need to create and put the toys together. This gem of a book will be a great addition to every knitter’s shelf.

earntipsEarn More Tips on your Very Next Shift – even if you’re a bad waiter

Steve J DiGioia

This title on a very slick cover immediately gives you a very good sense of what the book is about. It’s direct and can apply to everyone, no matter how much help you might need to be a better waiter. Actually, in my opinion it’s not just for waiters. Anyone on a reception desk or like me in the hospitality trade running holiday cottages can benefit from the common sense and comprehensive tips and advice we’re given. For example: Treat guests like you’d treat your grandma. Don’t refer to their age or sex. Smile. Don’t talk about yourself. Be ready with extra advice, extra service. Make the guests’ exit as special as the entry was.

The books is very well laid out with boxes, bold type and bullets to make sure we grasp the key points and keep on track. The information is given in easily digestible chunks and advice is interspersed with examples and encouragement. The whole tone is lively, positive and conversational. Steve DiGioia cleverly runs each chapter on to the next so you just have to keep reading – even though you want to anyway.

From the start the author is honest. He tells us why he wrote the book, why he cares if we earn more money or not after investing in this book, and what he won’t cover. He genuinely wants us to wow the people we deal with, for both their sakes and ours. If they’re happy, we’ll get a bigger tip and we’ll be happy, and feel fulfilled from doing our job well. As Steve DiGioia says, it’s a win-win situation. And those are always good.

Does it mean being sycophantic? A little flattering certainly. Willing to please? Definitely, but no, the author never suggest we debase ourselves and openly grovel. It’s about sensible and practical respect and attention to detail.  It’s about a mindset of service, using DiGioia’s Magical Table Greeting and caring for the guest.

This is well thought out, hands-on, straight talking book with a wide field of application.

Love on the Back BurnerLove on the Back Burner by Barbara Oliverio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, according to its subtitle, is a tasty romantic comedy, and it’s exactly that. And also brilliant. Lively and likeable Alexandria D’Agostino, the youngest child in a close, hectic Italian-American family, is a fabulous cook as well as a hard working marketer. However, her love life leaves a lot to be desired so she tries the old fashioned approach of winning a man’s heart through his stomach. If she puts her wonderful cooking into a guy, surely he’ll give her his heart in return. She tries cooking her dates’ favourite foods. But there’s another saying – too many cooks spoil the broth – and Alexandria gets rather too much advice from well meaning friends and family. Will she find ever the recipe for love?

Love on a Back Burner has all the ingredients for the perfect romcom. It’s peopled by fascinating characters who spring from the page with their energy. There are interesting settings that are clearly depicted for us. There’s lots of fun, dollops of anguish, and a well thought out and executed plot. Being a romcom, we know our heroine will probably eventually find happiness but we still get swept up by the frustrations and setbacks that life throws at her. You have to give it to Alex – her family would drive lesser people insane! She has big decisions to make but remains strong and in control, and never loses her sense of humour. The book ends with a generous and delicious collection of recipes of dishes mentioned in the story. And, so you know, the butterscotch pie is to die for.

View all my reviews

Thomas Ryan is one of the reasons I love my job so much. I’m a freelance editor working exclusively with indie authors these days and relishing every moment of it. There is so much talent out there and Thomas is one of these incredibly gifted writers whose work deserves a huge audience. There are a lot of generalisations made about the quality of self-published writing by people who don’t actually know what they’re talking about. I’m there on the pit face, and have been for 25 years now, and I can tell you that while there is undeniably some poor work produced by indies, there is far, far more of an impressively high quality. Like this book.

thomas ryanThe Field of Blackbirds begins in New Zealand where ex-Special Forces soldier Jeff Bradley has taken over the Boundary Fence, a vineyard he inherited from his Croatian grandparents. (His soon-to-be ex-wife has her eye on this as the divorce settlement between them is thrashed through.) Jeff has hired a Kosovon Arben Shala, an experienced winemake, to be his manager and advisor. He soon becomes his friend. Bad weather has meant a bad yield this year so Jeff sends Arben to Kosovo to source bulk wine. Arben falls foul of corrupt officials and ends up in prison. Jeff and Arben’s family don’t know where he is, only that something is wrong, so Jeff sets off to find his friend.

Once he gets so Kosovo, which is under UN administation, he begins his detective work. He runs into an American aid worker, Morgan Delaney, and UN worker Barry Briggs and his Kiwi girlfriend Bethany and they become a tight team. But Jeff is making as many enemies as he makes friends. as he gradually discovers that a huge property scam is being perpetrated with links to international terrorism. Throw in the Kosovon Liberation Army and a mysterious private security agent, plenty of suspense, action and an intriguing plot, and you have a breathless read that provides a sharp insight into post-civil-war Kosovo and introduces us to some memorable characters.

It’s brutal in places, but also moving and inspiring since although difficult political and economic circumstances can bring out the worst  in people, time and again they bring out the best. This is as much a story about loyalty and self-respect as it is about corruption.

I asked Thomas some questions about his powerful novel.

1.     What’s the story behind the Field of Blackbirds? Why did you write the story?

I spent many years in Eastern Europe, mostly the Balkans. Made many friends amongst the locals and monitored their trials and hardships experienced by all peoples who live in developing nations. Distrust, dishonest politicians and ineffective, corrupted, and hated legal systems.  Money ruled. Those who ended up on the wrong side of the law were guilty until proven innocent, and that came down to bribes – an absolutely brilliant environment for a storyteller looking to create a good yarn. Then, throw in the UN, NATO and organised crime and along came ‘The Field of Blackbirds’.

2.    What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
I wanted to weave a fast paced yet complex story with lots of interesting characters and still be easy for the reader to follow. I wanted the baddies as well rounded as the goodies but a clear line between the two groups. I believe in heroes conquering all and getting the girl. The story should be fun and an enjoyable read. I believe I achieved this.

3.    Who’s your favourite character and why?
This is a hard question. It took five years to write this book and I rewrote it more than fourteen times. I came to know all the characters so well. They’re like family. All have quirky endearing traits. In the end if I have to show favouritism then it must be for my main protagonist Jeff Bradley. It took a long time to develop Jeff. As a character he changed many times. For so long I never really had a clear picture of him. When it finally came I think I created a man I would be proud to call my friend. I think he is best summed up by the words of a reader ‘Not too macho and not too new age, a good mix of masculinity and sensitivity, loyal to his friends. A male character most women would love to meet.’

4.    Do you prefer creating villains or good guys?
There is no doubt you can have more fun with the bad guys. Within reason, almost anything you have your bad guy character do is acceptable to the reader. Also, when it comes to killing them off the writer can be hugely imaginative in fact readers expect ‘spectacular’ when it comes baddies end. Writing goodies is a tortuous journey. Each word is carefully measured as is the sentence as is the paragraph. For the reader it is the main protagonist taking them on the journey and expectations are high. Early on an image is imagined and any deviation from perceived characteristics will not be tolerated. Any sloppiness with this character and the book is closed and tossed back onto a shelf or sent off to the second hand bookshop. No doubt about it. Baddies are much more fun.

5.    What are some of the references you used while researching this book?
Every location scene in this book is for real and I have visited. In Kosovo I met many members of the UN and still have friends who served there. I spent many nights in the Kukri Bar in Prishtina and walked through the streets and Bazaars. I learned of the legal systems from police friends and as an ex-soldier with combat experience I have an understanding of the nature of violence and how the military works. I have two SAS officers I lunch with on a regular basis and they helped me shape Jeff’s character and personality.

6.    What was the hardest part of writing The Field of Blackbirds?
For any book of this type continuity, planting seeds, and ensuring all data is correct is key. A wrong line, an expectation not met, a storyline or subplot not explained, a key message left out and the mystery falls apart and the reader is let down. The reader needs to be kept on the edge of their seat as the tale unravels. Not able to guess the likely outcome. Obviously the reader knows the hero will come out on top but not how. This is the where the writer needs to be so careful not to reveal too much. Padding, accepted in many forms of literature has no place in a thriller. I overcame many of these problems by constantly sending the manuscript out to readers for feedback. Each rewrite tightened the narration. And finally all the threads of the story must be tied off to satisfy the reader. I believe I achieved this.

ryan blackbirds7.    The book has a very striking cover. Did you design this yourself?
The cover was designed by a company called BookBaby in the USA. I gave them a free hand. The final editorial and formatting of the back page for the print copy I worked on myself with the aid of a formatter.

8.    When did you first realise you wanted to be an author?
I think from a very early age 7yrs maybe 8yrs old I was writing stories. Decades later when I finally had a short story accepted for radio production and was asked for more I looked at the payment cheque and decided it wasn’t worth it. Now years later I’ve decided it’s time.

9.    You’re a member of a writing group. How has this helped you with your writing in general and this book in particular?
I have been a member of a writers critique group for years. All emerging writers need one. If nothing else they keep you focused on producing work. This book would never have been finished without the support of my group.

10.    What one snippet of advice would you give to aspiring self-published authors?
Self-publishing pretty much means you have to do everything yourself. The marketing and the writing. My observations to date are that when it comes to the self- marketing of eBooks it is new to everyone. As yet no perfect rules of action have been established and there are many supposed experts ready to tell writers how to succeed. Some good, some not so good. What everyone agrees on however is that just putting your book up on a reseller like Amazon is not enough. Readers need to know it is there. The social media and blogs are a first and reasonably productive step. But writers need to adopt a business mind set and establish long term realistic goals. Unlike print books, eBooks stay in the system forever a writer has time to build a platform. Gain reviews. Write the best book you can. There is a theory the more books on site the more sales and whilst this is true this only occurs in the long term if the writing is of reasonable standard. And most importantly, find a good editor. Without one, you have no chance.

11.    How do you feel about eBooks vs print books and self vs conventional publishing?
I think in reality this question is no longer relevant. EBooks are here and are not going away. The next generation of children are already using iphones and tablets daily. Print books will always be about but in what form remains to be seen. I think print book for self-publishers will be restricted. To successfully distribute a print book the writer would need access to a distribution network. An alternative option is to use a print on demand company like create space and they will make it available on Amazon. The decision on whether or not to self-publish or use a traditional publisher is nowadays a choice not available in the past. Most writers try for an agent or traditional publisher first and then go the self-publishing route. It is great there is the choice. Long may it continue. In New Zealand there was little choice. There are no literary agents.

chardonnay12.    Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?
I think the man occupational hazard is fitness. Nowadays not only do we write on computers but they are the first step in research. No more walking to a library.  I have a daily exercise routine, two big walks per week and a round of golf. Healthy body, healthy mind.

13.    And finally what’s the ideal wine to accompany your novel?
Boundary Fence wines are not on the market as yet so I like to relax with a competitor’s vintage from a neighbour’s winery. I’m a Chardonnay man from way back. So a glass of chilled Soljans Hawkes Bay Chardonnay would do nicely. On colder nights, one of their cabernets.

Elizabethpic1

I’m delighted to welcome Elizabeth Lamprey, indie author of lively and intriguing whodunits. I asked her a few questions.

Tell us briefly about One Two Buckle My Shoe and Three Four Knock On My Door. 

They are novellas, and whodunits in the Detection Club style, set in Scotland in the kind of retirement village I hope to end up in myself one day. Retirement villages aren’t old age homes – they’re designed for people in late middle age who are down-sizing into an environment that will be age-friendly when they get old.  My invented one is definitely eccentric.

What’s the story behind the stories? Why did you write the books?

My mother moved into a retirement village very reluctantly, after finally realizing she couldn’t cope with a big house any longer then absolutely loved it, she was always delighted and intrigued by her new neighbours. Sadly she took ill and died and I wrote a story where murders occurred in the village and she and  friends did a sort of multiple Miss Marple on them – it was a therapy for me, to fix her in my mind as having fun and lively friends and a bit of a challenge, like a never-ending murder dinner. I’d never written a whodunit before, although I enjoy reading them, and a year or so later the One Two title popped up out of nowhere and the idea for the series was born. I borrowed the basic story from her book, fictionalizing the characters and making them younger. She’s lent her name to the friend character – Vivian – but Vivian only borrows her voice and moments of her history, she isn’t a portrait.

Are they fun to write?

They’re great fun to plot – deciding on a murder and working backwards to set it up so that the reader and the characters can solve it, hopefully in a neck and neck finish. Setting up the clues so they are fairly presented but not screamingly obvious is the trickiest part.

12knockdoorWhich character are you most like and why?

I think I may be most like Katryn, the administrator who joins Grasshopper Lawns in the second book, after the death of the first administrator  – I grew up in South Africa, so I can identify with her, and quite enjoy having her around. She’s a minor role, very direct and pragmatic.

Dogs feature quite prominently in the stories. I’m guessing you’re a dog lover. Please tell us about your current canine companion/s. Dogs totally took over the second book, but they’re normally more wallpaper. There’s a cat coming into the third book – I do love pets, they really make a house a home, especially for anyone living alone. I became a cat person about ten years ago but there were always dogs in my life before. I took on a rescue dog with severe personality issues (she shares most of Maggie’s traits, and more) about six months ago and at first regretted it bitterly but wouldn’t want to be without her now. The cat is still reserving judgement.

Do you have any bizarre writing rituals?

I don’t think so – I had a foible about writing with purple ink and it reached a point where I could only write with purple ink, but finally trained myself to type direct, rather than write the first draft in longhand.  And breaking myself of the habit of smoking while I typed was mind-numbing for a while! I was quite stressed during the adjustment and held a pen between my teeth, sucking furiously when my mind went blank, until one burst and ink went everywhere. Cured.

Did you design your covers yourself? What was your aim in the designs?

I got really lucky with the covers, I might have tried some inexpert photo-shopping but I knew the first one had to be an abandoned shoe – trying photo-shopping that. I finally went onto Elance to find an artist.  Lacey O’Connor is practically psychic and can create more than I even realized I wanted, she’s absolutely brilliant.

34knockdoorWhen did you first realize you wanted to be an author?

Since forever, since before I even knew that daydreams and scribbling endless stories had a name. I thought the dream would only ever be that, a dream, when family problems meant I couldn’t go to university to read English, but reading and writing are two of my greatest pleasures, I just wish I could write as well as the authors I read!

What one snippet of advice would you give to aspiring self-published authors?

Don’t rush into self-publishing – I doubt anyone will listen, because I wouldn’t have listened, but in retrospect I threw away a lot of potential word-of-mouth goodwill from family and friends by putting out a sub-standard first book. The story itself hasn’t changed but there were so many glitches in the first edition, and the format was really amateur. A lot were picked up in the second, and I had already completed a complete loop on the learning curve by then! I feel really strongly about it, and am constantly meeting SP authors who simply don’t see errors as a problem, the important thing, they insist pompously, is the story. Putting out sub-standard books is bad for us all and with so very many books on offer your readers won’t get to the story because they will give up on the first page. I’m a copy-editor myself (granted, mainly business / technical stuff) and I thought I could do my own copy-editing. No-one can – your brain auto-adjusts and simply doesn’t see errors on work it knows well.

 And finally, anything else our readers need to know about you?

I have four names – apparently in some traditions a long name means good luck – and also a Twitter name (Elegsabiff) so in a weird way I have several lives. My professional life skips the second name,  I write under the first three (Elizabeth Joanna Lamprey), I am known by my first and last names, and I review and tweet under the elegsabiff name. Maybe one day I’ll settle on one version, but it could be boring. I was quite taken with the idea of publishing as Elegsabiff but KDP isn’t really set up for one name. Maybe that’s why Cher has never self-published?

About the books

One Two Buckle My Shoe

Detectives nearly always work alone, although some don’t mind an admiring sidekick as they deftly and efficiently go about their business. In real life, murder isn’t always straightforward and clues can be much more elusive. In this particular case, just finding out who exactly got murdered was the first challenge.

The residents at Grasshopper Lawns were closely interested, because the murderer could be among them, but hadn’t any intention of interfering in the solving of the case. Piecing together scraps of information was intriguing, though. And they did keep coming across facts that no-one had given to the police… This is the first in the quite light-hearted murder series based in a rather unusual retirement village in Scotland.

Three Four Knock On My Door

A dead body in the laundry sparks off the next murder mystery at Grasshopper Lawns. Once again Edge and her friends help the police with this investigation but there’s more to deal with. Throw in a badly behaved dog, a tall, shadowy figure and Death with his scythe and events get quite complicated!
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Three-Knock-Grasshopper-Lawns-ebook/dp/B00C4FE0TG/

ebyacodeThe eBay Code by Charles Salter (Volume 2 of The Ebay Detective) is every bit as good as the first book in this series. The author continues the theme of basing his novel on actual events, which makes it so immediate and that much more sinister. Major Brad Stout was appointed as an eBay Detective at the end of the last novel and the throws himself into his new role enthusiastically. Following up a terrorist threat he needs to decipher a code in order to intercept their deals on eBay. In this adventure Brad teams up with the interesting and complex Pierre, now his father-in-law, to try and prevent a horrendous international incident involving radioactive matter. Amidst the tension and excitement, there’s domestic happiness and tenderness, family commitment, frustration, moments of humour and much to enjoy.
Salter creates brilliant characters. Every one, however minor, is rounded and has a real role to play. Mary Lou and her parents bring some fresh interest in this story. The plot is exciting, built soundly on real events and everyone’s familiarity with Ebay. From these factual foundations a superbly imaginative story springs, and the action doesn’t end – even at the end. There’s a new development waiting for us there. Settings are superbly depicted, with great attention to detail and adding yet more realism to the story. I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this novel as it has all the ingredients an engrossing modern thriller needs. It’s a successful and riveting read.

Zuto: The Adventures of a Computer VirusZuto: The Adventures of a Computer Virus by Udi Aharoni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Zuto: The Adventures of a Computer Virus” by Udi Aharoni is a fabulous, quirky and imaginative book for youngsters. Tommy’s computer has a virus – Zuto to be precise. But Zuto is a laid back, inoffensive one who rides a motorcycle. He is happy to hang around with his friend, an outdated media program, Super Media 2.0. There is a friendly but dodgy calculator program in Newton and also Silver Shield, a virus fighting program. This extremely likeable but less than promising group join together to fight the worm that has invaded Tommy’s computer and is causing all the trouble. As they do so, kids are introduced to various parts of the computer and they will get an understanding of how they work. For example, firewalls are depicted as curtains of flame that open and close to let safe info through. There are Central Processor Agents who keep everyone organised, much as you’d expect.

Udi Aharoni has a very readable style. He explains things clearly and it never gets complicated. There is plenty of fun in the story but also a very real look at loyalty and unity for the common good. There is a heroic quest going on and the friends work well together. They are a loyal, tight team and that is inspiring. The Zutopedia at the end is a nice touch and explains the technical terms that are used in the book. There are good quality illustrations and all in all, this is a very professionally presented, well-written and well-thought-out book. Both I and my eleven-year-old enjoyed it immensely and learned about the inner workings of computers.

View all my reviews

The whole genre of detective fiction began with a lady author – Anna Katherine Greene – and it’s good to see that it’s safe and even more successful these days in the hands of other women writers such as Marcia Turner. Ill Conceived is the second in the Meredith and Hodge series and is every bit as good as the first book, Misplaced Loyalty. The characters we encountered previously continue to develop and we meet some interesting new ones. Relationships between them don’t always take the course we’d expect. There’s an intricately created and thought out plot with several strands to it.
Patsy Hodge is now working as a private investigator and her first job throws her in at the deep end. How come Stella Young, businesswoman and lesbian, is pregnant? To her certain knowledge she has never slept with a man. Meanwhile, Meredith and his team are investigating the murder of a young man in broad daylight for apparently no reason whatsoever. Why does all the evidence seem to point to a very unlikely suspect? How does the Sensations night club fit into all of this? And even after the self-confessed perpetrator is taken into custody, how come the deaths continue? The various story lines become intertwined meaning Patsy and Meredith are working together again but there are tensions between them, in both their professional and personal lives. Are they being completely honest with each other?
A truly absorbing book with an ending that takes your breath away, and leaves you eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.