Category: For Readers (Page 1 of 15)

What Makes a Heroine?

 

 

   A lone woman alit from the caboose of an early morning freight train.  She stood, silhouetted against the pale dawn, a tumble of black curls cascading down her back, a shabby valise crumpled at her feet.  She was the kind of woman who drew men to her like foxes to a vixen.  Yet, when they looked into her eyes, they averted their gaze and slunk away.  She saw too much, this ripe, fecund female; saw the hunger in their bellies, the lust in their loins and the evil in their souls.  In her charms were both rapture and damnation.  Few men would risk their souls to claim the promise of her full hips and overflowing breasts.

   Exiting the school house Kirsten Swendsen narrowed her eyes to study the stranger who looked so at home in Glenrose, Saskatchewan. As the truth dawned, animosity shattered her schoolmarm serenity. Runaway, adulteress, unfit mother, indecent, wanton . . . the list of Kathleen Walden’s sins filled many a gossip’s chatter. Kirsten had no doubt the woman at the train station was Kathleen, come back to damage the lives of her children and husband again. Rage jolted along her veins. Without weighing the consequences, she stepped into her gig and turned the horse for Walden farm.  

 

   Here is the question. Which woman should be the heroine of this book? Kathleen has lots of baggage from a previous novel. Can a woman who has abandoned her children and disgraced her husband be convincingly rehabilitated so that the reader believes her wronged husband can love her again? 

  Kirsten is a schoolmarm in every sense of the word. Can an opinionated, rule-ridden, super-achiever be a romantic heroine? Can a man who has loved Kathleen love her antithesis?

  As a reader, which woman would you root for?

  All comments gratefully received.

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The World Needs Romance Authors

holding up the worldI think the world, particularly journalists and politicians, needs to take a lesson from romance writers on how to critique.

Now that the COVID-19 crisis is moving into a new, and hopefully, end stage, all the pundits are out assessing who did what when, and complaining it wasn’t enough, was too much, was too late, missed the mark, etc. etc. Maclean’s, which bills itself as Canada’s magazine, published its latest issue with a black cover and the headline, “report on Canada’s mishandling of the crisis of the century.” In a time when we’re all struggling to maintain our mental health, this cover felt like a slap in the face.

As romance writers we’re taught that the critique is meant to be helpful to the author. It is not meant to destroy her writing dream. It is not a place for the critiquer to promote herself or her ideas. We learn to sandwich our criticism between layers of praise. The end result is to encourage the newbie writer to keep trying, to keep learning and to get better. If a critique results in the would-be-author giving up, the person writing the critique has failed.

To be fair,  Maclean’s did highlight bright spots in Canada’s response to COVID-19, most notably the response of individuals who found ways of helping out whether it was turning distilleries into makers of hand sanitizer, car manufacturers retooling to make PPE, or the compassion and dedication of health workers. Still, the overall tone of the magazine was negative.

Governments and their actions need to be scrutinized, I’m not denying that. But if the scrutiny is based on 20/20 hindsight without any recognition of the moment when decisions were made, it is unfair. If the analysis is intended to push a political agenda, that serves only one party, it is suspect. As with any great event in history, our response to COVID-19 should be examined. We should look for ways to do better. We should recognize that another pandemic can occur. We need critical thinking. But we also need people willing to take on the enormity of government. Given the level of personal attack and smear campaigns that are becoming standard practice, I wonder anyone even wants to run for office.

Politicians, agencies and public administrators will make mistakes. Pundits make mistakes too, but they are never headline news. If a journalist predicts a disaster and the disaster does not happen, that “expert” is not vilified in the press. There will be barely a mention of the miscalculation. Yet public figures are excoriated on everything from their policy statements to their hairstyles.  

I remember a conversation with an optimist once who complained that even the weather report listed 40% chance of showers. “That’s 60% chance of sunshine,” he grumbled. “Why not say it that way?”

As an optimist, I’m on his side. As a citizen I expect my leaders to put every ounce of effort into keeping me safe. I expect them to use science, technology, tradition and research to develop plans to make my country a place where every citizen is cared for and valued. As Maclean’s points out, there are many areas where we could have done better. But to imply that it was all a disaster is incorrect and serves only to fuel cynicism and distrust at a time when we need confidence and team spirit. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and all that.

Magazine’s like Maclean’s give no space to romance writers but they could certainly learn something about collegiality and encouragement from us.

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How I Chose a Timely Book

One of my Christmas gift books was a repeat so I had the pleasure of returning it to the bookstore and browsing the shelves for a replacement. I settled on The Company We Keep, by Frances Itani.

Of course, the cover was the first thing I noticed, uncluttered with a picture of a small table and a single chair with a parrot on the back. I picked it up and read the back blurb. The story is set in Canada. I find a book extra enjoyable when the references are one’s I am familiar with. A book set in the UK may refer to the High Street. One taking place in the US may refer to Applebee’s. I know the High Street is the main shopping avenue of a town or village. I know Applebee’s is a restaurant chain , but I haven’t experienced those places the way I have Tim Horton’s or Loblaw’s.

The subject of the story also intrigued me. A group of strangers meet in response to a notice on a bulletin board (the physical kind not on facebook) to talk about grief. Since I’m missing casual connections just now, I thought a story about strangers getting to know one another would be entertaining. The topic of grief seems apropos as well since our whole world is grieving. Perhaps we haven’t lost a loved one, but we’ve all lost the life we used to know.

Finally, Ms Itani has won several literary awards, that sealed the deal for me. I carried the book to the cashier.

I was not disappointed.  Each of these strangers has a unique story of loss, a spouse (good or bad), a parent, a friend . . . Yet grief doesn’t figure much in their discussions. Having lost the person closest to them, they mostly, want to talk and they want someone to listen. The stories aren’t so much about grieving as they are about living. There are also secrets. The lost relationships had a public face and a private face. It’s that private aspect of the lost relative that colours the way the bereaved live the rest of their lives. As a bonus, the woman who placed the notice is a word aficionado. Her thoughts are sprinkled with the etymology of the words she uses. A quirk that enlivens her character and amuses me as the reader.

As the group gathers, they begin to think of themselves as a company. A place where judgement is withheld and trust is formed. Shameful secrets are exposed and forgiven. Hurtful relationships are explored without censure. Sympathy is free and abundant. Help with practical things like moving furniture is readily offered.

A book with grief at its core  sounds sad, but it is not. It is hopeful. The characters clear out the troubles from their old lives then prepare to live again. They turn to a clean page for the last chapters of their lives.

I wonder if we can look a 2020 that way. The year that was mostly a void in our lives can be viewed as a resetting point. When society opens up, when we’re ready to hold hands with our friends and high-five a stranger can we take the lessons of isolation into a hopeful future? Having cast off so many activities, can we re-engage in a thoughtful way? Do all those clubs nurture us or are some a waste of time? Are all our previous relationships healthy or were some toxic?

We’re not out of the woods yet. Billions of people still need to be vaccinated. We may need to get a booster shot every year. We may need to keep our groups small for a while longer. But light glimmers on the horizon. As we prepare to pick up the dropped threads of life we might like to consider “the company we keep.”

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Unmuddled! 10 Lessons

Hurray! The transformation of my writing room from dull to vibrant is accomplished.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s a family trait to undertake major renovations during the Christmas season.

I  thank  the health authorities for the COVID restrictions that meant no company for Christmas. Since I wasn’t cooking for a crowd, I had time to paint and wallpaper. Even the pandemic has a silver lining if you look for it.

Today our weather is grey, wet, windy and nasty, but I’m tucked up in my cheerful room and happily writing this blog before I go back to editing the wip. I feel cozy and content and productive. 

What have I learned from this adventure?

  • A sense of humour is vital to the health of a marriage during home renovations.
  • If you want to change your environment, don’t wait thirty years to do it.
  • Wait until you have the new wallpaper in hand before stripping off the old. (I lived in writing chaos for four weeks while awaiting delivery of my order.)
  • Cats cannot resist licking the glue on wet paper or the gooey water in the trough.

    two cats are here

  • A pleasing writing space really does improve productivity.  I don’t keep finding excuses to go somewhere else.
  • While I do not suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) brightness and light do put me in a better mood.
  • Don’t forget about writing rituals. Some people can dive straight into the work, but little steps to set the scene for work help me a lot.
  • Clutter impedes creativity — for me, maybe not for you.
  • Show up at writers’ events even if they are virtual. It was Laurie Schnebly’s workshop that spurred me into making this transformation — finally!
  • In all things, give thanks. We’ve lived through 10 months of limitations and there are more to go. When we cannot celebrate the big events in our lives, rejoice in the small ones. We drank champagne when the last picture was rehung.

    mirror reflects opposite wall

2021 will still offer challenges, but we know we can get there. When the case numbers go up, the lockdown hardens and the case numbers go down. Each of us is powerful in this worldwide campaign to defeat the virus. All great heroes sacrifice for the common good. I applaud all the heroes.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2021.

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Cancelled

hand made ornaments for my family

In my part of the world, we are under severe restrictions due to COVID-19. That means no gatherings in the home or elsewhere at Christmas. No live church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. No office parties. No family home for Christmas. It’s a rather dismal outlook.

As my gift to readers looking for some joy in the season, I’ve written my annual Christmas short story. It does involve the pandemic, but it ends on a hopeful note. 

To read “Christmas in the Time of COVID-19” click here to subscribe to my newsletter. The story is part of the welcome package.

However you spend Christmas, I hope it is filled with joy and deep meaning for you.

 

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Escape or Reflect the Times

I had been hoping to post pictures of my newly renovated office this week. Sadly, I can only report “out of stock” messages for the wallpaper I wanted. After much more searching, I’ve found another that uses the colours I want and I’ve just ordered it — promised by Dec. 14. Fingers crossed I don’t get another oops message.

Meanwhile, we’ve cleared the drop cloths from my desk and I’m working on my Christmas short story. I spent a lot of time pondering the place of COVID 19 in my fiction. As an historical writer, I would have every excuse to set my story in another age and ignore the pandemic altogether. Yet, the virus has had such a huge impact on my day-to-day life, I find it hard to put it out of my mind.

My book club met last week and I asked if they would read pandemic stories or if they’d stay clear of the topic. They all said they didn’t want to read about the virus, yet one pointed out that no one wants a war yet our appetite for war stories seems limitless. This year every second book I pick up seems to relate to either the first or second world war. Is there anything more to say on the topic? Yet I read these books and enjoy them enough to recommend to friends. 

Maybe we’re happy to read war novels because we know how it ended. We know the good guys won and evil in the form of Hitler’s Nazi’s was defeated.

 

I’m a terrible sports fan. I’d rather watch the game after it has been played and I know who won. If my team was victorious, I’ll enjoy every minute of the recorded events. If my team lost, I don’t bother. I’m sure “real” sports fans cringe when they read that. Maybe our fascination with war stories is like that. We don’t want to live it, but we’ll read about it after it’s over.

A couple of my favourite television shows aired new episodes last week. One stayed in 2019 and avoided the pandemic. The other embraced it head on, expressing fears for the characters’ health, their financial well-being, their emotional stress levels and the state of the world. I actually liked their approach better than the “bury your head in the sand” angle.

Now, a survey of two is hardly definitive, but I’m leaning toward writing about the world I inhabit, i.e. using my fiction to reflect the time I live in. What about you, dear readers? Can Christmas and Covid live in the same story? Can we have a happy ending while isolating at home? Or would you rather escape the current crisis and read about a different world.

Please leave a comment so I can be sure the story I write is the story you want to read.

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Inside Revenge in Rubies

When I posted a picture of Revenge in Rubies a few weeks ago, many people commented on the lovely cover. Well, now I have read the book and I can tell you there is a great story behind that cover.

The character of Harriet Grey and her relationship with Robert Curran are developed beyond the bare outline presented in Singapore Sapphire. In that first book, I learned a little of Harriet’s history as a prisoner in Holloway, her connection with the suffragette movement and the loss of her husband and son to typhoid fever. In this latest book, I’m learning more about her feisty character, her willingness to put herself at risk to protect those she loves, her increasing detective skills and her romantic longings. 

Inspector Curran suffers from malaria and in this book that becomes a major factor in his ability to do his job — giving Harriet a greater role. It also shows his vulnerability, making him more human. The other police officers also have a greater role in this story, giving us a more complete picture of the South Bridge Road station of the Straits Settlements Police Force.

Since the murder investigation in Revenge in Rubies involves the British Army, Curran and Harriet meet with much military obfuscation and obstruction. This is a world Ms Stuart knows well to the characters, motivations and actions all ring true.

The story includes upper class ex-pat Brits, the Chinese servant class, the underworld of opium dens and members of the press — an excellent portrayal of multi-cultural Singapore in 1910.

I’m not the only reader who recommends this second in the Harriet Gordon series.

 

An intricate puzzle in a lively setting. Kirkus Reviews

Fabulous historical Singapore mystery!  Goodreads review

Stuart does an amazing job of weaving a story that is filled with all the intricacies of the time period, the atmosphere, the way of life. I’m hoping there is indeed another book in this series. Definitely recommend! — Amazon customer review.

The book is for sale on many platforms. To kind your favourite supplier click https://books2read.com/RevRub

Happy Reading!

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Thanksgiving in a Pandemic

Monday was Thanksgiving Day in Canada, one of my favourite holidays. An excuse to eat too much rich food, enjoy the company of a host of friends and bask in the autumn sunshine.

Not in 2020. 

In general, this year, the population is more inclined to grumble than to give thanks. We have a long litany of complaints, not least of which is no traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Our health authorities told us to have dinner in groups of no more than six. In some jurisdictions they said only dine with the people who live under your own roof all the time. I guess some families tried to pretend that a visiting relative was “living under our roof.” Perhaps they met the letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit. We worry about lost income, uncertain jobs, school openings, theatre closures and restricted travel. There is no end to our list of concerns. But that is looking on the dark side.

On the bright side, our Thanksgiving is mostly about the harvest and my garden was bountiful this year. I got about 50 pounds of zucchini from two little seeds. When I went to harvest a pumpkin for my Thanksgiving pie I found yet more zucchini’s forming on the remains of a plant and new blossoms!

The public health restrictions where I live are not so onerous. I can visit with my neighbour and even worship in person — with a spaced out congregation of not more than 50 people. I am warm and dry, entertained by old movies and favourite books, loved by my husband and tolerated by my cats.

We all live in different circumstances, yet we can look to the bright side. We can have hope. We must have hope. Without it despair overwhelms and life looses its sweetness. Prince George was so saddened by a documentary on the extinction of species he asked not to watch his favourite presenter, David Attenborough. However dire the situation, we cannot have a world of frightened, despairing children.

Hope is a gift authors can bring to the world. Writers, particularly romance writers, are keenly aware of the need for hope in the world. It’s why we espouse Happily Ever After. The mystery writer encourages her reader to see a world where justice prevails and hope is restored. Even in dystopian stories, the protagonist fights for a better world. He has hope.

I’ve read of some authors finding it hard to write while trying to cope with home-schooling, working remotely, and hearing an endless litany of bad news. But even those who are not writing now, have not despaired. They hope their muse will return. They hope the world will come around right again. They hope their children and grandparents will be safe. They look to their faith, or to science, or to history and find reason to hope.

In past years, I would wish you all abundance.

In 2020 I wish you hope.   Happy Thanksgiving.

.

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Revenge In Rubies

REVENGE IN RUBIES

by A.M. Stuart

 

Thank you so much for the invitation to your blog, Alice.

For those who don’t know, Alice and I have been the writerly equivalent of pen pals (she lives in Canada and I live in Australia) for a long time and Alice, more than anyone, has been there chivvying me along through disappointments, frustrations and inertia and was the first to cheer when I finally ‘broke through’ and published my first Historical Mystery, SINGAPORE SAPPHIRE, through Penguin USA in 2019.

REVENGE IN RUBIES is the second in the Harriet Gordon Mysteries and is released on 15 September. For those new to the world of Harriet Gordon, the stories are set in Singapore in 1910 and feature two protagonists, Harriet Gordon and Inspector Robert Curran of the Straits Settlement Police.

I was fortunate to spend three years living in Singapore and it was during that time that I first met Harriet Gordon in the microfiche room of the Singapore National Library.

Of course, she wasn’t known as Harriet Gordon, her name was Mrs Howell and in March 1905 she placed an advertisement in the Straits Times, offering her services as a Stenographer and Typist. She guaranteed “RAPID & CAREFUL work together with ABSOLUTE SECRECY” (the capitals are hers). The now long forgotten Mrs. Howell’s advertisement jumped off the microfiche at me. I loved her commitment to ABSOLUTE SECRECY, and slowly the character of Harriet Gordon, widow, typist, stenographer and failed suffragette began to form.

 

Over the next few years, I started to rebuild her world – a colonial Singapore you can barely glimpse in the modern, go ahead city of Singapore but there are maps, images, contemporary travel guides and those all important newspapers from the period to guide me.

Of course, Harriet does not exist in isolation. She has friends and family and most importantly (for Harriet) her partner in crime, the enigmatic Inspector Robert Curran, head of the Detective Branch of the Straits Settlements Police Force.

There are so many stories brewing in the tropical heat of the Malay Peninsula- where truth and corpses tend to decompose quickly- and I am delighted that Penguin has agreed to publish a 3rd book in the series (my current work in progress) so I am hoping Harriet will be around for a little while yet!

If you like puzzles, here’s a link to a jigsaw of the cover for Revenge in Rubies.

https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=05c50e12a3d0  I

 

Instead of a head shot, Alison sent this photo of the two of us having coffee in Vancouver a few years ago. She’s the one on the right. How often do two friends from the opposite corners of the world get to have a coffee date?

Thanks Alison, for sharing Harriet Gordon with my readers. I hope she as successful at solving mysteries in Revenge in Rubies as she was in Singapore Sapphire.

The book is available for sale here :https://books2read.com/RevRub

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Passages

Ever notice how, when you get interested in a subject, it crops up in all sorts of places? That’s been the case with me these last few weeks. Blame it on COVID-19, but I’ve been introspective to the point of obsession. What is success? How should we live? Does pandemic lockdown help or hinder our emotional evolution? Does age empower or diminish a person? Big questions!

Perhaps that’s why I noticed the obituary notice for Gail Sheehy, the author of the book Passages.  I read the book once in my early thirties and again in my fifties. Apparently I like to look at the stages of life after they’ve come and gone.  I found her observations interesting, but not life-altering. Interestingly, Ms Sheehy admitted there wasn’t much to say about life after 50. Kind of a downer for those of us on the other side of the big five-o.

Then I noted an article on Writer Unboxed about being a debut author at 60.   Liza Nash Taylor is looking forward to the publication of her new book at a time of life when she did not expect to do new things. Yet, writing a book has changed lifelong habits of avoiding the spotlight and the public stage. Life is exhilarating and fun — and a little scary. The comments on her post reveal many authors who broke into publishing at 60 or 70 or later in life.  So, there are still adventures and possibilities for the past-middle-age crowd.

I also read another book by Jennifer Ryan, The Spies of Shilling Lane. I’ve posted about her previous book, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir here.  In this story we leave the village of Ashcombe behind and plunge into the world of London during the Blitz. The main character, Mrs. Braithwaite, formerly the doyen of the village has had her life turned upside down and is now wondering who she is, really. In the end, she believes that the measure of success in life is “the amount that you love and are loved.”

So, Ms Sheehy has entered her final passage. Writers all over the world are working and questioning their purpose in this topsy-turvey world. Old and young are trying to navigate their way through life tough times.  Our culture seems to be experiencing the birth pains of something new. Where do each of us fit?

Perhaps Ms Ryan is right. It isn’t the number of books you’ve published, the money you’ve made, the toys you’ve owned or the skills you’ve acquired, that measure the success of a life. It’s how much you have loved — and COVID can’t stop that.

 

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