Saturday, June 30, 2012

Author Interview: Susanne O'Leary

"I am often inspired to write about people who step out of their lives, peeling off all the labels that society have stuck on them and becoming someone new and more ‘real’. It’s as if I want to give them a chance to wipe the slate clean and start again."

You’ve led an interesting life. A native Swede who now lives in Ireland and you’ve lived … maybe I should let you tell it. How did you get from Sweden to Ireland and where and why for all the stops in between?

It was all because of this handsome Irishman I met when I was 19. He had just started his diplomatic career and his first posting took him to Stockholm, where we met. We were married a year later and he was subsequently posted to Australia, where we spent 3 ½ years. Diplomats generally change posting every four years or so and my husband’s career took us first back to Ireland, then to Paris, Brussels and The Netherlands. When my husband left the diplomatic service, we settled in Ireland, where we now live.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? What was the impetuous to write your first novel?

I can’t say that I always wanted to be a writer, but I did play with the idea from time to time as I grew up. But It wasn’t until I wrote my two health and fitness books (I’m also a trained keep fit teacher) that I discovered a love of writing. So, when I finished the second health book, my editor encouraged me to keep writing and suggested I try my hand at writing a fun novel about the trials and adventures of a diplomat’s wife. I had so many incidents from my diplomatic career to draw on, some of them bordering on the ridiculous, that it wasn’t hard to find inspiration. That’s how my first novel Diplomatic Incidents (the Kindle version was renamed Duty Free) came about. I didn’t really believe it would ever be published, but after a year of submissions and rejections, I finally got an offer from a publisher in Ireland. I had so much material that I decided to write a second book, this time based on what goes on at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, which became European Affairs (the e-book version is now called Villa Caramel).

One of your books, Swedish for Beginners, involves Maud, a woman who has moved around a lot like you and currently lives in Ireland. She discovers that her mother, who she never knew, was Swedish and that she has a lot of family in Sweden. On the surface, with the exception of the two countries involved, her story is much different from your own. But it does delve into the meaning of family and what it means to have “roots.” How do you think your own experiences helped you in telling Maud’s story?

I think my own confused feeling about my roots helped to create the theme of the book. When you live in one country but have your roots, family and childhood friends in the country where you were born, it creates emotional problems that I don’t think can ever be resolved. You are torn between your country of origin and the place where you live, never really feeling settled anywhere. It’s a case of chronic homesickness.

Maud in the story is quite settled at first but when she finds out that her mother was from Sweden and that she has close relations there, she is yanked out of her comfort zone and pitched into a family she never knew she had. When she travels to Stockholm and is confronted by this new family, its secrets and conflicts, her life, emotions and feelings of loyalty are turned upside down. As a result, she is very confused and has to rethink her whole life and who she really is. This is something I have had to do often, especially whenever I come back to Ireland after having spent a long time in Sweden. It’s very unsettling but at the same time enriching, as I get the chance to ‘belong’ to two culturally different countries and, through my husband and children, call them both ‘mine’.

Another of your books, A Woman’s Place and its sequel, Sonja’s Place, had an interesting genesis. Tell us about the inspiration for these books and how the writing process was different from your other books.

I had always heard about Sonja, my mother’s first cousin, who had an exciting life. She went to New York in the late 1920s and became the social secretary to the wife of a millionaire. Her letters home were full of fascinating details of the kind of ‘Great Gatsby’ lifestyle she led for a few years. I had been playing with the idea of writing a novel based on her life for quite some time. When I went through my grandmother’s chest of drawers in search of more material about Sonja, I came across letters and diaries by her mother, my Great Aunt Julia. These letters revealed a family scandal that nobody had ever known about before. It also told the story of an equally fascinating life and of a woman with a great sense of adventure. I decided to go further back in time and tell Julia’s story first, against the backdrop of an even more interesting time in the history of women’s emancipation. I would then add Sonja’s story in the last half of the book, ending in 1930. This became A Woman’s Place.

I thought I had said goodbye to these two women but my readers wanted to find out what happened next to Sonja. I hesitated at first, as I thought I had run out of material. But when my mother moved house, she found another box of letters, this time from Sonja’s subsequent life in New York and they revealed a story that was so moving I just had to share it with the readers who had become so fond of her while reading the first book. This second book became Sonja’s Place and it proved to be just as popular with readers as the first.

The writing process with these two books was very different from writing pure fiction. I had the letters which told if not all, at least most of the story and I used quotes from them to make the heroines more alive and give them their own voice. In this way, I felt they were speaking to the reader directly and telling their story themselves, which was quite eerie at times. I also had to do a lot of research about the period, the politics, way of life, dress, food, modes of transport and so on, which took a lot of time. I did this by reading fiction set in those eras and also history books and articles on the Internet. In this way, I learned so much about the period from 1899 to 1940 or so and about the struggles women had to go through in those days.

Most of your books fit somewhere under the big umbrella of “women’s fiction,” whether romance, chick lit, or something else. Even the two historical fiction books are going to primarily appeal to the same audience. However, your book Virtual Strangers is a wild card. While its main female character would have been a good fit in a chick-lit book, Virtual Strangers is a mystery. It also was co-written. Tell us about this book, your co-author, and how it came about.

Ola Zaltin, my co-writer, and I met on a writer’s site a few years ago. He is a TV and film script writer by profession and has written the scripts to many mainly Scandinavian crime series.

Ola and I became virtual friends very quickly, probably because we were both Swedes living abroad, even though I am a novelist and he is a very talented script writer with an impressive career. We spent something like a year chatting on this site, where there was a lot of drama, trolling and many flame wars. I don’t know whose idea it was to write a crime novel together but it seemed like a fun idea to me and we wanted to use our experiences of our Internet adventures. I also really wanted to try something new. I needed to bring a dark edge to my writing and that is what Ola did. He is a brilliant writer and can create a feeling of threat with just a few lines of dialogue or descriptive prose. He is also hilariously funny with that dark side that really suits a crime novel such as this one. His knowledge of police procedures in a homicide case is an added bonus.

As we developed the plot and connected on Facebook, I began to realise that this virtual socializing is very seductive and that it can become a kind of escape from the dreariness of one’s real life. This made me think that it would be interesting to explore the question of real versus virtual life and how some people possibly create a completely different online persona to that of their real life. My heroine, Annika, is just such a person, seeking an escape from her own horrible reality and creating an online, other ‘self’ that has a more interesting life. She gets the socializing she lacks from her virtual friends and foolishly connects with all the wrong people with frightening and disastrous results.

When Ola and I discussed the plot of the book, we felt we wanted to bring in that threat on a personal level that can often be felt on the Internet. Writing together, we brought a lot of our own relationship into the book, including some our often rather heated arguments. Many readers have asked if he is really Seabee and am I Annika? In a way-yes, absolutely and that’s probably why the characters have seemed very real to many readers. We are now working on a sequel, this time set in Stockholm, and I think it will be even better than the first book.

Where do you get the inspiration for the stories in your books?

Mostly from things that have happened to me in real life. I have that light-bulb-what-if-moment and then I can’t wait to write the story. You could say that my stories are plot driven when I start writing. For example, when we were sharing a chalet in the Alps with friends on a skiing trip, I thought to myself: what if we were snowed in for a couple of days. How would we cope and how would we interact with each other? It would be interesting to see the glitzy surface of some of the people begin to crack in such a situation, I thought. That became Fresh Powder. I got the idea for Finding Margo in the same way; were lost on the motorway in France (my fault) and had a flaming row. I thought; what if this couple had a similar experience and then the wife decided to run away?

If you had to describe what your books have in common that make them unique from another author’s, what would it be?

I usually set my books in exotic locations, using my own globetrotting experience. The setting is very important to me in any story and I try to describe the scenery with all my senses: sight, feel, smell and touch. I am not really anchored in any one place and I think I bring the readers on a kind of journey.

I also think there is an element of escape in all my books, where the protagonists are brought into new environments and experience things that change their lives completely. I am often inspired to write about people who step out of their lives, peeling off all the labels that society have stuck on them and becoming someone new and more ‘real’. It’s as if I want to give them a chance to wipe the slate clean and start again.

You published several of your books the old fashioned way, with an agent and a traditional publisher. You’ve since republished those as an indie along with several new books. What do you see as the advantages of the indie route? What have been the biggest challenges as an indie?

Even if being an ‘indie’ carries with it a certain stigma, it is far more satisfying than being traditionally published. Of course, the highs of being traditionally published were many but the lows of rejections, waiting to hear about submissions and not having full creative freedom, added to sharing 15% and more of my often puny earnings with said publishers and agents, were things I was very happy to leave behind. 

The biggest challenges of my ‘indie’ life has been trying to raise my profile and all the hard work and many hours spent on the Internet doing promotions. But I have felt more and more that this is my golden era, the high point of my career, when I can follow my own star and not have to ask anyone for permission to write what or the way I want and to make my own decisions when it comes to cover art, writing blurbs or do marketing in my own way. I have also really enjoyed being in touch with readers from all over the world, which was not possible when I was with a publishing house.

You’ve recently signed with a small publisher. Tell us about that deal and what you see as the advantages they provide.

I was happy to continue doing my own thing with all my books, except my detective series, which required a little more effort and expertise.

When I wrote Virtual Strangers with fellow Swedish author Ola Zaltin, I was going into a genre with which I was not familiar. Stimulating and fun to write, I still felt this needed added support with editing, marketing and publicity. We needed to have our book up with others in the same genre and also the approval and encouragement from someone who was in the same boat and could give us help with editing.

Stephen Hulse of Blue Hour Publishing is a writer himself and experienced in writing detective stories. His new venture is brand new and I felt it would be exciting to try this kind of publishing. I see it more as a kind of partnership but not just that. I felt it would be exciting to be part of a different way of publishing with someone who has the courage to go out there and make a difference in the vast ocean of e-publishing. A joint effort with many voices to help make a name for ourselves as part of both a publishing house and a group of individual authors. It will take time before this gets off the ground properly but I am already enjoying working with Stephen and his team. I think I have come to the stage in my writing career where I want to do things that are fun and interesting, even if it involves taking a risk. That said, even though you are working with someone you like and trust, it’s important to read the contract carefully and make sure there is a way out if you should want to leave.

With the North American market being such a large share of the marketplace for English language indie books, do you think there are challenges European authors face that are different from those of US and Canadian authors?

I have to say that I have been both delighted and surprised by the way American readers have reacted to my books. I actually sell more there than anywhere else and have been in touch with many readers from all over the US. I have a feeling that this might be because many Americans have European roots and love to read books that are set here.

Of course, the fact that many American words are spelled differently to British English could be a stumbling block for those who have learned English over here. And some reviewers have remarked on the spelling in my book. But I think that American readers are beginning to accept and become more familiar with British spelling, so I am sure this will not be such an issue in the future. Now I just put “British spelling” in my product descriptions, so I hope American readers can accept that as readily as British readers accept American spelling.

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise most people.

I don’t know if this would surprise anyone but, although my speaking voice is quite pleasant, I have a terrible singing voice. Think nails on a blackboard. If you ever heard it, you would pay me a lot of money not to sing. Seriously.

What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans.

I am at the moment working with my co-writer, Ola, on the sequel to Virtual Strangers. But we don't really want it to be an proper sequel but a stand-alone book so that readers can enjoy it even if they haven't read the first one. The working title is Virtual Suspects and it's set in Stockholm, where Seabee and Annika run a workshop on Scandinavian crime writing for authors from all over the world. Expect a lot of intrigue, horrific murders (we're really going to town on the blood and guts Scandy-style here), humour and romance. There will also be online cyber intrigues between e-book authors and publishers. We are having a lot of fun writing about the setting we know best: our hometown Stockholm. We're hoping to publish it in late October.

For more Susanne:

Visit Susanne's website or blog. You can also friend her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

You can find Susanne's many books from her Amazon Author's page, either or Amazon UK.

Also, read Book's and Pals review of Virtual Strangers.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip / David Antrobus

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Memoir/Travel/Short Story

Approximate word count: 5-6,000 words

Kindle  US: YES  UK: YES  Nook: YES  Smashwords: YES  Paper: NO
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store


“David Antrobus was born in Manchester, England, raised in the English Midlands, and currently resides near Vancouver, Canada. He writes music reviews, articles, creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. The lessons he learned from working for two decades with abused and neglected street kids will never leave him.”

For more, visit Antrobus’ website.


“This is what can happen when a personal story of trauma meets the collective horror of an apocalyptic, true-life event: in this case, 9/11.”


Until the day I die, I’ll remember what I did the night of September 10, 2001. I attended the Minneapolis stop of what was billed as the “Slewfoot Calvacade of Stars,” a tour of small Midwestern clubs by the top (really almost all) music acts on a tiny Ozark record label. It was a late night and I intended to sleep in the next morning. Then my girlfriend’s phone call woke me up. “I think you better turn on the TV,” was all she said. I turned on the TV to see a plane fly into a building for the first of several times that day. A few years later I talked to the late Duane Jarvis and Stevie Newman, frontman for the Domino Kings, both of whom had played that night. I mentioned the date and they immediately remembered where they’d been and told me about being awoken the next morning with the news that the two remaining shows on the tour were cancelled. As soon as they could, they were on the road, to Nashville and Springfield, their respective homes. Like the day Kennedy was shot, that day is cemented in the minds of all of us who lived through it.

David Antrobus remembers that morning too. He woke up in Vancouver, got in his car, and headed for New York. It was a road trip to visit friends that, as he heard and eventually saw what had happened, became much more. Recently diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), Antrobus was to see much of the same symptoms among the residents of New York. One of the ways of dealing with a stressful event is to talk about it, which he did to many New Yorkers he met, and continues doing here, telling us what he saw and felt, and how he reacted.

Dissolute Kinship packs a big emotional punch in a small number of words. I loved Antrobus’ writing style, which to me felt almost literary, but it was in the conclusions he drew where I found the biggest payoff. What do the events of 9/11 say about the world and our place in it? In Dissolute Kinship you’ll find one Canadian’s opinion and, agree or disagree, realize that the most important thing is to keep the conversation going.


A small amount of adult language.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: ***** Five stars

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Flaming Dove / Daniel Arenson

Reviewed by: ?wazithinkin

Genre: Fantasy/Post Armageddon

Approximate word count: 85-90,000 words

Kindle US: YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: NO Paper: YES
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Born in Israel in 1980, Daniel Arenson lived in Manitoba and New Jersey before settling in Toronto, Ontario. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and enjoys painting in his spare time.
He sold his first short story in 1998. Since then, dozens of his stories and poems have appeared in various magazines, among them Flesh & Blood, Chizine and Orson Scott Card’s Strong Verse.

In 2007, Daniel sold his first novel, Firefly Island, to Five Star Publishing. He's been writing fantasy novels since, including several standalones and two fantasy series: The darker Song of Dragons and the lighter Misfit Heroes. You can read more at his web site.


Since Armageddon, Heaven and Hell had beaten each other into a bloody, uneasy stalemate. It’s been twenty seven years and neither Heaven nor Hell is the clear winner in the war between good and evil. Set with the backdrop of post Armageddon earth, Daniel Arenson tells us the story of Laila, an Uzi and grenade carrying half-breed, fighting for a home or just a place to survive. Her mother was an angel, her father an arch-demon, Lucifer. Unable to survive in Heaven or Hell she was raised on earth. Born with claws, fangs, and bat-like wings, she is an outcast on earth as well.


The first character we are introduced to is Nathaniel. He is a jaded and gritty angel who had lost his wings and an eye fighting an arch-demon during the battle of Armageddon. He was my favorite angel and he drew me in. This story though is about Laila, both forces of Heaven and Hell think having Laila on their team will finally turn the tide in their favor.

When Laila returns to Jerusalem and finally chooses a side, she has her own agenda and refuses to follow orders. She will not let her fate be decided for her. Her only friends are Volkfair, a very large black wolf, who fights by her side, and Bat El, her innocent and pious angel sister, who has only been on earth a few months and serves as a captain in Michaels’ army. We learn of their relationship through flashbacks that are easy to follow. Humans are a rarity now and seldom mentioned. It was easy to feel the angst and exhaustion of the characters. God seems nonexistent, except to Raphael, who seems to be in the story only to remind us that God exists in all things.

The characters are complex, fully developed, and well drawn; the plot is unique and flowed well. I enjoyed the tongue in cheek dialogue that served to lighten some scenes. The battle scenes were epic with tens of thousands of angels and demons, narrated with descriptive prose. The settings were vivid around Jerusalem, Caesarea, Masada and the Sea of Galilee. The ending was a bit surprising with a twist to leave us something to ponder and open enough for perhaps a sequel.

Arenson did get a bit repetitive in a few places describing angel wings and demon wings, but not enough to remove a star or lessen my enjoyment of the whole story. This story may cause you to rethink or reevaluate your concepts of good and evil.


If you can not handle spitting, cursing, hard edged angels, or devils who have a heart and react with some humanity this book may not be for you.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues

Rating: ***** 5 stars

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Do We Really Want a Mormon President?? / Brent Bateman

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Non-Fiction/Politics/Religion

Approximate word count: 70-75,000 words

Kindle  US: YES  UK: YES  Nook: NO  Smashwords: NO  Paper: YES
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Although the author has written a few other books, for our purposes his qualifications are covered in the description and appraisal sections.

“The year is 2012, and we Americans are once again faced with a choice of Presidential leadership.

Nationally and globally, we are at a threshold . . . and we face an ever-threatening dilemma . . . politically, economically, and environmentally. The realities of our dramatically changing world demand that we act decisively and with courage.

The role of religion and ideology is unquestionably a key factor in both the cause and the resolution of our dilemma. We have a choice. We can take rational action, with responsibility, maturity, wisdom, and courage . . . or we can continue to pay blind homage to doctrines and dogmas that are irrelevant to our current issues, and which do not offer corrective insight or guidance.

With this upcoming election the resolution of our dilemma should be a major priority. The stakes are high. On one hand we have a candidate who can hopefully use a second term to put common sense and rational action to play.

On the other we have a candidate who is a devout member of a religion which fosters a life-style and system of belief that is much more a part of the problem than the solution, and, in particular, champions prophesies that threaten both our political system and our very survival.

The author uses his knowledge and experience from growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to warn us that we do not want a Mormon President.”


By way of disclaimer, I have much the same background as the author. I was raised in a Mormon family, began asking questions and getting answers that didn’t make sense in my teens, and stopped practicing the religion in early adulthood. Although I’m not a believer, I also take exception when those who object to Mormon beliefs use half-truths and outright lies to make their case, a common occurrence. The author put it best:

It can at times be difficult to determine the authenticity and credibility of critical arguments directed against Mormon history and teachings because the critics are often just as zealous and biased as the LDS believer, and a good deal of unethical journalism is evident on both sides.

Last, to complete the disclaimer, odds of my voting for any of the Republican candidates who were vying for the 2012 nomination were slim. I’d already thought about one of the major points Bateman raises in Do We Really … as an issue, which was a concern for multiple candidates, not just the “presumptive nominee.”

The issue mentioned  isn’t just a concern with Mormon candidates. I’d had this same concern with Ronald Reagan and would with any candidate whose religious beliefs were that the earth is in its last days, and believe we’re on the verge of The Rapture, apocalypse, or whatever their religion calls it. If they are true believers and a crisis happens I feel like they’ll be much less inclined to hold back on pushing the button to start a nuclear war or the equivalent, because they believe it is going to happen anyway. They’re only fulfilling the prophecy.

Bateman covers a lot of ground. Some of this might not seem necessary to make his ultimate point, that Mitt Romney (or any other Mormon) as President of the United States has the potential (I would say likelihood) of being extremely detrimental to the US and the world. However, to truly understand the Mormon mindset and how that is likely to be reflected in a Romney presidency, as well as to make the case that Romney is a true believer, not just someone going through the motions for appearance’s sake, requires an understanding of the history Bateman outlines.

Given the nature of the subjects covered, many readers may find this a tough read. An exception would be for readers who are interested in studying religion or history. However, two sections were actually entertaining. One is a section that relates an experience the author had while working on a ship in the Philippines. The other is the first chapter, which is a fictionalized story, used to set the stage for the rest of the book. That chapter does a good job of laying out the issues and should convince the reader as to why finishing the less entertaining parts is worthwhile.

Although the book has a very specific goal and several points to be made, Bateman doesn’t paint an unrealistic picture. There are areas discussed where the Mormon religion has some positives. He doesn’t hesitate to admit that, even though doing so doesn’t help bolster his case. The majority of his personal experience, what he was taught, and the attitudes he observed, agree with my own. The few instances where our experiences were different, his observations were still credible to me. They didn’t seem unreasonable or unlikely. However, Bateman doesn’t make his case based purely on experience. He provides plenty of facts that are easily verifiable. In the few instances where something was presented as fact that I wasn’t aware of that seemed questionable, I was easily able to find other supporing sources.

The few negatives I found were the inherent dryness of some of the subject matter and some minor issues with historical quotes. I didn’t question the accuracy of what was being quoted (all too many of them were things I’d read or heard years before), but in some instances they are attributed to a person and title of “prophet,” when the person being quoted didn’t hold that position at the time they said it. (This might sound like it is insignificant, but to a Mormon, it wouldn’t be, because of the difference in how the words of the prophet are viewed in relation to everyone else.) I also thought there were some instances of using too many quotes, overkill, to demonstrate the official Mormon position on some subjects.

I’m concerned that in many ways this book will “be preaching to the choir.” It will be read by voters who weren’t going to vote for Romney anyway. It really needs to be read by anyone who is on the fence or thinks Romney is their candidate. If you’ve chosen Romney due to a feeling that he is the lesser of the two evils, after reading Do We Really Want a Mormon President, you might start looking for a third evil to mark on your ballot.

Format/Typo Issues:

A small number of typos and copy editing errors.

Rating: **** Four stars

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Memoirs from the Asylum / Kenneth Weene

Reviewed by: Arthur Graham

Genre: General Fiction

Approximate word count: 55-60,000 words

Kindle  US: YES  UK: YES  Nook: YES  Smashwords: NO  Paper: YES
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A New Englander by birth and disposition, Ken Weene was trained as a minister and psychologist and has worked as both an educator and psychotherapist. Now in semi-retirement, he lives with his wife in Arizona.


Several streams of narrative flow together in this panoptic examination of life, death, and all the madness in between.


I must admit that I didn’t have very high expectations going into this. Like most books by unfamiliar authors, I could only hope for the best while preparing for the worst. Luckily for this cynic, however, Memoirs from the Asylum turned out to be well worth the time spent reading it.

The title seems purposefully ironic. Merriam-Webster defines “asylum” as “an inviolable place of refuge and protection,” but could such a place actually exist? With 58 chapters divided between a mental institution and the equally mad world beyond its walls, this book would seem to answer “no.” In the narrator’s repeated references to his raging uncle’s depiction of a foundering ship, forever unfinished upon its easel, the overall message seems to be that “there is no asylum, no sanctuary, only the endless gray of the tossing seas of the endless paintings of our endurance.”

Paradoxically, the only asylum to be found anywhere is within the patients themselves, even as they become prisoners to their own tormented thoughts. Regardless of their individual limitations and psychoses, they can each take solace in whatever measure of freedom still exists in their heads – provided it hasn’t been completely cut, shocked, or drugged out of them already.

Marilyn for instance, the resident catatonic, hasn’t moved a muscle in years. Instead, “she sits inert in her room. She stares at the crack in the wall opposite her bed. She stares at nothing, and she sees the world.” It is a world inhabited by her childhood sweetheart, her dead mother and brother, and their beloved family dog, taking turns in each others’ roles while perpetually morphing into penises, balls of excrement, and various other objects across a range of fantastical scenarios.

The scatological motif is fitting, given how the patients are typically treated – like crap. One callous orderly “look[ed] more like he should [have been] working in a steel mill or chopping down trees,” the narrator tells us. “but there are no mills, mines, or forests, not around here. We’re the industry, the factory: human waste management at its most medical.”

If they’re not written off or forgotten altogether, the patients are routinely abused by those in position to do so. This is what inevitably happens wherever power is exercised over those with few, if any, rights as human beings. With the exception of one empathetic doctor and a handful of workers, most of the staff seem more interested in pushing pills and preparing budget reports than providing any kind of real care.

Mind you, the patients aren’t the only loons in this bin. Everyone else gets to go home at the end of the day, but given the pathological nature of the world outside, it comes as no surprise that they all have certain “issues” of their own. Everyone is crazy, but everyone knows this deep down. The world itself is an insane asylum, but once again, there is no point in telling this to those of us forced to live in it. Weene is adept at showing this, though, and he does so with a panache that would make the narrator’s departed cousin, Stan, whoop for the sheer joy of it.

The book comes to a rather predictable conclusion, but that’s probably just because there’s no other conclusion to be drawn. Upon his release, it doesn’t take our narrator long to rediscover all of the awful, maddening things that led him to commit himself in the first place. What keeps him going is “the possibility of something better, of something however fragile rising from momentary glory, from a lavender and apricot moment of joy.” The book isn’t quite as flowery as all that, or even as dismal as the image of the foundering ship mentioned earlier. It’s a lot of different, contrary things, but what else should we expect from a book about insanity?

Format/Typo Issues:

The Kindle version I read could do with a major formatting overhaul.

Rating: ***** Five stars

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Depths of Deception / Ian Fraser

Reviewed by: Pete Barber

Genre: Suspense/Thriller

Approximate word count: 85,000-90,000 words

Kindle  US: YES  UK: YES  Nook: YES  Smashwords: YES  Paper: NO
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store


Ian Fraser is a South African born playwright now residing in the US. He has written four novels including The Depths of Deception.


A highly trained assassin works for The Office, a covert international spy network with offices worldwide and access to advanced technology. After he falls in love with a South African woman, he resigns from The Office and settles down to build a family life. When his family is brutally murdered, he re-activates himself, resumes his role as an assassin and searches for the person or persons responsible for the death of his family.


The story is told from the first person viewpoint of the assassin (as far as I can remember he was never named). The story has a non-linear structure, jumping back and forward both in time and in location. We experience the protagonist’s early life as he is trained in martial arts and murder by his controller, in South Africa as he builds his family; we follow him as he executes human targets, and finally in 20xx where he fulfills his final mission.

For much of the story, Fraser’s brilliant writing skills--lean and rich in imagery—were enough to immerse me within each of the threads. This was particularly true in his descriptions of life in pre and post-apartheid South Africa.

As the book progressed, though, I became impatient with the amount of time spent describing the surroundings and the cultures the protagonist found himself in. Large amounts of the text seemed reminiscent of a Theroux-like travelogue and had little to do with moving the story forward. The author (through the guise of his protagonist) holds forth on politics, culture and language, reminding me of an intelligent but annoying dinner guest who, lit by one too many brandies, loudly proclaims his opinions to a captive audience.

Labeled a thriller, there were few thrills to be had because the assassin—armed with the overwhelming technology of The Office—seemed to overmatch every opponent. He was cold and calculating and detached—hard to get connected to. Except for one instance, he never seemed to be under threat of failure or discovery.

The scenes involving the submarine offered potential for some nail biting, but because they were preceded with a flash-forward that showed the assassin had survived, the challenges and struggled of the submarine’s captain and crew offered little tension—I was told they made it.

It was all too easy.  

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant typos.

Rating: *** Three stars

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Publisher Interview: Patricia Morrison

The concept that self-publishing is an act of desperation has been promoted by the assumed and established superiority of Big Six publishers, but that concept has been severely diminished in the wake of publisher failures and scandals of price-fixing.

Note: Books and Pals uses a broad definition of indie that includes both self-published books and books published by small presses. Our interview today is a change of pace from our normal Saturday fare, with an interview subject who is an editor for a small publisher.

How long have you worked in publishing?

I had some experience with a small ebook company before starting with Penumbra Publishing when it officially opened for submissions. Before that, I had contributed to several different genre reading/discussion groups and served as a critique contributor to several writing groups, as well as providing personal critiques for many different authors.

I’ve been involved in some way with books and writers for many years, with many friends who are authors. I have had the privilege to work with many budding authors before they became published and saw many authors who couldn’t catch a break in traditional publishing get their start with ebook publishers, then go on to catch the attention of traditional publishers and expand their careers to find wider readership.

It’s been a learning experience and a passion of mine to help other authors achieve their writing and publishing goals. At Penumbra Publishing, I am able to do all of that.

One of your authors, Walter Knight, suggested interviewing you and he called you “his editor,” but editor can mean a lot of things. What are your duties at Penumbra.

Currently I make most of the acquisition decisions for Penumbra Publishing and do about 90% of the editing, which means there’s a huge bottleneck in the book production process right now. However, we have a new editor who will (hopefully soon) share more of the acquisition and editing duties, especially for books that are mainstream in nature. I will continue to handle the genres of fantasy, paranormal, and science fiction. I expect to be able to relegate a larger portion of editing and acquisition to other editors we bring on board.

The selection and training process to bring in a new editor to learn our established editing guidelines is a slow process. We do more than just proofreading for typos. Story arc, character development, pacing, and other story elements come into consideration, as does fact-checking. The job of editing is therefore expansive, all-inclusive, and very labor- and time-intensive. Because of the small number of dedicated staff, we do not have different editors for different phases of the editing process. Usually one person does it all for one book, but occasionally another editor will do a final proofing.

I also serve as author liaison, meaning if there are questions or problems that arise, I am the ‘go to’ person to try to answer questions or fix situations. This provides a consistency for the authors and allows others involved in the day-to-day publishing process to focus on their respective duties without becoming distracted by issues that may require some research to resolve. As time goes on, I expect more responsibilities will be delegated to others so that the workload is not so heavy for any one person.

Authors see only a small aspect of the editing process, because we do try to involve the author in every step of the editing process and maintain an open dialog with the author about changes we feel need to be made to a story. The rest of the day-to-day business is a lot more work than one would imagine. Because I act as liaison to answer questions or troubleshoot issues that come up, I have my paws into every aspect of the business at some time or another.

Tell us a little about Penumbra Publishing. How many people work there? How many books do you publish, and what do you think is unique about Penumbra compared to other like-sized publishers?

Penumbra Publishing has officially been in business since January of 2009 and is still a fairly new business. Like many small startup publishers, Penumbra Publishing was formed by a private group of authors. Recent changes in bookselling (the availability of affordable-for-everyone print-on-demand services, and the emergence of Amazon as an ebook-selling giant allowing anyone to sell their books on an even playing field) made the formation of Penumbra Publishing a viable alternative to individual authors each seeking self-publishing avenues on their own. After investigating do-it-yourself publishing options, a business plan with established processes and a genuine business appearance was created for continuity of presence, purpose, and product. Work was originally done on a volunteer basis by the original authors involved in the business startup. The actual number of staff now fluctuates, as many of the people who contribute to the operation of the company are transient authors or subcontractors, with the volunteer aspect having dropped off considerably. Web site design and maintenance remains in-house with a dedicated web mistress. Cover art is also handled in-house by a couple dedicated folks with artistic background and skill, but at some point this aspect may be subcontracted. Day-to-day operations of editing/acquisition, web design, artwork, contracts/sales/accounting is a lot of work for a very small staff of four to six core people at any given time. For taxation and distribution account purposes, the company structure remains as a sole-proprietorship on paper. As the company continues to grow, with more distinct divisions of labor and a larger number of people to handle that labor, we expect the company structure to change as well.

Penumbra Publishing currently has over 25 authors and has published over 50 titles. We offer publishing services on the traditional model, free of charge to authors (as opposed to subsidy/vanity publishing which charges for publishing services). The traditional model of publishing is offered as a reasonable alternative to authors who cannot or choose not to navigate the agent-submission gatekeeper process established by larger traditional publishers. We split net royalties 50/50 with our authors. We are committed to ensuring the books produced by Penumbra Publishing offer great reader value by being good quality and competitively affordable. I believe our personalized service in fulfilling authors’ publishing needs while taking care of the back-end of the business, and at the same time offering quality books at reasonable prices, all combine to set us apart from many other small publishers who just focus on one or two of those aspects at the expense of the rest.

I scanned some of the books Penumbra publishes and besides Walter Knight, the name that jumped out at me was Jamie Wasserman, who is an author I know several of my regular followers love. How did you come to publish Jamie and when can we expect to see a new book from him?

Jamie Wasserman is a terrific writer and came to us through the usual submission process. When I read his first book, I suggested (as I routinely do with authors whose work appears to be quite promising from a critical standpoint) that he seek a well-established and larger publisher to handle his publishing needs. However, he chose to stay with Penumbra Publishing, and we are very grateful to have such a talented and gracious author as part of our group.

We are currently in the process of working on the sequel to his very popular Blood and Sunlight vampire tale. He also has another project that requires some illustration, but that is on the back burner until a dedicated illustrator can be assigned to provide the necessary artwork.

Jamie has two books currently published with us, Holding Back the Day and Blood and Sunlight – both vampire-themed. With Angel Moon (sequel to Blood and Sunlight) expected to be released next month, that will make three novels to Jamie’s credit. In addition, Jamie had an ebook-only humorous Night of the Guppy series resulting from serial chapters Jamie had posted online on an Amazon community forum for the amusement of his fans. At his request, we put these into ebook format and used artwork done by a friend of his to create the covers. He later decided to discontinue availability of the books and concentrate his efforts on more serious writing typical of the novels he currently has published.

What do you look for in deciding whether you’re interested in publishing a book?

The number-one criterion is subjective – do I like the story? I enjoy a variety of genres, including romance, fantasy, science fiction, action thrillers, spy-espionage, lawyer/cop procedurals, murder mysteries, and so on. If a story is well written with compelling characters, and I find myself drawn into the story, then I know there is something about the book that will probably work for a lot of other readers too. On the other hand, if I have to force myself to read through the first chapter, I know there’s something not ‘clicking’ with the story, and it is going to need work. Just how much work is the decisive factor in judging whether or not to accept a story for publication. If the storyline seems marketable, but the delivery is lacking, then other factors come into the equation when deciding whether or not to accept the project. Usually those other factors involve my perception of the author’s maturity and professionalism and apparent willingness to be flexible and take on the task of self-promotion.

I’ve seen very compelling query letters and book teasers, but the writing itself – the actual delivery of the story – is what determines whether the book’s going to work. Some ‘beginner mistakes’ like starting off with backstory or spending too much time describing the setting can certainly be fixed with little trouble, but other pervasive problems like awful dialog (stilted, silly, not engaging) and dull character interaction indicate the author isn’t invested in or doesn’t understand his story well enough to be able to tell it in a compelling manner. Part of that is the level of writing skill the author has managed to develop. Writing skill can certainly be learned by almost anyone, but the time it takes to do that cannot be compressed into a single lesson, and serious pervasive problems in a story cannot be fixed in the editing process without a complete rewrite. Due to time limitations and creative integrity, we do not make a habit of completely rewriting stories for authors. We may offer extensive assistance and advice, but when it comes time to return a story to the author for rewrites and the author can’t do it, it becomes obvious that the author is not ready to be published. That is why we have a policy of ‘fix and resubmit’ when a story shows some promise but has too many problems to fix in the edit process. If the author can fix it, then we’re good to go. If not ... well, we will usually pass on that project and suggest the author seek out a good critique group or a dedicated writing partner to get the story up to speed.

Occasionally I have accepted books for publication that I knew were going to be a nightmare to edit because of the amount of work that would be involved. But the story itself was so strong, and the writing talent, however raw, promised to be worth the trouble. Sometimes the sheer tenacity of the author plays a huge role in whether or not a book is accepted. An author who shows raw storytelling talent plus the willingness to do whatever’s necessary to learn how to fix a story is an author I feel is worthy of my investment of time to coach and develop.

The assessment process is unique for each submission and takes a personal investment of time and thought to consider every single book that comes to us, as well as every author’s potential. The combination of all that goes into the final decision. But if the writing style or the story itself grabs my interest, then it is almost always assured acceptance. Of course, ‘interest’ is a purely subjective thing.

For a reader, what do you think a book published by Penumbra has that sets it apart?

The personal process we use to assess submissions results in publishing books we find enjoyable on some level, or can appreciate for the stylistic quality or message/moral/theme. While no two people will have the same taste in everything, I think that, in addition to applying a personal perspective to each book we publish, we also look at it from an objective standpoint, trying to figure out what type of person would want to read a particular book we publish. In pursuit of the analysis of deciding what kind of readers might be interested in a particular book, we ask all authors to provide marketing ideas as part of the submission process. That (hopefully) makes authors more aware of their potential readership and prepares them to start thinking from a self-promotion standpoint about how their book will fit into the existing market.

At the point a book is offered for reading assessment or for reading pleasure, the book ceases to be about the author’s talent or interpretation or statement, and more about the reader’s interpretation and enjoyment of the author’s work. When we edit a book, we are always looking from that perspective. Will this particular section be something the reader can understand and relate to? Does that character present the best concept in terms of reader expectation? There’s always that kind of questioning going on in the editing process. When an author writes, that self-editing process should be turned off until the first draft is completed, just so the author can finish the story without crippling himself trying to second-guess the potential reader of his story. But at the editing stage, reader considerations should be taken seriously. Because of that, we’ll go through two or three rounds of edits and rewrites on some books to get them to the point where we feel they can deliver a good read.

That is what I think every publisher should be doing for every book produced, but whether that gets done every time in other publishing houses, I don’t know. All I can say is, that’s our publishing policy at Penumbra Publishing, and that is what we hope to deliver to our readers – books that we feel are ready to be read and will deliver the best reading experience possible.

Tell us about some of the books you’ve published recently and the kind of reader that would find them appealing.

Lily Steps Out by Rita Plush is available now. It’s a delightful story with a tinge of Jewish ethnic quality that is populated by characters who definitely have personality. It’s about an empty-nest homemaker who’s just now realizing that she wants more out of life than making beds and cooking meals. In effect, she’s looking for a personal purpose. And, as we all know, change doesn’t come easily for anyone in an established family situation where defined roles sometimes are hard to break out of. This is a terrific story that can be enjoyed by anyone, but especially it’s for middle-aged women who are looking at their lives and wondering ‘is this all there is?’ It’s a heartwarming and hopeful story I highly recommend.

Flight to Nowhere by Blas Padrino is in production now, but should be available within a couple weeks. It is a suspenseful romantic thriller set in Miami and surrounds that involves the mystery of a Cuban rebel who disappeared fifty years ago. It has strong political undertones and brings to life the ethnicity and trials and tribulations of Cuban Americans. This is an entertaining story with strong personal convictions, and I highly recommend it.

A lot of my followers are also authors. To an author who has found some success self-publishing, what does a company like Penumbra offer that they can’t do on their own?

For authors who have a vision for their book and want to control the outcome of that vision, self-publishing is a good alternative. Createspace or Lulu are two self-publishing services that authors can use strictly as printers. If a broader distribution is desired (bookstore shelving), then the author should consider setting up an account with Lightning Source (by Ingram Books), even though that represents a higher preparatory cost. An outside editor should be chosen carefully, as well as a book cover producer. These things cost money. And collaborating with anyone, whether it’s a subcontractor or a publisher, will result in the author’s vision of the book being modified to some extent. The trick is to find people who can respect the author’s vision for the book and try their best to align what they do for the book with what the author has in mind. All that costs money and takes time to investigate and subcontract.

For authors who don’t have the skill set or patience or money to do it all and subcontract editors and cover artists and buy their own block of ISBNs, the next best thing is to go to a small publisher and get help with the production aspects of the book. Every author should thoroughly think through what’s involved and check out publishers to find the right one to work with. This will involve a submission process, just like with an agent or a big publisher, but more than likely the standards of acceptance will be broader to include books that are routinely ignored by the traditional big publishing industry, due to a perceived lack of profitability.

No matter what route the author chooses to achieve publishing, the author is GOING TO HAVE TO DO SOME SELF-MARKETING. Even authors who approach agents or large traditional publishers are going to have to self-market. That doesn’t just mean going on a jet-set book-signing tour. It means some down-in-the-trenches social promotion to create an online presence. It means talking with people about the book in whatever capacity is possible (but NOT alienating people like a door-to-door salesman or street vendor). It means genuinely being interested in what other people are interested in, and letting them know in the course of conversation that yes, YOU have published YOUR book.

Penumbra Publishing is not the only small publisher out there, and might not be the best or the fastest or the greatest or whatever. Penumbra Publishing won’t be the best choice for every book or every author. All we can do for any author is provide personalized service and take a real interest in the work we publish, to make it the best it can be. We offer a publishing contract that I believe is one of the best and most equitable in the business. Our goal is to partner with the author to make every book as successful as it can be. Sometimes success doesn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. We do what we can to work with every author in whatever capacity seems best for the author’s circumstances.

We are always looking for authors who want the best for their book and their writing career, and who can be realistic about the options available. We want authors to be happy working with us, and we want to enjoy working with them. We don’t make sales or royalty promises, and we don’t charge for our services. We work with authors to put their books out there and try the marketing techniques we know work, plus experiment with some to see how well they work, but we don’t promise anything we can’t deliver, and we certainly don’t promise miracles.

That, basically, is what we offer. Each book we publish and each author we work with represents a partnership, a venture, an adventure. That’s what we bring to the table – nothing more, nothing less.

The publishing industry seems to be in the same position as the music industry was a decade or so ago, with movement towards electronic distribution. How do you see things changing over the next several years for both readers and publishing companies such as yours?

There have always been subsidy publishers and authors who were forced or chose to self-publish. The list is large and includes works that have gone on to become popular classics and perennial favorites of critics and the reading public. Many small publishers are business offshoots of authors or book curators who felt a need to redo the book publishing process according to their own concept of what it should and could be. Almost all large publishers began as small startup publishers.

With the advent of corporate publishing and publishing empires like Hearst and Gannett, the focus turned from curating literature to expanding profit margins. There will always be startup companies who will try to reinvent the wheel in the hope that curating can again become the focus with perhaps a little bit of profit margin on the side. There is no question that subsidy publishers are proliferating and profiteering in this last-gasp environment of the book industry, preying on the hopes and dreams of writers who don’t do their homework to gain an understanding of the business. The concept that self-publishing is an act of desperation has been promoted by the assumed and established superiority of Big Six publishers, but that concept has been severely diminished in the wake of publisher failures and scandals of price-fixing.

More and more people are jumping into the publishing foray to see their dreams finally achieved through self-publishing. Seventy- and eighty-year-old authors are finally getting their books published. It doesn’t matter to them that the heyday of their genre is gone, or the story is dated. They don’t care whether or not it sells, they just want that book in hand to show they finally did what they’d always wanted to do – publish their book. I think there’s probably a writer hidden in all of us that secretly dreams of fame and fortune through publishing a book. For most, the reality is a few copies sold to friends and family. But for some who have an undeniable need to write, it is not a choice, it is a destiny to be a published author.

Ten or fifteen years ago, ebook sales were not mainstream. This was the pre-Amazon era. Any author trying to gain reader exposure through an ebook publisher found it quite difficult, unless that author was writing for the popular genres – erotic romance and alternative lifestyle romance. Most of these small ebook publishers had their own distribution via their own web sites or through sites like Fictionwise, which was acquired by Barnes and Noble in 2009, prior to the Nook foray. The financial success of Ellora’s Cave, even though it focused primarily on erotic romance, brought real attention to the independent ebook industry, and during that time Amazon began taking ebook sales seriously, seeing an under-marketed opportunity for mainstream books, not just erotic romance. Amazon originally contracted with a French company offering the ‘mobi’ file format to publish ebooks, but soon developed its own ereader and marketing/sales structure on the Amazon site, based on the ‘mobi’ file system. It’s now known as ‘Kindle,’ and the French MobiBook is essentially out of business. Amazon also acquired the self-publishing service Createspace several years ago, and has recently contracted with some traditional-published authors to start its own select-release publishing company. Like a lot of startup small publishers, Amazon has seen the writing on the wall and is trying to squeeze the last drops of profit from print book publishing while taking full advantage of the upswing in ebook sales.

Amazon popularized and commercialized ebook reading technology and online book buying – in fact, online buying as a whole. This popularization of ‘anything can be sold online’ has turned the book into a commodity like any other, and removed it from its lofty perch as ‘literature.’ With deep discounts and price wars and authors giving away their books in the hope of attracting readers, books are now no more important in the scheme of things than a chilidog. Books have become just one more item to be consumed. Nobody keeps a hotdog collection, and I think the number of people who will treasure book collections will dwindle as the print book loses prominence in the industry and that generation fades into distant memory. Right now there is a literacy campaign that has been going on for years, trying to encourage people to read. I wouldn’t be surprised if the publishing industry is a silent sponsor of this campaign. Because look at the alternative to reading...

With a focus now on electronic gadgetry with built-in disposable obsolescence, the idea that anything – even art or literature – is a timeless treasure is quickly going by the wayside. Only the very rich and the very old will pay a million bucks for a Picasso, and books will be relegated to the better days of board games as new technology makes new forms of entertainment more appealing than reading. Authoring a story may morph into creating a virtual environment for the consumer to become immersed in, and reading itself may become obsolete with the advent of brain implants to transfer information. Of course that is probably in the far-off futuristic world of science fiction, so I’ll stop there.

I think for the next ten years, the book industry and the future of publishing will still exist in some form recognizable as we now know it, but I look for a lot more shake-ups in the industry, partly driven by technological advancements and partly by keen competition. A company will only continue to exist in some form if it has a legacy plan in place and is vigilant in maintaining and updating that plan. That is true for any business, whether it is involved in manufacturing or service ... or publishing. Technology and the market for products and services will naturally affect any business’s ability to stay current, so it is important not only to have a vision for the future but to learn lessons from the past and keep an eye on new trends. Most smaller businesses do well to keep their heads above water in the choppy sea of any market. A storm can blow in at any time, so it’s good to have a strong boat and capable captain at the helm – and hope for the best but be prepared for the worst.

Do you have time for leisure reading? Besides Penumbra authors, who are your favorite authors and why?

I manage about an hour every other day to read something I am not working on. I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and really liked the book. Many people called the writing simplistic, but I appreciated it specifically for its clean straightforwardness. I enjoy a story where the author’s voice doesn’t get in the way of telling the story. Too many times, the author is so busy entertaining himself with a clever turn of phrase that he forgets there’s a reader sitting there waiting for him to get on with the show. The Hunger Games was beautifully written because, although the language was clean and uncluttered, it managed to evoke an emotional response almost effortlessly. I admire the artistic finesse of that and applaud the author (and her editor).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is in my TBR pile and I can’t wait to get started on that. Unfortunately, it will be a long time before I can finish those – the books are huge.

I enjoy reading Dean Koontz, Orson Scott Card, Vernor Vinge, Michael Crichton, Ian M. Banks, and a host of other well-known authors, but I try unknown authors too. I like to read science articles to learn about new advances in science theory. This helps in keeping up with science fiction themes and making sure stories fit within the believability parameters for savvy scifi readers. Because I am a very eclectic reader, my taste may run from ‘trashy’ to ‘bizarre,’ and from time to time I might read business journals or other nonfiction like ‘how-to’ books on subjects I want to learn more about. While I’ve read some of the classics by Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, I usually fill my head with contemporary work in genre fiction because that’s my business and that’s what I’m involved with on a day-to-day basis. Looking for great fiction and figuring out what makes it great helps make me a better editor, I think.

For More Patricia:

Visit the Penumbra Publishing website, blog, or follow them on twitter.

Books mentioned:

Blood and Sunlight by Jamie Wasserman     

Holding Back the Day by Jamie Wasserman  

Lily Steps Out by Rita Plush                       

All books published by Penumbra Publishing
Amazon US UK B&N Smashwords