Mastodon The Writing Desk: February 2014

28 February 2014

Book Review ~ The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

St. Martin's Press Pub Date Jun 3 2014
Also on Amazon US and Amazon UK

There have been many accounts of the story tragic story of the Romanov family, yet Helen Rappaport's new book brings an additional depth of perspective. Painstaking research, including translation of rarely seen personal letters, allows their lives to slowly unfold in fascinating detail.

The stories of public extravagance contrasts starkly with their private economies. The four girls (who for the first time don't simply blur into one) make their own toys and hand down their dresses and shoes as they grow out of them.

Helen's account leaves me undecided about the often sinister figure of Grigori Rasputin. He was clearly a great help to the family yet his association also did their reputation inestimable harm. Whatever the truth, he seems a poor choice as the girls 'moral guardian.' Another ambivalent character is their maternal great grandmother. Queen Victoria, who seems to keep them at a distance and considers Russia to be 'a savage superstitious country.' 

I was touched to read how the Romanov sisters, who had previously led such sheltered lives, dedicated themselves to nursing the sick and wounded victims of the war. Helen Rapport deals with the appalling end of their story with great sensitivity, making this book a fitting memorial to four very special sisters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.

About the Author:

Helen Rappaport  lives in Oxford and studied Russian at Leeds University. A specialist in Russian and nineteenth-century women’s history, she has appeared on British TV and in films until the early 1990s, when she abandoned acting and embraced her second love - history and with it the insecurities of a writer’s life.

Helen is a fluent Russian speaker and her great passion is to winkle out lost stories from the footnotes and breathe new life and new perspectives into old subjects. In 2010 she was talking head on a Mystery Files documentary about the Murder of the Romanovs for National Geographic channel.

Vist Helen's website at

22 February 2014

New Book Launch: Sleep Tight by Rachel Abbott

How far would you go to hold on to the people you love? 

Available on Amazon US and Amazon UK

When Olivia Brookes calls the police to report that her husband and children are missing, she believes she will never see them again. She has reason to fear the worst; this isn’t the first tragedy that Olivia has experienced. Now, two years later, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Douglas is called in to investigate this family again, but this time it’s Olivia who has disappeared. All the evidence suggests that she was here, in the family home, that morning. 

But her car is in the garage, and her purse is in her handbag – on the kitchen table. The police want to issue an appeal, but for some reason every single picture of this family has been removed from albums, from phones, from computers. 

And then they find the blood… 

Has the past caught up with Olivia? 

Sleep Tight – if you can. You never know who’s watching. 

Praise for Rachel Abbott: 

"Rachel Abbott will keep you guessing long into the night and just as soon as you’ve figured it out...think again!”- Suspense Magazine 

"It is one of those books that holds you hostage and is hard to put down until the end" – Confessions of a Reader 

“Abbott creates a tangled web of deception, secrets, and red herrings” – Booklist 

“Pure Genius: A Masterclass in the Perfect Thriller!!” – Love Books 

Visit the author's website at

18 February 2014

Guest Post: The Accidental Courier, by Robert Darke

The Accidental Courier available now as a paperback, or eBook, from Amazon US and Amazon UK

Short Stories

I was tidying my office the other day and found an old diary entry from 15 Jan 1984 that read, "This afternoon I started writing..." I must be one of the world's worst procrastinators because it took nearly 30 years to turn the dream into a reality. After my early attempts, I treated writing as a craft that had to be learned and attended all sorts of workshops and residential courses in the ensuing years.

Before embarking on a novel, for some reason, I needed to prove to myself that I was capable of writing to a 'publishable' standard. So I tried my hand at short stories and had loads of rejections before, finally, getting a twist-end story accepted by the national UK magazine, Best, who printed 'Sunday Love Songs' in their Autumn Special of 1999. It was great being in the Autumn Special because, unlike the weekly edition, it was on the shelves of every newsagent and supermarket in the land for a whole season! I thought I'd arrived but was soon brought back down to earth when my next few follow-up submissions were all rejected.

Well, I may be a procrastinator but I'm also tenacious and persistent! I convinced myself that if it happened once it could happen again - and it did. A couple of years later Best accepted another and then another and, suddenly, I was invited to by-pass the 'slush pile' and submit my stories directly to the editor via email. I'm eternally grateful to the then editor, Pat Richardson, who is now retired, for her faith in my work. I went on to have several short stories published in other nationals and small press 'literary' magazines as well as winning some competition prizes. So I told myself it was the right time to start the novel.

My First Novel

It took me 3 years to write my first novel. It was meant to be a thriller about smuggling and murder in Pembrokeshire (a county I love) and there was a bit of love interest too - just the sort of thing I enjoyed reading. I showed it to a few trusted friends and their feedback was that it was somewhere between a thriller, a romance and a travel guide but sadly didn't quite meet the full requirements of any of those genres. They said some kind things but all I heard was the criticism - and it hurt! But after retreating into my cave to lick my wounds I could see why they were right. I couldn't face rewriting it all over again and so I put it in my bottom drawer and started another novel ...but after a few chapters I got bored and figured the reader would be too.

So I took a break from writing and concentrated on my career.

NaNoWriMo Success
It wasn't until ill health forced me to take time off work that I stumbled across National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It sounded like a bit of a gimmick but being thoroughly bored with daytime TV by then I decided to take the challenge. The aim was to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. Half way through that month, I was well enough to return to work but I ploughed on in my lunch hours because, as I said above, once I do eventually start something, I'm very determined. I hit the word count target but the novel still wasn't finished.

It didn't matter: I was back in the writing habit and thoroughly enjoying it. A couple of months later, the first draft of The Accidental Courier was finished. It took another 18 months of polishing, editing and rewriting before, finally, I felt confident enough to self-publish last October. Unlike my first attempt at a novel, this time the feedback has been 100% positive so far and, for me, that has been incredibly gratifying and made it all worthwhile. I'm now busy working on the next novel which takes as its central character, Detective Inspector Cannard who first appears in The Accidental Courier and it will also feature some of my other favourite characters from that book.

The Accidental Courier is available as a paperback, or eBook, from Amazon US and Amazon UK

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About The Author

Robert Darke was born and raised in Cardiff but then moved around the UK with his job in HM Customs and Excise before eventually returning to settle back in his home town. He left Customs to provide IT Security and Audit services for several major organisations in the private and public sectors.  In 2013 he took early retirement from his job as Head of Corporate Communication for a large government agency to allow more time to concentrate on his writing. He is also a keen photographer, hospital radio presenter and proud new member of the Harley-Davidson Owners Group (HOG) Great Western Chapter.

For more information please visit:

17 February 2014

Book Launch Guest Post ~ The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price by C.L. Schneider

To save the realms and those he cares for, Ian Troy must embrace the one thing he fears most: his own power.

The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price
Available now on Amazon US and Amazon UK

As the youngest child in a house of readers, I was never want for a wide variety of books. My mom liked a good mystery or biography. My dad always had a paperback western in his hand. Horror grabbed my sister’s attention, and my brother was the comic-book, sci-fi, and fantasy buff. The classics were all there too. We were a multi-genre household and that exposure set the stage for me at an early age.  Somewhere between “Gone with the Wind” and “The Mists of Avalon”, the cowboys and outlaws, the detectives, the monsters and the heroes, I realized: I want to do this.  I can do this.

Starting to write
So, I sat down at a typewriter in my parents' living room and went to work, creating worlds very different from the small, Kansas town where I was born. High school ended, life happened, and I was forced to put my writing aside many times over the years. I devoured books written by others, until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I would pick up my writing and start again. Some stories I finished. Some are still no more than scribbled down ideas, settings, and names; skeletons of future novels, waiting patiently in a notebook for me to flesh them out.

All about the characters

I've dabbled in various genres. With a lifelong interest in the Middle Ages, and all things supernatural and unexplained, I feel most at home with fantasy. Yet, writing, for me, has never been about the genre so much, as it is about the characters. That’s where I start a new project. Defining their motivations, their fears, likes, dislikes, and then throwing curve balls at them to see how they’ll react.  People’s imperfections, their secrets and lies, what they can endure and what they’re capable of—I believe that’s where the stories are.   

Crown of Stones

Those overflowing bookshelves in my parents' house still influence me today. Ian Troy, my protagonist in The Crown of Stones is a little bit cowboy and outlaw, a detective when he needs to be, a monster when he can’t help it, and a hero even when he tries not to be.

Born of the Shinree, a fallen race reviled for their inherent addiction to magic, Ian Troy is no stranger to scorn.  His people bred and sold as slaves for hundreds of years, Ian was conscripted into the Rellan army and made to fight in their longstanding conflict with the ruthless Langorian invaders. In an attempt to end the war, he wields the Crown of Stones, an ancient Shinree relic of untold power—and pays a terrible price.  

A decade later, still tortured by the aftermath of that day, Ian lives in self-imposed exile. Having renounced his magical heritage, he curbs his obsession with a steady stream of wine and regret. He struggles to put it all behind him.  Until a fateful encounter with a pretty assassin brings Ian’s past crashing into the present.  Now, targeted by enemies old and new, Ian is forced to use magic again, awakening his deadly addiction. 

C.L. Schneider

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About the Author

Originally from Atchison in Kansas, C.L.Schneider now lives in upstate New York with her husband and two sons. The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price is her first published novel and she is now working on the two follow-up books that will conclude Ian’s story.  You can find out more on her Facebook Page, follow her on Twitter @cl_schneider and and follow her journey as a new author on her Goodreads blog, "Heading Down The Yellow Brick Road".   

14 February 2014

Guest Post: Does Love Still Exist? By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, author of Love Comes Later

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

St. Valentine may be horrified by the cherubs touting candy, flowers or jewelry. The overemphasis of eros, or romantic love, may have merged out of rampant marketeering. Between Christmas and Easter, after all, is a lot of retail silence. In modern society, with women marrying later, and partners divorcing earlier – not waiting for children to grow up – does love still exist?

I had a great idea in 2009; I would write a book about how a modern person with traditional values would find love. I didn’t think this would be so difficult. After all, I’d managed to resist the pressures of my own South Asian culture until the spinsterly age of 26, when, as my father put it, “to find a good man who would make a commitment to me” even if he wasn’t Indian.

Fresh from an unlikely, whirlwind romance in the desert, I sat down to explore in fiction the difficult choices facing young Qatari men and women amongst the myriad dilemmas of love, choice, honor, and duty.

The Qatari characters were based on a meld of dozens of stories I knew of real people; but the insertion of a South Asian girl into the love triangle was all my own.

I put Abdulla, the male protagonist, and Sangita, the unexpected loved interest, in a small London apartment. And waited for sparks to fly. In a Disneyesque-romantic genre, move, they were on a countdown; three days.

But nothing was happening. There they were; young, attractive, in close proximity, and I couldn’t believe that they were falling in love. All the elements were there but the emotions were missing.

I started asking everyone: “How do people fall in love?”

My older Indian friends were surprised.

“Didn’t you have a love marriage?” They asked me, products of the arranged marriage system. “Don’t you know?”

“Seems so long ago,” I muttered, well out of earshot of my husband.

“I loved your book,” another friend said. “I’ve never known what love is…” she said, with a dreamy look in her, having been arranged to her husband.

“It’s all the same after a while,” I said to her dryly, watching our husbands on their mobile phones while we mothers ran after our children.

“But how can they fall in love,” I asked my Qatari friends, growing desperate for realism as the book entered a seemingly endless cycle of revisions.

“She has to be hot,” one of my male beta readers said, in all honesty.

Chemistry. Right. I forgot that part, somehow, settling into comfortable domesticity.

Abdulla and Sangita did eventually find their way in the story. The sequel to the book is in progress and explores an equally murky area: what happens after the spark? Are the chances for survival of ‘falling into’ love greater?

I grew up with the idea that no, falling in love did not guarantee romantic success; making allegiances between well researched partners was stacking the cards in your favor. My parents’ anti-falling in love argument was the 50% divorce rate in America.

We’ll see what happens for Abdulla and Sangita as they try to grow their spark into a fire to heat their home.

What do you think? Do you fall in and out of love? Or do you choose to love?

Mohana Rajakumar

About the Author

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian Desert was fortuitous in many ways since this is where she met her husband, had a baby, and made the transition from writing as a hobby to a full time passion.  She has since published seven e-books including a mom-ior for first time mothers, Mommy But Still Me, a guide for aspiring writers, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies, a short story collection, Coloured and Other Stories, and a novel about women’s friendships, Saving Peace. Her recent books have focused on various aspects of life in Qatar. From Dunes to Dior, named as a Best Indie book in 2013, is a collection of essays related to her experiences as a female South Asian American living in the Arabian Gulf. Love Comes Later was the winner of the Best Indie Book Award for Romance in 2013 and is a literary romance set in Qatar and London. The Dohmestics is an inside look into compound life, the day to day dynamics between housemaids and their employers. After she joined the e-book revolution, Mohana dreams in plotlines. Learn more about her work on her website at www.mohanalakshmi.com or follow her latest on Twitter: @moha_doha.

10 February 2014

Interview with new writer Melissa Brooke Scholes‏

Tell us a little about yourself?

I'm a 18 year old feminist from Carthage, Missouri, who enjoys writing, reading, video games and dirt biking. Ever since fifth grade I've been writing books, short stories, and poems, then I started writing about superheroes and wanted to try a novel. 

I will be graduating in December from high school and hope to have my book pay for my scholarship because I don't want to live off my parents the rest of my life. I love adventure and new things that excite me or give me a rush of adrenaline. When I was a young girl my imagination ran wild with all the crazy things I did.

What inspired you to write?

My inspiration came from my best friend Madeline Courtney, my dangerous adventures and having an author of our age come to school in junior high talk to us. Ksenia Anske was introduced through Madi and they are helping me to make my book the best it can be. I also thank all my readers, for they encourage me to keep writing.

What are you writing now?

Right now I am writing science fiction because it makes more sense in the process of writing "The Unknown". This is about Septimus, a grand scientist, who has taken over on Earth while the wealthy and government officials have gone to Mars. Isabella, her two friends Lupin and Camille, along with her older brother Joseph, are in for a rough journey to take down the cruel man who killed so many poor and has captured them for wicked experiments.

What problems have you had and how did you solve them?

The main problem I have really is to have the patience to sit down and type away at my book. It's not that I wouldn't love to sit down and write away, but I do find it difficult to focus on the tasks at hand. My best friend Madi constantly encourages me to write, so I listen to music and drink my brown pop while I type away.

Where do you write?

I have several journals I write in upstairs in my bedroom. I take with them with everywhere I go, and I also have a stationary computer in the dining room. It’s not the most comfortable place to type, so I plan on getting a laptop when I can.

When is your book going to be ready?

I’m hoping to get my book out and going before the end of the year. I already have the beginning and ending typed up, so once I finish the middle I have to edit it, with the help of family and friends, then Madi will help format it.

Find out more at Melissa's blog and find her on Twitter 

8 February 2014

Kindle Paperwhite: First impressions

I’m a 'late adopter' to reading eBooks. I usually have at least four or five paper books on the go at once and never felt the need to go electronic. Then I joined the NetGALLEY review site and the choice was taken out of my hands, as they provide advance review copies free of charge directly to your e-reader.

Paperwhite or Kindle Fire?

I was already convinced that the Kindle was the answer, as the feedback from friends and family was great. The problem was the amount of choice. I looked at the Kindle Fire which comes with a lot of options, before deciding on the new generation Kindle Paperwhite.

There’s not a lot of difference in the cost, so a big factor in my decision was the non-reflective white screen and the special ‘nightlight’. (The picture at the top of this post was taken with bright sunlight shining on the screen.)  I should also add that I have the new iPad, which does all the other things on the Kindle Fire.

Setting up and accessing my eBooks was so easy I didn't even have to look at the instructions, as I just needed to follow the on-screen prompts. I did invest in a good quality leather cover, which protects the screen and gives it a nicer ‘feel’ when you are reading it.

Paperwhite Nightlight

One of the unexpected things about the Paperwhite is how it has already changed my reading habits.  As it says in the specification,  the Paperwhite ‘guides light towards the surface of the display with its next generation front light – unlike back-lit tablets that shine in your eyes – so you can read comfortably without straining your eyes.’  This means that if, like me, you tend to wake early and feel like reading, now you can do it without disturbing anyone by turning a light on.

Battery life

I’ve been using the Paperwhite almost every day for two weeks and it still has plenty of charge left from when it was delivered.  On that basis I’m fairly sure most users only need an occasional top up (via the USB port.)  This is an important consideration, as it makes you think of it much more like a book than a 'tablet device’.    

Kindle Features

I am very happy with the ‘reading experience’ on the Paperwhite. The screen is sharp and clear, with whiter pages and darker text than the earlier models. The new generation also has an ‘experimental’ browser, which you can to set to something like Goodreads or Netgalley.

I’d just like to round off by mentioning some of the Kindle features which apply to all their readers and may interest people who think eBooks are not for them.  If like me you review several books at once, one of the problems is bookmarking points to remember when you write the review. On the Kindle you simply drag your finger across a sentence to highlight it for future reference.  All the highlights are then saved in a ‘clippings’ folder for future reference.

I like the way the percentage you've read is displayed in the bottom right corner. The Kindle also does its best to estimate how long it will probably take you to finish  the current chapter (displayed bottom left.) It must also be useful for some readers to be able to instantly look up definitions of words by simply holding down your finger on them.  I experimented with this and was impressed by the choice of dictionaries bundled with the Kindle  - and there is a quick link to Wikipedia if you need more information.

Finally, I like the way you can search an eBook to see all references to particular ideas, characters or places, as it makes that review so much easier.  Did I mention I didn't feel any need for an eBook reader? OK, I do now.

7 February 2014

Book Launch: The Surprising Mr Kipling: An anthology and re-assessment of the poetry of Rudyard Kipling

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Kipling is seen by some as a stuffy Victorian imperialist devoid of the finer sensibilities. In fact, as Brian Harris contends in this new anthology, his poetry deals with the timeless themes of pain and suffering, forgiveness and redemption, love and hate.

Concerned with ‘the mere uncounted folk/Of whose life and death is none/Report or lamentation’, he berated officialdom for averting its eyes from the poor and hungry peasantry of India and dragged the dirt and squalor of the battlefield into England’s elegant parlours. Familiarity, the author argues, has dulled the effect of Kipling’s most well known pieces, while other, equally fine, poems have been neglected.

What is lacking, he suggests, is not another selection of Kipling’s ‘best’ poems, but one which demonstrates the extraordinary width and depth of the poet’s talents and the light which they throw on their great but enigmatic author. Harris concedes that this is a risky strategy which has not been tried before, but believes it is one that, if judged correctly, could introduce many new readers to the full splendour of the poet’s verse. 

The anthology is rounded off with a brief life of Kipling, an account of the extraordinary ups and downs of his reputation and a critical analysis of his verse.
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About the Author

Brian Harris a retired lawyer whose previous books have been mostly concerned with forensic matters. He says 'It was during a long hot Summer childhood that I chanced upon Rudyard Kipling’s short stories on the bookshelves of a family friend’s house in the country, and immersed myself in them with joy. It was not until much later that I discovered his poetry and began to wonder why so little of it was well known.' You can visit Brian's blog at

1 February 2014

Agatha Christie’s Writing Habits

Dame Agatha Christie earned her place in The Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist in the world with sales of over four billion books. She is also the third most widely translated author, beaten only by William Shakespeare and the Bible.

Reassuringly for anyone struggling to follow in her footsteps, after four years working on her first novel, even she was rejected by all the leading publishers of her day, before The Bodley Head press took a chance with her.
It seems the writing process was not easy, even for such a prolific writer.  When asked how she went about her writing, Christie said “There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off."

Plotting ideas

Agatha Christie liked to keep an exercise book to hand for jotting down plot ideas and would carefully organise her notebooks with labels. She still managed to lose track of where she had jotted things down though, as she invariably had half a dozen notebooks on the go at the same time.

One of the first authors to understand her commercial genre, she would start with an idea for a method of murder, then move to the murderer and come up with an interesting motive. Only then would she start plotting all the other suspects and what may motivate them. It was fairly easy then for her to devise the all-important ‘clues’ and plant a few false trails.

She said plots came to her suddenly. She was always on the lookout for a “neat way of covering up the crime so that nobody would get it too soon”. Agatha would then go on long solitary walks across Dartmoor to think over her plot ideas and saying her dialogue out loud. At other times she said she would be walking along the street “when suddenly a splendid idea pops into your head.” She would also study the newspapers, looking for details of what she called “a clever bit if swindling.”

Developing characters

Agatha would observe people in restaurants and social gatherings as a starting point of creating her characters, jotting down their mannerisms and phrases. She had a strict rule about not using recognisable real people and felt strongly that the writer must always "make up something for yourself about them." She once said that the only time she tried to put a real person who she knew well into a book, it wasn’t a success.

She often worked on her favourite Remington Victor T portable typewriter on a sturdy table, as she didn't have a study until late in her career. Part of the secret of her astounding productivity was that she usually worked on at least two books at the same time.

Agatha also tried dictating to her secretary, Carlotta Fisher, but felt much happier writing in longhand and then typing it out, as this helped her keeping to the point.

In her later years, after she broke her ‘writing wrist’ she also used a Grundig Memorette dictaphone and said "It is odd how hearing your own voice makes you self-conscious and unable to express yourself."

Interestingly, her grandson Mathew Prichard, discovered over twenty of the old tapes in a cardboard box, long after her death. The tapes turned out to be the material on which her autobiography was based. Also discovered in 2005 were 73 handwritten notebooks, which have been published by Agatha Christie expert John Curran as Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making, available on Amazon US and Amazon UK