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Saturday, October 1, 2016

What kind of photographer are you?

Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies, twilight

In my ongoing search for what sort of photographer I am and how to improve, I've had another professional portfolio assessment, this time from Getty Images. Although focused on stock photography, the comments apply more widely.

'Your best qualities as a photographer are working with real people, real situations and natural light.'

You have to love the stock world distinction between glamorous models and 'real people' :) and 'real situations' means acted-out situations that look real. As to natural light, I do enjoy fooling around in the attic studio with speedlights but, well, yes, 'let's go outside' is more me.

So I know how I could sell more photos as stock but who am I as a photographer, apart from stock? Sometimes knowing who you are NOT is very helpful and I've learned that photography is not just about liking the subject; it's about YOUR personality and lifestyle. So, who are you? Do you recognise who you are - or who you're not? Feel free to add some categories in your comments!

Landscape Photographer

You rise at dawn, spend the day complaining about harsh light and too much sunshine, then come alive again during the twilight blue hour and into the night. People exist to show scale as 'figures in a landscape' and are of no interest in themselves. In fact, people are irritating and you prefer there to be no people at all. You love slow exposures. Tripod, patience and natural light are your tools. You're willing and able to hike to impossible places, carrying 50kg of gear, to get The Shot.

Check out these photographers for great landscapes (and more):-
David duChemin
Chris Hepburn
Ryerson Clark
Paula Connelly

Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies 6 am

Night Photographer

You come out at night, seeking places that no sensible person would go in the dark. Your partner is used to you sneaking out of bed, throwing on some clothes and going out. He/she has given up telling you it is dangerous. Whether in mean streets or trackless wilderness, you wear a cloak of invisibility that, along with your tripod, protects you from violent lowlife, human or animal. Your exposures are so slow they make people disappear and only the essential remains. You love stars. You might even specialise in astral photography.

La Belle Vie

Landscape and night photographer Tommy Dickson said 'I love turning night into day.'

Wildlife Photographer

You have inhuman patience. You could watch a patch of grass all day because three years ago a rare insect was seen on that very spot. You are a stalker. You know your subject intimately; how it behaves, where it goes; its mating habits. You have a David Attenborough commentary going on in your head at all times. You are happy to get close-up and personal with creatures that have big teeth. You think photo manipulation is cheating. You need a telephoto lens that costs the price of a house. You can lose the hiking/carrying and financial requirements if you opt for the macro version and shoot tiny wildlife, close-up.

Finalists in Wildife Photographers of the Year 2016
Check out the wildlife photos (and more) by Guenter Gueni

Street Photographer

You have no scruples about shooting strangers' private moments in public places. You shoot fast and have an eye for composing a candid scene, capturing relationships, emotions and urban settings. Usually, nobody notices you sneaking photos but every now and then a subject looks at camera with a smile, or shock or indignation. You shoot with an unobtrusive prime, probably 35mm, and you like black and white processing.

Apart from the iconic Cartier Bresson, one of the most famous street photographers is Vivian Maier, the nanny, who perfected invisibility but whose photos were never seen until after her death. Modesty? Lack of money for prints? Or scruples about the strangers whose lives she presents?


You care passionately about human rights, the planet and freedom of information. You want everyone to know what's happening in 'the rest of the world' so you risk police harassment, even rape or murder to portray the truth. You started as a travel photographer but you left your viewers' armchair comfort zone and you want to change their attitudes, startle them, stir them into action. You carry two cameras, no tripod, and you like shutter priority - it's not a question of shooting fast, but rather of how fast you shoot. If you slow down, it's to photograph the people who ought to be in the news, not the people who are. Home can be boring.

Two outstanding photojournalists:-
Anna Puig Rosado
Lynsey Addario

Food Photographer

You buy vast quantities of cookbooks and food magazines for the photos. Eating is a pleasure and you see food as beautiful. An aubergine is sexy and you can see what colours would set it off to perfection. Your house is full of unmatched plates, cutlery, serviettes and other objects bought as food props. Your partner is trained to ask whether you have photographed an item of food before he risks your wrath by eating it. Outdoors/indoors; tripod/free-range; macro/telephoto lens; your choice. As long as you see food items as glamour models, you're a food shooter.

French buche de Noel / Christmas log

My food photography inspiration includes Kelly Cline, whom I met online thanks to istock, and Helene Dujardin (what a great name for a French food shooter!)

Studio Photographer

You're a perfectionist and control freak. There must be no light or shadow in your image but what you allowed and intended. You can shoot beautiful studio portraits but, if you're honest, people are a little difficult to control and what you like best is a perfectly lit product shot. Your studio does not only have lights and every kind of modifier known, including mirrors and gobos; it has a beam and rail systems. You know how to name and use every piece of technology you have and what you most want is a smoke machine. Your assistant takes his/her shoes off at the impeccably clean threshold and whispers while you work.

You know who you are :)

Portrait Photographer

You're a people person. You can make someone relax in front of a camera; talk, laugh, fool around. People trust you and show you who they are, who they want to be and then magic happens. A portrait is an interactive threesome and, unlike food or landscapes, the subject has opinions and can hate the photo. Relationships can hurt and if you don't know what the other person wants, you can both be disappointed; if you work together, you can have more fun than ought to be allowed when working. Studio or natural light; tripod or not; still or movement; your favourite portrait lens (mine's an 85mm f1.4) Just steal somebody's soul!

Check out the portraits (and more) taken by Richard Clark

Architecture Photographer

You get excited at diagonal lines and architraves. You have the urge to lie on your back and shoot a cupola or skyscrapers. Stairwells induce pleasure overload. You are THE mathematical photographer, always aware of symmetry and straight horizontals. If a human being is in front of you, what you see are circles, verticals and curves. Sorry, did it say something? Your weapon of choice is a tilt-shift lens but you'll settle for a wide-angle that doesn't vignette.

Ceiling, The Palace of Joy, Zaragossa

Fashion Photographer

Designer labels and colour co-ordination make your shutter-finger twitch. You know about handbags. Only young, beautiful people exist and you can charm them into impossible poses to show off the real subjects - clothes and accessories. Star-jumps on rooftops and clinging to a cliff-face are only some of your ideas to display voile floating. You are inseparable from your favourite stylist and make-up artist.

Check out three-times-winner of Malta's Fashion Photographer of the Year Kurt Paris , and stunning work from Nils Kahle

Sports Photographer

You don't just support one team; you support twenty and you know the rules of every game, underwater, over hurdles and in the sky. You love action, motion, effort and achievement, winning and losing. If it moves, you shoot it. You like panning, tracking and motion blur. Forget the tripod and sell the house for a super-fast telephoto lens.

Check out Charlie Mann's work.

Of course there are overlaps and specialisms within specialisms; timelapse, underwater, lo-fi, baby-mugging and Pellier Noir are just some that came up when I googled photography categories!

My photographic adventures in 2016 have included organising and shooting professional models in Paris with some amazingly talented photographer friends; giving a ten minute presentation on my work at a Getty Images event; and testing my landscape skills in Zaragossa, Northumberland and the Canadian Rockies. Next weekend I'm attending a portrait workshop with Anna Puig Rosado who lives only 30 minutes from me and is not only internationally respected as a photojournalist but also a warm, friendly person and a great teacher. Watch this space!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Moors who stayed; Zaragoza, Spain

Zaragoza: even the name sounds magical, a fantasy city, and the more I found out about its history, the more I needed to see its medieval treasures. What could stones and ceiling patterns tell me about the people who lived in this city a thousand years ago? About the little boy, Malik of the Banu Hud, heir to the throne of Zaragoza, whose life I wanted to understand as he grew to manhood? Was there a spirit of place?

Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar and the River Ebro

My guide books told me what to see and what to think, veiling me in a mental burka, but for this trip I was determined to see through the eyes of a 12th century Muslim growing up in the palace of his ancestors, the Kings of Zaragoza. The 12th century? Not to Muslims, for whom this was the 5th century in the Year of the Hijra.

Guide books make a big deal about freedom. Places are 'conquered' and 'liberated' but these are often words that can be interchanged, just by changing the point of view. Zaragoza's medieval citizens inherited the infrastructure left by the the Romans for whom it was Caesaraugusta. A city can have many names in its lifetime and each one is a layer of history and language. Caesaraugusta became Saraqusta (Moorish), then Zaragoza (Christian). A visitor is left in no doubt that this is an ancient city, dating back to about 25 BCE (to use the 'neutral' term for the year).

The Roman walls in central Zaragoza
After the Romans came the Visigoths, Then, for 300 years, Moors ruled the city and state of Zaragoza.

The building I had come to see was the Aljaferia, the only surviving example of a palace from the time of the Muslim Taifas (Kingdoms), legacy of the Moorish Banu Hud dynasty and Malik's childhood home. The oldest part dates from the 9th century and is known as The Troubadours Tower, which got my hopes up for a story - but no, the name was given much later, when the tower features in 'Don Quixote.'

The Aljaferia
In medieval times, the words Moor and Saracen were used, rather than Muslim, but the faith was implicit in those terms and explicit in the architecture of what became known as the Palace of Joy. This beautiful mihrab, a niche in the wall, was a focus for prayer in the same way as an altar in a Christian church.
The Moorish Oratory (Mihrab), the Aljaferia
Calligraphy had symbolic and religious importance equal to images in Christian churches, and quotations from the Koran were used as decor and inspiration. Just as medieval Christian scribes sometimes doodled marginalia in illuminated manuscripts, so did Moorish architects indulge in tongue-in-cheek comments chiselled in alabaster such as, 'Have you seen any mistakes?' as well as the more conventional, 'Allah be blessed.'

Late 11th century epigraphic fragment
The gardens of paradise are easier to imagine when you have visited earthly ones, with fruit trees and patterned paving. As in the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra, the water channels are carved in straight lines, ending in gentle water features, spouts and small fountains. In Moorish tradition, the water should bubble in the background and encourage meditation, not explode in high fountains Versailles-fashion.
Known since the 17th century as the Santa Isabella Courtyard, the garden was part of the earliest Taifa Palace
Malik would have eaten the fruit (oranges nowadays) in the gardens, run his fingers through the flowing water and washed his hands in preparation for prayer. He would have peeked through the windows and arches, watched the gatherings of learned Jews and Moors, heard the poetry, music and debates. Famous for its culture and sophistication, the Aljaferia was known as The Palace of Joy, from lines composed by one of its Moorish kings, Abú Yafar of the Banu Hud:-
O palace of joy! O hall of gold!
You embody my aspirations.

Historians might disagree about how happily Christians and Jews lived under Muslim rule in 12th century Spain but there is general consensus now that they socialised and traded together, and were all allowed to worship in their own faith. Christians and Jews paid a tax for the privilege. The city boasted a mosque, a synagogue and a church. What is now the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar was then only a small chapel, but it contained the same wooden Madonna on her jasper pillar (dating from the 1st century) and is believed to be the oldest church dedicated to Mary.

The River Ebro and view of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar
Stone does speak. The keyhole/horseshoe arches 'typical' of Muslim Spain in fact developed from an architectural feature used previously by the (Christian) Visigoths. 

View into the Moorish Oratory, the Aljaferia

The ceiling decoration of the Muslim palace was replicated in the extension to the Aljaferia built by the Roman Catholic Kings who occupied it later, even to the repeated image of the pine cone and other Moorish symbols. 
Ceiling of the Catholic Kings' Throne Room
To build the cathedrals and churches to the glory of their god, these Christian kings employed Muslim architects and, whether you believe in any God or not, the glory of Moorish style in Christian Spain is undeniable. This is what gained World Heritage status for Zaragoza's medieval buildings; the combined vision of Christians, Muslims and Jews, expressed in stone and plaster. Examples of inter-faith collaboration are everywhere.
The ceiling of the 3rd Pacing Room of the Catholic Kings
(Note to self - I need more 'Pacing Rooms'!)
So how did that little boy lose his kingdom? Did crusading Christians destroy his family and his home? Far from it. Militant Muslims fresh from Africa swept through Spain, attacking the residents who had grown 'too tolerant', 'too integrated'. The Banu-hud could not hold their fortress against the the extremist Muslims and in 1110 CE, the Almoravids took the Taifa of Zaragoza for themselves, only to lose it eight years later to the Christian King of Aragon, Alfonso the Battler. 

Side door in the Catholic Kings' Throne Room
The real twist in the story is that the Moors who chose to stay in the new Christian Kingdom of Aragon were offered work, not just as architects and builders, not just as tradespeople, but as generals and soldiers for the King of Aragon. The Banu Hud were no longer kings but they still wielded power in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Such alliances were not new. Little Malik's grandfather fought alongside the grandfather of Aliénor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine and gave him a precious crystal vase, in token of friendship. The vase was given to Aliénor as a wedding present when she became Queen of France and can be seen today in the Louvre Museum.

Malik grew up to be a fictional character in my Troubadours series and I understand him so much better from seeing where he came from and what he lost. I know why he rode under Aragon's colours and was part of the political coup of the 12th century which united Barcelona and Aragon to form an unshakeable power in the north. Today, the city of Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon and hosts its Cortes (parliament) in the Aljaferia itself. I think that would make Malik smile. 

Room where the Cortes of Aragon meets
I wonder what stories the local children are told about the palace as it was in days gone by.

FREE! Song at Dawn, Book 1 of The Troubadours Quartet
'Believable, page-turning and memorable.' Lela Michael, S.P. Review
Winner of the Global Ebook Award for Best Historical Fiction 
1150: Provence
amazon link

On the run from abuse, Estela wakes in a ditch with only her lute, her amazing voice, and a dagger hidden in her underskirt. Her talent finds a patron in Aliénor of Aquitaine and more than a music tutor in the Queen's finest troubadour and Commander of the Guard, Dragonetz los Pros. 
Weary of war, Dragonetz uses Jewish money and Moorish expertise to build that most modern of inventions, a papermill, arousing the wrath of the Church. Their enemies gather, ready to light the political and religious powder-keg of medieval Narbonne. 
Set in the period following the Second Crusade, Jean Gill's spellbinding romantic thrillers evoke medieval France with breathtaking accuracy. The characters leap off the page and include amazing women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Ermengarda of Narbonne, who shaped history in battles and in bedchambers.
'One of the best historical novels I've read in a long time.' Paul Trembling, Dragonslayer

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The loveable assassin - Glen Barrera

I admit to being intrigued by Glen Barrera, the man behind the assassin who can't dance, a man who routinely shoots people and blows them up. (Glen will smile at the deliberate ambiguity - he's a writer who notices nuances.) So who is he exactly?

Glen, a former partner in a real estate appraisal company, who still takes appraisal assignments from time to time, now writes. Over the years he's edited a company newsletter, written short stories (one a contest winner) and poetry. It wasn't until he divorced a few years ago, however, that he finally found time to take a writing course while working on his first novel. The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance and a follow-up novel, A Capable and Wide Revenge (now available), were tutored by Michael Mirolla, a published Canadian writer. He is now working on a third novel with the working title, Sweet Peach. Glen grew up in Chicago, with college at Western Illinois University, College of DuPage and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He studied Isshinryu Karate for fourteen years, sailed for seven years out of Burnham Harbor, practices Tai Chi and plays classical guitar. A Chicago boy at heart, he now lives in a western suburb.
You say you started writing classes after your divorce. Was the personal change a catalyst in looking at your professional future? Had you always wanted to write?
I believe the idea to write was an extension of the countless books I’d read, an “I can do that” mentality, whether for better or worse in actuality. My first novel was written in the 1980s, on an Underwood typewriter (yeah, carbon copy), with no recourse other than a full re-type if I screwed up after fifty pages and needed to correct a plot-point back at page twenty-five (I think I still have the rejection slips). With a wife, two children and a demanding career, however, writing had to take a back seat to life. I was still writing, but in a technical environment. But even before the divorce, I knew I wanted to write fiction again. Writing classes, then, were a natural progression, to get me back into the rhythm and structure of the story. So no, there were no ambitions to write as a professional – I simply wanted to write.      
I often wonder whether I could have written at all if I'd had to hand-write or type a manuscript - redrafting and edits would have been a nightmare!

I know that you care deeply about work being well-written and well-edited. What have you gained from writing classes? Would you recommend them? Do you still go?
Writing classes were the best prelude to writing fiction that I could imagine. I signed up with an internet class from Canada, twenty lessons, coached by a published Canadian writer. The later part of the lessons took me through most of my first novel. It wasn’t a “gravy” adventure with accolades galore for my brilliant writing. Instead, my tutor, serious about the craft of writing, had no problem in correcting my errant ways with countless raps on my knuckles with his five pound cyber ruler. It stings. 

After two years, with very sore knuckles and a humbled opinion of my genius, I learned. So yes, I recommend writing classes. Taped to my desk is a quote (from Quality of Course): “Nice writing isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal…” Now, rather than classes, I meet every week with a very talented writers group of seven, all working on novels. I can bring in my weeks’ worth of writing, six copies, and have everyone read, correct and comment. I still get rapped on the knuckles occasionally, only this time verbally. 

Hector is an endearing character (for an assassin :) ) How did you come up with the idea of 'the assassin who couldn't dance' (and of course a great title for the book. Did you know straight away that Hector would be such a key character?
The idea for Hector came about through my belief that a good person isn’t always good – and a bad person isn’t always bad. I had been reading any and all thrillers I could find at the time, and the plots became boringly consistent: the “good” guys always against the “bad” middle-eastern terrorists. I decided to bend the rule. I knew Hector would be a key character. From seven years old until the age of twenty-three, along with classroom studies he’d been taught to kill. His target being the U.S. Army officers responsible for the deaths of his father and brother. He didn’t have a choice. But with little social interaction during those years - friends never made and family hardly known - he is emotionally vulnerable as he sets out on his quest of vengeance. He asks himself at one point in the story: If his family had moved to the States sixteen years before, would he have a girlfriend now? Would he have learned how to dance? It was such an innocent query, so like the character, I decided to use it in the title.  

'A Capable and Wide Revenge' is another interesting title. How did you come up with this one?
It’s been a long time since I’ve read the complete works of Shakespeare, so I can’t say I remembered the line from Othello. But the quote I used (from Dictionary of Quotations by Bergen Evens), which reflected exactly what I had in mind, read: “Till that a capable and wide revenge swallow them up.” Shakespeare: Othello III.iii 

amazon link

Your thrillers detail special ops and Middle East politics. How do you get your background information? Or should I call it 'intel' :) ?
Most of the background information came from books, the internet, and two Marine vets with experience in Iraq. I probably went through four or five books relating to the Gulf War. The internet also offered a wealth of information. In the second book  A Capable and Wide Revenge  I used an armored Humvee, mounted with a 50 cal. machine gun. Not only were pictures plentiful for research, but videos of the Humvee with the machine gun in action came along as a nice bonus. Articles pertaining to political structure in Baghdad, street views, neighborhoods and militant groups were there for the taking. I’ll confess, I’ve taken many liberties with the truth in the course of my novels, but then again, I don’t feel I was too far from the actuality.  

Events in your novels seem to me to be mirrored in events that hit the news. Have you had a moment where you switched on the TV and there it was - your fictional story come to life?
Yes. The first book took place in 2006, the second in 2009. The destabilization and turmoil in Iraq, and its effects, were a given even as I wrote. With approximately one million (+) U.S. dollars funneled into Iraq each day, corruption was rife and militant groups controlled areas police were loath to enter. The U.S. pulled the last of its troops in December 2011, leaving a vacuum to be filled – and it was, as is apparent today. The geopolitical nature of the area would rule out a direct correlation to the Vietnam fiasco, but as a student of military history I’d have to quote Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Do you worry that your books might attract attention from terrorists or militant groups?
Not really. For the most part I try to be somewhat vague. In Capable and Wide, I noted actual names for the militant groups in and around Baghdad at the time, but the names I eventually used for my “bad guy” groups – Sword of the Righteous Lions and Green Shields of Allah – were made up, using bits and pieces of the others. I can’t get into too much trouble with that…I think (he said, looking over his shoulder).

What do you hope readers will get from reading your books?
My original theme was the relationship of family and friends within conflict, that they will support each other no matter the odds. But I found myself writing another theme as well – that is, everyone is searching for someone special to love, and when that love is found you don’t want to let it go. In The Assassin, Lucy and Hector/Morgan and Gil were looking for that love. In Capable and Wide, it was Wes Easterly, Darien and Colin, and even twelve-year-old Ashi who needed that special belonging. I guess I’ve always rooted for the underdog, faced-off against the bully that life, and people, can sometimes be.  

What are your future projects?
I’m currently working on a book titled, Sweet Peach. The first line of her introduction to the story is: Sweet Peach (yeah, momma was slugging beers right through the midwife’s delivery) stumbled out of her battered Honda Civic. 

The story takes place in Tennessee. Hector, Gil and Morgan, and the others will be back. It’s a bit different from the previous books that used Iraq as a backdrop. I’m currently working on some “bad guys” as worthy adversaries, of the drug-running, cartel type. This time they’re from Mexico. 

What are your own favourite books?Strangely, as I write fiction, many of my top picks are non-fiction. I’ve read The Outline of History by H.G. Wells (originally written in 1920, revised in 1976) three times. Not just for its historical significance, but for its literary elegance. H.G. is a great writer! In contrast, I finally read Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three years ago. It was written (first volume) in 1776. The history is good for the period, imbued with the bias and prejudice of the time, but the writing tends to be stifled, flat, and exciting as year-old fruitcake (all the footnotes are in Latin, and even with my two years of study, plus copious notes taken from Google translation, I could only pick up about 60%). Of course, Tolkien is still a favorite. I re-read him every year or two. I’m currently reading a lot of Indie publications, and have found some very good writers. But as I read so many, I can’t recall the title of the book I read last week, or who wrote it. I could give a list of authors I like, but I’d likely leave someone out. 

What about the private Glen Barrera? What are your favourite activities apart from writing and reading? Can you dance?
Ha! Yes, I can dance fairly well. I also play classical and blues guitar (although, I don’t pick up my guitars as much as I used to). I sailed on Lake Michigan for a few years on a Rhodes 22 and a Seaward 26. Unfortunately, we had to sell the boat when my ex and I divorced. I still practice Karate kata (formalized movements like Tai Chi, but faster and with full force) and Tai Chi. I was in Florida this past November, staying with my sister who works with horses as a trainer/dressage teacher/coach. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a horse, let alone one showing at a dressage-trained level. It was a very interesting experience, with riding nuances to boggle the mind. A new endeavor perhaps? 

Which question do you wish somebody would ask in interview?
Can you sing?
And the answer is?
Yes. I was a member of the Bogan (my Chicago High School) Boys Choir. Except, our “choir” relied on one of us getting dad’s car, getting an older guy to buy beer for the four or five of us, and then cruise around singing songs on the car radio (okay, and trying to pick up girls). 

The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance

The Story
Blue-eyed Hector Munoz (his present name) is fluent in five languages, can kill a man a hundred different ways and yet, at twenty-three had learned almost nothing about life and love. His father and brother were brutally murdered by corrupt U.S. military officers when he was seven. The teacher, a close friend of his father, took control of the boy’s life, as well as the future debt to be paid. Now, after years of rigorous training, the assassin is judged ready. But is he?

The plan to draw out the officers has been set into motion. Hector has only to illegally cross the border from Mexico and retrieve keys to safe deposit boxes containing eight-million dollars and incriminating documents before the officers can respond. It shouldn’t be a problem. But then Hector’s plan didn’t include Mexican bandits; ruthless mercenaries also after the keys and led by a sadistic cowboy; or a sleazy Chicago mob figure. Things get more complicated for him when a third party joins the search for the keys, the crazed leader of a militia group with a secret room in his basement reserved for “guests” – and then falling in love with an escaped guest, Lucy. Hector also didn’t realize that the mercenaries’ target, an ex-Force Recon team holding the keys and the last four men to see his father alive, were far from old and rusty.

In the race for the keys, Hector must confront the emotional emptiness in his life that he wasn’t allowed to experience in his quest for vengeance. With time running out, he is forced to make a choice: follow the assassination plan or ally with the surviving recon team, their families, and Lucy before they are eliminated; and, maybe discover who he really is.

amazon link

The Assassin Who Couldn't Dance 

My Review

Loyalty between friends in all-action special ops thriller
I was worried the book might be too violent for my taste but Glen Barrera's judgement stayed within what worked for me as part of a fast-paced all-action story. The opening scene is as violent as the book gets so that sets the tone - and gets you straight into the twists of the plot and some of the key players. If the guerilla warfare and killing can be gutsy, the romance is the opposite - tender and implicit.

What I think sets this at the top of its genre is the portrayal of loyalty and trust in the midst of warfare. We see traditional military values (and weapons) in the midst of criminal chaos and outright warfare and we care about this band of brothers. I want a new term to replace 'band of brothers' because what the author does really well is to include women as equals in that band. The links of loyalty and trust unite the whole group, with romances being more like special friendships within the overall bonds. Crime novels often show the bond between detective partners but this is the first book I've read which really shows group friendship in extreme duress. Imagine the Famous Five in the army, having adventures in which people are killed.

'The Assassin' and 'A Wide and Capable Revenge' give you no time to draw breath but across the two books the reader gets to know the characters more. The language is suitably muscular and when there is a little description, it always fits the scene and the characters - I'd enjoy more of that but then, I guess I'm reading out of my usual genre and I'm not used to all that gunfire!

Coming Soon! Twisted Tales

Glen and I will be keeping each other company in this collection of short stories from Readers' Circle of Avenue Park. The Burglar by Glen Barrera is about a burglar's chance meeting with a large unfriendly dog. My story The 13th Sign also features a dog of sorts... Perhaps Twisted Tails may be more appropriate. I'll keep you posted re publication as it looks like great holiday reading.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Barred in Paris

One of the treats for my big forthcoming birthday was to visit the photography exhibition in Paris: 'Qui a peur des femmes photographes' (Who's afraid of women photographers) The tongue-in-cheek reference to Virginia Woolf was echoed by a portrait of her mother, taken by one of the photographers featured. The hint of an allusion to the big, bad wolf was no accident either.

The exhibition challenged, informed and inspired me. We think our digital cameras are state-of-the-art but Kodak happily targeted the mass photographer market a hundred years ago with tag lines like 'You press the button; the camera does the rest'. Queen Victoria thought photography an appropriate hobby for ladies and as long as the ladies kept their cameras focused on family and flowers, everybody was happy. But women did not stay confined within their Brownie - or any other - Boxes. Nor did photography remain a bourgeois hobby. If you are lucky enough to see the exhibition, you'll find photography beyond gender as well as imagery exploring gender; from war journalism to smashed dolls.

Maybe the ghosts of Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller and Lisette Model whispered in my ear as I re-visited Paris. For many years, I have focused beyond the bars - made them disappear. If I didn't see them, they couldn't stand in my way. When I am described as a 'woman writer' or - ironically, in view of this wonderful exhibition - a 'woman photographer', bars are created. Is the glass ceiling there if I behave as if it's not? 

Self-portrait: Going through the glass ceiling
Even if the exhibition hadn't got me thinking about women's exclusion in the past from e.g. The National Geographical Society, being in a city always makes me feel constrained, regardless of gender. I love the explosion of culture and contrasts in cities - for a maximum of five days. Then the feeling of being trapped becomes too much for me. In Paris, this time, I let myself see the bars. Here are a small selection of the images and all twenty-six can be seen in my new gallery. 

Paris, the honeymoon city

Notre-Dame behind locks; Pont de l'Archevêché

Since 2010, the craze has spread for couples to declare their love by attaching a padlock (!) to a bridge and throwing the key into the Seine. I'd be tempted to throw the man in with it if he offered me such a 'romantic' gesture. Despite the removal of padlocks from one bridge, which was breaking under the weight, the craze continues and entire bridges are covered. Any railings are now starting to display padlocks. 

The Seine at Night

City gardens and parks are forbidding places behind their fences and walls, prohibitive signs and controlled access. Plants and flowers live behind bars.

This sign for 'Keep off the grass' reminds me of political posters protesting repressive regimes. But we are in France...

Don't Kill the Grass in Winter

Such signs arouse the instinctive rebel in me. Before I saw the 'Don't pee in public' sign, I never considered doing so.

The City and the City by China Miéville describes two cities occupying the same space, the inhabitants of one city pretending not to see the inhabitants of the other, and that dislocation is what I felt, sitting in a cosy bar, drinking a glass of wine, looking at this window. 

Nouvel Arrivage

You can see the whole gallery here in the Photography Galleries on my website. If you find my photos interesting, you can see a selection in my illustrated collection of shorts One Sixth of a Gill, free if you sign up for my newsletter. 

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Part 2 Thank you, Rachel Koch, from those who speak with tails

Welcome back, Rachel. Last time you visited, you told the story of Max, a special dog. This time, we're going to talk more about dog fostering and adoption in general.

Rachel with her pack
How many Great Pyrenees live with you ? I have 7 Great Pyrenees at the moment: 3 males and 4 females.

How do you introduce a new dog to the pack?
I just walk with the new dog and the rest will follow.  I’ve never had any problems.  If it is a young Pyrenees with a lot of blabla I present them to the pack and normally the blabla disappears very quickly when they are confronted by 7 other Pyrenees. Behavioural problems like that normally solve themselves.
I remember you once said it was like a man walking into a bar full of really strong people - he doesn't put on a tough act in that situation.

The pack chez Rachel
Do you intervene in the relationships between the dogs?After a month or two, maybe three, the pack will find out themselves where the new dog will be in rank. I never intervene. A pack is a pack and I am not a dog, but I am the pack leader so all the dogs stand under me. That has to be clear from day one!

I know that you worked with huge packs of hunting dogs in England. How did that come about? What did you gain from the experience?
Through friends that I had met through hunting I came into contact with various large dog packs in England and France.

The old saying is 'look at dogs and you will learn'. People do not take the time to observe and they treat dogs like humans and that is where all the trouble is coming from. A dog has a different way of looking at things. I see so many mistakes that people make and dogs going into a shelter because it is allegedly a mean dog who has attacked children. But for a dog, a child can be seen as another dog. 

This is very important - if a child walks by with a sausage, the dog will take it because he thinks that the child is lower in rank than he is. The dog would never try to steal the same sausage from a higher-ranked dog. That is why you should not intervene in a pack and normally they will sort themselves out. A dog that is too late for dinner eats less than the rest etc. Of course it is a difference if you have one dog or 10 or 60 but  basically it is always the same. If you want a stable environment, whether you have one dog or many, you must be a pack leader otherwise the dog will take over!

Christmas chez Rachel
You have succeeded with all kinds of dogs, including those who have been labelled as dangerous, aggressive with people or with other dogs; what is the secret of your success?
Especially in the beginning with an aggressive dog (by the way not so many dogs are aggressive it is mostly through fear that they developed that behaviour) but the best thing to do in the first encounter with a dog not to look at him and not to touch him just avoid him and give the dog time to come to you. I also think that as a pack leader you need a certain energy that the dog will pick up; do not hesitate and again maybe only 2 or  3% of dogs are really dangerous and the rest is simply bad behavior that you can correct with time.

Feeding Time
How do you cope when dogs you’ve fostered, and loved, go to new homes?
You simply have to. Of course it is not always easy but as a foster home you cannot keep every dog  and I am always happy if they find good homes.

As somebody who offers foster care, you have to work with many organisations. Do you ever find it hard to stay on good terms? If you disagree with their advice? Or if you know that the conditions in which the dogs are kept are appalling?
It is sometimes not easy. Some organizations are happy that the dog is in a foster home and think that the problem is solved. You have to ask them again and again to find an adoptant. They always think that you will keep the dog but the problem is that if you want to continue to foster dogs you cannot keep them all.

Let’s talk about money. Sometimes thousands of euros can be spent getting one very ill dog transported hundreds of miles to be rescued, while another healthy abandoned dog in a SPA, near the rescuer, is put down. Do you think associations make rational business decisions?
No I think a lot of organization are not run as a business but are run by people who react from their heart and not with rational thinking. I also think that organizations put sad pictures on the internet to get the most amount of money to finance other things. I had that with a dog from Spain who was in a very bad situation for months and months I was called by two ladies who had already donated 1000 euros to get the dog to France. However the dog was still in Spain and there was always an excuse why the dog could not be transported but they kept putting the most horrible pictures on the internet demanding for money.

So I decided to contact with the organization and informed them that I would take care of transport with the money they already had from the two ladies and otherwise I would expose the story on several sites. I arranged transport and the dog was brought to me the following week me in an extremely bad condition. I am not certain if he had been kept for much longer in the shelter in Spain where he was being fed bread if he would have survived.

I sometimes feel that the money that is spent bringing a dog in from a far away country could be better spent closer to home. Am I against taking dogs from Spain?That depends if somebody falls in love on the internet and wants to pay transport etc. to adopt that dog. There is nothing wrong with it but I am against organizations that use that kind of pictures to gain money even if it is to finance other things because I had the good example of the two ladies who paid 1000 euro for one dog and the dog nearly died in Spain. In my opinion that is bad management!

As somebody who fosters dogs, you make loads of money, don’t you? And get lots of other support too?
I never received any money except for the transport of the Spanish dog paid by the two ladies and it took a while to convince the organization!  I always pay the vet and the food. I see that as my contribution to help.  So as a foster home I have never received any money.

How do you keep your spirits up while working with abandoned, abused and ill dogs in a world that seems ever worse for them?
I always think that one dog saved is one dog saved. As harsh as it may sound, I do what I can but you simply cannot save them all.

Twilight barking chez Rachel
Tell us about some of the dogs who’ve come to live with you. 
We kept several dogs mostly because they were already quite old or very difficult to place.  Cimba, who tried to climb up the walls out of fear when he first came to our house and Weasson who had been maltreated.  Unfortunately they all died several years after they came to us, from causes that began in their ill treatment. 

Weasson died from a brain tumor, probably caused by being hit on his nose by his previous owner. He developed a tumor above his nose). Cimba was mistreated with a stick in his mouth when they wanted to move him from one box to another in the refuge.  He died from cancer of the jaw probably from the injury.  Max died from lymphatic cancer and that was very difficult for me because he finally had a good home but had such  a short time to enjoy it.

So yes, it is a great joy to be a Foster Home and yes, it is also difficult to lose a dog who in your opinion would have deserved a better life for many years but that is life and it does not always go as you want to.

Thank you, Rachel. In Part 3 of Rachel's visit to the blog, she will give some tips on dog adoption and give some more of her views on what leads to dogs being abandoned.

If you would like to win an ebook of my story 'Someone To Look Up To' just post a comment below, before 30th September, in any of the blog posts about Rachel. If you already have my story from the viewpoint of a Great Pyrenees, please choose another book.

Rachel is happy to answer any questions you might have so feel free to post them below.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Meet horror's dark queen Suzi Albracht

I am petrified of my first guest in The Most Excellent Worldwide Book Tour so let's give a terrific chilling welcome to Suzi Albracht, who's only happy when she's frightening her readers. Be warned: this is a writer not to be scorned. 'Scorn Kills.' Children and scaredy-cats like me should not be reading these books so I'm hoping I can make it through the interview without hiding behind the cushions.

Contact Suzi: 
email her if you want to be alerted of new book releases.

Pull up a chair and tell us about yourself, Suzi.

I love to write horror thrillers with intense personal relationships between characters. I started reading earlier in life than most of my friends and spent many hours hidden in closets and under beds, sneaking in just another ten minutes of whatever book I was reading. As soon as I was old enough, my mother would send me to the library to pick up books for her. This delighted me because it opened up a whole new world of books not available in school.

I read everything I could get my hands on but was drawn to sci-fi, horror and thrillers. As I matured, I would say my main influences became Stephen King, Dean Koontz and William Faulkner. My writing definitely reflects those influences.

I can honestly say my twitter bio describes me to a T - Write, scare myself, turn all the lights on, write some more. Take a break, play pool, kick butt/get butt kicked, go write more horror, double lock door.

Stephen King, Dean Koontz and William Faulkner. What impresses you about each of these writers? How do you think they influenced you?

I fell in love with William Faulkner first. I love the way he makes music with words. From the moment you first open my favorite Faulkner book – A Light in August – you find yourself swept away with the melody he plays. Sometimes that tune is dark and gloomy, other times it is wistful and longing. He fills me with emotion. Dean Koontz captivates me with his stories. To me they could be happening right next door. While he is totally a horror writer, he is also a writer of human experiences. 

But Stephen, oh baby, he speaks to my heart. He takes Faulkner’s melodies and Koontz storytelling to a new level of heart wrenching, soul stomping, in your face horror. He weaves his stories of horror in such a way that I feel they are happening to me. The first SK story I read was Salem’s Lot. By the time I read The End I was hooked for life. I felt the desperation, the fear, the need for normalcy, every emotion the characters felt. He also surprises me with this stories. Each is unique and none of them are cookie cutter Stephen King. I especially love him because he hasn’t resorted to the slasher novels that are so trite to me, instead he relies on the readers imagination. He takes you to that dark place where you fear going and then leads you into even darker places. Because my writing is in the style of Stephen King, I only hope I never get boring and can capture your imagination the way SK has captured mine.

How do you think the horror genre is perceived by other writers?

Interesting question. I think true writers, no matter their genre, respect the horror genre. They know the hard work everyone puts into their writing and they know that includes horror writers. There are some writers who look down their noses at the horror genre but to be honest, those individuals are not true artists. Just because someone puts a few words on paper and even self publishes a book on Amazon doesn’t make them a true writer. They authored a book, that’s it. True artists study the craft. They grow with each sentence they write. Each word they put to paper is critiqued in their minds and shined to perfection before it is allow to stay there. A writer like that appreciates other genres because writing is a gift that is earned.

Why do you think people actually want to be scared? Isn't fear a negative emotion?

Let’s start with the negative emotion aspect. Isn’t every emotion that makes you feel something good? Some people just go through the motions of life without feeling anything. No joy, no anger, no fear, nothing. They think they are happy but are they? I say no. As human beings, we were designed to feel emotions. Sure love or happiness make you feel secure but fear makes you feel alive. Once you experience fear in a novel, the emotion of love will be richer and more vivid than before. 

I can’t speak for anyone else but when I write or read a novel, I can experience things I’d never experience in real life. And that means emotions too. While I’m not a thrill junkie, diving out of airplanes or jumping onto moving trains, I can get that same heart pounding thrill in a novel. When a novel is really good and puts goosebumps on my flesh, it gets me so pumped up that when I close it, the sheets on my bed feel silkier, the perfume of my shampooed hair hangs in the air and my own breathing is reassuring to me. I feel ALIVE.

I think there are many reasons for people to want to feel scared. As I just mentioned, it makes me feel more alive. For others, it is an escape from whatever boredom they live through every day. For still others, they need to forget their car that needs a new transmission and their looks that are leaving them at a rapid pace.

You've said that what you most want is for readers to feel the emotions of your characters. Do you identify with your characters and their situations? Any that you specially drew you in?

Actually, I don’t identify with any of my characters or situations. I do wish I could meet some of them in person. Mikael, for instance, is someone I could admire. He is loyal to a fault and has the kind of compassion more people need. He’s also funny and fun to be with. He both loves and adores his wife and son. Hey, I could date him! Teasing, but seriously, both Mikael and Jake are men who are interesting and multi-layered. To be fair, Carl is a very complicated person who would be fun if he wasn’t such a jerk. I think there is more to Carl that will come out in future books. I hope before he meets his end. I like all my characters, even snarky Bill. I find every dimple, every character twitch to be interesting, and even when they are being total d**ks, I want to know more about them.

Do you have any little writing habits?

I just keep a supply of a special brand of pens in purple and hot pink nearby. I can’t go without my neon colored index cards. Whenever I am starting a new book, I start jotting snippets of the story on my index cards. I carry those cards everywhere with me and jot down my snippets in the weirdest places. Once I get enough, maybe three inches, I type them into the computer. I’ll juggle and re-juggle them until I get the backbone of my story and a flow of potential chapters. After that, it’s all champagne and roses as I begin to flesh out and write the story. That part is euphoric for me. I feel all the emotions the characters experience, smell all the scents, even hunger if they do. It’s like living my own personal story.

Tips for new writers, especially of horror as a genre?

Develop a thick skin. There is an abundance of critics who are quick to offer suggestions that may or may not work for you. You have to learn how to decipher whether a criticism is deserved and should be taken to heart, or if that person just has a different opinion from you. It is also critical to your own sanity to keep in mind that trolls are everywhere, even among your fellow writers. You should still keep an open mind, unless it is an out and out attack. 

Most importantly, if someone says you have typos in your story, say thank you and fix them. If you are putting your book out there, even if it is free, you are obligated to provide the most honest product you can. That includes giving your reader an enjoyable read that is not marred by typos. 

Lastly, always, always be true to your character and story. Just because you write horror does not mean you can feel free to throw in gratuitous slasher scenes or gross-out sex lines to sell your story. When you do that, you are lying to yourself and your art. Only put in what moves the story along and tells your story as it is meant to be told. Oh, and have fun. I do every single day and I love it.

Thank you for joining me on my blog, Suzi. Your passion really makes me want to read your books. Perhaps a peek. In daytime...

Scorn Kills, Death Most Wicked and The Devil’s Lieutenant are all part of The Devil’s Due Collection

Book link
Book Description
The thing Evil craves most is innocence. When small children disappear, you can be assured that Evil has crawled out of its dirty corner. And when those children turn up dead, Evil has clawed its mark on humanity.

What if you were a homicide detective and little girls were suddenly being kidnapped and murdered by a devious pedophile? And what if that pedophile left no evidence behind except for the broken bodies? What would you sacrifice to save just one innocent child? Would any sacrifice be too great? What if it cost you someone you loved? What if, by saving that child, you unleash a horrific monster into your own life?

Mikael Ruskoff was living his dream. He was a highly successful, homicide detective working a career he loved. He had a mother who adored him, a son he took skateboarding, and a wife he loved more than words could express. He played a mean drum set every Thursday night with his best friend on guitar. His life was comfortable and pleasurable. Then he caught a case that would change his life forever.
Here are some reviews of Suzi's books to make up for the fact I just can't read or watch horror. I get nightmares and I avoid anything that might spark them off. However, I have every respect for the genre and for those of you who like to feel the fear and read it anyway, these are for you!


Death Most Wicked
By B. Martin 

This is one creepy novel. First you have a man who wants a little sister so desperately he's willing to kidnap children, only to kill them when they refuse to live inside his shed. Then you have this hellish substance that turns victims into puddles of bloody liquid. And in the middle of all this is Mikael Ruskoff, a homicide detective who's charged with solving a seemingly never ending string of murders.

Suzi Albracht has a fantastic imagination, and she does a wonderful job bringing this disturbing tale to life. Twists abound. Characters are connected in ways you least expect. And it's all presented in a way that will leave you on the edge of your seat. (or in my case, my bed) Definitely a novel horror fans will want to check out.

Book link
The Devil’s Lieutenant
By Glen Barrera 

After reading and enjoying Albracht's Scorn Kills, I knew what was in store when I began reading this novel. I wasn't let down. In fact, after the first few pages I was convinced the author had taken this tale of horror to an even greater level. Like any good novel, horror or not, it's the well written characters that drive the story. 

In this department, Albracht didn't skimp: Jake Holyfield and his pregnant wife, Caroline; his brother Bobby and friend Max - the good guys - pitted against evil in the form of Carl and Dimitry Ivanovich. Quite simply, the bad guys want the good guys on their team, by whatever means. And they do have interesting means. 

But this story is also about the frailty of the human condition. What moral price would someone pay for unlimited money, youth, or the woman of their dreams? This is a fast paced read, with unexpected twists and turns, leading to a well-done ending. I definitely want to read Albracht's next book.
Book Link

Watch the Book Trailer if you dare: The Devil’s Lieutenant